Olga Zilberbourg’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Olga Zilberbourg (@bowlga). The author of Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language books, Olga co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop; and together with Yelena Furman runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet and diaspora literature.

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

El Anatsui, Fading Cloth, 2005

My reading life this past year was dominated by my role as a juror for the 2022 Neustadt International Literary Prize. The first task we were given was to nominate an author based on the quality of their writing. After considering (and rereading) authors from Yoko Tawada to Jenny Erpenbeck to Polina Barskova, I finally settled on the writer, whose work had propelled me into adulthood back in the early 1990s and whose books played a foundational role in forming my outlook on contemporary literature: Liudmilla Petrushevksaya.

I chose to submit There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (Penguin), selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. This book rose to bestseller lists in 2009 and it delivers on its title: the tales she tells are indeed magical and very disturbing. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve let the jury members to discover that book for themselves, and nominated an earlier volume, The Time: Night translated into English by Sally Laird (Northwestern UP). This book is both naturalistic in its portrayal of life in late Perestroika Russia, with its total breakdown of all familial and social relationships, and it amplifies its naturalism with an ironic “what-if” scenario: what if a poet akin to Anna Akhmatova had been born half a century later? How would she fare? It’s a powerful short novel (that Anna Summers also translated and Penguin published in a follow-up volume There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In) and I love that it also features on Yelena Furman’s syllabus on contemporary Russian women writers. I strongly believe that this book (alongside Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna) belongs on every syllabus dedicated to 20th Century Russian lit.

Jury members submitted nominations in March; in May we received a stack of nine books and a website to an electronic literature project by Jean-Pierre Balpe, for a total of ten works of literature, representative of their authors’ oeuvres. Having spent the summer with these books, the jury then gathered in October, via Zoom, during the Neustadt Literary Festival, to deliberate and choose the winner: Boubacar Boris Diop, who had been nominated by Jennifer Croft (@jenniferlcroft). I should add that though the process of selecting the winner was painful—the inevitable competitive nature of voting does seem inimical to the nature of literary achievement—Diop was chosen in the spirit of total admiration, not to say, awe.

Diop’s is a rich body of work. I began with Murambi: The Book of Bones, which Jenny had nominated. Translated from French by Fiona McLauchlin and published by Indiana UP, this book came with a blurb by Toni Morrison: “This novel is a miracle. Murambi, The Book of Bones verifies my conviction that art alone can handle the consequences of human destruction and translate these consequences into meaning.” Diop, a writer from Senegal, was a part of a group of writers invited to come to Rwanda in 1998 and to write about the genocide that had occurred four years prior. As an outsider, Diop has had to invent his own structure in order to approach his subject matter, which he does brilliantly. The novel contains separate, tentatively connected sections, centering both the point of view of a victim and the point of view of a perpetrator. Diop then adds to it a perspective of an observer, a man who returns home after a long absence from the country and who will have to live with the outcomes of the genocide, finding his way through social and personal trauma. Remarkably, this strategy allows Diop to capture the scope of the horrific events and their history in colonial politics, as well as to tell memorable stories of a few individuals.

In my public library, I was also able to locate a copy of Diop’s novel Kaveena, translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh, and published by Indiana UP, a gripping murder mystery that takes us on a tour of intricate relationships between the various parties involved in running a fictional francophone African state. This novel showcases some of the mechanisms in which imperial economic interests continue to hold sway in so many independent post-colonial nations.

Then, there’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks, a novel that Diop wrote in Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal, and available in English in translation by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State UP). My library didn’t carry it, and neither did any of the connected public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area—which I tried to rectify by requesting that they purchase it. I didn’t get a chance to read it before the jury deliberations; it’s going right onto my 2022 reading list.

The full list of works nominated for the Neustadt Prize this year is available online. The authors included Kwame Dawes, Natalie Diaz, Michális Ganás, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Reina María Rodríguez. Writers: the most generous gift-givers. I should add that I enjoyed reading not only the books of the finalists, but also the books by my fellow nominating jurors, including Jennifer Croft’s book Homesick (Unnamed Press), a novelized memoir of a close sibling relationship, and Hamid Ismailov’s Gaia, Queen of Ants (Syracuse UP), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, centering around a pair of transplants from Uzbekistan trying to make a life in Europe.

Outside of the reading I’ve done for and around the prize, I very much enjoyed participating in my first ever Twitter read-along, organized by the amazing @ReemK10. For me, this was a rereading of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (Harcourt). I’d read it for the first time a decade ago, and had in the interim forgotten how much of a post-Holocaust story it is. This aspect struck me deeply during the reread. Alongside, I picked up a volume of essays by and about its translator, the famed Michael Henry Heim, The Man Between (Open Letter), edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino. It was fascinating to learn a little about the history of contemporary translation from Eastern European languages, and the central role Heim seemed to play in it.

And speaking of Eastern Europe, this year, I discovered the writer Vesna Maric, whose memoir of leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war at the age of sixteen, The Bluebird (Granta), was as fascinating as it was strangely funny. I reviewed Maric’s first novel The President Shop for Ron Slate’s project On the Seawall, and I’m also keeping an eye on this book’s publisher, Sandorf Passage, who is bringing to English more fascinating East European titles.

Yanina Boldyreva, from Birch People, 2021

Looking over what I’ve just written I note that most of the books I talk about were published in English translation by independent or university press publishers. This was not intentional on my part, but I’m also not entirely surprised. It’s a vast, vibrant literary world out there, and translators and publishers of indie and university presses are a big part of what makes it so. Book Twitter friends are another big part—thank you all!

R. Nicht’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by R. Nicht (@Sediziose_Voci). R. is a reader who lives in the southern U.S.

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

Girogio Morandi, Still Life, 1960

William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face

This terse novel of brutal images and elegant concision, as forceful as a punch in the face, depicts the effects of personal and collective racial trauma in the life of an African American journalist who takes refuge from the corrosive racism of American life in the bohemian expat culture of Paris in the days of the Algerian conflict. Smith casts a disapproving eye on this celebrated cultural milieu, which fostered such talents as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis and whose creative ferment has been the subject of admiring studies by Tyler Stovall and others, depicting its members not as artistic mavericks but as an idle group of lotus-eaters who fritter their time away in futile creative projects and vaporous dreams of Pan-Africanism. Briefly tempted by the escape they offer from the crushing burdens and responsibilities of African American selfhood, the protagonist ultimately rejects it after befriending a group of Algerians and witnessing the events of the 1961 Paris Massacre, when French National Police violently attacked a pro-FLN demonstration, killing more than 100 protesters.

Paradoxically, the protagonist’s experience of cross-racial solidarity with another persecuted minority and his affair with a Holocaust survivor (perhaps the least convincing character in the book) propel him into a commitment to a harsh racial sectarianism at odds with the racial ecumenicism the novel seems to hold out as an alluring but ultimately unachievable dream. In another time, another place, perhaps, the author seems to suggest, such a vision of cross-racial struggle might be realizable, but in the exigent moment of armed conflict and brutal racial oppression the novel depicts, the only moral option for members of subaltern groups is dedication to their separate, geographically delimited battles: the Algerians to armed conflict against the French occupiers in Algeria, the narrator to a militant fight against racism in the U.S. It is a bleak vision, but one that Smith dramatizes with undeniable power.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

A swashbuckling classic that documents the CIA’s tentacular reach into multiple areas of cultural production in the West during the “hot” period of the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Charting the tortured ideological trajectory that left-leaning writers and intellectuals followed after they broke with communism in the late 1930s following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalinist show trials and became willing conscripts in a cultural struggle against the Soviet Union that relied as much on mendacity and ratfucking as the ruthless counteroffensive waged behind the Iron Curtain, Saunders’ book is an indictment not so much of the cultural crusade against Stalinism itself but of the brutal and reckless way it was waged. The hasty denazification of prominent cultural figures who would be “wins” for the West, the persecution of artists and writers with suspect communist pasts, the sidelining of dissenting voices unwilling to celebrate the new pax Americana, the sclerotic intellectual culture of the Cold War period that resulted—such things were neither necessary for victory nor inevitable, Saunders argues.

The book offers a useful intellectual genealogy of Cold War cultural liberalism, a force that still makes its presence felt—30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—in certain sectors of the American and British intelligentsia in the form of a disenchanted but loyal statism, a florid reverence for “democratic norms” and the elites who supposedly safeguard them, and a genteel form of literary and cultural criticism that floats free from all questions of political economy. Left-leaning intellectuals may have broken with the CIA and its anti-communist crusade during the Vietnam War, but the distinctive intellectual style they developed during the heady days of that alliance has had a long afterlife.  

Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

A worthy contribution to life writing about the Black Atlantic, this memoir breaks the conventions of the form to offer a sweeping account of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and the construction of racialized subjects that relies as heavily on archival evidence as it does on personal and familial memory. Roving from suburban London to Bristol and Kingston and back to Britain again, Carby’s narrative shows how both strands of her family—proletarianized Welsh farmers displaced from their lands and mixed-race Jamaicans who ended up on the wrong side of the line that divided “white” Carbys from “black” Carbys—were conscripted into the British Empire’s race-making project, some as slaves, some as working-class whites in Bristol who came to identify themselves as proud subjects and beneficiaries of empire even as it brutally extracted their labor.

The book is above all an eloquent elegy for Carby’s parents, a bookish, soft-spoken Jamaican and a white Englishwoman from a hardscrabble background whose lives were destroyed, Carby makes clear, when they crossed forbidden racial boundaries during a period of illusory wartime sexual freedom. That their half-caste daughter also paid a severe penalty for their transgression is made clear in Carby’s narrative of her own childhood, which was evidently so painful that she refers to herself in the book in the third person as “the girl,” and then only glancingly (she does not, however, spare the reader the details of her rape by a white neighbor). Imperial Intimacies concludes with a perfectly cadenced sentence of stinging irony that encapsulates the entire book and returns the reader to the beginning pages. [Ed. – Now of course I have to read this. Impressively effective, R.]

Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia

In this fiercely exuberant novel, Scego, an Italian of Somali descent, throws the doors and windows of Italian fiction wide open to admit silenced voices from Italy’s horrific colonial past in East Africa and Argentina’s Dirty War. The stories of trauma and loss they tell cross boundaries of continents and language to enrich and trouble Italy’s multiracial present, personified most vividly in the novel by the irrepressibly candid Zuhra, a daughter of the African diaspora in Italy who speaks Romanesco but yearns to learn Arabic and whose own psychic and physical maladies can be traced directly to the silences and omissions of her immigrant family’s tormented history and to her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. The novel’s recuperation of long-suppressed family stories is a work not simply of therapeutic healing but of regeneration—the attempt to build a living present out of the scattered fragments of the past and fashion a self in which memory and bodily health, pleasure and sexuality, are fully integrated. The novel has recently been translated into English by Aaron Robertson with the title Beyond Babylon.

Marta Barone, Città Sommersa

A daughter’s efforts to fill in the lacunae in the life of her recently deceased father, an enigmatic, secretive man who served a prison term for giving medical assistance to a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, broadens to become a forensic reconstruction of the Years of Lead (gli anni di piombo), a period of convulsive political violence on the right and the left in Italy and in Turin, the author’s home city, that has been explored in fiction and non-fiction alike by Nadia Terranova, Giovanni De Luna, and others but still remains imperfectly understood. De Luna has suggested that the very term “years of lead” has been used to erase the complexities of a decade that saw Autonomist labor militancy, peaceful protest, and violent attacks against jurists and journalists by members of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea, the last of which involved only a fraction of the many people who were caught up in the political ferment of the time. Offering a harrowing account of one man’s personal and political journey through those tumultuous years as well as a narrative of her own present-day reconnoitering of her father’s past, Barone brings light and a searching intelligence to an era whose intricacies and contradictions have been buried under that unilluminating epitaph.

What Barone seems less assured at providing is any real understanding of the impassioned commitments and ambitions of the political actors of those years, which are perhaps apt to seem outsized and extravagant (Vogliamo tutto!) to one brought up in a neoliberal era of technocratic governance and constricted horizons of political possibility. Yet it is the tension created by the irreducible distance between her own present and her father’s past—the sense that the past is, despite all her efforts to recover it, a foreign country, they do things differently there—that is part of the allure of Barone’s mysterious and elegiac book, which will appear in English under the title Sunken City this spring courtesy of Serpent’s Tail Press and translator Julia MacGibbon.      

Natalia Ginzburg, Tutti i Nostri Ieri

Sandra Petrignani, La Corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg

Having recently reread Ginzburg’s substantial 1952 novel, which deals with, among other topics, teenage sexuality, abortion, suicide, war, bombings, displacement, fascism, the Nazi invasion after the armistice, and the violent deaths of several key characters, I found it a bit disconcerting to hear one of the author’s English translators seemingly reinforce the view in a recent podcast that Ginzburg is a writer of slight domestic fictions, all short in length. It made me wonder if there is a sneaking tendency or perhaps marketing strategy to present women writing in languages other than English, particularly those published during the recent translation boom (with a few notable exceptions), as practitioners of exiguous and rarified rarefied fictional forms—peripheral, approachable, decidedly minor. [Ed. – Intriguing. I want to know what Rebecca Hussey thinks.]

There is certainly nothing small-scale about this panoramic work, the only novel in Ginzburg’s oeuvre written in the third person; if it lacks the technical finesse and playfulness with form of Family Lexicon, for which it is many ways the fictional antecedent, it makes up for these qualities in its scope, its variegated plot and settings, and dramatic power. At the center of the novel, which deals with the wartime experiences of two families in an industrial northern city much like Turin, one bourgeois, one “respectable” but down at the heels, stands the charismatic, rumbustious figure of Cenzo Rena, who seems a composite of Leone Ginzburg and several other heroic figures of Ginzburg’s Torinese youth. The only character in the book who has the inner resources to resist the deadening influence of fascism and rise to the moral challenges of the war, he is at the same time—and this is one of the book’s painful ironies—part of a transient, dying world, belonging to Italy’s past, who will not live to see the defeat of the Axis powers or the advent of the shattered postwar world that the surviving characters, among them Anna, the novel’s protagonist, gropingly confront in the concluding pages.

Sandra Petrignani’s La Corsara, a freeform biographical portrait of Ginzburg, offers a welcome corrective to the view of Ginzburg in the English-speaking world as a minor, grandmotherly author of piquant domestic fictions (one must of course guard against the tendency to see “domestic fiction” as a minor genre), presenting her as a major writer of prodigious output in multiple genres over several decades. The book is also a liberating example of literary biographical writing that departs from the two forms that have come to dominate the genre in the Anglophone world: the exhaustively documented doorstop biography by a literary scholar and the brief memoir by a family member or fellow writer that confines itself to small-scale portraiture and personal anecdote. Combining standard chronological exposition of biographical facts with interviews, personal reflections, memories of her own meetings with Ginzburg, and even a charming digression on her astrological chart, Petrignani creates a complex, vivid portrait that is no less authoritative for having violated in significant respects the conventions of contemporary literary biography. The English-language literary biography, a tradition that did not always adhere to the rigidities of present-day practice (think of Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, or De Quincey’s portraits of the Lake Poets), could benefit, it seems to me, from Petrignani’s example. Her book is currently being translated into English.

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing; translated by Anthea Bell

One of the principal questions that Kempowski’s astonishing novel seems to ask is just how much sympathy the reader can allow herself to feel for its characters, comfortable Germans of the landed upper-middle classes living in a shrinking enclave of calm in East Prussia during the last days of World War II as the Soviet Army moves towards them. How much will the reader’s reflexive tendency to identify and empathize with characters be tempered by her desire to judge them, to adjudicate what measure of blame they deserve for their relative comfort amidst the horrors of wartime and their silent complicity with Hitler’s regime, with Auschwitz and Treblinka and the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto not far to the south of them? Do the characters “earn” the terrible fate that befalls most of them at the novel’s conclusion? Kempowski’s master stroke in the novel seems to me to understand that negotiating these complex questions—writing about characters whom the reader at some level opposes from the outset—is as much a technical as it is a moral problem, a problem of style and technique, as it were.

The technical approach Kempowski chooses is a sequence of brief scenes—quick sketches, brief dashing episodes and asides—and a tone that is playfully ironic, interrogative, sly, detached, almost harmonium-like, with the fictional “camera” pulled back at a chilly distance to expose the characters’ foibles and weaknesses (Katharina’s idleness and indolence, the aging schoolmaster’s homoerotic reveries of long-ago hiking expeditions). Kempowski makes no effort to excuse or condemn his characters. He lets the reader see that Katharina’s decision to shelter a fugitive Jewish musician in her house for one night springs more from ennui than from sympathy or principle. The coarse working-class Nazi in the housing development across the road is a harried, put-upon figure with a sick wife, but Kempowski makes no overt efforts to humanize him. Seduced by the astringent lightness of the narration, a complicitous partner in the author’s drily ironic observation, the reader imagines that she can watch with a certain pleasurable detachment as the characters are overtaken by the terrible events that surely await them and that they may even in some way “deserve.”

And yet the operations of sympathy and identification with characters begin their stealthy work inside the reader once Katharina’s young son, a peripheral character until the book’s midpoint, takes a central role. For it turns out that All for Nothing is, at least obliquely, an autobiographical novel, a chronicle of Kempowski’s own horrific childhood experience of the same historical events the novel describes, and the reader cannot resist the pull of emotion that slowly accumulates around the character that is his fictional surrogate. Entangled by these skeins of feeling, the reader finds herself unexpectedly invested in his fate and, through it, in the fates of all those on whom the boy’s safety and life depend, particularly when the novel’s setting shifts from the family’s manor house to apocalyptic scenes of devastation and carnage. The novel’s playfully ironic tone, it turns out, has been a lure and a trap. Summoned to watch what had initially seemed an interwar comedy of manners, the reader finds herself at the novel’s conclusion a witness to a human calamity on an overpowering scale—a calamity to which she can properly respond only with those emotions that an authentic artistic experience of catharsis can arouse: pity and fear. This novel shook me; I read the last 50 or so pages seemingly with one held breath.

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Interim; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This ribald, lacerating exploration of the psychological and territorial scissions of postwar Europe, which I read in Isabel Fargo Cole’s marvelously assured translation, seems to me the real deal: a major European novel of wild, idiosyncratic ambition that merits comparison with the works of Bernhard and Sebald. I would follow its wastrel writer protagonist—priapic one moment, impotent the next, a narcissist, a drunk, a philanderer, a genius, a failure, at home neither in the catastrophically failed “actually existing socialism” of the GDR nor in the vapid consumer society of the FRG—anywhere. Hilbig is a magisterial commander of both interior and exterior space, expertly guiding his narrative through multiple excursuses with the same efficiency as the trains that conduct the protagonist across the border to West Germany and back to the East, taking us through horrific flame-lit industrial landscapes and scenes of domestic squalor and in and out of nightmares and states of inner torment with equal ease. He does it all with grace and a perfectly tuned sense of fictional pacing: the restless narrative never stalls out in rhetorical excess even during the most lurid passages, and the reader somehow keeps her bearings through multiple flashbacks and digressions. The plot, such as it is, follows the wanderings and tergiversations of an East German writer in the throes of a full-blown artistic and sexual crisis, exacerbated by abject alcoholism, while overstaying his visa to West Germany. As the reader comes to understand, the narrator’s restless transits from East to West and his circuitous inner journeys of memory and imagination trace and retrace the contours of a European map set in place by a century of devastating war, partition, displacement, drawn and redrawn national boundaries, and genocide.  

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker

Fulbrook’s book was a useful companion during my reading of Hilbig. Departing from the “Stasicentric” (as Paul Betts has called it) totalitarian model of GDR scholarship, this revisionist social history of East Germany doesn’t excuse the regime’s many calamitous failures, but neither does it engage in pointless sermonizing. Rather, it attempts to explore the paradox that while East German society was undoubtedly repressive in the extreme (the GDR’s citizens were quite literally caged, subject to surveillance and numerous intrusions on their personal liberty), many former citizens recall living “perfectly ordinary lives” there, a sentiment that can’t be chalked up to simple Ostalgie or to a kind of false consciousness in reverse. Combing through archival evidence and interview transcripts, Fulbrook looks at women’s rights, labor, childcare, recreation and leisure, and other facets of life in East Germany and concludes that the GDR was not a monolithic tyranny in which citizens cowered, silent and passive, under despotic rule, but an evolving, changing, albeit extraordinarily repressive society in which ordinary people shaped the culture around them as much as they were shaped by it. What Fulbrook makes clear is that it was Honecker’s decision to attempt the beat the West on its own terms through a “consumer socialist” model that ultimately led to East Germany’s demise. Plausible perhaps in the early 1970s, when East Germany might be said to have been at its zenith, the regime’s aspiration to provide material plenty for its people in any way comparable to that enjoyed in the West became less and less viable in the 1980s, when shortages of food and other basic supplies, together with increasing repression by state security services and ongoing environmental collapse, sounded the death knell for the GDR.   

Alighiero Boëtti, Non parto non resto, ca. 1979

Other Favorites:

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland

Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

Herman Melville, Redburn

Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions [Ed. — Fascinating book.]

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scritti Corsari

Edward Said, Music at the Limits

Ivan Kenneally’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Ivan Kenneally (@IvanKeneally). Ivan is a writer who lives in California. He taught philosophy for many years at several universities, and his articles have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Open Letters Monthly, and The New Atlantis.

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

Alberto Giacometti, Five Heads of Men, One Face and One Woman Face on, One Woman in Profile, 1965

The first time I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, I was a high school senior encountering a memoir of a concentration-camp survivor for the first time; I lacked the context, historical and literary, to appreciate the uncommon power of the work, its peculiar alloy of moral indictment and scientific objectivity. I had that experience so common in adolescence—I was profoundly affected, but unable to adequately articulate the sources of my response, an untidy tangle of excitement and distemper.

This year I couldn’t resist the enthusiastic endorsement issued by Tina (@theesteemedfox) of Levi’s sequel to his remembrance of Auschwitz, The Truce—Tina is an infinitely cheerful advocate of infinitely sepulcher literature. [Ed. – And thank God for that!] I saw this as an opportunity to revisit If This is a Man, and after finishing both books I was so besotted by Levi’s writing, I ordered an edition of his complete works in English, a mammoth collection, three thousand words delivered in three hefty volumes, published by Liveright in 2015. [Ed. – Appreciate you giving the correct/accurate titles: American readers might know them as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, respectively.]

Before finally pausing, I read the two memoirs in quick succession, and then The Periodic Table, The Monkey’s Wrench, Other People’s Trades, If Not Now, When?, The Drowned and the Saved, and Natural Histories. I was immersed in Levi’s work for the better part of two months, simultaneously invigorated by his indefatigable clarity and exhausted by his increasingly disheartened worldview. [Ed. – It’s true. He was so depressed, angry, and suffering at the end of his life.] Two uncharacteristic works served as reprieves of a sort—Other People’s Trades is a collection of newspaper articles that peripatetically meander from discussions of butterflies to Italian etymology: it displays both the range of Levi’s intellectual curiosity and his inclination toward an exacting pedantry. [Ed. – Interesting. And well put.] In Natural Histories one finds a series of sci-fi short stories at least partly inspired Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics—for a time, Calvino was Levi’s editor. Both books are a departure from Levi’s more familiar work not only for the subject matter, but also the tenor of the prose—absent is his signature moral urgency, the tensile cord of fury and descriptive restraint that typifies the memoirs.

The last book Levi ever wrote is a collection of essays, The Drowned and the Saved, a return to the subject of the Holocaust. It is the angriest of his works, the one in which his livid indignation comes closest to overwhelming his heroic attempts at philosophical discipline. One can see this especially in the last essay, “Letters from Germans,” a reflection on the correspondence he received from German readers after If This is a Man was translated into their language. One epistle from a doctor from Hamburg infuriated Levi—it featured a rehearsal of increasingly familiar exculpations focusing on how little the Germans understood of Hitler’s mad depravity. Levi’s response is as devastating as it is “irate,” as he called it, but one detects no sense of triumphalism in it, no smirk of victory. The doctor’s arguments were defeated, but not the general attitude Levi believed they represented, an inclination to erase a morbid history through mealy-mouthed self-acquittal.

In The Periodic Table, Levi tells another story of a German doctor incapable of countenancing his own guilt—this time one he had first encountered while at Auschwitz working in a laboratory. In 1967, Levi stumbled upon the man’s name again in the course of his work as a chemist at an industrial paint-manufacturing plant: Dr. Muller, once the manager of slave labor at Auschwitz, now returned decades later to the responsibilities of quotidian life. Levi sends him a letter and a copy of If This is a Man, and in return receives yet another manifesto of blinkered self-absolution. He writes a rejoinder, but before he can send it he discovers Dr. Muller has suddenly died. Here, Levi recounts a portion of the letter he never sent, which can be counted as a precis of his understanding of German guilt:

As to the specific judgment on his behavior, which Muller implicitly asked of me, I tactfully cited two cases known to me of his German colleagues who in their actions toward us had done something much more courageous than what he claimed to have done. I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world, the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.

Levi’s one and only conventionally structured novel—If Not Now, When?—is a literary elaboration of this declaration; a band of Jewish partisans in Russia, armed and brimful of vengeance, roam the countryside in search of opportunities to sabotage German forces. Levi had no penchant for violence—he makes this clear in an essay on Jean Amery in The Drowned and the Saved. “I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or blows.” However, he didn’t aggrandize his personal distaste into a universal prohibition—he believed that after Auschwitz, physical vulnerability could no longer be suffered.

Levi killed himself shortly after writing The Drowned and the Saved, joining a grim club of writers who survived the Holocaust only to die at their own hand, a membership which includes Paul Celan, Jean Améry, and Tadeusz Borowski. [Ed. – Well, it’s complicated. In Levi’s case—though the evidence suggests similar ambiguity about Borowski’s death—it’s unclear if it was suicide or accident.] Like Améry, he despaired of the possibility that as the generation of witnesses perished so would the vivid memory and meaning of their torment; Amery believed that in some nontrivial sense this would constitute the final vindication of the Nazi guards who taunted him with the reminder that the stories of the victims would never be told. Levi might be obliquely referencing this possibility in The Monkey’s Wrench when discussing the art of listening to stories:

In fact, just as there is an art of story-telling, strictly codified through a thousand trials and errors, so there is an art of listening, equally ancient and noble, but as far as I know, it has never been given any norm.

Levi experimented with a broad spectrum of writing forms, but his life’s work was bearing witness to what he considered a historically unique catastrophe. However, one cannot bear witness without a receptive audience, and he worried that the same will to oblivion that made Auschwitz possible would make equally possible the evaporation of its memory, rending his work futile. Levi’s exasperation at this prospect crackles thoughout The Drowned and the Saved, which Cynthia Ozick considered a suicide note. “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” [Ed. – Ozick’s is a compelling formulation, though I bristle at its retrospection. Had Levi found a medication that worked for him, for example, (admittedly difficult at the time) he might have lived to write many other works.]

The Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész didn’t share this particular anxiety of Levi, a point he makes in The Holocaust as Culture, a book that collects a lecture he delivered of the same name with a lengthy interview, published by Seagull Books: “Auschwitz casts a long shadow over European civilization and is still the vital question of our culture.” Moreover, he believes a full reckoning of the Holocaust transcends the question of German guilt:

But this is not something peculiar to German history. We speak of collective guilt, the collective guilt of the German nation. But Auschwitz is the collective crime of the entire world, not just of the German nation. If we think of the Holocaust as a war between Germans and Jews then we will never understand it. [Ed. – True.]

Levi sometimes expresses hope in the rational lucidity of science, and the possibility that the scientific extension of human knowledge can redound to the moral and cultural improvement of mankind. In fact, he refuses to brook any polarity between science and the humanities. As he puts it in Other People’s Trades: “I have frequently set foot on bridges that join (or ought to join) scientific culture with literary culture, crossing a crevasse that has always struck me as absurd.” In the same book, he conveys an idealism so unbounded it inspires credulity: “I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is enough to absolve this end of the century and the millennium.”

Cartography 1976 Antoni Tapies 1923-2012 Purchased 1981 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P07571

By contrast, Kertész places his own hopes in the birth of a new literary culture that can potentially shake the Western world out of a decadent slumber:

If preserved, the tragic insight into the world of the morality that survived the Holocaust may yet enrich European consciousness, now best with crisis, much as the Greek genius, faced with barbarism and fighting the Persian War, created the antique tragedies that serve as an eternal model. If the Holocaust today has created a culture, and it undeniably has and continues to do, its literature may draw inspiration from the two sources of European culture, the Bible and Greek tragedy, so that irredeemable reality may give rise to redemption: the spirit, catharsis.

I think Levi was attempting to contribute to something like this, though in his version the result would be a matrimony of literature and science, a rational elucidation of the soul. One despairs to think he lost faith in his work, which would seem to entail losing faith in the world. I couldn’t help thinking of Levi when I read the last line of Kertész’s lecture:

As I said in the beginning, we live in the context of a culture, and in this context the dead body of Jean Améry is to be found in the monument—still under construction—to the Holocaust, where he himself laid it down, like a blood-soaked flower.

Anne Cohen’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.

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

Vanessa Bell, In the Other Room (late 1930s)

Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose. 

Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification.  “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.

(You still should read it.)

Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).

The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter. 

This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.)  I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.

Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.  I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances FlavellDaisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.

Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)

Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.   

Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.

Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.

Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]

Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.

“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight. 

What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]

My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time. 

A year for letters: Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.

Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.  

But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.

The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]

Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.

Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.  

Vanessa Bell, Composition, ca. 1914

Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword. 

I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.  

Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list. 

What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]  

Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good. 

Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend. 

The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep.  Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.

Liz McCausland’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Liz McCausland (@Liz_Mc2). Liz is an American living in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches college English, reads, herds cats, and ponders what’s next in her life.

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

Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin, 2001

In the fall of 2020, my marriage of 25 years ended—an event that for me was both unexpected and unwelcome. Slowly and with a lot of hard work, my grief and depression are lifting. But they’ve continued to impact my reading. Self-help. Memoirs about mental illness, therapy, divorce, and reinventing yourself. Many backlist mystery audiobooks from the library. [Ed. — What, no names?] And many, many books returned to the library unfinished or unopened because I didn’t have attention to give them. When Dorian asked me if I wanted to write a Year in Reading post for him, my first thought was “I‘ve forgotten most of what I read this year, and I certainly don’t have anything interesting to say about it.”

But then I remembered that one of the silver linings of this hard time has been my rediscovery of the joy to be found in reading with others: engaging in intense and wide-ranging discussion of texts to which everyone brings different experience and perspectives; having the sensation of minds meeting as steel meets flint, a spark of illumination blooming from the contact.

The first place I found this, unexpectedly, was a Bible Study group. That might not be true in every context, but we’re Anglicans and reason is one leg of our stool. I gained a lot of personal insights, but perhaps I’m most grateful for the feeling that my brain can still work after all. Do we need a book recommendation from this? I’ve always thought you could do worse on a desert island than the Bible, believer or not—it’s a big fat book with a little of everything in it.

The second was a long-running reading group I rejoined this summer after a decade or so away. The core members have been together since they read Foucault together as grad students in the 80s. Now they’re mostly retired college English instructors. They read widely and their discussions are vigorous. To keep up I’ve had to read with more focus than I’d mustered in some time. My favorite meeting so far involved lounging in a shady backyard on a hot July afternoon, nibbling potluck goodies and discussing Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday. My first Hazzard, but not my last! This month, sadly, we’ll be back on Zoom, but I’m looking forward to diving into Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. (Another first for me).

My third great experience reading with others was with students. I teach English at a community college, and because I increased my workload this fall I’ve been teaching literature (rather than just academic writing) for the first time in several years. I’d forgotten how fun reading with students can be. A classroom is a space full of flints and steels that strike sparks from each other. A space full of surprise insights. It’s not just that students interpret the readings in ways I didn’t anticipate, but that I surprise myself: as I bounce off their observations, or just ramble on, I find interpretations forming in the moment the words expressing them come out of my mouth, as if someone wiser than me were speaking through me. [Ed. – All true, so true!]

This year, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction sections designated for our Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies program, on the theme of gender and violence (and hell yes, at some points of the semester I regretted settling on such a dark theme). Here are two of my favorite surprises from Fall:

I chose Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” because it seemed to fit the theme. I’d never read DeLillo before, thinking of him as writing “boy books” I wouldn’t enjoy (I imagine you thinking “who let her teach gender studies?”). I just skimmed it before choosing it, being, rather behind schedule at that point (“who let her teach anything?”). [Ed. – I’m so relieved to learn I’m not the only one who does this!] In the story, an unnamed man and woman meet at an exhibition of paintings showing Baader-Meinhof gang members dead in their prison cells. The man manipulates the woman into taking him back to her apartment, where, when he can’t manipulate her into sex, he masturbates on her bed while she cowers in the bathroom. [Ed. – Well, that is just about the least appealing scenario possible…]

As I started reading the story in preparation for class, I wondered if the paintings it describes are real. They are. The basic plot was familiar to students: “Oh, he’s gaslighting her.” Something similar has happened to some of them or to someone they know. But the “real life” art exhibition setting led us to new questions about this familiar scene. Richter’s paintings are based on photographs that would have been easily recognizable to Germans, but he destabilizes that familiarity, blurring the images and sometimes painting multiple versions, each slightly different. Is this, I asked my students, part of why someone would write fiction about gender violence (or about anything, come to that)? To make us look anew at something we think we understand? “Is gender violence a form of terrorism?” we wondered. At first that seemed extreme, but then we considered the ways that women’s lives are shaped by fear of it, and how we live in a culture that has largely accepted this fact as just something we have to put up with. And what’s up with the idea of forgiveness in this story? I still don’t know what I think about that, and I’m looking forward to discussing it again and seeing if we get further.

I’m currently listening to Believing, Anita Hill’s new book on gender violence, because a review I read made me think of DeLillo’s story and the questions it raises. And the best surprise was how much I enjoyed this story. I still suspect that on the whole, DeLillo isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m going to read more before I make up my mind about that.

Candida Höfer, German Library, Leipzig VI, 1997

And then there was Katharena Vermette’s novel The Break. I wrote a review for Event, so I went into teaching it thinking “I get this.” But it unfolded new riches as we read it slowly over a couple of weeks. The more we talked about it, the more there was to say. At the center of The Break is a violent sexual assault against Emily, an Indigenous teen. The novel works as a page-turning crime story in which a young Métis police officer and his racist partner try to identify the assailant. But in tension with the forward momentum of that narrative are the stories of Emily’s extended family, mostly female, and the sexual violence they have endured. To support Emily in her healing, they have to confront their own pasts and the lingering effects of trauma.

The Break has ten narrators, and to help us keep track of who was saying what, I listed the narrators of each day’s sections on the board. Once I did, we began to see patterns in their order. Emily, for instance, has a section early on, and another at the end. For most of the novel, she is silenced by trauma, and only when she can narrate the assault does she start to heal. That’s also the first time readers see its details—this is a novel that refuses to indulge a prurient interest in them, showing us only glimpses and fragments we have to piece together.

Partway through our reading, I listened to a podcast episode on the ethics of enjoying true crime, and that fed into our discussion of how we should consume stories like Vermette’s. The Break offers us two characters as reader stand-ins: there’s Tommy, the cop, who feels a “strange excitement” as he makes headway on the puzzle of the crime. But he risks pushing Emily to tell her story before she’s ready, ignoring her trauma. There’s also Stella, who witnesses the crime and who insists in the face of police skepticism that what she saw was a rape. Stella has her own experience of trauma, and her concern for the victim might be a more ethical response than Tommy’s excitement. But that trauma paralyzes Stella when she witnesses the assault, keeping her from going out to help. Perhaps we also need Tommy’s push for answers to keep the story from being stuck in pain and trauma.

We don’t discover who the assailant is until Vermette has made us feel empathy and understanding for that character. That person’s story left us wondering whether the justice system is at all up to the task of doing justice in these circumstances. What would true justice to all parties look like?  Students enriched our discussions of these questions by bringing to it ideas from courses in psychology, criminology, and legal studies.

I loved and admired The Break even more after teaching it than before—an outcome which is by no means guaranteed. I understand Dorian is teaching it this semester, and I look forward to hearing what he and his students, in a different place and bringing different experiences, bring to it. [Ed. – I am, and I’m even more excited now than I was before: I’ll be pilfering these insights shamelessly.]

Alina Stefanescu’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Alina Stefanescu (@aliner). Alina was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.

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

Diane Arbus, Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965

Forget the books I reviewed for literary journals…

I’d prefer to talk about The Others—to dwell on the fact that I lost my Barbara-Comyns-virginity this year, thanks to Richard Mirabella and Kyle Winkler. I wound up in a zoom room which led to a rabbit hole—and, after climbing back into the regular world, my head included a bookshelf full of Comyns, starting with her first novel, Sisters by a River, which Emily Gould introduced as “a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood” created to entertain and amuse her own kids while living in London and “working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.”

Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, continues to mine her life, carrying the reader through adulthood, which is to say: a series of ordinary remarkable things, including childbirth, child loss, marital drudgery, peak misogyny, and pets (from newts to foxes). Then I devoured her haunting, impeccably grotesque novel, The Vet’s Daughter. According to the 1981 Virago edition, Barbara Comyns “dreamt the idea” for this novelwhile honeymooning “in a Welsh cottage lent to her and her new husband by the Soviet agent Kim Philby in 1945.”

It was delicious. I regret nothing.

Nor do I regret the acrobatic harrow of Jennifer Fliss’s The Predatory Animal Ball; flash fiction in Fliss’s hands feels simultaneously epic and dioramic. These creature stories stayed in my head—fantastic. Also compelling for its compressive impact: Men You Don’t Know You Know by Chase Burke, a book of short fiction about masculinity. I found something gutting in Burke’s deployment of segmented narrative strategies and trivia questions to undo gender, or probe its least secure spaces.

Because catastrophe attracts me, I re-read Diane Williams’ The Collected Short Stories of Diane Williams and talked to myself about her use of interior monologue. Few writers have permission to write such irreverent viciousness about men and romantic relationships. Magda Carneci’s FEM (translated by Sean Cotter) came close, though—in a different way, in a sort of neo-confessional efflorescence that indicts masculinity from the space of the intimate whisper. Mining a vein that reminds me of Hélène Cixous, Carneci’s novel engages the social construction of femininity in first-person. It opens interesting discussions about the distance between the dominant American feminism and feminisms nurtured in different soils and continents. Claudia Sadowski-Smith’s The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States brought new perspectives on marriage, social relations, and the market for brides to a topic that continues to interest me, namely, the construction of transnational identities.

Like many pandemiacs, epistolary-fever ruined what remained of my life. The hunger for correspondence met my affinity for ghosts and queer cherubim in Letters Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, introduced by Susan Sontag. And then, after picking up my invisible shovel and digging around the names associated with the letters, I fell a little bit in love with Boris Pasternak’s sonorous memoir, Safe Travels, where I discovered Pasternak’s childhood dream of being a Scriabin, or being someone his father adored as much as he adored Scriabin. I suspect we all want to be loved a little too much—and then promptly forgiven for it.

I forgave Pasternak, but the last-page blues—that narrowing dread which signals the finitude of a book’s world, the cessation of a voyage, the reentry into everyday life—hit me hard upon finishing Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, in Sasha Dugsdale’s lyrical, lush translation. [Ed. – “Last-page blues”: gonna steal that one.] One of my favorite books this year, and a model for how to write the untouchable past while touching every single porcelain cat in the off-limits cabinet.

Thanks to #APSTogether, I read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse), and enjoyed both the reading and the ride. The world of Machado de Assis opened wide with The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (translated by Flora Thomson DeVeaux). There is something fantastic in de Assis’s use of hindsight to undermine respectability and status—something surreal in the aspirational, posthumous voice. And the reader is prepared for it with “The Delirium,” the long, hallucinated description of riding atop the back of a swift hippopotamus, the juxtaposition of absurdity with respect, an opening into that wicked improbable. Cubas says no one else has narrated their own delusion before; certainly, no one has ever narrated the delusional as convincingly and seductively as Machado de Assis.

Cubas is looking for a way to realize a sublime idea that hopped into his head while walking—namely, the invention of “an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity.” In this, our narrator resembles others looking for theories that will make them rich and famous. It feels prescient for theory to be commodified as a sort of entrepreneurship-vessel for the chattering classes, an economic opportunity for leisured libidinals. One can’t help but notice a resemblance between Cubas’s aspirations and the contemporary economic muscle of self-help industry experts. We have it all, from Emily Oster’s “evidence-based, statistical parenting” (parenting by the numbers according to capitalist constructions of humanity) to the lean-in feminisms of Sheryl Sandberg and straight to the plaster face masks of the Insta-influencer scientists—to be so rich in plaster solutions and yet disoriented, miserable, and clueless. This is the American dream as it plays out in the bourgeoisie classes.

The posthumous narrative pleasures continued with Silvina Ocampo’s genre-bender, The Promise, translated by Jill Levine, a metaphysical narrative that started as her first book—and wound up being published as her last. Ocampo’s surreal, fragmented, atemporal exploration of hindsight and promises stayed glued to the underside of my eyelids. Alas, I could not wake up without writing a series of poems in response—which turned into a chapbook—which I am burying for lack of time. [Ed. – Tease! Where is your Max Brod?]

A fascination with Decadent writers and artists led me into many brocaded tunnels this year, including Haldane McFall’s Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work, an old book shot through with fireworks of crackly syntax and necro-romanticism. Idyllic for those who need a new temporality, a “twelvemonth” in which to exist.

Beatrice Bracher’s Antonio (translated by Adam Morris) uses disembodied narration to probe family skeletons and narratives—the price of telling and not telling.

My addiction to Sublunary Press objects continued, and it was exciting to hear Chris Clarke describe the experience of translating Éric Chevillard’s The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster during an online book launch. I also found Chevillard’s website, which is a sort of ongoing paratext in French—and I translated a little bit for myself so that I could cheer when the author reported getting his covid vaccine—”Still, no adverse effects from the vaccine. I have rarely even felt so happy.”

Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (translated by Soje) made me think about time-signatures in prose narrative—as well as apocalypse. First published in Korea in 2017, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the novel alternates between the lives and decisions of characters fleeing an unnamed virus. This is fine vs. is this fine—Jin-Young repeatedly lays the ethical questions of the disaster over small, personal choices in the characters’ lives. The time-signature is unforgettable. As is the book.

Diane Arbus, Man in Hat, Trunks, Socks and Shoes, Coney Island, N. Y. 1960

Where to begin among the 112 poetry books I read this year? [Ed. – Exqueeze me?] Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets & Elegies (translated by Richard Sieburth) enchanted me with antiquated forms, including the poetic blazon. [Ed. — *takes notes *] But I also wondered how, and in what form, Labé actually existed. [Ed. — ?] Karen Lessing’s “preface” to this book is tremendous. Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume (also translated by Sieburth) felt fresh and modern—it’s difficult not to imagine one’s own Plume as a writer-self, or to imagine the secret Plumes of others. Following my OBERIU fascination from last year, I wandered into the fabulous esoterica of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich), and the forms that silence begets in poetry. Some silences are more ornate than others, and it was also instructive in revealing how Symbolism changed and evolved in Russia.

The Jenny Erpenback obsession—this I blame on David Naimon’s incredible podcast, which led me to every Erpenbeck ever published, including The Book of Words, which many dislike, but which I valued for how it engages family secrets. For the daughter, the secret changes the world in which one can exist, and it changes the self as known by the world. Sometimes we want answers, but other times we just want the world to continue in a way that allows us to have parents. The complexity of this book spoke to many migrant stories somehow, and it continues to derange me.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief was published in 2000; I ran across it when searching, oddly, for books on melancholy of the left. Cheng argues that racial grief is not just the result of racism, but also the foundation for racial identity—and the book forms a fascinating contrapuntal subject in current discussions about diaspora, race, clinical language, and trauma. And Robert Musil’s Notebookseverywhere in my head and essays and writing this year. O, Jenny Croft and Phillip Boehm—two translators I follow closely, everything they translate—I find and devour. Other writes I read obsessively include Marguerite Yourcenar…. nevermind, nevermind. I just realized that I need to send this book list to you immediately, there is no time for me to talk about all the books I loved and read in 2021—just as there has never been enough time for me to talk about all the books I read and love. This is the curse of bibliomania. I think INXS wrote a song about it. [Ed. – This one? Or this one? Oh, you mean this one.] My lament continues.

Bryce Sears’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Bryce Sears (@BryceSears5). Bryce, one of the nicest people on Book Twitter (which is saying something), is an avid reader and writer who lives in Oakland.

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

Paul Signac, Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin. Opus 211, 1890

I kept up in 2021 a trend toward escapism in my reading. I’ve been on this kick about five years – a habit of reading a lot more fiction and a lot less non-fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of history; the one piece of non-fiction I read last year was a travelogue – Kapka Kassabova’s Border. It was terrific, to my thinking, as you can see below. [Ed. – Straight up honest to God terrific, Bryce; it’s not just you!] Later, reading a few pages of its follow-up, To the Lake, I found it all a bit depressing, thinking about facts and history. It was this thing I’m dealing with. My view, I guess, is that the world is on fire. In a dozen different ways at least. So I’m voting to put it out. I’m volunteering and protesting. [Ed. – I admire you!] But also, for the sake of my own mental health, I might need more breaks from thinking about our predicament.      

Such a cheery opening! The other thing helping with my mental health is my homelife. Two years ago my wife and I bought a house in Oakland. So, we’re doing a lot of work digging up strange things in our back yard, etc. [Ed. – Uh, how strange? Like dead body strange???] We have a three-year-old son who is delightful. His interest in books has really taken off. I spend a lot of time reading with him when I’m not writing or reading books for myself.  

The Vet’s Daughter, and some other works by Barbara Comyns

Barbara Comyns is the writer I was most thrilled to discover this year. I was surprised. I tend to like best stories about people (to paraphrase Diane Williams in her recent interview with Merve Emre) dealing with the life we’re all stuck in. For a long time now, I haven’t tended to go in much for stories with magical or supernatural elements. If this sounds like you, too, don’t let it keep you from Comyns. Somehow, the supernatural in her stories isn’t startling (or at least I don’t find it so). It might be her prose, which is both cool and somehow scintillating. It might be the way she links the supernatural elements in her stories to the mental health of her protagonists. In The Vet’s Daughter, my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read, the supernatural in the story appears (at least as I read it) to come as a reaction the protagonist is having to a pervasive threat of violence. Which is to say it feels like a state of shock. It adds something to our sense of what the protagonist is feeling.

Or it could be my tastes are changing.

In any case, in addition to The Vet’s Daughter, the other books I read by Comyns this year are The Juniper Tree, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. They’re all quite different from one another. I liked The Juniper Tree best, but ask me again tomorrow. Saying I like this Comyns better than this other Comyns is almost no better than saying ‘I prefer apples to oranges’.       

The Remains of the Day, and some other works by Kazuo Ishiguro

I’m not sure when I would have read Ishiguro if not for Book Twitter. Somehow, years ago, I got it into my head that I’d find his work cinematic in some off-putting way. The Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson adaptation of The Remains of the Day was so famous. Before I got around to reading that one an adaptation of Never Let Me Go came out, and it also got a big hoopla. I got the sense Ishiguro’s work must be reductive, somehow. Well, as I’m sure everyone else knew, it isn’t. The books behind these two movies are so very much better than the movies. I should have had more faith in literature.  

My first Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, was likely the first book I finished in 2021, going by my Twitter history. And what a revelation it was. Later in the year I read An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go. Now I have five additional, as yet unread, Ishiguros in a stack on the shelves next to me. They make me feel rich.   

Happening, and some other works by Annie Ernaux

I was a bit obsessed with Annie Ernaux in 2021. I read Happening, A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and I Remain in Darkness (all translated by Tanya Leslie). I read The Possession (tr. Anna Moschovakis). Over a period of months I reread Happening, A Girl’s Story (tr. Alison L. Strayer), and Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). These are all short, auto-fictional stories that feel like memoirs.       

The confessional quality of these books is one thing that draws me to them. Another is the skepticism Ernaux displays in her writing. She tries to make clear, as she writes about events in her past, how little she knows of the women she used to be, how false it would be to pretend to walk in the shoes of these younger selves. [Ed. – Nicely put!] She goes out of her way to avoid exaggeration. And I find this humility so refreshing.    

One last word on Ernaux. My favorite work of hers is Happening. It is quite harrowing – the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when she was 23 and abortion hadn’t yet been decriminalized in France. If I could I’d have everyone in the US read this book. It strikes me we could do worse here, where many women will likely face choices soon like the ones Ernaux faced, than encourage people to understand what it was like for this particular woman – a white woman, highly educated, in 1960s France. I’m not a teacher, but I think it’d make a nice class discussion, a group of close readers considering how the situation might vary in the US for people of color, for people with less access to information of the sort Ernaux had, etc.

Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry

West Texas, where I grew up, is the part of Texas where all the worst Texas clichés come to life. The whitest, most reactionary part. I always wanted out of it. I might have become a reader in part to avoid it. Which is all by way of an excuse for not having read a western before last year. Still, I picked a great book to begin with.  

Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read in 2021. It’s a big, twisty story, rich with joyful writing (I mean, it is often dark, but you can tell McMurtry enjoyed writing it). It struck me as escapist in the plainest sense of the word – it took me to a very different world from my own. The jokes worked for me. Consider the wry twist of this line that comes when Gus, the protagonist (I think, it could be Call), gives a junior partner money for a prostitute, then reminisces (in free indirect): “Best to help boys have their moment of fun, before life’s torments snatched them away.” Or this line, Gus again (he gets a lot of the best jokes), talking to Call, claiming he indulges in remorse for his mistakes so often that the pain on each indulgence isn’t “much worse than a dry shave.” Or these lines, near the climax of the story, when another character (called Pea Eye – his name is its own joke), is on the run: “His feet were swollen to twice their size, besides being cut here and there. Yet they were the only feet he had, and after dozing for an hour in the sun, he got up and hobbled on.” You can see McMurtry building out his characters with these jokes. You can see him building the world they live in, which he leans into the hardness of. One character lives with a leaky gunshot wound in his stomach. The book begins with two pigs “having a fine tug-of-war” with a rattlesnake they’ve found.

Slowly, drawn along by the humor and descriptive power of the writing, I think most readers of Lonesome Dove will find themselves hooked by its story. I did. It can worry me sometimes, the feeling I’ve been hooked. I’ve read a lot of bad writing in books after finding myself interested in a story (the writing was often bad in the beginning of these books, when I wasn’t hooked and should have given them up). Here, reading Lonesome Dove, I found myself wanting to know what would happen when the big cattle drive got underway. What would happen with Gus, who had seemed to have a pretty empty life in Lonesome Dove. I wanted to know if Newt would find out about his parentage. If Laurie would make it to San Francisco. It worried me, the sense I was getting hooked, letting my guard down. But I don’t think it should have. I read Lonesome Dove last summer. Time has passed, and now I’m flipping through it again. And already want to reread it. 

Other writers I enjoyed in 2021

Anita Brookner tops the list of writers I discovered last year, and loved, but am still just getting to know. I read Look at Me, Hotel du Lac, and Latecomers. They’re all terrific. [Ed. — “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.”]

Another writer I greatly enjoyed reading is Tove Jansson. I read The True Deceiver last year and The Summer Book the year before (I think). I’d really like to read Fair Play soon and her stories (and maybe the Moomin stories, too).

I reread Beckett’s Molloy last year. I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Thinking of these books gave me pause in saying Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read last year. I was locked into both from the start.     

I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three-part memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, which is devastating. I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, my first Tokarczuk. And now I want to read everything she has written, or will write.

I read, as mentioned above, Kapka Kassabova’s Border last year. It is so good. I think I sold it short above calling it a travelogue. Border strikes me as meditative work. Its use of language is gorgeous. Dorian recommended this one, and I read it as a group read with Kim McNeill, Catherine Eaton, and Naguib Mechawar. I benefited greatly from their thoughts on it. The next Kassabova I’d like to read is To the Lake: a Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Just need to find the nerve. [Ed. – It’s worth it!]

I read Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the first time last year, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Both are phenomenal. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is so good, and I wanted live forever in the strange mysteries of The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), by Christina Rivera Garza.   

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

I could go on – I haven’t mentioned Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, or Cynan Jones’s The Dig, or Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins,  …, or … or …. But I have to make myself quit.

I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Thanks for reading.

Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading, her second, is by Hope Coulter(@hopester99), whom I’m lucky to call a colleague. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

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

Alex Colville, Dog in Car, 1999

I tend to read erratically, not methodically, and my favorite books of a given year are always an eclectic list. For 2021 this was more the case than usual. I’m at a loss to discern any overall theme, what my college professors would call an organizing principle, in my reading life of the past twelve months. I seemed to bounce between serious works that might help me make sense of the grim circumstances overtaking the globe and marvelous, much-needed diversions from the same.

In nonfiction, one stand-out read was Barack Obama’s Promised Land. America’s 44th President is simply a terrific writer, with an ear for the rhythms of language and an eye for telling detail. This memoir tacks back and forth between two main narrative lines, one a chronicle of the administration’s initiatives and setbacks and the other—thankfully—the more personal side of life in the White House. The latter sections, relating everything from travel and cultural thrills to trying to find some kind of normalcy as the First Family, were merciful oases after long slogs through the housing crisis, the auto bailout, and never-ending Congressional acrimony, which kindled angst that not even Obama’s elegant telling could dispel. This book doesn’t touch the greatness of his earlier memoir, Dreams from my Father. Still, it wowed me, and I flagged many passages about race and democracy as keepers.

Slight but strong, and thoroughly entertaining, was The Actor’s Life: A Survival Guide by Jenna Fischer (aka Pam from the U.S. version of The Office). It’s fresh, unaffected, and utterly absorbing—fun reading not just for aspiring actors or anyone interested in an inside view of Hollywood, but for creative artists of any type who have to cope with rejection, ignominy, and professional jealousy. Along with a frank account of her own loopy path to success and some behind-the-scenes stories from The Office, Fischer gives practical tips on how to persevere.

In the surprising-oldie category of nonfiction, I stumbled upon Isabella Bird’s A Lady’s Life in the Rocky Mountains, an Englishwoman’s account of her 1873 travels through the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. What a woman! What adventures! Bird was tough as nails, a skilled equestrian who dismissed injury, privation, and subfreezing conditions with less complaint than most of us bestow on two seconds’ delay in our Netflix buffering. [Ed. – But it’s so fucking irritating, Hope!]  The edition that I read provided zilcho context to her prose—no editor’s note, no prologue, no afterward, no jacket copy—and the utter absence of context made me somehow enjoy her acquaintance even more. Bird is an efficient narrator who knows what to skip over or leave out and what to leave in, and a good describer, if one excuses a bit of 19th-century excess when her sunset rhapsodies go a bit over the top.

Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century absorbed me from start to finish. I had not appreciated the extent of the nomadic van culture that has swelled since the 2008 economic collapse, and was struck by so many slices of that experience that are portrayed here, from jobs in national parks and Amazon warehouses, to ad hoc communities that have sprung up around this culture, to the Earthship vision that is gaining attention as the climate worsens. The movie starring Frances McDormand was based on this, and while I admired her performance, I’m not sure I could have made much sense of the movie if I hadn’t already read the book.

I enjoyed Edwidge Danticat’s The Art of Death: Telling the Final Story, another in Graywolf’s fine series of craft books commissioned from current writers; but then I’m a Danticat fan and love pretty much everything she writes. [Ed. – Hmm, that seems a bit backhanded…]

My final nonfiction standout was Gene Lyons’s Widow’s Web, which I reread last year for the first time since its publication in 1993. [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!] A riveting true crime story, it also exposes a fascinating picture of Arkansas politics of that era: jockeying police and sheriff’s departments, ambitious prosecutors and defense attorneys, criminal lowlifes, and, yes, venal liars, evildoers, and demagogues. This time around I was more aware of the challenge Lyons faced in figuring out how to pace, frame, and sequence all the byzantine storylines (I remember running into him frequently in the late 1980s in the aisles of the then-Safeway in Little Rock’s Hillcrest neighborhood, and hearing him air the difficulties of his process while my ice cream melted in my cart). This book proved as zesty and trenchantly told as I remembered from my first reading nearly thirty years ago. (Gene, if you read this, I don’t begrudge the ice cream.)

Segueing into fiction, let me lift up Ayad Akhtar’s Homeland Elegies, which dazzled me at first, though my enthusiasm cooled some as the chapters wore on. Memoir, novel, autofiction? Who cares? I liked the hero less by the end of the book; but then again one has to admire a writer honest enough to present an obviously autobiographical self on the page warts and all, allowing readers like me to sit back and make judgments about them. As one more take on the migrant search for identity—arrivees simultaneously attracted by American ideals and repelled by the failure to live them out—it was a fine read. Two more terrific novels about migration that I read last year are The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri and The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota. I also reread some of Mohsin Hamid’s work in connection with his April visit to my campus: How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia is a wonderful read; and Exit West remains one of my top-tier favorite novels, debonair, quietly funny, and bearing much significance for our time.

Other memorable novels from the past year: Hans Fallada’s Every Man Dies Alone(1947), a story of Nazi resistance that’s just as grim as the title suggests [Ed. – God I love that book]; Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, a post-pandemic apocalypse novel, dark fun and strangely prescient of our current plague, although published in 2014; and Elizabeth Strout’s Oh William—not as good as her Olive Kitteridge novels, in my opinion, but still enjoyable.

Thanks to Our Fearless Blogmeister [Ed. – Please, call me OFB], I read Arnold Bennett’s Old Wives’ Tales (bad title, good book) for an online group-discussion experience that he co-led with Rohan Maitzen last summer. I enjoyed it for two main reasons. First, if you like 19th-century fiction at all you probably have a soft spot for description, and Bennett is a top-notch describer: he serves up well-chosen, well-rendered detail of both the mundane and the weird, affording us the sheer pleasure of learning how things were in certain times and places. Second, there are the character arcs. One advantage of getting older is the ability to see more and more of the complete trajectories of the lives transpiring around you. Sometimes this is surprising (who would think she would ever have become XYZ?) and sometimes it’s droll because so completely predictable (of course that person would turn out ABC, they were just the same way in kindergarten). Either way, long observance of the crooks and bends and straightaways of other people’s fates, not to mention one’s own, is something I value in fiction as well as real life. Bennett chronicles the lives of the two protagonist sisters and their circles with this sort of long-view verisimilitude. In his effort to represent entire lives, wielding omissions and foreshortenings and jumps in perspective, it seemed he was feeling his way toward modernism.

Balthus, The Game of Patience, 1954

Audiobooks, for me, are reserved for dog walks (this pairing helps keep my dog and me well exercised, and my commutes are long enough that listening in the car would gulp up the chapters way too fast). [Ed. – Too fast? These words seem to be English, but I do not recognize them.] In March I finished Troubled Blood, the fifth in the Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. If you admire the Harry Potter series and want to see Rowling’s talents applied to adult material, check these out: for plot, wit, and rich evocations of contemporary Britain, they’re unbeatable. (If you don’t admire the Harry Potter series, well… just… oh, go talk to someone about Proust instead.) [Ed. – It’s me, she means me.] Robert Glenister, who reads the audio version, is on a par with Jim Dale, Grammy-winning reader of the HP series. [Ed. – Glenister makes the Strike books a thousand times better, IMO; I loved them, but I confess the worse Rowling gets, the less taste I have for anything she touches.]

What do you call the fear of running out of something good to read? Bibliolackaphobia? or maybe it’s not a phobia but an addictive behavior. At any rate, I was afflicted with a fresh bout of this particular anxiety around Thanksgiving, and desperately downloaded as many books as I could from the library as an antidote. Out of this batch there were a few passable reads, several that deserved the Dorothy Parker treatment (“not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force”), and one absolute delight: Hilma Wolitzer’s new collection, Today a Woman Went Mad in the Supermarket. The stories span a number of years, from 1966 to 2020. In their understatedness, their quizzical humor, their recurrent portraiture of New York women in different roles, they are reminiscent of, say, Grace Paley, and I became a Wolitzer fan by the time I was a few pages in.

In the last and most moving story, “The Great Escape,” the protagonist mentions a book she’s eager to discuss with her book club. The title didn’t ring a bell, but because I liked the sensibility of the collection so much I looked up this novel and ordered it, too, from the library. It was Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge, which became my final great discovery of the year. The novel concerns a post-World War I Kansas City housewife, a woman whose life is circumscribed by wealth, enforced idleness, and the rigid values of her social set; who senses something lacking from her life that she cannot even express. It’s told in very short chapters that refrain from plot contrivance or heavy-handedness and are often funny, in an oblique, Lydia Davis sort of way. [Ed. – I’m listening…] There are sharp observations about race and feminism, and stirrings of change on the horizon, but at every point the novel resists collapsing into the artifice of having a theme or Social Meaning. (It was made into a movie starring real-life wife and husband Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman, but of course the book’s artistry and restraint were savaged when they went through the sausage-grinder of screenplay adaptation. So if you’ve seen the movie don’t hold it against the novel.) I can’t think of another instance when I’ve sought out a book based on the recommendation of a fictional character, but this one turned out so well that I might have to consult other made-up people for their tips.

Meanwhile, you real people out there are serving quite well too. Thank you for your guest columns and your comments, and thanks, Dorian, for inviting me to chime in. I’m humbled by the opportunity. [Ed. – Nonsense, the pleasure is all ours!]

M. F. Corwin’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by M. F. Corwin, who tweets as @eudamonis. Corwin, a person of mystery, currently lives in the Pacific Northwest.

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

Isaac Levitan, The Lake. Gray Day, 1895

M: How can one talk about one’s entire year of reading?

E: Well, that’s why you keep a list, right?

M: That’s just a list of books finished.

E: …and of course there’s more to reading than finishing books.

M: Yes. There are the books abandoned, and the reading done but not completed in the year.

E: There’s no shame in not reading to deadline.

M: Why would the end of the year be a deadline? The calendar’s arbitrary; reading’s continuous. 

E: To a point. Anyway. What books didn’t you finish last year?

M: A lot! Two that stand out are Polly Barton’s Fifty Sounds and Arsenyev’s Across the Ussuri Kray, both of which I’ve been reading slowly, because I’m not quite ready to leave them behind.

E: Why?

M: For the Barton, it’s the combination of the clever conceit of organizing a memoir around onomatopoeic vocabulary with the keen analysis of culture shock and the tenderness towards her younger self, towards all younger selves. For the Arsenyev, well, it just pushes a lot of buttons. It’s Siberia, so that’s inherently interesting, but there’s also the pairing of naturalist observation with early twentieth-century exploration and adventure after the Russo-Japanese War. It doesn’t hurt that it has some background for Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala and was translated by the guy who wrote that book on Siberian owls.

E: Did you read the owl book?

M: I tried, but the tone was too close to a Peace Corps memoir, a sort of magazine slick. Good in its way, but not what I wanted from it.

E: What other books didn’t you read last year?

M: That’s a really important question – for me at least. The books I didn’t (or don’t) read have a huge impact on the books that I choose to read and/or finish, although the relationship can be complicated.

E: What would be an example?

M: Well, I meant to reread War and Peace last year, given that I found a collection of the Oxford World Classics hardcovers of Tolstoy while looking for butter knives. [Ed. – Like, in your house?] I was planning to read his works more or less in order, and War and Peace comes surprisingly early.

E: Just to address what is clearly a side point: Are all of your book purchases failed attempts at housekeeping?

M: … hm. Probably. But, as you say, not important. I was reading Tolstoy’s early short stories and got kind of stuck on the Sevastopol stories, which were really fascinating: keen observation, a brutal eye for military matters, and the veneer of cheap morality really showing some deliberate wear. It got me wondering about the background to War and Peace; obviously as a historical novel, it’s somewhat different, but it made me want more context. I’d already been interested in reading The Life of the Archpriest Avvakum, Written by Himself, as it had been translated by Jane Ellen Harrison and Hope Mirrlees during their Russian kick (which also led to The Book of the Bear, which in turn was part of what convinced me to get around to Marian Engel’s Bear [Ed. — Oh, that sounds interesting], although they are not at all related); I had heard, perhaps erroneously, that Avvakum’s style in some ways influenced Tolstoy’s. So I read that, in a more recent translation, which I didn’t quite care for, though the introduction was very firm about its authenticity.

E: And then?

M: Well, that led me to Janet Martin’s history of medieval Russia, which is a very decent introduction and confirmed my opinion that I needed to get to know a bit more history before I could get back to Tolstoy. I picked up some books that seemed like they might be relevant (Kollman’s The Russian Empire 1450–1801 and Seton-Watson’s The Russian Empire, 1801–1917), but before I got to those I felt I really needed to know a bit more about Lithuania, because it just kept cropping up in Martin’s book. So I read a history of the Polish-Lithuanian Union and it was tremendously illuminating.

E: How so?

M: It was one of those wonderful moments when one, as a reader, has the opportunity to see how perfectly ignorant one is. [Ed. — Would that more of us thought this way!] An entire vista, previously unknown, appears with all of its possibilities. Not just an unknown vista, but an entirely unimagined one, a rich field of arguments in every footnote. It’s deeply satisfying to read something that does not confirm one’s suspicions, not least because one did not know enough to have any.

E: So did you get to the Russian history books?

M: Not yet! I mean, I could go through the same sort of scenario with other books I didn’t read: Duras, whom I keep trying to work myself up to liking [Ed. – Same! Speak truth to power!] (which led to Sara Mesa’s Four by Four, Elisa Shua Dusapin’s Winter in Sokcho, Chantal Akerman’s My Mother Laughs, and the Léger trilogy published by the Dorothy Project) or Locke’s Treatise on Human Understanding (Hamann, Gadamer’s Enigma of Health, and Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary). Sometimes when I try to rev myself up to read something I get distracted – and perhaps the distraction is more interesting than the intention. Like I was working through Shakespeare’s plays last year as well, and I rather wonder if I might not have had more fun with the project, as a project, if I had allowed myself to be distracted from it, about it, more. There’s always a pleasure, though, in rereading something familiar from high school that will stand up to (and reward) attentive rereading – like putting on a mental bathrobe that one has had forever only to find it much finer than one had remembered. The same thing kind of happened in reverse while rereading Civilization and Its Discontents: I had the uncomfortable sensation of (re)discovering the forgotten source for some of my mental furniture, which was a bit embarrassing.

E: Are these distractions always just a way of sneaking up on a reading project?

M: Sadly, no. There’s a lot of the magpie, too. Someone will mention something on Twitter, or there will be a sale from Rixdorf or Open Letter or pretty much any small or university press, and, well, I am easily distracted. Or perhaps I was just ready to be distracted. 

E: What was the best distraction you encountered last year?

M: Paul Valéry’s Dialogues and Idée Fixe, without a doubt – charming without being cloying. I picked them up at random on my first trip back to Powell’s since the start of the pandemic and, even though I had previously disliked the dialogue form, they led me to rethink my position. 

E: So, when will you be rereading War and Peace?

M: Eventually.

Isaac Levitan, Vladimir’s Road, 1892

Martin Schneider’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Martin Schneider, a freelance copyeditor (of books!) who lives in Cleveland, tweets at @wovenstrap, and used to write for Dangerous Minds. He’s part-Austrian and can occasionally can be found in that country.

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

Charles E. Martin

The global pandemic has been very good for my reading life.

I’ve read novels my entire adult life but the raw totals in any given year might not have been very high, maybe 30 per year. When COVID-19 arrived, I had an empty work patch in my freelance schedule and I responded by attempting to read one novel per day for 30 days (!) as a way of distracting myself from the fact that I might have a hard time finding freelance work. I made it to Day 19 but some work came in, thank god, and I didn’t get to Day 30. That stretch sparked a period of high novel consumption: I read 72 novels in 2020 and 70 novels in 2021. Those are very high totals for me.

I’m grateful for the particular cluster on Twitter that orbits around Caustic Cover Critic and Damian Kelleher and of course Dorian for improving my general experience on Twitter as well as giving me inspiration for new books and a community of like-minded people, etc. I should also say a word about the Backlisted podcast as additional inspiration (obviously that also overlaps with Twitter in some ways). I appreciate the monthly bookstack photographs and other visual ephemera that Book Twitter is always providing me with.

I’m a volume whore, by which I mean I favor reading short novels so that the raw book count stays as high as possible and I don’t get stuck for a month reading Moby-Dick or whatever. [Ed. — Ah, but what a month it would be!] 275 pages already begins to seem a high total to me, my sweet spot is about 191. ABC, always be churning. [Ed. – Hahaha!]

It goes without saying that 2021 was a very good reading year for me, cycling through 70 books in a calendar year is pretty close to an ideal way for me to spend my free time.

OK, here are about 20 books I wanted to say something about, listed in chronological order except where books are joined.

Michaela Roessner, Vanishing Point

The first read of the year for me, and one of the year’s finest. Vanishing Point is hard to track down but this exemplar of heady, sinuous ’80s sci-fi is worthwhile for those who like that kind of thing. The setup has much in common with Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers — it also came first — which most likely is what drew me to seek it out. I don’t want to divulge too much about it, but I greatly enjoyed this intelligent, immersive book, and I think about it often.

Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

I’ve never been much enamored of The Daughter of Time, which has always seemed implausible and overbaked. This left me unprepared for the astonishing authorial control of The Franchise Affair. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better representation of midcentury England than this book; the sheer exuberance of the jolly/obliging/diffident/snappish voices — literally, speaking voices — is tough to top. What’s the cricket equivalent of “a home run”? [Ed. – Knocked it out of the oval here, my friend: such a good book.]

Gilbert Adair, Love and Death on Long Island

Quite simply, my #1 read of 2021. I adore thinking about this book. Every page is a treat. I would urge those who like their fiction subtle and incisive to consume this immediately. Adair’s performance — and it is definitely a performance — feels thoroughly under-heralded. I had seen bits of the movie years ago and had always found the central predicament original and delicious and rich. Who can fail to relate to the sorrows/joys of being a bookish hideaway in a world that produces, almost unthinkingly, Hotpants College II?? [Ed. – Admittedly, not a patch on Hotpants I.] The ways Giles and Ronnie fail to comprehend each other are a wellspring of comedy that will never stop nourishing me. I never reread books but will likely return to this “jewel-like” 1930s-type book set in the age of the vulgar teenage sex farce (rented from the local video shop, natch); those 1980s details are decisively additive, at least for me. I sorely crave books like this but alas, strong comps are surely thin on the ground…… [Ed. – Ooh, a challenge: do your best, Team. Whatcha got for Martin?]

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad

I am a fan of Whitehead’s, but I was disappointed by The Underground Railroad. It seems unusually weak for a Pulitzer winner (then again, there is The Goldfinch, oof). I appreciated the comparative tour of antebellum contexts, but the failure to develop the literalized choo-choos nagged at me. Does that metaphor explain anything to anybody? I can’t see how. It’s such a great idea but also a massive missed opportunity. This is the rare case of a book that needs another 200 pages, I think. I also worry that Whitehead has bought into the hype surrounding him. Give me another John Henry Days, man — please!

C.S. Forester, The African Queen

In 2020 I read The Good Shepherd and found it utterly compelling. Then dang if the same thing didn’t happen all over again with The African Queen. I am a little leery of the Hornblower books — I prefer the 20th century, thanks — but Forester’s way of imparting information really does it for me.

Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This

Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest

No One Is Talking About This is a relatively celebrated recent novel that I cluster together with the works of Jenny Offill and Rachel Khong, and not in a positive way. I think of all of these books as jammed with clever, postmodern witticisms/jokes that you could rearrange in any order and it wouldn’t make much difference to the narrative. That’s a little unfair to No One Is Talking About This, which Lockwood does take pains to instill with an Act I/Act II structure, but I still found it a complete failure in terms of ordinary novel-building. Meanwhile, Lethem is not much in fashion lately, especially after The Feral Detective, which did not work. I suspect there was scant interest in his stab at Post-Apocalypse, but I still found The Arrest as intelligent, engaging, and sharp as much of his stuff — I admire Chronic City particularly. His books don’t always hang together, but on the paragraph and thematic levels, Lethem seems to me the equal of anyone out there right now and, as such, under-appreciated.

Arthur Getz

Margaret Drabble, The Millstone

Oh, boy. I was more than a little surprised how conventional and bourgeois (and therefore tiresome) I found this book, which in 1965 represented such a brave “new” perspective — or did it? From the perspective of 2021 it reads as so much more aligned to Drabble’s (presumably) hated predecessors than to us. To the reader of today, I submit, so many of Rosamund’s choices are unintelligible, particularly that of concealing the existence of her child from her parents. Rosamund’s whole setup (enormous apartment, rent-free) is so contrived and refuses to serve as the societal basis for anything (as I think was intended or at least was regarded). Jerusalem the Golden, a humble tale of growth about a woman from humble origins I read and esteemed decades ago, seems the antithesis of this. Drabble really leans into her privilege here, thus undoing the point. Next! [Ed. – *popcorn gif *]

Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

The last few years I have found myself increasingly disenchanted with the MFA-influenced “well-crafted” masterpieces that dominate (say) the Tournament of Books. The writing is frequently too tidy and pristine and there’s too much overlap/groupthink in the authors. In my mind, these books are not composed by individuals; too many of the nasty, idiosyncratic details have been sanded off. An antidote to this is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, far from a great book but I found its termite-ish perambulations entirely refreshing and (am I crazy for believing this?) an explicit callback to the shaggy-dog ways of Dickens. I do suspect that Tarantino thought of this “novelization” (a favorite form of his) as an attack on all the bloodless hifalutin volumes that get adopted by reading groups. I’m ready to sign on to this agenda; modern fiction could surely stand to ingest the unkempt, untoward essence of this book.

Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter

I admire the guts it took to be so unflinching about the unvirtuous aspects of shirked motherhood. The Lost Daughter dares you to dislike its protagonist, which I did not — or not very much; Ferrante works in the class signifiers to make her readers side with her heroine over the swinish, unreaderly family that intrudes on her interlude — and then forces those same readers to think about that. It’s encouraging that a writer of Ferrante’s gifts has found such widespread success.

Susanna Clarke, Piranesi

Everybody’s favorite recent puzzle box, it seems. The first half of this book constituted one of the reading high points of the year for me. Nothing wrong with the second half, to be sure, but you just can’t top the sheer blazing WTF “where is this going?” quality of this book’s setup. [Ed. – Yeah, can’t argue with that.] As with Love and Death on Long Island, I desperately want to find books with this vibe, but I doubt that any are out there (I did think of David Mitchell’s Slade House, however).

Joseph Hansen, Fadeout

One of my top reads of 2021. I learn from the internet that Hansen was a pioneer of the gay detective novel. This book introduced Dave Brandstetter, Hansen’s recurring hero of a dozen or so mysteries. The gay angle functions as the lever that furnishes Hansen’s situation/solution with complexity, but it wasn’t just that; Hansen also had the ability and the interest to write textured, complex thrillers. That’s the kind of shit I live for! This was published in 1970, but I thought it stood up dazzlingly well today.

Eugene Mihaesco

Percival Everett, Cutting Lisa

This somehow pairs with The Lost Daughter in the author seeking out, nay, embracing unpleasantness to spectacular effect. This was on my shortlist of reading experiences for the year, a strikingly original work that forthrightly countenanced negativity while resisting the impulse to pin everything on a villain. Every character has corners; every situation is layered. My first Everett, Cutting Lisa has a chewiness I associate with the finest output of the 80s, and I can’t wait to read more by him.

William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine

So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of those “writerly” novellas that hit me entirely the wrong way. Maxwell was a smalltown escapee who later found tenure at The New Yorker and thereby invested himself of the power to imbue these “simple midwestern people” (yuck) with meaning. If ever a narrative should have dispensed with the pretentious framing device of the events filtered through the memories of a child, it’s this one. I guess I can see why people admire this book, but for me it was just a succession of false notes. [Ed. – Ooh, fighting words!] Noon Wine reveals the falsity of Maxwell’s methods; another short novel — Porter, it seems, detested the term novella — but in this case authentically empathetic towards its figures, in contrast to Maxwell’s self-serving projections/lies. Noon Wine has the guts to put real people on the page — and real stakes.

William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley

One of the much-mentioned texts of 2021, due to the Guillermo del Toro adaptation that landed late in the year. Later on, I found it significant that Gresham is not celebrated for any other work. This book is certainly adept and not devoid of virtues, but I found it labored and tiresome, every point underlined in every paragraph, nothing allowed to breathe, as a real novelist would do it. I resorted to a new strategy: just grind through 10 pages per day until done, just to get it behind me (while starting a different novel, I seldom double dip). I should go back and finish Geek Love as an antidote (not that Dunn let things breathe, either).

Louise Erdrich, The Sentence

Simply put, I cannot think of another novel as generous-minded as this.

Other books I enjoyed:

Powers of Attorney by Louis Auchincloss

Asylum by Patrick McGrath

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

Trustee from the Toolroom by Nevil Shute

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

Figures in a Landscape by Barry England

The Small Back Room by Nigel Balchin

The Blessing by Nancy Mitford

A Favourite of the Gods by Sybille Bedford

Excellent Women by Barbara Pym

After Leaving Mr. Mackenzie by Jean Rhys

Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys

The Easter Parade by Richard Yates

Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles

The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

Rose Under Glass by Elizabeth Berridge

The Quiet American by Graham Greene

On the Beach by Nevil Shute

An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James

The Power of the Dog by Thomas Savage

Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Chaze

Amigo, Amigo by Francis Clifford

Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

Five Decembers by James Kestrel

A Disorder Peculiar to the Country by Ken Kalfus