Friday, December 31, 2021

Brent's Top 11 of 2021

 Last year, I had my highest book count since 50B started, and didn't even write a year end wrap-up. As much as I've enjoyed reading these last few years, writing about it has been a challenge. And yet that's not because there's not plenty to say, or plenty to learn. As Chris mentioned in his year-end, it seems that the more I read, the more there is to read, both fiction and nonfiction. For the first time, I think, I have two nonfiction books in my top 10, and 6 are from non-American or non-white writers. And I think that's pretty cool. No way would that have happened without this project.

Honorable mentions:

On Social Justice - St. Basil the Great
In a year marked by many Christians vocally opposing CRT and economic justice, these essays outline a radically Christian approach to economics that dates  to the earliest days of the Christian church.

Queer Theology - Linn Tonstad
If economic justice dates to the earliest days of the church, the battle for full inclusion of sexual minorities is still raging in many quarters. Eschewing the discussions of whether this should be, Tonstad lays out a bold, sometimes bracing, vision of queerness in the church. I followed this up with her more in-depth God and Difference but I think this left the deeper impression.

Some Do Not - Ford Maddox Ford
This should probably be in my top 10, but with three volumes to go, it's only part of a story. But the slow-paced, realist-modernist style of SDN really worked for me--I don't recall every plot point but I can conjure the way it made me feel even now.

Treasure Island!!! - Sara Levine
The funniest book I read this year, with perhaps one exception, Levine's little novel starts out as a farce but becomes something more deep and complex without ever losing its wit, even though it gets harder to laugh.

Death in Her Hands - Ottessah Mosfegh
This strange little book starts off like a Cozy Mystery--an old woman finds a strange note, and tries, alongside her faithful dog, to solve the mystery. But as it goes on it becomes more akin to Auster's New York Trilogy, an existential mystery that may be unsolvable, or might not exist at all. Supposedly this is Mosfegh's weakest novel and if that's so I have some good stuff to look forward to.

Ok, I couldn't get this down to 10 so here's my top 11 for the year, order is mostly ceremonial until the top 3.

11. The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code - Margalit Fox
No question, this was the most fun I had reading a book this year. Nonfiction, Fox follows three codebreakers as they attempt to unravel the mystery of an ancient script over the course of 60 years. A marvel of exposition, and plenty to think about re:epistemology and perspective--I read this in a couple days and wished it was longer.

10. Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
The last book I read this year and one of the best. Wharton is a realist's realist, and every character she writes, whether they get a few lines or half the book, lives and breathes in ways most others do not. Ostensibly about adultery, it's really about the way social structures create an illusion of order and, yes, innocence that doesn't really exist, and the ways that illusion damages the people in its orbit, especially those without any real power.

9. Taking Care - Joy Williams
Joy Williams is one of our best living writers (along with Gerald Murnane and Marilynne Robinson) and this short story collection captures her uniquely madcap style in short form. Unfortunately I read this very early in the year and didn't review it, but lines and ideas from it have come to mind over and over. Read The Quick and the Dead first, but read this too.

8. Dreamer - Charles Johnson
Last year I read Johnson' Middle Passage, which was alternately horrifying, hysterical, and fantastical, but this novel, about a young man working with MLK Jr who meets and befriends Chaym Smith, MLK's strange, violent doppelganger. The premise is even more fantastical than Middle Passage, and at times it crackles with an energy akin to Ishmael Reed's racially-charged fantasias. Something about Johnson's style really gets under the skin, and he also knows how to end a book.

7. The Memory Police - Yoko Ogawa
Ogawa's bestseller about fascism and memory is like nothing else I read this year. Told in short, crystal clear vignettes, this story of a mysterious government that slowly outlaws objects and removes them so thoroughly that the populace forgets they ever existed is haunting and ambiguous in the way only the best science fiction--if this is science fiction at all--is. It hit even harder in a year where the powerful first redefine then remove books that challenge their hegemony--what better way to remove something from existence?
6. Distant View of a Minaret - Alifa Rifaat
A moving and often upsetting collection of short stories set in Egypt, these narratives, mostly about poor women dealing with abusive or uncaring men, is an indictment of patriarchy and a blazing cry for justice. Rifaat was a devout Muslim and as such her characters don't have the option to leave, or seek out sexual or emotional satisfaction elsewhere--strikingly for someone weaned on American and European literature, they never even consider this course of action--the tension between moral belief and personal happiness drives the pathos in every one of these,

5. The Story of my Teeth - Valeria Luiselli
The other contender for the funniest book I read this year, Luiselli's book is a celebration of the absurdity and beauty of a blue-collar life, exemplified by an auctioneer who specializes in selling famous teeth. It's often said that fiction captures truth better than nonfiction, and Luiselli makes a strong case that absurdity captures some truths more effectively than realism. Much like Hilary Leichter's Temporary, the absurdity here highlights the absurdity of the real world by attempting to outdo it before looking back and realizing that that isn't really possible

4. Memoirs of a Porcupine - Alain Mabanckou
Ok, this one was funny too. Something of an extended Congolese fairy tale in epistolary form (the titular porcupine is recounting his life to a baobab tree), this "memoir" tells the story of an evil animal double, the porcupine, as he serves his master Kibandi and his evil human double, who looks just like him but has no face. As Kibandi gives the porcupine more and more macabre tasks, he begins to question his mission, his life, and his eventual end. Though it's sometimes disturbing, the overarching ideas of destiny, moral choice, and the value of talking it out with a really old tree are just a pleasure to read.

3. Queering Wesley, Queering the Church - Keegan Osinzki
This is the book I recommended the most this year. Though both Tonstad books I read were very engaging and thought-provoking, as someone who grew up and was formed by Wesleyan doctrine, this was the one that hit the hardest. Osinzki's re-readings of Wesleyan doctrines, especially Christian Perfection, in ways that both integrate and validate queerness moved me to tears more than once. So many people I wish would read this book likely never will--but I'm glad I did.

2. A Strong Wind in Jamaica - Richard Hughes
Any other year this would have been number one. A completely sui generis novel, this story of a family dispossesed by a hurricane and their subsequent adventures on a pirate ship has a premise that sounds like a Disney movie but plays out like David Lynch by way of Wes Anderson. And if that sounds unbearably pretentious and twee, well, this is one of those books that a capsule can't do justice to.

1. The Radiance of the King - Camara Laye
When I finished Radiance, I knew it was going to be my #1 of the year, even though I read it very early on. It follows a British expat as he journeys through Africa, seeking audience with "the king" so he can be reunited with his countrymen. It's an uncomfortable, often hilarious indictment of colonial attitudes and narratives, dipping its toe into surreality but never quite losing the earthiness than makes it so effective. And the ending is the most moving thing I read this year somehow, a real emergent moment of stepping out of colonial darkness into the light, an indictment of Conrad and all those who followed him, a revelation of the light at the heart of Africa.

And that's it for this year. I've really enjoyed seeking out more world lit, and I can't wait to dive deeper next year,

Monday, December 27, 2021

Christopher's Top Ten 2021

I had two reading goals in 2021. One was to beat my total of 100 books read from last year, which I did by a single book. The other, which I made halfway through the year, was to seek out and "fill in" the countries from which I have never read a book. Thanks to this new resolution, I added eight new countries to my lifetime total: Mauritius, Jordan, Bosnia, Cambodia, Kenya, Uruguay, Sudan, and Togo. That means I read books from 23 countries this year, and from 55 countries in my lifetime. I'm sure this is one goal that will take a while, and I'm looking forward to doing even better next year.

I had a couple other fun small reading projects this year: in January, I focused on indigenous American and Canadian literature, a project that mostly led me to revisit some authors I've really loved, like Louise Erdrich, N. Scott Momaday, and James Welch, whose novel Winter in the Blood was one of my favorite surprises of the year. I'm already planning on doing it again--maybe this time I'll give it a snappy name like "Indijanuary." Still workshopping that. In April, I read a bunch of Australian literature, including my much-loved Patrick White, and a bunch of weird new stuff by writers like Thea Astley, Elizabeth Jolley, and Jack Cox. I don't know if I'll do that again or not, but I enjoyed taking a literary tour "down under."

One thing I've discovered is that literature really is inexhaustible. Instead of getting shorter, my to-read list seems to get longer with every new book or author. As I've pushed my yearly count up to 100 over the past few years--a feat I achieved partly by avoiding Netflix, and partly by the strange fortune of working from home during a global pandemic--the sense that I've read so little of what's out there only becomes more potent. And it also means that compiling a top ten, or even a top twenty, has become more and more difficult.

But looking over the books I read this year, it seems to me that 2021 has been as strong as any year since Brent and I started this stupid project way back in the flip-phone era. 2022 comes with a clean slate, and I can't wait to get started again.

Happy new year!


Books read: 101
Men: 48
Women: 53
Non-fiction: 12
Short story collections: 4
Countries: 23, 8 of which were new

Honorable Mentions 2021:

The Last Brother by Nathacha Appanah
The Netanyahus by Joshua Cohen
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
The Dwarf by Par Lagerkvist
No One is Talking About This by Patricia Lockwood
Who Will Run the Frog Hospital? by Lorrie Moore
Stream System by Gerald Murnane
A Grain of Wheat by Ngugi wa Thiong'o
Season of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Blindness by Jose Saramago

Top Ten 2021:

10. Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez - It's pretty rare for me to put a non-fiction book in my top ten, but that's how much Barry Lopez's book about the Arctic resonated with me. There's probably no one else in the world who could write about the Arctic like Lopez did, drawing on his experience both as an Arctic researcher and a fiction writer. The result is a book that is both sensitive about the ways in which the Arctic is unique--its strange ways of reckoning time, the small but tightly-knit lives of its people and animals--but also richly observed and written. Arctic Dreams is a book about how people imagine the Arctic, and why they are drawn to it, but Lopez's vivid landscapes serve to reproduce that feeling of fascination in the mind of the reader as well.

9. The Old Man and Me by Elaine Dundy - I sort of avoided reading this book because I assumed that Elaine Dundy's The Dud Avocado was lightning in a bottle: a book whose voice was so pitch-perfect it couldn't be replicated. The Old Man and Me isn't The Dud Avocado; its protagonist is calculating and clever, rather than an ingenue, but the qualities that made that other book so great are also here. It's a testament to Dundy's skill that the protagonist, "Honey Flood"--a fake name--is so sympathetic even though she comes awfully close to seducing, then killing, the aged writer she believes has made away with her inheritance. That it manages to have a sweet and satisfying resolution is perhaps even more amazing.

8. The Corner That Held Them by Sylvia Townsend Warner - Of all the novels I read about nuns this year--yes, there were three--this one is far and away the best. Religious principles like avocation, chastity, and divine mystery are all sort of sidelined by Townsend Warner's novel about a century in the life of a single convent in the British countryside in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Corner That Held Them is about economics and its consequences. Divine inspiration can wait; the convent must extract its tithes, pay its bills, get the spire built, and keep the lights on. Even nuns have bureaucracy, as evidenced by the novel's enormous cast, who drift in an out of the life of the convent over its entire course. Townsend Warner's vision of religious life is essentially Marxist; though many of the nuns feel called, time and again, to serve in more meaningful ways, the life of the convent itself can only be explained economically.

7. The Stories of Breece D'J Pancake by Breece D'J Pancake - "I like to hold little stones that lived so long ago," says the narrator of Pancake's story "Trilobites," about the title fossils. One of the best sentences I've read this year. It speaks to the soul of the stories of Pancake, a native West Virginian whose entire literary output, before his suicide, is collected in this book. They are clear-eyed about the sourness of poverty and ecological destruction that have defined life in West Virginia for a better part of the century, but they know these things must be balanced against the deep roots of West Virginians, and the long brave lives of their communities. These stories are enigmatic and subtle, and like coal, much of what makes them so valuable lies a little beneath the surface. I'm glad I was able to read these stories while in West Virginia. Few stylists match their environment so well.

6. Winter in the Blood by James Welch - "I was as distant from myself as a hawk from the moon," writes the narrator of Welch's novel about a Blackfoot man bumming around the towns in and outside the reservation in Montana. I was surprised by how different this novel was from the historical fiction of Welch's Fools Crow; what Winter in the Blood reminded me of most was the transcendental aimlessness of Denis Johnson's angelic junkies. What amazed me most about the novel, I think, is that it shares a general outlook with some of the most classic 20th century Native American novels, like Ceremony and House Made of Dawn, the belief that returning to, and reconciling with, indigenous communities can serve as an antidote to the destabilizing effects of modernity, but in a style that avoids some of the sentimentality and cant that such a belief can attract.

5. The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli - One thing I don't think I fully appreciated before reading widely is how many different kinds of absurdism there are. I've certainly never read a book like The Story of My Teeth, about a Mexican auctioneer named Highway. Highway thinks of auctioneering as a kind of storytelling, in which the orbit of the story around truth might get more and more oblique (see the conic sections that provide the chapters with titles). The Story of My Teeth, too, is a novel with a strangely elliptic relationship to the truth: it's written about, and with the collaboration of, workers at a juice factory in suburban Mexico City. The result is a novel that, in perhaps the realest way, shows tremendous respect and regard for working-class people. It's hard to think of a finer expression of the belief that literature is for all people than this strange and silly book.

4. The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson - Denis Johnson once told his editor, "I’m not trying to be Graham Greene. I think I actually am Graham Greene." Once you see the connection, it's hard to miss it in Johnson's The Laughing Monsters, which is his The Heart of the Matter, a book about a cynical and sour old Western spy up to nasty tricks in colonized Africa. Like Tree of Smoke, The Laughing Monsters reveals the hollowness at the heart of geopolitics and espionage, depicting it as a world of loyalties that shift so constantly they can barely be said to exist at all, and one in which national interests and personal interests get so muddled up they collide and evaporate like antiparticles. The Congolese (or possibly Ugandan?) spy Michael Adriko is one of Johnson's great characters, a seductive charmer who suckers his old friend into explosive and violent situations.

3. Harrow by Joy Williams - More like Despair Williams, am I right? Harrow is, perhaps, the first great climate change novel, because Williams understands that the epochal change the climate crisis will bring demands new forms. To describe the novel is already to describe something feverish and bizarre: a young woman, once believed by her mother to have returned from the dead, takes shelter with a group of elderly eco-terrorists in a crumbling motel. The final section of the novel is narrated by a 12-year old judge. And yet, that description fails to capture how exceedingly strange the novel is. It operates on a new and unfamiliar logic, as one suspects the world to come might also operate. The vision of the future it provides isn't pretty: a world bereft of animals, "mangled into chalk," in which human beings have decided not to change their ways but to become increasingly resentful of the natural world. What Williams understands is that the most frightening thing about climate change is not the end of the world, but that it will go on.

2. The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann - Vollmann's book about the Nez Perce War of the late 19th century is the fifth in his seven-book series about conflict between European settlers and Native Americans. (Sometimes I feel about these books like others do about George R. R. Martin: I hope he hurries up and finishes them before some terrible misfortune. In Vollmann's case, maybe death by carpal tunnel.) It's maybe not the best (I really love The Rifles) but it's close, and it's the biggest, seven hundred pages and hundreds of characters: All War, no Peace. I loved Vollmann's sensitive and thoughtful portrayals of both "Uh Oh" Howard, the pious but misguided general who pursued the Nez Perce all over the west, and Chief Joseph, the generous and little-respected man white Americans mistakenly believed to be the Nez Perce's leader. In some way, The Dying Grass is as much a novel about a doomed world as Harrow; the Nez Perce, despite their brilliant retreat, never believe they will see their homelands again, and they fight bitterly about how to go on when all is already lost. The strange poem- or code-like form of the novel is brilliant, but never ostentatious, and allows Vollmann to use an even wider lens than usual.

1. The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante - OK, there's something about this choice that's a little like The Two Towers winning the Oscar: does it deserve it on its own merits, or is the award meant to honor the achievement of the whole series? Truthfully, the "Neapolitan" novels are a remarkable achievement when taken as a whole. What amazes me about them is how faithfully render each individual character, and then those characters, as real human beings do, keep surprising us. There is something in them that replicates the way in which we are always learning more about other people, and somehow the ways they surprise us turn out to show their character best of all. It has become trendy recently to say that the novels are social realism in the Tolstoy or Dickens mode (I have said this myself), and that's true, but I think it's possible to let the pendulum swing too far: as novels of intense individual-level psychological study, they are unparalleled. But The Story of the Lost Child deserves the #1 slot in its own right because, like the characters themselves, it has plenty of surprises. The way the Solara mafioso plotline is unceremoniously shuffled out of the novel's interest is startlingly brave, and the way the entire series is upended by a single terrible moment--alluded to in the title--is like nothing I've ever read. It's just a masterpiece. It's the best book I read this year.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

An African in Greenland by Tete-Michel Kpomassie

As soon as they saw me, all talking stopped. So intense was the silence, you could have heard a gnat in flight. Then they started to smile again, the women with slightly lowered eyes. When I was standing before them on the wharf, they all raised their heads to look me full in the face. Some children clung to their mothers' coats, and others began to scream with fright or to weep. Others spoke the names of Toornaarsuk and Qvivttoq, spirits who live in the mountains... That's what I was for those children, and not an Inuk like themselves. Like children the world over, they spontaneously spoke their minds about me. Unfortunately, I can't say the same for the adults. Proud and secretive, they masked their feelings behind an unchanging smile, mild but enigmatic. Not one of them corrected the children, yet the mothers' calm gave some of the children confidence, and, as they saw me approaching, they too tried to smile--a hesitant, not very assuring smile.

When he was a child, Tete-Michel Kpomassie found a book about the Inuit of Greenland in his village in Togo. He was captivated by the vision of a cold world, one where children are respected and treasured, and no trees to hide in, indeed, no snakes. Having fallen out of a tree after an encounter with a deadly snake, Kpomassie's father promised him to the service of the mysterious python cult, in return for saving his life. As Kpomassie describes it in his memoir of his adventures getting to and traveling in Greenland, the Arctic was a way out of the strict Togolese hierarchies which left him out of control of his own life. Perhaps these rationales exist partly in hindsight--"Do people ever know their true reason for embarking on a long journey?" he asks--but for whatever reason, young Michel is determined: it takes him years, traveling up through West Africa to Europe, taking small jobs, through France and Denmark, until finally he makes the sailing to Greenland with nearly empty pockets.

The indigenous Greenlanders Kpomassie describes are taken aback by his height and appearance--there is some suggestion that he is the first African ever to revisit the remote and lightly populated island--but also welcoming. In every village, Kpomassie is put up by locals, who welcome him into their home, as seems to be the custom. In some cases, they welcome him into their beds, too: Kpomassie is repeatedly floored by the sexual openness of girls and women in Greenland, who seem to treat intimacy in startlingly casual ways. He makes the mistake early on, in southern Greenland, of assuming a relationship he has struck up with a Greenlandic girl is exclusive, and makes a fool of himself by showing jealousy. Even other men's wives offer themselves to him: later, in the even more remote north of Greenland, he watches a strange ceremony where men trade wives ceremonially, and comes to understand this is a method by which inter-family relationships cement themselves. If one man were to die out on the ice, there would be a family for his widow to join ready-made.

Over the course of two years, Kpomassie pushes northward, searching for a more and more remote version of the Greenland he dreamed about in Togo, one with fewer cinemas and blue jeans, more kayaks, anoraks, and seal hunts. As he travels, he sees the darker sides of Greenlandic life: the collapse of traditional life, accelerated by the Danish authorities' termination of small villages and pushing people into the capital at Nuuk (here called Godthab), the poverty and heavy drinking. Autumn, as he describes it, is the worst time to be a Greenlander, when a malaise sets in as the sun begins to vanish--far worse than the winter, when it actually never appears--and the listless state of the sea, which is too icy to be navigated by boat but which hasn't frozen over for dogsled travel. It's in the North that Kpomassie meets the first Greenlander, a powerful and petty village head, who calls him the n-word.

But Kpomassie keeps pushing on, and much of the memoir's charm emerges from his good humor and insatiable desire to make the country his own. He learns Greenlandic; he learns to drive a dogsled; he learns even to love the taste of frozen seal meat. He wants to push onto Thule, the northernmost town on the island, but sea ice keeps him stranded in Upernavik, many miles to the south (though still really, really far up). There he finds a makeshift home with an old man named Robert Mattaaq, who lives with his family in a traditional turf house whose walls are lined with magazine articles, which the well-read Mattaaq calls his "library." It's here, at the end of Kpomassie's journey, that he finds the closest thing to what he has been searching for: a family in a remote place, living according to traditions as old as--but very different from--those of the Togolese, and whose kindness and openness are as fundamental to their survival in this harsh place as their know-how. When at last he returns to Togo, he says that it is to become a "storyteller," who can share the story of people like Robert Mattaaq and the Greenlanders with those in Africa.

Considering this a book from Togo--not Greenland--An African in Greenland represents the 55th country I've read a book from. Cool!

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Second Place by Rachel Cusk

Unless we give back to life as much as we take from it, this faculty will fail us sooner or later. My difficulty, I saw then, had always lain in finding a way to give back all the impressions I had received, to render an account to a god who had never come and never come, despite my desire to surrender everything that was stored inside me. Yet even so my receptive faculty had not, for some reason, failed me: I had remained a devourer while yearning to become a creator, and I saw that I had summoned L across the continents intuitively believing that he could perform that transformative function for me, could release me into creative action. Well, he had obeyed, and apparently nothing significant had come of it, beyond the momentary flashes of insight between us that had been interspersed by so many hours of frustration and blankness and pain.

A woman, who identifies herself only as M, writers a letter to a friend about whom we only know their name, Jeffers. She wants to give an account of a time when she invited a famous artist, identified only as L, to the guest house at her home, which lies on the edge of a great marsh at a distance from civilization. It is this house she calls "the second place," as in the second place on the lot owned by her husband, Tony, but the meaning of the title also takes in her own impression of her place in the universe, subordinated to her family, without creative capacity, condemned to be one of the playgoers, rather than the actors, on the stage of life. She and Tony have offered the second place up to many writers and artists over the years, but none excites her as much as L, whose dark figurative work once seemed to speak to her with an almost supernatural voice.

L's arrival, as anyone might guess, fails to fulfill her expectations. He's alternately captivating and cruel, and he has brought along a young and uninvited girlfriend named Brett. He oversteps his bounds at the second place, almost colonizing it, painting over the walls with a tremendous mural and ripping out the curtains. He asks Tony to sit for him, as well as M's daughter Justine and her boyfriend Kurt, but not M, though what she longs for is to be seen through his eyes--or, perhaps more accurately, for him to see what she sees through his own eyes, to put the marsh and its environs on paper and thus provide for her that creative capacity she has always longed for by proxy. I wasn't half as interested in L's bad manners until I saw, by accident, the note at the back of the book that says it's based on the visit that D. H. Lawrence made to Mabel Dodge Luhan's house in Taos; once I knew it I could see just how someone as enigmatic and gifted as Lawrence might take over one's home by the right of vision. L refuses to paint her, but he does vow--as M hears through the grapevine--to destroy her.

I have read and enjoyed the first two books in Rachel Cusk's Outline series, which I enjoyed very much. Their intricate forays into the psychological and existential states of the protagonist fit quite neatly with their peripatetic style; because the novels seem to have nowhere particularly to go, there's nothing wrong with luxuriously filling up the space with such stuff. But in a more conventional novel--by which I mean Second Place is obviously concerned with a specific and time-bound moment and animated by a specific literary conflict--Cusk's style can seem like treading water. Quite frankly I found a lot of the complexities here a little obscure, when compared to Outline.

Still, at the heart of Second Place is a beguiling reflection on the relationship between identity and creation. "My suspicion," M writes, "was that the artist's soul -- or the part of his soul in which he is an artist -- has to be entirely amoral and free of personal bias." Art, as she describes it, is a kind of self-abnegation; perhaps this is why she believes that L will be able to put her being into his art when he can barely take care of himself. Perhaps she could never be an artist herself because her want to find herself is so strong. Or perhaps creativity is a paradox: it builds us up while at the same time destroying us. "I wanted to be destroyed," she says of L's scheming, but perhaps dreaming of the possibility that such destruction precedes the building-up of a better life and a better self.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Arctic Dreams by Barry Lopez

It is as though the land slowly works its way into the man and by virtue of its character eclipses these motives. The land becomes large, alive like an animal; it humbles him in a way he cannot pronounce. It is not that the land is simply beautiful but that it is powerful. Its power derives from the tension between its obvious beauty and its capacity to take life. Its power flows into the mind from a realization of how darkness and light are bound together within it, and the feeling that this is the floor of creation.

One of the coolest places I have ever been is called Burnt Cape on the island of Newfoundland. It is a high hump of grey gravel and white cliffs, dotted with little orange flowers that grow close to the ground to protect themselves from cold temperatures and high winds; they grow nowhere else in the world. Burnt Cape is described as a piece of the Arctic emerging fifteen degrees of latitude below the arctic circle; there are signs that warn travelers that, in rare circumstances, polar bears travel here on spring ice floes. It's a tiny spot, relative to the real Arctic, but it impressed upon me how so stark and enigmatic a landscape can capture the imagination, and become the stuff of dreams.

Barry Lopez's book Arctic Dreams is about the Arctic landscape as it is, and how it is imagined. Lopez, whose extensive experiences with Arctic researchers from Baffin Bay in Alaska to the eastern reaches of Greenland shows through impressively, begins his book with chapters on the region's animal life: the musk ox, the polar bear, the narwhal. Though we have only lately come to pay close attention to these animals through scientific research, Lopez argues, we still know very little about them, and they continue to surprise us. Is it true, as the indigenous people of the Arctic claim, that you should leap from a polar bear's attack to its left, because they are all left-pawed? From there, Lopez moves onto chapters about ice and the landscape, and only at the end of the book, to people: the indigenous people who have lived there for millennia, and the latecomer Europeans who let their dreams run away them and largely shipwrecked into disaster. That's the way it should be, it seems--the people last, and the Europeans last of all.

A relatively educated contemporary reader might cringe at Lopez's use of the word "Eskimo," which is largely thought of these days as a slur (see the CFL team's recent name change to the Edmonton Elk). But that might obscure the tremendous sensitivity Lopez has toward the indigenous people of the Arctic, whose long tenure on the land has produced a knowledge of it that no European can reproduce. He makes a really simple, but somehow not obvious, point about about the difference between Western science and indigenous knowledge: Western science, with its emphasis on controlled experimentation, simply cannot reproduce the number of hours of observation that indigenous communities have devoted to the land in which they live. He gives a remarkably sober and thoughtful treatment of the various benefits and drawbacks of the two kinds of thinking, explaining, for instance, how Western science is better equipped to describe the migrations and entire life cycles of Arctic animals, whom the Inuit or Yupik only encounter during certain seasons. But compare this to the map drawn, by memory, of Cumberland Sound, by an indigenous man, with its many hundreds of tiny inlets.

The first Arctic explorers, Lopez describes, paid insufficient attention to the indigenous people of the Arctic, as they paid insufficient attention to the land itself. The doomed James Franklin of the HMS Terror might have wondered, for instance, why the Inuit are nomadic, or why they travel in small groups, when loading up his ship with hundreds of men and planning to overwinter in the Arctic when trapped in ice. The Arctic has always been a place of men's dreams, Lopez describes, and those who have lived there the best are those who are patient and observant enough to dare the impossible task of taking it on its own terms.

I don't read a lot of non-fiction, so the sample size is small, but I think Arctic Dreams may be the best nature book I've ever read. Lopez certainly has a fiction writer's knack for description, and has a way of making the Arctic landscape, which seems to so many alienating and monotonous, come alive with color and light. He faithfully describes how "the winter face of a muskox, its unperturbed eye glistening in a halo of snow-encrusted hair, looks at you over a cataract of time, an image that has endured all the pulsations of ice," and how "at certain hours the land has the resolution of a polished diamond." I'm reminded of the tremendous descriptions in William Vollmann's The Rifles, but even then I'd have to admit that Lopez's Arctic makes Vollmann's seem drab and bereft.

Arctic Dreams was published in 1986; it sadly has the doomed quality of a letter written by someone who doesn't know it's their last. In the era of climate change, it can seem both incredibly prescient and bleakly quaint. Of all the breathtaking descriptions of stalking polar bears and immense ice fields, it is sobering to think that perhaps the description that has changed the least is that of the dreary corporate wasteland that is Alaska's Prudhoe Bay complex, a place where lonely men come to suck oil out of the sea and try very hard not to look around while they do it. Books like Arctic Dreams are a reminder of what happens to the land, and to us, when we fail to look closely at it.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Wife by Sigrid Undset

It was true that all this time she had remembered, year after year, every wound he had ever caused her--even though she had always known that he never wounded her the way a grown person intends harm to another, but rather the way a child strikes out playfully at his companion. Each time he offended her, she had tended to the memory the way one tends to a venomous sore. And with each humiliation he brought upon himself by acting on any impulse he might have--it struck her like the lash of a whip against her flesh, causing a suppurating wound. It wasn't true that she willfully or deliberately harbored ill feelings toward her husband; she knew she wasn't usually narrow-minded, but with him she was. If Erlend had a hand in it, she forgot nothing--and even the smallest scratch on her soul would continue to sting and bleed and swell and ache if he was the one to cause it.

About him she would never be wiser or stronger. She might strive to seem capable and earless, pious and strong in her marriage with him--but in truth, she wasn't. Always, always there was the yearning lament inside her: She wanted to be his Kristin from the wood of Gerdarud.

Hello again, Kristin old friend. For five years now it has been my December tradition to read (or re-read) one of the three novels from Sigrid Undset's Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy; this time I re-read the middle of the three novels, The Wife, in the newish translation by Tiina Nunnally. What makes The Wife so interesting is that it flies in the face of our traditional frameworks of rebellious love: The Wreath, like every book or film where a woman and a man come together in defiance of their parents and society, ends with the couple together at last, the essential conflict having been resolved. But The Wife asks, what will life actually be like for this couple? After the wedding over, and the hard work of loving and living begins?

Kristin and Erlend have carved out a difficult life for themselves: Kristin discovers that her husband Erlend has been a negligent steward of his great house, Husaby--a negligence that is inextricable from the dissolution and recklessness that made him such a poor match for her in the first place--and sets to whipping it into shape. In the world of medieval Norway, this means not just washing out the great hall and replacing the moldy hay, but extracting fair payments from the various smallholders who live on Erlend's lands. At the same time, Kristin becomes a mother, having seven sons (!!) in rapid succession. Her relationship with Erlend goes through periods of intense passion and intense enmity, not merely because of the deficiencies of his character, but because she--sin-obsessed and unable to expiate her own guilt--will not let him forget them.

While the newer translation is much more engaging and readable, it confirmed my suspicion that The Wife is the weakest of the three novels. My hope that the new translation would make the political machinations that Erlend gets mixed up in clearer was sadly dashed. Erlend spends much of The Wife at the height of his social and political life; acting as sheriff (whatever that entails) in the far north of Norway, but at the same time spearheading some kind of plan to remove the Norwegian king, who is also the Swedish king, from the throne. I couldn't really understand any of it. But I did understand that Erlend's recklessness nearly gets him put to death, and drives the broken couple back together when they are faced with the possibility of Erlend's execution.

One unsatisfying thing about The Wife is that Kristin herself is pretty annoying throughout. Erlend is right: she really can't let things go, and she's constantly throwing their transgressions back in his face. Kristin worries constantly about the consequences of her sin, fearing that her children were turn out to be armless, legless monsters. The truest moment, perhaps, in the book is when Erlend's monk brother Gunnulf reminds her that it is a kind of pride to assume that one's sins are so powerful that God's mercy cannot absolve them.

But Kristin's unsympathetic nature in The Wife leaves room for other characters, including Erlend, whose character is deepened and amplified, and especially Simon, Kristin's former betrothed who ends up marrying her sister, Ramborg, and who spends the latter third of the novel working desperately on Kristin's behalf to have Erlend freed. The best--and most frustrating--moment of the whole novel comes at the very end when, having succeeded in convincing the king to release him, Erlend makes an off-color joke about Simon marrying Kristin after his execution. Simon storms out, despite Erlend's pleas: the experience of being imprisoned and nearly executed may have chastened and aged Erlend, but it cannot change his essnetial nature

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Lightning Bug by Donald Harington

Now in her nakedness she stepped through the thicket and slipped into Swains Creek and lay down in the shallow water, and cooled. She loved her body; that was her one certainty; not the sight of it, nor even the feel of it, but the it of it, the itness of it, that it was there, that it was hers, that it could feel something like cool creek water swarming around it and washing the sweat from it, that it could sweat, that it could be cleansed, that it could tingle. I am a jar of skin, a bottle of flesh, a container. All the things I contain...

Latha Bourne is the postmaster of the tiny town of Stay More, Arkansas, nestled in a hollow in the Ozarks. She is forty and still beautiful, having rejected half a dozen suitors--no mean number in Stay More--content, more or less, to live a quiet life, enlivened somewhat by the visit of her niece Sonora and the adoration of a young town boy named Donny. But her lust--the "for life" kind and the regular kind--is awakened when Every Dill, who was in love with her as a child, returns as a traveling preacher. They rekindle their affection for each other, but they find it difficult to come to an agreement about marriage: he won't have sex with her until they're married, and she won't marry him unless they first have sex.

Reading about Harington's work, I saw the words experimental and absurdist come up again and again, and the most successful and engaging elements of Lightning Bug fit this description, especially as soon through the eyes of the sometime narrator, Donny. Donny calls Latha a "lightning bug" because she, like the females of the bug species, flash their attractive lights in a specific rhythm that calls the right kind of male bug to them--a symbol for seductiveness: "The lightning bug, or firefly, is neither a bug nor a fly, but a beetle. I like bug because it has a cozy sound, a hugging sound, a snug sound, it fits her, my Bug." Within the more experimental frame there is another kind of novel, influenced by Eudora Welty and Erskine Caldwell and, maybe, Li'l Abner: a hillbilly comedy that never quite manages to be funny or charming enough.

Ultimately, Lightning Bug is about sex and sexuality; it paints Latha as a woman driven nearly mad by a lust that Every must be persuaded to quench. It has a particular late-60's attitude toward sex as ennobling and the body as the essential site of human experience, of bodiliness as a virtue. But it has a late-60's attitude toward bodily consent as well: Every, we are told, tied Latha up and raped her before running off those many years ago. It's hard to forgive Lightning Bug this detail, which never seems to be taken quite seriously enough, and which Harington seems to want to depict as a symptom of the kind of passionate hysteria that Every should embrace, rather than reject. Much of what I read depicted Harington as a great and underappreciated novelist, waiting to be rediscovered, and to be fair, I chose his first book rather than his most loved or most well-known. Still, it's hard to imagine modern audiences rediscovering a book that deals with rape so nonchalantly.

Monday, December 6, 2021

Agatha of Little Neon by Claire Luchette

The four of us were born in different months of the same year, each of us twenty when we became novitiates, twenty-two when we made our vows. We were twenty-nine when we moved from Lackawanna, just south of Buffalo, to Woonsocket. Back then, our chins were bald, our minds sharp. Our faith was firm and founded. We were fixed to one another, like parts of some strange, asymmetrical body: Frances was the mouth; Mary Lucille, the heart; Therese, the legs. And I, Agatha, the eyes.

There were a lot of parts missing, I suppose. But for a while we didn't realize it. For a while it seemed like enough.

Agatha is one of four Catholic sisters who are called to Woonsocket, a struggling industrial town in the clogged northeastern corner of Rhode Island, to live at a halfway house. The house is called Little Neon for its bright green color, and it houses addicts and the needy: Baby, Pete, Horse, Lawnmower Jill, who rides a lawnmower around because she lost her license, and perhaps most notably, Tim Gary, from whom cancer took half a jaw. Though Agatha is quieter and more reserved than her sisters, she's excited to start this new chapter of her religious life--see how she dreams of one day growing chin hairs of her own, like the beloved Mother Superior she and the others leave behind in Buffalo--but the experience at Little Neon threatens to challenge her more than the other three.

It begins when Agatha is asked by the diocese to fill in as a geometry teacher at the local Catholic high school. She is peeled away from Frances, Mary Lucille, Therese, who spend their days planning Bible Studies and rummage sales. At school she struggles with a characteristically understated attraction to Nadia, a biology teacher, and watches a young and troubled lesbian student with motherly anxiety. The harsh disciplinary atmosphere of the school, combined with the house's cascading failures to help its several charges, challenge Agatha's commitment and lead her away from her longed-for future, her many-haired chin.

Agatha of Little Neon is the third book I have read this year about nuns--though, as Agatha chides, I should say, "sisters religious," because they are not cloistered away in a monastery like true nuns--and, with The Corner That Held Them and Mariette in Ecstasy, it forms a really fascinating trilogy. Like those novels, it concerns itself with the nature of a community of women, but Agatha's anxiety to do good in the world updates and revises those novels. The Corner That Held Them is a kitchen-cabinet book and Mariette a book about religious ecstasy, but Agatha of Little Neon is a book about disenchantment: not the loss of faith, necessarily, but the loss of religious vocation. It is about, among other things, the failure of old models of religious life to deal with the most desperate needs of 21st century people.

There is a pointed MFA quality about this debut novel: the short chapters, each of which is fairly contained and luminous, as well as, one gets the impression, meticulously workshopped. Minor characters--especially the not-stoic-enough Tim Gary--capture all the attention while Agatha sits back, a pair of "eyes" only. This can be frustrating, but it gives the book a quiet power, also, as if it is centered not on an ecstatic saint, like Mariette, but one of the background sisters who only want to make a good living in a world that loves mystics but overlook saints.