My Year in Reading, 2020

I feel bad saying it, it is a mark of my privilege and comfort, but 2020 was not the most terrible year of my life. In many ways, it was even a good year. I have secure employment, about as secure as can be found these days, and what’s more I spent half the year on sabbatical, and even before then I was working from home from mid-March and didn’t miss my commute for a minute. Thanks to the sabbatical, I avoided the scramble to shift my teaching to a fully online schedule—watching colleagues both at Hendrix and elsewhere do this work I was keenly aware of how luck I’d been to have avoided so much work. I do worry, however, that I’m hopelessly behind the curve, clueless about various technologies and best practices; I expect elements of the shift to virtual will persist.

My family spent a lot of time together last year; among other things, I watched my daughter grow into someone who edits YouTube videos with aplomb. (At not-quite ten she is already the house IT person.) As an introvert, I found staying home all the time the opposite of a burden. (Last week I had to be somewhere relatively crowded, for the first time in months, and boy am I going to be in for a rude awakening when this is all over.) I missed seeing friends, but honestly my social circle here is small, and I continued to connect with readers from all over the world on BookTwitter. Most excitingly, I had a lot of time to read. I’ve heard many people say their concentration was shot last year, and understandably, but that wasn’t my experience. For good or for ill my response to bad times is the same as to good—to escape this world and its demands into a book.

But sometimes, usually on my run, I’ll wonder if I’m mistaken in my assessment of the year. I suspect a deep sadness inside me hasn’t come out yet: sadness at not seeing my parents for over a year; at not being able to visit Canada (I became a US citizen at the end of the year, but Canada will always be home; more importantly, our annual Alberta vacations are the glue that keep our little family together); at all the lives lost and suffering inflicted by a refusal to imagine anything like the common good; at all the bullying and cruelty and general bullshit that the former US President, his lackeys, and devoted supporters exacted, seldom on me personally, but on so many vulnerable and undeserving victims, which so coarsened life in this country.

I think back to the hope I sometimes felt in the first days of the pandemic that we might change our ways of living—I mean, we will, in more or less minor ways, but not, it seems, in big ones. I feel hopelessness at the ongoingness of the pandemic, the sense that we may still be closer to the beginning than the end. And a despair fills me, affecting even such minor matters, in the grand scheme of things, as this manuscript I’m working on—could it possibly interest anyone?

I suppose what most concerns me when I say that 2020 was not a terrible year is my fear of how much more terrible years might soon become. My anxiety about the climate-change-inspired upheavals to come sent me to books, too, more in search of hope than distraction. A few of the titles below helped with that. Mostly, though, reading books is just what I do. I am reader more than anything else, and I expect to be for as long as that’s humanly possible.

For the second straight year, I managed to write briefly about every book I read. You can catch up on my monthly review posts here:

January February March April May June July August September October November December

All told, I finished 133 books in 2020, almost the same as the year before (though, since some of these were real doorstoppers, no doubt I read more pages all told). Of these 45 (34%) were by men, and 88 (66%) by women. 35 were nonfiction (26%), and 98 (74%) were fiction. Sadly—if predictably—I read no collections of poetry or plays last year. I didn’t read much translated stuff: only 30 (23%) were not originally written in English. Only 4 were re-reads; no surprise, given how little I was teaching.

Highlights:

These are the books that leap to mind, the ones I don’t need to consult my list to remember, the ones that, for whatever reason, I needed at this time in my life, the ones that left me with a bittersweet feeling of regret and joy when I ran my hands consolingly over the cover, as I find I do when much moved. These are the books a reader reads for.

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove

My book of the year. A road novel about a cattle-drive from the Mexican border to Montana around 1870. Thrilling, funny, epic, homely. Characters to love and hate and roll your eyes at and cry over and pound your fists in frustration at. And landscapes to swoon over, described in language that is never fussy or mannered or deliberately poetic, and all the better able to capture grandeur for that. I think about the river crossings all the time. And those last scenes in wintry Montana. Lonesome Dove is good for people who love Westerns. It’s good for people who don’t love Westerns. Recently someone asked me to recommend a 20th century Middlemarch. Crazy, I know, but I immediately thought of this book, which, albeit in a different register and in a different location, is similarly fascinated by the webs that form community, and why we might want to be enmeshed in them. (A goal for 2021 is to re-read Eliot’s masterpiece to see if this comparison has any merit.) If you read novels for character, plot, and atmosphere—if you are, in other words, as unsophisticated a reader as me—then Lonesome Dove will captivate you, maybe even take you back to the days when you loved Saturdays because you could get up early and read and read before anyone asked you to do anything.

Kapka Kassabova, To the Lake

I loved Kassabova’s previous book, Border, and was thrilled that my high expectations for its follow-up were met. Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa, connected by underground rivers, straddle the borders of Greece, Albania, and the newly-independent North Macedonia. This book is about these places, but as the singular noun in the title suggests, “lake” here primarily concerns a mindset, one organized around the way place draws together different peoples. Like Border, To the Lake is at first blush a travelogue, with frequent forays into history, but closer inspection reveals it to be an essayistic meditation on the different experiences provoked by natural versus political boundaries. Unlike Border, To the Lake is more personal: Kassabova vacationed here as a child growing up in 1970s Bulgaria, as her maternal family had done for generations. But Kassabova seems more comfortable when the spotlight is on others, and the people she encounters are fascinating—especially as there is always the possibility that they might be harmful, or themselves have been so harmed that they cannot help but exert that pain on others. In Kassabova’s depiction, violence and restitution are fundamental, competing elements of our psyche. One way that struggle manifests is through the relationships between men and women. As a woman from the Balkans who no longer lives there, as a woman travelling alone, as an unmarried woman without children, Kassabova is keenly aware of how uncomfortable people are with her refusal of categorization, how insistently they want to pigeonhole her. (No one writes ill-defined, menacing encounters with men like she does.) People have been taking the waters in these lakes for centuries—the need for such spaces of healing is prompted by seemingly inescapable violence. I’ve heard that Kassabova is at work on a book about spas and other places of healing, and it’s easy to see how the forthcoming project stems from To the Lake. I can’t wait.

Kate Clanchy, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me & Antigona and Me

Clanchy first earned a place in my heart with her book based on her life as a teacher, Some Kids I Taught and What They Taught Me. She is particularly good on how we might teach poetry writing—not by airily invoking “inspiration” but by offering students the chance to imitate good poems. These models will inspire students to write amazing poems of their own, and offer students whose background is from outside the UK (where Clanchy lives) the chance to refract their own experiences into art. Clanchy is committed to the idea that students have things to gain from their education, if they are allowed to pursue one. But she is equally adamant that students have things to give to the institutions where they spend so much of their lives. Thinking about what a child might bring to her school reminds us that education is a public good first and not just a credentialing factory or a warehouse to be pillaged on the way to some later material success. It’s an idea that might begin to redistribute the social and economic inequalities attendant in neoliberalism.

I’m sure I liked Some Kids as much as I did because I’m also a teacher. Which doesn’t mean I don’t think non-teachers (and non-parents) will enjoy it too. But I do think Clanchy’s earlier book Antigona and Me is an even greater accomplishment, with perhaps wider appeal. Antigona is Clanchy’s pseudonym for a Kosovan refugee who became her housekeeper and nanny in the early 2000s. The two women’s lives became as intertwined as their different backgrounds, classes, and values allowed them. Yet for all their differences, they are linked by the shame that governs their lives as women. Antigona’s shame—her escape from the code of conduct that governed her life in the remote mountains of Kosovo, and the suffering that escape brought onto her female relatives—is different from Clanchy’s—her realization that her own flourishing as a woman requires the backbreaking labour of another—and it wouldn’t be right to say that they have more in common than not. What makes the book so great is what fascinating an complex characters both Antigona and Clanchy are. Riveting.

Andrew Miller, Now We Shall Be Entirely Free

A brilliant historical novel. My knowledge of the Napoleonic wars is thin—though having just finished War and Peace I can say it is less thin than it used to be—and I appreciated learning about both the campaign on the Iberian peninsula and the various milieu in England, ranging from medicine to communal living, that were both far removed from and developed in response to that war. (Miller has Penelope Fitzgerald’s touch with the telling detail, conjuring up the mud and blood-spattered viscera of the past while also showing its estrangement from the present.) But what has really stayed with me in this book about a traumatized soldier on the run from both his memories and, more immediately, a pair of contract killers hired to silence the man before he can reveal a wartime atrocity is its suggestion that the past might be mastered, or at least set aside. Reading the last fifty pages, I felt my heart in my throat. Such anxiety, such poignancy. This book really needs to be better known.

Helen Garner, The Spare Room

Garner is a more stylistically graceful Doris Lessing, fizzing with ideas, fearless when it comes to forbidden female emotions. Old friends Helen and Nicola meet again when Helen agrees to host Nicola, who has come to Melbourne to try out an alternative therapy for her incurable, advanced cancer. Garner brilliantly presents Helen’s rage at the obviously bogus nature of the therapy—and Nicola’s blithe (which is to say, deeply terrified) unwillingness to acknowledge that reality. Helen is resentful, too, about the demanding and disgusting job of taking care of Nicola (seldom have sheets been stripped, washed, and remade as often as in this novel). Emotions about which of course she also feels guilty. Nicola expresses her own rage, in her case of the dying person when faced with the healthy. In the end, Nicola has to be tricked into accepting her death; the novel lets us ask whether this really is a trick. Has Nicola gained enlightenment? Is false enlightenment, if it gets the job of accepting reality still enlightenment? What does enlightenment have to do with the failure of the body, anyway? I loved the novella’s intellectual and emotional punch.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants

Kathleen Jamie, Surfacing

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Ministry for the Future

I’ve grouped these titles together, not because they’re interchangeable or individually deficient, but because the Venn diagram of their concerns centers on their conviction that being attuned to the world might save it and our place on it. These are great books about paying attention. Whether describing summer days clearing a pond of algae or noting the cycles nut trees follow in producing their energy-laden crop, Kimmerer reminds us that “all flourishing is mutual.” We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. The past year has taught us the truth of this claim—even though so far we have failed to live its truth. Jamie observes a moth trapped on the surface of the water as clearly as an Alaskan indigenous community whose past is being brought to light by the very climactic forces that threaten its sustainability. Robinson imagines a scenario in which dedicated bureaucrats, attentive to procedure and respectful of experts, bring the amount of carbon in the atmosphere down to levels not seen since the 19th century. Even though Robinson writes fiction, he shares with Kimmerer and Jamie an interest in the essay. We need essayistic thinking—with its associative leaps and rhizomatic structure—more than ever. These generous books made me feel hopeful, a feeling I clung to more than ever this year.

Best of the rest:

Stone cold modern classics: Sybille Bedford’s Jigsaw (autofiction before it was a thing, but with the texture of a great realist novel, complete with extraordinary events and powerful mother-daughter drama—this book could easily have won the Booker); Anita Brookner’s Look at Me (Brookner’s breakout: like Bowen with clearer syntax and even more damaged—and damaging—characters); William Maxwell, They Came Like Swallows (a sensitive boy, abruptly faced with loss; a loving mother and a distant father; a close community that is more dangerous than it lets on: we’ve read this story before, but Maxwell makes it fresh and wondering).

Stone cold classic classics: Buddenbrooks (not as heavy as it sounds), Howells’s Indian Summer (expatriate heartache, rue, wit).

Thoroughly enjoyed, learned a lot (especially about hair): Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah

Best deep dive: I read four novels by Tessa Hadley this year, two early ones and the two most recent. Since I’ve read a few of her books before I now only have two more to go before I’ve finished them all. That will be a sad day, though with luck we will get a new one before too long. Hadley has been good from the start, but The Past and Late in the Day show her hitting new heights of wisdom and economy. Her characters are arty types or professionals who learn things they don’t always like about what they desire, especially since those desires they are so convinced by often turn out later to have been wrongheaded (like Proust’s Swann, they spend their lives running after women who are not their types, except “women” here includes men, friends, careers, family life, their very sense of self). I can imagine the future day when young literary hipsters rediscover Hadley’s books and wonder why she wasn’t one of the most famous writers of her time.

Did not totally love at the time, but bits and pieces of which would not quite let me alone: Tim Maugham’s Infinite Detail (struck especially by the plight of people joined by contemporary technology when that technology fails: what is online love when the internet disappears?); Henri Bosco’s Malicroix translated by Joyce Zonana (so glad this is finally in English; even if I was not head-over-heels with it, I’ll never forget its descriptions of weather. Do you like wind? Have I got a book for you!).

Loved at the time but then a conversation with a friend made me rethink: Paulette Jiles’s The News of the World. I was a big fan of this book back in the spring—and its rendering on audio book, beautifully rendered by a gravelly-voiced Grover Gardner—and I still think on it fondly. But a Twitter friend argued that its portrayal of a girl “rescued” from the Kiowa who had taken her, years earlier, in a raid is racist. I responded that the novel is aware of the pitfalls of its scenario, but now I’m not so sure.

Maybe not earth-shattering, but deeply satisfying: Lissa Evans’s V for Victory, Clare Chambers’s Small Pleasures, two novels that deserve more readers, especially in the US, where, as far as I know, neither has yet been published.

Most joyful, biggest belly laughs: Rónán Hession’s Leonard and Hungry Paul. That bit in the supermarket! Priceless.

Best Parul Seghal recommendation: Seghal elicits some of the feelings in middle-aged me that Sontag did to my 20-year-old self, with the difference that I now have the wherewithal to read Seghal’s recommendations in a way I did not with Sontag’s. Anyway, I’ll follow her pretty much anywhere, which sometimes leads me to writers I would otherwise have passed on. Exhibit A in 2020 was Barbara Demnick, whose Eat the Buddha is about heartrending resistance, often involving self-immolation, bred by China’s oppression of Tibetans. In addition to its political and historical material, this is an excellent book about landscape and about modern surveillance technology.

Ones to watch out for (best debuts): Naoisie Dolan’s Exciting Times; Megha Majumdar’s A Burning; and Hilary Leichter’s Temporary. Have I ever mentioned that Leichter was once my student?

Longest book: Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Almost 1500 pages of easy reading pleasure that I look on with affection (perhaps more than when I first finished it) rather than love. Although now that I have finished War & Peace I see that Seth frequently nods to it. Wolf hunts!

Longest book (runner up): Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend A mere 900-pager. As I said back in November, “I read it mostly with pleasure and always with interest, but not avidly or joyfully.” Most interesting as a story about “revenants and ghosts, about corpses that don’t stay hidden, about material (junk, trash, ordure, tidal gunk, or whatever the hell “dust” is supposed to be) that never comes to the end of its life, being neither waste nor useful, or, rather, both.” Happy to have read it, but don’t foresee reading it again anytime soon.

Slow burn: Magda Szabó, Abigail (translated by Len Rix). Bit irritated by this at first but then realized the joke was on me—the narrator’s self-absorption is a function of her ignorance. All-too soon ignorance becomes experience. Not as gloriously defiant as The Door, but worth your time.

Frustrating: Carys Davies, West. Ostensibly revisionist western that disappoints in its hackneyed indigenous characters. I do still think of bits of it almost a year later, though, so it’s not all bad.

Left me cold: James Alan McPherson, Hue and Cry; Fleur Jaeggy, These Possible Lives (translated by Minna Zallman Procter); Ricarda Huch, The Last Summer (translated by Jamie Bulloch) (the last is almost parodically my perfect book title, which might have heightened my disappointment).

Not for me, this time around (stalled out maybe 100 pages into each): The Corner That Held Them; Justine; The Raj Quartet; Antal Szerb’s Journey by Moonlight. Promise to try these again another time.

Stinkers: Géraldine Schwarz, Those Who Forget: My Family’s Story in Nazi Europe—A Memoir, a History, a Warning (translated by Laura Marris); Jessica Moor, The Keeper; Patrick DeWitt, French Exit; Ian Rankin, A Song for the Dark Times

Writer I read a lot of, mostly very much enjoying and yet whose books do not stay with me: Annie Ernaux. I suspect to really take her measure I would need to re-read her, or, better yet, teach her, which I might do next year, using Happening. As I said in regards to the latest Sigrid Nunez, I think I do not have the right critical training to fully appreciate autofiction. I enjoy reading it, but I cannot fix on it, somehow.

Good crime fiction: Above all, Liz Moore’s Long Bright River, an impressive inversion of the procedural. Honorable mentions: Susie Steiner; Marcie R. Rendon; Ann Cleeves, The Long Call (awaiting the sequel impatiently); Tana French, The Searcher; Simenon’s The Flemish House (the atmosphere, the ending: good stuff). In spy fiction, I enjoyed three books by Charles Cumming, and will read more. In general, though, this was an off-year for crime fiction for me. What I read mostly seemed dull, average. Maybe I’ve read too much the last decade or so?

Inspiring for my work in progress: Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. Mendelsohn excels at structure—and in these three linked lectures he tackles the subject head on.

Best Holocaust books (primary sources): I was taken by two memoirs of Jewish women who hid in Berlin during the war: Marie Jalowicz Simon’s Underground in Berlin (translated by Anthea Bell) and Inge Deutschkron’s Outcast: A Jewish Girl in Wartime Berlin (translated by Jean Steinberg). Gerda Weissmann Klein’s memoir All But my Life is worthwhile, with a relatively rare emphasis on forced labour camps. In her novel Other People’s Houses, closely based on her own experience as a child brought from Vienna to England on the Kindertransport, Lore Segal takes no prisoners. Uri Shulevitz’s illustrated memoir, Chance: Escape from the Holocaust, is thoroughly engrossing, plus it shines a spotlight on the experience of Jewish refugees in Central Asia. Of all these documents, I was perhaps most moved by the life of Lilli Jahn, a promising doctor abandoned in the early war years by her non-Jewish husband, as told by her grandson Martin Doerry through copious use of family letters. My Wounded Heart: The Life of Lilli Jahn, 1900 – 1944 (translated by John Brownjohn) uses those documents to powerful effect, showing how gamely her children fended for themselves and how movingly Jahn, arrested by an official with a grudge, contrary to Nazi law that excepted Jewish parents of non or half-Jewish children from deportation, hid her suffering from them.

Best Holocaust books (secondary sources): I was bowled over by Mark Roseman’s Lives Reclaimed: A Story of Rescue and Resistance in Nazi Germany. Fascinating material, elegantly presented, striking the perfect balance between historical detail and theoretical reflection. To read is to think differently about our misguided ideas of what rescue and resistance meant both in the time of National Socialism and also today. His earlier work, A Past in Hiding: Memory and Survival in Nazi Germany, which focuses on a part of the larger story told in the new book, is also excellent. Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz is another fine example of the particular used to generate general conclusions. Considering the fate of the Galician town of his ancestors in the first half of the 20th century, Bartov uses the history of Buczacz, as I put it back in January, “to show the intimacy of violence in the so-called Bloodlands of Eastern Europe in the 20th century. In his telling there was a seemingly ineluctable drive on the part of almost every group to reduce the region’s cultural diversity, and that much of the violence required to do so was perpetrated by one neighbour against another.” Dan Stone’s Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction does exactly what the title offers. It covers an impressive amount of material—Nazi and Stalinist camps feature most prominently, no surprise, but they are by no means the sole focus—in only a few pages. Rebecca Clifford’s Survivors: Children’s Lives after the Holocaust skillfully combines archival and anthropological material (interviews with twenty child survivors) to show how much effort postwar helpers, despite their best intentions, put into taking away the agency of these young people.

In addition to reviews of the things I read, I wrote a couple of personal things last year that I’m pleased with: an essay about my paternal grandmother, and another about my love for the NYRB Classics imprint.

You can find my reflections on years past here:
2019 2018 2017 2016 2015 2014

Coming in 2021:

Because my sense of how long things will take me to do is so terrible (it’s terrible), I’m always making plans I can’t keep. I should either stop or become more of a time realist. I do have a couple of group readings lined up for the first part of the year: Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel in February, and L. P. Hartley’s Eustace and Hilda trilogy in March. I’ve enjoyed, these past months, having a long classic on the go, and will keep that up until the end of my sabbatical. Having just completed War and Peace—guaranteed to be on this list in a year’s time—I might read more Russians. We’ll see. I want to read more Spanish-language literature—though I’ve been saying that for years and mostly not doing it. I want to read more writers of colour, especially African American writers. I took a course in college but have so many gaps to fill. I’m reading more nonfiction with greater pleasure than ever before—the surest sign of middle age I know; I’m sure that will continue in 2021. I read almost no comics/graphic novels last year, unusual for me, but I’m already rectifying that omission. I’ll read more science fiction in 2021, I suspect; it feels vital in a way crime fiction hasn’t much, lately. My two prime candidates for “deep dives” this year are Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison. Now that I am an American I should know the literature better!

What I’ll probably do, though, is butterfly my way through the reading year, getting distracted by shiny new books and genre fiction and things that aren’t yet even on my radar. No matter what, though, I’ll keep talking about it with you. That is, I’ll put my thoughts out here, and hope you’ll find something useful in them, and maybe even that you’ll be moved to share your own with me. Thanks to all my readers. Your comments and reactions and opinions—that connection—means everything to me.

What I Read, February 2020

February. When was that? Oh yeah, when we were stressed and run into the ground by daily cares. Part of me wants that life back so much. But part of me thinks the world that generated those cares wasn’t all that great. I swing between terror (about illness and death, about financial and economic collapse, about those lines around the block at the gun shop) and hope (maybe things could be different on the other side of this). Mostly I feel paralyzed, with many things to do but little incentive to do them.

So what was happening in that long-ago time? The treadmill of the semester, mostly. Rumblings of the disease. (Would my students and I be able to take our trip to Europe? Long since canceled, of course.) The hockey playoffs drawing ever nearer. (Amazing how much time I spent on that stuff.) And, of course, some reading. To wit:

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Ruth Kluger, Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered (2001) One of thegreatest Holocaust memoirs, no, a fucking great book, period. Ruth Kluger is one of the original badasses. Unlike many Holocaust memoirs, Still Alive (even the title is a spit in the face of her persecutors) focuses as much on postwar as prewar and wartime life. Kluger’s persecutors are legion: the Nazis, of course, and all the silent Germans who acquiesced to them. But also all those who insist on minimizing or relativizing her experiences. And then there are the oppressive systems she’s had to live under, not least racism and patriarchy. (Kluger was one of the first to insist that the experience of the Holocaust was thoroughly gendered.) And, most painfully, the people closest to her: her first husband; an old friend (the well-known German writer Martin Walser); a great-aunt who, in prewar Vienna, took away Kluger’s streetcar ticket collection from her, deeming it dirty and vulgar; the distant familial connections in America who wanted little to do with her when she and her mother landed there in the late 1940s. (Kluger is a great hater and knows how to hold a grudge.) But of all these persecutors the greatest is her mother, the woman with whom she experienced the Anschluss, the depredations and degradations of Nazi Vienna, Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, Christianstadt, a death march, the DP camps, and finally postwar life in America. A woman who saved her and protected her, yet also tormented her, dismissed her, ignored her, even, it’s fair to say, hated her.

The more times I read Still Alive the more towering I find its achievement. I think this might be the fourth time I’ve taught it. Plus, I did the best job I’ve done with it yet, which was satisfying and solidified my love for the book. I sense readers are catching up to it. In the past, students have felt intimidated by it, even a little shocked. The new generation, angrier, eats it up.

Paulette Jiles, News of the World (2016) Charming without being cloying. News of the World is one of my finds of the year, and I’m pretty sure it’ll be on my end-of-year list. (Look at me with the optimism.) I’d never read Jiles before, only vaguely been aware of her, but now I’m making my way through the backlist.

 News of the World centers on one Captain Jefferson Kidd, who travels through post-Civil War Texas offering readings from a collection of newspapers that he periodically replenishes whenever he reaches a larger town. (Audience members drop their dimes into an old paint can.) He’s a performer, knowing just how much political news he can offer before tempers flare (Texas in these days is roiled by animosity between those supporting the current governor and those opposed) and offering enough news of far-off explorers and technological inventions to soothe, even entrance the crowds. At one such gig near the Oklahoma border an old friend begs him to take charge of a ten-year-old girl who had been stolen from her family by the Kiowa four years earlier and has now been retaken by the US Army. Kidd is prevailed upon to take the girl to her nearest relations, in the country near San Antonio, four hundred dangerous miles south.

Johanna has forgotten English, has no memory of her parents, is devastated by the loss of her Kiowa family and its culture. The novel considers such matters as cultural difference (which it is much more sensitive about than most of the Westerns I’ve been reading lately) and U.S. history (the Captain has fought in three wars, going back to the war of 1812—he’s in his 70s and his great age is part of the story’s poignancy) and the question of whether law can take root in the wake of years of lawlessness. It’s an adventure story and a guide to the Texas landscape. But mostly it’s the story of the bond that arises between the old man and the young girl. And all of this in less than 250 pages. The Captain becomes ever fonder of the child (not in a creepy way, it’s totally above board in that regard), but the feeling hurts him. He senses nothing but heartbreak can come of the situation, and his heart doesn’t feel up to it. I was moved and delighted and recommend it without reservation—could be just the ticket when you’re stuck inside feeling anxious.

Apparently they’ve made a movie and it stars Tom Hanks and probably everyone’s going to love it but I bet it’ll be as saccharine as shit.

Philip Kerr, Prussian Blue (2017) Regular readers know I’m marching though Kerr’s series. This one is especially despairing and cynical, which for this series is saying something. Moving between 1938 and 1956, it finds Bernie Guenther on the run and reminded of an old case in which he was dragooned into finding out who shot a flunky on the balcony of Hitler’s retreat at Bechtesgaden. Set as they are amid the Third Reich, all of these novels are about corruption, but the stink is especially pervasive here. Not the series’ best, though as always Kerr is great at dramatizing history: in this case he particularly nails the Nazi reliance on amphetamines.

Sarah Gailey, Upright Women Wanted (2020) “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” Tell me you don’t want to read the book that accompanies this tagline. Yet the problem is that the former seems the product of the latter instead of the other way around. Gailey’s novel of a future run on Handmaid’s Tale lines is engaging but slight. Gailey doesn’t much go in for world-building: it’s unclear what happened to make the former western US states technologically poor, violently misogynistic, hardscrabble and suspicious (not really a stretch). Instead, she focuses on the role of the librarians who make their way by wagon-train through the western desert, officially bringing state-sanctioned propaganda to fortified settlements but unofficially acting as couriers for a fledgling resistance. The librarians are women who get to shoot and ride and swear and live, enticing exceptions to the rigidly prescribed gender roles of the times. Upright Women Wanted is a queer western that includes a non-binary character; its most lasting legacy might be its contribution to normalizing they/them/their pronouns. In the end it was too casual/slapdash for me, but I enjoyed reading it well enough for the hour or two it demanded of me.

Eric Ambler, Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Apparently the amateur who falls into an espionage plot is Ambler’s stock in trade. I’ve actually read one or two of his books, but so long ago that I’d forgotten this description, if I ever knew it. Anyway, the machinery of this formula hums along at high efficiency in this finely executed story of a schoolteacher who gets mistaken for a spy and then has only days to find out who among the guests at his Mediterranean pension is the real culprit. The way states use the precariousness of statelessness (the fate of many of the book’s characters) remains painfully timely. For more, read Jacqui’s review. (I know other bloggers have reviewed this too. Please tag yourself in the comments.)

Magda Szabó, Abigail (1970) Trans. Len Rix (2020) The back cover of this new translation of Hungarian writer Szabó’s most popular novel hits the Jane Austen comparisons hard. At first I found this idea both implausible and annoying (it used to be that publishers and reviewers compared books to Austen when they meant “this is set in the 19th century and includes a love plot” but now it seems to have expanded to mean “this book is by a woman”), but as I read on I started to see the point. For Abigail, like Emma, is focalized through a young woman who thinks she knows more than she does. Yet where Austen’s protagonist misunderstands love, Szabó’s misunderstands politics. Gina is the willful teenage daughter of a general in the Hungarian Army during WWII. She is baffled and hurt when her father abruptly sends her to a convent school far from Budapest. The first half of the book is classic boarding school story—Gina is a haughty outsider, she alienates the other girls, she struggles to become part of their cliques—but, after a failed escape attempt, as the political situation in Hungary changes drastically (the Germans take over their client state in early 1944; Adolf Eichmann is sent to Budapest to oversee the deportation of what was at that point the largest intact Jewish community in Europe), Gina learns how much more is at stake than her personal happiness. That realization is marked in her changed understanding of the book’s titular character, which is, in fact, not a person but a statue on the school grounds with whom the girls leave notes asking for help or advice. Eventually it becomes clear that Abigail—the person who answers those notes—is a member of the resistance, and in real danger. But who is it? Throughout Szabó juxtaposes our knowledge with her heroine’s ignorance—in the end, the effect is like that of her countryman Imre Kertesz’s in his masterpiece Fatelessness. Both novels challenge our reliance on what psychologists call “hindsight bias” (reading the past in light of the future).

Téa Obrecht, Inland (2019) Another one for my little project of westerns written by women (specifically, ones I can get on audiobook from my library). Like a lot of literary fiction today Obrecht’s novel goes all in on voice. She alternates between two first person narrators. Lurie, the son of a Muslim immigrant from the Ottoman Empire, ends up after a picaresque childhood on the lam and is rescued from lawlessness by joining the United States camel corps (a failed but surprisingly long-lasting attempt to use camels as pack animals in the American west). Nora, a homesteader in the Arizona Territory whose husband has gone missing when he went in search of a delayed water delivery, teeters on the verge of succumbing to thirst-induced delirium exacerbated by her guilt over the death of a daughter, some years before, from heat exhaustion. Lurie tells his story to Burke, and it takes a long time before we figure out that Burke is his camel. (I confirmed with some other readers that this wasn’t just an effect of my listening to the audiobook, which, I find, makes it easy to miss important details.) Nora tells her story ostensibly to herself but really to the ghost of her daughter. So the stories—which of course ultimately intersect in a surprising way—are similarly structured as confessions. Nora’s is the more successful—her combination of intelligence and wit and hurt and delusion comes through powerfully. She’s just a great character. Lurie has his moments, too, especially near the end, but I was always a little disappointed when we left Nora for him. The book has a hallucinatory quality—in this it reminded me a bit of Jim Jarmusch’s wonderful film Dead Man—that works the hysterical realism angle more successfully than most. I don’t regret listening to the book and by the end I was pretty moved by it, but I also found it too long and too unsure of itself. In her excellent piece, Rohan really gets the book’s betwixt and betweenness. But boy if you want to feel anxious and thirsty, Obrecht is your woman. Never has the watery juice of a can of tomatoes seemed such a horrible relief.

Vivian Gornick, Unfinished Business: Notes of a Chronic Re-Reader (2020) In this short book about re-reading, Gornick presents re-reading as a way of thinking about our self over time. Unfinished Business begins with an autobiographical chapter about Gornick’s life as a reader, which riffs on and is itself an example of the distinction between situation and story she articulated in a brilliant book of that title several years ago (situation is something like experience, the raw material of our lives; story is the way we articulate that experience, the way we transform it through reflection/writing: I use this distinction in my writing classes all the time). The book then offers several case studies of writers who have meant a lot to Gornick. I found the chapters on D. H. Lawrence and Elizabeth Bowen especially good; not coincidentally these are writers I’ve very familiar with (which bodes well for her readings of writers I don’t know, like Colette and Natalia Ginzburg). Gornick combines the history of her own reading (what she first loved in Sons and Lovers only later to disavow as misguided, what she emphasized in her second reading, and so on) with succinct summaries of what makes each writer tick.

Here she is, having re-read Adrienne Rich’s conclusion about Dickinson—that extreme psychological states can be put into language, but only language that has been forged, never in the words that first come to us—thinking about Bowen:

She had created stories and novels meant to acquaint the reader with the power of the one thing—the extreme psychological state—that she deeply understood: namely, that fear of feeling that makes us inflict on one another the little murders of the soul that anesthetize the spirit and shrivel the heart; stifle desire and humiliate sentiment; make war electrifying and peace dreary.

On Duras:

For years this [buried events, hidden feelings] was Duras’s mesmerizing subject, inscribed repeatedly in those small, tight abstractions she called novels, and written in an associative prose that knifed steadily down through the outer layers of being to the part of oneself forever intent on animal retreat into the primal, where the desire to be at once overtaken by and freed of formative memory is all-enveloping; in fact, etherizing.

On Ginzburg:

Ginzburg’s abiding concern, like that of any serious writer, has always been with identifying the conflicts within us that keep us from acting decently toward one another.

If what Gornick calls the Freudian century is not for you, then give this book a pass. But if the idea that the self we so identify with is only a small part of what we are rings true to you, you’ll find Gornick’s readings sympathetic. I loved the short final chapter describing her shame and bewilderment, on taking up a favourite (unnamed) book, at the passages she had marked in earlier readings. How could that have interested her? Didn’t she see how obvious or trite or embarrassing this aspect of the text was? But then: “My eyes drifted to a sentence on the page opposite where nothing was underlined, and I thought, Now here’s something really interesting, how come this didn’t attract your attention all those years ago.”

May such a life of reading be given to us all.

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants (2013) A book about reciprocity and solidarity; a book for every time, but especially this time.

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In sum, a good month: Kluger, Jiles, Szabó, Gornick, and Kimmerer all excellent. Which is good because so far, social distancing is not given me the promised bump in reading time. Until next time I send you all strength, health, and courage in our new times.

“All Flourishing is Mutual”: Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass

“All flourishing is mutual.”

I read Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants last month for a faculty, student, and staff reading group organized by one of my colleagues in the Biology department.

That was in the middle of a wave of protests across Canada regarding indigenous rights (more specifically, their absence), prompted by an RCMP raid against the hereditary chiefs of the Wet’suwet’en Nation, who along with their allies are seeking to prevent a pipeline from being built across their unceded territory. To me the Wet’suwet’en protests felt like such an important moment in Canadian political life. Unfortunately, it seemed that the unwillingness of settler Canadians to acknowledge their status as such would once again win the day, but I was heartened by the wide-ranging solidarity shown the protesters.

Now, only a few weeks later, when I’m finally making the time to set down my thoughts about Kimmerer’s remarkable book, that moment seems a lifetime ago. Life has been overturned by COVID-19, and it feels as though we will be lucky if that upheaval lasts only into the medium term.

Yet perhaps even more now than last month, Kimmerer’s teachings feel timely, even urgent. “All flourishing is mutual”: what else are we learning now, unless it is the opposite—when we fail to be mutual we cannot flourish. We are only as vibrant, healthy, and alive as the most vulnerable among us. We see that now, clearly. But can we be wise enough to live that truth?

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For an example of mutual flourishing, Kimmerer considers mycorrhizae, fungal strands that inhabit tree roots. They connect the trees in a forest, distributing carbohydrates among them: “they weave a web of reciprocity, of giving and taking. In this way, the trees all act as one because the fungi have connected them.”

The particular context of Kimmerer’s conclusion is a discussion of mast fruiting (i.e. nut production). It takes a lot of energy to make nuts, much more than berries or seeds. Mast fruiting trees spend years making sugar, hoarding it in the form of starch in their roots. Only when their stores of carbohydrates overflow do nuts appear. And when one tree in a forest produces nuts they all do—the trees act collectively, never individually.

For Kimmerer, mast fruiting is a metaphor for how to live. As she says, in a phrase that ought to ring out in our current moment, “We make a grave error if we try to separate individual well-being from the health of the whole.”

One name Kimmerer gives to the way of thinking that considers the health of the collective is indigeneity. For me, this is a generous, even awe-inspiring definition. It transcends ethnicity or history and allows all of us to think of ourselves as indigenous, as long as we value the long-term well-being of the collective. “For all of us,” Kimmerer writes, “becoming indigenous to a place means living as if your children’s future mattered, to take care of the land as if our lives, both material and spiritual, depended on it.” Or, similarly, “The more something is shared, the greater its value becomes.” This statement is true both biologically and culturally. The pejorative term “Indian giver” arises, Kimmerer suggests, from a terrible and consequential misunderstanding between an indigenous culture centered on a gift economy and a colonial culture based on the concept of private property. In indigenous cultures, gifts are to be shared, passed around. (Thus it is offensive to keep something you have been given without passing it to others in some form.) But those same cultures insist that gifts aren’t free: they come attached with responsibilities. (She compares these to rights in a property economy.)

The question for me, then, is whether in a market economy we can behave as if the earth were a gift. Reading Braiding Sweetgrass was almost painfully poignant; I couldn’t reconcile what I experienced as the rightness of Kimmerer’s claims with the lived experience of late capitalism. (Someone on Twitter joked recently how touchingly naïve that “late” is.) I just can’t figure out how to get from here (our ravaged planet, our unbridled consumption) to there. Yes, it’s true, Kimmerer offers examples, not least in a chapter in which her students brainstorm ways each of them can give back to the swamp they’ve been on a research field trip to. The people in my reading group pointed out that change has to be local, that we can’t be responsible for the big picture, that we need to avoid paralysis. True enough. But the genuine hopefulness of Kimmerer’s words sometimes had the contradictory effect of making me feel despair.

It is true, though, that Kimmerer offers some practical advice for how to return our world to a gift economy. She urges us to name people, places, and things (especially the things of the natural world), as if they had the same importance. To consider the significance of nonhuman people. To speak of Rock or Pine or Maple as we might of Rachel, Leah, and Sarah. She suggests we emphasize ways to develop ceremonies in our daily lives, for these create belonging. (This could be a moment of meditation in the morning, or a shared weekly meal, or the injunction, as pertained in her family, to never leave a campsite without piling up firewood for the next guests.) In this way we might live in gratitude for the world, and the opportunity we have to contribute to its flourishing. Kimmerer asks that we join in her mindset: “My natural inclination,” she writes in a moment of characteristically lucid self-description, “was to see relationships, to seek the threads that connect the world, to join instead of divide.”

I fear I have not given a good sense of this book. Its essays cover all sorts of topics: from reports of maple sugar seasoning (Kimmerer is from upstate New York) to instructions for how to clear a pond of algae to descriptions of her field studies to meditations on lichen. I particularly love the moments, like her description of mast fruiting, when she teaches us about the natural world. As she says, “sometimes a fact alone is a poem.” (But she also says “that metaphor is a way of telling truth far greater than scientific data.”) Kimmerer is a scientist, a poet, an activist, a lover of the world. She seems fun, if a bit dauntingly competent. She challenges the idea of (scientific) detachment: “For what good is knowing, unless it is coupled with caring?” (I will say, she likes rhetorical questions too much for my taste.)

The book concludes with a meditation on the windigo, the man-eating monstrous spirit from Algonquin mythology. Kimmerer suggests that the windigo rests potentially in all of us, less a monster than an aspect of human being. That aspect can only be thwarted or defeated by a purgation: rather than hoard we must give (back). The world is not inexhaustible; it is finite. But the braiding of reciprocity is a powerful tool that nature and culture alike has given us to stave off that finitude.

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I do have quibbles with Braiding Sweetgrass: it’s too long, too diffuse. It’s hard to figure out why it takes the form that it does. I liked that its structure is not chronological or geographical or even cyclical/seasonal. But, reading, I sometimes found myself adrift. We could say that the book moves loosely from theory to action (towards the end, there are a couple of chapters offering what might be called specific case studies—how people have responded to particular ecosystems). It’s possible the book has some more complicated structure—like that of the rhizome perhaps, the forkings of those mycorrhizae invisibly linking tree to tree—that I can’t see. But I found myself, after finishing the book, having a hard time remembering individual essays. The whole matters more than the parts, I think, even though Kimmerer is a good essayist, deft at performing the braiding of ideas demanded by the form.

More significantly, I am not sure how to reconcile Kimmerer’s claim about indigeneity—that it is a way of being in the world that speaks to our actions and dispositions, and not to ethnicity or history—with her more straightforward, and understandable, avowal of her indigenous background. (She is a member of the Potawatomi people and writes movingly about her efforts to learn Anishinaabe.) What, I’m left wondering, is the relationship for her between becoming indigenous and being indigenous? The former seems like a metaphor; the latter an embodied reality. Sometimes Kimmerer opens indigenous ways of being to everybody; more often, though, she limits them to Native people. I’m unconvinced this is an insuperable difference, but it’s not one Kimmerer resolves, or, as best I can tell, even sees.

Yet I’m left convinced, after spending several hundred pages in the company of her authorial persona, that Kimmerer would be more than happy to talk through my confusion, perhaps even be able to show me that what I perceive as a problem might in fact be the way to a solution. So powerful is the sensation of good will and generosity given off by this book. Although the settler in me worries it is grandiose to say so, perhaps my thoughts in this post, however meager, can be taken as my way of giving something back for the gifts Kimmerer has given me. May you accept them as such.