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?

What I read, June 2021

In June I realized my sabbatical is in fact coming to an end. (Technically, it ended last week, but I have a few weeks’ grace until the school years grinds into gear.) Soon I will be back among people all the time; this knowledge made me anxious. The weight I gained over the pandemic made me depressed. The discoveries at two of the many former Residential Schools in Canada shocked but did not surprise me. (Similar mass graves will be found at others in the coming months, I have no doubt.) The extreme heat and firestorms in the West, including my home province terrified me; ironically, the weather in Arkansas was cooler than usual. (This too a function of climate of change, of course.) Everything seemed ominous. I was working hard, too, mostly on an essay I’m excited to share with you all in August. My daughter and I started taking one of the dogs for a walk each morning: that was a good thing. As to reading, the month started strong, then tailed off. Here’s what I finished.

Georgia O’Keefe, Evening Star III, 1917

Madeleine Watts, The Inland Sea (2020)

Strong debut novel about a young woman, fresh out of university, who takes a job as an emergency dispatcher, eliciting from panicked callers where in Australia they are and which service to connect them to. Filled with wonderful place names and terrible events, The Inland Sea is a novel of emergencies: fires and petty crimes and surfing accidents, but also the narrator’s depression and despair, the violent settler colonialism of Australia’s past and present, and above all the changing climate. A wildfire from the early 90s, which the narrator’s family had to flee, is a primal moment the novel returns to again and again, presenting it as a harbinger of the terrible changes to come. The title refers to the 19th century settler belief that the continent’s rivers must have had a common source; the mythical inland sea stands in for all hubristic fantasies that aim to make reality fit ideology. (Patrick White, especially his novel Voss, about a megalomaniac explorer, is referenced repeatedly: the shittiest of the narrator’s shitty exes is writing a thesis about him.)

The Inland Sea captures the rage and despair that I’ve seen in younger people these past years, faced as they are with an increasingly uncertain future, and that I am myself enveloped in more every day. (It’s the same future; they just have, or should have, more of it.) Here the narrator reflects on her mother—whom she loves and is close to but can’t tell anything important to:

This was what my mother had never understood. The things she never would have done—moving out of the city, dropping out of the university system and into paid-by-the-hour work, reckless sex and drinking—they were not things I did because I didn’t know any better. I just didn’t think there was any point in trying to shelter myself. If working on the phones had taught me anything, it was that emergency could not be avoided. Emergency would come for you no matter what you did.

In this moment the dispatch center comes close to mere symbol. Fortunately it’s usually described more fully, though I wouldn’t have minded learning even more about it. (I loved the details, like the mid-morning lull when older women, mostly widows, call in with invariably false stories of burglaries or strange men in the back garden.)

The Inland Sea reminded me of some other recent novels—like Conversations with Friends, with its description of endometriosis—that present women’s bodies as a site of violence and harm, even when the women who live in those bodies try to take charge of them: here, a procedure to implant an IUD goes badly. As the narrator concludes, “My body could not be made to behave. It disdained all methods of prevention and protection.” Danger everywhere.

Last thought: I only know Australia from books, which means I know nothing, but I’ve always thought Melbourne was the cool place and Sydney beautiful but tedious, but Watts makes Sydney seem, not appealing, really, it’s mostly a terrifying landscape of drunk men lurching after women, but something other than the “world city” of the opera house and Bondi beach. The final image, of the narrator swimming in Gordon’s Bay, looking back at the “scum of waste… weeds and straws and band Aids and bottles” washed up after yet another 100-year storm, reminded me of the ambivalent swimming scene at the end of Cusk’s Kudos.

Doris Lessing would have liked this book.

Anakana Schofield, Bina (2019)

Bina—“Bye-na not Bee-na,” consider yourself warned—is 74. Who know how long she had left: she has a lot to say even if it’s not what you want to hear (“I’m here to warn you, not reassure you”), so she’s not going to waste any time. Empathy has been her undoing (interesting, given how empathetic this book is): it led her to invite a Bad Man into her home, who abused her and took advantage or her and whose return she daily fears; it got her involved in a secret organization that helps people end their lives which in turn led to her arrest. We let people into our lives, Bina says, it’s what we do. The trouble is getting them back out. Bina reminded me of Beckett’s Molloy, not just because it’s set in Ireland (though Schofield now lives in Canada) but because of its fascination with both the rhythms of spoken language and the frailty of the human body (there’s a relationship there I’m not able to articulate just now—or maybe I’m just following Bina’s quite Beckettian demand that “the explanation-hungry get over themselves”).

Bina is a fabulous character: self-aware (“I was a great woman for delivering the verdicts to others that I could neither conjure or conquer for myself”), wise (“I have noticed that it’s the decent people who are buried/While it’s the parasites and demolishers who endure”), scathing (“There are those reading and thinking, isn’t she daft, why didn’t she walk or why didn’t she do this or that. Well I am not worried about you, because maybe you’ve had the good fortune to be trained different and would not scupper yourself this way. And it’s it as well for you.”), and funny (women have to get up and pee at night because they are “widdling the confused strain of anger gathered up there all day”—why men have to pee at night is a mystery, “perhaps it’s God’s subtle way of tormenting them. He goes straight for the pipe does our Saviour”).

Schofield is a terrific writer (men like Eddy, the Bad Man, are “bullies in woolens”): I loved this book and can’t wait to read her others.

Bryan Washington, Lot (2019)

Many of the stories in this debut collection center feature versions of the same family: black father (sometimes absconded, sometimes just about to), Latina mother, daredevil older brother, sister looking to get the hell out, and at the center, the young gay narrator. Restaurant kitchens, johns, animals in the bayous—this isn’t the Houston of Rice, the Menil Collection, or even Minute Maid Park. That world is present only at the edges of the frame, mostly through the specter of gentrification. No surprise that a book called Lot is interested in real estate (not to mention one’s lot in life, having a lot to deal with and a lot to live for, and maybe even Lot of Genesis, who looked upon and fled Sodom). Much as I would miss Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, I’m thinking of replacing it with Lot as the centerpiece collection the next time I teach my course on the short story. My students—a good number of whom are from Houston, though rarely the parts described in the book—would like it, I suspect, and I’ll be able to decide if it’s as good as my first reading suggests.

Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence (1920)

Fantastic. Read this in college, probably a year after the movie came out (I believe it was the first film I saw as a college student), and, I realize now, completely missed the point. Not only did the story seem slight, worse, I identified with Newland Archer, the ironic yet self-satisfied scion of a wealthy New York family in the 1860s whose imminent marriage to athletic, kind, incurious May is threatened by the return of her disgraced cousin, Ellen, on the run from a bad marriage to a Polish nobleman, with whom he falls in love. Wharton’s irony—her brilliant control of the narrative voice—passed me right by. I can’t think of a better advertisement for re-reading than my experience returning to this novel—though I now wonder how many other books I’ve misunderstood over the years.

Newland is such a carefully constructed character, his world-view so dominant, his criticisms of a world he loves and is much more enmeshed in than he ever realizes so easy to side with, that it is easy to miss that this is in fact a novel of two women, neither of whose interiority we ever access directly. Both May and Ellen are so much more interesting than Newland realizes. Ellen, in particular, fascinates as a figure who has suffered greatly from men, including from Archer, who is nowhere near as nice to her as he thinks he is, but who gains hard-won freedom—not least from us, the intrusive readers. (The bit players are wonderful too, from the titanic Mrs. Mingott to the ladies’ man Beaufort to the subdued Janey, Archer’s sister—I would have liked more of her.)

The novel is filled with rituals, rites, tutelary deities, and the like, the whole language of the ascendant anthropology of the 1920s. This motif is connected to Archer’s interest in the moeurs of New York society, which he studies as another scholar might the curious customs of some primitive tribe. He mostly has Ellen to thank for this—when he first visits her bohemian downtown apartment (unfashionable neighbourhood, artistic tchotchkes, and all), he decides the advice he wants to give her on how to behave in society is as useless in her bohemian world as warning someone bargaining in a Samarkand market about New York winters. Ellen, he thinks, has helped him see his native city clearly: “Viewed thus, as through the wrong end of a telescope, it looked disconcertingly small and distant; but then from Samarkand it would.” Archer fancies himself having transcended his world—now seeing it as curious as anywhere else—but you look foolish holding a telescope the wrong way ‘round, and Archer doesn’t have it in him to pursue the idea to its logical consequences. Maybe his privilege—his ability to imagine himself being rescued by Ellen from what no doubt feels genuinely and excruciatingly like a spiritual wasteland—isn’t as natural as he believes.

But before we get too comfortable at our own perspicaciousness in seeing through Archer, we might wonder at what we want from this novel. I read the new Penguin Classics edition (the cover of which was roundly pooh-poohed on Twitter, though I don’t mind it myself), and you should too, because the introduction by Sarah Blackwood is outstanding. (There’s also a Foreword by Elif Batuman—her name is on the cover—which is fine but nothing special.) Blackwood deftly summarizes the result of Wharton’s narrative decisions:

In keeping us in Archer’s perspective, Wharton allows us to experience the limited and impoverished viewpoint of a selfish young man, even as we are drawn to him and his desires, even as we relate to how deeply and ineffectually he wants.

[That’s what I missed as an undergraduate. I identified with his tragic position without seeing the harm it incited.]

Thus I read passages like this, in which Archer reflects on his mother and sister, as sympathetic:

Mother and daughter adored each other and revered their son and brother; and Archer loved them with a tenderness made compunctious [a word to warm the fussy heart of the lawyer in Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener] and uncritical by the sense of their exaggerated admiration, and by his secret satisfaction in it. After all, he thought it a good thing for a man to have his authority respected in his own house, even if his sense of humour sometimes made him question the force of his mandate.

That it is anything but natural for him to have been granted such a mandate—and what it means for the organization of the world that he does—never intrudes on even his rueful thoughtfulness.

Blackwood continues by offering a startling and brilliant reading of what she rightly calls the novel’s “innovative’ ending:

By one metric, the fully realized novel [as opposed to drafts in which Wharton had Newland and Ellen get together, only to realize they had nothing in common] is a tragic story of two people trying to surmount the obstacles to their love. But in another… the published novel does have a happy ending. The Age of Innocence is one of the only stories Wharton ever wrote where everyone does, indeed, ‘get what [they] want.’ May gets to achieve the sentimental, sacrificial maternal and wifely status she desired. Newland gets to feel like an outsider while remaining an insider; he experiences no shortage of people to enlighten over the years. [Archer, Blackwood notes, is a preeminent mansplainer.] And Ellen? Well, Ellen gets to live a life that evades even our own prying eyes.

In this way, she finds a way to evade both the cruelty of impermanence—at the not-yet-fashionable Metropolitan Museum she regrets the way daily objects and implements, once so important to the people who made and used them, fade into obscurity until they are exhibited in a vitrine labelled “Use unknown”—and the cruelty of “the meanwhile,” of life as it is lived before time’s transience has done its work, a cruelty Archer fails to understand.

If you’re past your own age of innocence—though how can we ever know that we have reached this stage?—I urge you to read or reread this American masterpiece.

Mick Herron, Real Tigers (2016)

More adventures for the Slow Horses. Totally enjoyable. Not as good as the first, but better than the second. Since I love Standish the most, I both appreciated and was alarmed by the plot. Odd the way Herron frames these books with extended descriptions of Slough House from the perspective of a ghost or spirit stalking its floors, which I fancifully want to believe he has borrowed from the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Mick Herron, Spook Street (2017)

I mean, it’s a spy novel, but even so this one is a little preposterous. Still has its moments, but the bait-and-switch it pulls midway through annoyed me.

Judy Batalion, The Light of Days: The Untold Story of Women Resistance Fighters in Hitler’s Ghettos (2021)

Fascinating & detailed narrative history about female resistance fighters in Polish and Lithuanian ghettos. Smuggling information, living under false papers, shooting Nazis, stitching up partisans: these young women did exciting, dangerous, and important work. I have reservations about the book’s tone, structure, and narrativizing tendencies, but Light of Days is a valuable, accessible book that is well-sourced. So useful to have this experience brought to non-Yiddish speakers. Writing about it for another outlet, so more soon.

Jessica J. Lee, Two Trees Make a Forest (2020)

Memoir/nature writing by a Canadian writer of Taiwanese and British ancestry who now lives in Berlin (with all the other writers). The book tries to do a lot: relate walks and bike rides all over Taiwan, narrate the history of her mother’s family and their journey from mainland China to Canada via Taiwan, probe the family’s silences and antagonisms. All while giving us a potted history of the discovery of the island’s flora and fauna by mostly European scientist explorers. The weaving of these various strands isn’t always seamless. But each concerns the task of naming, defining, or fixing. Which explains Lee’s interest in mapmaking, language differences, and histories of classification. In each case these gaps—her difficulty, as a child in southern Ontario, in communicating with her Chinese Taiwanese grandparents, for example—prove to be both generative and debilitating, connecting even as they separate. That paradox leads to Lee’s final comparison, spurred by a trek through the Shanlinxi forest and its enormous cedars, of people to trees, connected through subterranean roots that make of these separate entities a forest. Language itself carries this affinity within it, Lee argues, noting that Carl Linneaus’s name is rendered in Chinese by characters meaning “someone related to the forest” or “someone who endures the forest” (the latter suggestion especially fraught and intriguing). To model human interrelatedness on the nonhuman natural world, Lee suggests, isn’t fanciful; it’s an expression of the truth of our own insignificance: “our fleeting human worlds are so easily swallowed up by nature, our fate fastened to its course. What we believe to be culture is only ever a fragment of natural world that we have sectioned off, enclosed, pearl-like, for posterity.”

I did not like Two Trees unreservedly—the writing is uneven: sometimes genuinely affecting, sometimes straining for lyricism—but I learned a lot. I recommend Nicie’s reflections on her own ambivalence.

Jeong You-Jeong, Seven Years of Darkness (2011) Trans. Kim Chi-Young (2020)

Compelling sort-of crime novel from Korea, a bit Gothic, a bit horror. Reminded me of Les Revenants (The Returned), that French show about ghosts—not least because both show and novel feature villages flooded by the construction of hydroelectric dams. If I knew more about Korean history I might suggest that Seven Years of Darkness is an allegory of the country’s rapid modernization. There’s that dam, of course, but also all kinds of sophisticated surveillance technologies A novel, then, about both 20th and 21st century technologies. Good stuff; I’ll definitely be reading more Jeong.

Sujata Massey, The Satapur Moonstone (2019)

Second in the Perveen Mistry books about a female solicitor in 1920s India. This time Perveen travels to a Himalayan princely state (once again to interview women in purdah). That world is interesting and compellingly presented. Perveen gains a possible love interest; that worked for me too. Massey is a plodding writer, though; suspense is not her forte. The third book has just been published but I’m not sure I’ll keep reading.

Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (1958)

I enjoyed my online class with Samantha Rose Hill on The Origins of Totalitarianism so much that I signed up for one on Arendt’s follow-up, The Human Condition. Much shorter, but much more philosophical, harder to read. Sam is a great teacher, though, and the class was filled with smart people from literally all around the world. (Zoom doesn’t always suck.) Arendt and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but the scope of her thinking and its anti-transcendence are inspiring.

We live, so Arendt, between the no-longer and the not-yet: there is no ideal society because there is no teleology to our lives or this universe. We have to rethink the human condition all the time based on experience, on what is. In her concern with what is, Arendt might seem like a materialist; she might seem, in other words, to be influenced by Marx. And indeed, the book began as a study of Marx, but became something else, especially as Arendt offers a (pretty idiosyncratic and, I am told, weak) reading of Marx. Marx believed labour to be the essence of human experience, Arendt argues, but he also wanted to liberate us from labour (and its alienation). Which would mean there would be no more human essence. Marx, Arendt continues, failed to distinguish between labour and work. Labour is necessary, but limited and limiting. It consumes itself because its task is consumption. Labour is endless, even circular: we need to feed and clothe ourselves, take care of our children and elders, etc. Almost all of the ways we spend our time and earn our living today are forms of labour. (Even the things we do in our spare time—our hobbies, which Arendt is hilariously scornful about—are just disguised labour.) Work, by contrast, is fabrication, it makes something that is durable, that is made of (some element of) the earth but exceeds the earth by the process of shaping and making. Work has dignity, though it barely exists anymore (says Arendt in the late 1950s), some scientists and, mostly, artists are the only ones lucky enough to work in this way.

In the process, Arendt, using Augustine’s concept of the love of the world, overturns the dualism present since Aristotle between the life of contemplation and the life of action. Philosophy has always valued the former and denigrated the second. Arendt flips this around. Because only in action can politics come into being. (Politics is when people come together to bring about a new beginning—always risky, always unstable, something like revolution; it is not the administration of the results of that action: that’s the political, bureaucracy, an all-around bad scene.) To love the world is to look at it for what it is, to face reality, to see all the good and evil in it. The Human Condition is a secular theodicy, a vindication of the world. We should not want to get outside ourselves—Arendt references Kafka’s parable of the man who found an Archimedean point but only because he was able to use it only against himself as a warning against the idea of transcendence—which explains why she is so fixated on the Sputnik rocket: it’s an image of science’s failed attempt to find that impossible place outside the world, impossible because what science has done with its Archimedean discovery is to use it against the human, to turn away from our experience in the world. We live in a world without much freedom (the world of consuming, of language deadened into cliché, of administrative rationality) but the possibility of freedom is always there. Things can always be different than they are. We know this because of what Arendt ominously/grandiosely calls “natality,” by which she simply means that we are born and we die. Every time someone is born something utterly new has come into the world. It is this principle of change—which is politics properly considered—that we must live by.

My summary surely misunderstands Arendt in some ways—please correct me. But it’s stirring stuff. I recommend Arendt, especially if you have someone to help you through it. I couldn’t help, however, but find her emphasis on the human overbearing and misguided in the time of the Anthropocene. I’m not sure the earth can take the world Arendt wants us to build. I so wish she were alive to help us think our current moment. But she’d probably tell me that’s for us to do…

Georgia O’Keefe, Sun Water Maine, 1922

Lots to recommend here, I hope you’ll find something you like the sound of and that you’ll share your favourites of the month. Above all, (re) read The Age of Innocence: it’s really something.

“I Wish to Do No Harm”: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul

Yesterday was the best day because yesterday was the day I read Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul, the funniest, kindest, and wisest book I’ve read in a long time. Imagine if Anita Brookner had kept her shrewdness and set aside her fascination for cruelty. She might have written something like the opening sentence to Hession’s first novel:

Leonard was raised by his mother alone with cheerfully concealed difficulty, his father having died tragically during childbirth.

It’s all here: the prominence of aloneness (to my ears, a slightly strange adjective, I might have expected something like “only,” and its syntactical position gently emphasizes the mother’s effort as opposed to the child’s situation); the reference to cheerfulness, an important value and not simply a way to paper over unhappiness, even though the novel gives the latter its due too; and not least the zany swerve of the final clause into a joke that doesn’t demean a terrible reality. (Unusually among contemporary novelists, Hession knows how to withhold: we never find out how the father died.) I was reminded of that episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm where Larry’s rabbi notes with sorrow that his brother-in-law died on 9/11, neglecting to mention that the man perished not in the Towers nor on the planes but in fact in a bike accident uptown. But Curb scorns the rabbi’s sanctimonious piggybacking on a tragedy, whereas Leonard and Hungry Paul, well-meaning to its core, treats the moment as gently absurd.

Leonard and Hungry Paul are friends in their mid-30s. At the beginning of the novel, both still live with their parents, with whom they have good relationships. They play board games, drink tea, eat biscuits, and occasionally chat. Strong Frog and Toad vibe, though less gay, not that there’s anything wrong with that. Leonard writes the texts for children’s encyclopedias that appear under the moniker of a self-aggrandizing academic. Hungry Paul (the nickname is never explained—perhaps it is a family joke about his lack of ambition) works as a substitute postman on Monday mornings when the regulars call in sick with hangovers or ennui. Hungry Paul’s sister Grace, a manager for some kind of American conglomerate, is getting married to Andrew, who gives Power Points in Europe’s financial centers and could seem a little blandly good-looking but who gets Grace and softens her eldest child’s tendency to organize everyone. Hungry Paul and Grace’s mother, Helen, still works a couple of days a week in the school system, ostensibly until she is old enough to get a full pension, but actually because she is a bit scared of what it will be like to be at home with her husband all the time. Peter is a retired economist who makes lame, vaguely risqué jokes sometimes, but actually not all that often, and watches quiz shows at which he shouts out answers in rapid-fire bursts, mostly incorrectly. He is writing a speech for the wedding reception and wants it to be terrific.

Leonard works in a mixed open-plan office; like any right-thinking person, he uses noise-canceling headphones to survive this abomination. One day he is pulled out of his work by a girl in a green sweater and cherry-red hair. Shelley, the floor’s fire marshal, is overseeing a fire drill. She dropped out of art school and has an eight-year-old boy and a bike and curlicue handwriting. It’s a lovely meet cute. Leonard thinks she is breathtaking, and one of the plot lines involves their relationship, which hits all the right notes of bittersweet gentleness. A different book would make Leonard abandon Hungry Paul, but, charmingly, the friends continue to get on, Leonard cheering as Hungry Paul finds his own kind of successes: entering a contest designed by the local Chamber of Commerce to find a new send-off for emails (I’d love to share his entry, it’s so perfect, but I don’t want to spoil the surprise); volunteering at the hospital, first at his mother’s insistence but then for the rewards it brings, namely the chance to sit silently with sleeping patients and maybe later have a cup of tea; and finally, through a series of events that are much less implausible in the novel than in my summary, becoming the head of the national association of mimes, which he revives by starting the Quiet Club, half hour sessions at which participants can sit silently. (To get people in the mood, Hungry Paul puts on Cage’s 4’33, which is perhaps a joke too far, but it made me laugh.)

Hession is also a musician (he records under the name Mumblin’ Deaf Ro) and a social worker. There are plenty of acute musical references beyond the one to Cage—Hession never lards these on too much; at one point, he makes a little joke about it: Leonard, driving with Helen and Hungry Paul, thinks to himself that both have good taste in music for people who are so non-pushy about it—but it’s Hession’s other job that has left the biggest trace on the novel. Leonard and Hungry Paul manifests the best elements of social work—it’s interested not in pigeonholing or classifying people, but in showing people (to themselves and to others) how they are who they are. It is a stunningly non-judgmental book, perhaps most apparent in its use of the motif of speeches.

Speeches stand in for everything tiresome about the world: they are noise incarnate, no matter the volume at which they are given: canned, shrill, bullying, essentially coercive. (The people at the Chamber of Commerce don’t know what to do when Hungry Paul is asked to speak about his email signature and instead stands contentedly silent before the crowd—they rush in to fill the void.) Speeches aren’t always formal: they can take the form of joking clichés that save people from having to think, like the IT guy in the office who calls Leonard “Lenster.” (Shudder.) Yet the novel ends with what could be thought of as speeches—long outbursts in which the heroes explain themselves to others, Leonard to Shelley and Hungry Paul to Grace. These aren’t speeches, though, because they are spontaneous and offered as a therapist might, to inform rather than to score points. Hungry Paul, in particular—who in a different novel might be named autistic or neuroatypical, but here is just Hungry Paul (a name his family members sometimes follow with a little sigh)—is so reasonable, so aware of his inabilities in practical matters, so kind in his gentle insistence that he has to do things his own way, and that the things he does are in fact things, even though to the busy world they might not look like it.

You’ll notice how often I’ve used the word “gentle.” You could call Leonard and Hungry Paul sweet, maybe even twee, though these words often get used disparagingly, wrongly in my opinion. Gentle seems just right, certainly better than happy. Reading the novel made me happy, and I think it is a happy novel, but it doesn’t shy away from unhappiness. Besides, couldn’t we all use more gentleness right now? Leonard and Hungry Paul spoke to my soul but without flattering me: it’s not a book about the triumph of the introvert, it never forgets that we are in the world and do ourselves a disservice if we shut it away, although we should always feel free to meet it on our own terms. Hungry Paul’s early claim—“I have always been modestly Hippocratic in my instincts: I wish to do no harm”—is modestly challenged.

Mostly it made me laugh, like real tears-in-the-eyes-might-have-to-pee laughter, which FELT SO GOOD. In the last few years only Nina Stibbe’s Love, Nina and Elif Batuman’s The Idiot have done that. Particularly excellent is a hilarious set piece in which Hungry Paul tries to complain to the supermarket about a tin of expired candy—the scene builds for pages and manages to surprise at the end. Another one finds Leonard, meeting Shelley in town for their first proper date, in dire need of a bathroom and forced into a McDonalds, where he finds himself purchasing a Happy Meal so that he can get the bathroom code and then eating it for lack of anything better to do just as Shelley arrives.

But there are just as many little jokes, slid in as it were unsuspectingly. Here’s Hungry Paul in his new judo get-up:

Hungry Paul emerged from the bathroom wearing a white fluffy bathrobe tied with a white belt, tracksuit bottoms and flip flops with some tissue paper stuck to them. He was shaking his wrists and wore the look of intense concentration that is characteristic of a man with wet hands looking for a towel. The fact that he was in the unlikely position of wearing clothes made from the very material he needed might have tempted a lesser man, but, having already run the risk of doing a sit-down toilet while wearing white, he was not minded to capitulate under a lesser challenge.

(This is Wodehouse-level stuff.)

Here’s Leonard thinking about the man whose name goes on all his work, Mark Baxter, BEd:

Interns from his office just emailed all the changes and feedback, while Mark was away on the conference circuit, presumably sleeping with more interns, the BEd in his title providing a clue as to where he did his best work.

Here’s Hungry Paul trying to get someone to help him in a department store, where he is buying a suit for the wedding:

The shop assistant found a measuring tape from somewhere and started measuring Hungry Paul, using what looked like a self-taught method he had only just invented that second. ‘Eh, I’d say around 36”, short jacket and 38” short for the trousers,’ he guessed, calling out the measurements for E.T.

‘Maybe we’ll just look around. Thanks all the same,’ said Hungry Paul.

The young shop assistant went through some double doors to finish his adolescence.

See what I mean? Gentle. Leonard and Hungry Paul is balm for the soul and smart as a whip too. (Now look who’s using clichés!) It is the most joyful book I have read in this decidedly non-joyful year. Let me know if you would like a copy but can’t afford or find one: I’d like to send you one.

2017 Year in Reading

Although traumatic and anxious-making in so many ways, 2017 was a good year for reading. I read more books last year than in any year since I started keeping a list in 2014. I was freed of an onerous work responsibility halfway through the year, which helped, as did my decision to switch to audio books on my commute, once I realized that even my beloved NPR was raising my stress levels. (I don’t mind audio books, it turns out, though I learned what most of you probably already knew: the narrator matters a lot.)

Of the 115 books I completed, 50% were by women and 50% by men (one was co-authored). 37% were translated and 63% were originally written in English. (I read one book in German.) Only 13% were non-fiction. The glib explanation might be that reality is bad enough right now without reading about it; the better one is that we need fiction to understand reality.

I wrote about my books of the year in the final issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my reflection:

The books that meant the most to me this year recount the rise of—and resistance to—fascism in 1930s and 40s. These might be books from the past, but they feel all too timely.

Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years. Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh. My god, this book is good! I had a lot to say about it at OLM.

Hans Keilson, 1944 Diary. Trans. Damion Searls. Keilson was a mensch. I wrote about him for Numéro Cinq.

Girogio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Trans. William Weaver. Together with Scott and Nat, I enjoyed this wistful but definitely not precious remembrance of pre-war Jewish life in Ferrara.

And best of all, the highlight of my reading year:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. For several weeks I was consumed by this extraordinary book about the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943 in the Soviet Union. At OLM I said, “But Life and Fate isn’t just a work to respect. It’s also a book to love. What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. Combining the warmth of Chekhov with the scope of Tolstoy, Grossman’s magnum opus is that paradoxical thing, an intimate epic.” I wrote several posts about it, too.

Other highlights:

Carl Seelig, Walks with Robert Walser. Trans. Anne Posten. I wrote about it here. This is a joyous book. Couldn’t you use some joy right about now?

Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love and Solitude. Trans. Rachel Careau. Thanks to Scott Esposito for giving me the chance to write about these enigmatic but indelible syntax-destroying books.

Liana Millu, Smoke Over Birkenau. Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz. This memoir of Holocaust survivor Millu was a revelation to me. We don’t hear enough about women’s experiences in the Shoah. So impressed that I added it to my course this coming semester.

Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Is it the lousy title that’s kept people from talking about this book? Or is it that Englander has written a smart, balanced, non-polemical/non-hysterical novel about Israel likely to alienate readers with entrenched opinions about the situation there? The best review I’ve read is shigekuni’s. Englander’s second novel is short and deceptively simple. I bet it took him ages to write. I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon.

Nina Allan, The Race and The Rift. Speaking of shigekuni, he turned me on to these wonderful SF novels. Both brilliant; I liked The Race best. For fans of Doris Lessing and David Mitchell, and especially people who think they don’t like SF.

Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb. Trans. Michael Hofmann. A nominal sequel to Roth’s famous Radetzky March (which I read so long ago that I can’t remember a thing about it), this is a fascinating example of that rare species, the modernist historical novel. I planned to write about it for German Literature Month but I left it too late and then I got the stomach flu… This book is amazing, though: it tempts us to wallow in Hapsburg nostalgia before pulling the rug out from under us, as it details first the hardscrabble aftermath of WWI and then finally taking an unexpected swerve into the even worse depredations of an incipient WWII. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari were fond of the enigmatic term “line of flight.” I never understood what they meant, but Roth’s novel embodies what I think it might. The Emperor’s Tomb is a book on the run from itself, jumping forward temporally and stylistically in unexpected ways; it is a late work by an author who refuses to give readers what they have come to expect from him.

Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia and My Cousin Rachel. I wrote about these here and here. All wonderful, especially The Scapegoat.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. Late to that party! It’s amazing! More here.

Some bests:

Best comic with disagreeable characters: A surprisingly competitive field, including the first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the first two volumes of Jason Lutes’s Berlin serial, and the winner, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second, which I wrote about here in what is surely the least-visited post in the history of this blog.

Best non-apocalyptic SF: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140. It’s too long and some of the characters are flat/embarrassing, but I was fascinated by Robinson’s carefully detailed vision of New York after a huge rise in sea levels. Maybe not plausible when it comes to climate (though I sure want it to be) but definitely when it comes to capitalism. “Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins.”

Series that most kept my spirits up: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I listened to or read the first eight this year, and I’m starting to worry what I’ll do when I’ve finished them all (at least she’s still writing them). Maisie calls herself a psychological investigator: she’s a former WWI nurse who is trained by a philosophical/medical/psychological/political éminence grise and social reformer to do PI work and, as the series develops, a whole lot more. (That sounds preposterous and it is a little preposterous, but not that much, or not enough to bother me, anyway.) The books aren’t particularly suspenseful, and sometimes Maisie is a little too good, but I love the period details, I’m willing to believe in the centrality of trauma (maybe the books’ abiding belief), and most of all I’m captivated by the way Maisie wrestles with the combination of ability, work, and good fortune that let her succeed at a time when so many equally deserving people did not.

Best unpretentious essayistic biography: Marie Darrieussecq, Being There: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. I blogged about this terrific book here.

Book I most regret not posting about: Anita Brookner, A Start in Life. Seems like a lot of people are (re)discovering Brookner’s charms. And why wouldn’t readers be in love with a writer whose first book begins: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”? Maybe many of those readers share my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s, a period that still seems to me at least to be relatively recent but is actually closer to WWII than the present. Brookner has an old-fashioned gravitas and authorial certainty, yet she doesn’t read like a mid-century author. I plan to read more of her this year.

Best use of modernist literary style to tell a Victorian story: Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. Read this early in the year: it stayed with me, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Best first half of a book: Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage. I agree 100% with Michael Orthofer: the brilliant, insidious first half devolves into an overly long chase/pilgrimage sequence (I don’t care if it’s modeled on Spenser: still fundamentally boring). I’ll read the next one eagerly, though.

Best WWII spy story no one seems to know about: William Christie, A Single Spy. Double agents. Soviets and Nazis. Dramatic escapes. Strong writing. Perfect light reading.

Best romance novel: Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Admittedly, the only one I read, but Rohan steered me right here. Like Laurie Colwin, but hot. I’ll read more.

Funniest book of the year: Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Hoping to post about this before my copy is due back at the library. I laughed to the point of tears many times: “We learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” If you went to college in the 90s, this book is for you. Don’t worry, it’s not really a college novel.

Reliable pleasures: The Cadfael series continues to delight; the Montalbano books are back in form after some mediocre episodes; three books by Maurizo de Giovanni impressed me (would have read a lot more if only my library carried them). I finally read the first three Bernie Guenther books by Philip Kerr: fantastic!

Not-so reliable pleasures: The latest Lahlum disappointed—the bloat that crept into the last one is in full force here; I read my first book by John Lawton, in the Inspector Troy series: unpleasant; the new Indridason series: the jury is still out.

Good but maybe overrated: Jane Harper, The Dry (I’ll read the next, but it faded fast in memory); Don Winslow, The Force (part of me adored this Richard Price/George Pelecanos/David Simon novel of New York corruption, but part of me thought it was getting away with validating the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of its main characters in the guise of being cool/anthropological).

*

I published a number of pieces in 2017, and I look forward to doing so again this year. (Apologies to any editors reading this—I am working on your piece, I promise.) Sadly, though, the two venues I have written for the most, Numéro Cinq and Open Letters Monthly shut down this year. Together with Tom’s change of pace at Wuthering Expectations, my reading and writing year ended up feeling somber and end-of-an-era-ish.

But I’ll end on a happy note: I was lucky to share reading and writing experiences with several friends. Jacqui and I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel. Scott and Nat and I read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as mentioned above). Marat helped me out with Grossman. Nat and I read L. P. Hartley’s The Boat, which was fun even if we didn’t much like it. Thanks to them, and to everyone who read what I had to say at this space, however erratically, especially those who commented either here or on social media. You make doing this worthwhile. Best wishes in 2018.

My plans for the year are to make very few plans. But if you want to read something with me, just drop me a note in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015 & 2016.