Two Shy of a Baker’s Dozen
Eleven books. That’s how many I’m reviewing for this chronicle, and they shingle the bed beside me as I type this. A much taller stack of discards rests on a table nearby, a few with famous names on their spines. Others that didn’t measure up were abandoned on trains and planes or left in lodgings in New York, London, and northern England. For me, summer reading aligns with summer vacation. What felt like work got tossed, and what remains reminds me of long days near deep lakes, summer nights in teeming cities, cups of tea with biscuits and books, water bottles with books and boulders, fells and sheep. In my life outside of books, I worry about war and refugees, contagion and climate, and, closer to home, deaths of friends, divorces, depression. The books reviewed here diverted me, enhanced my travels, and shaped my summer thoughts.
The first short story collection I read for this chronicle originated in another era, long before the pandemic: Hilary Mantel’s Learning to Talk originally came out in England in 2003. Doubtless her fame since Wolf Hall made someone in the publishing world realize this collection would be a hit in America, where it had never appeared. Mantel’s preface is dated December 2020, so probably Covid delayed things another year and a half, but in June, the collection arrived, and all the pleasure of Mantel’s prose arrived with it. Some of these “stories” are obviously factual and recognizable from her memoir Giving Up the Ghost, but Mantel knows readers crave her fiction and opines accordingly, “I would not describe these stories as autobiographical, more as autoscopic,” meaning, the elevated perspective achieved by age, wisdom, and polished wordcraft. But fiction or non-, “All the tales arose out of questions I asked myself about my early years.” Mantel’s young characters endure broken families, poverty, religious discrimination, and the curse of their own intelligence. These children don’t yet know what they eventually will and thus can’t see what their creator can. “I used to go down to the bottom of the garden and pull long rusty nails out of our rotting fence; I used to pull the leaves off the lilac trees, and smell the green blood on my hands, and think about my situation, which was a peculiar one.”
Mantel put me in mind of the Brontës, because her stories of childhood take place in a similar landscape. While visiting Haworth Parsonage in Yorkshire last summer, two days after finishing Mantel’s book on the train, I encountered the moors that shaped the lives of Charlotte, Emily, Anne, and Branwell and colored their creativity. Their juvenilia amazed me, the power of their youthful drawings and watercolors, the loveliness of their script, even miniaturized for the little books they made for their toy soldiers. Reader, they lived their lives in that parsonage, and every room told a story. In the one where Charlotte lived and died, she seems literally still in the room because her wedding dress stands right there in a glass box, suggesting the diminutive body that once filled it, while nearby the bright colors of her shawls suggest the intensity of emotions in that house. Charlotte and her sisters sublimated their strongest desires in prose, and Branwell tried to harness his in portraiture, but his gender may have been what undid him. As a man, he enjoyed more freedom than his sisters, and when the woman he loved rejected him, he didn’t write away his feelings, he drowned them. Alcohol and opium abuse removed whatever self-restraint Branwell once possessed, and the house-cum-museum at Haworth displays his room as a disheveled mess of papers and empty bottles. The violence of his frustrated hopes burst forth physically, sometimes directed at his father but mostly at himself. Then his lungs gave out, and, quietly enough, he faded away.
The two-story parsonage seems like a prosperous house for the era, but it’s not in a happy location. It sits atop a hill above a large graveyard, while the church it served rests just below the thicket of headstones. I imagine all the burials the children must have witnessed from their windows, all the ghosts they must have felt hovering just outside in the cold air. Like those ghosts, tuberculosis floated all around them, invisible yet palpable. It took the lives of all the siblings except Charlotte, who survived her brother and four sisters only to die during a difficult pregnancy.
Leaving the parsonage, my family and I followed the cobblestones down into the town for lunch, where a disheveled man on a bench talked earnestly on his cell phone. I heard him telling someone he had gotten lost for several hours that morning on the moors. Mantel, like the Brontës, understood the treacheries of that particular landscape.
Moorland punished those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. It killed those who were stupid and those who were unprepared. Ramblers from the city, feckless boys with bobble hats, would walk for days in circles, till they died of exposure. The rescue parties would be baffled by dank fogs, which crept over the landscape like sheets drawn over corpses.
“Curved Is the Line of Beauty” describes two young girls who get lost, capturing the young narrator’s horror when she realizes geographical perspective has disappeared, her relief when a landmark emerges. It’s a story about being nine and looking back fifty years later at your nine-year-old self. All the tales in this little book tell us something about childhood in general and Mantel’s childhood in particular. Her powers of observation deliver gems like these: “The veins in her hands stood out, as if she had sapphires and wore them beneath the skin,” and “I put my head on the clear, clean plaster of the wall, which was painted in a neutral shade, like thought.” The ghosts rise up, because they’re everywhere: “All your houses are haunted by the person you might have been.”
Jess Walter’s stories also teem with wise children, darkly funny kids at the mercy of unfit guardians. I’ve loved his writing, both stories and novels, since a friend handed me his second Spokane murder mystery, Land of the Blind, fifteen years ago. In addition to childhood and murder, his other interests include acting and Italy. His latest collection, The Angel of Rome and Other Stories, isn’t my favorite of his books, but the witty writing kept me going. Here’s a mother-daughter exchange in the opening story, “Mr. Voice,” which I first read in the 2015 Best American Short Stories:
Mother wore a magenta minidress, and she put me in a dress that matched it—in hindsight, perhaps not something a nine-year-old should wear. “I think people can see my underwear,” I said.
“At least you’re wearing them,” she said. . . .
In the same story the young narrator makes a remark that Hilary Mantel would surely agree with: “A child’s powers of observation must be strongest, I think, between eight and eleven; by thirteen we can’t see past ourselves.”
My favorite story in this batch is “Drafting.” Aggressive breast cancer has forced twenty-something Myra to drop out of law school at Gonzaga and move home. Her life has been derailed, and, suddenly, her on-again, off-again lover, a fuckup named Boone, is the only person she wants to see. Though he has failed in every arena of his life, Boone’s kindness and compassion to a woman who’s just endured surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy make this story shine. When Boone arrives to take her on a road trip in a beat-up 1970s Camino he’s found, Myra’s “hip bones jutted like holstered guns” beneath boobs like “empty wind socks.” Boone is stoned yet intrepid, her knight in a rusted hulk. They drive from Spokane to Seattle, adding water and radiator fluid when the car overheats. Boone has a friend they can stay with, and the friend’s wife assumes from Myra’s looks that she’s an addict. “I just want to say, I know what you’re going through. I was drinking by the time I was twelve and using at fifteen.” As Myra simply stares at her, bewitched by her beauty, the wife offers to take her to a meeting, or simply talk with her about addiction. “The first thing is to admit you’re powerless over it.” To which cancer-ridden Myra replies with a smile, “Oh, I feel that.” Boone, an aging skater dude who works construction for a relative, will never be conventionally successful, but his lack of ambition allows him to see and care about other people, and he’s there for Myra when she needs him. This story stayed with me, as did “Famous Actor,” which had a compelling protagonist much like Myra. Meanwhile, the final story, “The Way the World Ends,” picks up a topic running through several of the recent titles I read, climate-change disaster. That, more than the pandemic, appears to be the recurring theme of contemporary fiction, and I wasn’t surprised to find it in another fine collection, Maggie Shipstead’s You Have a Friend in 10A.
Shipstead’s a writer I only recently discovered when someone recommended her novel Great Circle—how did I miss it?—and I loved that book so much I promptly bought copies for several friends. Shipstead may be more of a novelist than a short story writer because some of the tales in the collection have abrupt, ambiguous endings, but they’re still fun reads, and the ones that land, really land. The title story suggests one of the narrative arcs of Great Circle and “The Great Central Pacific Guano Company” another. I quite liked the latter because I’m fascinated by survival stories, and this one describes a small community of people living on an atoll in the Pacific in what appears to be the late nineteenth century. The community represents an outpost of the French government until the government abandons them (no more supply ships), and suddenly they’re on their own in an inhospitable landscape. People get weird when food gets scarce and food becomes their focus.
The crabs were poisonous for us to eat. The birds were stringy, almost not worth the effort of netting, plucking, and roasting. Their eggs had a rancid taste, but we ate them anyway. We fished in the lagoon, but the larger, better fish were out at sea, where we could not catch them without a boat. We did not dare take the garrison’s only boat (upturned under the palms, a cathedral for the crabs) through the waves. The pigs were precious gods, and their deaths—strictly scheduled, the flesh shared out in tiny portions—filled us with bloodthirsty ecstasy and the urge to dance wildly around our cooking fires.
One day, all the Frenchmen of the garrison leave in the boat to chase a ship the half-mad governor of the colony thinks he’s spied on the horizon. The women remain behind with the last man, an enigmatic American who has always kept apart from the group (he’s the one associated with the guano company). Slowly this man becomes another type of god (cf. the pigs, above) to the women, and, well, the story takes off in very unexpected directions. This story had a brilliant ending; if Shipstead were a gymnast (like a character in another of these stories), I’d have to say she really stuck the landing. In her acknowledgements, she modestly notes that “this book came out of years spent learning to be a writer, a process that will never be complete,” but it seems to me that even Shipstead’s weaker stories outpunch those that lead most collections published today. During my reading, far too many story collections bored or irritated me: the ideas unimaginative, the prose dull, the endings bizarre. Shipstead’s stories gripped me, every one, even those that relied upon some kind of device, like her pre-apocalyptic disaster story, “Lambs,” in which every character is introduced by name and then, in parentheses, their vocations, birth and death dates. It isn’t long before a reader notices that numerous of the characters die in 2035. But in Shipstead’s story, that isn’t a turnoff—I wanted to read on to find out what happened in that fateful year. Whatever Maggie Shipstead publishes from here on out, whether it’s stories, novels, or a comic book, I’ll be onboard.
The last two collections I read and enjoyed were both by Barretts. Colin Barrett is an outstanding young Irish writer, and Andrea Barrett has been writing wonderful historical fiction about scientists for decades. Her Natural History gathers together the latest stories about an extended family of scientists that she began developing decades ago. Like Faulkner or David Mitchell, readers can look forward to seeing characters they like from one book appear in another. I first discovered her with The Voyage of the Narwhal, a novel that came after her National Book Award-winning Ship Fever. Its nineteenth-century explorers, abolitionists, and scientists felt especially real to me because the story begins in Philadelphia, where I then lived and was teaching nineteenth-century British and American literature. I quickly read backwards and forwards in her oeuvre, the story collections just as strong as the novels, and favorite characters developed in both. In those years of Barrett fever, I taught a memoir class that included Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son—a poignant memoir by the son of a religious Victorian biologist (not an oxymoron then). Philip Gosse, unhappy with mounting geological evidence that seemed to indicate the world was millions of years old, not the few thousand posited by the Bible, wrote Omphalos a couple of years before Darwin published his theory (these ideas were in the air since Lyell’s Principles of Geology in the 1830s) to refute it. Gosse claimed that the fossil record didn’t provide proof of evolution but, rather, the Creator’s inventiveness. God simply chose to make the world look older for his own inscrutable reasons. Gosse’s son pitied his father for being so blind and notes the book was received with derision. Meanwhile, Darwin published the theory of evolution in 1859, and young scientists recognized Darwin’s ideas made sense of their new discoveries in a number of fields. Darwin’s theory of natural selection is accepted as fact now, but Gosse, père, was not the only scientist who opposed it in his time.
Louis Agassiz, the famous Harvard professor who founded their Museum of Comparative Zoology (also in 1859), knew Darwin personally but rejected his ideas. Like Gosse, he could not separate his religious beliefs from the science he practiced and claimed that God had put certain plants and animals in particular places on the globe, just as He’d put five races of humans around the planet, with whites the best of these, and none of these creations had changed any of their characteristics from Day 1. Agassiz dismissed Darwin’s idea that more complicated organisms developed from more simple ones because all species were “thoughts in the mind of God,” and God didn’t change his mind. Agassiz appears as a character in “The Island,” from an earlier collection by Barrett, teaching a summer course for naturalists on Penikese Island in Buzzards Bay. In real life, Agassiz did teach that summer class, but Barrett’s genius is to invent two students for him, Daphne and Henrietta, who come to realize—as so many of his students did—that the brilliant professor was wrong about evolution.
In the new collection, the opening story, “Wonders of the Shore,” revisits the lives of these women a dozen years after that summer course. They’ve become enduring friends who take annual vacations together. Daphne is a successful writer and Henrietta a high school teacher in the small Upstate New York town of Crooked Lake (a locus for several stories). Their relationship, their different paths through life, as well as the littoral history of another island seascape flow through the new story. This time the theme is patronage—something that independent scholars and artists need. Daphne has been invited to the soirées of wealthy Celia Thaxter (like Agassiz, a real person), who is entertaining the local lights. Daphne has brought Henrietta along, but Thaxter disdains her: “Twice she’d tried to insert herself into the conversation Mrs. Thaxter was orchestrating about the floating seaweeds; twice she’d been rebuffed.” She slips out of the house and meets a young painter, also taking a break outside, who admires her dress: “You can tell it’s a success just by the way Mrs. Thaxter treats you. Your friend’s in no such danger.” Suddenly, another of Darwin’s theories comes into play, and human mating behavior becomes the real theme of this story.
Henrietta appears several more times in Natural History, as do other favorites from past books. If you love Andrea Barrett, as I do, you won’t want to miss this collection. If you haven’t yet discovered her, you’re in for a rare and abiding treat and will be helped by an addendum to this collection giving the genealogy of the characters who range throughout the books.
The other Barrett, young Colin, entered my consciousness rather recently thanks to my subscription to The New Yorker. The first story of his I read appeared therein and sent me looking for more. Homesickness is only his second book, but his cheerleaders include Sally Rooney, Colm Tóibín, and Roddy Doyle—basically, the best Irish writers alive today. I don’t think they’re just helping a countryman, either. My favorite story in the collection remains the one I first read, “Whoever Is There, Come on Through,” and I liked it even better the second time around. It follows the relationship of Eileen and Murt and opens with Eileen picking up Murt from the bus station after his discharge from a mental hospital. Eileen hopes his release means “he was over the worst of it, had managed to once again step back from the ledge of himself.” Eileen met Murt in her teens, when he “was the morose but funny one of the group, and played the hypochondriac, anxious, would-be depressive so well and so pitilessly that Eileen was surprised to find out that he actually was all of those things.” At 16 he revealed he loved her, and she promptly friend-zoned him. But good friends they remained.
Thanks to this story, I finally understand the “incel” phenomenon of recent years. Of course it took an Irishman to explain it to me because Ireland has long been the land of celibate males. (Used to be voluntary, but times have changed.) There’s nothing like a virgin read of a short story because it thrills you without your knowing why. The second time, your critical mind turns on and you see where the power of the story lies, how it achieved its effects. In this one, Barrett cleverly doubles male characters to make a point about men who thrive and those who fail. The unlucky-in-love-and-life Murt has an older brother Jamie, strong and successful with women, and Eileen has an older stepson, Danny, who’s an accomplished trumpet player and footballer in his teens. Eileen’s own son, the much younger Ashleigh, displays no such talents yet. The best scene in this story happens in a bar where Eileen, Murt, his uncle and mother gather to celebrate the pregnancy of Jamie’s girlfriend Sara. Uncle Nugent (a lonely, single older man) supplies round after round to the celebrants until finally Eileen gets up from the table and finds herself at the bar with Jamie.
Jamie shocks her, “his mouth gone beady, unrepentant with drink,” comparing her to a tank rolling remorselessly over other people, including the struggling Murt. Eileen asks him what he means.
“If I were in your shoes I know what I’d be saying. I’d be saying that I am trying to help. But you have to take your boot off his throat. Just for a little while you have to take your boot off his throat.”
Eileen’s body felt like a heavy coat she had neglected to remove, the blood in her face thick and clambering. She went to speak but her throat shied.
“Murt is my best friend. I care so much about Murt,” she was able finally to say in a thin, winded voice, as if she were trying to talk after a bout of sprinting.
“You care for him, Eileen,” Jamie said, “but you have no pity for him. . . .”
This story gave me the shivers because it got so many things right about good-looking women who keep men who adore them as friends, ignoring what it costs those unrequited lovers to stay close. The other tales in this collection were likewise well written, but one police procedural with a weary woman cop in County Mayo reminded me way too much of Tana French, and a couple of others gave the nod to George Saunders, this generation’s most imitated short fiction writer. But Colin Barrett will soon leave other models behind because he has his own voice and his own realms of particular knowledge. He’s a fresh writer worthy of his accolades.
Speculative fiction continues to thrill me, and I decided to include two such novels from the several I read. Turns out I was utterly duped by one of them, City of Orange, by David Yoon, though it begins just like last year’s Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir of Martian fame. A man comes to without knowing who or where he is. “He awakes with his eyes closed. . . . He senses light all around him and is reluctant to expose his sight to the brightness. His head pulses with pain. He lies on his back, half-sunken in the earth. The back of his head feels crushed.” And so on and so forth. The first section is called, “The Survivor.” Our amnesiac narrator awakes in a desert landscape, empty except for the underpass beneath which he finds himself, upholding a road that leads to an abandoned housing development. Post-apocalyptic, no? Our narrator thinks so, and we’re ready for zombies, cannibals, whatever. I followed our hero, an incredibly witty Asian-American man (he slowly discovers aspects of his culture), as he deals with the only characters he encounters in hundreds of pages—a strange boy who brings him canned food from the housing development and a crazy old man who crawls out of a pipe and steals the canned food. I kept waiting to see more evidence of how the world ended, but in all those pages we get only one burning house. Eventually, after I’d spent way too long waiting for it to morph into a Margaret Atwood novel, it became clear this National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) creation (oh, how I wish Yoon didn’t tell us that in an afterword; it’s like saying your novel was originally published for free on Amazon) has performed a bait-and-switch apocalypse. My new motto: Beware any novel that starts with the protagonist’s amnesia! I’m having a hard time forgiving the author, because if he’s really going for realism as opposed to sci-fi, he’s not allowed to ignore basic facts we all agree on. Mr. Yoon will know what I mean when I say, “Wouldn’t our survivor have heard some cars, seen at least one or two? It’s Orange County, for heaven’s sake! Or what about planes? John Wayne Airport deals with thick air traffic every day. In fact, what about helicopters—thwacka thwacka thwacka—remember Kobe flying in that helicopter from Orange to L.A.? C’mon, Dave!”
That book was a bust, but Emily St. John Mandel’s Sea of Tranquility, the first novel I read for this review, really puts the speculation in speculative fiction. After her last so-so novel, The Glass Hotel, the new one is not only up to the caliber of her best work, Station Eleven, it comes back to and improves Glass Hotel! A lot of intertextuality happens here because one of the main characters in Sea is a novelist who wrote a book very much like Station Eleven, imagining a world changed by a pandemic before that imagined event happened in the real world and made her seem prescient. Further, the new book begins with the rich scion of an English family, Edwin St. John St. Andrew, “hauling the weight of his double-sainted name across the Atlantic” en route to Canada, where he’s been exiled by his family. It’s 1912 in the narrative, but readers in 2022 can see the character has the author’s last name, meta meta woo woo. Edwin’s a descendant of William the Conqueror, an old Etonian, and a lazy, directionless rich kid. Like others of his class, he’s living on a remittance from his family and hoping to become a gentleman farmer on cheap land. At last a fellow alum of Eton shows up with more energy than Edwin, and they head to Saskatchewan where Reginald has actually bought a farm.
“This is the life,” Reginald says, when at last they arrive, standing in the doorway of his new farmhouse. . . . It is a sea of mud. . . . Can a house be haunted by failure? When Edwin steps through the door of the farmhouse, he feels immediately ill at ease, so he lingers out on the front porch. It’s a well-built house—the previous owner was well-funded once—but the place is unhappy in a way that Edwin can’t entirely explain. . . . [Edwin] feels himself teetering on the edge of an abyss. “Reginald, my old friend,” he says, “what does a fellow have to do to get a drink around here?”
Edwin drinks for weeks then decamps and heads farther west. Eventually, in Victoria, he gets on a boat for Vancouver Island, and suddenly we are in the settlement of Caiette—a place we know well from The Glass Hotel. Thus far, we’ve been in a typical historic novel, but soon Edwin wanders into the forest, and there “as incongruous as an apparition” is a young priest. Not only is Edwin startled, but as they exchange pleasantries, “there’s something about his accent that eludes Edwin—it’s not quite British, but not quite anything else.” The priest departs, and then Edwin finds himself staring up at the trees when something happens: “a flash of darkness, like sudden blindness or an eclipse. He has an impression of being in some vast interior, something like a train station or a cathedral, and there are notes of violin music, there are other people around him, and then an incomprehensible sound—”
Just like that, we’re not in a historical novel anymore. We’re in a speculative fiction novel that has narratives in a variety of places and times, including a lunar colony a century from now (hence the title of the novel). We also get to find out what happened to Vincent, the winsome main character of The Glass Hotel whose narrative arc ended very strangely when she fell off a cargo ship. Basically, this is a time travel novel that bears all the marks of having been written during the pandemic, because a pandemic occurs during the novel, and readers will recognize all the isolation, paranoia, and frustration that they’ve just endured themselves. Unlike City of Orange, it plays by the rules of its genre: time travelers can’t meet up with themselves in a different time because that would cause a history-wrecking anomaly. There’s a Time Institute in this novel reminiscent of the recent TV series Loki and its Time Variance Authority. No one is copying anyone else, it’s just that in art, as in science, a variety of good minds become interested in one particular topic at the same time because something pulls them there, and sometimes these different minds draw the same conclusions. Sci-fi writers, thanks to advances in theoretical physics, are currently obsessed with the concept of alternative universes. Ted Chiang’s “Anxiety Is the Dizziness of Freedom,” in Exhalation (which I reviewed for this magazine in 2019) is the best of the best on this topic, but Sea of Tranquility, which sticks with the simpler concept of time travel, has its own charm. Like one of Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin stories, it’s a locked box mystery of sorts: How could a time travel event have happened the way it did based on the given rules of such travel laid out in the novel? St. John Mandel provides a clever solution to what seems an insoluble anomaly, and it gives readers what Yoon’s book did not, a satisfying ending.
Naturally, I also read mainstream novels, and four are worth talking about, the first not because it’s brilliant, but because it’s timely . . . in a bad way. I read Lucky Turtle by Bill Roorbach because I so loved two of his earlier titles, The Girl of the Lake and The Remedy for Love. This new novel started out with tremendous promise, too: Massachusetts teenager gets caught up in an armed robbery with her boyfriend in the late 1990s. He gets sent to jail, she gets sent to Camp Challenge, a reform school in Montana. Who doesn’t love a boarding school novel? I thought that’s what this would be, a bunch of bad girls stuck together in cabins out west reforming, or not. At first it was that, but then it shifts gears when Cindra, the heroine, runs away with the (she thinks) Indian security guy she’s fallen in love with. His name is Lucky Turtle. But even in the witty early part, amid the foul-mouthed funny girls not suffering their incarceration gladly, another note came creeping in. This note rang false, and it’s one major reason why the novel didn’t work.
Cindra, already getting it on with Lucky Turtle clandestinely, orchestrates the exposure of the old white doctor who’s been feeling up the girls during their gynecological exams. That scene turns a #MeToo moment into imaginative, funny fiction, but other scenes deliver social justice homilies that feel jarring in a novel. “It seemed natural enough to me at the time that a blond girl some people thought so pretty would get better treatment than the rest. Some voice in me wants to say, But that didn’t make me a bad person, did it? Yes, I was a bad person, ignorance no defense.” Apparently Cindra grew up and attended a workshop with Robin DiAngelo before she told us this story. An author lecturing readers about white privilege in a novel feels wrong, the antithesis of fiction, which should show and not tell. Instead, those moments kept happening and kept jolting me out of the narrative. Roorbach’s Acknowledgment page explains all, and it’s the most jarring of all. He thanks his official and unofficial “sensitivity readers.” What? My god, have publishers replaced copy editors with sensitivity readers? And do all writers get them, or just old white men? Roorbach cringily tells us they helped him to “see the world more clearly.” Ugh! If a fiction writer can’t see the world clearly, or at least better than his readers, he doesn’t have the gifts he should. Roorbach sounds fearful of contemporary campus politics (he’s a professor of writing, after all). He absolutely does not want to be accused of cultural appropriation or insensitivity, although he does want to write a book about Native American, Chinese, and African-American characters. How do you avoid a gaffe that might cancel your career? Sensitivity readers!
One hopes Roorbach will learn something from a novelist like Geraldine Brooks who, in Horse, depicts the inner life of a slave before, during, and after the Civil War intercut with that of a young Black scholar in our own day. Brooks doesn’t preach, she simply shows us characters and their actions and allows us to reach our own conclusions. That’s what makes fiction fiction and not journalism. Horse actually has many charms, and I read it with great enjoyment. The horse at the heart of the story, Lexington, was a legend in mid-nineteenth-century America—an era in which horseracing embodied the passions of football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and everything else because there was nothing else that could compare with it as a spectacle. All classes attended races and bet on them if they could. Harry Lewis, Lexington’s trainer, has bought his freedom but remained on the Warfield plantation to care for the family’s horses. His son Jarret, the groom, is not yet free, but Harry hopes to buy his freedom too. Both men have skills that make their lives better than those of many other slaves, a point brought home to readers in another chapter. Still, when Thomas Scott, a white Yankee painter hired to develop portraits of Dr. Warfield’s best horses appears, his talk of slaves escaping to freedom discomfits Jarret.
“You must like the work here a great deal. Otherwise, with all these fast horses, you and your pa could just mount up and ride off. The river’s not that far away, after all.”
Jarret felt the blood rise into his face and a taste of sickness in the back of his throat. He didn’t care one bit for this turn in the conversation.
The events unscrolling in detail in Brooks’s nineteenth-century sections alternate with the narratives of Jess and Theo, two young scholars in the present day who are uncovering some parts of those events. Jess works for the Smithsonian articulating bones of animal specimens for their lab when another museum contacts her about a famous Victorian horse skeleton stored somewhere in the Smithsonian’s vast collections, and Theo studies equestrian slave-era paintings of Black jockeys, grooms, and trainers for his art history dissertation. He has discovered depictions of Jarret and his father, though he doesn’t yet know who they are. Theo’s thesis argues that white painters of Black subjects never meant to depict specific individuals, but only to render caricatures of slaves that reinforced the privilege, wealth, and power of their white owners. When he encounters what are Scott’s portraits, he realizes his thesis won’t work for all paintings. The trainer “had been depicted possessing a dignified authority. He actually looked irritated with the artist who was interrupting his important work. He gazed boldly beyond the painting, meeting the eyes of the viewer with a challenging glare. Theo had never seen a painting depicting an enslaved person that emphasized his authority and agency in this way.” Geraldine Brooks refuses to toe the line that says all enslaved Blacks behaved like victims or were seen by whites as inferior. She avoids backing herself into that black and white corner but acknowledges the nuance that surrounds every case. Indeed, Theo’s Black dissertation sponsor has no interest in his amended thesis because it doesn’t correspond with the narrative of unremitting Black oppression by white people that she favors. Brooks knows that stereotypes and caricatures of Blackness abounded in the South but also knows that they were not the sole viewpoint. Brooks’s nuanced view was reinforced for me when I visited a big Winslow Homer exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nothing could be less condescending than Homer’s portraits of Black subjects during the Civil War (when he depicted scenes of and near the Southern battlefields for a Northern newspaper) or later in the Caribbean and Florida. Homer gives his Black subjects their own dignity and power, and he was not alone.
Horse gives us a believable history of a real horse and his actual groom; what Brooks invents rings true. I learned an enormous amount about horseracing, skeleton-mounting, plein-air painting of animals, and the evils and oddities of the Peculiar Institution, which warped the lives of every person touched by it. This is a first-rate historical novel, and one that pairs well with Brooks’s Pulitzer Prize-winning March.
Perhaps the most eye-opening book I read was the long-awaited English translation of a novel that became a classic in Turkey after its initial publication in 1971: Leylâ Erbil’s A Strange Woman. The novel begins in 1950 in the form of a memoir written by Nermin, a young woman in Istanbul who aspires to be a writer despite her mother’s insistence that she marry, stay home, and have children like a traditional Turkish woman. Atatürk modernized the country, but plenty of people want it to stay as it was. Nevertheless, Nermin sneaks out to the taverns where poets, writers, actors, and other creatives gather. She meets Halit, a poet, who laughs as he tells her about being tortured in jail. He claims “none of it is the police’s fault, that that’s how they were trained, that they were only doing their duty.” Nermin wonders, “Is it some kind of feat, not to let feelings of revenge overtake you in the face of injustice?” By 1950, intellectuals in Turkey could be jailed simply for reading forbidden books (including books by Freud and Marx, which interest Nermin greatly). Halit must return to his village, where he’s been exiled, but he explains to Nermin that the suffering Turks feel is due to the country’s politics and that of the world in general. She marvels at how “he always inserted his mind, like a sharp knife, even into the most delicate moments. . . .”
Nermin wants to understand the world and live in it independently, but her mother rules the household, berating both her husband and her daughter. Her mother’s idea of a good girl is one who “fasts during the holy month, and helps her mother around the house. And she keeps every single hair on her head covered.” She has no sympathy for her daughter’s desire for knowledge and power, and she suspects, rightly, that Nermin has her own mind and wishes.
“I don’t trust you one bit, your eyes are deceitful. You’re capable of anything, anything. You have absolutely no character, you lead a double life. I don’t know what exactly, but I can sense that you’re keeping something from us. Know that I follow Allah’s will. . . . [W]hat’s done secretly in this world is revealed in the next, don’t you forget it . . . . snakes and centipedes will devour you in the next world. . . .”
Nermin is oppressed both inside and outside her house. Most men in Turkey resent educated women. At one point she faces down some old male poets in a tavern who are outraged that she thinks she too can discuss her poetry there. One guy demands she leave, at which point she yells, “These doors were opened for me by Atatürk, do you hear me, you closed-minded bigot? Atatürk opened these doors for me! Who do you think you are trying to force Turkish women back into the dark caves of the past, huh?” When Nermin goes to a Western movie with a girlfriend, she says “Merci” to the man who takes her ticket. His response: “Up yours.” The young men being imprisoned and arrested for the books they read, the poetry they write, the aspects of their government they question are the ones who attract Nermin. “I’m going to be one of them. Anything that will help us be different from the older generations, from our mothers.”
The freshness of this book startled me; it was written fifty years ago, but it feels like it could be a dispatch from today in Afghanistan or any other country oppressing its women. (Who knows? In another dozen years it could be about America.) Men rule Turkey in Erbil’s novel; if they can’t seduce Nermin themselves, they claim she’s had sex with other men in order to trash her reputation. What they really can’t bear is an independent woman. One girlfriend who loses her virginity to a young man who won’t marry her winds up in a brothel. Women can do little to stop men intent upon raping them other than lying low and staying home, and that is what Nermin will not do, even if she must defy her mother and any man who tries to stop her.
The novel’s written in a fascinating style that the new translator, Amy Marie Spangler, says most closely resembles Erbil’s original Turkish text. Spangler is working with an older translation by Nermin Menemencioğlu that the first translator was never able to get published, but which lay in archives with Erbil’s papers. Both Menemencioglu and Erbil are dead now, and Spangler claims she changed enough of the first translation to feel she could add her name as a co-translator. I have no way of telling what’s been changed, but I presume the first translator didn’t use words like “bougie” or phrases like “he came on to me.” Spangler says she wanted to preserve the unusual prose that bursts into poetry in some moments, stream-of-consciousness in others, and curious fragments that resist categorization. Indeed, after the first section of the book, “The Daughter,” we get a radically different style of writing in a section titled “The Father,” where we are in Nermin’s father’s mind as he lies dying in their house. The father loves Nermin, her toughness and her intelligence, and it comes out in his thoughts. He laughs at her ’60s lingo, especially “the system,” the way young intellectuals blame it for whatever goes wrong. “I explained to her our religion, the matter of God’s will and individual free will, these people have just found an easy way out—oh, how I laughed that day.”
After she’s thwarted in an attempt to leave Turkey, Nermin marries her friend’s brother, then convinces him to move to a slum so she can try to help the poor. A Communist by the later sections of the book, Nermin is certain she can improve the lives of the poor if only she and her compatriots can make them understand they’ve been duped by the wealthy, the capitalists.
Once they began to explain to the inhabitants how they’d been hoodwinked, a few of the people would emerge from behind the front row of attentive listeners to throw rocks and stones at their heads, at which point the previously passive attendants in the front rows, who had just been listening attentively with hopeful glints in their eyes, would rise like a wave and begin shouting like the others, “Go back to Moscow, go back to Moscow!”
Leylâ Erbil was indeed a strange woman, strange and compelling. I’m incredibly grateful to be able to read this book and astonished that it took fifty years for a translation to arrive in English.
The best book I read is one that didn’t appear here until August, the French writer Emmanuel Carrère’s Yoga. This book first came out in France in 2020 and caused a scandal, which I only learned about when I tried to figure out why there was a huge aporia in the “novel.” First, it’s not really a novel, because French genres are different than American ones. Like all of Carrère’s books, it’s a type of autofiction, a true story massaged into its best version using the techniques of fiction. It begins with the author leaving Paris to attend a ten-day silent Vipassana yoga retreat in Brittany. He doesn’t just intend to meditate with the goal of achieving some kind of inner peace, he intends to compose and publish a “subtle little book on yoga,” with the retreat as material. The duplicity involved in that deed—the opposite of letting everything go in meditation—seems to be the originating event that unravels his life, and this is a book about a life unraveled.
To a certain extent, Carrère knows himself: “[T]hose who practice the martial arts, Zen, yoga, meditation, all the big, radiant, beneficial things I’ve sought all my life, are not necessarily wise or calm or serene, but sometimes—often, even—pathetically neurotic like me. . . .” People come to meditation not because they are calm, but to calm down. In another way he doesn’t know himself at all. His “despotic ego” fools him, and feeding its desires eventually brings about his downfall. Vipassana means “to see things as they are,” but in the beginning of this novel, Carrère is deluding himself. He thinks his life is at a peak point; he’s published four major books and enjoyed ten years of unparalleled fame. More important, the depression that dogged him in younger years has abated for a decade; he lauds his happy marriage and family life. That’s all about to change, and as he tells us early on, two years after this retreat, which he leaves after a handful of days, he’s receiving electroshock therapy in a mental hospital to treat an episode of major depression.
The hole in the book for readers is also the black hole that sucked down Emmanuel Carrère. When I couldn’t figure out why he went from being a self-proclaimed happy man with a vibrant, albeit undescribed marriage and family, to a severely depressed guy living alone in a barren Paris apartment, I had to consult Google. Turns out that the woman who just divorced him, Hélène Devynck (they were married from 2011 to 2020) made him sign a legal clause that forbade him from ever mentioning her in one of his books. This created the aporia evident in Yoga, but it also created a very interesting narrative style. Literary critics know that things not mentioned are often the key to a story, and that’s patently true in this one. Carrère had to become extra inventive to tell his tale without mentioning his ex. But he does achieve it, and along the way we learn of a parallel relationship he’s been having in addition to his marriage with a woman he met at an earlier retreat. This may be a fantasy, because the two meet at another yoga retreat, wordlessly walk to a hotel and get a room, and years of amazing tantric sex (every two weeks, according to the author) begin to unfold. They don’t tell each other about their lives; they’re existing “in the moment.” One can only imagine this relationship undermining the happy marriage he extols, no matter the laissez-faire attitude most French people have about affairs.
What I most admire about Carrère is his brutal honesty about himself. He’s a wealthy, famous, talented man, and yet he’s miserable.
Tears stream down my cheeks, tears that will never cease, tears that will flow as long as human misery exists. The misery of the victims, the misery of the humiliated, the misery of the washouts, the misery of the morons, the misery of . . . 99 percent of humanity, but also the misery of the proud like me who believe they are the remaining 1 percent, the 1 percent who rise and grow with the challenges they face, the 1 percent who believe they’re on their way to a state of wonder and serenity and who are generally in for a fall when they least expect it.
In his time in the mental institution, Carrère survives by working on this novel, but he’s hampered, too. “I can’t say of this book what I’ve proudly said of several others: ‘It’s all true.’” Instead, he has to erase; for every unflattering truth he reveals about himself, he must suppress one about another, unnamed person, because he can’t “give the details of a crisis that is not the subject of this story.” But, oh, how it is.
Yoga is the best book I read in these last several months. It must be ably translated by John Lambert, because Emmanuel Carrère’s voice came through as fresh, funny, ironic, and, above all, honest. I learned a number of definitions of meditation, all of them good, and I’ve discovered a wonderful author with several books I can now look forward to reading. Carrère wrote Yoga in order to hang onto his sanity, but it’s also a gift to his readers. The author may have come unraveled, but he threw those loose threads out to readers, and we’ve pulled ourselves in. This book is not only entertaining, it’s helpful.