I don’t think I realized how serious the Russian invasion of Ukraine was until I heard a neighbour who is in the Royal Navy speak of it in the same breath as 9/11.
It is so hard to predict the end game. Wars can last years, even decades, and a situation like this could draw many more countries in. Like with Covid, there could be much longer term effects than we’re currently expecting.
I attended a candlelit vigil for Ukraine in the town square on Friday.
I donated to the Disasters Emergency Committee’s Ukraine Humanitarian Appeal at church yesterday morning, and will donate more. (Those in other countries might choose to send money through Doctors Without Borders, the Red Cross, or UNICEF.)
And I was prompted by a friend’s post to assemble this “Solidarity Stack” on Instagram over the weekend:
But I still feel like I have done so little.
I can hardly bear to keep up with the news; we don’t have a television or get a newspaper and I never listen to the radio, but I do see the headlines through my Facebook and Twitter feeds. Some heartening stories, but mostly horrible ones.
I wish I knew more about Ukraine. The only books I can think of that I’ve read by Ukrainians and Ukrainian Americans are Deaf Republic by Ilya Kaminsky, Death and the Penguin by Andrey Kurkov*, and My Dead Parents by Anya Yurchyshyn. There is a Ukraine setting to The Summer Guest by Alison Anderson, and Henry Marsh goes on medical missions to Ukraine in Do No Harm. Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer is about his Ukrainian Jewish heritage (as is his mother Esther’s I Want You to Know We’re Still Here); The Reason Why by Cecil Woodham-Smith and The Rose of Sebastopol by Katharine McMahon are about the Crimean War.
Over the past couple of weeks a number of Ukrainian reading lists have come out, like this one from Book Riot. Ron Charles (of the Washington Post) also put me onto I Will Die in a Foreign Land by Kalani Pickhart, which is about the 2014 revolution in Ukraine (when Putin tried to annex the Crimea). A portion of her proceeds will be donated to the Ukrainian Red Cross.
*Apparently on a most wanted list for his vocal opposition to Putin; his work has been banned in Russia since 2014.
Any other thoughts on what we can do to help, understand, and work for the good?
Like the assassination of John F. Kennedy for a previous generation, September 11, 2001 was a landmark day in our shared history. I was two weeks into my freshman year of college and getting ready to head out to a 9:30 seminar when my roommate returned early from her first class. “All these planes flying into buildings – I’m freaking out!” she cried, and turned our tiny desktop TV set to a news station.
At that point it was unclear what was going on, so I dutifully trudged out across the quad linking the residence halls to the academic buildings, anticipating a normal day of classes. On the way I encountered small groups of somber students, and was alarmed to see my friend and “Big Sister” from the junior class weeping onto her boyfriend’s shoulder – her dad worked at the Pentagon, and she hadn’t yet heard that he was okay. When I entered the lecture hall it was clear no regular work was going to happen that day; I was one of only a handful of students who’d shown up, and our English professor, too, was engrossed by the rippling montage of rubble and smoke being projected onto a screen behind him.
As the anniversary approached this year, I picked up a coffee table book of photos, Reuters’ September 11: A Testimony from the library and was struck by how dated everything appeared. For an event so fresh in my memory, it actually looks like something that happened a long time ago thanks to everything from the fashions and car designs to the photographic quality. You also get the sense that, even in the early Internet age, things like missing person posters and public tributes to the dead were primarily paper-based then. The photos barely capture the scope of the devastation. One image of firefighters among the wreckage looks like a film set or architect’s model, the human figures like ants among the dusty girders. This was published in late 2001, so it was put together quickly. Photographs tell the story, with extremely brief captions on facing pages. Nearly half of the length is devoted to documenting the three crash sites, with the rest chronicling memorial services, national and international commemorations, and New York City gradually returning to business as usual.
On the way back from our mother’s wedding this summer, my sister and brother-in-law and I passed the entrance to the Flight 93 Memorial in Shanksville, Pennsylvania so drove in for a look. The 1,000-acre site is administered by the National Park Service. On the airless June day we were there, the Tower of Voices was not making its eerie music, but it was still a peaceful spot for reflection. You can listen to a recording of the windchimes on the website. There is also a visitor center with a permanent exhibition that we will have to go back and see another time.
I also recently reread Rowan Williams’s superb book-length essay Writing in the Dust (2002), which I’d read twice before. Williams, then Archbishop of Wales and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, was in New York City on 9/11. He was, in fact, just a few blocks from the World Trade Center, at Trinity Church, Wall Street, where he was part of a group recording theological conversations to be used for educational purposes. When the planes hit and the air filled with dust and smoke, he did the same as everyone else: he quickly evacuated, ensured everyone was safe, and then watched, listened, and prayed. And in the months that followed he thought about what he’d seen that day, and what his experience had taught him about suffering, peacemaking, and the ways of God.
Writing well before military action against Iraq began, Williams cautioned against labeling the Other as Evil and responding in a simple spirit of retribution. Prophets’ words are never welcome, of course, and time has shown that Western policies have only made things worse. I must have read this from a university library; I then did a peculiar (and probably illegal, in copyright terms) thing and typed out every single word of it into a Word file so I could keep it forever.
Here are some of Williams’s words of wisdom:
“The hardest thing in the world is to know how to act so as to make the difference that can be made; to know how and why that differs from the act that only releases or expresses the basic impotence of resentment.”
My original rating (2013):
My rating now:
Other 9/11-themed reading I have done:
The Second Plane by Martin Amis (2008)
A famously bad-tempered English novelist who now lives in New York, Amis here presents a collection of 14 fictional and factual responses to 9/11. The essays are much stronger than the stories (a tale about Saddam Hussein’s son’s body double is downright weird), although it might be argued that Amis’s general understanding of Islam is fatally skewed. Opinionated, bold, and polarizing, these pieces ponder the symbolism and ideology of a day that changed the world.
The wonderful Annie Dillard’s post-9/11 essay “This is the Life,” available to read here, is another perceptive look at our response to tragedy, asking whether we are going to accept what “everyone” thinks about us vs. them and the value of human lives: “Everyone knows…the enemies are barbarians [but] our lives and our deaths count equally.”
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
Oskar Schell is a tremendously precocious nine-year-old who’s trying to come to terms with his father’s death in the World Trade Center on 9/11. He sets off on a quest to find the lock that takes the key he found in his dad’s closet. This light-hearted search takes him all over New York’s five boroughs, but in the end Oskar is little closer to discovering who his dad really was or how exactly he died. All he has left of him is that same panicked message on the answering machine, left sometime during the morning of September 11th. By denying neat narrative closure, Foer avoids sentimentality at the same time as he affirms the tragedy’s effect on a nation and on individuals.
Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver (2002)
On September 12th, 2001, Kingsolver sat down at her computer to write up some thoughts about the previous day’s tragedy. A newspaper had asked her for a short response, but as she sat and typed she found that the words kept coming, in essay after essay. The title piece in this collection, and several others like it, might make for occasionally uncomfortable reading, as Kingsolver questions automatic all-American responses like indiscriminate flag-waving and “we’ll hunt those terrorists down” vigilante justice. She asks how someone who loves her country can criticize its tenets and actions without being branded a traitor. “My country, right or wrong,” the saying goes – fair enough, but the truest patriot is one who loves her country enough to hold it to the highest moral standards, demanding it live up to its democratic ideals.
The Submission by Amy Waldman (2011)
Waldman’s debut imagines what would have happened had New Yorkers chosen a 9/11 memorial design as soon as 2003 and – crucially – had the anonymous selection turned out to be by a Muslim architect named Mohammad Khan. His memorial garden is rich in possible meanings and influences. When a member of the memorial selection jury leaks the information about the designer’s name to the press, however, all hell breaks loose, and perfectly nice, reasonable people start to display some ugly bigotry. As the clever double meaning of the title suggests, Waldman has educated herself about Islam’s doctrines. She includes an impressive range of characters and opinions in this canny psychological exploration.
(Most of the above text is recycled from an article I wrote for Bookkaholic web magazine (now defunct) in 2013.)
I can think of at least six more novels I’ve read that would be appropriate for this list, yet even including them here would be a spoiler. Generally, if you’re reading a novel set in New York City in 2000 or so, you should be prepared…
This year I meant to read Mitchell Zuckoff’s comprehensive journalistic study, Fall and Rise: The Story of 9/11, but ran out of time. Eleanor highly recommends the audiobook of the oral history The Only Plane in the Sky by Garrett M. Graff. This Kirkus list has two additional nonfiction suggestions.
Where were you on 9/11?
Have you read anything related to it?
Major bookish initiatives:
- Coordinated a Not the Wellcome Prize blog tour to celebrate 2019’s health-themed books – in case you missed it, the winner was Sinéad Gleeson for Constellations.
- Co-hosted Novellas in November with Cathy (746 Books).
- Hosted Library Checkout each month.
Reading challenges joined:
- 12 blog tours
- Six Degrees of Separation: I started participating in February and did nine posts this year
- Paul Auster Reading Week
- Reading Ireland month
- Japanese Literature Challenge
- 1920 Club
- 20 Books of Summer
- Women in Translation Month
- Robertson Davies Weekend
- Women’s Prize winners (#ReadingWomen)
- 1956 Club
- Nonfiction November
- Margaret Atwood Reading Month
This works out to one blog tour, one reading project, and one regular meme per month – manageable. I’ll probably cut back on blog tours next year, though; unless for a new release I’m really very excited about, they’re often not worth it.
- Crossing to Safety with Laila (Big Reading Life)
- 6 Carol Shields novels plus The Trick Is to Keep Breathing, Deerbrook, and How to Be Both with Marcie (Buried in Print)
- A Visit from the Goon Squad and The Idea of Perfection with Laura T.
- Mother’s Milk with Annabel
- 666 Charing Cross Road with Liz
Self-set reading challenges:
- Seasonal reading
- Classic of the Month (14 in total; it’s only thanks to Novellas in November that I averaged more than one a month)
- Doorstopper of the Month (just 3; I’d like to try to get closer to monthly in 2021)
- Wainwright Prize longlist reading
- Bellwether Prize winners (read 2, DNFed 1)
- Short stories in September (8 collections)
- Young Writer of the Year Award shortlist reading
- Thematic roundups – I’m now calling these “Three on a Theme” and have done 2 so far
- Journey through the Day with Books (3 new reviews this year):
- Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
- Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen
- [Up with the Larks by Tessa Hainsworth – DNF]
- [Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer – DNF]
- Three-Martini Lunch by Suzanne Rindell – existing review
- The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuściński – read part of
- Eventide by Kent Haruf
- Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler – existing review
- Talk before Sleep by Elizabeth Berg – existing review
- When the Lights Go Out by Carys Bray
- Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb
- Voyage in the Dark by Jean Rhys
- Late Nights on Air by Elizabeth Hay – existing review
- Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham
- The House of Sleep by Jonathan Coe
- Bodies in Motion and at Rest by Thomas Lynch – read but not reviewed
- Silence by Shūsaku Endō
- Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez – read part of
- The Four in a Row Challenge – I failed miserably with this one. I started an M set but got bogged down in Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (also a bibliotherapy self-prescription for Loneliness from The Novel Cure), which I had as a bedside book for much of the year, so only managed 1.5 out of 4; I also started an H quartet but set both Tinkers and Plainsong aside. Meanwhile, Debbie joined in and completed her own 4 in a Row. Well done! I like how simple this challenge is, so I’m going to use it next year as an excuse to read more from my shelves – but I’ll be more flexible and allow lots of substitutions in case I stall with one of the four books.
At the end of 2019, I picked out a whole shelf’s worth of books I’d been meaning to reread. I kept adding options over the year, so although I managed a respectable 16 rereads in 2020, the shelf is still overflowing!
Many of my rereads have featured on the blog over the year, but here are two more I didn’t review at the time. Both were book club selections inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. (We held a rally and silent protest in a park in the town centre in June.)
Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama: Remember when there was a U.S. president who thought deeply, searched his soul, and wrote eloquently? I first read this memoir in 2006, when Obama was an up-and-coming Democratic politician who’d given a rousing convention speech. I remembered no details, just the general sweep of Hawaii to Chicago to Kenya. On this reread I engaged most with the first third, in which he remembers a childhood in Hawaii and Indonesia, gives pen portraits of his white mother and absentee Kenyan father, and works out what it means to be black and Christian in America. By age 12, he’d stopped advertising his mother’s race, not wanting to ingratiate himself with white people. By contrast, “To be black was to be the beneficiary of a great inheritance, a special destiny, glorious burdens that only we were strong enough to bear.” The long middle section on community organizing in Chicago nearly did me in; I had to skim past it to get to his trip to Kenya to meet his paternal relatives – “Africa had become an idea more than an actual place, a new promised land”.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: This Wellcome Book Prize winner about the use of a poor African-American woman’s cells in medical research was one of the first books to turn me onto health-themed reads. I devoured it in a few days in 2010. Once again, I was impressed at the balance between popular science and social history. Skloot conveys the basics of cell biology in a way accessible to laypeople, and uses recreated scenes and dialogue very effectively. I had forgotten the sobering details of the Lacks family experience, including incest, abuse, and STDs. Henrietta had a rural Virginia upbringing and had a child by her first cousin at age 14. At 31 she would be dead of cervical cancer, but the tissue taken from her at Baltimore’s Johns Hopkins hospital became an immortal cell line. HeLa is still commonly used in medical experimentation. Consent was a major talking point at our book club Zoom meeting. Cells, once outside a body, cannot be owned, but it looks like exploitation that Henrietta’s descendants are so limited by their race and poverty. I had forgotten how Skloot’s relationship and travels with Henrietta’s unstable daughter, Deborah, takes over the book (as in the film). While I felt a little uncomfortable with how various family members are portrayed as unhinged, I still thought this was a great read. then / now
I had some surprising rereading DNFs. These were once favorites of mine, but for some reason I wasn’t able to recapture the magic: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides, Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, and On Beauty by Zadie Smith. I attempted a second read of John Fowles’s postmodern Victorian pastiche, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, on a mini-break in Lyme Regis, happily reading the first third on location, but I couldn’t make myself finish once we were back home. And A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan was very disappointing a second time; it hasn’t aged well. Lastly, I’ve been stalled in Watership Down for a long time, but do intend to finish my reread.
In general, voice- and style-heavy fiction did not work so well for me on rereading. Autobiographical essays by Anne Lamott and Abigail Thomas worked best, but I also succeeded at rereading some straightforward novels and short stories. Next year, I’d like to aim for a similar number of rereads, with a mixture of memoirs and fiction, including at least one novel by David Lodge. I’d also be interested in rereading earlier books by Ned Beauman and Curtis Sittenfeld if I can find them cheap secondhand.
What reading projects did you participate in this year?
Done much rereading lately?
Last year I reviewed Tenth of December by George Saunders on its title date; this year I couldn’t resist rereading one of my favorites from 2014 for today’s date (which just so happens to be Bloomsday, made famous by James Joyce’s Ulysses), The Sixteenth of June.
I responded to the novel at length when it first came out. No point in reinventing the wheel, so here are mildly edited paragraphs of synopsis from my review for The Bookbag:
Maya Lang’s playful and exquisitely accomplished debut novel, set on the centenary of the original Bloomsday, transplants many characters and set pieces from Ulysses to near-contemporary Philadelphia. Don’t fret, though – even if, like me, you haven’t read Ulysses, you’ll have no trouble following the thread. In fact, Lang dedicates her book to “all the readers who never made it through Ulysses (or haven’t wanted to try).” (Though if you wish to spot parallels, pull up any online summary of Ulysses; there is also a page on Lang’s website listing her direct quotations from Joyce.)
On June 16, 2004, brothers Leopold and Stephen Portman have two major commitments: their grandmother Hannah’s funeral is happening at the local synagogue in the morning; and their parents’ annual Bloomsday party will take place at their opulent Delancey Street home in the evening. Around those two thematic poles – the genuine emotions of grief and regret on the one hand, and the realm of superficial entertainment on the other – the novel expands outward to provide a nuanced picture of three ambivalent twenty-something lives.
The third side of this atypical love triangle is Nora, Stephen’s best friend from Yale – and Leo’s fiancée. Nora, a trained opera singer, is still reeling from her mother’s death from cancer one year ago. She’s been engaging in self-harming behavior, and Leo – a macho, literal-minded IT consultant – just wants to fix her. Nora and Stephen, by contrast, are sensitive, artistic souls who seem better suited to each other. Stephen, too, is struggling to find a meaning in death, but also to finish his languishing dissertation on Virginia Woolf.
Literature is almost as potent a marker of upper-class status as money here: some of the Portmans might not have even read Joyce’s masterpiece, but that doesn’t stop them name-dropping and maintaining the pretense of being well-read. While Lang might not mimic the extremes of Joyce’s stream-of-consciousness style, she prioritizes interiority over external action by using a close third-person voice that shifts between her main characters’ points of view. Their histories and thoughts are revealed mostly through interior monologues and conversations. Lang’s writing is full of mordant shards of humor; one of my favorite lines was “No one in a eulogy ever said, She watched TV with the volume on too loud.”
During my rereading, I was captivated more by the portraits of grief than by the subtle intellectual and class differences. I appreciated the characterization and the Joycean peekaboo, and the dialogue and shifts between perspectives still felt fresh and effortless. I could relate to Stephen and Nora’s feelings of being stuck and unsure how to move on in life. And the ending, which I’d completely forgotten, was perfect. I didn’t enjoy this quite as much the second time around, but it’s still a treasured signed copy on my shelf.
My original rating (June 2014):
My rating now:
Readalikes: Writers & Lovers by Lily King and The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud (my upcoming Doorstopper of the Month).
(See also my review of Lang’s recent memoir, What We Carry.)
Alas, I’ve also had a couple of failed rereading attempts recently…
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer (2002)
I remembered this as a zany family history quest turned into fiction. A Jewish-American character named Jonathan Safran Foer travels to (fictional) Trachimbrod, Ukraine to find the traces of his ancestors and, specifically, the woman who hid his grandfather from the Nazis. I had totally forgotten about the comic narration via letters from Jonathan’s translator/tour guide, Alexander, who fancies himself a ladies’ man and whose English is full of comic thesaurus use (e.g. “Do not dub me that,” “Guilelessly yours”). This was amusing, but got to be a bit much. I’d also forgotten about the dense magic realism of the historical sections. As with A Visit from the Goon Squad, what felt dazzlingly clever on a first read (in January 2011) failed to capture me a second time. [35 pages]
Interestingly, Foer’s mother, Esther, released a memoir earlier this year, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here. It’s about the family history her son turned into quirky autofiction: a largely fruitless trip he took to Ukraine to research his maternal grandfather’s life for his Princeton thesis, and a more productive follow-up trip she took with her older son in 2009. Esther Safran Foer was born in Poland and lived in a German displaced persons camp until she and her parents emigrated to Washington, D.C. in 1949. Her father committed suicide in 1954, making him almost a belated victim of the Holocaust. The stories she hears in Ukraine – of the slaughter of entire communities; of moments of good luck that allowed her parents to, separately, survive and find each other – are remarkable, but the book’s prose, while capable, never sings. Plus, she references her son’s novel so often that I wondered why someone would read her book when they could read his instead.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (2005)
This was an all-time favorite when it first came out. I remembered a sophisticated homage to E.M. Forster’s Howards End, featuring a biracial family in Cambridge, Mass. I remembered no specifics beyond a giant music store and (embarrassingly) an awkward sex scene. Howard Belsey’s long-distance rivalry with a fellow Rembrandt scholar gets personal when the Kipps family relocates from London to the Boston suburbs for Monty to be the new celebrity lecturer at the same college. Howard is in the doghouse with his African-American wife, Kiki, after having an affair. The Belsey boy and Kipps girl have an awkward romantic history. Zora Belsey is smitten with a lower-class spoken word poet she meets after a classical concert in the park when they pick up each other’s Discmans by accident (so dated!). All of the portraits felt like stereotypes to me, and there was so much telling, so much backstory, so many unnecessary secondary characters. Before I would have said this was my obvious Women’s Prize winner of winners, but now I have no idea what I’ll vote for. [107 pages]
Currently rereading: Watership Down by Richard Adams, Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn, Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
To reread soon: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty & Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
Done any rereading lately?
I’ve grouped these three prize-winning novels from the late 1980s and 1990s together because they all left me scratching my head, wondering whether they were jumbles of random elements and events or if there was indeed a satisfyingly coherent story. While there were aspects I admired, there were also moments when I thought it indulgent of the authors to pursue poetic prose or plot tangents and not consider the reader’s limited patience. I had to think for ages about how to rate these, but eventually arrived at the same rating for each, reflecting my enjoyment but also my hesitation.
The Child in Time by Ian McEwan (1987)
[Whitbread Prize for Fiction (now Costa Novel Award)]
This is the second-earliest of the 13 McEwan books I’ve read. It’s something of a strange muddle (from the protagonist’s hobbies of Arabic and tennis lessons plus drinking onwards), yet everything clusters around the title’s announced themes of children and time.
Stephen Lewis’s three-year-old daughter, Kate, was abducted from a supermarket three years ago. The incident is recalled early in the book, as if the remainder will be about solving the mystery of what happened to Kate. But such is not the case. Her disappearance is an unalterable fact of Stephen’s life that drove him and his wife apart, but apart from one excruciating scene later in the book when he mistakes a little girl on a school playground for Kate and interrogates the principal about her, the missing child is just subtext.
Instead, the tokens of childhood are political and fanciful. Stephen, a writer whose novels accidentally got categorized as children’s books, is on a government committee producing a report on childcare. On a visit to Suffolk, he learns that his publisher, Charles Darke, who later became an MP, has reverted to childhood, wearing shorts and serving lemonade up in a treehouse.
Meanwhile, Charles’s wife, Thelma, is a physicist researching the nature of time. For Charles, returning to childhood is a way of recapturing timelessness. There’s also an odd shared memory that Stephen and his mother had four decades apart. Even tiny details add on to the time theme, like Stephen’s parents meeting when his father returned a defective clock to the department store where his mother worked.
This is McEwan, so you know there’s going to be a contrived but very funny scene. Here that comes in Chapter 5, when Stephen is behind a flipped lorry and goes to help the driver. He agrees to take down a series of (increasingly outrageous) dictated letters but gets exasperated at about the same time it becomes clear the young man is not approaching death. Instead, he helps him out of the cab and they celebrate by drinking two bottles of champagne. This doesn’t seem to have much bearing on the rest of the book, but is the scene I’m most likely to remember.
Other noteworthy elements: Stephen has a couple of run-ins with the Prime Minister; though this is clearly Margaret Thatcher, McEwan takes pains to neither name nor so much as reveal the gender of the PM (in fear of libel claims?). Homeless people and gypsies show up multiple times, making Stephen uncomfortable but also drawing his attention. I assumed this was a political point about Thatcher’s influence, with the homeless serving as additional stand-ins for children in a paternalistic society, representing vulnerability and (misplaced) trust.
This is a book club read for our third monthly Zoom meeting, coming up in the first week of June. While it’s odd and not entirely successful, I think it should give us a lot to talk about: the good and bad aspects of reverting to childhood, whether it matters if Kate ever comes back, the caginess about Thatcher, and so on.
Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels (1996)
[Orange Prize (now Women’s Prize for Fiction)]
“One can look deeply for meaning or one can invent it.”
Poland, Greece, Canada; geology, poetry, meteorology. At times it felt like Michaels had picked her settings and topics out of a hat and flung them together. Especially in the early pages, the dreamy prose is so close to poetry that I had trouble figuring out what was actually happening, but gradually I was drawn into the story of Jakob Beer, a Jewish boy rescued like a bog body or golem from the ruins of his Polish village. Raised on a Greek island and in Toronto by his adoptive father, a geologist named Athos who’s determined to combat the Nazi falsifying of archaeological history, Jakob becomes a poet and translator. Though he marries twice, he remains a lonely genius haunted by the loss of his whole family – especially his sister, Bella, who played the piano. Survivor’s guilt never goes away. “To survive was to escape fate. But if you escape your fate, whose life do you then step into?”
The final third of the novel, set after Jakob’s death, shifts into another first-person voice. Ben is a student of literature and meteorological history. His parents are concentration camp survivors, so he relates to the themes of loss and longing in Jakob’s poetry. Taking a break from his troubled marriage, Ben offers to go back to the Greek island where Jakob last lived to retrieve his notebooks – which presumably contain all that’s come before. Ben often addresses Jakob directly in the second person, as if to reassure him that he has been remembered. Ultimately, I wasn’t sure what this section was meant to add, but Ben’s narration is more fluent than Jakob’s, so it was at least pleasant to read.
Although this is undoubtedly overwritten in places, too often resorting to weighty one-liners, I found myself entranced by the stylish writing most of the time. I particularly enjoyed the puns, palindromes and rhyming slang that Jakob shares with Athos while learning English, and with his first wife. If I could change one thing, I would boost the presence of the female characters. I was reminded of other books I’ve read about the interpretation of history and memory, Everything Is Illuminated and Moon Tiger, as well as of other works by Canadian women, A Student of Weather and Fall on Your Knees. This won’t be a book for everyone, but if you’ve enjoyed one or more of my readalikes, you might consider giving it a try.
Sacred Country by Rose Tremain (1992)
[James Tait Black Memorial Prize, Prix Fémina Etranger]
In 1952, on the day a two-minute silence is held for the dead king, six-year-old Mary Ward has a distinct thought: “I am not Mary. That is a mistake. I am not a girl. I’m a boy.” Growing up on a Suffolk farm with a violent father and a mentally ill mother, Mary asks to be called Martin and binds her breasts with bandages. Kicked out at age 15, she lives with her retired teacher and then starts to pursue a life on her own terms in London. While working for a literary magazine and dating women, she consults a doctor and psychologist to explore the hormonal and surgical options for becoming the man she believes she’s always been.
Meanwhile, a hometown acquaintance with whom she once shared a dentist’s waiting room, Walter Loomis, gives up his family’s butcher shop to pursue his passion for country music. Both he and Mary/Martin are sexually fluid and, dissatisfied with the existence they were born into, resolve to search for something more. The outsiders’ journeys take them to Tennessee, of all places. But when Martin joins Walter there, it’s an anticlimax. You’d expect their new lives to dovetail together, but instead they remain separate strivers.
At a bare summary, this seems like a simple plot, but Tremain complicates it with many minor characters and subplots. The story line stretches to 1980: nearly three decades’ worth of historical and social upheaval. The third person narration shifts perspective often to show a whole breadth of experience in this small English village, while occasional first-person passages from Mary and from her mother, Estelle, who’s in and out of a mental hospital, lend intimacy. Otherwise, the minor characters feel flat, more like symbols or mouthpieces.
To give a flavor of the book’s many random elements, here’s a decoding of the extraordinary cover on the copy I picked up from the free bookshop:
Crimson background and oval shape = female anatomy, menstruation
Central figure in a medieval painting style, with royal blue cloth = Mary
Masculine muscle structure plus yin-yang at top = blended sexuality
Airplane = Estelle’s mother died in a glider accident
Confederate flag = Tennessee
Cards = fate/chance, conjuring tricks Mary learns at school, fortune teller Walter visits
Cleaver = the Loomis butcher shop
Cricket bat = Edward Harker’s woodcraft; he employs and then marries Estelle’s friend Irene
Guitar = Walter’s country music ambitions
Oyster shell with pearl = Irene’s daughter Pearl, whom young Mary loves so much she takes her (then a baby) in to school for show-and-tell
Cutout torso = the search for the title land (both inward and outer), a place beyond duality
Tremain must have been ahead of the times in writing a trans character. She acknowledged that the premise was inspired by Conundrum by Jan Morris (who, born James, knew he was really a girl from the age of five). I recall that Sacred Country turned up often in the footnotes of Tremain’s recent memoir, Rosie, so I expect it has little autobiographical resonances and is a work she’s particularly proud of. I read this in advance of writing a profile of Tremain for Bookmarks magazine. It feels very different from her other books I’ve read; while it’s not as straightforwardly readable as The Road Home, I’d call it my second favorite from her. The writing is somewhat reminiscent of Kate Atkinson, early A.S. Byatt and Shena Mackay, and it’s a memorable exploration of hidden identity and the parts of life that remain a mystery.
I first read Anne Lamott’s autobiographical essays on faith in about 2005, when I was in my early twenties and a recovering fundamentalist and Republican. She’s a Northern Californian ex-alcoholic, a single mother, a white lady with dreadlocks. Her liberal, hippie approach to Christianity was a bit much for me back then. I especially remember her raging against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. But even if I couldn’t fully get behind all of her views, her picture of a fumbling faith that doesn’t claim to know much for certain appealed to me. Jesus is for her the herald of a radical path of love and grace. Lamott describes herself stumbling towards kindness and forgiveness while uttering the three simplest and truest prayers she knows, “Help, thanks, wow.” I only own three of her eight spiritual books (though I’ve read them all), so I recently reread them one right after the other – the best kind of soul food binge in a stressful time.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (1999)
Her first and best collection. Many of these pieces first appeared in Salon web magazine. There is a lot of bereavement and other dark stuff here, yet an overall lightness of spirit prevails. Lamott’s father died of melanoma that metastasized to his brain (her work has meant a lot to my sister because her husband, too, died of brain cancer) and her best friend Pammy died of breast cancer – both far too young. A college dropout, alcoholic and drug addict, Lamott didn’t walk into a church and get clean until she was in her early thirties. Newly sober and with the support of the community, she was able to face unexpected motherhood and raise Sam in the church, clinging to fragments of family and nurturing seeds of faith.
The essays sometimes zero in on moments of crisis or decision, but more often on everyday angst, such as coming to terms with a middle-aged body. “Thirst” and “Hunger” are a gorgeous pair about getting sober and addressing disordered eating. “Ashes,” set on one Ash Wednesday, sees her trying to get her young son interested in the liturgical significance and remembering scattering Pammy’s ashes. “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” and “Barn Raising” are two classics about surviving a turbulent flight and supporting a local family whose child has cystic fibrosis. Each essay is perfectly constructed: bringing together multiple incidents and themes in a lucid way, full of meaning but never over-egging the emotion.
Like A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas, this was even better the second time around – I can see that the memoir-in-essays is now among my most admired forms.
Some favorite lines:
“The main reason [that she makes Sam go to church] is that I want to give him what I found in the world[: …] a path and a little light to see by. Most of the people I know who have what I want—which is to say, purpose, heart, balance, gratitude, joy—are people with a deep sense of spirituality.”
“You really do have to eat, anything at all you can bear. So we had smoothies, with bananas, which I believe to be the only known cure for existential dread.”
“most of the time, all you have is the moment, and the imperfect love of people.”
“even though I am a feminist and even though I am religious, I secretly believe, in some mean little rat part of my brain, that I am my skin, my hair, and worst of all, those triangles of fat that pooch at the top of my thighs. In other words, that I am my packaging.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith (2005)
Here’s the more political material I remembered from Lamott. Desperately angry about the impending Iraq War, she struggles to think civilly about Bush. “I wake up some mornings pinned to the bed by centrifugal sadness and frustration.” In the meantime, her difficult mother has died and it takes years to get to a point where she can take the woman’s ashes (with a misspelling on the name label) out of the closet and think of scattering them. Sam is a teenager and there are predictable battles of wills but also touching moments as they rekindle a relationship with his father. Lamott also starts a Sunday School and says goodbye to a dear old dog. A few of the essays (especially “One Hand Clapping”) feel like filler, and there are fewer memorable lines. “Ham of God,” though, is an absolute classic about the everyday miracle of a free ham she could pass on to a family who needed it.
I’ve been surprised that Lamott hasn’t vented her spleen against Donald Trump in her most recent books – he makes Bush look like a saint, after all. But I think it must be some combination of spiritual maturity and not wanting to alienate a potential fan base (though to most evangelicals she’ll be beyond the pale anyway). Although her response to current events makes this book less timeless than Traveling Mercies, I found some of her words applicable to any troubled period: “These are such rich, ripe times for paranoia and despair that each celebration, each occasion of tribal love and music and overeating glows more brightly … People are helping one another keep their spirits up.”
My secondhand copy has had quite the journey: it has a “The Munich Readery” stamp in the front and has sat text block facing out on a shelf for ages judging by the pattern of yellowing; I picked it up from the Community Furniture Project, a local charity warehouse, last year for a matter of pence.
Some favorite lines:
(on caring for an ageing body) “You celebrate what works and you take tender care of what doesn’t, with lotion, polish and kindness.”
“Rest and laughter are the most spiritual and subversive acts of all. Laugh, rest, slow down.”
My original rating (c. 2005):
My rating now:
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014)
This is a sort of “Greatest Hits” collection of new and selected essays. I skipped over the ones I’d just encountered in Traveling Mercies and Plan B to focus on the newer material. I don’t have a copy of Grace (Eventually), her third set of essays on faith, so I wasn’t sure which were from that and which were previously unpublished in book form. More so than before, Lamott’s thoughts turn to ageing and her changing family dynamic – she’s now a grandmother. As usual, the emphasis is on being kind to oneself and learning the art of forgiveness. Sometimes it seems like her every friend or relative has cancer. Her writing has tailed off noticeably in quality, but I suspect there’s still no one many of us would rather hear from about life and faith. It’s a beautiful book, too, with deckle edge, blue type and gold accents. My favorite of the new stuff was “Matches,” about Internet dating.
My original rating (2015):
My rating now (for the newer material only):
Currently rereading: Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
Considering rereading next: Heaven’s Coast by Mark Doty
Done any rereading lately?
What books have been balm for the soul for you?
Paul Auster Reading Week continues! Be sure to check out Annabel’s excellent post on why you should try Auster. On Monday I reviewed Winter Journal and the New York Trilogy. Adding in last year’s review of Timbuktu, I’ve now read six of Auster’s books and skimmed another one (the sequel to Winter Journal). It’s been great to have this project as an excuse to get more familiar with his work and start to recognize some of the recurring tropes.
Oracle Night (2003)
This reminded me most of The Locked Room, the final volume of the New York Trilogy. There’s even a literal locked room in a book within the book by the narrator, a writer named Sidney Orr. It’s 1982 and Orr is convalescing from a sudden, life-threatening illness. At a stationer’s shop, he buys a fine blue notebook from Portugal, hoping its beauty will inspire him to resume his long-neglected work. When he and his wife Grace go to visit John Trause, Grace’s lifelong family friend and a fellow novelist, Orr learns that Trause uses the same notebooks. Only the blue ones, mind you. No other color fosters the same almost magical creativity.
For long stretches of the novel, Orr is lost in his notebook (“I was there, fully engaged in what was happening, and at the same time I wasn’t there—for the there wasn’t an authentic there anymore”), writing in short, obsessive bursts. In one project, a mystery inspired by an incident from The Maltese Falcon, Nick Bowen, a New York City editor, has a manuscript called Oracle Night land on his desk. Spooked by a near-death experience, he flees to Kansas City, where he gets a job working on a cabdriver’s phone book archive, “The Bureau of Historical Preservation,” which includes a collection from the Warsaw ghetto. But then he gets trapped in the man’s underground bunker … and Orr has writer’s block, so leaves him there. Even though it’s fiction (within fiction), I still found that unspeakably creepy.
In the real world, Orr’s life accumulates all sorts of complications over just nine September days. Some of them are to do with Grace and her relationship with Trause’s family; some of them concern his work. There’s a sense in which what he writes is prescient. “Maybe that’s what writing is all about, Sid,” Trause suggests. “Not recording events from the past, but making things happen in the future.” The novel has the noir air I’ve come to expect from Auster, while the layering of stories and the hints of the unexplained reminded me of Italo Calvino and Haruki Murakami. I even caught a whiff of What I Loved, the novel Auster’s wife Siri Hustvedt published the same year. (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve spotted similar themes in husband‒wife duos’ work – cf. Jonathan Safran Foer and Nicole Krauss; Zadie Smith and Nick Laird.)
This is a carefully constructed and satisfying novel, and the works within the work are so absorbing that you as the reader get almost as lost in them as Orr himself does. I’d rank this at the top of the Auster fiction I’ve read so far, followed closely by City of Glass.
Report from the Interior (2013)
This sequel to Winter Journal came out a year later. Again, the autobiographical rendering features second-person narration and a fragmentary style. I had a ‘been there, done that’ feeling about the book and only gave it a quick skim. It might be one to try another time.
In the first 100-page section Auster highlights key moments from the inner life of a child. For instance, he remembers that the epiphany that a writer can inhabit another mind came while reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s poetry, and he emulated RLS in his own first poetic attempts. The history and pop culture of the 1950s, understanding that he was Jewish, and reaping the creative rewards of boredom are other themes. I especially liked a final anecdote about smashing his seventh-grade teacher’s reading challenge and being driven to tears when the man disbelieved that he’d read so many books and accused him of cheating.
Other sections give long commentary on two films (something he also does in Winter Journal with 10 pages on the 1950 film D.O.A.), select from letters he wrote to his first wife in the late 1960s while living in Paris, and collect an album of black-and-white period images such as ads, film stills and newspaper photographs. There’s a strong nostalgia element, such that the memoir would appeal to Auster’s contemporaries and those interested in learning about growing up in the 1950s.
Ultimately, though, this feels unnecessary after Winter Journal. Auster repeats a circular aphorism he wrote at age 20: “The world is in my head. My body is in the world. You will stand by that paradox, which was an attempt to capture the strange doubleness of being alive, the inexorable union of inner and outer”. But I’m not sure that body and mind can be so tidily separated as these two works posit. I got more of an overall sense of Auster’s character from the previous book, even though it was ostensibly focused on his physical existence.
The library at the university where my husband works holds another four Auster novels, but I’ll wait until next year to dive back into his work. After reading other people’s reviews, I’m now most keen to try The Brooklyn Follies, Invisible and In the Country of Last Things.
Have you tried anything by Paul Auster this week?
My best discoveries of the year: The poetry of Tishani Doshi; Penelope Lively and Elizabeth Strout (whom I’d read before but not fully appreciated until this year); also, the classic nature writing of Edwin Way Teale.
The authors I read the most by this year: Margaret Atwood and Janet Frame (each: 2 whole books plus parts of 2 more), followed by Doris Lessing (2 whole books plus part of 1 more), followed by Miriam Darlington, Paul Gallico, Penelope Lively, Rachel Mann and Ben Smith (each: 2 books).
Debut authors whose next work I’m most looking forward to: John Englehardt, Elizabeth Macneal, Stephen Rutt, Gail Simmons and Lara Williams.
My proudest reading achievement: A 613-page novel in verse (Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile by Alice Jolly) + 2 more books of over 600 pages (East of Eden by John Steinbeck and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese).
Best book club selection: Red Dust Road by Jackie Kay was our first nonfiction book and received our highest score ever.
Some best first lines encountered this year:
- “What can you say about a twenty-five-year old girl who died?” (Love Story by Erich Segal)
- “The women of this family leaned towards extremes” (Away by Jane Urquhart)
- “The day I returned to Templeton steeped in disgrace, the fifty-foot corpse of a monster surfaced in Lake Glimmerglass.” (from The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff)
The downright strangest book I read this year: Lanny by Max Porter
The 2019 books everybody else loved (or so it seems), but I didn’t: Fleishman Is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, The Topeka School by Ben Lerner, Underland by Robert Macfarlane, The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo and The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
The year’s major disappointments: Cape May by Chip Cheek, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast by Jonathan Safran Foer, Letters to the Earth: Writing to a Planet in Crisis, ed. Anna Hope et al., Bowlaway by Elizabeth McCracken, Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer, The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, The Knife’s Edge by Stephen Westaby and Frankissstein by Jeanette Winterson
The worst book I read this year: Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach
Some statistics on my 2019 reading:
(As usual, fiction and nonfiction are neck and neck. I read a bit more poetry this year than last.)
Male author: 39.4%
Female author: 58.9%
Nonbinary author (the first time this category has been applicable for me): 0.85%
Multiple genders (anthologies): 0.85%
(I’ve said this the past three years: I find it interesting that female authors significantly outweigh male authors in my reading; I have never consciously set out to read more books by women.)
Print books: 89.7%
(My e-book reading has been declining year on year, partially because I’ve cut back on the reviewing gigs that involve only reading e-books and partially because I’ve done less traveling; also, increasingly, I find that I just prefer to sit down with a big stack of print books.)
Work in translation: 7.2%
(Lower than I’d like, but better than last year’s 4.8%.)
Where my books came from for the whole year:
- Free print or e-copy from publisher: 36.8%
- Public library: 21.3%
- Secondhand purchase: 13.8%
- Free (giveaways, The Book Thing of Baltimore, the free mall bookshop, etc.): 9.2%
- Downloaded from NetGalley, Edelweiss or Project Gutenberg: 7.8%
- Gifts: 4.3%
- University library: 2.9%
- New purchase (usually at a bargain price): 2.9%
- Church theological library: 0.8%
- Borrowed: 0.2%
(Review copies accounted for over a third of my reading; I’m going to scale way back on this next year. My library reading was similar to last year’s; my e-book reading decreased in general; I read more books that I either bought new or got for free.)
Number of unread print books in the house: 440
(Last thing I knew the figure was more like 300, so this is rather alarming. I blame the free mall bookshop, where I volunteer every Friday. Most weeks I end up bringing home at least a few books, but it’s often a whole stack. Surely you understand. Free books! No strings attached!)
I’ve read all of Jonathan Safran Foer’s major releases, from Everything Is Illuminated onwards, and his 2009 work Eating Animals had a major impact on me. (I included it on a 2017 list of “Books that (Should Have) Literally Changed My Life.”) It’s an exposé of factory farming that concludes meat-eating is unconscionable, and while I haven’t gone all the way back to vegetarianism in the years since I read it, I eat meat extremely rarely, usually only when a guest at others’ houses, and my husband and I often eat vegan meals at home.
When I heard that Foer’s new book, We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast, would revisit the ethics of eating meat, I worried it might feel redundant, but still wanted to give it a try. Here he examines the issue through the lens of climate change, arguing that slashing meat consumption by two-thirds or more (by eating vegan until dinner, i.e., for two meals a day) is the easiest way for individuals to decrease their carbon footprint. I don’t disagree with this proposal. It would be churlish to fault a reasonable suggestion that gives ordinary folk something concrete to do while waiting (in vain?) for governments to act.
My issues, then, are not with the book’s message but with its methods and structure. Initially, Foer successfully makes use of historical parallels like World War II and the civil rights movement. He rightly observes that we are at a crucial turning point and it will take self-denial and joining in with a radical social movement to protect a whole way of life. Don’t think of living a greener lifestyle as a sacrifice or a superhuman feat, Foer advises; think of it as an opportunity for bravery and for living out the convictions you confess to hold.
As the book goes on, however, the same reference points come up again and again. It’s an attempt to build on what’s already been discussed, but just ends up sounding repetitive. Meanwhile, the central topic is brought in as a Trojan horse: not until page 64 (of 224 in the main text) does Foer lay his cards on the table and admit “This is a book about the impacts of animal agriculture on the environment.” Why be so coy when the book has been marketed as being about food choices? The subtitle and blurb make the topic clear. “Our planet is a farm,” Foer declares, with animal agriculture the top source of deforestation and methane emissions.
Fair enough, but as I heard a UK climate expert explain the other week at a local green fair, you can’t boil down our response to the climate crisis to ONE strategy. Every adjustment has to work in tandem. So while Foer has chosen meat-eating as the most practical thing to change right now, the other main sources of emissions barely get a mention. He admits that car use, number of children, and flights are additional areas where personal choices make a difference, but makes no attempt to influence attitudes in these areas. So diet is up for discussion, but not family planning, commuting or vacations? This struck me as a lack of imagination, or of courage. Separating Americans from their vehicles may be even tougher than getting them to put down the burgers. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying.
Part II is a bullet-pointed set of facts and statistics reminiscent of the “Tell the Truth” section in the Extinction Rebellion handbook. It’s an effective strategy for setting things out briefly, yet sits oddly between narrative sections of analogies and anecdotes. My favorite bits of the book were about visits to his dying grandmother back at the family home in Washington, D.C. It took him many years to realize that his grandfather, who lost everything in Poland and began again with a new wife in America, committed suicide. This family history,* nestled within the canon of Jewish stories like Noah’s Ark, Masada and the Holocaust, dramatizes the conflict between resistance and self-destruction – the very battle we face now.
Part IV, Foer’s “Dispute with the Soul,” is a philosophical dialogue in the tradition of Talmudic study, while the book closes with a letter to his sons. Individually, many of these segments are powerful in the way they confront hypocrisy and hopelessness with honesty. But together in the same book they feel like a jumble. Although it was noble of Foer to tackle the subject of climate change, I’m not convinced he was the right person to write this book, especially when we’ve already had recent works like The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells. Arriving at a rating has been very difficult for me because I support the book’s aims but often found it a frustrating reading experience. Still, if it wakes up even a handful of readers to the emergency we face, it will have been worthwhile.
A favorite passage: “Climate change is not a jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table, which can be returned to when the schedule allows and the feeling inspires. It is a house on fire.”
*I’m looking forward to his mother Esther Safran Foer’s family memoir, I Want You to Know We’re Still Here: A Post-Holocaust Memoir, which is coming out from Tim Duggan Books on March 31, 2020.
We Are the Weather is published today, 10th October, in the UK by Hamish Hamilton (my thanks for the proof copy for review). It came out in the States from Farrar, Straus and Giroux last month.