Thought I might read some longer books this year. And in fact I have three on the go, all promising. (Which means I’m not making much progress on any of them: more on all that later, maybe.) But I clearly need the feeling of accomplishment that comes from finishing something, because I reached for shorter things on the side.
Stephen Spotswood, Secrets Typed in Blood (2022)
The most recent Pentecost & Parker novel might be the best. A serial killer is plagiarizing crimes from a pulp magazine and staging them in real life. Friction arises between the duo as Parker chafes at an undercover assignment as a pencil-skirted secretary in an advertising agency that is the only lead they have on their long-time adversary. Plus Parker has gotten in deep with the writer of the pulp stories. As Sarah Weinman put it—the NYT crime column has improved greatly since she took over—this delightful series is as much about the present as the 40s. A couple of lines from Pentecost hit home especially hard:
“Once you start picking and choosing what is relevant in a life, you edge closer too picking and choosing which lives are relevant.”
“The world often defines women by the worst thing that’s ever happened to us. … It won’t let us be otherwise.”
Eduardo Halfon, The Polish Boxer (2008) Trans. Daniel Hahn, Ollie Brock, Lisa Dillman, Thomas Bunstead & Anne McLean (2012)
Here’s one that’s been sitting on my shelf for a long time. I’d heard it was a third-generation Holocaust story by a Guatemalan writer, which of course piqued me. That’s not quite what I got, but also not not what I got… The book is about a Guatemalan writer named Eduardo Halfon, frustrated with his students but devoted enough to one who made an impression on him that he tracks him back to his indigenous village when he drops out; enamoured with his girlfriend, who seems equally enamoured with him; captivate by a Serbian pianist who layers Thelonious Monk into his Rachmaninov, and who sends Halfon mysterious postcards practically begging him, Halfon, to search him out, which he does, among the Roma community in Belgrade. And yeah there’s a story about a Polish boxer, told to Halfon by his grandfather, an Auschwitz survivor, who owes his survivor to whispered advice, which the old man no longer remembers, from the eponymous boxer, though, in a late twist, this story may have been entirely made up.
A meandering book that for a while seems aimless but gains coherency: I liked it. And I think the story of the grandfather continues in later books, so maybe I’ll get my wish in the end. But I won’t mind even if I don’t.
Ludwig Bemelmans, Hotel Splendide (1941)
A splendid bauble.
Ludwig Bemelmans was just a teenager when he immigrated to New York from his native Austria, where he had already worked in a hotel in the Tirol owned by his uncle. He got on at a luxury hotel in Manhattan, which in this delightful memoir of sorts, he calls The Splendide—a good choice given that everyone who works there seems to be European. At first, he’s busboy to a waiter named Mespoulets, “probably the worst waiter in the world,” whose three tables aren’t even in the main dining room. Instead they form “a kind of penal colony” to which the maître d’ exiles undesirable customers (cranks, lingerers, bad tippers, that sort of thing). Guests seated at Mespoulet’s tables rarely return. For one thing, service is slow. But that’s just the start of it:
When the food finally came, it was cold and often not what had been ordered. While Mespoulets explained what the unordered food was, telling in detail how it was made and what the ingredients were, and offered hollow excuses, he dribbled mayonnaise, soup, or mint sauce over the guests, upset the coffee, and sometimes even managed to break a plate or two. I helped him as best I could.
What a joy, that last line! I imagine the similarly clumsy Bemelmans just making everything worse. Po-faced but sly, Bemelmans reminded me at times of Robert Walser. In the end, though, he’s both lighter and more attuned to the realities of a career in service than his Swiss literary forbearer. Hotel Splendide is episodic—imagine the New Yorker’s Talk of the Town if it weren’t WASPy and pleased with itself—but there is something of a larger arc, which consists of the author’s climb up the hotel ladder. (He is in fact far more competent than Mespoulets.) Yet for all his success—he eventually gets a good deal on a fast car, and is even able to return to his home town for a visit in style—Bemelans is seldom at the center of events; like the artist he wanted to be—and eventually was, to even greater success; this is the Bemelmans of Madeleine fame, after all, and his spidery drawings grace this text as well, he prefers to observe the foibles of others, whether clients (some jovial, some sympathetic, some downright mean) or fellow employees, all of whom get worked off their feet.
Moving stuff, serious stuff, but best of all funny stuff. I liked this bit, where a guest, an analyst, is enthralled by a medium, nicknamed the Professor, who is regularly hired by the hotel to entertain banquets and other large gatherings. The analyst tracks the medium down after the show, keen to find out what makes the man tick. What, for example, is he thinking about right now?
‘Horses? A lot of horses or just one horse, a particular horse?’
‘A horse, a very particular horse.’
‘You’re fond of horses?’
‘No. I hate horses—that is, I dislike them.’
‘Have you had trouble with a horse?’
‘Where is this horse you are thinking about?’
‘The horse is nowhere. This isn’t a real horse. This horse is in a dream.’
‘Oh,’ said Dr Munkaczi, and then, ‘Go on.’
‘I dream of this horse—’
‘You dream of this horse frequently?’
‘Yes. Every night, almost I dream of this horse, and I am very tired the next day.’
‘Ah,’ said Dr Munkaczi, ‘zoologica erotica’
Can’t you just see the doctor’s satisfaction, the confirmation of his monomania?
Do yourself a favour and track Hotel Spendide down. It’s out in perfect new livery from Pushkin Press.
Shola von Reinhold, Lote (2020)
Stunning novel about black queer modernism, reinvention, escaping one’s origins and what it would mean for a book to be trans not just in content but also in style. We talked about Lote on the most recent One Bright Book episode, and had a hell of a discussion. Check it out.
Jamil Jan Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories (2022)
Stories set in Afghanistan and the Afghani American community concerning the back-and-forth between these worlds. Not for me the masterpiece it is for Wyatt Mason, but unquestionably impressive. The clever stories seem to get the most attention—one told in second person about an Afghani American teen playing a video game that puts him in the position of American servicemen in his father’s homeland, and another structured as a resumé, with the character’s jobs and duties from shepherd in Logar province to company-winning lawn technician in California (until a car wreck leaves him in pain and unemployable). But as good as these are (neither cute nor clever) the ones that tread the line between realism and fantasy impressed me most. The title story, say, in which someone or something (maybe a CIA or NSA operative, but I prefer to think of the narrator as a different kind of spook) falls in love with an Afghani family in exile he has been assigned to haunt. Or “Return to Sender,” an aching tale in which something terrible happens to a married couple, both doctors, who learn that not even their American passports can protect them in Kabul. That’s the one I’ve decided to assign in my class on the short story this semester. Here I felt most strongly the influence not just of someone like Jhumpa Lahiri but the writer she has cited as one of her most important influences: Bernard Malamud.
Lawrence Osborne, On Java Road (2022)
Blotto after the first week of the semester, I needed something that would go down smooth, and neither tax nor insult me. This was just the ticket. Java Road is where English journalist Adrian Gyle lives in Hong Kong. It’s also the site of regular clashes between police and protesters resisting Beijing’s eefforts to crush the place. The novel’s take on current events is refracted through a triangle of sorts between Gyle; his school friend Jimmy Tang, part of one of the island’s richest families; and Tang’s latest love interest, a university student turned full-time protester. Narrated by the outsider Gyle—in full Gatsby mode, complete with knowing allusions—the novel concerns the disintegration of a middle-aged male friendship. Anthony Domestico, from whom I learned about this book in his year-end piece in Commonweal, has it right: more than suspense, more than place, this book has atmosphere: “an introduction to, rather than a clarification of, the frightening haziness of the world.” Recommended for sad middle-aged men (are there any other kinds?), but maybe others too.
Warning: oh my god there’s a lot of drinking in this book. My drinking-less-in-2023 liver throbbed, but in sympathy or envy I couldn’t tell.
Elif Batuman, Either/Or (2022)
Maybe not as funny as The Idiot but still pretty funny:
Of course, you couldn’t have a party without alcohol; I understood that now. I understood the reason. The reason was that people were intolerable. But wasn’t there any way around that? Juho was talking about different research into alcoholism that people were doing in Finland. Why was nobody researching the more direct issue of how to make people less intolerable?
All through my childhood, everyone had been yelling, “You’ll hurt your back!” and wrenching suitcases out of each other’s hands, in an effort personally to be the one who hurt their back.
But smart too:
A daunting thought… how would I eventually root out from my mind all the beliefs that I hated?
Either/Or is deeper than the previous novel, more regularly pulling off its signature balance of the naïve and the thoughtful. Batuman has a schtick, but it’s a schtick I like.
In sum: plenty of good light reading. (A consummation not to be underestimated.) But only Lote and maybe The Polish Boxer are likely to be in my memory a few months from now. How about you all? How was your reading January?
Well, I have a copy of The Polish Boxer. . .
OK, I’ve been hesitating re the Bemelmans but you have me convinced!!
It’s a delight, K