What I Read, December 2020

I’m slow at the best of times, but the lag between now and December seems especially long. That was before there was an armed insurrection in the US Capitol, for example. Anyway, December was in large part a slow month, which is really always a good thing but especially now. I wrote steadily, then took time off at the end of the year. The days drew in, the temperature dropped a little, running conditions were good. Inveterate grasshopper, I turned to a series of short, light books, but mostly I was reading a long, serious one. Yes, on my third try I am finally reading War and Peace, and I know now it’s a book I’ll want to return to again. I only made it about 2/3 through in December, so for now I’ll stick with the rest of the month’s reading.

Helen MacInnes, Above Suspicion (1941)

I closed out 2019 with MacInnes’s Decision at Delphi and liked it enough to promise myself I’d keep reading her. So when I saw some titles in one of the recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sales, I snapped them up. I started with this, her first, one of those “ordinary people get caught up in espionage” scenarios that seem to have been popular in the 30s and 40s (Ambler, Dorothy Hughes). Here the ordinary people are a young married couple—he an Oxford don, she his intelligent and fashionable partner—who are persuaded by an old friend to use their annual summer hiking holiday in the Alps to test the strength of a ring of British agents in the Reich. After successful rendezvous in Nuremberg and Innsbruck, the couple run into problems in the Austrian Alps.

I wanted to like Above Suspicion, but in the end I did not. It seems to have been written to encourage Americans to get into the war—like Casablanca, from the same year, only not nearly as good. A laudable goal, but one that makes for heavy going today, especially in the conversations between the English couple and an isolationist American journalist whom they befriend and eventually convert to the antifascist cause, though not without dialogue like this:

“I’ll become accustomed to the idea that man is born in pain, lives in struggle, dies in suffering.”

“Well, that’s a better defense against the new Middle Ages than the nice ideas you got from your liberal education.”

MacInnes obviously became a good writer—who can tell me when that happened?

Gary Paulsen, Hatchet (1987)

Now classic middle-grade novel that I am old enough to have missed the first time around. It was assigned to my daughter for school, and we read it aloud together. Brian, whose parents have recently separated, flies to Alaska to spend the summer with his engineer father. On the way, though, the pilot dies of a heart attack. (This happens in the first chapter, so I’m not spoiling anything.) The prop plane crashes on the shores of a lake somewhere in northern Canada. Brian is banged up but, miraculously, alive. Now he has to stay that way. His ingenious efforts at doing so and his diminishing hopes of being rescued comprise the rest of the book. Basically, it’s Robinson Crusoe for fourth-graders. My daughter found the crash really scary, but then she got into the survival story. I enjoyed it too, though I found Paulson’s love of sentence fragments grating, his cod-existential philosophy a Bit Much, and his depiction of Brian’s mother unduly harsh. But he’s good at depicting dramatic events and the painstaking work required to live off the land. A vivid scene with turtle eggs might stay with me forever. Hatchet readers, you know what I mean.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts (2020)

Crime novel set on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is an enforcer on the rez (people hire him to give wrongdoers a doing over when the police won’t deal with them—which is most of the time). He’s also guardian to his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. Virgil is still grieving the deaths of his mother and sister, and trying to keep things together. But when Nathan nearly dies from an OD Virgil becomes determined to find out who is bringing drugs onto the rez. Some things in the book are conventional (Virgil reunites with an old girlfriend, for whom he tries to clean up his act; he has a funny, goofy friend as his sidekick). Others are not, like the attention paid to what people on the rez eat, versus what other people think they should. Or like the title—winter counts are historical records that use pictographs to convey important events. Personally, I think the events of this particular year make a satisfying arc. But the end of the book clearly sets us up for more of Virgil Wounded Horse. Which, fine, I’ll totally read them. For me, Marcie R. Rendon’s Cash Blackbear books are more interesting, but I’m always here for more crime fiction by indigenous writers.

Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times (2020)

Ava arrives in Hong Kong from Dublin to teach English. She meets Julian, a rich English banker, and enters into a wary, minefield-laden relationship with him. Both are desperate not to show their emotions, channeling that energy into plenty of sex and (genuinely funny) arch conversational volleys. When Julian is sent home for a while by his firm, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born, English-educated lawyer. They fall in love. What will Ava—who is living in Julian’s posh flat and has been more than cagey with Edith about him—do when Julian comes back?

The characters are good: Ava frustrated and delighted me in equal parts. Edith is a mensch. Even Julian is in his rubbishy upper-class English way sympathetic. The book is smart: Dolan uses Hong Kong to think about Irish colonialism—primarily through the way both places absorb and inflect the English language. And it’s funny: I started noting passages that amused me but gave up after a while, there were so many. I can’t resist sharing a few examples, though.

Here’s Ava performing some of the mental gymnastics she’s so good at:

I googled the salary range for junior vice presidents at his bank: 137,000 to E217,000 a year, plus bonus and housing allowance. I tried to take heart from this. That he could have that many zeroes and not consider himself wealthy surely showed that material lucre would not make me happy, ergo that I needn’t find a real job. But if money wouldn’t improve my life, I couldn’t think of anything likelier to.

Here’s Ava at the end of one of her regular phone calls with her formidable mother:

She didn’t want me to agree that it was good her younger son no longer needed her. Equally, she didn’t want me conforming that she should feel defunct because he was leaving before he’d finished college. Mam dealt in conversational quicksands where moving would only trap you more.

Here’s Ava with some on-point life thoughts:

You had to pretend to feel sad if you’d been single too long. I hated doing that because there were other things I was actually sad about.

Here’s Ava and Edith reflecting on the British. (Dolan does reported speech/Ava’s conclusions about conversations so well):

We agreed also that the British obsession with dogs was creepy, both because of the volume of animals they ate and in light of their historic and contemporary level of regard for humans.

Here’s Edith offering Ava a home truth:

 “You keep describing yourself as this uniquely damaged person, when a lot of it is completely normal. I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself your especially bad.”

And finally here’s a bit from Ava’s class. I loved these sections; they reminded me of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, another funny and smart novel about young women teaching abroad. Here Ava is teaching the difference between category nouns (vegetable) and exact nouns (broccoli, carrots).

“It was better to use exact nouns because this made your writing more precise and interesting.”

[Ava sets an exercise in which students are to provide three corresponding exact nouns for each category noun.]

Cynthia Mak asked what to say for ‘people.’ Did it mean ‘sister,’ ‘brother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘teacher,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘artist,’ or—

‘They’re all okay,’ I said.

‘But if I put ‘sister,’ ‘father,’ ‘brother’ in ‘people,’ then what about here?’ She pointed to the box marked ‘family.’

‘Okay, don’t do those. Do ‘teacher’ or something.’

‘But what about here?’—signalling the ‘professions’ row.

‘Okay, something else for “people.”’

‘Happy people, sad people?’

‘“Happy people” isn’t an exact noun—it’s an adjective plus a category noun.’

‘So what should I write?’

We looked at each other. It was indeed a challenge to describe people in a way not immediately related to how they earned money or their position in the family unit. I said, ‘How about ‘friend,’ ‘boyfriend,’ ‘colleague’?’

‘I don’t want to write ‘boyfriend.’’

I couldn’t blame her for questioning the exercise. ‘Friend,’ ‘enemy,’ and ‘colleague’ didn’t seem like ways of narrowing down ‘people’ in the way ‘apple’ did for ‘fruit.’ An apple would still be a fruit if it didn’t have any others in its vicinity, but you couldn’t be someone’s nemesis without their hanging around to complete the definition. The same issue cropped up with my earlier suggestions. ‘Family’ was relational, and ‘profession’ was created and given meaning by external structures. Admittedly, ‘adult,’ ‘child,’ and ‘teenager’ could stand on their own. But I still found it depressing that the way we specified ourselves—the way we made ourselves precise and interesting—was by pinpointing our developmental stage and likely distance from mortality. Fruit didn’t have that problem.

I promised myself I’d write this review without mentioning Sally Rooney. Every piece I’ve seen about Exciting Times, not to mention the jacket copy, does. Hell, Rooney first published Dolan in Stinging Fly. Dunno what to say, though. They do remind me of each other. But, good news, there’s room for both in my reading heart.

Uri Shulevitz, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (2020)

Uri Shulevitz’s father named him for “the biblical Uri, father of Bezalel, the first artist of the Bible,” after he noticed the infant, just home from the hospital, staring intently at the flowers on the wallpaper. Indeed the boy loved nothing more than drawing, which Shulevitz presents as an allegory for understanding the complexity of the world, detailing, for example, his amazement when his mother teaches him how to draw his stick figures in profile and not just head-on. Even before he grew to be a teenager, Shulevitz—author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books—would need to shift his mindset many times.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Shulevitz père left his wife and four-year-old son behind in Warsaw and fled eastward, managing to find work painting slogans for the Soviets in Bialystok. Despite this success, fear for his loved ones in Nazi-occupied Poland made him determined to return home. Taking a train to the Soviet-Polish border, he was on the point of crawling through the hole in an abandoned warehouse that served as a makeshift conduit between the two countries, when a man came through in the other direction. In horrified amazement, he ordered Shulevitz’s father to turn back. To return to the Nazis was suicide; he should concentrate on getting his wife and child out. Eighty years later, Shulevitz reflects on this chance encounter. What would have happened had his father ignored the man, or arrived just fifteen minutes later? The same thing that happened to the rest of Shulevitz’s relatives, probably: death in camps or ghettos. Was his family’s escape providence? If so, why did his devout grandfather perish, when his non-religious parents did not? Now an old man, Shulevitz can only conclude, “I have no answers.”

The historian Raul Hilberg famously said he never began with big questions about the Holocaust, because he was scared of arriving at small answers. Better instead to begin with the small things—such as, in this case, a lively and moving account of what one child experienced. Shulevitz even sees the absurd humour in his experiences, like the ridiculous pieties he and his parents encounter in their first months in the Soviet Union. My favourite instance is when a soldier tells a group of refugees about the wonders of their new land:

He said, ‘In the Soviet Union, we have plenty of everything. We have tea and we even have sugar.’

Both were such luxuries in those days.

When one of us asked, ‘Do you have lemons for tea?’ he declared, ‘Sure we do. They’re just now building a lemon factory.’

Even as a small child, Shulevitz was learning that nothing was quite as it appeared—perhaps another reason why he would be so fascinated by art, which at least was honest about being fake.

As Jews, Shukevitz and his parents were refused Soviet citizenship, which meant they could only live in certain areas. When Shulevitz’s father lost his job as a sign-painter, he found one with a theater company. Accompanying his father to work, Shulevitz was amazed by the differences between the sets seen up close—so flimsy—and their splendid appearance from the stalls. Life proved itself similarly unsteady when, in the summer of 1940, the family was suddenly deported with other stateless refugees, almost all Jewish, to a settlement called Yura near the White Sea. (Shulevitz’s experiences there were similar to the ones described by Esther Hautzig in her marvelous autobiographical children’s novel, The Endless Steppe.) 2400 km from Warsaw, the family began a new, hard life: the men cut timber in the forest; the women prepared what little food they could grow or gather. The children played in the snow and loved it, but death lurked all around—the first thing the overseer pointed to when the refugees arrived was a cemetery: “That will be your last resting place.” And it almost was for Shulevitz’s mother, who became dangerously ill and was saved only after an arduous journey to the regional hospital.

She survived, much weakened, and the family’s next piece of luck came with the dissolution of the Hitler-Stalin pact in the summer of 1941. Overnight the refugees were no longer spies or saboteurs but instead victims of a common enemy. Eventually, in 1942, Shulevitz and his parents were allowed to travel to the Soviet republics in central Asia. Two months later, the family arrived in Turkestan in the Kazakh Republic. Shulevitz was finally safe—and yet his troubles were only beginning. His father vanished—to join the Polish army being formed in Iran, it transpired, but he and his mother did not know this until he returned months later, having been rejected for service—his mother had to take any work she could get, and Uri himself fell seriously ill. Even after his recovery he and his mother were hungry all the time. Matters hardly improved after the father’s return: an impractical man, his money-making schemes (building a loom for weaving carpets, smuggling tobacco) came to nothing. Eventually he eked out a living at a shoe repair kiosk in the central market. Shulevitz loved nothing more than coming to work with his father; he describes this part of his life vividly: the mix of Russians, Chechans, Jews, Kazakhs, and other peoples fascinated the boy. And always he found art: a scrap of an old map, a strip of film that he and his friends pored over with the devotion of film students, a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Russian.

Shulevitz never finished the book, though. The war ended and the kid who owned the book vanished with his family from one day to the next. Besides, Uri was on his own adventure now, an odyssey to return home, via Moscow, L’vov, and Kraków, where Shulevitz’s parents soon learned that they, along with other Jewish survivors of the war, were not wanted. The family thus diverted course and made their way into Czechoslovakia illegally before eventually arriving at a DP camp in Bavaria. In December 1946 the family made it to Paris, where they reunited with the father’s brother and his family. Their two-and-a-half-year stay was a mixed blessing for Uri—he hated being a “dirty foreigner,” but he fell in love with the movies and the novels of Dumas. In 1949 the family left for Israel; ten years later, Shulevitz, now a young man, accepted an offer to study art in New York, where he has lived ever since, still drawing.

When Shulevitz says that art saved his life, he doesn’t mean it metaphorically. He and his parents were refused Soviet passports in 1940 because the official who adjudicated their case believed, despite the parents’ protests, that the boy had been named after the Zionist writer Uri Zvi Greenberg, which must mean the parents were anti-Soviet reactionaries. At the time this refusal was a terrible blow, leading to their exile in Yura. But had they stayed in Grodno they would likely have been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen that swept through in 1941/42. A baby fixated on flowered wallpaper; a fanciful father who knew some Torah; a rejection that led, indirectly and dangerously, to safety: no wonder Shulevitz concludes, “It was blind chance deciding our fate.” It is for this clear-sightedness—this refusal to sugar-coat his survival as a function of heroism or cleverness or chutzpah—even more than for its illuminating depiction of the refugee experience in Soviet Central Asia, that sets Chance: Escape from the Holocaust apart from other Holocaust memoirs, whether for children or adults.

In fact, it was difficult for me to tell, as I read the book raptly in a single evening, who the book was for. Although marketed for children—my local library is shelving it in juvenile nonfiction—it never condescends to them, and would in fact, I suspect, be difficult for those under age 10 to follow. For me, this uncertainty was a plus; I love that teenagers and adults can both enjoy it. The book’s illustrations are similarly pleasing, and similarly uninterested in being only one thing. They include photos, maps, and dozens of Shulevitz’s charcoal drawings, in a variety of styles, from comic-book caricature to Käthe Kollwitz-inspired expressionist. Really an excellent book, highly recommended.

Marie Jalowicz Simon, Underground in Berlin (2014) Trans. Anthea Bell (2015) [compiled by Hermann Simon and Irene Stratenwerth]

Fascinating memoir describing Marie Jalowicz Simon’s years living under an assumed identity in wartime Berlin. At one point, an abortionist who has been helping her and other Jews in hiding sends her to a supposed rescuer, a barmaid who sells Jalowicz Simon to a syphilitic Nazi for 15 Marks. You can’t make stuff like this up. I wrote about my experience reading it with students.

Rebecca Clifford, Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (2020)

Writing about this for another venue, so will only say for now that this study of child survivors of the Holocaust is excellent. Clifford cogently argues that these children—ranging in age from two or three to twelve to fifteen at the time—were continually used and abused by the adults who took charge of them after the war, sometimes stripping them from the families who had cared for them lovingly during the war, projecting on them their anxieties and hopes, and even disputing that they were survivors at all. At times, the children were despaired of as savages whose humanity had been destroyed by their experiences. At others, they were heralded as the vanguard of a virile Jewish future. Using untapped archival records and interviews with twenty survivors, Clifford emphasizes the children’s own wishes and desires, something that none of the (mostly well-intentioned) adults in their lives had ever done for them.

Eva Ibbotson, The Morning Gift (1993)

I was about a third of the way through this novel when I glanced at the copyright page, curious whether it was from the 1940s or the 1950s. Imagine my shock when I learned it was published the same year I started college. I admit this knowledge made the book sink a little in my estimation—what felt sweet and innocent coming from another age felt naïve, even misguided when written with so much hindsight. But its author was from another age—Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925 to talented parents (her father was a fertility doctor, her mother a writer whose work has in recent years been rediscovered). She arrived in England in 1934, landing with her mother in Belsize Park, a London neighbourhood then filled with down on their luck refugees from Hitler.

The Morning Gift draws on that background. Ruth, a young woman from an accomplished, loving, slightly eccentric Jewish Viennese family, escapes to England after a hasty marriage to a brilliant British professor of vertebrate zoology. Quin turns out to be one of the most eligible aristocratic bachelors in England. (Think Cary Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby except this guy always knows where his intercostal clavicle is.) That is, everyone thinks he’s eligible, because Quin and Ruth keep the marriage secret so they can dissolve it without fuss—but of course the real secret (to themselves, not to readers) is that they’re actually crazy about each other. Will they figure that shit out before they pull a relationship Gift of the Magi?

Imagine, if you can, a mash-up of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and a less sinister work Daphne DuMaurier—that’s The Morning Gift. (In her introduction to this reissue, Sarra Manning calls it “the missing link between I Capture the Castle and Jilly Cooper’s early romances.”) Ibbotson apparently said she wrote books for intelligent women who have the flu. I’m no intelligent woman, sadly (actually, not sadly, as then my ideas would get stolen by inferior men and my drycleaning would be more expensive), and, touch wood, I haven’t the flu. But I raced through this romance, despairing at setbacks and cheering for a happy ending. I wouldn’t have minded, though, if the book had been a little less insubstantial. Which has left me of two minds about whether to try Ibbotson again. I will take your advice in the comments.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

Enduring yet also dated novel (in an interesting, not bad way: group therapy, was that really a thing?) about a woman responding to her feckless husband’s infidelity. Strong Laurie Colwin vibes (though the master remains unsurpassed in the “young woman for whom cooking is important makes her way in New York” genre). Lots of good lines, sometimes laugh out loud funny. Would have left more of an impression, I suspect, had I not been reading War and Peace at the same time.

Patrick DeWitt, French Exit (2018)

Someone praised this on Twitter and, feeling the need for a break from the Russian soul, I took a quick spin through it. To make a French exit is apparently to leave without saying goodbye—to ghost someone, basically. In DeWitt’s novel a mother and her thirtysomething son, who live together in disquieting intimacy (they don’t sleep together or anything, it’s not like that, instead they make fun of people in the same mean way) escape Manhattan, after their finances finally collapse. (The woman’s late husband made a fortune as a litigator defending exclusively terrible causes, but the money’s been squandered.) They take refuge in a friend’s Parisian apartment, blithely spending the last of their funds on marvelous food and wine and gathering an assortment of characters around them. The vibe is part Arrested Development, part Wes Anderson. Indeed, at first I thought, “This is like a Wes Anderson film in which all the characters are mean.” (Like those awful twins in Rushmore.) By the end, French Exit became like an ordinary Wes Anderson film, complete with celebrations of full-blown idiosyncrasy and plenty of winsome ruefulness. I didn’t feel the transformation was earned, though. DeWitt can turn a phrase, but I don’t see the point of this book. It wants to have it both ways: nasty zingers and hugging and learning. I think DeWitt—whose Robert Walser pastiche I couldn’t finish—is just not for me.

Holocaust stories were December’s winners: the Clifford, the Jalowicz Simon, and, especially, the Shulevitz are moving, valuable works. The light reading was mostly a let-down, and the literary fiction a mixed bag (yay Dolan, boo DeWitt). But everything was overshadowed by the book on which my attention was mostly fixed. (Hint: it’s about Russia.) More about that next month!

2019 Year in Reading

Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.

Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.

For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)

And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.

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Best of the Bunch

Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)

Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.

I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.

Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.

 Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.

Other Awards

Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)

Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.

Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.

Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.

Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.

Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.

Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.

Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.

Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).

Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).

Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.

Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain

Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).

Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!

Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.

Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.

Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).

Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).

Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.

Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).

Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.

Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!

Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).

Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.

Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).

Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.

Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.

Monthly Review Posts

January, February, March, April, May,  June, July/August, September, October, November, December

Coming in 2020

More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.

In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.

One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.

As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.

And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.

December 2019 in Review

December brought the end of the semester: busy, but less oppressive than the lead-up to it. Which meant more time for reading. And I spent the last week on Hawai’i, which, though not exactly my scene, is lovely and a good place to inhale undemanding thrillers.

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Robert Harris, The Fear Index (2011) Thriller about a Geneva-based hedge fund that makes spectacular profits thanks to an algorithm so complex it starts running itself. As I’ve reported before Harris can’t do female characters, but, given that he’s rewriting Frankenstein, a novel famously about men plotting to do away with the need for female reproduction, that’s kind of fitting. This book could have turned out hokey or lousy, but it’s quite good.

Philip Kerr, The Lady from Zagreb (2015) Another fine addition to the Bernie Guenther series, this one taking in events in the Balkans.

Peter Hayes, Why? Explaining the Holocaust (2017) I read this with four students I’m working with on a year-long Holocaust education project, and we found it an excellent introduction to the subject. It benefits from being organized around the questions Hayes has most often come across in his decades of teaching about the Holocaust, meaning that its history is as much of ideas as events (as in, for example, his lucid explanation of the differences between different generations of European antisemitism). Hayes is an economic historian (the next time someone tells you how complicit IBM, say, was in the Holocaust, you’ll know exactly what to tell them); unsurprisingly, then, anecdotes, memories, and individual experiences are notably absent. But since we’re studying just those things in our project on Holocaust literature, that fact was more useful complement than omission. Others might think differently.

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (2014) As wonderful as everyone says. A hybrid of memoir, literary criticism, and nature writing—a proper essay—the story of how Macdonald trained a goshawk (appealingly named Mabel) is woven around the effect on her life of two men: her father, by all accounts a lovely man, a photojournalist and champion of his daughter’s passions, whose sudden death sends Macdonald into deep, violent grief; and the midcentury writer T. H. White, by all accounts, not least his own, an unlovely man, unable to accept his own queerness and desperate to prove his competence no matter what the cost, but whose books, especially an account of his own experience keeping a hawk, have been important to Macdonald from childhood. I learned lots about hawks, the English countryside, ideas of wildness, and plenty of good words (when hawks try to jump off their owner’s fist while tethered—with thin strips, usually of leather, called “jesses”—they are said “to bate”).

I listened to this book: Macdonald reads it herself, wonderfully, but it’s a bit more demanding than my usual audiobook fare and I found myself skipping back a lot. Probably better read in print, or at least not while you’re trying to drive.

Andrzej Szczypiorski, The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman (1986) Trans. Klara Glowczewska (1989) Back in the day, when trade paperbacks were new and the Vintage International series ruled the shelves of better bookshops across North America, I used to see this book all the time. I’m glad I didn’t read it then, though, because I didn’t have the background to understand its oblique take on Poland from the 1930s to the 70s. With the benefit of experience and study I was able to appreciate Szczypiorski’s achievement here, though I still had the sense that the book was aimed at the Poland of the post-1968 period rather than of the war years with which most of its events are ostensibly concerned. And because my knowledge of postwar Poland is fairly schematic I still wasn’t the most informed reader. Yet I didn’t mind this—my ignorance somehow fit with Szczypiorski’s indirect treatment. (By this logic, my young, ignorant self would have been an even better reader…) I read the novel thinking it would foreground the Holocaust—the Mrs. Seidenman of the title is a Jew who passes as Gentile in Warsaw during the war—yet despite references to the Ghetto the novel has the self-knowledge to avoid writing what it doesn’t know intimately.

The most eye-catching stylistic feature is the regular use of flash forwards to show us the (largely futile, depressing, and deadly) futures of its characters. (Like Sparks’s The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie.) But this isn’t a flashy book. Its tone is elegant, cerebral, hushed, rather like its opening sentence: “The room was in twilight because the judge was a lover of twilight.” Not that he loved twilight, but that he was a lover of twilight. Nice.

Cathleen Schine, The Grammarians (2019) Wrote about this here. It’s ok.

Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (2019) Crime fiction is going to have to think about what it wants to be in an era characterized by the need to think more systemically (structural racism, inequality, “stop and frisk” profiling, etc.). Can its individualistic model (the dogged PI, the obsessive cop, the intrepid journalist) translate to our world? Your House Will Pay is an intriguing answer to this question. It sidelines the police, turning its attention instead on those affected by violence, inequality, racism, without being perpetrators or victims in the conventional sense. Modelled on the riots in LA’s Koreatown in the 90s, Cha’s novel follows two well-developed characters, an African American ex-con and a Korean American pharmacist, who are forced to grapple with what it means to forgive the wrongs of the past. I’m excited to see what Cha will do next.

Émile Zola, Pot Luck (1882) Trans. Brian Nelson (1999) Swear to God I’m going to write about this soon. Disagreeable, but compelling.

Philip Kerr, The Other Side of Silence (2016) Not my favourite Bernie novel, but a very agreeable way to pass a long plane trip.

Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (1960) My first MacInnes, but not my last. I was impressed how she kept the plot going without flagging (it’s over 600 pages). As a smart Twitter correspondent pointed out, MacInnes can be a little buttoned-up—amazing how much chasing through the mountains happens in heels and suits & ties—but her representation of place is acute, and her use of point of view interesting. Delphi centers a male character, yet regularly dips into the consciousness of the female lead, which makes the relationship that develops between them more compelling than usual for the genre. Because the book features artists and photographers who accidentally are enmeshed in political plot by a terrorist cell it is also smart about what it means to represent places, people, and events. Not sure why MacInnes isn’t talked about the way Le Carré, for example, is, though I guess sexism is the likely answer.

That brings my reading year to a close. In a day or two I’ll reflect on what and how I read in 2019.