Ten From My Shelves

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!]

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

A Year in Reading, 2014

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.

Nathan Englander

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.

Miscellany (2)

Catching up on some recent reading:

The Singing Sands – Josephine Tey (1953)

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.