Readers love the “Best and Worst Books of the Year” lists. I enjoy waking up on a winter morning and (virtually) rustling the newspaper pages for “Best of” lists. I prefer the lists, meant for Christmas shopping, to the actual holidays.
The lists are published earlier every year, however. A few newspapers and magazines published their “Best of’s” before Thanksgiving, which is much too early. The amateurs – Goodreads reviewers, bloggers, and vloggers – are usually more traditional and wait till December. For the first time, I saw a few bloggers and vloggers posting their lists before Halloween!
And that is a huge turn-off.
That said, I have posted my “Best and Worst Books of 2022” list appropriately- in December. I posted links to my reviews at Thornfield Hall and Thornfield Hall Redux, and, in a few cases, Goodreads.
Vasily Grossman’s brilliant novel, Life and Fate, is in many ways a twentieth-century homage to Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Set during World War II, it has a cast of hundreds of characters, who suffer the perils of war and fascism, whether they are civilians or in the military. Some characters quote Tolstoy and discuss his philosophical teachings. Another finds War and Peace so vibrant that he is convinced Tolstoy took part in the Napoleonic wars, though Tolstoy was not yet born then. Grossman deftly moves from scenes of civilian life to military life.
This robust, well-written novel moves very fast, but it can be disturbing. Grossman explicitly describes the atrocities of 1940s warfare, where all is confusion: a man is shot, then buried under loose soil because the ground is frozen, then gets out of the grave and shows up back at the barracks, looking like death: he dies. Then there are problems with some of the military officers: bureaucrats with no military experience are assigned to high office and responsible for many deaths, because they think it is glorious to move the troops forward, though waiting a few hours would save hundreds of Russian lives.
Perhaps my favorite character is Colonel Novikov, the bright, thoughtful, quick-tempered commanding officer of a tank corps. After the Russians win the battle of Stalingrad, he argues with Getmanov, a bureaucrat and Stalinist spy who has been appointed commissar. In their contretemps, Getmanov urges Novikov to command the troops to go forward, so they will be the first on Ukrainian soil. Novikov finally shouts that he, not Getmenov, is in charge, and that his men have not slept in 70 hours. They will have a 10-hour break before they leave.
Vasily Grossman, a war correspondent and a chronicler of Russian lives, grimly describes the the details of life under the Stalinist regime. There are the constant denunciations, which, however trivial, end in the torture and often the murder of those denounced. There is the dehumanization of men and women in Russian camps, which are policed by the prisoners themselves, often by criminals, who agree to build gas chambers for extra rations, and kill anyone who refuses. Then there are the civilians who often live in a single small room in an apartment and slowly starve because they cannot afford to buy food, while another family in the next room has plenty. Only a few still have their own apartment and a dacha, though those can be taken away at any time.
Grossman is especially effective in illustrating his humanity to struggling mankind. He movingly compares the fascist regime to an electronic machine which “can carry out mathematical calculations, remember historical facts, play chess and translate books from one language to another.” The machine of the future will do these things better than man, and go on to appreciate music and compose poetry, he speculates.
Can it be compared to man? Will it surpass him?
Childhood memories… tears of happiness… the bitterness of parting… love of freedom… feelings of pity for a sick puppy… nervousness… a mother’s tenderness… thoughts of death… sadness… friendship… love of the weak… sudden hope… a fortunate guess… melancholy… unreasoning joy… sudden embarrassment…
The machine will be able to create all of these things. But the surface of the whole earth will be too small to accommodate this machine – this machine whose dimensions and weight will slowly increase as it attempts to reproduce the peculiarities and soul of an average, inconspicuous human being.
Fascism annihilated tens of millions of people.
Alas! Is it here?
Life and Fate was finished in 1960, but confiscated by the KBG. Fortunately, Grossman had two other copies. The book was finally published in 1980, 16 years after Grossman’s death. The brilliant English translation by Robert Chandler has been published by Vintage classics, NYRB Classics, and Everyman’s Library.
When I heard the Ben Franklin chain stores were closing last October, I wondered, “Where will I get my cat mugs?” This silly thought was foremost in my brain, jumbled up with “It’s the end of an era.”
It was not truly the end of an era for me, since I did not go to my first Ben Franklin store until 2005. And the Ben Franklin chain, founded in 1927, was already not thriving in the early 21st century. It specialized in crafts, artificial flowers, Christmas decorations, knickknacks, wreaths and fake berries to put on the wreaths, yarn and sewing paraphernalia, mugs, memo pads, and journals. It was a fun place to browse, even if one was not a “crafter.”
Ben Franklin, the craft store, is erroneously grouped with the 20th-century dime stores, Kresge’s, founded in 1899, and Woolworth’s, founded in 1879. Of course the dime stores were very different from Ben Franklin, since they sold all and sundry, usually at cheap prices. At Kresge’s and Woolworth’s, you could eat a sandwich and drink a lemon coke at the soda fountain, then buy makeup, nail polish, a T-shirt with the corny slogan, I LOVE MY JOB, IT’S THE WORK I HATE!, jigsaw puzzles, birthday cards, kitchen utensils, and paperbacks. Kresge’s closed in 1987, Woolworth’s closed in 1997.
Ben Franklin was not the most popular store at the mall: Von Mauer, a department store, sold beautiful, expensive clothes, and had frequent sales; there was also a movie theater that showed all the commercial films. Then there was a cookie store, frequented by my mother and her best friend, who bought half-a-dozen oatmeal cookies after a movie.
My mother was not the kind who says “the end of an era” when a single store closes. She had seen end of an era on a larger scale: the death of downtown after a huge mall was built in a suburb. Many of her favorite stores closed over the decades: the dime stores, a local department store, three movie theaters, Seiffert’s (a women’s clothing store with great post-Christmas sales), a bakery, the A&P, the bookstores, and a candy store. Ben Franklin, hardly her favorite, was still in business when she died.
On our last visit to Ben Franklin, Mom wanted to buy me a Peruvian sweater. It was the kind of sweater I almost liked, but it was too scratchy to be comfortable. Fortunately, they did not have my size. We argued about the size. She imagined a smaller daughter. When I said I couldn’t button it, she said, “I think it looks nice unbuttoned.” In the end, she bought me the sweater and a cat mug. A compromise. Over the years, she bought me so many cat mugs: I have 8-oz. cat mugs, 12-oz. cat mugs, 16-oz cat mugs, and gigantic cat mugs that must hold at least a quart.
And I can’t bear to throw any away, even when they’re chipped.
I was surprised when my husband said that Christmas is eight days away. I exclaimed, “My God, I haven’t been thinking about that at all.”
I feel no pressure about the holidays this year. Perhaps it is because I’ve been online less. I have often felt competitive with holiday bloggers and amateur Instagram photographers, with their polished pix of hand- knitted nativity scenes (links to yarn stores), tablecloths woven on their own looms (links to looms), and centerpieces made from a few sticks, some dead grass, and a petrified squash found in the garden.
I tried to be perfect once. The holidays of the early 2010s were frazzled. After my mother went into a nursing home, I tried to fill her role, so I decorated and shopped for the perfect gifts. I have never gone to so much trouble with so little success. My mother was gracious, but the the pajamas with Scottie dogs fit like leggings: not her look, so I took them back. Stony-faced relatives barely thanked me for paint-by-number kits (it was ironic: something to do while the men watched football) or Fellini movies on DVDs. I went back to our simpler, happier Christmas routine: exchange books or give a sweater!
Enough about the holidays. Here’s what I’ve been reading.
A SATIRE BY A NOBEL PRIZE WINNER: If you liked Wim Wenders’ film Wings of Desire, co-written by Wenders and Peter Handke, you will appreciate The Revolt of the Angels, by the Nobel Prize Winner, Anatole France: it was doubtless one of the film’s inspirations. In France’s bizarre but charming novel, the library of an old French family is under attack. The fussy librarian, Monsieur Sariette, who hates to let anyone borrow a book, has a breakdown because books go missing and then mysteriously return. One day a book floats across the room and knocks him down when he chases it.
It turns out that a rebel angel, Arcade, is borrowing the books so he can read up on philosophy and theology. He wants to recruit an army of the angels on Earth and fight a war with God. Centuries ago, when the earth was made from chaos (see Ovid), Lucifer and other angels descended to Earth. They brought fire, clothing, culture, knowledge, and civilization to mankind. They were worshipped as Greek gods.
And then the rise of Christianity, with its emphasis on self-hatred, immolation, and sacrifice, ruined civilization, the angels think. The Christians burned the libraries, and knowledge was lost. And God – who was not always one god, by the way, and certainly wasn’t a favorite until Christianity – is quite a bungler.
This novel is a satire on Christianity, but it is also whimsical and fun to read.
ALTHOUGH SURREALISM MAKES ME GRUMPY, I admit that New and Selected Storiess, by Cristina Rivera Garza, translated by Sarah Booker and others, is one of the best books of 2022. In “Nostalgia,” a man travels to an unknown city in his dreams: the dreams become more real than life. In “City of Men, ” a woman journalist arrives in the City of Men to write an article from a woman’s point-of-view. From the beginning, the arrogance of the men is off-putting, and eventually she is terrified by the atmosphere of the city. A young waiter reveals that none of the women journalists have ever been allowed to leave. The reader knows and does not know what happens to them.
And let me mention one more story, “Offside.”A woman runs out of gas in a city that is always wintry. Her car disappears in the snow. She walks into town and lives with a man and has children by him. But he begins to take them on long excursions: she never knows where they go. Like the journalist in City of Men, she begins to wonder if she has been lured. What is the explanation?
This book is published by Dorothy, an excellent small press.
A BRILLIANT NEW(ISH) BOOK (2020): The Bass Rock, by Evie Wyld. I loved this strange, eerie Gothic novel, which begins with the narrator Vivienne’s childhood memory of finding a corpse on the beach. Viv is an unstable adult, who guiltily slept with her nasty brother-in-law, had a breakdown when her father died, and constantly picks at a patch of eczema on her leg until it bleeds. Now she has been hired by Uncle Christopher (a made-up job, she realizes ) to house-sit at Mrs. Hamilton’s big house and to archive papers and other belongings. Mrs. Hamilton was Christopher’s alcoholic, invariably kind stepmother, and Viv’s mother, Bernadette, grew up the house with Christopher and his brother Michael (Viv’s father), and her great-aunt, Betty (a servant).
Every character in this novel deals with violence. It is an everyday sickness, as in the society we live in now, but like all societies, as Wyld shows. When Viv comes out of supermarket one night, a sex worker, Maggie, standing outside the store, saves her from rape or murder by warning that a man is hiding behind her car. In an earlier time, shortly after World War II, Mrs. Hamilton (Ruth) accuses her husband Peter of having an affair. Not only will he not admit it, but he threatens to incarcerate her in a mental hospital. Then there is Katherine, Maggie’s sister, whose violent husband stalks her after she leaves him. There is another less effective narrative, involving an accused witch, but I have little to say about that.
I call this Gothic realism, for lack of a better phrase, but the gorgeous writing and unusual voice holds these eerie scenes together. Not everything meshes till the end of the book, but it is well worth reading.
At the center of Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is a never-ending lawsuit, Jarndyce and Jarndyce, which has ruined the lives of generations of a family. It has become a joke in court. When a lawyer observes that some event might happen “when the sky rains potatoes,” the Lord Chancellor says, “or when we get through Jarndyce and Jarndyce.
But of course the litigious society in Dickens’ 19th-century England is not a joke to the members of the family, nor to Dickens. Some of the characters in Bleak House resist the siren song of the lawsuit over the Jarndyce estate, others are seduced by the prospect of money. Among the resisters is John Jarndyce, the eccentric owner of Bleak House, who bowed out decades ago because of the effect on his skirmishing family members. He has little contact with his family; instead, he has selected his own extended family, which includes his two adult wards, Ada and Richard, their companion, Esther Summerson, and several friends, one of them definitely corrupt, the witty Mr. Skimpole, who claims he is a “child about money,”
In other words, the case affects nearly every character in the novel, some of whom lurk around court, sure that one day the case will be settled and they will get rich.
Dickens’s brilliant rhetorical sentences describe the consequences of the deplorable lawsuit. He writes,
This scarecrow of a case has, in course of time, become so complicated that no man alive knows what it means…. The little plaintiff or dependent, who was promised a new rocking-horse when Jarndyce and Jarndyce should be settled, has given up, possessed himself of a real horse, and trotted away into the other world. Fair wards of court have faded into mothers and grandmothers; a long procession of Chancellors have come in and gone out; the legion of bills in the suit have been transformed into mere bills of mortality; there are not three Jarndyces left upon the earth perhaps, since old Tom Jarndyce in despair blew his brains out at a coffee-house in Chancery Lane; but Jarndyce and Jarndyce still drags its dreary length before the Court, perennially hopeless.
Dickens manages to be serious, sad, and comical as he presents characters whose lives have been ruined by lawsuits. Miss Flite, a little old lady who is not as mad as people think, has spent her life in court. When she invites Ada and Richard, whom she regards as celebrities due to their involvement with Jarndyce and Jarndyce, along with Esther, one of the central characters, to her room, which is filled with cages of birds, she explains she will free the birds when her case is settled. But “They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings, that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again.”
Esther Summerson’s narrative takes up about one-third of the novel: she is an intelligent, sympathetic character who takes good care of her fast friends, Ada and Richard. With depth and wit, she describes life at Bleak House, the kindness of their guardian, and their meetings with his eccentric friends, among them Mrs. Jellyby, who works days and night to help some cause in Africa, while neglecting her family; and Mr. Boythorn, a gruff, loud, but gentle friend who walks around with a pet bird on his head (more birds!), and is suing his neighbor, Lord Dedlock, about an easement. Lord Dedlock is suing Mr. Boythorn about the same. Esther’s humorous, very personal chapters are my favorite in the book
This novel is so brilliant in every way that I recommend you cozily sit down with a cup of coffee and the book. It will keep you happy for a month.
I was delighted to find Mary Russell Mitford’s little-known collection of essays, Our Village, at a used bookstore. Even if I had not heard of it, I might have purchased this cheap Everyman’s Library edition, with its charming pink cover, decorated with an illustration of Mary and her intelligent greyhound, May.
Mitford’s simple, humorous sketches of village life originally appeared in Lady’s Magazine in the 19th century. She describes country walks, the change of seasons, dogs, cricket matches, the first primroses, nutting, and eccentric neighbors.
Mitford (1787-1855), a middlebrow English writer, was the daughter of a dissipated doctor who squandered her fortune and that of her mother. As a child, Mary won him the lottery by picking a number, but he gambled away that fortune, too. Finally, they moved to a cottage, living on the reserve of her mother’s dowry and Mary’s scanty earnings.
Perhaps she became so balanced and tolerant because of her father’s unreliability. Life in a city might have disturbed her hard-earned tranquility. In Chapter 1, “Our Village,” Mitford lays out the advantages of village life, saying she prefers Jane Austen’s novels to hectic travels. She writes,
Nothing is so tiresome as to be whirled half over Europe at the chariot-wheels of a hero, to go to sleep at Vienna and awaken in Madrid; it produces real fatigue, a weariness of spirit. On the other hand, nothing is so delightful as to sit down in a country village in one of Jan Austen’s delicious novels, quite sure before we leave it to become intimate with every spot and every person it contains…
Mitford is not in the canon: her writing entertains but is occasionally awkward. Yet her observations are sharp, perceptive and wise. Her constant companion, and my favorite character, is her greyhound, May, who “answers in a pretty voice when spoken to (sad pity that the language should be unknown), and has greatly the advantage of us in conversation, inasmuch as our meaning is certainly clear to her…”
My husband asked if Mary Mitford is an ancestor of Nancy Mitford – not to my knowledge! But her point-of-view as a spinster-writer makes this an essential commentary on the lives of women in rural England in the 19th century.
One night, when the temperature dropped below zero, and we felt as though we were in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book, my boyfriend and I walked home from work. We complained all the way, though we were dressed for the cold. We wore identical Air Force parkas with synthetic fur-trimmed hoods.
Only were the parkas identical? His was navy blue. Was mine sage-green? I know I once had a sage-green Air Force parka. It was an Air Force parka knock-off for women, in a prettier color than the navy blue. Was his a real Air Force parka? Where would he have bought it? The Army-Navy store? But did the Army-Navy store sell Air Force jackets?
I’m thinking of the parka, because a friend sent me an old picture of this boyfriend in the parka. He was at a poetry reading at a local bookstore, having a drink and talking to a couple of literary friends. All of them had coats on. The bookstore must have been cold. I have noticed, however, that men seldom take off their coats at these events, because they want to be ready to take off when they get bored.
I wonder if my husband – my true love, not the boyfriend – remembers my Air Force parka. Was it blue or green? But, no, I don’t think he would remember. The winter I met him, he himself was wearing a strange system of layers of coats, which led a friend to think he was poor. He wasn’t poorer than the rest of us – it was a neo-poor prairie-macho fashion he thought up himself.
This time of year, if you take the Charles Dickens walk, you will probably sing Christmas carols. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come”? “O Little Town of Bethlehem”? You will remember some of the words but not all.
The truth is, you never took the Dickens walk. You were supposed to meet in front of a tube stop. The docent would wear 19th-century clothes, a living Phiz illustration. But you never got beyond the Dickens Museum, at 48 Doughty Street, which is not far from Lamb’s Conduit, a charming street known for its pubs, restaurants, and shops.
Still, you would see Dickensian sights if you took the literary walk. Walk in the City, and you would see the Courts of Chancery, the scene of the endlessly-argued lawsuits in Bleak House. Perhaps you would walk past the prison where Little Dorrit and her family lived. Then on to the Old Curiosity Shop in Holborn, which you dreaded because it would be too touristy. And of course the docent would take you on one of Dickens’ favorite walks, because Dickens walked 10 or 20 miles a day.
What living writer is the the modern Dickens? You can only think of John Irving, whose sprawling, comical novels of the 20th century, The World According to Garp, The Cider House Rules, and A Widow for One Year, had a similar vitality. In an interview, Irving said Dickens was his favorite writer, and that he had read all of his books but one, which he was saving for old age. On the TV show, Lost, Desmond had the same philosophy: in a ziplock bag, he carried the one Dickens book he had not read. So on Lost, a homage to Irving!
You will not take the Dickens walk this December – it might rain or snow. And even 48 Doughty Street might be a little crazy around Christmas, because of the Christmas books.
So Happy Christmas in November! Perhaps you’ll take the walk.
A few years ago, I discovered Alexander Herzen’s lively memoirs, Childhood, Youth & Exile: Being Parts I and II of My Past and Thoughts (1854). Herzen, a 19th-century Russian intellectual and radical writer, delineates Russian politics, society, and culture, as well as the events of his life. He wrote four volumes of memoirs, continuing to revise them until his death in 1870. And his work influenced Tolstoy, who based a scene in War and Peace on Herzen’s description of his family’s flight from the fire of Moscow in 1812 after the French occupation. (Herzen’s nurse tells him the story, because he was only a baby then.)
Herzen wrote only one novel, Who Is to Blame?, published in 1845-46 in the journal, Notes of the Fatherland, and as a book in 1847. I read it over the holiday, and enjoyed it thoroughly. It’s a shame this short novel is not better-known, because it is great fun, brimming over with allusions to Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermentov’s A Hero of Our Time.
Divided into two parts and rather oddly cobbled together, Who Is to Blame? is part comedy, part romance, part tragedy. Part I is at times farcical: Herzen depicts the routine of a comical provincial family whose lives revolve around food and sleep. Aleksai Abramovich Negrov, a retired major general, “followed only one rule of hygiene: he never allowed mental exertion to upset his digestion.” His obese wife, Glafira Lvovna, lives for meals and naps, but as a slim, beautiful, novel-reading bride did one good deed: she insisted that they raise his illegitimate daughter, Lyubov, as their own. The snarky, skeptical authorial voice of the narrator intrudes to mock her supposed idealism, saying the reason “is obvious: romantic ecstasy predisposed her to prefer above all else tragic scenes, self-sacrifice, forced acts of charity.”
Though their parents are slothful in middle age, the younger generation is unspoiled: Lyubov, now a serious teenage girl, and Dmitry Yakovlevich, her brother’s tutor, fall in love. There are elements of farce: through a mistake, he kisses Glafira Lvovna on the balcony, thinking she is Lyubov. But what a kiss! The snarky narrator dwells on that unforgettable kiss. Glafira is furious when she learns he mistook her for her daughter, and he, of course, is horrified. But it all works out: Part I ends with the marriage of the young couple.
And then, lo! Where are Dmitry Yakovlevich and Lyubonka? In Part II, Herzen embarks on the story of Beltov, a talented, handsome, once idealistic man who did not fulfill his youthful promise. After wandering the world and finding nothing interesting, Beltov becomes what the Russians call “a superfluous man,” a rich man who does nothing, in the tradition of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin and Lermontov’s Pechorin. Finally, the two parts of the novel connect, when the superfluous man meets Lyubov – who is similar to Pushkin’s Tatyana Larina – and the two fall in love.
Having just read Tolstoy’s novel about marriage and love triangles, Anna Karenina, I found Herzen’s book a bit simplistic. Yet Herzen portrays a woman who does not act on impulse. Lyubonka is a serious moral thinker, and she wonders philosophically if or why it is wrong to love two men. She writes in her journal, wondering if she can bear to hurt her husband, who she suspects could not survive without her. They were perfectly happy, until Beltov arrived. And we ask, along with Herzen: Who is to blame?
I missed the comedy of Part I, yet Herzen just manages to pull the narrative together at the end of Part II. I will reread this novel, though it is uneven, because I am fascinated by the development of 19th-century Russian literature.
All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. – “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy
Russian novelists of the nineteenth century are obsessed with love affairs and unhappy marriages. Having just reread Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, I am left, as always, with compassion for Anna. She is the charming, lovely wife of an important but charmless government official, Karenin, and the mother of a beloved son. But Anna loses her position in society after she leaves Karenin for her lover, Vronsky.
When I read AK at 20, I viewed Anna as a romantic figure who was crushed by society for illicit love. I no longer regard Anna as a romantic figure, but she is indeed crushed by society. The double standard is brutal: no one blames Vronsky for a sexual liaison, and he goes about in society as before, but Anna is shunned by friends. When she goes to the opera, she is harassed – by a woman who makes a scene and leaves because of Anna. By default, love of Vronsky becomes Anna’s sole pursuit.
Tolstoy did not at first view Anna as a sympathetic character. He intended to write a novel in which he moralized about her as a fallen woman. But he began to see Anna differently as he wrote this tragic novel.
And yet he also shows Anna as a destructive force. In the beginning of the novel, Anna travels to Moscow to make peace between her brother, Stiva, and his wife, Dolly, who has learned that he is having an affair with their former governess. Ironically, after she persuades Dolly to stay, Anna cruelly destroys the mental health of Dolly’s younger sister, Kitty, by dancing all night with Kitty’s suitor, the handsome Vronsky. She is guiltily aware that she ruined the night for Kitty. Vronsky pursues Anna to Petersburg, without even saying good-bye to Kitty, who is so shattered she has a nervous breakdown. It’s all for the best – Kitty ends up marrying my favorite character, Levin, a much better man – but we see that Anna, like Stiva, is impulsive, with a strong sex drive.
Perhaps you’re wondering: where do the drugs come in? Anna begins to take opium to sleep at night. And we see, horrified, how the opium skews her judgment. Vronsky is faithful to her, as he tells her over and over, but she does not believe him. She is left alone too much at home, and has extreme mood swings. Finally, her thought processes become so disorganized that she enters a frenzied, psychotic state. And when she throws herself on the railroad tracks in front of a train, she is confused – doesn’t quite know how she got there – and regrets the impulse to commit suicide. Too late. Poor Anna! What a terrible end to love!
But perhaps Vronsky is the true destructive force. There is a grim scene where he kills his beautiful mare by incompetent riding in a race. He is careless – careless of the mare, careless of Kitty’s feelings, careless of Anna’s feelings. He can be noble at times, but how could he expect Anna to be happy as a pariah?
Anna is a central character, but in this magnificent novel Tolstoy also delineates the marriages of Levin and Kitty, Dolly and Stiva, and the sad deterioration of Karenin after Anna leaves him. A brilliant, entertaining page-turner. This was, I think, my fifth reading.