Today‘s reflection on a year in reading, his second for the blog, is by Scott Lambridis (@slambridis). Scott’s story “Blind Sticks” was nominated for a 2021 Pushcart award. Before completing his MFA, he earned a degree in neurobiology, and co-founded Omnibucket.com, through which he co-hosts the Action Fiction! performance series. Read more at scottlambridis.com.
Every year I have a goal of reading 52 books. This year I read 111. Here’s the top 10, in the order I finished them.
1. Civilizations, by Laurent Binet (trans. Sam Taylor)
I finished Civilizations in the first week of 2022, on the heels of last year’s top 10 winner, HHhH, by the same author, wondering if his narrative magic would translate from a true story about an architect of the Holocaust to the boundlessness of invented history. Civilizations focuses on five key moments in Western civilization, and in particular the Spanish defeat of the Inca, and turns them on their heads. The Inca survive then defeat the Spanish, come to Europe, usurp the Holy Roman Empire and strip power from the Habsburgs, and became the dominant force of the Western world. The Incan leader Atahualpa worships Machiavelli, dismisses the Christian god as “not a serious being” (compared to the Incan sun god), bans the Inquisition, and leads Europe towards a more tolerant and agrarian society, only to be ultimately thwarted by the Aztec, who’ve made their way across the Atlantic too. In a coda tale, Quixote tilts at Aztec pyramids.
My favorite falsely remembered (as usual) moment is the Inca rejecting Luther’s nailed treatises; the actual scene is of Thomas More and Erasmus exchanging letters about the nailing of the “Ninety-Five Theses of the Sun” to the wooden doors of a German Incan temple instead of Luther’s. In either case, the Reformation is canceled, and Henry’s VIII decides to become a sun worshipper. It’s hilarious, deadly serious, and riveting. There’s something special about a well-done historical reimagining, like watching your favorite books turned into films that match the artistry. There’s a joy enough in recognition; but a secondary joy in watching a new artwork created before your eyes from the pieces of the old. I’m not great at retaining history, so it was hard for me to tell what was based on fact and what was made up, but it didn’t matter. It’s on the list because, like a friend once said of the timeless Borges, Binet’s non-fiction reads like a great tale, while the more implausible the fiction the more true it seems.
2. When We Cease To Understand the World, by Benjamín Labatut (trans. Adrian Nathan West)
In writing these reviews I discovered a theme: reimaginings! Lives, events, artworks reimagined, sometimes attempting to stick close to “fact,” sometimes not at all. When We Cease To Understand the World is the former (mostly), in which Labatut imagines critical scientific discoveries of the 20th century that had tragic effects on either society, or the discoverer. The opening essay/story (the line is blurry here) is the hook, a breakneck tracking of the invention of Prussian blue as a novel paint color prized by Van Gogh and a host of luminaries to the deaths wracked by industrialization of nitrogen-based fertilizers, and ultimately to the cyanide pills hoarded by Nazi soldiers. The remaining stories are more portraits than compressed timeline, but no less impressive, in particular the trials of Heisenberger (uncertainty!) and Schrödinger (the cat!), and the conflict of each’s mad grandeur at having faced, in their own way, the terrible ambiguity of the quantum lying at the void upon which all reality is said to stand. We stare, with these poor trifling geniuses, into the void not above, but within. There’s a Lovecraftian effect of the seers describing the indescribable horrors of mathematical infinity, but, as with W.G. Sebald, it is less these abstractions and more the nuts-and-bolts details of the mundane that captivate and disturb. Labatut takes his time to add flesh and blood to characters known principally through textbooks, and it doesn’t matter what is real or invented (as I’ve argued to my other book club members): truth remains.
3. Parable of the Blind, by Gert Hofmann (trans. Chritopher Middleton)
Some books shine just by making you giggle from start to finish. Here Hofmann dramatizes the famous painting of the blind leading the blind, following a group of sightless paupers who must make their way to the site where a mysterious artist awaits to paint them in the act of tumbling, one after another, into a ditch.
I read this on a ski trip with my dad and 7-year-old daughter, right at the point of maximum friction between my desire to make him proud of the daughter he rarely saw, and my desire to be free of needing his approval for how I was raising her. I welcomed Parable as pure absurdist comedy, which is all it would be in anyone’s else’s hands. In Hofmann’s hands though, our empathy is not so easily incited; we must wrestle, page after excruciating page, between pity and desire, with the question of whether we actually want this senseless gaggle to fulfill their humiliation, and only now do I see that it offered far more to me in those few days with my scowling father and crying child than simply escape—an exercise in compassion for all of us who walk the line between our pride and our shame. [Ed. – Nicely put!]
4. The Employees, by Olga Ravn (trans. Martin Aitken)
This, this is just what I want from science fiction—and yet it’s hard to explain why, or even what it is. Let’s list the facts. Novella-thin, tiny chapters, a collection of interviews, not necessarily in the correct order, with workers (both human and android) on a spaceship. Each chapter is such a strange jewel, it’s almost like a collection of connected flash fiction. The narrative thread that holds them together is as inscrutable as the objects the employees describe, those they’ve collected in their travels and are attempting to study. The objects are never described directly, only in relief, and mostly by their effects, creating a creeping unease as the objects begin to inspire profound emotional reactions. Everyone seems to slowly go mad, though why is unclear, particularly without even chronology to rely on. A lesser book would lose its way without clear trajectory, but The Employees creeps ever forward to existential disaster, held taut by the hope of uncovering the nature of its mysteries (objects, events, participants, interviewers). The sensation is of being an alien observer looking down through a microscope on a world we know we’ll never understand, without being able to look away. Is that enough to get you to read it? [Ed. – Yep.]
5. In the Time of the Butterflies, by Julia Álvarez
The first entry on this year’s list that’s part of my three-year literary globetrotting trek in which I’m reading a book by an author from every country of the world [Ed. – Hmm born in NY tho…], this dramatization of true events during Trujillo’s dictatorship in the Dominican Republic tells the story of the Mirabal Sisters, whose murders helped strengthen the resistance. The story is told through the Mirabals’ points of view: activist Minerva who joins the resistance, naive Maria Therese who follows without really knowing what she’s doing, tragically devout Patria who can’t escape her fate, and anxious homebody Dedé who ultimately carries the guilt of survival and the hollow responsibility of her prescience. Butterflies offers what I expected to find when setting off to read authors from countries whose voices I don’t usually hear: a glimpse into the mundane particulars of a culture’s life, and an authentic account of its myths and histories. What I should probably also have expected is that the literature beyond the US/European borders centers on the effects of colonialism, dictatorships, or both. Butterflies is no exception, but it is an exemplar. The narrative gives voice to each of the Mirabals as it advances across their lives, shifting deftly at moments of tension between their perspectives as they negotiate their obligations to survival, family, resistance, and each other. It is a rich telling of a heartbreaking story of a fascinating family suffering in the attempt to thrive under oppression: a story we seem to need to hear again and again. And the cherry on top is a film version with Salma Hayek and Edward James Olmos, which sticks to just one butterfly’s perspective, but is lovely and at least faithful enough to let you relive their story one more time.
6. Temporary People, by Deepak Unnikrishnan
In the inscription I wrote on the inside flap of this book, a Christmas gift to my dad’s girlfriend Valerie, a Jewish French-Moroccan who first won me over years ago by giving me the gift of a t-shirt featuring Camus’s The Stranger, I described this collection of linked short stories as what Kafka might have written if he’d been a blue-collar immigrant in the United Arab Emirates, and had a bit more humor. [Ed. – More humour?!?]
Unnikrishnan’s temporary people are the gig workers of the Arabian peninsula, making up the majority of the UAE’s population, imported with oil wealth to build the infrastructure of nouveau royal white-collar civilization, though without any hope of citizenship or reprieve from the fear of deportation, and Unnikrishnan explores their temporariness in all its literal forms and magical transmogrifications.
Observe: workers are literal tools tossed from construction sites when broken or unneeded or just by accident, while a young woman attempts to put what she can back together. A sultan harvests crops of perfect laborers, only to have them die off twelve years in. A tongue flees its body and verbs flee their sentences into lives of their own. There’s a sexually abusive elevator. My greedy dad must’ve stolen Valerie’s book since he texted me one night: “life of cockroaches, one decides 2 walk on 2 legs and talk… while boy sprays bug killer” and a string of ROTFLs. The invention never tapers: no clunkers here. Each story is a world of its own, full of sarcasm, playfulness, satire, anger, and love.
7. An African in Greenland, by Tete-Michel Kpomassie (trans. James Kirkup)
In April we sold our 40-acre olive farm in California [Ed. — !] and spent the summer homeless and traveling in the US and Europe, finally landing further north in the PNW in September. I read this bizarre memoir at the start of those travels, snapping pics of passages highlighting the delightfully absurd but endearing travels of the first African to arrive in Greenland and experience Inuit culture. As a child in Togo, Kpomassie encounters in a library a book on Greenland, and the idea of such a stark icy landscape so fascinates him in contrast with the oppressive heat and dust of his native Africa that he begins a lifelong mission to travel there, no matter how long or by what means it takes, and after making his way, year by year, from Northern Africa to Scandinavia, one odd job at a time, he finally steps off the boat on its shores, much to the shock of the locals.
What follows is not just a fascinating account of local culture, and history of (no surprise here) Arctic colonialism, or a collection of small town conflicts, hilariously endearing personalities, and environmental trials as Kpomassie floor-surfs from family to family while learning to ice fish, dogsled, navigate a featureless landscape, cook ice, survive on raw skin and fat, and avoid death by freezing in a much wider variety of forms than I expected (snapping a frozen spinal cord?!), but also a tense existential journey of an unlikely and joyful narrator absolutely in love with all of it and needing more, needing more cold (!!), even more cold, desiring nothing but to move ever northward, into deeper and deeper desolation, without any clear explanation of why. And all the while Kpomassie’s natural sense of rhythm and movement keeps the pages turning.
I enjoyed this book so much that after I turned its last page and tucked it into my suitcase I felt a growing longing to return to it that grew stronger with each temporary destination—not necessarily to the hilarious little social hierarchies enacted by the Danes and native Greenlanders, or to the phantasmagoria of ice survival techniques—but perhaps just to get a little bit closer to that single-minded calling of where home is, so that it might rub off and guide me too.
8. Saint Sebastian’s Abyss, by Mark Haber
“My job as a critic was to lay waste to the work and when the work survived, when the work was resurrected despite my attacks, when the work prevailed despite my many attempts on its life, then I had succeeded as a critic.”
I loved this book the moment I received that text-messaged quote from my friend who always discovers books before me. Abyss is at the nexus of two of my favorite micro-genres—hate lit, in which characters unleash a torrent of lushly articulated venom; and art fictions, in which we’re thoroughly convinced of the merits (or lack) of artworks that don’t exist.
The plot is simple: two academics are obsessed with a marginally famous painting, claiming it is the greatest artwork ever completed or conceived, only they differ—grossly—in their reasons why. What follows is a 200-page argument, tracking the divergence of their careers through an escalating rivalry, culminating in a deathbed scene that does everything you want it to, without offering even a little bit of what you wanted from it. [Ed. – Good way to put it.] The telling of it, though, is half the fun, a rhythmically hypnotic repetitive syntax that aids in the forgetting that this brilliantly divisive painting and its painter do not actually exist. It’s so convincing that I was fooled yet again when I started writing these reviews, thinking it was yet another historical reimagining, like the feuds in Janet Malcolm’s In the Freud Archives instead of a novel.
Their feud’s finale is, like all great endings, unexpected but inevitable, mysterious but complete. Haber strips away all semblance of dramatic irony, leaving the reading wondering alongside the narrator what was actually true in the life of his rival, and more importantly, what that truth means for his own hate, his love, his career, his entire life. By the end we’re as spun as that tragic narrator, but at least we can close the book. And in my case at least, instigate an argument with my own literary rival [Ed. – You… have a literary rival??] about its greatest merits that continues to this day.
9. Trust, by Domenico Starnone (trans. Jhumpa Lahiri)
Trust tracks a pair of relationships: a couple make a pact to keep each other’s darkest secret, only to break up soon after; then he marries another, has a family, a career, etc., all while wondering if his secret has been kept and whether he should ask his ex-girlfriend about it.
I didn’t think Trust would make the top ten. It was the last one in, edging past new books by two favorite authors, Samanta Schweblin and Werner Herzog. How? Why?! There’s no literary fireworks here, and it’s not particularly weird or even unique. Yes, I couldn’t stop reading it, gobbling it down in 3 days, and was sad to finish, and yes, there’s plenty of narrative tension in finding out what our protagonist’s terrible secret is (spoiler: you don’t), wondering if he’ll confront her and potentially cause their agreement to unravel, and sure, there are a couple interesting shifts of point of view towards the end, but that’s not it.
It’s tempting to invoke relatability, that terrible term I try so hard to reject in fiction. I couldn’t help but recognize familiar patterns of dialogue, invocations and accusations that were eerily familiar in the long dark journey to reestablish harmony in my own marriage this past year, and I admit I wondered throughout whether I was only really enthralled because of how crisply he tracked the nuances of growing resentment in the relationships, and the erosion of, well, trust. It is not the relatability though, I promise (partially to myself), but the precision. Relatability is an excuse for liking something for the ease in which you can enter into the world. What’s rare and astonishing for books like Trust is how they unexpectedly linger in your mind, long after you finish them, and even enlarge. You can’t stop thinking about them because, as Peter Orner once described the best of fiction, these characters have so much flesh and blood it hurts to even call them characters, and when they’re gone it feels like something died.
10. Death of Somoza, by Claribel Alegría (trans. Darwin J. Flakoll)
Native Nicaraguan Alegría does the unthinkable in this thin volume by connecting (via fav Cortazar!) with a group of real-life assassins in order to tell a behind-the-scenes account of political revolt. Through interviews with the anonymized assassins, we’re handed a vivid thriller about the year-long planning and executing of the murder of brutal Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle after he flees to Asunción, Paraguay in 1980.
The group moves across South and Central American borders coordinating, training, supplying, surveilling, establishing temporary identities, and eventually, after bazooka-ing Somoza, escaping. It’s an insider view of the socio-political climate of the time, connecting the countries, dictatorships, revolutions and counter-revolutions, which also managed to enrich the effect of related South/Central American books on my around-the-world tour, adding context to all (special shout-out to the bizarrely accomplished Stroessner regime in Paraguay).
Reading Death of Somoza feels taboo, as if the CIA is about to knock on your door for possessing a how-to on political assassination. During the opening pages, moral questions arise of what rights this group had to “bring Somoza to justice,” acting, as they did, as judge, jury, and executioner, but as commando members’ personalities emerge alongside their humanity, those questions become insignificant. Instead, you take your place alongside Ramón and the rest of his crew feeling the same inescapable need to wipe Somoza off the earth, and the terrible anxiety of responsibility—each burdened to care more for success than survival.