What I read, June 2021

In June I realized my sabbatical is in fact coming to an end. (Technically, it ended last week, but I have a few weeks’ grace until the school years grinds into gear.) Soon I will be back among people all the time; this knowledge made me anxious. The weight I gained over the pandemic made me depressed. The discoveries at two of the many former Residential Schools in Canada shocked but did not surprise me. (Similar mass graves will be found at others in the coming months, I have no doubt.) The extreme heat and firestorms in the West, including my home province terrified me; ironically, the weather in Arkansas was cooler than usual. (This too a function of climate of change, of course.) Everything seemed ominous. I was working hard, too, mostly on an essay I’m excited to share with you all in August. My daughter and I started taking one of the dogs for a walk each morning: that was a good thing. As to reading, the month started strong, then tailed off. Here’s what I finished.

Georgia O’Keefe, Evening Star III, 1917

Madeleine Watts, The Inland Sea (2020)

Strong debut novel about a young woman, fresh out of university, who takes a job as an emergency dispatcher, eliciting from panicked callers where in Australia they are and which service to connect them to. Filled with wonderful place names and terrible events, The Inland Sea is a novel of emergencies: fires and petty crimes and surfing accidents, but also the narrator’s depression and despair, the violent settler colonialism of Australia’s past and present, and above all the changing climate. A wildfire from the early 90s, which the narrator’s family had to flee, is a primal moment the novel returns to again and again, presenting it as a harbinger of the terrible changes to come. The title refers to the 19th century settler belief that the continent’s rivers must have had a common source; the mythical inland sea stands in for all hubristic fantasies that aim to make reality fit ideology. (Patrick White, especially his novel Voss, about a megalomaniac explorer, is referenced repeatedly: the shittiest of the narrator’s shitty exes is writing a thesis about him.)

The Inland Sea captures the rage and despair that I’ve seen in younger people these past years, faced as they are with an increasingly uncertain future, and that I am myself enveloped in more every day. (It’s the same future; they just have, or should have, more of it.) Here the narrator reflects on her mother—whom she loves and is close to but can’t tell anything important to:

This was what my mother had never understood. The things she never would have done—moving out of the city, dropping out of the university system and into paid-by-the-hour work, reckless sex and drinking—they were not things I did because I didn’t know any better. I just didn’t think there was any point in trying to shelter myself. If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided. Emergency would come for you no matter what you did.

In this moment the dispatch center comes close to mere symbol. Fortunately it’s usually described more fully, though I wouldn’t have minded learning even more about it. (I loved the details, like the mid-morning lull when older women, mostly widows, call in with invariably false stories of burglaries or strange men in the back garden.)

The Inland Sea reminded me of some other recent novels—like Conversations with Friends, with its description of endometriosis—that present women’s bodies as a site of violence and harm, even when the women who live in those bodies try to take charge of them: here, a procedure to implant an IUD goes badly. As the narrator concludes, “My body could not be made to behave. It disdained all methods of prevention and protection.” Danger everywhere.

Last thought: I only know Australia from books, which means I know nothing, but I’ve always thought Melbourne was the cool place and Sydney beautiful but tedious, but Watts makes Sydney seem, not appealing, really, it’s mostly a terrifying landscape of drunk men lurching after women, but something other than the “world city” of the opera house and Bondi beach. The final image, of the narrator swimming in Gordon’s Bay, looking back at the “scum of waste… weeds and straws and band Aids and bottles” washed up after yet another 100-year storm, reminded me of the ambivalent swimming scene at the end of Cusk’s Kudos.

Doris Lessing would have liked this book.

Anakana Schofield, Bina (2019)

Bina—“Bye-na not Bee-na,” consider yourself warned—is 74. Who know how long she had left: she has a lot to say even if it’s not what you want to hear (“I’m here to warn you, not reassure you”), so she’s not going to waste any time. Empathy has been her undoing (interesting, given how empathetic this book is): it led her to invite a Bad Man into her home, who abused her and took advantage or her and whose return she daily fears; it got her involved in a secret organization that helps people end their lives which in turn led to her arrest. We let people into our lives, Bina says, it’s what we do. The trouble is getting them back out. Bina reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy, not just because it’s set in Ireland (though Schofield now lives in Canada) but because of its fascination with both the rhythms of spoken language and the frailty of the human body (there’s a relationship there I’m not able to articulate just now—or maybe I’m just following Bina’s quite Beckettian demand that “the explanation-hungry get over themselves”).

Bina is a fabulous character: self-aware (“I was a great woman for delivering the verdicts to others that I could neither conjure or conquer for myself”), wise (“I have noticed that it’s the decent people who are buried/While it’s the parasites and demolishers who endure”), scathing (“There are those reading and thinking, isn’t she daft, why didn’t she walk or why didn’t she do this or that. Well I am not worried about you, because maybe you’ve had the good fortune to be trained different and would not scupper yourself this way. And it’s it as well for you.”), and funny (women have to get up and pee at night because they are “widdling the confused strain of anger gathered up there all day”—why men have to pee at night is a mystery, “perhaps it’s God’s subtle way of tormenting them. He goes straight for the pipe does our Saviour”).

Schofield is a terrific writer (men like Eddy, the Bad Man, are “bullies in woolens”): I loved this book and can’t wait to read her others.

Bryan Washington, Lot (2019)

Many of the stories in this debut collection center feature versions of the same family: black father (sometimes absconded, sometimes just about to), Latina mother, daredevil older brother, sister looking to get the hell out, and at the center, the young gay narrator. Restaurant kitchens, johns, animals in the bayous—this isn’t the Houston of Rice, the Menil Collection, or even Minute Maid Park. That world is present only at the edges of the frame, mostly through the specter of gentrification. No surprise that a book called Lot is interested in real estate (not to mention one’s lot in life, having a lot to deal with and a lot to live for, and maybe even Lot of Genesis, who looked upon and fled Sodom). Much as I would miss Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, I’m thinking of replacing it with Lot as the centerpiece collection the next time I teach my course on the short story. My students—a good number of whom are from Houston, though rarely the parts described in the book—would like it, I suspect, and I’ll be able to decide if it’s as good as my first reading suggests.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

Fantastic. Read this in college, probably a year after the movie came out (I believe it was the first film I saw as a college student), and, I realize now, completely missed the point. Not only did the story seem slight, worse, I identified with Newland Archer, the ironic yet self-satisfied scion of a wealthy New York family in the 1860s whose imminent marriage to athletic, kind, incurious May is threatened by the return of her disgraced cousin, Ellen, on the run from a bad marriage to a Polish nobleman, with whom he falls in love. Wharton’s irony—her brilliant control of the narrative voice—passed me right by. I can’t think of a better advertisement for re-reading than my experience returning to this novel—though I now wonder how many other books I’ve misunderstood over the years.

Newland is such a carefully constructed character, his world-view so dominant, his criticisms of a world he loves and is much more enmeshed in than he ever realizes so easy to side with, that it is easy to miss that this is in fact a novel of two women, neither of whose interiority we ever access directly. Both May and Ellen are so much more interesting than Newland realizes. Ellen, in particular, fascinates as a figure who has suffered greatly from men, including from Archer, who is nowhere near as nice to her as he thinks he is, but who gains hard-won freedom—not least from us, the intrusive readers. (The bit players are wonderful too, from the titanic Mrs. Mingott to the ladies’ man Beaufort to the subdued Janey, Archer’s sister—I would have liked more of her.)

The novel is filled with rituals, rites, tutelary deities, and the like, the whole language of the ascendant anthropology of the 1920s. This motif is connected to Archer’s interest in the moeurs of New York society, which he studies as another scholar might the curious customs of some primitive tribe. He mostly has Ellen to thank for this—when he first visits her bohemian downtown apartment (unfashionable neighbourhood, artistic tchotchkes, and all), he decides the advice he wants to give her on how to behave in society is as useless in her bohemian world as warning someone bargaining in a Samarkand market about New York winters. Ellen, he thinks, has helped him see his native city clearly: “Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.” Archer fancies himself having transcended his world—now seeing it as curious as anywhere else—but you look foolish holding a telescope the wrong way ‘round, and Archer doesn’t have it in him to pursue the idea to its logical consequences. Maybe his privilege—his ability to imagine himself being rescued by Ellen from what no doubt feels genuinely and excruciatingly like a spiritual wasteland—isn’t as natural as he believes.

But before we get too comfortable at our own perspicaciousness in seeing through Archer, we might wonder at what we want from this novel. I read the new Penguin Classics edition (the cover of which was roundly pooh-poohed on Twitter, though I don’t mind it myself), and you should too, because the introduction by Sarah Blackwood is outstanding. (There’s also a Foreword by Elif Batuman—her name is on the cover—which is fine but nothing special.) Blackwood deftly summarizes the result of Wharton’s narrative decisions:

In keeping us in Archer’s perspective, Wharton allows us to experience the limited and impoverished viewpoint of a selfish young man, even as we are drawn to him and his desires, even as we relate to how deeply and ineffectually he wants.

[That’s what I missed as an undergraduate. I identified with his tragic position without seeing the harm it incited.]

Thus I read passages like this, in which Archer reflects on his mother and sister, as sympathetic:

Mother and daughter adored each other and revered their son and brother; and Archer loved them with a tenderness made compunctious [a word to warm the fussy heart of the lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener] and uncritical by the sense of their exaggerated admiration, and by his secret satisfaction in it. After all, he thought it a good thing for a man to have his authority respected in his own house, even if his sense of humour sometimes made him question the force of his mandate.

That it is anything but natural for him to have been granted such a mandate—and what it means for the organization of the world that he does—never intrudes on even his rueful thoughtfulness.

Blackwood continues by offering a startling and brilliant reading of what she rightly calls the novel’s “innovative’ ending:

By one metric, the fully realized novel [as opposed to drafts in which Wharton had Newland and Ellen get together, only to realize they had nothing in common] is a tragic story of two people trying to surmount the obstacles to their love. But in another… the published novel does have a happy ending. The Age of Innocence is one of the only stories Wharton ever wrote where everyone does, indeed, ‘get what [they] want.’ May gets to achieve the sentimental, sacrificial maternal and wifely status she desired. Newland gets to feel like an outsider while remaining an insider; he experiences no shortage of people to enlighten over the years. [Archer, Blackwood notes, is a preeminent mansplainer.] And Ellen? Well, Ellen gets to live a life that evades even our own prying eyes.

In this way, she finds a way to evade both the cruelty of impermanence—at the not-yet-fashionable Metropolitan Museum she regrets the way daily objects and implements, once so important to the people who made and used them, fade into obscurity until they are exhibited in a vitrine labelled “Use unknown”—and the cruelty of “the meanwhile,” of life as it is lived before time’s transience has done its work, a cruelty Archer fails to understand.

If you’re past your own age of innocence—though how can we ever know that we have reached this stage?—I urge you to read or reread this American masterpiece.

Mick Herron, Real Tigers (2016)

More adventures for the Slow Horses. Totally enjoyable. Not as good as the first, but better than the second. Since I love Standish the most, I both appreciated and was alarmed by the plot. Odd the way Herron frames these books with extended descriptions of Slough House from the perspective of a ghost or spirit stalking its floors, which I fancifully want to believe he has borrowed from the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Mick Herron, Spook Street (2017)

I mean, it’s a spy novel, but even so this one is a little preposterous. Still has its moments, but the bait-and-switch it pulls midway through annoyed me.

Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (2021)

Fascinating & detailed narrative history about female resistance fighters in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos. Smuggling information, living under false papers, shooting Nazis, stitching up partisans: these young women did exciting, dangerous, and important work. I have reservations about the book’s tone, structure, and narrativizing tendencies, but Light of Days is a valuable, accessible book that is well-sourced. So useful to have this experience brought to non-Yiddish speakers. Writing about it for another outlet, so more soon.

Jessica J. Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest (2020)

Memoir/nature writing by a Canadian writer of Taiwanese and British ancestry who now lives in Berlin (with all the other writers). The book tries to do a lot: relate walks and bike rides all over Taiwan, narrate the history of her mother’s family and their journey from mainland China to Canada via Taiwan, probe the family’s silences and antagonisms. All while giving us a potted history of the discovery of the island’s flora and fauna by mostly European scientist explorers. The weaving of these various strands isn’t always seamless. But each concerns the task of naming, defining, or fixing. Which explains Lee’s interest in mapmaking, language differences, and histories of classification. In each case these gaps—her difficulty, as a child in southern Ontario, in communicating with her Chinese Taiwanese grandparents, for example—prove to be both generative and debilitating, connecting even as they separate. That paradox leads to Lee’s final comparison, spurred by a trek through the Shanlinxi forest and its enormous cedars, of people to trees, connected through subterranean roots that make of these separate entities a forest. Language itself carries this affinity within it, Lee argues, noting that Carl Linneaus’s name is rendered in Chinese by characters meaning “someone related to the forest” or “someone who endures the forest” (the latter suggestion especially fraught and intriguing). To model human interrelatedness on the nonhuman natural world, Lee suggests, isn’t fanciful; it’s an expression of the truth of our own insignificance: “our fleeting human worlds are so easily swallowed up by nature, our fate fastened to its course. What we believe to be culture is only ever a fragment of natural world that we have sectioned off, enclosed, pearl-like, for posterity.”

I did not like Two Trees unreservedly—the writing is uneven: sometimes genuinely affecting, sometimes straining for lyricism—but I learned a lot. I recommend Nicie’s reflections on her own ambivalence.

Jeong You-Jeong, Seven Years of Darkness (2011) Trans. Kim Chi-Young (2020)

Compelling sort-of crime novel from Korea, a bit Gothic, a bit horror. Reminded me of Les Revenants (The Returned), that French show about ghosts—not least because both show and novel feature villages flooded by the construction of hydroelectric dams. If I knew more about Korean history I might suggest that Seven Years of Darkness is an allegory of the country’s rapid modernization. There’s that dam, of course, but also all kinds of sophisticated surveillance technologies A novel, then, about both 20th and 21st century technologies. Good stuff; I’ll definitely be reading more Jeong.

Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone (2019)

Second in the Perveen Mistry books about a female solicitor in 1920s India. This time Perveen travels to a Himalayan princely state (once again to interview women in purdah). That world is interesting and compellingly presented. Perveen gains a possible love interest; that worked for me too. Massey is a plodding writer, though; suspense is not her forte. The third book has just been published but I’m not sure I’ll keep reading.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)

I enjoyed my online class with Samantha Rose Hill on The Origins of Totalitarianism so much that I signed up for one on Arendt’s follow-up, The Human Condition. Much shorter, but much more philosophical, harder to read. Sam is a great teacher, though, and the class was filled with smart people from literally all around the world. (Zoom doesn’t always suck.) Arendt and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but the scope of her thinking and its anti-transcendence are inspiring.

We live, so Arendt, between the no-longer and the not-yet: there is no ideal society because there is no teleology to our lives or this universe. We have to rethink the human condition all the time based on experience, on what is. In her concern with what is, Arendt might seem like a materialist; she might seem, in other words, to be influenced by Marx. And indeed, the book began as a study of Marx, but became something else, especially as Arendt offers a (pretty idiosyncratic and, I am told, weak) reading of Marx. Marx believed labour to be the essence of human experience, Arendt argues, but he also wanted to liberate us from labour (and its alienation). Which would mean there would be no more human essence. Marx, Arendt continues, failed to distinguish between labour and work. Labour is necessary, but limited and limiting. It consumes itself because its task is consumption. Labour is endless, even circular: we need to feed and clothe ourselves, take care of our children and elders, etc. Almost all of the ways we spend our time and earn our living today are forms of labour. (Even the things we do in our spare time—our hobbies, which Arendt is hilariously scornful about—are just disguised labour.) Work, by contrast, is fabrication, it makes something that is durable, that is made of (some element of) the earth but exceeds the earth by the process of shaping and making. Work has dignity, though it barely exists anymore (says Arendt in the late 1950s), some scientists and, mostly, artists are the only ones lucky enough to work in this way.

In the process, Arendt, using Augustine’s concept of the love of the world, overturns the dualism present since Aristotle between the life of contemplation and the life of action. Philosophy has always valued the former and denigrated the second. Arendt flips this around. Because only in action can politics come into being. (Politics is when people come together to bring about a new beginning—always risky, always unstable, something like revolution; it is not the administration of the results of that action: that’s the political, bureaucracy, an all-around bad scene.) To love the world is to look at it for what it is, to face reality, to see all the good and evil in it. The Human Condition is a secular theodicy, a vindication of the world. We should not want to get outside ourselves—Arendt references Kafka’s parable of the man who found an Archimedean point but only because he was able to use it only against himself as a warning against the idea of transcendence—which explains why she is so fixated on the Sputnik rocket: it’s an image of science’s failed attempt to find that impossible place outside the world, impossible because what science has done with its Archimedean discovery is to use it against the human, to turn away from our experience in the world. We live in a world without much freedom (the world of consuming, of language deadened into cliché, of administrative rationality) but the possibility of freedom is always there. Things can always be different than they are. We know this because of what Arendt ominously/grandiosely calls “natality,” by which she simply means that we are born and we die. Every time someone is born something utterly new has come into the world. It is this principle of change—which is politics properly considered—that we must live by.

My summary surely misunderstands Arendt in some ways—please correct me. But it’s stirring stuff. I recommend Arendt, especially if you have someone to help you through it. I couldn’t help, however, but find her emphasis on the human overbearing and misguided in the time of the Anthropocene. I’m not sure the earth can take the world Arendt wants us to build. I so wish she were alive to help us think our current moment. But she’d probably tell me that’s for us to do…

Georgia O’Keefe, Sun Water Maine, 1922

Lots to recommend here, I hope you’ll find something you like the sound of and that you’ll share your favourites of the month. Above all, (re) read The Age of Innocence: it’s really something.

23 thoughts on “What I read, June 2021

  1. Great, you made me want to re-read Wharton’s The Age of Innocence. I also read it in college but I never felt sympathetic to Archer, only to Ellen.

    • I mean, I felt sympathetic to her too; I was as in love with her as Archer was. (Sympathy and love are not the same, I know.) But I also thought he was a stand-up guy, and that’s where I was wrong!
      Definitely worth re-reading…

  2. That’s a lot of reading! and writing, too – you’ve published a lot during this sabbatical! Where’s the new one coming out? I haven’t read The Age of Innocence in so long I can’t even really remember it: you make me definitely want to revisit it. My book club read The House of Mirth a few years ago, though, and I was bowled over completely by it – so good. Bina, on the other hand, I started because you and others were enthusing so much about it … and just couldn’t. Maybe another time.

    • Funny, I just took House of Mirth out of the suitcase–trying to keep the number of books reasonable–but I will definitely be reading it soon.

      Shame Bina didn’t work out for you. I’d be curious to hear more, if you want to share. But different strokes, etc., and as you say sometimes the timing just isn’t right.

  3. I thought Lot was very good as well. It’ll be interesting, if you do, what your undergraduates make of it. It wasn’t my part of Houston (Rice undergraduate) either when I was there, but a few parts recalled what I remembered.
    I also haven’t read Age of Innocence since the movie. Having read a few other Whartons recently I’ve been thinking about returning to it. This is inducement.

    • Glad you’ve read Lot (got plenty of good press, but I don’t know many people who’ve read it). I think it’s going to be a big hit. But we shall see. Rice–such a great school! Did you enjoy?
      You might be surprised on re-reading AGE. I sure was.

  4. Fascinating perspective on reading AGE OF INNOCENCE in college and your thoughts now, Dorian. I read it in my early 20s and loved it then, but you are right, I don’t recollect Archer as a a complete jerk, and I am pretty sure I would feel differently now. I won’t be surprised if I’ve missed a lot more naunces in the novel.

    So I am really, really tempted to reread Age. I have been on a bit of a Wharton spree lately – read The Custom of the Country and her New York Stories (the NYRB edition) last year…and The House of Mirth and Old New York this year. All brilliant and would heartily recommend.

    • Thanks, R. I don’t think Archer is a *complete* jerk. But he *way* more of a jerk than he thinks he is. Great to hear you’ve enjoyed other Wharton. I have several of these here waiting for me, and just ordered the NY Stories in the latest NYRB sale.

      I’m really curious about Old New York. How was that?

      • Old New York is a collection of four novellas set in 19th Century New York, from the first in 1840 to the last in 1870. Once again, an excellent portrayal of New York society at the time – it’s rigid social mores, the hypocrisy and how rules were always different for women. “The Old Maid”, particularly, is the finest novella of the lot.

  5. It’s the next post I plan to put up. Finished it a couple of weeks ago, but I am hoping to write about it either today or tomorrow.
    I bought it online from Blackwells – a brand new copy in the classic green Virago edition. Something to consider when you are thinking of buying more books😀

  6. The last time someone told me to read a Wharton book, I did so immediately and didn’t regret it for a second so… yeah. I will need this exact edition though, so I can read Sarah Blackwood! Thanks for helping me discover a favourite critic; her essay that I shared with you on twitter completely changed my perspective on Wharton.

    Bina didn’t work too well for me, but Malarkey is one of my favourite books of all time, and Martin John is very powerful (so repugnant the subject matter, hard to call it a favourite!)

  7. Good luck back in the real world, interacting with people – I found it most odd when I first started doing this after our lockdowns, and I’m still not entirely comfortable about it…

    A great month of reading. Arendt is an interesting and complex character – having read a book about her recently, I’m not sure what I think. I need to read more by and about her before I come to a decision!

  8. I love Edith Wharton, but still have several of her books to read. I wonder how I would react to The Age of Innocence now. I did re-read it several years ago but still thought I preferred The House of Mirth, and others. However, I do remember not much liking Archer at all.

  9. A tragic Newland, boy, yeah, that would lead you in a whole ‘nother direction. Wharton is using two of the trickiest traps, the unperceptive point of view and the comic tragedy. I thought – but I read it late – that Newland was hilarious.

    “She was advanced far enough to join him in ridiculing the Idylls of the King, but not to feel the beauty of Ulysses and the Lotus Eaters.”

  10. Unlike you, I didn’t read The Age of Innocence until my 40’s, and my experience was that I very much identified with Newland even as I fully realized what a jerk he was being. Which in turn made me think a lot about myself… in short, I felt very seen by that damn (brilliant) book!

  11. I did not get past the first Perveen Mistry book – plodding is the word for the writing, such a shame with the fascinating setting and background history.

    I’ll definitely put The Age of Innocence on the to be reread list — I can’t remember it making much of an impression at the time I read it, but hopefully have more maturity and perspective now. Plus commentaries such as yours to help broaden my perspective!

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