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4.8 out of 5 stars
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4.8 out of 5 stars
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This immensely enjoyable book, a memoir, or biography of Gunter Grass, is a fascinating account of the history and background of this great author.

As a record of a boy and young man growing up in 1930s Germany it is a fascinating historical record, particularly the sections on Grass's war service in the Waffen SS, and his later internment as a prisoner of war.

We read the little picture here, the daily struggle for survival, the domestic arrangements for eating and sleeping, the thoughts of a late teenage boy co-erced into the military and dealing with the everyday pettiness and frustration of army life. I wondered at this account, how typical it seemed of a boy soldier, while also seeming to be strangely devoid of references to the propaganda and culture which surely permeated Nazi army life? Although Grass was a member of the Hitler Youth, and describes its boy scout-like aspects, somehow we do not read hear of the anti-Jewish indoctrination which must have featured so strongly? Maybe Grass feels that this is old-ground and does not need to be repeated, almost a courtesy to present-day Jews in not mentioning it?

The book provides a large amount of background to Grass's fictional work. He frequently tells us how places he found himself in, and events that happened to him provided sources for his short stories and novels. From The Tin Drum, to Crabwalk, this book fills in the gaps and answers questions that arise in reading the novels.

This is a wonderfully readable book, rich with narrative pace, but also with meditative and reflective passages which give us insight into the mind of the author. I particularly liked the section on the prisoner of war camp, where to alleviate the tedium of camp life, the prisoners arranged educational classes for themselves. Grass, although seemingly continually and painfully hungry, joins a cookery class where the demonstrations are wholly imaginary but still hugely satisfying. Grass provides us with wonderfully descriptive word portraits of the preparation of great dishes, from the slaughter and butchery of a pig, through to the processing of its every part, including the manufacture of blood sausage, a favourite of Grass to this day.

After the war years we read of Grass's work as a miner, and later, as an apprentice stone-mason. However, his great desire it to study art, and the post-war section of the book focuses on his overwhelming desire to be totally dedicated to art, whether sculpture, drawing, poetry or writing. He seemed to have a tremendous drive to fulfil this ambition, and everything seems to revolve around his third "lust" for creativity (the first and second lusts being food and women!).

We gain many insights into the author and his way of life. I enjoyed reading of the rich life of his imagination (so essential in a novelist), such as when he "invites to dinner" a range of historical characters and converses with them on themes old and new. So often we see clues as to why his books are as they are when we read these small interludes in the dramatic pace of the war years. I will not attempt to describe within the limitations of this review the rest of this substantial book. It succeeds totally in giving us a self-portrait of the author, so that by the end, he almost seems like an old friend - particularly to those who have read his rich collection of novels and reflections.
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Peeling the Onion is required reading for anyone who wants to have a deeper insight into Mr. Grass's remarkable books; desires to learn how a young Nazi turned into someone who wrote objectively through fiction about the Nazi era; is thrilled by eclectic influences to explore a progression from enjoying art cards and sketching into writing poetry and making sculptures into becoming the author of The Tin Drum; and is intrigued by the tricks that memory plays on us as we get older. Many will find themselves surprised by Mr. Grass's revelations about his youthful enthusiasm for the Nazis and volunteering for service that led to becoming a member of the Waffen SS. The book's writing style once again reveals a man whose incisive perspective allows him to stand among us while standing apart. The book's title and ongoing imagery relate to the way that exploring and reexploring memory help us come closer to the truth about ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately, there's no more onion left to peel. The imagery is illustrated by pencil drawings of peeled onions that are presumably by Mr. Grass's hand.

Rarely does an author reveal the sources of his characters, situations, images, and locales in as much detail as Mr. Grass does in this autobiography that concludes with the publication of The Tin Drum. I feel a need to reread all of the works to inject these perspectives.

Most writers will tell you that they use all of their life experiences as resources. Having seen how true that is of Mr. Grass, I realized for the first time that for writers to have truly original voices they need to have experiences that are far different than what most people do. Mr. Grass's war-disrupted youth certainly makes that clear.

For those who find realistic accounts of wartime interesting, Mr. Grass spends more time on his brief period under fire than on any other subject. You'll get an impressive eye-witness account of the collapsing German military just before Hitler's suicide.

Ultimately, I came away astonished most by the way that Mr. Grass is able to look at even his own actions and life as an external viewer might. That's a remarkable talent that obviously contributes to his ability to sculpt complex word pictures into stories that defy memory loss.

If you read only one autobiography of a writer, I suggest this one.
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Peeling the Onion is required reading for anyone who wants to have a deeper insight into Mr. Grass's remarkable books; desires to learn how a young Nazi turned into someone who wrote objectively through fiction about the Nazi era; is thrilled by eclectic influences to explore a progression from enjoying art cards and sketching into writing poetry and making sculptures into becoming the author of The Tin Drum; and is intrigued by the tricks that memory plays on us as we get older. Many will find themselves surprised by Mr. Grass's revelations about his youthful enthusiasm for the Nazis and volunteering for service that led to becoming a member of the Waffen SS. The book's writing style once again reveals a man whose incisive perspective allows him to stand among us while standing apart. The book's title and ongoing imagery relate to the way that exploring and reexploring memory help us come closer to the truth about ourselves and the world around us. But ultimately, there's no more onion left to peel. The imagery is illustrated by pencil drawings of peeled onions that are presumably by Mr. Grass's hand.

Rarely does an author reveal the sources of his characters, situations, images, and locales in as much detail as Mr. Grass does in this autobiography that concludes with the publication of The Tin Drum. I feel a need to reread all of the works to inject these perspectives.

Most writers will tell you that they use all of their life experiences as resources. Having seen how true that is of Mr. Grass, I realized for the first time that for writers to have truly original voices they need to have experiences that are far different than what most people do. Mr. Grass's war-disrupted youth certainly makes that clear.

For those who find realistic accounts of wartime interesting, Mr. Grass spends more time on his brief period under fire than on any other subject. You'll get an impressive eye-witness account of the collapsing German military just before Hitler's suicide.

Ultimately, I came away astonished most by the way that Mr. Grass is able to look at even his own actions and life as an external viewer might. That's a remarkable talent that obviously contributes to his ability to sculpt complex word pictures into stories that defy memory loss.

If you read only one autobiography of a writer, I suggest this one.
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on 18 October 2007
Breathtaking confessional interspersed with the usual Grass flair for the unexpected. Art, Nazism, hunger, haute cuisine: everything is blended into one sumptious whole as only the master from Danizig can. Do yourself a favour. Forget the mediocre prose of all those booker prize winners and grab this fantastically crafted book. You wont regret it.
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on 24 June 2007
I wondered what to expect from his autobiography, and it is pure Grass. He ties together and sharpens all the pictures he creates in his fiction of the lost world of the city of Danzig and his early years, and I gained an insight into how the mind of a writer creates characters and uses his own life to explore himself, his life and his times through the medium of fiction. Aware of the controversy about his time in the Waffen-SS, I was keen to read about this in context (Grass' context, obviously) and found him both honest and still apparently perplexed and disturbed by it; I think I understood and I can't condemn him. For me he remains one of the most original, powerful and poetic writers of the last century. Read it.
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on 17 May 2015
Most satisfying read of a full and interesting life characterised by intellectual, artistic, and human qualities: almost too human as revealed by his sexual drive that made him, as self-acknowledged, sexually incontinent and selfishly unfeeling towards those he 'used'.
The insights he gives of his political and moral awareness re-communism, Hitler and the holocaust, and the Social democrats are illuminating: as are his dignified silences on the rapacity of the invading Russians.
That his future and that of his sister's were shaped by a single brief, but with hindsight, pregnant moment will ring bells with many as will his warm outpouring of the eulogy to his mother.
Having no knowledge of the visual arts I cannot make any comment, but can appreciate that this work will be of huge interest to the artistic world.
His dismissal of organised religion and dogma combined with his espousal of the philosophy of Camus more than add to to-day's tension between faith and evolution.
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on 22 July 2012
Günther Grass is peeling the onion to get to the core of himself. The novel contains the little cigar pictures he collected in his youth, the early novels, which he also read and the collected money for his mother. These little things make the novel readable. He is asking the big question about his doings. Why was he so faithful till the end. Was it the crampedness of the two room apartment or that he won't do any harm to his mother. It was more the childish impartiality. He tells the story of his comrades in the army and the escape from the east. The war memories hunted him through the years. It is the story about his youth and the years in West Germany. He study art in Düsseldorf. It was the years with Anna Schwarz. The connection to his early books make it so valuable. You can find many things in it. The story about his NS membership make a big fuss in Germany during the time the book was published. It is no mayor thing in the book, a side note only. As it was in the nearer past with his latest poem, which is actually no poem. It is an annoyance. The older you get, the more you get strange in a way.
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on 30 March 2014
Well written and translated. Grass is very honest about his wartime career and although not emphasised unduly it shows that many ordinary Germans also suffered during the 2nd WW. I was stationed in Germany during my National Service in 1948 so some of the bomb damage. However, it was good that the Allies won but the cost on both sides should make us think very carefully about waging war .
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on 20 November 2010
One of the best books I have ever read. An amazing account of a man's life following the twists and turns of the 20th century. If you have a little imagination and enjoy Günther Grass' writing - read this book!
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on 26 March 2010
Quite simply brilliant. The best writer's autobiography (or biography) I have read. Honest, and although not directly about the process of writing, read and you will understand all about being a writer.
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