What I Read, May 2021

Lotta reading, lotta writing. Busy month.

Sally Rooney, Normal People (2018)

A girl and a boy, one rich one poor, are the stars of their school in County Sligo in the post Irish Tiger years. They go on to Trinity College, Dublin. The girl, who had been shunned in school, becomes popular. The boy, who had been a star—an athlete and loved by all in addition to being smart—struggles. They get together, break up, get together again, and have lots of sex. Normal People offers all the pleasures of a happily-ever-after romance with a sprinkle of self-consciousness in case you’re worried that storyline is too simple or retrograde. I stayed up late reading it and finished with a satisfied sigh. And yet it hasn’t stayed with me; Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends, is the more interesting book. She can be a little bald as a writer, but sometimes baldness hits the mark: “She [the girl’s mother] believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth,’ by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.” Yep.

Robin Stevens, Poison is Not Polite (aka Arsenic for Tea) (2015)

My daughter and I continue our way through this series. No sophomore slump here: this one is even better than the first. I admired how Stevens tackles head-on the implausibility of the girls coming across murder so often—and the psychological toll that takes on them.

Georges Simenon, The Krull House (1939) Trans. Howard Curtis (2018)

Julian Barnes’s piece on this novel has stayed with me, especially its opening anecdote about Anita Brookner, who loved the romans durs. When Barnes asked her which was the best, she was firm: Chez Krull. I’ve been waiting ages for this new translation to make its way to the US. (It’s sxcellent, though it can’t, as Barnes notes, get at the striking juxtaposition of French and German, domestic and foreign, in the original title.) I gave in and ordered from the UK. After all, you don’t mess with Anita Brookner.

I’m no Simenon expert, but this is by far the best of the ten or fifteen I’ve read. Near the Belgian border, at the edge of a small town, the Krulls run a shop and bar that caters mostly to bargees. The father is German originally but has lived most of his life in France. His wife is French (though she’s not a local), as are their three children, the youngest of whom is 17. Yet the Krulls are outsiders, fitting in nowhere, tolerated by their neighbours but not much more. Old Krull’s French remains poor, even as he is forgetting his German, rendering him nearly mute: he is a terrifying and pathetic character, almost as impotently knowing as the old woman in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The action begins when a cousin arrives from Germany, on the run in some unspecified way. It takes Hans only a few days to blow the Krulls’ precarious existence wide open. He seduces the youngest daughter, borrows money he can’t repay, bullies his relatives, consorts with “unsavory” locals. He does what immigrants are supposed not to do: he draws attention to himself. When a girl’s body is found in the canal, suspicion falls on the Krulls, and Simenon brilliantly depicts the sudden ratcheting up of amorphous dislike into vicious hate.

As chilling as I found the novel, I struggled to get a handle on its politics. In a particularly fascinating scene, Hans rebuts his cousin Joseph’s despairing cry that the locals hate them because they’re foreigners: You’re not foreign enough, he says, you’re ashamed of your foreignness. The best way to show you belong is to be sure of yourself, sure enough to stick out. Hans’s philosophy sounds appealing, but it might be more bravado than solution. A final chapter that flashes forward from the 1930s to a later time maintains the novel’s ambiguity. It’s clear, though, why The Krull House would have appealed to Brookner. As Barnes says: “Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency.” Sounds like Look at Me. Track this one down.

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980)

Thanks to David Kern of Goldberry Books for the chance to write for the store’s newsletter. What a pleasure to read A Month in the Country again. It’s perfect.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile (2012) Trans. Melanie Mauthner (2014)

My take on Mukasonga’s first novel is here.

Oakley Hall, Warlock (1958)

Grave, even somber Western about the rule of law. That might not sound exciting, and, despite some vividly tense scenes, this is no page-turner. But pertinent as all hell. I’m no expert on Westerns, but this might be the most “novel of ideas” the genre gets. In 1880s Arizona, in a mining town in the middle of nowhere barely avoiding utter lawlessness, the self-interested elite come together to hire a gunfighter nicknamed the Marshall to keep a lid on things, especially a local thug and his band of cattle rustlers. The bad guys have killed the Deputy, the latest in a line of short-lived lawmen. A former rustler takes the job and makes a go of it, despite the suspicion of the townsfolk and the scorn of the outlaws. But is the power of the badge any match for the power of the gun? Is the Marshall an appendage of the Deputy, or a sign of the law’s emptiness? (A self-appointed Judge, a drunk, helps us see the stakes.)

I read this with Paul and Ben, and I’m glad I did, because I don’t think I would have finished on my own. For me, the book was too gravid, lacking warmth; at times I found it hard-going. (I guess not every Western is Lonesome Dove.) But it swells to its own magnificence, and I loved the subplot about a miner’s strike, the doctor who comes to take their side, his nurse, whom he loves but who loves the Marshall, and a young miner who becomes a leader of the cause, a good guy who can’t escape his drive to self-aggrandizement.

Linda B. Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (2015)

Specifications grading replaces nebulous, often unstated values with clearly stated standards for what counts as acceptable work, that is, work that satisfies assignment and course learning goals. Students either achieve these specifications or they do not. No “partial credit.” They can revise in order to meet the standards and are given opportunities to excel (doing more work than other students or the same amount to a higher caliber). Spec grading makes learning more intrinsically motivated for students and reduces grading time for instructors. That’s the theory, anyway, as outlined in this book, which I gather is the standard on the subject.

Nilson is a social scientist and she writes like one. The prose is not enjoyable. And her examples are taken from fields far different from my own. I (sped) read this in advance of a faculty workshop on the topic, though, and was able to hear colleagues, including one from my own department, talk about how they’ve used and modified the concept. I’m intrigued. I’ve used my own take on spec grading in the past—using a portfolio system and avoiding grades on individual assignments. That’s great because students actually read the comments. But I see now that it’s not great because it leaves too much in the dark. By creating clear specifications I’ll eliminate unnecessary and probably stressful mystification. I plan to rework one of my courses for spec grading this coming year and see how it goes.

Rachel Cusk, Second Place (2021)

M, the narrator, lives on a property “in a place of great but subtle beauty” comprised mostly of tidal marshes; for some reason I took it to be in Norfolk but I’m not sure why. The “second place” is a cottage M and her husband, Tony, have fitted out where they often host people they admire. It also, perhaps, names the role the narrator inhabits, not in regards to her husband, with whom she has an often silent but profound relationship, nor to her grown daughter, who has washed up at the marsh with a man who suddenly decides he is meant to be a writer despite not having any talent for it. (Unlike the narrator, who is a modestly successful writer, though not one who ever actually spends any time on it.) No, it is in relation to a man known as L, a famous painter, that she is secondary.

At a critical juncture in her life, M had an almost religious experience at an exhibition of L’s paintings. In homage to that moment, which emboldened her to change her life (I am making this sound more coherent and psychologically motivated than it is in the book; Cusk is more mysterious, less reductive about M’s feelings), she invites L to stay in the guest cottage. Some unspecified event which has damaged the economy and shut down world travel—maybe a depression, maybe a pandemic, maybe some climate event, though the landscape of the novel seems fecund—prompts L to accept. (The art market has collapsed; he’s broke.) It takes some machinations for him to arrive and when he does he’s accompanied by a young woman, Brett, which puts M out a little, forcing her to wonder how much of her interest in L is sexual, though in the end she loves him in another, maybe more existential way. Brett, at first a pretentious nightmare, eventually proves a kinder and better person than L.

The plot, such as it is, centers on the way L disrupts M’s life. The details aren’t important; this isn’t a book you read for plot. You read it as an attempt to redress the state of affairs D. H. Lawrence lamented in his essay “Surgery for the Novel—Or a Bomb”: “It was the greatest pity in the world, when philosophy and fiction got split.” Second Place explores vitality: what it enables, what it harms, what happens when it fades.

I’ve read Cusk’s autofictional trilogy of novels about a woman named Faye, and liked them in parts a lot but on the whole not so much. The first, Outline, is in my opinion the most successful. Cusk’s strategy of having her narrator retell involved and largely self-incriminating stories given to her by strangers she encounters on a sojourn to Greece was exciting; subsequent volumes, describing Faye’s experiences at various literary festivals and the other promotional aspects of the contemporary writing life, were not. The trilogy does end with an indelible scene, though; in general, as proved again in the new book, Cusk excels in writing about swimming.

Anyway, I had no plans to read this new book, but then I learned that it was based on a section of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of her time with D. H. Lawrence at her ranch near Taos, New Mexico. For someone who wrote a dissertation largely about Lawrence, I’m quite ignorant of this part of his life. I do know, however, that the socialite and painter Dorothy Brett joined them, and that there was occasional harmony but more often tumult among Lawrence; his wife, Frieda; Luhan; Brett; and Luhan’s husband, Tony, a Taos Pueblo Indian. Clearly, Lawrence is a model for L, and M for Luhan; interestingly, there’s no Frieda figure in the novel. As Cusk notes at the end of the book, the narrator is intended as a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. Cusk appears less interested in Lawrence, apparently, though L shares certain aspects of the writer’s character: his coldness when he declares himself “done” with someone, his moments of sudden warmth, his love of and knowledge of the natural world, his aptitude for work. Cusk’s L is more tediously provocative than Lawrence was, though. Overall, she’s written a not unsympathetic but also somewhat offhanded depiction of the writer. More to the point, I don’t think you gain much from knowing the background.

That interest, for Cusk anyway, isn’t primarily biographical. (Again, this isn’t really a roman a clef.) Instead she revisits some of Lawrence’s preoccupations. Here, for example, she has M reflect on the idea of authority:

Only tyrants want power for their own sake, and parenthood is the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny. Was I a tyrant, wielding shapeless power without authority? What I felt a lot of the time was a sort of stage fright, the way I imagined inexperienced teachers must feel when they stand at the front of the class looking at a sea of expectant faces. Justine [her daughter] had often looked at me in just that way, as though expecting an explanation for everything, and afterwards I felt I had never explained anything quite to her satisfaction, or mine.

This riff on a key Lawrentian concern is not, in the end, entirely Lawrentian. He never undermined power that way, at least not in his direct statements. The indirect example of his characters and their fates, by contrast, certainly did. Nor did he think much about being a parent (he wasn’t one); his take on parents and children is always explicitly or implicitly from the child’s point of view.

More obviously in sync with Lawrence is M’s riff on the connection between insight and cruelty:

What was so liberating and rewarding in looking at a painting by L. became acutely uncomfortable when one encountered or lived it in the flesh. It was the feeling that there could be no excuses or explanations, no dissimulating: he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life, no personal meaning beyond the meaning of a given moment. Something in me loved this feeling, or at least knew it and recognised it to be true, as one must recognise darkness and acknowledge its truth alongside that of light; and in that same sense I knew and recognised L.

There’s more going on here than “don’t meet your artistic heroes” or even “art makes palatable subjects or experiences that are uncomfortable in life.” The idea that only a moment can hold meaning is juxtaposed, by the very form of the speculation, to the idea that meaning also inheres in a set of linked moments, a story. For this contradiction to be fully felt, narrative requires a form that challenges its limits. This is a task Lawrence and Cusk share, however different their solutions.

Other parts of Second Place are more purely Cusk-ian: aperçus challenging cultural pieties: “The game of empathy, whereby we egg one another on to show our wounds, was one he would not play”; “I believe that as a rule children don’t care for their parents’ truths and have long since made up their own minds, or have formulated false beliefs from which they can never be persuaded, since their whole conception of reality is founded on them.”

Is this book any good? Not sure! It’s short and engaging. Will it stick with me? I’m skeptical. In the end I am most interested in the book’s experiment with what happens when you add some of the elements of realism (developed characters, framed narration, dramatic events) to autofiction (characterized by a first-person narrator whose perceptions offer a scaffold on which to hang essayistic associations). How much of the former can you add without overwhelming or undoing the latter? And what would you gain in the process? Second Place leaves plenty of questions; the answers are unclear.

Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser (2021)

Wonderful biography of the lyrical and snarky Swiss writer Robert Walser. My thoughts here.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches (2006) Trans. Jordan Stump (2016)

Read this as background for my Mukasonga piece. It’s the first of three autobiographical texts, this one about Mukasonga’s childhood as a Tutsi refugee—first within Rwanda then in neighbouring Burundi—her eventual emigration to France, and, most compellingly, her search to uncover the circumstances of the murder of her extended family in the 1994 genocide. In this, the text both reminded me of post-Holocaust texts and felt different from them in ways I can’t yet put my finger on. One thing that’s the same, though, is the belief that testimony is a necessary but feeble recompense for loss. Mukasonga, who lost 37 people and keeps their names in a school exercise book she is never without, concludes: “I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.”  

I’m reading these in English and don’t know the original, but Jordan Stump who has translated this and subsequent works might be a better fit for her style than Mauthner.

Georges Simenon, The Carter of La Providence (1931) Trans. David Coward (2014)

I’ve finally figured out this Simenon fellow: the more canals, the better the book. Here Maigret is called out to the Marne department after a body is found in a stable at an inn next to one of the river’s many locks. Two boats are anchored for the night: a motorized yacht, captained by an Englishman, and a horse-drawn barge, piloted by a couple and an almost silent old man, who tends their horses. Maigret will uncover how these different worlds are connected. Along the way he bicycles at length along the canals, not always happily (“He had ridden fifty kilometers without once stopping for a beer”). Simenon was a boater himself—apparently, he wrote Carter on board his second boat, the Ostrogoth—which might explain why the details of barge life are so convincingly and engagingly portrayed. And Barthes himself would have thrilled to the telling because otherwise meaningless details Simenon slips into his prose:

But the barge men who had discovered the body and helped to fish it out had all crowded into the café where the tables were still littered with glasses and bottles from the night before. The stove roared. A broom was lying in the middle of the floor.

That broom! Those sentences without a single comma! Great stuff.

Robin Stevens, First Class Murder (2015)

Wells & Wong travel on the Orient Express to get away from murder, but guess what??? Stevens nods to Christie (Daisy is reading the book, just published when the girls take their trip) and just generally has a high old time.

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980)

I can’t summarize this novel better than Parul Seghal did. (I can’t do anything better than Parul Seghal does.) “Two orphaned Australian sisters arrive in England in the 1950s: placid, fair Grace, who marries a wealthy and officious bureaucrat, and independent, dark-haired Caroline, who falls in love with the unscrupulous (and attached) Paul Ivory, while another man, the shabby and sweet Ted Tice, pines for her.” As she also rightly says, this is the kind of book lost on youth, a hymn to missed opportunities, regrets, second chances, and the patterns of experience that only become visible toward the end of life. Everything about Transit should have been catnip to me, and at times I thrilled to its scope and wisdom. My two favourite sections are about affairs contemplated by Grace and her husband, Christian (Seghal’s “officious bureaucrat”). In both cases, minor characters gain complexity that, in the case of Christian at least, might not make us like him more but that make us feel we can understand him.

And yet. Hazzard’s prose is so burnished it turns itself inside out and becomes obscure. Her narrative voice is knowing, sometimes effectively acidic—showing us Christian’s unrepentant self-satisfaction: “It was to his judiciousness, at every turn, that he owed the fact that nothing terrible had ever happened to him”—but too often unhelpfully clotted. Here’s one that could come from Elizabeth Bowen: “Provocation had become the basis of her relations with the world.” Many of these sentences turn on oracular similes: “His enunciation gave immortality, as slow motion makes any action beautiful by an appearance of control.” That last sentence could be the novel’s motto: it certainly takes it time, it absolutely presents control as an illusion when life is rather an accumulation of storms. But for me a little Hazzard went a long way, so that even though I sighed over the devastating ending, and turned back to see the foreshadowing the author had larded into its opening pages, I admired this book more than I loved it. I kept wishing I were reading Tessa Hadley, who handles the complications of middle-class lives, those with the luxury of thinking about encroaching mortality, with a surer hand—and syntax.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (2010)

The Slow Horses are spies who have fucked up—made a mistake that cost lives, or could have; struggle with drugs or drink or gambling; just can’t get along with anyone. It’s expensive and embarrassing to fire them, so MI5 ships them to a sad-sack building called Slough House and sets them mind-numbing tasks in the hope they’ll eventually quit. Their boss is Jackson Lamb, a fat, sarcastic, mean spymaster who smells as bad as he looks. Lamb was a legend back in the Berlin days, but now he’s putting in the time, shuffling papers, firing off insults, and farting a lot. Or is he playing the longest con game of them all? When a white nationalist group kidnaps a British Muslim, Lamb proves a master at institutional politics and the Slow Horses get a taste of field work again. Are they up for it? Part A-Team (google it, young’uns), part manual on bureaucracies, Slow Horses is all winner. Herron cleverly teases us with Lamb’s character: suggesting he’s kinder and more together than he seems, then pulling the rug out from under our genre expectations. I’m not in love with the writing, but the dialogue pops and the plot is complicated without becoming preposterous. Good thing there are like six more. Rohan liked it too!

Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955) Trans. Howard Curtis (2017)

In Paris’s Quai de Valmy some bargees—more canals: you know what that means!—fish a leg out of the water. More body parts follow, until the corpse is only missing its head. Who is the missing man, and who sawed him to pieces? Maigret solves the case less by acumen or diligence than by chance. [Spoiler alert, though that’s not really the point of this book.] Casing the neighbourhood in search of a drink and a phone, he enters a dusty local bar and becomes fascinated by the owner’s wife, Madame Calas. Calas himself is mysteriously absent. As in her own way is his wife, who possesses a blank self-possession that Maigret can’t help but respect even as it stymies him. The novel—at 179 pages, positively gargantuan for the series—becomes a psychological study of a character who prefers to reveal nothing of herself. Insight comes when Maigret meets a lawyer from the part of France where the couple grew up, a man as loquacious as Madame Calas is reticent. There’s also a nice bit with the couple’s cat. Another good Maigret.

Peter Cameron, What Happens at Night (2020)

Strange, beautiful novel about a New York couple traveling in an unnamed northern country to adopt a baby. They check into a version of the Grand Budapest Hotel—the book is part Wes Anderson, part Ishiguro—where the woman takes to her bed while the man drinks schnapps made from moss in the nearly silent bar. The woman (the main characters are never named) is grievously ill; she falls under the spell of a local mystic who might have wandered in from a well-behaved Dostoyevsky novel. The man dodges the attentions of a businessman and a chanteuse. This all sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? But somehow the book isn’t. It is somber and very snowy, but also light on its feet. And sometimes funny. You could remake yourself, go anywhere in the world, the man tells the morose bartender. “Only in this world? That is the only choice you give me?” Thanks to Twitter pal NancyKay Shapiro for the rec. (Bonus: check out the cover. Nice work, Catapult!)

Mick Herron, Dead Lions (2013)

More complicated plotting serving more organizational maneuvering within MI5. Not as good as Slow Horses, but I’m all in for this series.

That’s all, folks. A Month in the Country was the best novel I read this month. Those Maigrets were good, especially Krull House. Mick Herron is a light reading champion. Mukasonga is thought-provoking. Hazzard a force, if not always to my taste. And Clairvoyant of the Small is an impressive accomplishment. Do yourself a favour and discover Robert Walser. Until next month, keep reading and stay well.

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What I Read, April 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flynn Berry, Under the Harrow (2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More about the Karmel sisters and their poetry here.

Flynn Berry, A Double Life (2018)

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

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

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

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

Flynn Berry, Northern Spy (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ruth Rendell, One Across, Two Down (1971)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jacqueline Winspear, The Consequences of Fear (2021)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charles Portis, True Grit (1968)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It Screamed in its Own Blood”: Poems by Henia and Ilona Karmel

Henia and Ilona Karmel grew up in a cultured bourgeois family in Kraków. Photos show them together, always touching: an arm around the shoulders, a hand clasped. In one from 1938 Ilona, wearing a polka-dotted top and flowers in her hair that almost obscure the braid tied around her head, kisses Henia on the cheek, a full-on “come here, you” kiss that Henia responds to with a frozen smile that combines pleasure at the experience with irritation at the camera.

Ceija Stojka, “Los, Los, weitergehen! Damals 1943-1944. Auschwitz ist kein(e) Lüge. (Move, move, keep moving! In the years 1943–44. Auschwitz is not a lie),” 2006

I don’t know enough about them to say that they lived with an “us against the world” mentality—Henia remains a complete mystery; this remembrance offers insight into Ilona—but I can certainly say they went through an awful lot together. In 1940, the sisters, 18 and 14, travelled with their parents to eastern Poland, now held by the Soviet Union, in search of relatives who might take them in. But their mother, Mita, got cold feet, saying she would rather be killed by the Germans than saved by the Russians. (Regrettably prophetic.) In the end, she got her wish.) The family returned to Kraków, which meant German rule but also familiar faces. One of these would prove to be consequential. One day Henia ran into Leon Wolfe, a young man with whom she had begun a short, intense relationship at a resort in the Tatra mountains the year before; before long they were together again. When the Germans established the ghetto in early 1941, Leon insisted they move to a nearby village; Henia persuaded her family to join them. For a short time, life seemed about to improve—Henia and Leon were able to get married in June 1941—but the idyll didn’t last. The Karmels were forced out of the village, lived for a time in the forest and then on a farm where they narrowly escaped death after being mistaken for partisans (only the last-minute intervention of a relative in the local Jewish Council saved them), before making the difficult decision to split up. Leon accompanied the women back to Kraków; the girls’ father, Hirsch, went elsewhere. (Unclear where or why, but Ilona blamed herself for her father’s decision for the rest of her life. All that is known of Hirsch Karmel after that moment is that he was murdered at Treblinka.)

In the ghetto, Leon and Henia worked at a paper company, Mita nursed typhus patients, and fifteen-year-old Ilona joined a Zionist resistance movement, gathering information and passing messages. In March 1943 all four were sent to Plaszow, the camp depicted in Schindler’s List, which had been built on the grounds of a Jewish cemetery. (If you’ve seen the film, you might remember the car taking Commandant Amon Goeth to his villa along a road paved with headstones.) After a few months, the family underwent another separation. The sisters and their mother were sent, away from Leon, to a forced labour camp at Skarzysko-Kamienna. There the Germans had taken over an existing ammunitions plant, which they contracted out to a company called HASAG. Mostly the factory produced bullets, but one section—where the Karmels ended up—made underwater mines. These were filled with picric acid, a terrible chemical that poisoned many of the workers after turning their skin yellow.

Yet Skarzysko-Kamienna, like all camps, especially forced labour camps, was also a site of resistance—sometimes political but more often cultural. Prisoners prayed, danced, drew, and sang. The Karmel sisters began writing poetry, using bits of paper and pencil stubs slipped to them by a non-Jewish worker. In the summer of 1944, as the Germans began to retreat from the Red Army, the Karmels were shipped to another HASAG factory, a satellite camp in the Buchenwald system. The poems accompanied them, sewn into the hem of their clothing. (In later years survivors would remember the girls reciting their texts.) The poems were still there when, along with thousands of other prisoners, Ilona and Henia were sent on a forced march through the forests and fields of Germany in the catastrophic final days of the war. Along the way many prisoners died, killed by shooting, hunger, disease, or exhaustion. Some were deliberately run over by tanks and left for dead. This was the fate of the Karmels. As the woman lay in a pile of victims, the dead mingled with the nearly-dead, Henia saw a cousin march by in another set of prisoners. She managed to hand off the poems, begging the woman to pass them on to Leon, who would surely return to Kraków if he had survived. The next day—the last day of the war in Europe—the Karmels were rescued and taken to a field hospital. The women were barely alive, so badly had they been mutilated. Henia and Ilona each lost a leg; their mother did not survive.

Eventually the sisters were taken to a proper hospital in Leipzig, though given how ruinous conditions were in Germany at the end of the war, care was erratic, even dangerous. Henia and Ilona lay there for six months. Amazingly, Leon had survived the war (how I do not know, but I’m sure his story is equally remarkable) and duly returned to Kraków. More amazingly, he met the cousin who had been entrusted with the poems. Most amazingly of all, word of a memorial service held for the girls in late September (Leon, convinced they were still alive, had given only grudging consent) reached Leipzig. A man who knew the Karmels sent word to a refugee commission, which sent a telegram to Leon (still extant), who drove the 500 dangerous miles to Leipzig to be reunited with the Karmels in a scene that I imagine was similar to the emotional one depicted at the end of Art Spiegelman’s Maus.

Although they had survived, the sisters were in poor health and badly needed reconstructive surgery. Leon desperately searched for help. Back in Kraków he happened to meet a Swedish naval officer attached to the Red Cross. After learning of their predicament, the man, who was on the point of returning to Sweden, promised to arrange visas. In the final amazing turn of the story, he kept his word and before long the sisters were in Stockholm, where they found themselves in one of the best rehabilitation facilities in the world.

In 1948, Henia and Leon immigrated to New York. Ilona, whose injuries had been more serious, remained behind, but joined them the following year. She enrolled at Radcliffe, met her future husband Francis Zucker, a philosopher and physicist, and even moved with him to Germany for a number of years during which she worked at an orphanage and wrote the novel that would make her name, An Estate of Memory. Later the couple returned to the US; Ilona taught writing at MIT for years. Henia wrote two novels herself and many short stories. The poems were forgotten, although they had in fact been published by a Polish organization in New York in 1947 under the title Song Behind Barbed Wire.

After Ilona’s death in 2000 the manuscript passed to the poet Fanny Howe, a longtime friend of Ilona’s, who began the process of bringing the poems into English. As she notes in her introduction to a volume called A Wall of Two—from which I have taken these biographical details—the task grew into a complex creative endeavor. Translators Arie A. Galles and Warren Nieschłuchowski rendered the texts into English; Howe selected her favourites and adapted them, aiming to remain true to the originals while also shaping them for more powerful effect. The Karmels, she observes, were young and living in conditions of extreme duress when they wrote these texts, which she describes as awkward and unpolished. The versification drew on a culture that was being destroyed along with the writers; Howe sought to make the poems more modern, never adding but cutting repetition and avoiding poems “that used high and archaic language.” She sent her versions back to the translators whose comments inspired her final versions. A bold but also fraught strategy, which risks implying that the sisters did not quite know what they were doing. Leon Wolfe, who gave his blessing to the project, suggests something similar when he writes that “the essence [Howe] conveyed was truer than the original poems.”

Howe argues that the art made in the camps took two forms: it either looked back to the lost world of its makers or it depicted their new one. In making her selections, Howe concentrated on the latter. She gets a little high-flown explaining this decision, explaining that she avoided using the word “death” because it is “the end of language.” (I’m reminded of Poe’s remark that grammar can do what reason cannot, allowing us to write the impossible sentence “I am dead.”) But Howe has earned our good will: her project is a great success. Her versions are generous and generative. In an afterword, she considers three of the poems, comparing her adaptations to the originals. In each case, hers is indeed more powerful.

That’s especially true of my favourite poem, “Procession,” written by Henia. (The sisters later decided that Henia was the better poet and Ilona the better prose writer; although I’ve yet to read their prose, I agree about Henia as poet.)

Procession

By Henia Karmel, translated by Arie A. Galles, adapted by Fanny Howe

Two marched by

in striped prison garb

then two more in rags.

After them came four

on stretchers.

Their bodies jerked up

comically at the night sky.

Half-naked with broken legs.

A frozen cadaver and then

just beside the prison gate

came four more stretchers.

One pressed a blood-soaked cloth

across his face.

The parade went on

while we watched in dread.

The rag man on the litter was dying.

And at the end, four from a nightmare

lugged on their heavy shoulders

a bundled body.

They couldn’t cope and let it drop.

It screamed in its own blood.

“Procession,” a word that doesn’t appear in the poem, connotes something more stately, more subdued, and, aptly, more funereal, than a word that does, the ironic “parade.” A procession is solemn. (I’m reminded of Woolf’s “procession of the sons of educated men” from Three Guineas, her passionate condemnation of masculinity, violence, and fascism, that is, the things the Karmels would suffer.) But the title puzzles me, because I don’t think this is a solemn poem. It is more terrible than that. At first it seems flatly descriptive: here is a typical camp scene, probably from the end of the day, when the work details would return to barracks. It is observed by some unknown group, a “we” presumably comprised of other inmates, though as readers we too watch the scene in dread. But as it goes on, the poem becomes less observational and more expressionist. More hallucinatory. More pointed. The final, terrible image, in particular, belies the affectlessness of the opening. (Of course, any Holocaust representation is bound to show horror as inextricable from description.)

In some sense “Procession”—preceded by no article, neither definite or indefinite, as if the event described here were unending or, worse, coterminous with the world—is an account. I mean this literally. It counts victims. Two, then two, then four (although these, on stretchers, must surely be carried by others), then one, then four more, then a final four that carry one. Eighteen in all. In Hebrew, eighteen is lucky; it shares a name with the word for “life.” But there is more than easy irony here. The eighteen are a mix of the living and the dead. And they aren’t just eighteen, either. They must be accompanied by some shadowy, unknown carriers, to say nothing of the numberless, observing “we.” Perhaps Karmel is offering her own account, in order to challenge the counting that prisoners suffered each evening, the nightly roll call that sometimes went on for hours.

That challenge mingles precision with confusion, which befits the world of the Lager, which was at once regimented and chaotic. A similar, but even more consequential blurring concerns the relationship between the living and the dead. Are the bodies on the stretchers alive or dead? Presumably alive, otherwise why would the speaker describe a cadaver in the next lines? (Unless the difference is that one is frozen and the others aren’t, yet. What, incidentally, is the difference between a “cadaver” and a “corpse,” which is the word I would expect in this context? Will this cadaver be used for some kind of experiment? Does cadaver connote death more fully than “corpse”? Or does it imply, via its future utility, something less completely dead?) But if those stretchered bodies aren’t dead, how alive are they? “Their bodies jerked up/comically at the night sky”: the phrase “jerked up” is, to me, really strange. Presumably this is an adjective phrase not an action—it’s not that the bodies are convulsing (right?), but that their limbs, perhaps, are akimbo. This gruesome scene is made even worse, in my opinion, by that distressing adverb “comically,” which intimates the onlookers the speaker hasn’t yet referred to. After all, someone has to find their state comical. But what the hell does that mean? Are the bodies funny? Surely only despairingly so. But maybe we shouldn’t foreclose the possibility of humour so quickly. We wouldn’t want to enforce our pious sense of how the experience should be understood.

Besides, the poem soon leaves humour far behind. Horror is coming soon enough for those onlookers. Their distance from the procession only increases as the poem ends. What they see is awful. “The rag man” is dying; note the difference between this description, which seems to speak to his essence, and the more idiomatic “the man in rags.” Howe’s choice of “litter” is inspired. We can’t help but hear the implications of waste—in keeping with the language of the perpetrators, which routinely called the victims Figuren (puppets), Stücke (pieces) or Schmatte (rags).

And then comes the worst part, the final horror, the “four from a nightmare.” (Again, the implication is that these figures are themselves fundamentally nightmarish, although the reference is most likely to their situation.) Is the “bundled body” dead or alive? Dropped, it “scream[s] in its own blood.” So that means alive, right?  It screamed in its own blood. This vivid, terrible expression makes me think of someone screaming through a mouthful of blood, though I admit I’m influenced by the earlier image of another victim pressing “a blood-soaked cloth/across his face.” (That “across” subtly implies the face itself is bloody, some injury more devastating than the one the more idiomatic “to” would suggest.) But screaming in the blood is hard to imagine. If the victim is not in fact gurgling from a bloodied mouth—and could they really be screaming if their mouth were so full?—then maybe the description is metaphorical. (Even if yes, this poem is remarkable at evoking bodily pain.) Maybe to scream in the blood is to scream inside? From the depths of one’s being? How would the onlookers know, though? The end of “Procession” seems less psychological than existential. Beyond an individual who suffers at least twice-over—in addition to their initial injuries they are dropped by their fellows—this final line offers a howl of despair, pain, and abandonment. One that is decidedly not universal, but perhaps the unhappy fate of all the camp’s victims.

The cover image shows Ilona (in the wheelchair) and Henia in the garden of the clinic in Stockholm, 1946

Descriptions and judgments. Living and dead bodies. Physical and psychological pain. Observers and participants. “Procession” makes us wonder whether any of these oppositions stand. Fanny Howe has done English speakers a service bringing it and the other poems collected in A Wall of Two to our ears. I hope they will find many readers.

What I Read, March 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I had mixed feelings.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Myron Levoy, Alan and Naomi (1977)

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

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

Miriam Katin, Letting It Go (2013)

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Downing, Wedding Station (2021)

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

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

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

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

Jane Harper, The Survivors (2020)

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

Monica Hesse, They Went Left (2020)

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

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

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

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

Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows (2006)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Understanding the Butcher: Philippe Sands’s The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive

Philippe Sands first met Horst Wächter in 2012 as a result of his first book, the acclaimed East West Street. This hybrid of history and memoir centered on the city of Lviv (also Lvov, Lwow, and Lemberg) in the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, where Sands’s own (Jewish) ancestors had lived, and where the two (Jewish) men who gave the world the contrasting concepts of genocide (Rafael Lemkin) and crimes against humanity (Hersch Lauterpacht) also grew up. A big part of that story was Hans Frank, the Nazi ruler of Galicia, responsible for the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews. In writing his book, Sands became friendly with Hans’s son, Niklas Frank, who had written a memoir condemning his father. Niklas told him about Otto Wächter, Frank’s second-in-command, and about Horst, the fourth of Otto’s six children, whom he knew slightly. Horst, Niklas warned, had a friendly view of his father—but he added that Sands would like him.

Horst Wächter, at his home (the Scholss Haggenberg) in 2013

Niklas was right—an initial meeting with Horst led to a public discussion with the two sons of prominent Nazis, which was made into a film. As Sands continued to learn more about Otto, he turned his findings into a podcast for the BBC, using Otto’s post-war experiences to discuss the so-called Ratline, the help the Vatican provided former Nazis in fleeing Europe to the Middle East and South America.

The podcast in turn led to further discoveries (as listeners wrote in with information) and to a sharpening of the tension between Sands and Horst. The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive thus necessarily focuses on the many layers of its coming to be; alas, Sands is not always a good enough writer to pull off the complicated structure required by a story about the telling of a story. Many of the turns in his investigation are introduced awkwardly. Chapters regularly end with clunky “cliffhangers” like this one: “Who was Bishop Hudal, and what exactly was his relationship to Otto? It was to that question that I would now turn.”

Still, Sands (and his team of researchers and assistants) is a good investigator. He describes Otto’s early days in the (then-banned) Austrian Nazi party, his role in the attempt to assassinate the Chancellor Dollfuss, his years in exile/hiding in Germany, followed by a triumphant return to Austria after the Anschluss, and meteoric rise in the apparatus of the Final Solution, first as a state secretary in Vienna (he fired hundreds of civil servants for being Jews, Mischlinge, or otherwise “politically unsound”), then as Frank’s number 2 in Kraków, and finally as governor of the District of Galicia, based in Lemberg.

Yet for Sands Otto’s wartime record matters primarily because of what happened afterward. In May 1945, Otto went underground; Sands finds out where he was, who he was with, and how he managed it. He tracks his movements in the years from 1945 – 49 (sussing out all his hiding spots in the Austrian Alps, including secret conjugal visits) and learns his daily routines after making his way to Italy in the last year of his life. He knows where Otto hid in Rome, under what name, and who he saw. To do so, he relies on Otto’s address book (cracking its rudimentary code), but mostly relies on his wife Charlotte’s papers, all of which Horst lets him see. (They are extensive: almost 9,000 pages of letters alone.) Charlotte destroyed her husband’s papers at the end of the war, which of course frustrates Sands, but he makes good use of this seeming obstacle by making the book as much about Charlotte as Otto. The portrait of their marriage is fascinating: Charlotte was tormented by her playboy husband’s many affairs, yet she was also his staunchest defender. She had been a committed Nazi from the early days; students in the ramshackle language school she ran decades after the war testify to Sands that she was not shy with her opinions.

Sands really homes in on Otto’s last days, in July 1950, when he suddenly fell ill and died from a mysterious illness. Horst, after a lifetime of hearing it from his mother, believes his father was poisoned. By whom? Maybe the Americans, maybe the Soviets, maybe the Jews. (That phrasing tells you everything you need to know.) Horst knows from his mother that the corpse, which she saw shortly after death, turned mysteriously black. How could a man like Otto—fit, a keen sportsman, who exercised every morning and swam in the Tiber—suddenly fall deathly ill? Surely it means something that he wrote to Charlotte about the enemies he suspected were following him. Horst is convinced that his father was murdered, and that he didn’t deserve it. After all, he was “a fine and decent man,” as a Ukrainian veteran of the Waffen-SS Galicia Divisions says, at a reunion attended by Sands, Niklas Franks, and a “beaming” Host.

At the very last stage of his lengthy investigation, on a visit to Rome to see the places Otto frequented in his last months, Sands is joined by another friend, a Spanish writer of nonfiction novels about the repercussions of the war. It’s pretty clear this must be Javier Cercas, and I don’t know why Sands is so coy about it, since he cites Cercas by name in one of his epigraphs, right below a typically forbidding passage from Isiah about the way violence will be passed down to the children of those who perpetrate it. Sands asks his friend why he came along. Why has he made Sands’s obsession his own? “It is more important to understand the butcher than the victim.”

Sands’s gloss—“A pretty phrase, and one that seemed true”—is evasive in a way belied by the doggedness of his investigation. He clearly believes in understanding the butchers, and I don’t know why he feels the need to hedge. Me, well, I think Cercas and Sands are full of shit. It’s sentiments like this, usually accompanied by a dutiful nostrum about knowing the past to avoid its repetition, that have led to our culture’s insatiable Nazi thirst.

Besides, Sands learns almost nothing about Otto’s motives. The villain of the story remains opaque. We learn as clearly as we can what Otto did during the war, how he came to his conviction in the cause, and how he spent his years on the run. But what he was thinking of when he organized the ghetto in Lemberg and oversaw the deportations and murder of so many thousands of Galician Jews is a mystery. Did he believe what he said to Charlotte and what she said to Horst, that he felt a duty to handle the situation he was entrusted with as efficiently and humanely as possible? Is this nonsense self-delusion or cynicism? Sands understands what a butcher can do, but not why they did so.

Otto Wächter with his wife Charlotte and their children, late 1940s. Otto was in hiding and visited as an Uncle. Horst is on the left.

The person whose motivations we do know something about is Horst, who comes across as a riveting and exhausting combination of reasonableness and monomania. He deplores the genocide, and he is willing to look into his family’s past, to the point of being shunned by his siblings and cousins. But he doesn’t deplore it that much. What he really hates is his father’s being lumped in with obvious criminals like Frank, Himmler or Arthur Seyss-Inquart (Reichskommissar of Occupied Holland, and Horst’s godfather). Horst is boring the way only someone who cannot come unstuck from a belief system can be. He insists that his father was a different kind of Nazi, who never had anything to do with the unpleasant aspects of genocide (and merely accepted the benefits that accrued to him from it as compensation for his mission) and sought only to make life more bearable for those terrible sufferers. To his credit, Sands is infuriated by this equivocation, and his portrait of Horst, who can’t help but come back to Sands every time he has pushed him away, is fascinating. Every time we think he is deserving of sympathy, Sands shows that he is not.

His portrayal of the Vatican is less compelling. Clearly Bishop Hudal, who befriended Otto and helped various other Nazis escape Europe, was at best a disreputable figure. And the Vatican’s stonewalling of Sands’s request to consult Hudal’s papers does not inspire confidence that it is willing to deal with its past in good faith. Sands never makes a blanket statement about the Vatican’s relation to Nazism—possibly because there isn’t one to make, and possibly (rightly) because doing so would result in a different kind of book. Sands has more to say about the Vatican’s ambiguous postwar relationship to American intelligence than about what the Church did or didn’t do during the war. Otto, it turns out, was spying for the Americans, through the intermediary of Hudal, further evidence of America’s immediate post-1945 pivot to the Cold War. In those first years after WWII, being anti-Soviet (and Otto was more enraged by communism than by anything else) was a lot more important to the US than having been a Nazi.

I appreciate what Sands has found out about Otto’s life and death. But I did weary of Sands himself. Although I read The Ratline avidly—it is as suspenseful as John Le Carré suggests in his blurb—I was irritated by the privileged world Sands inhabits, which he flaunts at every occasion. He gains access to every institution, consults with every kind of specialist, finds every door open to him. All in a good cause of course. But it’s all very Davos, if you know what I mean; it got to the point where I wondered about the patients the various liver specialists Sands consults weren’t seeing when they were being interviewed by him about the body’s metabolism of poisons. Put it this way: Le Carré doesn’t just blurb the book; he was Sands’s neighbour, too. I started to find the British and European elites of Sands’s milieu uncomfortably similar to the Nazi elites that had such a marvelous time enjoying the best of all things and thinking the best of all thoughts. Not that Sands and his peers are fascists. They definitely are not; I recognize that I am doing him an injustice here. But they too have drunk the Kool-Aid of their own specialness, it seems to me. Had I sensed that Sands had any self-awareness about this possibility I would have felt better about the dark fascination—the consumption of atrocity; the butcher love—that The Ratline too often incites.

What I Read, February 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joan Silber, Improvement (2017)

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

Francis Bennett, Making Enemies (1998)

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

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

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

Sarah Moss, Summerwater (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right near here, Keilson shouts back.

Where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I Read, January 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Peg Kehret, Escaping the Giant Wave (2003)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mary Kelly, The Spoilt Kill (1961)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Catherine Eaton’s Year in Reading, 2020

I’ll soon be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The ninth post is by Catherine Eaton (@sparrowpost), who blogs at sparrowpost.com. Catherine Eaton is a writer and editor living near Chicago with her partner, two cats, and six houseplants..

Even now in January of 2021, it’s hard to make sense of everything that happened in March when it was finally recognized that COVID was here. Life suddenly became much stranger and far more difficult. Grocery shopping had always been my time to linger over and admire fresh fruits and vegetables, pick out a few that looked good, and then head on over to the soup aisle. Suddenly and without any sort of mental preparation, that old slow life was gone. It became intensely draining and plain difficult to navigate the store. Everyone who shopped was afraid and they tried to soothe this fear by buying everything in sight.

Small, little pieces of the old life kept dissolving: I was glad when my library closed to protect the patrons but at the same time, it meant no library. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on them, not only books, but for a safe and quiet place to relax and read.

The library soon sent out an email, telling me not to return the books I had checked out, so I put them in a small stack in the living room. The three books became a symbol of life before the pandemic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Optic Nerve by María Gainza, and Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva. I read through the stack slowly and they became worlds where I could find space to breathe, places unaffected by the pandemic.

Books have always been a refuge for me, but in this last year my appreciation deepened. I read not just for entertainment but also to examine the craftsmanship in each book, and I was not let down. Studying story development, character arcs, and sentence structures became for me an act of sanity.

I read more books in 2020 than I have in other years; the list below includes some of my favorites.

I read The Wind in the Willows first. I had tried reading it a few times over the years without much luck but this time I reveled in it. My copy had the illustrations by Inga Moore, which are warm and homey. The story is set in the river and woods, and centers on three animals living there, Ratty, Mole, and Toad. They have adventures, get into messes, but everything works out in the end.

From that point on, I realized that reading children’s books let me find a small measure of peace during the pandemic. I joined a friend’s book club and we read The Secret Garden together. I had read it as a teenager, but now as an adult I was surprised to find how much I admired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s craft. She knew how to set a scene, weave an enticing mystery, and create bad-tempered yet sympathetic characters.

Later in the summer, I picked up another book I read as a teenager, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The novel chronicles the early life of Emily Murray, a budding author and fiercely independent soul. I highly recommend it and the next books that subsequently follow, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. Emily’s fight to write and be true to herself has inspired many writers, including Carol Shields, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

The next library book I read was Optic Nerve by María Gainza, one of my favorite reads of the year. Each chapter is a complete story of its own and centers on a different painting. The narrator contemplates art and painters, her family and child, and the anxiety of living in the present day.

One of the great pleasures is how flawlessly Gainza weaves the narrator’s daily life with her contemplation on art. The moments set in art museums were especially poignant to me as the Art Institute in Chicago was closed and I was struggling with the deep desire to see artwork in-person, a source of delight and comfort that had suddenly been whisked away.

Another novel that struggles to make sense of an ever-changing world is Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. The narrator, a “linguist traveler,” visits city of Ravicka. She struggles to learn the local language and communicate with those around her. The city ebbs and flows around her, streets shifting while she walks, and a noxious yellow fog (that the citizens refuse to acknowledge) slowly envelops everything. Event Factory, bewildering yet familiar, felt like the diary of a fellow passenger during the early days of the pandemic. Another poignant similarity with the present is how Ravickan time does not move linearly which affects the art of narration:

To say that though—that I have not been on my own very long—would mean that I have been following a linear path…this linearity could only form if there had been no events in between. I am saying things have happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point of the story, I would be elsewhere.

Czelaw Milosz’s autobiography, Native Realm, is another tale of rapidly shifting worlds, set during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with his birth in present-day Lithuania, Milosz follows his family’s fortunes as they traveled through Russia, and then to Poland, arriving there shortly after WWI. He recounts learning Russian and Polish, the teachers and friends that influenced him as he came of age before WWII, and the writing endeavors that he undertook while somehow miraculously surviving WWII. His autobiography is not just a record of family, learning, and friends, but it is also a delicate tracing of the life of the mind and how he arrived to the ideas and thoughts that underpin his work.

I was unable to finish Native Realm before it was due back to the library, and after I returned it COVID hit. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to check it out again, and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t lost any of the threads. When I finished Native Realm and returned to Milosz’s poetry, his concepts shown clear and bright in a way they hadn’t before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like deeper insight into Milosz’s poetry and life.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay was another library book I was separated from in the early days of the pandemic. Like Native Realm, I had read about half of it when it was due back. I returned it, COVID struck, and I did not see it again until June. I thought the long pause might affect my enjoyment of it but that wasn’t the case at all. The book is collection of essays on the small joys that Gay encounters over the course of a year, and when the book returned to me in the summer, I had a deeper appreciation of his insights into our difficult world.

In many ways, Gay’s deep belief in the beauty of a life well-observed became a touchstone during this last year. Watching a downy woodpecker climb the sugar maple outside my window became a way to enter the present when it was otherwise unendurable. Enjoying good food, connecting with friends, and reading excellent books became ways to go forward and with gratitude. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading Gay’s poetry in his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and it feels like a continuation of the thoughts running through his essays. We are lucky to have Gay writing to us.

Another bright light in a grim year was Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It won the Booker Prize back in 2019 and immediately sold out everywhere. I patiently waited until one day when my local bookstore had a stack of copies sitting on the front desk, and nabbed one. Looking back, I’m grateful I grabbed a copy before the pandemic hit because it was the read I needed later on. The novel concerns a large group of women, each section told from a different viewpoint. Their lives and years weave in and out of each other’s; each woman is splendidly alive and Evaristo’s playfulness with punctuation and sentence structure creates a vivacity and immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a novel.

After Girl, Woman, Other, I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki. Set in Athens before WWII, it centers on three sisters’ lives over three summers. While their days seem quiet on the outside, the sisters live passionate and dramatic internal lives. They struggle to understand those around them (including animals and nature) and the direction their adult lives will take.

The lavender bloomed. It happened suddenly, one morning. The evening before we had stroked the buds, which were still green and hard. We had begged them to open that night, and the next day from the window we saw six bushy rows of purple playing with the sun and hundreds of white newborn butterflies fluttering around, chasing each other, making love, only to die the same night.

Maria began to cry. She went and embraced the stems, burying herself in their aroma.

The sisters find their way, each one in a way that suits only her. Some readers have struggled with this book, but I wish there were more novels like it. Liberaki’s lush descriptions of nature and the sisters’ inner lives left me wanting to read more of her work.

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson is about a real woman who challenged her role in life and sought to carve out her own path as a British woman in the mid-1800’s. Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith was the first wife of the writer George Meredith; after eight years of marriage she left him for the painter Henry Wallis. Not much is known about her life (aside from Meredith’s massive grudge against her) but Johnson has taken what remains and woven it into a story, part factual and part fiction. Mary Ellen was a writer in her own right, an exhilarating conversationalist, and a gourmet cook. She was considered an outcast after fleeing her husband but of course she didn’t view herself that way. She had many plans for herself and her children but unfortunately died at age 40 from kidney disease. With sensitivity and sympathy, Johnson recreates her life and those that surrounded her; what emerges are living beings, forgotten by time but worthy of being considered. I first came across the book after listening to a delightful conversation between Diane Johnson and NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and I highly recommend their talk.

Isolde by Irina Odoyevtseva was the last library book from my small pre-pandemic stack. First published in 1929, I read the new Pushkin Press edition, translated by Brian Karentyck. At the heart of Isolde is the beautiful Liza, a young teenager and White émigré from Russia. She crosses path with Cromwell, a wealthy British boy, while vacationing in Biarritz. The pair might as well be protagonists from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as they race around in cars, bounce through dance halls, and swim out in the ocean. He names her Isolde after the doomed, legendary queen and from that moment on, there’s no doubt where the novel is headed.

Liza is a woman without a country and though she has a brother and mother, she is essentially abandoned due to their self-centeredness and desperation. As I read the book my sense of foreboding climbed higher and higher and when I finished the last page I heaved a heavy sigh. I won’t forget Isolde or Odoyevtseva for a long time. Odoyevtseva achieves a level of loneliness, separation, danger, and impending disaster that Fitzgerald’s writing aspired to.

A King Alone by Jean Giono will also stay with me for a while. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s one of the more shocking novels I’ve read in some time. The tale is set high up in the Alps and the opening description of a beech tree drew me in:

It’s on the side of the road, exactly at the hairpin bend. There’s a beech tree there; I’m sure there’s none more magnificent anywhere. It’s the Apollo Citharoedus of beech trees. There cannot possibly be another beech, anywhere at all, with skin so smooth and so beautiful a color, a more flawless build, more perfect proportions, with such nobility, grace, and eternal youth. Definitely ‘Apollo’ is what you say the instant you catch sight of it, and you say it again and again for as long as you look at it. What is extraordinary is that it’s both beautiful and so simple. No question about it: it knows itself and judges itself.

A series of puzzling and frightening disappearances occur in a nearby village, and a police captain is called in to sort out the mess. Langlois arrives in the dead of winter and begins the hunt. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints (though never Langlois’s) and the result is a tracking of Langlois himself as he travels through the mountain ranges, surrounding towns, and the village itself, searching for the abductor. Nature is a strong presence throughout, a main character watching and overshadowing the human dramas enacted within it. After reading A King Alone, I’m looking forward to reading more of Giono’s novels and discovering his poetics.

There’s no way I could go through my best reads of 2020 list without mentioning War and Peace. A Public Space announced their readalong of War and Peace in early March with Yiyun Li leading the daily discussion. I was drawn to the idea of reading an epic novel during an epic time and I picked up Anthony Briggs’s translation. I kept up with the daily readings for the first third of the novel but then fell behind. Tolstoy’s ruminations on the Napoleonic Wars and the causes of war in general slowed my speed but I was determined to see the book through. And I’m glad I did because while Tolstoy’s theories and beliefs about war have somewhat dimmed in my mind, the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, along with a huge cast of family members and servants, have not. It’s a novel well worth reading during this time.

The final three books hold a special place in my heart: I read them in the fall and each created a sanctuary before and during the US elections (which was and is a terrifying time). It was hard to know which way my country would go and I needed the reassuring cadences of these master writers to help me through the nerve-wracking days.

The first is Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I hadn’t known that Brooks wrote a novel until a friend mentioned it in a passing conversation and I knew I had to find this book. I ordered it from the library in early March before the pandemic struck and it eventually arrived in the fall. I was so happy to see it. It felt like the continuation of an earlier life.

The novel is broken into thirty-four vignettes, concerning the life of Maud Martha; they often read like prose poems. Each vignette follows Maud Martha as she deals with the difficulties of family, growing up, falling in love, contemplating beauty, raising a family, and racism.

One of my favorite chapters centers around her struggle over whether to kill a mouse that’s been invading her kitchen and taking off with morsels of food. She envisions the mouse’s huge family and its on-going struggle to feed so many children. In the end, she can’t set out poison and they go on living together. There is a special sweetness in the book that focuses on everyday joys despite the senseless cruelty of racism and other struggles in life. It’s a short read and I sighed deeply when I read the last page. I would have been happy to read more about Maud Martha’s daily life and her ongoing views of the world.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark came into my life a month before the election. A Public Space was doing another read along, this time on Spark’s book, and while I was reading through the book, I was working on a class assignment to map a novel. Since I was already half way through the novel and completely caught up in it, I decided to make a map of it. I was curious how Spark dealt with time, the revelation of mysteries, and different points of view.

While I was mapping, it became clear that Spark flashes forward in time only when she’s revealing important information. She divulges tragedies and betrayals early on but saves the “how” for the end. Her story centers on an Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and the student that eventually betrays her.

Spark in the New Yorker: “Well, suspense isn’t just holding it back from the reader. Suspense is created even more by telling people what’s going to happen. Because they want to know how. Wanting to know what happened is not so strong as wanting to know how.”

There’s a clean, crisp assertiveness to Sparks’ prose that I quickly became addicted to. It’s not surprising that she began her writing career as a poet. The New York Times critic Parul Seghal notes that, “[Spark] loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure.”

During the election itself, I turned to The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The four sisters are from a well-to-do Osaka family, but by the time the novel opens, the family’s heyday has passed and their fortunes are in slow decay.

The original Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), means lightly falling snow and is a poetical allusion to lightly falling cherry blossoms in the spring. It contains the word “yuki,” which refers to the third sister, Yukiko, and suggests that she is the focus of the novel. Much of the story revolves around the family’s quest to find her a suitable husband.

The novel spans 1936 to 1941 and throughout there’s a heavy contemplation of past. This isn’t surprising, as the past (along with decline and decay) is among of Tanizaki’s great themes and permeates his work.

The past lingers in the Makiokas’ clothes, homes, thoughts, and traditions but it performs a balancing act with Western culture that continues to encroach on more traditional lifestyles. The sisters wear light Western clothes on the hottest days of the summer and resume wearing kimonos when the heat passes. They watch Greta Garbo in a film one night and attend the Kabuki theater to see a favorite performer on the next. They learn French, practice the koto and shamisen, visit the cherry trees blooming in Kyoto and Nara, and get their hair done every week at the salon. Amid family squabbles and health issues, they survey and survive everything the decade throws at them which includes a great flood, typhoon winds, and a world war.

Newspaper installations of The Makioka Sisters began appearing during the height of WWII, but the censor board pulled it, denouncing it for its “feminine character.” That didn’t stop Tanizaki from continuing his novel and in 1944, he published the first section and gave copies to friends. The complete novel came out after the war, was heralded as a great achievement, and has been read ever since.

While I haven’t lived through a war, the current pandemic has given me a more immediate understanding of what can happen when everyone’s lives are drastically and suddenly changed. Tanizaki’s fortitude in writing about four sisters throughout WWII, not even stopping when the government forbade his work from being published, speaks to me deeply.

A few honorable mentions:

Most people read Madame Bovary in high school but since I missed high school (long story), I missed the book as well. Despite knowing the storyline, the novel drew me along and by the end, there was no doubt in my mind that, had she had lived today, Emma would have been a wildly popular Instagram influencer.

Mathilda by Mary Shelley is a typical Romantic novel, full of long passages about feelings and nature. There’s also the usual shocking subject matter–in this case, incest and suicide. Shelley wrote this after Frankenstein and as a former Goth, I enjoyed every moment of it.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard follows the lives of Toby and Lou Maytree, from courtship to old age. They live in Provincetown, MA, and the sea and its moods permeates their lives. As always, Dillard’s writing on nature is both beautiful and brutal.

It’s been an extremely difficult year, but books have helped make it a little more bearable. Here’s to another year of good book reading, discovering new and old authors, and taking care of one another. May this new year be better than the last.

Magda Birkmann’s Year in Reading, 2020

the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The seventh post is by Magda Birkmann (@Magdarine). Magda is a full-time bookseller in Berlin and spends all of her free time talking about books on Twitter.

Books have kept me sane during this pandemic (so far), so even by my personal standards as a professional reader (I’m a full-time bookseller) I really read A LOT in 2020—in fact, with 171 books finished, I’ve reached my absolute personal best. Most of those books I enjoyed very much, so it’s hard to come up with a general Best-Of list. But here are ten very good German books (5 new, 5 old) I read during the past year that haven’t been translated to English yet (or if they were, they’re out of print), but definitely should be. Who knows, if enough of you people pester the right indie publishers about it, maybe some of them eventually will be.

Anne Weber, Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (Annette, a Heroine’s Epic, 2020)

This book won one of the most important German literary prizes in 2020, and justly so. In it, Anne Weber—in the form of an epic poem—tells the real-life story of Annette Beaumanoir, a neurophysiologist and heroine of the French communist resistance during WW2 who later received a ten-year prison sentence for her support of the FLN in the Algerian War. It took around 30 pages for me to get used to the unusual form (unlike in English-language YA fiction, novels-in-verse aren’t really “a thing” in Germany), but once I got it, I was completely hooked and often moved to tears by this factual story that Weber (who based her book on several interviews she conducted with Beaumanoir) has transformed into a beautiful piece of literature.

Olivia Wenzel, 1000 serpentinen angst (1000 Coils of Fear, 2020)

The debut novel by Olivia Wenzel, a Black Eastern German writer who has worked in theater for years, should have won all the important German literary prizes but didn’t, which just goes to show how rotten this whole prize business is. The novel, inspired by Wenzel’s own background, switches between a first-person narrative (the protagonist is a young mixed-race German woman who was raised in the GDR alongside her twin brother by a white single mother) and interview-style passages in which the protagonist seems to be both asking and answering the questions, tackling topics like race, sexuality, feminism, motherhood, nationality, and grief. For those familiar with mainstream contemporary German fiction, the book’s innovative style (which clearly betrays Wenzel’s theatrical background) is a much-needed breath of fresh air.

[As far as I can tell, English translation rights to this novel have actually been sold, but I don’t have any information on where and when an English version will be published.]

Deniz Ohde, Streulicht (Scattered Light, 2020)

Deniz Ohde’s debut follows a young woman who, after having moved far away to attend university, returns to her industrial hometown for the wedding of two childhood friends. During her short weekend stay she reflects on her working-class childhood and the rocky road towards a formal education she was forced to follow, all the while struggling to (re)connect with her father, an alcoholic and compulsive hoarder. Ohde’s novel is reminiscent of the work of Annie Ernaux (but in an industrial Western German 90s setting) and since the latter is one of my favorite writers of all time, it’s no wonder that I absolutely loved Streulicht too.

Simone Hirth, Das Loch (The Hole, 2020)

Simone Hirth’s Das Loch is an epistolary novel about a writer trying to confront the mental and physical isolation she’s been suffering from ever since becoming a mother. The protagonist feels like she’s fallen into the eponymous hole because all the reproductive work she has had to do since the birth of her son (her husband rarely being home) leaves her no time or energy for her literary endeavours. In lieu of those, she begins, in what little spare time she has, to write letters to Jesus, Buddha, the Chancellor, Madonna, Snow White, a frog, Ulrike Meinhoff (of Baader-Meinhof Gang fame) and a handful of other addressees. Those little missives are by turns angry, sarcastic, desperate, optimistic and incredibly funny while also offering a sharp analysis of the unfair double load that working mothers, in particular, have to carry in our society. As someone who doesn’t have (or want) children, I found the book eye-opening.

Samira El-Maawi, In der Heimat meines Vaters riecht die Erde wie der Himmel (In My Father’s Homeland The Earth Smells Like The Sky, 2020)

“I know more about the history of Nelson Mandela than I know about my father’s history.” This sentence runs like a chorus through this beautiful debut novel by the Black Swiss author Samira El-Maawi. The book is told from the point of view of a ten-year-old girl who grows up in Switzerland in the 80s as the child of a white Swiss Christian mother and a Black Muslim father from Zanzibar and who tries to assert her own identity amidst everyday racism, family crises, and conflicts of loyalty. El-Maawi, who has used both her own experiences (she herself is bi-racial) and the experiences and life stories of other Black Swiss people in her book, writes very clear and befittingly simple (considering that the narrator is a child) prose that is spiced up by occasional lyrical passages that read like little poems. I hadn’t really read very many Swiss authors before, but this novel definitely made me want to explore that literature further.

Gisela Elsner, Das Berührungsverbot (Prohibition of Contact, 1970)

Contemporary critics called Gisela Elsner’s 1970 novel an “anti-porno,” a Swiss journal that had been printing excerpts was seized by the authorities, and Austrian media attacked it as harmful to children. In truth, though, this caustic satire by an outspokenly communist writer is a ruthless, oftentimes screamingly funny reckoning with both the uptight sexual mores of the 50s and the compulsive promiscuity of the 60s. Admittedly, it’s also a book about several German heterosexual couples engaging in group sex orgies. Most importantly, it lays bare the enduring patriarchal and authoritarian structures of post-war German society. This was my first novel by Elsner, but after I finished it, I immediately went and bought her complete backlist, the devouring of which is going to be one of several big reading projects I have lined up for 2021.

[Although this particular book has yet to appear in English, two of Elsner’s other novels, Die Riesenzwerge (The Giant Dwarfs, 1964) and Abseits (Offside, 1982) were translated into English by Joel Carmichael in 1965 and Anthea Bell in 1985, respectively (although both translations appear to be long out of print).]

Helen Wolff, Hintergrund für Liebe (Background for Love, written 1932, first published 2020)

Helen Wolff, who together with her husband Kurt Wolff had to flee Nazi Germany and in 1942 founded Pantheon Books during their American exile, is mostly known for her work in publishing, bringing some of the most well-known European writers to American readers. Only after her death in 1994 did her descendants find out that she had been quite an accomplished writer in her own right.

Her little autobiographical novel Hintergrund für Liebe, which was written in 1932/1933, was posthumously published for the first time in 2020. Inspired by her own travels to France with her husband, the book tells a slow, gentle (although a sense of foreboding of the sinister things to come runs through the tale), summerly story about the emancipation of a young woman who finally starts standing up for her own wants and needs and finds love along the way. The novel is accompanied by a long and fascinating biographical essay by Wolff’s great-niece, and if this book doesn’t sound like perfect NYRB Classics fare, I don’t know what does. They should really get to it! [Ed.—Amen!]

Lida Winiewicz, Späte Gegend (Late Region, 1986)

Lida Winiewicz was an Austrian writer and translator of Jewish heritage who wrote prose, plays and film scripts and translated works by writers like Graham Greene, Colette, and Georgette Heyer from English, French, Italian, and Spanish into German. Späte Gegend, her first prose work, originally appeared in 1986 and was republished in German only weeks before Winiewicz’s death at the age of 92 in October 2020. The book purports to be a transcript of the oral recollections of an 80-year-old farmer’s wife who describes the arduous life on a farmstead in the Mühlviertel (a region of Austria that lies north of the river Danube) during the 20th century. While it is never made clear which are the actual words of the narrator and which are literary embellishments by Winiewicz, this look at a long-forgotten way of life is gloriously curt and trenchant, but with an underlying melancholy that I found deeply moving.

Margaret Goldsmith, Patience geht vorüber (Patience Passes, 1931)

When Margaret Goldsmith’s novel first came out in 1931, it barely received any critical attention and before its “rediscovery” in 2020 it had never been reprinted. Its protagonist Patience von Zimmern, daughter of a Prussian doctor and an English aristocrat and a thoroughly “modern” woman, fits right in with the heroines of other recently “rediscovered” 1920s/1930s writers like Vicki Baum, Gabriele Tergit, and Irmgard Keun. The book follows its heroine through the great and small woes of everyday life: it tells of her first love and relationship with her (female) best friend, her rash marriage to a young soldier who, against all odds, survives his time at the front during WW1, her challenging work in journalism and later, her second career in medicine, and, most importantly, the conflict in loyalty that she feels as the daughter of two enemy nations. None of Goldsmith’s other books (she wrote both in English and in German) remain in print and even second-hand copies are pretty hard to come by, which is a great shame, because after reading this very entertaining novel I am very much intrigued by her work and life. (Virginia Woolf apparently could not stand her because Goldsmith once had an affair with Vita Sackville-West.) [Ed.—More prime NYRB material!]

Marlene Streeruwitz, Verführungen (Seductions, 1996)

When the debut novel by Austrian writer and playwright Marlene Streeruwitz first came out in 1996, the thing a famous German literary critic found most worth mentioning was how much the book talked about menstruation (too much, in his not very humble opinion). In fact, the question of the book’s literary merit was at the center of a heated argument during one episode of the long-running literary talk show Das literarische Quartett (which was broadcast monthly on German TV from 1988 to 2001), with the male critic refusing to accord it any. Knowledge of that fact alone was enough to make me want to read it, and I was not disappointed. Verführungen is told from the point of view of a woman in her 30s, mother of two, who has recently been left by her husband and now strains to make ends meet with a part-time job in a PR agency while pursuing an affair with a flaky musician. There’s no real plot, the book sort of meanders along following the protagonist’s everyday struggles, but through its close look at what some might deem banalities and through Streeruwitz’s staccato style, a horrifying picture of female lives in a modern patriarchal society slowly emerges. For me, at least, this book was a true punch in the gut and I’m afraid that not all that much has changed in the 24 years since its initial publication.

[An English translation by Katharina Rout was apparently published by Oolichan Books in 1998, but it appears to be out of print.]

Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2020

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The sixth post is by Hope Coulter (@hopester99), who I’m lucky to work with. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

2020 stole a lot of things from us. One thing it didn’t steal—the Tiffany box sitting in plain sight on the dresser, which the burglar miraculously forgot to swipe into his pillowcase—was reading. When the pandemic struck and life was suddenly curtailed to the home front, a number of factors that normally compete with reading in my waking day, such as daily commutes and shopping, disappeared. The news was one competitor for my attention that remained, but if I wrenched myself away from updates on the latest case numbers and chaos I could turn, with more time and greater relief than usual, to books. And so the weeks went by and I read: through nights where an uncanny stillness muted my neighborhood, in corners of the house (and the day) that were newly open for visitation, on dog walks with earbuds jammed in my ears.

I discovered several fiction writers last year who were new to me. Dorian had tipped me off to Paulette Jiles, whose gritty historical fiction is a delight. Mostly set in the U.S. Midsouth and West, her novels feature authentic dialogue, grainy characters, galloping plots, and accurately rendered settings (at least as far as my own knowledge of horses and birds can confirm). Her News of the World has been made into a movie starring Tom Hanks that just came out. I started with that book and followed up with Simon the Fiddler, Enemy Women, The Color of Lightning, and Stormy Weather.

Another new pleasure was Maggie O’Farrell. I ran into her memoir I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death, which may be my favorite—especially with the twist that the final section puts upon the whole. While I was devouring her Instructions for a Heatwave, set in London in 1976, I happened to hear an NPR interview of O’Farrell discussing her new book, Hamnet, which came out last year to lots of accolades: it’s a fictionalization of Shakespeare’s family life. I dipped into more O’Farrell through online samples and wasn’t as taken by them as I was with these three books, but I’ll probably try again with other works of hers.

Curtis Sittenfeld is a fiction writer a friend had mentioned in the context of her novel Rodham, about Hillary Clinton. At the time I didn’t follow up. Then late one night, when I was prowling the spotty “available now” shelves of my Libby app, embarrassingly like an addict knocking on doors for a fix, I came across Sittenfeld’s Eligible. The title rang a bell, and I remembered that a favorite podcaster, Liz Craft, had also touted this author. I saw that the book was an adaptation of Pride and Prejudice and inwardly rolled my eyes, because I’m often not a fan of Austen adaptations, either books or movies (why not just go back and reread the real thing?). But I was desperate for a hit, and as soon as I plunged into the sample I was hooked. Eligible was my best 2020 read for sheer fun. Set in contemporary Cincinnati, the book reimagines the Bennet family in ways that are both clever and true to our times, and its fidelity to the story of Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy should please even the most stringent of Jane devotees. It’s funny, raunchy, and thoughtful—a romp with depth. I wish I could have made myself enjoy it more slowly, but I couldn’t help racing through.

After that I turned to Sittenfeld’s story collection you think it: i’ll say it, and was underwhelmed. Still hopeful of reexperiencing the Eligible high, I turned to Rodham. Again, I was suspicious: was this book going to be a polemical feminist rant? (Well, kind of.) Was it going to misrepresent Arkansas and Arkansans? (To my surprise, it didn’t.) And the big question: would it shed light on my own complicated opinions of Hillary and Bill; could it embody these two individuals persuasively and give me new insight into their relationship? (Resoundingly, no.) This book receives my Dorothy Parker “not a book to be tossed aside lightly—it should be thrown with great force” Award for 2020. The first part was curiously engrossing, if uncomfortably so, as it nailed Hillary’s voice with cringeworthy persuasiveness and dramatized details about Bill and Hillary’s dating and sex life that only they should know. (Okay, I’ll admit I haven’t read either of their enormous memoirs, and maybe Sittenfeld drew her torrid-romance imagery from their own words—but I doubt it.) The minute that fictional Hillary breaks off with fictional Bill and returns to the East Coast for a solo career, the novel becomes a huge yawn, and I couldn’t make myself finish it. The book could contribute, if tediously, to such eternal questions as the line between fiction and nonfiction, the obligations of the author, whether it’s ethical (or even a good idea aesthetically) to render first-person fiction about a still-living person… but, warning: if you want to use this novel to flog such issues, you may just end up feeling icky.

Other stand-out fiction that I read this year, on the positive side, includes Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside; Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow; Elizabeth Strout’s Olive, Again (yes! more about truculent Olive!);and Gail Honeyman’s haunting Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. I reread Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being and—while waiting for the fifth in the series—re-listened to two of Robert Galbraith’s utterly satisfying Cormoran Strike books. Less happily, I buzzed through Carl Hiassen’s Squeeze Me, which is crummy even for a guilty-pleasure book, and finished off my last four books in Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series with the absent-minded “why am I doing this” of someone swallowing stale potato chips. [Ed.–What?? Who could be unmoved by the last book in the series?]

At Hendrix, where Dorian and I are colleagues, I teach only one course a semester, because I also have administrative duties. As it happened, this year I taught the same course back-to-back in spring and fall: a tutorial on Irish short stories. The rereading I did for teaching was that wonderful kind of deep, slow reading that opens window after window into the text. My selection spanned from 1894 to 2017, from folk legends recast into stories by W.B. Yeats and J.M. Synge to modern love fables by Lucy Caldwell and Sally Rooney. Along the way we read some dark jewels by James Joyce, Edna O’Brien, and Frank O’Connor; Roddy Doyle’s delicious “The Pram”; and Seumas O’Kelly’s one-hit wonder, “The Weaver’s Grave.” Discussing these works with the students was a rich experience, even in the online format that had so unexpectedly become a norm. I’ll be returning to these stories, and gladly, in future semesters.

In nonfiction, my reading year’s unexpected highlight was Mark Vanhoenacker’s Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot. As a 747 pilot for British Airways, Vanhoenacker wrote columns for a number of magazines and newspapers, including The New Yorker and The New York Times. In lyrical, exact prose he serves up a cockpit’s-eye view of what it’s like to fly these elegant machines around the globe. Much of the book is terrific description of cloud formations, land patterns, and celestial sights observed on his long flights; I plan to use it as a teaching model. There is also lots of information about the pilot life—what it’s like to cross vast time zones so routinely; how a long-distance crew prepares for flight; and how this long-distance flying affects pilots’ friendships and their outlook on the world. This book was especially good to read during a time when I longed for travel, and when its absence made me see it in a new light. In the long summer hours of 2020 as my husband and I sat on our deck, noticing the planes crossing the sky and speculating as to their destinations, Vanhoenacker’s perspective often came to mind.

Less ecstatically, 2020 prompted me to read on the troubling fronts of race and inequity. Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents is a masterpiece, compellingly written and somber. It permanently shifted the way I view systemic racism in the United States. Natasha Trethewey’s memoir, Memorial Drive, is—true to her poet’s nature—much briefer, and evocative in its own way of the caste-based divide in this country. I also read Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, which gave me new understandings of the housing crisis and how deeply it’s enmeshed with other social problems. (I hope Biden and Harris have read it.)

Susan Orlean’s The Library Book has, as Rossini or somebody said about Wagner, wonderful moments and dreadful quarters of an hour. Orlean herself reads the audio version; when will authors learn that, no matter how skilled they are with the pen, they are not trained voice actors? It was only by turning the speed up to 1.5x that I managed to push through her slow, grating voice to the end. Still, the tome includes memorable anecdotes about the history of libraries and L.A. that make it worth the slog.

Early in the pandemic, The American Scholar published a list of recommended food writing from its archives. In our desperation to entertain ourselves my husband and I, like so many others, were lavishing new attention on cooking, so I thought it would be fun to try some of these cookery classics in my reading. Turned out I wasn’t in the mood for How To Cook a Wolf  by M.F.K. Fisher or The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book. James and Kay Salter’s Life Is Meals: A Food Lover’s Book of Days had flashes of fun but, as can happen with food writing, the fussiness became downright shrill—This is how you make a martini! This and only this is what the cool people do with the chicken! By contrast, I absolutely loved Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires: the story of how she became the New York Times food editor, complete with droll—and insightful—accounts of doing restaurant reviews in disguise.

Well, I’ll stop for now. Thanks, Dorian, for giving me the chance to share. It’s an honor to step into this venue: I’ve added so many recommendations to my to-read list from books mentioned here, both in the main blog and in the guest posts and comments. If any of y’all ever come to Little Rock, post-pandemic, let’s grab a drink and fill in the gaps. I want to hear more about what you think and what’s on your nightstand. The plague will be over and the question will still be germane: Read any good books lately?