a reader

an eudæmonistreading

2021

October

Iris Origo. Images and Shadows: Part of a Life. New York: NYRB Classics, 2019 (1970). [170]
A good companion to her two war diaries, and a thoughtful memoir in its own right. There’s a bit of something for everyone, including Gilded Age society on both sides of the Atlantic, experimental approaches to women’s education, and crop rotation. I found Part 2 the most sympathetic, but that is perhaps because it aligned more closely with my own interests. As a whole, it confirms my general impression that memoir, as a genre, requires a sharp focus or theme (like the war diaries) or should be written towards the end of life (Origo lived a further eighteen years after publishing this, but it is clear that she is closing the door on further autobiographical writing), but this might rather be my distaste for epiphanic memoirs by immature writers (there is always time for further life-altering epiphanies [see, e.g., Glennon Doyle, who is perfectly fine if one wishes to be ‘inspired’]).
Leo Tolstoy. Tales of Army Life. trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford: OUP, 1935 (1852–1863). [169]
Uneven. Less platitudinous than Boyhood, etc., and less overtly ‘moral’ than the stories in The Snow Storm and Other Stories. The Sevastopol stories were very engaging, and The Cossacks started strong, but devolved into cringe – if one wants to know that Tolstoy would have thought about voluntourism (not, admittedly, a question of burning importance), it’s a great place to start.
Mariana Dimópulos. Imminence. trans. Alice Whitmore. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2021 (2014, 2019). [168]
Interesting in its blurring of narrative boundaries (who is the focal character talking to again?). One is tempted to say that it is under-motivated, but not in the sense that people do not behave as described (doing stupid, hurtful, self-harmful things for no particular reason) but because they do; to want to hear or read about it, though, some sense of connection between story-teller (or protagonist) and reader/listener is necessary. My problem with this particular book (and with many other books, but this one had the ill fortune to be a breaking point, although that doomy ersatz Bolaño with a motorcycle [the title of which thankfully eludes me] would be another example) is not that it is bad or uninteresting, but that, ultimately, I am getting tired of giving that connection on credit.
The Point. The Opening of the American Mind: Ten Years of The Point. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2020. [167]
I don’t read The Point and have no real desire to do so after reading this collection, which contained perfectly fine essays that combined social commentary and political analysis with a faint wash of literary criticism and/or style. Most of the essays were thoughtful and thought-provoking and perfectly … fine. There was only one essay that was too tedious (after its first five pages) to read attentively – but I defy anyone (without an established interest in the topic) to find a privileged young person’s forty-page account of joining the DSA (combined with a somewhat banal reading of Animal Farm) anything other than tiresome.
Georgette Heyer. Frederica. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2008 (1965). [166.d]
One could call it a cure for insomnia (not inaccurate), but that would give the wrong impression. Perfectly fine of its type.
Alexandre Dumas. The Three Musketeers. trans. Lord Sudley. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984 (1844, 1952). [165]
A book to be read quickly, in the grip of adventure.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Antony and Cleopatra. rev. ed. edited by Peter G. Phialas. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1955 (ca. 1606–1608). [164]
Hadn’t read this one before and can see why. It is a bit of a mess. Any time Cleopatra starts talking, her interlocutors are reduced to saying ‘Cleopatra…’ or ‘Good madam’ and such feeble interjections while she speaks in paragraphs, which makes it difficult to relate. Indeed, the entire play seems to move too fast, jump to rapidly from place to place, and there is nothing strong enough to hold it all together. This, of course, nicely resembles Antony’s own situation in the play, so one must suppose it is a success. But not very fun.

September

Mary Oliver. Upstream: Selected Essays. New York: Penguin, 2019 (2016). [163]
Three essays in particular were of note, for me: on Emerson, Poe, and a spiderweb in a corner. The essays on Whitman and Wordsworth had perhaps less to sink their teeth into – Whitman’s overripe pantheism and Wordsworth’s solipsism being less hospitable, less sociable grounds. Much of the book, unsurprisingly, is taken up with nature writing, not of the dry, distanced variety, or even the psychological mirror sort, but rather a slosh about in muddy boots, human as part of world miasma type – foraging and scavenging food and philosophy. ‘Spiritual’ but not religious. Marked by the sweet flowing forth of words (almost gush) that some would call lyrical or poetical. Checked it out from the library and was interested enough to buy a copy – and not to regret it.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Macbeth. rev. ed. edited by Eugene M. Waith. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1954 (ca. 1606). [162]
Rich, varied, maddening. So much going on and so economically handled.
Alexander Radishchev. Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow. trans. Andrew Kahn & Irina Reyfman. New York: Columbia UP, 2020 (1788). [161]
A book that I wanted to enjoy but didn’t, although I will admit that it improved when I gave up the attempt to read it closely. I think I had hoped it would be more like Sterne, which is a lot to ask of any author (or translator); see post for a vague gesture in the direction of an explanation that, like the book it describes, remains unsatisfactory.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of King Lear. rev. ed. edited by Tucker Brooke & William Lyon Phelps. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1947 (ca. 1606). [160]
Really excellent handling of minor characters, which is necessary because following the main tragedy is like looking at the sun. Still prefer Hamlet, but Lear might be a close second.
Irving Babbitt, trans. The Dhammapada. New York: New Directions, 1965 (1936). [159]
Eminently readable and captures the tone of ‘wisdom literature’. Of course there are many different reasons and purposes for reading it, so one cannot say that one translation is more appropriate than another, but in general this would be the one I would reach for.
Jessica Sequeira. A Luminous History of the Palm. Seattle, WA: Sublunary Editions, 2020. [158]
Charming, fragmentary. Stick it on the shelf next to On Beauty and Being Just and Danielle Dutton’s Margaret the First.
Margaret Kennedy. The Outlaws on Parnassus. London: Cresset, 1958. [157]
An enjoyable excursion into popular literary criticism; occasionally marked too much by the habits of its time in usage and thought, but still clever and charming in equal measures. Just at the point when one is likely to become irritated with the manner, Kennedy will say something sparkling and acute that wins again one’s sympathy. Pairs well with Vera Brittain’s On Becoming a Writer.
Jane Austen. Mansfield Park. Oxford: OUP, 1929 (1814). [156]
This rereading was shaped by D.A. Miller’s book on Austen’s style, and I read MP in a state of fury because I disagreed so strongly with Miller. I think, too, that I am right in my assessment; if one submits to Miller’s model of style (viz., the hero/ine acknowledging error and growing beyond it in a very particular manner) – and this, I think, is a major concession – the key point in MP is that circumstances can be beyond one’s control (e.g., Fanny cannot control Edmund’s feelings, she cannot control Crawford’s importunities, she cannot control when her uncle will call her back from Portsmouth) and that one must still act in accordance with one’s beliefs and character despite that lack of control. This is closer to the model in Persuasion (another novel Miller does not treat adequately) than to the sprightly (‘spirited’) heroines Miller prefers. That said, what stood out to me was how many times Fanny is described as angry or full of rage, particularly during Crawford’s courtship; I hadn’t noticed it before, but it is quite interesting as a measure of the depths of her frustration (and powerlessness). Also, if Crawford is able to make Shakespeare’s Henry VIII seem interesting, he is either more charismatic or a better actor than I had imagined (or both). Edmund is more of a putz then I remember, but Edward Ferrars also seemed like more of a putz than I had remembered, and they have a lot in common as characters.

August

Emily Ogden. Credulity: A Cultural History of US Mesmerism. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2018. [155]
As it sounds; quite readable, and the analyses of novels/short stories in each chapter in light of the impact of mesmerism as a cultural phenomenon were particularly interesting.
Nawal El Saadawi. Memoirs of a Woman Doctor. trans. Catherine Cobham. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1989 (1957, 1988). [154]
Much that one would expect, but of particular interest were the transitions between life stages, abrupt and inexplicable, which the author wisely chooses not to try too hard to explain. A slight book.
Nana Ekvtimishvili. The Pear Field. trans. Elizabeth Heighway. London: Peirene, 2020 (2015, 2018). [153]
I feel that I saw this somehow as a film (not The Italian, I think, but similar) a long time ago, although without the sexual abuse. It feels very familiar and yet quite distant. Strange and unexpected.
Katharine Schellman. Silence in the Library. New York: Crooked Lane, 2021. [152.d]*
Pleasantly diverting.
Vera Brittain. On Becoming a Writer. London: Hutchinson & Co., 1947. [151]
Another very weary book, like Russell’s Has Man a Future?. The publishing landscape was clearly in the process of changing dramatically after WWII, and Brittain provides evidence for some of that (she is particularly interesting on the effects of paper rationing, for example), but the picture she presents is still fairly privileged, insular – there was not such a volume of material each year, nor such limited attention available (no competition yet from television or the internet, in part). In this sense it is outdated, because promotion and publicity make up so much more of the ‘work’ of authors publishing for a general audience at present, and she mentions them only by the way. Much of the advice Brittain offers is standard fare for books on authorship (and much of it is probably covered in MFA courses), but her firm belief in the ability of merit and talent to achieve recognition and/or reward is … charming.
Gilles Deleuze. Bergsonism. trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. New York: Zone, 1988 (1966). [150]
Not quite as interesting as the book on Spinoza; cannot tell if that is because Bergson lacks Spinoza’s depth as a philosopher or because the translators do not do as thorough a job in untangling the specialist vocabulary and making sense of it in English. They do try, but the result is stilted, ambiguous, rhythmically unhappy, and not always comprehensible (to be fair the book on Spinoza was occasionally incomprehensible as well, but it was a more regular occurrence here). As a whole, the aim of the book seemed primarily to encourage more thoughtful consideration of Bergson as a philosopher (rather than in knee-jerk reaction to his ‘quarrel’ with Einstein): one should read Bergson instead. The parts on ‘intuition’ as philosophical method were, however, quite interesting and deserve an attentive rereading.
Laozi. Daodejing. trans. Edmund Ryden. Oxford: OUP, 2008 (5th century BCE). [149]
An interesting pairing with the Dhammapada, as well as my current vague ruminations on Stoic thought. The introduction was actually helpful and informative, which isn’t always the case.
Tove Ditlevsen. The Copenhagen Trilogy. trans. Tiina Nunnally and Michael Favala Goldman. New York: FSG Originals, 2021 (1967, 1971; 1985, 2019). [148]
Not really for me; a bit of an unripe persimmon, astringent but promising something else, so one is surprised and a little disconcerted not find the rich, sweet savor one anticipated. Not bad, but not something with which I could find myself in sympathy.
Chantal Akerman. My Mother Laughs. trans. Corina Copp. Brooklyn, NY: The Song Cave, 2019 (2013). [147]
I’ve mentioned my thoughts about Duras elsewhere (I’m not particularly a fan), and this reminded me of Duras – but of a Duras incandescent; this takes similar materials (mommy issues, miasmic sexuality, violence) and makes them into something greater. While the navel-gazing in Duras seems self-indulgent solipsism, here the same activity seems a quasi-clinical examination of the wound inflicted by being born, of being alive. It sparkles with emotions and madness, despite (or because of) the occasionally flat affect.
Claudia Ulloa Donoso. Little Bird. Lily Meyer. Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum, 2021 (2015). [146]
Peculiar, dreamlike; reminded me of The Brick House, but stranger.
John Ross Carter and Mahinda Palihawadana, trans. The Dhammapada. Oxford: OUP, 2000 (3rd century CE, 1987). [145]
Trying out a new translation of an old favorite and finding it a bit stiff and stilted.
Robert Darnton. Mesmerism and the End of the Enlightenment in France. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1968. [144]
Readable and thought-provoking; an interesting examination of the intersection between pseudo-science and politics.
Richard Wollheim. Germs: A Memoir of Childhood. New York: NYRB Classics, 2021 (2004). [143]
Curiously flat for a memoir of childhood (and it is very much that), but this leads one to think about the oddly rich and complex portrayals of childhood in other memoirs/biography, which are perhaps given their depth only by the force of retrospect. Although a much longer book, it seemed weaker than Love’s Work, less forceful. Reminded me more of Conundrum, with that same flat affect. Perhaps one could call it the power of privilege despite personal peculiarity. I use the word ‘peculiarity’ not to signify my judgement (both Morris and Wollheim seem merely human after all), but rather the sense both of these authors convey of being out of step with the common herd. (Tho’ is not this, too, a common feature of childhood? Is there anyone who claims to be ‘normal’ who is not in truth protesting too much?)
Nicholas Breton. Fantasticks. Seattle, WA: Empyrean, 2021 (1626). [142]
A bizarre collection, part essay, part almanac; perhaps I should think about ending all of my compositions with ‘Farewell’.
Porphyry. On Abstinence from Animal Food. trans. Thomas Taylor. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1965 (3rd century CE, 1823). [141]
An odd book, containing much more than its title would suggest – and of more interest. Particularly noteworthy were his comments on sacrifice and language/meaning-making. Mirabile dictu, it made me interested in reading more Porphyry and, dare I say, Plotinus.
D.A. Miller. Jane Austen, or The Secret of Style. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2003. [140]
Ultimately this book does not seem to be about Jane Austen, or if it is about Jane Austen and her ‘style’, it is about the ways in which she could be said to approach camp (viz., a particular bracket of male homosexual aesthetics), which seems both counterintuitive and frankly misguided. He takes advantage of the privilege of misreading or ignoring anything that does not agree with what he wishes to say (do not we all?). The neologism ‘stylothete’ is either tiresome or pretentious (I cannot quite decide which), especially as he clearly plays (more or less explicitly) with ‘stylite’, as though he had looked it up and found that it did not mean what he wanted it to mean. It will perhaps suffice to say that Emma is Miller’s particular favorite (‘the most perfect and the most melancholy’), which is not a judgement with which I am willing to be persuaded to agree, and that he mentions Schelling only as filtered through Žižek, which, well, is a choice. The comments on spinsters and spinsterdom border on the unintelligent.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice. rev. ed. edited by Tucker Brooke & Lawrence Mason. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1947 (ca. 1604). [139]
It may be Othello’s tragedy, but it is certainly Iago’s play. PF suggests that Iago has no motivation – the mention of jealousy and thwarted ambition being post hoc justifications, nonsense – that he is a trickster figure, a coyote, a fox, a Spartan dog, sowing chaos wherever he passes. I am not certain I would go so far as that, but he does seem to succumb to the Cretan paradox when he says ‘I am not what I am’ – because if he is not what he is and he claims that he is not what he is, then that claim is itself false, etc. He does seem to be the play’s demiurge, and that is as far as I wish to go in thinking about it.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Troilus and Cressida. rev. ed. edited by Jackson J. Campbell. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1965 (ca. 1603). [138]
Troilus. What’s aught, but as ’tis valu’d?
Hector. But value dwells not in particular will. / It holds his estimate and dignity / As well wherein ’tis precious of itself / As in the prizer.’ (II.2.52–56)

July

Gilles Deleuze. Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. trans. Richard Hurley. San Francisco, CA: City Lights, 1988 (1970, 1981). [137]
I was not particularly interested in reading Spinoza before picking up this book, but Deleuze makes the problem of Spinoza’s Ethics seem interesting and, what is in itself noteworthy, comprehensible to the non-philosopher and indeed the entirely unphilosophical. Chapter 4, the index of the main concepts of the Ethics was a bit of a chore, but seems like it might be useful alongside Spinoza in a way it cannot be in isolation from the work that sparked it. As always with Deleuze, he seems comprehensible and sensible when he is writing on his own; it is only when he is a coauthor that he succumbs to fancifulness.
Leslie A. Marchand, ed. ‘Famous in My Time’: Byron’s Letters and Journals, vol. 2, 1810–1812. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1973. [136]
An interesting time in Byron’s life, dashing headlong after happiness and fame, with all of the subsequent ills of those pursuits. His trip abroad (and the death of his mother) seems to have steadied him, though, and the letters beginning from the latter half of 1811 seem less petulant and self-absorbed (still a bit of a narcissist, but very alive to the feelings [real or imagined] of others). I hadn’t realized the business with Caroline Lamb (the actual romance part) was of such short duration; for all the hullaballoo one would have though it should have lasted more than a couple of months; in any case, Byron’s letters to Lady Melbourne are rather charming.
Laura J. Miller. Reluctant Capitalists: Bookselling and the Culture of Consumption. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2006. [135]
Started off very strong indeed, particularly in integrating the many different players (and their competing interests) in the world of bookselling, but the post-Amazon coverage is weaker, perhaps because the full effects were not wholly visible (though of course they are hinted at). It would be interesting to read an updated version, one that takes into account the fall of Borders, the grotesque consolidation of the large multi-national publishers (and their control of distribution silos), as well as the expansion of both ebooks and digital book sales with the ubiquity of smartphones – and of course the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, which appears (based on hearsay and twitter) to have exacerbated the circumstances already in play.
Laurence Sterne. Tristram Shandy. Oxford: OUP, 1951 (1759–1767). [134]
Remains one of my favorite books.
J. Hector St. John Crèvecoeur. Letters from an American Farmer. Garden City, NY: Dolphin Books, 1961 (1782). [133]
An odd, enjoyable book. Uneven, of course, and occasionally cringe-inducing – but with many enjoyable moments.
Clara McKenna. Murder at Keyhaven Castle. New York: Kensington, 2021. [132.d]*
Waited on the hold list from the library for quite a long time; cannot ultimately say that it was worth it. From the sentence to the structural level and even through production (the poor copyeditor – what must it have looked like before if ‘reign’ for ‘rein’ does not attract attention?), the book seemed rushed. Not that threads were left unresolved, but that even their resolution seemed incomplete. Why so many new characters? Why are the stories the characters tell themselves not internally consistent for the character telling it? One understands that humans are frequently arbitrary and inconsistent and don’t make sense, but so many of the characters here seem to have wandered in from a different novel entirely.
Alejandra Costamagna. The Touch System trans. Lisa Dillman. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2021 (2018). [131]
A book that constantly nudges the reader off balance, with its shifting narrators, deliberate typographical errors, and uncanny exploration of self and desire. I will pay more attention while typing for the forseeeable future.
Artemis Leontis. Eva Palmer Sikelianos: A Life in Ruins. Princeton, NJ: PUP, 2019. [130]
An interesting approach to biography, arranged primarily according to themes rather than focusing on narrative (do lives even form narratives as such?). It makes a case for the importance of its subject, but even in considering her philhellenic and artistic accomplishments, her main historical interest seems to be as socialite and conduit of wealth. For the book as a whole, one could make the same observation Leontis makes of Upward Panic (Palmer Sikelianos’s semi-complete autobiography): ‘the tone is impersonal even when it tells her story’ (181).
Miklós Bánffy. The Enchanted Night. trans. Len Rix. London: Pushkin Press, 2020 (1896–1946). [129]
An odd collection, a mixture of folk-tale type pieces and stories lifted right from Max Beerbohm. Enjoyable in its way, but not particularly satisfying.
Janet Martin. Medieval Russia, 980–1584. 1st ed. Cambridge: CUP, 1995. [128]
A very readable history of medieval Russia (i.e., Kievan Rus’ and Muscovy), with solid local contextualization. Would have liked more comparison in the chapter on Ivan IV (e.g., how did his activities compare with those of his contemporaries in other countries?), but that is more a reflection of my ignorance than a limitation of the book itself. Interested to learn more about Poland/Lithuania, as well as the Hanseatic League.
E.J. Holmyard. Alchemy. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1957. [127]
A charming and readable introduction to the topic, with a solid presentation of the Arabic material. Like The Varieties of Religious Experience, the extracts from the writings and biographies of exemplars were among the most illuminating and irritating aspects of the book.
Gillian Rose. Love’s Work. New York: NYRB Classics, 2011 (1995). [126]
Rich and thought provoking for such a slender book. Examines the meaning (significance, intention) of a life, particularly in the midst of death (or vice versa). To attempt to fit it into any of the common categories of memoir is to do it a disservice, to limit it to something less than it is – a reckoning of love’s work (the work of love and the fact that love is work). Rarely in memoirs does one gain a sense of entering an other world, or at least entering that world without an apology or justification from the author. It is liberating, powerful, to be allowed as a witness – love’s work.
T.R. Malthus. An Essay on the Principle of Population. Oxford: OUP, 1993 (1798). [125]
An interesting book, interesting in its being a collection of ideas that seem the product of a mind working as minds do, not by genius. Engages with the ideas of others (Godwin at length, Adam Smith more briefly [and respectfully]), while engaging with the ideas and intentions as such (as commonly and thoughtfully understood), rather than Malthus’s beliefs about what those ideas should be. Buffle-headed on the idea of wealth, but cleverly points out how others are, too. If Godwin is, in a way, treated to something like a straw-man argument, he is at least treated as mostly man (liable to error) rather than straw (liable to burn). This is a rarity in that it is also readable. The final chapter with its veneer of platitudinous Christianity did not entirely detract from the strength of the remainder – it seemed that Malthus, too, knew it was lip service and worked by rote.
Gillian Osborne. Green Green Green. New York: Nightboat Books, 2021. [124]
Another aphoristic allusive not quite memoir. Lightly touching on natural history and Emily Dickinson, but apparently content, like a water skipper, to remain above the depths.

June

Anna Croissant-Rust. Death. trans. James J. Conway. Berlin: Rixdorf, 2018 (1893, 1914). [123]
Dense, doomy, and delightful.
Janet Malcolm. Two Lives: Gertrude and Alice. New Haven, CT: YUP, 2007. [122]
Slight reworkings of New Yorker articles, which are not among my favorite genres. Despite the limitations of tone/approach, it is still interesting to read, although there was insufficient coverage of Bucket I and Bucket II (the dogs).
James Kirkland, Holly F. Mathews, C. W. Sullivan III, and Karen Baldwin, eds. Herbal and Magical Medicine: Traditional Healing Today. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1992. [121]
The approach is mostly anthropological, but the intent is clearly to aid in clinical practice (why/what do people believe about healing?). Good that it acknowledge the psychological factor in healing, but still feels very out of date (it is, of course, but it feels even more out of date than it is or should be).
Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. New York: Grove, 1967. [120]
Enjoyable and diverting. A bit heavier on the Beckett, which I hadn’t really noticed/thought about before, but still a nice follow-up to reading Hamlet. Also interesting to compare with the film version, which provided more of the context than the stage play does.
Archpriest Avvakum. The Life Written by Himself. trans. Kenneth N. Brostrom. New York: Columbia UP, 2021 (ca. 1669–1672; 1979). [119]
A rather strange book, with some rather odd choices in the translation. Had the same uncanny opacity, an unearthly down-to-earthness as Jocelyn de Brakelond. So many devils cast out and taunted.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark. rev. ed. edited by Tucker Brooke & Jack Randall Crawford. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1947 (ca. 1599–1601). [118]
Honestly one of my favorite things to read, ever. I guess if I were to be trapped on a desert island, I would pack ‘How to Build a Boat from Nothing – with new appendix on steering, sailing, etc.’ and Hamlet.
Claude Lévi-Strauss. Wild Thought. trans. Jeffrey Mehlman & John Leavitt. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2021 (1962, 2008). [117]
The first and last chapters were particularly interesting; the intervening chapters seemed like bits of Durkheim shaken up with Bergson in a not particularly compelling fashion.
Franziska zu Reventlow. The Guesthouse at the Sign of the Teetering Globe. trans. James J. Conway. Berlin: Rixdorf, 2017 (1915–1925). [116]
Eerie, uncanny, the dangers of travelling. Reminded of Bruno Schulz (not surprisingly given the title and the crocodile that appears on the cover), but somehow it has an atmosphere of greater amusement.
Bertrand Russell. Has Man a Future?. Harmondsworth: Penguin Special, 1973 (1961). [115]
Such a weary, weary book. The tone of exhaustion. When roused to attempt a solution (to nuclear proliferation/doomsday/etc.), it makes an effort to appear authoritative, but seems muddled, shortsighted, willfully blind to its own limitations (because the alternative seems so dreadful). An interesting pairing for Piketty’s Capital.
Leo Tolstoy. The Snow Storm and Other Stories. trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford: OUP, 1966 (1855–1863). [114]
Very moral stories.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Julius Cæsar. edited by Lawrence Mason. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1919 (ca. 1599). [113]
A much better play than I remember, and also more typically political. The silly quarrel between Brutus and Cassius in Act 4 is odd, however, but would probably make more sense performed.
Mariana Oliver. Migratory Birds. trans. Julia Sanches. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2021 (2014). [112]
Light essays that all felt familiar. Reminded me somewhat of Jazmina Barrera’s On Lighthouses – the same sense of skimming swiftly over the surface, touching everything lightly while hinting at depths. There is technical control and mastery, but no sense of novelty: everything is familiar, old news – although all of the essays were on topics that were of at least moderate interest to me (as a reader and as a person). This is part of what separates good writing from great writing: the sense that the author, too, is trying to unravel (or perhaps knit up) the meaning. The weakest of the three volumes in the series thus far, of which I liked Mary Capello’s Lecture most, while acknowledging that Namwalli Serpell’s Stranger Faces is probably the better book.
Felicity Heal and Clive Holmes. The Gentry in England and Wales, 1500–1700. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1994. [111]
Aimed at mid-level undergraduates or the interested general reader (assumes a moderately thorough knowledge of the general historical context), each chapter considers a different aspect of gentry life (income, marriage, religion, etc.) and uses a different type of historical source. An interesting piece of social historiography.
Peter Holm Jensen. The Moment. Innerleithen, UK: Splice, 2021. [110]
Rather too similar to the lived life to make much joy in reading.
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet. rev. ed. edited by Richard Hosley. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1954 (ca. 1597). [109]
A better and more interesting play than I had remembered; I still don’t particularly care for it, but it has merits that my peevish younger self would not care to acknowledge. Fine roles for character actors, too; much more like Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream than I had recalled, and rolls along neatly.
Ilse Frapan. We Women Have no Fatherland. trans. James J. Conway. Berlin: Rixdorf, 2018 (1899). [108]
A curious little book about women’s education and the workings of privilege. The framing device (an unnamed narrator and then a small diary) allows a multiplicity of views and enhances the overall ambiguity (what happens, after all, to the unsupported student with her dreams of social justice?).

May

Doireann Ní Ghríofa. A Ghost in the Throat. Windsor, ON: Biblioasis, 2021 (2020). [107]
A meaning-making, a female text. Milk/blood/tears, from which the joys and tragedies of life accrete or ossify. Curiously remote, disembodied – as tho’ among the ignis fatui: and yet not so, for it resolves, though not as expected. Reminded me most of H Is for Hawk and Constellations.
Michelene Aharonian Marcom. The Brick House. Austin, TX: Awst Press, 2017. [106]
A book of dreams, with all the odd, embarrassing connections, the lusts and strangeness, the mutability of form. The bounding of disgust and desire and the inability to explain how one arrived at the place where one is.
Laura (Riding) Jackson. Convalescent Conversations. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018 (1936). [105]
A sort of strange amalgamation of Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori and Valéry’s Idée Fixe, with a dash of Magic Mountain thrown in; the shadow workings of the nursing home curiously reminded me of Monica Dickens’s One Pair of Feet. This is all by the way, however, because to say that a book reminds on of many other books is to say very little of the book itself, indeed, to ignore its particular character. It is a strange book, recounting a series of conversations over a course of about a week between two convalescents at a nursing home, their conditions and circumstances never wholly elucidated. Their conversations tend towards the irritably philosophical (mainly about gender and language, but also about social interactions), but the invalids begin to appear at home together, at ease, to such an extent that a more sentimental invalid wishes them to fall in love, and they may or may not grudgingly succumb. The ending could fit two different readings (romance or disappointment) – but perhaps it is best to say that the book as a whole could bear the weight of different readings, at various levels of sophistication, without much strain and while still remaining apparently simple.
Laura (Riding) Jackson. Experts Are Puzzled. Brooklyn, NY: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018 (1930). [104]
Are they essays? Are they fiction? Is it poetry? Unclear! The collection of short pieces wanders in the borderlands of genre, making points about literature and life while allowing the narrator (the author?) plausible deniability – a way to repudiate anything and everything. (As this is what [Riding] Jackson ultimately did, this particular reading is less perverse than it may first appear.)
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Titus Andronicus. edited by. A.M. Witherspoon. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1926 (ca. 1588–1593). [103]
A curious work and not so awfully bloody as one recalls (though it is bloody enough). No entirely sympathetic characters at all (Aaron sort of, but only in his relish of outsiderness) – certainly many characters elicit pity, but none seems wholly blameless, being too imperfectly human. Why, for instance, does Titus refuse to become emperor? And why does he choose to support Saturninus, whose very name is a warning? So much reaping of such unfortunate sewing.
William Shakespeare. The Life of King Henry the Eighth. edited by. John M. Berdan and Tucker Brooke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1925 (ca. 1613). [102]
Has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst plays I’ve read. No sense of chronology, inconsistent characters (not in the sense of growing and changing, but just being someone entirely different in the next scene), and under-motivated skulduggery. Has some good lines, but not sufficient to make it worth one’s time.
Laura Riding. Anarchism Is Not Enough. Berkeley, CA: Univ. California Press, 2001 (1928). [101]
A deeply odd book. Sits uneasily in the narrow waistcoat of genre – it doesn’t want to be literary criticism – but it also doesn’t want to be fiction, either. One sounds like a sentimental nincompoop for saying so, but it seems devoid of every feeling except a fine condescension and irony and a certain malicious humor. One cannot agree with all of it, but one looks and feels a fool for disagreeing.
Jean Paul. The Life of the Merry Little Schoolmaster Maria Wutz in Auenthal. trans. Ruth Martin and Francis and Rose Storr. Seattle, WA: Sublunary Editions, 2021 (1793). [100]
A pleasant little pamphlet, lightly Sterne-ian, and quite strange, that does not fully exploit its oddities, but draws back, becoming merely a curio.
Thomas Piketty. Capital in the Twenty-First Century. trans. Arthur Goldhammer. Cambridge, MA: Belknap/Harvard UP, 2014 (2013). [99]
Unexpectedly enjoyable. It was, at it sounds, about capital – which means the human element shifted in the shadow as time and figures worked their acrobatics on the main stage – but unlike many works on economics, particularly ones with a focus on figures, one sensed the people in the shadows: the numbers, fantastical and absurd, were in that sense grounded, tethered to reality by inequity, injustice, and a seemingly earnest hope that things could be better.
Rachel Eisendrath. Gallery of Clouds. New York: NYRB, 2021. [98]
Am impressionistic book of literary criticism, one of those volumes that combines personal reminiscence with literary analysis – artful in that it reveals remarkably little about either the author or Philip Sidney’s Arcadia. It was, however, a pleasure to read – capturing an atmosphere of readership, of engagement with books, that many more informative volumes do not.
Margaret Cavendish. Grounds of Natural Philosophy. edited by Anne M. Thell. Peterborough, ON: Broadview, 2020 (1668). [97]
A curious book that was not quite what I was expecting, which is not a surprise because I wasn’t expecting anything in particular. There was materialism, certainly, and different types of movements (circular or rough), but what was more interesting was the sensation of a mind pouring itself out, arguing with itself in its torrents, as it tries to make sense of how to think about the world.
Minae Mizumura. An I-Novel. trans. Julie Winters Carpenter. New York: Columbia UP, 2021 (1995). [96]
Each time I read one of Mizumura’s books, I get trapped about a third of the way through and can’t find a way to move forward. The Long Island childhood, the sibling not-quite-rivalry becomes a trap, and I can either gnaw away at my own attention or wait until my attention has cleared again and I am able to succumb to the sort of reading the book asks for. I don’t know enough about the genre (shishōsetsu) to say anything intelligible about how this fits in with or subverts it. In its use of time and and flashbacks, though, it reminded me of Zola – fleshing out a complete world and history in the course of seemingly random digressions, while the main thread of the narrative is comparatively short – a winter’s day and a few phone calls, just as the main narrative of The Fortune of the Rougons takes place over a short march and debâcle. After passing the first third, though, the novel flowed clearly and easily to the end, enjoyable and rich: one could make sense of it.
Robert Kirk. The Secret Commonwealth of Elves, Fauns, and Fairies. New York: NYRB Classics, 2007 (ca. 1690?). [95]
A strange and charming essay, with particular focus on how the unseen can help with healing and the second sight. Would have preferred an edition with the original spelling, but not all is perfect. The introduction by Marina Warner was thoughtful and illuminating and helped situate the essay within the context of folklore and occult, with particular reference to the publication of two nineteenth-century editions (by Sir Walter Scott, 1815, and Andrew Lang, 1893).
Djuna Barnes. Vagaries Malicieux. Seattle, WA: Sublunary Editions, 2021 (1922). [94]
Light and charming.
Getrude Stein. If You Had Three Husbands. Seattle, WA: Sublunary Editions, 2021 (1915). [94]
Charmingly inimitable. An interesting thing to read if one is also thinking about Laura (Riding) Jackson.
Éric Chevillard. The Posthumous Works of Thomas Pilaster. trans. Chris Clarke. Seattle, WA: Sublunary, 2021 (2012). [93]
But is it a murder mystery?
Henry Mackenzie. The Man of Feeling. Oxford: OUP, 2001 (1771). [92]
Charming and strange; ultimately a bit flimsy, but a fine example of the sentimental tradition after Sterne.
Maryam Fanni, Matilda Flodmark, and Sara Kaaman, eds. Natural Enemies of Books: A Messy History of Women in Printing and Typography. London: Occasional Papers, 2020. [91]
Very design-y, with the sometimes arch enthusiasm of design-centered books (e.g. McLuhan or the third chapter in Borsuk’s The Book – there is the same ’60s-ish belief in the value of art). The essay on Laura (Riding) Jackson and Gertrude Stein was particularly interesting; the first time I’ve ever really felt sorry for (Riding) Jackson.
Lisa M. Bitel. Women in Early Medieval Europe, 400–1100. Cambridge: CUP, 2002. [90]
A solid and entertaining introduction, with more coverage of non-Christian women than I had expected. An interesting consideration of the origins of ‘family values’.

April

Sophie Ratcliffe, ed. P.G. Wodehouse: A Life in Letters. New York: Norton, 2013. [89.d]
Mostly very newsy sorts of letters, or edited to take out excessive cattiness. In any case, they provide a portrait of a man who, as he noted himself, remained a perpetual schoolboy – eager to work, but without much moral sense: humorous, witty, but not a great thinker and never really getting beyond the next page, the next story, the next chapter. An interesting picture of publishing in the first half of the 20th century.
Elisa Shua Dusapin. Winter in Sokcho. trans. Aneesa Abbas Higgins. Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2021 (2016). [88.d]*
The marketing copy compares it to Duras, and one can see where that is coming from (the awful mother, the equally awful lover(s) – real or imagined), but whereas Duras’s narrators are amorphous and painful as jellyfish, the narrator of Winter in Sokcho is all hard edges, bones and belly and brokenness, like a starfish in the process of drying out – and this is uncomfortable for everyone, if not downright deadly in the end (was the fugu prepared correctly? will they eat it? who knows!). Broad themes (cross-cultural communication, misunderstanding, inappropriate ways of showing love) tucked neatly into the quotidian world of a seaside town midwinter, though, and the minor characters (the boss or the narrator’s unpleasant aunt) seemed more vividly realistic, with more internal life, than the characters on which the author focused. Shift the attention a bit and there are the seeds of a great comic novel wrapped up in the sodden Kleenex of … what? a novella of pettish angst and minor (willful?) misunderstanding. (Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed it, but was left a bit flat at the end.)
Kapka Kassabova. Border: A Journey to the Edge of Europe. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2017. [87]
An exploration at the border of Bulgaria, Greece, and Turkey, situated along the spectrum from Patrick Leigh Fermor to Maria Tumarkin – less self-consciously erudite than the former and less overtly concerned with problem solving than the latter (one is tempted to say ‘politically engaged’, but that is not quite right: it is more a question of Tumarkin focusing on the need to right wrongs, while Kassabova is more interested in delineating situations, with less of a focus on hazy notions of right and wrong). An enjoyable book.
Sara De Bondt & Fraser Muggeridge, eds. The Form of the Book Book. 4th printing. London: Occasional Papers, 2020 (2009). [86]
A charming book on small matters of book design. Prognostications about the future of the book are generally tedious, but can be forgiven in this case because of the charm of the French flaps.
Henri Bergson. Matter and Memory. trans. N.M. Paul & W.S. Palmer. New York: Zone, 1994 (1908, 1988). [85]
It is sometimes hard to see what Bergson means, because he is writing at the boundary between philosophy and neuroscience, while arguing with Descartes, Berkeley, Epicurus, and others. A flow of words punctuated by moments of lucidity.
Glenn Burger, ed. Hetoum: A Lytell Cronycle. Toronto: Univ. Toronto Press, 1988 (1307, 1520). [84]
A short history of the Mongols on the periphery of the Holy Land, with especial emphasis on the role of the Armenians – special guest spot for several Georgian kings. A thoroughly engaging book, particularly when trying to puzzle out the names for peoples and places.
Jean Paul & Laurence Sterne. Three Dreams. Seattle, WA: Sublunary Editions, 2021 (17??, 1797, 1820). [83]
A charming collection of philosophical dreams.
Pierre Lusson, Georges Perec, and Jacques Roubaud. A Short Treatise Inviting the Reader to Discover the Subtle Art of Go. trans. Peter Consenstein. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2019 (1969). [82]
A charming and whimsical introduction to go.
Mihail Sebastian. Fragments from a Found Notebook. trans. Christina Tudor-Sideri. Seattle: Sublunary, 2020 (1932). [81]
First heard of when reading Norman Manea’s essays, this small volume reminds me of Valéry more than anything else in terms of, well, not mood or style, but how ideas are clumped together into an uneasy bouquet. It is one of those fictional works that causes one to wonder how closely the narrator’s personality, beliefs, approach align with the author’s – and, if they do not align closely, why the author would choose to spend time in the head of such an unpleasant personality.
Kuniko Tsurita. The Sky Is Blue with a Single Cloud. trans. Ryan Holmberg. Montreal: Drawn & Quarterly, 2020. [80]
I am not quite sure what I was expecting, but this was different. Not bad, but not what I was expecting. More disaffection and alienation, perhaps.
Sara Ahmed. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2010. [79]
It should not surprise anyone that the topic of happiness is of interest to me (at least as a reader). That said, I am not sure that this book is about happiness as such, but rather the ways in which ideas of happiness and expressions about the happiness of others are used for coercion and control. The notion of happiness considered is also not what I would consider happiness as such, but rather that impossible combination of joy and contentment that is usually seen in films or read about in novels, but exists nowhere in the world as one commonly knows – at least not for any length of time. Allowing, however, that Ahmed’s treatment of happiness considers not happiness, but rather the particular thing/state labelled happiness for the purpose of her book, it was interesting to read. The introduction and final chapter (and conclusion) were quite engaging, and if the other two chapters rehashed (or perhaps pre-hashed, as this book was published first) information also presented in Living a Feminist Life (no. 37 below), that is not necessarily a grave fault. If one were to choose which of the two to read, I would say the newer one, as The Promise of Happiness appears to have been written in greater hope, while Living a Feminist Life is in greater earnest.
Bruno De Nicola. Women in Mongol Iran: The Khātūns, 1206–1335. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 2018. [78]
An interesting survey of an interesting topic; I am not, however, in a position to judge its value, but it provided an interesting picture of the role of women in the Ilkhanate in terms of politics, economics, and religion. Not at all gossipy (I can’t decide if this is a good feature or a bad one).
Byung-Chul Han. The Disappearance of Ritual. trans. Daniel Steuer. Medford, MA: Polity Press, 2020 (2019). [77]
I don’t remember where I heard of this book, which is a shame because I would like to know what they said to induce me to read it. A humorless, hopeless book – without the virtue of seeming correct or novel or interesting.
Sara Mesa. Four by Four. trans. Katie Whittemore. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2020 (2012). [76]
Sort of like Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but sharper, crueler, and without the superficial classical spackle.
Yoshiharu Tsuge. The Man Without Talent. trans. Ryan Holmberg. New York: New York Review Comics, 2019 (1998). [75]
Bleak, but wryly amusing. The many failures and few successes of the titular (anti)hero were diverting – and enriched by the artwork.
Leo Tolstoy. Childhood, Boyhood and Youth. trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford: OUP, 1961 (1852, 1854, 1857, 1930). [74]
Uneven and a bit, well, dull – it was a bit of a slog to get through Boyhood and Youth. There are charming passages and a brutal sort of self-parody, but there is nothing really to draw affection or interest. The passage in Youth on three different kinds of love (ch. XXIV, pp. 306–311) was amusing (the narcissism of the ‘self-sacrificing’ love reads as though drawn from life), but overall the characters are repellent and/or not presented with any sort of sympathy (though perhaps a good deal of understanding).
Stella Gibbons. Cold Comfort Farm. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1977 (1932). [73]
When I first read it, I focused on the ways in which it made fun of D.H. Lawrence – which is not an inaccurate way to look at it – but it is also spritely and fun. It manages its setting (‘in the near future’) quite well, and only an occasional detail rings false. It does, seem, though, that Gibbons might be more interested in the very minor character of Claude than in any of the characters who actually drive the story, and the character of Flora becomes increasingly supercilious as the novel progresses. Light – a perfect springtime entertainment.
Sigmund Freud. Civilization and Its Discontents. trans. James Strachey. New York: Norton, 1989 (1929, 1961). [72]
There are great books and there are books that aspire to greatness, and this falls into the latter category. First read it at seventeen and it hasn’t held up well; moreover, it is a bit embarrassing to find so much of my mental furniture is made up of odds and ends out of chapter two. Such is life.

March

Frederick A. Pottle, ed. Boswell in Holland: 1763–1764. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1952. [71]
Most of Boswell’s journal of his time in Utrecht has gone missing (he was quite miffed about it), so the fearless editor compounded a substitute composed of letters to/from Boswell, as well as samples of his memoranda, French and Dutch compositions, and daily poems. The memoranda are of particular interest as they really do seem to be ‘notes to self’ – frank, allusive, repetitive. They provide an image of character that in many ways seems more personable than that presented in the journals.
Theodora Goss, ed. Medusa’s Daughters: Magic and Monstrosity from Women Writers of the Fin-de-Siècle. Philadelphia, PA: Lanternfish Press, 2020. [70]
An interesting collection, but not quite as satisfying as the first Women’s Weird anthology from Handheld Press. Did increase my interest in reading Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which was unexpected; Woolf’s short stories as well.
Isaiah Berlin. Concepts and Categories: Philosophical Essays. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979 (1939–1978). [69]
I got bogged down in the essay on logical translation (which still frankly muddles me), but the final three essays in the book were charming and excellent and reminded me of why I started to read it in the first place.
Amaranth Borsuk. The Book. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018. [68]
A strange book about books. Very much a snapshot of one view of the book (as object and content), but it left me unsettled. There were a few passages where a more sympathetic copyeditor would have been useful – and I must say that I am eager for generalist academic books on books to include more contemporary artists’ books, rather than lingering in the ’60s. There is also the question, though, for some: how far iare they books? An open question.
Judith Butler. Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence. London: Verso, 2004. [67]
A melancholy book. And how many prisoners, sixteen years on, are still at Guantanamo?
Jacques Derrida. Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression. trans. Eric Prenowitz. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1998 (1995). [66]
A weird and wacky visit through the doorways into the future of history, viz., the Freud archive. One feels the futility of the desire to argue with anything Derrida says, because it is not clear that he says anything – indeed, he spends much of his time saying that he is not saying things. The impression one receives is of a clever person stroking a box in which there may or may not be a cat. (Whether there is, in fact, a box, is also open to interpretation.)
Thomas Keymer, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Laurence Sterne. Cambridge: CUP, 2009. [65]
The essays on Sterne were all solid and interesting, particularly those on Sterne’s political writings and print/visual culture. The essays on modernism and postcolonialism, while they had the potential to be insightful, were of less interest as they engaged less specifically with Sterne but rather chased his phantom through the pages of more recent books (not in itself a bad thing, but perhaps not quite the right approach for a Cambridge Companion to…, especially such a slim one).
Bohumil Hrabal. Too Loud a Solitude. trans. Michael Henry Heim. New York: Harvest, 1990 (1976). [64]*
I was going to give up halfway through, right when it seemed to get too bleakly Hilbig-ish for my taste, but then it was mentioned in the last essay in the Ugresic collection and it is such a short book that it seemed a shame not to finish it. It is bleak – but also tender.
Dubravka Ugresic. The Age of Skin: Essays. trans. Ellen Elias-Bursać. Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2020 (2014–2018, 2019). [63]
There is the melancholy of exile in the essays, which is familiar from, say, Norman Manea, but there is also a pure and incandescent rage that illuminates, vivifies, enflames the words, even when their tone creeps towards the nastily sarcastic – the implied self-criticism, the unsparingness towards everyone and everything, the belief in the value and meaning of culture – and prevents Ugresic from falling victim to the temptation towards the kitsch of nostalgia.
Benvenuto Cellini. Memoirs, Written by Himself. trans. Thomas Roscoe. Oxford: OUP, 1947 (1566, 1822). [62]
A very strange book about a very strange fellow. He seems to have had a gift for irritating people. Everything all at the same pitch, though – as frustrated not to be paid for something as to be unjustly (?) imprisoned. Much adventure and derring-do, but his actual work remains hazy (even after summoning up images on the online). Very strange.
Maël Renouard. Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet. trans. Peter Behrman de Sinéty. New York: NYRB, 2021 (2016). [61]
A clever and limpidly written consideration of the commonplaces of living with the internet, with a focus on the accessibility of information rather than the opportunities for personal connection. A sense of familiarity throughout the book – nothing particularly novel, even when the writer verges into personal anecdote – one has thought all of this before, even if one did not express it so well.
Melissa Edmundson, ed. Women’s Weird 2: More Strange Stories by Women, 1891–1937. Bath: Handheld Press, 2020. [60]
A charming collection, though not quite as successful in terms or eerie/weirdness as the first. Sarah Orne Jewett’s ‘The Green Bowl’ stood out as interesting/something to follow up.
Esmé Weijun Wang. The Collected Schizophrenias. Minneapolis, MN: Graywolf, 2019. [59]
An uneven collection; the stronger essays had been published previously elsewhere, and the last two essays in particular were of the dismal advertising copy type – cf. ‘insight’. See post.
Jenn Shapland. My Autobiography of Carson McCullers. Portland, OR: Tin House, 2020. [58]
Picked this up because of the mention of Annemarie Schwarzenbach, whom I’ve scribbled about elsewhere. Although I’ve read a bit of McCullers, her writing did not particularly grab me at the time and I never pursued it further. Shapland’s meditations on McCullers’s writing and biography – what it means to write, what it means to write as a woman, what is means to be queer – suggest that another look would not be amiss.
Banine. Days in the Caucasus. trans. Anne Thompson-Ahmadova. London: Pushkin Press, 2019 (1945). [57]
Wryly humorous and of course melancholy (‘I saw with my own eyes the end of the world’) – if the second half falls into a sort of distanced romanticism, it makes sense as a shocked reaction to the Soviet takeover of Baku.
Dale B. Martin and Patricia Cox Miller, eds. The Cultural Turn in Late Ancient Studies: Gender, Asceticism, and Historiography. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2005. [56]
Although the introduction did not explicitly say that the volume was a festschrift, nearly every essay mentioned the work of Elizabeth A. Clark in such a way as to very nearly make it one. The editorial turn in late academic publishing. Most of the essays were, however, quite good – aimed I think at the intelligent general reader, undergraduates, or readers coming to the study of late antiquity without the necessary linguistic baggage. All of the essays in the first two sections were worth reading, and the essays by Averil Cameron, Theresa Shaw, and Susanna Elm were particularly noteworthy in the final one.
Narine Abgaryan. Three Apples fell from the Sky. trans. Lisa C. Hayden. London: Oneworld, 2020 (2014). [55]
At the crossroads of the fairytale, folk tale, and magical realism. See post.
Paul Valéry. Dialogues. trans. William McCausland Stewart. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen, 1956 (1921, 1941). [54]
As PF noted, it was only after reading Valéry that I was able to approach Plato with anything approaching sympathy. The underworld is perhaps the perfect setting for a Socratic dialogue.
Alexander Griboedov. Woe from Wit. trans. Betsy Hulick. New York: Columbia UP, 2020 (1824). [53]
An amusing intellectual comedy, in the French manner, that made me want to reread Stoppard’s ‘Arcadia’. Chatsky, however much based on Chaadayev, seemed very much a Byron character. It would greatly have benefited from the intervention of a proofreader, as there was much punctuation running amok (including a semicolon attempting to stand in for an apostrophe). I thought I would be able state my reaction to the play without mentioning these (rather minor) mistakes, but they so overwhelmed my reading of it that they are the first thing that springs to mind when I think about it.
Artemidorus. The Interpretation of Dreams. trans. Martin Hammond. Oxford: OUP, 2020 (3rd C CE). [52]
Amusing, with some interesting psychological insights into interpreting dreams (viz., that they are context dependent and the product of the mind). An engaging look at the world on the cusp of late antiquity.
Albert Hourani. A History of the Arab Peoples. narrated by Wanda McCaddon. Cambridge, MA: HUP/Ashland, OR: Blackstone Audio, 2008 (1991). [51.a]
‘Arab’ here is defined loosely (in the common manner), but it was engaging book to listen to. Noteworthy that France in Algeria seemed to make the same mistakes as in Canada several centuries earlier – providing yet further evidence that settlers are, if not the worst, in no case particularly laudable examples of humanity. There seemed, too, to be the promise of Arab Spring in the air at the end, though that might be reading too much back into the text.
Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice. Oxford: OUP, 1974 (1813). [50]
Read it slowly, one chapter a day, until the last seven chapters, which I gulped down with relief.
Judith Schalansky. An Inventory of Losses. trans. Jackie Smith. New York: New Directions, 2020 (2018). [49]
A strange and charming book, exploring the boundaries between novel and essay, trying on different voices, using different ways to describe what no longer exists (if it ever did). Curiously, my memory of the book, my experience of reading it, is tied up with the useless pride of being the first in line to have it on hold at the local library; as the city went into lockdown, though, purchasing of physical books was paused, and I cancelled the hold after eleven months and succumbed to the expedient of purchasing a copy of my own.
Noémi Lefebvre. Poetics of Work. trans. Sophie Lewis. Oakland, CA: Transit Books, 2021 (2018, 2020). [48]
I am not at all certain what I was expecting from this novel, but it had an irritating grittiness that was surprising and – one must assume – intentional as it is very different from Blue Self-Portrait. A strange book, with rather a late-20th-century feel.

February

Frederick A. Pottle, ed. Boswell’s London Journal: 1762–1763. London: William Heinemann, 1950. [47]
Boswell is a difficult character and is not always his own best advocate. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that I was inclined to take a dim view of his activities, but overall the journal is interesting and challenging. From both Byron and Boswell, one finds that the advice a parent offers is usually right (which doesn’t make it less annoying).
Benedict Anderson. A Life Beyond Boundaries. London: Verso, 2018. [46.d]
It bills itself as an intellectual memoir, but it is not quite that – it tracks a very particular cursus honorum of US-American academia that was only possible in the middle part of the 20th century (and even then primarily for a limited demographic). Anderson acknowledges as much, but tries to convey some of his enthusiasm and wonder for the opportunities he was afforded. A charming book, but not a very revealing one.
Johann Georg Hamann. Writings on Philosophy and Language. Edited and trans. by Kenneth Haynes. Cambridge, UK: CUP, 2007 (1759–1786). [45]
In Hamann one encounters a spritely thinker, who weaves his texts so neatly, embellishes them with such dazzling coruscations, that one is delighted, bemused – it is an awesome spectacle. I will need to read this collection another time or two before I even begin to get a hang of what he is saying.
Lerone Bennett, Jr. Before the Mayflower: A History of the Negro in America, 1619–1964. rev. ed. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1964 (1962). [44]
Deeply depressing, even in the smoothed-over, popular history version. Shame, one calls out, shame, shame!
Minae Mizumura. Inheritance from Mother. trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter. New York: Other Press, 2019 (2010–2011, 2012, 2016). [43]
Many themes (and character types) familiar from A True Novel. Plays more with form and would probably work better reading a chapter a week to mimic the original serial publication; the moments of reflection and reorientation would add depth and would smooth out the repetitions. It would also prevent cramming the end, which I did, but was probably not fair to the tone or the story.
Melissa Edmundson, ed. Women’s Weird: Strange Stories by Women, 1890–1940. Bath: Handheld Press, 2019. [42]
A collection of good uncanny stories, which led me to believe I may have underestimated Edith Nesbit. Did not have the M.R. James effect of keeping me a awake at night, but did manage to unsettle my nerves deliciously.
Sarah Jeong. The Internet of Garbage. Version 1.5. The Verge, 2018. [41.d]
A clearly presented statement about the difficulties of content moderation, which provide admirably cogent synopses of several online fiascos and issues that are, sadly, still relevant.
Alan Taylor. American Colonies: The Settling of North America. New York: Penguin, 2001. [40]
I picked this up because I haven’t really read anything about US-American history since high school and it finally seemed time to change that. Thankfully, this was not wholly concerned with the march of progress towards these United States, but rather focused on European encounters with the indigenous peoples of North and South America. The American Revolution was (rightly) mentioned only by the way, allowing the narrative to sweep on to the European exploration of the Pacific without any of the tedious myths of founding fathers or bands of brothers. Out of date (and with a correspondingly dated bibliography), it was even so a refreshing change from the history one learns in (US-American) schools.
Toril Moi. Revolution of the Ordinary: Literary Studies after Wittgenstein, Austin, and Cavell. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2017. [39]
An interesting book that presents its ideas (primarily about Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy, with a strong dash of the ‘post-critique’) clearly, but it remained unsatisfying, perhaps because the focus was on ‘after Wittgenstein et al.’ rather than on the ‘literary studies’. Worked well with Ahmed and Hamann, but reading it was rather like watching a mediocre football match on television – I couldn’t care about the score and only really found it amusing when the players fell down (which is scarce the point of the match).
Rudi Paul Lindner. Nomads and Ottomans in Medieval Anatolia. Bloomington, IN: Research Institute for Inner Asian Studies, 1983. [38]
Although out of date (and it is unclear how well it has held up), it is in many ways a model monograph: limited, clear, precise, and attempting two things – to clarify one aspect of a problem while modeling the use of a particular type of historical data under utilized (by Western scholars at least) at the time of composition. The chapter on sheep taxation was particularly interesting.
Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2017. [37]
A thought-provoking volume, which works well in combination with Toril Moi’s Revolution of the Ordinary, as well as with Musonius Rufus. I am not sure that my definition of happiness aligns with Ahmed’s, but that may be the result of relative degrees of privilege (a somewhat tangled term that will have to suffice here). Hard to say. It is a book that offends where offense is needed. (Cf. no. 79 above)
Musonius Rufus. That One Should Disdain Hardships. trans. Cora Lutz. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2020 (3rd C CE; 1947). [36]
Less helpful than Epictetus because more judgmental – Musonius Rufus has rather more opinions on proper grooming and diet than one would expect: Stoicism as subculture rather than philosophy. Glad that Lutz’s translation (originally published in Yale Classical Studies) is now more readily available, but wish that this volume had also included her helpful overview of the philosopher (i.e. that this was a complete reprint of her original article).
Lisa Robertson. Occasional Work and Seven Walks from the Office for Soft Architecture. Astoria, OR: Clear Cut Press, 2003. [35]
The type of autodidactic essays that sit close to the idea of the prose poem. Mostly focused on art and architecture (not surprisingly), but with excursions into the personal and historical.
Shihāb al-Dīn al-Nuwayrī. The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition. trans. & ed. Elias Muhanna. New York: Penguin, 2016 (14th C.). [34]
A wide-ranging selection from the fourteenth-century Egyptian encyclopedist. Personally, I would have preferred a longer selection from the history (particularly regarding the Mongols) rather than the inclusion of Avicenna’s opinions on fruits and vegetables, but doubtless the latter is as characteristic of the work in its entirety as the former.
Minae Mizumura. A True Novel. trans. Juliet Winters Carpenter. New York: Other Press, 2013 (2002). [33]
Rich and wonderful.
Jill Heydt-Stevenson. Austen’s Unbecoming Conjunctions: Subversive Laughter, Embodied History. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. [32]
A very corporeal, embodied reading of the Austenian corpus, examining double entendres and (as an example) the (not-so-)hidden meaning of Gowland’s lotion (i.e. as a treatment for syphilis).
Ronald Blythe. Akenfield. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972 (1969). [31]
‘Time in the village is quite different from time in the town. You enter time when you enter a town – you rush through it. In a village time enters you, slowly, naturally. I knew so little about time and its importance when I came here’ (314).
Cristina Rivera Garza. Grieving: Dispatches from a Wounded Country. trans. Sarah Booker. New York: Feminist Press, 2020 (2011–2020). [30]
A companion piece to The Restless Dead – really the two books could be interleaved and would form a coherent whole. Grieving is, however, a more fluent and personable book, without the introductory stiffness of the other. The neologism ‘visceraless’ is tiresome, but I can see that ‘gutless’ would not quite work.
Lisa Robertson. The Baudelaire Fractal. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2020. [29]
The back cover copy perhaps over-emphasizes certain elements of the book, but it is an engaging novel – an ‘I-novel’? autofiction? it might perhaps be a roman à clef, but the key to it probably remains in the author’s bosom, which does not satisfy the gossipy impulse – that is as enjoyable as I thought it would be.
Paul Valéry. Idée Fixe. trans. David Paul. Princeton, NJ: Bollingen, 1965 (1932). [28]
Gentle, light, tender. Ideas and words glint as though on the shifting surface of the sea. A rare purely pleasurable reading experience.
A.A. Long, ed. & trans. Epictetus: How to Be Free: An Ancient Guide to the Stoic Life. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2018. [27]
A readable translation of the Encheiridion with a succinct supporting introduction to Epictetus and Stoic thought. An odd production, but its heart seems to be in the right place. See post.
Leslie A. Marchand, ed. ‘In My Hot Youth’: Byron’s Letters and Journals, vol. 1, 1798–1810. Cambridge, MA: Belknap, 1973. [26]
Creates an odd, impetuous picture. ‘All countries are much the same in my eyes, I smoke and stare at mountains, and twirl my mustachios very independently, I miss no comforts’ (letter to Henry Drury, 3 May 1810).
William Shakespeare. The Tragedy of Richard the Third. ed. Jack R. Crawford. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1927 (ca. 1593). [25]
As with many people who aspire to power, Richard is presented in the latter part of the play as not really knowing what to do with it (or how to manage it) once he had achieved his goals. Ambition outpacing interest. Once an arrow has reached its target, its moment of interest has passed.
Amitava Kumar. Every Day I Write the Book: Notes on Style. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2020. [24]
This, along with Elements of Academic Style, I picked up in 2020 as I was trying to be more conscious (or conscientious) about my copyediting work. Both are rather informal books, and this one offers a wide range of advice – much of which would be relevant to any sort of writer, not just those working (or seeking to work) in an academic context. A moderate pep-talk of a book, that attempts to model the type of work proposed; I frequently found myself out of sympathy with the examples cited – though I am willing to concede I am not the book’s ideal reader.

January

Edmund Burke. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: OUP, 1990 (1757). [23]
A bizarre book. Burke’s idea of the sublime was essentially intelligible, but his idea of beauty was peculiar; in trying to be clear, he became absurd. His discussion of water highlights, for me, one of the main problems of the book: in his explanation, ‘simple’ water is insipid, tasteless (though he admits it to be healthful if not drunk too cold) – yet to one who is thirsty, there is little that is sweeter. Burke would perhaps say that the sensation a thirsty person feels in drinking water is delight (viz., the cessation of the pain of thirst), but to my thinking it can be a positive pleasure. There is too much Stoicism in Burke, and not enough Epicurus.
William Shakespeare. The Third Part of King Henry the Sixth. ed. Tucker Brooke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1923 (ca. 1591). [22]
It is amazing how much a villain adds to a play.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The Devils (The Possessed). trans. David Magarshack. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971 (1871, 1953). [21]
A strange, unsettling book. The gears of the different parts don’t seem to mesh together particularly well, but it would probably be less successful as a novel if they did.
William Shakespeare. The Second Part of King Henry the Sixth. ed. Tucker Brooke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1923 (ca. 1591). [20]
Better use of witches and the uncanny, and the politics seemed more personal and less like the setting up of pieces on a board for future play.
Daniel Defoe. A Journal of the Plague Year. Ed. Anthony Burgess & Christopher Bristow. London: Penguin, 1986 (1722). [19]
Plus ça change – although much was unfamiliar (the lives of the watermen and glaziers, the communal ovens at bakers), reactions to the 1665 plague in London seemed familiar, with the flight of the wealthy to rural areas, the asymptomatic carrier (or ‘walking destroyer’ as Defoe put it), even the plague parties to deliberately catch the illness (with results about what one would expect). Yet for all that, rather hopeful.
Cristina Rivera Garza. The Restless Dead: Necrowriting & Disappropriation. trans. Robin Myers. Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt UP, 2020 (2013). [18]
An uneven collection, the first two essays of which did not delight (or perhaps I was not in a mood to be delighted), which was interesting for its discussion of the work of writing and what makes a writer (essays on archives [which resonated nicely with my recent reading of Carol Steedman’s Dust], Markson, and Twitter were of particular interest) – as well as the duties inherent in being a writer (and reader): ‘Let’s not be optimistic. There’s no reason to be. But let’s always, always be stubborn’ (167).
William Shakespeare. The First Part of King Henry the Sixth. ed. Tucker Brooke. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1918 (ca. 1591). [17]
Not a strong effort – too much to-ing and fro-ing, and unhappy bits of King John; the character of Joan was inconsistent, and the political machinations in England were of the mustache-twirling variety.
Eric Hayot. The Elements of Academic Style: Writing for the Humanities. New York: Columbia UP, 2014. [16]
A solid and useful guide to academic writing, which I read both in hopes of having something suggest to students and as a way of honing my editorial practice. I’m not sure that it will achieve either of these aims, but the first section on planning and habits (the scene-setting or stage-dressing prior to writing) was deeply interesting, while the section on the ‘uneven U’ might be more helpful in a strictly pedagogical context.
Claudia L. Johnson. Jane Austen’s Cults and Cultures. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 2012. [15]
The afterlife of material culture and authorial celebrity, with a solid chronological overview of the shaping of Austen’s legacy among the Janeites and others. The chapter on the Chawton house had particularly interesting readings of material culture within the novels.
Johan Huizinga. Homo Ludens. trans. anon. Boston: Beacon, 1950 (1938, 1944). [14]
About the agōn and play and seriousness and the dangers, ultimately, of capitalism and humorless Marxists.
Fernando Pessoa. Philosophical Essays. ed. Nuno Ribeiro. New York: Contra Mundum, 2012. [13]
Not so much philosophical essays, as notes in the direction of philosophy. The excess of ligatures (and I should note that I am usually fond of them) hindered pleasant reading of the text.
Hans-Georg Gadamer. The Enigma of Health. trans. Jason Gaiger & Nicholas Walker. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1996 (1993). [12]
Charming, calming, thought-provoking. A mixed bag of essays and informal talks, with some repetition, but the overall effect of reading was soothing. A tonic.
Karl Marx. The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte. trans. unknown. New York: International Publishers, 1962 (1852). [11]
Far more amusing than expected.
William Shakespeare. Henry V. ed. R. J. Dorius. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1955 (1599). [10]
A curious time to read this play, and the politicking in it drew my attention more on this rereading; pairs well with Marx’s The 18th Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte.
Carolyn Steedman. Dust. Manchester: Manchester UP, 2001. [9]
A thoughtful consideration of historiography, with a look at the dust of the archives and the dust of the ragman, with everything in between. Will provoke further thinking.
Ermanno Cavazzoni. Brief Lives of Idiots. trans. Jamie Richards. Cambridge, MA: Wakefield Press, 2020 (1994). [8]
Not as amusing as I had hoped it would be; would perhaps have enjoyed it more if I had read it when I was younger.
Jane Austen. Sense and Sensibility. Oxford: OUP, 1973 (1811). [7]
Got a bit bogged down by the extremes in the sisters moods and actions, but once the machinery of the plot clicked into gear, this became more interesting (or at least tolerable). As always, the narrator’s slight cruelties (i.e., the straightforward, neutral statement of the personal failings they either do not acknowledge even to themselves or, in knowing, wish to hide) towards minor characters were among the most enjoyable elements.
Gilbert White. The Natural History of Selborne. Oxford: OUP, 1951 (1789). [6]
A charming account of observation of the natural world, drawn out over the course of a decade or so. Very interested in swallows and house-martins (i.e., all the hirundines).
Mark Pattison. Memoirs. London: Macmillan, 1885 (Gregg Int’l. reprint, 1969). [5]
The common adjective used to describe these memoirs is ‘bitter’, but they do not seem bitter as such, but rather shaped be the author’s disappointment, particularly with himself. Although he does note the ways in which his expectations were disappointment in the course of his academic career, rather than placing the burden of blame wholly on others (i.e., the ‘bitter’ course), he places most of it on himself (and not entirely in that method of self-criticism that places the blame for failures on others) – his locus of control remains internal, although (as with many who suffer from depression) he cannot always find his way to acting in accord with what he believed to be the better parts (or potential) of his character.
Iris Origo. War in Val d’Orcia: An Italian War Diary, 1943–1944. New York: NYRB Classics, 2017 (1947). [4]
An interesting look at civilian life under martial law/in a war zone. Pairs very well with her early diary, A Chill in the Air.
Jane Oliver and Ann Stafford. Business as Usual. London: Handheld Press, 2020 (1933). [3]
Droll and charming, captures some of the feeling of working in a large organization. The sort of book one could also find from Persephone Press.
Nathalie Léger. Exposition. trans. Amanda DeMarco. St. Louis, MO: Dorothy Project, 2020 (2008). [2]
Charming and strange, ties with the other two pieces in the triptych, while also calling to mind the Moyra Davey essay collection; references to Zola and Duras that I ‘got’ which I might not have done a year ago.
Émile Zola. The Fortune of the Rougons. trans. Brian Nelson. Oxford: OUP, 2012 (1871). [1]
Our author does not go in for subtlety. The young couple who meet in a graveyard throughout their courtship meet the end one would expect. The narrative structure is strange with the action proper occurring over the course of a week (?) although with the flashbacks (for each group of characters) going back years in separate chapters. An odd beginning to a series (from which I have only read Nana some years ago) and an odd and not wholly satisfactory novel.

(last revised: 18 October 2021)

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