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Book tips

Kate Müser
August 18, 2014

Looking for a good read to take on vacation? Here are DW's picks of top German books now available in English translation.

A person reclining with a book, Copyright: Eisenhans
Image: Fotolia/Eisenhans

"Berlin Triptych," by David Wagner
Translated by Katy Derbyshire
Published by Readux

Berlin is a city that is constantly in flux - and that's exactly why it is writer David Wagner's favorite muse. Wagner, who has lived in the German capital since 1991, visited three various sites in the city at the turn of the millennium and recorded his impressions. Then, in 2013, he revisited the same sites and observed the changes.

The result is a unique parallel chronic of the evolving façade of Berlin, famously marred by gentrification over the past two decades.

Book cover, "Berlin Triptych" by David Wagner, Copyright: Readux

Wagner's figurative triptych turns up in the last chapter, but the three locations he chose also form a kind of artistic trio: Friedrichstrasse boulevard in downtown Berlin, Schönhauserallee on the eastern side of the city, and Café M in the west.

Born in 1971, David Wagner won the 2013 Leipzig Book Fair Prize for his novel, "Lives." His book "Four Apples" was long-listed for the German Book Prize in 2009.

In this DW interview, David Wagner explains why he's remained faithful to Berlin despite the city's fickle popularity.

"The Wall: And Other Stories," by Jurek Becker
Translated by Leila Vennewitz and Jonathan Becker
Published by Arcade Publishing, 2014

Jurek Becker (1937-1997), was a Polish-born Holocaust survivor and one of Germany's most significant post-war writers. After the war, he was one of only few Jews to remain in Germany. Becker is best known for his novels "Jakob the Liar" and "The Boxer," translated into English in 1990 and 2002, respectively. "Jakob the Liar" was made into two movies, one of which starred Robin Williams.

"The Wall: And Other Stories" is a collection of short stories, compiled by Becker's wife Christine, which have never before been published in English. Here, "the wall" takes on many meanings. In the title story, Becker recounts the dangerous tale of two boys who scale a wall to visit the ghetto their families had recently vacated.

Two other stories in the compilation focus on life behind the Berlin Wall in communist East Germany. Becker experienced the communist regime first-hand; he was an outspoken dissident in the GDR and immigrated to West Berlin in 1977.

Jonathan Becker, the son of Jurek and Christine Becker, works in the publishing industry and contributed to the translation of the stories.

"Decompression," by Juli Zeh
Translated by Sally-Ann Spencer and John Cullen
Published by Random House, 2014

In the wake of the NSA scandal and Edward Snowden's revelations that the United States had been spying in Germany, author Juli Zeh became vocal. She was quick to write an open letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel, demanding protection from foreign espionage, and organized a petition in favor of digital privacy.

Now Zeh's recent novel, "Decompression," is available in English. The psychological thriller is a complicated and brutal tale of two couples whose paths cross on the Canary Islands. Soap opera star Jola and her boyfriend have booked an expensive, two-week diving course with Sven and his girlfriend, German émigrés on Lanzarote.

In addition to exploring the treasures of the Atlantic Ocean, Jola develops an intense relationship with the instructor - one that, as the book's editor Geoffrey Mulligan describes, "would inevitably cause tensions on dry land but could be lethal well below the surface."

Juli Zeh, who takes on the aesthetic of Scandinavian mysteries in this novel, is one of Germany's most sought-after contemporary authors.

"The Giraffe's Neck," by Judith Schalansky
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Published by Bloomsbury Publishing, 2014

Judith Schalansky is not only a writer, but also a talented artist, and combined both elements in her work. She has received the award for the most beautiful German book of the year twice - for the "The Giraffe's Neck" (published in German in 2011) in 2012 and for "Atlas of Remote Islands" in 2009.

The protagonist in "The Giraffe's Neck," Frau Lomark, is a biology teacher in rural eastern Germany who staunchly believes in Darwin's principle of evolution. She expresses her world view in sketches throughout the book, drawn by Schalansky. However, she faces a conundrum when the reality in her classroom clashes with her ideas of natural selection - and she herself is forced to adapt.

"Schalansky's short, choppy sentences, expertly translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, add to the sense of Lohmark trying to keep control of a changing world around her and her place within it," wrote "The Independent" in a review.

Book cover, "The Giraffe's Neck," by Judith Schalansky, Copyright: Bloomsbury
Schalansky incorporates her sketches into the book's plotImage: Bloomsbury
Juli Zeh, Copyright: Birgit Franz
Juli Zeh is a vocal advocate of data protectionImage: Birgit Franz
Book cover, "The Wall: And Other Stories," by Jurek Becker, Copyright: Arcade Publishing
'The Wall: And Other Stories' is a Becker family effortImage: 2014 Arcade Publishing