Book of the month

Each month, staff, students and friends of the English Seminar introduce books they enjoyed and wish to recommend. If you'd like to post your favourite book, please write to

January 2022

Yusuf Cil recommends Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov (1996, translated by George Bird 2001):

"Have you ever written an obituary? If yes, also for someone who is still alive? Hopefully not, but this is what the protagonist, Viktor A. Zolotaryov, does for a living in the bleak city of Kiev. Having neither talent nor luck to pursue a career as a writer of prose, Viktor finds himself at the doorway of an ominous newspaper company after another rejection at the tabloids. What waits for him there is the offer to write obituaries called obelisk - finally a genre at which he excels. However, upon the beginning of his new literary career, these mysterious pieces intrude more and more into his ordinary life with his unusual pet and partner-in-crime: the depressed penguin Misha. Certainly a setting without compare, where one cannot but wonder,... what will happen when his first obelisk is published?"

Kurkov's novel is admittedly not an eloquent masterpiece - but why should it be? The paratactical tone of the text bears a simplicity which does not fret over details but fits the steady progress of the story. The form and pacing almost reminds one of an old film projector, rattling to produce thrilling pictures of black and white. Again, colour is not even needed, as the comfortable monotony of Viktor and Misha's life confronts the reader with the old dichotomy of "life and death" from a lightly angle; sometimes relatable and somewhat humble. And at the very end, one can only wonder, where to get a penguin?"

December 2021

Marten Juskan recommends the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson (2006-2008):

"Brandon Sanderson's trilogy (The Final Empire, The Well of Ascension, The Hero of Ages) provides 1500+ pages of high fantasy escapism. The setting is a world where mysterious mists come out at night to haunt an enslaved population ruled by an aristocratic class and a seemingly immortal emperor. A few nobles are able to gain supernatural abilities by 'burning' metals inside their bodies.
You'll encounter some well-known elements (hero's journey, religious imagery), but they come with their own unique twists. Sanderson's pacing is fairly slow until the books approach their respective finales, at which point they become really hard to put down.
The most noteworthy feature is the world building, and in particular the focus on a 'hard magic system' (google 'Sanderson's Laws of Magic'), which comes with clearly defined rules and limitations. These are relatively simple and straightforward while still capable of triggering complex and multi-layered consequences.
As a scientist, I see beauty in that, but it's not just an academic issue. All major aspects of the cleverly constructed plot are inherently connected to the magic system the world is built around. This means that, in the end, everything falls into place in a way that seems logical and feels very satisfying."

November 2021

Christian Strippel recommends Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020):

"For better or worse, this is a dreich book. Don't read this book if you want something to make you happy. Read this book if you want something to move you deeply. This may or may not be a coming-of-age story. This may or may not be a story about identity. It may or may not be important to you whether you look back on it with a particular analytical focus after you read it. But while you read it, let yourself get carried away to Glasgow in the 1980s. Immerse yourself in the lives of Shuggie and his family. Cling to every bit of hope and good fortune that they experience and root for a turn of events in their hours (and hours and hours) of often self-inflicted hardship, anger and pain. I didn't actually expect to have a quick read when I picked up the 400+ pages book at the station. But it turns out, any book can be a quick read if it is hard to put down."

October 2021

Sina Werner recommends Normal People by Sally Rooney (2018):

"Normal People is written by the 30-year-old best-selling author Sally Rooney, a former debating champion from Ireland. After her first novel, Conversations with Friends, Rooney, who has been called the "Salinger for the Snapchat generation", wrote her second novel, Normal People.

In her novel, you accompany Connell, a good-looking and popular boy, and Marianne, a smart loner, who fall in love with each other. You follow them to Dublin, where they both study at Trinity College. The story does not seem very original: they can't live with/without each other, and they have to face challenges they encounter while growing up and being in love.

So, the plot does not make Normal People special - it's rather how Rooney describes her characters: the language she uses is very clear and simple and maybe that is the reason why she is able to portray her protagonists' emotions with such force. Letting you in on their most private thoughts, it's hard not to identify with Marianne and Connell.

You could argue that Normal People is nothing more than a (superficial) love or a coming-of-age story - but a well-written one. You're drawn into it from the beginning, and that's perfect for a rainy day in autumn while enjoying a cup of tea."

June 2021

Alexander Kaul recommends The Restraint of Beasts by Magnus Mills (1998):

"If you are looking for an accessible and entertaining read that might take your mind off Covid and everything related to it, I recommend Magnus Mills' The Restraint of Beasts. The novel depicts the life of three fence builders who are forced to move from rural Scotland to England for work. What sounds like a pretty banal and mundane story quickly turns into a dry comedy full of deadpan humour. Many work-related accidents occur so that the three protagonists leave a trail of dissatisfied (or even dead) customers in their wake. Due to its terse tone, Mills' 280-page novel can be read within a few days and is highly enjoyable."

May 2021

Hannes Koberg recommends The Great Derangement by Amitav Ghosh (2016):

"Amitav Ghosh's The Great Derangement is an accessible and captivating interrogation of the relation between fiction and climate change - and ultimately an analysis of contemporary common sense. He starts off with an intriguing claim: 'In a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they - what can they - do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight? Quite possibly, then, this era, which so congratulates itself on its self-awareness, will come to be known as the time of the Great Derangement.' Although 'it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future' (Yogi Berra), it's definitely worth following Ghosh's frighteningly persuasive argumentation and to allow for some apocalyptic thoughts."

April 2021

Chris Katzenberg recommends Voices from the Rust Belt (2018):

"American city literature tends to be dominated by writing from and about a select few of the nation's biggest metropolises. But much urban life goes on in the U.S. beyond these centers, in cities that inspire and require stories of their own, like those of the Rust Belt. Anne Trubeck's anthology Voices from the Rust Belt (2018) collects a variety of recent writings about Rust Belt cities big and small, from Detroit to Youngstown, Ohio. All penned by writers with a strong connection to the region, these texts are often autobiographical and cover a wide range of Rust Belt experiences: Marsha Music's memoir on the "Kidnapped Children" of Detroit's white flight stands next to Connor Coyne's writing on bathwater and life in Flint, or Huda Al-Marashi's piece on Cleveland's Little Iraq neighborhood. If you want to get to know the diversity of stories the Rust Belt can tell today if it is not being overlooked or stereotyped, Voices from the Rust Belt is for you."