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.
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.
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?
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.