What I Read, September 2020

After initial discontent—how will I write anything when I’m always asking my kid if she’s done her math, especially since I hate writing anyway?—the month turned better, better than better, actually, really good, in fact, like those crisp, perfect days in the Rockies after the first brief snowfall. And to fair, that rise in spirits came about because of Corona-time. Since we’re all working remotely we were able to visit my in-laws for the Jewish High Holidays. Spending those important, soulful, introspective days with family (especially family who will cook for you) was meaningful, even joyous. The joy of seeing our daughter spend time with her grandparents was exceeded, for me, only by the joy of having a lot of extra time to read. Here’s what I got through this month:

Annie Ernaux, Happening (2000) Trans. Tanya Leslie (2001)

Perhaps my favourite Ernaux so far, despite the disturbing subject matter. The writer remembers how she found herself, age 23, pregnant. She didn’t want the child; the father, who was no longer in the picture, expressed neither interest nor responsibility. Fearing her life will end before it has begun, though having to rouse herself from initial paralysis, Ernaux sought out an abortion—then illegal in France. (This was 1963.) The abortion is as terrible and dangerous as Ernaux’s reflections about it are cool and acute. A worthy autofictional accompaniment to Jean Rhys’s classic novel Voyage in the Dark.

Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town (2020)

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never paid attention to China’s occupation of Tibet, beyond vaguely registering it as wrong. Demick—a journalist who has been based in the Balkans, Korea, and, latterly, China—moves between the dangerous present and the bleak history of the 20th Century in describing the experience of Tibetans under Chinese rule. I’m currently reading her first book, about the siege of Sarajevo, so I know that the technique in evidence here—telling a big story by focusing on a handful of individuals—is one she has used from the beginning of her career. (Both Parul Sehgal and Anne Fadiman in their reviews of the book—both good, but if you only have time to read one choose Sehgal’s—note that John Hersey pioneered this form of reportage in Hiroshima.) Eat the Buddha—a reference to how the starving Chinese Communists ravaged Tibet in the 1930s, eating even votive offerings made of barley flour and butter, and thus also a metaphor for what Han Chinese have done to Tibetans—follows a similar path, concentrating above all on a woman whose father was one of the last Tibetan kings and whose subsequent life has been a via dolorosa orchestrated by the Chinese communist party to punish her for those origins.

Demick focuses her study on Ngaba, a city in the eastern plateau of Sichuan, which in the last decade has become a center of Tibetan resistance, most dramatically and tragically by the self-immolation of several monks. (Most Tibetans live not in the Tibet Autonomous Region but in four Chinese provinces.) Reporting there is largely prohibited; Demick is understandably cagey about how she managed to spend as much time there as she did, but I would have liked to hear more about those efforts, which must have been substantial. Security may be tighter in this one-stoplight town than anywhere else on earth: 50,000 officers watch over 15,000 people. Demick ranges beyond Ngaba, as well, offering glimpses into Tibet proper, specifically Lhasa, and Dharamshala, India, where the current Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans live in exile.

I learned so much from Demick’s careful book. Did you know, for example, that traditional Tibetan society had evolved a delicate, necessary balance between those who farmed (barley, mostly, as not much else will grow at that altitude) and those who herded? People needed both skills to survive the harsh climate, and marriages were designed to ensure families included people who could do both. Communism and planned economy destroyed that balance—climate change, exacerbated by rampant capitalism, has put it further at risk.

Finishing the book, I felt even more anger than usual the companies and citizens (i.e. us) so eager for money they readily overlook China’s human rights abuses.

Charles Cumming, A Foreign Country (2012)

Better than average spy novel, more Lionel Davidson (lots of action; interest in the details of how spies do their job) than John Le Carré (more interest in the telling than in the told; labyrinthine).

Stephan Talty, The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (2020)

The Butcher of Latvia was Herbert Cukurs, an internationally renowned aviator revered in his native Latvia. As late as 1939 his speaking tours included a sold-out event at Riga’s Jewish Club. Two years later, though, Cukurs was one of the most notorious members of the bands of roving Latvian nationalists who gleefully did the Nazis’ bidding after they occupied the country in the summer of 1941. Talty observes that this fury stemmed less from deep-seated antisemitism, though he doesn’t discount that either, and more from hatred of the Soviets who had brutally occupied the country as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Jews were equated with Bolshevism; Cukurs and his ilk saw no contradiction between this claim and the wealth of Latvia’s Jewish bourgeoisie.

Talty’s book purports to explore Cukurs’s about-face, but it’s in fact more interested in the plot the Mossad organized in 1965 to assassinate him. Like many perpetrators, Cukurs fled to Brazil after the war but, unlike them, he lived under his own name. Why the Israelis didn’t kidnap him and bring him to trial, as they had done three years previously with Adolf Eichmann, is never made clear, though the answer seems to be that there was less evidence against Cukurs. There was still plenty, though, some of it recorded by a woman named Zelma Shepshelovich, a Jewish woman hidden in Riga by a Latvian officer. Kept to an apartment the officer shared with two other men, who bragged about the atrocities they had committed, she spent her time committing names, places, and deeds to memory. Escaping to Sweden after a dangerous journey across the Baltic in 1944, Zelma wrote a 50-page memo detailing this information and gave it to the Americans and British, neither of whom wanted anything to do with it.

As you can see, this short book is about many things: Cukurs’s life before the war; the atrocities in Latvia after the German invasion; the plot to kill Cukurs, which took months and required an agent to survive a lengthy, tense cat-and-mouse game with the paranoid and violent Cukurs, who even at age 64 remained a sharpshooter; and Zelma’s life during and after the war, when she and her protector suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets (the latter was sent to the Gulag; Zelma didn’t know peace until she was able to emigrate to Israel in 1979). Talty tries hard to tie it all together, but it’s tricky because the Mossad team knew nothing of Zelma (her role in the book is to be an exemplary victim).

As if this wasn’t enough, the most interesting part of the book is something else altogether: the reason the Israelis were so keen on getting to Cukurs when they did. The statute of limitations on Nazi perpetrators was about to expire in mid-1965. Two men, one of them famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, led an international campaign to convince the West German parliament to extend the period under which Nazis could be brought to trial. Many Germans wanted to let the statute expire—as one politician put it, “We have to accept living among a few murderers.” But the tide turned, punctuated by a stirring surprise speech in the Bundestag by the Social Democrat Adolf Arndt, who shocked the country by insisting that everyone in Germany had known what was going on in their name.

Talty suggests the assassination of Cukurs turned the tide (Arndt’s speech referenced details that can be connected to Cukurs’s actions), but the connection is strained. The Good Assassin isn’t perfect—at once overstuffed and thin (much of what he presents has been published elsewhere)—but it contains some gripping material, even if a bit breathlessly presented.

Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (2020)

Another third-generation Holocaust memoir, in which a writer uncovers the experiences of their grandparents. I read these obsessively, for professional reasons, but also, I’ve realized, out of an obscure and unfair resentment: I have no similar story, and sometimes I wish I did (which I realize is insane in many ways). It would give me an easy answer to a question I struggle with: why do you study/teach/have such interest in the Holocaust.

House of Glass is like most of these books: the story of the past is fascinating, always heartbreaking and usually unputdownable, but the story of the telling is weak, clunky, uninteresting. The reason that Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost is the ne plus ultra of this genre is that he’s a scholar of narrative, so he knows how to structure a book, making comparisons if not equivalences between the two narrative levels. Holocaust stories, after all, are always as much about finding out what happened as telling what happened.

Freeman, a British-based journalist who has written a lot on fashion, which serves her well in a family story that revolves to a surprising degree on that industry, tells the story of her paternal grandmother Sarah Glass, born Sala Glahs in early 20th-century Galicia. Sala’s three brothers, Jehuda, Jakob, and Sender immigrated to Paris after WWI and the death of their father. There the brothers became Henri, Jacques, and Alex, and to varying degrees assimilated to French culture. Two of the brothers survived the war, one having pioneered a photoimaging technology that the Allies used in fighting the war, and the other having launched himself through sheer force of will into a career in fashion that saw him become friends with Christian Dior and, late in life, Picasso. The third was murdered at Auschwitz. Sarah, as Sala became known, was married off to an American and spent a life of quiet desperation on Long Island.

I really did not care for Freeman’s clunky insertions re: the rise of antisemitism in Europe and America today (as if it ever went away, and as if today’s antisemitism had the same roots and causes as it did in the 1930s); I did, however, liked that she at least imagines why the brother who was deported did not take the opportunities that, in retrospect, could have saved him. (I say “imagine” because she is not immune to the language of passivity that is so often used to blame victims.)

Jacqui liked this book a lot; her take is worth listening to, especially if you are not a grumpy scholar of Holocaust lit!

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

Breezy, enjoyable, but also sad novel about a young black British woman looking for love while clinging to a journalism career. I especially liked the group texts with her friends. Various kinds of male shittiness, mostly sexual, are exposed in ways that may or may not have hit home with this reader. Thanks to Berlin bookseller Magda Birkmann for the recommendation.

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901) Trans. John E. Woods (1995)

It’s a classic for a reason.

Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (1910) Trans. Jamie Bulloch (2017)

After Buddenbrooks, I thought I would stay in the Baltic, though this time further east, in the countryside near Saint Petersburg. I like epistolary novels, I’m fascinated by the end Czarist Russia, and I like suspense, so Huch’s novella should have been just my thing. But I found the story—about a family that retreats to their dacha after death threats have been made against the father, the minister for education, only to be infiltrated by an anarchist—thin and dull. I couldn’t understand why all the letters sounded the same, despite ostensibly being from different characters, and I don’t know if the author or the translator is to blame. Bulloch’s translation feels pedestrian, and I know Huch is much loved in her native Germany, so maybe the problem is his. Regardless, the book left basically no impression on me.

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (1978) Trans. Dalya Bilu (1980)

I don’t like Aharon Appelfeld, and I didn’t want to read this, his most famous novel, in which Jews find themselves willingly marooned in a fictional Austrian spa town in the months leading up to their final destruction. I realize this is the worst possible, least charitable reading mindset. I expected to dislike it, and I did, but I thought it would give me material for something I’m writing, and it did, so I guess it was worth it. Nothing about it changed my verdict: Appelfeld’s dream-like style (cod Kafka) irritates me, but his victim-judging is what really pisses me off.

Tessa Hadley, Accidents in the Home (2002)

Hadley’s first novel, and, although it occasionally falters (as in the title, just a little too cute), her particular magic is already evident. We get the complicated families she loves so much, with plenty of step-siblings and remarriages; we get the sudden life upheavals, which people gamely try to surmount, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always without making too much of a fuss; we get that satisfying sense of someone capturing ordinary bits of middle-class life. Catching up with Hadley—only three left to go now—has been a highlight of my reading year.

Martin Doerry (ed), My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004)

David Cesarani is bullish on this text in his invaluable history of the Holocaust, and now I see why. Lilli Jahn’s life and fate is both unusual and typical, and terribly moving. Jahn, née Schlüchterer, was born in Köln 1900 to an assimilated, middle-class family. She studied medicine and received her medical degree in 1924. During this time, she fell in love with a fellow medical student, Ernst Jahn, neither Jewish nor, it seems, as gifted a doctor as she. Plus, he couldn’t quite abandon a former girlfriend (my sense from the letters between them is that he liked Lilli a lot but didn’t find her hot). Lilli, a singularly kind soul, babied Ernst through his cold feet; the two married in 1926. The letters between them and between him and his future father-in-law regarding the marriage are fascinating; her parents had understandable reservations, and mixed marriages, though not unheard of, were still not terribly common in Germany.

Impossible to read the book and not wonder what might have happened had Lilli given up on Ernst. Maybe she would have gone to England with her younger sister, a chemist. Instead, the couple settled in a town near Kassel, where Ernst had taken a practice. (Lilli gave up a much better opportunity to do so.) They briefly practiced together but soon the first of their five children arrived and that was the end of Lilli’s medical career.

Life for the growing family wasn’t always easy, but they were close, and we get the full panoply of German (Jewish) bourgeois life: hiking holidays, evenings with the one or two educated families in town, an almost painful belief in the power of literature and culture more generally. Lilli suffered from being apart from her family, and from city life. The children were raised Lutheran, but as National Socialism took hold life even for them became more complicated. They couldn’t, for example, join the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls.

Although Lilli was more protected than most German Jews, thanks to her marriage, by the late 1930s she rarely left the house. Her life got even worse when Ernst fell in love with the female doctor who become his locum in the summer of 1939. For a while the three lived unhappily together, but eventually the woman became pregnant and Ernst travelled back and forth between two households. In 1942 he asked Lilli for a divorce, which she granted despite the risks it opened her too. By now she was the only Jew left in the town, and the Nazi mayor, who had long wanted her gone, took her divorced status as an opportunity to kick her out. She and the children found an apartment in Kassel, where she put up a visiting card next to the doorbell stating “Dr. med. Lilli Jahn.” This contravened laws requiring all Jewish women take the middle name Sara and prohibiting Jews from calling themselves doctor. Someone reported her to Gestapo and in late August 1943 Lilli was arrested and sent to a corrective labour camp in a former Benedictine monastery called Breitenau, about 45 minutes away. Most of her fellow prisoners were Eastern European labour conscripts or else Germans who had violated Nazi laws of decency (usually by having affairs with Jews or so-called Slavs). Breitenau was no concentration camp, but it was harsh and unpleasant. The inmates worked hard, usually in nearby fields, had little to eat, and were often sick.

For the rest of the war, Lilli’s children were left to fend for themselves (their father had been called up and was busy with his new family). This was hard on them all—the youngest was only three—but especially on the eldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Ilse. (Her older brother was manning anti-aircraft stations.) Most of the book consists of heartbreaking letters between Lilli and her children, in which both sides tried to hide the reality of their situations; Lilli was reduced to asking the children for food parcels and advising them how to keep the home together. Ilse and her siblings had to combine school with finding enough to eat—all of this before the allied air raids started in the fall. Eventually the children were bombed out of their house; it was all poor Ilse could do to keep the siblings together.

Lilli, her friends, and the children begged Ernst to work on obtaining her release. It is unclear that he did anything; as always, he equivocated, and if he did make any efforts they were unsuccessful. In March 1944 Lilli was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She managed to write a letter to the children while her convoy changed trains at Dresden, and later, already sick and weak, to dictate one from the camp itself. She died sometime in June.

Martin Doerry, the editor—really, the writer: he hasn’t just compiled the letters reproduced here but written the engrossing text that links them—is one of Jahn’s grandchildren; he keeps himself and the rest of the third generation out of the picture, making his approach quite different to Freeman’s (see above). Historians like Cesarani value the book for its glimpse into the period, specifically its wealth of primary documents unencumbered by retrospection (though even here, as Doerry frequently notes, letter writers were often softening the reality of their situation to protect their addressee). It’s a shame that this book, another of the millions of fascinating stories of persecution under the Third Reich, is out of print.

Rónán Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019)

Balm for the soul. See my reviews here and here.

William Dean Howells, Indian Summer (1886)

I took this off the shelf thinking it would be perfect for the end of September, but the title is metaphorical not seasonal, so it’s perfect for any time of year.

Theodore Colville, in his early 40s, has sold his midwestern newspaper and returned to Florence, a city where he spent some formative years in his twenties. And by formative I mean he longed for a girl who rejected him; back in Italy he bumps into Lina Bowen, the girl’s former best friend. Lina, now widowed, is accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Effie (how I loved this character) and her charge, “the incandescently beautiful, slightly dense Imogene Graham,” as Wendy Lesser puts it in her introduction to the edition I read. Imogene is twenty years old and not stupid, as Lesser’s “dense” implies, but emotionally immature, even if well-meaning. One way to read the book, in fact, is as a warning about meaning well, especially when that’s motivated by dishonesty about one’s feelings. Colville is funny, the narration is witty (even making a joke about its author), Lina is extraordinary, the dialogue is sparkling (the whole thing is just waiting to be made into a movie). There’s a wonderful New England cleric who’s not really interested in anyone’s shit. So good!

Indian Summer is a novel that is, although not dismissive towards youth, unimpressed by it: music to my middle-aged ears. For a time, it looks as though things will end terribly, but then they don’t, but Howells reminds us that some wrongs can’t ever be quite righted, persistently irritating grains of sand: “It was a thing that happened, but one would rather it had not happened.”

I’d never read Howells before—I’m shockingly ill-read in 19th-century American literature—but I already have The Rise of Silas Lapham lined up for November. Let me know if you enjoyed any of his 35 other novels.

I usually end these reports by singling out some reading favourites, but that’s hard to do this month. Buddenbrooks, I suppose, but the Howells, the Hadley, the Demick, Doerry’s book about Lilli Jahn were all excellent too. 5780 ended strong, book-wise (though not in any other, unless you’re a coronavirus); here’s to more good reading, and more good things generally, in 5781.

23 thoughts on “What I Read, September 2020

  1. Both A Modern Instance and Silas Lapham were good, but these are the usual recommendations, along with Indian Summer and Hazard (I haven’t read either) the “surviving” books, so maybe this is not so useful.

    William Pritchard wrote an excellent piece for the Hudson Review in 2011 about the rise and fall of Howells. Pritchard read a number of not-quite-surviving Howells novels and found, frustratingly, that they were all good, weak in this or that way but strong in that or this, all with memorable characters and scenes.

    If I had an association with Boston, I would read lots of them. The two I read are full of great Boston stuff.

  2. What a month! You remind me to get to Queenie. Im waiting on Leonard and Hungry Paul to come in at the library. I loved your review, and it seems like all the reviews are positive. Indian Summer sounds good too, perhaps for novellas in November!

  3. Your comments about The Lost made me wonder what you’d thought of The Hare with Amber Eyes: I found some passing references to it with your search function but I don’t think you’ve written about it here at length. Can I tempt you into any further comments about it? I loved it, though it does not have the reach or the density of The Lost.

    • Such a generous question, Rohan!
      It’s been a couple of years since I read it, but I too liked it very much. In the end, not as much as The Lost, for the reasons you mention, but I thought the netsuke figurines were used so compellingly.
      Basically, the reason it works is the same one I mention here in criticizing Freeman: as a potter, de Waal is acutely attentive to form, and that’s evident in the structure of the book.
      I’d need to read it again to say anything more specific, but does that spark any thoughts for you?

      • I like that idea that working with form in one medium helps someone be a better writer in another. The Lost was definitely a more demanding read, which I think for some readers might lessen its impact, I suppose.

        The book you are working on is about teaching Holocaust literature, right? It’s going to be splendid, I feel certain.

      • That is so nice of you to say. I’m writing most days, but I just have no idea what I’m doing. Or, more importantly, if anyone would be interested in reading it.

      • I have worked hard to convince myself (because in my head I do think it’s true!) that writing has to go through the phase I call “the muddy muddy middle.” If that’s where you are, it’s a stage! It’s the worst one and the scariest one but it always happens, right? And then you discover what you want to say and how to use or not use what you’ve got so far. Of course, in a long project it is likely to be a long phase. Recognizing that I always get into a mess, no matter how promising the beginning felt, and always get out of it again has really helped me, actually.

      • It *is* true, absolutely, and I appreciate the reminder.
        I’ve never tried to write anything really long, and I really don’t know what I’m doing, so the mess is messier than usual!
        Right now my strategy is to pretend it’s one of my teaching blog posts and just go for it.

  4. What a nourishing reading month you’ve had. The only Mann works I’ve read are Venice and Magic Mountain but you tempted me with your Buddenbrooks enthusiasm. The Barbara Demick has been on my library hold list since Parul’s enthusiastic review (and maybe it was also on their podcast, with their discussion of critical writing and explorations). Hopefully you’ve been finding even half as many good reads in October!

    • Buddenbrooks is definitely worth it IMO. As is the Demick (just finished her first book: worth it but not as good).
      October has been less stellar, reading-wise, but I am slowly making my way through Our Mutual Friend, and it certainly is good!
      What about you? What are you reading?

      • For a few years, I read a long Dickens novel each December, but I missed last year…maybe I’ll try again this year. I’ve always got several books on the go, something for every reading mood. So today I’ve dipped into a reread of Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, as well as sampled Walter Mosley’s new collection of short stories The Awkward Black Man, Erin Brockovitch’s new book about the water crisis, and Leanne Betasamosake’s Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies (in her quintessential hybridized lyric/myth/history/fiction form).

      • I also like to have a few different things on the go at a time.
        How is Noopiming? I’m *really* curious about it–keeping in mind, I’ve never read Roughing it in the Bush, and frankly can’t imagine doing so…

  5. I think it’s more important to have an understanding of colonialism in general, rather than any single work written by a settler; Moodie might be an easy/recognizable reference for some Canadians, but I think readers can appreciate Simpson’s work without any familiarity with Roughing. My only thought would be, for anyone choosing between print and epub, that it feels (to me) like the kind of work that one would move through too quickly on a screen; sometimes there are only a few words on a page to contemplate, and when you take time for your eyes to move across the white space and turn the physical page, it’s more like she has spoken them to you.

    • That is helpful, thank you. I will always choose print, personally, but other readers will be glad to hear your suggestion, I’m sure.
      Re: the “she has spoken to you point” (nicely put!), a friend sent me Split Tooth a while ago, and mentioned that, although he liked the book, he had heard her read and *that* was even more amazing.
      I’ve been reading more indigenous writing lately, inspired by my wife, who has been reading quite a lot of it.

  6. Pingback: What I Read, October 2020 | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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