What I Read, January 2021

A few days of quiet, lingering feelings of winter break. (Eat the extra chocolate, have a glass of wine at dinner.) Then the fear and anger at the insurrection. Later the bated breath about the inauguration, the mixed feelings about applying for an American passport, the horror at the passport photos. Then calm: the relief, the joy at not having to hear a certain name. And then malaise, something like despair, exhaustion, ennui: no energy, writing difficult. Finally, the amazingly good fortune at being able to get vaccinated, thanks to Arkansas state policy of including teachers in the second group.

Among all this, of course there was reading, including a long book I’d long wanted to read.

Jean-Claude Grumberg, The Most Precious of Cargoes (2018) Trans. Frank Wynne (2020)

Strange little book that tells in fairy tale-fashion—it is subtitled “A Tale”— the story of a husband and wife and their twin infants who are deported from Drancy to some ominous point in the East. On the train, the woman’s milk has dried up; the hungry babies scream inconsolably; the others in the sealed railway car glower when they aren’t staring dejectedly into space. In a forest somewhere in Poland the man makes an abrupt, terrible decision. He rips one of the children—the little girl—from his wife’s breast, wraps it in his prayer shawl, and squeezes the parcel through the barred window. He cannot know that a peasant, a woman who has prayed for a child that has never come, will find the baby and raise her, over the objections of her husband and at risk to her own survival. How she loves the child, barters for milk, runs away when someone informs the occupying forces about the Jew Child—these descriptions make up the bulk of the novella, which is told in a quaint, implausible style. Even more impossible is the story of the father, who, unlike his wife and son, having survived the camps, stumbles into a village where a woman and her young daughter are selling cheese in the local market. Yes, it’s her, his daughter, he’s beside himself—his plan worked—but with a suppressed cry he leaves without a backward glance. And nobody knows, the narrator concludes, if they ever met again.

Preposterous and kitschy, monstrous even, this story. Yet Grumbach (b. 1939)—many of whose relatives were murdered in the Shoah and who himself survived as a hidden child—has a trick up his sleeve. In an epilogue he addresses an imagined reader who wants to know whether this is “a true story.” Over three pages he arraigns the question—why challenge the veracity of the story when so many question the veracity of the events?—concluding that fiction can tell a truth that history cannot. I happen to agree, but I’m unconvinced by Grumbach’s example. It lacks the sophistication of, say, Ida Fink, whose own short works incisively probe the limitations of the historical record, limitations that fiction can redress. I appreciate how Grumbach pulls the rug out from the heartwarming story many readers might have been moved by—but he’s too self-congratulatory and not all that smart about what his rug-pulling means.

Yishai Sarid, The Memory Monster (2017) Trans. Yardenne Greenspan (2020)

Novella about an Israeli academic who is groomed by the head of Yad Vashem—to whom the book is written as a letter after an eventually specified moment of disgrace; a conceit I’m unconvinced is effective—to lead Israeli tour groups through Holocaust sites in Poland. At first he works with school groups, but his self-loathing and contempt for/fear of the young people becomes too much, and he starts working with dignitaries, who care about photo ops instead of information. He knows too much, is the problem, and he needs to tell it all. But no one wants, or is in position, to hear it. The narrator begins to disintegrate, a process mimicked in the text’s ambiguous syntax. Here, for example, he is with his flock at Birkenau:

I stood before them over the underground undressing hall with the shaved roof, like a picked-over scab, underneath all rot.

Do the last clauses describe the roof, or the narrator? For he has become a memory monster, and as such must be banished. But it is equally true that memory itself is the monster. What is memory for? Does it cause more harm than good? Why do the visitors he ferries around—students, teachers, and politicians alike—say, with varying degrees of explicitness, that “to survive we need to be a little bit Nazi, too”? Sarid is excellent at skewering complacencies and false piety, whether Israeli or Polish. I agreed with so much in this book, was made nervous by the parts of myself I could see in the narrator. And yet The Memory Monster has not stayed with me. Maybe I’d need to read it again. For now, at least, I much prefer David Albahari’s Götz and Meyer, which covers some similar ground, but which has more to say than this book about teaching traumatic history.

Primo Levi, Moments of Reprieve: A Memoir of Auschwitz (1981) Trans. Ruth Feldman (1986)

Late work by the Italian master, a collection in which each essay focuses on someone Levi encountered in his eleven-month incarceration in the Monowitz subcamp of the Auschwitz complex. To call this a memoir as the English-language publisher does might seem misleading, but Levi was always more interested in others than himself. At first blush these pieces are primarily anecdotal, but they use obliquity and juxtaposition to create their own arguments. And Levi does open up about himself a little, although always indirectly, as we see in particular in his portrait of Lorenzo Perrone (the Piedmontese forced labourer who regularly slipped Levi extra rations), and in general in the fascinated way the essays return to allegorical stand-ins for the writer (conjurors, carpenters, violinists). I read this slim collection with some students and we agreed it packs a punch far beyond its size. If you’ve never read Levi, start with his classic first book, If This Is a Man but don’t sleep on this one. Underrated.

A weird thing: I don’t know whether the collection was conceived as such by Levi—as best I can tell, most of the pieces included here were in the original Italian, but one or two others have been added to this edition—a shame the Complete Works published in English a few years ago has such a terrible critical apparatus. Does anyone know?

Étienne Davodeau, The Initiates: A Comic Artist and a Wine Artisan Exchange Jobs (2011) Trans. Joe Johnson (2013)

Keith tipped me off to this in his year-end review, and I’m glad he did. The subtitle tells the story, mostly: Davodeau helps his friend, Richard Leroy, a biodynamic wine producer in the Anjou, prune, harvest, decan tinker, while Leroy reads the comics Davodeau assigns him, visits a publisher, other artists, a comics con, even the press where the books are printed. Each learns to appreciate the labour that goes into the other’s work, and to think about what it means to be creative, have a passion, challenge expectations, respond to failure. It’s a generous book (it helps that people are always drinking wine, though a running joke is how few wines Leroy will agree to drink—not because they’re not famous enough, but because they aren’t interesting enough for him). Oddly, the winemaking comes across as much the more interesting of the two enterprises. Maybe that’s not odd at all: Davodeau is a realist and realism has always shone at explaining how to do things. You’d think a book like this would be plenty meta, but because that’s not Davodeau’s approach (he’s no Art Spiegelman, though he rightly admires him) his own métier comes across as a bit dull.

Anyway, lovely conceit, beautiful drawing. My only complaints: (1) the translation seems awkward (a typical sentence: “Marc-Antoine’s garden juxtaposes the deep blacks and sharp whites of his books by the moving affability of its shadows”—moving affability??) and (2) it’s so overwhelmingly guy. The book includes almost no female characters, and doesn’t find this as ridiculous as it should. Maybe the idea of métier is gendered in ways Davodeau misses the chance to explore. Indeed, the whole idea of métier could be complicated in relation to capitalism. Is the idea of vocation one that capitalism promulgates to further enslave us? Or is it a challenge to capitalism? There’s more to be said here.


Peg Kehret, Escaping the Giant Wave (2003)

My daughter was assigned this for school, and we read it together. It’s a lot worse than Hatchet. A teenage boy and his irritatingly quirky little sister accompany their parents on a working vacation to the Oregon coast. (The parents are in real estate; their firm is holding a retreat for its best agents.) Everything would be great except the lodge is under construction and they have to stay instead in a rickety old place, also there’s a tsunami warning out for the coast. No bigs. Oh yeah, Kyle’s nemesis, the school bully, comes along too. (His parents also being ace realtors.) Thalia and I agreed that the chapters describing the tsunami are by far the best. Kyle and his sister, who have been separated from their parents for reasons of plot rather than plausibility, run inland and uphill, just as they have been told. Even so they barely escape. Who knows what happened to the bully, who predictably poo-pooed the safety instructions. Afterward I asked Thalia if she wasn’t bothered that none of the books she’d read for school this year were about female characters, but she ignored my righteous indignation, concentrating on the fact that the book was finished and she could now read something else. Escaping the Wave isn’t entirely pointless—I’d no idea tsunamis ever hit Oregon. But yeah I don’t recommend this book.

Caroline Moorehead, A Train in Winter: A Story of Resistance, Friendship, and Survival (2011)

On January 24, 1943, a convoy left the internment/transit camp at Compiègne for Auschwitz-Birkenau. Among those deported were 230 French women, all associated with the resistance in some way, almost none of them Jewish. It was the only transport of its kind to leave occupied France. Moorehead has written a popular history of these women, the best known of which was the writer Charlotte Delbo. It’s a big task—that’s a lot of people to keep track of—and Moorehead doesn’t really succeed. She wants to do justice to these women, fair enough, but it’s hard to write a group portrait when you’re beholden to an idea of narrative history centered on the individual.

I read A Train in Winter with four students and we agreed we couldn’t keep anyone straight. Perhaps more importantly, we were frustrated both by the book’s structure and its lack of analysis. The first half considers Vichy France, the activities of the resistance, and the deplorably avid willingness of the French security apparatus to do the Germans’ dirty work for them; useful enough background, but nothing Moorehead has to say here is new, and into this general material she has to shoehorn the clandestine experiences (sabotage, resistance, betrayal, arrest) of her protagonists. The second half shifts to the women of the convoy and their experiences in the concentration camp system (first Auschwitz, then Ravensbrück). It is more focused, more dramatic, and more successful.

Yet here the failures of analyses become most apparent. Moorehead asserts—to be fair, on the testimony of the surviving women themselves, whether in the interviews she was able to perform with the handful still alive at the time of writing or in written documents (Delbo’s books again playing an outsized role)—that women experienced the camps differently than men. There’s plenty of evidence to support this idea, but exactly how and why is more complicated than Moorehead admits. She relies instead on gender essentialism, though she vacillates on whether she’s quoting the women themselves or affirming the idea herself: “Their own particular skills as women, caring for others and being practical, made them, as they told themselves, less vulnerable than men to harsh conditions and despair” (that “as they told themselves” reads like a hedge—Moorehead cites no source here; impossible to know if she’s speculating or transcribing). She similarly makes general statements about group solidarity without telling us why they might be true:

those who came from recognized groups—the communists, the Catholic Bretons, the intellectual bourgeoisie—were team players … the French, as a national group, were more cohesive than the other nationalities, more prone to look after their own.

“Recognized groups” is doing a hell of a lot of work here. (The part in the ellipsis disparages rich Parisians as the most selfish of the prisoners—isn’t that a “recognized group” too?) And Moorehead conveniently leaves out the fact that as political prisoners, these women had a better (though still terrible) experience than Jewish ones, which surely contributed to their “national” solidarity. In fact, the whole idea of nationalism verges uncomfortably on the longstanding rootlessness canard of antisemites everywhere, not least the Nazis. As if that wasn’t enough, Moorehead too often implies that survival was a matter of willpower (“Even as the French women reached Birkenau, it was clear that not all would, or could, or would choose, to survive”—I’m allergic to this language).

I’m glad to know about the existence of this convoy, am impelled to finally read Delbo, and was fascinated to learn about the experimental farm at Raisko/Rajsko, a subcamp run by I. G. Farben where inmates (including some of the French women) cultivated an Asian dandelion whose roots the Nazis hoped to synthesize into rubber. (Conditions on the farm were positively human compared to Birkenau: the women slept in beds with sheets, were able to wash regularly, ate meals rather than watery cabbage soup.) But all told I regret the time I spent reading A Train in Winter. Moorehead has written three other books about fascism in France and Italy, styling them into a loose quartet. After this one I’m in no hurry to read the others.

Georges Simenon, Night at the Crossroads (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)

Maigret is called to Arpajon, about an hour south of Paris, to investigate a strange crime. The location is a busy crossroads just outside town, uninhabited except for a gas station, the villa of a parvenu insurance salesman, and a cottage that a reclusive Danish designer and his sister have recently rented. A man has been found dead in the salesman’s car—but the car is parked at the designer’s house. His, meanwhile, has been moved to the salesman’s. The foggy, bleak atmosphere is good, but there’s not enough eating and drinking to make it a top-notch Maigret. Throughout, the inspector seems unaccountably weary—an emotion that might be ascribed to the near-ridiculousness of the plot. Maigret’s response to a kerfuffle between two suspects could describe the book as a whole:

For some strange reason, this entire episode had not risen to the level of tragedy, or even drama. It was more like buffoonery.

Mary Kelly, The Spoilt Kill (1961)


I had been spying on Corinna for two weeks; spying on her for pay.

Good first line, right? The narrator is a PI specializing in industrial espionage. Corinna is a designer at a Staffordshire pottery firm called Shentall. Its owner hires the narrator to find out who is passing on the company’s designs to an American competitor. As the opening makes clear, though, the narrator might not mind spying on the woman. Indeed, in a manner beguilingly at once sinister and generous, he soon falls for Corinna.

In Staffordshire, centre of the British pottery industry for two centuries, kiln is pronounced kill. A “spoilt kill” is a firing that’s gone wrong, preserving some blemish immutably, such that the product can only be smashed and thrown away. A spoilt kill is an expensive mistake.

There are expensive mistakes aplenty in this excellent crime novel, especially in the narrator’s mishandling of his relationship to Corinna, who doubles as the prime suspect and his love interest. Kelly uses the plasticity of clay—the way shaping and heating turns brute material into beautiful but fragile pottery—as a metaphor for the hardening of human relationships. In a typical passage, the narrator dissects a heightened moment with the object of his desire and suspicion:

The look she gave me then. Joyful, triumphant, and aghast, How can a look be all that at once? I don’t know. I know nothing, nothing. These moments, these glances, flash past too quickly for analysis. Besides, I turned away. One always turns away. If one didn’t, all would be well.

This is real Ishiguro stuff: a narrator trying but failing to understand other people, and, in the process, failing to understand himself. In so doing, he reveals to readers things he himself doesn’t know. We read “against” him, even if doing so doesn’t eventuate into any clear understanding. In this example, the tell is the narrator’s recourse to “one”—a failed attempt to universalize his own failure.

Here’s another unwittingly offered revelation, this time about the narrator’s snobbery. His cover at the factory—he’s meant to be writing a history of the firm—means he’s welcomed into the social life of its tightly knit workers. Invited to a party by a hale, conventional, but kind and lively young man, a favourite at work, the narrator is surprised by the man’s home:

The house was in good repair, spotless, decorated throughout in slightly off-key colours, startling, unusual and weak: ‘contemporary’ intentions, diluted by time and democracy, and even then imperfectly grasped.

Unpleasant, right? Interestingly, though, Kelly holds back from making him thoroughly disagreeable. For me, much of the power of the book comes from a female author writing a male character. Not that Kelly is breaking new ground here or anything, but I was struck by several moments I doubt a male writer would have included. Here, the narrator, who has been married before, takes Corinna back to her flat. She doesn’t feel well because she’s getting her period. The narrator settles her for the night:

How strange, yet how mustily familiar, like coming home after a long holiday, to light the geyser, run the bath, fill the hot water bottle, put on the gas fire, turn down the bed—to do these things for a menstruating woman was the fabric of marriage, one of its few memories that was not unhappy but quiet, neutral, steadying in its ordinariness.

I’m not sure, exactly, that this response is nice. (Maybe a little self-satisfied? What do you think?) But I’m fascinated by its inclusion. All in all, The Spoilt Kill is suspenseful, well-written, and interesting. (You’ll learn a lot—but not too much—about making pottery.) An unusual, and unusually successful, book. Kelly didn’t write much, but I look forward to reading more. Fortunately, the British Crime Classics series, edited by Martin Edwards, is reissuing another one later this year.

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869) Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude, Revised Amy Mandelker (2010)


This one needs a post or two of its own. For now I’ll tell the story of my previous attempts to read it—and my fantasy of how I thought I eventually would.

First attempt, late 1990s, twenty-hour train-ride from Toronto to Halifax. I bought a lovely Everyman Library hardcover of the Garnett translation, with a forbiddingly unvarnished, minimalist dust-jacket. Like Charlie Brown in the tv special, I dragged it around a whole winter’s vacation (my girlfriend and I were spending Christmas with her family). I abandoned it pretty soon after arriving—in fact, there is still a bookmark at p 186 (Pierre has just been nudged into convincing himself he loves Hélène)—but I guess I read it on the train. I say I guess because the only thing I remember about the trip—something I do remember quite often, it was so remarkable—is waking up in the early morning, the train chugging through New Brunswick, along the Miramachi, I think, with absolute piles of snow flanking the tracks. More snow than I’d ever seen before (which is saying something). Snow towering on the rooftops, snow drifting almost up the rooftops, that kind of thing. It was sunny and cold, that sunshine-y cold that is marvelous and crisp but also really fucking cold—and just magical. We had breakfast in the dining car and my girlfriend persuaded me to order fishcakes and a pot of tea and it was absolutely delicious. Maybe I gave up on the book because I had the Russian winter of my dreams right outside the window.

Years later, now living in a different country, married, a father (I think, I actually can’t remember if this was before or after we had T—an event that destroyed my memory, possibly for good), I made my second attempt. Now I had a different hardcover, the Peaver & Volokhonsky translation, an even bigger, more unwieldy book—its size being, I maintain, the main reason I didn’t persist past the first few dozen pages. Not that I wasn’t enjoying it, but it was kind of hard keeping everyone straight, and it was the winter vacation (I associate the book strongly with winter, even after having read it), and so I quietly set it aside.

I’d see them on the shelf, though, those War & Peaces, and they just kept forbiddingly insisting themselves on me. I’d sometimes lugubriously think that if I were diagnosed with cancer or something I would immediately take them up again to be spared the indignity and wasted life of dying without having read War and Peace. (Of course when I did later have a cancer scare that was the last thing on my mind.) But as time passed and my current sabbatical crept into view, I concocted a plan, the kind that keeps you going in tough times, like when you’re grinding up a hill into a headwind late in a run. I would spend a week all by myself in the Canadian Rockies. It would be fall, late September maybe, the most glorious time in the mountains but one I never get to experience anymore because of the academic calendar. I would take only War and Peace, so I wouldn’t be tempted to read anything else. I’d live without internet in a bee-loud glade. I’d hike every day, admiring the turning larches, while also finishing the novel, I saw no problem there. I pictured myself reading late into the night after a simple but satisfying supper of all the things no one else in my family likes to eat, sipping scotch. (This is how I know this scenario was pure fantasy, I do not much care for scotch, it just seems like something I should like.) How this was all going to work in reality was of no concern—and when the pandemic arrived it became clear that I wouldn’t have to worry about turning fantasy into reality.

In the end, reality was less triumphant than imagination—but it had the benefit of being real. I did, once again in winter, though not in a single immersive burst but instead over eight weeks, sometimes more intensively sometimes less, what with all the bits of daily family life to manage, actually read War and Peace. And it’s terrific.

Paraic O’Donnell, The House on Vesper Sands (2018)

Enjoyable 19th-century pastiche, bit of a Wilkie Collins vibe. Unusually, it’s as interested in the supernatural as in crime—I guess you’d call it urban magic—though its alternate-reality, speculative aspects aren’t as developed as they could be. In O’Donnell’s Victorian London, certain women emanate a kind of half-physical, half-psychological vibrancy that select others can perceive. And now someone is killing them. It’s up to Inspector Cutter, a gruff genius with a nice line in cursing the limitations of his juniors; Gideon Bliss, a disillusioned divinity student with a personal investment in the situation; and Octavia Hillingdon, a tyro journalist, to solve the case. The House on Vesper Sands is that rarest of books: one I wish had been longer, so that it could have fleshed out the implications of its scenario. As it is, it has strong characters, who exceed the caricatures they initially seem to fall into and whom I can absolutely imagine carrying a long-running series, and excellent writing, which never feels forced and is often genuinely arresting. A mournful Ben Aaronovitch, a fantastical Sarah Waters: take your pick.

Georges Simenon, The Yellow Dog (1931) Trans. Linda Asher (1987, revised 2013)

In a small town in Brittany, a man on his way home from a night out with the boys at the local café is shot while stopping in a doorway to light his cigar. A mysterious yellow dog is spotted at the scene of the crime. The next day it shows up in the café itself. Before long—everything happens fast in a Simenon—bad things befall the man’s friends: one turns up dead, one narrowly escapes poisoning, one disappears leaving only a bloodstained car. And that animal keeps showing up: is the yellow dog a red herring? Maigret sorts things out, which mostly means avoiding reporters and telling the mayor to shut up. Great opening scene, decent ending: absolutely serviceable.

On the whole, an underwhelming reading month—except for War and Peace. Genuinely titanic, worth every minute. That Mary Kelly’s good too, though. See you next month.

My Year in Reading, 2020

I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.

My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.

But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.

I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?

I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.

For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:

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

All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.

Highlights:

These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake

I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me

Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.

I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.

Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.

Best of the rest:

Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).

Stone cold classic classics: Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).

Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.

Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).

Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.

Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.

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

Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.

Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?

Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!

Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.

Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.

Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.

Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).

Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each): The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.

Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times

Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.

Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?

Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.

Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.

Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.

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

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

Coming in 2021:

Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!

What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.

Catherine Eaton’s Year in Reading, 2020

I’ll soon be writing up my reflections on my 2020 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for new contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

The ninth post is by Catherine Eaton (@sparrowpost), who blogs at sparrowpost.com. Catherine Eaton is a writer and editor living near Chicago with her partner, two cats, and six houseplants..

Even now in January of 2021, it’s hard to make sense of everything that happened in March when it was finally recognized that COVID was here. Life suddenly became much stranger and far more difficult. Grocery shopping had always been my time to linger over and admire fresh fruits and vegetables, pick out a few that looked good, and then head on over to the soup aisle. Suddenly and without any sort of mental preparation, that old slow life was gone. It became intensely draining and plain difficult to navigate the store. Everyone who shopped was afraid and they tried to soothe this fear by buying everything in sight.

Small, little pieces of the old life kept dissolving: I was glad when my library closed to protect the patrons but at the same time, it meant no library. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on them, not only books, but for a safe and quiet place to relax and read.

The library soon sent out an email, telling me not to return the books I had checked out, so I put them in a small stack in the living room. The three books became a symbol of life before the pandemic: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, Optic Nerve by María Gainza, and Isolde by Irina Odoevtseva. I read through the stack slowly and they became worlds where I could find space to breathe, places unaffected by the pandemic.

Books have always been a refuge for me, but in this last year my appreciation deepened. I read not just for entertainment but also to examine the craftsmanship in each book, and I was not let down. Studying story development, character arcs, and sentence structures became for me an act of sanity.

I read more books in 2020 than I have in other years; the list below includes some of my favorites.

I read The Wind in the Willows first. I had tried reading it a few times over the years without much luck but this time I reveled in it. My copy had the illustrations by Inga Moore, which are warm and homey. The story is set in the river and woods, and centers on three animals living there, Ratty, Mole, and Toad. They have adventures, get into messes, but everything works out in the end.

From that point on, I realized that reading children’s books let me find a small measure of peace during the pandemic. I joined a friend’s book club and we read The Secret Garden together. I had read it as a teenager, but now as an adult I was surprised to find how much I admired Frances Hodgson Burnett’s craft. She knew how to set a scene, weave an enticing mystery, and create bad-tempered yet sympathetic characters.

Later in the summer, I picked up another book I read as a teenager, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. The novel chronicles the early life of Emily Murray, a budding author and fiercely independent soul. I highly recommend it and the next books that subsequently follow, Emily Climbs and Emily’s Quest. Emily’s fight to write and be true to herself has inspired many writers, including Carol Shields, Alice Munro, and Margaret Atwood.

The next library book I read was Optic Nerve by María Gainza, one of my favorite reads of the year. Each chapter is a complete story of its own and centers on a different painting. The narrator contemplates art and painters, her family and child, and the anxiety of living in the present day.

One of the great pleasures is how flawlessly Gainza weaves the narrator’s daily life with her contemplation on art. The moments set in art museums were especially poignant to me as the Art Institute in Chicago was closed and I was struggling with the deep desire to see artwork in-person, a source of delight and comfort that had suddenly been whisked away.

Another novel that struggles to make sense of an ever-changing world is Renee Gladman’s Event Factory. The narrator, a “linguist traveler,” visits city of Ravicka. She struggles to learn the local language and communicate with those around her. The city ebbs and flows around her, streets shifting while she walks, and a noxious yellow fog (that the citizens refuse to acknowledge) slowly envelops everything. Event Factory, bewildering yet familiar, felt like the diary of a fellow passenger during the early days of the pandemic. Another poignant similarity with the present is how Ravickan time does not move linearly which affects the art of narration:

To say that though—that I have not been on my own very long—would mean that I have been following a linear path…this linearity could only form if there had been no events in between. I am saying things have happened that have not been reported, and it is in virtue of those missing things that I was here. Had I spoken of them, at this point of the story, I would be elsewhere.

Czelaw Milosz’s autobiography, Native Realm, is another tale of rapidly shifting worlds, set during the first half of the 20th century. Beginning with his birth in present-day Lithuania, Milosz follows his family’s fortunes as they traveled through Russia, and then to Poland, arriving there shortly after WWI. He recounts learning Russian and Polish, the teachers and friends that influenced him as he came of age before WWII, and the writing endeavors that he undertook while somehow miraculously surviving WWII. His autobiography is not just a record of family, learning, and friends, but it is also a delicate tracing of the life of the mind and how he arrived to the ideas and thoughts that underpin his work.

I was unable to finish Native Realm before it was due back to the library, and after I returned it COVID hit. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to check it out again, and surprisingly enough, I hadn’t lost any of the threads. When I finished Native Realm and returned to Milosz’s poetry, his concepts shown clear and bright in a way they hadn’t before. I highly recommend this book to anyone who would like deeper insight into Milosz’s poetry and life.

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay was another library book I was separated from in the early days of the pandemic. Like Native Realm, I had read about half of it when it was due back. I returned it, COVID struck, and I did not see it again until June. I thought the long pause might affect my enjoyment of it but that wasn’t the case at all. The book is collection of essays on the small joys that Gay encounters over the course of a year, and when the book returned to me in the summer, I had a deeper appreciation of his insights into our difficult world.

In many ways, Gay’s deep belief in the beauty of a life well-observed became a touchstone during this last year. Watching a downy woodpecker climb the sugar maple outside my window became a way to enter the present when it was otherwise unendurable. Enjoying good food, connecting with friends, and reading excellent books became ways to go forward and with gratitude. Since then, I’ve been slowly reading Gay’s poetry in his Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude and it feels like a continuation of the thoughts running through his essays. We are lucky to have Gay writing to us.

Another bright light in a grim year was Girl, Women, Other by Bernadine Evaristo. It won the Booker Prize back in 2019 and immediately sold out everywhere. I patiently waited until one day when my local bookstore had a stack of copies sitting on the front desk, and nabbed one. Looking back, I’m grateful I grabbed a copy before the pandemic hit because it was the read I needed later on. The novel concerns a large group of women, each section told from a different viewpoint. Their lives and years weave in and out of each other’s; each woman is splendidly alive and Evaristo’s playfulness with punctuation and sentence structure creates a vivacity and immediacy I hadn’t encountered before in a novel.

After Girl, Woman, Other, I picked up Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki. Set in Athens before WWII, it centers on three sisters’ lives over three summers. While their days seem quiet on the outside, the sisters live passionate and dramatic internal lives. They struggle to understand those around them (including animals and nature) and the direction their adult lives will take.

The lavender bloomed. It happened suddenly, one morning. The evening before we had stroked the buds, which were still green and hard. We had begged them to open that night, and the next day from the window we saw six bushy rows of purple playing with the sun and hundreds of white newborn butterflies fluttering around, chasing each other, making love, only to die the same night.

Maria began to cry. She went and embraced the stems, burying herself in their aroma.

The sisters find their way, each one in a way that suits only her. Some readers have struggled with this book, but I wish there were more novels like it. Liberaki’s lush descriptions of nature and the sisters’ inner lives left me wanting to read more of her work.

The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith and Other Lesser Lives by Diane Johnson is about a real woman who challenged her role in life and sought to carve out her own path as a British woman in the mid-1800’s. Mary Ellen Peacock Meredith was the first wife of the writer George Meredith; after eight years of marriage she left him for the painter Henry Wallis. Not much is known about her life (aside from Meredith’s massive grudge against her) but Johnson has taken what remains and woven it into a story, part factual and part fiction. Mary Ellen was a writer in her own right, an exhilarating conversationalist, and a gourmet cook. She was considered an outcast after fleeing her husband but of course she didn’t view herself that way. She had many plans for herself and her children but unfortunately died at age 40 from kidney disease. With sensitivity and sympathy, Johnson recreates her life and those that surrounded her; what emerges are living beings, forgotten by time but worthy of being considered. I first came across the book after listening to a delightful conversation between Diane Johnson and NYRB Classics editor Edwin Frank and I highly recommend their talk.

Isolde by Irina Odoyevtseva was the last library book from my small pre-pandemic stack. First published in 1929, I read the new Pushkin Press edition, translated by Brian Karentyck. At the heart of Isolde is the beautiful Liza, a young teenager and White émigré from Russia. She crosses path with Cromwell, a wealthy British boy, while vacationing in Biarritz. The pair might as well be protagonists from a F. Scott Fitzgerald novel as they race around in cars, bounce through dance halls, and swim out in the ocean. He names her Isolde after the doomed, legendary queen and from that moment on, there’s no doubt where the novel is headed.

Liza is a woman without a country and though she has a brother and mother, she is essentially abandoned due to their self-centeredness and desperation. As I read the book my sense of foreboding climbed higher and higher and when I finished the last page I heaved a heavy sigh. I won’t forget Isolde or Odoyevtseva for a long time. Odoyevtseva achieves a level of loneliness, separation, danger, and impending disaster that Fitzgerald’s writing aspired to.

A King Alone by Jean Giono will also stay with me for a while. I don’t want to give anything away but it’s one of the more shocking novels I’ve read in some time. The tale is set high up in the Alps and the opening description of a beech tree drew me in:

It’s on the side of the road, exactly at the hairpin bend. There’s a beech tree there; I’m sure there’s none more magnificent anywhere. It’s the Apollo Citharoedus of beech trees. There cannot possibly be another beech, anywhere at all, with skin so smooth and so beautiful a color, a more flawless build, more perfect proportions, with such nobility, grace, and eternal youth. Definitely ‘Apollo’ is what you say the instant you catch sight of it, and you say it again and again for as long as you look at it. What is extraordinary is that it’s both beautiful and so simple. No question about it: it knows itself and judges itself.

A series of puzzling and frightening disappearances occur in a nearby village, and a police captain is called in to sort out the mess. Langlois arrives in the dead of winter and begins the hunt. The narrative shifts between different viewpoints (though never Langlois’s) and the result is a tracking of Langlois himself as he travels through the mountain ranges, surrounding towns, and the village itself, searching for the abductor. Nature is a strong presence throughout, a main character watching and overshadowing the human dramas enacted within it. After reading A King Alone, I’m looking forward to reading more of Giono’s novels and discovering his poetics.

There’s no way I could go through my best reads of 2020 list without mentioning War and Peace. A Public Space announced their readalong of War and Peace in early March with Yiyun Li leading the daily discussion. I was drawn to the idea of reading an epic novel during an epic time and I picked up Anthony Briggs’s translation. I kept up with the daily readings for the first third of the novel but then fell behind. Tolstoy’s ruminations on the Napoleonic Wars and the causes of war in general slowed my speed but I was determined to see the book through. And I’m glad I did because while Tolstoy’s theories and beliefs about war have somewhat dimmed in my mind, the lives of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, along with a huge cast of family members and servants, have not. It’s a novel well worth reading during this time.

The final three books hold a special place in my heart: I read them in the fall and each created a sanctuary before and during the US elections (which was and is a terrifying time). It was hard to know which way my country would go and I needed the reassuring cadences of these master writers to help me through the nerve-wracking days.

The first is Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks. I hadn’t known that Brooks wrote a novel until a friend mentioned it in a passing conversation and I knew I had to find this book. I ordered it from the library in early March before the pandemic struck and it eventually arrived in the fall. I was so happy to see it. It felt like the continuation of an earlier life.

The novel is broken into thirty-four vignettes, concerning the life of Maud Martha; they often read like prose poems. Each vignette follows Maud Martha as she deals with the difficulties of family, growing up, falling in love, contemplating beauty, raising a family, and racism.

One of my favorite chapters centers around her struggle over whether to kill a mouse that’s been invading her kitchen and taking off with morsels of food. She envisions the mouse’s huge family and its on-going struggle to feed so many children. In the end, she can’t set out poison and they go on living together. There is a special sweetness in the book that focuses on everyday joys despite the senseless cruelty of racism and other struggles in life. It’s a short read and I sighed deeply when I read the last page. I would have been happy to read more about Maud Martha’s daily life and her ongoing views of the world.

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark came into my life a month before the election. A Public Space was doing another read along, this time on Spark’s book, and while I was reading through the book, I was working on a class assignment to map a novel. Since I was already half way through the novel and completely caught up in it, I decided to make a map of it. I was curious how Spark dealt with time, the revelation of mysteries, and different points of view.

While I was mapping, it became clear that Spark flashes forward in time only when she’s revealing important information. She divulges tragedies and betrayals early on but saves the “how” for the end. Her story centers on an Edinburgh schoolteacher, Miss Jean Brodie, and the student that eventually betrays her.

Spark in the New Yorker: “Well, suspense isn’t just holding it back from the reader. Suspense is created even more by telling people what’s going to happen. Because they want to know how. Wanting to know what happened is not so strong as wanting to know how.”

There’s a clean, crisp assertiveness to Sparks’ prose that I quickly became addicted to. It’s not surprising that she began her writing career as a poet. The New York Times critic Parul Seghal notes that, “[Spark] loves reminding us that every word—this phrase, that comma—was brought together by human hands, for your pleasure.”

During the election itself, I turned to The Makioka Sisters by Jun’ichirō Tanizaki. The four sisters are from a well-to-do Osaka family, but by the time the novel opens, the family’s heyday has passed and their fortunes are in slow decay.

The original Japanese title, Sasameyuki (細雪), means lightly falling snow and is a poetical allusion to lightly falling cherry blossoms in the spring. It contains the word “yuki,” which refers to the third sister, Yukiko, and suggests that she is the focus of the novel. Much of the story revolves around the family’s quest to find her a suitable husband.

The novel spans 1936 to 1941 and throughout there’s a heavy contemplation of past. This isn’t surprising, as the past (along with decline and decay) is among of Tanizaki’s great themes and permeates his work.

The past lingers in the Makiokas’ clothes, homes, thoughts, and traditions but it performs a balancing act with Western culture that continues to encroach on more traditional lifestyles. The sisters wear light Western clothes on the hottest days of the summer and resume wearing kimonos when the heat passes. They watch Greta Garbo in a film one night and attend the Kabuki theater to see a favorite performer on the next. They learn French, practice the koto and shamisen, visit the cherry trees blooming in Kyoto and Nara, and get their hair done every week at the salon. Amid family squabbles and health issues, they survey and survive everything the decade throws at them which includes a great flood, typhoon winds, and a world war.

Newspaper installations of The Makioka Sisters began appearing during the height of WWII, but the censor board pulled it, denouncing it for its “feminine character.” That didn’t stop Tanizaki from continuing his novel and in 1944, he published the first section and gave copies to friends. The complete novel came out after the war, was heralded as a great achievement, and has been read ever since.

While I haven’t lived through a war, the current pandemic has given me a more immediate understanding of what can happen when everyone’s lives are drastically and suddenly changed. Tanizaki’s fortitude in writing about four sisters throughout WWII, not even stopping when the government forbade his work from being published, speaks to me deeply.

A few honorable mentions:

Most people read Madame Bovary in high school but since I missed high school (long story), I missed the book as well. Despite knowing the storyline, the novel drew me along and by the end, there was no doubt in my mind that, had she had lived today, Emma would have been a wildly popular Instagram influencer.

Mathilda by Mary Shelley is a typical Romantic novel, full of long passages about feelings and nature. There’s also the usual shocking subject matter–in this case, incest and suicide. Shelley wrote this after Frankenstein and as a former Goth, I enjoyed every moment of it.

The Maytrees by Annie Dillard follows the lives of Toby and Lou Maytree, from courtship to old age. They live in Provincetown, MA, and the sea and its moods permeates their lives. As always, Dillard’s writing on nature is both beautiful and brutal.

It’s been an extremely difficult year, but books have helped make it a little more bearable. Here’s to another year of good book reading, discovering new and old authors, and taking care of one another. May this new year be better than the last.

“A Soviet Critic from Within”: a Vasily Grossman Q & A with Marat Grinberg

307b3c_f8cfffb6fb784b45a48b966c7e256df9~mv2

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve posted several times on Vasily Grossman’s epic novel Life and Fate. You can read my introductory thoughts on the novel, my thoughts on Grossman’s use of character and lists, and the place of the Holocaust in the novel.

Although I’ve spent a lot of time with this book and even have some expertise with its subject matter, especially its use of the Holocaust, I don’t know much about Soviet writing, and I can’t read Russian. So I was eager to reach out to a friend who is an expert on these things.

Marat Grinberg received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Associate Professor of Russian and Humanities at Reed College. He is the author of “I am to Be Read not from Left to Right, but in Jewish: from Right to Left”: The Poetics of Boris Slutsky (2011) and co-editor of Woody on Rye: Jewishness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen (2013). His most recent essays on literature and cinema have appeared in the LA Review of Books, Commentary, Tablet Magazine, and Cineaste. His latest book is Aleksandr Askol’dov: The Commissar, a study of the great banned Soviet film.

I emailed Marat some questions I had about the novel, and he was kind enough to reply. I hope you enjoy his thoughtful responses as much as I did.

 Dorian Stuber: I’d appreciate some context for understanding Grossman. Where does he fit among other Soviet writers of the time? Would you say he is a Jewish writer?

Marat Grinberg: I would hesitate in calling Grossman a Jewish writer, although that, of course, depends on how one defines this contentious category. Clearly he was a Jew who never denied his Jewishness and was invested in figuring out the place of Jews in history. The Holocaust and post-war Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaigns made this awareness stronger as well as more profound, tragic, and personal. At the same time, if we think of a Jewish writer as someone who engages in dialogue with Jewish textual universe, both sacred and secular, and comments upon it, this would describe Grossman only to a limited extent. First and foremost, he was a Soviet Russian writer, shaped by the Soviet project, which is precisely why his eventual denunciation of it after the war was so stark and unpredictable. A celebrated writer in the 30s and even early 50s and a legendary war journalist, Grossman was always a Soviet critic from within and from the depth of Russian history.

DS: One of the most striking aspects of Life and Fate is the way it links Nazism and Stalinism. Specifically, it suggests these ideologies are linked through their treatment of Jews. Is Grossman arguing that totalitarianism is anti-Semitic?

MG: I don’t think Grossman is arguing in Life and Fate or in other works dealing with the nature of totalitarianism, such as Everything Flows, that totalitarianism is inherently anti-Semitic. What fascinates him about Nazism and Stalinism and what makes them so similar in his eyes is how they both sacralize ideology and deny any value to individual human life. Like Hannah Arendt later in Origins of Totalitarianism, he views anti-Semitism as a convenient tool of totalitarianism, but I also think his understanding of anti-Semitism is limited by how he ties it to totalitarianism. Anti-Semitism is for him essentially a hatred of the other – Sartre’s “Anti-Semite and the Jew” comes to mind – but he overlooks the deeper roots of it in the polemical wars between Judaism and Christianity. The secular humanist that he was, he could never quite decide in Life and Fate whether the Nazi (and others’) hate of the Jew was an aberration or an ingrained part of human psyche and its capacity for evil.

DS: Can you tell English-speaking readers about the connotations of the two terms that give Grossman his title—and that he uses all the time?

My hunch is that fate is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life.

By contrast, I sense that life is, if not antithetical to fate, then at least in some kind of struggle with it. Life is where value resides for Grossman. But is it possible to think of life without fate?

MG: I think you’re absolutely right, fate for Grossman “is not simply a neutral term—not just the name for things that happen to us—but rather a way of referring to some kind of larger structure that makes human life intelligible and that even acts as a kind of judgment or way of making sense of that life” and “life is where value lies for Grossman.” In this, he, of course, is following very consciously in the footsteps of Tolstoy. Life and fate is in many respects a paraphrase of war and peace, keeping in mind that the proper translation of Tolstoy’s epic would be War and World. Grossman mimics Tolstoy structurally, thematically and philosophically – Tolstoy also thinks of history as governed by larger structures, grand fate or destiny of a sort. It should be noted that War and Peace was the book that Russian intelligentsia and writers, in particular, turned to during the war. Boris Slutsky would later write a poem about how everyone was incessantly rereading and memorizing War and Peace in those years. So Grossman’s choice is not accidental, but what is also interesting is how he critiques the great novelistic projects of Russian literature, by Tolstoy as well as Dostoevsky and Turgenev, co-opted by the Soviet regime. He locates in them precisely the same obsession with totalizing explanations of human history which he identifies in totalitarianism and which invalidates the individual. Thus, the other key term in his novel, apart from life and fate, is freedom, which very much implies the individual’s ability to make choices and resist evil even when that evil becomes history’s organizing principle. It is through this type of phenomenological freedom that life can be salvaged for Grossman. In terms of Russian history and literature, he locates the potential for it in Chekhov, the least totalizing of Russian writers. Ultimately Grossman wants to have his cake and eat it too: write the 20th century version of War and Peace and question the very foundations of epic novelistic writing.

DS: Viktor Shtrum, one of the main characters, often said to be a stand-in for Grossman, is a particle physicist. Grossman himself trained as an engineer. Do you think Grossman’s background as a scientist affected his writing of the novel? (I’m especially wondering about its structure.) Or does science function in the novel mostly as a way of critiquing the Soviet state’s ability to politicize every aspect of life?

MG: So it’s Tolstoy’s proclivity toward discerning structures in history that mainly impacts Grossman’s systematizing thinking in the novel, but his engineer background might very well have had something to do with it. Overall the link between art and science is at the core of early utopian Soviet vision and the later Stalinist version of it. As a nuclear physicist, Viktor serves the state, which turns against him as a Jew, and exemplifies both the potential and the horror of human progress. Russian literary thinker Lydia Ginzburg defined Tolstoy’s characters, such as Levin in Anna Karenina, for instance, not as auto-biographical, but auto-psychological, in other words their task is to replicate the author’s psychology and his intellectual, moral and spiritual crises. Viktor is very much a character in that mold. His rediscovery of his Jewishness in the context of anti-Semitic assaults and the split he experiences as a result between being a member of Russian intelligentsia and a Jew reconstructs Grossman’s own trajectory in this regard.

DS: Do you think there are qualities to Grossman’s writing—in Life and Fate in particular, but more generally too—that are underrated? Are there aspects of his style or even of his preoccupations that don’t come across well in translation?

MG: In Russian criticism of Grossman there’s a tendency to view him as a great thinker, but not a great writer and because of that, some believe, he does not lose much in translation. The moral courage and breadth of his project in Life and Fate make discussing it as an aesthetic work almost impossible or at least very difficult. Certainly there are parts in it that are much more psychologically nuanced than others and it can be overly sentimental and sociological, which can be explained by his uneasy relationship with the genre of the novel. Hence some prefer his shorter works, such as Everything Flows and “The Hell of Treblinka.” Perhaps it’s the Greek and Roman historians, such as Thucydides and Tacitus, both artful writers intent on figuring out structure within history and how the human variable fits into it, that Grossman resembles most closely.

MG

Thank you, Marat! So interesting to get your expert opinion on these questions.