What I read, March 2020

The month began in full mid-semester throttle. I taught a colleague’s class at a university at the other end of the State—preparing for that was a lot of work. Then I organized a visit to campus from a friend who presented on his work in progress. And almost the minute I dropped him at the airport, things started being canceled: our daughter’s school; then mine; then we were hunkering down for the foreseeable. And the month kept on going, stretching out endlessly, a disorienting expanse of fear and stress and, strangely, intimacy and, oh I don’t know, not languor or relaxation, but time. (To be able to experience is a sign of our privilege.) During all of it, I was reading, I hear a lot about people being unable to read at the moment. I get that, but since reading, for me, is a way to keep the world at bay I’ve been struggling with the opposite problem. I need reading even more than usual, but life (switching to remote teaching, figuring out how to handle our daughter’s homeschooling) is making that harder. Still, my family and I are safe, we’re mostly enjoying our time together, our dogs think this is the best thing that’s ever happened.

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Louise Erdrich, The Round House (2012)

The narrator of Erdrich’s novel, thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts, lives on a rez in North Dakota in the late 80s. At the beginning of the summer during which the book is set, Joe’s mother is violently attacked and raped, plunging the family into a tailspin from which it recovers only at great cost. Frustrated at the lack of progress in finding and arresting the perpetrator—a frustration that has much to do with the disparity between Federal and Tribal law, and the insufficiencies of the latter as enshrined by the callousness of the former: a frustration felt even more strongly by Joe’s father, a judge on the rez—Joe and his best friends try to solve the crime. That could sound cute, but although often funny and filled with a large and sometimes larger than life cast of characters, the novel is sorrowful, especially when two more instances of unexpected violence bring matters to a chastened conclusion. I was surprised at Erdrich’s decision to narrate this story of violence against indigenous women from the point of view of a teenage boy, but one of her points, I think, is that such violence is everyone’s problem. I listened to the audiobook—the last of this semester’s commuting, as it turned out—and another pleasure was the actor Gary Farmer’s reading: I loved his cadence and emphases. My first Erdrich, but not my last.

Paulette Jiles, Enemy Women (2002)

You may remember me rhapsodizing over Jiles’s News of the World. I didn’t quite like this earlier novel as much, but I still liked it a lot. I’m so ignorant about the Civil War (I’m Canadian, sue me), but I bet even many American readers might not know that women from Confederate families (or even families who supported neither side) were jailed for (supposedly) abetting the enemy. Enemy Women is set in Missouri, especially the hills between Rolla and the Bootheel, land I’ve driven through plenty of times on my way from Little Rock to St. Louis, which I’ll now never think of in the same way. (Usually I try not to think of it, finding it incredibly dull. It certainly wasn’t in the 1860s.) Missouri wasn’t just swept across by the Union and Confederate Armies; it was also ravaged by militia on both sides. The women of Jiles’s title were mostly arrested by the Missouri Union Militia. As The New York Times reviewer resonantly put it, “the Ozarks became a wilderness of free-floating entrepreneurs of violence.” 18-year-old Adair Colley is arrested and sent to a jail in St. Louis after her family’s farm is burned, her father taken away, and her siblings scattered. In prison Adair draws the attention of her interrogator, Major William Neumann. The two begin a romance but are soon separated: Neumann is reassigned to Alabama while Adair escapes and tries to return to what’s left of her farm. Jiles switches between the storylines: Neumann is interesting, but Adair is the star. I found the first part of the novel slow, but I read the last third in a long rush that left me tired (but unrepentant!) the next morning. (There’s a bit in which she shakes off a dangerous pursuer that’s real heart-in-the-throat stuff.) This was Jiles’s first novel (she had published several books of poetry before that) and she’s certainly improved a lot since then. Even so Enemy Women is definitely worth your time.

Rennie Airth, The Decent Inn of Death (2020)

Latest installment of a crime series that (a) does not have too many books in it and (b) is worth reading even though later books don’t reach the heights of the first ones. Interestingly, Airth has let the characters age: their inabilities are central to this case, which riffs on the classic country-house murder.

Friedrich Gorenstein, Redemption (1967) Trans. Andrew Bromfield (2018)

The last text I taught in person before we switched to remote learning. A few months ago, I worried students might find this novel of postwar Russia difficult and off-putting. Proving once again that even twenty years into the gig I know nothing about teaching, they loved it. Many said it was their favourite text so far. (And we’d read Ruth Kluger and Art Spiegelman!) Students were rightly fascinated by Gorenstein’s ambivalent portrayal of his teenage protagonist, Sashenka, who veers between cruelty and kindness and isn’t sure what she wants, just that she feels everything a lot. (The word the book most often uses about her is “spite.”) Gorenstein veers between realism and religious/philosophical abstraction; to me, he’s more compelling when writing in the former mode. What’s hard to figure out is how Gorenstein would have us reconcile psychology with sociology. His presentation of the Holocaust is strikingly non-ideological. On the one hand, he acknowledges the murder of Jews (rare in Soviet literature); on the other, he presents those murders as personal and local rather than systematic and genocidal. He’s good, though, on the terrible intimacy and physicality of such killing.

Attica Locke, Bluebird, Bluebird (2017)

Set on and around Highway 59 in east Texas—the very route we were planning to take on a canceled Spring Break trip to Houston—the first in a new series for Locke is atmospheric and interesting. (She’s writing about Texas, but it could easily be Arkansas. Normally I’m allergic to all things Southern/Arkansan, even though I’ve landed here; that Locke kept me engaged with this material says something.) Darren Mathews, her hero, is a black Texas Ranger who grew up in east Texas, left as soon as he could, but was drawn home again. He’s got a complicated family background that Locke uses to good effect and a predictably failing marriage that is less interesting. The book is best on race relations in the South (less straightforward than many non-Southerners like to imagine). It is weakest in hewing to conventions of the procedural (renegade cop, troubles with alcohol). According to her bio, Locke has been writing for TV a lot. More power to her—it’s where the money is—but the book manifests a certain sheen or glibness, an unwillingness to let scenes linger, that smacks of the more disappointing qualities of television pacing. I found Steph Cha’s recent take on how to write crime fiction that challenges the institutional racism of policing more compelling.

Attica Locke, Heaven, My Home (2019)

Sequel to Bluebird (they could be read as a single novel). Competent, but I’m not convinced Locke has yet figured out what she wants to do with the series. Most interesting when it addresses how quickly life changed for minorities—including those in the police—after Trump got elected.

Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, Heat and Dust (1975)

Cool, even icy, novel about a woman who travels to India to learn about her grandfather’s first wife, who left him for an Indian prince in the 1920s. I didn’t care for it, but Tom’s review made me appreciate it more. He really helped me think about the novel’s narration. The 1970s material takes the form of the narrator’s diary; the 1920s material is in third person. Where’s it coming from? Is the narrator writing it? If so, why/how does it include material the narrator surely couldn’t have known? Or is it omniscient? If so, what’s the relationship between the two timelines? What information should we trust? Is the narrator any different than the hippies surging through India on the hunt for spiritual enlightenment? Is she any different than her not-quite grandmother? What does it mean that her life begins to imitate her ancestor’s? These are interesting questions, but they’re more interesting than the novel itself. You certainly can’t accuse it of romanticizing India. If anything, it dislikes the place. In that sense, it’s still a colonial text—India observed from the outside. And I found the willingness of both female characters to have sex with men despite having no real interest in doing so troubling. (Quite a strange aspect of the novel: sex isn’t about liberation or pleasure or, conversely, violence or trauma. It’s a blank.) In the end, Heat and Dust gave off more dust than heat—I like my fiction warmer. But those with different tastes might feel differently. Not sure I’d try any of Prawer Jhabvala’s other novels. Are they all like this?

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing (2019)

I loved this essay collection, which Stephen Sparks of Point Reyes Books, who sold it to me, said is not even her best. (Naturally, I ordered her first two from him immediately.) I read most of it outside on the back porch in those days after face-to-face teaching stopped and before remote learning started—a dead, anxious, weird time that happened to coincide with that short time in Arkansas when the weather is gorgeous, the humidity low, and the mosquitoes not yet swarming. With less traffic on the roads (but not that much less: shamefully, Arkansas still does not have a Stay at Home order), the birds were louder and more frolicsome than usual. The azaleas in full bloom, the irises coming out, the redbuds just moving from that gorgeous pink blossom to their ordinary ugly leaves. I mention all this because Jamie is so attuned to place; reading her essays helped me be more so too. What made this an especially good book to read now is that many of its essays are about sojourns Jamie made to remote, isolated places that are nonetheless characterized by strong senses of community. We see that in a remembrance of travelling to the Chinese border with Tibet during the time of Tiananmen, a three-part piece on the excavation of a Neolithic settlement in the Orkneys, and, especially, in a long, magnificent essay about a summer spent in a Yup’ik village on the Alaskan coast, where the thawing tundra is bringing forth revelations about the area’s ancient hunter gatherer culture. (I am a sucker for all things northern, dream of traveling north of 60, so this essay was Extremely My Shit, but I also think it’s just objectively gorgeous and moving.) In all cases, Jamie shows that for things to surface, change has to happen, and that change isn’t always good. In the case of climate change, it’s terrifying. But these are hopeful, not hopeless essays. Not naïve, but sustaining. And boy that is what I need right now.

Sarah Kofman, Rue Ordener, Rue Labat (1994) Trans. Ann Smock (1996)

A book I’ve read many times. Even though I stand by most of the things I say here, my sense of the memoir has evolved over the years. And it changed yet again this month: students always like it, but this was the best experience I’d had with it, all the more astonishing because we studied it together remotely. This group helped me see how obviously Rue Ordener is a traumatized text, so different, for example, from self-reflective Holocaust texts like Kluger’s Still Alive or Spiegelman’s Maus. Kofman forgoes retrospection, making it hard to decide how she feels about her experiences, especially what it was like to be torn between her mother and the casually antisemitic Frenchwoman who hid her in occupied Paris. Yet as a student pointed out the very raw, unprocessed, or traumatized quality of the text might itself be an illusion, a stealth way of exerting control by challenging us not to interpret. Highly recommended.

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Surfacing was my book of the month, followed by Enemy Women and The Round House. Rue Ordener I know so well I can’t even rank it here. Maybe I’ll read a little more in April. Or maybe not. At any rate, I’ve finished a very long cowboy novel that’s been keeping me entertained. Let me know what you’ve been reading during the pandemic, if you’ve been reading at all. And most importantly stay well, friends.

Miscellany (3)

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

Rennie Airth, The Reckoning (2014)

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

Karin Slaughter, Cop Town (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Laurie R King—A Grave Talent (1993)

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

Sarah Waters—Tipping the Velvet (1998)

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

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

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