Incoming Books

Whenever I am worried about the state of the world, or my family, or my health, I build a wall of books around me. So, needless to say, October has been a month of intensive book acquisition.

Starting from the top, a book by an Austrian writer Franz Schuh, whose latest book of essays (somewhat in the acerbic satirical tradition of Karl Kraus) was written during the pandemic. The title is certainly quite a sobering one Lachen und Sterben (Laughing and Dying). I will be reviewing this for the Austrian Riveter produced by the EuroLitNetwork. I love it, but will it work for someone who is not as partial to Viennese humour and cynicism as myself?

A Quebecois journalist, travel writer and novelist next: Isabelle Grégoire. I’ve actually received two novels by her from a translator friend: Fille de Fer (The Iron Maiden? – not pictured here) is set on the railway lines of the very far north of Canada, while Vert comme l’enfer (Green Like Hell) is set at least partly in the Amazonian jungle.

Scottish writer Iain Hood’s Every Trick in the Book was a very kind present from Karen (whom you might know as Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings). She reviewed it on her blog, and I thought it sounded quite amusing and very clever.

The Haunted Hotel is the first of two Wilkie Collins acquisitions this month, inspired no doubt by Eleanor Franzen’s deep dive into this author. I had to buy his best-known novel, The Woman in White, too, because I realised that although it is one of my favourite English 19th century novels, I do not actually own a copy of it. You can’t go wrong with the very pretty, tactile Alma Classics editions, which often have some bonus material at the end of each book.

I think it was in an Australian contributor’s #6Degrees of Separation post (and I apologise, I cannot remember exactly who it was) that I came across the book Women of a Certain Rage, a collection of personal stories and essays about angry women by Australian women writers, introduced by Liz Byrski. Women openly expressing their rage is still perceived as so unseemly, so dull, so unnatural, and it makes me seethe (just like my mother’s admonishments: sit nicely, speak softly, don’t frown, don’t raise your voice, don’t lose your temper).

I have become a complete Marlen Haushofer fan and had been meaning to buy her biography for ages (or at least since I attended a conference about her work). Written by Daniela Strigl, its title is a quote from the author herself: ‘Wahrscheinlich bin ich verrückt…’ (I may well be crazy). I also bought her novella Die Mansarde (The Attic Room) and will probably read it asap for German Lit Month and Novella in November.

I’ve loved Lissa Evans‘ Old Baggage and Crooked Heart, so I acquired V for Victory on my Kindle soon after it came out. However, I never got round to reading it and when I saw a hardback at my library, I thought I would prefer to read it in this format. I am already 40 pages in and it’s proving the perfect comfort read.

Not one but two Bloomsbury books next. I used to joke in my 20s that if I ever appeared on Mastermind, the Bloomsbury Group would be my specialist subject. But in the meantime, there have been quite a lot of new books published about them, as they seem to be a perpetual source of fascination, scandal and gossip even with this generation. I have read Frances Spalding’s biography of Vanessa Bell, but thought it might be nice to own it, but I did not know about the biography of David (Bunny) Garnett, Bloomsbury’s Outsider by Sarah Knights, and am curious to see if my rather negative opinion of him will be swayed in any way.

Yet another chunky biography, this time of the problematic but hugely talented Austrian writer Joseph Roth, Endless Flight by Keiron Pim. This is turning out to be quite an Austrian acquisition month, isn’t it?

Finally, another library book, one I had to wait for, the ever-popular Anthony Horowitz with his latest Hawthorne mystery A Twist of the Knife, in which the author as ever makes an appearance as a somewhat egocentric, hapless participant, this time accused of murder because a critic panned his play on opening night. Great escapist fun!

I have also acquired some e-books, either buying them directly or from Netgalley. These are mostly light reads, perfect for cosy evenings under the electric blanket.

Kirsten Miller: The Change – a quiet Long Island community is shaken out of its complacency when three menopausal women find unusual means of empowerment. Sounds like a laugh, very Hocus Pocus or Practical Magic.

Susi Holliday: The Hike – two bickering sisters and their husbands go on a hiking trip to Switzerland but only two make it down the mountain. How can I resist the scenery and the premise (makes me glad to be an only child, right?).

Tom Hindle: The Murder Game – one house, nine guests for a murder mystery fun evening, trapped by the snow, very Golden Age feel to this one

Machado de Assis: The Looking Glass. Essential Stories (transl Daniel Hahn) – I’m terribly fond of this Brazilian writer, and these stories sound spooky, slightly sinister, quite bonkers. I still want to get hold of his novel The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, but am not sure which of two translations to get (probably the Margaret Jull Costa one).

Jo Callaghan: In the Blink of an Eye – I had the pleasure of hearing Jo read a little from this at the Bay Tales Noir at the Bar Halloween Special (where our author Jonina Leosdottir also read from her novel Deceit). It sounds like a fantastic slightly speculative crime novel: a real-life policewoman partnered with an AI officer.

Keigo Higashino: A Death in Tokyo – after rereading his Malice for our Crime Book Club, I couldn’t resist finding something new by this clever Japanese author with a great insight into the darkest depth of the human psyche.

Gregg Olsen: Starvation Heights – I don’t usually read much true crime, but this one’s a little different, about a sanatorium for ‘fasting cures’ in the Pacific Northwest in the early 20th century. This one does sound grim, rather than comfort reading, so I might leave it for later.

Joseph Roth stories in ‘Vienna Tales’

This week is Joseph Roth week at German Literature Month. Although the month itself is hosted by Caroline and Lizzy in equal measure (and you will find many outstanding reviews and discover many enticing authors here) , the Joseph Roth special is hosted by Caroline.

From kuenste-im-exil.de
From kuenste-im-exil.de

Joseph Roth was an Austrian Jew who lived and worked both in Vienna and Berlin, fled to Paris after the rise of Hitler in 1933, and died there in 1939, following a period of alcoholism and depression. He is most famous for that masterpiece of a novel documenting the decline and fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire – Radetzky March (named after the march by Johann Strauss the Elder that is always played at the end of New Year’s Concert of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra).

The three short stories I am talking about here are really journalistic pieces which Roth wrote in 1920, when he was working as a journalist for several short-lived left-wing newspapers in Vienna.

The first of these, Ausflug (Day Out), is almost an impressionist painting of autumn in Grinzing – the outer district of Vienna where the new wine is served at open-air pubs called Heurigen.

You can smell the new wine already at Schottentor, the number 38 tram is tipsy and staggers off hung with bunches of human bodies.

It’s a very short, slight piece, yet it perfectly conveys the drunken shenanigans of the city-dwellers out on a day trip. Blackmarketeers without table manners (one of the most terrible accusations one can make in good old conservative Vienna), ordering hot chocolate and Sachertorte without really knowing what either of them are, sarcastic descriptions of the contrast between peaceful nature and sleepy suburbia and the almost unbearable despoiling of it by the urban hordes.

Grinzing vineyards.
Grinzing vineyards.

Nearly a hundred years later, the tram No. 38 still follows the same route from Schottentor to Grinzing, and the atmosphere is still the same at the Heurigen and in the Wienerwald. Roth was writing at a time when the great empire had disintegrated and he thought the city would be full of traumatic changes. He could not have foreseen that, even after a further World War, the city would change so little. The black marketeers have been replaced by tourists, the atmosphere in the trams is calmer and more subdued, but the outer districts retain their country feel and green vineyards. The pubs are still full of pleasure-seekers speaking and singing in all languages. And the Sachertorte is still rich and sinful.

The second and third piece are portraits of some of the eccentric characters which are also part of the Viennese landscape. In ‘The Spring Ship’ we meet a boatsman and his family, off a white steam ship on the Danube Canal. The yearning for the great wide world in this small landlocked country is evident here. In ‘The Merry-Go-Round’ it’s Herr Rambousek, director of said merry-go-round, which migrates annually all through the Vorstadt neighbourhoods. He wears a suit of blue corduroy velvet and brandishes a horse-whip. He too reeks of the wider world and its dangerous charms…

In just a few pages we catch a glimpse of the sharp observational skills, irony and wistfulness of the Roth style. Even in his mid-twenties, early on in his writing career, he has the knack of the perfect phrase. “The poodle’s chain of thought is soaked now. It trembles, dripping nerves and water.’ ‘People who have city slicker ties around their necks and the boots of country dwellers on their feet.’

ViennaTalesThe whole book ‘Vienna Tales’ (edited by Helen Constantine, translated by Deborah Holmes, published by OUP) is worth reading for the combination of nostalgic and neuralgic insights into the city and its inhabitants. Ingeborg Bachmann is present with a story about a woman whose bad eyesight permits her to distance herself from any painful realities. Bulgarian-born Dimitre Dinev shows us the tribulations of an asylum-seeker in the centre of (still quite xenophobic) Vienna. Arthur Schnitzler is featured with two previously untranslated stories, while other writers such as Christine Nöstlinger, Veza Canetti, Adalbert Stifter and Heinrich Laube are little-known outside their native country.

This is a review linked of course to that wonderful German Literature Month meme as seen below. I’m discovering so many outstanding new writers thanks to having joined this initiative, I am truly grateful. And that’s my Thanksgiving moment for the week! Happy Thanksgiving to all my American friends!