2016 Year in Reading

Considering its tumultuous and largely depressing events as well as my own poor physical and mental health at various times, I’m surprised I read as much as I did last year. But those challenges meant I needed the comfort of books more than ever.

I read 79 books in 2016: 54% were by women and 46% by men; 68% were written in English and 32% in translation.

A few words about my favourites, in no particular order:

The Best of the Best:

I wrote about (and have already linked to) my absolute favourites for Open Letters Monthly. But I can’t say enough good things about them so I’ll list them again here:

More was Lost—Eleanor Perényi

I adore this book—just thinking about it makes me smile. But I haven’t heard anyone else talking about it, and so I just want to trumpet its moving elegance over and over again. Do you like Lubitsch? Of course you do. Then you’re going to like this book. My list is stacked with New York Review Books, but this year I am most grateful to my favourite press for reissuing this little marvel, the story of an American who falls in love with a Hungarian and experiences a world that is on the point of vanishing. I wrote about it here.

Eline Vere-Louis Couperus

You can read my thoughts on this magnificent 19th century Dutch novel of female anxiety here.

The Fifth Season & The Obelisk Gate—N. K. Jemisin

2016 was the year I started reading science fiction again after a twenty or thirty year absence. I’ve a long way to go to get up to speed, but I think we’re all going to need more SF in the coming years, not as escapism but as laboratories for how to resist the coming darkness.

These two novels, the first parts of the Broken Earth Trilogy, offer an allegory for the psychic damage minorities experience every day—as if Du Bois’s double consciousness was used as the basis for an exciting and carefully detailed epic story. I hope the final volume will be out in 2017.

Best of the rest:

The Trespasser—Tana French

French made the list last year, too. For me she is the best crime writer today, period, and shows no signs of falling off with this excellent, smart novel that continues her preoccupation with friendship. What’s new is how overtly the twists of the investigation are offered as an allegory for the process of storytelling. I hope that doesn’t sound boring or airy-fairy. The book’s as gripping as all her others.

The Door—Magda Szabó

On vacation at the end of the year I had some good reading time and made my way through a number of interesting books. But the most amazing one—so great that it’s jumped on to this list—was this Hungarian novel from 1987. Szabó has this power, I don’t know how to describe it, it’s not as though her style is particularly flashy or anything. It’s the story of a woman and her housekeeper. And about the history of Hungary in the 20th Century. It’s as good on psychology as on politics. None of these things come even close to suggesting how awesome it is. All I can say is that I was just riveted. I’ve got another of her books now and hope to write about them together soon.

Three by Patrick Leigh Fermor

A Time of Gifts; Between the Woods and the Water; The Broken Road

I wrote a short appreciation of these extraordinary travel books for Open Letters Monthly back in the summer. In 1933, the eighteen-year-old Fermor set off to walk across Europe, from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. It took the rest of his life to tell the story, but what amazing books these are, so full of joy and life, and neither naïve nor knowing. Can’t think of anyone else who has captured as well as Fermor that sense of heady reinvention you sometimes feel, especially as a young person, when living abroad.

The Vegetarian—Han Kang

Wasn’t sure about this one at first—kept wanting it to be more like Atwood’s Edible Woman, which it superficially resembles—but decided to teach it later in the year and seeing my students take to it so strongly made me like it so much more. A book about a woman who just really wants to be a plant, and the people in her life who want other things for her. Han tackles this without ever letting us inside the protagonist’s head: impressive. Feel I could get a lot more from this book if I knew more (i.e. anything) about modern Korean history. Looking forward to reading Human Acts in 2017.

What Belongs to You—Garth Greenwell

Critically acclaimed for a good reason. Proustian sentences, good sex scenes, impressive ability to generate menace. Had the good fortune to hear Greenwell at the Little Rock Literary Festival: he was smart and kind. Started to write about the book and got bogged down but one day I am going to write an essay about the uncanny parallels between what happens to the narrator of this novel and to Patrick Leigh Fermor, as recounted in The Broken Road, in Varna, Bulgaria.

Our Spoons Came from Woolworths—Barbara Comyns

Less bleak than Comyns’s amazing The Vet’s Daughter (on the 2015 list) but just as terrific. The wonder here is the vast tonal range of the narrator’s voice. Sometimes Sophia is naïve (“I had a kind of idea if you controlled your mind and said ‘I won’t have any babies’ very hard, they most likely wouldn’t come”) and sometimes she’s hilariously, ruefully inept (making an impromptu meal of spaghetti she finds a piece of dry cheese: “it grated so fine I thought afterwards it must have been a knife handle”). She’s also no-nonsense (she tells a man who has fallen in love with her and is masochistically kissing the bottom of her skirt, “Don’t do that. The hem is coming undone already”) and knowing (describing that same man, who for a time becomes her lover, she says, “His dark face became full of animation when he talked (I think the right word to use for his face would be mobile)”). British women writers of the mid twentieth century are still criminally underrated.

Best group reading experience:

Jean Giono’s Hill. A terrific book that speaks to us today in ways its author surely couldn’t have anticipated. My take here. Thanks to Scott for co-hosting and to Meredith, Grant, Frances, Melissa and others for reading along with.

Most revelatory experience of a book I’ve taught many times:

Lots of contenders here (Woolf, Jacob’s Room, To the Lighthouse, Three Guineas (I really love that one), Lawrence, Sons and Lovers) but the winner has to be Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, which is one of the greatest novels about the Holocaust. Only now, on my fourth or fifth go round with this book, and thanks in large part to some stellar students who really responded to it, do I feel I’m getting the hang of this one.  I blogged about teaching it here.

Most revelatory experience of a writer I’ve taught many times:

Ida Fink. I’ve taught a few of her amazing short stories about the Holocaust before but only this year, thanks to the scholar Sara Horowitz, did I really get what Fink was up to. She didn’t write much, just two short story collections and a novel, but man, what a writer. Want to write about her in 2017.

Two books about hotels:

Grand Hotel by Vicky Baum (1929) and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (2016). In my head I composed a mini-essay comparing these books, which I happened to read back to back. Both consider the transience of hotel life, though Gentleman inverts the idea by making its protagonist a nobleman in 1920s Russia who can’t quite be done away with by the new regime because of his service to the cause in the past and so is put under house arrest in Moscow’s luxurious Metropol Hotel.

Baum’s book might be better—it holds up amazingly well, and becomes a real page-turner in its last third—but I enjoyed Towles’s more. It’s sweeter and that’s what I needed in the days after the election. I kept wondering if its pleasures weren’t in fact too regressive, but the book would regularly throw little curve balls, show its self-consciousness about the difficulties of structuring a book around a seemingly perfect protagonist. And sometimes you just want a suave, kind, handsome, intelligent, well-manner character! Anyway, you should read both of these books, they are terrific. I’m unconvinced anyone will be reissuing Towles in 80 years, but that’s okay, some books we just need for today.

Best book about life during the rise of fascism:

Plenty of contenders, but Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight made a big impression on me.

Reliable pleasures:

Ellis Peters’s Cadfael books (have read the first four so far, but need to ration: important to know they are still out there for me to savour); Hans Olav Lahlum’s K2 series (the last one was a bit bloated but I’m still a fan); Denise Mina (she keeps on going from strength to strength)

Light reading winners:

Natasha Pulley, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (pleasing alternate history-steampunk-thing all about queer and non-queer friendship—very much look forward to the sequel in 2017); Joe Ide, IQ (smart and funny Sherlock update in East Long Beach. Not suspenseful, really, but totally enjoyable); Dorothy Sayers, Strong Poison (I finally met Harriet Vane! Must read the others)

Finally, although, I didn’t actually read that much Jean Rhys this year, one of the most satisfying parts of the year was contributing this post on my experiences teaching her work to students to the Jean Rhys event co-hosted by Jacqui and Eric.

Above all, my heartfelt thanks to everyone who’s visited the blog in the past year. Your comments, whether here or on Twitter or Facebook or even in person, mean so much to me. Here’s to more good reading and good talk about our reading in 2017.

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“Teeming with Life”: Jean Giono’s Hill

Scott from Seraillon & I have organized a group reading of Hill. I’ll update this post with links as I learn of them. You can read what Grant from 1streading’s Blog, Teresa from Shelf Life, Frances from Nonsuch Books, and Dolce Belezza have to say about it.

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When I sat down to write about Jean Giono’s Hill (1929), I did what I usually do: I re-read the opening pages to get my head back into it. Then I did something I almost never do: I kept on reading until I’d read the whole book again. It helps that Hill, in this lovely new edition from New York Review Books, is only 112-pages long. But I bet if it had been three times as long I would have kept turning the pages, as hypnotized as the characters are by the story one of them tells to explain the events they’ve suffered through:

They were listening, with their eyes wide open, their jaws slack, their lips drooping, their pupils dilated, their hands frozen, overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.

The “they” in this passage are the men of a tiny hamlet called the Bastides, halfway up the side of the Mount Lure in the Alpes-de-Haute-Provence. Too tiny to even be called a village, the Bastides is a remnant, a leftover, an almost-abandoned former market town in which only four houses are still inhabited. Twelve people live here, plus an unlucky thirteenth, a gentle stranger, a simpleton the others call Gagou, after the only syllables he is able to make. There’s Gondran le Mérédic, who married Marguerite Ricard and farms the land that belonged to her father, Janet. There’s Aphois Arbaud and his wife, Babette, who have two small children. There’s César Maurras, who lives with his mother and a servant. And there’s Alexandre Jaume, whose wife committed suicide a few years back. He lives with his grown daughter, Ulalie.

Only on my second reading did I begin to get a handle on these characters. That’s telling: Hill isn’t a novel of character. In fact, it’s hardly a novel of human beings. Instead it’s a novel about the relationship between humans and the non-human world. As its title suggests, Hill is about the earth; in its world-view, geological formations are as alive as non-human animals or plants.

With that thought in mind, let’s return to that passage I quoted above. The men are “overwhelmed by the vision of the avenging spirits of the vegetal world.” They’ve been listening to Jaume as he tries to explain a series of frightening things they’ve experienced. But even though Jaume has a privileged place in the village—he reads, he’s the one the others turn to when they need their world explained to them—he isn’t held in the same esteem by the novel as a whole. We shouldn’t confuse Jaume’s explanation with the truth. No doubt the vegetal world of this book is animated. And no doubt the villagers have been right to be afraid of what’s happened to them. But whether the world is out to get them is less clear.

So what’s gone wrong for the people of Bastides? In his excellent introduction to this edition, the philosopher David Abram suggests it all starts when Gondran, working in his olive orchard, sees a lizard. He’s filled with a spasm of irritation. The text adds—and its narration is interestingly hard to get a handle on: often in present tense, sometimes in past, often in third person, but sometimes referencing a first person narrator, often omniscient but sometimes attached to a character’s perspective—“Man wants to be the master-beast, the one who kills.” Gondran smashes the lizard with his shovel. He’s first ashamed and then uneasy. A sound fills the air:

The wind comes rushing.

The trees confer in low voices.

(Giono likes one-sentence paragraphs.) Gondran gets back to his work, but as he does

 it occurs to him for the first time that there’s a kind of blood rising inside bark, just like his own blood; that a fierce will to live makes the tree branches twist and propels these sprays of grasses into the sky.

Here’s an example of what I said before: the book believes in something we might call a generalized sentience, a life force that manifests itself through everything on earth, not least the earth itself. A passage like this one seems to support Jaume’s later suggestion that the earth is taking revenge for the things people have done to it. Shortly after that day in the field, the villagers suffer a series of inexplicable events. First the village’s spring runs dry, forcing the villagers to carry water from an abandoned village far away. They set up a rotation but the effort irritates them and sets them against each other. Then one of Arbaud’s children get sick and no one in the village, not even Jaume with his medical book, can make her better. The fever that rocks the little girl’s body is echoed in the final catastrophe: a terrible forest fire sweeps across the region and threatens to destroy the village.

The villagers certainly think of these events as connected, and the novel doesn’t give us any reason to doubt that. But as to why they’re happening, well, that’s harder to say. Maybe it wasn’t the murder of a lizard. Maybe it all started when old Janet, Gondran’s father-in-law, is incapacitated by something like a stroke, leaving him bed-ridden in his daughter’s kitchen, able to do nothing other than swallow, move his fingers, and talk, talk, talk. Or maybe it started with the return of a black cat to the village, a cat the others are convinced is tied to unlucky events in the past. Or maybe it has to do with the connection between the old man and the cat. Janet, who seems to have some kind of supernatural power (as a younger man he was famous for dowsing), or the very least who sees in ways the others cannot, sometimes seems the know the source of the trouble, maybe even to have brought it on himself. Right after his stroke he says something to Gondran that could apply to any of the villagers: “When you come right down to it, you’re incapable of looking at a tree and seeing anything but a tree.” It sounds like a curse.

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You’ll notice I’m using a lot of qualifiers in describing these events. That’s because the book refuses to explain them. In fact it doesn’t even know exactly how to define them. Fittingly, Giono’s preferred pronoun is “it”, his favourite noun is some version of “thing”: “Then all at once, it started”; “It all took shape—a whole world being born out of his words”; “Whatever it is, it’s brought a cold sweat to their brows”; “There’s still this thing lingering in Jaume’s brain”; “This kind of thing, it always starts with someone who sees farther than the rest”; “It runs out of him in a stream and it’s not so funny.” Those are just a few examples.

But even though the characters are the ones who either directly (in speech) or indirectly (through the narrative voice) use these inherently vague terms, they aren’t satisfied with vagueness. And neither are readers. Needing an explanation, the villagers convince themselves that Janet must be the source of their trouble. They decide to kill him, sure that this is the only way they can get back to the good relationship they had with the hill. As their spokesman Jaume puts it:

“It’s Janet who made this happen, with his head full of ideas.

“Things were going well before all of this. It had never said or done anything to harm us. It was a good hill. It knew pleasant songs. It hummed like a big wasp. It let us have our way with it. We never dug too deep. One or two blows of a spade, what harm could that do? We walked across it without fear. When it spoke to us, it was like a spring. It spoke to us though its cool springs and its pine trees.

“He must have messed with it.”

The villagers’ scapegoating of Janet is disturbing. And yet as readers we’re complicit in the same thinking. We too want to know why the things that have happened have happened. The novel is sharply critical of this kind of knowing, which symbolizes a disposition towards the world that the philosopher Martin Heidegger, a contemporary of Giono’s, called “standing reserve.” When we see the world as a standing reserve, we see it only for our purposes, only for the ends we could put it to. We look at a river and we only see the hydroelectric power it could provide, for example.

But whereas Heidegger’s philosophy is fundamentally nostalgic—which might explain why he was seduced by fascism—Giono’s novel is harder to pin down, and all the better for that uncertainty. Once in a while it suggests an age-old peasant wisdom in which people live in harmony with the land. But it also argues that this so-called harmony is always exploitative. And yet as readers we are asked to sympathize with the people who perpetrate that exploitation. Is there any way of living on the land that isn’t living off it, in the way a parasite lives off its host?

Thus the ambivalence of the novel’s end is so fitting. At the last minute, the villagers don’t need to murder Janet because he dies, naturally as it were. And as soon as he does, the village’s spring starts running again. The fire has been beaten back. The little girl “looks like she’s doing better.” It’s a relief to have misfortune and acrimony between the villagers and their environment replaced by harmony and the hope of better things to come. This vision of plenitude is best symbolized by the newly plashing spring, which “sings a long lament that conjures up cold stones and shadows. The water trough quivers, teeming with life.”

Cold stones and shadows are lovely things, especially on hot Provencal days. But why a “long lament”? Here Giono qualifies the idyll he’s just given us. After all, there has been a scapegoat: the interloper Gagou succumbs (rather ecstatically, it must be said) to the fire. And on the book’s last page, the villagers shoot a wild boar and stretch its skin to dry on a tree. We might remember the murder of the lizard and worry what atrocities might arise from this new killing, especially when we read the novel’s last lines:

 Now it’s night. The light has just faded from the last window. A large star keeps watch over Lure.

From the skin, which turns in the night wind and drones like a drum, tears of dark blood weep in the grass.

It’s egotistical to think the nonhuman world would respond in human terms (vengeance, say) to human actions. But Hill conjures up such non-human emotional sentience on almost every page. Yet it doesn’t pit the non-human world against the human in a vision of environmental apocalypse that would only flatter human depredation (we must be special to have caused—even deserved—such harm). Nor does it aim for some consoling vision of harmony between the human and the natural.

That’s a lot of contradictions, I know. What’s amazing is how vividly Giono animates them in such a short book.

Here’s the final contradiction, one it would take a post much longer even than this one to tease out: if language is fundamentally human, something (maybe the main thing) that distinguishes the human from the non-human, would it even be possible for language to depict the non-human world in a way that wasn’t anthropomorphic or romantic? I think Giono accomplishes this feat. He’s very good at using language to represent things that seem inherently non-linguistic. In this he reminds me of another early twentieth century writer skeptical of knowledge and compelled to see a life force in all living beings, D. H. Lawrence. Both are visionary writers who value the non-human environment without apologizing for the humans who are inescapably but not necessarily harmoniously intertwined with it.

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Like many people, I’ve been preoccupied by and aghast at the fire that swept through Fort McMurray in my home province of Alberta and might burn for as long as a year. Since Fort McMurray is the center of the tar sands industry, a horrifying industrial sublime well captured by the photographer Edward Burtynsky, it’s tempting to see the fire as climatological blowback, the nightmarish effects of climate change coming back to strike one of the centers of the industry largely responsible for creating it. I’ve thought such things myself. But tell it to the people who have lost everything. It’s a lot easier to talk about karma from the safety of somewhere distant. Yet I’m also repelled by the “Alberta Strong!” chauvinism that insists “we” will return and rebuild. The Horse River fire is much more devastating than the one in Hill, but, more than anything I’ve read in the media so far, Jean Giono’s almost ninety-year-old novel helps me to think through our relationship to what we so casually call nature.

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I never know what to say about translations, especially when I haven’t compared them to the original. I know it’s bad form to ignore a book’s having been translated, but to me it’s just as unhelpful merely to assert how well it’s been done (a “sprightly new translation,” “ably translated by…” and so forth). So my apologies to translator Paul Eprile. I don’t know what to say, other than thank you. The translation seems powerful and lucid, as forceful as the original must be. I’m hoping Scott will have more to say about Eprile’s work, since I know he read both the original and the translation. All I can say is how excited I am to learn that Eprile will be bringing another Giono title into English. It can’t come soon enough.

Jean Giono Readalong

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Later this month, Scott of seraillon (I hope you read his blog regularly: it’s excellent) and I will be reading of Jean Giono’s first novel, Hill, published in 1929 and recently reissued in the indispensable NYRB Classics series. We hope you will join us!

Here’s what the publishers have to say about Hill:

Deep in Provence, a century ago, four stone houses perch on a hillside. Wildness presses in from all sides. Beyond a patchwork of fields, a mass of green threatens to overwhelm the village. The animal world—a miming cat, a malevolent boar—displays a mind of its own.

The four houses have a dozen residents—and then there is Gagou, a mute drifter. Janet, the eldest of the men, is bedridden; he feels snakes writhing in his fingers and speaks in tongues. Even so, all is well until the village fountain suddenly stops running. From this point on, humans and the natural world are locked in a life-and-death struggle. All the elements—fire, water, earth, and air—come into play.

From an early age, Jean Giono roamed the hills of his native Provence. He absorbed oral traditions and, at the same time, devoured the Greek and Roman classics. Hill, his first novel and the first winner of the Prix Brentano, comes fully back to life in Paul Eprile’s poetic translation.

The idea for the group reading came out of a series of exchanges we had about my review of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. In his defense of Seethaler, Scott said he was “reminded too of some of Jean Giono’s pastoral novels, which also have a third person narrator whose reliability one is scarcely conscious of needing to question, the narration almost seeming an organic aspect of the landscape.” That got me intrigued: I wanted to know more about this narrative voice, and since I had just learned of the reissue it all seemed fated to be.

So even though I know nothing about Giono–beyond the wonderful National Film Board of Canada animated film of The Man Who Planted Trees that was a staple of my childhood (directed by Frederic Back, it’s indelibly narrated by the aptly named Christopher Plummer–those tones!)–the good news is that Scott knows a lot. So between us we have a  perfectly average amount of knowledge to share.

Please consider joining us–and let us know if you decide to do so! We’ll be posting about the book in the last week of May and look forward to working through it together with you all.

Added 8/19/16: You can find my thoughts on Hill here, BTW.