A busy month, the semester grinding away, an invited lecture to prepare and deliver, the puppy growing more Clifford-like by the day. Yet also, finally, some relief from the heat. Unseasonably cool, even; some of the best fall weather I can remember in Arkansas. And along with it some decent reading.
Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84) I’ve written before about this memoir of the author’s time in hiding in Poland during WWII. I re-read it because I’ve added it to my Holocaust Lit syllabus. Although I missed Imre Kertesz’s brilliant Fatelessness, which I had to cut in order to fit Dry Tears in, I’m glad I made the switch. It was useful for students to read about a Holocaust victim who avoided the camps (plus it gave them a glimpse into life in the ghettos, although Tec and her family did not spend long there). It’s leading nicely into our current discussion of Agnieszka Holland’s film Europa, Europa. And it’s a great book pure and simple. Tec’s style is low-key, but that just heightens the impact of the psychological abuse she suffered. Pretty sure I’ll keep this memoir in my teaching rotation for a while.
Andrew Taylor, The Fire Court (2018) Second volume in Taylor’s series set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, featuring James Marwood, a Whitehall clerk whose father supported Cromwell and is now is disgrace, and Cat Lovett, similarly at odds with the new Court and her family as well, who is beginning to pursue her dream of becoming an architect. The books are nominally crime stories, but more interestingly they are about rebuilding: London itself, and the lives destroyed by both the fire and the Restoration. This one was better than the first, and I look forward to future installments.
Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996) Trans. Stephen Snyder (2010) A few days before the awarding of the Nobel Prize, someone on Twitter was speculating that Ogawa might win. This piqued my interest and reminded me I had one of her books on my shelves. At first, I was engrossed in this story of a teenage girl, Mari, who helps her domineering mother manage a down-at-heel hotel in a Japanese seaside resort. One night they have to kick out a man who becomes violent with a woman he’s hired for sex. Mari is unaccountably intrigued by the man, and when they later meet on a ferry to a nearby island—where the man, who is a translator from the Russian, lives in regimented solitude—they begin a relationship that at once frees and imprisons the girl. In ordinary life, the translator is courtly, snobbish, a little nebbish-y. In his sex life, he is violent, abusive, domineering. Mari, it turns out, perhaps to her surprise, it’s hard to tell, loves it.
Hotel Iris made me uncomfortable because, even though narrated from Mari’s point of view, it’s unforthcoming about what Mari might be getting out of the affair. Eventually it’s hard to see it as anything other than abusive. Yet the novel offers no clear signals that it wants us to see things this way. There’s a subplot about a nephew of the translator, rendered mute after a childhood accident: also enigmatic, but in a way that felt clumsy rather than intriguing. In the end the book left a sour taste in my mouth. I could feel quite differently on another reading—it’s clear Ogawa is a writer of interest: she’s brilliant on atmosphere—but I don’t really feel like visiting that world again. Any thoughts, hive mind?
Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018) Much fêted, but in the end forgettable novel about an African American couple who seems to have it made—recent graduates from terrific HBCs, they have interesting jobs and a nice life in Atlanta—until one night everything they know is overturned. Roy is falsely accused of raping a woman; he’s convicted and begins a lengthy sentence. Celestial supports him, but her need to forge her own life, and the distance between them (both literal—he’s in jail in Louisiana—and figurative—they can’t imagine each other’s lives) drives them apart. And yet not quite apart. A bond between them persists.
Mass incarceration is one of the issues in the US today—I’ve been heartened by how strongly students now feel about this, many of them rejecting the idea of incarceration tout court, thinking of it (rightly IMO) as just a form of torture: I’m reminded of how strongly students 5-10 years ago felt about LGBTQ issues, especially gay marriage. Jones ably depicts the psychological brutalization that incarceration is deigned to cause. And she makes you feel strongly for all of the major characters, even when their desires conflict. But in the end, I was annoyed by how “literary fiction-y” the book was. This is the kind of book that feels the need to introduce, apropos of nothing, ¾ of the way through, Roy’s childhood hobby: collecting keys. A lyrical aria on Roy’s keys follows, what they look like, where he found them, what he did with them. But keys, get it? He’s in prison. (Celestial’s career—she makes dolls, all of which are uncanny variations of Roy, that become collectors’ items—is similarly freighted, though at least Jones develops it more than the key business.) Give me an essay or non-fiction study of incarceration instead, thanks.
Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018) The second Canadian Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read in the last year or so. This one isn’t a patch on Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves—the writing clunkier, the characterization blunter, the idea that Indigenous people have resources to survive dark times that Whites don’t less developed—but Rice has a nice hand with suspense, and he offers a pleasingly enigmatic ending My wife read it before me and, as she predicted, once I’d read the first 30 pages or so I had to read the rest with as few breaks as possible. Pretty sure this is a first novel; curious to see how Rice develops as a writer. He’s got potential.
Jane Gardam, Old Filth (2004) Late to this party, but better late than never. A really fine and moving novel, a bit old fashioned, but so well done. You have to write for a lifetime to write a novel like this, I think. I pretty much agree with Daniel Polansky’s take entirely. (His reading log is pure joy. So punchy. Check it out.) Old Filth—as every review will tell you, the name stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”—is Edward Feathers, a Raj Child (a history totally unknown to me: fascinating and sad) who has, in fact, never failed at anything, except perhaps making emotional connections with others, yet even this judgment, which comes from the ways his childhood failed him, proves to be premature. I was captivated by the book from the beginning, in which an old man locks himself out of his house on a snowy Christmas day and is forced to ask his neighbour, also his oldest enemy, for help.
Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938) I’ve read Woolf’s extended essay on violence and gender many times: it never gets easier or less thrilling. A difficult book to master—the conceit is that Woolf is responding to a letter from a man asking her how we can best prevent war, but there are letters within the letters, imagined responses to an imagined response, so it’s hard to stay oriented—Three Guineas always seems relevant, especially in its gender and class politics. As always, I was fascinated by the violence of Woolf’s own rhetoric, as if to suggest that violence cannot be expunged even in an investigation into its dangers. But this time I was particularly struck by how cynical (realistic?) my students were about how far their own college is from the ideal (women’s) college Woolf imagines in the second letter. The shift from Millenials to Gen Z has happened.
Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (2016) Even though it won a big recent prize in Canada I had no great expectations for By Chance Alone. Yes, it’s my personal mission to read every Holocaust memoir, but sometimes the ones written many years after the event can be forced or pious. But even though Eisen is by his own admission no stylist, the book is fascinating, of interest to specialist and general readers alike. Eisen’s experience was amazingly wide-ranging: he lived through almost every facet of the Holocaust.
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 in a small town near the Hungarian border—in territory which was in fact given to Hungary in 1939, a fact which played a part in his survival—Eisen grew up in a close-knit family under almost idyllic circumstances. But in August 1942, together with his mother and siblings (his father has already been conscripted into forced labour), Eisen was deported to the Ukraine where he miraculously escaped death in the infamous killing fields near Kamenets-Podolsky (their transport was turned back at the last minute). Because after this short series of deportations Hungary dragged its feet in persecuting its Jewish population (at least from the Nazis’ perspective), after that narrow escape Eisen was able to live in relative freedom under Passover 1944, at which time he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. There another extraordinary turn of events led him to get a (coveted) position in the medical unit at Auschwitz I, where he became the assistant of the remarkable Polish surgeon Tadeusz Orzeszko.
Many Holocaust memoirs speed up at the end, stopping at liberation and alluding only vaguely to the difficulties that came afterward. But Eisen describes at length his experience on one of the notorious Death Marches in the freezing winter of 1945, and his long odyssey through a series of work and displaced persons camps in Austria, his journey home to Slovakia, and the events leading to his emigration to Canada in 1949. Eisen is an appealing character; I was moved by and engrossed in his book. (And it has great maps—something most Holocaust texts lack.)
Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) More about Filth and friends, this time focusing on Filth’s wife, Betty. On Twitter, Teresa suggested that the second and third volumes are good but not quite as good as the first, and I agree. But Gardam has a nice line in revelation, managing to keep surprising us without seeming manipulative.
Jane Gardam, Last Friends (2013) In some ways, the slightest of the trilogy, but Gardam has tricks up her sleeve even here. Here she focuses on Filth’s rival and Betty’s lover Edward Veneering, whose upbringing is, as the publisher rightly says, as Dickensian as his name. But two minor characters from the other volumes end up stealing the show: the trilogy ends with on a ramshackle but joyous note. Gardam knows what she’s about, and I’m curious to try some of her other stuff.
Tara Westover, Educated (2018) I confess that when I saw this on several best-of lists last year my not-so-secret-inner-snob thought, “Not for me.” But a couple of colleagues recommended it, and when I was looking for a new audiobook there it was on the New Shelf. And now I’m so glad I got over myself. By now probably everyone knows the deal: Westover grew up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Like most of her six siblings, real didn’t go to school. Now way was she going to succumb to the godless socialism of the Government. Westover wasn’t immunized, visit doctors (charlatans all, at best, according to her father), own a birth certificate, or participate in any of the milestones of middle-class American life.
Instead she spent her childhood working in her father’s junkyard and, later, on his crew building barns. Dangerous work. One of the many extraordinary things in this book is its description of bodily harm. Westover herself narrowly escapes falling into a crusher. One of her brothers burns his legs terribly, and her father nearly dies (suffering permanent disfiguration) from burns suffered while preparing a car for the crusher. (He’s removing the gas tank with a welding torch but he’s forgotten to drain it.) Another brother falls off a roof on to his head and later smashes it again in a motorcycle accident. Her mother suffers a traumatic head injury in a car crash. Westover is regularly abused, even tortured by one of her brothers, who bends her wrists until they threaten (and once, actually do) snap. I winced many times while listening to the book. I was struck by Westover’s depiction of the head as the vital part of the human being: the damage to the brain is juxtaposed to the development of the mind.
In some ways the arc of the book is conventional: Westover escapes her upbringing and thrives; she seems to be amazingly good at almost everything she tries, from musical theater to writing a dissertation; after getting into BYU by scoring well on the ACT, she attends Cambridge on a Gates Fellowship (insanely hard to get) and scores a fellowship to Harvard. Yet in other ways, she is permanently damaged by her upbringing: unable to accept help, ungrateful to the people who go out of their way to help her, terrified of being ostracized by her family to the point of being willing to recant what she knows to be true. She is abused in so many ways. Yet she never makes fun of her family. I wasn’t left thinking, Wow, what a bunch of nuts. Westover’s mother, in particular, is a compelling, complicated, even tragic figure, at once highly competent (she is a midwife and herbalist who grows her kitchen business into a million-dollar concern) and terribly deluded about the abuse perpetrated in the family.
As a teacher, I was struck by how relatively little time Westover spends talking about the kind of learning that goes on in and around a classroom. Which suggests how many different ways to learn there are. And Educated was a salutary reminder that we don’t know and shouldn’t take for granted what our students have experienced before they come to us. It would be interesting to compare Educated to Rousseau and Mill’s autobiographies (Westover ends up specializing in social thinkers like Locke, Mill, Smith, and Bentham, so she is undoubtedly referencing those texts in ways I missed).
One scene in particular I’ll want to come back to. (Almost every piece on the book seems to refer to it: I want to think more about why.) In her first semester at college, Westover takes an Art History class. She sees an unfamiliar word in the textbook and raises her hand to ask about it. The room falls silent. The Professor winces and cuttingly says, “Well, thanks for that.” The girl who sat next to her, with whom she has struck a tentative friendship, berates her at the end of class: “Some things you don’t joke about.” No one in the class speaks to her again. At the end of the period she runs to the library and searches for this mysterious word: Holocaust.
Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (2019) (a.k.a. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons) The US title isn’t a patch on the UK original, a much better reflection of this slow-burning memoir centered on the author’s mother, who was taken from a Lincolnshire beach in 1929 before being returned to her adopted parents five days later, unharmed. (Though there is plenty of harm in this story.) At first, I wasn’t sure how much it was working for me. (Reading it right after Educated was probably unwise: the former so brash, the latter so muted.) But the more I read, the more I appreciated, and by the end, which is amazing, I was well under its spell. Cumming is an art critic (her book on Velasquez awaits me on the library hold shelf) and she folds interpretations of various images into the story of her mother to surprisingly good effect. She’s a brilliant close reader: the book particularly comes alive when she considers family photographs. And she’s just really smart. I’ll close with a few choice quotes:
- What is my mother’s own true nature, and what is the life she has been dealt, the tide of daily events that knocked her back and forth, that she swims in, or tries to swim in?
- In the great democracy of family albums we all have photographs upon which, disastrously, nothing is written. Identities drift in a sea of unknowing. We have no idea who they were, these people smiling, frowning, or resisting the camera’s tyrannical hold. Each may be somebody, or nobody, of importance to the past or future story.
- The lives of even quite recent generations might almost disappear from our understanding if we did not think of their aspirations.
- Home is where nobody ever says anything by way of explanation about loss, death, or tragedy; where it is possible for George and Veda [her mother’s parents] to explain nothing about anything, for a whole childhood to pass, with all its racing school weeks and Sunday longeurs, its endless summer holidays and cyclical autumns, without anyone ever telling her anything—for the secret of her own origins to be kept entirely from her. The catastrophe is happening and everyone is looking away.
There you have it, another month gone. Of the books new to me, the Gardams were satisfying, but a trio of memoirs, by Eisen, Westover, and Cumming, carried the day.