Anna Funder: All That I Am (2011) Literature and War Readalong May 2013

All That I AM

It’s not easy to write about this book and what is even worse – this is the very first time I almost forgot to write the review of one of my readalong titles. The book is not bad as such, I didn’t suffer while reading it or want to abandon it or anything like that. It just never reached me, if you know what I mean. It was like listening to the radio while talking to someone at the same time. You hear some individual words which briefly get your attention but overall it’s just background noise. This has certainly nothing to do with the topic as such but was entirely due to its execution. I was wondering before starting the novel why people called this “faction”. Now I know.

All That I Am tells the true story of four friends. Ruth Becker, her cousin Dora Fabian, the playwright Ernst Toller and Ruth’s husband Hans Wesemann. At a time when hardly anyone noticed, they knew that Hitler’s coming to power in 1933 was a very bad thing. Being part of the communist and socialist movement, they were not only in opposition to the National Socialist party but in grave danger from the beginning.

The chapters alternate between the point of view of Ruth Becker and Ernst Toller. They are both told in the present, just before their deaths, at different points in time. Ruth is living in Australia when she is looking back on her life, while Toller stays in the US in 1939 and tells Dora’s story from his point of view. Although they were both important, and, in Toller’s case, even more famous than Dora, their stories focus on Dora who was the center of their respective lives, their best friend and lover.

After a small act of rebellion – Ruth hangs a red flag out of the window, after Hitler comes to power – the four friends have to fear for their lives. People are being arrested and executed if they openly criticise the regime.

The four decide to leave for London and continue their work there. They fight in order to raise awareness of what is happening in Germany and still hope that Hitler will be overthrown.

At first they might have felt like they had escaped but Hitler’s agents were everywhere and even people living abroad were executed. They hear daily about people they know being killed. They must also fear that there is a traitor among them.

I’m not going to reveal more as the book works best, I think, when you don’t know too much in advance. That way it’s at least to some extent surprising. There are a few dramatic events and unexpected developments.

While I didn’t know these particular stories, wasn’t familiar with the four people, I knew enough about German history, so that this particular slice of it, had nothing new to offer. What was new were the stories of the four friends but the way this was told was not very interesting. It’s true, the book picks up speed in the second part but still, it read like Funder had tried to fill facts with life but didn’t really succeed. All we got was a half filled balloon hovering half a meter above the ground. It never managed to fly high up in the sky.

The best parts were the few moments telling Toller’s and Ruth’s final days.

Those who have read Stasiland, Anna Funder’s non-fiction book on Eastern Germany, were all very enthusiastic, which makes me think it would have been better if she had opted for the same approach here. Only, the facts are kind of meagre and maybe she thought turning something you could have told in 50 non-fiction pages would work better if turned into a full-length novel.

As for the topic – Yes, there were people who were aware as soon as 1933 that things were going wrong in Germany. Toller and his friends were not the only ones. There was a large number of writers and artists, communists and socialists who left Germany as early as that. What the book doesn’t explore is the fact that if  the communists and socialists would have been able to overthrow Hitler and his party, Germany might not have been much better off.

Sure, it’s an interesting story, sad and dramatic but told in a lifeless manner and very dry. It certainly didn’t work for me. Luckily it worked for others.

Other reviews

Lindsey (Little REader Library)

Lizzy’s Literary Life

Tony’s Reading List

The review is also a contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge.


All That I Am was the fifth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWII novel Winter in Wartime by Dutch writer Jan Terlouw. Discussion starts on Friday 28 June, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Linda Castillo: Gone Missing (2012) Kate Burkholder 4

Gone Missing

Linda Castillo’s Gone Missing is the fourth in her Kate Burkholder series. It’s the first book I’ve read by this author but that wasn’t a problem. Castillo constructed the series in such a way that anyone can pick it up at any time without feeling lost. Downside of this approach is that some elements will be repetitive should one choose to read more of this author. But since this was my first, I was glad to learn a lot about Chief of Police Kate Burkholder and her love interest Detective Tomasetti.

If you know the series, you know it has a very special setting, namely Ohio’s Amish Country. I’ve always been fascinated by the Amish (or any other religious group like them). Apart from being a very gripping read, this book offers a great introduction to the Amish way of life.  What is very important is the fact that Kate Burkholder was Amish. Whenever there is a crime in the Amish community, it’s likely other police forces will ask for her help. Not only because she knows the Amish but because she does speak Pennsylvania Dutch and therefore the Amish are much more likely to talk to her. I had never heard of Pennsylvania Dutch before and the sentences she included all through the book surprised me greatly. I thought it would be like Dutch, but no, not at all – it was almost the exact same language as Swiss. With the exception of a few words, I could understand it all.

A series of missing Amish teenage girls awakens the mistrust of the police. Something cannot be right. When they find blood on one of the locations where one of the girls was last seen, it’s clear that a crime has happened.

Burkholder and Tomasetti who work together on this case know that they have to be quick. The girls may still be alive and could be saved if they manage to find them in time.

The book starts with the suicide of an Amish girl, ten years before the other girls go missing. Once they dig deeper, they notice that there are a few cold cases of girls gone missing, some a long time ago. All these cases appear to be linked.

I can’t reveal too much or the book is spoilt. Just this much – they gather a lot of information and make good progress when suddenly they find out that the culprit might be someone they didn’t suspect at all and this puts them in great danger.

Kate is an interesting character. We learn why she left the Amish life and what has happened to her in the past that makes her so suspicious. Tomasetti is equally damaged and they try to take things very slowly. I thought they worked very well as a couple, both are appealing characters.

Because the case makes them visit a lot of different Amish families we read about different ways. Unfortunately all the Amish families have one thing in common – they are highly patriarchal, the father makes all the decisions.

All the girls go missing during their “rumspringa” – literally that would mean “jumping around”. It’s a time during which they are allowed to be “wild”, to drink, smoke and party before they have to decide whether they want to be baptised and follow the plain life or not.

I really liked the crime aspect and how it was solved and the characters as well, plus the Amish setting was informative and fascinating. I also enjoyed that Kate, having left the Amish, still feels somewhat nostalgic about her childhood and often not only mentions negative but very positive aspects of Amish life. What I liked less were a few cringe worthy passages towards the end when Burkholder speaks about “the blue brotherhood” (meaning the police force and how tight-knit they are)… Brrr. Shudder. Other than that it’s great.

I highly recommend to try the series. I thought Gone Missing was very well constructed and suspenseful. The solution was creepy and, thanks to a final twist, even chilling. For those not sure whether they would like it or not – there is a 60 page short story Long Lost available for the kindle, under 1$. I think it is set between Gone Missing and the next one in the series.

The Wall – Die Wand (2012) World Cinema Series – Austria

Die Wand

Reading Marlen Haushofer’s Die WandThe Wall was one of the most profound reading experiences I’ve ever had. Weeks after I finished it I was still haunted by the story and urged everyone to read it as well. Over ten  years later the book is still in my mind as if I’ve read it yesterday. The story of a woman who is invited to a lodge in the Austrian forest and finds herself cut off from the world by an invisible wall made an incredible impression on me.

At the beginning of the story the narrator’s friends go back to the village just after their arrival. When they do not return, she goes to bed. When she wakes she expects to find them but they have not returned. She decides to walk to the village and find out what has happened. On the way she dashes into an invisible wall. She will find out later that the wall forms a circle around her and a relatively large forest and mountain area. The few people she sees outside of the wall look frozen in time. Obviously they are dead.

It is immediately clear to her that there is no escaping her condition and that, with the exception of a few animals – a dog, a cow and a cat – , she is completely alone. At first this is so overwhelming, that she thinks of killing herself but then, feeling responsible for the animals, she pulls herself together. After a time of adjusting, learning to survive, hunting, gathering and planting, she becomes self-sufficient. She even loves to be alone with her animals and so close to nature. She becomes one with the nature around her.

One day she feels that something is wrong. At first it’s just a hunch, then she finds signs. She might not be alone after all.

Marlen Haushofer did an amazing job at showing us that being alone may not be the worst. The end of the book is harrowing.

When I saw that The Wall has been made into a movie, starring one of my favourite actresses, Martina Gedeck, I had to watch it.

The Wall is an amazing film and Martina Gedeck does an astonishing job. She’s almost the only actor in this film and most of it is narration.

The movie is as harrowing as the book, maybe even more so. Plus it adds spectacular images of the Austrian mountain region.

The book and the movie explore the human condition and the curse it harbours. Humans are not only the only beings to be aware of death but they are also the only ones capable of evil. Book and movie say a lot about the relationship between humans and animals. The profound friendship that can arise, as much as the horror of having to kill animals if you want to survive.

While I loved the film, I think it’s not easy to watch if you’re not familiar with the book and not a very literary person as there isn’t much action but a lot of narration instead. The protagonist tells at the beginning of the film that she writes down everything that has happened to her in order to stay sane and so we see everything and hear the voice describe her thoughts and feelings at the same time.

As I said, it’s a harrowing book and some of the very sad things that happen affected me even more when I watched the movie. Still it’s excellent, very philosophical and profound.

I found an English trailer which puzzled me a bit. It’s not dubbed. It seems the movie is available in two version, one in which Martina Gedeck speaks in German and one in which she speaks English. I think they chose this approach as a subtitled version would be very tiring as she speaks almost constantly.

The book will be reissued this summer. Unfortunately with a really awful cover. I find it sad that they used a cover like this and that’s why I would like to emphasise that The Wall is a classic of Austrian literature, not some dystopian YA novel. (As you know, I personally like YA literature, but I think there is a huge difference between this literary novel and a YA novel.)

Don’t miss watching this stunning film or reading the book.

The review is part of the World Cinema Series 2013 and Foreign Film Festival 2013.

Melanie Gideon: Wife 22 (2012)


Maybe it was because I was about to turn the same age my mother was when I lost her. Maybe it was because my husband and I were running out of things to say to each other. But when the online study called “Marriage in the 21st Century” showed up in my inbox, I had no idea it would change my life. It wasn’t long before I was assigned both a pseudonym (Wife 22) and a caseworker (Researcher 101). And, just like that, I found myself answering questions. Before the study, I was Alice Buckle: wife and mother, drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions. But these days, I’m also Wife 22. And somehow, my correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpectedly personal turn. Soon, I’ll have to make a decision—one that will affect my family, my marriage, my whole life. But at the moment, I’m too busy answering questions. As it turns out, confession can be a very powerful aphrodisiac.

Sometimes you read a book but are not in the mood to write a proper review. Either because it didn’t live up to your expectations or because you waited too long and can’t do it anymore as it’s getting blurred. Still you’d like to write about it as it might be just the thing for someone else. Wife 22 is one of those books.

I’m not going to summarize the novel, the blurb will tell you enough of the story.

My final thoughts

I bought Wife 22 on a whim after having read the first few pages on amazon and thought it was really funny. I’ve never read a novel in which the way many people live these days was portrayed like this. The main characters constantly check their Facebook accounts, use google to look up everything, which is on their mind, their ailments, their hobbies. We learn a lot about the main character from seeing her google “hooded eyes”, “marital crisis”, and similar topics and in reading the answers to the questionnaire. Quite an original approach.

I quite enjoyed the first 150 pages. It reads like a mix between Love Virtually and the diary of an older Bridget Jones. The main character is endearing but the end underwhelmed me big time. If you are just looking for an entertaining, witty and very topical look at married life, this may just be your thing and possibly you’ll like the ending. (Let’s put it like that – I was waiting for something a bit wilder.) Personally I think it’s one of those books you can read but don’t have too, still, the right reader will love it.

A tip –  should you want to read it – the questions of the fictional questionnaire are at the back of the book. Many readers didn’t notice that. It’s fun to just read the answers and wonder what the question was but occasionally it reads like a riddle.

Melanie Gideon is the author of the memoir The Slippery Year: How One Woman Found Happiness in Everyday Life in which she writes about many of the topics raised in Wife 22 focussing on her own life.

Have you read Wife 22 or Melanie Gideon’s memoir?

Fumiko Enchi: Masks – Onnamen inaudita (1958)


Mieko Togano, a highly cultivated, seemingly serene, but frustrated and bitter woman in her fifties, manipulates for her own bizarre purposes the relationship between her widowed daughter-in-law and that woman’s two suitors.

I just finished Fumiko Enchi’s Masks. Enchi was one of the most important Japanese women writers of the so-called Shōwa period (reign of Emperor Hirohito). The role of Japanese women was an important aspect of her work. Most of her figures are still old-fashioned, very obedient, even subservient figures. Nevertheless they try to fight their oppressors, sometimes, like in Masks, using rather unusual methods.

Masks is a mysterious novel. Looking at Masks superficially you could call it the tale of a vengeance. It’s a dark, mean, unfathomable story. The German edition I’ve read even calls it a crime story. A very unconventional crime story. Although nobody commits a murder, I was reminded of the work of Boileau-Narcejac, notably The Fiends – Diaboliques.

Mieko is a widow and a famous poet. She lives together with her equally widowed daughter-in-law, the beautiful, young Yasuko. Ibuki, one of Yasuko’s suitors, suspects the relationship to be sexual. The two women are very close. Yasuko pretends, she wants to break free but doesn’t make any attempts to change her situation.

Yasuko continues her late husbands studies of possession and necromancy. The two women, together with Ibuki and Mikame, form a literary and spiritualistic circle. Ibuki, a professor of literature, and Mikame, a doctor who dedicates his free time to anthropological research, are both specialized in the belief in ghosts and possessions.

Both men are attracted to Yasuko and feel as if they were under a spell. The mysterious thing however is that it’s not Yasuko who cast the spell but her mother-in-law Mieko.

Later in the book we learn a lot about Mieko’s tragic life and how badly she had been treated by her late husband. Her role as dependent wife who was at the mercy of a cruel man, turned her into a vindictive woman. The only man she really loved was her son Aiko, Yasuko’s late husband but he died on mount Fuji.

The story of her vengeance is pretty uncanny and the end is more than a little surprising. Both men are used like puppets and one of them pays a considerable prize for getting too close.

The novel bears great similarity with a black and white painting on which just a few, small details are highlighted in colour. The story and the people are black and white, with some shades of grey, while the descriptions of nature stand out in a most descriptive and colorful way.

What I loved about this book was the combination of many different aspects. It combines dark erotic elements, beautiful small descriptions of nature, a fascinating story and a complex symbolism. Many aspects of traditional Japanese culture like the No-Masks, the Tale of Prince Genji, the firefly festival and many more, build an interesting backdrop.

Masks is a haunting book, full of mystery, darkness, beauty and with an ending worthy of a psychological thriller. I’d recommend it to anyone who likes Boileau-Narcejac, as well as to the fans of Yoko Ogawa.

Brian Kimberling: Snapper (2013)


Nathan Lochmueller studies birds, earning just enough money to live on. He drives a glitter-festooned truck, the Gypsy Moth, and he is in love with Lola, a woman so free-spirited and mysterious she can break a man’s heart with a sigh or a shrug. Around them swirls a remarkable cast of characters: the proprietor of Fast Eddie’s Burgers & Beer, the genius behind “Thong Thursdays”; Uncle Dart, a Texan who brings his swagger to Indiana with profound and nearly devastating results; a snapping turtle with a taste for thumbs; a German shepherd who howls backup vocals; and the very charismatic state of Indiana itself. And at the center of it all is Nathan, creeping through the forest to observe the birds he loves and coming to terms with the accidental turns his life has taken.

Snapper was one of the books I took to Morocco with me. I ended up not reading that much. It was impossible. I read on the plane and a little bit in the evenings but that was about it and the only book I could properly concentrate on during those moments was Catching Fire. I started Snapper but reading about Indiana in a country like Morocco seemed weird. As soon as I was back I continued reading and finished it in one sitting.

Snapper is one of those books that needs reviews as the blurb is misleading and might attract the wrong people while those who would enjoy it don’t even think about getting it. A quick look at the us amazon site confirmed this.

Snapper reads more like a series of vignettes and episodes than like a novel. Most of the times I had a feeling I was reading a memoir in the vein of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Once past the surprise to find a very unusual novel I enjoyed reading it a great deal as the voice is wonderful. It’s not as hilarious as the jacket cover promises but it’s amusing.

The stories all take place during the narrator’s childhood and early adulthood and end when he meets his future wife and becomes a father.

The book is as much about Indiana as it is about the narrator. The chapters jump back and forth in time, some characters like Lola the woman he’s in love with and Shane his best friend return, others only play a role in one story.

Nathan studies birds, that’s why he spends a lot of time outdoors. But even as a kid he loved to be outdoors and we get a lot of great descriptions of the flora and fauna of the place. What makes it funny is that Kimberling lets Nathan link the wonderful outdoors with criticism of poaching, carrying guns and many other topics. The stories he tells are funny anecdotes, descriptive evocations of a place but there is always a deeper meaning there as well.

I enjoyed Snapper a great deal. I think it is a wonderful book, entertaining, witty and told by a very endearing narrator with an original voice. Just don’t expect a traditional novel.

Here’s an example to illustrate Nathan’s voice

I doubt anyone outside Southern Indiana knows what a stripper pit is. They don’t exist anywhere else. This is sometimes embarrassing for me in conversations, if I say I spent many happy adolescent hours there. People think I’m talking about Thong Thursday’s at Fast Eddie’s. The British Broadcasting Corporation once sent a reporter by boat to Eansville to investigate the wild ways of the inhabitants – the kind of thing they used to do in “deepest Africa”, I think. We are Hoosiers after all.

On a technical level a stripper pit is what remains of a bituminous coal mine, but strip mining is not like other mining. Picture vast granite cliffs with coniferous trees, deep lakes of calm cerulean blue – imagine a majestic Norwegian fjord somehow misplaced among rolling cornfields -that is what a stripper pit looks like. At the bottom of those lakes you’ll find old refrigerators and stolen cars and bags of kittens. It is Southern Indiana.

Thanks a lot to Pantheon and Schocken Books for a review copy.

M.L.Stedman: The Light Between Oceans (2012)

The Light Between Oceans

A boat washes up on the shore of a remote lighthouse keeper’s island. It holds a dead man – and a crying baby. The only two islanders, Tom and his wife Izzy, are about to make a devastating decision.

They break the rules and follow their hearts. What happens next will break yours.

Last week I went to a book shop and saw a neatly arranged table with the titles of the long list of the Women’s Prize for Fiction. I read most blurbs and browsed a few books and finally ended up buying The Light Between Oceans.

Tom and Izzy live on an island off the Australian coast, near Point Partageuse. Tom is haunted by memories of WWI. The things he saw, the men he killed. He was reluctant at first to let Izzy come closer, didn’t want to take this young lively woman with him on a forlorn island. While he loved being a lighthouse keeper, didn’t mind the loneliness and how barren the island was, he was not so sure it would be the right place for a woman. But Izzy loved him and wanted to follow him.

Their first months on the island are bliss but when Izzy loses her first baby things start to darken. When a boat with a dead man and a little baby are washed ashore, Izzy has just miscarried for the third time. Seeing the tiny infant makes her loose perspective and she convinces Tom that it is the right thing to keep the child. Of course it isn’t the right thing and the tragedy is programmed. The book has a handful of main protagonists and it’s amazing to watch one after the other make bad decisions.

I have to tell you right away, I didn’t like this book. To some extent I even hated it. It’s sentimental, melodramatic, mawkish… I’m maybe the only one as most people loved it. I was wondering why on earth this was on the Women’s Prize for Fiction long list. The writing is quite artless. I expected something more sophisticated. There is nothing stylish or special about it. It’s the type of book Jodi Picoult could have written, only I’d say she would have done a better job. The exploration of a moral dilemma, what is right, what is wrong, make this a book many book clubs will love to discuss.

I have this habit that I must finish books and it annoys me often. On the other hand, even this book improved on the last 150 pages. The first choice they make is to keep the baby but later Tom and Izzy and a few other people make other choices and some of those are much more interesting.

What made me hate the book was Izzy and the way everyone spoke about and to the baby: “Sweet thing”, “Sweetheart”, “Little one”, “Darling”…. Every character in this book is constantly cooing over the child. That got on my nerves big time.

What I liked was how she evoked this lonely lighthouse. We get a really good feel for what it must be like to be a lighthouse keeper, to be confined to an island for 3 – 6 months without any contact with the outside world.

While I hated Izzy, I really liked her husband Tom. The portrayal of a man who has survived the trenches of WWI but never manages to shake this experience was well done.

The only thing that was very positive is the fact that M.L.Stedman made me understand Izzy in the end despite the fact that I hated her big time.

It was very interesting to see my reaction. Usually – and contrary to many readers – I don’t love or hate characters in books. The things I love are descriptions, style, atmosphere, mood. The experience to hate a character was unsettling. I wonder what it says about me that I reacted so strongly. The idea that someone thinks it’s OK to steal  someone else’s child and keeps on saying it’s for the child’s good, made me so angry. I thought it was a very violent act. 

If you like books which explore moral dilemmas and choices, you might like this. It’s certainly a book that can generate interesting discussions.

Halfway through the novel I noticed that it consists almost exclusively of scenes. No wonder the film rights have already been sold.

Has anyone else read this book? Did you like it?