“Gone Crazy”: Life and Fate’s Characters

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Thesis: in Life and Fate there are only minor characters.

Yes, the family Shaposhnikova is at the center of the book. Yes, Viktor is modeled on Grossman and his fall from and return to political favour is compellingly detailed. Yet even the characters we might be tempted to call central feel secondary. Not because they’re imperfectly or casually developed. We know them well, get inside their heads, feel for them. Nor is it because the “hero” of the book is really some abstraction like the Soviet Union, or the Russian soul, or even the war effort.

Grossman learned from Chekhov how to draw us towards characters while also distancing us from them. (I’m thinking here of someone like Gurov in “The Lady with the Little Dog.”) Honestly, I’m talking through my hat here because I don’t know enough about Chekhov, but I do know Life and Fate reminded me of him. And that was even before one of the characters declaimed at length about Chekhov’s genius. (“Chekhov brought Russia into our consciousness in all its vastness—with people of every estate, every class, every age…. He said—and no one had said this before, not even Tolstoy—that first and foremost we are all of us human beings. Do you understand? Human beings!”)

This passage, in which some air force pilots who have been ordered to leave the village where they’ve been billeted decide to spend one last night on the town, as it were, reminded me of “The Kiss”:

Everything—the river, the fields, the forest—was so beautiful, so peaceful, that hatred, betrayal and old age seemed impossible; nothing could exist but love and happiness. The moon shone down though the grey mist that enveloped the earth. Few pilots spent the night in their bunkers. On the edge of the village you could glimpse white scarves and hear quiet laughter. Now and then a tree would shake, frightened by a bad dream; the water would mumble something and return to silence.

The uncertainty of who speaks the opening sentence, which gives way to the speculation that the narrator is ventriloquizing the collective sentiments of the pilots and thereby gently satirizing them (gently, gently, though: after all, so much suffering awaits them at the front: for most of them, old age really is impossible); the juxtaposition of the slumbering landscape and the sexual possibility of the evening’s entertainment, so reminiscent of the regiment’s nighttime walk from the country home past the brothel in “The Kiss”; that amazing and amazingly strange image of the tree “frightened by a bad dream”: all of this is pure Chekhov!

But I didn’t want to talk about Chekhov. I wanted to talk about minor characters. I said yesterday that Life and Fate contains dozens, even hundreds of characters. Some appear only once without serving any important narrative function. Yet Grossman makes them all vivid.

For example: In a scene just a few pages before the one I cited above, Lieutenant Viktorov is gathering his belongings in preparation for being deployed for active duty. The scene is ostensibly about the Lieutenant—whose lover is the daughter of one of the Shaposhnikova sisters—but he finds himself remembering the old woman he had been billeted with until just a few days ago, “a dreadful landlady, a woman with a high forehead and protuberant yellow eyes,” who filled her home with smoke in an attempt to get rid of her tenant:

He walked past the hut Yevdokiya Mikheevna had smoked him out of; he could see her expressionless face behind the dirty window-panes. No one ever talked to her when she stopped for a rest as she carried her two wooden buckets back from the well. She had no cows and no sheep; she didn’t even have any house-martins in the eaves. Golub [the Lieutenant’s friend] had asked questions about her, hoping to bring to light her kulak background [which would allow him to denounce her], but she turned out to be from a very poor family. The women in the village said she had gone crazy after her husband’s death: she had walked into a lake in cold autumn weather and sat there for days. But she had been taciturn even before that, even before her marriage.

That’s the first and last we ever hear of Yevdokiya Mikheevna. But don’t you want more? What could be more Russian than sitting in a freezing lake for days crazed with grief? What’s typical here is the way a character who had seemed entirely one-dimensional—she is mean, stubborn, possibly disloyal to or uninterested in the war effort—suddenly gains unexpected depth. I’m not even sure why Grossman thought to include her. We don’t need to see the Lieutenant chased out of a billet by a disagreeable landlady. (And in fact we don’t; we only hear about it in retrospect.) The only function this anecdote seems to serve is to reinforce what a good guy Viktorov is—he doesn’t report her to the authorities even though his friend Golub wants him to.

So what is she doing here? Is she supposed to remind us of the suffering of the Russian people? Or is the brief, intense glimpse of her life story intended to allow us to recognize the transience of any given moment? Especially in wartime, people brush past each other, coming into contact in ways they otherwise wouldn’t, though that contact doesn’t necessarily lead to anything.

Thinking about it some more, I suspect what Grossman really wants from this scene is to remind us that Yevdokiya Mikheevna is a human being, with a past, with value, with her own reasons for her actions even though his novel can’t pause to make more of them.

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It seems important that for Grossman humanity is best expressed through fiction. To understand the thing that (for him, at any rate) is most real we need recourse to a thing that is fake. But what happens when that fiction is based on real life? And especially when it includes real historical figures? Life and Fate famously includes a number of such characters, including German and Soviet military leaders, like General Paulus of the 6th Army, who we may or may not know, as well as the Heads of State that we surely will. Yes, Stalin and Hitler get their own brief sections, scenes in which they aren’t just mentioned or pass by in the background, but which are narrated from their perspective.

In thinking about these scenes I was reminded of the bit in S/Z where Roland Barthes, citing Proust on Balzac’s weighting of fictional and historical characters (in the Comédie humaine Napoleon is much less important than Rastingnac, say), notes that realist fiction must introduce historical characters only in passing:

It is precisely this minor importance which gives the historical character its exact weight of reality: this minor is the measure of authenticity… for if the historical character were to assume its real importance [if the novel was about Napoleon, or in our case, Stalin or Hitler, that is, made them central to the text, tried to get inside their heads, etc] the discourse would be forced to yield it a role which would, paradoxically, make it less real (thus the characters in Balzac’s Catherine de Médicis, Alexandre Dumas’s novels, or Sacha Guitry’s plays: absurdly improbable): they would give themselves away.

I think this is a pretty sound critique of historical fiction, and one reason why something like Hilary Mantel’s wonderful Cromwell novels work precisely because they are about Cromwell (little known) rather than about Henry—imagine them from the King’s perspective: impossible.

At any rate, some critics, I gather, have indeed found the Hitler & Stalin sections of the novel (they’re very brief, only a few pages each) absurdly improbable. I think it’s telling, and a further sign that Barthes is on to something, that Grossman does better with Hitler than with Stalin, because he’s much more familiar with the latter. It’s easier for Grossman to imagine Hitler as fully fictional, Hitler has much less reality for him; for this reason, his depiction of Hitler taking a solitary walk in the forest of Görlitz, near the border with Lithuania, and falling prey to a sudden terror (“Without his body guards and aides, he felt like a little boy in a fairy tale lost in a dark, enchanted forest”) is quite convincing. The final thought he gives Hitler, however—“For the first time, he felt a sense of horror, human horror, at the thought of the crematoria in the camps”—is not. Not because Hitler wasn’t human, but because this sentiment isn’t prepared for by anything that comes before.

The Stalin section is similarly kitschy: the Great Leader imagines “all those he thought he had brought low, chastised and destroyed… climbing out of the tundra, breaking through the layer of permafrost that had closed over them, forcing their way through the entanglements of barbed wire.” But this rather Grand Guignol vision of Stalin’s victim’s coming back to assault him isn’t the real problem with this section. Instead, the Stalin section fails because Grossman turns it into a meditation on all the future glories (“jetplanes, intercontinental missiles, space rockets”) and horrors (the oppression of Eastern Europe, the show trials of various writers and artists) that were to come after the war.

Unlike the other characters—unlike Viktor Shtrum, unlike Lieutenant Viktorov, unlike Yevdokiya Mikheevna—neither Hitler nor, especially, Stalin are minor enough.

Next time: Grossman’s lists.

 

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“An Extraordinary Warmth”: Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate

I spent the first part of June reading Vasily Grossman’s extraordinary WWII epic Life and Fate and ever since I’ve been in a reading slump. It’s hard to match Grossman’s accomplishment, especially his way of combining big picture and small details.

Before this I’d only read Grossman’s essay “The Hell of Treblinka,” which I teach regularly. It’s a fascinating, impassioned, and beautiful text. But Life and Fate is of a different order of magnitude. By any measure, it must be reckoned one of the great books of the twentieth century.

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That we even have this book at all is amazing. As translator Robert Chandler writes in his informative introduction, Grossman spent much of the late 1950s writing Life and Fate, eventually submitting it for publication in October 1960. Friends had warned him not to, fearing its critique of the Soviet system was too challenging to authorities. But Grossman thought it would find favour in the changed political climate after Stalin’s death. He was wrong. The KGB came to Grossman’s apartment to confiscate the manuscript and anything related to it, including typewriter ribbons. Fortunately, Grossman had already given copies to various friends, including one who had no connections to the Soviet literary scene. Eventually, in the early 1970s, one of these copies was smuggled to the West, where it was eventually published, in France, about a decade later. It took even longer for it to appear in Russian. Sadly, Grossman didn’t live to see any of these editions. He died of stomach cancer in 1964.

So the story of the book’s creation is almost as epic as the story it tells. Set during the pivotal months of late 1942 and early 1943, Life and Fate is centered on the Battle of Stalingrad. The Soviet point of view predominates, but we sometimes see events from the German viewpoint. Indeed, the worst aspects of both regimes—their totalitarian tendencies instantiated in their respective systems of labour and concentration camps—are depicted in detail.

Although the book has dozens of marvelous and vivid scenes—scenes set in a power station at Stalingrad; in an otherwise abandoned factory building in Stalingrad where a group of Russian soldiers hold out against the German onslaught in the deep cellars; in the notorious Lubyanka prison in Moscow; in Kazan, Tartarstan, where whole laboratories of scientists are evacuated as the Germans close in on the capital; and even on the Kalymlk steppe—its real accomplishment lies in putting the scenes together, in giving us the big picture. In doing so, it makes its main ideological point (surely the most contentious things about the book at the time it was written): that Nazism and Stalinism were, if not identical, then not so different.

 

I’ve been struggling with how to write about Life and Fate. It’s so big that a lot of it escaped me on a first reading. And I’m not sure how to organize the things that did strike me. My plan is to write a series of haphazard posts touching on the aspects that most impressed me. Today, a few words about structure and warmth.

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Life and Fate models itself on Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Not having read the Tolstoy, I can’t say anything useful about the comparison, though I bet knowing the earlier book would have made reading the Grossman an even richer experience. If you’ve read them both, feel free to elaborate.

Life and Fate puts a single family, the Shaposhnikovs, at its center, but it’s anything but a domestic story. Rather, it’s a story that expands the idea of domesticity or familial life, showing these things to be inseparable from their opposites, history and politics. Sometimes we are zooming in and sometimes we are zooming out. Yet this cinematic metaphor doesn’t seem quite right. I’m not sure what a better one would be. Of a carpet, where the disparate strands weave together to form a whole? Or maybe physics gives us a clue. Viktor Shtrum, who might be said to be the main character and who is apparently modeled on Grossman himself, is a particle physicist. Early in the novel he considers how physics has changed in the new century. He imagines 19th century physicists as “men in suits… crowded around a billiard table.” Whereas the older physics “measured speeds and accelerations and determined the masses of the resilient spheres which filled a universe of green cloth,” modern quantum physics thinks about probability, “the laws of a special statistics that rejected the concept of an individual entity and acknowledged only aggregates.”

Could this comparison help us read the novel? As we’ll see there are plenty of individuals in Life and Fate. And I don’t think they are meaningless in themselves. That is, I don’t think Grossman only cares about “aggregates.” (Indeed, aggregates might be what socialist realism cares about, with its interest in types and classes.) But at the same time, Grossman also doesn’t believe that individuals are simply in control of their own destiny. Rather, they’re buffeted by forces much larger and more powerful than themselves. Shtrum notes that physics considers the very smallest units of meaning (subatomic particles, for example) as a way to explain the very largest (the structure of the universe). Just as physicists explain the very big by the very small, and vice versa, so too Grossman oscillates among these differing registers.

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Take, for example, a scene in which a commander of a tank unit looks over his men who are preparing to depart for the front. They’re all the same—the system they live in has made them that way, and the war they’re being sent to fight is about to reduce them even further. And yet they’re all different, even if the differences are quotidian, even banal. But the commander can’t see this difference. Only readers can, thanks to the text’s shifts in narrative point of view:

My God… What a lot of them there were, all wearing black overalls with wide belts. They had been chosen for their broad shoulders and short stature—so they could climb through the hatches and move about inside the tanks. How similar the answers on their forms had been—to questions about their fathers and mothers, their date of birth, the number of years they had completed at school, their experience as tractor drivers. The shiny green T-34s, hatches open, tarpulins strapped to their armour-plating, seemed to blend into one.

One soldier was singing; another, his eyes half-closed, was full of dire forebodings; a third was thinking about home; a fourth was chewing some bread and sausage and thinking about the sausage; a fifth, his mouth wide open, was trying to identify a bird on a tree; a sixth was worrying about whether he’d offended his mate by searing at him the previous night; a seventh, still furious, was dreaming of giving his enemy—the commander of the tank in front—a good punch on the jaw; an eighth was composing a farewell poem to the autumn forest; a ninth was thinking about a girl’s breasts; a tenth was thinking about his dog—sensing that she was about to be abandoned among the bunkers, she had jumped up onto the armour-plating, pathetically wagging her tail in an attempt to win him over; an eleventh was thinking how good it would be to live alone in a hut in the forest, drinking spring-water, eating berries and going about barefoot; a twelfth was wondering whether to feign sickness and have a rest in the hospital; a thirteenth was remembering a fairy-tale he had heard as a child; a fourteenth was remembering the last time he had talked to his girl—he felt glad they had now separated for ever; a fifteenth was thinking about the future—after the war he would like to run a canteen.

Notice how complicated these different registers are here. We move from exterior to interior, from undifferentiated mass, where the men are nothing more than updated canon-fodder, to individuated specificity, and yet although we know something important, if not necessarily surprising or striking about each of these men, we don’t really know them as individuals. They never re-appear in the novel as such, are never further developed. The individual revolves into something like its opposite—or maybe it would be better to say that we have a paradoxical epic of individuality here.

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Considering that we met fifteen characters in a single passage, you can only imagine how many there are in the novel as a whole. The Shaposhnikovs have some connection, however tangential, to most of the subplots. But even though we keep coming back to a single family, Grossman also wants to give an overview of Soviet society. Which means lots of characters. Eight pages worth, in the list at the back. (The tank soldiers don’t make the list.) It’s not always easy to keep everyone straight. But even though I had to keep flipping to the list to keep track of who was who, not always successfully, it didn’t matter.

I soon learned it was okay to be disoriented; it didn’t matter if I’d forgotten who someone was or how they were related to everyone else. I just had to immerse myself in the book and let myself plunge into its stream.

What Life and Fate has in spades is flow, momentum, energy. It has life. I found it a real page-turner, even though it’s not really suspenseful: we know how the battle will turn out, we know the tide is turning against the Nazis, we know the Red Army will win a great yet terribly costly victory that it would use as justification for the superiority of its system. Yet something about seeing these events play out is riveting.

Grossman’s style contributes to that sense of pace and movement. Edwin Frank, the editor of the New York Review of Books Classics series, which has published Life and Fate in the US, has said, “Vasily Grossman is not a writer of particularly brilliant sentences. They are pretty flat and functional sentences.” (He adds: “He’s a writer, though, with an incredible empathy for human beings and an incredible troubled sense of history.”) On the whole I think this is true, though it’s worth looking at some of these sentences in more detail. (Subject for another post.) For now, suffice it to say that the straightforwardness of the syntax keeps us moving along.

But we aren’t simply shunted along, like the railway cars approaching a German concentration camp with which the novel begins. We aren’t forced marched to our destination, as if in the corridor of some vast prison. If we were we would be succumbing to fate rather than holding fast to life. As one character, a former apparatchik who finds his life turned upside down when he is denounced as a traitor to the cause, notes on being interned in the very prison to which he once blithely condemned people: “Life itself was so confusing—with all its winding paths, its bogs, streams and ravines, its dust-covered steppes, its unharvested corn… You squeezed your way through or made long detours—but fate ran straight as an arrow. Just corridors and corridors and doors in corridors.”

In squeezing our way or making long detours through the winding paths of this novel we find ourselves drawn to the characters we encounter.Grossman’s style might be plain, even simple, but its emotional power is tremendous. It’s a tremendously warm book.

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A few hundred pages into the novel, I started to notice how often Grossman uses the term “warmth.” Sometimes this is literal—it’s winter, the notorious winter of 1942-43 in which so many of the soldiers at Stalingrad froze to death—but more often it’s metaphorical. Warmth is connected to life, to being human, to everything that’s important in this book. Ordinary people, says an Old Tolstoyan, imprisoned by the Germans, “prefer the warmth of the hearth to a bonfire in the public square.”

Here are two scenes where the emotional warmth I’m talking about is important. These are anything but important scenes, almost throwaways. (On the other hand, Grossman is a genius with throwaway scenes; they end up making the novel what it is. I’ll try to mention a few such moments in another post.)

In the first scene, a man finds his lover after they’ve been separated:

He rang; the door opened and he felt the closeness inside. Then, in a corridor littered with trunks and broken baskets, he caught sight of Yvgenia Nikolaevna. He saw her, but he didn’t see her black dress or the white scarf round her head, he didn’t even see her eyes and face, her hands and her shoulders. It was as though he saw her not with his eyes but with his heart. … He walked towards her, his eyes closed. He felt happy; at the same time he felt ready to die then and there. He sensed the warmth of her body.

Warmth eventually becomes literal in this passage, but I think it’s more importantly figurative, a quality that the prose itself generates. Grossman is a genius of emotion. I love how the man enacts what his (or the narrator’s) reflections have already suggested: he closes his eyes, after realizing that he has already had them closed in some important way (when he has seen Yvgenia with his heart). I also love the detail of the trunks and broken baskets—amidst signs of impermanence, one glance at (which is to say, one intuition of) his lover is all it takes to assure him of the permanence and certainty of his feelings.

In the second scene, the Shaposhnikovs, prompted by news of the fate of a family member who’s been held in a labour camp, turn on each in a series of increasingly painful recriminations that mix politics with personal foibles. As the narrator puts it: “Everything that lies half-buried in almost every family, stirring up now and then only to be smoothed over by love and trust, had now come to the surface.”

Suddenly, Alexandra Vladimirovna, the family matriarch, collapses with her head in hands. The whole feeling in the room changes:

Viktor looked at his wife’s somber face. He went over to Alexandra Vladimirovna, took her hands and kissed them. Then he bent down to stroke [his daughter’s] head.

To an outsider it would seem as though nothing had changed in those few moments; the same people were in the same room, oppressed by the same grief and led by the same destiny. Only they knew what an extraordinary warmth had suddenly filled their embittered hearts….

Over and over in this extraordinary novel, Grossman makes us feel this extraordinary warmth.

Tomorrow I’ll talk about lists. Or maybe about minor characters. Two more ways that Grossman’s warmth comes through.

Ten From My Shelves

I stole this idea from someone on Twitter, but now I can’t remember from whom. Let me know if it was you so that I can credit you! [Note: It was Simon from Stuck in a Book. Thanks, Simon!]

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Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation

In my early to mid-twenties I was deeply infatuated with Sontag. Still am, really. I thrilled to her erudition—she’d read everything—and her elegant prose. Essays like hers are still the kind of writing I most admire. The title essay impressed me most of all, especially its famous, hortatory, gnomic last line: “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

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Laurie Colwin, Family Happiness

Another favourite from my twenties. I read all of Colwin’s books the summer between my Junior and Senior year; I was working as a bookseller then, and I hand-sold a ton of them. A few years ago I found this lovely hardcover at a library sale. I was a bit worried about re-reading it—would it hold up?—but I needn’t have. Not only was it as bittersweet as it had been then, but now I could see what at the time I couldn’t: I thought the book was about New Yorkers but it was really about (thoroughly assimilated) Jews. At the time I’d never have imagined that twenty years later I too would be Jewish, but I like to think my philo-Semitism was unconsciously at work. Colwin is so funny, but also so sad.

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David Bezmozgis, The Free World

Speaking of Jewishness, I’ve loved each of Bezmozgis’s three books, but I think this one might be the best. It’s about the Soviet Jews who were allowed to emigrate in the 1970s. Three generations of the Krasnansky family (like Bezmozgis, Latvian Jews) wait in Italy for visas to come through from Canada, the US, Australia, anywhere that will take them. Rather than focusing on the young children—that is, the characters who would have been the same age as he was when his family left the USSR for Canada—Bezmozgis focuses on their parents and grandparents. We see what the Soviet Union meant to each of them and how differently they experience even this tentative experience of the ironically named Free World. Smart, funny, no schmaltz.

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Anthony Trollope, The Warden

I read this in college and liked it well enough but I think I’d appreciate it a lot more now. Might have been a bit too subtle for me back then. I really want to tackle Trollope soon and the Barsetshire novels seem like a good place to begin.

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Olivia Manning, The Balkan Trilogy

Three wonderful novels, pretty closely based on Manning’s own experiences, about a British couple in Romania and Greece before and during WWII. The scenes of denuded, starving Athens haunt me still. Yaki is one of the great characters in 20th century literature.

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Ivy Compton-Burnett, The Present and the Past

Do you have writers you’re convinced you love but have never actually read? Probably you are less crazy than I am. But I have at least five or six books by Compton-Burnett around here and haven’t read a one.

Here’s what the publishers say about this one:

Nine years after her divorce from Cassius Clare, Catherine re-enters his life in order to re-establish contact with her children. Her arrival causes a dramatic upheaval in the Clare family, and its implications are analyzed and redefined not only in the drawing room but also in the children’s nursery and the servants’ quarters.

(Sounds like Henry Green!) Anyway, odd, uncanny women 20th Century British writers (Comyns, Rhys, Bowen, etc) are my thing, so I really ought to get around to reading Compton-Burnett soon.

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J. G. Farrell, Troubles

A great, great novel set during the Anglo-Irish war and featuring an English Major, Brendan Archer, who comes to Ireland to claim a bride he can’t quite remember proposing to. Angela Spencer is the eldest daughter of an Anglo-Irish family who lives with her family in a once glorious seaside hotel called, no longer quite appropriately, the Majestic. At once funny and macabre, Troubles sets itself the task of trying to figure out how to represent decline. I had a lot to say about this terrific, engrossing book here.

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Ben Aaronovitch, Midnight Riot

First in the Urban Fantasy Rivers of London series. Peter Grant is a rookie cop who can speak to the dead and stumbles into a little-known unit of the Met that deals with magic and the uncanny. Perfect light reading.

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Josephine Tey, The Franchise Affair

My favourite Tey (though admittedly I have rationed them and kept a couple in reserve), an unsettling novel about a woman and her mother who are accused by a fifteen-year old schoolgirl of having locked her up in their attic for a month. Have they been falsely accused? If so, how will they be acquitted when all evidence points toward their guilt? Can justice be done without prejudice? Unconventional, suspenseful, and thought provoking.

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Giorgio Bassani, The Heron

Regular readers know that together with some fellow bloggers, I recently read Bassani’s The Garden of the Finzi-Continis. This, Bassani’s last novel, is the newest addition to my library. I started reading the first page just now and it was all I could do to stop. Elegant mournfulness really does it for me.

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There you have it, ten books plucked from the many thousands in this too-small house. Do you have thoughts about any of them? Let me know if you’re inspired to share some from your shelves.