What I Read, January 2021

A few days of quiet, lingering feelings of winter break. (Eat the extra chocolate, have a glass of wine at dinner.) Then the fear and anger at the insurrection. Later the bated breath about the inauguration, the mixed feelings about applying for an American passport, the horror at the passport photos. Then calm: the relief, the joy at not having to hear a certain name. And then malaise, something like despair, exhaustion, ennui: no energy, writing difficult. Finally, the amazingly good fortune at being able to get vaccinated, thanks to Arkansas state policy of including teachers in the second group.

Among all this, of course there was reading, including a long book I’d long wanted to read.

Jean-Claude Grumberg, The Most Precious of Cargoes (2018) Trans. Frank Wynne (2020)

Strange little book that tells in fairy tale-fashion—it is subtitled “A Tale”— the story of a husband and wife and their twin infants who are deported from Drancy to some ominous point in the East. On the train, the woman’s milk has dried up; the hungry babies scream inconsolably; the others in the sealed railway car glower when they aren’t staring dejectedly into space. In a forest somewhere in Poland the man makes an abrupt, terrible decision. He rips one of the children—the little girl—from his wife’s breast, wraps it in his prayer shawl, and squeezes the parcel through the barred window. He cannot know that a peasant, a woman who has prayed for a child that has never come, will find the baby and raise her, over the objections of her husband and at risk to her own survival. How she loves the child, barters for milk, runs away when someone informs the occupying forces about the Jew Child—these descriptions make up the bulk of the novella, which is told in a quaint, implausible style. Even more impossible is the story of the father, who, unlike his wife and son, having survived the camps, stumbles into a village where a woman and her young daughter are selling cheese in the local market. Yes, it’s her, his daughter, he’s beside himself—his plan worked—but with a suppressed cry he leaves without a backward glance. And nobody knows, the narrator concludes, if they ever met again.

Preposterous and kitschy, monstrous even, this story. Yet Grumbach (b. 1939)—many of whose relatives were murdered in the Shoah and who himself survived as a hidden child—has a trick up his sleeve. In an epilogue he addresses an imagined reader who wants to know whether this is “a true story.” Over three pages he arraigns the question—why challenge the veracity of the story when so many question the veracity of the events?—concluding that fiction can tell a truth that history cannot. I happen to agree, but I’m unconvinced by Grumbach’s example. It lacks the sophistication of, say, Ida Fink, whose own short works incisively probe the limitations of the historical record, limitations that fiction can redress. I appreciate how Grumbach pulls the rug out from the heartwarming story many readers might have been moved by—but he’s too self-congratulatory and not all that smart about what his rug-pulling means.

Yishai Sarid, The Memory Monster (2017) Trans. Yardenne Greenspan (2020)

Novella about an Israeli academic who is groomed by the head of Yad Vashem—to whom the book is written as a letter after an eventually specified moment of disgrace; a conceit I’m unconvinced is effective—to lead Israeli tour groups through Holocaust sites in Poland. At first he works with school groups, but his self-loathing and contempt for/fear of the young people becomes too much, and he starts working with dignitaries, who care about photo ops instead of information. He knows too much, is the problem, and he needs to tell it all. But no one wants, or is in position, to hear it. The narrator begins to disintegrate, a process mimicked in the text’s ambiguous syntax. Here, for example, he is with his flock at Birkenau:

I stood before them over the underground undressing hall with the shaved roof, like a picked-over scab, underneath all rot.

Do the last clauses describe the roof, or the narrator? For he has become a memory monster, and as such must be banished. But it is equally true that memory itself is the monster. What is memory for? Does it cause more harm than good? Why do the visitors he ferries around—students, teachers, and politicians alike—say, with varying degrees of explicitness, that “to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too”? Sarid is excellent at skewering complacencies and false piety, whether Israeli or Polish. I agreed with so much in this book, was made nervous by the parts of myself I could see in the narrator. And yet The Memory Monster has not stayed with me. Maybe I’d need to read it again. For now, at least, I much prefer David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer, which covers some similar ground, but which has more to say than this book about teaching traumatic history.

Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1981) Trans. Ruth Feldman (1986)

Late work by the Italian master, a collection in which each essay focuses on someone Levi encountered in his eleven-month incarceration in the Monowitz subcamp of the Auschwitz complex. To call this a memoir as the English-language publisher does might seem misleading, but Levi was always more interested in others than himself. At first blush these pieces are primarily anecdotal, but they use obliquity and juxtaposition to create their own arguments. And Levi does open up about himself a little, although always indirectly, as we see in particular in his portrait of Lorenzo Perrone (the Piedmontese forced labourer who regularly slipped Levi extra rations), and in general in the fascinated way the essays return to allegorical stand-ins for the writer (conjurors, carpenters, violinists). I read this slim collection with some students and we agreed it packs a punch far beyond its size. If you’ve never read Levi, start with his classic first book, If This Is a Man but don’t sleep on this one. Underrated.

A weird thing: I don’t know whether the collection was conceived as such by Levi—as best I can tell, most of the pieces included here were in the original Italian, but one or two others have been added to this edition—a shame the Complete Works published in English a few years ago has such a terrible critical apparatus. Does anyone know?

Étienne Davodeau, The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs (2011) Trans. Joe Johnson (2013)

Keith tipped me off to this in his year-end review, and I’m glad he did. The subtitle tells the story, mostly: Davodeau helps his friend, Richard Leroy, a biodynamic wine producer in the Anjou, prune, harvest, decan tinker, while Leroy reads the comics Davodeau assigns him, visits a publisher, other artists, a comics con, even the press where the books are printed. Each learns to appreciate the labour that goes into the other’s work, and to think about what it means to be creative, have a passion, challenge expectations, respond to failure. It’s a generous book (it helps that people are always drinking wine, though a running joke is how few wines Leroy will agree to drink—not because they’re not famous enough, but because they aren’t interesting enough for him). Oddly, the winemaking comes across as much the more interesting of the two enterprises. Maybe that’s not odd at all: Davodeau is a realist and realism has always shone at explaining how to do things. You’d think a book like this would be plenty meta, but because that’s not Davodeau’s approach (he’s no Art Spiegelman, though he rightly admires him) his own métier comes across as a bit dull.

Anyway, lovely conceit, beautiful drawing. My only complaints: (1) the translation seems awkward (a typical sentence: “Marc-Antoine’s garden juxtaposes the deep blacks and sharp whites of his books by the moving affability of its shadows”—moving affability??) and (2) it’s so overwhelmingly guy. The book includes almost no female characters, and doesn’t find this as ridiculous as it should. Maybe the idea of métier is gendered in ways Davodeau misses the chance to explore. Indeed, the whole idea of métier could be complicated in relation to capitalism. Is the idea of vocation one that capitalism promulgates to further enslave us? Or is it a challenge to capitalism? There’s more to be said here.


Peg Kehret, Escaping the Giant Wave (2003)

My daughter was assigned this for school, and we read it together. It’s a lot worse than Hatchet. A teenage boy and his irritatingly quirky little sister accompany their parents on a working vacation to the Oregon coast. (The parents are in real estate; their firm is holding a retreat for its best agents.) Everything would be great except the lodge is under construction and they have to stay instead in a rickety old place, also there’s a tsunami warning out for the coast. No bigs. Oh yeah, Kyle’s nemesis, the school bully, comes along too. (His parents also being ace realtors.) Thalia and I agreed that the chapters describing the tsunami are by far the best. Kyle and his sister, who have been separated from their parents for reasons of plot rather than plausibility, run inland and uphill, just as they have been told. Even so they barely escape. Who knows what happened to the bully, who predictably poo-pooed the safety instructions. Afterward I asked Thalia if she wasn’t bothered that none of the books she’d read for school this year were about female characters, but she ignored my righteous indignation, concentrating on the fact that the book was finished and she could now read something else. Escaping the Wave isn’t entirely pointless—I’d no idea tsunamis ever hit Oregon. But yeah I don’t recommend this book.

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship, and Survival (2011)

On January 24, 1943, a convoy left the internment/transit camp at Compiègne for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among those deported were 230 French women, all associated with the resistance in some way, almost none of them Jewish. It was the only transport of its kind to leave occupied France. Moorehead has written a popular history of these women, the best known of which was the writer Charlotte Delbo. It’s a big task—that’s a lot of people to keep track of—and Moorehead doesn’t really succeed. She wants to do justice to these women, fair enough, but it’s hard to write a group portrait when you’re beholden to an idea of narrative history centered on the individual.

I read A Train in Winter with four students and we agreed we couldn’t keep anyone straight. Perhaps more importantly, we were frustrated both by the book’s structure and its lack of analysis. The first half considers Vichy France, the activities of the resistance, and the deplorably avid willingness of the French security apparatus to do the Germans’ dirty work for them; useful enough background, but nothing Moorehead has to say here is new, and into this general material she has to shoehorn the clandestine experiences (sabotage, resistance, betrayal, arrest) of her protagonists. The second half shifts to the women of the convoy and their experiences in the concentration camp system (first Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück). It is more focused, more dramatic, and more successful.

Yet here the failures of analyses become most apparent. Moorehead asserts—to be fair, on the testimony of the surviving women themselves, whether in the interviews she was able to perform with the handful still alive at the time of writing or in written documents (Delbo’s books again playing an outsized role)—that women experienced the camps differently than men. There’s plenty of evidence to support this idea, but exactly how and why is more complicated than Moorehead admits. She relies instead on gender essentialism, though she vacillates on whether she’s quoting the women themselves or affirming the idea herself: “Their own particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical, made them, as they told themselves, less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair” (that “as they told themselves” reads like a hedge—Moorehead cites no source here; impossible to know if she’s speculating or transcribing). She similarly makes general statements about group solidarity without telling us why they might be true:

those who came from recognized groups—the communists, the Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie—were team players … the French, as a national group, were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own.

“Recognized groups” is doing a hell of a lot of work here. (The part in the ellipsis disparages rich Parisians as the most selfish of the prisoners—isn’t that a “recognized group” too?) And Moorehead conveniently leaves out the fact that as political prisoners, these women had a better (though still terrible) experience than Jewish ones, which surely contributed to their “national” solidarity. In fact, the whole idea of nationalism verges uncomfortably on the longstanding rootlessness canard of antisemites everywhere, not least the Nazis. As if that wasn’t enough, Moorehead too often implies that survival was a matter of willpower (“Even as the French women reached Birkenau, it was clear that not all would, or could, or would choose, to survive”—I’m allergic to this language).

I’m glad to know about the existence of this convoy, am impelled to finally read Delbo, and was fascinated to learn about the experimental farm at Raisko/Rajsko, a subcamp run by I. G. Farben where inmates (including some of the French women) cultivated an Asian dandelion whose roots the Nazis hoped to synthesize into rubber. (Conditions on the farm were positively human compared to Birkenau: the women slept in beds with sheets, were able to wash regularly, ate meals rather than watery cabbage soup.) But all told I regret the time I spent reading A Train in Winter. Moorehead has written three other books about fascism in France and Italy, styling them into a loose quartet. After this one I’m in no hurry to read the others.

Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)

Maigret is called to Arpajon, about an hour south of Paris, to investigate a strange crime. The location is a busy crossroads just outside town, uninhabited except for a gas station, the villa of a parvenu insurance salesman, and a cottage that a reclusive Danish designer and his sister have recently rented. A man has been found dead in the salesman’s car—but the car is parked at the designer’s house. His, meanwhile, has been moved to the salesman’s. The foggy, bleak atmosphere is good, but there’s not enough eating and drinking to make it a top-notch Maigret. Throughout, the inspector seems unaccountably weary—an emotion that might be ascribed to the near-ridiculousness of the plot. Maigret’s response to a kerfuffle between two suspects could describe the book as a whole:

For some strange reason, this entire episode had not risen to the level of tragedy, or even drama. It was more like buffoonery.

Mary Kelly, The Spoilt Kill (1961)


I had been spying on Corinna for two weeks; spying on her for pay.

Good first line, right? The narrator is a PI specializing in industrial espionage. Corinna is a designer at a Staffordshire pottery firm called Shentall. Its owner hires the narrator to find out who is passing on the company’s designs to an American competitor. As the opening makes clear, though, the narrator might not mind spying on the woman. Indeed, in a manner beguilingly at once sinister and generous, he soon falls for Corinna.

In Staffordshire, centre of the British pottery industry for two centuries, kiln is pronounced kill. A “spoilt kill” is a firing that’s gone wrong, preserving some blemish immutably, such that the product can only be smashed and thrown away. A spoilt kill is an expensive mistake.

There are expensive mistakes aplenty in this excellent crime novel, especially in the narrator’s mishandling of his relationship to Corinna, who doubles as the prime suspect and his love interest. Kelly uses the plasticity of clay—the way shaping and heating turns brute material into beautiful but fragile pottery—as a metaphor for the hardening of human relationships. In a typical passage, the narrator dissects a heightened moment with the object of his desire and suspicion:

The look she gave me then. Joyful, triumphant, and aghast, How can a look be all that at once? I don’t know. I know nothing, nothing. These moments, these glances, flash past too quickly for analysis. Besides, I turned away. One always turns away. If one didn’t, all would be well.

This is real Ishiguro stuff: a narrator trying but failing to understand other people, and, in the process, failing to understand himself. In so doing, he reveals to readers things he himself doesn’t know. We read “against” him, even if doing so doesn’t eventuate into any clear understanding. In this example, the tell is the narrator’s recourse to “one”—a failed attempt to universalize his own failure.

Here’s another unwittingly offered revelation, this time about the narrator’s snobbery. His cover at the factory—he’s meant to be writing a history of the firm—means he’s welcomed into the social life of its tightly knit workers. Invited to a party by a hale, conventional, but kind and lively young man, a favourite at work, the narrator is surprised by the man’s home:

The house was in good repair, spotless, decorated throughout in slightly off-key colours, startling, unusual and weak: ‘contemporary’ intentions, diluted by time and democracy, and even then imperfectly grasped.

Unpleasant, right? Interestingly, though, Kelly holds back from making him thoroughly disagreeable. For me, much of the power of the book comes from a female author writing a male character. Not that Kelly is breaking new ground here or anything, but I was struck by several moments I doubt a male writer would have included. Here, the narrator, who has been married before, takes Corinna back to her flat. She doesn’t feel well because she’s getting her period. The narrator settles her for the night:

How strange, yet how mustily familiar, like coming home after a long holiday, to light the geyser, run the bath, fill the hot water bottle, put on the gas fire, turn down the bed—to do these things for a menstruating woman was the fabric of marriage, one of its few memories that was not unhappy but quiet, neutral, steadying in its ordinariness.

I’m not sure, exactly, that this response is nice. (Maybe a little self-satisfied? What do you think?) But I’m fascinated by its inclusion. All in all, The Spoilt Kill is suspenseful, well-written, and interesting. (You’ll learn a lot—but not too much—about making pottery.) An unusual, and unusually successful, book. Kelly didn’t write much, but I look forward to reading more. Fortunately, the British Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards, is reissuing another one later this year.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869) Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, Revised Amy Mandelker (2010)


This one needs a post or two of its own. For now I’ll tell the story of my previous attempts to read it—and my fantasy of how I thought I eventually would.

First attempt, late 1990s, twenty-hour train-ride from Toronto to Halifax. I bought a lovely Everyman Library hardcover of the Garnett translation, with a forbiddingly unvarnished, minimalist dust-jacket. Like Charlie Brown in the tv special, I dragged it around a whole winter’s vacation (my girlfriend and I were spending Christmas with her family). I abandoned it pretty soon after arriving—in fact, there is still a bookmark at p 186 (Pierre has just been nudged into convincing himself he loves Hélène)—but I guess I read it on the train. I say I guess because the only thing I remember about the trip—something I do remember quite often, it was so remarkable—is waking up in the early morning, the train chugging through New Brunswick, along the Miramachi, I think, with absolute piles of snow flanking the tracks. More snow than I’d ever seen before (which is saying something). Snow towering on the rooftops, snow drifting almost up the rooftops, that kind of thing. It was sunny and cold, that sunshine-y cold that is marvelous and crisp but also really fucking cold—and just magical. We had breakfast in the dining car and my girlfriend persuaded me to order fishcakes and a pot of tea and it was absolutely delicious. Maybe I gave up on the book because I had the Russian winter of my dreams right outside the window.

Years later, now living in a different country, married, a father (I think, I actually can’t remember if this was before or after we had T—an event that destroyed my memory, possibly for good), I made my second attempt. Now I had a different hardcover, the Peaver & Volokhonsky translation, an even bigger, more unwieldy book—its size being, I maintain, the main reason I didn’t persist past the first few dozen pages. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but it was kind of hard keeping everyone straight, and it was the winter vacation (I associate the book strongly with winter, even after having read it), and so I quietly set it aside.

I’d see them on the shelf, though, those War & Peaces, and they just kept forbiddingly insisting themselves on me. I’d sometimes lugubriously think that if I were diagnosed with cancer or something I would immediately take them up again to be spared the indignity and wasted life of dying without having read War and Peace. (Of course when I did later have a cancer scare that was the last thing on my mind.) But as time passed and my current sabbatical crept into view, I concocted a plan, the kind that keeps you going in tough times, like when you’re grinding up a hill into a headwind late in a run. I would spend a week all by myself in the Canadian Rockies. It would be fall, late September maybe, the most glorious time in the mountains but one I never get to experience anymore because of the academic calendar. I would take only War and Peace, so I wouldn’t be tempted to read anything else. I’d live without internet in a bee-loud glade. I’d hike every day, admiring the turning larches, while also finishing the novel, I saw no problem there. I pictured myself reading late into the night after a simple but satisfying supper of all the things no one else in my family likes to eat, sipping scotch. (This is how I know this scenario was pure fantasy, I do not much care for scotch, it just seems like something I should like.) How this was all going to work in reality was of no concern—and when the pandemic arrived it became clear that I wouldn’t have to worry about turning fantasy into reality.

In the end, reality was less triumphant than imagination—but it had the benefit of being real. I did, once again in winter, though not in a single immersive burst but instead over eight weeks, sometimes more intensively sometimes less, what with all the bits of daily family life to manage, actually read War and Peace. And it’s terrific.

Paraic O’Donnell, The House on Vesper Sands (2018)

Enjoyable 19th-century pastiche, bit of a Wilkie Collins vibe. Unusually, it’s as interested in the supernatural as in crime—I guess you’d call it urban magic—though its alternate-reality, speculative aspects aren’t as developed as they could be. In O’Donnell’s Victorian London, certain women emanate a kind of half-physical, half-psychological vibrancy that select others can perceive. And now someone is killing them. It’s up to Inspector Cutter, a gruff genius with a nice line in cursing the limitations of his juniors; Gideon Bliss, a disillusioned divinity student with a personal investment in the situation; and Octavia Hillingdon, a tyro journalist, to solve the case. The House on Vesper Sands is that rarest of books: one I wish had been longer, so that it could have fleshed out the implications of its scenario. As it is, it has strong characters, who exceed the caricatures they initially seem to fall into and whom I can absolutely imagine carrying a long-running series, and excellent writing, which never feels forced and is often genuinely arresting. A mournful Ben Aaronovitch, a fantastical Sarah Waters: take your pick.

Georges Simenon, The Yellow Dog (1931) Trans. Linda Asher (1987, revised 2013)

In a small town in Brittany, a man on his way home from a night out with the boys at the local café is shot while stopping in a doorway to light his cigar. A mysterious yellow dog is spotted at the scene of the crime. The next day it shows up in the café itself. Before long—everything happens fast in a Simenon—bad things befall the man’s friends: one turns up dead, one narrowly escapes poisoning, one disappears leaving only a bloodstained car. And that animal keeps showing up: is the yellow dog a red herring? Maigret sorts things out, which mostly means avoiding reporters and telling the mayor to shut up. Great opening scene, decent ending: absolutely serviceable.

On the whole, an underwhelming reading month—except for War and Peace. Genuinely titanic, worth every minute. That Mary Kelly’s good too, though. See you next month.

12 thoughts on “What I Read, January 2021

  1. I re-read War and Peace in December. Interesting that it seems indeed a better read or re-read for Winter. My previous times reading it were also in Winter. Maybe we are subconsciously channeling Natasha Rostova’s divinations games and “mask”-wearing figures in the troika trip to the neighbors at Yolka time…

  2. I love your reading diary – though it’s a lot to take in! I’ve read both the Maigrets – it’s true, some are better than others. I’ve just read a two where he’s retired, one set in New York has a couple of great supporting characters. I haven’t read War and Peace for years and it’s definitely due a re-read. I was also interested in your take on Vesper Sands as I have a copy on Kindle – sounds a bit like Charles Palliser’s Quincunx.

    • Thanks, Grant. I’d been avoiding the new Maigrets because I didn’t want to buy them, but the library here is getting them now so I plan to make my way through them.

      I can see that WAR & PEACE is a book I’ll want to read a few more times.

      I think VESPER might indeed be similar to the QUINCUNX. I’ve had that here for ages and keep meaning to get to it. Do you recommend?

  3. I really enjoyed The House on Vesper Sands–I was surprised by how much, God knows why but I hadn’t been expecting to like it that much; I think the control and the wit in the prose snuck up on me. Agree that it should be longer (a rare thing!), more fleshed out. Will await your longer take on War and Peace with interest, though I very much like the story about reading it on a train in the snow. Most apropos!

    • Nice description of O’Donnell’s prose. I asked him if there would be further books; he was cagey but seemed to suggest yes.

      Thanks, that train ride was, in retrospect, really one of the amazing experiences in my life!

  4. A great round-up as ever, D. I think I shall have to get hold of the Kelly at some point. It sounds sufficiently different from the norm, especially give the raft of titles now available in the BLCC series. Plus that Staffordshire setting really appeals…

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