Wednesday, January 12, 2022

JW Wartick reviews a Bonhoeffer book and mentions mine

"I still [love] ... you a little, but hardly at all." Letter from Maria von Wedemeyer to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, May 6, 1944

JW Warwick has written a thoughtful and concise review of a historical novel based on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's engagement to Maria von Wedemeyer: In it, he offers an excellent summary of my analysis of the Dietrich-Maria relationship in The Doubled Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer

The novel bases itself on what JW aptly calls the Metaxas "pseudobiography" of Bonhoeffer, which differs little from the fanciful pseudohistories of saints produced in the Middle Ages. As fiction, the novel in question can imagine what it likes, but it is disappointing that the author supplies a reading unsupported by the historical record and that has little to do with Bonhoeffer's real biography.

I was also gratified that JW referenced Stephen Haynes on the "battle for Bonhoeffer." As with the culture wars in general, this one continues. History, if it has any meaning, strongly upholds the interpretation that Bonhoeffer was in love with Eberhard Bethge. This is the truly dramatic love story, as Dietrich would not have returned to Germany from the United States on the brink of World War II if not for the fear of losing Eberhard, the one love of his life.

I hope you will read JW's review. I don't want to promote a novel that seemingly so distorts the historical record, but JW's words about it are well worth pondering. 

Friday, December 17, 2021

Best Books 2021

 Best Books 2021

I read slightly fewer books in 2021 than in years past. Nevertheless, a handful of books stand out. 

Books sometimes make my lists because despite not thinking them best books at first, they haunt me. Three that did this for me this year were The Letters of Shirley Jackson, edited by her son, and China Mieville’s The City and the City, a mystery/science fiction hybrid that I first brushed off, but kept thinking about. The third was Eileen Botting’s Artificial Life After Frankenstein.  

Best fiction:

China Mielville The City and the City: This novel is set in an imaginary European city which is actually two cities that overlap one another: a highway or street from one city might run through a part of the other city, a park from one city might jut into the geography of its counterpart. However, the division between the two cities is very strict. Not only are citizens of one city not allowed to set foot into the other city, they can disappear for even looking at the other city as they are traveling past on a bus or train. A mysterious group enforces this separation, but a murder mystery that involves both cities brings the separate universes into contact.

The interesting part for me is the way this separation acts as a metaphor for how we actually live in our cities or spaces. How many of us, even in the bottom part of the upper income half, really “see” the part of the city where the other half lives? How much poverty is hiding in plain sight? And how much of this is self censorship? This has come home to me in the last year, as people have told me how horrible it must be to live in rural Ohio with all the poverty and opioids and etc. Yet the people making these comment live in or very close to cities with poverty that makes rural Ohio's look like affluence. Do they not see it? I think not—even if they might frequently pass it, they perhaps concentrate their eyes on the what they want to see: museums, theaters, good restaurants, and good shopping. Poverty is never pleasant, but if I had to be poor, I would rather do it in a spot like rural Ohio, where social services are not overburdened and where unspoiled open spaces are near at hand for rich and poor alike. So I wonder about  all we don’t see. This is not a new theme—but still worth pondering. 

Leonora Carrington: The Hearing Trumpet: I enjoyed this whimsical and powerful book about old age and change. Goodreads summarizes the plot as follows:

The Hearing Trumpet is the story of 92-year-old Marian Leatherby, who is given the gift of a hearing trumpet only to discover that what her family is saying is that she is to be committed to an institution. But this is an institution where the buildings are shaped like birthday cakes and igloos, where the Winking Abbess and the Queen Bee reign, and where the gateway to the underworld is open. It is also the scene of a mysterious murder.


Marian carries the story. An irrepressible 92 year old, she is a victim of ageism, knows it, and doesn’t let it defeat her. This is a romantic book in the sense of being a story of the world as we might want it to be rather than how it, but never sappy, and never dishonest or sentimental about how old people, especially women, are devalued and shunted aside. It is told from the sub-altern point of view and at the end becomes a shout out for the marginalized, including animals. It is a delight--the kind of book that has to be read because it can't really be explained. 

Kazuo Ishiguro: Never let me Go. I binged on Ishiguro this year: Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, Klara and the Sun, and half of The Buried Giant. Never Let Me Go was the standout, a searingly understated book about what it feels like to grow up as a clone. The clones in question, primarily Kathy and her friends Ruth and Tommy, are part of a group at the top of the clone hierarchy and are aware that they are especially privileged in being brought up at Hailsham, a  boarding school. The sadness comes in the disconnect between how privileged Kathy and her friends feel and the reader's growing awareness of their very shabby treatment. From time to time,  for example, they can trade chits they have earned for used consumer goods: old cassette tapes, a walkman,  or sweat pants, an old doll—treasuring these items that are unwanted castoffs. When they leave the school in their late teens, they are consigned to an old, unheated farmhouse. They dream of maybe being allowed to work in retail store rather than donating their organs, but such a simple life is far beyond their caste. In their 20s, they are first caretakers of other clones going into  hospitals to give up organs—what they have been designed to do. In their later 20s, while their organs are still young and fresh, they begin to “donate” them to “real” people.  

Malcolm Lowrie: Under the Volcano: I started this book several years ago on the recommendation of my friend Elaine, got halfway into, and as is the way life goes, was blown off track by relentless demands and never finished it.  This year, a new reading group offered the opportunity to delve back in. This is a stylistically rich book, lyrical and saturated in symbolism. It is told from the point of view of an alcoholic, set in pre-World War II Mexico, and explores some of the despair about the world then that seems relevant to today.  The movie, though far thinner than the book, is work seeing, as is a documentary about Lowry’s tortured life: Volcano: An Inquiry into the Life and Death of Malcolm Lowry

Elena Ferrante: Those who Leave and Those Who Stay: I continue my slow trek through this quartet. This year, I read the third novel. The novels continue to be searing, and much of the tragedy lies in how neither woman, despite having highly divergent life paths, is finding happiness. 

Henrich Von Kleist: The Marquise of O—and Other Stories:  Kleist is not widely read in the English language, but I enjoyed his melodramatic stories, many dealing with rape. I especially appreciated his “Betrothal in Santo Domingo.” 


The Letters of Shirley Jackson edited by Laurence Jackson Hyman: I approached Shirley Jackson’s letter with some trepidation: I am not a horror reader, and I didn’t expect to enjoy them. I was most happily surprised at Jackson’s wit, intelligence, and ability to always write entertainingly. Her letters trace out a life tragically marred by sexism and fat-ism—Her son, who edited the volume, lays out a convincing frame for her death not as an accident but a suicide. He shows a once vibrant woman whose ego was crushed by the relentless criticism she endured for becoming overweight.  As an aside, I read her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, on the basis of being taken with the woman in the letters. The novel struck me more as a dark romance in the style of du Maurier’s Rebecca than a horror novel—but it is considered an outstanding example of the horror genre. I found it surprising good, and appreciated details of life in the 1950s, such as saving and sharing bath water—using someone else’s bath water is likely to raise a huge “ewww” today--but most of all enjoyed the good story. The letters had similar details: for example, in the late 1940s or early 1950s, one could just show up at the now ultra-prestigious Bennington College with a fairly modest check in hand and gain admission to this small, all girls school. In some ways, the old days were so much better.  

Eileen Hunt Botting: Artificial Life after Frankenstein. This book, unfortunately very expensive, grew on me slowly. It sides with Mary Shelley against Victor Frankenstein’s rejection of his creature and makes the case that we should treat any artificial life we create as fully human from the start. Botting, a humane thinker, argues vehemently against using the human form as an "instrument", by which she means as created for the purpose of making life better for a “superior” class of humans. She uses Never Let Me Go as a paradigmatic novel, like Frankenstein an example of the cruelty of denigrating “artificial” life forms. She also makes the salient point that the assumption that artificial intelligence, when it becomes more intelligent than we are, is going to kill us, is merely a viewpoint that reflects the pathology of patriarchal thinking.  Botting asserts that a truly more intelligent life form may likely look at life through a more humane and nuanced lens. There's simply much to think about in this book. 

Suzanne Methot, Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing: This a heartfelt and insightful survey of the effects of intergenerational trauma on indigenous people in Canada. Although I don’t remember her having much to say about Fanon, Methot follows in his footsteps in rightly locating native “pathologies” in the extraordinary traumas of colonialism rather than in a "defect" in native groups themselves. Methot, from native roots, is compassionate towards the Canadian indigenous while also clear-eyed about the criminal behavior collective trauma can cause.

Soyica Diggs Colbert: Radical Vision: A Biography of Lorraine Hansberry.  For reasons I don’t fully understand, at least two biographies of Lorraine Hansberry, author of the play Raisin in the Sun, came out this year. The best was Colbert’s, a literary biography that takes seriously Hansberry’s radicalism and refrains from carping on her imperfections or suggesting she didn’t write her own work, as the other bio does. Through Colbert’s book I was introduced to concepts in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten. The ideas these scholars promote are similar to Woolf’s vision of a Society of Outsiders and align with her concept of transitory utopian moments. I was also fascinated by Hansberry’s critique of  French existentialism: she saw it as the lamenting of privileged white European males affronted at the loss of their empire. She found their despair self indulgent, turning the tables to see in their loss of European colonial hegemony as darker skinned people’s gain. 

Robert Gottlieb, Garbo. Readable, well-synthesized, convincing biography of Garbo that in an understated way emphasizes the tragedy of her early retirement from film.  One wonders how she managed all those decades as nothing more than one of the idle rich, with all her talent going to waste. The volume is filled with beautiful photos—Garbo was ahead of her time in understanding that beauty is at its best when left untrammeled--naturally the men in her life wanted her tarted up. 

Charles C. Mann: 1491: New Revelations of the Americas before Columbus: I’d read pieces of this 2005 book—for example, a long essay in The Atlantic arguing the South American rain forest was not a random occurrence but the end result of planning by an agriculturally advanced society. I had even read the beginning chapters, but it was the nevertheless fascinating to read it in its entirety. 

Jenni Diski essays. Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?  Entertaining essays that range from serial killers to Diski’s pre-Doris Lessing days with her bizarre parents. 

Friday, January 1, 2021

Journal of a Plague Year: An Extraordinary Year Ends

We have come to  the end of an extraordinary year. I began this post days ago but so much has happened so quickly that I didn't want to post until 2020 was all over, wondering what last shocking event might usher out the year. Fortunately, all ended well. 

The year began with horrific fires in Australia and news of the pandemic in China. I remember buying and then not using a mask to fly to Maine in late January. When people were pooh-poohing the virus as no more than the flu, I could not help but wonder worryingly why the Chinese were so strictly quarantining Wuhan, even nailing shut apartment building entrances. By the time we left for Mexico, airports, though still jam-packed, were taking precautions by continually spraying and wiping surfaces. Mazunta, the Mexican town near where we stayed, was at first crowded with tourists, then eerily empty by the time we left.

The pandemic entered into our Ohio lives as sheltering at home, a shift to a quieter, more isolated, and contemplative way of being. Roger, Nick, and I realize we have been very fortunate not to get sick or lose our jobs, although my income is reduced this year. As a person who works from home and lives in a quiet corner of rural Ohio, I never realized how much social interaction I had had until I no longer had it.

I dried lemons this pandemic year and hung them from the tree

In part, I thrived on the infusion of peace and solitude and the slowing down of life. Another part of me sometimes felt an aching sense of isolation and loneliness. It would be an adjustment to live this way of solitude forever, even with the welcome companionship of Roger and Nick, interaction with Quaker groups, careful trips to Ann Arbor, West Virginia, and Maine to see family and friends, excursions to Maryland to tend to our house there, zooming with family, a new "Zoombsury" discussion group, and a literature on-line group. All of this, however, offers an illusion of a life more crowded than it is: the year has been spacious, quiet. 

It was a year of reading

When I felt filled with the restless urge to travel, to visit a museum, to go a play, I would sink into memories of the bright colors and warmth, both physical and communal, of Mexico or would look back to 2019, when we enjoyed our traveling so much.

But there is a deeper self that flows beneath that restless yearning to roam: the contentment and quietude of life in a quiet rural setting, against the backdrop of the snow that fell for Christmas, the deep silences of my home here or my winter trip last year to Maine, when snow and empty spaces created a peaceful backdrop. In both places, two-lane roads, never jammed with traffic, wind through idyllic small towns rather than strip malls and clutter. Our home here is humbler than our house in Maryland. When we stayed in the Maryland house in the fall, we floated from empty room to empty room reveling in the sheer space. Yet our Ohio house, a simple, smaller white frame rambler with green trim, suits us well: we have such serenity, with hills and meadows and lake spreading out all around us.

The view from our living room

Thoreau speaks of the initial encounter with solitude in Walden, wondering:

if the near neighborhood of man was not essential to a serene and healthy life. To be alone was something unpleasant. 
Thoreau soon adjusted and drank in the beauty and companionship of nature. 
Will and Olivia sent pictures of their two cats. 

In 2020, the wider world was still out there: Concerns over the pandemic and the election led me in an opposite direction from Thoreau to extra journal and newspaper reading. My concern that Trump would be reelected is captured in this comment from a January 30, New York Times article, a recap of one individual's response to the first presidential debate:

Last night, I think I was too gobsmacked by the spectacle to form coherent thoughts about the debate, but this morning I feel overwhelmed with grief. Tears are welling in my eyes as I fathom another four years of Trump in the White House. It is, quite simply, unbearable even to imagine.

Columnist Frank Bruni's response is a reminder of what we have been spared:

To read this now is to be reacquainted, in the most poignant way, with how titanically much this election meant to the tens of millions of Americans who, like me, felt that Trump was a very grave danger and, almost minute by minute, a soul-corroding insult to basic American decency. It is to appreciate the magnitude of relief we’re experiencing at the end of this terrifying and tumultuous year. It is to be grateful: Sometimes, at a crucial time, we get the second chance we so acutely need.

I was grateful at the election of mild, gentle, responsible man and his female running mate. 

I was disheartened, nevertheless, to see a cold-hearted, hard right cult member put on the Supreme Court. This is a woman who, in Indiana, refused to hold the state prison system responsible for the repeated rape of an inmate--this prisoner will now have to collect her damages from the guard who raped her, a highly improbable prospect given his low income. "Sorry," was the response of the majority of two who handed down the decision, including our new justice."We feel for you but that's the law." It is the law because these justices decided it was: compassion was an alternative option. Let's hope even crueler laws are not enacted in the United States.

At home, I returned to yoga when it felt safe in the summer and fall. We ate out now and again in open air dining venues. We worked cosily in the spare bedroom we have converted into a study, sat around the table in our big square knotty pine country kitchen over home-cooked meals, looked at the view through the three picture windows in our living room, and we watched more Netflix and HBO than ever in our basement theatre room. We enjoyed conversations with Nick about philosophy as he took on-line courses. I took walks when I could in and around the hilly woods, meadows, and lake near my house. I picked raspberries in the summer and tomatoes. 

We enjoyed fall walks and deepening our relationship with son Nick who is home for a time.

We went one day and looked at Indian petroglyphs only a few miles from our home, and had trips back and forth to Maryland to deal with re-renting our home there. 

We were not entirely without company. Bill and Ela opened an ancient bottle of wine.

The summer protests showed that discontent is legitimate and runs deep--can ruling class people  support change? I hope so.  I felt the disconnect between the comforts of my life and the troubles all around--and yet very much connected to the troubles too. Empathy is easy when one feels a personal sense of precariousness. As it became clear that we were on our own with Covid the odd sense of unreality--what has happened to my country?--continued to grow. Our sense of the fragile hold we have on life as we know it was increased by the apocalyptic images of red skies and daytime darkness covering parts of California and the West Coast during the massive, climate-changed induced fires. 

At the end of the year, sudden spikes in Covid number separated me from the solace of yoga and most of the tentative in-person social life I had re-established, slim as it was. Now we wait to see what will happen since the more contagious variant of the virus has arrived--and will wait for the vaccine and hope it will work.

I am hopeful even amid all the wreckage that will sweep into the new year with us that good changes will come--so many evidences exist that a culture of cruelty, selfishness, and sadism is turning a corner. The selfishness is still in force, but pushback is welling up. I was encouraged by the deep humanity of stand-up comedian Hannah's Gadsby's one-person shows, by the humane qualities of sit-coms like The Good Place and Schitt's Creek, by the evidence that government is valuable and needed to fight crises, by all the people who did wear masks and allowed themselves to be inconvenienced so that others could live, with the groundswell of support for Black Lives Matter, for the growing questioning of a system that is not serving most citizens well. And if there is a dim silver lining even to the Trump presidency, it is in the number of women who are completely and utterly done with a bullying, cruel, and entitled version of masculinity. Finally, the world may be catching up to Virginia Woolf, who a hundred years ago was crying no more on this very subject. This is not to say so much is not awry.

Sophie and Ben sent a card of hope. We have been fortunate to include such grounded and compassionate people as Olivia and Ben into our expanding family. 

Nevertheless, I hope for more peace in the coming year, for a calming, a spreading of resources and wealth and opportunity, for deepening generosity in a country where so many are weary of the spite and bullying.  

Monday, December 7, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Walk of Shame, filmed media, rereads, and genre literature


Walk of Shame

Only two works make the Walk of Shame this year, both, sadly, for the same--and perennial--reason.

Hamilton was the greater shocker to me after all the hype about how groundbreaking and magnificent it was. No and no, no-no-no, unless the gimmick of casting Blacks as founding fathers is "groundbreaking." (I will note I saw a play about Mozart 25 years ago in which Mozart was played by a Black, so ...maybe not so groundbreaking). In fact, Hamilton is another play about the Great Man, complete with his struggle from being the son of a "whore" (HT: Rachel) to his being surrounded by a bevy of women (or two anyway) who can think of no higher honor in life than to service and extoll  his greatness. They turn on him for a time when they find out he has been sleeping with a "whore"--depicted as the seductress who broke down the defenses of the Great Man--but, naturally, his "women" forgive him and resume their handmaiden roles. After all, where would we be without himpathy, a term coined by Kate Manne to describe all the extra sympathy our society pours out on the male? How could he not be forgiven? After all, men can't help themselves can they? 

As I said to myself while watching it: I should have known. Of course, this is why people are falling all over themselves to praise this play: it exalts the Great Man and shows him serviced by his willing women. It depicts the women in their two traditional roles: whores and handmaidens--and that is it. What more could we want? Could there be, possibly, a straight line between plays like this and electing a Donald Trump?

I will give the following a slight break as it was written in the 1940s: Robert Heinlein's "By his Bootstraps." This is a reiterative time travel story, about a young man who repeatedly goes back in time on a loop. Not only does it's publication date many decades ago give it a break, Heinlein clearly means his protagonist to be seen as a jerk, both of which put it ahead of Hamilton. However, it is yet another incredibly tiresome iteration of male fantasy: when he crosses time, the male enters a society where he is the only male and beautiful female handmaids are waiting to service his every need. I don't think we need to rehearse how persistent this fantasy is, how much it is a fantasy, and how bad it is: as long as men subconsciously feel this is the role women should be fulfilling, they are going to be angry at women for failing to meet expectations. Literature clearly keeps replicating this meme because it is so deeply embedded in the male psyche. (It is even imbedded in Genesis.) The problem is, it is not real. This is not what women want, though they have conformed to the model to survive.

How do we start getting beyond this? A first place is to stop heaping praise on "art" that expresses this theme, from Hamilton to Phantom Thread to ... the list goes on. We have to start calling this stuff out for the false narrative that it is, as false as any "happy plantation" story. I have to say I feel for Blacks who have to fight the same racist battles over and over again. 

Filmed Media:

Moving on to happier topics, while I didn't watch any memorable movies this year--I can hardly remember the new Emma or Little Women-- I did see some powerful  mini-series.

Lila and Lenu: female friendship in My Brilliant Friend, season 2.

My Brilliant Friend, season two: Based on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet novels, the first two seasons of this mini-series have been superb. If season two failed to catch all of the nuance of the novel--and sometimes flattened it to borderline chick lit--it still hewed extraordinarily close to the novel and was filmed with intelligence, empathy, and high production values. I greatly look forward to season three, which I am told releases in the U.S. at the end of  April. 

A French Village: Everyone is complicit

A French Village: This  series about a French town occupied by the Nazis in World War II is extraordinary in the way it makes everyone complicit. A marked contrast to many earlier good and evil narratives in which pure and heroic resistance fighters take on Satanic Nazis, A French Village illustrates the painful decisions and compromises everyone--and that is everyone--makes to survive and the way a war can do permanent damage to a psyche. The series shows the impossibility in real life of placing people into black and white categories of good and evil. It is gripping, heart-breaking, and astonishing in following many of the central figures into old age, where they are faced with the myths and misconceptions of what people think the war was like. It underscores deeply Dorothy Day's repeated contention that it is vital to create societies in which it is "easier for people to be good."

The Vow: Thoughtful people get caught in a cult

The Vow: This documentary about the cult NXVIM and its founder Keith Raniere was especially timely in a year that the political con of Trumpism was beginning to show its weakness. The documentary makers had an extraordinary wealth of resources in that NXVIM seems to have videotaped just about everything they ever did. Further, it deliberately played on successful people, often actors, so the key figures are attractive and compelling personalities. This series challenges stereotypes that cult members are troubled teenaged runaways to show how slick con artists can manipulate the best intentions of highly functioning people. 

The Undoing: The fabulously rich are not just like you and me.

The Undoing: What I love best about this series, without providing a spoiler, is the feminist twist. Beyond that, this mini-series is sleek, well produced, shows some of the pathology of the very wealthy, and features excellent actors and a suspenseful story with surprises along the way. 

The Crown: This highly flawed season is nevertheless notable for some hitting some high points as it introduces the dramatic and doomed marriage of Charles and Diana. 

Hannah Gadsby's Nanette: This stand-up comedy show is extraordinary in its honesty, humanity, and boundary breaking--and is a beautiful send-up of Picasso's misogyny.  It was one of the best shows I have ever seen. I can't recommend it too strongly--and urge people to give it time to unfold. 

As an aside, two seemingly inane comedy series show a trend from cruel to humane and thoughtful humor: Schitt's Creek and The Good Place


A prize reread was the book Rockwell Kent edited in 1939 called World Famous Paintings. This is a book of 100 art plates that my brother and I spent a good deal of time poring over as children in the boring days before the internet. I was delighted to find it, buy a copy, and revisit beloved old art. Needless to say, this  book does not reflect modern multicultural inclusivity about art, but it does have Kent's humane and progressive voice to animate it. He is quick to point out that he did not choose the paintings he was tapped to write about, but he writes about even those he doesn't like with intelligence and wit. It was such a treat to reconnect with this book. As chance would have it, my friend Jane lives in Maine near Kent's former home on Monhegan island--his museum/house is closed during the pandemic, but I look forward to visiting it when it reopens and look forward next year to finding a bio of him.  

As always, I reread Jane Austen this past year. I was "in" all the novels multiple times, but most particularly focused on Sense and Sensibility, Emma, and Persuasion.  I reread a few old Agatha Christies too, largely because I keep circling around a connection between Austen and Christie. I bought a copy of Katherine by Anya Seton, a historical novel I read at 12, and which helped start my fascination with English history. However, I just haven't been able to bring myself to reread it, despite its reputation for historical accuracy. I also have wanted to revisit Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night, a book that reads more as a rough draft than a finished novel, but worth a second read. In addition, I'd like to delve back into Tokarczuk's Flights, but haven't yet done it. Rereads, I find, are difficult, as life sweeps along so rapidly. 

Genre Literature: 

For whatever reason, I read more genre literature--science fiction, mystery, even a horror novle--than I usually do, possibly because of the pandemic. I read two Elizabeth George mysteries for the first time, and reread several Agatha Christies, as well as E.C. Bentley's Trent's Last Case, beloved of both Dorothy Sayers and Virgina Woolf. I read two science fiction novels, both nominated for the prestigious Hugo Award and was very disappointed--surely there is better speculative fiction out there that isn't making it up the ladder? A young man who grew up in Barnesville, John Wood, whose father I know, published the excellent Lady Chevy, a horror novel. This pushed me out of my normal boundaries into a genre that meets the dysfunction of our times face to face.  

The most notable genre reading I did was Agatha Christie's Curtains, about the death of detective Hercule Poirot, a humane mystery based on Othello. What fascinates me about Christie is her concern with the people who do terrible things but in ways the legal system isn't designed to capture.

I was also delighted to read Pierre Bayard's Who Killed Roger Ackroyd and Sherlock Holmes was Wrong, recommended by Constance. Bayard, a French literary theorist, proposes a different killer for the Christie classic, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in the first book, and a different killer for Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles.  If the Holmes book is more convincing, both are fascinating alternative interpretations that show how writers may hide truths from themselves (though I wouldn't put it past Christie to set up an alternative ending and leave it for the reader to figure out.)

As I reread several Christies this past year, including And then there were None, I was fascinated to pick up every more hints that Jane Austen was a central influence on her, reminding me of a quote from Elizabeth Sandifer's Basilisk book: 

The defeated operate from shadows and hidden places, and the legacies they leave are cryptic and secret.

Christie hardly ended her life defeated as she was one of the most successful mystery writers of all times, but the early death of her father (along with his financial carelessness) and subsequent struggles formed her-- as they did Austen, who came from the same marginal edge of the upper middle class. 

Sunday, December 6, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Best Non-fiction read in 2020

 While 2020 was thin on novels for me, it was a rich year for non-fiction reading, making it difficult to pick out only a few books. 

However, these were standouts:

Bob Blaisdell Creating Anna Karenina:  I found Blaisdell's granular approach to Tolstoy's creation of Anna Karenina utterly riveting: I could scarcely put this book down. If I did not agree with all of his interpretations of Anna Karenina and thought he cast Tolstoy's long-suffering wife in a slightly unflattering light, this is a gripping book and a remarkable achievement. I reread Anna Karenina several years ago, and found it extraordinary, but I had never been especially drawn to Tolstoy. Now, however, I feel I know him in a new way--and have a new understanding how the novel's depiction of sophistication appealed to early readers. Questions linger: how can the man who brutally raped his frightened bride in a train car be reconciled with the person so humanely concerned with writing a primer to expand literacy to the Russian peasants? Tolstoy comes across as a mixed bag of entitled aristocrat and emotional lover of his wife, family, and the common man--and definitely someone who didn't want to write the masterpiece that obsessed and repelled him for four years--and that he finished, he claimed, solely for the money it would bring. 

Elizabeth Sandifer, NeoReaction: A Basilisk: This take down of the alt-right is a dense read, and I struggled in an uphill climb before I began racing across its pages in gamboling leaps and bounds of enthusiasm. (Now, there's a sentence!) Scholar Sandifer, transgendered from Philip to Elizabeth, has a Phd in English literature, a background in gaming culture and a love of science fiction, making her as comfortable in Paradise Lost as Call of Duty. She is a Marxian transplant from England to the United States and has a probing, intelligent, and fearless mind. She does not write to pander to an audience. In one paragraph, she will offer  cogent insight into Stanley Fish's Surprised by Sin:

Satan argues that knowledge of Good and Evil will make doing Good easier, and that this knowledge is how God’s goodness is attained, such that defiance of God is actually a means of drawing closer to him. It’s obviously a flawed argument—that’s Milton’s point after all. But it’s got a compelling move at its heart, which is the way in which it uses the desire for holiness to create sin.


In another paragraph, she will designate certain people "fucking idiots"  or call a disingenuous argument a "dick move." She brings Paradise Lost into the modern idiom:

Satan opens by negging Eve, accusing her of looking at him “with disdain, Displeas’d that I approach thee thus, and gaze Insatiate, I thus single, nor have feard Thy awful brow,” which may be the earliest instance of telling someone they have resting bitch face.

Above all, Sandifer is done with stupidity, which she locates as the defining trait of the alt-right:

the key realization about the alt-right—one that’s been implicit through much of this book, but is worth making explicit as we come to a close: they’re stupid. I do not suggest this to diminish their horror. Far from it: the essential horror of the abyss is stupidity. That’s why it’s an abyss. The unique and exquisite danger of stupidity is that by its nature, it is beyond reason. There is nothing that can be said to it, because by definition it wouldn’t understand. It is an ur-basilisk—the one terrifying possibility that haunts every single argument that has ever been made. It is a move without response, playing by no rules other than its own, which do not generally include any obligation towards consistency. It is, in its way, the only approach that can never lose an argument. And in the alt-right and its affiliates we have one of the most staggeringly vast nexuses of raw stupidity the world has ever crafted. To be clear, my contention is not merely that the alt-right is stupid, nor even that its individual adherents are. It is and they are, but the problem is more fundamental: the alt-right is stupidity. It’s the elemental particle of which every part is comprised. To engage in alt-right thinking is to turn one’s self into a vacuous skinsuit animated by raw stupidity. There is literally not a single shred of non-stupidity in the entire thing. 

Is the above insightful or a mere ranting reprisal of what we already know? I would  say insightful. Sandifer does not just, as many of us might, state this opinion as an a priori, as a self evident starting point. Instead, she has spent hundreds of pages illustrating and dissecting with surgical precision, with logic, and with a startlingly humane clarity the stupidity she now condemns. She, of all people, has a right to her impassioned summation.  

I could go on almost endlessly about this book. It's written with Orwellian anger and intelligence, pulls no punches, and is especially strong in its evisceration of the Austrian School of Economics. As I been thinking recently about how we understand time, I will include a quote from Basilisk about time: 

The abstraction of time, enforced on humanity by the rule of capitalist production, is of course one of Marx’s major complaints. For the Austrians [monetary school] it is the basis of the rewards reaped by promethean entrepreneurs for their virtuous deferrals. ... To quote the monster [Marx, as Sandifer ironically characterizes the Austrian School seeing him] directly: “Milton produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature.” Marx would like all labour to be like that, and sees no fundamental reason why it shouldn’t. For Marx, that would be humanity returning to nature. In nature, time would just be the playground.

I imagine much of the response to this book would be "I don't get it," along with a discomfort over her transgressive boundary breaking. I have the idea I will try to blog about the book for those reasons--we shall see. 

 Francesca Wade's Square Haunting: Five Lives in London Between the War.  This is a book I love from early this year, before Covid struck. In it Wade focuses on literary and scholarly women who lived in London's Mecklenburgh Square between  World War I and World War II: H.D., Dorothy Sayers, Eileen Power, Jane Harrison, and Virginia Woolf. I have blogged about this book three times already, so won't say much more. I have read some vitriolic pushback against it, because Wade shows these women in a progressive light, especially Power, Harrison, and Woolf, and that makes some people uncomfortable. Woolf is clearly a radical, as Wade shows her to be, not an effete elitist. Woolf's radicalism is an insight Erich Auerbach arrived at in the 1940s in his Mimesis--and Woolf, ironically, disturbed him as ushering in the rule of the mob. Though we might, on the contrary, welcome rather than fear her democratizing impulses, he understood her as many to this day don't. 

Wade, quite consciously, only focuses on a sliver of the lives she follows, catching these women as they intersect with the time they lived in the square. Wade writes out of hermeneutic of generosity, and  I deeply appreciated that, as well her placing these women within the broader social and political currents in which they worked and  interacted. 

Pam MorrisJane Austen, Virginia Woolf and Worldly Realism: I read this book, too, early in the year, before Covid hit. I found it an immensely satisfying analysis of similarities between Austen and Woolf's writing, rooting both of them in a Scottish Enlightenment outlook that values the concrete. It was a book I wanted to be longer: how often does one say that about a scholarly work? It is very expensive, a problem in and of itself, but I was able to find a low cost used copy in superb condition and assume others could. 

Heather Clark, Red Comet: As with Blaisdell's Creating Anna Karenina, I blazed through this new Plath biography in record time--at least after the  somewhat murky first part of her life. From the point  Plath arrives in New York for her Mademoiselle internship to her final days, I couldn't put the 800 page volume down (or more precisely, the laptop on which I was reading it). Clark at times gives Hughes too much of a break, but at other times skewers him, such as when as she quotes those who opine Plath's work will last while his won't. Clark shows Plath's dedication to her writing as a vocation, and  Plath's development from a sometimes cringe-inducing student poet to her Ariel days, in which her poetry breaks all bounds.  Clark also offers a convincing  theory as to why Plath committed suicide. As an aside, I read recently that Ted Hughes and Prince Charles were friends, uniting over a shared interest in environmentalism. It is not hard to imagine that these two entitled men bonded ever more strongly over both having wives who far overshadowed them.

Daniel Mendelsohn Three Rings: This is difficult-to-describe book but it delighted me in the way it brought together the OdysseyFrançois Fénelon's  seventeenth-century sequel to the Odyssey, called The Adventures of Telemachus, and Erich Auberbach, author of Mimesis, while weaving in the repeated circular walk in Proust's Recherche and Mendelsohn's family's encounter with the Holocaust. 

In a year in which politics brought con artistry to the forefront, I read several books that revolved around the theme of the con. The best was Veritas: A Harvard Professor, a Con Man and the Gospel of Jesus's Wife by Ariel Sabar, which uncovers how a man who ran a  internet porn site convinced a prominent Harvard School of Religion scholar to believe a crude forgery of a purported Biblical text was real--and exposed some of the unraveling of academe in the process. I'll also mention Marsha Gessen's highly readable Surviving Autocracy, a book that if fortunately fading from relevance, did a superb job connected the dots on Trumpism. 

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Journal of a Plague Year: Best Fiction reads of 2020

 As befits a strange year, my reading patterns deviated from the usual, leaning more heavily into non-fiction and genre literature. Given that a good stand-alone novel is what I love best to sink into, I was sorry not to have read more of these. All that being said, I encountered a wide range of extraordinarily good books. 

Best novels:

Elena Ferrante's The Story of New Name: Some six months after watching the second season of the superb series My Brilliant Friend, I read The Story of a New Name, the second novel in the Neapolitan Quartet.  I had previously read two other Ferrante novels: The Year of Abandonment and My Brilliant Friend. I appreciated both, but neither pulled me wholly into a world the way The Story of a New Name did. Although I had already seen the mini-series that adhered closely to the novel, the novel provided a level of nuance that the series, excellent as it was, flattened. 

If the televised version hovered towards chick lit at times--Lila's romantic frolicking in the waves with the handsome Nino, Lenu's triumphant ending as the successful novelist and scholar who has overcome her impoverished roots--this banality is missing from the pain-saturated novel.  The novel's characters are drawn with nuance--Ferrante never falls into caricature or stereotype. We even feel sympathy at times for the clueless, limited Stefano, despite being appalled at his rapes and beatings of his wife. And while Lila may end up working in a meat packing plant,  unlike in the series, she is never defeated--she, not Lenu, is the true center of the novel.

Ferrante successfully builds and fleshes out the world she began in the first Neapolitan novel. I felt I knew the characters and had a better grasp of the complex community dynamics. I found myself comparing it to some of the more episodic, experimental novels I read this year, such as Overstory and especially, Flights. Ferrante writes, unlike these others, in an old-fashioned, nineteenth century mode of sustained narrative intensity that moves more or less chronologically through time and keeps the focus on one distinct set of characters.  It is not episodic or aphoristic, it does not include trees for characters, it does not move back and forth across  time and space from a mythic Middle East to modern Poland. 

Ferrante pours new matter into an old form, reviving it. This is not a novel that could have been written in the nineteenth century, or more accurately, not a novel that was written. Ferrante takes the kind of nuanced character study writers like Tolstoy and James used on the rich and applies it to the poor. Nobody I can think of, perhaps with the exception of Chekhov in his long short story the "The Peasants,"could write then about the poor the way Ferrante does now. She is not hovering above, not sentimentalizing, not denigrating. These people are fully human and she meets them as equals. These is not Dickens' Cratchits, unrealistically good and deserving, or Oliver Twist--who, after Dickens rightfully excoriating anger, we find out was, after all of oops, sorry,  not really of the poor. Ferrante's are the poor as the poor and with the real (lack of) options poor people--especially woman--had in that time and place.

This is a primarily novel about poor women--it is a woman's novel that no nineteenth century woman could write, because these writers were above the class Ferrante describes, looking down, no matter how sympathetic a Mary Gaskell or a George Eliot might be. What particularly impressed me in Ferrante, because it so closely mirrored the plight of my own mother, and I suspect many women of that time period, is the intense anger Lila experienced at being thwarted in her desire for education. She is, instead, married off at an early age. Ferrante offers no happy ending, no miracle escape or triumphant ascension out of this state. Having to leave school after the fourth grade because her father won't fund her further education, no matter how brilliant she is, relentlessly marks her for life.  Nino shakes her off as too declasse: her class effaces her brilliance.  The power of the book is not, as in Dickens' writing about the "poor," the redemptive thrust, but the fabric of coping with what blows life has dealt you. Ferrante is relentless and unrelenting, fierce, and angry.  I have book three, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, on the table beside me, and I can hardly wait to read it. 

Vigdis Hjorth's Will and Testament. I finished this book very recently. It's a gripping, apparently semi-autobiographical first-person account of a Norwegian woman in her late 50s as she struggles with her family's inability to acknowledge the childhood incest she suffered. This is not a book so much about incest as about how families deny shaming secrets. It is also, concretely, a book about inheritance. Like Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility, it deals with the impact of the material world, the way some members of a family are rewarded and others punished through the apportionment of goods. 

Hjorth is like Austen too in her acerbic wit. As Austen does in her dead-pan rehearsal of how John and Fanny Dashwood talk themselves out of a deathbed promise to help John's mother and half sisters, so Hjorth mocks the platitudes of the sister who endlessly professes she "cares," while siding with power and her own self interest. She mocks the cliches:

Being an outsider makes you resourceful. Loss makes you resourceful. Poverty makes you resourceful, as does fighting with the tax office, being oppressed makes you resourceful. If you’re lucky enough to be successful, you mustn’t forget that, the skills you acquired when you were utterly miserable.

Hjorth, like Austen, is angry, and that anger drives the narrative.

As I connected this book to Austen, I thought about how books are typically, wrongly I often think, labelled Austenian. This year I watched and read, for instance, Sally Rooney's Normal People, because it was likened to Austen. It is a romance, but the chief point of connection people pointed to was Connell, the male protagonist, speaking eloquently about Emma in a seminar class, which for me is not enough of a connection. I found the novel thin; I did not find it particularly Austenian. 

Other novels of interest among those I read this year include Joseph Conrad's Secret Agent, Olga Tokaczuk FlightsStefan's Zweig's The Royal GameChina Achewbe Things Fall Apart, and William Morris's News from Nowhere. I read News for Nowhere in an on-line literature group: we agreed that Morris' socialist utopia, which feels more than a little like  Disney World with better food and without the carnival rides, is marred by Morris' sexism. Once again, it's important to reiterate that women don't, on the whole, have utopian dreams of becoming man's handmaidens. However, there is something deeply compelling in his vision of a garden world, ecologically sustainable and without money, in which people are healthy and content. 

Conrad's Secret Agent is also marred by sexism and by its mean-hearted caricature of revolutionaries. An appalling, destructive patriarchy alienated me, too, from the sympathy I felt I was supposed to feel for Achewbe's tormented protagonist in Things Fall Apart or the sorrow I was expected to feel for the loss of his social order. However, I appreciated the simplicity of its language, and the way the novel highlighted the destructive effects of a patriarchy where brutality towards women and children is normalized and saving face is all important--more important than life itself. And as I have been thinking much about the experience of time this year, I thought I would end with a quote from Flights, from a book ironically about the centrality of travel and movement  at a time we are all grounded:

". . . and perhaps it is possible,” she heard him say, “to look into the past, cast our glances backward, imagine it as a panopticon of sorts, or, dear friends, to treat the past as though it still existed, it’s just that it’s been shifted over into another dimension. Maybe all we need to do is change our way of looking, look askance at it all somehow. Because if the future and the past are infinite, then in reality there can be no ‘once upon,’ no ‘back when.’ Different moments in time hang in space like sheets, like screens lit up by one moment; the world is made up of these frozen moments..."


 Some of the notable short stories I read this year include the following:

I most enjoyed Sylvia's Plath's "Sunday at the Mintons," a pastiche of Virginia Woolf, written under the influence of To the Lighthouse. It won one of the Mademoiselle's two $500 first prize awards in 1952. To my mind, it may well have been influenced by Truman Capote's 1945 Mademoiselle story "Miriam," another interesting read. 

Nadine Gordimer's "The Moment Before the Gun Went Off" is an eviscerating critique of South Africa's apartheid written in a mode reminiscent especially of Woolf, but that I imagine Austen would have appreciated.

Margaret Atwood's "Death by Landscape" stuck with me powerfully, a tale of loss in an ekphrastic mode in which a woman, decades later, is still seeking a lost friend in Canadian landscape paintings. 

I read Alice Walker's iconic 1970s  "Everyday Use" for the first time,  still a powerful indictment of cultural appropriation. 

Sally Rooney's "At the Clinic" launched Marianne and Connell, the main characters in Normal People. It is notable for its coldness. The lack of security  Marianne feels with Connell mirrors the bleak isolation and desolation that lead Anna Karenina to commit suicide: today, apparently, they are normal for a relationship. The story is reminiscent of Mary Gaitskill's "Mirrorball" and Kristen Roupenian's "Cat Woman" and may have something to do with why aggrieved Incels can't get dates. 

As this has taken enough time, I will turn in the near to future blogs to the best non-fiction I read in 2020, the best filmed media I watched, genre fiction, and rereads