Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Anal Retentive Cool

Germans love complaining about how restrictive, bureaucratic and over-regulated their society is, but it's much more an automatic reflex than real. Trust me, I'd much rather be in the claws of the German tax authorities than the IRS, and going through customs at the JFK airport is like trying to get out of a Gulag compared with customs in Germany. But one thing's for sure, as you can see in this comparison of drab, boring German verboten-signs......with cool American verboten-signs (provided here by a reader of mine, Henner, from a recent trip to San Francisco): When we Americans do uptight, we do it with flair. Hey, if you're going to be anal, restrictive and controlling, do it right.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Is Thrillers the New Serious Literature?

With thrillers and murder mysteries dominating the American bestseller lists, you have to wonder if this means something. The Washington Post critic Patrick Anderson thinks so – he just published a book called "The Triumph of the Thriller," in which he makes the case for taking thrillers and murder mysteries more seriously.

Our knee-jerk prioritizing of mainstream or literary fiction as "serious," he says, comes from the innocent, "heile-Welt" times of the '50's, and no longer reflects reality today. He places the beginning of the march of the thriller at the time of Kennedy's assassination, when it became clear to most normal people, if not to literary critics and bourgeois authors, that the only valid description of the world we live in is a dark one.Since then, fiction has been at war. On the one hand you have literature that depicts reality as consisting mainly of crime, murder, ruthlessness, betrayal, immorality and death – i.e., existential themes; on the other hand, you have domestic literature that the "serious" authors write – growing up in a dysfunctional family like Jonathan Frantzen's "The Corrections," etc. Which is really just a nostalgic look back to the innocent family-oriented '50's, much like George W. Bush and his conservative basis does. You could make a case for "serious" fiction being the literary equivalent of the religious right, while the dirtier, grittier crime fiction represents the angry protests of the disaffected left.

You could make the same case in Germany, of course. For all their intelligence and "criticism," German writers who are still trying to be Thomas Mann are basically harking back to a time when the world was in order, even if they criticize that world. When a modern writer writes critically about the modern family, he is really trying to cure an ailment that has been obsolete for decades.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Ah, These Parables of Nature

Isn't Mother Nature wonderful? The way she keeps sending us those little parables of nature, those allegories of life, those gentle hints? Like this one, which unfolded before my desk as I sat staring at my computer thinking up excuses not to get to work.

Best of Berlin

Why do I love Berlin? This is Reason #598: the Dodohaus.The Dodohaus is a little ground-floor apartment turned bar. In Germany, you get tax breaks if you form a club with some kind of cultural aspect, so a lot of bars register as clubs for, in this case, the promotion of culture surrounding the dodo. The owner, Rainer, was born in Africa and lived for a while in Mauritius, so there is a stronger connection to the dodo than just the posters hanging on the wall and a tax break.He called me one day and asked if I would read out of "Planet Germany." I didn’t know what to expect. I certainly didn’t expect it to be this small. It was literally a living room. So I did my thing and we talked afterwards, and that was that – but then I hung on a little and watched. It wasn't until everything was over that the real Dodohaus came to life.The regulars gathered around the piano. One guy played, his girlfriend sang, another guy played guitar. They went through half of the "White Album" and all of "Hair." Everyone joined in. Some of them danced. The children danced.The older women sat against the wall with their hands in their laps and gossiped. The English guy with the droopy eyes got a dreamy look and floated off into some little pleasant world. The black African danced and clowned around. The sad-looking Iraqi beauty talked about some important subject and smiled at the choruses.
The unemployed East German raved on and on about his vacation trip to Florida and New Orleans and showed off his souvenir joke sunglasses. The big Polish woman, the Indian (Pakistani?) woman, the gray-haired, serious-minded German 68-generation woman…
There were so many nationalities, so many different experiences, so many different dreams and disappointments and … lives there. Where else do these people just come together as if it were the most natural thing in the world and sing and talk and joke and drink together? It was such a Berlin thing: During the day you're out there scraping together (or not) money and arguing with the neighbors, but at night you get together in a bar and that's like another family, you are kind and heartfelt here in your second living room, and you don’t leave without a hug and a kiss. I think they pick up a love for it when they're students – when they are open to the world and curious about people of the wierdest kind and don’t have money to be picky or pretentious, and you get a taste for it, and if you're lucky enough when you're older you find a bar like this in Berlin and you make it your second living room.

That's Berlin. The best of Berlin.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

A Tale of Two Bestseller Lists

There is no bigger mistake a writer can make than checking out the bestseller lists each week to see if his book is on it. If it isn’t there – and for 99% of all writers, it isn’t there – the experience is sheer torture. Every week.

I do it regularly.

And I've been taking notes. And I noticed something on the fiction lists (though I am a non-fiction writer) that says a lot about the difference between Germany and the US.

First of all, of the 15 titles on the current US list, 15 are from US authors. That means Harry Potter isn’t out yet.

Of the first fifteen authors on the German "Spiegel" list (I stopped counting at 15 for comparison reasons), only 6 are German. The others come from all over: from Sweden and Denmark, France, Ireland, the UK (Marina Lewycka, Frederick Forsyth) and two from the US (Hannibal Rising and Michael Crichton's Next).

Germans are always complaining that big American authors are taking over their literary culture and edging out everyone else, but the truth is that Germans love foreign culture and import it from everywhere. Usually there are one or two African or Near East novelists on the list too (Pamuk has one title).

More interestingly – and this poses a dilemma for any writer – the German list represents a large mix of genres, while the New York Times list is nearly completely made up of mysteries and thrillers (I counted Hannibal Rising as a thriller, though it could also be drama or literature – Thomas Harris was originally a thriller-writer before he got weird):New York Times:

Thrillers/Mystery: 8
Horror-Thriller: 1
Sci-Fi: 2 (including 1 sci-fi thriller)
Literature/Drama: 3 (including Norman Mailer, Castle in the Forest)
Love Story: 1


Thriller/Mystery: 7
Comedy: 3
Literature/Drama: 5

(I counted Daniel Kehlmann's "Die Vermessung der Welt" as literature, though it could be counted as a historical novel – historical novels slanted toward women are very popular in Germany now and the lower end of the bestseller list – numbers 16 – 25 – is loaded with them.)For a writer like me, who writes in two languages, this is a dilemma. It means that if I were to make the attempt to succeed as a novel writer in America, I would have to write thrillers or murder mysteries. On the one hand that's good: it means I know what's expected of me. On the other, it's bad: I can’t write thrillers.

In Germany, on the other hand, you have the freedom to write what you want. Though publishers will tell you that your chances are best with thrillers, historical novels or comedies, in fact anything can make the bestseller lists with a little luck. Or, nothing at all.

Saturday, February 17, 2007


I did a good thing this week. I taught a handful of Americans and Brits a very important German word: Absacker. It started out as a very civil evening with my former colleagues from The Hollywood Reporter, who were in Berlin for the film festival. And it remained civil, even through such complicated linguistic lessons as "doch" and "Fick dich ins knie" (hard to translate). Nothing seemed to phase them.Then I made the mistake of teaching them "Absacker." "Absacker" is one of those words that only German has, like, well, "doch" and "Fick dich ins Knie". It's a word word that only a language can have whose people know how to enjoy life. And these friends of mine, though not German, know how to enjoy life. Now they also have a word to go with it. "Absacker" means literally "the faller-over" and it refers to the last drink of the evening. But the beauty of "Absacker" is that "last drink" is a very relative term. You never know which of the Absackers of the evening will be the actual faller-over. Depends on the evening, and an Absacker-evening gets better as it goes along. That's the beauty of the Absacker.

Reason #431 Why Berlin is a Great City

Berliners – hell, all Germans – complain about the inefficiency and unreliability of the subways and trains, but it's a sure sign that things are improving when other cities around the world start to do what Berlin has been doing for years.

New York is now testing a system of electronic signs in the subways that tell passengers how many minutes they will have to wait for the next train. Of course, most Berlin subway lines and even a lot of bus stops have had such a system for years now (and it's great).

In a story about it, the New York Times wrote with surprise that the new systems seemed "as foreign to the subway as a man offering a woman a seat on a crowded train. On this day, however, the signs worked like a charm. A stopwatch revealed that the trains came and went as predicted. It was almost unnerving."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

First Reading in Vellmar

A couple of weeks ago I had my first reading from "Planet Germany" before a reading club in a little town called Vellmar just outside Kassel. It was great fun - the people, about 115, were friendly, warm, hospitable, everything you could wish for, the best possible opening shot on the reading season.

I didn't get any photos of Vellmar itself or the people, but the next day I took a stroll through the former palace of the territorial prince in nearby Wilhelmshoehe. The palace grounds were designed by some genius Italien landscape architect about a hundred years ago (?) or something like that. After all this time, it still looks good. It also looks like this guy spent a lot of money on things other than the local health insurance program.

Monday, February 12, 2007

More Power to Slack Key

Some Hawaiians are complaining that a slack key guitar album has now won the Hawaiian Grammy this year again for three years running, but I say: great. (Photo above: Producers George Kahumoku Jr. and Wayne Wong at the Grammy's. Below: Richard Ho'opi'i and others sing chorus of "Hawai'i Aloha" on stage. Both photos courtesy of Honolulu Advertiser).

Critics say that older Hawaiian styles, like chanting or drumming, should gain recognition by getting a Grammy, but I say Slack key guitar is a true Hawaiian art form, though more modern than chanting, and every Grammy it gets means more international recognition for and more international interest in an art form that is too often pooh-poohed. (Best Hawaiian album was added as a category to the Grammys three years ago within the folk music category.)

The album that won this year is "Legends of Hawaiian Slack Key Guitar - Live from Maui", a compilation by producers Daniel Ho, George Kahumoku Jr., Paul Konwiser and Wayne Wong of Daniel Ho Creations and features tracks by Led Kaapana, Cyril Pahinui, Dennis Kamakahi, George Kahumoku, Jr., one of my favorites Ozzie Kotani and others. Buy it, listen to it, lean back and imagine the waves lapping against the shores at night.

Friday, February 09, 2007

What's Wrong with "The Lives of Others" - or Not

"The Lives of Others" has now hit American screens and everyone seems to love it. (My Hollywood Reporter colleagues are in town and I got into a knock-down drag-out with the chief reviewer who really loved the movie and thinks it could even beat "Pan," which is clearly the front runner - on the other hand, why not?)

However, what most Americans don't know are the East/West aspects that were much discussed here when the film first came out. A while after the movie was released, I had a beer with a Polish friend of mine and her Former-East German husband, and the topic of "The Lives of Others" came up.

It was hard to say exactly what about the movie made our East German friend most angry. I think the main problem most East Germans have with it is that, well, they didn’t make it. Being a movie made in West Germany by West Germans (who based it not on East German history, but on the opera "Tosca"), it was inevitable that some East Germans would be upset.

Many East Germans feel that a film about the Stasi should tell the historical truth about their past, so the world will know. They have a point. The East Germans are generally neglected and pooh-poohed. In fact, in West Germany there is an underlying scorn of East Germans which is hard to explain. The cliché about East Germans is that they are lazy no-goods who want nothing more but to live from the state, but if you look around at the most prominent, successful people in West Germany, you see that many of them are East Germans, including Germany's top soccer player, Germany's top rock band and Germany's chancellorette Angela Merkel. There is more unemployment in East Germany than West, but to judge by the East Germans I know in Berlin, all of whom are better employed and more proactive than the average West German in Berlin, that has more to do with the economy than with their laziness.

Still, the West Germans continue to disparage East Germans. Here's my latest InstaTheory on the subject: West Germans are angry at East Germans.

Why? Because the West always loved pointing to East Germans as a combination of "Good-Germans-because-they-are-not-as-materialistic-as-we-are" on the one hand and "Our-poor-relatives-we-can-look-down-on-and- patronize-and-feel-sorry-for-and-superior-to." Much of the German feeling of self-worth is derived from being able to patronize others, and now, after East Germany's successful revolution and entry into the wealthy West, they have betrayed all that. How could West Germans ever forgive them for that?

Anyway, back to the East German reaction to "The Lives of Others." At our table, two explanations were given for why it was a bad, even an evil film. I listened closely, and the more I listened, the more confused I got. There were two main reasons given for why it was a false portrayal of East Germans:

Reason 1: It wasn't that bad. "The Stasi wasn't as powerful as it is portrayed in the film. If you read protocols of public speeches, you will be surprised at how much criticism was made publicly of the system. It was possible to criticize the system without getting in trouble. And an actress of that stature, like the character played by Martina Gedeck in the film, could never be so easily blackmailed. If a minister tried to force her into giving him sex, as it happens in the film, all she had to do was tell the head of the cultural ministry and that guy would be gone for good."

Reason 2: It was much worse. "No one wants to know the truth about how the Stasi was. The main Stasi officer in the film is portrayed as having a heart and turning into a kind human being. Anyone who lived in East Germany could tell you that that was impossible. No one gets into such a high position in politics without being completely ruthless and being 100% conform with the system. No real Stasi officer would sacrifice his career to save that woman. Politics were involved in this film. The West German filmmakers consulted with former Stasi officers on how the Stasi was – of course they're going to tell you that it wasn't as bad as it was."

I personally see a contradiction here. Was the reality worse or better than portrayed in the film? Or is there another reason why East Germans disapprove of it? Maybe because the portrayal of East Germany has fallen into West German hands, and East Germans have not yet found a way to retaliate in a way that is sexy enough to get people interested?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Spiegel Loves Me

The second best thing just happened to me that can happen to a writer in Germany: Henryk M. Broder, a star columnist with Germany's leading newsweekly, the all-powerful "Spiegel" wrote me up in their online edition.

And what a write-up! The guy loved the book. And this is a guy who doesn't love many books. He liked the way I made fun of Germans' fascination with their own souls, with their fear of being "McDonaldized," with their relationship to their state and to their fear of Neo-Nazis. He compared me with Michael Moore, Alfred Grosser, Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Bob Dylan. Why? I don’t know. He wrote, "Maybe the difference between a missionary and a journalist isn't as big as one might think. What they both have to have is good powers of observation and a talent for reducing complex stories to their core." He closed with: "Now that's an example for a realistic and future-oriented attitude of the kind that one doesn't find in Germany every day." (Read the entire article here.)

Only later did I find out that there is one honor even greater than a great review by Broder – a really, really bad one. Hell, I'll take what I can get.

Thank you, Mr. Broder. It was an honor.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Aloha from Lecture Hall 06

Isn't this the most frightening sight you've ever seen? That's right, it's a typical Germany university lecture hall - a little bit ratty, concrete everywhere, no windows, a box in a building of boxes. This is where I spent much of my life when I studied (in Munich) and it's where professors still spend most of their lives. A nightmare...

And the perfect spot for a pseudo-academic lecture about the "Aesthetics of Nagging."

For my book "Planet Germany" I wrote a pseudo-scientific treatise on that subject and sent it off to 20 universities with the request that they install a new professorship for the Aesthetics of Nagging at their institute with me as its head. Of the 20, I got 5 replies back, and of those, 3 were funny.

Of those three, one - the Frankfurt University - invited me to give an open lecture on the foundations of the aesthetics of nagging, which I did Thursday (Feb. 1). It was the best public performance I have given so far. The lecture hall - Hall 06 of the philological faculty (FB09) - was full (this photo was taken as we began setting up), everyone was in the mood for laughing at themselves and when, at the end of my lecture, I repeatedly demanded of the dean (professor Vossen) that he install a professorship for me, everyone broke out into applause.

Didn't help, though - I still don't have one.

But for a guy like me, who was not necessarily the best student, and who only made it to his Master's (in Munich), it was quite a thrill to be able to give an scholarly lecture in one of the same rooms that had tortured me all my student life.