Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Bryce Sears (@BryceSears5). Bryce, one of the nicest people on Book Twitter (which is saying something), is an avid reader and writer who lives in Oakland.
Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).
I kept up in 2021 a trend toward escapism in my reading. I’ve been on this kick about five years – a habit of reading a lot more fiction and a lot less non-fiction than I used to. I used to read a lot of history; the one piece of non-fiction I read last year was a travelogue – Kapka Kassabova’s Border. It was terrific, to my thinking, as you can see below. [Ed. – Straight up honest to God terrific, Bryce; it’s not just you!] Later, reading a few pages of its follow-up, To the Lake, I found it all a bit depressing, thinking about facts and history. It was this thing I’m dealing with. My view, I guess, is that the world is on fire. In a dozen different ways at least. So I’m voting to put it out. I’m volunteering and protesting. [Ed. – I admire you!] But also, for the sake of my own mental health, I might need more breaks from thinking about our predicament.
Such a cheery opening! The other thing helping with my mental health is my homelife. Two years ago my wife and I bought a house in Oakland. So, we’re doing a lot of work digging up strange things in our back yard, etc. [Ed. – Uh, how strange? Like dead body strange???] We have a three-year-old son who is delightful. His interest in books has really taken off. I spend a lot of time reading with him when I’m not writing or reading books for myself.
The Vet’s Daughter, and some other works by Barbara Comyns
Barbara Comyns is the writer I was most thrilled to discover this year. I was surprised. I tend to like best stories about people (to paraphrase Diane Williams in her recent interview with Merve Emre) dealing with the life we’re all stuck in. For a long time now, I haven’t tended to go in much for stories with magical or supernatural elements. If this sounds like you, too, don’t let it keep you from Comyns. Somehow, the supernatural in her stories isn’t startling (or at least I don’t find it so). It might be her prose, which is both cool and somehow scintillating. It might be the way she links the supernatural elements in her stories to the mental health of her protagonists. In The Vet’s Daughter, my favorite of the books of hers I’ve read, the supernatural in the story appears (at least as I read it) to come as a reaction the protagonist is having to a pervasive threat of violence. Which is to say it feels like a state of shock. It adds something to our sense of what the protagonist is feeling.
Or it could be my tastes are changing.
In any case, in addition to The Vet’s Daughter, the other books I read by Comyns this year are The Juniper Tree, Our Spoons Came from Woolworths, and Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead. They’re all quite different from one another. I liked The Juniper Tree best, but ask me again tomorrow. Saying I like this Comyns better than this other Comyns is almost no better than saying ‘I prefer apples to oranges’.
The Remains of the Day, and some other works by Kazuo Ishiguro
I’m not sure when I would have read Ishiguro if not for Book Twitter. Somehow, years ago, I got it into my head that I’d find his work cinematic in some off-putting way. The Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson adaptation of The Remains of the Day was so famous. Before I got around to reading that one an adaptation of Never Let Me Go came out, and it also got a big hoopla. I got the sense Ishiguro’s work must be reductive, somehow. Well, as I’m sure everyone else knew, it isn’t. The books behind these two movies are so very much better than the movies. I should have had more faith in literature.
My first Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day, was likely the first book I finished in 2021, going by my Twitter history. And what a revelation it was. Later in the year I read An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go. Now I have five additional, as yet unread, Ishiguros in a stack on the shelves next to me. They make me feel rich.
Happening, and some other works by Annie Ernaux
I was a bit obsessed with Annie Ernaux in 2021. I read Happening, A Man’s Place, A Woman’s Story, and I Remain in Darkness (all translated by Tanya Leslie). I read The Possession(tr. Anna Moschovakis). Over a period of months I reread Happening, A Girl’s Story (tr. Alison L. Strayer), and Simple Passion (tr. Tanya Leslie). These are all short, auto-fictional stories that feel like memoirs.
The confessional quality of these books is one thing that draws me to them. Another is the skepticism Ernaux displays in her writing. She tries to make clear, as she writes about events in her past, how little she knows of the women she used to be, how false it would be to pretend to walk in the shoes of these younger selves. [Ed. – Nicely put!] She goes out of her way to avoid exaggeration. And I find this humility so refreshing.
One last word on Ernaux. My favorite work of hers is Happening. It is quite harrowing – the story of an abortion Ernaux had in 1963, when she was 23 and abortion hadn’t yet been decriminalized in France. If I could I’d have everyone in the US read this book. It strikes me we could do worse here, where many women will likely face choices soon like the ones Ernaux faced, than encourage people to understand what it was like for this particular woman – a white woman, highly educated, in 1960s France. I’m not a teacher, but I think it’d make a nice class discussion, a group of close readers considering how the situation might vary in the US for people of color, for people with less access to information of the sort Ernaux had, etc.
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
West Texas, where I grew up, is the part of Texas where all the worst Texas clichés come to life. The whitest, most reactionary part. I always wanted out of it. I might have become a reader in part to avoid it. Which is all by way of an excuse for not having read a western before last year. Still, I picked a great book to begin with.
Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read in 2021. It’s a big, twisty story, rich with joyful writing (I mean, it is often dark, but you can tell McMurtry enjoyed writing it). It struck me as escapist in the plainest sense of the word – it took me to a very different world from my own. The jokes worked for me. Consider the wry twist of this line that comes when Gus, the protagonist (I think, it could be Call), gives a junior partner money for a prostitute, then reminisces (in free indirect): “Best to help boys have their moment of fun, before life’s torments snatched them away.” Or this line, Gus again (he gets a lot of the best jokes), talking to Call, claiming he indulges in remorse for his mistakes so often that the pain on each indulgence isn’t “much worse than a dry shave.” Or these lines, near the climax of the story, when another character (called Pea Eye – his name is its own joke), is on the run: “His feet were swollen to twice their size, besides being cut here and there. Yet they were the only feet he had, and after dozing for an hour in the sun, he got up and hobbled on.” You can see McMurtry building out his characters with these jokes. You can see him building the world they live in, which he leans into the hardness of. One character lives with a leaky gunshot wound in his stomach. The book begins with two pigs “having a fine tug-of-war” with a rattlesnake they’ve found.
Slowly, drawn along by the humor and descriptive power of the writing, I think most readers of Lonesome Dove will find themselves hooked by its story. I did. It can worry me sometimes, the feeling I’ve been hooked. I’ve read a lot of bad writing in books after finding myself interested in a story (the writing was often bad in the beginning of these books, when I wasn’t hooked and should have given them up). Here, reading Lonesome Dove, I found myself wanting to know what would happen when the big cattle drive got underway. What would happen with Gus, who had seemed to have a pretty empty life in Lonesome Dove. I wanted to know if Newt would find out about his parentage. If Laurie would make it to San Francisco. It worried me, the sense I was getting hooked, letting my guard down. But I don’t think it should have. I read Lonesome Dove last summer. Time has passed, and now I’m flipping through it again. And already want to reread it.
Other writers I enjoyed in 2021
Anita Brookner tops the list of writers I discovered last year, and loved, but am still just getting to know. I read Look at Me,Hotel du Lac, and Latecomers. They’re all terrific. [Ed. — “Hartmann, a voluptuary, lowered a spoonful of brown sugar crystals into his coffee cup, then placed a square of bitter chocolate on his tongue, and, while it was dissolving, lit his first cigarette.”]
Another writer I greatly enjoyed reading is Tove Jansson. I read The True Deceiver last year and The Summer Book the year before (I think). I’d really like to read Fair Play soon and her stories (and maybe the Moomin stories, too).
I reread Beckett’s Molloy last year. I read Clarice Lispector’s The Hour of the Star. Thinking of these books gave me pause in saying Lonesome Dove was the most absorbing book I read last year. I was locked into both from the start.
I read The Copenhagen Trilogy, the three-part memoir by Tove Ditlevsen, which is devastating. I read Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, my first Tokarczuk. And now I want to read everything she has written, or will write.
I read, as mentioned above, Kapka Kassabova’s Border last year. It is so good. I think I sold it short above calling it a travelogue. Border strikes me as meditative work. Its use of language is gorgeous. Dorian recommended this one, and I read it as a group read with Kim McNeill, Catherine Eaton, and Naguib Mechawar. I benefited greatly from their thoughts on it. The next Kassabova I’d like to read is To the Lake: a Balkan Journey of War and Peace. Just need to find the nerve. [Ed. – It’s worth it!]
I read Toni Morrison’s Jazz for the first time last year, and Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. Both are phenomenal. NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names is so good, and I wanted live forever in the strange mysteries of The Taiga Syndrome (tr. Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana), by Christina Rivera Garza.
I could go on – I haven’t mentioned Natalia Ginzburg’s Family Lexicon, or Grace Paley’s Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, or Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, or Cynan Jones’s The Dig, or Andrea Bajani’s If You Kept a Record of Sins, …, or … or …. But I have to make myself quit.
I’ve really enjoyed writing this. Thanks for reading.
I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.
My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.
But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.
I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?
I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.
For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:
All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.
These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.
Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove
My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.
Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake
I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.
Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me
Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.
I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.
Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free
A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.
Helen Garner, The Spare Room
Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.
Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants
Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing
Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future
I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.
Best of the rest:
Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).
Stone cold classic classics:Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).
Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah
Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.
Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).
Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.
Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.
Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.
Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?
Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!
Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.
Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.
Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.
Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).
Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each):The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.
Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times
Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.
Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?
Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.
Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.
Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.
Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!
What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.
August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.
Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)
Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the size of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).
The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)
Something A Suitable Boydoes share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.
If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.
Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)
The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.
Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)
Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.
But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:
Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.
As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.
Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.
Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)
I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.
Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.
Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)
Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.
Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)
Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.
Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)
Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.
Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.
Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)
Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)
Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?
Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux
I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.
Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)
It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.
Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)
Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.
Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.
Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)
My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”
Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.
Sometime in the mid-90s, Philip Marsden spends a winter in Moscow, researching the Cossacks and the Old Believers—dreaming, in other words, of the Caucasus.
When spring comes Marsden goes to Rostov. There he begins the meandering journey across the land between the Black and Caspian seas that is the subject of The Spirit-Wrestlers. Marsden describes the territory as “Russia’s Vendée, where serfs and schismatics fled to become Cossacks … where the perennial urge to conformity seems at its weakest—the place where the sea-like flatness of the steppe breaks against the Caucasus and all its scatterings of non-Russian peoples.”
Some of these people are long-vanished, like the Scythians, whom the Cossacks have styled as their forbearers (a claim Marsden dismisses as nonsense), and the Alans, another vanished Steppe group famous for its warrior temperament, and whose descendants are likely today’s Ossetians. In addition to sojourns among Cossacks, Ossetians, Georgians, and Armenians, Marsden also tracks down some more obscure peoples, like the Molokans (the milk drinkers, named after an epistle from Peter that describes believers desiring the Word as babies do milk), whose numbers at one point reached a million and were important in the movement to abolish serfdom in the 19th century, and one of whose subgroups were the first to call themselves “communists” after pooling their resources.
The people he’s most interested in, though, are the Doukhobors (the “spirit-wrestlers” of the title). Their origins—like those of pretty much every group in this book and, indeed, the world—are unclear, but they date to the late 18th century. The sect’s adherents distanced themselves from what they saw as the corruption of the Church; instead they “tried to live in the way most likely to release the spark that lives in each individual.” In the 19th Century their most famous leader was imprisoned in Siberia and the rest were exiled to the southern edge of the empire. Above all it was their pacifism that got them in trouble—they refused to serve in the army—but this was what brought them to the attention of Tolstoy, who donated the proceeds from his last novel, Resurrection, to them, which allowed many Doukhobors to emigrate to Canada in the early 20th century. (They settled in the prairies, and flitted on the periphery of my childhood, but only as a kind of joke: their reputation for espousing a kind of hippie millenarianism stemmed from their tendency to avow nudism. I remember them being portrayed to me as something like grubby Hutterites. It was useful—and not a little shaming—to learn the meaningful context for people and practices I’d only known as derisive.)
Yet as its division into parts named Steppe and Mountain suggests, The Spirit-Wrestlers is as much about landscape—sometimes verdant, sometimes stony, always seemingly inexhaustible—as about the stormy co-existence of religious and ethnic groups.
Last year I read Marsden’s The Bronski House, about a similarly contested border region in Eastern Europe, this time to the north-west of Russia (Poland, Lithuania, Belarus). I loved it. But I think I might like The Spirit-Wrestlers even more. Which surprises me, since the subject matter isn’t immediately appealing to me. I’m not really that religious a person, and non-Abrahamic religions interest me least of all. (Many of the people Marsden interacts with are Christians, but they are typically dissenters: the Doukhobors, for example, do not recognize the authority of the Church.) Yet despite its concern with spiritualism, Marsden’s true interest is ordinary material life, in all its pains and pleasures.
That dogma is his enemy is clear throughout. But in his final pages, Marsden allows himself to editorialize a little. In Armenia he goes looking the Yezidi, a group that recognizes evil as an integral part of creation. He concludes:
Our universe is naturally flawed, they say, and to deny it is to miss an elemental truth. I could not help being drawn to this idea. It was a riposte to all those dreamers—from Christians to Communists—who clog their thinking with the way things should be and ignore the way they are, who gaze for too long at their own glittering visions and fail to see the glories in the twists and bumps that make up the real world.
The Yezidi—the long history of whose suffering took a further, terrible turn a few years ago when they were genocidally persecuted by ISIS—don’t try to purge the world of evil. They just try to avoid it. In so doing, Marsden argues, “they sidestep one of the great paradoxes of our earthly existence. For as any dictator learns, it is precisely what you try to purge that becomes your downfall.”
These conclusions explain Marsden’s epigraph, attributed to Russian villagers, who, when camels were brought to their collective farms, exclaimed: “Look what the Bolsheviks have done to the horses!” The joke might at first seem to be on the villagers, rubes who can’t tell a horse from a camel. But really it’s on the Bolsheviks, and anyone who tries to mash square pegs into round holes. Or, more painfully, on those who take on the role of the pegs, who suffer the murderous grandiosity of conviction forced on life from on high. Can we even call it a joke? So much pain lies behind it: a classic if-you-don’t-laugh-you’ll-cry scenario.
Suffering also explains the importance of food in the book, for food, Marsden suggests, is the preeminent way of bringing people together peacefully. In the steppe and the mountains, food (and peace) has so often been in short supply. When Marsden talks to old people he hears terrible stories of starvation, mostly due to Stalin’s forced collectivism. They remember eating grass and birch bark, boiling leather shoes for a desperate soup, devouring the seed-corn. These stories are from long ago, but they resonate into the present. In Maikop, in the Russian Adygei Republic, a fraught conversation about ethnic nationalism is brought to a peaceful conclusion only when it’s time for lunch:
The whole subject was too serious to be taken seriously in public. They unpacked more food, and with the food the harmless chatter resumed; in Russia there is no anxiety so great that it cannot find relief in a full table.
As this passage suggests, food matters less for its own sake (the book is pre-Foodie, thank God) and more for its ability to bring people together.
Rather unusually for a travel writer, Marsden likes people. He’s curious about everyone and everything, without being credulous. He stays just the right side of folksy in his observations, some of which are quite funny:
I left Fyodor Mikhailovich sitting on a bench outside his gate. He was waiting for something to happen so that he could watch it. Nothing had happened yet and it probably wouldn’t that day.
In South Ossetia he meets a doctor nicknamed Pushkin, “a tireless walker, not fast, but who walked without really being aware he was walking.” They discuss the famously long-lived people of the Caucasus, people who lived not just into their 120s but, apparently, into their 170s. Why aren’t there such people anymore? We eat yeast, Pushkin says, adding, “Everything’s different now.”
The doctor, who visits tiny villages on foot, bringing only the comfort of his presence (he hasn’t had medicine since the fall of the Soviet Union), experiences change only as loss:
To Pushkin, these elongated lives were just one of the vanished riches of the Soviet past, like a full medicine cabinet, like the kolkhoz sheep, like peace between the peoples of the union.
But the Union brought pain, too. In Kidlovodsk, a spa town in the mountains, he rents a room from Natalya Petrovna, a “teacher of ideology” who is at first presented almost as a figure of fun, an eccentric anyway: “She was also an expert on local buses.” He sleeps on her balcony, under “a canopy of fresh walnut leaves.” In the morning he listens to Natalya toss “scraps of bread to the dogs in the yard: ‘Maronchik! Sobachka!’” She spends her days working in the garden at her dacha, which she reaches by taking the Number 52 to the post office, then changing to the Number 10. It’s all gentle and sweet. Then we learn about her two sons, who appear “loose-hipped and laughing” in a photo on the kitchen wall.
They had gone to Afghanistan together. They had written long letters home. They had sent photographs of themselves in uniform. Natalya’s sons had returned separately, each one in a box.
The tone darkens all in a moment. The life of the lonely woman suddenly seems different: the precision of the bus routes becomes a way of salvaging sense from senselessness. And her repeated lament “They’ve drunk Russia away…” becomes not a quixotic railing against the Russian national pastime but fury at the generals who stole her boys.
As these examples suggest, Marsden isn’t a showy writer. But he’s a good one. That “loose-hipped and laughing” is a fine example. “Loose-hipped”: I’d never have thought of it, but I can just see it. Or take this description of a sudden rainstorm: “Women scuttled into doorways with handbags over their heads; dogs ran flat-furred through the water.” I love that “flat-furred.” Marsden’s good with dogs. In Armenia, “warm Asiatic winds were blowing unchecked across [the land’s] grassy tracts, flicking the neck-fur of the dogs.”
Marsden is like his style: impressive but modest. He keeps to the edge of the story. We learn almost nothing about him. (By comparison The Bronski House is practically an autobiography.) He cuts an appealing figure: modest, uncomplaining, able to find a place for himself no matter where he goes. When things go wrong, as they always do, he doesn’t fuss. I especially wondered what language he speaks to the people he meets, many of whom have little formal education. (Which of course isn’t incompatible with the ability to speak several languages.) It’s clear his Russian is excellent, and that’s presumably the language of choice. But did that work in Ossetia, Georgia, and Armenia?
Similarly, I wondered what such a trip would be like now. Even more difficult to accomplish, I assume. Marsden is kicked off a bus by Russian security forces the first time he tries to get to Georgia, and he worries about being shot at night in Tbilisi. But I suspect these places are even more dangerous for Westerners now. I would imagine the rise of Islam in the area has changed things a lot (Marsden only meets one Muslim, a convert who is the source of bemused contempt by his family.) Wherever he goes, he records everyday examples of Islamophobia (plus the casual anti-Semitism you’d expect).
These changes notwithstanding The Spirit-Wrestlers didn’t seem dated, despite being written twenty years ago. Not that its concerns are timeless. But the battle between idealism and ordinary life (which I admit I am romanticizing, as, perhaps, does Marsden) is endless. And it’s clear Marsden has influenced later writers. The Spirit-Wrestlers, for example, reminded me of Kapka Kassabova’s Border, a similarly intelligent and sensuous investigation of a place where cultures collide, in that case Thrace and the Rhodope.
If I haven’t already enticed you to give The Spirit-Wrestlers a try, I’ll add two last notes. One, it’s got a great map. Who doesn’t love a map? Two, it’s a perfect summer book, filled with descriptions of people sitting outside late into the night eating and, especially, drinking. And with a new set of true believers causing trouble all across the world what’s not to like about that?
At first, I thought my 2018 reading was good but not great. But then I looked over my list and I kept remembering books that had left an impression. Maybe not a lot of books for all time, but plenty of high-quality stuff.
I read 126 books in 2019 (and abandoned a lot of others). Of these, 67 were by women and 59 by men; 99 were originally written in English and 27 in translation. 17 were audio books; 14 were re-reads.
Kapka Kassabova, Border. A book I keep coming back to, and if it weren’t for a certain gargantuan novel (more below) this would be my book of the year. Border, as I wrote for #BulgarianLitMonth, is “about the periphery, places where resistance to centralized authority often succeeds, though usually at the cost of poverty and marginalization.” Kassabova’s journeys through Thrace (the intersection of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey) is filled with indelible portraits; it is the rare travelogue that is more about the people the writer meets than the writer herself.
Phillip Marsden, The Bronski House: A Return to the Borderlands. Back in June I described this book as “a story about home and exile amid the violence of the 20th century. It is a meditation on the idea of return. And it is a portrait of a sweet and moving friendship that crosses generations, sexes, and cultures.”
Jon McGregor, Reservoir 13. I think about this book all the time, even though I listened to the (gorgeous) audio book way back in March. A novel about the passing of time as marked by the rhythms of the natural world. I’m considering adding it to my Experimental British Fiction class for its brilliant use of passive voice (except the last thing that class needs is another book by a white guy).
Laura Lippman, Sunburn. Brilliant noir that subverts the genre’s misogyny. (I think it’s a response to Double Indemnity.) At one point I made a few notes for an essay, abandoned for now, about what life was like before the Internet, when serendipity seemed to structure what we knew, and many things were hard to know. This book is set in the 90s, not just for the backdrop of the Clinton impeachment hearings, which it uses to good effect, but because not knowing, or barely knowing, or needing to find someone who knows what you need to know is central to the plot.
Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz. Michael Hofman’s translation is a triumph (his afterword is fascinating); he makes Döblin’s collage of idioms and styles live for English-language readers. Not a book to love, for me at least, but certainly one to admire. Even more fun than writing about it was reading what Nat had to say.
Nick Drnaso, Sabrina & Liana Finck, Passing for Human. My two favourite comics in a year of good ones. (Honourable mention to Jason Lutes, for his satisfying conclusion to the Berlin trilogy). At first glance, these books have nothing in common, but they’re both dark and troubling, and they use the form in such interesting ways. I wrote about Sabrinahere. You’ll hear more from me about Finck.
Helen Dunmore, Birdcage Walk. Even though this book felt a bit misshapen and truncated (it was her last and I’m sure her health was bad as she was completing it), it’s stayed with me much more than I expected. I wrote a bit about it here. I’ll read more Dunmore this year, starting with The Siege. If you have other favourites, let me know.
Lissa Evans, Old Baggage & Crooked Heart—One of this year’s many blogging regrets is that I never made time to write about these two novels. I read Old Baggage (2018) on the recommendation of various Twitter friends, and then tracked down Crooked Heart (2014) at my local library. This reverse order turned out just fine, as Baggage is a prequel to Crooked; knowing what has happened to get the child protagonist to the situation he’s in at the beginning of Crooked makes the earlier book even more poignant. If you’re allergic to poignancy, though, don’t worry. Evans is funny (in real life, too—follow her on Twitter) and anything but sanctimonious or sentimental. Which could have been a real risk: each of these books, set in England during the 1920s-40s, describes a boy’s relationship with two older women, ersatz parents. Even though each is in her own way a social misfit, the women have a lot to teach the child, whether it’s how to make a speech or how to pull a con. I loved both books, but preferred Baggage because the child plays second fiddle to the indelible Mattie Simpkin, a former Suffragette leader who, in her declining years, challenges herself to galvanize a generation of young women who are taking for granted the gains made by their elders. (As far as they’re concerned, Mattie and her ilk are just “old baggage.”) What happens, Evans asks, when the movement you’ve devoted your life to fades away? As great as Mattie is, she’s not even the best character: that would be her friend and sometime amanuensis, nicknamed The Flea, so kind, so loving, so long-suffering, so surprising. Old Baggage is a quick read, but it’s packed with things to think about and enjoy. You’ll have to get it from the UK but it’s worth it.
Jessie Greengrass, Sight. Smart novel/essay about the pleasures and pains of making the invisible visible.
Olivia Manning, The Levant Trilogy. Scott and I wrote about these wonderful books. Maybe not quite as amazing as their predecessors, The Balkan Trilogy, but there’s one scene in the first volume that is such a stunner.
Rachel Seiffert, A Boy in Winter. I hate almost all contemporary novels about the Holocaust. But Seiffert won me over, partly by emphasizing the Shoah by bullets (the murderous movement of the SS Einsatzgruppen across the Soviet Union in 1941-2), partly by focusing on victims, perpetrators, and bystanders alike, and complicating those seemingly separate categories, and partly by her thoughtfulness about the relationship between assimilation and survival. I even forgave the book for being written mostly in first person, a pet peeve of mine. (Long live the past perfect, I say.) I also read her first book, The Dark Room, also about the war years: also good, though not as light on its feet as Boy.
Brian Moore, The Mangan Inheritance. Seventies books are the best books.
Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, translated by Shaun Whiteside. This book is a wonder, so still and careful and joyous. It’s about a woman who survives some sort of apocalypse that leaves her trapped in a lovely, though also punishing alpine valley, with only various animals for companionship. I reveled in the details of the narrator’s survival and the suggestion that it might take a complete rupture for women to find their place in the world. John Self says the rest of Haushofer’s (small) body of work is good, too.
Émile Zola—Some of the year’s greatest reading moments came from the project Keith and I launched to make our way through the Rougon-Macquart cycle. We read three novels this year (at this rate, our kids are going to be in college before we’re done) and it was such a pleasure thinking about them with him. The Fortune of the Rougons was tough sledding, but The Bellyof Paris and TheKill were great. I’m obsessed with Zola’s use of description, and how that tendency threatens to derail the aims of the naturalist project (if we in fact take those aims seriously; Tom cautioned me not to) and even the idea of narrative itself. We’re committed to continuing with Zola in 2019—maybe I can get my act in gear to read and write a little faster.
And my reading experience of the year: Jonathan Littel, The Kindly Ones, translated (heroically) by Charlotte Mandell.
I’m sad I never made time to write about this, the longest (900+ pages) book I read in 2018. I read 20-50 pages each day in June, and as soon as I finished we left on our long Canada vacation and the moment for writing about it passed. But I have thoughts! This extraordinary novel of the Holocaust is narrated by Maximilian Aue, an SS officer who experiences most of the significant moments of the war and the Final Solution: he’s in Paris in the summer of 1940, and at Stalingrad two years later. He’s with the Einsatzgruppen as they extinguish Jewish life in the Ukraine (including a horrifying set piece describing the events at Babi Yar), he’s in the Caucasus, he’s in Vichy France, he’s in Pomerania as the Red Army overruns the Germans. It’s amazing how Littel makes Aue’s peregrinations seem plausible rather than a Forest Gump-like gimmick. Early on, I found the novel so grim and distasteful that I could only read 20 pages at a time—I asked Mandell, always so gracious on Twitter, how she could stand to translate it, and she told me it was hard, and even worse when she started to dreamed about it. Aue is not a nice man, but he’s smart and erudite and a compelling storyteller. He’s so much more reasonable, though I shudder to put it this way, in his extermination of Jews and other so-called undesirables than most of the men he works with, and he has the decency to make himself sick over what he’s done that occasionally we forget what the hell is really going on and even look on him kindly. Quite a trick how Littel pulls us towards accepting or at least understanding the intellectual underpinnings of fascism while never letting us forget what a failure it would be to really be seduced. There’s an utterly engrossing lengthy section in which Aue and various other officials discuss whether the Mountain Jews of the Caucuses (descendants of Persian Jews) are racially or “only” ritually Jewish; that is, whether they ought to be exterminated or not. The cold-bloodedness and ethnographic hairsplitting of the conversation offer a powerful example of how men can set notions of decency or morality aside.
The Kindly Ones is ultimately a flawed book: alongside the political/ideological explanations, Littel gives Aue another motivation for his actions—his incestuous love for his sister. (This is the strand that references the Orestia, the last volume of which gives the novel its name.) Littel never reconciles these political and personal strands, so that in the end all of his work at showing the all-too-human motivations for genocide is undone by the psychopathic aspects of this second strand. But the accomplishment here is tremendous. I don’t know if anyone less obsessed with the Holocaust than me could ever enjoy—well, let’s say value—such a book, but I was very taken with it, especially because the book wanted me to feel gross about feeling that way.
Some bests and worsts:
Best new (to me) series: Robert Galbraith (a.k.a J. K. Rowling)’s Cormoran Strike & Robin Ellacott books. A little bloated, but Galbraith knows how to tell a story. From the classic meet cute in the first pages of the first volume, Galbraith pushes my buttons and I don’t care. The plots are genuinely suspenseful, and the “will they/won’t they” storyline between the private detective and his temp-become-full-fledged assistant is catnip. I recommend the audio books.
Best Holocaust texts: Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (beautiful essay on some photographs the author took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau); Molly Applebaum, Buried Words: The Diary of Molly Applebaum (the story of how Applebaum survived the war is incredible, as is the cognitive dissonance between that text and her postwar memoir, also included in this volume); Nechama Tec, Dry Tears (I will be writing about this memoir soon).
Best book by Dorothy B. Hughes: I read four Hughes novels this year. The Expendable Man, her last, was my favourite, and I think it’s a genuinely great book because it implicates readers in its cultural criticism. I enjoyed the more famous In a Lonely Place, but I preferred the first half of the earlier The Blackbirder. Hughes isn’t a conventional suspense writer: plot isn’t her strength. What she’s brilliant at is describing how people deal with threats they know about but can’t escape. That skill is evident from the first page of The So Blue Marble, her first and mostly utterly preposterous novel. Even though Hughes’s protagonists aren’t always women, she writes from a position women know only too well: being victimized not by some unknown person, but by someone close to them—someone the rest of the world is slow to suspect. This accounts for the atmosphere of desperation and fear that characterizes her work. I’ll hunt down more Hughes in 2019.
Best essay about prison libraries hiding inside what pretends to be a crime novel: George Pelecanos’s The Man Who Came Uptown.
Best crime discovery (I): Anthony Horowitz, who I’ve in fact been enjoying for years as a longtime fan of (a.k.a. total suck for) Foyle’s War. The Word is Murder is pure genius: Horowitz puts himself in the story, uses the oldest odd-couple idea in the book, and still makes it work. Clever and fun. Afterwards, I read the earlier Magpie Murders, similarly clever and fun, though not quite as genius as Murder, which, I am delighted to see, looks like it will become a series.
Best crime discovery (II): Lou Berney, who lives just down Interstate 40 in Oklahoma City and isn’t afraid to write about it. The Long and Faraway Gone was good, but November Road is great, and I say that as someone allergic to anything to do with the Kennedy assassination.
Book I had to stay up all night to finish: Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves. Indigenous Canadian dystopian YA—will follow her career with interest.
Best thriller—Lionel Davidson’s Kolymsky Heights, by a mile. His first, The Night of Wenceslas, is weaker, but the guy can write a chase scene.
Best SF-alternate history-who knows what genre this is and who cares: Lavie Tidhar’s Unholy Land. Tidhar hasn’t always been to my taste, but he’s always worth thinking with, and here he delivers a compelling story that imagines a Jewish homeland in Africa. (Modelled of course on one of the many such plans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) A thoughtful book about borders, as sad as any book about that topic must be, and as such relevant to everyone.
Most vexing: P. G. Wodehouse, Thank you, Jeeves. It is delightful! But can it be delightful with a minstrelsy sub-plot?
Books I liked at the time but have sunk without a trace: Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend is a good dog book and a book about a good dog. As I recall, it seems to be suggesting autofiction is intrinsically good at portraying grief, which is interesting. But although I enjoyed it a lot at the time, I never think of it now. I should be the target audience for Maybe Esther (Trans. Shelley Frisch), Katya Petrowskaya’s investigation into and speculation about the fate of her family in the Ukraine during WWII. And it really has its moments (there’s a great bit near the beginning about a ficus plant). But somehow it didn’t add up for me. I might like it a lot more on a re-read—do you ever feel that way about a book?
Disappointments: Claire Fuller, Bitter Orange (not terrible, and on the face of it the sort of thing I like best—Gothic country house, unreliable narrator—but underwhelming; maybe Our Endless Numbered Days was a one-off?); Ian Reid, Foe (fair bit of buzz about this quasi-SF, quasi-philosophical novel concerning humans and replicants, but I didn’t think it was as smart as it seemed to think it was).
Lousy: Leila Slimani, The Perfect Nanny (histrionic); Emma Viskic, Resurrection Bay (overwrought); Arnaldur Indridason, The Shadow Killer (losing his way, I fear).
Reliable pleasures: Tana French (Witch Elm deserves a better fate: it’s typically gorgeous and tricksy, but for the first time French concentrates on an individual rather than a relationship; I’ve read some grumbling about it, and I don’t get it); Jeanne Birdsall (Penderwicks 4eva!); John Harvey (the new book is his last and it is very sad); Ellis Peters (check out Levi Stahl’s lovely piece); Ian Rankin (came back to Rebus after many years away, and am catching up—sometimes the writing is bad, but he’s good at weaving subplots, and at knowing when a book is long enough); Phillip Kerr (making my way through the Bernie Guenther’s and they’re evocative, suspenseful, and damn funny: hard to pull off).
My big regret for 2018 is that I wrote almost nothing for publication. I was tired after a few very busy years. And I was scared to pitch new venues after some of the journals I’d been most associated with folded in 2017. I’m aiming to write more in 2019. Here on the blog, I would love to write more frequently and less longwindedly, but I’m coming to realize that over-long, close-reading analyses are what I do best (or what I do, anyway). I’m going to try something new, though, as a way to say a little something about more of the books I read: at the end of each month, I’ll write a round-up post, something like Elisa Gabbert’s magnificent year-end piece. I don’t have her lightness or ease, but I think it will be an exciting challenge.
As always, I’ve loved reading and writing with friends this past year. For the first time I even included a post about a book I’ve never even read (thanks, Nat!). I’d love to have more contributions from other readers and writers. If you want to suggest something to read with me, just let me know. And if you just want a place to share your thoughts about a book, say the word. I do have one concrete suggestion: join me and others to read a long Danish novel about canals and Jews! And I know I will be avidly reading Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad when it comes out this summer. And I will make it back to Anniversaries, I promise. Other than that, I’ll probably keep reading as waywardly and haphazardly as always. Although a hedgehog in personality, I am a fox when it comes to reading.
Thanks to everyone for reading and commenting in 2018—I hope you’ll stick around for more in 2019. After all, the blog is turning 5 next month! And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015, 2016 & 2017.