Friend Request by Laura Marshall (2017)

Would you believe it – there’s finally a psychological crime novel whose premise is so original that it isn’t constantly compared to Girl on a Train/Gone Girl  . . . The book in question is Laura Marshall’s début Friend Request. I’d been aware of the novel since last year when it was shortlisted for the Lucy Cavendish Fiction Prize 2016, and was runner-up in the Bath Novel Award 2016. The premise sounded so great, I knew had to read it as soon as it was out, even though I’m a bit tired of psychological crime with a major twist. I’m certainly glad that didn’t keep me from reading it because I thoroughly enjoyed Friend Request. The premise, which you see summarized on the cover, is pretty simple but arresting—Louise gets a friend request on Facebook, from a former classmate, Maria. But Maria has been dead for over twenty years. Or hasn’t she? Fact is, nobody really knows. All they know is that she disappeared at the end of the leavers party and was never seen again.

Louise is shaken by this request. Not only because Maria is said to be dead but because Louise has done something very bad, something that seems to be linked to Maria.

As the novel unfolds, more requests are sent and Louise even feels that she’s followed. We learn who Louise is and who Louise used to be and why she’s so guilt-ridden. In 2016, Louise is a self-employed interior designer. She’s divorced from her highschool crush, Sam, and has a little boy of four. Back in 1989 Louise was an insecure schoolgirl who desperately wanted to be friends with the cool kids. So much in fact, that she wouldn’t shy away from letting others down or even betray them.

After Maria receives the friend request, she receives an invitation to a school reunion. Scared and intrigued, she contacts a former friend, who was the center of the group of cool kids, Sophie. She too has received a friend request and an invitation to the reunion. I’m not going to say much more or the book would be spoilt.

Friend Request is told in chapters that alternate between 2016 and 1989. A lot of the suspense comes from the first person narrator’s withholding information. That’s a narrative device I’m not too keen on and it annoyed me here as well. It just feels a bit artificial and not always believable psychologically. That said, the novel still works and feels realistic. Anyone who has gone to school was either part of the cool crowd, despised by them or just a neutral bystander/observer. In any case, we’ve all experienced or witnessed similar things – bullying, shunning, shaming -, so this was very relatable. Louise is a likeable, interesting character and to some degree I could understand, why she kept what she did a secret.

The final twist was surprising but not far-fetched. It really worked for me. Yes, I would have wished that the writing had been a bit less manipulative, but overall it was gripping and so entertaining that I was sad when it was finished.

Laura Marshall’s certainly an author to watch and while her début has a few flaws, it also has a killer premise, a lot of suspense and a very satisfying ending. That’s more than one can say about most contemporary psychological thrillers.

Lion Feuchtwanger: The Oppermanns – Die Geschwister Oppermann (1933) Literature and War Readalong November 2017

When Lion Feuchtwanger left Germany in 1933 for a trip to the UK and the US, he didn’t think that he would never return to his home country. While abroad, he said to people that “Hitler is over”. When Hitler then became Chancellor – Reichskanzler – in 1933, Feuchtwanger’s opinion changed considerably. “Hitler means war” he said to a journalist, a statement that was widely quoted in the American press. Soon after the Reichstags fire – Reichstagsbrand – Feuchtwanger’s house was searched, his possessions destroyed or confiscated. He knew he could never go back. The events shocked him, but what shocked him even more was that he, like so many other Jews and other Germans, had believed for so long that anything this barbarous would never be possible in the country of Goethe and Schiller. The realization of how wrong he was led him to write The Oppermanns, a book in which we find a lot of his own experience. What struck me, while reading this, was how prescient it seemed. I rechecked my edition twice, to see whether it was really published in 1933. Yet, Feuchtwanger was very had on himself for not having seen the whole thing coming sooner. I found that so interesting. I think we are so focused on the war that we tend to forget that Hitler’s ascent, his totalitarian regime, the horrors against the Jews, the communists and the intellectuals started so much earlier. Long before the war.

The Oppermanns tells the story of a rich Jewish family. There are three brothers and a sister. Martin is the head of the family company, a furniture house, Gustav who works with his brother, is also a publicist and does research on Lessing. Edgar, is a brilliant surgeon. The sister, Klara, stays in the background. It’s her American husband, Jacques Lavendel, who is another major character. Three of the Oppermanns have children. Martin’s son Berthold, Edgars’ daughter Ruth, and Klara’s son Heinrich.

There are many minor characters that are just as important. Teachers at Berthold’s and Heinrich’s school, people who work for the Oppermann’s in their furniture store and many more.

The story starts in 1932 with Gustav’s 50th birthday. It should have been a day of triumph but their company is in danger and this overshadows Gustav’s big day. Until now, Gustav wasn’t a political man. He was more interested in Germany’s culture, its literature and, like many, he believed that someone who produced something as badly written as Mein Kampf couldn’t be taken seriously. Surely, the Germans would see through this and shake it off. His brothers Martin and Edgar were slightly more aware of what was going on. The Nazi’s were gaining ground and Jewish businesses and Jewish people were more and more threatened. In order to save the furniture business, Martin suggests to collaborate with an Aryan business partner. That someone this rooted in tradition and family values would go this way, wakes up Gustav.

Edgar on his side is threatened to leave his hospital. Although he has invented a famous cure, the Nazis’ pretend he’s killing his Aryan patients.

The saddest stories focus on Berthold, whose new teacher is a fanatic Nazi and determined to humiliate Berthold, and the story of one of the Oppermanns’ employees who, like so many, is arrested and tortured.

Towards the end of the novel, after Hitler has become Chancellor, those Oppermanns, who survived, flee the country.

An omniscient narrator tells us the many stories, switching back and forth between the characters. A bit like in Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française, we get the feeling of being there, of reading a documentary, but the result is a more traditional novel with a plot.

Feuchtwanger deplored later that he wrote this without taking a step back. He felt this documentary aspect was a weakness of the novel. I don’t agree with him. I think this is exactly the reason why this book is so outstanding. It’s the first novel in which the Nazis and their ascent is criticized, in which the manipulations, the lies, the atrocities, the confiscations, the torture, the concentration camps are described in detail.

What I found particularly fascinating is how Feuchtwanger explores the different reactions to the Nazi’s rise. Many, especially cultured people, just couldn’t believe that someone who wrote a book that was as badly written as Mein Kampf could become Chancellor. Others just didn’t take the movement seriously because they thought they wouldn’t get in the line of fire, either because they were from old, rich and influential families or because they thought they were not important enough. Others, especially religious Jews, were planning on leaving for Palestine. I often wondered why not more left but I had no clue that not everyone was allowed in. Only those who could pay a certain amount, which wasn’t possible for everyone.

Another interesting aspect is the difference between race and religion. Reading this book, one becomes fully ware, that it was never really about religion but about race. Most of the characters in this book, probably like Feuchtwanger himself, were not religious. And they certainly didn’t see themselves as belonging to another race. They felt they were Germans just like anyone else. Germans first and then Jewish. Not the other way around. In a way, you could say that this self-image clouded their perception. They didn’t identify with being Jewish and therefore didn’t feel threatened.

At the beginning of this post, I wrote how prescient this book felt. But that is the perception of someone who reads this now and the longer I think about it, the more I feel, Feuchtwanger wasn’t so much prescient as just aware. Reading this, I really wonder why not more people saw it coming.

The Oppermanns is a very readable, entertaining book. The characterisations are wonderful. Feuchtwanger brings even minor characters to life and makes the reader care for them. The strength of the book however lies in its immediacy and documentary character. Reading it, one feels transported in time. And, for the first time, I understood, not only how early it all began, but why people didn’t or couldn’t react the way they should have. Some embraced Nazism, but many just couldn’t believe it. Not even when they saw or heard about the atrocities. Only when they or their loved ones experienced them first-hand did it fully sink in.

If you’re interested in the rise of Nazism or like a well-told family story, then you shouldn’t miss this. It’s outstanding.

Other reviews

TJ (My Book Strings)

Winner Announcement – German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

The following two of my readers have each won a copy of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

TJ (My Bookstrings) and

Brian from Brian’s Babbling Books.

Congratulations, TJ and Brian. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the book.

Please send me your addresses via beautyisasleepingcat at gmail dot com or via Twitter DM.

Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring this giveaway.

German Literature Giveaway – Old Rendering Plant by Wolfgang Hilbig

Today I have a special treat for fans of W.G Sebald, László Krasznahorkai, and the movies of Andrei Tarkovsky. Two Lines Press, a program of the Center for the Art of Translation, is generously sponsoring a giveaway of two copies of Wolfgang Hilbig’s Old Rendering Plant.

Hilbig was born in East Germany but emigrated to West Germany in 1985. He received all of Germany’s major literary prizes.

I was familiar with his name but had never picked up any of his books. As soon as I was contacted by Two Lines Press, I browsed a few of his books and was stunned. The imagery reminded me so much of a Tarkovsky movie. And Tarkovsky is one of my favourite film directors. Abandoned houses, desolate landscapes, solitary people. I was captivated.

If you’d like to read a great review of the book here’s a post by roughghosts and his review in The Quarterly Conversation.

Here’s what you can find on the website of the Center for the Art of Translation:

“[Wolfgang Hilbig] evokes the luminous prose of W. G. Sebald.” — The New York Times

What falsehoods do we believe as children? And what happens when we realize they are lies—possibly heinous ones? In Old Rendering Plant Wolfgang Hilbig turns his febrile, hypnotic prose to the intersection of identity, language, and history’s darkest chapters, immersing readers in the odors and oozings of a butchery that has for years dumped biological waste into a river. It starts when a young boy becomes obsessed with an empty and decayed coal plant, coming to believe that it is tied to mysterious disappearances throughout the countryside. But as a young man, with the building now turned into an abattoir processing dead animals, he revisits this place and his memories of it, realizing just how much he has missed. Plumbing memory’s mysteries while evoking historic horrors, Hilbig gives us a gothic testament for the silenced and the speechless. With a tone worthy of Poe and a syntax descended from Joyce, this suggestive, menacing tale refracts the lost innocence of youth through the heavy burdens of maturity.

PRAISE

“Wolfgang Hilbig is an artist of immense stature.” — László Krasznahorkai, winner of the Man Booker International Prize and author of Satantango and Seiobo There Below

“Out of the ugliness of history and the wasted landscape of his home, he has created stories of disconsolate beauty.” — The Wall Street Journal

“Beneath Hilbig’s layers of imagistic prose, deep inside the tormented psyche of his narrator, a historical beast waits to be roused.” — Electric Literature“

“[Hilbig writes as] Edgar Allan Poe could have written if he had been born in Communist East Germany.” — Los Angeles Review of Books

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If you would like to win a copy of Hilbig’s novella, leave a comment, telling me why you’d like to read it.

The giveaway is US/Canada only. The winners will be announced on Wednesday November 22 2017, around 18:00 Central European time.

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The Giveaway is now Closed.

The Diary of a Bookseller by Shaun Bythell (2017)

I never thought I would love The Diary of a Bookseller so much. I discovered Shaun Bythell ‘s book on Jen Campbell’s YouTube channel. She knew him because she interviewed him way back when she wrote The Bookshop Book. Possibly he was also a contributor to her Weird Things Customers Say in Bookshops. Shaun Bythell is the owner of Scotland’s largest secondhand bookstore. His shop has over 100,000 titles. He’s famous for being more than a little cranky, a bit like Dylan Moran’s character in the TV series Black Books (if you haven’t watched that yet, do yourself a favour and watch it. It’s so, so funny). If you read the diary, you’ll agree, that he has reasons for being cranky. My goodness. It’s unbelievable what some customers do or say.

Initially, Shaun wrote this book for himself, to make sure, he didn’t forget what was going on in his life and his book shop. I’m glad he decided to make this public because it’s fascinating, charming, enlightening, and sobering, all at the same time. I learned many things, I had no idea about or didn’t know that much about.

Shaun Bythell’s shop, called The Book Shop, is located in Wigtown, Scotland. Wigtown, is the Scottish counterpart of the Welsh Hay-on-Wye. It too has numerous book shops and hosts book festivals that might be smaller than Hay-on-Wye, but sound just as vibrant and interesting.

Every day, Shaun wrote down how many online orders he got (and books he found in his labyrinthine shop), how many paying customers he had and how much he earned. It’s amazing how much these numbers actually convey. You realize quickly, that this is a very hard business and sales aren’t high.

He also describes all the many things that are part of his shop like buying new stock, assessing libraries that are for sale. He writes about his staff, his cat, his girlfriend, friends, and customers – nice, weird and rude ones alike.

His sense of humour is great, on the acerbic side, and his comments on staff and customers make for entertaining reading.

Although it’s funny and fascinating, the book has a melancholy side. The reader can’t shake off the feeling to read about a dying trade. Shaun Bythell may very well shoot a kindle and hang it up on the shop’s wall, he may curse amazon . . . all that won’t change a thing— people aren’t willing to pay much for used books, unless they are very rare. The book also ends on a melancholy note as he describes in the epilogue what has happened to him and friends and customers after he finished his diary, which covers 2014.

Some of the entries are a few pages long, others very short.

Thursday, 24 April

Online orders: 3

Books found: 3

An elderly customer told me that her book club’s next book was Dracula, but she couldn’t remember what he’d written. 

Till total £160.70

14 customers

Most entries are about the shop and book selling/buying but there are many that are about Shaun’s life. Those are just as entertaining.

Here are some of the things I found interesting:

  • Bestsellers aren’t worth a lot. Not even first editions as in many cases already the first editions exist in high numbers (e.g. Harry Potter)
  • Books dedicated by famous authors or who were given by famous authors, have annotations by them, sell very well.
  • Books on fishing and railways sell remarkably well.
  • I learned a lot about book prizes. Apparently, until the 90s, book shops weren’t allowed to sell books cheaper than the publisher’s prize (Net Book Agreement). This has changed since then and especially big shops like Waterstones, and now amazon, make huge profits by undercutting the market. Before this change, shops were only allowed to discount faulty books. Many used a cunning method – they applied a red mark and declared the books to be faulty, which allowed discount prizes. As a teenager, when I didn’t have a lot of money, I often bought in such a discounter and always wondered why all those books were called faulty even though nothing was wrong with them, other than  having a red line.
  • There’s quite a lot about online used book sales on amazon that I found sobering and saddening. Because of the system that’s used, books may suddenly be much cheaper than the seller intended. Some crafty people use the system and enter nonexistent cheap copies of expensive books to get prizes down.

Even though Bythell’s life doesn’t sound easy – customers can be annoying – book boxes are often far too heavy – the shops’ always cold – it still sounds charming and in many ways like a lot of fun. After all, he’s his own boss, is surrounded by books, meets some great people through the shop and the festival, and there’s always the possibility he might find some hidden treasure somewhere in a library.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It gives insight and entertains and put me in the mood to travel to Wigtown some day.

Welcome to German Literature Month

I can’t believe it’s already November. And I can equally not believe how unprepared I am this year. Usually I’ve already read a few books for German Literature Month before it even began. Or at least I’ve made a long list. Not so this time. I think I got a bit discouraged when I realized that most of the books I was drawn to haven’t been translated yet. To review or not to review a book that hasn’t been translated is always a dilemma. Not just during German Literature Month. In the last couple of months I decided mostly against it. I have a feeling, I won’t be able to do that this month. But we will see.

For now I only know that I will be discussing Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Opperman’s, which is part of the Literature and War Readalong. I’ll tell you more about it shortly.

And here is a tiny list.

The Nameless Day – Der namenlose Tag by Friedrich Ani

After years on the job, police detective Jakob Franck has retired. Finally, the dead with all their mysteries will no longer have any claim on him. Or so he thinks. On a cold autumn afternoon, a case he thought he’d long put behind him returns to his life and turns it upside down. The Nameless Day tells the story of that twenty-year-old case, which began with Franck carrying the news of the suicide of a seventeen-year-old girl to her mother, and holding her for seven hours as, in her grief, she said not a single word. Now her father has appeared, swearing to Franck that his daughter was murdered. Can Franck follow the cold trail of evidence two decades later to see whether he’s telling the truth? Could he live with himself if he didn’t? A psychological crime novel certain to thrill fans of Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo, The Nameless Day is a masterpiece, a tightly plotted story of contemporary alienation, loss, and violence.

Swallow Summer by Larissa Boehning

Two music producers pack up their studio along with their dreams of ever making it in the industry after too many bands fail to pay their bills…
A woman takes up an invitation to visit an ex-lover in Arizona, only to find his apartment is no bigger than a motel room…
A former drama student runs into an old classmate from ten years before, hardly recognising the timid creature he has become…
Each character in Larissa Boehning’s debut collection experiences a moment where they re forced to confront how differently things turned out, how quickly ambitions were shelved, or how easily people change. Former colleagues meet up to reminisce about the failed agency they used to work for; brothers-in-law find themselves co-habiting long after the one person they had in common passed away; fellow performers watch as their careers slowly drift in opposite directions. Boehning’s stories offer a rich store of metaphors for this abandonment: the downed tools of a deserted East German factory, lying exactly where they were dropped the day Communism fell; the old, collected cameras of a late father that seem to stare, wide-eyed, at the world he left behind. And yet, underpinning this abandonment, there is also great resilience. Like the cat spotted by a demolition worker in the penultimate story that sits, unflinching, as its home is bulldozed around it, certain spirits abide.

Der Autor als Souffleur by Undine Gruenter (not translated)

 

I hope you’ve got your books ready and are looking forward to joining us.

Don’t forget the two readalongs:

On 15th November, the date of the Warwick Prize award, Lizzy will be discussing Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of A Polar Bear.

On 29th November, I will discuss Lion Feuchtwanger’s The Oppermanns as part of her War and Literature series.

Irène Némirovsky: Suite Française (2004) Literature and War Readalong October 2017

Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky’s posthumously published novel was written in 1942, rediscovered in 1998 and published in 2004. Originally it was planned as a sequence of five novels, but Némirovksy was deported and murdered in Auschwitz before she could complete it.

The two novels included in Suite FrançaiseTempête en juin and Dolce – can be read individually. There are a few characters that are mentioned in both but that does not affect the plot. Judging from the notes Némirovsky left, part three, would have reintroduced a number of the characters from the first books. We can assume, that all five books together would have worked a bit like Balzac’s Comédie Humaine.

Part one, Tempête en juin, which is much more episodic than part two, begins in Paris, in 1941 when the Germans arrive. Thousands of people flee in panic. The book follows several groups of people who all flee the town. Gabriel Corte, a famous writer, flees with his mistress. Some members of the Péricand family flee to Nîmes, where they have family. One of the sons is in the army, another one runs aways to join the army and a third, a priest, is guiding orphans out of the town. Charles Langelet, an aesthete and collector of art and porcelain, flees in a car. The Michaud’s, two bank employees, try to join the staff of the bank in Troyes. Their son Jean-Marie, who has been wounded, is recovering in Bussy.

The narrative moves back and forth between these people, yet the result is anything but disjointed because the tone is so similar and the descriptions so astute. At times it feels like a documentary. The reader is there all the time. We can see, hear and smell the chaos, the fear, the panic. But we also see people at their worst. Most of those Némirovsky chose to describe, with the exception of the Michauds, are rich people. Rich people with a lot of possessions that they don’t want to lose and cling to. People who think that even under dire circumstances, when there’s no food, no shelter, they should still be able to get what they want because they can pay for it. Most of these people are shown as materialistic, ruthless and selfish. They cling to their things in a way that’s absurd. The best example for this is the collector Langelet. He tricks a young couple and steals their petrol, just to save himself and his possessions. In the end, he has nowhere to go and returns to Paris. We see him unwrapping his collection, dine in expensive restaurants and return to his life as a socialite, until he has the most absurd accident.

Part one ends with the armistice and the Germans occupying large parts of France.

Part two begins right after the armistice and is set in the province, in Bussy. It shows how the French dealt with the German occupation and ends when Germany begins the invasion of Russia and the troops stationed in Bussy are sent to the Eastern Front.

Part two has two main story lines. One centers on Lucile Angellier whose husband is a prisoner of war. The Angelliers are one of the richest families of Bussy that’s why a Oberleutnant of the Wehrmacht is billeted at their house. Lucile and the Oberleutnant both seem unhappy in their respective marriages. After long shared walks and endless discussions about music and art, they fall in love but don’t engage in an affair.

The second story line follows a French farmer who was a prisoner of war and escaped. He’s one of those who has the hardest time accepting the new masters. While things look peaceful, under the surface it’s boiling. The French resent the Germans, resent that they eat their food, flirt with their women, live in their houses and make the rules. Who disobeys is shot.

Both parts are very good but I loved the first one more. The descriptions, the choice of details, the characterisations were so captivating that I could hardly put it down. I could also relate to it far more as my father’s family was among those who fled Paris when the Germans arrived. Nobody spoke about it. My dad had just been born, so he didn’t experience it and other members of the family didn’t talk about it. I know they fled to Brittany where my grandmother was from. Brittany was among the parts occupied by the Germans and they spoke about that. Just like in Dolce, they described the Germans as mostly very polite and even kind, but, like in Dolce, they found that even harder to take. Psychologically, an occupation is an extremely difficult experience. So many conflicting emotions play into it. Irène Némirovsky excels at describing this.

Obviously, this novel spoke to me because it shed light on some questions I had about my family’s history, but even without that, I would have loved this book for its minute details and because it focused on  aspects of the war that are often just briefly mentioned. I can’t think of any other novel that focuses on the invasion of Paris and the early occupation. Most other books either focus on the fighting or on the resistance. I also liked how critical she seems of human behaviour. All too often historical WWII novels or period movies choose to show how people grow under the circumstances, how they overcome their pettiness and selfishness, turn into heroes. The shared tragedy brings out the best in them. While I’m sure, this is true for some, for many it isn’t. Since Némirovsky experienced what she described, I’m pretty sure, her description is more realistic than the idealized versions we usually see. In her book, the Michauds are the only people who seem to grow morally under the circumstances.

One could write endlessly about this book. I only scratched the surface. Suite Française is more than just an outstanding novel, it’s an invaluable document. What a terrible shame it wasn’t finished. That said, it doesn’t feel unfinished.

Other Review

TJ (My Book Strings)

 

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Suite Française is the sixth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2017. The next book is the German pre-war novel The Oppermanns  – Die Geschwister Oppermann by Lion Feuchtwanger. Discussion starts on Wednesday, November 29, 2017. You can  find further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2017, including the book blurbs here.