What I Read, April 2022

Ah, April—beloved of American academics everywhere. Not.

I got through it, though, even managing to celebrate Passover and observe Yom HaShoah and embark on an unusual teaching exercise (more on that another day, maybe). Celebrated a big birthday at month’s end with a weekend in Fort Worth, a town full of great art and better steaks.

Making it through he days was the big accomplishment. For reading, there was little time. Here’s what I managed.

Agnes Martin, Friendship, 1963

Georges Simenon, The Saint-Fiacre Affair (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)

In which we learn about Maigret’s childhood. Nothing too revealing, no traumas from the past, nothing dramatic to motivate the man he became, just the incidental irony of investigating a murder at the chateau where he lived as a boy (his father was the estate manager). The ending, well, imagine a Poirot if it had been written by Zola. Pleasing subplot about a village kid, too.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016)

I’ve loved this book since first reading it, but now I love it even more because I just taught it for the first time. Always an unpredictable situation, but even more so in this case, as I included it in my course on the afterlife of the Holocaust. On the face of it, Vermette’s novel of three generations of an indigenous family in Winnipeg coming to terms with an act of violence (which resonates with similar events in their lives) has no business on my syllabus. Yet traumatic and genocidal events are more connected than we might like to think—something I’ve written about elsewhere—even setting aside the fact that many indigenous writers and academics have cited second-generation Holocaust memoirs (those by the children of survivors) in referring to the experience of living with elders who suffered in the residential school system.

Happily, my students loved The Break. We had wide-ranging conversations about the possibility of intersectional responses to cultural trauma (using Michael Rothberg’s idea of multidirectional memory), the current culture’s fascination with crime, both real and imagined, and the novel’s shrewd use of point of view to resist the fetishization of violence to women’s bodies. Students who have suffered abuse themselves—sadly, a not negligible number—particularly appreciated Vermette’s intelligence and compassion. Thanks to Liz for talking me through her teaching of the book: she gave me so many ideas that improved my classroom experience.

Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021)

A joy. On Panga, as the earth has become known after the great Crisis, a tumultuous time precipitated by the sudden coming-to-self-awareness of the world’s robots, which led humans to decarbonize and limit themselves to half the earth’s surface, a tea monk—someone who peddles from town to town offering tisanes and words of comfort—lights out for the territory, heading into the Wild with the aim of reaching an abandoned monastery. On the way they meet a robot, something they know only from textbooks. The robot is on a quest of its own, determined to meet humans and learn why they do what they do. Funny, sweet, moving; a road movie, a buddy pic, the intersection of the Venn diagram of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. I know, I know, who would even imagine such a thing?

Yūko Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains (1980) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (1991)

Wonderful. Frances, Rebecca, and I had a lot to say on One Bright Book. Tl; dnl: single mother in 1970s Japan struggles through the first year of her son’s life and half seeks out, half falls into a job at a garden that satisfies her and opens up her life. Smart and satisfying, I liked it even more than Territory of Light, the other Tsushima I’ve read. Don’t sleep on this one.

Garry Disher, Under the Cold Bright Lights (2017)

My fourth Disher; I really like the guy. This one’s a standalone, although the appealing protagonist—a former homicide detective who comes out of early retirement to work cold cases—must have tempted Disher to write more. That would have been a terrible idea. This book barely but deftly circumvents the preposterous—a fate that would be unavoidable in future installments. (Read it, you’ll see what I mean.) Disher excels at keeping several plots running without needing to tie them together. Most interesting is his hero’s domestic situation: he inherited a rambling house in a hipster Melbourne neighbourhood and rents out or lends rooms to a rag-tag set of grad students, the temporarily homeless, his adult daughter, and even his wife, from whom he is sort of separated—she comes and goes as she pleases. All very unusual in the genre, seems to me.

Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (2016) Trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins (2020)

Forgettable. I enjoyed the novella’s setting—the seaside town of the title, cold and forlorn—but I didn’t take to its story, about a young woman of mixed Korean-French ancestry who fixates on a guest at the hotel where she works. Lots of simple sentences, lots of fragments—it’s told from the young woman’s point of view, and the syntactic banality could be, I suppose, a reflection of her mindset, though I think we’re meant to find her enigmatic rather than empty. The best bits are about the fish market—plenty of food in these few pages, almost always offered as an incitement to disgust—but if I’m going to read a book set in Korea about body trouble, I’m going with The Vegetarian every time.

Andrew Miller, The Slowworm’s Song (2022)

Miller takes his unusual title from Basil Bunting—a slow worm’s a legless lizard, turns out—a decision that points to a technical conundrum: the narrator, Stephen Rose, ex-military, recovering alcoholic, failed father looking to make amends, liver of a small life in a small town in Somerset, is a closed man trying to open. Miller struggles to get the voice right, and mostly manages: sometimes flat, sometimes something more, almost poetic. (Sephen’s a bit of a reader, flourished in some open university literature courses, even if a paper on The Mill and the Floss remains unwritten (too tumultuous a book, maybe?), which gives Miller cover for the more high-flown moments.) I think close third person suits Miller better, though. The conceit is that the book is a manuscript addressed to Stephen’s adult daughter, who has cautiously entered his life after years of neglect and mistakes, a labour spurred by the arrival of a letter from Belfast. A commission is investigating events from the early 70s; Stephen’s not compelled to testify, but he is encouraged to, first gently and then much less so. Eventually he reveals the event in question, the one at the center of his life, the one that put it off the rails and forms the backdrop against which the construction of the rickety parallel rail of his life has taken place. (Wow, this metaphor went awry fast). There’s much to be said, no doubt, about the novel’s place in the current landscape of trauma narratives, as recently explored in an essay of Parul Seghal’s I still haven’t read out of a resistance I’ve yet to examine. At one point, a therapist says to Stephen:

We have to be careful not to get trapped by our stories. That’s one of the things we can learn. To tell the story differently, even to let go of it completely. To do that for a single minute and see what’s in the space we free.

Your enjoyment of this book will depend on how much that sentiment resonates with you. (For me, absolutely.) Even if it doesn’t, you might appreciate how Miller ironizes or complicates the possibility. (Remember the title?) A thoroughly satisfying novel, if less earth shattering than Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

Imogen Reid, Text(ile)

Now that I am firmly middle-aged, well on the way to being old, in fact, I hope for the wisdom to make more time for reading. (The end of the semester should help.) And for the reading to be better. Even in this thin month, though, I can recommend Chambers and Disher for comfort, and Vermette, Tsushima, and Miller for complexity. How was your month? Come at me, BookTwitter, I know you all love the Dusapin…

30 thoughts on “What I Read, April 2022

  1. I really want to read A Psalm for the Wild-Built–I can’t say no to a tea monk and even less to a tea monk who meets and befriends an amiable robot. (Am currently reading Martha Wells’s Murderbot series, which is delightfully bot-centric in a rather different way.) You’ve reminded me to get to Yuko Tsushima, too. I’ve been on a Russian kick over the last six to eight weeks and enjoying it immensely; Gogol’s Dead Souls was the most recent success.

  2. Nice to see you back on the blog: I’ve missed the monthly “read-ups”. I like them and have culled them for quite a few titles, so thank you.

    Ugh, not a good month and not even in an existentially interesting way: more like a mundane things fall apart month, house repairs and such, very little reading happened. I read Sarah Moss’s The Fell and loved it. I slogged through Mandel’s Station Eleven and was left wondering what the author was trying to say? achieve? Nicely written, but a hodge-podge of narrative threads that never came together. Now I’m reading Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and feel the same way, except I like the setting better. I’ll have to read something witty and frivolous next to dispel the ennui. Or maybe some crime fic: first novel I ever read in French was le chien jaune (and have been left with a life-long hankering to visit Brest). I have a Simenon omnibus en français, that might be fun.

    Middle-age is great for shedding hang-ups and neuroses, not so good for pounds ! Happy belated birthday, or as we say in my tradition: “May God grant you many years!”

  3. Thank you for yet another wonderful review. I really appreciate the way you manage, in a few sentences, to give the readers of your blog a sense of the book you have read, and an idea of whether it would appeal to them. I have so far garnered quite a few authors I had never heard of from your reviews, going for the ones I think I would like and steering away from those I think wouldn’t be a good fit. Haven’t had a fail yet.
    Based on this review, I will definitely remove Dusapin from my list (I believe it’s on everyone’s list), and will add Disher and Tsushima.
    On afterlife of the Holocaust I have recently read Alexander Tisma’s “The Book Of Blam” (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4259268564), a harrowingly beautiful novel and Imre Kertesz’s disappointing “Liquidation” (https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/4390757845). Looking forward to your next post. Thank you!

    • Thank you, Daphna, your kind words are a tonic at the end of a long semester. It’s probably better to trust everyone re: Dusapin, but that was an Emperor’s New Clothes situation for me.

      Shame to hear about Liquidation, which I’ve not read, but Fatelessness (which it seems you also admired) is an all-time fave. Tisma’s Novi Sad trilogy is one of my summer reading plans–look forward to seeing what he’s all about.

      And by all means Tsushima–that book really impressed me.

      Thanks again for reading–and commenting!

  4. Glad you got through a difficult month! And yes – time to expand the amount of time for reading. Happy to see you snuck in a Maigret – I love them, and am happily involved in re-runs of a 1960 UK black and white series at the moment. Wonderful!

  5. Always exciting to learn what you’ve been reading, Dorian. I’m adding the Tsushima to the list right away.

    Also thanks to One Bright Book, I’m almost through Cursed Bunny, which I convinced the buyer at City Lights Books to stock simply by having him look at the cover – certainly a book for the 2022 zeitgeist!

    • You are going to like Tsushima a lot, Scott.
      That Cursed Bunny cover is a ok, isn’t it?
      Looks like seraillon is getting a makeover. Will there be new content soon? I want to know what you’re reading!

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