A Year in Reading, 2014

Late on this, I know, but here are a few thoughts on my 2014 Year in Reading.

Thanks largely to my sabbatical I read a lot last year (96 books). Included in that list were many books that I liked, some that I liked a lot. But I’m left with the impression that it was a more muted year than the previous one. The spread between the best and the worst wasn’t as big. But I didn’t read as many indelible books, especially compared to 2013. Rebecca West, Olivia Manning, the last volume of Proust. Hilary Mantel—hard to compete with those.

But I read a number of good things. And although you wouldn’t know it from this list I made an effort to read more nonfiction this year. I especially liked Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Shavit’s My Promised Land, and Bernard Wasserstein’s The Ambiguity of Virtue: Gertrude van Tijn and the Fate of the Dutch Jews, which I wrote about here.

David Bezmozgis—The Free World & The Betrayers

These were my books of the year, and I regret not making the time to write about them.

Part of the reason I didn’t is that Adam Kirsch has already said everything that needs to be said about them. He argues that Bezmozgis is a striking outlier in the current wave of literature being produced by the children of the Soviet Jews allowed to emigrate in the 1970s and 80s. Like Bezmozgis, many of these writers were born in the USSR but came to the US—or, in Bezmozgis’s case, Canada—as young children. But unlike them he is at least as interested in what the émigrés left behind in the old world as what they found in the new. The Free World is a beautiful, funny, and smart novel about one extended family’s experience leaving Latvia for the West. The title refers, of course, to America and its promises. But it also refers to the aimless freedom of Rome and its environs, where the family, along with dozens of other Soviet Jews, await visas to their final destination. As Kirsch points out, Bezmozgis doesn’t concentrate on the experiences of a child, that is, of someone close to the age he would been when he left the USSR. (He already did that in his first book, the wonderful linked story collection Natasha.) Instead, he focuses on his parents’ and grandparents’ generation, and the conflict between them as they negotiate a strange new world. Most impressive is Bezmozgis’s sympathetic portrait of Samuil Krasnansky, a true Communist and Soviet patriot to the end. As Kirsch says, Bezmozgis reminds us of a whole category of people and way of life that many readers would prefer to forget: “the generation of Jewish Communists who ardently believed that the Soviet Union was forging a path to Jewish and human liberation.”

Samuil’s past is told so vividly that we can’t help but contrast it to the more petty and aimless story of his sons, trying to provide, in however quasi-legal or illegal fashion, for their families in this Italian interregnum. Yet Bezmozgis isn’t nostalgic: his point isn’t that the past is better but that it has a value that shouldn’t be forgotten even when it has been apparently inevitably superseded.

At one point in The Free World a character recalls an absurd detail from the Sharansky trial. What is background material in the first novel–a sign of the larger political moment Bezmozgis is interested in–takes center stage in the second. Natan Sharansky is the obvious model for Baruch Kotler in The Betrayers. Sharansky—the most famous of the refuseniks–spent more than a decade in Soviet prison camps on trumped up charges while his wife campaigned publically and continuously for his release. When this was finally granted, in 1986, he moved to Israel and became an influential politician. Kotler’s life maps on to Sharansky’s in almost every detail, except that Sharkansky’s personal life remained above reproach, unlike Kotler’s. At the beginning of The Betrayers, he has arrived in Yalta, his boyhood home, with the young woman with whom he is having a suddenly very public affair. By a coincidence so bald and overt that the novel spends a lot of time thinking about its baldness and overtness, he ends up staying in the only room available in the city in high season, in the home of the man who all those years ago denounced him to the KGB. (As you can see, pretty much everyone in the book could be described by the title.) Tankilevich, the informer, is presented as sympathetically as Kotler, and the hardship of Jewish life in Crimea (only exacerbated by the events that happened between the time the book was written and published) is movingly presented. Kotler’s principled response to an imagined Israeli pullout from the West Bank, especially in relation to his reservist son’s very different, yet equally principled take, is also fascinating. My only wish is that the book had more time for its female characters. But the novel seeks to understand everyone, which is one of the reasons it complicates its talky, schematic structure. My sense from casual online browsing is that many find this structure a liability. But for me it shows again that Bezmozgis is the smartest and most surprising young (North) American Jewish writer today.

Josephine Tey—The Franchise Affair

This was one of the first books I read last year and it stayed with me to the end. Strange and unsettling, The Franchise Affair is about an unambitious lawyer in the English countryside who finds himself defending a mother and daughter against accusations that they kidnapped and abused a fifteen-year-old girl. The suspense of whether the couple is guilty is handled superbly, but what makes the book really interesting is its grim suggestion that aggression and vindictiveness lurk inside everybody, just waiting to come out. This philosophy really messes with our reading experience: just who are we supposed to sympathize with? As in all of Tey’s books, the expected romance founders, but her dispatching of the idea here is even more determined than usual. That failure is offered as yet another example of people’s inability to read each other. See Rohan Maitzen’s intelligent review for more about this terrific book.

Caleb Crain—Necessary Errors

Necessary Errors will always have a soft spot in my heart because it’s the first book I blogged about. But I also love it because it’s so smart and rueful and moving. A much better than average novels of innocents abroad. I can’t wait to see what Crain will write next.

Roz Chast—Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Everybody says this about this book, but it’s true: reading it, you will both laugh out loud and feel very, very sad. Of course I’ve always loved Chast’s cartoons—what self-respecting neurotic person doesn’t? But this memoir of her parents’ very old age had a depth and power that surprised me. Made me think about all the conversations neither my parents nor I want to have.

Three Books by Tove Jansson

2014 was Tove Jansson’s centennial and the least I could do was read some of her books. I dispatched The Summer Book, The True Deceiver and Fair Play in the space of a week: they’re wonderful and wonderfully short. They pack a big punch, too. I want to read them again; I’ve a hunch they’ll only get better. (Surely there’s some class I can shoehorn them into?) I wanted to write about them, to force myself to articulate what makes them so great. But I never did. It didn’t help that the week I read them was the week before the semester started. Something else stopped me, too, though. I think it was my sense that they are more complicated than they seem and that delving into them would be a real project. For now, I’ll just say a few obvious things: they are marvelous books about Northern weather and the way it makes you feel—how summer up north makes you feel indomitable and reckless, coated in endless light, how winter makes you feel shriveled and curt, menacing in a different way; they are marvelous books about taking a break from ordinary life; they are marvelous books about friendship, how hard it is to attain and how much it can mean when you do; and above all they are marvelous books about artistic/intellectual work. In this regard, Fair Play is the pick of the litter, even though it was the one I liked least for most of my reading experience it. (An excursion to America seemed particularly infelicitous.) But the ending is so moving and lovely, you forgive everything and realize you’d been wrong in finding parts of it lame and clunky, on the contrary everything was just right.

Penelope Fitzgerald—The Bookshop

Another book I wanted to write more about and didn’t. Early Fitzgerald, but classic, the story simple to the point of nonexistent. A middle-aged woman decides to open a bookshop in a windy, damp Norfolk town in the late 1950s. It doesn’t work out. The Bookshop is devastating, mostly because Fitzgerald calmly underplays everything. We feel so sad at the end because the world didn’t end. Thinking about it now, I see surprising similarities to The Franchise Affair: both novels have a dark vision of English provincialism. Fitzgerald is funnier than Tey, though. Fitzgerald is always funny, in a desperate, almost daft English way. At long last, a book about books that doesn’t think books will save the world.

Sarah Kofman—Rue Ordener, Rue Labat

Last summer I wrote about re-reading this in preparation for a new course. I was surprised how my students took to the book—their energy and insights made me appreciate it even more. Professional bias, I know, but I still think teaching a book is the best test of its value.

Karl Ove Knausgaard—My Struggle (Books1 &2)

I don’t care what Stevereads says. This book, whether novel or memoir or whatever it is, is fascinating. Will it stand the test of time? Who knows? Not much does. But it stayed with me all of the past year, especially the first volume, especially those indelible scenes in which the narrator & his brother muck the filth out of their alcoholic father’s house.

Nathan Englander

This was a special part of my 2014 reading, because I got to hang out with the author for a few days this fall, and he’s totally hilarious and a total mensch. I like For the Relief of Unbearable Urges best as a collection, but think there are individual stories the stories in What We Talk About When We Talk about Anne Frank that are stronger (“Free Fruit for Young Widows” is amazing). The Ministry of Special Cases felt like an inspired misfire, but I gather the next novel will be set in Israel and I can’t wait.

Peter Higgins—Wolfhound Century & Truth and Fear

Another winning recommendation from Jenny Davidson. These were my favourite light reading this year. Is this steampunk? I think so. It’s an alternate history of 20th century Russia, it’s crime fiction and fantasy, it’s a totally compelling and carefully imagined world that owes so much to so many wonderful books. Look, for example, at this totally cool and endearing list of “books that shuffled and groaned and whispered on the shelves while Wolfhound Century was being written.” The sequel was just as wonderful and I await the third impatiently.

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4 thoughts on “A Year in Reading, 2014

  1. Interesting list. What is more interesting is that I’ve seen your sentiment that it was a more muted year shared quite widely (and by myself too), even though each person’s list has been quite different from all the others.

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