September was so long ago, I can’t remember what was going on, except a tough semester that began as it meant to go on, and the beginning of the High Holidays. I was back and forth between Little Rock and St Louis a couple of times. Squeezed some of these in as audio books.
Lilliam Rivera, Never Look Back (2020)
Audacious and entertaining YA retelling of Orpheus and Eurydice, set in the Bronx with a mostly Puerto Rican cast. Rivera melds the Greek story with Taino mythology (the goddess Guabancek features prominently), adding Catholicism and the musical tradition/genre of bachata as significant elements. Pheus, a bit of a playa but at heart a good kid, and (natch) a brilliant musician, has come to spend the summer with his father in the Bronx. A friend lives downstairs—she introduces him to her cousin, who has been sent to the city from Florida to recuperate. Something bad happened to Eury, which started even before they left PR in the wake of hurricane Maria. Only Pheus believes her when she finally explains about Ato, a demon who insinuated himself into her life after her father left the family when she was a baby. Ato claims to love her but he is jealous, and wants to take her away to what initially seems like a paradise. Only Pheus has the ability to try to win her back.
I read this for a faculty-staff book group, and I’m so glad I did: I’d never have come across it otherwise. Rivera manages to hold her blend of cultures together; similarly, she balances psychological explanations (Eury has PTSD) with magical ones (she has been captured by a demon). And she plays with our knowledge of the classical myth, following it closely but upending it in important ways. With the exception perhaps of Pheus’s mother—almost entirely offstage, but unsympathetic nonetheless—the characters are presented with kindness, rising above types. (Pheus’s on-again, off-again girlfriend is a great example.) Neve Look Back is a generous novel about terrible things (climate change, sexual abuse, gaslighting, racism). Worth your time.
Hanif Abdurraqib, A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (2021)
Like all great nonfiction writers, Abdurraqib makes me care for things I thought I had no interest in: his essay on Whitney Houston in this collection on Black performance is a revelation. The book’s range is impressive. Even more so is its cohesion. These aren’t just a bunch of disconnected riffs on a topic. The book itself is a performance, linked by the writer’s reflection on his own abilities and inabilities. And it taught me so much. I knew nothing about Depression-era dance marathons, Buster Douglas’s upset of Mike Tyson, Merry Clayton’s essential but tragic part in “Gimme Shelter,” or Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance. (What can I say, I’m pretty clueless.) And without this book I’d never have discovered Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace—for that alone I would be grateful.
I listened to this one; no surprise that a book about performance is great on audio?. My only regret is that I wasn’t able to underline the author’s many aphorisms; I really ought to buy a copy. Abdurraqib read at my college this fall: so smart, so funny.
Nadine Fresco, On the Death of Jews: Photographs and History (2008) Trans. Sarah Clift (2021)
Fresco close-reads the Liepaja photos (eight images of Jewish women and children being shot by a Nazi death squad and local collaborators on a beach in Latvia in December 1941), explains the erratic journey of these images in the postwar era, and reflects on atrocity photography more generally. Since I’d spent part of the summer studying Holocaust photography, I wasn’t as overwhelmed by the book as I might have otherwise been. (Cursory research suggests this book was taken from a larger collection published in France: maybe it’s more impressive in context.) But things take a surprising and moving turn in the last pages, when Fresco reveals a familial connection to the photos (a relative interned in a nearby ghetto helped preserve the negatives). In the end, though, it falls between two stools: perhaps too specialized for general readers, but too cursory for specialists.
Jane Austen, Persuasion (1818)
What can I say? It’s terrific! Anne Elliot is a champ. Jane Austen dug the Navy and makes it seem A-OK. The Musgroves are a delight. Lyme Regis can be dangerous. The Crofts anticipate Dickens, every scene with them is a joy. Sir Walter is a pain in the ass. Penelope Clay does what she has to do. You’ve probably read this book, but if not, get on it. Who doesn’t love a second chance?
Marcie R. Rendon, Sinister Graves (2022)
Regular readers will know how much I like the Cash Blackbear series. Now with a larger publisher, Rendon is back with the third installment of this terrific series set in North Dakota and Minnesota in the early 1970s. As usual, Cash stumbles on a crime—literally (?) demonic, a turn I initially resisted until I realized how apt that metaphor is for white settler actions towards indigenous children—but mostly she drives around in her truck, drinks beer, and shoots pool. I can’t get enough of that lonely aimlessness—though Cash makes two friends I suspect we’ll hear more about in future. I was lucky enough to meet Rendon this fall—she’s lovely—and she confirmed there’ll be at least two more books in the series. Woot!
Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth (1961) Illus. Jules Feiffer
When he was in school he longed to be out, and when he was out he longed to be in. On the way he thought about coming home, and coming home he thought about going. Wherever he was he wished he were somewhere else, and when he got there he wondered why he’d bothered. Nothing really interested him — least of all the things that should have. … As he and his unhappy thoughts hurried along (for while he was never anxious to be where he was going, he liked to get there as quickly as possible) it seemed a great wonder that the world, which was so large, could sometimes feel so small and empty.
Can you believe I’d never read this before? Grateful to Frances for choosing it for One Bright Book. Listen to the episode for more, including my undigested thoughts about how Jewish this book is. I mean, how neurotic is Milo? Never anxious to be where he’s going but wanting to get there as quickly as possible: I feel you, kid, I feel you.
Dwyer Murphy, An Honest Living (2022)
Satisfying quasi-crime novel about a lawyer who has left corporate law (in the most satisfying way) and become the legal version of a PI, to supplement his shifts at night court. Murphy apparently was a lawyer, he knows that world, and I could have used even more detail about it. The main story, though, is about a book dealer and his much younger wife, a reclusive but renowned novelist. She hires the narrator to help her divorce him, which he does, but then a strange woman shows up at his door, claiming to be the novelist and wanting to know what the hell he’s done. The plot is capably done—with plenty of references to how he has stumbled into a low-rent Chinatown—but the real thing about the book is it’s hymn to pre-financial crisis New York.
An Honest Living is like Paul Auster if he were actually as good as I thought he was in my early 20s, or, better, like the first novel of his second wife (the man has good taste in wives, I’ll give him that), Siri Hustvedt’s The Blindfold. Grateful to Levi Stahl for the rec—this one doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. (But just today I read Marisa Greizenko’s take—you subscribe to her newsletter, right?—and it is spot on. I love how she compares it to mumblecore.)
A light month, but not a bad one. Don’t sleep on that Austen lady. I think she could be big.
A difficult semester finally came to an end. After all the ends were tied up (always takes longer than I expect) I sort of collapsed, emotionally and bodily. Had some tough days there, but to my surprise a family trip to Houston put me on a better keel—not least by filling my belly with good food. Through it all I was reading, to whit:
Kaoru Takamura, Lady Joker [Vol 1] (1997) Trans. Marie Iida and Allison Markin Powell (2021)
A 600-page crime novel set in 90s Japan? A positively Tolstoyan character list, covering many different institutions and social classes?? A book willing to take its time, building terrific suspense through care and attention??? And it’s only volume one, there’s a whole other 600-page second part???? (Cue that meme of the guy, I don’t even know who he is, with his eyes bugging out in increasing ecstasy.) Hell to the yeah. I spent the last part of November and the first days of December with Takamura’s opus, time that was richly rewarded.
At the heart of Lady Joker are five regulars at a racetrack: an unappreciated cop, a Zainichi banker (a descendent of Koreans who came to Japan before WWII, and much denigrated, I learned), an asocial welder, a truck driver with a disabled daughter (her nickname gives the book its title), and the owner of a drugstore whose grandson has died in mysterious circumstances that involve a story of prejudice from the past, centering on the bukaru community (an ostracized caste whose members were once allowed to practice only “unclean” or “defiled” professions: see how much you’ll learn from this book?). The men come together to commit a crime: a perfect setup because other than their weekly pastime and their resentments they have nothing in common.
At its heart, Lady Joker is simple: a bunch of misfits who happen to have specialized skills and a lot of patience get together to enact revenge on a society that deems them expendable. Their plan succeeds—at least, it seems that way: like their creator, these guys are playing the long game—but it also seems inevitable they’ll get caught. Which is gonna suck. But so is the thought that they wouldn’t. Which is a testament to how evenhandedly Takamura depicts her characters.
Lady Joker isn’t an easy read. (I might not have persevered had I not been reading it with a friend.) Its challenges are many: the painstaking depictions of the processes that make organizations, whether a company, a newspaper, or the police (as another friend whom I had pressed the book on joked, “Now I can run a brewery in 1990s Japan); the cast of characters (I had to refer back to the list at the beginning all the time); the references to Japanese history and culture. It contains at once so much exposition and none at all. Central, dramatic events are told indirectly; the greatest suspense comes from details like a missing document in a company’s archive or a changed roster during a police investigation, which unexpectedly brings two characters together. Throughout, Takamura—who apparently has written many books; may the rest be translated soon—returns to the question of whether people can find meaning in working for an organization. On the face of it, the book indicts Japanese work culture. But it also believes that work is the most meaningful thing in life. There’s basically no domestic life in this book, no love interest, no hobbies or relaxation. (Even the horse races don’t seem to give anyone much pleasure.) Do the misfits want to overthrow the system? Or do they want in? Maybe all will be revealed in volume 2!
Props to translators Iida (perhaps best known to many of us as Marie Kondo’s translator on the Netflix show) and Powell for their heroic work, and to Soho for taking a risk in publishing this book. Make it worth their while, people!
Stephen Spotswood, Fortune Favors the Dead (2020)
Lilian Pentecost is the most famous PI in New York City in the late 1940s, taking on cases that baffle the police and always looking out for the oppressed. A mind like hers needs no help—but her body, well, that’s a different story. As much as she tries to hide it, her multiple sclerosis makes some parts of her job hard. Which explains why, when she runs into a young woman at a construction site in midtown late one night, she takes her on as an assistant. It doesn’t hurt that the woman, Willowjean (Will) Parker, has just saved her life by throwing a knife into the back of the crooked foreman who was about to kill her. Where would a slip of a girl like Parker have learned to throw a knife like that? In the circus, of course, where she picked up all kinds of skills to add to the ones need to survive life as a teen on the run from an abusive father. Parker, who was at the construction site moonlighting as a watchman, is ambivalent about leaving the circus life, but the chance to work with Pentecost is too good to pass up. She intimates that her passion for justice—no, not passion, zeal; it hounds rather than inspires—can be turned to better ends.
And thus the Pentecost and Parker duo is born. I gather Spotswood is paying homage to Rex Stout (unaccountably as-yet unknown to me), but he’s also doing his own thing: showing us an America in which women have been asked to take on bigger roles while the men are at war but quickly seeing that opportunity fade as the boys come home; and emphasizing queer and disabled characters without making a big deal about it. Of course, there’s also a case to solve—and solve it they do. But doing so leads to a bigger mystery; Spotswood is setting himself up for a long arc.
Having now read all three P & P titles in quick succession, I can say these books are the real deal. Zippy writing, clever plots, heartwarming but not cloying. Why isn’t there more buzz?
Lion Feuchtwanger, The Oppermanns (1933) Trans. James Cleugh (1933) revised by Joshua Cohen (2022)
Meat and drink to me. I fell into the story of the Oppermann brothers, their name known across Germany thanks to the chain of furniture stores founded by their grandfather in the aftermath of German unification. I marveled, too, at this artistic testament created in the teeth of persecution: Feuchtwanger wrote it in only nine months, from spring to fall 1933. (In this regard, if not otherwise, I was reminded of Alexander Boschwitz’s The Passenger.) By the time it was published he could no longer live in Germany.
Between them, the brothers command respect across German society. Martin runs the business, making bourgeois furnishings available to the petit-bourgeois masses. Edgar is a surgeon, the inventor of the Oppermann technique, which has the best success rate in the world at curing an unspecified condition. And Gustav is the intellectual, the lover of women and life, who has for years been working on a biography of Gotthold Lessing, though not especially diligently. The book begins when Gustav turns 50 at the end of 1932; although it moves between the siblings, he remains its focus. (There’s a sister, too, Klara, though she’s less important than her husband, a foreign Jew who avoids the fate of the others because he happens to have American citizenship; perhaps for that reason he is the most prescient character, warning that the Nazi fever will not break any time soon.) The most significant subplot concerns Martin’s son, Berthold, who blithely resists the bullies among his schoolfriends, but can’t do so when a strident Nazi is appointed as his teacher, with tragic results.
Feuchtwanger describes the many ways German Jews responded to the first year of Nazi rule: accommodation, dismissal, betrayal, fear, highminded but ineffective refusal, despair, suicide, and exile. The latter is the tactic pursued by Gustav, who after denying that anything could happen to someone as identified with German culture as himself, is brought to reality when the SA turns over his house, something that happened to Feuchtwanger himself.
Gustav escapes to Switzerland and the south of France, living the good life in Ticino and the simple life in Provence, but he is haunted by reports smuggled out of Germany exposing the concentration camp system (quite different from the extermination centers set up in the east starting in 1941 that American readers might be most familiar with). He makes a daring, preposterous decision and returns to Germany under false papers with the aim of joining the resistance he believes must exist. In some remarkable, if also rather artificial scenes (Feuchtwanger knew the least about this material) he is arrested and deported to a camp, which he survives, but not for long. [Oops, spoiler, sorry.] As Joshua Cohen puts it in his useful introduction to this modified translation, newly released in that lovely McNally Editions series, Gustav’s noble or ridiculous decision can be understood as his attempt to live out that saying from the Talmud that is the book’s primary leitmotif, “It is on us to begin the work. It is not upon us to complete it.”
My friend Marat Grinberg has a book coming out later this year on what he calls “the Soviet Jewish bookshelf”—the books that Jews in the Soviet Union, especially post WWII, relied on to give them a sense of identity. He’s told me that Feuchtwanger in general and this book in particular had pride of place on that shelf; I can’t wait to read more about this because I can’t figure out why Oppermanns would appeal so strongly to those readers. Because its social realism and antifascism were ways to smuggle affirmations of Jewishness into a society where religion was officially forbidden and Jewishness persecuted? And yet the Jewishness of Oppermanns is so much that of assimilated German Jewry that it’s hard to imagine Soviet readers identifying with it. Not to mention that Feuchtwanger’s almost existentialist insistence on individual ability doesn’t seem in keeping with Soviet values (though maybe that was the appeal). At any rate, Cohen ably suggests how the book might resonate with contemporary readers even as he rejects facile comparisons between the fascism of the present and that of the past.
Shelley Burr, Wake (2022)
Superior Australian Outback noir—I guess that’s a thing now—that left me wondering exactly what happened at the end (in a good way). Two storylines intersect—one about a woman whose twin sister disappeared one night from the family home, and whose case became a media circus; the other about a man who solves cold cases after having had to drop out of police academy to look after his sister when their abusive father was finally put in jail. The man wants to solve the woman’s case; his motives are more complex than he at first lets on. Damn good stuff from Burr in her debut, though I take the point the brilliant Beejay Silcox makes about the limitations of the genre Wake seems to be a part of. I’m glad this was published in the US, though, and I’ll read Burr’s next book.
Stephen Spotswood, Murder Under Her Skin (2021)
Pentecost and Parker are called to rural Virginia when Parker’s mentor from the circus—the man who taught her everything she knows about how to throw a knife and more besides—is accused of murder. Along the way, a delightful new character is introduced. Maybe not as perfect as Fortune, but still light reading manna.
Michelle Hart, We Do What We Do in the Dark (2022)
Good stuff, from the title onward. Mallory is a freshman at a college on Long Island whose mother has recently died (her oblique relationship with her sad and bewildered father, though only sketched out at the margins of the story, is one of the book’s many pleasures). Mallory is lonely, always has been, it seems. And yet she finds being with others difficult—until she meets a female professor, an adjunct who teaches children’s literature and a renowned writer of children’s books. The woman, who is German, is brusque, self-possessed, worldly: everything Mallory wants to be. Startlingly to Mallory, and possibly to the woman herself, the two embark on an affair, at once torrid and composed, which ends when the woman’s husband returns from a semester at a more prestigious university. The woman sees in Mallory a kindred spirit: someone who keeps things to herself. The woman is the one who speaks the phrase that gives the book it’s title, though weeks later I’m still wondering if “what we do in the dark” is the predicate of doing or if “in the dark” modifies the seeming pleonasm “we do what we do.”
Either way, the affair takes up only a small part of this small book, but it colours Mallory’s life, shaping many of her later personal and professional decisions. There’s a pained and painful denouement, but the most interesting material concerns Mallory’s childhood best friend, Hannah, with whom she becomes a little obsessed, and Hannah’s mother, who befriends Mallory when her daughter goes off to college—though that is a poor word for their excessive, intimate, and mutually exploitative relationship—only to drop her when Hannah comes home for the summer.
For more on this novel of female (over) identification and queer desire (complete with happy ending!), I recommend Scaachi Koul’s illuminating NYT review. I especially like Koul’s point that the erotic thriller has taken on new life in contemporary lit fiction: “less about the horror of sex and romance and more about the thrill of quiet despair and ruin.” She cites Sally Rooney; I’d add Naoise Dolan. Maybe you can name others.
I would never have read this—like all the new books it has one of those totally forgettable but apparently instagrammable covers; nothing would have made me pull it off the library’s new books shelf—had it not been for Lucy Scholes’s recommendation. It won’t be on my top-ten list, as it was hers, but I liked it plenty. Hart is one to keep an eye on.
Claire Keegan, Walk the Blue Fields (2007)
A let-down compared to the magic of Small Things Like These. Each of these tales of despair and anger in rural Ireland (excepting one unaccountably set in Texas: a misfire) offers something memorable. Yet each came up short for me. “The Long and Painful Death,” about a writer who arrives for a residency at the cottage Heinrich Böll made famous in his Irish Journal (1957) where she is accosted by a hostile scholar, might be the most completely satisfying, though it becomes too cheaply meta for me at the end. I loved the title story most—it has that real Alice Munro-William Trevor-whole-lifetime-in-a-few-pages vibe—though there’s an important Chinese character that I bet Keegan would write differently now. I often like stories that are a little messy, but these ones failed to win me over. If I hadn’t been looking for new material for a course I’m teaching next semester, I probably wouldn’t have finished.
Rose Macaulay, Dangerous Ages (1921)
Having read a grand total of two of her books, I hereby pronounce Rose Macaulay to be a weird and interesting writer. I use the last adjective advisedly, after the model of Gerda, a 20-year-old poet and, lately, social reformer, who, laid up for weeks with a sprained leg, lies on the sofa and reads. Poetry, of course. Works of economics too. Both are “about something real, something that really is so. … But most novels are so queer. They’re about people, but not people as they are. They’re not interesting.” Today, it’s Dangerous Ages that seem queer: a family saga that’s only 200 pages, confines itself to a mere year or so, and ignores its male characters. No saga at all, you might say. And yet I’m not sure what else to call it.
Focusing on the women in four generations of a family in 1920s England—Gerda is in her 20s, her mother Neville in her 40s, her mother, Mrs. Hilary, in her 60s, and her mother, known to all as Grandmama, in her 80s—the novel confirms what Mrs. Hilary’s psychoanalyst says: “All ages are dangerous to all people, in this dangerous life we live.” (So interesting that it’s the hidebound Mrs. Hilary, at a loss in her widowhood with her children grown and chafing against her neediness, who finds succor in analysis, even as she rejects its language of desire, thrilled to finally be seen as important.) I struggle to place Macaulay in the writers of her period—I welcome your comps—but at times, reading this book, I was reminded of Tessa Hadley: the dramas of relationships, at once ordinary and all-encompassing; the shifting alliances over time in a family. But Macaulay is a little archer and much cooler. A book I like more in retrospect than I did reading it.
Ramona Emerson, Shutter (2022)
Rita, the lead in Emerson’ debut, is a forensic photographer for the Albuquerque police, a job that puts her at odds with many in the Navajo nation, including her grandmother, an indominable and loving woman who raised Rita and bought her first camera. All of these things are true of Emerson herself (she worked with the Albuquerque PD for 16 years). No surprise then that the book started as a memoir. But it became a novel when Emerson introduced something presumably not from her own life: Rita sees dead people, always has. Which makes her job hard, especially when one of the ghosts, a woman whose death was ruled a suicide, violently demands that Rita investigate what she insists was a murder.
Shutter moves back and forth between past and present—each chapter is tagged with the camera most important to Rita at the time—and honestly is more interesting as a coming of age story than a crime novel. The perp is obvious (even I knew it, and I never get these things right). Wouldn’t surprise me if Emerson turned this into a series, and that would be ok, since her plotting will surely improve, but I wouldn’t mind reading that memoir.
Roy Jacobsen, The Unseen (2013) Trans. Don Bartlett and Don Shaw (2016)
God, I loved this book. And it’s only been sitting on my shelf for like five years. On a little island somewhere in the way north of Norway named Barrøy lives a family named after it (or maybe the island is named for them). The time is unspecified, probably the early twentieth century: there’s a reference to a distant conflict that I take to be WWI, but the point is that such things barely impinge on life on Barrøy, which is almost entirely concerned with survival. The family is made up of Hans and Maria, their daughter Ingrid (only three when the novel begins), Hans’s sister, Barbro, and their father, Martin. Barbro is known to be “simple” but that doesn’t stop her from raising a son she (with surprising lack of scandal) conceives with a visiting Swedish labourer.
Ironically, The Unseen is mostly about the tangible, endless work of living in a harsh climate. There’s so much to do: peat to cut, eiderdown to card, cows to milk, eggs to collect, and of course fish to be caught. (In addition to line-fishing in the lee of the island, Hans, who has a share in his brother’s fishing boat, spends the first three or four months of the year even farther north, risky work that provides most of the family’s income). I do love a book that teaches me how people do things—I learned a lot about fishing nets, and loved every minute of it.
The family is at once almost brutally isolated and connected to a local network: there are other islands nearby (Maria was born on one), and a town on the mainland with a store, the church, and the school Ingrid attends for a time. (The crossing from the island is lovely in fine weather; damn near impossible in bad.) This is one of those nothing happens/everything happens books, where the everything is life itself. The characters are not especially demonstrative with each other but so lovable to readers. I was invested in them, and gasped at a couple of especially dramatic moments. (I am a great gasper.) Modernity does begin to make itself felt as the book goes on—a little tug collects milk once a week and brings mail and other news. And I suppose the wider world will come calling in the three books Jacoben has since been compelled to write about this story, especially for Ingrid. If I’m right, then The Unseen will be like the first part of Lawrence’s The Rainbow, far and away my favourite part. I’m sentimental about “timeless, simple” remote worlds—though the book, I’ll note, is not. Or maybe only a little. Anyway, I’m all in for the rest of the series. And by the way, Bartlett and Shaw have done amazing work here. In addition to all the nautical terms, they’ve had to deal with the dialogue, which is in dialect. The translators have transformed it into a version of northern English or Scots. They make no claim to authenticity but they also don’t resort to pastiche. Interesting!
I already bitched about this on Twitter, but I started this book in an attempt to read what I already own and ended up ordering three more. Dammit!
Penelope Mortimer, Daddy’s Gone A-Hunting (1958)
Good but ghastly. Mortimer’s novel of a woman pushed into a terrible marriage that has left her adrift in the Home Counties now that her daughter has gone up to Oxford and her sons are at boarding school makes Jean Rhys look positively joyful. I had Rhys on the mind because the plot of Daddy centers on unwanted pregnancy. The only reason Ruth married her husband, a tyrannical, philandering, self-pitying dentist (mercifully in London during the week), is that she got pregnant. Now that child, her daughter Angela, first glimpsed in the novel clinging to an unknown boy on the back of a motorcycle as Ruth returns from the journey to London to take the boys to school, a fitting metaphor for their cross purposes, is herself pregnant, from the boy on the bike of course, a fellow student who imagines himself sensitive but is just a small version of Ruth’s husband. Angela wants to get rid of it, but she also doesn’t want or doesn’t know how to do anything about it. Ruth is desperate for her daughter to avoid her own fate, though she’s unwilling to tell her daughter about their shared situation. The mechanics of arranging an abortion—illegal at that time in Britain—are fascinating; this makes a fascinating comparison to Annie Ernaux’s story of her own experiences a decade later in France as told in her book Happening.
I mention Rhys because her absolutely brilliant novel Voyage in the Dark centers on abortion. Rhys’s masterpiece is a cruel and despairing book—but also an enlivening one, no doubt because of the (ineffectual) self-awareness of the first-person narration. Ruth is harder to access, since her story is told in (more or less close) third-person. Which means a better comparison might be to Doris Lessing, whose novels of women finding their way in a misogynist society were in full spate by 1958. Lessing is a more intellectual writer than Mortimer, but Angela is the kind of character Lessing would often center in her writing. Admittedly, I was having a bad time mentally in the last days of the year as I read this book, so the story of a woman ground down by hypocrisy, condescension, and lack of sympathy was hard-going. Even if my mood had been more even-keeled, though, I think I would have found this a cold, distressing book. I mean, listen to Ruth’s reflection, late in the novel:
It occurred to her that dishonesty had never been unconscious, accidental; it has always, as now, been deliberate, the only way of survival. The opportunity to speak the truth, to use the language taught you in childhood, never arose.
Note the omission of the possessive before “dishonesty”—not hers but everybody’s. Are Mortimer’s other books this unhappy?
Happy with what I read. Lady Joker is truly something. Feuchtwanger and Jacobsen were maybe the highlights. The Hart has really stuck with me. And those Spotswoods are good stuff. What about you all? How did your year end?
Did you miss me? Been far too long. Tough semester—they’re all tough, but any semester with extra administrative duties is especially gross—and I couldn’t make time for blogging. I hope to catch up; I’ll start with last month since I can still remember a few things about it. The whole family was laid up with a nasty virus (not that one, apparently) for the first couple of weeks; thank goodness Thanksgiving was even more restorative than usual. Here’s what I read, mostly in moments carved out from the press of things.
Louise Welsh, The Second Cut (2022)
Twenty years ago I chanced on Welsh’s first novel, The Cutting Room. Its hero Rilke (first name, last name, who knows) trawls Glasgow and environs, clearing out houses for an auction house, looking for gold among the dross. The gold in that book was a cache of old pornography, including photos that seemed to show a terrible crime. Half unwittingly, half enthralled (in this regard, a figure for all readers of crime fiction), Rilke plays detective and gets in over his head. He’s saved not only by his eye, but by his equanimity, which takes the form of coldness, as much to himself as others. (This thoughtful Guardian review calls him “alternately steely and compassionate.”)
The Cutting Room could have been the start of a series, but Welsh admirably moved on to other things. Her interest in genre has always been interestingly glancing. (I enjoyed her Plague Trilogy.) But she must have kept Rilke in mind, because here he is, twenty years older, hanging on to the fringes of a city that’s changed a lot (the aging trannies of the first book have been replaced by self-aware, if, to Rilke’s eyes, alarmingly naïve non-binary and trans kids). Unsurprisingly, he stumbles into another crime, pleasingly complicated, almost but not quite preposterous. The Second Cut is a sadder book than its predecessor, especially in its depiction of gay sex in the age of Grindr. Middle-aged, Rilke isn’t as desirable as he was. In one scene, he arrives at a man’s flat, only to be turned away after a moment’s inspection with the heartrending assessment: “No, I don’t think so.”
A sad book, yes, but a good one. I was damn sick the whole time I was reading this book, but that didn’t make a whit of difference. Loved it.
Elmore Leonard, Riding the Rap (1995)
Last month I decided it would be fun to listen to some Elmore Leonard, a writer I’ve somehow never read before. The library didn’t have much to choose from, so I went with Pronto, which concerns Harry Arno, a Miami bookie who decides to retire in Italy, home of his ancestors and site of his WWII service. When I say “decides” I don’t mean he’s settling into his sunset years after long reflection. I mean he has to get the hell out of town because his mobster boss has discovered he’s been skimming for decades. Complications ensure, natch, some of which are centered on US Marshall Raylan Givens, a seeming hayseed who is in fact damn competent, except when it comes to Harry, who gave him the slip twice before. Raylan is still sore about it, and decides he’ll follow Harry to Italy to bring him back, despite having no jurisdiction there. Pronto was enough fun that I continued with the second book, in which the two men, having reached détente, are brought together again when Harry is kidnapped by an addled former client.
Riding the Rap is weaker: misogynist and tonally unstable (the previous book was too, but there Leonard swerved between violence and comedy with flair). Haven’t felt compelled to listen to the last book in what is known as the Raylan Givens trilogy. Leonard fans, what are some actually good books of his?
Julietta Singh, The Breaks (2021)
Dreadful, eye-rolling stuff that I hate-read with grim, perverse satisfaction. Singh, a Canadian academic who came to the US to study Comparative Literature and now teaches in the American South (huh, who does that sound like?), has written one of those essayistic-memoir-hybrid-type things that are so big now, and that I often like, in fact even aspire to write, sort of. My response is at least in part a bad case of envy. Narcissism of small differences much? But Singh is so self-righteousness that she ruins what is objectively interesting material: she grew up a mixed-race brown kid in Winnipeg at a time when that was even harder to do than it is today; her parents were social justice warriors who cared more for others than for kin (not quite Mrs. Jellybelly-level, but you get the idea); and she’s formed a queer family with the father of her child, with whom she lives in a modified duplex, together apart. (The father is white; Singh wrestles with her own ambivalence: as a child she wanted to be white; she doesn’t want that wanting for her daughter, etc.) As I say, lots to think about here. But the child—to whom the book is addressed, in awkward second-person—is too precious, too loving and kind and special. Or maybe she is all of these things, I’m ready to believe it, most six-year-olds are pretty great, but Singh is precious about her. Get a load of her rhapsodizing over a Thanksgiving art project (the kid has sculpted a Powhatan village out of fruit):
The Powhatan people are represented by banana slices, and apple skins make up their shelters. Off to the side of the village, you have crafted colonial ships by slicing kiwis in half, gutting their insides, and attaching the skins to the little fruit boats to serve as sails. You have created rough waters out of banana peels, and a wall of carved-apple manatees that surrounds the kiwi ships on three sides.
Colonial ships? Just wait. After the description comes the analysis:
I am blown away to witness this art-making against the state, this anticolonial fruit installation that is also a fantasy of organically reversing history. What I love most is that in your historical revisioning, you move us beyond the subjugated histories of Indigenous resistance to colonial force. Instead, you turn your attention to the sea, letting it emerge as an actor in the opposition to the colonial mission. Your artwork veers me away from the anthropocentric position, carefully and imaginatively invoking what the earth might itself desire.
Seriously??? I think she is, though. I see no irony here, nor anywhere else in the book. I should have laughed at that last paragraph—sounds like comments on a particularly precious undergraduate thesis—but instead I was infuriated. And that’s on me. Anyway, hard pass.
At the beginning of this wonderful novel, Mitsuki Katsura’s mother, the stylish and dramatic, but irresponsible, even hatefu Noriko, is fading fast. After several falls leading to broken bones she agrees to go into a nursing home. But even so the burden of care falls on Mitsuki, even though her sister, Natsuki, could help, too. The latter, a musician, is kind enough but unwilling or unable to do more than the minimum. Given the book’s title, it won’t spoil much to say that before long Noriko dies, leaving a medium sized inheritance that means nothing to Natsuki, who married into money, but everything to Mitsuki—especially since she discovers her husband has been having an affair, and she needs to make some decisions.
Deciding what her future will be like entails a lot of looking back for Mitsuki. Inheritance is, unsurprisingly, as much metaphorical as literal in this book. There’s a lot of unfaithfulness in the family—it runs through the generations as if it were hereditary. Mitsuki’s grandfather left her grandmother for another woman; her mother, Noriko, fell in love with a man deemed unsuitable and from whom she was separated by her family, only to later separate her own family when she left her husband, Mitsuki’s father, for her dance instructor. To what extent is Mitsuki bound by the tendencies of her family? To what degree is she her own person? Mizumura pursues these big questions through her eventful but never cluttered plot.
The book was published serially, and was written, Mizumura explains in a note at the beginning, in homage to late 19th/early 20th serialized novels, especially Ozaki Koyo’s The Golden Demon (1893), which I do not know at all, other than what I glean from Mizumura’s references. No surprise that Noriko, an Emma Bovary type, identifies strongly with the book. Mitsuki, who had the chance to translate Flaubert’s novel, but was discouraged by her husband, loves novels in more removed fashion, as befits someone who translates for a living. Is being removed the same as being measured? This is another of the book’s questions.
I’ve said this to a few people now, but Inheritance seems to me an extremely middle-aged book. And I don’t mean that as a criticism. Its concerns—how to care for aging parents while recognizing one’s anger, guilt, sadness and fear; how to maintain a standard of living through life changes and dwindling employment opportunities; how to grasp second chances when they arise—are those of many middle-aged people. I might have liked this book twenty-five years ago, but now, well, now I felt seen by it, as they say.
Mizumura’s A True Novel was my favourite book of 2021. Inheritance from Mother might not top this year’s list, which is pretty much sewn up by an earlier Japanese novel, one referenced here, in fact, Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters, but it’s up there. Mizumura really does it for me, and I’m a bit sad that I’ve got so little of her left to read.
E. C. R. Lorac, These Names Make Clues (1937)
They like the zany house parties in these golden age crime novels, don’t they? Here a publisher brings together friends and luminaries, gives them false identities and a series of cryptic crossword-type puzzles, and sets them against each other. His coup is getting his friend Inspector MacDonald to attend, despite much grumbling: the idea is to see who is cleverer, the writers (most of whom are mystery novelists) or the policeman. MacDonald knows a set up when he sees it, but good thing he came along, because in the middle of the evening the power cuts out and next thing you know one of the guests is dead. (Gasp!) Turns out plenty of folks had a motive. (Shocking!) The solution is overly-ingenious in that Dorothy Sayers way, but this was still good if forgettable fun.
Alejandro Zambra, The Private Lives of Trees (2007) Trans. Megan McDowell (2010)
Took this off the shelf because I’ve been going through my books, looking to see what I can purge, and I figured it was short enough that if I read a few pages I’d have a pretty good idea if I wanted to keep it. And then I just kept going, forgetting the book even as I was reading it. A man waits for his wife to come home one evening. As the hour gets later he remembers meeting her, tries to ignore his fear that she might be deceiving him, and imagines what life would be like if he had to raise her daughter from her first marriage, whom he has tucked into bed earlier that evening. (The precious title comes from a long-running bedtime story.) The relationship between the man and the little girl is the nicest bit of the book, which otherwise fails to hit either the ominous or whimsical notes it unaccountably aims to swing between. Not for me.
Kate Beaton, Ducks: Two Years in the Oil Sands (2022)
I chose this graphic memoir of a young woman’s time in the oil fields of northern Alberta in the early 2000s for the November episode of One Bright Books. Check it out, because we had a lot of smart things to say about it. I even added a few thoughts about how it resonated for me personally, as an Albertan who spent formative years in Nova Scotia (the reverse trip to Beaton’s, though I’m ten years older). I’d like my family members and friends who work in the oil patch (mostly in corporate jobs, or adjacent fields) to read this book, though I doubt they will. Beaton is even-handed but damning: the work of extracting resources from the earth on industrial scale destroys people and land equally. Damaged people don’t always hurt others, but they often do. Beaton was certainly hurt. She tells this story with humour, warmth, and matter-of-fact conviction. (She is everything Singh is not.) Fittingly, her artwork is restrained, even sober, but not afraid of being lyrical. Amazing how gorgeous her drawings are despite the absence of colour. It’s on all the end-of-year lists for a reason.
Tabitha Lasley, Sea State (2021)
“Sea state” is the condition of an ocean’s surface (roiling, calm); it creates coastal weather conditions that can ground the men who work the North Sea drilling platforms onshore (or worse, offshore, eating into their leave) for days at a time. In Tabitha Lasley’s memoir, sea state additionally refers to the emotional whiplash those men feel when they come back to their lives, to responsibilities in homes they’re strangers to, to wives and children who barely recognize them. The book started, Lasley explains, as a portrait of these men and the dangerous work they do. She talked to more than a hundred workers, mostly in Aberdeen, where she moved after her life down south went up in flames. Bits of these interviews appear in the book. But mostly the book is about what happened to Lasley shortly after she started the project: she fell into an affair with one of the riggers, a man she calls Caden, a relationship as thrilling and pointless and dreary as all affairs. Reviewers use the world “reckless” to describe Lasley—and she does a lot of things that put her at risk. Yet that she should even be at risk is an indictment of the stunted, even vicious emotional economy of the oil industry, which is primed to create toxic masculinity in its workers.
I’d had Sea State sitting around the house for a while, but wasn’t prompted to read it until finishing Ducks. Beaton’s is the better book—clearer on the work itself, more self-aware of its creator’s feelings—but they pair so interestingly. Even more than the oil sands of Alberta, which at least are surrounded by vast boreal forest, the North Sea rigs are isolated and claustrophobic. As one of Lasley’s interviewees puts it:
A platform, he said, was like a pressure cooker. There were quantities of oil and gas on board, a cache you could never forger, since the fumes hung over the platform, got sucked into the HVAC and pumped into the cabins, so you woke up with a sore head and a churning stomach. The calm, flat days were the worst, since there was no breeze to carry them away.
More than that, the human element felt explosive. A hundred men of varying temperaments, trapped together in a steel box, miles from land … The cabins were small. The bunks were narrow. The rec room was twenty foot by twenty foot. Your quality of life was contingent on everyone observing a few tiny courtesies: wipe your spit off the taps when you clean your teeth; mop your piss off the toilet seat; rinse your stubble away, don’t leave it in a grimy ring around the sink; check with your cellmate whether he wants the late or early shower, then give him an hour alone afterward … Grievances that simmered over two weeks would come to a rolling boil, given three.
I like the parallelism of that sentence describing the courtesies these men must try to observe, pleasing in itself and for the way the man’s voice rises up into Lasley’s. Worth reading.
Georges Simenon, Maigret Goes to School (1954) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2017)
Good one. As in The Saint-Fiacre Affair, the case leads Maigret to recall his childhood, as he descends on a village near La Rochelle not so different from the one he grew up in. The former postmistress has been murdered; she was a piece of work, filled with hate and other people’s secrets. (Shades of Le Corbeau.) Maigret is caught up in the case when the prime suspect, the local school teacher, importantly not a local, flees to Paris and installs himself in Maigret’s office until the detective agrees, despite himself, to help the man avoid the worst. Everything hinges on a schoolboy’s testimony, and as always Maigret is good with the kids.
There you have it. When I write about my December reading I can tell you about the big book I spent most of the last week of November reading. Guesses welcome below! More soon.
Plenty busy chez EMJ last month. Two weeks studying Holocaust photographs in a faculty seminar (inspiring, transformative, draining). One week teaching an online class (enjoyable, tiring). One week doing absolutely nothing but reading and chilling (bliss). And one week trying to catch up on all the things (I know this makes for five weeks, not sure what to tell you).
Although much of my reading concerned the history of atrocity photographs, I made time for a number of other things. I got into a good rhythm: get up early, read something demanding for an hour or so; crash in the afternoon and evening, read fluff. Spent much of the month in St Louis: nice to be somewhere where you can sit outside in the summer. Also: Ted Drewes FTW!
Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945/1991)
In the first pages of his autobiography, Wright, a bored four-year-old, almost burns his grandmother’s house down, and the rest of the book is seldom less incendiary. Amazing that Wright survived not just that errant moment but his childhood at all. So much abuse, contempt, despair. Wright wanted to call the book American Hunger, a resonant title that suggests not just the hunger that African Americans have felt to belong to their country but also the hunger with which America has devoured them. Most of all, though, the title is literal: Wright was seriously undernourished much of his life, even into adulthood. (He was turned down for a good job with the post office because he didn’t weight enough.) In one indelible scene, Wright, who has been deposited in an orphanage because his mother temporarily can’t take care of him, is dizzy with hunger. He and the other children were fed only twice a day—before bed they received a thin slice of bread with a smear of molasses—but that didn’t save them from having to work. For example, they had to “mow” the orphanage’s grounds: a herd of children on their hands and knees, pulling the grass out in clumps, often too lightheaded to make any headway.
Wright changed the title to Black Boy after the Book of the Month club, which had selected the title—as it had done some years before with Native Son—declined to publish the manuscript’s second half, which describes Wright’s experiences after escaping the South for Chicago, specifically his involvement with the communist party. (I gather the party pressured the BMOC to make the changes, which suggests an America so different from the one we live in I don’t even know what to say.) I sort of agree that the parts about Wright’s childhood and early adulthood in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee are more compelling. They’re certainly more reducible to a narrative of suffering that makes sense to (white) readers. (And ending with the train ride to Chicago implies an overcoming that the rest of the book belies.) But I found the cruel political machinations described in the second half engrossing—excommunication, quasi-Stalinist show trials, oof. Wright believes there is something essential to communism that cannot be quashed by its instantiation, whether in the Soviet Union or south side Chicago. It emphasized self-sacrifice in a way his own life had prepared him to understand.
What stands out to me about Black Boy is its almost complete lack of joy. Wright’s life was hard, his upbringing mean, in both senses of the world, his horizons cramped by racism and the strict religion of his family. There’s nothing here to compare, for example, to the meaningful pleasures described in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Colored People. (Admittedly, Gates was of a different class and writing about the 1950s not the 20s and 30s.) The funniest scene concerns his job as a janitor at a Chicago hospital. Not that this was a good time. Together with three other men, all Black, Wright worked without thanks and almost without recompense: his description of mopping stairs that people immediately muck up, offering what they think is an amusing quip about how work is never done or, as is more often the case, not even seeing him at all will make your blood boil. The basement of the hospital contained a lab where white scientists performed experiments on animals (afflicting mice with diabetes and other horrors). One day, two of the janitors, who hate each other, get into a fight that turns into a brawl—the cages are knocked to the floor, and most of the animals escape. With only minutes to go before the scientists are due back from lunch, Wright and the others chase the animals, tossing the animals into cages willy-nilly. Who knows, Wright wryly speculates, what medical advances were made that day. Yet this scene, which in another writer’s hands could be laugh out loud funny, is tense, terrifying. The consequences of discovery for Wright and the others are simply too great.
Poverty is corrosive, yet Wright’s escape carries with it regret, loss, sorrow, and rage. In a riff on Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, Wright describes his literary self-education—he used the library card of a sympathetic white co-worker to check out books—as a mixed blessing:
In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.
Communist party meddling or no, I can see why white publishers were wary of the book’s refusal of uplift. To me, the characteristic Wright note here is that added “killing”—Wright suffers plenty of physical violence, but his mental anguish is even worse.
Audrey Magee, The Colony (2022)
In the summer of 1979, two men arrive on an island off the west coast of Ireland. One, an English painter, is running away from a failing marriage and doubts about his artistic relevance, and in search of fabled light. The other, a French academic, is returning to complete the field work for his anthropological and linguistic dissertation on Gaelic. The story of how their competing presences—expressed in dinner-table arguments about whether English and the modernity it is the vehicle for is ruinous—shape the lives of the family that has rented them their rooms is interspersed by short chapters that detail, in neutral language, killings perpetrated by Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries back on the mainland.
I’m a sucker for windswept northern landscapes, and any story in which the making of tea is a repeated and central element will always be meat and drink to me. But I liked Colony for other reasons too. It’s a think-y book that never feels plodding. Magee argues that the depredations of colonialism take many forms—the fantasy of linguistic purity as harmful as airy invocations of progress. The latter, so Magee, always require someone be exploited. She tackles a lot here, and I wasn’t always convinced by the juggling act (a backstory about the Frenchman’s childhood as the son of a pied noir needed to be better integrated), but I appreciated her ambition.
Thanks to John Self for turning me on to this one.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes , or The Loving Huntsman (1926)
An unmarried woman in England between the wars becomes a witch. Or decides to live as the witch she has always been. Frances, Rebecca, and I talk about this on Episode 5 of One Bright Book—I loved it less than they did, was not quite swept away with it as I’d hoped, but I definitely recommend. Warner is perhaps a little chilly for me, and I do wonder about the implications of emphasizing (only?) a magical solution to a political problem—what will it take for women to be left alone? Prefer Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, for a not dissimilar English magic-realist admixture.
Check out these pieces by Rebecca and Rohan for more thoughts on what Warner is up to.
Garry Disher, The Way It Is Now (2021)
Diverting crime novel with good surfing scenes. The son of a cop, himself recently a cop—he fell in love with a witness and has been suspended—has never stopped trying to find out what happened to his mother, who disappeared twenty years ago. New evidence comes to light, and things look even worse than ever for his father, who has always maintained his innocence.
Not the best Disher I’ve read, but he’s so damn competent, not sure he can write a bad book.
Charlotte Schallié, Ed. But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust (2022)
[Created by Miriam Libicki and David Schaffer; Gilad Seliktar and Nico & Rolf Kamp; Barbara Yelin and Emmie Arbel]
Beautiful & moving collaboration between child Holocaust survivors and graphic novelists, with impressive critical and historical appendices. Libicki fittingly illustrates Schaffer’s story of hiding in the forests of Transnistria—what horrible things happened in that benighted territory—in the style of an edition of the Grimms. The minimalist Seliktar (he reminds me of Manuele Fior) uses a palette of purple/blue + yellow/brown and delicate shading to accompany the story of the Kamp brothers’ time in hiding (in thirteen different lodgings, including a chicken coop) in Holland. Yelin, whose marvelous IrminaI raved about last year, tells the bleak story of Emmie Arbel’s terrifying experiences as a five-year-old in Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, where she had to watch her mother starve to death as a result of dividing her meager rations among her children (all three survived, miraculously). After a long recuperation in Sweden, the siblings immigrated to Israel, where Emmie struggled again, especially in the kibbutz system of education/neglect. All three artists include their exchanges with their subjects in their comics, but Yelin’s self-reflection is the most extensive. In the process she shows how thoroughly Arbel was damaged by her experiences, to the point of passing her trauma on to her children.
The project is a triumph. Schallié deserves credit for bringing together survivors, artists, and scholars—and for securing the funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Reseach Council of Canada that supported the collaborative project of which this book must be the centerpiece. In addition to the three comics, there’s a further comic describing the artists’ cooperation, a brief statement from each of the survivors themselves, and lucid, informative short essays expanding on the context of each survivor’s experiences by scholars. I especially appreciated Alexander Korb’s piece on the Holocaust in Transnistria.
Did I mention that But I Live is gorgeously produced and printed, too? A must read if you have any interest in the topic.
Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)
Excellent novel about a spaceship—outfitted with twenty-four complete biomes and about two thousand people—on a mission to an earth-like moon in the Tau Ceti system. Despite having been slingshotted from Saturn at who knows how much the speed of light (Robinson does know, and goes into detail, but I can’t follow him when he gets all engineer-y), the trip takes 160 years, and so the people on board as the ship approaches Aurora are several generations removed from the ones who set off.
Two women are at the center of the novel—Devi, the ship’s de-facto chief engineer, and Freya, her daughter. (Robinson’s great theme is the power of the engineering mindset, its ingenuity and improvisation, when tied to a politics of care.) The other protagonist is Ship itself, whose AI comes to self-consciousness through long conversations with Devi, and her command that Ship write a narrative of the voyage. (The meditations of the relation of narrative to consciousness are the least successful part of the book.)
The travelers begin the process of terraforming the moon, but it turns out that it is inhabited, at minimum, by a prion that is fatal to humans. The crew faces a decision—turn their efforts to a nearby moon in the hope that it’s more hospitable, or return to earth, something Ship was not designed for. The dilemma almost leads to civil war—only Ship’s intervention as The Rule of Law permits a non-violent resolution of the situation. Most decide to return, but a large minority opt for the unknown. We never learn what happens to them. Probably nothing good, but Robinson leaves their experience as a tantalizing possibility and a symbol for all that can’t be known.
The voyage home is perilous for many reasons—the biomes are failing, the crew is starving, authorities on earth respond too late to slow Ship down, necessitating a dangerous twelve-year journey through the solar system where, theoretically, the gravitational forces of the planets create will enough drag for the crew to splash down.
Aurora is moving, suspenseful, and thought-provoking. As a book about politics and the insatiable human demand to make and do—which, Robinson suggests, ought to be confined to our own planet—it made a fascinating and unexpected pairing with the other book I was reading at the same time, namely…
Guido Morselli, The Communist (1976) Trans. Frederika Randall (2017)
Published after his death, like all his novels, Morselli’s The Communist was written in 1964 – 65. It’s set a half-decade earlier, at a time when the Communist party in Italy boasted the third-largest membership in the world, after only the USSR and China. Its success stemmed from its active role in the resistance to fascism, and translated, in the first decade or so after the war, into parliamentary success, although its members were divided about participating in the act of governing. Would that not legitimate the system they wished to overthrow? The Communist is about one of these new parliamentarians, Walter Ferranini, a man whose life has been devoted to the left, even if the left has not been devoted to him. The son of an anarchist railwayman, Ferranini served in Spain before finding his way to the US, where, despite himself, in a manner that seems to emulate the bourgeois striving he abhors, he marries the daughter of his boss and allows himself to dream of the family’s place in the country. But when his wife turns reactionary, throwing herself into a nativist movement, and with the war over, he returns to Italy and throws himself into labour activism in Reggio Emilia.
It is on the basis of his success in these practical matters, and his genuine commitment to improving the lives of the workers, that Ferranini is elected a deputy in the national parliament. Although he lives to serve, he is unhappy: his dream of introducing a bill to expand worker safety is met with hostility and derision by members of his own party; he feels increasingly unable to discipline colleagues who call out hypocrisy among party leaders; he falls afoul of party orthodoxy when he writes an article for a journal headed by Alberto Moravia; and his affair with married but separated single-mother is used by the party as an excuse to discipline him. No wonder his health is so bad. And then comes a telegram from the US—Nancy, his wife (they never divorced), is seriously ill. He gets a flight, arriving in Philadelphia in an epic snowstorm that incites the novel’s satisfying denouement.
Ferranini is a sad, lonely, and, yes, noble character (he’d despise that description, though, and the book sympathizes but never romanticizes him). Morselli writes with deep interest, if not tenderness, but entirely without sarcasm or satire about the tendency of belief systems and institutional structures to obscure the insights that sparked them. Ferranini’s article, the one that gets him in trouble with the party bosses, is about the inescapable reality of toil. Contra Marx, he argues, not even achieved socialism will be able to undo this reality. (Hannah Arendt would approve!) Workers don’t feel alienated; they feel tired. As he says:
Admit it, there are things that technology cannot achieve. There is a law that can’t be breached, a physical and biological law that says life can’t arise and survive without sweat and struggle. And especially not without struggling against the environment, the surrounding material reality, and labor is part of this.
The Communist, one of the best books I’ve read this year, so thoughtful and, oh I don’t know, solid, though never turgid, presents activism and labor organizing as real labor, less exhausting and dangerous than work in a mine or factory or agricultural cooperative, but exhausting and dangerous nonetheless. Most of the people who do that work are not dedicated to it—some are outright cynics, former fascists who became fervent communists when they saw which way the wind was blowing; Ferranini is exceptional. Morselli allows us to believe in his integrity even as he also shows us that the system the man works within ultimately holds him in contempt. It would be easy to conclude that Ferranini is a dupe. Morselli refuses that temptation. Neither does he make the man a true believer. He is something rarer: someone who does the work, because the work is good, if, as it is supposed to, it eases our exhaustion.
Nora inspired me to read this, and am I ever glad. Grateful too to the late Frederika Randall for bringing this book into such lovely English.
K. C. Constantine, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973)
The second Mario Balzic mystery is a step-down from the first—less interesting, plot-wise, and dismayingly retrograde in its use of slurs, to say nothing of its portrayal of queerness—but Constantine is good with the snappy dialogue and Balzic is shaping up to be a great character. I’ll give the series a little more rope.
Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where are You (2021)
Loved it! Still think Conversations with Friends is the one to beat, but I’m appreciating the maturing of Rooney’s characters as she herself ages, and I just think she gets “the whole meeting smart friends when you are young and then sticking with them for years even as your lives change” thing. Also, a great writer of sex.
Setting down to write what became The Rainbow, Lawrence said in a letter that he was going to follow the master, Eliot, and do what she did: take two couples and set them against each other. Rooney does the same here. Of her four protagonists, the non-intellectual Felix interested me the most, there’s a Mephistophelean quality there that is directed outward rather than inward (most of the bad things in her other books have involved self-harm), though I think Rooney took the easy way out at the end and tamed him, made him just curmudgeonly when he might have been something else.
This was great on audio, by the way, Rooney’s Irishness much more evident.
Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train (2010) Trans. Sam Malissa (2021)
Extravagant thriller with more plot twists than any five books need, let alone one. The premise is cool—a bunch of assassins and other thugs are stuck on a bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka. Their various errands center on a suitcase full of money and the son of a mobster who winds up dead a few pages into the book. At first I was into it, the reversals were clever and the characters intriguing. But then the book spoils the fun by taking take itself seriously—there’s a running question of why people think it’s ok to kill other people, what makes for evil in the world, etc. Because I don’t respect myself, I finished it, all 432 pages.
There you have it, folks. Began with a bang, ended with a whimper, but, really, this was the most solid reading month in ages. Almost everything was good, but special shout-outs to the Wright, Robinson, and Morselli. Three best-of-the-year candidates right there. Marginal consolation in a time of the rampaging new American illiberalism. I hope you all are well and not too disheartened.
May finally brought the end of the semester. Man, that was a tough one. As always, I thought it would be a relatively easy month, now that I no longer needed to have something to say in the classroom every day. As always, I forgot how much energy it takes to get through the final administrative tasks. Squeezed in a little reading on the side, though.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Last Gift (2011)
Sometimes I’m struck with amazement when I consider exactly how I have found myself here. But then I suppose many people can say that about their lives. It may be that events constantly take us by surprise, or perhaps traces of what is to become of us are present in our past, and we only need to look behind us to see what we have become, and there is really no need for amazement.
An elderly man, arrived from Uganda in England in 1960 to study journalism, reflects on his experiences to thee young man who has moved in next door. The young man, Jamal, is himself the son of an immigrant, who came from Zanzibar at around the same time, literally coming ashore as a sailor before meeting his soon-to-be-English wife. But Jamal’s father, Abbas, has told his family almost nothing about his life before England. Now Abbas, weakened by a series of strokes, begins to reveal the past that has gnawed at him in silence for years.
It is typical of the novel’s structure that the son is more easily able to have a conversation about immigration with someone other than his father. This is a book of echoes and doublings, of stories told circumspectly and in layers. That indirection fits with the dislocation that comes from making a new life in a strange place, even when that rupture has been freely chosen.
And while Harun, the retired journalist, implies that choice may be overrated—perhaps in looking back we will see intimations of what was to come, though if that is true it is strange to use the word “traces,” implying as it does that those causes are themselves effects—elsewhere the book reminds us of something irrepressible in life, something that resists order and control, which appears in moments both great and small. Take Abbas’s reflections on his schooldays in Zanzibar:
The teachers worked so hard to keep them [he and his fellow students] quiet and obedient, like it was a point of honour for them to do so. Sometimes it was as if they failed as teachers if the children so much as twisted or scratched themselves. How their teachers loved that deep submissive silence. But they could not make that silence endure. They could not quite keep the children in check. Something always happened, some small insurrection, irrepressible laughter, an undaunted boy whose cheek could not be suppressed.
The two Gurnahs I’ve read—and I’ll read them all, eventually—seem to me to be about the difference between insurrections that oppress and insurrections that free: the latter are minor, like irrepressible laughter, but vital, subversive.
Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (2017)
Had plenty to say about this on Episode 4 of One Bright Book. Suffice it say, I liked it a lot, and it’s only grown on me since. Nobel committee did something right for a change.
Martha Wells, All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) (2017)
Murderbot is a cyborg SecUnit (Security Unit) that has hacked itself to override its governance programming. What Murderbot wants to do is watch tv (soap operas, basically); what it finds itself having to do, thanks to an inconveniently developing conscience and self-awareness, is help humans who are too stupid and frail not to get into trouble. The second-best thing about All Systems Red is Wells’s insistence that the need comes from the desire, awareness from soaps: these books are smart about the power of representation to shape consciousness. The first-best thing is Murderbot’s wry narration. A few examples:
I needed to a) keep them here or b) kill them. Let’s go with option b.
Oh right, I often have complex emotional reactions which I can’t easily interpret.
I thought I had gotten good at controlling my expression, but apparently only when I wasn’t feeling actual emotions.
(The lesson was: if you’re going to fuck with something bigger and meaner than you, use a quick targeted attack and then run away really fast. This is the way I always try to operate, too.) [Wells is good with the parentheses.]
Having returned the book to the library, I have taken these examples—not all from the first book—from the Twitter account @MurderBotBot. Give it a follow!
I already named two best things, but I could also have talked about the books’ depiction of being autistic—which is basically how Murderbot experiences the world. Its anxiety around humans and their complex demands for emotional interaction is movingly depicted. Reading Murderbot’s sighs of relief when it can lower its face shield, or engage with people via mirrors or screens gave me new insight into this mode of experiencing the world.
There’s a plot, too, about a corporation intent on regaining control over its intellectual property (aka Murderbot) and some terrible things Murderbot may have done in its past thanks to that corporation. The events are compelling enough, especially since Wells has gone on to draw out their consequences in subsequent books, but the narrative voice is the real appeal. (And props to sff writers & publishers for embracing the novella form.)
Thanks to Elle and Liz and the other Murderbot fans who came out of the woodwork to champion the series.
Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons (2022)
Jeremy Denk is a classical pianist known for his wide-ranging repertoire, including 20th and 21st century music. He is also something of a genius: MacArthur and Avery Fisher prize winner, a soloist who travels the world playing recitals and concerts, the holder of a doctorate and a liberal arts degree, a one-time science and mathematics prodigy, and, on the basis of his thoughtful references to Roland Barthes and Herman Melville, a hell of a reader too. Every Good Boy Does Fine—a mnemonic for the lines on the treble clef—is a midlife memoir that takes us from his childhood in New Jersey through his upbringing in New Mexico and on to Oberlin, Indiana, Julliard, and other exalted spots of American musical life.
I loved Denk’s attention to his many teachers—his piano teachers, of course, but also those who alternately inspired, coached, and browbeat him in his official and unofficial life as a student. Denk, now himself a teacher and not, he admits, at least at first a good one, shows how important it is to be taught by lots of different people. Everyone offers him something different, and most of those approaches contradict each other, leading to much insecurity but also eventually a sense of self. Although open-hearted, though, the book is more realistic and idealistic about teaching. Denk shows how the things a teacher offers come at the cost of something they can’t. (Paul de Man: every moment of insight carries with it a corresponding area of blindness.) The same is true of learning. Denk doesn’t shy from showing his own failures as a student: lessons he refused to take until it was (almost) too late, obstinacies that got in his own way, needs (for praise mostly) that set him back.
Of the many remarkable teachers Denk has had the privilege to work with, the greatest was his mentor at Indiana, the Hungarian pianist György Sebók. A prodigy who like Denk excelled in many fields, Sebók entered the conservatory in pre-war Budapest already as a teenager and studied with an extraordinary array of musicians. As a Jew Sebók could not fight in the army but still had to serve: he did road work and was interned in what was basically a concentration camp, from which he escaped in 1944 after which he spent the rest of the war under the protection of the Swiss embassy. (Lucky for him, given what happened to half a million Hungarian Jews in the summer and fall of that year.) After the war he remained in Budapest, keeping up a concert career in Eastern Europe, but he left in 1957 after the Revolution, first for Paris and then, in 1962, for Indiana, where his countrymen, friend, and musical partner, Janos Starker, had invited him. Sebók is like a character from a Lubitsch or Wilder film and his world-weary, urbane Mitteleuropean outlook both captivated and bewildered the American provincial Denk.
Denk’s portrait of Sebók—and indeed all his teachers—is generous and forgiving. Unfortunately, his self-portrayal is murkier. He admits he can be difficult, especially when it comes to hurting other people, mostly thanks to his years-long inability to admit his sexuality, and he presents plenty of evidence for how his family, his father in particular, damaged him. But he offers no comprehensive reckoning re: those harms. Maybe because the book isn’t really about that, it’s about music. But it also sort of is. Denk bypasses the question of whether you need to be self-obsessed to be a success in a field as rarified, competitive, and unforgiving as music. But he shows us enough of himself, sometimes unwittingly, to let us see that Denk can be a bit of a dink.
Denk reads the audiobook himself, and while I would not call his narration distinctive (he seems to take perverse pleasure in barely stopping between chapters), he is a dab hand at an accent. I learned about Every Good Boy from this thoughtful review, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot—I haven’t even mentioned the theoretical interludes on rhythm, harmony, and melody. These are fascinating—at once metaphorical, lyrical, and conceptual.
Martha Wells, Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)
Murderbot is also good on audio.
Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)
There can never be a love interest, can there? Like, Murderbot is never gonna get with Dr. Mensah. Right? Right?
Judith McCormack, The Singing Forest (2021)
More on this elsewhere.
Nina Stibbe, One Day I Shall Astonish the World (2022)
The title is the motto of the university that Susan, the narrator of Stibbe’s latest novel, ends up working at—not as a professor, which is what she imagined before she dropped out of college after getting pregnant, but as the indispensable and indefatigably cheerful PA to the Vice Chancellor. Instead it’s her best friend, Norma, whom Susan once coached in English literature, back when they first met and Norma was a science major who had tired of geology, who gets the job she once dreamed of.
That’s the way things go between them. Susan is a puzzle—easy to dismiss but shrewder than we are likely to credit. Life—by which I mean the most important people in her life—always seems to be pulling one over on her, and it’s true Susan does not always see what is in front of her. But we dismiss her at our peril. Here’s Susan thinking about how someone she’s known for a long time but not intimately wouldn’t make a good friend:
You’d never know what she was really thinking which is what I dislike about nice people: having to wonder if they secretly despise you or feel bitterly jealous, or just think you common but want someone to go to the cinema with or need help with their computer or for you to befriend their child.
Reading this, we realize, ah, perhaps Susan does know how terrible Norma is to her. (I’m not sure Norma quite works, as a character, her motivations are too opaque.) Maybe Susan’s a “devil you know” kind of person. But she’s nice—she’s the sort of person people are always asking favours of, expecting help from, unthinkingly demanding time of. Does she dislike herself? Or is she perhaps not as nice as she seems? Is her agreeableness—which, no question, keeps a torrent of despair at bay—fake?
Maybe because of this unexpected complexity, One Day I Shall Astonish the World made me think of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. Weird comparison, I know: an arty darling and a seemingly determinedly middlebrow book club novel. But both demand that we read against their female narrators, revising our initial opinions. Unlike Riley, Stibbe makes us like her narrator more. Riley’s is the more vivid novel, the one I will remember better in a year. But I appreciated how Stibbe reminded of my tendency to disparage someone whose default mode is not irony or skepticism. These days, especially, Stibbe’s generosity feels like a gift.
One Day I Shall Astonish the World is occasionally laugh-out loud funny, but only occasionally, a surprise given Stibbe was once responsible for getting me kicked out of the bedroom for laughing too much. I’m doing my best not to be like the people in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories who want the director character to leave off his arthouse aspirations and get back to his early, funny stuff (God those movies meant a lot to me, and now I can’t imagine watching a single one); I’m trying not to wish Stibbe would just keep doing what she’s always done. And yet, and yet—this book could have been funnier.
Jacqueline Winspear, A Sunlit Weapon (2022)
Ken Krimstein, When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers (2021) Trans. by Ellen Cassedy
In 2017, 180,000 pages worth of documents were found by a construction crew in a decommissioned cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania. The pages, written in Yiddish, had been through a lot: collected by YIVO, the institute for the study of Yiddish language and culture; plundered by the Nazis; rescued by Jewish forced labourers who hid them in the ghetto; disinterred after the arrival of the Red Army; stored in the newly created Vilna Jewish Museum; and eventually walled up in the cathedral by a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian who refused Stalin’s order to pulp them. (This was in 1949, after Stalin had ratcheted up his antisemitic attacks once the State of Israel turned to the West rather than to the USSR.)
Ken Krimstein tells this story in the opening pages of his fascinating graphic nonfiction narrative. The book comprises six excerpts from diaries written by young people across Yiddish speaking Eastern Europe. The diaries were among the more than 700 entered into a competition sponsored by YIVO in the 1930s (first prize: 150 Zlotys; about US $1000 today). The contest aimed to generate an ethnographic study of Yiddish youth: their hopes, dreams, fears, resentments. To ensure truthfulness, entries were anonymous. (An elaborate system ensured that winners could receive their prizes.) In a fittingly Jewish irony, the grand prize was to be awarded on September 1, 1939.
Krimstein’s book brings these stories to light for the first time since they were submitted almost a century ago. The writers and their lives are so vivid. A girl cannot help but love her father, despite his terrible behaviour (he drank away the family’s money, stole from the children’s mother, abandoned his family, and remarried a non-Jew after converting to Russian Orthodoxy). A boy enters yeshiva because he thinks it will impress a girl (she has deemed him not serious enough), only for her to get together with his best friend. Another girl sees her dreams of attending the gymnasium foiled by a faux pas; she quits school, becomes a nanny and only finds freedom on her weekly evening off, when she goes skating. We meet Bundists and Zionists and religious Jews. In addition to failed marriages and broken families we hear of foiled attempts to get a visa to America. So much failure—yet so much life.
The stories are briskly told, offered in Krimstein’s spindly lettering and illustrated by almost abstract, spidery black and white drawings enlivened with splashes of an odd orange colour. They are not beautiful, but the book is lovely nonetheless.
What isn’t lovely—downright sketchy, actually—is Krimstein’s lack of clarity re: the texts. Has he abridged or edited them? He never says. (He does annotate references to the period and to Jewish ritual, often wittily.) Worse, he only names the translator in the acknowledgements page at the end. Shame on Bloomsbury for presenting the book as though Ellen Cassedy doesn’t exist.
Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage (1986)
Memoir for teens about the author’s Holocaust experiences. Born Rifkele Riva Minska in Lodz in 1926, Sender was the fourth of seven children. When Germany invaded Poland, her older siblings fled to Russia (happily, she would be reunited with them after the war), while Sender, her younger siblings, and her mother were interned in the Lodz ghetto. (Her father had died when she was just a child.) After her mother was deported in September 1942, Sender looked after her younger brothers, especially the gentle Laibele, who had contracted tuberculosis. Despite heroic efforts, notably adopting her brothers so they wouldn’t be dispersed into orphanages or other families, Sender can neither save Laibele, who dies of his illness (the fate of so many in the ghetto), nor ward off deportation for herself. Together with most of the rest the Jews of Lodz, Sender and her remaining brothers are sent to Auschwitz, where they are separated; she never sees them again. After a week in camp, Sender is selected for labour at Mittelsteine, an all-female subcamp of Gross-Rosen in the mountains of southern Silesia. There she continues the habit she had begun in the ghetto of recording her experience, writing poems that she whispers to the other inmates. She becomes a sort of camp mascot, a status that rescues her: the camp doctor persuades the commandant to send the teenager, who has contracted blood poisoning from an infected cut, to the civilian hospital in a nearby town because her poetry is good for camp morale and therefore productivity. Sender recovers from the near-fatal sepsis and survives a subsequent deportation further west, where she is liberated in March 1945. She returns to Lodz, but the family home has been taken over (the new occupants threaten her), and, like so many Polish survivors, she departs Poland for a DP camp in the American sector.
I appreciated the extraordinary aspects of Sender’s story, but The Cage (her name for the various locations of her suffering) didn’t do much for me. Sender hits the “where there’s life there’s hope” note hard and strains for uplift. Arriving at her final place of internment, a camp named Grafenort, she is informed by a fellow inmate that the name means “a place for nobles.” Stroking Sender’s face, the woman adds: “We are nobles, broken in body but still alive.” Maybe this happened, but the book’s insistence on values that the experience itself was daily destroying rings false.
I read The Cage because one of my better recently graduated students had been assigned it in high school. I’m not convinced it’s the best choice for those readers—I’d go with Tec’s Dry Tears, which contextualizes its events more clearly and doesn’t insist on human uplift—but it’s better than a lot of things my students have read. (Looking at you, Striped Pajama Boy.)
Len Deighton, Mexico Set (1984)
Thinking Deighton might be the spy writer for me. Not so twisty or circumlocutionary that I can’t tell what’s happening, but stylish, clever, exciting, as good on character as on plot. Mexico Set is the second Bernie Sampson book—I listened to the first one a while ago, and now I’m thinking it’s time to go on a binge. (There’s 9 all told, I think.) Here Sampson—under suspicion after the bombshell revelation at the end of Berlin Game—is tasked with turning a Soviet agent. As the title implies, the book is partly set in Mexico, and those scenes were much less exoticizing than I’d feared. But Deighton, like Sampson, likes Berlin best, and the book kicked into gear when it returned to the coal-fired atmosphere of the muttering, shabby heart of the 20th century. (That’s me being flowery, the books aren’t like that.) The cliché that the middle part of a trilogy is the weakest doesn’t hold here. Porch reading at its finest.
As you can see, light reading ruled the day—much that was enjoyable, nothing too heavy. (The Gurnahs the richest of the lot, by far.) But that’s what I needed in bringing the semester to a close, and I set myself up for a pretty stellar June. More on that soon. In the meantime, thoughts on any of these?
January was a long time ago, I hardly remember it. The reading month started strong, buoyed by the carryover of a modern American classic from December. Things petered out a bit toward the end, but that’s only to be expected, given the start of the semester, which was a cluster from the get-go since we spent the first week online. (Remember when we still believed in covid?) In addition to the reading and teaching, I posted almost daily year end reading reflections from a talented group of readers and writers. Check those out if you haven’t already. Maybe I’ll still do one myself. In the meantime, here are my January reads:
Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952)
What can I say that others haven’t? Titanic both in content and form, Invisible Man is a novel that doesn’t quite want to be a novel, or that wants to see to what limits novels can be pushed. Sometimes I admired the book more than I loved it; my literary preferences are more conservative than I might like to think. I was especially enthralled by the first third—I often like the childhood parts of books best, but this section has so many indelible scenes, especially one about a group of boys, including the unnamed narrator, who are brought to a southern town’s Whites Only Chamber of Commerce event to fight a cage match during which, stripped naked, they scramble to collect money thrown into the ring by the Pillars of the Community. From that electrifying (a word those who have read the book know I use advisedly) beginning, the narrator finds himself in the middle of the issues of the day, from his student days at an all-Black college which requires him to appease white benefactors (and the Black administrators who appease them) to his time in Harlem, where he joins The Brotherhood, an organization inspired by the ideals of Communism and challenged by white racism on the one hand and Black nationalism on the other. Throughout, the narrator remains enigmatic, refusing (or perhaps being refused, I can’t tell) the development we expect to find in a Bildungsroman.
When I said that Invisible Man was only uneasily a novel, I had in mind its essayistic elements, which are more pronounced in its second half. But as I think about it, where it chafes most against novelistic expectation is in its idea of what constitutes an event. It’s a book in which one character after another gives a speech. Whether in barroom yarns, sermons, or street preaching, Invisible Man is about rhetorical persuasion. What the novel itself wants to persuade us of is harder to say. I bet I could be more intelligent about this if I’d read Richard Wright, who Ellison seems to be arguing with throughout. (Is that right?) But one answer might be that the narrator speaks for many more Americans than just himself: “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” Not that there is no difference between Black and white experience, but that the former knows more than the latter, since its intelligibility must be measured through the tape of the other. But maybe that’s to make Ellison into Du Bois. Help me out here, fam.
How silly to say “a must read”—it is, tho.
I’m grateful to Jules and Anja, who read this with me and kept me on track.
Arkady Martine, A Memory Called Empire (2019)
Brilliant sf novel—I think it’s a space opera, though I’m not really sure what that means—about the subaltern experience. Mahit Dzmare, ambassador from the remote Lsel Station to the Teixcalaani Empire, arrives in the metropole to investigate the death of her predecessor, Yskandr. Like all officials from her home, Mahit has an “imago machine” implanted in her brain, containing the memories and reflections of the person who most recently held their post. But the machine malfunctions almost as soon as Mahit arrives in Teizcalaani, which means she loses the benefit of Yskandr’s insight—as well as possible clues to his death. Mahit’s investigation, which turns out to hinge on much larger political events, is exciting enough. But what makes the book so terrific is its worldbuilding. The Empire is so compellingly constructed, its system of intricate poetry so lovingly—but not boringly—detailed, its differences from Lsel so thoughtfully fleshed out. Mahit is a devotee of Teixicalaani culture; like many colonized subjects she knows it better than the colonizers themselves. Yet she can never be accepted by the Empire, she will always be a barbarian, will always feel “the dumb longing of a noncitizen to be acknowledged as a citizen,” which is to say she lives in “a state of simultaneous gratitude and fury.”
Martine is the pen-name for a scholar of medieval Byzantine and Armenian history who is also a city planner and climate activist; some people really do seem to be able to do everything. Her erudition shows on every page of A Memory Called Empire, as she folds the problem of colonial identity into a meditation on how the technology of the imago machine challenges even more fundamental aspects of identity: lifespan, individuality, memory. Exhilarating.
Ross Gay, Be Holding (2020)
I’d never minded gym class in elementary school, it was fun and low-stakes, but then came junior high. Like everything else, gym class got worse. A lot worse. I’d never been bad at sports, but now I was terrible. The kid who loved school hated PE days. The kid who loved every teacher, was confronted by a new phenomenon: coaches. They were the worst—one was suspended for walking into the girls changing room, which I imagine took some doing back in the 80s—and they accordingly fostered a vicious and terrorizing atmosphere. I made it through but high school gym promised to be worse.
But the teacher my tenth-grade year (happily the last year PE was a required class) was Coach Bishop, who had been on the Canadian men’s basketball team. This was not a particularly big accomplishment back then, but he was genuinely athletic, unlike some of my previous PE teachers. Much more importantly, he was kind. He used the respect his accomplishments garnered him to keep the jocks from beating up on the nerds. (Nerd had yet to become a term of respect; it’s still weird to me that that happened.) Nerds still got picked last for teams, though; Coach Bishop was not enlightened enough to have done away with that practice. I don’t think I was ever the actually last one to be picked, but it was always a close thing. Until we came to the unit on basketball. This was a time when the rise of the NBA was permeating even solidly white western Canada—we had some kind of minor league team in Calgary called the 88s, after the Olympics, which my friends and I often went to see, tickets being practically free—and I often shot hoops on my own. I wouldn’t say I was good, but I wasn’t terrible.
Coach Bishop, unsurprisingly, was good at teaching basketball fundamentals. It was a long time before he let us even scrimmage. Because we’d spent so long working on layups, I knew what to do when, in our first game, I was able to pick off a lazy pass and go in all alone for an easy two points. This surprised everyone, me included, but not as much as what happened a few minutes later, when another kid—a jock!—passed me the ball. I stopped at the circle, jumped, and let loose a shot. Nothing but net. I still vividly remember Coach Bishop’s delighted cry: “He stops, he pops, it drops!” To have invested so much in this moment—to have needed that validation so badly—that I think of it thirty-five years later, oof, not awesome.
Next class the two alpha jocks, the captains, so surprise, were as usual in charge of picking teams. I went first. Me! I wasn’t great; not terrible, but now that kids were wise to me I had lost the element of surprise. Plus I always do better without any expectations. My moment passed. We moved on to some other sport and I went back to the end of the line. That was the end of my basketball career. When I think of that brief moment of success—when I look at myself as if watching a film—can I get past the shame I feel at how much that recognition from even people I did not respect (those jocks) meant to me? Can I avow the need to be seen? What life of privilege did I lead that the worst I can imagine happening to me when fixed by the gaze of the other is feeling ashamed?
Ross Gay’s long poem Be Holding is about basketball, sort of. It starts with a brilliant description of Dr. J’s baseline scoop in the 1980 NBA playoffs, a moment that readers, like Gay himself, who stays up too late at the mercy of the YouTube algorithm, will want to watch again and again. Gay is fascinated with how Irving holds the ball, in a swooping cradle that seemed to defy gravity. This is the first of the many instances of holding that comprise the book. Holding as stopping. Holding as enabling. Holding as comforting. What begins as an imperative—always be holding— turns into a warning. Be holding becomes beholding, a much more ambiguous proposition. Freezing the frame on a grainy sports video is one thing; looking intently at an image of suffering—a photo of a young African American boy falling from a burning tenement building, for example—is another. Can we look at others (behold) and care for them (hold)? How do African Americans, especially, traumatized by the middle passage, the rupture of a voyage in yet another hold, respond to this dilemma?
I’m not doing a good job with the details of Gay’s explosive, sinuous leaps and transitions. It’s been a while and I don’t have the book to hand. But I remember glorying in his close readings of images—the book’s a triumph of ekphrasis—and thrilling to his associative leaps, as bravura as Dr. J’s how-did-he-do-that scoop. So grateful to Rebecca for pointing me to this terrific book.
Japanese crime novel, quite famous, I gather. Maybe a new translation could help me get why; this one is painfully stilted. Not sure even that would save the book, though: it’s way too long—dude investigates every fucking detail—and not a patch on Matsumoto’s A Quiet Place, which I read several years ago and still think of often. I only made it to the end because I was reading it aloud to my wife and we kept saying to each other, “Well, we’ve read this far…” We’re reading a book about sunk cost next.
Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (1948) Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker (1957)
Tremendous novel about four sisters from an aristocratic Osaka family in the late 1930s. Filled with event—hard to know which set piece to single out: that extraordinary and terrifying flood, probably, which makes a similar scene in The Rainbow seem tame—but also leisurely, a little aimless, as if unwilling to commit to anything as definitive and perhaps crass as “action” or “plot.” Fittingly, the book repeatedly returns to the family’s attempt to marry off the third of the sisters, Yukiko, who is thirty and rapidly approaching irredeemable spinsterhood; she declines each laboriously contracted proposal, always finding some problem or other, most of which boil down to her almost Bartleby-like preferring not to.
I just couldn’t get enough of this book—it has all the feels, it considers a world at once accepting of and resistant to modernity, it has scope but is also modest. The last line is justly famous, and you should read Tom’s acute interpretation of it and its relation to Tanizaki’s depiction of violent and traumatic history. The guy wrote a lot of books; I should see what else he was up to. I’m guessing they are mostly not like this.
Last thing I’ll say: I’ve thought of The Makioka Sisters every day since reading it. That don’t happen too often.
Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2000)
I’ve written about this book so many times. It’s still great, in fact, it just keeps getting greater. Every year the students love it more; Kluger’s take-no-prisoners manner gets them where they live. Before long I won’t need to read it any more to teach it, but I’ll probably keep doing so, it’s that good.
S. A. Cosby, Blacktop Wasteland (2020)
Top-shelf Southern Noir, with enough suspense in the first half alone to merit your attention. It’s long (Cosby is not a minimalist), and it doesn’t balance action with characterization as well as the more recent Razorblade Tears but from the opening scene—late-night drag racing on the back roads of Virginia—you know you’re in the hands of a talent.
Emma Seppälä, The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success (2016)
Not my usual thing, and I pretty much hate-read it. I’d joined a reading group set up by our Associate Provost for Teaching and Learning (a psychologist, natch) in which participating faculty discussed the book with a student of their choice before we all met together. The best part of the exercise was working with my student—she is my mentee in the First Generation program at my college and an absolute delight—because she too was annoyed that Seppälä overestimates willpower and underappreciates how much privilege is demanded by her rhetoric of self-care. (I’m all for self-care, I just hate when it’s used to make people feel guilty that they have not done the impossible and avoided systemic problems.) Anyway, I learned a few things. Like the way we often think we’re relaxing when in fact we’re doing something mentally taxing. Scrolling through our social media feeds, for example, demands concentration, and leaves us more rather than less tired. So when we “take a short break” from some other task to check Twitter we’re still working, as far as our brain is concerned. Talking with colleagues and students did nothing to accelerate my success—whatever that means, ugh, management speak—but it made for a fun and, yes, happy hour or two.
Pretty good reading month, right? Tell me about books that are exactly like Makioka because that is what I want to read this summer. Which, now that I am caught up with these monthly posts, I might actually have time for…
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.
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 Harvesterbest (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.
Read any of these? Care to tell me I’m wrong about Elena Knows? Anything to recommend? Have at it!
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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 Théotimeand 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.
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.
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!