Book review: Look Who’s Back

I recently joined a new book club (see my previous post about relocating and using meetup.com to meet people!) and talking about books in a group again has inspired me to blog reviews once more. I have been a bit slack recently as although I have been reading lots I haven’t been blogging. So here goes, first book review for a while. It was a good discussion about a bad book; I read it and really didn’t like it so attended the group in some trepidation in case everyone else loved it but luckily the majority had similar views to me. Bit of a relief considering it was my first meeting!

Look Whos BackLook Who’s Back
Timur Vermes
Warning, this review contains spoilers. This book apparently caused a stir in Germany when it was first published as its main character is Adolf Hitler, the person who is ‘back’ which is obviously a controversial choice. The premise is that Hitler wakes up on a patch of ground in Berlin in the Summer of 2011. To him it was only yesterday that he was in his bunker, so he is rather surprised by the modern world of 2011, not least the fact that Germany apparently lost WWII. However, through dint of his ‘personality’ and single mindedness he ends up managing to make media contacts, get a tv contract, navigate the pitfalls of modern technology before becoming a media star by the end of the book.

The opening chapter is relatively engaging but as far as I am concerned it goes downhill from there. The novel is meant to be a satire on the cult of personality, a witty riposte to the modern obsession with the latest celebrity ‘on trend’ who spouts nonsense but I just didn’t feel it when reading the novel. I didn’t find it witty, funny or satirical. The situations are contrived, the media consultants cardboard cut-outs and ‘Hitlerisms’ jammed into conversations. The novel is told from Hitler’s point of view, which gets wearing really quickly as the author takes every opportunity to use this narrative device to tell us what he thinks Hitler would think of the Internet, smartphones, etc. One of the only successful pieces of writing in the book is the ‘transcript’ of one of Hitler’s speeches to the media crew. It is typeset in free verse and is just phrases strung together, ‘inspirational’, all high emotion and fine-sounding but no real depth which, to me, accurately reflected what eyewitnesses have reported they felt when they listened to Hitler speak.

And, the cherry on top for me is the editing of this novel. Having a background in publishing, I found the constant typos a distraction. I also found the novel just didn’t seem to flow; it’s difficult to judge whether that’s the authors’ fault or the translator’s. However, kudos to the designer, it is a very striking cover.

Would I recommend this? No. But if you read Look Who’s Back in the original German, please let me know what you think of it. Maybe I missed something in the translation…

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How to: Make book recommendations to your book club or book group

I love recommending books; it is one of my favourite things – when I’m not reading books of course. So I am always very (too?) vocal in my book group, when we get round to discussing and choosing ‘the next book’. I have belonged to, or run, many book clubs over the years and have the following advice for members of book groups who struggle to choose books or want to get out of the rut of their current choices.

Selection system

Before talking about book selection choices, as a group you need to agree HOW you will select your books.  Democratically (obviously) but how? One option is for each member of the group to take their turn to select the following month’s book; another option is for all of the group members to each recommend a book, then once all books have been presented, the group votes and the book with the most votes is selected.

Some groups like to have their reading list set for the next six months, or even the year, others like to ‘wing it’ a bit more and don’t like the idea of being tied down to six to 12 book selections. It’s up to you.

Accessibility of the text is another element to take into account; you don’t want to select books that are only available in hardback, are brand new so super expensive or not stocked in the library.

What sort of books do you want to read?

Once you have decided how you will be choosing books, you might want to limit the selection to a certain genre (science fiction, contemporary literature, short story), a specific author (Dickens, Austen) or award winning books (like working your way through the Booker winners list). Ongoing or monthly themes are also a useful way to limit selection e.g.  ‘madness’ (The Yellow Wallpaper, The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox).

How to select a good ‘discussion’ book

As Dorothy Parker so beautifully put it once about a hated tome, “…this is not a novel to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force.” It is too easy to select a book that doesn’t work for a book group discussion: Too pretentious; too simplistic; too controversial; sometimes a book that is really enjoyable to read for one’s own pleasure just doesn’t have enough depth for discussion purposes.

Books that work well for discussion are novels that offer an intriguing plot such as Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, a polarizing storyline such as Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk About Kevin or something that enables an ‘ethics’ discussion such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale or Herman Koch’s The Dinner. Further suggestions are listed at the end of this article.

Reading guides, book recommendations, resources

Need a bit of extra help to talk about your chosen book, or come up with discussion questions? Publisher sites are very supportive of their readers; many post discussion guides, author interviews, suggestions for further reading, etc.  Some also host online book clubs/discussions that you can join in. There are, of course, also many, many book group guides sites: Goodreads is the largest site for readers and book recommendations in the world. It has more than 14,000,000 members who have added more than 470,000,000 books to their shelves.  There are online book clubs, online discussions, etc. and it is a great site to get ideas for books to read. Reading group guides and Book Browse both offer hundreds of reading guides to a range of contemporary and classic literature and fiction (and some non-fiction too).

List of further suggestions

This could be endless, I know I will have missed lots of people’s favourites. I apologize in advance!

Books that stimulate strong discussion/dissension:

  • The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
  • Gone Girl, Gilian Flynn
  • Atonement, Ian McEwan
  • Perfume, Patrick Suskind
  • People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks
  • We Need to Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver

Books made into films:

  • The Book Thief, Markus Zusak
  • Chocolat, Joanne Harris
  • Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
  • Life of Pi, Yann Martel
  • Emma, Jane Austen
  • Les Misérables, Victor Hugo

Short stories:

  • Collected short stories, Roald Dahl
  • Short stories, W.Somerset Maugham
  • Like a House on Fire, Cate Kennedy
  • The Garden Party & Other Stories, Katherine Mansfield

Historical fiction:

  • The Luminaries, Eleanor Catton
  • Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  • The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco
  • Restoriation, Rose Tremain

Dystopian themes:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood
  • 1984, George Orwell
  • The Passage, Justin Cronin
  • Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
  • Wool, Hugh Howey

Fantasy/Magic Realism

  • The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern
  • The Time Traveller’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger
  • One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
  • Like Water for Chocolate, Laura Esquivel