European Travel for the Monstrous Gentlewoman (2018): Theodora Goss

★★★★

The Athena Club: Book 2

Buckle up and tally ho! Squeeze into your walking suit, grab your umbrella and put on a stout pair of shoes, because the ladies of the Athena Club are on another mission! In fact, a couple of tickets for the Orient Express wouldn’t go amiss this time either, because we are bound for mysterious and distant climes: eastern Europe, to be exact. Our band of remarkable young women – introduced in The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter – found one another when they realised that all their fathers were involved in the sinister Société des Alchemistes. Worse still, all their fathers were unethical scientists, interested in transmutation and modifying the human form, and many of our heroines are products of those experiments. Now it’s time for Mary Jekyll, Diana Hyde, Catherine Moreau, Justine Frankenstein and Beatrice Rappaccini to help another of their kind – for an urgent letter has come, requesting help, from a certain Lucinda Van Helsing…

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Beware of Pity (1939): Stefan Zweig

★★★★

When I was packing for my Vienna trip last week, one very important question was on my mind. What should I take to read? I always enjoy reading appropriate fiction on my travels, but it turned out that my collection of Austrian stories was rather limited. By stretching the rules, I ended up choosing this: the only full-length novel by Stefan Zweig, the wonderful essayist, biographer and short-story writer who was born in Vienna. Beware of Pity was first published in 1939 and looks back to the eve of another war, in 1914 on the borders of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s a simple story, about an act of kindness that goes horribly wrong – and Zweig’s percipient understanding of human nature means that it resonates strongly even today.

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Rubens: The Power of Transformation

Rubens: The Fur

(Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum, until 21 January 2018)

My apologies for the recent silence. It’s been a rather frantic weekend and I’m only just getting to the point where I can think again. I was also off on a business trip last week in Vienna, which was (as ever) an utter joy. I fetched up at the Kunsthistorisches Museum last Tuesday afternoon, planning to have an indulgent hot chocolate in the wonderful café, and then to potter in the Italian galleries; but my visit was supplemented by this very impressive exhibition about Rubens.

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Messages from a Lost World (2016): Stefan Zweig

★★★★ ½

Europe on the Brink

Everyone has been talking about echo chambers recently. Those of us cosily insulated in our liberal-metropolitan-elite ivory towers, with our European friends and our Guardian diet, have had quite a wake-up call this year. We were lulled by our Facebook and Twitter feeds, which reflected back our own views ad infinitum, until it seemed inconceivable that anyone else could think differently. Now we find ourselves in a situation where we have to justify or, worse, defend our longing for a community greater than ourselves. In light of all this, Pushkin Press’s publication of Stefan Zweig’s essays is nothing short of inspired. Written a hundred years ago, these short pieces are charged with the despair of a generation which weathered two cataclysmic wars. They are terrifyingly relevant today. Simple, powerful and unapologetically intelligent, they’re absolutely vital reading as we wait in the shadow of Brexit. Unfortunately those who most need to read them are precisely those who won’t.

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