Harvest and Reflection
Ferreting through two generous boxes of novels and collections sent by The Hudson Review, the spines crisp and the covers smooth beneath my fingertips, I thought of a Ouija board: what revelations awaited? As the autumn days shortened, I read book after book by lamplight, ten in all, feeling like Abe Lincoln studying by the light of a fire. Outside the dark windows, owls made a racket and trains rumbled through Rapidan, Virginia, singing their old songs.
Having admired Lore Segal’s work in The New Yorker, I chose Ladies’ Lunch and Other Stories and found sixteen pieces of fiction and memoir, linked by the primacy of memory. Old friends chatter away in these contemporary tales, and what they don’t say is as important as what they do. “How Lotte Lost Bessie” conveys the poignance of a long friendship fading as one woman drifts away. The narrator thinks, “Bessie! Are you so sure you mightn’t want to hear what I might want to say? Or, Bessie, does it feel to you as if I am not listening to what you are saying?” Themes of trust and betrayal develop throughout the book. In “Soft Sculpture,” Ilka, an elderly Viennese woman, recalls getting a pet tortoise just before the Brownshirts forced her family to vacate their apartment. Ilka’s sympathetic friend asks what became of the tortoise. Ilka can’t remember, but her email address has “tortoise” in it, showing her power to choose a salvific detail from her harrowing past. In the wry, powerful “Making Good,” Margot Groszbart, an aged Jewish musician, attends a Holocaust workshop hosted by a rabbi and featuring young Viennese guests, a gathering intended to foster dialogue between Hitler’s victims and the new generation of Austrians. Margot is skeptical. “There exists a shyness—a species of embarrassment—between the party of the murderer and the party of the murdered.” Finding herself “universally irritated” by the Jewish and Austrian participants alike, Margot finally allows anger to puncture her reserve. Each story is remarkably condensed, the characters’ complexities nimbly revealed. “Ladies’ Zoom” packs humor, forgetfulness, and bereavement into four pages: “I have a drawer of decades-old address books full of dead people that I keep not throwing out. Dead or alive, it turns out one cannot throw people away.” The aftermath of horror and the mystery of time’s passage are at the heart of this book. Childhood agonies burn within, but these survivors tend the friendships that warm and sustain. Segal has won a Guggenheim Fellowship and an O. Henry Prize. Shakespeare’s Kitchen was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
The Singularity, shortlisted for the 2021 European Union Prize for Literature, is the second novel by Balsam Karam, a Kurdish author writing in Swedish; Saskia Vogel’s translation brings a musical quality to the long sentences and stream-of-consciousness structure. Though dreamlike in tone and voice, the novel delivers harsh realities about displaced mothers who lose their children and fight to recover them. A destitute immigrant mother posts signs for her missing daughter in the tourist zone of a country famous for its beaches and corniches and, in despair, leaps off a cliff. Observing the sudden disappearance, a pregnant second-person narrator abruptly miscarries; this woman has come to the seaside town on business. The two stories run in parallel, their worlds opening up and overlapping in past and present. The missing girl’s anguished mother admits to herself, “she was the one I loved the most” and, while she searches, leaves her other children in the care of their grandmother. The children scrounge for food, build tiny beds for stray kittens, and pray for their sister’s return. Meanwhile, the narrator is ill and hospitalized, carrying her dead fetus. She resists doctors’ advice to induce labor, as if she cannot bear another separation. The novel resounds with loss and violence. The reader learns that while working at a restaurant favored by tourists, the missing girl was brutalized by sex trafficking, her wounds known to her family before she vanished. The vulnerability of women and children, especially immigrants, is dramatized throughout the book. An immigrant herself, the narrator encounters suspicion and hostility in her new land. Images of child refugees struggling to survive in hidden alleys contrast sharply with depictions of wealthy tourists dining in luxury. The title of the book is a cosmic term that refers to a zone within a black hole. This understated, hypnotic novel hummed in my blood as I did fall chores—painted an old smokehouse, refinished a floor, and sprayed wasps’ nests.
Stung twice and soothed by Benadryl and iced tea, I embarked on The Liberators by the poet and memoirist E. J. Koh, who dedicated the novel “For borders—real and imaginary.” Like The Singularity, its themes include displacement, miscarriage, and perfidy. Told in multiple points of view, the riveting, multigenerational book reveals repressive aspects of South Korea’s culture. The central character is Insuk, a young beauty whose husband, Sungho, places his nightmarish mother first in everything. Insuk’s mother-in-law accompanies the struggling couple and their son when they move to California, where Sungho allows his mother first pick of the bedrooms in their new house. When Insuk rebels, he injures her so badly that she loses a baby. She stays with him but reflects, “The more unbearable my outer life, the more beauty I seemed to notice in my inner life. Like right now, over me was a garden of lilacs bowing from the waist, and if you saw my expression, you wouldn’t believe how I could’ve given up . . .” Much of the writing utilizes objective correlatives, suggesting emotional states through images. Insuk finds secret love with another South Korean immigrant, Robert, but his desire for the reunification of Korea leads him on a dangerous mission. Nothing about this book is predictable, including the evolution of Insuk’s marriage. Some of the tension eventually slackens, but the novel seamlessly blends the personal with the political: when Insuk learns of the sinking of a South Korean ferry and a likely a coverup by the government, she reflects, “The way a ship sinks in compartments, from one partition to another, was the way a country sank.” The novel suggests no nation is virtuous, and South Korea only seems so in contrast with North Korea.
The Wren, the Wren, a narrative of present-day Dublin, bowls along with the fractured quality of real life, including LinkedIn, period apps, and colonoscopies. It’s the eighth novel by Anne Enright, winner of the Man Booker Prize and a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Book Awards. In her Author’s Note, Enright says, “The book is concerned with inheritance, of both trauma and of wonder,” an assertion which is borne out by the hardship and beauty of its characters’ ragged lives. At the center is Nell, the product of her mother’s affair with a student. A birder and a writer, Nell falls into a relationship with a man named Felim, who turns out to be abusive. Nell’s mother, Carmel, and her sister Imelda are the daughters of Phil McDaragh, a pretentious poet who deserted them and their mother when she became sick. The women in each generation crave reliability. Weary of Felim’s infidelity, Nell longs for real love, “Not this wrangle, where I don’t have him and he still doesn’t leave.” Physical fights between mother and daughter, and between sisters, seem to be part of an ongoing battle for recognition. When a friend gives Carmel flowers, “Carmel’s heart spilled out like a kicked bucket.” The point of view rotates between Nell and Carmel, and one chapter belongs to the selfish Phil and reveals an entirely different side of him. A lovely passage shows the development of his ear, key to his birdwatching and his poetry:
The blackbird says:—Have it yourself, or be without it
The corncrake says:—Very late, very late
The finch says:—Pink, pink
The lark says:—Pee-pee-pee. No shoemaker on earth can make a
shoe for me
The book contains sections about cruelty to animals that I could hardly bear even to skim. At least the witness, Phil, is empathetic in those scenes. He grieves and never forgets. For that, I liked him, though on the whole, despite the beautifully fluid writing, this family stirred my curiosity more than my heart.
Given my penchant for realism, I was surprised to fall under the spell of The Stronghold, by Dino Buzzati, a novel originally published in Italian in 1940, translated into English in 1952 as The Tartar Steppe, and newly translated with an Afterword by Lawrence Venuti. Suffused with a sense of uneasy magic and imprecise in location or time period, save for a single reference to a train, the story follows the career of Giovanni Drogo, a young military officer posted to a remote mountain fort. Dismayed by the isolation and puzzled by the old soldiers who have stayed, Drogo vows to leave as soon as possible, yet he adapts to the rhythms and strictures of military life, is bedazzled by the majestic landscape and the rumors of enemies to the north, and lets time go by. The sound of a waterfall moves him to grope for an understanding of his fading youth:
The wind that caused the tall cataract to waver, the mysterious play of echoes, the different sounds of struck stones, gave rise to a human voice that would speak forever—words that described your life. You were always on the brink of understanding them but you never did.
Each scene is sinister and strange, Drogo’s spare and orderly life a counterpoint to his imagination. The men long for war, but the mysterious, windswept plains remain empty. More than once, a soldierly dispute turns lethal, as if the men, deprived of conflict, are driven to create it. Drogo’s belief that a great destiny awaits him reminds me of The Beast in the Jungle by Henry James. The novels share a theme of self-delusion and an invisible clock ticking away the hours and years. Venuti’s Afterword describes Buzzati’s transition from journalist and international correspondent to playwright, poet, librettist, and painter. Venuti contextualizes this novel, regarded as Buzzati’s masterpiece, as a Cold War allegory. Venuti’s new translation deliberately evokes the Italian Fascist regime. The current rise in authoritarianism is reason enough for a reissue. I felt I hardly blinked while reading the book and for a long time afterward.
Only a few pages into my next choice, Absolution, I was already recommending this latest novel by Alice McDermott, who won the National Book Award for Charming Billy. Absolution immerses the reader in an American enclave in Saigon in 1963, before the U.S. has officially entered the Vietnam War. Except for home and social engagements, men and women inhabit separate spheres. This is a story of women’s worlds. Vietnamese servants ease the burdens of domesticity, leaving the American wives plenty of time to talk of their personal lives and Jackie Kennedy’s fashions. Tricia, a naïve newlywed married to a Navy lawyer specializing in secret operations, befriends bossy Charlene, a mother of three and wife of a businessman. Yearning for a baby, Tricia is roped into Charlene’s charity schemes, which have more to do with Charlene’s ego than with helping native children. Charlene pays a local seamstress a pittance to make Vietnamese outfits for Barbie dolls, which Charlene then sells to Americans for $25 each, a whopping sum at the time. At a leper colony, Tricia and Charlene meet an obnoxious, sensual doctor who awakens both women’s desire. Tricia feels the man is evil, and in this evocative passage, she recalls her mother’s stories of working as a telephone operator: “And on full-moon nights, she told us, Satan himself often called, from a pay phone on some cold, blue-shaded street deep in the stony caverns of Manhattan.” Entrapped—or protected, Tricia doesn’t stop to figure it out—by her loyalties and her Catholic moral code, Tricia envies Charlene her sexual freedom and essentially lives out the stereotype of 1960s wives. A new narrator, Rainey, one of Charlene’s children, picks up the story sixty years later, when she is back in the U.S. and corresponding with Tricia, now an elderly widow. I was reluctant to leave the danger and intrigue of Vietnam, the sex and secrets of the expats’ seething hive, for the comparatively humdrum here-and-now, but the plot and structure are ingenious. The day I finished the book, I hiked the Blue Ridge Tunnel with my husband and friends, all of us railfans. Built for locomotives in the 1850s by Irish laborers and last used in 1944, it’s now a park. Our headlamps revealed a vaulted ceiling, blackened from the smoke of wood-burning engines. What would the long-ago train riders think of the Barbie doll—Absolution’s potent symbol—and the culture it continues to signify? 2023 saw the release of Barbie, the highest-grossing film of the year worldwide.
My notes on Disruptions, a collection by Pulitzer Prize winner Steven Millhauser, fill six delighted pages. “One Summer Night” is just about perfect, a glorious story narrated by a boy who goes to visit his girlfriend. She isn’t home, but her flirtatious mother urges him to climb the roof, declaring, “This is the only night that ever was,” thus cracking open his horizons to new wonders and possibilities. “Thank You for Your Patience” is narrated by a 38-year-old woman with a funny, poignant sensibility, while on hold with customer service. “Kafka in High School, 1959,” a radiant tale about a shy boy’s perceptions and missed connections, assembled in segments that plumb a moment of longing or awareness, reminds me of Donald Barthelme’s City Life. In “The Change,” a teenage girl walking home late from a party is pursued by a stranger so relentless that she flees down the dark streets in desperation, and the reader recognizes the myth of Daphne and Apollo. In “A Haunted House Story,” a boy spends a night in an empty dwelling, on a dare:
Is it possible to fall in love with a house, as you might with a person, if you are seventeen years old, a small-town boy waiting for the adventure of his life to begin? I knew only that every hidden shape in that house, every glint and glimmer, beckoned to me, soothed me and thrilled me, quickened me with a sense of something discovered.
Youthful breakthroughs are a theme of the collection, but the passions of adulthood prove to be menacing. Nine of the eighteen stories concern towns where peculiar fads take hold while a narrator looks askance or throws himself into the madness. The stories form a social critique of herd instinct and its often appalling consequences. “After the Beheading” echoes Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” and creates a dark new fable. “The Summer of Ladders” describes a village overtaken by a craze for supertall ladders. The townspeople in “Green” tear out their lawns and install tile in place of grass. “But beware of stories. Stories have teeth that can sink into your flesh. If you try to tear yourself away, blood will spill,” warns the narrator of the chilling “Guided Tour,” which is also comical, once you wipe the sweat from your palms.
It’s easy to see why Small in Real Life, by Kelly Sather, a screenwriter and former entertainment lawyer, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Set against the glowing glamour of Los Angeles, the nine stories are marked by violence and disillusionment and feature underdogs whipped into a frenzy by life’s unfairness. The title comes from a remark about actors at a party, how little they look off-screen, “Like dolls,” a comment that resonates as characters strive for lives larger than those they are leading. I loved “The Spaniard,” in which teenaged Jenny goes home sick from school, discovers her mother with a boyfriend, and announces, “I want a car for my birthday, or I’m telling Dad.” Bouncy and poignant, with a flash-forward, the story encompasses Jenny’s entire life. In the title piece, Louis, a musician who has never broken into the big time, accepts an old friend’s invitation to Hollywood, only to be scorned by haughty hotshots. Goaded, Louis finds a creative way to unleash his fury. In the riveting “Red Bluff,” two thirteen-year-old girls run away from summer camp with vague plans to go to Hollywood. They accept a young man’s offer to drive them, a decision with grim results. In my favorite story, “God’s Work,” an aging judge goes on a date with a stranger who turns out to be tormented by guilt. The woman confesses a shocking secret and says she responded to the judge’s online ad because of his occupation: “I decided if I’m going to tell someone, then this man is the one to hear me.” The shattered characters stayed with me long after I closed the book. Every story offers adroit portrayals. In “Toucan,” a woman resents being supplanted in her dying best friend’s affections by an intrusive new devotee, whose face is “as placid as watching golf on TV.” A lethal, electrifying sizzle unites the stories. Sather has mastered the recklessness that comes over people whose dreams are about to be smashed.
Having heard about The House Is on Fire, Rachel Beanland’s novel about the 1811 theater fire in Richmond, Virginia, I requested a review copy and was immediately enthralled. This marvelous book brings to life a tragedy that claimed 72 lives and stunned the city, yet in the ensuing years was almost forgotten. The life-and-death situation unfolds rapidly, in present tense, moment by suspenseful moment. The ghastly blaze turns out to be only the beginning of the predicaments facing four principal characters based on real-life figures the author unearthed in her research. Sally Campbell, daughter of statesman Patrick Henry and now a 31-year-old widow, refuses to abandon a friend in the inferno; Gilbert Hunt, an enslaved blacksmith, rescues people with his strength and ingenuity; his niece, Cecily, 19, seizes a chance to escape from her master’s crazed son; and Jack Gibson, 14, a stagehand, knows exactly how the flames started, because he was involved. Suspicion and finger-pointing begin while the theater is still burning and injured victims screaming. The characters’ stories intertwine as an investigation roils the grieving city and widens the fissures in a society defined by race and class. Pungent details raise the realism to an extraordinary level. When the theater manager rouses the troupe from slumber, “Jack can hear the sounds of the actors’ feet hitting the floor, chamber pots being dragged out from under beds, suspenders snapping into place.” I tried to slow down to make the book last longer than its nearly 400 pages. Before the next print run, somebody needs to correct the misuses of “lie” and “lay,” such as “. . . the men—upon Mrs. Cowley’s instruction—lie Margaret down under the window . . .” and “sailcloth lays in folds . . .” Beanland, who lives in Richmond, won the National Jewish Book Award for Debut Fiction for Florence Adler Swims Forever.
Feverish from a flu shot, I next chose The Devil of the Provinces, a short episodic novel by Juan Cárdenas, translated by Lizzie Davis. “[H]alf of anyone’s life only exists in their head,” declares a drug dealer who loves taking scalding hot showers in a dark bathroom. His customer and friend is the protagonist, an unemployed biologist who returns to Colombia from overseas and accepts a teaching job at a girls’ school, where a student gives birth to a monstrous infant—a development that regrettably disappears from the storyline. Distressed by climate change and monoculture, the biologist wonders, “Why solve the palm-weevil blight when the African palm is a blight in itself . . . ?” The murder of his brother, a gay lawyer, has never been fully resolved. The Translator’s Note discusses how the novel subverts detective fiction. I wanted the biologist to tackle and explore some of the mysteries he encounters, or at least to register more of a frisson, but he muses, “Sometimes life improves if you just stop thinking so hard and devote yourself to your work.” His most impassioned relationship is with his mother, who
looked back with a mother’s eyes. With mammal eyes and mammal love and a mammal’s death drive and tenderness. And the biologist felt guilt and fear and also disgust, and gratitude too, love and respect, because he knew that his mammal had sacrificed everything for her children, had relinquished herself to push forward her brood—bachelors, queers, slackers, and madmen.
The decisions the biologist makes seem rather small and personal, but the environmental theme and the jaunty surreality make the book distinctive. Author of seven volumes of fiction, Cárdenas was chosen as one of thirty-nine best Latin American writers under age thirty-nine by the Hay Festival in Bogotá.
With the books buzzing in my head, I went out in the fields and gathered seeds from wild bergamot, the withering stalks scenting the air with a fragrance like Earl Grey tea. Woodpeckers’ maniacal laughter rang through the trees. What was that yellow bird with cedar-brown wings? Must ask my bird group. Long, slanting afternoon shadows darkened to twilight as purple as grapes. An electric moon toured the sky. Lines and scenes from the books played through my mind even while I commiserated with neighbors about the lack of rain, the riverbed dry to the stones. Cousins from New York and Mississippi came to visit. We talked about childhood Christmases in this house, where our grandparents raised our fathers, farm boys who fought in World War Two, then came home and built their lives.
The novelist Bob Downs, my extraordinary mentor and professor at Pennsylvania State University, passed away in September. I learned about it a few weeks later, and memories flooded back. Urbane and tough, firing off letters to editors, eating raw onion on his hamburgers, Bob had a laugh that reverberated down the halls. I was twenty-two and had written exactly one good story, but it got me into the program. Bob championed character development and rejected the trite and superficial. With his pen, he cut out a page of slack dialogue in a student’s story and kept the few lines that mattered, a demonstration that left us agog. My mother was a writer, eager to know what I was learning, and during our phone calls—long distance rates applied, back then—I shared with her everything he said. He was the first person I knew who admitted writing is hard. “Write two pages a day,” he’d say. Once, I confessed I hadn’t written for three days. “Then you’re three days behind,” he said. I dedicate this review to the memory of Robert C. S. Downs (1937–2023).
 LADIES’ LUNCH AND OTHER STORIES, by Lore Segal. Melville House. $18.99p.
 THE SINGULARITY, by Balsam Karam, trans. by Saskia Vogel. The Feminist Press at the City University of New York. $16.95p.
 THE LIBERATORS, by E. J. Koh. Tin House. $27.95.
 THE WREN, THE WREN, by Anne Enright. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95.
 THE STRONGHOLD, by Dino Buzzati, trans. by Lawrence Venuti. New York Review Books. $17.95p.
 ABSOLUTION, by Alice McDermott. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $28.00.
 DISRUPTIONS: Stories, by Steven Millhauser. Alfred A. Knopf. $28.00.
 SMALL IN REAL LIFE: Stories, by Kelly Sather. University of Pittsburgh Press. $24.00.
 THE HOUSE IS ON FIRE, by Rachel Beanland. Simon & Schuster. $27.99.
 THE DEVIL OF THE PROVINCES, by Juan Cárdenas, trans. by Lizzie Davis. Coffee House Press. $17.95p.