2019 Year in Reading

Looking back, I see that January to June was much better to me than July to December. I read all but one of the nine books that meant the most to me in 2019 in the first half of the year. It could be they’ve had the longest to marinate. It could be I was more tired, distracted, and at times distraught in the second half of the year (I was). It could just be the luck of the Book Gods.

Whatever the reason, I’ve a better record of my reading than ever before because 2019 was the year I started to write monthly reflection pieces. To my own surprise, I was able to keep this strategy up, which means I wrote at least a sentence or two about everything I read this year. Links to the monthly roundups are at the end of this post. If you want to know more about any of the texts I reference below you can always search by author. If you want to see previous year-end reviews, you can find them here: 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 & 2018.

For those who like that kind of thing, a few stats: I read 136 books in 2019. 74 (54%) were by women; 62 (46%) were by men. 104 (76%) were originally written in English; 32 (24%) were translated. 16 were audiobooks. 7 were re-reads. (I include books I re-read for teaching in my list only if I re-read the whole thing, not if I dip into, skim, or speed re-read it.)

And now some thoughts on the books that made a particular impression on me, for good or ill.

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Best of the Bunch

Katherena Vermette, The Break. My Book of the Year. I think about The Break all the time, especially now that I am learning about the violence and injustice perpetrated on Indigenous Canadians, not just in the distant past, but in my own lifetime. I’ve spent my whole life thinking that Canada was a Good Place that has mostly been on the right side of history. It is in ways a good place. But the way its colonial violence (itself inexcusable) continues into the present, the way that violence was happening all around me in my childhood, the way that I was nevertheless able to remain blissfully ignorant—that really gets to me. (I know, I know, “Thanks a lot, privileged White Dude, for all your well-meaning soul-searching.”)

Anyway, I love how Vermette takes my favourite genre, crime fiction, opens it up and turning it inside out, enabling her to write about systemic racism and (sexual) violence while still using fictional conventions (such as strongly developed characters and a keen sense of place) that were developed to propagate ideas of individuality and willpower—ideas that largely shunted the people who experience structural violence to the margins.

I love too that Vermette is able to imagine an affirmative, even joyful ending to her story.

Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall. On first reading I actually wasn’t sure how well this worked, but fortunately I’d been given the chance to write about it for The Mookse & the Gripse, so I read it another couple of times. (It’s really more novella than novel.) And now like everyone else I recognize its brilliance. Timely—it addresses climate change, misogyny, fantasies of national purity—but not didactic. Plausibly harrowing without being a total downer. A book that will last.

Yiyun Li, Where Reasons End. So smart and so sad. Parents in particular might find this tough going. But I also found it joyous. Li isn’t showy, but her style is so compelling.

Virginie Despentes Vernon Subutex I/II. Didn’t think these would be my thing (being into neither pop music nor post 68 radicalism curdled into conservatism), but I fell for them in a big way. I’ll be ordering the third volume from the UK when it’s published there later this year. An indictment of neo-liberalism with the pleasures of a soap opera.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking. Another super-smart book that sneaks up on you. Dramatic events—the women of a Mennonite community in Bolivia find out that for years many of the men they live with have been drugging them at night and raping them—play second fiddle to the attempt to come to a collective response to trauma. The genius of the book lies in its narration: the largely illiterate women recruit the local schoolteacher, a man who grew up in the community but lived apart from it for years, to record their deliberations. Toews shows us, however, that every description is also an interpretation (recording isn’t just a neutral act), leading us to wonder how the self-understanding of an oppressed group (and the efforts of those not in that group to understand them) is affected by disparities in privilege.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand. Fascinating and suspenseful story of time-traveler. Postulates that identity is a form of addiction. As in Rule Britannia, her final novel, written just a few years after House, Du Maurier here questions the continuity of Englishness.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (Translated by Thomas Bunstead). Fragmentary essayistic auto-fiction-type thing of the sort I usually admire more than like. But Gainza’s book won me over, particularly her use of ekphrasis to connect representation and political violence.

 Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey. The most joyful book I read last year concerns Marsden’s journey through the Caucasus in the early to middle 1990s, a place that fascinates him as a historical refuge for dissenters and schismatics of all sorts. Marsden is a good traveler, respectful of those he meets and their beliefs. But in the endless battle between idealism (which always curdles, murderously, into ideology) and humble materialism (the struggles and pleasures of surviving everyday life) he’s always on the side of the latter.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends. Thoroughly enjoyable and really funny story of two young women in Dublin, best friends, and the older and much richer married couple they get involved with. Great dialogue. Doesn’t go where you think it will. Lots of darkness at its heart, mostly concerning the narrator’s fraught relationship to her own body.

Other Awards

Best backlist deep dive: I read six novels by Esther Freud, all great. I think I still love her first, Hideous Kinky, best, but the next six were all good, some of them excellent, especially Summer at Gaglow and The Wild. Whether she is writing about the late 19th or early 20th centuries or about the 1970s and 80s, Freud always creates characters who know that they don’t know as much as they need to. She reminds me of Anita Brookner, who is really only now getting her due. Will Freud have to die to achieve similar respect? More pressingly, will she write another novel? (It’s been a while.)

Best ending: Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (Translated by Naomi Lebowitz). The only big 19th century novel I read in 2019 was actually written in the early 20th century. Per is a frustrating, vacillating character (even more than Pantoppidan knew, I think), but what happens to him, the kind of person he becomes, in the book’s final chapters is really moving. Don’t give up on it, is what I’m saying.

Most indelible: Helen Dunmore, The Siege. Literary critics are always saying that books are haunting. But Dunmore’s depiction of the cold and hunger suffered by the people of Leningrad during WWII might actually qualify. Dunmore’s painstaking descriptions are almost physically painful to read, so vivid are they. Turns out, if you boil leather shoes for a really long time you’ll get “broth” with a little nutritional value. Dunmore was a really good writer and I’m glad I have plenty more of her books left to read.

Best portrayal of parenting a small child: Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light. First published in the 1970s, this book is having its moment in the English-speaking world. And deservedly so. I appreciated Tsushima’s willingness to admit that parenting toddlers in particular can be terrible & enraging.

Most important classic in my field that I only just read: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. Browning uses the example of one particular battalion of the Order Police (the Orpo—not members of the SS, but often sent to work alongside them during the eastern campaign) to draw far-reaching conclusions about what makes men do terrible things. Many have found those conclusions too far-reaching, but to me it seems that history offers corroborating examples all the time. Important evidence for challenging the still-prevalent idea that perpetrators must be monsters.

Book that most influenced my teaching: John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities. Music to my ears. I was already a convert to Warner’s way of thinking before reading his book, but he phrases his objections to conventional writing pedagogy so well that I gained lots of new ammunition for my beliefs. More importantly he offers practical ways to break free of old teaching habits. That’s what made this book so important to me. When we challenge students to write about things that matter to them we let them take the first step to realizing that for writing to be good at all, no matter the genre, the writer needs to have a stake in it. Students need to become thinkers. To do so they need to become writers. To be writers they need to be thinkers. We can make this recursive loop productive by teaching writing as a process. Even readers who are not teachers will gain a lot from this book.

Books I forgot about but when I saw them on my list again I thought, Oh yeah, that was really good: Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind; Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Ghochar.

Book Twitter loved it but I didn’t: Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman; Lauren Wilkinson, American Spy, Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl.

Most irritating: Luce D’Eramo, Deviation; John Williams, Stoner (Hello! He rapes her!).

Creepiest: Michelle McNamara, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer (true crime is weird); Georges Simenon, Strangers in the House (finally a Simenon that totally worked for me).

Lousy: Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins; C. J. Tudor, The Chalk Man, Colin Dexter, Last Bus to Woodstock; Günter Ohnemus, The Russian Passenger.

Tawdry (felt gross for being as drawn into it as I was): Adrian McKinty, The Chain

Best comics: James Sturm, Off Season; Gengoroh Tagame, My Brother’s Husband (sweet, gentle).

Best crime: Jane Harper, The Lost Man (sometimes it pays to stick with an author: Harper’s third book a huge leap forward, an indelible story of the outback; would read again); Dervla McTiernan (best new procedurals I read this year); Laura Lippman, The Lady in the Lake (Lippman goes from strength to strength); Steph Cha, Your House Will Pay (can wrongs ever be made right?). Men, step up your crime game!

Reliable pleasure: Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series is my jam: my preferred historical period (about which Kerr has taught me a lot), my preferred tone (ironic, a little despairing). I only have three Bernies left and am feeling sad about it.

Best surprise: Brantley Hargrove, The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras. Would never have read this had it not been assigned me as part of my duties for the Arkansas Literary Festival. Learned a lot about tornadoes—of which I am especially mindful today, as Arkansas sits under a tornado watch—and was gripped by Hargrove’s description of how the best storm chaser of them all lost his life.

Had its moments: Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (a couple of scenes have stayed with me, but it’s a bit self-consciously “literary novel” for me).

Disappointing: Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (fine, but without the magic of its predecessor); Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (The Wall is an all-time fave; this one was ok, but I struggled to finish: too dour, I missed the earlier novel’s joy); James Gregor, Going Dutch (could have been in the lousy category TBH; one great character, but a preposterous view of graduate school); Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (better as an essay).

Best spy novel: Len Deighton, Berlin Game (pleasant surprise—nice take on grimy 70s/80s Berlin, which it avoids romanticizing). Honorable mention: Helen MacInnes, Decision at Delphi (Starts off like Highsmith, turns into Lionel Davidson). Plan to read more of both in 2020.

Light reading discovery: Robert Harris (have listened to three so far, all winners).

Best book nobody’s ever read: Hans Eichner, Kahn & Engelmann.

Best memoirs: Fierce Attachments (not my favourite Gornick, but, hey, it’s Gornick, she’s a genius); Tara Westover, Educated (believe the hype); Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (family history with a surprise ending); Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk (believe the hype II). Men, step up your memoir game!

Best Holocaust books (memoirs): Primo Levi, The Reawakening (a.k.a. The Truce) (didn’t expect a picaresque from Levi, but there you go); Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (more people should take heed of the sentiment expressed in Eisen’s title); Solomon Perel, Europa, Europa (every Holocaust survival story is implausible, but this one might take the cake).

Best Holocaust books (history): David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis. The publisher must have wanted crossover success, but the attempts to narrate from the viewpoint of the historical figures flop; fortunately, they make up a small part of the book, which details the remarkable efforts of Jewish prisoners to rescue sacred and profane texts from the Vilnius ghetto. I started a post on this last summer and really should finish it.

Best Holocaust books (for children): Esther Hautzig, The Endless Steppe; Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (plus Rabbit’s two sequels, which aren’t really for children but are fantastic and really deserve to be in print; we lost a giant, not to mention an amazing human being, when Kerr died last May).

Books I wrote about elsewhere: Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall; Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers; Mihail Sebastian, Women.

Classic that revealed itself to me in a totally new way on re-reading: Joseph Roth, The Radetzky March. Thanks to Caroline and Lizzy for the impetus.

Monthly Review Posts

January, February, March, April, May,  June, July/August, September, October, November, December

Coming in 2020

More of the same, probably. These days, with blogging seemingly on the wane, just keeping the lights on feels like an accomplishment. I think the monthly posts worked well, and I plan to keep them. When it comes down to it, I prefer the deep dive (basically: posts that involve close reading), but that takes a lot of time and effort. At least this way I have some kind of record of my responses.

In the spring, I’ll be reading Henri Bosco’s Malicroix, suggested by its publisher as being perfect for fans of Jean Giono. That made me want to get back together the group who read Giono’s Hill a few years ago. Most everyone is enthusiastic, so look for that in May. I welcome all readers to join us, whether you blog or not. In general, I’m always keen to post pieces by other writers, so if you’re looking for somewhere to share your work hit me up.

One of the pleasures of last year was finding a set of kind and thoughtful German book folks on Twitter. Thanks to them, I may find the courage to start reading more in German in again. I’ll definitely keep reading Holocaust literature; and I’ll definitely keep writing about my teaching.

As to what else I’ll be reading, I suspect I will continue to want to be a person who reads only difficult, demanding, and serious books, but who in fact is someone who reads a few of those and lots of relatively undemanding (but still engaging and valuable) ones. I’ll aim to read more widely, in more genres and from more languages, and I probably won’t. I’ll chip away at the frighteningly large number of unread books filling my little house, and undo that good work with new purchases. (Though I did rein my book-buying in a lot last year.) I’m aiming to be less drawn to new or newly published books and concentrate on older titles. But in the end, as always, I’ll go wherever my fancy takes me.

And thanks to all of you who have read my posts and engaged me in dialogue about them I will continue to write about those readerly peregrinations. I wish you all a good year in these dangerous times. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you for helping to sustain me.

June 2019 in Review

Kid in day camp; working from home; weather more than tolerable for Little Rock summer: June was a pretty big reading month. Some work stuff, but a few other things too, including a satisfying run of Esther Freud novels.

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Dorothy Sayers, Have his Carcase (1932) The opening line kills, and I loved seeing the development of Wimsey and Vane’s relationship, but I do find Sayers a bit frivolous. That’s the point, I get it, I’m just starting to think I’m not the right reader for these books. All the code-breaking stuff went right over my head. I guess I am more for suspense than puzzles. Better as a romance than a crime novel. Rohan’s review is unimprovable.

Peter Gay, My German Question: Growing Up in Nazi Berlin (1998) I owe this recommendation to Alok (@alokranj): a while ago, he wrote up a great thread on memoirs by German historians. Very glad I read this, even if I did find it a bit oh I don’t know withholding maybe. Born Peter Fröhlich in Berlin to assimilated Jewish parents, Gay (the name he took after emigrating to America: frölich means happy or cheerful) went on to become a prominent historian of 19th Century Europe and, in particular, psychoanalysis. I like psychoanalysis much more than the average person, but I wished Gay’s interpretations of his own behaviour wasn’t quite so orthodox. He’s much less interesting than Freud himself (which makes me wonder about his biography of Freud, generally, I believe, considered his masterpiece). Anyway, Gay’s is a fascinating story, and his eventual escape from Germany is hair-raising (the family made it out very late, in 1939, first to Cuba and then to America, thanks to the support of a paternal uncle who lived in Florida). They were booked on the infamous St. Louis (the ship that was not allowed to dock in Havana, that FDR refused to give sanctuary to, and that had to return to Europe), but his father had something like a premonition and found a way to get on an earlier ship. Gay spends a lot of time combating the accusation that German Jews of his milieu should have known better and left earlier (a ridiculous contention, and one that’s largely abated, but hasn’t completely vanished). Anyway, I’m not sure I’m in love with Gay as he presents himself (a little pompous), but I’d have enjoyed this even if I hadn’t been reading it for work.

Esther Freud, Summer at Gaglow (1997) The UK edition is called simply Gaglow, a weirder, better title. Gaglow is a house in Germany  . The first of Freud’s novels with a dual narrative, Gaglow switches between two generations of a family, one around the time of WWI and the other in contemporary London. The protagonist in the present is having her first baby; ostensibly she’s an actress, but she’s not especially committed to it. To make ends meet she sits for her father, a famous painter clearly modelled on Freud’s own father, Lucian. (Freud sat for him in her younger days.) Gaglow is the Bellgards beloved summer home. Or it was: as they are Jewish it was eventually taken from them; in the post-unification present, the house may return to the family. Freud’s themes of belonging and transience are evident here, explored on her widest canvas yet. Very satisfying.

Anthony Horowitz, The Sentence is Death (2018) Clever and amusing, but not as clever and amusing as The Word is Murder.

Esther Freud, The Wild (2000) We’re back in Hideous Kinky/Peerless Flats territory, with more children caught between absent fathers and overwhelmed mothers, with the added interest of complicated blended family dynamics and an amusing portrait of a 1970s Steiner school, where the only subject seems to be Norse mythology. Freud’s up to her classic “this is funny but also you will have your heart in your mouth because surely something terrible is about to happen” shtick. (That’s a compliment.) I don’t think this was ever published in the US, and that’s a damn shame.

David E. Fishman, The Book Smugglers: Partisans, Poets, and the Race to Save Jewish Treasures from the Nazis (2017) A study of the so-called Paper Brigade, a Jewish work commando tasked by the Nazis to sort through the precious manuscripts of Vilna, Lithuania, once known as “the Jerusalem of the North.” The Nazis wanted material for their planned museum of murdered Jewry; they pulped the rest. At great personal risk, members of the Brigade smuggled documents into hiding in the hopes they would survive the war; surprisingly, some did. One of the remarkable people conscripted into this heartbreaking work was Avrom Sutzkever, probably the greatest Yiddish poet of the 20th Century. Although Fishman’s style sometimes grates, the material is fascinating, and gave me some ideas about the comparison of people to written documents that I’ll try to work out in a future post.

María Gainza, Optic Nerve (2014) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2019) What a pleasant surprise! I’ve wanted for some time to become better versed in the recent tidal wave of Spanish-language writing, especially from Central and South America, but haven’t really known where to start. I’ve no idea what Spanish-language literary traditions Gainza fits into, if any (she reminded me of Sebald/Berger/Bernard—autofiction-y writers who are smart about art), but I was completely taken with these quasi essayistic quasi fictional pieces, each of which centers on a painting or sculpture that the Gainza never shows us. A triumph of ekphrasis, then. (And there’s always Google.)

Smart, witty, engaging:

“Not for nothing did it say on my seventh grade report: ‘When she applies herself, she excels. Only she hardly ever applies herself.’”

“It is my view that any artist too dependent on either seeking or presenting new and astonishing experiences will cease to be effective once he or she succeeds in, as it were, apportioning that sense of discovery.”

“I listened in as the adults held forth. It was like the soothing sound of rain on windows, my favorite lullaby, reassuring confirmation that the world was still going on even as I turned away from it.”

“Anytime I believe I recognize a fellow renegade, something in me instinctively draws back.”

“I have also realized that being good with quotations means avoiding having to think for yourself.”

Translator Bunstead seems to have done a marvelous job. Highly recommended.

C. R. Lorac, Murder by Matchlight (1945) There are always several of these reissued British Crime Classics on the New Books shelves of my local library. I’ve read a few, but abandoned more. Turns out I’m more drawn to the covers than the content. A Blitz mystery ought to be up my street, but this didn’t engage me.

Philip Marsden, The Spirit-Wrestlers: A Russian Journey (1998) Loved it. You can read more here.

Isabella Leitner, Fragments of Isabella: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1978) That’s me, reading all the Holocaust memoirs so you don’t have to.

Reminds me in some ways of Night. Both are constructed in short fragments, emphasize the Death March, and focus on importance of family. Leitner and Wiesel both lived in the Hungarian countryside, and were deported about the same time (early 1944). Their tone is similar, too, and frankly it drives me nuts: portentous sacralizing. Like all survivor stories, Leitner’s is remarkable: she was able to stay with three of her sisters in Auschwitz, later a work camp called Birnbaumel (where they dug anti-tank traps against the coming Russian invasion), and finally on a death march to Bergen-Belsen, where one of the four sisters got separated from the others. Like Wiesel in Night, Leitner offers no context: works like these are responsible for the common understanding of the Holocaust as a terrible thing characterized by cattle cars, barbed wire, gas chambers, and the triumph of the human spirit. The most interesting aspects of her experience go unspoken—for example, Leitner’s father had left the family behind to go to America early in the war; after the war they were reunited. What was that like?

The afterword is the most interesting part of the book. It’s written by Irving Leitner, her husband, not because it is better written (though it’s more ordinarily competent, he having been a professional writer) but because of an anecdote about a visit to Paris in 1960 where the Leitners and their two teenage children are surrounded by tables of German tourists, retirees old enough to have participated in the war. Leitner has a panic attack: she writes the names of various camps on a piece of paper, intending to give it to them; later, her husband slips back into the café and delivers it to the table in the guise of the check. Lots of things going on there: panic, rage, revenge, none of which we see in the memoir itself.

Bart van Es, The Cut Out Girl (2018) Competent, compelling. But not “inside baseball” enough for me. My thoughts here.

Esther Freud, The Sea House (2003) Something of a companion to Gaglow, in that it’s also set in the present (2000: cell phones are still clunky and annoying and largely useless outside London—I miss those days) and the past (1953). Once again, Freud mines her remarkable family history: one of the characters, Klaus Lehmann, is an émigré architect closely modelled on her grandfather Ernst Freud (Sigmund’s fourth child). Lehmann appears mostly through the letters he wrote his wife during their various periods of separation in the 1930s. He is paired in the novel by a similarly absent Nick, an architect in the present, and the sometime boyfriend of Lilly Brennan. Lily has come to a village on the Suffolk coast to work on her dissertation on Lehmann in the town where he summered. Got all that? While she learns something about Lehmann, we learn more, because the “past” half of the novel is centered on Max Meyer, an émigré painter who mourns both his lost family home in Germany and his sister, who escaped the Nazis with him but who has just died after a long illness. (In this way, the novel is also an investigation on the difference between history and fiction.) Max is invited to Suffolk by a friend of the family, an analyst in the mode of Melanie Klein, who has plans to help the man work through his traumas, but whom he largely avoids in favour of an affair with Lehmann’s wife.

Probably the most plotty of Freud’s novels, but like the others its real power comes from its investigation of domestic space. Do homes center us or do they imprison us? Do we in the end prefer to mourn their passing? Can we appreciate the natural world if we don’t have a home to return to? Totally engrossing.

Esther Freud, Love Falls (2007) It’s the summer of 1982. As England prepares for Charles and Diana’s wedding, Lara is invited by her father—a figure straight from an Anita Brookner novel: European, Jewish, displaced, intellectual, vague, a bit ruthless—to holiday in Italy, specifically to visit an old friend of his who, it turns out, is dying. (The father, an historian, is apparently modelled on Lucien Freud.) Lara gets taken up by a louche expat set, falls in love, grows up a little, and is terribly hurt. (There’s a shocking scene that resonates even more today—at least for me, clueless cis male reader—than it would have ten years ago.) Probably the weakest of the Freuds I’ve read (a long set piece on the Palio involves some unusually clunky exposition), but it’s still pretty great. The title is the name of a dangerous waterfall and a description of what happens to all of us. Worth reading.

Judith Kerr, The Other Way Round (1975) The second of Kerr’s autobiographical trilogy. (I read When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit last month.) Her stand-in Anna is 15 and living in London during the Phony War and then the Blitz. She’s desperate to help her family stay afloat and to gain some independence, and enrolls in a secretarial college, which leads to a suitably eccentric job in an organization that collects donated fabric to be made into new uniforms and, more somberly, donates the clothes of soldiers who have died to other young men. Anna begins to separate herself from her family, plunging with joy into night classes in painting and a love affair. But what does this ordinary teenage distance mean for an refugee family whose motto has been something like “Home is wherever we are when we’re together”?

Judith Kerr, A Small Person Far Away (1978) In the final volume of Kerr’s trilogy, we jump ahead to 1956. Anna is married to a coming screenwriter and starting herself to become a writer. But her efforts in this regard are interrupted by a phone call from Germany. Her mother’s lover, an official with a Jewish relief agency in Berlin, tells her that she has attempted suicide. Anna flies to her mother’s bedside—for most of the short novel she is in a coma—and grapples with her guilt over her own reluctance to be there, her mother’s long shadow over her life, the uneven responsibilities assigned to her and her brother, and, in addition to everything else, her mixed feelings about being back in Berlin, where things are at once familiar and unfamiliar, and it doesn’t take long for officially repressed anti-Semitism to reappear.

One reason the last two parts of the trilogy have fallen out of print, I suspect, is that they aren’t quite children’s books (without being anything like what we know as YA). But with the benefit of hindsight we can read the novel as a contribution to the burgeoning phenomenon at that time (70s/80s) of second-generation stories. A Small Person Far Away isn’t the same as, say, Maus, because Anna’s mother hasn’t experienced the Holocaust directly. But she is still traumatized by her wartime experiences as a refugee, and Anna, like Art Spiegelman, has to cope with the fallout. I probably should write an essay about this. Reprint these books dammit!

Cressida Connolly, After the Party (2018) Did you know many followers of Oswald Mosley (the leader of the British Union of Fascists) were held without charge in 1940 and eventually interned on the Isle of Man for much of the war? I didn’t, and one of the tricks of Connolly’s novel is the make us feel sympathy, almost outrage, at this suspension of habeas corpus and the rule of law. It helps, as it were, that her protagonist is a seemingly apolitical family woman who gets pulled into the Union through her sisters. (The family isn’t quite modelled on the Mitfords, but it’s that social set.) I enjoyed After the Party about as much as I found it distasteful. I think Connolly’s going for the Ishiguro Special: a protagonist whose cluelessness we are meant to read against, and find sinister in a way they cannot. But unlike his books, this one is (mostly) in third person. Which left me unsure if it’s Phyllis who misreads her own life, or whether it’s Connolly. I honestly couldn’t tell how much distance Connolly wants us to take from her protagonist. If anyone’s read it and has any ideas, do share.

So that was June. Esther Freud is great. Judith Kerr is great. But the book that won my heart this month was Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers. I’ve got two weeks until the big annual Canada vacation. Before then I’m going to try to read this. My only vacation reading plans are to avoid everything Holocaust for a few weeks…

 

 

May 2019 in Review

In contrast to last month, May was a good reading month. No surprise: April is the worst month of the year for my schedule; May is one of the best. Plus, I had a lovely few days at my in-laws’ farm, where there’s nothing for me—a person who avoids bush-hogging (it’s a thing, look it up) as if his life depended on it—to do but sit on the porch swing and read.

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David Downing, Diary of a Man on Leave (2019) The new standalone from Downing is about a German-born Soviet spy who is sent back to Germany in 1938 to see if any of the members of the now-suppressed Communist party can be enticed into sabotage or resistance work. As is often the case with Downing, the historical background is more compelling than the writing or the story. But I also didn’t give this book my best. I bet I would have enjoyed it more if I’d read it in a couple of sittings, instead of in dribs and drabs over the last week of the semester.

Miriam Toews, Women Talking (2018) Lots of people have already written about this excellent novel, including Parul Seghal in this very nice essay about #Metoo in fiction. It’s based on a true story: in a Mennonite community in Bolivia, women of all ages were regularly drugged with animal anesthetic and raped by men they lived among and knew well. In Toews’s novel, the men of the community have gone to the city to bail out the culprits. The women have two days to decide what to do: stay, leave, or fight. The novel consists of their debates, as recorded by August, a man who in his younger years left the community (his parents were expelled) and has now returned. August is an educated man, a man useless at farming, and, as such, in the eyes of the women as well as his own, not really a man at all.

I loved this smart, slippery novel, and I suspect I would get a lot more out of it on a second reading. I don’t think I’ve come close to plumbing its depths. I’ll simply note for now that the use of the male transcriber (the women are illiterate) is brilliant—it lets us see how even an ostensibly “good,” that is, sympathetic man, is complicit in patriarchy. When August describes the underside of a woman’s arm as “very smooth and white, like the keel of a new canoe,” my first response was to admire this simple but effective simile. My second was to wonder over the nature of the comparison. Is it neutral? (And what would that even mean?) Appreciative? Objectifying? Can there be appreciation without objectification? Relatedly, can there be forgiveness without complicity? What is forgiveness even for? By evoking these sorts of questions, Women Talking reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas, another rhetorically complex investigation into social structures, gender politics, and the uses and abuses of violence.

I’ve a longstanding aversion to Canadian literature that I perceive to be worthy but dull (i.e. most mainstream English-language Canadian fiction of the past thirty years). I’d never read Toews before because I thought she fit that bill. On the basis of this book, anyway, I was totally wrong, and I look forward to looking into her backlist. Anyone have preferences?

Katherine Marsh, The Night Tourist (2007) This one is special to me because my daughter and I read it together (mostly me to her, but sometimes her to me), and it’s a pretty sophisticated book, probably best suited for middle readers or even teenagers. It reworks the Orpheus myth (and as such gave my daughter her first consistent exposure to Greek myth—another milestone). Jack Perdu is a teenager who experiences mysterious visions that eventually lead him to experience a whole New York underworld full of ghosts. These recently and not-so-recently dead people must come to terms with their past before they can, in the language of the novel, “move on” to Elysium. Befriended by a girl named Euri, Jack learns why he, a mortal, can see ghosts and at what cost. In so doing, he uncovers the truth about his mother’s death, about which his father has always been so tight-lipped. And he reenacts his own version of the Orpheus story. Along the way he travels through all kinds of unusual New York landmarks—it’s a good city novel—and meets all kinds of people, like the poet Dylan Thomas and the psychoanalyst and early translator of Freud Abraham Brill. In other words, The Night Tourist was as much fun for me to read as for my daughter. I’m grateful to a colleague who teaches Classics and Children’s literature for turning me on to this book.

John Warner, Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities (2018) Catnip to me, since I spend much of my professional life decrying the five-paragraph essay, teaching students why it’s boring and awful, and supporting them through the realization that a skill they had to master in order to get to college now means nothing at all.

Warner, who is clear that his teaching discoveries have been possible because he hasn’t had a full-time, secure academic position (which is to say, he is the most common kind of academic there is today), is funny without being cutesy. He’s clear and thoughtful. And best of all, he’s inspiring. I’ll be changing my teaching this Fall based on his suggestions. His practical advice is great—and his sample exercises even better. I could have done without some of the sections demolishing what has passed as educational reform in the last decades—mostly because I already agree with Warner, but also because these sections feel a bit padded—but on the whole this is a book anyone who writes or, especially, teaches others to write should take a look at. It opens with a great bit on the reactions Warner gets when people learn about his job (It’s the phones! It’s that they’re snowflakes!). Warner says, it’s not the phones, and it’s not the snowflakes: it’s that students are doing exactly what we’ve trained them to do.

Andrew Taylor, The Anatomy of Ghosts (2010) My last audiobook of the semester was a good one. I’ve read some of Taylor’s historical fiction before (always crime-ish, sometimes Gothic, a bit pastiche-y), and although some are better than others, he’s always good light reading. This is a story of secrets and corruption in 18th century Cambridge. Some appealing characters, some dastardly ones, some nice twists. Good stuff.

Ben Aaronovitch, Whispers Under Ground (2012) I really liked Midnight Riot, the first book in Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy Rivers of London series. In the first book, PC Peter Grant learns to his surprise that he has an affinity for the supernatural and is assigned to a unit of the Met dealing with all things inexplicable to reason. (I especially like the personification of the various rivers and streams in and under London that gives the series its name.) A while ago, I read the second book, and it was ok. Now I took a flier on the third, and I’m realizing that I like crime a lot more than fantasy. There’s always a climactic bit in these books with some kind of monster or supernatural creature that I find tedious. So maybe these books aren’t really my thing. They’re funny, though. Maybe I’ll pick up the fourth in a year or so.

Nathan Englander, kaddish.com (2019) Englander is the heir to Bernard Malamud, which is some of the highest praise I can offer. My appreciation for his (admittedly a bit uneven) work only grew when I got to host him for a few days several years ago. The man’s a prince.

I liked kaddish.com a lot, but this review in The Nation made me doubt my response. (I respect Nathan Goldman’s taste.) I agree with Goldman that the book (which is really a novella—a form that, happily, seems to be making a comeback: thinking of Moss’s Ghost Wall for example) is more expanded short story than fully-fledged novel. But I don’t think it’s padded or slight or overworked. I appreciated how it used the kind of temporal shifts more common to a story than a novel. There’s a big, and to my mind fascinating, shift about 30 pages in: some readers characterize it as undeserved or ill-explained, but I think it’s important for making sense of the book, which is about persistence or, better, the inexpungable, whether that takes the form of pop up windows or Torah study.

What’s this book about? The eponymous website, of course, which promises to exploit a Talmudic loophole in order for users to hire someone to say kaddish (the prayers for the dead) for a deceased loved one for the year prescribed by Jewish law. Englander’s protagonist, who has taken advantage of this service, spends most of the book trying to meet the shadowy and perhaps unreal person who took on that burden. Like so much of Englander’s work, kaddish.com simultaneously challenges and appreciates Jewish tradition. (Again like Malamud.) It also asks to be read in tandem with his last book, the similarly short The Dinner at the Center of the World: both are about Israel around the turn of the century; the first political, the second religious.

James Sturm, Off Season (2019) Melancholy comic, which I wrote about here.

Judith Kerr, When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (1971) I’d been thinking about how I first learned about the Holocaust, and I remembered this book, which—along with Anne Holm’s I Am David (does anyone read that anymore? I should track it down)—was one of the first places I got even a hint about the fate of Europe’s Jews under Nazism. (How old was I? 10 maybe?) Re-reading When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit was a revelation. For one thing, I realized it’s not really about the Holocaust: it’s indirectly about the Nazi persecution of Jews, and directly about exile.

Anna, the protagonist, clearly modelled on Kerr herself, is nine when Hitler takes power. Her father is a well-known writer critical of National Socialism. (As was Kerr’s father, Alfred Kerr, nicknamed the Kulturpapst (cultural Pope) of Weimar Germany.) Just before the fateful elections in January 1933, Anna’s father is tipped off that he should leave the country, as he is likely to be arrested should the Nazis win. What he hopes will be a short vacation turns into a life-long exile, in which he is joined by his family, first in Switzerland, then Paris, and finally London.

Kerr writes piercingly of what it means to have no home other than one’s immediate family (“If you haven’t got a home, you’ve got to be with your people”—lucky for her, and her character, that she could). Being a refugee is hard, the book suggests, but it also has its benefits. (Maybe this is the difference between exiles and refugees. Only the former can look on their experiences so philosophically.)

There’s an especially moving subplot about a family friend, a naturalist and a Luftmensch who laughs off the idea that he should leave Germany. (One of his grandparents was Jewish.) When Uncle Julius is forced out of his job and can only find work as a sweeper in a factory, his only pleasure is his daily visit to the Berlin zoo, where, Anna’s father notes sadly, the monkeys recognize him not just for the peanuts he brings but also for his gentleness. If only the people were as perceptive. When the zoo is decreed off-limits to Jews, Julius swallows a bottle of sleeping pills.

Yet despite such stories, the book is very funny. The family’s pluck is heartening, and their dry wit a pleasurable, if necessarily limited, fuck you to fascism. (The title comes from Anna’s decision to leave behind her favourite stuffed animal, a pink rabbit, with all the rest of the family’s possessions, in favour of a new toy that she later recognizes she doesn’t love at all. The family’s things are sent “into storage,” but of course, none of it is ever seen again.) Reading Kerr’s delightful book, I sometimes laughed out loud, which I really didn’t expect.

Kerr wrote two more books about the family’s experiences, taking up Anna’s story after her arrival in England. These are out of print, but I’ve tracked them down in various local libraries. Just a few days after finishing Rabbit, I learned of Kerr’s death at the age of 95. (Judging from the stories circulating on Twitter, she was a delight.) I’ll be reading the rest of the trilogy soon: maybe an essay will come of it.

Chia-Chia Lin, The Unpassing (2019) Contemporary American literary fiction is not my thing, but I like Garth Greenwell, and he’s been saying good things about this book. So I plucked it from the library’s New Book shelf. I almost quit on the first page:

During an uneventful part of my childhood, my mother walked into the room with a plate of loose washed grapes. She collapsed. Grapes thudded dully on the carpet. One rolled under the couch. The plate lay overturned, and my mother’s body was beside it, limbs splayed.

This is just the sort of in medias res, flatly written, and ominously portentous sort of thing I associate with American literary fiction. So annoying. (At least it’s in past tense. Why does everyone feel they have to write in present tense?)

Anyway, I persevered, and I’m glad I did. It turns out the mother is testing her kids, checking to see whether they would call for an ambulance. (They didn’t.) This gives you some idea of the fraught family dynamic at the heart of Lin’s debut novel, which is narrated by a sensitive child, alert to some of the nuances of what’s going on around him, but blind to others, which we glimpse by reading against his limited perspective.

Not a particularly unusual scenario for a literary novel. But who the child is and where he tells his story from is more unusual. Gavin, ten years old in 1986, is the middle child in an immigrant family. His parents are from Taiwan; he grows up in Alaska. His father is a wastewater engineer, but whether from bad luck or incompetence, he makes a mistake and a child dies from a poisoned well. (The motif of poisoning returns at the end of the book, with a reference to the Exxon Valdez disaster/fiasco.) The child who dies barely figures in the book—though the event has consequences for the narrator’s family, which spirals into severe poverty—but that fate echoes in another, significant way: Gavin’s younger sister dies of meningitis, and we see how each member of the family struggles with the repercussions of that terrible event. It’s all made worse in that no one in the family is able or willing to talk about their feelings.

Even though the book’s not especially long I thought it could have been shorter: I think it would have been better as a novella. Especially as Lin is better with set pieces than sustained narration. Two in particular stand out: one in which Gavin and his mother encounter a beached whale (it’s not as crassly symbolic as it sounds), and another in which the family’s youngest child goes missing during a violent storm. (That scene is so suspenseful I could feel my hands clutching the pages.)

As a child of immigrants, I’m captivated by stories of children forced to become the interpreters of a new land for their elders. I was surprised, and interested, to find that racism isn’t central to the story. Gavin’s family is different from most everyone around them, no question, and those differences embarrass and confuse the children, but the white Alaskans in the novel—admittedly few in number: the family is isolated, more by choice than geography—are more puzzled than hostile when they encounter the narrator and his siblings and parents. But then there’s the title, with its ungainly nonce noun, which I can’t quite figure out. Does “unpassing” suggest their inability to fit in? What isn’t being passed? I couldn’t make much of it.

It’s neither here nor there, but I was also surprised by the affinities between Lin’s novel and David Vann’s Legend of a Suicide (2008). Moral of the story: try not to grow up with emotionally distant parents in Alaska.

Daphne Du Maurier, The House on the Strand (1969) A great time travel novel! Richard Young is invited to stay at a house on the Cornish coast owned by his friend Magnus Lane, a scientist who has secretly invented a concoction that takes whoever swallows it back to the fourteenth century. Richard, who agrees to test it, experiences a different moment in the lives of the local gentry on each trip. As befits a novel from the 60s, Du Maurier explicitly plays up the analogy between time travel and drugtaking, not least because the professor’s tincture turns out to be addictive. Richard’s visits to the past are momentary, and he cannot intervene in events. But even mere observation is risky.

I happened to read The House on the Strand as I was writing about Sarah Moss’s recent novel Ghost Wall, which concerns an anthropology study course, in which participants try to live as the Celts of Northumberland did in the years before the Roman invasion of Britain. Both novels investigate the power—and danger—of the desire to inhabit the past. Although Du Maurier’s narrator is more generous in his relationship to the past than most of Moss’s characters, he experiences the fantasy of direct connection to the past just as intensely as they do: “Imagination was not enough, I craved the living experience which had been denied me.”

The drug means Du Maurier’s narrator can experience what Moss’s characters cannot. Yet the opportunity comes at great cost. Madness results when the boundary between past and present dissolves. Which is really not that different from what we see in Moss’s novel. Moreover, both writers are equally convinced that the desire to control and dominate the past, rather than just to know it, is particularly male. The most disagreeable thing about The House on the Strand is the way Richard bullies his wife. (I think Du Maurier is critiquing this behavior, but I’m actually not sure. I find her gender politics hard to figure out.)

Anyway, you can read The House on the Strand without reading Ghost Wall. It’s a great book, a highlight in the Du Maurier canon, in my opinion, one I am steadily exploring with great pleasure (six books so far, and not a dud among them).

I read this for Ali’s #DDMreadingweek, which was a big success: I wish I’d been in time to write about it. But she promises to run it again next year, which gives me the excuse to read more Du Maurier!

Henrik Pantoppidan, Lucky Per (1898 – 1904, rev. 1918) Trans. Naomi Lebowitz (2010) I made a big deal about asking everyone to read this, and some of you even did. What I haven’t done is written anything about the experience yet. Will rectify this week.

Esther Freud, Peerless Flats (1993) I’ve long been a fan of Freud’s first novel, Hideous Kinky, which I gather is closely based on her own childhood experiences in Morocco, where she and her sister were taken by her clever, free-spirited, feckless, Hippie (choose your modifier) mother. But I’ve never read any of her others, even though I’ve collected most of them. I’ve long had the idea to catch up with them, and I think this is the summer for it.

Peerless Flats (you’ve got to admit, she has a way with titles) is, by all accounts, another fairly autobiographical novel, though this time with an older protagonist. In 1979, Lisa is sixteen and newly arrived in London where she’s just started an acting course. She lives with her mother (a version of the mother in Hideous) and much younger (and hilariously anarchic) brother. She’s also trying to keep tabs on her half-sister, who is into punk and drugs and lousy men; Lisa is the sensible one in the family, with all the travails that entails.

Two passages I liked a lot:

In the first, Lisa is in a pub, waiting for an older man she’s not sure she’s in love with. She’s ordered a drink she doesn’t want because she’s convinced ordering a soft drink would be a tip-off that she’s underage. She thinks about how late it’s getting:

Lisa began to worry about her mother. She imagined her waiting up. Listening for every tread on the stairs. She knew from experience that the more she worried about her mother, the less anxious her mother seemed when she did finally appear. But it didn’t stop her. Maybe this was what people meant by sensible.

In the second, she starts a new term to find that Brecht has replaced Stanislavsky on the syllabus:

Lisa felt completely thrown. For her the whole point of acting was the license it gave you to become another person, protected by a stage set and someone else’s words. … ‘What kind of actress are you going to be, Brechtian or Stanislavskian?’ [her friend] Janey asked Lisa in the canteen.

Lisa wasn’t sure. Really she just wanted to be Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago and wear a fur hat and a tailored coat with buttons down the front.

Right?!?

It seems to me that Freud is the link between a writer like Barbara Comyns and one like Nina Stibbe. All are exemplars of a British tradition of female experience—predominantly realist in expression, but where the Gothic is never far away—in which stoicism is leavened by humour, and competent haplessness is, maybe not a value, but a totally okay way to be. Anita Brookner might fit somewhere here too.

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (1979) Trans. Geraldine Harcourt (2018) Evocative 1970s Japanese novella about a woman who separates from her husband and lives with her small daughter. As the title hints, the book is as much about patterns and sensations as about emotions: or, rather, the latter are mostly evoked through the former. (The particular territory of light is a fourth-floor apartment, but it’s surely also the psyche.) My sense is that single mothers were unusual in Japan at the time, and the narrator deals with a certain amount of animus and hardship. But the book is really about resilience, about making a life which is sometimes exhilarating and sometimes imprisoning. (I especially loved a bit where the mother loses it on her tantrum-y child in a park and wants nothing more than to leave her behind.) Territory of Light was initially published in a newspaper in twelve monthly installments. No doubt that’s why there’s the chapters repeat themselves a bit, but I liked this: it captured that crushing sense of getting though daily life that characterizes life with small children, even as the change in seasons makes the book more fluid than stagnant. The only thing I wondered at was the portrayal of the daughter, who seemed not so much precocious (thank God, that’s the worst) but developmentally older than I expected. She said and did things I don’t associate with three-year-olds. Regardless, Tsushima is an impressive writer, and it’s great to see her in English: I’ve got Child of Fortune and will read that soon.

Helen Dunmore, The Siege (2001) Last year, I read the late Helen Dunmore’s last novel, Birdcage Walk. I liked it a lot, and I think about it often. I liked The Siege even better, mostly because it is set in the period of my intellectual interests/obsessions (the 1930s and 40s in Europe). The title refers to the terrible siege of Leningrad by the Nazis, especially its horrifying first months during the winter of 1941-2.

Dunmore sometimes reminds me of Penelope Fitzgerald in her use of unusual and vivid details to evoke the foreignness of the past. In the end, she’s a less surprising writer than Fitzgerald (I mean, who isn’t?), but still a very good one. Especially memorable here is her depiction of what prolonged hunger does to bodies, both metaphorical (the body politic, which bends and often breaks) and, most interestingly, literal.

Hearts palpitate after the simplest actions (climbing a flight of stairs, to say nothing of chopping a hole in the frozen Neva or dragging a pailful of its water back to an apartment). Legs swell. Teeth fall out. Short-term memory fades. Breath stinks. Sexual desire evaporates. I’d need to think more about whether the book ignores important political and historical distinctions by emphasizing the body (not in itself an ahistorical concept, but presented here as such), but that focus is certainly powerful.

The Siege isn’t a short book. And aside from some important chapters at the beginning set during the summer of 41, when Germany invaded the USSR, it concentrates on the months between September 1941 and April 1942. That level of detail is impressive—and sometimes hard to take. We watch a family’s precious supplies dwindle (we ache when the very last teaspoon of honey is meted out to a little boy; we wonder how many times tea can be made from the same dried nettles) and we wring our hands in anticipation—in a way I have often considered with my students of Holocaust literature—of an end we know, with the benefit of hindsight, is coming. Just hold out a little longer, I silently urged the characters, even as I worried because there were so many more years of the siege to go. How could they survive?  Dunmore’s decision to elide the rest of the war and leap to its end in the final chapters worked for me. Only a different kind of book—and probably not a novel—could cover the whole event in such detail. Plus, although life remained terribly hard for Leningraders, it was never as bad as that first winter, since the authorities were eventually able to fly supplies in—plus every available inch of the city was turned into a vegetable garden.

More Dunmore is in my future, no question. Maybe I’ll start with her sort-of sequel to The Siege, The Betrayal. Anyone have any other suggestions?

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Judith Kerr’s story of exile & Dunmore’s depiction of the siege of Leningrad aside, I deliberately took a break from all things fascism/Holocaust-related this month. In June, though, I’ll be returning to my regular fare. In particular, I’ll be reading and writing about Primo Levi, as a way to commemorate his centenary. More on that in a separate post soon.