Book choice for July 2011

Alone in Berlin [suggested by Matt Stibbe]

front cover

Among the 231 reviews of this novel that Amazon offers is this one by Julia Coulton. She's a "top 1000" reviewer and from Manchester, which seemed good enough reasons to borrow it:

I had never heard of this novel until a few weeks ago, but it is taking book lovers by storm across the world. It is not a new book, it was published in 1947, tragically just after the author's death. But it was translated again into English last year, and I can't recommend it highly enough.

The events, based on a true story, take place in Berlin under the grip of Nazi rule. One elderly couple, Otto and Anna Quangel, learn of the death of their only son fighting in the German army, and the futility of this ending changes something inside Otto. He starts to resist the Nazi regime in a very low level but profound way. He writes postcards with subversive messages on them, asking people to question what the Nazi's are doing and what they are telling the people. He leaves them in apartment blocks and offices on stairwells for random strangers to find. He performs this task alone at first, but later his wife Anna finds out and joins him in his mission.

The Gestapo are infuriated by this postcard campaign, which goes on for over two years, and leaves them floundering in the dark looking for the culprit. The novel is a great thriller as the police try to track down who is daring to oppose the Nazi regime in such an infuriating way, and their inept attempts at investigating the crime make both gripping and amusing reading. What is remarkable for me about this book is that is shows just what a chilling effect the terrifying Nazi dictatorship had on ordinary people, who had a range of reactions to it, from enthusiastic embrace, to indifference, to resistance and defiance. And the patchwork quilt of characters that Fallada weaves into the story is rich and extensive. The tentacles of fear reach into the hearts of families and communities, making people react in gross and frightening ways. This book exposes what ordinary people suffer under brutal dictatorships, and how their behaviour is warped by their experiences, far more than any historical account could do. It is a page turner of a thriller. It is a history lesson. It is a tragedy.

And Fallada himself was a tragic figure. His real name was Rudolf Ditzen, and he died of a morphine overdose before this book was published, which was something of an accurate reflection of a life plagued as it was by mental illness and addiction. But his gem of a novel captures the terror of what it was for ordinary people to life under the shadow of the Nazis like nothing else has for me. Superb.

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

 

Shortlisted for this month

Book selectors can bring one, two or three books for selection, although it's usual to bring three. More than three stay in the selector's bag :o) This month Matt's other selections were:

Saturday

Saturday

Saturday is a novel set within a single day - 15 February 2003. Henry Perowne is a contented man - a successful neurosurgeon, happily married to a newspaper lawyer, and enjoying good relations with his children, who are young adults. What troubles him is the state of the world - the impending war against Iraq, and a general darkening and gathering pessimism since the New York and Washington attacks two years before. On this particular Saturday morning, Perowne makes his way to his usual squash game with his anaesthetist, trying to avoid the hundreds of thousand of marchers filling the streets of London, protesting against the war. A minor accident in his car brings him into a confrontation with a small-time thug called Baxter. To Perowne's professional eye, something appears to be profoundly wrong with this young man. Baxter, in his turn, believes the surgeon has humiliated him, and visits the opulent Perowne home that evening, during a family reunion - with savage consequences that will lead Henry Perowne to deploy all his skills to keep this doomed figure alive.

The above taken from the author's website (see below).

Wikipedia page.

About the Author

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

Resistance

Resistance

This is an extremely powerful story set in the imagined backdrop of an invaded and Nazi-occupied Britain, from 1944 onwards... an alternative outcome for the Second World War which could quite conceivably have come true. After failed D-Day landings the German invasion begins in earnest on British soil and this story unfolds as the country gradually becomes another occupied territory of the Third Reich - herein lies its power and horror.

One morning, in one of the most remote valleys in the Black Mountains on the English-Welsh border, twenty-six-year-old Sarah Lewis awakes unusually late in the day to find her husband has disappeared. Suspicions are confirmed as all the women in the valley meet to find that all seven men in the valley have literally vanished overnight. The women fear that their husbands have joined an underground resistance group... and they are left to tend their farms, taking on the full heavy workload previously undertaken by the men.

Fear and mistrust envelops them when a German patrol arrives in the valley on an important mission, until an uneasy truce is formed from a mutual need for help during the harsh frozen winter months in this isolated valley of the Black Mountains. The men in the patrol are war-weary and glad of their respite from the fighting; the women are struggling with their workloads.... both sides have a tendency to forget that there is a war on, and this could be a very dangerous thing to forget indeed.

Owen Sheers (also poet) writes in a beautifully lyrical way, vividly bringing to life the Olchon valley. The power of the novel lies in its ability to shock, as the slow realisation gradually dawns that this outcome could have been the one to come true... An idea that stays with you long after turning the last page. I did hestiate before giving it 5 stars because I didn't find it quite as compelling a read in the first half, as in the second; the pace was slightly lacking. However, what it loses in pace it really does make up for in prose and description. [S Barnes Amazon]

Wikipedia page. (stub only)

About the Author

Author's website.
Wikipedia page.

 

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