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2021 Reading Log

Other year’s reading logs can be found under the pull-down men Old Reading Logs, which is found at the top of this blog.

April

31. Kate London. Post Mortem. London: Corvus, 2015. In her first police procedural involving London Detective Sergeant Sarah Collins, Kate London—herself a former homicide cop—continually asks the tough question about when cops need to support each other and when they need to report each other. A senior cop, nearing retirement, and a young immigrant woman go hurtling to their deaths off the roof of a high-rise building, witnessed by a rookie cop and a young boy. DS Collins has to figure out why the rookie, Lizzie Griffiths, fled and, when caught, seems to be hiding something. Is she covering for the cop who died? Or does she have another secret? London writes well, keeps the tension up, knows her police work backwards and forwards, and doesn’t get carried away by some of the things that are trendy in detective fiction lately, such as her main character’s personal backstory or a female’s cop’s struggles in a testosterone-driven profession. London lets these elements simmer quietly in the background until absolutely essential.

30. Nicholas Freeling. Love in Amsterdam. Gollancz, 1962. Freeling takes some fascinating liberties with his first mystery involving Inspector Van Der Valk of the Amsterdam Police Department. Half of the chapters are narrator by Martin, the supposed murder “suspect”, who really isn’t a suspect in Van Der Valk’s mind, even though he has Martin locked up for several weeks “under suspicion.” Van Der Valk is simply trying to keep everyone thinking that the case is solved so that the real murder might slip up and show himself. In the end, Van Der Valk has to let Martin free and use him as bait in one last dangerous attempt to lure the murderer out into the open. Yes, this is Amsterdam, but still. Police procedurals were often less constrained fifty years ago. This series is off to a good start. We’ll see where it goes.

29. Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. On the copyright page of this book is the following statement: “This book is interested in memory, accumulating particulars, and retelling a good story. It is a work of nonfiction and fiction. Though it includes research and aims for veracity, the narratives ultimately rely on the author’s version of events. The author has been, and could still be, mistaken.” The pieces in this wonderful book (one hesitates to call them essays) morph slowly and mysteriously from subject to subject. Anything is game to Pagel’s curiously open mind—from sinkholes to Spiral Jetty, from Alexander Humboldt to Lucy Lippard. There are photographs, but they don’t often explain or illustrate. They suggest, instead.

28. John Clark. Conversations with a Novel Virus. Sheffield: self-published, 2020. Quirky, humorous, angry, and thought-provoking poems in the form of conversations between the poet and the coronavirus. Appended to the back of the volume are beautiful pen and ink drawing by Sarah Grace Dye made from the windows of her Frankfurt, Germany apartment. Inside the book is a double-page spread photograph showing two pages of Dye’s sketchbook and her bookmark, which is a flattened Corona beer can top, dangling from a string. Who knew that talking with a virus could be so witty? I want one of Dye’s sketches.

27. Virginia Woolf. The Years. 1937. Woolf consider The Years a failure, but it’s a delicious novel to read right on the heels of Mrs. Dalloway, which I re-read last month. It seems like she couldn’t figure out how to keep the disparate sections of this multi-generational novel smoothed over, but the writing makes up for the clunky jumps that happen as the years pass by. It’s a novel in which we find “the nineteenth century going to bed,” as one character puts it, and we witness the evolution of feminist issues, the Irish question, numerous social causes, open homosexuality, and other welcome liberal changes in the early years of the twentieth century.

March

26. Henry Chang. Chinatown Beat. NY: Soho Press, 2006. The first in a series featuring Detective Jack Yu, who works the Chinatown beat in New York City. He’s already looking for a serial rapist when a community leader and tong boss is murdered. On top of everything, his white superiors in the department don’t completely trust him simply because he’s Asian. Chang write in a better than competent noir style and he kept my interest going throughout the book, which serves as an excellent introduction into modern Chinatown. Even if detective stories aren’t your thing, Chang seems to give an insider’s view into an otherwise closed world full of secret societies, illegal activities, and hopeful immigrants.

25. Edward Dolnick. The Rescue Artist: A True Story of Art, Thieves, and the Hunt for a Missing Masterpiece. NY: Harper Collins, 2005. I was mostly interested in the 1994 theft of Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream from the National Gallery in Oslo and its eventual recovery by famed Scotland Yard detective Charley Hill, but the book is mostly filler. Dolnick gives us the story of other art thefts, Hill’s life story, and more padding. The general reader will probably find this of interest, but I was already familiar with most of it.

24. Patrick Modiano. Little Jewel. New Haven: Yale, 2016. Translated from the 2001 French original by Penny Hueston. Modiano tries on a female narrator for the first (and apparently only) time, though I don’t think there is much difference between this narrator and a male narrator. Thérèse, also known as Little Jewel, was abandoned by her mother years ago, but thinks she sees a woman who could be her in the Paris Metro. In rather typical Modiano fashion, she obsessively follows the woman and tries to learn more about her. But the more interesting half of the story deals with her part-time job. For several hours a day, Thérèse babysits the daughter of the Valadiers, a couple who suspiciously live in a furniture-free apartment. Thérèse notices that the parents never refer to the girl by her name (though neither does Thérèse, and the girl is simply called “the little girl” throughout the novel). And, indeed, one day Thérèse’s suspicions are born out and the family simply disappears. And with that, the novel ends, leaving Thérèse’s curiosity about the old woman hanging.

23. Javier Marias. Between Eternities: And Other Writings. NY Vintage, 2017. Every Sunday since 1994 (except August, when he takes a vacation) the Spanish novelist Javier Marias has written a weekly newspaper column, and it is from these that most of the pieces in this volume have been selected. They range from somewhat autobiographical pieces, to travel writing, to musings on literature and books, to cinema reviews. In fact, Marias is quite the movie lover and reviewer, perhaps because it was in the family. He had an uncle who was a movie director. The actor he deeply admired was Vincent Price, who had “a kind of hidden nobility.” For the most part, these pieces are not really essays, they are intended for a Sunday newspaper reader, so they are sometimes on the light side. Nevertheless, one comes away from the book with a better sense of Marias the man.

22. John le Carré. Call for the Dead. NY: Penguin. First published in 1962 by Walker and Co. A very early Smiley novel, in which le Carré is still figuring his character out a bit. Still, Smiley carries the book on his shoulders. The plot’s not much and le Carré cheats a lot by letting Smiley solve things and explain later. But, God, you have to love a pudgy, clutzy spy who is several moves ahead of everyone else.

19. Emily St. John Mandel. The Glass Hotel. NY. Penguin, 2020. I am a big fan of Mandel’s previous book, Station Eleven, but this one didn’t live up to my hopes. The Wall Street broker who owns the remote “glass hotel” on Vancouver Island happens to be running a Ponzi scheme that is creating an endless flow of cash for a handful of people for a limited time period. And when that time period runs out, some people flee, some end up in jail, and most end up with their life’s savings having vanished into thin air. In the midst of all of this, a handful of characters come and go across two decades, impacting each other’s lives in ways they usually unaware of. I’m afraid that Mandel asks us to overlook or buy into a few too many coincidental occurrences, a few too many long shots, in a story that is otherwise all about getting the details just right. Still, The Glass Hotel is very readable and largely entertaining.

18. Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. This is my first re-reading of the year and it still astonishes. Every page is a delight to read. Mrs. Dalloway is even better than I remembered, though I think Woolf struggled to make the party section work as well as the rest of the book. What I had forgotten was how little of the book is seen through Clarissa Dalloway’s perspective—maybe one-tenth? I’ve queued up several more of Woolf’s books in the near future.

17. Ben H. Winters. The Last Detective. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012. Tired of thinking about the Covid pandemic, I thought it might be more interesting to imagine our Earth being destroyed by a giant asteroid. That’s the premise behind this entertaining mystery. Scientists have just discovered that a giant asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and half the planet’s population will die immediately, the rest somewhat more slowly, when Henry Palace is finally promoted to detective in his small New Hampshire town. Despite the gloomy future, he is determined to discover who murdered the man found dead in the restroom of the local McDonalds, even though no one seems to want to help him. A large swath of the work force seems to have quit their jobs in order to pursue their bucket lists in the remaining months. As the collision date gets closer, people are choosing suicide over an unknown fate with an asteroid. And very few people care about ideas like justice or punishment any longer.

February

16. Manuel Vilas. Ordesa. NY: Riverhead, 2020. Translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Andrea Rosenberg. An “autobiographical novel” with photographs by the author. I normally don’t say anything about the books I dislike, but I disliked this with such a passion that I won’t hide my distaste for the writing in Ordesa, which is a nostalgic love letter to the town in which Vilas grew up (Ordesa, Spain), to his father, and to the 1970s. I guess this is what the writing of Karl Ove Knausgaard has made possible—an unedited version of what the narrator does during the day (showers, cooks, paces in his apartment) and whatever the narrator thinks, much of which is overblown or simply weird. “Teachers destroyed adolescence.” “My father never told me he loved me. My mother didn’t either. And I see beauty in that.” Poetry is precision, like capitalism. Poetry and capitalism are the same thing.”

15. Nathalie Sarraute. Tropisms. NY: New Directions, 2015. Translated from the 1939 French original by Maria Jolas. Written in the 1930s, these stunning, mysterious micro-stories are really dramatic situations that take place in the midst of everyday life, while cooking, at the dinner table, taking a walk. Sarraute makes something undefinable rise up out of snippets of action, brief conversations, cliches. The twenty-four Tropisms are scarcely more than a page long each, though it would take considerably longer to explains what happens in each one. Sarraute called them Tropisms because she thought of each as a slow dramatic movement that was of a “spontaneous, irresistible, instinctive nature, similar to that of the movements made by certain living organisms under the influence of outside stimuli, such as light or heat.”

14. Claire Tomalin. Samuel Pepys: A Life. NY: Knopf, 2002. I have been somewhat obsessed with Samuel Pepys and his Diary for a half century, fascinated by Pepys’s account of daily life in the 17th-century, of living through the Great Fire of London of 1666, the Second English Civil War, and the reigns of several important English monarchs. This is a well-researched, but rather workman-like biography. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and generally pretty scholarly. When she has to cut corners (because there is no evidence to support a supposition), Tomalin is usually pretty clear to tell the reader what she’s doing. She did a great job of situating the reader with whatever was needed to properly understand the context of the 17th-century situations in which Pepys found himself.

13. Enrique Vila-Matas. Vampire in Love and Other Stories. NY: New Directions, 2016. Let’s just say that the characters in Vampire in Love have issues. Several are mute, one communes with the paintings in a museum, one is a petty and unlikable liar. There is a hunchback in love with an altar boy, a man who rides the bus so that he can collect phrases that he overhears, and a father who wishes his eldest son was dead. Many of them seem to have, as one character does, “an inexhaustible trail of vague sadness.” The reader quickly learns that some of Vila-Matas’s narrators can be very unreliable. In other words, Vampire in Love is a great deal of fun to read. At least a half dozen of the nineteen stories are outstanding and only a few fell flat for me. The stories in this volume were both translated and selected by Margaret Jull Costa and they span “the author’s entire career,” we are told. The problem is that New Directions doesn’t bother to tell the reader which of Vila-Matas’s short story collections these stories have been plucked or when they were written. So, it’s really hard to understand how these stories might blend into his writing practice as a whole.

12. Dominique Crenn. Rebel Chef: In Search of What Matters. NY: Penguin, 2020. I am always fascinated by chefs and cooking, but Crenn’s story particularly appealed to me since we are both adopted, and part of the story within Rebel Chef is her search of her birth mother. The other part of her story that is appealing is how she says she has set up her San Francisco restaurants to be the opposite of the stereotypical sexist male-dominated kitchens we’ve all seen in countless television documentaries and Anthony Bourdain stories.

11. Enrique Vila-Matas. Mac’s Problem. New Directions, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes. Mac, who has always aspired to be a writer, decides to keep a private diary, which is the book we are reading. He also has a compelling fantasy to take up and completely rewrite one of the early, nearly forgotten books of his neighbor, Sánchez (the “celebrated Barcelona writer”), called Walter’s Problem, a novel which Mac finds “insufferable.” During much of the novel, Mac tells us what was wrong with Sánchez’s book and how he would rewrite it chapter by chapter. See my longer review here.

10. Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. Marias returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago, Oxford Don Sir Peter Wheeler and English spy boss Bertram Tupra, who recruit Spanish student Tomás Nevinson to become a spy for MI6. Nevinson returns to Madrid, marries Berta Isla, has two children, and disappears frequently for weeks or months on jobs he is not permitted to explain to her. Much of the book is told from her perspective as she tries to cope with a husband she can never really, truly know. And then Tomás disappears, apparently for good. As always, Marias is interested in the subjects of identity, whether and how people know each other, trust, betrayal, and, of course, country. This thought-provoking and compelling novel is set among the ethical uncertainties of post-Franco Spain and asks the question why a Spaniard might want to spy for Great Britain.

January

9. Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. In this extraordinary novel, Everett takes on whichever of his critics and readers have said or thought that he’s not “black enough,” that his novels don’t tend to deal with the black people that live (in the stereotypical imagination) in poor, single-parent homes in crime-ridden ghettos, that his characters don’t speak like the black characters in the gangsta rap of “The Wire.” Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a novelist much like Everett, accused of writing “dense, obscure novels.” When he sees the kind of money and movie offers thrown at the authors of books like We Lives in Da Ghetto, he’s initially scornful. But eventually, under economic pressures of his own, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in Ebonics under a pseudonym and becomes rich. The dialectic between staying a pure, marginalized novelist read by few or becoming an economically independent black entrepreneur becomes a fascinating tug of war for the reader to watch as it unfolds.

8. Gabriel Josipovici. On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion. Josipovici argues that since the time of the Romantics, artists have lost faith in the tools of their art and have looked back at the times of Homer and the Hebrew Bible as a period before the Fall, when the Arts were pure, were created in good faith. He then suggests how writers like Proust and Beckett and other artists such as Stravinsky and Picasso and the philosopher Wittgenstein have successfully negotiated the dialectic between trust and suspicions.

7. John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. This time, it was easier to appreciate and savor, if you will, the foreshadowing gloom that hangs over the love affair between the narrator and Athena from the very moment they meet. This adds greatly to both the tenderness and the raw sense of animal magnetism they feel for each other. Banville’s lyrical, “idiosyncratic” (according to one blurb) prose is perfectly attuned to the wonderful blend of art history and Dublin criminal underworld of this novel. There are times when I wondered if Banville ever met an adjective he didn’t like, but I really admire the power of his prose style in the era of Athena and The Book of Evidence (1989). These are books with long spiraling sentences, written with a robust vocabulary that made me check my dictionary now and then. So when Banville breaks stride and writes a simple declarative sentence, it stops you dead in your tracks and you realize you are in the hands of a master writer at the top of his or her game.

6. Wolfgang Koeppen. The Hothouse. NY: W.W. Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1953 original German by Michael Hofmann. This book follows a few days in the life of Herr Keetenheuve, a member of the postwar Bundestag and whose life is beginning to feel like a failure. Many of Keetenheuve’s positions make him a thorn in the side of his own political party, which, along with the German Chancellor, is pushing for significant German rearmament after the war. Keetenheuve has also lost his marriage, as his wife has fallen for another woman. The Hothouse is part of a triptych of compelling novels that Koeppen wrote in the early 1950s, angry at what his country had done during the Hitler years. See my longer review here.

5. Anuk Arudpragasam. The Story of a Brief Marriage. London: Granta, 2016. Having been stunned by his story “Last Rites” in the Fall 2019 issues of The Paris Review, I couldn’t wait to read his only novel. It doesn’t disappoint. It follows roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Dinesh, a young man living in a refugee camp of some tens of thousands of people in Sri Lanka. At a clinic where he volunteers, he meets a young woman, Ganga, whose father suggests that they marry. For a variety of reasons, it is possible that marriage might lessen some of the risks they might face from the soldiers who occasionally raid the camps. Amidst chaos, death, and total uncertainty about the future, Dinesh and Ganga each try to discover themselves in relation to the sudden appearance of this new person in their lives. This is beautifully observed writing that deserves slow reading; Anuk can take three or four delicious pages to describe Dinesh bathing himself or simply watching Ganga breathe as she sleeps.

4. Hisham Matar. A Month in Siena. NY: Random House. 2019. A Month in Siena went by, um, like a breeze. After the heaviness of The Return, in which Matar went looking in post-Qaddaffi Libya for clues to the disappearance and presumed murder of his father twenty-two years earlier, this book struck me as a bit too light. Seeking an escape, Matar plunges into the ancient streets and cemeteries of Siena, ponders a few of the city’s great examples of Sienese paintings, signs up for Italian lessons, and suddenly the month is over. This is a book of many small discoveries and bits of wonder (along with some good color illustrations of Sienese paintings), but Matar admits that any larger message continues to elude him.

3. Jenny Erpenbeck. Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces. NY: New Directions, 2020. In her preface, Erpenbeck refers to this volume as a collection and that’s exactly what it appears to be—a collection of pieces written between 2006 and 2018, often for presentation as lectures or talks. It does serve as a sketchy outline of a memoir, but that seems accidental (the subtitle is notably not part of the title of the book in its original German publication). The pieces deal with her own development as a writer and her work as a theater and opera director. But the real emotional heft in Not a Novel comes through when she writes about the fall of the Berlin Wall and, as she puts it, the sudden absorption of East Germany by West Germany. “When the wall fell, many East Germans ran straight into the arms of the new, the unknown. They ran with open arms to greet this new era, not knowing that its arrival would make them forever as second-class citizens.” Nevertheless, she credits this transition with making her a writer and with opening her eyes to the troubles of other refugees. “Why do we still hear laments for the Germans who died attempting to flee over the wall but almost none for the countless refugees who have drowned in the Mediterranean in recent years, turning the sea into a giant grave? Why?”

2. Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1954 German original by Michael Hofmann. Throughout this novel, we will follow members of the Pfaffrath family members as they explore the Eternal City of Rome, meet in various combinations, plot, sin, and discover family secrets. The two most prominent family members are Gottlieb Judejahn, a former SS general who has been convicted and sentenced to death in absentia at the Nuremberg Trails, but who now runs the military of an unnamed Arab nation under an assumed name, and Siegfried Pfaffrath, a young German composer whose composition is having its premiere soon at a concert hall here. But family secrets and irrepressible personal urges that will ultimately prove fatal. It is Koeppen’s conceit is to bring these Germans to Rome, a city “built on the bodies of its victims,” let them loose and watch them self-destruct. In doing so, he intends to let everyone’s true nature shine through, exposing whatever might have led the German people to go astray. Full review here.

1. Leslie Thomson. The Detective’s Daughter. London: Head of Zeus, 2013. When her father, a retired police detective drops dead of a heart attack while pursuing a cold case with files he unofficially took home, his daughter Stella, who runs a house cleaning service, decides to keep looking into the 20-year old murder of a woman on a nearby beach while her child played a few yards away. The book is eminently readable, but is far too long and, ultimately, I didn’t find that the denouement was worth the wait.

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