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German Book Reviews

Kate BowenDecember 4, 2006

Are you a book worm? Interested in German literature? DW-WORLD.DE has selected some great German books that have recently become available in English translation. Read on!

DW-WORLD.DE plans to regularly review new German books in English


By Jana Hensel

"I got my first pair of acid-washed jeans just after the Wall fell," wrote Jana Hensel in "After the Wall."

Buchcover Jana Hensel: After the wall
Jana Hensel shares the struggles of assimilating after German reunification

Hensel was 13 years and three months old when the Berlin Wall came down on Nov. 9, 1989, the day she said her childhood ended. The book is both a memoir and an analysis of the generation that integrated into the West with apparent ease.

Like her peers, Hensel spent her early years coveting things from the "other side" -- acid-washed jeans, western chocolate, fancy cars. At the same time, a giant portrait of Karl Marx hung in her school classroom and she was taught to be suspect of children who brought bananas in their lunchboxes or came from single-parent homes.

When the Wall fell, not just Hensel's country but everything she knew was swallowed up by the Federal Republic of Germany. She no longer recognized her home town of Leipzig, where people started sporting top western fashions, eating at McDonald's and speaking western slang.

The author was also among those who adapted at lightening speed, dropped her Saxon accent and quickly became embarrassed by her parents, who seemed to have been left behind in an obsolete culture. By capturing the everyday in a loose, authentic style, Hensel manages to convey nostalgia for her youth without being overly sentimental. Despite the initial euphoria of reunification and the sudden abundance of everything East German children had coveted for so long, the process of assimilation that took place in the early 1990s was also accompanied by a nearly unnoticed sense of loss, which is precisely what Hensel draws attention to.

Jana Hensel
Just 30, Hensel already has a booming career as a writerImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The 30-year-old author wrote the book "because there was a gap in German literature that has to be filled about how young people feel about what is happening," she said in an interview for the Goethe Institute. "Our world changed from one day to the next."

The former East Germany is so often painted in shades of grey, with secret service agents lurking around every corner. But Hensel's memoir offers a refreshing and realistic perspective that is neither apologetic nor sensationalized.

Published by Public Affairs (2004), ISBN 1-5864826-61, Original Title: Zonenkinder



By Durs Grünbein

Durs Grünbein, is widely considered to be one of Germany's most remarkable contemporary poets. Using simple language and startling visual effects, the 46-year-old Dresden native addresses the urgent moral concerns of his post-war generation: environmental degradation, historical reconciliation and suffering, to name a few.

Take the title piece from Ashes for Breakfast:

On the Daily Newspapers

I have breakfasted on ashes, the black

Dust that comes off newspapers, from the freshly printed columns.

When a coup makes no stain and a tornado sticks to half a page. And it seems to me as though the Fates licked their lips

When war broke out in the sports section, reflected in the falling Dow.

I have breakfasted on ashes. My daily bread.

And Clio, as ever, keeps mum…There, just as I folded them up

The rustling pages sent a shiver down my spine.

Buchcover Durs Grünbein: Ashes for Breakfast
Grünbein's first collection in English

"On Daily Newspapers" is exemplary of the rich layers found in Grünbein's work -- from the tangible banal to critical philosophizing on global issues.

Speaking of banal, animals turn up frequently in the collection. Each poem in the five-part sequence called "In the Province," for example, describes an instance of road-kill or other painful form of death. There are also four poems on zoo animals (a chimpanzee, an okapi, a penguin, and a cheetah) and "A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Border Dog." The final piece in the collection, "Arcadia for All," "makes the old theme of man's dream for an earthly paradise explicit," as a reviewer from the Goethe Institute put it.

Ashes for Breakfast, a collection of poems taken from five different volumes published between 1988 and 2002, is the first to appear in English translation. Michael Hofmann, who translated the poems, has been criticized for perhaps taking too much poetic and linguistic liberty in his English version, at times offering two translations for a given phrase or using idioms.

Durs Grünbein
Grünbein has received many awards for his workImage: picture-alliance/dpa

The US publication, however, is bi-lingual, offering the English and German versions face-to-face for those who read at least a bit of Grünbein's native language. His poetry is an essential part of contemporary German literature and Hofmann's translation is -- at the very least -- a worthwhile compromise.

Critics think so too: The New York Times Book Review called Ashes for Breakfast a "brilliantly layered book" with "organic sensibility."

Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2005), ISBN 0-37426074-5, Original Title: Grauzone morgens (1988) and other collections



By Sven Regener

Sven Regener's "Berlin Blues" is a highlight of recent pop literature in Germany.

Buchcover Sven Regener: Berlin Blues
Regener tempers ennui with a healthy dose of comedy

Under its original title "Herr Lehmann," Regener's comical and sympathetic tale of an ordinary guy in Berlin quickly hit the German best-seller list in 2001. It was also made into a popular film and Regener won a German Film Award in 2004 for the screenplay.

It's 1989, Berlin. Frank Lehmann is a chaotic, aimless bar-tender who has managed not to succumb to the expectations of his parents, landlord, neighbors and girlfriends. Regener's success lies in his ability to shape a unique and even lovable character out of an everyman and portray the banal ennui of an everyman, with the explosive political situation of the late-1980s faintly in the background.

"Lehmann's world is so 36, and nothing else," wrote the German daily Der Tagesspiegel. Perhaps there's something universal about a mid-life crisis. German weekly Die Zeit called Regener's main character "a pale man in a loud world" and "a philosopher in a carp pond."

Indeed, Lehmann encounters one misfortune after another -- a vicious dog, nagging parents, difficult girlfriends, and a depressed friend -- but his post-modern sense of indifference pulls him through every time, practically unscathed.

Don't expect any social commentary on former East Germany or reunification from Regener, who has another career as the lead singer and song-writer for the German rock band Elements of Crime. It's the effortless characterization, brilliant dialog and dry comic elements that make this book a winner.

Sven Regener
Author Sven Regener is also a rock starImage: dpa

After the success of Berlin Blues, Regener got to work writing two prequels. The first of them takes place nine years prior to Berlin Blues. It came out in German under the title "Neue Vahr Süd" in 2006 -- and will hopefully be available soon in English as well.

Published by Vintage (2003), ISBN 0-09944923-4, Original Title: Herr Lehmann

Check DW-WORLD.DE in the future for more reviews of good German books that have recently been translated into English.