Showing posts from February, 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.

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., existent…

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 A…

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, …


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"…

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."

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.

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 Konwis…

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 …

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…

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…