What I Read, June 2022

Plenty busy chez EMJ last month. Two weeks studying Holocaust photographs in a faculty seminar (inspiring, transformative, draining). One week teaching an online class (enjoyable, tiring). One week doing absolutely nothing but reading and chilling (bliss). And one week trying to catch up on all the things (I know this makes for five weeks, not sure what to tell you).

Although much of my reading concerned the history of atrocity photographs, I made time for a number of other things. I got into a good rhythm: get up early, read something demanding for an hour or so; crash in the afternoon and evening, read fluff. Spent much of the month in St Louis: nice to be somewhere where you can sit outside in the summer. Also: Ted Drewes FTW!

Gilad Seliktar, from But I Live

Richard Wright, Black Boy (American Hunger) (1945/1991)

In the first pages of his autobiography, Wright, a bored four-year-old, almost burns his grandmother’s house down, and the rest of the book is seldom less incendiary. Amazing that Wright survived not just that errant moment but his childhood at all. So much abuse, contempt, despair. Wright wanted to call the book American Hunger, a resonant title that suggests not just the hunger that African Americans have felt to belong to their country but also the hunger with which America has devoured them. Most of all, though, the title is literal: Wright was seriously undernourished much of his life, even into adulthood. (He was turned down for a good job with the post office because he didn’t weight enough.) In one indelible scene, Wright, who has been deposited in an orphanage because his mother temporarily can’t take care of him, is dizzy with hunger. He and the other children were fed only twice a day—before bed they received a thin slice of bread with a smear of molasses—but that didn’t save them from having to work. For example, they had to “mow” the orphanage’s grounds: a herd of children on their hands and knees, pulling the grass out in clumps, often too lightheaded to make any headway.

Wright changed the title to Black Boy after the Book of the Month club, which had selected the title—as it had done some years before with Native Son—declined to publish the manuscript’s second half, which describes Wright’s experiences after escaping the South for Chicago, specifically his involvement with the communist party. (I gather the party pressured the BMOC to make the changes, which suggests an America so different from the one we live in I don’t even know what to say.) I sort of agree that the parts about Wright’s childhood and early adulthood in Mississippi, Arkansas, and Tennessee are more compelling. They’re certainly more reducible to a narrative of suffering that makes sense to (white) readers. (And ending with the train ride to Chicago implies an overcoming that the rest of the book belies.) But I found the cruel political machinations described in the second half engrossing—excommunication, quasi-Stalinist show trials, oof. Wright believes there is something essential to communism that cannot be quashed by its instantiation, whether in the Soviet Union or south side Chicago. It emphasized self-sacrifice in a way his own life had prepared him to understand.

What stands out to me about Black Boy is its almost complete lack of joy. Wright’s life was hard, his upbringing mean, in both senses of the world, his horizons cramped by racism and the strict religion of his family. There’s nothing here to compare, for example, to the meaningful pleasures described in Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s Colored People. (Admittedly, Gates was of a different class and writing about the 1950s not the 20s and 30s.) The funniest scene concerns his job as a janitor at a Chicago hospital. Not that this was a good time. Together with three other men, all Black, Wright worked without thanks and almost without recompense: his description of mopping stairs that people immediately muck up, offering what they think is an amusing quip about how work is never done or, as is more often the case, not even seeing him at all will make your blood boil. The basement of the hospital contained a lab where white scientists performed experiments on animals (afflicting mice with diabetes and other horrors). One day, two of the janitors, who hate each other, get into a fight that turns into a brawl—the cages are knocked to the floor, and most of the animals escape. With only minutes to go before the scientists are due back from lunch, Wright and the others chase the animals, tossing the animals into cages willy-nilly. Who knows, Wright wryly speculates, what medical advances were made that day. Yet this scene, which in another writer’s hands could be laugh out loud funny, is tense, terrifying. The consequences of discovery for Wright and the others are simply too great.

Poverty is corrosive, yet Wright’s escape carries with it regret, loss, sorrow, and rage. In a riff on Du Bois’s idea of double consciousness, Wright describes his literary self-education—he used the library card of a sympathetic white co-worker to check out books—as a mixed blessing:

In buoying me up, reading also cast me down, made me see what was possible, what I had missed. My tension returned, new, terrible, bitter, surging, almost too great to be contained. I no longer felt that the world about me was hostile, killing; I knew it. A million times I asked myself what I could do to save myself, and there were no answers. I seemed forever condemned, ringed by walls.

Communist party meddling or no, I can see why white publishers were wary of the book’s refusal of uplift. To me, the characteristic Wright note here is that added “killing”—Wright suffers plenty of physical violence, but his mental anguish is even worse.

Audrey Magee, The Colony (2022)

In the summer of 1979, two men arrive on an island off the west coast of Ireland. One, an English painter, is running away from a failing marriage and doubts about his artistic relevance, and in search of fabled light. The other, a French academic, is returning to complete the field work for his anthropological and linguistic dissertation on Gaelic. The story of how their competing presences—expressed in dinner-table arguments about whether English and the modernity it is the vehicle for is ruinous—shape the lives of the family that has rented them their rooms is interspersed by short chapters that detail, in neutral language, killings perpetrated by Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries back on the mainland.

I’m a sucker for windswept northern landscapes, and any story in which the making of tea is a repeated and central element will always be meat and drink to me. But I liked Colony for other reasons too. It’s a think-y book that never feels plodding. Magee argues that the depredations of colonialism take many forms—the fantasy of linguistic purity as harmful as airy invocations of progress. The latter, so Magee, always require someone be exploited. She tackles a lot here, and I wasn’t always convinced by the juggling act (a backstory about the Frenchman’s childhood as the son of a pied noir needed to be better integrated), but I appreciated her ambition.

Thanks to John Self for turning me on to this one.

Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes , or The Loving Huntsman (1926)

An unmarried woman in England between the wars becomes a witch. Or decides to live as the witch she has always been. Frances, Rebecca, and I talk about this on Episode 5 of One Bright Book—I loved it less than they did, was not quite swept away with it as I’d hoped, but I definitely recommend. Warner is perhaps a little chilly for me, and I do wonder about the implications of emphasizing (only?) a magical solution to a political problem—what will it take for women to be left alone? Prefer Comyns’s The Vet’s Daughter, for a not dissimilar English magic-realist admixture.

Check out these pieces by Rebecca and Rohan for more thoughts on what Warner is up to.

Garry Disher, The Way It Is Now (2021)

Diverting crime novel with good surfing scenes. The son of a cop, himself recently a cop—he fell in love with a witness and has been suspended—has never stopped trying to find out what happened to his mother, who disappeared twenty years ago. New evidence comes to light, and things look even worse than ever for his father, who has always maintained his innocence.

Not the best Disher I’ve read, but he’s so damn competent, not sure he can write a bad book.

Charlotte Schallié, Ed. But I Live: Three Stories of Child Survivors of the Holocaust (2022)

[Created by Miriam Libicki and David Schaffer; Gilad Seliktar and Nico & Rolf Kamp; Barbara Yelin and Emmie Arbel]

Beautiful & moving collaboration between child Holocaust survivors and graphic novelists, with impressive critical and historical appendices. Libicki fittingly illustrates Schaffer’s story of hiding in the forests of Transnistria—what horrible things happened in that benighted territory—in the style of an edition of the Grimms. The minimalist Seliktar (he reminds me of Manuele Fior) uses a palette of purple/blue + yellow/brown and delicate shading to accompany the story of the Kamp brothers’ time in hiding (in thirteen different lodgings, including a chicken coop) in Holland. Yelin, whose marvelous Irmina I raved about last year, tells the bleak story of Emmie Arbel’s terrifying experiences as a five-year-old in Ravensbrück and Bergen-Belsen, where she had to watch her mother starve to death as a result of dividing her meager rations among her children (all three survived, miraculously). After a long recuperation in Sweden, the siblings immigrated to Israel, where Emmie struggled again, especially in the kibbutz system of education/neglect. All three artists include their exchanges with their subjects in their comics, but Yelin’s self-reflection is the most extensive. In the process she shows how thoroughly Arbel was damaged by her experiences, to the point of passing her trauma on to her children.

The project is a triumph. Schallié deserves credit for bringing together survivors, artists, and scholars—and for securing the funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Reseach Council of Canada that supported the collaborative project of which this book must be the centerpiece. In addition to the three comics, there’s a further comic describing the artists’ cooperation, a brief statement from each of the survivors themselves, and lucid, informative short essays expanding on the context of each survivor’s experiences by scholars. I especially appreciated Alexander Korb’s piece on the Holocaust in Transnistria.

Did I mention that But I Live is gorgeously produced and printed, too? A must read if you have any interest in the topic.

Kim Stanley Robinson, Aurora (2015)

Excellent novel about a spaceship—outfitted with twenty-four complete biomes and about two thousand people—on a mission to an earth-like moon in the Tau Ceti system. Despite having been slingshotted from Saturn at who knows how much the speed of light (Robinson does know, and goes into detail, but I can’t follow him when he gets all engineer-y), the trip takes 160 years, and so the people on board as the ship approaches Aurora are several generations removed from the ones who set off.

Two women are at the center of the novel—Devi, the ship’s de-facto chief engineer, and Freya, her daughter. (Robinson’s great theme is the power of the engineering mindset, its ingenuity and improvisation, when tied to a politics of care.) The other protagonist is Ship itself, whose AI comes to self-consciousness through long conversations with Devi, and her command that Ship write a narrative of the voyage. (The meditations of the relation of narrative to consciousness are the least successful part of the book.)

The travelers begin the process of terraforming the moon, but it turns out that it is inhabited, at minimum, by a prion that is fatal to humans. The crew faces a decision—turn their efforts to a nearby moon in the hope that it’s more hospitable, or return to earth, something Ship was not designed for. The dilemma almost leads to civil war—only Ship’s intervention as The Rule of Law permits a non-violent resolution of the situation. Most decide to return, but a large minority opt for the unknown. We never learn what happens to them. Probably nothing good, but Robinson leaves their experience as a tantalizing possibility and a symbol for all that can’t be known.

The voyage home is perilous for many reasons—the biomes are failing, the crew is starving, authorities on earth respond too late to slow Ship down, necessitating a dangerous twelve-year journey through the solar system where, theoretically, the gravitational forces of the planets create will enough drag for the crew to splash down.

Aurora is moving, suspenseful, and thought-provoking. As a book about politics and the insatiable human demand to make and do—which, Robinson suggests, ought to be confined to our own planet—it made a fascinating and unexpected pairing with the other book I was reading at the same time, namely…

Guido Morselli, The Communist (1976) Trans. Frederika Randall (2017)

Published after his death, like all his novels, Morselli’s The Communist was written in 1964 – 65. It’s set a half-decade earlier, at a time when the Communist party in Italy boasted the third-largest membership in the world, after only the USSR and China. Its success stemmed from its active role in the resistance to fascism, and translated, in the first decade or so after the war, into parliamentary success, although its members were divided about participating in the act of governing. Would that not legitimate the system they wished to overthrow? The Communist is about one of these new parliamentarians, Walter Ferranini, a man whose life has been devoted to the left, even if the left has not been devoted to him. The son of an anarchist railwayman, Ferranini served in Spain before finding his way to the US, where, despite himself, in a manner that seems to emulate the bourgeois striving he abhors, he marries the daughter of his boss and allows himself to dream of the family’s place in the country. But when his wife turns reactionary, throwing herself into a nativist movement, and with the war over, he returns to Italy and throws himself into labour activism in Reggio Emilia.

It is on the basis of his success in these practical matters, and his genuine commitment to improving the lives of the workers, that Ferranini is elected a deputy in the national parliament. Although he lives to serve, he is unhappy: his dream of introducing a bill to expand worker safety is met with hostility and derision by members of his own party; he feels increasingly unable to discipline colleagues who call out hypocrisy among party leaders; he falls afoul of party orthodoxy when he writes an article for a journal headed by Alberto Moravia; and his affair with married but separated single-mother is used by the party as an excuse to discipline him. No wonder his health is so bad. And then comes a telegram from the US—Nancy, his wife (they never divorced), is seriously ill. He gets a flight, arriving in Philadelphia in an epic snowstorm that incites the novel’s satisfying denouement.

Ferranini is a sad, lonely, and, yes, noble character (he’d despise that description, though, and the book sympathizes but never romanticizes him). Morselli writes with deep interest, if not tenderness, but entirely without sarcasm or satire about the tendency of belief systems and institutional structures to obscure the insights that sparked them. Ferranini’s article, the one that gets him in trouble with the party bosses, is about the inescapable reality of toil. Contra Marx, he argues, not even achieved socialism will be able to undo this reality. (Hannah Arendt would approve!) Workers don’t feel alienated; they feel tired. As he says:

Admit it, there are things that technology cannot achieve. There is a law that can’t be breached, a physical and biological law that says life can’t arise and survive without sweat and struggle. And especially not without struggling against the environment, the surrounding material reality, and labor is part of this.

The Communist, one of the best books I’ve read this year, so thoughtful and, oh I don’t know, solid, though never turgid, presents activism and labor organizing as real labor, less exhausting and dangerous than work in a mine or factory or agricultural cooperative, but exhausting and dangerous nonetheless. Most of the people who do that work are not dedicated to it—some are outright cynics, former fascists who became fervent communists when they saw which way the wind was blowing; Ferranini is exceptional. Morselli allows us to believe in his integrity even as he also shows us that the system the man works within ultimately holds him in contempt. It would be easy to conclude that Ferranini is a dupe. Morselli refuses that temptation. Neither does he make the man a true believer. He is something rarer: someone who does the work, because the work is good, if, as it is supposed to, it eases our exhaustion.

Nora inspired me to read this, and am I ever glad. Grateful too to the late Frederika Randall for bringing this book into such lovely English.

K. C. Constantine, The Man Who Liked to Look at Himself (1973)

The second Mario Balzic mystery is a step-down from the first—less interesting, plot-wise, and dismayingly retrograde in its use of slurs, to say nothing of its portrayal of queerness—but Constantine is good with the snappy dialogue and Balzic is shaping up to be a great character. I’ll give the series a little more rope.

Sally Rooney, Beautiful World, Where are You (2021)

Loved it! Still think Conversations with Friends is the one to beat, but I’m appreciating the maturing of Rooney’s characters as she herself ages, and I just think she gets “the whole meeting smart friends when you are young and then sticking with them for years even as your lives change” thing. Also, a great writer of sex.

Setting down to write what became The Rainbow, Lawrence said in a letter that he was going to follow the master, Eliot, and do what she did: take two couples and set them against each other. Rooney does the same here. Of her four protagonists, the non-intellectual Felix interested me the most, there’s a Mephistophelean quality there that is directed outward rather than inward (most of the bad things in her other books have involved self-harm), though I think Rooney took the easy way out at the end and tamed him, made him just curmudgeonly when he might have been something else.

This was great on audio, by the way, Rooney’s Irishness much more evident.

Kotaro Isaka, Bullet Train (2010) Trans. Sam Malissa (2021)

Extravagant thriller with more plot twists than any five books need, let alone one. The premise is cool—a bunch of assassins and other thugs are stuck on a bullet train from Tokyo to Morioka. Their various errands center on a suitcase full of money and the son of a mobster who winds up dead a few pages into the book. At first I was into it, the reversals were clever and the characters intriguing. But then the book spoils the fun by taking take itself seriously—there’s a running question of why people think it’s ok to kill other people, what makes for evil in the world, etc. Because I don’t respect myself, I finished it, all 432 pages.

Barbara Yelin, from But I Live

There you have it, folks. Began with a bang, ended with a whimper, but, really, this was the most solid reading month in ages. Almost everything was good, but special shout-outs to the Wright, Robinson, and Morselli. Three best-of-the-year candidates right there. Marginal consolation in a time of the rampaging new American illiberalism. I hope you all are well and not too disheartened.

What I Read, December 2021

I had quite a bit of free time this month, especially when I wasn’t writing the things I should be writing. But it didn’t feel especially restful: living amid the continual, not-so-slow erosion of a functioning civil society takes a toll. Plus I had a lot of leaves to rake. Like, a lot. (Corner lot, seven pin oaks.) I did read some books, though.

William Steig, New Yorker, October 14, 1967

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (1971)

In his odd and to my mind often unsatisfactory but certainly never dull introduction to this excellent novel, Michael Hofmann suggests that Saul Bellow struck a fatal blow to its chances at winning the Booker prize because he thought it sounded like a book with a lot of ladies sipping tea. (Apparently he hadn’t even read it? Which ugh Saul not a good look.) As Hofmann notes, almost no tea is sipped in this novel, there’s nothing cute or sweet or twee about it. It’s a late novel by a writer now finally getting her due as one of the best England produced in the 20th Century and by this point in her career Taylor really knew what she was on about.

What she’s specifically on about in this novel is death, and the loneliness that leads to it. Mrs. Palfrey, recently widowed and unwilling to stay with her daughter in Scotland, where she does not feel particularly welcome anyway, chances on an advertisement for the Claremont Hotel in London. “Reduced Winter Rates. Excellent cuisine.” Mrs. Palfrey is no dummy, she knows the latter is unlikely but she has the idea that London could be exciting and seizes the chance to strike out on her own. She arrives on a Sunday afternoon in January, and although the events take place over the course of the most of the rest of that year, it feels a wintry book to me.

Mrs. Palfrey finds the Claremont to be populated mostly by people as old as herself (rather than the bewildered, moneyed American tourists the manager much prefers), all of whom have nothing much to do other than to mark out their days and husband their dwindling resources. Mrs. Palfrey brags about her grandson, who works at the British Museum, implying he will soon visit; his failure to do so causes her much embarrassment. So when she takes a fall while on a walk (pacing out the time, duration, and direction of the daily walk being one of her important occupations) and is helped by a young man who lives in the basement flat opposite the accident, she is happy to pass him off as her grandson. The young man, Ludo (not quite as playful as his name suggests), is happy to oblige, as he is writing a novel and living on next to nothing (he writes at Harrod’s where he can sit in the warmth for nothing) and is always up for a free meal, even at a place where the cuisine is decidedly as non-excellent as the Claremont Hotel.

All the elements are in place for a farce—pretending Ludo is her grandson proves trickier than Mrs. Palfrey had anticipated, especially when the real one shows up—but the novel is dark rather than sparkling. Ludo is not a bad man, exactly, but he uses Mrs. Palfrey’s infatuation with him, not so much for financial gain as artistic material—he uses the milieu of the boarding hotel and its status as an antechamber to death for his novel and is generally more contemptuous of Mrs. P than he lets on. He’s not just a chancer, and does much more for the woman than her actual family, so it’s all interestingly complicated.

In one sense, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont is about the definition of family. Can the community of those who are thrown together be more powerful than the connections between blood or marital ties? The answer might not be yes, but the novel doesn’t have any nostalgia for those conventional ties, either. When one of the residents, the only man, proposes to her, Mrs. Palfrey is horrified. The most indelible scene in the novel, for me, is when the man refuses to wash his hands after using the toilet but runs the water briefly so that people will think he did. This is funny but also grim—and that gets the tone of the book, for me.

There’s a lot more to say about this novel—much more interesting than the film, which I saw many years ago and remember as cloying, an interpretation that kept me from reading the book for years, alas—which punches above its short length and too-easily dismissed subject matter (old people, especially women). Shout-out to NYRB Classics for publishing this in the US. I especially approve of their cover choice. Would have been easy to go for something with more chintz. That’s what Saul would’ve done.

Garry Disher, Peace (2019)

The second Hirsch novel is even better than the first. Disher evens out the ambivalence of Hirsch’s character, making Peace the more conventional book, but maybe I just want to be comforted—this book really worked for me. I love how Hirsch is as much social worker as cop: much of his job involves visiting shut-ins or otherwise marginalized figures who live on the out of the way farms or properties that seem to almost exclusively comprise his far-flung district. Eventually the plot coalesces into a central investigation, but this is a pleasingly loose-limbed novel.

John Le Carré, Silverview (2021)

At some point I might have to conclude I’m a Le Carré philistine. He’s just not my guy. The story of a man—a former finance guy who’s left the City and opened a bookshop in a seaside town in East Anglia—who meets and becomes entangled with another—a broken former spy offers a promising narrative structure is promising, lending itself to indirection and the juxtaposition of private and public secrets. But the bookseller character feels cursory and implausible, which means that his interest in the second man is hard to figure out. It’s a book written by someone who feels betrayed by the turn his country has taken—I read it as an anti-Brexit novel; I assume the otherwise odd extended references to Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn are meant symbolize an idea of Britain as inextricable from Europe—but the betrayal at the heart of the novel is confusing. Are we supposed to accept, even admire its consequences? In the end, Silverview left barely an impression on me.

Garry Disher, Consolation (2020)

Third Hirsch novel, best of the lot. Like most actual cops (I assume), Hirsch usually has a number of cases, many minor, barely worthy of the term, on the go at once. Consolation is a procedural, so inevitably a number of these strands end up coming together, but I like what Disher is doing in these books a lot. They’re generous, maybe a little regressive, but I prefer “cop doing his best” to “burnt-out obsessive with his demons.”  Can’t we all use some generosity these days? I found the ending as satisfying as the title promises. It would be fine to end the series here, but I gather a fourth’s on the way and I’ll read it for sure.

Claire Keegan, Small Things Like These (2021)

Beautiful novella set in Ireland in 1985—I was surprised when the date was first mentioned, I thought it might be the 50s, but as a friend told me the 80s in Ireland were the 50s elsewhere—about the Magdalene Laundries. That makes it sound worthy and dour, but it’s not, it’s a quiet heartbreaker in the William Trevor or Alice Munro mold.

Bill Furlong runs a coal delivery service—I loved the details of the business scattered throughout—and in the weeks leading up to Christmas he becomes aware of something terrible at the local convent. He finds a terrified young woman hiding in the convent’s coal shed, she begs him to take her with him, he doesn’t, even bringing her back to the nuns, but as soon as he does he knows he shouldn’t have, the nuns treat her kindly and with concern but he knows something is wrong and worries about what’s happened to her once he left. When he enquires into the situation he gets messages, some subtle and some not, that he shouldn’t mix himself in the nuns’ business, it’ll only end badly for him. In a moving conclusion, Furlong has the chance to right his previous wrong and Keegan leaves us poised on a knife edge—exultant that the right thing has been done but dreading what will likely be the terrible consequences of his decision. Furlong is a magnificent creation—Gabriel Conroy with self-knowledge (maybe a fanciful comparison, but the snow storm of the final pages had me thinking of snow being general over Ireland)—but one of many extraordinary things about the book is Keegan’s facility with characters. Especially fascinating, to me, was Furlong’s upbringing, being raised by a single mother, a domestic at the local Big House, whose welfare was taken in hand by the local Protestant grandee. (It tells you how much is going on in this little book that I haven’t even mentioned what Furlong learns about his paternity.) Equally brilliant is how these events are told: the prose is so careful, so infused with the rhythms of speech, so crafted without being labored or poetic. I read somewhere that Keegan revised the book forty times, and it shows—without ever being showy.

Everyone loves Small Things Like These, it was on half of the TLS contributors’ year in review lists, and I get it. It’ll be on mine too.

Paula Fox, The Coldest Winter: A Stringer in Liberated Europe (2005)

“I knew so little, and the little I did know, I didn’t understand.” That’s how Paula Fox describes her barely adult self when she sailed for Southampton in the summer of 1946. After a few weeks in bombed-out London she finagled a gig as a stringer and headed for Paris, Prague, and then, in the snows of December, to Poland. As in the novels that would make her name, the memoir is good with telling details: a woman’s clenched knuckles appearing white through the worn cloth of her apron signifies her trauma more than anything she says; a couple struggling with their wartime losses slowly press their cheeks together, the pained ritual “more intimate… than a passionate kiss would have been.” The point of the Poland trip was to observe the first post-war election, though given the Soviet-backed communist takeover, the results were a foregone conclusion. Fox is accordingly more interested in her fellow journalists, especially Helen Grassner, a Midwestern matron sent by an American Jewish organization to see what Poland was doing for its surviving Jews. Fox is fascinated by and disparaging of Grassner, a mixture mostly born of the contempt young people have for anyone they think of as old but a smidge of antisemitism is evident too. Fox reports with respectful bewilderment Grassner’s painful despair at not having lost anyone to the Holocaust (“When they have no dead, people feel it worse, somehow,” one of her colleagues notes) and records, first with dismay but eventually with respect, the woman’s affair with a younger Czech reporter.

Fox all but admits the book is slight, an addendum to her much-better known memoir Borrowed Finery, which I plan to read soon. The Coldest Winter feels like a sketch, missing the reflection that characterizes the best memoirs. Two of its most interesting moments—a memory of seeing Paul Robeson at Grand Central Station and a description of the torment she experienced as a puzzlingly fair-haired child of Spanish immigrants in a New York public school populated by Irish Catholics—are also the most retrospective, the older, experienced writer reflecting on and therefore shaping those moments. Still, an interesting glimpse into the rubble, hunger, and cold of Europe right after the war.

David A. Robertson, The Barren Grounds (2020)

Bought this book for my daughter for Hanukkah 2020, with the idea that the whole family might read it together. Which we did, for a while, but then my daughter lost interest (I think she found it a bit scary), and so it sat on the nightstand until my wife and I decided that we would finish it.

The easy summary is that this is Narnia told through Cree traditions: two indigenous kids fostered by a white couple in Winnipeg, Manitoba, find a portal to another world populated by humanoid animals who are suffering from a curse that has turned their lands into the barren grounds of the title. I enjoyed the first half or two-thirds of this middle-grade novel: the present-day framing material is poignant (no surprise that I, a well-meaning white liberal, was drawn to the kids’ struggles with their well-meaning white liberal foster parents), and the initial description of the alternate world is enticing. (Robertson is good on cold.) I also appreciated how the author matter-of-factly sprinkles Cree words and expressions throughout. But when the inevitable quest takes center stage (which, to be fair, is pretty interesting, as the villain is, as the kids realize, just a sad little ordinary white man, which doesn’t make his damage less powerful), the book takes on the mannerisms of an action movie, most gratingly the mechanical use of quips and sarcasm to punctuate the tension. In general, everything gets hasty, as if the book were rushed to meet a deadline. I’m not the intended audience, so whatever right, but I won’t be rushing to read volume two.

Charlotte Carter, Rhode Island Red (1997)

Breezy crime novel starring Nanette Hayes, “more or less a Grace Jones lookalike in terms of coloring and body type (she has the better waist, I win for tits).” Nanette plays saxophone on the streets of New York while putting her degree in French to use by translating Verlaine and dreaming of escaping to Paris. One day she takes home a fellow busker; when she wakes up he’s dead, leading her to discover that he was an undercover cop who has left 60K in her sax: predictably Nanette is caught up in some bad shit. The mystery is implausible, but the book’s worth reading for its style. Nanette on her investigation is funny—“It didn’t make sense. But on the other hand, it didn’t make no sense”—and self-aware: “This had all the elements of a film student’s low-budget homage to Godard.”

I read Rhode Island Red in a battered, smelly 90s mass market edition from the library, but I heard about it because Vintage has reissued the three Hayes novels in stylish new editions. Since the library here doesn’t have volumes two and three, I probably need to buy them, right?

K. C. Constantine, The Rocksburg Railroad Murders (1972)

Tom convinced me to give this long-running series a try—a kind of American Sjöwall & Wahlöö set in the fictional western Pennsylvanian town of Rocksburg. Chief of Police Mario Belzic, Italian-Serbian-American, is diverted from the thankless task of directing post-Friday night football traffic and desultory hooliganism to investigate the death of a man found bludgeoned to death at the local train station. (The train station! Where passenger trains regularly come and go! The victim takes the train to work at the night shift of the nearby mill! We once had a better country!) Some series take a while to hit their stride; on the basis of The Rocksburg Railroad Murders, the Belzic books arrive fully formed. The lead is great but Belzic is joined by several good minor characters: his deputies; the head of the local detachment of the State Troopers; the DA; a crime reporter; and, best of all, his wife, Ruth, his two teenage daughters, and his infirm and lovable mother. I hope Belzic’s family life will continue to feature prominently. Ruth is especially great—it’s a treat to read a crime novel about a cop whose relationships are not only not terrible but even loving. Mario and Ruth been married a long time and still have the hots for each other. At one point, Ruth is embarrassed to kiss him first thing in the morning because her breath smells. Cute!

The most surprising thing about the book, though, is how skeptical Belzic is about the police. (I mean, Nixon was President when this thing was published!) He believes cops shouldn’t carry guns:

“Nobody thinks twice about sending out a meter maid without a gun or a school crossing guard—why the hell do guys doing practically the same job—giving tickets or directing traffic—why the hell does everybody think they need a gun?”

It’s not the same, retorts his colleague.

“The hell it’s not. You’re just brainwashed, that’s all. You just can’t picture a man cop without a gun, but you see meter maids without them, and you don’t even think about it.”

The mystery itself is more psychological than suspenseful, more why than who, and that stuff felt dated, but as the quote about taking guns away from cops shows the book’s real interest is sociological. And for me, anyway, life in a small-town largely Catholic rust-belt town in the 1970s is fascinating—one of the important characters, a good friend of Belzics, is a priest, who, along with most everyone else in the book, enjoys late night card games and plenty of drinking, though it’s more convivial than desperate and includes local wine (!). Belzic himself is a fan of a late-night snack of provolone and banana peppers washed down with a beer.

His creator seems himself to be a figure of mystery—Wikipedia speculates Constantine may have been a minor-league baseball player, which would account for the matter-of-fact way the sport threads its way through the dialogue—and so maybe he is as laconic and gimlet-eyed as his protagonist. Here’s Belzic lamenting breaking a personal rule:

“It’s one I made about six, seven years ago when I made lieutenant. I told myself that whenever I don’t know what to do, I’d never make the mistake of doing something.” Advice more of us should follow.

And here he is with a bleak one-liner:

“Well, Mario, how’s it feel to be right?”

“Shitty.”

I laughed when I read this exchange; if you did too, give these books a try. K. C. Constantine revival 2022, I say!

Leigh Bardugo, Ninth House (2019)

Fantasy novel about New Haven as a nexus of magic, the secrets of which are lorded over by Yale’s Societies—and it fucking slaps. Haven’t enjoyed a book this much in ages, so grateful to the brilliant former student who told me about it. Strong Secret History / Prep vibes, but with more social criticism and a hell of a lot more ghosts. Even if you are a person who does not read fantasy, doesn’t want to hear the word “portal,” and could care less about the idea that some people see the remnants of those who’ve died, you should try this book. The world-building is so clever, the prose is impressive, and the commentary on the way privileged classes expand who gets accepted to them only to protect themselves is spot on. That utterly rare thing, in other words, a great campus novel.

Tadeusz Borowski, Here in Our Auschwitz and Other Stories Trans. Madeline G. Levine (2021)

More on this new translation of these indispensable stories in another venue before long.

Maurice Utrillo, Winter Scene

That was December—and another year. Soon I’ll drop my Year in Review piece, but not before I present similar reflections from some other readers. If you’d like to be included, just let me know. And tell me about your December reading, please!