Uwe Timm: In My Brother’s Shadow – Am Beispiel meines Bruders (2003)


Maybe you’ve never heard of Timm’s novella The Invention of Curried Sausage. If you haven’t, do yourself a favour and get it because it’s marvellous. Possibly because I loved that novella so much, I stayed away from In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders, although I’d been keen on reading it since it came out in 2003. There’s not one reader or critic who doesn’t think it’s essential reading. But we all know how it goes – everyone praises something, and one has read another book by an author that one loved  . . . I’m glad I finally overcame my reluctance because if ever a book was essential reading – then it’s this one. And for many reasons, not only as a brilliant WWII and post-war memoir.

In his memoir In My Brother’s Shadow, Timm doesn’t only try to reconstruct his brother’s life and find out who he really was, but examines his own family and the German post-war society. Timm was born in 1940, the third and last child of his parents. His sister and brother were both over sixteen years older. His brother Karl-Heinz was his father’s favourite. When Karl-Heinz was severely wounded and later died in 1943, on the Eastern Front, in the Ukraine, his father was devastated. The older son was everything he’d wished for. He would take over his business. He was courageous and heroic, unlike little Timm who’s squeamish and dreamy.

Although soldiers weren’t allowed to write a diary, Karl-Heinz did and after he died of his wounds, it was sent back to his parents.

When he’s almost sixty and both of his parents and sister dead, Uwe Timm, rereads the diary and the brother’s letters and decides to write this memoir.

It is clear from the beginning that he doesn’t consider his brother to be a hero. He’s too shocked by some of the diary entries. They are cold and devoid of any compassion with the soldiers and civilians he kills. Karl-Heinz is a member of the SS Panzer Division Totenkopf (Skull and Crossbones). One of the SS’s notorious elite divisions. But what shocks Timm even more, and that’s because it’s also part of the post-war mindset, are the omissions. He knows his brother was present when some of the most horrific extermination operations went on, but he doesn’t mention anything. And in the end, he even stops writing his diary because, as he writes, it doesn’t make sense to write about awful things.

Reading Timm’s account, you can feel that he was ashamed and horrified that he had a brother like this. And he’s ashamed and horrified because of the way people spoke right after the war. Many found it perfectly OK that Jews were killed and were only angry about losing the war. Many others said they “didn’t know” but it was clear they had only chosen not to know.

The silence and passivity of the masses disgusted Timm. He also found out that many soldiers were given a choice whether they wanted to be part of a firing squad or not. Hardly anyone said no. Interestingly though, saying no, had absolutely no consequences. They didn’t choose to fire people because they were scared but simply because they wanted to.

Timm also explores his father’s authoritarian education methods which were pretty typical for that time. Kids had to obey and if they didn’t  they were slapped, hit or worse. Psychologists have found out a long time ago that this “black pedagogy” as it is called was one of the reasons why Hitler and Nazism were so successful.

While the book is harsh on his family and many other Germans, it still captures the suffering. His family, like so many others, lost everything when Hamburg was destroyed in ’43. For many years they lived in a cellar.

In My Brothers’ Shadow is also amazing as a book about writing a memoir. What it means to dig deeper and find family secrets. It’s not surprising, he was only able to write about everything so honestly, after his parents and sister were dead.

Uwe Timm is a wonderful, stylish writer that’s why this memoir has many poetic elements. It is a fascinating and touching story of a German family.

One thing that Timm’s elegant and poignant memoir illustrates admirably well – silence is political. Looking the other way is not innocence it’s complicity. This should be self-evident, unfortunately, it wasn’t then and it’s still not now. I’m glad I finally read this memoir. Especially just after Kempowski’s novel. They are great companion pieces.

Literature and War Readalong August 29 2014: Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden

Undertones of War

Edmund Blunden’s Undertones of War is one of the most famous WWI memoirs. Blunden was a poet who enlisted at the age of twenty and took part in the battles at the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele. My edition, which is The University of Chicago Press edition, contains a number of his poems. It will be interesting to compare the accounts of the trenches with the poems inspired by the landscape.

Here are the first sentences

I was not anxious to go. An uncertain but unceasing disquiet had been upon me, and when, returning to the officers’ mess a Shoreham Camp one Sunday evening, I read the notice that I was under orders for France, I did not hide my feelings. Berry, a subaltern of my set, who was also named for the draft, might pipe to me “Hi, Blunden, we’re going out: have a drink.”; I could not dance. There was something about France in those days which looked to me, despite all journalistic enchanters, to be dangerous.

And  some details and the blurb for those who want to join

Undertones of War by Edmund Blunden (UK 1928) WWI, Memoir, 288 pages

In what is one of the finest autobiographies to come out of the First World War, the distinguished poet Edmund Blunden records his experiences as an infantry subaltern in France and Flanders. Blunden took part in the disastrous battles of the Somme, Ypres and Passchendaele, describing the latter as ‘murder, not only to the troops, but to their singing faiths and hopes’. In his compassionate yet unsentimental prose, he tells of the heroism and despair found among the officers. Blunden’s poems show how he found hope in the natural landscape; the only thing that survives the terrible betrayal enacted in the Flanders fields.


The discussion starts on Friday, 29 August 2014.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2014, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011)

Why Be Happy

In 1985 Jeanette Winterson’s first novel, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, was published. It was Jeanette’s version of the story of a terraced house in Accrington, an adopted child, and the thwarted giantess Mrs Winterson. It was a cover story, a painful past written over and repainted. It was a story of survival.

This book is that story’s the silent twinIt is full of hurt and humour and a fierce love of life. It is about the pursuit of happiness, about lessons in love, the search for a mother and a journey into madness and out again. It is generous, honest and true.

Jeanette Winterson’s first novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit is largely inspired by her childhood. Her memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? tells the other side of the story. That what was left out. It took me a long time to read this memoir. I started it four times, not because it’s not good, but because reading it was painful. The first part, until Jeanette leaves home at 16 and her mother asks her the question that has become the title of the book, is painful and disturbing for many reasons. The wit and the humor she uses to describe her awful childhood made me shudder. Shudder because I didn’t get it. I didn’t understand how you could live through so much pain and not go crazy, to write a book at 21 and become famous and leave it all behind. I was glad she proved to be so resilient, but it made me uneasy. I kept on thinking: When is it going to happen? When will she break down? Is that still in the future? I don’t think that you can survive a childhood like Winterson’s and not break down eventually. It’s just a matter of time.The second part of the book deals with what came much later. Jeanette Winterson’s descent into madness (her terms), her breakdown and attempted suicide in 2008. Reading that felt like entering a freshly aired room. I know this may sound weird, but the beginning made me choke. I couldn’t believe that she’d left it all behind and only when I read about the descent into madness, did I finally feel glad for her. Now she can move on.

Jeanette Winterson was adopted by the Wintersons when she was 6 months old. She was never told who her real parents were and her mother always said that the devil led them to the wrong crib, meaning she would have liked another child, a nicer child. This is such a typical statement from a woman like Mrs Winterson who is a depressed zealot and always utters half-truths in bible-inspired metaphor. Jeanette Winterson says that all of her books start with individual meaningful sentences and we see where that comes from. Her mother often only says one dark ominous sentence over and over again. Sometimes without any apparent connection to what just happens or what was just said. “Ask not for whom the bell tolls . . .”, “It’s a fault to heaven, a fault against the dead and a fault to nature . . . ” Uttered without any context or referring to very mundane things like the gas oven blowing up, these sentences are either creepy or hilarious.

Winterson grew up in the North of England, near Manchester and she loves this part of the country, lovingly tells us about its history, which is quite interesting. The Wintersons are not only religious fanatics but working class and her mother is so suspicious of books that she confiscates and burns all of those Jeanette has been hiding.

Punishment is frequent and comes in different forms. Either Jeanette is beaten or left outside all night and day, on the door step, even in winter.

When she falls in love with a girl, and Mrs W finds out, they perform an exorcism. Jeannette finally leaves at 16. She only returns once, when she’s studying in Oxford and things go very wrong. That’s the last time she sees her mother.

As you may have guessed, this isn’t an easy book to write about. I marked so many passages and sentences that hardly any page is left white. Jeanette Winterson has a way with words that is amazing. Although I don’t always agree, I find the sentences, many of which are used in her novels, arresting.

In her novel Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, Jeanette Winterson paints her mother like a giantess and in her memoir she says she was too large for her circumstances. I was puzzled that there was no explanation whatsoever why Mrs W was the way she was. Mean, fanatic, abusive, depressed and just plain crazy. She had her dreams and her wishes, but smothered them. She lived as if she was wearing a very tight corset. The Wintersons were Pentecostals and the religion was like a mental corset.

If you like memoir, then you should read this. It’s disturbing, but it’s so amazingly well written and the first part has hilarious moments. Mrs Winterson is crazy, but she really is larger than life. She reminded me of some of Picasso’s paintings of grotesquely deformed women. We read about her with horror, but at the same time we almost wishes we had been there. I even felt compassion, there were small details that could almost make her endearing. At the end of the book, when Jeanette Winterson has found her birth mother and looks back on her childhood, she says she’s glad Mrs Winterson was her mother. Although she was crazy and abusive, she made her who she is, maybe without such an adoptive mother, there wouldn’t be a writer like Jeanette Winterson. I can understand that thinking very well.

Will Schwalbe: The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) A Memoir

End of Your Life Book Club

Will Schwalbe’s memoir The End of Your Life Book Club is one of those books that needs a review because it’s hard to tell from the blurb what it is about. Sure, it’s about books and the love for books and a beautiful friendship between a mother and son, but more than that it’s about an amazing woman and her terminal illness. People who pick this up may think, like I did, that it was to a large extent about books, which isn’t the case. Books are mentioned on every other page, but the largest part is about Schwalbe’s mother, her life and her battle with pancreatic cancer.

Will Schwalbe and his mother always loved to read and discuss books, but when she is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and has to undergo regular chemo therapy, they decide to use the time they spend together at the hospital discussing books they have both read and that’s how they start The End of Your Life Book Club. The beginning of each chapter is dedicated to the book they have been reading and the discussion they have. The book choices are varied and I loved reading about them. Continental DriftCrossing to Safety, The Painted Veil, Olive Kitteridge, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Brooklyn,The Elegance of the Hedgehog are but a few books they read, discuss and enjoy.

After this usually brief paragraph about books, Schwalbe leads us directly to his main topic: his mother. His mother must have been a very courageous woman. She travelled from one hot spot to the next for the Women’s Refugee Committee. She helped refugees all over the world and put herself in great danger to do so. She was a fighter but at the same time she was a genuinely kind woman and to read about her and the love the people felt for her is quite beautiful.

What will not be everyone’s cup of tea is the detailed description of the therapies, the side effects and the battle to just live a few months longer. Pancreatic cancer is mostly terminal and most people don’t have much more than a few months after the diagnosis. Schwalbe’s mother was lucky, she lived a full two years. Years that she lived to the fullest, not missing any opportunity to enjoy life and do good. This is quite admirable. I liked her belief that you should never look away from what is bad in our world but always strive to do good.

I feel heartless writing this but the book did not work for me. I have no problem to read about terminal illness. I read the memoir written by Susan Sontag’s son and found it excellent. So that’s not the reason. And of course I love reading about books but in a way, I felt this memoir was too personal. There were too many details added that just didn’t mean anything to me, because it’s not my mother or someone I know. She ate this and liked it, she drank that and couldn’t swallow… She saw these friends and those grandchildren… There were just too many mundane and ordinary details that are only significant when you know a person. Since they wrote a blog about her illness to keep family and friends updated, I suspect, large portions of this book were based on those entries. This may be a reason why the writing was a bit bland.

I think this is a book which could be of great help if you have a friend or relative who has cancer, especially pancreatic cancer. It shows extremely well and in a lot of detail what can be done, what the side effects of some of the therapies are and when you have to decide to let go. As a book on cancer it’s great. As a book about one person’s mother, it’s too personal and as a book about books it is a let down. It says it’s about books and reading but they rather form a bracket around the rest.

Still I’ve discovered a few titles I didn’t know and would like to read:

Victor Lavalle’s Big Machine

Reynold Prices’s Feasting the Heart

Danyal Mueenuddin In Other Rooms, Other Wonders

There was also one book I know I will not be able to read and that is  Mariatu Kamara’s The Bite of the Mango (look it up and you’ll know why). Reading about it made me sick.

Have you read any of these?

Aharon Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim (1999) Literature and War Readalong August 2012

In his memoir The Story of a Life acclaimed author Aharon Applefeld tells the story of his childhood and how he came to be a writer. He starts by describing his earliest memories, the beauty he experienced, the love he received from his parents and grandparents. Most prominent in his memories is his last summer holiday as a child of five when he and his parents visited the grand parents in the Carpathians. Little Aharon’s parents are quiet people. They don’t talk a lot and Aharon learns early just to observe, be in the moment and absorb everything around him, the light, the scents, nature. These sensory memories will haunt him all his life. But this idyllic summer is the last peaceful moment of his childhood. Hitler comes to power, war breaks out. At first the family lives in a ghetto, later on they are transported to the camps. Both his parents are killed, his mother right at the beginning of the war. After having lost his father as well, Aharon escapes into the forest where he lives for years until he joins others. Together they first walk from the Ukraine to Italy and from there to Palestine, their new home.

The memoir is a book of a rare beauty. It taps into the deepest recesses of the soul where vague and sensory memories are stored. Because he was a child and a taciturn child at that, he is lacking words for what has happened to him. This makes this memoir so amazing, it’s like watching someone feel around, probe and slowly approach the right words to convey what it was like. Fleeting memories and strong impressions are mixed. Some people, some stories stand out but a lot is just like shadows on the wall.

The loss of his mother tongue leads to further fragmentation. In his family they spoke three different languages, on his long escape to Italy and from there to Palestine, there are more languages spoken and when he finally arrives in Palestine he has to let go of all of them and learn a new one, Hebrew. This is all painful.

I’ve read all sorts of WWII accounts and novels but they never focussed on orphaned children. It’s hard to imagine what it means to lose your parents, your home, your mother tongue. And Palestine wasn’t as welcoming as one would think. Especially not when you felt you wanted to talk about what happened and later to write about it.

Applefeld had to overcome an incredible amount of obstacles before becoming the writer he is today. He had to dig out his memories from where they were buried, find the right words, find the right language. He had to fight hostility too. Every single one of his books is an attempt to capture what happened to him and how it felt.

The Story of a Life is in part exactly that, the story of one man’s life, but more than that it’s a meditation on language and how to put into words, make palpable what is just a fleeting sensory impression. No wonder the cold, the wind, the rain are things which catapult him back to the war years. The war, he writes, is stored in his body, his bones. Because he was so little at the time, lacking the ability to fully comprehend and put into words what happened, the memoir and most of his novels, it seems, are more like a search, a quest almost for what once was, an attempt at conjuring up what was lost.

This is a book I can highly recommend even to those who are tired of reading about WWII and the Holocaust. It is a rich, inspiring and very meditative book about life and how to tell one’s story.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)



The Story of A Life was the eighth book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Richard Bausch: Peace. Discussion starts on Friday 28 September, 2012.

Nina Sankovitch: Tolstoy and the Purple Chair (2011) A Memoir

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is a memoir I’ve been eying for a while until I finally bought it. The subtitle – My Year Of Magical Reading – obviously an allusion to Joan Didion’s memoir – annoyed me a bit but I liked the idea behind the book.

After the early death of her beloved sister, Nina tries for several years to overcome her grief and feelings of guilt when she finally comes up with a cunning idea. Reading has always been important for her and her family. Reading instructs and entertains but it can console and give hope as well. That’s how she decided that she would read one novel per day for a whole year and write about it on her blog Read All Day.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair tells the story of that year, interweaving it with memories and stories of her family and herself. Not all the 365 books she has read in one year are described or mentioned but she writes in detail about a few which were especially meaningful. She summarizes them briefly and writes why they were important, what memories they triggered, how they helped her heal.

The list of all the 365 books can be found at the end of Tolstoy and the Purple Chair and on her blog. They don’t follow any specific order. One book led to the next and many were recommendations from family and friends and later from readers of the blog.

While I expected slightly more, I still liked reading the book. I liked her infectious enthusiasm. Each book is a world to discover and she tackles the ambitious goal with a lot of energy and passion.

Some of the books are so important because they help her explore her story or the story of her family. Harry Mulisch’s The Assault is one of them and so is Schlink’s Self’s Deception. But there are many more.

Crime novels are among her and her family’s favourite books, each member loves another writer. Nina thinks that what she loves best about them is the fact that they re-establish order. Things make sense in crime novels.

The parts in the book I enjoyed the most weren’t only those about books but those in which she describes the many little joys life has to offer. A meal with friends, a sunset, a newly planted tree, a lilac bush and the many cherished memories of her sister that make it easier to let go of her grief.

As was to be expected with a book like this I ended up with a list of books I’d like to read now.

Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog – L’élégance du hérisson

Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter

Harry Mulisch’s The Assault

Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor’s On Kindness

Kevin Canty Where the Money Goes

Chris Cleave Little Bee

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie The Thing Around Your Neck

While I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute must-read, it’s a nice way to spend a few hours. I liked her voice and her stories. Just be prepared, if you don’t have as much time at hand, you might end up being a bit envious.

I have a fondness for this type of project. It doesn’t even have to be reading a book per day. There are some other 365 and similar projects like that I enjoyed reading about. Many are based on blogs or turn into blogs like the famous Julie and Julia.

Have you read about any interesting projects or self-experiments like this? And what about the books on my list, have you read any of them?

Roger Rosenblatt: Making Toast (2010) A Memoir

Family tragedy is healed by domestic routine in this quiet, tender memoir. When his daughter Amy died suddenly at the age of 38 from an asymptomatic heart condition, journalist and novelist Rosenblatt (Lapham Rising) and his wife moved into her house to help her husband care for their three young children.  Building on the small events of everyday life, Rosenblatt draws sharply etched portraits of his grandchildren; his stoic, gentle son-in-law; his wife, who feels slightly guilty that she is living her daughter’s life; and Amy emerges as a smart, prickly, selfless figure whose significance the author never registered until her death.

I read memoirs for many different reasons. In some cases because of the topic but mostly because of the writing. Some of the most original and powerful writing nowadays can be found in life-writing. I’m fascinated by the diversity of memoir writing and the different approaches. The memoirs I like best are those written by writers or poets. I didn’t mind the topic of Making Toast but it isn’t why I chose to read it. I was intrigued because many reviews of Making Toast mentioned the style. I agree, it is beautifully written, very subtle, diverse and it works on many different levels. I took my time to read and savour it. You can’t really read it in one go, as every chapter, be it a few sentences long or a few pages, has another rhythm. The individual paragraphs read like micro-fiction but they still form a homogenous whole.

Rosenblatt’s daughter Amy dies unexpectedly at the age of 38. Nobody knew she suffered from an extremely rare heart disease. One morning, while working out in the basement, she collapses and dies on the spot where she is found by her eldest child. Amy was a doctor, a wife and a mother of three little children, the youngest barely one year old.

Rosenblatt and his wife Ginny decide to move in with their son-in-law Harris and the three little children. They want to help them cope with the multitude of daily tasks and duties and try to assist them in overcoming the tragic loss.

One of the core themes is how the children deal with their loss and the huge responsibility and also the strain it means for an elderly couple to take care of small children.

The book is touching, thoughtful, poetic, sad, but also beautiful and moving. Some paragraphs contain thoughts and musings, others describe scenes and anecdotes. Many chapters narrate Amy’s childhood and the past, others render everyday life and how to deal with the loss of a cherished person.

I was slightly taken aback by the unfriendly reader reviews.  Especially the German translation triggered a lot of spiteful comments. People remarked that he didn’t “mourn properly” that he sounded full of himself and they also criticized his mentioning of their wealth, that they can afford a nanny for the children and own houses.  I can’t understand these comments. Rosenblatt wrote this book in a restrained way which I found very appealing. He is neither weepy nor whining and especially not exhibitionistic, still you feel the grief in each line, you sense the bewilderment in every word. The family’s wealth doesn’t make Amy’s death any less tragic. I really don’t think Rosenblatt is self-publicizing unless you consider every personal essay or memoir to be an indecent display of someone’s life. But if so, why read it?

I found this book wonderful. It contains a lot of little endearing episodes like the one that gave the book its title, in which Rosenblatt states that the only thing he is really good at is making toast for the whole family in the morning. He describes how he gets up very early and, taking into consideration each family member’s taste, he produces a multitude of personalized breakfast toasts.

Making Toast is a book for readers and writers alike. If you like memoirs you will enjoy reading this well-written, lovely book. If you would like to write a memoir you will find this book inspiring in its original approach.