Sunday, December 10, 2023

Best books 2023

Best fiction:

Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather. This was not my first time reading this book, but as is often the case with books revisited after decades, it was as if I were reading it for the first time. A poignant account of the relationship between Bishop Latour and his vicar Joseph Vaillant, it follows them as  missionaries to New Mexico and other parts of the far west. Even when far apart, the two lonely men are united by their inseparable bond. Somewhat Don Quixote-like, the two mimic the dreamy ivory tower mentality of Quixote (Latour) and the shrewd pragmatism of Sancho Panzo (Vaillant) as they pursue planting the faith. Woven in their story are vignettes about the west, including a tale of vigilante justice. Cather is prescient in this novel about the need to preserve the environment, compelling in her nature descriptions, and sensitive to the indigenous culture of the southwest. By happenstance, I read the book almost in tandem with Benjamin Taylor's new biography of Cather, Chasing Bright Medusas. More than other works of Cather's Archbishop seems to support Taylor's thesis that Cather was an "anti-modernist," dreaming of the ideal. 

The Appeal, Janice Hallett. After a recommendation from my Jane Austenite friend Constance, I listened to this epistolary mystery on CD.  Based on a series of e-mail exchanges, it centers on Issy Beck, a socially challenged nurse trying desperately to get "in" in her new village community. Her avenue is to participate in a production of Arthur Miller's All My Children, staged by the village's leading wealthy family, the Haywards. A scheme to extricate the patriarch Mr. Hayward from debt through a  fundraising drive for his granddaughter Poppy's fake cancer is exposed by a person who ends up dead. Issy's annoying attempts to ingratiate herself as well as her neediness are well conveyed in the reading.  The book has many twists, including an imaginary character, secret pasts, some question as to "who (really! done it"  and if the murder actually took place at all.  As an additional treat,  family politics and personalities in an English village evoke Jane Austen.

A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki. The story of Ruth, a middle-aged writer living with her husband in an isolated village in British Columbia and Nao, a teenaged Japanese girl, come together when Nao's Hello Kitty lunchbox washes up on the shore of Ruth's island home with a diary inside. Ruth and the reader learn of Nao's rough transition back to life in Japan after growing up in California, including her father's depression and suicide attempt, and the bullying she endures at school, culminating in a fake funeral for her. She gains wisdom from her 104 year old Buddhist nun grandmother Jiko but is also groomed into becoming an underage prostitute during her time in a Japanese cafe. Interspersed with comments on ecological devastation caused by climate change, Buddhist teachings, and questions about time, reality, and the nature of suffering and truth, this complex book is read beautifully by Ozeki herself. 

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt,  I'd resisted reading this book for a long time, but this fall a sudden urge to do so overcame me. I thought it would be like Susan Vreeland's The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, a series of stories about a fictitious Vermeer painting as it changes hands over the centuries, but it was a very different beast. Although named for a real painting, The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius, it is not about the painting, which functions largely as a plot device or, if you will, a missing phallus, the symbol of desire, regret, yearning, absence, and entrapment. Hovering somewhere between a tour de force with dramatic plot twists and a piece of literature exploring meaning, the novel is page turner with surprises that come to seem inevitable after the fact. It is a mix of fantasy tropes--a terrorist explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an effete wealthy family, a magical, European-type antique furniture restoration shop in Greenwich Village, drugs, criminals, and an otherworldly red-headed dream girl-- tropes that somehow all hang together as conjured by the less-than-reliable narrator, Theo Decker. The best character in this novel is the Ukranian Boris, a teenager Theo meets and becomes close friends as they cope with survival in a deserted Las Vegas subdivision. 

The Devil's Treasure, Mary Gaitskill. I first encountered Mary Gaitskill in an anthology in which writers commented on their favorite work of literature: 2017's Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fansler. I was impressed with Gaitskill's essay on Anna Karenina, which focused on the "true" Anna who comes to life in a near-death childbirth scene, an Anna existing beneath the socially constructed adulterous Anna. I then found her short story "Mirrorball," about a young woman's soul killing (or soul cracking) sexual encounter. I was thus happy when chance brought The Devil's Treasure to me. The book is a mixture of long passages from Gaitskill's novels, with some memoir and some of her own thoughts on her writing. I put it in the fiction category because of its inclusion of long passages of her fiction, which comprise the bulk of the book. Gaitskill is relentless in looking at the harshness below the facades of everyday life--at looking at truth. Because the excerpts seemed so true, the book energized and inspired me, though at the same time I was glad of the "slant" of not having to read her novels in their entirety. I need however, I think, to think about why her writing seems so true to me, and why that, on some level, repels me. I think, on this subject of the true, of the many 19th century writers who adored Dickens as a truth teller when today his novels read as so picaresque, so literary rather than authentic, though he did look at the harshness of poverty, inequality, and cruelty in a way other novelists did not. I wonder if Gaitskill will seem, if read at all, true to another generation which did not grow up beside her? 

The Sign in Sidney Brustein's Window, Lorraine Hansberry. This play, worthy of John Le Carre, explores the disillusionment of early 1960s Bohemian radical Sidney Brustein, who agrees to lend his weight to backing a political candidate who in the end turns out to be worthless and corrupt. In addition to the main plot, I liked its depiction of the plight of intelligent women in the early 60s, even in Bohemian circles, and the "slice of life" period piece quality of the work. I have read several bios of Hansberry, and sadly, the misogynist times she lived in taught her to focus on male protagonists, making Walter the center of Raisin in the Sun instead of his mother, which was her original intent, and here focusing on Sidney, when the true center of the play should be, imo, his wife. Fortunately for us, writers like Jane Austen were not as impressionable, despite some of the dubious "advice" they received. And yet, at the same time, Hansberry was brilliant in her critique of male writers, such as the French existentials.

Best non-fiction reading of 2023

Mrs. Woolf and the Servants: An Intimate History of Domestic Life in Bloomsbury, Alison Light. I loved this book. In it, Light focuses her research on the servants who surrounded Virginia Woolf, while also rotating to other members of Bloomsbury. As far as possible she unearths their pasts before they came to Bloomsbury, and as far as she can, follows them to the end of their lives. Nellie (often misspelled Nelly by Woolf) Boxall, for example, outlived Woolf by several decades, and bought a townhouse from her brother after she retired, installing indoor plumbing and purchasing the first television on the block. In treating the servants not only in relation to Woolf, but as people with stories worthy of being told independent of their famous employers, Light fleshes out these figures as real people. The book is extremely well researched and well written, and it was a treat for me to be able to read it this summer in France.  I have a particular penchant for books that carry on a story beyond its arbitrary end point, such as the defeat of Germany in World War II, often a hard stop, or Woolf's death by suicide, another abrupt ending. Lives, in reality, go on past what we define as the endpoints.

On another aside, as I read of Woolf servants raised in orphanages or poor houses and put out to service, I was reminded of the "biography" of Miss Marple I read not long ago. Living in a status incongruous position similar to the Woolfs ("poor as rats" for their social class) Miss Marple also takes "girls" out of the orphanages, a cheap way to get the help that maintains her in her social class. She trains the girls in proper housekeeping until they inevitably leave her, and then she starts over. Light criticizes the Woolfs for not treating their servants better, for instance, by not installing indoor plumbing in their "grace and favor" housing when they did so in their own home, but these issues are complicated. 

An Autobiography: My Life and Work, by Booker T Washington. One tends to recoil from Booker T. Washington, so often seen as the servile Uncle Tom figure  eager for white approval. This 1900 book offers a different if not entirely contradictory perspective. Washington, who gained his freedom at age 8 or 9, is a fine writer. He shares vivid memories of his early life as a slave in southwest Virginia, sleeping on the dirt floor of shack that was freezing in the winter, getting only the roughest clothing, fed sporadically, though lucky in being the son of the plantations's cook. He also writes compelling of his young post-freedom life living and working, still a child, in a salt and then a coal mine in West Virgina, poor but  now allowed to get an education and filled with ambition to get ahead. When he manages to propel himself to his first boarding school, he has never slept on a bed with sheets, brushed his teeth, or used dishes and silverware. As he runs the Tuskagee School, he is determined that his charges attain such dignities, despite severe scarcities or resources, and insists that they learn practical crafts and skills in addition to academic education. 

Tragically, he was a good hearted man who believed that by working hard, saving money, and living soberly, Blacks could accumulate wealth and earn the respect of whites in such a way that they would be seen and treated as equals. His life and accommodationist tactics, cringey now, were based on a belief in human goodness. He never anticipated that many whites, especially in the South, were never going to accept Blacks as equals, no matter what. He believed --or wanted to believe--that by 1900 the period of lynchings was over. It didn't occur to him that if Blacks achieved some wealth and independence, whites would comes and burn down their towns, as they did, then refuse to lend them money to rebuild. In a nutshell, he denied human evil. Reading his story, however, I felt some sympathy for him--he couldn't know how badly his tactics would backfire because there was no "him" before him to show him the folly of his ways. 

It's Me, O Lord, Rockwell Kent. Since Covid started, and I became obsessed with tracking down a  book which turned out to be edited by him, I have had a bizarre fascination with Kent, bizarre because I have such mixed feelings about his art and life. The book in question was 100 World Masterpieces, a coffee table tome of glossy plates of Western art that my brother and I would pore over  before we could even read. As it happened, Roger and I were in Mexico as Covid restrictions appeared, and as he tried to rearrange our flights home, I looked at the ocean  through windows that had no glass, which brought back to me with sudden clarity the Renaissance paintings in World Masterpieces book in which Mary holds court with the baby Jesus in rooms with windows without glass.

When I found the art book, I was taken with Rockwell's cheeky take-downs of museums and high art, his avowals that he would not have chosen some of the paintings in the book, his quotations from Blake, and general unapologetic siding with the common man. This year, heading to Maine, where he had a house on Monhegan Island, I discovered his autobiography. It is a dense and overwritten, and he pokes fun at himself--his title in fact is a joke, as in "Oh God, not me!" But the fascination lies in his self depiction. Writing in 1955, he composed a book no man would ever write today. Anathletic, high-energy, self assured young person, he turned socialist and vegetarian at young age, and never wavered at openly expressing his opinions. Tall, blond, strong, male, the world was his oyster. His father died when he was young, and he grew up a poor relation--but in very privileged circumstances. His physical feats as a young man--working, say from  4 am to 11 am on rough seas rowing a lobstering boat, then climbing the hills of Monhegan island for an afternoon of painting, followed by an evening of singing and socializing--were amazing. He married, as he blatantly explained, for regular sex, and promptly felt entitled to have an affair when his wife didn't want sex right away after the birth of their first child. He pursued actresses and showgirls, and not surprisingly, found himself divorced.  His second wife got a court order while they were married to keep him away when she sojourned six months of the year on the other side of the country. He told the much younger woman who eventually became his third wife that he would marry her if she agreed to worship him. She initially fled but succumbed to his pursuit. When he found out that he was advertised as editor of 100 World Masterpiece when he had not agreed to take the job, he reacted with rage and demanded $10,000 for the job--which he got, an enormous sum in 1939. 

Odyssey of a Wandering Mind, Jennifer Horne. This is a biography of Sara Mayfield, a friend of Zelda Fitzgerald and HL Mencken. Born in privileged Southern circumstances and almost certainly a lesbian, Sara led the life of a wealthy woman until her erratic behavior caused her mother and older brother to commit her to the state insane asylum. There for 17 years, she emerged to write well-received biographies of both Zelda and Mencken. The book indicts a system that allowed relatives to essentially imprison a woman who arguably did little more than live outside of Southern female norms. Well-written and mercifully free of autobiographical interludes or outrage, it lets Maysfield fascinating story stand on its own.

Shakespeare in Bloomsbury, Margaret Garber. A (seemingly) exhaustive and well written account of how thoroughly Shakespeare's works and words were imbedded in the minds and psyches of the Bloomsbury people. Garber teases out references to Shakespeare in letters, diaries, and fiction. Even obscure allusions seemed so obvious to Bloomsburyites that the source didn't need to be mentioned.

Mrs. Orwell's Invisible Life, Anna Funder. This biography of Orwell's often forgotten first wife is marred by Funder's outrage, as if she is the first person in history to notice how routinely notice how women have been edited from the lives of great men (I will note that I wrote a book on the subject). Her insertions of her own life story are also unnecessary. Nevertheless the book is valuable in outlining the ordeals to which Orwell subjected his wife, and his expectation that she be secretary, servant (including cleaning the outhouse)  and muse to him, while devaluing her as a person. Orwell would almost certainly have concurred with Funder's assessment that he was no saint (beyond his treatment of his wife, it is hard not to he repelled by the way he would pounce on and kiss unsuspecting women fully on the mouth when he strongly suspected he had TB). He was not far different from other men of his time in his treatment of women (see Rockwell Kent above), but this is all the same a story that needs to be told and a book well worth reading. 

Sunday, December 11, 2022

Best Books 2022

I read less fiction than usual this past year, a frustrating situation, though perhaps of a piece with a year of being upended.


Nevertheless, I did read some excellent novels, of which I choose a few, as well as some excellent non-fiction. 

Best fiction:


Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior. I had long wanted to read this novel and finally did through an on-line reading group. I found it riveting and relentless, the saga of a Chinese-American daughter and her fierce Chinese immigrant mother, owner of a laundromat. Through fable, fiction, and fairytale  Kingston relates a startlingly honest story about her mother’s otherness vis-à-vis American culture and the impact the mother had on her daughter. I found this novel original, raw, difficult to categorize, alienating, and yet intensely engaging—a novel that was completely itself, seeming entirely true to what it wanted to say, and with little interest in what we thought of it. As such, it seemed a privilege to peek into this window. 


Felix Salten, Bambi. I was told this was a book about the perils of anti-semitism. Having not received the movie version of Bambi even remotely through that lens, I was fascinated to read the novel. The movie is much like the novel in its sweet depiction of the beauties of nature, as well as in the anxiety engendered by Man, the great hunter and disruptor of the natural order. The antisemitic theme rings clear in the latter part of the novel. 

Salten was an Austrian Jew born in 1869, so had lived a lifetime in the shadow of antisemitism by the time he published Bambi at age 54 in 1923. The hunters—MAN--represent the Aryan overclass. The most overt warning about antisemitism and assimilation comes in the form of a deer who is rescued by humans after being wounded. He is taken good care of, fed, petted, allowed by a warm fire. When he comes back to the forest, he trusts MAN, and is sure his former saviors see him as distinct individual about whom they care and who they will want to protect. The other animals try to tell him this is not so and to be wary of the hunters. The deer disregards them and stands in an open clearing, sure he is a special animal to the humans who won't be harmed. He is shot and killed, and the message is clear: as a deer is always merely a deer, so as Jew is always Jew: there is no special protection through assimilation. In light of subsequent history, the novel reads as prescient, tragic, and clear-eyed in its understanding of antisemitism—and as sadly relevant today. More problematic is its treatment of patriarchy—the male bucks are depicted as a noble breed apart, far superior to the female and child deer, occupying an almost god-like spot in the deer hierarchy. This seems false in and of itself, and unfortunately Salten links it to a need for the bucks to live solitary and very lonely lives, aloof from their fellow deer. This toxic masculinity may have kept deer—and Jews—from destruction, but the price was unnecessarily high: one longs to tell Bambi that he can both stay (relatively) safe by staying carefully in his own world but also can experience the joys of relationship and community.


Janet Frame, Owls Do Cry. This debut novel by New Zealand author Frame was published in 1957 and owes much to literary modernism. It’s a powerful work, as is The Woman Warrior and Bambi, and like them is animated by a distinct voice and vision. It centers on the children of the Withers family who grow up in poverty and seek treasure in a garbage dump. Like Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, different characters provide different points of view in different sections, all in their own ways carrying childhood trauma, including the death of sister and poverty. One sister becomes a shallow-minded middle class snob with a husband and two children, running after the beautiful people and wanting to distance from the family of origin, while the epileptic brother hoards money, and the sister Daphne, modeled on Frame, ends up in a mental institution where she receives the lobotomy that Frame narrowly escaped. The story is depressing, but there are flashes of joy in it, and it reads as relentlessly real and honest.


Anonymous, The Woman of Colour. This 1808 novel follows a biracial woman of color named Olivia Fairfield who travels from Jamaica to London and must marry according to the dictates of her father’s will.The  plot involves a conventional moral-choice situation of conscience, but the book is notable for its lively—and still completely topical-- critique of racism and its satire of snobbery and greed. Meghan Markle does come to mind as the pages turn: how little has changed in two centuries. The burning question is the following: Did Jane Austen read it? One wants to wish so, and to see it reflected in both the treatment of Jane Fairfax and in the creation of the biracial heroine of Sanditon, but we don’t know that she did. 


Honorable fiction mentions:


Agatha Christie, The Moving Finger. A burst of interest in Agatha Christie and the possible influence of Jane Austen on her led to a group reading several Christie mysteries in rapid succession: The Moving Finger stands out as the most interesting of the bunch, with poison pen letters, accusations of brother-sister incest, and the tantalizing possibility of more than one answer to “who done it” if we delve into the Shakespearean subtexts. I would also mention The Complete Short Stories of Miss Marple—the stories are spooky and entertaining and quietly and savagely puncture stereotypes about older women. 

A.S Byatt, “The Thing in the Forest.”  I stumbled on this short story about two young girls sent to a country estate because of the Blitz, and who have a scary experience in the forest. It was powerfully written and deeply ambiguous. It morphed into a short novel, Ragnorak, which I read last year but which lacked the short story’s vigor. 

Hat tips to Elaine, who recommended both the Kingston and the Frame novels, to Rachel for Bambi, Liz Anne for The Woman of Colour, and Constance for The Moving Finger. I don’t know where I would be without friend recommendations. 


Best Non-fiction:


Lucy Worsley, Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman. I’ve read Agatha Christie’s entertaining and humane memoir and have tried to read several Christie biographies that I had to abandon. Lucy Worsley’s new book, which was unaccountably dismissed by the New York Times, is well researched, intelligent, and readable. Beyond delving into Christie’s archives to uncover how wholly Christie financed her second husband’s career, Worsley folds in the serious academic scholarship on Christie that has emerged in the last 30 years, such as by Alison Light, which emphasizes Christie as a modernist writer and perhaps the most underrated playwright of the 20th century. As Worsley points out , the pared down prose we so admire in Hemingway is an aspect of Christie’s writing as well—and with her sharp eye for the telling detailed, Christie documented much of the social history of England in the first three quarters of the 20th century. 


Anne Hart, The Life and Times of Miss Jane Marple. I enjoyed this older book, published in the 1980s, which compiles Miss Marple’s life story based on what can be gleaned from Christie's books and stories. This led me to the early stories, where a very Victorian Miss Marple emerges in 1927 as a member of The Tuesday Night Club, a group that presents and tries to solve vexing mysteries. There’s an eery and uncanny quality to this early Miss Maple who comes to use festooned in lace over white hair piled high on her head and long black silk dresses, a far cry from her later iteration in sensible British tweeds. Despite being roundly dismissed and discounted, ala Miss Bates, she is very much the person who knows what is going on and solves the crimes.


 Daniel Mark Epstein, ed., Rapture and Melancholy: The Diaries of Edna St Vincent Millay. Though gaps occur in her diaries, what we have, especially with Epstein’s fine contextualizing, brings Millay and her period alive, from her financially strapped childhood as one of several daughters of a single mother in Maine to her unlikely ascent to literary stardom, and later,  to her life running a farm with her husband in upstate New York. As with the well-edited set of Shirley Jackson’s letters I read a year ago, the real woman behind the myth shines out, in both cases a decent person coping with an unlikely life of fame. 


Hilary A Hallett, Inventing the It Girl: How Elinor Glyn Created the Modern Romance and Conquered Early Hollywood. I had never heard of Elinor Glyn before this highly readable biography. Born in Canada and married to an upper-class British man who did little but spend down the family estate to near destitution, the supremely self-assured and socially polished Glyn put pen to paper and became the inventor of best-selling steamy romances of the “tiger rug” variety, earning her the name of Tiger Queen. She ended up in Hollywood in her 60s as Madame Glyn, coaching such stars as “It” girl Clara Bow. It’s sad that so little is remembered today about this energetic and capable woman with a talent for rising to occasions. She seems much of a piece with other women writers of her period, such as Edith Nesbitt, who used their talents to grind out endless mediocre works for money. These must have been the women Woolf had in mind when she contrasted male writers’ privilege to what so many women writers had to contend with. 


 Brigitta Olubas: Shirley Hazzard: A Writing Life. I have never read novelist Shirley Hazzard, but nevertheless this well-written account of her life. Has stuck with me, drawing a clear portrait of who she was. A self-made woman from Australia, Hazzard wove aspects of her life story into her carefully crafted and critically acclaimed novels. She also created for herself the New York and European intellectual life that she craved. I hesitated putting this book on the list, as I don’t plan to read Hazzard, but the bio itself got under my skin, leaving me feeling as if I knew Shirley as a real person. 


Christopher Prendergast: Living and Dying with Marcel Proust. I found myself copying Proust quotes out of this book, which focuses on different aspects of Proust’s Recherche, from his use of the color pink to asthma to his thoughts on death. Prendergast knows Proust well, and this command serves him well in the book. This work gave me a better understanding of Proust, complementing Daniel Mendelsohn’s Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate, which ends on the image of the two roads Proust habitually walks meeting—to his stunned surprised. In Prendergast, I enjoyed the way he tied together Proust quotes, such as in:


‘I first noticed the round shadow that apple trees

make on the sunny earth and those silks of impalpable gold

which the sunset weaves under the leaves.’ It is later echoed by

the sunlit apple trees of Normandy, ‘in full flower for as far as

the eye could see, unimaginably luxuriant, their feet in the mud

but wearing their ball-gowns, not taking any precautions so as

not to spoil the most marvellous pink satin you ever set eyes on,

made to shine by the sunlight.’ There is also the ‘dazzling whiteness’

of the pear trees in the village …



Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score. This book on trauma comes alive because of van der Kolk’s relentless, insatiable quest to understand and treat trauma, wherever the path leads. He speaks out strongly against medicating trauma as a sole treatment therapy, and against severing trauma from the social and political contexts that cause it. 


Jack Zipes, Buried Treasures: The Power of Political Fairytales. Zipes brings together a lifetime of work and reading in this compilation of mostly 20th century fairytale writers, including Salten. Zipes shines a light on writers, often forced to hide their communist or socialist beliefs in fascist regimes, who channeled their ideas into fairy stories, whose political content would be overlooked. Zipes talks about how he first gained an interest in fairytales when he and his mother ran into Einstein on the Princeton campus when he was very young. His mother asked Einstein what Zipes should read, and when Einstein said fairytales, Zipes took the advice. His delight has been finding out of print modern fairy tales in used books stores and bringing their stories back into circulation. 




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.