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:
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 Harvesterbest (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.
Read any of these? Care to tell me I’m wrong about Elena Knows? Anything to recommend? Have at it!
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.
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.
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…
I had quite a bit of free time this month, especially when I wasn’t writing the things I should be writing. But it didn’t feel especially restful: living amid the continual, not-so-slow erosion of a functioning civil society takes a toll. Plus I had a lot of leaves to rake. Like, a lot. (Corner lot, seven pin oaks.) I did read some books, though.
Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)
In his odd and to my mind often unsatisfactory but certainly never dull introduction to this excellent novel, Michael Hofmann suggests that Saul Bellow struck a fatal blow to its chances at winning the Booker prize because he thought it sounded like a book with a lot of ladies sipping tea. (Apparently he hadn’t even read it? Which ugh Saul not a good look.) As Hofmann notes, almost no tea is sipped in this novel, there’s nothing cute or sweet or twee about it. It’s a late novel by a writer now finally getting her due as one of the best England produced in the 20th Century and by this point in her career Taylor really knew what she was on about.
What she’s specifically on about in this novel is death, and the loneliness that leads to it. Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed and unwilling to stay with her daughter in Scotland, where she does not feel particularly welcome anyway, chances on an advertisement for the Claremont Hotel in London. “Reduced Winter Rates. Excellent cuisine.” Mrs. Palfrey is no dummy, she knows the latter is unlikely but she has the idea that London could be exciting and seizes the chance to strike out on her own. She arrives on a Sunday afternoon in January, and although the events take place over the course of the most of the rest of that year, it feels a wintry book to me.
Mrs. Palfrey finds the Claremont to be populated mostly by people as old as herself (rather than the bewildered, moneyed American tourists the manager much prefers), all of whom have nothing much to do other than to mark out their days and husband their dwindling resources. Mrs. Palfrey brags about her grandson, who works at the British Museum, implying he will soon visit; his failure to do so causes her much embarrassment. So when she takes a fall while on a walk (pacing out the time, duration, and direction of the daily walk being one of her important occupations) and is helped by a young man who lives in the basement flat opposite the accident, she is happy to pass him off as her grandson. The young man, Ludo (not quite as playful as his name suggests), is happy to oblige, as he is writing a novel and living on next to nothing (he writes at Harrod’s where he can sit in the warmth for nothing) and is always up for a free meal, even at a place where the cuisine is decidedly as non-excellent as the Claremont Hotel.
All the elements are in place for a farce—pretending Ludo is her grandson proves trickier than Mrs. Palfrey had anticipated, especially when the real one shows up—but the novel is dark rather than sparkling. Ludo is not a bad man, exactly, but he uses Mrs. Palfrey’s infatuation with him, not so much for financial gain as artistic material—he uses the milieu of the boarding hotel and its status as an antechamber to death for his novel and is generally more contemptuous of Mrs. P than he lets on. He’s not just a chancer, and does much more for the woman than her actual family, so it’s all interestingly complicated.
In one sense, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is about the definition of family. Can the community of those who are thrown together be more powerful than the connections between blood or marital ties? The answer might not be yes, but the novel doesn’t have any nostalgia for those conventional ties, either. When one of the residents, the only man, proposes to her, Mrs. Palfrey is horrified. The most indelible scene in the novel, for me, is when the man refuses to wash his hands after using the toilet but runs the water briefly so that people will think he did. This is funny but also grim—and that gets the tone of the book, for me.
There’s a lot more to say about this novel—much more interesting than the film, which I saw many years ago and remember as cloying, an interpretation that kept me from reading the book for years, alas—which punches above its short length and too-easily dismissed subject matter (old people, especially women). Shout-out to NYRB Classics for publishing this in the US. I especially approve of their cover choice. Would have been easy to go for something with more chintz. That’s what Saul would’ve done.
Garry Disher, Peace (2019)
The second Hirsch novel is even better than the first. Disher evens out the ambivalence of Hirsch’s character, making Peace the more conventional book, but maybe I just want to be comforted—this book really worked for me. I love how Hirsch is as much social worker as cop: much of his job involves visiting shut-ins or otherwise marginalized figures who live on the out of the way farms or properties that seem to almost exclusively comprise his far-flung district. Eventually the plot coalesces into a central investigation, but this is a pleasingly loose-limbed novel.
John Le Carré, Silverview (2021)
At some point I might have to conclude I’m a Le Carré philistine. He’s just not my guy. The story of a man—a former finance guy who’s left the City and opened a bookshop in a seaside town in East Anglia—who meets and becomes entangled with another—a broken former spy offers a promising narrative structure is promising, lending itself to indirection and the juxtaposition of private and public secrets. But the bookseller character feels cursory and implausible, which means that his interest in the second man is hard to figure out. It’s a book written by someone who feels betrayed by the turn his country has taken—I read it as an anti-Brexit novel; I assume the otherwise odd extended references to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn are meant symbolize an idea of Britain as inextricable from Europe—but the betrayal at the heart of the novel is confusing. Are we supposed to accept, even admire its consequences? In the end, Silverview left barely an impression on me.
Garry Disher, Consolation (2020)
Third Hirsch novel, best of the lot. Like most actual cops (I assume), Hirsch usually has a number of cases, many minor, barely worthy of the term, on the go at once. Consolation is a procedural, so inevitably a number of these strands end up coming together, but I like what Disher is doing in these books a lot. They’re generous, maybe a little regressive, but I prefer “cop doing his best” to “burnt-out obsessive with his demons.” Can’t we all use some generosity these days? I found the ending as satisfying as the title promises. It would be fine to end the series here, but I gather a fourth’s on the way and I’ll read it for sure.
Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (2021)
Beautiful novella set in Ireland in 1985—I was surprised when the date was first mentioned, I thought it might be the 50s, but as a friend told me the 80s in Ireland were the 50s elsewhere—about the Magdalene Laundries. That makes it sound worthy and dour, but it’s not, it’s a quiet heartbreaker in the William Trevor or Alice Munro mold.
Bill Furlong runs a coal delivery service—I loved the details of the business scattered throughout—and in the weeks leading up to Christmas he becomes aware of something terrible at the local convent. He finds a terrified young woman hiding in the convent’s coal shed, she begs him to take her with him, he doesn’t, even bringing her back to the nuns, but as soon as he does he knows he shouldn’t have, the nuns treat her kindly and with concern but he knows something is wrong and worries about what’s happened to her once he left. When he enquires into the situation he gets messages, some subtle and some not, that he shouldn’t mix himself in the nuns’ business, it’ll only end badly for him. In a moving conclusion, Furlong has the chance to right his previous wrong and Keegan leaves us poised on a knife edge—exultant that the right thing has been done but dreading what will likely be the terrible consequences of his decision. Furlong is a magnificent creation—Gabriel Conroy with self-knowledge (maybe a fanciful comparison, but the snow storm of the final pages had me thinking of snow being general over Ireland)—but one of many extraordinary things about the book is Keegan’s facility with characters. Especially fascinating, to me, was Furlong’s upbringing, being raised by a single mother, a domestic at the local Big House, whose welfare was taken in hand by the local Protestant grandee. (It tells you how much is going on in this little book that I haven’t even mentioned what Furlong learns about his paternity.) Equally brilliant is how these events are told: the prose is so careful, so infused with the rhythms of speech, so crafted without being labored or poetic. I read somewhere that Keegan revised the book forty times, and it shows—without ever being showy.
Everyone loves Small Things Like These, it was on half of the TLS contributors’ year in review lists, and I get it. It’ll be on mine too.
Paula Fox, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (2005)
“I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn’t understand.” That’s how Paula Fox describes her barely adult self when she sailed for Southampton in the summer of 1946. After a few weeks in bombed-out London she finagled a gig as a stringer and headed for Paris, Prague, and then, in the snows of December, to Poland. As in the novels that would make her name, the memoir is good with telling details: a woman’s clenched knuckles appearing white through the worn cloth of her apron signifies her trauma more than anything she says; a couple struggling with their wartime losses slowly press their cheeks together, the pained ritual “more intimate… than a passionate kiss would have been.” The point of the Poland trip was to observe the first post-war election, though given the Soviet-backed communist takeover, the results were a foregone conclusion. Fox is accordingly more interested in her fellow journalists, especially Helen Grassner, a Midwestern matron sent by an American Jewish organization to see what Poland was doing for its surviving Jews. Fox is fascinated by and disparaging of Grassner, a mixture mostly born of the contempt young people have for anyone they think of as old but a smidge of antisemitism is evident too. Fox reports with respectful bewilderment Grassner’s painful despair at not having lost anyone to the Holocaust (“When they have no dead, people feel it worse, somehow,” one of her colleagues notes) and records, first with dismay but eventually with respect, the woman’s affair with a younger Czech reporter.
Fox all but admits the book is slight, an addendum to her much-better known memoir Borrowed Finery, which I plan to read soon. The Coldest Winter feels like a sketch, missing the reflection that characterizes the best memoirs. Two of its most interesting moments—a memory of seeing Paul Robeson at Grand Central Station and a description of the torment she experienced as a puzzlingly fair-haired child of Spanish immigrants in a New York public school populated by Irish Catholics—are also the most retrospective, the older, experienced writer reflecting on and therefore shaping those moments. Still, an interesting glimpse into the rubble, hunger, and cold of Europe right after the war.
David A. Robertson, The Barren Grounds (2020)
Bought this book for my daughter for Hanukkah 2020, with the idea that the whole family might read it together. Which we did, for a while, but then my daughter lost interest (I think she found it a bit scary), and so it sat on the nightstand until my wife and I decided that we would finish it.
The easy summary is that this is Narnia told through Cree traditions: two indigenous kids fostered by a white couple in Winnipeg, Manitoba, find a portal to another world populated by humanoid animals who are suffering from a curse that has turned their lands into the barren grounds of the title. I enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this middle-grade novel: the present-day framing material is poignant (no surprise that I, a well-meaning white liberal, was drawn to the kids’ struggles with their well-meaning white liberal foster parents), and the initial description of the alternate world is enticing. (Robertson is good on cold.) I also appreciated how the author matter-of-factly sprinkles Cree words and expressions throughout. But when the inevitable quest takes center stage (which, to be fair, is pretty interesting, as the villain is, as the kids realize, just a sad little ordinary white man, which doesn’t make his damage less powerful), the book takes on the mannerisms of an action movie, most gratingly the mechanical use of quips and sarcasm to punctuate the tension. In general, everything gets hasty, as if the book were rushed to meet a deadline. I’m not the intended audience, so whatever right, but I won’t be rushing to read volume two.
Charlotte Carter, Rhode Island Red (1997)
Breezy crime novel starring Nanette Hayes, “more or less a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type (she has the better waist, I win for tits).” Nanette plays saxophone on the streets of New York while putting her degree in French to use by translating Verlaine and dreaming of escaping to Paris. One day she takes home a fellow busker; when she wakes up he’s dead, leading her to discover that he was an undercover cop who has left 60K in her sax: predictably Nanette is caught up in some bad shit. The mystery is implausible, but the book’s worth reading for its style. Nanette on her investigation is funny—“It didn’t make sense. But on the other hand, it didn’t make no sense”—and self-aware: “This had all the elements of a film student’s low-budget homage to Godard.”
I read Rhode Island Red in a battered, smelly 90s mass market edition from the library, but I heard about it because Vintage has reissued the three Hayes novels in stylish new editions. Since the library here doesn’t have volumes two and three, I probably need to buy them, right?
K. C. Constantine, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)
Tom convinced me to give this long-running series a try—a kind of American Sjöwall & Wahlöö set in the fictional western Pennsylvanian town of Rocksburg. Chief of Police Mario Belzic, Italian-Serbian-American, is diverted from the thankless task of directing post-Friday night football traffic and desultory hooliganism to investigate the death of a man found bludgeoned to death at the local train station. (The train station! Where passenger trains regularly come and go! The victim takes the train to work at the night shift of the nearby mill! We once had a better country!) Some series take a while to hit their stride; on the basis of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, the Belzic books arrive fully formed. The lead is great but Belzic is joined by several good minor characters: his deputies; the head of the local detachment of the State Troopers; the DA; a crime reporter; and, best of all, his wife, Ruth, his two teenage daughters, and his infirm and lovable mother. I hope Belzic’s family life will continue to feature prominently. Ruth is especially great—it’s a treat to read a crime novel about a cop whose relationships are not only not terrible but even loving. Mario and Ruth been married a long time and still have the hots for each other. At one point, Ruth is embarrassed to kiss him first thing in the morning because her breath smells. Cute!
The most surprising thing about the book, though, is how skeptical Belzic is about the police. (I mean, Nixon was President when this thing was published!) He believes cops shouldn’t carry guns:
“Nobody thinks twice about sending out a meter maid without a gun or a school crossing guard—why the hell do guys doing practically the same job—giving tickets or directing traffic—why the hell does everybody think they need a gun?”
It’s not the same, retorts his colleague.
“The hell it’s not. You’re just brainwashed, that’s all. You just can’t picture a man cop without a gun, but you see meter maids without them, and you don’t even think about it.”
The mystery itself is more psychological than suspenseful, more why than who, and that stuff felt dated, but as the quote about taking guns away from cops shows the book’s real interest is sociological. And for me, anyway, life in a small-town largely Catholic rust-belt town in the 1970s is fascinating—one of the important characters, a good friend of Belzics, is a priest, who, along with most everyone else in the book, enjoys late night card games and plenty of drinking, though it’s more convivial than desperate and includes local wine (!). Belzic himself is a fan of a late-night snack of provolone and banana peppers washed down with a beer.
His creator seems himself to be a figure of mystery—Wikipedia speculates Constantine may have been a minor-league baseball player, which would account for the matter-of-fact way the sport threads its way through the dialogue—and so maybe he is as laconic and gimlet-eyed as his protagonist. Here’s Belzic lamenting breaking a personal rule:
“It’s one I made about six, seven years ago when I made lieutenant. I told myself that whenever I don’t know what to do, I’d never make the mistake of doing something.” Advice more of us should follow.
And here he is with a bleak one-liner:
“Well, Mario, how’s it feel to be right?”
I laughed when I read this exchange; if you did too, give these books a try. K. C. Constantine revival 2022, I say!
Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House (2019)
Fantasy novel about New Haven as a nexus of magic, the secrets of which are lorded over by Yale’s Societies—and it fucking slaps. Haven’t enjoyed a book this much in ages, so grateful to the brilliant former student who told me about it. Strong Secret History / Prep vibes, but with more social criticism and a hell of a lot more ghosts. Even if you are a person who does not read fantasy, doesn’t want to hear the word “portal,” and could care less about the idea that some people see the remnants of those who’ve died, you should try this book. The world-building is so clever, the prose is impressive, and the commentary on the way privileged classes expand who gets accepted to them only to protect themselves is spot on. That utterly rare thing, in other words, a great campus novel.
Tadeusz Borowski, Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories Trans. Madeline G. Levine (2021)
More on this new translation of these indispensable stories in another venue before long.
That was December—and another year. Soon I’ll drop my Year in Review piece, but not before I present similar reflections from some other readers. If you’d like to be included, just let me know. And tell me about your December reading, please!
October 2021, the missing month! What can I say? I was busy, teaching all the things, making all the lunches, blah blah. But so many people appreciated my one-word review in the November post—I hate reading stuff too, I get it!—that I thought I would aim, not for single-word reviews (something to aspire to) but for single sentences. I’m such a wordy bastard that even that idea mostly failed (plus I had written a couple at the time, so those were already longer), but I herewith present what for me is a breezy summary of my month’s reading.
Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle (2021)
Are you a striver or a crook? That’s the question in Whitehead’s new novel, nominally a crime novel but in fact a novel about crime. “Strivers grasped for something better—maybe it existed, maybe it didn’t—and crooks schemed about how to manipulate the present system,” muses Ray Carney, the small businessman at the center of the novel. How can he, the owner of a furniture store in Harlem (Whitehead delights in midcentury furniture, and who can blame him), get that elusive better thing, in his case an apartment in a nice building on Riverside Drive, without manipulating the system? In a story told in three sections—set in 1959, 1961, and 1964, landmark years of the Civil Rights movement—Whitehead argues that strivers are just crooks in better suits, able to “give back” to the community. Ray begins by turning a blind eye to the origin of some of his merchandise and ends as a fence. But Whitehead, in this novel anyway, is no Malamud. Ray’s is not a tragic story—he hasn’t degenerated or sold his soul or become a moral bankrupt—unless you take capitalism as a tragedy. Which it is. But in Whitehead’s New York-centered vision, capitalism’s ability to turn all that is sold into air is presented as a form of irrepressible effervescence, most magnificently captured in a final set piece in which Ray visits the construction site of what will become the Twin Towers. Omari Weekes’s Bookforum review made me appreciate the book more than I first did. I’m not convinced, though, that Whitehead critiques Ray as much as Weekes thinks he does, or should. For the tone of Harlem Shuffle is as unsteady as the movement described in its title. Is Ray to be admired or condemned? The novel doesn’t seem sure. It sure loves late 50s, early 60s Harlem, though, presented with an energy and delight that undoes any sentimentalism, which is more than I can say of its soppy depiction of women and children.
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (2019)
Three women, now in their seventies, friends for forty years, converge on a house on the Central Coast, an hour from Sydney. Jude, a former maître’d’, has been kept by a married man for decades, and lives for the moments she’s able to snatch from his life, a state of affairs she can share with no one. Wendy, an intellectual who became famous as a pioneering second-wave feminist (and apparently made plenty of money at it, the book’s one implausible note), ruminates over the germ of a new book though she spends most of her time dealing with her dog, old, deaf, shaken by some unspecified past trauma. Adele, an actor with a critically esteemed career, mostly in theater who hasn’t worked in a long time and who never made any money to begin with, has just been kicked out by her younger lover, a woman who had been supporting her. (The novel takes money seriously, which I appreciated. How do you live when you no longer want to work, or when no one any longer wants you to work?)
The weekend of the title falls over Christmas, but the women are not on holiday. They have a job to do: cleaning out the house that belonged to Sylvie, the fourth member of their little band, who died a year ago and seems to have been the glue that kept them together. (At first she’s an anodyne, if spectral, figure, but she turns out to have been as messy as the rest of them.) Now that they are three, the women find their old allegiances shifting rapidly. A novel about how things end, The Weekend implies that their friendship might be the final casualty.
In terms of novels about older women, friendship, and end of life, I liked The Weekend more than Nunez’s What Are You Going Through and less than Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, but I liked it quite a bit. A short book with heft that describes aging bodies (in all their frustrations and competencies) with, to me anyway, impressive, almost uncanny, awareness. (Wood is only in her 50s.)
Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, revised 1984)
Memoir of Tec’s childhood in wartime Poland, living at great risk to her safety, under an assumed non-Jewish identity. I’ve written about this book before: it’s a favourite of mine, and my students like it too, this year’s group being no exception. They are rightly fascinated by Tec’s guilt at the ease with which she sinks into her new identity. Tec is bewildered by the antisemitism espoused even by the Polish family who, for a lot of money, is hiding her, but she also finds herself laughing along to jokes made at her own expense. Her indictment of postwar Poland is [fire emoji], as the kids say. Reading it for the who-knows-how-many-times, I noticed that Tec’s Jewish identity is in fact identity with her nuclear family. Even before the war, she offers little sense of extended family or community. Not sure what to make of that (I said I noticed it, that’s all): could her guilt at passing have been amplified by detachment from an identity that persecution forced her to affirm? A rich, moving text, strongly recommended.
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
African-American PI novel, groundbreaking at the time and still pretty good. I prefer the end of the film, actually (in general, I am pro Denzel in a wifebeater), but the novel makes even more of Easy’s desire for a home of his own—a sign, I think we are meant to see, that his sacrifices in WWII weren’t in vain and that he does, in fact, belong to and in America.
Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (2016)
Dreamy, evocative, does a lot with omission. Wouldn’t have minded if it were longer.
Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World (2020) Trans. Adrian Nathan West (2020)
Feels like everybody’s reading this (thanks, Obama), so you don’t need me to tell you about it. I’ll add to the chorus of praise, though: I loved these quasi-essays about scientists and the depredations they unleashed on the world and themselves. Apparently, each chapter includes at least one fictional element; it’s an indictment of my scientific education (which was not a bad one, I don’t think) that I wouldn’t have known this had Labutat not said so. I do agree with the person on Twitter—can’t remember who now, sorry—who said that the book validates a romantic idea of science as practiced by solitary, often mad or otherwise extreme geniuses, an idea completely at odds with the day-to-day practice of science, which, I’m told, is slow, often dull, and of necessity done with others. Many readers seem to dislike the last chapter, which is different in tone and subject matter. It’s also the only one set in Labutat’s native Chile. I felt differently—as brilliant as the rest of the book is, I already knew its early to mid-20th century European settings, characters, and preoccupations perfectly well—and I hope on the strength of the success of When We Cease to Understand the World his earlier books will be translated.
Miriam Toews, Fight Night (2021)
Shambling, likeable novel about three generations of women of Mennonite ancestry trying to keep it together in Toronto. It’s narrated by nine-year-old Swiv, precocious and scared and brave, ostensibly as a letter to her father, who’s run away in mysterious circumstances. Swiv’s mother, heavily pregnant, is a struggling actor (is there any other kind) who’s understandably exhausted, so the girl spends her days with her grandmother, Elvira, irrepressible lover of life and people and donuts and, above all, the Raptors. (I loved her use of basketball metaphors in teaching Swiv life lessons and her trash-talk at the tv during games.) Elvira is everything to Swiv even though she continually mortifies the girl by accosting strangers about their love lives, going about in public in her dressing gown, and forgetting her heart pills. Sound treacly? The novel isn’t, but it does have a bit of a “live, laugh, love” vibe that wasn’t working for me. I liked it okay, especially in parts—Swiv and Elvira take an impromptu trip to California to see the old woman’s cousins, and they are a hoot—but it’s not a patch on Women Talking, a book I still think about a lot. When it comes to recent novels about feisty old women who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, I prefer Bina.
Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) Trans. James & Alix Strachey (1925)
Taught this for the nth time, and I’m still a fan, but each time Freud’s treatment of Dora is crueler and crueler.
Jonathan Petropoulos, Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and his World (2021)
Sordid. The art world, then and now, is sordid. Bruno Lohse, appointed by Göing to loot tens of thousands of art works from French Jews, many of which were siphoned to the personal collection of the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, was really sordid. And Petropoulos’s own dealings with Lohse are, if not sordid (he seems too fundamentally decent for that, if a little nonchalant about his own privilege), then disquieting. The best chapter is about Petropoulos’s attempts to find out what happened to a Pissarro Lohse claimed for years he nothing about. Much of the book is plodding—Lohse’s life story, before and after his time in Paris, isn’t that interesting; I wish its dutiful prose and endless citations had been distilled into a crackerjack essay.
S. A. Cosby, Razorblade Tears (2021)
Violent, over the top, almost mawkish, tremendous fucking fun. Two men, one black, one white, investigate the deaths of their married sons, victims of a hate crime. Neither man had accepted his son’s sexuality; it’s too late to make good on those failures now, but they can tell themselves they can at least find justice. Smart and funny about racism, kinship, the toll of life in prison. It’s going to be a hell of a movie.
Val McDermid, 1979 (2021)
Glasgow, January 1979, snow and chilblains all around. Newspapers might rule the media landscape but it’s hard to be a female journalist, as the hero of this crime novel quickly learns. Non-professional investigators are tricky to pull off, especially in a series, which McDermid clearly has plans for this to be. (Next thing you know, you’re Jessica Fletcher, and there’s a murder in your little town every five minutes.) But McDermid, a former journalist, lived that world and her expertise shows (though I’m not sure Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan novels, set in the same milieu in the same place at almost the same time, aren’t the better books). Can’t help but feel that the book was an excuse to riff on the music and movies of the time, though.
That’s that. And what about you? Read any of these? Feel free to be as pithy—or as verbose—as you like!
Ah, November, we hardly knew ye. Wait—November?! What about October? Well spotted, eagle-eyed reader—I know you and many others have been refreshing this page daily in the hopes of getting your EMJ fix. Sorry to disappoint. Trust me, I feel bad about it. A two-year streak of monthly reading reviews broken, just like that. Still hope to catch up, but what can I say, October was a cluster. November was better, which is surprising since it’s usually one of the worst months of the academic calendar. This semester has been one of my lightest ever, though, a blessing since it’s allowed me to keep the rest of my life ticking along, just barely. I had a lot going on. My mother visited, the first time we’d seen each other in two years. There was Thanksgiving to celebrate. And leaves piled up steadily on our tree-lined corner lot, those things don’t rake themselves. But I read some stuff too.
Sarah Hall, Burntcoat (2021)
Preordered this even though the idea of “pandemic novels” doesn’t appeal because I’m a Hall fan. Burntcoat is narrated by Edith Harkness, a sculptor—the resonant title is the name of her studio—who, after studying the Japanese art of shou sugi ban (charred or burned wood) has become one of the UK’s premier landscape artists. Some short flashbacks describe an apprenticeship in Japan, but these moments are underdeveloped, serving more as a metaphor—the technique is counterintuitive, “damaging wood to protect it”—than as detailed reality. There are many damaged people in the novel, mostly those infected by a virulent disease, much worse than a coronavirus, that either kills quickly or lies dormant for years after infection. But the most important damaged person in the novel, certainly one who has been protected by that harm, is Edith’s mother, a writer felled by a brain disease that transforms her personality and, for a time, makes her unable to speak or write. She recovers from the trauma to become an outsider artist, whose experimental works are underappreciated until after her death. Before that she had taken her young daughter, Edith, to live in the Cumbrian fells. As always, Hall is great with northern landscapes, but where Burntcoat really shines is in her other area of descriptive specialty. Hall writes great (cishet) sex scenes—exciting, never cringe-y, hot. Quite a feat. The sex in this novel is between Edith and her lover Halit, a migrant from Turkey who works as a chef in a middle eastern restaurant. Their relationship has no sooner begun, though, than the pandemic hits and Halit gets sick. Burntcoat is about making and healing, about losing and grieving, about the depredations and losses of time’s passing that can also become transformations and developments. It’s a good if not great novel, a bit suggestive, sometimes more a sketch of something than the thing itself. Curious how it will fit in her body of work twenty years on.
Nastassja Martin, In the Eye of the Wild (2019) Trans. Sophie R. Lewis (2021)
In 2015, Martin, a French anthropologist with deep knowledge of the indigenous people of Kamchatka, was mauled by a bear while conducting field work. After initial treatment in Russia, she is flown back to France, and suffers from further, supposedly superior, operations and treatments, one of which almost kills her. She suffers, physically and emotionally. Eventually she decides she must return to Siberia, to learn, as the jacket copy of the newly released English-language translation has it, “what it means to have become, as the Even people call it, medka, a person who is half human, half bear.”
From the time Magda first told me about this book, I’ve been psyched to read it, devoted fan that I am of another book about a woman and a bear. (In that one, incidentally, the main character, a librarian cataloguing the books in a great house in northern Ontario, learns that Kamchatkans use the sharpened shoulder blade of a bear as a scythe.) Nathan Goldman brings the two books together in his terrific essay on In the Eye of the Wild. Even more valuably, he points out the central tension in Martin’s memoir/essay: on the one hand, she resists attempts to explain or understand her experience, whether the lens be therapeutic, medical, or cultural (one of Martin’s Evenk friends, for example says the bear left her, the friend, a gift by keeping Martin alive); on the other, she writes in a language of abstraction that feels quintessentially French, especially that of post-Hegelian (i.e. post-Kojève) philosophy: structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, etc., language that values nothing more than explanation and understanding, even if only to resist those very concepts. Take this passage for example:
To be the human who sees the bear (or to be the bear who sees the human) is to embody reversibility: it is to describe a face-to-face encounter in which a necessarily radical alterity is actually revealed as the greatest proximity.
Let’s just say I recognize several tics of my own writing in this sentence. (And, yes, Nathan quotes the same line, but I swear I marked it in my copy before reading his piece!) I was trained as a theorist in the 90s, and I still have a lot of time for its insights, if not always its language (though I’m mindful of what Barthes said: between jargon and platitude, take jargon every time). All of which is to say I think I’d have loved In the Eye of the Wild even more had I been able to read it twenty years ago. The whole books isn’t as abstract as that quote, but it’s pretty abstract. I kept waiting for a description of the attack—the encounter as she styles it—but it never happens, not even indirectly, Grizzly Man style.
Some of Martin’s resistance to explanation stems from her experience on the land: “In the heart of these frozen woods, you don’t ‘find’ answers: first you learn to suspend your reasoning and allow yourself to be caught up in the rhythms of an existence entirely organized around staying alive in a forest in winter.” Some of it comes from her anthropological training. Elaborating on her friend’s idea that the bear gave her a gift of Martin’s survival, Martin writes:
I know that this encounter was planned. I had marked out the path that would lead me into the bear’s mouth, to his kiss, long ago. I think: who knows, perhaps he had too.
That “kiss,” I dunno. Maybe I’m just irredeemably Canadian, and want my bear kisses to be literal, or, like Lou, the librarian in Bear, to realize that however necessary the fantasy has been, when bears get kissed things have gone too far. Kiss feels a little dramatic to me. (Lacan: the word kills the thing. Kills it?) I’ve been presenting In the Eye of the Wild and Bear as opposites, and in their representational strategies and general MO they are. But they agree, fundamentally, that, as Martin puts it, “a bear and a woman is too big an event.” The challenges posed by the female-ursine conjunction aren’t the same in each text—which after all were written in different circumstances and in different genres—but both Engel and Martin consider what it means to be a self, and whether one sealed off from the world is worth anything at all.
Dervla McTiernan, The Good Turn (2020)
The third book in Australian McTiernan’s Irish-based Cormac Reilly detective series is skillfully done—less engrossing as the first but absolutely engaging. (I spent a happy Saturday on the couch with it.) Yet the police procedural is a genre in crisis—books about heroic inspectors and their harried, money-conscious superiors just don’t cut it any more for readers faced with the violence and racism of the police-incarceration complex. McTiernan isn’t immune to this crisis. She circumvents it by placing the two investigations at the forefront of the book against the backdrop of a larger narrative arc concerning police corruption. But then a wise and trustworthy superintendent of police has to step in last minute to save the day, which keeps intact the myth of rogue agents within a sound system.
Charles Portis, The Dog of the South (1979)
Ray Midge leaves Little Rock, Arkansas for Mexico, on the trail of his wife, Norma, and her ex-husband, with whom she has taken up again. Before she split, Norma palmed Ray’s credit card. Using the receipts, he tracks the pair south of the border all the way to Belize, which at the time had only recently changed its name from British Honduras. (I’d no idea.) Along the way Ray meets Dr. Reo Symes, a hard-luck case/charlatan whose medical license has been revoked for fraud and who has since poured his energies into grandiose dreams of developing an island in the Mississippi owned by mother. All he needs is for her to give him the deed. To this end, he’s on his way to Belize, where the woman runs a Christian charity, but the old school bus he commandeered somewhere along the way has broken down, and Ray is his only hope for completing the journey. Classic odd couple stuff: unlike the disreputable and excitable conman Symes, Ray is a pedant with strong opinions about Civil War strategy and plenty of observations about human behaviour (“Most children are close with their money”); the men squabble about most everything, including, hilariously, who invented the clamp—a guy from Louisiana or the Sumerians? Finally they fetch up in Belize, where a lot of dramatic things happen quite suddenly before events trail off meekly, in the way of many foolhardy adventures.
The Dog of the South is not a long book, but maybe because the quest itself never feels urgent (we get little sense of Norma until the end, except that she is both long-suffering and careless—the Midges are anything but a match made in heaven) the book drags at times. The first third is comic gold, though, real laugh-out-loud stuff, including some loving disparagement of Little Rock. Plus, Portis’s way with bit characters is unbeatable. My favourite was Melba, a friend of Symes’s mother who helps run the orphanage. A real hoot, that Melba. An insufferable Canadian hippie in Mexico runs a close second.
I listened to the audio book narrated by Edward Lewis (which is different from the version on Audible, FYI), and his intonations and pacing were perfect. Really hits that strange note between smart aleck and stick-up-the-ass that characterizes Ray. I only wish Lewis’s accent were more Arkansan. He avoids generic Southern (it feels specific, though I can’t pin-point it) but that weird Arkansan combination of flatness and drawl escapes him.
Andrea Camilleri, The Cook of the Halcyon (2019) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2021)
Grete Weil, Aftershocks (1992) Trans. John S. Barrett (2008)
Grete Weil née Dispeker was born to a privileged bourgeois intellectual household near Munich in 1906. Her father was a well-known lawyer, her elder brother a hero of the Great War; the family believed profoundly, tenaciously, unrequitedly in German-Jewish togetherness. As a Young Person, Grete palled around with Erika and Klaus Mann, Thomas Mann’s children, and climbed a lot of mountains. In 1932 she married the dramaturg Erich Weil; he was arrested shortly after the Nazi takeover and fled to Holland on his release to found a branch of his father’s chemical company. Grete followed in 1935: the couple settled in Amsterdam, where Grete opened a photography studio. Their circle included fellow émigrés Max Beckmann and Bruno Walter. After Holland was occupied, the Weils tried but failed to get to England. They turned their efforts to Cuba. The night before Edgar was to pick up their visas, he was arrested in a roundup and deported to KZ Mauthausen, where he was murdered in September 1941.
Weil was forced to give up her business—she lent her photography skills to the underground, helping to forge documents—and took a job in the Dutch Jewish Council, which helped her evade deportation. When her notice finally came, in summer 1943, she and her mother, who had been with all this time. went into hiding. For almost a year and half they lived on a mattress in a small space behind a bookshelf in a friend’s apartment. There Weil took up writing again—it had been one of the passions of her childhood. After the war, she felt comfortable neither in Holland nor in England, where her brother had settled. To the consternation of Klaus Mann, who tried to talk her out of it, she returned to Germany in 1946. She received her husband’s family’s pharmaceutical company as restitution (one of the only instances I know of in which that process actually did anyone any good) and devoted herself to writing, including opera libretti and translations from the English (including John Hawkes). She published various novels, collections of short prose, and memoirs in the years before her death in 1999.
Before coming across this book, I’d never heard of Weil, which surprises me, given my research and teaching interests, plus the fact that Godine published three of her books in the early 2000s. Aftershocks is the third, a collection of stories and memoiristic pieces about the long afterlife of the Shoah. I was not always gripped by the book, Weil does not seem the most graceful writer (that may be down to Barrett, the translator, not sure), but I admired her unwillingness to ingratiate herself with her audience. In this she reminded me of Ruth Kluger, a writer I also did not fall in love with straight away but who has since become a lodestar. I plan to keep reading Weil, not to mention (the ultimate test) teaching her, so look for a more informed opinion in several years.
Like Kluger, Weil was willing to think the Holocaust together with American state-sponsored racism. In a text called “The House in the Desert,” the narrator, a figure much like Weil herself, arrives in Los Angeles to visit an aunt and uncle who, having settled in America, are determined to laud the place as the land of milk and honey. Walking through the city—her first mistake—she thinks that if she were Black she would rather live in the desert. Even if the chances of getting away “if things really got bad” were slim, they would be better than in LA itself; the desert would be an easier place to run from. For she is an expert in running away. Even though the war’s been over for years she isn’t likely to ever forget:
As if you could simply put aside a habit that had gotten into your very fiber. Once a body’s picked up momentum, it doesn’t just stop suddenly. It doesn’t matter that there are no more Gestapo agents asking for your papers, that no trucks are driving through the streets to pick up people [her husband’s fate]; that no one’s ringing your doorbell at night, that the concentration camps have been turned into museums where cut-off hair and knocked-out teeth are displayed in glass cases, that there’s no reason to run away any more. The running away goes on. Running away from the name. when Auschwitz wasn’t yet a name, you didn’t need to run away, but who’s going to take the name back? Who’s going to tell me it’s not my hair, my teeth. They meant it for me.
She proceeds to eviscerate the white people, her relatives among them, who inform her, with useless regret, that “it’s not possible to solve the race problem from one day to the next.” Weil is nothing if not clearsighted, speculating, in a final text, almost an afterword, which is clearly about her own experiences, that “maybe I’ve remained alive simply because I didn’t witness enough. I witnessed the persecution, but not the deportations, really, let alone the horrors of the concentration camps.”
I’ve got another of Weil’s books here, and I’m on the lookout for her (as-yet-untranslated) autobiography.
Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety (1987)
Two couples arrive in 1930s Madison where the men, an aspiring poet from money and a newly-minted scholar from nowhere, have landed jobs at the university; the women meet and the four become lifelong friends. The framing action takes place in the 70s, when they gather in Vermont, as they regularly did for many years, to say farewell to one of their number, who is dying, furiously, of cancer, though that hasn’t stopped her from orchestrating their time together the way she always has. The narrator, Larry Morgan, the scholar, though he has left that behind and become a novelist, moves between the present and the past, unfolding the story of the couples’ lives together.
I read Crossing to Safety because Paul spoke of it so enticingly on The Mookse and Gripes podcast. I’m afraid I didn’t love it as much as he does (though I love how much he loves it) but I did appreciate a lot of things about it. The book really is about both couples, the women as important as the men (though I wanted more about Larry’s wife, Sally). Each marriage matters on its own, of course—maybe the most moving thing in the novel is the disconnect between what the poet’s wife wants for her husband and what he wants for himself, compounded by his deeply held wish not to disappoint anyone, her most importantly—but it’s really a novel about friendship: between two men, two women, and between two couples. As Larry notes (he talks to us, his readers, regularly), you’d expect a situation like this to get derailed by sexual desire: by someone falling in love with someone else, maybe an affair, a great smash of hurt and regret. But that’s not what happens: the book is much quieter, though there are plenty of things to grieve amid the joy they take in each other’s company. Stegner is good on the rituals of comfortable WASP American life. He’s even better on the natural world: though he is known as a writer of the West, he must have spent a lot of time in Vermont; he clearly loved the place. And he can do a fine dramatic set-piece: a difficult birth; a boat-ride in the Wisconsin winter that almost ends in tragedy; a last family bonfire, with delightedly screeching children sheering in packs through the summer night.
Why then, after offering such praise, do I say I didn’t love the novel? (I read it over a weekend, after all: it definitely kept my interest.) Not sure, but it might have something to do with the WASPs I mentioned earlier. Despite its insistence on maintaining connection and husbanding memory—the title comes from a Frost poem in which the speaker exults in protecting the things that “while the Customs slept/I have crossed to Safety with”—the novel felt remote. The characters tend to be arch and gay with each other—in this world, to be heartfelt is to be vulnerable, and being vulnerable for these characters is never good. I think it’s the complacent assumption of how life is supposed to work for (certain kinds of) Americans that grated on me, though this isn’t a Boomer novel, the characters are a generation older. And I definitely did not love the depiction of Jewishness (part and parcel of its chilliness IMO). There’s a disturbing scene early on where a striving Jewish husband and wife embarrass themselves at a faculty party—reflecting on how he and the others treated Marvin Ehrlich, Larry says, “Maybe we were all anti-Semitic in some sneaky residual way, but I don’t think so.” Well I do! Especially when he adds, “I think we simply felt that the Ehrlichs didn’t permit themselves to be part of the company.” I don’t see the novel putting much distance between itself and Larry here. Later there’s a Jewish son-in-law, a kind economist (natch) who stutters, literally tripping over himself to ingratiate himself into the family. Not crazy about any of that.
This was the second Stegner that left me ambivalent: he might just not be my guy. Haven’t tried Angle of Repose yet, though, which I gather is the masterpiece, so if I do go back to the Stegner well, that’ll be the one.
Garry Disher, Bitter Wash Road (2013)
Constable Paul Hirschhausen, known to all as Hirsch, has been demoted and sent to the middle of nowhere, three-hours’ drive from Adelaide, because he blew the whistle on some corrupt cops. No one likes him for having done this, himself included. Now he’s enduring the petty hazing of his new colleagues and keeping an eye on a mysterious person who is trying to frame him as bent. Then there’s a crime to solve, a murder made to look like a hit-and-run. That’s on top of the regular work he does: stopping desperate farmers from beating their wives and children, checking in on invalids, keeping the town quiet on football nights. Hirsch is a pleasingly ambivalent figure (he gets nicer toward the end: disappointing); Disher’s prose better than serviceable, with plenty of great Australianisms. He’s no Peter Temple, but who is? Recommended.
Natasha Brown, Assembly (2021)
The writer Olivia Sudjic bizarrely describes this debut novel as Mrs. Dalloway mixed with Citizen. The Rankine, yes, definitely (the poet is cited in the novel’s end notes—yes, you read that right). But the Woolf? Makes no sense. The action does not take place over a single day, various characters do not intersect by passing one another, the narration is not even in close third person (with the exception of a short initial section). Who cares about blurbs, I know, but my reaction to this description was like my reaction to the novel itself: I don’t get it. Bits of Assembly are really good: the descriptions of aggressions, some micro, some decidedly not, faced by people of colour will make you wince; the narrator’s boyfriend, able to be dedicated to a meaningful life thanks to great wealth, inherited wealth, wealth that comes in part from England’s colonization of places like Jamaica, which to the consternation even of immigrants the narrator is not from, knows only from family stories, is perfectly delineated: that foppish, well-meaning, smart-but-mustn’t-be-too-obviously-smart, knows-his-way-about-a-wine list insouciance that characterizes many English men of a certain class. The narrator, though, who works hard in finance, doing things with data, making a lot of money, more money than her boyfriend, he likes to joke—she is harder to pin down. She’s just been promoted, an event she has to share with another member of the firm, a white man, who is spiteful about it, muttering about “diversity.” Not even he can tarnish the good news completely, though, and she allows herself a moment to take a break from the endless climb up the ladder, a brief respite from the fear of having nothing beneath her. But only for a moment: even when she receives some lifechanging news, she can’t stop doing and worrying and putting her head down. Most immediately, there’s a party to attend, it’s not hers, though, she isn’t Clarissa, it’s a party being given by a Clarissa, her boyfriend’s parents, who are grudgingly tolerant in a way, I suppose, not dissimilar to the Peter Walshes and the Richard Dalloways.
Assembly is fine, interesting enough, but too short to make a real impression, not nearly as formally innovative as critics are making out.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi (2020)
Most everybody loves this book, and most everybody is right. Or, I am like most everybody. My experience matches Rohan’s almost exactly: failed at reading Jonathan Norrell and Mr. Strange, donated it to the library sale, gave the new book a whirl, was captivated by it and convinced I should try her doorstopper again. As to Piranesi, I won’t say much about the plot, for that would ruin it, but I will say how much I loved the descriptions of the world inhabited by the narrator—called by The Other, the only other person he knows, Piranesi, a name he has adopted for himself, even though he is convinced it is not really his—a lonely place of sea and stone and shrieking seabirds that felt joyful and sustaining rather than bleak and damp (though it’s those things too).
In its unraveling of unraveled minds, Piranesi reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy but the better, if at first glance stranger, comparison might be to J. G. Ballard’s wonderful little story “The Autobiography of J.G.B.” (which you can read here if you can get the damn New Yorker site to work). Ballard’s text and Clarke’s novel are happy Robinson Crusoe stories, in which solitude is pleasurable and plenitude rules the day. Piranesi’s plenitude takes the form not of the physical things that wash ashore, as in Defoe, but of experiential connection: he speaks to his world and his world speaks to him. In the end, this communing is, indirectly, what does eventually bring loss into the story.
I’m not explaining this well, you really have to read the book for yourself. Piranesi lends itself to allegorizing, but it warns readers against doing so. It challenges the separation of human and world enacted by science qua knowing without romanticizing the numinous. It describes the life of those, like its author, who are shut off from the world (Clarke suffers from a chronic illness), yet who have gained something from that experience even if it doesn’t mitigate what they have lost. Mostly, though, it tells the story of a man who is alone but not lonely, a distinction it preserves even when the man’s life is, once again, turned inside-out.
Georges Simenon, My Friend Maigret (1949) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2016)
Getting the hang of these Maigrets. The crime hardly matters, the outcome certainly doesn’t. Mostly Maigret just vibes. My Friend Maigret is pleasingly meta about this state of affairs. Maigret is tasked with showing an English colleague how he solves crimes, which incites some embarrassment on his part—he doesn’t actually want to conduct any interviews, or do any deducting, he just wants to hang out on the island in the Mediterranean he has escaped rainy and cold springtime Paris for on the flimsiest of rationales. For a while he does what he thinks the Scotland Yard inspector would want him to. But he quickly realizes that guy just wants to swim and drink and vibe too. It’s all very entertaining, and I am thankful to John Wilson for recommending it to me as an especially good installment in the series.
Charles Cumming, The Moroccan Girl (aka The Man Between) (2018)
Cumming takes on Eric Ambler’s favourite gambit—ordinary guy tumbles into espionage—and gives it a twist: his ordinary guy, C. K. (Kit) Carradine, is a successful spy novelist who is recruited to run an errand for the Service. All he has to do is pass an envelope to a woman while he attends a literary festival in Marrakesh. Of course, Kit gets more than he bargained for, and proves himself, in his naïve way, good at spying. Cumming has fun with the differences between espionage in fiction and in fact. At its best. The Moroccan Girl is pleasantly dizzying and self-referential while still offering the thrills and other pleasures of the genre. I’ve noted before that Cumming is great with tradecraft; I love how exciting his action scenes are without being flashy. (Every car chase takes place in a taxi.) Without being heavy-handed about it, Cumming makes us think about what we do when we read spy stories: Kit is never sure if what’s happening to him is ordinary or suspicious, whether an event is coincidental or conspiratorial. He’s an endless reader of events, just as spy novels ask us to be. Unfortunately, not everything succeeds in this stand-alone (though Cumming leaves himself the chance to write more if he chooses: this would be a mistake). The woman Cumming meets—and of course falls in love in, though at least that’s discreetly and non-cringingly handled—has been involved in an anarchist leftist Occupy-type group called Resurrection, which leads to a number of tedious scenes in which characters debate whether violence is ever necessary. In the end, the novel is ploddingly middle-of-the-road liberal, aghast at “excesses.”
Kiku Hughes, Displacement (2020)
YA comic about a teenager, Kiku, who travels back in time, finding herself interned in a camp in Utah. One of the other prisoners is her grandmother. Before this Kiku had known almost nothing about what her relatives had gone through—which means readers learn a lot, too: I now know where the expression “no-no boy/girl” comes from, for example. In the book’s most interesting development, Kiku tells her mother about her experience, expecting to be disbelieved, only to learn that the same thing happened to her. The mother calls them “displacements,” and thinks of them as a way to correct the shame and silence experienced by Japanese Americans in the decades after the war, responses displaced into the dive to become “a model minority.” (The book is good at explaining intergenerational trauma.) The comic is beautiful, evocatively illustrated—a cloud of cigarette smoke as enervated as the man who’s breathed it out; Kiku’s mother, eyes glued to the television as Trump stampedes to the Republican nomination, a study in disdain, all crossed arms and silent judgment. I must admit that even as I devoured Displacement I did say to myself, well this is all well and good but it’s no Kindred, only to be chagrined when I read Hughes’s hymn to Butler in her acknowledgements. Anyway, worth reading, even if you’re no longer a young adult.
Some perfectly good things this month, but not many standouts. Piranesi was the winner, I’d say. Here’s hoping for a more memorable December. I have several exciting things lined up, including some group reads. How about you? Did your November reading make an impression?
September. Up north, a great month. In Arkansas, as sticky and hot as August but with brown leaves. Having been back at work for several weeks, and having given the matter much thought, I can now conclude: sabbatical life is better. Returning to teaching has not been easy—I almost never see my colleagues; I miss the chattering clumps of students as they wait outside our offices for meetings, all now diverted to the screen; and I’m struggling to meet the freshmen where they are, which, as a wise, soon-to-be graduating student said, is sixteen rather than eighteen. The pandemic took its toll on us all, but on their cohort especially. The students and I had a breakthrough at the end of the month, though; maybe better times are ahead.
In addition to all that there were Jewish holidays to celebrate/squeeze into the demands of the non-Jewish world, scholarship deadlines to navigate, and home fires to keep burning. What there was not was much time for reading. Here’s what I squeezed in.
Georges Simenon, The Grand Banks Café (1931) Trans. David Coward (2014)
Short, even for Simenon, and vicious, even for Simenon. I think this is the first one in which Madame Maigret appears. She’s pretty long-suffering, isn’t she?
Tomasz Jedrowski, Swimming in the Dark (2020)
Moving novel about a gay love affair in early 80s Poland. Ludwik meets Janusz at a summer agricultural camp for university students—they are bused from the capital to help with the sugar beet harvest. Ludwik brings with him a copy of Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, which he glues into the pages of a less incendiary book, and the knowledge that he’s gay, which he has rarely acted upon. He’s immediately drawn to Janusz’s beauty—he comes across Janusz swimming after a hot, dusty day in the fields—but convinces himself his feelings could never be reciprocated. Still, mustering his courage and giving in to the other man’s teasing, he lends Janusz the forbidden Baldwin. Days later Janusz returns it, saying only that he liked it and could see why the authorities had banned it. Then he suggests they take a camping holiday after the season is over. The trip is an idyll, intoxicatingly depicted by Jedrowski, who has a fine feeling for the landscapes of late-Communist Poland, a place that despite its repression feels quiet and simple. But Jedroski cuts any hint of nostalgia short. Things get complicated when the lovers return to Warsaw: Ludwik struggles to have his dissertation topic approved by the requisite state functionaries, and Janusz turns evasive, unwilling to risk his career prospects in a country where the intelligence service regularly blackmailed gay men, even as he is torn between his feelings for Ludwik and his commitment to the ideology that had allowed him to escape his rural working-class background. I won’t reveal the ending; suffice it to say that the novel takes the form of an unsent letter from Ludwik’s exile in New York.
Swimming in the Dark is modest, less gorgeous at the sentence level than, say, Garth Greenwell’s What Belongs to You, but satisfying anyway. There’s nothing unusual about its style or structure—though I’m now keen to re-read Giovanni’s Room to see just how much how much Jedrowski plays with it—but its story of two young men, each blind in his own way, has a pleasing inevitability. (I learned some things, too, not least that Michel Foucault was caught in a honey-trap in 1960s Poland.) I look forward to seeing what Jedrowski, who has written what for him is a historical novel in what must be his second or third language (he was born in West Germany in 1985 to Polish parents and educated at Cambridge and the Université de Paris), will write next.
Sarah Perry, After Me Comes the Flood (2014)
A real tolle lege situation: browsing in my local indie while my daughter collected an armful of dragon books, I came across Perry’s first novel, which I did not think had been published in the US. (It was not, until recently.) I picked it up and read the opening paragraph:
I’m writing this in a stranger’s room on a broken chair and an old school desk. The chair creaks if I move, and so I must keep very still. The lid of the desk is scored with symbols that might well have been made by children or men, and at the bottom of the inkwell a beetle is lying on its back. Just now I thought I saw it move, but it’s as dry as a husk and must’ve died long before I came.
Part I Capture the Castle, part Molloy: I was hooked. I swallowed the book in a few short bursts, including the hot tired almost hallucinatory parts of Yom Kippur afternoon. A man, an antiquarian bookseller in London, is plagued by headache. It has not rained for more than a month. He must leave his cramped life, he sets out to stay with his brother on the coast of Norfolk. On the way, his car breaks down; when he ascends the steps of the first, solitary house he comes across, the door opens and he is greeted by name. He has been expected. It is all a mistake, but not one he finds himself willing to correct. So far, so satisfyingly Gothic—shades of Du Maurier’s masterly The Scapegoat. The house belongs to a solitary, ugly, motherly, sinister woman who has gathered a number of odd people around her: a former preacher who lost his faith; a pianist who practices endlessly in an adjoining room, breaking off only to berate herself; a young man convinced that only his nightly watch is keeping the adjoining reservoir from crumbling and flooding the property.
After Me Comes the Flood takes a surprising turn, though, in explaining its situation—how the household came to be, how the narrator could be mistaken for someone else—but in remaining no less puzzling and delightful. There’s an outing to the beach, a misunderstanding that leads to a crisis, and a final literal and metaphorical storm. And plenty of good writing—look again at that opening, with its fear and longing for movement, to the point of near-hallucination. And that strange line about symbols that might have been “made by children or men,” the addition of “children” making it unlikely that “men” means “human.” Do symbols made by women look different? Or are these scratchings of more unearthly origin?
Don’t sleep on this strange little book about interpretation.
Kristen Radtke, Seek You: A Journey Through American Loneliness (2021)
Radtke’s comic, drawn in shadowy, pained colours—even the reds and browns look green—is a hybrid essay/memoir about loneliness. A CQ call is what ham radio operators make when they are looking to see if anyone is listening. Radtke learns that her father, a forbidding, silent man she could never talk to, was obsessed with ham radio as a boy. Fitting, then, that his daughter would later experiment with the new technology of internet chat forums. Radtke describes a life spent looking for connection and fearing rejection, but her book is mostly not about her. The memoir elements are deftly handled—I especially liked a closing riff on the letters listeners would send to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown radio show in the 80s and 90s, in which they bared their souls about abandoned lovers, damaged friendships, family arguments, all of which they hoped to overcome by dedicating a song into the void—but they play second fiddle to her descriptions of a century’s worth of psychological and neurological research into loneliness. Radtke references the philosopher Hannah Arendt, the sociologist Robert Putnam (whose book Bowling Alone considers the drift away from civic engagement in late 20th early 21st century America), and the artist Yayoi Kusama, whose installations of mirrored balls respond to but perhaps also further human separation. She considers spinsters, cowboys, and so-called “lone gunmen.” She writes about how grief is processed on social media and how some nursing homes use robotic companions for lonely patients. But most fascinatingly she tells the story of Harry Harlow, a psychologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, near where Radtke grew up, whose research on rhesus monkeys challenged the early 20th century ideology that parents should be distant from their children lest they make them soft, weak, too easily attached.
But these humane conclusions stemmed from experiments that tortured his nonhuman animal subjects. Harlow separated infants from their mothers and reared them in isolation, offering them dummy substitute caregiver figures (the monkeys would cling to one made of cloth even though another one, which dispensed milk but was made of prickly wire, was their source of food). Later introduced into groups of ordinarily socialized monkeys, the formerly isolated subjects were shunned—the damage done to them was apparent—and abhorrent—to their fellows. In his most horrifying experiment, Harlow wanted to find out what would happen when the monkeys who had been so traumatically separated became parents. He strapped the females into a contraption he called a “rape rack” and let male monkeys loose on them. The mothers ignored their offspring, sometimes even attacking and killing them. Harlow—a depressive alcoholic who crushed the spirit of two brilliant wives—concluded that love is nothing but proximity. Touch and contact are central to primate flourishing. Perversely, the man who gave us these insights was unable to demonstrate closeness or kindness. Harlow’s life makes harrowing reading, but I won’t soon forget him—or Radtke’s telling in this smart and engaging work.
Walter Mosley, Charcoal Joe (2016)
My first Easy Rawlins PI novel—though I remember loving the movie version of Devil in a Blue Dress back in the day—and I see I’ve picked up the series deep into its baroque period. (The audio book was ready to hand at the library.) I struggled to get a handle on all the characters established earlier in the series, but the mystery occupied me and the character of Rawlins appealed. The book’s sexual politics are not great, though: both sentimental and a little prurient. And yet I enjoyed it enough—compelled by its portrait of the black counterculture of 1960s LA—to go back to the series’ beginning.
Cal Flyn, Islands of Abandonment: Nature Rebounding in the Post-Human Landscape (2021)
A forbidden area near Verdun where poisoned gas has been dumped into the soil. An abandoned research garden in Tanzania where the botanical specimens have invaded the surrounding forest. The green line running across the island of Cyprus. These are just some of the places Cal Flyn visits in her book about how nature reclaims and reinvents landscapes abandoned by people. There’s the zone of exclusion at Chernobyl, too, that’s almost a must for anyone thinking about this topic. But Fyn considers lesser-known places too, like the Scottish bings, mountains of stone chips—blaes, technically—formed from oil shale extraction perpetrated in the late 19th century. Or the abandoned fields of Estonia, where, since the collapse of the USSR, forests have sprung up, erasing the scars of collectivized agriculture. Or the Caribbean island of Montserrat, covered over by lava flows and ash in the mid 1990s. These are ruined but also vital places: despite having been harmed they contain much more biodiversity than the spaces humans inhabit. Flyn writes:
And yet everywhere I have looked, everywhere I have been—places bent and broken, despoiled and desolate, polluted and poisoned—I have found new life springing from the wreckage of the old, life all the stranger and more valuable for its resilience.
It seems that all the world needs is for people to get out of the way. Nature will do its thing, life will find a way. In this sense the book—written in accessible but not simple prose, Flyn writes a better sentence than most contemporary non-fiction writers—is a hymn to the possibilities of a world without us. But it rejects the consoling fantasy of human annihilation, rejecting terms like “pristine” or “untouched”—these are fantasy states, neither possible nor desirable. Flyn worries that her book is too sanguine, too suggestive of a future that will be good again despite our efforts to destroy the planet. She knows time is short if biological life as it currently exits is to persist. I can’t forget her description of the Salton Basin—a former lake created in the middle of California after the damning and diverting of the Colorado river, but which has evaporated leaving a desert of dust and toxic residue, now how to a population of loners, escapees, dropouts—as a denuded, yet not meaningless future. Flyn thinks of her book as a suggestion that all is not yet lost, and that if we can leave things alone, rather than always trying to intervene, the “natural world” will do what it does, namely, to persist, to adapt, to live.
I’d be curious what readers more familiar with what gets called nature writing today think, but I appreciated how Flyn consoled without flattering human self-satisfaction.
Denis Johnson, Train Dreams (2011)
As I wrote to reader, podcaster, and all-around good guy Paul Wilson, I had such a hard time leaving off the hilarious set-piece in which a man tells the story of how he was shot by his dog that I sat in the parking lot at school, in thrall to actor Will Patton’s delivery of Denis Johnson’s much-loved novella, until I was almost late for my first meeting. Which might make the book seem quirky, even feel-good—the misapprehension that this was some Coen Brothers-type mashup of violence and sentimentality had kept me from reading it sooner—but it is much stranger and lovelier than that. Robert Granier is a railroad labourer and logger in Idaho and Washington in the early part of the 20th century. His is a life of solitude, with the all-too brief exception of his marriage and fatherhood. It is an unexceptional but terribly dramatic life, which, despite extending into the era of television and Elvis Presley, is, as is true for most people, governed mostly by the mores and concerns of the horse-drawn years of his childhood and youth. Johnson structures his book around vivid scenes—a terrible forest fire, an encounter with wolves, a late explosion of almost overwhelming sexual desire—but the most vivid, the most terrible of them is the opening, in which Granier, for reasons he can never fathom, though racism and the instinct to join in with the actions of a group that the rest of his life is a reaction against are among them, helps some white workers throw a Chinese labourer accused of stealing from the company store of the Spokane International Railway off a railway bridge. The man gets away, but the specter of the violence and hatred unleashed in the scene colours the whole narrative. I feel like everyone loves this book—for once everyone is right.
Not a lot of books this month, but not a lot of duds, either. The Simenon and the Mosley were the weakest; the Perry and the Johnson the strongest. How about you? What were you up to last month?
I know, I know, this thing is late. Here it is, almost October and me still going on about August. Had a lot going on, though. Back to full-time work after a year’s sabbatical (the Sunday night of all Sunday nights, let me tell you). Plus my wife moved temporarily to St. Louis to complete an MSW degree. So August was split between setting her up in her place there—St. Louis is so great!—and starting the new academic year, for me and our daughter (last year of elementary, how did that happen?). I fit reading in where I could—I go nuts if I don’t—but it wasn’t the top priority. Here’s how that shook down.
Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Slander (1960)
When I wrote last month about the first Jim Sader PI novel, which I liked a lot, I alluded to its sequel, in my opinion a genuine masterpiece that anyone with even a passing interest in PI novels should read. In sleep with Slander, Sader is hired to find a kidnapped child. The boy’s grandfather has received an anonymous letter explaining that the child has been taken from the people the grandfather put him with (his daughter had the child out of wedlock) and is now being abused. Things get complicated fast, as Sader runs up against one closed door after another. Unlike in some detective stories, where the complexity becomes an end in its own right (Chandler, say, even Hammett), here the plot never obscures the hurt at the heart of the matter. The book feels urgent, even more so than in Ross Macdonald, whose Archer novels Sleep with Slander shares a preoccupation with, specifically, the way families pass along their hatreds. Hitchens contributes her share to the California rhapsodies sung by generations of crime writers—when Sader turns his car from the ocean at Laguna Beach and up into a canyon “the sea wind followed, funneling through the narrow cleft in the coastal hills”; here as elsewhere Sader is more pursued than pursuer, mocked even by the elements: “he heard it whistle against the window” (it’s like he’s being cat-called by the environment)—but Hitchens really shines with her deft character portraits, even in the most minor characters. I was especially struck by a real estate man whose habit of silently beating out hymns on his empty desk strikes a plaintive note of discord with the dreams of happiness his profession traffics in. Leaving the man after a revealing interview, Sader sees him, silent, alone, “sitting with fingers poised, ready to strike an opening chord on the rim of the desk.”
Hitchens never wrote another Sader novel, though given the melancholy perfection of the ending of Sleep with Slander it’s really no surprise.
Elizabeth Jane Howard, The Light Years (1990)
Howard’s novels about the Cazalet family have been on my radar for a while, enthused over by readers I trust. I was surprised to find they were published in the 90s; I’d vaguely assumed they were from the 50s. And they are a bit old fashioned, sort of soapy, though not, I’d say melodramatic. (Not that there’s anything wrong with melodrama!) The Cazalets have made their money importing wood from the colonies. In 1937, when The Light Years begins, the business is run by the two eldest sons, Hugh (a good soul, wounded both physically and emotionally in the Great War) and Edward (jolly, lover of the good things in life, bit of a cad), even though their father, known to all by a typically ridiculous upper-class British nickname, The Brig, remains nominally in charge. In practice, though, he spends his time at their seat in Sussex, where his increasing blindness don’t stop him from advancing many improvement schemes in the neighbourhood, which require a lot of work from everyone else, especially his unmarried (and possibly gay, though she seems unsure about that) daughter, Rachel. (His wife, the family matriarch, known as the Duchy, is both steely and vague—I could read a whole book about her but she floats around the edges of this one.) Hugh and Edward’s younger brother, Rupert, a schoolteacher and artist, is being pressured to join the firm. Zoë, Rupert’s young second wife—his first having died (I think in childbirth, but maybe I made that up and I’m too lazy to look it up)—is young, beautiful, rather out of her depth, though Howard deepens her portrait satisfyingly. She feels shut out by Sybil and Villy, Hugh and Edward’s wives, who are close, though not enough for Sybil to share her ambivalence at getting pregnant again or Villy to admit her fears (barely expressed even to herself) about her husband’s affairs, and her thwarted ambitions (she was once a ballet dancer).
As good as Howard is with these adults—and she’s very good—she really shines with the children, who range in age from about 5 – 15: Hugh and Sybil’s two, Polly and Simon; Edward and Villy’s three, Louise, Teddy, and Lydia; and Rupert’s two, Clary and Neville. (I won’t even get into their cousins, Villy’s sister’s children, but they’re important, too.) Each is wonderful, though I think I like Polly and Clary best. (Clary, the would-be writer, might be Howard’s younger self. She’s funny, too. When her aunt, tucking her into bed one night, asks if she’s warm enough, the girl looks surprised: “I don’t know. How do I feel?”)
Each summer, the clan gathers in Sussex; The Light Years describes the events of two summers, 1937 and 1938, the latter governed by the specter of war, relieved at the last moment by the events of Munich. The novel is leisurely, engrossing, delightful if you like an unflashy but pleasing style and incisive psychological insight. As a co-dependent, I’m particularly compelled by Hugh and Sybil’s marriage—a good one, but spoiled a little by each partner’s desire to please each the other so much that they end up doing things neither really likes, in the mistaken belief that they’re doing a kindness to their partner:
This duel of consideration for one another that they had conducted for the last sixteen years involved shifting the truth about between them or withholding it altogether and was called good manners or affection, supposed to smooth the humdrum or prickly path of everyday married life. Its tyranny was apparent to neither.
“This duel of consideration”! Ouch!
Anyway, I’m currently stuck into volume 2 and anticipating a fruitful autumn of Cazalets.
Naomi Hirahara, Clark and Division (2021)
Frustrating crime novel: fascinating premise, mediocre execution. In 1944, the narrator, Aki, and her parents arrive in Chicago after being interned in the Manzanar War Relocation Camp. There they plan to reunite with the family’s elder daughter, Rose, who, having been deemed a loyal Nisei, had been released the year before. But Rose fails to meet the train; soon they learn she is dead, hit by a subway train at the station that gives the book its name. The official verdict is suicide; Aki is convinced it was murder. As her parents retreat into grief, Aki sets out to find the truth of her sister’s death, following in Rose’s footsteps whenever possible, but also creating a new life for herself, with a job (at the Newberry Library) and love interest.
I wanted to like Clark and Division more than I did. I appreciated the history lesson and the attention to characters who don’t usually appear in crime fiction. But the plot is creaky and the writing wooden. The book reads like mediocre YA, filled with leaden lines and obvious questions: “Pages had been ripped out [of Rose’s diary] and I couldn’t help but wonder if they had held some secrets to why my sister was now dead”; “Was I, in fact, hurting my sister’s legacy by being consumed by it?” Yeah, yeah, we get it.
Gwendoline Riley, My Phantoms (2021)
Total banger. Ostensibly a story about a woman’s terrible parents—blustering, bullying father; needy, demanding mother—but actually about the woman’s own terribleness, her contempt and lack of interest in others, her mother especially. The way Riley uses the woman’s narration against herself (she reveals herself as unpleasant only slowly) is, as the kids say, chef’s kiss.
Mick Herron, London Rules (2018)
For a thing I wrote about the Slough House series, I read two Herron novels this month. I quite liked this one, maybe because I was paying more attention to Herron’s style, trying to get a handle on how he does what he does.
Esther Freud, I Couldn’t Love You More (2021)
Huge fan of Freud, starting with her brilliant debut, Hideous Kinky, which you should read immediately. (Terrific example of a non-treacly first-person child narrator—its protagonist is only five.) She hasn’t published a novel in quite a while, so when I heard about this one I ordered it from the UK so I could have a hardcover.
I spent a pleasant weekend with it, enjoying the feeling of being in Freud’s quiet, assured hands. The new novel is a bit different from the earlier ones, which fall into two camps: stories of children at the hands of hapless, almost but not quite neglectful adults (versions of her own childhood, perhaps), and stories of early 20th century Europe and its connections via exile, war, and displacement to England (versions of her family’s history: Sigmund Freud was her great-grandfather; the painter Lucien Freud her father—though as I read around a little online to write this blurb, I learned that the new book imagines what might have happened to her mother, Bernardine Coverley, born in Brixton to Irish Catholic parents, had her own teenage pregnancy led to unhappier results).
I Couldn’t Love You More shares with the latter books an interest in the aftereffects of the past on the present; the setting is Ireland and the UK between the late 1930s and the 90s. The story moves between three generations of women: Aoife, who, sitting at the bedside of her dying husband, remembers their life together; Rosaleen, who leaves Ireland for London in the 60s and gets involved with sculptor; Kate, who, stuck in 90s London with a small child and an alcoholic husband, sets out to uncover the identity of her birth mother, a journey that takes her to Ireland and the remains of the Magdalene Asylum system.
As I said, I liked the book plenty as I was reading it. But now, a month later, I realize I don’t remember much about that. Not that it’s bad—but certainly much less vivid than her others. The Kate storyline works best—Freud is brilliant with children, and the chaos and drudgery of living with them—but I’d rank this as minor work. Not the place to start if you’ve not read Freud before. I will say, though, that the title is pretty great: its double meaning (I love you as much as it is possible to love someone; I loved you no more than I was able) captures the painful ambivalence of all the story’s relationships.
Judith Hermann, Summerhouse, Later (1998) Trans. Margot Bettauer Dembo (2001)
I really flaked out when it came to Women in Translation month. Plucking Hermann off the shelf was my nod to that fine event; sadly, I chose poorly. When my wife and I spent a fair bit of time in Germany at the beginning of the century, Hermann was talked about as a big deal, a hip, young writer who was invigorating German literature with her Carver-esque prose and her descriptions of life after die Wende. Reading it twenty-five years after publication, I didn’t understand the fuss. It’s too dated to appeal to the current moment and not dated enough to become interesting again. The stories about Wessis taking over the East interested me the most, but that socio-political material is well in the background; the focus is on lives and listless love affairs of young, vaguely arty types. If I want that, I’ll dig out my Doris Dörrie collections. Anyone remember her?
John Darnielle, Universal Harvester (2017)
Darnielle fronts The Mountain Goats, and I’ve wondered whether his book deals came from that fame as opposed to his talent. But a trusted former student raves about him, so I finally gave him a chance. Thank God I did! Universal Harvester wowed me with its combination of menace and warmth. A young man working in a video store in small-town Iowa in the late 90s—among other things, the novel sings a low-key hymn to that time before the internet changed everything—gets complaints from customers: something is on the cassette they watched, like another bit of a movie, something weird. They can’t or won’t say more, act disturbed and uneasy. The man watches the movies—and becomes disturbed and uneasy himself. Someone has spliced footage—some innocuous (an empty barn), some frightening (a hooded figure tied to a chair)—into the disposable Hollywood products of the 80s and 90s. Reluctantly, the man is drawn into an investigation of sorts, propelled by two women (one owns the store, one is a customer). He gets involved with neither, just one way Darnielle subverts expectations. Another, more striking, is by breaking the storyline off to tell the story of a woman in 1960s eastern Iowa who joins a cult and the effect her decision has on her husband and daughter. A third storyline, closer in time to the present-say, links the two earlier ones.
Raving about the book on Twitter I learned, to my delight, how many of my mutuals love this book. Someone who was prompted to read it based on our praise later tweeted something like: “Not what I expected. Thought it would be Videodrome, but it turned out to have a lot more heart.” Perfect description. As much as I like Cronenberg—Long live the new flesh!—I agree that it is Darnielle’s kindness—modest, never sappy—mixed with his rueful self-awareness of the pleasures and limitations of midwestern politeness that really made the book work for me. Darnielle knows the Midwest; his descriptions chimed with what my wife has told me about her own childhood in Missouri.
Now that I have to commute again, I’m back to listening to audio books. (Alas, during the pandemic the local library system stopped buying CDs, which I totally get, but my car is old and not Bluetooth-enabled. So I’ll be making my way through their older stuff, hopefully before they get around to deaccessioning them all…) Darnielle reads Universal Harvester himself and he is wonderful (I mean, he is also a performer, singer, and musician so I shouldn’t be surprised). I loved his voice so much, he seems so kind and gentle. I just want to be his friend! He includes some cool music—which I assume he composed—between sections, too. I’m sure the book is wonderful on its own, but experiencing it in audio form made me love it even more.
Mick Herron, Joe Country (2019)
The Slow Horses briefly leave London for Wales, which to them is as exotic as Siberia. Ends with quite the cliff-hanger.
Tommy Orange, There There (2018)
Much-fêted novel by a young indigenous writer about twelve characters converging on a powwow in Oakland, CA. Each section is told from one of their viewpoints. In addition to this dozen first-person narrators, Orange includes a prologue and interlude told in first-person plural. I liked these two sections best, actually: their essayistic and choral mode suits Orange, who’s better at letting his intelligence and cultural references loose directly than at creating a character with a similar academic background to his own. (For those who’ve read the book: Dene Oxendene is the least interesting character, IMO.) Oakland is famously the place where there’s no there there; Orange gives Oxendene an admittedly good riff on how misunderstood this passage of Gertrude Stein’s is, and how the loss invoked by the phrase is also the story of Native Americans. Orange evokes the city with love mixed with anger at its gentrification. I agree with the many readers who’ve said that it’s bracing to read a book about urban Natives. As with Esther Freud’s latest, though, I enjoyed Orange’s novel more in the reading than in the reflection. Unlike, say, The Break, Katherena Vermette’s novel of indigenous Winnipeg (which similarly splits its narrative between a set of connected characters), a book I seldom go a week without thinking about, I’ve barely thought about There There since finishing it.
Maybe I’d have remembered these books more if I’d been in a better head-space, but a person can’t always be at the top of their game. Besides, between the Hitchens, the Howard, the Riley, and the Darnielle it was still a pretty good reading month. I can tell you already, September will bring more of the reading-around-the-edges same… How about you? Was your August a good month?
July was for roadtripping, not reading. We made an epic 4000-mile trip to Montana, Wyoming, and South Dakota and back again, a trip filled with glorious landscapes, terrible meals (I do like fry bread, though, even if a little goes a long way), and irrefutable evidence of our changed climate: heat, drought, fire. Sobering isn’t the word. Our exhilaration at being together as a family outside in wonderful places was undermined by our anxiety about masks (that is, their almost total absence) and the low-level irritation at finding ways to eat outside to keep our unvaccinated daughter safe. Anyway, those Western States are amazing—go if you ever have the chance! Sitting in a car and hiking through national parks didn’t leave much time for books—though the book shopping (in Missoula, MT and Omaha, NE) was great. Here’s what I found time for.
Menachem Kaiser, Plunder: A Memoir of Family Property and Nazi Treasure (2021)
Regular readers know I’m critical of third-generation Holocaust memoirs. (Memoirs written by grandchildren of survivors.) When I heard about Plunder, in which Menachem Kaiser sets out to reclaim a family apartment building in Poland, I reacted the way I always do—with skepticism mingled with resignation (I knew I’d read it) and curiosity (I only know of one other book that’s similar, Rutu Modan’s The Property). It didn’t take long, though, before I recognized the special qualities of Kaiser’s book. It’s so smart and interesting! So self-reflective—which all 3G memoirs ought to be—and, even better, without being annoying about it. It’s even funny. As Kaiser plunges into his quixotic enterprise—his extended family doesn’t know what to make of it, after all his father’s father died eight years before Kaiser was born, who is he to take up this quest, what does he expect to get from it?—things gets complicated. Does the building even exist anymore? What would you do with the people who live in it now? How do you prove to Polish authorities that someone has died?
Throughout, Kaiser’s grandfather remains an enigma, but one of the man’s cousins turns out to have written a memoir of his time in the Gros-Rosen concentration camp complex, a book that has become legendary in a surprising and surprisingly large community of treasure seekers who live to ferret out the secrets of Silesian caves. (There’s supposed to be a train full of Nazi hidden somewhere.) Next thing you know, Kaiser’s squeezing into underground tunnels hacked out by slave labour in the waning days of the war, getting drunk with weekend treasure hunters, and learning first-hand how family histories are usually litanies of error.
Basically, Plunder is brilliant from the title on. Whether as noun or verb, plunder is the perfect term to encapsulate the connotations of avarice, need, and longing that accompany any attempt to grasp the past. It’s a fantastic book, which I’ll be assigning next spring for sure.
Wendy Lower, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed (2021)
Lower’s short book—well under 200 pages before notes—manages to be both highly specific and usefully wide ranging. The specific part concerns a photograph of an execution in the Ukraine in October 1941. There are not many visual representations of what’s come to be called “the Shoah by Bullets,” and almost none that show, like this one, a Jewish family being murdered together. Lower set out to learn everything she could about the photo. Who were the victims and who the perpetrators? Who took the picture? Could she find the location of the murder? Her aim, she writes, was:
to break the frame around the crime scene, which kept the victims frozen in that awful moment. The photograph captures an event locked in time, but I knew it was part of a fluid situation. What precede that moment of death, what followed, and what happened to each person visible there?
Lower diligently answers these questions—the photo is even more poignant and terrible than initial inspection suggests—but she also has a larger agenda. Not only does she explain how the genocide was implemented, especially by the Einsatzgruppen in their push east during the invasion of the Soviet Union, but she also usefully and expansively defines collaboration. Plus, she shows us how the past is excavated, by survivors, archaeologists, and historians. All of this in lucid, accessible prose. The Ravine isn’t a comprehensive Holocaust history by any means, but there are many worse places to start learning about it. I’ll be moderating a panel with Lower at this year’s Six Bridges Literary Festival; can’t wait to see her in action.
Fonda Lee, Jade City (2017)
Enjoyable fantasy novel about a world in which only people known as Green Bones are able to harness the power of magical jade, which heightens their warrior powers. An uneasy truce among rival clans, which has held since the end of a war of independence, collapses when one group begins to traffic in a synthetic jade substitute. Jade City, the first in a trilogy that will conclude this fall, is a Godfather / martial arts mashup with juicy characters, but more than anything it’s about cartels and gangs and bureaucrats. Even if, like me, you don’t read much fantasy, you might really like this.
Joanna Pocock, Surrender: The Call of the American West (2019)
I’m working—a little too desultorily, I’m afraid—on something about this book and my trip to the American West, so maybe I’ll have more to say later, but I do want you all to know how good this perfectly titled essay/memoir is. Pocock moved from the UK to Missoula, Montana, a place that entranced her—even having spent only three days there I totally understand why—and prompted her to explore various ways of living with others and the land. The West—where land feels present in a way I’ve never experienced elsewhere—will do that to you. Pocock meets ecosexuals, foragers on “the Hoop” (a circular route around the Western US, once followed by indigenous tribes from season to season), minutemen, mining company shills, and hunters keen to hunt wolves. Mostly—cliché, I know, but she finesses it—she meets herself. Approaching midlife, to what or whom does she want to surrender? I strongly recommend.
Gil Adamson, Ridgerunner (2020)
Took this book—kindly sent me by its American publicist—on vacation because I thought it was set in Montana. In fact, it takes place mostly in Alberta, specifically in what in 1917 was still called Rocky Mountains National Park (it was renamed Banff, after its main railway station, in 1930). As someone who grew up hiking its trails, I was amazed at how much I learned: Lake Louise was once called Laggan; interned POWs, known to the locals as Germans but mostly from Austro-Hungary, specifically Galicia, built much of the road that is now the Trans-Canada highway; the Stoney Nakoda and other indigenous people were forcibly removed from the park. Adamson handles this history deftly, using it to serve her story about Jack Boulton, a twelve-year-old whose mother dies, at the beginning of the book, of an illness that almost fells him too, leading his father to make a deal with the woman who nursed the boy back to health: he will leave him with her while he handles his grief by taking off. The man, William Moreland, is a former thief (his nickname gives the novel its title); he returns to his life of genteel crime, crisscrossing the Canadian/US border, stealing from abandoned ranger cabins and planting harmless explosions in mining towns (when everyone rushes to check out the noise, he slips into hotels and mine offices to purloin jewels and cash). Moreland has a plan—to gather enough money for the boy’s future before reclaiming him. The erstwhile nurse has another—to make Jack her own. Before long Jack legs it back to the family homestead, where he gets by with help from his nearest neighbour. (I picture their cabins somewhere between Carrot Creek and Dead Man’s Flats, if you know the area: that is, the very eastern edge of the park, some of the most beautiful country in the world.)
At first I was skeptical about Ridgerunner—I thought it might be overwritten and dutiful like so much Canadian literary fiction—but I was quickly won over. Yes, the plot skirts melodrama, especially at the end. It seems Adamson decided the book needed drama, which she sandwiched into the last fifty pages; I understand the reasoning without being convinced. After all, the best bits are about how Jack survives on the land (mostly) on his own; these descriptions are compelling without being self-consciously lyrical and I didn’t need anything more. The other weakness of the book’s construction is that the Jack and Moreland sections sit uneasily together. But Adamson has an elegant, loose style (like a less earnest Ondaatje), she can be funny, and she’s damn good on horses. Ridgerunner is a sequel to Adamson’s previous novel, The Outlander, which, I gather, tells how Mary Boulton and William Moreland met. (The Frank Slide features prominently.) It holds up just fine on its own, though. Feel like this has gone totally under the radar Stateside, and that’s a shame; it deserves a better fate.
Elly Griffiths, The Crossing Places (2009)
Home from holiday and at a loose reading end, I happened upon this in the neighbourhood Little Free Library (usually a wasteland of self-help and James Patterson). It was just what I needed, a no-fuss, competently written crime novel with an engaging Norfolk setting and the feel of a romance novel in its setting up of what I am guessing will be a slow-burning “will they or won’t they” relationship between its two leads, a professor of archaeology and a cop.
Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It and Other Stories (1976)
It’ll make some folks sad, but I did not care for this book, which I bought in Missoula, because how could I not? (As children Maclean and his brother discover that—you can read this quote all over town—“the world… was full of bastards, the number increasing rapidly the farther one gets from Missoula, Montana.”) Reading the book during and after our trip, I enjoyed recognizing its landscapes, and I appreciated the author’s love of western Montana (all the while thinking how sad he’d be at its changed climate). But mostly I found it a slog. Its attitudes to women are old-fashioned and tiresome, its humour misfires, and its detailed descriptions made me less not more interested in fly-fishing: I couldn’t square his complicated instructions with the elegant arabesques I’d seen in men and women performing in swift-running rivers across Montana. Of the book’s three stories, I enjoyed “USFS 1919” the most, because it’s about being in the woods and hiking, which I can relate to, especially since I’d walked some of the very same trails just days earlier. Yet its plot, too, fell victim to the boyish/loutish hijinks I didn’t care for in the other two. It’s all very hearty and stoic and, friends, you know that’s just not me.
Dolores Hitchens, Sleep with Strangers (1955)
Library of America has done us all a favour by reissuing this seriously good California PI novel from a prolific midcentury writer. It’s got the elements we know from Hammett and Chandler but deploys them at an angle. Jim Sader is a good guy with demons (he is a mostly sober alcoholic, he gets involved with his clients in inappropriate ways); as such he’s is a familiar character, but less macho, less hard-bitten. The plot of Sleep with Strangers is appropriately complicated, but less preposterous than, say, The Big Sleep’s. Hitchens takes her female characters, especially their motivations, much more seriously than the canonical writers of American noir. Sader’s relationship to his younger partner is unexpectedly moving (an alternate universe version of the one between Spade and Archer in The Maltese Falcon). On the basis of this novel I’d say Hitchens is a more straightforward writer than Dorothy Hughes, but she’s definitely in the same league. And the second (and sadly final) Sader novel, which I finished just too late to include in this July list, is even better: a truly excellent example of the genre.
Elly Griffiths, The Janus Stone (2010)
How quickly things change. I ran out to buy the second in the Ruth Galloway series before I’d even finished the first. Alas, my initial enthusiasm might have been misguided. The archaeology bits didn’t interest me much (big liability in these books), and the ending was silly. Will Ruth have to be rescued in every book? Unsure if I’ll persist. Sophomore slump maybe?
Arnold Bennett, The Old Wives’ Tale (1908)
Rohan and I—along with valiant readers from around the world—read this novel over several weeks. You can read mypostshere, andhershere. The tl;dnr: a naturalist novel about sisters whose life paths at first seem different but ultimately aren’t. Thoughtful about the meaning of change, poignant about the frailty that afflicts us all as we age, interesting about technological and social change. It’s no Middlemarch, but Bennett didn’t deserve Woolf’s opprobrium. I’ll read more by him, even if it probably won’t be any time soon. Which ones do you recommend?
How about you? Did you read anything good last month? Hope you’re surviving whatever weather and political shenanigans are plaguing wherever you are. (I fervently wish they are better than this August in Arkansas.) As my sabbatical comes to its end, my reading time is about to plummet. In the meantime I’m trying to squeeze a few last titles in—more on that in a couple of weeks!
In June I realized my sabbatical is in fact coming to an end. (Technically, it ended last week, but I have a few weeks’ grace until the school years grinds into gear.) Soon I will be back among people all the time; this knowledge made me anxious. The weight I gained over the pandemic made me depressed. The discoveries at two of the many former Residential Schools in Canada shocked but did not surprise me. (Similar mass graves will be found at others in the coming months, I have no doubt.) The extreme heat and firestorms in the West, including my home province terrified me; ironically, the weather in Arkansas was cooler than usual. (This too a function of climate of change, of course.) Everything seemed ominous. I was working hard, too, mostly on an essay I’m excited to share with you all in August. My daughter and I started taking one of the dogs for a walk each morning: that was a good thing. As to reading, the month started strong, then tailed off. Here’s what I finished.
Madeleine Watts, The Inland Sea (2020)
Strong debut novel about a young woman, fresh out of university, who takes a job as an emergency dispatcher, eliciting from panicked callers where in Australia they are and which service to connect them to. Filled with wonderful place names and terrible events, The Inland Sea is a novel of emergencies: fires and petty crimes and surfing accidents, but also the narrator’s depression and despair, the violent settler colonialism of Australia’s past and present, and above all the changing climate. A wildfire from the early 90s, which the narrator’s family had to flee, is a primal moment the novel returns to again and again, presenting it as a harbinger of the terrible changes to come. The title refers to the 19th century settler belief that the continent’s rivers must have had a common source; the mythical inland sea stands in for all hubristic fantasies that aim to make reality fit ideology. (Patrick White, especially his novel Voss, about a megalomaniac explorer, is referenced repeatedly: the shittiest of the narrator’s shitty exes is writing a thesis about him.)
The Inland Sea captures the rage and despair that I’ve seen in younger people these past years, faced as they are with an increasingly uncertain future, and that I am myself enveloped in more every day. (It’s the same future; they just have, or should have, more of it.) Here the narrator reflects on her mother—whom she loves and is close to but can’t tell anything important to:
This was what my mother had never understood. The things she never would have done—moving out of the city, dropping out of the university system and into paid-by-the-hour work, reckless sex and drinking—they were not things I did because I didn’t know any better. I just didn’t think there was any point in trying to shelter myself. If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided. Emergency would come for you no matter what you did.
In this moment the dispatch center comes close to mere symbol. Fortunately it’s usually described more fully, though I wouldn’t have minded learning even more about it. (I loved the details, like the mid-morning lull when older women, mostly widows, call in with invariably false stories of burglaries or strange men in the back garden.)
The Inland Sea reminded me of some other recent novels—like Conversations with Friends, with its description of endometriosis—that present women’s bodies as a site of violence and harm, even when the women who live in those bodies try to take charge of them: here, a procedure to implant an IUD goes badly. As the narrator concludes, “My body could not be made to behave. It disdained all methods of prevention and protection.” Danger everywhere.
Last thought: I only know Australia from books, which means I know nothing, but I’ve always thought Melbourne was the cool place and Sydney beautiful but tedious, but Watts makes Sydney seem, not appealing, really, it’s mostly a terrifying landscape of drunk men lurching after women, but something other than the “world city” of the opera house and Bondi beach. The final image, of the narrator swimming in Gordon’s Bay, looking back at the “scum of waste… weeds and straws and band Aids and bottles” washed up after yet another 100-year storm, reminded me of the ambivalent swimming scene at the end of Cusk’s Kudos.
Doris Lessing would have liked this book.
Anakana Schofield, Bina (2019)
Bina—“Bye-na not Bee-na,” consider yourself warned—is 74. Who know how long she had left: she has a lot to say even if it’s not what you want to hear (“I’m here to warn you, not reassure you”), so she’s not going to waste any time. Empathy has been her undoing (interesting, given how empathetic this book is): it led her to invite a Bad Man into her home, who abused her and took advantage or her and whose return she daily fears; it got her involved in a secret organization that helps people end their lives which in turn led to her arrest. We let people into our lives, Bina says, it’s what we do. The trouble is getting them back out. Bina reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy, not just because it’s set in Ireland (though Schofield now lives in Canada) but because of its fascination with both the rhythms of spoken language and the frailty of the human body (there’s a relationship there I’m not able to articulate just now—or maybe I’m just following Bina’s quite Beckettian demand that “the explanation-hungry get over themselves”).
Bina is a fabulous character: self-aware (“I was a great woman for delivering the verdicts to others that I could neither conjure or conquer for myself”), wise (“I have noticed that it’s the decent people who are buried/While it’s the parasites and demolishers who endure”), scathing (“There are those reading and thinking, isn’t she daft, why didn’t she walk or why didn’t she do this or that. Well I am not worried about you, because maybe you’ve had the good fortune to be trained different and would not scupper yourself this way. And it’s it as well for you.”), and funny (women have to get up and pee at night because they are “widdling the confused strain of anger gathered up there all day”—why men have to pee at night is a mystery, “perhaps it’s God’s subtle way of tormenting them. He goes straight for the pipe does our Saviour”).
Schofield is a terrific writer (men like Eddy, the Bad Man, are “bullies in woolens”): I loved this book and can’t wait to read her others.
Bryan Washington, Lot (2019)
Many of the stories in this debut collection center feature versions of the same family: black father (sometimes absconded, sometimes just about to), Latina mother, daredevil older brother, sister looking to get the hell out, and at the center, the young gay narrator. Restaurant kitchens, johns, animals in the bayous—this isn’t the Houston of Rice, the Menil Collection, or even Minute Maid Park. That world is present only at the edges of the frame, mostly through the specter of gentrification. No surprise that a book called Lot is interested in real estate (not to mention one’s lot in life, having a lot to deal with and a lot to live for, and maybe even Lot of Genesis, who looked upon and fled Sodom). Much as I would miss Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, I’m thinking of replacing it with Lot as the centerpiece collection the next time I teach my course on the short story. My students—a good number of whom are from Houston, though rarely the parts described in the book—would like it, I suspect, and I’ll be able to decide if it’s as good as my first reading suggests.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)
Fantastic. Read this in college, probably a year after the movie came out (I believe it was the first film I saw as a college student), and, I realize now, completely missed the point. Not only did the story seem slight, worse, I identified with Newland Archer, the ironic yet self-satisfied scion of a wealthy New York family in the 1860s whose imminent marriage to athletic, kind, incurious May is threatened by the return of her disgraced cousin, Ellen, on the run from a bad marriage to a Polish nobleman, with whom he falls in love. Wharton’s irony—her brilliant control of the narrative voice—passed me right by. I can’t think of a better advertisement for re-reading than my experience returning to this novel—though I now wonder how many other books I’ve misunderstood over the years.
Newland is such a carefully constructed character, his world-view so dominant, his criticisms of a world he loves and is much more enmeshed in than he ever realizes so easy to side with, that it is easy to miss that this is in fact a novel of two women, neither of whose interiority we ever access directly. Both May and Ellen are so much more interesting than Newland realizes. Ellen, in particular, fascinates as a figure who has suffered greatly from men, including from Archer, who is nowhere near as nice to her as he thinks he is, but who gains hard-won freedom—not least from us, the intrusive readers. (The bit players are wonderful too, from the titanic Mrs. Mingott to the ladies’ man Beaufort to the subdued Janey, Archer’s sister—I would have liked more of her.)
The novel is filled with rituals, rites, tutelary deities, and the like, the whole language of the ascendant anthropology of the 1920s. This motif is connected to Archer’s interest in the moeurs of New York society, which he studies as another scholar might the curious customs of some primitive tribe. He mostly has Ellen to thank for this—when he first visits her bohemian downtown apartment (unfashionable neighbourhood, artistic tchotchkes, and all), he decides the advice he wants to give her on how to behave in society is as useless in her bohemian world as warning someone bargaining in a Samarkand market about New York winters. Ellen, he thinks, has helped him see his native city clearly: “Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.” Archer fancies himself having transcended his world—now seeing it as curious as anywhere else—but you look foolish holding a telescope the wrong way ‘round, and Archer doesn’t have it in him to pursue the idea to its logical consequences. Maybe his privilege—his ability to imagine himself being rescued by Ellen from what no doubt feels genuinely and excruciatingly like a spiritual wasteland—isn’t as natural as he believes.
But before we get too comfortable at our own perspicaciousness in seeing through Archer, we might wonder at what we want from this novel. I read the new Penguin Classics edition (the cover of which was roundly pooh-poohed on Twitter, though I don’t mind it myself), and you should too, because the introduction by Sarah Blackwood is outstanding. (There’s also a Foreword by Elif Batuman—her name is on the cover—which is fine but nothing special.) Blackwood deftly summarizes the result of Wharton’s narrative decisions:
In keeping us in Archer’s perspective, Wharton allows us to experience the limited and impoverished viewpoint of a selfish young man, even as we are drawn to him and his desires, even as we relate to how deeply and ineffectually he wants.
[That’s what I missed as an undergraduate. I identified with his tragic position without seeing the harm it incited.]
Thus I read passages like this, in which Archer reflects on his mother and sister, as sympathetic:
Mother and daughter adored each other and revered their son and brother; and Archer loved them with a tenderness made compunctious [a word to warm the fussy heart of the lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener] and uncritical by the sense of their exaggerated admiration, and by his secret satisfaction in it. After all, he thought it a good thing for a man to have his authority respected in his own house, even if his sense of humour sometimes made him question the force of his mandate.
That it is anything but natural for him to have been granted such a mandate—and what it means for the organization of the world that he does—never intrudes on even his rueful thoughtfulness.
Blackwood continues by offering a startling and brilliant reading of what she rightly calls the novel’s “innovative’ ending:
By one metric, the fully realized novel [as opposed to drafts in which Wharton had Newland and Ellen get together, only to realize they had nothing in common] is a tragic story of two people trying to surmount the obstacles to their love. But in another… the published novel does have a happy ending. The Age of Innocence is one of the only stories Wharton ever wrote where everyone does, indeed, ‘get what [they] want.’ May gets to achieve the sentimental, sacrificial maternal and wifely status she desired. Newland gets to feel like an outsider while remaining an insider; he experiences no shortage of people to enlighten over the years. [Archer, Blackwood notes, is a preeminent mansplainer.] And Ellen? Well, Ellen gets to live a life that evades even our own prying eyes.
In this way, she finds a way to evade both the cruelty of impermanence—at the not-yet-fashionable Metropolitan Museum she regrets the way daily objects and implements, once so important to the people who made and used them, fade into obscurity until they are exhibited in a vitrine labelled “Use unknown”—and the cruelty of “the meanwhile,” of life as it is lived before time’s transience has done its work, a cruelty Archer fails to understand.
If you’re past your own age of innocence—though how can we ever know that we have reached this stage?—I urge you to read or reread this American masterpiece.
Mick Herron, Real Tigers (2016)
More adventures for the Slow Horses. Totally enjoyable. Not as good as the first, but better than the second. Since I love Standish the most, I both appreciated and was alarmed by the plot. Odd the way Herron frames these books with extended descriptions of Slough House from the perspective of a ghost or spirit stalking its floors, which I fancifully want to believe he has borrowed from the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.
Mick Herron, Spook Street (2017)
I mean, it’s a spy novel, but even so this one is a little preposterous. Still has its moments, but the bait-and-switch it pulls midway through annoyed me.
Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (2021)
Fascinating & detailed narrative history about female resistance fighters in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos. Smuggling information, living under false papers, shooting Nazis, stitching up partisans: these young women did exciting, dangerous, and important work. I have reservations about the book’s tone, structure, and narrativizing tendencies, but Light of Days is a valuable, accessible book that is well-sourced. So useful to have this experience brought to non-Yiddish speakers. Writing about it for another outlet, so more soon.
Jessica J. Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest (2020)
Memoir/nature writing by a Canadian writer of Taiwanese and British ancestry who now lives in Berlin (with all the other writers). The book tries to do a lot: relate walks and bike rides all over Taiwan, narrate the history of her mother’s family and their journey from mainland China to Canada via Taiwan, probe the family’s silences and antagonisms. All while giving us a potted history of the discovery of the island’s flora and fauna by mostly European scientist explorers. The weaving of these various strands isn’t always seamless. But each concerns the task of naming, defining, or fixing. Which explains Lee’s interest in mapmaking, language differences, and histories of classification. In each case these gaps—her difficulty, as a child in southern Ontario, in communicating with her Chinese Taiwanese grandparents, for example—prove to be both generative and debilitating, connecting even as they separate. That paradox leads to Lee’s final comparison, spurred by a trek through the Shanlinxi forest and its enormous cedars, of people to trees, connected through subterranean roots that make of these separate entities a forest. Language itself carries this affinity within it, Lee argues, noting that Carl Linneaus’s name is rendered in Chinese by characters meaning “someone related to the forest” or “someone who endures the forest” (the latter suggestion especially fraught and intriguing). To model human interrelatedness on the nonhuman natural world, Lee suggests, isn’t fanciful; it’s an expression of the truth of our own insignificance: “our fleeting human worlds are so easily swallowed up by nature, our fate fastened to its course. What we believe to be culture is only ever a fragment of natural world that we have sectioned off, enclosed, pearl-like, for posterity.”
I did not like Two Trees unreservedly—the writing is uneven: sometimes genuinely affecting, sometimes straining for lyricism—but I learned a lot. I recommend Nicie’s reflections on her own ambivalence.
Jeong You-Jeong, Seven Years of Darkness (2011) Trans. Kim Chi-Young (2020)
Compelling sort-of crime novel from Korea, a bit Gothic, a bit horror. Reminded me of Les Revenants (The Returned), that French show about ghosts—not least because both show and novel feature villages flooded by the construction of hydroelectric dams. If I knew more about Korean history I might suggest that Seven Years of Darkness is an allegory of the country’s rapid modernization. There’s that dam, of course, but also all kinds of sophisticated surveillance technologies A novel, then, about both 20th and 21st century technologies. Good stuff; I’ll definitely be reading more Jeong.
Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone (2019)
Second in the Perveen Mistry books about a female solicitor in 1920s India. This time Perveen travels to a Himalayan princely state (once again to interview women in purdah). That world is interesting and compellingly presented. Perveen gains a possible love interest; that worked for me too. Massey is a plodding writer, though; suspense is not her forte. The third book has just been published but I’m not sure I’ll keep reading.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)
I enjoyed my online class with Samantha Rose Hill on The Origins of Totalitarianism so much that I signed up for one on Arendt’s follow-up, The Human Condition. Much shorter, but much more philosophical, harder to read. Sam is a great teacher, though, and the class was filled with smart people from literally all around the world. (Zoom doesn’t always suck.) Arendt and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but the scope of her thinking and its anti-transcendence are inspiring.
We live, so Arendt, between the no-longer and the not-yet: there is no ideal society because there is no teleology to our lives or this universe. We have to rethink the human condition all the time based on experience, on what is. In her concern with what is, Arendt might seem like a materialist; she might seem, in other words, to be influenced by Marx. And indeed, the book began as a study of Marx, but became something else, especially as Arendt offers a (pretty idiosyncratic and, I am told, weak) reading of Marx. Marx believed labour to be the essence of human experience, Arendt argues, but he also wanted to liberate us from labour (and its alienation). Which would mean there would be no more human essence. Marx, Arendt continues, failed to distinguish between labour and work. Labour is necessary, but limited and limiting. It consumes itself because its task is consumption. Labour is endless, even circular: we need to feed and clothe ourselves, take care of our children and elders, etc. Almost all of the ways we spend our time and earn our living today are forms of labour. (Even the things we do in our spare time—our hobbies, which Arendt is hilariously scornful about—are just disguised labour.) Work, by contrast, is fabrication, it makes something that is durable, that is made of (some element of) the earth but exceeds the earth by the process of shaping and making. Work has dignity, though it barely exists anymore (says Arendt in the late 1950s), some scientists and, mostly, artists are the only ones lucky enough to work in this way.
In the process, Arendt, using Augustine’s concept of the love of the world, overturns the dualism present since Aristotle between the life of contemplation and the life of action. Philosophy has always valued the former and denigrated the second. Arendt flips this around. Because only in action can politics come into being. (Politics is when people come together to bring about a new beginning—always risky, always unstable, something like revolution; it is not the administration of the results of that action: that’s the political, bureaucracy, an all-around bad scene.) To love the world is to look at it for what it is, to face reality, to see all the good and evil in it. The Human Condition is a secular theodicy, a vindication of the world. We should not want to get outside ourselves—Arendt references Kafka’s parable of the man who found an Archimedean point but only because he was able to use it only against himself as a warning against the idea of transcendence—which explains why she is so fixated on the Sputnik rocket: it’s an image of science’s failed attempt to find that impossible place outside the world, impossible because what science has done with its Archimedean discovery is to use it against the human, to turn away from our experience in the world. We live in a world without much freedom (the world of consuming, of language deadened into cliché, of administrative rationality) but the possibility of freedom is always there. Things can always be different than they are. We know this because of what Arendt ominously/grandiosely calls “natality,” by which she simply means that we are born and we die. Every time someone is born something utterly new has come into the world. It is this principle of change—which is politics properly considered—that we must live by.
My summary surely misunderstands Arendt in some ways—please correct me. But it’s stirring stuff. I recommend Arendt, especially if you have someone to help you through it. I couldn’t help, however, but find her emphasis on the human overbearing and misguided in the time of the Anthropocene. I’m not sure the earth can take the world Arendt wants us to build. I so wish she were alive to help us think our current moment. But she’d probably tell me that’s for us to do…
Lots to recommend here, I hope you’ll find something you like the sound of and that you’ll share your favourites of the month. Above all, (re) read The Age of Innocence: it’s really something.