thorold discovers no labour-saving machine in Q2 23

Tämä viestiketju jatkaa tätä viestiketjua: thorold confronts the subtle thief of youth in Q1 23.

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thorold discovers no labour-saving machine in Q2 23

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 1, 4:14 am

No labor-saving machine,
Nor discovery have I made,
Nor will I be able to leave behind me any wealthy bequest to
found a hospital or library,
Nor reminiscence of any deed of courage for America,
Nor literary success nor intellect, nor book for the book-shelf,
But a few carols vibrating through the air I leave,
For comrades and lovers.
Walt Whitman, from "Calamus", Leaves of grass

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 1, 4:42 am

Welcome to my Q2 reading thread!

Muokkaaja: heinäkuu 7, 5:45 am

Q1 Reading stats:

I finished 49 books in Q1 (2022 Q4: 38).

Author gender: F: 13, M: 36 (73% M) (Q4: 68% M)

Language: EN 26, NL 8, DE 9, FR 4, ES 2 (53% EN) (Q4: 23% EN)
Translations: 19 (6 Swedish, two each Polish and Danish, etc.)

Publication dates from 1854 to 2023; mean 1985, median 1995; 7 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 20, physical books from the TBR 22, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 1, audiobooks 0, paid ebooks 3, other free/borrowed 3 — 45% from the TBR (Q4: 26% from the TBR)

41 unique first authors (1.20 books/author; Q4: 1.02)

By gender: M 30, F 11 :73% M (Q4: 68% M)
By main country: UK 6, NL 1, AT 2, FR 4, DE 7, US 3, SE 6, BE 2, and various singletons

TBR pile evolution:
01/01/2022: 93 books (77389 book-days) (change: 8 read, 12 added)
01/04/2022: 84 books (77762 book-days) (change: 31 read, 22 added)
01/07/2022: 86 books (58460 book-days, 680 d/b) (change: 30 read, 32 added)
01/10/2022: 84 books (59801 book-days, 712 d/b) (change: 15 read, 13 added)
01/01/2023: 88 books (67009 book-days, 761 d/b) (change: 10 read, 14 added)
01/04/2023: 99 books (70256 book-days, 710 d/b) (change: 22 read, 33 added)

(I completely forgot to fill in a stats post in Q2, I'm only posting this in July, so I don't suppose anyone will look at it, but "for the record" here it is)

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 1, 4:49 am

(reading goals)

Reading Goal Reading Gaol

huhtikuu 1, 4:29 am

Jumping right in, here's the first book I finished in Q2. And a very timely one, because it's definitely gopher-wood season here right now. I found out about this through a reference in another book I was reading a month or two ago, but I can't remember quite which book it was...

Rain : a natural and cultural history (2015) by Cynthia Barnett (USA, 1966- )


An enjoyably chatty journey through the phenomenon of rain, debunking a few myths (Manchester and Seattle aren't as rainy as they are made out to be, for example) and explaining a few puzzling details along the way. Nothing really earth-shattering, unless you have been living in a cave for the past fifty years and haven't heard about climate change, but presented in a reasonably straightforward way, without too much obvious dumbing-down. Barnett is from Florida, so the focus is inevitably on weather and water-management in the USA, but there are a few visits to Asia and Europe along the way too.

huhtikuu 1, 11:00 am

>5 thorold: Seattle Maybe not in terms of inches of rain, but having lived there for 18 years, I can affirm that there are a whole lot of grey days(226 of heavy cloud cover and 308 of partial) and misty ones. Autumn is lovely though.

Happy new thread!

huhtikuu 1, 4:01 pm

>5 thorold: Did the Emerald Isle get a mention at all in terms of rain?

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 5, 12:04 pm

>1 thorold: Love that. yesterday we had a 2nd reunion with the staff of the former school we worked at, and I raise a glass to the friendship and camaraderie found there.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 4, 11:59 am

>7 AlisonY: Only in passing, I think. An unfair omission, perhaps... But she did take the trouble to visit the "wettest place in the world" in India, and it turned out that they were having an unusual dry spell. So she might have upset your climate too.

Another quick Nobella...

Le mannequin d'osier (1897; The wicker-work woman) by Anatole France (France, 1844-1924)


This is the second in a group of four short novels analysing the state of France at the end of the nineteenth century through the life of M. Bergeret, a mild-mannered professor of classics in a provincial university town.

Bergeret comes home unexpectedly early — because the bookshop happens to be closed — and surprises his wife in the arms of his former pupil Roux, leading to a somewhat awkward domestic situation. But France doesn't let this opportunity for a corny plot interfere with his intention of involving us in a string of calm, deliberate and ironically-weighted discussions between the members of the town's academic and clerical elite about the political scandals of the day, the role of the Church in French society, the claims of Catholic theology, the death penalty, and much more. It's a kind of anti-Bovary, with more light comedy going on than serious human suffering. More fun than I was expecting.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 6, 2:03 am

And another recent popular science book that caught my eye the other day for no obvious reason. I don't seem to have any of John Gribbin's books in my library, but he's a very familiar name in science writing: I must have read a lot of his stuff in places like New Scientist over the years.

Seven pillars of science : the incredible lightness of ice, and other scientific surprises (2020) by John Gribbin (UK, 1946- )


In seven short essays, plus a prologue and an epilogue, Gribbin looks at some of the quirks of physics and chemistry that have made it possible for intelligent life to develop on at least one planet in the universe, and speculates about whether these things increase or decrease the chance that there has been a similar development elsewhere. He's a pupil of Fred Hoyle, so this is a subject he's been thinking about for quite some time, and the explanations are concise, clear, and reasonably easy to follow, although a few more diagrams wouldn't have hurt. (Do we really need portraits of all the scientists mentioned in the text?)

I loved the one-page bibliography, which is subdivided into "Easy stuff", "Not so easy stuff", "Hard stuff", and "Entertaining stuff" (Fred Hoyle's The black cloud is the sole entry in the last category).

(Corrected thanks to dypaloh below)

huhtikuu 5, 7:16 am

Another Nobel laureate I have read before, but inadequately and long ago.

As I lay dying (1930) by William Faulkner (USA, 1897-1962)


The impoverished and somewhat mule-headed farmer Anse Bundren has promised his wife Addie that she can be buried in Jefferson, where her family comes from. But that's several days' wagon journey away, even when the rivers aren't in flood. Anse and his children set out nonetheless, coping with dangerous fords, burning barns, untreated injuries, and a whole host of other personal difficulties along the way.

The text switches around between the viewpoints of all the family members (including the deceased Addie) and a number of outsiders, each with their own distinctive style. It's often hard to follow what's going on and how people are connected to each other, and the language of some of the speakers is so deep in eccentricities of dialect that you have to read it three or four times, but despite that it's beautiful and strange and often deeply shocking.

Faulkner was obviously showing off when he wrote this (he later claimed — falsely — to have written it in six weeks without any revisions at all along the way), but you can't help being drawn in by most of his characters, appalling as they are, and sympathising with their problems. Good stuff, in small doses.

huhtikuu 5, 1:30 pm

>10 thorold: Wondering if the “Entertaining stuff” from Hoyle might have been The Black Cloud?

I like that “incredible lightness of ice.” Ice is cool!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 6, 2:07 am

>12 dypaloh: Thanks, yes! Corrected. I even have a copy of it on my shelf from way back, I should have got that right.

The ice thing is the last of his seven pillars: he argues that life probably couldn’t have survived previous climate changes if solid water had been more dense than liquid, because the oceans would have frozen all the way down.

huhtikuu 7, 7:09 am

I'm working my way through a couple of more substantial books, but I got side-tracked by discovering a motherlode of past Boekenweek gifts in a thrift store in a neighbourhood I don't often visit. Here's the 2006 gift, by Arthur Japin, who seems to specialise in historical novels about outsiders. He's probably best known for his debut novel De zwarte met het witte hart (The Two Hearts of Kwasi Boachi, 1997).

De Grote Wereld (2006) by Arthur Japin (Netherlands, 1956- )


Japin tells the story — fictional, but rooted in real stories from the time — of Lemmy, a small person who grows up in the "Lilliputian village" of the Dreamland amusement park at Coney Island. After the 1911 fire he joins a travelling company of dwarves. That brings him together with Rosa, the love of his life, and he goes back to live in Germany with her, only to find himself caught up in the rise of you-know-what.

Japin uses this framework to reflect not only on the obvious callousness of the exploitation of human "freaks" at the time (Dreamland also included a well-stocked "Human zoo" of people of exotic races), but also more generally on the instinct we seem to have to perform for the pleasure of those around us, from the smiling baby to the striptease dancer, so that the degradation of being exhibited as a freak can turn into a kind of satisfaction as well. It's all a bit superficial, squashed into the novella format like this, but quite interesting and clever all the same.

huhtikuu 7, 3:04 pm

>13 thorold: “the oceans would have frozen all the way down.” What a wild thought. “Ice” suddenly seems an incredibly weighty word.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 12, 12:27 pm

One that I've been savouring (and/or struggling with) for several weeks now. I put this on my Wishlist after reading Is that a fish in your ear?:

After Babel : aspects of language and translation (1975) by George Steiner (USA, 1929-2020)


George Steiner's classic study of the peculiar nature of translation as a literary and linguistic process, which drags you through some fairly knotty thickets of the philosophy of language before opening up in the last couple of chapters into a string of brilliant case-studies.

We get to think about why there are different languages in the first place, and about how — since the meaning of words shifts between contexts, times and individuals — any reading of a text anywhere is going to involve some kind of translation. And we get to confront the paradox that whilst an "exact" 1:1 translation between different languages, even of the most trivial phrase, is clearly impossible, we still use translations every day and find them helpful. Even the most complex and baffling literary texts have been translated in ways that seem to serve a useful purpose for readers and scholars.

This is something of a literary steeple-chase, where we are expected to cope with references from a broad range of literature, linguistics, philosophy and other disciplines (in numerous different languages). At one point we leap straight from a detailed discussion of prophecy in the Old Testament to a (non-trivial) excursion into statistical thermodynamics and the Second Law. So you will need that parachute. But it is fun, and when we get to the case-studies of how literary translation is actually done it is also very useful.

huhtikuu 12, 12:48 pm

And another from the little pile of old Boekenweek gifts. 2012 this time, and Flemish author Tom Lanoye:

Heldere hemel (2012) by Tom Lanoye (Belgium, 1958- )


In July, 1989, a defective Soviet fighter aircraft whose pilot had ejected over Poland continued to fly westwards on autopilot — causing a major NATO panic — and eventually crashed in West Flanders, where it destroyed a house, killing a person who was there at the time. Lanoye takes this real incident and fictionalises the characters involved in it — the pilot, the NATO chief of staff, a journalist, and the family whose house the plane is headed for. It's not very obvious why, except perhaps as a contrast between the structured nature of literary plots and the purely random way that kind of accident operates. The result is quite readable, but not very satisfying, somehow: the plane may be firmly buried in Flemish clay by the end of the book, but all but one of the characters are left very much up in the air.

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 12, 2:09 pm

>14 thorold: I don't know - squishing things into novella length is not always a bad idea - as long as the author does not try to write a novel and just make it short...

>17 thorold: Too bad they never translate these things...

>16 thorold: I have this one somewhere on the pile of linguistics books I got at one point - I always mean to get back to them and always get distracted.

huhtikuu 12, 3:24 pm

>16 thorold: oh I want to read that!

Muokkaaja: huhtikuu 12, 4:27 pm

>18 AnnieMod: Some of the Boekenweek books I’ve read seem perfectly designed for 96 pages, but these two both felt a little awkward in the format, especially the Lanoye, which did often feel like a novel from which a few crucial chapters had been scrapped.

They do occasionally get translated, e.g. the Hanna Bervoets from two years ago (We had to remove this post in English). But most don’t.

huhtikuu 12, 8:15 pm

>16 thorold: Have you read Le ton beau de Marot by Douglas Hofstadter? (Despite the title, it's an English-language book.) It's my favorite book on translation. It's built around his attempts to translate a short French poem from the 16th century, and all of the questions that are raised by the effort.

huhtikuu 13, 2:41 am

>21 KeithChaffee: No, sounds interesting. Thanks for the suggestion!
I’m only just starting to scratch the surface of this topic, evidently.

huhtikuu 16, 4:10 am

I read a short story collection by Danish writer Dorthe Nors in January for the Baltic theme, and saw that this one had just come out in English. It looked interesting, but it didn't really seem appropriate for the Baltic, somehow...

A line in the world : a year on the North Sea coast (2021) by Dorthe Nors‬ (Denmark, 1970- ), illustrated by Signe Parkins, translated from Danish by Caroline Waight


(Author photo by Petra Kleis via )

Not quite a travel book or a diary, this is a collection of very subjective essays about places on the North Sea coast and the people who live there, mostly in West Jutland, where Nors grew up, but with a couple of excursions into Germany (Sylt) and the Netherlands (Den Helder and Texel).

Nors writes about sand dunes, birds, wind and waves, about fishing communities, churches and lighthouses, but also about tourism and industry and the effects they have had on nature and coastal communities. It's all very much like her fiction: on the surface it looks so delicately put together that a gentle breeze would be enough to scatter it, when in fact there's a lot of very well thought-out Danish engineering going on out of sight. We read about Børglum Abbey, which has been known to disappear from view for short times, about the fabulous naive wall-paintings in Jutland churches, about the women of Fanø, about surfer culture of "Cold Hawaii" and about the pollution from Cheminova. And about all kinds of other fascinating things.

I have a sudden urge to get on my bike and do a tour of Jutland...

huhtikuu 16, 4:42 am

Slowly whittling down the pile of Boekenweek gifts...

This is the 1996 novella, commissioned from writer and TV presenter Adriaan van Dis. He's the Dutch-born son of parents who both lived through the Second World War in Indonesia, and he studied in South Africa. A lot of his writing, including this book, focuses on postcolonial themes.

Palmwijn (1996) by Adriaan van Dis (Netherlands, 1946- )


Set on an imaginary island off the coast of West Africa against a composite background of African postcolonial traumas (amongst other things, there are deliberate echoes of the conflicts in Biafra, Mali, and Western Sahara), this is a kind of Burnt out case story about an American artist, adrift in Africa after the collapse of her family, who finds a sort of resolution to her life in a quixotic — and disastrous —attempt to help refugees. Van Dis manages to address all the classic problems of the westerner in Africa without ever seeming unduly didactic. This is all "our" fault, but that doesn't mean that we have any right to claim to have answers to the problems of the countries the greed of our ancestors messed up, or to expect our solutions to work. Nice, if uncomfortable reading.

huhtikuu 16, 5:09 am

>23 thorold: I'm tempted to get that one!

huhtikuu 16, 8:45 am

Those both sound interesting, Mark. Nice reviews as always.

huhtikuu 17, 3:53 am

>23 thorold: I have not got a sudden urge to get on my bike - all that wind and cold weather, But I have got an urge to read the book

huhtikuu 17, 4:16 pm

>23 thorold: First thread I open up in about a month and I get hit with a book bullet! To my surprise and delight, Wellington library has A Line in the World and I've just reserved it. Great review!

huhtikuu 17, 10:09 pm

>28 cushlareads: oh! I also read your review, Mark I know so little about northern europe, and think this would be just the ticket. thanks for the BB

huhtikuu 20, 2:25 pm

>24 thorold: Would love to read that one!

huhtikuu 21, 4:34 pm

>23 thorold: >24 thorold: Both look well worth it for completely different reasons, and one is available in English - alright.

huhtikuu 23, 8:18 am

When I read Spanish literature : a very short introduction in March, I was left with a few book bullets, one of them for Álvaro Pombo, who seems to be one of the most prominent openly gay Spanish writers, although I hadn't really registered his name before. This 2009 novel (he's in his eighties, but still churning out a novel every couple of years) was the first a trawl through the secondhand market came up with. It doesn't seem to have been translated. I've got a couple more on the pile as well.

Virginia o El interior del mundo (2009) by Álvaro Pombo (Spain, 1939- )


Santander in the 1920s is a very fashionable place, thanks to its status as the summer resort of Alfonso XIII's court, but at the core of Santander's year-round society are Virginia Montes and her many cousins. Virginia, who jokingly compares herself to Jane Austen's Emma, is something of an enigma to her contemporaries: she seems to have declined any number of eligible bachelors. And now she is involved in an odd, not-quite-romantic friendship with the upwardly-mobile gynaecologist doctor Anselmo. Secretly, though, she is pining for the working-class boy she was in love with as a teenager, who has been killed in a pointless colonial war in Morocco.

Pombo — who grew up in Santander himself — follows Virginia's psychological development with an almost Proustian level of detail, as she wavers on the edge of falling in love with Anselmo (who sometimes seems more interested in her cousin Gabriel) and gets involved with a couple of shady spiritualists, the Bárcenas, who are clearly hoping to put her in touch with the deceased Casimiro. We, of course, know that the destruction of the clever and beautiful but sadly useless Virginia is going on in parallel with the Spanish political earthquakes that are about to render her kind of life and the whole society she lives in totally irrelevant, but those are happening out of our sight: the focus remains tightly on Virginia and her quasi-feudal household.

A slow, gentle, poignant but ultimately rather merciless book. Death is death, entropy increases, and consolations are illusory.

huhtikuu 23, 8:41 am

Another Boekenweek novella, this time the 2004 gift, commissioned from Thomas Rosenboom, best known for his 1999 historical novel Publieke werken:

Spitzen (2004) by Thomas Rosenboom (Netherlands, 1956- )


Spitzen draws on the tango-craze that swept the Netherlands in the early 2000s, following the news that crown-prince Willem Alexander was to marry a glamorous blonde from Buenos Aires. Han Bijman is a middle-aged bachelor with an administrative job at Shell. On the advice of his tango-mad upstairs neighbour he takes lessons and goes to a dance event, which brings him together with the beautiful, sexy, but obviously unreliable Esther. Their relationship goes through all kinds of twists and turns of bandoneon-related passion and deceit, with dull Han almost (but perhaps not quite) catapulted into the role of the jealous Latin lover. Fun, as far as it goes...

huhtikuu 23, 11:29 am

reading a line in the world, and needing to keep a map of the area nearby. Liking her style and intersted in her world

huhtikuu 23, 2:25 pm

>32 thorold: Sadly I don't see anything by Pombo that has been translated into English.

huhtikuu 23, 2:59 pm

>35 labfs39: Extraordinary. I had a look in Worldcat, and the only translation it came up with into English was The resemblance, from 1988. I wonder what’s going on there? There seem to be plenty that have been translated into French, Italian, even Dutch and Danish…

huhtikuu 24, 9:54 am

This caught my eye in a secondhand shop because of the green Virago cover, and it looked interesting because I've read books by two younger Northern Ireland novelists, Anna Burns and Jan Carson, lately.

No Mate for the Magpie (1985) by Frances Molloy (UK, Ireland, 1947-1991)


Frances Molloy died tragically young, soon after she had started to write, and she's mainly remembered for this cheeky autobiographical novel, the story of a clever and assertive girl from a poor and over-large Catholic family in a small town in Northern Ireland who manages to build a life for herself through a series of comical and humiliating failures. Things go badly for Ann Elizabeth McGlone, whether she's trying to be a nun, a factory worker, a nurse, a housekeeper or a political activist. But the self-deprecating comedy and the stylised Northern Ireland dialect in which the book is written (as a kind of precursor to Milkman) don't take anything away from her hard-hitting satire of the flaws of sixties Ireland, North and South of the border. It's perhaps not quite as raw as The white bird passes, but very much in the same tradition.

huhtikuu 24, 10:15 am

I've almost exhausted my stash of unread Boekenweek gifts. Here's the 2016 novella:

Broer (2016) by Esther Gerritsen (Netherlands, 1972- )


Olivia and her brother Marcus aren't particularly close: she's a successful executive, recently head-hunted to save an ailing family business; he's a serial failure, a depressed diabetic running a no-hope coaching operation from a mobile home in the middle of nowhere. But when he calls her to say that his leg is about to be amputated, Olivia finds her well-organised life knocked out of equilibrium, as if a piece of her own body has been cut off, whilst Marcus unexpectedly starts to heal the unacknowledged wounds in her family and work life.

A slightly flimsy conceit when you look at it cold, but Gerritsen makes it fit very nicely into the novella format. Enjoyable.

huhtikuu 26, 10:51 am

>32 thorold: Another title that sounds pretty interesting. Unfortunately this particular one is not available in French and my Spanish is not good enough for me to read it. Do you plan to read other books from this author (as some might be available in French)?

huhtikuu 26, 4:51 pm

>39 raton-liseur: I’ve got two more in Spanish on the pile, hoping to get to them soon.

huhtikuu 27, 6:38 am

>40 thorold: Great, I'll selfishly wait and see what you think about them, then.

toukokuu 12, 6:51 am

I'm just back from a fortnight in France. I was with other people and visiting things almost the whole time, so there wasn't much sitting in the garden reading, but I managed to finish one (long) book, mostly on the train. The fifth part of J J Voskuil's epic seven-part workplace novel Het Bureau, which I left dangling at the end of part four in September 2021:

En ook weemoedigheid (1999) by J J Voskuil (Netherlands, 1926-2008)


Part five takes us from the end of 1979 into the early eighties, with the A P Beerta Institute facing government cuts in research funding and Maarten, as deputy director and much against his will, involved in the negotiations that are supposed to decide how the cuts will be implemented. Beerta is living in a care home, still recovering from his stroke, whilst Maarten's mother-in-law is also now in a care home, suffering from dementia. His visits to the two of them are almost the only incidents outside work that we get to read about in this part, which is otherwise dominated by the cycle of petty problems and interruptions that make up so much of the routine of office life.

Again, there's a wealth of beautifully observed detail that brings out the banal oddity of workplace relationships: tedious meetings and unfilled vacancies; staff reporting interviews; the great debate about whether to switch to fair-trade coffee; random disruption from weather, decorators and passing scholars; disputes about office space or travel allowances; people resentful about delayed promotions; Maarten's embarrassment when he visits the rebuilt library and realises that he doesn't know his way around it any more; and even the occasional scientific conference. We still haven't quite got to the era of non-working IT systems, but that can't be very far ahead...

toukokuu 14, 11:55 am

A couple of books with somewhat generic titles, let’s see what the touchstone fairy will do with them…

This one has been on the TBR pile since July 2017. It has one of those airport “buy 1 get 1 half price” stickers on it, I suspect that I picked it up as the “1 half price”. And then decided (rightly) that it probably wasn’t the moment to read a novel about a Scottish alcoholic. It still wasn’t, but I can’t very well leave it on the shelf forever …

Paradise (2004) by A L Kennedy (UK, 1965- )


Hannah is an intelligent, articulate woman in her late thirties who knows perfectly well that alcohol is destroying her career and her health, messing up her relations with her family, and generally sabotaging her life. But the “real life” she gets to experience during the periods when she’s sober just doesn’t seem to have enough to offer to persuade her that it’s worth sacrificing whatever it is alcohol does for her.

A painful, but often grimly funny, book that doesn’t take any prisoners. As someone else said here “horrible in a totally amazing way” (to put it another way: very Scottish). I didn’t much enjoy reading it, and I doubt whether it really adds anything tangible to an outsider’s view of alcohol addiction, but it certainly has some fine writing in it.

toukokuu 14, 12:20 pm

And a more recent purchase, another Scandinavian book that wouldn’t fit into the “Baltic” theme in Q1. I’ve only dipped into Jon Fosse’s work so far, reading Trilogy a few years ago:

Scenes from a childhood (2022) by Jon Fosse (Norway, 1959- ), translated from Norwegian by Damion Searls


A selection from Jon Fosse’s short fiction originally published between 2000 and 2015, put together specially for this Fitzcarraldo English edition by translator Damion Searls in collaboration with the author.

Almost half the short book is taken up by the title piece, which is exactly what it says on the tin, a set of very short vignettes from the early life of a rural Norwegian boy who is sometimes the “I” of a first person narrative, sometimes “Asle” in the third person. The pieces are not in any kind of chronological order: Fosse seems to be circling round, picking up topics that evoke certain kinds of memory, or making multiple attempts at telling the same story. He says that he wanted to keep them in the order in which they were written, and you can see his point, perhaps. The pieces deal with very everyday kinds of topics: childhood fears, sexual awakening, musical experimentation, family births and deaths, playground humiliations: all the kinds of things we’ve all been through, but with fiords in the background.

“How it started” and “Little sister” are also both about childhood — the latter originally written as a standalone book for young children — whilst “Dreamt in Stone” is an account of some sort of (mental??) health crisis imagined as an avalanche.

The other long piece in the collection is a revenge drama, “And then my dog will come back to me”.

All the stories are very simple in structure, as is Fosse’s language, but the trick seems to be in the very precisely controlled way he deploys and patterns his deceptively plain sentences (of course, we have to trust the translator here). Although his characters seem very ordinary (give or take the odd murder), he somehow manages to convince us that we’ve been given a quite unusual insight into the way they experience their lives. Fosse definitely seems like someone to watch.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 14, 7:56 pm

>43 thorold: A painful, but often grimly funny, book that doesn’t take any prisoners. As someone else said here “horrible in a totally amazing way” (to put it another way: very Scottish).

A favourite author, and you've just summed up her writing completely. Truly, very Scottish indeed.

toukokuu 17, 3:41 am

A random find from a little library about six months ago:

België bestaat: Cultuurwijzer van een gespleten land (2008) by Bart Dirks (Netherlands, 1972- )


Belgium has been around for 193 years, but during most of that time — and never more so than during the constitutional crisis of 2007-2008 — experts have been predicting its imminent demise. Which somehow always fails to happen. Bart Dirks, the Volkskrant’s Brussels correspondent at the time, takes a look at how Belgium works, politically, socially and culturally, and at how far we (meaning Dutch readers) are justified in our prejudices about ribbon development, two-hour lunches, language chaos, corrupt town halls, high food standards, Catholic meddling, the Flemish far-right, beer-brewing monks, Walloon socialists, permanently unfinished building projects and anarchic road traffic.

Although he has clearly had his fair share of frustrating experiences with Belgian inefficiency, Dirks also obviously likes living in Belgium and seems to appreciate the way people interact. Things work through networks and personal connections, it seems, rather than systems and hierarchies. The Dutch way of rushing in and saying what you think is rarely appreciated.

There was a lot of very familiar stuff here: the Dutroux scandal, the Charleroi metro, the useless ship-lift, the reluctance of Flemish nationalists to acknowledge the extent of wartime collaboration with the Nazis, the way neither Dutch-speakers nor French-speakers learn each other’s language or read each other’s books, and so on. But there were also some interesting insights I didn’t know about, like the continuing importance of youth movements (scouting, etc.) in Flemish culture; the decline of the church everywhere except the school system, which they still dominate; the astute way the monarchy under Boudewijn and Albert II captured the middle ground between the two main language groups by playing a mediating role in the political system; the way the tiny German-speaking minority has profited from successive constitutional reforms to establish a government structure worthy of a minor nation state…

Fifteen years out of date, of course, but quite fun.

toukokuu 18, 5:52 am

My TBR pile is fuller than ever (a forgotten book order from Ireland arrived whilst I was away on holiday...), but I still somehow brought back two books from the recent acquisitions area at the library. This is a recent book by Ismail Kadare, which only seems to have been translated into French and Dutch so far. raton-liseur posted a review of it about a year ago.

Onenigheid aan de top: een mysterieus telefoongesprek tussen Stalin en Pasternak (Dutch 2022; Original 2018: Kur sunduesit grinden) by Ismail Kadare (Albania, 1936- ), translated to Dutch by Roel Schuyt


On 23 June 1934, Boris Pasternak received an unexpected phone call from Stalin himself. Not surprisingly, he seems to have been flustered and rather at a loss what to say during the three-minute conversation, and he has been much-castigated by posterity for not taking the opportunity to urge Stalin to release his recently arrested friend Osip Mandelstam.

Kadare was a student in Moscow 25 years later, during the agitation against Pasternak that followed the foreign publication of Doctor Zhivago and the Nobel Prize. Unlike most of us, he also claims to have first-hand experience of what it feels like to be a writer who gets a phone-call out of the blue from a cruel dictator, as Enver Hoxha once called him at the paper where he worked to congratulate him on a poem. He uses the history of the Stalin-Pasternak call to explore the different kinds of power exercised by writers and rulers, as well as looking at the unexpected difficulty of knowing exactly what was said and what lay behind it, even in such a relatively recent, intensively studied event.

According to Kadare, there are no fewer than thirteen different authoritative historical accounts of the phone call, all recorded by people who were close to Pasternak at the time, but all disagreeing on one or other aspect of what was said. He takes us through each of them in turn (and allows them to open up all kinds of interesting digressions about the natures of history, literature, and the world of 1930s Moscow). We perhaps don't end up knowing much more about Pasternak than we did when we set out, but it is a fascinating journey.

toukokuu 18, 9:10 am

>47 thorold: This sounds like the perfect scenario for Kadare. I may have to look for it in French if it doesn't appear in English soon.

My recent holiday yielded a Kadare I didn't have to date: Spring Flowers, Spring Frost. At this stage I sort of ration my unread ones to myself, as I have no idea how many more there will be. It's good to hear of a newish one.

I think my favourite to date is The Concert.

toukokuu 18, 11:06 am

>46 thorold: Ah Les Belges!

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 18, 11:54 am

>49 baswood: (Insert joke about nonante-neuf...)

>48 SassyLassy: The more I discover about Kadare, the more I want to read...

Back to the department of Things I Didn't Know I Didn't Know About. A book I found out about via the Observer piece on obscure LGBT+ classics from six weeks ago (cf. ), but I obviously should have known about long ago. It was one of the books in the Irish parcel that has been cluttering up my neighbour's hallway for a few weeks while I was away.

Lots of resonances with Jon Fosse (>44 thorold:), as well. You wait your whole life for a childhood memoir organised as prose-poems in a non-chronological sequence, and then two come along at once:

I remember (1970-1975; 2001) by Joe Brainard (USA, 1941-1994)


This is a very simple, but gloriously unclassifiable, idea: a list of about a thousand short prose poems, all starting with "I remember", and touching on memories of the author's childhood in provincial America in the 40s and 50s (Tulsa, Oklahoma) and his adult life as a gay man and visual artist in New York City, arranged in an apparently haphazard sequence that breaks down chronology and make us focus on patterns of ideas, images and emotions. It's funny, touching, serious, trivial, profound, naive and very clever, somewhere between American graffiti and City of night. A great assemblage of observations of middle-class, middle-American cultural trivia, interspersed with inept sexual experimentation and serious bar-cruising. Great fun!

(The cover is by Brainard himself, of course)

toukokuu 18, 12:09 pm

>47 thorold: Oh, yes, I remember this book. Not my "type of book" (if this means something), nvertheless I enjoyed this strange reading experience. I'm glad you did too.

>48 SassyLassy: It is definitely available in French, titles Disputes au sommet.

toukokuu 18, 2:08 pm

>50 thorold:

That's where Perec got the inspiration for his own Je me souviens....

Brainard's complete written oeuvre is available in one LOA volume--recommended.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 18, 3:22 pm

>52 LolaWalser: Yes, I saw something about the Perec connection. Fascinating!

And it is nice to get an occasional reassurance that I’m not likely to run out of unexpected books to add to the TBR pile any time soon… :-)

toukokuu 18, 4:20 pm

>53 thorold:

Here's a post about Brainard I made in the FS group--see if there's anything new to you in the thread? :) (hardly likely...)

toukokuu 18, 4:59 pm

>54 LolaWalser: LT tells me I’d read that thread up to and just beyond your Brainard post, but something obviously failed to register. I do remember the discussion of A month in the country, though. Strange the way the mind works! Did you ever get to read it?

I have to admit that my profound lack of interest in dogs has so far trumped my great affection for everything I’ve ever read by Ackerley, so My dog Tulip has never made it onto my shelves.

toukokuu 18, 5:59 pm

>52 LolaWalser: Funny our mental landmarks. Je me souviens calls up completely different things for me, like René Lévesque and à la prochaine Did like your list though.

>51 raton-liseur: Thanks for the French title.

>51 raton-liseur: He's still my number one candidate for the Nobel.

toukokuu 18, 7:26 pm

>55 thorold:

Yes, I got the Carr, it was excellent.

You're missing out big time with Tulip imo. A great book and not in the least mawkish or pet-mad, as one might fear. A story of a friendship rather than a master-slave narrative as one might expect.

>56 SassyLassy:

Ha, true... Poor Québec, and the rest of the world has no idea. :)

toukokuu 19, 10:45 am

Back to everybody's favourite living Victorian novelist...

Last Letter to a Reader (2021) by Gerald Murnane (Australia, 1939- )


(Author photo

Gerald Murnane has been saying goodbye to his readers since at least the publication of Border Districts in 2017, but this time he seems to be marking a definite end to his career: he has spent a few months reading through his entire output of published books in chronological order and recording his reactions to each one in essay form (being in a book by Murnane, this list necessarily has to be recursive, so the last chapter is about the book called Last letter to a reader).

The essays in this book aren't meant as reviews or explanations of the earlier books, of course, but try to pick up interesting and non-obvious thoughts provoked by reading them: sometimes these are about the circumstances in which the books were written or about what was discarded in the writing process, more often they are about Murnane's rather individual approach to writing and to fiction and the way it has developed over the years. Talking about his first book, Tamarisk Row, he admits to being pleasantly surprised: "The author of fifty years ago had thought far less about theories of narration than I have today, but some sort of feeling for the rightness of the narrative was already with him."

Amongst many other things, Murnane talks about a few occasions when he has written what he considers to be a perfect sentence, about the surprising way certain images found their place in his writing years after he had first come across them, about his relationship with Proust, and about his two "ideal readers", one of them a (drowned) young woman he encountered in People of the Puszta by Gyula Illyés, the other Catherine Earnshaw. He also talks about the complex and self-devised horse-racing game he has been playing for many years, set in an imaginary Antipodes which has some sort of connection with the worlds of Gondal and Gaaldine created by the Brontë siblings.

There's some silliness and a certain amount of deliberate teasing of the reader going on, but there's also a lot of very interesting and serious stuff about how and why fiction is (or should be) written.

toukokuu 20, 8:56 pm

>43 thorold: I read Paradise during one of the lowest, saddest times in my life—a beloved dog was terminally ill and I was spending many hours in vets' waiting rooms—and it was oddly perfect, a miserable book that entertained me enough to pass miserable stretches of time.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 21, 12:21 pm

>59 lisapeet: It's odd how that sometimes works, isn't it? I had almost the opposite experience, in that I was rather ill when I first got tried to read it and felt it was absolutely the wrong thing to read at that moment.

This is a book that I definitely had on my mental "to read" list when I spotted it in a secondhand shop a few weeks ago. But I can't remember at all who — or which other book — suggested it to me. A minor mystery...

A literary pilgrim in England (1917) by Edward Thomas (UK, 1878-1917)


This is one of those books where you have to ask yourself what they can have been thinking when they came up with the title. For most of us, a "literary pilgrim" is someone who travels to visit sites associated with favourite books or writers and perhaps records impressions of that experience, whilst "England" is ... England. For Edward Thomas, neither of these things seems to apply: a literary pilgrimage is a journey conducted entirely within a library, following an author through the places they experienced in life and looking at the way they wrote about them. And his idea of "England" seems to embrace the whole of the British Isles, although its population density fades very fast as you travel north from London, reviving only slightly around Edinburgh...

Not that any of that matters, really: this is a lively collection of short biographical essays about great writers and the geography that inspired them, with a good deal to enjoy, and some incisive observation, especially in the pieces about writers Thomas sees as under-appreciated heroes from humble backgrounds: Robert Burns, John Clare, George Crabbe, Richard Jefferies, George Borrow and W H Hudson, in particular. (Oddly, he doesn't include his own special protégé, the Welsh tramp-poet W H Davies, who would probably have fitted in very well.) Some of the more big-name writers, like Wordsworth and Tennyson, get a rather less engaged treatment, but Dorothy Wordsworth, although she doesn't get an essay to herself, does pretty well out of both the Wordsworth and Coleridge pieces. (The only woman in the book, apart from Dorothy, is Emily Brontë.)

Edward Thomas is generally remembered nowadays for one poem, "Adlestrop", and for being one of the poets romantically and wastefully killed in the First World War. But he had a long and productive career as an author of literary non-fiction and nature-writing before he turned to poetry. This book, which seems to have been mostly written in 1915 when Thomas was already in the army, was one of his last prose works.

toukokuu 21, 1:01 pm

On a quite different note, plans are beginning to be made for a trip to the USA in September/October this year. I’ll be spending time at least in Cleveland (OH) and San Francisco. If anyone has any useful tips for (non-obvious) places to visit, go right ahead!

I’ve already got major tourist sights like the American Bookbinding Museum and Franz Welser-Möst on my to-do list, and I’m planning a re-read of Tales of the city

(And if you’re likely to be somewhere within striking distance and fancy meeting for a coffee or something, feel free to message me.)

toukokuu 22, 4:03 am

toukokuu 22, 9:17 am

Not a destination, per se, but if you happen to be passing by the Cleveland Public Library main branch, duck inside—it's stunning, and they usually have very cool exhibits in the lobby.

toukokuu 22, 12:30 pm

>61 thorold:

Ha, I'm one-fourth in a re-read of Tales of the city (the first book), for the first time I have the whole sequence at hand (haven't read books 4-6 before). And much as I'd love a trip to SF, I think I'll just visit one of our Shroomyz

Ohio! Now we're talking faraway exotic places!

toukokuu 22, 4:34 pm

>61 thorold: Never been to either, but expect them to be diametrically different.
You could try putting the question on this thread too:

toukokuu 22, 4:57 pm

>63 lisapeet: Yes, I’d like to see that. Having grown up around Manchester, I know that’s the sort of thing big old industrial cities tend to do well (I’m looking forward to seeing the art museum as well).

>65 SassyLassy: Thanks, done.

>64 LolaWalser: Be careful — my friend did mention the idea of a road trip into Ontario… (but I don’t think it’s on the cards really).

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 22, 6:45 pm

>64 LolaWalser: (haven't read books 4-6 before)

It's up to nine books now; Maupin returned to the characters for three new novels between 2007 and 2014.

toukokuu 22, 6:43 pm

>67 KeithChaffee:

Ahh--thanks for the info. The quest is back on!

>66 thorold:

Wow, that would be terrific... and distance-wise quite an achievement.

Please do let me know if you end up in the neighbourhood. My own transfer to Europe looks to be postponed until at least next spring.

toukokuu 23, 5:10 am

>67 KeithChaffee: >68 LolaWalser: I had rather mixed feelings about the three late sequels — it was great to discover that there was more about those characters, but I think they lost the buzz that came from writing a serial in real time in the earlier books, and Maupin had clearly got rather fed up with some of his characters... Sometimes it's better not to go back.

>68 LolaWalser: I'll keep you posted, but I don't think it's very likely that we'll venture into Ontario as well as California this time.


An elderly best-seller I didn't bother with first time round. It turned up in a little library a couple of months ago, so I thought I'd give it a try.

The tipping point : how little things can make a big difference (2000) by Malcolm Gladwell (UK, Canada, 1963- )


This was a best-seller so long ago that it doesn't use the word "epicentre" anywhere, and it even comes with a blurb from Bill Clinton (remember him?) on the back. Oddly, the quoted comment doesn't give any direct indication that Clinton has ever read the book — or encourages us to do so: He describes it as "that now-famous book that everybody is reading". Maybe the publisher is taking Gladwell's arguments literally, and considers Clinton as the kind of influencer who could nudge us into a purchase simply by telling us that everyone else is reading it...?

What Gladwell describes, at a very superficial level and without any kind of scientific analysis, is how outcomes in fields like marketing, public health, and social behaviour can be determined by rather small-scale inputs, as long as they are applied in exactly the right place. Which is probably something we all knew already. It's all presented quite charmingly, in the form of case-studies written in the best New Yorker style (frame the chapter with your big story, interrupting it with subsidiary pieces of evidence, identify an engaging representative person for each bit of the story, scatter in a few subjective elements...). So it's very readable, but it all leaves you with that vaguely unsatisfied feeling that you always get from books on pop psychology or business. A good disposable book for a shortish train journey.

toukokuu 24, 8:23 am

Gladwell superficial? Surely not, impossible. 🙂 (he’s especially entertaining on audio, if you need to kill sometime.)

toukokuu 24, 2:17 pm

>69 thorold:

Can't stand that charlatan. I think I wrote up a wordier critique somewhere but LT's awful search isn't helping. Not that he's worth the effort...

toukokuu 27, 7:12 am

This is another one I found through that Observer piece (cf. >50 thorold: above). According to Wikipedia, the Irish writer John Broderick lived in Paris in the fifties, where he hung about with people like Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, and Julien Green. I think we get the picture...

The Trial of Father Dillingham (1982) by John Broderick (Ireland, 1924-1989)


The title makes it sound as if this is going to be a case of the Abbé Mourets (or, given when this came out, maybe we should say "Thornbirds"?), but it turns out to be something quite different, a kind of Iris Murdoch scenario about a disgruntled ex-priest, author of a controversial book, whose fellow tenants in a rambling old Dublin Georgian house are a middle-aged gay couple, Eddie and Maurice, and the gorgeously over-the-top retired prima donna Maria Keeley.

We're in the mid-seventies, and bourgeois Dublin is a lot less strait-laced than it pretends to be (as long as you're reasonably discreet about whatever you're doing), so being gay is not much of an issue, but being in open conflict with the church is still a serious problem.

I enjoyed the social observation and the clever characterisation here, but I got a bit lost in all the intricacies of Broderick's sin-and-redemption plot, which didn't really seem to amount to all that much, but needed the awkward introduction from nowhere of a complicated crime-story in the last couple of chapters to bring it to some kind of resolution. A bit patchy, but an interesting period piece.

Muokkaaja: toukokuu 27, 3:52 pm

I've read a few books about borders recently: here's another one that caught my eye in the library the other day. It turned out to be an interesting complement to the wonderful exhibition of old maps that's on at the moment at the National Archive here in The Hague, which I went to see a few weeks ago ( ):

Grensverkenningen : langs oude grenzen in Nederland (2022) by Kester Freriks (Netherlands, 1954- )


Leiden University Library has a fabulous collection of historic maps of the Netherlands and elsewhere, an 1872 bequest from the Leiden publisher and map-collector J T Bodel Nijenhuis. Using some of the maps from this collection, Kester Freriks explores the traces left in the modern world by lines that people plotted on maps hundreds of years ago. He visits a series of sites in different parts of the Netherlands, accompanied by different kinds of experts — local historians, archaeologists, geographers, an architectural photographer, a national park ranger, a beachcomber, the mayor of a small town, etc. — and looks at the modern scene in the light of the historic map in question.

The Netherlands being what they are, there are of course places where land has become water and/or water land, for many different reasons. The Roman fort known as Brittenburg has disappeared into the North Sea off Katwijk (if it ever existed), the island of Urk was joined to the (new) mainland eighty years ago, former lakes along the river Vecht have been drained whilst former bits of dry land next to them have been turned into lakes by extraction of sand or peat, and so on.

There are other places where the use of a piece of land has changed out of all recognition, but it's surprising how often you can still see the traces of an old boundary in something like the street pattern (and street names!) of a new residential neighbourhood. Freriks also digs into some interesting historical oddities, like the world's first "straight-line" boundary, the Sems-Line between Groningen and Drenthe, or the way the legal concept of "living within the sound of the bells" around Frisian towns was formalised in the 17th century by drawing a "bell-strike boundary" on the map, or the long-running conflict between two water authorities that delayed the construction of a lock in the canal at Leidschendam for several centuries. Fun, if you're a Dutch geography nerd...

toukokuu 27, 4:23 pm

>73 thorold: Fun, if you're a Dutch geography nerd... Sounds like fun if you're any kind of geography nerd. Living on an ocean inlet, this kind of thing fascinates me.

toukokuu 27, 4:38 pm

>73 thorold: >74 SassyLassy: In case anyone is curious, there is an English Wikipedia page on the Sems-Line:

toukokuu 27, 8:07 pm

not sure I totally get the difference between a sems line and a border line, unless the former was more flexible? Interesting history tho

toukokuu 30, 11:22 am

>76 cindydavid4: Sorry if that wasn't explained: the Sems line was a line drawn by two surveyors, one of whom was called Johan Sems. A bit like Mason and Dixon 150 years later, except that in this case the second surveyor, Johan de la Haye, got left out of the naming. Rather unfairly, as Freriks points out.


I planned to read these in Spanish, but I came across a nice hardback set of the English translation in a secondhand bookshop in Leiden after fruitlessly looking out for the original for several years, so I thought I would let my linguistic principles slip a little. After all, quite a lot of it is letters and journalism he originally wrote in French and translated to Spanish for the memoirs...

Forbidden territory : the memoirs of Juan Goytisolo, 1931-1956 (1985) by Juan Goytisolo (Spain, 1931-2017), translated by Peter Bush
Realms of strife : the memoirs of Juan Goytisolo, 1957-1982 (1986) by Juan Goytisolo (Spain, 1931-2017), translated by Peter Bush


Forbidden territory describes Goytisolo's childhood and student years in Barcelona, growing up in a conservative, bourgeois family during the civil war, and trying to flex his intellectual muscles as a young anti-establishment writer in the repressive climate of Franco's Spain in the early fifties.

There are effectively two complementary narratives going on. Most of the book is written as a conventionally-objective, linear first-person story that takes us through key moments like his mother's death in an air-raid when Juan was six; his father's exaggerated homophobia; the not-quite-sexual idyll with the fisherman Raimundo in a remote floating bar in the docks; visiting brothels with a bunch of drunken Colombians during a stay in Madrid; the first visits to Paris and his first meeting in the Gallimard office with publisher and writer Monique Lange, who would become his life-partner. But that's set against italicised chapters in which the Goytisolo of the 1980s addresses his younger self critically in the second person, in a more fluid, novelistic stream-of-consciousness style, undermining the pretence that everything is a controlled, well organised career progression.

Realms of strife takes up the story in 1957, when Goytisolo is living in Paris with Monique. She has pulled him right into the centre of Paris intellectual life, rubbing shoulders with Sartre and de Beauvoir, Genet, and all the rest, and he's soon established, intoxicatingly, as the young anti-Franco intellectual-of-reference of the Left Bank. His early books are being translated into every possible language, and he's involved in protest actions and never out of the papers, in particular marshalling other writers to help get his brother Luis — also a writer — out of jail in Spain. He's soon invited to Cuba to meet the exciting new revolutionaries there, and he's organising a new Paris-based literary review to nurture the Latin American "Boom".

This all starts to come unstuck soon enough, of course: disenchantment sets in when communist friends are disciplined by the Party after Goytisolo criticises its policy on Spain, and worsens when some prominent writers on the left refuse to support protests against Castro's arrest of the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla. And then there's Algeria and Prague...

Moreover, things aren't going quite straightforwardly in his attempts at playing house with Monique and her daughter: an affair with a Moroccan building worker makes it clear to Goytisolo where his real sexual interests have always been, and a certain amount of painful renegotiation of the relationship is needed. They get through it and stay together — demonstrating once again that you can never put other people into neat categories — but in future there has to be space for Goytisolo to take off on his own to North Africa from time to time, to write and pick up men. And, of course, it is this "coming-out" exercise that also gives Goytisolo the motivation and breathing-space to relaunch his writing, shifting to more experimental books like Señas de identidad and Conde Julian.

There's a lot going on here for such a relatively short memoir: travel in Cuba, Spain, Russia and Africa; a positive shower of high-powered literary names; politics, poetry and intensely personal self-exploration; and quite a bit of unexpected comedy too. And Goytisolo complicates the narrative structure quite a bit, too, playing with the time sequence and adding third-person passages to the interplay of first and second we had in the first volume. Good stuff, well worth reading more than once.

toukokuu 30, 2:25 pm

That certainly explains why he'd disavow the earlier stuff... clearly didn't come into his "authentic" self for a while.

kesäkuu 2, 11:44 am

This is some of his "early stuff" that turned up a few weeks ago (of all places) in a book-sale at the English Church here...

Para vivir aquí (1960) by Juan Goytisolo (Spain, 1931-2017)


Originally published in Buenos Aires in 1960, this short story collection didn't appear in Spain until after the death of Franco: Goytisolo put his fingers on rather too many of the sore points of the nationalist state for it to get past the censors. You just have to look at the opening story "Cara y cruz" to see why: two young men go out for a jolly evening in Barcelona, only to find that the police have swept the streets clean in preparation for a prestigious Catholic conference in the city. The ladies of the night have all been bussed out to Gerona, it turns out, so they set off in pursuit and find that it is indeed party time in that normally quiet town, with hundreds of displaced prostitutes all looking for work...

The seven short stories and one longer piece are all drawn from Goytisolo's experiences in Spain in the late fifties, as a student in Barcelona, doing military service, and travelling in the South with a companion presumably based on Monique Lange ("El viaje"). There's a lot of material that appears here as fiction but was re-used in a slightly different form twenty years later in the author's memoirs. In particular, the story "Otoño, en el puerto, cuando llovizina", describing the narrator's waterfront idyll with a fisherman called Raimundo, comes back pretty much in the same words in Forbidden territory.

The content of the final, longer piece, "Aqui abajo", doesn't come back in the memoirs. It describes the experiences of a university graduate doing military service in an obscure garrison town where there is essentially nothing for the army to do, and an awful lot of officers and men pretending to be doing something useful for the glory of Spain. In the narrator's case, his work mostly involves pointlessly copying lists of names from one ledger to another for a couple of hours a day. Goytisolo makes a point of telling us about the excessive drinking and whoring of the officers, about the (grass-) widows on the prowl for young men, and about the disgraceful poverty and illiteracy of the young recruits from Andalucia, all of whom are determined to do whatever it might take to avoid ever having to go back to their villages.

Interesting to see Goytisolo before he went all experimental, writing what is essentially social-realist fiction.

This was an early post-Franco Spanish paperback; I've no idea what's going on with the cover art. Doesn't appear to have any relevance to the contents at all.

kesäkuu 2, 2:38 pm

I've no idea what's going on with the cover art.

All I'm getting is "Willkommen, bienvenue, weeeeeeeelcome..."

kesäkuu 2, 3:16 pm

>80 LolaWalser: Actually, yes, that makes complete sense! If only there was a stylish Berlin nightclub somewhere in the book, it would fit perfectly. :-)

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 2, 7:51 pm

>81 thorold:

Barely related... have you seen the adaptation of Good omens with David Tennant and Michael Sheen? I'm going to guess no... which would be sad, because there's this scene of Michael Sheen (playing the good angel Aziraphale) kicking his heels in a cotillion with other gentlemen that's just priceless.

ETA: corrected name

kesäkuu 2, 4:23 pm

>82 LolaWalser: You’re right, I haven’t. Neil Gaiman is a shocking gap in my cultural awareness. Nor do I pay Mr Bezos for TV. But I did find some clips on YouTube, it does look rather fun.

kesäkuu 2, 4:50 pm

>82 LolaWalser: Michael Sheen

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 2, 6:21 pm

>82 LolaWalser: that is just one of the must see scenes. Well worth watching. the casting is pure genius. T

kesäkuu 2, 6:22 pm

>83 thorold: the book is really good tho tbh the series cuts back on some stuff in the book that could have been edited.

kesäkuu 2, 7:50 pm

>83 thorold:

I hear you on Bezos but I borrowed the DVDs from the library.

>84 dianeham:

Ooops--thanks for the note, editing ASAP

>85 cindydavid4:

Yes, I watched the first two seasons twice! Impatient for the third...

kesäkuu 2, 8:36 pm

wait, season 2 isn't till July 28! I did see the title sequence which looks very intriging. Howd you get to see it?

kesäkuu 3, 3:02 pm

I'm taking note of it, anyway. Maybe our library has it.


Back to catching up with a Nobelist who is inadequately covered in my list. This is a book where I have absolutely no idea why I never got to it before...

The wayward bus (1947) by John Steinbeck (USA, 1902-1968)


On the face of it, this is just a version of that rather hackneyed plot device — more popular on stage and screen than in novels — where you bring an apparently random bunch of strangers together and put them under pressure in some unexpected way to see what happens. In this case the driver and passengers on a bus making a cross-country journey in California at a moment when the rivers are up and the bridges liable to collapse at any moment.

Of course, Steinbeck uses the situation to dig into a whole range of social problems of the USA in the immediate aftermath of World War II. Slightly surprisingly, perhaps, he focusses in particular on the situation of his female characters. You could almost claim this as a feminist novel, in that it talks about the disconnect between women's aspirations and the roles actually available to them in forties society, and shows us something of what it must feel like to be on the receiving end of unwanted male sexual attention. But there's probably also a strong element of male fantasy in the way these things are worked out. And how does Steinbeck know what women talk about in the ladies' toilets, unless he was listening behind the door...?

I loved Steinbeck's close attention to the natural and man-made background of rural California: from the details of the mechanical work being done on Juan's old bus to the fabulous thumbnail survey of the ecology of a roadside verge, it all feels totally convincing and well-observed, and it cleverly plays into the mood and timing of the foreground story.

kesäkuu 3, 10:05 pm

>89 thorold: I thought Id read all of his, even the short reign of Pippin the IV This is new to me.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 4, 12:28 pm

This is a book I brought back from my brief musical pilgrimage to Leipzig last year:

Gesang vom Leben: Biografie der Musikmetropole Leipzig (2021) by Hagen Kunze (Germany, 1973- )


(Author photo

Leipzig is the city where Johann Sebastian Bach worked in the first half of the eighteenth century and Mendelssohn and the Schumanns in the first half of the nineteenth. Richard Wagner was born there, and foreigners like Edvard Grieg and Arthur Sullivan came there to learn their trades. It was an important centre of music publishing and instrument manufacture, it has been the home of one of the world's leading orchestras since the 1780s, as well as the first proper conservatorium, and in the twentieth century it saw the creation of one of the first dedicated radio orchestras. And the university owns one of the world's most important musical instrument collections, now housed in the Grassi Museum.

Hagen Kunze has a go at unpacking this rich musical tradition and working out why a trading city like Leipzig should become such a focus of musical activity, something that is historically more usually associated with court cities. Of course, it's not really difficult to spot the elephant in the room, the choir school of the St Thomas church, established as an Augustinian cloister in the early 13th century and taken over by the city council after the Reformation, and still at the heart of musical life (Kunze reminds us that both the post-Wende boyband Die Prinzen and the trendy a cappella ensemble amarcord were founded by former choristers of St Thomas's). Both at the most difficult times in the city's history and during the driest seasons of civic conservatism, the continuity of that musical tradition seems to have provided a centre of gravity that brought in talented and motivated people.

Kunze doesn't try to pretend that everything was always for the best in the best of all possible cities: we're also talking about the city that heaved a collective sigh of relief after the death of the quarrelsome Kapellmeister Bach and forgot all about his music until Mendelssohn came along to tell them how important it was, the city that allowed the Nazis to demolish the Mendelssohn memorial without a murmur (the only objection on record came from the mayor, Carl Goerdeler, who resigned in protest and was later executed for his part in the 20th of July plot), and the city that blew up the University Church in 1968, apparently because Honecker had said he didn't like it. There seem to have been numerous other, less spectacular occasions where petty quarrels with the city authorities or confrontations with philistine audiences led to artists of genius walking out to take their skills elsewhere: even Gustav Mahler only lasted two years of his three-year appointment to the opera house. But somehow, enough stuck to make it a really interesting place.


The cover art is a detail from the huge mural on the ceiling of the new 1981 Gewandhaus concert hall, Gesang von Leben by Sighard Gilles, which also gives the book its title.

kesäkuu 9, 2:57 pm

It was about time for a lightweight French crime story, so I picked this one out largely at random in the library. I read Echenoz' Goncourt winner Je m'en vais two years ago.

Envoyée spéciale (2016; Special envoy) by Jean Echenoz (France, 1947- )


The veteran General Bourgeaud has been shunted off into an obscure corner of the French military intelligence machine, with a little office and an assistant, to sit out his time until retirement. Unfortunately, he hasn't quite understood that the deal is that he sits quiet and doesn't attempt to mount any operations. And there's this perfect little scheme just waiting for the right type of agent to carry it out. It needs to be a woman, and someone from entirely outside the intelligence services. Something in the Mata Hari line, but less flashy and more postmodern. Paul, the assistant, has a candidate in mind, but she will need a bit of preparation...

And thus we get into a ludicrously overcomplicated and unbalanced plot, put together by a writer who obviously doesn't trust any of his characters (or himself as narrator) an inch. He doesn't particularly care for any of them either, and is more than a little sceptical about the conventions of the thriller genre. But it's not a light-hearted pastiche: whilst all these people are running around spying on each other to no real purpose, there is all kinds of real pain and suffering going on, and Echenoz doesn't allow us to pass the piles of corpses without a shudder.

Clever, witty, and sometimes quite amusing, but I'm not really sure what it provides other than the sort of entertainment that we would get more efficiently from a less self-conscious kind of thriller.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 11, 4:45 am

I've seen this on display in bookshops for a while, and not bought it several times. But eventually curiosity got the better of me...

Two wheels good : the history and mystery of the bicycle (2022) by Jody Rosen (USA, 1969- )


There's a good argument to be made that the world doesn't need yet another cultural history of the bicycle, least of all one written by a middle-class New York journalist who was a bike messenger in his student days. You'd have thought that the previous seven or eight of those had pretty much covered all the essential ground. And you'd be right. You already know everything you really need to know about how the bicycle was invented as an aristocratic toy in Regency Europe, how it became an essential, liberating means of transport for disadvantaged people around the world from the 1890s on, how the only slightly later development of the motor car negated that liberating effect in many rich countries, and how cycling became a catalyst for protest and activism in many of those same rich countries from the 1960s onwards.

Rosen tells the story engagingly, so if you've been living on another planet, this would be a good entry point for learning about cycling as an Earth-phenomenon. To be fair, he does also pick up a few threads that earlier writers have missed, although he has to go rather out of his way to find them: we learn about bicycles and sex; the bike culture of Longyearbyen, in Svalbard; the rickshaws of Dhaka; the nascent fixie culture in Beijing; and the royal cyclists of Bhutan. He also brings us up to date on the role of cycling during the Covid lockdowns and BLM protests of recent years. So not a complete waste of time, but it's certainly well over on the "journalism" side of the scale, more of an affectionate tribute to cycling as a worldwide phenomenon than any sort of serious analysis.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 21, 10:19 am

More than a week since I posted a review: I was away for a few days on a boat, which didn't help, but I think the real problem is more to do with starting too many books lately and not finishing any. I have finished one of them, so perhaps daylight is in sight. But first, a random Boekenweek gift that I picked up and read in one go last night:

De verrekijker (2013) by Kees van Kooten (Netherlands, 1941- )


Kees van Kooten has been writing (humorous) books and columns since the 1960s, but he's best-known in the Netherlands as part of a long-standing radio and TV comedy duo with the late Wim de Bie. In his 2013 Boekenweek novella, he digs into memories of his father, a travelling salesman who was called up into the Dutch army as a reserve sergeant in the mobilisation of September 1939. Among the heirlooms from his father that van Kooten has kept are a splendid pair of binoculars and an album of wartime memories which he sadly never took the time to go through with his father while he was still living.

Looking properly at the album for the first time to prepare this book, he discovers an army letter addressed to his father referring to a complaint from a civilian, a Mr Treurniet of Berkel-en-Rodenrijs, about the requisitioning of a pair of binoculars valued at f 9.75, now missing from military stores. Could it be that his father acquired the binoculars dishonestly in the heat of (not-quite) war? Van Kooten imagines various fanciful scenarios that might lie behind such an incident — the adolescent Treurniet Jr. spying on a beautiful woman who has just moved into Berkel-en-Rodenrijs, Mrs Treurniet stalking a handsome dentist, and so on, but whatever trace there might have been of this wartime "petite histoire" in official archives has long gone. Maybe someone in Berkel or Rodenrijs remembers the J Treurniet of the binoculars...?

Charming, idiosyncratic, and an interesting little sidelight on the brief period in which the Netherlands was trying to defend its own neutrality, and on the way we look back at that period now.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 21, 3:03 pm

And Salman Rushdie's latest, from the library's recent acquisitions pile:

Victory city (2023) by Salman Rushdie (UK, 1947- )


The Vijayanagar Empire ruled large parts of southern India from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century. It comes up in the margins of foreign travellers' accounts of India from Ibn Battuta to Portuguese and Venetian merchant adventurers, and it seems to have experienced a revival of interest lately from historians who see it as a model of Hindu resistance to the military and political advance of Islam.

Rushdie takes the history of the rise and fall of Vijayanagar as the framework for a magic-realist historical novel in which he is setting out quite a different kind of agenda. His narrator (through a Long Lost Manuscript), the prophet and matriarch Pampa Kampana, whose adult life corresponds exactly to the two hundred and fifty year life of the city she founded, has a vision of her creation as a liberal paradise founded on principles of equal opportunity and religious toleration. Well, we all know how that's going to end, don't we...? Bigotry, ambition, and (male) selfishness undermine her ambitions time and time again, and in the end the city is destroyed by a coalition of enemies.

In the circumstances, this somehow felt like a far less bitter and pessimistic book than the one Rushdie might have written. He may not have much faith in humanity's competence to run a city or a planet without messing up, but he is prepared to give a lot of credit to individuals for trying to make the world less awful. Especially if they happen to be ninja princesses. And he peppers the narrative with his usual half-buried literary jokes where we least expect them — I particularly enjoyed the little nod to R K Narayan which popped up out of nowhere at one of the darker moments in the story.

kesäkuu 21, 2:07 pm

How does one nod to Narayan? Did he mention Malgudi?

I'm too chicken to try to bike in Toronto, but I enjoy occasionally NotJustBikes, do you know them? It's some Canadian who discovered biking in Amsterdam.

kesäkuu 21, 2:56 pm

>96 LolaWalser: No, slightly more subtle than that — he slipped in a discussion between a painter of signs, a vendor of sweets, a financial expert, etc. No Bachelor of Arts, though.

Yes, I’ve seen a few of those. He seems to be better informed than a lot of the “North Americans discovering Holland” things. But I’m rapidly building up real-life experience of trying to sell “life without a car” to an unconvinced mid-westerner. Maybe I’ll have enough material for a YouTube channel soon too…

kesäkuu 21, 5:14 pm

>95 thorold: This must be before the knife attack.

kesäkuu 21, 5:46 pm

>98 baswood: Yes, he seems to have finished it before the attack, although it was published six months later.

kesäkuu 21, 9:18 pm

he slipped in a discussion between a painter of signs, a vendor of sweets, a financial expert

Oh, lovely!

Maybe inform your Midwesterner that rent-a-car is available? :) In any case, good luck with bringing them over.

Muokkaaja: kesäkuu 25, 4:39 pm

>100 LolaWalser: Thanks! Yes, there are car-sharing schemes and the like as well. The least of our difficulties, really...

Another one from the library's recent acquisitions pile — I didn't even go upstairs to the main collections on my last visit. This is a kind of sequel to Menasse's big EU corridors-of-power novel Die Hauptstadt, which I read in November.

Die Erweiterung : Roman (2022) by Robert Menasse (Austria, 1954- )


The officials in Robert Menasse's latest big Brussels novel are working with Albania and other West Balkan states to prepare them for EU membership, but some important Member States are blocking progress for their own domestic reasons. And the Albanians themselves are a bit miffed about having to sack all their corrupt judges while "respectable" MS like Poland and Hungary are busy turning the Rule of Law into a bad joke. But all this is fiction, of course, any connection with real life is purely coincidental...

A lot of the action this time takes place in Albania, mostly in and around the office of the Prime Minister, "ZK", an engagingly offbeat ex-basketball star who is trying to recapture ground from his nationalist opponents by identifying himself with the national hero, Skanderbeg. This is mostly fun, but it occasionally feels as though we're being taken through a condensed version of the complete works of Ismail Kadare, touching on all the key things we are supposed to know about Albanian history, from Enver Hoxha and the Kosovo war to sworn virgins, blood-feuds and the Kanun.

Like its precursor, Die Hauptstadt, this is a big novel with a lot of characters and parallel plot lines, and it feels as though Menasse may have been caught unawares by some major world events that caused him to shift the direction of the climax of the story when it was already half-written. It gives him a powerful symbolic ending, with Europe's political leaders sailing off into the sunset on a broken-down, epidemic-stricken cruise ship they have to share with a lot of rescued refugees. This works well, except that it seems to leave a lot of his characters and plot lines somewhat crudely tied up: one character is unceremoniously pushed off a cliff when no longer required, others simply drop out of sight. And there are two detectives we follow through most of the book who end up having to watch as someone else solves the main crime story...

An enjoyable read and a thoughtful book with some sensible things to say about politics and Europe, but maybe not quite as joined-up a novel as it might have been had the world treated all of us a little better over the past few years.

kesäkuu 28, 12:07 pm

Over the last few weeks I've been following a hiking trail from Amsterdam to Bergen-op-Zoom which is named after Floris V. As with most Dutch hiking trails, the connection between the name and the route is fairly tenuous, but it did leave me with a feeling that I ought to find out least a little bit more about Count Floris. This short study by the cartoonist and illustrator Henk 't Jong, who has built a second career for himself late in life as a medievalist, looked like the most accessible and most recent of the books on the Floris-shelf in the library.

De tombe van Floris V: het tragische einde van de graaf van Holland (2021) by Henk 't Jong (Netherlands, 1948- )


Medieval history is something that doesn't come up all that often in everyday life in the Netherlands, and Floris V (1254-1296), contemporary of Edward I of England, is probably the only one of the Counts of Holland who ever gets talked about. He did all the things that good monarchs are supposed to do — reforming inefficient administration, granting charters, encouraging agriculture, trade and the development of peat-digging, quelling unruly subjects, winning territory from his incompetent neighbour the Bishop of Utrecht, building castles, and so on. But what we all remember him for is his grisly murder in the marshes between Naarden and Muiden in June 1296. So much more satisfactory than dying accidentally in a tournament like most of his male relatives.

In this potted biography, Henk 't Jong doesn't spend too much time on Floris's economic and social policy, but rather focusses on his relations with his nobles and with the other important regional powers of the time, in particular Flanders, Brabant, England and France. He looks at how he kept the Zeeland barons in order, and how this eventually created a situation that led to the botched plot in which Floris was killed.

't Jong doesn't have much time for romantic conspiracies in which the barons were avenging their slighted honour: as he sees it, it's pretty clear that it was a straightforward coup, financed by Edward, to get Floris out of the way after he rather unwisely (but profitably) switched his alliance from England to France. Edward was holding Floris's young son hostage, so removing Floris was an obvious move.

Floris was eventually buried with the rest of his family in the abbey at Rijnsburg, which was destroyed in the Eighty Years' War. Archaeological excavations there in 1949 revealed human remains that were proudly claimed as those of the Counts, but forensic tests in the nineties made it clear that the bones are far too old. 't Jong has his fun mocking the Rijnsburg local history enthusiasts for their chagrin at this, and for the spectacularly ugly Floris-monument they put up to get their own back on the forensic scientists.

But there's another claimed grave-site: immediately after the murder, Floris's body was taken to Alkmaar and kept in the church there for nine months until the turmoil had died down and it was safe to move it to Rijnsburg. Alkmaar church still has a curious tomb-like structure, an empty wooden box with a gravestone on top of it, with an inscription that claims that Floris's internal organs were buried under that stone when his body was embalmed. This may well be true, but both the box and the inscription can reliably be dated to the end of the fifteenth century, and there is no record in any of the chronicles prior to that date that could confirm the story, so 't Jong concludes that it was most likely invented as a publicity stunt at a time when Alkmaar was looking for funds to pay for the rebuilding of the church. (There was a blood-miracle in the church at about the same time.)

The book comes with a lot of illustrations, including 't Jong's own heraldic drawings and plans. Rather oddly, most of them appear once in the text where they belong, in black and white, and a second time in a colour plate section in the middle of the book. Perhaps too much of a good thing.

kesäkuu 28, 12:29 pm

Back to Czesław Miłosz — I bought this at the same time as The captive mind, which I read in February for the Nobel project.

Native realm: a search for self-definition (1959; English 1968) by Czesław Miłosz (Poland, 1911-2004), translated by Catherine S. Leach


This is a kind of political and historical autobiography in which Miłosz looks at his own life in the context of what was going on in Lithuania and Poland at the time. Although it is quite subjective here and there, and we get some engaging anecdotes from his school and student days, a lot of the time Miłosz himself seems to disappear from view as we get his detailed analysis of the complex historical situation of Wilno/Wilna/Vilnius and the surrounding area, and of Poland and Lithuania in general. Occasionally a little dry when it gets deep into political philosophy, but also quite fascinating, and of course also very disturbing when we move into his first-hand account of occupied Poland during World War II, when he had to survive by every means available, most of them illegal — since effectively nothing was legal.

Powerful stuff.

heinäkuu 1, 8:58 am

>103 thorold: A reminder that I want to get back to Captive Mind, which fell by the wayside earlier this year. Have your read any of Miłosz's poetry?

heinäkuu 4, 3:19 am

…and it’s July, and time for a new thread, new poem, etc. The story goes on here: