What I Read, February 2022

How’s it going you ask? Not awesome, really. I mean, fine, fine, sure, whatever. Got some good students this semester. Spring’s coming, best season here. But the semester is kicking my ass, the war in Ukraine has me depressed and frightened; I’ve got my head up my ass most of the time, I’m hardly reading anything. And writing? Forget it. Haven’t had a chance to write about January’s reading (which included some really good stuff), let alone my 2021 year in review, a task that seems more pointless as we slide toward the end of the first quarter of 22.

Only four titles to report on this month, not sure that’s ever happened before.

František Kupka, Thee Cathedral, 1912- 13

Tessa Hadley, Free Love (2022)

Unless you’re dropping by for the first time, you know how much I love Hadley. Her last two books have been her best, and while the latest doesn’t topple those from the pantheon, it’s satisfying and smart in equal measures. Claire Jarvis does it more justice than I can hope to. What fascinated me most was watching Hadley take on the concerns of someone like Doris Lessing (I’m thinking of the books written in the early 70s, The Summer Before the Dark in particular) while writing in a completely different style. Hadley is a scholar of James and her books are sometimes called Jamesian, though I don’t see it, myself; to me, she’s more an Elizabeth inheritor (Bowen and Taylor, natch). Nonetheless, on the stylistic continuum from James to Lessing she’s nearer him than her. Yet when it comes to subject matter, the emphasis is reversed. Hadley’s questions in Free Love are also Lessing’s. What does it mean for women to live for themselves? How should we understand the ambivalences of domesticity and bourgeois life? Can it ever be empowering to inhabit your body when that body is your primary currency, your very intelligibility? I’m loving Hadley’s mature phase—I wish her health and strength, because, greedily, I want lots more books.

John Darnielle, Devil House (2022)

A true crime writer—his first book was about a teacher who murders two of her students when she catches them breaking into her house in a prank gone terribly awry—gets a call from his agent. A house in a small town not far from his home in San Francisco is for sale—the very house where, in its earlier incarnation as a failed/abandoned porn shop, two people were murdered by teen members of a cult in a “satanic panic” incident in the 1980s. Buy the house, the agent urges, I’ll help you get an advance, then move into it—perfect hook for writing about the crime! All of which the writer does, giving him plenty of chances to riff on his theory that the past can only return to us when we literally inhabit it.

In this sense, Devil House reads as like a metafictional version of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. Darnielle has other fish to fry, though, and his exploration of what makes for a good story and what it takes to get one is the least interesting part of the book. Devil House is a book of many voices—we shuttle between the frame story and the story of the teens, that is, the story the writer has uncovered, but we also get sections from the writer’s first book, as well as some harder to identify texts, one of which, I confess, I found a terrible slog—and even though many of them, like the true crime writer himself, prove unreliable, it all feels of a piece. The overall tenor is generous, large-minded, forgiving, the quality that so endeared me to Darnielle’s previous novel, Universal Harvester. Harvester is a better book—largely because it includes more women and so escapes the Dungeon and Dragons/video game/fan fiction nerdy-boy energy that Darnielle mines so sympathetically in all his writing—but like the earlier book, it shines when depicting pre-internet adolescence. I love Darnielle’s heartfelt sense of what we need to thrive at that age, and how easy it is to get thrown onto a different path, one of privation and hardship, even violence. I read somewhere that in an earlier life he was a social worker or an orderly at a mental institution or maybe both; those careers might be where he honed the care and gentleness that characterizes his work. All of which makes this book—centered as it is on a porn theater-turned-ersatz-clubhouse that becomes the site of terrible crimes—far more tender than it has any right to be.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Trans. Ann Smock (1996)

I’ve written about this book many times, especially here. Sat down to glance at the first pages before teaching it again and then read it straight through. (It’s short.) A favourite of mine, and of students too. We spent forty minutes working through the first page. Amazing how differently the book hit just because I changed its placement on the syllabus. I’ll never tire of the power of that juxtaposition—a kind of pedagogical Kuleshov effect.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012)

My daughter and I intermittently listened to the audiobook of Cain’s exploration of the differences between introverts and extroverts over the past six months on our drives between Little Rock and St Louis. Excellent father-daughter bonding, and affirming for each of us. (Early on, Cain lists a series of behaviours and preferences—the more you check off the more likely you are to be introverted. Thalia ticked them off aloud—yep, yep—with satisfaction. Quiet sometimes indulges too much in pop psychology for me, and the section on differences between East Asian and American cultures is unhappily reductive. But as she ranges from neuroscience to child development to the study of pedagogy Cain offers plenty of insights: how introverts and extroverts can have successful relationships with each other; why introverts who work in extroverted professions so easily burn out; how to most healthily to parent an introvert. I was led to examine my expectations for my discussion-based classroom—despite my own introversion, the pedagogy I value rewards extroversion in ways I hadn’t considered; I’ve already made some changes to how I teach. Cain is evenhanded, never dismissing extroversion and insisting that most of us exhibit elements of both tendencies; instead, she gently asks what our world might be missing in so often valuing the quick, the loud, the flashy.

When the last chapter ended and silence filled the car, I glanced over my shoulder and said how glad I was we’d listened to it together. I appreciated her patience and fortitude—it’s a lot for a ten-year-old! She agreed the book had been worthwhile. Then we sat in comfortable silence for the next hour, rolling through the flat fields of northeastern Arkansas.

Barbara Hepworth, Wavee, 1963

That’s it, can you believe it? I mean, yeah, it’s a short month. And yeah there was an eleven-year-old birthday party to plan. And yeah the semester is a relentless grind especially when you make the mistake of changing up your course readings (stupid, stupid). But slim pickings on thee reading front. Good news, though, March is already substantially better, at least when it comes to number of books read. And it’s seen the launch of an exciting new project. More on all that soon. In the meantime, tell me you had a better month than I did.

22 thoughts on “What I Read, February 2022

  1. Good god,the only reason I can possibly think of as to why you’re not already being published in the New Yorker is that, as a conscientious objector to their comma policy, or something, you refuse to submit your work there. Your prose just sings!

  2. I hear you, D. I do A LOT of middle-of-the-night impending WWIII doomscrolling, fretting, and drawing uncomfortable historical parallels and that’s why I’m not reading much either. I did start the first volume Manning’s Balkan Trilogy for obvious reasons and finding it, yeah, hitting too close.

    I’m grateful for my reading break these past two weeks (back in the teaching trenches this week) and sending you heartfelt thanks for recommending Kluger’s Still Alive. I thought it was spectacular.

      • Thank you! Reading my post is a lot of direct Kluger quotations and saying how great her memoir was…not my best post, but what an amazing book. (My grade 11 students are asking me to do a little video about it for their annual Genocide Commemoration presentations. I hope to be more articulate.)

  3. I can’t blame you for having a slow reading month. February’s a short one and everything absolutely sucks right now anyway. I’m never sure about Tessa Hadley—in the sense that I know she’s a beautiful writer but I’m not confident that her type of beautiful writing will move me; perhaps just impress me—but your comparison of Free Love to some of Doris Lessing’s work is interesting. I suppose I’ve been thinking of Hadley as a British version of Anne Tyler (deliberately interior or familial or domestic in focus), but the Lessing comparison made me think again.

    • FWIW Elle Hadley moves me greatly. I don’t know Tyler that well (only read The Accidental Tourist, and that was back in the 80s), so can’t say if they’re similar. Hadley *is* familial/domestic in focus; if that’s not your thing Hadley might not work for you.
      This is not helpful, I know…

  4. I’m so sorry the quarter – and the world – have been so rough. I think I speak for everyone who comes to this marvelous place that we eagerly await your end of year list but will be delighted to see whenever get around to it.

    I’m definitely going to hunt down the Kofman book; I’ve spent a lot of time along the Rue Orderner, what with a godchild on one end of it and a close friend on the other.

    Very excited to hear more about the exciting new project!

  5. I love hearing about what you are reading, whether it is 4 or 40 books. Some of my favorite reading in the past few years has come from your reviews. And please don’t abandon the 2021 roundup! It will be like Christmas in July whenever it comes.

  6. I always love hearing what you have been reading whether it is 4 or 4 books. Some of the best books I have read in the past few years have been thanks to your reviews. I add my hopes that you will not abandon the 2021 round up. It will be like Christmas in July whenever it comes!

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