What I Read, August 2021

I know, I know, this thing is late. Here it is, almost October and me still going on about August. Had a lot going on, though. Back to full-time work after a year’s sabbatical (the Sunday night of all Sunday nights, let me tell you). Plus my wife moved temporarily to St. Louis to complete an MSW degree. So August was split between setting her up in her place there—St. Louis is so great!—and starting the new academic year, for me and our daughter (last year of elementary, how did that happen?). I fit reading in where I could—I go nuts if I don’t—but it wasn’t the top priority. Here’s how that shook down.

Childe Hassam, Clouds (also known as Rain Clouds over Oregon Desert), 1908

Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Slander (1960)

When I wrote last month about the first Jim Sader PI novel, which I liked a lot, I alluded to its sequel, in my opinion a genuine masterpiece that anyone with even a passing interest in PI novels should read. In sleep with Slander, Sader is hired to find a kidnapped child. The boy’s grandfather has received an anonymous letter explaining that the child has been taken from the people the grandfather put him with (his daughter had the child out of wedlock) and is now being abused. Things get complicated fast, as Sader runs up against one closed door after another. Unlike in some detective stories, where the complexity becomes an end in its own right (Chandler, say, even Hammett), here the plot never obscures the hurt at the heart of the matter. The book feels urgent, even more so than in Ross Macdonald, whose Archer novels Sleep with Slander shares a preoccupation with, specifically, the way families pass along their hatreds. Hitchens contributes her share to the California rhapsodies sung by generations of crime writers—when Sader turns his car from the ocean at Laguna Beach and up into a canyon “the sea wind followed, funneling through the narrow cleft in the coastal hills”; here as elsewhere Sader is more pursued than pursuer, mocked even by the elements: “he heard it whistle against the window” (it’s like he’s being cat-called by the environment)—but Hitchens really shines with her deft character portraits, even in the most minor characters. I was especially struck by a real estate man whose habit of silently beating out hymns on his empty desk strikes a plaintive note of discord with the dreams of happiness his profession traffics in. Leaving the man after a revealing interview, Sader sees him, silent, alone, “sitting with fingers poised, ready to strike an opening chord on the rim of the desk.”

Hitchens never wrote another Sader novel, though given the melancholy perfection of the ending of Sleep with Slander it’s really no surprise.

Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Light Years (1990)

Howard’s novels about the Cazalet family have been on my radar for a while, enthused over by readers I trust. I was surprised to find they were published in the 90s; I’d vaguely assumed they were from the 50s. And they are a bit old fashioned, sort of soapy, though not, I’d say melodramatic. (Not that there’s anything wrong with melodrama!) The Cazalets have made their money importing wood from the colonies. In 1937, when The Light Years begins, the business is run by the two eldest sons, Hugh (a good soul, wounded both physically and emotionally in the Great War) and Edward (jolly, lover of the good things in life, bit of a cad), even though their father, known to all by a typically ridiculous upper-class British nickname, The Brig, remains nominally in charge. In practice, though, he spends his time at their seat in Sussex, where his increasing blindness don’t stop him from advancing many improvement schemes in the neighbourhood, which require a lot of work from everyone else, especially his unmarried (and possibly gay, though she seems unsure about that) daughter, Rachel. (His wife, the family matriarch, known as the Duchy, is both steely and vague—I could read a whole book about her but she floats around the edges of this one.) Hugh and Edward’s younger brother, Rupert, a schoolteacher and artist, is being pressured to join the firm. Zoë, Rupert’s young second wife—his first having died (I think in childbirth, but maybe I made that up and I’m too lazy to look it up)—is young, beautiful, rather out of her depth, though Howard deepens her portrait satisfyingly. She feels shut out by Sybil and Villy, Hugh and Edward’s wives, who are close, though not enough for Sybil to share her ambivalence at getting pregnant again or Villy to admit her fears (barely expressed even to herself) about her husband’s affairs, and her thwarted ambitions (she was once a ballet dancer).

As good as Howard is with these adults—and she’s very good—she really shines with the children, who range in age from about 5 – 15: Hugh and Sybil’s two, Polly and Simon; Edward and Villy’s three, Louise, Teddy, and Lydia; and Rupert’s two, Clary and Neville. (I won’t even get into their cousins, Villy’s sister’s children, but they’re important, too.) Each is wonderful, though I think I like Polly and Clary best. (Clary, the would-be writer, might be Howard’s younger self. She’s funny, too. When her aunt, tucking her into bed one night, asks if she’s warm enough, the girl looks surprised: “I don’t know. How do I feel?”)

Each summer, the clan gathers in Sussex; The Light Years describes the events of two summers, 1937 and 1938, the latter governed by the specter of war, relieved at the last moment by the events of Munich. The novel is leisurely, engrossing, delightful if you like an unflashy but pleasing style and incisive psychological insight. As a co-dependent, I’m particularly compelled by Hugh and Sybil’s marriage—a good one, but spoiled a little by each partner’s desire to please each the other so much that they end up doing things neither really likes, in the mistaken belief that they’re doing a kindness to their partner:

This duel of consideration for one another that they had conducted for the last sixteen years involved shifting the truth about between them or withholding it altogether and was called good manners or affection, supposed to smooth the humdrum or prickly path of everyday married life. Its tyranny was apparent to neither.

“This duel of consideration”! Ouch!

Anyway, I’m currently stuck into volume 2 and anticipating a fruitful autumn of Cazalets.

Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division (2021)

Frustrating crime novel: fascinating premise, mediocre execution. In 1944, the narrator, Aki, and her parents arrive in Chicago after being interned in the Manzanar War Relocation Camp. There they plan to reunite with the family’s elder daughter, Rose, who, having been deemed a loyal Nisei, had been released the year before. But Rose fails to meet the train; soon they learn she is dead, hit by a subway train at the station that gives the book its name. The official verdict is suicide; Aki is convinced it was murder. As her parents retreat into grief, Aki sets out to find the truth of her sister’s death, following in Rose’s footsteps whenever possible, but also creating a new life for herself, with a job (at the Newberry Library) and love interest.

I wanted to like Clark and Division more than I did. I appreciated the history lesson and the attention to characters who don’t usually appear in crime fiction. But the plot is creaky and the writing wooden. The book reads like mediocre YA, filled with leaden lines and obvious questions: “Pages had been ripped out [of Rose’s diary] and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had held some secrets to why my sister was now dead”; “Was I, in fact, hurting my sister’s legacy by being consumed by it?” Yeah, yeah, we get it.

Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms (2021)

Total banger. Ostensibly a story about a woman’s terrible parents—blustering, bullying father; needy, demanding mother—but actually about the woman’s own terribleness, her contempt and lack of interest in others, her mother especially. The way Riley uses the woman’s narration against herself (she reveals herself as unpleasant only slowly) is, as the kids say, chef’s kiss.

Mick Herron, London Rules (2018)

For a thing I wrote about the Slough House series, I read two Herron novels this month. I quite liked this one, maybe because I was paying more attention to Herron’s style, trying to get a handle on how he does what he does.

Esther Freud, I Couldn’t Love You More (2021)

Huge fan of Freud, starting with her brilliant debut, Hideous Kinky, which you should read immediately. (Terrific example of a non-treacly first-person child narrator—its protagonist is only five.) She hasn’t published a novel in quite a while, so when I heard about this one I ordered it from the UK so I could have a hardcover.

I spent a pleasant weekend with it, enjoying the feeling of being in Freud’s quiet, assured hands. The new novel is a bit different from the earlier ones, which fall into two camps: stories of children at the hands of hapless, almost but not quite neglectful adults (versions of her own childhood, perhaps), and stories of early 20th century Europe and its connections via exile, war, and displacement to England (versions of her family’s history: Sigmund Freud was her great-grandfather; the painter Lucien Freud her father—though as I read around a little online to write this blurb, I learned that the new book imagines what might have happened to her mother, Bernardine Coverley, born in Brixton to Irish Catholic parents, had her own teenage pregnancy led to unhappier results).

I Couldn’t Love You More shares with the latter books an interest in the aftereffects of the past on the present; the setting is Ireland and the UK between the late 1930s and the 90s. The story moves between three generations of women: Aoife, who, sitting at the bedside of her dying husband, remembers their life together; Rosaleen, who leaves Ireland for London in the 60s and gets involved with sculptor; Kate, who, stuck in 90s London with a small child and an alcoholic husband, sets out to uncover the identity of her birth mother, a journey that takes her to Ireland and the remains of the Magdalene Asylum system.

As I said, I liked the book plenty as I was reading it. But now, a month later, I realize I don’t remember much about that. Not that it’s bad—but certainly much less vivid than her others. The Kate storyline works best—Freud is brilliant with children, and the chaos and drudgery of living with them—but I’d rank this as minor work. Not the place to start if you’ve not read Freud before. I will say, though, that the title is pretty great: its double meaning (I love you as much as it is possible to love someone; I loved you no more than I was able) captures the painful ambivalence of all the story’s relationships.

Judith Hermann, Summerhouse, Later (1998) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (2001)

I really flaked out when it came to Women in Translation month. Plucking Hermann off the shelf was my nod to that fine event; sadly, I chose poorly. When my wife and I spent a fair bit of time in Germany at the beginning of the century, Hermann was talked about as a big deal, a hip, young writer who was invigorating German literature with her Carver-esque prose and her descriptions of life after die Wende. Reading it twenty-five years after publication, I didn’t understand the fuss. It’s too dated to appeal to the current moment and not dated enough to become interesting again. The stories about Wessis taking over the East interested me the most, but that socio-political material is well in the background; the focus is on lives and listless love affairs of young, vaguely arty types. If I want that, I’ll dig out my Doris Dörrie collections. Anyone remember her?

John Darnielle, Universal Harvester (2017)

Darnielle fronts The Mountain Goats, and I’ve wondered whether his book deals came from that fame as opposed to his talent. But a trusted former student raves about him, so I finally gave him a chance. Thank God I did! Universal Harvester wowed me with its combination of menace and warmth. A young man working in a video store in small-town Iowa in the late 90s—among other things, the novel sings a low-key hymn to that time before the internet changed everything—gets complaints from customers: something is on the cassette they watched, like another bit of a movie, something weird. They can’t or won’t say more, act disturbed and uneasy. The man watches the movies—and becomes disturbed and uneasy himself. Someone has spliced footage—some innocuous (an empty barn), some frightening (a hooded figure tied to a chair)—into the disposable Hollywood products of the 80s and 90s. Reluctantly, the man is drawn into an investigation of sorts, propelled by two women (one owns the store, one is a customer). He gets involved with neither, just one way Darnielle subverts expectations. Another, more striking, is by breaking the storyline off to tell the story of a woman in 1960s eastern Iowa who joins a cult and the effect her decision has on her husband and daughter. A third storyline, closer in time to the present-say, links the two earlier ones.

Raving about the book on Twitter I learned, to my delight, how many of my mutuals love this book. Someone who was prompted to read it based on our praise later tweeted something like: “Not what I expected. Thought it would be Videodrome, but it turned out to have a lot more heart.” Perfect description. As much as I like Cronenberg—Long live the new flesh!—I agree that it is Darnielle’s kindness—modest, never sappy—mixed with his rueful self-awareness of the pleasures and limitations of midwestern politeness that really made the book work for me. Darnielle knows the Midwest; his descriptions chimed with what my wife has told me about her own childhood in Missouri.

Now that I have to commute again, I’m back to listening to audio books. (Alas, during the pandemic the local library system stopped buying CDs, which I totally get, but my car is old and not Bluetooth-enabled. So I’ll be making my way through their older stuff, hopefully before they get around to deaccessioning them all…) Darnielle reads Universal Harvester himself and he is wonderful (I mean, he is also a performer, singer, and musician so I shouldn’t be surprised). I loved his voice so much, he seems so kind and gentle. I just want to be his friend! He includes some cool music—which I assume he composed—between sections, too. I’m sure the book is wonderful on its own, but experiencing it in audio form made me love it even more.

Mick Herron, Joe Country (2019)

The Slow Horses briefly leave London for Wales, which to them is as exotic as Siberia. Ends with quite the cliff-hanger.

Tommy Orange, There There (2018)

Much-fêted novel by a young indigenous writer about twelve characters converging on a powwow in Oakland, CA. Each section is told from one of their viewpoints. In addition to this dozen first-person narrators, Orange includes a prologue and interlude told in first-person plural. I liked these two sections best, actually: their essayistic and choral mode suits Orange, who’s better at letting his intelligence and cultural references loose directly than at creating a character with a similar academic background to his own. (For those who’ve read the book: Dene Oxendene is the least interesting character, IMO.) Oakland is famously the place where there’s no there there; Orange gives Oxendene an admittedly good riff on how misunderstood this passage of Gertrude Stein’s is, and how the loss invoked by the phrase is also the story of Native Americans. Orange evokes the city with love mixed with anger at its gentrification. I agree with the many readers who’ve said that it’s bracing to read a book about urban Natives. As with Esther Freud’s latest, though, I enjoyed Orange’s novel more in the reading than in the reflection. Unlike, say, The Break, Katherena Vermette’s novel of indigenous Winnipeg (which similarly splits its narrative between a set of connected characters), a book I seldom go a week without thinking about, I’ve barely thought about There There since finishing it.

Georges Seurat, Alfalfa, St. Denis, 1885-86

Maybe I’d have remembered these books more if I’d been in a better head-space, but a person can’t always be at the top of their game. Besides, between the Hitchens, the Howard, the Riley, and the Darnielle it was still a pretty good reading month. I can tell you already, September will bring more of the reading-around-the-edges same… How about you? Was your August a good month?

30 thoughts on “What I Read, August 2021

  1. My August stank! Four books. But as you say, can’t always. And much was accomplished in so-called real life.

    Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van is also implicitly a hymn to the time before the internet. Interesting. I should try the new one. I should track down the Black Sabbath novel.

    As usual, many interesting ideas from a world I don’t read much in, but likely should, and someday perhaps will.

  2. So much interesting reading here! I was particularly struck by your comments about the Cazalets. I have read 2 (I think) other EJH books and one of them was a DNF for me: it wasn’t bad but I just got tired of it and eventually stopped reading. Yet for years now I have been planning to read the Cazalet Chronicles, because they sound so much like my sort of thing. I’m not 100% sure now that they would be. You say good things and yet don’t sound excited.

    You’ve really thrown yourself into the Herron series! I feel pleased that I had a part to play in turning your attention to then. It sort of seems like repaying you for turning me towards the Martin Beck books years ago 🙂

    • It’s been like 6 weeks since I read the first Cazalet and so I’m a little less enthusiastic than when I first read. But, no, I really liked it. Deeply satisfying. It’s a less trashy Downton Abbey. You might read a few chapters and see: they go on as they begin, so you could quickly see if it’s your thing.

      Yes, thanks for the nudge re: Herron. (I still have to get to his detective series.) I don’t think he’s quite as groundbreaking as S & W were but they are good fun and an interesting development for the spy novel.

  3. I’ve just finished the Cazalet series and will be posting a review very shortly. I would agree with your description of a less trashy Downton Abbey (which I couldn’t bear to watch for more than a few episodes) but it was just the right kind of easy, nostalgic reading I needed this agitated September. Hope the new academic year is off to a good start despite the many challenges and uncertainties.
    And yes, I remember Doris Dörrie. Whatever happened to her?

    • My tolerance for Downton was a lot higher than yours, but Cazalet is superior, no question. Does the series hold up as it goes along? I will look forward to your review.
      The new academic year is a tough one, let me tell you. I feel for the new students: covid really left them behind and now they are struggling.
      I really liked Dörrie! I looked her up yesterday out of curiosity and it looks like she has kept writing. I could imagine that her moment might have passed though…

  4. Thank you for the insights into I Couldn’t Love You More. She’s one of the authors I’ve had on our shelves for a while without reading her, having collected secondhand copies of her work out of curiosity. A review of I Couldn’t Love You More inspired me to buy it, but now I will make a point of reading other of her novels first. Thank you again,
    Jenny

  5. My Phantoms was truly excellent. Since then I’ve managed to buy Cold Water and Opposed Positions from Blackwells, but a couple of others are difficult to get.

    I loved The Light Years (I do enjoy a good family saga) but have yet to begin the second volume. Hopefully, I can devote October and November to the Cazalets.

  6. Great list, Dorian. I hadn’t heard of Darnielle before but now I have him on my list. I’m always on the lookout for good Midwestern writers.

    Unpopular opinion here but I disliked The Light Years. I thought the adults were tedious and boring. After I gave up on the adults, I considered continuing if just for the kids and the governess but then the cat was killed and I was done. Anytime there’s violence done to children or animals, I’m out.

    My Phantoms reminds me a lot of Klotsvog by Margarita Khemlin and a book that might just be up your alley. The narrator slowly and unwittingly reveals herself over the course of novel and it’s one of those books that’s horrifying but impossible to put down. When she was a child, Maya and her mother narrowly escaped the German invasion of their Jewish town in the Ukraine and even though they ended up returning, it set a certain motion in place that dominates the whole course of the book. I’m nearly done and I’m certain I shall never forget her. Khemlin is a phenomenal writer and Lisa did a great job with the translation.

    • There was a group read of Klotsvog on Twitter recently–I started but just couldn’t keep up what with the semester starting up again. But yes it is definitely up my street and I can see how it chimes with what Riley does in My Phantoms.

      That scene with the cat is horrifying, isn’t it? (My wife is the same way with violence to animal scenes–she’s immediately out.) I’m puzzled by its inclusion because the housekeeper seems a fascinating though terrible character and I wonder if Howard is going to do more with her or leave it as a bizarre, unsatisfying one-off.

      Obviously our takes are different on Light Years, but I respect your opinion. I sense a lot of readers I know quite like it, so I find the contrary take refreshing!

      Let me know what you think about Darnielle, if you get to him. Any reading favourites last month?

  7. Last month was not a good reading month for me but thankfully, this month has been better. I reread To the Lighthouse for the first time in about twenty years and absolutely loved it. I loved it back then but my understanding of it is much more different (and dare I say improved?) now. My mood brightened considerably whenever I read it. I hadn’t remembered how much hope and light it’s full of and humor too.
    The other one that stands out from this month is Summer by Edith Wharton. She considered it one of her finest works and I can see why. It’s one of the best constructed novels I’ve ever read. The ending isn’t uplifting but that hardly matters because she wrote it so well and put it together so finely. If I remember right you read Age of Innocence a little while ago? I’d recommend this one if you want to read more Wharton.

    • To the Lighthouse is amazing an any age, IMO, but it hits harder the older I get… Such a great book.
      Yes, more Wharton is in my future. Will probably start with House of Mirth, since I own it, but this is great to hear about Summer. You definitely sell it!
      Glad the reading month is proving so fruitful.

  8. Thanks, as always, for your insights. I am going to take a look at Darnielle and Hitchens, for sure. You warned me off of Clark & Division, which I have been debating about for weeks. The books this month that I can’t speak highly enough about are 1) Anuk Arudpragasam’s A Passage North; and 2) Percival Everett’s The Trees. Who else could write a satirical novel about lynching? They’re both brilliant, I think, and I can’t imagine writing about either one on my blog, I’m afraid.

    • I’m interested in both books, Terry, especially The Trees. I heard Everett read years ago, and he was amazing. But I’ve still never read him. I own the Sidney Poitier book, so might start there. Have you read his earlier work at all?

  9. Lots of interesting reading here, despite the challenges you had to negotiate in August. I’m definitely adding the Hitchens to my list, particularly for your comments around the plot. The issue of complexity becoming an end in its own right (potentially overpowering other elements of the book) is one of the downsides in hardboiled fiction, so I like the idea of a more balanced approach here. Could I dive straight in with this one or would it be best to start with the first book?

    • You could absolutely just read this one; if I recall correctly, it barely references the previous one. The first one’s good too, though. I think it could be your kind of thing. Let me know!

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