What I Read, February 2021

Strange little month. Epic snow storm (20 inches!) and record cold snap (below freezing for a week, pretty intense for these parts) kept us busy frolicking in the snow and dealing with burst pipes. A week later 70 degree temps reminded us of the hot weather coming. I flailed in my writing, though I did manage to publish this piece I was proud of. As pleased to get my second shot as frustrated that my parents, in Canada, have yet to have even the first. Our daughter turned 10, a happy-making and bewildering occurrence. And of course I read a few books.

Georges Simenon, The Hanged Man of Saint-Pholien (1931) Trans. Linda Coverdale (2014)

A group of men, friends since their student days, are haunted by past misdeeds. Maigret traipses around Europe to solve the case. You can’t expect me to remember more than that, it’s been four weeks!

David Shneer, Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Picture (2020)

Dmitri Baltermants (1912—1990) was a Jewish Soviet photojournalist who took iconic pictures at Stalingrad and in newly liberated Berlin, edited a prestigious photography magazine, and successfully navigated life under Stalin and Khrushchev. Despite a long and storied career, he is best known for one photograph, which came to be known as “Grief.” Sent to the Crimea in January 1942 after its initial liberation from German occupation, Baltermants photographed relatives grieving over the corpses of their loved ones on the site of a mass grave near Kerch. These were victims of Nazi reprisals, shot when the Germans retreated from the city in late December. (They would retake Kerch in May 1942, before the Soviets expelled them for the last time in April 1944.) In the six weeks of this first occupation, the Germans executed about 7000 Jews, both locals and refugees from Poland and elsewhere in the Ukraine, turning a Soviet anti-tank trench near the city into a five-kilometer-long mass grave.

As Shneer (z”l) shows, Baltermants took several striking photos that cold January day. But state media seized on one in particular and made it central to Soviet commemoration of Nazi atrocities. In keeping with Soviet refusal to recognize the Holocaust as a Jewish tragedy, “Grief” depicts non-Jewish survivors and victims. (Jewishness is literally the photo’s invisible substrate: by the time it was taken, the region’s Jewish victims were already buried in the mass grave, with no one left to search for them.) Yet it was increasingly marketed and understood as a Holocaust photo, especially once it was exhibited around the world in the 1960s and 70s, where it segued from historical document to artistic commodity.

The photo that impressed so many curators and art lovers was not the one Baltermants first took. As he prepared his work for exhibition he was increasingly bothered by blemishes in the sky on the original negative. In keeping with the norms of Soviet photojournalism—in which montage and editing was an accepted, even admired way to tell a greater truth—he revised the image, producing a new one “by overlaying a second negative with an undamaged sky to replace the flaw in the exposure” and then retouching the composite. What this means is: the dramatic clouds, so central to the power of the image as it has come to be known, are from somewhere else altogether. (The actual day of Baltermants’s visit was overcast: leaden rather than anguished.) This needn’t be understood as falsification or ideology. In the conclusion to his book, Shneer argues:

the tension between documentation and aestheticization demonstrates why Grief is the ideal image to serve as an iconic Holocaust photograph. … Its inclusion in the icons of Holocaust photographs broadens what we mean by the Holocaust and chips away at the term’s parochialism and nationalism.

Shneer comments intriguingly on the Kerch memorial today, caught up in Russia’s annexation of Crimea, arguing that the memorial to the atrocities has both been reclaimed as a public Jewish space while still being embedded in a broader pan-Soviet context (Jews finally get to be recognized as a victim group, but only so much). But his conclusions about contesting Holocaust parochialism remain entirely suggestive. He never develops what this would mean and how to navigate the ethics of using a photo without any Jews in it to comemmorate a primarily Jewish genocide.

Grief: The Biography of a Holocaust Photograph is frustrating and disappointing, from its subtitle onward. (How can a photograph have a biography?) It flirts with being many things—a biography of Baltermants, a history of Soviet photography, a disquisition on the Russian art market after the collapse of the USSR—without actually becoming any of them. And cultural history/cultural studies, Shneer’s preferred methodologies, are not for me. I wanted to blame the publishers for falsely marketing the book as Holocaust scholarship, but the final chapter proves that Shneer wants to own the designation But he simply never convinces.

I feel bad saying this, as Shneer, who I met once and found delightful, as I think did everyone who knew him, was ill with brain cancer as he completed the book. He died weeks after its publication. But I also don’t think he’d want readers to give him a pass. So I’ll say it again: this book is a mess.

Dominique Goblet, Pretending is Lying (2007) Trans. Sophie Yanow in collaboration with the author (2017)

After many years, Belgian comic artist Dominique Goblet (or at least the version of herself featured in this brilliant comic) takes her daughter to visit her father and his second wife. While the father finds ways to disparage Goblet and insult his wife, the little girl amuses herself by drawing a picture of her friend. The step-grandmother—drawn by Goblet as half alien, half Edvard Munch Scream figure—remarks on the friend’s long hair.

She doesn’t have long hair, little Nikita offhandedly remarks.

But look at the picture, replies the woman, already disproportionately angered. In the picture she has long hair.

Oh, that’s just a character, says the child. (Precocious!)

Which prompts the woman, in a fit of Platonist totalitarianism, to rage: “PRETENDING IS LYING, IT’S LYING! PRETENDING IS LYING!”

Aside from making it chillingly clear how messed up the father’s household is, this scene also alerts us to the text’s interest in creation. That self-awareness isn’t cerebral, though. Or if so then only as a necessary, self-preserving response to strong, often violent emotions.  

Pretending is Lying considers various moments in Goblet’s life, from her childhood with her blustering, abusive father and her creative yet fragile and, in her own way, punishing mother to her own life as a parent via the story of a once-promising but soon-floundering love affair. Although the father takes up the most oxygen, I found the mother more interesting. The same person who, by a magical sleight of hand, diverts young Goblet from a meltdown when she trips on the sidewalk and rips her tights (she whips them off the sobbing child and puts them on backwards—the child, none the wiser, is amazed) later locks her daughter in the attic on a rainy day when the restless child won’t settle to anything. This traumatic experience is juxtaposed to the father’s absorption in the 1973 Dutch Grand Prix, in which Roger Williams’s car overturned and burst into flame: only one other driver, David Purley, stopped and tried to rescue him almost by himself, to no avail. Apparently, Purley and the ineffectual race marshals could hear Williams screaming as he burned alive. The event is horrible, both in Goblet’s remarkable rendering and in this video, mawkish music aside.

The terrified child, the crazed mother, the raging father (a fire-fighter, he is convinced he could have saved the day): everything’s going wrong at once; the scene is one of the most harrowing things I’ve read in a while. And yet there is also so much tenderness in the book: in one scene, Goblet’s daughter is scared to sleep in a strange bedroom, mostly because it has a giant graffiti of a snarling man on the wall. Goblet tells Nikita, “You have to laugh at the things that scare you, you’ll see, it works with everything!” What follows is a lovely row of panels in which the little girl tentatively thumbs her nose at the image, giggles to herself, and falls asleep smiling.

As befits the book’s emotional scope, Goblet draws in all kinds of styles, from careful line drawings to expressionist exaggeration to washes of abstraction; she accompanies these images with gorgeously varied and expressive lettering (she hand-lettered the English translation herself). The result is beautiful; a book you could read many times and keep finding new things to notice, a triumphant rebuke to the argument that imitation is dangerous because it falsifies.

Andrea Camilleri, The Safety Net (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)

After reading almost 20 of these, I’ve finally noticed how often the Montalbano books begin with the detective surfacing from a dead sleep. That struggle seems to be harder to overcome as he ages, as if Camilleri had been preparing for his detective to die. (I gather he deposited a final installment with his publisher before his own death in 2019.) The Safety Net offers more of the usual complicated to-ing and fro-ing and mixing of cases, all of which is mere background to Camilleri’s specialties: describing food and fulminating against Italian governments. In this investigation, Montalbano has to spend time with teenagers and that could have gone badly, but Camilleri gracefully lets his character value what contemporary technology allows rather than bemoan the hell it consigns us to.

Andrea Camilleri, The Sicilian Method (2017) Trans. Stephen Sartarelli (2020)

A meatier plot than usual, which turns on the similarity of dramaturgy to detection. What, Montalbano wonders, does it mean to be the one pulling the strings? And who is doing the pulling? The detective/director, or the suspects/actors? And where is the audience in all of this? Ends with a surprise; curious to see if this development is followed through on in the remainder of the series.

Rachel Howzell Hall, And Now She’s Gone (2020)

PI novel with a twist. Rader Consulting has a secret mission: most of the time its agents look for missing people, but sometimes they help people go missing, specifically women who are escaping abusive partners. Grayson Skye, newly promoted to investigator from desk work, is herself one of those women. (That explains the preposterous name.) Still recovering from a burst appendicitis (not to mention some pretty serious PTSD) Grayson suddenly has even more on her plate: her first case proves more complicated than she’d like (the woman she is supposed to find begs to be left alone—but is she telling the truth?) and the worst part of her past catches up with her. Very busy, this novel, too much so. The jagged chronology is more irritating than effective. Yet I still devoured it over a weekend, especially enjoying its depiction of some unglamorous neighbourhoods in LA and Las Vegas.

Minae Mizumura, A True Novel (2002) Trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter (2013)

Brilliant retelling of Wuthering Heights replete with unreliable narrators in the Ishiguro mode. (At least three main ones, not counting many small instances of gossip and storytelling along the way.) The outermost of these nested tellers is Mizumura herself. At one point she considers the Japanese tradition of an “I Novel,” comparing it to the invisible, omniscient narrator more prominent in Europe. (I summarize badly.) The main thing I disagree with in this fine summary of the novel is the reviewer’s suggestion that this digression is dull. To my mind, it’s central to the book’s project. Are writers supposed to tell us about themselves or about others? To tell what they know (the truth, their own perspective) or what they surmise, imagine, make up (the novel)? If the latter, how do we do justice to others? Can we overcome our prejudices toward them? These are the big questions of narrative, art, and politics that A True Novel explores. The main prejudices in evidence in the story concern family background and economic status. What happens when those don’t align, as is the case of the Heathcliff figure, Taro Azuma, who is born poor and of “mixed stock” in Manchuria but who becomes hugely wealthy?

I know I’m not doing A True Novel justice. Suffice it to say: I adored the book, raced through it (even though it’s 850 pages), and was sad when it ended. In fact, I haven’t found anything to match it, even though I’ve read a fair few good things since. It was even more fun reading alongside some smart, knowledgeable, and generous Twitter friends. Shout out to translator Juliet Winters Carpenter, too, who has done amazing work here, as best I can tell. I’ll be reading more Mizumura soon, that’s for sure.

Joan Silber, Improvement (2017)

A novel with as many strands as a Turkish kilim, one which belongs to one of the characters at its center. (The point, though, is that there isn’t a center to either rug or novel but rather a web of relationships, some clear and some glimpsed only in passing.) The story moves from New York to Turkey to Berlin: the mish-mash of locales could have been a mess, but it works. Or at least it did for me as I was reading it. I was reminded of Tessa Hadley, Esther Freud, a little of Laurie Colwin, and talked it up on social media. But now, a couple of weeks later, I can hardly remember a thing about it. (There’s a good bit about a woman who visits a man in prison, I remember that.) I’d been keen to read Silber’s backlist but now… *looks at piles of unread books climbing like mould spores up the walls * probably not.

Francis Bennett, Making Enemies (1998)

Terrific spy novel set in 1947, when the West begins to realize how different the Soviets’ beliefs and methods are from their own. The rest of the great powers are trying to catch up to the Americans and create a hydrogen bomb. Britain, though, is broke and would really prefer not to devote resources it doesn’t have to the project. What if the Russians felt the same? Is someone in the government sending them coded olive branches to this effect? The novel has two plot lines: one following a widowed atomic physicist in Moscow; the other concerning a young British political influencer, recently returned, disillusioned, from Berlin. These characters turn out to be connected; Bennett convincingly melds personal and political.   

This thriller is more chess-game/byzantine bureaucracy than cool gadgets/explosions. The best part of the book, though, is a section set in Finland, featuring a thrilling chase on skis. In general, Finland comes across very appealingly. As does Making Enemies. Well written without drawing attention to itself; complicated without being ridiculous. (Impressive for a spy novel, in my experience.)

In keeping with his debut’s ethos of modesty, Bennett only wrote three novels. I’ve managed to track down used copies of the other two (together they form a trilogy) and can’t wait for them to show up. Thanks to Retroculturati for the tip.

Sarah Moss, Summerwater (2020)

Summerwater is not as good as Moss’s two historical novels, Signs for List Children (2014) and Bodies of Light (2016), or 2018’s Ghost Wall (with which it pairs nicely), but it’s really good. The setting is a holiday resort on a loch in Scotland. (But because UK “resort” means some not especially amazing cabins in the middle of nowhere.) It’s the beginning of summer: the day is long, but not bright, in fact cold, rainy, and thoroughly miserable. The holidaymakers are questioning their decision. In a series of short sections, we move among several perspectives—a husband and wife with young children, a husband and wife with really young children, the teenage daughter and son of an older couple, an elderly couple who are the only ones to actually own their cottage. At one point each thinks, usually darkly, about the extended family of foreigners whose nightly parties torment, or bemuse, them. (The foreigners are variously described as Romanians and Bulgarians, but at least one of them is from nowhere more glamorous/threatening than Glasgow.) These sections are interspersed with even shorter ones written from the perspective of trees, birds, and animals. Even more than the human characters, these nonhuman beings experience the deluge as dangerous; the possibility of starving to death recurs.

As usual in Moss, violence—threatened and actual; physical, emotional, and sexual; hidden and open—is everywhere, not least in a dramatic conclusion. There are also many more ordinary events: the effort required to shepherd bored or fretful children through a wet day, the various negotiations couples navigate at various life stages, the secrets people keep from each other, especially regarding their fantasies. (A minor thesis of the book is that the older women get the fewer fucks they give that their men know their fantasies don’t include them.) I love how Moss leaves things unsaid: how exactly did a child’s shoe end up on the shore? What will happen to Justine’s health? What’s the deal with that guy in the tent?

My only criticism is that Moss’s control over the various voices felt uneven. The free indirect discourse changes to match each character, as it should, and yet the prose mostly feels the same. It sounds more like Moss than like any of her characters. I mean, that’s a contradiction built into free indirect discourse, but at times Summerwater exhibits a lack of control in a writer who otherwise feels fully in control of her descriptions of how little control we have over our lives. (I wouldn’t mind if Moss were a little wilder, honestly.)

A final word: the jacket of the US edition is gorgeous, a scene wrapping across front and back covers of a black loch against even blacker mountains with only an initially puzzling scrawl of red in the center of the image. The design is by June Pak, who I have now followed on Instagram. The image doesn’t reproduce well and I had to return my copy to the library anyway, and for some reason I can’t find the whole thing on line, but here is the front bit anyway.

Marga Minco, An Empty House (1966) Trans. Margaret Clegg (1990)

Moving and effective novel about the aftermath of the Holocaust, even better than Minco’s quasi-autobiography Bitter Herbs. Set on three days—June 28, 1945; March 25, 1947; April 21, 1950—it follows Sepha, who, alone of her family, has survived the war in hiding, and who falls into a hasty marriage with a man she meets in the resistance. He plunges into a career in journalism, she flounders except for an interlude in the south of France, entering into various affairs that she enjoys but not enough to keep up for long. Throughout she visits with her friend Yolanda, another survivor. Yolanda is tormented by guilt at surviving; Sepha is sympathetic but unmoved. Readers, however, will be moved by their relationship—especially its ending—for Minco manages to keep their disagreement from feeling schematic. To that end, she deftly uses motifs and time shifts, which challenge the idea of continuous experience without making a big deal about it. As its title suggests, the novel is filled with empty houses—whether the various places in hiding Sepha recalls, a cherished bolt hole in France, the new house she and her husband are set to move into at the novel’s end, or, most powerfully, her childhood home, now inhabited by someone else, to which she returns like a criminal to the scene of the crime—only the crime, as she reminds Yolanda, was perpetrated by others on the likes of them.

Hans Keilson, Da steht mein Haus: Errinerungen [There Stands My House: Memories; alternatively, My House is There: Memoirs] (2011) Hrsg. Heinrich Detering

Keilson began this collection of autobiographical fragments in the 1990s, when he was in his 80s and beginning to wind down his long-running psychoanalytic practice. He’d written three novels and some poetry, but that was long ago. A decade later, now almost blind, he returned to the pieces, pruning and ordering them for publication. With the help of the literary scholar Heinrich Detering—whose conversation with Keilson ends the volume—the book was released soon after Keilson turned 100 and had become the subject of renewed interest in both Germany and the US. (I wrote about Keilson’s wartime diary a few years ago; that book too is worth reading.)

In short sketches that make full use of the roving quality allowed by German-language syntax, Keilson describes his childhood in Freienwalde an der Oder, a town near the Polish border where lumber and small-time health spas were the main industries. Keilson’s father managed a store (his wife ran it ably, maybe better than he did when he served on the western Front in WWI). Keilson’s parents were active in the local Jewish community, although her education, in her hometown at the foot of the Silesian mountains, a place now in Poland, was much stronger than his. (Keilson recalls her prompting him for the weekly Shabbat prayers and describes his ambivalent feelings about her unselfconscious voice in the women’s choir.) Keilson was a sporty kid—there are some great passages on ice skating—and also musical. Both experiences came in handy later, when he taught at a Jewish sports club in Berlin and paid his way through medical school by playing trumpet in a jazz band.

Despite his late success as a doctor and therapist, Keilson had never been particularly scholarly, though he vividly remembers presenting a Heine poem only to have a classmate student object: a Jewish student reciting a Jewish poet was “fouling the nest.” That moment, in the late 1920s, marked the first time Keilson sensed the change that would envelope him, his family, and his community. The memoir is filled with little but telling moments like this. By contrast, Keilson says little about his flight to Holland in 1936, at the urging of his non-Jewish wife, and his time living under a false identity during the war, where he first encountered the orphans he would make his postwar analytic reputation helping. He does describe how he managed to get his parents to Holland right before the war and how they decided against going underground, citing age, ill-health, and general exhaustion at a world that had so betrayed them. They were murdered in Birkenau.

In the afterword, Detering asks Keilson if he ever thought of going back to Germany. He did, after all, continue to write in the language. Keilson answers that he couldn’t. The moment he learned of his parents’ murder, he stopped being a German. Moreover, he knew he couldn’t work as an analyst for German patients. Regardless of their personal culpability they would always feel too guilty towards him; that would be fatal for successful therapy. At which point Detering expostulates, “Das klingt alles so vernünftig” [That sounds so reasonable]. Keilson responds: “Aber ich bin so vernünftig, Heinrich, sonst hätte ich nicht überlebt! [“But I am reasonable, Heinrich, I wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”] Reason was a gift, a talent [eine Begabung] that he used to help himself.

This exchange gives a good sense of Keilson: a similar calmness and wisdom, maybe evenhandedness is the best description, colours these reminiscences. He writes about his parents as if they were people he had known long ago—not that he is distant to them, his whole life was ruled by their loss, but he is so fair to them, so loving in his equanimity, presenting their kindnesses and their cruelties (especially on the father’s part). Even a brief scene describing a time when, aged 10, he caught a glimpse of his mother’s half-naked body is anything but prurient. He and Detering talk a lot about what it’s like to be so old, so close to death. Keilson knows he had a good life, despite everything; knows too what he did to further that sense of satisfaction.

In the last section of the memoir, Keilson describes an encounter on his daily walk—he was 91 at the time and could still get around. Only a few hundred meters from his house he meets a child playing in the street. The boy says to him, matter of factly, You are very old. Keilson agrees. And how old are you? Three, the boy proudly responds. Without warning, he picks up his toy to run home, but not before pausing to yell, Where do you live?

Right near here, Keilson shouts back.

Where?

Just straight ahead, then turn left and go up the street. My house is right at the intersection.

The boy is satisfied. In the distance a woman’s voice calls him home.

Keilson walks straight ahead, turns left, and, at the intersection, finds his house, here, in Holland.

A lovely end to a lovely book of a lovely life.

I didn’t mean to read two books by Dutch survivors preoccupied by houses back-to-back: sometimes the reading life has its reasons of which reason knows nothing. An English translation of the memoirs was published in Australia, but I couldn’t get it: no library in North America either had it or was willing to lend it to my college’s library. Shame.

Barbara Yelin, Irmina (2014) Trans. Michael Waaler (2016)

Nineteen-year-old Irmina von Behdinger arrives in London in 1934, thrilled to escape her stultifying home in Stuttgart and excited to study typing. For a while, she lives with a host family. Later she is taken on by an eccentric Countess, a former Suffragette who buys her a bicycle and takes her to various Labour party events. One day, a distant relative takes her to a cocktail party, where she’s prickly and bored stiff until she meets Howard, a student from Barbados on a full scholarship to Oxford. They become friends—punting on the Cherwell, strolling through Hyde Park (where, as a mixed-race couple, they narrowly escape a gang of Blackshirts)—and inch toward becoming lovers. But then the Countess asks Irmina to find somewhere else to live—she feels obliged to take in a Jewish refugee—and Irmina has no choice but to return home. She settles in Berlin, putting her English to use as a translator in the Reich Ministry of War. All the while she writes to Howard, dodges the advances of ardent fascists, and angles for a posting in England.

A series of events conspire to keep her in Germany, where she eventually marries one of the ardent fascists, has a child, looks the other way at things she doesn’t want to deal with, and enjoys the advantages that come from having a husband in the SS. By 1942 she is a single mother (her husband is on the Eastern Front) seeking refuge from bombing raids and roughly answering her son’s questions about an impromptu auction in the street over the goods from an expropriated house (What are they doing? What is a Jew?) with Nazi vitriol: “The Jews are our misfortune.”

Decades later, in the early 1980s, Irmina, now widowed, receives an official letter from Barbados. The secretary to the Governor General, Sir Howard Green, writes on behalf of his employer: would the esteemed Mrs. von Behdinger consider visiting? The trip—centered on a birthday party for Howard’s adult daughter, herself named Irmina—is a mixed success. The past can’t be overcome, but old ties still mean something. Everywhere she goes the now grey-haired woman, in her sensible outfits, is introduced as “the brave Irina.” Howard has described her that way for decades, partly because he doesn’t know what became of her life and partly because he can’t let himself think about that life.

Hamburg-based bookseller Buchi, as she is known on Twitter, recommended Irmina to me, and I’m so glad she did. It’s smart, beautiful, moving: really impressive. Yelin’s delicate lines, and subdued palette (all greys, blues, and sepia yellows) demand that we linger on her images, even as the story pulls us forward. The panels create alternating rhythms, with regular small boxes interspersed with gorgeous two-page spreads. A fine afterword by the Holocaust and genocide scholar Alexander Korb fills in some of the historical background. (Irmina is based on Yelin’s grandmother, though it’s unclear how closely.) An excellent book for anyone who has ever wondered, How could so many ordinary Germans be drawn to National Socialism? Yelin’s answer is particular rather than general; it has no sweeping thesis. She never gives Irmina a pass, never lets us think, Well, she’s just an old woman now, no harm done. But she also has sympathy for roads not taken, missed encounters, and wrongs that can’t be apologized for. Check out Yelin’s site for more of her work: I especially enjoyed this short film about her current project, illustrating a Holocaust survivor’s memories.

A good reading month. A True Novel was the best, no question. That will be on my end of year list, I’m sure. But Yelin and Goblet, the two graphic memoirs, were great. Keilson, Minco, Bennett, and Moss too.

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.