Did you miss me? Been far too long. Tough semester—they’re all tough, but any semester with extra administrative duties is especially gross—and I couldn’t make time for blogging. I hope to catch up; I’ll start with last month since I can still remember a few things about it. The whole family was laid up with a nasty virus (not that one, apparently) for the first couple of weeks; thank goodness Thanksgiving was even more restorative than usual. Here’s what I read, mostly in moments carved out from the press of things.
Louise Welsh, The Second Cut (2022)
Twenty years ago I chanced on Welsh’s first novel, The Cutting Room. Its hero Rilke (first name, last name, who knows) trawls Glasgow and environs, clearing out houses for an auction house, looking for gold among the dross. The gold in that book was a cache of old pornography, including photos that seemed to show a terrible crime. Half unwittingly, half enthralled (in this regard, a figure for all readers of crime fiction), Rilke plays detective and gets in over his head. He’s saved not only by his eye, but by his equanimity, which takes the form of coldness, as much to himself as others. (This thoughtful Guardian review calls him “alternately steely and compassionate.”)
The Cutting Room could have been the start of a series, but Welsh admirably moved on to other things. Her interest in genre has always been interestingly glancing. (I enjoyed her Plague Trilogy.) But she must have kept Rilke in mind, because here he is, twenty years older, hanging on to the fringes of a city that’s changed a lot (the aging trannies of the first book have been replaced by self-aware, if, to Rilke’s eyes, alarmingly naïve non-binary and trans kids). Unsurprisingly, he stumbles into another crime, pleasingly complicated, almost but not quite preposterous. The Second Cut is a sadder book than its predecessor, especially in its depiction of gay sex in the age of Grindr. Middle-aged, Rilke isn’t as desirable as he was. In one scene, he arrives at a man’s flat, only to be turned away after a moment’s inspection with the heartrending assessment: “No, I don’t think so.”
A sad book, yes, but a good one. I was damn sick the whole time I was reading this book, but that didn’t make a whit of difference. Loved it.
Elmore Leonard, Riding the Rap (1995)
Last month I decided it would be fun to listen to some Elmore Leonard, a writer I’ve somehow never read before. The library didn’t have much to choose from, so I went with Pronto, which concerns Harry Arno, a Miami bookie who decides to retire in Italy, home of his ancestors and site of his WWII service. When I say “decides” I don’t mean he’s settling into his sunset years after long reflection. I mean he has to get the hell out of town because his mobster boss has discovered he’s been skimming for decades. Complications ensure, natch, some of which are centered on US Marshall Raylan Givens, a seeming hayseed who is in fact damn competent, except when it comes to Harry, who gave him the slip twice before. Raylan is still sore about it, and decides he’ll follow Harry to Italy to bring him back, despite having no jurisdiction there. Pronto was enough fun that I continued with the second book, in which the two men, having reached détente, are brought together again when Harry is kidnapped by an addled former client.
Riding the Rap is weaker: misogynist and tonally unstable (the previous book was too, but there Leonard swerved between violence and comedy with flair). Haven’t felt compelled to listen to the last book in what is known as the Raylan Givens trilogy. Leonard fans, what are some actually good books of his?
Julietta Singh, The Breaks (2021)
Dreadful, eye-rolling stuff that I hate-read with grim, perverse satisfaction. Singh, a Canadian academic who came to the US to study Comparative Literature and now teaches in the American South (huh, who does that sound like?), has written one of those essayistic-memoir-hybrid-type things that are so big now, and that I often like, in fact even aspire to write, sort of. My response is at least in part a bad case of envy. Narcissism of small differences much? But Singh is so self-righteousness that she ruins what is objectively interesting material: she grew up a mixed-race brown kid in Winnipeg at a time when that was even harder to do than it is today; her parents were social justice warriors who cared more for others than for kin (not quite Mrs. Jellybelly-level, but you get the idea); and she’s formed a queer family with the father of her child, with whom she lives in a modified duplex, together apart. (The father is white; Singh wrestles with her own ambivalence: as a child she wanted to be white; she doesn’t want that wanting for her daughter, etc.) As I say, lots to think about here. But the child—to whom the book is addressed, in awkward second-person—is too precious, too loving and kind and special. Or maybe she is all of these things, I’m ready to believe it, most six-year-olds are pretty great, but Singh is precious about her. Get a load of her rhapsodizing over a Thanksgiving art project (the kid has sculpted a Powhatan village out of fruit):
The Powhatan people are represented by banana slices, and apple skins make up their shelters. Off to the side of the village, you have crafted colonial ships by slicing kiwis in half, gutting their insides, and attaching the skins to the little fruit boats to serve as sails. You have created rough waters out of banana peels, and a wall of carved-apple manatees that surrounds the kiwi ships on three sides.
Colonial ships? Just wait. After the description comes the analysis:
I am blown away to witness this art-making against the state, this anticolonial fruit installation that is also a fantasy of organically reversing history. What I love most is that in your historical revisioning, you move us beyond the subjugated histories of Indigenous resistance to colonial force. Instead, you turn your attention to the sea, letting it emerge as an actor in the opposition to the colonial mission. Your artwork veers me away from the anthropocentric position, carefully and imaginatively invoking what the earth might itself desire.
Seriously??? I think she is, though. I see no irony here, nor anywhere else in the book. I should have laughed at that last paragraph—sounds like comments on a particularly precious undergraduate thesis—but instead I was infuriated. And that’s on me. Anyway, hard pass.
Minae Mizumura, Inheritance from Mother (2012) Trans. Janet Winters Carpenter (2016)
At the beginning of this wonderful novel, Mitsuki Katsura’s mother, the stylish and dramatic, but irresponsible, even hatefu Noriko, is fading fast. After several falls leading to broken bones she agrees to go into a nursing home. But even so the burden of care falls on Mitsuki, even though her sister, Natsuki, could help, too. The latter, a musician, is kind enough but unwilling or unable to do more than the minimum. Given the book’s title, it won’t spoil much to say that before long Noriko dies, leaving a medium sized inheritance that means nothing to Natsuki, who married into money, but everything to Mitsuki—especially since she discovers her husband has been having an affair, and she needs to make some decisions.
Deciding what her future will be like entails a lot of looking back for Mitsuki. Inheritance is, unsurprisingly, as much metaphorical as literal in this book. There’s a lot of unfaithfulness in the family—it runs through the generations as if it were hereditary. Mitsuki’s grandfather left her grandmother for another woman; her mother, Noriko, fell in love with a man deemed unsuitable and from whom she was separated by her family, only to later separate her own family when she left her husband, Mitsuki’s father, for her dance instructor. To what extent is Mitsuki bound by the tendencies of her family? To what degree is she her own person? Mizumura pursues these big questions through her eventful but never cluttered plot.
The book was published serially, and was written, Mizumura explains in a note at the beginning, in homage to late 19th/early 20th serialized novels, especially Ozaki Koyo’s The Golden Demon (1893), which I do not know at all, other than what I glean from Mizumura’s references. No surprise that Noriko, an Emma Bovary type, identifies strongly with the book. Mitsuki, who had the chance to translate Flaubert’s novel, but was discouraged by her husband, loves novels in more removed fashion, as befits someone who translates for a living. Is being removed the same as being measured? This is another of the book’s questions.
I’ve said this to a few people now, but Inheritance seems to me an extremely middle-aged book. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. Its concerns—how to care for aging parents while recognizing one’s anger, guilt, sadness and fear; how to maintain a standard of living through life changes and dwindling employment opportunities; how to grasp second chances when they arise—are those of many middle-aged people. I might have liked this book twenty-five years ago, but now, well, now I felt seen by it, as they say.
Mizumura’s A True Novel was my favourite book of 2021. Inheritance from Mother might not top this year’s list, which is pretty much sewn up by an earlier Japanese novel, one referenced here, in fact, Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, but it’s up there. Mizumura really does it for me, and I’m a bit sad that I’ve got so little of her left to read.
E. C. R. Lorac, These Names Make Clues (1937)
They like the zany house parties in these golden age crime novels, don’t they? Here a publisher brings together friends and luminaries, gives them false identities and a series of cryptic crossword-type puzzles, and sets them against each other. His coup is getting his friend Inspector MacDonald to attend, despite much grumbling: the idea is to see who is cleverer, the writers (most of whom are mystery novelists) or the policeman. MacDonald knows a set up when he sees it, but good thing he came along, because in the middle of the evening the power cuts out and next thing you know one of the guests is dead. (Gasp!) Turns out plenty of folks had a motive. (Shocking!) The solution is overly-ingenious in that Dorothy Sayers way, but this was still good if forgettable fun.
Alejandro Zambra, The Private Lives of Trees (2007) Trans. Megan McDowell (2010)
Took this off the shelf because I’ve been going through my books, looking to see what I can purge, and I figured it was short enough that if I read a few pages I’d have a pretty good idea if I wanted to keep it. And then I just kept going, forgetting the book even as I was reading it. A man waits for his wife to come home one evening. As the hour gets later he remembers meeting her, tries to ignore his fear that she might be deceiving him, and imagines what life would be like if he had to raise her daughter from her first marriage, whom he has tucked into bed earlier that evening. (The precious title comes from a long-running bedtime story.) The relationship between the man and the little girl is the nicest bit of the book, which otherwise fails to hit either the ominous or whimsical notes it unaccountably aims to swing between. Not for me.
Kate Beaton, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (2022)
I chose this graphic memoir of a young woman’s time in the oil fields of northern Alberta in the early 2000s for the November episode of One Bright Books. Check it out, because we had a lot of smart things to say about it. I even added a few thoughts about how it resonated for me personally, as an Albertan who spent formative years in Nova Scotia (the reverse trip to Beaton’s, though I’m ten years older). I’d like my family members and friends who work in the oil patch (mostly in corporate jobs, or adjacent fields) to read this book, though I doubt they will. Beaton is even-handed but damning: the work of extracting resources from the earth on industrial scale destroys people and land equally. Damaged people don’t always hurt others, but they often do. Beaton was certainly hurt. She tells this story with humour, warmth, and matter-of-fact conviction. (She is everything Singh is not.) Fittingly, her artwork is restrained, even sober, but not afraid of being lyrical. Amazing how gorgeous her drawings are despite the absence of colour. It’s on all the end-of-year lists for a reason.
Tabitha Lasley, Sea State (2021)
“Sea state” is the condition of an ocean’s surface (roiling, calm); it creates coastal weather conditions that can ground the men who work the North Sea drilling platforms onshore (or worse, offshore, eating into their leave) for days at a time. In Tabitha Lasley’s memoir, sea state additionally refers to the emotional whiplash those men feel when they come back to their lives, to responsibilities in homes they’re strangers to, to wives and children who barely recognize them. The book started, Lasley explains, as a portrait of these men and the dangerous work they do. She talked to more than a hundred workers, mostly in Aberdeen, where she moved after her life down south went up in flames. Bits of these interviews appear in the book. But mostly the book is about what happened to Lasley shortly after she started the project: she fell into an affair with one of the riggers, a man she calls Caden, a relationship as thrilling and pointless and dreary as all affairs. Reviewers use the world “reckless” to describe Lasley—and she does a lot of things that put her at risk. Yet that she should even be at risk is an indictment of the stunted, even vicious emotional economy of the oil industry, which is primed to create toxic masculinity in its workers.
I’d had Sea State sitting around the house for a while, but wasn’t prompted to read it until finishing Ducks. Beaton’s is the better book—clearer on the work itself, more self-aware of its creator’s feelings—but they pair so interestingly. Even more than the oil sands of Alberta, which at least are surrounded by vast boreal forest, the North Sea rigs are isolated and claustrophobic. As one of Lasley’s interviewees puts it:
A platform, he said, was like a pressure cooker. There were quantities of oil and gas on board, a cache you could never forger, since the fumes hung over the platform, got sucked into the HVAC and pumped into the cabins, so you woke up with a sore head and a churning stomach. The calm, flat days were the worst, since there was no breeze to carry them away.
More than that, the human element felt explosive. A hundred men of varying temperaments, trapped together in a steel box, miles from land … The cabins were small. The bunks were narrow. The rec room was twenty foot by twenty foot. Your quality of life was contingent on everyone observing a few tiny courtesies: wipe your spit off the taps when you clean your teeth; mop your piss off the toilet seat; rinse your stubble away, don’t leave it in a grimy ring around the sink; check with your cellmate whether he wants the late or early shower, then give him an hour alone afterward … Grievances that simmered over two weeks would come to a rolling boil, given three.
I like the parallelism of that sentence describing the courtesies these men must try to observe, pleasing in itself and for the way the man’s voice rises up into Lasley’s. Worth reading.
Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School (1954) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2017)
Good one. As in The Saint-Fiacre Affair, the case leads Maigret to recall his childhood, as he descends on a village near La Rochelle not so different from the one he grew up in. The former postmistress has been murdered; she was a piece of work, filled with hate and other people’s secrets. (Shades of Le Corbeau.) Maigret is caught up in the case when the prime suspect, the local school teacher, importantly not a local, flees to Paris and installs himself in Maigret’s office until the detective agrees, despite himself, to help the man avoid the worst. Everything hinges on a schoolboy’s testimony, and as always Maigret is good with the kids.
There you have it. When I write about my December reading I can tell you about the big book I spent most of the last week of November reading. Guesses welcome below! More soon.