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 side 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.

 

What I Read, June 2020

The reading month was a tale of two parts: a blissful vacation week, non-stop reading, each book as strong as the last, followed by two weeks teaching a workshop on writing personal statements. Fun, but tons of work and although I read a lot it was all med school and Fulbright applications. In non-reading life, the weather remained surprisingly agreeable, and the COVID situation in Arkansas hadn’t yet deteriorated as it has since (though the mask-less signs were there). I was doing okay at the time, but now that feels like a century ago. I worry about my job, my health, my loved ones’ health, the planet’s health. Let’s talk books instead.

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Tessa Hadley, The Master Bedroom (2007)

Not as terrific as Late in the Day but still pretty damn terrific. Kate Flynn leaves London and her academic career behind and returns home to Wales. Cardiff is small—it’s not long before she runs into the brother of a childhood friend and falls for him. David’s marriage is not falling apart exactly, but something’s going on, his wife has new friends, disappears for days at a time. David is drawn to Kate—or maybe to her childhood home, a ramshackle mansion grandiosely named La Firenze where Kate’s delightful, increasingly senile mother potters about while Kate practices chamber music. Before long, Kate meets Jamie, David’s 17-year-old son from his first marriage, and before she knows it finds herself involved, in different, complicated ways, with both men.

This could be a farce, but poignancy is more Hadley’s thing. But so is passion, with its messy and violent challenge to decorum. By the end of the novel, a lot of things get broken; some new things get made from the pieces. Hadley’s really doing it for me at this stage in my life.

Sarah Moss, Signs for Lost Children (2015)

I’m usually impatient with novels that switch between two perspectives. Just when I’ve fallen into scenario or point of view, I’m jarred by having to return to the other. And I’m usually more interested in one of the stories. But Moss, really hitting her stride as a writer in this, her fourth novel, a sequel to the very fine Bodies of Light, avoids these traps. At the end of the previous novel, Ally Moberley, one of Britain’s first female doctors in the 1880s, married an engineer named Tom Cavendish. Here the newlyweds find themselves separated when she takes on a job as a doctor in an insane asylum in Falmouth and he travels to Japan to build lighthouses. We learn a lot about Ally’s work and almost nothing about Tom’s—the sections in Japan focus on his secondary task of buying fabric and art objects for an English collector (this makes him basically a personal shopper, and part of the way the novel feminizes him, to use Moss’s own description). Moss’s research is impeccable but lightly worn, even oblique—I think Rohan said something about these being modernist Victorian novels. Moss evokes with equal skill Tom’s feelings of foreignness (which turn to admiration for Japanese society) and Ally’s struggles to challenge the norms of a medical world in which she is as much on sufferance as her mentally-ill patients. There’s even an intriguing plot element: will the couple survive the geographic and psychological distance between them?

Above all, though, Signs for Lost Children, like its predecessor, is Ally’s book. For Moss’s main subject is how easily, terribly, and insidiously we internalize the bad emotions other people, often those closest to us, direct at us: whether jealousy, anger, disparagement or contempt. Ally’s struggles to overcome those voices hit me in the gut.

Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Deaths, and Hard Truths in a Northern City (2017)

The northern city of Toronto Star reporter Talaga’s title is Thunder Bay, Ontario, but it could be almost anywhere in Canada, a country where indigenous lives matter less than anyone else’s. Which isn’t to deny the particularity of Talaga’s subject. The fallen feathers are seven indigenous teenagers who went missing and were later found dead, mostly pulled from one of the city’s many waterways. The police, Talaga shows, were never too interested in investigating: another missing Indian, probably drunk and careless. In fact it’s likely some of these young people were murdered—indigenous people are regularly attacked and abused in Thunder Bay: the podcast Canadaland, in a powerful series(featuring Talaga), explored this possibility—but Talaga’s interest here is on a whole system built on broken promises, especially when it comes to education. After the terrible legacy of the residential school system, indigenous people were supposed to have more say in their children’s education, and more money to help them build a new system. But if young people in small northern settlements want to continue to high school they need to fly south, which, in Ontario anyway, usually means going to Thunder Bay. Billeted with foster families paid to take them—some good, some not—living in a place many times bigger than anywhere they’ve known before, missing loved ones themselves damaged by generations of abuse, they struggle. Even though organizations, some indigenous-led, exist to help them, resources and cultural will are lacking.

Talaga’s prose is workmanlike, and her choices in structuring the book sometimes confused me. (A moving section on residential schools could have been the basis of a separate book.) But this powerful book should be read by all Canadians, and everyone who idealizes the place. I cried reading the last pages. The prejudices instilled in me growing up white on the prairies in the 1970s an 80s haven’t been uprooted from reading this book, but they’re more obvious to me now.

Anita Brookner, Look at Me (1983)

Justly famous. This novel provoked many responses when I tweeted my love for it, mostly similarly enthusiastic. Many readers seem to think this, Brookner’s third novel, is her first great one. (Her debut was pretty terrific; I’ve yet to read her second.) Frances Hinton works in a medical library, the kind of sleepy, not especially oppressive job that doesn’t seem to exist anymore (and maybe never did, outside books). She lives with her mother’s former servant in a sepulchral apartment she inherited on her parents’ death. She writes, a little, a story is published and admired. Her life is quiet without being desperate. Yet desperation runs through Frances, as suggested by Brookner’s marvelous title, a phrase Frances regularly howls onto the page. “Look at me” could be self-deprecatory, or coquettish, or rebuking. But in France’s narration it’s a demand—for visibility, legibility, intelligibility. A demand kindled when she is taken up by the dashing physician Nick Fraser and his glamorous wife, Alix. Suddenly Frances is eating out and meeting people, including a kindly doctor whom she gets involved with, but in a detached way, until the relationship that blows up in a surprising way. The WASPs are horrible, it’s the beginning of the rise of the City and all that 80s excessive consumption stuff, the kindliest character is a disabled Jew. All strange and marvelous, and offered to us in less than 200-pages. The most marvelous bit of all, the scene everyone on Twitter mentioned, is a hallucinatory walk through nighttime London, incredibly menacing. There’s a lot of menace in this book, in fact (Frances’s previous lover has been cruel, perpetrated some Jamesian obscure hurt alluded to darkly but firmly.) Brookner is often compared to James or Bowen, but the novel’s last line reminded me of the end of Beckett’s Molloy. Brookner is icier, though, and less funny. Icy domesticity? Yes, please! I’m going to read the rest of her books on my sabbatical.

Sybille Bedford, Jigsaw: An Unsentimental Education (1989)

Book of the month! The year? The century?!? Oh who knows but damn this is good. I saw it was shortlisted for the Booker and, amazed that it didn’t win, took a look at what did. (Remains of the Day: worthy for sure and hard to pick but might take Jigsaw.) Clearly some people appreciated it at the time, but I think it reads less strangely now than it might have then—reviews could call it autofiction and have a way to pigeonhole it. Although pigeonholing is everything this book is not. A fictionalized version of Bedford’s extraordinary life, what she called her unsentimental education. From her first memory (being wheeled in a too-small pram through the streets of Copenhagen, then parked outside the apartment of a writer her mother had come to seduce) through her childhood with her father in a chateau in Baden (which sounds amazing, but post WWI the once-noble family was so poor that father and daughter nearly froze to death in the place, with hardly any clothes and little to eat, only a fabulous cellar to console them), on through life with her mother and her mother’s kind younger lover, first in Italy and then on the Côte d’Azur, with interregna in England, all on her own, a teenager making her way in the world, and back to France where she ran with a crowd that included Aldous and Maria Huxley—the whole thing is so incredible. Not glamorous, mostly she was poor and hard done-by, but amazing.

The book belongs to Bedford’s mother: titanic, careless, insecure, lordly, in the end tragic. But there are a ton of other great characters too. Most delightful of all, though, is Bedford’s narrative voice. You get aperçus:

Are all young children unregenerate creatures? Incapable of moral responses? responses of the heart? Can these be awakened? Mine were not. I was unregenerate and self-absorbed.

You get loose-limbed syntax:

He [her grandfather] had died in his nineties at Voss Strasse before the end of the war – I was there: a death in the house.

And you get both at once:

When I am trying to think of those years in NW1, and I haven’t thought of them for a very long time, they seem to have been all of a piece, a uniform round. It can’t have been wholly like that. There must have been some process of growing up, at whatever rate; life does widen and not only by visits to the British museum, the Tate and Winchester Cathedral. Yet the only thing that remains vivid is the physical feel of living in London, young and on very little though sufficient money. The buses—one was always running after, catching or just missing a last bus; the queuing for a play in Shaftesbury Avenue; the Lyons’ Corner House afterwards (poached egg on toast); Bovril at a coffee stall very late at night; the elegance of Mayfair streets at lunch time; how splendid the men, how pretty the girls, how well dressed everyone was, how en fête; the smell of the cheaper Soho restaurants (upholstery, grease, spice, trapped air); my digs.

Read it!

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Susie Steiner, Remain Silent (2020)

Third Manon Bradshaw novel isn’t as suspenseful as the first, but its character development is even better. Such a range of registers: I laughed aloud and wanted to cry. An Eastern European subplot is handled with much more thoroughness than usual. But more important than the book is the news that Steiner is gravely, perhaps terminally ill. It is so terrible, I send a prayer for her healing.

James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry (1968)

McPherson’s debut includes two terrific stories—“A Matter of Vocabulary” and “A Solo Song: For Doc,” the former about brothers who pick up after-school jobs at a grocery store and learn how much they differ (it’s going straight onto my short fiction syllabus); the latter about the end of the Pullman porter era—a couple of satisfactory ones, and several joyless and unpleasant ones. There’s not a single sensitively portrayed female character in the book and, although the scenarios occasionally reminded of Malamud I missed the sympathy that attends even Malamud’s most miserable characters. Sometimes I think the 60s were a happier time than our own unhappy one, but then I read something like this and think, nope, at least not for everybody. Even Edward P. Jones’s introduction—which I looked forward to, he’s a favourite of mine—feels dutiful. Did McPherson get better?

Dola de Jong, The Tree and the Vine (1954) Trans. Kristen Gehrman (2020)

More curiosity than masterpiece, de Jong’s novel of unconsummated lesbian love in 1930s Holland is given a sprightly translation by Kristen Gehrman. Bea meets Erica, they move in together as friends, Bea is more and more obsessed with her, to the point that her boyfriend leaves her, which Bea isn’t sad about, in part because she’s so sad or conflicted or unsure or something by Erica, who isn’t especially nice to her. Unhappy lesbian stories are pretty common in the first half of the 20th century, though this one has an intriguing frame in which Bea, writing from postwar life in the US, intimates that she has found happiness or at least contentment. But de Jong is pretty haphazard with that retrospection. I dunno, the book didn’t quite work for me; I wanted to like it more than I did.  I’ve a hunch, though, that I might appreciate it more on a second reading.

Megha Majumdar, A Burning (2020)

Ostensibly about the aftermath of a sectarian terrorist attack in Kolkata (fictional, but modelled on a real one in Bangladesh), A Burning is really about how money and a sense of belonging and counting as a human being are connected—in other words, about the reality for most people in the world right now. The novel is structured around different first-person points of view. (Surely some Jameson-inspired critics are writing about how different-walks-of-life-that-get-connected narratives reflect our economic and social ties under late capitalism.) A young woman—who might have abetted the terrorists—posts a mild criticism of the government on Facebook and is arrested. Her former PE teacher happens upon a demonstration organized by a nationalistic political party—drawn there in the first place by the chance to see a movie star speak—and finds himself more valued than at the girls’ school where he has worked, even if that means becoming a fixer and a perjurer (he ends up a Minister, so who’s to say he was wrong?). A hijira—an intersex and/or transgender person—who had been tutored by the arrested woman overcomes obstacles on their way to stardom.

The teacher—called by his classroom nickname, PT Sir—is the most compelling character, but maybe that’s just because he is most developed according to the codes of realism (he does the most doing, incites the most complicated feelings, has the most developed interiority—he reminded me a little of the lead in Daniyal Mueenuddin’s story “Nawab Electrician”). But PT, like Lovely, the hijira, and Jivan, the accused woman, live in a world in which public spectacle and outcry drive success. Individuals only have meaning in relation to the mass (a more fitting term for the world of this novel than public or citizenry IMO). But this reality poses a dilemma for Majumdar. Because novels rely on individual agency, in a world in which such agency (fancy word for willpower), novels have to turn on themselves. Accordingly, the most compelling moments in A Burning are when characters both do and don’t decide something. Its most representative scene, then, shows Jivan’s lawyer being bribed to abandon his client. Gobind—note the suggestion of blindness in his name; to say nothing of the bind he is in—agrees to drop the case. The narration adds, “He is unsure if he chooses this.”

Reading A Burning I was reminded of Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar, a better because less schematic, more oneiric book, but similarly concerned with the compromises of success in contemporary India. Majumdar’s is a formidable debut; I’ll read the followup with interest.

Paulette Jiles, Simon the Fiddler (2020)

After News of the World I was eager to read Jiles’s new novel, which centers on Simon Boudin, a character who featured briefly in the earlier book. (Because I listened to an audiobook from the library I couldn’t go back to read that scene again—a source of repeated frustration to me as I read Fiddler.) In Texas in the last months of the Civil War, Boudin is conscripted into the Confederate Army, a fate the slight young man had avoided by pretending he was only a teenager. But he is a musician, not a fighter and at the end of the hostilities finds himself playing at a garden party for officers of both sides, a reconciliation event that is unsuccessful—except for Simon, who spots a beautiful young woman and immediately falls in love with her.

The object of his affection, Doris Dillon, an immigrant from Ireland, is an indentured servant to a Union Captain who is posted to San Antonio where he is meant to bring order to the lawless city when in fact he spends most of his time creeping on Doris. Simon the Fiddler is half love story, half picaresque, as Simon and some charmingly idiosyncratic fellow musicians form a scratch band and play their way across Texas. No, it’s not as great a book as News of the World, but Jiles’s descriptions are evocative and you get a happy ending despite some terrible events along the way. This won’t be on my end of year list, but I enjoyed every minute of it.

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There you have it. The year’s more than half over (I’d say good riddance except I’m scared of what’s coming after it). Maybe I’ll look back on the first half, which, reading-wise, hasn’t been too bad, a damn sight better than everything else. Stay safe, friends.

What I Read, May 2020

Finished the semester, was sad about not getting to see students graduate. Hair grew. Won a teaching award, finally something unequivocally good, a helpful validation. Made occasional trips to pick up groceries and the like, and to drive the car a little so my already temperamental battery didn’t complete die, was bewildered by the apparent alternate reality outside my door: no masks, no distancing, no cares. Hair grew longer. Thought about my upcoming sabbatical, worried over how to use this gift of time. Feared failure more than usual. Read too much news, was despondent, angry, grief-stricken. Hair reached crisis point. And, as always, read, quite a lot, most of it pretty undemanding.

EZIlJ48XYAA-tuGSusie Steiner, Missing, Presumed (2016)

When Lissa Evans and Nina Stibbe tell you to read a book, you don’t fuck about. Happily, this was as delightful and engrossing as promised. Manon Bradshaw is getting on for 40. She’s a bit lonely, but she’s a good cop, she’s funny and sarcastic, and she is just ordinarily neurotic, not hell-bent on self-destruction. Steiner manages the trick of putting the investigator’s personal life front and center and writing a suspenseful plot. Above all, Missing, Presumed is a properly female-centered crime novel (there’s more than one important female character, they don’t hate each other, they aren’t pitted against each other by men). Mostly what I took away from the book is that women’s clothes are often extremely uncomfortable. There’s lots of strap-tugging and pushing and pulling.

Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1994) Trans. Ethel Broido (1994)

Twenty-five years on, Gutman’s history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising feels dated. It’s filled with detailed information about an extraordinary moment, and is especially good on the various Jewish political and social groups in both pre-war and wartime Poland. But it has a narrow definition of resistance—namely, the use of force, especially the taking up of arms. I don’t reject this in principle—the power of violent resistance is on display across America as I write—and I get that Gutman is presenting events as the actors experienced them (he quotes various documents in which the handful of Jews left after the ghetto’s liquidation in late 1942 exulted in finally feeling human again, once they were able to shoot a gun or set an explosion, etc.). But Gutman also implicitly validates these statements, in part by underplaying other forms of resistance (he has surprisingly little to say about the Ringelblum archive, for example). His take makes sense when you learn that Gutman actually fought in the uprising himself. But you won’t learn that from his book. In fact, I’d no idea of his role until the students I was reading the book with told me. I can’t imagine a book written today that wouldn’t acknowledge the writer’s involvement in the material. Time for a new history of this moment, I say. One more thing bothered me: I’ve never before seen a book that acknowledged its translated status in a brief aside in the acknowledgements. Reprehensible!

Susie Steiner, Persons Unknown (2017)

DI Bradshaw is back, and her life has become more complicated, more exasperating, more fraught, and more joyful. Part Laurie Colwin, part Tana French, these books are terrific. Forgot to mention that Steiner is worth reading in paperback, because each of the two books so far includes a bonus chapter that bridges the current book to the next. I’ve not seen that before.

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (2015) Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2020)

Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of a young Polish gay couple. This is the first of what I imagine has become a series centered on Zofia Turbotynska, a society woman in Cracow in 1893, who feels herself coming alive when she inadvertently begins investigating a series of murders at an almshouse. The novel doesn’t quite avoid the pitfalls involved in stories of amateur detectives, but if like me you can’t get enough of late-19th, early 20th century Galicia, or if you just appreciate a well-drawn character (Zofia isn’t entirely likable, a bit self-satisfied and prim, but we are asked through her to think about our own fascination with investigation, which makes us like her more and ourselves less) you should give this a try. Props to Houghton Mifflin for bringing Szymiczkowa to the US, and to East Bay Books, who put their inventory online for online browsing by section, which is how I stumbled across this.

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

Wonderful essays.

Emiliano Monge, The Arid Sky (2012) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2018)

Young Mexican novelist plays with temporal order and the relation between narrator and character in telling key events (dire or violent or, most often, both) in the life of a criminal turned priest turned criminal. (At least, I think that’s what’s going on; it’s not always easy and I read it in snatches, when immersion would probably be better, given the style.) Bunstead, I sense, is a great translator (I thought his translation of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve was terrific), and there are some resonant, Bernhardian sentences here. My sample size is small, to be sure, but so much Latin American literature seems to come out of Faulkner, who I don’t much care for. Are there Spanish-language equivalents of Barbara Pym or Tessa Hadley, or is that simply a misguided/stupid question?

Marcie R. Rendon, Murder on the Red River (2017)

Don’t sleep on this one. Jenny Davidson recommended it as the best crime fiction she’d read this year. Cash Blackbear is a nineteen-year-old Anishinabe woman in the Red River Valley in the early 1970s. (The war in Vietnam is a repeated touchstone.) Cash does farm work, mostly driving grain trucks. She adds to that income by hustling pool. And she drinks pretty steadily. She has a close relationship to the local sheriff, who watched over her when she was taken into care as a child, keeping her away from the worst of the foster parents. (They were all pretty bad, and Rendon slips in glimpses of those microaggressions throughout the book.) Cash has an ability to listen to the dead (this dreaming isn’t particularly well-developed, and I’d have liked to hear more about it). So when a native man is found stabbed to death, the sheriff brings Cash in to give him a hand. The resolution of the crime is anticlimactic; suspense is not the reason to read the book. Cash, though, is a great character, dogged and smart and torn apart by her love of a place that has no love for her. As an indigenous woman, Cash has suffered a lot, but the suffering is more constant low-level trauma rather than singular overwhelming moment. When I complained to my wife, who’d already read the book, that the hard-drinking investigator was a cliché, she pointed out that what Cash was doing was medicating. Rendon is good with action scenes (and I appreciate how modest those are—this is not Jack Reacher stuff). The reason they’re so good is that Rendon’s descriptions of Cash’s actions are fascinatingly detailed (yet the book is a short, quick read). We learn about every bath Cash takes in futile attempt to rid herself of wheat chaff, every trip to the bar, every cigarette she smokes, every meal she eats (when she remembers to), every route she takes through the isolated towns of the valley. I wondered about this, and finally it dawned on me that the prose was mimicking Cash’s need to control what she can in life. The repetition, the circumscribed life—these are the analogues of a person always at risk of losing a sense of self.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003) Trans. Anthea Bell (2003)

My daughter and I read this together over a couple of months (it’s like 500 pages), and I’ve been badgering her to write a review, but so far without luck. Inkheart has a good premise—what if you could read yourself into a book?—and then complicates it by adding the caveat that, every time you did, something from the world of the book came into our own. Meggie lives with her father, Mo, a bookbinder; when a stranger arrives at their door one night and Mo becomes shifty, even frightened, Meggie learns a lot of things, including, eventually, what really happened to her mother. Bell’s translation of Funke’s German text is excellent, and although I didn’t find this as breathtaking as, say, The Golden Compass, I loved how much my daughter loved it. It was too scary for her to read alone, but manageable with me reading it. It’s the first of a trilogy and we’re on the second book now—seeing my daughter’s joy and fascination with the map at the front of the second volume has been a joy in itself.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Flight of the Falcon (1965)

Even second-tier Du Maurier is worth reading.

Marcie R. Rendon, Girl Gone Missing (2019)

Cash returns, and the big development from the end of the first book means her life is different—that change is both an opportunity and a challenge to her always fragile stability. When several young women from different farming communities go missing, Cash follows the trail to Minneapolis, where she has never been before. In my favourite scene she visits the Grain Exchange, walking around the imposing stone building, amazed to find that this name, from which the all-important commodity prices come through farmers’ radios each day, is attached to a physical place where people actually work. Rendon brings Cash into contact with the American Indian Movement (AIM), which allows her explore the idea of whether a loner like Cash, at once attached to her native identity and frustrated by it, can find any meaning in an identity-based movement. A significant hanging thread from the first volume is reintroduced, which I appreciated. Rendon’s going to have to step up the crime aspects of these novels (the plots are thin), but I want many more books about Cash. Great midwestern farm neepery, too. During beet season, the local roads develop “a sheen of mud. This close to the Red River, the mud was mixed with river clay that was slicker than ice if a rainfall or early frost or, god forbid, an early snow coated the road.”

Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day (2019)

It’d been a while since I’d read Hadley, a writer I’ve always liked, but who has exceeded herself here. Late in the Day tells the story of four friends whose lives have been connected since student days. It begins with the death of one of them and goes both forward and backward from this traumatic beginning. Hadley is great with character—she sketches them so clearly (they are among the few literary characters I can actually picture) and lets them change and surprise us. She’s also adept with narrative voice, changing perspective regularly and using omniscience to its potential. There’s a scene when the four friends, drunk and high after celebrating a big accomplishment, almost exchange sexual partners, only to have the moment interrupted by one of the children, who can’t sleep; later, that child, now grown up, tells a sibling about a dream—which we know was real. I found this misunderstanding moving, somehow.

What does it mean to create something? Is a relationship or a friendship a kind of creation? Is middle age the time when creation is most fruitful? These are Hadley’s questions; in her answers I got a strong To the Lighthouse vibe. Hadley is warm, almost fond of her characters, but never indulgent with them. Fittingly, I stayed up late with the book, willing myself to the end but sad to reach the final page. Read Catherine Taylor’s piece in The Financial Times, it’s very good.

Dan Stone, Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (2019)

Historian Stone has written an amazingly lucid and useful book, which covers much historical ground and asks big theoretical questions, all in only a little more than 100 pages. Stone looks at late 19th-early 20th century camps in South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines, noting how they were designed for non-combatants. He of course considers the camps of the Third Reich (his own area of expertise), which clearly distinguishes the various Nazi camps and, even more interesting, compares them to the institutions set up to create and validate the Volksgemeinschaft (Hitler Youth camps and the like). Camps, Stone argues, were for the Nazis as necessary to those “drilled into” the community as to those excluded from it, given that the regime’s aim was a society modelled on the barracks. To that end, “inclusion and exclusion went hand in hand.” Stone adds a chapter on the Gulag (really helpful to someone like me who knows too little about it), and on camps around the word (in colonial scenarios, within so-called liberal-democracies, under Communism). He concludes by casting a critical but not unsympathetic eye on theorists who make the camp a metaphor for modernity, and then tackles the difficult issue of comparison. In the end, although he says there is no clear line between camps and other sites of incarceration, Stone doesn’t think, for example, the migrant camps at the US border are concentration camps because they offer at least the possibility of the rule of law. I disagree, but I think he’s absolutely right in concluding, “Concentration camps are the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels itself most threatened.” As if this wasn’t enough, his bibliography is excellent. The book’s a keeper, and I plan to start assigning it in all my Holocaust-related courses.

Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (2020)

A frustrating book that tells a gripping story in undistinguished prose. Neumann grew up in Venezuela in the 1970s and 80s with a father, Hans Neumann, who was a magnate of industry, a patron of the arts, and a general force of nature. Hans had a past in Europe—specifically in Czechoslovakia—that he rarely addressed. As a child, Neumann once found a box of papers that included what looked like a passport written in a language she couldn’t read. It had a photo of a man who was clearly her father at a much younger age. But the name underneath the photo was someone else’s. When she asked about it, her parents put her off. The box disappeared. But it came to her after her father’s death, along with some other family papers, which launched Neumann on a years-long project to uncover her father’s story, and to relate what she discovered to otherwise unexplained moments in her past—like when a fellow student in college asserted that she must be Jewish (first Neumann ever heard of it), or when she accompanied her father on a trip back to Prague after the fall of the Wall, a trip in which he refused to visit places from his past. When Time Stopped, in other words, belongs to the genre of the second-generation Holocaust memoir, like Maus or Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (third generation, actually) or Bart van Es’s The Cut-Out Girl.

Neumann’s book is better than van Es’s and not as good as Mendelsohn’s. (No one’s as good as Spiegelman.) I was so irritated by the laxness of Neumann’s descriptions of her own life (I especially wanted to know more about Venezuela) and her trite meditations (on receiving an important letter, for example, she writes, “There is a moment of connection in receiving an object, a physical link, that is lacking in the virtual instantaneity of email”). But if you can get through this stuff, the story Neumann tells about her father and his family is incredible. Plus the book is well-structured, the slow unfolding of the story deftly and engagingly arranged.

Hans was one of only nine people in an extended family of 34 to have survived the war. He did so by having papers that declared him an essential worker at his father’s expropriated paint factory as well as a network of friends who risked their lives for him. The two most incredible stories involve clandestine forays into the world of the perpetrator. His brother’s sister smuggled herself into the ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt twice in order to bring packages to her in-laws. (Neither survived the war.) And Hans himself, once it was clear that no Jew, no matter how “essential,” would be permitted to live in Prague after a certain date, hatched an insanely audacious plan to use a friend’s passport to travel to Berlin in the fall of 1943, where he posed as a Gentile Czech willing to offer his services as a foreign worker. He obtained an identity card and work permit under the assumed name of Jan Sebesta and was hired at a paint factory that made protective polymer coating for German warplanes. It is amazing that Hans was never found out (fortunately for him, he had not been circumcised); it is amazing he did not die in the Allied bombing raids, especially as he was conscripted into the civilian firefighting service; it is especially amazing that he did not go crazy from cognitive dissonance. Except that he kind of did—as is true in so many second-generation stories (Maus again being the great example), “survival” is shown to be an ongoing project that is often incomensurate with a “happy ending.”

Laurie R. King, Justice Hall (2002)

I blow hot and cold on the Mary Russell—Sherlock Holmes series. Not sure what brought me back after not particularly enjoying the previous installment, but this one is better. Russell and Holmes are tasked with finding out what happened to the heir of a grand family fortune in the Great War. It’s an open secret he was court-martialled and executed by firing squad for disobeying an order, but what led to that terrible moment has been a secret until now. Jacqueline Winspear wrote a book on the same topic at about the same time; I wish I’d read King’s first, as she’s a better writer. Anyway, diverting enough, especially if you’re into English country houses, but nothing spectacular.

William Trevor, After Rain (1996)

My first collection of Trevor stories, and, yes, he is as good as everyone says. There are two kinds of stories in this book—New Yorker stories (resonant, rueful, wise, maybe a bit perfect) and uglier ones, which remind me of early Ian McEwan (grubby, a bit horrible). A couple of these stories mix both modes—I liked those best, especially “A Friendship,” which I found shocking (a man discovers his wife’s infidelity: he forgives her but forces her to break with the lifelong friend who had helped her arrange the logistics of the affair) and “Lost Ground,” set in a Protestant farming family in rural Ireland in the 1980s, which I at first took to be an ingenious reworking of Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” but which takes a darker turn. Friends extoled “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and “The Potato Dealer,” both excellent. I could imagine teaching any number of these stories and learning much more about them that way. (Just great: the last thing I need is another white guy to teach.) I thought Trevor would be nicer than he is. He reminded me a bit of Alice Munro. Both are cold writers, and I can’t warm to them, much as I admire them. For a sense of the whole collection, Jacqui’s overview is really good.ETrQo6eWAAITlxPIn summary: Trevor’s good—no surprise there—and I’ll be reading more of him in the next few months. Jamie is a brilliant essayist; I’m finding her especially enlivening in these times when distancing is our reality rather than our fantasy. Neumann’s book is at once clunky and captivating. But the pick of the month was Hadley’s Late in the Day; a great book of middle age. I hope June brings more good reading, but events being what they are right now—I don’t know if I’m more thrilled or scared that people are finally saying enough is enough—I’ll settle for any reading at all.

 

What I Read, April 2020

Ugh, April. A terrible month in my line of work at the best of times. Which this April, of course, was not. I was both busy—the last four weeks of the semester are always crunch time—but also, strangely, not. (No commute, far fewer admin obligations, the many office hour meetings vanished to almost nothing.) The month felt like a Zoom class that leaves exhausted but also unsatisfied. (God, I hate looking at myself so much.) Some days the pandemic routine was just fine, even enjoyable. Other days terror and depression pinched hard. On the plus side, we spent so much time together as a family. But on the downside, we spent so much time together as a family.

April is the best month of the year, weather wise, in Little Rock. And in that regard at least 2020 didn’t disappoint, so we were outside in the yard a lot. I fear what will happen when the hot weather sets in, in a couple of weeks or so. So I tried to read outside as much as I could. But what I mostly read this month was undergraduate prose—many, many essay drafts and short writing exercises. Some of that writing was excellent, some not. Either way, it took me away from books, plus I was working away at some chunksters. Thus this meager final tally:

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Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018)

Ingenious of Kerr to make his rumpled anti-hero Bernie Gunther an insurance adjuster in this last book of the series. (Kerr completed one more before he died, but it is set back in the 1920s, with Bernie a rookie beat cop.) Insurance is a great milieu for non-PI crime investigating, and I’m surprised more writers don’t take advantage of it. (Double Indemnity, of course, and Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life—can you think of others?) Here, Bernie is sent to Greece to investigate a suspicious claim. No surprise, what he finds relates to the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. What is a surprise is the ending, which offers a new, but quite fitting, direction for Bernie, serving an intriguing new set of masters. I would have loved to see Kerr develop these possibilities, but it’s satisfying as it is.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985)

A damn good book, which kept me company through the first confusing and anxious pandemic weeks, back when things felt both more terrifying and less depressing than now. In the 1870s, down by the Mexican border, a group of cowboys work the Hat Creek ranch under the direction of two former Texas Rangers. The return of an old comrade and a sense that life has become played out convince the men to drive a herd of cattle north to Montana, where they plan to set up the first ranch in the territory.

Lonesome Dove has an exciting plot (McMurtry is good with weather, and he sure knows how to create drama out of a river crossing), but what it really has is a set of great characters. (Be warned: the intersection of these qualities often takes the form of death. You’ll lose several people you’ve become quite attached to.) For me, the book is about the things other people can see about you that you yourself just can’t. (A theme abetted by the novel’s roving omniscience.) Lonesome Dove is about the limits of self-knowledge—limits that abet the uncaringness of the universe that everyone, we learn, runs aground against anyway. Most heartbreaking is the inability of the outfit’s stoic leader, Captain Woodrow Call, to acknowledge that he’s the father of one of its youngest members. (There’s a beautiful, moving, frustrating scene between them at the end: the book’s plenty sentimental, which I like.) Almost as heartbreaking is the story of Call’s partner, Captain Augustus McCrae, as excitable and gregarious as Call is reticent, who is felled not by reencountering the love of his life but by his own stubbornness and vanity.

The novel’s only weakness is that there are almost no women in, only three really, though to be fair they’re important, and McMurtry handles two of them well (especially McCrae’s old flame, Emily). The prostitute Lorena Wood is less successful: what might have seemed a sensitive portrait in the 1980s doesn’t work today. But the book has a sweep, a verve, a love of life (it’s often laugh-out-loud funny) that really captivated me, and I can imagine tit ending up on my end of the year list.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Trans. Samuel Martin (2017)

I can’t be fussed to look back and see what I wrote when I first read this a couple of years ago. Pretty sure I liked it then; I like it a lot now. I’ve taught it twice, and it’s a keeper. Didi-Huberman—a French academic who has written a lot about photography—juxtaposes photographs he took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with little essayistic reflections on the experience. I now have a better handle on his argument, viz, we need to see without looking, which is to say, without being guided by preconceptions. Only self-awareness about the limitations of looking can let us do that. Students love the book—that came through even over our less-than-ideal video sessions. On my previous readings, I hadn’t picked up how much Didi-Huberman hates Claude Lanzmann, so that was a nice little bonus for me.

Henri Bosco, Malicroix (1948) Trans. Joyce Zonana (2020)

Strange and compelling, especially in its first half. A young man inherits a small house on a small island in the middle of the Rhone river—or he will if he satisfies the unusual requirements of the bequest. I will have more to say soon!

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018)

First in a crime series set in 1920s Bombay (with detour to Calcutta). Parveen Mistry is the city’s first female solicitor (unlike her father, with whom she practices, she cannot argue in court) and a member of the city’s small but influential Parsi community. (She is modelled on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji.) When the firm is asked to execute the will of a longstanding Muslim client, Parveen’s gender turns into an asset, as the deceased three wives live in purdah. Her ability to speak to the widows directly becomes more pressing when a member of the household is found murdered. As I said about Greeks Bearing Gifts, I enjoy seeing how writers tackle the problems and opportunities offered by non-police or PI characters. It will be interesting to watch Massey deal with this constraint as the series goes forward. The crime takes a backseat to Parveen’s involved history—in this, as well as the period setting and the sensibilities of the main character, Widows reminded me of the first Maisie Dobbs novel; fans of that series will enjoy this one—but the story of her education and the unhappy events that led her to work with her father are compelling enough that I didn’t mind. I’ve already bought the second book, which, I gather, riffs on The Moonstone.

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May is shaping up to be a better reading month, once again with plenty of crime but other things too. Among other things I’ve been plugging away at Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I’ve read 650 pp, and there are still 800 to go! Sometimes I just laugh at how big it is. Soothing, though. Tune in next time to see if I finish it.

What I read, March 2020

The month began in full mid-semester throttle. I taught a colleague’s class at a university at the other end of the State—preparing for that was a lot of work. Then I organized a visit to campus from a friend who presented on his work in progress. And almost the minute I dropped him at the airport, things started being canceled: our daughter’s school; then mine; then we were hunkering down for the foreseeable. And the month kept on going, stretching out endlessly, a disorienting expanse of fear and stress and, strangely, intimacy and, oh I don’t know, not languor or relaxation, but time. (To be able to experience is a sign of our privilege.) During all of it, I was reading, I hear a lot about people being unable to read at the moment. I get that, but since reading, for me, is a way to keep the world at bay I’ve been struggling with the opposite problem. I need reading even more than usual, but life (switching to remote teaching, figuring out how to handle our daughter’s homeschooling) is making that harder. Still, my family and I are safe, we’re mostly enjoying our time together, our dogs think this is the best thing that’s ever happened.

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Louise Erdrich, The Round House (2012)

The narrator of Erdrich’s novel, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts, lives on a rez in North Dakota in the late 80s. At the beginning of the summer during which the book is set, Joe’s mother is violently attacked and raped, plunging the family into a tailspin from which it recovers only at great cost. Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding and arresting the perpetrator—a frustration that has much to do with the disparity between Federal and Tribal law, and the insufficiencies of the latter as enshrined by the callousness of the former: a frustration felt even more strongly by Joe’s father, a judge on the rez—Joe and his best friends try to solve the crime. That could sound cute, but although often funny and filled with a large and sometimes larger than life cast of characters, the novel is sorrowful, especially when two more instances of unexpected violence bring matters to a chastened conclusion. I was surprised at Erdrich’s decision to narrate this story of violence against indigenous women from the point of view of a teenage boy, but one of her points, I think, is that such violence is everyone’s problem. I listened to the audiobook—the last of this semester’s commuting, as it turned out—and another pleasure was the actor Gary Farmer’s reading: I loved his cadence and emphases. My first Erdrich, but not my last.

Paulette Jiles, Enemy Women (2002)

You may remember me rhapsodizing over Jiles’s News of the World. I didn’t quite like this earlier novel as much, but I still liked it a lot. I’m so ignorant about the Civil War (I’m Canadian, sue me), but I bet even many American readers might not know that women from Confederate families (or even families who supported neither side) were jailed for (supposedly) abetting the enemy. Enemy Women is set in Missouri, especially the hills between Rolla and the Bootheel, land I’ve driven through plenty of times on my way from Little Rock to St. Louis, which I’ll now never think of in the same way. (Usually I try not to think of it, finding it incredibly dull. It certainly wasn’t in the 1860s.) Missouri wasn’t just swept across by the Union and Confederate Armies; it was also ravaged by militia on both sides. The women of Jiles’s title were mostly arrested by the Missouri Union Militia. As The New York Times reviewer resonantly put it, “the Ozarks became a wilderness of free-floating entrepreneurs of violence.” 18-year-old Adair Colley is arrested and sent to a jail in St. Louis after her family’s farm is burned, her father taken away, and her siblings scattered. In prison Adair draws the attention of her interrogator, Major William Neumann. The two begin a romance but are soon separated: Neumann is reassigned to Alabama while Adair escapes and tries to return to what’s left of her farm. Jiles switches between the storylines: Neumann is interesting, but Adair is the star. I found the first part of the novel slow, but I read the last third in a long rush that left me tired (but unrepentant!) the next morning. (There’s a bit in which she shakes off a dangerous pursuer that’s real heart-in-the-throat stuff.) This was Jiles’s first novel (she had published several books of poetry before that) and she’s certainly improved a lot since then. Even so Enemy Women is definitely worth your time.

Rennie Airth, The Decent Inn of Death (2020)

Latest installment of a crime series that (a) does not have too many books in it and (b) is worth reading even though later books don’t reach the heights of the first ones. Interestingly, Airth has let the characters age: their inabilities are central to this case, which riffs on the classic country-house murder.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018)

The last text I taught in person before we switched to remote learning. A few months ago, I worried students might find this novel of postwar Russia difficult and off-putting. Proving once again that even twenty years into the gig I know nothing about teaching, they loved it. Many said it was their favourite text so far. (And we’d read Ruth Kluger and Art Spiegelman!) Students were rightly fascinated by Gorenstein’s ambivalent portrayal of his teenage protagonist, Sashenka, who veers between cruelty and kindness and isn’t sure what she wants, just that she feels everything a lot. (The word the book most often uses about her is “spite.”) Gorenstein veers between realism and religious/philosophical abstraction; to me, he’s more compelling when writing in the former mode. What’s hard to figure out is how Gorenstein would have us reconcile psychology with sociology. His presentation of the Holocaust is strikingly non-ideological. On the one hand, he acknowledges the murder of Jews (rare in Soviet literature); on the other, he presents those murders as personal and local rather than systematic and genocidal. He’s good, though, on the terrible intimacy and physicality of such killing.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird (2017)

Set on and around Highway 59 in east Texas—the very route we were planning to take on a canceled Spring Break trip to Houston—the first in a new series for Locke is atmospheric and interesting. (She’s writing about Texas, but it could easily be Arkansas. Normally I’m allergic to all things Southern/Arkansan, even though I’ve landed here; that Locke kept me engaged with this material says something.) Darren Mathews, her hero, is a black Texas Ranger who grew up in east Texas, left as soon as he could, but was drawn home again. He’s got a complicated family background that Locke uses to good effect and a predictably failing marriage that is less interesting. The book is best on race relations in the South (less straightforward than many non-Southerners like to imagine). It is weakest in hewing to conventions of the procedural (renegade cop, troubles with alcohol). According to her bio, Locke has been writing for TV a lot. More power to her—it’s where the money is—but the book manifests a certain sheen or glibness, an unwillingness to let scenes linger, that smacks of the more disappointing qualities of television pacing. I found Steph Cha’s recent take on how to write crime fiction that challenges the institutional racism of policing more compelling.

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home (2019)

Sequel to Bluebird (they could be read as a single novel). Competent, but I’m not convinced Locke has yet figured out what she wants to do with the series. Most interesting when it addresses how quickly life changed for minorities—including those in the police—after Trump got elected.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975)

Cool, even icy, novel about a woman who travels to India to learn about her grandfather’s first wife, who left him for an Indian prince in the 1920s. I didn’t care for it, but Tom’s review made me appreciate it more. He really helped me think about the novel’s narration. The 1970s material takes the form of the narrator’s diary; the 1920s material is in third person. Where’s it coming from? Is the narrator writing it? If so, why/how does it include material the narrator surely couldn’t have known? Or is it omniscient? If so, what’s the relationship between the two timelines? What information should we trust? Is the narrator any different than the hippies surging through India on the hunt for spiritual enlightenment? Is she any different than her not-quite grandmother? What does it mean that her life begins to imitate her ancestor’s? These are interesting questions, but they’re more interesting than the novel itself. You certainly can’t accuse it of romanticizing India. If anything, it dislikes the place. In that sense, it’s still a colonial text—India observed from the outside. And I found the willingness of both female characters to have sex with men despite having no real interest in doing so troubling. (Quite a strange aspect of the novel: sex isn’t about liberation or pleasure or, conversely, violence or trauma. It’s a blank.) In the end, Heat and Dust gave off more dust than heat—I like my fiction warmer. But those with different tastes might feel differently. Not sure I’d try any of Prawer Jhabvala’s other novels. Are they all like this?

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing (2019)

I loved this essay collection, which Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books, who sold it to me, said is not even her best. (Naturally, I ordered her first two from him immediately.) I read most of it outside on the back porch in those days after face-to-face teaching stopped and before remote learning started—a dead, anxious, weird time that happened to coincide with that short time in Arkansas when the weather is gorgeous, the humidity low, and the mosquitoes not yet swarming. With less traffic on the roads (but not that much less: shamefully, Arkansas still does not have a Stay at Home order), the birds were louder and more frolicsome than usual. The azaleas in full bloom, the irises coming out, the redbuds just moving from that gorgeous pink blossom to their ordinary ugly leaves. I mention all this because Jamie is so attuned to place; reading her essays helped me be more so too. What made this an especially good book to read now is that many of its essays are about sojourns Jamie made to remote, isolated places that are nonetheless characterized by strong senses of community. We see that in a remembrance of travelling to the Chinese border with Tibet during the time of Tiananmen, a three-part piece on the excavation of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkneys, and, especially, in a long, magnificent essay about a summer spent in a Yup’ik village on the Alaskan coast, where the thawing tundra is bringing forth revelations about the area’s ancient hunter gatherer culture. (I am a sucker for all things northern, dream of traveling north of 60, so this essay was Extremely My Shit, but I also think it’s just objectively gorgeous and moving.) In all cases, Jamie shows that for things to surface, change has to happen, and that change isn’t always good. In the case of climate change, it’s terrifying. But these are hopeful, not hopeless essays. Not naïve, but sustaining. And boy that is what I need right now.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Trans. Ann Smock (1996)

A book I’ve read many times. Even though I stand by most of the things I say here, my sense of the memoir has evolved over the years. And it changed yet again this month: students always like it, but this was the best experience I’d had with it, all the more astonishing because we studied it together remotely. This group helped me see how obviously Rue Ordener is a traumatized text, so different, for example, from self-reflective Holocaust texts like Kluger’s Still Alive or Spiegelman’s Maus. Kofman forgoes retrospection, making it hard to decide how she feels about her experiences, especially what it was like to be torn between her mother and the casually antisemitic Frenchwoman who hid her in occupied Paris. Yet as a student pointed out the very raw, unprocessed, or traumatized quality of the text might itself be an illusion, a stealth way of exerting control by challenging us not to interpret. Highly recommended.

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Surfacing was my book of the month, followed by Enemy Women and The Round House. Rue Ordener I know so well I can’t even rank it here. Maybe I’ll read a little more in April. Or maybe not. At any rate, I’ve finished a very long cowboy novel that’s been keeping me entertained. Let me know what you’ve been reading during the pandemic, if you’ve been reading at all. And most importantly stay well, friends.

What I Read, February 2020

February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.

So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:

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Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.

The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.

 News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.

Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.

Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.

Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.

Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)

Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).

Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.

Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.

Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:

She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.

On Duras:

For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.

On Ginzburg:

Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.

If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”

May such a life of reading be given to us all.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.

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In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.

What I Read, January 2020

Although everything else in the world was pretty much shit, January was a good reading month. I was still on break the first two weeks, which certainly helped. I’ve realized that all I need to be happy is to cut out sugar, run twice as much as usual, and not work. Simple! Here’s what the Happy Man read:

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Vladimir Nabokov, Mary (1926) Trans. Michael Glenny in collaboration with the author (1970) Nabokov’s first novel, really more a novella, is predictably good. His strengths are evident: moments of intense lyricism, typically invoking sensory experience, and ironic reversals of conventional thinking, specifically, here, what it means to be an exile. In his introduction to the English translation (if he didn’t have such tiresome animosity toward Freud his introductions might be on par with James’s), Nabokov notes with possibly genuine surprise that the depiction of exile in this early work aligns closely with the one in the much later and more famous Speak, Memory. As is typical for Nabokov, though, his interest in social-political-material experience is more abstract than concrete. If you want to know details about émigré life in western Europe in the 20s and 30s you would be better to read Berberova, Gazdanov (I’m guessing—haven’t yet actually read him) or the wonderful and too-little known David Vogel. Still, I appreciated the ending’s sly reversal, which suggests that Nabokov was from the beginning a comic writer (not as in funny but as in a writer of texts that end happily, or with their losses repaired or made good, as opposed to tragedy).

I planned to read all of Nabokov’s Russian novels this month, but I didn’t.

Tim Maughan, Infinite Detail (2019) Novel toggling between a Before (plausible and only slightly extrapolated version of life today) and an After (post-apocalyptic), the pivot event being a sudden and seemingly irrevocable loss of the internet, and networks more generally. The story focuses on a group of hackers and activists, whose protests against nonstop surveillance and late capitalism is initially confined to a vibrant, boisterous neighbourhood in Bristol, but who, we slowly learn, become instrumental in the crash, with results none of them expected. This essayaccurately criticizes the novel’s romantic/individualistic ideology (for a book about systems and networks it spends a lot of time thinking about the power of individuals to change the world), but it ignores what I thought was the best part of the book: its nuanced portrayal of the new kinds of intimacy that online life has enabled. These aren’t just feeble versions of “real” face-to-face relationships. Infinite Detail is also optimistic about the kinds of art that survivors of a collapse of capitalism as we know it might engage in (aligning it with something like Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140). The result was too much (if not quite infinite) detail about future pop music for my taste, but I appreciated the idiosyncrasy. (Also, making Bristol the center of things, that’s pretty cool.) I also wondered if Maugham was writing with J. G. Ballard in mind. Consider this passage, describing a character’s return to Bristol several years after the collapse:

She’s strangely embarrassed that part of her had imagined walking out into some huge abandoned space: a bourgeois science-fiction fantasy of a long-lost civilization where she’s the special one, the only survivor that could see past the crass commercialism of the masses and got out in time, the intrepid, educated explorer unearthing this forgotten, archaic relic of barbaric capitalism, an empty cave filled with unfamiliar, alien branding.

Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (2018) This is going to be on the end of the year list, I know it already. Now We Shall Be Entirely Free (wasn’t crazy about this title until the very end of the novel, when it became so interesting, so poignant) gave me the kind of reading experience I had more often as a child than I do now. I was enthralled, I was moved, I was anxious (for the fate of the characters), I couldn’t wait to find out what happened next, but I feared leaving the world of the book. It’s that last quality that’s so rare—mostly I’m eager to get on to the next book, but this time I wanted to linger. I would like to read this book again, even though it’s unlikely I would ever teach it, and that too is something I rarely say.

The novel follows John Lacroix, who returns, badly wounded, to England from the war against Napoleon. Something happened to him in Spain—he saw something, did something, knew something—that has damaged his mind as much as illness has damaged his body. Tentatively, almost unwillingly, he returns to life and eventually gets it into his head that he will travel to the Hebrides to gather folk music (he is a violinist in addition to having been a soldier and an aimless son of landed gentry). Two men are sent after him: I won’t say too much about it, since the plot is genuinely suspenseful, but it has been decided that Lacroix must be punished for the events in Spain. One of the men is a bad man. And bad things happen. In the Hebrides, Lacroix stumbles across a small utopian community which he sinks into with, to him, unexpected gratitude. But he is unknowingly bringing danger to those he is becoming close to.

Now We Shall Be Entirely Free concerns violence, trauma, early 19th century politics, and early 19th century medicine without ever being plodding or padded. It’s gorgeously written without striving for “poetic-ness.” In its ability to manifest the foreignness of the past, Miller’s novel reminded me of Penelope Fitzgerald. And that’s pretty much the highest praise I can offer.

Please read Rohan’s review—she says it better than I do.

Dorothy B. Hughes, Dread Journey (1945) I admire Hughes a lot, especially The Expendable Man, but she was an uneven writer. The recently reissued Dread Journey is one of her weaker ones. Set on a transcontinental train (very cool), it has a locked room vibe (less cool), but Hughes is always more interested in the why than the who. But I found the characters mostly uninteresting, even the Canadian (!) ingenue. What Hughes always excels at is creating and exploring terror, dread, fear. So many of her female characters are in a continual state of near-panic. That’s what makes her work still feel timely.

Helen Garner, The Spare Room (2008) I read this in a few hours, loving it from beginning to end. Then I spent the rest of the day following a fascinating conversation about it on Twitter. Garner, it turns out, is a polarizing writer. (Though I sometimes got the sense that the Australians, in particular, who dislike her do so because she takes up too much space in the country’s literary discourse, and that the bien pensant media has anointed her as their literary/national standard bearer. Not Garner’s fault that she’s so great, though!) Anyway, I’ll definitely read more; I’m particularly curious about her nonfiction. (Her true crime writing really divides readers.) The Spare Room reminded me of Doris Lessing, though it’s much more interesting at the sentence level. Two old friends reunite when one comes down to Melbourne from Sydney to stay with the other while she pursues what her friend at first privately and then not so privately deems a dubious (read: completely bullshit) alternative treatment for her advanced cancer. A smart and beautiful book about fear and anger.

Sandra Newman, The Heavens (2019) The strange tale of a woman who is drawn from an alternate version of the present or near-future to 16th Century England, I enjoyed this novel as I was reading it but now I can barely remember it. The more she travels between times the more the present alters, and for the worse. Eventually the world that has banded together to mitigate, even circumvent climate change becomes our own. Each time she visits the past she becomes more intimate with a young man who, in the first iterations of the past, occasionally scribbles verses and, in later ones, becomes William Shakespeare, Famous Playwright. The price of his fame is the brutalization of the world. In retrospect, this premise seems nonsensical, an odd way of asking readers to consider what it means to value individuals over collectives. All I can say is at the time I was under the book’s spell—dreamy and oblique—but now, well, the spell is broken. This review is too harsh, in my opinion, but also on to something. In the end, The Heavens is less interesting than Du Maurier’s The House on the Strand.

Nina Berberova, The Book of Happiness (1996?) Trans. Marian Schwartz (1999) A Russian novel about happiness? Surely not. It’s true, though, and although I was pitting Berberova against Nabokov a moment ago, they share a sense that exile, although enormously destructive in many ways, isn’t just about loss. The Book of Happiness begins with the suicide of Sam Adler, a Russian violinist, in a Paris hotel. He leaves behind a note addressed to a woman he hasn’t seen in years, who herself lives in Paris, and turns out to have been his best friend in childhood. After identifying the body, Vera reflects on their long acquaintance, especially their years as childhood playmates and confidantes. This is the best part of the novel—I found it magical, though it might be a bit Wes Anderson for some tastes (“I’m a violinist. What are you?” Vera replied mechanically, “I’m just me.”). The middle section, describing Vera’s ill-fated marriage and departure from Russia in the wake of the Revolution, flags a bit, but the ending, which is indeed happy, though in a low-key way, worked for me. (Berberova seems to be speaking of herself, or at least her style, when she writes that “Vera regarded everything excessively emotional with embarrassment.”) Berberova doesn’t shy from presenting the recued circumstances of exile, but to say, as a blurb on the edition I read does, that Berberova “rivals Jean Rhys in detailing the sights and smells and despairs of trying to exist as a stranger” in Paris tells me only that the reviewer has never actually read Rhys. Anyway, I read elsewhere that the translator, Marian Schwartz, finds The Book of Happiness ultimately unsuccessful, but I have to disagree.

PS I don’t know when this book was written. 1996 is the date of its publication in France, but Berberova wrote it, I believe, in the 1930s, in Russian, which is the language Schwartz has translated it from. I’m unclear if it was never published at all until the 90s or if with some small exile press or what. Anyone know?

Nate Leipciger, The Weight of Freedom (2015) This is part of the Azrieli Foundation’s extraordinary effort to collect and publish in excellent and pedagogically useful editions (good introductions, glossary of terms students might be unfamiliar with) memoirs by Holocaust survivors who settled in Canada. Leipciger’s book is perhaps best known for his frank description of his experience as a pipel (a messenger boy in the camps—typically, this role, which came with privileges like better rations, also required providing sexual favours). The sexual violence Leipciger experienced naturally left its mark on him, but exactly how is hard to say, as it’s not easy to get a read on his tone. (He is not a professional writer: the flatness of the telling sometimes seems a function of inexperience, and sometimes of (perhaps unconscious) reticence.) Yet as one of the students with whom I read the text pointed out, to single out this aspect (the sexual abuse takes up about 2 or 3 pages in a 350-page book) is to sensationalize the experience, risking further victimizing the victim. Yet sexual violence against both men and women was common during the Holocaust; this fact is not often enough acknowledged. Just as interesting for me, as a Canadian, was Leipciger’s ability to think about his suffering in relation to that experienced by indigenous people.

The Weight of Freedom covers Leipciger’s truncated childhood in Chorzów, Poland; his internment in various ghettos, including a period in hiding; his deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Fünfteichen, Gross-Rosen, Flossenbürg, and eventually a sub-camp of Dachau, from where he was liberated; his time as a DP in post-war Germany (in which he pursued an active sex life that he freely admits involved an element of revenge); his eventual emigration to Canada; and the long years building up a life there, which, as the title of the memoir suggests, was by no means easy, not so much economically as psychologically. Throughout he is accompanied by his father, a man with whom he has a difficult and intense relationship (those who have read Wiesel’s Night will find similarities). In later life, Leipciger settles into a role as a Holocaust educator; one of the things I like best about him is that he loves young people, he has no scorn or distaste for them. Always a good sign if you ask me.

Omer Bartov, Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz (2018) Today Buczacz is a nondescript town in western Ukraine. In the past 150 years it’s also been part of the Hapsburg Empire (specifically Galicia), independent Poland, the Nazi Reich, and the Soviet Union. In the first half of the 20th century it was home to Jews, Poles, and Ukrainians (perhaps better called Ruthenians—my one criticism of this book is that Bartov sometimes uses Ruthenian as a synonym for Ukrainian, and sometimes suggests there’s a difference, and I’m still confused about the distinction, which Wikipedia has failed to clear up for me. If you can, please do!). During WWI the front passed through Buczacz several times; during WWII it was similarly occupied by different armies at different times. In this fascinating book, Bartov, whose mother’s family hailed from the town, uses the history of Buczacz to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another. During the Hapsburg times, Poles and Ruthenians agitated for independence. In the wake of WWI Ukrainians chafed under Polish rule, which led them to welcome the Nazis. After WWII the Soviets upheld Ukrainian claims to the area; in one of history’s ironies, that decision furthered the Ukrainian nationalism that Russia is now contesting in its dirty war in the Donbass.

Bartov shows how everyone was at one time both a victim and a perpetrator—everyone except the Jews, who suffered no matter who was in charge (they had it best under the Hapsburgs, leading many of them to defend the Empire ardently—cf Joseph Roth; they had it worst, of course, under the Nazis). Anatomy of a Genocide is at once granular and theoretical—an amazing accomplishment; it had me asking myself why I don’t read more history.

Nina Berberova, The Ladies from St. Petersburg: Three Novellas (1995?) Trans. Marian Schwartz (1998) Uneven but mostly engaging collection, once again detailing life before, during, and after the Russian revolution. The first and second stories (to me they are too slight to be novellas) are the best—the first, set at the very beginning of what people are not yet calling a revolution, depicts a vacation in the country during which a young woman is abruptly forced out of the comforts, and limits, of the life she’d known. The second centers on a woman who has challenged the norms of her culture by leaving her husband and is trying to keep ahead of the conflict between Whites and Reds; as the translator Marian Schwartz notes in her admirable introduction, the irony is that the women of the provincial boarding house she washes up at are much less accepting of the woman’s perceived transgressions than their political sympathies would suggest. The third, an uninteresting failure, is set in what is clearly New York though it is never named. Berberova spent much of her life in the US, but maybe she was never able to write about it convincingly. Probably not the best introduction to Berberova, but worth checking out once you’ve read some of her other stuff.

Carys Davies, West (2018) Many online book friends (and a real life one, the writer Kevin Brockmeier) have extolled this novella, and I decided to make it the first audiobook of the new semester (back to the commute…). Davies is a Welsh writer, but she lived in the US for quite a while, which must have helped her with some of the book’s settings. Cy Bellman is a mule breeder in Pennsylvania in the first part of the 19th century; this reviewsays 1815; I don’t know where that date comes from, nothing in the book says so, though it’s true my knowledge of US history is shamefully hazy so I probably missed something; certainly, events take place after the Lewis & Clark expedition (1804 – 06). In the newspaper Bellman learns that giant bones have been found in Kentucky (presumably from mammoths, or maybe dinosaurs, this was also unclear to me) and becomes obsessed with the idea that the creatures must still be alive, out west, and that it is his destiny to find them. To the disdain of his sister, whom he asks to look after his ten-year-old daughter, Bess, Bellman sets off for the frontier (St. Louis) and beyond. In Missouri, a trader sets him up with a Shawnee teenager, named Old Woman, who guides Bellman as far west as the Rockies. In the meantime—two years pass, then three—Bess fends off the local librarian and the increasingly unwelcome attentions of a neighbour, all of which leads to a dramatic, slightly preposterous happy ending, in which Old Woman plays hero. I admired some things about the novel: it’s spare, and enigmatic in a pleasing enough way, and the descriptions of the landscape are lovely without being overwritten. But I couldn’t get on fully on board, because I found the Shawnee character so troubling. As one might expect of a revisionist Western (I sometimes feel all Westerns are described as revisionist), the book critiques white settler attitudes to indigenous people. And yet it also embraces those attitudes: it’s not just that Bellman and others say that Indians can be bought off with a few shiny beads, but that Old Woman indeed loves shiny beads. Towards the end of the book, Davies shifts focalization from Bellman to Old Woman. Her attempt to inhabit a different way of looking at the world goes awry—Old Woman thinks in a way that seems not foreign but reduced, childlike, naïve. I just didn’t get what she was trying to do here. Maybe an interesting failure, but a failure nonetheless.

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There you have it. Miller and Bartov were the standouts. Berberova a great discovery (for me; I know others have been reading her for a while). February has already begun promisingly, reading-wise, but I know the pace will slow down as the semester hits full-force.

I was so happy this month to post my friend Nat’s reflections on his year in reading. I know we’re well into 2020 now and maybe nobody cares about 2019 anymore, but I’m happy to post reflections and lists from anyone. (I’ve asked a few folks; no takers so far.) In general, I’d love for EMJ to become more of a salon, so if you have something bookish you want to say, hit me up.