March 2019 in Review

March is a long time ago now, but I wanted to say a few words about my monthly reading. A better than average set.

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Yiyun Li – Where Reasons End (2019) Sad, funny, wise, painful. I quoted bits here.

Christopher R. Browning – Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992/98) This Holocaust scholar could have won plenty of rounds of Humiliation for not having read Browning’s classic microhistory of the actions of Order Police Battalion 101 near Lublin in 1942. Sometimes books you feel just have to have read disappoint. Not Ordinary Men, which remains as eye-opening now as then. (Browning has written a thoughtful essay for the 25th anniversary edition, bringing the latest research, especially concerning the photograph record of the unit, to bear on his original conclusions.)

The book begins with a sobering statistic: in March 1942, 70—80% of the eventual victims of the Holocaust were still alive, and 20—30% had been murdered; by February 1943, the proportions were reversed. 1942 was the darkest year in Jewish history; Browning examines one example of the men who perpetrated that darkness. The average age of the 500 men in the battalion was in the upper 30s, meaning that they had come of age before the Nazis came to power, and they were working- and lower middle class men from Hamburg, an area and the social classes famously antipathetic to National Socialism—facts which, taken together, suggest these men would have been among the least likely to be drawn to fascism. Yet they readily participated in mass executions, round-ups, and deportations.

Browning notes that 10—20% refused to partake in atrocities (and they had the benefit of a commander who actually asked before the first action if anyone wanted out—rather than a death sentence or a transfer to the front, these dissenters were moved into clerical positions or even sent back home); 20—30% participated avidly in atrocities; while the majority (50—70%), although reluctant, participated anyway. For the men in this last category, it was easier to follow along, and too unpleasant to risk the scorn of their more hateful colleagues. These are sobering numbers, with implications beyond Browning’s specific example. What makes us think we wouldn’t number among the majority in a similar scenario?

Leslie Morris, The Translated Jew: German Jewish Culture Outside the Margins (2018) I had a realization as I reviewed Morris’s book on the idea of translation in postwar German Jewish culture: academic monographs make me grumpy and I should stop writing about them. Thus, I’ve given up reviewing books for Choice, a publication designed to help libraries decide what to buy. (I wrote for them for 10 years.) Morris, whom I have not met even though the field we work in is small, probably deserves a more charitable reviewer. I did my best to point out the inspiring range of her material—ranging from a defunct Berlin sculpture park to Jewish body art to the poets Raymond Federman and Rose Ausländer. But her insistence, so typically academic, that we think, read, or engage “in new ways,” without explaining how or why, grated on me. As I concluded: “her description of Jewishness as an endlessly deferred cipher, at once spurring and spurning interpretation, is as unexceptional as it is unexceptionable.”

Andrea Camilleri – The Overnight Kidnapper (2015) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2019) Of course, the crime itself has vanished from my memory, but I recall the latest Montalbano as a decent effort. I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.

Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 2] (2016) Trans. Anne Ishii (2018) I read Volume 1 last month; happy to say that the conclusion doesn’t disappoint. It plays a trick on us, but a fair one: leading us to believe in an impossible ending, then gently showing us why the all-too-possible one, however melancholy, is the right choice.

Ian Rankin – In a House of Lies (2018) The latest Rebus—once again improved, I suspect, by the audiobook’s excellent narrator—is one of the best in a while, featuring a rich set of storylines, plus better use of Brillo the dog (see my February complaint). The détente between Rebus and Edinburgh crime boss Big Ger Cafferty suggested in the previous installments is gone. This despite the fact that Rebus is coming to terms with a COPD diagnosis. Has anyone written about the pathos of ailing detectives?

H. F. Heard – A Taste for Honey (1941) I admit, I did not do this book justice. I read it on a Friday night when I was exhausted and should have gone to bed. But even in a better frame of mind, I think I would have found this tale of Holmes in retirement thin gruel. You better like Holmes a lot more than suspense if you’re going to enjoy it.

Virginie Despentes – Vernon Subutex I & II (both 2015) Trans. Frank Wynne (2017 & 2018) Not sure how long they’ll stay with me, but I liked these books a lot. I tried to articulate why—and the issue I take with the conclusion they seem to be coming to—here.

Mihail Sebastian – Women (1933) Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh (2019) More anon.

Solomon Perel – Europa, Europa (1990) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (1997) Almost on a whim, I decided to teach Agnieska Holland’s adaptation of Perel’s extraordinary Holocaust memoir this semester. It went well—I’m finding the movie more interesting the longer I spend with it (always a good sign). The film is plenty unusual, but Perel’s memoir even more so. His story is stranger than fiction: after escaping the Nazi advance by fleeing east of the Bug river (the part of Poland annexed by the Soviet Union in the Hitler—Stalin pact) and finding refuge as a Komsomol in an orphanage in Grodno, the Jewish Perel passed himself off as an Ethnic German when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. (He had been born in Germany before moving to Poland with his parents as a child.) Perel found himself honoured for fighting at the Front and then shipped to a boarding school for elite members of the Hitler Youth, where he spent most of his time worrying someone would notice his circumcision. (Tonally, both book and film are crazy: sort of funny, sort of campy, sort of moving.) Remarkably, Perel survived the war surrounded by Nazi true believers, and at war’s end found himself reunited with his elder brother, the only other member of the family to survive. Perel’s story is even more unlikely than most survivor tales. What is most interesting is the way his cognitive dissonance features in odd switches between first and third person. At heart there seems something fundamentally incurious about Perel. An effect of his experiences? Or a predisposition towards surviving them?

Michelle McNamara — I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (2018) I don’t read much True Crime. But I do read a ton of crime fiction. So, I naively assumed, when I started listening to McNamara’s acclaimed description of her pursuit of the serial rapist she named the Golden State Killer, that I knew what I was in for. Nope. I was shocked by how visceral, graphic, and uncomfortably voyeuristic this book—and, I suspect, its genre—turns out to be. It’s creepy as shit. To her credit, McNamara is aware of these difficulties, and doesn’t shy from highlighting her obsessive interest. Sadly, McNamara couldn’t finish her book: she died about three-quarters of the way through, and the finished version has been pieced together from notes. (The editors clearly describe when and how they’ve reconstructed.) Still, I did find the book repetitive and confusingly structured—perhaps a fitting response to the relentlessness of the crimes, dozens and dozens of them, perpetrated over a decade all over California. (If I had a better sense of California’s geography I might have had an easier time of it.) The tension between what we know—the killer was finally caught (in part thanks to McNamara’s efforts—and what she didn’t gives the book a macabre poignancy. Not for the faint of heart.

Lissa Evans — Their Finest Hour and a Half (2009) Read my take, if you like, but be sure to read this novel. There’s a dog that understands Yiddish!

David Bezmozgis — Immigrant City: Stories (2019) Bezmozgis is one of my favourites, the heir to Bernard Malamud. I snapped up his new collection on a recent weekend in Canada (why no US pub date?) and finished it before I was even home. I’m not sure Bezmozgis has ever written anything as rich as his first novel, The Free World (the great novel of the emigration of Soviet Jewry), but most of these stories are the equal of those in his terrific first collection, Natasha and Other Stories. Of course, some stories are stronger than others. “A New Gravestone for an Old Grave,” for example, is a bit travelogue-y. But “Immigrant City” breaks new ground for Bezmozgis (not sure the attempt to juxtapose earlier generations of Jewish immigrants to newer ones from Syria and Somalia completely works, but it’s thought provoking—I suspect it would hold up to rereading). And “Little Rooster” is a classic that is going straight onto the syllabus of my course on postwar representations of the Holocaust.

More before too long, I hope, about April reading, which is proving decidedly more unavailing.

12 thoughts on “March 2019 in Review

  1. That’s a good month of reading. I do enjoy an Inspector Montalbano mystery every now and again. As you say, the crimes themselves are eminently forgettable, but that’s not the main point. The real joys come from the dialogue and the portrait of the Sicilian underbelly – not to mention all those wonderful descriptions of the local food!

    • Yes, they do sometimes make me laugh out loud. Unusual for crime fiction. Basically, they’re all about the food. Have you read Maurizio de Giovanni? A little meatier. (Uh, as it were…)

      • No, I haven’t. Will take a look – thanks.

        A few years ago, a high-end Italian restaurant in London (Bocca di Lupo) held a series of themed lunches recreating some of the menus from Camilleri’s books. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get to any of them, but they sounded absolutely wonderful!

  2. That seems like a good month’s reading by any measure! I appreciate the spur to get to the latest Rebus. I think I may actually be two behind! I like the idea of a study of ‘ailing detectives.’ I like that Rankin is letting Rebus age. Kinsey Millhone more or less didn’t, and I think Sara Paretsky’s VI Warshawski is aging but not quite in real time. A really long-running series does raise these questions: do you freeze them in time or play it out? I’m puzzled why Rankin hasn’t made Siobhan a real protagonist. Maybe eventually when Rebus’s ailments make him a truly improbably one, she’ll finally take over the series.

    • It’s a question, isn’t it: freeze or age. I too am glad Rankin is letting Rebus age. One problem is that it is getting increasing difficult to get him involved in the investigations. Rankin’s been quite ingenious, and he’s aware of the problem (other characters keep bringing it up). But hard to see how he can keep it up indefinitely.
      Good question about Siobhan. I think he just loves Rebus too much. The series has an impressively large number of well-developed characters, but Rebus is clearly his creator’s darling.
      As to ailing detectives, I can think of examples in Henning Mankell, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, and Leonardo Sciascia. Any additions to the list?

  3. Interesting question about Perel. It strikes me that he himself seems very conscious of the effect that his experiences have had upon him (to survive amongs Nazis, he suggests, one inevitably begins to think like a Nazi). But he also comes off as being very resourceful, and he presents his ability to adapt to his situation as coming naturally to him, as he makes up details of a new life story as needed and thoroughly suppresses his emotions, and he casts his survival as the product of willpower and determination. But much of his self-representation seems to be, at least to some degree, inflected by a defensiveness about the way he survived (which I think really marks the tone of the whole book, a feeling that he would be condemned for consorting with Nazis despite the dangers he faced in doing so). The cognitive dissonance you describe suggests how successfully he repressed those parts of his personality that would have jeopardized his survival to the point where he thinks of himself as two different people. Given that the book was written almost 50 years after the events it describes, though, it’s a fair question how much of this is how he felt at the time and how much of it is the product of subsequent reflection and survivor guilt.

  4. I’m liking this monthly summary project. Each of the posts has given me a whole bunch of stuff to add to the list of works/writers I want to read, maybe especially Perel and Bezmozgis from this one. And I love your comment about reading Camilleri so as not to get any surprises.

  5. Interesting list. I loved this line: “I didn’t want any surprises, and I didn’t get any.”

    Re Rebus, I haven’t read any for ages, but what I found was that the writing read better when read with a Scottish accent. Assuming the audiobook has a Scottish narrator I suspect that would therefore improve it, if you’re not yourself Scottish (which I know you’re not). It’s something about the rhythms of the text – Rankin is very much a Scottish writer.

    I’ll check out the Lissa Evans, which sounds interesting. Have you read Isaac Bashevis Singer’s The Magician of Lublin? Review at mine here: https://pechorinsjournal.wordpress.com/2017/03/31/the-magician-of-lublin-by-isaac-bashevis-singer/. If not, you might find it interesting.

    • Yes, agree re: Rankin’s Scottishness. The fellow who narrates them is Scottish: he’s very good.
      I have Magician, but haven’t read it. Sounds like I should give it a go. I was not a fan of Enemies: A Love Story. What made you think of it?

  6. Pingback: 2019 Mid-Year Review | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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