Alone In Berlin, by Hans Fallada

I’ve recommended Alone In Berlin to at least a dozen people in the last few weeks, so I felt it was only right to post a review on one of my favourite books, which was only translated into English in the last few years (2009 I think). It’s a powerhouse of a book, written in 1947, only a few years after the end of the Second World War, that brings to life the shocking, gritty, harrowing and unbearable reality that millions of German’s endured during the Nazi’s rule.

Hans Fallada crafted this masterpiece in prison in 1947, scrawling the text on  any paper he could find, writing in the margins and the turning the book upside down, ramming as many of his blistering opinions on the Nazi’s as he could. And it was all written in a month. The consequence of this writing frenzy is a novel full of anger, written in a breathless style that loads every paragraph with emotion and energy.

It is impossible to read it and not feel a knot in your stomach, or indeed a lump in your throat as you chart the story of  Otto Quangel and his wife Anna, who, on hearing that their son has been killed on the frontline fighting the Allies, decide to write postcards opposing Hitler’s rule, dropping them randomly across Berlin.

This small act of defiance has huge repercussions for the Quangel’s and those around them, as the Gestapo begin to investigate who has been creating such inflammatory slogans, such as “why suffer war and death for the Hitler plutocracy?” Among many others. This story of a middle aged factory worker’s defiance is noble and heart wrenching – all the more so for being rooted in fact, based on the real life Otto and Elise Hampel, who lived in Berlin during the war.

The true success of Fallada’s novel is not the riveting story of a defiant German opposing an appalling regime (though it is fascinating), but the detail, grounded in his experiences as a German living through the paranoia and fear that so many of his countrymen experienced. Every expression, every movement, every twitch interpreted in the wrong way can mean imprisonment, death, or at the very least, suspicion and social exclusion.

A wide assortment of character’s, from factory workers, alcoholics and pet shop owners to Gestapo Inspectors and Nazi Generals are all crafted to show them as more than caricatures, more than faceless workers or vague symbols of evil. The personalities Fallada gives them make their actions all the more tragic or wicked.

It’s no surprise that this book reads like a raw text, which would have been corrected for grammar and use of tense had it been seen by an editor. But these flaws make it feel more urgent and real, and I would never want to see a text with those changes corrected(kudos Penguin). The language has no trouble jumping off the page and grabbing your attention totally.

The story of the Quangel’s is the perfect way for Fallada to vent his disgust and rage at the meaningless loss of life in Germany. You finish it breathless and morally outraged.  This book, more than any other I have read, gave me a real insight in to how people lived under Nazi rule. I cannot recommend it enough.

Some pictures of the actual postcards, dropped throughout Berlin by the Hampel’s:

“Hitler’s war is the worker’s death”

“German People Wake Up!”

“Hitler’s regime will bring us no peace.”

Old Man And The Sea, by Ernest Hemingway

**May Book of the Month**

I’m going to keep this review directly proportional to the size of this book. The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway is wonderful, brilliant, moving, profound, riveting and noble. It’s 100 pages of beautiful, robust writing, where every word counts.

From reading an epic like War and Peace (still ongoing) this was a revelation as an exercise in how to convey so much emotion and meaning with so very few words.

I’ve read it five times, and it never loses any of it’s charm or magic. Hemingway has written some amazing novels; full of powerful, hardy and noble characters, but none for me come close to Santiago the fisherman and his struggle against nature in this lyrical and poetic little book.

I’ll say no more. Read this book. If I gave ratings on this site, then this would be a ten out of ten.

(I know it’s only half way through May, but I know this is the winner, and  a front runner for Read of the Year)

The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi

After finishing The Whisperer, the first thing I did was go straight back to the beginning and look for the clues dotted throughout this twisting and turning crime thriller. It not only gripped, it had me glued to the pages. The nigh-on 500 pages flew by pretty quickly, as I was desperate to know the who, what, when where and, most importantly, how the story would unfold.

This is a riveting debut from Donato Carrisi, a criminologist who has a disturbingly detailed understanding of the mind of a murderer. It is his expertise, paired with an excellent sense of pace that keeps this thriller on the right track throughout. It’s a pretty graphic novel in places, but, unlike the majority of  Hostel-lite crime fiction out there (you know the ones: covers that show blood stains in a bathroom sink; an ominous picture of a freshly dug grave; a broken doll) this is not gratuitous. Carassi knows his subject matter is gruesome, so he plays it down, where possible, letting the reader’s imagination fill in many of the horrific details.

The story begins with the discovery of six severed children’s arms in a forest clearing. A special unit is dispatched to work on the case, including out two protagonists: Goran Gavila, a well-renowned criminologist, and Mila Vasquez, a policewoman with a troubled past, who is an expert in finding missing children.

The setting is purposefully anonymous. Though this is written by an Italian, the overall feel is one of an American police department. However, this lack of a clear ‘place’ makes the locations all the more haunting, and without a preconception as to how these places should look, they become more mythic, more gothic, and all the more terrifying.

The investigation leads them down many creepy avenues, where we meet paedophiles, get an understanding of what makes a serial killer tick and where we understand the effect these killings have on the policemen and women assigned to solve the case.

It poses interesting questions about the evil lurking inside everyone:

“ She concluded that good and evil are often jumbled up. That one is sometimes the instrument of the other and vice versa.”

And it’s overall analysis of what constitutes evil makes for scary, and at times terrifying, reading.

The cover states that this book is an ‘Italian Literary phenomenon’ and it was ‘the most eagerly awaited thriller in the world.’ While this marketing spiel makes it clear that this a fine read, and well above the average rime thriller, it is hard to see this as ‘literary.’ The language is solid; there is some great imagery and the characterisation is strong, despite a large cast, but the structure is nothing new.

This is an excellent police procedural novel, but it does nothing new. It doesn’t push the boundaries of language in any way, but then again, it doesn’t need to. The author can’t be blamed for the way his book has been marketed. (Though the fact that it won a host of literary awards in Italy still comes a bit of a surprise)

But, despite book covers often never delivering on the promise of the story, the twists and turns are great. (I’ll say no more…)

If you want a great holiday read, curl up under your sun lounger with this one and you won’t be disappointed. There were a few times, reading this one alone in the house (cliché I know) that I found myself closing the curtains and putting on the radio. It really does thrill. But if you’re looking for literary crime fiction, Kate Atkinson is more on the money.

(This could be an excellent film- think David Fincher’s Zodiac, with a bit of Silence of the Lambs.)

I’m Not Scared, by Niccolo Ammaniti

** March Book of the Month**

I’ve reviewed  quite a few books on this site that I’ve enjoyed, and this month there have been two or three that I’ve really liked. But I loved Niccolo Ammaniti’s I’m Not Scared.

When I’m choosing some paperbacks to read (those good old three for two’s), I’ll usually pick two that I’ve heard about, ones that i might have read good reviews on.  Or they might be recommendations. Pretty standard really. But it’s the third book that I always spend more time on. I like to choose something I wouldn’t normally read. It has to be an author I’ve never heard of, or a genre I’m not especially familiar with. I root through the shelves for a title or a book cover (yes I judge by them) that strikes me.  And I’m Not Scared was one of these random choices that has happily turned out to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

It’s a taught, tightly plotted thriller, set in the sweltering heat of a small Italian village, where dogs laze in the shade, the smell of ragu wafts through open doorways and the restless village children ride around on their bicycles getting up to mischief.

The story is narrated by nine year old Michele, who is a member of a little gang of kids who scuffle, dare each other, play practical jokes and ride through the lush, golden countryside, trying to keep themselves entertained in rural southern Italy.

Michele makes a shocking discovery during one of their adventures, which is the catalyst for a series of events that leaves an indelible mark on Michele, his family and the village.

Ammaniti’s writing is so assured that he inhabits the nine year old Michele effortlessly. It never feels like he is feigning the thoughts of a young boy, nor is it ever condescending. It rings true with every sentence. And because of the strength of the narrative, the reader is put in a position of authority;  Ammaniti allows you to understand the full implications of what is happening before Michele does, making his slow realisation incredibly tense and riveting, as you urge him to put the puzzle together.

The writing style perfectly reflects the nine year old Michele’s view of the world; his awe with new experiences; his wild imagination controlling his fears and actions; the confusion and lack of understanding when confronted with adult behaviour.

The adults here have an intriguing presence in the book. To Michele, they are the people who shout and argue, who do things he cannot understand. But even as Michele is left bewildered by encounters with adults, the reader is able to glean little tit-bits of information that help piece together the mystery.

This is more than a mystery though. It is an amazing look at the impact our formative experiences have on us. How huge the world is, how frightening and confusing it can be.  It paints a fascinating picture of family life and the influence of adult behaviour on impressionable youths.

Without too much gushing- and for fear of giving away any plot details, I’ll end by saying this is a profound story, brilliantly written. It is such a great book that you’ll read it urgently to find out what happens, only to be sorry when it’s all over.

(The book is insistently filmic, so I was pleased to hear  Gabriele Salvatores, director of Mediterraneo, adapted it for the screen. Once I’ve tracked it down, I’ll post my review. Watch this space…)