2019 Year in Reading

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

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

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

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

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Best of the Bunch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Awards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monthly Review Posts

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

Coming in 2020

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

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

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

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

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

October 2019 in Review

A busy month, the semester grinding away, an invited lecture to prepare and deliver, the puppy growing more Clifford-like by the day. Yet also, finally, some relief from the heat. Unseasonably cool, even; some of the best fall weather I can remember in Arkansas. And along with it some decent reading.

b6bcfe645b912607d81ca0905c9cffa8Nechama Tec, Dry Tears: The Story of a Lost Childhood (1982/84) I’ve written before about this memoir of the author’s time in hiding in Poland during WWII. I re-read it because I’ve added it to my Holocaust Lit syllabus. Although I missed Imre Kertesz’s brilliant Fatelessness, which I had to cut in order to fit Dry Tears in, I’m glad I made the switch. It was useful for students to read about a Holocaust victim who avoided the camps (plus it gave them a glimpse into life in the ghettos, although Tec and her family did not spend long there). It’s leading nicely into our current discussion of Agnieszka Holland’s film Europa, Europa. And it’s a great book pure and simple. Tec’s style is low-key, but that just heightens the impact of the psychological abuse she suffered. Pretty sure I’ll keep this memoir in my teaching rotation for a while.

Andrew Taylor, The Fire Court (2018) Second volume in Taylor’s series set in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, featuring James Marwood, a Whitehall clerk whose father supported Cromwell and is now is disgrace, and Cat Lovett, similarly at odds with the new Court and her family as well, who is beginning to pursue her dream of becoming an architect. The books are nominally crime stories, but more interestingly they are about rebuilding: London itself, and the lives destroyed by both the fire and the Restoration. This one was better than the first, and I look forward to future installments.

Yoko Ogawa, Hotel Iris (1996) Trans. Stephen Snyder (2010) A few days before the awarding of the Nobel Prize, someone on Twitter was speculating that Ogawa might win. This piqued my interest and reminded me I had one of her books on my shelves. At first, I was engrossed in this story of a teenage girl, Mari, who helps her domineering mother manage a down-at-heel hotel in a Japanese seaside resort. One night they have to kick out a man who becomes violent with a woman he’s hired for sex. Mari is unaccountably intrigued by the man, and when they later meet on a ferry to a nearby island—where the man, who is a translator from the Russian, lives in regimented solitude—they begin a relationship that at once frees and imprisons the girl. In ordinary life, the translator is courtly, snobbish, a little nebbish-y. In his sex life, he is violent, abusive, domineering. Mari, it turns out, perhaps to her surprise, it’s hard to tell, loves it.

Hotel Iris made me uncomfortable because, even though narrated from Mari’s point of view, it’s unforthcoming about what Mari might be getting out of the affair. Eventually it’s hard to see it as anything other than abusive. Yet the novel offers no clear signals that it wants us to see things this way. There’s a subplot about a nephew of the translator, rendered mute after a childhood accident: also enigmatic, but in a way that felt clumsy rather than intriguing. In the end the book left a sour taste in my mouth. I could feel quite differently on another reading—it’s clear Ogawa is a writer of interest: she’s brilliant on atmosphere—but I don’t really feel like visiting that world again. Any thoughts, hive mind?

Tayari Jones, An American Marriage (2018) Much fêted, but in the end forgettable novel about an African American couple who seems to have it made—recent graduates from terrific HBCs, they have interesting jobs and a nice life in Atlanta—until one night everything they know is overturned. Roy is falsely accused of raping a woman; he’s convicted and begins a lengthy sentence. Celestial supports him, but her need to forge her own life, and the distance between them (both literal—he’s in jail in Louisiana—and figurative—they can’t imagine each other’s lives) drives them apart. And yet not quite apart. A bond between them persists.

Mass incarceration is one of the issues in the US today—I’ve been heartened by how strongly students now feel about this, many of them rejecting the idea of incarceration tout court, thinking of it (rightly IMO) as just a form of torture: I’m reminded of how strongly students 5-10 years ago felt about LGBTQ issues, especially gay marriage. Jones ably depicts the psychological brutalization that incarceration is deigned to cause. And she makes you feel strongly for all of the major characters, even when their desires conflict. But in the end, I was annoyed by how “literary fiction-y” the book was. This is the kind of book that feels the need to introduce, apropos of nothing, ¾ of the way through, Roy’s childhood hobby: collecting keys. A lyrical aria on Roy’s keys follows, what they look like, where he found them, what he did with them. But keys, get it? He’s in prison. (Celestial’s career—she makes dolls, all of which are uncanny variations of Roy, that become collectors’ items—is similarly freighted, though at least Jones develops it more than the key business.) Give me an essay or non-fiction study of incarceration instead, thanks.

Waubgeshig Rice, Moon of the Crusted Snow (2018) The second Canadian Indigenous post-apocalyptic novel I’ve read in the last year or so. This one isn’t a patch on Cherie Dimaline’s The Marrow Thieves—the writing clunkier, the characterization blunter, the idea that Indigenous people have resources to survive dark times that Whites don’t less developed—but Rice has a nice hand with suspense, and he offers a pleasingly enigmatic ending My wife read it before me and, as she predicted, once I’d read the first 30 pages or so I had to read the rest with as few breaks as possible. Pretty sure this is a first novel; curious to see how Rice develops as a writer. He’s got potential.

Jane Gardam, Old Filth (2004) Late to this party, but better late than never. A really fine and moving novel, a bit old fashioned, but so well done. You have to write for a lifetime to write a novel like this, I think. I pretty much agree with Daniel Polansky’s take entirely. (His reading log is pure joy. So punchy. Check it out.) Old Filth—as every review will tell you, the name stands for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong”—is Edward Feathers, a Raj Child (a history totally unknown to me: fascinating and sad) who has, in fact, never failed at anything, except perhaps making emotional connections with others, yet even this judgment, which comes from the ways his childhood failed him, proves to be premature. I was captivated by the book from the beginning, in which an old man locks himself out of his house on a snowy Christmas day and is forced to ask his neighbour, also his oldest enemy, for help.

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Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (1938) I’ve read Woolf’s extended essay on violence and gender many times: it never gets easier or less thrilling. A difficult book to master—the conceit is that Woolf is responding to a letter from a man asking her how we can best prevent war, but there are letters within the letters, imagined responses to an imagined response, so it’s hard to stay oriented—Three Guineas always seems relevant, especially in its gender and class politics. As always, I was fascinated by the violence of Woolf’s own rhetoric, as if to suggest that violence cannot be expunged even in an investigation into its dangers. But this time I was particularly struck by how cynical (realistic?) my students were about how far their own college is from the ideal (women’s) college Woolf imagines in the second letter. The shift from Millenials to Gen Z has happened.

Max Eisen, By Chance Alone (2016) Even though it won a big recent prize in Canada I had no great expectations for By Chance Alone. Yes, it’s my personal mission to read every Holocaust memoir, but sometimes the ones written many years after the event can be forced or pious. But even though Eisen is by his own admission no stylist, the book is fascinating, of interest to specialist and general readers alike. Eisen’s experience was amazingly wide-ranging: he lived through almost every facet of the Holocaust.

Born in Czechoslovakia in 1929 in a small town near the Hungarian border—in territory which was in fact given to Hungary in 1939, a fact which played a part in his survival—Eisen grew up in a close-knit family under almost idyllic circumstances. But in August 1942, together with his mother and siblings (his father has already been conscripted into forced labour), Eisen was deported to the Ukraine where he miraculously escaped death in the infamous killing fields near Kamenets-Podolsky (their transport was turned back at the last minute). Because after this short series of deportations Hungary dragged its feet in persecuting its Jewish population (at least from the Nazis’ perspective), after that narrow escape Eisen was able to live in relative freedom under Passover 1944, at which time he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  There another extraordinary turn of events led him to get a (coveted) position in the medical unit at Auschwitz I, where he became the assistant of the remarkable Polish surgeon Tadeusz Orzeszko.

Many Holocaust memoirs speed up at the end, stopping at liberation and alluding only vaguely to the difficulties that came afterward. But Eisen describes at length his experience on one of the notorious Death Marches in the freezing winter of 1945, and his long odyssey through a series of work and displaced persons camps in Austria, his journey home to Slovakia, and the events leading to his emigration to Canada in 1949. Eisen is an appealing character; I was moved by and engrossed in his book. (And it has great maps—something most Holocaust texts lack.)

Jane Gardam, The Man in the Wooden Hat (2009) More about Filth and friends, this time focusing on Filth’s wife, Betty. On Twitter, Teresa suggested that the second and third volumes are good but not quite as good as the first, and I agree. But Gardam has a nice line in revelation, managing to keep surprising us without seeming manipulative.

Jane Gardam, Last Friends (2013) In some ways, the slightest of the trilogy, but Gardam has tricks up her sleeve even here. Here she focuses on Filth’s rival and Betty’s lover Edward Veneering, whose upbringing is, as the publisher rightly says, as Dickensian as his name. But two minor characters from the other volumes end up stealing the show: the trilogy ends with on a ramshackle but joyous note. Gardam knows what she’s about, and I’m curious to try some of her other stuff.

Tara Westover, Educated (2018) I confess that when I saw this on several best-of lists last year my not-so-secret-inner-snob thought, “Not for me.” But a couple of colleagues recommended it, and when I was looking for a new audiobook there it was on the New Shelf. And now I’m so glad I got over myself. By now probably everyone knows the deal: Westover grew up in a survivalist Mormon family in Idaho. Like most of her six siblings, real didn’t go to school. Now way was she going to succumb to the godless socialism of the Government. Westover wasn’t immunized, visit doctors (charlatans all, at best, according to her father), own a birth certificate, or participate in any of the milestones of middle-class American life.

Instead she spent her childhood working in her father’s junkyard and, later, on his crew building barns. Dangerous work. One of the many extraordinary things in this book is its description of bodily harm. Westover herself narrowly escapes falling into a crusher. One of her brothers burns his legs terribly, and her father nearly dies (suffering permanent disfiguration) from burns suffered while preparing a car for the crusher. (He’s removing the gas tank with a welding torch but he’s forgotten to drain it.) Another brother falls off a roof on to his head and later smashes it again in a motorcycle accident. Her mother suffers a traumatic head injury in a car crash. Westover is regularly abused, even tortured by one of her brothers, who bends her wrists until they threaten (and once, actually do) snap. I winced many times while listening to the book. I was struck by Westover’s depiction of the head as the vital part of the human being: the damage to the brain is juxtaposed to the development of the mind.

In some ways the arc of the book is conventional: Westover escapes her upbringing and thrives; she seems to be amazingly good at almost everything she tries, from musical theater to writing a dissertation; after getting into BYU by scoring well on the ACT, she attends Cambridge on a Gates Fellowship (insanely hard to get) and scores a fellowship to Harvard. Yet in other ways, she is permanently damaged by her upbringing: unable to accept help, ungrateful to the people who go out of their way to help her, terrified of being ostracized by her family to the point of being willing to recant what she knows to be true. She is abused in so many ways. Yet she never makes fun of her family. I wasn’t left thinking, Wow, what a bunch of nuts. Westover’s mother, in particular, is a compelling, complicated, even tragic figure, at once highly competent (she is a midwife and herbalist who grows her kitchen business into a million-dollar concern) and terribly deluded about the abuse perpetrated in the family.

As a teacher, I was struck by how relatively little time Westover spends talking about the kind of learning that goes on in and around a classroom. Which suggests how many different ways to learn there are. And Educated was a salutary reminder that we don’t know and shouldn’t take for granted what our students have experienced before they come to us. It would be interesting to compare Educated to Rousseau and Mill’s autobiographies (Westover ends up specializing in social thinkers like Locke, Mill, Smith, and Bentham, so she is undoubtedly referencing those texts in ways I missed).

One scene in particular I’ll want to come back to. (Almost every piece on the book seems to refer to it: I want to think more about why.) In her first semester at college, Westover takes an Art History class. She sees an unfamiliar word in the textbook and raises her hand to ask about it. The room falls silent. The Professor winces and cuttingly says, “Well, thanks for that.” The girl who sat next to her, with whom she has struck a tentative friendship, berates her at the end of class: “Some things you don’t joke about.” No one in the class speaks to her again. At the end of the period she runs to the library and searches for this mysterious word: Holocaust.

Laura Cumming, Five Days Gone: The Mystery of My Mother’s Disappearance as a Child (2019) (a.k.a. On Chapel Sands: My Mother and Other Missing Persons) The US title isn’t a patch on the UK original, a much better reflection of this slow-burning memoir centered on the author’s mother, who was taken from a Lincolnshire beach in 1929 before being returned to her adopted parents five days later, unharmed. (Though there is plenty of harm in this story.) At first, I wasn’t sure how much it was working for me. (Reading it right after Educated was probably unwise: the former so brash, the latter so muted.) But the more I read, the more I appreciated, and by the end, which is amazing, I was well under its spell. Cumming is an art critic (her book on Velasquez awaits me on the library hold shelf) and she folds interpretations of various images into the story of her mother to surprisingly good effect. She’s a brilliant close reader: the book particularly comes alive when she considers family photographs. And she’s just really smart. I’ll close with a few choice quotes:

  • What is my mother’s own true nature, and what is the life she has been dealt, the tide of daily events that knocked her back and forth, that she swims in, or tries to swim in?
  • In the great democracy of family albums we all have photographs upon which, disastrously, nothing is written. Identities drift in a sea of unknowing. We have no idea who they were, these people smiling, frowning, or resisting the camera’s tyrannical hold. Each may be somebody, or nobody, of importance to the past or future story.
  • The lives of even quite recent generations might almost disappear from our understanding if we did not think of their aspirations.
  • Home is where nobody ever says anything by way of explanation about loss, death, or tragedy; where it is possible for George and Veda [her mother’s parents] to explain nothing about anything, for a whole childhood to pass, with all its racing school weeks and Sunday longeurs, its endless summer holidays and cyclical autumns, without anyone ever telling her anything—for the secret of her own origins to be kept entirely from her. The catastrophe is happening and everyone is looking away.

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There you have it, another month gone. Of the books new to me, the Gardams were satisfying, but a trio of memoirs, by Eisen, Westover, and Cumming, carried the day.