Andrzej Stasiuk: On the Road to Babadag #EU27Project

This is in many ways the perfect #EU27Project read, although three of the countries it refers to are outside the EU.

Stasiuk is a Polish writer who is not smitten with the idea of the West or even Central Europe, as so many other writers and citizens from former Communist states are, in moth-like fascination. Instead he is looking at lesser-known and decaying pockets of Slovakia, Ukraine, Romania, Moldova, Albania and Hungary. He is therefore doing those neglected and forgotten places a favour. Yet, by deliberately staying away from the tourist route (there is no mention of Budapest or Bucharest or Brasov or any of the more popular sights), he is presenting perhaps an equally lop-sided view as the Tourist Offices of those countries.

Idyllic village image from Publikon.ro

If Britain or the US might be said to have a nostalgia for empire or world domination, Stasiuk here has a nostalgia for marginalisation and oppression, for what he calls the ‘Balkan shambles’. As if suffering confers authenticity and profundity. This is not so much a tribute to a vibrant and resilient community as a eulogy to a dying way of life.

I’m not sure I agree with this premise, which is why I read this book with a mix of feelings. On the one hand, I loved his atmospheric descriptions of everyday life in villages, which reminded me of summers spent at my grandmother’s house:

From occidentul-romanesc.com

Telkibanya, a village that hadn’t changed in a hundred years. Wide, scattered houses under fruit trees… From windows of homes, the smell of stewing onions. In market stalls, mounds of melons, paprikas. A woman emerged from a cellar with a glass jug filled with wine… Old women sitting in front of the houses on the main street. Like lizards in the sun. Their black clothes stored the afternoon heart, and their eyes gazed on the world without motion and without surprise, because they had seen everything.

The author also has a good grasp of the historical and political nuances of this troubled part of the world, and is adept at conveying all this complexity with a frankness which would be unwelcome from a writer who has not grown up there.

…everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London, and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer…. so I drank black Fernet and tried to imagine a country that one day everyone would leave. They would abandon their land to the mercy of time, which would break open the envelope the hours and months and in pure form enter what remained of cities, to dissolve them, turn them into primal air and minerals.

It soon becomes clear that this is not a typical travelogue. The author criss-crosses these countries, and there is little attempt at chronology or systematisation of his travels. Instead, one memory gives rise to another, themes flow easily from one to the next. Yet he has an uncanny ability to define a region’s main characteristic. Here he talks, for instance, about the fertile hills of Moldova, conveying something of the gentle nature of the Moldavians.

Continual green, continual fecundity, the land undulating, the horizon rising and falling, showing us only what we expect, as if not wishing to cause us the least unpleasantness. Grapes, sunflowers, corn, a few animals, grapes, sunflowers, corn, cows and sheep, on occasion a a garden, and rows of nut trees always on either side of the road. No free space in this scenery, no sudden disjunction, and the imagination, encountering no ambush, soon dozes. Most likely events took place here a hundred, two hundred, three hundred years ago, but they left no trace. Life seeps into the soil, disperses into the air, burns calmly and evenly, as if confident that it will never burn out.

So what did I dislike about it? I am conflicted regarding his romanticism about the messiness, untidiness, lack of discipline, the sheer ‘Orientalism’ of this part of the world.  He claims to genuinely love the shambles

…the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void. I can help it. The heart of my Europe beats in Sokolow Podlaski and in Husi. It does not beat in Vienna. Or in Budapest. And most definitely not in Krakow. Those places are all aborted transplants.

Yet this to me smacks of traveller’s voyeurism, like the British love for India at arm’s length. ‘Everything half-assed and fucked up’ is a wonderful place to visit for the authentic experience, but it is not necessarily a desirable place to live. I’ve never understood the appeal of disaster movies either, other than a triumphalist affirmation of our own superiority in the face of catastrophe (meanwhile, great swathes of the world are still trying to recover from the previous disaster).

And yet, and yet… expecting all parts of our naughty, moody, spotty continent to behave in consistent and elegant fashion is neither realistic nor desirable. Much of this messiness is not just historically inflicted, but also self-inflicted. So what should those unruly teens aspire to? Especially when some of the older democracies and hitherto solid ‘grown-up’ civilisations seem to be losing their elegance (ahem! naming no names!).

Ultimately, Stasiuk sees himself as a chronicler of the period of transition from East Bloc to post-Communism. Many of the scenes he describes have perhaps already disappeared. So yes, it is a valuable document, rooted in its time and place. Just forgive this reader for not being able to read it entirely objectively.

The depressing and still unrecognised republic of Transnistria, from The Calvert Journal.

#EU27Project Update in May

After four months of #EU27Project, I have to admit I have not been the hardest- working reviewer. I have only linked to six books in total (and two of those are from the same country, France, while the rest are : Germany, Czechia, Ireland and the Netherlands), so in reality only 5 of the 27 countries have been represented in 4 months. At this rate, I have little chance of finishing this project this year – but, unlike some politicians, I never thought it was going to be an easy and quick process, so I’m allowing myself time to continue this project next year.

However, I’m pleased to say that other book bloggers have been far busier than me, so, since my last update in March, we have moved from 16 reviews to 41.

France is the biggest mover, from 0 in the first batch to 6 reviews in the current one. Susan Osborne reviews two very different types of books: Marie Suzan’s poignant Her Father’s Daughter and the lighter French Rhapsody by Antoine Laurain. Kate Jackson reviews a book by Sebastian Japrisot, one of my favourite French crime writers, while Karen from Booker Talk considers a contemporary crime novel Hell’s Gate by Laurent Gaudé. I have also reviewed two French books, the not quite satisfactory Men by Marie Darrieussecq and the dark but very funny and musical Les harmoniques by Marcus Malte.

Austria is also a popular choice for us book bloggers (a trend which I heartily approve!). It already featured in the first batch and has notched up an additional five reviews, although, to be fair, three of those are for short stories or novellas by Arthur Schnitzler by Jonathan: Late Fame, The Spring Sonata and A Confirmed BachelorLike Chekhov, Schnitzler was a doctor as well as a writer, and very much concerned with the human psyche. He describes perfectly the darkness in the Viennese soul at the turn of the 20th century (and not only then). Kate reviews a book set in the same period, Leo Perutz’ The Master of the Day of JudgementSusan reviews one of my favourite recent reads, Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist, with a guest appearance from Sigmund Freud.

Reviews from the Netherlands continue to trickle in. Karen attempts The Evenings, but does she like it any more than Lizzy did in the first two months of the project? Meanwhile, Susan found The Boy by Wytske Versteeg deeply unsettling. Ireland also features with two new reviews, a new one for The Glorious Heresieswhich makes it the most popular book so far (3 reviews in total), and Anne Enright’s The Green Road

The last country on the list with two new reviews is Italy, with the crime fiction of Augusto de Angelis and the story of the breakdown of a marriage by Domenico Starnone.

The remaining countries featured in the selection of March and April have been: Norway, represented by Anne Holt – Norway is not in the EU, but we will leave that link there anyway; Denmark with Dorthe Nors’ Mirror Shoulder SignalPoland with Swallowing Mercury by Wioletta Greg, Czech Republic or Czechia with Bohumil Hrabal’s Closely Observed Trains. The French might take exception with Marguerite Yourcenar representing Belgium rather than France, but that was Jonathan’s choice and that country is rather under-represented.

After a strong start in the first batch of reviews, Germany only managed one review in this round, a lesser-known Heinrich Böll oeuvre.

So what will the next two months bring? Personally, I intend to read more in this category. Perhaps two or three in May? I am currently reading the road-trip book by Andrzej Stasiuk (Poland), and will move on to poems from Malta and Pessoa’s pseudo-diary The Book of Disquiet (Portugal). But, as we all know, my plans for reading don’t always work out and I get easily side-tracked.

Special thanks and celebrations for Susan Osborne, Kate Jackson, Jonathan from Intermittencies of the Mind and Karen from Booker Talk, who have been the most prolific reviewers over these past two months, but thank you to everyone who has contributed, read, tweeted about this project.

 

#EU27Project: Czech Republic – Closely Observed Trains

I managed to find and order this book just in time and read it on the 31st of March for Caroline’s Literature and War Readalong. However, this was on the plane on the way to Lyon, so I didn’t get to write a review until this week.

Perhaps this should be an entry for Czechoslovakia, which is what the country was at the time when Bohumil Hrabal wrote this in 1965. But he wrote in Czech rather than Slovakian and, when he was born in 1914, his home town of Brno was in Moravia, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The dangers of living in Central Europe… your borders may change several times over the course of your life.

After the Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia following the Prague Spring in 1968, his books were banned, and you can see why that might be the case. He certainly has a mischievous streak in his story-telling, a combination of broad (almost slapstick) humour and darkness, but in Closely Observed Trains he is talking about the passive resistance of a group of railway workers against the occupation – and, although it takes place in the Second World War and the occupying forces are German, it probably resembled the situation at the time a little too closely.

Miloš Hrma is a rather naive young man, an apprentice at a railway station in Bohemia in 1945. The Germans have lost control over the airspace over the little town, and the trains are anything but running as normal.

The dive-bombers were disrupting communications to such an extent that the morning trains ran at noon, the noon trains in the evening, and the evening trains during the night, so that now and then it might happen that an afternoon train came in punctual to the minute, according to the time-table, but only because it was the morning passenger train running four hours late.

Miloš comes from a family where the men have successfully avoided hard labour for generations: his great-grandfather was only eighteen when he was granted a disability benefit for being wounded as a drummer-boy in the Imperial Army, his grandfather was a hypnotist who thought he could convince the marauding German tanks to turn back, his father had retired on a double-pension at the age of forty-eight and was busy collecting and recycling scraps, so that at home they have ‘fifty chairs, seven tables, nine couches, and shoals of little cabinets and washstands and jugs.’ Miloš himself is proud of his beautiful service uniform, with all the insignia of his status, brass buttons, splendid stars and a winged wheel like a little golden sea-horse.

Still from the film Closely Watched Trains, directed by Jiri Menzel, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1968.

But he is a troubled boy, who has only just returned to duty after trying to slash his wrists three months previously. The reason for that (or at least the most overt reason for it) becomes gradually apparent: an embarrassing moment of sexual inadequacy with the young conductor Masha. He is desperate to lose his virginity, but not quite sure how to go about it, in equal measure intrigued and repulsed by his randy colleague Dispatcher Hubička’s gross misuse of the station’s official stamps upon the pretty telegraphist’s anatomy. Meanwhile, stationmaster Lánský only seems to care about his pigeons and not being made a fool of during the government inspection. Then, somehow, Miloš gets caught up in plans to sabotage an ammunition convoy passing through.

This image of Hrma from the film perfectly sums up the young man.

I’ll stop telling any more of the story here, because I run the risk of making my review longer than the actual story, which is very slim, around 80 pages. More of a novella really, but packed with content and emotion. Even the brief recount above gives you an idea of the tragicomic blend of gruesome fact and salacious humour, of rapier wit and compassion, even surreal elements, sometimes in the very same sentence. A very tricky balance to achieve, but not a word is wasted. Here is a description of the wounded soldiers returning from the front:

And in this mobile sick-bay at which I was gazing, the strangest thing was the human eyes, the eyes of all those wounded soldiers. As though that agony there at the front, the agony they had inflicted on others and which others now were inflicting on them, had turned them into different people; these Germans were more sympathetic than those who were travelling in the opposite direction. They all peered through the windows into the dull countryside so attentively, with such childlike earnestness, as though they were passing through paradise itself, as though in my little station they saw a jewel-box.

A remarkable, punchy read, with only slightly veiled depths. Even if the intention was not obviously political , this book was published at a time when each sentence could be (and indeed was) interpreted in both literal and metaphorical fashion. It has made me very eager to tackle another of Hrabal’s books Too Loud a Solitude.

#Eu27Project: France – Marie Darrieussecq

Marie Darrieussecq: Men (transl. Penny Hueston)

The original title in French Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes is from a famous quote by Marguerite Duras:

Il faut beaucoup aimer les hommes. Beaucoup les aimer pour les aimer. Sans cela, ce n’est pas possible on ne peut pas les supporter.

[You have to love men a lot, love them so much in order to love them. Otherwise, it’s almost impossible to put up with them.]

So that gives you a clue that this is not necessarily going to be a feminist treatise. Yet, although readers seem to find the first person narrator, French film star Solange, irritating, she strikes me as quite an independent, strong woman, who just happens to become smitten with a younger man. It’s a bit more complex than that, though, because her paramour, Kouhouesso, is a black man who has ambitions to direct a revamped version of The Heart of Darkness on the river Congo. All the clichés about l’amour fou (crazy love), gender and race are examined, although Solange herself seems unaware of the facile assumptions she makes.

I’m not sure why this book has received so much critical dissent. Yes, the first part of the book is all Hollywood froth, very easy to read on the surface, a bit like the gossip magazines.  This serves to make the contrast or gap between Lalaland and the African jungle all the wider. Solange has all the reactions one might expect to the ‘natives’, the insects, the primitive accommodation, although she so badly wants to make this work. Underneath the apparently banal interracial love story, there is a lot lurking: objectification, the attraction of ‘otherness’, construction of identity through gender, race and passion. Fascination with the other yet ultimately a lack of genuine curiosity and desire to embark upon the interior journey (on both sides). It is indeed a modern answer to The Heart of Darkness, written from a woman’s perspective.

There is an excellent review of the book by Compulsive Reader, but I can understand why many people found the story not very original or the characters at all likable. I flip-flopped a lot in my opinion as well: it is a hair’s breadth away from being silly, but I think it just stayed within the realm of the painfully dissecting scalpel.

The reason I chose it for my #EU27Project to represent France (although I will probably read and review other French authors as well) is because I think it says something about the way the EU countries view ‘the others’, the refugees spilling over the borders. Lip service to liberalism and humanity, rhetoric about helping and supporting, but beneath all of that: a lot of fear, stereotypes and excuses. (Incidentally, the English language cover could be said to be objectifying black men somewhat…)

The #EU27Project: Two Months On…

It’s almost exactly two months since I dreamt up the #EU27Project of reading a book from each of the countries remaining in the EU, and about 7 weeks since I set up a separate page for linking reviews. So it’s time for a bit of an update.

I’m delighted to say that a number of you have responded – and it’s doubly appreciated, because it’s not the most intuitive linking method. You have to write the country, the author or book title and then your name in brackets, as it doesn’t have separate lines for each item of information.

We have 16 reviews and blogger Lizzy Siddal has been the most prolific reviewer to date. She has posted two books from the Netherlands: Gerard Reve’s masterpiece from 1947 translated at last into English, and Esther Gerritsen’s description of a toxic mother/daughter relationship. Also, two from Austria: short stories by Stefan Zweig (perennial old favourite) and a disquieting thriller by Bernhard Aichner. There is also a sly dig at behind the scenes of literary prizes by Filippo Bologna from Italy and a collection of short stories by Spanish writer Medardo Fraile described as ‘one of the best I’ve ever read’ – high praise indeed and it’s gone straight onto my TBR list. So here is a bouquet for Lizzy and her sterling work!

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Netherlands is front-runner in terms of number of book reviews. In addition to the two by Lizzy, there is also a review of Herman Koch’s story of personal and social meltdown The Dinner. Joint top of the leaderboard is Germany, with three historical novels. Susan Osborne reviews Summer Before the Dark, a fictional account of Stefan Zweig and Josef Roth spending the summer of 1936 together in Ostende, refugees in vacation land. Joseph Kanon’s thriller Leaving Berlin is set in post-war, post-partition Berlin and is reviewed by Maphead. Finally, Ricarda Huch’s novella The Last Summer is set in Russia just on the cusp of the 1917 revolution.

There are two book reviews for Ireland, both for Lisa McInerney’s riotous description of the less touristy side of Cork The Glorious Heresies: one by Kate Vane and one by myself. Finland can also boast two reviews, both for historical novels: White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen reviewed in French by Sylvie Heroux from Montreal; while Mrs. Peabody investigates Kjell Westö’s The Wednesday Clubwhich provides a rather grim insight into Finland’s troubled history.

muse
A Greek muse, from theoi.com

Peirene Press is represented with no less than 3 reviews: in addition to White Hunger and The Last Summer, there is also a Danish representative The Murder of Halland which is not so much a crime novel as a story about grieving, reviewed by Karen at BookerTalk.

Another publisher which is well represented here is Pushkin Press, with 5 reviews, most of them by Lizzy, but also Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann. So well done to these two independent publishers for making so much European culture available to us in the UK!

Last but not least, one of the youngest EU members, Croatia, is represented by the book Girl at War by Sara Novic, highly recommended by Maphead.

In terms of personal plans, I’ve already veered away from my original ones. I oomed and aahed about my selection for Germany, gave up on considering Kati Hiekkapelto for the Finnish entry (because her book takes place in Serbia), switched my Irish entry, found a women’s writing collective for Lithuania (still to be reviewed) and am still conflicted about France… And I still have zero inspiration for Malta or Cyprus.

Another thank you to all participants, from my garden...
Another thank you to all participants, from my garden…

Thank you to all the participants and I hope to see many more of you in the months to come. I believe there are a few of you who have reviewed books which would fall into the EU27 category, but have not linked up yet, so please do so if you get a chance. There is no deadline, no pressure, and absolutely no shame in back-linking to older reviews from late 2016 or early 2017.

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Herman Koch: The Dinner – #EU27Project

Herman Koch: The Dinner (transl. Sam Garrett)

Why is Dutch literature comparatively unknown abroad? It’s a small country, certainly, but it has many cultural and even linguistic links with Germany and the United Kingdom. Why has Scandinavian noir taken off so dramatically, while authors like Gerard Reve, Harry Mulisch and Willem Hermans (collectively known as the ‘Three Giants of Dutch literature’) languish unread and untranslated? It’s not so much the problem of it being spread across two countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) – after all, German has that problem too, spread across three countries.

Foto: Joost van den Broek (c)'07
Herman Koch. Foto: Joost van den Broek (c)’07

One writer who seems to be bucking this trend is Herman Koch, yet he is seldom listed in the recommended readings of Dutch literature. Perhaps because he writes something which may be sailing a little too close to ‘genre’ literature to be considered literary? The Dinner was his sixth novel and the one which brought him international recognition, translated into more than 20 languages, adapted for stage and film, and selling over a million copies in Europe alone.

I’m not surprised that Christos Tsiolkas is the first one to blurb the book and describing it as ‘a punch to the guts’, as both authors have that kind of shock value. Yet the book starts sedately enough, perhaps even too much so. Two couples, two brothers and their wives, are having dinner at a rather pretentious restaurant in Amsterdam. The first few chapters seem to be entirely given to the satire of consumer culture and fashionable Michelin-starred restaurants. It’s funny enough, but doesn’t seem to move the story on significantly.

The brothers don’t really see eye to eye, despite the outward show of bonhomie between them. Serge Lohman is a politician and derided by Paul for his hypocrisy and ambition, while Paul himself seems hyper-critical and resentful. Their wives, Babette and Claire, try to smooth things over, but it becomes clear that they are both suffering and hiding things. The conversation starts off with polite banalities, but grows more and more strained, while the first person narrator (Paul) gets interruptions and flashbacks to the underlying issues which has brought these four people to the restaurant in the first place. I don’t want to give too much away (although the back cover of the book does just that), but suffice it to say that the two families have got together to see what should be done about the ‘scrapes’ their sons have got into.

thedinner
Hardcover edition.

This slippery sliding to and fro through timelines initially irritated me, but then it becomes clear that this messy way of telling the story reveals much more about Paul’s state of mind and about the layers of protective secrecy which the families have tried to weave around themselves. There is the shock factor of what the youngsters have actually done, of course, but what was more shocking was the gradual unravelling of all morals and ethics as the parents try to justify the actions of their offspring and their own reactions. Equally disturbing was that, at first, we find ourselves nodding along sympathetically to Paul’s grumpy assessments of Dutch restaurant culture, tourists in the Dordogne or people’s reactions to meeting celebrities, but then we realise there is a much darker, more sinister aspect to everything that Paul says or does. I’ve never been one to demand likable characters in a novel, but Koch really outdoes himself here in the presentation of unlikable ones.

dinner
Paperback edition

There is something of the unvarnished, forthright depictions of society or ‘shocking realism’ here which has coloured so much of contemporary Dutch literature. It’s a very cleverly constructed book, designed to make us question our own morality and assumptions. I admire its intention, but have to admit that, upon finishing, I felt a strong need to gurgle or wash the unpleasant stains off.

Can I also say how much better and more subtle the cover of the hardcover version is than the paperback (although the latter copies the Dutch language edition)?

 

 

Ricarda Huch: The Last Summer – Germany #EU27Project

I waited a long time before I found a book worthy enough to represent Germany for the #EU27Project. I read and discarded Marc Elsberg’s Blackout, which I reviewed for Crime Fiction Lover, because it was too much of a Europe-wide cyber thriller (although perhaps for that very reason it would be a good candidate for any EU project). Mechtild Borrmann’s To Clear the Air has a strong sense of German small town location, but was just not interesting enough to warrant inclusion on this list. I hesitated about Sascha Arango’s The Truth and Other Lies because it had more of a Patricia Highsmith feel to it and was set in an unspecified location which reminded me of the South of France.

Ricarda Huch, around 1914.
Ricarda Huch, around 1914.

However, I am nothing if not inconsistent, and finally it was Ricarda Huch’s book which won my vote, even if it is set in pre-revolutionary Russia rather than in Germany. Huch’s voice is one which deserves to be heard in troubled times when ‘intellectual’ is in danger of becoming a term of abuse. Well educated and polymath in an age when it was difficult for women to get into higher education, she was a prolific writer of poetry, fiction, plays and historical works, an expert on Italian, German and Russian history. Quite full of revolutionary ideas in her younger years (she wrote about Bakunin and anarchy, and the women’s movement among other things), she refused to cooperate with the Nazi regime and went into internal exile in 1933.

Her ability to empathise with both the status quo and the revolutionary spirit is what makes The Last Summer such a compelling read. It’s an epistolary novel and the immediacy of the different voices and points of view make this a complex multi-tonal choral work. Translated with panache by Jamie Bulloch, it feels as fresh as if it had been written only yesterday.

Following pronounced student unrest and protests at the beginning of the 20th century, the governor of St Petersburg has decided to close the state university. He receives death threats, even as he retreats with his family to his countryside residence over the summer. His worried wife hires a bodyguard, Lyu, without suspecting that he is in fact on the side of the revolutionary students and plans to assassinate the governor. Through the letters written by Lyu to his co-conspirator Konstantin, and the letters sent by other people in the house, we get to know all the members of the family: the childish only son, Velya, who tries to act cool and becomes increasingly critical of his father’s decision to close the university; the two blonde daughters – fiery Katya and gentle Jessika, who both fall under Lyu’s spell to some extent; anxious, protective mother and wife Lusinya; and the governor himself, Yegor, a rather typical benevolent yet authoritarian patriarch, who refuses to listen to any other points of view.

last_summer_web_0_220_330-1Although this short novel (easily read in a single sitting, as so many of Peirene’s books are designed to be read)  has a clear sense of time and place, it is also timeless. Neither side is spared: the  position of privilege, the rather patronising attitude towards the servants working for them, the often shallow understanding of politics by the ‘chattering’ classes are all exposed, but so is the deceitful way in which Lyu inveigles himself into the hearts and minds of the family, his stubborn insistence on the only ‘correct’ path (although, in a feverish moment, he seems to have a change of heart).

The central theme here is whether ideology should take precedence over humanity. This is indeed a dilemma which has vexed us most of the 20th century (and clearly continues to do so in the 21st). Should we stick to our principles, especially the political ones, or should we look at the human stories, make exceptions for individual cases, for getting to know people, for giving second chances? Is it necessary to take direct and violent action for one’s beliefs, especially if you have exhausted all the other peaceful options? Should we be allowed to change our minds if we begin to believe that the end does not justify the means?

The author shows us one course of action and the human cost of following one’s principles. It’s a book which provokes both an emotional and a cerebral reaction – I will certainly be thinking about it for a long time.

I really enjoyed the review at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings, which appeared just before I embarked upon this book.