Yelena Furman’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Yelena Furman, her first for the blog. Yelena (@YelenaFurman) lives in Los Angeles and teaches Russian literature at UCLA. She has published academic articles, book reviews in the Los Angeles Review of Books and The Baffler, and fiction in Narrative. She and Olga Zilberbourg (@bowlga) co-run Punctured Lines, a feminist blog on post-Soviet and diaspora literatures.

Look for more reflections from a wonderful assortment of readers every day this week and next. Remember, you can always add your thoughts to the mix. Just let me know, either in the comments or on Twitter (@ds228).

Alexander Deineka, Textile Workers, 1927

When Dorian asked me to compile my reading list for 2021, I was honored and it sounded like a lot of fun, but I did point out that everyone was going to make fun of me for how little I’d read in a year compared to how much other BookTwitter folks read in a month (including Dorian). [Ed. –Only a jerk would do this. There are jerks on Twitter, it is true. But they should at least know what they are.] I’ve always been a slow reader, and between technology, exhaustion, life in general, and now the pandemic, my concentration is shot. But as this post gives me a chance to promote works by contemporary Russian women writers that I taught this fall, the ridicule will be worth it. This list references a number of Twitter group reads in which I participated, and my sincere thanks go to their organizers, whom I hope I’ve credited correctly, and all the group members; your comments and camaraderie were wonderful parts of my reading year. Finally, there may be something I’ve left off or misremembered as having read last year, but what follows is as accurate a summary as my fried brain, and Goodreads evidence, suggest. 

Marie Benedict, The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

A gift from my mom, who knows and shares my love of detective fiction and its foremost practitioner. No one would accuse it of being an intellectual work, but this fictional account of Agatha Christie’s real-life temporary disappearance was a page-turner and good escapist fun, and who couldn’t use that in an endless pandemic. [Ed. – Amen.]

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle

On the opposite end, this one’s beyond intellectual. I could never include Ada in my Nabokov course, not because of its theme of brother-sister incest but rather because its length and complexity make it impossible to fit into an already reading-intensive syllabus. For those not dealing with syllabi restrictions, this homage to eternal love and of course literature will give your brain a definite workout (this work’s meant to be reread) and is gorgeously written and often humorous to boot. I can’t say I love it, but as always with Nabokov’s English-language novels, I am in absolute awe of his dexterity as a writer for whom English wasn’t a native tongue.

Narine Abgaryan, S neba upali tri iabloka (Three Apples Fell from the Sky, trans. Lisa Hayden)

I read this novel as part of a Twitter group read, which was, like so many others, organized by the queen of collective Twitter readings, @ReemK10. [Ed. – All hail the Queen!] I read this in Russian, while the rest of the group had @LizoksBooks’ marvelous translation. Abgaryan is a contemporary Russian-language Armenian writer, and the novel takes place in a fictionalized remote Armenian village in an unspecified historical moment. The few villagers who are left should be dying out, but as this charming and poignant novel shows, one is never too old or too isolated for life and hope. Everyone in the group loved it, and I gifted it to one of my closest friends for her birthday.

Seishi Yokomizo, The Honjin Murders (trans. Louise Heal Kawai)

My thanks to @kaggsy59 for the review of this title on her wonderful book blog, which is where I think I first heard about it. I was dying (I know) to read it, and then it arrived as a birthday gift from the same friend to whom I gifted the Abgaryan. A locked-room mystery, The Honjin Murders is the first in Yokomizo’s series with the brilliant detective Kosuke Kindaichi, who figures things out when it seems impossible to. The murders are gruesome, the story suspenseful, and the solution fantastically done. I don’t know Japanese literature and was very glad to enter this world at least a little bit. Really looking forward to reading the other books in this series that have been translated into English.  

Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past (trans. C.K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin)

Fair warning: most of you will hate what you’re about to read; unfollow me if you have to. I started this before the pandemic and eventually found the #ProustTogether group spearheaded by @literatureSC. [Ed. – How nice!] This wonderful group was hands down the best thing about reading Proust (I’m easing everyone in slowly for what’s coming). [Ed. – Wait what?] What can be said about this book that hasn’t been said before? How about: I was bored to tears reading it? [Ed. — *sputters*] (Actually, that has been said before. By my dad, who years ago also slogged through every word. It must be genetic.) Of course, there were some strikingly beautiful images, several things the narrator said about human beings rang true, and this work’s importance in terms of literary development is undeniable. But the unbearably neurotic narrator kept saying things for thousands of pages with precious few paragraph breaks [Ed. – She seems to be saying this like it’s a bad thing??] in the amount of excruciating detail that had me screaming in my head that I don’t care what French high society wears, while wishing badly for a recognizable plot. [Ed. – But but…] The screaming was loudest with the Albertine volumes, where if I had to hear about his narcissistic obsession one more time … oh, wait. His sleep-assaulting her with his tongue didn’t help matters. [Ed. – Okay, that is genuinely awful.] Also the lack of editing, whereby characters kept dying and coming back to life in subsequent volumes. Proust’s own death before final edits is a cautionary tale for all who write. I could go on, but that would just be taking a page, or several hundred, out of Proust. During the group read, I managed to royally piss off one (several?) of the group members with my comments, as I’m sure I’m pissing off most people reading this now, but since everyone knows I have no qualms about verbalizing distaste for major male writers, so be it. [Ed. – I’m not angry, Yelena, just… need to have a quiet sit for a minute…]

Jaroslav Hašek, Pokhozhdeniia bravogo soldata Shveika (The Good Soldier Švejk; Russian translation by Petr Bogatyrev)

Another group Twitter read, also headed by @literatureSC; reading this alongside Proust provided the best antidote! Czech was my second Slavic literature in grad school [Ed. – Let’s all just pause and savour how awesome that is], and I’m so grateful for the several Twitter group reads that led me back to this rich body of work. The most popular Czech novel and one of my dad’s favorite books, Švejk is a hilarious and poignant indictment of the brutality of war that never resolves the question whether the screwball protagonist is a simpleton or someone much more profound. The novel is illustrated by Josef Lada, and the Russian-language edition, which came with us from the Soviet Union, has his color illustrations; I had to post them in a Twitter thread because they are so wonderful. I’d started this book twice before, in both Russian and English, so I’m happy to be able to say it is finally finished, even if the book itself remains unfinished due to its author’s death, which in this case, makes it no less fantastic for that. [Ed. – Oh now it’s ok for an author to die…]

Bohumil Hrabal, I Served the King of England (trans. Paul Wilson); Too Loud a Solitude (trans. Michael Henry Heim); Closely Watched Trains (trans. Edith Pargeter)

These were all rereads, the first two with a Twitter group led by @ReemK10, the third because I had it on my bookshelf along with the other two and went for the trifecta. All feature ordinary protagonists doing not so ordinary things, in Hrabal’s blend of absurd humor and deeply human emotions. Too Loud a Solitude, a love letter to books that uses imagery from the Holocaust, is one of my favorite novels, translated by my very much missed graduate advisor, who I think would be thrilled about all the Czech group reads and BookTwitter in general.

Zdena Salivarová, Ashes, Ashes, All Fall Down (trans. Jan Drábek)

Another reread, this one on my shelf next to the Hrabals. I think I picked it both because it was written by a woman and because I needed something as physically compact as this edition to bring on my only and very short trip during the pandemic to beautiful central California. Ashes, Ashes is the doomed love story of the Czech female protagonist and a Latvian basketball player whose team comes to play in communist Czechoslovakia. A straightforward, quick read that shows how the communist system devastated people’s personal lives. Salivarová immigrated to Canada after Prague Spring, where she and her husband, writer Josef Škvorecký, founded 68 Publishers, which was instrumental in publishing Czech writers banned in their own country.

Frances Burney, Evelina

Another Twitter group read, led by @Christina5004, and a reread of a novel that threw me back to my fantastic eighteenth-century British women writers class in college. Even though Burney squarely divides characters into good and bad with no shades of gray, this epistolary novel about Evelina coming of age and learning how to be in the world is engrossing and often hilarious. Reading the notes my twenty-one-year-old self left in the margins in a bright purple pen made me nostalgic: no one will be surprised to hear that feminism has been a constant throughout my life.

J.L. Carr, A Month in the Country

I’d never heard of this novel (I know, I know) until several people talked about it on Twitter. I was especially intrigued because it has the same title as Turgenev’s play, but it actually reminded me of Chekhov’s “House with a Mezzanine.” I loved the setting of post-WWI England and the wistfulness of the writing, but most of all, I loved that I was reading a novel outside of my usual material. BookTwitter was right about how good it was. BookTwitter is fabulous. [Ed. – Amen!]

Zinaida Serebriakova, House of Cards, 1916

The rest of the titles come from the syllabus of my class on contemporary Russian women writers and writing the body; I read them in Russian alongside the students, who read the translations below. The class is based on my dissertation, which discusses the explosion of women’s writing in the late Soviet/early post-Soviet periods, writing that went radically against the patriarchy and puritanism of Soviet and Russian literature. For the first time, women writers were producing works in which female bodies burdened and engendered by sexuality, violence, disease, abortion, miscarriage, etc. were at the center of the texts. I can talk everyone’s ear off about this topic, so I’ll stop, but if anyone is interested, I’d be happy to send the syllabus and/or the pdfs of some of the harder to find titles. We also read essays by the feminist theorists associated with the theory of writing the body: Hélène Cixous’s “The Laugh of the Medusa” (trans. Keith Cohen and Paula Cohen), selections from Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One (trans. Catherine Porter with Carolyn Burke), and an excerpt from Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other: Writing Postcoloniality and Feminism; those are readily available.

Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night and “Our Circle” (both trans. Sally Laird)

During Soviet times, Petrushevskaia could get very little published, not because of politics but because her texts revel in exposing the dark, awful side of human beings, which went squarely against Soviet ideology. When she started getting published after the Soviet Union’s collapse, many readers and critics were dismayed by her frankness. Things have fortunately changed, and she is now one of Russia’s most famous and critically acclaimed writers. The Time: Night is her Russian Booker-nominated masterpiece of familial dysfunction, and “Our Circle” is one of her most well-known short stories showcasing the same, but this time with alcohol. [Ed. – I refuse to believe there is no alcohol in the novel. I mean, it’s Russian, right?]  One of the many things I appreciate about her is that her work goes radically against the idea, propagated by both Soviet and post-Soviet culture and literature, that women are naturally maternal. Rather, maternal bodies are prime perpetrators of abuse. In general, bodies suffer all manner of abuse and violence in Petrushevskaia. In her hands, it makes for phenomenal literature.

It wasn’t on my syllabus, but I also read Petrushevskaia’s The New Adventures of Helen (trans. Jane Bugaeva) and the collection from which this new translation comes, Nastoiashchie skazki (Real Fairy Tales), but as this was for a forthcoming review, I’ll save the discussion for then.

Marina Palei, “The Losers’ Division” (trans. Jehanne Gheith)

From St. Petersburg, Palei now lives in the Netherlands and writes in Russian. “The Losers’ Division,” an early work, is part of a four-story cycle that has a hospital setting; like Chekhov, Palei is a writer with a medical degree. This story is set in an obgyn ward handling both pregnancy and abortion in a Soviet backwater town, which should give an idea about what happens to women’s bodies in this story.

Yelena Tarasova, “She Who Bears No Ill” (trans. Masha Gessen)

At the center of Tarasova’s text is a woman whose body and mind are being ravaged by a debilitating illness. The story approaches the body/mind divide in a non-traditional way, while breaking stereotypes surrounding femininity and female attractiveness. Gruesome and powerful.

Svetlana Vasilenko, Shamara (trans. Daria A. Kirjanov and Benjamin Sutcliffe) and “Going after Goat-Antelopes” (trans. Elisabeth Jezierski)

I got to interview Vasilenko when I was doing dissertation research in Moscow; in addition to her own writing, she also spearheaded the publication of two all-women anthologies in the early 1990s when male editors wouldn’t publish these writers, thus helping to institutionalize contemporary Russian women’s literature. Shamara is the story of a woman living under unrelentingly brutal conditions with her rapist/husband who finds a way to endure, while “Going after Goat-Antelopes” starts out as a story of a married woman’s attempted tryst and then plays a complicated game with the reader about what’s actually going on. Sexuality and violence are very present in Vasilenko’s work, but hers is a unique approach in that female bodies also sometimes navigate both the physical and non-material realms.

Iuliia Voznesenskaia, excerpts from The Women’s Decameron (trans. W.B. Linton)

I’ve written both an academic article and a Punctured Lines blog post on this novel I love beyond words, so anything I say here would be repeating myself, but at the risk of repeating myself: this novel in which ten women find themselves quarantined (ahem) for ten days in a Leningrad maternity ward and tell each other stories to pass the time looks unflinchingly at violence against women and celebrates female sexuality and female friendship. It is heart-wrenching, hysterical, raunchy, and consistently beloved by students in this class. A feminist riff on Boccaccio, The Women’s Decameron is writing the body in all its glory, Soviet-style. Read it, read it, read it.

Liudmila Ulitskaia, “Gulia” (trans. Helena Goscilo)

Like Petrushevskaia, Ulitskaia is one of Russia’s most famous writers, who’s incredibly prolific; this very short story is a small but wonderful part of her oeuvre. The protagonist, Gulia, is a woman of advanced age with a body that shows it, which in no way prevents her from seducing and having a one-night stand with her best friend’s much younger son. Unique for its celebration of older women’s sexuality, this story is a delightful illustration that age is no barrier and women definitely want it.

Valeria Narbikova, In the Here and There (trans. Masha Gessen)

In the Here and There is the first part of a short three-part novel, but stands on its own. Narbikova was the other writer I interviewed during my dissertation research trip, and it was such a pleasure to meet this unique, in-her-own-world individual, even if I had my wallet stolen in the Moscow metro on the way to her apartment. When Narbikova came onto the literary scene in the late Soviet period, some called her a writer of erotica (she isn’t), and all took notice, often with dismay, of her highly experimental, stream-of-consciousness style. There’s definitely a lot of open depictions of female sexuality in her work, including In the Here and There, which has a (brief) orgasm scene, but Narbikova’s real flirtation is with the Russian language, which she twists and shapes into her own medium that’s happy to disregard the rules of orthography and punctuation. Her works often eschew chronology, traditional structure, etc. in an effort to find new ways of saying things and therefore of living, and loving, differently. I’m not usually a fan of experimental writing, but I really love her.

Jeanette Winterson, Written on the Body

There are other choices for the “token Westerner on the syllabus to show that writing the body is something women writers from many literary traditions do,” but how could I notinclude this title? The novel, which recounts the narrator’s frantic search for their cancer-stricken lover who has gone away, does not specify the narrator’s gender, thereby challenging readers’ assumptions and making them confront their own stereotypes. It’s exuberantly written, with a sharp sense of humor. A good way to end the class and this list.

What I Read, March 2021

The daffodils came and went. Then the quince bushes and spiraea (some call it meadowsweets, apparently, which I like better). Next the plum, the dogwood, and the redbuds. Most spectacularly, the cherry. Some days were cold, most were warm, no bugs yet. Good sitting-outside weather. Our daughter went back to in-person school. I wrote some things, though not my book. And as always I was reading.

Alena Schröder, Junge Frau, am Fenster stehend, Abendlicht, blaues Kleid (2021)

The title is something like “Young Woman, Standing at the Window, Evening Light, Blue Dress.” It’s a description of a Vermeer meant to have been expropriated from a Jewish art dealer in 1930s Berlin but perhaps saved for his descendants although more likely lost in the turmoil of WWII. The protagonist of Schröder’s engaging debut novel—I read it in less than a week, which should tell you something, as I am not exactly a speed-reader in German; just couldn’t put it down—is Hannah, a wry if rudderless graduate student whose sole anchor is her weekly visit to Evelyn, her maternal grandmother and only living relative. At her swish retirement home, the proud and irascible old woman instructs (read: yells at) her granddaughter: how to water the orchids, how to arrange the blinds, how to do everything the right way. The two love each other, but they also can’t be close, too much is between them, especially Hannah’s mother, who died of cancer a few years earlier but whom Evelyn could never find it in her heart to love.

When Hannah finds a letter from an Israeli lawyer explaining that Evelyn might be eligible for reparations from an art restitution case—a letter Evelyn refuses to say a word about—Hannah uses this sudden interruption of an inexplicable family past (they aren’t Jewish—how can the Nazis have stolen from them?) as a pretext to further a disastrous affair with her dissertation advisor. The novel moves between the present-day and 1920s/30s Berlin, so that we are always one step ahead of Hannah, and in fact end up knowing more than she does, but the search, although in some respects futile, is hardly a failure: Hannah changes her life, mostly, but in ways that readers will cheer on, she is so likeable.

Schröder handles the Weimar/Nazi-era sections well, they never seem like a pastiche. Her female characters are especially good; they struggle with feelings of inadequacy when they cannot live up to the impossible demand that their personal and professional lives be equally perfect. Even minor characters are vivid—a woman named Rubi comes in and steals the show in the last quarter; I begged Schröder to write a novel just about her but nothing doing. More importantly, in its modest way (this is not a stuffy or self-important book), the novel says something interesting about German-Jewish relations. By emphasizing the non-biological familiar relations that link its main characters, Schröder argues that Jews and Germans (at least for assimilated German Jews, which is a big caveat) were so intertwined that the Nazis’ murderous efforts to distinguish them passed down intergenerational trauma that only hurt everyone (though of course not equally). In a wonderful subplot, Schröder satirizes the ghoulish fetishization of the Jewish past—Hannah is pressganged into attending a meeting of a group bent on maintaining Jewish life in Berlin (no one in the group is Jewish)—which is an easier way to respond to the past than mourning the interconnectedness that was lost.

Junge Frau is funny, smart, and suspenseful. I think English-language readers would eat it up and I hope it will be translated soon. Thanks, Magda, for giving me a copy.

Philippe Sands, The Ratline: The Exalted Life and Mysterious Death of a Nazi Fugitive (2020)

I had mixed feelings.

Miriam Katin, We Are on Our Own: A Memoir (2006)

Memoir in comic form about the author’s year in hiding with her mother in the Hungarian countryside in 1944 – 45 when she was a very young child. Thanks to the Horthy regime’s relatively lax attitude to Jews, Hungary had the largest intact Jewish population in Europe at this late stage of the war. Tired of their ally’s foot-dragging, the Nazis deposed Horthy and sent Eichmann to deport Jews en masse (100,000 were gassed at Birkenau that summer). When Katin’s mother, Esther, receives a deportation notice, she contacts a blackmarketeer from whom she buys a false identity. Thanks to the connivance of her devoted non-Jewish maid, who agrees to lie to the SS, Esther fakes her death and escapes to the countryside, first to the uncle of the man who sold her the papers. The man and his wife have no idea who she is, but they take her in; the elegant city woman quickly becomes a farm girl. She suffers the unwanted attentions of a German officer (rape disguised by chocolates and declarations of love), survives Allied bombing raids, and lives to be liberated by the Russians, an event greeted by the locals with fear. To be sure the drunken Ivans who take over the uncle’s farm are dangerous—when one of them dies while trying to slip into Esther’s bed she is again forced to go on the run—but others are helpful, including some kindly officers who direct her to a refugee center. An old family friend takes the woman and her small child into his own home, a villa he rattles around in, after the deportation of his parents, with only his old governess for company. The old woman, who lives in a prewar Paris of the mind, teaches little Miriam to plié while her former charge falls in love with Esther. Esther’s husband, who has been in the army this whole time (I am hazy on how a Jew, assuming he was one, could have served with the Hungarians) and through a combination of luck and effort has retraced his wife’s journey, miraculously arrives at the same refugee center. The reunification of the family is more successful than most—certainly more so than the one depicted in Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the text that inspired Katin, who spent her career as a graphic artist, to take up comic making in her 60s.

I’ve read many Holocaust memoirs, but I always learn something new. Across Europe, Jews were forbidden to own pets: I knew this, but somehow hadn’t realized they had to abandon the ones they already had. In a heartbreaking scene, Esther leaves Miriam with a trusted friend and slips off to bring their beloved Schnauzer, Rexy, to a central depot, where a German officer eyes him with greedy appreciation.

Publisher Drawn & Quarterly has produced We Are on Our Own with their usual care. At first glance, the cover looks stark and ill-designed. The boards are stiff cardboard, the pages thick and creamy. It looks, I realized, like a homemade scrapbook—a perfect fit for the contents. Scraps, a frequent trope in Holocaust literature, are an apt way to think about victim experience. Scraps are waste or refuse that, through care and work—like the alchemical work of literature—can be transmuted into meaning and value.

Although some of the events might be confusing to readers without background in the subject (Katin is chary with context), this memoir is worth your time.

Ida Jessen, A Change of Time (2015) Trans. Martin Aitken (2019)

Novel about a schoolteacher in a remote part of Denmark in the late 1920s whose husband, a doctor, has just died. The husband was not a bad man—devoted to medicine and insistent upon improving the living conditions of his patients, even the ones he didn’t like. But he was so austere, so contemptuous of the world, so spartan in his affection that being married to him was a trial the cost of which Lilly—almost always known by her married name, Fru Bagge—had not even realized. And yet she still grieves his death. With the passing of time, she allows herself to process these feelings—and to open herself to new ones.

To me, the title refers more to “the change that time is” than to “a specific change over months or years.” Nothing stays the same, not the fruit trees that slowly take root in the region’s sandy soil, not the children she once taught, not Lily’s sense of herself. This is a short, gentle, careful book, beautifully translated by Marin Aitken. It reminded me of J. L. Carr’s A Month in the Country. Perfect if you like wistful, quiet books that are sort of sad and sort of happy and make you sigh at the end. A source at Archipelago Books tells me another book by Jessen is forthcoming. Happy (but moderate, restrained, melancholic) news.

Narine Abgaryan, Three Apples Fell from the Sky (2015) Trans. Lisa C. Hayden (2020)

Under the guidance of the indefatigable Reem, I read this novel as part of a group on Twitter. (A group read I actually completed, amazing!) Of particular joy was the participation of the book’s translator, Lisa Hayden, whose love for the text is obvious. Abgaryan is Armenian, though the book was written in Russian, which is interesting given the role Armenia has played in the Russian literary imaginary: several members of the group were able to instruct me on this. Three Apples is set in a fictional mountain village called Maran. As the novel begins, the main character, Anatolia, prepares for death: she lays out her best outfit so that those who find her will be able to dress her for the funeral, she makes sure her house is spotless, she feeds the chickens. At 58, Anatolia is the village’s youngest resident. Maran used to be home to 500 people. Now there are 23 households clinging to a mountainside that was devastated by an earthquake (almost as devastating as the earthquake of modernity that has taken away the young people). But what promises to be an elegy takes a sudden swerve. Anatolia doesn’t die; nor does Maran, at least not quite. I agree with Olga Zilberbourg’s argument, in this excellent review, that Maran is “Abgaryan’s attempt to if not bypass imperial history altogether, then to find a way out of imperialism’s cycle of violence and destruction.” In this sense it is a fantasy—but an enabling one.

Those of us in the reading group spent a fair bit of time wondering when the novel is set—there are some historical markers, but other events aren’t readily identifiable. The novel is both in time and outside it. As one reader thoughtfully put it, “there is history and there is tradition and though the two do not necessarily match, they are both true.” This double quality is also evident in the novel’s style, which has fantastical elements but is also rooted in realism. The opening chapter about Anatolia’s preparation is followed by dozens of marvelous descriptions of how to do the things that make life go on: cooking, cleaning, finding and preparing herbs, building fences and coops, shoeing horses, the list goes on. I loved this material, enjoyed the book a lot, and hope for more Abgaryan in English.

Myron Levoy, Alan and Naomi (1977)

1944. Queens. Alan Silverman, 12, is busy with stickball, model airplanes, and his new friend Shaun (Catholic and thus a source of unease to Alan’s mother). He has no time for or interest in helping that weird girl upstairs—Crazy Cat, Frenchie-the-nut, the kids call her—the one who moved in with the Liebmans. Naomi Kirshenbaum is a refugee: her father, a member of the resistance, was murdered in front of her; together wither her mother she escaped Paris for Switzerland and then America. Ever since she’s been traumatized, barely speaking, starting at every noise, prone to tearing maps into tiny shreds. Her psychologist—Levoy shrewdly keeps the doctor off stage, filtering their suggestions through the adults in Alan’s life—thinks it would be good for Naomi to spend time with someone her own age. Alan, threatened with failing to be a mensch if he refuses, grudgingly does so. Their slowly developing friendship is deftly handled; the neighbourhood near the abandoned Homes airfield lovingly evoked. A good (Jewish) boy, Alan berates himself for not being able to help Naomi better or faster, and he reacts with fascinating touchiness when adults coo over how lovely and kind he is. Things are best when he can simply acknowledge how much he likes spending time with her. But what will his friends think? Has Alan misunderstood them as much as he once did Naomi? Everything seems to be heading to a predictable if satisfying ending when Levoy offers a devastating final swerve that changes everything—and which I suspect would not be published today. After beginning by distinguishing the fates of American and European Jews, Levoy ends by equating them: no place is safe. Such an interesting book: obliquely about the Holocaust, directly about trauma, and quite a challenge to the feeling, ascendant in the 1970s, that American Jews were Americans first.

I can’t remember who recommended this book to me—pretty sure I didn’t stumble across it myself. If it was you, make yourself be heard so I can thank you! [Edit: Turns out this was Magda, too. I owe her even more this month than usual!]

Miriam Katin, Letting It Go (2013)

This follow-up of sorts to We Are on Our Own jumps to the present day. Katin’s son—he was a little kid in her earlier book—has grown up and moved to Berlin, fallen in love, and wants Katin to get him EU citizenship by virtue of her birth in Hungary. She is reluctant, and even more so to visit Germany. What she comes to realize, though, is that even though you have to hold on to the past, you can’t let it strangle you. It all feels a bit pat, a sort of whirlwind tour of German memory culture circa 2010.

Simon Wiesenthal, Max and Helen (1981) Trans. Catherine Hutter (1982)

The Ratline got me interested in Simon Wiesenthal; I’d heard of the “Nazi hunter” before, of course, but I knew hardly anything about him. I started with Max and Helen because Sands listed it in his annotated bibliography as a work he recommended for a better sense of the atmosphere in and around wartime Lviv/Lvow/Lemberg, especially the camps in which the Nazis interned the slave labour they used to build Durchgangsstrasse 4 (DG 4), a highway through the Ukraine. (The same milieu is memorably evoked in Rachel Seiffert’s excellent novel A Boy in Winter.) I certainly learned more about Galicia in 1941 – 43 (an especially terrible place to be Jewish). But I got something else too, something closer to “the remarkable true love story” promised on the terrific cover of the US first edition I checked out of the library.

In Max and Helen Wiesenthal hunts the commandant of one such camp, a man notorious for his brutality, who after the war has become a manager at a prospering West German firm. To make his charge stick, Wiesenthal needs witnesses, but almost no one survived the DG 4 camps. Eventually he is led to a man, the Max of the title, now a doctor in Paris. Max puts him off but eventually agrees to an interview—but only to explain why even though Wiesenthal’s information is correct, the industrialist and the Nazi are indeed the same man, Max cannot testify against him. In a long, almost hallucinatory encounter in Switzerland, Max tells Wiesenthal how he and his fiancée, Helen, were imprisoned together; how, thanks to certain privileges accrued from being the camp “doctor” (he had no supplies worthy of the name), he was able escape and join the partisans hiding out in the nearby marshes (alone, because despite his pleading Helen refused to leave her disabled sister behind); how he spent a decade in a Soviet gulag before being repatriated to Poland in 1958. Upon his return Max searched tirelessly for Helen; a chance encounter led him to discover she was living under a different name in West Germany. He made the trip, tracked down the address, rang the bell. The door opened—only to reveal… well, I won’t say, though it’s fairly dramatic. The revelation leads Wiesenthal to visit Helen himself, to learn her side of the story, and to see for himself why Max said he couldn’t testify. An epilogue brings the story of the tragic pair to the present (that is, the early 80s).

Max and Helen is short, but even if it had been twice as long I would have read it as raptly. The story fascinated and moved me. I resolved to read more Wiesenthal, and immediately checked his autobiography out of the library. Paging through the front matter my eye fell on a list of titles, divided into fiction and nonfiction. There, under fiction, stood Max and Helen! I was astonished—and then chagrined. Googling the Nazi’s name revealed a general in the Wehrmacht, who had never been in the SS; searching for the camp drew a similar blank. Some of the narrative longeurs, in which Wiesenthal presses Max on the importance of Wiesenthal’s self-imposed task of meting out justice to former perpetrators, now made more sense. Still, if the book is intended as an advertisement for his project, it’s a funny one. Because justice isn’t done. Unless we take Wiesenthal’s point to be that justice is more complicated than we might like to think. In which case his book proves that admirably.

I still don’t know the relation of fact to fiction in this tale—do you? I’ll be taking a look at Tom Segev’s fairly recent biography in hopes of learning more.

David Downing, Wedding Station (2021)

I’m a fan of Downing’s series about John Russell, an English-American journalist in 1930s – 40s Berlin who becomes a spy (for various agencies, it gets complicated) in order to protect his German son, and his girlfriend, Effi Koenen, a film actress on the outs after the Nazis take power. The Station books (each is named for a train station in Berlin or elsewhere in Europe) are less dazzling than Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther novels, which detail the same period, but they are also less cynical. (Less misogynist too; Effi becomes a major character.) Downing has written several books since ending the series, but I don’t think I’m the only one who missed Russell and Koenen. Seems Downing has too, because he’s done what seems de rigeur for crime novelists and written a prequel. It’s good! In fact, it’s better written than usual (Downing is not flashy) while still being just as well researched (always his strong point). Newcomers could start here; fans will enjoy learning the background of favourite characters. Wedding Station (the title refers to a working-class, pro-Communist neighbourhood) is set in the immediate weeks after the Nazis take power and ably conveys how quickly the new rulers chilled dissent and attacked their enemies, especially socialists and communists.

Vigdis Hjorth, Long Live the Post Horn! (2013) Trans. Charlotte Barslund (2020)

Sad to say, my favourite part of Long Live the Post Horn! was the passage from Kierkegaard from which it takes its title. (The post horn never sounds the same twice; no one who blows into it will ever be guilty of repetition; it is a symbol of authenticity.) The idea of a “good old-fashioned letter,” as the text somewhat ironically, somewhat earnestly calls it, is dear to my heart. Which meant I was drawn to the premise of this novel in which a PR consultant is lifted out of a general ennui when she throws herself into the fight by the Norwegian postal workers union to challenge an EU-directive deregulating delivery service. More novels about arcana, bureaucracy, and politics, please! Too bad the details of the battle, which surprisingly becomes a hot topic at the annual Labour Party congress, are passed over pretty hastily.

At first I found the main character’s flat affect irritating—I kept comparing it to the much more devastating portrayals of female despair in Jean Rhys—and almost put the book aside but I was glad I stuck around long enough to see her wary transformation. In the end, though, Hjorth is better at naming values than at making us feel them. Here’s Ellinor watching through a lit window as a man paces his office with his phone to his ear: “It was a comforting sight. If I had kept a diary, I would have written about it. About the working human being, the committed human being, about people trying to change things, people investing their energy, talking to one another and coming together.” Later this sentiment turns into a full-blown encomium for “a language that didn’t seek to spin or obfuscate, but to open and elevate, a language that had helped me to greater clarity, which had pulled me from the mire.” Ellinor herself never experiences that kind of language, and I’m unclear Hjorth knows it. But a lot of smart readers like this book; for a much more positive take, read Grant’s piece.

Jane Harper, The Survivors (2020)

Crime novel set on the southern coast of Tasmania. A local boy who survived a terrible storm ten years before (his brother did not) returns home with wife and newborn to help his mother pack up before his father is moved into a facility for dementia patients. Shortly after, a seasonal worker, an art student from the mainland, is found dead on the beach. The events of the past intertwine with the present; small-town rivalries, pent-up hostilities, and long-buried secrets come to light. The police investigate, but they are at the periphery of the book. In sum, The Survivors is structured very much like Harper’s previous book, The Lost Man. It’s not as good, but it’s definitely diverting.

Monica Hesse, They Went Left (2020)

I was skeptical about this book even though it featured on the NYT’s list of best YA books for 2020. A novel about an eighteen-year-old girl in the months after liberation? I feared Holocaust porn. (Not actual porn: I mean using the Holocaust for grisly, unwarranted thrills.) Although Zofia Lederman, the girl in question, sounds at times like a 21st century teenager, They Went Left is a gripping and intelligent read. I enjoyed the focus on life after liberation: yes, we get glimpses of Zofia’s Holocaust experiences and gradually learn a more complete story of what happened to her, but such moments are important not in themselves but to show how someone so victimized might go about putting a life back together.

Most of the novel is set in the DP camp at Föhrenwald, in Bavaria, where Zofia ends up in search of her younger brother, whom she hopes against hope has survived. The camp allows Hesse to depict different responses to the gift/curse/fate of having survived: ardent Zionists, determined to get to Palestine by any means possible; survivors who just want to return to their former homes; people eager to leave the past behind; people hoping they can resurrect that past.

In addition to being, as best I can tell, carefully researched and historically accurate, the novel also offers some dramatic (even melodramatic) plot twists, and weighs in on big questions: what does family mean, in the wake of genocide? can people who suffered different persecutions come together? Some scenes are especially vivid: a joyful wedding in the DP camp; the arrival of a pile of cast-off clothes that survivors desperately paw through; a night between two lovers whose bodies are marked by past suffering. Some striking moments are sensitively presented: when her lover asks if he needs to use protection, Zofia says he needn’t worry—she hasn’t menstruated in years.

In sum, a visceral and thoughtful novel. I’ll read more by Hesse, who has two other WWII-era YA novels.

Ariana Franklin, City of Shadows (2006)

Readers of this blog—hell, of this post—will know that I am a suck for all things Berlin. Which is probably why I crammed this book into my nightstand when my wife, who bought it on vacation in Canada years ago, was ready to get rid of it. For some reason—probably because I had agreed to read several other books, which is a surefire way to get me not read them—I decided that now was the time to give it a go. I was prepared to be dismissive—it’s about a lost Romanov—but I was won over by the book’s strong characterization and plot.

Esther is a Russian Jew who, like so many other refugees, washes up in 1920s Berlin, in her case after being mutilated in a pogrom in the Pale of Settlement. She becomes the secretary to a Russian nightclub impresario who has stumbled upon what he thinks will be his ticket to fame and fortune—he’s been given a tip that Anna Anderson, a nearly silent woman locked up in an asylum on the outskirts of Berlin, is in fact the Grand Duchess Anastasia Romanov. Anna looks like Anastasia. She has the peremptoriness and carelessness of a Royal. But she seems to have forgotten Russian. And although she knows details of Romanov family life she might just have read about them somewhere. The nightclub owner is convinced, though—mostly, he’s convinced that Esther can coach/bully the woman into satisfying the distant Romanov relatives scattered across Europe that Anna is the real deal. But before that can happen a terrifying man tries to attack her. Anna insists it’s the Cheka, the Russian secret police, looking to finish what the Bolsheviks started but apparently failed to do in Yekaterinburg. But Esther thinks the threat concerns Anna’s non-Royal past. Together with a sympathetic police officer, she sets out to learn the truth. Split between 1923 (the worst year of Weimar-era hyperinflation) and 1933, the book covers a lot of ground. Franklin plays a little fast and loose with the history of the first months of the Nazi regime, but she acknowledges this and in general her history is sound. At one point her inspector thinks that “political violence was unleashing individual savagery,” and City of Shadows does a fine job thinking through the intersection of structural and psychological violence. No book for the ages, but totally worth tracking down. In fact, you can have mine if you like.

Sarah Krasnostein, The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster (2017)

I do not like dirt. Or clutter. (I will pause here so that readers who have been to my house can finish laughing. I used to protest that books are not clutter, but have since bowed to reality.) Anyway, dirt especially, I’m not phobic about it, exactly, but definitely a little grossed out by it. And yet fascinated, too. Same with squalor. That long section about cleaning up the alcoholic father’s house in volume I of My Struggle? Couldn’t get enough. “Time Passes”? My favourite part of To the Lighthouse. The business of cleaning up otherwise unlivable squats? That’s why The Good Terrorist is Lessing’s underrated masterpiece.

In other words, I’m an ideal reader for The Trauma Cleaner. The title refers to Sandra Pankhurst, who has been many things in her eventful life: an adopted and abused child, a young married father and husband, a drag queen, a sex worker (including at a mining town in central Australia that sounds terrifying), a wife and homemaker, a businesswoman, and, in her latest and perhaps most triumphant incarnation, the owner of a business that cleans up after violent deaths, acts of nature, meth lab explosions, and hoarding cases. Somehow I always assumed someone official, the police or emergency services or something, was responsible for these unpleasant situations, but not true, at least in Australia, and I’m guessing the US too.

It is Sarah Krasnostein’s genius to show how the accumulated weight of Pankhurst’s experiences—mostly traumatic: as an unloved child, for example, she was relegated to a shed in the back garden of her working-class Melbourne home, allowed inside to eat with the rest of the family only once a week—has made her so adept at managing the people and situations her business remediates. Sandra leads her team through work that most of us would balk at, despite being almost constantly out of breath (she suffers from COPD, probably brought on from the combination of past recreational drug use and zealous hormone therapy), all while maintaining perfect makeup, hair, and nails. Pankhurst is remarkably non-judgmental. She’s not interested how her clients, whether living or dead, ended up in their situations. She’s interested in results. (I’m fascinated by how this trans woman encapsulates the unruffled non-introspective competency enshrined in at least a cliched idea of Australian masculinity.) Krasnostein notes, poignantly, that Pankhurst’s acceptance stems from her insistence that everyone deserves to life their life. Everyone fits into “the order of things, even those who most of us would exclude from it.

Krasnostein’s intelligence is evident throughout The Trauma Cleaner. Sometimes she’s even epigrammatic; reflecting on abuse and neglect she writes: “In the taxonomy of pain there is only the pain inflicted by touching and the pain inflicted by not touching.” She’s up front about her love for Pankhurst, and how difficult that love can be. (The flip side of Pankhurst’s equanimity is her ability to erase unpleasant parts of her past, like the wife and children she abandoned in penury.) It’s not a perfect book: Krasnostein’s metaphors sometimes get away from her, and the sections about Pankhurst’s clients are better than the ones about her biography. (I liked seeing Pankhurst in action more than hearing about her.) But I think even people less fastidious/compulsive about clearing away clutter, dirt, mold, dust, blood, shit, and pus than I am will find this book deeply interesting. Decay comes to us all—and the only thing that mitigates it even temporarily is love. Sandra Pankhurst’s gift is to love those whom others would rather not.

Thanks to Tali Lavi for the recommendation (seconded by other Australian book friends). Looking forward to the US release of Krasnostein’s second book—it’s called The Believers and, as such, promises to be about something else I have a fascinated yet ambivalent relationship to. Bring it on!

That was March. Plenty of decent reading, especially the Schröder, Jessen, Abgaryan, Levoy, and Krasnostein. Onward into the fullness of Arkansas spring!