Berliner Freiheit – Youth and Freedom in Berlin

tigermilchTBR3 from #TBR20

Stefanie de Velasco gives voice to two 14 year old girls in this coming-of-age story entitled ‘Tigermilk’.  It’s a summer of hanging around outside their council estate, going swimming and shoplifting, smoking and drinking their ‘doctored’ (alcoholic) milk, eager to lose their virginity but also to find love. Nini is German and Jameelah is Iraqui, they also have Bosnian friends, Serbian acquaintances… but society will not allow them to forget the differences between them, and it’s not just ‘leave to remain’ that marks them out. The playground between their block of flats is divided: the German and Russian kids never go on the slides, the Arabic and Bosnian children never go on the swings. Living in a new country does not necessarily mean that their past doesn’t catch up with them, and, even though Nini’s life is not a walk in the park, she discovers that she has more privileges simply by virtue of being German.

This is a YA book – the protagonists have that self-absorbed voice of teenagers everywhere – which makes it very heavily dependent on just the right nuance of voice, but it failed to fully convince me. I read the book in the original German and was a bit disappointed by the lack of obvious slang. The girls have their own secret puns and speech inversions (quite rude and funny at times), but there is no Berliner Schnauze (dialect) or real youth slang in here, which makes it sound a little false.  I can also attest to the lack of speech marks, a deliberate choice by the author which has infuriated many readers, but  which gives this book a feverish quality, as if everything happens in a nightmarish half-aware state. Which is the state these girls seem to be in most of the time (while Nini’s mother seems to be almost comatose, seriously depressed). Until they witness a frightening event which truly tests their loyalties and their friendship.

The stigmatised Gropius neighbourhood in Berlin.
The stigmatised Gropius neighbourhood in Berlin.

Yet, for all of the serious consequences of this event, there is perhaps not quite enough self-awareness or introspection or growing up going on. It’s a sad story, there are many poignant moments of realisation of the emptiness and possible hopelessness of the lives of these young people. Things that these young people only realise in momentary flashes of insight, but that we as readers are aware of all along. There are some memorable scenes, for instance when Nini’s younger sister and another little friend from the neighbourhood jump around on the sofa watching porn films, with carrots and courgettes stuck down their pants. Overall, though, it doesn’t quite gel for me.  I would have liked this better as a series of short stories, perhaps, vignettes of life in the tower blocks of the poorer parts of Berlin.

I suppose my main disappointment stems from the fact that I was expecting it to be the voice of a whole generation. I thought it would bear testimony to the millenial generation as Christiane F. did for my generation (well, strictly speaking for the generation just before mine). However, it most certainly does not do that and I don’t think it’s just because I read Christiane F. at the right (impressionable) age. It can’t be a coincidence that the initial premise for Tigermilk is so similar to Christiane F.: a girl living with just her mother and younger sister in a soulless block of flats in a deprived area, a mother apparently oblivious to her daughter’s dodgy deeds, the mother’s boyfriend trying to make-believe all is fine, her admiration for a friend who seems to be so much cooler and knowledgeable than her, her desire to experiment and be different. Yet there is some kind of affection and solidarity amongst the druggies in Christiane’s Berlin which seems to have gone missing in the present-day.

The more touristy image of Kurfurstendamm, from  economist.com
The touristy image of Kurfurstendamm, economist.com

Of course, Berlin has changed enormously since the 1970s, and Tigermilk shows us a more multicultural society. Christiane’s friends were all white and German, while Nini’s are almost all non-German. Clubbing and drug-taking has given way to going to the pool and drinking. The area around Bahnhof Zoo has been cleaned up, so the pick-up spot for part-time prostitutes has now moved to the very posh shopping street Ku’damm.  Yet Tigermilk seems to be trying too hard, keen to manipulate the reader’s emotions, to drive me to tears or pity or shock. In contrast, Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo (We Children of Zoo Station) is matter-of-fact, without a trace of self-pity, narrated in a ‘take it or leave it’ tone which sends genuine chills down your spine. What both have in common, however, is the lack of happy outcome.

It did make me curious to see the Christiane F. film again, which I have in my collection. I intend to show it to my children when they are a little older. We watched that film when I was about 11-12 (recommended age is 16+), as a class at school, and I can say hand on heart that it put me off drugs completely. [So the educational aspect of it worked, even though the book is not preachy at all about the evilness of drugs.] Even the fact that it had David Bowie appearing briefly in it (he was already my hero back then) was not enough to make drugs seem ‘cool’.

Rewatching it, I realised that the most frightening aspect of it all was that 13 year old Christiane is not from a particularly horrible home or traumatic background [the book is much more explicit about her abusive drunk father and neglectful mother]. Her parents are divorced and she lives in a rather depressing block of flats, but we all could recognise bits of ourselves in her: her hero-worship of Bowie, her desire to fit in with the cool crowd and escape from the ‘dreary ordinariness’ of her life, even her ‘well brought up girl’ attitude initially to drug-taking. At first, as they all meet up at a club and then careen wildly down an empty shopping-centre and up on the roof of the Mercedes-Benz building in Berlin to the soundtrack of ‘Heroes’, you get swept up in the thrill and apparent freedom of it all. What the film does very cleverly show is the gradual decay not just of the children but also of their environment, to the truly awful, graffiti-filled public toilets.

Movie poster from 1981. From the ironically entitled berlin-enjoy.com website.
Movie poster from 1981. From the ironically entitled berlin-enjoy.com website.

*Play on words: Berliner Freiheit is a rather ugly-looking shopping in Bremen, while Münchener Freiheit were a German pop/rock band popular in the 1980s. Freiheit means freedom, the location is Berlin and those young people believe they are looking for freedom… but find nothing but disillusionment and their own inner prisons instead.

New TBR Reading Challenge – and Rereading

I’ve been following Jacqui’s recent deep-digging into her TBR pile with interest. Her latest blog post, reflecting on the experience of her #TBR20 challenge, was particularly enticing. Writer Eva Stalker launched the idea, and some of my blogging friends, such as Emma and Max, have also been persuaded to join in. So I plan to follow suit, while allowing some wriggle room for those inevitable review copies.

The principle is very simple. With so many books double and triple stacked on my shelves (not to mention stashed away on my e-reader), I really need to stop collecting and start reading some of them. So I plan to reduce the pile by at least 20, for however long it takes, and during this period I will refrain from buying any new books (other than those I am sent for urgent reviewing purposes). You are probably laughing, remembering how disastrous my TBR Double Dare challenge ended up… But this feels more manageable – or perhaps it’s just the right time of year to be doing it.

I do have an initial list of 20 in mind, but will allow myself to be open to the fickleness of moods and interests. I also want to incorporate a good selection of ebooks and real books, French and German books, poetry and non-fiction, crime and translated fiction etc. My Global Reading Challenge seems to be suffering a little here, so I may have to make some changes. I will probably need to do a serious cull of my ebooks at some point in addition to this.

So here are my first thoughts on the topic (the ones marked with denote crime fiction titles, is for woman writer)

1) Books in French:

P1030248All about the challenges and disappointments of everyday life in modern France – quite a contrast to the more luscious depiction of France in fiction written by foreigners.

Marcus Malte: Cannisses – small-town residential area C

Jérémie Guez: Paris la nuit – the alienated youngsters of the Parisian balieues  C

Emmanuel Grand: Terminus Belz – Ukrainian refugee in Breton village, aiming to cross over to Britain  C

Fouad Laroui: L’etrange affaire du pantalon de Dassoukine – Morocco meets France in this collection of bittersweet and often very funny short stories

Dominique Sylvain: Ombres et soleil – finally, a woman writer too! The world of international corporations, dirty money and arms trade – plus the charming humour of the detecting duo Lola and Ingrid.   C W

2) Books in German: 

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Jakob Arjouni: Ein Mann, ein Mord  – third case for Kayankaya, the Turkish-born detective with a very Frankfurt attitude   C

Alex Capus: Mein Nachbar Urs – stories from small-town Switzerland

Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe – the dying of the light in East Germany, a biology teacher who proves to be the last of her species  W

Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch – this wasn’t much liked by the IFFP shadow jury, but I was attracted by its Berlin setting and thought it could be the Christiane F. for the new generation  W

Friederike Schmöe: Fliehganzleis – 2nd case for ghostwriter Kea Laverde: I’ve read others in the series and this one is again about East vs. West Germany and some traumatic historical events   C  W

3) Books on ereader

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Ever Yours – The Letters of Vincent van Gogh – one of my favourite painters, need I say more?

Hadrien Laroche: Orphans – an allegorical tale

John Enright: Blood Jungle Ballet – the return of detective Apelu Soifa and his fight against crime on Samoa  C

Sara Novic: Girl at War – child survivor of Yugoslav war returns to Zagreb ten years later  W

Ansel Elkins: Blue Yodel – debut collection of poetry, winner of the 2014 Yale Series of the Younger Poets prize  W

4) Other:

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Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts – Romanian writer who died of tuberculosis of the spine at the age of 29 in 1938 (perhaps fortunately so, since he was Jewish)

Sergei Dovlatov: Pushkin Hills – shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award this year, but written back in 1983, it’s all about Mother Russia, the artist’s life and living under censorship

Kishwar Desai: Witness the Night – the first in the Simran Singh series and always very topical about controversial subjects in India C W

Ariel Gore: Atlas of the Human Heart – a younger person’s version of ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ (which I didn’t like much), a teenager’s journey of self-discovery and running away from America  W

Wendy Cope: The Funny Side – 101 Humorous Poems (selected and introduced by Cope)  W

Have you read any of these? Are there any you would particularly recommend starting with, or should I swap some over for something else? (They do strike me, on the whole, as a rather sombre pile of books).

The other idea that Jacqui planted into my head was to have a bit of a rereading challenge. I carry my favourite books with me in every place I’ve ever lived in and I look up certain pages, but I never get a chance anymore to reread them properly. (Where, oh where are the days when I used to reread all of the novels of Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen every year or two?) So who would like to join me and Jacqui on a #reread challenge? Perhaps of 6 books in a year, roughly one every 2 months? Would that be feasible?

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Here are some instant favourites that spring to mind: F. Scott Fitzgerald’s ‘Tender Is the Night’; Virginia Woolf’s ‘Between the Acts’ (her last novel); Jean Rhys’ ‘After Leaving Mr Mackenzie’; Muriel Spark’s ‘Loitering with Intent’ and Tillie Olsen’s brilliant collection of essays about life getting in the way of creating ‘Silences’. What would you reread, if you could and would?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Falling Off the Wagon (Books, Not Alcohol)

From Pinterest.
From Pinterest.

Something has gone badly wrong. The fear of mortality has struck (so many books, so little time…). The book publishing figures around the world haunts my sleep. The urge to compare and contrast, to reassure myself that mine is not the only flawed writing. The heavy burden of the impossibility of telling a new story. My way of responding to all that: going back to my old acquisitive habits. I’m not the only one: read this post about how the online world has changed our reading habits.

So, yes, this month, this week especially, I have fallen off the TBR Double Dog dare in spectacular fashion. And I reacted in typical addictive personality fashion: if I make one mistake, I might as well go the whole hog (i.e. eat the whole chocolate bar).

I didn’t just buy one or two new books. I added no less than 10 new books to my shelves this week, none of which were ‘professional’ review copies. I name the culprits below. It is interesting how word of mouth recommendation (via blogs or Twitter) from people whose opinion I trust (even though I don’t always concur with them) seems to be the way I acquire most of my books nowadays.

First up, two of the five German books on the IFFP longlist, which I got really interested in thanks to bloggers such as Stu Jallen, Tony Malone, Dolce Bellezza and Emma at Words and Peace. I couldn’t order them all and I ordered them in the original German rather than in translation (German being one of the few languages other than English that I find relatively easy to read):

tigermilch1) Stefanie de Velasco: Tigermilch (Tiger Milk)

That’s the name of the milk spiced with juice and alcohol that the two 14-year-old girls make and drink, as they set off in a quest to get rid of their virginity. Family conflicts, big-city blues and teenage angst abound in this picture of modern, ethnically mixed Berlin. Berlin is one of my favourite European cities, two of my dearest and oldest friends live there, and cross-cultural topics are my passion: so a no-brainer for me to try this book. Plus I want to compare it with the film/book that defined teenage Berlin life when I was a child ‘Christiane F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo’.

schalansky2) Judith Schalansky: Der Hals der Giraffe (The Neck of the Giraffe)

A shrinking town in East Germany, a school with hardly any pupils left, an old-fashioned biology teacher, who can’t believe that times have moved on… ‘Adaptation is everything’ is her scientific belief but how easily can she accept that principle in her own belief system and behaviour?

Next is the book we will be reading in April for the Online Crime Book Club, an initiative started and organised by Rebecca Bradley.

biggame3) Dan Smith: Big Game

A book described as Percy Jackson in the wilds of Finland’s Arctic circle, saving the American President from wild animals and assassins. Dan Smith was asked to write the book based on a story idea by Jalmary Helander and Petri Jokiranta, which is also being released as a major film starring Samuel L. Jackson. Rebecca has organised a Q&A session with the author for us for April, so exciting! It’s the kind of book that both my older son and I will enjoy reading (and will no doubt have many, many questions).

The next book was prompted by reviews of another book by the same author in The Paris Review and 3 a.m. Magazine, namely Max Blecher’s Adventures in Immediate Irreality.

scarredhearts4) Max Blecher: Scarred Hearts

This young Romanian Jewish writer died at the age of just 28 of tuberculosis and I have to admit I haven’t read anything by him. I’m planning to get hold of the reviewed book in the original Romanian, but I couldn’t resist a second-hand ex-charity shop edition of his first novel. A young man named Emanuel lies ill in a French sanatorium on the sea-coast… and discovers all of human life and nature in his narrow, confined environment. The Magic Mountain meets Emil Cioran is what it sounds like to me…

Then there are all the books I downloaded in the blinking of the eye from Netgalley, Edelweiss, Amazon or other online sources:

actsassassins5) Richard Beard: Acts of the Assassins

When crime writers Eva Dolan and Stav Sherez start waxing lyrical about a book they’ve just read, my ears perk up. I’ve read books recommended by them before, and they’ve never disappointed. Adapted from the blurb: A charismatic cult leader is dead. One by one his followers are being assassinated. Sawn in half, beheaded, skinned alive. Enter Gallio, counter-insurgent and detective of sorts. An alternative view of biblical events set in the present. Sounds mad, intriguing and potentially very entertaining.

whatsheleft6) T. R. Richmond: What She Left

Liz Wilkins and Carlie Lee both reviewed this one enthusiastically. I like the premise of reconstituting someone’s life from the documents they leave behind. From the blurb:

When Alice Salmon died last year, the ripples were felt in the news, on the internet, and in the hearts of those who knew her best. But the person who knows her most intimately isn’t family or a friend. Dr Jeremy Cook is an academic whose life has become about piecing together Alice’s existence in all its flawed and truthful reality. For Cooke, faithfully recreating Alice’s life – through her diaries, emails and anything using her voice – is all-consuming. He does not know how deep his search will take him, or the shocking nature of what he will uncover…

7) Denise Mina: Blood, Salt, Water

Because the latest book by Denise Mina is definitely worth getting your hands on. One of those authors whose voice really stands out and that I’m always keen to read. Doesn’t require more explanation than that, does it?

blackwood8) SJI Holliday: Black Wood

Just came out last week with great reviews. Susi is a cheery, supportive and very active presence on Twitter. So I just had to check out her debut novel, didn’t I? From the blurb:

Something happened to Claire and Jo in Black Wood: something that left Claire paralysed and Jo with deep mental scars. But with Claire suffering memory loss and no evidence to be found, nobody believes Jo’s story. Twenty-three years later, a familiar face walks into the bookshop where Jo works, dredging up painful memories and rekindling her desire for vengeance. And at the same time, Sergeant Davie Gray is investigating a balaclava-clad man who is attacking women on a disused railway, shocking the sleepy village of Banktoun.

9) Karin Alvtegen: Betrayal

Margot Kinberg is to blame for this one, which she casually mentioned in a blog post about pubs and bars in crime fiction. Just earlier that day, John Grant had also mentioned how good this author was. Plus, the subject matter (marital infidelity, dodgy characters and revenge) is close to my own current WIP.

bloodywomen10) Helen Fitzgerald: Bloody Women

When I reviewed three books with ‘unlikeable’ female narrators recently, including Dead Lovely by Helen Fitzgerald, so many commented or tweeted that they had loved Bloody Women by the same author that I had to go out and get it. The blurb, I’ve been told, does not do the book justice, but it does give you an idea of Fitzgerald’s unusual mind and blend of styles:

Returning to Scotland to organise her wedding, Catriona is overcome with the jitters. She decides to tie up loose ends before settling permanently in Tuscany, and seeks out her ex-boyfriends. Only problem is, they’re all dead.

I know for a fact that next weekend it’s going to be impossible to be good at the Crime Festival in Lyon. So in for a penny, in for a pound… How are you doing with your buying bans? Or have you given up on such self-imposed limitations?