What I Read, October 2022

October 2022 was months ago, I just remember we headed into the heart of semester, and it was still too hot a lot of the time, except at the end. I had a lot going on, but I managed to read quite a lot somehow. (A few of these had been on the go for a long time, though.) This is the last of these 2022 months I’ll complete. I’m missing July and August, which were good reading months, but some of those titles will appear on my Year in Review piece, which I’ll finally turn to now…

Robert Houle, Sandy Bay, 2007

Larry McMurtry, Streets of Laredo (1993)

After finishing Lonesome Dove a couple of years ago, I asked Twitter if the book McMurtry later wrote with many of the same characters were as purely enjoyable. The answer was a resounding no, with a few even warning me not to read them, as their joylessness would retrospectively taint my feelings about LD. That was a flag to a bull, of course, and a friend and I decided to start with the book McMurtry wrote as a sequel.

It is, predictably, grimmer and more valedictory. The mythic West, already shown to be faded and false at the end of Dove, is really no more in The Streets of Laredo. And any book without Gus McCrae is going to be more a downer than one with him in it. The former heroes are old and failing, the new young’uns are clueless or vicious. But characters who didn’t shine in that earlier world get their due here: who knew that Pea Eye would grow to have so much self-knowledge? And women are important in this book, Lorena in particular is magnificent. The primary indigenous character, though, well, less two-dimensional than in Dove, and intended, I suspect, as a tribute, is an embarrassment, there’s no way around it.

Laredo is a violent book, much more so than Dove, verging even at times on Blood Meridian levels. It’s not a nihilistic book, though, unlike McCarthy’s, and indeed in the end a peaceable, fallible one. I loved it, and didn’t regret reading it for a second, and will give the two prequels a try soon enough.

Keum Suk Gendry-Kim, The Waiting (2021) Trans. Janet Hong (2021)

Every year on Yom Kippur, in the hours between morning services and ne’ila, when I’m too hungry and headache-y to sleep, I pick up a book that has nothing to do with work. Bonus points if it’s not too taxing, but also on the somber side. The Waiting fit the bill: a beautifully drawn and told comic about a family separated during the Korean War, and the aftermath of that trauma. Every year hundreds of people in South Korea—all of them now old, most frail—apply to meet relatives who found themselves in what became North Korea after the freezing of hostilities in the 1950s. The exchange is tightly controlled by both sides; only a handful who apply are chosen. The meetings happen at special facilities on the border: people who haven’t seen loved ones in decades are given a few hours together, an opportunity that can be almost as painful as not being selected. I knew nothing of this, and would, I’m sure, have been overwhelmed by sadness even without the somberness of the day.

Michael Frank, One Hundred Saturdays: Stella Levi and the Search for a Lost World (2022) Illus. Maira Kalman

A wonderful book, that rare thing, a Holocaust text that is as much about the world that was destroyed as the events of the destruction. In Stella Levi’s case that world was fragile to begin with, though absolutely vibrant. Only two thousand Jews lived on the island of Rhodes in 1939, and, since the island had been controlled by Italy since the end of the last war, life for the community did not change much until the Germans took over in September 1943. (Which isn’t to say the Italians leveled no strictures on the Jewish population: in 1938, for example, Jews were expelled from the universities.) Almost the entire population, save a handful who could claim Turkish citizenship, were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1944. Only 150 returned. And most of those were unwilling to live in Rhodes again: a community that had flourished for over 2000 years, and in its final, Sephardic incarnation since the 16th century, was gone.

Stella Levi, born in 1923 as the youngest of seven children to a merchant family, is one of the last people alive who experienced life in the Juderia, the Jewish quarter of Rhodes, a place where people knew their Greek and Turkish neighbours, did business with them, lived in harmony, but mostly ignored them; it was inward-focused life, and, until the arrival of the Italians, resistant to modernity.

Michael Frank met Levi one evening in 2015 when, arriving late for a talk at the Italian cultural center in New York, he dropped into the only available seat. The elegant woman next to him asked him where he was coming from in such a rush. His weekly French lesson, Frank replied, to which Levi replied, Would you like to know how French saved my life?

The short answer was that in Auschwitz, where she and her entire family and community had been deported, no one had ever met Judaeo-Spanish speakers. They were met with consternation, from the perpetrators and other victims alike. Did she know Yiddish? Polish? German? No, no, no. French? Yes, French she knew—which meant that she was placed with women from France and Belgium, women who knew enough of those other languages to help themselves, and by extension, Levi, get by.

The full answer took longer to uncover. Over six years, Frank would arrive with pastries at Levi’s apartment most Saturday mornings and listen, with occasional questions, as Levi felt her way into telling her life story. Her many reservations about doing so are at the heart of the book: Levi, who had kept these experiences to herself, rightly feared being reduced to an Auschwitz survivor. In Frank she found the right teller: careful, receptive, deferential, but no pushover. Their pas-de-deux is a lovely love story. Levi herself, you might already have guessed, is a remarkable person, with plenty of wisdom but no life lessons, if you know what I mean.

As if this book weren’t awesome enough, it also has illustrations by the great Maira Kalman. They are of course stunning. I read this book from the library, and I may need to get my own copy, and I never say that. An end-of-year title, for sure.

Jessica Au, Cold Enough for Snow (2022)

Disquieting, beautiful novella about an Australian woman who takes her mother on a trip to Japan. They walk around Tokyo, have dinner, visit a bookshop, attend an art exhibition. It all sounds nice enough, and the narrator’s attentiveness makes the journey vivid but not fetishistic. Yet the more I read, the more uneasy I became. In the guise of being helpful, the narrator in fact bullies her mother, insists upon having things her own way, force-marches the old woman through a series of sites and visits she has no particular interest in. Riley’s My Phantoms is getting all the love, but in the Bad-Daughter sweepstakes, Au takes the crown. Her control is impressive and I’m excited for her next book. [Attention, spoiler alert! I know some readers say the mother has in fact already died, that the narrator is accompanying a ghost, and I see where they’re coming from. I suppose I just don’t want this reading to be true: it seems less interesting to me.]

Namwali Serpell, Stranger Faces (2020)

I read the first pages of Serpell’s book-length essay online last spring and impulsively ordered it for my composition class this fall, since I planned to do a unit on writing about photographs. Those pages were so good! Serpell brilliantly close-reads the sentence “Look at me”; I imagined working through these pages with my class, using it to confirm the practice we’d already have done in learning to paying attention. I couldn’t wait to read the rest of the book, which was bound to be just as good.

Well.

It’s fine. A little labored. I appreciate Serpell’s insistence that we value so-called strange or other faces—those faces, the ones we are inclined to turn away from, have more to tell us about what it means to be human than any others. She’s good on the various writers and filmmakers she writes about (Joseph Merrick, Hannah Crafts, Alfred Hitchcock, and Werner Herzog), though too inclined to use puns and riffs structure her analyses. She’s most interesting in her final chapter on non-artistic practices, especially emojis and gifs (which prompted a class discussion in which I learned that only olds use gifs). Stranger Faces is like one of those restaurants where only the appetizers and desserts are any good.

Less good, in fact, not at all good, was the class I read it with. Probably the most challenging group I’ve ever taught. The book, I realized, wasn’t really pitched right for the class (that’s on me): not enough about photography per se, and too difficult, despite its reasonably straightforward prose, for the group. Pretty sure some of them didn’t read it, or read it quickly (that’s on them).

In a different context I might feel differently about the book, but I still think I’d find it underwhelming.

Andrea Barrett, The Air We Breathe (2007)

Old-fashioned novel about a tuberculosis sanitarium in the Adirondacks during WWI. Wealthy patients live in what are called cure cottages run by private families. Poor patients, mostly recent immigrants from Europe, are sent as wards of the state to a public facility. Written mostly in the months after 9/11 (Barrett apparently started a fellowship at the NYPL on September 10th), the novel compares the war against tuberculosis with the patriotic fever whipped up as America prepared to enter the war, concerns that became newly relevant as she sat down to write. In each case, a “pure,” “healthy” body politic defined itself by ejecting an “impure” “unhealthy” other.

A wealthy man, manager of a munition factory, decides he will bring culture to the sanitarium’s residents by starting a weekly conversation group. What starts as a way for him to dilate on his passion for paleontology becomes something more inspiring—and dangerous. As the patients, many of whom have skills and knowledge unsuspected by the officials and orderlies who see them as unwashed immigrants, share the most important parts of themselves, larger passions intrude. All of this occurs against a backdrop of wartime jingoism, industrial production, and labour unrest. And of course, people fall in (almost always unrequited) love. The rich man loves a nurse who loves a patient who loves another nurse who is taken under the wing of a female scientist, the facility’s x-ray technician. The political and emotional tensions amp up; terrible things happen.

I loved this book. Sitting outside on the back steps in the mild weather on my Fall Break when I should have been doing other things, I delighted in its novelistic sweep, its warmth, its intelligence, and its deft use of narrative voice (Barrett’s choice to swerve between close third person and the first-person plural in which the patients speak as one impresses). I started by saying this is an old-fashioned book, but like a lot of old-fashioned books it offers a lot of surprises.

My first Barrett, but not my last.

Kate Zambreno, To Write as if Already Dead (2021)

Rebecca selected this for the October episode of One Bright Book. Not something I would have read otherwise; that’s one of the pleasures of the podcast. To Write as if Already Dead is Zambreno’s effort to write about Hervé Guibert’s To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life, a roman-à-clef about the narrator’s AIDS diagnosis and friendship with Michel Foucault. My halfhearted plan to read the Guibert first came to naught, but I didn’t sense (and my cohosts confirmed) that having done so would have made much difference. Zambreno tells us enough of what we need to know about the writer and his most famous work, the one she circles around in her own book. She’s supposed to be writing an appreciation of Friend, but she struggles with the task, asking herself why she isn’t writing about David Wojnarowicz, whom she actually likes more than Guibert, but the bulk of the book, fortunately, isn’t about her inability to write her book. Instead it’s composed in two sections: one a “novella” about a first-person narrator who is surely Zambreno and the complicated, envious relationship she had with another female writer back in the days when blogging was a going concern (and not just something a few us old heads persist in doing), the other a set of notes written in response to (usually in the widest sense of the term) Guibert’s text. I could discern no tonal or stylistic differences between the two parts—which maybe is the point?—and in general rubbed against the book at every turn.

Reading Zambreno, hearing my cohosts’ quite different response to the book, feeling puzzled at my resistance to this book and others like it, I wondered not for the first time what it is about autofiction that doesn’t do much for me. I worry that I’m missing out—if this is the defining literature of the day, what would it mean to be, at best, ambivalent about it? My uncertainty sent me back to one of the passages that stayed with me, in which Zambreno writes, in the voice of a friend, a friend she can name, to whom she in fact dedicates the book, a friend different than the complicated, bad friend of the first part of the book, a friend who has indeed saved her (intellectual) life. The friend writes that

she has been reading contemporary autofiction in translation, Knausgaard, Éduoard Louis, Annie Ernaux. I’m making a study of coherence, she writes me. The extreme confidence of these writers, in the status of their art form, she writes. I’m obsessed with cracking the code of this security.

The cracked mirror of this passage feels like a key to Zambreno’s book, which enacts a struggle with coherence, offers itself as modest, the opposite of confident, unsure what her art form even is, or if it is art. Can a set of notes be art? Maybe the only time I cracked a smile while reading this book was when Zambreno, writing, I think, to the same friend, worries that Guibert and his coterie (Foucault in particular, who, after all, couldn’t stand Susan Sontag) would despise her. Who is she anyway? “I’m just a mom on a couch!” she wails, in not quite mock despair.

But that mom on the couch writes books that many of the best readers I know thrill to. Like other writers of autofiction, she seems to have taken up Barthes’s cry for books that offer “the novelistic without the novel” (throwing away the supposedly ungainly crutches of character and plot). Perhaps I am hopelessly devoted to what he calls “the readerly,” the classic text, replete to the point of self-satisfaction with meaning. (Viz my thoughts on Barrett.) Yet I can’t for the life of me see what the relation between the two parts of Zambreno’s book is supposed to be, or if it would matter if their order was reversed. The passage about autofiction seems implies that Zambreno, if her friend speaks for her, is similarly unsure. Or maybe the point is that it’s not Zambreno, but her friend, who feels this way. Is coherence—here a stand-in for the idea of aesthetic form—a plausible or laudable goal anymore? Or is it one of those things you can’t escape, in the way that Barthes, who haunts Zambreno’s book as much as he did Guibert’s life, put it in Writing Degree Zero: even the absence of style is a style?

The big questions might be insoluble, but thank god there’s always gossip, bitchiness, being catty. Guibert loved all of those things, and Zambreno traffics in them too, a little. Yet I found her anger more convincing than her snark. That anger is directed at economic life in America today: shitty insurance plans; he risks of pregnancy that are made more dangerous than they have to be by the forced precarity of so much work, like her adjunct teaching; the struggle for childcare and the way being a parent, especially a mother, in a society that pays lip-service to that labour without doing anything to make it bearable, saps the self and makes you hate everything and everyone. [As I revise these words, I read of a GoFundMe campaign to help Zambreno and her family escape an apartment where illegal levels of lead paint have harmed her young children. Heartbreaking. Infuriating.]

As much as I wish it were otherwise, I must confess that To Write as if Already Dead left me cold. Coming back to the book six weeks after reading it [when I first drafted this piece], I find I have things to say. But I’ve barely thought about it once since we recorded the podcast. Do you ever find yourself out of synch with other readers, including ones you respect a lot? What do you do then?

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park (1814)

The greatest books are the hardest to write about, especially months after the fact. What can I say? It’s Mansfield Park, it’s incredible! Honestly, despite the autumnal pleasures of Persuasion, I have to plump for MP as the Austen MVP. True, I’ve yet to read Northanger Abby but surely that’s not taking the award. I think it was Jenny Davidson who said that Mansfield is the great novel of graduate school, or the one that graduate students are most likely to identify with, being as it is about someone who lives on the sufferance of more powerful people. Fanny Price, c’est moi. (I’m no grad student anymore, but it’s taking me a lifetime to get out from under that mindset.)

Let me just rhapsodize/free associate a little. I’ll start with the characters. Tom Bertram, what a scoundrel, what else could he come to but a bad end? Maria and Julia, ugh. Edmund, oof, tough one, I mean he’s kindly, he really is, even when he can’t see what’s in front of him—but how can that relationship work? (Austen is nicely ambivalent about this in the last chapter.) Lady Bertram, greatest of all time. She leant Fanny Chapman! Pretty damn nice of her! Pug! Wonderful Pug! Sir Thomas, I kind of dug him even though I don’t think that shows me in much of a good light. Aunt Norris, what a piece of work, hiss boo! The Prices, bad fucking news, I knew it the moment they came on the scene.

The chapters in Portsmouth, in the crowded, absentmindedly loving, all at sixes-and-sevens house, such good stuff! The scene in the ha ha, tremendous suspense, perfect allegory for the perils of interpretation! All the stuff about theatre, preposterous and yet compelling: sometimes we get so into something that our passion becomes a problem. And Fanny, oh Fanny! What’s not to love?

Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Ghost (1964) Trans. Ros Schwartz (2018)

One of Maigret’s colleagues is shot dead. Turns out he’d been doing some off-the-books stakeout work. He’d been acting like a man who was on to something big. He’d never been a great cop, was always looking for a case that could really make him. Looks like he found it—but then it found him, as it were. Maigret investigates—as does Madame Maigret, who’s quite a presence here (they have a memorable lunch together), for she must console the dead cop’s widow, whom she doesn’t much like. There’s a lot more by-the-book police work than usual in a Maigret. Which I liked. I managed to sneak a few hours in the backyard with this book on a work day. I liked that even more.

Mark Haber, Saint Sebastian’s Abyss (2022)

Having had the chance to hang out with Mark a couple of times in the last months, I’d like to think of him as a friend, and so I can’t be objective here. But I’ll say that this story of two art historians, who start as comrades and end as enemies, after falling out over how to interpret the masterpiece of a (fictive) Flemish master, and indeed how to interpret at all, seems to start as a Bernhard or Albahari pastiche, but rises to become a moving depiction of mortality.

Lan Samantha Chang, The Family Chao (2022)

I don’t read much American literary fiction, a lot of it seems worthy and labored. And long! Takes ages to read those books, who has time for that? And who could be more at the center of American literary fiction today than Lan Samantha Chang? She directs the Iowa Writer’ Workshop, ferchissake! But this book, this book I loved. The Chaos have ended up in small town Wisconsin, where their restaurant has been embraced by all. Big success: hard work, enough money, three sons, what could be better? Well, a few things. The sons have been given expensive educations that they have variously squandered or made good on or are just setting out on. Dagou has become a chef and come back home. He’s a good chef, maybe a great chef, but that’s not what this restaurant needs. Ming works in finance in New York, cutting himself to the bone to be perfect. Baby James is a floundering pre-med who wants to make everyone happy. Winnie, the matriarch, has left her husband and moved into a monastery. And Leo, the patriarch, continues to dangle the prize of inheritance in front of his sons, especially his eldest, while relentlessly mocking them. He’s a shit, is Leo. When he gets locked into the old walk-in freezer that he has refused to get up to code and dies a cold, lonely death, everyone is shocked, but maybe also a little relieved. Except then Dagou is charged with murder. The family rallies around him even as the community recoils. A lot of secrets get spilled, especially a last-minute one that I didn’t see coming.

The Family Chao riffs on The Brothers Karamazov. I read the Dostoyevsky too long ago and with too little attention to be sure. But the comparison comes up in the novel itself, through salacious media interest, Chang thereby signaling that this shared structure shouldn’t be taken too seriously.

A fine novel about belonging with plenty of melodrama and narrative drive and some really mouthwatering dinner scenes—and one that is… not.

I had the pleasure of meeting Chang at the Six Bridges Literary Festival—she is brisk, smart, a little uninterested in others; this, her third novel, deserves its plaudits and more.

Elmore Leonard, Pronto (1993)

Since I’m doing this all out of order, check out my November review of its sequel to get a sense of what Pronto is like. This wasn’t bad—I most enjoyed how the main character shifts from likeable rogue to pain-in-the-ass loafer. Unusual.

Robert Houle, Red is Beautiful, 1970

Oscar Hokeah, Calling for a Blanket Dance (2022)

At a powwow in Oklahoma, the emcee calls for a blanket dance for his nephew, Ever, a single parent of three young children who has recently lost his job. Ever’s great-aunt watches with pride:

I’ve seen many blanket dances in my day, growing up Gkoi, but there was something especially heartbreaking about a single parent down on their luck. Many of us, most of us, could see ourselves in Ever, like we had either been where he was or feared we’d end up there. We were taught to give or else more would be taken. Streams of people walked into the arena, while drumbeats and voices filled Red Buffalo Hall. We crumpled bills in our hands and tossed them on to the blanket. We stood next to Ever and has three kids and danced alongside. Must have been a good thirty people out there. The line of people made a half circle around the drum. Ever and his kids stood to one side with the Pendleton blanket spread in front of them. Some gourd dancers moved through the arena, while the singers’ heavy and low voices carried through our bodies. We danced, the way Kiowas danced, when called by our people, by our ancestors, to help each other heal.

To help each other heal. That’s what Oscar Hokeah wrote in my copy of his book when he signed it for me, after the panel I moderated at the local literary festival. As with The Family Chao—Chang shared the bill with Hokeah—I wouldn’t have read Calling for a Blanket Dance if I hadn’t agreed to run the session. And that would have been a loss. This linked-story-collection-cum-novel is equally funny and full of hurt. Set in two towns in eastern Oklahoma, the book concerns the Geimausaddle family, part Cherokee, part Kiowa, part Mexican (all aspects of the writer’s own background). Hokeah, a real mensch, works for Indian Child Welfare in Oklahoma, experience that surely informed some of the most moving parts of the book. “Sometimes a blanket dance can fill up your spirit, and this was one of those moments,” the great-aunt concludes. I felt the same way about this debut.

Frédéric Dard, The Gravediggers’ Bread (1956) Trans. Melanie Florence (2018)

My memory of this is that it nods to Lost Illusions by way of Simenon, but I’ve basically forgotten all about it.

Good reading month, eh? McMurtry, Frank, Au, Barrett, Austen. And a bunch of others that were also worth reading. Talk me down on the autofiction thing, friends. Or do you agree?

Hope Coulter’s Year in Reading, 2022

Today’s reflection on a year in reading, her third, is by Hope Coulter(@hopester99), whom I’m lucky to call a colleague. A fiction writer and poet, Hope directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation at Hendrix College.

David Hockney, Nathan Swimming Los Angeles, 1982

2022 turned out to be a good reading year. I got a wider shot at e-book availability by joining a second public library in the adjacent city. [Ed. – “city.”] Then, by pecking through recommendation lists and hopping from screen to screen, I was able to keep my library hold shelves reassuringly filled—staving off that dire malady known as Running Out of Something Good To Read. [Ed. – Extremely bad. Jenny Davidson writes about some psychological studies done on this phenomenon in Reading Style.] Along the way I ran across some new obsessions.

Starting with nonfiction, I enjoyed and was moved by Suleika Jaouad’s Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted. It’s a cancer narrative that stands out on account of Jaouad’s youth, frankness, and writing chops, as well as the fact that the second half becomes a road-trip book. Jaouad discovered her cancer right after graduating from Princeton. In the flash of an eye the promising, carefree prospect of her twenties became a hellish ordeal. She’s still fighting cancer, and I wish her all the best for recovery. This book is a gift.

Thinking of memoirs by feisty young women, Crying in H-Mart, by Michelle Zauner got a lot of attention this year. For me it was an okay read, but not as memorable as Jaouad’s book. On the other hand, I recommend Lynne Cox’s Swimming to Antarctica: Tales of a Long-Distance Swimmer not for any particular magic in the telling but for the extraordinary nature of Cox herself—her athletic prowess, her ability to connect with people around the world, the cheerful way she greets challenges of all kinds.

Another thoroughly satisfying memoir was Marcus Samuelsson’s Yes, Chef, ghostwritten by Veronica Chambers. Samuelsson is the Ethiopian-born, Swedish-raised culinary phenom who co-founded the Red Rooster restaurant in Harlem. His account of his Scandinavian upbringing; his rise through some of the most demanding restaurant kitchens in Europe, under despotic chefs; and his lifelong love affair with food and culture make this a book to relish on many levels. [Ed. – I see what you did there!]

George Saunders’s A Swim in the Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life is a terrific read for anyone who wants to dive deep into the craft minutiae of great short fiction. What questions does a story ask, and how do they pull us along? Is it what’s left in or what’s left out that makes a masterpiece? Of the analyses Saunders offers, his take on three of Chekhov’s stories were my favorite. On the other hand, if you’re not minutely interested in the technical and creative decisions behind a narrative—the tied-off loops on the back of the tapestry—you might as well just read the stories themelves.

Last but not least in nonfiction, fans of Skyfaring: A Journey with a Pilot by Mark Vanhoenacker, won’t want to miss his latest, Imagine a City: A Pilot’s Journey across an Urban World. Imagine a City includes lots of the lyrical, novel description that makes Skyfaring wonderful, this time swirled into memoir and a flâneur’s takes on cities around the world. By the nature of his work as a long-distance commercial pilot, Vanhoenacker often finds himself with two days to spend near any metropolitan destination that he flies. He bides the mandatory rests in exploration and writing. This book not only features slices of such urban-scapes, but recurring takes on the author’s growing-up in Pittsfield, Massachusetts: the town, his family, his coming-out, and the globe-spinning reveries that led to his vocation.

Now to fiction. One novel that blew me away this year was Julie Otsuka’s The Swimmers. As someone who loves pools and water I was initially attracted to the title and cover (I know, I know, like buying wine for the label; I confess). [Ed. – I strongly support buying books for their covers.] Then when I started to read, I fell hard for the voice. Exactly who is speaking with such quiet authority, unspooling list after list about the lap swimmers with such close, cool knowledge? A crack appears in the bottom of their pool, and it’s like Jane Alison’s Nine Island meets Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried… The novel suddenly widens into a more familiar and pain-steeped story that I won’t spoil; sprint [Ed. – missed metaphor opportunity!] to your nearest book source and see for yourself.

My enthusiasm for The Swimmers sent me to Otsuka’s earlier novels, When the Emperor Was Divine and Buddha in the Attic, which in different ways chronicle the experiences of Japanese American immigrants. They’re well worth the read, though to me not consummate in their artistry like The Swimmers.

Way different stylistically from The Swimmers was a book at least as magnificent: Anna Burns’s Milkman, the densest and strangest novel I read last year. A student in my Irish short stories tutorial recommended it, and I’m so glad she did: this book made me understand as never before what it was like to live in the middle of the Troubles, no, to live the Troubles, to contain their gaslighting and violence in one’s marrow. The narrator has one of those unforgettable voices—drenched in idiom, funny, idiosyncratic—that at first seems impossible to understand. There are few paragraph changes, and few characters are called by actual names. All these might put you off, might seem like obstructions to grasping the story… and yet. Somehow it galvanizes a world as you read, a world that tumbles around you and into you, changing you.

Another surprise and pleasure was Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, by Elizabeth Taylor, first published in 1971.It opens on a rainy Sunday in January (is there anything more depressing?) in a London lodging hotel just affordable and respectable enough for old folks not yet decrepit or destitute. You might judge this an unpromising start—till you find yourself immersed, riveted by Mrs. Palfrey and her fortunes: the aches, yearnings, miscues, and irritations of ordinary human life, rendered with nothing less than mastery.

Also of seventies vintage was Marian Engel’s Bear (1976), which Dorian has touted for years. I loved it: the boreal setting, the understated tone, a fusion of real with surreal that’s so seamless I question “surreal” even as I type it. The book is alluring and disconcerting at once—shoving me into uncomfortable encounters with my own relationships to sex, animals, and self—and resists interpretation at every turn. In fact, it’s highly entertaining to browse through reader takes on this book anywhere from Amazon to scholarly platforms. What is this thing: feminist text, postcolonial critique, an ursine-Canadian Lady Chatterley’s Lover, or a portrait of a “phallic mother”? Don’t miss Dorian’s delightful conversation with Shawn and James on Shawn the Book Maniac, which includes a clip from an interview with Engel herself. Mind you, as the interviewer admonishes, “This is no kinky, porno Pooh-Bear!” so prepare yourself for . . . something else thereof. [Ed. – Music to my ears, natch. But really 70s books are the best books…]

Thanks again to Dorian I reread Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry, and was relieved to find that it still has its magic: it had been so long (or my memory so bad) that the plot twists surprised me all over again. This big novel is good for what ails you, a bracing tonic, just like the big skies and open roads out West. [Ed. – So glad it held up! Every time I see it on my shelf I brighten up a little.]

Jonathan Evison’s Lawn Boy is about Mike Muñoz, a southern California guy who can’t seem to catch the brass ring. His voice is canny, believable, often funny, and a little hoarse with pain, and there’s never a false note or a missed beat narrating his adventures through emotional and economic labyrinths. This is a fresh take on the American dream, as broken down for disillusioned 21st century folks, and it deserves to endure. Highly recommend.

Mercy Street by Jennifer Haigh is a gritty novel that revolves around a Boston abortion clinic where the protagonist works and various other characters who intersect there. I read it before the mid-year overturn of Roe, but it’s at least as relevant now: it remains on my mind for its multidimensional treatment of people on different sides of the abortion issue. Creepy, scary, and all too credible, in the case of a couple of anti-abortionist characters; but as I said, granting a multidimensionality that at least seeks to understand the sources of the venom that animates them. As Mohsin Hamid says, one thing literature does is “recomplicate what has been oversimplified,” and a novelist’s nuance is too often missing from the violent discord around this issue.

Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea brings her Oh William! characters forward through the first year of the coronavirus pandemic—moving those inveterate New Yorkers up to Maine. Anyone who has liked Strout’s earlier novels won’t be disappointed.

Speaking of disappointments, even though Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquillity made a lot of people’s best-of lists last year, for me it was pretty forgettable—way less gripping than Station Eleven, the post-pandemic novel she wrote a few years before Covid struck. I was likewise underwhelmed by The Flight of Gemma Hardy, Margot Livesy’s attempt at a modern retelling of Jane Eyre. I did finish it, but it annoyingly lacked a couple of key plot underpinnings as well as some of the major elements that make Bronte’s novel so great.

Edward Ruscha, Pool # 9, 1968

Last, and monumentally, I come to a series that dominated the last half of my reading year—and which I’m still devouring as we move into 2023: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels, which chronicle the LAPD detective’s cases across more than twenty years in L.A. Formerly a reporter, including a last stint on the crime beat at the Los Angeles Times, Connelly is steeped in knowledge of the criminal legal system, LAPD culture, and police-reporter relations—not to mention southern California history and culture in general. So the books take place against a backdrop studded not only with physical landmarks but landmark events, O.J. to Rodney King to Robert Blake to COVID. Oh, and there’s also the iconic food of the greater L.A. area—specific BLTs and tacos and martinis that may have you keeping notes for the next time you make it out to the Golden State with an appetite.

In Heironymous (yes, named after the painter by his mother) Bosch, Connelly has created a laconic, jazz-listening, relationship-tending-to-screw-up hero in the best noir tradition: a SoCal Don Quixote perpetually battling the forces of darkness on his quest to put the bad guys (and women) behind bars. Fortunately, uh, but only for us as readers I mean, in the sweep of the sprawling metropolis there’s no shortage of evil out there for him to take on—from its crumbling bungalows to its gated MCM mansions, from seaside to outlying deserts, and sometimes within the halls of justice and press rooms and inter-warring police precinct headquarters themselves. The writing is spot-on: tough, perfectly paced, with lots of plot and action, of course, and salted just right with description and character. I’ve consumed these books the way I used to read beloved series as a kid, binge-reading with abandon, and now I see with dread that I’m closing in on the end of even the prolific Connelly’s output. [Ed. – Ah, that feeling! It’s really a thing, isn’t it?] He’s written several spinoff books involving sometime partners of Bosch, and a shorter series about a criminal defense lawyer who works from the back seat of his Lincoln, and those are good as well—but alas, they too are finite.

For what it’s worth, I read the series completely out of order, and it wasn’t a problem. When I did make my way back to the first couple of Bosch books, I found them a little stilted and trying too hard on the tough-guy front, in contrast to the grace and understatement of the later ones. In a way, though, the fact that the writing wasn’t impeccable was heartening: it showed that not even Connelly came to fiction-writing already with his skill set complete, but built his command over time. [Ed. — Glad to hear this, because I was underwhelmed by the first when I read it many years ago. Maybe I’ll grab one from later in the series.]

No, I haven’t watched the TV version of the Bosch books, and I doubt that I will; my mind’s-eye picture of the characters is too strong for me to want to sully it with a screen version, even though the author did consult on set. But next time I’m in L.A. I do plan to drive Mulholland Drive, and I’ll be looking for #7203, the modest cantilevered house with the deck on the back, where Bosch gazes down on the lights of the city in pensive moments. I have more to say on this topic, but excuse me, I’d rather go read now. We’re about to find out where the bodies are buried.

Nicie Panetta’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Nicie Panetta (@nicie_panetta). Nicie lives north of Boston with her husband, their frisky orange cat, and her lazy but lovable paint pony. She used to have some empty space on her bookshelves. That is no longer the case.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

The Anthropocene

Almost a year ago, I started a weekly newsletter called Frugal Chariot. I write about books that I believe have something special to say about the troubled role of humans in the non-human world. I guess you could say that the fate of the earth and all that dwell within its embrace is my subject, but that books written by humans are my vehicle. “How frugal is the Chariot/ that bears a Human soul.” Thank you, Dorian for a chance to reflect here on my reading as a whole in 2021. [Ed – The pleasure is all mine!]

From the standpoint of literary merit and depth of meaning, my favorite book on the Anthropocene, which I haven’t yet written about for the newsletter, is Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez. I ardently recommend it for the magisterial precision of his writing, for the prophetic nature of his insights, and for the great fighting heart that you can feel beating within the rather strict container of his style and tone. I did write about Lopez’s Horizon here.

From the standpoint of environmental news you can use, I would press into your hands Silent Earth: Averting the Insect Apocalypse by Dave Goulson. The author, a leading entomologist, explains carefully and without histrionics why bugs are vitally important to all life on earth, and what we do know and don’t yet know about the extent and causes of insect population declines. He also has practical suggestions for individuals and for industry and government. This is an indispensable guide for the general reader to the way that the climate and biodiversity interrelate, and it’s also full of delight and discovery.

A quick request, if I may. I would be very grateful for any suggestions that EMJ readers might have for nature, place, and climate writing (does not have to be in book form) from underrepresented geographies, marginalized communities, and Indigenous writers. [Ed. – Cherie Dimaline, The Marrow Thieves and Waubgeshig’s Moon of Crusted Snow: two novels by Indigenous Canadians, dystopian clifi that foreground indigenous ways of knowing.] I am concerned that there are not enough voices from outside the Anglosphere and outside the OECD countries getting heard. My DMs are open and my email is nicie.panetta@gmail.com. Thanks in advance.

The Thing Is . . .

Because I am starting work on a climate-related place writing project [Ed. – Ooh, tease!], I have devoted much attention over the past year to treatments of the non-human, across my reading. The books that resonated most deeply for me often had a commitment to the thing-ness of things, to quiddity, to description. What follows are just a few examples of writings that I felt were exceptional on this score. Many if not most of these books came from recommendations provided by Learned Book Folks (LBFs) on Twitter, and I am so grateful. 

Two Writers’ Memoirs

Last year I read nearly forty memoirs. [Ed. — !] Deborah Levy’s Autobiographical Trilogy truly knocked my socks off. How could I never have heard of this writer! Thank you to Rebecca Hussey, for sending her my way. In the first volume, Levy makes highly effective use of narrative shear: a simple question from a stranger causes the floor of the present to buckle and give way to the past. In the two subsequent volumes, she uses totems of the everyday to represent the new phase of her life that begins after the end of her long marriage: a shed for writing, a heater for the shed, an electric bike to get around, a green pair of shoes for walking in Paris. 

It’s the basics: food, shelter, clothing, transportation. These objects, as they appear and reappear, create a syncopated rhythm that feels so true to the way we pass through time. Levy writes well about many things, including the closeness and strangeness of friendship, the commitments of motherhood (including the commitment to let go), the practicalities of being a writer, and most of all, what it is to be awake to life. Utterly captivating is this voyage on the inland sea of her mind: 

To walk towards danger, to strike on something that might just open its mouth and roar and tip the writer over the edge was part of the adventure of language.

Another writer’s memoir that is much less well known is Blue Remembered Hills by Rosemary Sutcliff, the author of classics of historical fiction for children (including The Eagle of the Ninth). [Ed. – Just taking a moment here to remember how much that book meant to me.] Her account of growing up as an only child with chronic illness and disability is both sharp and glowing. Sutcliff’s portrait of her intense relationship with her mother is one of the best I’ve read, and the village communities of her childhood are brilliantly evoked. Heartbreak finds her, and she finds her way to a writing life. Aces. [Ed. – Sold to the man with too many books already!]

A Poet’s Playlist

Reading poetry has been a central preoccupation of my adult life. Because of my current interests and commitments, I am actually reading less poetry than I have in the past. But I did just finish Rita Dove’s Playlist for the Apocalypse, her first collection in over a decade. The book is made up of distinct groupings of poems, including an ars poetica with the poet as spring cricket, a group about American history that serves as the text for a new song cycle, A Standing Witness, and eight very flashy “angry odes.” Here’s a poem from the final, quietly personal section, Dove’s translation of perhaps the most famous German poem:

Wayfarer’s Night Song

Above the mountaintops

all is still.

Among the treetops

you can feel

barely a breath—

birds in the forest, stripped of song.

Just wait: before long

you, too, shall rest.

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, 1776

The World Wars

A surprise. After toting things up, literature in translation accounted for nearly 40% of the books I read in 2021. I think this was due to a combustion reaction between my obsession with the period that encompasses the two world wars and the constant stream of relevant book ideas from the LBFs. [Ed. – Vowing to make this acronym take off.] Those years set the courses of my parents’ lives. My parents were born in the 1920s and died when I was young. Reading about this era keeps me in touch with them. Each of these books changed me in some small or larger way.

In poetry, I read a lot of Rilke thanks to an epistolary seminar offered by Mark Wunderlich (look for his forthcoming book on Rilke). I keep returning to Rilke’s work, in which the non-human vibrates without cease, and the moment of the poem zaps into the eternal. Prosodic whiz Don Paterson dresses the Orpheus sonnets in a new formal fabric in Orpheus: A Version of Rilke.

Enthroned one: in the ancient understanding,

You were no more than a cup with a plain rim.

But for us you are the full-blown, infinite bloom,

The wholly indefatigable thing

From “Rose” 

My parents loved the word “indefatigable.” They were activists, and it was a mark of highest esteem if they used it to characterize someone. It’s a good word to keep in your pocket. See also, “staunch.”

In fiction, Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated by Susan Bernofsky) tells the story of the strange life and dumpster-filling death of a German lake house near Berlin, across the entire twentieth century. Erpenbeck is very good with lists of ordinary stuff (building materials, bath towels, regulations), inventories that are transformed into incantantions of frightening power. As we grapple with our direction as a species, stories with non-human protagonists and with plots that extend beyond the human lifespan have much to offer. Visitation is a notable example. There is also a brilliant novel about a medieval convent in East Anglia, but I read that in 2020. [Ed. – The editor cannot help but feel attacked by this reference to That Book He is Unable to Finish. YMMV.]

Natalia Ginzburg’s essays about her family’s tragic experiences in Fascist and postwar Italy, The Little Virtues (translated by Dick Davis) was also a revelation of style for me. Her tonal restraint and the apparent simplicity of her sentences make the heavy chords truly plangent when she strikes them. “And perhaps even for learning to walk in worn-out shoes, it is as well to have dry, warm feet when we are children.” 

Salt Water by Josep Pla (translated by Peter Bush) is a travelogue of his adventures on the Spanish and French coasts in the early 20th century. This book features shipwrights, bandits, taverns, sardines, and bracing quaffs that mingle caffeine with alcohol. The book, written under house arrest and a censorship regime, might be an instruction manual for those writing in a time of rising authoritarianism. There is something to be said for going rogue, or at least knowing a few rogues. Pla says it.

Most of all, the discovery of Joseph Roth thanks to the crew at the Backlisted podcast truly made my reading year. Many EMJ readers (and certainly the editor) know his work far better than I do. [Ed. – The editor is overestimated.] But What I Saw (translated by Michael Hofman), The Hotel Years (ditto), and On the End of the World (translated by Will Stone) have set a high-water mark for me as to what is possible from a journalist writing in a short form to deadline. Roth was a Galician Jew who made it to Vienna for university, served in the Austrian army in WWI, and then moved to Berlin to write for newspapers. He also wrote fiction, including Job and The Radetsky March.

What I Saw, which collects his feuilletons about Weimar Berlin, is a book not so much of vignettes, but of micro-sagas. He makes fun of skyscrapers (“We will make ourselves comfortable among the clouds . . . They will hear the clatter of typewriters and the ringing of telephones”), visits Berlin’s refugees (“Their garments were a weird and wonderful hodgepodge of uniforms. In their eyes I saw millennial sorrow”), makes regular forays to the demimonde (“Albert’s Cellar has regulars of such fixed habits that they even have their mail sent there”), and charts the collapse of the Republic with rising alarm and grief (“It is not true that a murder is just a murder”). His farewell column of 1933, written fresh from his flight into exile in Paris, is almost unbearable reading. So many observers were blind to what Roth saw, or failed to report what they saw. All the books I have mentioned here make the case for the necessity of style, and how style gives writing access to power. Roth’s work is exemplary in this regard. I read in awe, and salute his legacy:

Month on month, week on week, day by day, hour by hour, it becomes ever more impossible to give expression to the inexpressible nature of this world. The circle of lies that the miscreants draw around their crimes paralyses the word and the writers who employ it. Yet a common obligation makes you persist to the last moment: that is to say to the last drop of ink . . .

Earbuds 

I’m gradually working my way through Juliet Stevenson’s catalog (N.B. she reads the Levy trilogy brilliantly), and she never fails to bring clarity and spirit to a text. Other major delights have been Thandiwe Newton reading Jane Eyre (I’m excited for her War and Peace), Doc Brown reading Zadie Smith’s Grand Union (underrated, I aver), Chiwetel Ljiofor’s performance of Piranesi, and Prunella Scales’ reading of The Railway Children by E. Nesbit.

Campus Duds

I read two campus novels that were cruel about women. Lucky Jim (despite one of the great hangover scenes in 20th-century literature) was chalk on a blackboard with its hatchet job on Monica Jones. Pictures of an Institution is also extravagantly mean about Mary McCarthy, who, to be fair, probably gave as good as she got. But who needs it? I’m with Pnin all day long. [Ed. – Amen!] Haven’t read Stoner yet. [Ed. – Don’t do it.]

Unclassifiable Wisdom

Alice Oswald’s Oxford Poetry Lectures on YouTube have been landmark events for me. Water, a pebble, Ainu epics: whatever the topic, she is riveting, incisively lyrical, somehow in touch with worlds beyond our ken. 

August Macke, Promenade II, 1913

2022

This year I will be paying special attention to structure, so if you have books that you think are brilliantly structured, please do be in touch.

In addition to reading for Frugal Chariot, and I have the following projects on deck:

  • Re-reads of The Iliad, The Odyssey and a few other classical texts
  • Fiction of Joseph Roth and the forthcoming biography by Keiron Pim [Ed. — Can’t wait for that one.]
  • Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage (I have to admit that I’m not wowed by Pointed Roofs so far, but I am giving it a fair hearing)
  • The Love Songs of W. E. B. Du Bois
  • Lonesome Dove (you rave, I read!) [Ed. – Thumbs up emoji]
  • Moby Dick with #APSTogether
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Teju Cole
  • More poetry! 

I wish you all wonderful years of reading in 2022, and look forward to ongoing fellowship. May we be wholly indefatigable!

Bryce Sears’s Year in Reading, 2021

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).

Paul Signac, Saint-Briac. La Garde Guérin. Opus 211, 1890

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.   

Richard Diebenkorn, Ocean from a Window, 1959

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.

Keith Bresnahan’s Year in Reading, 2021

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2021 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

First up is my old friend Keith Bresnahan (@designhist, follow him, he’s funny and awesome), who’s previously contributed several terrific pieces on Zola. You can read his 2020 reflections here. Keith lives and works in Toronto.

2021, in a nutshell:

This year was strange, obviously. I was lucky, avoiding any serious effects of the pandemic: I kept my job, as did everyone in my family; no one I knew got seriously ill or passed away with Covid. But time and space felt flat. I didn’t go anywhere, and the repetitive sameness of days was best reflected in this popular image I kept seeing re-posted on Twitter. Perhaps this is why when Dorian initially nudged me to look back on my year of reading, I felt like I hadn’t read much at all: there was little to situate my reading in association with specific places or other things that were happening around me while I read them. As it happens, judging by my admittedly imperfect reconstruction (I have sworn to be better at keeping track this year!), I found I actually read 50-odd books for pleasure in 2021, not counting the 15 or so others I read for teaching and academic research. Not bad.

Here are a few of the more memorable ones.

Philip Marsden, The Summer Isles

I read this early in the year; details have faded, but my memory of reading it is of being carried along on gentle sea-waves; it’s that kind of book. A first-person travelogue of Marsden alone in a wooden boat, traversing waters up the west coast of Ireland toward the titular isles in northern Scotland, it also contains a good deal of reflection on historical lore, spiritual journeys, and local geographies. Much of the sailing-vocabulary was lost on me, but it didn’t seem to matter. Both learned and meditative, it was perhaps the most calming book I read this year. I passed it on to a good friend who owns a boat. 

Enrique Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris (Trans. Anne McLean)

I found out about Vila-Matas this year, like most of the other authors I come across these days, from people I follow on “Book Twitter” (regular Twitter, just a nice corner of it populated by book-obsessed folks). A wry memoir of Vila-Matas’s youthful days in Paris as an aspiring writer and Ernest Hemingway wannabe. I loved it. He somehow rents a garret from Marguerite Duras, encounters Georges Perec and Roland Barthes, dates a woman who suggests he fling himself off the Eiffel Tower while on an acid trip, fends off parental intervention, and generally fails to write anything of substance. In a year where I couldn’t go anywhere, the descriptions of Paris were more than welcome. Looking forward to reading more by Vila-Matas soon, starting with Dublinesque, a kind of Joycean dream, apparently. Perfect for the centenary of Ulysses this year? (I’m also planning to give that one another shot)

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove.

An 800-plus-page western. A western? Cowboys? A cattle drive? I left central Alberta for a reason, dude. But many folks who know better than me loved it, so I gave it a shot. Holy shit is this book great. An out-and-out masterpiece. At times it felt like magic realism – did the bull actually fight that bear? Was the cook actually back there banging the same bell with the same crowbar? Did Blue Duck fly? The book’s Indigenous characters are barely fleshed out (although McMurtry does show sympathy for their plight) — but then this is really the story of the others, the damaged settlers moving against a nascent American backcloth, seeking and grasping for any purchase with little to guide or protect them. At its heart is an emotionally blocked friendship between two former Texas rangers, and the women who speak truth to them (and whom they largely fail to understand). Plus an impressive cast of secondary characters, all memorable creations. Did I mention it’s more than 800 pages and somehow feels too short?

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (Trans. Grace Fick)

Another masterpiece. The best fictional evocation of the classical world I’ve ever read. Dreamlike and imagistic, with lessons on life and death to spare. I’m waiting to read more Yourcenar until the memory of this one’s brilliance fades a bit.

Ivo Andrić, Bosnian Chronicle (Trans. Celia Hawkesworth in collaboration with Bogdan Rakić)

A newish edition from Apollo Classics (Head of Zeus), this is a very long book, first published in 1945, about a French consul during the Napoleonic era living in a small Bosnian town on the extreme fringes of world events. Not much happens. I adored it.

Dominique Barbéris, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray (Trans. John Cullen)

This was great — a short, stylish account of two sisters, one recounting to the other a past entanglement with a strange man. Felt to me at times like watching a French film from the 1970s. Enigmatic, and atmospheric as all get-out.

Three books in the “how-did-I-not-know-about-these?” category:

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast

A number of families cram into a seaside hotel in Cornwall for a week in the summer, their conflicts and idiosyncrasies build to a climax, then half of them are killed when a cliff falls on them. We know this part from the outset, though not who dies, so I’m not giving anything away. Apparently there’s a whole structure here about the 7 deadly sins, but I missed this while reading it, and it didn’t matter. Great fun. Made me want to read more Kennedy, and soon.

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

An older woman moves into a retirement hotel in London. The plot? Not much. But I found it utterly charming, even its descriptions of the depredations of old age, and very funny, too. Others, I’ve since learned, found it bleak. [Ed. – raises hand] Not me. Mrs. Palfrey is a plucky heroine, if a little self-deceiving (aren’t we all), and even the end, coming as it must, didn’t feel sad. I picked up a used Virago copy of this book on a whim, and then coincidentally read it the same week that it came out in a new NYRB classics edition. For once my finger was right on that pulse. More from Taylor in my near reading future.

Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon

A young English woman in Naples in the 1950s falls in with a Neapolitan woman, Giaconda, and her Roman lover, Gianni. This was both evocative and restrained, with a powerful sense of the unspoken and unshown behind the minimal plot. Reminded me a bit of Antonioni, in a good way. Also made me long to revisit Naples (some strong compensatory travel-thrills in my readings this year!). My first Hazzard, won’t be my last.

Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)

Akimitsu Takagi, The Informer (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)

Akimitsu Takagi, Honeymoon to Nowhere (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (Trans. Geraldine Harcourt)

Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (Trans. E. Dale Saunders)

I enjoyed all the books translated from Japanese that I read this year, especially The Informer and Territory of Light. But it was Abe’s Woman in the Dunes that was the real revelation. A distressing, tense, fever-dream of a book, I’d put this existentialist fable of bizarre confinement, Sisyphean futility, and struggles of the will up against Camus any day of the week. I won’t be reading it again anytime soon, but I’m glad I did. Haven’t brought myself to watch the movie, but here’s an image from it anyway.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Another existentialist hero, this time Philip Marlowe probing some family funny-business in sunny California. Noir perfection. I realized I’d previously conflated Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose hard-boiled shtick I could never really get past [Ed. – I am allowing this heresy on my blog, but I don’t like it], but this is glorious, witty stuff. The film, with Bogart and Bacall, is a deserved classic.

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means

My first Spark! I loved this small tale of young women living together and negotiating wartime, nascent loves, work, and rooftop escapes. A near-perfect short read.

Sam Selvon, The Housing Lark

Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

Two takes on the West Indian experience in 1950s – 60s England. The Housing Lark, by the criminally under-appreciated Sam Selvon, is a sort of sequel to his better-known The Lonely Londoners; if anything, I liked this one better. Hall’s autobiography takes him from Jamaica to Oxford to the founding of cultural studies and the New Left in the 1960s—on the one hand, a world apart from Selvon’s hustling hardscrabble immigrants, and on the other not so different, negotiating displacements and identities among the so-called Windrush generation. Suggest watching Steve McQueen’s remarkable Small Axe series alongside.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Ryszard Kapusćiński, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (Trans. William Brand)

Sergio Pitol, The Journey (Trans. George Henson)

Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Purely by accident, I ended up reading a number of books this year highlighting historical communism and Cold War politics seen through individual lives. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a scathing indictment of Western intervention in Southeast Asia, with its shockingly amoral conclusion, was among the best books I read this year. Ryszard Kapusćiński’s Nobody Leaves, a collection of short journalistic pieces from his native Poland around 1960, is episodic, strange and beautiful, and generally short on hope. Sergio Pitol’s The Journey, has the Mexican writer traveling around literary circles in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi during two weeks in 1986, just as glasnost and perestroika were starting to peek through. It was a highly personable travelogue that makes me want to read more by him (I’ve already ordered Pitol’s The Love Parade, out in translation early this year). He writes a lot about Marina Tsvetaeva, which makes me think I should read her. In non-fiction, I was taken with Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, recently republished by Verso. Originally from 1977, it’s an oral history of American communists from the 1920s through the 1950s and their breaks with the Party following the revelations of the 1950s. Gornick’s subjects are angry and wounded, prone to self-importance, self-deception, and self-critique, and her book is wonderful at conveying how people form passionate attachments to ideological movements, and what happens when that falls apart. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a cream-puff fantasy of a hotel-bound aristocrat suffering minor inconveniences during the same decades of Soviet history, which I read at a cottage just after Gornick’s bracing book, felt too tidy and cute by half. I might have enjoyed it more at another time.

James Salter, Light Years

Probably my favourite book of 2021. A couple raises two kids in a country house not far from New York City. They have affairs, they divorce, their kids grow up, they meet artists, actors, go to parties, discuss the theatre, they remarry, get ill, die. It recalled the 1970s cinematic and literary middle-class dramas I was enthralled by as a child (this was what life was, or so I thought then). Now in my own middle age, I’m both less sanguine about this stuff than I used to be, and intuitively drawn to it. Nostalgia for that insular worldview? Dunno. Whatever it was, I found it perfectly, achingly beautiful, and sad. A book I know I’ll revisit. I also read Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which I liked but not nearly as much as this one.

In the last days of 2021, I read three quietly resonant books:

Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians

I’m not sure how to classify this short book, which shifts constantly between two conversations: in the first, two figures discuss a series of three (real-life) paintings in a museum showing the sleeping guards charged with protecting Christ’s tomb; in the second, we hear the voices of the Roman guards themselves, having woken up to find one of their party missing and the stone from the tomb entrance moved. It’s clever and light, achieved with erudition and evident skill; as a professional art historian, I wish I’d written it myself.

Louise Glück, Winter Recipes from the Collective

Nobel winner of 2020. Quiet and studious poems. Felt snowy, and cold. Some folks are saying this book shows a diminution of Glück’s energies, which bodes well for her earlier work, I’d say. I’ve just bought her first four books of poems.

Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down

Another Apollo Classics reprint, first published in 1966. A woman on the cusp of middle age, living with her unmarried sisters in a declining Irish great house, has an ill-fated affair with a German scholar of no means. Just go read it already. One of my books of the year. There’s a film, too, with Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench.

One more, for Dorian:

Marian Engel, Bear. Technically a re-read, since I first read this when I was 18. But that was some time ago, and I was 18, so let’s call it a new book for 2021. Is it the great Canadian novel? Sure. [Ed. — Hmm… this is not the expression of explosive joy I’d hoped for, but I’ll take it.]

Some predictions for 2022:

– Nature-books: I’ve got a bunch of these on the shelf, and this is the year! Birds, mountains, wild swimming, I’m your man.

– More 20th-century reprints, mostly from UK writers: I’ve gathered a small heap of books from Virago Modern Classics, Persephone, Apollo Classics and others, and am eager to dive in.

– Finishing the Penguin Maigret books. I’ve got 10 left to read in this 75-volume set, and the last one has just arrived by post.

– Following a prompt from a Twitter mutual, I’ve signed on to read all the extant plays of classical Greece. Ambitious, but they’re short, right?

My Year in Reading, 2020

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:

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

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.

Highlights:

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.

Most joyful, biggest belly laughs: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. That bit in the supermarket! Priceless.

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.

In addition to reviews of the things I read, I wrote a couple of personal things last year that I’m pleased with: an essay about my paternal grandmother, and another about my love for the NYRB Classics imprint.

You can find my reflections on years past here:
2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014

Coming in 2021:

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.

What I Read, April 2020

Ugh, April. A terrible month in my line of work at the best of times. Which this April, of course, was not. I was both busy—the last four weeks of the semester are always crunch time—but also, strangely, not. (No commute, far fewer admin obligations, the many office hour meetings vanished to almost nothing.) The month felt like a Zoom class that leaves exhausted but also unsatisfied. (God, I hate looking at myself so much.) Some days the pandemic routine was just fine, even enjoyable. Other days terror and depression pinched hard. On the plus side, we spent so much time together as a family. But on the downside, we spent so much time together as a family.

April is the best month of the year, weather wise, in Little Rock. And in that regard at least 2020 didn’t disappoint, so we were outside in the yard a lot. I fear what will happen when the hot weather sets in, in a couple of weeks or so. So I tried to read outside as much as I could. But what I mostly read this month was undergraduate prose—many, many essay drafts and short writing exercises. Some of that writing was excellent, some not. Either way, it took me away from books, plus I was working away at some chunksters. Thus this meager final tally:

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Philip Kerr, Greeks Bearing Gifts (2018)

Ingenious of Kerr to make his rumpled anti-hero Bernie Gunther an insurance adjuster in this last book of the series. (Kerr completed one more before he died, but it is set back in the 1920s, with Bernie a rookie beat cop.) Insurance is a great milieu for non-PI crime investigating, and I’m surprised more writers don’t take advantage of it. (Double Indemnity, of course, and Don Winslow’s California Fire and Life—can you think of others?) Here, Bernie is sent to Greece to investigate a suspicious claim. No surprise, what he finds relates to the Nazi occupation of the 1940s. What is a surprise is the ending, which offers a new, but quite fitting, direction for Bernie, serving an intriguing new set of masters. I would have loved to see Kerr develop these possibilities, but it’s satisfying as it is.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove (1985)

A damn good book, which kept me company through the first confusing and anxious pandemic weeks, back when things felt both more terrifying and less depressing than now. In the 1870s, down by the Mexican border, a group of cowboys work the Hat Creek ranch under the direction of two former Texas Rangers. The return of an old comrade and a sense that life has become played out convince the men to drive a herd of cattle north to Montana, where they plan to set up the first ranch in the territory.

Lonesome Dove has an exciting plot (McMurtry is good with weather, and he sure knows how to create drama out of a river crossing), but what it really has is a set of great characters. (Be warned: the intersection of these qualities often takes the form of death. You’ll lose several people you’ve become quite attached to.) For me, the book is about the things other people can see about you that you yourself just can’t. (A theme abetted by the novel’s roving omniscience.) Lonesome Dove is about the limits of self-knowledge—limits that abet the uncaringness of the universe that everyone, we learn, runs aground against anyway. Most heartbreaking is the inability of the outfit’s stoic leader, Captain Woodrow Call, to acknowledge that he’s the father of one of its youngest members. (There’s a beautiful, moving, frustrating scene between them at the end: the book’s plenty sentimental, which I like.) Almost as heartbreaking is the story of Call’s partner, Captain Augustus McCrae, as excitable and gregarious as Call is reticent, who is felled not by reencountering the love of his life but by his own stubbornness and vanity.

The novel’s only weakness is that there are almost no women in, only three really, though to be fair they’re important, and McMurtry handles two of them well (especially McCrae’s old flame, Emily). The prostitute Lorena Wood is less successful: what might have seemed a sensitive portrait in the 1980s doesn’t work today. But the book has a sweep, a verve, a love of life (it’s often laugh-out-loud funny) that really captivated me, and I can imagine tit ending up on my end of the year list.

Georges Didi-Huberman, Bark (2011) Trans. Samuel Martin (2017)

I can’t be fussed to look back and see what I wrote when I first read this a couple of years ago. Pretty sure I liked it then; I like it a lot now. I’ve taught it twice, and it’s a keeper. Didi-Huberman—a French academic who has written a lot about photography—juxtaposes photographs he took on a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau with little essayistic reflections on the experience. I now have a better handle on his argument, viz, we need to see without looking, which is to say, without being guided by preconceptions. Only self-awareness about the limitations of looking can let us do that. Students love the book—that came through even over our less-than-ideal video sessions. On my previous readings, I hadn’t picked up how much Didi-Huberman hates Claude Lanzmann, so that was a nice little bonus for me.

Henri Bosco, Malicroix (1948) Trans. Joyce Zonana (2020)

Strange and compelling, especially in its first half. A young man inherits a small house on a small island in the middle of the Rhone river—or he will if he satisfies the unusual requirements of the bequest. I will have more to say soon!

Sujata Massey, The Widows of Malabar Hill (2018)

First in a crime series set in 1920s Bombay (with detour to Calcutta). Parveen Mistry is the city’s first female solicitor (unlike her father, with whom she practices, she cannot argue in court) and a member of the city’s small but influential Parsi community. (She is modelled on the real-life Cornelia Sorabji.) When the firm is asked to execute the will of a longstanding Muslim client, Parveen’s gender turns into an asset, as the deceased three wives live in purdah. Her ability to speak to the widows directly becomes more pressing when a member of the household is found murdered. As I said about Greeks Bearing Gifts, I enjoy seeing how writers tackle the problems and opportunities offered by non-police or PI characters. It will be interesting to watch Massey deal with this constraint as the series goes forward. The crime takes a backseat to Parveen’s involved history—in this, as well as the period setting and the sensibilities of the main character, Widows reminded me of the first Maisie Dobbs novel; fans of that series will enjoy this one—but the story of her education and the unhappy events that led her to work with her father are compelling enough that I didn’t mind. I’ve already bought the second book, which, I gather, riffs on The Moonstone.

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May is shaping up to be a better reading month, once again with plenty of crime but other things too. Among other things I’ve been plugging away at Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. I’ve read 650 pp, and there are still 800 to go! Sometimes I just laugh at how big it is. Soothing, though. Tune in next time to see if I finish it.