8 Dec 2013

Das sind nicht wir, das ist nur Glas (Zimmertheater Tübingen)

In between all the other things that are currently going on in my life, I managed to catch another one of the Zimmertheater's monologues, Das sind nicht wir, das ist nur Glas (roughly "This isn't us, it's only glass"), by Croation playwright Ivana Sajko. Since it's the tiniest of our professional theatres in town with an ensemble of five actors only, they regularly do a lot of one-man-plays and, thankfully one-woman-plays too, to offer more than ten plays in rep per season - extended runs not included.

Das sind nicht wir is a dystopian vision of a society after an economical breakdown of the worst kind. It's basically the Apocalypse and Black Friday rolled into one: first all wheat crops fail and then the rest of the global economy starts to disintegrate to disastrous effects. Unemployment soars, mortgages are left unpaid, the children go hungry and their parents despair.

Sajko sums up the reactions to this economic and social meltdown in a generational conflict that also comments on what a consumerist society hands on to the next generation. It follows the question of what actually happens when the only basis of such a society breaks away. What is left when we don't have the possibility to go shopping anymore? Together with their job, their bank accounts and eventually their homes the adults lose all their self-esteem and simply retreat into their self-loathing, leaving their hungry offspring largely to themselves. And the kids? They yearn for everything their parents can't buy them, for shoes big enough for their growing feet, for food to fill their stomachs, but also for sports clothes, mobile phones, cars. There's a deeper yearning for respect too, for exactly the self-esteem their parents let go, for a future that is simply a bit less shite than the past. Sajko's monologue is full of references to looking glasses, reflections in shop windows, photographs. However, it is less the glitzy images of the fashion world than the glamour of crime as embodied in Bonnie and Clyde's series of 1930s robberies. Sajko presents shoplifting as the only kind of uprising the younger generation is capable of, the smashing of windows is only a means to steal the designer goods behind them, not an emblem of the will to change something. This world is quite generally one that has completely forgotten about any kind of 'us' - it's split into the tiniest of social units and peopled by individuals who are no longer capable of connecting with other human beings apart from superficial admiration and meaningless sex.

Consisting mainly of dust and light - a favourite element of the Zimmertheater's set repertoire - the design of the play is as dreary as the world that is created in the monologue, which is superbly delivered by Nicole Schneider. Since monologues naturally stand and fall with the actor, the Zimmertheater can be glad that they've got exactly the right person to pull this off (as she did brilliantly as last year's Richard II in their version of Shakespeare's history for five people and too heavy scenery). The play itself is, however, slightly inconsistent in its imagery. At the beginning, it places quite a lot of emphasis on religious imagery, but veers away from this completely from about the middle onwards and leaves a loose end in this respect. With 65 minutes run time, the trick of discussing the end of society in the guise of a generational conflict starts to run out of steam with one generation not 'doing' much apart from lamenting and chain smoking. I had the feeling that it would have been possible to achieve more with less by trimming the script, but I can't quite put my finger on it.

On a rather personal note, I found this a play which I wouldn't have been able to bear a mere three weeks ago: the descend of people who become unemployed is one that just went too close to the bone for me. I've been unemployed since the beginning of October (no sympathy, please, I quit out of free will and already have another job lined up, so I'm great again, thanks) and for some 7 weeks I had no idea what to do with myself and where I wanted to go (and whether I would get any chance to decide at all). Plus I had the immense pleasure of communicating with the job centre and had to realise that this truly is an institution that seems to have as their goal the demoralising of already demoralised people. From one moment to the other, all skills and qualifications, all prospects and projects become totally meaningless because you committed the crime of becoming unemployed - of becoming one blip in the statistic that is taken for political success like almost no other in this country. From tax payer to nothing at the stroke of midnight. You see this play - and a lot of other things too - in a different light after this experience. I've not taken up chain smoking though.

Production details:
Das sind nicht wir, das ist nur Glas by Ivana Sajko, Zimmertheater Tübingen, Spielzeit 2013/2014 Director and design: Michael Hanisch
Nicole Schneider

Link to the Zimmertheater's website, including a video trailer: Das sind nicht wir, das ist nur Glas
Next performance: Jan 31, 2014
All photographs: (c) Alexander Gonschior

24 Nov 2013

Just add hot water...

... stir, and wait for five minutes. Then this will hopefully have turned into a blogpost. 

[Disclaimer: Blogger is not responsible for any damage caused by pouring hot water over technical equipment of any sort.]

No, seriously, I'm working on three bigger things at the moment, am preparing my move across the Channel and got about five thousand other things on my to-do list. I will give my best to resume normal service as quickly as possible.

Thank you for your patience, and - most of all - for reading what I come with week after week!

10 Nov 2013

German quicky indies: Booklits, Singles, microstuff

After a couple of excursions, it's about time I got back to my ebook single project. This week I'd like to take a look at a couple of new German indie publishers that specialise on singles. Some only do digital formats, one actually also publishes Pixi format physical copies, which are totally adorable by the way. By and by I'll hopefully get around to take a look at some of their titles in detail, but for now I'd simply like to introduce them, since they're all pretty much BRAND NEW. (At least to me.)


To start with the one publisher on this list that still does things with paper, Literatur-Quickie - as their name already suggests - have focussed on short stories since their first series back in 2009. Based in Hamburg and Berlin, they started out with organising the "shortest literary events ever" and discovered that there might be a market for tiny books in German. Since then they've published 10 series of 5 booklits each (that's what they themselves call their Pixis), some of them reprints of earlier texts (some Kafka, some Ringelnatz), most of them new stuff (Juli Zeh, amongst others), between 20 and 50 pages in length. From this autumn onwards, they also do graphic novels - or would that be graphic short stories?

What is interesting concerning the subscription idea I discussed in one of my former blogposts, the Literatur-Quickie peeps offer a subscription of their booklits and send them home to you twice a year. I haven't been able to track down anything comparable for their ebooks, which are distributed by dotbooks by the way.

I chanced upon these guys at the Frankfurt book fair, we got chatting, and I really liked their idea of Pixi books for adults, I think they'd make great tiny presents. I've got one on my pile now and very much look forward to my first grown-up Pixi book. Unfortunately their very hip website doesn't help with browsing through the rest of their titles: the cover thumbnails can't be looked at in detail and they don't list the titles and authors next to them either... is there some web admin listening by any chance?


The first of the three start-ups to be mentioned when I started this project back in October, mikrotext from Berlin (where else?), describe themselves as "a digital publisher for short digital reading" but their texts aren't quite as minute as their name suggests (but who knows, maybe they'll branch out into haikus one day?). They publish only eight books a year, but they are usually thematically linked to one another, cover non-fiction as well as fiction, and some of their texts are available in English, too.They don't sell their ebooks directly from their website, but from all big ebook platforms like Amazon, iTunes, Buecher.de, Hugendubel, kobo, Weltbild, etc. which are all linked. The latest title in their English series, I Love Myself OK? A Berlin Trilogy by Chloe Zeegen, is marketed as a book of the Facebook generation, written in the style of a chatroom. I can't say whether that's a good thing or no since I am yet to read it.

CulturBooks - Elektrische Bücher

CulturBooks have lately created quite a stir in the German publishing landscape as one of the new start-ups that focus on digital-only publishing, like mikrotext. They are essentially a bilingual publishing house that offers different formats from Singles (short stories) via Maxis (novellas) and Longplayers (novels) to Albums (short story collections, as they're known to the rest of the world). Their first programme just got published at the beginning of October, so they're the youngest of the three today. As most start-ups, they've got a motto, which they nicked from Pippi Longstockings: they simply do whatever they like. I'm not entirely sure that this is going to make for a recognisable brand identity, but then Pippi got rather far with that motto, right?

For me personally, "Elektrische Bücher" sets my hipster alarm off and I've proven quite unable to decipher their colour coding (is it a code at all? Or is it only a post-ironic random distribution of green, blue, red and yellow? Should I take my Penguin-tinted glasses off?), but there are a couple of items in their programme I find intriguing/will review/would like to review *nudge, nudge*: I've got "Furthest Point South" by Pippa Goldschmidt on my pile (now there's another thing I miss in the digital world: piles. Seriously, I can't organise my worklife without piles. I forget files. If I had a pile with stuff to review, I would have been able to remember that poor author's name right away and wouldn't have to check again. So it's definitely "Pile, not file!" for me.) And the Album Chicken Sex sounds interesting. Just because.

Anyway, that's it for today. I'll keep a look out for any more subscription news and will hopefully find the time to do a proper review again soon (that thing called Life is currently taking over a bit...).

29 Oct 2013

It's Halloween, show off your word nerdery!

As a confessing word nerd who as a rule never dates anybody whose spelling is worse than mine and who's got a bit of subbing experience in two languages - one of which knows the full extent of both the terms 'grammar' and 'Nazi' -, I wince whenever I read this title, not to speak of the atrocity of typing it. Admittedly, this might also have something to do with the literariness of the quote that touches on another of my private passions. Originally from one of the Meditations by John Donne, but usually better known as the title of Hemingway's Spanish Civil War novel of 1940 (or the Metallica song), it could very well be that I'm doubly challenged in this respect.

A book that takes as its aim to set grammar right and to clean up with a couple of obsolete or indeed obscure 'rules' of writing will nowadays inevitably be called a "grammar nazis' Mein Kampf", and some tweets and readers' reactions appear to confirm this. Yet, Marsh's book is in fact anything but: grounded in current linguistic theories of the evolution of grammar and the philosophy of language, Marsh puts reason before rule. As production editor of the Guardian, who is also the face behind the @guardianstyle twitter feed, he knows about the importance of clear and concise writing, as well as a sensible approach to language in general. He is strongly in favour of the descriptive side of grammarians, who analyse language in the form we all use it - not as certain purists would have us to. So, real grammar nazis will have to look elsewhere to get off on strict prescriptive dos and don'ts.

Thank. Dog.

For Who the Bell Tolls (ouch!) starts with a very short introduction and explanation of the most important grammatical terms for the non-linguist, such as noun, adjective, preposition, etc. If this already sets off your didactical alarm bells, rest assured: Marsh does this with the help of a "grammar playlist", i.e. song titles that mainly consist of the word group he'd like to talk about in this instance. This playlist combines pretty much anything from The Beatles to Kylie Minogue (I never thought I'd put those two together in a sentence, but here we go), and works astonishingly well to remain a welcome lightness. And what is more, Marsh generally keeps the terminology to a minimum throughout the book.

He then takes out his broom and gets rid of a couple of obsolete or obscure writing rules, such as the various 'thou shalt nots' on splitting infitivies, beginning sentences with conjunctions, or ending them with prepositions. His underlying thesis here is, 'if people speak like this, and they understand each other without difficulties, that's totally fine - relax!'. The following chapters deal with the most common sources for mistakes or - what is worse - misunderstandings: the definitiveness of relative clauses, where to put apostrophes and other punctuation marks. The tone is slightly less entertaing in these chapters, mainly because they are more list-like and probably meant to serve as a manual, which contrasts a lot with the beginning chapters and those towards the end of the book. Particularly the passage on semicolons broke my longish-sentence-loving heart (a bit): it's not quite as painful as Kurt Vonnegut's dismissal of semicolons as "transvestite hermaphrodites, standing for absolutely nothing", but to state that "you can lead a full and happy life without bothering with semicolons" (p.96) appears to me like a life without pugs did to the German comedian Loriot: possible, but certainly unfulfilled. (If you want to read up on the qualities of the sexiest and most elegant of all punctuation marks, I'd recommend this.)

From about two thirds of the book onwards, For Who the Bell Tolls (!) goes back to discussing good (mainly in the sense of non-offensive) writing style rather than focussing on the purely grammatical: how to use foreign words correctly, if you're sense of superiority can't do without them altogether; how to spot and fight incomprehensible or misleading jargon; how to write non-offensively (known as 'politically corrrect' to those who don't get it); and how to battle empty phrases and clichés in the form predominantly distributed by newspapers and other media. What's mainly of interest here and also a very valid point, is that Marsh sheds light on how language - and its sloppy or even misleading and wrong use of it - influences and shapes our world. This is by no means a new thought, as pretty much everybody who deals in words has found out at one point of their lives, but no less worth repeating in the age of "ethnic cleansing" and "preemptive strikes".

The volume finishes with a personal and annotated top ten of language books for the future word nerd, and an index that helps you to quickly find topics like "berks and wankers" (they're referred to on pages 29 to 30) or "pedantry, up with which not to put" (p. 40).

As mentioned at the beginning, Marsh is a great fan of using plain, concise language and he sticks to his own maxime, which is generally a godsend, but in this case particularly welcoming. He occasionally tends towards the more awkward simile that puts pictures at least in my mind that I had never dreamed of in the context of language. Just to take two examples that occur within only a few pages of each other: the wrong use of the 'who' instead of the object case 'whom' can in some instances stick out "like a cucumber stuffed down a Chippendale's thong" (p. 61), or a phrase left dangling at the beginning of a sentence feels "like a naked man trying to climb a barbed-wire fence" (p. 64). Ah, yes. Thank you; I'd already suspected grammar had something to do with penises and their substitutes...

So, For Who the Bell Tolls (it STILL hurts!) is a great, quirky and entertaining book if you always wanted to know what Milton and Yoda have in common, or what exactly 'antanaclasis' is and how to use it. In short, it's the right book for you if you want to prove a total word nerd at the next Halloween party - and seriously: who wouldn't?

Book info:
David Marsh, For Who the Bell Tolls. London: Faber & Faber and Guardian Books, 2013. GBP 12.99. (hard cover)

P.S.: I normally wouldn't point out typos in a review unless they seriously distract from the reading, but I think it's just too hilarious to find a mix-up of "their" and "there" in a book that is all about explaining the difference between them and eliminating mistakes such as these - so I hope that in this case I may be forgiven: dearest editor, take a look at page 230, bottom half.

20 Oct 2013

New stuff for free: Literary mags to your inbox

As a uni lecturer who used to focus on contemporary writing a lot of  people used to ask me how I kept track of all the stuff that's out there. Most of my colleagues simply rely on Best Of lists, on prize-winning works, etc. All well, but to be honest, that's not quite as much fun as finding out for yourself is. Plus, it's an excellent exercise: how long does it take you to find out whether you want to finish reading a particular text; what do you find intriguing about it; which elements of the writing or the content jar with your idea of how this text could, or even should, work? In short, I find it easier to learn something about your own reading behaviour when you're dealing with stuff that's not already been through the academic text processor, to discover your own taste, and to be able to explain it to others.

Now, as students - like a lot of other people - tend to live on a budget, I'd like to introduce two brand new literature mags that are delivered for free to your email inbox, one about letters of all sorts, the other about poetry.

The Letters Page: A Literary Journal in Letters

Edited at Notthingham Uni by Jon McGregor, to whom I eventually owe all of my knowledge about cricket (which is still no more than skin deep, but hey!), you can either enjoy what other people make of their letter-related briefs, or you can exercise your penmanship yourself (and be paid for it)  in this new and entirely free letter mag. Handwritten submissions only. For an online mag. They've noticed the irony.

P.S.: Funny that as a subscriber I'm now receiving personalized emails from Notts Uni English Department - the same department that chucked me out of my English classes when I was an Erasmus student there years ago. You always meet twice...

IN Magazine

Apart from my other idiosyncratic habits, students of mine have always been puzzled by my love for poetry, particularly for contemporary poetry. Most of them simply shook their heads in utter incomprehension, or sometimes in quiet sadness at my obsession, but some at least appeared to be intrigued and kept asking me how and where to find good contemporary poetry. Though I'm definitely the wrong person to say anything about 'good' poetry, I can at least tell them what I like - and where to begin and find it.

So, there's a new free poetry magazine out: originating around the Durham Book Festival, this is a weekly poetry email you can subscribe to. They publish a small number of poems every week, sometimes accompanied by an interview or by additional material about a poem. Since it comes in easily digestible chunks compared to traditional poetry mags that can be a bit too much at once, IN magazine is a good way to get familiar with some of the stuff that's being written right now if you're strapped for cash, or don't know yet whether you want to stick with it or no.

These are only some suggestions to start with. I'll try and update this post with other contemporary stuff that I find interesting to check out, so watch this space! And thank you for listening.

13 Oct 2013

The Day After: Book Fair Hangover

It's over; I'm back. With a massive hangover.

As always, those days of the Frankfurt Book Fair that were open for the general public were the busiest. I have yet to hear official visitor figures but particularly halls 3 and 4, where the German language publishers presented their fare, were pretty impossible to get though in less than half an hour, if mainly for the un.i.maginably slow pace of all those retired school teachers, who casually stroll from one stand to another, usually crossing the aisle while chatting to their best bookmates. Nothing wrong with that - if you don't need to be elsewhere at exactly that moment. So, planning appointments on Book Fair Saturday is a bit of a challenge but one never learns, right?

Anyway, in the end I usually got to where I needed to be and the conversations started. And that's where this peculiar kind of hangover comes from. On the bus home this afternoon I realized how many observations, contacts and ideas for future projects I took with me in my holdall: loads of food for thought, and fodder for the blog. Thanks to all the lovely people who took the time to chat to me, asked about the blog and my projects, who pushed books onto me, dictated lists of publishers worth checking out, etc. That's what a fair is about, isn't it?

So please excuse me while I see to my hangover...

6 Oct 2013

Another Galley Beggar Single: Almost Blue, by Tony O'Neill

Almost Blue by Tony O'Neill will punch you hard and slap you in the face. The third Galley Beggar Book Single on my list, it's by far the most upsetting until now. Not at all because something dreadful happens, though there is enough potential for this, what with all characters fast on the track towards an overdose. It's more to do with the self-made hamster cages all characters find themselves in but are unable and/or unwilling to leave. It's truly a story of dead ends, and that's the awful bit. The truly awful bit. And that's all I'm going to say about the content. For 1 GBP, Almost Blue is good value - I for once won't forget this one for quite some time to come. So go ahead and read for yourself; here's the link: http://www.galleybeggar.co.uk/book-store/ebook/almost-blue/

I think after having read and attempted to talk about a couple of book singles that all happened to be from the same publisher, it might be a good idea to take stock. Or perhaps it isn't. Anyway, time's running out for my blogpost this week and I don't want to run up any Iron Buchblogger debts. Can't afford it, mind.

So, these singles on the short end of the spectrum brought me back to the short story. Not that I was very far away from them before, what with my students unearthing new ones every summer term, but I hadn't read too many of them fresh from the publishers, rather slightly older stuff, or simply, the stuff that tends to get washed up at universities some decades after their first publication. And some things that I like about the short story popped back into my consciousness again; the limited perspective of the narration, the sketchiness of the characters who don't need a back story or anything to make their stories interesting or plausible. They're stories that are sort of 'natural' stories; for me, they are like meeting someone in a bar who - perhaps slightly drunkenly - tells you a story, something they've experienced and want to share for one reason or another. And as with strangers in a pub, I think there's a similar momentary  intimacy that retreats within minutes after having read the last sentence - no, I don't want to know more about those people and what happened to them afterwards; I'm content and intrigued with what I heard, that's that and that is good.

Tech stuff: After having been not really convinced of reading the files in PDF format, I finally managed to read Almost Blue on my kindle app for Android (yay!). Unfortunately you need to trick the app into believing that you bought it via the kindle shop, which is not as intuitive as it should be. Anyway, once you've found the folder where the app stores its ebooks and you've copied your brand new single into this bespoke folder, it works perfectly (took me only ten days to figure this out - of course the idea came in the middle of the night - so if you ever experience similar troubles and my solution turns out to work for you too, think of me and offer me a highly paid position right away - you won't regret it).

Book Single information:
Almost Blue, by Tony O'Neill. Published by Galley Beggar Press, 2013. GBP 1.

Next week I'll try out singles by another publisher. In fact, they only just launched last week, so this stuff would be hot off the presses if there was such a thing any longer. Watch this space!