What I Read, December 2020

I’m slow at the best of times, but the lag between now and December seems especially long. That was before there was an armed insurrection in the US Capitol, for example. Anyway, December was in large part a slow month, which is really always a good thing but especially now. I wrote steadily, then took time off at the end of the year. The days drew in, the temperature dropped a little, running conditions were good. Inveterate grasshopper, I turned to a series of short, light books, but mostly I was reading a long, serious one. Yes, on my third try I am finally reading War and Peace, and I know now it’s a book I’ll want to return to again. I only made it about 2/3 through in December, so for now I’ll stick with the rest of the month’s reading.

Helen MacInnes, Above Suspicion (1941)

I closed out 2019 with MacInnes’s Decision at Delphi and liked it enough to promise myself I’d keep reading her. So when I saw some titles in one of the recent Harvard Bookstore Warehouse sales, I snapped them up. I started with this, her first, one of those “ordinary people get caught up in espionage” scenarios that seem to have been popular in the 30s and 40s (Ambler, Dorothy Hughes). Here the ordinary people are a young married couple—he an Oxford don, she his intelligent and fashionable partner—who are persuaded by an old friend to use their annual summer hiking holiday in the Alps to test the strength of a ring of British agents in the Reich. After successful rendezvous in Nuremberg and Innsbruck, the couple run into problems in the Austrian Alps.

I wanted to like Above Suspicion, but in the end I did not. It seems to have been written to encourage Americans to get into the war—like Casablanca, from the same year, only not nearly as good. A laudable goal, but one that makes for heavy going today, especially in the conversations between the English couple and an isolationist American journalist whom they befriend and eventually convert to the antifascist cause, though not without dialogue like this:

“I’ll become accustomed to the idea that man is born in pain, lives in struggle, dies in suffering.”

“Well, that’s a better defense against the new Middle Ages than the nice ideas you got from your liberal education.”

MacInnes obviously became a good writer—who can tell me when that happened?

Gary Paulsen, Hatchet (1987)

Now classic middle-grade novel that I am old enough to have missed the first time around. It was assigned to my daughter for school, and we read it aloud together. Brian, whose parents have recently separated, flies to Alaska to spend the summer with his engineer father. On the way, though, the pilot dies of a heart attack. (This happens in the first chapter, so I’m not spoiling anything.) The prop plane crashes on the shores of a lake somewhere in northern Canada. Brian is banged up but, miraculously, alive. Now he has to stay that way. His ingenious efforts at doing so and his diminishing hopes of being rescued comprise the rest of the book. Basically, it’s Robinson Crusoe for fourth-graders. My daughter found the crash really scary, but then she got into the survival story. I enjoyed it too, though I found Paulson’s love of sentence fragments grating, his cod-existential philosophy a Bit Much, and his depiction of Brian’s mother unduly harsh. But he’s good at depicting dramatic events and the painstaking work required to live off the land. A vivid scene with turtle eggs might stay with me forever. Hatchet readers, you know what I mean.

David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Winter Counts (2020)

Crime novel set on a Lakota reservation in South Dakota. Virgil Wounded Horse is an enforcer on the rez (people hire him to give wrongdoers a doing over when the police won’t deal with them—which is most of the time). He’s also guardian to his 14-year-old nephew, Nathan. Virgil is still grieving the deaths of his mother and sister, and trying to keep things together. But when Nathan nearly dies from an OD Virgil becomes determined to find out who is bringing drugs onto the rez. Some things in the book are conventional (Virgil reunites with an old girlfriend, for whom he tries to clean up his act; he has a funny, goofy friend as his sidekick). Others are not, like the attention paid to what people on the rez eat, versus what other people think they should. Or like the title—winter counts are historical records that use pictographs to convey important events. Personally, I think the events of this particular year make a satisfying arc. But the end of the book clearly sets us up for more of Virgil Wounded Horse. Which, fine, I’ll totally read them. For me, Marcie R. Rendon’s Cash Blackbear books are more interesting, but I’m always here for more crime fiction by indigenous writers.

Naoise Dolan, Exciting Times (2020)

Ava arrives in Hong Kong from Dublin to teach English. She meets Julian, a rich English banker, and enters into a wary, minefield-laden relationship with him. Both are desperate not to show their emotions, channeling that energy into plenty of sex and (genuinely funny) arch conversational volleys. When Julian is sent home for a while by his firm, Ava meets Edith, a Hong Kong-born, English-educated lawyer. They fall in love. What will Ava—who is living in Julian’s posh flat and has been more than cagey with Edith about him—do when Julian comes back?

The characters are good: Ava frustrated and delighted me in equal parts. Edith is a mensch. Even Julian is in his rubbishy upper-class English way sympathetic. The book is smart: Dolan uses Hong Kong to think about Irish colonialism—primarily through the way both places absorb and inflect the English language. And it’s funny: I started noting passages that amused me but gave up after a while, there were so many. I can’t resist sharing a few examples, though.

Here’s Ava performing some of the mental gymnastics she’s so good at:

I googled the salary range for junior vice presidents at his bank: 137,000 to E217,000 a year, plus bonus and housing allowance. I tried to take heart from this. That he could have that many zeroes and not consider himself wealthy surely showed that material lucre would not make me happy, ergo that I needn’t find a real job. But if money wouldn’t improve my life, I couldn’t think of anything likelier to.

Here’s Ava at the end of one of her regular phone calls with her formidable mother:

She didn’t want me to agree that it was good her younger son no longer needed her. Equally, she didn’t want me conforming that she should feel defunct because he was leaving before he’d finished college. Mam dealt in conversational quicksands where moving would only trap you more.

Here’s Ava with some on-point life thoughts:

You had to pretend to feel sad if you’d been single too long. I hated doing that because there were other things I was actually sad about.

Here’s Ava and Edith reflecting on the British. (Dolan does reported speech/Ava’s conclusions about conversations so well):

We agreed also that the British obsession with dogs was creepy, both because of the volume of animals they ate and in light of their historic and contemporary level of regard for humans.

Here’s Edith offering Ava a home truth:

 “You keep describing yourself as this uniquely damaged person, when a lot of it is completely normal. I think you want to feel special—which is fair, who doesn’t—but you won’t allow yourself to feel special in a good way, so you tell yourself your especially bad.”

And finally here’s a bit from Ava’s class. I loved these sections; they reminded me of Elif Batuman’s The Idiot, another funny and smart novel about young women teaching abroad. Here Ava is teaching the difference between category nouns (vegetable) and exact nouns (broccoli, carrots).

“It was better to use exact nouns because this made your writing more precise and interesting.”

[Ava sets an exercise in which students are to provide three corresponding exact nouns for each category noun.]

Cynthia Mak asked what to say for ‘people.’ Did it mean ‘sister,’ ‘brother,’ ‘father,’ or ‘teacher,’ ‘doctor,’ ‘artist,’ or—

‘They’re all okay,’ I said.

‘But if I put ‘sister,’ ‘father,’ ‘brother’ in ‘people,’ then what about here?’ She pointed to the box marked ‘family.’

‘Okay, don’t do those. Do ‘teacher’ or something.’

‘But what about here?’—signalling the ‘professions’ row.

‘Okay, something else for “people.”’

‘Happy people, sad people?’

‘“Happy people” isn’t an exact noun—it’s an adjective plus a category noun.’

‘So what should I write?’

We looked at each other. It was indeed a challenge to describe people in a way not immediately related to how they earned money or their position in the family unit. I said, ‘How about ‘friend,’ ‘boyfriend,’ ‘colleague’?’

‘I don’t want to write ‘boyfriend.’’

I couldn’t blame her for questioning the exercise. ‘Friend,’ ‘enemy,’ and ‘colleague’ didn’t seem like ways of narrowing down ‘people’ in the way ‘apple’ did for ‘fruit.’ An apple would still be a fruit if it didn’t have any others in its vicinity, but you couldn’t be someone’s nemesis without their hanging around to complete the definition. The same issue cropped up with my earlier suggestions. ‘Family’ was relational, and ‘profession’ was created and given meaning by external structures. Admittedly, ‘adult,’ ‘child,’ and ‘teenager’ could stand on their own. But I still found it depressing that the way we specified ourselves—the way we made ourselves precise and interesting—was by pinpointing our developmental stage and likely distance from mortality. Fruit didn’t have that problem.

I promised myself I’d write this review without mentioning Sally Rooney. Every piece I’ve seen about Exciting Times, not to mention the jacket copy, does. Hell, Rooney first published Dolan in Stinging Fly. Dunno what to say, though. They do remind me of each other. But, good news, there’s room for both in my reading heart.

Uri Shulevitz, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust (2020)

Uri Shulevitz’s father named him for “the biblical Uri, father of Bezalel, the first artist of the Bible,” after he noticed the infant, just home from the hospital, staring intently at the flowers on the wallpaper. Indeed the boy loved nothing more than drawing, which Shulevitz presents as an allegory for understanding the complexity of the world, detailing, for example, his amazement when his mother teaches him how to draw his stick figures in profile and not just head-on. Even before he grew to be a teenager, Shulevitz—author and illustrator of dozens of children’s books—would need to shift his mindset many times.

When the Germans invaded Poland, Shulevitz père left his wife and four-year-old son behind in Warsaw and fled eastward, managing to find work painting slogans for the Soviets in Bialystok. Despite this success, fear for his loved ones in Nazi-occupied Poland made him determined to return home. Taking a train to the Soviet-Polish border, he was on the point of crawling through the hole in an abandoned warehouse that served as a makeshift conduit between the two countries, when a man came through in the other direction. In horrified amazement, he ordered Shulevitz’s father to turn back. To return to the Nazis was suicide; he should concentrate on getting his wife and child out. Eighty years later, Shulevitz reflects on this chance encounter. What would have happened had his father ignored the man, or arrived just fifteen minutes later? The same thing that happened to the rest of Shulevitz’s relatives, probably: death in camps or ghettos. Was his family’s escape providence? If so, why did his devout grandfather perish, when his non-religious parents did not? Now an old man, Shulevitz can only conclude, “I have no answers.”

The historian Raul Hilberg famously said he never began with big questions about the Holocaust, because he was scared of arriving at small answers. Better instead to begin with the small things—such as, in this case, a lively and moving account of what one child experienced. Shulevitz even sees the absurd humour in his experiences, like the ridiculous pieties he and his parents encounter in their first months in the Soviet Union. My favourite instance is when a soldier tells a group of refugees about the wonders of their new land:

He said, ‘In the Soviet Union, we have plenty of everything. We have tea and we even have sugar.’

Both were such luxuries in those days.

When one of us asked, ‘Do you have lemons for tea?’ he declared, ‘Sure we do. They’re just now building a lemon factory.’

Even as a small child, Shulevitz was learning that nothing was quite as it appeared—perhaps another reason why he would be so fascinated by art, which at least was honest about being fake.

As Jews, Shukevitz and his parents were refused Soviet citizenship, which meant they could only live in certain areas. When Shulevitz’s father lost his job as a sign-painter, he found one with a theater company. Accompanying his father to work, Shulevitz was amazed by the differences between the sets seen up close—so flimsy—and their splendid appearance from the stalls. Life proved itself similarly unsteady when, in the summer of 1940, the family was suddenly deported with other stateless refugees, almost all Jewish, to a settlement called Yura near the White Sea. (Shulevitz’s experiences there were similar to the ones described by Esther Hautzig in her marvelous autobiographical children’s novel, The Endless Steppe.) 2400 km from Warsaw, the family began a new, hard life: the men cut timber in the forest; the women prepared what little food they could grow or gather. The children played in the snow and loved it, but death lurked all around—the first thing the overseer pointed to when the refugees arrived was a cemetery: “That will be your last resting place.” And it almost was for Shulevitz’s mother, who became dangerously ill and was saved only after an arduous journey to the regional hospital.

She survived, much weakened, and the family’s next piece of luck came with the dissolution of the Hitler-Stalin pact in the summer of 1941. Overnight the refugees were no longer spies or saboteurs but instead victims of a common enemy. Eventually, in 1942, Shulevitz and his parents were allowed to travel to the Soviet republics in central Asia. Two months later, the family arrived in Turkestan in the Kazakh Republic. Shulevitz was finally safe—and yet his troubles were only beginning. His father vanished—to join the Polish army being formed in Iran, it transpired, but he and his mother did not know this until he returned months later, having been rejected for service—his mother had to take any work she could get, and Uri himself fell seriously ill. Even after his recovery he and his mother were hungry all the time. Matters hardly improved after the father’s return: an impractical man, his money-making schemes (building a loom for weaving carpets, smuggling tobacco) came to nothing. Eventually he eked out a living at a shoe repair kiosk in the central market. Shulevitz loved nothing more than coming to work with his father; he describes this part of his life vividly: the mix of Russians, Chechans, Jews, Kazakhs, and other peoples fascinated the boy. And always he found art: a scrap of an old map, a strip of film that he and his friends pored over with the devotion of film students, a copy of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in Russian.

Shulevitz never finished the book, though. The war ended and the kid who owned the book vanished with his family from one day to the next. Besides, Uri was on his own adventure now, an odyssey to return home, via Moscow, L’vov, and Kraków, where Shulevitz’s parents soon learned that they, along with other Jewish survivors of the war, were not wanted. The family thus diverted course and made their way into Czechoslovakia illegally before eventually arriving at a DP camp in Bavaria. In December 1946 the family made it to Paris, where they reunited with the father’s brother and his family. Their two-and-a-half-year stay was a mixed blessing for Uri—he hated being a “dirty foreigner,” but he fell in love with the movies and the novels of Dumas. In 1949 the family left for Israel; ten years later, Shulevitz, now a young man, accepted an offer to study art in New York, where he has lived ever since, still drawing.

When Shulevitz says that art saved his life, he doesn’t mean it metaphorically. He and his parents were refused Soviet passports in 1940 because the official who adjudicated their case believed, despite the parents’ protests, that the boy had been named after the Zionist writer Uri Zvi Greenberg, which must mean the parents were anti-Soviet reactionaries. At the time this refusal was a terrible blow, leading to their exile in Yura. But had they stayed in Grodno they would likely have been murdered by the Einsatzgruppen that swept through in 1941/42. A baby fixated on flowered wallpaper; a fanciful father who knew some Torah; a rejection that led, indirectly and dangerously, to safety: no wonder Shulevitz concludes, “It was blind chance deciding our fate.” It is for this clear-sightedness—this refusal to sugar-coat his survival as a function of heroism or cleverness or chutzpah—even more than for its illuminating depiction of the refugee experience in Soviet Central Asia, that sets Chance: Escape from the Holocaust apart from other Holocaust memoirs, whether for children or adults.

In fact, it was difficult for me to tell, as I read the book raptly in a single evening, who the book was for. Although marketed for children—my local library is shelving it in juvenile nonfiction—it never condescends to them, and would in fact, I suspect, be difficult for those under age 10 to follow. For me, this uncertainty was a plus; I love that teenagers and adults can both enjoy it. The book’s illustrations are similarly pleasing, and similarly uninterested in being only one thing. They include photos, maps, and dozens of Shulevitz’s charcoal drawings, in a variety of styles, from comic-book caricature to Käthe Kollwitz-inspired expressionist. Really an excellent book, highly recommended.

Marie Jalowicz Simon, Underground in Berlin (2014) Trans. Anthea Bell (2015) [compiled by Hermann Simon and Irene Stratenwerth]

Fascinating memoir describing Marie Jalowicz Simon’s years living under an assumed identity in wartime Berlin. At one point, an abortionist who has been helping her and other Jews in hiding sends her to a supposed rescuer, a barmaid who sells Jalowicz Simon to a syphilitic Nazi for 15 Marks. You can’t make stuff like this up. I wrote about my experience reading it with students.

Rebecca Clifford, Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust (2020)

Writing about this for another venue, so will only say for now that this study of child survivors of the Holocaust is excellent. Clifford cogently argues that these children—ranging in age from two or three to twelve to fifteen at the time—were continually used and abused by the adults who took charge of them after the war, sometimes stripping them from the families who had cared for them lovingly during the war, projecting on them their anxieties and hopes, and even disputing that they were survivors at all. At times, the children were despaired of as savages whose humanity had been destroyed by their experiences. At others, they were heralded as the vanguard of a virile Jewish future. Using untapped archival records and interviews with twenty survivors, Clifford emphasizes the children’s own wishes and desires, something that none of the (mostly well-intentioned) adults in their lives had ever done for them.

Eva Ibbotson, The Morning Gift (1993)

I was about a third of the way through this novel when I glanced at the copyright page, curious whether it was from the 1940s or the 1950s. Imagine my shock when I learned it was published the same year I started college. I admit this knowledge made the book sink a little in my estimation—what felt sweet and innocent coming from another age felt naïve, even misguided when written with so much hindsight. But its author was from another age—Ibbotson was born in Vienna in 1925 to talented parents (her father was a fertility doctor, her mother a writer whose work has in recent years been rediscovered). She arrived in England in 1934, landing with her mother in Belsize Park, a London neighbourhood then filled with down on their luck refugees from Hitler.

The Morning Gift draws on that background. Ruth, a young woman from an accomplished, loving, slightly eccentric Jewish Viennese family, escapes to England after a hasty marriage to a brilliant British professor of vertebrate zoology. Quin turns out to be one of the most eligible aristocratic bachelors in England. (Think Cary Grant’s character in Bringing Up Baby except this guy always knows where his intercostal clavicle is.) That is, everyone thinks he’s eligible, because Quin and Ruth keep the marriage secret so they can dissolve it without fuss—but of course the real secret (to themselves, not to readers) is that they’re actually crazy about each other. Will they figure that shit out before they pull a relationship Gift of the Magi?

Imagine, if you can, a mash-up of When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and a less sinister work Daphne DuMaurier—that’s The Morning Gift. (In her introduction to this reissue, Sarra Manning calls it “the missing link between I Capture the Castle and Jilly Cooper’s early romances.”) Ibbotson apparently said she wrote books for intelligent women who have the flu. I’m no intelligent woman, sadly (actually, not sadly, as then my ideas would get stolen by inferior men and my drycleaning would be more expensive), and, touch wood, I haven’t the flu. But I raced through this romance, despairing at setbacks and cheering for a happy ending. I wouldn’t have minded, though, if the book had been a little less insubstantial. Which has left me of two minds about whether to try Ibbotson again. I will take your advice in the comments.

Nora Ephron, Heartburn (1983)

Enduring yet also dated novel (in an interesting, not bad way: group therapy, was that really a thing?) about a woman responding to her feckless husband’s infidelity. Strong Laurie Colwin vibes (though the master remains unsurpassed in the “young woman for whom cooking is important makes her way in New York” genre). Lots of good lines, sometimes laugh out loud funny. Would have left more of an impression, I suspect, had I not been reading War and Peace at the same time.

Patrick DeWitt, French Exit (2018)

Someone praised this on Twitter and, feeling the need for a break from the Russian soul, I took a quick spin through it. To make a French exit is apparently to leave without saying goodbye—to ghost someone, basically. In DeWitt’s novel a mother and her thirtysomething son, who live together in disquieting intimacy (they don’t sleep together or anything, it’s not like that, instead they make fun of people in the same mean way) escape Manhattan, after their finances finally collapse. (The woman’s late husband made a fortune as a litigator defending exclusively terrible causes, but the money’s been squandered.) They take refuge in a friend’s Parisian apartment, blithely spending the last of their funds on marvelous food and wine and gathering an assortment of characters around them. The vibe is part Arrested Development, part Wes Anderson. Indeed, at first I thought, “This is like a Wes Anderson film in which all the characters are mean.” (Like those awful twins in Rushmore.) By the end, French Exit became like an ordinary Wes Anderson film, complete with celebrations of full-blown idiosyncrasy and plenty of winsome ruefulness. I didn’t feel the transformation was earned, though. DeWitt can turn a phrase, but I don’t see the point of this book. It wants to have it both ways: nasty zingers and hugging and learning. I think DeWitt—whose Robert Walser pastiche I couldn’t finish—is just not for me.

Holocaust stories were December’s winners: the Clifford, the Jalowicz Simon, and, especially, the Shulevitz are moving, valuable works. The light reading was mostly a let-down, and the literary fiction a mixed bag (yay Dolan, boo DeWitt). But everything was overshadowed by the book on which my attention was mostly fixed. (Hint: it’s about Russia.) More about that next month!

A Personal Anthology: 12 (More) Favourite Stories

I recently added my thoughts on twelve favourite short stories to The Personal Anthology. I thank Jonathan Gibbs, the editor of this valuable project, for the invitation to contribute. (Do browse the archives—you’ll find all kinds of things worth reading.) I made my choices based on my experience teaching short fiction. In doing so, I had to leave off many worthy candidates. So even though nobody asked for it, here’s a baker’s dozen more wonderful stories.

QaaHL

“Nervous” by Robert Walser, translated by Christopher Middleton

Walser’s little prose texts, scribbled on bits of paper, published in feuilletons across German-speaking Europe, are one of the glories of 20th century literature. Amazingly, they are finally getting their due in English. But thanks especially to the efforts of poet and translator Christopher Middleton, some of his work already appeared in English in the 1980s, including one of my favourites, “Nervous.” Walser’s writing is characterized by what I think of as a very Swiss mixture of sweetness and snark: its coziness soon goes off the rails. Here, in a text not coincidentally written in the middle of WWI, Walser is more anguished than gentle. But the reversals, hesitations, and self-cancellations of his prose are clearly evident.

I’ve often taught “Nervous” together with Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1983) another bravura exercise in narrative voice (in her case, in the imperative). Both texts undermine the coherence of the speaker, leading us to ask whether the very idea of identity is a fantasy of writing. Because both pieces are so short, they’re ideal for forcing students to linger over details. Students can even read them for the first time in class, which, in my experience, typically generates the best conversations.

First published in German in June 1916 in Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Published in English in Selected Stories Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1982. You can read an excerpt here and the German (with facing Dutch translation) here.

“The Demon Lover” by Elizabeth Bowen

It hurt to cut this from my original list, just as it hurt to cut it from my syllabus a few years ago. Students never loved it the way I do, and that disparity was getting me down. To be sure, it’s not straightforward. Bowen’s brilliant ghost story centers on Kathleen Drover, who has returned to London during the first Blitz to check on the house she and her children have left behind for shelter in the country. She finds a letter pushed under the door, a curt missive reminding her that the writer has not forgotten the troth she plighted, the promise she made. “Today is the day we said” it says, ominously. The letter takes her back to the Great War, and the man she fell in love with, the man she promised to marry, a cruel man, a man who returned to the front from leave and never returned. (The students have a hard time distinguishing between the two wars.) The letter sends Mrs. Drover into a panic, and she collects what she came to get as quickly as she can and runs away to hail a taxi. But you can’t outrun the past. This is a story of trauma, about physical and mental stains and strains. I can never shake the image of the weal on Kathleen’s hand when her fiancée presses it hard against the buttons of his uniform. One thing my students and I always agreed on, though: the editors of Bowen’s Collected Stories must have had a lot of fun when they made sure the story ended on p 666.

First published in The Demon Lover and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1945. Available in The Collected Stories of Elizabeth Bowen, Ecco, 1989. Read the story here.

“The Bear Came over the Mountain” by Alice Munro

Maybe it’s because I’m Canadian, where we are All Munro All the Time—I remember reading “Boys and Girls” in middle school and having “the symbolism of the foxes” drilled into me—but I am lukewarm on our Nobelist. I mean, I recognize her greatness. But for me she’s so cold, and not just because that’s the emotional register of the largely Scottish and English WASPs that comprise a certain idea of “Old Canada,” fictional versions of which populate Munro’s stories. I find the stories themselves chilly, almost clinical in their attitudes to these figures. (No accident that so many of her editions have a reproduction of an Alex Colville painting on the cover.)

They do teach well, though. And this one in particular works for me. “The Bear Came over the Mountain” intertwines two couples: elegant Fiona, whose forgetfulness grows into dementia, and bien pensant Grant, who is not as nice as he thinks he is, on the one hand, and Aubrey, a former sweetheart of Fiona’s who she reconnects with in the facility Grant reluctantly moves her to, and Marian, Grant’s seemingly unsophisticated but in fact defiant and shrewd wife, on the other.

As the couples re-arrange, our suspicion grows that Fiona has orchestrated the events. The story asks: what is true, in the life of a couple and even in life itself? Epistemological uncertainty isn’t just something faced (with terror, stoicism, even grace) by the patients who lose their memories, but by readers as well.

First published in The New Yorker, December 27, 1999. Collected in Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage McClelland & Stewart, 2001. You can read the story here.

“The Bad News” by Margaret Atwood

Atwood, by contrast, is another CanLit big shot whose work I do admire. (For whatever reason, her chilliness doesn’t bother me as much as Munro’s.) Although best known for her novels, Atwood’s written plenty of stories; the ones I’ve read are good. For a while I taught this story regularly, highlighting, in particular, its narrative structure and use of time. Like “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” “The Bad News” is about (the fear of) dementia. But I don’t think memory loss explains the story’s structure, which reminds me of a möbius strip. The narrator and her husband live in a dystopic near-future (if I were to read the story now, I’d probably just think it was set in the present) but part-way through the narrator remembers a trip they took to Glanum, the Roman ruins in the South of France. The memory sparks a fantasy that, at some point, becomes the present of the narrative itself. It ends with the couple, living in what to them is simply an outpost of Rome, nothing ancient at all, talking themselves out of worrying about the barbarian invasions (“They won’t be here for a long time. Not in our lifetime, perhaps. Glanum is in no danger, not yet”). We’re left wondering if the modern couple, similarly obsessed with but in denial about bad news, is perhaps a dream of the ancient one, rather than the other way ‘round. “We don’t like bad news, but we need it. We need to know about it in case it’s coming our way.”

First published in The Guardian, 2005. Collected in Moral Disorder and Other Stories, Nan A. Talese, 2006.

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“Indian Giver” by Max Apple

Probably the least famous writer on this list, which is a damn shame. Especially as he is probably the nicest (admittedly, the only one I’ve met, but man what a mensch). Apple is a worthy heir to Malamud (which, if you’ve read my original list, you’ll know is high praise). Seymour Rubin owns an automotive junkyard, but the only person who can work the baler that keeps the place going, a man named Alonso Johnson, has just converted to Islam and needs to pray on his lunch hour every Friday. Seymour, incensed at what he sputteringly calls “once a week anti-Semitism,” fires Alonso, which leads to his near ruin. (“Indian Giver” is a take on Malamud’s “The First Seven Years.”) Everyone begs Seynour to take Alonso back, especially Seymour’s son, Chuckie, who calls from the reservation in the South West where he is working with indigenous people. When a rival Jewish recycling firm offers to buy him out, Seymour has no choice but to go back to Alonso. Who, Apple’s story asks, is a Jew? And what does that mean? Are the identities we live by enabling or disabling? Funny, too!

First published in Story and collected in The Jew of Home Depot and Other Stories, Johns Hopkins, 2007.

“The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” by Edward P. Jones

Now that I think of it, I briefly met Edward P. Jones at a reading from his novel The Known World. And he too was lovely, so soft-spoken and introverted, clearly a man uninterested in platitudes or bullshit. I warmed to him immediately. Though I’ve yet to read that book, I love his early stories, especially this one, which I use in teaching literary realism. This is a beautiful and very sad story about an angry, vulnerable teenage girl, Cassandra G. Lewis, whose best friend, the Rhonda Ferguson of the title, is about to sign with a record label. Rhonda almost never appears in the story—instead we follow Cassandra and some of her other friends as they spend a flirty, chaste, emotional, ordinary Friday evening that is upended by tragedy. By the time we learn of Rhonda’s death, so much has happened we’ve forgotten all about it, and we’re shocked despite the title. I love how one of the girls, a quiet soul Cassandra hardly knew before the fateful night, becomes the story’s central focus. And its last line is heartbreaking: “She sang on into the night for herself alone, pushing back everything she did not yet understand.”

Collected in Lost in the City, William Morrow, 1992.

“Tapka” by David Bezmozgis

A bittersweet, funny, but ultimately rather ominous story about a family of Latvian Jews who emigrate to Canada in the early 1980s as part of the exodus of Soviet Jews. (In this sense clearly autobiographical.) Mark Berman is in first grade at George Best Elementary School in his new home of Toronto. Together with his slightly older sister, he is tasked with walking a neighbour’s dog every day at lunch. Tapka is spoiled; her owners, also Russian emigres, though of a lower social class than the Bermans, have no children. Tapka is their everything. While the adults struggle through English classes by day, the children learn through osmosis (the narrator likens his brain to a catchment basin, with rivulets of language steadily accumulating into a pool). Pride of place goes to schoolyard insults, like “shithead” and “gaylord” (how it pains me to remember that we used to say things like that). The children love Tapka. But they also hate her, for inscrutable reasons that have to do with their powerlessness and general sense of being lost in a new place. So they start calling her the names they’ve learned, maybe felt the lash of; Mark feels the thrill and shame at having violated something. One thing leads to another, and the kids let the dog off the leash, whereupon it dashes into traffic and is hit by a car. Everything ends okay, except nothing will ever be okay again.

I also use this story to teach my American students the correct pronunciation of Toronto and what a washroom is. I think of it as a duty.

First published in The New Yorker in 2003. Collected in Natasha and Other Stories, Harper Collins, 2004.

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“The Knock at the Manor Gate” by Franz Kafka and translated by Willa and Edwin Muir

My favourite Kafka to teach is “A Hunger Artist” (though I confess I don’t love to teach Kafka—he is too hard, too much about the resistance to interpretation), but my favourite Kafka altogether might be this little text, which is perfectly Kafkan, but, more importantly, for me, comes unbidden to me every time we chant the v’ahavta in synagogue. That’s the prayer in which we name the ways we shall love G-d. Tell them to your children, think of them when you wake and when you sleep. And, finally, “bind them as a sign on your hand and let them serve as a symbol on your forehead; inscribe them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.” Kafka would have known this prayer (it comes just after the sh’ma, Judaism’s affirmation of monotheism); every week I wonder if he had it in mind in writing this enigmatic work.

First published posthumously in Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer in 1931. Collected in English in The Complete Stories of Franz Kafka, edited by Nahum Glatzer, Schocken, 1971. You can read the story here.

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams

Although only four pages long, this story is so rich, it’s easy to spend an hour talking about it and still have plenty to say. Based on Williams’s own experience as a doctor in Rutherford, NJ, it tells the story of a doctor summoned by a poor, terrified couple who suspect their daughter has diphtheria. To confirm his diagnosis—which will lead only to quarantine, there being nothing else the man can do: the story is from the 1930s; there are no antibiotics—the doctor needs her to open her mouth. Which the girl refuses to do. The result is a battle not just of wits but of strength. The title doesn’t just describe the doctor’s actions; it also poses a question: what is the use of force? What purpose does it serve? Can we diagnose a condition without causing harm? And if we think about the similarities between diagnosis and interpretation, we might extrapolate to ask, can we read a text without doing violence to it?

First published in 1933 in Blast and collected in Life Along the Passaic River, New Directions, 1938 and The Doctor Stories, New Directions, 1984. You can read the story here.

“A Family Supper” by Kazuo Ishiguro

Rohan Maitzen tipped me on to this story, one of only a few by Ishiguro. Although it would be terrific for any lesson on unreliable narrators, I always teach “A Family Supper” on the second day of the semester to help students begin the semester-long process of learning to support claims with textual evidence. For the central question demanded by this story of a young man who returns after the death of his mother to his home in Japan from a new life in America is whether his father has poisoned their supper of fish soup. (The first thing we learn is that the mother died from eating improperly prepared fugu.) Students always have strong opinions, but they’re not always sure why they think what they think. Ishiguro has a fine way with dread and unease. In addition to everything else, this is good ghost story.

First published in Firebird 2 in 1982. Collected in Malcolm’s Bradbury’s anthology The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, Penguin, 1989. You can read the story here.

“Drown” by Junot Díaz

The narrator’s former best friend Beto is back in town, but the narrator doesn’t want to see him. We learn that Beto once gave him a blow job, which the narrator both liked and hated. “Drown” is a story of repression, confused masculinity, and growing up in a society that has no expectations for you (note the imperative of the title). My students and I often linger on this early passage, where we can already see the rivalrous relationship between the boys. Along with the rest of the kids in the neighbourhood, the boys have climbed the fence at the local pool:

I sit near the sign that runs the pool during the day. No Horse-Play, No Running, No Defecating, No Urinating, No Expectorating. At the bottom someone has scrawled in No Whites, No Fat Cbiks and someone else has provided the missing c. I laugh. Beto hadn’t known what expectorating meant though he was the one leaving for college. I told him, spitting a greener by the side of the pool.

At night the pool runs by other rules: the difference between no expectorating and a greener by the poolside. Nighttime pool has vitality, but what is that worth compared to the power of daytime rules?

First published in The New Yorker, January 29, 1996 and collected in Drown, Riverhead, 1996. Read the story here.

“The Marquise of O” by Heinrich von Kleist, translated by David Luke and Nigel Reeves

A crazy, long story about a woman, the Marquise of the title, who becomes pregnant after being raped during the Napoleonic wars. The scholar Mary Jacobus has a nice essay about how everyone sees the Marquise as an empty O just waiting to be filled (literally or figuratively). The story’s told with Kleist’s characteristic indirection, which means students have a hard time with it—it doesn’t help that the central event is elided in a dash—but they often get into rousing discussions of contemporary slut-shaming that makes them see things haven’t changed as much as they like to think. For me the big question is: can we read the Marquise as having any control over her circumstances? Does she have any agency?

First published in German in Phöbus in 1808. Available in English in The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Penguin 1978.

“Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-Street” by Herman Melville

What is there to say? A stone-cold masterpiece. “I would prefer not to” doesn’t mean no. It’s much more destabilizing (or insidious, depending on how much you side with the narrator). A wonderful story about men at work.

First published in Putnam’s Monthly Magazine in November and December 1853. Collected in The Piazza Tales, 1856. Read the story here.

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Now you tell me: what would be on your list?

2017 Year in Reading

Although traumatic and anxious-making in so many ways, 2017 was a good year for reading. I read more books last year than in any year since I started keeping a list in 2014. I was freed of an onerous work responsibility halfway through the year, which helped, as did my decision to switch to audio books on my commute, once I realized that even my beloved NPR was raising my stress levels. (I don’t mind audio books, it turns out, though I learned what most of you probably already knew: the narrator matters a lot.)

Of the 115 books I completed, 50% were by women and 50% by men (one was co-authored). 37% were translated and 63% were originally written in English. (I read one book in German.) Only 13% were non-fiction. The glib explanation might be that reality is bad enough right now without reading about it; the better one is that we need fiction to understand reality.

I wrote about my books of the year in the final issue of Open Letters Monthly. If you don’t want to click the link, I’ll repeat what I said at the beginning of my reflection:

The books that meant the most to me this year recount the rise of—and resistance to—fascism in 1930s and 40s. These might be books from the past, but they feel all too timely.

Mihail Sebastian, For Two Thousand Years. Trans. Philip Ó Ceallaigh. My god, this book is good! I had a lot to say about it at OLM.

Hans Keilson, 1944 Diary. Trans. Damion Searls. Keilson was a mensch. I wrote about him for Numéro Cinq.

Girogio Bassani, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. Trans. William Weaver. Together with Scott and Nat, I enjoyed this wistful but definitely not precious remembrance of pre-war Jewish life in Ferrara.

And best of all, the highlight of my reading year:

Vasily Grossman, Life and Fate. Trans. Robert Chandler. For several weeks I was consumed by this extraordinary book about the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943 in the Soviet Union. At OLM I said, “But Life and Fate isn’t just a work to respect. It’s also a book to love. What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. Combining the warmth of Chekhov with the scope of Tolstoy, Grossman’s magnum opus is that paradoxical thing, an intimate epic.” I wrote several posts about it, too.

Other highlights:

Carl Seelig, Walks with Robert Walser. Trans. Anne Posten. I wrote about it here. This is a joyous book. Couldn’t you use some joy right about now?

Roger Lewinter, The Attraction of Things and Story of Love and Solitude. Trans. Rachel Careau. Thanks to Scott Esposito for giving me the chance to write about these enigmatic but indelible syntax-destroying books.

Liana Millu, Smoke Over Birkenau. Trans. Lynne Sharon Schwartz. This memoir of Holocaust survivor Millu was a revelation to me. We don’t hear enough about women’s experiences in the Shoah. So impressed that I added it to my course this coming semester.

Nathan Englander, Dinner at the Center of the Earth. Is it the lousy title that’s kept people from talking about this book? Or is it that Englander has written a smart, balanced, non-polemical/non-hysterical novel about Israel likely to alienate readers with entrenched opinions about the situation there? The best review I’ve read is shigekuni’s. Englander’s second novel is short and deceptively simple. I bet it took him ages to write. I’m looking forward to re-reading it soon.

Nina Allan, The Race and The Rift. Speaking of shigekuni, he turned me on to these wonderful SF novels. Both brilliant; I liked The Race best. For fans of Doris Lessing and David Mitchell, and especially people who think they don’t like SF.

Joseph Roth, The Emperor’s Tomb. Trans. Michael Hofmann. A nominal sequel to Roth’s famous Radetzky March (which I read so long ago that I can’t remember a thing about it), this is a fascinating example of that rare species, the modernist historical novel. I planned to write about it for German Literature Month but I left it too late and then I got the stomach flu… This book is amazing, though: it tempts us to wallow in Hapsburg nostalgia before pulling the rug out from under us, as it details first the hardscrabble aftermath of WWI and then finally taking an unexpected swerve into the even worse depredations of an incipient WWII. The philosophers Deleuze and Guattari were fond of the enigmatic term “line of flight.” I never understood what they meant, but Roth’s novel embodies what I think it might. The Emperor’s Tomb is a book on the run from itself, jumping forward temporally and stylistically in unexpected ways; it is a late work by an author who refuses to give readers what they have come to expect from him.

Daphne du Maurier, The Scapegoat, Rule Britannia and My Cousin Rachel. I wrote about these here and here. All wonderful, especially The Scapegoat.

Willa Cather, My Antonia. Late to that party! It’s amazing! More here.

Some bests:

Best comic with disagreeable characters: A surprisingly competitive field, including the first two volumes of Riad Sattouf’s The Arab of the Future, the first two volumes of Jason Lutes’s Berlin serial, and the winner, Manuele Fior’s 5,000 km per Second, which I wrote about here in what is surely the least-visited post in the history of this blog.

Best non-apocalyptic SF: Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2140. It’s too long and some of the characters are flat/embarrassing, but I was fascinated by Robinson’s carefully detailed vision of New York after a huge rise in sea levels. Maybe not plausible when it comes to climate (though I sure want it to be) but definitely when it comes to capitalism. “Wherever there’s a commons there’s enclosure. And enclosure always wins.”

Series that most kept my spirits up: Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs. I listened to or read the first eight this year, and I’m starting to worry what I’ll do when I’ve finished them all (at least she’s still writing them). Maisie calls herself a psychological investigator: she’s a former WWI nurse who is trained by a philosophical/medical/psychological/political éminence grise and social reformer to do PI work and, as the series develops, a whole lot more. (That sounds preposterous and it is a little preposterous, but not that much, or not enough to bother me, anyway.) The books aren’t particularly suspenseful, and sometimes Maisie is a little too good, but I love the period details, I’m willing to believe in the centrality of trauma (maybe the books’ abiding belief), and most of all I’m captivated by the way Maisie wrestles with the combination of ability, work, and good fortune that let her succeed at a time when so many equally deserving people did not.

Best unpretentious essayistic biography: Marie Darrieussecq, Being There: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker. I blogged about this terrific book here.

Book I most regret not posting about: Anita Brookner, A Start in Life. Seems like a lot of people are (re)discovering Brookner’s charms. And why wouldn’t readers be in love with a writer whose first book begins: “Dr. Weiss, at forty, knew that her life had been ruined by literature”? Maybe many of those readers share my fascination with the late 70s/early 80s, a period that still seems to me at least to be relatively recent but is actually closer to WWII than the present. Brookner has an old-fashioned gravitas and authorial certainty, yet she doesn’t read like a mid-century author. I plan to read more of her this year.

Best use of modernist literary style to tell a Victorian story: Sarah Moss, Bodies of Light. Read this early in the year: it stayed with me, and I look forward to reading the sequel.

Best first half of a book: Philip Pullman, The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage. I agree 100% with Michael Orthofer: the brilliant, insidious first half devolves into an overly long chase/pilgrimage sequence (I don’t care if it’s modeled on Spenser: still fundamentally boring). I’ll read the next one eagerly, though.

Best WWII spy story no one seems to know about: William Christie, A Single Spy. Double agents. Soviets and Nazis. Dramatic escapes. Strong writing. Perfect light reading.

Best romance novel: Jennifer Crusie, Bet Me. Admittedly, the only one I read, but Rohan steered me right here. Like Laurie Colwin, but hot. I’ll read more.

Funniest book of the year: Elif Batuman, The Idiot. Hoping to post about this before my copy is due back at the library. I laughed to the point of tears many times: “We learned about people who had lost the ability to combine morphemes, after having their brains perforated by iron poles. Apparently there were several such people, who got iron poles stuck in their heads and lived to tell the tale—albeit without morphemes.” If you went to college in the 90s, this book is for you. Don’t worry, it’s not really a college novel.

Reliable pleasures: The Cadfael series continues to delight; the Montalbano books are back in form after some mediocre episodes; three books by Maurizo de Giovanni impressed me (would have read a lot more if only my library carried them). I finally read the first three Bernie Guenther books by Philip Kerr: fantastic!

Not-so reliable pleasures: The latest Lahlum disappointed—the bloat that crept into the last one is in full force here; I read my first book by John Lawton, in the Inspector Troy series: unpleasant; the new Indridason series: the jury is still out.

Good but maybe overrated: Jane Harper, The Dry (I’ll read the next, but it faded fast in memory); Don Winslow, The Force (part of me adored this Richard Price/George Pelecanos/David Simon novel of New York corruption, but part of me thought it was getting away with validating the homophobia, misogyny, and racism of its main characters in the guise of being cool/anthropological).

*

I published a number of pieces in 2017, and I look forward to doing so again this year. (Apologies to any editors reading this—I am working on your piece, I promise.) Sadly, though, the two venues I have written for the most, Numéro Cinq and Open Letters Monthly shut down this year. Together with Tom’s change of pace at Wuthering Expectations, my reading and writing year ended up feeling somber and end-of-an-era-ish.

But I’ll end on a happy note: I was lucky to share reading and writing experiences with several friends. Jacqui and I read Elizabeth Bowen’s The Hotel. Scott and Nat and I read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (as mentioned above). Marat helped me out with Grossman. Nat and I read L. P. Hartley’s The Boat, which was fun even if we didn’t much like it. Thanks to them, and to everyone who read what I had to say at this space, however erratically, especially those who commented either here or on social media. You make doing this worthwhile. Best wishes in 2018.

My plans for the year are to make very few plans. But if you want to read something with me, just drop me a note in the comments or on Twitter. And if you want to see my reflections on the last few years, you can read about 2014, 2015 & 2016.

Back Again! Philip Kerr, Daphne du Maurier, and Plenty of Self-Promotion

Been quiet around here, as I was in Canada for four weeks recuperating from life and seeing friends and family.

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I also did some reading, though never as much as I’d like to (maybe when my daughter is a little older). Over the next few days, I’ll try to write short posts on some of the things I got through.

In the meantime, if you like crime fiction and don’t already know them, let me recommend to you the first three books in Philip Kerr’s Bernie Guenther series set in Nazi-era Germany. They are excellent, with convoluted hard-boiled type plots that remain on the right side of intelligibility; lots of fascinating, mostly convincing depictions of how someone might have rejected the regime without being particularly noble or righteous; and, most interestingly, ingenious use of German slang transliterated into English (the cops are called Bulls because in German they are Bulle, etc.). Kerr wrote these three as a trilogy and then put Bernie to rest, but you can’t keep a good detective down: he revived them several years later and now there are a lot of them. I’ve got the fourth waiting for me at the library. Curious to see if the newer ones hold up.

No matter what kind of books you like, you should absolutely read Daphne Du Maurier’s The Scapegoat. At first I wasn’t sure about this story of doubles—an English scholar of French history bumps into a Frenchman whom he resembles in every way, physically at least, and is forced to take on his life—because stories of mistaken identities tend to stress me out. But this is a really smart and fascinating book. I was absorbed by it in a way that’s rare for me these days; I really cared about what happened. It’s an unexpectedly moral book. Instead of trying to write a proper review, I’ll send you to Rohan’s excellent take, which I couldn’t improve on.

And now some self-promotion:

Before I left for Canada I was writing quite a lot. Here are some links to recent publications:

For (the now departed and already mourned) Numéro Cinq I reviewed Carl Seelig’s reminiscences of his friendship with Robert Walser and Hans Keilson’s diary written while living in hiding under a false identity in wartime Holland. Both are excellent and well worth your time.

For Open Letters Monthly (still the journal dearest to my heart) I wrote about Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir of her life in Vermont as a refugee from Nazi-occupied Europe. Equal parts sad and sprightly, this recently reissued book is definitely worth a look.

For The Three Percent Review (a new venue for me) I discussed Swiss writer Peter Stamm’s first novel, Agnes. I was underwhelmed.

Last but not least, for the summer issue of The Quarterly Conversation I wrote a review essay on the enigmatic French-Swiss writer Roger Lewinter. My thanks to Scott Esposito for commissioning and improving it with his careful editing.

On an entirely unrelated note, I was featured in this piece in the Jerusalem Post about my thoughts as a Jew by Choice on some recent controversies in Israel regarding conversion. I haven’t read the comments, but I’m told you do so at your peril.

Next time, a proper review.