What I Read, March 2022

Mostly blocked March from my memory—it was as gruesome as always, ugh the Spring semester sucks so much—but I did take some time off over Spring Break (which meant I was even more fucked than usual afterward, all those “breaks” academics get are great as long as you don’t use them) and so I read a little more than I have been. Deets below.

But first, exciting news: Frances, Rebecca, and I launched our podcast! At One Bright Book we discuss one book an episode, and then fill you in on some of our current reading. Available wherever you get your podcasts, and on Twitter.

Elaine de Kooning, Italian Summer #28, 1970

Katrine Engberg, The Tenant (2016) Trans. Tara Chace (2020)

Competent Danish procedural, the details of which I’ve forgotten. Just what I needed to get out of a reading slump.

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (2014)

Darnielle’s first novel—or second, if you count his book about Black Sabbath—is pretty great, establishing his striking blend of menace and warmth. The narrator, disfigured after a suicide attempt gone wrong, is a recluse who lives modestly on an insurance payment which he supplements with the proceeds of a mail-order role-playing game set in a post-nuclear future. The details of the game—its interplay between choice and fate, constraint and freedom offering an allegory for the narrator’s own life—and the community it creates for the narrator with people he never meets moved and fascinated me. I still like Universal Harvester best (it has the most interesting female characters), but the guy’s got me for life, I’ll read whatever he writes. Maybe even that Sabbath book.

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015)

Excellent fantasy novel that allegorizes the experience of the subaltern groomed for imperial service. (This situation is the basis of an otherwise different but also excellent sf novel by Arkady Martine that I read in January and have yet to write about.) Baru Cormorant is a child when her homeland of Taranoke is conquered by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest. The Falcresti bring wealth and technology (medicine, sanitation, etc.) but they subjugate Baru’s people both economically and violently. Their obsession with so-called sexual hygiene leads them to destroy Taranoke’s kinship structure (families have two fathers and one mother). Singled out by a high-ranking official, Baru develops her prowess in mathematics at an elite boarding school, as well as a life-long ambivalence: furious that her ostensible benefactors have murdered one of her fathers but also enchanted by their promise of power in Falcrest’s zealously meritocratic system. After graduation, Baru is sent to Ardwynne, thirteen squabbling provinces that threaten to unite in rebellion. As Imperial Accountant, Baru controls the purse-strings and establishes herself as the most important figure in the realm. So although the novel eventually details a military campaign (though even here Dickinson emphasizes politics over battle), it’s mostly about bureaucracy and monetary policy. Sound boring? Anything but! The ending actually made me gasp. Last book to do that was Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. There are two more Baru books—better believe I’ll be reading them soon.

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder (2021)

As promised, I taught Kaiser’s memoir about his efforts to reclaim family property in Poland in my seminar on Holocaust postmemory. I liked the book even more when I had the chance to think it through with students. They mostly liked it, too; some were prompted to write about it, which generated several strong essays. In the best one, a student wrote about fighting with her father over his decision to keep a dagger adorned with Nazi insignia that his own grandfather, the student’s great-grandfather, brought home from the battlefields of Europe. (The great-grandfather fought through the Ardennes.) The student deepened her reflections about her familial conflict by juxtaposing her situation to Kaiser’s similar but definitely not analogous predicament,

My students and I were even more jazzed about the book after Kaiser visited the class (Zoom really is great sometimes). He was awesome, no surprise, articulate and funny. The students asked reasonably good questions, too. Take our word for it—read this book. And if you need more convincing, it just won the Sami Rohr Prize: that’s a big deal.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (1992)

The first One Bright Book selection—check out what Frances, Rebecca, and I had to say about it! I was into it, and I liked it more after talking about it. Poor time management meant I had to read the book in two days, worrisome given its length, but it engaged me more than I expected. Perhaps its blend of essayistic reflection and historical fiction reads less unusually today. Everyone says Sontag was no brilliant novelist, but based on this small sample she was far from terrible. Worth your time.

Eli Cranor, Don’t Know Tough (2022)

Cranor lives about an hour from Little Rock, and he definitely gets rural white Arkansas, especially the pleasures of its landscape and the ugliness of its insularity. Don’t Know Tough is about football, a sport I find excruciatingly boring (another reason I’ll never fit in here). But I do understand being passionate about a sport—far as I know, though, Canadians don’t attend hockey games played by children they don’t know, the way people here do with, say, middle school football games.

Anyway, Don’t Know Tough features some conventional narrative elements: a coach newly arrived from California (Cranor plays this fish-out-of-water set-up too broadly; folks here are not as hostile to Prius drivers as he suggests), a troubled star player whose anger issues are sensitively depicted, and the requisite budding romance. When the star’s abusive father is found dead, the trouble soon reaches Gothic levels of extravagance. I dunno, I didn’t love this book. I guess Southern Noir is a thing now—of the writers I can think of that fit that description I sure prefer S. A. Cosby.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem (2020)

Crime-romance hybrid set in late 19th century England featuring a journalist and a Scotland Yard detective. The meet cute isn’t so cute—she calls out his shoddy work; he’s pulled from a big case—but when they’re thrown together at a country house they start to understand each other (he was covering for someone else, plus she jeopardized the case with her reporting) and hoo boy if the sparks don’t fly! Soon they’re solving the case and having hot sex. The mystery is fine, but the sex is the thing, and the only problem with this enjoyable if forgettable novel is that there’s not enough of it.

Claudia Piñero, Elena Knows (2007) Trans. Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena, a 62-year-old woman living in Buenos Aires, has Parkinson’s. Her daughter, who had been her caretaker, has recently died. Her body was found in a church she frequented: officials declare it suicide, but Elena doesn’t believe it and sets out to find the truth, which requires a painstaking journey across the city to meet someone she thinks can help her. The journey is possible only because of the medication that briefly unlocks her limbs, so she must time her movements around dosages. That’s where the suspense of this novel—I gather Piñero is mostly known as a crime novelist—lies. Her descriptions of Elena’s physical condition are impressive: the woman’s frustration and her daughter’s fury at being as locked into a life as her mother is into a body that won’t respond are movingly depicted. Indeed, the novel turns out to be about bodily autonomy—a topic more relevant by the day here in the US. (Piñero was active in the movement to legalize abortion in Argentina.)

I appreciated Elena Knows more than I loved it. My reservations hinge on a lack of control in the narrative perspective: I couldn’t tell how much we were supposed to read against Elena, to see her as the antagonist. Rebecca and I chatted about this; she suggested that “the things that make [Elena] awful are what enable her to survive.” That makes total sense, and fits with the novel’s tragic sensibility. I guess I couldn’t help but think that Piñero couldn’t quite maintain the tragedy. The more I write about this, though, the more I think the failing is with me, not the book. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Chana Porter, The Seep (2020)

The Seep is an alien entity that gently but thoroughly infiltrates earth, with amazing results: human life becomes utopian. Everything that can be imagined becomes possible. Humans are cooperative and relaxed, attuned to pleasure and forsaking guilt. They solve the climate crisis and stop war. They redistribute wealth. Their art isn’t up to much, though. A few people persist in living off grid in something called The Compound, where, it is implied, they experience the authenticity of suffering. The protagonists, Trina and Deeba, live happily together, even if Trina is occasionally wistful about the Before Times. One day Deeba decides she wants to become a baby again and cannot be swayed from this course, despite Trina’s desperate pleas. Deeba’s death/rebirth sends Trina off the rails, a state from which she recovers only by setting off on a quest that Porter never seems to know what to do with. It’s about whether we need suffering to have a meaningful life, which is a question, for sure, but not one Porter has anything new to say about.

This queer sf novella diverted me for an afternoon but nothing about it will stay with me.

Yoko Tawada, Scattered All Over the Earth (2018) Trans. Margaret Mitsutani (2022)

Best book I read this month, doubtless one I’ll still be thinking about at the end of the year. Like Plunder, Scattered All Over the Earth is a story of dispossession. Tawada—who writes in both German and Japanese—presents loss, if not as gain, then as the beginning of something new. In that sense, despite being set in the near future, it is a book for today. Japan has sunk into the seas, and no one even remembers it other than as a vaguely defined “land of sushi.” Hiroku, a climate refugee who teaches immigrant children in Denmark and has invented her own language, Panska (Pan-Scandinavian), wants to find someone who can speak Japanese with her. This has shades of those heartbreaking stories we increasingly hear of the last of a species, doomed to lonely death in a zoo (I gather Tawada wrote a book about polar bears in a circus), but the accent here is not on what has vanished but what might come to be. Through circumstances I can’t remember anymore—it’s been a minute—Hiroku makes friends with a gaggle of sympathizers, each of whom narrates two sections of the novel. Most important of these is Tenzo, an Inuit from Greenland who has reinvented himself as Asian (white Europeans being unable to tell the difference) and become an expert in Japanese cuisine. His cooking is neither a form of cultural appropriation nor of fusion. He doesn’t prepare sushi “as well as” a Japanese; he just prepares sushi. At times Tawada reminded me of a writer who, stylistically at least, she couldn’t have less in common with: J. G. Ballard. He never seems fussed by loss or anguish either; like Tawada, his books are filled with incident yet uneventful.

It’s perverse, given the book’s rejection of authenticity, but I wish I could read it in Japanese. I wonder what her language is like, whether there are elements of richness and roughness to the prose that the translation smooths out. My only reservation about Scattered All Over the Earth is that the style feels a bit flat in that “this is amenable to English translation” way that writer/translator Tim Parks is always on about. In this case, to be sure, what might seem homogenous could in fact be a new form of creation, along the lines of Panska. If you’ve read the book in Japanese, I’d love to know your thoughts—or even if you haven’t but have thoughts on the translation. It’s taken me too long to read Tawada; good thing I have four or five other books to hand.

Anthony Horowitz, A Line to Kill (2021)

Third installment of the Hawthorne series (previous books reviewed here and here). After a dip in volume two, the PI Hawthorne and his hapless Boswell, writer Anthony Horowitz, are in fine form here, where they are sent by their publisher to a tragically underpowered literary festival on one of the Channel Islands. There’s a murder—who would have guessed! Often laugh out loud funny but also quite suspenseful, A Line to Kill shows that Horowitz learned plenty from the Holmes novels he wrote earlier in his career, ably employing the Watson character (i.e., himself) as a stand-in for readers, not just of this book but of crime fiction generally, a genre that gets extraordinary mileage out of making its audience feel stupid.

Richard Dienbenkorn, Berkeley #32, 1955

Read any of these? Care to tell me I’m wrong about Elena Knows? Anything to recommend? Have at it!

What I Read, April 2022

Ah, April—beloved of American academics everywhere. Not.

I got through it, though, even managing to celebrate Passover and observe Yom HaShoah and embark on an unusual teaching exercise (more on that another day, maybe). Celebrated a big birthday at month’s end with a weekend in Fort Worth, a town full of great art and better steaks.

Making it through he days was the big accomplishment. For reading, there was little time. Here’s what I managed.

Agnes Martin, Friendship, 1963

Georges Simenon, The Saint-Fiacre Affair (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)

In which we learn about Maigret’s childhood. Nothing too revealing, no traumas from the past, nothing dramatic to motivate the man he became, just the incidental irony of investigating a murder at the chateau where he lived as a boy (his father was the estate manager). The ending, well, imagine a Poirot if it had been written by Zola. Pleasing subplot about a village kid, too.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016)

I’ve loved this book since first reading it, but now I love it even more because I just taught it for the first time. Always an unpredictable situation, but even more so in this case, as I included it in my course on the afterlife of the Holocaust. On the face of it, Vermette’s novel of three generations of an indigenous family in Winnipeg coming to terms with an act of violence (which resonates with similar events in their lives) has no business on my syllabus. Yet traumatic and genocidal events are more connected than we might like to think—something I’ve written about elsewhere—even setting aside the fact that many indigenous writers and academics have cited second-generation Holocaust memoirs (those by the children of survivors) in referring to the experience of living with elders who suffered in the residential school system.

Happily, my students loved The Break. We had wide-ranging conversations about the possibility of intersectional responses to cultural trauma (using Michael Rothberg’s idea of multidirectional memory), the current culture’s fascination with crime, both real and imagined, and the novel’s shrewd use of point of view to resist the fetishization of violence to women’s bodies. Students who have suffered abuse themselves—sadly, a not negligible number—particularly appreciated Vermette’s intelligence and compassion. Thanks to Liz for talking me through her teaching of the book: she gave me so many ideas that improved my classroom experience.

Becky Chambers, A Psalm for the Wild-Built (2021)

A joy. On Panga, as the earth has become known after the great Crisis, a tumultuous time precipitated by the sudden coming-to-self-awareness of the world’s robots, which led humans to decarbonize and limit themselves to half the earth’s surface, a tea monk—someone who peddles from town to town offering tisanes and words of comfort—lights out for the territory, heading into the Wild with the aim of reaching an abandoned monastery. On the way they meet a robot, something they know only from textbooks. The robot is on a quest of its own, determined to meet humans and learn why they do what they do. Funny, sweet, moving; a road movie, a buddy pic, the intersection of the Venn diagram of Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul and Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future. I know, I know, who would even imagine such a thing?

Yūko Tsushima, Woman Running in the Mountains (1980) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (1991)

Wonderful. Frances, Rebecca, and I had a lot to say on One Bright Book. Tl; dnl: single mother in 1970s Japan struggles through the first year of her son’s life and half seeks out, half falls into a job at a garden that satisfies her and opens up her life. Smart and satisfying, I liked it even more than Territory of Light, the other Tsushima I’ve read. Don’t sleep on this one.

Garry Disher, Under the Cold Bright Lights (2017)

My fourth Disher; I really like the guy. This one’s a standalone, although the appealing protagonist—a former homicide detective who comes out of early retirement to work cold cases—must have tempted Disher to write more. That would have been a terrible idea. This book barely but deftly circumvents the preposterous—a fate that would be unavoidable in future installments. (Read it, you’ll see what I mean.) Disher excels at keeping several plots running without needing to tie them together. Most interesting is his hero’s domestic situation: he inherited a rambling house in a hipster Melbourne neighbourhood and rents out or lends rooms to a rag-tag set of grad students, the temporarily homeless, his adult daughter, and even his wife, from whom he is sort of separated—she comes and goes as she pleases. All very unusual in the genre, seems to me.

Elisa Shua Dusapin, Winter in Sokcho (2016) Trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins (2020)

Forgettable. I enjoyed the novella’s setting—the seaside town of the title, cold and forlorn—but I didn’t take to its story, about a young woman of mixed Korean-French ancestry who fixates on a guest at the hotel where she works. Lots of simple sentences, lots of fragments—it’s told from the young woman’s point of view, and the syntactic banality could be, I suppose, a reflection of her mindset, though I think we’re meant to find her enigmatic rather than empty. The best bits are about the fish market—plenty of food in these few pages, almost always offered as an incitement to disgust—but if I’m going to read a book set in Korea about body trouble, I’m going with The Vegetarian every time.

Andrew Miller, The Slowworm’s Song (2022)

Miller takes his unusual title from Basil Bunting—a slow worm’s a legless lizard, turns out—a decision that points to a technical conundrum: the narrator, Stephen Rose, ex-military, recovering alcoholic, failed father looking to make amends, liver of a small life in a small town in Somerset, is a closed man trying to open. Miller struggles to get the voice right, and mostly manages: sometimes flat, sometimes something more, almost poetic. (Sephen’s a bit of a reader, flourished in some open university literature courses, even if a paper on The Mill and the Floss remains unwritten (too tumultuous a book, maybe?), which gives Miller cover for the more high-flown moments.) I think close third person suits Miller better, though. The conceit is that the book is a manuscript addressed to Stephen’s adult daughter, who has cautiously entered his life after years of neglect and mistakes, a labour spurred by the arrival of a letter from Belfast. A commission is investigating events from the early 70s; Stephen’s not compelled to testify, but he is encouraged to, first gently and then much less so. Eventually he reveals the event in question, the one at the center of his life, the one that put it off the rails and forms the backdrop against which the construction of the rickety parallel rail of his life has taken place. (Wow, this metaphor went awry fast). There’s much to be said, no doubt, about the novel’s place in the current landscape of trauma narratives, as recently explored in an essay of Parul Seghal’s I still haven’t read out of a resistance I’ve yet to examine. At one point, a therapist says to Stephen:

We have to be careful not to get trapped by our stories. That’s one of the things we can learn. To tell the story differently, even to let go of it completely. To do that for a single minute and see what’s in the space we free.

Your enjoyment of this book will depend on how much that sentiment resonates with you. (For me, absolutely.) Even if it doesn’t, you might appreciate how Miller ironizes or complicates the possibility. (Remember the title?) A thoroughly satisfying novel, if less earth shattering than Now We Shall Be Entirely Free.

Imogen Reid, Text(ile)

Now that I am firmly middle-aged, well on the way to being old, in fact, I hope for the wisdom to make more time for reading. (The end of the semester should help.) And for the reading to be better. Even in this thin month, though, I can recommend Chambers and Disher for comfort, and Vermette, Tsushima, and Miller for complexity. How was your month? Come at me, BookTwitter, I know you all love the Dusapin…

What I Read, February 2022

How’s it going you ask? Not awesome, really. I mean, fine, fine, sure, whatever. Got some good students this semester. Spring’s coming, best season here. But the semester is kicking my ass, the war in Ukraine has me depressed and frightened; I’ve got my head up my ass most of the time, I’m hardly reading anything. And writing? Forget it. Haven’t had a chance to write about January’s reading (which included some really good stuff), let alone my 2021 year in review, a task that seems more pointless as we slide toward the end of the first quarter of 22.

Only four titles to report on this month, not sure that’s ever happened before.

František Kupka, Thee Cathedral, 1912- 13

Tessa Hadley, Free Love (2022)

Unless you’re dropping by for the first time, you know how much I love Hadley. Her last two books have been her best, and while the latest doesn’t topple those from the pantheon, it’s satisfying and smart in equal measures. Claire Jarvis does it more justice than I can hope to. What fascinated me most was watching Hadley take on the concerns of someone like Doris Lessing (I’m thinking of the books written in the early 70s, The Summer Before the Dark in particular) while writing in a completely different style. Hadley is a scholar of James and her books are sometimes called Jamesian, though I don’t see it, myself; to me, she’s more an Elizabeth inheritor (Bowen and Taylor, natch). Nonetheless, on the stylistic continuum from James to Lessing she’s nearer him than her. Yet when it comes to subject matter, the emphasis is reversed. Hadley’s questions in Free Love are also Lessing’s. What does it mean for women to live for themselves? How should we understand the ambivalences of domesticity and bourgeois life? Can it ever be empowering to inhabit your body when that body is your primary currency, your very intelligibility? I’m loving Hadley’s mature phase—I wish her health and strength, because, greedily, I want lots more books.

John Darnielle, Devil House (2022)

A true crime writer—his first book was about a teacher who murders two of her students when she catches them breaking into her house in a prank gone terribly awry—gets a call from his agent. A house in a small town not far from his home in San Francisco is for sale—the very house where, in its earlier incarnation as a failed/abandoned porn shop, two people were murdered by teen members of a cult in a “satanic panic” incident in the 1980s. Buy the house, the agent urges, I’ll help you get an advance, then move into it—perfect hook for writing about the crime! All of which the writer does, giving him plenty of chances to riff on his theory that the past can only return to us when we literally inhabit it.

In this sense, Devil House reads as like a metafictional version of Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer. Darnielle has other fish to fry, though, and his exploration of what makes for a good story and what it takes to get one is the least interesting part of the book. Devil House is a book of many voices—we shuttle between the frame story and the story of the teens, that is, the story the writer has uncovered, but we also get sections from the writer’s first book, as well as some harder to identify texts, one of which, I confess, I found a terrible slog—and even though many of them, like the true crime writer himself, prove unreliable, it all feels of a piece. The overall tenor is generous, large-minded, forgiving, the quality that so endeared me to Darnielle’s previous novel, Universal Harvester. Harvester is a better book—largely because it includes more women and so escapes the Dungeon and Dragons/video game/fan fiction nerdy-boy energy that Darnielle mines so sympathetically in all his writing—but like the earlier book, it shines when depicting pre-internet adolescence. I love Darnielle’s heartfelt sense of what we need to thrive at that age, and how easy it is to get thrown onto a different path, one of privation and hardship, even violence. I read somewhere that in an earlier life he was a social worker or an orderly at a mental institution or maybe both; those careers might be where he honed the care and gentleness that characterizes his work. All of which makes this book—centered as it is on a porn theater-turned-ersatz-clubhouse that becomes the site of terrible crimes—far more tender than it has any right to be.

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

I’ve written about this book many times, especially here. Sat down to glance at the first pages before teaching it again and then read it straight through. (It’s short.) A favourite of mine, and of students too. We spent forty minutes working through the first page. Amazing how differently the book hit just because I changed its placement on the syllabus. I’ll never tire of the power of that juxtaposition—a kind of pedagogical Kuleshov effect.

Susan Cain, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking (2012)

My daughter and I intermittently listened to the audiobook of Cain’s exploration of the differences between introverts and extroverts over the past six months on our drives between Little Rock and St Louis. Excellent father-daughter bonding, and affirming for each of us. (Early on, Cain lists a series of behaviours and preferences—the more you check off the more likely you are to be introverted. Thalia ticked them off aloud—yep, yep—with satisfaction. Quiet sometimes indulges too much in pop psychology for me, and the section on differences between East Asian and American cultures is unhappily reductive. But as she ranges from neuroscience to child development to the study of pedagogy Cain offers plenty of insights: how introverts and extroverts can have successful relationships with each other; why introverts who work in extroverted professions so easily burn out; how to most healthily to parent an introvert. I was led to examine my expectations for my discussion-based classroom—despite my own introversion, the pedagogy I value rewards extroversion in ways I hadn’t considered; I’ve already made some changes to how I teach. Cain is evenhanded, never dismissing extroversion and insisting that most of us exhibit elements of both tendencies; instead, she gently asks what our world might be missing in so often valuing the quick, the loud, the flashy.

When the last chapter ended and silence filled the car, I glanced over my shoulder and said how glad I was we’d listened to it together. I appreciated her patience and fortitude—it’s a lot for a ten-year-old! She agreed the book had been worthwhile. Then we sat in comfortable silence for the next hour, rolling through the flat fields of northeastern Arkansas.

Barbara Hepworth, Wavee, 1963

That’s it, can you believe it? I mean, yeah, it’s a short month. And yeah there was an eleven-year-old birthday party to plan. And yeah the semester is a relentless grind especially when you make the mistake of changing up your course readings (stupid, stupid). But slim pickings on thee reading front. Good news, though, March is already substantially better, at least when it comes to number of books read. And it’s seen the launch of an exciting new project. More on all that soon. In the meantime, tell me you had a better month than I did.

Scott Walters’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading, I’m delighted to say, is by Scott Walters. Scott launched a litblog, seraillon, in 2010, and expects to return to it one of these days. He largely follows Primo Levi’s model of “occasional and erratic reading, reading out of curiosity, impulse or vice, and not by profession” (profession in his own case being academic administration). He lives with his partner in San Francisco and tries to visit family in France as often as possible.

seraillon has long been a favourite blog: in the past year or so I’ve checked in regularly, half disconsolate, half hopeful, looking for new content. You can imagine, then, how happy I am to feature Scott here in his return to blogging. I hear rumours that more may be afoot at the site!

With Scott’s post, this run of Year in Reading posts comes to an end–except, of course, for my own, which I hope to write soon… The project grew into something bigger than I’d ever imagined; it’s been a delight to showcase the work of so many thoughtful readers. Thanks to everyone who wrote, read, and commented on these pieces. (If you’d talked with me about writing a piece but haven’t sent it to me yet, it’s not too late. Just be in touch and we’ll make a plan.)

Milton Avery, Green Sea, 1954

How gracious of Dorian to invite me to submit an end-of-year post! I have been avidly following the others he’s posted, which now have my to-be-read list runnething over. So thank you Dorian, and everyone, and hello. [Ed. – Such a pleasure!]

I’ve written nothing on the seraillon blog for more than two years—”hellacious times and I’ve slipped between the cracks,” as a character says in David Greenberg’s play, The Assembled Parties. But I have been reading, finishing 42 books in 2021. Though about half my typical yearly volume, I also read much more in books, most of which I intend to finish: The astounding Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre tombe (to be continued in the original French, no knock on Anka Muhlstein’s translation). A re-read of Wuthering Heights. Franz Werfel’s monumental novel of resistance against the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, following an interest in Henri Bosco. Henri Bosco himself, in his novels Le Mas Théotime and Sabinus. A book about book designer Robert Massin, who designed these French Bosco editions. There are others, down other rabbit holes.

Here are ten highlights of works I did finish in 2021, plus honorable mentions:

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robinson has shouldered a massive responsibility: digesting everything we know about climate change as well as everything we know about how we might address it, then packing it into a stunningly wide-ranging geopolitical thriller interspersed with chapters that concretize climate change’s multivarious, cascading impacts. The novel is also one of few I’ve encountered (Vincent McHugh’s 1943 pandemic novel I Am Thinking of My Darling being another) that explore competent administration of a crisis. [Ed. – Yes! This is a book about competency. Maybe that’s why it feels so comforting.] Robinson’s book appeared in October 2020, a date to fix precisely given the furious pace of change as regards the book’s subject. In fact, the novel seemed a kind of sundial around which shadows spun and deepened rapidly as I read, some elements already obsolete as others swam into view. This is no criticism; I marveled at the real-time context while reading as well as at Robinson’s courage in being able to place a period on his final sentence, and I’ve been pushing the work on everyone for its articulation of the enormity of the challenges facing us, some lovely conceits such as the return of airships, and a bracing radicalism that makes Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang seem like a Sunday School picnic. Despite offering a path forward, Robinson eschews easy answers and offers little in the way of reassurance, seeming to have taken as the novel’s departure point Greta Thunberg’s memorable warning: “I don’t want you to feel hopeful. I want you to panic.” [Ed. – On my 2020 list; still think about it daily.]

Last Summer in the City, by Gianfranco Calligarich (translation by Howard Curtis)

The cover blurbs’ promise of a resurrected 20th century Italian classic certainly delivered; Calligarich’s short, tight, engaging 1973 novel of dissolution in 1960’s Rome seems to pick up where Alberto Moravia left off in depicting modern Italian existential malaise. The story follows the peripatetic wanderings around Rome of Leo Gazzara, an impecunious, alcoholic, bookish young Roman who becomes embroiled in a tumultuous on-again/off-again love affair. The energy of Calligarich’s automobile-driven narrative and the drifting yet fascinating tour he offers of Rome—the city itself a “particular intoxication that wipes out memory”—help balance out the novel’s bleakness, and a frequent invocation of books provides both literary diversion and dark warning of Bovary-esque entrapment in fictions. One might easily envision a film version by an Italian neo-realist director such as Dino Rossi or Antonio Pietrangeli.

Norwood, by Charles Portis

Considerably brightening a dark year, Norwood (1966) edged out Portis’s True Grit and The Dog of the South as the funniest book I read all year [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!], and even topped W. E. Bow’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle and Patrick Dennis’s Genius. A howling road trip and love story that begins when Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Arkansas gets a job tandem-towing a couple of hot cars to Brooklyn, Norwood limns the seedy, grifty, free-wheeling side of American life with caustic, irreverent humor; splendid dialogue; and unforgettable characters. I have Jacqui to thank for this introduction to Portis and will certainly read his remaining two novels and collection of short pieces, a literary cornucopia inversely proportional to the author’s small output, and no doubt as delicious as a biscuit and Bre’r Rabbit Syrup sandwich.

Stories With Pictures, by Antonio Tabucchi (translation by Elizabeth Harris)

“From image to voice, the way is brief, if the senses respond,” writes Antonio Tabucchi in his preface to 2011’s Stories with Pictures, a collection of 30-some short pieces sparked by a particular painting or drawing. Inspired by his having spent an entire day in the Prado (I did the same thing on the one day I spent in Madrid), Tabucchi writes at an angle about the pictures, riffing on them in a dazzling range of ways, from mediations to letters to what seem at times multi-page, arabesque-like captions. As in much of Tabucchi’s work, motifs connected to Fernando Pessoa abound. Most of the artworks come from 20th century Italian or Portuguese artists, all but a few new to me. As if the posthumous appearance in English of a Tabucchi work wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, the Archipelago Books edition, featuring color plates of each picture, make this a volume with a presentation as lovely as the author’s concept.

Bear, by Marion Engel

“Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?” Marion Engel’s Bear (1976) has made so many end-of-year lists here and elsewhere that Dorian should get a medal for this revival of interest. [Ed. – Aw shucks. No medal, though. I want cash.] Thanks to a new edition from London’s Daunt Books, I finally got in on Engel’s singularly odd tale of Lou, an archivist cataloging the contents of a deceased eccentric’s isolated mansion in Ontario’s remote north—and falling maw over claws for its resident bear. [Ed. – Ha! Maw over claws! That’s good! Gonna steal that.] Literally going wild in shaking herself loose of “the flaws in her plodding private world” and the various civilized confines that have entrapped her, Lou exults in a rebirth as liberating as it is perturbing. Bear’s atmosphere of isolation made it seem readymade for pandemic reading; I suspect that most of us are more than ready to go a little wild ourselves. [Ed. – Sounds pretty good to me!]

Dissipation H. G., by Guido Morselli (translation by Frederika Randall)

My terrific excitement at seeing another Morselli novel appear in English received an abrupt check upon my learning that Frederika Randall, one of the finest of Italian to English translators, had died shortly after finishing the translation. Readers of seraillon may know of my interest in Morselli; this short novel, his last, takes a common theme in which a person suddenly discovers that they are alone on earth. Morselli spins the conceit into a bittersweet, moving and darkly humorous exploration of isolation and the need for human contact. The “H. G.” in the title refers to humani generis and the dissipation “not in the moral sense” but rather from “the third and fourth century Latin dissipatio,” meaning “evaporation, nebulization, some physical process like that.”  In other words, Dissipation H. G. turned out to be another work suited for pandemic reading—if perhaps in the manner of providing solace through affirmation of one’s sense of reality.

Malacarne, by Giosué Caliciura (French translation by Lise Chapuis)

Sicilian writer Giosué Caliciura has yet to be translated into English, a pity, as his fierce, inventive, densely baroque novels, delving into the lives of those on society’s margins, are among the most original and powerful I’ve found in contemporary Italian literature. Malacarne (1999) presents a ferocious testimonial from a Sicilian malacarne (literally “bad flesh”), one of the young hoods employed to do the Mafia’s dirty work.  Palermo—and at the same time a vaguely defined post-mortem space—provide the setting(s) for the malacarne’s reckoning, before a judge, with the brutal details of a violent, savage life. Caliciura’s use of a deliberately impossible narrative voice, an articulation both belonging to and channeled through the late malacarne, adds to the novel’s otherworldly, underworld atmosphere. But the story the malacarne relates is as worldly, gripping and linguistically spectacular as a story could be, a profound exploration of the forces that perpetuate organized crime and engulf the youth it attracts, manipulates, and destroys.

Giorgio Morandi. Paesaggio Levico, 1957.

Okla Hannali, by R. A. Lafferty

I did not know of R. A. Lafferty (apparently revered in science fiction circles), nor had I heard of this novel (not a work of science fiction), and so little suspected what I was about to get into. I found Okla Hannali (1972) astonishing. The author called its initial appearance “a torturous undertaking even though it wasn’t much more than an overflowing of crammed notebooks.” Something of the “crammed notebooks” quality seems to remain in this revised, shaggy final version, but small matter: why this vastly-larger-than-life legend of fictional Choctaw “mingo” (king) Hannali Innominee isn’t a standard feature of the American literary canon is beyond me. Lafferty turns the historical telescope around, viewing early 19th century frontier history from the Choctaw perspective. We know we’re in the realm of legend when the novel begins with a creation myth, which swiftly moves to the early life of Hannali, a “big man who would fill almost a century” and who, during one of the several forced resettlements of the Choctaw, abruptly picks out a plot of land in what is today eastern Oklahoma, “a place less no damn good than other land.”  At this nexus where many elements of 19th century American history converged, the reader witnesses, through Hannali, the westward European expansion, the enactment of genocidal policies towards indigenous populations, the flight of escaped slaves (some of whom become slaves of the Choctaw and/or members of the tribe), the lingering resonances of the Louisiana Purchase, the inauguration of new states, the misunderstood “Jacksonian Revolution” that amounted to little more than “a war of the rich against the poor,” and finally the American Civil War and the grim destruction of the Choctaw republic. Hannali is a magnificent character: defiant, stubborn, courageous, wise, irreverent, a folk hero of magnitudes. Big, boisterous, hilarious, indignant, heart-breaking tales like this don’t come along often; one mourns the unrealized project Lafferty intended to call “Chapters in American History,” of which Okla Hannli, his “Indian [sic] chapter,” is the only one he completed. [Ed. – Wow! Sounds amazing!]

The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

“The calculations were hopelessly out…Calculations about Venus often are.” Australian writer Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene were close friends, and I thrilled to find Greene-like elements in this exceptional, elegant, psychologically penetrating work. But The Transit of Venus (1980) is something all its own, a dense, intimate, furiously compelling narrative tracing the life trajectories and romantic entanglements of two Australian sisters orphaned at a young age. Tracking the sisters’ moves to England (and one to New York), with events of the tumultuous 20th century backgrounding their stories, Hazzard describes, in exacting prose, the psychological nuances of human interactions. Henry James, another obvious influence here, seems constricted by comparison [Ed. – hmm]; The Transit of Venus did more to put in perspective James’s limitations with regard to women characters than any other work I’ve read [Ed. – hmm]. Hazzard’s antecedents range from Greek tragedies to Goethe to 19th century Realism, resulting in a story almost classical in form and style, yet palpably burning with a sense of lived experience—from a writer who led an utterly improbable life. I’ll be reading more.

A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

“…I still could not feel at home, either in the new country or in the new language,” states the narrator on the first page of Mizumura’s 2002 novel (to which I was steered by Dorian – thank you, Dorian!). [Ed. – So welcome! Delighted to see this here.] This might be a line from any work addressing displacement, but it scarcely begins to hint at the extraordinary directions Mizumura will take over the ensuing 853 pages. I harbored some doubts about descriptions of the novel as a Japanese Wuthering Heights, but Mizumura evinces little interest in simply grafting Emily Bronte’s work onto a Japanese setting. Instead, her ambitions aim broadly and deeply. Taking the coinciding of the 19th century western novel’s golden age with Japan’s opening to western influence as her beginning, Mizumura then uses her own transnational experience (with formative years spent in the US before a permanent return to Japan) to explore, through both western and Japanese literary and linguistic lenses, multiple questions of transnational identity, cultural cross-pollination, Japanese post-war history, and – through her mysterious character Taro, a kind of Japanese Heathcliff/Gatsby amalgam – issues of class and otherness. A True Novel takes its title from a prevailing style of Japanese literature in which works like Wuthering Heights were held up as an ideal form, “where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life.” But meta-fictional elements in Mizumura’s narrative also link it to the later Japanese style of the “I-Novel” (also the title of another, more personal Mizumura work), close to memoir and hewing to the author’s personal experience. Through concatenations of narrative (the prologue alone to A True Novel goes on for 165 pages) and using black and white photographs to heighten sense of place in the mountainous Karuizawa area where much of the story unfolds, Mizumura aligns the substrate of the Japanese literary enzyme with that of its Western counterpart, sparking a catalysis that creates something strikingly original. While it’s rare enough to find something that seems new in fiction, it’s more unusual still to find a work also incorporating something old and familiar and—by means of steady, crystalline, superbly atmospheric prose—so completely absorbing. Re-reading this true novel, my favorite book of 2021, will be a goal for 2022.

Milton Avery, Offshore Island, 1958

Honorable mentions:

  • Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales;
  • Miklós Bánffy’s The Enchanted Night, an excellent collection of short stories that aligned surprisingly with Dinesen (great to see more of Bánffy’s work emerging in translation);
  • Federico Fellini’s The Journey of G. Mastorna, the director’s screenplay for what many consider to be the greatest film never made;
  • N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, an American classic, gorgeous and heartbreaking;
  • Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a marvel of concision concerning Ireland’s Magdalen laundries;
  • Henri Bosco’s Le Trestoulas, affirming Bosco as a writer I will certainly keep reading;
  • Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.

(And in the noir/polar/mystery realm):

  • Georges Simenon’s Chez Krull [Ed. – So good!];
  • Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear and A Coffin for Demetrios;
  • Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inagumi Curse, terrific to read directly after Mizumura so as to linger a bit in a Japanese mountain atmosphere.

Thanks for reading, and felicitous reading to all in 2022!

Sarah Raich’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Sarah Raich (@geraeuschbar). Sarah is a writer who studied comparative literature, North American studies, and criminal law. A volume of short stories, dieses makellose Blau, was published by mikrotext and the dystopian YA novel All that’s left by Piper. Two of her stories have appeared in English translation by Eilidh Johnstone in https://no-mans-land.org/article/that-i. She lives in Munich.

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

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Street Scene at Night, 1926-7

2021 was a special year for me as a reader, because it was the first year my own books—ones I’d written and published–were being read. Not just by my doting husband and proud parents – but by real readers. [Ed. – Ouch! Tough on that “fake reader” husband!] And, yes, that changed things for my reading. I became gentler in my judgement. And yes, sometimes I was envious while reading as a published writer.

2021 also was the year I tried to read more diversely, meaning less white, and that is how I came across my favorite book of the year: Tsitsi Dangarembga’s This Mournable Body. I don’t know if I would have read this if I hadn’t made the conscious decision to diversify my reading. I remember buying the book in Cologne at the event Insert Female Artist, a little reluctantly because I found the cover so unappealing (yeah, I’m superficial). [Ed. – Same!] And then I started reading it and couldn’t stop because it was like being severely punched and gently caressed at the same time. And to me those are the very best books. The story is set in Zimbabwe and has in Tambudzai one absolutely loathsome protagonist. [Ed. – So interesting! I’ve only read Nervous Conditions, where Tambu is not loathsome, IMO, but certainly hard to like…] And Dangarembga manages the magic trick of showing the very many dark sides of her character—and still making the reader feel for her. Suffering didn’t make Tambudzai good. It made her selfish and greedy and needy. And the story doesn’t end well: how could it? Dangarembga tells this story in such fierce language in an unusual second person account that my brain got rattled in a way only brilliant books can do. (That her work appears in Germany from a niche publishing house speaks volumes by the way.)

What This Mournable Body shared with many books I read this year is its dark humor. And maybe that was just the right thing for the sobering and dragging experience of living through a second year of a global pandemic. Take for example Sarah Moss’s Ghost Wall, which I read in the supreme translation by Nicole Seifert, which describes severe physical and psychological abuse – and yet I laughed so hard. Because the most brutal things contain humor and patriarchs are clowns with bloody swords and dirty underwear they need to have washed. [Ed. – Ah to be a patriarch! Seriously, though, this really gets at an important aspect of the book.]

For me, Bear by Marian Engel also falls in this category. [Ed. – Hell to the yeah!] A book that was wildly discussed and promoted on Twitter—to a considerable extent by the owner of this blog. [Ed. – “To a considerable extent” = German for “What a fucking nut that guy is, always banging on about that book!] I liked the unforgiving yet loving eye Engel casts on the protagonist which also leads to weirdly comical passages while the librarian stumbles through her life in a “molelike existence”, a phrasing I will never forget. In a way this librarian has a lot in common with the heroine in Ghost Wall. They both live a life they haven’t chosen, pushed around and overseen—and view this miserable situation with an acidic view on themselves and the world, and then one of them (Silvie in Ghost Wall) finds friends, the other one (the librarian in Bear) finds, well, Bear.

And yes, while writing this down, I realize my taste for this kind of book grew strong during this year of reading. Books that intertwine the horrible with the comical. One of those books was Adas Raum by Sharon Dodua Otoo who has the admirable audacity to throw her mostly German readers into a whirlwind of perspectives, places, and times. Ranging from rebirth and gods and eternal entities that hope for liberation from earthly existence while quarreling with God, into the overburdened subjects of the Shoah, racism, and colonialism, Otoo blasts established narrative boundaries and writes down the shiny pieces. Which left many German critics profoundly confused. I enjoyed the ride very much and I am very curious how the English-speaking audience will respond to this text.

The book contains my favorite quote of the year 2021:

Gott rollte als Steppenpflanze an mir vorbei.

(Einfach so.)

(Als wäre ich gar nicht da.)

(Eine Frechheit.)

Ich ließ alles –  no fee no [im Original in phonetischen Alphabet] – auf mich einwirken, in der Hoffnung, dass diese Sensation aller abendländlichen Farben zeitnah nachlassen würde. Hinter meiner Hoffnung steckte ein Hauch Erwartung. Ich gestand es mir aber selbst nicht ein. Ich wollte solchen banalen Gefühle längst hinter mir gelassen haben. Ich wartete.

God rolled past me as a tumbleweed.

(Just like that.)

(As if I was not even there.)

(The nerve.)

I allowed myself to be moved by everything—nɔ fɛɛ nɔ—hoping that the sensation of these occidental colors would soon wane. A breath of expectation cowered behind my hope. But I could not admit it to myself. I had wanted to leave such banal feelings far behind me. I waited.

(Translated by Jon Cho-Polizzi; translation forthcoming)

One more theme flows through my 2021 reading year, now that I look at it: the difference between serious and entertaining literature, as we put it in German. A difference which part of the cultural establishment in Germany seems obsessed by.

It affects my own writing, as I‘ve published one book of short stories, which some consider one of the intellectual forms of writing, and a second book that’s a dystopian YA novel, which the same people consider a rather grimy genre (unless Margaret Atwood writes it—then it’s different). As a very nice and slightly drunk person from the literary establishment told me once: the problem is, your book doesn’t really fit in anywhere.

Maybe being in this position has made me more sensitive to writers writing books that are misfits. But this feeling was also influenced by the work of Nicole Seifert, especially as expressed in her book Frauen Literatur, published in 2021. In it she describes so many books by female writers being belittled and shoved aside. Seifert’s book was eye-opening, even though I had already read so much of her blog posts, articles, and tweets. And the most important thing I learned from this superb work is how systemic the degradation of female writing is.

One of my most precious serendipities of books being labeled pure entertainment was the writing of Shirley Jackson, starting with Hangsaman. In Germany, Jackson has been considered a horror genre writer, which she is, but through this genre she writes pure literature. [Ed. – Hmm this does seem to uphold that literature/entertainment binary…] Jackson died without experiencing the literary appreciation she should have received. I don’t know why, but this realization really got to me. That a woman of her abilities got overlooked so brutally during her life time. (I rejoiced at the Wikipedia article describing how her otherwise shitty husband fought for her recognition and ranted ferociously against the literary establishment unwilling to give Jackson credit for her genius.)

But the list of undervalued writers goes on, leading to the books of Vicki Baum, whom I had always considered easy entertainment. But when I read them they proved to be epic. I cherished Hotel Shanghai: the vastness of the tableau she created leaves me awestruck.

Jeanne Mammen, Self-portrait, ca. 1926

So this is what I will carry into my year of reading 2022: a thirst for misfits and dark humor. Very dark.

Victoria Stewart’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Victoria Stewart (@verbivorial). Victoria is a university lecturer in English literature, with special interests in Holocaust writing and interwar detective fiction (she’s like me, only more successful), but this post focuses on some of what she read for pleasure in 2021.

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

Rachel Whiteread, Line Up, 2007-2008

Reading Maria Stepanova’s The Memory of Memory,translated by Sasha Dugdale, I wasn’t sure whether to be gratified or not to recognise myself as this ‘type of person’:

Notebooks are an essential daily activity for a certain type of person, loose-woven mesh on which they hang their clinging faith in reality and its continuing nature. Such texts have only one reader in mind, but this reader is utterly implicated. Break open a notebook at any point and be reminded of your own reality, because a notebook is a series of proofs that life had continuity and history and (this is most important) that any point in your own past is still within your reach.

In any case, my ‘reading notebook’ came in useful, or finally justified its existence, when Dorian kindly invited me to write this post. Looking through the list of what I read in 2021, I see that what might broadly be called ‘autofiction’ figured quite heavily. I’ve always been drawn to realist fiction, and the idea of writing a novel that could be mistaken for a factual text is one logical extension of that, I suppose. Whether The Memory of Memory, an exploration of Russian/Soviet family history, steps over the line from fiction into essay maybe only Stepanova herself can tell, though for me it demanded the kind of attention that I associate with reading nonfiction.

I started 2021 by re-reading Emmanual Carrère’s The Adversary, translated by Linda Coverdale, an account of an act of criminal deception that formed the basis for the 2002 film of the same name [Ed. – I believe it also inspired Laurent Cantet’s excellent Time Out (L’Emploi du Temps), 2001], but which, like many classic true-crime texts, weaves the story of the author’s ‘investigation’ into their account of the crime. I must have first read this soon after it was published in the early 2000s, and only belatedly realised that Carrère was the author of Limonov, translated by John Lambert, an experiment in biography that’s also intertwined with autofictional elements. I read for the first time Carrère’s nasty, brutish and short Class Trip, translated by Linda Coverdale, which, told from a child’s perspective, forms a sort of distorted mirror image of The Adversary. My Life as a Russian Novel, another Coverdale translation, is probably the one I’d be least inclined to return to. [Ed. – Of course that’s the one I own…] The story of Carrère’s quest to find out about his grandfather, who was (probably) executed at the end of the Second World War as a collaborator, gets submerged under other strands that, to me, were less engaging.

I’d resisted reading both Tove Ditlevsen’s trilogy, Childhood, Youth, Dependency, translated by Michael Favala Goldman, and Vigdis Hjorth’s Will and Testament, translated by Charlotte Barslund, as I’m not generally keen on texts dealing with traumatic childhoods or addiction, but I was glad that recommendations from other readers persuaded me to get over that resistance. The first two volumes of Ditlevsen have a black humour that I hadn’t expected, though I found Dependency much tougher, and Hjorth’s reflections on family dynamics and being a grown-up child struck a chord:

Sybille Bedford writes somewhere that when you’re young you don’t feel that you’re a part of the whole, of the fundamental premise for humanity, that when you’re young you try out lots of things because life is just a rehearsal, an exercise to be put right when the curtain finally goes up. And then one day you realise that the curtain was up all along. That it was the actual performance.

During the pandemic lockdown, which went on for an extended period in the part of the UK where I was living in 2020-21, I probably did more re-reading than I had previously: more time at home led me to scan the bookshelves and, in some cases, acknowledge that I could remember very little about volumes had been sitting on my shelves since being bought and read maybe twenty years ago. Sometimes that re-reading turned up forgotten gems (like Elke Schmitter’s creepy Mrs Sartoris, translated by Carol Brown Janeway). On other occasions, I didn’t get past the first page, and the local charity shops got the benefit when they eventually re-opened. I’m not sure what prompted me to start re-reading Alan Hollinghurst’s novels in 2021, but I’m glad I did. I went more or less in order of publication, and I particularly enjoyed the leaps in time that structure his later novels, especially The Stranger’s Child and The Sparsholt Affair, the brief disorientation that comes from figuring out how the protagonists in the current section relate to those of the previous one.

Another author I binged on, though I think with one or two exceptions I was reading his novels for the first time, was Brian Moore, whose centenary fell in 2021. [Ed. – So good!] Born in Belfast, Moore relocated first to Canada and then to the USA as an adult. I enjoyed the awful embarrassment of school-teacher Dev’s attempt at courtship in the Belfast-set The Feast of Lupercal. That novel was published in 1958, prior to the launch of the IRA campaign which forms the backdrop for Lies of Silence. Though the politics are much more explicit here, as in Lupercal matters of political choice can’t be separated from apparently more personal ethical and moral decisions. The Doctor’s Wife, about a married woman’s relationship with a younger man, has aged less well, andMoore’s non-fiction novel The Revolution Script didn’t quite work for me, though it did bring into focus a moment in Canadian history of which I knew very little, the ‘October Crisis’. [Ed. – That was a big deal, all right. Curious about this now.]

Several other novels I read this year also took the tropes of the thriller and gave them an interesting twist. Chris Power’s A Lonely Man places Robert, its Berlin-based author protagonist, in a moral dilemma after he becomes entangled with Jonathan, a ghostwriter. Ben, the narrator of Kevin Power’s White City (the two Powers aren’t related) has a voice that one reviewer found reminiscent of Martin Amis’s early work. Perhaps they were thinking of Ben’s reflections on abandoning his PhD on James Joyce:

Now I regarded my old underlined Penguin Popular Classics copy of A Portrait as a kind of embarrassing ex-girlfriend to whom I was still attracted but with whom things had not really worked out. [Ed. – Hmm…]

But the payoff is serious, and the switch in tone subtle. I heard about Katie Kitamura’s A Separation via reviews of her most recent novel Intimacies. Like Chris Power’s novel, A Separation uses a disappearance to open up to view a disintegrating relationship. The action of Kitamura’s novel takes place on a Greek island; Alison Moore’s The Retreat has an invented island off the coast of England as the setting for what becomes a nightmarish artists’ retreat, its interlocking narratives connecting in ways that reveal the whole narrative to be as carefully constructed as a piece of origami.

I don’t generally read much science fiction or speculative fiction, but Isabel Wohl’s Cold New Climate, goes stealthily in that direction. Lydia is shocked when, after what she intended as a temporary break from her older lover, she returns to find he is ending their relationship. Her reaction seems designed to be self-destructive and to inflict the maximum amount of pain on those around her, but the ending confronts the reader with destruction of a different kind. [Ed. – Anyone know if this is getting US release?] Rosa Rankin-Gee’s Dreamland was an all-too believable dystopia that conveyed the urgency of its political concerns without ever becoming shrill. M. John Harrison’s The Sunken Land begins to Rise Again intertwines the stories of former lovers Shaw and Victoria, moving between Shaw’s life in London and Victoria’s relocation to a house she’s inherited in Shropshire. Victoria’s new neighbours are not quite what they seem, and the watery theme manifests itself in ways that veer between the fairy tale and the horror story.

Where non-fiction is concerned, it was mainly artists’ biographies that caught my eye in 2021, maybe because visiting exhibitions was more challenging than usual. Andy Friend’s biography of John Nash was so beautifully illustrated it almost made up for not being able to get to the exhibition at Compton Verney in Warwickshire that prompted it. Friend’s handling of the death of Nash’s son was especially sensitive. I was lucky enough to see a small exhibition of John Craxton’s work at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge in 2013, and Ian Collins’s biography was another gorgeous volume, benefitting from the author’s personal connection with the long-lived Craxton. And Jenny Uglow’s Sybil and Cyril was a dual biography of the unusual artistic partnership between Sybil Andrews and Cyril Power that gave a new slant on mid-twentieth century commercial art: among much else, they designed a number of posters for the London Underground.

Rachel Whiteread, Wall (Door) 2017

Next up, I’m waiting for an excuse to treat myself to Alex Danchev’s biography of Rene Magritte, and Tessa Hadley’s new novel Free Love is high on my list for 2022. [Ed. – Just finished it this morning, and it is terrific.]

Scott Lambridis’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Scott Lambridis (@slambridis). Scott’s story “Blind Sticks” is nominated for a 2021 Pushcart award. Before completing his MFA, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com, through which he co-hosts the Action Fiction! performance series. Read more at scottlambridis.com.

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

Helen Frankenthaler, Radius, 1993

Each year I have a goal of reading 52 books. In 2021, I read 87. Here are the top ten! 

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

This book was on the top ten after the very first chapter. In 1666, the philosopher/mathematician Leibniz tracks down a blind astronomer who’s predicted an eclipse that will darken Europe for exactly 4 seconds. A blind astronomer? Naturally Leibniz attempts to decide whether he’s a brilliant soothsayer or just an absurd quack, and the astronomer indulges him in a long and meandering tale of how he came to his prediction while they wait for the eclipse itself to make the final determination. Along the way we hear of the astronomer’s life, arguments over the composition of art (one scene about a bunch of faces made up of fishes especially sticks in my mind), the utility of science, the way to gauge truth, all of which unveil the mysteries and absurdities of philosophical searches, while revealing the narrative’s own. The story keeps you guessing if it’s going to actually go anywhere, and then it does, beautifully and surprisingly. The true delight, though, the part that affixed it in the top ten immediately, is the tone. As my dear friend Ben put it, “It has something rare these days, and from this country: a terrific sense of play, a lightness as Italo Calvino would say [in his Memos for the New Millenium]. There’s always playfulness even in his most serious subjects.” Calvino would be proud, amused, and maybe a bit enlightened too. [Ed. – Sold!]

At Night all Blood is Black by David Diop (Translated by Anna Moschovakis)

This short novel from Senegal about a “chocolat” soldier fighting with the French in the trenches of WWI gripped me and wouldn’t let go. The narrator battles with the guilt of being unable to put his dying friend out of his misery, which transmutes into the hunt for forgiveness through atrocity: he becomes a “soul-eater” who hunts down Germans so that he can retain and collect their severed hands. Diop uses shocking violence and horror to unfold the narrator’s humanity, even as the character doubts it himself. The narration is a fever dream: at once intense, lyrical, dark, violent, tender, visceral, and poetic. That dream picks up in the second half in a hospital amidst delusions and confusions of identity. This half has less visceral presence, but the questions are still interesting, and the prose’s rhythm of repetition carries it forward to an ending both mysteriously dissonant and triumphant.

The End of the Alphabet by C. S. Richardson

This is the sweetest and saddest love story I’ve ever read, all wrapped up in under 100 pages. In his fiftieth year, a devoted husband finds out he has just a month to live, then whisks his wife off on a world tour of cities in alphabetical order, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar—but they never make it past F (I believe it’s F, but can’t be sure, since I don’t own the book anymore; you’ll see why). The prose is spare, the story sweet, the characters adorable and tragic, the ending heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s both straightforward in its telling and slippery in its tone, and I’ve been compelled to give it at least three times now to other friend-couples. How could it not make the top ten? 

Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Ringal

This year was chock full of non-fiction books about the challenges of writing non-fiction (how to accurately tell the truth, how much the writer plays a part) and this was the crowning jewel, a totally metafictional narrative. On the surface, it’s a long-form article about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas, and the socioeconomic factors of the city that contributed to and were revealed by that event. The portrait of Las Vegas is fascinating on its own, but the heart and delight is in the marginalia—the fact checker’s feedback to the editor and author about the draft article, and the author’s responses. What arises is a frustrated argument between the two over what counts as truth and where the journalist’s obligations lie in relation to capturing it. The personalities of both author and fact-checker are wonderfully revealed. You’ll never think of non-fiction as innocent again. 

The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (Translated by Sophia Vasalou)

Some books get to the top ten not by wowing me in the moment, but by sticking with me for months and months. [Ed. – Yep, and sometimes those are the best ones.] This short novel from Kuwait follows a feisty old lady and her faithful and equally feisty mule on a critical errand: to carry her husband’s unearthed bones back to his hometown for a proper burial. Unfortunately she arrives to find the town in a war zone (the Iran-Iraq War), governed by an outpost of soldiers who neither let her accomplish her errand nor leave. During her stay, she manages to sabotage a military operation by bombing a dam, and restoring fertility to barren lands on the fringes of the desert. It was an enjoyable read at the time, in particular the tough-but-tender old lady’s conversations with her mule, her husband’s ghost, and her captors, but the lingering effect of the old woman’s righteous persistence has persisted long enough to elevate it into the top ten. I just can’t stop thinking about it.

97,196 Words by Emannuel Carrèrre (Translated by John Lambert)

I love a good essay, no matter the subject, and this collection is as varied as they come; I loved every one. There are so many I can’t even recall them all. A lengthy, poignant study of an AIDS victim. An obscure but shocking suburban murderer of a man’s entire family (which referenced and later caused me to read Janet Malcolm’s fantastic The Journalist and the Murderer). A day on the town with the French president Macron. A visit to the secretive Davos conference. Russia’s anti-Putin youth. The enduring spell of H.P. Lovecraft. Tracking down the pseudonym of a subversive writer who popularized a chance-based way of living that became a cult lifestyle. Some obscure Russian writer. Sex columns Carrèrre was forced to write. Oh, and the homecoming of the last prisoner to be released from the Gulag, how could I forget that one? This is what happens. I start remembering one, and then they just pop back into place: Oh and that one, that was great, Oh, and that one, that was great too. Each is captivating, which probably hasn’t happened since I read Weinberger. Hence: top ten

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi (Translated by Erdag M. Göknar)

A fantastic novella from Afghanistan! After his village is bombed and most of his family killed, an old man goes on a journey to the remote mine where his son works to tell him the awful news. In tow is his grandson, who has been deafened by the bomb but is too young to understand yet what’s happened to him. [Ed. – Uh this is exactly what Ben said… not sure who’s paying homage to whom here, but, anyway…] Much of the book is spent sitting and waiting for a ride at a gas station in the middle of the desert where a bus will supposedly arrive, a waiting characterized by drifts in and out of time and place, fantasies into the mind of his grandson, and playing out versions of how he’ll share the terrible news with his son, all punctuated by the feisty but concerned station agent waking the old man to check on him. Taut and dreamy, concise and spare, heartbreaking and yet not without humor. But it’s really the final twenty pages that dazzle, the ultimate meeting of father and son and what follows. These pages are such a rollercoaster of heartbreaking twists and turns, dashed expectations and unfathomably complex emotions—they left me breathless.

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens is a fascinating reexamination of what makes humans tick, and how the major tides of history and society have been shaped and driven by our unique ability to organize ourselves through invented stories. Harari’s thesis is that there’s a pretty small limit (about a hundred or so if I recall) to how large a society can be based purely on cooperation within the material world; it’s the ability to create fictional entities and shared beliefs about them that allowed us to surge to great collective numbers. (And subsequently wreak the havoc we’ve wreaked, first on other human species, then on the world’s fauna, and ever since on each other). Religion, agriculture, currency, language, politics and government, social structures in general—shared agreements in invented fictions, all. Though the book is not that long, it took me nearly a full year to read because each chapter is so juicy and rich I needed a break after each. Rarely has non-narrative non-fiction left so strong an impression of the delightful flimsiness of all we take for granted in daily life. The interview with the author at the end also inspired me to start a daily practice of Vapassana meditation (he said he couldn’t have written the book without it). I’ve kept with the practice ever since (4-5 months). You never know what a book will bring to you! 

HhHH by Laurent Binet (Translated by Sam Taylor)

HhHH stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” This gem of historical fiction tells the story of Reinhard Heydrich, the most ruthless Nazi you’ve never heard of, and of the two parachuting Czechs, Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš, who assassinated him in broad daylight, in arguably the bravest and singularly practical act of the war. Who was Heydrich? Himmler’s right-hand man. The one who first recognized a young Eichmann as a “man of talents.” The man Hitler called “the perfect Nazi,” the man he feared and therefore valued most for his extensive information networks. The real brains behind the nuts and bolts of the Anschluss, the forming of the Czech protectorate, the subjugation of Prague, the meticulous architect of the Holocaust. [Ed. – That last statement overstates things, overlooks Himmler, etc.] Heydrich’s rise is fascinating and terrifying, paralleled with the tension of the two Czech parachutists planning and pulling off their secret mission, then going on the run, holding out for days against a battalion of hundreds of Gestapo in a church before finally meeting their brutal demise. It’s a riveting story, but what elevates the book is the meta-narrative struggle of the author to divine truth from his tale, to determine what to put in and how to stay focused, given all the astonishing horror he could include. This struggle adds an extra personality, an intellectual struggle beyond the body of an already striking historical account. It gave the book just enough extra oomph to edge out Èric Vuillard’s Order of the Day, another terrifying account of the rise of the Third Reich.  

Ice by Anna Kavan

An unnamed narrator chases a vaguely beautiful girl across crumbling apocalyptic landscapes of crumbling ice and snow, under the menacing shadow of her entitled protector. This strange novel made the list not for the actual enjoyment of the reading but for the totally mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere it creates. Moment to moment, the writing is so rich and tense and unique, and whenever the chapter changes it zooms out a bit to an even more unsettling sense of aimlessness, a glimpse into a wider eternity that saps it of momentum, round and round and never going anywhere. Ice can be frustrating. [Ed. – Indeed.] But it sticks with you. It’s absolutely chillingly gorgeous and perplexing. There’s nothing else like it, and I immediately purchased all her short stories. ‘Nuff said. [Ed. – My dissenting, admittedly minority, take is here.]

Helen Frankenthaler, Skywriting, 1996

Some honorable mentions. Great books that didn’t quite make the cut!

  • The Order of the Day, by Éric Vuillard
  • The Weight of Temptation, by Ana María Shua
  • H is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald
  • Vano and Niko, by Erlom Akhvlediani
  • Ghost Soldiers, by James Tate
  • The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm 

Stephen Sparks’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Stephen Sparks (@rs_sparks). Stephen owns Point Reyes Books in Northern California.

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

Wynn Bullock, The Pilings, 1958

I am a professional bookseller and an amateur reader. It is perhaps in reaction to my professional obligations and a pervasive (and growing) ickiness about being a cog in the publishing industry’s all-consuming marketing machine that, for several years running, I stubbornly compiled a list of books I hadn’t read in the previous year, instead of those I had. I haven’t gotten to Proust or returned to Bleak House; I had no intention of reading that splashy soon-to-be-optioned debut.

My amateur status (or ambition) hasn’t, perhaps, kept up with reality: my reading life has over the past decade been increasingly determined by obligation. Books sent by editors, writers, publicists, awards committees, and others in the industry accumulate quickly, fast outpacing my—or I would guess, anyone’s—ability to keep up. And so, I am forced to skim and scan and dip and peruse. [Ed. – Must admit, this does seem dispiriting.]

So, for the most part, I don’t care much for professional reading, not because it can often feel aimless—after all, as an amateur, I delight in chance encounters, coincidences, and unexpected threads. I don’t like it because it isn’t conducive to the depth of experience that characterizes true reading. Not to mention that a diet consisting almost exclusively of contemporary work diminishes a sense of what literature can do.

Below, then, are a handful of books I read because I wanted to, or in the case of the last two, because it was demanded of me by someone whose imperatives are impossible to ignore. [Ed. – Ooh, suspense!]

One of the best experiences I had reading in 2021 was the evening I picked up Cody-Rose Clevidence’s Listen, My Friend; This is the Dream I Dreamed Last Night, published by the Song Cave. This glorious and hypnotically captivating unspooling of thought is too tightly controlled to be considered stream-of-consciousness and too sui generis to be pinned down into any other form. This book-length monologue, prayer, love letter, prose poem, confession, riveted me. It’s compelling, vulnerable, and brimming with life.

I have a list of sixteen books I jotted down while reading Jeffrey Kripal’s The Flip: Epiphanies of Mind and the Future of Knowledge (Bellevue Literary Press), a marvelously generative study of human and cosmic consciousness. A flip, Kripal argues, is often the result of an anomalous experience that reveals to us the inextricable mutuality of matter and mind. In his theory, matter is imbued with mind and we are all but manifestations of a deeper universal consciousness. Though this may sound a little woo-woo (have I owned a bookstore in Marin County for too long?) [Ed. – Nope, it sounds a little woo-woo], the underpinning of Kripal’s arguments are nothing if not Spinozan and lead to a rousing defense of the humanities.

Though her book was published after Kripal’s and therefore not among the sixteen books on my list, essayist Meghan O’Gieblyn’s God, Human, Animal, Machine (Doubleday) is concerned with the same questions: what is consciousness and what is its value? Braiding memoir and philosophical meditation on the nature of the self, intelligence, and design, O’Gieblyn doesn’t engage in polemics, but essentially lands in the same place as Kripal: there are currently few satisfying theories of consciousness. As any good novelist knows, a fundamental mystery lies at the heart of awareness.

The novel I read in 2021 that best grappled with this mystery won’t be published for another few months: Irene Solà’s When I Sing, the Mountains Dance, translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem (Graywolf Press). The novel plumbs the deep interconnectedness of a remote village with the natural world high in the Pyrenees. In it, Solà gives voice to black chanterelles, lightning, and ghosts as well as human beings in an invigorating attempt to reinhabit a mode of being that feels as vitally urgent as it does archetypally timeless. [Ed. – Attention, readers, attention! If Nicie Panetta is in the room, please come to the front desk to collect your book.]

HOLY SHIT

Finally, since I spent many enjoyable hours reading picture books to our toddler this year, I’d like to mention a few that seem to me exemplary of the genre: Jon Klassen’s The Rock from the Sky (Candlewick), a deadpan and bleakly funny story that several reviewers aptly refer to as Beckettian; and Phoebe Wahl’s collection of seasonal tales, Little Witch Hazel (Tundra Books), much warmer than Klassen, and brimming with magic, wonder, and gentle humor. It’s led our toddler to knock on trees asking if anyone is home. [Ed. – Heart brims over!] If only more books had such consequences.

Emmett Stinson’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Emmett Stinson (@EmmettStinson). Emmett is a writer and literary critic who is taking up a position as a Lecturer in Literary Cultures at the University of Tasmania in 2022..

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

J. S. G. Boggs

I’ll be honest [Ed. – Hadn’t occurred to me you wouldn’t be–until now…]: I had to look at my Goodreads account to remember what books I read in 2022. Not because my memory is failing (I hope), but because it’s hard to separate 2021 from 2020: they feel like one long year spent mostly in my lounge, often working, often caring for children, sometimes briefly on furlough from those activities but still in the same room. My reading, as a fact, has been rarely undistracted: our small house has been full of sounds of children playing, blaring devices, zoom meetings, google meets for primary school, complaints about maths homework…probably no-one’s ideal conditions for a life of the mind, but I’d take it over a too-quiet library most of the time. [Ed. – Absolutely agree.] Finding a few quiet hours in the evening usually involves a trade-off between reading and sleep. I am not complaining—I wouldn’t have it any other way. But I think many people still think of reading as something that’s silent or solitary, and that’s often not my experience.

I enjoyed most of what I read last year, but most of the books I enjoyed most were not ‘new’ novels. My favourite was Christa Stead’s long House of All Nations(1938), which is about the goings-on in a Parisian bank that may or may not be a Ponzi scheme. It’s amazing to me that there wasn’t more interest in this book in the wake of the Global Financial Crisis. It’s a fascinating account of the way money manipulates markets (or tries to). It’s full of dryly satirical portraits of pretentious bankers and includes a massive cast of unusual characters. Stead is as technically accomplished a writer as the more famous modernists, but her writing is more restrained. When she does suddenly let loose with a perfect, rhetorically complex sentence, the effect is even more powerful. House of All Nations does have an often-compelling plot, but it is told in a serial way, and many of the details are highly technical (my favourite section is about the manipulation of the international wheat trade!). [Ed. – Neepery!] It’s an encyclopedic novel that should be more widely read, and the rare encyclopedic work that could probably be turned into a (inferior, obviously) modern television series.

I also loved Jen Craig’s out-of-print first novel, Since the Accident (2009). Her second novel, Panthers and the Museum of Fire, is a multivalent Bernhardian rant that has rightly attracted international attention, but the first book is impossible to find (it was sent to me by the author via her literary agent, Martin Shaw). It’s an exceptional work that anticipates Cusk’s Trilogy. The novel is narrated by an Australian woman just returned from Europe who visits her sister, Trude. Trude has partially recovered from a terrible car accident, but has recently decided to leave the man she was living with (Murray, who helped save her from the accident) and moves into a room in a run-down suburban Sydney pub. In order to explain this decision, Trude recounts a series of conversations between herself and other participants at an artist’s retreat she recently attended. The entire novel takes place during this conversation in the pub, which is a tense and sometimes menacing scene. Trude and her sister are estranged, and both dislike their controlling, manipulative mother, who has is responsible for the visit in the first place. It’s a layered, indirect work, technically accomplished, beautifully written, but also very human.

Two other Australian novels I really enjoyed were Michael Winkler’s Grimmish and Louis Armand’s The Combinations. I have already written about the self-published(!) Grimmish at length. It’s a hilariously funny novel that everyone should read. [Ed. – If they can get their hands on it!] Armand’s The Combinations is a bizarre baggy encyclopedic novel that is 888 pages long. Its structure is based on a chess board (an obvious nod to Perec), and the book is very much a novel about Prague, where Armand has lived since the 1990s, but it’s written in a recognizably Australian idiom. [Ed. — !]  It does have a plot involving the Voynich Manuscript and the provenance of its orphaned protagonist {Ed. — !!], but this is a maximalist book whose pleasures are to be found from page to page in its many jokes, complex sentences, and inventive textual strategies. It’s the kind of book that will cause some readers to run screaming (I mean this as a compliment?), but it’s an intense technical, conceptual, and literary achievement. As far as I can tell, it’s gone almost entirely undiscussed in Australia, which seems absolutely bonkers. More people should read and write about this novel. It’s too smart to go unread.

Most of the other books I read this year were from book twitter recommendations—and there have been very few misses in this regard. I loved Mauro Javier Cardenas’ Aphasia, which is certainly my favourite ‘new’ book I read in 2021. I read the massive recent Krasznahorkai (a lot of fun if you have enjoyed his other work), Enard’s enjoyably excessive Compass. I read Gass’s Middle C (a book that has stayed with me and which I hope to reread) and Theroux’s cult-favourite novel, Darconville’s Cat, which I found equally extraordinary and confounding. I loved the relentless accrual of that long sentence in Ducks, Newburyport up until its too-resolute ending.I particularly loved Pierre Senges’ The Major Refutation, a novel comprising a (fictional) historical treatise that refutes the existence of the new world after Columbus’ ‘discovery’ of it. It is a novel written as a joke that is carried too far and then goes for another hundred pages beyond that, and I loved every second of it. Tsypkin’s Summer in Baden-Baden is a novella about Dostoyevsky that is effectively a literary panic attack. [Ed. – Did someone say “panic attack”??] It’s brutal, painful, and funny in equal measure, but even thinking about the book makes me feel weirdly uneasy. I reread Clarice Lispector’s Collected Stories, which remains my favourite of her books. Domenico Starnone’s Truth is perhaps not quite as good as his recent Ties and Trick, but it is a fascinating account of an author who is worried about his reputation being destroyed by the revelation of a ruinous secret. Exactly the kind of book you’d probably not want to write if you were an author suspected of harboring a large and potentially career-ruining secret… [Ed. – Ha!]

I was also surprised to find myself beguiled by two better-known novels. I had just assumed that I was not the right reader for Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley. I was wrong: it’s funny and I loved the way that Highsmith makes Ripley both repugnant and compelling. I also like how it (correctly) portrays the intergenerationally wealthy upper-classes of the USA as basically boring and dim people whose only extraordinary quality is their wealth. I also laughed all the way through Rachel Cusk’s Second Place. I know some readers have complained that it’s too close to its source material, but it’s such a strange, comic novel that is full of awkward and mildly unpleasant humour (and which jokes in various ways about its own unoriginality). Give me more unoriginal books like this one!

Sophie Taeuber-Arp, Échelonnement désaxé, 1934

I am currently packing all of my books in the process of moving from regional, mainland Australia (Ballarat) to the island state of Tasmania. [Ed. – Tasmania! What the devil?! I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me…] As a result, my reading will be a bit more limited for the moment and largely digital. I am about 1/4 of the way through Marguerite Young’s sprawling, discursive Miss Macintosh, My Darling, which is being reprinted by Dalkey Archive Press in 2022, and I suspect this is likely to be one of my favourite novels of this year.

Ben Black’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Ben Black (@benpblack). Ben is an Assistant Fiction Editor at AGNI magazine. He teaches English and writing in the Bay Area and you can find a list of his publications at benpblack.com.

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

Alfred Sisley, Flood at Port Marly, 1876

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

There’s nothing quite as entertaining as a memoir about a large family of eccentric characters. Here the author returns to his native Sri Lanka physically while psychically returning to his own memories and the collective family memory bank of wild stories about his father, mother, uncles and aunts, and especially his unique, independent grandmother. These short chapters in semi-chronological order cover a lot of ground, basically a whole century of family lore. They offer a tantalizing glimpse of Sri Lanka in the 20th century.

As with most family stories, it’s hard to tell what’s plain fact and what’s fantastic mythologizing, but what matters more to the author is the deeper truth beneath the stories, factual or not. He’s out to understand his place in the world, and to find a deeper connection to the distant outlandish trio of his father, his grandmother, and his native island. The very short chapters are entertaining, outrageous, and somehow sweet and moving. You’ll likely never meet characters like this again.

Soul by Andrey Platonov

A strange, dreamy, allegory by a Soviet writer taking place in the deserts of Turkmenistan. The main character’s job is to rescue a small, dying nation of people by guiding them through the desert to a new home. But the people he encounters are weak, listless, destitute, and utterly disconnected from the world of the living. As he works to feed them and keep them on the move, our hero falls in love with this pathetic group of lost souls. And slowly, they seem to wake from their walking slumber and learn to stand on their own.

This is truly one of the strangest books I’ve ever read, filled with unusual characters and scenes. (I swear someone lies down and falls asleep in the sand on every page). Did I mention our hero is pursued by two huge demonic birds for much of the journey? [Ed. – No, no you did not!] Soul is weird, often funny, but more often heartfelt—like the main character, you fall in love with these misfits as the narrative moves along.

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

I’ve read the title story many times (and have used it in my English and Creative Writing classes), but this is my first time reading the rest of the collection. [Ed. – “Bloodchild” teaches so well, doesn’t it?]

Remarkably, these stories deal not only with interesting sci-fi concepts (a virus that destroys the human capacity for speech, a self-harming disease that creates different social castes, the classic conundrum of bridging the communication gap between humans and aliens), but do so in a way that delves into social problems and helps us understand our own time better. This is true, of course, of all great sci-fi, and this is some of the greatest.

Even if this collection contained only the title story, it would probably still make my top ten list. It’s one of my favorite stories, maybe one of the best short stories of all time. Humans are enslaved by aliens who use a sinister coercive love bombing relationship to keep the humans docile and attached so they can be used for breeding. [Ed. – And yet the story takes  seriously the  possibility that there could be reciprocity with real otherness…] It’s creepy, gross, and unsettling because it reminds us of both our history of treating other humans and of our uneasy relationships with power throughout our lives, whatever they may be.

This collection also contains some brief essays about Butler’s writing craft that I find refreshing in their simplicity and clarity.

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

The recent movie (which I loved and highly recommend) made me love this book even more. They’re both great in their own ways. This is classic noir, but it elevates itself past cliché. A story about an unscrupulous man’s rise through the world of carnival sideshows, spiritualism, and other dubious cons, this is definitely one of the darkest books I’ve read. No heroes here! But a fascinating look at the underworld nonetheless.

I loved the careful detail Greshman puts into the supporting characters, all of whom are portrayed somewhat sympathetically, no matter how shady they might be. The three main female characters are particularly unforgettable (especially the depraved psychiatrist who shows up in the last third of the book). The book has a lot to say about how people relate to each other, about the gray area between truth and lies, reality and illusion, manipulation and real feeling.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

This wonderfully weird novel follows the lives of the eccentric Willoweed family as a strange plague causes death, insanity, and violence among the inhabitants of an English village. The chapters devoted to the plague are gripping and horrifying, but the real narrative momentum comes from watching each of the finely drawn characters come out the other side of the catastrophe changed (as per the title). It’s a very surprising book: I never quite knew what would happen next, and from the first page (featuring ducks swimming through a living room during a flood) to the last, unusual images show up on almost every page. [Ed. – But does anyone lie down and fall asleep on the sand?] Comyns writes with a light touch, so there is humor amid the terrible events, but a lot of deep emotion too. Lastly, Grandmother Willoweed is one of the most delightful and memorable villains I’ve encountered. Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead gave me hope for what’s to come after our current catastrophe recedes. (A special shout out to the other Comyns novel I read this year, The Vet’s Daughter, which is even darker and stranger. I look forward to reading more from this neglected genius)

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

This one is somewhat hard to explain. It’s a slippery little novel of stories within stories, and one of the funniest I read this year.

As a young man, the philosopher Leibniz visits a blind astronomer who promises to tell the story of how he lost his sight in the few hours before the solar eclipse he’s predicted occurs. But his telling takes many strange delightful turns as it wanders around Europe and through the courts of the Hapsburgs. The writing style sends up philosophical tracts, full of recursions and repetitions, leaving you and Liebniz wondering where the story’s headed or if it will ever arrive. The ending is totally unexpected.

At the heart of the tale is the theme Sachs explored in his earlier collection of short stories, Inherited Disorders: fathers and sons, the unknowability of another person’s heart and soul, the chaos of the cosmos (with its sometimes startling insinuations of order). All told with a light comic touch.

I’ll leave you with the words of the writer Andrew Martin: “a madcap blend of philosophical malpractice and byzantine palace intrigue. It’s like what might happen…if W. G. Sebald had gone insane. In other words, there’s nothing else like it.”

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

A powerful short novel from Afghanistan.

After his village is bombed and most of his family killed, an old man goes on a long journey to the remote mine where his son works to tell him the awful news. In tow is his grandson, who has been deafened by the bomb but is too young to understand what’s happened to him.

This is a story about multiple griefs all happening at once. The main character has barely any time to mourn the rest of his family; instead, he spends most of the journey agonizing over how he will tell his son this devastating news and how he will keep his grandson alive until they reach the mine. Interwoven with the grandfather’s thoughts are snippets from the boy’s perspective: newly deaf, he simply thinks everyone around him has decided to stop speaking to him. Sounds depressing, right? But the writing is so good and the characters so well-drawn; it’s an amazing, intense, immersive experience.

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

No list from me is complete without an Argentine.

This collection of fantastic, gothic tales will give you shivers and leave you with food for thought on social issues.

The stories at once feel old (their subjects and style remind me of creepy/horror stories of the last century and before), and new (they deal with modern issues like homelessness, urban blight, and the recent crimes of the dictatorship in Argentina). In other words, the supernatural horrors are rooted in real issues. Above all, they are gripping and fun to read.

The women of an anxious family suffer a curse tied to a witch and a well…a woman is haunted by the rotting corpse of a baby…a neighborhood is full of expats who hate the city but can never leave…a rock star’s suicide inspires a horrific response from his fans…a woman joins an online community of weirdos obsessed with the human heartbeat…children who disappeared decades before start reappearing, but there’s something not quite right about them…

I hope you’re intrigued enough to give this amazing writer a try.

Pieter Beugel the Elder, The Blind Leading the Blind a.k.a. The Parable of the Blind, 1568

The Parable of the Blind by Gert Hofmann

Oh boy another weird book rec from Ben! [Ed. – Bring em on!]

This short novel tells the story of a group of blind men hired to pose for the painting by Pieter Breugel that gives the book its title. Told in the first-person plural, most of the action concerns their confusing journey to the village where Bruegel lives, culminating in their absurdly hilarious yet profoundly sad act of falling into a ditch over and over for the artist. The group narration is memorable: sweet, funny, cautious, hopeful, demanding, repetitive, and relatable. The other characters they meet are hilariously unhelpful as our heroes make their way to the end of their small but epic quest.

A brief, weird, amusing tale, but what earns it a spot on this list is what’s lurking underneath the surface, what it left me thinking about: the uneasy relationship between art and life, inspiration and execution, ugliness and beauty, the commonplace and the divine.