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Books this Season: Nonfiction

Spring 2008

Here we introduce the most talked about books of the 2008 spring season. The German newspapers have long and (for some) tedious names, so we use abbreviations. Here is a key to them.

Fiction / Nonfiction


Culture steps over the border into power, power welcomes it with a open arms and culture repays the compliment with a pen. Or more specifically, the French star playwright Yasmina Reza ("Art") shadowed Nicolas Sarkozy throughout the election campaign and then published "L'Aube le soir ou la nuit", now available in German as "Frühmorgens, abends oder nachts", a portrait of a man who landed the job he had always coveted. The proximity to her subject, for the FAZ at least, has not impaired her vision, but has allowed the author to practise an unsparing "vivisection" of a man of our time.

Into the kitchen

Bill Buford was the literary editor at the New Yorker but left his job to study under the star chef Mario Batali. He then described the excruciating results in "Heat: An Amateur's Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-Maker, and Apprentice to a Dante-Quoting Butcher in Tuscany". Critics from the FAZ and FR cannot believe their eyes. The "jobs from hell" have been transformed into an exquisite reading pleasure and you learn everything you ever needed to know about the art of cooking at the very highest level, or a perhaps a wafer thin mint too much. (Here an excerpt from the New Yorker)


The non-fiction books this spring take on Islam from all imaginable angles. One of the most respected authorities on the subject, Olivier Roy, has written his "Le Croissant et le chaos", now available in German, as a polemic against over-simplification. He doesn't limit himself to the - nuanced - criticism of hawkish American policy, but also insists that the western image of Islam, veiled as it is by ignorance, should be more complex. The German feuilletons couldn't agree more. The FAZ believes that it is "already the most important book for the aftermath of the next major terrorist attack." The SZ is overflowing with praise for this "furious little book", the taz quibbles with a number of details but recommends it nevertheless, as the work of an "original thinker."

But there is no question where allegiances lie in the battle of the Mohammed biographies. While "Mohammed" by the Dutch academic Hans Jansen met with fierce resistance from die Zeit, mainly on the basis of its sarcasm and "unscientific argumentation", German Islam expert Tilman Nagel won all round approval for his two books. In "Mohammed" he examines the "life and legends" of the prophet; in "Allas Liebling" (Allah's favourite) he analyses the "origins and forms of belief in Mohammed". For SZ critic Peter Heine, a colleague of Nagel, the results of the research and their presentation are "impressive and convincing in their entirety". See our feature by Tilman Nagel here.

Two further books probe the relationship between Europe and Islam from historical and art historical vantage points. Ekkehard Eickhoff has drastically updated his classic book "Venedig, Wien und die Osmanen" (Venice, Vienna and the Ottomans), which describes Euro-Islamic relations in the second half of the 17th century, to the immense satisfaction of the FAZ. The paper celebrates the volume as a shining example of a "narrative historiography" which was bordering on extinction. iIn "Florenz und Bagdad" art historian Hans Belting discovers Arab roots to the concept of central perspective, a construct widely believed to be typically western. For the SZ, it is nothing less than a "stroke of genius" which should be read as an appeal for a deeper comparison of the two cultures more. Die Zeit found the book "saturated with thoughts and facts".

Cultural and Art History

Two non-fiction books embark on a romp through the world of lust. The SZ was tickled pink by the German translation of Thomas W. Laqueur's "Solitary Sex" an aptly titled cultural history of masturbation and found it downright "refreshing". In particular the author's adroit situation of sexual discourse within the context of economics and aesthetics made it a convincing read. And the same paper also recommends Wolfgang Schuller's "Die Welt der Hetären" (the world of the hetaera) for its nonchalant delivery of an abundance of information. The hetaera were unmarried, artistic beauties of Ancient Greece who earned their living entertaining men, but who often moved in high society and were held in the utmost esteem - the Byzantine Empress Theodora being the most famous example.

And for dessert: An anthology edited by Paul Freedman on the "Food", which promises to be no less than a "history of taste". It certainly satisfied the critic at the FAZ who was amazed that academics can write so readably. The book is also "sumptuously illustrated" - and "fabulous" all in all.

1968 has been in and out over the last forty years like flares, books on etiquette and Soul. Götz Aly's provocative new book "Unser Kampf" (our struggle) has fired debate and heaped mostly negative judgments upon itself. Its central thesis - that the '68ers differed little from their Nazi parents in their dogmatism - is hinted at in the title. Die Zeit found it "shrilly construed" and the SZ dismissed most of it as "tosh"; the FR at least applauded the "crisp polemic". And in the end the usually '68-friendly taz leapt - albeit with reservations - to defend Aly against his critics, agreeing with him about the disinterest of the revolutionaries in either democratisation or the confrontation of the Nazi past. Here an excerpt in German

Now that "Germany needs a new elite" has become a popular cry, a number of writers have taken it upon themselves to look at what this entails. Julia Friedrichs (25) turned down a job at McKinsey to do a tour of elite universities, academies and boarding schools, the forcing houses of the "powerful people of tomorrow" and returned in a state of shock. In her reportage "Gestatten: Elite" (allow me to introduce myself: Elite) Friedrichs found out that it is not achievement that counts but, as the critic in the FAZ so neatly put it: "habitus and status".

Michael Hartmann drew similar conclusions but from a sociological perspective. His study "Eliten und Macht in Europa" (elites and power in Europe) shows that the top jobs in the business world simply beyond reach for people from the wrong background. The taz calls the book a godsend for sociology. Die Zeit also found it hard to put down but asks why the author omits all political dimensions from his diagnosis. Writing for Perlentaucher, Arno Widmann calls it "one of the most important books of recent years."


The FAZ has discovered the "most dangerous and most delightful" non-fiction book of the year: musical agent Sonja Simmenauer manages string quartets for a living and in her book "Muss es sein?" (must it be?) she poses the ultimate "Gretchen question" of human existence. Yes, it's about the string quartet as an "exemplary life form" or more precisely, it shows that life is only worth living if we are passionate about something - like string quartet music. The review in die Zeit is distinctly less passionate in tone, however friendly.

Fiction / Nonfiction

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