Scott Walters’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading, I’m delighted to say, is by Scott Walters. Scott launched a litblog, seraillon, in 2010, and expects to return to it one of these days. He largely follows Primo Levi’s model of “occasional and erratic reading, reading out of curiosity, impulse or vice, and not by profession” (profession in his own case being academic administration). He lives with his partner in San Francisco and tries to visit family in France as often as possible.

seraillon has long been a favourite blog: in the past year or so I’ve checked in regularly, half disconsolate, half hopeful, looking for new content. You can imagine, then, how happy I am to feature Scott here in his return to blogging. I hear rumours that more may be afoot at the site!

With Scott’s post, this run of Year in Reading posts comes to an end–except, of course, for my own, which I hope to write soon… The project grew into something bigger than I’d ever imagined; it’s been a delight to showcase the work of so many thoughtful readers. Thanks to everyone who wrote, read, and commented on these pieces. (If you’d talked with me about writing a piece but haven’t sent it to me yet, it’s not too late. Just be in touch and we’ll make a plan.)

Milton Avery, Green Sea, 1954

How gracious of Dorian to invite me to submit an end-of-year post! I have been avidly following the others he’s posted, which now have my to-be-read list runnething over. So thank you Dorian, and everyone, and hello. [Ed. – Such a pleasure!]

I’ve written nothing on the seraillon blog for more than two years—”hellacious times and I’ve slipped between the cracks,” as a character says in David Greenberg’s play, The Assembled Parties. But I have been reading, finishing 42 books in 2021. Though about half my typical yearly volume, I also read much more in books, most of which I intend to finish: The astounding Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre tombe (to be continued in the original French, no knock on Anka Muhlstein’s translation). A re-read of Wuthering Heights. Franz Werfel’s monumental novel of resistance against the Armenian genocide, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh. Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, following an interest in Henri Bosco. Henri Bosco himself, in his novels Le Mas Théotime and Sabinus. A book about book designer Robert Massin, who designed these French Bosco editions. There are others, down other rabbit holes.

Here are ten highlights of works I did finish in 2021, plus honorable mentions:

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson

Hugo and Nebula Award winner Robinson has shouldered a massive responsibility: digesting everything we know about climate change as well as everything we know about how we might address it, then packing it into a stunningly wide-ranging geopolitical thriller interspersed with chapters that concretize climate change’s multivarious, cascading impacts. The novel is also one of few I’ve encountered (Vincent McHugh’s 1943 pandemic novel I Am Thinking of My Darling being another) that explore competent administration of a crisis. [Ed. – Yes! This is a book about competency. Maybe that’s why it feels so comforting.] Robinson’s book appeared in October 2020, a date to fix precisely given the furious pace of change as regards the book’s subject. In fact, the novel seemed a kind of sundial around which shadows spun and deepened rapidly as I read, some elements already obsolete as others swam into view. This is no criticism; I marveled at the real-time context while reading as well as at Robinson’s courage in being able to place a period on his final sentence, and I’ve been pushing the work on everyone for its articulation of the enormity of the challenges facing us, some lovely conceits such as the return of airships, and a bracing radicalism that makes Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang seem like a Sunday School picnic. Despite offering a path forward, Robinson eschews easy answers and offers little in the way of reassurance, seeming to have taken as the novel’s departure point Greta Thunberg’s memorable warning: “I don’t want you to feel hopeful. I want you to panic.” [Ed. – On my 2020 list; still think about it daily.]

Last Summer in the City, by Gianfranco Calligarich (translation by Howard Curtis)

The cover blurbs’ promise of a resurrected 20th century Italian classic certainly delivered; Calligarich’s short, tight, engaging 1973 novel of dissolution in 1960’s Rome seems to pick up where Alberto Moravia left off in depicting modern Italian existential malaise. The story follows the peripatetic wanderings around Rome of Leo Gazzara, an impecunious, alcoholic, bookish young Roman who becomes embroiled in a tumultuous on-again/off-again love affair. The energy of Calligarich’s automobile-driven narrative and the drifting yet fascinating tour he offers of Rome—the city itself a “particular intoxication that wipes out memory”—help balance out the novel’s bleakness, and a frequent invocation of books provides both literary diversion and dark warning of Bovary-esque entrapment in fictions. One might easily envision a film version by an Italian neo-realist director such as Dino Rossi or Antonio Pietrangeli.

Norwood, by Charles Portis

Considerably brightening a dark year, Norwood (1966) edged out Portis’s True Grit and The Dog of the South as the funniest book I read all year [Ed. – Arkansas, represent!], and even topped W. E. Bow’s The Ascent of Rum Doodle and Patrick Dennis’s Genius. A howling road trip and love story that begins when Norwood Pratt of Ralph, Arkansas gets a job tandem-towing a couple of hot cars to Brooklyn, Norwood limns the seedy, grifty, free-wheeling side of American life with caustic, irreverent humor; splendid dialogue; and unforgettable characters. I have Jacqui to thank for this introduction to Portis and will certainly read his remaining two novels and collection of short pieces, a literary cornucopia inversely proportional to the author’s small output, and no doubt as delicious as a biscuit and Bre’r Rabbit Syrup sandwich.

Stories With Pictures, by Antonio Tabucchi (translation by Elizabeth Harris)

“From image to voice, the way is brief, if the senses respond,” writes Antonio Tabucchi in his preface to 2011’s Stories with Pictures, a collection of 30-some short pieces sparked by a particular painting or drawing. Inspired by his having spent an entire day in the Prado (I did the same thing on the one day I spent in Madrid), Tabucchi writes at an angle about the pictures, riffing on them in a dazzling range of ways, from mediations to letters to what seem at times multi-page, arabesque-like captions. As in much of Tabucchi’s work, motifs connected to Fernando Pessoa abound. Most of the artworks come from 20th century Italian or Portuguese artists, all but a few new to me. As if the posthumous appearance in English of a Tabucchi work wasn’t reason enough to celebrate, the Archipelago Books edition, featuring color plates of each picture, make this a volume with a presentation as lovely as the author’s concept.

Bear, by Marion Engel

“Is a life that can now be considered an absence a life?” Marion Engel’s Bear (1976) has made so many end-of-year lists here and elsewhere that Dorian should get a medal for this revival of interest. [Ed. – Aw shucks. No medal, though. I want cash.] Thanks to a new edition from London’s Daunt Books, I finally got in on Engel’s singularly odd tale of Lou, an archivist cataloging the contents of a deceased eccentric’s isolated mansion in Ontario’s remote north—and falling maw over claws for its resident bear. [Ed. – Ha! Maw over claws! That’s good! Gonna steal that.] Literally going wild in shaking herself loose of “the flaws in her plodding private world” and the various civilized confines that have entrapped her, Lou exults in a rebirth as liberating as it is perturbing. Bear’s atmosphere of isolation made it seem readymade for pandemic reading; I suspect that most of us are more than ready to go a little wild ourselves. [Ed. – Sounds pretty good to me!]

Dissipation H. G., by Guido Morselli (translation by Frederika Randall)

My terrific excitement at seeing another Morselli novel appear in English received an abrupt check upon my learning that Frederika Randall, one of the finest of Italian to English translators, had died shortly after finishing the translation. Readers of seraillon may know of my interest in Morselli; this short novel, his last, takes a common theme in which a person suddenly discovers that they are alone on earth. Morselli spins the conceit into a bittersweet, moving and darkly humorous exploration of isolation and the need for human contact. The “H. G.” in the title refers to humani generis and the dissipation “not in the moral sense” but rather from “the third and fourth century Latin dissipatio,” meaning “evaporation, nebulization, some physical process like that.”  In other words, Dissipation H. G. turned out to be another work suited for pandemic reading—if perhaps in the manner of providing solace through affirmation of one’s sense of reality.

Malacarne, by Giosué Caliciura (French translation by Lise Chapuis)

Sicilian writer Giosué Caliciura has yet to be translated into English, a pity, as his fierce, inventive, densely baroque novels, delving into the lives of those on society’s margins, are among the most original and powerful I’ve found in contemporary Italian literature. Malacarne (1999) presents a ferocious testimonial from a Sicilian malacarne (literally “bad flesh”), one of the young hoods employed to do the Mafia’s dirty work.  Palermo—and at the same time a vaguely defined post-mortem space—provide the setting(s) for the malacarne’s reckoning, before a judge, with the brutal details of a violent, savage life. Caliciura’s use of a deliberately impossible narrative voice, an articulation both belonging to and channeled through the late malacarne, adds to the novel’s otherworldly, underworld atmosphere. But the story the malacarne relates is as worldly, gripping and linguistically spectacular as a story could be, a profound exploration of the forces that perpetuate organized crime and engulf the youth it attracts, manipulates, and destroys.

Giorgio Morandi. Paesaggio Levico, 1957.

Okla Hannali, by R. A. Lafferty

I did not know of R. A. Lafferty (apparently revered in science fiction circles), nor had I heard of this novel (not a work of science fiction), and so little suspected what I was about to get into. I found Okla Hannali (1972) astonishing. The author called its initial appearance “a torturous undertaking even though it wasn’t much more than an overflowing of crammed notebooks.” Something of the “crammed notebooks” quality seems to remain in this revised, shaggy final version, but small matter: why this vastly-larger-than-life legend of fictional Choctaw “mingo” (king) Hannali Innominee isn’t a standard feature of the American literary canon is beyond me. Lafferty turns the historical telescope around, viewing early 19th century frontier history from the Choctaw perspective. We know we’re in the realm of legend when the novel begins with a creation myth, which swiftly moves to the early life of Hannali, a “big man who would fill almost a century” and who, during one of the several forced resettlements of the Choctaw, abruptly picks out a plot of land in what is today eastern Oklahoma, “a place less no damn good than other land.”  At this nexus where many elements of 19th century American history converged, the reader witnesses, through Hannali, the westward European expansion, the enactment of genocidal policies towards indigenous populations, the flight of escaped slaves (some of whom become slaves of the Choctaw and/or members of the tribe), the lingering resonances of the Louisiana Purchase, the inauguration of new states, the misunderstood “Jacksonian Revolution” that amounted to little more than “a war of the rich against the poor,” and finally the American Civil War and the grim destruction of the Choctaw republic. Hannali is a magnificent character: defiant, stubborn, courageous, wise, irreverent, a folk hero of magnitudes. Big, boisterous, hilarious, indignant, heart-breaking tales like this don’t come along often; one mourns the unrealized project Lafferty intended to call “Chapters in American History,” of which Okla Hannli, his “Indian [sic] chapter,” is the only one he completed. [Ed. – Wow! Sounds amazing!]

The Transit of Venus, by Shirley Hazzard

“The calculations were hopelessly out…Calculations about Venus often are.” Australian writer Shirley Hazzard and Graham Greene were close friends, and I thrilled to find Greene-like elements in this exceptional, elegant, psychologically penetrating work. But The Transit of Venus (1980) is something all its own, a dense, intimate, furiously compelling narrative tracing the life trajectories and romantic entanglements of two Australian sisters orphaned at a young age. Tracking the sisters’ moves to England (and one to New York), with events of the tumultuous 20th century backgrounding their stories, Hazzard describes, in exacting prose, the psychological nuances of human interactions. Henry James, another obvious influence here, seems constricted by comparison [Ed. – hmm]; The Transit of Venus did more to put in perspective James’s limitations with regard to women characters than any other work I’ve read [Ed. – hmm]. Hazzard’s antecedents range from Greek tragedies to Goethe to 19th century Realism, resulting in a story almost classical in form and style, yet palpably burning with a sense of lived experience—from a writer who led an utterly improbable life. I’ll be reading more.

A True Novel, by Minae Mizumura (translation by Juliet Winters Carpenter)

“…I still could not feel at home, either in the new country or in the new language,” states the narrator on the first page of Mizumura’s 2002 novel (to which I was steered by Dorian – thank you, Dorian!). [Ed. – So welcome! Delighted to see this here.] This might be a line from any work addressing displacement, but it scarcely begins to hint at the extraordinary directions Mizumura will take over the ensuing 853 pages. I harbored some doubts about descriptions of the novel as a Japanese Wuthering Heights, but Mizumura evinces little interest in simply grafting Emily Bronte’s work onto a Japanese setting. Instead, her ambitions aim broadly and deeply. Taking the coinciding of the 19th century western novel’s golden age with Japan’s opening to western influence as her beginning, Mizumura then uses her own transnational experience (with formative years spent in the US before a permanent return to Japan) to explore, through both western and Japanese literary and linguistic lenses, multiple questions of transnational identity, cultural cross-pollination, Japanese post-war history, and – through her mysterious character Taro, a kind of Japanese Heathcliff/Gatsby amalgam – issues of class and otherness. A True Novel takes its title from a prevailing style of Japanese literature in which works like Wuthering Heights were held up as an ideal form, “where the author sought to create an independent fictional world outside his own life.” But meta-fictional elements in Mizumura’s narrative also link it to the later Japanese style of the “I-Novel” (also the title of another, more personal Mizumura work), close to memoir and hewing to the author’s personal experience. Through concatenations of narrative (the prologue alone to A True Novel goes on for 165 pages) and using black and white photographs to heighten sense of place in the mountainous Karuizawa area where much of the story unfolds, Mizumura aligns the substrate of the Japanese literary enzyme with that of its Western counterpart, sparking a catalysis that creates something strikingly original. While it’s rare enough to find something that seems new in fiction, it’s more unusual still to find a work also incorporating something old and familiar and—by means of steady, crystalline, superbly atmospheric prose—so completely absorbing. Re-reading this true novel, my favorite book of 2021, will be a goal for 2022.

Milton Avery, Offshore Island, 1958

Honorable mentions:

  • Isak Dinesen’s Winter’s Tales;
  • Miklós Bánffy’s The Enchanted Night, an excellent collection of short stories that aligned surprisingly with Dinesen (great to see more of Bánffy’s work emerging in translation);
  • Federico Fellini’s The Journey of G. Mastorna, the director’s screenplay for what many consider to be the greatest film never made;
  • N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn, an American classic, gorgeous and heartbreaking;
  • Claire Keegan’s Small Things Like These, a marvel of concision concerning Ireland’s Magdalen laundries;
  • Henri Bosco’s Le Trestoulas, affirming Bosco as a writer I will certainly keep reading;
  • Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March.

(And in the noir/polar/mystery realm):

  • Georges Simenon’s Chez Krull [Ed. – So good!];
  • Eric Ambler’s Journey into Fear and A Coffin for Demetrios;
  • Seishi Yokomizo’s The Inagumi Curse, terrific to read directly after Mizumura so as to linger a bit in a Japanese mountain atmosphere.

Thanks for reading, and felicitous reading to all in 2022!

Anne Cohen’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Anne Cohen (@aecnyc). Anne is a lifelong reader (preferably stretched out on couch or bed), retired lawyer, and former reporter. She lives in New York City with part of her family and two dogs and is firmly convinced that Book Twitter saved her from homicidal behavior in 2021.

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

Vanessa Bell, In the Other Room (late 1930s)

Most beautifully-written book: Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard was the most exquisitely-written novel I read in 2021 but also one of the most frustrating. It was as if the plot and the characters were unworthy of the prose. 

Am trying avoid spoilers, but the coyness of the last page infuriated me and even drove me to the internet for clarification.  “WTF” endings don’t bother me; reader and narrator of The Sense of an Ending share the same information and deluded memories and are equally gobsmacked at the conclusion, and Kate Atkinson, whose A God in Ruins had a similarly tricksy ending, is a master of showing but not telling. Although the language was gorgeous, the last paragraph of Transit felt cheap.

(You still should read it.)

Second most beautifully-written book: Daddy’s Gone A’Hunting written by Penelope Mortimer and published in 1958 was also the most frightening book I read this year. Daddy is the story of Ruth, an upper-middle-class woman in her late 30’s trying to navigate the potential termination of her college-age daughter’s pregnancy (whose pre-marital conception was the impetus for Ruth’s own marriage).

The scary part was not just the ordinary shivers of recognition present in most good novels about families. Perhaps it is a function of my age and gender—Daddy and I were both born in the middle of the baby boom—but I was horrified by the sight of Ruth, already feeling old at 38!, being shamed as she searched for a physician who might be willing to terminate the pregnancy on behalf of her clueless and nasty daughter. 

This year, I also read Mortimer’s biography of the Queen Mother, which is not scary, and her first volume of memoirs, About Time, which has as a central character her impious cleric father. (Maybe read it as a double feature with Priestdaddy.)  I recently located a copy of her second volume, About Time Too, and it’s on my TBR stack.

Other wonderful fiction: Cathedral, by Ben Hopkins, hasn’t gotten as much attention as it deserves.  I can’t get into The Constant Nymph, but Margaret Kennedy’s The Feast was enormous fun, beautifully written, and (spoiler alert) the right people survive; I also enjoyed her contemporaneous account of the early days of World War II, Where Stands a Winged Sentry, a country companion of sorts to a similar book about London read last year, Chelsea Concerto, by Frances FlavellDaisy and The Six made me laugh when I was sick.

Lolly Willowes entranced me [Ed. – Paging Frances Evangelista!], as did both Scenes From Childhood, Sylvia Townsend Warner’s memoir and her collected letters. (Have not yet finished The Corner that Held Them or Summer Will Show.)

Also read and liked Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker, The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins, A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr and several pieces of fiction by Tove Jansson. I was thrilled by parts of Gerard Reve’s The Evenings and wondered when other sections would end, which may have been the sensation the author intended.   

Molly Keane’s Good Behaviour offered an instructive counterpoint to Transit: annoying characters, obsessive conduct, and an ending that made me want to go back to the beginning, but without feeling as if I’d been snookered along the way.

Not fiction but an elegant presentation of how an interesting woman’s actual life was commandeered by fiction and biography: The True History of the First Mrs. Meredith by Diane Johnson.

Biggest project of the year: Diaries and letters have always fascinated me and taken up significant space shelf. Their proportion in my reading diet has increased over the last 22 months, as I’m comforted by the notion that their authors didn’t know what was going to happen to them any more than we do now. [Ed. – Nicely put!]

Someone who was often wrong about the future was Henry “Chips” Channon, an American-born writer, pal of the rich, royal and merely titled from his late teens onward, member of the British Parliament, and from 1938 to 1941 a senior cabinet aide in the Foreign Office. The first two volumes (total 2000+ pages) of his unexpurgated diaries were published in 2021 and edited brilliantly by Simon Hefner, whose dazzling footnotes include some tart asides and everyone’s courtesy titles.

“Chips” knew everyone, and everyone appears in the diaries. He was a wrong-headed bigot, a sniveling acolyte of Neville Chamberlain, a toady to almost anyone with a royal title, and a nasty, insecure, self-important snob, who occasionally recognized his reputation as a well-connected lightweight. 

What makes the diaries worth £35 each plus postage to the States is the astonishing range of Channon’s access and the detail of his descriptions— his failing marriage to a rich and titled woman, who left him for a horse dealer; events, including his dinner for Edward VIII, and Mrs. Simpson a month before the abdication; his crushes on a series of other well-connected men and his schemes to marry them off to “suitable” women; changes in society during the war, including his mother-in-law (“the richest woman in England”) doing without a cook; and the perfidy of his enemies of the moment. [Ed. – Ok, that sounds really good.]

My fascination with these books is more than historical. As someone who annually orders but doesn’t always use a big Smythson daybook, I’m reluctantly moved by dogged if not heroic maintenance of a diary for decades and even more by the willingness to write down so much of one’s deepest and often foolish feelings in real time. 

A year for letters: Love From Nancy: The Letters of Nancy Mitford; The Letters of Nancy Mitford and Evelyn Waugh; Letters from Tove [Jansson]; Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner; Letters of E.B. White; and A Whole World: Letters From James Merrill.

Not surprisingly, there were many connections among Channon, Mitford and Waugh, who lived in a small world they thought was the whole.  

But other connections were less expected—the Merrill letters were terrific, and not just because his frequently-mentioned mother and daughter Connecticut neighbors were novelist Grace Zaring Stone and Eleanor Stone Perenyi, author of both More Was Lost [Ed. – A long-time EMJ favourite!] and Green Thoughts: A Writer in The Garden, which I’d consulted only days before about dahlias.

The best connection came when I was alternating books—Hermione Lee’s biography of Willa Cather and the E. B. White letters—and suddenly realized the same “character” appeared in both: Cather’s good friend Elizabeth Sargent was also White’s sister-in-law Elsie, older sister of New Yorker editor and garden writer Katherine White. [Ed. — !]

Mysteries: Spine for spine, I probably read mysteries more than other category and can inhale a whole series of 10-15 books in a week. (Hey, I’m retired and read fast.) [Ed. – Goals!] This year, in addition to rereading half a dozen of Simenon’s Maigret books and the first few chapters of Busman’s Honeymoon, and adding to my list of books by E. C. R. Lorac, John Rhode, and Patricia Wentworth, I was introduced to Jane Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian, Craig Rice’s John Malone and pals, Delano Ames’s Jane and Dagobert Brown, and Elizabeth Daly’s Henry Gamadge.

Of these my favorite was probably the last, not for the quality of the story or the story-telling, but for the flavor of New York City in the early 1940s and the depiction of people for whom the world had changed since the turn of the century. Part of my attraction to mysteries, and especially those of the “Golden Age,” is the way they incidentally reflect the details of their time, whether clothes, food, manners, or relationships.  

Vanessa Bell, Composition, ca. 1914

Audiobooks: I’m not snobbish about the idea of audiobooks but I’m picky about both the sound of the voice generally and the rightness of it for a specific work. These are obviously very subjective criteria; most people were probably thrilled by Patti Smith’s reading of Just Kids but I ripped off my headphones during the foreword. 

I read quickly, sometimes too quickly (see possible explanation for my reaction to Transit of Venus), and so have been fascinated by my reaction to hearing books I’ve previously read. Listening to The Age of Innocence made me much more aware of Wharton’s humor and devastating nuance.  

Some books—like The Thursday Murder Club—can be aural candy, perfect for walking the dogs; this is not a put down, at least from me. It’s also when I listen to the Backlisted podcast, whose fingerprints are all over this list. 

What I Didn’t/Haven’t Finished: There are mystery tropes I can’t abide (especially the protagonist as suspect), and if one of those sneaks by my “blurb” filter, I’ll let it go. [Ed. – Almost as bad as “investigator’s loved one in danger”…]  

Books not finished in 2021 but still open are Hamnet (and I loved I AM I AM I AM), as well as Klara and the Sun, Our Spoons Came From Woolworth’s, Shuggie Bain, and Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont. I couldn’t get into Adam Thorpe’s 1921, which broke my heart, because his work is so varied and usually so very good. 

Best reading experience: Not the “best” book or the most interesting or important—but an almost out-of-body moment late one night propped up in bed with the five-book Percy Jackson series, which I’m reading along with an 11-year-old friend. 

The apartment was quiet. Maybe it was Percy’s adolescent demi-god angst, but for a sudden moment, I was in my childhood bedroom, trying not to wake up my sister and hearing my father’s voice at the door, telling me to go to sleep.  Sam died almost 25 years ago, and it was nice to have him back for that instant.

Liz McCausland’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Liz McCausland (@Liz_Mc2). Liz is an American living in Vancouver, BC, where she teaches college English, reads, herds cats, and ponders what’s next in her life.

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

Thomas Struth, Pergamon Museum IV, Berlin, 2001

In the fall of 2020, my marriage of 25 years ended—an event that for me was both unexpected and unwelcome. Slowly and with a lot of hard work, my grief and depression are lifting. But they’ve continued to impact my reading. Self-help. Memoirs about mental illness, therapy, divorce, and reinventing yourself. Many backlist mystery audiobooks from the library. [Ed. — What, no names?] And many, many books returned to the library unfinished or unopened because I didn’t have attention to give them. When Dorian asked me if I wanted to write a Year in Reading post for him, my first thought was “I‘ve forgotten most of what I read this year, and I certainly don’t have anything interesting to say about it.”

But then I remembered that one of the silver linings of this hard time has been my rediscovery of the joy to be found in reading with others: engaging in intense and wide-ranging discussion of texts to which everyone brings different experience and perspectives; having the sensation of minds meeting as steel meets flint, a spark of illumination blooming from the contact.

The first place I found this, unexpectedly, was a Bible Study group. That might not be true in every context, but we’re Anglicans and reason is one leg of our stool. I gained a lot of personal insights, but perhaps I’m most grateful for the feeling that my brain can still work after all. Do we need a book recommendation from this? I’ve always thought you could do worse on a desert island than the Bible, believer or not—it’s a big fat book with a little of everything in it.

The second was a long-running reading group I rejoined this summer after a decade or so away. The core members have been together since they read Foucault together as grad students in the 80s. Now they’re mostly retired college English instructors. They read widely and their discussions are vigorous. To keep up I’ve had to read with more focus than I’d mustered in some time. My favorite meeting so far involved lounging in a shady backyard on a hot July afternoon, nibbling potluck goodies and discussing Shirley Hazzard’s The Evening of the Holiday. My first Hazzard, but not my last! This month, sadly, we’ll be back on Zoom, but I’m looking forward to diving into Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. (Another first for me).

My third great experience reading with others was with students. I teach English at a community college, and because I increased my workload this fall I’ve been teaching literature (rather than just academic writing) for the first time in several years. I’d forgotten how fun reading with students can be. A classroom is a space full of flints and steels that strike sparks from each other. A space full of surprise insights. It’s not just that students interpret the readings in ways I didn’t anticipate, but that I surprise myself: as I bounce off their observations, or just ramble on, I find interpretations forming in the moment the words expressing them come out of my mouth, as if someone wiser than me were speaking through me. [Ed. – All true, so true!]

This year, I’m teaching Intro to Fiction sections designated for our Gender, Sexualities, and Women’s Studies program, on the theme of gender and violence (and hell yes, at some points of the semester I regretted settling on such a dark theme). Here are two of my favorite surprises from Fall:

I chose Don DeLillo’s “Baader-Meinhof” because it seemed to fit the theme. I’d never read DeLillo before, thinking of him as writing “boy books” I wouldn’t enjoy (I imagine you thinking “who let her teach gender studies?”). I just skimmed it before choosing it, being, rather behind schedule at that point (“who let her teach anything?”). [Ed. – I’m so relieved to learn I’m not the only one who does this!] In the story, an unnamed man and woman meet at an exhibition of paintings showing Baader-Meinhof gang members dead in their prison cells. The man manipulates the woman into taking him back to her apartment, where, when he can’t manipulate her into sex, he masturbates on her bed while she cowers in the bathroom. [Ed. – Well, that is just about the least appealing scenario possible…]

As I started reading the story in preparation for class, I wondered if the paintings it describes are real. They are. The basic plot was familiar to students: “Oh, he’s gaslighting her.” Something similar has happened to some of them or to someone they know. But the “real life” art exhibition setting led us to new questions about this familiar scene. Richter’s paintings are based on photographs that would have been easily recognizable to Germans, but he destabilizes that familiarity, blurring the images and sometimes painting multiple versions, each slightly different. Is this, I asked my students, part of why someone would write fiction about gender violence (or about anything, come to that)? To make us look anew at something we think we understand? “Is gender violence a form of terrorism?” we wondered. At first that seemed extreme, but then we considered the ways that women’s lives are shaped by fear of it, and how we live in a culture that has largely accepted this fact as just something we have to put up with. And what’s up with the idea of forgiveness in this story? I still don’t know what I think about that, and I’m looking forward to discussing it again and seeing if we get further.

I’m currently listening to Believing, Anita Hill’s new book on gender violence, because a review I read made me think of DeLillo’s story and the questions it raises. And the best surprise was how much I enjoyed this story. I still suspect that on the whole, DeLillo isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m going to read more before I make up my mind about that.

Candida Höfer, German Library, Leipzig VI, 1997

And then there was Katharena Vermette’s novel The Break. I wrote a review for Event, so I went into teaching it thinking “I get this.” But it unfolded new riches as we read it slowly over a couple of weeks. The more we talked about it, the more there was to say. At the center of The Break is a violent sexual assault against Emily, an Indigenous teen. The novel works as a page-turning crime story in which a young Métis police officer and his racist partner try to identify the assailant. But in tension with the forward momentum of that narrative are the stories of Emily’s extended family, mostly female, and the sexual violence they have endured. To support Emily in her healing, they have to confront their own pasts and the lingering effects of trauma.

The Break has ten narrators, and to help us keep track of who was saying what, I listed the narrators of each day’s sections on the board. Once I did, we began to see patterns in their order. Emily, for instance, has a section early on, and another at the end. For most of the novel, she is silenced by trauma, and only when she can narrate the assault does she start to heal. That’s also the first time readers see its details—this is a novel that refuses to indulge a prurient interest in them, showing us only glimpses and fragments we have to piece together.

Partway through our reading, I listened to a podcast episode on the ethics of enjoying true crime, and that fed into our discussion of how we should consume stories like Vermette’s. The Break offers us two characters as reader stand-ins: there’s Tommy, the cop, who feels a “strange excitement” as he makes headway on the puzzle of the crime. But he risks pushing Emily to tell her story before she’s ready, ignoring her trauma. There’s also Stella, who witnesses the crime and who insists in the face of police skepticism that what she saw was a rape. Stella has her own experience of trauma, and her concern for the victim might be a more ethical response than Tommy’s excitement. But that trauma paralyzes Stella when she witnesses the assault, keeping her from going out to help. Perhaps we also need Tommy’s push for answers to keep the story from being stuck in pain and trauma.

We don’t discover who the assailant is until Vermette has made us feel empathy and understanding for that character. That person’s story left us wondering whether the justice system is at all up to the task of doing justice in these circumstances. What would true justice to all parties look like?  Students enriched our discussions of these questions by bringing to it ideas from courses in psychology, criminology, and legal studies.

I loved and admired The Break even more after teaching it than before—an outcome which is by no means guaranteed. I understand Dorian is teaching it this semester, and I look forward to hearing what he and his students, in a different place and bringing different experiences, bring to it. [Ed. – I am, and I’m even more excited now than I was before: I’ll be pilfering these insights shamelessly.]

Tina K.’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Tina K. (@TheEsteemedFox). When I asked Tina what I should write about her, she wrote: “Tina K. went into an existential tailspin when Dorian asked her for a short bio. “Oh my god… who am I?” She’s a freelance editor that everyone should hire, wildlife photographer, middling athlete, rapacious reader, and a silly little fool, in Hamilton, Ontario.”

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

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? Or Theatre?

A Little Fiction

I like to switch up my reading between fiction and history, and since I can’t get enough of war as a subject and all the weird and horrific things it entails I thought I’d pump the brakes this year and do something different, maybe choose only some stuff about or related to the First and Second World Wars, but it seemed like no matter what I bought or borrowed the wars showed up anyway in the best books I read in 2021. It’s tough to avoid this topic, WWI and II still pulse hardily through our arts and history, you can’t throw a stick in a library or a bookstore without nicking a war vein, and so I was caught off guard by Rogue Male (1939) by Geoffrey Household, which turned out to be not only a WWII manhunt story but THE MOST entertaining fiction I read all year. In many years, frankly. It takes off like a rocket and doesn’t let up: you’ve got a failed assassination attempt on Hitler, you’ve got globetrotting, you’ve got the superlatively resourceful English gentleman of means and fame and disguise, you’ve got an enemy of equal cunning and fortitude, you’ve got love, loss, hiding underground like a wild animal — and bless us all, there’s a cat! — and none of it is corny, none of it cliché. The prose is clever, personal, polished, a joy to get caught up in, and for a novel with significant violence it has a way of eliding the violent act to leave you instead with its gruesome outcome. After being left for dead, the narrator says about his ordeal only, “My nails are growing back but my left eye is still pretty useless.” This is how Household treats all violence: he doesn’t walk you through it, there’s no point-aim-fire, no descriptions of knives plunging into flesh, you only see the effect of violence after the fact, which is a genius technique. There is so much technique in this novel and it THRILLS me. It boggles my mind that Geoffrey Household isn’t a… what do you call it again when a person’s name is well known by the public? 

Then there’s The Transit of Venus (1980) by Shirley Hazzard. I love Shirley Hazzard so I married her earlier this year after reading her book [Ed. – But she’s…], we’re very happy, it’s not a delusion [Ed. – But she’s…], I’m totally normal, shut up [Ed. – I’ll shut up.]. As the NY Times review of this book so aptly puts it, this novel lives in “the long shadow of World War I… [which] darkens almost every page” (which, again, I wasn’t expecting) and ends in either long-anticipated reunion or tragedy, depending on how much attention you paid to one itty bitty yet pivotal detail somewhere in the last half of the novel. (I’m a big endings person, they can make a so-so book or break a great book for me.) Put plainly, Transit is men and women with a lot of pain and complicated feelings/living situations, either chasing or running away from love, but Hazzard is one of those people you read for her great sentences — like Geoffrey Household she’s a master of technique — so the novel’s most heavenly attribute is its style, which I’ve described over and over again like an evangelist lunatic obsessive as “the perfect economy of every paragraph”. Each page has something that makes you go How tf did Hazzard just do that? as you read her doing it, and this is why Transit is so damned good. Look at this: “His hand rotated on her breast, but from force of kindly habit, absently fondling a domestic pet. On the coverlet her own hand lay open, upturned, extended to a fortune-teller. She watched him with love that was like a loss of consciousness.” And this: “His tweeds were the colour and texture of fine sand. Beige and granular, he stood on an asphalted platform in a blaze of Sunday-afternoon tedium.” (Honestly Shirley, you’re just showing off now.) She was a dark horse for me this year, and I would recommend this novel even if she weren’t my wife (which she is). [Ed. – She definitely is.]

Charlotte Salomon, from Life? Or Theatre?

A Little History

Indulging your anger is often considered unvirtuous, which is why the “restrained fury” of Primo Levi (as Ivan Kenneally [@IvanKenneally] put it to me) is so bracing and engrossing. Survivors of the Holocaust seemed to sort themselves into two groups, those who talked about their experience and those who wouldn’t, and Levi talked about it, he raged about it, with a gripping candor that you just won’t find in anyone else who writes autobiographically about the Holocaust. This year I read The Reawakening (1965) and The Periodic Table (1975), both written in Levi’s signature vignette style, both funny yet sorrowful, and unrelenting about what he endured, witnessed, and morally wrestled with until his death. The Reawakening recounts Levi’s months-long journey back to Italy immediately after his liberation from the camp, and is an excellent companion to Keith Lowe’s Savage Continent: Europe in the Aftermath of WWII (2012) if, like me, you want to know how Europeans got by in 1945 as the continent was reduced to little more than rubble and revenge. Levi’s revenge was his refusal to stay silent, whereas so many others took their revenge by doing to Germans what the Nazis had done to everyone else (and yes, that does mean camps for Germans and killing, lots of retaliatory killing). Savage Continent will give you a near-forensic accounting of revenge, and Levi, too, accounts for it in his own way in The Reawakening when, after he’s freed, he’s warned by a Polish policeman not to speak German because: 

with an eloquent gesture, passing his index and middle fingers, like a knife, between his chin and larynx… [he] add[ed] very cheerfully, Tonight all Germans kaputt… The next day we passed a long train of cattle-trucks, closed from the outside; they were going east, and from the slits one could see many human mouths gaping for air. This spectacle, strongly evocative, aroused in me a mixture of confused and contradictory feelings, which even today I have difficulty in disentangling. 

The settling of scores is appalling, but not surprising. And oh, there were scores, scores I still can’t wrap my head around after reading Sarah Helm’s Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler’s Concentration Camp for Women (2014), an insanely good history on the rise and fall of Nazi Germany from the perspective of the thousands and thousands of “useless mouths” interned and killed in Ravensbrück, where prisoners were only valued as disposable industrial slaves, medical testing “rabbits”, or for hostage diplomacy in the rare case of a French, English, or Dutch prisoners. I can’t lie: I Googled several of the Nazi guards and doctors before the book told me what happened to them after the war because I wanted the pleasure of knowing that they’d met their fate at the gallows before I read on. It’s not so hard to imagine the motivation 75+ years later for quick retribution against an enemy, especially when the foundations of European law and order were in absolute ruins, and no one, if there even was anyone, who cared to stop it was looking.

Keith Bresnahan’s Year in Reading, 2021

In the next week or so I’ll be writing up my reflections on my 2021 reading year. In the meantime, I’ve solicited guest posts from friends and fellow book lovers about their own literary highlights. I’m always looking for contributors; let me know here or on Twitter (@ds228) if you have something you want to share.

First up is my old friend Keith Bresnahan (@designhist, follow him, he’s funny and awesome), who’s previously contributed several terrific pieces on Zola. You can read his 2020 reflections here. Keith lives and works in Toronto.

2021, in a nutshell:

This year was strange, obviously. I was lucky, avoiding any serious effects of the pandemic: I kept my job, as did everyone in my family; no one I knew got seriously ill or passed away with Covid. But time and space felt flat. I didn’t go anywhere, and the repetitive sameness of days was best reflected in this popular image I kept seeing re-posted on Twitter. Perhaps this is why when Dorian initially nudged me to look back on my year of reading, I felt like I hadn’t read much at all: there was little to situate my reading in association with specific places or other things that were happening around me while I read them. As it happens, judging by my admittedly imperfect reconstruction (I have sworn to be better at keeping track this year!), I found I actually read 50-odd books for pleasure in 2021, not counting the 15 or so others I read for teaching and academic research. Not bad.

Here are a few of the more memorable ones.

Philip Marsden, The Summer Isles

I read this early in the year; details have faded, but my memory of reading it is of being carried along on gentle sea-waves; it’s that kind of book. A first-person travelogue of Marsden alone in a wooden boat, traversing waters up the west coast of Ireland toward the titular isles in northern Scotland, it also contains a good deal of reflection on historical lore, spiritual journeys, and local geographies. Much of the sailing-vocabulary was lost on me, but it didn’t seem to matter. Both learned and meditative, it was perhaps the most calming book I read this year. I passed it on to a good friend who owns a boat. 

Enrique Vila-Matas, Never Any End to Paris (Trans. Anne McLean)

I found out about Vila-Matas this year, like most of the other authors I come across these days, from people I follow on “Book Twitter” (regular Twitter, just a nice corner of it populated by book-obsessed folks). A wry memoir of Vila-Matas’s youthful days in Paris as an aspiring writer and Ernest Hemingway wannabe. I loved it. He somehow rents a garret from Marguerite Duras, encounters Georges Perec and Roland Barthes, dates a woman who suggests he fling himself off the Eiffel Tower while on an acid trip, fends off parental intervention, and generally fails to write anything of substance. In a year where I couldn’t go anywhere, the descriptions of Paris were more than welcome. Looking forward to reading more by Vila-Matas soon, starting with Dublinesque, a kind of Joycean dream, apparently. Perfect for the centenary of Ulysses this year? (I’m also planning to give that one another shot)

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove.

An 800-plus-page western. A western? Cowboys? A cattle drive? I left central Alberta for a reason, dude. But many folks who know better than me loved it, so I gave it a shot. Holy shit is this book great. An out-and-out masterpiece. At times it felt like magic realism – did the bull actually fight that bear? Was the cook actually back there banging the same bell with the same crowbar? Did Blue Duck fly? The book’s Indigenous characters are barely fleshed out (although McMurtry does show sympathy for their plight) — but then this is really the story of the others, the damaged settlers moving against a nascent American backcloth, seeking and grasping for any purchase with little to guide or protect them. At its heart is an emotionally blocked friendship between two former Texas rangers, and the women who speak truth to them (and whom they largely fail to understand). Plus an impressive cast of secondary characters, all memorable creations. Did I mention it’s more than 800 pages and somehow feels too short?

Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian (Trans. Grace Fick)

Another masterpiece. The best fictional evocation of the classical world I’ve ever read. Dreamlike and imagistic, with lessons on life and death to spare. I’m waiting to read more Yourcenar until the memory of this one’s brilliance fades a bit.

Ivo Andrić, Bosnian Chronicle (Trans. Celia Hawkesworth in collaboration with Bogdan Rakić)

A newish edition from Apollo Classics (Head of Zeus), this is a very long book, first published in 1945, about a French consul during the Napoleonic era living in a small Bosnian town on the extreme fringes of world events. Not much happens. I adored it.

Dominique Barbéris, A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray (Trans. John Cullen)

This was great — a short, stylish account of two sisters, one recounting to the other a past entanglement with a strange man. Felt to me at times like watching a French film from the 1970s. Enigmatic, and atmospheric as all get-out.

Three books in the “how-did-I-not-know-about-these?” category:

Margaret Kennedy, The Feast

A number of families cram into a seaside hotel in Cornwall for a week in the summer, their conflicts and idiosyncrasies build to a climax, then half of them are killed when a cliff falls on them. We know this part from the outset, though not who dies, so I’m not giving anything away. Apparently there’s a whole structure here about the 7 deadly sins, but I missed this while reading it, and it didn’t matter. Great fun. Made me want to read more Kennedy, and soon.

Elizabeth Taylor, Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont

An older woman moves into a retirement hotel in London. The plot? Not much. But I found it utterly charming, even its descriptions of the depredations of old age, and very funny, too. Others, I’ve since learned, found it bleak. [Ed. – raises hand] Not me. Mrs. Palfrey is a plucky heroine, if a little self-deceiving (aren’t we all), and even the end, coming as it must, didn’t feel sad. I picked up a used Virago copy of this book on a whim, and then coincidentally read it the same week that it came out in a new NYRB classics edition. For once my finger was right on that pulse. More from Taylor in my near reading future.

Shirley Hazzard, The Bay of Noon

A young English woman in Naples in the 1950s falls in with a Neapolitan woman, Giaconda, and her Roman lover, Gianni. This was both evocative and restrained, with a powerful sense of the unspoken and unshown behind the minimal plot. Reminded me a bit of Antonioni, in a good way. Also made me long to revisit Naples (some strong compensatory travel-thrills in my readings this year!). My first Hazzard, won’t be my last.

Yasunari Kawabata, The Sound of the Mountain (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters (Trans. Edward G. Seidensticker)

Akimitsu Takagi, The Informer (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)

Akimitsu Takagi, Honeymoon to Nowhere (Trans. Sadako Mizugushi)

Yuko Tsushima, Territory of Light (Trans. Geraldine Harcourt)

Kobo Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (Trans. E. Dale Saunders)

I enjoyed all the books translated from Japanese that I read this year, especially The Informer and Territory of Light. But it was Abe’s Woman in the Dunes that was the real revelation. A distressing, tense, fever-dream of a book, I’d put this existentialist fable of bizarre confinement, Sisyphean futility, and struggles of the will up against Camus any day of the week. I won’t be reading it again anytime soon, but I’m glad I did. Haven’t brought myself to watch the movie, but here’s an image from it anyway.

Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep

Another existentialist hero, this time Philip Marlowe probing some family funny-business in sunny California. Noir perfection. I realized I’d previously conflated Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, whose hard-boiled shtick I could never really get past [Ed. – I am allowing this heresy on my blog, but I don’t like it], but this is glorious, witty stuff. The film, with Bogart and Bacall, is a deserved classic.

Muriel Spark, The Girls of Slender Means

My first Spark! I loved this small tale of young women living together and negotiating wartime, nascent loves, work, and rooftop escapes. A near-perfect short read.

Sam Selvon, The Housing Lark

Stuart Hall, Familiar Stranger

Two takes on the West Indian experience in 1950s – 60s England. The Housing Lark, by the criminally under-appreciated Sam Selvon, is a sort of sequel to his better-known The Lonely Londoners; if anything, I liked this one better. Hall’s autobiography takes him from Jamaica to Oxford to the founding of cultural studies and the New Left in the 1960s—on the one hand, a world apart from Selvon’s hustling hardscrabble immigrants, and on the other not so different, negotiating displacements and identities among the so-called Windrush generation. Suggest watching Steve McQueen’s remarkable Small Axe series alongside.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American

Ryszard Kapusćiński, Nobody Leaves: Impressions of Poland (Trans. William Brand)

Sergio Pitol, The Journey (Trans. George Henson)

Vivian Gornick, The Romance of American Communism

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow

Purely by accident, I ended up reading a number of books this year highlighting historical communism and Cold War politics seen through individual lives. Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a scathing indictment of Western intervention in Southeast Asia, with its shockingly amoral conclusion, was among the best books I read this year. Ryszard Kapusćiński’s Nobody Leaves, a collection of short journalistic pieces from his native Poland around 1960, is episodic, strange and beautiful, and generally short on hope. Sergio Pitol’s The Journey, has the Mexican writer traveling around literary circles in Moscow, Leningrad, and Tbilisi during two weeks in 1986, just as glasnost and perestroika were starting to peek through. It was a highly personable travelogue that makes me want to read more by him (I’ve already ordered Pitol’s The Love Parade, out in translation early this year). He writes a lot about Marina Tsvetaeva, which makes me think I should read her. In non-fiction, I was taken with Vivian Gornick’s The Romance of American Communism, recently republished by Verso. Originally from 1977, it’s an oral history of American communists from the 1920s through the 1950s and their breaks with the Party following the revelations of the 1950s. Gornick’s subjects are angry and wounded, prone to self-importance, self-deception, and self-critique, and her book is wonderful at conveying how people form passionate attachments to ideological movements, and what happens when that falls apart. Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow, a cream-puff fantasy of a hotel-bound aristocrat suffering minor inconveniences during the same decades of Soviet history, which I read at a cottage just after Gornick’s bracing book, felt too tidy and cute by half. I might have enjoyed it more at another time.

James Salter, Light Years

Probably my favourite book of 2021. A couple raises two kids in a country house not far from New York City. They have affairs, they divorce, their kids grow up, they meet artists, actors, go to parties, discuss the theatre, they remarry, get ill, die. It recalled the 1970s cinematic and literary middle-class dramas I was enthralled by as a child (this was what life was, or so I thought then). Now in my own middle age, I’m both less sanguine about this stuff than I used to be, and intuitively drawn to it. Nostalgia for that insular worldview? Dunno. Whatever it was, I found it perfectly, achingly beautiful, and sad. A book I know I’ll revisit. I also read Salter’s A Sport and a Pastime, which I liked but not nearly as much as this one.

In the last days of 2021, I read three quietly resonant books:

Paul Griffiths, The Tomb Guardians

I’m not sure how to classify this short book, which shifts constantly between two conversations: in the first, two figures discuss a series of three (real-life) paintings in a museum showing the sleeping guards charged with protecting Christ’s tomb; in the second, we hear the voices of the Roman guards themselves, having woken up to find one of their party missing and the stone from the tomb entrance moved. It’s clever and light, achieved with erudition and evident skill; as a professional art historian, I wish I’d written it myself.

Louise Glück, Winter Recipes from the Collective

Nobel winner of 2020. Quiet and studious poems. Felt snowy, and cold. Some folks are saying this book shows a diminution of Glück’s energies, which bodes well for her earlier work, I’d say. I’ve just bought her first four books of poems.

Aidan Higgins, Langrishe, Go Down

Another Apollo Classics reprint, first published in 1966. A woman on the cusp of middle age, living with her unmarried sisters in a declining Irish great house, has an ill-fated affair with a German scholar of no means. Just go read it already. One of my books of the year. There’s a film, too, with Jeremy Irons and Judi Dench.

One more, for Dorian:

Marian Engel, Bear. Technically a re-read, since I first read this when I was 18. But that was some time ago, and I was 18, so let’s call it a new book for 2021. Is it the great Canadian novel? Sure. [Ed. — Hmm… this is not the expression of explosive joy I’d hoped for, but I’ll take it.]

Some predictions for 2022:

– Nature-books: I’ve got a bunch of these on the shelf, and this is the year! Birds, mountains, wild swimming, I’m your man.

– More 20th-century reprints, mostly from UK writers: I’ve gathered a small heap of books from Virago Modern Classics, Persephone, Apollo Classics and others, and am eager to dive in.

– Finishing the Penguin Maigret books. I’ve got 10 left to read in this 75-volume set, and the last one has just arrived by post.

– Following a prompt from a Twitter mutual, I’ve signed on to read all the extant plays of classical Greece. Ambitious, but they’re short, right?

What I Read, May 2021

Lotta reading, lotta writing. Busy month.

Sally Rooney, Normal People (2018)

A girl and a boy, one rich one poor, are the stars of their school in County Sligo in the post Irish Tiger years. They go on to Trinity College, Dublin. The girl, who had been shunned in school, becomes popular. The boy, who had been a star—an athlete and loved by all in addition to being smart—struggles. They get together, break up, get together again, and have lots of sex. Normal People offers all the pleasures of a happily-ever-after romance with a sprinkle of self-consciousness in case you’re worried that storyline is too simple or retrograde. I stayed up late reading it and finished with a satisfied sigh. And yet it hasn’t stayed with me; Rooney’s first, Conversations with Friends, is the more interesting book. She can be a little bald as a writer, but sometimes baldness hits the mark: “She [the girl’s mother] believes Marianne lacks ‘warmth,’ by which she means the ability to beg for love from people who hate her.” Yep.

Robin Stevens, Poison is Not Polite (aka Arsenic for Tea) (2015)

My daughter and I continue our way through this series. No sophomore slump here: this one is even better than the first. I admired how Stevens tackles head-on the implausibility of the girls coming across murder so often—and the psychological toll that takes on them.

Georges Simenon, The Krull House (1939) Trans. Howard Curtis (2018)

Julian Barnes’s piece on this novel has stayed with me, especially its opening anecdote about Anita Brookner, who loved the romans durs. When Barnes asked her which was the best, she was firm: Chez Krull. I’ve been waiting ages for this new translation to make its way to the US. (It’s sxcellent, though it can’t, as Barnes notes, get at the striking juxtaposition of French and German, domestic and foreign, in the original title.) I gave in and ordered from the UK. After all, you don’t mess with Anita Brookner.

I’m no Simenon expert, but this is by far the best of the ten or fifteen I’ve read. Near the Belgian border, at the edge of a small town, the Krulls run a shop and bar that caters mostly to bargees. The father is German originally but has lived most of his life in France. His wife is French (though she’s not a local), as are their three children, the youngest of whom is 17. Yet the Krulls are outsiders, fitting in nowhere, tolerated by their neighbours but not much more. Old Krull’s French remains poor, even as he is forgetting his German, rendering him nearly mute: he is a terrifying and pathetic character, almost as impotently knowing as the old woman in Zola’s Thérèse Raquin. The action begins when a cousin arrives from Germany, on the run in some unspecified way. It takes Hans only a few days to blow the Krulls’ precarious existence wide open. He seduces the youngest daughter, borrows money he can’t repay, bullies his relatives, consorts with “unsavory” locals. He does what immigrants are supposed not to do: he draws attention to himself. When a girl’s body is found in the canal, suspicion falls on the Krulls, and Simenon brilliantly depicts the sudden ratcheting up of amorphous dislike into vicious hate.

As chilling as I found the novel, I struggled to get a handle on its politics. In a particularly fascinating scene, Hans rebuts his cousin Joseph’s despairing cry that the locals hate them because they’re foreigners: You’re not foreign enough, he says, you’re ashamed of your foreignness. The best way to show you belong is to be sure of yourself, sure enough to stick out. Hans’s philosophy sounds appealing, but it might be more bravado than solution. A final chapter that flashes forward from the 1930s to a later time maintains the novel’s ambiguity. It’s clear, though, why The Krull House would have appealed to Brookner. As Barnes says: “Simenon lays out with ruthless exactitude the way selfish, conscience-free greed exploits modest, hospitable decency.” Sounds like Look at Me. Track this one down.

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country (1980)

Thanks to David Kern of Goldberry Books for the chance to write for the store’s newsletter. What a pleasure to read A Month in the Country again. It’s perfect.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Our Lady of the Nile (2012) Trans. Melanie Mauthner (2014)

My take on Mukasonga’s first novel is here.

Oakley Hall, Warlock (1958)

Grave, even somber Western about the rule of law. That might not sound exciting, and, despite some vividly tense scenes, this is no page-turner. But pertinent as all hell. I’m no expert on Westerns, but this might be the most “novel of ideas” the genre gets. In 1880s Arizona, in a mining town in the middle of nowhere barely avoiding utter lawlessness, the self-interested elite come together to hire a gunfighter nicknamed the Marshall to keep a lid on things, especially a local thug and his band of cattle rustlers. The bad guys have killed the Deputy, the latest in a line of short-lived lawmen. A former rustler takes the job and makes a go of it, despite the suspicion of the townsfolk and the scorn of the outlaws. But is the power of the badge any match for the power of the gun? Is the Marshall an appendage of the Deputy, or a sign of the law’s emptiness? (A self-appointed Judge, a drunk, helps us see the stakes.)

I read this with Paul and Ben, and I’m glad I did, because I don’t think I would have finished on my own. For me, the book was too gravid, lacking warmth; at times I found it hard-going. (I guess not every Western is Lonesome Dove.) But it swells to its own magnificence, and I loved the subplot about a miner’s strike, the doctor who comes to take their side, his nurse, whom he loves but who loves the Marshall, and a young miner who becomes a leader of the cause, a good guy who can’t escape his drive to self-aggrandizement.

Linda B. Nilson, Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time (2015)

Specifications grading replaces nebulous, often unstated values with clearly stated standards for what counts as acceptable work, that is, work that satisfies assignment and course learning goals. Students either achieve these specifications or they do not. No “partial credit.” They can revise in order to meet the standards and are given opportunities to excel (doing more work than other students or the same amount to a higher caliber). Spec grading makes learning more intrinsically motivated for students and reduces grading time for instructors. That’s the theory, anyway, as outlined in this book, which I gather is the standard on the subject.

Nilson is a social scientist and she writes like one. The prose is not enjoyable. And her examples are taken from fields far different from my own. I (sped) read this in advance of a faculty workshop on the topic, though, and was able to hear colleagues, including one from my own department, talk about how they’ve used and modified the concept. I’m intrigued. I’ve used my own take on spec grading in the past—using a portfolio system and avoiding grades on individual assignments. That’s great because students actually read the comments. But I see now that it’s not great because it leaves too much in the dark. By creating clear specifications I’ll eliminate unnecessary and probably stressful mystification. I plan to rework one of my courses for spec grading this coming year and see how it goes.

Rachel Cusk, Second Place (2021)

M, the narrator, lives on a property “in a place of great but subtle beauty” comprised mostly of tidal marshes; for some reason I took it to be in Norfolk but I’m not sure why. The “second place” is a cottage M and her husband, Tony, have fitted out where they often host people they admire. It also, perhaps, names the role the narrator inhabits, not in regards to her husband, with whom she has an often silent but profound relationship, nor to her grown daughter, who has washed up at the marsh with a man who suddenly decides he is meant to be a writer despite not having any talent for it. (Unlike the narrator, who is a modestly successful writer, though not one who ever actually spends any time on it.) No, it is in relation to a man known as L, a famous painter, that she is secondary.

At a critical juncture in her life, M had an almost religious experience at an exhibition of L’s paintings. In homage to that moment, which emboldened her to change her life (I am making this sound more coherent and psychologically motivated than it is in the book; Cusk is more mysterious, less reductive about M’s feelings), she invites L to stay in the guest cottage. Some unspecified event which has damaged the economy and shut down world travel—maybe a depression, maybe a pandemic, maybe some climate event, though the landscape of the novel seems fecund—prompts L to accept. (The art market has collapsed; he’s broke.) It takes some machinations for him to arrive and when he does he’s accompanied by a young woman, Brett, which puts M out a little, forcing her to wonder how much of her interest in L is sexual, though in the end she loves him in another, maybe more existential way. Brett, at first a pretentious nightmare, eventually proves a kinder and better person than L.

The plot, such as it is, centers on the way L disrupts M’s life. The details aren’t important; this isn’t a book you read for plot. You read it as an attempt to redress the state of affairs D. H. Lawrence lamented in his essay “Surgery for the Novel—Or a Bomb”: “It was the greatest pity in the world, when philosophy and fiction got split.” Second Place explores vitality: what it enables, what it harms, what happens when it fades.

I’ve read Cusk’s autofictional trilogy of novels about a woman named Faye, and liked them in parts a lot but on the whole not so much. The first, Outline, is in my opinion the most successful. Cusk’s strategy of having her narrator retell involved and largely self-incriminating stories given to her by strangers she encounters on a sojourn to Greece was exciting; subsequent volumes, describing Faye’s experiences at various literary festivals and the other promotional aspects of the contemporary writing life, were not. The trilogy does end with an indelible scene, though; in general, as proved again in the new book, Cusk excels in writing about swimming.

Anyway, I had no plans to read this new book, but then I learned that it was based on a section of Mabel Dodge Luhan’s memoir of her time with D. H. Lawrence at her ranch near Taos, New Mexico. For someone who wrote a dissertation largely about Lawrence, I’m quite ignorant of this part of his life. I do know, however, that the socialite and painter Dorothy Brett joined them, and that there was occasional harmony but more often tumult among Lawrence; his wife, Frieda; Luhan; Brett; and Luhan’s husband, Tony, a Taos Pueblo Indian. Clearly, Lawrence is a model for L, and M for Luhan; interestingly, there’s no Frieda figure in the novel. As Cusk notes at the end of the book, the narrator is intended as a tribute to Luhan’s spirit. Cusk appears less interested in Lawrence, apparently, though L shares certain aspects of the writer’s character: his coldness when he declares himself “done” with someone, his moments of sudden warmth, his love of and knowledge of the natural world, his aptitude for work. Cusk’s L is more tediously provocative than Lawrence was, though. Overall, she’s written a not unsympathetic but also somewhat offhanded depiction of the writer. More to the point, I don’t think you gain much from knowing the background.

That interest, for Cusk anyway, isn’t primarily biographical. (Again, this isn’t really a roman a clef.) Instead she revisits some of Lawrence’s preoccupations. Here, for example, she has M reflect on the idea of authority:

Only tyrants want power for their own sake, and parenthood is the closest most people get to an opportunity for tyranny. Was I a tyrant, wielding shapeless power without authority? What I felt a lot of the time was a sort of stage fright, the way I imagined inexperienced teachers must feel when they stand at the front of the class looking at a sea of expectant faces. Justine [her daughter] had often looked at me in just that way, as though expecting an explanation for everything, and afterwards I felt I had never explained anything quite to her satisfaction, or mine.

This riff on a key Lawrentian concern is not, in the end, entirely Lawrentian. He never undermined power that way, at least not in his direct statements. The indirect example of his characters and their fates, by contrast, certainly did. Nor did he think much about being a parent (he wasn’t one); his take on parents and children is always explicitly or implicitly from the child’s point of view.

More obviously in sync with Lawrence is M’s riff on the connection between insight and cruelty:

What was so liberating and rewarding in looking at a painting by L. became acutely uncomfortable when one encountered or lived it in the flesh. It was the feeling that there could be no excuses or explanations, no dissimulating: he filled one with the dreadful suspicion that there is no story to life, no personal meaning beyond the meaning of a given moment. Something in me loved this feeling, or at least knew it and recognised it to be true, as one must recognise darkness and acknowledge its truth alongside that of light; and in that same sense I knew and recognised L.

There’s more going on here than “don’t meet your artistic heroes” or even “art makes palatable subjects or experiences that are uncomfortable in life.” The idea that only a moment can hold meaning is juxtaposed, by the very form of the speculation, to the idea that meaning also inheres in a set of linked moments, a story. For this contradiction to be fully felt, narrative requires a form that challenges its limits. This is a task Lawrence and Cusk share, however different their solutions.

Other parts of Second Place are more purely Cusk-ian: aperçus challenging cultural pieties: “The game of empathy, whereby we egg one another on to show our wounds, was one he would not play”; “I believe that as a rule children don’t care for their parents’ truths and have long since made up their own minds, or have formulated false beliefs from which they can never be persuaded, since their whole conception of reality is founded on them.”

Is this book any good? Not sure! It’s short and engaging. Will it stick with me? I’m skeptical. In the end I am most interested in the book’s experiment with what happens when you add some of the elements of realism (developed characters, framed narration, dramatic events) to autofiction (characterized by a first-person narrator whose perceptions offer a scaffold on which to hang essayistic associations). How much of the former can you add without overwhelming or undoing the latter? And what would you gain in the process? Second Place leaves plenty of questions; the answers are unclear.

Susan Bernofsky, Clairvoyant of the Small: The Life of Robert Walser (2021)

Wonderful biography of the lyrical and snarky Swiss writer Robert Walser. My thoughts here.

Scholastique Mukasonga, Cockroaches (2006) Trans. Jordan Stump (2016)

Read this as background for my Mukasonga piece. It’s the first of three autobiographical texts, this one about Mukasonga’s childhood as a Tutsi refugee—first within Rwanda then in neighbouring Burundi—her eventual emigration to France, and, most compellingly, her search to uncover the circumstances of the murder of her extended family in the 1994 genocide. In this, the text both reminded me of post-Holocaust texts and felt different from them in ways I can’t yet put my finger on. One thing that’s the same, though, is the belief that testimony is a necessary but feeble recompense for loss. Mukasonga, who lost 37 people and keeps their names in a school exercise book she is never without, concludes: “I have nothing left of my family and all the others who died in Nyamata but that paper grave.”  

I’m reading these in English and don’t know the original, but Jordan Stump who has translated this and subsequent works might be a better fit for her style than Mauthner.

Georges Simenon, The Carter of La Providence (1931) Trans. David Coward (2014)

I’ve finally figured out this Simenon fellow: the more canals, the better the book. Here Maigret is called out to the Marne department after a body is found in a stable at an inn next to one of the river’s many locks. Two boats are anchored for the night: a motorized yacht, captained by an Englishman, and a horse-drawn barge, piloted by a couple and an almost silent old man, who tends their horses. Maigret will uncover how these different worlds are connected. Along the way he bicycles at length along the canals, not always happily (“He had ridden fifty kilometers without once stopping for a beer”). Simenon was a boater himself—apparently, he wrote Carter on board his second boat, the Ostrogoth—which might explain why the details of barge life are so convincingly and engagingly portrayed. And Barthes himself would have thrilled to the telling because otherwise meaningless details Simenon slips into his prose:

But the barge men who had discovered the body and helped to fish it out had all crowded into the café where the tables were still littered with glasses and bottles from the night before. The stove roared. A broom was lying in the middle of the floor.

That broom! Those sentences without a single comma! Great stuff.

Robin Stevens, First Class Murder (2015)

Wells & Wong travel on the Orient Express to get away from murder, but guess what??? Stevens nods to Christie (Daisy is reading the book, just published when the girls take their trip) and just generally has a high old time.

Shirley Hazzard, The Transit of Venus (1980)

I can’t summarize this novel better than Parul Seghal did. (I can’t do anything better than Parul Seghal does.) “Two orphaned Australian sisters arrive in England in the 1950s: placid, fair Grace, who marries a wealthy and officious bureaucrat, and independent, dark-haired Caroline, who falls in love with the unscrupulous (and attached) Paul Ivory, while another man, the shabby and sweet Ted Tice, pines for her.” As she also rightly says, this is the kind of book lost on youth, a hymn to missed opportunities, regrets, second chances, and the patterns of experience that only become visible toward the end of life. Everything about Transit should have been catnip to me, and at times I thrilled to its scope and wisdom. My two favourite sections are about affairs contemplated by Grace and her husband, Christian (Seghal’s “officious bureaucrat”). In both cases, minor characters gain complexity that, in the case of Christian at least, might not make us like him more but that make us feel we can understand him.

And yet. Hazzard’s prose is so burnished it turns itself inside out and becomes obscure. Her narrative voice is knowing, sometimes effectively acidic—showing us Christian’s unrepentant self-satisfaction: “It was to his judiciousness, at every turn, that he owed the fact that nothing terrible had ever happened to him”—but too often unhelpfully clotted. Here’s one that could come from Elizabeth Bowen: “Provocation had become the basis of her relations with the world.” Many of these sentences turn on oracular similes: “His enunciation gave immortality, as slow motion makes any action beautiful by an appearance of control.” That last sentence could be the novel’s motto: it certainly takes it time, it absolutely presents control as an illusion when life is rather an accumulation of storms. But for me a little Hazzard went a long way, so that even though I sighed over the devastating ending, and turned back to see the foreshadowing the author had larded into its opening pages, I admired this book more than I loved it. I kept wishing I were reading Tessa Hadley, who handles the complications of middle-class lives, those with the luxury of thinking about encroaching mortality, with a surer hand—and syntax.

Mick Herron, Slow Horses (2010)

The Slow Horses are spies who have fucked up—made a mistake that cost lives, or could have; struggle with drugs or drink or gambling; just can’t get along with anyone. It’s expensive and embarrassing to fire them, so MI5 ships them to a sad-sack building called Slough House and sets them mind-numbing tasks in the hope they’ll eventually quit. Their boss is Jackson Lamb, a fat, sarcastic, mean spymaster who smells as bad as he looks. Lamb was a legend back in the Berlin days, but now he’s putting in the time, shuffling papers, firing off insults, and farting a lot. Or is he playing the longest con game of them all? When a white nationalist group kidnaps a British Muslim, Lamb proves a master at institutional politics and the Slow Horses get a taste of field work again. Are they up for it? Part A-Team (google it, young’uns), part manual on bureaucracies, Slow Horses is all winner. Herron cleverly teases us with Lamb’s character: suggesting he’s kinder and more together than he seems, then pulling the rug out from under our genre expectations. I’m not in love with the writing, but the dialogue pops and the plot is complicated without becoming preposterous. Good thing there are like six more. Rohan liked it too!

Georges Simenon, Maigret and the Headless Corpse (1955) Trans. Howard Curtis (2017)

In Paris’s Quai de Valmy some bargees—more canals: you know what that means!—fish a leg out of the water. More body parts follow, until the corpse is only missing its head. Who is the missing man, and who sawed him to pieces? Maigret solves the case less by acumen or diligence than by chance. [Spoiler alert, though that’s not really the point of this book.] Casing the neighbourhood in search of a drink and a phone, he enters a dusty local bar and becomes fascinated by the owner’s wife, Madame Calas. Calas himself is mysteriously absent. As in her own way is his wife, who possesses a blank self-possession that Maigret can’t help but respect even as it stymies him. The novel—at 179 pages, positively gargantuan for the series—becomes a psychological study of a character who prefers to reveal nothing of herself. Insight comes when Maigret meets a lawyer from the part of France where the couple grew up, a man as loquacious as Madame Calas is reticent. There’s also a nice bit with the couple’s cat. Another good Maigret.

Peter Cameron, What Happens at Night (2020)

Strange, beautiful novel about a New York couple traveling in an unnamed northern country to adopt a baby. They check into a version of the Grand Budapest Hotel—the book is part Wes Anderson, part Ishiguro—where the woman takes to her bed while the man drinks schnapps made from moss in the nearly silent bar. The woman (the main characters are never named) is grievously ill; she falls under the spell of a local mystic who might have wandered in from a well-behaved Dostoyevsky novel. The man dodges the attentions of a businessman and a chanteuse. This all sounds preposterous, doesn’t it? But somehow the book isn’t. It is somber and very snowy, but also light on its feet. And sometimes funny. You could remake yourself, go anywhere in the world, the man tells the morose bartender. “Only in this world? That is the only choice you give me?” Thanks to Twitter pal NancyKay Shapiro for the rec. (Bonus: check out the cover. Nice work, Catapult!)

Mick Herron, Dead Lions (2013)

More complicated plotting serving more organizational maneuvering within MI5. Not as good as Slow Horses, but I’m all in for this series.

That’s all, folks. A Month in the Country was the best novel I read this month. Those Maigrets were good, especially Krull House. Mick Herron is a light reading champion. Mukasonga is thought-provoking. Hazzard a force, if not always to my taste. And Clairvoyant of the Small is an impressive accomplishment. Do yourself a favour and discover Robert Walser. Until next month, keep reading and stay well.

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