Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Scott Lambridis (@slambridis). Scott’s story “Blind Sticks” is nominated for a 2021 Pushcart award. Before completing his MFA, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com, through which he co-hosts the Action Fiction! performance series. Read more at scottlambridis.com.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
Each year I have a goal of reading 52 books. In 2021, I read 87. Here are the top ten!
The Organs of Sense by Adam Ehrlich Sachs
This book was on the top ten after the very first chapter. In 1666, the philosopher/mathematician Leibniz tracks down a blind astronomer who’s predicted an eclipse that will darken Europe for exactly 4 seconds. A blind astronomer? Naturally Leibniz attempts to decide whether he’s a brilliant soothsayer or just an absurd quack, and the astronomer indulges him in a long and meandering tale of how he came to his prediction while they wait for the eclipse itself to make the final determination. Along the way we hear of the astronomer’s life, arguments over the composition of art (one scene about a bunch of faces made up of fishes especially sticks in my mind), the utility of science, the way to gauge truth, all of which unveil the mysteries and absurdities of philosophical searches, while revealing the narrative’s own. The story keeps you guessing if it’s going to actually go anywhere, and then it does, beautifully and surprisingly. The true delight, though, the part that affixed it in the top ten immediately, is the tone. As my dear friend Ben put it, “It has something rare these days, and from this country: a terrific sense of play, a lightness as Italo Calvino would say [in his Memos for the New Millenium]. There’s always playfulness even in his most serious subjects.” Calvino would be proud, amused, and maybe a bit enlightened too. [Ed. – Sold!]
At Night all Blood is Black by David Diop (Translated by Anna Moschovakis)
This short novel from Senegal about a “chocolat” soldier fighting with the French in the trenches of WWI gripped me and wouldn’t let go. The narrator battles with the guilt of being unable to put his dying friend out of his misery, which transmutes into the hunt for forgiveness through atrocity: he becomes a “soul-eater” who hunts down Germans so that he can retain and collect their severed hands. Diop uses shocking violence and horror to unfold the narrator’s humanity, even as the character doubts it himself. The narration is a fever dream: at once intense, lyrical, dark, violent, tender, visceral, and poetic. That dream picks up in the second half in a hospital amidst delusions and confusions of identity. This half has less visceral presence, but the questions are still interesting, and the prose’s rhythm of repetition carries it forward to an ending both mysteriously dissonant and triumphant.
The End of the Alphabet by C. S. Richardson
This is the sweetest and saddest love story I’ve ever read, all wrapped up in under 100 pages. In his fiftieth year, a devoted husband finds out he has just a month to live, then whisks his wife off on a world tour of cities in alphabetical order, from Amsterdam to Zanzibar—but they never make it past F (I believe it’s F, but can’t be sure, since I don’t own the book anymore; you’ll see why). The prose is spare, the story sweet, the characters adorable and tragic, the ending heartbreaking and beautiful. It’s both straightforward in its telling and slippery in its tone, and I’ve been compelled to give it at least three times now to other friend-couples. How could it not make the top ten?
Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Ringal
This year was chock full of non-fiction books about the challenges of writing non-fiction (how to accurately tell the truth, how much the writer plays a part) and this was the crowning jewel, a totally metafictional narrative. On the surface, it’s a long-form article about a boy’s suicide in Las Vegas, and the socioeconomic factors of the city that contributed to and were revealed by that event. The portrait of Las Vegas is fascinating on its own, but the heart and delight is in the marginalia—the fact checker’s feedback to the editor and author about the draft article, and the author’s responses. What arises is a frustrated argument between the two over what counts as truth and where the journalist’s obligations lie in relation to capturing it. The personalities of both author and fact-checker are wonderfully revealed. You’ll never think of non-fiction as innocent again.
The Old Woman and the River by Ismail Fahd Ismail (Translated by Sophia Vasalou)
Some books get to the top ten not by wowing me in the moment, but by sticking with me for months and months. [Ed. – Yep, and sometimes those are the best ones.] This short novel from Kuwait follows a feisty old lady and her faithful and equally feisty mule on a critical errand: to carry her husband’s unearthed bones back to his hometown for a proper burial. Unfortunately she arrives to find the town in a war zone (the Iran-Iraq War), governed by an outpost of soldiers who neither let her accomplish her errand nor leave. During her stay, she manages to sabotage a military operation by bombing a dam, and restoring fertility to barren lands on the fringes of the desert. It was an enjoyable read at the time, in particular the tough-but-tender old lady’s conversations with her mule, her husband’s ghost, and her captors, but the lingering effect of the old woman’s righteous persistence has persisted long enough to elevate it into the top ten. I just can’t stop thinking about it.
97,196 Words by Emannuel Carrèrre (Translated by John Lambert)
I love a good essay, no matter the subject, and this collection is as varied as they come; I loved every one. There are so many I can’t even recall them all. A lengthy, poignant study of an AIDS victim. An obscure but shocking suburban murderer of a man’s entire family (which referenced and later caused me to read Janet Malcolm’s fantastic The Journalist and the Murderer). A day on the town with the French president Macron. A visit to the secretive Davos conference. Russia’s anti-Putin youth. The enduring spell of H.P. Lovecraft. Tracking down the pseudonym of a subversive writer who popularized a chance-based way of living that became a cult lifestyle. Some obscure Russian writer. Sex columns Carrèrre was forced to write. Oh, and the homecoming of the last prisoner to be released from the Gulag, how could I forget that one? This is what happens. I start remembering one, and then they just pop back into place: Oh and that one, that was great, Oh, and that one, that was great too. Each is captivating, which probably hasn’t happened since I read Weinberger. Hence: top ten
Earth and Ashes by Atiq Rahimi (Translated by Erdag M. Göknar)
A fantastic novella from Afghanistan! After his village is bombed and most of his family killed, an old man goes on a journey to the remote mine where his son works to tell him the awful news. In tow is his grandson, who has been deafened by the bomb but is too young to understand yet what’s happened to him. [Ed. – Uh this is exactly what Ben said… not sure who’s paying homage to whom here, but, anyway…] Much of the book is spent sitting and waiting for a ride at a gas station in the middle of the desert where a bus will supposedly arrive, a waiting characterized by drifts in and out of time and place, fantasies into the mind of his grandson, and playing out versions of how he’ll share the terrible news with his son, all punctuated by the feisty but concerned station agent waking the old man to check on him. Taut and dreamy, concise and spare, heartbreaking and yet not without humor. But it’s really the final twenty pages that dazzle, the ultimate meeting of father and son and what follows. These pages are such a rollercoaster of heartbreaking twists and turns, dashed expectations and unfathomably complex emotions—they left me breathless.
Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari
Sapiens is a fascinating reexamination of what makes humans tick, and how the major tides of history and society have been shaped and driven by our unique ability to organize ourselves through invented stories. Harari’s thesis is that there’s a pretty small limit (about a hundred or so if I recall) to how large a society can be based purely on cooperation within the material world; it’s the ability to create fictional entities and shared beliefs about them that allowed us to surge to great collective numbers. (And subsequently wreak the havoc we’ve wreaked, first on other human species, then on the world’s fauna, and ever since on each other). Religion, agriculture, currency, language, politics and government, social structures in general—shared agreements in invented fictions, all. Though the book is not that long, it took me nearly a full year to read because each chapter is so juicy and rich I needed a break after each. Rarely has non-narrative non-fiction left so strong an impression of the delightful flimsiness of all we take for granted in daily life. The interview with the author at the end also inspired me to start a daily practice of Vapassana meditation (he said he couldn’t have written the book without it). I’ve kept with the practice ever since (4-5 months). You never know what a book will bring to you!
HhHH by Laurent Binet (Translated by Sam Taylor)
HhHH stands for “Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich,” or “Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.” This gem of historical fiction tells the story of Reinhard Heydrich, the most ruthless Nazi you’ve never heard of, and of the two parachuting Czechs, Jozef Gabcík and Jan Kubiš, who assassinated him in broad daylight, in arguably the bravest and singularly practical act of the war. Who was Heydrich? Himmler’s right-hand man. The one who first recognized a young Eichmann as a “man of talents.” The man Hitler called “the perfect Nazi,” the man he feared and therefore valued most for his extensive information networks. The real brains behind the nuts and bolts of the Anschluss, the forming of the Czech protectorate, the subjugation of Prague, the meticulous architect of the Holocaust. [Ed. – That last statement overstates things, overlooks Himmler, etc.] Heydrich’s rise is fascinating and terrifying, paralleled with the tension of the two Czech parachutists planning and pulling off their secret mission, then going on the run, holding out for days against a battalion of hundreds of Gestapo in a church before finally meeting their brutal demise. It’s a riveting story, but what elevates the book is the meta-narrative struggle of the author to divine truth from his tale, to determine what to put in and how to stay focused, given all the astonishing horror he could include. This struggle adds an extra personality, an intellectual struggle beyond the body of an already striking historical account. It gave the book just enough extra oomph to edge out Èric Vuillard’sOrder of the Day, another terrifying account of the rise of the Third Reich.
Ice by Anna Kavan
An unnamed narrator chases a vaguely beautiful girl across crumbling apocalyptic landscapes of crumbling ice and snow, under the menacing shadow of her entitled protector. This strange novel made the list not for the actual enjoyment of the reading but for the totally mysterious and otherworldly atmosphere it creates. Moment to moment, the writing is so rich and tense and unique, and whenever the chapter changes it zooms out a bit to an even more unsettling sense of aimlessness, a glimpse into a wider eternity that saps it of momentum, round and round and never going anywhere. Ice can be frustrating. [Ed. – Indeed.] But it sticks with you. It’s absolutely chillingly gorgeous and perplexing. There’s nothing else like it, and I immediately purchased all her short stories. ‘Nuff said. [Ed. – My dissenting, admittedly minority, take is here.]
Some honorable mentions. Great books that didn’t quite make the cut!
Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Matt Keeley, a marketer and freelance editor who reads too much. He lives in Massachusetts. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
My favorite of all the books I read in 2021 was John Crowley’s Little, Big. Like my favorite book from 2020, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s chronicle of medieval life The Corner That Held Them, I believe it to be a masterpiece but hesitate to recommend it widely. Crowley’s 1981 novel follows the fortunes of the Drinkwater family through the twentieth century and into a bleakly imagined twenty-first. The family is connected, Somehow (Crowley always capitalizes this word), to the fairies and to a mysterious Tale (again, capitalized) that may encompass more worlds than ours. While no one, the author included, would deny that it’s a fantasy novel, it’s far different from and much superior to most everything published in the genre since Tolkien. It’s a long, beautiful, stately, and oblique novel; I look forward to returning to it.
Alan Garner’s Treacle Walker was a surprise and felt like a gift: When he published his memoir Where Shall We Run To? in 2018, Garner was already in his mid-eighties, and he’s a slow writer. Although I read it in just a few hours, Treacle Walker is precisely as long as it needs to be. I wouldn’t recommend it as an introduction to Garner, but it’s a fine (apparent) capstone to his six-decade career.
I read two books by Janet Malcolm in close succession early in the year; Two Lives is about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas: their lives, their love, their art, and the mystery of their survival as Jewish lesbians in occupied France. Malcolm’s précis of Stein’s The Making of Americans is particularly wonderful; I had no idea how strange, unmannered, and unedited that pseudo-novel is. I wouldn’t want to brave its nine hundred pages of dropped plots, failed experiments, and abandoned philosophical musings, but I’m glad to know what’s in there. The other Malcolm title was Iphigenia in Forest Hills, true crime about a murder, more sad than sordid, in Queens. I don’t think either book achieves the heights of The Journalist and the Murderer, but both titles are exemplary models of craft and sympathy.
Dorothy Dunnett’s The Spring of the Ram is the second novel in the House of Niccolò series. While her books, with their dense prose, unglossed allusions, and cunningly withheld character motivations, aren’t for everyone, I’m happy to reflect that I have a whole six more books in this series to read.
I went on a minor Philip Roth kick as the pre-scandal publicity around Blake Bailey’s biography kicked into gear. The Factsand The Dying Animal were minor, but Sabbath’s Theater is a masterpiece, the most exhausting, most dyspeptic, and most sinisterly compassionate novel I read this year.
Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York comprises thirteen impressionistic essays about life in New York. Although it’s a distinctly minor work by a major writer, it was a balm for me at a moment when I was missing the city I’d made my home for six pre-pandemic years.
Rachel Eisendrath’s Gallery of Cloudsis a book about, among other things, Sir Philip Sidney’s mostly forgotten sixteenth-century poetry, academic life, manuscripts, Walter Benjamin, and Virginia Woolf. I admit that I remember the book’s mood more than its matter — I had to consult the book’s publicity page to recall which writers feature in it. Perhaps that’s my failure as a reader. Or, if there really is something evanescent about Gallery of Clouds, maybe that’s only appropriate for a book of wisps and reverie and free association?
The Trial of Lady Chatterley’s Loverby Sybille Bedford is a brief account, just under a hundred pages long, of the 1960 British lawsuit against Penguin Books, which had published the unexpurgated version of D.H. Lawrence’s novel. Bedford attended the trial; sixty years on, her account remains witty and infuriating.
Some final thoughts and suggestions:
I think Dorian told me about the Willem Frederik Hermans novella An Untouched House, which was as good as I’d been led to believe. [Ed. – Not me, sadly. It’s still on Mount TBR. Will Matt’s recommender please step forward?] I finally got around to reading Frank Herbert’s Dune, which I’d tried and failed to read when I was eleven or so.As someone who is occasionally paid to review science fiction, it’s a relief to finally cross this off my reading list. The prose isn’t great, but the novel is more than the sum of its parts. I don’t think that The Trees, Percival Everett’s comic guignol procedural about America’s history of racism, with bonus zombies,entirely succeeds, but I now have a whole stack of other Everett novels to read. Adam Mars-Jones’s Batlava Lakeis extremely funny until, on the last page, it isn’t. Anthony Doerr’s Cloud-Cuckoo Land might be too commercial for some readers of this blog, but is absolutely enthralling. [Ed. –For some maybe, but the editor is willing to try all the things.] Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan lived up to the reviewers’ unanimous praise.
Busy month. I kept to a schedule, writing at least a few paragraphs most days, and reading something Holocaust-related every morning. (Useful, fascinating, bit wearing.) I wrote a chapter of this book manuscript or whatever it’s going to be. I rejoiced in cooler weather which turned my runs from grim duty to joyful endorphin-fests. I counted the Biden signs in the neighbourhood and felt incautiously optimistic (not that he would win Arkansas, as if, but that he would win overall, and bigly). I studied for my US citizenship test and drove to Memphis to take it. And on the weekends I treated myself to Our Mutual Friend, which I didn’t quite finish, but will soon. (It’s good!) Here are my thoughts on the rest of my reading:
Marga Minco, Bitter Herbs: A Little Chronicle (1957) Trans. Roy Edwards (1960)
Minco, born Sara Menco, was a twenty-year-old Jewish newspaper journalist when the Germans conquered her native Holland. Shortly thereafter she was fired by the paper’s pro-German leadership. That was the first of many losses. When the rest of her family was rounded up she escaped—slipping out the back door, diving through a gap in the hedge, and running breathlessly in search of safety—and spent the rest of the war in hiding in a series of safe houses.
She resumed writing after the war, achieving success with this, her first book, in 1957. The old Penguin edition I read describes it as a novel, but its events track her own experiences closely. I prefer Minco’s more accurate subtitle: the book is indeed a little chronicle, modest in size, if not in scope, its mode of telling disjointed, eliding important connective tissue. Not a narrative, then, but rather a text struggling how to best represent time. Bitter Herbs is made up of discrete (and discreet) units that offer flashes of Minco’s experience before and during the Nazi occupation.
Readers are likely to calibrate the bits of the story to the historical timeline—”it must be 1944 by now; the Allies have arrived”—but Minco challenges that practice, preferring instead to perform, and thus make us in some small way feel, the dislocation of life on the run. Minco survived, or we would not have her book, but her story doesn’t end happily. The final chapter describes her paternal uncle, the only other person in her family to have survived (in his case thanks to his marriage to a non-Jew). Every day the uncle waits at the tram stop near his house, fruitlessly searching out familiar faces. No one else ever comes back.
Minco’s chapters are little essays. In the one that gives the book its title, as she reflects on her split-section decision to run when the SS arrived to take her and her parents away, Minco describes how, briefly reunited with her brother and sister-in-law in a safe house, the three take turns bleaching their hair, causing their landlady to become suspicious and kick them out. She compares the door of the no-longer safe house she passes through into an uncertain future to the one she fled through, which reminds her, in turn, of the custom at the end of the Passover Seder to open the door for the prophet Elijah. Instead of dwelling on this messianic moment—Elijah never comes, at least not yet—Minco remembers the last of the Four Questions, which, as the youngest in the family, she would always be the one to ask: Why on this night do we eat bitter herbs? Her memory concludes:
Then my father would chant the story of the exodus from Egypt, and we ate of the unleavened bread and the bitter herbs, in order that we should taste again of that exodus—from year to year, for ever and ever.
Am I right to hear a note of disdain here? As if the ritual were an impotent reveling in pain? (That repetition of “year to year,” “for ever and ever”—the endlessness seems as bitter as the herb.) Yet Minco can’t help but remember the moment, which could also be read as an invocation of an unbreakable tradition. But any idea of permanence is belied by both the form and content of her book. Minco is keen, at the end of the book, to take the tram and not look back—to be different from her uncle.
Roy Edwards’s translation seems a bit dusty; I gather a new version is forthcoming in the UK. The old edition was, however, graced by beautiful, jagged drawings by Herman Dijkstra. I wonder if those were present in the original Dutch, or whether they were added by Penguin. Minco celebrated her 100th birthday earlier this year; it would be nice if an English-language publisher would follow Germany’s Arco Verlag in releasing a lovely centenary edition of this underappreciated writer.
Sigrid Nunez, What Are You Going Through (2020)
I was talking with a friend on Twitter the other day about autofiction: I enjoy it, but I find it doesn’t stay with me, maybe because I’m not trained to read it the way I am, say, realism. And maybe the problem is with Nunez: I remember delighting in her previous book, The Friend, and then, months later, having no memory of it, and even a few weeks later I’m hazy about What Are You Going Through? Maybe I read her too quickly; maybe her style is too lucid. (Is that a thing?) Maybe I should read the book again; maybe she’s one of those writers who only blossom when re-read. I do know, though, that I much preferred Helen Garner’s The Spare Room, which similarly considers the emotional and physical caretaking of a dying friend. That I read in January and still think about all the time. Maybe because Garner’s book is filled with rage, and rage scares me. Nunez, though pointed—her tone reminds me of a perfectly plucked eyebrow—is calmer, less likely to push my buttons.
Hilary Leichter, Temporary (2020)
The first time I saw Hilary Leichter I was terrified of her. I was just beginning a job as a Visiting Assistant Professor at Haverford College. (It sounds much fancier than it was: people would often politely ask, “Where are you visiting from?” not knowing that this is academic speak for “We have hired you on a full-time basis but only temporarily; do not expect to stick around.”) The night before the semester started my wife and I and some similarly temporarily employed friends attended a student production of David Mamet’s Oleanna, a two-hander about a young woman who, under the auspices/prodding of an ominously named “Group,” accuses a professor of harassment. I have not seen or read this play since; I strongly suspect it now reads as regressive and dismissive of accusers, but at the time it seemed evenhanded and smart. Anyway, as a newly-minted instructor I was terrified by the play’s suggestion that students could turn on one. And mostly I was in awe at the actor who played the student, who transformed, even physically, becoming taller, more present, from the first to the second act. (I mean, the transformation is in the script, but the actor seemed to become someone wholly other, through her carriage, posture, intonations, etc.)
When I stepped into the classroom the next week I didn’t even recognize that actor in Hilary Leichter, pleasant student ready to tackle Virginia Woolf. And when I did I had a moment of alarm—what would this student do to me? Nothing, it turned out, but good, by ably and generously contributing to the life of the seminar. Eventually she graduated and went on her way, and I did something similar, being very lucky to get my current job. I believe that all teachers really want is for their students to thrive, in whatever way best suits them. Imagine then my pleasure when I learned about Hilary’s first novel. And my joy and pride—you’d think I’d written the damn thing myself—when it got a rave New York Times review (it has since also appeared on Publisher’s Weekly’s Best of the Year list). I was excited to be able to convince the other members of the talent committee to invite Hilary to the Six Bridges Literary Festival; alas, our reunion was spoiled by COVID, but we finally got to reconnect when the festival went virtual last month.
In preparation for her appearance, which I agreed to moderate, I sat down to finally read Temporary. I was nervous. What if I didn’t like it? But my fear quickly vanished. The book is smart and engaging: just like Hilary herself. Temporary concerns a young woman who works a series of unusual temp jobs. In the world of the novel, though, which is both ours and not quite, such precarity is not a shitty fact of how we’ve decided to organize society but an identity position. Some people, like the narrator, are temps; they long for the permanence that Leichter calls “the steadiness.”
In reimagining economic reality as existential situation, Leichter critiques the cruel optimism of so-called late capitalism. The narrator’s jobs are like extravagant, explosive versions of what you’d find in Richard Scarry: she directs traffic, delivers mail, fills in on a pirate ship while someone is on leave, opens doors, robs banks, and even assassinates people to order. Throughout, Leichter literalizes the anodyne language of business management, giving it new life—“completely underwater” means something different when you work on a pirate ship. (The narrator concludes, perhaps offering Leichter’s own credo: “You can turn a phrase only so many times before it turns into something else.”)
Temporary could at first seem, like its title, slight. The publisher seems to be marketing it as charming, even zany (bright yellow cover featuring a delicate masked figure). And no question, the novel is fun and often laugh-out-loud funny. I particularly like the subplots involving the narrator’s 18 boyfriends, differentiated only by Homeric epithets: pacifist boyfriend, handy boyfriend, earnest boyfriend. When the narrator leaves the city for her pirate gig, the boyfriends move into her apartment, fixing it up for her and, as she learns on regular phone calls home, getting along famously: “‘We stayed up all night working!’ my caffeinated boyfriend chirps.”
But Temporary is serious business: its fantasy lets us imagine a world beyond precarity. “No one is outwardly harmed, but there’s harm everywhere”—this sentence encapsulates both capitalism’s false cheer and the novel’s stealth design. Will our protagonist find the steadiness she desires? Or will she tap into the power of temporariness, which has, after all, been handed down to her as a matrilineal inheritance, like the Jewishness that suffuses the novel without ever being named. Like Jewishness, at least in its exilic form, temporariness longs to be accepted by the fortunate steady, but, because such acceptance would undo its very identity, also rejects it. Temporary is a novel of resistance, not assimilation; as such, it’s a novel we need. Best of all, I can say I knew the author before she made it big, back when I was temporary too.
GennaRose Nethercott, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog: A Story in Cootie Catchers (2019) Illus. Bobby DiTrant
Cootie catchers are those folded paper fortune tellers you made as a kid to dare your friend to do something gross or to find out who you would marry. Nethercott’s book comes in a sleeve about the size of an LP filled with sheets you fold yourself and use to tell the story. In some version of late 19th early 20th century America, filled with trains and burlesque dancers, at an ominous plantation-like cranberry farm, terrible things are happening: every month a young woman goes missing, lost to the bog. Will Lianna escape? Where to and to what purpose? Will she bring justice to her sacrificed comrades? Depending on the vagaries of chance—i.e. how you play with the cootie catchers—any number of outcomes are possible.
I wouldn’t have read this had it not been for that lit fest panel I mentioned above (Nethercott appeared with Leichter). Which would have been a shame. I confess, though, that I found Lianna a little too cute—at least I did until I heard Nethercott’s (and Leichter’s) impassioned rejection of “whimsey” as a response women writers face more often than men; that dismissal, moreover, neglects the power of the fanciful to help us imagine a world that might be different than our own. As serious as a children’s game, Lianna Fled the Cranberry Bog is indeed a story of forced labour, violence against women, and the possibility of escaping those terrible material realities.
Charles Cumming, A Colder War (2014)
The follow-up toA Foreign Country. I enjoyed the glimpses of Istanbul. The love interest is a little too hetero-guy wet-dream-y, though.
Charles Cumming, A Divided Spy (2016)
The Thomas Kell trilogy comes to a satisfying conclusion. The last scene is especially good; unusual in spy fiction. I’ll read more of Cumming.
Barbara Demick, Logavina Street: Life and Death in a Sarajevo Neighborhood (1996, revised 2012)
As I mentioned last month, Demick likes to use the experiences of a few individuals to illustrate larger political-historical situations. Here she offers a single street in Sarajevo as a microcosm for the siege of 1992—95. The six blocks of Logavina Street offer, for Demick, the best of the place, a city where, as the jacket copy puts it, “Muslims and Christians, Serbs and Croats, lived easily together, unified by their common identity as Sarajevans.” I know Demick didn’t write that descriptions, but it speaks the strengths and weaknesses of her approach: light on history, good with character. The families Demick lives among experience the strains of life lived under threat of mortar and sniper: often cold, mostly hungry, always at risk.
Unfortunately, the capable storytelling isn’t matched by comparable analytic sophistication (her most recent book is better). I winced when Demick misread Primo Levi, dubiously compared Sarajevans under siege to inmates of a subcamp of Auschwitz. But in an introduction written for this second edition, Demick recognizes the book’s flaws, regretting its naivete. I don’t think she’s renounced her belief in the beauty of a multiethnic, cosmopolitan polity, but she no longer thinks this ideal is coterminous with freedom and democracy. The whole book is, no surprise, redolent of the 1990s, a time that now seems impossibly quaint and infuriatingly smug. But Demick is right to have left the text as it was written (even as she has added a welcome post-script updating readers on her subjects). And I still learned a lot. Logavina Street allowed me, who didn’t pay much attention to the events as they occurred—they were part of life’s grim background noise, inexplicable other than through lazy, and totally bogus, nostrums about age-old ethnic hatreds—to start remedying past ignorance.
Lore Segal, Other People’s Houses (1963)
Reader extraordinaire and Backlisted podcaster Andy Miller named Segal’s novel My First American as his best read of October. Hearing this, I resolved to take down my copy of this, her first novel, which, like Minco’s Bitter Herbs, could certainly be called a memoir, as it follows her own experiences closely.
Segal (née Groszmann) left Vienna in 1938 on one of the Kindertransports. In England she was billeted with various families who, although well-meaning, simply couldn’t understand her, mistaking her reserve for stubbornness instead of trauma. Segal’s vividly portrays her family in pre-Anschluss times (especially her charming uncle, Paul, part wastrel, part mensch), the new “families” she is plunked among, and herself, always tracking her own reactions. She has an eye for psychological complication—in the hours before her desperate parents send their only child off alone to a foreign country, for example, they buy her a sausage, which the girl has said she wants, but only because she sees they want to get her something special to prove their love; on the journey to England and in the first weeks there, spent in a freezing holiday camp hastily made over as refugee center, the sausage, which she cannot bring herself to eat and is in fact disgusted by but which she also cannot bear to throw away, begins to rot, its smell an unshakable stain symbolizing terrible misunderstanding and conflicted emotions.
Through force of will the child helps her parents get British visas (she writes begging letters to the authorities, trading on her position as lost and vulnerable child), though the visas only allow them to work in domestic service, so the family remains separated except for occasional visits. Segal’s mother takes to the work, even though in Vienna she had had servants herself; she is an unstoppable force. Her father does not, he is helpless, his training as an accountant hasn’t prepared him for his new role as a gardener. His health declines; Segal’s mother spends her scarce private time and energy to attending to him; Segal, now a teenager, condemns him as a burden. All very fraught. Eventually she moves to London, attends a women’s college, and, after the war, accompanies her mother to the Dominican Republic, where her uncle was hopelessly attempting to become a farmer (at the Evian conference on the Jewish crisis in 1938, the DR was the only country willing to take Jewish refugees). In 1951, her American visa finally comes through, and the last part of the book tells the story of her finding her feet in New York.
Other People’s Houses is like a mashup of Kluger’s Still Alive, Gornick’s Fierce Attachments and Judith Kerr’s When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit. In other words, extremely my shit. In tone it is most similar to Gornick—unsparing, but less harsh than Kluger and less sweet than Kerr. It’s terrific. I will say, I did find it a bit long, especially in its second half (the childhood parts of autobiographical books are always the best). In fact, I had the same feeling finishing this as I did when I first read Still Alive. I liked it, I knew it was good, but I didn’t know quite what to make of it. It took me several readings of Kluger’s memoir to really get a handle on its genius, and I suspect the same will be true for Segal’s. (No surprise, by the way, that Segal wrote the introduction to Still Alive.) I plan to teach Other People’s Houses; that’s when I’ll really get a handle on it.
Mark Roseman, Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany (2019)
As I say in my precis, this is the most consequential book I’ve read this year. A work of history both deep and accessible with important implications for how we think about resistance.
Liz Moore, Long Bright River (2020)
Moore’s title is lifted from Tennyson and works both literally—this is a great novel of Philadelphia; the Delaware recurs frequently—and metaphorically—the subject is the release and suffering users of races and classes find in the river of opioids deluging the country. Like Steph Cha’s Your House Will Pay, which I keep singing the praises of, Moore’s novel upends the conventions of the procedural. Michaela “Mickey” Fitzpatrick is a cop; her sister is an addict. Every call sends a spasm through Mickey: will this Jane Doe be Kacey? So far so compelling—but also so far so cliched. What’s really great here is how the shifty first-person narration (which is very subtly done, it takes a long time before we realize Mickey is, not exactly untrustworthy, but certainly prey to her own demons) forces us to consider what it means to value socially acceptable forms of addiction (to work, to control, to order). Long Bright River fillets the genre of the procedural, turning it inside out. I loved it—I stayed up until almost 4 to finish it and didn’t even regret it the next day—but I did wonder, Where can we go from here? Is the procedural simply impossible now? Smart book; looking forward to more from Moore.
Josephine Tey, Brat Farrar (1949)
Tey’s novel about a man who claims to be the long-lost scion of a pedigreed horse-owning English family, unseating his twin brother just days before the latter was to come into his inheritance, is plenty ingenious. We know from the beginning that Brat is an imposter, coached by a vindictive cousin who seizes upon the man’s uncanny likeness to the brother to split the inheritance two ways. (Shame Tey quickly gets bored of the cousin.) So the question isn’t “Is he for real?” but “Will he be uncovered?” Tey pulls a nice surprise at the end, and asks questions about identity and belonging. (There’s a lotta horse neepery, which I could takle or leave.) I liked it well enough—though less so, I think, than Rohan, whose take you should read—but not as much as her earlier novel of unsettlement, The Franchise Affair, and not as much as another novel from the period concerning an uncanny imposter, Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat, a more suspenseful book which has, it seems to me, wider ambitions.
Gerda Weissmann Klein, All But My Life (1957, revised 1995)
Memoir recounting, first, Klein’s childhood in a prosperous Jewish merchant family in the Silesian town of Bielitz (today Bielsko-Biala), a textile center near the Czech border that until WWI had been part of Austro-Hungary; the destruction of that world with the German invasion of Poland; her family’s subsequent dispersal and persecution; and eventually the story of her wartime suffering, first as a weaver in a series of slave labour camps and finally, most harrowingly, as one of only a handful of survivors of one of the longest and deadliest of the so-called Death Marches. Four thousand young women left the Gross-Rosen camp system in January 1945; after a 350-mile trek through that terrible winter, only 120 were still alive when the war ended in May.
Particularly interesting is the story of Klein’s rescue, at the point of death (she weighed 68 pounds at liberation), by an American GI, whom she subsequently married. I was struck by the differences between Klein’s experience and Ruth Kluger, who similarly survived a Death March but who memorably describes her first encounter with a GI who put his fingers in his ears when Kluger’s mother started to tell him what they had gone through. Kluger would go on to marry a GI too, though that marriage did not last. That Klein’s husband was Jewish, had been born in Germany, and emigrated with his family in the 1930s must have contributed to that difference.
Klein’s happily-ever-after contrasts with the other striking strand of her wartime experiences: her relationship with Abek Feigenblatt, a young man she met in a camp in 1941, when she and her parents were some of the only Jews left in Bielitz, and when it was still possible for people to visit those incarcerated. This was a work camp, not an extermination camp, and Abek’s job was to restore paintings, most of which had been stolen from Jewish homes, so he came and went with a great deal of freedom. The Bielitz ghetto was liquidated in 1942 and everyone left was sent either west, like Klein, to work, or east, like her parents, to be murdered.
The twenty-two-year-old Abek immediately falls for the teenaged girl (Klein was 17 at the time) and presses his suit. She is flattered but also unhappy; she does not love him and is both put off and frightened by his persistence. For the next few years their lives are painfully intertwined: Klein is briefly sent to Sosnowitz, forty-five miles away, where Abek’s family lives, and he urges them to arrange an essential worker permit for her, which she rejects for fear of being bound to him; later they write each other regularly from their respective work camps; and he eventually arranges to be transferred to a camp near her own, even though it is notoriously dangerous, so that, with the connivance of a kindly German overseer, they can occasionally see each other. Abek’s eventual fate—but also his disagreeable love—haunt Klein.
Some might say Klein’s experiences were too unusual, indeed too privileged, to count as representative. But all stories are particular, and all survivor accounts contain remarkable elements. After all, all survivors are anomalies. I am pretty amazed that Klein first published this in 1957; that it was revised in the mid 90s, as a result of a successful documentary film, makes sense: it feels of that Holocaust museum opening in DC/Schindler’s List Oscar winning moment. But to my mind it seems unusual for the 50s. I’d like to find out about its reception. Was it a success? How did its first readers take it? What framework did they place it in? One story often told is that that the Holocaust doesn’t coalesce as a concept until the Eichmann trial in the 60s, or the famous miniseries in the 70s. Klein’s book might challenge that. I do note that the back of my edition categorizes it as “Memoir/Judaica,” the latter an old-fashioned, exoticizing term. (I’d expect something like “Holocaust Studies” instead.)
Klein is a good writer, but not an extraordinary one. I missed, for example, Kluger’s analytic reach and sharp tone. Klein’s story is more triumphant, though certainly not without its bitterness. In general, she seems a more establishment figure, if I could put it that way. Her humanitarian work cannot be denied: Clinton appointed her to the USHMM governing council; Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom; as recently as 2008, in her 80s, she started a 501C3 that educates students about citizenship. Anyway, All But My Life is maybe not the only Holocaust memoir I’d want people to read, but I can recommend it.
Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)
Dillon has chosen 27 favourite sentences—from prose works ranging from Donne and Browne to Mantel and Jaeggy—and written a short essay on each. I have only three objections to this exercise. One, I’m deeply envious that I am not smart enough to have thought of this or good enough & well connected enough to pull it off. Two, Dillon loves to qualify and hesitate—and not just because nuance requires it. He speaks of “a certain kind of exposure,” “a certain fragility,” “a kind of care, and a kind of fury.” What he says about Janet Malcolm—“Malcolm’s own resistance to the same qualities [of permanence, order, closure] involves her in an orgy of provisionality and tentativeness”—is too often true of him too. Three, he is irritatingly fond of rhetorical questions, which is a shame since his real questions are excellent.
But even my envy and grumpiness give way before Dillon’s accomplishment. He’s a great celebrator, a quality I admire in a critic. And he’s a terrific close reader. My copy is filled with appreciative check marks and exclamations—he notices so much about his material, and develops those observations into suggestive insights. He’s really good on verbless sentences and on commas, especially those that are expected but elided. His choices are pleasingly unexpected; even the usual suspects are represented by obscure material. Joan Didion, for example, honed her craft writing captions for Vogue, and Dillon convincingly argues that his example—a sentence accompanying a photo of Dennis Hopper’s home—lost its power when Didion later revised and repurposed it in a published essay. Most importantly, he has good taste. He gets how amazing Elizabeth Bowen is, which is always going to win someone over in my books. He makes me want to read Maeve Brennan and Anne Boyer. And above all, he has sent me in search of Claire Bennett, about whom he writes brilliantly.
There you have it. Not quite the riches of September, but a better than average reading month. Mark Roseman’s book stood out above the rest, but Lore Segal, Hilary Leichter, Liz Moore, and Marga Minco impressed too. Not sure November will match up—I’ve spent most of it so far in a fog of election paralysis—but check back in a month to see.