What I read, March 2020

The month began in full mid-semester throttle. I taught a colleague’s class at a university at the other end of the State—preparing for that was a lot of work. Then I organized a visit to campus from a friend who presented on his work in progress. And almost the minute I dropped him at the airport, things started being canceled: our daughter’s school; then mine; then we were hunkering down for the foreseeable. And the month kept on going, stretching out endlessly, a disorienting expanse of fear and stress and, strangely, intimacy and, oh I don’t know, not languor or relaxation, but time. (To be able to experience is a sign of our privilege.) During all of it, I was reading, I hear a lot about people being unable to read at the moment. I get that, but since reading, for me, is a way to keep the world at bay I’ve been struggling with the opposite problem. I need reading even more than usual, but life (switching to remote teaching, figuring out how to handle our daughter’s homeschooling) is making that harder. Still, my family and I are safe, we’re mostly enjoying our time together, our dogs think this is the best thing that’s ever happened.

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Louise Erdrich, The Round House (2012)

The narrator of Erdrich’s novel, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts, lives on a rez in North Dakota in the late 80s. At the beginning of the summer during which the book is set, Joe’s mother is violently attacked and raped, plunging the family into a tailspin from which it recovers only at great cost. Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding and arresting the perpetrator—a frustration that has much to do with the disparity between Federal and Tribal law, and the insufficiencies of the latter as enshrined by the callousness of the former: a frustration felt even more strongly by Joe’s father, a judge on the rez—Joe and his best friends try to solve the crime. That could sound cute, but although often funny and filled with a large and sometimes larger than life cast of characters, the novel is sorrowful, especially when two more instances of unexpected violence bring matters to a chastened conclusion. I was surprised at Erdrich’s decision to narrate this story of violence against indigenous women from the point of view of a teenage boy, but one of her points, I think, is that such violence is everyone’s problem. I listened to the audiobook—the last of this semester’s commuting, as it turned out—and another pleasure was the actor Gary Farmer’s reading: I loved his cadence and emphases. My first Erdrich, but not my last.

Paulette Jiles, Enemy Women (2002)

You may remember me rhapsodizing over Jiles’s News of the World. I didn’t quite like this earlier novel as much, but I still liked it a lot. I’m so ignorant about the Civil War (I’m Canadian, sue me), but I bet even many American readers might not know that women from Confederate families (or even families who supported neither side) were jailed for (supposedly) abetting the enemy. Enemy Women is set in Missouri, especially the hills between Rolla and the Bootheel, land I’ve driven through plenty of times on my way from Little Rock to St. Louis, which I’ll now never think of in the same way. (Usually I try not to think of it, finding it incredibly dull. It certainly wasn’t in the 1860s.) Missouri wasn’t just swept across by the Union and Confederate Armies; it was also ravaged by militia on both sides. The women of Jiles’s title were mostly arrested by the Missouri Union Militia. As The New York Times reviewer resonantly put it, “the Ozarks became a wilderness of free-floating entrepreneurs of violence.” 18-year-old Adair Colley is arrested and sent to a jail in St. Louis after her family’s farm is burned, her father taken away, and her siblings scattered. In prison Adair draws the attention of her interrogator, Major William Neumann. The two begin a romance but are soon separated: Neumann is reassigned to Alabama while Adair escapes and tries to return to what’s left of her farm. Jiles switches between the storylines: Neumann is interesting, but Adair is the star. I found the first part of the novel slow, but I read the last third in a long rush that left me tired (but unrepentant!) the next morning. (There’s a bit in which she shakes off a dangerous pursuer that’s real heart-in-the-throat stuff.) This was Jiles’s first novel (she had published several books of poetry before that) and she’s certainly improved a lot since then. Even so Enemy Women is definitely worth your time.

Rennie Airth, The Decent Inn of Death (2020)

Latest installment of a crime series that (a) does not have too many books in it and (b) is worth reading even though later books don’t reach the heights of the first ones. Interestingly, Airth has let the characters age: their inabilities are central to this case, which riffs on the classic country-house murder.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018)

The last text I taught in person before we switched to remote learning. A few months ago, I worried students might find this novel of postwar Russia difficult and off-putting. Proving once again that even twenty years into the gig I know nothing about teaching, they loved it. Many said it was their favourite text so far. (And we’d read Ruth Kluger and Art Spiegelman!) Students were rightly fascinated by Gorenstein’s ambivalent portrayal of his teenage protagonist, Sashenka, who veers between cruelty and kindness and isn’t sure what she wants, just that she feels everything a lot. (The word the book most often uses about her is “spite.”) Gorenstein veers between realism and religious/philosophical abstraction; to me, he’s more compelling when writing in the former mode. What’s hard to figure out is how Gorenstein would have us reconcile psychology with sociology. His presentation of the Holocaust is strikingly non-ideological. On the one hand, he acknowledges the murder of Jews (rare in Soviet literature); on the other, he presents those murders as personal and local rather than systematic and genocidal. He’s good, though, on the terrible intimacy and physicality of such killing.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird (2017)

Set on and around Highway 59 in east Texas—the very route we were planning to take on a canceled Spring Break trip to Houston—the first in a new series for Locke is atmospheric and interesting. (She’s writing about Texas, but it could easily be Arkansas. Normally I’m allergic to all things Southern/Arkansan, even though I’ve landed here; that Locke kept me engaged with this material says something.) Darren Mathews, her hero, is a black Texas Ranger who grew up in east Texas, left as soon as he could, but was drawn home again. He’s got a complicated family background that Locke uses to good effect and a predictably failing marriage that is less interesting. The book is best on race relations in the South (less straightforward than many non-Southerners like to imagine). It is weakest in hewing to conventions of the procedural (renegade cop, troubles with alcohol). According to her bio, Locke has been writing for TV a lot. More power to her—it’s where the money is—but the book manifests a certain sheen or glibness, an unwillingness to let scenes linger, that smacks of the more disappointing qualities of television pacing. I found Steph Cha’s recent take on how to write crime fiction that challenges the institutional racism of policing more compelling.

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home (2019)

Sequel to Bluebird (they could be read as a single novel). Competent, but I’m not convinced Locke has yet figured out what she wants to do with the series. Most interesting when it addresses how quickly life changed for minorities—including those in the police—after Trump got elected.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975)

Cool, even icy, novel about a woman who travels to India to learn about her grandfather’s first wife, who left him for an Indian prince in the 1920s. I didn’t care for it, but Tom’s review made me appreciate it more. He really helped me think about the novel’s narration. The 1970s material takes the form of the narrator’s diary; the 1920s material is in third person. Where’s it coming from? Is the narrator writing it? If so, why/how does it include material the narrator surely couldn’t have known? Or is it omniscient? If so, what’s the relationship between the two timelines? What information should we trust? Is the narrator any different than the hippies surging through India on the hunt for spiritual enlightenment? Is she any different than her not-quite grandmother? What does it mean that her life begins to imitate her ancestor’s? These are interesting questions, but they’re more interesting than the novel itself. You certainly can’t accuse it of romanticizing India. If anything, it dislikes the place. In that sense, it’s still a colonial text—India observed from the outside. And I found the willingness of both female characters to have sex with men despite having no real interest in doing so troubling. (Quite a strange aspect of the novel: sex isn’t about liberation or pleasure or, conversely, violence or trauma. It’s a blank.) In the end, Heat and Dust gave off more dust than heat—I like my fiction warmer. But those with different tastes might feel differently. Not sure I’d try any of Prawer Jhabvala’s other novels. Are they all like this?

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing (2019)

I loved this essay collection, which Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books, who sold it to me, said is not even her best. (Naturally, I ordered her first two from him immediately.) I read most of it outside on the back porch in those days after face-to-face teaching stopped and before remote learning started—a dead, anxious, weird time that happened to coincide with that short time in Arkansas when the weather is gorgeous, the humidity low, and the mosquitoes not yet swarming. With less traffic on the roads (but not that much less: shamefully, Arkansas still does not have a Stay at Home order), the birds were louder and more frolicsome than usual. The azaleas in full bloom, the irises coming out, the redbuds just moving from that gorgeous pink blossom to their ordinary ugly leaves. I mention all this because Jamie is so attuned to place; reading her essays helped me be more so too. What made this an especially good book to read now is that many of its essays are about sojourns Jamie made to remote, isolated places that are nonetheless characterized by strong senses of community. We see that in a remembrance of travelling to the Chinese border with Tibet during the time of Tiananmen, a three-part piece on the excavation of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkneys, and, especially, in a long, magnificent essay about a summer spent in a Yup’ik village on the Alaskan coast, where the thawing tundra is bringing forth revelations about the area’s ancient hunter gatherer culture. (I am a sucker for all things northern, dream of traveling north of 60, so this essay was Extremely My Shit, but I also think it’s just objectively gorgeous and moving.) In all cases, Jamie shows that for things to surface, change has to happen, and that change isn’t always good. In the case of climate change, it’s terrifying. But these are hopeful, not hopeless essays. Not naïve, but sustaining. And boy that is what I need right now.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Trans. Ann Smock (1996)

A book I’ve read many times. Even though I stand by most of the things I say here, my sense of the memoir has evolved over the years. And it changed yet again this month: students always like it, but this was the best experience I’d had with it, all the more astonishing because we studied it together remotely. This group helped me see how obviously Rue Ordener is a traumatized text, so different, for example, from self-reflective Holocaust texts like Kluger’s Still Alive or Spiegelman’s Maus. Kofman forgoes retrospection, making it hard to decide how she feels about her experiences, especially what it was like to be torn between her mother and the casually antisemitic Frenchwoman who hid her in occupied Paris. Yet as a student pointed out the very raw, unprocessed, or traumatized quality of the text might itself be an illusion, a stealth way of exerting control by challenging us not to interpret. Highly recommended.

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Surfacing was my book of the month, followed by Enemy Women and The Round House. Rue Ordener I know so well I can’t even rank it here. Maybe I’ll read a little more in April. Or maybe not. At any rate, I’ve finished a very long cowboy novel that’s been keeping me entertained. Let me know what you’ve been reading during the pandemic, if you’ve been reading at all. And most importantly stay well, friends.

November 2019 in Review

O grim November. The semester at its most grinding. Thousands of leaves to bag. Even the Thanksgiving break busier than usual with several grant and conference applications sadistically due in the same week. On the plus side, crisp, even cold weather (at least for Arkansas). Which would have to console me, since I sure didn’t get much from my reading.

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Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger (2002) Trans. John Brownjohn (2004) I’d had this around for ages and took it from the shelf thinking it would be a quick read to ease me into German Literature Month. And it was quick. But it was also terrible. Ostensibly a crime novel about a cabbie who falls into lawlessness when he picks up a woman running away from her Russian Mafiosi husband, whom she has just defrauded of a lot of ill-gained money. I knew this novel was really going to stink when the pair (they never really get together, which is kind of interesting) head to San Francisco, the city that incarnates a certain European idea of American chic that I can’t stand (the way Europeans go bananas for Blue Velvet: ugh). I guess Ohnemus has pretentions to “exceed” the genre, because the last third of the book is about the guy’s rekindled relationship with an American woman he loved as a teenager (he was either on exchange or his family moved to SF for a bit: I forget, and I gave the book away, and who cares anyway). A ho hum thriller, a tedious relationship novel: stay far away.

Lee Child, The Affair (2011) It wasn’t until I was most of the way through that I realized this is sort of a Reacher prequel. Having only read two or three of this vast series so far, I wasn’t the right audience. Underwhelming.

Sarah Manguso, The Two Kinds of Decay (2008) Manguso’s memoir of the seven years she suffered from an autoimmune condition that attacked the myelin around her nerves, rendering her numb, weak, even (fortunately temporarily) paralyzed, is worth reading. I was a fan when it came out, and subsequently taught it a few times, to good effect. (Manguso was an undergrad at Harvard when she fell ill: students relate to her life situation and her subsequent efforts to (over)compensate for the years her younger self thought of as missed—i.e. sleeping around a lot.) A few years ago I even had the privilege of meeting her and having her teach one of my classes (this was around the time of Ongoingness, her book about her diary): she was thoughtful, patient, wonderful with the students. I’ve been teaching introductory composition this semester for the first time in several years, and so I decided to assign it again. Although the students weren’t great at discussing the book (to be fair, it’s a writing course, not a literature course, so they hadn’t had much practice), but judging from their essays they enjoyed it well enough. I, on the other hand, found it less compelling this time. I wonder if Manguso would too. Definitely a young person’s book.

Robert Harris, An Officer and a Spy (2013) Terrific novel about the Dreyfus Affair. The audiobook—wonderfully read by David Rintoul—kept me enthralled for a couple of weeks’ worth of commutes. Many, many, many years ago, in my Grade 11 History IB class, I wrote a term paper on the injustice done to Captain Alfred Dreyfus, falsely accused (in no small part because of his Jewishness) of passing secrets to Germany. So the story wasn’t exactly new to me. But I’d forgotten a ton, and it was fun to hear a name—Major Henry or General Boisdeffre, say—and wonder, Now, is that the really bad guy? (Not spoilt for choice in this business.) Harris’s narrator is George Picquart, the army officer who unwittingly began the slow and costly process of exposing the corruption and mendacity that had led to Alfred Dreyfus’s wrongful conviction and imprisonment. Picquart is an interesting character: we thrill to his persistence in uncovering Dreyfus’s innocence, but in Harris’s careful rendering we aren’t allowed to forget that he was never motivated by strong feelings for Dreyfus (he never liked the man, and was pretty antisemitic himself, though nothing like the main conspirators). That leads to a bitter concluding scene when the two men finally meet in which Picquart proves himself to have been telling the truth all those years in avowing that his search for the truth was prompted by his total commitment to the French army. Harris has found another milieu in which he can pretty much avoid writing female characters altogether, which sucks but given what we see here probably for the best. (Picquart’s love interest isn’t a cliché, she’s actually quite interesting, but she’s definitely underwritten.) The guy’s a genius, though, with suspense and back story. He knows how to pace. I even forgave him the present tense narration (a bête noire). Highly recommended.

Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann (2000) Trans. Jean M. Snook (2009) Actually wrote a post about this! Tl; dr: not perfect, but impressive, with a few nice Yiddish jokes.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018) Difficult but fascinating book set in the immediate aftermath of WWII (opens on New Year’s Eve 1945/6) offering a rare description of the Holocaust from the Soviet perspective. (Rare to those of us in the so-called West, but also rare in the former USSR, as the topic was pretty much forbidden (“do not divide the dead”).) This first English translation—from what I can tell, beautifully handled by Andrew Bromfield—is in Columbia UP’s newish Russian Library series. It has a useful but frustratingly narcissistic introduction by Emil Draitser, who cites his own memoir repeatedly, but nonetheless explains pertinent background and details Gorenstein’s life. Best known in the West at any rate for his film scripts (including Tarkovsky’s Solaris), Gorenstein left Russia for Germany in the 1980s.

After a fair bit of mental back and forth, I decided to assign Redemption for my course Literature after Auschwitz next semester. I know already that my students are going to find it hard: it’s very Russian, bits of it remind me of Dostoyevsky, and a lot of it isn’t about the Holocaust, at least not in the ways they’re used to thinking about it. (Which is the point of assigning this text.) But I decided to go for it. Not only is a challenge a good thing, but I’m bringing in a ringer to teach it. My friend, Marat Grinberg, who teaches at Reed and has written at the blog before, will be visiting campus next semester and I know he’ll be able to contextualize the work much better than I can.

Anyway, read this book to learn more about the prevalence of American goods in Russia just after the war, the vicissitudes of denunciation, and, above all, the way in which someone who lived for years next door to someone else could suddenly up and murder them, and the way the Soviet government did and didn’t want to know about it afterwards.

Philip Kerr, A Man Without Breath (2013) I complained a little about the previous installment of the Bernie Gunther series. But here Kerr’s back in form. Dark and absorbing, A Man Without Breath has Bernie sent to investigate the Katyn massacre (the murder of over 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals in a forest near Smolensk by the NKVDS, the Soviet secret police, in the spring of 1940). The Nazis hope to use the discovery of the giant mass grave as a way to galvanize international outrage and drive a wedge between the Allies. Pretty rich, of course, given the atrocities they themselves were busily pursuing. Sordid events, but the book doesn’t feel that way. Kerr was just brilliant with historical thrillers. I’m starting to feel keenly how few of these books I have left.

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In sum: two good thrillers, and two good novels about the Europe’s terrible 20th century. But a totally underwhelming month, and it is clear to me that the problem is that I read way too many books by men. Will see what I can do about that in December.