Svetlana Alexievich, Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets. Alexievich won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and this style of book is apparently a signature of hers: a set of interviews about a period, but not from famous people, from dozens or hundreds of ordinary people, many of them identified only by first name and last initial or not even that, when the commentary was captured in a stream of chatter at a public event. This one is focused on the experience of the late Soviet period and the fall of communism, especially from the point of view of the last people to really identify themselves as Soviets rather than Russians. It is not a cheerful book and talks a lot about people who were suicidal in this period, people whose lives were shattered and never rebuilt–but also, since it is filtered through a very ordinary-person-on-the-ground lens, about salami and kitchens other details that would be difficult to pull out of thin air as important unless you were part of that culture and that time. I’m glad I read this, and I’m glad I’m done reading it.
Elizabeth Bowen, The House in Paris. A literary novel of the thirties, with two small children who have never met before, running into each other in the house of strangers who are more to one of them than he knows, and then the gradual discovery of what they are to him and why. Bowen does child perspective very well indeed. I have some issues with the ending, but I’m not sorry I read it. This was one of the books I read this fortnight that treated reading a novel as though no one could possibly want to do it for fun: specifically, it came with introductory material that not only spoiled the plot/characterization considerably, it discussed some of the unfolding of the prose in a way that I found extremely annoying, as I would far rather have come to those particular turns of language and observation organically, in the text, because that’s what novels are, dammit. And the person who was writing this flattened and weird introduction was A.S. Byatt, who should have known better. I really need to remember to skip the intros. (She loved this book. I think I put it on my wish list because I read her gushing about it elsewhere in not nearly such an insensitive way.)
Bryan Cartledge, The Will to Survive: A History of Hungary. This is a mostly good general history of Hungary, briskly written. You may be surprised to find that Maria Theresa is the only woman to ever have any effect on Hungarian history, but welp, here we are, apparently.
Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary. An examination of how the selection of presidential candidates has changed over the years, with a focus not only on Roosevelt himself but on how we sometimes let our desire to win something overcome our stated ideals. None of the several books I’ve read on Theodore Roosevelt have wanted to go into any detail on his decisions and the Progressive Party’s decisions under him to throw Black/anti-racist Southern Progressive under the bus to attempt to win the white Southern vote. The desired narrative is so thoroughly “they split the Republican party” that the fact that they split that party and made the anti-racist progressives not sure why they should vote Progressive somehow gets elided. Funny thing that.
Natalie Goldberg, Thunder and Lightning and Wild Mind. Rereads. I have become aware that our habit of acquiring new books will not result in our bookshelves expanding infinitely to accommodate, so I’ve been culling some parts of the collection. I culled the “stories should have a beginning, middle, and end” level of writing books some years ago, but I kept the more essay-style personal ones at the time. Now I’m revisiting them to see what they have to offer at this stage of my career and personality type. In this case, not a lot: Goldberg talks endlessly about her one mediocre novel but has made her career of being a writing-about-writing person. She is ceaselessly enthusiastic about her own freewriting and how she shouldn’t censor it but, I see with more experience, a great deal more judgmental about other people’s results. They, apparently, need to censor themselves into being more like Natalie Goldberg. Hmm. No thanks. (There was one point where she was proudly displaying a freewrite where she wrote, “My home is the night,” and I muttered, “Oh, shut up, Batman.” I think this is a sign I’m done here. I am usually nicer to Batman.)
Paul Gruchow, Grass Roots. This is a memoir of growing up on a farm outside Montevideo, Minnesota, in the late forties and early fifties. Gruchow is thoughtful about his father’s methods of farming and about his own childhood; I don’t agree with everything he says, but I agree with a lot of it, and I know his land, I know his people. I think there is beauty here for those for whom it is less familiar, less loved, but if you’re from these parts, there’s a home note to this.
A.E. Housman, Last Poems. Kindle. When I read A Shropshire Lad last fortnight, Larry said it was more of a concept album and this was more of a regular sort of cluster of songs, and I think that’s fair. Quite often the songs from a concept album don’t stand as well alone, don’t get played as often, and the opposite happened here. While these are less a unit, less doing a suite of a thing, they are not as inspired, not as thoroughly quoted and taught, less familiar. Still interesting, but very brief, and I spent the whole time being sad for the poor man, who said in the introduction that he could pretty completely tell at this point in his life that there would be no more, but he wasn’t dead yet. He was alive but had no more poems in him. Oof.
Shirley Jackson, The Lottery and Other Stories. Hot takes from Marissa: this Jackson woman can write a story. I had read some of these in different locations, but the ones I hadn’t wowed me too. The opening story, “The Intoxicated,” was just such a sharp portrayal of a teenage girl and the disconnect between her and her parents’ party guest, her worldview and his, amazing, blew me away and then just kept going. Funny and creepy and temporally rooted and in spots universal.
Tove Jansson, The True Deceiver. This is the other novel with an introduction that I wish just had not. Just please don’t. It’s about trust and innocence and small towns and relationships, insiders and outsiders. It’s very brief and very cutting, and if you’re thinking, oh, the Moomins are so much fun, this will be a nice book, no, it is not at all a nice book.
Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird. Reread. This was also not particularly useful for me at this point in my writing process, but I think for the opposite reason to the Natalie Goldberg books. Anne Lamott has written several things that are not how-to-write books, she is not at all in love with the sound of her own navel clapping, but I really don’t find the level of hostility that she nurtures (under the pretense of not nurturing it) at all useful at this stage of life, and the little bits of writing advice are not for me any more. So that can also go in the bag to take to the used bookstore.
Dinaw Mengestu, How to Read the Air. This was the story of two marriages failing, thirty years apart. It was beautifully written. One was the marriage of two Ethiopian immigrants, the other their son’s marriage. It was people failing to connect and failing to communicate, over and over again, with gorgeous detail, for the entire book. You will need quite a lot of tolerance for sadness if you read this book, and I picked it up at a time when I did not perhaps have as much as it wanted me to. I kept reading it, because it was very well done. But know what you’re getting into, time it carefully, if you and this book are going to have a time together.
Laura Secor, Children of Paradise: The Struggle for the Soul of Iran. This is the book I needed a break from when I picked up the Mengestu, above. It is a history of Iran from roughly 1970 on. It goes into detail about the political parties but also the prison system, the wars with Iraq. The people who kept hoping they were going to make things better in one direction or another. It is worth knowing more about Iran, but maybe have something more cheerful than the Mengestu on hand to liven the intervals. Take breaks. Pace yourself. Breathe.
Johanna Sinisalo, The Core of the Sun. This book did not work for me. It is a satire, and I see what it is trying to do, but this is where being a science fiction writer vs. a literary writer can sometimes very much come into play: when someone’s metaphor does not take into account biological reality, I balk hard. I have a long rant about gender and genetics here, available to them as wants it, but basically: this book treats women as a separable sub-species from men, and even in the kind of hideous dystopia that it depicts, even with the horrible treatment of people who do not fit a predetermined gender box (that it puts basically offstage and hoo boy do I have issues there as well), nope, that is not how hormones or chromosomes work, the X chromosome goes really in all the humans, you literally cannot mess with “women’s genes” and not “men’s genes,” what even, this is so very wrong. I tried to just go with the capsaicin stuff, but once I was thrown out of the satire by the main body of the work, it was hard to really groove with the over-the-top elements there. Sigh.
E.P. Thompson, The Romantics: England in a Revolutionary Age. A collection of essays on poetry (and other art theory) and politics. Thompson is solid, but this is not peak Thompson, it’s posthumously published. I like Thompson, so still worth reading. And I like the direction of poetry/polemics it explores.
Gerald Vizenor, Blue Ravens. Vizenor is always doing something different with every book, and also always touching on some beloved themes, Native life, tricksters, teasing. I am so impressed with him and always greet each of his books with joy. I wish he was better known among speculative fiction readers, but not all of his work is speculative. This isn’t. It’s an historical novel centered around WWI, some Anishinaabe boys from the White Earth Reservation who go to war and survive and paint and write poems, their lives before the war and after in the north of Minnesota and in Paris. I was enchanted.
Richard M. Watt, Bitter Glory: Poland and Its Fate, 1918-1939. Logistics. This book had logistics. It went into things like “what does it take to put together an army from scratch when you are suddenly a country and the bigger country you were carved from resents losing you.” I like logistics. Fascinating details about this. So glad I read it.
Ben H. Winters, Countdown City. The sequel to The Last Policeman, a series about trying to keep the world going when it’s about to end. I was hoping that he would have more to say about hope and its deliberate cultivation, and ultimately I didn’t find his insistence on forms to be satisfying. Maybe neither did he–there’s a third book, and this book leans heavily on its existence–but it does so in a way that makes me less inclined to go find it. Meh. The previous book is probably enough to stick with.