May 2019 in Review

In contrast to last month, May was a good reading month. No surprise: April is the worst month of the year for my schedule; May is one of the best. Plus, I had a lovely few days at my in-laws’ farm, where there’s nothing for me—a person who avoids bush-hogging (it’s a thing, look it up) as if his life depended on it—to do but sit on the porch swing and read.

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David Downing, Diary of a Man on Leave (2019) The new standalone from Downing is about a German-born Soviet spy who is sent back to Germany in 1938 to see if any of the members of the now-suppressed Communist party can be enticed into sabotage or resistance work. As is often the case with Downing, the historical background is more compelling than the writing or the story. But I also didn’t give this book my best. I bet I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it in a couple of sittings, instead of in dribs and drabs over the last week of the semester.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking (2018) Lots of people have already written about this excellent novel, including Parul Seghal in this very nice essay about #Metoo in fiction. It’s based on a true story: in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, women of all ages were regularly drugged with animal anesthetic and raped by men they lived among and knew well. In Toews’s novel, the men of the community have gone to the city to bail out the culprits. The women have two days to decide what to do: stay, leave, or fight. The novel consists of their debates, as recorded by August, a man who in his younger years left the community (his parents were expelled) and has now returned. August is an educated man, a man useless at farming, and, as such, in the eyes of the women as well as his own, not really a man at all.

I loved this smart, slippery novel, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it on a second reading. I don’t think I’ve come close to plumbing its depths. I’ll simply note for now that the use of the male transcriber (the women are illiterate) is brilliant—it lets us see how even an ostensibly “good,” that is, sympathetic man, is complicit in patriarchy. When August describes the underside of a woman’s arm as “very smooth and white, like the keel of a new canoe,” my first response was to admire this simple but effective simile. My second was to wonder over the nature of the comparison. Is it neutral? (And what would that even mean?) Appreciative? Objectifying? Can there be appreciation without objectification? Relatedly, can there be forgiveness without complicity? What is forgiveness even for? By evoking these sorts of questions, Women Talking reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, another rhetorically complex investigation into social structures, gender politics, and the uses and abuses of violence.

I’ve a longstanding aversion to Canadian literature that I perceive to be worthy but dull (i.e. most mainstream English-language Canadian fiction of the past thirty years). I’d never read Toews before because I thought she fit that bill. On the basis of this book, anyway, I was totally wrong, and I look forward to looking into her backlist. Anyone have preferences?

Katherine Marsh, The Night Tourist (2007) This one is special to me because my daughter and I read it together (mostly me to her, but sometimes her to me), and it’s a pretty sophisticated book, probably best suited for middle readers or even teenagers. It reworks the Orpheus myth (and as such gave my daughter her first consistent exposure to Greek myth—another milestone). Jack Perdu is a teenager who experiences mysterious visions that eventually lead him to experience a whole New York underworld full of ghosts. These recently and not-so-recently dead people must come to terms with their past before they can, in the language of the novel, “move on” to Elysium. Befriended by a girl named Euri, Jack learns why he, a mortal, can see ghosts and at what cost. In so doing, he uncovers the truth about his mother’s death, about which his father has always been so tight-lipped. And he reenacts his own version of the Orpheus story. Along the way he travels through all kinds of unusual New York landmarks—it’s a good city novel—and meets all kinds of people, like the poet Dylan Thomas and the psychoanalyst and early translator of Freud Abraham Brill. In other words, The Night Tourist was as much fun for me to read as for my daughter. I’m grateful to a colleague who teaches Classics and Children’s literature for turning me on to this book.

John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018) Catnip to me, since I spend much of my professional life decrying the five-paragraph essay, teaching students why it’s boring and awful, and supporting them through the realization that a skill they had to master in order to get to college now means nothing at all.

Warner, who is clear that his teaching discoveries have been possible because he hasn’t had a full-time, secure academic position (which is to say, he is the most common kind of academic there is today), is funny without being cutesy. He’s clear and thoughtful. And best of all, he’s inspiring. I’ll be changing my teaching this Fall based on his suggestions. His practical advice is great—and his sample exercises even better. I could have done without some of the sections demolishing what has passed as educational reform in the last decades—mostly because I already agree with Warner, but also because these sections feel a bit padded—but on the whole this is a book anyone who writes or, especially, teaches others to write should take a look at. It opens with a great bit on the reactions Warner gets when people learn about his job (It’s the phones! It’s that they’re snowflakes!). Warner says, it’s not the phones, and it’s not the snowflakes: it’s that students are doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do.

Andrew Taylor, The Anatomy of Ghosts (2010) My last audiobook of the semester was a good one. I’ve read some of Taylor’s historical fiction before (always crime-ish, sometimes Gothic, a bit pastiche-y), and although some are better than others, he’s always good light reading. This is a story of secrets and corruption in 18th century Cambridge. Some appealing characters, some dastardly ones, some nice twists. Good stuff.

Ben Aaronovitch, Whispers Under Ground (2012) I really liked Midnight Riot, the first book in Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy Rivers of London series. In the first book, PC Peter Grant learns to his surprise that he has an affinity for the supernatural and is assigned to a unit of the Met dealing with all things inexplicable to reason. (I especially like the personification of the various rivers and streams in and under London that gives the series its name.) A while ago, I read the second book, and it was ok. Now I took a flier on the third, and I’m realizing that I like crime a lot more than fantasy. There’s always a climactic bit in these books with some kind of monster or supernatural creature that I find tedious. So maybe these books aren’t really my thing. They’re funny, though. Maybe I’ll pick up the fourth in a year or so.

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (2019) Englander is the heir to Bernard Malamud, which is some of the highest praise I can offer. My appreciation for his (admittedly a bit uneven) work only grew when I got to host him for a few days several years ago. The man’s a prince.

I liked kaddish.com a lot, but this review in The Nation made me doubt my response. (I respect Nathan Goldman’s taste.) I agree with Goldman that the book (which is really a novella—a form that, happily, seems to be making a comeback: thinking of Moss’s Ghost Wall for example) is more expanded short story than fully-fledged novel. But I don’t think it’s padded or slight or overworked. I appreciated how it used the kind of temporal shifts more common to a story than a novel. There’s a big, and to my mind fascinating, shift about 30 pages in: some readers characterize it as undeserved or ill-explained, but I think it’s important for making sense of the book, which is about persistence or, better, the inexpungable, whether that takes the form of pop up windows or Torah study.

What’s this book about? The eponymous website, of course, which promises to exploit a Talmudic loophole in order for users to hire someone to say kaddish (the prayers for the dead) for a deceased loved one for the year prescribed by Jewish law. Englander’s protagonist, who has taken advantage of this service, spends most of the book trying to meet the shadowy and perhaps unreal person who took on that burden. Like so much of Englander’s work, kaddish.com simultaneously challenges and appreciates Jewish tradition. (Again like Malamud.) It also asks to be read in tandem with his last book, the similarly short The Dinner at the Center of the World: both are about Israel around the turn of the century; the first political, the second religious.

James Sturm, Off Season (2019) Melancholy comic, which I wrote about here.

Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) I’d been thinking about how I first learned about the Holocaust, and I remembered this book, which—along with Anne Holm’s I Am David (does anyone read that anymore? I should track it down)—was one of the first places I got even a hint about the fate of Europe’s Jews under Nazism. (How old was I? 10 maybe?) Re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was a revelation. For one thing, I realized it’s not really about the Holocaust: it’s indirectly about the Nazi persecution of Jews, and directly about exile.

Anna, the protagonist, clearly modelled on Kerr herself, is nine when Hitler takes power. Her father is a well-known writer critical of National Socialism. (As was Kerr’s father, Alfred Kerr, nicknamed the Kulturpapst (cultural Pope) of Weimar Germany.) Just before the fateful elections in January 1933, Anna’s father is tipped off that he should leave the country, as he is likely to be arrested should the Nazis win. What he hopes will be a short vacation turns into a life-long exile, in which he is joined by his family, first in Switzerland, then Paris, and finally London.

Kerr writes piercingly of what it means to have no home other than one’s immediate family (“If you haven’t got a home, you’ve got to be with your people”—lucky for her, and her character, that she could). Being a refugee is hard, the book suggests, but it also has its benefits. (Maybe this is the difference between exiles and refugees. Only the former can look on their experiences so philosophically.)

There’s an especially moving subplot about a family friend, a naturalist and a Luftmensch who laughs off the idea that he should leave Germany. (One of his grandparents was Jewish.) When Uncle Julius is forced out of his job and can only find work as a sweeper in a factory, his only pleasure is his daily visit to the Berlin zoo, where, Anna’s father notes sadly, the monkeys recognize him not just for the peanuts he brings but also for his gentleness. If only the people were as perceptive. When the zoo is decreed off-limits to Jews, Julius swallows a bottle of sleeping pills.

Yet despite such stories, the book is very funny. The family’s pluck is heartening, and their dry wit a pleasurable, if necessarily limited, fuck you to fascism. (The title comes from Anna’s decision to leave behind her favourite stuffed animal, a pink rabbit, with all the rest of the family’s possessions, in favour of a new toy that she later recognizes she doesn’t love at all. The family’s things are sent “into storage,” but of course, none of it is ever seen again.) Reading Kerr’s delightful book, I sometimes laughed out loud, which I really didn’t expect.

Kerr wrote two more books about the family’s experiences, taking up Anna’s story after her arrival in England. These are out of print, but I’ve tracked them down in various local libraries. Just a few days after finishing Rabbit, I learned of Kerr’s death at the age of 95. (Judging from the stories circulating on Twitter, she was a delight.) I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy soon: maybe an essay will come of it.

Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (2019) Contemporary American literary fiction is not my thing, but I like Garth Greenwell, and he’s been saying good things about this book. So I plucked it from the library’s New Book shelf. I almost quit on the first page:

During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose washed grapes. She collapsed. Grapes thudded dully on the carpet. One rolled under the couch. The plate lay overturned, and my mother’s body was beside it, limbs splayed.

This is just the sort of in medias res, flatly written, and ominously portentous sort of thing I associate with American literary fiction. So annoying. (At least it’s in past tense. Why does everyone feel they have to write in present tense?)

Anyway, I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It turns out the mother is testing her kids, checking to see whether they would call for an ambulance. (They didn’t.) This gives you some idea of the fraught family dynamic at the heart of Lin’s debut novel, which is narrated by a sensitive child, alert to some of the nuances of what’s going on around him, but blind to others, which we glimpse by reading against his limited perspective.

Not a particularly unusual scenario for a literary novel. But who the child is and where he tells his story from is more unusual. Gavin, ten years old in 1986, is the middle child in an immigrant family. His parents are from Taiwan; he grows up in Alaska. His father is a wastewater engineer, but whether from bad luck or incompetence, he makes a mistake and a child dies from a poisoned well. (The motif of poisoning returns at the end of the book, with a reference to the Exxon Valdez disaster/fiasco.) The child who dies barely figures in the book—though the event has consequences for the narrator’s family, which spirals into severe poverty—but that fate echoes in another, significant way: Gavin’s younger sister dies of meningitis, and we see how each member of the family struggles with the repercussions of that terrible event. It’s all made worse in that no one in the family is able or willing to talk about their feelings.

Even though the book’s not especially long I thought it could have been shorter: I think it would have been better as a novella. Especially as Lin is better with set pieces than sustained narration. Two in particular stand out: one in which Gavin and his mother encounter a beached whale (it’s not as crassly symbolic as it sounds), and another in which the family’s youngest child goes missing during a violent storm. (That scene is so suspenseful I could feel my hands clutching the pages.)

As a child of immigrants, I’m captivated by stories of children forced to become the interpreters of a new land for their elders. I was surprised, and interested, to find that racism isn’t central to the story. Gavin’s family is different from most everyone around them, no question, and those differences embarrass and confuse the children, but the white Alaskans in the novel—admittedly few in number: the family is isolated, more by choice than geography—are more puzzled than hostile when they encounter the narrator and his siblings and parents. But then there’s the title, with its ungainly nonce noun, which I can’t quite figure out. Does “unpassing” suggest their inability to fit in? What isn’t being passed? I couldn’t make much of it.

It’s neither here nor there, but I was also surprised by the affinities between Lin’s novel and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (2008). Moral of the story: try not to grow up with emotionally distant parents in Alaska.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969) A great time travel novel! Richard Young is invited to stay at a house on the Cornish coast owned by his friend Magnus Lane, a scientist who has secretly invented a concoction that takes whoever swallows it back to the fourteenth century. Richard, who agrees to test it, experiences a different moment in the lives of the local gentry on each trip. As befits a novel from the 60s, Du Maurier explicitly plays up the analogy between time travel and drugtaking, not least because the professor’s tincture turns out to be addictive. Richard’s visits to the past are momentary, and he cannot intervene in events. But even mere observation is risky.

I happened to read The House on the Strand as I was writing about Sarah Moss’s recent novel Ghost Wall, which concerns an anthropology study course, in which participants try to live as the Celts of Northumberland did in the years before the Roman invasion of Britain. Both novels investigate the power—and danger—of the desire to inhabit the past. Although Du Maurier’s narrator is more generous in his relationship to the past than most of Moss’s characters, he experiences the fantasy of direct connection to the past just as intensely as they do: “Imagination was not enough, I craved the living experience which had been denied me.”

The drug means Du Maurier’s narrator can experience what Moss’s characters cannot. Yet the opportunity comes at great cost. Madness results when the boundary between past and present dissolves. Which is really not that different from what we see in Moss’s novel. Moreover, both writers are equally convinced that the desire to control and dominate the past, rather than just to know it, is particularly male. The most disagreeable thing about The House on the Strand is the way Richard bullies his wife. (I think Du Maurier is critiquing this behavior, but I’m actually not sure. I find her gender politics hard to figure out.)

Anyway, you can read The House on the Strand without reading Ghost Wall. It’s a great book, a highlight in the Du Maurier canon, in my opinion, one I am steadily exploring with great pleasure (six books so far, and not a dud among them).

I read this for Ali’s #DDMreadingweek, which was a big success: I wish I’d been in time to write about it. But she promises to run it again next year, which gives me the excuse to read more Du Maurier!

Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (1898 – 1904, rev. 1918) Trans. Naomi Lebowitz (2010) I made a big deal about asking everyone to read this, and some of you even did. What I haven’t done is written anything about the experience yet. Will rectify this week.

Esther Freud, Peerless Flats (1993) I’ve long been a fan of Freud’s first novel, Hideous Kinky, which I gather is closely based on her own childhood experiences in Morocco, where she and her sister were taken by her clever, free-spirited, feckless, Hippie (choose your modifier) mother. But I’ve never read any of her others, even though I’ve collected most of them. I’ve long had the idea to catch up with them, and I think this is the summer for it.

Peerless Flats (you’ve got to admit, she has a way with titles) is, by all accounts, another fairly autobiographical novel, though this time with an older protagonist. In 1979, Lisa is sixteen and newly arrived in London where she’s just started an acting course. She lives with her mother (a version of the mother in Hideous) and much younger (and hilariously anarchic) brother. She’s also trying to keep tabs on her half-sister, who is into punk and drugs and lousy men; Lisa is the sensible one in the family, with all the travails that entails.

Two passages I liked a lot:

In the first, Lisa is in a pub, waiting for an older man she’s not sure she’s in love with. She’s ordered a drink she doesn’t want because she’s convinced ordering a soft drink would be a tip-off that she’s underage. She thinks about how late it’s getting:

Lisa began to worry about her mother. She imagined her waiting up. Listening for every tread on the stairs. She knew from experience that the more she worried about her mother, the less anxious her mother seemed when she did finally appear. But it didn’t stop her. Maybe this was what people meant by sensible.

In the second, she starts a new term to find that Brecht has replaced Stanislavsky on the syllabus:

Lisa felt completely thrown. For her the whole point of acting was the license it gave you to become another person, protected by a stage set and someone else’s words. … ‘What kind of actress are you going to be, Brechtian or Stanislavskian?’ [her friend] Janey asked Lisa in the canteen.

Lisa wasn’t sure. Really she just wanted to be Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago and wear a fur hat and a tailored coat with buttons down the front.

Right?!?

It seems to me that Freud is the link between a writer like Barbara Comyns and one like Nina Stibbe. All are exemplars of a British tradition of female experience—predominantly realist in expression, but where the Gothic is never far away—in which stoicism is leavened by humour, and competent haplessness is, maybe not a value, but a totally okay way to be. Anita Brookner might fit somewhere here too.

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (1979) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (2018) Evocative 1970s Japanese novella about a woman who separates from her husband and lives with her small daughter. As the title hints, the book is as much about patterns and sensations as about emotions: or, rather, the latter are mostly evoked through the former. (The particular territory of light is a fourth-floor apartment, but it’s surely also the psyche.) My sense is that single mothers were unusual in Japan at the time, and the narrator deals with a certain amount of animus and hardship. But the book is really about resilience, about making a life which is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes imprisoning. (I especially loved a bit where the mother loses it on her tantrum-y child in a park and wants nothing more than to leave her behind.) Territory of Light was initially published in a newspaper in twelve monthly installments. No doubt that’s why there’s the chapters repeat themselves a bit, but I liked this: it captured that crushing sense of getting though daily life that characterizes life with small children, even as the change in seasons makes the book more fluid than stagnant. The only thing I wondered at was the portrayal of the daughter, who seemed not so much precocious (thank God, that’s the worst) but developmentally older than I expected. She said and did things I don’t associate with three-year-olds. Regardless, Tsushima is an impressive writer, and it’s great to see her in English: I’ve got Child of Fortune and will read that soon.

Helen Dunmore, The Siege (2001) Last year, I read the late Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. I liked it a lot, and I think about it often. I liked The Siege even better, mostly because it is set in the period of my intellectual interests/obsessions (the 1930s and 40s in Europe). The title refers to the terrible siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, especially its horrifying first months during the winter of 1941-2.

Dunmore sometimes reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald in her use of unusual and vivid details to evoke the foreignness of the past. In the end, she’s a less surprising writer than Fitzgerald (I mean, who isn’t?), but still a very good one. Especially memorable here is her depiction of what prolonged hunger does to bodies, both metaphorical (the body politic, which bends and often breaks) and, most interestingly, literal.

Hearts palpitate after the simplest actions (climbing a flight of stairs, to say nothing of chopping a hole in the frozen Neva or dragging a pailful of its water back to an apartment). Legs swell. Teeth fall out. Short-term memory fades. Breath stinks. Sexual desire evaporates. I’d need to think more about whether the book ignores important political and historical distinctions by emphasizing the body (not in itself an ahistorical concept, but presented here as such), but that focus is certainly powerful.

The Siege isn’t a short book. And aside from some important chapters at the beginning set during the summer of 41, when Germany invaded the USSR, it concentrates on the months between September 1941 and April 1942. That level of detail is impressive—and sometimes hard to take. We watch a family’s precious supplies dwindle (we ache when the very last teaspoon of honey is meted out to a little boy; we wonder how many times tea can be made from the same dried nettles) and we wring our hands in anticipation—in a way I have often considered with my students of Holocaust literature—of an end we know, with the benefit of hindsight, is coming. Just hold out a little longer, I silently urged the characters, even as I worried because there were so many more years of the siege to go. How could they survive?  Dunmore’s decision to elide the rest of the war and leap to its end in the final chapters worked for me. Only a different kind of book—and probably not a novel—could cover the whole event in such detail. Plus, although life remained terribly hard for Leningraders, it was never as bad as that first winter, since the authorities were eventually able to fly supplies in—plus every available inch of the city was turned into a vegetable garden.

More Dunmore is in my future, no question. Maybe I’ll start with her sort-of sequel to The Siege, The Betrayal. Anyone have any other suggestions?

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Judith Kerr’s story of exile & Dunmore’s depiction of the siege of Leningrad aside, I deliberately took a break from all things fascism/Holocaust-related this month. In June, though, I’ll be returning to my regular fare. In particular, I’ll be reading and writing about Primo Levi, as a way to commemorate his centenary. More on that in a separate post soon.

2018 Year in Reading

At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.

I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.

Some highlights:

Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.

Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.”

Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).

Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.

Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.

Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrina here. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.

Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.

Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.

Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.

Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.

Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.

Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Belly of Paris and The Kill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.

And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.

I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.

The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.

Some bests and worsts:

Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.

Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).

Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.

Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.

Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.

Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.

Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.

Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.

Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.

Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?

Interesting, but I don’t quite get the fuss: Oyinkan Brathwaite, My Sister, the Serial Killer; Anna Kavan, Ice. I wrote about my struggle to teach the latter.

Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?

Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).

Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).

Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).

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My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.

As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.

Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.

 

July 2018 Vacation Reading

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The Three Sisters, Canmore, AB, July 2018 Photo: Brett Buchanan

 

Spent much of July in Canada, lucky me, visiting friends in New Brunswick and family in Alberta. Did a lot of hiking, caught up on some television, avoided news as much as possible, enjoyed the time with my wife and daughter, and also got in a fair amount of reading.

As usual I didn’t read very many of the things I thought I would. The need to take it easy and follow the drifts of serendipity was more overpowering than ever this year. It was a joy to read so haphazardly.

Here are some capsule thoughts on the stuff I read.

Rachel Cusk, Outline (2014)

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Late to this party, but now that I’m here, I’m staying for the whole thing. (Clumsy way of saying I will read the other two books in the trilogy, and then look into Cusk’s backlist–if anyone has suggestions about where to go first–her fiction? her nonfiction?–I’d like to know.) I’m not as over the moon about what Cusk is doing as some readers seem to have been. (I’m unconvinced this is the novel’s salvation, for example, mostly because I don’t think it needs saving.) But I found Outline engrossing and satisfying. I think it would repay re-reading more than most books. A part of me wonders if the book isn’t too perfectly devised to be interpreted in a particular way (as if it were designed for the classroom). But another part of me thinks that Cusk is likely ahead of me and has written her book in this way knowingly, to make a point about what kind of book our literary culture considers important. (I am not exactly sure what that point is, though.) I really like Cusk’s use of indirect narration–the only way, though an important one, in which she resembles Sebald, whom I suspect she is often compared to. She’s got a handle there on something significant about how we tell stories now; I look forward to thinking about this more as I read the follow-up books.

Dorothy B. Hughes, The Expendable Man (1963)

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The best book I read in July, hell, one of the best of the year. I can’t say much about it because Hughes delivers an important surprise about a quarter of the way through that shifts ours understanding of the whole thing, in a way that effectively provokes us to examine our expectations. That might sound like a trick or a gimmick, but it is totally not. Basically, all you need to know is that this is a great noir set in the American southwest. It would have been so easy for Hughes to have written this in first person. Her choice to use third makes it even more compelling. The rare thriller that demands to be re-read. (I just read another of her books and hope to write more about it soon.)

Edmund Crispin, The Case of the Gilded Fly (1944)

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The only dud of the bunch. I was excited to find reissues of Crispin’s mysteries while browsing in a bookstore, but was disappointed with my choice, which I selected because it was published before any of the others sitting on the shelf. I’m guessing it’s not the first in the series, because the detective, an apparently brilliant and maddeningly insouciant Oxford don named Gervase Fen, isn’t given anything like an ordinary introduction; it’s as though we’re already supposed to know all about him. [I just looked this up, and this book is the first of the series: another strike against it!] I don’t know if amateur and professional theater companies were as big a part of actual life in early to mid 20th Century Britain as they are in crime fiction of the period, but I find theatre stories a particularly tedious sub-genre, and as Gilded Fly involves a production so far from the West End it premieres in Oxford, I’m hardly the ideal reader of the book. I finished it–mostly because it is so short–but unless someone mounts a convincing defense of the series (and promises later ones get much better) I won’t be reading any more.

Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk (2017)

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An excellent novel by a writer who clearly knew what she was about, especially when it comes to preserving the strangeness of the past. A shame she died last year (at only 64), not long after publishing this book. Birdcage Walk is set in and around Bristol in the 1790s. It’s good with ideas–the joys and disillusionment the Revolution brings to progressive thinkers, including the protagonist’s mother, as best I can tell a sort of Mary Wollstonecraft type (though the hero is no Mary Shelley, except in being abused by men); the similarities and differences between those who build with their hands and those who create with their minds–but even better with things: it’s filled with vivid scenes of, for example, a difficult labour, the burying of a corpse, and a headlong boat ride, racing first with then against the tide. Dunmore reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald (some of the highest praise I can offer). There’s nothing here quite as extraordinary as the wash day in The Blue Flower or the break-up of ice in The Beginning of Spring, but Dunmore’s book is definitely in that league. Although there won’t be any new books from Dunmore, she has a long and enticing backlist. I plan to start with The Siege, about the siege of Leningrad, but if anyone has other suggestions, I’m all ears.

Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves (2017)

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Terrific Indigenous YA from Canada. In the dystopian world of this novel–set in Northern Ontario about forty years from now–not only has climate change made much of the world uninhabitable, but, almost as bad, something has made people unable to dream. (No doubt it has something with their inability to contrive a way of living in the world that doesn’t destroy it, but fortunately Dimaline doesn’t labour over an explanation.) If you can’t dream you go crazy, so when it’s discovered that Indigenous people have been spared the affliction it’s not long before they are being hunted and placed into facilities where the bone marrow that somehow protects them can be extracted. There are obvious resonances to the residential schools that devastated Indigenous culture in Canada, but again, Dimaline underplays the connection. A friend told me she didn’t care for the book because she thought it was so poorly written, and I agree that Dimaline (in what I believe is her first novel) too often overloads her sentences with metaphor. For example, here’s her narrator, a teenage boy named Frenchie, when he stumbles across a miraculously pristine lake: “I heard capture and release and a high whine over something that echoed off the trees growing downwards towards the brook like pious monks in all manner of fancy dress, voluminous green silks peeking out of their austere brown habits.” I’m willing to believe, just about, that the boy would make such a comparison, but what is the comparison about, exactly? The end of the sentence says that trees look like monks, but the beginning is about sound, and I find it confusing that so much description should be appended to what isn’t even the sentence’s subject. But in the end, I am both a sucker for dystopian stories (which more and more are just slight exaggerations of reality) and for the balance between hopefulness and hopelessness on which the book pivots. Bottom line: I stayed up late to finish, reading as avidly as I did as a child.

Claire Fuller, Our Endless Numbered Days (2015)

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This was Fuller’s first novel, and her new one (her third, I believe) is getting a lot of good buzz. I’m certainly going to read it, because this was excellent. It shouldn’t work as well as it does, and I don’t think the frame story is as engaging as the main one. (Fuller just ran out of steam, I think, but that’s okay because I’d rather the book was 300 pages that left me wanting more than 450 pages that made me want less.) In the mid-1970s, while her mother, a concert pianist, is on tour in Europe, eight-year-old Peggy is taken on vacation by her father, a survivalist and, it turns out, a crackpot (though that’s probably a redundancy). The vacation turns out to be a nine-year odyssey in a remote valley in Bavaria, where the two live without any human contact. The father convinces his daughter that the rest of the world has been destroyed and that they have only each other to rely on. (The frame story hints at the narrator’s difficulty in re-entering the ordinary world.) Fuller’s characterization, especially of the father, is careful and convincing. We see his monstrousness, his selfishness, but we also see his capability and his ability for joy. (Mostly, though, we see the former.) Fuller handles the denouement deftly, too: it’s never clear whether Peggy escapes alone or with help. The best thing of all, though, are Fuller’s descriptions of what the two do to survive: what they eat, how they collect and catch it, how they make do with what they have, and how much their “success” is twinned with delusive failure. An unspectacular but totally captivating novel.

Lee Child, Without Fail (2002)

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A long time ago I read the first Reacher novel in the hopes of seeing what all the fuss was about, but that wasn’t a good idea, since Child hadn’t yet perfected his style. A friend gave me this installment, from much later in the series (though I think the point is they aren’t a series, each book is, I suspect, as self-contained as Reacher is supposed to be), and I plucked it off the shelf when I needed pure distraction. It was the perfect vacation read: totally undemanding and suspenseful. Child writes too much (though he’s never wordy and his syntax is as simple as possible), but the book didn’t feel padded the way a lot of thrillers do. Someone is trying to assassinate the Vice President-elect and the head of his security detail at the Secret Service calls in Reacher to help. Plenty of action, plenty of suspense, and just the right amount of neepery re: protection details. I’m not a card-carrying fan-club member just yet but I will read more for sure. My main takeaway so far, though: that Reacher, not a big eater.

Andrew Taylor–The Ashes of London (2016)

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Another good vacation book, this one historical fiction set in the immediate aftermath of the Great Fire of London composed of two parallel stories that of course intertwine, but mostly pretty glancingly, so the thing doesn’t feel too contrived. Plenty of historical figures have cameos, including Christopher Wren and even Charles II, and the criticisms Roland Barthes made of this technique about 40 years ago probably apply, but I know so little about Restoration England that it didn’t bother me too much. It’s both interesting and a liability that one of the protagonists is almost but not quite a detective–such a thing didn’t exist in the way we know it today, and Taylor, who is as pleasantly workmanlike a writer as one could wish in such a book (I mean that as a compliment: he’s a good writer, but he’s not trying to be something he’s not, Hilary Mantel, say), makes good use of the character’s in-between status as someone near but not of court life to take us all over London. There’s already a sequel, and I’ll read it for sure. Not a book to change anyone’s life, but totally enjoyable. Just like a vacation, maybe?

And you? What have you been reading this summer?