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German Lit Month Review: All For Nothing by Walter Kempowski, translated by Anthea Bell

My Interest

World War II, aristocracy, a large estate–what wouldn’t interest me about this book? It was a natural pick for me.

The Story

The von Globig family is part of the East Prussian aristocracy and their home and estate, the Georgenhof, dominates the local area. Eberhard von Globig, now a Wehrmacht officer stationed in Italy, and his wife, Katharina, do not have much of a marriage. Their young son, Peter, at about 12 is still too young for the Hitler Youth and has been sheltered from the Nazi younger children’s group. He is tutored at home. His sister, Elfriede, died. Katharina is a loner, keeping to herself behind the locked door of her marital bedroom suite.

“No one had ever stuck stamps into a social security booklet for her [Auntie]: life insurance nor burial fund.” (p. 293)

The household is run by a relative, Auntie, who is making due with two young Ukrainian women as maids and a Polish man doing much of the outdoor work. It is the start of 1945 and their part of East Prussia, later to be part of Poland, is the wrong place to be. Not only have other aristocrats nearly succeeded in killing Hitler, but the Soviets are poised to pounce. The pressure is building.

Katharina is bored, a bit too self-centered and bored. Bored by her husband, bored by her life, and wanting some excitement. Along the way we learn what she has done in the past when bored. [No spoilers]. The local pastor has a plan that will cure that. Meanwhile, just as that plan gets going, Eberhard telephones very briefly from Italy to tell her to leave it all behind and go–go West to safety.

All around Katharina’s bored existence of smoking the cigarettes, flipping though fashion magazines, reading her books, cutting out paper silhouettes, and drinking the wine Eberhard sends from Italy, refugees join the household for a night or for several days or a week. post-World-War-II-East-Prussia-boundary-changes

East Prussia is today mostly in Poland

Katharina’s ennui carries over into motherhood, “‘Lovely, dear lovely,’ his mother had said hardly looking up from her book”(p. 76). The local party flunky, living in the subdivision built opposite the great manor house, billets people there, and is constantly lurking, and watching the life of the von Globigs and their uninvited guests. The ranks are swollen by the visits of young Peter’s tutor who lives nearby as well as by the visits of the local doctor. All are listening and watching and waiting–waiting form the the barbarians from the East to come.

As the story reaches its conclusion we begin to understand the enigmatic title.[No Spoilers]. Nothing ends the way I predicted–that, to me, is the mark of an excellent story. There is nothing that would need a trigger warning except the death of a horse and it was only rated PG.

My Thoughts

I have read a more recent novel with a similar setting but it was vapid compared to this. A master storyteller crafted this lean work. Fewer words can often convey more meaning–that is certainly the case in this book. I could feel the emotions in Katharina–the fever pitch of nerves on stay or go, the lack of a husband at home, the lost of their money, the loss of her daughter, the needs of the hangers-on and staff, the worry that soon her son would be swept up into it all if the Hitler Youth, in which he would finally have to serve, were called up to actually fight as boy soldiers. Her husband was no use, her past at times haunts her, and her nerves cannot be soothed by alcohol or nicotine now.

The ending, as I said, was full of surprises. I won’t spoil them. We go to the very end of the story mostly through Peter’s eyes. We parents never truly want to know how their children really see them, do we? Don’t worry–Peter doesn’t turn her in or anything like that! That much I’ll spoil. The book just does a great job of showing the experience through everyone’s eyes, not just through the eyes of a narrator or one main characters.All in all this was a superb book.

My Verdict

4.5

About German Literature Month

Read all about German Literature Month XI here.

My Past German Lit Month Posts

2020 Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, translated by Jane Billinghurst

For More Fiction and Nonfiction on Germany at this time:

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A Castle in Wartime (aka The Lost Boys) by Catherine Bailey

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A World Elsewhere by Sigrid MacRae (my review was lost on my old blog)

Fiction

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The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

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German Literature Month Review: The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Translated by Jane Billinghurst

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My Interest

I enjoy a few nature books most years. This one caught my eye because my son works for a tree service and devoured our Audubon Field Guide to Trees of North America not long after he started work. I saw this book and decided to read it to see if it was worth giving his as an extra Christmas gift. It is among 2 or 3 contenders for that honor so there could be more tree book reviews later. My verdict is–I think he would read it. He isn’t a big reader but when it really interests him he will read. This is a nonfiction book and that would normally be ok with him only if it was about a rapper or maybe an artist.

My other interest was, by chance, seeing the word “fungi” in a quick look-through of the book. I am fascinated by mushrooms and forests teem with them. This part of the story, I thought, might be really interesting.

Thanks to blogger Lizzy’s Literary Life for bringing this gem to my attention. Why not be nice and click and read her review, too? Bloggers love visitors!

The Story

Forester Wohlleben loves trees. His life’s work is in a forest in Germany. He is a scientist so he pays very close attention to the details the trees in his forest. Happily, he is also a very good writer (and Billinghurst is a very good translator) so reading about such details is a joy and not a struggle. He makes the forest come as alive to the reader as it is to him. So, the fungi I was looking forward to were just icing on a very nice cake of a nature book.

What Wohleben describes is the lifespan of trees. Not as in 6th grade science class and ring-counting and all that, but about communities of trees, families of trees, the socio-economic strata of trees, the gentrification of forests, the urban decay of forests, the street kids, street gangs, and, cooperative development agencies of the forests–none of which are people. Wohleben’s study of trees has let him understand the language of trees–their interpersonal communication. He explains how the different players in the forest community fulfill their roles, putting it all into such expressive and readable prose that I read over 60 pages in one sitting.

Here are a few very short, illustrative glimpses into what Wohleben has discovered:

“Spruce store essential oils in their needles and, and bark, which act like antifreeze.”

“Then there are the weevils. They look a bit like tiny elephants that have lost their enormous ears.”

Here is a typical prose passage to give you a feel for the joy of reading this book:

“And what if an oak gets a deep wound or a wide crack in its trunk as a result of a lightening strike? That doesn’t matter to the oak, because its wood is permeated with substances that discourage fungi and severely slow down fungal decomposition…Even severely damaged trees with major branches broken off can grow replacement crows and live for a few hundred years longer” (p. 97, Kindle Edition).

Unexpectedly, I have a new possible favorite nonfiction book of the year. It was simply that good.

The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, Translated by Jane Billinghurst.

Added bonus: This book also works for Nonfiction November and Novellas in November (they include nonfiction novellas).  Though it is maybe a tad long for a true novella, it reads as quickly as one.

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Novellas in November? Nonfiction November? Both?

Two great reading events just in time for my long Thanksgiving to New Year’s break! I’m back in graduate school for one year doing a certificate for my job and it has taken up most of my reading time since late August. It will be a relief to be able read what I want. I already signed up for German Lit Month, but have gotten nowhere with that one. Maybe I can find a short novel in translation and get a “two for” out of it? I do that. It’s all just for fun.

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Novellas in November (Cathy) or Novellas in November (Rebecca) is new-to-me, but sounds perfect for the fiction I will read in November. Here’s their weekly theme schedule, if you want to play along. The theme starts on Monday.

2–8 November: Contemporary fiction (Cathy)

9–15 November: Nonfiction novellas (Rebecca)

16–22 November: Literature in translation (Cathy)

23–29 November: Short classics (Rebecca)

#NovNov

 

Nonfiction November is perfect, too, for the stack of new nonfiction titles I’ve recently bought. Katie @ Doing Dewey, Julie @ Julz Reads, Leann @ Shelf Aware, and Rennie @ What’s NonFiction? are hosting this nonfiction reading challenge. (There is also a Goodreads Group with the same title,)

Here is their weekly theme schedule:

Week 1: (November 2-6) – Your Year in Nonfiction

The first week you may write a post about the nonfiction you’ve read so far this year.

My 2019 Year in Nonfiction post.

Week 2: (November 9-13) -Book Pairing (nonfiction to fiction)

Curious?

2019 Pairings post.

Week 3: (November 16-20) –Be The Expert/Ask the Expert/Become the Expert

Not sure about this one? Here’s my post from last year to give you an idea.

Expert Recommendations of Royal Books

Week 4: (November 23-27) –New to My TBR

If you are new to the world of reading challenges, TBR just means your “To Be Read” list/pile/shelf.

2019 New to My TBR

#NonficNov

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Remember, November is also German Literature Month! My announcement post is here.

#germanlitmonth

But wait! There’s more! It’s also Aus Reading Month! Post coming later this week!

Will you be joining in? Leave me a comment and tell me your plans!

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German Literature Month! November 2020

This year I’ve really enjoyed participating in various reading challenges! Irish Literature, Spanish Literature, literature of women writers in translation–you name it! So, having studied a tiny bit of German, why not do German Literature Month–I mean, it’s their 10th Anniversary! So, I’ll join in to help celebrate.

What I’ve Already Read Translated From German

Inkheart is wonderful–my daughter and I talked about it over a decade after listening to it together. The Swiss Family Robinson was so good–I’m glad I tossed back my brother’s Scholastic version from the 1960s and read the unabridged version. It was wonderful. I honestly cannot remember if I read ALL of All Quiet on the Western Front or just excepts. No matter, I’ve “read it” and won’t be picking it up for this challenge. Did anyone else watch the t.v. version with The Walton’s Richard Thomas (“John-Boy”) in the lead?

 

What I Might Read

These are the only books written in German and Translated into English that I am aware of owning right now. Given the reality of this year, both are a long shot at best.

A Couple I May Try

 

The Giraffe’s Neck by Judith Schalansky

Käsebier Takes Berlin by Gabriele Tergit

The Turncoat by Siegfired Lenz–there is a Read Along for this title, the week of November 22–28.

 

You can read all about the challenge and how it works at Lizzy’s Literary Life. Also go and visit Beauty is a Sleeping Cat--the other host of the challenge. Possibly the best blog title ever!

 

#Germanlitmonth