October 2021, the missing month! What can I say? I was busy, teaching all the things, making all the lunches, blah blah. But so many people appreciated my one-word review in the November post—I hate reading stuff too, I get it!—that I thought I would aim, not for single-word reviews (something to aspire to) but for single sentences. I’m such a wordy bastard that even that idea mostly failed (plus I had written a couple at the time, so those were already longer), but I herewith present what for me is a breezy summary of my month’s reading.
Colson Whitehead, Harlem Shuffle (2021)
Are you a striver or a crook? That’s the question in Whitehead’s new novel, nominally a crime novel but in fact a novel about crime. “Strivers grasped for something better—maybe it existed, maybe it didn’t—and crooks schemed about how to manipulate the present system,” muses Ray Carney, the small businessman at the center of the novel. How can he, the owner of a furniture store in Harlem (Whitehead delights in midcentury furniture, and who can blame him), get that elusive better thing, in his case an apartment in a nice building on Riverside Drive, without manipulating the system? In a story told in three sections—set in 1959, 1961, and 1964, landmark years of the Civil Rights movement—Whitehead argues that strivers are just crooks in better suits, able to “give back” to the community. Ray begins by turning a blind eye to the origin of some of his merchandise and ends as a fence. But Whitehead, in this novel anyway, is no Malamud. Ray’s is not a tragic story—he hasn’t degenerated or sold his soul or become a moral bankrupt—unless you take capitalism as a tragedy. Which it is. But in Whitehead’s New York-centered vision, capitalism’s ability to turn all that is sold into air is presented as a form of irrepressible effervescence, most magnificently captured in a final set piece in which Ray visits the construction site of what will become the Twin Towers. Omari Weekes’s Bookforum review made me appreciate the book more than I first did. I’m not convinced, though, that Whitehead critiques Ray as much as Weekes thinks he does, or should. For the tone of Harlem Shuffle is as unsteady as the movement described in its title. Is Ray to be admired or condemned? The novel doesn’t seem sure. It sure loves late 50s, early 60s Harlem, though, presented with an energy and delight that undoes any sentimentalism, which is more than I can say of its soppy depiction of women and children.
Charlotte Wood, The Weekend (2019)
Three women, now in their seventies, friends for forty years, converge on a house on the Central Coast, an hour from Sydney. Jude, a former maître’d’, has been kept by a married man for decades, and lives for the moments she’s able to snatch from his life, a state of affairs she can share with no one. Wendy, an intellectual who became famous as a pioneering second-wave feminist (and apparently made plenty of money at it, the book’s one implausible note), ruminates over the germ of a new book though she spends most of her time dealing with her dog, old, deaf, shaken by some unspecified past trauma. Adele, an actor with a critically esteemed career, mostly in theater who hasn’t worked in a long time and who never made any money to begin with, has just been kicked out by her younger lover, a woman who had been supporting her. (The novel takes money seriously, which I appreciated. How do you live when you no longer want to work, or when no one any longer wants you to work?)
The weekend of the title falls over Christmas, but the women are not on holiday. They have a job to do: cleaning out the house that belonged to Sylvie, the fourth member of their little band, who died a year ago and seems to have been the glue that kept them together. (At first she’s an anodyne, if spectral, figure, but she turns out to have been as messy as the rest of them.) Now that they are three, the women find their old allegiances shifting rapidly. A novel about how things end, The Weekend implies that their friendship might be the final casualty.
In terms of novels about older women, friendship, and end of life, I liked The Weekend more than Nunez’s What Are You Going Through and less than Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, but I liked it quite a bit. A short book with heft that describes aging bodies (in all their frustrations and competencies) with, to me anyway, impressive, almost uncanny, awareness. (Wood is only in her 50s.)
Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982, revised 1984)
Memoir of Tec’s childhood in wartime Poland, living at great risk to her safety, under an assumed non-Jewish identity. I’ve written about this book before: it’s a favourite of mine, and my students like it too, this year’s group being no exception. They are rightly fascinated by Tec’s guilt at the ease with which she sinks into her new identity. Tec is bewildered by the antisemitism espoused even by the Polish family who, for a lot of money, is hiding her, but she also finds herself laughing along to jokes made at her own expense. Her indictment of postwar Poland is [fire emoji], as the kids say. Reading it for the who-knows-how-many-times, I noticed that Tec’s Jewish identity is in fact identity with her nuclear family. Even before the war, she offers little sense of extended family or community. Not sure what to make of that (I said I noticed it, that’s all): could her guilt at passing have been amplified by detachment from an identity that persecution forced her to affirm? A rich, moving text, strongly recommended.
Walter Mosley, Devil in a Blue Dress (1990)
African-American PI novel, groundbreaking at the time and still pretty good. I prefer the end of the film, actually (in general, I am pro Denzel in a wifebeater), but the novel makes even more of Easy’s desire for a home of his own—a sign, I think we are meant to see, that his sacrifices in WWII weren’t in vain and that he does, in fact, belong to and in America.
Jacqueline Woodson, Another Brooklyn (2016)
Dreamy, evocative, does a lot with omission. Wouldn’t have minded if it were longer.
Benjamin Labatut, When We Cease to Understand the World (2020) Trans. Adrian Nathan West (2020)
Feels like everybody’s reading this (thanks, Obama), so you don’t need me to tell you about it. I’ll add to the chorus of praise, though: I loved these quasi-essays about scientists and the depredations they unleashed on the world and themselves. Apparently, each chapter includes at least one fictional element; it’s an indictment of my scientific education (which was not a bad one, I don’t think) that I wouldn’t have known this had Labutat not said so. I do agree with the person on Twitter—can’t remember who now, sorry—who said that the book validates a romantic idea of science as practiced by solitary, often mad or otherwise extreme geniuses, an idea completely at odds with the day-to-day practice of science, which, I’m told, is slow, often dull, and of necessity done with others. Many readers seem to dislike the last chapter, which is different in tone and subject matter. It’s also the only one set in Labutat’s native Chile. I felt differently—as brilliant as the rest of the book is, I already knew its early to mid-20th century European settings, characters, and preoccupations perfectly well—and I hope on the strength of the success of When We Cease to Understand the World his earlier books will be translated.
Miriam Toews, Fight Night (2021)
Shambling, likeable novel about three generations of women of Mennonite ancestry trying to keep it together in Toronto. It’s narrated by nine-year-old Swiv, precocious and scared and brave, ostensibly as a letter to her father, who’s run away in mysterious circumstances. Swiv’s mother, heavily pregnant, is a struggling actor (is there any other kind) who’s understandably exhausted, so the girl spends her days with her grandmother, Elvira, irrepressible lover of life and people and donuts and, above all, the Raptors. (I loved her use of basketball metaphors in teaching Swiv life lessons and her trash-talk at the tv during games.) Elvira is everything to Swiv even though she continually mortifies the girl by accosting strangers about their love lives, going about in public in her dressing gown, and forgetting her heart pills. Sound treacly? The novel isn’t, but it does have a bit of a “live, laugh, love” vibe that wasn’t working for me. I liked it okay, especially in parts—Swiv and Elvira take an impromptu trip to California to see the old woman’s cousins, and they are a hoot—but it’s not a patch on Women Talking, a book I still think about a lot. When it comes to recent novels about feisty old women who are sick and tired of being sick and tired, I prefer Bina.
Sigmund Freud, Dora: An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (1905) Trans. James & Alix Strachey (1925)
Taught this for the nth time, and I’m still a fan, but each time Freud’s treatment of Dora is crueler and crueler.
Jonathan Petropoulos, Göring’s Man in Paris: The Story of a Nazi Art Plunderer and his World (2021)
Sordid. The art world, then and now, is sordid. Bruno Lohse, appointed by Göing to loot tens of thousands of art works from French Jews, many of which were siphoned to the personal collection of the commander-in-chief of the Luftwaffe, was really sordid. And Petropoulos’s own dealings with Lohse are, if not sordid (he seems too fundamentally decent for that, if a little nonchalant about his own privilege), then disquieting. The best chapter is about Petropoulos’s attempts to find out what happened to a Pissarro Lohse claimed for years he nothing about. Much of the book is plodding—Lohse’s life story, before and after his time in Paris, isn’t that interesting; I wish its dutiful prose and endless citations had been distilled into a crackerjack essay.
S. A. Cosby, Razorblade Tears (2021)
Violent, over the top, almost mawkish, tremendous fucking fun. Two men, one black, one white, investigate the deaths of their married sons, victims of a hate crime. Neither man had accepted his son’s sexuality; it’s too late to make good on those failures now, but they can tell themselves they can at least find justice. Smart and funny about racism, kinship, the toll of life in prison. It’s going to be a hell of a movie.
Val McDermid, 1979 (2021)
Glasgow, January 1979, snow and chilblains all around. Newspapers might rule the media landscape but it’s hard to be a female journalist, as the hero of this crime novel quickly learns. Non-professional investigators are tricky to pull off, especially in a series, which McDermid clearly has plans for this to be. (Next thing you know, you’re Jessica Fletcher, and there’s a murder in your little town every five minutes.) But McDermid, a former journalist, lived that world and her expertise shows (though I’m not sure Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan novels, set in the same milieu in the same place at almost the same time, aren’t the better books). Can’t help but feel that the book was an excuse to riff on the music and movies of the time, though.
That’s that. And what about you? Read any of these? Feel free to be as pithy—or as verbose—as you like!