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St. Louis author's 'tawdry' memoir explores her love of German culture and literature

Author Rebecca Shuman reads from her book 'Schadenfreude, A Love Story" in St. Louis Public Radio studios.
Willis Ryder Arnold | St. Louis Public Radio
Author Rebecca Shuman reads from her book 'Schadenfreude, A Love Story" in the St. Louis Public Radio studios.

As a college junior Rebecca Schuman found herself in peak-hipster Berlin, sitting in a dark, smoke-filled bar where patrons ordered Heineken through a hole in the wall.  She’d wanted to live “Iggy Pop’s Berlin,” and to do that she wanted to find living space in a loft.

A friend told her that people in a a local collective living space was looking for a new roommate That’s how she found herself sitting across from a guy named Johannes who had, “shock of bright blond hair that stuck out in the electrified curls about six inches in all directions.”

Schuman  recounts the experience and a number of other anecdotes in “Schadenfreude, A Love Story,” a memoir. She'll discuss the book Sunday during a book launch at Urban Chestnut in The Grove.

The book is the story of a teenage Jewish intellectual who, while in high school, falls in love with a boy who breaks her heart, with a difficult language — and its writers.

"Then we broke up and it was horrible," she recalled. "And I was like, 'This is the worst thing that's ever happened to anyone ever, but at least I still have these German authors.'"

The enduring love led her to Germany.

Throughout her memoir,  Schuman teases out the awkward, endearing ridiculousness that can occur when a person  loves an entire culture’s literature, but the response of that culture is ambivalent at best.

"I like to think of it as a German literature and philosophy primer disguised as a tawdry memoir," Schuman said.

Rebecca Schuman discusses her burgeoning love of German literature, 'youthful follies' while living abroad, and how her book is a "German lit primer disguised as a tawdry memoir."

In the book, readers meet Johannes:  “A broken front tooth, delicate cheekbones, and skin tight jeans covered in multicolored patches, in the manner of early season Punky Brewster.”

They also encounter Dieter from Hamburg: “ baby-face clashing with his black leather jacket."

Then there's Leonie: “a formidable urban planning student an eco-warrior with a crew cut and a permanent scowl, who I quickly gathered was the Loftboss.”

The author reads a passage from her book where she attempts to woo Berlin DIY apartment dwellers into letting her become a roommate.

“Schadenfreude, A Love Story” also describes how Schuman recognized her need for a rigorous academic career as a means of growing up.

Each chapter of the book is organized by a difficult-to-define German word with the hope that the experiences and feelings described within the section help English speakers learn the definition of that word.
Schuman, who holds a doctorate in German from the University of California, later became a professor of German literature. After nine years, she gave up her academic career. She now writes for Slate.   

If you go

What:"Schadenfreude, A Love Story" book launch

When: 2 p.m. Saturday

Where: Urban Chestnut Brewery and Bierhall

Follow Willis on Twitter: @WillisRArnold