I should have posted this yesterday, but at the stroke of midnight December 23 – 24 I got incredibly sick. I agree: being sick on Christmas Eve is no fun. But I must say it was better to be sick on Christmas Eve than to go through what Gogol puts his characters through in The Night Before Christmas (Noch, pere Rozhdestvom, 1832; tr. from the Russian by Constance Garnett, 1926).
Review copy courtesy of New Directions.
It begins peacefully:
The last day before Christmas had passed. A clear winter night had come; the stars peeped out; the moon rose majestically in the sky to light good people and all the world so that all might enjoy singing kolyadki and praising the Lord.
That peace doesn’t last long. Within a couple of sentences a witch has taken off and is stealing all of the stars from the skies. To make matters worse, the devil steals the moon. Such is anadolu yakasi escort bayan the setup to a type of romantic comedy. The town blacksmith, Vakula, is in love with Oksana, who, “like a beauty, was full of caprices.” Oksana’s father, Tchub, doesn’t like Vakula – not at all. But he does like Vakula’s mother, Soloha (who happens to be the witch). Unfortunately for Tchub, the devil also desires Soloha.
No one has an easy time with these relatioships. Soloha actually does desire Tchub (not the devil), but everyone is after her. Furthermore, if Vakula manages to wed the shallow Oksana, that will make it impossible for Soloha to wed Tchub (custom prohibits the parents of the young couple from wedding themselves). Not that it’s likely Vakula will be able to win Oksana’s heart. For one thing, she does not love him. For another, to make it impossible, Oksana has said that the only way she’ll marry Vakula is if he brings to her “the very slippers the Tsarita wears.”
Surely we can see where this is all going. Now that Vakula’s interests are aligned with the devil’s, they manage a way forwad.
The Night Before Christmas is a lot of fun. No, it’s not much more, but it is certainly worth the short time it takes to read it, even if holiday cheer doesn’t necessarily ring through it.
Merry Christmas to all!
The following twelve books are the best books I read in 2011. All of these have in common sublime writing and are filled with subtle, nuanced life. Each of them surprised me, as well, constantly helping me rediscover the joy of reading.
Here they are, my favorites, in the order in which I reviewed them:
Vivant Denon: No Tomorrow (original review January 14, 2011) — This was one of the first books I read this year and before I was even half-finished (which is only, like 15 pages in this short volume) I knew it would be on this list come December. I’ve read it many times through the year and will probably read it again during the Christmas holiday (it’s very short, so maybe again at New Year’s). Denon packs an amazing amount of lust and mystery into this short tale about a one-night fling at the mistress’s estranged husband’s house — while the husband in the other room. It is sweet and savage at the same time, and I have been completely charmed. This is certainly one of those rare literary relationships that will last a lifetime. One thing: I highly recommend the translation by Lydia Davis — I’ve sampled another and it simply wasn’t as good.
Gert Hofmann: Lichtenberg & the Little Flower Girl (original review February 15, 2011) — This is probably the saddest book on this list, yet it is also one of the most tender and boisterous. And, like No Tomorrow, it reaches its depths through a unique kind of whimsy that most authors couldn’t handle when treating such a narrative. This is the story (based on fact) of Lichtenberg, an eighteenth-century physics professor with a hunched back and a gift for composing witty aphorisms, if not a gift for advancing studies in physics. The little flower girl is Maria Stechard, the young girl who lives with him, at first in innocence. Then, abandoning the oft-used exclamation point, Hofmann has the Stechardess say one powerful line: “Don’t hurt me, she said.” As it deals with yearning in a life shadowed by death, it is witty, funny, and it expressly includes the readers in the text as we continually ask: “And then?”
J.A. Baker: The Peregrine (original review March 3, 2011) — When I reviewed this memoir/nature book I made comparisons to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn and Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. I still stand by those statements. Baker’s book is searching as it takes into account something that lies beyond mankind and that is dying. As the memoir progresses, we see an amazing transformation; slipping into the text are Baker’s own desires to escape humanity and become one with the creature he hunts. Nearing the end, the transformation — at least psychologically — is complete: “We live, in these days in the open, the same ecstatic fearful life. We shun men. We hate their suddenly uplifted arms, the insanity of their flailing gestures, their erratic scissoring gait, their aimless stumbling ways, the tombstone whiteness of their faces.”
Cynthia Ozick: The Puttermesser Paper (original review March 25, 2011) — Ozick is one of my favorites, and this book compiles short pieces she wrote about Ruth Puttermesser over the course of four decades (Puttermesser is also a victim of the passage of time and ages the four decades with Ozick). It’s a fantastic series of tales about this rather lonely woman who, at one time, becomes the mayor of New York and unleashes a modern-day female golem (she really wanted a daughter of her own) in the city. In another chapter, when she’s in her fifties, she relives — she thinks, she hopes – the love affair between the similarly aged George Eliot and the much younger George Lewes. All of this leads to the last story where, at the beginning, we witness her violent death at nearly 70 — and then we go a bit further.
Georges-Olivier Châteaureynard: A Life on Paper (original review April 13, 2011) — I nearly missed this title, which would have been a shame. Had I missed it this year, it is unlikely I would ever have encountered it again once its publication date drifted back in time. I only heard about it when it was a finalist in the Best Translated Book Award (this year’s finalists should be announced sometime toward the end of next month). It happened to be a book I could acquire rather easily, and what a surprise! This selection of Châteaureynard’s short-short fiction is the first time this prolific writer has been translated to English. The tales are lovely and strange, mixing the realistic with the bizarre to both sad and comic results (which reminded me of one of my favorites, Steven Millhauser — more on him in a moment).
J.M. Coetzee: Youth (original review April 22, 2011) — Coetzee is another long-time favorite. I’ve been working my way through his work for a few years, enjoying everything a great deal — and I mean everything. This particular book, the second part in a loose autobiographical trilogy (both the trilogy structure and “autobiography” should be interpreted loosely), is one of the best. Here Coetzee writes in the first-person about his (or his character’s, rather) time in London working as a computer scientist at IBM. He’s young, alone, and melancholic, and he’s trying hard to develop a tragic, romantic spirit to become an artist, but he’s failing at things as foundational as passion because his cold, rational brain cannot, for example, understand why any woman he barely knows would give herself to him. He seems to belong to the world of IBM where there’s no possibility of a drunken brawl. As an autobiography, Youth contains blatant untruths and, therefore, probably some truth, but none of that really matters: it’s just a fine book.
Alan Heathcock: Volt (original review May 1, 2011) — It took only a few lines in the first story, “The Staying Freight,” before I was convinced Heathcock was something special, providing something new that still paid homage to the old masters as it shows us the lives of a few inhabitants of the fictional small town Krafton. The whole book is an excellent exploration of guilt and redemption that reminded me of Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner, the sense of space — apparent in the first few paragraphs as an unmanned tractor slowly pulls away from the protagonist in a large arc of dust – reminded me of Maile Meloy. Yes, it reminded me of other authors — the best of these other authors — but it still has a distinct life of its own, and I hope someday Krafton is known as well (or nearly as well) as Winesburg, Ohio.
Steven Millhauser: Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943 – 1954, by Jeffrey Cartwright (original review May 24, 2011) – Millhauser brings childhood back to haunt us, reminding us of just how much our innocent minds actually knew and how terrified we were, in this very strange fictional biography. The author is the very young Jeffrey Cartwright; the subject is his tragic, genius friend, Edwin Mullhouse. Millhauser often reminds me of the great Edgar Allan Poe, both in writing skill and in tone, particularly here when we see just how jealously Jeffrey guards Edwin from some young romances (which were admittedly ill-advised to begin with). This is possibly the most outrightly terrifying book on this list, in spite of (or perhaps because of) how seductive it is.
Jean Echenoz: Lightning (original review June 22, 2011) — If this list has a consistent theme it could be quasi-fictional biographies on eccentric personalities. Lichtenberg, Baker, Puttermesser, Coetzee, Mullhouse, all lives worth reading about, whether fiction, real, or somewhere in between. Adding to the list is another whimsical (though ultimately tragic and lonely (another theme here?)) fictionalized biography, this one of Nikola Tesla, the famed scientist that helped usher electricity into our lives and caused a famous fued with his one-time employer, Thomas Edison, who managed in the end to at least die in better circumstances than Tesla. Again, the author brings the reader into the story; it’s as if we’re sitting down with Echenoz as he offers us refreshment before continuing the tale, and we can’t wait to hear more.
László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance (original review July 11, 2011) — The most outwardly challenging book on this list is this 300+ page single paragraph (okay, there are some breaks, but not enough to really count). But, just like the others here, it pays back a great deal as we read about a dead whale brought to a small Hungarian town by a wandering circus. The opening pages about the increasing tension as people on a train platform wait for a late train, followed by the terror of arriving somewhere much later than anticipated, soon give way to coldly calculated chaos. Eventually the town is torn apart by anarchy. The story focuses on an evil woman (whom we watch twitch in her sleep for a time), her reclusive husband who is working on his ideas about the Werckmeister Harmonies, and the village idiot. What a strange — and magnificent — book. I’m very excited for more Krasznahorkai (New Directions will be publishing his Satantango early in 2012).
Gyula Krúdy: The Adventures of Sindbad (original review November 30, 2011) — A fantastic late-year surprise from NYRB Classics, The Adventures of Sindbad continues to show that, for whatever reason, this year my tastes ran to the bizarre, with a generous touch of modern style. This collection of stories about a paramour’s many many pursuits takes us back and forth in time, into dreams, into the grave, into a sprig of mistletoe. There’s a lingering air of melancholy over the whole thing (in the very first story a young boy with a hunchback drowns in a river), but that’s one of the reasons that, despite the obvious strangeness, it feels so real. Furthermore, this is a story about a wandering paramour, so melancholy is actually to be desired. It makes the lust more poignant, which in turn makes the affair more — but, out of preference, not wholly – satisfying.
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: The Letter Killers Club (original review December 19, 2011) — After finishing The Adventures of Sindbad, I thought this “year’s best” list was done. I should have known better than to discount NYRB Classics, who’d just published yet another lovely book. Just as the year began, when I knew Denon’s No Tomorrow would be on this list after just a few pages, the year comes to a close with another NYRB Classic that, after just a few pages, I knew this list would have to accomodate. The Letter Killers Club, which takes us to secret meetings where men tell stories without writing them down (and not without a great deal of suspicion), may have been my favorite book of the year (though, looking at this list, it’s hard to make that a definitive statement). Krzhizhanovsky again touched on my apparent taste for the bizare portrayed realistically in an effort to depict the familiar even better.
Going over this list again, I can’t wait to see what 2012 has in store! To everyone: a happy holiday season!
A couple of years ago, NYRB Classics introduced most of us to Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky when they published Memories of the Future. Krzhizhanovsky died in 1950 having lost most of his battles to publish his work to the Soviet censors (of his hundreds of stories, plays, criticism, etc., he published only nine stories in his lifetime). His work remained archived until it was uncovered in 1976. Even after that, it wasn’t until 1989 that much his work first began being published in Russian. Finally, his work is trickling into English, and we’re catching on to the fact that here we have one of the greatest Russian authors of the twentieth century. Recently, NYRB Classics has published another of his works, The Letter Killers Club (Klub ubiits bukv; tr. from the Russian by Joanne Turnbaull with Nikolai Formozov, 2011).
Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.
One doesn’t have to read far into this book to figure out why the Soviet censors — in particular, Maxim Gorky – considered Krzhizhanovsky ”untimely.” Here we meet a kind of secret organization of men – all using pseudonyms – who meet in a room surrounded by empty book shelves. They shun the written word, yet they meet every Saturday evening to tell each other their “conceptions,” short pieces of fiction that, very importantly, were not and will not be written down. And they come up with the strangest things . . .
But before we get into that, there is some reason to this ritual. Our narrator is a literary man, and one day he is shocked to discover that a famous writer has decided to quit writing. The narrator finds the man and asks him what is going on, and the man (the eventual founder of The Letter Killers Club) explains. When he was a poor young man, he loved reading and was proud of his library, despite his modest circumstances. But when he received word that his mother had died, he had to sell his entire library in order to make the trip to her funeral. Returning to his room with its empty bookshelves, the man discovered that these empty bookshelves still held the weight of their ideas, and the act of reimagining the books allowed him to succeed in his own writing. Eventually, though, he has rounded up all of his words and his ideas have become pent-up in his books. He longs for the freedom he felt imagining stories before they became limited by the page.
Writers, in essence, are professional word tamers; if the words walking down the lines were living creatures, they would surely fear and hate the pen’s nib as tamed animals do the raised whip. Or a better analogy: do you know about the production of astrakhan fur? Suppliers have their own terminology: they track the patterns of the unborn lamb’s wool, wait for the necessary combination of curls, then kill the lamb — before birth: they call that “clinching the pattern.” That is exactly what we — trappers and killers — do with our conceptions.
So this man, the president of The Letter Killers Club, invites our narrator to one of their meetings. On each Saturday, one of the members stands up and recites a conception. The other members comment, critique, and reimagine the story as it meanders around. This seems innocent enough, but the air of secrecy invokes the fear of a secret society. Perhaps more strangely, the members themselves feel some amount of fear toward the president of the club.
The stories themselves are all fun to read. Krzhizhanovsky favors the surreal and absurd, and his mindset is enmeshed in experimental modernism. The first story takes us to Hamlet. To show how inseparable Guildenstern and Rosencrantz are, the teller also splits Guildenstern into two characters: Guilden and Stern. Guilden and Stern are both in love with Phelia and both hope to win the role of Hamlet in an upcoming production. Soon “Role” itself comes out and speaks to Guilden and Stern, and discusses how it is to be best played, including a short bit on how it has been portrayed in the past. This particular story is a bit convoluted, but, as I said, it is fun. Better stories follow.
In particular, I was taken by a remarkable science-fiction tale where a few men, building off of each other’s ideas, are attempting to figure out a way to take over a human being’s physical movements. In other words, they want to find a way to quash the individual human will and use that body to do their own will.
Anonym’s ideas had the immediate effect of broadening Tutus’s outlook and the scope of his experiments: he realized that the machine must take control of those human movements and muscular contractions that had a clear social significance. Anonym maintained that reality, whose component parts are actions, had “too many parts and too small a sum.” Only by taking innervation away from a separately functioning nervous systems and giving it to a single, central innervator, said Anonym, could one organize reality according to plan and put paid to that amateurish “I.” By replacing the jolts from individual wills with the jolts from one “ethical machine” built according to the latest advances in morals and technology, one could make everyone give everything back: a complete ex.
However, so complex is the human body and the human mind that all experiments keep being ruined by “unaccountable scrawls of will.” But there is a breakthrough:
After three weeks of attempts to break through to life, the tightly tied sack of skin and fat, pushing the pencil lead inserted between its limp fingers, managed to scrawl: kill myself. Tutus pondered the plan and decided to turn it into a sort of experimentum crucis: even in his experiments with this seemingly completely demuscled subject, the work of the mechanical innervator had been spoilt by unaccountable scrawls of will that got mixed up in the machine’s precise musical score. It was impossible to anticipate every form of volitional resistance; what’s more, an experiment with suicide was bound to involve a moment of violent conflict between the will of the machine and that of the man. Tutus proceeded as follows: having quietly emptied a bullet case of its gunpowder, he slipped the cartridge — in full view of his subject — into the cylinder of a revolver, cocked the trigger, and enfolded the weapon of death in the inert fingers. Now the machine went to work: the fingers twitched, then gripped the gun handle; the forefinger produced an incorrect reflex — Tutus adjusted the refractory finger inside the trigger’s curve. another press of the key — the man’s arm sprang up, bent at the elbow, and brought the barrel to his temple. Tutus scrutinized the subject: his facial muscles showed no signs of resistance; true, his eyelashes fluttered and the points of his pupils had become large black blots. “Very good,” Tutus muttered, turning around to press the next key — but how strange, the key was stuck. Tutus pressed harder: he heard a metallic click. First he inspected his machine, depressing and releasing the key that had now come unstuck. Then he flipped some switches, and suddenly the human sack with the incomprehensible self-will pitched forward, flapped its arms like a bird shot in flight, and slumped to the floor. Tutus dashed up: the subject was dead.
Krzhizhanovsky’s work was “untimely,” indeed.
This is not the only suicide in the book. As the club members continue to meet, the narrator is increasingly unsettled by what they are doing and the basis for their weekly meetings. He thinks he may see discontent among other members as well and seeks to speak with them about what is going on these Saturday evenings.
I read a lot of great books this year, but I believe this is the best of them all. It is incredible that such a voice was unheard for most of a century and was nearly lost for good. Makes one wonder about all of those voices we haven’t been so fortunate to recover.
Click here to read the story in its entirety on The New Yorker webpage. Margaret Atwood’s “Stone Mattress” was originally published in the December 19 & 26, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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I used to like Margaret Atwood, but I’ve done an about-face over the past decade. Possibly the most negative review on this blog is my review of The Year of the Flood (click here for my review). And I don’t fully believe this is due to her focus on “speculative fiction” — I just don’t think she’s as good a writer as she once was. Adding to that is the self-orchestrated fanfare that comes with her releases, and I’ve been really turned off.
I found it hard to approach this story, consequently — and unfortunately. I was interested in what was coming as the story progressed, but I haven’t revised my opinion of Atwood. From her “The Bookbench” interview (see it here), the story comes from a bit of indulgence: Atwood was on an Arctic cruise with some friends, and they began wondering if you could get away with murder on such a trip. Atwood supplied the tale. Here’s how it begins:
At the outset Verna had not intended to kill anyone.
Verna convinces herself that she was only looking for a peaceful vacation in the Arctic. She’s getting older now (she’s had at least four husbands), but she knows she still has some sex appeal — particularly if she’s in a sweater rather than a bathing suit. At the beginning of the trip, the passengers hold a mix-’n-mingle. Of course, there are several Bobs in the group, but one in particular stuns Verna:
Now she says, “And you’re . . . Bob.” It’s taken her years to perfect the small breathy intake, a certified knee-melter.
“Yes,” Bob says. “Bob Goreham,” he adds, with a diffidence he surely intends to be charming. Verna smiles widely to disguise her shock. She finds herself flushing with a combination of rage and an almost reckless mirth. She looks him full in the face: yes, underneath the thinning hair and the wrinkles and the obviously whitened and possibly implanted teeth, it’s the same Bob — the Bob of fifty-odd years before. Mr. Heartthrob, Mr. Senior Football Star, Mr. Astounding Catch, from the rich, Cadillac-driving end of town where the mining-company big shots lived. Mr. Shit, with his looming bully’s posture and his lopsided joker’s smile.
We quickly learn that Verna experienced a tragedy at the hands of Bob Goreham when they were both in their teens. The narrative moves forward in a bit of a haze as Verna’s past comes back to haunt her while she considers the providence of her current situation. She’s not sure if she will kill Bob or not, but, we find out soon, her hand in death would not be something new.
I liked a things in the story. For one, Atwood does a good job having the narrative influenced by Verna’s troubled mind. Her prose moves in a haze when Verna’s past comes back in a nauseating wave; the prose is direct when Verna is determined. But I continued to feel that Atwood can write fluid prose — that doesn’t make one a great writer. I’m not sure there is much more happening here. Did my feelings toward Atwood blind me to some of the real substantive qualities of this short pieces?
One Peace Books is a relatively young publisher specializing in Japanese literature, one of my many significant literary gaps. As big a gap as that is, I had heard of (but never read anything by) Osamu Dazai, considered to be one of the finest Japanese novelists of the twentieth century. So I jumped at the chance to read and review a new translation of Osamu Dazai’s Schoolgirl (Joseito, 1939; tr. from the Japanese by Allison Markin Powell, 2011).
Review copy courtesy of One Peace Books.
The marketing materials for Schoolgirl arrived with a quote from USA Today: “Move over Holden Caulfield. A new brooding teenager has arrived.” This can be quite damning to a book, but considering that Schoolgirl was published 12 years before The Catcher in the Rye, I wasn’t worried and was more interested in the possible connections, which are evident early on. Dazai apparently wrote a lot of first-person novels (which is its own genre in Japanese literature: the “I Novel”), and in Schoolgirl is one day in the life of a young Japanese schoolgirl trying as hard as she can to make sense of the world around her and still keep a hold of her individuality.
Her father recently dead, the girl in mourning has also lost her mother to a kind of depression:
She once said to me, “From now on, the joy in life is gone. Forgive me for saying, but when I look at you, the truth is, I don’t feel much pleasure. Without your father, perhaps it’s best if there is no happiness.”
This set of circumstances has forced the young girl to confront the gravity of growing older, though inside she still yearns to be a little girl. The book progresses through her random thoughts which enlighten us as to her state of mind, contradictory as her tone and feelings often are. Such contradictions gave the book an air of reality as the girl despises the idea of marriage, can’t wait to be a complacent wife, and then says, “I wish I could die like this, a girl.”
Confused as much by the various people she interacts with during the day, the girl responds to them and then analyzes her responses.
The truth is that I secretly love what seems to be my own individuality, and I hope I always will, but fully embodying it is another matter. I always want people to think I’m a good girl. Whenever I am around a lot of people, it is amazing how obsequious I can be. I fib and chatter away, saying things I don’t want to or mean in any way.
I have to say that I enjoyed this book, but that above passage contains one of the problems that continued to take me out of the story. At one moment the girl will say something like, “Ugh, so vile,” as she did when looking at an older woman on a bus. “Ugh, so vile,” while it doesn’t necessarily ring true as something a Japanese teenager would say in 1939 (then again, I don’t know), at least sounded like something a teenager would say. However, I can’t see one saying “Ugh, so vile” and “it is amazing how obsequious I can be.” They just don’t seem to flow well in this particular stream-of-consciousness, particularly when most of the translation favors short everyday words. Here is another example:
No matter how you looked at it, I didn’t look cute at all. I felt wretched. Totally dejected. I had slipped over here just to have my hair done, and now to feel like such a scruffy hen made me deeply contrite.
One of my least favorite sentences in the translation took me straight to the 1990s, beginning with “Pshaw . . . as if [. . .].” And then it ends with a decent word made indecent:
Pshaw . . . as if a loud holler was going to cover my gutlessness.
And now for my least favorite combination of slang and heavy, abstracted vocabulary:
His utter diffidence makes me want to throw up.
Such sentences were clunky, so to me this is, at least in part, not a very good translation. I spent a good deal of time annoyed rather than engaged, even though the clunky sentences were relatively rare — it’s a very short book, so they stuck out a great deal. That said, a little over half-way through the book evening arrives, and the schoolgirl returns home to her mother. The emotional build-up we’ve experienced so far as she dealt with day-time events lengthens out and intensifies as the sun goes down. I’m not sure if there were any bad sentences after this point because I was genuinely interested in the schoolgirl herself:
Tomorrow will probably be another day like today. Happiness will never come my way. I know that. But it’s probably best to go to sleep believing that it will surely come, tomorrow it will come.
As the book closes in dream-like fashion (at which time the translation is going strong), we get this sad thought:
Sometimes happiness arrives one night too late.
Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers). Nathan Englander’s “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank” was originally published in the December 12, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
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My first experience with Nathan Englander’s fiction was forgettable. In 2009 he published “Free Fruit for Y0ung Widows” in The New Yorker, and all I really know is that I didn’t really like it. Knowing this, when I read the title of his new story I was wary to begin. An obvious call back to Raymond Carver’s 1981 classic, I figured Englander’s story wouldn’t be able to support the weight of all of the comparisons it begged for. Though I’m still trying to figure out whether I actually liked this story, I’m glad to say that it was interesting and the connections to Carver’s story do it no harm — in fact, I stopped thinking of Carver’s story very early on, for better or for worse.
Just like “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” this story involves two couples sitting around a table, drinking. Our narrator is a middle-aged husband and father. He and his wife Deb are hosting Lauren, Deb’s friend from childhood, and her husband, Mark. Only now Lauren goes by Shoshana and Mark goes by Yerucham since they moved to Jerusalem some twenty years ago “and shifted from Orthodox to ultra-Orthodox.” Lauren and Mark have ten children. The narrator and Deb have just one, Trevor, a sixteen-year-old who stumbles out barely awake at three in the afternoon on this particular Sunday.
Much of the conversation circles around Jewish identity. Deb is, the narrator says, obsessed with the Holocaust, though her family had been in America for generations. Mark doesn’t particularly think her interest is admirable, and he shoots it down by relating a story about his father, a survivor.
Deb looks crestfallen. She was expecting something empowering. Some story with which to educate Trevor, to reaffirm her belief in the humanity that, from inhumanity, forms.
Discussions of Jewish identity continue. Mark is certainly the more opinionated and bold of the “ultra-Orthodox” and doesn’t mind suggesting that Trevor is not really Jewish. The narrator doesn’t really care and even seems to agree, enjoying the course of the conversation, but Deb gets frustrated and makes claims to Jewish culture. Such a thing does not exist, according to Mark.
“Wow, that’s offensive,” Deb says. “And close-minded. There is such a thing as Jewish culture. One can live a culturally rich life.”
“Not if it’s supposed to be a Jewish life. Judaism is a religion. and with religion comes ritual. Culture is nothing. Culture is some construction of the modern world. It is not fixed; it is ever changing, and a weak way to bind generations. It’s like taking two pieces of metal, and instead of making a nice weld you hold them together with glue.”
The afternoon proceeds at a hazy pace, which is made all the more so when the couples begin smoking Trevor’s pot that Deb recently discovered. Finally, the couples play the “Anne Frank game,” where they think of people, reflect on their character, and determine whether they think that person would protect them were there another Holocaust. This leads to an epiphany ending, one that we drift away from quietly.
While I remained interested in the story the whole time, taking in the back-and-forth between the spouses and between couples, I am still not certain whether I liked the story or not. I’m not sure, for one thing, how it all adds up to the ending, which I liked but am not sure follows the story. On the other hand, the ending succeeds in making the whole story even more hazy than the pot-smoking.
I will have to think more, and, as always, will appreciate any comments you may have.
I love Christmas and the holiday season, but apparently I read very little in the way of holiday books. I was tempted to skip this “monthly” recommendation and call it good when I post my “year’s best” in a few weeks, but then I decided to go through my books and see which ones have a touch — however slight — of the holidays in them, or, at least, which lend themselves to a bit of quiet reflection as the days get shorter. I actually came up with five very easily. Though none would usually be considered a great holiday classic, they each are certainly classic in their own right.
- The Ghost Writer, by Philip Roth (original review July 4, 2008). I’ve recommended this one before and I’ll recommend it again (because I know there are many of you out there who haven’t read it yet). It’s not a holiday book, but it takes place in the Berkshires in the winter, even though most of the time we are inside a house discussing literature with a literary hero. The reason I included it here, though, is because when it is almost over, it has one of the most memorable winter morning scenes I can think of.
- The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne (original review February 20, 2009). This one can be recommended during any season — spring for when Pooh Bear disguises himself as a rain cloud or for when Owl is in danger of losing his house on the blustery day; summer for when we celebrate Eeyore’s birthday or for when we hunt Heffalumps; fall for when we leave them all behind and Pooh and Piglet go off to the sunset. For winter, we should read Chapter Three: IN WHICH Pooh and Piglet Go Hunting and Nearly Catch a Woozle.
- Ghosts, by César Aira (original review May 5, 2009). This strange book takes place on New Years Eve. A multi-storied condiminium is being framed, and, during the construction, a family of squatters resides there, along with several ghosts. If you read this week’s story in The New Yorker (my thoughts here), you know that Aira can be very strange indeed, but, as strange as this one is, it is also quite serious.
- Wait Until Spring, Bandini, by John Fante (original review January 5, 2010). One of my favorite books of the last few years, Wait Until Spring, Bandini is one of the true holiday books on this list. It doesn’t all take place around Christmas, but a memorable portion of it does, and it has the power to make us feel like we’re wearing wet wool mittens as the sun goes down.
- The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker (original review March 3, 2011). Here’s a spoiler: you’ll be seeing this one on my upcoming “year’s best” post. I loved this strange memoir where a man pushes himself out of the reach of humanity (even potentially his own) in order to track the peregrine falcons that hunted near his home in the fall and winter. It’s a beautiful nature book as well, and it certainly manages to remove the reader from society, which is one the things I like best about the holidays.