Ben Black’s Year in Reading, 2021

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

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

Alfred Sisley, Flood at Port Marly, 1876

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

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

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

Soul by Andrey Platonov

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

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

Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia Butler

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

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

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

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

Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham

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

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

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

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

The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs

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

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

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

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

Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi

A powerful short novel from Afghanistan.

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

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

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez

No list from me is complete without an Argentine.

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

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

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

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

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

The Parable of the Blind by Gert Hofmann

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

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

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

Benita Berthmann’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Benita Berthmann (@moodboardultra) Benita studies literature in Marburg, Germany, where she is a full time book enthusiast, part time smoker and existentialist.

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

Helene Schjerfbecek, G***y Woman, 1919

In 2021 I read more books than ever before. 175, to be exact. [Ed. – Damn girl!] I could do it because I was in a very relaxed last semester of my Bachelor’s degree with heaps of free time (which I have since finished) and also because we were and still are in a pandemic. Being advised to stay at home does have its advantages. [Ed. – Introverts of the world unite! But not too closely!]

How can I select a number of favorites from all these books? I cannot. I can only offer you a glimpse into my (reading) life, a tiny selection. Of course, there are books from 2021 that stuck with me more than others, that touched or repulsed me differently, that I catch myself returning to in my thoughts over and over again.

When I think about the most memorable books of the past year, DIE WOHLGESINNTEN (Les bienveillantes/The Kindly Ones, German translation by Hainer Kober) by JONATHAN LITTELL immediately comes to mind. Little manages to show us each and every realm, every tiny corner of the Nazi brain of his protagonist and narrator, Maximilian Aue, over almost 1400 pages. [Ed. – Shoulda read it in English, only 992.] He is able to portray a character that is not just a Nazi, not just morally ruined, but a human being, a terrible, guilty, one, but one we do not necessarily dislike. [Ed. – Hmm…] One that allows us to see that even the most intellectual, the most cultivated (however we might define that term) people are not exempt from pursuing the most evil crimes against humanity. Not exempt from committing genocide. It is difficult to find the right words for what this book did to and with me. Yet, it is clear to me that DIE WOHLGESINNTEN is a major work that will continue to make its way into the cultural memory and leave a lasting impact on all its readers.

I am not too big on audiobooks—I listen to the same ones over and over again to help me fall asleep at night because, apparently, I can only sleep when someone basically talks my ear off—but there is one that kept me company throughout the whole year: THE SECRET HISTORY by DONNA TARTT. Probably no surprise that I, a semi-pretentious lit-student, enjoyed the tale of a very pretentious, flamboyant yet secretive group of classics students who decide to kill their friend. The novel has all of my favorite tropes: Dark academia, an obsession with aesthetics, a compelling way of story telling, mystery, and a healthy amount of death and homoerotic subtext. The language is complex and clever, snobby and charming all in the same instant, proving to me that Donna Tartt is indeed the most skillful contemporary American writer. Her talents lie not only in writing, but also in reading her own novel as an audiobook, her southern accent just adds that little extra sprinkle. Also, I have a soft spot for Richard Papen. Fight me. [Ed. — Totally fair.]

A book that has been important for me for years and that I became even more fond of in 2021 was HERTA MÜLLER’S HERZTIER (English title: THE LAND OF GREEN PLUMS, English translator: Michael Hofmann). HERTA MÜLLER, Nobel Prize winner of 2009, is my most revered author—her description of life under Ceausescu’s dictatorship in 1970s and 80s Romania never ceases to leave me in awe of both her writing skills and her personal integrity. It is brutal, relentlessly honest and poetic. In HERZTIER, we get a close view of a group of students trying to evade political persecution, eventually having to escape the government—either by fleeing to Germany or by death.

Why is this novel so important to me? In the summer of 2021, I wrote by bachelor’s thesis on its figurations of death, an experience that taught me how to look at literature even more closely and how to present an argument on my own. I feel lucky I got to have these experiences with my favorite author. [Ed. – Heart emoji!]

It’s not always easy to read a novel by Müller, neither thematically nor stylistically, but I would argue that it is a memorable and most rewarding experience –her unusual prose, the (sometimes jarringly) accurate and detailed descriptions of seemingly minor incidents open up, at least for me, perspectives I would otherwise never have imagined exist. She is a minority writer (German-speaking Banat Swabian, having grown up in Romania), an uncompromising political activist, using her voice and her reputation as a Nobel laureate especially to help censored and blacklisted writers forced to live under dictatorial rule, and someone whom I admire for both their writing and their personal integrity. Safe to say, Herta Müller is my muse. [Ed. – Benita, you are a Herta Müller Ultra!]

A huge and somewhat daunting project of mine was to read UWE JOHNSON’S (pronounced more like Yohn-Zohn in German) JAHRESTAGE (ANNIVERSARIES, translated by Damion Searls): the German version is a whopping 1700 pages. I aimed for 50 pages a day, which roughly worked out. As the title already indicates, the narration follows every day in the life of the protagonist Gesine Cresspahl, originally from Jerichow, Mecklenburg, GDR, now a citizen of New York. Anniversaries is a cleverly interwoven literary montage consisting of Gesine’s current life with her daughter in NY in 1967 and 68, her and her family’s history (fascism in 1930s Germany and such…) and, interestingly, snippets of The New York Times. I recently attended a seminar on Literary Patronage that shed light on how much Johnson was struggling to finish the final quarter of the novel. The first three parts were published in 1970, 71 and 73, but he went through a rough patch health-wise, got divorced and amassed debts at his publishing house Suhrkamp amounting to roughly 250,000 DM (around $105,000 at that time, my quick research reveals), thus, he only managed to complete his main work in 1983, a year before his untimely death from a heart attack (while he tried to open his third bottle of wine that evening). [Ed. – Let that be a lesson to me.] Rumor has it that his publisher Siegfried Unseld, trying to get his money’s worth as he was supporting the author with a monthly paycheck of 3000 DM, pushed Johnson to his breaking point by demanding that the novel be completed by March 1983 or else he would suspend the monthly support. Unfortunately, we will probably never know if this is true, but it’s an interesting backstory to the novel either way.

Thinking about all the other books I also got through, it’s impossible to name, properly review, and shed light on all of them, but there are a few honorable mentions I would like to announce at the very least:

Anything I have read by THOMAS BERNHARD, my favorite angry Austrian. This year, I got around to: FROST (translated by Michael Hofmann), WATTEN. EIN NACHLASS (published in English in THREE NOVELLAS, translated by P. Jansen and K. Northcott), MEINE PREISE (MY PRIZES, translated by Carol Brown Janeway), HOLZFÄLLEN (WOODCUTTERS, translated by David McLintock) and DIE URSACHE (part one of his autobiographical writings, I could not find an English translation for it [Ed. – It’s in Gathering Evidence] – all worth reading. I look forward to discovering even more of Bernhard’s works in 2022.

ANNIE ERNAUX: EINE FRAU (UNE FEMME/A WOMAN’S STORY (English translations all by Tanya Leslie, German translations by Sonja Finck), DIE SCHAM (LA HONTE/SHAME) and DAS EREIGNIS (L’ÉVÉNEMENT/HAPPENING) found their way into my bookshelf and my reading year 2021. The last one especially made its way into my literary heart and memory: It deals with an abortion in early 1960s France—a dangerous and shameful endeavor at that time that Ernaux dissects into fragments of memory showing pain, shame, secrecy and the essential danger of being a woman. Safe to say I am glad was born in a time and a country that makes abortions, should one be needed, at least semi-accessible. Abortion rights are not perfect in modern day Germany, but I have the feeling it’s still better than what the author describes so hauntingly and directly.

For 2022, I hope that SHIDA BAZYAR’S novel DREI KAMERADINNEN (roughly: Three (female) Comrades) will be translated into English. It challenges white majority perspectives on Germany and the country’s ongoing problems with fascism, the rising political right and xenophobia. Bonus point: It is an absolute page-turner.

Balthus, Three Sisters and a Cat, 1965

Ok, now, finally and shortly, a couple of books that were awesome as well:

Marieke Lucas Rijneveld – The Discomfort of the Evening/Was man sät (T: Michele Hutchison/Helga van Beuningen)

Evelyn Waugh – Brideshead Revisited

Anne Weber – Annette, ein Heldinnenepos (English translation forthcoming later in 2022)

Margaret Atwood – The Blind Assassin

Patti Smith – Just Kids

Günter Grass – Der Butt/The Flounder (T: Ralph Manheim (I have read both the German original and the English translation and I can confirm that Manheim did a superb job!))

Kurt Vonnegut – Slaughterhouse Five

Maggie O’Farrell – Hamnet

I will probably not manage 175 books again this year (doing a master’s degree and all), but I hope I will still be able to discover new favorites. Keep on reading, folks.

And let’s hope Dorian keeps on giving us the chance to post these, so that I can put even more books on either my wish list or my tbr stack(s). [Ed. – I’ve already penciled you in for next year, Benita!]

Brooke Randel’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Brooke Randel (@brookerandel). Brooke is a writer and associate creative director in Chicago. The granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, she writes about memory, trauma, family, and history.

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

Käthe Kollwitz, Frontal Self-Portrait, 1922 – 23

My reading can be fairly evenly split into two categories: Holocaust-y and not. [Ed. – Same, Brooke, same.]

As both the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor and a writer working on a memoir about my grandma, literacy, and the legacy of the Holocaust, I read a lot about the topic. But when I’m not reading about it, I like the wild variety of contemporary fiction, part escape-hatch, part mood-lifter. Does it work? Sometimes. Sometimes, it really does. 

Here’s a sampling of what I read, organized in a way it certainly wasn’t while reading.

NONFICTION, HOLOCAUST

I learned about Liana Millu’s Smoke Over Birkenau through Twitter, likely from Dorian, then wondered why I hadn’t heard of it before. [Ed. – Could be–I do love this book. If you don’t listen to me—and why don’t you?—listen to Brooke.] It’s astounding in its clarity and starkness, its focus on women and their experiences in the camps, including prostitution and pregnancy. The prose feels brutally honest, offering no set-up before catapulting the reader into the everyday horrors of a Nazi concentration camp.

Most Holocaust books fill me with a certain amount of sadness, but The Light of Days by Judy Batalion contains so much action and agency that something new came over me. A sense of pride? Badassery? Straight fury? The book tells the true story of female resistance fighters in Poland, which is to say, Jewish teenage girls turned weapons smugglers and intelligence agents. It’s gripping to read, even as it jumps around between so many people and places. I’m not surprised it’s already been optioned for a film (by Spielberg, of course). Everyone craves the feel-good war story, as rare and unlikely as they are.

We Share the Same Sky by Rachael Cerrotti is a much quieter book. Cerrotti traces her grandma Hana Dubova’s story of survival through travel, following where she fled, including a stay with the descendants of the woman who took her grandma in during the war. Dubova and Cerotti’s stories become enmeshed, voices and experiences layering on top of one another just as they do in the mess of real life. Like me, Cerotti is part of the third generation, and she smartly uses her distance from the war to draw thoughtful connections. The book leans toward the uplifting—Hana’s story is one of escape after all, a Czech swept up into the incredible rescue of the Danish Jews—without evading the hard truths of Cerrotti’s own life. A feat, if you ask me. 

Side note: If you know of more third-gen Holocaust memoirs, tell me. I want to read them. Plunder by Menachem Kaiser is next on my list. [Ed. – One of the best third gen, IMO. I have my issues with this genre, as detailed elsewhere on the blog. Mendelsohn’s The Lost is great.]

In a similar yet opposite vein, I read two third-gen memoirs from descendants of Nazis, Julie Lindahl’s The Pendulum and Nora Krug’s Belonging. Lindahl, who was born in Brazil, grew up not knowing her family’s ties to the SS. Some scenes in her memoir, so proper and precise, so steeped in denial, felt foreign to me, but many echoed the same silence and pain I’ve seen in my own family. Lindahl ponders the weight of unclaimed guilt and what it takes to unearth hard family truths. Belonging, a graphic memoir, takes on similar themes. (Whenever I fall into a reading rut, I turn to graphic novels and memoirs. Highly recommended.) Krug balances a dark family history—her father, we learn, was given the same name as his older brother, a Nazi killed in the war—with bright, evocative watercolor illustrations. Krug’s work also introduced me to the German word Heimat, meaning the place that first forms us. A place, I suspect, we do not always know so well. 

NONFICTION, OTHER THINGS

I think about the suburbs a lot. If I’m thinking about them in my past, it’s with nostalgia. If I’m thinking about them in my future, it’s with dread. The Sprawl by Jason Diamond helped me unpack that a bit. Consider their design: the conformity, the utopian ideals, the racism, the way the streets curl in on themselves rather than connect. The byproduct? Loneliness, resentment, and, possibly, American creativity. Diamond notes how many artists have roots in the burbs, but the argument doesn’t entirely convince me. While reading The Sprawl, I stumbled upon the idea of non-places in Adam Morgan’s excellent newsletter, The Frontlist. A non-place, as defined by Marc Augé in his 1995 book Non-Places, is a space unconcerned with identity. Morgan notes these are places “where people are anonymous and don’t relate to the space with any sense of intimacy.” Not all suburbs are non-places, but I think The Sprawl shows how easily they can be.

I need more time in the day and light in the week to write about all the other non-fiction books I read this year, but I do want to say I read Minor Things by Cathy Park Hong and you should too. 

CONTEMPORARY FICTION 

I adore Aimee Bender. I had the chance to hear her read the first chapter of The Butterfly Lampshade at a virtual reading and had to get the book immediately afterward to find out where the story went next. There’s such magic and rupture in her prose.

Motherest by Kristen Iskandrian—I ate this book up with a spoon. Agnes, away at college, writes letters to her mom who has disappeared. (There’s something about letters I cannot resist.) [Ed. – Same! A letter in a novel makes my heart sing. And yet an entire novel of letters, not so much…] The book is, in turns, funny, dark, thoughtful, fractured and smart. Must seek out more Iskandrian. 

Jeff Chon’s Hashtag Good Guy with a Gun is the exact opposite of escapism. It’s look-directly-into-the-sun-ism. I haven’t read anything that touches upon current events, misinformation, toxic masculinity, and male violence quite like this book does. A punch to the gut but the fist is your own.

I had no idea what I was reading for the first third of The Idiot by Elif Batuman. Then I sunk into it. I swam in the prose. I’m still not sure what I read, but I enjoyed the swim.

Mona at Sea by Elizabeth Gonzalez James captures the strangeness of 2008 through a former overachiever let down by a lousy job market. It’s as funny as it is weird: she becomes a meme, endures a horrific interview at a dive bar, and lands a job at a call center. And it led to one of my weirdest reading moments of the year: I was at the bus stop (Chicago, early winter) when a car pulled up and a woman asked what I was reading. I showed her. As the light turned green, she yelled out the window, “Is it good?” and I yelled back, “Yeah!” Feels appropriate that moment happened with this book. [Ed. – How great is that?!]

Käthe Kollwitz, The Survivors, 1923

In total, I read 36 books, which broke out something like this: 18 books of nonfiction, 18 fiction. 4 graphic novels. 28 books by women. 14 by Jewish writers. 8 by writers of color. Far more small press books than in years past. Not bad for year two of a pandemic. What did you read while staying alive?

Nicie Panetta’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Nicie Panetta (@nicie_panetta). Nicie lives north of Boston with her husband, their frisky orange cat, and her lazy but lovable paint pony. She used to have some empty space on her bookshelves. That is no longer the case.

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

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

The Anthropocene

Almost a year ago, I started a weekly newsletter called Frugal Chariot. I write about books that I believe have something special to say about the troubled role of humans in the non-human world. I guess you could say that the fate of the earth and all that dwell within its embrace is my subject, but that books written by humans are my vehicle. “How frugal is the Chariot/ that bears a Human soul.” Thank you, Dorian for a chance to reflect here on my reading as a whole in 2021. [Ed – The pleasure is all mine!]

From the standpoint of literary merit and depth of meaning, my favorite book on the Anthropocene, which I haven’t yet written about for the newsletter, is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I ardently recommend it for the magisterial precision of his writing, for the prophetic nature of his insights, and for the great fighting heart that you can feel beating within the rather strict container of his style and tone. I did write about Lopez’s Horizon here.

From the standpoint of environmental news you can use, I would press into your hands Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson. The author, a leading entomologist, explains carefully and without histrionics why bugs are vitally important to all life on earth, and what we do know and don’t yet know about the extent and causes of insect population declines. He also has practical suggestions for individuals and for industry and government. This is an indispensable guide for the general reader to the way that the climate and biodiversity interrelate, and it’s also full of delight and discovery.

A quick request, if I may. I would be very grateful for any suggestions that EMJ readers might have for nature, place, and climate writing (does not have to be in book form) from underrepresented geographies, marginalized communities, and Indigenous writers. [Ed. – Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig’s Moon of Crusted Snow: two novels by Indigenous Canadians, dystopian clifi that foreground indigenous ways of knowing.] I am concerned that there are not enough voices from outside the Anglosphere and outside the OECD countries getting heard. My DMs are open and my email is nicie.panetta@gmail.com. Thanks in advance.

The Thing Is . . .

Because I am starting work on a climate-related place writing project [Ed. – Ooh, tease!], I have devoted much attention over the past year to treatments of the non-human, across my reading. The books that resonated most deeply for me often had a commitment to the thing-ness of things, to quiddity, to description. What follows are just a few examples of writings that I felt were exceptional on this score. Many if not most of these books came from recommendations provided by Learned Book Folks (LBFs) on Twitter, and I am so grateful. 

Two Writers’ Memoirs

Last year I read nearly forty memoirs. [Ed. — !] Deborah Levy’s Autobiographical Trilogy truly knocked my socks off. How could I never have heard of this writer! Thank you to Rebecca Hussey, for sending her my way. In the first volume, Levy makes highly effective use of narrative shear: a simple question from a stranger causes the floor of the present to buckle and give way to the past. In the two subsequent volumes, she uses totems of the everyday to represent the new phase of her life that begins after the end of her long marriage: a shed for writing, a heater for the shed, an electric bike to get around, a green pair of shoes for walking in Paris. 

It’s the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation. These objects, as they appear and reappear, create a syncopated rhythm that feels so true to the way we pass through time. Levy writes well about many things, including the closeness and strangeness of friendship, the commitments of motherhood (including the commitment to let go), the practicalities of being a writer, and most of all, what it is to be awake to life. Utterly captivating is this voyage on the inland sea of her mind: 

To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language.

Another writer’s memoir that is much less well known is Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of classics of historical fiction for children (including The Eagle of the Ninth). [Ed. – Just taking a moment here to remember how much that book meant to me.] Her account of growing up as an only child with chronic illness and disability is both sharp and glowing. Sutcliff’s portrait of her intense relationship with her mother is one of the best I’ve read, and the village communities of her childhood are brilliantly evoked. Heartbreak finds her, and she finds her way to a writing life. Aces. [Ed. – Sold to the man with too many books already!]

A Poet’s Playlist

Reading poetry has been a central preoccupation of my adult life. Because of my current interests and commitments, I am actually reading less poetry than I have in the past. But I did just finish Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in over a decade. The book is made up of distinct groupings of poems, including an ars poetica with the poet as spring cricket, a group about American history that serves as the text for a new song cycle, A Standing Witness, and eight very flashy “angry odes.” Here’s a poem from the final, quietly personal section, Dove’s translation of perhaps the most famous German poem:

Wayfarer’s Night Song

Above the mountaintops

all is still.

Among the treetops

you can feel

barely a breath—

birds in the forest, stripped of song.

Just wait: before long

you, too, shall rest.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776

The World Wars

A surprise. After toting things up, literature in translation accounted for nearly 40% of the books I read in 2021. I think this was due to a combustion reaction between my obsession with the period that encompasses the two world wars and the constant stream of relevant book ideas from the LBFs. [Ed. – Vowing to make this acronym take off.] Those years set the courses of my parents’ lives. My parents were born in the 1920s and died when I was young. Reading about this era keeps me in touch with them. Each of these books changed me in some small or larger way.

In poetry, I read a lot of Rilke thanks to an epistolary seminar offered by Mark Wunderlich (look for his forthcoming book on Rilke). I keep returning to Rilke’s work, in which the non-human vibrates without cease, and the moment of the poem zaps into the eternal. Prosodic whiz Don Paterson dresses the Orpheus sonnets in a new formal fabric in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke.

Enthroned one: in the ancient understanding,

You were no more than a cup with a plain rim.

But for us you are the full-blown, infinite bloom,

The wholly indefatigable thing

From “Rose” 

My parents loved the word “indefatigable.” They were activists, and it was a mark of highest esteem if they used it to characterize someone. It’s a good word to keep in your pocket. See also, “staunch.”

In fiction, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) tells the story of the strange life and dumpster-filling death of a German lake house near Berlin, across the entire twentieth century. Erpenbeck is very good with lists of ordinary stuff (building materials, bath towels, regulations), inventories that are transformed into incantantions of frightening power. As we grapple with our direction as a species, stories with non-human protagonists and with plots that extend beyond the human lifespan have much to offer. Visitation is a notable example. There is also a brilliant novel about a medieval convent in East Anglia, but I read that in 2020. [Ed. – The editor cannot help but feel attacked by this reference to That Book He is Unable to Finish. YMMV.]

Natalia Ginzburg’s essays about her family’s tragic experiences in Fascist and postwar Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) was also a revelation of style for me. Her tonal restraint and the apparent simplicity of her sentences make the heavy chords truly plangent when she strikes them. “And perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” 

Salt Water by Josep Pla (translated by Peter Bush) is a travelogue of his adventures on the Spanish and French coasts in the early 20th century. This book features shipwrights, bandits, taverns, sardines, and bracing quaffs that mingle caffeine with alcohol. The book, written under house arrest and a censorship regime, might be an instruction manual for those writing in a time of rising authoritarianism. There is something to be said for going rogue, or at least knowing a few rogues. Pla says it.

Most of all, the discovery of Joseph Roth thanks to the crew at the Backlisted podcast truly made my reading year. Many EMJ readers (and certainly the editor) know his work far better than I do. [Ed. – The editor is overestimated.] But What I Saw (translated by Michael Hofman), The Hotel Years (ditto), and On the End of the World (translated by Will Stone) have set a high-water mark for me as to what is possible from a journalist writing in a short form to deadline. Roth was a Galician Jew who made it to Vienna for university, served in the Austrian army in WWI, and then moved to Berlin to write for newspapers. He also wrote fiction, including Job and The Radetsky March.

What I Saw, which collects his feuilletons about Weimar Berlin, is a book not so much of vignettes, but of micro-sagas. He makes fun of skyscrapers (“We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds . . . They will hear the clatter of typewriters and the ringing of telephones”), visits Berlin’s refugees (“Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms. In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow”), makes regular forays to the demimonde (“Albert’s Cellar has regulars of such fixed habits that they even have their mail sent there”), and charts the collapse of the Republic with rising alarm and grief (“It is not true that a murder is just a murder”). His farewell column of 1933, written fresh from his flight into exile in Paris, is almost unbearable reading. So many observers were blind to what Roth saw, or failed to report what they saw. All the books I have mentioned here make the case for the necessity of style, and how style gives writing access to power. Roth’s work is exemplary in this regard. I read in awe, and salute his legacy:

Month on month, week on week, day by day, hour by hour, it becomes ever more impossible to give expression to the inexpressible nature of this world. The circle of lies that the miscreants draw around their crimes paralyses the word and the writers who employ it. Yet a common obligation makes you persist to the last moment: that is to say to the last drop of ink . . .

Earbuds 

I’m gradually working my way through Juliet Stevenson’s catalog (N.B. she reads the Levy trilogy brilliantly), and she never fails to bring clarity and spirit to a text. Other major delights have been Thandiwe Newton reading Jane Eyre (I’m excited for her War and Peace), Doc Brown reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (underrated, I aver), Chiwetel Ljiofor’s performance of Piranesi, and Prunella Scales’ reading of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.

Campus Duds

I read two campus novels that were cruel about women. Lucky Jim (despite one of the great hangover scenes in 20th-century literature) was chalk on a blackboard with its hatchet job on Monica Jones. Pictures of an Institution is also extravagantly mean about Mary McCarthy, who, to be fair, probably gave as good as she got. But who needs it? I’m with Pnin all day long. [Ed. – Amen!] Haven’t read Stoner yet. [Ed. – Don’t do it.]

Unclassifiable Wisdom

Alice Oswald’s Oxford Poetry Lectures on YouTube have been landmark events for me. Water, a pebble, Ainu epics: whatever the topic, she is riveting, incisively lyrical, somehow in touch with worlds beyond our ken. 

August Macke, Promenade II, 1913

2022

This year I will be paying special attention to structure, so if you have books that you think are brilliantly structured, please do be in touch.

In addition to reading for Frugal Chariot, and I have the following projects on deck:

  • Re-reads of The Iliad, The Odyssey and a few other classical texts
  • Fiction of Joseph Roth and the forthcoming biography by Keiron Pim [Ed. — Can’t wait for that one.]
  • Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (I have to admit that I’m not wowed by Pointed Roofs so far, but I am giving it a fair hearing)
  • The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Lonesome Dove (you rave, I read!) [Ed. – Thumbs up emoji]
  • Moby Dick with #APSTogether
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Teju Cole
  • More poetry! 

I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!

Olga Zilberbourg’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Olga Zilberbourg (@bowlga). The author of Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language books, Olga co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop; and together with Yelena Furman runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet and diaspora literature.

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

El Anatsui, Fading Cloth, 2005

My reading life this past year was dominated by my role as a juror for the 2022 Neustadt International Literary Prize. The first task we were given was to nominate an author based on the quality of their writing. After considering (and rereading) authors from Yoko Tawada to Jenny Erpenbeck to Polina Barskova, I finally settled on the writer, whose work had propelled me into adulthood back in the early 1990s and whose books played a foundational role in forming my outlook on contemporary literature: Liudmilla Petrushevksaya.

I chose to submit There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (Penguin), selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. This book rose to bestseller lists in 2009 and it delivers on its title: the tales she tells are indeed magical and very disturbing. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve let the jury members to discover that book for themselves, and nominated an earlier volume, The Time: Night translated into English by Sally Laird (Northwestern UP). This book is both naturalistic in its portrayal of life in late Perestroika Russia, with its total breakdown of all familial and social relationships, and it amplifies its naturalism with an ironic “what-if” scenario: what if a poet akin to Anna Akhmatova had been born half a century later? How would she fare? It’s a powerful short novel (that Anna Summers also translated and Penguin published in a follow-up volume There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In) and I love that it also features on Yelena Furman’s syllabus on contemporary Russian women writers. I strongly believe that this book (alongside Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna) belongs on every syllabus dedicated to 20th Century Russian lit.

Jury members submitted nominations in March; in May we received a stack of nine books and a website to an electronic literature project by Jean-Pierre Balpe, for a total of ten works of literature, representative of their authors’ oeuvres. Having spent the summer with these books, the jury then gathered in October, via Zoom, during the Neustadt Literary Festival, to deliberate and choose the winner: Boubacar Boris Diop, who had been nominated by Jennifer Croft (@jenniferlcroft). I should add that though the process of selecting the winner was painful—the inevitable competitive nature of voting does seem inimical to the nature of literary achievement—Diop was chosen in the spirit of total admiration, not to say, awe.

Diop’s is a rich body of work. I began with Murambi: The Book of Bones, which Jenny had nominated. Translated from French by Fiona McLauchlin and published by Indiana UP, this book came with a blurb by Toni Morrison: “This novel is a miracle. Murambi, The Book of Bones verifies my conviction that art alone can handle the consequences of human destruction and translate these consequences into meaning.” Diop, a writer from Senegal, was a part of a group of writers invited to come to Rwanda in 1998 and to write about the genocide that had occurred four years prior. As an outsider, Diop has had to invent his own structure in order to approach his subject matter, which he does brilliantly. The novel contains separate, tentatively connected sections, centering both the point of view of a victim and the point of view of a perpetrator. Diop then adds to it a perspective of an observer, a man who returns home after a long absence from the country and who will have to live with the outcomes of the genocide, finding his way through social and personal trauma. Remarkably, this strategy allows Diop to capture the scope of the horrific events and their history in colonial politics, as well as to tell memorable stories of a few individuals.

In my public library, I was also able to locate a copy of Diop’s novel Kaveena, translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh, and published by Indiana UP, a gripping murder mystery that takes us on a tour of intricate relationships between the various parties involved in running a fictional francophone African state. This novel showcases some of the mechanisms in which imperial economic interests continue to hold sway in so many independent post-colonial nations.

Then, there’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks, a novel that Diop wrote in Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal, and available in English in translation by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State UP). My library didn’t carry it, and neither did any of the connected public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area—which I tried to rectify by requesting that they purchase it. I didn’t get a chance to read it before the jury deliberations; it’s going right onto my 2022 reading list.

The full list of works nominated for the Neustadt Prize this year is available online. The authors included Kwame Dawes, Natalie Diaz, Michális Ganás, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Reina María Rodríguez. Writers: the most generous gift-givers. I should add that I enjoyed reading not only the books of the finalists, but also the books by my fellow nominating jurors, including Jennifer Croft’s book Homesick (Unnamed Press), a novelized memoir of a close sibling relationship, and Hamid Ismailov’s Gaia, Queen of Ants (Syracuse UP), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, centering around a pair of transplants from Uzbekistan trying to make a life in Europe.

Outside of the reading I’ve done for and around the prize, I very much enjoyed participating in my first ever Twitter read-along, organized by the amazing @ReemK10. For me, this was a rereading of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (Harcourt). I’d read it for the first time a decade ago, and had in the interim forgotten how much of a post-Holocaust story it is. This aspect struck me deeply during the reread. Alongside, I picked up a volume of essays by and about its translator, the famed Michael Henry Heim, The Man Between (Open Letter), edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino. It was fascinating to learn a little about the history of contemporary translation from Eastern European languages, and the central role Heim seemed to play in it.

And speaking of Eastern Europe, this year, I discovered the writer Vesna Maric, whose memoir of leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war at the age of sixteen, The Bluebird (Granta), was as fascinating as it was strangely funny. I reviewed Maric’s first novel The President Shop for Ron Slate’s project On the Seawall, and I’m also keeping an eye on this book’s publisher, Sandorf Passage, who is bringing to English more fascinating East European titles.

Yanina Boldyreva, from Birch People, 2021

Looking over what I’ve just written I note that most of the books I talk about were published in English translation by independent or university press publishers. This was not intentional on my part, but I’m also not entirely surprised. It’s a vast, vibrant literary world out there, and translators and publishers of indie and university presses are a big part of what makes it so. Book Twitter friends are another big part—thank you all!

R. Nicht’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by R. Nicht (@Sediziose_Voci). R. is a reader who lives in the southern U.S.

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

Girogio Morandi, Still Life, 1960

William Gardner Smith, The Stone Face

This terse novel of brutal images and elegant concision, as forceful as a punch in the face, depicts the effects of personal and collective racial trauma in the life of an African American journalist who takes refuge from the corrosive racism of American life in the bohemian expat culture of Paris in the days of the Algerian conflict. Smith casts a disapproving eye on this celebrated cultural milieu, which fostered such talents as James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Miles Davis and whose creative ferment has been the subject of admiring studies by Tyler Stovall and others, depicting its members not as artistic mavericks but as an idle group of lotus-eaters who fritter their time away in futile creative projects and vaporous dreams of Pan-Africanism. Briefly tempted by the escape they offer from the crushing burdens and responsibilities of African American selfhood, the protagonist ultimately rejects it after befriending a group of Algerians and witnessing the events of the 1961 Paris Massacre, when French National Police violently attacked a pro-FLN demonstration, killing more than 100 protesters.

Paradoxically, the protagonist’s experience of cross-racial solidarity with another persecuted minority and his affair with a Holocaust survivor (perhaps the least convincing character in the book) propel him into a commitment to a harsh racial sectarianism at odds with the racial ecumenicism the novel seems to hold out as an alluring but ultimately unachievable dream. In another time, another place, perhaps, the author seems to suggest, such a vision of cross-racial struggle might be realizable, but in the exigent moment of armed conflict and brutal racial oppression the novel depicts, the only moral option for members of subaltern groups is dedication to their separate, geographically delimited battles: the Algerians to armed conflict against the French occupiers in Algeria, the narrator to a militant fight against racism in the U.S. It is a bleak vision, but one that Smith dramatizes with undeniable power.

Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters

A swashbuckling classic that documents the CIA’s tentacular reach into multiple areas of cultural production in the West during the “hot” period of the Cold War from the late 1940s to the 1960s. Charting the tortured ideological trajectory that left-leaning writers and intellectuals followed after they broke with communism in the late 1930s following the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalinist show trials and became willing conscripts in a cultural struggle against the Soviet Union that relied as much on mendacity and ratfucking as the ruthless counteroffensive waged behind the Iron Curtain, Saunders’ book is an indictment not so much of the cultural crusade against Stalinism itself but of the brutal and reckless way it was waged. The hasty denazification of prominent cultural figures who would be “wins” for the West, the persecution of artists and writers with suspect communist pasts, the sidelining of dissenting voices unwilling to celebrate the new pax Americana, the sclerotic intellectual culture of the Cold War period that resulted—such things were neither necessary for victory nor inevitable, Saunders argues.

The book offers a useful intellectual genealogy of Cold War cultural liberalism, a force that still makes its presence felt—30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall—in certain sectors of the American and British intelligentsia in the form of a disenchanted but loyal statism, a florid reverence for “democratic norms” and the elites who supposedly safeguard them, and a genteel form of literary and cultural criticism that floats free from all questions of political economy. Left-leaning intellectuals may have broken with the CIA and its anti-communist crusade during the Vietnam War, but the distinctive intellectual style they developed during the heady days of that alliance has had a long afterlife.  

Hazel Carby, Imperial Intimacies: A Tale of Two Islands

A worthy contribution to life writing about the Black Atlantic, this memoir breaks the conventions of the form to offer a sweeping account of colonialism, empire, capitalism, and the construction of racialized subjects that relies as heavily on archival evidence as it does on personal and familial memory. Roving from suburban London to Bristol and Kingston and back to Britain again, Carby’s narrative shows how both strands of her family—proletarianized Welsh farmers displaced from their lands and mixed-race Jamaicans who ended up on the wrong side of the line that divided “white” Carbys from “black” Carbys—were conscripted into the British Empire’s race-making project, some as slaves, some as working-class whites in Bristol who came to identify themselves as proud subjects and beneficiaries of empire even as it brutally extracted their labor.

The book is above all an eloquent elegy for Carby’s parents, a bookish, soft-spoken Jamaican and a white Englishwoman from a hardscrabble background whose lives were destroyed, Carby makes clear, when they crossed forbidden racial boundaries during a period of illusory wartime sexual freedom. That their half-caste daughter also paid a severe penalty for their transgression is made clear in Carby’s narrative of her own childhood, which was evidently so painful that she refers to herself in the book in the third person as “the girl,” and then only glancingly (she does not, however, spare the reader the details of her rape by a white neighbor). Imperial Intimacies concludes with a perfectly cadenced sentence of stinging irony that encapsulates the entire book and returns the reader to the beginning pages. [Ed. – Now of course I have to read this. Impressively effective, R.]

Igiaba Scego, Oltre Babilonia

In this fiercely exuberant novel, Scego, an Italian of Somali descent, throws the doors and windows of Italian fiction wide open to admit silenced voices from Italy’s horrific colonial past in East Africa and Argentina’s Dirty War. The stories of trauma and loss they tell cross boundaries of continents and language to enrich and trouble Italy’s multiracial present, personified most vividly in the novel by the irrepressibly candid Zuhra, a daughter of the African diaspora in Italy who speaks Romanesco but yearns to learn Arabic and whose own psychic and physical maladies can be traced directly to the silences and omissions of her immigrant family’s tormented history and to her own experience of childhood sexual abuse. The novel’s recuperation of long-suppressed family stories is a work not simply of therapeutic healing but of regeneration—the attempt to build a living present out of the scattered fragments of the past and fashion a self in which memory and bodily health, pleasure and sexuality, are fully integrated. The novel has recently been translated into English by Aaron Robertson with the title Beyond Babylon.

Marta Barone, Città Sommersa

A daughter’s efforts to fill in the lacunae in the life of her recently deceased father, an enigmatic, secretive man who served a prison term for giving medical assistance to a member of a terrorist group in the 1970s, broadens to become a forensic reconstruction of the Years of Lead (gli anni di piombo), a period of convulsive political violence on the right and the left in Italy and in Turin, the author’s home city, that has been explored in fiction and non-fiction alike by Nadia Terranova, Giovanni De Luna, and others but still remains imperfectly understood. De Luna has suggested that the very term “years of lead” has been used to erase the complexities of a decade that saw Autonomist labor militancy, peaceful protest, and violent attacks against jurists and journalists by members of the Red Brigades and Prima Linea, the last of which involved only a fraction of the many people who were caught up in the political ferment of the time. Offering a harrowing account of one man’s personal and political journey through those tumultuous years as well as a narrative of her own present-day reconnoitering of her father’s past, Barone brings light and a searching intelligence to an era whose intricacies and contradictions have been buried under that unilluminating epitaph.

What Barone seems less assured at providing is any real understanding of the impassioned commitments and ambitions of the political actors of those years, which are perhaps apt to seem outsized and extravagant (Vogliamo tutto!) to one brought up in a neoliberal era of technocratic governance and constricted horizons of political possibility. Yet it is the tension created by the irreducible distance between her own present and her father’s past—the sense that the past is, despite all her efforts to recover it, a foreign country, they do things differently there—that is part of the allure of Barone’s mysterious and elegiac book, which will appear in English under the title Sunken City this spring courtesy of Serpent’s Tail Press and translator Julia MacGibbon.      

Natalia Ginzburg, Tutti i Nostri Ieri

Sandra Petrignani, La Corsara: Ritratto di Natalia Ginzburg

Having recently reread Ginzburg’s substantial 1952 novel, which deals with, among other topics, teenage sexuality, abortion, suicide, war, bombings, displacement, fascism, the Nazi invasion after the armistice, and the violent deaths of several key characters, I found it a bit disconcerting to hear one of the author’s English translators seemingly reinforce the view in a recent podcast that Ginzburg is a writer of slight domestic fictions, all short in length. It made me wonder if there is a sneaking tendency or perhaps marketing strategy to present women writing in languages other than English, particularly those published during the recent translation boom (with a few notable exceptions), as practitioners of exiguous and rarified rarefied fictional forms—peripheral, approachable, decidedly minor. [Ed. – Intriguing. I want to know what Rebecca Hussey thinks.]

There is certainly nothing small-scale about this panoramic work, the only novel in Ginzburg’s oeuvre written in the third person; if it lacks the technical finesse and playfulness with form of Family Lexicon, for which it is many ways the fictional antecedent, it makes up for these qualities in its scope, its variegated plot and settings, and dramatic power. At the center of the novel, which deals with the wartime experiences of two families in an industrial northern city much like Turin, one bourgeois, one “respectable” but down at the heels, stands the charismatic, rumbustious figure of Cenzo Rena, who seems a composite of Leone Ginzburg and several other heroic figures of Ginzburg’s Torinese youth. The only character in the book who has the inner resources to resist the deadening influence of fascism and rise to the moral challenges of the war, he is at the same time—and this is one of the book’s painful ironies—part of a transient, dying world, belonging to Italy’s past, who will not live to see the defeat of the Axis powers or the advent of the shattered postwar world that the surviving characters, among them Anna, the novel’s protagonist, gropingly confront in the concluding pages.

Sandra Petrignani’s La Corsara, a freeform biographical portrait of Ginzburg, offers a welcome corrective to the view of Ginzburg in the English-speaking world as a minor, grandmotherly author of piquant domestic fictions (one must of course guard against the tendency to see “domestic fiction” as a minor genre), presenting her as a major writer of prodigious output in multiple genres over several decades. The book is also a liberating example of literary biographical writing that departs from the two forms that have come to dominate the genre in the Anglophone world: the exhaustively documented doorstop biography by a literary scholar and the brief memoir by a family member or fellow writer that confines itself to small-scale portraiture and personal anecdote. Combining standard chronological exposition of biographical facts with interviews, personal reflections, memories of her own meetings with Ginzburg, and even a charming digression on her astrological chart, Petrignani creates a complex, vivid portrait that is no less authoritative for having violated in significant respects the conventions of contemporary literary biography. The English-language literary biography, a tradition that did not always adhere to the rigidities of present-day practice (think of Gaskell’s biography of Charlotte Brontë, or De Quincey’s portraits of the Lake Poets), could benefit, it seems to me, from Petrignani’s example. Her book is currently being translated into English.

Walter Kempowski, All for Nothing; translated by Anthea Bell

One of the principal questions that Kempowski’s astonishing novel seems to ask is just how much sympathy the reader can allow herself to feel for its characters, comfortable Germans of the landed upper-middle classes living in a shrinking enclave of calm in East Prussia during the last days of World War II as the Soviet Army moves towards them. How much will the reader’s reflexive tendency to identify and empathize with characters be tempered by her desire to judge them, to adjudicate what measure of blame they deserve for their relative comfort amidst the horrors of wartime and their silent complicity with Hitler’s regime, with Auschwitz and Treblinka and the ruins of the Warsaw ghetto not far to the south of them? Do the characters “earn” the terrible fate that befalls most of them at the novel’s conclusion? Kempowski’s master stroke in the novel seems to me to understand that negotiating these complex questions—writing about characters whom the reader at some level opposes from the outset—is as much a technical as it is a moral problem, a problem of style and technique, as it were.

The technical approach Kempowski chooses is a sequence of brief scenes—quick sketches, brief dashing episodes and asides—and a tone that is playfully ironic, interrogative, sly, detached, almost harmonium-like, with the fictional “camera” pulled back at a chilly distance to expose the characters’ foibles and weaknesses (Katharina’s idleness and indolence, the aging schoolmaster’s homoerotic reveries of long-ago hiking expeditions). Kempowski makes no effort to excuse or condemn his characters. He lets the reader see that Katharina’s decision to shelter a fugitive Jewish musician in her house for one night springs more from ennui than from sympathy or principle. The coarse working-class Nazi in the housing development across the road is a harried, put-upon figure with a sick wife, but Kempowski makes no overt efforts to humanize him. Seduced by the astringent lightness of the narration, a complicitous partner in the author’s drily ironic observation, the reader imagines that she can watch with a certain pleasurable detachment as the characters are overtaken by the terrible events that surely await them and that they may even in some way “deserve.”

And yet the operations of sympathy and identification with characters begin their stealthy work inside the reader once Katharina’s young son, a peripheral character until the book’s midpoint, takes a central role. For it turns out that All for Nothing is, at least obliquely, an autobiographical novel, a chronicle of Kempowski’s own horrific childhood experience of the same historical events the novel describes, and the reader cannot resist the pull of emotion that slowly accumulates around the character that is his fictional surrogate. Entangled by these skeins of feeling, the reader finds herself unexpectedly invested in his fate and, through it, in the fates of all those on whom the boy’s safety and life depend, particularly when the novel’s setting shifts from the family’s manor house to apocalyptic scenes of devastation and carnage. The novel’s playfully ironic tone, it turns out, has been a lure and a trap. Summoned to watch what had initially seemed an interwar comedy of manners, the reader finds herself at the novel’s conclusion a witness to a human calamity on an overpowering scale—a calamity to which she can properly respond only with those emotions that an authentic artistic experience of catharsis can arouse: pity and fear. This novel shook me; I read the last 50 or so pages seemingly with one held breath.

Wolfgang Hilbig, The Interim; translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

This ribald, lacerating exploration of the psychological and territorial scissions of postwar Europe, which I read in Isabel Fargo Cole’s marvelously assured translation, seems to me the real deal: a major European novel of wild, idiosyncratic ambition that merits comparison with the works of Bernhard and Sebald. I would follow its wastrel writer protagonist—priapic one moment, impotent the next, a narcissist, a drunk, a philanderer, a genius, a failure, at home neither in the catastrophically failed “actually existing socialism” of the GDR nor in the vapid consumer society of the FRG—anywhere. Hilbig is a magisterial commander of both interior and exterior space, expertly guiding his narrative through multiple excursuses with the same efficiency as the trains that conduct the protagonist across the border to West Germany and back to the East, taking us through horrific flame-lit industrial landscapes and scenes of domestic squalor and in and out of nightmares and states of inner torment with equal ease. He does it all with grace and a perfectly tuned sense of fictional pacing: the restless narrative never stalls out in rhetorical excess even during the most lurid passages, and the reader somehow keeps her bearings through multiple flashbacks and digressions. The plot, such as it is, follows the wanderings and tergiversations of an East German writer in the throes of a full-blown artistic and sexual crisis, exacerbated by abject alcoholism, while overstaying his visa to West Germany. As the reader comes to understand, the narrator’s restless transits from East to West and his circuitous inner journeys of memory and imagination trace and retrace the contours of a European map set in place by a century of devastating war, partition, displacement, drawn and redrawn national boundaries, and genocide.  

Mary Fulbrook, The People’s State: East German Society from Hitler to Honecker

Fulbrook’s book was a useful companion during my reading of Hilbig. Departing from the “Stasicentric” (as Paul Betts has called it) totalitarian model of GDR scholarship, this revisionist social history of East Germany doesn’t excuse the regime’s many calamitous failures, but neither does it engage in pointless sermonizing. Rather, it attempts to explore the paradox that while East German society was undoubtedly repressive in the extreme (the GDR’s citizens were quite literally caged, subject to surveillance and numerous intrusions on their personal liberty), many former citizens recall living “perfectly ordinary lives” there, a sentiment that can’t be chalked up to simple Ostalgie or to a kind of false consciousness in reverse. Combing through archival evidence and interview transcripts, Fulbrook looks at women’s rights, labor, childcare, recreation and leisure, and other facets of life in East Germany and concludes that the GDR was not a monolithic tyranny in which citizens cowered, silent and passive, under despotic rule, but an evolving, changing, albeit extraordinarily repressive society in which ordinary people shaped the culture around them as much as they were shaped by it. What Fulbrook makes clear is that it was Honecker’s decision to attempt the beat the West on its own terms through a “consumer socialist” model that ultimately led to East Germany’s demise. Plausible perhaps in the early 1970s, when East Germany might be said to have been at its zenith, the regime’s aspiration to provide material plenty for its people in any way comparable to that enjoyed in the West became less and less viable in the 1980s, when shortages of food and other basic supplies, together with increasing repression by state security services and ongoing environmental collapse, sounded the death knell for the GDR.   

Alighiero Boëtti, Non parto non resto, ca. 1979

Other Favorites:

Noo Saro-Wiwa, Looking for Transwonderland

Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence

Edmund Morgan, American Slavery, American Freedom

Herman Melville, Redburn

Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason

Christina Stead, Cotter’s England

Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions [Ed. — Fascinating book.]

Pier Paolo Pasolini, Scritti Corsari

Edward Said, Music at the Limits

Ivan Kenneally’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Ivan Kenneally (@IvanKeneally). Ivan is a writer who lives in California. He taught philosophy for many years at several universities, and his articles have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Open Letters Monthly, and The New Atlantis.

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

Alberto Giacometti, Five Heads of Men, One Face and One Woman Face on, One Woman in Profile, 1965

The first time I read Primo Levi’s If This is a Man, I was a high school senior encountering a memoir of a concentration-camp survivor for the first time; I lacked the context, historical and literary, to appreciate the uncommon power of the work, its peculiar alloy of moral indictment and scientific objectivity. I had that experience so common in adolescence—I was profoundly affected, but unable to adequately articulate the sources of my response, an untidy tangle of excitement and distemper.

This year I couldn’t resist the enthusiastic endorsement issued by Tina (@theesteemedfox) of Levi’s sequel to his remembrance of Auschwitz, The Truce—Tina is an infinitely cheerful advocate of infinitely sepulcher literature. [Ed. – And thank God for that!] I saw this as an opportunity to revisit If This is a Man, and after finishing both books I was so besotted by Levi’s writing, I ordered an edition of his complete works in English, a mammoth collection, three thousand words delivered in three hefty volumes, published by Liveright in 2015. [Ed. – Appreciate you giving the correct/accurate titles: American readers might know them as Survival in Auschwitz and The Reawakening, respectively.]

Before finally pausing, I read the two memoirs in quick succession, and then The Periodic Table, The Monkey’s Wrench, Other People’s Trades, If Not Now, When?, The Drowned and the Saved, and Natural Histories. I was immersed in Levi’s work for the better part of two months, simultaneously invigorated by his indefatigable clarity and exhausted by his increasingly disheartened worldview. [Ed. – It’s true. He was so depressed, angry, and suffering at the end of his life.] Two uncharacteristic works served as reprieves of a sort—Other People’s Trades is a collection of newspaper articles that peripatetically meander from discussions of butterflies to Italian etymology: it displays both the range of Levi’s intellectual curiosity and his inclination toward an exacting pedantry. [Ed. – Interesting. And well put.] In Natural Histories one finds a series of sci-fi short stories at least partly inspired Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics—for a time, Calvino was Levi’s editor. Both books are a departure from Levi’s more familiar work not only for the subject matter, but also the tenor of the prose—absent is his signature moral urgency, the tensile cord of fury and descriptive restraint that typifies the memoirs.

The last book Levi ever wrote is a collection of essays, The Drowned and the Saved, a return to the subject of the Holocaust. It is the angriest of his works, the one in which his livid indignation comes closest to overwhelming his heroic attempts at philosophical discipline. One can see this especially in the last essay, “Letters from Germans,” a reflection on the correspondence he received from German readers after If This is a Man was translated into their language. One epistle from a doctor from Hamburg infuriated Levi—it featured a rehearsal of increasingly familiar exculpations focusing on how little the Germans understood of Hitler’s mad depravity. Levi’s response is as devastating as it is “irate,” as he called it, but one detects no sense of triumphalism in it, no smirk of victory. The doctor’s arguments were defeated, but not the general attitude Levi believed they represented, an inclination to erase a morbid history through mealy-mouthed self-acquittal.

In The Periodic Table, Levi tells another story of a German doctor incapable of countenancing his own guilt—this time one he had first encountered while at Auschwitz working in a laboratory. In 1967, Levi stumbled upon the man’s name again in the course of his work as a chemist at an industrial paint-manufacturing plant: Dr. Muller, once the manager of slave labor at Auschwitz, now returned decades later to the responsibilities of quotidian life. Levi sends him a letter and a copy of If This is a Man, and in return receives yet another manifesto of blinkered self-absolution. He writes a rejoinder, but before he can send it he discovers Dr. Muller has suddenly died. Here, Levi recounts a portion of the letter he never sent, which can be counted as a precis of his understanding of German guilt:

As to the specific judgment on his behavior, which Muller implicitly asked of me, I tactfully cited two cases known to me of his German colleagues who in their actions toward us had done something much more courageous than what he claimed to have done. I admitted that we are not all born heroes, and that a world in which everyone would be like him, that is honest and unarmed, would be tolerable, but this is an unreal world. In the real world, the armed exist, they build Auschwitz, and the honest and unarmed clear the road for them; therefore every German must answer for Auschwitz, indeed every man, and after Auschwitz it is no longer permissible to be unarmed.

Levi’s one and only conventionally structured novel—If Not Now, When?—is a literary elaboration of this declaration; a band of Jewish partisans in Russia, armed and brimful of vengeance, roam the countryside in search of opportunities to sabotage German forces. Levi had no penchant for violence—he makes this clear in an essay on Jean Amery in The Drowned and the Saved. “I demand justice, but I am not able, personally, to trade punches or blows.” However, he didn’t aggrandize his personal distaste into a universal prohibition—he believed that after Auschwitz, physical vulnerability could no longer be suffered.

Levi killed himself shortly after writing The Drowned and the Saved, joining a grim club of writers who survived the Holocaust only to die at their own hand, a membership which includes Paul Celan, Jean Améry, and Tadeusz Borowski. [Ed. – Well, it’s complicated. In Levi’s case—though the evidence suggests similar ambiguity about Borowski’s death—it’s unclear if it was suicide or accident.] Like Améry, he despaired of the possibility that as the generation of witnesses perished so would the vivid memory and meaning of their torment; Amery believed that in some nontrivial sense this would constitute the final vindication of the Nazi guards who taunted him with the reminder that the stories of the victims would never be told. Levi might be obliquely referencing this possibility in The Monkey’s Wrench when discussing the art of listening to stories:

In fact, just as there is an art of story-telling, strictly codified through a thousand trials and errors, so there is an art of listening, equally ancient and noble, but as far as I know, it has never been given any norm.

Levi experimented with a broad spectrum of writing forms, but his life’s work was bearing witness to what he considered a historically unique catastrophe. However, one cannot bear witness without a receptive audience, and he worried that the same will to oblivion that made Auschwitz possible would make equally possible the evaporation of its memory, rending his work futile. Levi’s exasperation at this prospect crackles thoughout The Drowned and the Saved, which Cynthia Ozick considered a suicide note. “The composition of the last Lager manuscript was complete, the heart burned out; there was no more to tell.” [Ed. – Ozick’s is a compelling formulation, though I bristle at its retrospection. Had Levi found a medication that worked for him, for example, (admittedly difficult at the time) he might have lived to write many other works.]

The Hungarian novelist Imre Kertész didn’t share this particular anxiety of Levi, a point he makes in The Holocaust as Culture, a book that collects a lecture he delivered of the same name with a lengthy interview, published by Seagull Books: “Auschwitz casts a long shadow over European civilization and is still the vital question of our culture.” Moreover, he believes a full reckoning of the Holocaust transcends the question of German guilt:

But this is not something peculiar to German history. We speak of collective guilt, the collective guilt of the German nation. But Auschwitz is the collective crime of the entire world, not just of the German nation. If we think of the Holocaust as a war between Germans and Jews then we will never understand it. [Ed. – True.]

Levi sometimes expresses hope in the rational lucidity of science, and the possibility that the scientific extension of human knowledge can redound to the moral and cultural improvement of mankind. In fact, he refuses to brook any polarity between science and the humanities. As he puts it in Other People’s Trades: “I have frequently set foot on bridges that join (or ought to join) scientific culture with literary culture, crossing a crevasse that has always struck me as absurd.” In the same book, he conveys an idealism so unbounded it inspires credulity: “I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and infinitely small is enough to absolve this end of the century and the millennium.”

Cartography 1976 Antoni Tapies 1923-2012 Purchased 1981 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/P07571

By contrast, Kertész places his own hopes in the birth of a new literary culture that can potentially shake the Western world out of a decadent slumber:

If preserved, the tragic insight into the world of the morality that survived the Holocaust may yet enrich European consciousness, now best with crisis, much as the Greek genius, faced with barbarism and fighting the Persian War, created the antique tragedies that serve as an eternal model. If the Holocaust today has created a culture, and it undeniably has and continues to do, its literature may draw inspiration from the two sources of European culture, the Bible and Greek tragedy, so that irredeemable reality may give rise to redemption: the spirit, catharsis.

I think Levi was attempting to contribute to something like this, though in his version the result would be a matrimony of literature and science, a rational elucidation of the soul. One despairs to think he lost faith in his work, which would seem to entail losing faith in the world. I couldn’t help thinking of Levi when I read the last line of Kertész’s lecture:

As I said in the beginning, we live in the context of a culture, and in this context the dead body of Jean Améry is to be found in the monument—still under construction—to the Holocaust, where he himself laid it down, like a blood-soaked flower.

Anne Cohen’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.

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

Vanessa Bell, In the Other Room (late 1930s)

Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose. 

Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification.  “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.

(You still should read it.)

Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).

The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter. 

This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.)  I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.

Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.  I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances FlavellDaisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.

Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)

Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.   

Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.

Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.

Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]

Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.

“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight. 

What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]

My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time. 

A year for letters: Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.

Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.  

But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.

The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]

Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.

Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.  

Vanessa Bell, Composition, ca. 1914

Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword. 

I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.  

Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list. 

What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]  

Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good. 

Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend. 

The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep.  Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.

Liz McCausland’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Liz McCausland (@Liz_Mc2). Liz is an American living in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches college English, reads, herds cats, and ponders what’s next in her life.

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

Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin, 2001

In the fall of 2020, my marriage of 25 years ended—an event that for me was both unexpected and unwelcome. Slowly and with a lot of hard work, my grief and depression are lifting. But they’ve continued to impact my reading. Self-help. Memoirs about mental illness, therapy, divorce, and reinventing yourself. Many backlist mystery audiobooks from the library. [Ed. — What, no names?] And many, many books returned to the library unfinished or unopened because I didn’t have attention to give them. When Dorian asked me if I wanted to write a Year in Reading post for him, my first thought was “I‘ve forgotten most of what I read this year, and I certainly don’t have anything interesting to say about it.”

But then I remembered that one of the silver linings of this hard time has been my rediscovery of the joy to be found in reading with others: engaging in intense and wide-ranging discussion of texts to which everyone brings different experience and perspectives; having the sensation of minds meeting as steel meets flint, a spark of illumination blooming from the contact.

The first place I found this, unexpectedly, was a Bible Study group. That might not be true in every context, but we’re Anglicans and reason is one leg of our stool. I gained a lot of personal insights, but perhaps I’m most grateful for the feeling that my brain can still work after all. Do we need a book recommendation from this? I’ve always thought you could do worse on a desert island than the Bible, believer or not—it’s a big fat book with a little of everything in it.

The second was a long-running reading group I rejoined this summer after a decade or so away. The core members have been together since they read Foucault together as grad students in the 80s. Now they’re mostly retired college English instructors. They read widely and their discussions are vigorous. To keep up I’ve had to read with more focus than I’d mustered in some time. My favorite meeting so far involved lounging in a shady backyard on a hot July afternoon, nibbling potluck goodies and discussing Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday. My first Hazzard, but not my last! This month, sadly, we’ll be back on Zoom, but I’m looking forward to diving into Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. (Another first for me).

My third great experience reading with others was with students. I teach English at a community college, and because I increased my workload this fall I’ve been teaching literature (rather than just academic writing) for the first time in several years. I’d forgotten how fun reading with students can be. A classroom is a space full of flints and steels that strike sparks from each other. A space full of surprise insights. It’s not just that students interpret the readings in ways I didn’t anticipate, but that I surprise myself: as I bounce off their observations, or just ramble on, I find interpretations forming in the moment the words expressing them come out of my mouth, as if someone wiser than me were speaking through me. [Ed. – All true, so true!]

This year, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction sections designated for our Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies program, on the theme of gender and violence (and hell yes, at some points of the semester I regretted settling on such a dark theme). Here are two of my favorite surprises from Fall:

I chose Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” because it seemed to fit the theme. I’d never read DeLillo before, thinking of him as writing “boy books” I wouldn’t enjoy (I imagine you thinking “who let her teach gender studies?”). I just skimmed it before choosing it, being, rather behind schedule at that point (“who let her teach anything?”). [Ed. – I’m so relieved to learn I’m not the only one who does this!] In the story, an unnamed man and woman meet at an exhibition of paintings showing Baader-Meinhof gang members dead in their prison cells. The man manipulates the woman into taking him back to her apartment, where, when he can’t manipulate her into sex, he masturbates on her bed while she cowers in the bathroom. [Ed. – Well, that is just about the least appealing scenario possible…]

As I started reading the story in preparation for class, I wondered if the paintings it describes are real. They are. The basic plot was familiar to students: “Oh, he’s gaslighting her.” Something similar has happened to some of them or to someone they know. But the “real life” art exhibition setting led us to new questions about this familiar scene. Richter’s paintings are based on photographs that would have been easily recognizable to Germans, but he destabilizes that familiarity, blurring the images and sometimes painting multiple versions, each slightly different. Is this, I asked my students, part of why someone would write fiction about gender violence (or about anything, come to that)? To make us look anew at something we think we understand? “Is gender violence a form of terrorism?” we wondered. At first that seemed extreme, but then we considered the ways that women’s lives are shaped by fear of it, and how we live in a culture that has largely accepted this fact as just something we have to put up with. And what’s up with the idea of forgiveness in this story? I still don’t know what I think about that, and I’m looking forward to discussing it again and seeing if we get further.

I’m currently listening to Believing, Anita Hill’s new book on gender violence, because a review I read made me think of DeLillo’s story and the questions it raises. And the best surprise was how much I enjoyed this story. I still suspect that on the whole, DeLillo isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m going to read more before I make up my mind about that.

Candida Höfer, German Library, Leipzig VI, 1997

And then there was Katharena Vermette’s novel The Break. I wrote a review for Event, so I went into teaching it thinking “I get this.” But it unfolded new riches as we read it slowly over a couple of weeks. The more we talked about it, the more there was to say. At the center of The Break is a violent sexual assault against Emily, an Indigenous teen. The novel works as a page-turning crime story in which a young Métis police officer and his racist partner try to identify the assailant. But in tension with the forward momentum of that narrative are the stories of Emily’s extended family, mostly female, and the sexual violence they have endured. To support Emily in her healing, they have to confront their own pasts and the lingering effects of trauma.

The Break has ten narrators, and to help us keep track of who was saying what, I listed the narrators of each day’s sections on the board. Once I did, we began to see patterns in their order. Emily, for instance, has a section early on, and another at the end. For most of the novel, she is silenced by trauma, and only when she can narrate the assault does she start to heal. That’s also the first time readers see its details—this is a novel that refuses to indulge a prurient interest in them, showing us only glimpses and fragments we have to piece together.

Partway through our reading, I listened to a podcast episode on the ethics of enjoying true crime, and that fed into our discussion of how we should consume stories like Vermette’s. The Break offers us two characters as reader stand-ins: there’s Tommy, the cop, who feels a “strange excitement” as he makes headway on the puzzle of the crime. But he risks pushing Emily to tell her story before she’s ready, ignoring her trauma. There’s also Stella, who witnesses the crime and who insists in the face of police skepticism that what she saw was a rape. Stella has her own experience of trauma, and her concern for the victim might be a more ethical response than Tommy’s excitement. But that trauma paralyzes Stella when she witnesses the assault, keeping her from going out to help. Perhaps we also need Tommy’s push for answers to keep the story from being stuck in pain and trauma.

We don’t discover who the assailant is until Vermette has made us feel empathy and understanding for that character. That person’s story left us wondering whether the justice system is at all up to the task of doing justice in these circumstances. What would true justice to all parties look like?  Students enriched our discussions of these questions by bringing to it ideas from courses in psychology, criminology, and legal studies.

I loved and admired The Break even more after teaching it than before—an outcome which is by no means guaranteed. I understand Dorian is teaching it this semester, and I look forward to hearing what he and his students, in a different place and bringing different experiences, bring to it. [Ed. – I am, and I’m even more excited now than I was before: I’ll be pilfering these insights shamelessly.]

Alina Stefanescu’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Alina Stefanescu (@aliner). Alina was born in Romania and lives in Birmingham, Alabama with her partner and several intense mammals. Recent books include a creative nonfiction chapbook, Ribald (Bull City Press Inch Series, Nov. 2020) and Dor, which won the Wandering Aengus Press Prize (September, 2021). She is currently working on a novel-like creature. More online at www.alinastefanescuwriter.com.

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

Diane Arbus, Girl in a watch cap, N.Y.C. 1965

Forget the books I reviewed for literary journals…

I’d prefer to talk about The Others—to dwell on the fact that I lost my Barbara-Comyns-virginity this year, thanks to Richard Mirabella and Kyle Winkler. I wound up in a zoom room which led to a rabbit hole—and, after climbing back into the regular world, my head included a bookshelf full of Comyns, starting with her first novel, Sisters by a River, which Emily Gould introduced as “a barely fictionalized account of her strange childhood” created to entertain and amuse her own kids while living in London and “working as a cook on a country estate to escape the Blitz.”

Comyns’s second novel, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, continues to mine her life, carrying the reader through adulthood, which is to say: a series of ordinary remarkable things, including childbirth, child loss, marital drudgery, peak misogyny, and pets (from newts to foxes). Then I devoured her haunting, impeccably grotesque novel, The Vet’s Daughter. According to the 1981 Virago edition, Barbara Comyns “dreamt the idea” for this novelwhile honeymooning “in a Welsh cottage lent to her and her new husband by the Soviet agent Kim Philby in 1945.”

It was delicious. I regret nothing.

Nor do I regret the acrobatic harrow of Jennifer Fliss’s The Predatory Animal Ball; flash fiction in Fliss’s hands feels simultaneously epic and dioramic. These creature stories stayed in my head—fantastic. Also compelling for its compressive impact: Men You Don’t Know You Know by Chase Burke, a book of short fiction about masculinity. I found something gutting in Burke’s deployment of segmented narrative strategies and trivia questions to undo gender, or probe its least secure spaces.

Because catastrophe attracts me, I re-read Diane Williams’ The Collected Short Stories of Diane Williams and talked to myself about her use of interior monologue. Few writers have permission to write such irreverent viciousness about men and romantic relationships. Magda Carneci’s FEM (translated by Sean Cotter) came close, though—in a different way, in a sort of neo-confessional efflorescence that indicts masculinity from the space of the intimate whisper. Mining a vein that reminds me of Hélène Cixous, Carneci’s novel engages the social construction of femininity in first-person. It opens interesting discussions about the distance between the dominant American feminism and feminisms nurtured in different soils and continents. Claudia Sadowski-Smith’s The New Immigrant Whiteness: Race, Neoliberalism, and Post-Soviet Migration to the United States brought new perspectives on marriage, social relations, and the market for brides to a topic that continues to interest me, namely, the construction of transnational identities.

Like many pandemiacs, epistolary-fever ruined what remained of my life. The hunger for correspondence met my affinity for ghosts and queer cherubim in Letters Summer 1926: Boris Pasternak, Marina Tsvetaeva, Rainer Maria Rilke, introduced by Susan Sontag. And then, after picking up my invisible shovel and digging around the names associated with the letters, I fell a little bit in love with Boris Pasternak’s sonorous memoir, Safe Travels, where I discovered Pasternak’s childhood dream of being a Scriabin, or being someone his father adored as much as he adored Scriabin. I suspect we all want to be loved a little too much—and then promptly forgiven for it.

I forgave Pasternak, but the last-page blues—that narrowing dread which signals the finitude of a book’s world, the cessation of a voyage, the reentry into everyday life—hit me hard upon finishing Maria Stepanova’s In Memory of Memory, in Sasha Dugsdale’s lyrical, lush translation. [Ed. – “Last-page blues”: gonna steal that one.] One of my favorite books this year, and a model for how to write the untouchable past while touching every single porcelain cat in the off-limits cabinet.

Thanks to #APSTogether, I read W. G. Sebald’s The Emigrants (translated by Michael Hulse), and enjoyed both the reading and the ride. The world of Machado de Assis opened wide with The Posthumous Memoirs of Bras Cubas (translated by Flora Thomson DeVeaux). There is something fantastic in de Assis’s use of hindsight to undermine respectability and status—something surreal in the aspirational, posthumous voice. And the reader is prepared for it with “The Delirium,” the long, hallucinated description of riding atop the back of a swift hippopotamus, the juxtaposition of absurdity with respect, an opening into that wicked improbable. Cubas says no one else has narrated their own delusion before; certainly, no one has ever narrated the delusional as convincingly and seductively as Machado de Assis.

Cubas is looking for a way to realize a sublime idea that hopped into his head while walking—namely, the invention of “an anti-hypochondriacal plaster destined to alleviate our melancholy humanity.” In this, our narrator resembles others looking for theories that will make them rich and famous. It feels prescient for theory to be commodified as a sort of entrepreneurship-vessel for the chattering classes, an economic opportunity for leisured libidinals. One can’t help but notice a resemblance between Cubas’s aspirations and the contemporary economic muscle of self-help industry experts. We have it all, from Emily Oster’s “evidence-based, statistical parenting” (parenting by the numbers according to capitalist constructions of humanity) to the lean-in feminisms of Sheryl Sandberg and straight to the plaster face masks of the Insta-influencer scientists—to be so rich in plaster solutions and yet disoriented, miserable, and clueless. This is the American dream as it plays out in the bourgeoisie classes.

The posthumous narrative pleasures continued with Silvina Ocampo’s genre-bender, The Promise, translated by Jill Levine, a metaphysical narrative that started as her first book—and wound up being published as her last. Ocampo’s surreal, fragmented, atemporal exploration of hindsight and promises stayed glued to the underside of my eyelids. Alas, I could not wake up without writing a series of poems in response—which turned into a chapbook—which I am burying for lack of time. [Ed. – Tease! Where is your Max Brod?]

A fascination with Decadent writers and artists led me into many brocaded tunnels this year, including Haldane McFall’s Aubrey Beardsley: The Man and His Work, an old book shot through with fireworks of crackly syntax and necro-romanticism. Idyllic for those who need a new temporality, a “twelvemonth” in which to exist.

Beatrice Bracher’s Antonio (translated by Adam Morris) uses disembodied narration to probe family skeletons and narratives—the price of telling and not telling.

My addiction to Sublunary Press objects continued, and it was exciting to hear Chris Clarke describe the experience of translating Éric Chevillard’s The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster during an online book launch. I also found Chevillard’s website, which is a sort of ongoing paratext in French—and I translated a little bit for myself so that I could cheer when the author reported getting his covid vaccine—”Still, no adverse effects from the vaccine. I have rarely even felt so happy.”

Choi Jin-young’s To the Warm Horizon (translated by Soje) made me think about time-signatures in prose narrative—as well as apocalypse. First published in Korea in 2017, prior to the onset of the pandemic, the novel alternates between the lives and decisions of characters fleeing an unnamed virus. This is fine vs. is this fine—Jin-Young repeatedly lays the ethical questions of the disaster over small, personal choices in the characters’ lives. The time-signature is unforgettable. As is the book.

Diane Arbus, Man in Hat, Trunks, Socks and Shoes, Coney Island, N. Y. 1960

Where to begin among the 112 poetry books I read this year? [Ed. – Exqueeze me?] Louise Labé’s Love Sonnets & Elegies (translated by Richard Sieburth) enchanted me with antiquated forms, including the poetic blazon. [Ed. — *takes notes *] But I also wondered how, and in what form, Labé actually existed. [Ed. — ?] Karen Lessing’s “preface” to this book is tremendous. Henri Michaux’s A Certain Plume (also translated by Sieburth) felt fresh and modern—it’s difficult not to imagine one’s own Plume as a writer-self, or to imagine the secret Plumes of others. Following my OBERIU fascination from last year, I wandered into the fabulous esoterica of Alexander Vvedensky’s An Invitation for Me to Think (translated by Eugene Ostashevsky and Matvei Yankelevich), and the forms that silence begets in poetry. Some silences are more ornate than others, and it was also instructive in revealing how Symbolism changed and evolved in Russia.

The Jenny Erpenback obsession—this I blame on David Naimon’s incredible podcast, which led me to every Erpenbeck ever published, including The Book of Words, which many dislike, but which I valued for how it engages family secrets. For the daughter, the secret changes the world in which one can exist, and it changes the self as known by the world. Sometimes we want answers, but other times we just want the world to continue in a way that allows us to have parents. The complexity of this book spoke to many migrant stories somehow, and it continues to derange me.

Anne Anlin Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation, and Hidden Grief was published in 2000; I ran across it when searching, oddly, for books on melancholy of the left. Cheng argues that racial grief is not just the result of racism, but also the foundation for racial identity—and the book forms a fascinating contrapuntal subject in current discussions about diaspora, race, clinical language, and trauma. And Robert Musil’s Notebookseverywhere in my head and essays and writing this year. O, Jenny Croft and Phillip Boehm—two translators I follow closely, everything they translate—I find and devour. Other writes I read obsessively include Marguerite Yourcenar…. nevermind, nevermind. I just realized that I need to send this book list to you immediately, there is no time for me to talk about all the books I loved and read in 2021—just as there has never been enough time for me to talk about all the books I read and love. This is the curse of bibliomania. I think INXS wrote a song about it. [Ed. – This one? Or this one? Oh, you mean this one.] My lament continues.