In The Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin
by Erik Larson
This non-fiction bestseller, set in pre-world war Germany is an amazing story narrated by the well-known writer, Erik Larson. The author follows William Dodd, the U.S. Ambassador to Hitler's Germany during the build-up to the war. Dodd watches with growing alarm as the Nazis gain power. Trying to convince the politicians back home that this is a dangerous situation, he speaks out heroically, yet he is continually thwarted. The reader will leave this book understanding more about Berlin before the war, as well as the United States' particular brand of naïve optimism. The streets of Berlin come alive, not only with political figures, but with the average German citizen. And you will never forget Dodd's daughter!
"By far his best and most enthralling work of novelistic history. ...xPowerful, poignant ... a transportingly true story." – The New York Times
"Tells a fascinating story brilliantly well." – Financial Times
"The hotel was one of Berlin's finest, with gigantic chandeliers and fireplaces and two glass-roofed courtyards, one of which – the Palm Courtyard – was famous for its tea dances and as the place where Berliners had gotten their first opportunity to dance the Charleston. Greta Garbo had once been a guest as had Charlie Chaplin. Messersmith had booked the Imperial Suite, a collection of rooms that included a large-double-bedded room with private bath. ...xBut such opulence abraded every principle of the Jeffersonian ideal that Dodd had embraced throughout his life. Dodd had made it known before his arrival that he wanted 'modest quarters in a modest hotel' … ." – In the Garden of Beasts, Broadway, 2012 edition.
Stones from the River
by Ursula Hegi
The narrative of Ursula Hegi's novel Stones from the River encompasses the time period of the two World Wars in a small fictional town in Germany. The main character is a woman who is a dwarf, an outsider. It is through her eyes we see the inner workings of the village, along with its stories and secrets. Although not a particularly happy book, its worth lies in the fascinating characters and the description of German village life. An Oprah Book Club selection in 1997.
"What a novel is supposed to be: epic, daring, magnificent, the product of a defining and mesmerizing vision. ...xIt is in a word, remarkable." – Michael Dorris, Los Angeles Times
"Rich and lively. ...xThis moving, elegiac novel commands our compassion and respect for the wisdom and courage to be found in unlikely places, in unlikely times." – Suzanne Ruta, The New York Times
"It was the summer of 1915, and the town belonged to the women. With their husbands fighting on the Eastern front for the past year, they had relearned to open even the most difficult snaps on their salmon-colored corsets; they had become accustomed to making decisions – like which repairs to do themselves and which to leave until after the war. ...xIn this small town that was encumbered by centuries of tradition, women without husbands did not fit in: they were objects of pity or gossip. But the war changed all that." – Stones from the River, Simon and Schuster, 1997 edition.
by Sybille Bedford
Sybille Bedford's novel takes place in Germany before World War I. It is the story of two families: one, a family of Jews in Berlin and the other, a Catholic family from the south of Germany who become comically and tragically involved with each other. The author herself says of her characters: "Each family stood confident of being able to go on with what was theirs, while in fact they were playthings, often victims, of the now united Germany and what was brewing therein." A Legacy gives us an intimate glimpse of a German society and culture that is about to fall apart.
"A book of entirely delicious quality. ...xEverything is new, cool, witty, elegant." – Evelyn Waugh
"I spent the first nine years of my life in Germany, bundled to and fro between houses. One was outrageously large and ugly; the other was beautiful. They were a huge Wilhelminian town house in the old West of Berlin, built and inhabited by the parents of my father's first wife, and a small seventeenth-century chateau and park in the south, near the Vosges, bought for my father by my mother. ...xI was born, however, in a flat rented for the occasion in the suburb of Charlottenburg." – A Legacy, Counterpoint, 2002 edition.
The Berlin Stories
by Christopher Isherwood
This is a period of time that fascinates me in European history, the era between the two World Wars. Christopher Isherwood has captured Berlin during this era: the cafes, the nightlife, the people making money wherever they can, the eccentrics. These novellas contain marvelous characters, including the author himself. Funny and tragic.
"He writes his language – it is not always our language – with the tonal exactitude and humorous economy of a man who can be conventional, so distinct is his verbal inheritance. Isherwood's writing has the music of the old English fineness in it. It never presses or stammers ... he is a man who touches his language with affectionate brush strokes in exile." – Alfred Kazin, The New York Times Book Review
"From my window, the deep solemn massive street. Cellar-shops where the lamps burn all day, under the shadow of top-heavy balconied façades, dirty plaster frontages embossed with scrollwork and heraldic devices. The whole district is like this: street leading into street of houses like shabby monumental safes crammed with the tarnished valuables and second-hand furniture of a bankrupt middle class. ...xAt eight o'clock in the evening the house-doors will be locked. The children are having supper. The shops are shut. The electric sign is switched on over the night bell of the little hotel on the corner, where you can hire a room by the hour. And soon the whistling will begin. Young men are calling their girls." – Berlin Stories, New Directions, 1954 edition.
The Tin Drum
by Günter Grass
Because this is considered one of the greatest German novels written since World War II I have included it in this list. Grass is a serious writer with a political vision and vast literary powers. However, this is not an easy or quick novel to read. The main character, Oskar, is a child who decides to stay a child, never growing beyond three feet and using his drum and his childish screeches to make political points. Grass points toward the outrages, not only of Germany, but all of mankind. So you see, it is a very serious novel, in a sometimes very funny guise. Take this book on as a challenge and you won't regret it.
"The unforgettable Oskar Matzerath is an intellectual whose critical approach is childishness, a one-man carnival, dadaism in action in everyday German provincial life just when this small world becomes involved in the sanity of the great world surrounding it. It is not too audacious to assume that The Tin Drum will become one of the enduring literary works of the twentieth century" – The Swedish Academy, awarding Günter Grass the Nobel Prize for Literature, 1999.
" ... it's Grass's dazzling use of language that sets The Tin Drum apart, as he spins a dense verbal web alive with wordplay and innovation." – Phil Mongredien, The Observer
"Granted: I am an inmate of a mental hospital; my keeper is watching me, he never lets me out of his sight; there's a peephole in the door, and my keeper's eye is the shade of brown that can never see through a blue-eyed type like me. ...xSo you see, my keeper can't be an enemy. I've come to be very fond of him; when he stops looking at me from behind the door and comes into the room, I tell him incidents from my life, so he can get to know me in spite of the peephole between us. He seems to treasure my stories, because every time I tell him some fairy tale, he shows his gratitude by bringing out his latest knot construction." – The Tin Drum, Vintage, 1990 edition.
by Rhidian Brook
The setting of this novel is post-war Germany when the army of occupation was supervising the restoration of the country. The view of post-war Germany is devastating; and how the occupiers treat and help or not help the overwhelmed population tells us much about the characters themselves. A masterful story and an education on the 'aftermath' of a war.
"The strength of this novel lies in its superb management of the various lines of narrative tension, alongside a painfully clear portrait of Germany in defeat." – Gerard Woodward, The Guardian
"Captain Wilkins stubbed out his cigarette and placed his yellowed finger on the map of Hamburg that was pinned to the wall behind his desk. He traced a line west from the pinhead marking their temporary headquarters, away from the bombed-out districts of Hammerbrook and St. Georg, over St. Pauli and Altona, towards the old fishing suburb of Blankenese, where the Elbe veered up and debouched into the North Sea. The map – pulled from a pre-war German guidebook – failed to show that these conurbations were now a phantom city comprised only of ash and rubber." – The Aftermath, Knopf, 2013 edition.