Alex Capus: Almost Like Spring – Fast ein bisschen Frühling (2002)

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I wanted to post every other day during German Literature Month as I’ve read so many books in advance but last week was such an awful week. First the shocker election, then Leonard Cohen’s death, then the death of the brilliant Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger. So depressing. I’m sure many people feel the same way. Despondency may not be helpful but sometimes it needs room and needs to be acknowledge before we can move on.

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I’ve not read any books by Alex Capus so far. I thought I wouldn’t like his writing but I’m glad to say, he’s so much better than I expected. I picked Almost Like Spring – Fast ein bisschen Frühling because it’s set in Basel, Switzerland. As many of you know, I live in Basel. There aren’t a lot of books set in this city, so I was curious because of that too.

As Capus writes at the beginning of his novel, Almost Like Spring tells the true story of the German bank robbers Kurt Sandweg and Waldemar Velte. Fleeing from Wuppertal, Germany after having robbed a bank and killed someone, they arrived in Basel in the winter of 33/34. The plan was to flee to India but one of them fell in love with a shop girl, Dorly Schupp, who was working in the record department where the two robbers bought Tango records. Dorly worked at Globus, a department store that still exists and is known because it’s one of the rare Jugendstil buildings in Basel.

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Sandweg and Velte are depicted like two rebels and compared to Bonnie and Clyde. At any other time, one would have simply called them anti-social, but the way Capus depicts them, they were victims too. They robbed a bank because they were desperate, without a job and seeing no future in a Germany where the Nazis were taking over power. Sandweg and Velte are a peculiar pair; they are so close that people think they might be lovers but what they share is rather a bit like a folie à deux. In their heads, they’re on a mission – fighting poverty and injustice. One of them falls in love with Dorly, the other one with one of her colleagues— Alex Capus own grandmother. While the pair is in Basel, they buy a Tango record every day and go for long walks through the old town and along the Rhine, accompanied by the two young women.

The descriptions of these walks are lovely. The way Capus describes the weather, the cold winds from Siberia, and how it can get warm again, all of a sudden, in the middle of winter, because those winds change course and warm winds from the south arrive, is so spot on. The four young people don’t do much on these walks, but all four of them feel free. Dorly lives with her elderly mother, while Capus’ grandmother is engaged and will soon marry a man she never really liked. The two women don’t know that the men are criminals and when they finally leave Basel, they are disappointed.

Unfortunately, the plan to take a ship to India doesn’t work and a couple of weeks later, after having stayed in Spain, the two men are back in Basel and the real tragedy begins. They rob another bank, kill people, and are hunted down.

Most critics haven’t found anything good to say about this novel. I’m not sure why. Is it the tone? Capus mixes fact and fiction. He stays outside of his character’s heads, which makes it sound like a report at times, but the book is rich in mood and atmosphere. He captures the times and women’s fates so well. What choices did they have back then? Dorly’s actually living a relatively independent life, but Capus’ grandmother, who isn’t from Basel, is expected to return home soon and get married. While the storytelling is a bit dry, the mood is anything but.

I’m not sure about the descriptions though. Readers who haven’t been to Basel may be able to picture the department store Globus but the city? I don’t think so because he mentions street names but doesn’t really describe them.

Be it as it may, sometimes I agree with critics, sometimes I don’t. In this case I don’t agree. Almost Like Spring is a lovely book. It’s a rounded, historically accurate, atmospheric book that mixes fact and fiction to great effect.

Ursula P. Archer aka Ursula Poznanski: Five – Fünf (2013)

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Last year I read Ursula Poznanski’s YA thriller Erebos and liked it a great deal. When Lizzy mentioned that one of Poznanski’s crime novels for adults had been translated, I knew I had to read it. Not that I read it in English, of course not, but it’s always nicer to review books that have been translated.

Five – Fünf, the first in a series, introduces detectives Bea Kaspary and Florin Weininger of the Landeskriminalamt in Salzburg, Austria. They have been called to an unusual crime scene – a cow pasture. A woman has been found dead. Her hands tied in the back. She has been thrown from a small mountain overlooking the pasture. On the soles of her feet, they find a tatoo of strange numbers, which turn out to be coordinates. Those will lead them to a severed hand and more co-ordinates, which lead to another body part and other coordinates. The second set of coordinates aren’t added in the same straightforward manner as the first. They can only be found after the detectives solve a riddle for which they need to find someone. As if finding body parts wasn’t bad enough, the people who are the clues to solve the riddles, get killed as soon as they have been found by the police.

Five is very well done. It’s extremely suspenseful and, like in her YA novels, Ursula Poznanski/Archer uses a type of game or hobby – in this instance geocaching. I’d never heard of it but it seems that the author herself is a dedicated geocacher. Geocaching uses coordinates and hiding places. On a website you find coordinates and can then hunt a hidden object. The objects are often hidden in beautiful places. So it’s a bit of a mix between hiking and some sort of treasure hunt. It’s a trademark of Poznanski’s writing to use such modern-day games/technology as a base—computer games, live role-playing, drones . . .

I can’t say too much but although this sounds like a serial killer story, it’s not. Nonetheless, it’s quite gruesome in places.

Since this is the beginning of a series, the characters are very important. The detectives are very likable and well drawn. Bea is a mom of two, newly divorced from a bullying husband and still deeply traumatized by something that happened in her past. Florin is single but just started to date someone. That’s important because Bea clearly has a bit of crush on him. They work very well together, are almost friends. Bea is rather unconventional and gets into trouble with her superiors while Florin looks out for her and defends her.

One could call Five a crime novel with thriller elements. It’s very suspenseful and should appeal to many different crime readers – those who prefer thrillers, those who like a mystery, and those who love police procedurals. It has Poznanksi’s trademark mix of likable characters, impeccable pacing and contemporary feel. None of her novels could have been set at another time. I like that. She explores many themes in this book but they are tied so closely into the motive for the murder that I cannot say too much. If you’re looking for a suspenseful page-turner and love crime series, give this one a try.

If you’d like to find out more about geocaching – here’s a link.

Literature and War Readalong November 2016 Meets German Literature Month: All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski

All For Nothing

The last title of this year’s Literature and War Readalong is Walter Kempowski’s All For Nothing – Alles umsonst. It was Kempowski’s last novel. Walter Kempowski was born in 1929 in Rostock and died in 2007 in Rotenburg. He was famous for his autobiographical novels, one of which Tadellöser & Wolff, was made into a mini-series, and his huge project Echo Soundings – Echolot, subtitled “A collective diary”. In this project he collected and juxtaposed excerpts of diaries, letters ,and documents to illustrate and capture history.

Here is the first sentence of All for Nothing

The Georgenhof estate was not far from Mitkau, a small town in East Prussia, and now, in winter, the Georgenhof, surrounded by old oaks, lay in the landscape like a black island in a white sea.

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

All For Nothing – Alles umsonst by Walter Kempowski, 352 pages, Germany 2006, WWII

Here’s the blurb:

Winter, January 1945. It is cold and dark, and the German army is retreating from the Russian advance. Germans are fleeing the occupied territories in their thousands, in cars and carts and on foot. But in a rural East Prussian manor house, the wealthy von Globig family tries to seal itself off from the world. Peter von Globig is twelve, and feigns a cough to get out of his Hitler Youth duties, preferring to sledge behind the house and look at snowflakes through his microscope. His father Eberhard is stationed in Italy – a desk job safe from the front – and his bookish and musical mother Katharina has withdrawn into herself. Instead the house is run by a conservative, frugal aunt, helped by two Ukrainian maids and an energetic Pole. Protected by their privileged lifestyle from the deprivation and chaos around them, and caught in the grip of indecision, they make no preparations to leave, until Katharina’s decision to harbour a stranger for the night begins their undoing. Superbly expressive and strikingly vivid, sympathetic yet painfully honest about the motivations of its characters, All for Nothing is a devastating portrait of the self-delusions, complicities and denials of the German people as the Third Reich comes to an end.

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The discussion starts on Friday, 25 November 2016.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2016, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

German Literature Month Giveaway – Montaigne by Stefan Zweig

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As promised, here’s the first of this year’s German Literature Month giveaway’s.

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I’m giving away the Pushkin Press edition of Austrian author Stefan Zweig’s Montaigne. While Zweig has written short stories, novellas, and novels, he also wrote a great many essays and biographies. Montaigne isn’t his most famous but that doesn’t mean it’s not a very interesting book. The topic certainly is.

Here’s what the blurb has to say:

Stefan Zweig was already an émigré-driven from a Europe torn apart by brutality and totalitarianism-when he found, in a damp cellar, a copy of Michel de Montaigne’s Essais. Montaigne would become Zweig’s last great occupation, helping him make sense of his own life and his obsessions-with personal freedom, with the sanctity of the individual. Through his writings on suicide, he would also, finally, lead Zweig to his death.

With the intense psychological acuity and elegant prose so characteristic of Zweig’s fiction, this account of Montaigne’s life asks how we ought to think, and how to live. It is an intense and wonderful insight into both subject and biographer.

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If you would like to win a copy of Zweig’s Montaigne, please leave a comment. The only thing you have to do is to tell me why you’d like to win this book.

The giveaways is open internationally. I’ll announce the winners on Monday 7 November 17:00 – Western European time.

THIS GIVEAWAY IS NOW CLOSED

Welcome to German Literature Month

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Finally it’s November. Those of you who follow my blog might have noticed I was a bit quiet in the last weeks. With good reason. I was busy reading German, Austrian, and Swiss literature.

As you know, Lizzy and I have decided to do a “Read as you please month” with only two themed weeks.

A crime week during week two, hosted by Lizzy.

All For Nothing

The Literature and War Readalong on November 25, in which we read and discuss Walter Kempowski’s WWII novel All For Nothing – Alles umsonst.

For those who are still looking for titles, here are the books I have already read and those I’m still planning to read.

Weit über das Land

Peter Stamm’s latest novel. I must admit, I might not review it. It’s the worst book I’ve read this year. I can still not believe he wrote something like this.

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Judith Hermann’s new short story collection Lettipark. I’ve not finished this yet but I can already see that it’s a mixed bag.

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Karen Köhler’s short story collection Wir haben Raketen geangelt.

I bought this collection a while ago but haven’t read it yet. When I was looking for reviews of Judith Hermann’s book I saw it mentioned a few times. Most critics came to the conclusion that readers would do better to read Köhler instead of Hermann. I’ll let you know what I think.

in-my-brothers-shadowam-beispiel-meines-bruders

I’ve only heard great things about Uwe Timm’s memoir In My Brother’s ShadowAm Beispiel meines Bruders. As far as I can tell, (I read the beginning), it’s amazing.

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Almost Like SpringFast ein bisschen Frühling, is my first Alex Capus and if the rest is as good as the beginning, it won’t be my last.

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Last year I read Ursula Poznanski’s Erebos and was pretty much blown away. While I liked Five – Fünf a bit less, it’s still a really gripping book. You may have noticed that her adult crime novels are published under another name, Ursula P. Archer, in English. If you’re still looking for a page turner for crime week and are not too squeamish, you’ll enjoy this.

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These are my plans so far. I might add some Walter Benjamin and one of the fantasy novels by Nina Blazon Der Winter der schwarzen Rosen (not translated yet).

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I hope you’re all busy making plans and wish you all a great month. I hope you’ll discover a lot of great books. Happy Reading!

 

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There will be a few giveaways.

Here’s a sneak peek.

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Please add your reviews to this site German Literature Month.