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.

July & August 2019 in Review

Been a long time since I wrote anything here, and two months since my last reading update. What have I been doing? Took a long vacation back home the end of July and early August. Then school started up again. (We’re through the first two weeks: I’m surviving, but the whole thing doesn’t feel quite real yet. The entering class seems sharp, though, which is heartening.) And my wife and I finally gave in to our daughter’s pleas: we got a puppy (exhausting, even though our older dog is doing a lot of the work). I’ve found it hard to make time to write, but I did do a fair bit of reading, especially on holiday, mostly light stuff. Much of it was enjoyable, but I’m not sure too much here will be on the end of the year list.

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July

Ian Thomson, Primo Levi: A Life (2002) Not especially captivating (the writing was surprisingly pedestrian), but a great way to learn a lot about Levi. He could be joyful, caring, and inquisitive, but the older he grew the more those sides of him struggled to get out from under serious depression. At the end of his life he despaired about the resurgence of fascism. This was in the mid 80s. Think how unhappy he’d be today.

As part of my centenary celebration of Levi’s life and work, I made a list of Levi facts.

Esther Freud, Lucky Break (2011) My summer project to make it through Freud’s backlist (see May and June’s posts) continued with this, her second-most-recent novel. It begins at an acting school in London in the late 70s, early 80s, almost certainly modelled on the one Freud herself attended. (She’s written about this milieu before, most notably in Peerless Flats.) What’s different here is that Freud continues past the adolescent/early-adult years and tracks the fates of several characters into middle age. She moves between perspectives, showing us who makes it, who doesn’t, who never gets over that formative drama school experience, who brushes it off or takes it in stride in becoming their mature self. What is a lucky break? When you get what you want? When you make a narrow escape? Not Freud’s best, but I don’t think she has a bad book in her.

Margarita Liberaki, Three Summers (1946) Trans. Karen van Dyck (1995) You can read my thoughts here. Short version: good!

Inge Auerbach, I Am a Star: Child of the Holocaust (1986) Illustrations Israel Bernbaum A Holocaust memoir for young readers (I’d say maybe 9-12). For me, the primary appeal was the unusualness of the writer’s circumstances. Auerbach grew up in a small town near the Black Forest, surprising because Germany had a Jewish population of only half a million before the war, and few lived in the south-west. Auerbach was deported to Theresienstadt, a former military barrack turned Potemkin village, from which she was fortunate not to have been deported to Auschwitz. She was there at the time of the infamous Red Cross visit (the Germans spruced the place up to show the world how much they had the interests of Jews at heart) and she clearly remembered the production of the children’s opera Brundibar. I Am a Star would be a good introduction to the Holocaust (unusually for a book of its time it is not centered on a Gentile child who witnesses events at second hand), but I must confess it hasn’t particularly stayed with me. (I had to look up most of these details.) What is vivid is a scene in which the six-year-old Auerbach has to take the train, all alone, to the not-so-nearby city of Stuttgart in order to go to the only school in the area for Jews. She’s wearing the star, which I believe was instituted in Germany proper only in 1941, which means this was happening when preparations for the full implementation of the “Final Solution” were gaining speed rapidly; the adults around her are hostile, indifferent, or mutely embarrassed.

I’ve just learned I’m going to get to meet her this fall. It will be an honour.

Vivian Gornick, Fierce Attachments (1987) Impelled to read this by the NYT poll that listed it as the best memoir of the past 50 years. Well, who knows about that, but it’s definitely great. Personally, I found it less fascinating than her much more recent The Odd Woman (crazily underrated), but I still liked it a lot. Even if you’re less fascinated than I am by American (aka Jewish) communism of the 1930s and its long, mostly sad aftermath you’re bound to find much to love here. Who doesn’t love a great tale of generational conflict? Gornick’s mother is a monster, and a delight, and a show-stealer. (Gornick has the grace not to begrudge this.) The book moves between memories of Gornick’s childhood and descriptions of the long walks she takes with her mother in the present (now long past) day. These walks are the venues for a life-long argument about how women should understand their lives. As Gornick explains so usefully in the first half of her book The Situation and the Story (I teach it all the time), good writing doesn’t so much depend on what you’re writing about (the situation) as it does how you frame it, how you tell it, how you organize it (the story). Fierce Attachments gives an old situation (which is why people from all kinds of backgrounds will likely relate to it) a killer story.

Ross Macdonald, The Moving Target (1949) The first Archer novel, notable mostly for showing how much Macdonald improved as a writer over his career. The book has its moments—Macdonald was always terrific with California geography (here best expressed in two harrowing drives, one along the coast in thick fog and one through the mountains at night), and his fascination with misunderstandings between generations is already evident—but on the whole it’s fairly thin. For completists only.

Georges Simenon, The Strangers in the House (1940) Trans. Geoffrey Sainsbury w. David Watson & others (1951) I’ve read a few Simenons (a couple Maigrets, a couple romans durs), but I’ve never really got on with him. My attention wanders, even though they’re so short. But everyone loves them, so I keep trying. With The Strangers in the House everything finally clicked. Hector Loursat has given up: he holes up in his crumbling house, whole floors of which are boarded up, where he lives alone except for some servants and his adult daughter, Nicole, emerging from his room only for meals and trips to the cellar for more Burgundy. Drinking and reading is all that’s left in his life. (Honestly, is that so bad?) His law career is abandoned, his reputation in tatters (not that he cares). But one day he hears a gunshot from inside the house. He investigates: there’s a dead man upstairs. Nicole admits that she and some friends had run over a man during a drunken late-night joyride. Her boyfriend, Emile, was the one driving the car, but the young couple insist they didn’t kill him. In fact, they’d brought him into the house and tended to him in the hopes he would heal. The police don’t believe a word of it, and they arrest Emile. To everyone’s surprise, even his own, Hector decides to defend the boy, which brings him closer to his daughter than he’d been for years.

I loved three things about this book: its atmosphere (perennially foggy, drizzly, and grey); its refusal of redemption (it teases us with the possibility before foreclosing it abruptly); and its hair-raising depiction of a man who just wants to be left alone being brought out into the world. A frightening parable for introverts everywhere.

Alex Beer, The Second Rider (2017) Trans. Tim Mohr (2018) Had high hopes for this Viennese crime novel set in the immediate aftermath of WWI, but, although diverting enough for a plane ride, it’s disappointingly clunky. The series might improve (at least two installments remain untranslated), but doubt I’ll follow up. The more historical crime fiction I read, the more I realize no one can touch Philip Kerr.

Dorothy Baker, Cassandra at the Wedding (1962) They don’t write them like this anymore. I don’t really know what I mean by that. Maybe it’s the tone—kind of old-fashioned, but not in a bad way. Maybe it’s the self-confidence of the world it depicts (Berkley and a ranch in rural California), even though the main character has no such assurance. Ingeniously narrated in three parts, the first and last by the eponymous Cassandra, and the middle by her twin sister, Judith, the book is set in the days before Judith is to be married. Cassandra doesn’t want her to. She wants to be with Judith forever. Baker’s trying to do something really complex. We have to be drawn to Cassandra, but we have to see that there’s something monstrous about her, too. Yet if we demonize her we risk capitulating to some pretty conventional ideas of what life should be like, especially for women. But we also have to recognize that someone could desire to be conventional without being in bad faith. Baker pulls it off—always keeping us off balance, always make us think further. She ends with a beautiful, vivid, and enigmatic image, a shoe spiraling from the Golden Gate bridge into the water. Intimation of release or premonition of bad things to come? Jacqui has a good review. Please link to others in the comments.

Sally Rooney, Conversations with Friends (2017) I confess I started this as a hate-read. A number of readers I trust had disparaged it (thin gruel, overrated, the kids today). But I loved it. And not just the book, but the reading of the book. Sometimes reading feels like work, or like something I steal from the rest of life. But every once in a while it’s pure pleasure and amazement. I stayed up much too late, as compelled to read just one more chapter as if it had been the most suspenseful thriller. Although initially unimpressive at the level of the sentence—an impression I increasingly questioned and that I look forward to revising when I read it again, as I’m sure I will—the novel really impresses in its depiction of new models of relationships. (I was reminded of Women in Love, which is pretty much the highest praise I can give!) As soon as I finished I started thinking about how well it would fit at the end of my 20th Century Experimental British Fiction course. Rooney’s depiction of relationships would complement Lawrence and Ballard, while her use of narrative voice could be juxtaposed to Woolf (in The Waves) and Beckett (in Molloy). Conversations with Friends is contemporary without being topical. (It’s not the inclusion of text message strings that makes it of our moment.) By all means read this essay by Claire Jarvis: she has so many interesting things to say about Rooney. For example: “She is baring her teeth at the group of female writers she closely resembles. Masochistic elements run through her fiction, not exactly as fully fledged fetishes or desires, more as evidence of the baseline structure of heterosexuality.”

Can’t wait to read Normal People (after three months on the library waiting list I’ve finally cracked the top 20!).

John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) I didn’t love this book, but I did come to admire it. Le Carré tells his story with impressive vagueness. Imagine a spy novel in which all the action is told second or third hand. (In this way, Le Carré is the anti-Lionel Davidson.) As I read I kept seeing Smiley as Alec Guiness—but, since I dozed through most of that lengthy British mini-series when my wife and I watched it years ago (she loved it; I recognized it was good but found it a powerful soporific), the ending hadn’t been ruined for me. And as the book went on (it’s not short) I grew increasingly invested in who the mole in the British service might be, and how Smiley’s duel with Soviet string-puller Karla would turn out. Probably spy stories are not my preferred genre (I’m too stupid—all the double and triple crossing confuses me), but I can see that this is good stuff. And I’m interested enough to read more Le Carré, especially the rest of the Karla trilogy. But not so interested that I’m dropping everything to do so.

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August

Kit Pearson, The Sky is Falling (1989) While on vacation I read three books by the Canadian children’s writer Kit Pearson. They were perfect choices. (I hadn’t read her before; I was just too old for her books when she started writing.) Pearson doesn’t seem well known in the US. (Or in the UK?) But she should be. The Sky is Falling is the first of The Guests of War trilogy, which focuses on child evacuees from England to Canada during WWII. Norah and Gavin Stokes, ten and five years old in this first book, are sent along with hundreds of other English children in a convoy across the North Atlantic to safety in Canada. Especially for Norah, through whose eyes we experience events, the journey is a mixed blessing. She misses her friends and family, she fears she has been made by her parents to be a coward, and she resents the superiority of the Canadians she meets (she resents their security). The Stokes children are taken in by the old-moneyed Ogilvies, who live in Toronto’s tony Rosedale neighbourhood. Florence Ogilvie, the family’s matriarch, is bossy, used to getting her way, and blinded by grief at the death of her son in WWI. Florence’s chief victim is her gentle but cowed daughter, Mary—that is, until she shifts her attention to trying to rein in Norah. I was impressed by the profound moral dilemma Pearson considers here: what happens when learning to make your way in a new life comes at the cost of losing the old one? What do children and parents owe each other? Lots to chew on here: I recommend for readers of all ages 10 and up.

Vivek Shanbhag, Ghachar Chochar (2013) Trans. Srinath Perur (2017) Wonderful novella about a family in Bangalore who are much richer than they used to be, but who aren’t willing to acknowledge what they had to do to get there. Shanbhag doesn’t judge them for it, but he makes the cost clear. He’s a genius at suggesting something’s wrong without telling us what exactly (like Ishiguro, but less mystical). A friend of mine, talking about college donors, says there’s no clean money. More books today should be about money. If I were Fredric Jameson I might say something about how only a so-called Third World country—only a country that has the particular vexed relationship to capitalism that so-called emerging economies have—could take up the mantle of the 19th century European realists. I’m most left haunted by the untranslated title, an expression made up by a family peripheral to the story to describe something tangled beyond repair. A beautiful, mysterious book. Read Joe’s review for a more detailed take.

Kit Pearson, Looking at the Moon (1991) The second volume of the Guests of War trilogy is set at the Ogilvies’ summer place in Muskoka, the genteelly shabby Gairloch. A couple of years have passed since the first book (it’s now 1943), and Norah is becoming a teenager. The war is more in the backdrop here than in the previous book, but it matters all the same, especially when a cousin of the family, dashing 19-year-old Andrew, arrives for summer vacation. Norah has her first crush, but she can’t understand why he is terrified of enlisting. Even in this perfect summer book—if you want to know about a certain kind of Old Canadian life, real Group of Seven stuff, sort of New England patrician transported to the Canadian shield, complete with lots of canoeing and sailing and fishing and blueberry pies, this is the book for you—difficult problems arise.

Kit Pearson, A Handful of Time (1987) Not part of the trilogy (the last book was checked out at the library: now that I’m back in the States I’ll have to track it down via interlibrary loan), but another enjoyable read from Pearson. Twelve-year-old Patricia’s parents are getting divorced, and her brittle, accomplished mother (a news anchor) sends her West for the summer. Leaving Toronto—where she is used to cooking sophisticated meals with her father and going to art classes she doesn’t particularly enjoy—Patricia arrives in Edmonton and is immediately taken to a nearby lake where her relatives summer. As she fears, Patricia (a more immediately likeable character than Norah) is scorned by her outdoorsy cousins; taking refuge in a disused cabin she finds an old watch that takes her back to the 1950s, and the summer when her mother was twelve. Another terrific summer read.

Marlen Haushofer, The Loft (1969) Trans. Amanda Prantera (2011) Last year I read Haushofer’s The Wall for Women in Translation month. I loved it, and thought I’d follow up with The Loft, Haushofer’s final novel. (She died of cancer shortly before her 50th birthday, leaving only a handful of works.) Maybe it wasn’t the right book to read on holiday. Maybe the translation isn’t quite up to snuff. (Shaun Whiteside did a wonderful job with The Wall; not sure I can say the same for Amanda Prantera here. The book felt awkward to me in ways the earlier one didn’t. The syntax is straightforward enough that I could have a go at the original, just to see.) But in the end, I think it’s that The Wall, despite its post-apocalyptic setting, is simply a more generous book. Haushofer’s subject is the crippling conformity of post-war Austria (she’s a less histrionic Bernhard).

The loft of the title is the narrator’s atelier, where she works on her drawings of insects for children’s books, and pursues her endless quest to draw a bird that doesn’t look as though it is the only one in the world. Mostly, though, it’s the place where she hides away to read entries from her own diaries, which begin arriving mysteriously by post. The diaries are from a two-year period in her life, shortly after the war, when she was sent away by her husband to recuperate in the countryside (with only the company of two differently vexing and surly men, nursemaids and confidantes of a sort) from an unnamed traumatic event and sudden attendant deafness. (Hysterical in the true sense of the term: that is, her deafness is a way to express in bodily form feelings that can’t otherwise come out.) Pleasingly, the arrival of the diaries is just as non-cathartic as the event is undescribed. (It presumably has something to do with the legacy of the war, but I appreciate Haushofer’s unwillingness to spell that out.) Yet the book feels cramped and airless in a way The Wall doesn’t. Which makes sense of course: the conceit of the earlier work is that it would take a vast destructive event (an event even more traumatic than a war) to liberate women. (And even that liberation would be on temporary, on sufferance). In this regard, The Loft is the kind of book it has to be. I just like the kind of book The Wall is better.

Daphne Du Maurier, The Glass-Blowers (1963) Pretty different from the other Du Mauriers I’ve read. Historical, yes, but neither a romance nor Gothic. Written apparently in a fallow time in Du Maurier’s life, when she decided to spend time in France researching the origins of her mother’s family. (While there she became inspired to write The Scapegoat, one of her best books. It’s unclear if Du Maurier really understood what it was to be fallow.) At any rate, this is a book about the years before, during, and after the French revolution centered on a family of glass-blowers. It has always been a shame of mine how poorly I understand the revolution. I’ve never read Tale of Two Cities or The Scarlet Pimpernel or even Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. In her excellent introduction to this recent Virago edition, Michelle de Kretser (I loved The Lost Dog) uses the term “dutiful” to describe parts of the book. Accurate, but as de Kretser says, not because Du Maurier has written a bad book. Rather, Du Maurier’s interestingly taking on herself here—aiming to write a realist novel different in tone, style, and premise from the books that made her famous. De Kretser suggests that the best parts of the book are the ones in which Du Maurier can’t hold herself to her task, or, to say it another way, when she can’t help but be her herself. (I was particularly struck by the book’s ambivalent exploration—part condemnation, part fascination—with rumour-mongering as a political tactic. Rumours and gossip are presented as monstrous, taking on a life of their own with grim results.) The Glass-Blowers isn’t Du Maurier’s best book, and I’d never suggest anyone start with it, but it’s never dull. It’s more muted than her other work, but still highly readable. I do wish there’d been more actual discussion of glass blowing, though. Du Maurier uses it as a metaphor for shape- and sense-making more generally. Which, when a society moves from a time when meaning is monarchical (fixed and guaranteed) to one in which it is arbitrary (arbitrary and relational), is no small matter.

Adrian McKinty, The Chain (2019) High-concept crime novel that starts fabulously but fades badly. The idea is pretty genius: a shadowy cabal creates a demonic chain letter. The parents of a kidnapped child don’t get their child back until they kidnap another child, and so on down the list. The idea is terrifying, and almost plausible. But the resolution is antic and overdrawn. By the end of the day—yes, I read it in a single day, almost against my own wishes—I felt tawdry and bloated, as if I’d eaten nothing but junk food.

Dervla McTiernan, The Ruin (2018) By contrast, a much quieter and more successful crime novel, an old-fashioned procedural, with echoes of Tana French (partly from the Irish setting, partly from the mistrust among members of the murder squad). A pleasant surprise.

Philip Kerr, Prague Fatale (2010) Not the best Bernie Guenther, but solid nonetheless. Kerr has always included historical figures in the series, but usually in walk-on parts. Here Reinhard Heydrich, known as the Blond Beast, the primary architect of the Final Solution, takes center stage, and this seems to hamper Kerr. The Guenther books are always despairing, but they’re usually leavened with laugh-out loud humour. Here things felt sour.

Dervla McTiernan, The Scholar (2019) The second in the Cormac Reilly series isn’t quite as good as the first, but it’s still better than your average procedural. McTiernan is fleshing out the other members of the murder squad admirably, which promises even better things from the third installment, due next year. (One of the things that made Mankell’s Wallander series so good—aside from their suspense—is that the other cops mattered too.)

Laura Lippman, Lady in the Lake (2019) The first audiobook of the semester was a doozy. I loved last year’s Sunburn (still think about it all the time), but Lippman has outdone herself here. True, I’ve only read four or five of her many books, so my sample size isn’t huge, but I can easily imagine this is her best book. Like all her work, it’s set in Baltimore. But it’s also about Baltimore, and, by extension, plenty of other cities that are in fact really more like small towns. She’s so good at showing how various parts of the city—journalism, politics, the police—and various groups, especially Jews and Blacks, intertwine. There’s a sociological or anthropological quality, fascinating in itself, but even better in that it serves a suspenseful and moving plot, about a 30-something Jewish woman in 1966 who leaves married life and sets out to become a newspaper reporter. Added bonus: Lippman writes sex really well.

Georges Simenon, The Train (1958? 1961?) Trans. Robert Baldick (1964) Strange book, from the bibliographic information on down. (The copyright page of my edition has no original pub date, and an online search revealed conflicting information. Any ideas, people?) After enjoying Strangers so much (see above), I thought I’d make my way through some more of my Simenon backlog. (I own a lot of books by him, considering how lukewarm I am on him.) This started promisingly, another quasi-everyman (but maybe a bit of a wrong un) dropped into extreme circumstances. But the circumstance here is the German invasion of France. In June 1940 Marcel Féron escapes his northern French town for points south together with his pregnant wife and small child. But they are soon separated, and his convoy, mostly filled with Belgian refugees, becomes a version of the transports taking Jews to death in the East. Marcel meets a woman on the train, they get involved, they live for a while in a refugee camp in the south. Their relationship ends as suddenly as it began: Marcel gets word of his family’s whereabouts and returns to them. He sees the woman once more, and only then do we learn her full name, Anna Kupfer, and her particular war work. The idea is that’s she’s Jewish, and Marcel’s unwillingness to get involved with her or her resistance work is perhaps a metaphor for French quietism. But the book works neither on its own terms nor as a political allegory. And so my interest in Simenon has waned once again. Maybe we’re just not meant to be.

There you have it. The highlights were Baker, Liberaki, Gornick, Shanbhag, the McTiernans and, above all, Sally Rooney. How was your summer, reading or otherwise?

 

2019 Mid-Year Review

Here we are, halfway through the year. It’s a quiet 4th of July here in Little Rock, hot and sticky as usual. I’m trying to get over a sinus infection and feeling beaten down by the news—arctic melting in the hottest June ever, children interned in camps across the US, xenophobia and inequality everywhere. I’m switching between three books–Grossman’s Stalingrad, Liberaki’s Three Summers, and Esther Freud’s Lucky Break–and reflecting on the reading year so far.

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I’ve read quite a bit—76 books so far: increased time being one compensation for my growing daughter’s growing tendency to eye-roll—and enjoyed most of them. (Do you ever worry you’re too easy to please? I do.) Inspired by other bloggers, I vowed this year to write monthly recaps of my reading. I’m surprised—and proud—that I’ve actually kept up with this. If you want to catch up with my reading, you can read these updates here:

January

February

March

April

May

June

The books that have stayed with me so far the most are:

Moss’s Ghost Wall (which I wrote about here), Vermette’s The Break, Despentes’s Vernon Subutex, DuMaurier’s The House on the Strand, and Marsden’s The Spirit-Wrestlers.

The next tier includes Li’s Where Reasons End, Toews’s Women Talking, and all the Esther Freud. Favourite re-read: Roth’s The Radetzky March.

Most influential work stuff (Holocaust/fascism related): Hautzig’s The Endless Steppe, Judith Kerr, Browning’s Ordinary Men, Dunmore’s The Siege, and Fishman’s The Book Smugglers.

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So here’s to more good reading in the second half of 2019, not as an escape from these enervating (when not terrifying) days, but as an aid to practicing the habits of attention and mindfulness that might help us survive them.