2020 Reading Log
Best Books of 2020
Of the seventy-odd books that I read this year, here are the eighteen titles I found most outstanding. This list contains ten novels, three non-fiction titles, two volumes of poetry, one collection of essays, one book of detective fiction, and one collection of art journalism. Seven of the titles were published in 2020, five in 2019, and the remaining six are scattered across the years 1949-2016. So here goes, in order by author. After these, you’ll find a list all of the other books I read in 2020.
Rachel Cohen. A Chance Meeting: Intertwined Lives of American Artists and Writers, 1854-1967. NY: Random House, 2004. Cohen is now much more well-known for her recent book about Jane Austen, Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels. But, not being much of an Austen fan, I prefer her earlier book of thirty-six short biographical essays about how writers and artists affected each other, how their meeting—chance or otherwise—changed their work or their life. One of the reasons I’m such a fan of this book is that Cohen is such a good writer. What she does so well is give sharply observed introductions to artists and writers we all need to know better or ones we should take a second look at, like William Dean Howells, W.E.B Du Bois, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Carl Van Vechten, Katharine Anne Porter, Hart Crane, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Beauford Delaney, and Richard Avedon. It’s a bit like chemistry class; put two people together and watch for a reaction.
Tressie McMillan Cottom. Thick and Other Essays. NY: The New Press, 2019. Cottom is a sociologist and MacArthur Fellow and someone everyone should read and follow. Her essays are entertaining, edgy, and wise. Although she writes primarily about the perspective and roles of Black women, her pieces range far and wide, so it’s really hard to say what any piece is really about. Let’s just say I adored Thick. Here’s Cottom on the title of her book: “Sociology comes as close to the core of where my essays start as anything else I have explored. Drawing on what ethnographers have called thick description, I finally found a label as complex as my way of thinking.” A powerful book.
Percival Everett. Telephone. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2020. Everett’s understated style is really beginning to grow on me. It’s so easy to read his novels for their compelling story lines and miss the subtle but powerful undercurrents that are playing out just below the surface. In Telephone, Zach Wells, a professor of geology and paleobiology, and his wife learn that their daughter has a rare and incurable genetic defect that will kill her within a few years and, in the meantime, will slowly take away her speech and motor skills. Unable to do anything to help save his daughter, Zach instead heads out on a quixotic mission aimed at rescuing some women he imagines are being held captive in the New Mexican desert. Full review here.
Colette Fellous. This Tilting World. San Francisco: Two Lines Press, 2019. Translated from the 2017 French original by Sophie Lewis. A novel that poses as a memoir, This Tilting World is situated in Tunisia just after the beginning of the Arab Spring. The narrator, who is probably a fictionalized version of the author, grew up in that country, but has lived in France for many years. Her family of European origins suddenly felt unwelcome there after Tunisian independence in 1956. But she has just returned to Tunisia after a very close friend has died of a heart attack. On the previous day, thirty-eight people, mostly tourists, were murdered by terrorists on the beach not far from Tunis. So what is her relationship to Tunisia now? She looks back over parent’s lives as Europeans embedded in Tunisian life, on her own wonderful childhood there, and then at her more complex relationship to the Tunisia of today. The power of this book lies in its vivid imagery, the immediacy of Fellous’s writing, and the intimacy of the self-examination of her narrator. The novel includes a number of photographs by the author. Full review here.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths. Seeing the Body. NY: W.W. Norton, 2020. If any book speaks directly to the year 2020, it is this one. Griffiths’s poems are tender and fearless and timely. Her grief is punctuated with anger over the killing of black men and the trauma of rape. This is both a deeply personal book of poems born out of the passing of her mother and a startlingly public book that is called into being whenever events happen and Griffiths knows she cannot be silent. “Threading the silver crust / of a nightmare with stars, I stitch / & pull my mother’s name / through white stones that do not burn / in the riverbed of blood / beneath my tongue. The moon / is a knuckle, the crown of a nightly fist / pressed against my mouth. Tears / pour from my mouth. In absentia / someone votes for my life.” (From “Good Night”) Full review here.
John Hawkes. The Cannibal. NY: New Directions, 1949. This is writing I would follow anywhere. In his first novel, Hawkes seems barely in control of a wild, exuberant, almost runaway story that feels like a series of scenes crazily stitched together without much continuity. He takes the reader on a bizarre trip through a very strange Germany, mostly during the final days of World War II. The novel is filled with immensely original writing that seems to come straight out of a fever dream. I haven’t read all of Hawkes’s subsequent novels, but I’m guessing that he never achieved the same intensity ever again. Full review here.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the German original of 1954 by Michael Hofmann. From the title page until the last words of the novel, Koeppen’s Death in Rome moves relentlessly towards it fatal end. In our era, when novels are often full of endless digressions, it is startling to read one which signals its intentions from the start and never wavers for a moment. Not a sentence is wasted in this compact book of a mere 202 pages. Like Koeppen’s first novel, Pigeons on the Grass, Death in Rome funnels everything toward one culminating event, an evening performance of a new piece of symphonic music by the young German composer Siegfried Pfaffrath in a concert hall in Rome sometime in the years shortly after WWII. Unbeknownst to Siegfried, his extended family is assembling for a reunion in Rome, including a former SS general, currently in hiding, who has been convicted in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails for his role in the Final Solution against Jews. Family secrets and irrepressible personal urges will prove fatal.
Gabriel Josipovici. Forgetting. Manchester: Little Island Press, 2020. I debated for a while whether to chose this book or the two novels I read by Josipovici this year, Contre-jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard (1986) or Hotel Andromeda, (2014), which I just recently finished. But in the end, the choice became obvious. What a remarkable little book Forgetting is! Josipovici takes the subject of memory and forgetting across an incredible spectrum of subjects and writers, from Alzheimer’s to the Holocaust, from Homer to Hamlet, from Nietzsche to Donald Trump, from Laurence Sterne to Kafka. What I love about Josipovici is that he leaves little unexploded mind nuggets on nearly every page, little hints at things for the reader to go off and explore on her own. After reading Forgetting, my understanding of Hamlet is forever changed. And this is the first book I have read that coherently addresses the issue of American Civil War monuments and other relics of the “memory wars” that are currently taking place over who should be honored from our past. How Josipovici packs so much into small books never ceases to amaze me.
Esther Kinsky. Grove. Oakland: Transit Books, 2020. While not as powerful as her 2017 novel River, I found this meditative, observational, understated novel made me continually meet her halfway and not just be a passive receptor. In Grove, a recently widowed narrator (not unlike Kinsky herself, whose husband died in 2014) goes to rural Italy to walk and reorder her life. In the process, she thinks deeply about death, nature, family, memory, and the role of art—most notably pondering the books of the Italian writer Giorgio Bassani and some of the paintings of Fra Angelico. For a novel in which literally nothing “happens” except that a woman goes on daily walks, there is exceptional richness to be had here.
Nathalie Léger. I can’t recommend highly enough the unclassifiable triptych of books by Nathalie Léger, put out by the extraordinary publishing group called The Dorothy Project. This trio of smart, short books by Léger, which blur the boundaries between novel, documentary, contemporary art, art history, and memoir have all have been translated from the French by Natasha Lehrer. Asked to write a short entry for a film encyclopedia about American actress and film director Barbara Loden’s only film Wanda, Léger “got carried away,” studied everything she could about Loden and her film, and in the end created this book, Suite for Barbara Loden (2016), a rather amazing book about identity, biography, and so much more. Is it a novel? Is it a piece of documentary writing? Whatever, it’s brilliant. Exposition (2020) is about the Countess of Castiglione, supposedly the most photographed woman of the nineteenth century, and a museum exhibition that the author failed to create. And The White Dress (also 2020) is a powerful dual story about the Italian artist Pippa Bacca and Léger’s mother. To create an art performance piece, Bacca decided to hitchhike through mostly war-torn countries in Europe wearing a wedding gown, but part way through she was raped and killed in Turkey. Léger pairs Bacca’s story with revelations she learns about her own mother to create an unforgettable story about two women.
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. (And you thought Covid-19 was dire?) Although the core of the book is about theater and a troupe of traveling actors and musicians who manage to perform Shakespeare’s plays to groups of survivors twenty years after the pandemic, I was just as fascinated by the role that the comic book series titled “Station Eleven,” which was created by one of the novel’s characters, also manages to impact the lives of so many of the book’s characters. This is a very good story, told well and tightly, not unlike watching a Hitchcock thriller.
Liam McIlvanney. The Quaker. NY: Europa Editions, 2019. I’m a sucker for a great police procedural or detective story or mystery or any creative mashup of these ingredients. I want a good mystery and I want solid writing—in other words, a guaranteed page-turner. My gold standard is a book like Laidlaw by William McIlvanney, who happens to be Liam’s father. (Who knew that writing great police procedurals was genetic?) Sometimes, the internal dynamics of the police station can be just as interesting as the actual search for a serial killer. That’s the case in this well-written police procedural, when Duncan McCormick. an outside detective, is assigned to an already grim 1969 Glasgow police station after the crew there have failed to make any progress on a case. The local cops aren’t happy. Well-written, with (to my American ears, anyway) great Scottish dialogue.
David Salle. How To See: Looking, Talking, and Thinking about Art. NY: W.W. Norton, 2016. For true enlightenment about what is really going on in an artist’s work, I would always want to turn to painter David Salle, who writes brilliant, jargon-free pieces from an artist’s perspective. Salle does not write as a critic, but I think of him as an ideal writer of the kind that I aspire to here at Vertigo. “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.” These are mostly reviews gathered from magazines and exhibition catalogs, but you can tell from the book’s four sections what Salle is up to: 1. “How To Give Form to an Idea,” “Being an Artist,” “Art in the World,” “Pedagogy and Polemics.”
Olga Tokarczuk. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. NY: Riverhead Books, 2019. Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. A wise and often funny novel that makes great use of the work of William Blake. The narrator, Janina, dabbles in astrology and speaks up for the rights of animals. In an obscure Polish village that is filled with wonderful characters, she is looked upon by many of the locals as the crazy lady. The village becomes roiled when, one by one, a series of important local officials become murder victims. Every time that I was about ready to think that the quirkiness was getting to be over-the-top, a brilliant piece of writing pulled me right back. I can see why it won a Man Booker International Prize last year. I liked this much better than her book Flights.
Francesca Wade. Square Haunting: Five Women, Freedom and London Between the Wars. NY: Tim Duggan Books, 2020. Despite being perhaps a bit overlong for my taste, Wade’s fascinating collective biography of five prominent women writers focused on how each dealt with the challenge of being female in world where females were not meant to succeed. Between the two World Wars, each of these 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). Wade uses this fact to weave a story of central London’s intellectual history over several decades.
Andrew Zawacki. Unsun:f/11. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2019. Unsun is a book of poetry that will force you to look at things differently, more precisely. Zawacki pays an atomistic attention to every detail—to every sound, movement, cloud formation, color—and he wants the most precise word or phrase for that detail, regardless of what discipline the word might come from, whether that’s from chemistry or metallurgy or wherever, no problem. I couldn’t grasp most of Zawacki’s poems during the first read-through, but I knew I was reading something astonishing. Most of the poems in Unsun deal with nature, with walks outdoors, through forests, into a “fox field at evenfall.” He is especially attuned to the many ways in which industry and technology are attacking and, often, ruining our environment. “The sky is not falling it’s / failing.” Full review here.
Other Books of 2020
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.
Kate Atkinson. When Will There Be Good News? NY: Little, Brown, 2008. The the third Jackson Brodie mystery, as she has done so ably before, Atkinson provides several very entertaining stories and slowly pulls the string that brings them into a single mystery. I thought this was an improvement on the previous incarnation, One Good Turn., which might have gotten out of hand a bit. These books fill an odd niche on the mystery spectrum, because so much attention is paid to setting up the various side stories and solving the puzzle is relegated to the very end of the book. But so far they’ve all been great fun.
Giorgio Bassani. Within the Walls. NY: Norton, 2018. A series of linked short stories about Ferrara, Italy, Bassani’s hometown. They all take place in the years spanning World War II and deal, often obliquely, with subjects like responsibility and guilt, as individuals struggle with the rise of Fascism, the incursion of German forces, and the aftermath of realizing that some of their fellow citizens collaborated in the process of sending many Jews and other from the city to their deaths, while most of the city knew what was happening and did nothing. The writing is a mixed bag and often lacks the power of his novels to come. This novel is part of the super volume called The Novel of Ferrara.
Brigitte Benkemoun. 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.
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.
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.
Sara Blaedel. The Midnight Witness. NY: Grand Central Publishers, 2018. Translated from the Danish by Mark Kline. My search for a new mystery series continues in disappointment. I was underwhelmed by this first in the series of policiers involving Copenhagen homicide detective Louise Rick. Nothing whatsoever kept pulling me back to the characters or the plot.
Ken Bruen. The Guards. NY: Minotaur Books, 2007. Yeah, there’s a serial killer on the loose and yeah there’s a private investigator (of sorts) in former Irish garda officer Jack Taylor. But no, he doesn’t solve the case, he’s too stupidly drunk most of the time to remember anything or be effective. Not only that, but he accidentally killed someone in his living room and secretly buried the body. And his “associate” decided to murder the serial killer rather than turn him in. Plus the associate also killed Taylor’s best friend. All the book’s blurbers praise it for the great writing in this, the first of a long series of Jack Taylor books but even that’s only so-so and nowhere near enough to outweigh the cynicism.
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.
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.
T.J. Clark. Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism. New Haven: Yale, 1999. The label “art historian” doesn’t do justice to Clark, who brings so much more to the table. For starters, he looks more intently and with more curiosity at works of art than any writer I have read. And then he articulates all that he sees so judiciously. Rather than pontificate, Clark lets the reader watch as he thinks, as his responses to a work of art unspool. This book deals with the nature of Modernism—or rather the many Modernisms that have existed—from Jacques Louis David and the French Revolution through Abstract Expressionism and the Cold War. As Clark demonstrates, Modernism is always bound up with the reining social order, whether that is revolution, socialism, communism, or capitalism.
Rachel Cohen. Austen Years: A Memoir in Five Novels. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020. Although I have only read one Jane Austen novel (and that more than twenty years ago), I have become a big fan of Rachel Cohen’s writing and I enjoyed this book as much as anyone could who is largely ignorant of Austen’s work. Cohen demonstrates how multiple readings of an author and of a handful of books over a lifetime can lead to ever changing and ever deeper insights. She is particularly good at showing the small signs of how the Napoleonic Wars and the issue of slavery found their way into the novels. An added plus is Cohen’s own memoir, mostly about her father’s illness and death.
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.
Charles Cumming. A Colder War. NY: Harper Collins, 2014. The second Thomas Kell espionage novel. A page-turner that doesn’t really take advantage of its locations (Istanbul, etc.). I’m probably not the only person who finds the romance aspect off-putting. Otherwise, Cumming knows how to keep me hooked.
Charles Cumming. A Foreign Country. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2012. The first Thomas Kell novel. Kell is a disgraced former MI6 officer asked to help the British Secret Intelligence Service with a very delicate task that might get him back into good graces. Cumming knows his spy-craft and he kept me intrigued and entertained as Kell moved around Paris, the south of France, Algeria, and England (not bad for a travel-starved reader). Maybe not quite John le Carré, but I’ll take it.
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 relate 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.
Joan Didion. Slouching Towards Bethlehem. NY: Simon & Schuster, 1968. Somehow, I have never read Didion before. Some of these essays, which focus on the strangeness of California in the Sixties, have become dated, others failed to interest me, but the writing! There’s a cockiness that lets her be so daring and that puts these essays in a league of their own. I found myself reading on even when I hadn’t the slightest interest in the essay any longer, just surfing on the wave of her confident voice.
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.
R.F. Foster. On Seamus Heaney. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2020. I’m always surprised to find that I have more books by Seamus Heaney than any other poet in my library. But I have always responded to his earthiness, to the way his poems seize of the physicality of things. “Between my finger and my thumb / The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.” (from “Digging”). And I’m always watchful of the way in which he handled (or didn’t) the Troubles of Northern Ireland. Foster’s new book does a fine job of explicating the relationship between Heaney’s life and his books of poetry, especially the impact that the winning of the Novel Prize had on his career and personal life.
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.
Xiaolu Guo. I Am China. NY: Doubleday, 2014. A London-based translator is given a stack of mysterious photocopied documents to translate from the Chinese. As she works her way through the documents, she begins to suspect that the author is the son of a high -ranking Chinese official, a young man who has rejected his own government, become a rock musician, and is now a “non-person” and on the run for his life. But where is he and can he be found before the Chinese government gets to him? The book reproduces photographs and images of various Chinese texts.
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.
John Harvey. Lonely Hearts. NY: Mysterious Press, 1989. The first in the series involving jazz-loving, divorced Detective Inspector Charlie Resnick of the Nottingham Police Department starts off very promising, but bogs down in the middle and then seems to end abruptly and, to my mind, unsatisfactorily. Not sure if I’ll try another or not. Two murdered women were found to have met their killer through the notices they placed in the personal ads.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Gabriel Josipovici. Contre-Jour: A Triptych After Pierre Bonnard. Manchester: Carcanet, 1998, originally published in 1986. This deceptively modest book essentially consists of two monologues: a daughter speaking to her mother and then the mother speaking to her daughter. The mother is the wife of a painter modeled after Pierre Bonnard. The daughter, we learn midway through the book, was never conceived, is a product of the mother’s imagination. The real topic of the book, however, is art—what art is and everything one must (or seemingly has to) forego or ignore or otherwise push aside to make art.
Gabriel Josipovici. Hotel Andromeda. Manchester: Carcanet, 2014. Helena is struggling to write her latest art book, this one on the American Joseph Cornell, who is primarily known for his fantasy boxes that contain flea market items, old photographs, and collaged materials from books and magazines. Interrupting her work is a struggling photojournalist from the Czech Republic, sent by her sister, who suggested he might stay in her spare room for a few days. Those “few days” stretch on and on and the book largely consists of the juxtaposition between her writing on Cornell and how he found his fantasy life through art and the conversations she has with the photojournalist that are often about much darker subjects. Josipovici deftly avoids making anything about this combination of themes awkward or pointed.
John Keene. Annotations. NY: New Directions, 1995. A series of thirteen lush, thematically-related stories that span several centuries, with each story written in a style appropriate to the time period. It’s an ambitious attempt to reshape our understanding of the history of the New World by reinserting black experiences back into the all too familiar narrative of conquest and expansion. Full review here.
John Keene. Counternarratives. NY: New Directions, 2015. A brief autobiographical novel that can feel like a prose poem at times. The text is comprised of telegraphically short memories, brief mentions of key historical and cultural markers, and place names from the narrator’s childhood—the kind of marginalia that might pencil in the outline for an eventual biography. Full review here.
Sharon Kivland. Freud on Holiday. (Volume III: The Forgetting of a Proper Name). Athens: Cube Art Editions, 2011. I’ll just let this one slim volume stand in for all eight of the titles in Kivland’s series of books in which she plays with Freudian concepts by pretending to take—or to simply writes about—Sigmund Freud’s vacations. Dr. Kivland is an artist, a professor, and the publisher of the wondrous small independent press MA BIBLIOTHÈQUE, and she’s having way too much fun with Freud. This volume includes reproductions of Freudian-era postcards representing the locations where Freud vacationed during the times discussed. Other volumes include photographs, drawings, and other kinds of reproductions. For enlightenment on the full series, see this article in Art Journal.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Pigeons on the Grass. NY: New Directions, 2020. Translated from the 1951 German original by Michael Hofmann. This book about post-war Germany follows the actions of approximately two dozen characters through a single day in post-war Munich. The Germans, along with a handful of their American “conquerors” who now occupy the city, shop, have coffee, run errands, pawn their valuables, and generally go about their daily lives. It soon becomes apparent that every one of them manages to misunderstand the intentions and statements of everyone else. Part one of a triptych. I wrote a longer review here.
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.
Deborah Levy. Swimming Home. London: And Other Stories, 2011. A spare, tight, and compelling story about unhappy, unlikable Brits vacationing on the French Mediterranean. Kitty Finch, a strange young woman who likes to swim nude in the pool becomes an uninvited guest in the household of Joe, a poet, Isabel, a globe-traveling journalist, and their daughter Nina. Needless to say, something unexpected emerges from everyone. Levy plants plenty of bread crumbs and intellectual nuggets to keep the mind of any reader spinning.
Hisham Mater. The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between. NY: Random House, 2016. My real intention was to read Mater’s more recent book A Month in Siena, but it seemed important to understand the true family story he tells here of how his father was kidnapped by agents of Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi and imprisoned in the notorious Abu Salim in 1990 never to emerge. The Return is both an eloquent family memoir and a moving homage to his father.
Adrian McKinty. The Cold, Cold Ground. Hoboken: Seventh Street Books, 2012. It’s Belfast, 1981, and as IRA prisoners on hunger strike start to die, the streets turn violent. The Troubles makes a very intriguing backdrop for a police procedural dealing with several murders, especially for a Catholic detective in a Protestant neighborhood. McKinty writes well and I was with him and his detective Sean Duffy for 90% of the book, but I thought the ending was, pardon the pun, a cop out.
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.
Daniel Mendelsohn. Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate. University of Virginia Press, 2020. Ring composition is basically when a narrative appears to digress from its obvious direction only to later return to the point where it originally left off. Using a scene of Odysseus’s return to Ithaca from Homer as an example, Mendelsohn looks at Eric Auerbach, who writes about ring composition in his seminal 1946 book Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature , as well as two authors who used ring composition—François de Salignac de La Mothe-Fénélon (1651-1715) and W.G. Sebald. Why these three men? Mendelsohn was curious about “the connections between political exile and narrative digression.” I wrote a longer review here.
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.
Abir Mukherjee. A Rising Man. NY: Pegasus, 2017. More pandemic escapism! Captain Wyndham arrives in Calcutta in 1919, to become a detective in His Majesty’s Imperial Police Force. His assistant is Sergeant Surrender-not Banerjee (because no one can pronounce his first name). Together, they realize that their first murder case, of a well-dressed and well-connected Brit, might not be the act of Indian terrorists after all. Wyndham’s first few weeks in Calcutta are an education in British racism as he slowly comes to understand what his countrymen have done are doing to India.
Magdalen Nabb. Death of an Englishman. NY: Soho, 2001. Originally published back in 1981, this classic mystery offers an insider’s look at Florence, Italy. Compact, wonderfully written, and with great characters, Death of an Englishman introduces Marshall Guarnaccia in a distinctly odd manner. He’s ill throughout the book and thus rarely takes center stage. Yet he quietly observes from afar and sees what those at the scene fail to grasp.
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?”
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.
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.
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.
Ronan Sheehan. Foley’s Asia. Dublin: Lilliput Press, 1999. In an ingenious twist, Sheehan builds a novel largely around the works of nineteenth century sculptor John Henry Foley (1818-1874). Many of Foley’s sculptures were commissioned to portray the “heroes” of the British Empire who, in reality, committed atrocities in Asia and elsewhere through the slaughter of thousands and the cruel treatment of entire populations. Some of Foley’s works are shown in photographs throughout the book.
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.
Ali Smith. Autumn. NY: Penguin, 2016. The premise is promising. Elisabeth is an art historian whose teaching job at a university is tenuous (like everything in Britain). She was born in the ominous year of 1984 and is living in the ominous year in which Britain is about to break off from Europe. Her best friend has always been a man named Daniel, who is now 101 and lies in a bed in a care center, asleep and nearing death. She comes and reads classic novels like Brave New World and A Tale of Two Cities to him. But mostly the novel flits between her daily frustrations with British bureaucracy and inefficiency and her memories of growing up. Occasionally we are permitted into the dreams and memories of Daniel. It’s a book, in part, about the magic of reading, and Ali’s writing is poetic and transporting. This is only the first novel I have read by Smith, but it feels like the constant flitting from one moment to another can be a way of avoiding taking some themes to deeper levels.
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!).
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.
Joanna Walsh. Break.Up. South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018. A diaristic account of a month of more or less random traveling after the narrator has broken up with (or been dumped by) her boyfriend. As she criss-crosses Europe, mostly by train, she ponders subjects like love, communication, travel, language, literature, and the Internet. The narrator has a witty, analytical mind, which leads to intriguing conversations with herself (she barely converses with anyone else throughout the entire book). Each chapter begins with a photograph (“Avoid: museums, galleries, churches, tourist spots. Avoid photographing anything too ‘typical’ of the country. Avoid anything ‘beautiful’.”) Break.Up is much more fun than I’ve made it sound, and it’s a great quarantine read, since she travels to wonderful European cities.