Dear Dakota

I know that you and others are continuing the challenge for another month, but I knew that taking on a third month would be one month too many this year. I made a good call, as it has turned out.  March is going to be super busy with a trip to London next weekend for the Folio Festival and reading prep for Glasgow’s Aye Write festival which this year has the best programme it has ever had.  

I’ve read some really good books over the past two months, deviating only once from my TBR to read The Rosie Project prior to a surprise author event at Motherwell Library. I’m calling that a legitimate exception.  Final tally 13 books read in their entirety, 1 audio book completed, 1 book abandoned and 4 others started.  Here’s a picture of all the lovely books that are no  longer pining for attention in my TBR mountain range.  Don’t they look lovely?


There’s not a bad book among them but are there any that I feel like shouting from the rooftops about?  Indeed there are: J David Simons, An Exquisite Sense of What Is Beautiful; Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend and Amity Gaige’s Schroder (review forthcoming). 

Thank you, Dakota (and James) for shepherding us to our unread books.  Right now though, it’s time to turn my attention to the lovely new books that have found their way to my stacks.  I put them in a box out of sight and temptation’s way until this afternoon when I counted them.  69.  All I can say in my defence is that I had a lot of vouchers to spend at the beginning of the year and publishers have been very generous.

I’d best get cracking although even with the best intentions, and maybe a speed reading course, I expect some of these new books may need to wait until next year’s TBR dare. I do hope you’ll get us all to play again.

Happy book snacking.


I have challenged myself to read 7 big books (i.e more than 450 pages) before the blog turns 8 in February 2015.

Big Book #1

My library book group decided to get in on the act by assigning John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany.  We broke it into two discussions, which turned into an interesting exercise. Surprisingly only two of our twelve had read it before and at our first discussion, they were the book’s only defenders.  I tried very hard to sit on the fence but failed miserably.  At that point in time I recall feeling that Owen Meany, the dwarf with the big voice, was a poor man’s Oscar Matzerath (from Grass’s The Tin Drum).  I felt alienated from him because of the disgraceful way he treated his parents at the nativity play.  Also it was obvious that he was being set up for a sacrifice and I felt that the point and the symbols and motifs were being overplayed.   I’ve got it, I cried to myself multiple times. Now Irving, just get on with it!

This was one of those books that when I put it down, I didn’t want to pick up again.  Nor would I have done so, if not for book group.  But here’s the thing. I breezed through the second half which for all the heavy-handed foreshadowing in the first half contained a number of surprises and what I suspect are unforgettable scenes.  Diamond hand-saw, anyone?  And the nature of Owen’s sacrifice – didn’t see that coming at all.

I came to appreciate Irving’s skill and the point of those incessant motifs.  The humour came through.  I began to smile, often in retrospect, but also to weep for poor John, his life blighted by the loss of his friend, seeking his consolation in the novels of Thomas Hardy and their sense of tragic fatalism.   Yes, the second half pulls it all together quite magnificently and I was really intrigued by the serendipitous parallels with Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend.   I won’t rule out a reread sometime in the future,  even if I’m in no rush to read more Irving.


Big Book #2

I’m looking forward to attending the Folio Festival in London in a week’s time, where Sergio De La Pava will be talking about Folio Prize Shortlisted  A Naked Singularity (864 pages); my reading experience of which could not be more different from Irving’s novel.  I began reading on Sunday and quickly raced through 170 highly-entertaining pages replete with snappy dialogue describing the sometimes surreal logic within the New York judicial system.  2 reading sessions later and I’m bogged down on page 222 in some debate about drug-trafficking.  There have already been a couple of other debates which I thought to gloss over and I realise this is the pattern of things to come.  In fact, the narrator points this out in the very first digression of the book. From page 11:

And this is as good a time as any for you, gentle readers, to learn that I can wander a bit while storytelling so that the very imminent digressive passage on the judicial creation of Miranda warnings can be entirely skipped by the uncurious without the slightest loss of narrative stream.

It took until page 222 to contemplate skimming but that’s only a quarter of the way through the book.  I’ve  decided that’s far too soon and the book’s not worth completing on that basis.  Perhaps the author can convince me otherwise on 9th March.  (To be continued …. maybe …)

i’m already wondering whether I ought to change the terms of my challenge to attempt to read 7 big books …..

Translated from Hungarian by Len Rix (2006)

I hadn’t intended for Antal Szerb’s debut novel to be my final read during Pushkin Press Fortnight – it was meant to be his second, Journey by Moonlight.  However, Gaskella had such fun with this, I decided to bump it up the TBR.  

Let me say from the off, I didn’t have quite as much fun as Gaskella. I found the darker undercurrents not only perturbing, but at odds with its farcical tone and its Carry On sexism.  As a result I wasn’t sure exactly how to approach the book – as a comedy or as a philosophical work about the darker side of man’s desires and spirituality. 

Janos Bátky, a Hungarian scholar who specialises in occult Rosacrucian texts, is invited by the Earl of Gwynedd to study the rare manuscripts, that are in his possession. Without further ado, Bátky finds himself making the acquaintance of some very dodgy characters – George Maloney, who attaches himself in, of all places, the reading room of the British Museum, and a certain Mrs St. Claire, who gives him a ring to pass onto the Earl.  Turns out Bátky has placed himself at the centre of a plot to kill the Earl and under more than a soupçon of suspicion …..

When he gets to Wales, events take a sinister and gothic turn.  The Earl evades another attempt on his life but refuses to go to the police.   A mysterious torch-brandishing horseman gallops around at night, and the crypt beneath Pendragon castle reveals an empty tomb.  Folklore, or the Pendragon legend, has it that this is Asaph Pendragon, the original Rosacrux, who rises from his sleep to defend his legacy in times of great danger.  And then an assassin falls from a balcony, his neck broken before he ever hits the ground …

At which point, Bátky finds himself sent back to London to retrieve a manuscript for the Earl.  The assassins seek to recruit him by fair means and femme fatale. The cat and mouse chase – the mouse being the Earl – continues for so long that I felt nothing of any consequence was to come of it.  Then suddenly a child is abducted, the implication being a child sacrifice is needed.  What for? I was never quite sure because devilry was involved and it was time to skim.

Thus I lost the plot – no, sorry, the thread, and chose to remain lost as the novel came to a dark and violent denouement, completely at odds with the light-hearted and witty romp that forms its core. It’s generally accepted that this novel is a satirical blend of gothic and romantic genres, crossed with murder mystery.  But – to quote from the blurb - beneath the surface, the reader becomes aware of a steely intelligence probing moral, psychological and religious questions, or as Janos Bátky explains: 

There are some things that have an inner truth, but become nonsense when spoken …. We live simultaneously in two worlds, and there are two levels of meaning.  One can be understood by everyone, the other is beyond words, and is utterly horrible.

A more curious mix, I never did encounter.


Ellen Ullman began her IT career in 1980.  As mine began in 1983, there was a certain amount of cross-over and familiarity with the situations she describes in her 1996 memoir Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents, republished by Pushkin Press in 2013.  I won’t go into detail here but I do recommend this books for IT afficionados.  It is funny in a knowing-smile kind of way and normalises the parallel universe that is a life in IT (in the sense that someone else is using the vocabulary that is every day to an IT office.) It also made me reflect on career choices and the paths she chose that I didn’t.  OK she had a head-start on me and was located in Silicon Valley while I was in Europe and certainly not on the bleeding-edge.  But I could have gone freelance and I could have chosen not to become a non-technical manager.  Using Ullman’s analogy, I settled for marriage..  Whereas the footloose and fancy-free contractor is free to adventure where she will, taking advantage of the many start-up stock-options, accruing great wealth and losing it again in various market crashes.  I shall now assume that the losses where recouped, allowing Ullman the time to turn her many talents to writing.

Even though Ullman was (remains) a high-flyer, I recognised many situations.  Chuckled particularly about the meeting when she was asked to produce an intranet and needed to – in my terminology  - “wing it” to the project sponsors.  Intranets may now be taken for granted, but it’s still the case that IT people have to give a confident impression of knowing what they’re doing.  Research and the manuals come later and every day is still a learning curve. I liked too the description of the special “herding cats” skill set required of IT managers when dealing with programmers … But we’d best move on swiftly.  I still have staff and you never know who might be reading this.

Discussing Ullman’s second book and first novel, The Bug (2002), should place me on safer ground. Coming to it straight from the memoir, it’s obvious that this is a fictionalised account of some key experiences from the early days in the development of graphical user interfaces. Some experiences in the memoir are directly transposed to the novel which has as its main antagonist, UI-1017, the 1017th bug discovered in the development of a user interface, which takes over a year to eliminate.  During which time, management of the start-up company is transferred to the venture capitalists,  rivalries between the programmers and the despised testers come to a head, and the technical lead is driven to despair.  Professional angst unleashed by the bug is parallelled by torment in his private life.  Imagine if you will a double helix downward spiral and I can only be thankful that the most elusive bug I had to fix was found after only 10 working days of combing through a 300 page COBOL programme. It was a proverbial missing full stop. So efficient in its havoc-creating capability and yet almost invisible.  Like the tester who finally nails the fictional bug, I had my EUREKA! moment in the office that day too.

In her afterword, Ullman explains her approach. System workings are described using simile and metaphor which are associative in nature, rather than precise.  A certain degree of accuracy has therefore been sacrificed in the interest of making systems comprehensible and interesting to the non-technical reader.  There are lots of reviews on Amazon suggesting that she has succeeded.  I felt that the novel got bogged down in technicalities at times but that these became more fascinating as the conclusion approached.  As an (ex-)techie I was interested in the technical resolution.  In the end more so, than in the human dilemmas. So, although I enjoyed the novel, I can’t with hand on heart recommend this to a general literary reader – even if there is a very creative application of Casaubon’s Key to All Mythologies.  I think we’re firmly in the region of cult novels here.  Nothing wrong with that and if you like to mix your IT with fiction, this is the book for you.

Close to the Machine: Technophilia and its Discontents 3stars.GIF /   The Bug 35_stars.GIF

I cannot let Pushkin Press Fortnight pass without profuse thanks to Pushkin Press for its dedication to bringing the works of Stefan Zweig back into the anglophone consciousness  I’ve written about his wonderful short stories here and here.  Zweig was also a prolific non-fiction writer and Pushkin Press has been republishing many of his fine biographies in recent years. Of course I’ve been collecting them.  It was Zweig’s biography of Mary, Queen of Scots, Maria Stuart, that accompanied my move from Germany to Scotland many years ago.

Today, however, I will concentrate on the first piece in the volume Mental Healers: Mesmer, Eddy, Freud.  Zweig’s portrayal of Franz Anton Mesmer is highly sympathetic, showing his subject to be an honourable philanthropic man, whose destiny was of one born out of the due time.  His theory of “animal magnetism” involved, after he had dispensed with the use of magnets, the transference of energy from himself to his patients and the induction of a psychological crisis beneficial to healing.   I’m using Mesmer’s vocabulary there which even now sounds outlandish, perhaps a little uncanny.  With alternative therapies still struggling for professional acceptance in our modern world, it’s no wonder the 18th-century Viennese establishment hounded him from the city, the scandal of the blind pianist being the final straw.

Zweig is at pains to point out that Mesmer was a bona fide physician and was not indulging in quackery.  He practised according to a method even if he couldn’t explain it sufficiently to his detractors.  But did he heal the pianist Maria Theresia Paradies as he claimed? Zweig is even-handed in this regard pointing out that she never saw again once she had left his care.  And yet there is report written by her father, who was eventually bullied into removing his daughter from Mesmer’s hospital, which contains so poignant a description of the gradual rediscovery of the world of light ….. it would need a greater imaginative writer and psychologist than either poor old Herr Paradies or the practical minded Mesmer to invent such subtle observations and artificially to excogitate what the patient is alleged to  have said about her psychological moods.

That invention or reimagination is the core of Alissa Walser’s Mesmerized.  Reading over the contemporaneous report quoted in Zweig’s essay, I am convinced it was source material for the novel, which is also sympathetic to Mesmer, while at the same time showing human imperfection here and there. Walser does what Zweig cannot (at least in an essay).  She takes us into into the minds of both Mesmer and his patient using broken sentences.  Staccato phrases. An indirect stream of consciousness, which is not dissimilar to the voice within my own head.  No surprise, then, that I liked it … very much.  The story is made even more interesting by the addition of two female characters; Mesmer’s renegade maid, Kaline, and his older wife.  Zweig mentions the latter but only in her role as a rich widow.  Walser shows the frustrations she must have experienced as she and Mesmer were increasingly shunned by Viennese society and also the irony of a man who could manage the hysteria of his patients but not the passionate outbursts of his wife.  

Mesmer was also an accomplished musician and, as such, understood the effects of music on mood and well-being.  Could it have been the effects of sound waves on the human psyche that convinced Mesmer of the existence of other invisible energies, the energy he called “animal magnetism”?  Do we have another name for it now?  The irony is that mesmerism (hypnosis) was unknown to Mesmer!  Zweig explains Mesmer was a forerunner, tapping into new knowledge but not fully understanding it himself.  It was one of his French followers, Puységur, who made the breakthrough and opened the doors to psychoanalysis.

Now that’s a fascinating subject in itself and I look forward to reading the other essays in Zweig’s collection.  More relevant to this blog, however, is the reading trail that leads from Mesmer and Puységur directly to the German Romantics. To quote Zweig once more: Romance was no longer to be sought under druidical oak trees, or in the world of the “little folk”; extraordinary adventures could now find their setting in the sublunary sphere between dreaming and waking, between willing and compulsion. He mentions such literary luminaries as Kleist, Hoffmann, Tieck, Bretano, who pressed forward to the exploration of the bizarre, fantastic, and gruesome realm.  Given that my book of 2013 explored similar terrain, and left me wanting more, this is a path that I shall meander along for a little while longer.

… I shall give away 7 items.

2 sets of 3 book marks which are perfect for animal-loving bookworms.  I also have a copy of my favourite novel of 2013 to give away.  I can’t recommend Patrick Flanery’s Fallen Land highly enough.  I stand by every word of my review. (I tried so hard not to gush, but failed miserably.)

This giveaway is part is the 10th Literary Giveaway Blog Hop organised by Leeswammes.  To enter, simply leave a comment telling me whether you’d like to win a set of bookmarks, the book, or both.  

Once you’ve done that, hop around other participating blogs, listed below.  Have fun!  

Competition open worldwide. Winners to be announced on 12th Feb 2014.

Linky List:

  1. Leeswammes
  2. Seaside Book Nook
  3. Booklover Book Reviews
  4. Biblionomad
  5. Laurie Here
  6. The Well-Read Redhead (US/CA)
  7. River City Reading
  8. GirlVsBookshelf
  9. Ciska’s Book Chest
  10. The Book Stop
  11. Ragdoll Books Blog
  12. Nishita’s Rants and Raves
  13. Lucybird’s Book Blog
  14. Reading World (N-America)
  15. Journey Through Books
  16. Readerbuzz
  17. Always With a Book (US)
  18. 52 Books or Bust (N.Am./UK)
  19. Guiltless Reading (US/CA)
  20. Book-alicious Mama (US)
  21. Wensend
  22. Books Speak Volumes
  23. Words for Worms
  24. The Relentless Reader
  25. A Lovely Bookshelf on the Wall (US)
  1. Fourth Street Review
  2. Vailia’s Page Turner
  3. The Little Reader Library
  4. Lost Generation Reader
  5. Heavenali
  6. Roof Beam Reader
  7. Mythical Books
  8. Word by Word
  9. The Misfortune of Knowing
  10. Aymaran Shadow > Behind The Scenes
  11. The Things You Can Read (US)
  12. Bay State Reader’s Advisory
  13. Curiosity Killed the Bookworm
  14. Lizzy’s Literary Life
  15. Books Can Save a Life (N. America)
  16. Words And Peace (US)
  17. The Book Club Blog

…. and all grown-up as a blogger, big books no longer frighten me.   And so, I challenge myself to read seven big books before I am eight!  

Sample selection. Actual books read may be entirely different.

For the purposes of this challenge, a big book has 450 pages or more. Reviews will obviously become less frequent in the interim …. 


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