I can’t remember whether I’ve ever told the story behind my first (published) novel, Vienna Days.

Here goes.

I’ve always been fascinated by how people’s lives are shaped and/or changed by massive societal change.  Back in the early 1990s, this fascination was focused on the Secession Movement of the late 18th century in Vienna, and I wondered just how it would have felt to be someone who was a typical bourgeois, but over time got subverted by the changing times.

Of course, I’d done a lot of reading about 1880s Vienna (which is what sparked the whole thing) and the first thing that struck me was the fact that the suicide rate among young people in Vienna during this period was the highest ever recorded, and the highest in Europe as a whole.  So naturally, that became the first sentence of the novel.

The second thing to strike me was that when Crown Prince Rudolph, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire had committed suicide, his funeral procession was attended by tens of thousands of people because, as the story goes, nobody likes a good funeral more than the Viennese.  So of course that became the first scene of the novel.

A story idea then began to assert itself.  Imagine that a bourgeois young man became seduced by the non-conformist Secession movement, and in secret began to do something that, if discovered, would spell ruin for his career — but he did it anyway, because the allure of this new movement was irresistible.  But what could that be?

Luckily, I imagined that he would have considerable artistic talent, hitherto unrealized because of his studies, and that led him to secretly draw pornographic pictures.  But pictures of whom?

I had already put this protagonist into a coffee bar where he became involved with a group of ne’er-do-well artists, and one of the people involved with the group was a mysterious and beautiful young woman named Astrid.

I was rather stuck at that point, so I stopped writing to read about pornography of that period, in Erotica  (Charlotte Hill and William Wallace).

There I discovered the works of an anonymous Austrian artist, who had drawn his images in charcoal and cryptically signed his work “A1”.   Wait… “A” for someone named “Astrid”?  Why not?  All I had to do was change the time period of the art, from the 1930s back to the 1880s — easy-peasy.

So I wrote the rest of the thing in about two months (I still had an actual job at the time, which took out my writing time, damn it).

And here’s a sample of the “A1” charcoals:

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Reading Matters

For some reason, I’ve recently been reading French History, because why not?  I don’t know how it got started, but it did: and once started, I couldn’t stop.  Here’s the bibliography, so far.

The Collapse of the Third Republic — William Shirer

The Franco-Prussian War — Michael Howard

Dawn of the Belle Epoque — Mary McAuliffe

The Vertigo Years: Europe, 1900-1914 — Philipp Blom (re-read, because it’s brilliant)

The Marne, 1914: The Opening of World War I and the Battle That Changed the World — Holger H. Herwig (told from the German side)

The French Army and the First World War — Elizabeth Greenhalgh

France and the Après Guerre, 1918–1924 — Benjamin F. Martin

La Belle France: A Short History — Alistair Horne (I’m still busy with this one;  I’m only up to the succession of Henry II in 1547, so still a way to go.)

On deck:  France On The Brink — Jonathan Fenby

Yeah, that’s what’s been keeping me busy over the past three weeks.  All are well recommended except the last one (because I haven’t read it yet).

One last note:  I cannot recommend The Vertigo Years highly enough.  When people talk about the social- and psychological dislocation of the Information Age, you have to know that we’ve experienced it before:  when the Age of Speed dawned, in around 1900.  If you read no other book from the above list, this is the one.

That One Book

Onetime political prisoner Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe tells how one particular book kept her hopes up during her imprisonment in Teheran:

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has revealed how a copy of the novel The Handmaid’s Tale among other books allowed her to feel liberated while she was locked up in Iran’s notorious Evin prison.

Well, okay.  Considering how said dystopian novel is all about how a tyrannical government oppresses womyns, I guess that’s fair play (even though the actual Iranian Muslim government is far worse than Atwood’s).

But it does lead me to ask the question:  if you were to be imprisoned for six years and could have only one smuggled book to keep you going, which one would you choose to have?

Right off the bat, I’m going to exclude religious works like the Bible, because that’s too obvious (and easy) a choice, especially for my religious Readers, bless ’em.  But I will allow stuff like Thomas  Aquinas’s Summa Theologica  because they are essentially philosophical  works.

My own choice is a simple one, as much for its volume as for its complexity and erudition:

From Dawn To Decadence (Jacques Barzun)

List your choice (and remember, you get one and only one) in Comments, with reasons if possible.

Reader Ruminations

From Frequent Reader / Commenter preussenotto comes this thoughtful email:

I grew up in a very rural isolated area, we had TV but reception was spotty at best, and my parents (including the rest of my family) were very big on self-education so we had a lot of books around.

One of the great enjoyments of my yoot, however was the excitement of waiting for some periodical to come in the mail.  It gave me something I genuinely looked forward to every month.

Fast forward to me as a University Student, I went to a ELGS and got persuaded to become a life member of the Wayne LaPierre family enrichment organization (to be fair this was pre WLP).  [Note to Furrin Readers:  he’s referring to the National Rifle Association.]  As such I was entitled to receive the American Hunter or -Rifleman magazine monthly.

I chose AR because I’m more of a shooter than hunter, and the old lifetime joy of receiving a periodical once a month became a regular pleasure once again.

One of my favorite elements of AR though was their articles on historical firearms and their use/development/etc.  Often they would also include some interesting artwork or old catalog entries, and needless to say I was far more interested in that, than judging bullet drop or whatever.

Last week I got my latest edition of AR, paged through it,  and realized that since the advent of the Excellent work done by Forgotten Weapons, C&RSenal, and InRange, the historical stuff in AR, is just average at best.

I know American Rifleman has slipped in other areas too, but their historical stuff was still pretty good.  Now it just seems like they’re providing someone else’s well-chewed gum.

And another excitement from days of yore has been replaced, to the point where the joy of discovery from a periodical, is just not there anymore.

Do you notice the same thing as you’ve gotten older?  Has anyone else experienced it as well?  In my mind its been replaced by something better, but seeing a childhood memory, not so much die, but rust out, is a sad realization.

The problem that you’ve outlined (very well) is that the NRA monthly mags are essentially vehicles for NRA editorials and (mostly) ad revenue — that’s how they can afford to print and ship them — and thus there’s never really been any incentive to make their mags competitive with other gun mags such as Guns&Ammo or Shooting Times.  So they’ve always been kinda sub-par, content-wise.

And this was okay, until Teh Intarwebz came along, and the characters you mentioned above (and a host of others) started to provide a serious service to gun owners.  Frankly, nowadays one could get by with just Othias & Mae and Ian McCollum (for older guns), Honest Outlaw (for pistol reviews), Ron Spomer (for rifles) and hickok45 (for shooting fun) — and I’ve barely scratched the surface.  Compared to just those shows, very few magazines could measure up;  their only advantage is in publishing things like ballistic tables and charts, which TV shows can’t get close to (although Chris at Lucky Gunner comes close).

I have to say, though, that I am of similar mind to preussenotto:  almost my entire life was spent keenly anticipating my weekly / monthly magazine delivery — hell, I think I last purchased an actual paper mag subscription back in the late 1990s, and that was Britishland’s Country Life (actually, it was Connie’s subscription, a birthday present from me).

I think my last magazine sub expired in about 2008, and I don’t get any anymore, which now that I think of it, kinda sucks.

Here’s a little thought experiment for y’all:  if you could choose three  free paper magazine subscriptions — say, as birthday presents from friends & family — which would you like to get?  (They don’t have to be gun magazines, of course.)

Responses in Comments or via email.  Mine are below the fold.

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Worth Reading

Reader Jim somehow makes it through my broken email software to ask:  “I’d never hear of Alistair MacLean before, but I see he wrote quite a few novels.  Can you recommend just one, to start with?”

Absolutely.  HMS Ulysses is one of the best naval war novels ever written (along with Nicholas Monsarrat’s The Cruel Sea, another tour de force ).

Both the above should be required reading in high school.

New Addiction

Okay, which one of you bastards mentioned author Mick Herron as a decent replacement for John Sandford in the “guilty reading pleasures” department?

Because I tried the first book of Herron’s Slough House series (Slow Horses), and then blew through the other seven in just over as many days, so much did I enjoy the story.

Just as background:  when agents of Britishland’s MI5 screw up, they aren’t fired, but sent into a backwater office (Slough House) to do horribly mundane jobs (e.g. “find out how many potential terrorists there are in the country based on their book withdrawals of [unspecified] dangerous books from public libraries”), the results of which are sent back to Regent’s Park (MI5 Head Office), and promptly ignored.

One might think that there are similarities to the eminence grise of espionage writers, John le Carré, but one would be wrong.  Compared to George Smiley, the head of Slough House (Jackson Lamb) is an anarchic bombthrower, implacably determined to defeat the country’s enemies (that would be MI5, the Foreign Office and MI6), and does so with a cunning, underhanded skill that would defeat Smiley in a single chapter.

As for the denizens of Slough House, they are a bunch of misfits:  alcoholics, gamblers, incompetents, psychopaths, hackers and malcontents, sometimes several in the same person.  As far as “the Park” is concerned, they could all quit or die tomorrow and the Service would be the better for not having to pay their salaries anymore.  And they would all quit or die, except that their boss (Lamb) looks after them and protects them from their feral attackers (that would be MI5) with a ferocity that would please any lioness with her cubs.

That doesn’t stop him from mercilessly torturing his employees (e.g. offering his recovering alcoholic secretary a glass of Scotch every time she walks into his office), and sending them out (against regulations) to do field operations (jobs) which he knows that they will screw up, and they do, often hilariously.  However, his hapless charges are still highly-trained agents, and they often end up doing the right thing by accident.  And some of them die.  And by the way, they all hate each other.

I’ve just finished the last in the series (Bad Actors), and I’m going to re-read them all after a decent interval (a week or so).  At one point, New Wife asked me why I kept bursting into fits of laughter, and my only response was:  “The dialogue.”

And by the way, the Slough House building is a character all to itself.

It’s seriously good stuff.  Read it at your peril.

Next up for me: the Oxford series, by the same author.