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Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

May

Dreamers: When The Writers Took Power Germany, 1918 by Volker Weidermann translated from the German by Ruth Martin c2017 Pushkin Press edition 2018
a vivid recreation of the collision of political dreams and idealism with the desperate realities of Germany in the first months after defeat

The Inugami Curse by YOKOMIZO Seishi translated from the Japanese by YAMAZAKI Yumiko c1972 Pushkin Press edition 2020
very enjoyable, satisfyingly intricate murder mystery

Journey By Moonlight by Antal Szerb translated from the Hungarian by Len Rix c1937 Pushkin Press edition 2001 (NYRB)
a wonderful novel; ruthlessly honest, tenderly ironic observation of a man on an improbable journey to recover/understand his youth and to escape his conventional life

Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun by Nicholas Everitt and Ernest Ivens Watson 6th edition c1927 Gilbertson & Page
a tour through English Game Laws with anecdote and illustration; just as incomprehensible but more entertaining than one would expect

Books, a memoir by Larry McMurtry c2008 Simon and Schuster
agreeable shoptalk of a life in the book trade

April

Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin translated from the German by Michael Hofmann c1929 New York Review Books edition 2018
an extraordinary feat of translation; a novel that immerses the reader in lower class Berlin in a torrent of images, politics, scenes, sounds, facts, characters, literary set pieces, and more until the reader feels like she is careening through a whitewater rapids of words with only the hapless one-armed Franz Biberkopf to steer as they race to the waterfall’s edge….

Master Of The Day Of Judgment by Leo Perutz translated from the German by Eric Mosbacher c1975 Pushkin Vertigo edition 2015
great atmosphere and suspense in old Vienna, clever twist

The Buffalo People, Pre-contact Archaeology on the Canadian Plains by Liz Bryan c2005 Heritage House Publishing
very well written survey of a century of archaeology, current historical understanding of the artifacts and sites, what’s known and what’s argued about

Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco translated from the Spanish by Lucy Greaves c1955 Pushkin Press edition 2016
many layers of lies and deceptions in this satisfying mystery story
Doubts make nasty enemies

The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis translated from the Italian by Jill Foulston c1935 Pushkin Vertigo edition 2016
the appealing Inspector De Vincenzi solves his first (of 20!) case

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the book as keepsake and souvenir: Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun

Among the many reasons I have too many books in my home, one of the most difficult to resist is sentimental attachment. I have practiced a fairly ruthless approach to the memorabilia issue, what might be called the detritus of a life. Precious little of it remains, making what does, perhaps, more precious than any evident value. And books, for me certainly, are among the most potent carriers of meaning and connections. Beyond its intrinsic merit, a book can also serve as a tangible link to a special person, a connection to the past, or a prompt for treasured memories.

I think a well-worn copy of Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is the only relic of my early school years. Holding it, seeing my name so carefully printed on the endpaper, I feel like laughing again with that lively family and at the memories conjured of my own family growing up.

I like receiving books as gifts but am wary of the danger of conflating gift with giver. I also like to give books, but almost never write an inscription. No pressure, you’re free to pass it on as you like. A written name works a kind of binding magic on me. One day while sorting books for the library book sale I opened an old dictionary to see my husband’s name and college address. It was an artifact of a time before I knew him, finding me somehow forty years later. Of course I brought it home.

My husband and I buy lots of books when we travel, only a few of which, museum guides for instance, might be classified as trip souvenirs. Many will prompt memories of a trip, of course, but that is an incidental function. Possibly only one time did I buy a pretty random book just to have a keepsake. The purity of its purpose can be seen in that I only got around to reading it this month, 17 years later, when a memory of carefree travel seemed especially desirable.

So, my daughter and I were walking across England – I love saying that, and it was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done – when our knees demanded a rest day. We took a tiny bus, slowly, sharing the road with many sheep, into the town of Shap where we spent a delightful day. We watched lawn bowling, walked to some ruins, ate Stilton with apricots (who knew it came in anything but blue?), and found a used bookshop. The shop keeper seemed very dubious about two Americans in boots and packs, and was rather short with my query for “something about sheep”. Undeterred, I browsed until I found something that looked rather jolly.

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I was looking at a book about English Game Laws, popular enough to have gone to a 6th edition in 1927. The author’s preface was highly humorous and many charming pen and ink cartoon sketches enlivened the text. No sheep, alas, but stories of real life in English countryside seemed a good alternative. I paid a few pounds, tucked it into my pack, and eventually carried it across the ocean to sit until whim should call for it.

So there it was, waiting for this right moment when I really wanted something that would take me traveling again if only in memories. And it turned out to be an interesting and rather entertaining account of a slice of English life and law. The author has a sharp wit and flair for anecdotes. The drawings are a welcome leaven to the mind-boggling intricacies of the laws and their application. The layers of laws, rights, and customs and the contradictions implicit and in practice are beyond the explication of even so skillfully plain a stylist as our author.

Really, although entertained, I felt quite baffled and concluded this was definitely more than I wanted to know about when and when not one may within the law shoot a particular animal/bird, or the circumstances when it is acceptable or prohibited to carry same away. My confusion seemed generally shared among the characters populating the stories of poachers, tenants, and feuding neighbors who seek counsel from Mr. Six-and-Eight in his chambers. At least, much work is made for lawyers and much talk for the pub. As learned counsel has it, “Nothing is certain in law except the expense.”

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secrets will out

(After midnight an old classmate drops in on Inspector De Vincenzi at the police station.)

De Vincenzi looked at him. Why in the world was he here at this hour? And why had he come?

They had been classmates and friends. They were certainly friendly, but not, perhaps, close. Come to think of it, where could one find closeness these days, with men all hurling themselves towards their own destinies, with their own passions, their own needs and all the vices of the human body?

Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.

from The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

World Book Day

It’s good to have a day for all booklovers to celebrate together. And there’s something particularly comforting in the act of reading right now. There’s the comfort of familiar loved stories, the pleasurable distraction of new ones, and the comfort of the familiar tactile and sensory pleasures of reading.

Wallace Stevens captures the immersive experience in the poem The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

UNESCO actually names this “World Book and Copyright Day”. In respect of same, I will not copy the entire poem. It is available on the Poetry Foundation website:
read the entire poem here

tension rising in Death Going Down

Gaby heard the click of the receiver being replaced on the stand, then she moved away silently. Once she was in her bedroom and had got into bed, she took a packet of cigarettes from the drawer in her bedside table. Long hours unfurled ahead of her like an image multiplied in a house of mirrors. She smoked with relish, tricking her wakeful anxiety with the calm appearance of her gestures, her gaze lost in the whitish smoke that slowly dissipated in the darkness of the room.

from Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco
translation by Lucy Greaves

Dogs and Bones

The dog that trots around finds the bone.

I love this proverb which I just heard for the first time in a Japanese mystery The Honjin Murders by Yokomizo. It’s also attributed to gypsies and must have been a favorite of Golda Meir, as it is often credited to her.

I feel the good humored encouragement to get up and do something, no need for a grand plan. Being active, following whim and curiosity may well lead to happy surprises and discoveries.

I didn’t see myself in the busy dog at first, but it occurs to me that my reading habits could be described as “trotting around”. I move through the world of books, across centuries and cultures with minimal direction, guided largely by serendipity (thank you Three Princes of Serendip).

I’m going to keep reminding myself to be more curious and venturesome in other ways as well. Who knows what other bones I might find?

The image of a curious dog brought a particular literary favorite irresistibly to mind. The inimitable Hank the Cowdog has many adventures on his ranch, as described by author John Erickson in a really delightful series of books. Hank is an up-to-date dog, too; check out his website hankthecowdog.com. Just thinking about Hank puts a big grin on my face!

…time has solidified

It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and knowing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front…so as not to let the dying man feel that he has been abandoned. Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice.

Khaled Khalifa from Death is Hard Work