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Dr. R. Brandon (England)
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At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
At The Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails
by Sarah Bakewell
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.29

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Well Written, Interesting, But Not as Easy as Suggested, 12 May 2017
A cover review suggests that the author makes the philosophy of Existentialism “easy to understand”.
However, I would guess that the majority of people who read this book will not feel that they now clearly understand Existentialism. There is a very good reason for this. All the main proponents of Existentialism, or phenomenology as some protagonists insist on labelling their ideas, disagreed among themselves as to what it really means. The ‘pre-existentialists’ Soren Kierkegaard, and Martin Heidegger, and Existentialists, Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Raymond Aron and Albert Camus, all espoused differing views on this most modern of philosophies. For me the most abiding message of Existentialism is to consciously exercise your free will within any proscribed situation in which you find yourself and be prepared to take the consequences.
The author, Sarah Bakewell, has produced an interesting and well written book although I defy any reader (other than a professional philosopher) to follow all her explanations completely. The author has made the very wise decision to leaven the philosophy with biographical details and to also explain the context and political circumstances in which each of these colourful characters was operating. However, it is hard to carry forward the complex thinking of one philosopher (or indeed several) to the next philosopher in the narrative chain.
Much is made of the apparent Nazi sympathies of Martin Heidegger, but for me the Stalin apologist Sartre is perhaps even more objectionable as he was more in touch than the recluse Heidegger and was well aware of what was actually taking place in the Soviet Union. The author seems to favour the slightly ‘off-stage’ character of Maurice Merleau-Ponty the most.
Bakewell tends to explain some of the French Riots of 1968 as arising from a student appreciation of Existentialism. I prefer the view of academic Tony Judt who sees them as closer to self-indulgent nonsense at a time when millions around the world were truly repressed.
Well written with interesting biographical and contextual detail but perhaps not quite such an easy read as suggested in the reviews.


After Midnight
After Midnight
by Irmgard Keun
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A Minor Masterpiece, Superb, 1 May 2017
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This review is from: After Midnight (Hardcover)
I found this short book really superb, and considering it was first published in 1937, remarkably modern in construction. I do not propose to recount the plot as has been done already elsewhere. Suffice to say the story is set in Frankfurt in a Germany ruled by the Nazis but before the Putsch against the SA in July 1934. The plot takes place over a very short timescale but the characters and back-story are filled out by reminiscences on the part of the central character and narrator, Susanne, or ‘Sanna’. Susanne increasingly experiences the constrictions of the new government despite being non-political herself. The books of her half-brother are suppressed, Susanne is denounced by her aunt, and numerous other day to day incidents, including a visit to the city by Hitler, press upon her as the story builds towards a party. Many of the key characters are due to appear at the celebration including Susanne’s boyfriend, Franz. Franz is also under suspicion for “talking like a Communist”.
The book was published after a period of Expressionism in German art that reflected psychological or disturbing dream-like experiences and is a superb example of the ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’, new objectivity or ‘straightforward’, style of writing. The events in the book are lucidly described and as the plot unfolds the tension and pace are increased. You can sense this quite clearly as you read rather like a sound or note increasing in pitch towards a final ‘crash’ or release. Really clever writing.
I have not read the two earlier works by Keun which achieved great success, but this for me is a minor masterpiece and it is disappointing that it is currently out of print. Superb, and recommended to all.


Pale House, The (Gregor Reinhardt 2)
Pale House, The (Gregor Reinhardt 2)
by Luke McCallin
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.98

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars An Unusual and Very Entertaining Story, 24 April 2017
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I decided to read this book as the setting is unusual for a German soldier/detective novel. It takes place in 1944 Sarajevo with German forces on the retreat and still having to work with their difficult and unruly allies, the Croatian Ustase. The hero of the story, Captain Gregor Reinhardt, has been drafted into the Feldjaegerkorps, an emergency corps created in November 1943 to maintain discipline, rather like ‘super’ military police. Feldjaegerkorps officers were able to exercise considerable power over other units including even the Waffen SS.
Captain Reinhardt comes across a number of unexplained killings that disturb him and he decides to investigate despite the ongoing evacuation of the city and the increasing terrorism of the Ustase.
The author has an excellent writing style and his descriptions of the topography and scene setting are just right. There is a slight longueurs in the middle of the book when our hero is struggling with his conscience and the ‘love element’ is being developed but I would urge readers to plough on as the story is resolved in a very satisfactory manner.
The author very helpfully supplies an ‘Historical Note’ at the end of the book in which he demonstrates that the novel reflects very well the actual historical situation in Sarajevo and the various factual characters involved in the fighting, particularly in the Ustase and the partisan forces.
I found the book very entertaining and a really good read despite my slight reservation and would recommend it to all fans of this genre of detective fiction.


The Nine Lives of Otto Katz
The Nine Lives of Otto Katz
by Jonathan Miles
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars A Truly Interesting and Revelatory Book, 15 April 2017
A really excellent book and one that taught me a great deal despite having read widely about the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
The life of the Communist spy Otto Katz was so labyrinthine and multi-faceted that one can only admire the ability of the author to track it and bring it to life in a book of such interest. Otto Katz was born an Austrian in Bohemia, but following the First World War found himself a Czech citizen. He became a convinced Communist at an early age and following training in Moscow he was assigned to the well known controller Willi Munzenberg. The career of Otto Katz is far too complicated to try and describe in a few lines but his particular talents included an ability to charm people, to move in all social circles and to write and organise. He seemingly had a prodigious capacity for work setting up Communist Front organisations in many countries, whilst collecting and disseminating information for the Party, and very successfully raising money. He was a writer for many newspapers and periodicals and part owner, part editor, on many.
The book is revelatory in identifying Communist agents and supporters in the British, French and American establishments and in the glamorous milieu of Hollywood. The post war House Committee on Un-American Activities of Senator McCarthy rightly gets a bad press but Jonathan Miles describes significant Communist influence in tinseltown. Left wing writers and directors such as Lang, Brecht, Hammett and Hellman were able to direct and produce films clearly sympathetic to life in Soviet Russia under the guise of anti-Nazism. Otto Katz was instrumental in promoting and helping finance such activity. The character of Victor Lazlo in the famous film ‘Casablanca’ being clearly modelled on Katz. When Katz became unwelcome in America he moved to Mexico and immediately began organising Communist influence there through the activities of front organisations and publications. He lived in Cuba for a while laying the foundations of a Communist organisation in that country also.
The book begins and ends with the arrest of life-long Communist supporter Katz in Prague following the establishment of a Communist regime in Czechoslovakia now under the influence of Stalin. Otto Katz was one of the ‘fourteen’ senior Communists to appear in the ‘Slansky show trials’ of 1952. These sections of the book are both harrowing and shocking as the author does not spare us any details of the treatment of the accused.
This is an excellent and most interesting book and is generally well written. My only criticism, and it is a quibble, is that in explaining some of the relationships that Katz and his associates formed I became lost in the detail and had to re-read small sections. A truly interesting book and astonishing that hard back copies can be bought at such low prices.


Between the Wars: 1919-1939
Between the Wars: 1919-1939
by Philip Ziegler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £16.59

3.0 out of 5 stars An Interesting Series of Short Pieces on the Intervening Years of the World Wars, 25 Mar. 2017
This is a book for the general reader, as Ziegler himself notes, and not a specialist work. It contains no new research and is meant to be a brief look at significant events that took place in the twenty years that separated the World Wars. It is a light read and will contain some events that are new to many readers such as, ‘The Chaco War 1932-5’ (the war between Bolivia and Paraguay), but others that are very familiar such as, ‘The Declaration of War 1939’. I would take issue with the approach Ziegler takes on several of the subjects such as, ‘Palestine 1938’ or ‘The Fascists Take Madrid 1939’ but on the whole they form a reasonable synopsis of each event.
At the end of each chapter there is a very useful short review of books recommended for further reading. These references contain a fascinating insight into which books Ziegler thinks are good and those less worthy, which are usually damned with feint praise.
Well written as always with Ziegler but with the occasional annoying use of a very unusual word. Best directed toward those who are not history specialists.


The Sense of an Ending
The Sense of an Ending
by Julian Barnes
Edition: Paperback
Price: £5.84

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Exquisite Book and Well Deserved Prize Winner, 18 Mar. 2017
This review is from: The Sense of an Ending (Paperback)
The book starts, as many reviewers have noted, describing the relationship between three friends at school, and a new rather intimidatingly clever fourth, Adrian. The narrator, Tony Webster, is a middle of the road, reasonable achiever, who is now looking back on his life from his late fifties or early sixties. He looks back on his friendships and considers the accuracy of his memories of what took place over a period of many years. Some of the recollections are sexually quite frank. The narrator, Tony, recalls that the rather gifted friend Adrian took up with a difficult ex-girlfriend of his and the story considerably darkens when, many years later, he receives a solicitors letter about the girlfriend’s mother.
The writing, as always with Julian Barnes, is superb. I just marvelled at the spare text being able to convey so much so clearly and all this delivered, particularly in the first part of the book, with copious wit and humour. In the second larger section the plot becomes more serious but throughout Barnes is juggling and weighing the validity of memory. How we rehearse our recollections and how these ‘ready to recall’ snippets may not be an accurate memory at all, but moulded and shaped over the years, perhaps to suit ourselves.
This is an exquisite short book, a fascinating story with a serious undertone on the nature of memory, and written in the most beautiful prose.


Munich: Its Golden Age of Art and Culture 1890 - 1920
Munich: Its Golden Age of Art and Culture 1890 - 1920
by Rainer Metzger
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars An Exquisite Book, Copious Quality Illustrations and Interesting Text., 15 Mar. 2017
This is an exquisite book, most informative, beautifully illustrated and interesting to read. It seems a great pity that Thames and Hudson have not issued a further edition.
The book is physically heavy and, as other reviewers have noted, contains some 466 illustrations, 387 in colour. The illustrations are of a high standard and compliment the text very well. In fact the whole book is beautifully presented with wonderful end papers and a nicely illustrated book jacket. The original German text by Rainer Metzger has been well translated, is very straightforward and, thankfully, avoids what I call ‘psycho-babble’ that infects so many books on the arts.
After an introduction the book gets under way with a chapter on the Munich Salons and the Munich Secession. This explains the arrival of ‘Jugendstil’ (Art Nouveau) and its manifestation in architecture, interior decoration, furniture and art, and the concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ or total work of art. The publication of the groundbreaking art journals, ‘Jugend’ and ‘Simplicissimus’ and their influence is discussed. It is interesting to note that the Secession occurred in 1892 in Munich, pre-dating the perhaps better known Vienna Secession of 1897 by five years and also that of Berlin in 1898. However, by 1898 a number of the groundbreaking artists were migrating to Berlin and further changes were under way.
The next chapter covers ‘Decadence and the Avant Garde’ as Munich enters the 20th century. The author describes the coffee-house milieu of the northern suburb of Swabing with its cabaret and bohemian groups centred on the controversial poets Stefan George and Alfred Schuler. It was in Munich during this period that Thomas Mann wrote his most successful novels, ‘Buddenbrooks’ (1901) and ‘Death in Venice’ (1911) and many others. The artist Giorgio de Chirico and composer Gustav Mahler both gravitated to Munich at this time. Perhaps of lasting fame was the formation in 1911 of the artist group, ‘Der Blaue Reiter’ (The Blue Rider – after a painting by Kandinsky). This somewhat disparate group included Kandinsky, Franz Marc, the Czech artist Kupka, Rousseau and Delauney but it was the retrospective catalogue of their first exhibition that ensured their lasting fame.
A shorter chapter on ‘Style and Symmetry’ covers the architectural phenomenon of ‘Platzl’ or the building of squares containing a variety of styles to give the appearance of an instant past or tradition, an architectural pastiche. The final short chapter deals with the intrusion of politics and briefly charts the changes from the German revolution of 1918 to the first intimations of the rise of Hitler and the Nazis. (Hitler had migrated to Munich, attracted by its lively artistic life.)
Other reviewers have already correctly commented on the magnificent high quality illustrations and the reproduction of many contemporary photographs of key personalities and interesting street scenes that convey the Munich townscape very well. It is true the author only gives brief details of many of the artists and writers discussed but this is necessary to confine the book to a reasonable size and they provide plenty of pointers for further research.
This is a real gem, and collector’s item, and is recommended without reservation to all interested in the culture of this period.


Weimar Culture - the Outsider as Insider
Weimar Culture - the Outsider as Insider
by Peter Gay
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A Dense, At Times, Difficult Book, 7 Mar. 2017
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I realise that this will put me at odds with other reviewers and the quoted press reviews but I frankly found this rather dense book disappointing. Perhaps the 1960s presentation style is now dated. Before considering the text let me say that the design of the book is misleading. A nude lady appears on the cover so you may think the subject of Weimar cabaret will appear in the book, not so. I can see no justification for this cover design. The printed illustrations are of low quality and not very relevant to the text.
Turning to the content the author, Peter Gay, has chosen to adopt a psychological context for the different chapters. He is trying to demonstrate his thesis of deep underlying psychological fault lines in the German psyche following the defeat of the First World War and the founding of the Weimar Republic on 9th November 1918. In so doing the author attempts to describe the different aspects of Weimar culture in support of his hypothesis. I would have much preferred a straightforward exposition of German cultural trends in the 1920s and 30s free of this overlay of Freudian ideas.
After an introduction to the history of the Weimar Republic there follows five chapters, each deals with a different aspect of the culture. Thus, ‘Community of Reason’ describes the founding of important institutes outside the established universities, including the esteemed Warburg Library and Institute. The key cultural change here being that the institutes admitted students without the need for the ‘Abitur’ which was previously a necessity for entry to higher education. The chapter ‘Secret Germany – Poetry as Power’ deals with the unprecedented influence of poets such as Stefan George, Rainer Maria Rilke and the 18th century Holderlin. The playwright Buchner who wrote ‘Danton’s Death’ and ‘Woyzek’, later to become Alban Berg’s opera ‘Wozzeck’ in 1925 using Schonberg’s 12-tone system and ‘Sprechgesang’, is discussed at length. ‘The Hunger for Wholeness – Trials of Modernity’ is a somewhat difficult chapter on the philosopher Heidegger and the supposed superiority of German culture. This feeling, it is suggested, resulted in the formation of ‘Wandervogel’, community groups for the promotion of outdoor activities and folk culture. Oddly the architects Erich Mendelsohn and Walter Gropius are also mentioned in this chapter but knowledge of their work by the reader is assumed, not described. Expressionist film, in particular Robert Wiene’s 1920, ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ and the revolutionary Expressionist artists such as Grosz, Dix and Beckmann are mentioned in ‘The Revolt of the Son – The Expressionist Years’ (1918 – 1924). However, again the author assumes knowledge by the reader of the work of these artists and their output is not described or illustrated. Finally ‘The Revenge of the Father’ charts the return to artistic objectivity and sobriety during the years 1924 to 1929, the rise of ‘Neue Sachlichkeit’. Thomas Mann’s 1924 book, ‘Der Zauberburg’ (The Magic Mountain) is discussed at length. The main publishing houses operating in Germany at this time are also referred to with Ullstein Verlag coming in for much criticism. I think you have to be a little wary of an author who describes ‘Grand Hotel’ and other books by Vicki Baum as “facile mediocraties” and Fritz Lang’s ‘Metropolis’ as a “tasteless extravaganza”.
As will be evident from the comments above that the author does not discuss the most obvious subjects such as architecture, art, theatre, cabaret or the most popular writers of the day in any useful detail, for this you will need to turn elsewhere. Gay’s writing is about feelings and psychology and I doubt many citizens of the Republic would have recognised his exposition of their culture.
A useful short synopsis of the political history of the Weimar Republic appears as an appendix.


What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33
What I Saw: Reports from Berlin 1920-33
by Joseph Roth
Edition: Paperback
Price: £9.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Work of a Literary Mind and Fertile Imagination, 1 Mar. 2017
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This is a book of collected newspaper ‘by-lines’ or ‘feuilletons’ written by the journalist and author, Joseph Roth, during the period 1920 to 1933. The word ‘feuilleton’ is not in common usage today but it refers to an article in a newspaper that is not news or comment, but is an observation on life unrelated to the headlines. We are all familiar with ‘by-lines’ by regular columnists particularly in the heavyweight newspapers.
Joseph Roth was a Jew from the eastern outpost of the Austrian Empire who after the First World War settled in Berlin for a period. At the time Berlin was a febrile city under the Weimar Republic, experiencing unprecedented cultural upheaval and substantial Jewish immigration. Roth experienced many of the less salubrious parts of the city and recorded his observations. This book contains some thirty four short articles reflecting on a variety of topics from the Jewish Quarter, displaced persons, Berlin architecture and traffic, offbeat aspects of the pleasure industry to a coruscating attack in 1933 on the Nazi book burning and denial of the Jewish contribution to German culture.
Roth is a writer who is attracted to the odd, the melancholy, the sadness and crush of everyday life for some, but there is always an underlying wit and dry humour in his recording of the absurd. For some this will be the gift of his writing, whilst for those looking for a straightforward reportage of Weimar Berlin, this will disappoint. This is Berlin refracted through the literary mind and fertile imagination of an accomplished author and acute observer. A fascinating glimpse into some dark corners of the past.


A Case of Two Cities: Inspector Chen 4 (As heard on Radio 4)
A Case of Two Cities: Inspector Chen 4 (As heard on Radio 4)
by Qiu Xiaolong
Edition: Paperback
Price: £8.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Entertaining, Well Written, But Lacking Tension, 18 Feb. 2017
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I read this, the fourth in the Inspector Chen series by Qui Xiaolong, out of sequence. I was inspired by listening to the first part of a serialisation of the book on BBC Radio 4. The story is one of corruption in high places with Inspector Chen being asked to continue a case in which the previous investigating officer has clearly been murdered. The book contains many of the ingredients we expect from ‘Inspector Chen’, the Chinese poetry quotations, the detailed descriptions of food and lifestyle and the references to the political tightrope that always exists when investigating important cases in modern Communist China. However, I was a little disappointed in this book compared to the brilliant, ‘Death of a Red Heroine’. Somehow the tension between Chen and the Party officials was lacking; although the menace was stated it was not quite so palpable as in the first volume. Again the story in ‘Red Heroine’ was gripping whilst in this volume it did not seem to have quite the same hold. I do not want to overdo these comments, I enjoyed the book, it is extremely will written but this particular tale by its very nature is not nearly so satisfying as Qui’s first volume.


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