Old Friends

Yesterday I addressed Hendrix’s incoming Freshmen and their families, as part of a convocation welcoming them to the college. Here’s what I told them.

From Maus, vol 1

At the beginning of MAUS, his remarkable memoir in comic book form of growing up with parents who survived the Holocaust, Art Spiegelman tells a story about his ten-year-old self. On a summer’s day in the late 1950s, Spiegelman is rollerskating with friends in his neighbourhood in Queens when he falls and skins his knee. Tearfully he makes his way home, where his father, Vladek Spiegelman, is cutting a piece of siding in the driveway.

 “Why do you cry, Artie?”, Vladek asks, continuing with his work

“I – I fell, and my friends skated away without me,” Artie sobs.

Now Vladek pauses. He looks at his son and says:

 “FRIENDS? Your friends? If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends.”

[This is where the platform party gets nervous about inviting the Holocaust guy to give the inspiring talk…]

In the several panels over which Vladek offers this pronouncement, Spiegelman pulls back the point of view: father and son get smaller; the tidy suburban neighbourhood gets bigger; Artie’s expression is unreadable. But only two pages into the book it’s already clear how much Vladek has been shaped—by which I mean, mis-shaped—by his experience of persecution, and how he inadvertently passes on that damage to his son.

Reading MAUS, with its dramatic incidents, terrible and miraculous outcomes, and shattered family dynamics, we can easily forget that the opening anecdote turns on the idea of friendship. What could friendship have to do with the Holocaust? After all, the Nazis were determined to destroy their victims as humans—to that end, they ensured that nothing like solidarity or common feeling or fellowship could exist among victims. The result, it has been said, was a situation in which selfishness was everything. As the doctor and antifascist fighter Ella Lingens-Reiner wrote about surviving Auschwitz: “My principle [was]: “I come first, second, and third. Then nothing, then again I; and then all the others.” [Pause] But reality was more complex. Yes, victims were often too hungry and afraid and sick to create any relationship approximating friendship. It was dangerous to care for others: the result was often punishment or torture, even death. And yet victim testimony is full of stories of connection, even among complete strangers. Care and friendship persisted throughout the ghettos, camps, and killing fields of Europe. (Lingens-Reiner, in fact, saved many people, both before her internment and during it, when she was pressed into service in the camp “hospital.”)

And despite what Vladek Spiegelman says to Artie—“If you lock them together in a room with no food for a week, THEN you could see what it is, friends”—his own story is full of comradeship, solidarity, care, and, yes, friendship. A Polish priest gave him, of all things, a lesson in Torah at one of his darkest moments. A Kapo (a prisoner in charge of other prisoners) agreed to pass letters from Vladek to his wife Anja when they were briefly interned in the same camp complex. And another prisoner agreed to share a clean, by which I mean a lice-free, shirt, which prisoners had to be able to show to get even the irregular rations on offer in the chaotic final days of the Third Reich.

[Pause]

I’m always struck by the presence of friendship in Holocaust testimony. Maybe that’s because friendship has always been so important in my own life. Being and having friends has always been central to my sense of self. Which is why I believe one of the most important things that will happen to you over the next few years will be making friends who help you flourish, by caring for you and allowing you to care for them. [Slight pause] I genuinely believe that many of the most important lessons you’ll take from Hendrix will come from things you learned in class, and I don’t just say that because I’m a professor. But when I reflect back to my own time in college—at a liberal arts campus in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada—I think above all of the friends I made there. And mostly I think of one friend, my bestie, Alan Hall.

Alan and I lived together for three years. When we moved into our apartment in downtown Halifax in the fall of our Sophomore year—in a crumbling former rooming house that had, it was said, put up Oscar Wilde on his speaking tour and Duke Ellington on his frequent sojourns north of the border—we didn’t know each other that well. Of course, I’d seen Alan around during my Freshman year, it was a small school, everybody knew everybody. But I wouldn’t have called him my friend. But when my Freshman roommate decided to transfer, I needed someone to split rent with. One morning in the caf, a guy with floppy hair and a necklace of wooden beads, smelling of Patchouli (I dunno what to tell you, it was the 90s) came up to me and said, “I hear you need a roommate. I have a great stereo.” Then he gave out the infectious high-pitched yelp-snort of a laugh that I would grow to love so much over the coming years.

That was our meet cute. We were an odd-couple: Alan so open, me so shy; Alan so outdoorsy, me so not; Alan so even-keeled, me so neurotic. I’m not sure what he saw in me, but I fell in love with the joy he took in the world. I was a child of immigrants and had the buttoned-up quality of one who has had to translate for his parents and is always anxious to fit in. Alan was from an Old Canadian family—the patriarch on his mother’s side had been a lumber baron; his great-grandfather had founded the CBC, the national radio service—and he had the confidence of belonging. One time we took the bus to the mall and on the way Alan started singing, like right there, out loud, in front of people he didn’t know! I was mortified, of course, but then I saw how others smiled, enjoying that little moment of serendipitous pleasure, and I realized, with amazement, “Huh, there are other ways to be.”

Halifax, early 90s. I remember those snowbanks.

You don’t know Alan. How could you? He’s not famous. He lives in Fredericton, New Brunswick. [5 bucks to anyone who can find that on a map.] He teaches part-time at a local college, and takes care of his three kids. He’s an all-around good guy, such a total delight, and the most important person in the world to me other than my wife and daughter. Now that we are middle-aged with all the ordinary disappointments and frustrations of that time of life, kids to schlep around, home repairs to ignore or contract out, we don’t have as much time for each other as we’d like. Plus, the trip from Little Rock to Fredericton is no picnic. But whenever we text or Zoom or, best of all, see each other in person, it’s like we never left off.

I know, I know, what do you care about these middle-aged Canadians? My point is this: find your Alan. [Slight pause] I’m not sure you can go looking for them, it just has to happen. But you can make yourself open to the possibility. Try new things this year: ask to sit next to someone in the caf; join a club, even if it makes you nervous; take someone up on their invitation to go the gym or a party or to the play they’re in. Put the word out that you’re looking for a roommate and when a guy comes up to you and says he has no furniture except a decent stereo (on which, you will learn, he only plays Joni Mitchell) maybe say, what the hell. Maybe you’ll meet the person who will stand up with you at your wedding, or give advice to your kids, or cheer you on when you write a book or take a new job or submit a photo to a contest or whatever it is you do later on that you’re proud of and want to be validated about.

Most of all, find someone to just hang out with. This feels like the moment in the speech where I humblebrag about the shenanigans Alan and I got up to. Alas we were too nerdy for shenanigans. But we cooked a lot of chickpeas together while listening to the CBC. [Is that a shenanigan? What’s that you say? No? Ok.] We wrote a humour column for the campus paper. We serenaded a girl outside her window one frigid night because she was roommates with a girl I really wanted to date and the girl I really wanted to date asked me to do it to cheer up her friend who was having a hard time and Alan agreed to come with me. [Now that’s a friend!]

And we talked about what we were reading. About this amazing book that blew our minds, a comic book, but about the Holocaust. The characters were half-animal, half-human, and the story was as much about what happened after the war as during it, and how the child of parents who survived the genocide indirectly suffered from their traumas. That book, of course, was MAUS. In the early 90s it wasn’t yet the classic it’s since become, taught in schools and colleges around the world. Though not in every school. You might have heard that a school board in Tennessee recently banned MAUS as being “too troubling.” As Spiegelman himself put it, partly incredulous and partly enraged, it was as if the board was saying “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?” I can picture Spiegelman’s expression when he said this, because I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days with him when he gave a lecture here at Hendrix about ten years ago. Spiegelman was kind and smart and wry, a real mensch, but also not one to suffer fools gladly. He reminded me, in fact, of Alan. Because Alan is sweet and gentle but he also doesn’t put up with any nonsense, especially with anyone who disparages people who are too often marginalized. I learned so much about my own prejudices, for example, when after we graduated Alan lived at a home for folks with Down’s Syndrome.

When you find your Alan, when you make the friendship that will last for decades, you’ll be finding someone to order late-night pizza with, yes, but also someone who will help you in the task of figuring out how to live, which is especially hard when you also realize, as you will in every class at Hendrix, that everything is complicated. The reason that scene at the beginning of MAUS is so painful is that Vladek wants, even needs, Artie to live the way he does. Which is understandable, maybe even well-intentioned—Vladek is convinced the next Holocaust is coming and he wants his son to be ready—but it’s also paranoid and paralyzing.

When you’re in college you’re figuring out how you want to live, and you need your friends to help you. Especially these days, when lots of people—a minority, maybe, but an increasingly vocal and vicious one—think that knowing how to live means dividing people into those who are worthy of protection and care, ultimately of being deemed a human being, and those who aren’t. It’s just that kind of thinking that destroyed Vladek Spiegelman along with so many other victims.

When you’re in search of your friends, of course you want to avoid people ruled by insecurity and fear and hate. They’ll be the ones judging and demonizing others. But, sadly, you must also approach someone like Vladek Spiegelman with care. Despite the friendships he made during his time of suffering, Vladek was too damaged not to replicate in his own life the divisive logic of his persecutors. (In an infamous scene in the book, Vladek launches a racist tirade when his son picks up an African-American hitchhiker.) Much better to find someone like Art Spiegelman, who, as far as I can tell, is an all-around good guy. He’d be a good friend, I bet. Problem is, geniuses aren’t always thick on the ground, even at Hendrix. So best of all to find someone like Alan Hall, who as I speak is probably going for a run before he has to pick his youngest up after school.

Thinking of home, no doubt

I can’t speak to what would happen if Alan and I were locked in a room for a week without food—god forbid any of us should learn what that’s like—but I know for sure that if I suffered any of life’s ordinary hurts, as of course I have, stuff like falling down while rollerskating, Alan wouldn’t—hasn’t—skated away. Which is funny because there’s a famous line in a song on Joni Mitchell’s album Blue (ask your parents about it). The line goes:  “I wish I had a river I could skate away on.” The speaker, someone like Mitchell herself, who was born in Alberta but sought her fortune in California, is living in the US and pining for Canada—relatable!—but she’s also running away after having hurt the person closest to her. Lucky for me, Alan confined all his skating away to the cds he played on what turned out to be a really great stereo. He’s never left me yet. I wish similar good fortune to you all.

Thank you and welcome to Hendrix.

What I Read, June 2022

Plenty busy chez EMJ last month. Two weeks studying Holocaust photographs in a faculty seminar (inspiring, transformative, draining). One week teaching an online class (enjoyable, tiring). One week doing absolutely nothing but reading and chilling (bliss). And one week trying to catch up on all the things (I know this makes for five weeks, not sure what to tell you).

Although much of my reading concerned the history of atrocity photographs, I made time for a number of other things. I got into a good rhythm: get up early, read something demanding for an hour or so; crash in the afternoon and evening, read fluff. Spent much of the month in St Louis: nice to be somewhere where you can sit outside in the summer. Also: Ted Drewes FTW!

Gilad Seliktar, from But I Live

Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945/1991)

In the first pages of his autobiography, Wright, a bored four-year-old, almost burns his grandmother’s house down, and the rest of the book is seldom less incendiary. Amazing that Wright survived not just that errant moment but his childhood at all. So much abuse, contempt, despair. Wright wanted to call the book American Hunger, a resonant title that suggests not just the hunger that African Americans have felt to belong to their country but also the hunger with which America has devoured them. Most of all, though, the title is literal: Wright was seriously undernourished much of his life, even into adulthood. (He was turned down for a good job with the post office because he didn’t weight enough.) In one indelible scene, Wright, who has been deposited in an orphanage because his mother temporarily can’t take care of him, is dizzy with hunger. He and the other children were fed only twice a day—before bed they received a thin slice of bread with a smear of molasses—but that didn’t save them from having to work. For example, they had to “mow” the orphanage’s grounds: a herd of children on their hands and knees, pulling the grass out in clumps, often too lightheaded to make any headway.

Wright changed the title to Black Boy after the Book of the Month club, which had selected the title—as it had done some years before with Native Son—declined to publish the manuscript’s second half, which describes Wright’s experiences after escaping the South for Chicago, specifically his involvement with the communist party. (I gather the party pressured the BMOC to make the changes, which suggests an America so different from the one we live in I don’t even know what to say.) I sort of agree that the parts about Wright’s childhood and early adulthood in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee are more compelling. They’re certainly more reducible to a narrative of suffering that makes sense to (white) readers. (And ending with the train ride to Chicago implies an overcoming that the rest of the book belies.) But I found the cruel political machinations described in the second half engrossing—excommunication, quasi-Stalinist show trials, oof. Wright believes there is something essential to communism that cannot be quashed by its instantiation, whether in the Soviet Union or south side Chicago. It emphasized self-sacrifice in a way his own life had prepared him to understand.

What stands out to me about Black Boy is its almost complete lack of joy. Wright’s life was hard, his upbringing mean, in both senses of the world, his horizons cramped by racism and the strict religion of his family. There’s nothing here to compare, for example, to the meaningful pleasures described in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Colored People. (Admittedly, Gates was of a different class and writing about the 1950s not the 20s and 30s.) The funniest scene concerns his job as a janitor at a Chicago hospital. Not that this was a good time. Together with three other men, all Black, Wright worked without thanks and almost without recompense: his description of mopping stairs that people immediately muck up, offering what they think is an amusing quip about how work is never done or, as is more often the case, not even seeing him at all will make your blood boil. The basement of the hospital contained a lab where white scientists performed experiments on animals (afflicting mice with diabetes and other horrors). One day, two of the janitors, who hate each other, get into a fight that turns into a brawl—the cages are knocked to the floor, and most of the animals escape. With only minutes to go before the scientists are due back from lunch, Wright and the others chase the animals, tossing the animals into cages willy-nilly. Who knows, Wright wryly speculates, what medical advances were made that day. Yet this scene, which in another writer’s hands could be laugh out loud funny, is tense, terrifying. The consequences of discovery for Wright and the others are simply too great.

Poverty is corrosive, yet Wright’s escape carries with it regret, loss, sorrow, and rage. In a riff on Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, Wright describes his literary self-education—he used the library card of a sympathetic white co-worker to check out books—as a mixed blessing:

In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.

Communist party meddling or no, I can see why white publishers were wary of the book’s refusal of uplift. To me, the characteristic Wright note here is that added “killing”—Wright suffers plenty of physical violence, but his mental anguish is even worse.

Audrey Magee, The Colony (2022)

In the summer of 1979, two men arrive on an island off the west coast of Ireland. One, an English painter, is running away from a failing marriage and doubts about his artistic relevance, and in search of fabled light. The other, a French academic, is returning to complete the field work for his anthropological and linguistic dissertation on Gaelic. The story of how their competing presences—expressed in dinner-table arguments about whether English and the modernity it is the vehicle for is ruinous—shape the lives of the family that has rented them their rooms is interspersed by short chapters that detail, in neutral language, killings perpetrated by Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries back on the mainland.

I’m a sucker for windswept northern landscapes, and any story in which the making of tea is a repeated and central element will always be meat and drink to me. But I liked Colony for other reasons too. It’s a think-y book that never feels plodding. Magee argues that the depredations of colonialism take many forms—the fantasy of linguistic purity as harmful as airy invocations of progress. The latter, so Magee, always require someone be exploited. She tackles a lot here, and I wasn’t always convinced by the juggling act (a backstory about the Frenchman’s childhood as the son of a pied noir needed to be better integrated), but I appreciated her ambition.

Thanks to John Self for turning me on to this one.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes , or The Loving Huntsman (1926)

An unmarried woman in England between the wars becomes a witch. Or decides to live as the witch she has always been. Frances, Rebecca, and I talk about this on Episode 5 of One Bright Book—I loved it less than they did, was not quite swept away with it as I’d hoped, but I definitely recommend. Warner is perhaps a little chilly for me, and I do wonder about the implications of emphasizing (only?) a magical solution to a political problem—what will it take for women to be left alone? Prefer Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, for a not dissimilar English magic-realist admixture.

Check out these pieces by Rebecca and Rohan for more thoughts on what Warner is up to.

Garry Disher, The Way It Is Now (2021)

Diverting crime novel with good surfing scenes. The son of a cop, himself recently a cop—he fell in love with a witness and has been suspended—has never stopped trying to find out what happened to his mother, who disappeared twenty years ago. New evidence comes to light, and things look even worse than ever for his father, who has always maintained his innocence.

Not the best Disher I’ve read, but he’s so damn competent, not sure he can write a bad book.

Charlotte Schallié, Ed. But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust (2022)

[Created by Miriam Libicki and David Schaffer; Gilad Seliktar and Nico & Rolf Kamp; Barbara Yelin and Emmie Arbel]

Beautiful & moving collaboration between child Holocaust survivors and graphic novelists, with impressive critical and historical appendices. Libicki fittingly illustrates Schaffer’s story of hiding in the forests of Transnistria—what horrible things happened in that benighted territory—in the style of an edition of the Grimms. The minimalist Seliktar (he reminds me of Manuele Fior) uses a palette of purple/blue + yellow/brown and delicate shading to accompany the story of the Kamp brothers’ time in hiding (in thirteen different lodgings, including a chicken coop) in Holland. Yelin, whose marvelous Irmina I raved about last year, tells the bleak story of Emmie Arbel’s terrifying experiences as a five-year-old in Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, where she had to watch her mother starve to death as a result of dividing her meager rations among her children (all three survived, miraculously). After a long recuperation in Sweden, the siblings immigrated to Israel, where Emmie struggled again, especially in the kibbutz system of education/neglect. All three artists include their exchanges with their subjects in their comics, but Yelin’s self-reflection is the most extensive. In the process she shows how thoroughly Arbel was damaged by her experiences, to the point of passing her trauma on to her children.

The project is a triumph. Schallié deserves credit for bringing together survivors, artists, and scholars—and for securing the funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Reseach Council of Canada that supported the collaborative project of which this book must be the centerpiece. In addition to the three comics, there’s a further comic describing the artists’ cooperation, a brief statement from each of the survivors themselves, and lucid, informative short essays expanding on the context of each survivor’s experiences by scholars. I especially appreciated Alexander Korb’s piece on the Holocaust in Transnistria.

Did I mention that But I Live is gorgeously produced and printed, too? A must read if you have any interest in the topic.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

Excellent novel about a spaceship—outfitted with twenty-four complete biomes and about two thousand people—on a mission to an earth-like moon in the Tau Ceti system. Despite having been slingshotted from Saturn at who knows how much the speed of light (Robinson does know, and goes into detail, but I can’t follow him when he gets all engineer-y), the trip takes 160 years, and so the people on board as the ship approaches Aurora are several generations removed from the ones who set off.

Two women are at the center of the novel—Devi, the ship’s de-facto chief engineer, and Freya, her daughter. (Robinson’s great theme is the power of the engineering mindset, its ingenuity and improvisation, when tied to a politics of care.) The other protagonist is Ship itself, whose AI comes to self-consciousness through long conversations with Devi, and her command that Ship write a narrative of the voyage. (The meditations of the relation of narrative to consciousness are the least successful part of the book.)

The travelers begin the process of terraforming the moon, but it turns out that it is inhabited, at minimum, by a prion that is fatal to humans. The crew faces a decision—turn their efforts to a nearby moon in the hope that it’s more hospitable, or return to earth, something Ship was not designed for. The dilemma almost leads to civil war—only Ship’s intervention as The Rule of Law permits a non-violent resolution of the situation. Most decide to return, but a large minority opt for the unknown. We never learn what happens to them. Probably nothing good, but Robinson leaves their experience as a tantalizing possibility and a symbol for all that can’t be known.

The voyage home is perilous for many reasons—the biomes are failing, the crew is starving, authorities on earth respond too late to slow Ship down, necessitating a dangerous twelve-year journey through the solar system where, theoretically, the gravitational forces of the planets create will enough drag for the crew to splash down.

Aurora is moving, suspenseful, and thought-provoking. As a book about politics and the insatiable human demand to make and do—which, Robinson suggests, ought to be confined to our own planet—it made a fascinating and unexpected pairing with the other book I was reading at the same time, namely…

Guido Morselli, The Communist (1976) Trans. Frederika Randall (2017)

Published after his death, like all his novels, Morselli’s The Communist was written in 1964 – 65. It’s set a half-decade earlier, at a time when the Communist party in Italy boasted the third-largest membership in the world, after only the USSR and China. Its success stemmed from its active role in the resistance to fascism, and translated, in the first decade or so after the war, into parliamentary success, although its members were divided about participating in the act of governing. Would that not legitimate the system they wished to overthrow? The Communist is about one of these new parliamentarians, Walter Ferranini, a man whose life has been devoted to the left, even if the left has not been devoted to him. The son of an anarchist railwayman, Ferranini served in Spain before finding his way to the US, where, despite himself, in a manner that seems to emulate the bourgeois striving he abhors, he marries the daughter of his boss and allows himself to dream of the family’s place in the country. But when his wife turns reactionary, throwing herself into a nativist movement, and with the war over, he returns to Italy and throws himself into labour activism in Reggio Emilia.

It is on the basis of his success in these practical matters, and his genuine commitment to improving the lives of the workers, that Ferranini is elected a deputy in the national parliament. Although he lives to serve, he is unhappy: his dream of introducing a bill to expand worker safety is met with hostility and derision by members of his own party; he feels increasingly unable to discipline colleagues who call out hypocrisy among party leaders; he falls afoul of party orthodoxy when he writes an article for a journal headed by Alberto Moravia; and his affair with married but separated single-mother is used by the party as an excuse to discipline him. No wonder his health is so bad. And then comes a telegram from the US—Nancy, his wife (they never divorced), is seriously ill. He gets a flight, arriving in Philadelphia in an epic snowstorm that incites the novel’s satisfying denouement.

Ferranini is a sad, lonely, and, yes, noble character (he’d despise that description, though, and the book sympathizes but never romanticizes him). Morselli writes with deep interest, if not tenderness, but entirely without sarcasm or satire about the tendency of belief systems and institutional structures to obscure the insights that sparked them. Ferranini’s article, the one that gets him in trouble with the party bosses, is about the inescapable reality of toil. Contra Marx, he argues, not even achieved socialism will be able to undo this reality. (Hannah Arendt would approve!) Workers don’t feel alienated; they feel tired. As he says:

Admit it, there are things that technology cannot achieve. There is a law that can’t be breached, a physical and biological law that says life can’t arise and survive without sweat and struggle. And especially not without struggling against the environment, the surrounding material reality, and labor is part of this.

The Communist, one of the best books I’ve read this year, so thoughtful and, oh I don’t know, solid, though never turgid, presents activism and labor organizing as real labor, less exhausting and dangerous than work in a mine or factory or agricultural cooperative, but exhausting and dangerous nonetheless. Most of the people who do that work are not dedicated to it—some are outright cynics, former fascists who became fervent communists when they saw which way the wind was blowing; Ferranini is exceptional. Morselli allows us to believe in his integrity even as he also shows us that the system the man works within ultimately holds him in contempt. It would be easy to conclude that Ferranini is a dupe. Morselli refuses that temptation. Neither does he make the man a true believer. He is something rarer: someone who does the work, because the work is good, if, as it is supposed to, it eases our exhaustion.

Nora inspired me to read this, and am I ever glad. Grateful too to the late Frederika Randall for bringing this book into such lovely English.

K. C. Constantine, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973)

The second Mario Balzic mystery is a step-down from the first—less interesting, plot-wise, and dismayingly retrograde in its use of slurs, to say nothing of its portrayal of queerness—but Constantine is good with the snappy dialogue and Balzic is shaping up to be a great character. I’ll give the series a little more rope.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where are You (2021)

Loved it! Still think Conversations with Friends is the one to beat, but I’m appreciating the maturing of Rooney’s characters as she herself ages, and I just think she gets “the whole meeting smart friends when you are young and then sticking with them for years even as your lives change” thing. Also, a great writer of sex.

Setting down to write what became The Rainbow, Lawrence said in a letter that he was going to follow the master, Eliot, and do what she did: take two couples and set them against each other. Rooney does the same here. Of her four protagonists, the non-intellectual Felix interested me the most, there’s a Mephistophelean quality there that is directed outward rather than inward (most of the bad things in her other books have involved self-harm), though I think Rooney took the easy way out at the end and tamed him, made him just curmudgeonly when he might have been something else.

This was great on audio, by the way, Rooney’s Irishness much more evident.

Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train (2010) Trans. Sam Malissa (2021)

Extravagant thriller with more plot twists than any five books need, let alone one. The premise is cool—a bunch of assassins and other thugs are stuck on a bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka. Their various errands center on a suitcase full of money and the son of a mobster who winds up dead a few pages into the book. At first I was into it, the reversals were clever and the characters intriguing. But then the book spoils the fun by taking take itself seriously—there’s a running question of why people think it’s ok to kill other people, what makes for evil in the world, etc. Because I don’t respect myself, I finished it, all 432 pages.

Barbara Yelin, from But I Live

There you have it, folks. Began with a bang, ended with a whimper, but, really, this was the most solid reading month in ages. Almost everything was good, but special shout-outs to the Wright, Robinson, and Morselli. Three best-of-the-year candidates right there. Marginal consolation in a time of the rampaging new American illiberalism. I hope you all are well and not too disheartened.

What I Read, May 2022

May finally brought the end of the semester. Man, that was a tough one. As always, I thought it would be a relatively easy month, now that I no longer needed to have something to say in the classroom every day. As always, I forgot how much energy it takes to get through the final administrative tasks. Squeezed in a little reading on the side, though.

Sam Gilliam, Wave, 1972

Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Last Gift (2011)

Sometimes I’m struck with amazement when I consider exactly how I have found myself here. But then I suppose many people can say that about their lives. It may be that events constantly take us by surprise, or perhaps traces of what is to become of us are present in our past, and we only need to look behind us to see what we have become, and there is really no need for amazement.

An elderly man, arrived from Uganda in England in 1960 to study journalism, reflects on his experiences to thee young man who has moved in next door. The young man, Jamal, is himself the son of an immigrant, who came from Zanzibar at around the same time, literally coming ashore as a sailor before meeting his soon-to-be-English wife. But Jamal’s father, Abbas, has told his family almost nothing about his life before England. Now Abbas, weakened by a series of strokes, begins to reveal the past that has gnawed at him in silence for years.

It is typical of the novel’s structure that the son is more easily able to have a conversation about immigration with someone other than his father. This is a book of echoes and doublings, of stories told circumspectly and in layers. That indirection fits with the dislocation that comes from making a new life in a strange place, even when that rupture has been freely chosen.

And while Harun, the retired journalist, implies that choice may be overrated—perhaps in looking back we will see intimations of what was to come, though if that is true it is strange to use the word “traces,” implying as it does that those causes are themselves effects—elsewhere the book reminds us of something irrepressible in life, something that resists order and control, which appears in moments both great and small. Take Abbas’s reflections on his schooldays in Zanzibar:

The teachers worked so hard to keep them [he and his fellow students] quiet and obedient, like it was a point of honour for them to do so. Sometimes it was as if they failed as teachers if the children so much as twisted or scratched themselves. How their teachers loved that deep submissive silence. But they could not make that silence endure. They could not quite keep the children in check. Something always happened, some small insurrection, irrepressible laughter, an undaunted boy whose cheek could not be suppressed.

The two Gurnahs I’ve read—and I’ll read them all, eventually—seem to me to be about the difference between insurrections that oppress and insurrections that free: the latter are minor, like irrepressible laughter, but vital, subversive.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (2017)

Had plenty to say about this on Episode 4 of One Bright Book. Suffice it say, I liked it a lot, and it’s only grown on me since. Nobel committee did something right for a change.

Martha Wells, All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) (2017)

Murderbot is a cyborg SecUnit (Security Unit) that has hacked itself to override its governance programming. What Murderbot wants to do is watch tv (soap operas, basically); what it finds itself having to do, thanks to an inconveniently developing conscience and self-awareness, is help humans who are too stupid and frail not to get into trouble. The second-best thing about All Systems Red is Wells’s insistence that the need comes from the desire, awareness from soaps: these books are smart about the power of representation to shape consciousness. The first-best thing is Murderbot’s wry narration. A few examples:

I needed to a) keep them here or b) kill them. Let’s go with option b.

Oh right, I often have complex emotional reactions which I can’t easily interpret.

I thought I had gotten good at controlling my expression, but apparently only when I wasn’t feeling actual emotions.

(The lesson was: if you’re going to fuck with something bigger and meaner than you, use a quick targeted attack and then run away really fast. This is the way I always try to operate, too.) [Wells is good with the parentheses.]

Having returned the book to the library, I have taken these examples—not all from the first book—from the Twitter account @MurderBotBot. Give it a follow!

I already named two best things, but I could also have talked about the books’ depiction of being autistic—which is basically how Murderbot experiences the world. Its anxiety around humans and their complex demands for emotional interaction is movingly depicted. Reading Murderbot’s sighs of relief when it can lower its face shield, or engage with people via mirrors or screens gave me new insight into this mode of experiencing the world.

There’s a plot, too, about a corporation intent on regaining control over its intellectual property (aka Murderbot) and some terrible things Murderbot may have done in its past thanks to that corporation. The events are compelling enough, especially since Wells has gone on to draw out their consequences in subsequent books, but the narrative voice is the real appeal. (And props to sff writers & publishers for embracing the novella form.)

Thanks to Elle and Liz and the other Murderbot fans who came out of the woodwork to champion the series.

Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons (2022)

Jeremy Denk is a classical pianist known for his wide-ranging repertoire, including 20th and 21st century music. He is also something of a genius: MacArthur and Avery Fisher prize winner, a soloist who travels the world playing recitals and concerts, the holder of a doctorate and a liberal arts degree, a one-time science and mathematics prodigy, and, on the basis of his thoughtful references to Roland Barthes and Herman Melville, a hell of a reader too. Every Good Boy Does Fine—a mnemonic for the lines on the treble clef—is a midlife memoir that takes us from his childhood in New Jersey through his upbringing in New Mexico and on to Oberlin, Indiana, Julliard, and other exalted spots of American musical life.

I loved Denk’s attention to his many teachers—his piano teachers, of course, but also those who alternately inspired, coached, and browbeat him in his official and unofficial life as a student. Denk, now himself a teacher and not, he admits, at least at first a good one, shows how important it is to be taught by lots of different people. Everyone offers him something different, and most of those approaches contradict each other, leading to much insecurity but also eventually a sense of self. Although open-hearted, though, the book is more realistic and idealistic about teaching. Denk shows how the things a teacher offers come at the cost of something they can’t. (Paul de Man: every moment of insight carries with it a corresponding area of blindness.) The same is true of learning. Denk doesn’t shy from showing his own failures as a student: lessons he refused to take until it was (almost) too late, obstinacies that got in his own way, needs (for praise mostly) that set him back.

Of the many remarkable teachers Denk has had the privilege to work with, the greatest was his mentor at Indiana, the Hungarian pianist György Sebók. A prodigy who like Denk excelled in many fields, Sebók entered the conservatory in pre-war Budapest already as a teenager and studied with an extraordinary array of musicians. As a Jew Sebók could not fight in the army but still had to serve: he did road work and was interned in what was basically a concentration camp, from which he escaped in 1944 after which he spent the rest of the war under the protection of the Swiss embassy. (Lucky for him, given what happened to half a million Hungarian Jews in the summer and fall of that year.) After the war he remained in Budapest, keeping up a concert career in Eastern Europe, but he left in 1957 after the Revolution, first for Paris and then, in 1962, for Indiana, where his countrymen, friend, and musical partner, Janos Starker, had invited him. Sebók is like a character from a Lubitsch or Wilder film and his world-weary, urbane Mitteleuropean outlook both captivated and bewildered the American provincial Denk.

Denk’s portrait of Sebók—and indeed all his teachers—is generous and forgiving. Unfortunately, his self-portrayal is murkier. He admits he can be difficult, especially when it comes to hurting other people, mostly thanks to his years-long inability to admit his sexuality, and he presents plenty of evidence for how his family, his father in particular, damaged him. But he offers no comprehensive reckoning re: those harms. Maybe because the book isn’t really about that, it’s about music. But it also sort of is. Denk bypasses the question of whether you need to be self-obsessed to be a success in a field as rarified, competitive, and unforgiving as music. But he shows us enough of himself, sometimes unwittingly, to let us see that Denk can be a bit of a dink.

Denk reads the audiobook himself, and while I would not call his narration distinctive (he seems to take perverse pleasure in barely stopping between chapters), he is a dab hand at an accent. I learned about Every Good Boy from this thoughtful review, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot—I haven’t even mentioned the theoretical interludes on rhythm, harmony, and melody. These are fascinating—at once metaphorical, lyrical, and conceptual.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)

Murderbot is also good on audio.

Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)

There can never be a love interest, can there? Like, Murderbot is never gonna get with Dr. Mensah. Right? Right?

Judith McCormack, The Singing Forest (2021)

More on this elsewhere.

Nina Stibbe, One Day I Shall Astonish the World (2022)

The title is the motto of the university that Susan, the narrator of Stibbe’s latest novel, ends up working at—not as a professor, which is what she imagined before she dropped out of college after getting pregnant, but as the indispensable and indefatigably cheerful PA to the Vice Chancellor. Instead it’s her best friend, Norma, whom Susan once coached in English literature, back when they first met and Norma was a science major who had tired of geology, who gets the job she once dreamed of.

That’s the way things go between them. Susan is a puzzle—easy to dismiss but shrewder than we are likely to credit. Life—by which I mean the most important people in her life—always seems to be pulling one over on her, and it’s true Susan does not always see what is in front of her. But we dismiss her at our peril. Here’s Susan thinking about how someone she’s known for a long time but not intimately wouldn’t make a good friend:

You’d never know what she was really thinking which is what I dislike about nice people: having to wonder if they secretly despise you or feel bitterly jealous, or just think you common but want someone to go to the cinema with or need help with their computer or for you to befriend their child.

Reading this, we realize, ah, perhaps Susan does know how terrible Norma is to her. (I’m not sure Norma quite works, as a character, her motivations are too opaque.) Maybe Susan’s a “devil you know” kind of person. But she’s nice—she’s the sort of person people are always asking favours of, expecting help from, unthinkingly demanding time of. Does she dislike herself? Or is she perhaps not as nice as she seems? Is her agreeableness—which, no question, keeps a torrent of despair at bay—fake?

Maybe because of this unexpected complexity, One Day I Shall Astonish the World made me think of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. Weird comparison, I know: an arty darling and a seemingly determinedly middlebrow book club novel. But both demand that we read against their female narrators, revising our initial opinions. Unlike Riley, Stibbe makes us like her narrator more. Riley’s is the more vivid novel, the one I will remember better in a year. But I appreciated how Stibbe reminded of my tendency to disparage someone whose default mode is not irony or skepticism. These days, especially, Stibbe’s generosity feels like a gift.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World is occasionally laugh-out loud funny, but only occasionally, a surprise given Stibbe was once responsible for getting me kicked out of the bedroom for laughing too much. I’m doing my best not to be like the people in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories who want the director character to leave off his arthouse aspirations and get back to his early, funny stuff (God those movies meant a lot to me, and now I can’t imagine watching a single one); I’m trying not to wish Stibbe would just keep doing what she’s always done. And yet, and yet—this book could have been funnier.

Jacqueline Winspear, A Sunlit Weapon (2022)

Prissy, self-satisfied.

Ken Krimstein, When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers (2021) Trans. by Ellen Cassedy

In 2017, 180,000 pages worth of documents were found by a construction crew in a decommissioned cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania. The pages, written in Yiddish, had been through a lot: collected by YIVO, the institute for the study of Yiddish language and culture; plundered by the Nazis; rescued by Jewish forced labourers who hid them in the ghetto; disinterred after the arrival of the Red Army; stored in the newly created Vilna Jewish Museum; and eventually walled up in the cathedral by a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian who refused Stalin’s order to pulp them. (This was in 1949, after Stalin had ratcheted up his antisemitic attacks once the State of Israel turned to the West rather than to the USSR.)

Ken Krimstein tells this story in the opening pages of his fascinating graphic nonfiction narrative. The book comprises six excerpts from diaries written by young people across Yiddish speaking Eastern Europe. The diaries were among the more than 700 entered into a competition sponsored by YIVO in the 1930s (first prize: 150 Zlotys; about US $1000 today). The contest aimed to generate an ethnographic study of Yiddish youth: their hopes, dreams, fears, resentments. To ensure truthfulness, entries were anonymous. (An elaborate system ensured that winners could receive their prizes.) In a fittingly Jewish irony, the grand prize was to be awarded on September 1, 1939.

Krimstein’s book brings these stories to light for the first time since they were submitted almost a century ago. The writers and their lives are so vivid. A girl cannot help but love her father, despite his terrible behaviour (he drank away the family’s money, stole from the children’s mother, abandoned his family, and remarried a non-Jew after converting to Russian Orthodoxy). A boy enters yeshiva because he thinks it will impress a girl (she has deemed him not serious enough), only for her to get together with his best friend. Another girl sees her dreams of attending the gymnasium foiled by a faux pas; she quits school, becomes a nanny and only finds freedom on her weekly evening off, when she goes skating. We meet Bundists and Zionists and religious Jews. In addition to failed marriages and broken families we hear of foiled attempts to get a visa to America. So much failure—yet so much life.

The stories are briskly told, offered in Krimstein’s spindly lettering and illustrated by almost abstract, spidery black and white drawings enlivened with splashes of an odd orange colour. They are not beautiful, but the book is lovely nonetheless.

What isn’t lovely—downright sketchy, actually—is Krimstein’s lack of clarity re: the texts. Has he abridged or edited them? He never says. (He does annotate references to the period and to Jewish ritual, often wittily.) Worse, he only names the translator in the acknowledgements page at the end. Shame on Bloomsbury for presenting the book as though Ellen Cassedy doesn’t exist.

Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage (1986)

Memoir for teens about the author’s Holocaust experiences. Born Rifkele Riva Minska in Lodz in 1926, Sender was the fourth of seven children. When Germany invaded Poland, her older siblings fled to Russia (happily, she would be reunited with them after the war), while Sender, her younger siblings, and her mother were interned in the Lodz ghetto. (Her father had died when she was just a child.) After her mother was deported in September 1942, Sender looked after her younger brothers, especially the gentle Laibele, who had contracted tuberculosis. Despite heroic efforts, notably adopting her brothers so they wouldn’t be dispersed into orphanages or other families, Sender can neither save Laibele, who dies of his illness (the fate of so many in the ghetto), nor ward off deportation for herself. Together with most of the rest the Jews of Lodz, Sender and her remaining brothers are sent to Auschwitz, where they are separated; she never sees them again. After a week in camp, Sender is selected for labour at Mittelsteine, an all-female subcamp of Gross-Rosen in the mountains of southern Silesia. There she continues the habit she had begun in the ghetto of recording her experience, writing poems that she whispers to the other inmates. She becomes a sort of camp mascot, a status that rescues her: the camp doctor persuades the commandant to send the teenager, who has contracted blood poisoning from an infected cut, to the civilian hospital in a nearby town because her poetry is good for camp morale and therefore productivity. Sender recovers from the near-fatal sepsis and survives a subsequent deportation further west, where she is liberated in March 1945. She returns to Lodz, but the family home has been taken over (the new occupants threaten her), and, like so many Polish survivors, she departs Poland for a DP camp in the American sector.

I appreciated the extraordinary aspects of Sender’s story, but The Cage (her name for the various locations of her suffering) didn’t do much for me. Sender hits the “where there’s life there’s hope” note hard and strains for uplift. Arriving at her final place of internment, a camp named Grafenort, she is informed by a fellow inmate that the name means “a place for nobles.” Stroking Sender’s face, the woman adds: “We are nobles, broken in body but still alive.” Maybe this happened, but the book’s insistence on values that the experience itself was daily destroying rings false.

I read The Cage because one of my better recently graduated students had been assigned it in high school. I’m not convinced it’s the best choice for those readers—I’d go with Tec’s Dry Tears, which contextualizes its events more clearly and doesn’t insist on human uplift—but it’s better than a lot of things my students have read. (Looking at you, Striped Pajama Boy.)

Len Deighton, Mexico Set (1984)

Thinking Deighton might be the spy writer for me. Not so twisty or circumlocutionary that I can’t tell what’s happening, but stylish, clever, exciting, as good on character as on plot. Mexico Set is the second Bernie Sampson book—I listened to the first one a while ago, and now I’m thinking it’s time to go on a binge. (There’s 9 all told, I think.) Here Sampson—under suspicion after the bombshell revelation at the end of Berlin Game—is tasked with turning a Soviet agent. As the title implies, the book is partly set in Mexico, and those scenes were much less exoticizing than I’d feared. But Deighton, like Sampson, likes Berlin best, and the book kicked into gear when it returned to the coal-fired atmosphere of the muttering, shabby heart of the 20th century. (That’s me being flowery, the books aren’t like that.) The cliché that the middle part of a trilogy is the weakest doesn’t hold here. Porch reading at its finest.

McArthur Binion, History of Application: Talking to You, 1977

 As you can see, light reading ruled the day—much that was enjoyable, nothing too heavy. (The Gurnahs the richest of the lot, by far.) But that’s what I needed in bringing the semester to a close, and I set myself up for a pretty stellar June. More on that soon. In the meantime, thoughts on any of these?

What I Read, January 2022

January was a long time ago, I hardly remember it. The reading month started strong, buoyed by the carryover of a modern American classic from December. Things petered out a bit toward the end, but that’s only to be expected, given the start of the semester, which was a cluster from the get-go since we spent the first week online. (Remember when we still believed in covid?) In addition to the reading and teaching, I posted almost daily year end reading reflections from a talented group of readers and writers. Check those out if you haven’t already. Maybe I’ll still do one myself. In the meantime, here are my January reads:

Jean-Paul Riopelle, Blue Night, 1953

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)

What can I say that others haven’t? Titanic both in content and form, Invisible Man is a novel that doesn’t quite want to be a novel, or that wants to see to what limits novels can be pushed. Sometimes I admired the book more than I loved it; my literary preferences are more conservative than I might like to think. I was especially enthralled by the first third—I often like the childhood parts of books best, but this section has so many indelible scenes, especially one about a group of boys, including the unnamed narrator, who are brought to a southern town’s Whites Only Chamber of Commerce event to fight a cage match during which, stripped naked, they scramble to collect money thrown into the ring by the Pillars of the Community. From that electrifying (a word those who have read the book know I use advisedly) beginning, the narrator finds himself in the middle of the issues of the day, from his student days at an all-Black college which requires him to appease white benefactors (and the Black administrators who appease them) to his time in Harlem, where he joins The Brotherhood, an organization inspired by the ideals of Communism and challenged by white racism on the one hand and Black nationalism on the other. Throughout, the narrator remains enigmatic, refusing (or perhaps being refused, I can’t tell) the development we expect to find in a Bildungsroman.

When I said that Invisible Man was only uneasily a novel, I had in mind its essayistic elements, which are more pronounced in its second half. But as I think about it, where it chafes most against novelistic expectation is in its idea of what constitutes an event. It’s a book in which one character after another gives a speech. Whether in barroom yarns, sermons, or street preaching, Invisible Man is about rhetorical persuasion. What the novel itself wants to persuade us of is harder to say. I bet I could be more intelligent about this if I’d read Richard Wright, who Ellison seems to be arguing with throughout. (Is that right?) But one answer might be that the narrator speaks for many more Americans than just himself: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Not that there is no difference between Black and white experience, but that the former knows more than the latter, since its intelligibility must be measured through the tape of the other. But maybe that’s to make Ellison into Du Bois. Help me out here, fam.

How silly to say “a must read”—it is, tho.

I’m grateful to Jules and Anja, who read this with me and kept me on track.

Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (2019)

Brilliant sf novel—I think it’s a space opera, though I’m not really sure what that means—about the subaltern experience. Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the remote Lsel Station to the Teixcalaani Empire, arrives in the metropole to investigate the death of her predecessor, Yskandr. Like all officials from her home, Mahit has an “imago machine” implanted in her brain, containing the memories and reflections of the person who most recently held their post. But the machine malfunctions almost as soon as Mahit arrives in Teizcalaani, which means she loses the benefit of Yskandr’s insight—as well as possible clues to his death. Mahit’s investigation, which turns out to hinge on much larger political events, is exciting enough. But what makes the book so terrific is its worldbuilding. The Empire is so compellingly constructed, its system of intricate poetry so lovingly—but not boringly—detailed, its differences from Lsel so thoughtfully fleshed out. Mahit is a devotee of Teixicalaani culture; like many colonized subjects she knows it better than the colonizers themselves. Yet she can never be accepted by the Empire, she will always be a barbarian, will always feel “the dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen,” which is to say she lives in “a state of simultaneous gratitude and fury.”

Martine is the pen-name for a scholar of medieval Byzantine and Armenian history who is also a city planner and climate activist; some people really do seem to be able to do everything. Her erudition shows on every page of A Memory Called Empire, as she folds the problem of colonial identity into a meditation on how the technology of the imago machine challenges even more fundamental aspects of identity: lifespan, individuality, memory. Exhilarating.

Ross Gay, Be Holding (2020)

I’d never minded gym class in elementary school, it was fun and low-stakes, but then came junior high. Like everything else, gym class got worse. A lot worse. I’d never been bad at sports, but now I was terrible. The kid who loved school hated PE days. The kid who loved every teacher, was confronted by a new phenomenon: coaches. They were the worst—one was suspended for walking into the girls changing room, which I imagine took some doing back in the 80s—and they accordingly fostered a vicious and terrorizing atmosphere. I made it through but high school gym promised to be worse.

But the teacher my tenth-grade year (happily the last year PE was a required class) was Coach Bishop, who had been on the Canadian men’s basketball team. This was not a particularly big accomplishment back then, but he was genuinely athletic, unlike some of my previous PE teachers. Much more importantly, he was kind. He used the respect his accomplishments garnered him to keep the jocks from beating up on the nerds. (Nerd had yet to become a term of respect; it’s still weird to me that that happened.) Nerds still got picked last for teams, though; Coach Bishop was not enlightened enough to have done away with that practice. I don’t think I was ever the actually last one to be picked, but it was always a close thing. Until we came to the unit on basketball. This was a time when the rise of the NBA was permeating even solidly white western Canada—we had some kind of minor league team in Calgary called the 88s, after the Olympics, which my friends and I often went to see, tickets being practically free—and I often shot hoops on my own. I wouldn’t say I was good, but I wasn’t terrible.

Coach Bishop, unsurprisingly, was good at teaching basketball fundamentals. It was a long time before he let us even scrimmage. Because we’d spent so long working on layups, I knew what to do when, in our first game, I was able to pick off a lazy pass and go in all alone for an easy two points. This surprised everyone, me included, but not as much as what happened a few minutes later, when another kid—a jock!—passed me the ball. I stopped at the circle, jumped, and let loose a shot. Nothing but net. I still vividly remember Coach Bishop’s delighted cry: “He stops, he pops, it drops!” To have invested so much in this moment—to have needed that validation so badly—that I think of it thirty-five years later, oof, not awesome.

Next class the two alpha jocks, the captains, so surprise, were as usual in charge of picking teams. I went first. Me! I wasn’t great; not terrible, but now that kids were wise to me I had lost the element of surprise. Plus I always do better without any expectations. My moment passed. We moved on to some other sport and I went back to the end of the line. That was the end of my basketball career. When I think of that brief moment of success—when I look at myself as if watching a film—can I get past the shame I feel at how much that recognition from even people I did not respect (those jocks) meant to me? Can I avow the need to be seen? What life of privilege did I lead that the worst I can imagine happening to me when fixed by the gaze of the other is feeling ashamed?

Ross Gay’s long poem Be Holding is about basketball, sort of. It starts with a brilliant description of Dr. J’s baseline scoop in the 1980 NBA playoffs, a moment that readers, like Gay himself, who stays up too late at the mercy of the YouTube algorithm, will want to watch again and again. Gay is fascinated with how Irving holds the ball, in a swooping cradle that seemed to defy gravity. This is the first of the many instances of holding that comprise the book. Holding as stopping. Holding as enabling. Holding as comforting. What begins as an imperative—always be holding— turns into a warning. Be holding becomes beholding, a much more ambiguous proposition. Freezing the frame on a grainy sports video is one thing; looking intently at an image of suffering—a photo of a young African American boy falling from a burning tenement building, for example—is another. Can we look at others (behold) and care for them (hold)? How do African Americans, especially, traumatized by the middle passage, the rupture of a voyage in yet another hold, respond to this dilemma?

I’m not doing a good job with the details of Gay’s explosive, sinuous leaps and transitions. It’s been a while and I don’t have the book to hand. But I remember glorying in his close readings of images—the book’s a triumph of ekphrasis—and thrilling to his associative leaps, as bravura as Dr. J’s how-did-he-do-that scoop. So grateful to Rebecca for pointing me to this terrific book.

Seichō Matsumoto, Inspector Imanishi Investigates (1961) Trans. Beth Carey (1989)

Japanese crime novel, quite famous, I gather. Maybe a new translation could help me get why; this one is painfully stilted. Not sure even that would save the book, though: it’s way too long—dude investigates every fucking detail—and not a patch on Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, which I read several years ago and still think of often. I only made it to the end because I was reading it aloud to my wife and we kept saying to each other, “Well, we’ve read this far…” We’re reading a book about sunk cost next.

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1948) Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker (1957)

Tremendous novel about four sisters from an aristocratic Osaka family in the late 1930s. Filled with event—hard to know which set piece to single out: that extraordinary and terrifying flood, probably, which makes a similar scene in The Rainbow seem tame—but also leisurely, a little aimless, as if unwilling to commit to anything as definitive and perhaps crass as “action” or “plot.” Fittingly, the book repeatedly returns to the family’s attempt to marry off the third of the sisters, Yukiko, who is thirty and rapidly approaching irredeemable spinsterhood; she declines each laboriously contracted proposal, always finding some problem or other, most of which boil down to her almost Bartleby-like preferring not to.

I just couldn’t get enough of this book—it has all the feels, it considers a world at once accepting of and resistant to modernity, it has scope but is also modest. The last line is justly famous, and you should read Tom’s acute interpretation of it and its relation to Tanizaki’s depiction of violent and traumatic history. The guy wrote a lot of books; I should see what else he was up to. I’m guessing they are mostly not like this.

Last thing I’ll say: I’ve thought of The Makioka Sisters every day since reading it. That don’t happen too often.

Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2000)

I’ve written about this book so many times. It’s still great, in fact, it just keeps getting greater. Every year the students love it more; Kluger’s take-no-prisoners manner gets them where they live. Before long I won’t need to read it any more to teach it, but I’ll probably keep doing so, it’s that good.

S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland (2020)

Top-shelf Southern Noir, with enough suspense in the first half alone to merit your attention. It’s long (Cosby is not a minimalist), and it doesn’t balance action with characterization as well as the more recent Razorblade Tears but from the opening scene—late-night drag racing on the back roads of Virginia—you know you’re in the hands of a talent.

Emma Seppälä, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (2016)

Not my usual thing, and I pretty much hate-read it. I’d joined a reading group set up by our Associate Provost for Teaching and Learning (a psychologist, natch) in which participating faculty discussed the book with a student of their choice before we all met together. The best part of the exercise was working with my student—she is my mentee in the First Generation program at my college and an absolute delight—because she too was annoyed that Seppälä overestimates willpower and underappreciates how much privilege is demanded by her rhetoric of self-care. (I’m all for self-care, I just hate when it’s used to make people feel guilty that they have not done the impossible and avoided systemic problems.) Anyway, I learned a few things. Like the way we often think we’re relaxing when in fact we’re doing something mentally taxing. Scrolling through our social media feeds, for example, demands concentration, and leaves us more rather than less tired. So when we “take a short break” from some other task to check Twitter we’re still working, as far as our brain is concerned. Talking with colleagues and students did nothing to accelerate my success—whatever that means, ugh, management speak—but it made for a fun and, yes, happy hour or two.

Norman Lewis, Alabama, 1960

Pretty good reading month, right? Tell me about books that are exactly like Makioka because that is what I want to read this summer. Which, now that I am caught up with these monthly posts, I might actually have time for…

What I Read, March 2022

Mostly blocked March from my memory—it was as gruesome as always, ugh the Spring semester sucks so much—but I did take some time off over Spring Break (which meant I was even more fucked than usual afterward, all those “breaks” academics get are great as long as you don’t use them) and so I read a little more than I have been. Deets below.

But first, exciting news: Frances, Rebecca, and I launched our podcast! At One Bright Book we discuss one book an episode, and then fill you in on some of our current reading. Available wherever you get your podcasts, and on Twitter.

Elaine de Kooning, Italian Summer #28, 1970

Katrine Engberg, The Tenant (2016) Trans. Tara Chace (2020)

Competent Danish procedural, the details of which I’ve forgotten. Just what I needed to get out of a reading slump.

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (2014)

Darnielle’s first novel—or second, if you count his book about Black Sabbath—is pretty great, establishing his striking blend of menace and warmth. The narrator, disfigured after a suicide attempt gone wrong, is a recluse who lives modestly on an insurance payment which he supplements with the proceeds of a mail-order role-playing game set in a post-nuclear future. The details of the game—its interplay between choice and fate, constraint and freedom offering an allegory for the narrator’s own life—and the community it creates for the narrator with people he never meets moved and fascinated me. I still like Universal Harvester best (it has the most interesting female characters), but the guy’s got me for life, I’ll read whatever he writes. Maybe even that Sabbath book.

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015)

Excellent fantasy novel that allegorizes the experience of the subaltern groomed for imperial service. (This situation is the basis of an otherwise different but also excellent sf novel by Arkady Martine that I read in January and have yet to write about.) Baru Cormorant is a child when her homeland of Taranoke is conquered by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest. The Falcresti bring wealth and technology (medicine, sanitation, etc.) but they subjugate Baru’s people both economically and violently. Their obsession with so-called sexual hygiene leads them to destroy Taranoke’s kinship structure (families have two fathers and one mother). Singled out by a high-ranking official, Baru develops her prowess in mathematics at an elite boarding school, as well as a life-long ambivalence: furious that her ostensible benefactors have murdered one of her fathers but also enchanted by their promise of power in Falcrest’s zealously meritocratic system. After graduation, Baru is sent to Ardwynne, thirteen squabbling provinces that threaten to unite in rebellion. As Imperial Accountant, Baru controls the purse-strings and establishes herself as the most important figure in the realm. So although the novel eventually details a military campaign (though even here Dickinson emphasizes politics over battle), it’s mostly about bureaucracy and monetary policy. Sound boring? Anything but! The ending actually made me gasp. Last book to do that was Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. There are two more Baru books—better believe I’ll be reading them soon.

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder (2021)

As promised, I taught Kaiser’s memoir about his efforts to reclaim family property in Poland in my seminar on Holocaust postmemory. I liked the book even more when I had the chance to think it through with students. They mostly liked it, too; some were prompted to write about it, which generated several strong essays. In the best one, a student wrote about fighting with her father over his decision to keep a dagger adorned with Nazi insignia that his own grandfather, the student’s great-grandfather, brought home from the battlefields of Europe. (The great-grandfather fought through the Ardennes.) The student deepened her reflections about her familial conflict by juxtaposing her situation to Kaiser’s similar but definitely not analogous predicament,

My students and I were even more jazzed about the book after Kaiser visited the class (Zoom really is great sometimes). He was awesome, no surprise, articulate and funny. The students asked reasonably good questions, too. Take our word for it—read this book. And if you need more convincing, it just won the Sami Rohr Prize: that’s a big deal.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (1992)

The first One Bright Book selection—check out what Frances, Rebecca, and I had to say about it! I was into it, and I liked it more after talking about it. Poor time management meant I had to read the book in two days, worrisome given its length, but it engaged me more than I expected. Perhaps its blend of essayistic reflection and historical fiction reads less unusually today. Everyone says Sontag was no brilliant novelist, but based on this small sample she was far from terrible. Worth your time.

Eli Cranor, Don’t Know Tough (2022)

Cranor lives about an hour from Little Rock, and he definitely gets rural white Arkansas, especially the pleasures of its landscape and the ugliness of its insularity. Don’t Know Tough is about football, a sport I find excruciatingly boring (another reason I’ll never fit in here). But I do understand being passionate about a sport—far as I know, though, Canadians don’t attend hockey games played by children they don’t know, the way people here do with, say, middle school football games.

Anyway, Don’t Know Tough features some conventional narrative elements: a coach newly arrived from California (Cranor plays this fish-out-of-water set-up too broadly; folks here are not as hostile to Prius drivers as he suggests), a troubled star player whose anger issues are sensitively depicted, and the requisite budding romance. When the star’s abusive father is found dead, the trouble soon reaches Gothic levels of extravagance. I dunno, I didn’t love this book. I guess Southern Noir is a thing now—of the writers I can think of that fit that description I sure prefer S. A. Cosby.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem (2020)

Crime-romance hybrid set in late 19th century England featuring a journalist and a Scotland Yard detective. The meet cute isn’t so cute—she calls out his shoddy work; he’s pulled from a big case—but when they’re thrown together at a country house they start to understand each other (he was covering for someone else, plus she jeopardized the case with her reporting) and hoo boy if the sparks don’t fly! Soon they’re solving the case and having hot sex. The mystery is fine, but the sex is the thing, and the only problem with this enjoyable if forgettable novel is that there’s not enough of it.

Claudia Piñero, Elena Knows (2007) Trans. Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena, a 62-year-old woman living in Buenos Aires, has Parkinson’s. Her daughter, who had been her caretaker, has recently died. Her body was found in a church she frequented: officials declare it suicide, but Elena doesn’t believe it and sets out to find the truth, which requires a painstaking journey across the city to meet someone she thinks can help her. The journey is possible only because of the medication that briefly unlocks her limbs, so she must time her movements around dosages. That’s where the suspense of this novel—I gather Piñero is mostly known as a crime novelist—lies. Her descriptions of Elena’s physical condition are impressive: the woman’s frustration and her daughter’s fury at being as locked into a life as her mother is into a body that won’t respond are movingly depicted. Indeed, the novel turns out to be about bodily autonomy—a topic more relevant by the day here in the US. (Piñero was active in the movement to legalize abortion in Argentina.)

I appreciated Elena Knows more than I loved it. My reservations hinge on a lack of control in the narrative perspective: I couldn’t tell how much we were supposed to read against Elena, to see her as the antagonist. Rebecca and I chatted about this; she suggested that “the things that make [Elena] awful are what enable her to survive.” That makes total sense, and fits with the novel’s tragic sensibility. I guess I couldn’t help but think that Piñero couldn’t quite maintain the tragedy. The more I write about this, though, the more I think the failing is with me, not the book. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Chana Porter, The Seep (2020)

The Seep is an alien entity that gently but thoroughly infiltrates earth, with amazing results: human life becomes utopian. Everything that can be imagined becomes possible. Humans are cooperative and relaxed, attuned to pleasure and forsaking guilt. They solve the climate crisis and stop war. They redistribute wealth. Their art isn’t up to much, though. A few people persist in living off grid in something called The Compound, where, it is implied, they experience the authenticity of suffering. The protagonists, Trina and Deeba, live happily together, even if Trina is occasionally wistful about the Before Times. One day Deeba decides she wants to become a baby again and cannot be swayed from this course, despite Trina’s desperate pleas. Deeba’s death/rebirth sends Trina off the rails, a state from which she recovers only by setting off on a quest that Porter never seems to know what to do with. It’s about whether we need suffering to have a meaningful life, which is a question, for sure, but not one Porter has anything new to say about.

This queer sf novella diverted me for an afternoon but nothing about it will stay with me.

Yoko Tawada, Scattered All Over the Earth (2018) Trans. Margaret Mitsutani (2022)

Best book I read this month, doubtless one I’ll still be thinking about at the end of the year. Like Plunder, Scattered All Over the Earth is a story of dispossession. Tawada—who writes in both German and Japanese—presents loss, if not as gain, then as the beginning of something new. In that sense, despite being set in the near future, it is a book for today. Japan has sunk into the seas, and no one even remembers it other than as a vaguely defined “land of sushi.” Hiroku, a climate refugee who teaches immigrant children in Denmark and has invented her own language, Panska (Pan-Scandinavian), wants to find someone who can speak Japanese with her. This has shades of those heartbreaking stories we increasingly hear of the last of a species, doomed to lonely death in a zoo (I gather Tawada wrote a book about polar bears in a circus), but the accent here is not on what has vanished but what might come to be. Through circumstances I can’t remember anymore—it’s been a minute—Hiroku makes friends with a gaggle of sympathizers, each of whom narrates two sections of the novel. Most important of these is Tenzo, an Inuit from Greenland who has reinvented himself as Asian (white Europeans being unable to tell the difference) and become an expert in Japanese cuisine. His cooking is neither a form of cultural appropriation nor of fusion. He doesn’t prepare sushi “as well as” a Japanese; he just prepares sushi. At times Tawada reminded me of a writer who, stylistically at least, she couldn’t have less in common with: J. G. Ballard. He never seems fussed by loss or anguish either; like Tawada, his books are filled with incident yet uneventful.

It’s perverse, given the book’s rejection of authenticity, but I wish I could read it in Japanese. I wonder what her language is like, whether there are elements of richness and roughness to the prose that the translation smooths out. My only reservation about Scattered All Over the Earth is that the style feels a bit flat in that “this is amenable to English translation” way that writer/translator Tim Parks is always on about. In this case, to be sure, what might seem homogenous could in fact be a new form of creation, along the lines of Panska. If you’ve read the book in Japanese, I’d love to know your thoughts—or even if you haven’t but have thoughts on the translation. It’s taken me too long to read Tawada; good thing I have four or five other books to hand.

Anthony Horowitz, A Line to Kill (2021)

Third installment of the Hawthorne series (previous books reviewed here and here). After a dip in volume two, the PI Hawthorne and his hapless Boswell, writer Anthony Horowitz, are in fine form here, where they are sent by their publisher to a tragically underpowered literary festival on one of the Channel Islands. There’s a murder—who would have guessed! Often laugh out loud funny but also quite suspenseful, A Line to Kill shows that Horowitz learned plenty from the Holmes novels he wrote earlier in his career, ably employing the Watson character (i.e., himself) as a stand-in for readers, not just of this book but of crime fiction generally, a genre that gets extraordinary mileage out of making its audience feel stupid.

Richard Dienbenkorn, Berkeley #32, 1955

Read any of these? Care to tell me I’m wrong about Elena Knows? Anything to recommend? Have at it!

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…

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.

Scott Walters’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading, I’m delighted to say, is by Scott Walters. Scott launched a litblog, seraillon, in 2010, and expects to return to it one of these days. He largely follows Primo Levi’s model of “occasional and erratic reading, reading out of curiosity, impulse or vice, and not by profession” (profession in his own case being academic administration). He lives with his partner in San Francisco and tries to visit family in France as often as possible.

seraillon has long been a favourite blog: in the past year or so I’ve checked in regularly, half disconsolate, half hopeful, looking for new content. You can imagine, then, how happy I am to feature Scott here in his return to blogging. I hear rumours that more may be afoot at the site!

With Scott’s post, this run of Year in Reading posts comes to an end–except, of course, for my own, which I hope to write soon… The project grew into something bigger than I’d ever imagined; it’s been a delight to showcase the work of so many thoughtful readers. Thanks to everyone who wrote, read, and commented on these pieces. (If you’d talked with me about writing a piece but haven’t sent it to me yet, it’s not too late. Just be in touch and we’ll make a plan.)

Milton Avery, Green Sea, 1954

How gracious of Dorian to invite me to submit an end-of-year post! I have been avidly following the others he’s posted, which now have my to-be-read list runnething over. So thank you Dorian, and everyone, and hello. [Ed. – Such a pleasure!]

I’ve written nothing on the seraillon blog for more than two years—”hellacious times and I’ve slipped between the cracks,” as a character says in David Greenberg’s play, The Assembled Parties. But I have been reading, finishing 42 books in 2021. Though about half my typical yearly volume, I also read much more in books, most of which I intend to finish: The astounding Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre tombe (to be continued in the original French, no knock on Anka Muhlstein’s translation). A re-read of Wuthering Heights. Franz Werfel’s monumental novel of resistance against the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, following an interest in Henri Bosco. Henri Bosco himself, in his novels Le Mas Théotime and Sabinus. A book about book designer Robert Massin, who designed these French Bosco editions. There are others, down other rabbit holes.

Here are ten highlights of works I did finish in 2021, plus honorable mentions:

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robinson has shouldered a massive responsibility: digesting everything we know about climate change as well as everything we know about how we might address it, then packing it into a stunningly wide-ranging geopolitical thriller interspersed with chapters that concretize climate change’s multivarious, cascading impacts. The novel is also one of few I’ve encountered (Vincent McHugh’s 1943 pandemic novel I Am Thinking of My Darling being another) that explore competent administration of a crisis. [Ed. – Yes! This is a book about competency. Maybe that’s why it feels so comforting.] Robinson’s book appeared in October 2020, a date to fix precisely given the furious pace of change as regards the book’s subject. In fact, the novel seemed a kind of sundial around which shadows spun and deepened rapidly as I read, some elements already obsolete as others swam into view. This is no criticism; I marveled at the real-time context while reading as well as at Robinson’s courage in being able to place a period on his final sentence, and I’ve been pushing the work on everyone for its articulation of the enormity of the challenges facing us, some lovely conceits such as the return of airships, and a bracing radicalism that makes Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang seem like a Sunday School picnic. Despite offering a path forward, Robinson eschews easy answers and offers little in the way of reassurance, seeming to have taken as the novel’s departure point Greta Thunberg’s memorable warning: “I don’t want you to feel hopeful. I want you to panic.” [Ed. – On my 2020 list; still think about it daily.]

Last Summer in the City, by Gianfranco Calligarich (translation by Howard Curtis)

The cover blurbs’ promise of a resurrected 20th century Italian classic certainly delivered; Calligarich’s short, tight, engaging 1973 novel of dissolution in 1960’s Rome seems to pick up where Alberto Moravia left off in depicting modern Italian existential malaise. The story follows the peripatetic wanderings around Rome of Leo Gazzara, an impecunious, alcoholic, bookish young Roman who becomes embroiled in a tumultuous on-again/off-again love affair. The energy of Calligarich’s automobile-driven narrative and the drifting yet fascinating tour he offers of Rome—the city itself a “particular intoxication that wipes out memory”—help balance out the novel’s bleakness, and a frequent invocation of books provides both literary diversion and dark warning of Bovary-esque entrapment in fictions. One might easily envision a film version by an Italian neo-realist director such as Dino Rossi or Antonio Pietrangeli.

Norwood, by Charles Portis

Considerably brightening a dark year, Norwood (1966) edged out Portis’s True Grit and The Dog of the South as the funniest book I read all year [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!], and even topped W. E. Bow’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle and Patrick Dennis’s Genius. A howling road trip and love story that begins when Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Arkansas gets a job tandem-towing a couple of hot cars to Brooklyn, Norwood limns the seedy, grifty, free-wheeling side of American life with caustic, irreverent humor; splendid dialogue; and unforgettable characters. I have Jacqui to thank for this introduction to Portis and will certainly read his remaining two novels and collection of short pieces, a literary cornucopia inversely proportional to the author’s small output, and no doubt as delicious as a biscuit and Bre’r Rabbit Syrup sandwich.

Stories With Pictures, by Antonio Tabucchi (translation by Elizabeth Harris)

“From image to voice, the way is brief, if the senses respond,” writes Antonio Tabucchi in his preface to 2011’s Stories with Pictures, a collection of 30-some short pieces sparked by a particular painting or drawing. Inspired by his having spent an entire day in the Prado (I did the same thing on the one day I spent in Madrid), Tabucchi writes at an angle about the pictures, riffing on them in a dazzling range of ways, from mediations to letters to what seem at times multi-page, arabesque-like captions. As in much of Tabucchi’s work, motifs connected to Fernando Pessoa abound. Most of the artworks come from 20th century Italian or Portuguese artists, all but a few new to me. As if the posthumous appearance in English of a Tabucchi work wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, the Archipelago Books edition, featuring color plates of each picture, make this a volume with a presentation as lovely as the author’s concept.

Bear, by Marion Engel

“Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?” Marion Engel’s Bear (1976) has made so many end-of-year lists here and elsewhere that Dorian should get a medal for this revival of interest. [Ed. – Aw shucks. No medal, though. I want cash.] Thanks to a new edition from London’s Daunt Books, I finally got in on Engel’s singularly odd tale of Lou, an archivist cataloging the contents of a deceased eccentric’s isolated mansion in Ontario’s remote north—and falling maw over claws for its resident bear. [Ed. – Ha! Maw over claws! That’s good! Gonna steal that.] Literally going wild in shaking herself loose of “the flaws in her plodding private world” and the various civilized confines that have entrapped her, Lou exults in a rebirth as liberating as it is perturbing. Bear’s atmosphere of isolation made it seem readymade for pandemic reading; I suspect that most of us are more than ready to go a little wild ourselves. [Ed. – Sounds pretty good to me!]

Dissipation H. G., by Guido Morselli (translation by Frederika Randall)

My terrific excitement at seeing another Morselli novel appear in English received an abrupt check upon my learning that Frederika Randall, one of the finest of Italian to English translators, had died shortly after finishing the translation. Readers of seraillon may know of my interest in Morselli; this short novel, his last, takes a common theme in which a person suddenly discovers that they are alone on earth. Morselli spins the conceit into a bittersweet, moving and darkly humorous exploration of isolation and the need for human contact. The “H. G.” in the title refers to humani generis and the dissipation “not in the moral sense” but rather from “the third and fourth century Latin dissipatio,” meaning “evaporation, nebulization, some physical process like that.”  In other words, Dissipation H. G. turned out to be another work suited for pandemic reading—if perhaps in the manner of providing solace through affirmation of one’s sense of reality.

Malacarne, by Giosué Caliciura (French translation by Lise Chapuis)

Sicilian writer Giosué Caliciura has yet to be translated into English, a pity, as his fierce, inventive, densely baroque novels, delving into the lives of those on society’s margins, are among the most original and powerful I’ve found in contemporary Italian literature. Malacarne (1999) presents a ferocious testimonial from a Sicilian malacarne (literally “bad flesh”), one of the young hoods employed to do the Mafia’s dirty work.  Palermo—and at the same time a vaguely defined post-mortem space—provide the setting(s) for the malacarne’s reckoning, before a judge, with the brutal details of a violent, savage life. Caliciura’s use of a deliberately impossible narrative voice, an articulation both belonging to and channeled through the late malacarne, adds to the novel’s otherworldly, underworld atmosphere. But the story the malacarne relates is as worldly, gripping and linguistically spectacular as a story could be, a profound exploration of the forces that perpetuate organized crime and engulf the youth it attracts, manipulates, and destroys.

Giorgio Morandi. Paesaggio Levico, 1957.

Okla Hannali, by R. A. Lafferty

I did not know of R. A. Lafferty (apparently revered in science fiction circles), nor had I heard of this novel (not a work of science fiction), and so little suspected what I was about to get into. I found Okla Hannali (1972) astonishing. The author called its initial appearance “a torturous undertaking even though it wasn’t much more than an overflowing of crammed notebooks.” Something of the “crammed notebooks” quality seems to remain in this revised, shaggy final version, but small matter: why this vastly-larger-than-life legend of fictional Choctaw “mingo” (king) Hannali Innominee isn’t a standard feature of the American literary canon is beyond me. Lafferty turns the historical telescope around, viewing early 19th century frontier history from the Choctaw perspective. We know we’re in the realm of legend when the novel begins with a creation myth, which swiftly moves to the early life of Hannali, a “big man who would fill almost a century” and who, during one of the several forced resettlements of the Choctaw, abruptly picks out a plot of land in what is today eastern Oklahoma, “a place less no damn good than other land.”  At this nexus where many elements of 19th century American history converged, the reader witnesses, through Hannali, the westward European expansion, the enactment of genocidal policies towards indigenous populations, the flight of escaped slaves (some of whom become slaves of the Choctaw and/or members of the tribe), the lingering resonances of the Louisiana Purchase, the inauguration of new states, the misunderstood “Jacksonian Revolution” that amounted to little more than “a war of the rich against the poor,” and finally the American Civil War and the grim destruction of the Choctaw republic. Hannali is a magnificent character: defiant, stubborn, courageous, wise, irreverent, a folk hero of magnitudes. Big, boisterous, hilarious, indignant, heart-breaking tales like this don’t come along often; one mourns the unrealized project Lafferty intended to call “Chapters in American History,” of which Okla Hannli, his “Indian [sic] chapter,” is the only one he completed. [Ed. – Wow! Sounds amazing!]

The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

“The calculations were hopelessly out…Calculations about Venus often are.” Australian writer Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene were close friends, and I thrilled to find Greene-like elements in this exceptional, elegant, psychologically penetrating work. But The Transit of Venus (1980) is something all its own, a dense, intimate, furiously compelling narrative tracing the life trajectories and romantic entanglements of two Australian sisters orphaned at a young age. Tracking the sisters’ moves to England (and one to New York), with events of the tumultuous 20th century backgrounding their stories, Hazzard describes, in exacting prose, the psychological nuances of human interactions. Henry James, another obvious influence here, seems constricted by comparison [Ed. – hmm]; The Transit of Venus did more to put in perspective James’s limitations with regard to women characters than any other work I’ve read [Ed. – hmm]. Hazzard’s antecedents range from Greek tragedies to Goethe to 19th century Realism, resulting in a story almost classical in form and style, yet palpably burning with a sense of lived experience—from a writer who led an utterly improbable life. I’ll be reading more.

A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

“…I still could not feel at home, either in the new country or in the new language,” states the narrator on the first page of Mizumura’s 2002 novel (to which I was steered by Dorian – thank you, Dorian!). [Ed. – So welcome! Delighted to see this here.] This might be a line from any work addressing displacement, but it scarcely begins to hint at the extraordinary directions Mizumura will take over the ensuing 853 pages. I harbored some doubts about descriptions of the novel as a Japanese Wuthering Heights, but Mizumura evinces little interest in simply grafting Emily Bronte’s work onto a Japanese setting. Instead, her ambitions aim broadly and deeply. Taking the coinciding of the 19th century western novel’s golden age with Japan’s opening to western influence as her beginning, Mizumura then uses her own transnational experience (with formative years spent in the US before a permanent return to Japan) to explore, through both western and Japanese literary and linguistic lenses, multiple questions of transnational identity, cultural cross-pollination, Japanese post-war history, and – through her mysterious character Taro, a kind of Japanese Heathcliff/Gatsby amalgam – issues of class and otherness. A True Novel takes its title from a prevailing style of Japanese literature in which works like Wuthering Heights were held up as an ideal form, “where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life.” But meta-fictional elements in Mizumura’s narrative also link it to the later Japanese style of the “I-Novel” (also the title of another, more personal Mizumura work), close to memoir and hewing to the author’s personal experience. Through concatenations of narrative (the prologue alone to A True Novel goes on for 165 pages) and using black and white photographs to heighten sense of place in the mountainous Karuizawa area where much of the story unfolds, Mizumura aligns the substrate of the Japanese literary enzyme with that of its Western counterpart, sparking a catalysis that creates something strikingly original. While it’s rare enough to find something that seems new in fiction, it’s more unusual still to find a work also incorporating something old and familiar and—by means of steady, crystalline, superbly atmospheric prose—so completely absorbing. Re-reading this true novel, my favorite book of 2021, will be a goal for 2022.

Milton Avery, Offshore Island, 1958

Honorable mentions:

  • Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales;
  • Miklós Bánffy’s The Enchanted Night, an excellent collection of short stories that aligned surprisingly with Dinesen (great to see more of Bánffy’s work emerging in translation);
  • Federico Fellini’s The Journey of G. Mastorna, the director’s screenplay for what many consider to be the greatest film never made;
  • N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, an American classic, gorgeous and heartbreaking;
  • Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a marvel of concision concerning Ireland’s Magdalen laundries;
  • Henri Bosco’s Le Trestoulas, affirming Bosco as a writer I will certainly keep reading;
  • Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.

(And in the noir/polar/mystery realm):

  • Georges Simenon’s Chez Krull [Ed. – So good!];
  • Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear and A Coffin for Demetrios;
  • Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inagumi Curse, terrific to read directly after Mizumura so as to linger a bit in a Japanese mountain atmosphere.

Thanks for reading, and felicitous reading to all in 2022!

Sarah Raich’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Sarah Raich (@geraeuschbar). Sarah is a writer who studied comparative literature, North American studies, and criminal law. A volume of short stories, dieses makellose Blau, was published by mikrotext and the dystopian YA novel All that’s left by Piper. Two of her stories have appeared in English translation by Eilidh Johnstone in https://no-mans-land.org/article/that-i. She lives in Munich.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Scene at Night, 1926-7

2021 was a special year for me as a reader, because it was the first year my own books—ones I’d written and published–were being read. Not just by my doting husband and proud parents – but by real readers. [Ed. – Ouch! Tough on that “fake reader” husband!] And, yes, that changed things for my reading. I became gentler in my judgement. And yes, sometimes I was envious while reading as a published writer.

2021 also was the year I tried to read more diversely, meaning less white, and that is how I came across my favorite book of the year: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body. I don’t know if I would have read this if I hadn’t made the conscious decision to diversify my reading. I remember buying the book in Cologne at the event Insert Female Artist, a little reluctantly because I found the cover so unappealing (yeah, I’m superficial). [Ed. – Same!] And then I started reading it and couldn’t stop because it was like being severely punched and gently caressed at the same time. And to me those are the very best books. The story is set in Zimbabwe and has in Tambudzai one absolutely loathsome protagonist. [Ed. – So interesting! I’ve only read Nervous Conditions, where Tambu is not loathsome, IMO, but certainly hard to like…] And Dangarembga manages the magic trick of showing the very many dark sides of her character—and still making the reader feel for her. Suffering didn’t make Tambudzai good. It made her selfish and greedy and needy. And the story doesn’t end well: how could it? Dangarembga tells this story in such fierce language in an unusual second person account that my brain got rattled in a way only brilliant books can do. (That her work appears in Germany from a niche publishing house speaks volumes by the way.)

What This Mournable Body shared with many books I read this year is its dark humor. And maybe that was just the right thing for the sobering and dragging experience of living through a second year of a global pandemic. Take for example Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, which I read in the supreme translation by Nicole Seifert, which describes severe physical and psychological abuse – and yet I laughed so hard. Because the most brutal things contain humor and patriarchs are clowns with bloody swords and dirty underwear they need to have washed. [Ed. – Ah to be a patriarch! Seriously, though, this really gets at an important aspect of the book.]

For me, Bear by Marian Engel also falls in this category. [Ed. – Hell to the yeah!] A book that was wildly discussed and promoted on Twitter—to a considerable extent by the owner of this blog. [Ed. – “To a considerable extent” = German for “What a fucking nut that guy is, always banging on about that book!] I liked the unforgiving yet loving eye Engel casts on the protagonist which also leads to weirdly comical passages while the librarian stumbles through her life in a “molelike existence”, a phrasing I will never forget. In a way this librarian has a lot in common with the heroine in Ghost Wall. They both live a life they haven’t chosen, pushed around and overseen—and view this miserable situation with an acidic view on themselves and the world, and then one of them (Silvie in Ghost Wall) finds friends, the other one (the librarian in Bear) finds, well, Bear.

And yes, while writing this down, I realize my taste for this kind of book grew strong during this year of reading. Books that intertwine the horrible with the comical. One of those books was Adas Raum by Sharon Dodua Otoo who has the admirable audacity to throw her mostly German readers into a whirlwind of perspectives, places, and times. Ranging from rebirth and gods and eternal entities that hope for liberation from earthly existence while quarreling with God, into the overburdened subjects of the Shoah, racism, and colonialism, Otoo blasts established narrative boundaries and writes down the shiny pieces. Which left many German critics profoundly confused. I enjoyed the ride very much and I am very curious how the English-speaking audience will respond to this text.

The book contains my favorite quote of the year 2021:

Gott rollte als Steppenpflanze an mir vorbei.

(Einfach so.)

(Als wäre ich gar nicht da.)

(Eine Frechheit.)

Ich ließ alles –  no fee no [im Original in phonetischen Alphabet] – auf mich einwirken, in der Hoffnung, dass diese Sensation aller abendländlichen Farben zeitnah nachlassen würde. Hinter meiner Hoffnung steckte ein Hauch Erwartung. Ich gestand es mir aber selbst nicht ein. Ich wollte solchen banalen Gefühle längst hinter mir gelassen haben. Ich wartete.

God rolled past me as a tumbleweed.

(Just like that.)

(As if I was not even there.)

(The nerve.)

I allowed myself to be moved by everything—nɔ fɛɛ nɔ—hoping that the sensation of these occidental colors would soon wane. A breath of expectation cowered behind my hope. But I could not admit it to myself. I had wanted to leave such banal feelings far behind me. I waited.

(Translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi; translation forthcoming)

One more theme flows through my 2021 reading year, now that I look at it: the difference between serious and entertaining literature, as we put it in German. A difference which part of the cultural establishment in Germany seems obsessed by.

It affects my own writing, as I‘ve published one book of short stories, which some consider one of the intellectual forms of writing, and a second book that’s a dystopian YA novel, which the same people consider a rather grimy genre (unless Margaret Atwood writes it—then it’s different). As a very nice and slightly drunk person from the literary establishment told me once: the problem is, your book doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

Maybe being in this position has made me more sensitive to writers writing books that are misfits. But this feeling was also influenced by the work of Nicole Seifert, especially as expressed in her book Frauen Literatur, published in 2021. In it she describes so many books by female writers being belittled and shoved aside. Seifert’s book was eye-opening, even though I had already read so much of her blog posts, articles, and tweets. And the most important thing I learned from this superb work is how systemic the degradation of female writing is.

One of my most precious serendipities of books being labeled pure entertainment was the writing of Shirley Jackson, starting with Hangsaman. In Germany, Jackson has been considered a horror genre writer, which she is, but through this genre she writes pure literature. [Ed. – Hmm this does seem to uphold that literature/entertainment binary…] Jackson died without experiencing the literary appreciation she should have received. I don’t know why, but this realization really got to me. That a woman of her abilities got overlooked so brutally during her life time. (I rejoiced at the Wikipedia article describing how her otherwise shitty husband fought for her recognition and ranted ferociously against the literary establishment unwilling to give Jackson credit for her genius.)

But the list of undervalued writers goes on, leading to the books of Vicki Baum, whom I had always considered easy entertainment. But when I read them they proved to be epic. I cherished Hotel Shanghai: the vastness of the tableau she created leaves me awestruck.

Jeanne Mammen, Self-portrait, ca. 1926

So this is what I will carry into my year of reading 2022: a thirst for misfits and dark humor. Very dark.

Victoria Stewart’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Victoria Stewart (@verbivorial). Victoria is a university lecturer in English literature, with special interests in Holocaust writing and interwar detective fiction (she’s like me, only more successful), but this post focuses on some of what she read for pleasure in 2021.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Rachel Whiteread, Line Up, 2007-2008

Reading Maria Stepanova’s The Memory of Memory,translated by Sasha Dugdale, I wasn’t sure whether to be gratified or not to recognise myself as this ‘type of person’:

Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature. Such texts have only one reader in mind, but this reader is utterly implicated. Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life had continuity and history and (this is most important) that any point in your own past is still within your reach.

In any case, my ‘reading notebook’ came in useful, or finally justified its existence, when Dorian kindly invited me to write this post. Looking through the list of what I read in 2021, I see that what might broadly be called ‘autofiction’ figured quite heavily. I’ve always been drawn to realist fiction, and the idea of writing a novel that could be mistaken for a factual text is one logical extension of that, I suppose. Whether The Memory of Memory, an exploration of Russian/Soviet family history, steps over the line from fiction into essay maybe only Stepanova herself can tell, though for me it demanded the kind of attention that I associate with reading nonfiction.

I started 2021 by re-reading Emmanual Carrère’s The Adversary, translated by Linda Coverdale, an account of an act of criminal deception that formed the basis for the 2002 film of the same name [Ed. – I believe it also inspired Laurent Cantet’s excellent Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps), 2001], but which, like many classic true-crime texts, weaves the story of the author’s ‘investigation’ into their account of the crime. I must have first read this soon after it was published in the early 2000s, and only belatedly realised that Carrère was the author of Limonov, translated by John Lambert, an experiment in biography that’s also intertwined with autofictional elements. I read for the first time Carrère’s nasty, brutish and short Class Trip, translated by Linda Coverdale, which, told from a child’s perspective, forms a sort of distorted mirror image of The Adversary. My Life as a Russian Novel, another Coverdale translation, is probably the one I’d be least inclined to return to. [Ed. – Of course that’s the one I own…] The story of Carrère’s quest to find out about his grandfather, who was (probably) executed at the end of the Second World War as a collaborator, gets submerged under other strands that, to me, were less engaging.

I’d resisted reading both Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy, Childhood, Youth, Dependency, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, and Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, translated by Charlotte Barslund, as I’m not generally keen on texts dealing with traumatic childhoods or addiction, but I was glad that recommendations from other readers persuaded me to get over that resistance. The first two volumes of Ditlevsen have a black humour that I hadn’t expected, though I found Dependency much tougher, and Hjorth’s reflections on family dynamics and being a grown-up child struck a chord:

Sybille Bedford writes somewhere that when you’re young you don’t feel that you’re a part of the whole, of the fundamental premise for humanity, that when you’re young you try out lots of things because life is just a rehearsal, an exercise to be put right when the curtain finally goes up. And then one day you realise that the curtain was up all along. That it was the actual performance.

During the pandemic lockdown, which went on for an extended period in the part of the UK where I was living in 2020-21, I probably did more re-reading than I had previously: more time at home led me to scan the bookshelves and, in some cases, acknowledge that I could remember very little about volumes had been sitting on my shelves since being bought and read maybe twenty years ago. Sometimes that re-reading turned up forgotten gems (like Elke Schmitter’s creepy Mrs Sartoris, translated by Carol Brown Janeway). On other occasions, I didn’t get past the first page, and the local charity shops got the benefit when they eventually re-opened. I’m not sure what prompted me to start re-reading Alan Hollinghurst’s novels in 2021, but I’m glad I did. I went more or less in order of publication, and I particularly enjoyed the leaps in time that structure his later novels, especially The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair, the brief disorientation that comes from figuring out how the protagonists in the current section relate to those of the previous one.

Another author I binged on, though I think with one or two exceptions I was reading his novels for the first time, was Brian Moore, whose centenary fell in 2021. [Ed. – So good!] Born in Belfast, Moore relocated first to Canada and then to the USA as an adult. I enjoyed the awful embarrassment of school-teacher Dev’s attempt at courtship in the Belfast-set The Feast of Lupercal. That novel was published in 1958, prior to the launch of the IRA campaign which forms the backdrop for Lies of Silence. Though the politics are much more explicit here, as in Lupercal matters of political choice can’t be separated from apparently more personal ethical and moral decisions. The Doctor’s Wife, about a married woman’s relationship with a younger man, has aged less well, andMoore’s non-fiction novel The Revolution Script didn’t quite work for me, though it did bring into focus a moment in Canadian history of which I knew very little, the ‘October Crisis’. [Ed. – That was a big deal, all right. Curious about this now.]

Several other novels I read this year also took the tropes of the thriller and gave them an interesting twist. Chris Power’s A Lonely Man places Robert, its Berlin-based author protagonist, in a moral dilemma after he becomes entangled with Jonathan, a ghostwriter. Ben, the narrator of Kevin Power’s White City (the two Powers aren’t related) has a voice that one reviewer found reminiscent of Martin Amis’s early work. Perhaps they were thinking of Ben’s reflections on abandoning his PhD on James Joyce:

Now I regarded my old underlined Penguin Popular Classics copy of A Portrait as a kind of embarrassing ex-girlfriend to whom I was still attracted but with whom things had not really worked out. [Ed. – Hmm…]

But the payoff is serious, and the switch in tone subtle. I heard about Katie Kitamura’s A Separation via reviews of her most recent novel Intimacies. Like Chris Power’s novel, A Separation uses a disappearance to open up to view a disintegrating relationship. The action of Kitamura’s novel takes place on a Greek island; Alison Moore’s The Retreat has an invented island off the coast of England as the setting for what becomes a nightmarish artists’ retreat, its interlocking narratives connecting in ways that reveal the whole narrative to be as carefully constructed as a piece of origami.

I don’t generally read much science fiction or speculative fiction, but Isabel Wohl’s Cold New Climate, goes stealthily in that direction. Lydia is shocked when, after what she intended as a temporary break from her older lover, she returns to find he is ending their relationship. Her reaction seems designed to be self-destructive and to inflict the maximum amount of pain on those around her, but the ending confronts the reader with destruction of a different kind. [Ed. – Anyone know if this is getting US release?] Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Dreamland was an all-too believable dystopia that conveyed the urgency of its political concerns without ever becoming shrill. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land begins to Rise Again intertwines the stories of former lovers Shaw and Victoria, moving between Shaw’s life in London and Victoria’s relocation to a house she’s inherited in Shropshire. Victoria’s new neighbours are not quite what they seem, and the watery theme manifests itself in ways that veer between the fairy tale and the horror story.

Where non-fiction is concerned, it was mainly artists’ biographies that caught my eye in 2021, maybe because visiting exhibitions was more challenging than usual. Andy Friend’s biography of John Nash was so beautifully illustrated it almost made up for not being able to get to the exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire that prompted it. Friend’s handling of the death of Nash’s son was especially sensitive. I was lucky enough to see a small exhibition of John Craxton’s work at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in 2013, and Ian Collins’s biography was another gorgeous volume, benefitting from the author’s personal connection with the long-lived Craxton. And Jenny Uglow’s Sybil and Cyril was a dual biography of the unusual artistic partnership between Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power that gave a new slant on mid-twentieth century commercial art: among much else, they designed a number of posters for the London Underground.

Rachel Whiteread, Wall (Door) 2017

Next up, I’m waiting for an excuse to treat myself to Alex Danchev’s biography of Rene Magritte, and Tessa Hadley’s new novel Free Love is high on my list for 2022. [Ed. – Just finished it this morning, and it is terrific.]