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The Bells in Their Silence: Travels through Germany Hardcover – April 18, 2004

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Gorra, a Smith College English professor, first visited Germany in 1993, when he was invited to give a lecture. He was taken aback at how much he liked the country, and how interesting he found it. "I was startled to find I was enjoying myself, startled because once you get past the idea of Oktoberfest, the words ‘enjoy’ and ‘Germany’ don’t, for an American, seem to belong together." This unlikely travelogue explores the nuances of Gorra’s social, cultural and even monetary exchanges. The author’s accounts illustrate his hypothesis that our American memory of WWII still informs our relationship with contemporary Germany. In one episode, Gorra finds himself at a customs office, struggling with the language and trying to retrieve a damaged parcel from the U.S. "I was given a knife and asked to open it. Books. And on top, the very first volume that both the customs official and I saw, was Hitler’s Willing Executioners.... I felt vaguely embarrassed about it, as if the book’s appearance at the top of the box had confirmed the German stereotype about the American stereotype of Germans." Gorra is most successful in these moments of surprise and sometimes even shame. Other times, the book feels burdened by references to scores of other writers and philosophers and reads more like an academic text than insightful travel writing.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Gorra's introspective, impressionistic account of his travels through Germany is shaped--perhaps even haunted--by figures from the past: historical, literary, personal. His musings on Weimar, for example, are shaded by both Goethe's oak and the nearby woods, Buchenwald, and the way in which their mutual presence mediates the visitor's experience. Lubeck and the Hanseatic north are untangled with the help of, among copious others, Thomas Mann, Walter Benjamin, Italo Calvino, and W. G. Sebald. Few travelogues are as literary, and even fewer as self-conscious about the aspirations and failures of travelogues in general. Yet for all his erudition, Gorra enters the deep waters of German cultural memory a humble, inquisitive novice, weaving personal and literary experiences, always uber-aware of Germany as the foreign, the cultural Other, no stranger to malevolence. Seasoned Germanophiles may well raise their eyebrows, but by journey's end, they will likely also be reminded of what they found so fascinating about Germany in the first place. A captivating, unique work of synthesis, this selection will draw readers back to the library, bibliography in hand. Brendan Driscoll
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; First Edition edition (April 18, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691117659
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691117652
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.2 x 0.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (8 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,216,039 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

18 of 20 people found the following review helpful By AppleBrownBetty on June 18, 2004
Format: Hardcover
Nobody writes travelogues about Germany," writes Michael Gorra at the beginning of his book "The Bells in their Silence: Travels through Germany." Indeed Germany has, in recent years, failed to inspire travel writing as sophisticated as that of Jan Morris or as candidly humorous as that Bill Bryson, a fact that makes Gorra's book a welcome addition to the genre. But after making such a statement, Gorra acknowledges the many writers who have travelled Germany before him, those who tried to makes sense of the country by seeking the marrow of the German culture beyond Lederhosen and the occasional oompah band.
A book that itself sometimes lingers too long in the past, "The Bells in their Silence" is an erudite rendering of the year the author spent living and travelling with his wife in the port city Hamburg and across northern and eastern Germany. Not a professed Germanophile, Gorra's distanced approach to Germany as well as his initial mistrust of the possibility of writing a travel book about the country are grounded in his understanding that travel writing itself is for amateurs seeking impression - and that those who choose to write about Germany are journalists. But once he gets past this initial barrier, Gorra has a keen eye, one that is guided by the extensive reading he did to prepare himself for his journey.
When the author isn't bemusing cultural differences and delighting in the small moments of daily life, he takes his reader on a literary tour of Germany from Goethe through Fontane and Thomas Mann. An English professor at Smith College, Gorra is a frequent reviewer for the New York Times Book Review. He is a traveller whose understanding of people and place is indebted to literature.
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14 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 1, 2004
Format: Hardcover
This is a wonderful travel book, and a great deal more than a travel book. Gorra spends a year in Germany exploring not only the present but the presence of the past, from Goethe's Germany of the poets and the thinkers to the great darkness of World War II. As anyone who has read Gorra's many reviews in "The New York Times" and other places would expect, the writing is elegant and the cultural observation shrewd. But the book goes beyond elegance and shrewdness to dignity and compassion. It exemplifies what, at its most profound, civility can bring to our understanding of even so terrible a trauma as Nazism. Like Germany itself, Gorra is haunted by that trauma, yet the range of his experiences, and of the reading he weaves into his travels, is wide. I especially loved the chapter on Thomas Mann's "Buddenbrooks," in which Gorra tells the story of his own family, Lebanese immigrants to Connecticut who became fruit and vegetable wholesalers. It's a grand way to read "Buddenbrooks," making Mann's family chronicle resonate with contemporary American life in new and varied ways.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful By Cowboy in Weimar on November 30, 2013
Format: Hardcover
As and expat having lived in Weimar for 5 years and travelled widely in Germany, I was hoping to obtain a few new perspectives about Germany from this book. I was sadly mistaken! The book is a pedantic, quasi-philosophical, ego serving, commentary by a Holocaust obsessed intellectual who writes about how travel books were written by Goethe and others and about how travel books should be written, rather than providing the reader with anything besides a shallow discussion of 4 German cities. The continued references to and quotes from other authors appear to be an attempt to produce a scholarly tome, but this fails miserably, and becomes quite tedious after a chapter or two. Even more tedious is how Gorra relates everything back to the "German Problem", even though his knowledge clearly comes from other authors and a visit to Buchenwald Camp. He dismisses hundreds of years of Germanic culture, art, music, literature, scientific achievement, and the beauty of a prosperous nation by doing so. Yes, there were, and are, Nazis in Germany,and the German attitude is well documented, and to dwell on these in a so-called "travel book" indicates the desire to attract the ignorant, untravelled American masses. The last few pages about Gorra's final visit to the "Bells in Their Silence" and his probing questions about their meaning were worth reading. Too bad one has to slog through the rest of the book to find this bit of personal reflection. If you want to know about the cities of Germany, skip this book and use the internet or Wikipedia.
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9 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 6, 2004
Format: Hardcover
As a reader, Michael Gorra is erudite and generous. This is the conclusion you reach if you read his reviews in the New York Times, TLS, and other places. The Bells in their Silence, an unusual literary tour of Germany, demonstrates those qualities in abundance. But there's also more to enjoy here, a sense of movement and place, as well as a broader range of tone and perceptions, which combine to make this book more than either an academic exercise or simply a writer's report on a journey.
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