Reading reflections in the Bookinglass

An expat with a love of fiction

Book Club Rookie

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I came across Dialogue Books, a boutique English-language bookshop in Berlin, as I was searching for something to join that wasn’t to do with bars and parties.

Don’t get me wrong, I am far far far from a party animal….but Berlin is stumble-full of cool, friendly bars…like the upside down one (and this one I just came across that I must go to sometime as it is recommended by another ‘not a bar lover buuut…’ person!).

Ok, so I was searching for people who loved books too. And voila! This website is so chic and they have a book club too… perfect fit for me!

Only one thing stopping me: a little shyness about the fact the I am a book club rookie.

What do people say at a book club? And, yeah, going to a book club in your early twenties, doesn’t that have a bit of a stigma (‘Errr…shouldn’t you just be out drinking til 6am?’) attached?

But after an (non-scary sounding) email exchange with Sharmaine the head of Dialogue, and as I found myself wandering around Senefelder Platz looking for the right road for the little cafe in which we would meet…which made finally arriving on time such a relief, I was happy to introduce myself and sit down at a table with the 3 men who I took to be Dialogue Book Club veterans.

Now… I haven’t* mentioned the actual book that we were to be discussing because it was really a prop for me to actually get out somewhere that was not the shop/flat/office/bar. I was just chuffed to actually be there with my gunpowder tea and meeting people, I really couldn’t care what we discussed. Except of course, I did get intensely involved in the discussion.

It was fun, despite some of the time feeling like a complete uneducated randomer, I felt welcome and engaged. Next month I hope I will be less of a randomer and one more of your usual ecelectic bunch of book lovers (although I think I am going back partly because I love the cafe so much).

At least I won’t be a book club rookie much longer!

How was your first book club experience? Will I ever feel like I belong to a book club?

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Written by bookinglass

February 16, 2011 at 10:42 pm

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Hitler, Pink Rabbit, Mog and Judith

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I think my love of Judith Kerr’s children’s books is only surpassed by that of my Mum. She is a primary school librarian after all. The next moment I see her I am showing her this wonderful interview with Judith on the Guardian Books website. Please go ahead and enjoy the interview too.

It reminds me of all the adventures in her semi-autobiographical novel ‘When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit’. I must read this again soon to experience the ups and downs of living a childhood in different countries as a refugee from Nazi Germany (this is a better review). I will probably see it very differently now I am living in Germany and because I also grew up within a different culture (I never saw the parallels at the time I first read it).

Whose interest couldn’t be piqued by the book title alone? I am surprised that nothing is mentioned of this book in this article about children’s war fiction. Perhaps because it is one of the “old-school” representations of the  effects of war on children, rather than anything new and controversial as Little Soldier. I asked my mum what she thought of children being introduced to war and the idea of child soldiers (the subject of Little Soldier) and she highlights the fact that what most children find most scary and sad is the idea of being taken away from their families. In the video on the BBC article the children’s views completely reflect what my mum noticed.

And as to her Mog the Cat books…ahhh…all I can say is that our family’s cat could well be a kindred spirit of Mog.

Do you think he dreams of flying like Mog does or being a whale?

Written by bookinglass

January 20, 2011 at 10:20 pm

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Reading and Being A Woman in Berlin

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Reading a book that is set in the same place as where you happen to live (or are visiting) is a way to unearth secrets about that the place that you wouldn’t otherwise discover.

I read this blog post about ‘Reading Great Books in Great Places’ (London in this case) and I was inspired to embark on a little literary tourism of Berlin for myself.

When it comes to Berlin and reading the diary of a woman who was here in the final days of WWII whilst I was on the S-Bahn heading to Potsdamer Platz, I couldn’t help but feel closer to this city’s recent history.

I have been to see the Wall at Mauerpark, the preserved wasteland where the SS headquarters used to be, the chilly cavernous black room in the Jewish Museum, great historic hotspots. Yet reading about the violent, frightening upheaval seen through the eyes of this intelligent, brave, unyeilding woman is startling in a very different way.

I feel that as an archaeologist I am being a bit traitorous to my discipline, as I now understand how amazing it is to see history through people’s own words rather than dusty objects or architecture. But, this is such a remarkable historic source, not only did she write as the events were happening, she is detailed and literary and she could speak some Russian so she can report on what the conquering Russian soldiers were actually saying. It must be most WWII historians’ dream bedtime reading. I still love the dusty objects and architecture.

The anonymous author gives details of the destruction of the city, the rape of the women, the gossip at the pumps, the watches that the Russian soliders collect as prestigious charms and the cleaning, petty human actions, great hunger and extreme resourcefulness. Just a little tidbit:

“A reddish-grey light shining through the window means the war is still on outside. A distant rumble and hum The front is now rolling into the centre of town. I get dressed, wash myself as best I can, and listen carefully to the morning quiet of the stairwell. Nothing but silence and emptiness.” (p.78)

Although, I admit, I haven’t yet finished the book. You see, I read it on the train, and I only have enough pages left for half a journey. So I picked up another book and this one remains on the shelf. Do you think she dies in the end? Otherwise why would she stop writing? Can a diary ever truly have a satisfactory ending?

Written by bookinglass

January 18, 2011 at 10:35 pm

Glass Feet and Warrior Cats

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Cute cat with paw on windowThere has been no update from the land of currywurst and bears who do handstands. I have been busy getting to grips with this fantastic city but not yet with the German language.

So it’s been quite an eclectic mix of books that I have read over the last few weeks…and ‘eclectic’ is a euphemism to make it sound like my reading children’s books borrowed from the school’s library over their summer vacation (and, ok, into term time) is justified.

Warrior Cats by Erin Hunter. About cats who live in the forest and fight each other over territory and food. I just can’t get enough of this series of books written for 10 year olds.

I cried when the lovely cat died in kittenbirth.

I pumped my fist when the mangy old evil cat was kicked out of the clan.

Haven’t quite given into the desire to join the online fan page yet. And oh…just discovered a whole realm of Youtube videos surrounding the series. This one is pretty funny. It really is as dramatic as they make out, I tell you, puts my problems in perspective! Also it’s given me reason to think up new names for our old cat that are more in tune with nature and feistiness. Best I can come up with is Blacktail. I know, not inspired.

The Girl with Glass Feet by Ali Shaw. Not worth it. Really. Read the first and last chapters and you don’t miss much inbetween. She has glass feet, it says so in the title, so really all that mystery in the first few chapters around the reason behind her chunky boots and careful, stilted gait: Boring and pointless. And, no, there is no reason for her having glass feet. You just come to realise that even magical things can be dull:

‘I told you about moth-winged cattle after you saw the poor bull. I think I told you they eat and shit and die like everything else. You see, just because something is unfamiliar doesn’t mean it isn’t bound by all that stuff.’ (p. 164)

And yes, that says moth-winged cattle, pint-sized whirring cows. BUT I finished the book, so it can’t be that bad. And now I feel guilty as Ali Shaw has a blog and all….eek. It’s ok, Ali, if you’re reading this: I am that stupid girl who likes books written from the perspective of cats. It’s probably just my mood at this moment in time but if book 2 could be named The Cat with Glass Paws?

On a less facetious side, Ali Shaw’s use of language is astounding and intricate. I really love the image of the glass feet the first time that Midas peels back the sock:

‘In the curve of her instep wisps of blood hung trapped like twirls of paint in marbles.’ (p. 62)


God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

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I have moved to Berlin and have a 30 minute commute to work, the perfect opportunity to read! This is one of those I-really-must-read-at-some-point reads and I can’t believe I have actually gotten down to doing it particularly as I haven’t been feeling much like reading at all recently.

Set in Kerala, Southern India, the language is as rich and dense as hazelnut and honey cheesecake and I really feel like I have been there! On the downside, it’s like reading all my old English Lit. teacher’s prose extracts to Analyse (or shred to pieces) all put together in one enormous volume of Ahhhh that must MEAN something but I am not sure what!?

Goodness, the amount of extended metaphors in this book I don’t think even the keenest Lit. Crit. could count. My particular most pet-hated metaphor is a “fountain in a Love-in-Tokyo…” otherwise known as the little girl whose name escapes me right now but this image of her hair tied in a high ponytail with bobble plastic hair-tie (see picture) really sticks into my mind. There’s something about the way that it sounds that really makes no sense and yet is rather beautiful. It’s a very frustrating image for me…touristy, cheap and insignificant but lively and exotic and very very girly.

Another image that conjures up the same kind of sick touristy, unright feeling of the Love-in-Tokyo (How can Tokyo have anything to do with this part of India?). In the airport as the twins and their family await the much-anticipated arrival of their cousin, Sophie Mol from England. Rahel (aha, that’s the girl’s name!) notices statues described as “red mouthed roos with ruby smiles” that move “cemently across the airport floor”…how creepy is that? Statues of kangaroos with their pouches filled not with joeys but with disgusting stains from betel nut juice (spat by passersby) and cigarette stubs. Rubbish instead of offspring. And the fact that they are MOVING? It’s just as Rahel sees the dead girl cartwheel in her coffin, these inanimate objects should definitely not move, but because she (perhaps) imagines they do move, it creates a very unsettling  and foreboding atmosphere. The alliteration of  ‘r’ I think conveys how they might sound if they did move across the floor. Slow, inexorable, deadly and void of emotion.

Righto! That’s my comments for now. Still have to finish the book…although I am pretty certain that it is not a happy ending as the whole tone of the book so far is very dark and uncomfortable and icky (the weather and the people). Perhaps Roy is dealing with Untouchable subjects in many many ways into which I can barely begin to delve.

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Written by bookinglass

July 7, 2010 at 6:20 pm

Selfridges Window Display

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Empire of the Sun window display

Selfridges, London has never really impressed me. Every time I have stumbled past this monolith of consumerism in the Oxford Street mayhem it seems too bleak, busy and exclusive for the likes of me. But my imminent departure from the UK (for a jooooob!!) has created a curious see-the-world-through-fresh-eyes effect on me. So I went to the mother of all department stores again but this time with a good helping of touristy awe and gawp.

selfridges window display may

The concept behind the May window display is the visualisation of a song, created by famous musicians and singers, such as Paloma Faith and Dizzee Rascal.  These two displays were my faves, the blue lions are the creation of Empire of the Sun and the heartfelt robot by Marina and the Diamonds.  But they were all much more impressive than the inside of the building. Flashy and bold and ‘Oh look at the Artyness of it all’.

I did see the toasted ants on sale which according to the (braver than me) Little London Observationalist taste of ‘Crispy, fried bacon with a soft meaty centre and crunchy, salty, pop-corn textured outer shell.’ I went for more traditional British fayre: Chocolate.

Written by bookinglass

June 1, 2010 at 9:04 pm

One Inspirational Image – Lyra Asleep in the Snow

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Pullman's printNow, when I say: I am a huge fan of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, you probably will shake your head and say ‘So what? His books are famous’, but honestly I am not just jumping on the bandwagon of his success or the controversy surrounding his writing. I mention this now because I came across these Oaktree Fine Press prints which take me back to reading the first book, Northern Lights, as a 12 year old. I would love to own one… *wistful sigh*….but what would I do with it?

I was recently watching the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra on TV with my Grandad. Thankfully, Grandad fell asleep before he could change the channel to Poirot and I got to watch a short programme in which Jacqueline Wilson, another favourite children’s author who has won or been shortlisted for more literary prizes than you can shake a stick at, showed us around the room where she writes at home. She had a strange collection of creepy monkey dolls but something that has stuck in my mind most is the illustration above her writing desk which she said inspires her. One image that inspires someone each time they look at it. This would be one helluva mighty powerful picture.

So what would my image be? I think one of Pullman’s illustrations: The mystery, beauty and isolation of the Arctic North, the comfort of a soul in animal form, the strength and melancholy of the heroine Lyra, the vulnerability of human form, the escapism of dreaming. This inspires me. What about you?

Written by bookinglass

May 12, 2010 at 2:08 pm