thorold watches the breath of winter come from far away in Q4

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thorold watches the breath of winter come from far away in Q4

Out 20, 2023, 8:40 am

In the mid days of autumn, on their eves
The breath of Winter comes from far away,
And the sick west continually bereaves
Of some gold tinge, and plays a roundelay
Of death among the bushes and the leaves,
To make all bare before he dares to stray
From his north cavern. ...

Keats, Isabella and the pot of basil, from Stanza XXXII

Editado: Out 20, 2023, 2:49 pm

... Actually, the breath of winter feels to be right on the doorstep today, but it's more than time for me to set up a new thread for Q4. My Q3 thread ( ) this year was a bit disjointed, since I was travelling for so much of the time, but what's left of Q4 ought to be a bit quieter.

Convention requires a photo at the top of the new thread: instead of something autumnal, I'm going to go with a souvenir from last month's travels.

Editado: Nov 15, 2023, 10:25 am

Q3 Reading stats:

I finished 43 books in Q3 (Q1: 49, Q2 36).

Language: EN 27, NL 12, DE 1, FR 1, ES 2 (63% EN) (Q1: 53% EN, Q2: 53% EN)

Publication dates from 1883 to 2022; mean 1989, median 1997; 5 books were published in the last five years.

Formats: library 8, physical books from the TBR 26, physical books from the main shelves (re-reads) 0, audiobooks 0, paid ebooks 2, other free/borrowed 0 — 72% from the TBR (Q1: 45% from the TBR)

35 unique first authors (1.23 books/author; Q1: 1.20, Q2: 1.06)

By gender: M 25, F 10 :71% M (Q1: 73% M, Q2: 81% M)

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)
01/07/2023: 96 books (76010 book-days, 791 d/b) (change: 26 read, 23 added)
01/10/2023: 100 books (79451 book-days, 795 d/b) (change: 26 read, 30 added)

Surprisingly, the TBR doesn't seem to have been growing quite as scarily as I'd feared — perhaps only because some of the books I bought in the US were added after the 1st of October...

This is the evolution since I started keeping proper track of reading dates, snapshots on the 1st of January each year:

Editado: Out 20, 2023, 10:04 am

The first actual books I'm going to count for Q4 actually overlap with Q3, as I had these stacked up on my e-reader ready for some tedious travel, and of course got sucked into (re-)reading one of them in an airport and ended up wolfing the first ten books in the series within a fairly short space of time. There are more, of course, but fortunately none of them were available in the library when I looked, and I'm hoping I can contain myself for the time being...

44 Scotland Street (2005) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
Espresso Tales (2006) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
Love over Scotland (2007) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
The world according to Bertie (2008) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
The unbearable lightness of scones (2008) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
The importance of being seven (2010) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
Bertie Plays the Blues (2011) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
Sunshine on Scotland Street (2013) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
Bertie's Guide to Life and Mothers (2014) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )
The Revolving Door of Life (2015) by Alexander McCall Smith (UK, 1948- )


These Edinburgh stories originally appeared as a daily serial in the Scotsman newspaper, in much the same way as Tales of the city in the San Francisco Chronicle. In fact Alexander McCall Smith tells us that he first became interested in the idea of serial fiction through a chance meeting with Armistead Maupin at a party. After returning to Edinburgh he wrote an article in which he mentioned this, and the then editor of the Scotsman, Iain Martin, challenged him to have a go himself.

This isn't quite Tales of the city transposed to Edinburgh, though: you would probably need Irvine Welsh to do that. In McCall Smith's world, almost all the characters are straight, white, middle-class Scots from the New Town (diversity isn't entirely forgotten, though: there is always Big Lou, a working-class woman from Arbroath, who runs the coffee bar that is one of the focuses of the story...). There's not very much going on here that would be out of place in the world of Miss Jean Brodie. That's obviously quite deliberate: to create a world in which his broad newspaper readership will feel comfortable, McCall Smith makes Edinburgh a very cosy, enclosed place, where people hang the works of Scottish painters on their walls, read Scottish novels, and listen to Scottish music. They are dimly aware of the concept of "Glasgow", even if they haven't actually been there, whilst "London" and "England" are well outside their lines of cultural reference, playing about as much part in their daily lives as New York City might for the average resident of the Bay Area.

Within this limited world, we have a rather amusing time, because McCall Smith is a very talented comic writer. Misunderstandings abound, the vain and intolerant get their comeuppance, the lovelorn might — or might not — find their dream partners, dogs lust after ankles to bite, paintings are lost and found, the Association of Scottish Nudists undergo a constitutional crisis but never seem to take their clothes off, and occasional gentle fun is poked at the Edinburghness of Edinburgh. At the heart of the story are characters we treasure from the start: anthropologist-at-large Domenica, portrait painter and dog-owner Angus Lordie, hapless gallery-owner Matthew, and, rapidly stealing the show, the unfortunate six-year-old Bertie, with his well-meaning but horrendously pushy mother Irene who never allows him a breathing space in between saxophone lessons, Italian conversation and Yoga For Tots.

Seriously addictive, but terminally pleasant.

Out 20, 2023, 10:29 am

From Edinburgh to ... well, to Leith, actually. I thought I needed some shock treatment to get me out of the endless loop of Alexander McCall Smith niceness...

Crime (2008) by Irvine Welsh (UK, 1958- )


Jaded Edinburgh cop and substance-abuser (probably a redundant descriptor in an Irvine Welsh novel...) Ray Lennox has been granted compassionate leave after a particularly traumatic child-murder case leads to a breakdown, and he is spending some time relaxing in Miami with his fiancée. Within 48 hours of landing in the US, however, he finds himself in a situation where a young girl needs his protection from sexual predators, in circumstances where he can't very well turn to the proper authorities for help, and of course all the doubts and questions flying around in his mind from the recent investigation come back to haunt him.

Despite the obviously contrived setup, this turns out to be a very engaging, disturbing book, whose brutal plot somehow manages to deal with the fraught subject of sexual abuse of children in a sensitive and often surprisingly subtle way. Although it is probably a book you will want to read quickly to get it over with...

Out 20, 2023, 11:13 am

>4 thorold: I'm an Isabel Dalhousie person. Lots of Edinburgh mixed in with ethical musings.

Out 20, 2023, 1:05 pm

>5 thorold: Interesting review of Crime, which seems to be an interesting book. I've only read Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh and am completely ignorant about the rest of his work.

Out 20, 2023, 2:36 pm

>6 kac522: Yes, Isabel is fun as well. My mother has a shelf of them, I've read a few. Plenty of digressions about small points of ethics in the Scotland Street stories as well: once a philosopher...

>7 chlorine: I've also read very little by Welsh. I should probably read more, he's clearly an interesting writer.

This next one was a pleasing random find on a secondhand shelf in San Francisco. Those with long memories will know about my semi-accidental acquisition a few years ago of a stack of English-language paperbacks published in communist East Berlin by Seven Seas Books. This posthumous John Reed collection was originally a Seven Seas publication, republished in the US in the seventies by Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights, thus neatly linking a recent semi-obscure interest of mine with a slightly older one...

Adventures of a young man : short stories from life (1963, 1975) by John Reed (USA, 1887-1920)


John Reed, a Harvard graduate from a rather middle-class background in Portland, Oregon, had a splendidly turbulent life as a labour activist associated with the IWW, a war correspondent in the Mexican Revolution and World War I, and most of all as a first-hand observer of the Russian revolution (his account in Ten days that shook the world remains his best-known work). Frequently shot at or arrested, constantly smuggling himself over frontiers, engaged in romances with several well-known revolutionaries, etc., etc. ... he was obviously very unlucky to meet his end so prosaically with a typhus infection in Moscow in 1920, but he was one of the very few Americans to get a grave of honour in the Kremlin.

This collection, originally issued by Seven Seas in the early sixties and republished in slightly expanded form by City Lights in 1975, brings together some of his early short fiction and a few shorter journalistic pieces from Mexico and Russia not previously published in book form. Ferlinghetti added his autobiographical essay "Almost thirty" (1917) to round out the collection.

I was most struck by the New York stories in the first part of the book, mostly written around 1910-1912, and obviously originating as lightly fictionalised versions of conversations he had with real prostitutes and homeless people on the streets of Greenwich Village. The slightly arch, Edwardian style is oddly reminiscent of very early P G Wodehouse, but the content is anything but "literary" in that sense: he is full of respect for the people he is talking to and lets them tell their own stories without a trace of patronising superiority, and without any squeamishness about telling it like it is. Nobody who read these stories would have had any doubts about what these women were doing to earn money on the streets (which is possibly why they remained largely unpublished for so long).

Elsewhere, Reed uses the same technique of letting his characters tell their stories in their own words rather more ironically: in "Mac - American" he lets an American in Mexico rant away over a series of drinks with no comment from the narrator, gradually revealing himself as more and more of a racist, up to the point where Mac tells us about the orgasmic pleasure of joining a lynch-mob. And in the back-to-back stories "John Bull in America", two British men on their way home to enlist in the Great War are left floundering, exposing the absence of any sane reason for wanting to fight.

The more directly political pieces seemed rather less original in form than these character-studies, but I was left with the strong feeling that I would like to read more from Reed. Which is always a good note on which to finish a book!

Out 20, 2023, 3:40 pm

>4 thorold: Well after laughing through this post, I have to say that you are the first person to get me even mildly interested in reading Alexander McCall Smith. They do sound as if they would fit the readership of The Scotsman perfectly ( straight, white, middle-class Scots from the New Town). Loved that remark, as well as They are dimly aware of the concept of "Glasgow", even if they haven't actually been there.

>5 thorold: Haven't read Welsh for awhile, and haven't read this one at all - maybe good dreary day reading.

>8 thorold: Interesting about Reed's other work. I had always wondered what made his reputation before Russia.
I actually remember your stack of English-language paperbacks published in communist East Berlin by Seven Seas Books and being envious.

Out 20, 2023, 4:58 pm

>8 thorold:

A salute to comrade Reed. Was reminded that Stephen Crane published "Maggie, a girl of the streets" before the turn of the century, although I don't recall how sanitised it was.

I read the first of the Botswana mysteries by McCall Smith. Too twee for me... would you say the Scottish series is similar in tone?

Out 20, 2023, 6:02 pm

>10 LolaWalser: Maggie, a girl of the streets was the title story in the first Seven Seas anthology. I read it with Zola fresh in my mind and found it a bit of a damp squib. It certainly didn’t spell out exactly what happened to Maggie — I commented at the time that whatever it was, it must have happened in the whitespace between two paragraphs.

You might well find tweeness a problem with any of McCall Smith’s books. I do like the Scotland Street and Isabel Dalhousie ones better than the Botswana stories, though. He’s a sharp observer and a clever comic writer and sometimes has perceptive things to say about the world (you don’t get to be a professor of medical ethics if you’re a complete dimwit) but he doesn’t do strong emotion or biting satire in his fiction. Everything happens at a level of liberal middle-class niceness that you might well find hard to take.

Out 20, 2023, 6:37 pm

>11 thorold:

Lol, I do find liberal "niceness" a steaming pile of ordure used to perpetuate the misery of the world. But hey, even ogres like me understand the need for occasional escapism. :)

Editado: Out 21, 2023, 4:49 am

>12 LolaWalser: :-)

Another young man, from the library pile this time:

Le jeune homme (2022) by Annie Ernaux‬ (France, 1940- )


J'espérais que la fin de l'attente la plus violente qui soit, celle de jouir, me fasse éprouver la certitude qu'il n'y avait pas de jouissance supérieure à celle de l'écriture d'un livre. (I was hoping that the end of the most violent wait there is, that of orgasm, would make me experience the certainty that there is no pleasure superior to that of writing a book.)

If you've just won the Nobel, your publishers are going to print pretty much anything you send them, it seems, even if it's only a 6000-word story you've had in the cupboard for a couple of decades and now want to issue as a standalone book. Definitely my shortest prose text of the year so far, coming in at 38 rather small pages...

... But it is Annie Ernaux, short books are part of what she does, and of course it's a book that's tied up in complicated ways with her own life and with at least two of her other books. And it's well worth reading just for itself, too.

The narrator describes how, in her mid-fifties, she has an affair with a man in his twenties, a student at the University of Rouen, where she had been an undergraduate herself, before he was even born. She tells us how the relationship gives both of them a great deal of pleasure, in bed and elsewhere, how it makes her feel younger, and how much she enjoys introducing him to social and cultural pleasures outside his normal range. She discusses the disapproving looks they get when they appear in public together, and how there seems to be a unique level of disapproval reserved for the older woman-younger man combination: they speculate about how no-one would have given them a second glance if the age difference had been the other way round, or even if they'd both been men. She also digresses a little bit into older woman-younger man relationships in books and films, but she doesn't allow herself to get too distracted by this (there are so many classic French novels where an ambitious young man arrives in Paris and has to serve his time as lover to a middle-aged society hostess before he can take up his true calling and desert her for a young heiress...).

So, it's all good fun and no-one is getting hurt, but we have already had a hint on the opening page that the narrator is at least to some extent exploiting her lover for literary ends: soon it becomes clear that what is really going on is that her weekend idylls on the mattress of her lover's student room are part of a mechanism for unlocking her memories of the clandestine abortion she had to undergo when she became pregnant as a student in 1963. Ernaux had already assigned that experience at arm's length to a fictional character in her novel Les armoires vides (1974), but it only seems to have been this relationship with the young man A. that brought her to the point where she was ready to deal with that horror in detail and in the first person in L'événement (2000).

Out 21, 2023, 7:06 am

I like Annie Ernaux because she keeps things simple - she write about what she knows. How many authors I wonder would write about that affair from the perspective of the younger man.

Out 23, 2023, 8:02 am

>10 LolaWalser: I too read the first Botswana book and was turned off by the thought of a white man writing from the perspective of a black woman in Africa. I would rather read the stories of the women authors. I know that's reducing the issue to a perhaps unfair simplicity, but I didn't feel like I was missing out by skipping the next 22? books in the series.

Out 23, 2023, 10:38 am

>15 labfs39: I had a similar reaction to the first book and didn’t feel compelled to go on with the series. I felt there was a certain condescension in his attitude toward his characters, or maybe paternalism would be a better word?

Out 23, 2023, 9:49 pm

>8 thorold: That Reed collection looks very interesting. The only John Reed I've read so far is The War in Eastern Europe, which, upon research, it turns out I read almost 10 years ago. It's Reed's account of what life was like in that region during World War I. On the off chance anyone's interested, my review, from my 2013 50-Book Challenge thread, is available here:

Always great to see a photo of City Lights. I'm glad you enjoyed your visit to San Francisco. Happy reading in '23 Q4.

Out 27, 2023, 6:10 am

>15 labfs39: >16 FlorenceArt: Yes, it's probably completely illogical of us as readers, but it's a lot easier to take that slight air of narratorial superiority when he's writing about characters rather like ourselves than when he's writing about people in Africa.

>17 rocketjk: Thanks, very interesting. Fits in well with the little bits of WWI Russia we get in the one I read.


This was a book I saw in the gift shops of several rail museums during the US trip, so I assumed it was another new release, but it's actually nearly 25 years old. Anyway, it weighs a considerable amount, and I was able to get a copy locally, so I'm glad I didn't haul it home...

Empire express : building the first transcontinental railroad (1999) by David Haward Bain (USA, 1949- )


No survey of the history of the USA is complete without a photograph of the "golden spike" ceremony that marked the meeting of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific construction teams in Utah in May 1869, establishing the first transcontinental railway route across North America. It's a great symbolic moment, easily represented as marking the country's post-Civil-War transition from a loosely-aligned coalition of quarrelsome postcolonial European settlements dotted around the place to a monolithic imperial power in its own right ("one nation under Canada...").

I've read quite a few accounts of the building of the transcontinental railroad, some of which focus on the physical and technical challenges of finding a route over the mountains and deserts, others on the shameless way the promoters of the line corrupted politicians and enriched themselves at the expense of taxpayers and small investors, or on the way that the construction projects forced the displacement of Native Americans and effectively ended their ability to live as free nomadic hunters.

Bain does all this (and more) in this detailed, 750-page monster, but he also adds a lot of new insights into what was really going on, through a mass of detailed original research into the business and private correspondence of some of the key players. In many cases official accounts and reports were doctored or mysteriously went missing in advance of court cases or congressional enquiries, but it's still possible to retrace something of the devious plots of the railway promoters from the letters people on the spot sent to friends and family members back home.

I was also interested by the summary of earlier schemes that opens the book: apparently the idea of a transcontinental connection is almost as old as railway technology itself, and significantly older than a formal US presence on the Pacific coast. The first really developed plan was put forward by Asa Whitney in 1845 — he knew nothing about railways and little about the country west of the Missouri River when he put his initial proposal before Congress, but he had sailed to China and back and knew all about the disadvantages of the sea route to Asia. He envisioned cheap Chinese goods (tea and silk, not sports shoes and smartphones) speeding across the continent at up to ten miles an hour, cutting weeks off the shipping time.

Squabbles between politicians from North and South about suitable routes and their start and end points, as well as doubts about the viability of the new technology, kept Whitney's scheme from getting anywhere. A new scheme developed by Theodore Judah (an actual engineer who knew something about building railways!) found more fertile ground in the new politics of the Civil War era — with the South out of the picture — and construction started in Sacramento and Omaha in 1863. Bain contrasts the different organisational styles of the Central Pacific — set up by a tightly-knit group of Sacramento tradesmen who had got rich selling shovels and jeans to gold miners — and the Union Pacific, a more typical Wall Street entity, whose directors were almost as happy to cut each others' throats as those of the competition. The UP vice-president, Dr T C Durant, in particular, was a notorious wild-card whose schemes for personal enrichment frequently slowed down the progress of the railway. He created the most famous business tool to come out of the project, the Crédit Mobilier, a limited liability company secretly owned by the UP directors, which contracted for the construction work at suitably inflated rates, and then sub-contracted it to other companies owned by relatives of the directors, keeping the vast construction profits (and the government subsidies that went with them) nicely off the books and within the family. Durant also did his best to introduce extra wiggles into the line, since they were being paid by the mile.

Both companies, of course, had to do a lot of lobbying in Washington to keep the legislature and executive on their side, and both kept full-time lobbyists at work there, making sure in advance of important votes that elected representatives were well-supplied with railroad stock, whether or not they had the cash to pay for it. Fatally, the UP's man in Washington also kept a little brown notebook, and this later gave Mark Twain some of the inspiration for his satire in The Gilded Age.

The actual construction is fascinating, too, especially on the Californian side, with the technically very difficult line over the Sierra Nevada to build, and the logistical nightmare of getting all their iron — especially rails, spikes, locomotive and cars — from East Coast manufacturers, shipped by sea round Cape Horn or in emergencies over the Isthmus. If you forgot to order something, it could be three months before new supplies arrived. And of course the CP dealt with labour shortages by importing Chinese workers, whilst the UP employed mostly Irishmen and the railhead was followed across the plains by a portable "Hell on wheels" town that kept them supplied with opportunities for drinking, gambling, whoring and shooting each other. Naturally, it all got even more interesting when both companies got to Utah and started to employ Mormon crews as well...

A fascinating story, altogether. Possibly more detail than really necessary, but engagingly written. A few more maps would have been nice, perhaps, but that's really all I could find to quibble with.

Out 27, 2023, 11:33 am

>18 thorold: Very interesting review, thanks.

Out 27, 2023, 12:07 pm

...and a short crime novel from my library pile, a French author I didn't know anything about:

Article 353 du code pénal (2017; Article 353) by Tanguy Viel (France, 1973- )


Martial Kermeur has been arrested after going out on a fishing trip with the property developer Lazanec and returning to port without him. He's being interviewed by the prosecuting magistrate, and, as so often happens in French fiction, finds himself having to tell the magistrate the story of his life.

A delicate and absorbing little novel, neatly chronicling the collapse of the life of an ordinary man in a small Bréton village — very much the sort of thing Simenon used to do, but surprisingly timeless: there's nothing about this that sounds at all old-fashioned. This is Tanguy Viel's seventh novel:I obviously need to read more of them...

Out 27, 2023, 5:39 pm

>20 thorold: I have read Le Black Note which was also short. Interesting mixture of stream of consciousness technique and a possible crime.

Out 28, 2023, 6:14 am

>21 baswood: Interesting, yes, it sounds as though there's a similar mix of crime and psychological fiction going on. The key to the one I read was certainly Kermeur's voice: the plot-twist that gives the story its title seems a little irrelevant and unnecessary by the time we get to it.

Another kind of crime story. This is the first book of a detective series that came up ages ago in one of those Guardian Top Ten lists. It sounded intriguing, but somehow the books never came up in any of the places where I look. Probably just a bit too old, or the people who have them aren't passing them on into the secondhand market yet... Anyway, I finally spotted a copy in Hay-on-Wye this summer.

The Guyanese-born Mike Phillips found that no-one would give him a job when he graduated from university in Britain in the early sixties. He ended up establishing and running a hostel for unemployed young men, and it was this hands-on social-work experience that eventually brought him into broadcasting and then writing. His novels featuring black private eye Sam Dean made quite an impact at the time, and some of them were adapted for television in the nineties. (Which I didn't hear about, as I wasn't paying much attention to UK TV in those days.)

Blood Rights (1989) by Mike Phillips (UK, 1941- )


When the daughter of a prominent Tory MP goes missing in mysterious circumstances, an old college friend asks journalist Sam Dean to help locate her. She's believed to have gone off with a black boyfriend and it's thought that Sam, being black himself, might be able to merge tactfully into their milieu. Of course, there turns out to be much more to it than that, and Sam soon finds himself plunged into a complicated story of kidnappings and drug deals.

Phillips says he had Balzac in mind when he started writing about Sam Dean, thinking about the complex interconnectedness of different social layers in Thatcher-era Britain, and that certainly comes across in this first book, where we go across the social scale from prostitutes and young ex-convicts right up to the fringes of the Cabinet, exploring the envy, greed, racism and self-interest that cements that social fabric. Phillips seems to be almost as cynical about human nature as Balzac was, too, but he is also tied into the conventions of noir, where at least some involuntary goodness has to shine through by the time we get to the end.

An exciting, well-written thriller, with a reasonable mix of entertainment and social criticism.

Out 30, 2023, 10:42 am

A recent Dutch novel from the TBR, and another author I haven't tried before (but he's married to Belgian writer Lize Spit, whom I know as author of this year's Boekenweek gift):

Miniapolis (2021) by Rob van Essen (Netherlands, 1963- )


An interesting, offbeat novel about five isolated characters who find an unexpected connection when their lives veer off into absurd quests with shades of Kafka and Gormenghast. Amongst other things, we can enjoy the sight of two middle-aged municipal officials on a tandem, and a giant in a fetching leather helmet who keeps a light aircraft in the barn of her tumbledown chateau. Van Essen manages to give his lonely misfits a surprising amount of dignity and sympathy whilst making them do silly things, and his fantasy-city is very solidly rooted in the real world.

Out 30, 2023, 8:30 pm

Rob Van Essen looks a bit grim

Out 31, 2023, 4:55 am

>24 baswood: He looks even scarier on the back cover of the book, with Iggy-Pop-style long grey hair. But I suspect it’s all just a pose, and he’s a big sweetie really. There’s certainly more sense of humour apparent in the writing than in the photos!

Nov 10, 2023, 12:01 pm

I somehow spent nearly two weeks on this one, even though it's a fairly modest length and wasn't at all difficult to read. Multiple distractions, I suppose...

Stern 111 : Roman (Star 111, 2020) by Lutz Seiler (Germany, 1963- )


Seiler's wonderful autobiographical novel Kruso was a very hard act to follow, and this not-quite-sequel struggles a bit to generate the same sort of excitement. Anarchist squatters in former East Berlin just after the fall of the Wall are interesting, of course, but there isn't quite the same sort of magic in the air as there was on Hiddensee in the summer of 1989. Most of the interest in this book comes not from the life of the central character, the waiter, poet and mason, Carl (who at one point bumps into Edgar, viewpoint character of Kruso, and notes their odd resemblance to each other...), or even from the levitating nanny-goat Dodo, but from Carl's odd status as the adult child of middle-aged parents who have suddenly left home and gone off to build a new life in the West. Seiler uses this to dig into less obvious corners of relations between East and West at the time of the Wende, and into the abrupt way people from the DDR were made to rethink their lives in the new situation.

There is a lot of good stuff about Berlin ca. 1990 and the anarchist bar "Die Assel" (The Woodlouse) on the Oranienburgerstraße, although on balance I would have loved to read more about Walter and Inge and their adventures in Hessen and less about Carl's obviously doomed love-life. But I loved the ending! Slightly disappointing next to Kruso, but in any other context a very good novel.

Editado: Nov 11, 2023, 4:42 am

From the library pile, another Jeanette Winterson novel that I somehow missed at the time:

Lighthousekeeping (2004) by Jeanette Winterson (UK, 1959- )


Sometimes I read a novel and can't help suspecting that it was born in some kind of drunken parlour game where friends write down random ideas on a piece of paper and the author is challenged to write a novel tying together all the plot elements she draws out of a hat. "Robert Louis Stevenson, Tristan & Isolde, Capri, adoption, Great Exhibition, Charles Darwin, Death in Venice, car-wash, ...," it must have gone on this occasion.

Whether or not that's what really happened, the result is an ingenious pastiche of the postmodern-Victorian-novel genre (think French lieutenant's woman or Persuasion), opening with the memorably Chaplinesque image of the narrator and her mother living in a house built on such a steep slope that they weren't allowed spaghetti or peas. It's great fun and runs at a lightning pace, we get bombarded with casual references to Treasure Island, Dr Jekyll, and much else, and there's a semi-serious underlying idea about the importance of stories in helping us to make sense of an impossibly dynamic universe.


I love the epigraph of this book. Not-quite-contradictory lines from two of my favourite Scottish authors:
‘Remember you must die’
Muriel Spark
‘Remember you must live’
Ali Smith

Nov 11, 2023, 10:14 am

>27 thorold: A book bullet from an author I have not read. Love the epigraphs!

Nov 13, 2023, 10:00 am

This is a book that I kept seeing on my US trip, and bought after returning home. It plays on both sides of the Atlantic...

Gay Bar (2021-02-09 by Jeremy Atherton Lin (USA)


“Gay bars aren’t what they used to be“ — a complaint that you hear everywhere you go these days (especially if you’re somewhere other than a gay bar…). If people aren’t campaigning to keep their local bar open amidst threats of redevelopment, they are complaining about the way it has filled up with hen-parties, or how drinks are too expensive, or that they’re fed up with listening to disco, or that the only men you find in there are the ones who are too decrepit to work out how to use Grindr...
Jeremy Atherton Lin has lived in Los Angeles, San Francisco and London, and he has drunk, danced and cruised in numerous famous establishments that have subsequently closed down or changed their characters (even the London bar featured in the opening chapter has closed its doors by the time we get to the end of the book). In this book, he combines a kind of personal memoir of going out with a more objective look at the history of the gay bar as a cultural phenomenon, and tries to debunk some of our cosy preconceptions. Bars are inherently risky places where we go looking for the thrill of meeting strangers, and where the owners are trying to make money by selling us a lot of alcohol. Any sense of “safe space” or “community” is an accidental side-effect.
There probably never was a “golden age” when everything was better: in the fifties you would have to be in the know even to find a gay bar, and would risk getting beaten up by cops if you frequented it; nowadays gay culture has become so mainstream that it has almost been diluted to nothing, and it’s easier to meet strangers for sex on a mobile phone than at a bar. And in between we had to deal with AIDS and Thatcher and queer-bashing and all sorts of other lovely things.
Although Lin has a lot of bad experiences to describe here (perhaps his lowest point is when he and his partner go to Blackpool for a weekend…) he manages to be very funny about a lot of them, and to convey at least some of the nocturnal magic that has kept him partying against all reason and common sense for the last few decades. Fun.

Nov 13, 2023, 10:04 am

From the library pile, Julian Barnes' petite hit of a few years ago, which I keep not getting around to:

The Sense of an Ending (2011 by Julian Barnes (UK, 1946- )


A pleasant short novel about a dull man who is suddenly prompted, far too late in life, to work out that there was after all a meaning to an apparently inexplicable set of events that took place many years before. Set in Barnes's usual world of slightly old-fashioned tennis-club suburbia (admittedly there's no actual tennis in this one, but there is a lunch in the John Lewis cafeteria). Some interesting play with the way narrative closure seems crucial but doesn't necessarily actually change anything in the world.

Editado: Nov 13, 2023, 10:22 am

>30 thorold: Thanks for the review. I loved this quiet book. Julian Barnes lis a favorite of mine, and the only book of his I had reservations about was Flauberts Parrrot and even that had some very good parts.

Love the way you sum up the story.

Nov 13, 2023, 10:46 am

I enjoyed The Sense of an Ending, but was it worthy of winning the booker prize?

Nov 13, 2023, 11:36 am

>32 baswood: Probably not, but some oddly undistinguished books have won it over the years. It is well-crafted and thoughtful, but Barnes has probably written better books, and he’d already won once before at that point.
As it happens, I haven’t read any of the other books that were on the longlist that year, so who knows. It might have been an undistinguished field.

Nov 13, 2023, 4:10 pm

>32 baswood: >33 thorold: Didn't seem quite up to a Booker to me either. The Guardian was lukewarm, headlining "Julian Barnes triumphs at last".

The others on the short list that year, 2011:

Carol Birch for Jamrach's Menagerie
Patrick deWitt for The Sisters Brothers
Esi Edugyan for Half Blood Blues
Stephen Kelman for Pigeon English
A D Miller for Snowdrops

Left off the list: Alan Hollinghurst, Edward St Aubyn and Ali Smith.

The bookies had Barnes at a 6/4 favourite according to this:

Nov 13, 2023, 4:55 pm

>34 SassyLassy: Hmm. I wasn’t blown away by The stranger’s child (but, well, it was Hollinghurst, so I read it anyway…), but I’d have given the prize without hesitation to There but for the. A brilliant, very funny little book. Ali Smith seems to have been on the shortlist five times (more often than Barnes) and never won it yet. Scandalous!

(In my previous post, I was under the impression that Barnes had won with Flaubert’s Parrot, but apparently I was wrong. It did make quite a splash at the time, though, maybe just from the shortlist, or because he won the Prix Médicis.)

Editado: Nov 13, 2023, 7:46 pm

>34 SassyLassy: I was cheering for Half Blood Blues that year. I enjoy Barnes, but I thought HBB was a better novel. For what it’s worth, I also gave four stars to The Sisters Brothers and Jamrach’s Menagerie - both were surprising additions to the shortlist, but great stories.

Editado: Nov 13, 2023, 7:42 pm

>32 baswood: >34 SassyLassy: It does seem that 2011 was not a good Booker year.

I’ve read all except Elizabeth Finch. Perhaps Barnes won because he’d written so many other excellent books and the offerings were thin on the ground that year. So the award was for Barnes, rather than his novel. As SassyLassy quoted from The Guardian Julian Barnes Triumphs at last.

I actually liked The Sense of an Ending but my favorite Barnes, though not in any sense his best, is the very funny and tragic Before She Met Me

As for Barnes’ best novel, I choose The Only Story.

Nov 14, 2023, 10:23 am

>27 thorold: Forgot to mention that I loved this review of what sounds like an intriguing and fun book. You made me realize that I should have paid more attention to the title when I was ignoring the book; it is Lighthousekeeping (a true RLS clue), not Light Housekeeping, which is the way I had previously misinterpreted it, and so consequently ignored it!

Nov 15, 2023, 3:00 am

>38 SassyLassy: Yes, there were “housekeeping” titles coming up in the search when I added this to my library. Winterson doesn’t really do apron-and-duster fiction, but she does enjoy baffling her public…

Nov 15, 2023, 9:51 am

Speaking of housekeeping, this has been my audiobook for ironing over the last few weeks. Not sure how it got onto the pile, but it probably had something to do with me reading Dubravka Ugresić, who was in the same group of Croatian writers demonised as "witches" and forced into exile by the press in the 90s for their perceived lack of nationalist ardour:

How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed (1992) by Slavenka Drakulić (Croatia, 1949- )


A set of essays written to try to give western readers a sense of what the real experience of life in communist eastern Europe was like. Drakulić likes to build out to political conclusions from banal observations of domestic life — the sociology of communist toilet-paper, the way housing shortages and the inability to move away from your parents makes it more difficult to be a radical, the way the eavesdropping neighbours in the post office queue reflect the phone-tapping operation in the back room, and the way it's difficult to focus on being a feminist in a country that never has feminine hygiene products available in the shops, even when you are living in a culture that supposedly celebrates the equality of men and women.

The treatment is engaging, witty and very sharp, but I kept getting the feeling that she had an excessively rosy idea of western consumerism. Maybe the only westerners she knew were rich American professors and journalists: I'm younger than she is, but I can clearly remember times when clothes were washed by hand and wound through a mangle, irons were heated on a coal range, and grandmothers obsessively collected plastic bags, glass jars, and shoeboxes for re-use. And darned stockings on a wooden mushroom. None of that strikes me as particularly communist — it's simply how people lived who had been through the deprivations of World War II.

Of course, the real elephant in the room of this book is the Balkan war that broke out just after Drakulić finished writing it. We have that in the backs of our minds all the time she is going on about celebrating Tito's birthday, applying for a phone line, or voting in the first free elections. Her editor asked her for an afterword for the second edition, but she clearly wasn't in any mood to try to reduce the political and military situation to a neat essay: she responded with a very moving letter in which she meditates on how difficult it is to come to terms with the idea that one is living in the middle of a full-scale war, something she knows intellectually can't possibly happen in post-WWII Europe. But is happening outside her window.

The audiobook is narrated by Lesa Lockford, who evidently wasn't selected for her ability to pronounce non-English words recognisably. Surely, if you're a voice-actor being paid to read an audiobook, you can at least take the time to look up pronunciations of unfamiliar terms. If not, then the publishers must be real skinflints...

Nov 15, 2023, 10:55 am

>40 thorold: Ah, a book I read when it came out back in the day, so it's been a long time... but I wonder if even though many people in the west may have done things by hand (post WWII generation, like your grandmother), it was more of a choice than was possible in her country at the time?

Nov 15, 2023, 2:36 pm

>40 thorold:

Well, there's a sort of revision out: Café Europa Revisited: How to Survive Post-Communism.

A lot of what you mention made no sense to my generation. There was no shortage of feminine hygiene products when I was a teen. Everyone had a phone and I assume I just assumed people applied to get a number anywhere in the world. (Um, do we not?) I was nonplussed to see her moaning about toilet paper because the sort she mentioned, individual leaves that came in packets and could fit only specific dispensers, were actually super rare as few people had that sort installed (rolls being typical). My grands who lived in an old building had one in their WC closet, but the bathroom toilet had the roll thingy. One thing I remember about the packet sort is that it was obnoxiously smooth and had to be crinkled to use. It was a recycled product. Ironically, it's this individually-leaved, packet type of recycled paper that is now seen (as are many other products and habits from the "communist" era) as avant-garde ecologically conscious and green. It's back on the market in our glorious post-communism.

You should read the second book.

Drakulic is a clever woman but I get the feeling that in both books she tried to adopt what she thought is some "average" voice, as if she's trying to represent some "everyperson". Because, as you note and as is also present in the newer book, for one thing, she communicates again as hers some vapid expectation that capitalism was supposed to result in something different and better than what we had, and there's no way I can believe that was ever her genuine feeling. She was 20-something at the height of Yugoslavia's economic boom, studied in Zagreb and travelled all over, including living abroad as a student worker in Sweden and I forget where else. About as far from some dope or country bumpkin as one can get--and far from the experience of people behind the Iron Curtain, one might add.

There are some acid comments (re: newer book) on Goodreads about what did the lady expect, 24/7 glitzy consumerism comes hand in hand with nickel-and-dimed wage slavery etc.

Editado: Nov 15, 2023, 3:03 pm

>41 labfs39: Of course, there is a difference. If it wasn’t quite choice for my grandmother and her contemporaries later in life, it was something very like it — there were daughters with washing machines that could be used in emergency, but like the women in Drakulić‘s book, she was unconvinced that an automatic washing machine that didn’t boil the washing could ever get sheets clean enough for her to hang them out on the line with any self-respect.

But the real point Drakulić is trying to make seems to be that it’s the consumer luxury Americans and Western Europeans were living in that was the anomalous thing. Most people in the world (then at least) had never had the option of buying washing machines, and still did laundry in the nearest stream. By global standards, Yugoslavia was probably a consumer paradise too, despite occasional shortages.

Nov 15, 2023, 3:06 pm

>42 LolaWalser: Yes, it was a bit odd jumping in at that particular moment, it should be interesting to get her later view.
I did also notice that she jumped around a lot: she was sometimes talking about her experience in Yugoslavia and sometimes about other people she knew in Poland, Czechoslovakia, or Bulgaria, were things were often not as good. That got a bit confusing at times.

Nov 15, 2023, 3:58 pm

>29 thorold: perhaps his lowest point is when he and his partner go to Blackpool for the weekend. This phrase was so gloriously unexpected, it’s made my evening. (Had nobody warned him?)

Nov 16, 2023, 9:42 am

>40 thorold: Interesting. When I travelled in Yugoslavia in the mid 1970's (Tito was still alive but probably only just) Yugolavia was quite westernised, however when I went across the border into Bulgaria it was very different.

Nov 16, 2023, 2:08 pm

>46 baswood:, >44 thorold:

Maybe I'm misunderstanding the import of the parenthetical remark, but just in case--Tito was the main reason Yugoslavia didn't look or feel like Bulgaria. (And as for his activity, he was up and gadding about well into 1979 at the least--among other places, he visited Syria and my five year old brother got to hand him flowers.) As for "westernisation", I'd employ "modernisation" or development, being a process that has nothing uniquely "Western" about it in Eastern Europe and West Balkans, and which, depending on the region, had been underway for a century or several by the time of the WWII and revolution. Some no doubt far ahead of bits of the West in Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece...

I don't remember Drakulic's book in detail and couldn't speak to her experiences behind the Iron Curtain anyway, but yes, I wonder just how useful is talking about all these countries together. Look at how different were the outcomes in, say, Poland and Czechia.

To be sure, there are common motifs that make all these countries in that era seem familiar, but it's all superficial stuff--the pioneers, the May Day parades, the WWII mythology, the stilted lingo of the officialdom and the pathos-filled propaganda...

The topic of consumerism is a much more interesting one but I took too much place here already. Let me just say that yes, people wanted more stuff, but I have yet to come across a single testimony from that time saying that they'd give up for it everything that socialism had ensured for them. It just never crossed their minds. People wanted freedom of movement and speech, they wanted an end to police state, they wanted electionism, to feel they were making choices instead of having them made for them. The idea that switching to capitalism would mean an end to security, to free health care and education, to stable jobs, to cheap housing--this just wasn't on anyone's horizon. To the average punter (and I'm saying there's no way Drakulic is one) who believed the West was better, there's no way those losses would have computed. Capitalism was supposed to give everyone MORE, not take things away.

Nov 16, 2023, 3:04 pm

>42 LolaWalser: A lot of what you mention made no sense to my generation. There was no shortage of feminine hygiene products when I was a teen. Everyone had a phone and I assume I just assumed people applied to get a number anywhere in the world. (Um, do we not?)

Do you still think this?/

My family didn’t have a phone till the 1980s and I grew up in Australia, by no means a socialist or poor country. As for washing machines, they were not in every house. Toilet paper when I was very little consisted of squares of newspaper cut up into manageable sizes, and threaded together with string and hung on a nail in an outside toilet.

Nov 17, 2023, 2:13 pm

>48 kjuliff:

That's the sort of thing one picks up as life goes on, I expect children--or indeed most people who are not specially prompted otherwise--rarely think about those things at all. And as was mentioned before, it's not just that time doesn't stand still, the meanings and interpretations of history shift too. Then there's the infinite "meta" dimension of interpreting the past interpretations, forgotten frameworks, the unseen biases, conscious and unconscious premises etc.

Anyway, I think Drakulic was writing about something different, blackmail by The Powers That Be. This sort of thing had undoubtedly happened, but from my perspective would have appeared as remote as the Bronze Ages, or my grandma's stories about unravelling candle wicks, in the winter of 1946, in order to crotchet booties for my mum.

Editado: Nov 17, 2023, 4:10 pm

>49 LolaWalser: >30 thorold: But children are prompted. And in many cases, can see from experience.

As a child i was aware that other people did have phones and washing machines. I was acutely aware of inequality in my own country and elsewhere.

I knew what Communism was by the time I was five. I knew I didn’t live under Communism. We still got the news. We knew about McCarthyism. We knew other kids had phones and washing machines in their homes, as we saw them.

There are people still alive who grew up in the GDR and they knew when they were children that life was different in the west. Just as children the West Germany knew of life in FDR..

People as young/old as sixty in Romania were taught early on of necessity, about the secret police, for survival. They knew why their parents wanted to leave.

As children we knew in real time about inequality. I suspect that children growing up with advantage assume everyone has such advantage. But children living without advantage are aware that other children have advantage. As >40 thorold: who can can clearly remember times when clothes were washed by hand and wound through a mangle> remarked “I kept getting the feeling that Slavenka Drakulić had an excessively rosy idea of western consumerism the only westerners she knew were rich American professors and journalists

Don’t write us off yet, Lola.

Nov 17, 2023, 4:09 pm

>49 LolaWalser: >50 kjuliff: Maybe it’s a generation-specific thing, but I found the “what was it like when you were children?” discussion endlessly fascinating when I was a small child. Given that my grandparents were all born around 1900 and my parents in the thirties, there was a lot to take in there. Not all of it digestible by small children, of course. And we knew about the Iron Curtain, because there were family members on the other side of it.

Editado: Nov 17, 2023, 4:31 pm

>50 kjuliff: >49 LolaWalser: I agree it may well be a generational thing being interested in our immediate family past. But aren’t kids today interested? We also knew from our own experience. And in some families, from the political views of the parents.

When I was a child my parents were activists. My brother and I didn’t go to the demonstrations but we knew what they were about. And then there were the children we met whose parents fled Germany. Seeing kids parents who had tattoos on their arms, having new kids come to class from Czechoslovakia and the Ukraine was bound to influence and inform us.

Nov 18, 2023, 12:24 am

>50 kjuliff:

Eh, I wouldn't bet on who knew what when. The anti-communist bias that dominates the West imposes a single experience on the variegated, generational multitudes in the real-socialist societies, but the living experience of people who actually lived in them points to a much more complex picture. For example, consider how shocking the revelation of Stasi files on ordinary citizens had been to most of those people. How would that have been possible if everyone in the DDR really lived their lives all the time acutely aware of the practices of the Stasi? Or, that even a scumbag like Solzhenitsyn began his magnum opus by addressing his Russian readers with a plea to believe him even if they find it difficult to do so--what would have been the point if the "gulags" were truly such a defining feature of Soviet life, omnipresent in everyone's mind as they are in the Western discourse on communism?

Jenny Erpenbeck is one of the writers from ex-communist countries who shows beautifully what was her normal growing up in the DDR, and that it WAS normal. There was something rotten in the state, but the kids in the DDR were raised to be as kind and clever and happy as anywhere else. It's, again, a Western bias to imagine anyone from the dread Commie countries as a perennial hostage to a few horrific clichés--eternally queuing for bread, shivering from want, dreading the secret police...

>51 thorold:

Maybe I'm exceptionally stupid, but I feel like I'm only now getting the hang of thinking about history. All that cramming of facts as a kid was so much hamster-wheel training.

Editado: Nov 18, 2023, 1:54 am

>53 LolaWalser: I am not sure if I am understanding you correctly. But people do put up with all types of suppression without outwardly rebelling or being miserable everyday. They can be aware of life outside their own country and make decisions to try to flee or to adjust, making the most of it.

Maybe. I don’t fully understand what you are saying because I grew up in a different country, and most certainly a different political group.

I’m currently reading Sex and Lies by the French/Moroccan writer Leila Slimani It’s comprised of commentary and first-hand accounts of women and the effect of the sex constraints on their lives in Morocco. Many women there are fully aware of the injustice, and are aware that women in Europe do not suffer the same impositions. Yet many manage to get around prohibitions in secret while pushing society to change. Many older women are ignorant of the outside world, and so see their own lives as normal, and may be happier than their female children.

Jenny Erpenbeck is one of my favorite writers. I haven’t seen anything in her works to support what I understand are your views.

if women have not fully understood the state of inferiority in which they are kept they will do nothing but perpetuate it. Eltahawy, Headscarves and Hymens.

Editado: Nov 19, 2023, 9:04 am

>53 LolaWalser: >54 kjuliff: Yes, I think that's one of the most interesting things that comes out of reading "globally", that we get reminded that people have perfectly ordinary lives with perfectly ordinary worries in places that we are accustomed to think of only in terms of their strangeness to us.


Anyway, on to something quite different: Dutch water-management(!). A big topic if you happen to live below sea-level. I've read quite a few books about this from an engineering perspective, and even about the administrative history of it. For a change, someone who's looking at hydrology from a cultural studies viewpoint. Probably not the most practical approach, but it turns out to be quite fascinating...

Wij en het water (2022) by Lotte Jensen (Denmark, Netherlands, 1972- )


Flood-stories and the struggle against the “water wolf” play a big part in the Dutch sense of national identity, for obvious reasons. The most famous “flood story”, of Hansje Brinker — the boy who put his finger in the dyke — is pure fiction and not even Dutch, coming from a 19th century American children’s story, but it’s so engrained in our consciousness that he now has at least two statues in the Netherlands. And there are plenty of home-grown flood-memes going a lot further back, most famously the story of the baby floating to safety in a basket — often with a cat perched on top of it, comforting the child and stabilising the unseaworthy craft. That tradition goes back at least to the St Elizabeth’s Day flood of 1421 (if not to the story of the infant Moses in the Bible) and has its earliest known representation in a late-15th-century altarpiece in Dordrecht, but it continues to pop up, even as recently as the 2009 Film De Storm, set during the great flood of 1953.

In this fascinating study, philosopher and historian Lotte Jensen tracks down the cultural history of flood-stories, in Dutch literature, fine art, music, popular culture and journalism, as well as associated cultural phenomena like monuments, charitable fundraising, and international disaster assistance. Never assume a newspaper story is just a bare representation of facts; there’s always a complicated mix of morals, memes and narrative traditions going on in the background. At one time floods were obviously God’s punishment for our immoral habits (oddly, drowning sinners never seemed to cure the problem…); more recently we’ve read them as the result of government incompetence and/or our reckless human interference in the environment. Jensen even puts her own motives under the microscope: part of her fascination with the subject goes back to family stories about her grandfather, commander of a Danish Civil Defence transport unit that went to the assistance of the Dutch in 1953.

Nov 19, 2023, 9:25 am

Sounds fun (if i could read it 🙂)

Nov 19, 2023, 9:36 am

And something quirky from

Cleveland Illustrated : a pictorial hand-book of the forest city, comprising its architecture, manufactures, and trade, its social, literary, scientific, and charitable institutions, its churches, schools and colleges, and all other principal points of interest to the visitor and resident : together with an account of its most attractive suburbs (1876) by William Payne (USA, - )


A nice little guide to the city of Cleveland (as it was in 1876) with a potted history of its development and engravings of its most notable buildings, just the kind of thing that would come in handy if you were a nineteenth century entrepreneur thinking of moving your business there, but probably more than you would need for a mere tourist visit. And of course fun for the modern reader trying to spot anything that is still there 150 years later. Basically that amounts to Lake Erie, the Cuyahoga River, a couple of churches and two or three street names... well, not quite that bad, but there was a lot of remodelling of the city centre around 1900, then again when Terminal Tower was built in the 1920s, and then again in the second half of the 20th century, so there isn't really much trace left of the city as it was shortly after the Civil War.

There are some mildly colourful anecdotes from the "early days" — the first business established in the new community being a distillery, for example, or Cleveland and the neigbouring town of Brooklyn coming close to armed conflict about the ownership of a bridge in 1835; taxpayers rebelling against the "illegal" establishment of a high school at their expense in the 1840s. Payne goes on without a trace of irony to tell us that the Cleveland school system in his own day is regarded as a model to be studied by educationalists around the world (and publishes figures to show that they spend less per student than any other large US city...).

I couldn't find anything out about the author: there are numerous 19th century William Paynes in library catalogues, but none of them has anything obvious to do with Cleveland. And this particular one doesn't seem to have any kind of literary background: he writes like a lawyer. But there were quite a few Paynes who were prominent in business in the city, including the mayor at the time this book was published, Nathan P Payne. I suspect that our William might have been a family member. Another possible clue is a throwaway comment, in his survey of towns near Cleveland, about the unusually high intelligence of the inhabitants of Painesville, which was of course founded by the Paine family...

Nov 19, 2023, 10:52 am

>57 thorold: a throwaway comment... about the unusually high intelligence of the inhabitants of Painesville, which was of course founded by the Paine family... Lol

Two interesting "place" books in a row

Nov 19, 2023, 12:46 pm

>27 thorold: late to this but I think this is anothr I read on your rec. absolutely loved it.

Nov 19, 2023, 12:58 pm

>52 kjuliff: I dont remembering wanting to know that as a kid. it wasnt till my mom passed, I was about 30 when I realized I wanted to know more about her life in Poland, Ukraine and immigrating to America.before WWII Fortunately I had cousins much older that I who had the goods on her family and descendants. I realize now how much I still dont know.

Nov 19, 2023, 3:04 pm

>54 kjuliff:

Yes, it seems you're misunderstanding me and I'd like this to be my last post here. I keep mentioning complexity and nuance and generational and national differences but it all goes to naught, it seems.

There's a common bias when Westerners talk about so-called communist countries that resembles nothing so much as the gender bias--the way men are "human beings" but women are women, defined solely by and in the name of their sex. Similarly, Westerners will talk as if their so-called liberal democracies were some sort of god-given apolitical (or nearly) states, replete with everything except politics, whereas the so-called communist or socialist countries basically have nothing but "politics".

What I'm suggesting is that people who actually lived (and in a few places still live) in would-be socialist/communist countries, take their systems for granted more or less in the same way people in liberal democracies take their systems for granted, and lead lives that are mostly concerned with issues outside politics. It's not a question of ignorance, stupidity, or bad faith. It's just... normal. (See Jenny Erpenbeck (Not a novel : a memoir in pieces), Lea Ypi (Free: Coming of Age at the End of History).

Now, whether this is reprehensible, or more so than what was/is taken for normal in the West is up for discussion. For my part, I can't stand the dishonesty and cynicism that reduces everything that various would-be socialist systems tried to achieve to Stalin's gulags and the Stasi, while glibly ignoring the ongoing murderous exploitation and repression of the underclass by the capitalist systems everywhere.

The US, with its multi-century institutionalised exploitation of the underclass and persecution of labour; the UK, imperialist cradle of White supremacy and persecution of labour; Western Europe, propped by colonialism, and persecution of labour; Australia--another stolen land which, by the way, just last month reaffirmed its dedication to not caring about the discrimination against the Indigenous... where's the outrage? If Erpenbeck and Ypi stand to be lectured for daring to grow up happy in single-party police states, then the Westerners who actually choose their leaders and policies that have perpetuated injustice and inequality, on a hugely greater scale too, are much worse.

Sorry for the length, I hope it's at least not less clear than before.

Editado: Nov 19, 2023, 7:22 pm

>60 cindydavid4: Yes I do think we aren’t really interested in the lives of great grandparents till we are older.

The privileged children in the west have no need to know. I only knew about communism as a young child as my parents were politically active. I lived through the Cold War and I remember as a child asking about it.

I know however, and here I am thinking of my post of >54 kjuliff:, that people living in dictatorships are aware of what they perceive of as the advantages of those in the west. Why else are we having migrations from poorer countries to America and Australia?

Whether it is myth, propaganda or reports available on the internet, they know lives are different in other countries. Just as the underprivileged in the west know there are people better of than them.

Nov 24, 2023, 4:47 am

Back to the Beats and California:

The Dharma Bums (1957) by Jack Kerouac (US, 1922-1969)


Kerouac tells us about Buddhism, about climbing a mountain with the poet Gary Snyder (“Japhy Ryder” in the book), about hitchhiking and train-hopping across America, about the famous Gallery Six poetry reading, and about the mystical experience of firewatching solo on Desolation Peak. And, of course there's a certain amount of taking your clothes off and partying.

Contrary to all my preconceptions about Kerouac, he turns out to be a very disciplined, focussed writer, and this is an extraordinarily lovely book to read. It can be lyrical, down to earth, or even surprisingly funny. It's of its time and has its faults, naturally: it could use a few more commas, there's an unnecessary amount of misogyny, and some of the Buddhist stuff feels like naive mumbo-jumbo from this distance. The whole ethic of mystical vagrancy only makes sense if you have other people somewhere who are doing the work that makes that lifestyle possible (you can't hop freight trains unless someone is running industries that produce and consume stuff that needs to be transported, after all): it seems like an incredibly selfish, elitist way of finding spiritual fulfilment. But maybe that's taking it all too literally. Kerouac isn't saying that we should all go and live on top of mountains, he's pointing out that engaging with society can be a choice, even if it feels like a forced choice for most of us.

"I've been reading Whitman, know what he says, Cheer up slaves, and horrify foreign despots, he means that's the attitude for the Bard, the Zen Lunacy bard of old desert paths, see the whole thing is a world full of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming, all that crap they didn't really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of 'em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also by being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures, that's what I like about you Goldbook and Smith, you two guys from the East Coast which I thought was dead."
"We thought the West Coast was dead!"

"I've got my full rucksack pack and it's spring, I'm going to go southwest to the dry land, to the long lone land of Texas and Chihuahua and the gay streets of Mexico night, music coming out of doors, girls, wine, weed, wild hats, viva! What does it matter? Like the ants that have nothing to do but dig all day, I have nothing to do but do what I want and be kind and remain nevertheless uninfluenced by imaginary judgments and pray for the light."

Nov 29, 2023, 6:04 pm

Its a long time ago that I read the Dharma Bums - thanks for the memories.

Editado: Dez 1, 2023, 5:17 am

This has been on the TBR since October 2021: I bought it because I'd enjoyed Ordesa very much, and promptly forgot about it. I was nudged to read it at last when I saw Vilas' next novel on the library's "recent acquisitions" table...

Alegría (2019-11-05) by Manuel Vilas (Spain, 1962- )


Manuel Vilas seems to have set out on a kind of Proustian project to recapture elusive moments of joy in his protagonist's memories of what he presents as a very ordinary Spanish life. The narrator, whom we met in Vilas' earlier novel Ordesa, has been surprised by the runaway success of a memoir/novel he wrote about his parents, and is now chasing around the world on a hectic schedule of lectures, interviews and book-signings, writing in short chapters from a series of hotel rooms in different cities and countries.

He agonises about odd noises and smells, changes rooms three times before he is happy, worries about insomnia and fights off his inner demons. These demons are whimsically personified as "Arnold Schoenberg": as in Ordesa, all the main characters are given the names of great composers, so that his parents are Bach and Wagner, his sons Bra(hms) and (Vi)Valdi, and his wife Mo(zart). Until the last few chapters, when an encounter with an old friend of his father's leads him to recast them all as Hollywood stars...

It's an interesting mix of postmodern reflexive autofiction with nostalgic celebrations of cosy domesticity: the narrator is clear that his greatest happiness in life comes from his love for his late parents on the one hand, and his sons on the other. Everything else is secondary to that, including the success of his book and his happy second marriage with Mo. I think it mostly works, the narrator is tough enough on himself to avoid it becoming too cosy, but just occasionally it feels a bit self-indulgent and sentimental.

Editado: Dez 1, 2023, 5:49 am

Poetry time, and more Beats — apart from being a poet whose career outlasted many literary movements, Ferlinghetti was of course the co-founder of City Lights and publisher of much of the work of his contemporaries in the Beat movement.

A Coney Island of the Mind (1958) by Lawrence Ferlinghetti (USA, 1919-2021)


This New Directions paperback from 1958 brings together a selection of poems from Ferlinghetti's first, self-published collection Pictures of the gone world (1955) with two new, longer poems, "A Coney Island of the mind" and "Oral messages".

The title poem, "a kind of circus of the soul," in 29 sections, taking its title from a line of Henry Miller's — is something like the Ferlinghetti version of "Howl", a confrontation between the poet's sensibility and the banality of Eisenhower's America. But it's all a lot more playful and literary, full of mischievous echoes of everyone from Wordsworth, Keats and W B Yeats to T S Eliot and James Joyce. Where Ginsberg's lines thump out at you in a merciless rhythm, Ferlinghetti dances down the page in unexpected leaps and pirouettes. And comes to a fabulous conclusion in section 29 where he manages to condense Ulysses, Finnegan's Wake, Anna Karenina, Hemingway, Proust and Lorca (and much else) into about 100 breathlessly unpunctuated lines.

"Oral messages" are jazz poems, meant for live performance but still quite effective on the page, again full of clever puns and literary references that you would probably only pick up on a very subliminal level in performance. "Pictures of the gone world" range a little more widely, with a few nods to the lyrical tradition, but still in the light-footed style of "Coney Island".

The typographic design, with its classic underground "typewriter-style" look, is superb — I loved that they even went as far as using freehand underlining for emphasis instead of italics. Freda Browne is credited as the designer, while the cover is by Rudolphe de Harak.

Part of a page from the title poem:

Dez 2, 2023, 11:47 am

...more from my rapidly-thinning San Francisco pile:

Queer (1952, 1985) by William S. Burroughs (USA, 1914-1997)


In a different world, Burroughs' second book, written in 1952, could have been the next big gay-themed American novel after The city and the pillar. But it wasn't: partly because the publisher wasn't keen, partly because Burroughs had cannibalised the already-thin manuscript to bulk up the slightly underweight text of Junky, and also partly because he obviously became disenchanted with linear narrative whilst writing it, and wanted to experiment with other techniques. The mauled manuscript was put away and eventually mislaid, and the book didn't come out until 1985, when Burroughs had just got a new seven-book deal with a different publisher and a copy of the typescript of Queer happened to surface in an archive in Liechtenstein. By this time gay-themed novels were no longer considered shocking by most people. At least not by the sort of people likely to pick up a book by Burroughs.

Set mostly in Mexico City, the book centres around the unrequited passion of the Burroughs-character, Lee, for a younger American, Gene Allerton (in real life Lewis Marker). Lee pursues Allerton through the bars of Mexico City, and eventually persuades him to come on a quest into South America to search for the possibly mythical drug Yage, but it's clear that Allerton, whilst sometimes willing to be bought, is rather repelled than attracted by the older man. His condition for coming on the trip south is that he won't be expected to have sex with Lee more than twice a week. The narrative of the main text peters out somewhere in the rain forest, and then we see Lee in an epilogue back in Mexico City some time later, fruitlessly trying to find out where Allerton has gone.

The main interest of the book isn't really in this rather standard and dated obsession narrative, nor in the bizarrely awkward dialogues in gay bars, but rather in the "routines," the witty, surreal and very politically-incorrect monologues Lee comes out with when he's trying to deflect attention from his own problems. They are a joy, and flag the direction in which Burroughs' writing is going.

Dez 4, 2023, 11:38 pm

>66 thorold: I repurchased Coney Island this year. It was my bible when I was in my late teens - early 20s.

Dez 7, 2023, 9:12 am

Slightly intriguing minor puzzle: I was glancing into some old diaries for another reason and came across this, in June 1978: Today I read a book written by an African who spent some time studying in Moscow. It's interesting both as an account of life at a level close to that of ordinary Russians and as an indication of the workings of Soviet propaganda and Russian aid to the Third World.

Naturally, I didn’t bother to note down what the book was called or who the author was! It must have been a library book. Any ideas from the crowd?

A bit of Googling suggested it might have been Moscow is not my Mecca by Jan Carew (1964), except that he is from Guyana, not Africa (maybe I didn’t know where Guyana was in 1978…).

On a similar theme, I’ve since also read Ice by the Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim, which could fit, as it was written in 1973, but it wasn’t translated to English until 2019, and I don’t read Arabic, so this seems unlikely.

Dez 12, 2023, 8:43 am

Another one from the meta-pile associated with my US trip. John Mack Faragher is an emeritus history professor at Yale, but seems to be related to a lot of Californian musicians.

California: an American history (2022-05-10) by John Mack Faragher (US, 1945- )


An accessible, narrative history of California from before the arrival of the first Europeans in the 16th century right through to 2020 and the Covid crisis. Faragher's intention throughout seems to be to bring out the story of how California became the astonishingly diverse place it now is, without losing sight of the many ways in which, during those centuries, people in positions of strength have abused their power to exploit those weaker than themselves, or to take short term (and ultimately catastrophic) advantage of the region's 'natural bounty', which of course masks a rather fragile ecosystem.

In short, humans have behaved as badly in California as in most other parts of the world, but here it is all compressed into a relatively short time-frame and rather isolated from the outside world, so the effect is often much more dramatic, when we read for example about the way in which Franciscan misisonaries exploited Native Californians as (in effect, if not name) slave workers, and later American miners and settlers pushed them off their land; or nineteenth century white trade unionists campaigned against civil rights for Asian workers, or agribusiness used the police and national guard to defeat striking workers, or .... right through to Rodney King — and most of the time they got away with it in the courts and legislature. You get the picture, it wasn't pretty.

Of course, we get the positive stuff too, and I got to fill in a lot of gaps in my knowledge of how it all fitted together, especially the bit before 1846, which I've never really seen explained properly before. Faragher takes a lot of trouble to make the book accessible to non-professional readers (in fact, he tells us that he got his grandchildren to road-test it from the point of view of young readers). But this means that he doesn't use technical terms without explaining them first, not that he dumbs anything down.

There are no footnotes and a few maps, but otherwise the only illustrations are charming line-drawings (by Weshoyot Alvitre) at the head of each chapter, which gives it all a bit of the feel of a pre-war children's book.

Dez 12, 2023, 9:06 pm

Mark, I’ve been wondering something since you were in Ohio. Do you not like rock music?

Dez 13, 2023, 1:54 am

>71 dianeham: Profound personal revelation coming up … no!

Although really it’s not so much that I dislike it, more that it isn’t something I ever listened to much, it just isn’t part of my personal cultural background.

Dez 13, 2023, 3:14 am

>72 thorold: I can’t imagine.

Dez 13, 2023, 3:47 am

>69 thorold: This is not good for my OCD! I know that I have read novels that fit the description, but I can't seem to come up with a likely title... All I can think of is Balbala by Abdourahman A. Waberi because I've read it earlier this year, but it was published in 2002, which is too recent. One of the characters studies in the USSR, but there isn't much about Soviet propaganda/aid in the book...
It might come back to me later.

Dez 13, 2023, 5:57 am

>73 dianeham: LOL

>74 Dilara86: It’s nagging at me too. I had a slight sense of déjà vu when I read the Ibrahim book, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I’m probably going to have to find Moscow is not my Mecca and see if it rings bells.

Dez 14, 2023, 12:46 pm

A quirky little secondhand book my father dug out of his stash when he heard I’d been to Dearborn Michigan. He has no idea why or where he acquired it:

Strange Commissions for Henry Ford (1934) by H. F. Morton (UK, - )

A quirky little memoir in which an engineer working for Ford Motor Company in the UK recalls his experiences In the 1920s assisting Henry Ford with the acquisition of various interesting bits of industrial history to be transported across the Atlantic to take their place in Ford’s museum in Dearborn or the adjacent Greenfield village. It must have been an exciting time: it seems as though every time Morton traveled around Britain with Ford, there was a risk of the great man spotting something interesting and saying “get me one of those!” — whether it was a building-sized steam engine, a Cotswold cottage or a horse-drawn fire engine. Since Ford’s name never came up in the discussion, Morton often seems to have been able to buy historic machinery for the price of a modern replacement and a promise to cover the removal costs. Not always: the Science Museum proved reluctant to let Stephenson’s ‘Rocket’ go, but Robert Stephenson and Co. were still in business and quite happy to build a replica for the cost of materials and a bit of publicity. Fun!

Dez 14, 2023, 4:21 pm

>76 thorold: A good example of why we should hold on to those stashes!

Dez 16, 2023, 10:23 am

From the TBR pile. I think this was a random find from a Little Library.

Sulamith Mingedö, der Doktor und die Laus (1977, 1994) by Erwin Strittmatter (DDR, 1912-1994)


Erwin Strittmatter, author of the most popular East German novel, Ole Bienkopp, found his way into literature from a rural working-class background. In his early life he worked (among other things) as a baker, chauffeur, groom, and rabbit breeder. His autobiographical “nightingale stories” explore this colourful background and the way it made him into a writer. They’ve been published in various different combinations: this collection brings together three of them.

“Zirkus Wind” looks — from the perspective of a small boy determined to escape from a village community into a more exciting life— at the career of someone who is trying to do the opposite, the circus performer Wind who wants to settle down to ordinary domesticity with a farm-girl, but can’t help breaking out into show-business again. In “Sulamith Mingedö” the young narrator has already taken a tentative step into creative writing when he sees the fascinating circus child Sulamith humiliated in the village school. In the longest piece, “Tina Babe”, the narrator is a young man sent to Thuringia in the 1930s to work for two “artistic ladies” who are setting up an angora rabbit farm. We watch his efforts to educate himself on the quiet, to escape the clutches of his husband-hunting co-worker, and to get close to his employers’ sophisticated friend Miss Babe, a Published Novelist. Of course it all goes wrong and gets tied up with the political background of those days.

Lovely warm, atmospheric writing laced with irony and a certain amount of gentle mockery of his younger self, a convincing description of the way some people just can’t help becoming writers, even in the most unfavourable circumstances.

Dez 16, 2023, 10:36 am

>78 thorold: This sounds quite lovely. Not sure what I'll be able to find in English.

Dez 23, 2023, 9:40 am

A leftover from my pilgrimage to Leipzig last year:

Mendelssohn: a life in music (2005) by R. Larry Todd (US, 1952- )


I grew up with the idea that Mendelssohn was a lightweight composer of safe, Protestant, middle-class, Victorian music, who could safely be ignored apart from a few concert hall crowd-pleasers like Fingal’s Cave and the incidental music for A midsummer night’s dream .
Wrong, of course, as I realised a few years ago when I read about Robert and Clara Schumann and came to see what a key part Mendelssohn had played in the musical life of their time, and even more so when I spent a week at a chamber music festival dedicated to the Schumanns and Fanny and Felix Mendelssohn.

Professor Todd delivers what his title suggests, a fairly detailed biography of Felix with at least a brief analysis of every bit of music he wrote, plus the parallel story of his sister’s life and work and an extensive introduction to the Mendelssohn family background: Felix’s grandfather Moses, the enlightenment philosopher and friend of Lessing; his great-grandfather on the other side, Daniel Itzig, the banker who helped Frederick the Great pay for his military campaigns; and his many aunts and uncles with connections to all parts of German culture (and beyond: an uncle by marriage was Jakob Bartholdy whose Roman house was decorated with the famous Nazarene frescos).

There were moments when I was almost glad that Fanny and Felix died so cruelly early. Imagine how long this book might have been had they lived into their seventies… But it is all good stuff, a sober summing up of the evidence without any fanciful speculation and a solid focus on the music, although Todd does point out where others have developed theories about things like Felix’s alleged search for reconciliation with Judaism (unlikely on the face of it, given how committed he was to Lutheran Protestantism) or his possible affair with the singer Jenny Lind.

The core of Todd’s picture of Mendelssohn is with his interest in older music, especially that of J S Bach. Todd makes a good case for him as the founder of the view of Bach as the cornerstone of German musical history, and development of the idea of a canon— Bach and Handel in the baroque, Haydn and Mozart in the classical period, and Beethoven and Weber as founders of romanticism. Of course, Mendelssohn was also the founder of the first modern musical higher education establishment, the Leipzig Conservatoire.

We don’t get too much on ‘Fanny vs. Felix’ — there’s just the basic outline of how first their father and then Felix himself discouraged Fanny from publishing her compositions or performing outside the family circle, behaviour that would somehow be considered inappropriate to her social position (but was fine for Felix’s friend and colleague Clara Wieck/Schumann, who was a notch further down the social scale). Some of Fanny’s early songs were published under her brother’s name. When she eventually did publish some works on her own initiative in the last year of her life, Felix seems to have taken a few deep breaths before writing to express his support.

I listened to quite a bit of Mendelssohn as I was reading this book, but it still left me with a substantial listening list to get on with. Starting with a proper go at the two big oratorios…

Editado: Dez 23, 2023, 11:03 am

>80 thorold: That looks really interesting. Thanks. My mother simply loved Mendelssohn's "Italian Symphony," and therefore I more or less know at least the first movement by heart. (She worked for an architect and would bring home typing of building plans which she banged through on the household manual Royal while cranking up the Italian Symphony and then The Mikado.)

Editado: Dez 24, 2023, 4:42 am

>81 rocketjk: Nice! Typing was a comforting noise in my childhood too. My father learned touch-typing in the army and would thunder away at the keyboard in the evenings preparing work for next day’s classes.

Mendelssohn to Schubert! … I came across veteran East German writer Helga Schubert a couple of years ago through Vom Aufstehen, her novel about old age and her relationship with her mother, which won the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize in 2020. But of course she had been writing for a long time before that: this is her debut short story collection from 1975.

Lauter Leben (1975,2022) by Helga Schubert (DDR, 1940- )


A set of delicate, ironically observed sketches of ordinary people in East Germany. Schubert digs deep into characters rather in the way a documentary film maker might, by objective observation of their routines or by letting them talk without narratorial intervention. You can tell she’s a psychotherapist in her day job. The result is very literary and very human, sympathetic but not without criticism of the world that allows bad things to happen to such decent people. And often delicately funny.

Dez 24, 2023, 5:35 am

>80 thorold: Happy Listening

Dez 24, 2023, 8:54 am

I somehow missed your Q4 thread and just found it by chance a few days ago. I enjoyed catching up!
I remember I read 5139::Lighthousekeeping a long time ago and think I did not get it, I have been thinking about a reread. Following your review, I might do so earlier than expected!

Dez 26, 2023, 8:06 am

Lighthousekeeping seems to be the book from this thread that tickled most other CR members’ memories. Obviously I wasn’t the only one to miss it at the time.

My 2024 thread is up now, but there will probably be on or two more books before the end of the year:

Editado: Dez 30, 2023, 4:06 am

One more — a 2023 Christmas gift, and a follow-up from our visit to Louis Bromfield's Malabar Farm while I was in Ohio:

Pleasant Valley (1945) by Louis Bromfield (US, 1896-1956)


When the approach of war forced bestselling novelist Louis Bromfield to leave France in the late thirties, he chose to settle with his family in the area where he had grown up, near Mansfield, Ohio. In this book he writes about the group of farms he bought to live on and work, and his approach to restoring the soil from the erosion and damage caused by the non-sustainable farming techniques of some of his predecessors there. There is a lot about mulch and legumes and water management and the evils of deep ploughing, but there are also Bromfield’s lyrical reflections on the nature of Ohio, and on some of his less destructive neighbours (plus some distinguished fore-runners, like the semi-legendary Johnny Appleseed), as well as some rather less measured reflections on the evils of mid-20th century American society (as compared to France, for instance).

Sometimes Bromfield seems to forget that he’s a wealthy and well-connected man who can afford to do experimental agriculture at a time of food and labour shortages, and sees himself as though he were some kind of peasant revolutionary, so the book can be a bit irritating, but elsewhere it is very interesting to see his way of working, always taking a close look at what might be going on when something they have done on the farm produces a surprisingly good or bad result. It’s not quite rigorous scientific testing, but obviously a worthwhile attempt at bringing scientific methods into everyday work. Bromfield’s key mantra seems to be about alertness to the specific local factors that often mean a textbook technique may not be the most appropriate for the place where you happen to be farming.

I’m not an expert on organic farming, but I found this very interesting, and I enjoyed sharing the great pleasure Bromfield obviously took in doing a good job in a lovely place.

Malabar Farm (now a State Park) in October 2023

Dez 31, 2023, 12:02 pm

Fireworks are exploding all around me already, so this is almost certainly the last book I'll finish in 2023. Another Christmas gift, this time chosen for me by my favourite niece, who meant well...

The House in the Cerulean Sea (2021-09-16) by T J Klune (USA, 1982- )


A pleasant, heart-warming YA fantasy story about a bureaucrat who is sent to report on some ‘different’ (magical) kids living in a quirky orphanage on a remote island, and who ends up being jolted out of his official detachment into wanting to join their family.

It’s thoroughly well-meaning, of course, and there are some nice characters and a few clever bits of dialogue, but overall it struck me as rather didactic and heavy-handed, with a plot that advanced on tram-rails that were invariably visible for a long distance ahead, and minor characters from central casting. Obviously intended for rather younger readers than me, but even so, I think it could have used a touch more lightness and subtlety.

Oddly, the one aspect of the book that seemed to be most heavily trailed on the back cover, the gay love-story, is also the one bit of the book that is handled so discreetly that you might not even see it coming if you hadn't been warned about it. On page 150 you unexpectedly learn — with no supporting context — that the main character used to get turned on by his shirtless neighbour mowing the lawn. 250 pages later, and without much in the way of prior courtship, he is getting married to another man (not the shirtless neighbour).

Dez 31, 2023, 1:15 pm

I liked it when I read it a while back, when I was still teaching kids with special needs. I liked the way the bureaucrat changed gradually and stood up for them The whole idea of acceptance is importatnt for any minority group, So I didn't mind some of the heavy handed plot, and really loved the characters of the kids (I had at least two kids who who resembled the one known as the antichrist, and loved his development. I think there was more lightness in the end (and material for a sequel of course,which I couldnt finish) and a bit of hope that people can change. But you are right, too diadactic, and very visible plot lines. It spoke to me in some ways, but not planning on reading any of the series

Jan 1, 2:48 am

…and that’s it for 2023!

I don’t really need a stats post any more, because there’s the glossy new “Year in Review” page that tells me I read 153 books and added 163 to my library in 2023.

Of course I will probably expand on that, because it doesn’t cover everything I usually track..

Anyway, the story goes on in my first 2024 thread:

Happy New Year to all!