January 2019 in Review

In my 2018 review post, I promised monthly reading updates. I’m a week tardy, but here’s what I read in January 2019.


1 Anthony Powell – A Question of Upbringing (1951) Like many readers I was swayed by Andy Miller’s praise for A Dance to the Music of Time; his suggestion to read one novel a month seemed manageable—especially as I’ve had the first six on my shelves for a while.

My verdict: good stuff, which promises to become even better. Eric thinks it’s the weakest, and if that’s the case the cycle is going to kill it. My sense is the books will improve when Powell more confidently does his own thing, rather than revising Proust. Or, when I get over my sense that this isn’t quite Proust. Either way, I’m taken with the intimations of the narrator, Jenkins, that his first opinions of intriguing characters, especially Widmerpool and the delightful Uncle Giles, are going to be deepened, revised, maybe even completely reversed.

A Buyer’s market to come later this month! In the meantime, if you want a better sense of what A Question of Upbringing is about, do read Jacqui’s post.

2 Samantha Harvey – The Western Wind (2018) I was engrossed and seduced by this novel from the start. Set in the East Midlands in the 15th century, it is, as Rohan says in her TLS review, a story about the desire to confess and be forgiven. Well, to be forgiven, anyway. The confessing part is trickier. So many contradictory motives, many of them laudable, complicate, even thwart confession. That ambivalence is amplified by the novel’s structure: it is told backwards over four days, so that you’ve actually read the end of the story about a quarter of the way into the book. Could have been a gimmick, but totally convinced me. Even once you realize you’ve already read the end, you have to accept you don’t know exactly what’s happened, so subtle is Harvey’s touch.

The setting is Oakham, a village cut off from the rest of the world, and sinking from hardscrabble to irrelevant: the local monastery is eyeing a takeover of its lands. And now the richest and most forward-thinking (at least by his own account) villager is dead, presumably murdered. The narrator is the local priest, who is pulled in different directions, unsure which secrets he ought to keep.

I read The Western Wind (purchased at the wonderful Bridge Street Books in DC) based on Rohan’s recommendation, combined with my vague idea it might be like the Cadfael mysteries. Turns out, not really—Harvey’s novel is less interested in genre conventions—but that’s ok. (Plus, it’s set 300 years later, which even this unrepentant modernist recognizes makes a big difference.) I found it quiet and satisfying, beautiful without being self-consciously poetic. I’ve looked briefly into Harvey’s earlier novels and they seem completely different. Anyone read them?

3 Joe Ide – Wrecked (2018) The IQ series is enjoyable, and I enjoyed this third installment more than the last one. (His lead character, nicknamed IQ, is an East LA Holmes, many of whose clients can only pay him in goods or favours.) Ide is honing the relationship between IQ and his sidekick, getting a handle on his tone (he does humour better than drama, but is working on a good balance) and develops a female character who is too interesting not to return. But if you’re new to Ide, best start at the beginning.

4 Luce D’Eramo – Deviation (1979) Trans. Anne Milano Appel (2018) Scott & I wrote about this at length. Deeply problematic.

5 Esther Hauzig – The Endless Steppe (1968) Children’s books were different back in the day. It would be easy to read this book and assume it was written for adults. Neither style nor subject matter marks it as obviously for children. Although it reads like a novel, The Endless Steppe is a memoir, describing how ten-year-old Hauzig, together with her parents, is ripped from her comfortable life in Vilna (then Poland) in 1941, when the Soviets deem her family capitalist enemies of the regime. The Hauzigs are deported to Siberia, first, to a horrific labour camp, and then resettled in a nearby village, where they suffer poverty, ill-health, and terrible cold. At the end of the war, finally able to return to Poland, they learn that their fate was mild compared to their relatives, almost all of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Part Little House on the Prairie, part diagnosis of life under totalitatarianism, The Endless Steppe feels as fresh and moving as it must have fifty years ago. A fascinating addition to the literature of the war between Hitler and Stalin.

6 Laurie R. King – The Moor (1998) Fourth installment of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series; revisits The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though you wouldn’t know it from my sporadic reading pace (I’ve been working on them for about four years), I quite like this series. Atmosphere always appeals to me more than the actual mystery, which, in this case, dragged a little. Really, all I want from a crime novel is bad weather and lashings of hot tea, and The Moor gave me plenty of both.

7 Ian Rankin – Rather Be the Devil (2016) My first audiobook of the semester. I’ve now almost caught up with Rebus, with only the brand new one to go. Rather Be the Devil is a step up from the last couple, I thought, though who knows how Rankin’s going to keep finding ways for the retired cop to inveigle himself into new investigations. Maybe the most impressive thing about the last half dozen or so installments of this now very long-running series is the way they’ve rehabilitated Malcolm Fox, while still keeping him a bit annoying—decent and dedicated, but a little selfish, know-it-all-y, charmless. In the previous book, Rebus got a dog, and I worry about him. Has to spend a lot of time alone, poor Brillo.

8 Sayaka Murata – Convenience Store Woman (2016) Trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018) This featured on several best of 2018 lists from people whose taste I respect, so I gave it a shot. Dunno people. Loved the descriptions of the convenience store (these seem a different species from the ones here): what it takes to keep one running (military precision), what customers in Japan expect (everything) and how they treat employees (shockingly), and the range of items on offer (vast, and odd). Helped me see how hungry I am for books about work. (Where are our Zolas?) And I appreciated how doggedly and unselfconsciously the narrator pursues her desires, which don’t match at all the expectations of her society. In the end, though, Murata gives capitalism a pass, presenting the narrator’s final unity with the store as a perverse emancipation. I almost never say this, but this book should have been longer, so that it could be stranger. To me, it asserted its strangeness without ever being strange. In the end I just wasn’t sure what it meant for the narrator to have become a convenience store woman. Ultimately unsatisfying, but I’ll probably read Murata’s next book.

All in all, a decent but not a great month, mostly because I couldn’t make enough reading time. I spent a few days in DC with students (fun, but not conducive to reading), and of course had a new semester to prepare for and adjust to. Then that damn D’Eramo book took a lot of my attention. But the Powell is promising, the Hautzig a real find, and the Harvey deeply satisfying. How was your January?

24 thoughts on “January 2019 in Review

  1. Interesting month! I realized recently that I somehow missed that Rebus, so thanks for reminding me. I enjoy the somewhat elegiac tone of the recent ones. I would be all in for a series with Siobhan as the consistent lead.
    The backwards structure of The Western Wind was really interesting, though tbh I wasn’t 100% sure it served much thematic purpose. The only other book I have read (though there must be others) that does the same backwards thing is Sarah Waters’ The Night Watch: I remember thinking it made sense there because a lot of the book is about excavation (literal and metaphorical, of characters’ histories etc.). I’d liked to reread that. In fact, I’d like to do a full Sarah Waters read-through one of these days!

    • In my experience, the backwards Night Watch worked better first time than second. I taught it once, and it made me think less of the book. (Sadly.)
      Elegiac is the right word for these latest Rebuses. The guy who reads the audiobooks is wonderful. I know it makes me sound like a total N American, but I love his accent!
      Agree re: Siobhan. Surprising that Malcolm seems to have caught Rankin’s attention more lately.
      I am going to think more about The Western Wind. I liked the structure a lot. But I’m having trouble saying why.

  2. Hey, thanks for the link to my Powell piece – that’s very kind of you! I’ve actually just finished reading book 2, which I liked a lot – maybe not quite as much as the first book, but then again it’s still early days. Yes, Uncle Giles can come back again – he’s a keeper, for sure.

    That’s a pity about Convenience Store Woman, as it seemed to be everywhere at one point last year. I usually do well with Japanese fiction – Yoko Ogawa and Hiromi Kawakami, for instance – but maybe I should give this a miss.

    • Convenience Store Woman is so short–you can read it almost at a sitting. And in fact I suspect that is what some of its admirers like about it. I’d be curious what you think.

  3. Interesting month!

    The Western Wind just didn’t do it for me. The most interesting thing about it was the structure, but then this bold gamble never went anywhere (for me). I didn’t even mind the egregious “when we talk later, let’s pretend this never happened” bit of authorial fudging. Hmm, I guess I did mind it! But to me it was just a bland meal trying to be spicy by eating dessert first.

    I liked Convenience Store Woman more than you, but definitely felt it was a bit underdeveloped. I’m not sure I totally bought some aspects of the main character, like her supposedly pliability, but I think it has promise.

    • Agree re: promise. But unfulfilled for me. I probably would have liked it more if I hadn’t expected so much.
      You’re making me re-think Western Wind. Not changing my mind about liking or not. But wondering what the structure is doing, exactly. Did you read any of her earlier books?
      Read anything good last month?

  4. I read a couple of Anthony Powell books years ago, wasn’t really tempted to tackle the whole cycle, and then discovered them on audiobook (read but Simon Vance, a narrator I really like). I listened to the whole series twice in one year, I loved the experience so much. And now I dip in occasionally, like visiting old friends. You’re tempting me to go through it all once again.

    • Do you use Audible or similar? I have been relying on my public library’s CDs (I listen in my car), which are free–but selection limited. Maybe I should spring for a service. Simon Vance sounds good. The narrator makes so much difference, doesn’t it? I just listened to Horowitz’s Holmes book The House of Silk. Probably would have enjoyed it anyway, but Derek Jacobi’s narration really added a lot.

      • I started with digital audiobooks from the library, and once I knew I enjoyed and would listen to them, I got an Audible subscription. There’s a lot that publishers don’t make available to libraries and it’s worse here. Now that the Canadian dollar is not near par with the US, I am always wondering if it’s still worth it, but I haven’t cut it off yet. It took me a while to figure out what kinds of books work best for me in audio. A lot of what I buy is comfort re-reads like Agatha Christie that are balm to insomnia, and non-fiction (history, current events) that I might not otherwise make time for.

  5. Now you’re making me rethink my stance on Wind—I may have been too hard on it. Admittedly, I was reading just for pleasure so I may have missed some of the intricacies of the plot, but for me there were precious few payoffs.

    I guess I feel like the whole point of structuring something backward is to take advantage of the reader’s ignorance—scenes can change completely from the first reading to the moment you reveal something later. And while this did happen a little, maybe with a few scenes with the Dean and of course the first scene that I felt was a bit of an authorial cheat, there wasn’t any huge moment that to me justified the structure. I even kind of judge the author, why go to that trouble and then not bother to use your trick? It’s like Rashomon if all five stories were pretty much the same. Again, there’s no doubt that I read a bit shallowly and maybe I missed some things that others appreciated.

    I did like the how the significance of the Western Wind was slowly deepened and twisted—I wanted way more of that kind of stuff!

    (I tried leaving this comment on Friday but I guess it got caught in WordPress limbo—ugh)

    • I’m finding this conversation really useful for trying to decide what I liked about the book. I was thinking yesterday that the structure contributed to the narrator’s unreliability/complicated motives. But that could surely have been suggested by a more conventional structure.
      Do you think the structure could have anything to do with the narrator’s religious world view? Something about the difference between human perspective (fallible, confused, partial) and divine perspective (infallible, certain, destined)? The thought’s just occurred to me, so it’s not well formed and maybe a non-starter.
      The more I think about it, the less sure I am what the reverse structure is contributing!

  6. I like your idea about divine/human perspective. I may be guilty of criticizing the book for not being what I thought it should be instead of taking it on its own terms.
    There is certainly an inevitability to the structure, the end is already fixed, nothing anyone does or chooses will change it. Seems very Calvinist though we’re way too early for that.
    In a weird way, their fates are fixed on page one, but also not fixed, in that the reader kept is suspense until the end, waiting to see what exactly happened on that Saturday.

    • I like the way you put it in that last paragraph. Fixed but not fixed. That really gets it. You’re also right that predestination would be anachronistic. Makes me think about the book’s emphasis on confession, though. Is that only ever cynical (aiming for numbers, etc) or can it be meaningful, in the world of the text? Is there forgiveness? Can contrition mitigate the fixed end?

  7. I’m always dazzled by the diversity of corners of literature you explore, Dorian, as well as by my having never heard of at least half the stuff you read – and what a great boon that has been for my own reading. I’ve put The Western Wind on the list (great cover art, btw), and am quite intrigued by The Endless Steppe (another beautiful cover).

    I’ll be watching your and Jacqui’s journey through Anthony Powell.

    • Isn’t that cover great? I really hope you read it. Steve and I have been having such an interesting conversation about the book, and I would love to hear your thoughts. The Endless Steppe is really worth it IMO. Agree about that cover–some of the older editions had nice ones too, I discovered when I went looking for a jpeg.

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  9. Just wading in with a few initial thoughts about The Western Wind, which I finished at the weekend. The reverse structure works for me as it puts the focus on Reve’s motives and actions, particularly the way he covers up his failings which only become fully apparent towards the end. For me that’s the most interesting aspect of the novel – in some ways, I see it as a sort of interrogation of Reve’s character and values. A more linear timeline might shift the focus towards other issues such as Townsend’s fate — alongside that of Reve himself, of course. (If I have enough time, I might read the whole thing again in the knowledge of what actually happens on the fatal Saturday in question!)

    In addition to the themes you’ve highlighted — confession, forgiveness etc. — there’s something about protection too. A need to protect the village from all sorts of threats: the monks in the nearby Abbey who are desperate to get their mitts on the land; the Dean, who seems a very slippery characters in his own right; even nature itself with its power to ruin the villagers’ lives if the weather proves unforgiving.

    Anyway, I really like the ‘feel’ of the novel – atmosphere, tone, sense of place. It reminds me a little of Harvest by Jim Crace (another book group read, so it’ll be interesting to compare the two when we meet up in July). Have you read it by any chance?

    • Thanks, Jacqui, for these thoughts. It’s well put re: structure focusing our attention on Reve’s motives. Good point, too, about protection as an important theme. I wonder what happens if we think about protection and the novel’s structure at the same time. Would this be to suggest that the need for protection is foiled? World out of kilter, etc. Or, conversely, could the backward structure be a way to make protection happen? The future will never come, etc.

      I liked the feel of the book a lot, too. Interesting comparison to Harvest. I have a copy, but haven’t read it. But from what I know of it, I think it would be a good pairing.

      What did your book group have to say?

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