What I Read, August 2020

August. Well, it was better than July. After much hand-wringing over safety and ethics, we took a short vacation to Colorado, to assuage some of our sadness at missing our time in the Canadian Rockies. We were amazed at how different Colorado is from Alberta, alternately enjoyed and suffered the long drive from Missouri (where we’d been staying), got in some good hiking, and marveled at how much cheaper holidays are when you don’t go out to eat or buy any souvenirs. Immediately after returning, though, it was right into a new routine: both my wife and my daughter are attending school remotely (Zoom rules our lives); I’m trying to write a little each day and not be too cruel to myself about the quality or quantity or even the topic. Some days I simmer in rage at the needlessness of this all (we didn’t have to experience this pandemic this way); on others I make the best of it. And I get my reading time in whenever I can.

Vikram Seth, A Suitable Boy (1993)

Possibly the longest single-volume novel I have ever read (almost 1500 pages, sometimes I laughed just at the side of it). I did not read it all in August. In fact, I’ve been working on it since March or April. I could have read faster, no doubt—I set it aside for long stretches—and that might have made me a better reader. But the book lends itself to slowness—its many parts, divided into short chapters, provide plenty of places to pause, even as they also offer a reason to keep going (“I can read ten more pages”).

The setting is India in the early 1950s, mostly in the cities of Brahmpur and Calcutta (only the latter of which is real), but with forays into the countryside. Lata Mehra needs to be married—at least according to her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra (as she is typically named by the gently teasing omniscient narrative voice). But which boy will be suitable? Focused on four interlocking families, the novel offers plenty of possible choices. (The resolution surprised me, but after a moment’s reflection I accepted its rightness.) Sensible, intelligent Lata is perhaps the most sympathetic character in a book filled with them. (I did like its kindness.) A few are caricatures, but most are well-rounded and interestingly changeable. Seth’s vision is heavy on the “foibles of human nature”—if this isn’t your thing, this book isn’t for you. It’s old fashioned, dipping occasionally into free indirect discourse, but more often relying on a wise, almost arch omniscience. That retro quality feels a bit stagey—I’m not sure it has the convictions of its 19th century heart—but that could just be because the 90s now feel a little impossible. (To me, they are what the 70s were to the 90s: embarrassing. Since the 70s now seem amazing, the book, like the decade in which it was published, may age well.)

Something A Suitable Boy does share with Victorian triple-deckers is a delight in instruction. I learned so much from this book, from all kinds of Indian vocabulary (mostly Hindi but sometimes Urdu words) to the structure of the Zamindari system, the abolition of which forms one of the important subplots.

If I think about it more, I could probably draw a connection between newly-independent India and self-made men, at least one of which is important to the novel’s plot, but A Suitable Boy is not a book that asks us to think much. It kept me pleasantly diverted through the first months of the pandemic; I felt fondness for it and its characters. I didn’t quite shed a tear at the end, but I definitely let out an almost risibly satisfied sigh on reading the final pages. A month later, though, I rarely think of it (much less than I do Lonesome Dove, the other chunkster I’ve read this year), so I can’t say it’s a book for the ages. Apparently, Seth has been working for decades on a sequel, A Suitable Girl. I’ll read it, if it ever comes to pass.

Jessica Moor, The Keeper (2020)

The title, a nice pun suggesting how little separates the ideal man from Bluebeard, is the best thing about this book. A procedural centered on a domestic abuse shelter is a good idea. The slick trick the book plays at the end is not.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace (2020)

Ever since I fell in love with Kassabova’s travelogue, Border—you can read my rave here—I’ve been eager for her next book. To the Lake didn’t disappoint. The earlier book was about Thrace, the lands where, today, Greece, Turkey, and Bulgaria meet. The new one is about another place that borders both do and do not separate. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa—joined by underground rivers—lie at the intersection of Albania, Greece, and the newly-independent Republic of North Macedonia, where, back when it was Yugoslavia, Kassabova summered as a child. Because it is about the Balkans, the book is about history, specifically, about violence. It is also about the possibility of overcoming that violence (as symbolized by the tentative rapprochement between Greece and North Macedonia). To that end, Kassabova considers the lakes as a place of healing—people have taken their waters for centuries, for both physiological and psychological relief.

But as dialed into a century’s worth of political upheavals as Kassabova is, she is even more interested in war and peace, violence and restitution as fundamental human qualities, as competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) The personal parts of To the Lake concern her mother’s family, and certain unhappy psychological traits that seem to have been passed down through it. These might, however, be social rather than genetic. As she writes:

Like many ambitious women in a patriarchy where they don’t have full expression in society but absolute power in the family, [Kassabova’s great-grandmother] Ljubitsa inhabited the destructive shadow archetype of the mother-queen: needing everyone to remain small and needy, looking up to her and infusing her with importance (after all her sacrifices, it’s the least they could do). Like a poisoned mantle, this psychological imprint was taken on by my grandmother and then by my mother, and sometimes I feel it creeping up behind me too, ready to enshroud me and make me mean.

As you can see here, Kassabova is really smart (no one gets off lightly in that passage), which is what I love best about her, even more than descriptions of outings to the lakeshore to pick cherries. (Though I am a sucker for that Chekovian shit too.) I gather Kassabova is working on a book about healing more broadly. I’ll miss the Balkans, but I can’t wait.

Incidentally, To the Lake pairs terrifically with Antigona and Me; interesting, how two of the best books I’ve read this year are about women from the Balkans.

Annie Ernaux, The Years (2008) Trans. Alison L. Strayer (2013)

I finally read Annie Ernaux! Even though it is the surest way to jinx myself, I want to write an essay about her, so won’t say too much about either this book or the other three I read this month. (They are very short.) Many readers seem to think this is Ernaux’s masterpiece. That is wrong. In fact, I thought about abandoning this book a couple of times. I didn’t because I sensed Ernaux’s intelligence. And I’m glad I didn’t; her other work is more to my taste.

Ernaux is upfront about her challenge in The Years—she wanted to write about herself as part of a generation. But what voice to use? “I” wasn’t right—first-person legitimates or values the individual in a way she didn’t want. (Intriguing, given her masterly use of it in her other books.) But “she” wasn’t right either: third-person coalesces phrases and descriptions into character (Barthes wrote brilliantly about this in S/Z). She turned to “we” to write the story of French Boomers. (Technically, she is an earlier generation, having been born in 1941, but still.) My decades-long feud with Boomers is surely influencing me here, but I didn’t think Ernaux was as careful as she should have been (and that she is in her other work) to note how her “we” is the story of a particular class. I mean, I get that the upper-middle class of intellectuals or other white-collar worker—the generation that turned conservative after 68 and, having benefitted from the thirty glorious years made possible by the destruction of WWII, proceeded to dismantle all its good things, specifically its attempts to undo inequality—think that their experience simply is experience. But I didn’t sense that Ernaux was critiquing that tendency. I dunno, The Years feels a little smug to me—which her writing otherwise never seems to be. Read Ernaux, but start somewhere else.

Georges Simenon, The Flemish House (1932) Trans. Shaun Whiteside (2014)

Finally, a Maigret that worked for me! (Admittedly, I’ve only read four.) Some Maigret-loving friends suggested many of the best books in the series send the detective out of Paris. Maybe that’s the trick. Here Maigret travels to the border with Belgium, called by a young woman who wants him to save her brother, who is under suspicion when the woman who fathered his child is found dead. Lots of rain, lots of barges, lots of hot toddies, and a damn good ending.

Laura Shepherd-Robinson, Blood and Sugar (2019)

Historical crime fiction centered on the British slave trade, set in one of its hubs, Deptford, in the 1780s. Unexceptionable but forgettable.

Annie Ernaux, A Man’s Place (1983) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1992)

Concerns the life and death of Ernaux’s father, a man unsure what to do with his daughter’s life, so different from his own.

Annie Ernaux, Simple Passion (1991) Trans. Tanya Leslie (1993)

Concerns an affair Ernaux carried out with a younger, Eastern European man. Begins with a description that might be familiar to people who remember the 80s, of watching a scrambled porno on TV. As so often, Ernaux is brilliant at creating metaphors for what she wants her writing to do without writing texts that are tediously metafictional.

Norman Ohler, Bohemians: The Lovers Who Led Germany’s Resistance Against the Nazis (2020) Trans. Tim Mohr and Marshall Yarborough (2020)

Fascinating.

Justus Rosenberg, The Art of Resistance: My Four Years in the French Underground (2020)

Incredible, the things that happened to Justus Rosenberg as a young man during the war. Strange, how little he says about what those things mean.

Annie Ernaux, The Possession (2002) Trans. Anna Moschovakis (2008)

Concerns the dual meaning of possession. Does the lover own the beloved? Or is she owned by him?

Bessora, Alpha: Abidjan to the Gare du Nord (2014) Trans. Sarah Ardizzone (2018) Illus. Barroux

I learned so much from this beautiful and sad comic, not least how huge Mali is, to say nothing of Algeria. Alpha Coulibaly, a cabinet maker in Abidjan, the biggest city in the Côte d’Ivoire, has heard nothing from his wife and son since they set off to Europe. They hoped to make it to her sister, who has a hair salon near Paris’s Gare du Nord. In search of them, he sells up and heads north, an epic journey first to Mali, then to Algeria, and then 1800 miles across the desert to the Spanish enclave at Ceuta, where he fails to gain EU entry, forcing him to try a dangerous voyage to the Canary Islands. Along the way, he is guided/abused by smugglers, and even becomes one himself: it’s the only way to make the money he needs. He meets many fellow migrants, all of whom are well aware of the dangers—though some, like an extended family that has pooled all its resources to send a young man to Spain, where they are convinced he will play for FC Barcelona, are more naïve than others. All know, however, that there is nothing for them at home. The desperation is as real as the risks they confront trying to escape it. Alpha and the others are both physically and psychologically damaged: this is not a book with a happy ending. Paradoxically, it’s a beautiful one: Barroux’s illustrations are washes of greys, whites, blacks, and reds.

Laurie R. King, The Game (2004)

It felt like time for another episode of Mary Russell’s adventures with Holmes, so I pulled this one from the shelf. In The Game Mycroft sends the pair to India, near the border with Afghanistan (this is in the 1920s), where the Russians, newly Soviets, are threatening Britain’s prize colony. I might have enjoyed this more had I read Kim—Kipling’s hero is a minor but important character—but I liked it anyway. As always, King is better at setting up her scenarios than in resolving them. The books always feel both slow and rushed at the same time, it’s weird, but I find enough in the series to keep plugging along.

Brit Bennett, The Vanishing Half (2020)

Deserving of its current popularity. The Vanishing Half is a novel about identical twin sisters, Desiree and Stella Vignes, who grow up in rural Louisiana in a town founded by a freed slave (the girls’ great-great-great grandfather) as an enclave for Blacks as light-skinned as himself. When they turn sixteen, in 1952, the sisters abscond to New Orleans to begin a new life. It’s hard to find work that isn’t badly paying and dangerous, so Desiree convinces Stella to take a secretarial job—which requires her to pass as white. Soon their paths diverge. Stella abruptly disappears, leaving Desiree bereft, her belief that she and her sister shared everything shattered. Stella marries her white boss—who has no idea of her background—which locks her into a life of both material privilege and constant anxiety over her secret. Desiree flees to DC, where she eventually marries the darkest man she can find, but returns to her hometown with her small daughter to escape his domestic abuse.

Years later, that daughter, Jude, moves to Los Angeles to attend college on a track scholarship. On a catering job she sees a woman she knows immediately must be her aunt. She becomes close to Stella’s daughter, an aspiring actress. Family secrets are revealed, to ambiguous ends.

Stories of racial passing often take the form of melodrama—Sirk’s film Imitation of Life is a classic example—and Bennett embraces that quality. In fact, I think she could have made more of it. The Vanishing Half is fascinated by acting-pretending-dissembling: both the many forms they can take and their consequences. For example, there’s a great trans subplot, and another important minor character is enmeshed in the 1970s/80s LA drag scene. But the book is about acting more than itself an example of it. I sometimes wanted Bennet to do more than depict impersonation; I wanted her to perform it through her style. Although, even as I write this, I wonder whether Bennett’s straightforward prose is itself a kind of acting—a way for her novel to pass as “respectable” literary fiction. (Hmm, the novel may be savvier than I credit!)

My favourite novel about racial passing is Nella Larsen’s Harlem Renaissance masterpiece, a real literary touchstone for me. And for Bennett, too, who references Larsen in shrewd ways (a smashed wine bottle echoes a smashed teacup from an important scene in Passing; the queer subplot gestures to the unavowed love between Larsen’s female protagonists). I loved how lovingly Bennett responded to Larsen’s novel. (If you haven’t read either, I recommend reading Larsen first.) And I admired her portrait of Stella, whose consciousness we often inhabit, in a way we don’t with the analogous figure in Passing. Bennett leaves unanswered whether Stella suffers from false consciousness or whether she simply wants the anonymity that white people can take for granted in a world that sets them as the default. This line haunts me: “She could think of nothing more horrifying than not being able to hide what she wanted.”

Ernaux’s works are an elegant rabbit-hole, and Ohler’s book taught me a lot. But this month’s winner was without question Kassabova’s terrific essay-travelogue. We’re lurching to the middle of September already, but if you had good reading in August, let me know. Lately my reading has taken me to north Germany in the 19th century, among other places. More on that in a few weeks. In the meantime, stay as safe and well as you can, everybody.

What I Read, May 2020

Finished the semester, was sad about not getting to see students graduate. Hair grew. Won a teaching award, finally something unequivocally good, a helpful validation. Made occasional trips to pick up groceries and the like, and to drive the car a little so my already temperamental battery didn’t complete die, was bewildered by the apparent alternate reality outside my door: no masks, no distancing, no cares. Hair grew longer. Thought about my upcoming sabbatical, worried over how to use this gift of time. Feared failure more than usual. Read too much news, was despondent, angry, grief-stricken. Hair reached crisis point. And, as always, read, quite a lot, most of it pretty undemanding.

EZIlJ48XYAA-tuGSusie Steiner, Missing, Presumed (2016)

When Lissa Evans and Nina Stibbe tell you to read a book, you don’t fuck about. Happily, this was as delightful and engrossing as promised. Manon Bradshaw is getting on for 40. She’s a bit lonely, but she’s a good cop, she’s funny and sarcastic, and she is just ordinarily neurotic, not hell-bent on self-destruction. Steiner manages the trick of putting the investigator’s personal life front and center and writing a suspenseful plot. Above all, Missing, Presumed is a properly female-centered crime novel (there’s more than one important female character, they don’t hate each other, they aren’t pitted against each other by men). Mostly what I took away from the book is that women’s clothes are often extremely uncomfortable. There’s lots of strap-tugging and pushing and pulling.

Israel Gutman, Resistance: The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising (1994) Trans. Ethel Broido (1994)

Twenty-five years on, Gutman’s history of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising feels dated. It’s filled with detailed information about an extraordinary moment, and is especially good on the various Jewish political and social groups in both pre-war and wartime Poland. But it has a narrow definition of resistance—namely, the use of force, especially the taking up of arms. I don’t reject this in principle—the power of violent resistance is on display across America as I write—and I get that Gutman is presenting events as the actors experienced them (he quotes various documents in which the handful of Jews left after the ghetto’s liquidation in late 1942 exulted in finally feeling human again, once they were able to shoot a gun or set an explosion, etc.). But Gutman also implicitly validates these statements, in part by underplaying other forms of resistance (he has surprisingly little to say about the Ringelblum archive, for example). His take makes sense when you learn that Gutman actually fought in the uprising himself. But you won’t learn that from his book. In fact, I’d no idea of his role until the students I was reading the book with told me. I can’t imagine a book written today that wouldn’t acknowledge the writer’s involvement in the material. Time for a new history of this moment, I say. One more thing bothered me: I’ve never before seen a book that acknowledged its translated status in a brief aside in the acknowledgements. Reprehensible!

Susie Steiner, Persons Unknown (2017)

DI Bradshaw is back, and her life has become more complicated, more exasperating, more fraught, and more joyful. Part Laurie Colwin, part Tana French, these books are terrific. Forgot to mention that Steiner is worth reading in paperback, because each of the two books so far includes a bonus chapter that bridges the current book to the next. I’ve not seen that before.

Maryla Szymiczkowa, Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing (2015) Trans. Antonia Lloyd-Jones (2020)

Maryla Szymiczkowa is the pseudonym of a young Polish gay couple. This is the first of what I imagine has become a series centered on Zofia Turbotynska, a society woman in Cracow in 1893, who feels herself coming alive when she inadvertently begins investigating a series of murders at an almshouse. The novel doesn’t quite avoid the pitfalls involved in stories of amateur detectives, but if like me you can’t get enough of late-19th, early 20th century Galicia, or if you just appreciate a well-drawn character (Zofia isn’t entirely likable, a bit self-satisfied and prim, but we are asked through her to think about our own fascination with investigation, which makes us like her more and ourselves less) you should give this a try. Props to Houghton Mifflin for bringing Szymiczkowa to the US, and to East Bay Books, who put their inventory online for online browsing by section, which is how I stumbled across this.

Kathleen Jamie, Sightlines (2012)

Wonderful essays.

Emiliano Monge, The Arid Sky (2012) Trans. Thomas Bunstead (2018)

Young Mexican novelist plays with temporal order and the relation between narrator and character in telling key events (dire or violent or, most often, both) in the life of a criminal turned priest turned criminal. (At least, I think that’s what’s going on; it’s not always easy and I read it in snatches, when immersion would probably be better, given the style.) Bunstead, I sense, is a great translator (I thought his translation of María Gainza’s Optic Nerve was terrific), and there are some resonant, Bernhardian sentences here. My sample size is small, to be sure, but so much Latin American literature seems to come out of Faulkner, who I don’t much care for. Are there Spanish-language equivalents of Barbara Pym or Tessa Hadley, or is that simply a misguided/stupid question?

Marcie R. Rendon, Murder on the Red River (2017)

Don’t sleep on this one. Jenny Davidson recommended it as the best crime fiction she’d read this year. Cash Blackbear is a nineteen-year-old Anishinabe woman in the Red River Valley in the early 1970s. (The war in Vietnam is a repeated touchstone.) Cash does farm work, mostly driving grain trucks. She adds to that income by hustling pool. And she drinks pretty steadily. She has a close relationship to the local sheriff, who watched over her when she was taken into care as a child, keeping her away from the worst of the foster parents. (They were all pretty bad, and Rendon slips in glimpses of those microaggressions throughout the book.) Cash has an ability to listen to the dead (this dreaming isn’t particularly well-developed, and I’d have liked to hear more about it). So when a native man is found stabbed to death, the sheriff brings Cash in to give him a hand. The resolution of the crime is anticlimactic; suspense is not the reason to read the book. Cash, though, is a great character, dogged and smart and torn apart by her love of a place that has no love for her. As an indigenous woman, Cash has suffered a lot, but the suffering is more constant low-level trauma rather than singular overwhelming moment. When I complained to my wife, who’d already read the book, that the hard-drinking investigator was a cliché, she pointed out that what Cash was doing was medicating. Rendon is good with action scenes (and I appreciate how modest those are—this is not Jack Reacher stuff). The reason they’re so good is that Rendon’s descriptions of Cash’s actions are fascinatingly detailed (yet the book is a short, quick read). We learn about every bath Cash takes in futile attempt to rid herself of wheat chaff, every trip to the bar, every cigarette she smokes, every meal she eats (when she remembers to), every route she takes through the isolated towns of the valley. I wondered about this, and finally it dawned on me that the prose was mimicking Cash’s need to control what she can in life. The repetition, the circumscribed life—these are the analogues of a person always at risk of losing a sense of self.

Cornelia Funke, Inkheart (2003) Trans. Anthea Bell (2003)

My daughter and I read this together over a couple of months (it’s like 500 pages), and I’ve been badgering her to write a review, but so far without luck. Inkheart has a good premise—what if you could read yourself into a book?—and then complicates it by adding the caveat that, every time you did, something from the world of the book came into our own. Meggie lives with her father, Mo, a bookbinder; when a stranger arrives at their door one night and Mo becomes shifty, even frightened, Meggie learns a lot of things, including, eventually, what really happened to her mother. Bell’s translation of Funke’s German text is excellent, and although I didn’t find this as breathtaking as, say, The Golden Compass, I loved how much my daughter loved it. It was too scary for her to read alone, but manageable with me reading it. It’s the first of a trilogy and we’re on the second book now—seeing my daughter’s joy and fascination with the map at the front of the second volume has been a joy in itself.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Flight of the Falcon (1965)

Even second-tier Du Maurier is worth reading.

Marcie R. Rendon, Girl Gone Missing (2019)

Cash returns, and the big development from the end of the first book means her life is different—that change is both an opportunity and a challenge to her always fragile stability. When several young women from different farming communities go missing, Cash follows the trail to Minneapolis, where she has never been before. In my favourite scene she visits the Grain Exchange, walking around the imposing stone building, amazed to find that this name, from which the all-important commodity prices come through farmers’ radios each day, is attached to a physical place where people actually work. Rendon brings Cash into contact with the American Indian Movement (AIM), which allows her explore the idea of whether a loner like Cash, at once attached to her native identity and frustrated by it, can find any meaning in an identity-based movement. A significant hanging thread from the first volume is reintroduced, which I appreciated. Rendon’s going to have to step up the crime aspects of these novels (the plots are thin), but I want many more books about Cash. Great midwestern farm neepery, too. During beet season, the local roads develop “a sheen of mud. This close to the Red River, the mud was mixed with river clay that was slicker than ice if a rainfall or early frost or, god forbid, an early snow coated the road.”

Tessa Hadley, Late in the Day (2019)

It’d been a while since I’d read Hadley, a writer I’ve always liked, but who has exceeded herself here. Late in the Day tells the story of four friends whose lives have been connected since student days. It begins with the death of one of them and goes both forward and backward from this traumatic beginning. Hadley is great with character—she sketches them so clearly (they are among the few literary characters I can actually picture) and lets them change and surprise us. She’s also adept with narrative voice, changing perspective regularly and using omniscience to its potential. There’s a scene when the four friends, drunk and high after celebrating a big accomplishment, almost exchange sexual partners, only to have the moment interrupted by one of the children, who can’t sleep; later, that child, now grown up, tells a sibling about a dream—which we know was real. I found this misunderstanding moving, somehow.

What does it mean to create something? Is a relationship or a friendship a kind of creation? Is middle age the time when creation is most fruitful? These are Hadley’s questions; in her answers I got a strong To the Lighthouse vibe. Hadley is warm, almost fond of her characters, but never indulgent with them. Fittingly, I stayed up late with the book, willing myself to the end but sad to reach the final page. Read Catherine Taylor’s piece in The Financial Times, it’s very good.

Dan Stone, Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (2019)

Historian Stone has written an amazingly lucid and useful book, which covers much historical ground and asks big theoretical questions, all in only a little more than 100 pages. Stone looks at late 19th-early 20th century camps in South Africa, Cuba, and the Philippines, noting how they were designed for non-combatants. He of course considers the camps of the Third Reich (his own area of expertise), which clearly distinguishes the various Nazi camps and, even more interesting, compares them to the institutions set up to create and validate the Volksgemeinschaft (Hitler Youth camps and the like). Camps, Stone argues, were for the Nazis as necessary to those “drilled into” the community as to those excluded from it, given that the regime’s aim was a society modelled on the barracks. To that end, “inclusion and exclusion went hand in hand.” Stone adds a chapter on the Gulag (really helpful to someone like me who knows too little about it), and on camps around the word (in colonial scenarios, within so-called liberal-democracies, under Communism). He concludes by casting a critical but not unsympathetic eye on theorists who make the camp a metaphor for modernity, and then tackles the difficult issue of comparison. In the end, although he says there is no clear line between camps and other sites of incarceration, Stone doesn’t think, for example, the migrant camps at the US border are concentration camps because they offer at least the possibility of the rule of law. I disagree, but I think he’s absolutely right in concluding, “Concentration camps are the compressed and condensed values of the state when it feels itself most threatened.” As if this wasn’t enough, his bibliography is excellent. The book’s a keeper, and I plan to start assigning it in all my Holocaust-related courses.

Ariana Neumann, When Time Stopped: A Memoir of My Father’s War and What Remains (2020)

A frustrating book that tells a gripping story in undistinguished prose. Neumann grew up in Venezuela in the 1970s and 80s with a father, Hans Neumann, who was a magnate of industry, a patron of the arts, and a general force of nature. Hans had a past in Europe—specifically in Czechoslovakia—that he rarely addressed. As a child, Neumann once found a box of papers that included what looked like a passport written in a language she couldn’t read. It had a photo of a man who was clearly her father at a much younger age. But the name underneath the photo was someone else’s. When she asked about it, her parents put her off. The box disappeared. But it came to her after her father’s death, along with some other family papers, which launched Neumann on a years-long project to uncover her father’s story, and to relate what she discovered to otherwise unexplained moments in her past—like when a fellow student in college asserted that she must be Jewish (first Neumann ever heard of it), or when she accompanied her father on a trip back to Prague after the fall of the Wall, a trip in which he refused to visit places from his past. When Time Stopped, in other words, belongs to the genre of the second-generation Holocaust memoir, like Maus or Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost (third generation, actually) or Bart van Es’s The Cut-Out Girl.

Neumann’s book is better than van Es’s and not as good as Mendelsohn’s. (No one’s as good as Spiegelman.) I was so irritated by the laxness of Neumann’s descriptions of her own life (I especially wanted to know more about Venezuela) and her trite meditations (on receiving an important letter, for example, she writes, “There is a moment of connection in receiving an object, a physical link, that is lacking in the virtual instantaneity of email”). But if you can get through this stuff, the story Neumann tells about her father and his family is incredible. Plus the book is well-structured, the slow unfolding of the story deftly and engagingly arranged.

Hans was one of only nine people in an extended family of 34 to have survived the war. He did so by having papers that declared him an essential worker at his father’s expropriated paint factory as well as a network of friends who risked their lives for him. The two most incredible stories involve clandestine forays into the world of the perpetrator. His brother’s sister smuggled herself into the ghetto-camp of Theresienstadt twice in order to bring packages to her in-laws. (Neither survived the war.) And Hans himself, once it was clear that no Jew, no matter how “essential,” would be permitted to live in Prague after a certain date, hatched an insanely audacious plan to use a friend’s passport to travel to Berlin in the fall of 1943, where he posed as a Gentile Czech willing to offer his services as a foreign worker. He obtained an identity card and work permit under the assumed name of Jan Sebesta and was hired at a paint factory that made protective polymer coating for German warplanes. It is amazing that Hans was never found out (fortunately for him, he had not been circumcised); it is amazing he did not die in the Allied bombing raids, especially as he was conscripted into the civilian firefighting service; it is especially amazing that he did not go crazy from cognitive dissonance. Except that he kind of did—as is true in so many second-generation stories (Maus again being the great example), “survival” is shown to be an ongoing project that is often incomensurate with a “happy ending.”

Laurie R. King, Justice Hall (2002)

I blow hot and cold on the Mary Russell—Sherlock Holmes series. Not sure what brought me back after not particularly enjoying the previous installment, but this one is better. Russell and Holmes are tasked with finding out what happened to the heir of a grand family fortune in the Great War. It’s an open secret he was court-martialled and executed by firing squad for disobeying an order, but what led to that terrible moment has been a secret until now. Jacqueline Winspear wrote a book on the same topic at about the same time; I wish I’d read King’s first, as she’s a better writer. Anyway, diverting enough, especially if you’re into English country houses, but nothing spectacular.

William Trevor, After Rain (1996)

My first collection of Trevor stories, and, yes, he is as good as everyone says. There are two kinds of stories in this book—New Yorker stories (resonant, rueful, wise, maybe a bit perfect) and uglier ones, which remind me of early Ian McEwan (grubby, a bit horrible). A couple of these stories mix both modes—I liked those best, especially “A Friendship,” which I found shocking (a man discovers his wife’s infidelity: he forgives her but forces her to break with the lifelong friend who had helped her arrange the logistics of the affair) and “Lost Ground,” set in a Protestant farming family in rural Ireland in the 1980s, which I at first took to be an ingenious reworking of Chekhov’s “The Kiss,” but which takes a darker turn. Friends extoled “The Piano Tuner’s Wives” and “The Potato Dealer,” both excellent. I could imagine teaching any number of these stories and learning much more about them that way. (Just great: the last thing I need is another white guy to teach.) I thought Trevor would be nicer than he is. He reminded me a bit of Alice Munro. Both are cold writers, and I can’t warm to them, much as I admire them. For a sense of the whole collection, Jacqui’s overview is really good.ETrQo6eWAAITlxPIn summary: Trevor’s good—no surprise there—and I’ll be reading more of him in the next few months. Jamie is a brilliant essayist; I’m finding her especially enlivening in these times when distancing is our reality rather than our fantasy. Neumann’s book is at once clunky and captivating. But the pick of the month was Hadley’s Late in the Day; a great book of middle age. I hope June brings more good reading, but events being what they are right now—I don’t know if I’m more thrilled or scared that people are finally saying enough is enough—I’ll settle for any reading at all.

 

February 2019 in Review

Short month, short books. Verdict: plenty of decent reading, some even better than that. Here’s what I read in February 2019.

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Gengoroh Tagame – My Brother’s Husband [Volume 1] (2014) Trans. Anne Ishii (2017) Gentle manga about Yaichi, a single parent raising a delightful, rambunctious daughter, Kana. Their lives are interrupted by the arrival of Yaichi’s brother-in-law, a white Canadian named Mike Flanagan, who visits Japan in the wake of his husband’s (Yaichi’s brother’s) death. Yaichi spares no effort to welcome Mike—aided by Kana’s joy in the sudden appearance of this unexpected uncle—but his not-so-latent homophobia keeps getting in the way. Lots of secrets, lots of emotion, but all handled lightly. I was engrossed and moved and have the sequel from the library ready to go. Plus, who doesn’t like a hunky Canadian hero?

Ken Krimstein – The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: A Tyranny of Truth (2018) I enjoyed this comic, which combines Arendt’s biography with her political philosophy. Maybe I found the experiment so compelling because I don’t really know my Heidegger. (I’ve been avoiding him since college; my undergraduate institution was regrettably besotted by the thinker of Being.) At least that’s how I felt after reading the TLS review, which called out Krimstein for his misleading summary of Arendt’s erstwhile lover’s philosophy. I agree that Krimstein rather hurried over Arendt’s report on the Eichmann trial, and maybe he does spend too much time offering potted biographies of the many intellectuals, artists, and otherwise famous people Arendt came across, but Three Escapes gave me a clearer sense of Arendt’s life, especially the years before the war, and made me thrill to the capacious generosity of her ideas. A book could do worse.

Hana Demetz – The House on Prague Street (1970) Trans. Hana Demetz (1980) Score another one for open stacks. While at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum archive earlier this year, I was browsing the shelves when my eye was drawn to the cornflower blue spine of Demetz’s book, written in German and later translated into English by the author herself. Happily, my local library had a copy, which, I suspect, no one had checked out for years. Which is a shame: The House on Prague Street is really good. It tells the story of Helene Richter, who grows up in eastern Czechoslovakia in the 1930s but whose life revolves around the summers she spends in the small town in Bohemia where her maternal grandparents live in the house that gives the book its title.

Her mother’s Jewish family are successful industrialists, the classic success story of Austro-Hungarian emancipation. (The first pages might have come from a Joseph Roth novel.) Imagine their unhappiness when Helene’s mother marries a law clerk from a Sudeten German family. This makes Helenka, as she is affectionately known, half Jewish, which has important consequences for her after 1938. Unlike the rest of her mother’s family she is not deported to Theresienstadt or further east. Instead she comes of age in wartime Prague, where she experiences plenty of privations but nothing like those suffered by her mother. Imagine her mother’s anguish when Helenka falls in love with a German soldier, on leave for a few days from the eastern front. That Gerd seems to be a genuinely kind person, and no Nazi, does nothing to assuage the mother’s hurt. These scenes are riveting—the tone is different from, say, the bitterness of Ruth Kluger’s fights with her mother in her memoir Still Alive; Demetz’s bitterness is always mixed with sweetness—and only become more poignant in light of the traumas that descend upon the family.

The mother dies of a sudden illness because she cannot be taken to the Jewish hospital after curfew. Gerd is declared missing, presumed dead. The father survives the war, only to be murdered in a street fight between German sympathizers and communists in the weeks after armistice. At the end, Helene returns to her grandparents’ house, which has been taken over by Orthodox Jews returned from the death camps. They are suspicious and resentful of her; she respects their claim on the house, but has no respect for them, describing them as uncouth, even primitive. Not even genocide, we learn, will necessarily bring people together. Demetz offers no vision of Jewish solidarity. And why should she? After all, it was the perpetrators who defined the victims as much as or even more than the victims themselves.

The neatness of the book’s narrative structure—it ends with Helene on the station platform, awaiting the train back to Prague, standing under the same swaying begonias that so imprinted themselves on her mind as a child—reminds readers that The House on Prague Street is a novel, not a memoir. Yet it reads more like the latter than the former. It has the feeling of coming directly from the life of the author.  It’s not perfect, sometimes it strains a little for effect, but it’s captivating and moving. Some enterprising publisher ought to reissue it.

Anthony Horowitz – The House of Silk (2011) (Audiobook) Enjoyable Holmes novel, improved by Derek Jacobi’s peerless narration. It’s true, I did guess the ending (a subplot fooled me, though I also found it a bit silly), but the book’s real pleasure lies in its subtle characterization of Watson, nothing like the “sack stuffed with straw” so derided by Virginia Woolf. As always, Horowitz brings the stuff.

Hana Demetz – The Journey from Prague Street (1990) After so enjoying Demetz’s earlier novel I had to read its sequel, which sees Helene and her husband escape Czechoslovakia and build a life in America. Unfortunately, Journey isn’t a patch on its predecessor. Maybe the problem is that Demetz wrote it in English. But I think it’s more that the situations—infidelity, divorce, the trials of starting over in mid-life—are tired and their handling uninspired. Maybe Demetz only had one book in her. (I believe, actually, she wrote some others before House, but I don’t think they’ve been translated.)

Sarah Moss – Ghost Wall (2018) I’m writing about this for another outlet, so will only say: I liked it, sometimes quite a lot, but I wasn’t as crazy about it as so many people on Book Twitter seem to have been.

Liana Millu, Smoke over Birkenau (1947/1986) Trans. Sharon Lynne Schwartz (1991) Brilliant, evenhanded, non-judgmental and unsparing narrative memoir (what I mean is that Millu tells her experience in Birkenau through a series of stories about other inmates, stories that have the texture of fiction—not that their made up, but that their telling is literary). I’ve written about Smoke before. How good is it? Well, this is the fourth or fifth time in the last couple of years I’ve read it, and it gets better and better. I now know it well enough that I won’t have to read it from cover to cover each semester, but I’ll look forward to dipping into it.

Cay Rademacher, The Murderer in Ruins (2011) Trans. Peter Millar (2015) My high hopes for this mystery, set in the rubble of immediate postwar Hamburg, were dashed almost immediately. The writing is pedestrian, and the murderer pretty obvious. The use of the setting is good, and I learned what people did to survive the brutal winter of 1947. I’d have been better off reading a history, though. I believe it’s a first novel, and it might be that Rademacher improves (there are two sequels plus a whole other series), but I’m not inclined to give him a chance. (Especially since I got the book from the UK.) No Philip Kerr, let me tell you.

Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem (1999) My third audiobook of the semester was the fifth in the Holmes/Mary Russell series. It looks back to the first book, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice (still the best so far), and expands upon an interlude referred to there in which the leads find themselves in Mandate Palestine. I’m really interested in that time and place, and I enjoyed learning about General Allenby, who seems to have been quite a character, but this book is much too long and much too dull. King hasn’t lost me entirely, Russell is still a good character, and I’ll continue with the series, but plan to take a break for a while.

Katherena Vermette, The Break (2016) Not only the book of the month, but the book of the year so far, and one of the best I’ve read in a long time. I want to write a proper post about it, so for now will just say that it’s about an indigenous family in Winnipeg, specifically its female members, and their response to the countless aggressions (micro and macro) they endure. (The Break is a strip of land, a hydro corridor, in the city’s North End). The highest praise I can give books is that I still remember them weeks later, and The Break passes that test easily.

Lauren Wilkinson – American Spy (2018) Wilkinson’s debut novel, conversely, does not. I enjoyed it as I was reading it, and I found its central conceit—that African Americans are like spies in enemy country, nicely formulated in an epigraph from Ellison’s Invisible Man—fascinating and timely. Marie Mitchell is an African American woman in the FBI in the late 1980s. She ends up working for the CIA in the then-newly renamed Burkina Faso on a mission to ingratiate herself with its charismatic President, Thomas Sankara. Until reading this novel I was completely ignorant of Sankara’s revolutionary Marxist and anti-imperialist program, which seems to have transformed life for the country’s poor. In the novel—and I suspect in life—the CIA wanted him gone; when Marie is sent on a mission of the kind she has always wanted she is forced to reconcile her love of the work with her feelings that the country she is working for isn’t really her own.

The sections in Africa are nicely handled: the book never feels like a travelogue. Yet even though I was impressed by what Wilkinson was trying to do I didn’t feel she quite pulled it off. There are two reasons for that: one, she’s trying to do too much, and, two, she doesn’t do the genre justice. In addition to everything I’ve mentioned the book also tells a family story, involving Marie’s divorced parents (one a cop and one, it turns out, a former spy) and her sister, who had tried to forge a path into intelligence work and couldn’t. Wilkinson ties this together with the political story, but it’s too much. As Wilkinson admits in this interview, she isn’t that well versed in spy fiction. I appreciate her efforts to queer/diversify the genre—it needs it!—but I want that effort to be accompanied by a better sense of suspense, pacing, etc.  For me, a fascinating misfire.

Primo Levi – The Reawakening (1963) Trans. Stuart Woolf (1965) (The proper title is The Truce.) Although I have taught a short excerpt from this for years in my Holocaust Lit class, I’d never read the whole thing. I read it with some students, and their appreciation of it increased my own. It’s a picaresque, describing the eleven months it took Levi to return to his home in Turin from Auschwitz-Birkenau. We enjoyed comparing The Reawakening to the much more famous Survival in Auschwitz (a.k.a. If This is a Man: Levi’s American publishers didn’t do him any favours). The sequel is markedly different in style, tone, and structure. It is ordered chronologically, for one thing, unlike its much more essayistic predecessor. “Picaresque” is misleading: it suggests scrapes and hijinks and ne’er-do-wells (all of which feature here), when in fact the book contains at least as much that is somber as triumphant. But it’s a book about coming back to life: hard, painful, but ultimately affirming. Levi is sometimes even funny, especially in his appreciation for Soviet organization, or lack thereof. At one point, describing a Soviet DP camp, he says something like (I don’t have the book in front of me), “There was no organization, but we got fed every day. It was a perfect system.” At moments like this, my students and I were reminded of the well-known encounter between Levi and a man named Steinlauf in Survival in Auschwitz. Steinlauf, a WWI veteran, perseveres even in the Lager he with a diligent regime of personal cleanliness, even though in those conditions hygiene was impossible. The point, he explains to Levi, urging him to wash in the ice-cold dirty water provided the prisoners, is to maintain one’s self as a human. Levi sees the man’s point, but he admits himself incapable of following another man’s system. This is the Levi we see in The Reawakening, a man who is finally free yet not forced to navigate the chaotic, ramshackle, uncoordinated but ultimately inescapable Allied bureaucracy.

Although short, The Reawakening is full to bursting with vivid characters and outlandish scenarios. Through a series of misadventures, Levi and the handful of Italian deportees who survived with him are sent east, through the Ukraine and almost up to Minsk, before making their way back down through Romania, Hungary, Austria, even Munich (where Levi refuses to leave the train station) and finally home to Italy. Maybe the thing that made the biggest impression on my students was how fraught the immediate months after the war were. We tend to think that liberation brought a return to normal life; Levi makes it clear, however, that this concept didn’t survive the war.

Looking back, February’s highlights were The House on Prague Street, The Reawakening and, above all, The Break. Anyone read them?

 

January 2019 in Review

In my 2018 review post, I promised monthly reading updates. I’m a week tardy, but here’s what I read in January 2019.

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1 Anthony Powell – A Question of Upbringing (1951) Like many readers I was swayed by Andy Miller’s praise for A Dance to the Music of Time; his suggestion to read one novel a month seemed manageable—especially as I’ve had the first six on my shelves for a while.

My verdict: good stuff, which promises to become even better. Eric thinks it’s the weakest, and if that’s the case the cycle is going to kill it. My sense is the books will improve when Powell more confidently does his own thing, rather than revising Proust. Or, when I get over my sense that this isn’t quite Proust. Either way, I’m taken with the intimations of the narrator, Jenkins, that his first opinions of intriguing characters, especially Widmerpool and the delightful Uncle Giles, are going to be deepened, revised, maybe even completely reversed.

A Buyer’s market to come later this month! In the meantime, if you want a better sense of what A Question of Upbringing is about, do read Jacqui’s post.

2 Samantha Harvey – The Western Wind (2018) I was engrossed and seduced by this novel from the start. Set in the East Midlands in the 15th century, it is, as Rohan says in her TLS review, a story about the desire to confess and be forgiven. Well, to be forgiven, anyway. The confessing part is trickier. So many contradictory motives, many of them laudable, complicate, even thwart confession. That ambivalence is amplified by the novel’s structure: it is told backwards over four days, so that you’ve actually read the end of the story about a quarter of the way into the book. Could have been a gimmick, but totally convinced me. Even once you realize you’ve already read the end, you have to accept you don’t know exactly what’s happened, so subtle is Harvey’s touch.

The setting is Oakham, a village cut off from the rest of the world, and sinking from hardscrabble to irrelevant: the local monastery is eyeing a takeover of its lands. And now the richest and most forward-thinking (at least by his own account) villager is dead, presumably murdered. The narrator is the local priest, who is pulled in different directions, unsure which secrets he ought to keep.

I read The Western Wind (purchased at the wonderful Bridge Street Books in DC) based on Rohan’s recommendation, combined with my vague idea it might be like the Cadfael mysteries. Turns out, not really—Harvey’s novel is less interested in genre conventions—but that’s ok. (Plus, it’s set 300 years later, which even this unrepentant modernist recognizes makes a big difference.) I found it quiet and satisfying, beautiful without being self-consciously poetic. I’ve looked briefly into Harvey’s earlier novels and they seem completely different. Anyone read them?

3 Joe Ide – Wrecked (2018) The IQ series is enjoyable, and I enjoyed this third installment more than the last one. (His lead character, nicknamed IQ, is an East LA Holmes, many of whose clients can only pay him in goods or favours.) Ide is honing the relationship between IQ and his sidekick, getting a handle on his tone (he does humour better than drama, but is working on a good balance) and develops a female character who is too interesting not to return. But if you’re new to Ide, best start at the beginning.

4 Luce D’Eramo – Deviation (1979) Trans. Anne Milano Appel (2018) Scott & I wrote about this at length. Deeply problematic.

5 Esther Hauzig – The Endless Steppe (1968) Children’s books were different back in the day. It would be easy to read this book and assume it was written for adults. Neither style nor subject matter marks it as obviously for children. Although it reads like a novel, The Endless Steppe is a memoir, describing how ten-year-old Hauzig, together with her parents, is ripped from her comfortable life in Vilna (then Poland) in 1941, when the Soviets deem her family capitalist enemies of the regime. The Hauzigs are deported to Siberia, first, to a horrific labour camp, and then resettled in a nearby village, where they suffer poverty, ill-health, and terrible cold. At the end of the war, finally able to return to Poland, they learn that their fate was mild compared to their relatives, almost all of whom were murdered by the Nazis. Part Little House on the Prairie, part diagnosis of life under totalitatarianism, The Endless Steppe feels as fresh and moving as it must have fifty years ago. A fascinating addition to the literature of the war between Hitler and Stalin.

6 Laurie R. King – The Moor (1998) Fourth installment of the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series; revisits The Hound of the Baskervilles. Though you wouldn’t know it from my sporadic reading pace (I’ve been working on them for about four years), I quite like this series. Atmosphere always appeals to me more than the actual mystery, which, in this case, dragged a little. Really, all I want from a crime novel is bad weather and lashings of hot tea, and The Moor gave me plenty of both.

7 Ian Rankin – Rather Be the Devil (2016) My first audiobook of the semester. I’ve now almost caught up with Rebus, with only the brand new one to go. Rather Be the Devil is a step up from the last couple, I thought, though who knows how Rankin’s going to keep finding ways for the retired cop to inveigle himself into new investigations. Maybe the most impressive thing about the last half dozen or so installments of this now very long-running series is the way they’ve rehabilitated Malcolm Fox, while still keeping him a bit annoying—decent and dedicated, but a little selfish, know-it-all-y, charmless. In the previous book, Rebus got a dog, and I worry about him. Has to spend a lot of time alone, poor Brillo.

8 Sayaka Murata – Convenience Store Woman (2016) Trans. Ginny Tapley Takemori (2018) This featured on several best of 2018 lists from people whose taste I respect, so I gave it a shot. Dunno people. Loved the descriptions of the convenience store (these seem a different species from the ones here): what it takes to keep one running (military precision), what customers in Japan expect (everything) and how they treat employees (shockingly), and the range of items on offer (vast, and odd). Helped me see how hungry I am for books about work. (Where are our Zolas?) And I appreciated how doggedly and unselfconsciously the narrator pursues her desires, which don’t match at all the expectations of her society. In the end, though, Murata gives capitalism a pass, presenting the narrator’s final unity with the store as a perverse emancipation. I almost never say this, but this book should have been longer, so that it could be stranger. To me, it asserted its strangeness without ever being strange. In the end I just wasn’t sure what it meant for the narrator to have become a convenience store woman. Ultimately unsatisfying, but I’ll probably read Murata’s next book.

All in all, a decent but not a great month, mostly because I couldn’t make enough reading time. I spent a few days in DC with students (fun, but not conducive to reading), and of course had a new semester to prepare for and adjust to. Then that damn D’Eramo book took a lot of my attention. But the Powell is promising, the Hautzig a real find, and the Harvey deeply satisfying. How was your January?

Miscellany (3)

I knew it would be hard to return from sabbatical, but I’d forgotten how quickly the semester becomes relentless, each day an exhausting headlong rush. I’ve missed writing here. But I’ve managed to carve out enough time to say a few words about some of the books I read at the end of the summer and even one or two I’ve squeezed into the semester.

Rennie Airth, The Reckoning (2014)

Superior if self-consciously solemn installment of superior if self-consciously solemn crime series centered on the aftermath of WWI in England. The good guys are all a little too good (worse, worthy), but the prose is better than average, and the plot suspenseful. Hard to know where the series can go from here, though I’d have said that after the last one too. I appreciate Airth’s deliberateness: only four books in fifteen years.

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town (2014)

I haven’t read Slaughter before, though she seems awfully popular and prolific. (Is that seriously her last name? It’s a bit like the inventors of cinema being named Lumieres.) I enjoyed this stand-alone, even if I found the resolution of the crime itself tedious. Like too many crime novels, Cop Town is too long. The interesting stuff concerns the introduction (I was going to say integration, but that’s just what it wasn’t) of women into the Atlanta police force in the mid 1970s. I assume the depiction is accurate: it’s awfully compelling, at any rate, without being self-congratulatory (“Look how far we’ve come”; “Can you believe what people did or said back then?”). I also enjoyed the surprising—and surprisingly successful—Jewish subplot. I’d read more of her stuff, especially if anyone has any recommendations.

Georges Perec, W., or The Memory of Childhood (1975, English Translation by David Bellos, 1988)

I read this several months ago in preparation for a course on the Holocaust and what Marianne Hirsch calls postmemory: the “memories” of the missed event that haunt child survivors and the children of survivors. I planned to write about it at length here, but never got around to it. At first I decided not to include the text in the course. Then, at the last minute, when I was finishing the syllabus, I decided I needed to include at least a short selection. The book just wouldn’t quite let me go.

W. switches between two layers: a memoir of Perec’s wartime experience as a child evacuee in rural France, and a fictional tale—half boys’ own adventure story, half anthropological treatise—about a man who discovers the remote island of W., a place organized entirely around the pursuit of competitive sport.

It’s obvious the two are related, in that the second is an allegory for what cannot be described or even referred to in the first: the concentration camps that swallowed up Perec’s mother, who was deported to Auschwitz in 1942 and died there, probably the following year. The whole exercise becomes more moving, more uncanny when we learn that the story of W. is based on one written by Perec when he was only twelve or thirteen, that is, in the years just after the war. David Bellos, the book’s translator, explains that the letter “w” in French is the double-vee, le double-vé, in which it’s hard not to hear an echo of the double life, la double vie, which Perec lived as a young child in Vichy France.

I initially decided not to assign the book because I worried students would get caught up in untangling the allegory, in making the connections between the two halves explicit, even though the book never hides those connections, indeed advertizes them. I wondered if I could get them past thinking that, having done so, their interpretive task was done. And I didn’t know what I thought about the book, couldn’t decide whether I liked it. (Which is actually a good reason to assign something.) I’m probably selling my students short; at any rate, I’ll see how they do with the excerpt. The section I’ve chosen is a remarkable description of Perec’s uncertainty about his parents and their fate, centered on descriptions of absent photographs. In that regard it will complement our discussions of photographs in Maus and Austerlitz.

Although I prefer Kofman’s Rue Ordener, Rue Labat, a text which also deals with a child of Eastern European Jewish immigrants to France who was hidden during the Occupation, mostly because Kofman is more interested in the psychic and affective aspects of her experiences, I think about Perec’s book often, all these months later, one of the truest signs that a book is important to me.

Jorn Lier Horst, Dregs (2010, translated into English by Anne Bruce, 2011)

Dreadful Norwegian procedural. Really felt let down by this since I’d heard it praised to the skies by a number of generally reliable bloggers. Wooden translation, leaden plot, the always-irritating detective’s-child-in-harm’s-way subplot: really the full nine stinker yards. File under: title, accurate.

Henning Mankell, An Event in Autumn (2013, translated into English by Laurie Thomson, 2014)

Melancholy because apparently absolutely, definitely, unquestionably final installment of the Wallander series. (Though we know how reliable those sorts of claims can be: cf Reichenbach Falls.) Set before the events of the brilliant, distressing The Troubled Man, this work, slight even for a novella, will be enjoyed by fans of the series. Newcomers shouldn’t start here. Basically it’s a throwaway, as Mankell himself admits (he wrote it as a charity exercise to support Dutch booksellers, or something of the sort). But for me Wallander is one of the great detectives. I always love how irritated and grumpy he is about little things without ever becoming a caricature (curmudgeonly, endearing, gruff exterior but gentle interior, etc).

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Mad and the Bad (1972, translated into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith, 2014)

One of my character flaws is a weakness for nice packaging. I’ve always judged books, and other things, by their covers, and I’ve often been led astray by doing so. (And yet I keep doing it.) I’ve long been utterly seduced by the NYRB classics series—and they’ve republished some marvelous, deserving works. (I wouldn’t know Olivia Manning without them, and a world without her is no world at all.) But just because a book has got those fancy full-color inside covers doesn’t mean it has to be good. This is only the third Manchette I’ve read (the others several years ago, I remember them only dimly) but it’s time to call Emperor’s New Clothes on this guy. I’m all for writing that pushes the conventions of a genre, either in order to invigorate another genre or to contest the very idea of genre, but you can’t do it if, like Manchette, you disdain the genre to begin with.

Many have written about the fundamental conservatism of the crime genre (even when it gets put to liberal ends, supports good causes, etc), but Hammett, Chandler, Thompson, and Macdonald (Manchette’s obvious models) are more radical than Manchette’s pretty ham-handed, self-satisfied critique of capitalism. Consider the book’s set piece: a hit man on the trail of the gang who kidnapped the nanny of the nephew of a wealthy industrialist (is there any other kind?) tracks the bad guys into a department store. The ensuing shoot-out gets out of hand: the store is set aflame and looted by euphoric customers whose frenzied lust for consumer goods spills over into the streets of a provincial French town. J. G. Ballard would have made this both funny and ominous, a tonal instability we wouldn’t quite know what to do with. Manchette makes things clear: there’s no difference between the thieves and the customers. Manchette reminds me of late 60s or early 70s Godard: they’re both tediously earnest, but Manchette has none of Godard’s expressive range, the delirium of style that makes the films work despite themselves. His idea of style is a pretty one-note imitation of the hardboiled. I say it’s spinach, and I say the hell with it.

Laurie R King—A Grave Talent (1993)

Although the early 90s now seem what the 70s were to me as a young adult (embarrassing, quaint, hopeless), King’s novel, the first in her Kate Martinelli series, doesn’t feel dated. It impressed me with its intelligent and subtle representation of a queer relationship, and its vivid description of the forests of Northern California. I wish the book were shorter—it has its longeurs—but it cemented my appreciation for King’s talent. (I really liked her first Holmes pastiche.)

Sarah Waters—Tipping the Velvet (1998)

Having unaccountably stalled out a hundred pages into this book last year, I started over again and read the whole thing in just a few days. It’s a wonderful debut, and I bet people will be reading it for a long time. It’s not perfect, especially when it seems designed to illustrate a caricatured version of Judith Butler. But at its best it impresses with sinuous, incantatory sentences and exciting narrative reversals (which Waters would perfect a few years later in Fingersmith). Sometimes the book is boisterous, but mostly it’s sad. The queer melancholy that returns in full force in The Night Watch is already evident here.

Maybe I’m just an unrepentant modernist, but what’s really stayed with me is the ending, with seems like an homage to and queer rewriting of the end of Forster’s Howards End: in both cases a new kind of non-nuclear, even non-biological family is imagined in a pastoral setting. Forster’s novel is famously anxious about how modernization/development threatens that idyll, complete with class snobbishness about middle-class redbrick spreading like a stain on the countryside. I was left wondering whether Tipping the Velvet, on the face of it so progressive and generous, might not be similarly conservative (if not about class). When Nan, the protagonist, steps in at the end to give the rousing speech that her lover’s brother, a socialist, cannot articulate, showmanship seems to trump politics. Yet Waters is nothing if not knowing: one of her aims is to redeem performance as something other than “mere” appearance, as substance itself. So maybe I am off target here. But something still niggles at me about the book. I liked it best when it’s least in control of itself, least amenable to allegory.

I want to write more extensive posts on some other books I’ve read: two by Nathan Englander and three by Tove Jansson. We’ll see whether the semester lets me.

Miscellany (2)

Catching up on some recent reading:

The Singing Sands – Josephine Tey (1953)

I think the book that has stayed with me most so far this year is Tey’s The Franchise Affair (1948), which I read just before starting this blog and about which I can say nothing as interesting as Rohan does. I’d read a couple of Tey’s earlier books before, and they’re pretty vivid, too: a mouth-watering breakfast scene from A Shilling for Candles (1936) has stayed with me for years. The other night, needing a break from a long Kafka biography I’m making my way through, I picked this, Tey’s final novel, off my shelf and sank into it with relief.

Tey became a better plotter over the years (her first book, The Main in the Queue (1929) is a notorious failure in that regard) but plots aren’t really her thing. Solving the mystery isn’t what this book is about. What we get instead is an interesting (and ever-more pertinent) portrayal of a psychological infirmity that afflicts her protagonist, Inspector Alan Grant, specifically a pretty debilitating case of claustrophobia caused from overwork. Interestingly, that very same work, his desire to solve crimes, is paradoxically shown to be the most enlivening part of his life.

Grant, on forced sick leave, takes the night mail to Scotland to recuperate with friends. Leaving the train he finds a dead body and even though the case is nothing to him, and in fact not even a case, since it is ruled an accidental death, he can’t stop thinking about it. The time in Scotland, especially on a side-trip to the Hebrides where the wind scrapes some of his tension away, is indeed restorative, and there is even the possibility of a romance, which the novel surprisingly does away with, by having Grant return a week early from his leave to complete the investigation on his own. The ending feels rushed, not quite a part of the rest of the book, but I can’t help but feel that the artificiality of the conclusion is a comment about the cost, however necessary, of seeking to impose order on the world. It’s as if Tey were saying: all right, then, I’ll resolve this plot for you, but not the other.

Tey writes thrillingly of “the uncanny feeling that is born of unlimited space, the feeling of human diminution,” as she puts it, and evokes the pleasures of the Scottish countryside without being cloying or patronizing.

The Singing Sands left me sad that Tey wrote so few books, curious to think more carefully about her work, particularly her politics, and eager to read the rest of her books.

The Beekeeper’s Apprentice – Laurie R. King (1994)

Strikingly good Holmes pastiche, in which Holmes, in apiary retirement on the Sussex Downs, meets Mary Russell, a teenage, orphaned heiress and, more importantly, genius that he trains to be his apprentice and eventually partner. I appreciated the structure of the book, which takes its time, passing through an early episodic phase before reaching the main story line, which itself is split into two substantial parts (with, in between, a fascinating excursus to Palestine in the early years of the Mandate). Holmes really is the character that keeps on giving, and King handles him with aplomb. Russell’s wonderful, too. Is the rest of the series as good? I plan to find out.

Natural Causes – James Owald (2013)

Reasonably competent but utterly forgettable Scottish procedural. Inevitable Rankin comparisons do Oswald no favours. Though, true, even Rankin started small. It’s Oswald’s first book. Maybe the others are better. But I don’t much care to find out.

Transit
– Anna Seghers (1951, English translation Margot Bettauer Dembo, 2013)

I read this as background material for something else I’m working on, and because I never need an excuse to see what the NYRB Classics people have been up to. Without having looked at the original, I can say that the translation seems excellent, and I note it’s been shortlisted for one or two awards recently. I must admit, though, that I was a lot more excited about this book before I read it than after.

Seghers brilliantly portrays the nightmarish bureaucratic snare that refugees from Hitler faced in leaving Europe, the whole series of exit, transit, and entrance visas that had to be obtained from largely indifferent foreign consulates, in the right order, always at the risk that one of them would expire before the next could be processed. (The US Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem have copies of the flow chart prepared by Adolf Eichmann depicting the stages Jews needed to pass through before they could leave Germany in the 1930s, stripped of assets and dignity—assuming of course that they could find somewhere that would take them. It’s chilling in its meticulousness, like some demonic school project.) And she vividly conveys the atmosphere of louche desperation that characterizes the exiled masses in Marseilles. Their lives are so different than the everyday ones of the locals, who are partly contemptuous, partly ignorant, and partly amused by them.

But I became impatient with the existentialist philosophy that underpins the novel, the various references to suicide, the acte gratuit, the tension between fate and will, etc. And I didn’t care for the irritating love affair, if that’s the right word, that the narrator has for a woman who ceaselessly awaits the arrival in Marseilles of her husband, a well-known writer who, unbeknownst to her, has committed suicide in Paris and been reincarnated in the person of none other than the narrator, who happened to find the body and took his papers. Part of my frustration might be with the narrator’s inaction, his apparent will to abandonment. And yet one of my very favourite writers is Jean Rhys, whose books are filled with characters that cannot and will not act.

Whatever the reason, Transit left a bad taste in my mouth.

Seghers’s own story seems fascinating—she made her way from Marseilles to Mexico on a ship that also carried Victor Serge, Claude Levi-Strauss, and Andre Breton—and I’m curious about her other work, particularly the one she set in Mexico, Excursion of the Dead Girls. But my experience of Transit was such that I’m in no hurry to hunt it down.

Ice Moon – Jan Costin Wagner (2003, English translation John Brownjohn, 2005)

Risible German police procedural set in Finland. The protagonist’s wife dies of a long illness in the first pages, and the description of survivor’s grief is the most interesting part of the book. Far less interesting is the actual investigation, and the book seems hardly interested in its purported genre.

Annihilation (Book 1 of the Southern Reach Trilogy) – Jeff Vendermeer (2014)

I used to read a lot of science fiction. But that was a long time ago and I seem to have lost the trick of it. I thought I should expand my genre horizons and see what’s new. I’ve no idea where Vandermeer fits into things (I came across the title in a Facebook thread on good books for long train rides), and I’m hoping others can point me in better directions. I finished the book, but only by gritting my teeth. (And it’s barely 200 pages.)

Annihilation
is about an expedition into the mysterious Area X, a borderland area that’s encroaching upon civilization and which previous expeditions have failed to return from. The narrator is the group’s biologist; she is quickly its only surviving member. I think the book is about sentience and language, maybe about what it means to resist authority. But I don’t really know. I thought the mystery element—what the hell’s going on in Area X? what happened to the other expeditions?—would help me return to the genre. But maybe that’s exactly the problem. Maybe it’s neither fish nor fowl genre wise. I don’t know. It just didn’t do it for me. But I want to read more science fiction. Can anyone help me decide what to read next?

Purgatory – Ken Bruen (2013)

Latest Jack Taylor novel. These are worth reading, especially the early ones. This one is perhaps somewhat less dark than previous iterations—though I’m not sure there is a darker series than this one—but Bruen’s signature style, the almost demented aping of speech rhythms in the prose, has become mannered to the point of near parody. I always enjoy Bruen’s shout outs to other crime fiction, though.

Jack of Spies — David Downing (2014)

New series for Downing (after the brilliant Jack Russell books), this one set before around the time of WWI. I really like Downing. His history lessons—for example, about the Kiautschou Bay Concession (German leased territory from 1898-1914 in China), where the book begins before making it’s way across the Pacific to the US and eventually across the Atlantic to the UK—never feel gratuitous, clunky, or potted. I’m already keen for the next book.

Two Books by Jo Walton

Hope to write a separate post about these—partly because I want to share how much I like them and partly because I wonder how they complicate what I’ve said about my experience with science fiction above: are they in fact even science fiction?—but for now, this is just a note to say that Among Others and My Real Children are really worth your time, especially the latter.