2021 Reading Log
All things considered, 2021 was a very good reading year. First, I will list the eighteen titles that I found outstanding or memorable in some way out of the eighty-plus books I managed to read. This is followed by everything else I read in 2021, alphabetically by author.
Favorite Books of 2021
Anuk Arudpragasam. A Passage North. NY: Random House, 2021. A Passage North was my book of the year. The plot is simple: Krishan, working for an NGO in Colombo, Sri Lanka, takes a long train journey north to attend a funeral. But the book is a complex meditation on freedom, men and women, duty, the aftereffects of war, and so much more. Arudpragasam is a student of philosophy, a stunning writer, and a very observant human being. I was bowled over by his powerful first novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage (Granta, 2016), which 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, and this is even stronger.
Renata Adler. Speedboat. NY: New York Review Books, 2013. First published in 1976, Adler’s novel center’s around Jen Fain, a journalist and member of an unnamed New York City English faculty/ It’s the model for a whole genre of novels that consist of seemingly disconnected paragraphs or short sections, such as Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights or just about anything by Maggie Nelson. It’s brilliant and funny and cutting and the whole is much, much more than the sum of its parts, even if it is difficult to say just what the book is about. But it’s clear that Adler nailed the 70s without ever leaving her novel feel dated. “There are only so many plots. . . Maybe there are stories, even, like solitaire or canasta; they are shuffled and dealt, then they do or they do not come out. Or the deck falls on the floor.”
Carole Angier. Speak, Silence: In Search of W.G. Sebald. London: Bloomsbury, 2021. For those expecting a traditional biography, refereed by a neutral and omniscient power, Speak, Silence will be seen as flawed. Angier was hobbled from the start by powers beyond her control: several key people would not speak to her and the Wylie Agency would not grant her permission to quote from many of Sebald’s letters or from his books and interviews. I, however, am terribly glad she persisted with this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed reading. Limited as it is, it’s still is a remarkable and welcome achievement, chock full of new biographical information from start to finish. For my much longer review, see here.
John Banville. Athena. NY: Knopf, 1995. I first read Athena twenty-five years ago and it entranced me even more this second time around. 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 books like Athena and The Book of Evidence (1989). Their long spiraling sentences, written with a robust vocabulary that make me keep my dictionary by my side, are perfectly fitted to Banville’s quirky story that blends snobby art history and Dublin criminal underworld. 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.
Michel Butor. Passing Time. Manchester: Pariah Press, 2021. First published in France in 1956 as L’Emploi du Temps, Passing Time has criminally been out of print too long. It’s the story of Jacques Revel, a Frenchman who arrives in the English city of Bleston (modeled after Manchester), having been hired by a small company for one year to translate business documents. Over the course of his year he makes a few friends, starts to fall in love with one woman, then shifts his attention to her sister, all the while exploring the city on foot and by bus. Midway through his term, one of his new acquaintances is nearly killed by a car in a hit-and-run accident, and Revel believes that something he did may have set off the chain of events that led to the attempted murder. So, halfway through his year, he sets out to play detective and to see if his actions were in any way connected to that event. He tries to remember everything he can about his stay and, to aid himself, he decides to document it all in writing, which becomes the book we are reading. The result is that time—past, present, and future—forms the three interwoven strands of the text we are reading. Passing Time is genetically related to two important artistic movements taking place in the mid-1950s in France—the New Novel (or Nouveau Roman) and the Situationist International. I think it’s one of the great novels of the twentieth century. See my longer review here.
Laynie Browne, ed. A Forest on Many Stems: Essays on the Poet’s Novel. Brooklyn: Nightboat Books, 2021. 580 pages long, it has fifty-some-odd essays, each discussing a single author and usually a single book. What is a poet’s novel? Well, here’s how the book’s editor tried to answer that question: “The texts represented in this book are the result of writers who are not content to reside in the known, who in the face of limitations of one form will create another. The leap from one textual behavior to another suggests an emphasis on process, and an impulse against completion in favor of detour, fracture, digression, displacement and discontinuity.” A few too many of the essays are too hyper-academic for my taste, but the great joy of reading A Forest on Many Stems is that it led me to look into novels I had never heard about or considered reading before. There are essays on writers as disparate as Lewis Carroll. H.D., Lyn Hejinian, Langston Hughes, Audre Lorde, Mina Loy, Michael Ondaatje, Fernando Pessoa, Leslie Scalapino, Gertrude Stein, Jean Toomer, Rosemarie Waldrop, and Phillip Whalen. Dan Beachy-Quick writes about W.G. Sebald’s book The Ring of Saturn. He suggests that “one marker of a poet’s novel is a willingness to trust distraction, to follow digression.” So true.
Edmund de Waal. Letters to Camondo. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021. The British ceramicist and memoir-writer Edmund de Waal writes some fifty-eight “letters” to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), who had been a friend and neighbor of his relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), who featured prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes. During World War II, Camondo’s daughter Béatrice, her husband, and their two children, all Jews, were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished. In this beautiful and haunting book, we learn a fair amount about Camondo and about the French decorative arts, which he collected passionately. But we also learn about the French antisemitism which affected the lives and deaths of the Camondo family. Today, the Camondo mansion in Paris is the Musée Nissim de Camondo, a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs.
Percival Everett. Erasure. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2001. Thelonius “Monk” Ellison is a an academic and a novelist accused of writing “dense, obscure novels.” He’s initially scornful, when he sees the kind of money and movie offers thrown at the authors of books like We Lives in Da Ghetto. But eventually, under personal economic pressures, he writes a ghetto novel of his own in pseudo-vernacular Black argot under a pseudonym and strikes it rich. The dialectic between his academic desire to remain a pure, marginalized novelist read by an elite few or to be an economically independent black entrepreneur who caters to popular demands, becomes a fascinating tug of war in Everett’s hands.
Percival Everett. The Trees. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2021. Everett’s satirical novel about lynching and the murder of Emmett Till. The gruesome murders of white folks, accompanied by the bodies of seemingly lynched Black corpses, are offset by Everett’s almost breezy narrative, with its Keystone Kops, stereotypical hillbilly rednecks, and characters with names right out of Thomas Pyncheon—delicious names like Delroy Digby, the Doctor Reverend Fancel Fondle, Philworth Bass, Junior Junior, Chester Hobnobber, McDonald McDonald, Helvetical Quip, Pick L. Dill, and Pinch Wheyface. But the book is deadly serious and, like America itself, we have to ignore a world of distractions if we’re going to be able to see Mama Z’s filing cabinets, where there is a record of “almost everything ever written about every lynching in these United States of America since 1913.” Powerful. Read it twice. See my review here.
Ruth Franklin. A Thousand Darknesses: Lies and Truth in Holocaust Fiction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. An exceptional book about some of the writers who ignored Theodor Adorno’s infamous maxim that “To write poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric,” although in this case Franklin focuses on novelists. A terrific writer and a judicious thinker, she studies six “witnesses” (writers who have written novels about their own Holocaust experiences), four “who came after” (writers who didn’t experience the Holocaust first hand but still wrote about it, including W.G. Sebald), and a couple of second- and third-generation writers (Jonathan Safran Foer, etc.). One of her main achievements is to try to untangle the various ethical conundrums that hover about these books, deserved or not.
Dan Gretton. I You We Them. Journeys Beyond Evil: The Desk Killers in History and Today. Volume 1. London: William Heinemann, 2019. This true doorstop of a book (1,089 pages) is an extended attempt to understand how people “sit at desks” or otherwise act remotely at jobs that knowingly result in the deaths of people, whether these people are Nazi criminals ordering the Final Solution or are corporate executives making decisions that will kill locals in the Niger Delta or some other far-off location. Gretton’s book is simultaneously an act of research (who knew what? who did what?), an exploration of the psychology of desk killers, and a tentative exploration into the subject of repentance. Gretton wisely intersperses the tough stuff with both snippets and longer pieces of memoir-like writing that are more or less unrelated to the bulk of the book. At first I thought this was really gratuitous, but I came to see that, amongst a thousand pages of horrendous acts, we need to see what normalcy looks like now and then.
Wolfgang Koeppen. Death in Rome. NY: Norton, 2001. Translated from the 1954 German original by Michael Hofmann. Throughout this novel, the reader follows 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 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, everyone’s true nature shines through, exposing the forces that Koeppen felt led the German people astray. Full review here.
Wendy Lower. The Ravine: A Family, A Photograph, A Holocaust Massacre Revealed. NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021. A discomfiting detective story. Historian Wendy Lower takes a single newly-discovered photograph of the horrific final moments when a mother and two children are actually being shot by German officials and local collaborators and tracks it back to the site where the murders occurred in 1944 in the Ukraine. Along the way, she discovers the identity of the photographer, the shooters, and the likely victims. This is how Holocaust research is really done. A short, utterly fascinating book. Thanks to Dorian at https://eigermonchjungfrau.blog/ for pointing me to this one.
Javier Marias. Berta Isla. NY: Knopf, 2019. Translated from the 2017 Spanish original by Margaret Jull Costa. 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, and with no explanation from MI6. This thought-provoking and compelling novel, which returns to some of the characters of his Your Face Tomorrow trilogy from a decade ago, is set among the ethical uncertainties of post-Franco Spain.
Ali Smith. The Accidental. NY: Penguin, 2005. A young woman’s car breaks down near the rental home of the Smart family during their summer holiday in Norfolk. Amber, youngish, but of indeterminate age, serves as the agent of change who transforms each member of the Smart family into a magnified version of themselves. Thirteen-year old Aster, teen-aged Michael and the parents, Eve and Michael, each become individually ensnared in Amber’s world in different ways, until the summer comes to a dramatic and traumatic ending. It’s formally inventive, if not groundbreaking, and it’s terrifically funny and nicely cynical. It’s one of those rare novels that seems as if it must have been absolutely thrilling to write, day after day.
Rebecca Solnit. Wanderlust: A History of Walking. NY: Penguin, 2001. Solnit gives the reader much, much more than you would expect from the title. In addition to a history of walking, hiking, pilgrimages, marches, and just about everything else that happens when people move their two feet, Solnit deals with the issues women face on the streets, the problems of the suburbs, and recent attempt to curb walking on sidewalks and other normally public thoroughfares through a variety of legal means. Any book by Solnit is a winner as far as I am concerned.
Charles Todd. A Test of Wills. NY: HarperCollins, 1996. The first of the Inspector Ian Rutledge mysteries takes place in Warwickshire, just after WWI. Rutledge has to deal with a death in a small village where the primary witnesses seem to be an unreliable war veteran with shell shock and a hysterical child. But Rutledge also has to deal with his own war-related issues: is he still the detective he was before enduring the trenches of France and coming home to find that his fiancé has left him? This is the best writing I have run across in a mystery in some time. Rutledge is a well-rounded character, the time and place seem realistically portrayed, not set pieces, and the key characters are given psychological depth.
Virginia Woolf. Mrs. Dalloway. 1925. This is a re-reading 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?
Everything Else from 2021
Erik Anderson. Estranger. Chicago: Rescue Press, 2016. Yet another book that poses as a memoir but is labeled as fiction, leaving the reader in the dark about any boundaries between fact and fiction. The narrator, who seems to be the author, is in the midst of a crisis, perhaps brought upon by being a parent. What if life is really about something else? What if he has followed the wrong path for decades by dedicating himself to writing? Anderson uses the contrasting locales of the pitiful ex-mining town of Walden, Colorado and Walden Pond to help estrange himself enough to examine his past and his present life. Accordingly, alternate parts of Estranger are written in the third-person, so that the reader, too, has more distance on the narrator. The book ends with an epiphany that suggests a re-entry into the world of the first person narrator at the expense of the academic.
Chloe Aridjis. Book of Clouds. NY: Black Cat, 2009. Tatiana, a young woman from Mexico trying to make ends meet in Berlin, gets a part-time job transcribing dictation for a distinguished historian and begins to explore the city—especially the ghostly sections left behind by the Nazis or walled off by the GDR. In doing so, she finds that the weather—the clouds, in particular—play an outsized role in her daily life. The book bordered on being a little too pat for my tastes, but it was saved by having patches of really good writing and occasionally capturing that strong sense of how unreal cities can feel at certain odd moments.
Louis Armand. Canicule. Equus Press, 2013. Three men struggle with their pasts, their passions, and their failures. The book culminates with two of the men, Hess and Wolf, meeting to scatter the ashes of the third, aptly named Ascher, who has committed suicide by self-immolation. See my longer review here.
Anuk Arudpragasam. The Story of a Brief Marriage. London: Granta, 2016. This novel 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.
Giorgio Bassani. The Gold-Rimmed Spectacles. NY: Norton, 2018. This brief novella of 1958 is a lead-in to Bassani’s famous The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, written four years later. The unnamed narrator tells the story of Dr. Athos Fadigati, who arrives in Ferrara from Venice in 1919 to set up a new modern ENT clinic, soon become head of the ENT department of the hospital and one of the most popular men in town. But then, some twenty years later, rumors began to circulate that he was “one of them.” A homosexual. Slowly, the more ardently fascistic and Christian members of Ferrara society begin to boycott his clinic and insult him in public. In 1939, the new Race Laws were enacted, which started to limit Jewish life in Italian society. Liberal Italians assured each other and Fadigati that such laws would never be enforced. The narrator, despite his friendship and concern for Fadigati, doesn’t do enough, and the doctor commits suicide. As Ferrara’s liberals congratulated themselves on their sense that anti-Semitism in Italy “will burst like a soap bubble in the end,” they also worried about the fate of the handful of Ferrara’s aristocratic families that were Jewish—like the Finzi-Continis—who had chosen to isolate themselves from the community instead of safely entrenching themselves in the society at large. Sound familiar?
William Boyd. Restless. London: Bloomsbury, 2006. A good read, but admittedly le Carré-lite. An ex-British spy slowly reveals to her daughter the escapade that almost cost her her life. Meanwhile, she’s either acting paranoid or someone is closing in on her. Boyd gamely tries to make the life of a spy into a metaphor for life for the rest of us.
Kate Briggs. This Little Art. London: Fitzcarraldo, 2017. “This little art” is how Helen Lowe-Porter, one of Thomas Mann’s first English translators, described the art of translation: “neither very important nor very serious.” Briggs is “interested in pushing a bit further at our understanding of craftsmanship.” This Little Art is more essay than how-to, and invokes Roland Barthes’ last lecture course (published as La préparation du roman I et II) as its “key tutor-text.” But ultimately, this book is about how we read, especially if we happen to read books in translation.
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 writes 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 and the otherwise closed world full of secret societies, illegal activities, and hopeful immigrants.
Marilyn Chase. Everything She Touched: The Life of Ruth Asawa. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2020. The Japanese-American Asawa, who was interned in Rohwer Relocation Camp during WWII and went to Black Mountain College, has long been one of my favorite artists. Chase’s biography is rather straightforward, but Asawa’s accomplishments as an artist, activist, and parent, left me feeling like an underachiever.
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.
Michael Connelly. The Drop. NY: Little, Brown, 2011. In this rather mediocre fifteenth installment of the Harry Bosch series, he is still a Los Angeles Police Department Detective. He proves that a suicide wasn’t one and solves a decades old murder and rape case.
Michael Connelly. The Reversal. NY: Little, Brown, 2010. The third of the Mickey Haller (“Lincoln lawyer”) novels. Haller, a lifelong defense attorney, is asked by the Los Angeles District Attorney to become a special prosecutor on a tricky case (perhaps because the DA is secretly sure the case is a loser?). Haller asks his half-brother Harry Bosch to be his lead investigator. As a team, the pair seem to be unbeatable and they just about have the case wrapped up when the defendant murders his lawyers and takes the key witness hostage. Chapters alternate between Haller and Bosch, first person and third person narration. Not my favorite book by Connelly.
Robert Crais. Suspect. NY: G.P. Putnam’s, 2013. Scott James, a Los Angeles Police Department officer had been wounded recently and his partner killed. Now he’s teaming up with Maggie, a German Shepherd that had been a Military Working Dog in Afghanistan. Maggie had been shot by a sniper and her handler had been killed in an attack. It’s the last chance for both of them to prove themselves or be out of the force. Crais knows his police stuff backwards and forwards, but the saving grace of this book was his knowledge of how military and police dogs operate. Several chapters are written from Maggie’s point of view.
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 I, too, was 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.
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.
Stephen Downes. The Hands of Pianists. Fomite Press, 2021. A neurotic freelance writer aims to prove that pianos kill elite pianists. For decades, he has grappled with the guilt that followed an accident in which he severed his talented sister’s fingers, ending her promising career at the keyboard. As Downes ranges from Australia to London to the Czech Republic, he writes about stage-fright, pianist’s hands, the quality of different pianos, recorded music, the aesthetic qualities of music, and much more. See my longer review here.
Rachel Eisendrath. A Gallery of Clouds. New York Review of Books, 2021. Eisendrath’s primary subject is the pastoral and its various literary and art historical equivalents. On the literary side she touches on folks ranging from Homer and Virgil to Walter Benjamin and Willa Cather. On the art side she delves into paintings by Pisanello, Poussin, Corot, and, more recently, the Iowa-born painter Jane Wilson. But more than anyone else, Eisendrath’s book is written in admiration of one book and of one writer: Sir Phillip Sidney’s “entertainment,” The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, which was originally written for his sister toward the end of the 16th century. She seems to have an ulterior motive to urge us to read on a purely emotional, almost sensual level now and then. See my longer review here.
Jenny Erpenbeck. Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces. NY: New Directions, 2020. 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 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.
Jon Fosse. The Other Name: Septology I-II. Oakland: Transit Books, 2019. Translated from the Norwegian original by Damion Searls. Sort of an “old guy’s novel,” because it’s about two old men, both painters named Asle, both stumbling about in the Norwegian winter, dealing with age, alcoholism, depression, faith or lack thereof, and memory loss. The two appear to be doppelgängers and Fosse weaves their story together seamlessly so that at times it’s hard to know which Asle is which. What the book’s blurb refers to as “hypnotic prose” often feels like frustrating and meaningless repetition. There were many pages when I questioned my commitment to the book as Fosse’s characters endlessly think the same trivial things over and over and over. It’s as if Fosse is trying to out-Beckett Beckett. But there are also pages of luminous and rewarding writing. But at this point, the latter seem to be in the minority. I guess I’m committed; I’ve already bought volume two of the three volumes. The jury is still out.
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. The police were less constrained fifty years ago.
Tana French. The Likeness. NY: Penguin, 2008. Detective Cassie Maddox, newly transferred to Dublin’s Murder division, is shaken to discover that the city’s newest murder victim could be her twin sister. Not only that, but she carried identification that was the same as an alias Cassie once used. Cassie adopts the identity of Lexie, the murdered woman, and is “released” from the local hospital having “recovered from a coma,” so that she can rejoin her roommates in order to see she if she can spook one of them into making a fatal mistake. The premise is terrific, but much of this long book is given over to conversations between Cassie/Lexie and her roommates, conversations I eventually tired of. Well-written, but one soon gets the sense that the outcome may not be worth the effort.
Nicholas Gulig. Orient. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2018. Gulig’s poems ask what it means to be a poet in this modern age of constant warfare, worldwide terrorism, and massive numbers of immigrants fleeing their homelands. How do we live an ethical life in the American Middle West when countries like Syria and Libya are falling apart and tens of thousands of people are dying? How does the poet or the average person orient themselves in such a world? “Though it was far, I felt responsible.” Scattered throughout the book are b&w photographs credited to Ian Wallace, most of which were taken in Palmyra in 2005 of sites that were later destroyed in 2015 by the Islamic State.
Louise Glück. American Originality: Essays on Poetry. NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017. Ten essays and ten introductions to poetry books. (I found the latter only marginally interesting without the book of poetry on hand.) Half of these essays really resonated with me. Glück writes critical essays with the vibrant language of a poet.
Jane Harper. The Dry. NY: Flatiron, 2017. For awhile, I thought I had a runaway winner of a mystery. The Dry has an exceptionally evocative and timely locale in the parched, climate-altered Australian Outback. A terrible murder of a family of three has occurred and there is a good selection of potentially suspicious characters in the small, dying town of Kiewarra. And Aaron Falk, a Melbourne Detective, returns for the funeral but who gets caught up in the investigation, has a cloud over his head (doesn’t every detective these days?). Many of the local residents still believe he might have been involved in the death of a girl when he was a teenager. Harper had the whole page-turner apparatus going smartly until about the halfway mark when the writing took an awkward turn. She isn’t as good at resolving issues as she is at creating tension. Detective Falk doesn’t really suss out any of the key clues that open up the case; they literally come to him by accident. Already in production as a “major motion picture,” this is one book that should be considerably improved as a film.
Paula Hawkins. The Girl on the Train. NY: Penguin, 2015. I’ve had this ever since it was published and couldn’t bring myself to read it, but a couple of days ago I needed a page-turner and that’s what I got. It’s pretty much what I don’t like in a novel: an alcoholic narrator whose drinking is the cause of his/her unreliability; family cattiness, material envy; stupid affairs; and using rotating narrators and delayed time sequences as a way of keeping crucial information from the reader. Sadly, I persisted.
Philip Hoare. Albert and the Whale: Albrecht Dürer and How Art Imagines Our World. NY: Pegasus, 2021. Although the book has its moments, I was generally disappointed with Albert and the Whale. Hoare is a “hunter-gatherer” type of writer. There is no real organization to the book, no flow. The selected tidbits from Dürer’s life were fascinating, but only made me want to read a proper biography or art historical account of his work. The publisher should be ashamed of the terrible quality of their reproductions; the black-and-white images look like pale photocopies and even the color plate section is done poorly.
Jeffrey H. Jackson. Paper Bullets: Two Artists Who Risked Their Lives To Defy the Nazis. Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2020. In 1937, Lucy Schwob and her partner Suzanne Malherbe (also known by their artistic names Claude Cahun and Marcel Moore), moved from Paris to the English island of Jersey. They are rather famous for their Surrealist photographs and photo-montages featuring Lucy in gender-bending poses, often nude or dressed like a man. But by July 1940, the island was suddenly occupied by German troops and the pair began creating “paper bullets” or subversive documents that they could leave for German troops. By 1944, they had spread many hundreds of their own brand of psychological warfare around when they were arrested. They were eventually tried, sentenced to death, only to have that commuted just as the war came to an end. Jackson tells a great story about two fascinating individuals and artists.
Gabriel Josipovici. On Trust: Art and the Temptations of Suspicion. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 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 and 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.
Bhanu Kapil. Ban en Banlieue. NY: Nightboat Books, 2015. A brief, poetic novel, loosely styled like Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dictee. “Ban” is a character imagined by the author for the purposes of various experiences that Kapil has her explore, often through performance art. The novel deals with healing, violence against women, racism, and feminist issues. Included are a number of b&w photographs, possibly by the author, some of which appear to document performances.
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. See my longer review here.
John le Carré. Call for the Dead. Walker & Co., 1962. A very early Smiley novel, in which le Carré is still figuring his character out a bit. 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.
John le Carré. Silverview. NY: Viking, 2021. Julian has left hectic London to run a bookshop in a rural town, when he gets innocently entangled in the affairs of an ageing couple who seem to have once been British spies. Except now it appears that one of them might have been a double agent and Julian might hold the evidence. Usually amusing, but not his best.
Attica Locke. The Cutting Season. NY: Harper, 2012. I’m completely on board with Attica Locke’s program here: to create wonderfully readable mystery novels that stray into the day-to-day realities of contemporary black life and tell sharp stories about African American history. In this one, almost-divorced Caren Gray manages an antebellum plantation that is now a tourist attraction, while raising her young daughter, when the murdered body of a laborer from the sugar plantation next door is found in the property. Caren faces down racism and the South’s old-boy network as she, a local newspaper reporter, and the husband she is separated from battle to free a wrongly accused teenager. Her strength is in setting the mood, sketching an atmosphere of threat or fear, not in prose that makes your brain smile or wrapping the plot up in a truly satisfying manner.
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.
Kate London. Death Message. London: Corvus, 2017. The second novel involving both London police Detectives Sarah Collins and Lizzie Griffiths. Again, the two detectives are not working partners, but their paths cross while the crime is being solved. In Death Message, Collins comes out (at least to herself) as gay and the novel ends with her engaging in her first gay lovemaking encounter. Are there many other fictional gay police detectives or private detectives out there? Death Message did not sweep me off my feet but it did maintain my interest.
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. In fact, he had an uncle who was a movie director. 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.
Javier Marias. Dark Back of Time. NY: Random House, 2001. Translated by Esther Allen from the 1998 Spanish original Negra Espalda del Tiempo. Here, Marias claims to tell us “what really happened” in his “Oxford Novel,” All Souls (2002) (Todas las Almas, 989). We learn who some of the original characters were (and were not) based on, as well as some anecdotes about Marias’s book collecting habits and a few other oddities tangentially related to the earlier book. Only for the obsessed.
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, where he 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.
Greg Masters. It Wasn’t Supposed To Be Like This. NY: Crony Books, 2020. Masters, a self-proclaimed baby-boomer, looks back in verse on what his (and my) generation accomplished and failed to accomplish. “There was plenty deserving / of ire, doubt and resistance.” Our generation was pretty good at calling out the big issues of our day, protesting, and making changes happen. Unfortunately, Masters says, our follow-through was pretty abysmal. Nearly half of Master’s book is given over to a long poem, “My East Village,” a personal history of forty years as a poet and small press publisher in New York City’s East Village. It’s so chock-full of names, places, and movements, that all this poem needs is an index. Masters is a drummer and a couple of the best poems deal with jazz.
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 the result is much different. 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 a name. 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.
Magdalen Nabb. Death of a Dutchman. NY: Soho. 1982. The second in the Marshall Guarnaccia mysteries. The Marshall is a pretty interesting character and Florence is a great backdrop for mysteries involving foreigners. Did the jeweler who hadn’t been lived in Florence for a decade return because he wanted to commit suicide or was he lured back as part of some strange murder plot? Sadly, after the rather brief Death of an Englishman, Nabb apparently decided her readers wanted an extra hundred pages of conversations between Florentine citizens to give the book local flavor. The best part of this novel is the blind flower seller who knows more about what happens in the plaza than anyone else.
Caryl Pagel. Out of Nowhere Into Nothing. Tuscaloosa, AL: FC2: 2020. “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. Instead, they suggest.
David Peace. Tokyo Redux. London: Faber & Faber, 2021. The overdue final book in his Tokyo trilogy revisits the true story of the mysterious death Shimoyama, the Head of the National Railways of Japan, in 1949, a day after he had to lay off tens of thousands of workers. Run over and mauled by one of his own trains, it still hasn’t been definitively proven if this was a murder or suicide. In addition to revisiting the days surrounding the death of Shimoyama, Peace also revisits two other episodes in time. In 1964, a private detective, trying once again to solve the case, goes stark raving mad. and in 1988, as Emperor Hirohito slowly dies, translator and scholar Donald Reichenbach revisits his grim memories of the time when Shimoyama disappeared. This is not one of Peace’s best books, though the 1949 section is pretty powerful. Here, Peace uses repetition of phrases constantly to create an eerie, droning sense of dread.
Chris Petit. Robinson. London: Granta, 1993. This is Petit’s first book, a mostly dreary accounting of life in the orbit of Robinson, a man who generally manages to make everyone who surrounds him do his bidding. He creates a Warhol-like Factory in London, which produces pornography until the whole enterprise collapses under the weight of drugs and alcohol. The narrator, who is also Robinson’s chief enabler, knows he is wasting his life but can’t seem to stay away from Robinson. I hope I read Robinson so you don’t have to.
Jack Robinson and Natalia Zagórska-Thomas. Blush. London: CB Editions, 2018. Following up on his 2017 book The Overcoat, Jack Robinson, the pseudonym under which publisher Charles Boyle (of CB Editions) writes, has written another of his short, literary delights, a blend of novella, essay, and memoir. This one is about the effects of blushing, being embarrassed, being shamed. He brings in numerous examples from literature—Georg Christoph Lichtenburg, John Keats, Laurence Sterne, Stendhal, and more. The terrific hand-colored b&w images by Natalia Zagórska-Thomas seem to have been made specifically for this book.
Peter Robinson. A Necessary End. NY: Macmillan, 1989. The third in the Detective Chief Inspector Alan Banks series, which take place in Yorkshire. I’m binging on the British television series DCI Banks and decided to revisit the books themselves. The Banks series is about as procedural as it gets, but A Necessary End seems over the top with its endless interviews of suspects. A policeman is killed during a 1960s “ban the bomb” protest and a group living in a commune called Maggie’s Farm seem to provide the likeliest batch of suspects. The topic was already dated in 1989. but it feels really dated today.
Nicholas Royle. White Spines: Confessions of a Book Collector. Norfolk: Salt, 2021. Royle recounts collecting “white spines,” or the series of books published by Picador from the 1970s into the 1990s with appealingly uniform white spines and black titles. Parts of the book are pure cocaine for any book collector, but other bits feel like filler. Royle tells us about the books he has loaned that people have never returned, the many Oxfam stores he visits in search of used books, the odd inscriptions he finds written in books (mostly boring), and he gets overly excited on the whole subject of “inclusions” (the newspaper clippings, receipts, and other bits of paper that people have left in books he’s purchased). You’ve been warned.
Sunjeev Sahota. China Room. London: Harvill, 2021. It’s the Punjab region, 1929. Three teen-aged women have just been wed to three brothers, but none know which is her husband. Their mother-in-law only permits the husbands to come to them in the dark, to make love, and then depart. If no pregnancy results, it’s easier to discard a wife this way. The three women are forced to live together in the “china room,” a spare room on the farm decorated by the famous blue willow plates that we all recognize. But, one of the young women, Mehar, wants desperately to know which son is her husband. The alternating storyline is that of the book’s narrator, her eventual grandson, who lives in today’s London, but who has returned to his aunt and uncle’s village in the Punjab to go cold turkey on his heroin addiction. But when they shun him, he opts to do this in the same china room where his Grandmother once lived, bringing the two halves of the story together. All in all, this is a very compelling book. Sahota has a way of making simple prose evoke powerful emotions like dread or terror or obsession. Unfortunately, the narrator’s story is considerably weaker than Mehar’s. The book ends with a photograph of an elderly woman holding a crying baby, which suggests that the book has a background in Sahota’s biography.
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.
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 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.”
Lauren Shapiro. Arena. Cleveland: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 2020. Set against the backdrop of a father’s repeated suicides, these powerful poems explore the ways in which violence affects our selves and our society, the ways in which it slowly erodes our core being. In the group of poems each called “Arena,” Shapiro confronts our apparent puzzling need to witness violence as a spectator, anxiously waiting for more blood to be spilled. With uncredited, full-page b&w photographs.
Dag Solstad. Novel 11, Book 18. NY: New Directions, 2021. Translated from the 2001 Norwegian original by Sverre Lyngstad. Don’t ask about the title, it’s meaningless. Written in a style that seems almost deliberately boring, meant, perhaps, to reflect the life of the main character, Bjørn Hansen, a fifty-year old city bureaucrat. It’s hard at times to push onwards into Solstad’s short novel. Hansen is secretly plotting something to shake up his life, but it’s kept from us until the very end. In the meantime, Solstad seems to overwrite. What others will say in a paragraph, he can belabor for pages. Perhaps that’s the point. And I found the final surprise, well, underwhelming. Nevertheless, there is something quiet and elusive about his writing that made me want to stick with him, in spite of my reservations. Solstad—or, at least, this book—might be too quiet and overly modest for this noisy era.
Maria Stepanova. In Memory of Memory. NY: New Directions, 2021. Translated from the Russian Original by Sasha Dugdale. I found this Booker Prize memoir by the Russian poet alternately brilliant and boring. Too often I found myself utterly lost and uninterested in the story of her family, but then utterly taken when she begins to philosophize. Stepanova alternately has reservations about trying to write about her family’s history and feeling a strong sense of responsibility to do so. At moments, it seems as if the reader is forced to relive her entire struggle.
George Szirtes. The Photographer at Sixteen. London: Maclehose, 2019. A memoir/biography of his mother Magda, done in reverse chronology from the moment of her death in an ambulance in a London traffic jam to her childhood in what is now Hungary. When she died, Szirtes, on his way to becoming an internationally recognized poet, realized that, like most children, “I knew nothing then of her past, of anything that had happened to her and all she had survived.” The result is a loving memoir of a remarkable woman who suffered and sacrificed much in her short life. See my longer review here.
Leslie Thomson. The Detective’s Daughter. London: Head of Zeus, 2013. When her father, a retired police detective, dropped dead of a heart attack, he was 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.
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.
Steve Tomasula and Stephen Farrell. Vas: An Opera in Flatland. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2002. A classic image-text work, Vas is superficially about Square and his wife Circle and their daughter Oval, who live in the two-dimensional world of Edwin A. Abbot’s book Flatland (1884). Circle has asked Square to undergo a vasectomy, which leads to a very extended set of diversions into the science of genetics and the history and pseudoscience of eugenics, among other things. Farrell is responsible for the “art & design” of the book, which includes innovative typography and all sorts of imagery, including photographs.
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, it’s a great deal of fun to read. The stories in this volume were both translated and selected by Margaret Jull Costa and we are told they span “the author’s entire career.” But New Directions doesn’t bother to tell the reader the origins of the stories or when they were written. So, it’s really hard to understand how they blend into his writing practice as a whole.
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 written by 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.
Manuel Vilas. Ordesa. NY: Riverhead, 2020. Translated from the 2018 Spanish original by Andrea Rosenberg. An “autobiographical novel” with photographs by the author. 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.”
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 is about to be destroyed by a giant asteroid. That’s the premise behind this entertaining mystery. Half the planet’s population is predicted to 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 care. A large swath of the work force has 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.
Virginia Woolf. A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Vintage Classics. Woolf takes on the patriarchy in two well-argued, now-classic feminist texts. The first few pages of A Room of One’s Own are just mind-blowingly beautiful.
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 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.
Émile Zola. The Masterpiece. 1886. Translated from the French original by Roger Pearson. The Masterpiece is an absolutely wonderful novel to read for an art historian (like me) and for anyone who knows Paris a little bit. Zola’s concerns feel very modern. The pacing is quick. And the reader can literally follow his characters as they walk the streets of nineteenth century Paris, buying flowers, looking at the book in the stalls of the Bouquinistes, watching the Seine flow by. Claude Lantier is so obsessed with his art that it becomes his all, ruining his friendships and, more seriously, his marriage to the love of his life. He paints the same painting over and over, revising his opinions, trying to shake off his doubts, and having new inspirations on a routine basis, until one day the whole enterprise collapses.