What I Read, May 2022

May finally brought the end of the semester. Man, that was a tough one. As always, I thought it would be a relatively easy month, now that I no longer needed to have something to say in the classroom every day. As always, I forgot how much energy it takes to get through the final administrative tasks. Squeezed in a little reading on the side, though.

Sam Gilliam, Wave, 1972

Abdulrazak Gurnah, The Last Gift (2011)

Sometimes I’m struck with amazement when I consider exactly how I have found myself here. But then I suppose many people can say that about their lives. It may be that events constantly take us by surprise, or perhaps traces of what is to become of us are present in our past, and we only need to look behind us to see what we have become, and there is really no need for amazement.

An elderly man, arrived from Uganda in England in 1960 to study journalism, reflects on his experiences to thee young man who has moved in next door. The young man, Jamal, is himself the son of an immigrant, who came from Zanzibar at around the same time, literally coming ashore as a sailor before meeting his soon-to-be-English wife. But Jamal’s father, Abbas, has told his family almost nothing about his life before England. Now Abbas, weakened by a series of strokes, begins to reveal the past that has gnawed at him in silence for years.

It is typical of the novel’s structure that the son is more easily able to have a conversation about immigration with someone other than his father. This is a book of echoes and doublings, of stories told circumspectly and in layers. That indirection fits with the dislocation that comes from making a new life in a strange place, even when that rupture has been freely chosen.

And while Harun, the retired journalist, implies that choice may be overrated—perhaps in looking back we will see intimations of what was to come, though if that is true it is strange to use the word “traces,” implying as it does that those causes are themselves effects—elsewhere the book reminds us of something irrepressible in life, something that resists order and control, which appears in moments both great and small. Take Abbas’s reflections on his schooldays in Zanzibar:

The teachers worked so hard to keep them [he and his fellow students] quiet and obedient, like it was a point of honour for them to do so. Sometimes it was as if they failed as teachers if the children so much as twisted or scratched themselves. How their teachers loved that deep submissive silence. But they could not make that silence endure. They could not quite keep the children in check. Something always happened, some small insurrection, irrepressible laughter, an undaunted boy whose cheek could not be suppressed.

The two Gurnahs I’ve read—and I’ll read them all, eventually—seem to me to be about the difference between insurrections that oppress and insurrections that free: the latter are minor, like irrepressible laughter, but vital, subversive.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, Gravel Heart (2017)

Had plenty to say about this on Episode 4 of One Bright Book. Suffice it say, I liked it a lot, and it’s only grown on me since. Nobel committee did something right for a change.

Martha Wells, All Systems Red (The Murderbot Diaries) (2017)

Murderbot is a cyborg SecUnit (Security Unit) that has hacked itself to override its governance programming. What Murderbot wants to do is watch tv (soap operas, basically); what it finds itself having to do, thanks to an inconveniently developing conscience and self-awareness, is help humans who are too stupid and frail not to get into trouble. The second-best thing about All Systems Red is Wells’s insistence that the need comes from the desire, awareness from soaps: these books are smart about the power of representation to shape consciousness. The first-best thing is Murderbot’s wry narration. A few examples:

I needed to a) keep them here or b) kill them. Let’s go with option b.

Oh right, I often have complex emotional reactions which I can’t easily interpret.

I thought I had gotten good at controlling my expression, but apparently only when I wasn’t feeling actual emotions.

(The lesson was: if you’re going to fuck with something bigger and meaner than you, use a quick targeted attack and then run away really fast. This is the way I always try to operate, too.) [Wells is good with the parentheses.]

Having returned the book to the library, I have taken these examples—not all from the first book—from the Twitter account @MurderBotBot. Give it a follow!

I already named two best things, but I could also have talked about the books’ depiction of being autistic—which is basically how Murderbot experiences the world. Its anxiety around humans and their complex demands for emotional interaction is movingly depicted. Reading Murderbot’s sighs of relief when it can lower its face shield, or engage with people via mirrors or screens gave me new insight into this mode of experiencing the world.

There’s a plot, too, about a corporation intent on regaining control over its intellectual property (aka Murderbot) and some terrible things Murderbot may have done in its past thanks to that corporation. The events are compelling enough, especially since Wells has gone on to draw out their consequences in subsequent books, but the narrative voice is the real appeal. (And props to sff writers & publishers for embracing the novella form.)

Thanks to Elle and Liz and the other Murderbot fans who came out of the woodwork to champion the series.

Jeremy Denk, Every Good Boy Does Fine: A Love Story, in Music Lessons (2022)

Jeremy Denk is a classical pianist known for his wide-ranging repertoire, including 20th and 21st century music. He is also something of a genius: MacArthur and Avery Fisher prize winner, a soloist who travels the world playing recitals and concerts, the holder of a doctorate and a liberal arts degree, a one-time science and mathematics prodigy, and, on the basis of his thoughtful references to Roland Barthes and Herman Melville, a hell of a reader too. Every Good Boy Does Fine—a mnemonic for the lines on the treble clef—is a midlife memoir that takes us from his childhood in New Jersey through his upbringing in New Mexico and on to Oberlin, Indiana, Julliard, and other exalted spots of American musical life.

I loved Denk’s attention to his many teachers—his piano teachers, of course, but also those who alternately inspired, coached, and browbeat him in his official and unofficial life as a student. Denk, now himself a teacher and not, he admits, at least at first a good one, shows how important it is to be taught by lots of different people. Everyone offers him something different, and most of those approaches contradict each other, leading to much insecurity but also eventually a sense of self. Although open-hearted, though, the book is more realistic and idealistic about teaching. Denk shows how the things a teacher offers come at the cost of something they can’t. (Paul de Man: every moment of insight carries with it a corresponding area of blindness.) The same is true of learning. Denk doesn’t shy from showing his own failures as a student: lessons he refused to take until it was (almost) too late, obstinacies that got in his own way, needs (for praise mostly) that set him back.

Of the many remarkable teachers Denk has had the privilege to work with, the greatest was his mentor at Indiana, the Hungarian pianist György Sebók. A prodigy who like Denk excelled in many fields, Sebók entered the conservatory in pre-war Budapest already as a teenager and studied with an extraordinary array of musicians. As a Jew Sebók could not fight in the army but still had to serve: he did road work and was interned in what was basically a concentration camp, from which he escaped in 1944 after which he spent the rest of the war under the protection of the Swiss embassy. (Lucky for him, given what happened to half a million Hungarian Jews in the summer and fall of that year.) After the war he remained in Budapest, keeping up a concert career in Eastern Europe, but he left in 1957 after the Revolution, first for Paris and then, in 1962, for Indiana, where his countrymen, friend, and musical partner, Janos Starker, had invited him. Sebók is like a character from a Lubitsch or Wilder film and his world-weary, urbane Mitteleuropean outlook both captivated and bewildered the American provincial Denk.

Denk’s portrait of Sebók—and indeed all his teachers—is generous and forgiving. Unfortunately, his self-portrayal is murkier. He admits he can be difficult, especially when it comes to hurting other people, mostly thanks to his years-long inability to admit his sexuality, and he presents plenty of evidence for how his family, his father in particular, damaged him. But he offers no comprehensive reckoning re: those harms. Maybe because the book isn’t really about that, it’s about music. But it also sort of is. Denk bypasses the question of whether you need to be self-obsessed to be a success in a field as rarified, competitive, and unforgiving as music. But he shows us enough of himself, sometimes unwittingly, to let us see that Denk can be a bit of a dink.

Denk reads the audiobook himself, and while I would not call his narration distinctive (he seems to take perverse pleasure in barely stopping between chapters), he is a dab hand at an accent. I learned about Every Good Boy from this thoughtful review, and I’m glad I did. I learned a lot—I haven’t even mentioned the theoretical interludes on rhythm, harmony, and melody. These are fascinating—at once metaphorical, lyrical, and conceptual.

Martha Wells, Artificial Condition (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)

Murderbot is also good on audio.

Martha Wells, Rogue Protocol (The Murderbot Diaries) (2018)

There can never be a love interest, can there? Like, Murderbot is never gonna get with Dr. Mensah. Right? Right?

Judith McCormack, The Singing Forest (2021)

More on this elsewhere.

Nina Stibbe, One Day I Shall Astonish the World (2022)

The title is the motto of the university that Susan, the narrator of Stibbe’s latest novel, ends up working at—not as a professor, which is what she imagined before she dropped out of college after getting pregnant, but as the indispensable and indefatigably cheerful PA to the Vice Chancellor. Instead it’s her best friend, Norma, whom Susan once coached in English literature, back when they first met and Norma was a science major who had tired of geology, who gets the job she once dreamed of.

That’s the way things go between them. Susan is a puzzle—easy to dismiss but shrewder than we are likely to credit. Life—by which I mean the most important people in her life—always seems to be pulling one over on her, and it’s true Susan does not always see what is in front of her. But we dismiss her at our peril. Here’s Susan thinking about how someone she’s known for a long time but not intimately wouldn’t make a good friend:

You’d never know what she was really thinking which is what I dislike about nice people: having to wonder if they secretly despise you or feel bitterly jealous, or just think you common but want someone to go to the cinema with or need help with their computer or for you to befriend their child.

Reading this, we realize, ah, perhaps Susan does know how terrible Norma is to her. (I’m not sure Norma quite works, as a character, her motivations are too opaque.) Maybe Susan’s a “devil you know” kind of person. But she’s nice—she’s the sort of person people are always asking favours of, expecting help from, unthinkingly demanding time of. Does she dislike herself? Or is she perhaps not as nice as she seems? Is her agreeableness—which, no question, keeps a torrent of despair at bay—fake?

Maybe because of this unexpected complexity, One Day I Shall Astonish the World made me think of Gwendoline Riley’s My Phantoms. Weird comparison, I know: an arty darling and a seemingly determinedly middlebrow book club novel. But both demand that we read against their female narrators, revising our initial opinions. Unlike Riley, Stibbe makes us like her narrator more. Riley’s is the more vivid novel, the one I will remember better in a year. But I appreciated how Stibbe reminded of my tendency to disparage someone whose default mode is not irony or skepticism. These days, especially, Stibbe’s generosity feels like a gift.

One Day I Shall Astonish the World is occasionally laugh-out loud funny, but only occasionally, a surprise given Stibbe was once responsible for getting me kicked out of the bedroom for laughing too much. I’m doing my best not to be like the people in Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories who want the director character to leave off his arthouse aspirations and get back to his early, funny stuff (God those movies meant a lot to me, and now I can’t imagine watching a single one); I’m trying not to wish Stibbe would just keep doing what she’s always done. And yet, and yet—this book could have been funnier.

Jacqueline Winspear, A Sunlit Weapon (2022)

Prissy, self-satisfied.

Ken Krimstein, When I Grow Up: The Lost Autobiographies of Six Yiddish Teenagers (2021) Trans. by Ellen Cassedy

In 2017, 180,000 pages worth of documents were found by a construction crew in a decommissioned cathedral in Vilnius, Lithuania. The pages, written in Yiddish, had been through a lot: collected by YIVO, the institute for the study of Yiddish language and culture; plundered by the Nazis; rescued by Jewish forced labourers who hid them in the ghetto; disinterred after the arrival of the Red Army; stored in the newly created Vilna Jewish Museum; and eventually walled up in the cathedral by a non-Jewish Lithuanian librarian who refused Stalin’s order to pulp them. (This was in 1949, after Stalin had ratcheted up his antisemitic attacks once the State of Israel turned to the West rather than to the USSR.)

Ken Krimstein tells this story in the opening pages of his fascinating graphic nonfiction narrative. The book comprises six excerpts from diaries written by young people across Yiddish speaking Eastern Europe. The diaries were among the more than 700 entered into a competition sponsored by YIVO in the 1930s (first prize: 150 Zlotys; about US $1000 today). The contest aimed to generate an ethnographic study of Yiddish youth: their hopes, dreams, fears, resentments. To ensure truthfulness, entries were anonymous. (An elaborate system ensured that winners could receive their prizes.) In a fittingly Jewish irony, the grand prize was to be awarded on September 1, 1939.

Krimstein’s book brings these stories to light for the first time since they were submitted almost a century ago. The writers and their lives are so vivid. A girl cannot help but love her father, despite his terrible behaviour (he drank away the family’s money, stole from the children’s mother, abandoned his family, and remarried a non-Jew after converting to Russian Orthodoxy). A boy enters yeshiva because he thinks it will impress a girl (she has deemed him not serious enough), only for her to get together with his best friend. Another girl sees her dreams of attending the gymnasium foiled by a faux pas; she quits school, becomes a nanny and only finds freedom on her weekly evening off, when she goes skating. We meet Bundists and Zionists and religious Jews. In addition to failed marriages and broken families we hear of foiled attempts to get a visa to America. So much failure—yet so much life.

The stories are briskly told, offered in Krimstein’s spindly lettering and illustrated by almost abstract, spidery black and white drawings enlivened with splashes of an odd orange colour. They are not beautiful, but the book is lovely nonetheless.

What isn’t lovely—downright sketchy, actually—is Krimstein’s lack of clarity re: the texts. Has he abridged or edited them? He never says. (He does annotate references to the period and to Jewish ritual, often wittily.) Worse, he only names the translator in the acknowledgements page at the end. Shame on Bloomsbury for presenting the book as though Ellen Cassedy doesn’t exist.

Ruth Minsky Sender, The Cage (1986)

Memoir for teens about the author’s Holocaust experiences. Born Rifkele Riva Minska in Lodz in 1926, Sender was the fourth of seven children. When Germany invaded Poland, her older siblings fled to Russia (happily, she would be reunited with them after the war), while Sender, her younger siblings, and her mother were interned in the Lodz ghetto. (Her father had died when she was just a child.) After her mother was deported in September 1942, Sender looked after her younger brothers, especially the gentle Laibele, who had contracted tuberculosis. Despite heroic efforts, notably adopting her brothers so they wouldn’t be dispersed into orphanages or other families, Sender can neither save Laibele, who dies of his illness (the fate of so many in the ghetto), nor ward off deportation for herself. Together with most of the rest the Jews of Lodz, Sender and her remaining brothers are sent to Auschwitz, where they are separated; she never sees them again. After a week in camp, Sender is selected for labour at Mittelsteine, an all-female subcamp of Gross-Rosen in the mountains of southern Silesia. There she continues the habit she had begun in the ghetto of recording her experience, writing poems that she whispers to the other inmates. She becomes a sort of camp mascot, a status that rescues her: the camp doctor persuades the commandant to send the teenager, who has contracted blood poisoning from an infected cut, to the civilian hospital in a nearby town because her poetry is good for camp morale and therefore productivity. Sender recovers from the near-fatal sepsis and survives a subsequent deportation further west, where she is liberated in March 1945. She returns to Lodz, but the family home has been taken over (the new occupants threaten her), and, like so many Polish survivors, she departs Poland for a DP camp in the American sector.

I appreciated the extraordinary aspects of Sender’s story, but The Cage (her name for the various locations of her suffering) didn’t do much for me. Sender hits the “where there’s life there’s hope” note hard and strains for uplift. Arriving at her final place of internment, a camp named Grafenort, she is informed by a fellow inmate that the name means “a place for nobles.” Stroking Sender’s face, the woman adds: “We are nobles, broken in body but still alive.” Maybe this happened, but the book’s insistence on values that the experience itself was daily destroying rings false.

I read The Cage because one of my better recently graduated students had been assigned it in high school. I’m not convinced it’s the best choice for those readers—I’d go with Tec’s Dry Tears, which contextualizes its events more clearly and doesn’t insist on human uplift—but it’s better than a lot of things my students have read. (Looking at you, Striped Pajama Boy.)

Len Deighton, Mexico Set (1984)

Thinking Deighton might be the spy writer for me. Not so twisty or circumlocutionary that I can’t tell what’s happening, but stylish, clever, exciting, as good on character as on plot. Mexico Set is the second Bernie Sampson book—I listened to the first one a while ago, and now I’m thinking it’s time to go on a binge. (There’s 9 all told, I think.) Here Sampson—under suspicion after the bombshell revelation at the end of Berlin Game—is tasked with turning a Soviet agent. As the title implies, the book is partly set in Mexico, and those scenes were much less exoticizing than I’d feared. But Deighton, like Sampson, likes Berlin best, and the book kicked into gear when it returned to the coal-fired atmosphere of the muttering, shabby heart of the 20th century. (That’s me being flowery, the books aren’t like that.) The cliché that the middle part of a trilogy is the weakest doesn’t hold here. Porch reading at its finest.

McArthur Binion, History of Application: Talking to You, 1977

 As you can see, light reading ruled the day—much that was enjoyable, nothing too heavy. (The Gurnahs the richest of the lot, by far.) But that’s what I needed in bringing the semester to a close, and I set myself up for a pretty stellar June. More on that soon. In the meantime, thoughts on any of these?

April 2019 in Review

April is always the worst month of the year, work-wise, with end of semester assignments added to the administrative work that’s been pushed off all year. (Step away from that Eliot joke.) For various reasons, this year was worse than usual. Which is a shame, as April is also the loveliest month in Little Rock, weather-wise. No surprise, then, that my reading suffered. Few standouts here.

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Jacqueline Winspear – The American Agent (2019) I’ve been a dedicated reader of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series, which emphasizes character over mystery. From the beginning, Winspear has presented post-WWI England as a traumatized culture (an idea that sometimes works and sometimes grates). Now that the series has reached WWII, Winspear seems to be casting about for a new idea; the result is the weakest book so far, not least because the author seems to have become famous enough that she no longer gets much editing. The book’s too long: the first third, especially, drags. I’ve read a lot of books on the Blitz: you have to be doing something special to get me interested. I’m no fan of Maisie’s new love interest, either. I’ll be back for the next installment, but Winspear’s now on notice.

Tadeusz Borowski – This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen and Other Stories (1959) Trans. Barbara Vedder (1976) Although I teach the title story every semester and can practically recite it from memory—a dubious pleasure, if you know it: I mean, it is one of the extraordinary texts of the Holocaust but it is so dark—I haven’t read the entire collection in several years. This time I read it with the small group of students I’ve spent the past year teaching how to be Holocaust educators. Even though they, like me, weren’t at their best this late in the school year, they still taught me things. For example, it was instructive to see how shocked yet riveted they were by a story like “Silence,” which shows the prisoners in a DP camp paying lip service to their American liberators’ insistence on due process before taking more visceral and irrevocable revenge on a collaborator. In a way, their surprise should have come as no surprise: Borowski is a genius at overturning our received view of the Holocaust.

Joseph Roth – The Radetzky March (1932) Trans. Eva Tucker revising Geoffrey Dunlop (1974) The best book I read this month by a mile, a genuinely great work of art. I read it for the group reading hosted by Caroline & Lizzy. My thoughts here.

C. J. Tudor – The Chalk Man (2018) I listened to this first book by Tudor on my commute, which is probably a good way to experience it. The story switches between the present and 1986 when Eddie, the narrator, was a young teenager. The dramatic events of that time in his life—a violent accident, an untimely death, and a body found in the woods (a young girl’s, natch)—return in the present. The scenes in the past are better than those in the present: they have a “Stand by Me” vibe. Tudor isn’t much of a writer (check out this take-down of her infelicities); not even the audiobook narrator could smooth things over. Diverting in its way, but the stinger at the end feels a bit cheap and I haven’t been tempted to try Tudor’s second book.

John Williams – Stoner (1965) Sorry, everyone, I am not a fan of the book. I say that even though “formalist precision” and “the letter-perfect novel,” are absolutely my jam. These terms come from yet another Stoner encomium, this one a New Yorker essay that imagines a counter-factual US literary tradition in which William Maxwell, Richard Yates, and Jean Stafford and not Pynchon, Barth, and Robert Coover are the acknowledged postwar American literary masters: frankly this seems a straw argument: Pynchon, perhaps, aside, who reads these guys anymore?

You could say that reading a book about an introverted college professor with a quietly undistinguished career is too much of a busman’s holiday for me, and it’s true that I don’t like campus novels (when they engage with anything that actually happens on a campus, it’s usually interpersonal politics: i.e. animosity). But I’m always on the lookout for good novels about teaching (do you know any?), which the titular character of Williams’s novel claims to have a vocation for. I appreciated that Williams was willing to show his protagonist as not especially capable—there’s a mismatch between what he wants to convey to his students and what he actually can—but that criticism gets erased by the novel’s repeated avowals that Stoner experiences teaching as transcendent. But we only ever hear this: we don’t feel it. Yet at the same time, we are asked to sympathize so strongly with Stoner, to feel indignant at the way the world treats him, that we can never take the telling rather than the showing of teaching as ironic (that is, there is no suggestion that we should wonder at Stoner’s overestimation of himself—the idea is that he is great, it’s just that the world can’t realize it).

But none of this is what’s awful about the book. Stoner’s wife, Edith—or, rather, the book’s treatment of her—is what’s awful. Edith is a monster—a fact explained only through crudely misogynistic pop-psychology (she is frigid and alcoholic because she was abused by her father). Worst of all, Stoner rapes her without the novel commenting on the fact, or even seeming to recognize it as such. Had I not been reading the book for professional reasons (see below) I would surely have abandoned it.

I’m not surprised that Stoner’s return to print in the US was spurred by huge sales in Europe: it seems like one of those cultural products that speak more to European fantasies of America than anything real (c.f. Janis Joplin, Blue Velvet, “The House of the Rising Sun”).) I’m grateful, however, that its success has underwritten the many delightful oddities published by my beloved NYRB Classics.

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Benjamin Dreyer – Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style (2019) Entertaining, even stylish guide to language use. Neither dogmatically prescriptive nor airily descriptive. Recognizes everyone has their linguistic crotchets. A book to dip into, but be warned: once you start, it’s hard to stop. It’s pretty damn funny.

Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras (2018) Not a book I would ever have read on my own, but I’m glad I did. As a member of the Talent Committee for the Arkansas Literary Festival, I sometimes get asked to moderate panels at the event. This year it was a session on biographies. Hargrove was immediately recognizable at the author party the night before: he was the only one wearing a Stetson. He’s affable, soft-spoken, good-looking, smart: he could play himself in the movie version of the book. Except that one of the great things about the book is that Hargrove plays almost no role in it. (Swimming against the tide, that is.) Even though he learned to chase storms as part of his research (he shared some hair-raising footage with the Lit Fest audience), he keeps himself out of it. Instead the focus is on Tim Samaras, a self-educated tinkerer who parlayed his engineering work for a defense contractor into a position as one of the world’s foremost tornado researchers (he designed probes that could withstand the force of tornados and managed to deploy them in the very heart of storms; thanks to Samaras, for the first time, researchers were able to understand what actually happens inside a tornado).

Hargrove structures his book effectively, mixing comprehensible summaries of meteorological research, a narrative of Samaras’s life (yes, he did fall in love with tornadoes watching The Wizard of Oz as a child, a film he always turned off once Dorothy got to Oz), and an exciting yet never voyeuristic reconstruction of Samaras’s last chase. Samaras and two members of his crew, including his oldest son, were killed in a tornado (the widest ever recorded) near El Reno, Oklahoma in 2013. (I was amazed to learn that they are the only storm chasers who have ever died in action, as it were.)

Tornadoes are a feature of life in the American South (in Central Arkansas, they test the sirens every Wednesday at noon). They terrify me, a transplant who did not grow up with them (although the climate has changed such that they are pretty common in Canada now). (It does not help that there are no basements in Arkansas.) I worried the book would only increase this fear, but actually it’s allayed it: not that I find them safer or less random than I did before, but now I’m more interested in them as a phenomenon. If extreme weather or extreme passion interest you, you might enjoy this book too.

Jane Harper – The Lost Man (2018) Excellent novel about a fascinating place, outback Queensland, Australia. Two brothers, Nathan and Bub Bright, meet for the first time in months, even though their cattle ranches share a fence-line: the cause of their reunion is the death of their elder brother, Cameron. As befits a psychological mystery, plenty of family secrets come out over the course of the book, which doesn’t feature a detective per se. Instead, Nathan becomes the investigator of his family’s past—and in the process of himself. (Almost everyone in the book is a lost man.)

I read Harper’s first book, The Dry, a couple of years ago: it was good but not so terrific that I raced out to get the sequel. The new book is her first standalone, and a giant leap forward in sophistication and ability. A suspenseful character study with a satisfying ending that can rightly be said to be devastating, the book cleverly combines vast outdoor spaces with the closed world of a country house murder mystery. Above all, it offers an absorbing depiction of a difficult way of life in a place where children attend school via Skype, generators cut out at 11 p.m., the skin doctor flies in once a month to excise cancers, and every house has something called a “cold room” (I never did figure out how that works when the generator’s off). Stephen Shanahan reads the audiobook beautifully.

Charles J. Shield – The Man Who Wrote the Perfect Novel: John Williams, Stoner, and the Writing Life (2018) The other book on the Arkansas Literary Festival biography panel. (Or as I liked to think of it: The Men Who Did Shit panel.) This biography did not further endear me to Williams, a man who was careless of women (though unaccountably attractive to them) and blessed (admittedly after surviving dozens of dangerous flights over the Himalayas in WWII) with the prosperity postwar America gave to white men, especially those who found their way into the rapidly expanding public university system. (Churlish to resent those who were lucky in their birth, but I do.) Shield’s telling of the life (he has previously written biographies of Harper Lee and Kurt Vonnegut, and is completing one on Lorraine Hansberry: he told some good Vonnegut anecdotes at the festival) is workmanlike. He doesn’t quite apologize for Williams, but he doesn’t take much distance from him either.

By the way, if you, like me, were wondering how the hell the tornado book and the Stoner book were ever going to work together, the answer is: quite well! Both writers were professional, courteous, and thoughtful in their responses to an enthusiastic crowd. And we made some interesting connections between the works, especially concerning whether there is any meaningful distinction between passion and obsession.

That’s it! A paltry nine books. The tornado book was interesting, but the only ones likely to stick in my mind are The Lost Man and The Radetzky March. (Plus the Borowski, but I hardly count it, since it’s practically ingrained in me.)

May’s reading has already proven much more fruitful. More on that in a couple of weeks.

 

 

 

 

2017 Year in Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other highlights:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some bests:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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