Travel with books – Vienna

To know more about this project, and for image credits for the button, please read the Travel with books project page.

Vienna is my second take at this project, and it took me ages to get down and write this post. Oh well, I am nothing if not disorganized! I ended up reading 7 books based (at least partly) in Vienna, which I visited last summer. Disclaimer: I know Vienna better than the 10 days spent there last summer, seeing as I used to live there and visited regularly ever since. Yet this project actually opened my eyes on something, and I am glad it did!

The Vienna Art History Museum towards sunset

My reading list:

Links are to my thoughts about each book, asterisks are books that are only partly set in Vienna. Papierkrieg is only available in German.

Vienna as seen from the Belvedere Palace Gardens

The books I read are very different from one another, but in none of them will you find the Imperial Vienna of palaces and music that most tourists are regularly shown. The only one vaguely hinting at that kind of world is Roth’s novel, which in fact is a strong critique of everything that society turned into.

It strikes me as odd, thinking about it now, that the two books by Austrian authors I read (Roth’s and Mucha’s) are the two that most mercilessly describe the bad faces and the dark corners of the Viennese society of their age. There is no hiding here, no way of embellishing things, no golden façade. You may well visit Princess Sissi’s palaces and listen to Mozart concerts, but that’s makes you the most cliché of tourists.

Inside the Rathaus: a detail of the luxurious ceiling

Now, the books I read by non-Austrian authors seem to be connected by something else: the presence in Vienna of Jews. In People of the Book it’s a given, but the Viennese section of Psalm at Journey’s End is also focused on a Jewish family, not to mention A Death in Vienna, which has the Jewish community and Austria’s Nazi past as the core of the story. (There may or may not be Jews in The Drawing of the Dark, but they do appear as side characters in Radetzky March.)

I had not realized it before, but there still is a strong Jewish community in Vienna — and a strong deployment of police in the synagogue area on Saturday mornings. There are still strong feelings, basically in the shape of trying to forget all about it / never mention anything. Austrian try hard to forget their role in the Shoah, the way you try not to think about a bad memory. Brooks captured it well in her book:

I noticed that when I walked with him near the Hofburg, he always went out of his way to avoid Heldenplatz, the Hero’s Square. It was only much later that I came across the famous picture of that square, taken in March 1938. In the photograph, it is packed with people, some of them clinging to the gigantic equestrian statues to get a better view, all of them cheering as Hitler announced the incorporation of his birth nation into the Third Reich.

Of course I’m not saying that Austrian don’t accept their responsibility, or that the subject is taboo, but rather that they try to ignore the elephant in the room. A friend of mine, who also used to live in Vienna, noticed that Viennese people never mention the monument to the Austrian victims of the Shoah, and if someone mentions it, they’ll say it’s ugly. The monument represents a library the books of which cannot be read, as a memorial to the huge amount of Jewish wisdom and learning that was lost in the Shoah. I agree it is ugly, but willingly so: it’s meant to be disturbing, as the memory of all that happened to the Jews is disturbing.

The Memorial to the Austrian Jewish victims of the Shoah

On the square, there is a sign explaining the monument, and it reads as follows (capitalization as is in the original):

The “Memorial to the Austrian Jewish Victims of the Shoah” reminds us of the 65,000 jews murdered during the Nazi regime. The outer sides of the reinforced concrete cube by british artist Rachel Whiteread (*1963) present themselves as library shelves. 41 names of places where Austrian jews were murdered are engraved around the bottom of the monument. The object is a symbol for the jewish culture of books, which not only offers a sphere of refuge, but also stands as a living sign for the surviving jewish mind.

A detail of the books

I’d like to finish with another reading list, of more books about Vienna that I wish I may read sometime:

  • In My Mother’s House by Margaret McMullan
  • The Fig Eater by Jody Shields
  • The Seven-Per-Cent Solution by Nicholas Meyer
  • An Equal Music by Vikram Seth
  • The Chess Machine by Robert Löhr
  • Marrying Mozart by Stephanie Cowell

And a more cheerful image to leave you with:

No caption needed, I guess: it's the Giant Wheel at Prater

Year’s end: short thoughts on my latest reads

I’m more or less back. (Meaning: after all the traveling of December, I’m still not back home, but will be blogging more often.) Meanwhile, it’s the end of the year and everyone else has been publishing stats and projects… I have less than 12 hours to catch up. And I need to jot down my thoughts on the last books I read this year, wrap-up challenges, set down reading goals for 2012, compile yearly stats… not to mention finish one last book, prepare the dinner for New Year’s Eve and spend time with my family (who is right now chatting away in the next room).

Let’s see how far I’ll get.

As a start, here’s some very short thoughts about my latest reads.


The book: The Last Cato, by Matilde asensi, in the Italian translation by Andrea Carlo Cappi, 483 pages.

My thoughts: a quick and quite engrossing read, this book falls exactly halfway between The Da Vinci Code and Fucault’s Pendulum, as it can boast a conspirational plot while being neither silly as the former, nor too learned as the latter.

Hidden jewel: use of the Divine Comedy as a code for conspirators through the centuries

Pet peeve: a nun who understands nothing of vocation

Counts as: I read this for the Italy in books challenge


The book: the “Short Guide to Great European Wines” is the chapter about wines from Alexandre Dumas’ Great Dictionary of Cuisine. It was published in Italian as a self-standing book, translated by Augusta Scacchi, 105 pages.

My thoughts: rarely have I read something so useless. It seems written without a general plan, as if the author was simply jotting down any thought about wine as it crossed his mind. It may have been better inside a wider work, but I sincerely doubt it.

Hidden (very hidden) jewel: a few nice anecdotes, like the story of the Est! Est! Est!

Pet peeve: machism (the book shows its age)

Counts as: One! Two! Theme! challenge – wine


The book: Erik Fosnes Hansen, Psalm at Journey’s End, in the Italian translation by Margherita Podestà Heir, 476 pages.

My thoughts: this book is a little jewel, and I am sad that I don’t have the time to tell you more about it. It brings together the stories of very different men from different countries and different backgrounds, only put together by the fateful destiny of being aboard the Titanic in its first and last voyage. It’s like a majestic fresco, colorful and full of life and facets. It’s one of those books that make reading worthwile.

Hidden jewel: music!

Pet peeve: the Titanic is only a pretext to bring the characters together, and quite useless in the general economy of the book, as these are not the real musicians who were onboard, but other, completely invented characters.

Book connections: it mentions the Rubaiyat and features a pianist without a name


The book: The Other Foot of the Mermaid, by Mia Couto, Portuguese original version, 482 pages

My thoughts: this book is very African. Or at least I think it is, because it’s so far removed from my own feeling that I could only scrape its surface in terms of understanding. It’s strange and different, and while beautiful it remains full of things that are not part of any culture I know.

Hidden jewel: the book tells a major story, interwoven with a second one which comes from manuscripts read by the characters. The publisher used a different paper with a different color and texture and a different typeface for these parts.

Pet peeve: footnotes that explained almost nothing

Counts as: I want more challenge

Book: People of the Book

The book: People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks

The edition: Harper Perennial paperback, 372 pages, plus added material (interviews and information about the author, reading suggestions and more)

The story: Australian conservator Hannah is called to work on the suddenly resurfacing Sarajevo Haggadah in 1996. Through the samples she finds within the book, a fictionalized account of its story is reconstructed, each chapter bringing us further and further back in time and across Europe.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: I first read this book a couple of years ago, and while I did not write down my thoughts, I can tell you exactly how I felt: I loved the historical fiction, and I had little patience for the general frame, the story of Hannah in modern times.
And on rereading, I still feel the same way. The historical parts are well done, each a whole world in the same way that each page of a miniatured manuscript encloses a whole world. In the few pages dedicated to each of this stories, the author was able to recreate a full world, a reality with its intrigues, passions, powers, and characters who each had a full and well-rounded story behind them.
Too bad that the same ability is not evident in the frame story, which seemed to be there just to grasp for an easy happy end. I had even less patience for Hannah’s chapters on this second reading — everything was either too predictable or too deus-ex-machina, and there is so much intrigue and things happening, but none of it rings true. Still, I would love to go back and enjoy the small stories any time, so it’s still a good book!

In the author’s own words: I loved the parts on conservation work, such as this on colors:

The snow light flared on brightness. Blue: intense as a midsummer sky, obtained from grinding precious lapis lazuli carried by camel caravan all the way from the mountains of Afghanistan. White: pure, creamy, opaque. Less glamorous, more complicated than the blue. At that time it would still have been made according to the method discovered by ancient Egyptians. You cover lead bars with the dregs of old wine and seal them up in a shed full of animal dung. I’d done it once, in my mother’s greenhouse in Bellevue Hill. She’d had a load of manure delivered, and I couldn’t resist. The acid in the vinegary wine converts lead to its acetate, which in turn combines with the carbon dioxide released by the dung to make basic white lead carbonate, PbCO3. My mother pitched a fit about it, of course. Said she couldn’t stand to go near her bloody prize orchids for weeks.

I turned a page. More dazzle. The illuminations were beautiful, but I didn’t allow myself to look at them as art. Not yet. First I had to understand them as chemicals. There was yellow, made of saffron. That beautiful autumn flower, Crocus sativus Linnaeus, each with just three tiny precious stigmas, had been a prized luxury then and remained one, still. Even if we now know that the rich color comes from a carotene, crocin, with a molecular structure of 44 carbon, 64 hydrogen, and 24 oxygen, we still haven’t synthesized a substitute as complex and as beautiful. There was malachite green, and red; the intense red known as worm scarlet — tola’at shani in Hebrew — extracted from tree-dwelling insects, crushed up and boiled in lye. Later, when alchemists learned how to make a similar red from sulfur and mercury, they still named the color “little worm” — vermiculum. Some things don’t change: we call it vermilion even today.

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: I’d like to understand more about the concept of kosher.

Read this if: if you like historical fiction. Also, if you like novels that insert smaller stories into a general frame-story, in the way of The Gargoyle or even The Joy Luck Club

Counts as: Travel with Books – Vienna

Book: Papierkrieg


The book: Papierkrieg (for translation of this title see below), by Martin Mucha

The edition: German (original) edition as published by Gmeiner Verlag, 372 pages

The story: how an underpaid philologist sees a drunken girl with a revolver stumble out of the building he lives in, decides to drive her home hoping to get a money reward (or the chance to blackmail her family), and ends up facing a Vienna-wide intrigue involving Russian mafia and art smugglers. Not to worry, though, with a past like his, he is tough enough.

My experience with the book & my thoughts: when I was in Vienna last summer I discovered a series of books published by German publisher Gmeiner Verlag and set in Vienna and in other Austrian locales. (While writing this review I discovered they have a search function on their website to find novels based on where they are set!) The idea sounded great to me (especially so as I was looking for novels set in Vienna for my own reading project), but never having heard of them I was afraid that the books may be low-level, so I decided to buy only one. And I chose the one with beautiful books on the cover and a philologist (i.e. a word-nerd) as protagonist. I knew from the start that it was a crime novel in hard-boiled tradition, i.e. not my cup of tea, but that never stopped me.
Well, guess what? I didn’t like it. It’s a real hard-boiled crime story with a lot of violence and blood and sudden twists. (And I’m at loss as to how to judge it properly.) But at the same time it could be worse: it’s a quick read, and a real romp through all the different levels of Viennese society with its quirks and habits that you never really see as a tourist (or even as an expat).

The part with spoilers: this may even be a given for hard-boiled, I’m not sure, but it disturbed me: how everyone connected with the crimes was somehow already connected to the protagonist (his neighbor, whom Arno has never met, is killed because of a game gone wrong in the gambling house of the old man who considers Arno his protégé, and after dealing in smuggled electronics with the company Arno has contacted by chance that morning?)

What I liked: the way the philologist registered the differences in speak and could recognize the origins of different characters though language alone. Also, very nice flashes of the Vienna I know (café life, Mozart-dressed people selling concert tickets, and so on).

What I didn’t like: almost everything else, but that’s because I don’t like the genre. Most of all I was disturbed by the way the underworld of Vienna is brought to the spotlight. I guess it’s all true (as the parts that I liked are true), but it still felt like washing dirty laundry in public.

Language & writing: be ready for a lot of Viennese dialect — many dialogs were partly lost to me because of that. And be ready for a lot of very detailed descriptions — this was an aspect that made me cringe: how many times do we need to read that he gets home, strips bare, gets in the shower, then puts on such and such clothes, chooses a CD from a never-ending collection, puts it in the CD-player, sits down to listen…

In the author’s own words: I don’t usually translate into English myself, but I feel that this quote gives the tone of the book very well, and that I can manage it, so here it is:

Vienna is where even foreigners are xenophobes.

About the German title: Papierkrieg is a German word usually translated as “paperwork” or “red tape”, but taken at literal value it means “paper war” and I think the title has both meanings and more. Also, here I found the following definition, taken from They have a word for it: a lighthearted lexicon of untranslatable words & phrases by Howard Rheingold (hello wishlist!):

Papierkrieg pah-PEER-kreeg (German) n. The annoyingly complicated bureaucratic paperwork required for making a complaint/ return/ insurance claim/ protesting a ticket/ petitioning for services, et cetera ad nauseam. Rheingold eloquently explains, “Papierkrieg is more deliberate than red tape. Bureaucracies produce red tape the way sawmills produce sawdust or cattle produce manure, as a natural and unwitting byproduct that has to be disposed of or waded through. Papierkrieg is a consciously created obstacle.”

Random link: this time you get a Papierkrieg(the word, not the book)-themed video (it’s in German, but don’t worry, the visual part is enough to make it worthwhile).

Read this if: if you like hard-boiled crimes, I guess you may enjoy it better than I did

Counts as: Travel With Books – Vienna

Book: The Drawing of the Dark

The book: The Drawing of the Dark, by Tim Powers

The edition: Del Rey Impact paperback, 324 pages

The story: aging sword-for-hire Brian Duffy reaches Vienna shortly before the Turk siege in 1529. He has been promised a job as bouncer in a local brewery, but it’s clear that something much more mysterious is at hand. And what does the famous Herzwesten beer have to do with saving the entire western world from the invading Turkish armies?

My experience with the book & my thoughts: when I bought this book, I had no idea what I was in for, but it was just as well because the book itself is different from anything else that I have ever read. It combines mythology and history to create a fantasy that is completely different from the usual. It reminded me a lot of American Gods for the way it treats myths (except of course I know it’s the other way round, because this one was written long before Gaiman’s), and then it takes the story built around those myths and steeps it in an historical (and well researched) context. And all this it does with grace and perfect balance. A little gem of a book, and I wish I had read this earlier!

The part with spoilers: I was expecting Epiphany to have a bigger role in saving the West (what with her name, and her father being a clairvoyant, and Lothario seeing some of Guinevere in her). Also, what’s the point of alternating the names Aurelius/Aurelianus if the name he tries to hide is another one? (Ooops, sorry! My bad for not checking twice. The name alternating in the book are Ambrosius/Aurelianus, and apparently Ambrosius is a given name for Merlin. Never knew that!)

What I liked: just about everything: characters, context, magic, myth, beer legends, and even a glimpse of my homelands! 🙂

What I didn’t like: I only wish I could read more of it, it was too short! Also, the edition I have has a cheap cover that creates this strange effect (and this was even before reading):

Language & writing: there’s a lot of strange (to me) words, but they’re all part of the “ambiance”, the historical setting.

In the author’s own words: this one may be a bit spoiler-y (not too much, really), but the idea is so good that I just had to share it:

“Listen, three thousand years before Christ was born, a people came out of Spain and spread across Europe. They were nomads, strangers wherever they went, but respected–nearly worshipped–because they brought with them the secret of beer-making. They spread the art of brewing with a missionary zeal–you can find their decorated beakers in graves from Sicily to the northern tip of Scotland. The fermented gift they brought to Europe is the basis of more beliefs than I dare tell you right now; but I will tell you that in the very oldest versions f the story it was beer, not fire, that Prometheus stole from the gods and brought to man.”

Links to better understand this book:

Random thought: why does everyone seem to like beer? I can’t stand it.

Random suggested reading: have a look at these etymology essays about beer and the rest: ale, ale(2), beer, mead, mead(2), booze and toasts.

Read this if: if you liked American Gods; also, if you are interested in Arthuriana or Norse mythology; and more generally if you like fantasy.

Counts as: Travel with books – Vienna