What I Read, February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Duras:

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

On Ginzburg:

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

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

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

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

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

“All Flourishing is Mutual”: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

“All flourishing is mutual.”

I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants last month for a faculty, student, and staff reading group organized by one of my colleagues in the Biology department.

That was in the middle of a wave of protests across Canada regarding indigenous rights (more specifically, their absence), prompted by an RCMP raid against the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who along with their allies are seeking to prevent a pipeline from being built across their unceded territory. To me the Wet’suwet’en protests felt like such an important moment in Canadian political life. Unfortunately, it seemed that the unwillingness of settler Canadians to acknowledge their status as such would once again win the day, but I was heartened by the wide-ranging solidarity shown the protesters.

Now, only a few weeks later, when I’m finally making the time to set down my thoughts about Kimmerer’s remarkable book, that moment seems a lifetime ago. Life has been overturned by COVID-19, and it feels as though we will be lucky if that upheaval lasts only into the medium term.

Yet perhaps even more now than last month, Kimmerer’s teachings feel timely, even urgent. “All flourishing is mutual”: what else are we learning now, unless it is the opposite—when we fail to be mutual we cannot flourish. We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. We see that now, clearly. But can we be wise enough to live that truth?

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For an example of mutual flourishing, Kimmerer considers mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. They connect the trees in a forest, distributing carbohydrates among them: “they weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them.”

The particular context of Kimmerer’s conclusion is a discussion of mast fruiting (i.e. nut production). It takes a lot of energy to make nuts, much more than berries or seeds. Mast fruiting trees spend years making sugar, hoarding it in the form of starch in their roots. Only when their stores of carbohydrates overflow do nuts appear. And when one tree in a forest produces nuts they all do—the trees act collectively, never individually.

For Kimmerer, mast fruiting is a metaphor for how to live. As she says, in a phrase that ought to ring out in our current moment, “We make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.”

One name Kimmerer gives to the way of thinking that considers the health of the collective is indigeneity. For me, this is a generous, even awe-inspiring definition. It transcends ethnicity or history and allows all of us to think of ourselves as indigenous, as long as we value the long-term well-being of the collective. “For all of us,” Kimmerer writes, “becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Or, similarly, “The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.” This statement is true both biologically and culturally. The pejorative term “Indian giver” arises, Kimmerer suggests, from a terrible and consequential misunderstanding between an indigenous culture centered on a gift economy and a colonial culture based on the concept of private property. In indigenous cultures, gifts are to be shared, passed around. (Thus it is offensive to keep something you have been given without passing it to others in some form.) But those same cultures insist that gifts aren’t free: they come attached with responsibilities. (She compares these to rights in a property economy.)

The question for me, then, is whether in a market economy we can behave as if the earth were a gift. Reading Braiding Sweetgrass was almost painfully poignant; I couldn’t reconcile what I experienced as the rightness of Kimmerer’s claims with the lived experience of late capitalism. (Someone on Twitter joked recently how touchingly naïve that “late” is.) I just can’t figure out how to get from here (our ravaged planet, our unbridled consumption) to there. Yes, it’s true, Kimmerer offers examples, not least in a chapter in which her students brainstorm ways each of them can give back to the swamp they’ve been on a research field trip to. The people in my reading group pointed out that change has to be local, that we can’t be responsible for the big picture, that we need to avoid paralysis. True enough. But the genuine hopefulness of Kimmerer’s words sometimes had the contradictory effect of making me feel despair.

It is true, though, that Kimmerer offers some practical advice for how to return our world to a gift economy. She urges us to name people, places, and things (especially the things of the natural world), as if they had the same importance. To consider the significance of nonhuman people. To speak of Rock or Pine or Maple as we might of Rachel, Leah, and Sarah. She suggests we emphasize ways to develop ceremonies in our daily lives, for these create belonging. (This could be a moment of meditation in the morning, or a shared weekly meal, or the injunction, as pertained in her family, to never leave a campsite without piling up firewood for the next guests.) In this way we might live in gratitude for the world, and the opportunity we have to contribute to its flourishing. Kimmerer asks that we join in her mindset: “My natural inclination,” she writes in a moment of characteristically lucid self-description, “was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.”

I fear I have not given a good sense of this book. Its essays cover all sorts of topics: from reports of maple sugar seasoning (Kimmerer is from upstate New York) to instructions for how to clear a pond of algae to descriptions of her field studies to meditations on lichen. I particularly love the moments, like her description of mast fruiting, when she teaches us about the natural world. As she says, “sometimes a fact alone is a poem.” (But she also says “that metaphor is a way of telling truth far greater than scientific data.”) Kimmerer is a scientist, a poet, an activist, a lover of the world. She seems fun, if a bit dauntingly competent. She challenges the idea of (scientific) detachment: “For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?” (I will say, she likes rhetorical questions too much for my taste.)

The book concludes with a meditation on the windigo, the man-eating monstrous spirit from Algonquin mythology. Kimmerer suggests that the windigo rests potentially in all of us, less a monster than an aspect of human being. That aspect can only be thwarted or defeated by a purgation: rather than hoard we must give (back). The world is not inexhaustible; it is finite. But the braiding of reciprocity is a powerful tool that nature and culture alike has given us to stave off that finitude.

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I do have quibbles with Braiding Sweetgrass: it’s too long, too diffuse. It’s hard to figure out why it takes the form that it does. I liked that its structure is not chronological or geographical or even cyclical/seasonal. But, reading, I sometimes found myself adrift. We could say that the book moves loosely from theory to action (towards the end, there are a couple of chapters offering what might be called specific case studies—how people have responded to particular ecosystems). It’s possible the book has some more complicated structure—like that of the rhizome perhaps, the forkings of those mycorrhizae invisibly linking tree to tree—that I can’t see. But I found myself, after finishing the book, having a hard time remembering individual essays. The whole matters more than the parts, I think, even though Kimmerer is a good essayist, deft at performing the braiding of ideas demanded by the form.

More significantly, I am not sure how to reconcile Kimmerer’s claim about indigeneity—that it is a way of being in the world that speaks to our actions and dispositions, and not to ethnicity or history—with her more straightforward, and understandable, avowal of her indigenous background. (She is a member of the Potawatomi people and writes movingly about her efforts to learn Anishinaabe.) What, I’m left wondering, is the relationship for her between becoming indigenous and being indigenous? The former seems like a metaphor; the latter an embodied reality. Sometimes Kimmerer opens indigenous ways of being to everybody; more often, though, she limits them to Native people. I’m unconvinced this is an insuperable difference, but it’s not one Kimmerer resolves, or, as best I can tell, even sees.

Yet I’m left convinced, after spending several hundred pages in the company of her authorial persona, that Kimmerer would be more than happy to talk through my confusion, perhaps even be able to show me that what I perceive as a problem might in fact be the way to a solution. So powerful is the sensation of good will and generosity given off by this book. Although the settler in me worries it is grandiose to say so, perhaps my thoughts in this post, however meager, can be taken as my way of giving something back for the gifts Kimmerer has given me. May you accept them as such.

Do I Read Enough Great Books?

One of the highlights of last year was getting to meet Tom (aka Amateur Reader) of the titanic lit blog Wuthering Expectations in person. He and his wife, a great reader in her own right, actually came through Little Rock (no one does that), and we had them over for brunch. Tom is as funny in real life as he is in writing. He will also drink wine at lunchtime, which is a valuable quality in a person.

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Candida Höfer, Trinity College Library, Dublin

I mention all this because Tom recently wrote about end of year lists and the kinds of reading that many bloggers do. What does it mean, he wondered, to speak of “the best book he read all year” when he reads mostly classics? What’s going to be better than the Iliad? (To which I would say the Odyssey, but that’s not the point.) Although I’m sure it’s the last thing he intended, Tom’s post sent me into something of a tailspin. I keep thinking about it, worrying over it. It’s brought out some longstanding readerly insecurities. Am I reading what I should be reading? What the hell does “should” mean there anyway? Well, am I reading enough important books? Meaning? Books that are worth my time? I’ve no interest here in making an argument for “the canon”: as one of my mentors, Molly Hite, used to say, canons are inescapable, but we shouldn’t be rigid about them, after all they’re going to change. Canons, not the canon. In a comment (it might actually be on another of Tom’s posts, I’m having trouble finding it at the moment) Stephen Dodson, of another titanic blog, Languagehat, used the term “memorable books,” which I seized on gratefully in my deliberations, as it shifts the terms away from value. [Note: Tom tells me the term comes from Necromancy Jeanne, who expanded it into a little essay. My apologies!]

Which is to say, my title is falsely provocative/click-bait-y, sorry. It should be, Do I Read Enough Memorable Books? Over the course of my reading life I’ve read plenty of memorable books. It’s also true that most books are not that awesome, just like anything else: you have to read plenty of mediocre stuff to find something memorable. And I also pride myself (and the fact that I feel this way implies part of me must feel there’s something wrongheaded, even disreputable, about that response) on reading a reasonably wide variety of books: different genres, different writers, different concerns, though it’s true I mostly read books from about 1890 to the present, and mostly prose fiction, and mostly ones from/about European/Jewish writers and topics.

But I worry that a diet of crime fiction and novels plucked from the new arrivals shelf of the library (combined these sorts of books make up a fair chunk of my annual reading) is neither the most satisfying nor the most meaningful use of my finite reading time. (“Meaningful” here meaning, likely to generate memorable reading experiences.) I’m curious about a lot of things, and I’m interested in what’s going on in kids’ books and science fiction and biographies and essays and comics, although in the end I only dabble in those areas. Sometimes my reading from these genres does generate memorable experiences. But for me it is most often the case that difficult books are more likely to do so: difficult not as in esoteric or experimental, necessarily, but as in syntactically and linguistically and formally challenging.

I teach reading and writing for a living, and at the end of the day, when I’ve finished that work (inasmuch as it ever ends) I’m often tired. Many of the books I suspect might be memorable (and here I know I’m shading into a more conventional use of “literary classics”: maybe this whole post is just a convoluted way of writing about old-fashioned “great books”) are hard to read. Or hard-ish anyway. They demand more attention than the shiny new book from the library, attention I don’t always have in the half hour before sleep.

A big part of me thinks that people should read whatever they feel like reading. The point of reading is to read, and all kinds of books can be enjoyable and, yes, memorable. I’m quite skilled at finding so many ways to torture myself, why do I need to bring that same fault-finding to reading, which is supposedly the thing I love to do more than anything? Part of me thinks this whole post is wrong-headed and foolish. But part of me doesn’t. Why is there part of me that can’t help but think I’m doing this reading thing as well as I might?

Do any of you ever feel this way?

What I Read, January 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Nat Leach’s 2019 Year in Reading

I invited my friend and sometime EMJ contributor, Nat Leach, to write about the highlights of his year in reading. Not only did he write about his favourites, he also described his idiosyncratic reading project. Enjoy! (I couldn’t help but add a few editorial comments along the way.)

When Dorian suggested that I consider writing a review post on my reading for the year, I was keen to share some of my thoughts, but also felt the need to preface it with a confession of sorts, so here goes:

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I have never been the sort of person who could read just one book at a time. When I was an undergraduate student, I kept a pile of books beside my bed. I would read a chapter from the top book, place it in a new pile beside the first one and repeat until the pile was empty. Then, I would repeat the same process in reverse. This had the benefit of keeping my reading fresh, never getting bogged down in one thing, and allowing me to continually be surprised. It took me a little longer to finish books, but I quite enjoyed this too; when I really liked them, I wanted to savour them, and when I didn’t like them, I was soon able to switch to something else.

The problem came when I entered graduate school, moved to a city with excellent used book stores (London, Ontario) [have to say, this does not correlate to my memory of London! – DS] and started to become more broadly curious about literature, theory, philosophy, and just about everything else, than I ever had been before. One pile became two, then three, and eventually I had a long coffee table covered with nothing but book piles. My system became more sophisticated, but the basic principle of moving from one book to the next did not change. Over the years, I made compromises (my wife insisted on bookshelves to replace that coffee table, for example) but I never changed my ways. I continued to enjoy picking up books with no preconceived decision-making process in mind. Thomas de Quincey’s excellent essay on sortilege and astrology influenced my thinking on this point; he accepts that connections exist between things that cannot be rationally understood, so sees value in allowing chance to bring them to light. And indeed, I have often felt that I was reading just the right book at just the right time, some kind of synchronicity between my reading and my life, or between two books I happened to be reading at the same time.

It wasn’t until I joined Twitter two years ago that I began to take stock of my reading life. For one thing, I joined Twitter to participate in the great book conversations that I discovered there, but it’s hard to join in conversations when you have only read parts of so many books. How many times can you say “Oh yeah, I read the first quarter of that book! It’s really good!”? For another thing, I realized that I’m not as young as I used to be, and in the face of inevitable mortality, I’d rather die having finished a few good books as opposed to having started a whole bunch.

It was at this point that I realized that the only way to overcome the negative effects of an absurd and ill-advised reading strategy, I was going to need another absurd and ill-advised reading strategy. I hit on the idea of methodically working my way through all of those never-completed books one at a time from A to Z (from Achebe to Zola, if you will). I already tended to arrange my reading alphabetically, so this simply built in the requirement that I had to finish a book before moving on to the next one.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I now read only one book at a time. But at least I’m now cycling between 20-30 books rather than hundreds, and focusing primarily on a single book. Nor does it mean that I am entirely rigid in my system; it initially intended to involve only books that I had already started, but gradually I have allowed alluring new books to slip into their place in the alphabetical queue. I have also made exceptions for borrowed/library books and communal Twitter events, all of which slow my progress somewhat, but since the pleasure is in the journey, I also enjoy these diversions and side-trips.

All of which is to explain why most of my reading for the year falls within a fairly small alphabetical range. In 2018, I got through A, B and most of C. This year, I finished C and got through D, E and most of F. If I keep this pace of almost 3 letters per year, I’ll be done this project by 2027 (and then I’ll probably just start again). Statistically speaking, I completed 39 books last year and 31 this year; not huge totals, but since I hadn’t even cracked 30 since 2000, I think I can say my new system is showing progress. Also, 9 of the 31 were over 500 pages, which partly accounts for the slower pace. These 31 books were written by authors from 15 different countries, which I thought was a pretty remarkable ratio considering the arbitrariness of my system, although this diversity primarily comes from various countries in Europe; I may need to work on exploring other continents. I read 18 books by men and 13 by women.

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Having said all that, I present thumbnail sketches of my 2019 reading:

Couperus, Louis- Eline Vere

Technically, my last book of 2018, but I finished it on January 3, and it’s so good, I’m including it. It’s a book with a personal connection for me, since my Dutch grandmother had numerous figurines of the title character around her house in The Hague; she explained that because this book was so famous, Eline had become a sort of figure of pride for the city. Once I finished the book, this puzzled me a little, since Eline is not exactly the heroic sort of character one would expect to be commemorated in this way, but the book is fantastic in its depiction both of its social world and Eline’s disaffection and alienation from it. [I really love this book too, and wish it were better known! — DS]

Crummey, Michael- Galore

A magical realist novel set in Newfoundland (think One Hundred Years of Solitude but with a whole lot more ice). Crummey incorporates the folklore and history of the island into a compelling and fantastical multi-generational narrative (this is one of those novels where you are very grateful that there is a family tree included at the beginning of the book). It also features that rarest of things, an ending that is totally unexpected and yet a perfectly appropriate way of resolving the narrative.

Dante- The Divine Comedy

There’s not much new that I can say about Dante, but I do think that reading this book is an experience that everyone should have at least once in their life. Even a lapsed Unitarian like me has to appreciate the thoroughness of his cosmology, even if I’d be very afraid of someone who actually believed all of it. It does inevitably suffer from Milton’s problem, that what happens in Hell is so much more interesting than what happens in Heaven.

David, Filip- The House of Remembering and Forgetting

I had high hopes for this book after reading some early reviews, but in the end was disappointed with it. There are some powerful moments, but it ultimately reads as an awkward mishmash of Holocaust narrative and mysticism (two things that, frankly, do not go together). [Might explain why I never finished this book. — DS]

DeLillo, Don- Falling Man

I count White Noise among my favourite novels of all time, and it didn’t seem surprising that the author of a book that depicts mundane American life being punctured by disaster would choose to write a novel about 9/11. DeLillo represents the traumatic aftermath of the event on one man and his family in a thoughtful and nuanced way. This narrative is juxtaposed with a number of scenes focalized through one of the hijackers which seem to offer a broader perspective, though these segments seem rather under-developed compared to the main plot. I enjoyed the book, although in the end, I found myself wondering if it had really gone anywhere (but maybe I shouldn’t have expected it to?)

Dickens, Charles- Hard Times

This is a book that my younger self didn’t get on with very well because of its overt didacticism, but this time I enjoyed it a great deal, having a better sense of its context. Still not my favourite Dickens, but that’s not really a criticism.

Dostoevsky, Fyodor- Crime and Punishment

Another literary experience that I think everyone should undergo, harrowing though it is. I was already about halfway through the book, having read the crime and was awaiting the punishment. I was somewhat surprised by how long I had to wait, as the book seems quite digressive, but that may also be the point, that the consequences of the crime infiltrate every aspect of Raskolnikov’s life.

Drndic, Dasa- Belladonna

Another book I was very much looking forward to, and this one did not disappoint; it’s fiercely written and utterly compelling. Andreas Ban’s body is deteriorating in a way that mirrors the corruption he sees in his country, Croatia, and his memories and experiences frame the book’s reflections on history, politics, theory, and culture. Much of the book recounts Nazi and Ustase persecution of Jews in WWII and condemns the post-independence government of Croatia for its complicity in rehabilitating war criminals (both from WWII and from the Balkan genocides). Its attacks include a lengthy screed that will cure you of ever wanting to read Jonathan Littel’s The Kindly Ones. [I’m a big fan of Littel’s novel, so now I’ve got to read this. — DS]

Du Maurier, Daphne- My Cousin Rachel

This is a perfect book of its kind. Is Rachel a kindly relative or a cynical gold-digger? Is Philip a paranoid misogynist or a potential victim? Du Maurier keeps the pendulum swinging between these options, building suspense and cultivating uncertainty so that we’re never entirely sure of the truth, but compelled to keep reading. So good it sent me on a Du Maurier book-buying binge after finishing it. [And rightly so! I too loved this one. — DS]

Duncan, Sara Jeanette- The Imperialist

This Canadian classic from 1904 begins as a domestic drama about the Murchison family in a small town in Ontario, but widens into tackling broader economic and political issues. The family’s eldest son, Lorne, becomes an advocate for a preferential trade agreement with Great Britain, and runs for political office on that platform. The novel does get a bit bogged down in economic minutiae of a past era, but its concerns with British isolationism, election fraud, and the exploitation of Canada’s Indigenous people all seem disturbingly current.

Duncker, Patricia- Hallucinating Foucault

In the 1990’s, I think this was an obligatory book for theory-heads like me, but despite touching on Foucaultian themes such as madness and incarceration, it doesn’t really have much to do with him. The book starts with an interesting academic mystery, a graduate student searching for a French author with an oblique connection to Foucault, but fizzles out once he actually finds him. It just feels like the book tries too hard, culminating with an overtly symbolic character death that I couldn’t help laughing at. [Wow, now I need to re-read it. I loved it when I read it as the theory-head graduate student Nat describes, and have always wondered what happened to Duncker. Could I have been so wrong? (Yes.) — DS]

Edgeworth, Maria- Ormond

Edgeworth was much admired by Jane Austen, but her books have not achieved as wide a readership as Austen’s. The perceived regionalism of her Irish settings is no doubt one cause, but this book is at its strongest in its early scenes depicting the tension between Irish and Anglo-Irish ways of life. This novel begins in a picaresque mode, with Harry Ormond sent to live with an Irish relative after nearly killing a man in a quarrel and aspiring to become “an Irish Tom Jones”.  Ormond does improve morally, and the narrative loses some of its energy in the later scenes in Paris which demonstrate his reformed character. Perhaps this didacticism is another reason for Edgeworth’s neglect, but it does not negate this book’s many charms.

Eliot, George- Daniel Deronda

This one was quite a commitment, but was definitely the best book I read all year. From its in medias res opening that takes hundreds of pages to untangle to its swerve in the second half of the book away from concerns with individual relationships towards larger cultural, religious and moral issues, I found it thoroughly compelling both in narrative terms and in ethical ones.

Esquivel, Laura- Like Water for Chocolate

This is as close to light vacation reading as I get; magic realism with a feminist kick. Tita is expected by family tradition to remain unmarried in order to take care of her mother until her death, and the narrative is about overcoming the weight of these expectations. Tita’s creative energies are channeled into cooking, and a recipe accompanies each chapter, making this a potentially very tasty read (although most of them seemed too advanced for my culinary abilities).

Fallada, Hans- Every Man Dies Alone

This book about one couple’s small acts of resistance against Nazism drew me in from the very start and the ensuing cat and mouse narrative raises ethical questions about the obligation and the capacity to resist injustice. These questions become more ponderous as the book goes on, and the stakes are raised, but we never lose sight of the message that each individual must make these choices in ways both big and small. [So, so good! — DS]

Farrell, M.J. (Molly Keane)- Young Entry

I didn’t know whether to file this under F (for the author’s pen name) or K (for her real name), but chose the former simply because I was keen to read it. One of my favourites of the year for sheer reading pleasure; much as the plot about teenage girls coming of age against the backdrop of hunting culture in early 20th century Ireland sometimes bewildered me as I lack the vocabulary for hunting, horse riding and ladies’ underthings, the writing is so sharp and witty, I just went along for the ride. There are, for example, some wonderful passages presented from the point of view of the dog, or take this description of a runaway bicycle: “As the slope grew steeper, and consequently their progress faster, Prudence made the interesting discovery that Mr. Bennet’s bicycle entirely lacked brakes.”

Findley, Timothy- Headhunter

I remember wanting to read this book when it was first published (1993) because I had just read Heart of Darkness and was intrigued by the book’s initial premise, that Mr. Kurtz escapes from the pages of the book and terrorizes Toronto. That is quickly revealed as the delusion of a mentally ill character (Kurtz and Marlow are, coincidentally, the names of two psychologists), however, and what is depicted in this book is actually more horrifying (as readers of Findley might well expect.) Exploitation of the mentally ill, a child pornography ring, graphic violence against humans and animals: it’s not a book for the squeamish. In the end, I’m not sure it really holds together, as it tries to do way too much (and is already over 600 pages), but it sure is prescient on topics such as fake news and climate change denial.

Fink, Ida- A Scrap of Time

I read this book on Dorian’s recommendation, and he’s much better equipped than I am to explain the brilliance of these Holocaust stories. What impresses me most about them is the way that Fink dramatizes the complex dimensions of impossible moral situations. By showing, for example, a father remembering his attempt to hide while his children are being taken away (“Crazy”), or a woman being asked to suppress her past in order to keep a new lover (“Night of Surrender”), Fink makes us see the horrifying ways in which the persecutions of the Holocaust are perpetuated and internalized by survivors. [Yes, these stories are indispensable. — DS]

Flaubert, Gustave- Sentimental Education

When I mentioned on Twitter that I was reading this book, I got about as wide a range of responses as possible; some people love the book, others hate it, and some feel completely indifferent about it. Upon reading it, I can understand all those responses; it’s a chaotic novel that challenges readerly expectations in ways that might seem exhilarating, annoying, or tedious depending on the reader. I liked the book for the most part; even though the protagonist, Frédéric is often quite obnoxious, and his desire for the unattainable Madame Arnoux so excessive, I was still interested in him as a somewhat exaggerated exemplar of the human condition. His single-minded commitment to the object of his passion and his vacillation on every other desire seem painful, but typical human weaknesses. [Oh man, do I have mixed feelings about this one. — DS]

Fleming, Ian- You Only Live Twice

This was the first Bond novel I had ever read, and was not at all what I expected; the first half reads as a travelogue of Japan, and only in the second half do we get into some (fairly tame) spy stuff. The villain’s diabolical plan is somewhat limited in scope, but his “suicide garden” of toxic plants is evocative and terrifying. I liked it much better than the film, which used almost no material from the book, aside from some character names.

Gaskell, Elizabeth- Cranford

I must confess that I read this one out of order because it was the next book up on my e-reader while I was on vacation. I already knew that I loved Gaskell’s writing, her perceptive analysis of human character and her ability to produce powerfully emotional scenes. What I learned from this book is that she can also be laugh-out-loud funny. These vignettes about women in an English village are sweet, heartbreaking, and humourous by turns; my favourite moment is when a rather hyperbolic panic caused by a suspected wave of break-ins sweeps the town.

Best of the rest:

Levi, Primo- The Monkey’s Wrench

I re-read (and wrote about) The Periodic Table in commemoration of Levi’s centenary, and had intended to write about it in conjunction with The Monkey’s Wrench, but realized it would have been too much. The two books have much in common, including Levi’s characteristically keen eye for the nuances of human character, and a belief in the ennobling power of work. Where The Periodic Table celebrates the chemist’s ability to solve mental challenges, The Monkey’s Wrench often celebrates the more physical aspects of work in stories told by Libertino Faussone, a fictional character whom Levi identifies as a composite of many real men, and the narrator, a version of Levi himself. The most interesting parts of the book, though, are the many places where this manual labour is compared to, and aligned with, the act of story-telling itself.

Pontoppidan, Henrik- Lucky Per

This book intrigued me and frustrated me by turns, but it certainly did make me think. Most of my frustrations came from the book’s seeming uncertainty about how it felt about the protagonist. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, in which Per is a rebel against the soul-destroying form of Christianity practiced by his family, but as Per’s behaviour becomes more reprehensible, the book seems to lack a critical distance from him so that it’s not clear how we are supposed to react to his egotism. This book inspired me to re-read Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, a favourite of mine which seemed a clear model for this novel, although the possibility of redemption is handled very differently in the two works. Despite my frustrations, this is a book that has stuck with me.

Vermette, Katerina- The Break

I read this fantastic, troubling book because Dorian told me to and you should too!

2019 Year in Reading

Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.

Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.

For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)

And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.

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Best of the Bunch

Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)

Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.

I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.

Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.

 Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.

Other Awards

Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)

Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.

Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.

Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.

Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.

Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.

Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.

Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.

Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).

Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).

Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.

Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain

Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).

Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!

Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.

Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.

Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).

Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).

Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.

Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).

Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.

Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!

Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).

Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.

Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).

Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.

Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.

Monthly Review Posts

January, February, March, April, May,  June, July/August, September, October, November, December

Coming in 2020

More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.

In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.

One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.

As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.

And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.

December 2019 in Review

December brought the end of the semester: busy, but less oppressive than the lead-up to it. Which meant more time for reading. And I spent the last week on Hawai’i, which, though not exactly my scene, is lovely and a good place to inhale undemanding thrillers.

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Robert Harris, The Fear Index (2011) Thriller about a Geneva-based hedge fund that makes spectacular profits thanks to an algorithm so complex it starts running itself. As I’ve reported before Harris can’t do female characters, but, given that he’s rewriting Frankenstein, a novel famously about men plotting to do away with the need for female reproduction, that’s kind of fitting. This book could have turned out hokey or lousy, but it’s quite good.

Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb (2015) Another fine addition to the Bernie Guenther series, this one taking in events in the Balkans.

Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017) I read this with four students I’m working with on a year-long Holocaust education project, and we found it an excellent introduction to the subject. It benefits from being organized around the questions Hayes has most often come across in his decades of teaching about the Holocaust, meaning that its history is as much of ideas as events (as in, for example, his lucid explanation of the differences between different generations of European antisemitism). Hayes is an economic historian (the next time someone tells you how complicit IBM, say, was in the Holocaust, you’ll know exactly what to tell them); unsurprisingly, then, anecdotes, memories, and individual experiences are notably absent. But since we’re studying just those things in our project on Holocaust literature, that fact was more useful complement than omission. Others might think differently.

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014) As wonderful as everyone says. A hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and nature writing—a proper essay—the story of how Macdonald trained a goshawk (appealingly named Mabel) is woven around the effect on her life of two men: her father, by all accounts a lovely man, a photojournalist and champion of his daughter’s passions, whose sudden death sends Macdonald into deep, violent grief; and the midcentury writer T. H. White, by all accounts, not least his own, an unlovely man, unable to accept his own queerness and desperate to prove his competence no matter what the cost, but whose books, especially an account of his own experience keeping a hawk, have been important to Macdonald from childhood. I learned lots about hawks, the English countryside, ideas of wildness, and plenty of good words (when hawks try to jump off their owner’s fist while tethered—with thin strips, usually of leather, called “jesses”—they are said “to bate”).

I listened to this book: Macdonald reads it herself, wonderfully, but it’s a bit more demanding than my usual audiobook fare and I found myself skipping back a lot. Probably better read in print, or at least not while you’re trying to drive.

Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1986) Trans. Klara Glowczewska (1989) Back in the day, when trade paperbacks were new and the Vintage International series ruled the shelves of better bookshops across North America, I used to see this book all the time. I’m glad I didn’t read it then, though, because I didn’t have the background to understand its oblique take on Poland from the 1930s to the 70s. With the benefit of experience and study I was able to appreciate Szczypiorski’s achievement here, though I still had the sense that the book was aimed at the Poland of the post-1968 period rather than of the war years with which most of its events are ostensibly concerned. And because my knowledge of postwar Poland is fairly schematic I still wasn’t the most informed reader. Yet I didn’t mind this—my ignorance somehow fit with Szczypiorski’s indirect treatment. (By this logic, my young, ignorant self would have been an even better reader…) I read the novel thinking it would foreground the Holocaust—the Mrs. Seidenman of the title is a Jew who passes as Gentile in Warsaw during the war—yet despite references to the Ghetto the novel has the self-knowledge to avoid writing what it doesn’t know intimately.

The most eye-catching stylistic feature is the regular use of flash forwards to show us the (largely futile, depressing, and deadly) futures of its characters. (Like Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But this isn’t a flashy book. Its tone is elegant, cerebral, hushed, rather like its opening sentence: “The room was in twilight because the judge was a lover of twilight.” Not that he loved twilight, but that he was a lover of twilight. Nice.

Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians (2019) Wrote about this here. It’s ok.

Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (2019) Crime fiction is going to have to think about what it wants to be in an era characterized by the need to think more systemically (structural racism, inequality, “stop and frisk” profiling, etc.). Can its individualistic model (the dogged PI, the obsessive cop, the intrepid journalist) translate to our world? Your House Will Pay is an intriguing answer to this question. It sidelines the police, turning its attention instead on those affected by violence, inequality, racism, without being perpetrators or victims in the conventional sense. Modelled on the riots in LA’s Koreatown in the 90s, Cha’s novel follows two well-developed characters, an African American ex-con and a Korean American pharmacist, who are forced to grapple with what it means to forgive the wrongs of the past. I’m excited to see what Cha will do next.

Émile Zola, Pot Luck (1882) Trans. Brian Nelson (1999) Swear to God I’m going to write about this soon. Disagreeable, but compelling.

Philip Kerr, The Other Side of Silence (2016) Not my favourite Bernie novel, but a very agreeable way to pass a long plane trip.

Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (1960) My first MacInnes, but not my last. I was impressed how she kept the plot going without flagging (it’s over 600 pages). As a smart Twitter correspondent pointed out, MacInnes can be a little buttoned-up—amazing how much chasing through the mountains happens in heels and suits & ties—but her representation of place is acute, and her use of point of view interesting. Delphi centers a male character, yet regularly dips into the consciousness of the female lead, which makes the relationship that develops between them more compelling than usual for the genre. Because the book features artists and photographers who accidentally are enmeshed in political plot by a terrorist cell it is also smart about what it means to represent places, people, and events. Not sure why MacInnes isn’t talked about the way Le Carré, for example, is, though I guess sexism is the likely answer.

That brings my reading year to a close. In a day or two I’ll reflect on what and how I read in 2019.

Enervated: Cathleen Schine’s The Grammarians

“Twin” is one of those wonderful hinge words in English, that mean two opposite things. Like the more celebrated “to cleave,” to twin means both to join and to divide, to double and to halve. As a noun, twin refers to one of a couple. As a verb it means to part, sever, sunder, deprive (of).

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Cathleen Schine offers these definitions of “twin” as the epigraph for her enjoyable new novel, The Grammarians. Its plot charts the move from noun to verb. Laurel and Daphne are identical twins, born seventeen minutes apart. As the girls age, those minutes loom ever larger, symbolizing the differences they are surprised to discover open up between them. As small, very precocious children, the girls invent a private language. They listen to a record of My Fair Lady over and over, swanning about the house singing “Ah-wooo-dent it be loverly.” They are fascinated by words. The most significant event of their childhood is the day their father comes home with a lectern and a giant book he places on it in his study; they watch him wrestle it out of his trunk “like a doctor delivering a baby.” Their new sibling is the second edition of Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language; even as five-year-olds the oversize volume with its “cliff of compressed pages notched with steps the size of a fingerprint” becomes the centre of their world. Their mother contemplates forcing them to watch television to get them away from the damn dictionary for a while.

The girls become adults in the New York of the 80s, reviling Reagan but like plenty of comfortable white people not really suffering from him. Daphne makes a good living at a thinly disguised version of The Village Voice—perhaps this was possible in that lost world, though I’m not sure. Even more implausibly, she becomes famous as the author of a disapproving, sarcastic grammar column called “The People’s Pedant,” later turned into various books. Meantime, Laurel becomes first a kindergarten teacher, then a stay-at-home mother, and eventually a poet, assembling the often agrammatical expressions she finds in a collection of letters written by the relatives of soldiers to the Department of War—she “hear[s] their voices through the grammar”—into texts that are lauded by critics as generous but disparaged as appropriation by Daphne.

In other words, the sisters explore different ways of being women, of becoming creators, and, most importantly, of understanding language. Daphne is prescriptive, Laurel descriptive. Daphne believes that rules govern usage, Laurel that usage should shape rules.

Schine isn’t particularly subtle about her theme. At a deli, awaiting their blintzes, Daphne asks Laurel which is better, the way sour cream looks or tastes. Her sister calls it a tie:

Daphne thought about that as they ate, looking at the beautiful, shimmering sour cream, tasting it cool and smooth against the warm, buttery blintz. Could anything really be a tie? Was anything really equal to any other thing? She and Laurel were twins, eggs of a feather, so to speak, but were they tied? Tied together, yes. But tied?

The sentiment if expressed even more pithily early in the novel, ostensibly (but unconvincingly) from the POV of the young girls: “Identical twins, dressed in identical outfits—are they half or double?”

At the end of the blintz passage, Daphne turns from meditating on equality to thinking about words:

“‘Tie’ is a funny word,” she said.

“Sometimes,” Laurel said, “I think all words are funny.”

But funny ha ha or funny peculiar? Are words—and language more generally—something to marvel at, something that can be used in all sorts of peculiar ways, giving rise to new meanings, new uses? Or are they something that instills discipline and order? Is grammar truth or just the naturalized prejudices of rich people?

Most of us probably slide unreflectively from one position to the other. Sometimes sanguine about the seemingly infinite flexibility of language, especially English (think of all the ways we can use “fuck”). And sometimes grumpy about the decline of linguistic decorum, usually when it comes to uses that we for whatever reason hold dear (our particular crochets).

You’d think that how readers feel about language would be reflected in how they feel about the sisters. That is, prescriptivists will prefer Daphne while descriptivists will prefer Laurel. The problem, for me, is that Daphne is insufferably priggish, and it’s hard to imagine anyone liking her. (But I’m a pretty unreflective descriptivist, so I suppose I would say that.) Though, on reflection, Laurel is rather vague, so maybe what Schine has done is created characters that epitomize the stereotypical complaints about each philosophy.

The sisters eventually reach a version of détente (as the novel might put it, the ties that blind become, once again, the ties that bind), but not until after a years-long row in which they don’t speak. (The book is oddly structured, with a short opening chapter that references the feud, before sending us back to the beginning to find out how the twins got to that point, but then bursting past the opening frame, even ignoring it altogether, at the end.) In the end their love is reaffirmed—they remember that they are albumen and yolk and shell together.” But I found myself caring more for the novel’s minor characters than the grammarians themselves. Their cousin, Brian, turns in just a few deft scenes from bewildered child to snotty teen to sage adult. Their husbands, Michael and Larry, long-suffering and genial, are even more appealing, even though they really have bit parts. After the sisters break off relations, the men, whose initial forced friendship turns genuine, continue to meet in secret. In the end, I found their life-long affair more moving than the twins’ relationship with language.

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In the end, how much you enjoy The Grammarians depends on how much you enjoy its almost aphoristic riffs on bits of language usage. Here’s Daphne, talking about her job:

Copyediting is helping the words survive the misconceptions of their authors.

And here’s Laurel, expressing a thought I’ve often had:

“I’m enervated,” she said after soothing and congratulating her sister. “I like that word because it sounds like it means the opposite of what it means.”

The Grammarians is a quick, fun read. Maybe more miss than hit, though. It’s definitely too schematic. And its evocation of 80s New York is glib, an exercise in nostalgia that makes it different from books actually written in that period. (There’s a brief reference to the AIDS patients Michael treats when almost no one else will, a discussion about how you can get avocados and radicchio at Fairway, the sort of period detailing that tv shows set in the past spend enormous amounts of time and money getting right and which the shows of the period effortlessly exude.) In this regard, The Grammarians made me want to return to the works of Laurie Colwin, another low-key Jewish writer specializing in relationship stories set in arty bourgeois New York. Colwin was both warmer and more bittersweet than Schine, a better writer altogether, and one whose reputation seems sadly to be at rather a low ebb just now. Schine’s novel is perfectly enjoyable, but I doubt I’ll remember it in a couple of months, whereas Colwin has stayed with me for decades.

Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.

Earlier this semester, I presented for the third time at the annual Arkansas Holocaust Education Conference. In addition to giving the keynote talk (“Holocaust 101”), I also taught a session (basically, a class). The conference has an unusual format and remit. It is designed for high school students, their teachers, and interested community members. In a single busy day, participants hear two plenaries plus a presentation from a Holocaust survivor, and attend two breakout sessions from a selection of about six or seven.

I love being able to teach such a wide range of ages and experiences: a typical session will include as many retirees as 15-year-olds. The unusual format comes with its own challenges, of course: keeping the students from feeling intimidated by the adults; making sure the older participants really listen to the younger ones. By making participants work together to close read something, I seek to put everyone on the same footing and build a sense of community.

My session this year was called “Strangers in their Own Land: Jewish Self-Awareness in Holocaust Memoirs.” As I’d like eventually to turn it into a more formal piece of writing, I thought I’d transcribe my lesson plan here.

RuthKluger

Ruth Kluger

The handout that we used for our exercise was headed by two quotations; together, they offer a condensed version of what I was hoping the participants would learn:

I had found out, for myself and by myself, how things stood between us and the Nazis and had paid for knowledge with the coin of pain.

—Ruth Kluger

To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? I answer seldom a word.

—W. E. B. Du Bois

At first glance, Kluger—the Viennese-born survivor of Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, and a death march—and Du Bois—the legendary African American sociologist and writer—might seem an unusual pairing. I argued that, on the contrary, they share the same way of thinking about the vicissitudes of being a member of a persecuted minority. For persecuted minorities, to know is to hurt, to exist is to be a problem.

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Nechama Tec

I began by explaining my title, which I adapted from an anecdote in Kluger’s brilliant memoir Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. In 1937—Kluger was about to turn six—her family summered in Italy. They had a car, rather unusual for the time, especially in Italy. Driving through the rural South, they pass another car with Austrian plates. The tourists wave to each other. Kluger is taken by the experience. She thinks, We wouldn’t have done that at home; we don’t even know each other. Writing many years later, she reflects:

I was enchanted by the discovery that strangers in a strange land greet each other because they are compatriots.

But this comforting nationalism, in which strangers become acquaintances by virtue of calling the same place home, would soon prove false and alienating. Kluger learned, along with the rest of Europe’s Jews, that being Jewish trumped being Austrian (or German or Polish or French or whatever). On her prewar holiday, Kluger enjoyed the experience of being a stranger in a strange land; just a year later, after the Anschluss, Kluger became a stranger in her own land.

To realize you are not at home in your home is shattering. The experience is powerfully ambivalent one, at once harmful and helpful.

To show how that might be the case, I referenced three Holocaust survivors: Kluger, Nechama Tec (born in Lublin in 1931 and hidden together with her family in a series of safe houses across Poland), and Sarah Kofman (born in Paris in 1934 to parents who had emigrated from Poland and who survived in hiding with a family friend she learned to call Mémé). Interestingly, all of these women later became academics: Kluger a professor of German, Tec of sociology, Kofman of philosophy.

(I’ll skip the potted bios, but I’m happy to say more in the comments if you’re interested.)

That brief orientation over, I divided the class into three and assigned each group one of the following passages, which we first read aloud together:

I found a small opening in the wall from which, unobserved, I could watch the girls at play. To me they seemed so content, so carefree, and I envied them their fun. Did they know that a war was on? At times, as I watched them, I too became engrossed in their games and almost forgot about the war. But the bell that called them back to class called me back to reality, and at such moments I became acutely aware of my loneliness. These small excursions made me feel, in the end, more miserable than ever. The girls in the boarding school were so near and yet so far. The wall that separated us was thick indeed, and eventually I could not bear to go near it.

—Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84)

(Before we read, I explained the context. The scene takes place in 1940 or 41. Tec and her family are living in hiding in a disused part of a factory formerly owned by Tec’s father. The factory abuts on a convent school, a source of fascinated longing for Tec.)

In 1940, when I was eight or nine, the local movie theatre showed Walt Disney’s Snow White. … I badly wanted to see this film, but since I was Jewish, I naturally wasn’t permitted to. I groused and bitched about this unfairness until finally my mother proposed that I should leave her alone and just go and forget about what was permitted and what wasn’t. … So of course I went, not only for the movie, but to prove myself. I bought the most expensive type of ticket, thinking that sitting in a loge would make me less noticeable, and thus I ended up next to the nineteen-year-old baker’s daughter from next door with her little siblings, enthusiastic Nazis one and all. … When the lights came on, I wanted to wait until the house had emptied out, but my enemy stood her ground and waited, too. … She spoke firmly and with conviction, in the manner of a member of the Bund deutscher Mädchen, the female branch of the Hitler Youth, to which she surely belonged. Hadn’t I seen the sign at the box office? (I nodded. What else could I do? It was a rhetorical question.) Didn’t I know what it meant? I could read, couldn’t I? It said “No Jews.” I had broken a law … If it happened again she would call the police. I was lucky that she was letting me off this once.

The story of Snow White can be reduced to one question: who is entitled to live in the king’s palace and who is the outsider. The baker’s daughter and I followed this formula. She, in her own house, the magic mirror of her racial purity before her eyes, and I, also at home here, a native, but without permission and at this moment expelled and exposed. Even though I despised the law that excluded me, I still felt ashamed to have been found out. For shame doesn’t arise from the shameful action, but from discovery and exposure.

—Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001)

(The passage offers its own context; but I reminded participants that by 1940 the situation for Jews in Vienna was increasingly dangerous. Kluger’s father, a doctor who had already been arrested for seeing Aryan patients, had just fled for France (from where he was later deported to the Baltics and murdered); Kluger’s own deportation was less than two years away.)

Knowingly or not, Mémé had brought off a tour de force: right under my mother’s nose, she’d managed to detach me from her. And also from Judaism. She had saved us, but she was not without anti-Semitic prejudices. She taught me that I had a Jewish nose and made me feel the little bump that was the sign of it. She also said, “Jewish food is bad for the health; the Jews crucified our savior, Jesus Christ; they are all stingy and love only money; they are very intelligent, no other people has as many geniuses in music and philosophy.” …

My mother suffered in silence: no news from my father [arrested and deported]; no means of visiting my brothers and sisters [in hiding in various places in the French countryside]; no power to prevent Mémé from transforming me, detaching me from herself and from Judaism. I had, it seemed, buried the entire past: I started loving rare steak cooked in butter and parsley. I didn’t think at all any more about my father, and I couldn’t pronounce a single word in Yiddish despite the fact that I could still understand the language of my childhood perfectly. Now I even dreaded the end of the war!

—Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Translated by Ann Smock (1996)

(The passage, set in 1942 or 43, describes how Mémé, the woman who saved Kluger, also abused her.)

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Sarah Kofman

Each group worked together to discuss the passages and answer two questions. The first was the same for everybody: Do we see self-awareness in this passage? If so, how?

The second was particular to the excerpt. I asked the Tec group to track the passage’s verbs. What can we learn about Tec’s experience when we pay attention to those verbs?

I asked the Kluger group to track the word “home” and its synonyms in this passage. What can we learn about Kluger’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

I asked the Kofman group to track two repeated words in the passage: “detach” and “nose.” What can we learn about Kofman’s experience when we pay attention to those words?

As the participants worked on their assignment, I wandered the room, eavesdropping and cajoling if the conversation seemed to falter. After seven or eight minutes, I brought the class back together and asked each group to report their findings (after reminding everyone that, since we’d all read the passages aloud, anyone could feel free to chime in at any time).

They did well! If you like, you can take a minute to think about how you’d answer the questions.

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My annotations

Here are some of the things we noted:

Tec shows us both the appeal of fantasy and its cost. Spying on the children lucky enough to still be living ordinary lives takes her out of her situation, allows her to remember another life, even to almost forget the war. But the school bell that rings for them but not for her recalls her to reality. And that reminder is painful: she feels even worse than before, to the point where she eventually gives up her voyeurism. I’m always struck by “these small excursions”—such striking and unusual phrasing. What does an excursion imply? A vacation, a trip, a holiday, students will say. An adventure, but a safe one. Yes, I’ll add, an inconsequential one (a sense furthered by the adjective “small”). Tec is an explorer, but not, in the end, a successful one. She can’t keep going back to look at the childhood she no longer has. Excursion implies choice; yet this fantasy too fails her, just as the active verbs of the beginning of the passage (to find, to watch, to envy—things Tec herself chooses to do) are replaced by the experience of states of being (become engrossed, become acutely aware—things that happen to Tec).

The story of Kluger’s clandestine, dangerous trip to the movies (itself a salutary reminder for participants of how thoroughly Jews were shut out of ordinary life) centers on exposure. The “ex” prefix here, as in her use of “expelled” and Tec’s “excursion,” gestures to a desire, expressed at the very level of phonetics, to get out, to escape. Kluger tries to hide in plain sight, but the effort fails. Significantly, it is her next door neighbour who finds her out, showing us both how intimate persecution is, and how much, in this context at least, it functioned through an undoing of everything home should stand for. (To sell the point, Kluger uses many variations of the word home: I’m especially struck by her decision—not unidiomatic, but also not typical—to describe the theatre as a “house.”) Just as persecution makes home foreign, so too does it pervert justice. The baker’s daughter is right when she scolds Kluger for breaking a law: it’s easy for us to forget that Nazi persecution was legal. Kluger’s world has been turned upside down (her use of “naturally” is thus ironic); only she herself, her personality, her determination, offers the possibility of continuity. She is forbidden to go to the movies, so “of course” she goes. That’s just who she is. But the consequences of that persistence (nearly being turned over to the police) suggest that the idea of being true to one’s self is for Kluger as much a disabling fantasy as Tec’s spying.

Kofman similarly struggles to understand who she is. The figurative nose in her first sentence (and I’m cheating here, since we were working with a translation, and I don’t know the original) is echoed, then amplified by the literal one that Mémé so disparages. As a group we marveled, if I can put it that way, at Kofman’s anguished situation: out of a complicated mixture of gratitude, internalized self-hatred, and adolescent rebellion against a difficult mother, who, to be sure, is herself in an unbearably difficult situation she falls in love with a woman who turns her against herself. Mémé teaches Kofman to hate her own body and her own identity, by making her experience herself as others do. In that sense, she turns Kofman into someone who must live in bad faith. Yet, as we noted, the repetition of “detachment” inevitably carries with it a reminder of attachment: in describing what she has lost Kofman indirectly reminds us of what she once was. And we speculated that Kofman’s similarly indirect presentation of Mémé’s litany of anti-Semitic canards (where even the compliments are backhanded) implies a kind of resistance on her part to the older woman’s actions. It is unlikely, I suggested, that Mémé said all of these things at once, in a single sentence, as Kofman presents it. Which implies she has arranged the material: by piling the attacks on, she is inviting us to see them as ridiculous, contradictory, unhinged. But Kofman’s critique is retrospective. At the time, her position is utterly confused. Witness her (classically hysterical) aphasia—able to understand her mother/father tongue, but no longer able to speak it. Years later, Kofman eventually throws Mémé over, even refusing to go to her funeral. The “good mother” in the memoir—well worth reading—turns out to be neither of the two women she is caught between but rather Frenchness itself: the language & culture Kofman becomes so adept in, able to wield rather than submit to.

Having facilitated discussion, and with time drawing short, I emphasized that resistance and rejection are intertwined in these passages. Resistance takes the form of self-knowledge.

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W. E. B. Du Bois

To understand the implications of that double position, I had us turn to a thinker from a different tradition. I read aloud the last passage on the handout:

The Negro is a sort of seventh son, born with a veil, and gifted with second-sight in this American world, — a world which yields him [sic] no true self-consciousness, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world. It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

—W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903)

Then I defined that consequential term double-consciousness: it’s what results when we have to define the self through the eyes of others. (I always use the example of Canadian identity, because it’s relatively low stakes and I can try to be funny with it: when Canadians think about what it means to be Canadian, as they often do, they usually begin, “Well, we’re not Americans…” In my experience, Americans seldom think about what it means to be American. They certainly don’t say, “Well, we’re not Canadians…” Which is because in geopolitical as well as cultural terms, America is dominant; they set the terms of understanding. The tape Americans use to measure themselves has been made to measure them.)

Minorities, Du Bois argues, typically define themselves in terms set by the majority. A significant result of this claim is that there is something valuable about that position of double-consciousness, for it is by definition a critical position. As Kluger explains in her memoir, her earliest reading material was anti-Semitic slogans, which gave her “an early opportunity to practice critical discrimination.”

The position of the majority or the dominant is properly speaking stupid, because it never has to translate its experience into terms given by someone else. It need never reflect. That is the definition of privilege.

But double-consciousness isn’t just enabling. To be in that position, to be a minority, specifically a persecuted minority like Jews in fascist Europe or Blacks at any time in American history, including the present, is to be at risk. Critical positions are precarious, dangerous, even intolerable—not just psychologically but also bodily. Think of Du Bois’s resonant, pained conclusion: to inhabit double-consciousness (to be at home in the idea of never being at home) is to feel “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.” Torn asunder. How can we read that and not think of lynching, or gassing, or any of the myriad ways minority bodies have been and continue to be made to suffer?

We were out of time. So I could only end by saying that the reason I had us to read Du Bois alongside Holocaust survivors was to think intersectionally. In terms of double-consciousness, minority experiences are more similar than different. And I wanted participants to think about the lesson for us today from these (to them) very old texts. To ask these questions: If we are a member of a minority, can we harness the power of double-consciousness and not be crushed? If we are a member of a majority, can we become self-aware enough not to harm, whether knowingly or unknowingly, minorities?

Can we be at home without being smug? Can we be self-aware without being strangers?