Found in Books

89/90, by Peter Richter

I was beginning to think I just imagined the East Germany of the late 80s I grew up in. It seems so very different from everyone else’s that I was beginning to doubt my recollections — the liberties we took, the delicate balance of not breaking the rules hard enough to ruin one’s future while being unable to actually take them seriously and assuming that everyone else was in on the joke and just better at pretending.

Did I dream it all? If so, Peter Richter had the same dream, and so I’m torn between being envious that he wrote the book I would have written and being relieved at having my memories confirmed.

I relate less to the 1990 section of the book. Maybe things were different for me because in East Berlin, the western part of the city was now — again — just a city train or subway ride away. Or maybe the difference was being a girl rather than a boy, and searching adrenaline kicks in ways other than beating up/being beaten up by skinheads. Be that as it may — I still sympathize with a lot of the emotions at the passing of a country that, while not being a very good country, had been ours.

(Read in May 2016)

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Elizabeth is missing, by Emma Healey, read by Davina Porter

Maud forgets things. Little things, such as the fact that she had already made herself some toast earlier, and what she wanted to buy in the shop. Bigger things, such as what things are called, even quite ordinary things that she has used every day in her life, and the fact that she no longer volunteers at the charity shop. And really big things — who her children are, and that she even has them and is not still a young girl who has yet to be kissed by anyone.

But there is one thing Maud almost never forgets — the fact that Elizabeth is missing. And if she forgets, she has a note in her pocket to remind her of it. Elizabeth is Maud’s friend, a friend she has made quite late in life, and the way this friendship came about is one of the many lovely scenes in this book. And while Maud quite doggedly pursues this mystery, it becomes clear that this loss is not the first one she has suffered, that there is another person who has gone missing from her life, ever so many years and decades ago.

“Elizabeth is missing” is a novel about friendship and family, about loss and grief, about forgetting — and remembering. It is one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and it was made even better by the expert narration of Davina Porter who succeeds brilliantly at giving the young and the old versions of Maud their own distinctive voice and characteristic style.

(Read in March 2015)

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Der Erste, by Landolf Scherzer (1988)

This book took my breath away — out of surprise that it got published when and where it did but also because it captures a feeling I remember very vividly but didn’t think could be contained between the covers of a book. The late 1980s, those dying years of East Germany — I remember them well, and I remember all the makeshift solutions, all those “let’s not and pretend we did” moments, all those places where the paint had rubbed off and you could see the surface underneath but nobody would be caught admitting it out loud. The naked emperor was walking the streets every day but even the children had learnt to admire his clothes. Looking back, it always seemed amazing to me that I never  considered the possibility that it might all be coming to a screeching halt, melt away like the cover of snow in spring. Fantasizing about extricating myself in some way — yes, certainly (ideally in some way that would not spell trouble for those I’d leave behind _and_ would allow me to come back, for even then I seem to have known about myself that no journey would be complete without the return) — but imagining for it all to end? Not for a moment.

In a way, it is reassuring to see that this lack of imagination was not just mine but affected people much older and much more knowledgeable than me. The protagonist of this documentary, Hans-Dieter Fritschler, party official in charge of an East German district, endlessly tries to do his best which amounts to little more than fixing one hole by opening up another. He clearly sees which party directives are crazy and which goals are completely unrealistic — but knowing all this does not lead him to the larger, unimaginable conclusion that this house of cards he works so hard to uphold will collapse any moment now.

The same applies to the author who, in his foreword, considers both the possibility that, by the time the book is published, his subject will have been elevated by the Party to a higher position or “might have made a mistake and gone back to working as a lumberjack”. What he does not, cannot, imagine is that in just a few years time he will be following around Fritschler’s West German successor. (-> “Der Zweite”, published 1997).

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The Masters, by C. P. Snow (1951)

As I’m writing this, a bunch of (old) men are assembled in Rome to elect a successor to Pope Benedikt. As far as I know, there are no insider accounts of the power games and shifting allegiances within the conclave, but for ersatz, you could do much worse than turn to this 1951 novel about a very similar constellation within a Cambridge college. The current master of the college is dying and a bunch of (old and young) men are bringing their favourite candidates for his replacement into position.

If you think a novel set among the professors of an English college in the 1930s cannot be a page-turner, you are mistaken. I have already bought another volume in Snow’s “Strangers and Brothers” series. (That these come in an attractive edition published by House of Stratus does not hurt, of course.)

(Read in February 2013)

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White Crosses, by Larry Watson (1997)

Sheriff Jack Nevelsen dreads being called during graduation night. Too great are the odds that some newly former high-school kid drank too much and lost control over his car, killing himself and/or others in the process. But the call does come and a car has gone off the road. Only one thing is different this time: While the car does contain the body of June Moss, a quiet girl who graduated that day, it also contains the body of school principal Leo Bauer, a pillar of the community and, of course, married. As well as suitcases.

Jack embarks on a manic quest to control the story, to manipulate what people think about it. No way can he let the people of his small town reach the conclusion that they live in a place where middle-aged men run off with girls young enough to be their daughters, because… Well, because if that is possible, then other things might be possible, too — and where will it all end? People might just do whatever they feel like doing, and even Jack might have to re-evaluate his decision to stay with a woman who does not want to hear about his work and has not let him see her naked in ten years…

Larry Watson does an excellent job of portraying the claustrophobic feeling of living in a small-town in the late 1950s; a town where everybody knows your business, eyebrows are easily raised and a man sitting on a bench in the park too often is reason enough to call the police. But there is also the hint of a less restricted future, coming in through the static in Jack’s car radio on those stations his daughter loves…

Mayberry this is not.

(Read in April 2012)

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This is something I wrote elsewhere quite a while ago and just looked up as I wanted to refresh my recollection because I’m planning on giving this book as a birthday gift to a friend. And since I’ve sorely neglected this page, I figured I might as well repost it here.

The News Where You Are, by Catherine O’Flynn (2010)

The News Where You Are takes place in more or less contemporary Birmingham. Its protagonist is a television news presenter, who decides to look into the somewhat suspicious circumstances of his friend’s and predecessor’s death.

But the whole murder mystery plot is just an elaborate conceit, because Frank is really à la recherche du temps perdu. Unlike apparently every other male TV news presenter, he has no desire to move on to bigger and better shows and channels, and unlike his co-host, he does not yearn for investigative journalism either. Frank is consent to cover the local news, to give people a sense of reassurance by covering the familiar, and with being only vaguely recognized when his viewers encounter him in real life. In his spare time, he attempts to protect his father’s (an erstwhile famous architect) buildings from being demolished. He also gets obsessed about certain stories he covers, especially those concerning people dying alone, and starts showing up at their funerals so that someone is there to mark their passing. He frequently visits his mother (who has moved into an assisted-living facility long before her years), although she appears to neither desire nor enjoy his visits. He even continues to pay for bad jokes written to him by someone who claims to have written good jokes for famous people once upon a time, mainly because he always did and his predecessor did before him.

Somehow, Frank has succeeded in marrying Andrea who is an exceptionally grounded person and enjoys poking fun at Frank for having been uncool in his teenage years (and ever after). Together, they have a daughter, Mo. I don’t usually like children in literature, but I’m willing to make an exception for Mo. I’m not convinced that she’s a very realistic child — she’s more like a wise alien striving to understand mankind’s peculiar ways. (My suspicion was confirmed when at some point in the book, she rescues one of her grandmother’s old fancy dresses so she can be “a bad robot”.) Mo provides a lot of the comic relief in the book, a book which achieves the strange combination of being both funny and melancholy at once.

As someone on LibraryThing wrote, The News Where You Are is “essentially [about] what we do with old things: old people, old buildings, old jobs, old mementos piled in the attic. This is a book about reinvention and demolition and what is involved in choosing one or the other”.

(Read in October 2011)

2 Responses to Found in Books

  1. ninamishkin says:

    I read most (or all) of the books in the “Strangers and Brothers” series a long time ago. What I remember about them now is mainly that they carried me through several months of long and lonely evenings. Snow is not high in anyone’s canon of 20th British century literature anymore, but perhaps I should take another look, since you so much enjoyed The Masters. 🙂

  2. Hi Nina,
    I really did. I’ve since read The Light and the Dark, which was a bit weaker but still enjoyable, and I’ve ordered The Affair just a few days ago. I think it might be a good idea to always have a new Snow at hand for when the fancy strikes me. It’s funny how authors go in and out of fashion.

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