What I Read, April 2021

April in Arkansas, azaleas in blossom, reading at the table under the trees. April in Arkansas: this is a feeling no one can reprise. Even though I’m making no progress on this book project, I wrote a lot last month, including essays on teaching the Holocaust and on a favourite book of mine that I once considered a secret. I wrote some other things that might come to anything, but I found the process useful and I also got a small piece of good news. I bumbled along, in other words. Here’s what I read.

Héctor Abad, The Farm (2014) Trans. Anne McLean (2018)

Three siblings take turns telling this story, which centers on La Oculta, a farm in the mountains of Columbia that has been in their family’s hands for generations. Pilar has kept the place going, even as she’s also worked alongside her mother in the family bakery; she has lived the life closest to the older generations, bearing children, married to her teenage sweetheart, a woman both capable and strong, good at everything from cooking to embalming. Eva has forged her own path, building a career, surviving various marriages and love affairs, becoming a single parent later in life. Antonio has escaped to New York, where he has made his way as a musician and settled down with a good man, yet despite, or because, of that distance he is the most drawn to the farm, making annual visits and taking on the task of unraveling the family history.

In alternating chapters, the siblings tell us about their pasts, their beliefs, their relationships to others. Put together, their narratives allow us to consider the competing forces of inheritance and invention. How much of who we are comes from the people and ways of life that came before us, and how much do we generate for ourselves? The novel delights in showing continuity—but it soars when depicting rupture. Even if the farm originated in a utopian attempt to generate community, Columbia’s violent past regularly interrupts daily life. This intrusion is most vividly evident in Eva’s memory of narrowly escaping a rebel attack on the homestead. (Terrific set piece.) Abad is a marvelous writer, and McLean a marvelous translator. I sunk into this sprawling novel—the beauty of the Archipelago edition adding extra sensory pleasure to the experience—and was sad when it ended.

Vanessa Springora, Consent (2020) Trans. Natasha Lehrer (2021)

Powerful memoir about the abusive sexual relationship between Springora and a famous writer whom she calls G. M. but is widely known to be Gabriel Matzneff. (Apparently, he was a big deal in the French literary scene; I’d never heard of him.) His identity as a “lover” of children was widely known too, at least among French artistic and political elites. These overlap much more than I, as a North American, would have expected; Matzneff had a letter in his wallet from Mitterand, lauding his artistic daring; he seems to have thought of it as a get out of jail card, except nobody ever put him in jail.

Matzneff’s career—he published several novels, all autobiographical, many overtly about pedophilia, as well as regular installments of his diaries—was built on the suffering of children and adolescents. Signora was one of many boys and girls he slept with, both in France and on sex tours in Asia; he was quite open about all of this. Springora met Matzneff in 1986, when she was 14. He seduced her intellectually, emotionally, and sexually; they were together for two years; the relationship damaged her badly, could, in some senses, have been said to have destroyed her life. This memoir proves it didn’t—but shows the cost. In fact, it was not until Springora realized that the way to get justice for herself was to speak in the only language that could touch Matzneff—that of writing itself—that she found any relief from her trauma. As she puts it, in a formulation comprising the grace and irony of classic French intellectual style, “Why not ensnare the hunter in his own trap, ambush him within the pages of a book?”

In so doing, she has had some effect, not only on Matzneff (he remains unrepentant, but the government took away a sinecure and his publisher dropped him) but on France more generally, where the book has been a best-seller and led people to acknowledge the ills that can be cloaked the mantle of freedom. In this regard, France’s so-called intellectual elite have a lot to answer for. The mantra of the 68ers, “it is forbidden to forbid,” was used by Matzneff to present child abuse as liberation, care, even love. A real who’s-who of the literary and philosophical scene signed open letters in support of these ideas back in the 70s. (Interesting that Foucault refused. Sad that Barthes did not.)

Consent, Springora observes, is an ambivalent term, sometimes signifying volition but often connoting something less than full agreement. After all, consent can be given on behalf of others, especially minors. Ultimately, consent is a mirage, a fig-leaf allowing those with cultural and literal capital to sweep away the reality of power imbalances. Consent is a sobering read, valuable for its indictment of the world that looked on while its writer suffered—from leering teachers to her overwhelmed and willfully blind parents. Its tone is uneven, sometimes epigrammatic, sometimes abstract, sometimes lyrical, but Springora doesn’t pretend to be a literary artist. That’s what she wanted to be, before Matzneff dispossessed her of her own words, not least by training her to write in a style he deemed timeless and elevated. (They sent each other hundreds of letters; he later published some of hers without permission.) To even consider Springora’s style feels fraught: to critique it is to risk playing the same game as her abuser (and his enablers), who argued that artistic beauty, passion, and fearlessness mattered above all. Yet it’s also important to advocate for style without thereby agreeing that its value trumps anything else.

Consent ends with a brief, illuminating afterword by translator Lehrer; I wish more books let us hear from the translator.

Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow (2016)

First of the three psychological thrillers by Berry I devoured this month. Under the Harrow is a fine debut; its tricksy narration makes it the most Highsmithian of her books. Berry’s prose is plain but not flat. Here the narrator looks out the window of a train:

Land streams by the window. Sheep arranged on the stony flank of a hill. The troubling clouds surging behind it. A firehouse with a man doing exercises in its yard. He pulls himself above a bar, lowers himself, vanishes.

The disembodied man, swallowed up by movement and perspective, is a suitably unsettling touch, offering a glimpse of what’s to come: the world the narrator thinks she knows is about to become similarly unmoored.

Guzel Yakhina, Zuleikha (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2019)

My second Hayden translation in as many months; again, I read this as part of a Twitter reading group, and, again, I was glad I did. Zuleikha is a page-turner that comes at its historical events—the dekulakization of the peasantry under Stalin and the creation of the Gulag system—from what, I believe, is an unusual perspective. The heroine, who lends her name to the title, is a Tatar, a culture I knew basically nothing about; when I think of the famines of the late 1920s and early 30s, I think primarily of Ukraine, not Soviet Tatarstan. And since that culture is shown to be harshly patriarchal, Zuleikha is an even more intriguing, marginalized character. Too bad that the novel seems to find no way for Zuleikha to leave behind her status as “pitiful hen” and become as strong and independent as she does other than to abandon her Tatar identity.

Zuleikha is engrossing historical fiction that is never quite predictable. For example, it is more interested in relationships between mothers and children than between men and women. Its descriptions of the landscape are loving and evocative. Its plot is both eventful and uneventful: much of the action centers on how to survive—how to cut trees when your tools are bad; what to grow in a northern climate; how to hunt and gather on the land; even, in the days before exile, how to prepare the bathhouse for a steam session—but those everyday tasks take place against a backdrop where terrible events always threaten to intrude. In the end, I thought the “band of misfits pitches together against all odds” aspect of the story of the settlement was a bit cute. (Even though I still loved it.) And Yakhina’s use of focalization didn’t always work. We are mostly in close third person (present tense, natch, ugh), but that sometimes becomes implausible when Yakhina needs to tell us stuff that her heroine might not need or care to think about. Here she is in prison in Kazan, before being transported to Siberia:

The Tatar language is even constructed so you could live your whole life without once saying “I.” No matter what tense you use to speak about yourself, the verb will go in the necessary form and the ending will change, making the use of that vain little word superfluous. It’s not like that in Russian, where everybody goes out of their way to put in “I” and “me” and then “I” again.

There might be a point here about the role of the individual in resisting a collective system. Or maybe a critique of the project of Russianizing the Soviet Union’s plurality. Mostly though this moment is clunky. But I hope Yakhina’s second novel is translated soon. Hayden, who again generously offered her expertise to the Twitter group, would be the obvious choice to take on the project. Are you listening, Oneworld?

Henia Karmel and Ilona Karmel, A Wall of Two: Poems of Resistance and Suffering from Kraków to Buchenwald and Beyond Introduction and Adaptations by Fanny Howe Trans. Arie A. Galles and Warren Niesłuchowski (2007)

More about the Karmel sisters and their poetry here.

Flynn Berry, A Double Life (2018)

Berry’s take on the Lord Lucan case. Creepy and satisfying. Berry’s best, IMO.

Anna Goldenberg, I Belong to Vienna (2018) Trans. Alta L. Price (2020)

Another third generation Holocaust memoir. The difference here is that Goldenberg’s grandparents, after a short postwar dalliance in upstate New York, returned to Vienna, where their children and grandchildren still live. When Goldenberg herself moves to New York to study for an MA, people, other Jews mostly, ask her in appalled fascination: How can you [i.e., Jews] live there [i.e., among the killers]? Which prompts Goldenberg to speculate—not as interestingly as I’d have hoped—on what it means to belong, both to family and to place.

The other noteworthy thing about the story is that the most interesting person in it isn’t technically even in the family. When Goldenberg’s then 17-year-old grandfather, Hansi, received his deportation papers he ripped off his star, hopped on the streetcar, and made his way to a close friend, the pediatrician Josef Feldner. (Hansi had his parents’ blessing: they rightly suspected his chances were better in hiding. Indeed, he never saw them again.) Feldner, a Catholic child psychologist, was a remarkable man. He kept Hansi safe for the rest of the war, and prompted the previously mediocre student into his future medical career by taking the boy with him to see his patients, which he treated in a gentle, humane, and courteous manner that would be rare today, to say nothing of then. Pepi, as Goldenberg’s grandfather came to call him, eventually adopted Hansi. For the rest of his life the two men were inseparable: even after Hansi married Goldenberg’s grandmother, herself a doctor, the two ate breakfast together every morning (Pepi lived downstairs) and took vacations together. In the original German the book is called Versteckte Jahre: Der Mann, der meinen Großvater rettet (Hidden Years: The Man who Saved my Grandfather), which rightly captures its emphasis. Anyway, while I don’t regret reading this book, I note that until I sat down to write this review I’d forgotten all about it.

Flynn Berry, Northern Spy (2021)

The wider political backdrop of the novel—set in Northern Ireland at an unspecified time that seems like it could be just before the Good Friday agreement, but which also can’t be (technology doesn’t match up, for example)—gives Berry’s new novel extra heft. Impressively, she does this without any bloat. I just love how short her books are. She’s such an efficient writer.

In Northern Spy—turns out this is also a kind of apple, fitting for a book which shows the domestic and the political to be so entwined—Tessa, a BBC producer just back from maternity leave, is shocked when she sees her sister in footage from the latest IRA attack (a gas station hold up). She’s floored by this revelation, of course, but things prove to be even more complicated. Before long, Tessa is volunteering to infiltrate the IRA. In a tense interrogation, she is asked by the man she will report to why she wants to become an IRA informer. Tessa experiences no cognitive dissonance in the moment:

This isn’t so difficult. I’m a woman, after all, so I’ve had a lifetime of practice guessing what a man wants me to say, or be.

Berry’s smart and engrossing thrillers are among my favourite discoveries of the year.

Robin Stevens, Murder is Bad Manners (UK title: Murder Most Unladylike) (2014)

British boarding school crime fiction written for middle-grade readers but with wide appeal. I bought this for my daughter a few years ago when I read about it in the TLS (their irregular children’s column is excellent; I hope the new editor won’t get rid of it). Something made her pull it off the shelf last month and she immediately got stuck into it. Then she raced through the other four titles available in the US. While we waited for the others to arrive from the UK we decided to read them together, aloud. And they are a delight: suspenseful in themselves, though not too scary (even as they are thoughtful about the toll that even playacting as a detective could take) but with plenty of nods to Golden Age sleuthing that older readers are likely to enjoy. Set in the 1930s at a school called Deepdean, the books are narrated by Hazel Wong, who at the time of the first volume is newly arrived in England from her home in Hong Kong. Hazel plays Watson to Daisy Wells, the book’s beautiful, brainy, incorrigible Sherlock and self-appointed President of the Wells & Wong Detective Society.

After earning their stripes in dull but useful cases like The Case of Lavinia’s Missing Tie (Clementine took it in revenge for Lavinia hitting her during lacrosse practice, after Clementine said Lavinia came from a Broken Home), the girls take on a crime of a much greater magnitude when Hazel stumbles on the dead body of a teacher—a body that disappears in the time it takes her to find help. The headmistress thinks nothing is amiss because she finds a resignation letter from the teacher on her desk the next morning. But Wells & Wong know better. And things soon get pretty hairy. Will they solve the case before the killer strikes again?

Hazel is much smarter than Watson and Daisy less unerring than Sherlock. Which makes the books often funny, but also moving, especially in their depiction of a friendship between a popular girl who seems to have everything together and a shy one who seems to be a bit hopeless. Each needs the other—for me, the books are about shared vulnerability—and I’m looking forward to seeing how Stevens develops their story.

Ruth Rendell, One Across, Two Down (1971)

Someone on Twitter put this on their highlights of 2020 list—please remind me who you are—and I was intrigued enough to check out a copy from the library. At which point it sat around the bedroom for months until, at a time when I was supposed to be reading something else, I realized I absolutely could not live another minute without taking it up. And I was glad I did: it’s an impressive book.

Vera lives with her layabout husband, Stanley, and nagging mother, Maud. Stanley and Maud hate each other and make poor Vera’s life even worse with their endless arguments. But when Stanley learns that Maud has socked away a lot of money and plans to leave it all to Vera, he swaps her stroke medication with saccharine pills, just to see if he can hurry the process along. Pretty soon, though, events escalate, in ways he never expected. Although technically not responsible for the old woman’s death—I won’t give away the details here—in all the ways that count he’s absolutely responsible. Most of the novel is about how he gets found out. Stanley’s awful; spending time with him is not pleasant. But Vera gets a surprisingly happy ending, so the book isn’t entirely grim. Along the way, Rendell asks us to think about what draws readers to crime fiction. Is it any different from the many seemingly harmless but ultimately consuming obsessions—like the crossword puzzles Stanley wants not only to solve but to set—that litter the book? Lots going on here, in unfussy but quality prose. If One Across, Two Down is anything to go by, early Rendell is the real deal.

Becky Chambers, To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019)

Standalone novella in the Wayfarers series, which I have not read but definitely will, as soon as my library holds come in. Recommended to me by a brilliant former student now in graduate school who has just taken a course on science fiction. Someone online described Chambers’s books as sf cozies, which makes sense to me. Some might take this as criticism, and maybe that’s how it was meant, but what I liked most about To Be Taught, If Fortunate is its fundamental kindness. This is a book fascinated by otherness and worried about how vulnerable it is to even well-intentioned encounters.

In 2045, four astronauts are sent to explore the life forms—some quite minimal, all hard for us to fathom, all valuable in their own right—on the moons of a distant planet. At some point in their exploration—and because of the distances involved, time is passing much more slowly for them than it is back home: taking on the mission means that none of them will see their families again—they realize that they aren’t getting messages from earth anymore. A companion mission, sent elsewhere in the galaxy, confirms that they too have lost contact. Should they try to return to what might be a destroyed home, or continue on, knowing that once they do there’s no going back?

The descriptions of the alien lifeforms are fantastic. I really thought this was a wise book. The only sour note is a coda referencing the title. The phrase comes from a welcome speech made by then-UN Secretary Kurt Waldheim and placed on board the Voyager spacecraft. If you’re going to mention Waldheim in a book about respecting difference, you should mention his Nazi past.

Jacqueline Winspear, The Consequences of Fear (2021)

I have to stop reading these. The circle of recurring characters has become so wide that keeping up with them means the crimes (never Winspear’s strength, or, to be fair, interest) are solved much too offhandedly. For whatever reason, the thing about the series that first drew me to it—its investigation of responsibility—just irritated me this time. I could see what Winspear was doing with the concept of fear—asking whether our duty to a nation is enough to make us repress our feelings; wondering if personal responsibilities outweigh political demands—but I couldn’t bring myself to care. Maybe because I saw the novel’s depiction of WWII as the product of philosophical liberalism, which I was feeling frustrated by because I was just coming to end of reading…

Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951, revised 1958)

I spent a lot of time this month with Arendt’s quasi-history, quasi-philosophy of totalitarianism. It’s long and hard. I was sometimes frustrated by Arendt—she’s from a different philosophical tradition than the one I was trained in; she’s completely uninterested in psychology, which is baffling to me; our thinking isn’t the most sympatico—but I was often amazed. In the end, this was such a rewarding reading experience.

Which I would not have had if I hadn’t signed up for a course offered through the Brooklyn Institute of Social Research, taught by Samantha Rose Hill, who teaches at several schools in the New York area, runs a center for Arendt Studies at Bard, and has a book about Arendt coming out this summer. (Her recent Five Books interview on Arendt is exemplary.) The ideal teacher, in other words, and she taught us a lot. I enjoyed being in a class again, although I noted that some of the same anxieties that plagued me in college and graduate school resurfaced. I still fear the things I have to say are beside the point and unhelpful—but I’m not as shy anymore and say them anyway.

But what’s important here are the ideas, not my reading experience. In nearly 500 small-font pages, Arendt unfolds a sweeping argument about the connection between antisemitism, imperialism, and totalitarianism.

Alas, I don’t fully understand Arendt’s take on antisemitism. I had to miss most of the class in which we discussed this—fittingly (?) to run a Holocaust memorial program—and I haven’t finished the section. But a key idea is that, counterintuitively, Jews thrived in Europe as long as nations did. (Well, thrived, I don’t know about that, and the Jews Arendt talks about comprised a thin stratum of rich, Western European Jews. Of the Jews in Eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement, i.e., almost all European Jews, she has little to say: Arendt was always what the Israelis call a Yekke.) The cosmopolitanism of Jews, so often held against them, and forced upon them by the fate of their diaspora, paradoxically enabled them to flourish as bankers to nation states. But when nations were replaced with Empires, specifically in the 19th Century, that relationship failed. Jews were then taken to have privilege tethered to neither role nor responsibility, earning them even greater enmity. They were left to become either parvenu (upstarts who try to fit in everywhere) or pariahs (those defiant rejects who don’t fit in anywhere). Arendt is sympathetic but disdainful to the parvenu, and fascinated by the pariah.

Both positions are responses to statelessness, an affliction that Jews especially in the 1930s but that others too throughout the 20th century experienced as the nation state came under crisis. Moreover, as Jews had been granted equality over the course of the 19th century, they proved that otherness persisted despite putative equality. (They were equal under the law but they maintained their traditions and beliefs.) Because the nation state—government by consent—is predicated on homogeneity, it responds poorly to pluralism. As pluralism increased in the 19th century, nations responded by looking beyond their borders. The result is modern imperialism, which is not the integrated pluralism of Rome but a fractious destabilized agglomeration that eventually turns on itself.

Modern imperialism mostly took place overseas (Africa, the Middle East.) It occurred as a combined political and economic crisis. After centuries of increasing economic power, the bourgeoisie finally wanted political power as well. In a brilliant reading, Arendt says that the bourgeoisie found its philosophical underpinning in the ideas of Hobbes (or, put differently, that Hobbes had prophesized the bourgeoisie). In Hobbes’s “war of all against all” the only possible “philosophy” is individual growth, resulting eventually in tyranny. The bourgeois worldview is fundamentally destructive, because fundamentally acquisitive. It believes only in endless growth: more has to become more. (Sound familiar?)  Overseas imperialism allowed this antihumanist thinking to flourish, at least temporarily, and at the cost of great suffering and destruction to the local or “native” people. (Which Arendt is frankly pretty uninterested in.) The imperialist encounter with non-European others led to the development of racism from what had previously been race thinking. That is, individual instances of prejudice became turned into an ideology. Race became weaponized by the state as a form of violence. (Racism is totalized race thinking.) As an ideology, racism must be understood as necessary/inevitable, not like race thinking, which was the result of individual instances of prejudice, bias, or domination.

When the domination of racism combined with the inherently metastatic avarice of imperialist capitalism, an inherently unstable contradiction arose. (We think the world is infinite, but its resources are finite—we live every day the dawning realization of that contradiction—this is the kind of instability Arendt has in mind.) Eventually the instability of racist imperialism, which had been a kind of safety valve for the European nation (now Empire), bounced back, such that the tactics of violence, oppression, and power previously used overseas were perpetrated on civilians in the homeland. (The power of police and paramilitary forces rose greatly in this period.) Unlike nations, empires are no longer organized around classes—that structure collapses, and along with it the primary way we have developed of organizing people so that individuals feel they belong and find meaning. The loss of this meaning is, Arendt warns, very bad. With it the distinction between public and private life that is the foundation of freedom vanishes. Those realms are replaced by what Arendt calls “the social,” which is an atomized levelling: no more classes, only masses. The masses are desperate to regain the meaningful experience they have been cut off from. Enter totalitarianism. Totalitarian regimes work on people who have no meaning. Totalitarianism—the governmental form of imperialism—is what happens when expansionism takes political form. The belief in endless growth, avarice, accumulation is turned to conquering and subordinating every subject of the regime.  

As far as Arendt is concerned, from her vantage point in the 1950s, there have only ever been two totalitarian regimes: Nazi Germany (from its inception, perhaps, but certainly from 1935 – 45) and Stalinist Russia (from about 1930 to Stalin’s death). Totalitarianism is not, for her, a synonym for autocracy, tyranny, or even dictatorship. Totalitarian regimes are barely regimes at all: they are movements. Neither nation nor empire is their real focus. Instead they focus on the party. Nazism and Stalinist Communism are at stake, not the Reich or the USSR. When a totalitarianism movement comes to power, they do everything they can to change reality. The ideologies animating totalitarian movements are about what will be, not what is. Totalitarian movements promise a future but they are not in fact interested in attaining it. Or, rather, their philosophy of aggression and accumulation, their inexorable drive to dominate, means that they cannot in fact countenance any final or complete end.

An important consequence of this mindset is that the enemies of the movement are never final. Strikingly, Arendt argues that the Jews, although the primary victims of the way Nazism played out, were not the Nazis’ sole or even primary enemy. It’s true that, historically, Jews were not the first victims: those were communists and socialists and, importantly, the mentally and physically disabled: the latter was the first group singled out for being killed tout court. The refusal of ordinary citizens to accept this state of affairs meant that the party delayed the plan, but they never shelved it. And there were definite plans to exterminate what the Nazis called “the Slavs” after they conquered Russia and finished with the Jews. (A genocide they began in Poland in 1940.) Arendt also points to memoranda and bits in Mein Kampf where bureaucrats and Hitler muse about eliminating people with various incurable illnesses, or even predilections toward them, like cancer. Arendt’s point is that regardless of what the Party says publicly there will always be more victims. It is in the nature of totalitarianism to find them.

In doing so, totalitarianism relies on a belief in secret meanings. That is how it begins to change reality. What you see is not the real truth of things. (To use one of Samantha’s examples—you think you see a pizza place in DC but really you see a front for child sexual exploitation; how much Arendt’s diagnoses pertain to the US today exercised the class a lot, but that’s a different topic.) Totalitarianism forces its adherents, and everyone who lives under it, to affirm the false. Experience, under totalitarianism, only affirms ideology. It has no meaning in itself. The result: thinking is replaced by thought (the already known, the prepackaged, the tidy explanations of ideology). For Arendt, that is one of the worst things that can happen to human beings. (Note, by the way, that those who wield thought can be smart, and they’re not cynical either (which is terrifying, IMO). But they are incapable of thinking. Which, it seems to me, means that for Arendt they are barely human.

It’s all fascinating, and quite compelling. For me, Arendt fails to consider how power creates as much as represses. (She is not Foucault). That is, she fails to account for the meaning people find in even hateful or oppressive thinking. She also ignores the effort totalitarian movements put into creating a community of believers. (There’s nothing in her book about, say, the Hitler Youth or the Bund deutscher Mädel or the Kraft durch Freude vacations or any of the myriad ways Nazism, to take only the example I know best, created the Volksgemeinschaft (the community of the people).

Plus, Arendt’s understanding of the camp system comes too much from the model of Buchenwald (and to some extent Auschwitz). No surprise, given her background and sources, and the reality of what she was able to read in the late 40s and early 50s. And her knowledge is impressively nuanced for the time. But she is led astray, in my opinion, by relying so heavily on the work of David Rousset, whose fascinating book about his time in Buchenwald I want someone to reissue in English ASAP, but whose experience as a communist prisoner in that particular camp (there was strong communist leadership, even a kind of resistance movement, in Buchenwald) is anomalous in comparison to the general KZ experience.  

Anyway, as Samantha put it, Arendt asks key questions. Is there a way of thinking that’s not tyrannical? How can we protect spaces of freedom? How can we live under something other than imperialism or totalitarianism? These remain resonant, indeed urgent. The Origins of Totalitarianism gave me so much to think about; I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to read it closely.

Charles Portis, True Grit (1968)

I wanted to spend my birthday with some good light reading, so I chose three possible contenders from my massive TBR pile and put up a Twitter poll to help me decide where to start. Portis’s novel about a teenager avenging her father’s death in Reconstruction-era Arkansas and the Indian Territory of Oklahoma won by a landslide. And the people knew what they were talking about! True Grit is a delight, often laugh-out-loud funny. I would have loved it even more had I not seen the movie (the Coen Brothers version), as some of the best jokes and the plot came back to me as I read. But the film can only approximate the novel’s primary pleasure: Portis’s masterful use of voice, evident in both Mattie’s narration and the characters’ conversations. (This is not a Western about strong, silent types: nobody ever shuts up.) An added pleasure was reading about Arkansas locations (and types) I know; I noticed that some of the bit characters even had last names I recognized from living and teaching here.

I suspect that a second reading—which the novel definitely merits—would give me a lot more to think about. But even on a relaxed first reading I recognized that much of what makes the book so interesting comes from the difference between the time of the telling and the time of the events. Mattie is fourteen when she sets out to find Frank Chaney, but an old woman when she tells us about it. In part it explains, or makes us wonder about, Mattie’s engaging but puzzling mixture of naivete and pursed-lipped moral certainty. Is that the difference between the girl and the old woman, or did she always combine these contrary aspects? The disparity between past and present is especially evident in a final scene at a traveling fair in 1920s Memphis: the “wild west” of the novel’s main action has become fully commodified. But was it ever any different? After all, the novel’s many crimes are prompted by money, even if they hide under the veil of honour. Too many guns, too much economic inequality: in this sense, True Grit still rings painfully true.

Let me quote a couple of choice bits, just because.

Here’s Rooster Cogburn, the one-eyed US Marshall Mattie hires to help her find Chaney, complaining about paperwork:

If you don’t have no schooling you are up against it in this country, sis. That is the way of it. No sir, that man has no chance any more. No matter if he has got sand in his craw, others will push him aside, little thin fellows that have won spelling bees back home. [Little thin fellows! Much funnier than “thin little fellows.”]

Here’s Rooster, on first meeting a Texas Ranger named LaBoeuf who is also on Chaney’s trail of, learning that there’s a bounty out on the man because he’s also shot a Texas senator:

“Anyhow, it sounds queer. Five hundred dollars is mighty little for a man that killed a senator.”

“Bibbs was a little senator,” said LaBoeuf. “They would not have put up anything except it would look bad.”

And here’s Rooster telling about the time he ran an eating place called The Green Frog, but had to give it up after his wife left him:

“I tried to run it myself for a while but I couldn’t keep good help and I never did learn how to buy meat. I didn’t know what I was doing. I was like a man fighting bees.”

Fighting bees. Perfect. Reading True Grit is the opposite of fighting bees. Easy, full of sweet and honey.

So that was a pretty damn good month. Arendt: titanic. Abad: deeply satisfying. Portis: such fun. Rendell and Berry: old and new masters of suspense. The Karmel sisters: what have you done to my heart?

What I Read, March 2021

The daffodils came and went. Then the quince bushes and spiraea (some call it meadowsweets, apparently, which I like better). Next the plum, the dogwood, and the redbuds. Most spectacularly, the cherry. Some days were cold, most were warm, no bugs yet. Good sitting-outside weather. Our daughter went back to in-person school. I wrote some things, though not my book. And as always I was reading.

Alena Schröder, Junge Frau, am Fenster stehend, Abendlicht, blaues Kleid (2021)

The title is something like “Young Woman, Standing at the Window, Evening Light, Blue Dress.” It’s a description of a Vermeer meant to have been expropriated from a Jewish art dealer in 1930s Berlin but perhaps saved for his descendants although more likely lost in the turmoil of WWII. The protagonist of Schröder’s engaging debut novel—I read it in less than a week, which should tell you something, as I am not exactly a speed-reader in German; just couldn’t put it down—is Hannah, a wry if rudderless graduate student whose sole anchor is her weekly visit to Evelyn, her maternal grandmother and only living relative. At her swish retirement home, the proud and irascible old woman instructs (read: yells at) her granddaughter: how to water the orchids, how to arrange the blinds, how to do everything the right way. The two love each other, but they also can’t be close, too much is between them, especially Hannah’s mother, who died of cancer a few years earlier but whom Evelyn could never find it in her heart to love.

When Hannah finds a letter from an Israeli lawyer explaining that Evelyn might be eligible for reparations from an art restitution case—a letter Evelyn refuses to say a word about—Hannah uses this sudden interruption of an inexplicable family past (they aren’t Jewish—how can the Nazis have stolen from them?) as a pretext to further a disastrous affair with her dissertation advisor. The novel moves between the present-day and 1920s/30s Berlin, so that we are always one step ahead of Hannah, and in fact end up knowing more than she does, but the search, although in some respects futile, is hardly a failure: Hannah changes her life, mostly, but in ways that readers will cheer on, she is so likeable.

Schröder handles the Weimar/Nazi-era sections well, they never seem like a pastiche. Her female characters are especially good; they struggle with feelings of inadequacy when they cannot live up to the impossible demand that their personal and professional lives be equally perfect. Even minor characters are vivid—a woman named Rubi comes in and steals the show in the last quarter; I begged Schröder to write a novel just about her but nothing doing. More importantly, in its modest way (this is not a stuffy or self-important book), the novel says something interesting about German-Jewish relations. By emphasizing the non-biological familiar relations that link its main characters, Schröder argues that Jews and Germans (at least for assimilated German Jews, which is a big caveat) were so intertwined that the Nazis’ murderous efforts to distinguish them passed down intergenerational trauma that only hurt everyone (though of course not equally). In a wonderful subplot, Schröder satirizes the ghoulish fetishization of the Jewish past—Hannah is pressganged into attending a meeting of a group bent on maintaining Jewish life in Berlin (no one in the group is Jewish)—which is an easier way to respond to the past than mourning the interconnectedness that was lost.

Junge Frau is funny, smart, and suspenseful. I think English-language readers would eat it up and I hope it will be translated soon. Thanks, Magda, for giving me a copy.

Philippe Sands, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive (2020)

I had mixed feelings.

Miriam Katin, We Are on Our Own: A Memoir (2006)

Memoir in comic form about the author’s year in hiding with her mother in the Hungarian countryside in 1944 – 45 when she was a very young child. Thanks to the Horthy regime’s relatively lax attitude to Jews, Hungary had the largest intact Jewish population in Europe at this late stage of the war. Tired of their ally’s foot-dragging, the Nazis deposed Horthy and sent Eichmann to deport Jews en masse (100,000 were gassed at Birkenau that summer). When Katin’s mother, Esther, receives a deportation notice, she contacts a blackmarketeer from whom she buys a false identity. Thanks to the connivance of her devoted non-Jewish maid, who agrees to lie to the SS, Esther fakes her death and escapes to the countryside, first to the uncle of the man who sold her the papers. The man and his wife have no idea who she is, but they take her in; the elegant city woman quickly becomes a farm girl. She suffers the unwanted attentions of a German officer (rape disguised by chocolates and declarations of love), survives Allied bombing raids, and lives to be liberated by the Russians, an event greeted by the locals with fear. To be sure the drunken Ivans who take over the uncle’s farm are dangerous—when one of them dies while trying to slip into Esther’s bed she is again forced to go on the run—but others are helpful, including some kindly officers who direct her to a refugee center. An old family friend takes the woman and her small child into his own home, a villa he rattles around in, after the deportation of his parents, with only his old governess for company. The old woman, who lives in a prewar Paris of the mind, teaches little Miriam to plié while her former charge falls in love with Esther. Esther’s husband, who has been in the army this whole time (I am hazy on how a Jew, assuming he was one, could have served with the Hungarians) and through a combination of luck and effort has retraced his wife’s journey, miraculously arrives at the same refugee center. The reunification of the family is more successful than most—certainly more so than the one depicted in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the text that inspired Katin, who spent her career as a graphic artist, to take up comic making in her 60s.

I’ve read many Holocaust memoirs, but I always learn something new. Across Europe, Jews were forbidden to own pets: I knew this, but somehow hadn’t realized they had to abandon the ones they already had. In a heartbreaking scene, Esther leaves Miriam with a trusted friend and slips off to bring their beloved Schnauzer, Rexy, to a central depot, where a German officer eyes him with greedy appreciation.

Publisher Drawn & Quarterly has produced We Are on Our Own with their usual care. At first glance, the cover looks stark and ill-designed. The boards are stiff cardboard, the pages thick and creamy. It looks, I realized, like a homemade scrapbook—a perfect fit for the contents. Scraps, a frequent trope in Holocaust literature, are an apt way to think about victim experience. Scraps are waste or refuse that, through care and work—like the alchemical work of literature—can be transmuted into meaning and value.

Although some of the events might be confusing to readers without background in the subject (Katin is chary with context), this memoir is worth your time.

Ida Jessen, A Change of Time (2015) Trans. Martin Aitken (2019)

Novel about a schoolteacher in a remote part of Denmark in the late 1920s whose husband, a doctor, has just died. The husband was not a bad man—devoted to medicine and insistent upon improving the living conditions of his patients, even the ones he didn’t like. But he was so austere, so contemptuous of the world, so spartan in his affection that being married to him was a trial the cost of which Lilly—almost always known by her married name, Fru Bagge—had not even realized. And yet she still grieves his death. With the passing of time, she allows herself to process these feelings—and to open herself to new ones.

To me, the title refers more to “the change that time is” than to “a specific change over months or years.” Nothing stays the same, not the fruit trees that slowly take root in the region’s sandy soil, not the children she once taught, not Lily’s sense of herself. This is a short, gentle, careful book, beautifully translated by Marin Aitken. It reminded me of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Perfect if you like wistful, quiet books that are sort of sad and sort of happy and make you sigh at the end. A source at Archipelago Books tells me another book by Jessen is forthcoming. Happy (but moderate, restrained, melancholic) news.

Narine Abgaryan, Three Apples Fell from the Sky (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2020)

Under the guidance of the indefatigable Reem, I read this novel as part of a group on Twitter. (A group read I actually completed, amazing!) Of particular joy was the participation of the book’s translator, Lisa Hayden, whose love for the text is obvious. Abgaryan is Armenian, though the book was written in Russian, which is interesting given the role Armenia has played in the Russian literary imaginary: several members of the group were able to instruct me on this. Three Apples is set in a fictional mountain village called Maran. As the novel begins, the main character, Anatolia, prepares for death: she lays out her best outfit so that those who find her will be able to dress her for the funeral, she makes sure her house is spotless, she feeds the chickens. At 58, Anatolia is the village’s youngest resident. Maran used to be home to 500 people. Now there are 23 households clinging to a mountainside that was devastated by an earthquake (almost as devastating as the earthquake of modernity that has taken away the young people). But what promises to be an elegy takes a sudden swerve. Anatolia doesn’t die; nor does Maran, at least not quite. I agree with Olga Zilberbourg’s argument, in this excellent review, that Maran is “Abgaryan’s attempt to if not bypass imperial history altogether, then to find a way out of imperialism’s cycle of violence and destruction.” In this sense it is a fantasy—but an enabling one.

Those of us in the reading group spent a fair bit of time wondering when the novel is set—there are some historical markers, but other events aren’t readily identifiable. The novel is both in time and outside it. As one reader thoughtfully put it, “there is history and there is tradition and though the two do not necessarily match, they are both true.” This double quality is also evident in the novel’s style, which has fantastical elements but is also rooted in realism. The opening chapter about Anatolia’s preparation is followed by dozens of marvelous descriptions of how to do the things that make life go on: cooking, cleaning, finding and preparing herbs, building fences and coops, shoeing horses, the list goes on. I loved this material, enjoyed the book a lot, and hope for more Abgaryan in English.

Myron Levoy, Alan and Naomi (1977)

1944. Queens. Alan Silverman, 12, is busy with stickball, model airplanes, and his new friend Shaun (Catholic and thus a source of unease to Alan’s mother). He has no time for or interest in helping that weird girl upstairs—Crazy Cat, Frenchie-the-nut, the kids call her—the one who moved in with the Liebmans. Naomi Kirshenbaum is a refugee: her father, a member of the resistance, was murdered in front of her; together wither her mother she escaped Paris for Switzerland and then America. Ever since she’s been traumatized, barely speaking, starting at every noise, prone to tearing maps into tiny shreds. Her psychologist—Levoy shrewdly keeps the doctor off stage, filtering their suggestions through the adults in Alan’s life—thinks it would be good for Naomi to spend time with someone her own age. Alan, threatened with failing to be a mensch if he refuses, grudgingly does so. Their slowly developing friendship is deftly handled; the neighbourhood near the abandoned Homes airfield lovingly evoked. A good (Jewish) boy, Alan berates himself for not being able to help Naomi better or faster, and he reacts with fascinating touchiness when adults coo over how lovely and kind he is. Things are best when he can simply acknowledge how much he likes spending time with her. But what will his friends think? Has Alan misunderstood them as much as he once did Naomi? Everything seems to be heading to a predictable if satisfying ending when Levoy offers a devastating final swerve that changes everything—and which I suspect would not be published today. After beginning by distinguishing the fates of American and European Jews, Levoy ends by equating them: no place is safe. Such an interesting book: obliquely about the Holocaust, directly about trauma, and quite a challenge to the feeling, ascendant in the 1970s, that American Jews were Americans first.

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me—pretty sure I didn’t stumble across it myself. If it was you, make yourself be heard so I can thank you! [Edit: Turns out this was Magda, too. I owe her even more this month than usual!]

Miriam Katin, Letting It Go (2013)

This follow-up of sorts to We Are on Our Own jumps to the present day. Katin’s son—he was a little kid in her earlier book—has grown up and moved to Berlin, fallen in love, and wants Katin to get him EU citizenship by virtue of her birth in Hungary. She is reluctant, and even more so to visit Germany. What she comes to realize, though, is that even though you have to hold on to the past, you can’t let it strangle you. It all feels a bit pat, a sort of whirlwind tour of German memory culture circa 2010.

Simon Wiesenthal, Max and Helen (1981) Trans. Catherine Hutter (1982)

The Ratline got me interested in Simon Wiesenthal; I’d heard of the “Nazi hunter” before, of course, but I knew hardly anything about him. I started with Max and Helen because Sands listed it in his annotated bibliography as a work he recommended for a better sense of the atmosphere in and around wartime Lviv/Lvow/Lemberg, especially the camps in which the Nazis interned the slave labour they used to build Durchgangsstrasse 4 (DG 4), a highway through the Ukraine. (The same milieu is memorably evoked in Rachel Seiffert’s excellent novel A Boy in Winter.) I certainly learned more about Galicia in 1941 – 43 (an especially terrible place to be Jewish). But I got something else too, something closer to “the remarkable true love story” promised on the terrific cover of the US first edition I checked out of the library.

In Max and Helen Wiesenthal hunts the commandant of one such camp, a man notorious for his brutality, who after the war has become a manager at a prospering West German firm. To make his charge stick, Wiesenthal needs witnesses, but almost no one survived the DG 4 camps. Eventually he is led to a man, the Max of the title, now a doctor in Paris. Max puts him off but eventually agrees to an interview—but only to explain why even though Wiesenthal’s information is correct, the industrialist and the Nazi are indeed the same man, Max cannot testify against him. In a long, almost hallucinatory encounter in Switzerland, Max tells Wiesenthal how he and his fiancée, Helen, were imprisoned together; how, thanks to certain privileges accrued from being the camp “doctor” (he had no supplies worthy of the name), he was able escape and join the partisans hiding out in the nearby marshes (alone, because despite his pleading Helen refused to leave her disabled sister behind); how he spent a decade in a Soviet gulag before being repatriated to Poland in 1958. Upon his return Max searched tirelessly for Helen; a chance encounter led him to discover she was living under a different name in West Germany. He made the trip, tracked down the address, rang the bell. The door opened—only to reveal… well, I won’t say, though it’s fairly dramatic. The revelation leads Wiesenthal to visit Helen himself, to learn her side of the story, and to see for himself why Max said he couldn’t testify. An epilogue brings the story of the tragic pair to the present (that is, the early 80s).

Max and Helen is short, but even if it had been twice as long I would have read it as raptly. The story fascinated and moved me. I resolved to read more Wiesenthal, and immediately checked his autobiography out of the library. Paging through the front matter my eye fell on a list of titles, divided into fiction and nonfiction. There, under fiction, stood Max and Helen! I was astonished—and then chagrined. Googling the Nazi’s name revealed a general in the Wehrmacht, who had never been in the SS; searching for the camp drew a similar blank. Some of the narrative longeurs, in which Wiesenthal presses Max on the importance of Wiesenthal’s self-imposed task of meting out justice to former perpetrators, now made more sense. Still, if the book is intended as an advertisement for his project, it’s a funny one. Because justice isn’t done. Unless we take Wiesenthal’s point to be that justice is more complicated than we might like to think. In which case his book proves that admirably.

I still don’t know the relation of fact to fiction in this tale—do you? I’ll be taking a look at Tom Segev’s fairly recent biography in hopes of learning more.

David Downing, Wedding Station (2021)

I’m a fan of Downing’s series about John Russell, an English-American journalist in 1930s – 40s Berlin who becomes a spy (for various agencies, it gets complicated) in order to protect his German son, and his girlfriend, Effi Koenen, a film actress on the outs after the Nazis take power. The Station books (each is named for a train station in Berlin or elsewhere in Europe) are less dazzling than Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther novels, which detail the same period, but they are also less cynical. (Less misogynist too; Effi becomes a major character.) Downing has written several books since ending the series, but I don’t think I’m the only one who missed Russell and Koenen. Seems Downing has too, because he’s done what seems de rigeur for crime novelists and written a prequel. It’s good! In fact, it’s better written than usual (Downing is not flashy) while still being just as well researched (always his strong point). Newcomers could start here; fans will enjoy learning the background of favourite characters. Wedding Station (the title refers to a working-class, pro-Communist neighbourhood) is set in the immediate weeks after the Nazis take power and ably conveys how quickly the new rulers chilled dissent and attacked their enemies, especially socialists and communists.

Vigdis Hjorth, Long Live the Post Horn! (2013) Trans. Charlotte Barslund (2020)

Sad to say, my favourite part of Long Live the Post Horn! was the passage from Kierkegaard from which it takes its title. (The post horn never sounds the same twice; no one who blows into it will ever be guilty of repetition; it is a symbol of authenticity.) The idea of a “good old-fashioned letter,” as the text somewhat ironically, somewhat earnestly calls it, is dear to my heart. Which meant I was drawn to the premise of this novel in which a PR consultant is lifted out of a general ennui when she throws herself into the fight by the Norwegian postal workers union to challenge an EU-directive deregulating delivery service. More novels about arcana, bureaucracy, and politics, please! Too bad the details of the battle, which surprisingly becomes a hot topic at the annual Labour Party congress, are passed over pretty hastily.

At first I found the main character’s flat affect irritating—I kept comparing it to the much more devastating portrayals of female despair in Jean Rhys—and almost put the book aside but I was glad I stuck around long enough to see her wary transformation. In the end, though, Hjorth is better at naming values than at making us feel them. Here’s Ellinor watching through a lit window as a man paces his office with his phone to his ear: “It was a comforting sight. If I had kept a diary, I would have written about it. About the working human being, the committed human being, about people trying to change things, people investing their energy, talking to one another and coming together.” Later this sentiment turns into a full-blown encomium for “a language that didn’t seek to spin or obfuscate, but to open and elevate, a language that had helped me to greater clarity, which had pulled me from the mire.” Ellinor herself never experiences that kind of language, and I’m unclear Hjorth knows it. But a lot of smart readers like this book; for a much more positive take, read Grant’s piece.

Jane Harper, The Survivors (2020)

Crime novel set on the southern coast of Tasmania. A local boy who survived a terrible storm ten years before (his brother did not) returns home with wife and newborn to help his mother pack up before his father is moved into a facility for dementia patients. Shortly after, a seasonal worker, an art student from the mainland, is found dead on the beach. The events of the past intertwine with the present; small-town rivalries, pent-up hostilities, and long-buried secrets come to light. The police investigate, but they are at the periphery of the book. In sum, The Survivors is structured very much like Harper’s previous book, The Lost Man. It’s not as good, but it’s definitely diverting.

Monica Hesse, They Went Left (2020)

I was skeptical about this book even though it featured on the NYT’s list of best YA books for 2020. A novel about an eighteen-year-old girl in the months after liberation? I feared Holocaust porn. (Not actual porn: I mean using the Holocaust for grisly, unwarranted thrills.) Although Zofia Lederman, the girl in question, sounds at times like a 21st century teenager, They Went Left is a gripping and intelligent read. I enjoyed the focus on life after liberation: yes, we get glimpses of Zofia’s Holocaust experiences and gradually learn a more complete story of what happened to her, but such moments are important not in themselves but to show how someone so victimized might go about putting a life back together.

Most of the novel is set in the DP camp at Föhrenwald, in Bavaria, where Zofia ends up in search of her younger brother, whom she hopes against hope has survived. The camp allows Hesse to depict different responses to the gift/curse/fate of having survived: ardent Zionists, determined to get to Palestine by any means possible; survivors who just want to return to their former homes; people eager to leave the past behind; people hoping they can resurrect that past.

In addition to being, as best I can tell, carefully researched and historically accurate, the novel also offers some dramatic (even melodramatic) plot twists, and weighs in on big questions: what does family mean, in the wake of genocide? can people who suffered different persecutions come together? Some scenes are especially vivid: a joyful wedding in the DP camp; the arrival of a pile of cast-off clothes that survivors desperately paw through; a night between two lovers whose bodies are marked by past suffering. Some striking moments are sensitively presented: when her lover asks if he needs to use protection, Zofia says he needn’t worry—she hasn’t menstruated in years.

In sum, a visceral and thoughtful novel. I’ll read more by Hesse, who has two other WWII-era YA novels.

Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows (2006)

Readers of this blog—hell, of this post—will know that I am a suck for all things Berlin. Which is probably why I crammed this book into my nightstand when my wife, who bought it on vacation in Canada years ago, was ready to get rid of it. For some reason—probably because I had agreed to read several other books, which is a surefire way to get me not read them—I decided that now was the time to give it a go. I was prepared to be dismissive—it’s about a lost Romanov—but I was won over by the book’s strong characterization and plot.

Esther is a Russian Jew who, like so many other refugees, washes up in 1920s Berlin, in her case after being mutilated in a pogrom in the Pale of Settlement. She becomes the secretary to a Russian nightclub impresario who has stumbled upon what he thinks will be his ticket to fame and fortune—he’s been given a tip that Anna Anderson, a nearly silent woman locked up in an asylum on the outskirts of Berlin, is in fact the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Anna looks like Anastasia. She has the peremptoriness and carelessness of a Royal. But she seems to have forgotten Russian. And although she knows details of Romanov family life she might just have read about them somewhere. The nightclub owner is convinced, though—mostly, he’s convinced that Esther can coach/bully the woman into satisfying the distant Romanov relatives scattered across Europe that Anna is the real deal. But before that can happen a terrifying man tries to attack her. Anna insists it’s the Cheka, the Russian secret police, looking to finish what the Bolsheviks started but apparently failed to do in Yekaterinburg. But Esther thinks the threat concerns Anna’s non-Royal past. Together with a sympathetic police officer, she sets out to learn the truth. Split between 1923 (the worst year of Weimar-era hyperinflation) and 1933, the book covers a lot of ground. Franklin plays a little fast and loose with the history of the first months of the Nazi regime, but she acknowledges this and in general her history is sound. At one point her inspector thinks that “political violence was unleashing individual savagery,” and City of Shadows does a fine job thinking through the intersection of structural and psychological violence. No book for the ages, but totally worth tracking down. In fact, you can have mine if you like.

Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster (2017)

I do not like dirt. Or clutter. (I will pause here so that readers who have been to my house can finish laughing. I used to protest that books are not clutter, but have since bowed to reality.) Anyway, dirt especially, I’m not phobic about it, exactly, but definitely a little grossed out by it. And yet fascinated, too. Same with squalor. That long section about cleaning up the alcoholic father’s house in volume I of My Struggle? Couldn’t get enough. “Time Passes”? My favourite part of To the Lighthouse. The business of cleaning up otherwise unlivable squats? That’s why The Good Terrorist is Lessing’s underrated masterpiece.

In other words, I’m an ideal reader for The Trauma Cleaner. The title refers to Sandra Pankhurst, who has been many things in her eventful life: an adopted and abused child, a young married father and husband, a drag queen, a sex worker (including at a mining town in central Australia that sounds terrifying), a wife and homemaker, a businesswoman, and, in her latest and perhaps most triumphant incarnation, the owner of a business that cleans up after violent deaths, acts of nature, meth lab explosions, and hoarding cases. Somehow I always assumed someone official, the police or emergency services or something, was responsible for these unpleasant situations, but not true, at least in Australia, and I’m guessing the US too.

It is Sarah Krasnostein’s genius to show how the accumulated weight of Pankhurst’s experiences—mostly traumatic: as an unloved child, for example, she was relegated to a shed in the back garden of her working-class Melbourne home, allowed inside to eat with the rest of the family only once a week—has made her so adept at managing the people and situations her business remediates. Sandra leads her team through work that most of us would balk at, despite being almost constantly out of breath (she suffers from COPD, probably brought on from the combination of past recreational drug use and zealous hormone therapy), all while maintaining perfect makeup, hair, and nails. Pankhurst is remarkably non-judgmental. She’s not interested how her clients, whether living or dead, ended up in their situations. She’s interested in results. (I’m fascinated by how this trans woman encapsulates the unruffled non-introspective competency enshrined in at least a cliched idea of Australian masculinity.) Krasnostein notes, poignantly, that Pankhurst’s acceptance stems from her insistence that everyone deserves to life their life. Everyone fits into “the order of things, even those who most of us would exclude from it.

Krasnostein’s intelligence is evident throughout The Trauma Cleaner. Sometimes she’s even epigrammatic; reflecting on abuse and neglect she writes: “In the taxonomy of pain there is only the pain inflicted by touching and the pain inflicted by not touching.” She’s up front about her love for Pankhurst, and how difficult that love can be. (The flip side of Pankhurst’s equanimity is her ability to erase unpleasant parts of her past, like the wife and children she abandoned in penury.) It’s not a perfect book: Krasnostein’s metaphors sometimes get away from her, and the sections about Pankhurst’s clients are better than the ones about her biography. (I liked seeing Pankhurst in action more than hearing about her.) But I think even people less fastidious/compulsive about clearing away clutter, dirt, mold, dust, blood, shit, and pus than I am will find this book deeply interesting. Decay comes to us all—and the only thing that mitigates it even temporarily is love. Sandra Pankhurst’s gift is to love those whom others would rather not.

Thanks to Tali Lavi for the recommendation (seconded by other Australian book friends). Looking forward to the US release of Krasnostein’s second book—it’s called The Believers and, as such, promises to be about something else I have a fascinated yet ambivalent relationship to. Bring it on!

That was March. Plenty of decent reading, especially the Schröder, Jessen, Abgaryan, Levoy, and Krasnostein. Onward into the fullness of Arkansas spring!

What I Read, February 2021

Strange little month. Epic snow storm (20 inches!) and record cold snap (below freezing for a week, pretty intense for these parts) kept us busy frolicking in the snow and dealing with burst pipes. A week later 70 degree temps reminded us of the hot weather coming. I flailed in my writing, though I did manage to publish this piece I was proud of. As pleased to get my second shot as frustrated that my parents, in Canada, have yet to have even the first. Our daughter turned 10, a happy-making and bewildering occurrence. And of course I read a few books.

Georges Simenon, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)

A group of men, friends since their student days, are haunted by past misdeeds. Maigret traipses around Europe to solve the case. You can’t expect me to remember more than that, it’s been four weeks!

David Shneer, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Picture (2020)

Dmitri Baltermants (1912—1990) was a Jewish Soviet photojournalist who took iconic pictures at Stalingrad and in newly liberated Berlin, edited a prestigious photography magazine, and successfully navigated life under Stalin and Khrushchev. Despite a long and storied career, he is best known for one photograph, which came to be known as “Grief.” Sent to the Crimea in January 1942 after its initial liberation from German occupation, Baltermants photographed relatives grieving over the corpses of their loved ones on the site of a mass grave near Kerch. These were victims of Nazi reprisals, shot when the Germans retreated from the city in late December. (They would retake Kerch in May 1942, before the Soviets expelled them for the last time in April 1944.) In the six weeks of this first occupation, the Germans executed about 7000 Jews, both locals and refugees from Poland and elsewhere in the Ukraine, turning a Soviet anti-tank trench near the city into a five-kilometer-long mass grave.

As Shneer (z”l) shows, Baltermants took several striking photos that cold January day. But state media seized on one in particular and made it central to Soviet commemoration of Nazi atrocities. In keeping with Soviet refusal to recognize the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, “Grief” depicts non-Jewish survivors and victims. (Jewishness is literally the photo’s invisible substrate: by the time it was taken, the region’s Jewish victims were already buried in the mass grave, with no one left to search for them.) Yet it was increasingly marketed and understood as a Holocaust photo, especially once it was exhibited around the world in the 1960s and 70s, where it segued from historical document to artistic commodity.

The photo that impressed so many curators and art lovers was not the one Baltermants first took. As he prepared his work for exhibition he was increasingly bothered by blemishes in the sky on the original negative. In keeping with the norms of Soviet photojournalism—in which montage and editing was an accepted, even admired way to tell a greater truth—he revised the image, producing a new one “by overlaying a second negative with an undamaged sky to replace the flaw in the exposure” and then retouching the composite. What this means is: the dramatic clouds, so central to the power of the image as it has come to be known, are from somewhere else altogether. (The actual day of Baltermants’s visit was overcast: leaden rather than anguished.) This needn’t be understood as falsification or ideology. In the conclusion to his book, Shneer argues:

the tension between documentation and aestheticization demonstrates why Grief is the ideal image to serve as an iconic Holocaust photograph. … Its inclusion in the icons of Holocaust photographs broadens what we mean by the Holocaust and chips away at the term’s parochialism and nationalism.

Shneer comments intriguingly on the Kerch memorial today, caught up in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, arguing that the memorial to the atrocities has both been reclaimed as a public Jewish space while still being embedded in a broader pan-Soviet context (Jews finally get to be recognized as a victim group, but only so much). But his conclusions about contesting Holocaust parochialism remain entirely suggestive. He never develops what this would mean and how to navigate the ethics of using a photo without any Jews in it to comemmorate a primarily Jewish genocide.

Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph is frustrating and disappointing, from its subtitle onward. (How can a photograph have a biography?) It flirts with being many things—a biography of Baltermants, a history of Soviet photography, a disquisition on the Russian art market after the collapse of the USSR—without actually becoming any of them. And cultural history/cultural studies, Shneer’s preferred methodologies, are not for me. I wanted to blame the publishers for falsely marketing the book as Holocaust scholarship, but the final chapter proves that Shneer wants to own the designation But he simply never convinces.

I feel bad saying this, as Shneer, who I met once and found delightful, as I think did everyone who knew him, was ill with brain cancer as he completed the book. He died weeks after its publication. But I also don’t think he’d want readers to give him a pass. So I’ll say it again: this book is a mess.

Dominique Goblet, Pretending is Lying (2007) Trans. Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author (2017)

After many years, Belgian comic artist Dominique Goblet (or at least the version of herself featured in this brilliant comic) takes her daughter to visit her father and his second wife. While the father finds ways to disparage Goblet and insult his wife, the little girl amuses herself by drawing a picture of her friend. The step-grandmother—drawn by Goblet as half alien, half Edvard Munch Scream figure—remarks on the friend’s long hair.

She doesn’t have long hair, little Nikita offhandedly remarks.

But look at the picture, replies the woman, already disproportionately angered. In the picture she has long hair.

Oh, that’s just a character, says the child. (Precocious!)

Which prompts the woman, in a fit of Platonist totalitarianism, to rage: “PRETENDING IS LYING, IT’S LYING! PRETENDING IS LYING!”

Aside from making it chillingly clear how messed up the father’s household is, this scene also alerts us to the text’s interest in creation. That self-awareness isn’t cerebral, though. Or if so then only as a necessary, self-preserving response to strong, often violent emotions.  

Pretending is Lying considers various moments in Goblet’s life, from her childhood with her blustering, abusive father and her creative yet fragile and, in her own way, punishing mother to her own life as a parent via the story of a once-promising but soon-floundering love affair. Although the father takes up the most oxygen, I found the mother more interesting. The same person who, by a magical sleight of hand, diverts young Goblet from a meltdown when she trips on the sidewalk and rips her tights (she whips them off the sobbing child and puts them on backwards—the child, none the wiser, is amazed) later locks her daughter in the attic on a rainy day when the restless child won’t settle to anything. This traumatic experience is juxtaposed to the father’s absorption in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, in which Roger Williams’s car overturned and burst into flame: only one other driver, David Purley, stopped and tried to rescue him almost by himself, to no avail. Apparently, Purley and the ineffectual race marshals could hear Williams screaming as he burned alive. The event is horrible, both in Goblet’s remarkable rendering and in this video, mawkish music aside.

The terrified child, the crazed mother, the raging father (a fire-fighter, he is convinced he could have saved the day): everything’s going wrong at once; the scene is one of the most harrowing things I’ve read in a while. And yet there is also so much tenderness in the book: in one scene, Goblet’s daughter is scared to sleep in a strange bedroom, mostly because it has a giant graffiti of a snarling man on the wall. Goblet tells Nikita, “You have to laugh at the things that scare you, you’ll see, it works with everything!” What follows is a lovely row of panels in which the little girl tentatively thumbs her nose at the image, giggles to herself, and falls asleep smiling.

As befits the book’s emotional scope, Goblet draws in all kinds of styles, from careful line drawings to expressionist exaggeration to washes of abstraction; she accompanies these images with gorgeously varied and expressive lettering (she hand-lettered the English translation herself). The result is beautiful; a book you could read many times and keep finding new things to notice, a triumphant rebuke to the argument that imitation is dangerous because it falsifies.

Andrea Camilleri, The Safety Net (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)

After reading almost 20 of these, I’ve finally noticed how often the Montalbano books begin with the detective surfacing from a dead sleep. That struggle seems to be harder to overcome as he ages, as if Camilleri had been preparing for his detective to die. (I gather he deposited a final installment with his publisher before his own death in 2019.) The Safety Net offers more of the usual complicated to-ing and fro-ing and mixing of cases, all of which is mere background to Camilleri’s specialties: describing food and fulminating against Italian governments. In this investigation, Montalbano has to spend time with teenagers and that could have gone badly, but Camilleri gracefully lets his character value what contemporary technology allows rather than bemoan the hell it consigns us to.

Andrea Camilleri, The Sicilian Method (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)

A meatier plot than usual, which turns on the similarity of dramaturgy to detection. What, Montalbano wonders, does it mean to be the one pulling the strings? And who is doing the pulling? The detective/director, or the suspects/actors? And where is the audience in all of this? Ends with a surprise; curious to see if this development is followed through on in the remainder of the series.

Rachel Howzell Hall, And Now She’s Gone (2020)

PI novel with a twist. Rader Consulting has a secret mission: most of the time its agents look for missing people, but sometimes they help people go missing, specifically women who are escaping abusive partners. Grayson Skye, newly promoted to investigator from desk work, is herself one of those women. (That explains the preposterous name.) Still recovering from a burst appendicitis (not to mention some pretty serious PTSD) Grayson suddenly has even more on her plate: her first case proves more complicated than she’d like (the woman she is supposed to find begs to be left alone—but is she telling the truth?) and the worst part of her past catches up with her. Very busy, this novel, too much so. The jagged chronology is more irritating than effective. Yet I still devoured it over a weekend, especially enjoying its depiction of some unglamorous neighbourhoods in LA and Las Vegas.

Minae Mizumura, A True Novel (2002) Trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter (2013)

Brilliant retelling of Wuthering Heights replete with unreliable narrators in the Ishiguro mode. (At least three main ones, not counting many small instances of gossip and storytelling along the way.) The outermost of these nested tellers is Mizumura herself. At one point she considers the Japanese tradition of an “I Novel,” comparing it to the invisible, omniscient narrator more prominent in Europe. (I summarize badly.) The main thing I disagree with in this fine summary of the novel is the reviewer’s suggestion that this digression is dull. To my mind, it’s central to the book’s project. Are writers supposed to tell us about themselves or about others? To tell what they know (the truth, their own perspective) or what they surmise, imagine, make up (the novel)? If the latter, how do we do justice to others? Can we overcome our prejudices toward them? These are the big questions of narrative, art, and politics that A True Novel explores. The main prejudices in evidence in the story concern family background and economic status. What happens when those don’t align, as is the case of the Heathcliff figure, Taro Azuma, who is born poor and of “mixed stock” in Manchuria but who becomes hugely wealthy?

I know I’m not doing A True Novel justice. Suffice it to say: I adored the book, raced through it (even though it’s 850 pages), and was sad when it ended. In fact, I haven’t found anything to match it, even though I’ve read a fair few good things since. It was even more fun reading alongside some smart, knowledgeable, and generous Twitter friends. Shout out to translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, too, who has done amazing work here, as best I can tell. I’ll be reading more Mizumura soon, that’s for sure.

Joan Silber, Improvement (2017)

A novel with as many strands as a Turkish kilim, one which belongs to one of the characters at its center. (The point, though, is that there isn’t a center to either rug or novel but rather a web of relationships, some clear and some glimpsed only in passing.) The story moves from New York to Turkey to Berlin: the mish-mash of locales could have been a mess, but it works. Or at least it did for me as I was reading it. I was reminded of Tessa Hadley, Esther Freud, a little of Laurie Colwin, and talked it up on social media. But now, a couple of weeks later, I can hardly remember a thing about it. (There’s a good bit about a woman who visits a man in prison, I remember that.) I’d been keen to read Silber’s backlist but now… *looks at piles of unread books climbing like mould spores up the walls * probably not.

Francis Bennett, Making Enemies (1998)

Terrific spy novel set in 1947, when the West begins to realize how different the Soviets’ beliefs and methods are from their own. The rest of the great powers are trying to catch up to the Americans and create a hydrogen bomb. Britain, though, is broke and would really prefer not to devote resources it doesn’t have to the project. What if the Russians felt the same? Is someone in the government sending them coded olive branches to this effect? The novel has two plot lines: one following a widowed atomic physicist in Moscow; the other concerning a young British political influencer, recently returned, disillusioned, from Berlin. These characters turn out to be connected; Bennett convincingly melds personal and political.   

This thriller is more chess-game/byzantine bureaucracy than cool gadgets/explosions. The best part of the book, though, is a section set in Finland, featuring a thrilling chase on skis. In general, Finland comes across very appealingly. As does Making Enemies. Well written without drawing attention to itself; complicated without being ridiculous. (Impressive for a spy novel, in my experience.)

In keeping with his debut’s ethos of modesty, Bennett only wrote three novels. I’ve managed to track down used copies of the other two (together they form a trilogy) and can’t wait for them to show up. Thanks to Retroculturati for the tip.

Sarah Moss, Summerwater (2020)

Summerwater is not as good as Moss’s two historical novels, Signs for List Children (2014) and Bodies of Light (2016), or 2018’s Ghost Wall (with which it pairs nicely), but it’s really good. The setting is a holiday resort on a loch in Scotland. (But because UK “resort” means some not especially amazing cabins in the middle of nowhere.) It’s the beginning of summer: the day is long, but not bright, in fact cold, rainy, and thoroughly miserable. The holidaymakers are questioning their decision. In a series of short sections, we move among several perspectives—a husband and wife with young children, a husband and wife with really young children, the teenage daughter and son of an older couple, an elderly couple who are the only ones to actually own their cottage. At one point each thinks, usually darkly, about the extended family of foreigners whose nightly parties torment, or bemuse, them. (The foreigners are variously described as Romanians and Bulgarians, but at least one of them is from nowhere more glamorous/threatening than Glasgow.) These sections are interspersed with even shorter ones written from the perspective of trees, birds, and animals. Even more than the human characters, these nonhuman beings experience the deluge as dangerous; the possibility of starving to death recurs.

As usual in Moss, violence—threatened and actual; physical, emotional, and sexual; hidden and open—is everywhere, not least in a dramatic conclusion. There are also many more ordinary events: the effort required to shepherd bored or fretful children through a wet day, the various negotiations couples navigate at various life stages, the secrets people keep from each other, especially regarding their fantasies. (A minor thesis of the book is that the older women get the fewer fucks they give that their men know their fantasies don’t include them.) I love how Moss leaves things unsaid: how exactly did a child’s shoe end up on the shore? What will happen to Justine’s health? What’s the deal with that guy in the tent?

My only criticism is that Moss’s control over the various voices felt uneven. The free indirect discourse changes to match each character, as it should, and yet the prose mostly feels the same. It sounds more like Moss than like any of her characters. I mean, that’s a contradiction built into free indirect discourse, but at times Summerwater exhibits a lack of control in a writer who otherwise feels fully in control of her descriptions of how little control we have over our lives. (I wouldn’t mind if Moss were a little wilder, honestly.)

A final word: the jacket of the US edition is gorgeous, a scene wrapping across front and back covers of a black loch against even blacker mountains with only an initially puzzling scrawl of red in the center of the image. The design is by June Pak, who I have now followed on Instagram. The image doesn’t reproduce well and I had to return my copy to the library anyway, and for some reason I can’t find the whole thing on line, but here is the front bit anyway.

Marga Minco, An Empty House (1966) Trans. Margaret Clegg (1990)

Moving and effective novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust, even better than Minco’s quasi-autobiography Bitter Herbs. Set on three days—June 28, 1945; March 25, 1947; April 21, 1950—it follows Sepha, who, alone of her family, has survived the war in hiding, and who falls into a hasty marriage with a man she meets in the resistance. He plunges into a career in journalism, she flounders except for an interlude in the south of France, entering into various affairs that she enjoys but not enough to keep up for long. Throughout she visits with her friend Yolanda, another survivor. Yolanda is tormented by guilt at surviving; Sepha is sympathetic but unmoved. Readers, however, will be moved by their relationship—especially its ending—for Minco manages to keep their disagreement from feeling schematic. To that end, she deftly uses motifs and time shifts, which challenge the idea of continuous experience without making a big deal about it. As its title suggests, the novel is filled with empty houses—whether the various places in hiding Sepha recalls, a cherished bolt hole in France, the new house she and her husband are set to move into at the novel’s end, or, most powerfully, her childhood home, now inhabited by someone else, to which she returns like a criminal to the scene of the crime—only the crime, as she reminds Yolanda, was perpetrated by others on the likes of them.

Hans Keilson, Da steht mein Haus: Errinerungen [There Stands My House: Memories; alternatively, My House is There: Memoirs] (2011) Hrsg. Heinrich Detering

Keilson began this collection of autobiographical fragments in the 1990s, when he was in his 80s and beginning to wind down his long-running psychoanalytic practice. He’d written three novels and some poetry, but that was long ago. A decade later, now almost blind, he returned to the pieces, pruning and ordering them for publication. With the help of the literary scholar Heinrich Detering—whose conversation with Keilson ends the volume—the book was released soon after Keilson turned 100 and had become the subject of renewed interest in both Germany and the US. (I wrote about Keilson’s wartime diary a few years ago; that book too is worth reading.)

In short sketches that make full use of the roving quality allowed by German-language syntax, Keilson describes his childhood in Freienwalde an der Oder, a town near the Polish border where lumber and small-time health spas were the main industries. Keilson’s father managed a store (his wife ran it ably, maybe better than he did when he served on the western Front in WWI). Keilson’s parents were active in the local Jewish community, although her education, in her hometown at the foot of the Silesian mountains, a place now in Poland, was much stronger than his. (Keilson recalls her prompting him for the weekly Shabbat prayers and describes his ambivalent feelings about her unselfconscious voice in the women’s choir.) Keilson was a sporty kid—there are some great passages on ice skating—and also musical. Both experiences came in handy later, when he taught at a Jewish sports club in Berlin and paid his way through medical school by playing trumpet in a jazz band.

Despite his late success as a doctor and therapist, Keilson had never been particularly scholarly, though he vividly remembers presenting a Heine poem only to have a classmate student object: a Jewish student reciting a Jewish poet was “fouling the nest.” That moment, in the late 1920s, marked the first time Keilson sensed the change that would envelope him, his family, and his community. The memoir is filled with little but telling moments like this. By contrast, Keilson says little about his flight to Holland in 1936, at the urging of his non-Jewish wife, and his time living under a false identity during the war, where he first encountered the orphans he would make his postwar analytic reputation helping. He does describe how he managed to get his parents to Holland right before the war and how they decided against going underground, citing age, ill-health, and general exhaustion at a world that had so betrayed them. They were murdered in Birkenau.

In the afterword, Detering asks Keilson if he ever thought of going back to Germany. He did, after all, continue to write in the language. Keilson answers that he couldn’t. The moment he learned of his parents’ murder, he stopped being a German. Moreover, he knew he couldn’t work as an analyst for German patients. Regardless of their personal culpability they would always feel too guilty towards him; that would be fatal for successful therapy. At which point Detering expostulates, “Das klingt alles so vernünftig” [That sounds so reasonable]. Keilson responds: “Aber ich bin so vernünftig, Heinrich, sonst hätte ich nicht überlebt! [“But I am reasonable, Heinrich, I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”] Reason was a gift, a talent [eine Begabung] that he used to help himself.

This exchange gives a good sense of Keilson: a similar calmness and wisdom, maybe evenhandedness is the best description, colours these reminiscences. He writes about his parents as if they were people he had known long ago—not that he is distant to them, his whole life was ruled by their loss, but he is so fair to them, so loving in his equanimity, presenting their kindnesses and their cruelties (especially on the father’s part). Even a brief scene describing a time when, aged 10, he caught a glimpse of his mother’s half-naked body is anything but prurient. He and Detering talk a lot about what it’s like to be so old, so close to death. Keilson knows he had a good life, despite everything; knows too what he did to further that sense of satisfaction.

In the last section of the memoir, Keilson describes an encounter on his daily walk—he was 91 at the time and could still get around. Only a few hundred meters from his house he meets a child playing in the street. The boy says to him, matter of factly, You are very old. Keilson agrees. And how old are you? Three, the boy proudly responds. Without warning, he picks up his toy to run home, but not before pausing to yell, Where do you live?

Right near here, Keilson shouts back.

Where?

Just straight ahead, then turn left and go up the street. My house is right at the intersection.

The boy is satisfied. In the distance a woman’s voice calls him home.

Keilson walks straight ahead, turns left, and, at the intersection, finds his house, here, in Holland.

A lovely end to a lovely book of a lovely life.

I didn’t mean to read two books by Dutch survivors preoccupied by houses back-to-back: sometimes the reading life has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. An English translation of the memoirs was published in Australia, but I couldn’t get it: no library in North America either had it or was willing to lend it to my college’s library. Shame.

Barbara Yelin, Irmina (2014) Trans. Michael Waaler (2016)

Nineteen-year-old Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London in 1934, thrilled to escape her stultifying home in Stuttgart and excited to study typing. For a while, she lives with a host family. Later she is taken on by an eccentric Countess, a former Suffragette who buys her a bicycle and takes her to various Labour party events. One day, a distant relative takes her to a cocktail party, where she’s prickly and bored stiff until she meets Howard, a student from Barbados on a full scholarship to Oxford. They become friends—punting on the Cherwell, strolling through Hyde Park (where, as a mixed-race couple, they narrowly escape a gang of Blackshirts)—and inch toward becoming lovers. But then the Countess asks Irmina to find somewhere else to live—she feels obliged to take in a Jewish refugee—and Irmina has no choice but to return home. She settles in Berlin, putting her English to use as a translator in the Reich Ministry of War. All the while she writes to Howard, dodges the advances of ardent fascists, and angles for a posting in England.

A series of events conspire to keep her in Germany, where she eventually marries one of the ardent fascists, has a child, looks the other way at things she doesn’t want to deal with, and enjoys the advantages that come from having a husband in the SS. By 1942 she is a single mother (her husband is on the Eastern Front) seeking refuge from bombing raids and roughly answering her son’s questions about an impromptu auction in the street over the goods from an expropriated house (What are they doing? What is a Jew?) with Nazi vitriol: “The Jews are our misfortune.”

Decades later, in the early 1980s, Irmina, now widowed, receives an official letter from Barbados. The secretary to the Governor General, Sir Howard Green, writes on behalf of his employer: would the esteemed Mrs. von Behdinger consider visiting? The trip—centered on a birthday party for Howard’s adult daughter, herself named Irmina—is a mixed success. The past can’t be overcome, but old ties still mean something. Everywhere she goes the now grey-haired woman, in her sensible outfits, is introduced as “the brave Irina.” Howard has described her that way for decades, partly because he doesn’t know what became of her life and partly because he can’t let himself think about that life.

Hamburg-based bookseller Buchi, as she is known on Twitter, recommended Irmina to me, and I’m so glad she did. It’s smart, beautiful, moving: really impressive. Yelin’s delicate lines, and subdued palette (all greys, blues, and sepia yellows) demand that we linger on her images, even as the story pulls us forward. The panels create alternating rhythms, with regular small boxes interspersed with gorgeous two-page spreads. A fine afterword by the Holocaust and genocide scholar Alexander Korb fills in some of the historical background. (Irmina is based on Yelin’s grandmother, though it’s unclear how closely.) An excellent book for anyone who has ever wondered, How could so many ordinary Germans be drawn to National Socialism? Yelin’s answer is particular rather than general; it has no sweeping thesis. She never gives Irmina a pass, never lets us think, Well, she’s just an old woman now, no harm done. But she also has sympathy for roads not taken, missed encounters, and wrongs that can’t be apologized for. Check out Yelin’s site for more of her work: I especially enjoyed this short film about her current project, illustrating a Holocaust survivor’s memories.

A good reading month. A True Novel was the best, no question. That will be on my end of year list, I’m sure. But Yelin and Goblet, the two graphic memoirs, were great. Keilson, Minco, Bennett, and Moss too.

What I Read, January 2021

A few days of quiet, lingering feelings of winter break. (Eat the extra chocolate, have a glass of wine at dinner.) Then the fear and anger at the insurrection. Later the bated breath about the inauguration, the mixed feelings about applying for an American passport, the horror at the passport photos. Then calm: the relief, the joy at not having to hear a certain name. And then malaise, something like despair, exhaustion, ennui: no energy, writing difficult. Finally, the amazingly good fortune at being able to get vaccinated, thanks to Arkansas state policy of including teachers in the second group.

Among all this, of course there was reading, including a long book I’d long wanted to read.

Jean-Claude Grumberg, The Most Precious of Cargoes (2018) Trans. Frank Wynne (2020)

Strange little book that tells in fairy tale-fashion—it is subtitled “A Tale”— the story of a husband and wife and their twin infants who are deported from Drancy to some ominous point in the East. On the train, the woman’s milk has dried up; the hungry babies scream inconsolably; the others in the sealed railway car glower when they aren’t staring dejectedly into space. In a forest somewhere in Poland the man makes an abrupt, terrible decision. He rips one of the children—the little girl—from his wife’s breast, wraps it in his prayer shawl, and squeezes the parcel through the barred window. He cannot know that a peasant, a woman who has prayed for a child that has never come, will find the baby and raise her, over the objections of her husband and at risk to her own survival. How she loves the child, barters for milk, runs away when someone informs the occupying forces about the Jew Child—these descriptions make up the bulk of the novella, which is told in a quaint, implausible style. Even more impossible is the story of the father, who, unlike his wife and son, having survived the camps, stumbles into a village where a woman and her young daughter are selling cheese in the local market. Yes, it’s her, his daughter, he’s beside himself—his plan worked—but with a suppressed cry he leaves without a backward glance. And nobody knows, the narrator concludes, if they ever met again.

Preposterous and kitschy, monstrous even, this story. Yet Grumbach (b. 1939)—many of whose relatives were murdered in the Shoah and who himself survived as a hidden child—has a trick up his sleeve. In an epilogue he addresses an imagined reader who wants to know whether this is “a true story.” Over three pages he arraigns the question—why challenge the veracity of the story when so many question the veracity of the events?—concluding that fiction can tell a truth that history cannot. I happen to agree, but I’m unconvinced by Grumbach’s example. It lacks the sophistication of, say, Ida Fink, whose own short works incisively probe the limitations of the historical record, limitations that fiction can redress. I appreciate how Grumbach pulls the rug out from the heartwarming story many readers might have been moved by—but he’s too self-congratulatory and not all that smart about what his rug-pulling means.

Yishai Sarid, The Memory Monster (2017) Trans. Yardenne Greenspan (2020)

Novella about an Israeli academic who is groomed by the head of Yad Vashem—to whom the book is written as a letter after an eventually specified moment of disgrace; a conceit I’m unconvinced is effective—to lead Israeli tour groups through Holocaust sites in Poland. At first he works with school groups, but his self-loathing and contempt for/fear of the young people becomes too much, and he starts working with dignitaries, who care about photo ops instead of information. He knows too much, is the problem, and he needs to tell it all. But no one wants, or is in position, to hear it. The narrator begins to disintegrate, a process mimicked in the text’s ambiguous syntax. Here, for example, he is with his flock at Birkenau:

I stood before them over the underground undressing hall with the shaved roof, like a picked-over scab, underneath all rot.

Do the last clauses describe the roof, or the narrator? For he has become a memory monster, and as such must be banished. But it is equally true that memory itself is the monster. What is memory for? Does it cause more harm than good? Why do the visitors he ferries around—students, teachers, and politicians alike—say, with varying degrees of explicitness, that “to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too”? Sarid is excellent at skewering complacencies and false piety, whether Israeli or Polish. I agreed with so much in this book, was made nervous by the parts of myself I could see in the narrator. And yet The Memory Monster has not stayed with me. Maybe I’d need to read it again. For now, at least, I much prefer David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer, which covers some similar ground, but which has more to say than this book about teaching traumatic history.

Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1981) Trans. Ruth Feldman (1986)

Late work by the Italian master, a collection in which each essay focuses on someone Levi encountered in his eleven-month incarceration in the Monowitz subcamp of the Auschwitz complex. To call this a memoir as the English-language publisher does might seem misleading, but Levi was always more interested in others than himself. At first blush these pieces are primarily anecdotal, but they use obliquity and juxtaposition to create their own arguments. And Levi does open up about himself a little, although always indirectly, as we see in particular in his portrait of Lorenzo Perrone (the Piedmontese forced labourer who regularly slipped Levi extra rations), and in general in the fascinated way the essays return to allegorical stand-ins for the writer (conjurors, carpenters, violinists). I read this slim collection with some students and we agreed it packs a punch far beyond its size. If you’ve never read Levi, start with his classic first book, If This Is a Man but don’t sleep on this one. Underrated.

A weird thing: I don’t know whether the collection was conceived as such by Levi—as best I can tell, most of the pieces included here were in the original Italian, but one or two others have been added to this edition—a shame the Complete Works published in English a few years ago has such a terrible critical apparatus. Does anyone know?

Étienne Davodeau, The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs (2011) Trans. Joe Johnson (2013)

Keith tipped me off to this in his year-end review, and I’m glad he did. The subtitle tells the story, mostly: Davodeau helps his friend, Richard Leroy, a biodynamic wine producer in the Anjou, prune, harvest, decan tinker, while Leroy reads the comics Davodeau assigns him, visits a publisher, other artists, a comics con, even the press where the books are printed. Each learns to appreciate the labour that goes into the other’s work, and to think about what it means to be creative, have a passion, challenge expectations, respond to failure. It’s a generous book (it helps that people are always drinking wine, though a running joke is how few wines Leroy will agree to drink—not because they’re not famous enough, but because they aren’t interesting enough for him). Oddly, the winemaking comes across as much the more interesting of the two enterprises. Maybe that’s not odd at all: Davodeau is a realist and realism has always shone at explaining how to do things. You’d think a book like this would be plenty meta, but because that’s not Davodeau’s approach (he’s no Art Spiegelman, though he rightly admires him) his own métier comes across as a bit dull.

Anyway, lovely conceit, beautiful drawing. My only complaints: (1) the translation seems awkward (a typical sentence: “Marc-Antoine’s garden juxtaposes the deep blacks and sharp whites of his books by the moving affability of its shadows”—moving affability??) and (2) it’s so overwhelmingly guy. The book includes almost no female characters, and doesn’t find this as ridiculous as it should. Maybe the idea of métier is gendered in ways Davodeau misses the chance to explore. Indeed, the whole idea of métier could be complicated in relation to capitalism. Is the idea of vocation one that capitalism promulgates to further enslave us? Or is it a challenge to capitalism? There’s more to be said here.


Peg Kehret, Escaping the Giant Wave (2003)

My daughter was assigned this for school, and we read it together. It’s a lot worse than Hatchet. A teenage boy and his irritatingly quirky little sister accompany their parents on a working vacation to the Oregon coast. (The parents are in real estate; their firm is holding a retreat for its best agents.) Everything would be great except the lodge is under construction and they have to stay instead in a rickety old place, also there’s a tsunami warning out for the coast. No bigs. Oh yeah, Kyle’s nemesis, the school bully, comes along too. (His parents also being ace realtors.) Thalia and I agreed that the chapters describing the tsunami are by far the best. Kyle and his sister, who have been separated from their parents for reasons of plot rather than plausibility, run inland and uphill, just as they have been told. Even so they barely escape. Who knows what happened to the bully, who predictably poo-pooed the safety instructions. Afterward I asked Thalia if she wasn’t bothered that none of the books she’d read for school this year were about female characters, but she ignored my righteous indignation, concentrating on the fact that the book was finished and she could now read something else. Escaping the Wave isn’t entirely pointless—I’d no idea tsunamis ever hit Oregon. But yeah I don’t recommend this book.

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship, and Survival (2011)

On January 24, 1943, a convoy left the internment/transit camp at Compiègne for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among those deported were 230 French women, all associated with the resistance in some way, almost none of them Jewish. It was the only transport of its kind to leave occupied France. Moorehead has written a popular history of these women, the best known of which was the writer Charlotte Delbo. It’s a big task—that’s a lot of people to keep track of—and Moorehead doesn’t really succeed. She wants to do justice to these women, fair enough, but it’s hard to write a group portrait when you’re beholden to an idea of narrative history centered on the individual.

I read A Train in Winter with four students and we agreed we couldn’t keep anyone straight. Perhaps more importantly, we were frustrated both by the book’s structure and its lack of analysis. The first half considers Vichy France, the activities of the resistance, and the deplorably avid willingness of the French security apparatus to do the Germans’ dirty work for them; useful enough background, but nothing Moorehead has to say here is new, and into this general material she has to shoehorn the clandestine experiences (sabotage, resistance, betrayal, arrest) of her protagonists. The second half shifts to the women of the convoy and their experiences in the concentration camp system (first Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück). It is more focused, more dramatic, and more successful.

Yet here the failures of analyses become most apparent. Moorehead asserts—to be fair, on the testimony of the surviving women themselves, whether in the interviews she was able to perform with the handful still alive at the time of writing or in written documents (Delbo’s books again playing an outsized role)—that women experienced the camps differently than men. There’s plenty of evidence to support this idea, but exactly how and why is more complicated than Moorehead admits. She relies instead on gender essentialism, though she vacillates on whether she’s quoting the women themselves or affirming the idea herself: “Their own particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical, made them, as they told themselves, less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair” (that “as they told themselves” reads like a hedge—Moorehead cites no source here; impossible to know if she’s speculating or transcribing). She similarly makes general statements about group solidarity without telling us why they might be true:

those who came from recognized groups—the communists, the Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie—were team players … the French, as a national group, were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own.

“Recognized groups” is doing a hell of a lot of work here. (The part in the ellipsis disparages rich Parisians as the most selfish of the prisoners—isn’t that a “recognized group” too?) And Moorehead conveniently leaves out the fact that as political prisoners, these women had a better (though still terrible) experience than Jewish ones, which surely contributed to their “national” solidarity. In fact, the whole idea of nationalism verges uncomfortably on the longstanding rootlessness canard of antisemites everywhere, not least the Nazis. As if that wasn’t enough, Moorehead too often implies that survival was a matter of willpower (“Even as the French women reached Birkenau, it was clear that not all would, or could, or would choose, to survive”—I’m allergic to this language).

I’m glad to know about the existence of this convoy, am impelled to finally read Delbo, and was fascinated to learn about the experimental farm at Raisko/Rajsko, a subcamp run by I. G. Farben where inmates (including some of the French women) cultivated an Asian dandelion whose roots the Nazis hoped to synthesize into rubber. (Conditions on the farm were positively human compared to Birkenau: the women slept in beds with sheets, were able to wash regularly, ate meals rather than watery cabbage soup.) But all told I regret the time I spent reading A Train in Winter. Moorehead has written three other books about fascism in France and Italy, styling them into a loose quartet. After this one I’m in no hurry to read the others.

Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)

Maigret is called to Arpajon, about an hour south of Paris, to investigate a strange crime. The location is a busy crossroads just outside town, uninhabited except for a gas station, the villa of a parvenu insurance salesman, and a cottage that a reclusive Danish designer and his sister have recently rented. A man has been found dead in the salesman’s car—but the car is parked at the designer’s house. His, meanwhile, has been moved to the salesman’s. The foggy, bleak atmosphere is good, but there’s not enough eating and drinking to make it a top-notch Maigret. Throughout, the inspector seems unaccountably weary—an emotion that might be ascribed to the near-ridiculousness of the plot. Maigret’s response to a kerfuffle between two suspects could describe the book as a whole:

For some strange reason, this entire episode had not risen to the level of tragedy, or even drama. It was more like buffoonery.

Mary Kelly, The Spoilt Kill (1961)


I had been spying on Corinna for two weeks; spying on her for pay.

Good first line, right? The narrator is a PI specializing in industrial espionage. Corinna is a designer at a Staffordshire pottery firm called Shentall. Its owner hires the narrator to find out who is passing on the company’s designs to an American competitor. As the opening makes clear, though, the narrator might not mind spying on the woman. Indeed, in a manner beguilingly at once sinister and generous, he soon falls for Corinna.

In Staffordshire, centre of the British pottery industry for two centuries, kiln is pronounced kill. A “spoilt kill” is a firing that’s gone wrong, preserving some blemish immutably, such that the product can only be smashed and thrown away. A spoilt kill is an expensive mistake.

There are expensive mistakes aplenty in this excellent crime novel, especially in the narrator’s mishandling of his relationship to Corinna, who doubles as the prime suspect and his love interest. Kelly uses the plasticity of clay—the way shaping and heating turns brute material into beautiful but fragile pottery—as a metaphor for the hardening of human relationships. In a typical passage, the narrator dissects a heightened moment with the object of his desire and suspicion:

The look she gave me then. Joyful, triumphant, and aghast, How can a look be all that at once? I don’t know. I know nothing, nothing. These moments, these glances, flash past too quickly for analysis. Besides, I turned away. One always turns away. If one didn’t, all would be well.

This is real Ishiguro stuff: a narrator trying but failing to understand other people, and, in the process, failing to understand himself. In so doing, he reveals to readers things he himself doesn’t know. We read “against” him, even if doing so doesn’t eventuate into any clear understanding. In this example, the tell is the narrator’s recourse to “one”—a failed attempt to universalize his own failure.

Here’s another unwittingly offered revelation, this time about the narrator’s snobbery. His cover at the factory—he’s meant to be writing a history of the firm—means he’s welcomed into the social life of its tightly knit workers. Invited to a party by a hale, conventional, but kind and lively young man, a favourite at work, the narrator is surprised by the man’s home:

The house was in good repair, spotless, decorated throughout in slightly off-key colours, startling, unusual and weak: ‘contemporary’ intentions, diluted by time and democracy, and even then imperfectly grasped.

Unpleasant, right? Interestingly, though, Kelly holds back from making him thoroughly disagreeable. For me, much of the power of the book comes from a female author writing a male character. Not that Kelly is breaking new ground here or anything, but I was struck by several moments I doubt a male writer would have included. Here, the narrator, who has been married before, takes Corinna back to her flat. She doesn’t feel well because she’s getting her period. The narrator settles her for the night:

How strange, yet how mustily familiar, like coming home after a long holiday, to light the geyser, run the bath, fill the hot water bottle, put on the gas fire, turn down the bed—to do these things for a menstruating woman was the fabric of marriage, one of its few memories that was not unhappy but quiet, neutral, steadying in its ordinariness.

I’m not sure, exactly, that this response is nice. (Maybe a little self-satisfied? What do you think?) But I’m fascinated by its inclusion. All in all, The Spoilt Kill is suspenseful, well-written, and interesting. (You’ll learn a lot—but not too much—about making pottery.) An unusual, and unusually successful, book. Kelly didn’t write much, but I look forward to reading more. Fortunately, the British Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards, is reissuing another one later this year.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869) Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, Revised Amy Mandelker (2010)


This one needs a post or two of its own. For now I’ll tell the story of my previous attempts to read it—and my fantasy of how I thought I eventually would.

First attempt, late 1990s, twenty-hour train-ride from Toronto to Halifax. I bought a lovely Everyman Library hardcover of the Garnett translation, with a forbiddingly unvarnished, minimalist dust-jacket. Like Charlie Brown in the tv special, I dragged it around a whole winter’s vacation (my girlfriend and I were spending Christmas with her family). I abandoned it pretty soon after arriving—in fact, there is still a bookmark at p 186 (Pierre has just been nudged into convincing himself he loves Hélène)—but I guess I read it on the train. I say I guess because the only thing I remember about the trip—something I do remember quite often, it was so remarkable—is waking up in the early morning, the train chugging through New Brunswick, along the Miramachi, I think, with absolute piles of snow flanking the tracks. More snow than I’d ever seen before (which is saying something). Snow towering on the rooftops, snow drifting almost up the rooftops, that kind of thing. It was sunny and cold, that sunshine-y cold that is marvelous and crisp but also really fucking cold—and just magical. We had breakfast in the dining car and my girlfriend persuaded me to order fishcakes and a pot of tea and it was absolutely delicious. Maybe I gave up on the book because I had the Russian winter of my dreams right outside the window.

Years later, now living in a different country, married, a father (I think, I actually can’t remember if this was before or after we had T—an event that destroyed my memory, possibly for good), I made my second attempt. Now I had a different hardcover, the Peaver & Volokhonsky translation, an even bigger, more unwieldy book—its size being, I maintain, the main reason I didn’t persist past the first few dozen pages. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but it was kind of hard keeping everyone straight, and it was the winter vacation (I associate the book strongly with winter, even after having read it), and so I quietly set it aside.

I’d see them on the shelf, though, those War & Peaces, and they just kept forbiddingly insisting themselves on me. I’d sometimes lugubriously think that if I were diagnosed with cancer or something I would immediately take them up again to be spared the indignity and wasted life of dying without having read War and Peace. (Of course when I did later have a cancer scare that was the last thing on my mind.) But as time passed and my current sabbatical crept into view, I concocted a plan, the kind that keeps you going in tough times, like when you’re grinding up a hill into a headwind late in a run. I would spend a week all by myself in the Canadian Rockies. It would be fall, late September maybe, the most glorious time in the mountains but one I never get to experience anymore because of the academic calendar. I would take only War and Peace, so I wouldn’t be tempted to read anything else. I’d live without internet in a bee-loud glade. I’d hike every day, admiring the turning larches, while also finishing the novel, I saw no problem there. I pictured myself reading late into the night after a simple but satisfying supper of all the things no one else in my family likes to eat, sipping scotch. (This is how I know this scenario was pure fantasy, I do not much care for scotch, it just seems like something I should like.) How this was all going to work in reality was of no concern—and when the pandemic arrived it became clear that I wouldn’t have to worry about turning fantasy into reality.

In the end, reality was less triumphant than imagination—but it had the benefit of being real. I did, once again in winter, though not in a single immersive burst but instead over eight weeks, sometimes more intensively sometimes less, what with all the bits of daily family life to manage, actually read War and Peace. And it’s terrific.

Paraic O’Donnell, The House on Vesper Sands (2018)

Enjoyable 19th-century pastiche, bit of a Wilkie Collins vibe. Unusually, it’s as interested in the supernatural as in crime—I guess you’d call it urban magic—though its alternate-reality, speculative aspects aren’t as developed as they could be. In O’Donnell’s Victorian London, certain women emanate a kind of half-physical, half-psychological vibrancy that select others can perceive. And now someone is killing them. It’s up to Inspector Cutter, a gruff genius with a nice line in cursing the limitations of his juniors; Gideon Bliss, a disillusioned divinity student with a personal investment in the situation; and Octavia Hillingdon, a tyro journalist, to solve the case. The House on Vesper Sands is that rarest of books: one I wish had been longer, so that it could have fleshed out the implications of its scenario. As it is, it has strong characters, who exceed the caricatures they initially seem to fall into and whom I can absolutely imagine carrying a long-running series, and excellent writing, which never feels forced and is often genuinely arresting. A mournful Ben Aaronovitch, a fantastical Sarah Waters: take your pick.

Georges Simenon, The Yellow Dog (1931) Trans. Linda Asher (1987, revised 2013)

In a small town in Brittany, a man on his way home from a night out with the boys at the local café is shot while stopping in a doorway to light his cigar. A mysterious yellow dog is spotted at the scene of the crime. The next day it shows up in the café itself. Before long—everything happens fast in a Simenon—bad things befall the man’s friends: one turns up dead, one narrowly escapes poisoning, one disappears leaving only a bloodstained car. And that animal keeps showing up: is the yellow dog a red herring? Maigret sorts things out, which mostly means avoiding reporters and telling the mayor to shut up. Great opening scene, decent ending: absolutely serviceable.

On the whole, an underwhelming reading month—except for War and Peace. Genuinely titanic, worth every minute. That Mary Kelly’s good too, though. See you next month.

What I Read, December 2020

I’m slow at the best of times, but the lag between now and December seems especially long. That was before there was an armed insurrection in the US Capitol, for example. Anyway, December was in large part a slow month, which is really always a good thing but especially now. I wrote steadily, then took time off at the end of the year. The days drew in, the temperature dropped a little, running conditions were good. Inveterate grasshopper, I turned to a series of short, light books, but mostly I was reading a long, serious one. Yes, on my third try I am finally reading War and Peace, and I know now it’s a book I’ll want to return to again. I only made it about 2/3 through in December, so for now I’ll stick with the rest of the month’s reading.

Helen MacInnes, Above Suspicion (1941)

I closed out 2019 with MacInnes’s Decision at Delphi and liked it enough to promise myself I’d keep reading her. So when I saw some titles in one of the recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sales, I snapped them up. I started with this, her first, one of those “ordinary people get caught up in espionage” scenarios that seem to have been popular in the 30s and 40s (Ambler, Dorothy Hughes). Here the ordinary people are a young married couple—he an Oxford don, she his intelligent and fashionable partner—who are persuaded by an old friend to use their annual summer hiking holiday in the Alps to test the strength of a ring of British agents in the Reich. After successful rendezvous in Nuremberg and Innsbruck, the couple run into problems in the Austrian Alps.

I wanted to like Above Suspicion, but in the end I did not. It seems to have been written to encourage Americans to get into the war—like Casablanca, from the same year, only not nearly as good. A laudable goal, but one that makes for heavy going today, especially in the conversations between the English couple and an isolationist American journalist whom they befriend and eventually convert to the antifascist cause, though not without dialogue like this:

“I’ll become accustomed to the idea that man is born in pain, lives in struggle, dies in suffering.”

“Well, that’s a better defense against the new Middle Ages than the nice ideas you got from your liberal education.”

MacInnes obviously became a good writer—who can tell me when that happened?

Gary Paulsen, Hatchet (1987)

Now classic middle-grade novel that I am old enough to have missed the first time around. It was assigned to my daughter for school, and we read it aloud together. Brian, whose parents have recently separated, flies to Alaska to spend the summer with his engineer father. On the way, though, the pilot dies of a heart attack. (This happens in the first chapter, so I’m not spoiling anything.) The prop plane crashes on the shores of a lake somewhere in northern Canada. Brian is banged up but, miraculously, alive. Now he has to stay that way. His ingenious efforts at doing so and his diminishing hopes of being rescued comprise the rest of the book. Basically, it’s Robinson Crusoe for fourth-graders. My daughter found the crash really scary, but then she got into the survival story. I enjoyed it too, though I found Paulson’s love of sentence fragments grating, his cod-existential philosophy a Bit Much, and his depiction of Brian’s mother unduly harsh. But he’s good at depicting dramatic events and the painstaking work required to live off the land. A vivid scene with turtle eggs might stay with me forever. Hatchet readers, you know what I mean.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts (2020)

Crime novel set on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is an enforcer on the rez (people hire him to give wrongdoers a doing over when the police won’t deal with them—which is most of the time). He’s also guardian to his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. Virgil is still grieving the deaths of his mother and sister, and trying to keep things together. But when Nathan nearly dies from an OD Virgil becomes determined to find out who is bringing drugs onto the rez. Some things in the book are conventional (Virgil reunites with an old girlfriend, for whom he tries to clean up his act; he has a funny, goofy friend as his sidekick). Others are not, like the attention paid to what people on the rez eat, versus what other people think they should. Or like the title—winter counts are historical records that use pictographs to convey important events. Personally, I think the events of this particular year make a satisfying arc. But the end of the book clearly sets us up for more of Virgil Wounded Horse. Which, fine, I’ll totally read them. For me, Marcie R. Rendon’s Cash Blackbear books are more interesting, but I’m always here for more crime fiction by indigenous writers.

Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times (2020)

Ava arrives in Hong Kong from Dublin to teach English. She meets Julian, a rich English banker, and enters into a wary, minefield-laden relationship with him. Both are desperate not to show their emotions, channeling that energy into plenty of sex and (genuinely funny) arch conversational volleys. When Julian is sent home for a while by his firm, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born, English-educated lawyer. They fall in love. What will Ava—who is living in Julian’s posh flat and has been more than cagey with Edith about him—do when Julian comes back?

The characters are good: Ava frustrated and delighted me in equal parts. Edith is a mensch. Even Julian is in his rubbishy upper-class English way sympathetic. The book is smart: Dolan uses Hong Kong to think about Irish colonialism—primarily through the way both places absorb and inflect the English language. And it’s funny: I started noting passages that amused me but gave up after a while, there were so many. I can’t resist sharing a few examples, though.

Here’s Ava performing some of the mental gymnastics she’s so good at:

I googled the salary range for junior vice presidents at his bank: 137,000 to E217,000 a year, plus bonus and housing allowance. I tried to take heart from this. That he could have that many zeroes and not consider himself wealthy surely showed that material lucre would not make me happy, ergo that I needn’t find a real job. But if money wouldn’t improve my life, I couldn’t think of anything likelier to.

Here’s Ava at the end of one of her regular phone calls with her formidable mother:

She didn’t want me to agree that it was good her younger son no longer needed her. Equally, she didn’t want me conforming that she should feel defunct because he was leaving before he’d finished college. Mam dealt in conversational quicksands where moving would only trap you more.

Here’s Ava with some on-point life thoughts:

You had to pretend to feel sad if you’d been single too long. I hated doing that because there were other things I was actually sad about.

Here’s Ava and Edith reflecting on the British. (Dolan does reported speech/Ava’s conclusions about conversations so well):

We agreed also that the British obsession with dogs was creepy, both because of the volume of animals they ate and in light of their historic and contemporary level of regard for humans.

Here’s Edith offering Ava a home truth:

 “You keep describing yourself as this uniquely damaged person, when a lot of it is completely normal. I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself your especially bad.”

And finally here’s a bit from Ava’s class. I loved these sections; they reminded me of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, another funny and smart novel about young women teaching abroad. Here Ava is teaching the difference between category nouns (vegetable) and exact nouns (broccoli, carrots).

“It was better to use exact nouns because this made your writing more precise and interesting.”

[Ava sets an exercise in which students are to provide three corresponding exact nouns for each category noun.]

Cynthia Mak asked what to say for ‘people.’ Did it mean ‘sister,’ ‘brother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘teacher,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘artist,’ or—

‘They’re all okay,’ I said.

‘But if I put ‘sister,’ ‘father,’ ‘brother’ in ‘people,’ then what about here?’ She pointed to the box marked ‘family.’

‘Okay, don’t do those. Do ‘teacher’ or something.’

‘But what about here?’—signalling the ‘professions’ row.

‘Okay, something else for “people.”’

‘Happy people, sad people?’

‘“Happy people” isn’t an exact noun—it’s an adjective plus a category noun.’

‘So what should I write?’

We looked at each other. It was indeed a challenge to describe people in a way not immediately related to how they earned money or their position in the family unit. I said, ‘How about ‘friend,’ ‘boyfriend,’ ‘colleague’?’

‘I don’t want to write ‘boyfriend.’’

I couldn’t blame her for questioning the exercise. ‘Friend,’ ‘enemy,’ and ‘colleague’ didn’t seem like ways of narrowing down ‘people’ in the way ‘apple’ did for ‘fruit.’ An apple would still be a fruit if it didn’t have any others in its vicinity, but you couldn’t be someone’s nemesis without their hanging around to complete the definition. The same issue cropped up with my earlier suggestions. ‘Family’ was relational, and ‘profession’ was created and given meaning by external structures. Admittedly, ‘adult,’ ‘child,’ and ‘teenager’ could stand on their own. But I still found it depressing that the way we specified ourselves—the way we made ourselves precise and interesting—was by pinpointing our developmental stage and likely distance from mortality. Fruit didn’t have that problem.

I promised myself I’d write this review without mentioning Sally Rooney. Every piece I’ve seen about Exciting Times, not to mention the jacket copy, does. Hell, Rooney first published Dolan in Stinging Fly. Dunno what to say, though. They do remind me of each other. But, good news, there’s room for both in my reading heart.

Uri Shulevitz, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (2020)

Uri Shulevitz’s father named him for “the biblical Uri, father of Bezalel, the first artist of the Bible,” after he noticed the infant, just home from the hospital, staring intently at the flowers on the wallpaper. Indeed the boy loved nothing more than drawing, which Shulevitz presents as an allegory for understanding the complexity of the world, detailing, for example, his amazement when his mother teaches him how to draw his stick figures in profile and not just head-on. Even before he grew to be a teenager, Shulevitz—author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books—would need to shift his mindset many times.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Shulevitz père left his wife and four-year-old son behind in Warsaw and fled eastward, managing to find work painting slogans for the Soviets in Bialystok. Despite this success, fear for his loved ones in Nazi-occupied Poland made him determined to return home. Taking a train to the Soviet-Polish border, he was on the point of crawling through the hole in an abandoned warehouse that served as a makeshift conduit between the two countries, when a man came through in the other direction. In horrified amazement, he ordered Shulevitz’s father to turn back. To return to the Nazis was suicide; he should concentrate on getting his wife and child out. Eighty years later, Shulevitz reflects on this chance encounter. What would have happened had his father ignored the man, or arrived just fifteen minutes later? The same thing that happened to the rest of Shulevitz’s relatives, probably: death in camps or ghettos. Was his family’s escape providence? If so, why did his devout grandfather perish, when his non-religious parents did not? Now an old man, Shulevitz can only conclude, “I have no answers.”

The historian Raul Hilberg famously said he never began with big questions about the Holocaust, because he was scared of arriving at small answers. Better instead to begin with the small things—such as, in this case, a lively and moving account of what one child experienced. Shulevitz even sees the absurd humour in his experiences, like the ridiculous pieties he and his parents encounter in their first months in the Soviet Union. My favourite instance is when a soldier tells a group of refugees about the wonders of their new land:

He said, ‘In the Soviet Union, we have plenty of everything. We have tea and we even have sugar.’

Both were such luxuries in those days.

When one of us asked, ‘Do you have lemons for tea?’ he declared, ‘Sure we do. They’re just now building a lemon factory.’

Even as a small child, Shulevitz was learning that nothing was quite as it appeared—perhaps another reason why he would be so fascinated by art, which at least was honest about being fake.

As Jews, Shukevitz and his parents were refused Soviet citizenship, which meant they could only live in certain areas. When Shulevitz’s father lost his job as a sign-painter, he found one with a theater company. Accompanying his father to work, Shulevitz was amazed by the differences between the sets seen up close—so flimsy—and their splendid appearance from the stalls. Life proved itself similarly unsteady when, in the summer of 1940, the family was suddenly deported with other stateless refugees, almost all Jewish, to a settlement called Yura near the White Sea. (Shulevitz’s experiences there were similar to the ones described by Esther Hautzig in her marvelous autobiographical children’s novel, The Endless Steppe.) 2400 km from Warsaw, the family began a new, hard life: the men cut timber in the forest; the women prepared what little food they could grow or gather. The children played in the snow and loved it, but death lurked all around—the first thing the overseer pointed to when the refugees arrived was a cemetery: “That will be your last resting place.” And it almost was for Shulevitz’s mother, who became dangerously ill and was saved only after an arduous journey to the regional hospital.

She survived, much weakened, and the family’s next piece of luck came with the dissolution of the Hitler-Stalin pact in the summer of 1941. Overnight the refugees were no longer spies or saboteurs but instead victims of a common enemy. Eventually, in 1942, Shulevitz and his parents were allowed to travel to the Soviet republics in central Asia. Two months later, the family arrived in Turkestan in the Kazakh Republic. Shulevitz was finally safe—and yet his troubles were only beginning. His father vanished—to join the Polish army being formed in Iran, it transpired, but he and his mother did not know this until he returned months later, having been rejected for service—his mother had to take any work she could get, and Uri himself fell seriously ill. Even after his recovery he and his mother were hungry all the time. Matters hardly improved after the father’s return: an impractical man, his money-making schemes (building a loom for weaving carpets, smuggling tobacco) came to nothing. Eventually he eked out a living at a shoe repair kiosk in the central market. Shulevitz loved nothing more than coming to work with his father; he describes this part of his life vividly: the mix of Russians, Chechans, Jews, Kazakhs, and other peoples fascinated the boy. And always he found art: a scrap of an old map, a strip of film that he and his friends pored over with the devotion of film students, a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Russian.

Shulevitz never finished the book, though. The war ended and the kid who owned the book vanished with his family from one day to the next. Besides, Uri was on his own adventure now, an odyssey to return home, via Moscow, L’vov, and Kraków, where Shulevitz’s parents soon learned that they, along with other Jewish survivors of the war, were not wanted. The family thus diverted course and made their way into Czechoslovakia illegally before eventually arriving at a DP camp in Bavaria. In December 1946 the family made it to Paris, where they reunited with the father’s brother and his family. Their two-and-a-half-year stay was a mixed blessing for Uri—he hated being a “dirty foreigner,” but he fell in love with the movies and the novels of Dumas. In 1949 the family left for Israel; ten years later, Shulevitz, now a young man, accepted an offer to study art in New York, where he has lived ever since, still drawing.

When Shulevitz says that art saved his life, he doesn’t mean it metaphorically. He and his parents were refused Soviet passports in 1940 because the official who adjudicated their case believed, despite the parents’ protests, that the boy had been named after the Zionist writer Uri Zvi Greenberg, which must mean the parents were anti-Soviet reactionaries. At the time this refusal was a terrible blow, leading to their exile in Yura. But had they stayed in Grodno they would likely have been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen that swept through in 1941/42. A baby fixated on flowered wallpaper; a fanciful father who knew some Torah; a rejection that led, indirectly and dangerously, to safety: no wonder Shulevitz concludes, “It was blind chance deciding our fate.” It is for this clear-sightedness—this refusal to sugar-coat his survival as a function of heroism or cleverness or chutzpah—even more than for its illuminating depiction of the refugee experience in Soviet Central Asia, that sets Chance: Escape from the Holocaust apart from other Holocaust memoirs, whether for children or adults.

In fact, it was difficult for me to tell, as I read the book raptly in a single evening, who the book was for. Although marketed for children—my local library is shelving it in juvenile nonfiction—it never condescends to them, and would in fact, I suspect, be difficult for those under age 10 to follow. For me, this uncertainty was a plus; I love that teenagers and adults can both enjoy it. The book’s illustrations are similarly pleasing, and similarly uninterested in being only one thing. They include photos, maps, and dozens of Shulevitz’s charcoal drawings, in a variety of styles, from comic-book caricature to Käthe Kollwitz-inspired expressionist. Really an excellent book, highly recommended.

Marie Jalowicz Simon, Underground in Berlin (2014) Trans. Anthea Bell (2015) [compiled by Hermann Simon and Irene Stratenwerth]

Fascinating memoir describing Marie Jalowicz Simon’s years living under an assumed identity in wartime Berlin. At one point, an abortionist who has been helping her and other Jews in hiding sends her to a supposed rescuer, a barmaid who sells Jalowicz Simon to a syphilitic Nazi for 15 Marks. You can’t make stuff like this up. I wrote about my experience reading it with students.

Rebecca Clifford, Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (2020)

Writing about this for another venue, so will only say for now that this study of child survivors of the Holocaust is excellent. Clifford cogently argues that these children—ranging in age from two or three to twelve to fifteen at the time—were continually used and abused by the adults who took charge of them after the war, sometimes stripping them from the families who had cared for them lovingly during the war, projecting on them their anxieties and hopes, and even disputing that they were survivors at all. At times, the children were despaired of as savages whose humanity had been destroyed by their experiences. At others, they were heralded as the vanguard of a virile Jewish future. Using untapped archival records and interviews with twenty survivors, Clifford emphasizes the children’s own wishes and desires, something that none of the (mostly well-intentioned) adults in their lives had ever done for them.

Eva Ibbotson, The Morning Gift (1993)

I was about a third of the way through this novel when I glanced at the copyright page, curious whether it was from the 1940s or the 1950s. Imagine my shock when I learned it was published the same year I started college. I admit this knowledge made the book sink a little in my estimation—what felt sweet and innocent coming from another age felt naïve, even misguided when written with so much hindsight. But its author was from another age—Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925 to talented parents (her father was a fertility doctor, her mother a writer whose work has in recent years been rediscovered). She arrived in England in 1934, landing with her mother in Belsize Park, a London neighbourhood then filled with down on their luck refugees from Hitler.

The Morning Gift draws on that background. Ruth, a young woman from an accomplished, loving, slightly eccentric Jewish Viennese family, escapes to England after a hasty marriage to a brilliant British professor of vertebrate zoology. Quin turns out to be one of the most eligible aristocratic bachelors in England. (Think Cary Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby except this guy always knows where his intercostal clavicle is.) That is, everyone thinks he’s eligible, because Quin and Ruth keep the marriage secret so they can dissolve it without fuss—but of course the real secret (to themselves, not to readers) is that they’re actually crazy about each other. Will they figure that shit out before they pull a relationship Gift of the Magi?

Imagine, if you can, a mash-up of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and a less sinister work Daphne DuMaurier—that’s The Morning Gift. (In her introduction to this reissue, Sarra Manning calls it “the missing link between I Capture the Castle and Jilly Cooper’s early romances.”) Ibbotson apparently said she wrote books for intelligent women who have the flu. I’m no intelligent woman, sadly (actually, not sadly, as then my ideas would get stolen by inferior men and my drycleaning would be more expensive), and, touch wood, I haven’t the flu. But I raced through this romance, despairing at setbacks and cheering for a happy ending. I wouldn’t have minded, though, if the book had been a little less insubstantial. Which has left me of two minds about whether to try Ibbotson again. I will take your advice in the comments.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

Enduring yet also dated novel (in an interesting, not bad way: group therapy, was that really a thing?) about a woman responding to her feckless husband’s infidelity. Strong Laurie Colwin vibes (though the master remains unsurpassed in the “young woman for whom cooking is important makes her way in New York” genre). Lots of good lines, sometimes laugh out loud funny. Would have left more of an impression, I suspect, had I not been reading War and Peace at the same time.

Patrick DeWitt, French Exit (2018)

Someone praised this on Twitter and, feeling the need for a break from the Russian soul, I took a quick spin through it. To make a French exit is apparently to leave without saying goodbye—to ghost someone, basically. In DeWitt’s novel a mother and her thirtysomething son, who live together in disquieting intimacy (they don’t sleep together or anything, it’s not like that, instead they make fun of people in the same mean way) escape Manhattan, after their finances finally collapse. (The woman’s late husband made a fortune as a litigator defending exclusively terrible causes, but the money’s been squandered.) They take refuge in a friend’s Parisian apartment, blithely spending the last of their funds on marvelous food and wine and gathering an assortment of characters around them. The vibe is part Arrested Development, part Wes Anderson. Indeed, at first I thought, “This is like a Wes Anderson film in which all the characters are mean.” (Like those awful twins in Rushmore.) By the end, French Exit became like an ordinary Wes Anderson film, complete with celebrations of full-blown idiosyncrasy and plenty of winsome ruefulness. I didn’t feel the transformation was earned, though. DeWitt can turn a phrase, but I don’t see the point of this book. It wants to have it both ways: nasty zingers and hugging and learning. I think DeWitt—whose Robert Walser pastiche I couldn’t finish—is just not for me.

Holocaust stories were December’s winners: the Clifford, the Jalowicz Simon, and, especially, the Shulevitz are moving, valuable works. The light reading was mostly a let-down, and the literary fiction a mixed bag (yay Dolan, boo DeWitt). But everything was overshadowed by the book on which my attention was mostly fixed. (Hint: it’s about Russia.) More about that next month!

What I Read, November 2020

November: as long as three regular months! Did the mood swings of the US election and the relative calm of Thanksgiving happen in one four-week stretch? The rest of the world might have been busy, but at my writing table all was at a standstill. I felt blocked, uninspired, guilty, anxious, ashamed. A late-month breakthrough—apparently this manuscript wants to be both about teaching the Holocaust and teaching writing?—made me feel a little better; here’s to more of that in December. On the reading front, though, things hummed along.

Philip Kerr, Metropolis (2019)

The last Bernie Guenther book, a prequel, is set at the end of the Weimar Republic when Bernie is first promoted to Detective. He solves a crime that gives Thea von Harbou—Fritz Lang’s sometime wife and collaborator—the plot for M. I’ll miss Bernie; he was all right.

Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (2017) Trans. Laura Marris (2020)

Journalist Schwarz grew up in France to a French mother and a German father. Summers were spent in Mannheim; the schoolyear in Paris. In the first part of this sort-of-memoir, she researches what her grandparents did during the war. She starts on her father’s side. In the mid 1930s, Karl Schwarz took over a petroleum company, which gave him not only his livelihood but protected his life. (He avoided being conscripted because his products were deemed essential to the war effort.) Karl’s wife Lydia, though no fanatical Nazi, was impressed by the Führer’s dedication and would later regularly mourn his absence. After the war, a letter arrived from an American lawyer representing Julius Löbmann, whose brother, Siegmund, had been forced to sell his company to Karl at a cut-rate price. Siegmund and his immediate family were later deported to Gurs, a camp in Vichy France, then later to the transit camp at Drancy, and from there, on April 15, 1944, to Auschwitz, where they were gassed on arrival.

Löbmann’s desire for reparation incensed Karl, but the fallout of the affair wasn’t just economic. Karl’s already stormy relationship with his son, Volker, Schwarz’s father, disintegrated, as Volker joined the student movements determined to call their elders to account. Seeking a “European” identity, Volker traveled to France, where he met Schwarz’s mother. Josiane grew up next to Drancy, site of the notorious transit camp from which so many, including the Löbmanns, were deported to the killing sites of the East, a fact that interested no one in her postwar childhood. As Schwarz investigates her maternal family she learns about France’s denial of its complicity in German crimes, which persisted at least into the 1980s and 90s, but really, she maintains, to this day. Schwarz argues Germany’s “memory work” has been superior to France’s: hardly contentious.

Inspired by the example of her family, Schwarz wants to understand those who after the war became known in Germany as die Mitläufer, people who went along with the regime. A worthy topic, to be sure, but instead of, for example, exploring the effort the Nazi regime put into generating such connivance and considering how that effort worked on her ancestors, Schwarz leaves us with op-ed caliber banalities:

By our opportunism, by our conformity to an all-powerful capitalism, which places money and consumption over education, intelligence, and culture, we are in danger of losing the democracy, peace, and freedom that so many of our predecessors have fought to preserve.

There’s plenty more armchair pontificating in the book—“We Europeans have come a long way”; “the most dangerous monster is a not a megalomaniacal and violent leader, but us, the people who make him possible, who give him the power to lead”—leading to a risible ending in which Schwarz makes a tour of European countries, dispatching the failure of memory work in Italy, Hungary, Britain, and Austria in a couple of pages each, often invoking as her evidence a friend’s statement or an experience she once had on vacation.

I learned a few things from this book, of course. I didn’t know, for example, that at the end of the war the French brought several hundred German scientists home with them: their work laid the foundation for the still-flourishing French aviation and weapons industries. Nor, still more fascinatingly, did I know about the prosecutor Fritz Bauer, a Jew who spent the war in exile in Denmark and Sweden after having his legal career destroyed by the Nazis, returned to Germany and, as the general prosecutor of Hesse, doggedly pursued cases against many mid-level perpetrators, leading to the Auschwitz trials in the 1960s. (I want to read a book about him.) But such moments are rare. Most of the stuff in Those Who Forget is introductory and uninspiring. Schwarz has neither the analytic chops of a historian or the panache of an essayist. Her title, referring to those who went along with atrocity, unwittingly describes her readers, who, if they are anything like me at least, will quickly forget this book and its nostrums.

Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (2015) Trans. Minna Zallman Procter (2017)

Everyone loves Jaeggy, but I’m not sure I get the fuss. I was led to this little book by Brian Dillon, but I think I prefer him on Jaeggy to Jaeggy herself. Three short essays—on De Quincy, Keats, and the French symbolist writer Marcel Schwob—emphasize unusual biographical details. Quirky and poetic, I guess, but not really my scene. I’ve forgotten almost everything about it.

Tana French, The Searcher (2020)

Still the champ.

Charles Dickens, Our Mutual Friend (1865)

What can I say, it’s a classic for a reason. I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully. Dickens is, in the end, not my guy. I’d rank Our Mutual Friend below Great Expectations and Bleak House in my own list (though I’ve only read 5). The story’s ambitious, maybe too ambitious, seems to have run away at the end, relying on hasty/convenient thread-tying. On further reflection, though, I feel something about the story does not want to—maybe even should not—end, because it’s a book about revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.

For this reason, Our Mutual Friend is best when describing in-between states: a famous example, which I’d read about years ago in an essay by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and was delighted to finally encounter in the flesh, as it were, concerns the resuscitation of man no one likes, a river scavenger and a meddler, who has fallen overboard into the Thames in an accident. (Book III, Chapter 3.) A group of bystanders work diligently to restore the rogue to life: their attention is fixated on the unconscious man’s body, so much so that in addition to their CPR it’s as if the men were willing him to life. (The man’s daughter watches “with terrified interest”—the phrase describes the onlookers too.) When the man splutters to, when the “spark of life” rekindles, they are relieved, even briefly exultant. But then they return to disparaging him, and drift away. A brilliant, vivid scene–and a useful comment on the title. Just how much mutuality is there in this book?

I spoke above of in-between states. This concerns the novel’s form as much as its content. I liked best those bits where the novel threatens to become full-on Gothic. (Wilkie Collins’s influence? Or was their friendship over by then?) Any scene with Bradley Headstone (that name!) counts—that guy could be out of a novel from Hamsun or Dostoyevsky—but especially the one where he tries to kill Lightwood. Yowza!

Assorted other thoughts:

Appreciate the attempt to rehabilitate the Jews, Charles, but Riah did not do it for me. (Tip: next time, avoid having your Jewish character regularly cite the New Testament.)

Sloppy, on the other hand! Sometimes it is easier to thrash the mangle than to say what’s in your heart. What a dear.

Boffin, you had me worried there!

The Lammles, oof hard core, reminded me of bits of Collins’s No Name.

Pa and Bella—cute, but also creepy.

Mr. Venus, terrific, that first scene with him and Wegg is 10/10 Dickens. Must be a connection, though not sure how, between his taxidermy and Jenny Wren’s dolls. (Maybe also Sloppy’s newspaper-reading?) Model making, alternative modes of reproducing the world, etc.

Not the first person to say it, sorry for the banality, but sucks that Dickens didn’t write better women characters. Has anyone tried to argue against this? I’d like to see how—I guess Mrs. Lammle is the most interesting here—because this inability really stops me from liking him more.

Thanks to Alok Ranjan for prompting me to read this. Totally don’t regret it.

Inge Deutschkron, Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (1978) Trans. Jean Steinberg (1989)

Very good.

Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times (2020)

Not good. Read the print version and wondered whether I’d enjoyed the previous Rebus novels more because of the audiobook narrator than because of the text. The narrator brings out a curt elegance in the writing that seems inert or clumsy on the page. Feels like a series at risk of losing its way.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future (2020)

At the beginning of Robinson latest novel, a terrible heatwave blankets India. Wet bulb temperatures reach 35 C; at this point, the body can no longer regulate its temperature by sweating and basically boils. Twenty million people die. Frank May, a young American aid worker, is almost one of them. Like everyone else in town, he seeks refuge in a nearby lake; many are burned alive even in the water, but rescue workers find Frank still alive, but barely conscious. He returns to health, but never returns to America, partly because he’s furious at his home country’s response to climate change, and partly because he gets panic attacks anywhere it’s warm. Eventually he settles in Zürich, which brings him into contact with the novel’s real hero, Mary Murphy, the Irish-born head of a UN subsidiary organization developed at the Paris climate talks, The Ministry for the Future.

Mary is a fitting hero for Robinson’s novel—capable, no-nonsense, politically savvy, but without extraordinary powers, charisma, or superhuman intelligence. She is instead a damn good bureaucrat. She knows experts need to be listened to without being allowed to run the show. Someone needs to intercede between them and politicians and power-brokers, especially the most powerful people on the planet, the unelected heads of the world’s central banks. Mary also knows that big problems are solved by plugging away at lots of small solutions. And the problem her ministry has been tasked with is the biggest one of all: lowering the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Starting from basically our own present (I think the first events are in 2025, though I’m not sure—it’s a big novel, I might well have missed something) and extending for thirty years or so, The Ministry for the Future imagines how this seemingly unimaginable task could be accomplished. The solution is to think 100 years out—the whole seven generations thing—but such thinking must be incentivized, both by carrot and stick. Mary presides over a team with various departments (legal, computing/AI, agriculture, etc.), all of which are needed to solve the problem, even though economics is first among equals: Mary’s world-saving legacy is to finally convince those central bankers to create a new currency, the Carboni, that has its eye on the long term (it pays out in hundred-year installments) and can only be earned by carbon sequestration, whether by leaving fossil fuels on the ground (as Saudi Arabia is eventually forced to do), or by offsetting emissions (planting trees, rethinking agriculture, etc.). Carbon quantitative easing, she calls it.

The bankers only get there, though, after many other changes have been made. India, furious at the mass death brought on by the heatwave, organizes a “double Pinatubo”—it fires enough sulfur dioxide into the air to equal two times the amount released by the volcanic explosion of Mount Pinatubo in the early 1990s, which lowered the world’s temperature by about a degree for a couple of years. India leaves the Paris Accords to do so, and begins detaching from the rest of the world, tired of providing its service workers. Various radical political movements—including the decisive rejection of the BJP, who presided over the wet bulb fiasco—and progressive social movements, especially in the realms of agriculture, make India a world leader.

These changes are spurred by terrorist acts (some of which may be orchestrated or even perpetrated by a rogue element within the Ministry of the Future; Mary doesn’t want to know, though she silently acknowledges that terrorism will be central to changing hearts and minds). The Children of Kali, for example, inject bioengineered parasites into the world’s beef supply and shoot down most of its commercial air traffic in a single day through massive coordinated drone attacks, which kill the meat and airline industries, respectively.

There’s also geoengineering (even though the scientists in the book scoff at it), notably, pumping out water from underneath the great Antarctic glaciers and ice shelves to slow their movement. It costs a fortune, but when looked at in terms of the survival of civilization, it’s cheap (and it works). The glaciologists and Antarctica heads want to help, but mostly they are just psyched that someone is paying them to work and play in the part of the world they’ve become addicted to. (Robinson plays a double game here—at once admiring scientists’ cynicism about their bureaucratic masters and critiquing their claims to disinterestedness.)

While all this is going on, the novel’s more personal plot grinds on, too. Frank and Mary meet up in Zürich, under circumstances I won’t get into, and a lifelong pas de deux ensues. Robinson doesn’t stint their relationship—it’s not romantic, it’s more interesting than that—but in the end he cares about other stuff more. Like setting. Zürich in particular and Switzerland in general serves as more than its typical role as an anonymous backdrop for espionage or banking. One way to read The Ministry for the Future is as a hymn to this little country’s biggest city, which might seem ridiculous—who cares about Zürich, for God’s sake—but it’s precisely Zürich’s dull practicality, its unshowy livable-ness, that the novel values. Robinson clearly knows Switzerland. He includes some exciting set pieces in the mountains (one of them invoking Frankenstein, natch), as well as lovely evocations of lake swimming and Zürich’s Fastnacht (carnival), but what he really loves is the Swiss insistence that when the world is secure, Switzerland is secure. If we help others, we help ourselves. That’s the kind of thinking we all need.

I could go on, but my basic point is: I loved this book. It’s a page-turner about extremely undramatic but highly consequential decisions. It’s also only sort of a novel: yes, it has central characters, but it also considers other beings, only some of which are human (short chapters are narrated from the POV of caribou, the sun, carbon atoms: not especially convincing, but the idea is good). It’s really an essay-novel hybrid, desperate to cram into its pages as many possible solutions to a lower carbon world as possible, like the 2000-Watt club (if you divided all the people in the world by the amount of energy we consume, you’d get 2000 watts per person per year—or 48 kilowatt-hours per day—which the club’s members demonstrate is really quite achievable and doesn’t require that many changes, at least in many parts of the world). Reducing inequality, learning to share, valuing security as a good that arises when everyone has enough—these goals will be needed to help us survive. Rewilding, the 50% project (grouping people into half the world’s territory), worker cooperatives based on the Mondragón model pioneered by the Basques, new technologies, new legal realities (in which nonhumans have rights), new economies—all are ways in which we can work to solving the climate crisis.

What’s amazing is that Robinson shows how it could happen. He is optimistic but not naïve. He heaps special scorn on economists, which I found satisfying, and points out that it’s when the shit hits the fan—like when water stops coming out of the taps—that’s when you need society. Neoliberalism has always been full of shit. The Ministry for the Future is at times an alarming book—I won’t soon forget that grim opening scene—but more often it’s a rousing one. It offers what we collectively need: “An earthquake in the head.” Since reading it I’ve felt more hopeful than I have in ages, and I’d love for it to get many, many readers.

Lissa Evans, V for Victory (2020)

The trilogy that started with Crooked Heart and continued through the marvelous Old Baggage comes to a satisfying close. Noel Sedgewick, the character who connects the books, now 15, struggles with his identity. To whom does he belong—the parents he never knew, or the women who raised him, in such different but mutually compatible ways? Evans takes tropes from WWII British literature—the female warden both hardened but given purpose by war—and ruffles them a little, making them fresh—the warden’s clueless socialite sister, who has written a surprise bestseller based on lurid fantasy, becomes her defender. Ne’er-do-wells prove at the last minute to have surprising self-knowledge or unexpected reasons for their actions. And as always Evans is drawn to the ridiculous aspects of life: a reporter, suddenly pressganged into running the tombola at a church fair with strict instructions to keep back some of the best prizes to the end lest people stop buying tickets, thinks of “the article he could squeeze from this (‘Fraud Allegation Shatters Methodist Merriment’).” The novel’s final vision, of a London just after VE day, when, for a brief moment at least, no one is waiting for anything, neither falling bombs nor barked orders, is beautiful in its swooping energy: the moment feels fully earned. Probably Evans has set these characters aside, but they’re so lovable, we can always hope for more. And if not, dayeinu, it would be enough.

Mark Roseman, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany (2000)

From 1989 – 1996, Mark Roseman spent much of his time in an “intimate, respectful, wary, guilty clinch” with Marianne Ellenbogen née Strauss, who, as a young woman in 1943, had slipped out of her family’s home as it was being searched by the Gestapo. Her parents, her younger brother, her uncle and his wife and her mother—among the last Jews left in the city of Essen at that time—were deported, first to Theresienstadt and later to Auschwitz. Marianne, the only person in her immediate family to survive, spent the rest of the war passing as Aryan, dodging both officials who would have seen through her flimsy false ID and the increasingly devastating Allied bombing raids. She was aided in this feat by members of a little-known organization called the Bund, whose members resisted what the Nazis had made of their beloved Germany.

I recently wrote about Lives Reclaimed, Roseman’s most recent book, which complements this, his first, by telling the story of the Bund. (Tl; dnr: brilliant.) The books overlap, of course, but I was surprised how little Roseman repeats himself. A Past in Hiding (note the subtle difference between this title and the more commonplace A Life in Hiding) provides background on the Bund and introduces some of its main players, but it’s only incidentally about that. Indeed, inasmuch as Marianne was convinced to work with Roseman only because she wanted the world to know about the Bund’s achievements, which extended beyond saving her life, then it’s really Lives Reclaimed that fulfills her desire.

Here Roseman concentrates on Marianne. And why not? Her story is amazing, and she herself is extraordinary. He freely admits that Marianne would have hated the result. She wouldn’t have wanted him to spend the years after her death in December 1996 interviewing with surviving friends, acquaintances, relatives, and lovers, and combing through her exhaustive archive of written documents. But she might have been surprised—not in a good way, maybe, but in an interested way, doubtless—by Roseman’s conclusion. Her own story, as told to Roseman in lengthy interviews, doesn’t quite align with the story told by these external sources, not because Marianne lied or even because memory is fallible, but because the life we life and the life we remember aren’t the same.

Specifically, in Marianne’s case, the guilt she felt about surviving distorted her memory in particular ways: she accentuated the suffering of her loved ones (claiming that her father was imprisoned in a concentration camp for six weeks after Kristallnacht when it was three, or that the love of her life, deported a year before she went into hiding, was blinded in a medical experiment rather than in an accident); she minimized her own suffering; and she dramatized the most traumatic moments of her life (claiming she accompanied her boyfriend to the station the day he was deported when in fact she said goodbye to him the evening before, or telling Roseman that she learned on her birthday, via a BBC broadcast, that her parents’ transport has been gassed, when in fact that terrible knowledge came to her some weeks later).

(How the fate of that particular transport came to be broadcast on the BBC—and how by amazing coincidence Marianne happened to be clandestinely listening to it—is a story in itself, having to do with the Czechoslovakian resistance within Auschwitz-Birkenau and the Nazis’ creation of the so-called “family camp” at Birkenau, where for six months in late 1943/early 44 families who had been at Theresienstadt were allowed to stay together, with their hair and clothes, and given better rations. The Nazis were worried that the Danish Red Cross, who had “inspected” Theresienstadt, would do the same at Auschwitz, and wanted these prisoners in case a “show camp” was going to be necessary: in the end it was not, and almost all of the prisoners in the family camp were gassed.)

In finding discrepancies in Marianne’s story, Roseman isn’t arraigning her or asking us to doubt her. He’s using painstaking research to prove that the stories we tell ourselves in order to live aren’t quite the stories we lived. Instead, we interpret the past through concepts developed only in hindsight. For example, Roseman thought of Marianne as a Jewish victim of the Holocaust, a position she herself espoused late in life, but at the time she thought of herself as a German victim of the war. He is aided in this revelation by some remarkable documents: a diary Marianne kept while on the run in 1944, and the correspondence between Marianne and her boyfriend from the time her was deported in April 1942 (to a camp-ghetto in Lublin province called Izbica) until his ominous silence that fall. Reading these documents Roseman notes differences between what Marianne said at the time and what she said later—even as he acknowledges that the primary documents themselves must be understood not as a record of unmediated truth but as traces of a fluid experience, in which Marianne was trying out ideas, changing her mindset, and struggling with the identity crisis brought on not only by being made into a Jew by the Nazis (true for so many victims) but in juggling different identities while on the run.

A Past in Hiding is thus both theoretical and particular. It both analyzes what it means to interpret the past and offers a portrait of an extraordinary person—capable, clever, charismatic—who was both amazingly fortunate and terribly unhappy. Highly recommended.

Clare Chambers, Small Pleasures (2020)

Satisfying novel that makes much of a preposterous scenario. In 1950s suburban England, The North Kent Echo receives a letter to the editor replying to an article about parthenogenesis. The writer admits she knows nothing about science, but she does know that her daughter was born without the involvement of a man. On a lark, the paper sends, Jean Swinney, its only female journalist, to interview the woman, Gretchen Tilbury. No one expects anything of the Virgin Birth lady, but Jean is captivated by Gretchen, amazed at the daughter (Margaret, ten, looks exactly like her mother), and is unable to find anything in her initial reporting to dispute the outlandish claim. Before long scientists get involved and Jean is on to a big story. But the novel veers into more interesting territory, becoming the tale of how Jean, lonely and tired of being saddled with her claustrophobic mother, is drawn into the Tilburys’ orbit, especially by kind Howard, the husband who came along when Gretchen was already pregnant. In this regard, Small Pleasures is a bit like Brookner’s Look at Me—retiring young woman drawn out of herself by another couple, to the dismay of everyone else in her life—except everyone is much nicer. You might say, well, then that’s no Brookner novel at all, to which I can only say, fair enough. Chambers’s is a more muted work, and not as brilliant. But I found it absolutely engaging, and was surprised at the directions it took, especially at the end. (Devastating!) A thoughtful novel about the ambivalent consequences of taking your pleasures, however small, wherever you can find them. Nina Stibbe put it on her best of 2020 list; if you won’t take my word for it, take hers.

Tessa Hadley, The Past (2016)

Reading Hadley’s backlist—only two more to go now—has been one of the year’s pleasures. Here, three sisters and a brother spend one last holiday at their grandparents’ former home, an increasingly dilapidated place in the English countryside. There’s some pretty serious drama—Hadley has a Gothic side she mostly but happily never quite fully keeps under wraps—but the manner of telling makes big events seem ordinary—which only amplifies the weight of the revelations on offer. (I was led to think about the difference between her mode of approach and, say, the early Ian McEwan; he’s so much more histrionic.) What is it like, Hadley asks, to spend a life with someone? And what is it like to spend one without the person we wanted? (She’s good at making us experience the passing of time.) As usual, Hadley is a master of roving omniscience, teasing us with free indirect discourse, so that we wonder how much of what we learn about the characters they themselves know. Consider this description of a nine-year-old discovering an abandoned cottage:

Ivy wasn’t brave, she was a coward when it came to sports or party games, the kind where you ran in a team and had to burst a balloon by sitting on it. But she also had a greedy curiosity which was like a hunger; she wanted to get clear, all by herself and without the shame of other people knowing she was doing it, the truth of what could happen.

So much psychological acuity in such a short space! And so much ambivalence. Are we to admire Ivy? That “greedy curiosity” feels so double-edged. “The truth of what could happen”—not just the world as it is, but the world as it might, secretly, desperately, be.

In a passage that seems more heartfelt, I appreciated this description of a couple’s reading habits:

Sophy and Graham devoured their books: reading was a freedom torn out of the day’s regulated fabric. Without ever having spoken of it, each knew that the other approved their habit of having the face of their alarm clock, set for seven, turned away from them, so that they couldn’t know how much time passed while they sat up awake and turning pages, couldn’t know how rash they were or how much they would pay for it next day.

But don’t be fooled. Hadley is no nice chronicler of middle-class moeurs (though, yeah, that too). Even the most bourgeois habit of all, reading, is offered in terms of rashness. Everyone pays for everything.

Daniel Mendelsohn, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (2020)

When I think about the book I’m trying to write I keep coming back to Mendelsohn, not because he wrote maybe the best book about uncovering a family’s Holocaust history (I have no such history) but because he is so good at structuring nonfiction narratives. Indeed, structure is the subject matter of this little book, originally given as lectures at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Mendelsohn begins with the acedia that overcame him after finishing The Lost (the Holocaust book) and his subsequent struggle to improve the manuscript of his next book, An Odyssey (about the time when his father, near the end of his life, enrolled in Mendelsohn’s Homer class), beyond his editor’s initial verdict: interesting in parts yet fundamentally dull. The solution, he eventually realized, lay in the source material itself, specifically in Homer’s use of “ring structure.”

The classic example of nested narration of this sort is the moment when Odysseus, returned to Ithaca but disguised, is found out by Eurycleia, his childhood nursemaid, who, in the process of washing the feet of a man she believes to be a traveling beggar, recognizes the hero because of a distinctive scar. Homer flashes back in time to tell us the story of how Odysseus got the scar (in a boar hunt), first explaining how he had been on the hunt in the first place, necessitating yet another digression about the man hosting the hunt, Odysseus’s grandfather, who had been enjoined by this very same Eurycleia to name the child; thus, after beginning with a seemingly insignificant moment Homer offers the in fact consequential history of the hero’s very identity, before looping back to the present moment, the scene of the foot washing. Recognition, Homer teaches, implies a toggling between past and present. (In this sense, his most skillful disciple was Proust.) Narratives similarly shuttle between the essential and the inessential, eventually compromising, even undoing that distinction: “In ring composition, the narrative appears the meander away into a digression… although the digression, the ostensible straying, turns out in the end to be a circle, since the narration will return to the precise point in the action from which it had strayed.”

The reason I called this scene the classic instance of anagnorisis—a moment of revelatory (self) recognition—is not because Homer is the “founder of Western literature” but because it was presented as such in a book of literary criticism written by a German Jewish refugee in Istanbul during WWII, famously without the benefit of the comprehensive library he had been used to having at his disposal. The man was Erich Auerbach; the book was Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Its most famous chapter is the first, “Odysseus’s Scar,” in which Auerbach juxtaposes the Greek mode of telling to the Hebrew: the former offers transparency and clarity (the ring structure allows Homer to give us the backstory of the scar); the latter offers obscurity and uncertainty, privileging unknown—perhaps unknowable—psychological motivation. (The example Auerbach chooses is the Akedah—G-d’s (batshit-insane) demand that Abraham sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac.) The difference, Mendelsohn says, summarizing Auerbach, is between a story that leaves nothing out and a story that leaves almost everything out. And the philosophical debate underpinning this distinction is whether reality is knowable. And the stakes of that question concern nothing less than interpretation itself. What is it for? Are we constrained to its endless approximations?

In thinking about the oscillation between these two beliefs—reality is transparent; reality is obscure: events can be represented; events will always exceed being represented—Mendelsohn is led to think about an at-one-time influential 17th-century text, an early novel by a French archbishop named François Fénelon. The Adventures of Telemachus, a sequel to the Odyssey, made its author famous, but the book’s too-overt criticism of Louis XIV led its author to be banished to northern France. The book’s influence lived on, though, delighting readers across Europe and, later, America, including Thomas Jefferson, who would found the University of Virginia where Mendelsohn would centuries later begin his study of the classics.

Three Rings is a book about “that deep connectedness among things which, for the optimist at least, is detectable in history as well as literature.” Thus, Mendelsohn moves from discussing Proust’s work—his use of ring composition to create oppositions (bourgeois vs aristocrat, hetero vs. homo, Swann vs. Guermantes) that eventually undo themselves—to considering his life, specifically the revelation that the model for the character of Saint Loup in Proust’s epic work was a diplomat named Bertrand, posted, to Proust’s unrequited frustration, to Constantinople, whose ancestor happened to be none other than François Fénelon, the former archbishop of Combrai—a name Proust adapted as the town where his alter-ego spent his formative childhood summers.

How are we to understand such connections? Mendelsohn ends by reflecting on the work of W. G. Sebald, that great writer of inconclusive digressions. Mendelsohn considers some of Sebald’s monomaniacal solitaries—not least the figure of Sebald himself who, in The Rings of Saturn, wanders through abandoned landscapes picking up intimations of former grandeur—as in his encounter with a man obsessed by making a model of the Temple in Jerusalem, a lost, enigmatic structure: the more the model maker learns of it the less he understands; the same is true of Sebald in relation to the model maker. Mendelsohn is reminded of his own childhood obsession with model making, one he abandoned but later transformed into his writing practice, through which he has learned to make the most of insoluble dilemmas. Pondering Sebald’s melancholy digressions—in which every possible link seems to fall to pieces, and destruction is the fate of all creativity—Mendelsohn turns that failure into success, as in his final section where he considers the most influential book in the 19th-century Ottoman Empire, a translation of Fénelon’s sequel to the Odyssey by Yûsuf Kâmil Pasha, the Empire’s Grand Vizier, one of many examples in this short book of how “Western” literature would never have existed had it not been “returned” from the East. In the end, perhaps the greatest digression of all is that the “foundational” texts some like to laud as essential to the “western mind” required saving by its too-often maligned “other.” Made rich by the success of his translation, Kâmil Pasha gave part of his wealth to the university in Istanbul—in this way, imitating however unknowingly Jefferson’s gesture—a center of learning that decades later, in the middle of the 20th century, would welcome scholars fleeing yet another auto-da-fe in the heart of so-called civilization, among them a German Jewish literary scholar named Erich Auerbach.

Three Rings is brilliant essayistic narrative, which satisfies and surprises in its series of historical connections; it is also brilliant interpretation, as it shows every story of destruction to be one of creation, every moment of obscurity one of clarity, every Jewish moment to be Greek—provided, of course, we realize that Greek ways of storytelling always also need Jewish ways of storytelling. It is only through interpretation that we can imagine a literature that wouldn’t require it.

Three Rings didn’t solve my problem of how to structure my book, but it did remind me—exhilaratingly, dismayingly, vertiginously—of the accomplishment I can only hope to imitate.

Alison Lurie, Foreign Affairs (1984)

Read this just a few days before learning of Lurie’s death. Judging from Twitter reaction, her work is loved by many, this book especially. Must say, alas, I was not seduced. You know how for a long time everything associated with the 70s was reviled but is now cool as hell? Maybe we’ll get there for the 80s eventually but now it just feels dated. In her story about two American academics on sabbatical in London—they work at a not even thinly disguised version of Cornell, where Lurie taught for a long time; come to think of it, someone once pointed her out to me in Olin library, though I think she was emerita even then—Lurie quotes Eliot and riffs on Austen, not to mention children’s literature and John Gay (the subject of their respective projects) but I’m not sure why. What is the relation of this book to the English literary tradition?

One protagonist starts by hating England, swings to reveling in it (as he enters into a dalliance with a well-known actor), and finishes with a clear-eyed recognition that he doesn’t belong there. The other is Anglophilic to the extreme, convinced of the place’s superiority, but learns a chastening lesson when she falls in love with a countryman, a loud American businessman. Is Lurie arguing a version of Wilde’s line about America and England having everything in common but the language? Telling us that people belong where they come from? Or that you can only know what home means when you’ve left it? None of these suggestions are inspiring, but I’m out of ideas. Lurie lovers, help!

I admired Lurie’s willingness to make her female lead plain, crotchety, supercilious, and matter-of-fact in her sexual desires. She gets a comeuppance that doesn’t require her to change herself. (The story of the male lead is a lot less interesting.) But it’s not an especially kind book, and its meanness isn’t used to any particular purpose (it feels generalized and diffuse, not pointed or critical). And the portrayal of the American businessman—a lumpen aw shucks gee willikers giant from Oklahoma, much the nicest person in the book—is grating. Maybe from the novel’s preferred mid-Atlantic viewpoint, nothing could be more risible than being from Tulsa, but when it’s, say, four hours’ drive from where you live it’s just a town, no better or worse than anywhere else. I’m willing to give Lurie another chance, but she’s on a tight leash.

William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (1937)

Despite an intense Maxwell phase in my mid-twenties—I was as weird and twee then as now—I somehow missed this one. Maybe my unconscious knew to wait, certain it would resonate so much more strongly during a pandemic than in the glib 90s. They Came Like Swallows is set in the fall of 1918. The armistice might be signed in Europe, but in small-town Illinois what matters is the influenza outbreak, which in a few short weeks will utterly transform the Morrison family. Just as devastating illness plays with our sense of time, the novella’s structure shapes our understanding of events. Each of its three sections focuses on a different character: eight-year-old Bunny, sensitive, in love with his mother and in dread, in different ways, of his father and older brother; the brother, Robert, who suddenly appears to us in a quite different light, diffident at best to Bunny, yes, (I mean, the kid’s five years younger, how can you take him seriously?), but sympathetic for his drive to ignore his disability and his being so prey to feelings of responsibility he cannot be expected to take on; their father, James Morrison, distant, yes, and when uncertain inclined to turn to conventionality instead of kindness, but baffled and buffeted by terrible events. I thought it a missed opportunity that Maxwell never foregrounded any of the female characters—they are many: Elizabeth Morrison, the woman these men revolve around, but also her sisters and sister-in-law; and they are much the most interesting figures in the book—but then I realized it had to be that way. The book is about its absent center, about the uses men put women to, about their consequential bafflement toward women. That it makes its men as sympathetic as it does, and the women as vital as they are is the book’s art. The title, from Yeats’s “Coole Park, 1929,” is perfect:

They came like swallows and like swallows went,
And yet a woman’s powerful character
Could keep a swallow to its first intent;
And half a dozen in formation there,
That seemed to whirl upon a compass-point,
Found certainty upon the dreaming air

There’s more dreaming than certainty in the book—impressive how Maxwell doesn’t just depict illness but, more ambitiously, suffuses every page with the estranging, eye-opening quality illness sometimes offers—and we’re never allowed to forget that the woman’s powerful character, as Yeats has it, is a function of male fantasy. But both poem and novel are elegies, fascinated with the paradoxes of loss, how survivors have the power to recall the dead, but only because the dead have given them the power of recall.

Amazing how wise and good this is for a young man’s book (Maxwell was only 29 when it was published). Obviously time to read his novels again, and to tackle his stories.

Big month! More hits than misses! Death of American democracy staved off for at least two years! Dickens, Robinson, Hadley, Maxwell—all winners. Deutschkron, Roseman, Mendelsohn—inspiring! I hope you found even half as much to enjoy in your reading month. Leave a comment with your favourite.

What I Read, October 2020

Busy month. I kept to a schedule, writing at least a few paragraphs most days, and reading something Holocaust-related every morning. (Useful, fascinating, bit wearing.) I wrote a chapter of this book manuscript or whatever it’s going to be. I rejoiced in cooler weather which turned my runs from grim duty to joyful endorphin-fests. I counted the Biden signs in the neighbourhood and felt incautiously optimistic (not that he would win Arkansas, as if, but that he would win overall, and bigly). I studied for my US citizenship test and drove to Memphis to take it. And on the weekends I treated myself to Our Mutual Friend, which I didn’t quite finish, but will soon. (It’s good!) Here are my thoughts on the rest of my reading:

Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (1957) Trans. Roy Edwards (1960)

Minco, born Sara Menco, was a twenty-year-old Jewish newspaper journalist when the Germans conquered her native Holland. Shortly thereafter she was fired by the paper’s pro-German leadership. That was the first of many losses. When the rest of her family was rounded up she escaped—slipping out the back door, diving through a gap in the hedge, and running breathlessly in search of safety—and spent the rest of the war in hiding in a series of safe houses.

She resumed writing after the war, achieving success with this, her first book, in 1957. The old Penguin edition I read describes it as a novel, but its events track her own experiences closely. I prefer Minco’s more accurate subtitle: the book is indeed a little chronicle, modest in size, if not in scope, its mode of telling disjointed, eliding important connective tissue. Not a narrative, then, but rather a text struggling how to best represent time. Bitter Herbs is made up of discrete (and discreet) units that offer flashes of Minco’s experience before and during the Nazi occupation.

Readers are likely to calibrate the bits of the story to the historical timeline—”it must be 1944 by now; the Allies have arrived”—but Minco challenges that practice, preferring instead to perform, and thus make us in some small way feel, the dislocation of life on the run. Minco survived, or we would not have her book, but her story doesn’t end happily. The final chapter describes her paternal uncle, the only other person in her family to have survived (in his case thanks to his marriage to a non-Jew). Every day the uncle waits at the tram stop near his house, fruitlessly searching out familiar faces. No one else ever comes back.

Minco’s chapters are little essays. In the one that gives the book its title, as she reflects on her split-section decision to run when the SS arrived to take her and her parents away, Minco describes how, briefly reunited with her brother and sister-in-law in a safe house, the three take turns bleaching their hair, causing their landlady to become suspicious and kick them out. She compares the door of the no-longer safe house she passes through into an uncertain future to the one she fled through, which reminds her, in turn, of the custom at the end of the Passover Seder to open the door for the prophet Elijah. Instead of dwelling on this messianic moment—Elijah never comes, at least not yet—Minco remembers the last of the Four Questions, which, as the youngest in the family, she would always be the one to ask: Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Her memory concludes:

Then my father would chant the story of the exodus from Egypt, and we ate of the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, in order that we should taste again of that exodus—from year to year, for ever and ever.

Am I right to hear a note of disdain here? As if the ritual were an impotent reveling in pain? (That repetition of “year to year,” “for ever and ever”—the endlessness seems as bitter as the herb.) Yet Minco can’t help but remember the moment, which could also be read as an invocation of an unbreakable tradition. But any idea of permanence is belied by both the form and content of her book. Minco is keen, at the end of the book, to take the tram and not look back—to be different from her uncle.

Roy Edwards’s translation seems a bit dusty; I gather a new version is forthcoming in the UK. The old edition was, however, graced by beautiful, jagged drawings by Herman Dijkstra. I wonder if those were present in the original Dutch, or whether they were added by Penguin. Minco celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year; it would be nice if an English-language publisher would follow Germany’s Arco Verlag in releasing a lovely centenary edition of this underappreciated writer.

Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (2020)

I was talking with a friend on Twitter the other day about autofiction: I enjoy it, but I find it doesn’t stay with me, maybe because I’m not trained to read it the way I am, say, realism. And maybe the problem is with Nunez: I remember delighting in her previous book, The Friend, and then, months later, having no memory of it, and even a few weeks later I’m hazy about What Are You Going Through? Maybe I read her too quickly; maybe her style is too lucid. (Is that a thing?) Maybe I should read the book again; maybe she’s one of those writers who only blossom when re-read. I do know, though, that I much preferred Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which similarly considers the emotional and physical caretaking of a dying friend. That I read in January and still think about all the time. Maybe because Garner’s book is filled with rage, and rage scares me. Nunez, though pointed—her tone reminds me of a perfectly plucked eyebrow—is calmer, less likely to push my buttons.

Hilary Leichter, Temporary (2020)

The first time I saw Hilary Leichter I was terrified of her. I was just beginning a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. (It sounds much fancier than it was: people would often politely ask, “Where are you visiting from?” not knowing that this is academic speak for “We have hired you on a full-time basis but only temporarily; do not expect to stick around.”) The night before the semester started my wife and I and some similarly temporarily employed friends attended a student production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-hander about a young woman who, under the auspices/prodding of an ominously named “Group,” accuses a professor of harassment. I have not seen or read this play since; I strongly suspect it now reads as regressive and dismissive of accusers, but at the time it seemed evenhanded and smart. Anyway, as a newly-minted instructor I was terrified by the play’s suggestion that students could turn on one. And mostly I was in awe at the actor who played the student, who transformed, even physically, becoming taller, more present, from the first to the second act. (I mean, the transformation is in the script, but the actor seemed to become someone wholly other, through her carriage, posture, intonations, etc.)

When I stepped into the classroom the next week I didn’t even recognize that actor in Hilary Leichter, pleasant student ready to tackle Virginia Woolf. And when I did I had a moment of alarm—what would this student do to me? Nothing, it turned out, but good, by ably and generously contributing to the life of the seminar. Eventually she graduated and went on her way, and I did something similar, being very lucky to get my current job. I believe that all teachers really want is for their students to thrive, in whatever way best suits them. Imagine then my pleasure when I learned about Hilary’s first novel. And my joy and pride—you’d think I’d written the damn thing myself—when it got a rave New York Times review (it has since also appeared on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best of the Year list). I was excited to be able to convince the other members of the talent committee to invite Hilary to the Six Bridges Literary Festival; alas, our reunion was spoiled by COVID, but we finally got to reconnect when the festival went virtual last month.

In preparation for her appearance, which I agreed to moderate, I sat down to finally read Temporary. I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? But my fear quickly vanished. The book is smart and engaging: just like Hilary herself. Temporary concerns a young woman who works a series of unusual temp jobs. In the world of the novel, though, which is both ours and not quite, such precarity is not a shitty fact of how we’ve decided to organize society but an identity position. Some people, like the narrator, are temps; they long for the permanence that Leichter calls “the steadiness.”

In reimagining economic reality as existential situation, Leichter critiques the cruel optimism of so-called late capitalism. The narrator’s jobs are like extravagant, explosive versions of what you’d find in Richard Scarry: she directs traffic, delivers mail, fills in on a pirate ship while someone is on leave, opens doors, robs banks, and even assassinates people to order. Throughout, Leichter literalizes the anodyne language of business management, giving it new life—“completely underwater” means something different when you work on a pirate ship. (The narrator concludes, perhaps offering Leichter’s own credo: “You can turn a phrase only so many times before it turns into something else.”)

Temporary could at first seem, like its title, slight. The publisher seems to be marketing it as charming, even zany (bright yellow cover featuring a delicate masked figure). And no question, the novel is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like the subplots involving the narrator’s 18 boyfriends, differentiated only by Homeric epithets: pacifist boyfriend, handy boyfriend, earnest boyfriend. When the narrator leaves the city for her pirate gig, the boyfriends move into her apartment, fixing it up for her and, as she learns on regular phone calls home, getting along famously: “‘We stayed up all night working!’ my caffeinated boyfriend chirps.”

But Temporary is serious business: its fantasy lets us imagine a world beyond precarity. “No one is outwardly harmed, but there’s harm everywhere”—this sentence encapsulates both capitalism’s false cheer and the novel’s stealth design. Will our protagonist find the steadiness she desires? Or will she tap into the power of temporariness, which has, after all, been handed down to her as a matrilineal inheritance, like the Jewishness that suffuses the novel without ever being named. Like Jewishness, at least in its exilic form, temporariness longs to be accepted by the fortunate steady, but, because such acceptance would undo its very identity, also rejects it. Temporary is a novel of resistance, not assimilation; as such, it’s a novel we need. Best of all, I can say I knew the author before she made it big, back when I was temporary too.

GennaRose Nethercott, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (2019) Illus. Bobby DiTrant

Cootie catchers are those folded paper fortune tellers you made as a kid to dare your friend to do something gross or to find out who you would marry. Nethercott’s book comes in a sleeve about the size of an LP filled with sheets you fold yourself and use to tell the story. In some version of late 19th early 20th century America, filled with trains and burlesque dancers, at an ominous plantation-like cranberry farm, terrible things are happening: every month a young woman goes missing, lost to the bog. Will Lianna escape? Where to and to what purpose? Will she bring justice to her sacrificed comrades? Depending on the vagaries of chance—i.e. how you play with the cootie catchers—any number of outcomes are possible.

I wouldn’t have read this had it not been for that lit fest panel I mentioned above (Nethercott appeared with Leichter). Which would have been a shame. I confess, though, that I found Lianna a little too cute—at least I did until I heard Nethercott’s (and Leichter’s) impassioned rejection of “whimsey” as a response women writers face more often than men; that dismissal, moreover, neglects the power of the fanciful to help us imagine a world that might be different than our own. As serious as a children’s game, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog is indeed a story of forced labour, violence against women, and the possibility of escaping those terrible material realities.

Charles Cumming, A Colder War (2014)

The follow-up to A Foreign Country. I enjoyed the glimpses of Istanbul. The love interest is a little too hetero-guy wet-dream-y, though.

Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy (2016)

The Thomas Kell trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion. The last scene is especially good; unusual in spy fiction. I’ll read more of Cumming.

Barbara Demick, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (1996, revised 2012)

As I mentioned last month, Demick likes to use the experiences of a few individuals to illustrate larger political-historical situations. Here she offers a single street in Sarajevo as a microcosm for the siege of 1992—95. The six blocks of Logavina Street offer, for Demick, the best of the place, a city where, as the jacket copy puts it, “Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, lived easily together, unified by their common identity as Sarajevans.” I know Demick didn’t write that descriptions, but it speaks the strengths and weaknesses of her approach: light on history, good with character. The families Demick lives among experience the strains of life lived under threat of mortar and sniper: often cold, mostly hungry, always at risk.

Unfortunately, the capable storytelling isn’t matched by comparable analytic sophistication (her most recent book is better). I winced when Demick misread Primo Levi, dubiously compared Sarajevans under siege to inmates of a subcamp of Auschwitz. But in an introduction written for this second edition, Demick recognizes the book’s flaws, regretting its naivete. I don’t think she’s renounced her belief in the beauty of a multiethnic, cosmopolitan polity, but she no longer thinks this ideal is coterminous with freedom and democracy. The whole book is, no surprise, redolent of the 1990s, a time that now seems impossibly quaint and infuriatingly smug. But Demick is right to have left the text as it was written (even as she has added a welcome post-script updating readers on her subjects). And I still learned a lot. Logavina Street allowed me, who didn’t pay much attention to the events as they occurred—they were part of life’s grim background noise, inexplicable other than through lazy, and totally bogus, nostrums about age-old ethnic hatreds—to start remedying past ignorance.

Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1963)

Reader extraordinaire and Backlisted podcaster Andy Miller named Segal’s novel My First American as his best read of October. Hearing this, I resolved to take down my copy of this, her first novel, which, like Minco’s Bitter Herbs, could certainly be called a memoir, as it follows her own experiences closely.

Segal (née Groszmann) left Vienna in 1938 on one of the Kindertransports. In England she was billeted with various families who, although well-meaning, simply couldn’t understand her, mistaking her reserve for stubbornness instead of trauma. Segal’s vividly portrays her family in pre-Anschluss times (especially her charming uncle, Paul, part wastrel, part mensch), the new “families” she is plunked among, and herself, always tracking her own reactions. She has an eye for psychological complication—in the hours before her desperate parents send their only child off alone to a foreign country, for example, they buy her a sausage, which the girl has said she wants, but only because she sees they want to get her something special to prove their love; on the journey to England and in the first weeks there, spent in a freezing holiday camp hastily made over as refugee center, the sausage, which she cannot bring herself to eat and is in fact disgusted by but which she also cannot bear to throw away, begins to rot, its smell an unshakable stain symbolizing terrible misunderstanding and conflicted emotions.

Through force of will the child helps her parents get British visas (she writes begging letters to the authorities, trading on her position as lost and vulnerable child), though the visas only allow them to work in domestic service, so the family remains separated except for occasional visits. Segal’s mother takes to the work, even though in Vienna she had had servants herself; she is an unstoppable force. Her father does not, he is helpless, his training as an accountant hasn’t prepared him for his new role as a gardener. His health declines; Segal’s mother spends her scarce private time and energy to attending to him; Segal, now a teenager, condemns him as a burden. All very fraught. Eventually she moves to London, attends a women’s college, and, after the war, accompanies her mother to the Dominican Republic, where her uncle was hopelessly attempting to become a farmer (at the Evian conference on the Jewish crisis in 1938, the DR was the only country willing to take Jewish refugees). In 1951, her American visa finally comes through, and the last part of the book tells the story of her finding her feet in New York.

Other People’s Houses is like a mashup of Kluger’s Still Alive, Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In other words, extremely my shit. In tone it is most similar to Gornick—unsparing, but less harsh than Kluger and less sweet than Kerr. It’s terrific. I will say, I did find it a bit long, especially in its second half (the childhood parts of autobiographical books are always the best). In fact, I had the same feeling finishing this as I did when I first read Still Alive. I liked it, I knew it was good, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It took me several readings of Kluger’s memoir to really get a handle on its genius, and I suspect the same will be true for Segal’s. (No surprise, by the way, that Segal wrote the introduction to Still Alive.) I plan to teach Other People’s Houses; that’s when I’ll really get a handle on it.

Mark Roseman, Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany (2019)

As I say in my precis, this is the most consequential book I’ve read this year. A work of history both deep and accessible with important implications for how we think about resistance.

Liz Moore, Long Bright River (2020)

Moore’s title is lifted from Tennyson and works both literally—this is a great novel of Philadelphia; the Delaware recurs frequently—and metaphorically—the subject is the release and suffering users of races and classes find in the river of opioids deluging the country. Like Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which I keep singing the praises of, Moore’s novel upends the conventions of the procedural. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a cop; her sister is an addict. Every call sends a spasm through Mickey: will this Jane Doe be Kacey? So far so compelling—but also so far so cliched. What’s really great here is how the shifty first-person narration (which is very subtly done, it takes a long time before we realize Mickey is, not exactly untrustworthy, but certainly prey to her own demons) forces us to consider what it means to value socially acceptable forms of addiction (to work, to control, to order). Long Bright River fillets the genre of the procedural, turning it inside out. I loved it—I stayed up until almost 4 to finish it and didn’t even regret it the next day—but I did wonder, Where can we go from here? Is the procedural simply impossible now? Smart book; looking forward to more from Moore.

Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar (1949)

Tey’s novel about a man who claims to be the long-lost scion of a pedigreed horse-owning English family, unseating his twin brother just days before the latter was to come into his inheritance, is plenty ingenious. We know from the beginning that Brat is an imposter, coached by a vindictive cousin who seizes upon the man’s uncanny likeness to the brother to split the inheritance two ways. (Shame Tey quickly gets bored of the cousin.) So the question isn’t “Is he for real?” but “Will he be uncovered?” Tey pulls a nice surprise at the end, and asks questions about identity and belonging. (There’s a lotta horse neepery, which I could takle or leave.) I liked it well enough—though less so, I think, than Rohan, whose take you should read—but not as much as her earlier novel of unsettlement, The Franchise Affair, and not as much as another novel from the period concerning an uncanny imposter, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, a more suspenseful book which has, it seems to me, wider ambitions.

Gerda Weissmann Klein, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995)

Memoir recounting, first, Klein’s childhood in a prosperous Jewish merchant family in the Silesian town of Bielitz (today Bielsko-Biala), a textile center near the Czech border that until WWI had been part of Austro-Hungary; the destruction of that world with the German invasion of Poland; her family’s subsequent dispersal and persecution; and eventually the story of her wartime suffering, first as a weaver in a series of slave labour camps and finally, most harrowingly, as one of only a handful of survivors of one of the longest and deadliest of the so-called Death Marches. Four thousand young women left the Gross-Rosen camp system in January 1945; after a 350-mile trek through that terrible winter, only 120 were still alive when the war ended in May.

Particularly interesting is the story of Klein’s rescue, at the point of death (she weighed 68 pounds at liberation), by an American GI, whom she subsequently married. I was struck by the differences between Klein’s experience and Ruth Kluger, who similarly survived a Death March but who memorably describes her first encounter with a GI who put his fingers in his ears when Kluger’s mother started to tell him what they had gone through. Kluger would go on to marry a GI too, though that marriage did not last. That Klein’s husband was Jewish, had been born in Germany, and emigrated with his family in the 1930s must have contributed to that difference.

Klein’s happily-ever-after contrasts with the other striking strand of her wartime experiences: her relationship with Abek Feigenblatt, a young man she met in a camp in 1941, when she and her parents were some of the only Jews left in Bielitz, and when it was still possible for people to visit those incarcerated. This was a work camp, not an extermination camp, and Abek’s job was to restore paintings, most of which had been stolen from Jewish homes, so he came and went with a great deal of freedom. The Bielitz ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and everyone left was sent either west, like Klein, to work, or east, like her parents, to be murdered.

The twenty-two-year-old Abek immediately falls for the teenaged girl (Klein was 17 at the time) and presses his suit. She is flattered but also unhappy; she does not love him and is both put off and frightened by his persistence. For the next few years their lives are painfully intertwined: Klein is briefly sent to Sosnowitz, forty-five miles away, where Abek’s family lives, and he urges them to arrange an essential worker permit for her, which she rejects for fear of being bound to him; later they write each other regularly from their respective work camps; and he eventually arranges to be transferred to a camp near her own, even though it is notoriously dangerous, so that, with the connivance of a kindly German overseer, they can occasionally see each other. Abek’s eventual fate—but also his disagreeable love—haunt Klein.

Some might say Klein’s experiences were too unusual, indeed too privileged, to count as representative. But all stories are particular, and all survivor accounts contain remarkable elements. After all, all survivors are anomalies. I am pretty amazed that Klein first published this in 1957; that it was revised in the mid 90s, as a result of a successful documentary film, makes sense: it feels of that Holocaust museum opening in DC/Schindler’s List Oscar winning moment. But to my mind it seems unusual for the 50s. I’d like to find out about its reception. Was it a success? How did its first readers take it? What framework did they place it in? One story often told is that that the Holocaust doesn’t coalesce as a concept until the Eichmann trial in the 60s, or the famous miniseries in the 70s. Klein’s book might challenge that. I do note that the back of my edition categorizes it as “Memoir/Judaica,” the latter an old-fashioned, exoticizing term. (I’d expect something like “Holocaust Studies” instead.)

Klein is a good writer, but not an extraordinary one. I missed, for example, Kluger’s analytic reach and sharp tone. Klein’s story is more triumphant, though certainly not without its bitterness. In general, she seems a more establishment figure, if I could put it that way. Her humanitarian work cannot be denied: Clinton appointed her to the USHMM governing council; Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; as recently as 2008, in her 80s, she started a 501C3 that educates students about citizenship. Anyway, All But My Life is maybe not the only Holocaust memoir I’d want people to read, but I can recommend it.

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)

Dillon has chosen 27 favourite sentences—from prose works ranging from Donne and Browne to Mantel and Jaeggy—and written a short essay on each. I have only three objections to this exercise. One, I’m deeply envious that I am not smart enough to have thought of this or good enough & well connected enough to pull it off. Two, Dillon loves to qualify and hesitate—and not just because nuance requires it. He speaks of “a certain kind of exposure,” “a certain fragility,” “a kind of care, and a kind of fury.” What he says about Janet Malcolm—“Malcolm’s own resistance to the same qualities [of permanence, order, closure] involves her in an orgy of provisionality and tentativeness”—is too often true of him too. Three, he is irritatingly fond of rhetorical questions, which is a shame since his real questions are excellent.

But even my envy and grumpiness give way before Dillon’s accomplishment. He’s a great celebrator, a quality I admire in a critic. And he’s a terrific close reader. My copy is filled with appreciative check marks and exclamations—he notices so much about his material, and develops those observations into suggestive insights. He’s really good on verbless sentences and on commas, especially those that are expected but elided. His choices are pleasingly unexpected; even the usual suspects are represented by obscure material. Joan Didion, for example, honed her craft writing captions for Vogue, and Dillon convincingly argues that his example—a sentence accompanying a photo of Dennis Hopper’s home—lost its power when Didion later revised and repurposed it in a published essay. Most importantly, he has good taste. He gets how amazing Elizabeth Bowen is, which is always going to win someone over in my books. He makes me want to read Maeve Brennan and Anne Boyer. And above all, he has sent me in search of Claire Bennett, about whom he writes brilliantly.

There you have it. Not quite the riches of September, but a better than average reading month. Mark Roseman’s book stood out above the rest, but Lore Segal, Hilary Leichter, Liz Moore, and Marga Minco impressed too. Not sure November will match up—I’ve spent most of it so far in a fog of election paralysis—but check back in a month to see.

What I Read, September 2020

After initial discontent—how will I write anything when I’m always asking my kid if she’s done her math, especially since I hate writing anyway?—the month turned better, better than better, actually, really good, in fact, like those crisp, perfect days in the Rockies after the first brief snowfall. And to fair, that rise in spirits came about because of Corona-time. Since we’re all working remotely we were able to visit my in-laws for the Jewish High Holidays. Spending those important, soulful, introspective days with family (especially family who will cook for you) was meaningful, even joyous. The joy of seeing our daughter spend time with her grandparents was exceeded, for me, only by the joy of having a lot of extra time to read. Here’s what I got through this month:

Annie Ernaux, Happening (2000) Trans. Tanya Leslie (2001)

Perhaps my favourite Ernaux so far, despite the disturbing subject matter. The writer remembers how she found herself, age 23, pregnant. She didn’t want the child; the father, who was no longer in the picture, expressed neither interest nor responsibility. Fearing her life will end before it has begun, though having to rouse herself from initial paralysis, Ernaux sought out an abortion—then illegal in France. (This was 1963.) The abortion is as terrible and dangerous as Ernaux’s reflections about it are cool and acute. A worthy autofictional accompaniment to Jean Rhys’s classic novel Voyage in the Dark.

Barbara Demick, Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town (2020)

I’m ashamed to admit I’ve never paid attention to China’s occupation of Tibet, beyond vaguely registering it as wrong. Demick—a journalist who has been based in the Balkans, Korea, and, latterly, China—moves between the dangerous present and the bleak history of the 20th Century in describing the experience of Tibetans under Chinese rule. I’m currently reading her first book, about the siege of Sarajevo, so I know that the technique in evidence here—telling a big story by focusing on a handful of individuals—is one she has used from the beginning of her career. (Both Parul Sehgal and Anne Fadiman in their reviews of the book—both good, but if you only have time to read one choose Sehgal’s—note that John Hersey pioneered this form of reportage in Hiroshima.) Eat the Buddha—a reference to how the starving Chinese Communists ravaged Tibet in the 1930s, eating even votive offerings made of barley flour and butter, and thus also a metaphor for what Han Chinese have done to Tibetans—follows a similar path, concentrating above all on a woman whose father was one of the last Tibetan kings and whose subsequent life has been a via dolorosa orchestrated by the Chinese communist party to punish her for those origins.

Demick focuses her study on Ngaba, a city in the eastern plateau of Sichuan, which in the last decade has become a center of Tibetan resistance, most dramatically and tragically by the self-immolation of several monks. (Most Tibetans live not in the Tibet Autonomous Region but in four Chinese provinces.) Reporting there is largely prohibited; Demick is understandably cagey about how she managed to spend as much time there as she did, but I would have liked to hear more about those efforts, which must have been substantial. Security may be tighter in this one-stoplight town than anywhere else on earth: 50,000 officers watch over 15,000 people. Demick ranges beyond Ngaba, as well, offering glimpses into Tibet proper, specifically Lhasa, and Dharamshala, India, where the current Dalai Lama and many other Tibetans live in exile.

I learned so much from Demick’s careful book. Did you know, for example, that traditional Tibetan society had evolved a delicate, necessary balance between those who farmed (barley, mostly, as not much else will grow at that altitude) and those who herded? People needed both skills to survive the harsh climate, and marriages were designed to ensure families included people who could do both. Communism and planned economy destroyed that balance—climate change, exacerbated by rampant capitalism, has put it further at risk.

Finishing the book, I felt even more anger than usual the companies and citizens (i.e. us) so eager for money they readily overlook China’s human rights abuses.

Charles Cumming, A Foreign Country (2012)

Better than average spy novel, more Lionel Davidson (lots of action; interest in the details of how spies do their job) than John Le Carré (more interest in the telling than in the told; labyrinthine).

Stephan Talty, The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (2020)

The Butcher of Latvia was Herbert Cukurs, an internationally renowned aviator revered in his native Latvia. As late as 1939 his speaking tours included a sold-out event at Riga’s Jewish Club. Two years later, though, Cukurs was one of the most notorious members of the bands of roving Latvian nationalists who gleefully did the Nazis’ bidding after they occupied the country in the summer of 1941. Talty observes that this fury stemmed less from deep-seated antisemitism, though he doesn’t discount that either, and more from hatred of the Soviets who had brutally occupied the country as part of the Hitler-Stalin pact. Jews were equated with Bolshevism; Cukurs and his ilk saw no contradiction between this claim and the wealth of Latvia’s Jewish bourgeoisie.

Talty’s book purports to explore Cukurs’s about-face, but it’s in fact more interested in the plot the Mossad organized in 1965 to assassinate him. Like many perpetrators, Cukurs fled to Brazil after the war but, unlike them, he lived under his own name. Why the Israelis didn’t kidnap him and bring him to trial, as they had done three years previously with Adolf Eichmann, is never made clear, though the answer seems to be that there was less evidence against Cukurs. There was still plenty, though, some of it recorded by a woman named Zelma Shepshelovich, a Jewish woman hidden in Riga by a Latvian officer. Kept to an apartment the officer shared with two other men, who bragged about the atrocities they had committed, she spent her time committing names, places, and deeds to memory. Escaping to Sweden after a dangerous journey across the Baltic in 1944, Zelma wrote a 50-page memo detailing this information and gave it to the Americans and British, neither of whom wanted anything to do with it.

As you can see, this short book is about many things: Cukurs’s life before the war; the atrocities in Latvia after the German invasion; the plot to kill Cukurs, which took months and required an agent to survive a lengthy, tense cat-and-mouse game with the paranoid and violent Cukurs, who even at age 64 remained a sharpshooter; and Zelma’s life during and after the war, when she and her protector suffered terribly at the hands of the Soviets (the latter was sent to the Gulag; Zelma didn’t know peace until she was able to emigrate to Israel in 1979). Talty tries hard to tie it all together, but it’s tricky because the Mossad team knew nothing of Zelma (her role in the book is to be an exemplary victim).

As if this wasn’t enough, the most interesting part of the book is something else altogether: the reason the Israelis were so keen on getting to Cukurs when they did. The statute of limitations on Nazi perpetrators was about to expire in mid-1965. Two men, one of them famed Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal, led an international campaign to convince the West German parliament to extend the period under which Nazis could be brought to trial. Many Germans wanted to let the statute expire—as one politician put it, “We have to accept living among a few murderers.” But the tide turned, punctuated by a stirring surprise speech in the Bundestag by the Social Democrat Adolf Arndt, who shocked the country by insisting that everyone in Germany had known what was going on in their name.

Talty suggests the assassination of Cukurs turned the tide (Arndt’s speech referenced details that can be connected to Cukurs’s actions), but the connection is strained. The Good Assassin isn’t perfect—at once overstuffed and thin (much of what he presents has been published elsewhere)—but it contains some gripping material, even if a bit breathlessly presented.

Hadley Freeman, House of Glass: The Story and Secrets of a Twentieth-Century Jewish Family (2020)

Another third-generation Holocaust memoir, in which a writer uncovers the experiences of their grandparents. I read these obsessively, for professional reasons, but also, I’ve realized, out of an obscure and unfair resentment: I have no similar story, and sometimes I wish I did (which I realize is insane in many ways). It would give me an easy answer to a question I struggle with: why do you study/teach/have such interest in the Holocaust.

House of Glass is like most of these books: the story of the past is fascinating, always heartbreaking and usually unputdownable, but the story of the telling is weak, clunky, uninteresting. The reason that Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost is the ne plus ultra of this genre is that he’s a scholar of narrative, so he knows how to structure a book, making comparisons if not equivalences between the two narrative levels. Holocaust stories, after all, are always as much about finding out what happened as telling what happened.

Freeman, a British-based journalist who has written a lot on fashion, which serves her well in a family story that revolves to a surprising degree on that industry, tells the story of her paternal grandmother Sarah Glass, born Sala Glahs in early 20th-century Galicia. Sala’s three brothers, Jehuda, Jakob, and Sender immigrated to Paris after WWI and the death of their father. There the brothers became Henri, Jacques, and Alex, and to varying degrees assimilated to French culture. Two of the brothers survived the war, one having pioneered a photoimaging technology that the Allies used in fighting the war, and the other having launched himself through sheer force of will into a career in fashion that saw him become friends with Christian Dior and, late in life, Picasso. The third was murdered at Auschwitz. Sarah, as Sala became known, was married off to an American and spent a life of quiet desperation on Long Island.

I really did not care for Freeman’s clunky insertions re: the rise of antisemitism in Europe and America today (as if it ever went away, and as if today’s antisemitism had the same roots and causes as it did in the 1930s); I did, however, liked that she at least imagines why the brother who was deported did not take the opportunities that, in retrospect, could have saved him. (I say “imagine” because she is not immune to the language of passivity that is so often used to blame victims.)

Jacqui liked this book a lot; her take is worth listening to, especially if you are not a grumpy scholar of Holocaust lit!

Candice Carty-Williams, Queenie (2019)

Breezy, enjoyable, but also sad novel about a young black British woman looking for love while clinging to a journalism career. I especially liked the group texts with her friends. Various kinds of male shittiness, mostly sexual, are exposed in ways that may or may not have hit home with this reader. Thanks to Berlin bookseller Magda Birkmann for the recommendation.

Thomas Mann, Buddenbrooks (1901) Trans. John E. Woods (1995)

It’s a classic for a reason.

Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (1910) Trans. Jamie Bulloch (2017)

After Buddenbrooks, I thought I would stay in the Baltic, though this time further east, in the countryside near Saint Petersburg. I like epistolary novels, I’m fascinated by the end Czarist Russia, and I like suspense, so Huch’s novella should have been just my thing. But I found the story—about a family that retreats to their dacha after death threats have been made against the father, the minister for education, only to be infiltrated by an anarchist—thin and dull. I couldn’t understand why all the letters sounded the same, despite ostensibly being from different characters, and I don’t know if the author or the translator is to blame. Bulloch’s translation feels pedestrian, and I know Huch is much loved in her native Germany, so maybe the problem is his. Regardless, the book left basically no impression on me.

Aharon Appelfeld, Badenheim 1939 (1978) Trans. Dalya Bilu (1980)

I don’t like Aharon Appelfeld, and I didn’t want to read this, his most famous novel, in which Jews find themselves willingly marooned in a fictional Austrian spa town in the months leading up to their final destruction. I realize this is the worst possible, least charitable reading mindset. I expected to dislike it, and I did, but I thought it would give me material for something I’m writing, and it did, so I guess it was worth it. Nothing about it changed my verdict: Appelfeld’s dream-like style (cod Kafka) irritates me, but his victim-judging is what really pisses me off.

Tessa Hadley, Accidents in the Home (2002)

Hadley’s first novel, and, although it occasionally falters (as in the title, just a little too cute), her particular magic is already evident. We get the complicated families she loves so much, with plenty of step-siblings and remarriages; we get the sudden life upheavals, which people gamely try to surmount, sometimes successfully, sometimes not, but always without making too much of a fuss; we get that satisfying sense of someone capturing ordinary bits of middle-class life. Catching up with Hadley—only three left to go now—has been a highlight of my reading year.

Martin Doerry (ed), My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004)

David Cesarani is bullish on this text in his invaluable history of the Holocaust, and now I see why. Lilli Jahn’s life and fate is both unusual and typical, and terribly moving. Jahn, née Schlüchterer, was born in Köln 1900 to an assimilated, middle-class family. She studied medicine and received her medical degree in 1924. During this time, she fell in love with a fellow medical student, Ernst Jahn, neither Jewish nor, it seems, as gifted a doctor as she. Plus, he couldn’t quite abandon a former girlfriend (my sense from the letters between them is that he liked Lilli a lot but didn’t find her hot). Lilli, a singularly kind soul, babied Ernst through his cold feet; the two married in 1926. The letters between them and between him and his future father-in-law regarding the marriage are fascinating; her parents had understandable reservations, and mixed marriages, though not unheard of, were still not terribly common in Germany.

Impossible to read the book and not wonder what might have happened had Lilli given up on Ernst. Maybe she would have gone to England with her younger sister, a chemist. Instead, the couple settled in a town near Kassel, where Ernst had taken a practice. (Lilli gave up a much better opportunity to do so.) They briefly practiced together but soon the first of their five children arrived and that was the end of Lilli’s medical career.

Life for the growing family wasn’t always easy, but they were close, and we get the full panoply of German (Jewish) bourgeois life: hiking holidays, evenings with the one or two educated families in town, an almost painful belief in the power of literature and culture more generally. Lilli suffered from being apart from her family, and from city life. The children were raised Lutheran, but as National Socialism took hold life even for them became more complicated. They couldn’t, for example, join the Hitler Youth or the League of German Girls.

Although Lilli was more protected than most German Jews, thanks to her marriage, by the late 1930s she rarely left the house. Her life got even worse when Ernst fell in love with the female doctor who become his locum in the summer of 1939. For a while the three lived unhappily together, but eventually the woman became pregnant and Ernst travelled back and forth between two households. In 1942 he asked Lilli for a divorce, which she granted despite the risks it opened her too. By now she was the only Jew left in the town, and the Nazi mayor, who had long wanted her gone, took her divorced status as an opportunity to kick her out. She and the children found an apartment in Kassel, where she put up a visiting card next to the doorbell stating “Dr. med. Lilli Jahn.” This contravened laws requiring all Jewish women take the middle name Sara and prohibiting Jews from calling themselves doctor. Someone reported her to Gestapo and in late August 1943 Lilli was arrested and sent to a corrective labour camp in a former Benedictine monastery called Breitenau, about 45 minutes away. Most of her fellow prisoners were Eastern European labour conscripts or else Germans who had violated Nazi laws of decency (usually by having affairs with Jews or so-called Slavs). Breitenau was no concentration camp, but it was harsh and unpleasant. The inmates worked hard, usually in nearby fields, had little to eat, and were often sick.

For the rest of the war, Lilli’s children were left to fend for themselves (their father had been called up and was busy with his new family). This was hard on them all—the youngest was only three—but especially on the eldest daughter, fifteen-year-old Ilse. (Her older brother was manning anti-aircraft stations.) Most of the book consists of heartbreaking letters between Lilli and her children, in which both sides tried to hide the reality of their situations; Lilli was reduced to asking the children for food parcels and advising them how to keep the home together. Ilse and her siblings had to combine school with finding enough to eat—all of this before the allied air raids started in the fall. Eventually the children were bombed out of their house; it was all poor Ilse could do to keep the siblings together.

Lilli, her friends, and the children begged Ernst to work on obtaining her release. It is unclear that he did anything; as always, he equivocated, and if he did make any efforts they were unsuccessful. In March 1944 Lilli was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. She managed to write a letter to the children while her convoy changed trains at Dresden, and later, already sick and weak, to dictate one from the camp itself. She died sometime in June.

Martin Doerry, the editor—really, the writer: he hasn’t just compiled the letters reproduced here but written the engrossing text that links them—is one of Jahn’s grandchildren; he keeps himself and the rest of the third generation out of the picture, making his approach quite different to Freeman’s (see above). Historians like Cesarani value the book for its glimpse into the period, specifically its wealth of primary documents unencumbered by retrospection (though even here, as Doerry frequently notes, letter writers were often softening the reality of their situation to protect their addressee). It’s a shame that this book, another of the millions of fascinating stories of persecution under the Third Reich, is out of print.

Rónán Hession, Leonard and Hungry Paul (2019)

Balm for the soul. See my reviews here and here.

William Dean Howells, Indian Summer (1886)

I took this off the shelf thinking it would be perfect for the end of September, but the title is metaphorical not seasonal, so it’s perfect for any time of year.

Theodore Colville, in his early 40s, has sold his midwestern newspaper and returned to Florence, a city where he spent some formative years in his twenties. And by formative I mean he longed for a girl who rejected him; back in Italy he bumps into Lina Bowen, the girl’s former best friend. Lina, now widowed, is accompanied by her nine-year-old daughter, Effie (how I loved this character) and her charge, “the incandescently beautiful, slightly dense Imogene Graham,” as Wendy Lesser puts it in her introduction to the edition I read. Imogene is twenty years old and not stupid, as Lesser’s “dense” implies, but emotionally immature, even if well-meaning. One way to read the book, in fact, is as a warning about meaning well, especially when that’s motivated by dishonesty about one’s feelings. Colville is funny, the narration is witty (even making a joke about its author), Lina is extraordinary, the dialogue is sparkling (the whole thing is just waiting to be made into a movie). There’s a wonderful New England cleric who’s not really interested in anyone’s shit. So good!

Indian Summer is a novel that is, although not dismissive towards youth, unimpressed by it: music to my middle-aged ears. For a time, it looks as though things will end terribly, but then they don’t, but Howells reminds us that some wrongs can’t ever be quite righted, persistently irritating grains of sand: “It was a thing that happened, but one would rather it had not happened.”

I’d never read Howells before—I’m shockingly ill-read in 19th-century American literature—but I already have The Rise of Silas Lapham lined up for November. Let me know if you enjoyed any of his 35 other novels.

I usually end these reports by singling out some reading favourites, but that’s hard to do this month. Buddenbrooks, I suppose, but the Howells, the Hadley, the Demick, Doerry’s book about Lilli Jahn were all excellent too. 5780 ended strong, book-wise (though not in any other, unless you’re a coronavirus); here’s to more good reading, and more good things generally, in 5781.

What I Read, August 2020

August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)

Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the size of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).

The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)

Something A Suitable Boy does share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.

If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.

Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)

The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)

Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.

But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:

Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.

As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.

Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)

I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.

Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.

Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)

Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)

Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.

Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)

Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.

Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion (1991) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1993)

Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.

Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Fascinating.

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

Incredible, the things that happened to Justus Rosenberg as a young man during the war. Strange, how little he says about what those things mean.

Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)

Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?

Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux

I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.

Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)

It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.

Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.

Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)

My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”

Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.

What I Read, July 2020

Life got to me this month. Days passed in a haze, routines crumbled, mosquitoes and heat kept us inside, a foot injury sharply curtailed my running. No endorphins, no Vitamin D, no hope. US politics even more of a cluster than usual; COVID everywhere, no end in sight, no good options for our daughter’s schooling next year. In theory, I had nothing but time on my hands. In practice, I split my time between Twitter and playing increasingly intricate/soul-destroying games devised by my nine-year-old. Our annual trip to Canada fell through—not a surprise, but a source of real sadness. Not everything was bad: I wrote a short essay on my grandmother; I enjoyed a resurrected reading group; I slowly made my way through David Cesarani’s 1000-page history of the Holocaust (amazing, though not cheering). And I read some other things, namely:

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Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (2019)

New series by Cleeves (of Vera and Shetland fame) set in north Devon featuring DI Matthew Venn, methodical, gay, married, alienated from his religious family. Totally solid procedural (Cleeves knows what she’s doing); I’ll read more about Venn and his colleagues, who Cleeves delineates with care, even managing some surprising character developments without stinting the mystery. It’s not going to rock your world, but it’ll absolutely scratch your procedural itch. Read Kay’s review (though we disagree on Venn’s husband: I liked him a lot more than she did).

Sarah Moss, Cold Earth (2009)

Moss’s first novel isn’t as brilliant as her more recent work, but it’s absorbing and unsettling. The setting is Greenland; the scenario is a haunted archeological dig. The isolation and harsh conditions start getting to the team, especially when one of its members becomes convinced someone or something is upset about the dig. Things get even more freaky when the team loses contact with the outside world, where a pandemic is raging. (Might have seemed a bit far-fetched on the book’s release, but not anymore…) Reading Cold Earth after most of her other books, I realized how much of a piece Moss’s concerns have always been. Her great subject is the intersection of physical and mental extremes, and how women experience those extremes differently than men. Here, though, that interest is more academic than felt; the book more schematic than alive. Except in the description of the landscape: there it sings. If you love wild northern places as much as I do, though, you’ll find enough to like here.

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me (2019)

Powerful book about teaching and learning and writing. Won the Orwell Prize just recently. I had more to say here.

Ijeoma Oluo, So You Want to Talk About Race (2018)

Like many well-meaning leftists, I wanted to read more about race in the wake of the George Floyd/Breonna Taylor protests. (For me, reading is the most comfortable way of doing—a fact I’m ashamed of, though I do translate reading into teaching, which, my therapist keeps trying to tell me, is also doing.) Lucky for me, then, that a colleague organized a group reading of Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race. 80 faculty and staff signed up (!); we discussed the book via Zoom in small groups. Hard to imagine a better introduction to the task of becoming anti-racist. By race, Oluo, born to a Nigerian father and a white American mother, mostly means “black,” but she also includes Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander, and Indigenous concerns. At first, I found the book a little simple. But as I read on I was impressed by how much material Oluo covers so accessibly without sacrificing nuance. For example, Oluo explains that when it comes to racist speech and actions impact matters more than intention; what microaggressions are and how pervasive and abrading they are; how to understand important terms like intersectionality and equity (vs. equality); and why white people need to do everything they can to avoid centering their own feelings of discomfort when they talk about race.

I moderated one of the Zoom sessions: it was disheartening to see some of the expected sticking points arise (it’s not easy to accept that white people who live in a racist society are in fact racist, even though they’re good people and personally think the Klan is terrible; it’s not easy to realize that even though plenty of white people are poor they’re still privileges when it comes to race; it’s amazing how pernicious and powerful the idea of meritocracy remains); on the other hand, it was heartening to see that the conversation about race on our campus seems to have shifted in the past months (before the meeting we read a report compiled last semester by students of colour about their experience of the college: what to many of us had seemed hectoring now felt simply just).

Katherine Addison, The Angel of the Crows (2020)

Second novel from Addison (who also writes as Sarah Monette), following the much-loved The Goblin Emperor (which I was in the middle of listening to when I stopped commuting; I haven’t found the energy to return to it, though it’s very good). The Angel of the Crows is a steampunk Holmes novel—it started as “wings fan fiction,” which, I learned, is a subset of fan fiction about angels—starring one Dr. Doyle, recently invalided out of the war in Afghanistan after being attacked by a fallen angel, who knocks aimlessly and in increasingly precarious financial straits around London until he meets an angel named Crow who needs a roommate for his flat at 221B Baker Street, from where he, Crow, helps Scotland Yard solve impossible crimes, not least the murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel.

Sound familiar? If you enjoy Holmes, you’ll love the way Addison reworks some of the most famous cases (Copper Beeches, Baskervilles, Speckled Band, etc.) in a world peopled by angels, vampires, and hellhounds. Addison eschews exposition, which I found both satisfying and confusing. I’m still not quite sure how angels are meant to function in this world. (They are good, because anchored to a building or other place, which they protect, unless they are fallen, in which case they are bad, but there’s also a vast stratum of nameless angels—used by Crow as Irregulars—who have neither a domain nor malign intentions. Or something like that). Anyway, it’s good fun, made even more interesting by a nice twist halfway through that I won’t reveal.

Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis, Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas (1881) Trans. Margaret Jull Costa and Robin Patterson (2020)

Got the Proust and Flaubert band back together to tackle this strange and funny 19th century Brazilian novel, out in a brand-new translation. Brás Cubas has died: he tells us about his life, riffs on what it means to tell a story, generally has a zany old time. Part Sterne, part Kafka. Hope to write more about this soon.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Americanah (2013)

Ifemelu, the protagonist of Adichie’s third, splendid novel, comes to the US for college and stays for fifteen years, making it sort-of-big with a blog about race, written from the perspective of an NAB (Non-American Black). Even though Ifemelu has a fabulous gig at Princeton, a (recently-ended) longtime relationship with a hip Ivy League professor, entrée into intellectually and socially elite worlds, and even US citizenship, she decides to return to Nigeria, where she finds herself an Americanah, not fully a foreigner but not a native anymore either. She’s torn between relief and distress, even disdain at what has happened to the country (which is to say, what has happened to her) during her absence. Americanah is a sprawling novel, with dozens of characters, mostly brilliantly realized, even the walk-ons. It’s also a straightforward two-hander: the real reason Ifemelu returns is to reconnect with her first boyfriend, Obinze, whose own travels to the West, in his case a much more difficult and less successful sojourn in the UK, take up about a third of the book.

At first I didn’t think much of Ifemelu’s blog entries (included at the end of many chapters), but I liked them more as I read on and eventually I realized Adichie had pulled a clever trick on me—the posts improve as Ifemelu does as a writer. The blog’s didactic elements sometimes spill over to the novel itself—Adieche’s portrayal of academics and other professionals during the Obama campaign is the least convincing part of the book, though I too, with a stab of pain when I compare then and now, remember dancing with joy the night of the election. (Not that I want another Obama; I want more; I don’t want a slightly nicer status quo plus respect for rule of law (although I do want that too!); I want change: I want AOC.)

Ifemelu isn’t always likeable—being “nice” isn’t something she learned while in the US; her impatience is bracing—and Adichie doesn’t feel the need to redeem her, but the novel does have a satisfyingly happy ending, made even more compelling because it doesn’t let us forget that one person’s happiness is usually someone else’s unhappiness.

I learned a lot from the book—what it’s like to be the kept woman of a high-ranking official with largesse to dispose yet who lives in constant fear of being deposed; what jollof is and why it’s delicious but why one could also get used to being able to choose to eat anything from anywhere; what kind of work illegals do in the US versus in the UK; how one generation’s accomplishments and pride in a nation become another’s confinement and shame. And I learned a lot about hair: about weaves and braids and afros and how to take care of hair (wrapping it in a satin handkerchief overnight is key) and how much it hurts (like, physically) to do so, which is to say I learned that hair is politics.

I’m planning to read Adieche’s other books, especially her epic of the Biafran war, Half of a Yellow Sun. The legacy of that conflict, especially as it’s shaped the relationships between Igbo and Yoruba, seemed important background to Americanah that mostly passed me by.

Kate Clanchy, Antigona and Me (2008) (first published as What is She Doing Here?)

I loved Clanchy’s book on teaching (see above), but I really, really loved this earlier work of narrative nonfiction. One day, walking through her neighbourhood with her young son, Clanchy meets a woman and her three children. The children get to playing, the women to talking. Antigona (Clanchy’s appropriate pseudonym for the woman, whose story involves plenty of defiance) is a refugee from the recent war in Kosovo. The story of how she and the children made it to the UK, which comes out, like all stories of trauma, in confusing bits and pieces over a long time, is remarkable, and, again like all stories of trauma, nigh-on implausible.

The women become friendly, and Clanchy hires Antigona as a cleaner (and later as a nanny), and rounds up a bunch of her middle-class professional friends to do the same. Antigona is a remarkable worker—in addition to all the domestic work she also has a job as a waitress—who does her best to get ahead, making a good life for her children at the cost of rarely seeing them. (She also has debts to people smugglers and the debts of family members to pay off.)

There are two reasons Antigona is so good at cleaning: one, she knows how to do manual labour in a way Clanchy and her friends, and probably most readers of this book, don’t (though Antigona never lets her romanticize that experience, casting scorn on Clanchy’s preference for old things, and reminding her the backbreaking work she and all women in her part of the world grind away at has no redeeming quality); and two, her life has been organized around ideas of cleanliness, as much metaphorically as literally. In the Malësi—“the highlands,” the mountainous region where Kosovo, Albania, and Macedonia meet—the rules that matter are neither legal nor religious (her family is nominally Muslim, but it means nothing to her) but rather cultural, specifically a complicated, unwritten, but clearly codified set of values and behaviours called the Kanun. To break the rules of Kanun is to feel shame—for yourself and for everyone in your family. The Kanun, Clanchy argues, is way of controlling women, a way to keep them “clean.” Cleanliness isn’t just a temporary state in the face of the endless messiness of life—not just a matter of vacuuming or scrubbing things that will soon once again be dirty—but a state of being that must be maintained at all costs.

As you can see, Clanchy’s memoir gets into thorny and abstract issues. But it’s written with verve, clarity, and ease. It’s about how women get along, with other women, with their children, with their families, with their careers and aspirations. Men barely make an appearance: the ones that do are clueless, wastrels, or violent. Antigona is the star of the show—physically and emotionally she’s built to be a star, and she knows it (qualities that make life hard for her children): when Clanchy proposes the idea of a book, she nods her head, and immediately suggests a movie, or a miniseries, that would be even better. She’s not selfish, though: she recognizes her story is also the story of many: “There are a thousand women behind me in this country, having shit lives, ‘scuse my language. No one can understand their lives, here. They are stuck, they cannot move forward. It takes one to break the ice.”

But Clanchy is important too, and not just as the one with the skills and resources and nous to interpret for Antigona, with all the ethical dilemmas that position holds: her no-nonsense personality is so appealing, and her willingness to butt heads with Antigona fills me, a person who flees from conflict, with awe. Clanchy recalls Betty Friedan writing in the 50s about “the problem,” which in the new century has morphed into a different one: “The ‘problem’ in 1959 was women’s shame over their wish to work outside the home, whereas ours in 2001 was same at our inability to work outside the home or even inside the home without the home collapsing.” “Our” here refers predominantly to middle-class white women, but whatever differences might exist between these women and women in the Malësi, they are linked by the experience if shame. What does it mean, Clanchy asks, for her flourishing to be possible only at the cost of another woman’s constriction (“I benefit from her stunting”)?

Seems like Antigona and Me went largely unnoticed when it first came out. That sucks, and I’d love to see it get another chance. People might be readier to read it now than they were in 2008, since memoir is read so much more widely now. The concerns of what those of us in safe, stable countries owe to those on the run from unsafe, unstable ones (which in many cases we made unsafe) has only become timelier. Antigona’s appreciation for the rule of law feels so poignant at a moment when we see that breaking down, at least in the US. And Clanchy’s thoughtful account of difference—how do you love someone with whom you have fundamental disagreements—is perennially relevant.

Clanchy told me on Twitter that this is her best book—or at least the one she likes best. I believe it. I stayed up until three in the morning to finish it; I regretted nothing the next day. It’s going to be on my best of the year list no question, and I urge you to track it down.

 Irmgard Keun, Gilgi, One of Us (1931) Trans. Geoff Wilkes (2013)

Got a jump start on WIT month with an old favourite. Gilgi has neither the joy of The Artificial Silk Girl nor the anguish of After Midnight, but it’s an impressive debut. In his excellent afterword, translator Wilkes tells the story of how Keun chose a publisher from the phone book, dropped off the manuscript, then returned the next day to see if they would buy it. It kept us up all night, the publisher admitted. And a star was born. Of course, fate got in the way, specifically having her books banned by the Nazis. And in this regard—the Hollywood glamour story of success; the crumbling of that success by forces larger than any individual—the anecdote fits the trajectory of many of Keun’s heroines, not least the eponymous Gilgi.

When the story begins, twenty-one-year-old Gilgi is a go-getter in late Weimar-era Köln (passing reference is made to street battles between communists and Nazis). She exercises every morning, takes language classes, saves money to travel, and spends an hour or two in a rented room every evening improving herself. She’s also a little conformist/prissy, though her skill at deflecting male attention is amusing—and depressing. It sucks how carefully she must deflect the fragile male egos that have so much power over her. The book has strong Rhys/Comyns vibes, not least in its use of “you,” a technique Rhys especially used to create distance between her female protagonists and themselves. Gilgi often laments her inability to express herself, to speak in anything other than “grey words,” unlike the men in her life. Her language is as constricted as her life possibilities—fitting, then, that she is a typist, transcribing the language of others. (I’m reminded by the theorist of technology Friedrich Kittler’s point that typewriter—like computer—originally meant the young woman who typed or computed, and only later named the tool she used to it.)

In addition to the matter of language, Gilgi is a book about mothers—at least four are important to the young woman—and what other roles, if any, women can fill. It’s also about how being with another person both enriches and shrinks your life: in this regard, it has an unconvincing, although open happy ending. (It’s interesting to compare the end of After Midnight, which depicts the same scenario, but packs a much more powerful emotional punch.) Still, I loved the novel’s roving point of view, and the way Keun used that play with perspective to make her gender critique even clearer (as when we see into the minds of the men who only want one thing from Gilgi, for example).

If you’re new to Keun, I’d start with those other two books, but Gilgi is absolutely worth reading.

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That was July. Clanchy was the clear winner, with Adiechie coming second. And August promises better, including a vacation with some uninterrupted reading time, which will, I hope, prepare me to launch into whatever the new year promises.