Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Martin Schneider, a freelance copyeditor (of books!) who lives in Cleveland, tweets at @wovenstrap, and used to write for Dangerous Minds. He’s part-Austrian and can occasionally can be found in that country.
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).
The global pandemic has been very good for my reading life.
I’ve read novels my entire adult life but the raw totals in any given year might not have been very high, maybe 30 per year. When COVID-19 arrived, I had an empty work patch in my freelance schedule and I responded by attempting to read one novel per day for 30 days (!) as a way of distracting myself from the fact that I might have a hard time finding freelance work. I made it to Day 19 but some work came in, thank god, and I didn’t get to Day 30. That stretch sparked a period of high novel consumption: I read 72 novels in 2020 and 70 novels in 2021. Those are very high totals for me.
I’m grateful for the particular cluster on Twitter that orbits around Caustic Cover Critic and Damian Kelleher and of course Dorian for improving my general experience on Twitter as well as giving me inspiration for new books and a community of like-minded people, etc. I should also say a word about the Backlisted podcast as additional inspiration (obviously that also overlaps with Twitter in some ways). I appreciate the monthly bookstack photographs and other visual ephemera that Book Twitter is always providing me with.
I’m a volume whore, by which I mean I favor reading short novels so that the raw book count stays as high as possible and I don’t get stuck for a month reading Moby-Dick or whatever. [Ed. — Ah, but what a month it would be!] 275 pages already begins to seem a high total to me, my sweet spot is about 191. ABC, always be churning. [Ed. – Hahaha!]
It goes without saying that 2021 was a very good reading year for me, cycling through 70 books in a calendar year is pretty close to an ideal way for me to spend my free time.
OK, here are about 20 books I wanted to say something about, listed in chronological order except where books are joined.
Michaela Roessner, Vanishing Point
The first read of the year for me, and one of the year’s finest. Vanishing Point is hard to track down but this exemplar of heady, sinuous ’80s sci-fi is worthwhile for those who like that kind of thing. The setup has much in common with Tom Perrotta’s The Leftovers — it also came first — which most likely is what drew me to seek it out. I don’t want to divulge too much about it, but I greatly enjoyed this intelligent, immersive book, and I think about it often.
Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair
I’ve never been much enamored of The Daughter of Time, which has always seemed implausible and overbaked. This left me unprepared for the astonishing authorial control of The Franchise Affair. I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a better representation of midcentury England than this book; the sheer exuberance of the jolly/obliging/diffident/snappish voices — literally, speaking voices — is tough to top. What’s the cricket equivalent of “a home run”? [Ed. – Knocked it out of the oval here, my friend: such a good book.]
Gilbert Adair, Love and Death on Long Island
Quite simply, my #1 read of 2021. I adore thinking about this book. Every page is a treat. I would urge those who like their fiction subtle and incisive to consume this immediately. Adair’s performance — and it is definitely a performance — feels thoroughly under-heralded. I had seen bits of the movie years ago and had always found the central predicament original and delicious and rich. Who can fail to relate to the sorrows/joys of being a bookish hideaway in a world that produces, almost unthinkingly, Hotpants College II?? [Ed. – Admittedly, not a patch on Hotpants I.] The ways Giles and Ronnie fail to comprehend each other are a wellspring of comedy that will never stop nourishing me. I never reread books but will likely return to this “jewel-like” 1930s-type book set in the age of the vulgar teenage sex farce (rented from the local video shop, natch); those 1980s details are decisively additive, at least for me. I sorely crave books like this but alas, strong comps are surely thin on the ground…… [Ed. – Ooh, a challenge: do your best, Team. Whatcha got for Martin?]
Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad
I am a fan of Whitehead’s, but I was disappointed by The Underground Railroad. It seems unusually weak for a Pulitzer winner (then again, there is The Goldfinch, oof). I appreciated the comparative tour of antebellum contexts, but the failure to develop the literalized choo-choos nagged at me. Does that metaphor explain anything to anybody? I can’t see how. It’s such a great idea but also a massive missed opportunity. This is the rare case of a book that needs another 200 pages, I think. I also worry that Whitehead has bought into the hype surrounding him. Give me another John Henry Days, man — please!
C.S. Forester, The African Queen
In 2020 I read The Good Shepherd and found it utterly compelling. Then dang if the same thing didn’t happen all over again with The African Queen. I am a little leery of the Hornblower books — I prefer the 20th century, thanks — but Forester’s way of imparting information really does it for me.
Patricia Lockwood, No One Is Talking About This
Jonathan Lethem, The Arrest
No One Is Talking About This is a relatively celebrated recent novel that I cluster together with the works of Jenny Offill and Rachel Khong, and not in a positive way. I think of all of these books as jammed with clever, postmodern witticisms/jokes that you could rearrange in any order and it wouldn’t make much difference to the narrative. That’s a little unfair to No One Is Talking About This, which Lockwood does take pains to instill with an Act I/Act II structure, but I still found it a complete failure in terms of ordinary novel-building. Meanwhile, Lethem is not much in fashion lately, especially after The Feral Detective, which did not work. I suspect there was scant interest in his stab at Post-Apocalypse, but I still found The Arrest as intelligent, engaging, and sharp as much of his stuff — I admire Chronic City particularly. His books don’t always hang together, but on the paragraph and thematic levels, Lethem seems to me the equal of anyone out there right now and, as such, under-appreciated.
Margaret Drabble, The Millstone
Oh, boy. I was more than a little surprised how conventional and bourgeois (and therefore tiresome) I found this book, which in 1965 represented such a brave “new” perspective — or did it? From the perspective of 2021 it reads as so much more aligned to Drabble’s (presumably) hated predecessors than to us. To the reader of today, I submit, so many of Rosamund’s choices are unintelligible, particularly that of concealing the existence of her child from her parents. Rosamund’s whole setup (enormous apartment, rent-free) is so contrived and refuses to serve as the societal basis for anything (as I think was intended or at least was regarded). Jerusalem the Golden, a humble tale of growth about a woman from humble origins I read and esteemed decades ago, seems the antithesis of this. Drabble really leans into her privilege here, thus undoing the point. Next! [Ed. – *popcorn gif *]
Quentin Tarantino, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
The last few years I have found myself increasingly disenchanted with the MFA-influenced “well-crafted” masterpieces that dominate (say) the Tournament of Books. The writing is frequently too tidy and pristine and there’s too much overlap/groupthink in the authors. In my mind, these books are not composed by individuals; too many of the nasty, idiosyncratic details have been sanded off. An antidote to this is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, far from a great book but I found its termite-ish perambulations entirely refreshing and (am I crazy for believing this?) an explicit callback to the shaggy-dog ways of Dickens. I do suspect that Tarantino thought of this “novelization” (a favorite form of his) as an attack on all the bloodless hifalutin volumes that get adopted by reading groups. I’m ready to sign on to this agenda; modern fiction could surely stand to ingest the unkempt, untoward essence of this book.
Elena Ferrante, The Lost Daughter
I admire the guts it took to be so unflinching about the unvirtuous aspects of shirked motherhood. The Lost Daughter dares you to dislike its protagonist, which I did not — or not very much; Ferrante works in the class signifiers to make her readers side with her heroine over the swinish, unreaderly family that intrudes on her interlude — and then forces those same readers to think about that. It’s encouraging that a writer of Ferrante’s gifts has found such widespread success.
Susanna Clarke, Piranesi
Everybody’s favorite recent puzzle box, it seems. The first half of this book constituted one of the reading high points of the year for me. Nothing wrong with the second half, to be sure, but you just can’t top the sheer blazing WTF “where is this going?” quality of this book’s setup. [Ed. – Yeah, can’t argue with that.] As with Love and Death on Long Island, I desperately want to find books with this vibe, but I doubt that any are out there (I did think of David Mitchell’s Slade House, however).
Joseph Hansen, Fadeout
One of my top reads of 2021. I learn from the internet that Hansen was a pioneer of the gay detective novel. This book introduced Dave Brandstetter, Hansen’s recurring hero of a dozen or so mysteries. The gay angle functions as the lever that furnishes Hansen’s situation/solution with complexity, but it wasn’t just that; Hansen also had the ability and the interest to write textured, complex thrillers. That’s the kind of shit I live for! This was published in 1970, but I thought it stood up dazzlingly well today.
Percival Everett, Cutting Lisa
This somehow pairs with The Lost Daughter in the author seeking out, nay, embracing unpleasantness to spectacular effect. This was on my shortlist of reading experiences for the year, a strikingly original work that forthrightly countenanced negativity while resisting the impulse to pin everything on a villain. Every character has corners; every situation is layered. My first Everett, Cutting Lisa has a chewiness I associate with the finest output of the 80s, and I can’t wait to read more by him.
William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow
Katherine Anne Porter, Noon Wine
So Long, See You Tomorrow is one of those “writerly” novellas that hit me entirely the wrong way. Maxwell was a smalltown escapee who later found tenure at The New Yorker and thereby invested himself of the power to imbue these “simple midwestern people” (yuck) with meaning. If ever a narrative should have dispensed with the pretentious framing device of the events filtered through the memories of a child, it’s this one. I guess I can see why people admire this book, but for me it was just a succession of false notes. [Ed. – Ooh, fighting words!] Noon Wine reveals the falsity of Maxwell’s methods; another short novel — Porter, it seems, detested the term novella — but in this case authentically empathetic towards its figures, in contrast to Maxwell’s self-serving projections/lies. Noon Wine has the guts to put real people on the page — and real stakes.
William Lindsay Gresham, Nightmare Alley
One of the much-mentioned texts of 2021, due to the Guillermo del Toro adaptation that landed late in the year. Later on, I found it significant that Gresham is not celebrated for any other work. This book is certainly adept and not devoid of virtues, but I found it labored and tiresome, every point underlined in every paragraph, nothing allowed to breathe, as a real novelist would do it. I resorted to a new strategy: just grind through 10 pages per day until done, just to get it behind me (while starting a different novel, I seldom double dip). I should go back and finish Geek Love as an antidote (not that Dunn let things breathe, either).
Louise Erdrich, The Sentence
Simply put, I cannot think of another novel as generous-minded as this.
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.
I stole this idea from someone on Twitter, but now I can’t remember from whom. Let me know if it was you so that I can credit you! [Note: It was Simon from Stuck in a Book. Thanks, Simon!]
Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation
In my early to mid-twenties I was deeply infatuated with Sontag. Still am, really. I thrilled to her erudition—she’d read everything—and her elegant prose. Essays like hers are still the kind of writing I most admire. The title essay impressed me most of all, especially its famous, hortatory, gnomic last line: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”
Laurie Colwin, Family Happiness
Another favourite from my twenties. I read all of Colwin’s books the summer between my Junior and Senior year; I was working as a bookseller then, and I hand-sold a ton of them. A few years ago I found this lovely hardcover at a library sale. I was a bit worried about re-reading it—would it hold up?—but I needn’t have. Not only was it as bittersweet as it had been then, but now I could see what at the time I couldn’t: I thought the book was about New Yorkers but it was really about (thoroughly assimilated) Jews. At the time I’d never have imagined that twenty years later I too would be Jewish, but I like to think my philo-Semitism was unconsciously at work. Colwin is so funny, but also so sad.
David Bezmozgis, The Free World
Speaking of Jewishness, I’ve loved each of Bezmozgis’s three books, but I think this one might be the best. It’s about the Soviet Jews who were allowed to emigrate in the 1970s. Three generations of the Krasnansky family (like Bezmozgis, Latvian Jews) wait in Italy for visas to come through from Canada, the US, Australia, anywhere that will take them. Rather than focusing on the young children—that is, the characters who would have been the same age as he was when his family left the USSR for Canada—Bezmozgis focuses on their parents and grandparents. We see what the Soviet Union meant to each of them and how differently they experience even this tentative experience of the ironically named Free World. Smart, funny, no schmaltz.
Anthony Trollope, The Warden
I read this in college and liked it well enough but I think I’d appreciate it a lot more now. Might have been a bit too subtle for me back then. I really want to tackle Trollope soon and the Barsetshire novels seem like a good place to begin.
Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy
Three wonderful novels, pretty closely based on Manning’s own experiences, about a British couple in Romania and Greece before and during WWII. The scenes of denuded, starving Athens haunt me still. Yaki is one of the great characters in 20th century literature.
Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past
Do you have writers you’re convinced you love but have never actually read? Probably you are less crazy than I am. But I have at least five or six books by Compton-Burnett around here and haven’t read a one.
Here’s what the publishers say about this one:
Nine years after her divorce from Cassius Clare, Catherine re-enters his life in order to re-establish contact with her children. Her arrival causes a dramatic upheaval in the Clare family, and its implications are analyzed and redefined not only in the drawing room but also in the children’s nursery and the servants’ quarters.
(Sounds like Henry Green!) Anyway, odd, uncanny women 20th Century British writers (Comyns, Rhys, Bowen, etc) are my thing, so I really ought to get around to reading Compton-Burnett soon.
J. G. Farrell, Troubles
A great, great novel set during the Anglo-Irish war and featuring an English Major, Brendan Archer, who comes to Ireland to claim a bride he can’t quite remember proposing to. Angela Spencer is the eldest daughter of an Anglo-Irish family who lives with her family in a once glorious seaside hotel called, no longer quite appropriately, the Majestic. At once funny and macabre, Troubles sets itself the task of trying to figure out how to represent decline. I had a lot to say about this terrific, engrossing book here.
Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot
First in the Urban Fantasy Rivers of London series. Peter Grant is a rookie cop who can speak to the dead and stumbles into a little-known unit of the Met that deals with magic and the uncanny. Perfect light reading.
Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair
My favourite Tey (though admittedly I have rationed them and kept a couple in reserve), an unsettling novel about a woman and her mother who are accused by a fifteen-year old schoolgirl of having locked her up in their attic for a month. Have they been falsely accused? If so, how will they be acquitted when all evidence points toward their guilt? Can justice be done without prejudice? Unconventional, suspenseful, and thought provoking.
Giorgio Bassani, The Heron
Regular readers know that together with some fellow bloggers, I recently read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This, Bassani’s last novel, is the newest addition to my library. I started reading the first page just now and it was all I could do to stop. Elegant mournfulness really does it for me.
There you have it, ten books plucked from the many thousands in this too-small house. Do you have thoughts about any of them? Let me know if you’re inspired to share some from your shelves.
Late on this, I know, but here are a few thoughts on my 2014 Year in Reading.
Thanks largely to my sabbatical I read a lot last year (96 books). Included in that list were many books that I liked, some that I liked a lot. But I’m left with the impression that it was a more muted year than the previous one. The spread between the best and the worst wasn’t as big. But I didn’t read as many indelible books, especially compared to 2013. Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, the last volume of Proust. Hilary Mantel—hard to compete with those.
But I read a number of good things. And although you wouldn’t know it from this list I made an effort to read more nonfiction this year. I especially liked Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Shavit’s My Promised Land, and Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, which I wrote about here.
David Bezmozgis—The Free World & The Betrayers
These were my books of the year, and I regret not making the time to write about them.
Part of the reason I didn’t is that Adam Kirsch has already said everything that needs to be said about them. He argues that Bezmozgis is a striking outlier in the current wave of literature being produced by the children of the Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate in the 1970s and 80s. Like Bezmozgis, many of these writers were born in the USSR but came to the US—or, in Bezmozgis’s case, Canada—as young children. But unlike them he is at least as interested in what the émigrés left behind in the old world as what they found in the new. The Free World is a beautiful, funny, and smart novel about one extended family’s experience leaving Latvia for the West. The title refers, of course, to America and its promises. But it also refers to the aimless freedom of Rome and its environs, where the family, along with dozens of other Soviet Jews, await visas to their final destination. As Kirsch points out, Bezmozgis doesn’t concentrate on the experiences of a child, that is, of someone close to the age he would been when he left the USSR. (He already did that in his first book, the wonderful linked story collection Natasha.) Instead, he focuses on his parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and the conflict between them as they negotiate a strange new world. Most impressive is Bezmozgis’s sympathetic portrait of Samuil Krasnansky, a true Communist and Soviet patriot to the end. As Kirsch says, Bezmozgis reminds us of a whole category of people and way of life that many readers would prefer to forget: “the generation of Jewish Communists who ardently believed that the Soviet Union was forging a path to Jewish and human liberation.”
Samuil’s past is told so vividly that we can’t help but contrast it to the more petty and aimless story of his sons, trying to provide, in however quasi-legal or illegal fashion, for their families in this Italian interregnum. Yet Bezmozgis isn’t nostalgic: his point isn’t that the past is better but that it has a value that shouldn’t be forgotten even when it has been apparently inevitably superseded.
At one point in The Free World a character recalls an absurd detail from the Sharansky trial. What is background material in the first novel–a sign of the larger political moment Bezmozgis is interested in–takes center stage in the second. Natan Sharansky is the obvious model for Baruch Kotler in The Betrayers. Sharansky—the most famous of the refuseniks–spent more than a decade in Soviet prison camps on trumped up charges while his wife campaigned publically and continuously for his release. When this was finally granted, in 1986, he moved to Israel and became an influential politician. Kotler’s life maps on to Sharansky’s in almost every detail, except that Sharkansky’s personal life remained above reproach, unlike Kotler’s. At the beginning of The Betrayers, he has arrived in Yalta, his boyhood home, with the young woman with whom he is having a suddenly very public affair. By a coincidence so bald and overt that the novel spends a lot of time thinking about its baldness and overtness, he ends up staying in the only room available in the city in high season, in the home of the man who all those years ago denounced him to the KGB. (As you can see, pretty much everyone in the book could be described by the title.) Tankilevich, the informer, is presented as sympathetically as Kotler, and the hardship of Jewish life in Crimea (only exacerbated by the events that happened between the time the book was written and published) is movingly presented. Kotler’s principled response to an imagined Israeli pullout from the West Bank, especially in relation to his reservist son’s very different, yet equally principled take, is also fascinating. My only wish is that the book had more time for its female characters. But the novel seeks to understand everyone, which is one of the reasons it complicates its talky, schematic structure. My sense from casual online browsing is that many find this structure a liability. But for me it shows again that Bezmozgis is the smartest and most surprising young (North) American Jewish writer today.
Josephine Tey—The Franchise Affair
This was one of the first books I read last year and it stayed with me to the end. Strange and unsettling, The Franchise Affair is about an unambitious lawyer in the English countryside who finds himself defending a mother and daughter against accusations that they kidnapped and abused a fifteen-year-old girl. The suspense of whether the couple is guilty is handled superbly, but what makes the book really interesting is its grim suggestion that aggression and vindictiveness lurk inside everybody, just waiting to come out. This philosophy really messes with our reading experience: just who are we supposed to sympathize with? As in all of Tey’s books, the expected romance founders, but her dispatching of the idea here is even more determined than usual. That failure is offered as yet another example of people’s inability to read each other. See Rohan Maitzen’s intelligent review for more about this terrific book.
Caleb Crain—Necessary Errors
Necessary Errors will always have a soft spot in my heart because it’s the first book I blogged about. But I also love it because it’s so smart and rueful and moving. A much better than average novels of innocents abroad. I can’t wait to see what Crain will write next.
Roz Chast—Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
Everybody says this about this book, but it’s true: reading it, you will both laugh out loud and feel very, very sad. Of course I’ve always loved Chast’s cartoons—what self-respecting neurotic person doesn’t? But this memoir of her parents’ very old age had a depth and power that surprised me. Made me think about all the conversations neither my parents nor I want to have.
Three Books by Tove Jansson
2014 was Tove Jansson’s centennial and the least I could do was read some of her books. I dispatched The Summer Book, The True Deceiver and Fair Play in the space of a week: they’re wonderful and wonderfully short. They pack a big punch, too. I want to read them again; I’ve a hunch they’ll only get better. (Surely there’s some class I can shoehorn them into?) I wanted to write about them, to force myself to articulate what makes them so great. But I never did. It didn’t help that the week I read them was the week before the semester started. Something else stopped me, too, though. I think it was my sense that they are more complicated than they seem and that delving into them would be a real project. For now, I’ll just say a few obvious things: they are marvelous books about Northern weather and the way it makes you feel—how summer up north makes you feel indomitable and reckless, coated in endless light, how winter makes you feel shriveled and curt, menacing in a different way; they are marvelous books about taking a break from ordinary life; they are marvelous books about friendship, how hard it is to attain and how much it can mean when you do; and above all they are marvelous books about artistic/intellectual work. In this regard, Fair Play is the pick of the litter, even though it was the one I liked least for most of my reading experience it. (An excursion to America seemed particularly infelicitous.) But the ending is so moving and lovely, you forgive everything and realize you’d been wrong in finding parts of it lame and clunky, on the contrary everything was just right.
Penelope Fitzgerald—The Bookshop
Another book I wanted to write more about and didn’t. Early Fitzgerald, but classic, the story simple to the point of nonexistent. A middle-aged woman decides to open a bookshop in a windy, damp Norfolk town in the late 1950s. It doesn’t work out. The Bookshop is devastating, mostly because Fitzgerald calmly underplays everything. We feel so sad at the end because the world didn’t end. Thinking about it now, I see surprising similarities to The Franchise Affair: both novels have a dark vision of English provincialism. Fitzgerald is funnier than Tey, though. Fitzgerald is always funny, in a desperate, almost daft English way. At long last, a book about books that doesn’t think books will save the world.
Sarah Kofman—Rue Ordener, Rue Labat
Last summer I wrote about re-reading this in preparation for a new course. I was surprised how my students took to the book—their energy and insights made me appreciate it even more. Professional bias, I know, but I still think teaching a book is the best test of its value.
Karl Ove Knausgaard—My Struggle (Books1 &2)
I don’t care what Stevereads says. This book, whether novel or memoir or whatever it is, is fascinating. Will it stand the test of time? Who knows? Not much does. But it stayed with me all of the past year, especially the first volume, especially those indelible scenes in which the narrator & his brother muck the filth out of their alcoholic father’s house.
This was a special part of my 2014 reading, because I got to hang out with the author for a few days this fall, and he’s totally hilarious and a total mensch. I like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges best as a collection, but think there are individual stories the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank that are stronger (“Free Fruit for Young Widows” is amazing). The Ministry of Special Cases felt like an inspired misfire, but I gather the next novel will be set in Israel and I can’t wait.
Peter Higgins—Wolfhound Century & Truth and Fear
Another winning recommendation from Jenny Davidson. These were my favourite light reading this year. Is this steampunk? I think so. It’s an alternate history of 20th century Russia, it’s crime fiction and fantasy, it’s a totally compelling and carefully imagined world that owes so much to so many wonderful books. Look, for example, at this totally cool and endearing list of “books that shuffled and groaned and whispered on the shelves while Wolfhound Century was being written.” The sequel was just as wonderful and I await the third impatiently.
I think the book that has stayed with me most so far this year is Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948), which I read just before starting this blog and about which I can say nothing as interesting as Rohan does. I’d read a couple of Tey’s earlier books before, and they’re pretty vivid, too: a mouth-watering breakfast scene from A Shilling for Candles (1936) has stayed with me for years. The other night, needing a break from a long Kafka biography I’m making my way through, I picked this, Tey’s final novel, off my shelf and sank into it with relief.
Tey became a better plotter over the years (her first book, The Main in the Queue (1929) is a notorious failure in that regard) but plots aren’t really her thing. Solving the mystery isn’t what this book is about. What we get instead is an interesting (and ever-more pertinent) portrayal of a psychological infirmity that afflicts her protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant, specifically a pretty debilitating case of claustrophobia caused from overwork. Interestingly, that very same work, his desire to solve crimes, is paradoxically shown to be the most enlivening part of his life.
Grant, on forced sick leave, takes the night mail to Scotland to recuperate with friends. Leaving the train he finds a dead body and even though the case is nothing to him, and in fact not even a case, since it is ruled an accidental death, he can’t stop thinking about it. The time in Scotland, especially on a side-trip to the Hebrides where the wind scrapes some of his tension away, is indeed restorative, and there is even the possibility of a romance, which the novel surprisingly does away with, by having Grant return a week early from his leave to complete the investigation on his own. The ending feels rushed, not quite a part of the rest of the book, but I can’t help but feel that the artificiality of the conclusion is a comment about the cost, however necessary, of seeking to impose order on the world. It’s as if Tey were saying: all right, then, I’ll resolve this plot for you, but not the other.
Tey writes thrillingly of “the uncanny feeling that is born of unlimited space, the feeling of human diminution,” as she puts it, and evokes the pleasures of the Scottish countryside without being cloying or patronizing.
The Singing Sands left me sad that Tey wrote so few books, curious to think more carefully about her work, particularly her politics, and eager to read the rest of her books.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Laurie R. King (1994)
Strikingly good Holmes pastiche, in which Holmes, in apiary retirement on the Sussex Downs, meets Mary Russell, a teenage, orphaned heiress and, more importantly, genius that he trains to be his apprentice and eventually partner. I appreciated the structure of the book, which takes its time, passing through an early episodic phase before reaching the main story line, which itself is split into two substantial parts (with, in between, a fascinating excursus to Palestine in the early years of the Mandate). Holmes really is the character that keeps on giving, and King handles him with aplomb. Russell’s wonderful, too. Is the rest of the series as good? I plan to find out.
Natural Causes – James Owald (2013)
Reasonably competent but utterly forgettable Scottish procedural. Inevitable Rankin comparisons do Oswald no favours. Though, true, even Rankin started small. It’s Oswald’s first book. Maybe the others are better. But I don’t much care to find out.
Transit – Anna Seghers (1951, English translation Margot Bettauer Dembo, 2013)
I read this as background material for something else I’m working on, and because I never need an excuse to see what the NYRB Classics people have been up to. Without having looked at the original, I can say that the translation seems excellent, and I note it’s been shortlisted for one or two awards recently. I must admit, though, that I was a lot more excited about this book before I read it than after.
Seghers brilliantly portrays the nightmarish bureaucratic snare that refugees from Hitler faced in leaving Europe, the whole series of exit, transit, and entrance visas that had to be obtained from largely indifferent foreign consulates, in the right order, always at the risk that one of them would expire before the next could be processed. (The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem have copies of the flow chart prepared by Adolf Eichmann depicting the stages Jews needed to pass through before they could leave Germany in the 1930s, stripped of assets and dignity—assuming of course that they could find somewhere that would take them. It’s chilling in its meticulousness, like some demonic school project.) And she vividly conveys the atmosphere of louche desperation that characterizes the exiled masses in Marseilles. Their lives are so different than the everyday ones of the locals, who are partly contemptuous, partly ignorant, and partly amused by them.
But I became impatient with the existentialist philosophy that underpins the novel, the various references to suicide, the acte gratuit, the tension between fate and will, etc. And I didn’t care for the irritating love affair, if that’s the right word, that the narrator has for a woman who ceaselessly awaits the arrival in Marseilles of her husband, a well-known writer who, unbeknownst to her, has committed suicide in Paris and been reincarnated in the person of none other than the narrator, who happened to find the body and took his papers. Part of my frustration might be with the narrator’s inaction, his apparent will to abandonment. And yet one of my very favourite writers is Jean Rhys, whose books are filled with characters that cannot and will not act.
Whatever the reason, Transit left a bad taste in my mouth.
Seghers’s own story seems fascinating—she made her way from Marseilles to Mexico on a ship that also carried Victor Serge, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Andre Breton—and I’m curious about her other work, particularly the one she set in Mexico, Excursion of the Dead Girls. But my experience of Transit was such that I’m in no hurry to hunt it down.
Ice Moon – Jan Costin Wagner (2003, English translation John Brownjohn, 2005)
Risible German police procedural set in Finland. The protagonist’s wife dies of a long illness in the first pages, and the description of survivor’s grief is the most interesting part of the book. Far less interesting is the actual investigation, and the book seems hardly interested in its purported genre.
Annihilation (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) – Jeff Vendermeer (2014)
I used to read a lot of science fiction. But that was a long time ago and I seem to have lost the trick of it. I thought I should expand my genre horizons and see what’s new. I’ve no idea where Vandermeer fits into things (I came across the title in a Facebook thread on good books for long train rides), and I’m hoping others can point me in better directions. I finished the book, but only by gritting my teeth. (And it’s barely 200 pages.)
Annihilation is about an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a borderland area that’s encroaching upon civilization and which previous expeditions have failed to return from. The narrator is the group’s biologist; she is quickly its only surviving member. I think the book is about sentience and language, maybe about what it means to resist authority. But I don’t really know. I thought the mystery element—what the hell’s going on in Area X? what happened to the other expeditions?—would help me return to the genre. But maybe that’s exactly the problem. Maybe it’s neither fish nor fowl genre wise. I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. But I want to read more science fiction. Can anyone help me decide what to read next?
Purgatory – Ken Bruen (2013)
Latest Jack Taylor novel. These are worth reading, especially the early ones. This one is perhaps somewhat less dark than previous iterations—though I’m not sure there is a darker series than this one—but Bruen’s signature style, the almost demented aping of speech rhythms in the prose, has become mannered to the point of near parody. I always enjoy Bruen’s shout outs to other crime fiction, though.
Jack of Spies — David Downing (2014)
New series for Downing (after the brilliant Jack Russell books), this one set before around the time of WWI. I really like Downing. His history lessons—for example, about the Kiautschou Bay Concession (German leased territory from 1898-1914 in China), where the book begins before making it’s way across the Pacific to the US and eventually across the Atlantic to the UK—never feel gratuitous, clunky, or potted. I’m already keen for the next book.
Two Books by Jo Walton
Hope to write a separate post about these—partly because I want to share how much I like them and partly because I wonder how they complicate what I’ve said about my experience with science fiction above: are they in fact even science fiction?—but for now, this is just a note to say that Among Others and My Real Children are really worth your time, especially the latter.