A Few Reading Highlights, After a Third of a Year – 2021
This seemed like a good time to pick out a few of the best books that I have read this year that haven’t made it into my blog. Just as a reminder, I write a little bit about every book I read during the year on the 2021 Reading Log, which can be found at the top of my blog. (I know the link wasn’t working earlier this year, but that has been corrected.)
At the top of my list of favorites are two Virginia Woolf classics, Mrs. Dalloway and The Years, but I won’t say anything more about them here. And I have already written at some length about two outstanding books by Wolfgang Koeppen, Death in Rome and The Hothouse. If you’ve followed Vertigo for awhile, you probably know that I greatly value good detective stories and police procedurals. So far this year, three have stood out among the handful that I’ve read: Ben H. Winters, The Last Detective (Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2012); Nicholas Freeling, Love in Amsterdam (Gollancz, 1962); Kate London, Post Mortem (London: Corvus, 2015). But here are seven books that I thought warranted your attention.
Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. The following statement is blandly appended to the copyright page of this book, but don’t overlook it: “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 usually don’t explain or illustrate. Instead, they tend to complicate the words around them. Pagel seems obsessed with those moments when the wobbling mind daydreams about “strange associations, abstract anxieties, and bewildering, unintelligible images.” Most of us gloss over such moments, but Pagel probes them for the creative leaps they take across our mind’s synapses.
Enrique Vila-Matas. Vampire in Love and Other Stories. NY: New Directions, 2016. Selected and translated from the Spanish originals by Margaret Jull Costa. Let’s just say that the characters in Vampire in Love have issues. Several characters 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. I didn’t love every story, but a number of them were superb.
Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. In many of his books, Javier Marias has been obsessed with the trappings of traditional marriage. He has found ways to put the marital ideals of faithfulness and honesty to the spouse to the ultimate test through infidelity, murder, and other trials. A here he tests a marriage by dishonesty and then disappearance. In Berta Isla, Marias returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago. A Spaniard, Tomás Nevinson, is a spy for Britain’s MI6. He’s married to Berta Isla, has two children, and goes off frequently for weeks or months at a time 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, without warning, Tomás disappears, apparently for good. As always, Marias is interested in the themes of identity, 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.
Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. In this extraordinary novel, Everett takes on those critics and readers who 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 in the gangsta rap of “The Wire.” Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a an academic and 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 personal economic pressures, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in pseudo-vernacular Black language under a pseudonym and becomes rich. The dialectic between remaining a pure, marginalized novelist read by an elite few or becoming an economically independent black entrepreneur who has caved to popular demands becomes a fascinating tug of war.
John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. Banville’s lyrical, “idiosyncratic” (according to one blurb) prose is perfectly attuned to the quirky blend of snobby 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 game.
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 first novel. It doesn’t disappoint. The Story of a Brief Marriage follows roughly twenty-four hours in the life of Dinesh, a young man living in a desperate 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 likely that such a marriage might lessen the risks they each 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 or simply watching Ganga breathe as she sleeps. This is a book about tenderness in the midst of unbelievable horror. I eagerly await his next novel, A Passage North, which comes out in July.
Jenny Erpenbeck. Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces. NY: New Directions, 2020. This odd, sometimes prickly collection of pieces written between 2006 and 2018, many of which were written for presentation as lectures or talks, serves as a sketchy sort of accidental memoir (the subtitle is notably not part of the title of the book in its original German publication). The pieces mostly deal with her own development as a writer and her work as a theater and opera director. But for me, 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.” Erpenbeck writes fondly of the few things that East Germany did well and of the concerns she had (and has) over reunification. 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?”
There is a bit more about each of these books along with all of the more than thirty other titles I have read this year at my 2021 Reading Log.