What I Read, March 2022

Mostly blocked March from my memory—it was as gruesome as always, ugh the Spring semester sucks so much—but I did take some time off over Spring Break (which meant I was even more fucked than usual afterward, all those “breaks” academics get are great as long as you don’t use them) and so I read a little more than I have been. Deets below.

But first, exciting news: Frances, Rebecca, and I launched our podcast! At One Bright Book we discuss one book an episode, and then fill you in on some of our current reading. Available wherever you get your podcasts, and on Twitter.

Elaine de Kooning, Italian Summer #28, 1970

Katrine Engberg, The Tenant (2016) Trans. Tara Chace (2020)

Competent Danish procedural, the details of which I’ve forgotten. Just what I needed to get out of a reading slump.

John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van (2014)

Darnielle’s first novel—or second, if you count his book about Black Sabbath—is pretty great, establishing his striking blend of menace and warmth. The narrator, disfigured after a suicide attempt gone wrong, is a recluse who lives modestly on an insurance payment which he supplements with the proceeds of a mail-order role-playing game set in a post-nuclear future. The details of the game—its interplay between choice and fate, constraint and freedom offering an allegory for the narrator’s own life—and the community it creates for the narrator with people he never meets moved and fascinated me. I still like Universal Harvester best (it has the most interesting female characters), but the guy’s got me for life, I’ll read whatever he writes. Maybe even that Sabbath book.

Seth Dickinson, The Traitor Baru Cormorant (2015)

Excellent fantasy novel that allegorizes the experience of the subaltern groomed for imperial service. (This situation is the basis of an otherwise different but also excellent sf novel by Arkady Martine that I read in January and have yet to write about.) Baru Cormorant is a child when her homeland of Taranoke is conquered by the Imperial Republic of Falcrest. The Falcresti bring wealth and technology (medicine, sanitation, etc.) but they subjugate Baru’s people both economically and violently. Their obsession with so-called sexual hygiene leads them to destroy Taranoke’s kinship structure (families have two fathers and one mother). Singled out by a high-ranking official, Baru develops her prowess in mathematics at an elite boarding school, as well as a life-long ambivalence: furious that her ostensible benefactors have murdered one of her fathers but also enchanted by their promise of power in Falcrest’s zealously meritocratic system. After graduation, Baru is sent to Ardwynne, thirteen squabbling provinces that threaten to unite in rebellion. As Imperial Accountant, Baru controls the purse-strings and establishes herself as the most important figure in the realm. So although the novel eventually details a military campaign (though even here Dickinson emphasizes politics over battle), it’s mostly about bureaucracy and monetary policy. Sound boring? Anything but! The ending actually made me gasp. Last book to do that was Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith. There are two more Baru books—better believe I’ll be reading them soon.

Menachem Kaiser, Plunder (2021)

As promised, I taught Kaiser’s memoir about his efforts to reclaim family property in Poland in my seminar on Holocaust postmemory. I liked the book even more when I had the chance to think it through with students. They mostly liked it, too; some were prompted to write about it, which generated several strong essays. In the best one, a student wrote about fighting with her father over his decision to keep a dagger adorned with Nazi insignia that his own grandfather, the student’s great-grandfather, brought home from the battlefields of Europe. (The great-grandfather fought through the Ardennes.) The student deepened her reflections about her familial conflict by juxtaposing her situation to Kaiser’s similar but definitely not analogous predicament,

My students and I were even more jazzed about the book after Kaiser visited the class (Zoom really is great sometimes). He was awesome, no surprise, articulate and funny. The students asked reasonably good questions, too. Take our word for it—read this book. And if you need more convincing, it just won the Sami Rohr Prize: that’s a big deal.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover (1992)

The first One Bright Book selection—check out what Frances, Rebecca, and I had to say about it! I was into it, and I liked it more after talking about it. Poor time management meant I had to read the book in two days, worrisome given its length, but it engaged me more than I expected. Perhaps its blend of essayistic reflection and historical fiction reads less unusually today. Everyone says Sontag was no brilliant novelist, but based on this small sample she was far from terrible. Worth your time.

Eli Cranor, Don’t Know Tough (2022)

Cranor lives about an hour from Little Rock, and he definitely gets rural white Arkansas, especially the pleasures of its landscape and the ugliness of its insularity. Don’t Know Tough is about football, a sport I find excruciatingly boring (another reason I’ll never fit in here). But I do understand being passionate about a sport—far as I know, though, Canadians don’t attend hockey games played by children they don’t know, the way people here do with, say, middle school football games.

Anyway, Don’t Know Tough features some conventional narrative elements: a coach newly arrived from California (Cranor plays this fish-out-of-water set-up too broadly; folks here are not as hostile to Prius drivers as he suggests), a troubled star player whose anger issues are sensitively depicted, and the requisite budding romance. When the star’s abusive father is found dead, the trouble soon reaches Gothic levels of extravagance. I dunno, I didn’t love this book. I guess Southern Noir is a thing now—of the writers I can think of that fit that description I sure prefer S. A. Cosby.

Manda Collins, A Lady’s Guide to Mischief and Mayhem (2020)

Crime-romance hybrid set in late 19th century England featuring a journalist and a Scotland Yard detective. The meet cute isn’t so cute—she calls out his shoddy work; he’s pulled from a big case—but when they’re thrown together at a country house they start to understand each other (he was covering for someone else, plus she jeopardized the case with her reporting) and hoo boy if the sparks don’t fly! Soon they’re solving the case and having hot sex. The mystery is fine, but the sex is the thing, and the only problem with this enjoyable if forgettable novel is that there’s not enough of it.

Claudia Piñero, Elena Knows (2007) Trans. Frances Riddle (2021)

Elena, a 62-year-old woman living in Buenos Aires, has Parkinson’s. Her daughter, who had been her caretaker, has recently died. Her body was found in a church she frequented: officials declare it suicide, but Elena doesn’t believe it and sets out to find the truth, which requires a painstaking journey across the city to meet someone she thinks can help her. The journey is possible only because of the medication that briefly unlocks her limbs, so she must time her movements around dosages. That’s where the suspense of this novel—I gather Piñero is mostly known as a crime novelist—lies. Her descriptions of Elena’s physical condition are impressive: the woman’s frustration and her daughter’s fury at being as locked into a life as her mother is into a body that won’t respond are movingly depicted. Indeed, the novel turns out to be about bodily autonomy—a topic more relevant by the day here in the US. (Piñero was active in the movement to legalize abortion in Argentina.)

I appreciated Elena Knows more than I loved it. My reservations hinge on a lack of control in the narrative perspective: I couldn’t tell how much we were supposed to read against Elena, to see her as the antagonist. Rebecca and I chatted about this; she suggested that “the things that make [Elena] awful are what enable her to survive.” That makes total sense, and fits with the novel’s tragic sensibility. I guess I couldn’t help but think that Piñero couldn’t quite maintain the tragedy. The more I write about this, though, the more I think the failing is with me, not the book. Take a look and judge for yourself.

Chana Porter, The Seep (2020)

The Seep is an alien entity that gently but thoroughly infiltrates earth, with amazing results: human life becomes utopian. Everything that can be imagined becomes possible. Humans are cooperative and relaxed, attuned to pleasure and forsaking guilt. They solve the climate crisis and stop war. They redistribute wealth. Their art isn’t up to much, though. A few people persist in living off grid in something called The Compound, where, it is implied, they experience the authenticity of suffering. The protagonists, Trina and Deeba, live happily together, even if Trina is occasionally wistful about the Before Times. One day Deeba decides she wants to become a baby again and cannot be swayed from this course, despite Trina’s desperate pleas. Deeba’s death/rebirth sends Trina off the rails, a state from which she recovers only by setting off on a quest that Porter never seems to know what to do with. It’s about whether we need suffering to have a meaningful life, which is a question, for sure, but not one Porter has anything new to say about.

This queer sf novella diverted me for an afternoon but nothing about it will stay with me.

Yoko Tawada, Scattered All Over the Earth (2018) Trans. Margaret Mitsutani (2022)

Best book I read this month, doubtless one I’ll still be thinking about at the end of the year. Like Plunder, Scattered All Over the Earth is a story of dispossession. Tawada—who writes in both German and Japanese—presents loss, if not as gain, then as the beginning of something new. In that sense, despite being set in the near future, it is a book for today. Japan has sunk into the seas, and no one even remembers it other than as a vaguely defined “land of sushi.” Hiroku, a climate refugee who teaches immigrant children in Denmark and has invented her own language, Panska (Pan-Scandinavian), wants to find someone who can speak Japanese with her. This has shades of those heartbreaking stories we increasingly hear of the last of a species, doomed to lonely death in a zoo (I gather Tawada wrote a book about polar bears in a circus), but the accent here is not on what has vanished but what might come to be. Through circumstances I can’t remember anymore—it’s been a minute—Hiroku makes friends with a gaggle of sympathizers, each of whom narrates two sections of the novel. Most important of these is Tenzo, an Inuit from Greenland who has reinvented himself as Asian (white Europeans being unable to tell the difference) and become an expert in Japanese cuisine. His cooking is neither a form of cultural appropriation nor of fusion. He doesn’t prepare sushi “as well as” a Japanese; he just prepares sushi. At times Tawada reminded me of a writer who, stylistically at least, she couldn’t have less in common with: J. G. Ballard. He never seems fussed by loss or anguish either; like Tawada, his books are filled with incident yet uneventful.

It’s perverse, given the book’s rejection of authenticity, but I wish I could read it in Japanese. I wonder what her language is like, whether there are elements of richness and roughness to the prose that the translation smooths out. My only reservation about Scattered All Over the Earth is that the style feels a bit flat in that “this is amenable to English translation” way that writer/translator Tim Parks is always on about. In this case, to be sure, what might seem homogenous could in fact be a new form of creation, along the lines of Panska. If you’ve read the book in Japanese, I’d love to know your thoughts—or even if you haven’t but have thoughts on the translation. It’s taken me too long to read Tawada; good thing I have four or five other books to hand.

Anthony Horowitz, A Line to Kill (2021)

Third installment of the Hawthorne series (previous books reviewed here and here). After a dip in volume two, the PI Hawthorne and his hapless Boswell, writer Anthony Horowitz, are in fine form here, where they are sent by their publisher to a tragically underpowered literary festival on one of the Channel Islands. There’s a murder—who would have guessed! Often laugh out loud funny but also quite suspenseful, A Line to Kill shows that Horowitz learned plenty from the Holmes novels he wrote earlier in his career, ably employing the Watson character (i.e., himself) as a stand-in for readers, not just of this book but of crime fiction generally, a genre that gets extraordinary mileage out of making its audience feel stupid.

Richard Dienbenkorn, Berkeley #32, 1955

Read any of these? Care to tell me I’m wrong about Elena Knows? Anything to recommend? Have at it!

Olga Zilberbourg’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today‘s reflection on a year in reading is by Olga Zilberbourg (@bowlga). The author of Like Water and Other Stories (WTAW Press) and four Russian-language books, Olga co-hosts the San Francisco Writers Workshop; and together with Yelena Furman runs Punctured Lines, a feminist blog about post-Soviet and diaspora literature.

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).

El Anatsui, Fading Cloth, 2005

My reading life this past year was dominated by my role as a juror for the 2022 Neustadt International Literary Prize. The first task we were given was to nominate an author based on the quality of their writing. After considering (and rereading) authors from Yoko Tawada to Jenny Erpenbeck to Polina Barskova, I finally settled on the writer, whose work had propelled me into adulthood back in the early 1990s and whose books played a foundational role in forming my outlook on contemporary literature: Liudmilla Petrushevksaya.

I chose to submit There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby: Scary Fairy Tales (Penguin), selected and translated by Keith Gessen and Anna Summers. This book rose to bestseller lists in 2009 and it delivers on its title: the tales she tells are indeed magical and very disturbing. In retrospect, I wish I would’ve let the jury members to discover that book for themselves, and nominated an earlier volume, The Time: Night translated into English by Sally Laird (Northwestern UP). This book is both naturalistic in its portrayal of life in late Perestroika Russia, with its total breakdown of all familial and social relationships, and it amplifies its naturalism with an ironic “what-if” scenario: what if a poet akin to Anna Akhmatova had been born half a century later? How would she fare? It’s a powerful short novel (that Anna Summers also translated and Penguin published in a follow-up volume There Once Lived a Mother Who Loved Her Children, Until They Moved Back In) and I love that it also features on Yelena Furman’s syllabus on contemporary Russian women writers. I strongly believe that this book (alongside Lydia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna) belongs on every syllabus dedicated to 20th Century Russian lit.

Jury members submitted nominations in March; in May we received a stack of nine books and a website to an electronic literature project by Jean-Pierre Balpe, for a total of ten works of literature, representative of their authors’ oeuvres. Having spent the summer with these books, the jury then gathered in October, via Zoom, during the Neustadt Literary Festival, to deliberate and choose the winner: Boubacar Boris Diop, who had been nominated by Jennifer Croft (@jenniferlcroft). I should add that though the process of selecting the winner was painful—the inevitable competitive nature of voting does seem inimical to the nature of literary achievement—Diop was chosen in the spirit of total admiration, not to say, awe.

Diop’s is a rich body of work. I began with Murambi: The Book of Bones, which Jenny had nominated. Translated from French by Fiona McLauchlin and published by Indiana UP, this book came with a blurb by Toni Morrison: “This novel is a miracle. Murambi, The Book of Bones verifies my conviction that art alone can handle the consequences of human destruction and translate these consequences into meaning.” Diop, a writer from Senegal, was a part of a group of writers invited to come to Rwanda in 1998 and to write about the genocide that had occurred four years prior. As an outsider, Diop has had to invent his own structure in order to approach his subject matter, which he does brilliantly. The novel contains separate, tentatively connected sections, centering both the point of view of a victim and the point of view of a perpetrator. Diop then adds to it a perspective of an observer, a man who returns home after a long absence from the country and who will have to live with the outcomes of the genocide, finding his way through social and personal trauma. Remarkably, this strategy allows Diop to capture the scope of the horrific events and their history in colonial politics, as well as to tell memorable stories of a few individuals.

In my public library, I was also able to locate a copy of Diop’s novel Kaveena, translated by Bhakti Shringarpure and Sara C. Hanaburgh, and published by Indiana UP, a gripping murder mystery that takes us on a tour of intricate relationships between the various parties involved in running a fictional francophone African state. This novel showcases some of the mechanisms in which imperial economic interests continue to hold sway in so many independent post-colonial nations.

Then, there’s Doomi Golo: The Hidden Notebooks, a novel that Diop wrote in Wolof, one of the languages of Senegal, and available in English in translation by Vera Wülfing-Leckie and El Hadji Moustapha Diop (Michigan State UP). My library didn’t carry it, and neither did any of the connected public libraries in the San Francisco Bay Area—which I tried to rectify by requesting that they purchase it. I didn’t get a chance to read it before the jury deliberations; it’s going right onto my 2022 reading list.

The full list of works nominated for the Neustadt Prize this year is available online. The authors included Kwame Dawes, Natalie Diaz, Michális Ganás, Micheline Aharonian Marcom, Naomi Shihab Nye, Cristina Rivera Garza, and Reina María Rodríguez. Writers: the most generous gift-givers. I should add that I enjoyed reading not only the books of the finalists, but also the books by my fellow nominating jurors, including Jennifer Croft’s book Homesick (Unnamed Press), a novelized memoir of a close sibling relationship, and Hamid Ismailov’s Gaia, Queen of Ants (Syracuse UP), translated by Shelley Fairweather-Vega, centering around a pair of transplants from Uzbekistan trying to make a life in Europe.

Outside of the reading I’ve done for and around the prize, I very much enjoyed participating in my first ever Twitter read-along, organized by the amazing @ReemK10. For me, this was a rereading of Bohumil Hrabal’s Too Loud a Solitude (Harcourt). I’d read it for the first time a decade ago, and had in the interim forgotten how much of a post-Holocaust story it is. This aspect struck me deeply during the reread. Alongside, I picked up a volume of essays by and about its translator, the famed Michael Henry Heim, The Man Between (Open Letter), edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino. It was fascinating to learn a little about the history of contemporary translation from Eastern European languages, and the central role Heim seemed to play in it.

And speaking of Eastern Europe, this year, I discovered the writer Vesna Maric, whose memoir of leaving Bosnia-Herzegovina during the war at the age of sixteen, The Bluebird (Granta), was as fascinating as it was strangely funny. I reviewed Maric’s first novel The President Shop for Ron Slate’s project On the Seawall, and I’m also keeping an eye on this book’s publisher, Sandorf Passage, who is bringing to English more fascinating East European titles.

Yanina Boldyreva, from Birch People, 2021

Looking over what I’ve just written I note that most of the books I talk about were published in English translation by independent or university press publishers. This was not intentional on my part, but I’m also not entirely surprised. It’s a vast, vibrant literary world out there, and translators and publishers of indie and university presses are a big part of what makes it so. Book Twitter friends are another big part—thank you all!

Daniel Syrovy’s Year in Reading, 2021

Today’s reflection on a year in reading is by Daniel Syrovy, his first for the blog. Daniel is Senior Lecturer in Comparative Literature at the University of Vienna, Austria; he tweets at @daniel_syrovy.

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

Maria Lassnig, Necessary Understanding, 1998

The last book I finished in 2021 was Milo Dor’s Tote auf Urlaub (called Dead Men on Leave in an out-of-print 1962 translation; some used copies can be found). Despite a number of reprints after 1952, it’s not a well-known novel. Set mostly in Belgrade and the surrounding countryside (and, eventually, in Vienna), it focuses on the Serbian Resistance to Nazi Germany between 1941 and 1945. Its ostensible protagonist, with hints of autobiography, is Mladen Raikow, but a character list included in the 500-page book lists forty characters in addition to “communists, Trotskyists, dreamers, cowards, traitors, real and false heroes, fallen angels, idiots, bootlickers, liars, drunkards, gluttons, whores, blackmailers, and torturers.”

This is not light reading, and despite a good pinch of gallows humor, the novel offers a rather bleak view of humanity. There is not much by way of a plot, but the novel is crammed with short scenes that depict small gestures of solidarity as well as acts of depravity. Dor must have been compelled to put everything into his manuscript, sparing no-one, and it is telling that even my 1992 edition quotes reviews that question whether this should properly be called a novel at all. Of course it’s a novel—but it must have been uncomfortably close to lived experience just after the war.

In fact, I first learned about it in Evelyne Polt-Heinzl’s reassessment of Austrian postwar literature, Die grauen Jahre (2018), which I re-read this past year for a work-related project. One of her central theses is that Austrians in the 1950s mostly rejected realistic texts about the war, but that such texts did exist. I had already spent a summer with a number of books unearthed by this indefatigable scholar, but it turned out there were quite a few interesting titles I had overlooked (including Dor’s collaborations with Reinhard Federmann: a series of crime novels from the 1950s; Federmann’s own novels Das Himmelreich der Lügner and Chronik einer Nacht; books by Hertha Pauli, Dorothea Zeemann, Hans Flesch-Brunningen, Hans Weigel). I’m going to stop naming names in a minute. [Ed. – I hope not!]

With me, such reading projects seem to crop up unexpectedly from time to time, and for the most part they are neither completely work-related (I am a literary scholar and I teach at university) nor exactly spare-time reading. But I do enjoy filling gaps in my knowledge of different literatures, so I follow loose reading lists, for instance on the Celtic Revival: several plays by Yeats, Lady Gregory, Synge, and related material occupied me this past summer. Austrian literature often figures large, too. In 2021, I reread some Thomas Bernhard, and was surprised at the intermittent tenderness of the first half of Correction (1975). I also read Friederike Mayröcker, Helmut Zenker, Alexander Lernet-Holenia and Leo Perutz. Yet, much of this reading follows rather obvious patterns like stepping stones. In preparing these notes, I kept asking myself whether I couldn’t come up with some more interesting observations. [Ed. – Yeah, enough of this boring stuff filled with enticing, new-to-me names.]

It turns out, I loved reading some new old books (a series of newly rediscovered and partly very funny Proust manuscripts published as Les soixante-quinze feuillets in March) and some brand new ones (especially Lisa McInerney’s brilliant third volume of her Cork-based crime trilogy, The Rules of Revelation, Emine Sevgi Özdamar’s autofictional Ein von Schatten begrenzter Raum, and Shida Bazyar’s mindblowing Drei Kameradinnen, reviewed in English here); I also enjoyed some classics – which I would mostly read in bed chapter by chapter over longer stretches of time (from Olivia Manning’s Balkan and Levant Trilogies to Middlemarch to Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh). I took my cues from friends and Twitter-friends [Ed. – Wait, so we’re not like your real friends?], from the LRB, from other books. I was happy to break open volumes I already owned (Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear; Susanna Clarke’s Piranesi; Bely’s Petersburg) and to pick up new ones (Pola Oloixarac’s Mona; Percival Everett’s Erasure). Hopping between languages and centuries was always something of a comparatist’s credo with me [Ed. — Comparatists 4eva!]. But I hesitate to call this a noteworthy pattern.

It does not escape my attention that despite buying new books at a steady rate, I picked up stacks of books from the library as well, often going there twice a week. A reduced social life will do that sometimes. And perhaps it is true that during the pandemic I was a more restless reader than usual. Unsurprisingly, there are quite a few books I did not finish. Looking at my rather disparate and unsystematic notes (I have neither a Goodreads account nor physical lists), I can’t come to any definitive conclusions. I know that I listened to an incredible amount of Grateful Dead live shows in 2021, something I had never done before. But to relate all of my reading habits to the state of the world and my own preoccupations? To quote from a recent read, Anna Wood’s book of short stories Yes Yes More More, “I kn[o]w better than to think for too long about my internal organs after taking acid.”

Helene Funke, Dreams, 1913

Maybe, one day such patterns will emerge more clearly, and I’ll be the wiser for it. In the meantime, I’d rather mention another discovery that is already turning into a reading project. I always liked concrete poetry (well-established in Austria with writers such as Ernst Jandl, seen here performing at the Royal Albert Hall in 1965), and between that interest and preparing an introductory lecture about poetry, I came across a recent volume by the Brooklyn-based publisher Primary Information, Women in Concrete Poetry 1959–1979. Since overlooked women writers are always a high priority, I couldn’t resist, and the volume doesn’t disappoint. It features 50 poets from all over the world (from Sonja Åkesson to Chima Sunada to Rosmarie Waldrop), with a selection that mostly follows a 1978 Venice Biennale exhibition curated by Mirella Bentivoglio. Accordingly, the volume looks very much like an exhibition catalogue, with thick glossy paper. The nature of the poetry lends itself to it, as well, written as it is in many languages, partly in color, with striking visual aspects and often presented as collages with repurposed images. Standing out for me were a few pages by the American Madeline Gins, in particular a page showing layers of text thickly typed over one another with a typewriter that I tweeted about in early December. The page ends with the lines “The body is composed 98% of water. This page contains every word in the book.” So I read on. The passage comes from Gins’s book Word Rain (1969) which is reproduced in full in the 2020 Madeline Gins Reader The Saddest Thing is That I Have Had To Use Words (Siglio Press; ed. Lucy Ives), which I have only skimmed so far. Some of this is not exactly concrete poetry, but it is very appealing, so who cares. And anyway, filling some gaps in my knowledge of the contemporary Austrian writer Ann Cotten (herself a poet, novelist, and translator of Rosmarie Waldrop), especially the wonderful lecture series Was geht (2018), I was alerted to Liesl Ujvary, a Viennese poet who started out with a very funny volume in 1977, Sicher & Gut,some of which would certainly be classified as concrete poetry. These converging patterns are what keep me going. Ideally, two or three of them at once.