April 10 2013 12:00 AM

As spring settles in, literature aficionados have a rich selection of events to choose from


Lovers of great literature will have their hands — or at least their bedside tables — full if they want to stay up with the remarkable number of distinguished authors who will be visiting Lansing in the next few weeks.

At 7 tonight, Laura Kasischke the National Book Critics Circle award winner from 2012 for her poetry collection “Space, in Chains” will be at Michigan State University’s Resident College in the Arts and Humanities Theatre in Snyder Phillips Hall for a reading and discussion. She will also lead a general discussion on poetry in C201 Snyder Hall at 3 p.m. Kasischke, who has written numerous novels —including four that have been made into films — said she sees herself first as a poet.

From 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday, the Broad Art Museum will host a poetry program featuring readings by three distinguished, contemporary poets: Diane Wakoski, Rob Halpern and Brenda Iijima. A panel discussion with moderators Stephanie Glazier and Tammy Fortin will follow.

Wednesday is flowing over with riches as writer David Shields, author of 14 books, will give a talk on his latest book, “How Literature Saved My Life.” Shields is a writer in residence at the University of Washington in Seattle and is sponsored by MSU´s English Department. He will speak from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m. at B122 Wells Halls at MSU, followed by a book signing.

It’s difficult to explain Shields’ newest book, but suffice it to say it is about more than just writing; it’s about how literature — great literature, not fluffy stuff — is central to our existence. Shields is an old-style book critic in that he digs into the essence of a book and pulls no punches doing it. In one chapter, he lists his “55 works he swears by” and provides short descriptions of the books, which is a good start for a reading list. This book is not for everybody, but it’s easy to listen to him on campus — and it’s free.

I’m not sure what Shields would say about Nazi noir writer Philip Kerr’s newest book, ”A Man Without Breath,” since he does rail against overly niche genres. But Kerr has developed a successful series featuring a German policeman during the height of Nazi Germany.

The detective, Bernie Gunther, is a hard drinking, skirt chasing cynic who pursues his duties of solving unpleasant murders against the backdrop of Nazi Germany. It’s not lost on Gunther that while he’s solving individual murders, often committed by Nazi officers, everyone seems to be ignoring the larger crimes of the Holocaust. Kerr’s Gunther books have stretched from the 1930s to postwar Germany, but they don’t take place chronologically. 

In the latest book, he is sent to investigate a mass killing on the Eastern border right before Russia begins its major counteroffensive. Most of those close to Hitler know, for all practical purposes, the war is over. Gunther, who is not a party man, crosses paths with some officers who are attempting another plot on Hitler’s life. As usual, the suspense is at its highest level in a Kerr book as Gunther once again realizes that solving the murders may result in his own death. 

Kerr’s book series, which began in 1989, is an unusual success story: After writing three Gunther novels in succession, he took nearly 16 years off before writing his next five crime novels.

Kerr is Scottish, and after reading law at a British university, he took extensive postgraduate work in German 20th century history specializing in Nazis. It’s this background that makes his crime novels so real and atmospheric. You almost feel that there was a Bernie Gunther and he left a diary behind.

In addition to his crime novels, Kerr has written a fictionalized version of the life of Sir Isaac Newton, several screenplays — including a feature film on Princess Diana — and eight children’s books, as P.B. Kerr. Kerr lives in London and does most of his primary research for his Gunther novels at the Wiener Library, a well worn but little-known place (outside of select circles) specializing in first-person accounts of anti-Hitler resistance and anti-Semitism.

Kerr was quoted in a recent interview in the Daily Telegraph that “after finishing each book, I felt I needed a shower.”

Although much more dark, Kerr’s books have been compared to Allan Furst’s atmospheric historical spy thrillers, which revolve around the run up to WWII. Those lucky enough to have HBO may have caught the recent two-part mini-series “Spies of Warsaw” based on Furst’s book. Nazi noir seems to have found an avid fan base, and the writings of both Furst and Kerr are reminiscent of the greats, such as Graham Greene, Eric Ambler and John LeCarre. 

Phillip Kerr
7 p.m. April 17
Schuler Books & Music
1982 W Grand River Ave.
(517) 349-8840