2020 Reading Log
33. John le Carré. The Pigeon Tunnel. NY: Viking, 2016. After making a geographical error in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, le Carré swore he would never write about anything he hadn’t visited in person, and so most of the short chapters in this jumble of a memoir deal with research jaunts to explore around the globe to explore place that will later appear in his many novels or to interview spies or warlords or other interesting characters. A surprisingly entrancing read for something I picked up for a dollar last year at the library sale.
32. Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. A deeply personal book of poems that was born out of the passing of her mother. It is tender and fearless and timely, her grief punctuated with anger over the killing of black men and the trauma of rape.For more on this book, see here.
31. Kate Atkinson. One Good Turn. NY: Little Brown, 2006. The second in Atkinson’s wonderful series of books starring Jackson Brody, former policeman and former private detective. Brody seems to attract trouble wherever he goes and this time he’s at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Before we know it, there’s a paid assassin on the loose, a baseball bat-wielding henchman cracking heads, a drowned woman, a missing business tycoon, and a few more odd events occurring, but neither the police nor Brody can put all of the pieces together. Atkinson is brilliant at juggling numerous threads until the last moment and at writing solid, entertaining novels that borrow enough elements from crime fiction to keep us turning pages late into the night.
30. Albert Memmi. The Scorpion; or The Imaginary Confession. NY: Grossman, 1971. Marcel, the narrator’s brother, Imilio, has disappeared and he is trying to intuit his state of mind by investigating a drawer full of texts and images that Imilio, a writer, has left behind. The plotless novel is essentially a set of philosophical arguments about life, loyalty, and colonialism. (Tunisia was just gaining independence from France as the events in the novel take place). As Marcel reads Imilio’s stories and bits of memoir, he can’t help but argue with his brother, both factually and philosophically. For more on this book, see here.
29. Francesca. Wade. Finding Dora Maar: An Artist, An Address Book, A Life. Los Angeles: Getty Publications, 2020. Benkemoun set out to find a replacement vintage Hermes address book for her husband and when it arrived she found that it still had a twenty-page index of telephone numbers from a previous owner tucked inside a pocket. Flipping through the pages, she immediately recognized famous names like Jean Cocteau, André Breton, Louis Aragon, Tristan Tzara, Balthus, and Brassaï. In fact, the address book was full of the names, addresses and phone numbers for key figures in the Parisian art and literary world of the 1920s and 1930s! So whose address book had she just purchased? With a bit of reverse engineering, Benkemoun figured out that it had belonged to Dora Maar (1907-1997), a painter and photographer, and the lover of Pablo Picasso from the late 1930s through about 1943. Benkemoun has written a strange but wonderful biography of a difficult and often private woman. For more on this book, see here.
28. Richard Siken. War of the Foxes. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2015. “The territory is more / complex than I supposed. What does a body of / knowledge look like?” In this book of poems, Tucson-based Siken grapples with questions like: How do we know anything? What does it mean to really see? A number of the poems deal with paintings and how art represents the world. Others confront the world, the landscape directly.
27. Denise Mina. Still Midnight. NY: Little Brown, 2011. This was the first in the Alex Morrow series and I was hoping to stumble on a series as good as Michael Connelly’s Bosch. A group of utterly inept lowlife criminals conduct a home invasion on an ordinary Muslim household, assured that there are millions inside. But when things go wrong, they kidnap the family’s father and demand two million quid in ransom. For Glasgow Detective Alex Morrow, nothing about this case seems routine, not the kidnappers and certainly not the seemingly normal Anwar family. Slowly the book branches off into areas that, for me, detracted from the main story. Morrow’s brother just happens to be a fairly important (and rich) member of a criminal gang and he ends up providing her some gang info to help out on her case. (As if.) And at the office, Alex fights gender battles with the male officers on the force so often that it finally becomes tiresome. No matter how true it is, this is a tired trope in crime fiction that has to be handled with care to feel fresh. She solved the crime, but I hardly cared.
26. Dola de Jong. The Tree and the Vine. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. Translated from the Dutch by Kristen Gehrman. De Jong fled The Netherlands in 1940 and eventually settled in New York City, where she wrote this book, which was published in Amsterdam in 1954 and then translated into English in 1961. Bea is a reserved secretary in Amsterdam who finds herself attracted to, then obsessed with, Erica, a carefree, reckless, half-Jewish woman who moves restlessly from one relationship to another, but who always comes back to Bea. As the years progress from 1938 to 1940 and Amsterdam is occupied by the Nazis, Erica’s betrayals worsen, Bea’s misery intensifies, and Erica is eventually being sought after by the Nazis. I couldn’t related to either woman, yet I read this book with growing admiration for what de Jong could accomplish with her spare prose. It’s a shame the book was given the odd English title, which bears no relationship to its original Dutch title and doesn’t tell the reader anything about the book. And I confess I don’t understand why Transit Books has given their publication a cover image that would make you think the book takes place in a tropical paradise.
25. Francesca Wade. Square Haunting: Five Writers in London Between the Wars. NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. Between the two World Wars, five important women writers lived on London’s Mecklenburgh Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Hilda Doolittle (the poet and writer known as H.D.), Jane Harrison (a pioneer of classical and anthropological studies), Eileen Powell (groundbreaking medieval historian), and Dorothy Sayers (mystery writer). Collectively, these biographies touch on politics, literature, history, and community, not to mention the affects of war on their lives. But the overriding theme in Wade’s fine book is clearly the endless obstacles that each of these women faced throughout their personal lives and careers for just being female. “All of these women’s lives contain periods of ambivalence, sometimes of deep unhappiness; nonetheless, in learning about each of them I have been moved by their determination to carve out new molds for living—varied, multiple, complex, sometimes dangerous, yet always founded on a commitment to personal integrity and a deep desire for knowledge.” For more on this book, see here.
24. Liam McIlvanney. The Quaker. NY: Europa Editions, 2019. Sometimes, the internal dynamics of the police station are just as interesting as the actual search for a serial killer. That’s the case in this well-written police procedural, when McIlvanney adds an outside detective to an already grim 1960s Edinburgh police station after the crew there have failed to make any progress. The author, who now lives in New Zealand, is the son of William McIlvanney, who wrote one of my all-time favorite mysteries, Laidlaw.
23. Scott Turow. Presumed Innocent. NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986. In my continued desire for some calorie-free entertainment, I turned to famed writer of legal thrillers Scott Turow, whose books I had never read before. Now I see why. It’s an odd book. It’s not a thriller. It’s not really a procedural, although it is a whodunit in its own odd way. And although it is a courtroom drama, this is not so much due to the wits of the hero attorney, Alejandro “Sandy” Stern, as it is due to the bumblings of the various witnesses. The plot twists might have amazed a reader thirty-five years ago, but not today. But most surprising of all is everyone’ acceptance of corruption and of letting bygones be bygones. Cops, district attorneys, even judges are corrupt – but that’s the system, so let’s just move on. Next case. Not for me.
22. Michael Connelly. The Late Show. NY: Little Brown, 2017. As a big fan of Connelly’s Bosch series, I thought I would see what he does with a female cop. Renee Ballard has been exiled to the night division because she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor several years ago and her male partner opted not to back her story up. Like Bosch, Ballard has a vague code of honor that she stands by; hers includes looking out for other women and calling out bad male behavior on sight. So, I was a little taken aback when Connelly has Ballard use sex to advance her own case. “It was one of the times Ballard unabashedly used her sexuality. If it could help persuade male officers to do what they were supposed to do, then she wasn’t above using it.” There are a lot of things about Ballard that make her little more than a male fantasy. Ballard has no home; she sleeps in a tent on the beach so she can surf, changing clothes in the police locker room. She occasionally has sex with the lifeguard, who watches over her tent in return. Enough. Michael Connelly needs to stick to male main characters.
21. Zbigniew Herbert. Still Life with a Bridle: Essays and Apocryphas. London: Notting Hill Editions, 2012. The Polish poet had a lasting interest in 17th century Dutch painting, which he wrote about beautifully and intelligently in this book. The essays cover some of his favorite painters and paintings and demonstrate his acute eye. The apocryphas are short pieces that blend fact and fiction in a very Sebaldian manner, often incorporating actual historical people, such as Rembrandt or Vermeer.
20. Keigo Higashino. Salvation of a Saint. NY: Minotaur Books, 2012. Translated from the Japanese by Alexander O. Smith with Elye Alexander. First, about the title: there is no saint in the book and there is no salvation. So I don’t know what the marketing people or the translators are doing here. Salvation is another how-did-he (or she)-do-it rather than a whodunnit, featuring Professor Yukawa (who gets marketed as “Detective Galileo.” I saw the device right away, but not the mechanism. This book doesn’t hold a candle to Higashino’s earlier The Devotion of Suspect X. Salvation is too long and it starts to suggest that Higashino is uncomfortably tradition-bound in the way he sees gender roles in Japanese society. Although it was pleasurable reading throughout, I was always aware that I was doing something escapist. I suspect this is the last of Higashino for me.
19. Jonathan Harr. The Lost Painting. NY: Random House, 2005. Harr’s account of the discovery of a lost paining by Caravaggio was great escapist reading, especially for an art historian like me. Multiple art historians and an art restorer from several different countries are all on the hunt for a painting that disappeared around two centuries ago, and their search takes them into archives in Italy, the Vatican, England, and Scotland in search of clues. Harr does a fine job of explaining the odd and precise detective work needed to finally trace the trail that the painting took to its strange final destination.
18. John Hawkes. The Beetle Leg. New Directions, 1951. The novel has no plot, although there are several elements that give the frustrating appearance of plot points. There are a handful of characters—a Sheriff (of course), a Mandan Native American, a bad ass gang of motor cyclists called the Red Devils, and a few others—but none of them really have any defining characteristics. But what The Beetle Leg does have in spades, however, is setting. In one sense, the Western landscape might be the central character in the book. A dam collapsed years ago, killing a man and leaving him buried in a “sarcophagus of mud.” And it is the hill and the body that remains afterward around which most of the novel is built. Full review here.
17. John Hawkes. Death, Sleep & The Traveler . NY: New Directions, 1974. This was a bit too Swinging Sixties for me. Playboys, cigars, lots of wine, and, um, schnaps? Allert, the Dutch narrator, his wife, and a psychiatrist have had a longstanding sexual triangle which has just broken up, so the husband takes an ocean cruise and becomes involved in another triangle with a sailor and a female passenger. “Allert’s theory is that the ordinary man becomes an artist only in sex. In which case pornography is the true field of the ordinary man’s imagination,” his wife proclaims. Sigh.
16. Stefan Chwin. Death in Danzig. NY: Harcourt, 2004. Translated from the Polish by Philip Boehm. The unnamed narrator was but a unborn child in his mother’s womb when his Polish family had to flee war-torn Warsaw and settle in part of an abandoned house they appropriated in what had been the German city of Danzig. The rest of the house is occupied by a quiet German anatomy professor who refused to flee when the Russians took control of the region in 1945. As the narrator grows up, he becomes obsessed with finding out about the prior life of the professor, and in doing so he tells a story of lives disrupted by war, of successive waves of people fleeing armies, of love and fear, and of the period of Sovietization of Poland shortly after WWII. A subtle but powerful book.
15. Emily St. John Mandel. Station Eleven. NY: Penguin Random House, 2014. Mandel gives us the interwoven stories of a handful of people before, during, and after a pandemic that kills nearly everyone on Earth. In other reviews much is made of the fact that one of the characters is part of a troupe of traveling actors and musicians who perform Shakespeare twenty years after the pandemic, but I was much more fascinated by the way in which the comic book series named “Station Eleven,” which was created by one of the novel’s characters, manages to impact the lives of so many other characters. Throughout Station Eleven, it is patently obvious that Mandel is manipulating the reader’s emotions, but the story is so good that I didn’t care. In this case it was a pleasure to watch someone so good at their job, a bit like watching a Hitchcock movie.
14. Thomas Bernhard. Concrete. NY: Knopf, 1984. Translated from the German by David McLintock. This is Bernhard at his best. Rudolf spends 120 pages basically whining about all of the reasons why he can’t begin writing his manuscript on the composer Mendelssohn Bartholdy and why he should—but can’t bring himself to—fly to Palma to escape the terrible weather of his rural Austrian region, when suddenly he is in Palma. In the final 40 pages he tells a tragic story of a woman he met there the previous year. This slippery book just shape-shifts page by page.
13. Adam Scovell. How Pale the Winter Has Made Us. London: Influx Press, 2020. Isabelle, who is staying in Strasbourg while on break from her university, has just learned that her father has committed suicide back in London. She is living at her partner’s apartment while he is conveniently on business in South America. Stunned by the death of her father, a failed painter, and at war with her “harridan mother,” Isabelle contemplates extending her stay in Strasbourg indefinitely. The idea comes to her “to stay in the city, and in some sense map it.” And so it is that Isabelle spends the winter alone in Strasbourg, exploring its streets and its history. As a scholar, perhaps it’s natural that she pours herself into research as a way of dealing with the mixture of grief and guilt she feels over her father’s death and her failure to return home to help her mother deal with the estate. Isabelle wanders, sits in coffee shops, and examines antiques. Eventually, a sense of melancholy settles in as Isabelle begins, in a strange way, to enjoy her isolation and loneliness, as she explores the lives of some of the intriguing citizens of Strasbourg’s history, several of whom Scovell has conveniently invented. Full review here.
12. John Hawkes. The Cannibal. NY: New Directions, 1949. The book begins and ends in 1945, during the final days of World War II, diverting with a middle section that takes us back to 1914 and the onset of the previous World War. In 1945, the Americans are sweeping across Germany in the final days of the war. In the 1914 section, which is more overtly allegorical, Hawkes takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany. In this, his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of his wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. Yet the novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. Full review here.
11. Dava Sobel. Galileo’s Daughter. NY: Random House, 1999. Audiobook read by Fritz Weaver. Sobel outlines the adult life of Galileo, but focuses on the prolonged controversy and trial before the Holy Office of the Inquisition over his reference to heliocentrism in his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, which was published in 1632 and led to his sentencing by the Inquisition the following year. Interspersed throughout the book are letters from Galileo’s daughter newly translated by Sobel, an illegitimate daughter he had placed in a nearby convent at the age of thirteen. These remarkable letters, at once tender, formal, and exceptionally articulate, open a direct window into life in the 17th century. Weaver’s grave, theatrical choice is a perfect for this title (and excellent for the car!).
10. María Sonia Christoff. Include Me Out. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020, translated from the Spanish by Katherine Silver. One day, finally tired of the “manipulative discourse” she had to deal with daily in her career as a simultaneous interpreter, Mara took action. Instead of translating to the assembled crowd, she launched into a fifteen minute speech that “examines, scrutinizes, dissects, and exposes” the “vacuous” speeches she had to listen to everyday. After being fired, she took a job where she could be utterly silent. She became a museum guard in a provincial town. But her plans go awry when she is promoted to help the conservator re-embalm the museum’s centerpieces—two famous horses of a specific local breed. It doesn’t take long before she decides to take revenge. Every few pages, Cristoff inserts some writings from a Notebook which summarizes books that she seems to think are relevant to her story. It’s not clear if she (the author) is reading these or if Mara (her character) is. Either way, this didn’t add much value to a story I found rather weak to begin with.
9. Julie Otsuka. The Buddha in the Attic. NY: Anchor, 2012. I read this and Annie Ernaux’s The Years simultaneously, two wildly different “collective biographies.” This truly is a collective biography, with no central character and richly deserving of “we” as its primary pronoun. Otsuka tells the multiple stories of Japanese women who came to America to become the brides of Japanese men already working here during the time between the two World Wars. Of course most of the men lied about themselves and their circumstances, not to mention the welcome that these women would find in America. And then came World War II, Pearl Harbor, suspicion of all Japanese immigrants, and finally American concentration camps for its own Japanese-American citizens. The many brief stories that Otsuka tells give this slim book a powerfully emotional wallop. “Is there any tribe more savage than the Americans?”
8. Nina Revoyr. Southland. Brooklyn: Akashic Books, 2003. This mystery came with great reviews and such a promising story line: in 1994 Los Angeles, circumstances bring a gay Japanese American woman and an African American man together to investigate the deaths of four teenagers which occurred thirty years earlier during the Watts riots in 1964 in the corner grocery store owned by her grandfather in the neighborhood where the Japanese and African American communities overlapped. The writing is better than adequate to tell a good, if sometimes clichéd story, but I couldn’t stand the use of an omniscient narrator who would tell the reader what each person in the room was thinking and even told us what the four teenagers were thinking to themselves as they died. Omniscience is the antithesis of mystery. Revoyr loves L.A. history (as do I) and I’ll probably give one of her more recent books a try.
7. Annie Ernaux. The Years. Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, translated from the French by Alison L. Strayer. This book, which launched the concept of “collective autobiography,” vacillates between two very distinct forms of narrative. The premise is that an unlikely pair of narratives can work together dialectically to construct a more complex self-portrait of the author. In one strand, Ernaux provides a history of post-war France as seen through her own subjective experiences and her very personal lens. These portions are written in first person plural, in ‘we.’ The second, alternating narrative is that of her own story as she grows up, except that Ernaux turns the ‘I’ of autobiography into the ‘she’ of biography. Ernaux treats the memories she has of herself as if they were the observations of another. The big themes for Ernaux are family, class, feminism, commercialism, and politics. Though when she writes about the collective history of her time, she speaks not for her entire generation but only for those her share her particular views. The Years is the story of her tribe. Full review here.
6. David Salle. How To See. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. For true enlightenment about what is really going on in an artist’s work, I would always turn to painter David Salle, who writes brilliant, jargon-free pieces from an artist’s perspective. Salle is not a critic; he generally won’t write negatively about an artist. I think of Salle as an ideal writer. “I think the task is to describe how the sensation evoked by a work of art emerges from the intersection of talent, formal decisions, and cultural context.” I’d like that to be my goal.
5. Graham Greene. The Third Man. The Fallen Idol. NY: Penguin, 1981. In his Preface to the “The Third Man,” Greene explains that this short story was written only for the purposes of becoming a film script and therefore shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But it’s still a great example of Greene at his best. It hardly matters if the facts are bare and sometimes confusing, what is dazzling is the narration. The story is a first-person narration by Colonel Calloway of Scotland Yard, who is currently working in the British Sector of divided Vienna immediately after the end of World War II. Calloway manages to become invisible for pages on end as he gives us a very omniscient third-person narration of the adventures and misadventures of Rollo Martins, the writer of “cheap novelettes” who comes to Vienna to find his friend Harry Lime (played by Orson Wells in Carol Reed’s famous film in 1949), who seems to have been run over by an automobile just before he arrived. When Calloway reasserts himself and returns with his first person narration, it feels like someone has just pulled the blinders off, widening one’s vision to see where one is really standing. “The Fallen Idol” is a very short story that was also made into a Carol Reed film of the same name in 1948.
4. Olga Tokarczuk. Flights. NY: Riverhead Books, 2018, translated from Polish by Jennifer Croft. With the widely disparate tales, short stories, and other types of brief writings that make up Flights, Tokarczuk is trying to see what happens when the hegemony that has ruled the novel form for centuries is eliminated, when there is no longer even a rudimentary combination of characters, plot, and/or continuity of time. Virginia Woolf nearly broke through this hegemony with Orlando, except for the fact that the main character keeps some remnant of continuity despite becoming different people and switching genders over several centuries. There are a number of contemporary novelists that are stripping the novel of its traditional elements in search of new forms and combinations. (It looks like Annie Ernaux is doing something along this vein with her novel <b>The Years</b>, which I am just starting and which is described as a “collective autobiography” of a time period.) What Tokarczuk seems to be trying to do is to create a novel in which the sole unifier is something philosophical. As I read the many often wonderful stories of Flights, some part of my brain was working overtime attempting to puzzle out what the theme was and the best I could come up with was “Mortality.” A surprising (and, to me, puzzling) amount of the book is given over to a number of stories that focus on 17th and 18th century history of embalming and more recent successes in saving human bodies through plastination and then sending them out on exhibitions such as “Bodies…The Exhibition” and “Body Worlds.”
3. Fiona Benson. Vertigo & Ghost. London: Cape Poetry, 2019. An incredibly powerful, moving second book of poetry by Benson. Half of the book is given over to a cycle of poems in which Zeus is often depicted as a rapist, sometimes imprisoned, sometimes on the chase. Contemporary events (like the widely ridiculed six-month sentence given to the Stanford University rapist in 2016) are sometimes referenced: “Zeus given/light sentence/temporary gaol./The judge delivers/that he is an exemplary member/of the swimming squad;/look at his muscular shoulders,/the way he forges through water;/ as for the girl” In the second half of the book Benson more or less continues to think along the lines of: “as for the girl…” She gives birth to a daughter, fears for what could happen to her two daughters, fears for what happens to women and children everywhere. “The trapdoor is always opening.” Her poems demonstrate how easy it is for one’s world to suddenly crack open, for sudden terror to descend. Nature is where we tend to turn to in such events, and in Benson’s poems Nature is beautiful, unforgiving, and “a useless sort of shield.” Benson’s language is precise, visceral, and sometimes raw. There is little tenderness and love to be found in these poems; but all the more valuable because so hard won. Highly recommended.
2. Tony Horwitz. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid that Sparked the Civil War. NY: Picador, 2011. I wanted to get a clear picture of John Brown’s key abolitionist activities and his impact on the movement as the United States headed toward civil war. Horwitz is a fine writer and researcher and makes the reader feel as if s/he were on the scene, as it were. Brown’s October 1859 raid struck fear into the hearts of many in the south and only six weeks later South Carolina voted to repeal its ratification of the U.S. Constitution made back in 1788. The raid, the words Brown spoke and wrote in the month before his execution, and the many speeches given by his abolitionist supporters, helped convince countless Northerners that only violence would end slavery. By coincidence, John Wilkes Booth was at Brown’s execution and Langston Hughes grandfather was one of Brown’s raiders, who was shot and killed during the first day of action.
1. Edward Parnell. Ghostland: In Search of a Haunted Country. A highly personal exploration of the idea of “haunted” in literature and film. It’s also a bit of travel guide to parts of England and Wales, a dash of history, and a family memoir. Highly readable. Full review here.