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Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the…
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Berlin: Portrait of a City Through the Centuries (2014)

by Rory MacLean

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Not what I thought it was going to be. This reads like a poor attempt at fiction, providing snapshots of various historical figures throughout time. Very little about the actual history of Berlin through time, and heavily focused on the 20th and 21st centuries. ( )
  digitalmaven | Jun 7, 2015 |
Why are we drawn to certain cities? Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or maybe simply because the place touches us, embodying in its tribes, towers and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy.

Berlin is all about volatility.

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realized, and evils executed with shocking intensity. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.

Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe's capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents: the medieval balladeer whose suffering explains the Nazis' rise to power; the demonic and charismatic dictators who schemed to dominate Europe; the genius Jewish chemist who invented poison gas for First World War battlefields and then the death camps; the iconic mythmakers like Christopher Isherwood, Leni Riefenstahl, and David Bowie, whose heated visions are now as real as the city's bricks and mortar. Alongside them are portrayed some of the countless ordinary Berliners who one has never heard of, whose lives can only be imagined: the Scottish mercenary who fought in the Thirty Years' War, the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a baroness, the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall, and the American spy from the Midwest whose patriotism may have turned the course of the Cold War.

Berlin is a history book like no other, with an originality that reflects the nature of the city itself. In its architecture, through its literature, in its movies and songs, Berliners have conjured their hard capital into a place of fantastic human fantasy. No other city has so often surrendered itself to its own seductive myths. No other city has been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations. Berlin captures, portrays, and propagates the remarkable story of those myths and their makers..

Review

"A wonderfully enjoyable, poetic and instructive tour through the history of this fascinating and changing city. A book that magnificently combines real history and pure reading pleasure. Not just for those interested in Germany, but for anyone interested in the history of Western culture."—Stephane Kirkland, author of Paris Reborn

"The admiration and love travel writer and filmmaker MacLean has for Berlin is evident throughout this history of the city, which begins in the 17th century. His careful arrangement of detail and far-reaching scope make for a perfect description of one of Europe’s most enigmatic and controversial cities. It’s when he explores the minds of Berlin’s modern masters...that MacLean reveals his prowess as a storyteller, flawlessly weaving together history, facts, and folklore. Moreover, MacLean’s treatment of Berlin under The Third Reich and during the Cold War perfectly reflects the tension of the city’s own attempts at remembrance. MacLean brings this "city of fragments and ghosts," with its fractured and volatile past, to life."—Publishers Weekly (starred review)

"Grandly ambitious . . . splendid. [T]his book is a wonderful achievement, not justly to be summarized in the few hundred words of a review, but hauntingly representing, as in a tangled dream, six hundred years of history."—The Telegraph (UK)

"MacLean's wonderfully knowledgable overview of the city's history helps explain the place's enduring fascination."—The Guardian (UK)

"Vivid, imaginative . . . brilliant. What makes MacLean’s history of Berlin stand out is that this is an intensely human document, a rich tapestry spanning five centuries and woven together through intimate portraits of twenty-one of its former inhabitants that collectively reveal the narrative of the city . . . Their stories are wholly engaging, written with the flair of a novelist."—The Observer (UK)

"Entertaining and ambitious . . . MacLean has written a great book about Berliners."—New Statesman (UK)

"Inventive, exhaustive, and energetic. Berlin is . . . a human story. MacLean tells it with a wonder, a sadness, and a compassion."—*Herald Scotland

*

"MacLean communicates his love for Berlin and sympathy with its people and gives us a fascinating and entertaining book while he’s at it. By the final page the reader has a sense that this is truly one of the world’s great cities with stories of significance for all of us."—*Winnipeg Free Press

*

"I loved it. It is such a beautiful way of understanding history, its stories are so vivaciously told, it is so heartfelt, so intelligent, and so talkative a book. So many of the characters do end up talking to each other, and the author is eavesdropping. It paints the past and the present, portrays Berlin as a portrait of someone you love. It is beautiful." —Jay Griffiths, author of Wild, Pip Pip, and Kith "[MacLean] writes with the lyricism of Bruce Chatwin and the traveller’s eye of Marco Polo. He engages with his readers as if he is talking to an intelligent friend. Read this book if you already know Berlin, or will do one day."—The Oldie (UK)

About the Author

Rory MacLean has known three Berlins: West Berlin, where he made movies with David Bowie and Marlene Dietrich; East Berlin, where he researched his first book, Stalin’s Nose; and the unified capital where he lives today. He is the author of nine books and has won awards from the Canada Council and Arts Council of England as well as a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship. He was an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award nominee and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. Visit his Web site at www.rorymaclean.com.
  GalenWiley | Apr 5, 2015 |
This is not a straightforward history of the city. The author describes the history of Berlin by recounting various stories, some made up and others real, of notable inhabitants. Some of these are good, and others are awful, notably the sections on Bowie and the gangster Ha. ( )
  annbury | Jan 22, 2015 |
I have visited Berlin once, alone, in the deep, deep cold of an icy February and the city fascinated me - vibrant, exuberant, conflicted, beautiful, ugly - a city with a history part of which we all know, peopled by fascinating characters whose lives were 'writ large'. This book follows the history of Berlin through the stories of 23 individuals - an approach I found at times both annoying and astonishing. The early chapters are the least well-executed but once the author moves to the 20th century the stories take off, wrap themselves around the mind and the heart and don't let go. ( )
  PennyAnne | Mar 16, 2014 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 125005186X, Hardcover)

Why are we drawn to certain cities? Perhaps because of a story read in childhood. Or a chance teenage meeting. Or maybe simply because the place touches us, embodying in its tribes, towers and history an aspect of our understanding of what it means to be human. Paris is about romantic love. Lourdes equates with devotion. New York means energy. London is forever trendy.

Berlin is all about volatility.

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history’s most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by the Wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centers of the world. Today it resonates with the echo of lives lived, dreams realized, and evils executed with shocking intensity. No other city has repeatedly been so powerful and fallen so low; few other cities have been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations.

Berlin tells the volatile history of Europe’s capital over five centuries through a series of intimate portraits of two dozen key residents: the medieval balladeer whose suffering explains the Nazis’ rise to power; the demonic and charismatic dictators who schemed to dominate Europe; the genius Jewish chemist who invented poison gas for First World War battlefields and then the death camps; the iconic mythmakers like Christopher Isherwood, Leni Riefenstahl, and David Bowie, whose heated visions are now as real as the city’s bricks and mortar. Alongside them are portrayed some of the countless ordinary Berliners who one has never heard of, whose lives can only be imagined: the Scottish mercenary who fought in the Thirty Years’ War, the ambitious prostitute who refashioned herself as a baroness, the fearful Communist Party functionary who helped to build the Wall, and the American spy from the Midwest whose patriotism may have turned the course of the Cold War.

Berlin is a history book like no other, with an originality that reflects the nature of the city itself. In its architecture, through its literature, in its movies and songs, Berliners have conjured their hard capital into a place of fantastic human fantasy. No other city has so often surrendered itself to its own seductive myths. No other city has been so shaped and defined by individual imaginations. Berlin captures, portrays, and propagates the remarkable story of those myths and their makers.

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(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:58 -0400)

Berlin is a city of fragments and ghosts, a laboratory of ideas, the fount of both the brightest and darkest designs of history's most bloody century. The once arrogant capital of Europe was devastated by Allied bombs, divided by a wall, then reunited and reborn as one of the creative centres of the world. Rory MacLean provides a richly varied, unexpected tour of the city's history.… (more)

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