The remains of the wall – Walking in Berlin

I’ve said this again and again, but I never cease to be amazed at the proximity of history in Berlin, the fascinating way that the past century has imprinted its mark on the city, the constant reminders you discover in the streets, of lives lost, liberties taken, the remains of what was destroyed and this – very German – almost obsession for building it back again the way it was. Mostly, I’m fascinated by the thought than little more than 25 years ago the city was divided in two, and the way that recent past is still now visible, in the architecture of each neighbourhood, in the way people talk, or present themselves, still, as East other West Berliners, in the constant discussion about what should be built or not, and the most fundamental question of how do you deal with the past, how do you move on without forgetting.

So I’ve sampled a few pictures I gathered walking along the Wall – where it still exists, and where it doesn’t, where it is being remembered and where nothing might alert you of its existence any more. I hope this allows you a small walk into recent history and present day Berlin without having to move from your couch, even if it will never be equal to wandering around the streets of Berlin. Continue reading

Trashin’ and moanin’: a couple of book reviews

Going through my goodreads list I’ve realized there’s a couple of books I haven’t talked about recently, mostly because those were either uninteresting or frankly not that good.  I wondered if I should talk about those, voiced the question aloud to my friend the cat who was engaged on a mortal combat whit his enemy the house plant and apparently didn’t have a minute to answer even this simple question. So I asked myself ” do I enjoy reading reviews of books the reviewer didn’t like?” And the answer to that is yes. ( In case you are wondering, I do have an internal monologue in form of questions and answers to myself, often at the moment in German, to add to the general normality that goes around in my brain).

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The battle is fierce, I tell you

So anyway, books that I didn’t like, didn’t finish, or simply didn’t live up to the expectation I had of them, in the past few months: (using the very arbitrary criterion of “books I recently gave 2 stars on goodreads to):
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When we were young – On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan, book review

This is one of the books I bought for almost nothing at the English bookshop in Geneva before leaving for Berlin.This was me “magnanimously”(as I like to think of myself) giving a second chance to Ian McEwan, having read and (maybe surprizingly) not much liked “Atonement”. My main issue with it, I think, was that I found the style somewhat overcrafted, and was annoyed by Briony’s character – as you’re supposed to be, of course, but I couldn’t go past my annoyance of her, and this feeling of constant irritation while reading made me judge the whole book as overly dramatic. How a book about such a subject can be overly dramatic, I don’t know (me, being overly judgemental for no apparent logical reason about probably very good books? never!).

Anyway, I’m glad I purchased “On Chesil Beach”. This is about one night, a young couple’s wedding night in England in the 1960’s. They are young, they love each other, it could be simple but it isn’t. We alternate between Charlotte and Edward’s point of views: their anxieties, their hopes, their ignorance of all things of married life and especially of sex. They are touching, with their wish to be free of class and society, of starting afresh on their wedding day, and yet so entrapped, so predetermined, by they backgrounds, families, expectations and what they feel their roles should be.

I couldn’t say it is a entirely new reading experience. I think there probably was a time where such books – family stories, character novels, centred around a specific event and going back and forth from it, repressed feelings and class relationships told with alternative narrators – were most of what I read. But for that genre, it sets the bar high. It is masterfully done, and written – not overly dramatic, but poetic, and empathic – it depicts the daily human experience so close to the truth, so minutely and allows you to live, for a few pages, in this particular England, at this particular time, with Edward and Florence.

I’ll leave you with the very end of the book, to give you an idea of the melancholic tone.

“This is how the entire course of life can be changed – by doing nothing. On Chesil beach he could have called out to Florence, he could have gone after her. He did not know, or would not have cared to know, that as she ran away from him, certain in her distress that she was about to lose him, she had never loved him more, or more hopelessly, and that the sound of his voice would have been a deliverance, and she would have turned back. Instead, he stood in cold and righteous silence in the summer’s dusk, watching her hurry along the shore, the sound of her difficult progress lost to the breaking of small waves, until she was blurred, receding against the immense straight road of shingle gleaming in the pallid light.”

Dudenblitz and other translated pleasures

I’ve had a busy week (partly because of essays and presentations, partly because of meeting friends in bars and going to concerts and theatres, so I can’t complain too much),  and so, for my first relaxed weekend day today I… went to a bookshop (surprising, I know).

I had a good excuse for it: the need to find more books in German (it’s not book addiction if it helps you learn a language, you see? actually I could use that excuse in any language, now that I think of it, bookshops, here I come!). And I did fulfil that mission (book haul may be coming, but it’s going to be a very Germanic one, if you’re interested). Continue reading

April Favorites

I am – only half – aware that April is long gone (to be honest, the weather here rather feels like july), but I thought I would still do a wrap up of all the interesting things I discovered last month (although, not necessarily things that were published last month). Without further a do here’s a list:

Books:

Fiction:
Going through my Goodreads shelves it seems there is no book that I was particularly enraptured with in April (at least, not to the point of giving it 5 stars), I think the real discovery I made in fiction was Aki Shimazaki’s Le Poids des secrets pentalogy, both because I had never heard of her, and because the story construction in 5 small books with 5 different points of view dispersed in time was very ingenious.

Non-Fiction: Continue reading

Irony is no hipster experience

So as said in the previous post, I try to live the Berlin life to its fullest, and sometimes that means check out its alternative scene (I’m trying to make this sound as fashionably laid back as possible). Alternatively, you could also say, one of my friends here, a lovely Dutch young woman who also studies German though she hardly needs to, asked me if I wanted to join her for a night out, because the boyfriend of one of her friends played in a club in Kreuzberg, Berlin’s alternative, multicultural neighbourhood (or Kiez, to be local). So I said why not.

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We tried to decipher what the bands would be like from the description on the club’s website, but failed, as it is common practice now, I think, to write those descriptions in the most generic way possible, something like “an alternative-techno-dumbbeat-indie-rock-blues-session that is both sleek, melodious and groovy, a real discovery”. If with that you manage to have an idea of what the band might sound like, you’re welcome to tell me. That might be code for something, for all I know.

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Probably the best bookmark ever

I’ve been wandering around Berlin, pretty busy trying to be as hipsterish/cool as ever, which included going to an alternative concert where I had alternative feelings of being “very cool indeed for being there” and “absolutely out of place”, but it was fun, and provided me and my friend with almost endless opportunities to dissect the facial hair style of the public.

Anyway, on a completely unrelated note, yesterday I went to buy some milk at the department store, and stumbled upon a small antiquarian book stand (okay, maybe stumble isn’t the exact word for it: it was at the opposite end of the shopping centre, but still, I reckon it was destiny). And amongst a few crime/thrillers books that I bought in German to practice, …well, my German (by the way, those were “used books” and therefore 1 euro, but they look more new than most of my new books, one of them still has the price tag from 95 on it, and is shiny. Sometimes, I love Germany’s obsession for cleanliness), I found this:

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On the reality of the novel (but also on unicorns)- NW, by Zadie smith, book review

13537891This sounds a lot more pompous than it really is, as I’m sure I don’t possess the brainpower (ever, but most especially now, as I haven’t had a coffee yet) to really reflect on reality and fiction, and the place of the former in the latter. But you could say it is the role of the fool to endeavour things he cannot achieve, so let’s.
A bit of context might be welcomed, she realized after rambling for so long. So, NW:
This is a book split into different narrative styles following for characters living in North West London: first we have Leah, a young woman who has a philosophy degree but works in an office, is married to a French Caribbean man who wants children, which she doesn’t but doesn’t know how to say it, and gives money to a woman in some distress who turns out to be a fraud. Her husband and (now estranged) best friend, Nathalie, laugh at her naivety. That first part is written in a stream of consciousness style, with no clear cut between speech and narrative, no clear continuity between sentences. It reflects Leah’s difficulty in creating a continuous narrative making sense to her, and her experience of time as a subjective, discontinuous process.
In the other parts we then follow Felix, an ex-addict, as he goes through his day in the same part of London. The style is more fluid, more traditional, which makes Felix’s narrative rather easier to empathize with (all the better to be hit by what happens to him, but that shan’t be disclosed here).

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Experiments in Language and the beauty of utter darkness – The dumb house, by John Burnside, book review

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incredibly well fitted cover design, both strange and beautiful, and the cappuccino is there because it might be useful to have a nice cup of something while reading it

“No one could say it was my choice to kill the twins, any more than it was my decision to bring them into the world.”
As far as first sentences go, I don’t know if you can do much better than The Dumb House. From the first paragraph, you have everything: the ending, as the rest of the book only leads back to this unalterable fact, the poetic rhythm of the style, questions of choices and free will, and bone-chilling horror.
Now I understand why Burnside is so highly praised (I had recently read “A summer of drowning” which, while it shares some of the poetic coldness of the style and story, really doesn’t have the same power). This is a punch in the stomach – as in, it will not only hit you but make you sick and nauseated. But is is a force to be reckoned with.

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(reclaim) your city – street art in Berlin

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“Perestroika” on the East Side Gallery- a glimpse of the Zeitgeist of 1990

Streetart is everywhere, in Berlin, from small grafitis to immense murals, from back alleys and U-bahn cars (very forbidden) to commissioned buildings (allowed and paid for) and the repainted Berlin Wall at the East side gallery, now a tourist attraction, and very much gentrificated. In many ways, it reflects the city itself: ever changing, ever on a dialectics between mainstream and progressive, or subversive culture, as what was born as a critic of the system gets swallowed, or commissioned by it. But, also and quite simply, it is a fascinating conversation with multiple actors on the walls of the city, and there are so many surprises awaiting in courtyards in Kreuzberg or along the railways, bridges and tunnels. Here is a small sample of it. Continue reading