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Apologies in advance for the Berlin-centric nature of these picks. I also know I should have selections by Herman Hesse and Goethe on the list, but I haven’t liked any of the former’s books so far and I haven’t gotten around to reading the latter.
Berlin Noir and the Bernie Gunther Series
Kerr’s protagonist is a sardonic, hard-boiled complement to Forest Gump, hopping from one historical moment and personage to the next. I not only gained a better understanding of well-known events (the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Kristallnacht, the reign of the Perons in Argentina) but also lesser-known incidents, including the Katyn massacre in Poland. Since I see the question asked a lot on the interwebs, I’m including the books in the order they were released. You don’t have to read them in order and you can even skip a few (as my friend did when she couldn’t handle the bleakness of Bernie getting tossed in a Russian labor camp), but to get the full Bernie experience, try to stick to this sequence:
- March Violets
- The Pale Criminal
- If the Dead Rise Not
- Field Grey: A Bernie Gunther Mystery
- Prague Fatale
- A Man Without Breath
- The Lady From Zagreb
- The Other Side of Silence
- Prussian Blue
- Greeks Bearing Gifts
The Berlin Stories
Known mostly as the basis for the movie and play Cabaret, Isherwood’s two books that make up The Berlin Stories capture the glamour and seediness of 1930s Berlin. Particularly, in Goodbye to Berlin, we are immersed in a colorful cast of characters, from the inimitable Sally Bowles to the narrator (who may or may not be based on Isherwood), with the looming Nazi presence in the background. (Recommended by Shannon McClatchey, photographer, world-wandering art fiend)
Bowie in Berlin: A New Career in a New Town
Fans of the Thin White Duke will learn all sorts of trivia about 1970s Berlin, including a peek into the world-renowned Hansa Studios. Berlin may have changed a lot since Bowie lived there, but the tales behind the songs still resonate. (Fun facts: Iggy Pop wrote “The Passenger” while traveling around the S-Bahn. And Bowie wrote “‘Heroes’” while sitting in a Hansa window and watching his producer make out next to the Wall.)
The Ghosts of Berlin: Confronting German History in the Urban Landscape
Although it reads a little too much like a textbook in some places, the sheer amount of knowledge that can be gleaned through Berlin architecture kept me turning the page. When I had friends visiting Berlin, I often found myself retelling some of the book’s stories, such as the stealthy late-night return of the Quadriga to East Berlin for restoration. Those nuggets alone are worth slogging through some of the slower parts.
A Guide to Berlin
Although its title may make it seem like the book goes against the criteria for this project, it is, in fact, a novel (not a travel guide), one that was long-listed for Australia’s Stella Prize. From A Year of Reading the World: “Told through the eyes of Cass, a young Australian woman who rents a bedsit in Berlin to try to write and falls in with a group of foreign nationals living in the city, the novel explores the surprising, strange, and sometimes terrible things that link us.” (Recommended by Ann Morgan, author and TED speaker)
The author may be better known for The Neverending Story, but the titular character of Momo provides a German counterpart to Sweden’s Pippi Longstocking, an imaginative and fiercely independent spirit who shows more guts and gumption than the “adults” in the nearby village.
Based on the true story of Olga Benário Prestes, a German Jew who traveled to Brazil in 1935 to help instate a Communist regime in the country. Although she died young in a concentration camp, Prestes did more in her 34 years than most of us do in twice that time. In Berlin, a street and Stolperstein are named in her memory. There’s also a movie based on the book (although it’s somewhat overacted) and a German adaptation of the biography that I’d recommend more. (Recommended by Daniel Cassús)
Although I wasn’t a fan of this book (or Hesse’s other “masterpiece,” Steppenwolf), I recognize that it’s considered a classic in many cultures — in Switzerland and Germany, both of who claim the author as their own, and in Nepal and India, where the story, which prominently features Buddha and Buddhism, takes place. Several well-known music artists (Yes, Pete Townshend, Nick Drake) have written songs based on the book, so maybe you need a musical ear to get Hesse.
Why We Took the Car
Known as Tschick in its homeland, the award-winning German book is both a coming-of-age tale and a road trip — two elements the author cited as key to the books he enjoyed growing up. (Book recommended by Peter Wittig, German ambassador to the U.S., in CN Traveler.)
Zoo Station: The Story of Christiane F. (Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo)
Don’t let a memoir about drugs and prostitution turn you off. Yes, it’s dark, but there’s a reason the book continues to sell decades after its 1979 release. Instead, it’s an insightful glimpse into the divided city of Berlin during some of its most tumultuous years. Fun fact: Bowie plays a bit of a role in the book (and movie), and it’s quite likely he and Christiane F. often crossed paths as he walked to Hansa Studios to record his Berlin trilogy of albums and she “worked” on Kurfürstenstraße.
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