Summer reading suggestions 2023

Our jurors, partners and associates share their summer reading favourites. What will you read next?

Austrian Cultural Forum London

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Café Without Name (Café ohne Namen) by Robert Seethaler

With Seethaler’s straightforward style of writing as well as his attention to detail, he manages to create some unforgettable characters, just in a few sentences.

Café Without Name vividly portrays a Viennese district undergoing social and economic change over a decade. Seethaler, whose novel A Whole Life was shortlisted for the 2016 International Booker Prize, has the talent to tell stories entirely without digression or ponderousness. A highly recommended summer read!

Keen to know more about the Austrian Cultural Forum London? You can read our interview with them here. And for a great overview of Austrian Literature, you could do worse than start here.

Jamie Bulloch, Literary Translator

Summer Reads 2023

My picks for this summer are both non-fiction titles about the GDR. The first, Katya Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall: East Germany 1949-1990 (Allen Lane, 2023), is a reappraisal of everyday life in East Germany, in an attempt to provide a more balanced picture from the one we are used to seeing – as in, for example in the highly acclaimed film The Lives of Others. Some have called it a revisionist work, but I think that goes too far. While Hoyer points out that it was possible for most of the population to come to an accommodation with East German state and live relatively comfortable lives, especially when the economy grew in the mid-1960s, this is no mere apologia for the GDR regime. Walter Ulbricht, Wilhelm Pieck and Erich Honecker are given unflattering portraits, Hoyer highlighting how at the elite level socialist principles were sometimes subordinated to personal ambition. State repression and the draconian restrictions on freedom are moreover well documented, as are the unfavourable comparisons with West Germany when it came to the availability of consumer goods. It is not for nothing that East Germany haemorrhaged a significant proportion of its population until the Berlin Wall was put up in 1961.

Beyond the Wall has rightly received critical acclaim in the UK, where it has also been a commercial success. The story in Germany has been another matter, where several high-profile reviews have savaged the book, taking digs at the author too. Not only have commentators hissed that Hoyer’s father was a military officer in the GDR, they have also scoffed that she was only four when the Wall came down. But since when has not having lived through a historical period invalidated a historian’s competence to investigate it? The debate has escalated into a heated dispute (Historikerstreit), laying bare the chasm that still exists between east and west in Germany, even more than thirty years since reunification. This is the subject of a bad-tempered book called Der Osten: eine westdeutsche Erfindung (The East: a Western German Invention – Ullstein, 2023), by Dirk Oschmann, a professor of German literature at Leipzig University. His thesis is that the eastern part of Germany has been routinely patronised, looked down upon and very much seen as the poor relation of the dominant western of the country. To an extent, Oschmann contends, the east has been colonised too, with professionals from the west brought in to fill key positions in the media, higher education and industry.

Withdrawing from the fray, I highly recommend Hoyer’s book. It is a well-written and very readable history of the GDR, which taught me a lot I did not know. If Beyond the Wall has one weakness, it is that there is not enough on the system of IMs (inoffizielle Mitarbeiter, unofficial collaborators). An astounding number of East Germans (up to 200,000) spied on their fellow citizens for the Stasi, helping to reinforce the atmosphere of low-level fear, repression and suspicion that was a constant feature of everyday life in the GDR. Which brings me neatly on to my second pick, Peter Wensierski’s Jena Paradies: Die letzte Reise des Matthias Domaschk (Jena Paradise: Matthias Domaschk’s Last Journey – Christoph Links Verlag, 2023). This book was an NBG pick earlier in the year and I will be translating it in the autumn. Domaschk, who was involved with opposition groups in the GDR, was found dead in 1981 after two days in Stasi custody. He was twenty-three. The circumstances surrounding his death remain slightly nebulous, though it is likely he took his own life in desperation. What I found fascinating about the book as a whole – and what ties it in neatly with Hoyer’s history – is the idea that opponents of the East German regime did not reject socialism out of hand. Yes, these young people demanded greater freedoms, wanted to listen to the music and read the books of their choice, wanted to see the end of the Wall, but this did not mean embracing western capitalism. Indeed, the individuals and groups they were illicitly in contact with in the west were themselves socialists in favour of a wholesale reform of society and the economic system. By allowing the characters in his book to do the talking, Wensierski gives us a detailed insight into the period, which nicely complements Katya Hoyer’s work.

A dramatic account of the final days of Matthias Domaschk, who died in a Stasi detention centre in 1981 at the age of twenty-three, Jena-Paradies explores how state repression can impact the lives of ordinary young people. 

By allowing the characters in his book to do the talking, Wensierski gives us a detailed insight into the period

Jamie Bulloch

Juliane Camfield, Director, Deutsches Haus at NYU

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Losing Skin (Federn lassen) by Regina Dürig

When I first read Regina Dürig’s Losing Skin, I was immediately impressed by the powerful theme and unique style, and ever since, reverberations of Dürig’s unsettling novella have stayed with me. Told with tremendous literary skill, Losing Skin takes the shape of over 30 vignettes in verse form and shares the story of an unnamed female narrator — perhaps a condensation of many female voices – who vividly speaks to herself, in second person singular narration, of the abuse she has experienced. Via this unconventional narrative choice, she also directly addresses her readers. In one scene after another, she tells of traumatizing and destabilizing experiences – including sexual violence, sexual harassment, and gender bias – she has sustained. As we witness her troubled trajectory, chronologically narrated from girl- to womanhood, we gain an increased awareness of the systemic structures enabling the mistreatment of women and understand the urgent need for change and mending.

Regina Dürig’s unique volume offers an important addition to the discussion about gender equality and violence against women. It invites you to judge the expectations and limitations that society places on women, but it does not stop there – it questions how unequal situations arise, how someone can stop themselves from being side-lined, humiliated or abused, and what it takes to put yourself in another person’s shoes. This thought-provoking novella will stay with you long after you put it down.

Gwen Clayton,

Summer Tip – General

The Undercurrents: A Story of Berlin by Kirsty Bell

In her beautifully written The Undercurrents, Berlin-based art critic Kirsty Bell weaves together a colorful tapestry of her in-depth explorations of the city’s multi-layered and troubled history with the story of her own life in the German metropolis, in particular the dissolution of her marriage. At the center of the author’s quest stands the nineteenth-century Berlin building on the Landwehrkanal she and her family moved into about twenty years ago, an edifice that soon assumes its own, rather peculiar identity by expressing signs of past inhabitants’ fraught lives. Consulting archives, viewing old maps, visiting historical locations, and immersing herself in the vast literature about Berlin, Bell unearths and shares fascinating facts about her home at the water’s edge and about the city’s marshy past; and, at the end of her long search, she perhaps finds what she was looking for.

Gersy Ifeanyi Ejimofo, Publisher Digital Back Books

Summer Tip – General

The German Crocodile by Ijoma Mangold, translated by Ruth Ahmedzai Kemp

Mangold explores many existential questions in this lively narrative; How does a boy cope with an absent father? What was it like to grow up ‘bi-racial’? Was he an opportunist, a master adaptor who had over-assimilated? What is the relationship between race and class? And what is more unusual in Germany: having brown skin or a passion for Thomas Mann and Richard Wagner? Ijoma shares his story with its dramatic twists and turns, not forgetting the surprises, he uncovers about himself along the way.

Read our interview with The German Crocodile author Ijoma Mangold here.

Andy Hodges, The Narrative Craft

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Headfirst (Seeman vom Siebener) by Arno Frank

From New Books in German – top of my list is Headfirst by Arno Frank. It’s a multi-perspectival ode to the Freibad and outdoor swimming culture. You can buy the German version on Audible and that’s what I’ll be listening to on the beach this summer!

Recapture (Rückeroberung) by Daniel Huhn

For non-fiction readers, my beach read from last year was Recapture by Daniel Huhn – the fascinating tale of Manfred Gans, who journeys across Europe in May 1945 to find his parents in the Theresienstadt concentration camp. The topic is a heavy one, but the book is relatable and touches on many positive universal human themes such as love and friendship.

Summer Tip – General

The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper

I really enjoyed The Gravity of Us by Phil Stamper from the comfort of my hammock this summer! It’s a queer YA science fiction romance about two teens, Cal and Leon, who find love when their parents are preparing for a NASA mission to Mars. It’s partly a romance and partly an exploration of what life was like for the families of the US astronauts who became famous in the 1960s – but with a near-future twist that explores the power and dangers of social media.

Alexandra Roesch, Literary Translator & Scout

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Ewig Sommer by Franziska Gänsler

This slender yet impactful debut novel remains timely, with the climate crisis as its central theme, but it offers much more than a story about an impending environmental disaster. Set in a fictional German town, the narrative unfolds against the backdrop of a raging forest fire that has driven tourists away from the once-thriving spa destination. Then a mysterious guest arrives, accompanied by her four-year-old daughter. The author unravels the intense encounter between these two women, Dori and Iris, building up a dual arc of tension that is captivating. The novel delves into toxic, manipulative relationships, explores motherhood and questions the conflict between passivity versus action, resulting in an atmospheric and evocative story.

[Gänsler’s] debut is a feminist climate-fiction novel that gets under the skin in many different ways. This says a very great deal for the book: now is the right time to read Ewig Sommer.

Cornelia Geißler, Berliner Zeitung

Summer Tip – General

Matrix by Lauren Groff

I was thoroughly captivated by this enthralling tale of empowerment woven around the flawed and far from saintly female protagonist. Set against the backdrop of 12th century England, the narrative draws inspiration from the historical figures of Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine. The entrance of seventeen-year-old Marie is compelled by royal decree, as she is abruptly thrust into the role of prioress within a destitute and secluded monastery, having been cast aside from courtly life due to her awkwardness and towering stature.

Yet to everyone’s surprise, Marie seizes this desolate circumstance as an opportunity, displaying astuteness, fearlessness and unwavering courage as she transforms the monastery into a thriving sanctuary where men have no access. The themes that Marie has to grapple with are as relevant today as they were in the Middle Ages – envy, resentment and the pervasive threat posed by men who find themselves disconcerted by women wielding too much influence and power. Groff crafts a vibrant feminist utopia without resorting to moralistic overtones.

Niall Sellar – Translator

Summer Tip – General

Intimacies, Katie Kitamura

I find interpreters (or translators!) make for fascinating protagonists, as questions of language often feed into themes such as identity and belonging. Intimacies tells the story of a woman who has moved from New York to work at the International Court in the Hague. Among her clients is an ex-president on trial for war crimes.

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Die Nicht Sterben, Dana Grigorcea

A beguiling mix of Gothic and post-1989 Romania taking in political greed, corruption and Vlad the Impaler. I was very pleased to see it has been translated and is slated for publication in August.

Eleanor Updegraff – Freelance Writer, Translator and Editor

Summer Tip – General

The Fire by Daniela Krien, translated by Jamie Bulloch

I recently fell in love with Daniela Krien’s The Fire, translated by Jamie Bulloch. Set in rural Germany over three weeks in the summer, this slender novel contains a lot more than you might expect at first glance and is, like all Krien’s work, both beautifully atmospheric and incredibly astute when it comes to relationships. Part social commentary, part character study, funny and moving by turns, it’s the perfect book to enjoy over the course of a long summer’s afternoon.

To read an NBG interview with Daniela Krien and Jamie Bulloch about this wonderful novel, click here.

Summer Tip – New Books in German

The Message (Die Nachricht) by Doris Knecht

In a similar vein when it comes to detailed description and finely observed characters, my NBG pick is one that was published a couple of summers ago: The Message by Doris Knecht. Set in and around Vienna, Knecht’s novel examines the dark side of social media from a feminist perspective and is a wholly engaging read – the kind of story you can really sink into but which will leave you thinking long beyond the final page.

To start reading The Message in English in a sample by Lucy Jones, click here. Lucy interviewed Doris Knecht for NBG and you can read that here.

Annie Rutherford, Head of Library, Goethe-Institut Glasgow

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Elly by Maike Wetzel

I recently re-read Maike Wetzel’s Elly with the Goethe-Institut Glasgow book club – I always love it when books unfurl new meanings or possibilities when you return to them, and that was very much the case with Elly, a slender novel which in leaving a lot unspoken builds up an eerie sense of unease.

Reminiscent of Ian McEwan’s A Child in TimeElly will have wide appeal … Maike Wetzel’s fresh, original take on the popular literary theme of missing children is delivered in her clear, understated prose with its unflinching eye for detail.’

New Books in German’s recommendation

Summer Tip – New Books in German

Some of Us Just Fall: On Nature and Not Getting Better, by Polly Atkin

This beautifully written, thought-provoking memoir depicts the human body as its own landscape and environment, while exploring what it means to live with chronic illness. Atkin’s writing is wry and generous, and the book is dappled with joy like light falling through leaves.

Anne Vial, Literary Scout

Summer Tip – New Books in German

22 Lengths (22 Bahnen) by Caroline Wahl

Sold to Neri Pozza/IT, Albin Michel/FR, Al-Arabi (Arab);Chanda Pustaka (Canada).

#9 Bestseller list, Over 37.000 copies sold. 

This atmospheric, genuine and moving coming-of-age debut seems to have struck a chord with booksellers too. Swimming is what keeps our young heroine sane, and the “Freibad”-scenes make for a “summery” read.

22 Lengths is a poignant and realistic social novel tackling themes of dysfunctional families, alcoholism, two sisters carrying their parents´ burdens –  but also a story of freedom and love (in all its facets). A deep, touching and honest novel about how to find the courage to live our own lives, despite our family responsibilities. How to find fulfilment and fearlessly make our own life choices without feeling the guilt of abandoning or hurting those that depend on us. I look forward to reading more from Caroline Wahl in the future.

Summer Tip – General

Time of Losses (Zeit fuer Verluste) by Daniel Schreiber

I cannot wait to read this essay! Over 100,000 copies of his previous novel, Alone (Allein) were sold. In his new essay, Daniel Schreiber will look at the central human experience that shapes our present and pushes our limits like no other: the loss of certainty and safety.  Based on the personal experience of his father’s death, Daniel Schreiber writes about a day in mist-shrouded Venice, and our social ability to mourn – as individuals, and society. And is looking for ways to deal with a feeling which often overwhelms us… We love the elegance and honesty of his writing. 

Photo by Perfecto Capucine on Unsplash