Summer Reading for a Rainy Day

by Maria on July 2, 2016

If food is the only dependable pleasure, then reading is the one true consolation, offering both immediate escape and a longer narrative arc that suggests how today’s shocks and swerves ultimately become the story. Also, on the whole, fiction has as its meat human characters – or artful approximations of them, anyway – and so little patience for ideas of perfectibility or progress.

That said, I hope to go straight from anger over the referendum to grim acceptance, bypassing grief and sorrow. But here is something from someone with his emotions less defensively expressed, a former infantry officer shocked not just by the result but the depth of his sadness at it:

“Security is not police, soldiers and border checks. It is social cohesion, education and equality – our society is global now and stepping away from that can only be damaging to the things that deliver long-term security.”

Here are some of the books I’ve read in the past six months that I unreservedly recommend for summer-reading. And they’re not even all fiction.

The World of Yesterday, Stefan Zweig
For those who haven’t already read this classic memoir of a Jewish Viennese intellectual who lost everything – family, home, culture, books, hope – in World War II, it feels like the book of our own historic moment. Zweig describes what it is to grow up comfortable, refined and secure and then be expelled by fascism and war from everything you know and love. Yes, war happens to clever middle class people, too.

Zweig’s father and grandfather “lived their lives in a single, direct way … spent all their days in the same country, the same city, usually even in the same house.” Such wars as they experienced were short or far away. But Zweig’s generation, born at the end of the nineteenth century “lived through everything without ever returning to our former lives, nothing was left of them, nothing was restored. It was for our generation to experience, to the highest degree, events that history usually bestows sparingly on a single land over a whole century.”

History is something we like to read about but would prefer to experience as little as possible of. So it is just a little sickening that we in the still-peaceful countries must now actively coach ourselves to not consign those whose homelands have been incinerated to some frightening, plague-like category of ‘other’.

So be it. If all a book does is hammer into our core the realisation that ‘this could be me’, then it’s almost enough. What it can’t do is direct or encourage what we do with that knowledge. That is up to us. Read Zweig. Then think about what is called for.

Station Eleven, Emily St John Mandel
As a child, I carefully planned how long my family could survive in the only room in the house two doors from the outside, when the nuclear apocalypse happened. On train journeys, I studied the landscape for easily defensible farmhouses away from main roads. I was pretty clear that when the worst happened, it would be us against the world and our best bet was to wait things out. I now think that instincts don’t make good tactics, and it would be better to stay on the move.

Mandel’s novel of a global pandemic describes the last, perfect moments of our civilisation, when a Hollywood has-been plays Lear to a well-got Toronto audience. Then comes disaster, and then straight to Year Twenty when a band of actors and minstrels performs Shakespeare to settlements around the Great Lakes. Their motto is ‘survival is insufficient’. Station Eleven is a rarity; it has goes backwards and forward in time in a way that drives the intricate plot as opposed to just mildly frustrating the reader with the artful with-holding of information. But what makes this novel special is how some people – and not just the raving preacher villain – thrive. Plenty of post-apocalypse stories show the randomness of future people picking over our cultural bones, but this one shows that even when, per Zweig, nothing is restored, people can still be tolerably happy and good. Which is as much as any of us can say.

Diane Cook, Man V Nature
Man V Nature, on the other hand, is clearly dystopic. It’s a short story collection that takes as read your familiarity with the many different kinds of extrapolated human hell – misogynist dystopias, climate change ones, resource wars, alien monsters, just having too many boys – and focuses on one or two characters trying to survive. No clever world-building here. Just weirdness and familiarity blended, George Saunders style. Or maybe Kelly Link, but shorter, stranger and less cute.

You just know this one is coming …

Francis Spufford, Golden Hill*
Friend of CT, Francis Spufford, has written a novel, and oh what a novel it is. And this one is about beginnings and not endings, as my other recommendations have been so far. Golden Hill takes the Stranger Comes to Town plot, puts it in deeply royalist early New York and delivers the goods in a Fielding-like picaresque. It is a timely reminder of the basic purpose of stories, to give pleasure.

If I had to describe Golden Hill in one word, I’d say ‘Whee!’. It is just so much fun. The odd time I’d break the spell and try to think about how it was made, I pictured Francis sitting in a cafe in Cambridge, giggling to himself and drinking too much coffee. But Golden Hill also has uncomfortable things to say about identity and slavery, neither of which may be ego-stroking for New Yorkers. Funny and whimsical and fast-moving though it is, Golden Hill is also about the real consequences of people playing the game far from home where the stakes only seem lower. This book is flying out the door of my local bookshop in London and I hope our US and other friends get to enjoy it soon.

Shelley Harris, Vigilante
Shelley Harris’ second novel, Vigilante, is about a woman who used to be someone and now is ‘just a mother’ of a teenage girl, and who works in a charity bookshop in a provincial English town. It’s about the moment in her forties when a woman finds out that if she has no claim to status apart from her apparently diminishing sex appeal, she is nobody. There are some fantastically biting exchanges that illustrate this, including one at a parent-teacher meeting where the teacher can only imagine having a conversation with the father.

‘I’m a designer,’ said Elliot.
‘I run—‘ I began, but Mr Grafton was already saying, ‘Wonderful! What do you design?’
And just like that I was ejected from the conversation. I waited for the usual feelings to march in and got ready to subdue them. I waited to feel small, to feel livid.’

But she doesn’t get small and angry, because a few nights previously the heroine – and if ever there was a heroine… – has inadvertently become a crime-fighter in a super hero costume on her way to a fancy-dress party.

Vigilante is ostensibly about a violent rapist in a market town, and also about the one thing more frightening that aging out of the male gaze, your daughter aging into it.

Vigilante is every bit as funny as it is sharp with insight, the kind of book that has you nodding angrily as you chuckle. Above all, it is about the seething fury of ‘self defence’, where women are told be small, don’t fight, seek help, hope the attacker gets bored or tired and, as we have for millennia and with mixed results, wait for rescue. Vigilante’s heroine puts herself in the way of male violence, and laughs most of the way to the slightly chastened end. Cannot recommend this one enough.

Harry Parker, Anatomy of a Soldier
Harry Parker, who wrote the essay I quoted at the beginning, has also written a semi-autobiographical novel about what happens when you step on an IED as a soldier in a war in a country like but not actually Afghanistan. It’s removed but also visceral. It has to be. The story is told from the viewpoint of inanimate objects, a bit like The Things They Carried, but here the device is used to blow up the story and make it not just be about ‘us’, but also ‘them’, and to largely disintegrate any idea of an accumulating plot.

The objects – including a handbag, a desert boot, a woven rug, a wheelchair, a blood transfusion, a prosthetic leg – tell of their encounters with the soldier protagonist or the local characters in a strangely affectless way. It is only obliquely that you can approach what we take for truth, or at least the necessity of telling what happened. It’s not just British under-statement that means the most moving scene in the book, when the soldier’s father visits him in hospital and shaves off many weeks of beard, has to be told from the point of view of the razor.

Previous generations of soldier-writers have tried to communicate the reality of war, many with the aim of encouraging our leaders to unleash it less brutally or less often. The inability of language to express our most extreme human experience has been met by work-arounds; Kate McLoughlin, in The Cambridge Companion to War-Writing, says writers use techniques like hesitation, amendment and restatement, and delay. Parker does all this and adds a few of his own tricks. But the most important thing he demolishes is the idea of a hero.

His soldier, BA5799, doesn’t lead his men back to camp with a mere field dressing round his arm. He is carried off the battlefield, biting and whimpering for release. The signature injury of our recent wars is not a John Wayne gunshot wound but the bloody, muddy mess explosives wreak on the lower body. Anatomy of a Soldier shows how terrifying it is to keep going out on patrol every day, and to live in a world where the soldiers giving your kids sweets are also responsible for their violent deaths. No one is a hero. The medical staff are often wonderful but sometimes just a bit crap, and in ways that can kill you.

The UK has only a couple of soldier-writers of fiction about the recent wars, unlike the US, which has many. This is down to more than the relative size of the countries’ armed forces. Much contemporary US war writing is about the impossibility of homecoming. Mutual incomprehension and alienation of civilians and soldiers is the overwhelming theme, whether it’s Phil Klay’s short stories, Redeployment, or David Finkel’s nonfiction, Thank You For Your Service. But for reasons I don’t understand, that feeling doesn’t seem so strong in the UK. Maybe British soldiers just never expected to be understood.

Read this book knowing that our innate need to write about war, to tell each other what really happened, is soaked in the bloody evidence that wider knowledge of war’s ugly truths has never been able to stop it.

For my own summer reading, I’m having a go at Felix ‘It Ain’t Middlemarch’ Holt, The Radical, George Eliot’s political novel (as if the rest of them aren’t). I’ve also been given the first of the Elena Ferrante books, so I’ll probably have to bow under a few ‘I told you it was great’s once I’m finally on board.

And I’m going to keep chipping away at Khaled Khalifa’s In Praise of Hatred, about the radicalisation of a girl in 1980s Syria. Hard going. I don’t think there’s a line of dialogue in the whole thing. It’s the inverse of a recent Gene Wolf book, Home Fires, that is almost entirely dialogue and utterly disorienting. Whenever anything is at risk of happening, you fast-forward to some time later when the characters are talking about what may or may not have happened. At first I thought it was clever and post-modern. As it went on, I found it ‘odd, sad and puzzling’.

I know this because I started keeping a book diary this year, with just one line per entry. But already the entries are becoming mysterious. After Mary Wesley’s Not That Kind of Girl, I wrote ‘sticky’. What could that have possibly meant? And on Rebecca West’s Return of the Soldier, ‘nature’. Who knows? And this was only April. At least Douglas Copeland’s Worst Person Ever has a simple ‘wretched’ scribbled beside it. You know where you are with one of those.

{ 22 comments }

1

LFC 07.02.16 at 3:39 pm

For my own summer reading, I’m having a go at Felix ‘It Ain’t Middlemarch’ Holt, The Radical, George Eliot’s political novel

Middlemarch of course is great, and Felix Holt quite good. Those are the two Eliot novels I’ve read, and in both cases a long time ago. I recently bought, for a couple of dollars, a used paperback edition (in good condition) of The Mill on the Floss, which I’m thinking of reading this summer. There are one or two things ahead of it on my list, though, so not sure whether I’ll get to it.

2

JimV 07.02.16 at 3:39 pm

I got in the habit of keeping a daily log at work and have kept it up in retirement. Books finished are noted and given a letter grade, mostly B-, B, or B+. These days I am mostly re-reading old paperbacks from my massive collection as I find the average random book unfinishable – not necessarily badly written, just uninteresting and therefore not worth taking a chance on at this point, sorry. I just finished reading, I think for just the second time, Peter Dickinson’s “The Yellow Room Conspiracy” (B+ – I’m a tough grader). I can finish anything by Peter Dickinson, including the juveniles. “The Blue Hawk” was my first by him, many years ago, an A in memory. As were “The Poison Oracle” and “The Walking Dead” and others.

3

LFC 07.02.16 at 3:52 pm

p.s. Also noted with interest the OP’s take on differences in US and UK fiction (and other) writing about the recent wars.

4

Maria 07.02.16 at 4:47 pm

‘Dipper’, your obnoxious comment has been removed. Don’t try it again.

5

MANOEL GALDINO 07.02.16 at 5:14 pm

Thank you for posting this. The books sounds really interesting. I’m always looking for new books and CT’s recommendations are among my favorites. It’s almost always on the spot.

6

Maria 07.02.16 at 5:35 pm

‘Dipper’, you are now banned from my threads. All your comments will be deleted.

7

Placeholder 07.02.16 at 5:58 pm

“Formerly man had only a body and a soul. Now he needs a passport as well for without it he will not be treated like a human being.”
There are people who didn’t like Grand Budapest Hotel but sometimes I wonder if its the only way to take Stefan Zweig these days. The man fled to Brazil and then killed himself in fact six months before Brazil declared war on the Anti Communist International Pact “Axis”. To misquote Mort Sahl “Benjamin – suicide, Zweig – suicide, Levi – suicide, Reagan – wounded. There’s no justice.”

8

Philippe 07.02.16 at 6:20 pm

Thank you for these timely and useful recommendations. If the topic of the summer is to be European civilisation and “soldier-writers of fiction” , I’d suggest Ernst Jünger , most notably “Storm of Steel” (dovetails nicely with the anniversary of the battle of the Somme) , “On the Marble Cliffs” and “The Glass Bees” simply because these titles are the easiest to find in English. Apparently his correspondance with Heidegger (1949-1975) is about to be released as well.

9

Ingrid Robeyns 07.02.16 at 7:25 pm

I’m soon off for a short [adults-only] holiday to Berlin, and wanted to take a good book (since we’ll be at least 13 hours in the train), preferably in German (since I’m not using that language enough, and reading is a good way to stop the process of language-loss).

So now I no longer need to look further, it will be “Die Welt Von Gestern” von Stefan Zweig. Thanks for the recommendation, Maria.

And two cheers for the removal of obnoxious comments!

10

Layman 07.02.16 at 7:53 pm

Can I recommend Soldiers of Salamis, by Javier Cercas? I stumbled over it in the course of reading about the Spanish Civil War, and the efforts by a few writers and journalists to begin separating fact from fiction after end of the Franco regime.

11

Philip 07.03.16 at 8:12 am

Thanks for the recommendations, Maria. I was already planning to read Anatomy of a Soldier this summer, and I’ll probably add something else from your list. Your review of Anatomy of a Soldier made me think of my grandad. He was in the artillery in North Africa in WWII. His gun took a direct hit and he was blown up, losing an arm and an eye and eventually managing not to have his legs amputated, the stretcher bearers thought he was going to die and left him when they came under fire and were court marshaled, the troop carrier he would have been traveling on if he hadn’t been injured was sunk off the coast of Sicily. After over a year in a hospital he recovered and was given a job operating the lift in the Post Office and he felt promises made to look after him weren’t kept. His story fits in more with stories being told now than the typical WWII narrative.

I think you’re right about British soldiers just not expecting to be understood. I know you’ve talked before about the weird way the soldiers are regarded in the UK. With the jingositic ‘best army in the world’ stuff and then the way squaddies and ex-soldiers are regarded and treated. I think there is just an expectation that a lot of ex-soldiers will struggle to adjust to civvy street, and no one sees it as exceptional enough to write a book about.

12

Ecrasez l'Infame 07.03.16 at 9:10 am

“Security is not police, soldiers and border checks. It is social cohesion, education and equality – our society is global now and stepping away from that can only be damaging to the things that deliver long-term security.”

“long term” security LOL

13

Maria 07.03.16 at 4:42 pm

Many thanks for all the recommendations in this thread. I can see my book journal needs a new page for future reading.

Placeholder, that quote is heavily underlined in my copy. There’s not much compassion in technocracy. I often think of Benjamin trying to cross the Pyrenees, the tragi-cosmic fact of his picking exactly the wrong day, having hung on for too long before he left. Someone somewhere has a strange sense of humour.

Thanks for the story about your grandfather, Philip. I often wonder how the present generations would handle a Blitz or the aftermath of years of total war. The U.K. Got better at handling casualties and ex-soldiers as the twentieth century wore on , but I can’t help thinking that it would be a return to the remarkably callous approach of WWI and previous wars if the casualties started going into the thousands rather than hundreds. With this weekend being the commemoration of the battle of the Somme, we seem to be going backwards, not forwards. But I never was much of a Whig, in any case!

14

Neville Morley 07.03.16 at 5:05 pm

Zweig’s book is brilliant, fascinating and disturbing; I read it a few years ago, and have been alarmed since at how often events have led me to think of it instantly, not least re the fragility of the culture and civility he describes.

On that sort of theme, if anyone is looking for something relatively accessible (detective novel) but nevertheless quite thought-provoking, can I recommend Volker Kutscher, whose series set in Berlin in the late 1920s and early 1930s has now started to be translated into English? I blogged on this a week or so ago (https://thesphinxblog.com/2016/06/29/fear-and-loathing-in-berlin/); the series improves as it goes along – but if people don’t buy the first one, the rest may not get translated, which is fine for Ingrid but not for others…

I definitely need to read the Parker; thank you for that.

15

DCA 07.03.16 at 6:08 pm

On soldiers’ views of civilians’ views of them, here is Kipling in 1888 (from “Tommy” in Barrack-Room Ballads):

For it’s Tommy this, and Tommy that, and “Chuck him out, the brute!”
But it’s “Saviour of his country” when the guns begin to shoot

and writing like “the one thing more frightening than aging out of the male gaze, your daughter aging into it” is why I read this blog. Thanks

16

Bill Murray 07.03.16 at 9:58 pm

I would second Layman’s recommendation of Cercas’ book Soldier’s of Salamis. I found it to be a very interesting read.

17

ZM 07.04.16 at 7:55 am

Maria,

“If I had to describe Golden Hill in one word, I’d say ‘Whee!’. It is just so much fun. The odd time I’d break the spell and try to think about how it was made, I pictured Francis sitting in a cafe in Cambridge, giggling to himself and drinking too much coffee. “

Oh, I have to read that now, it sounds fun!

I like the idea of keeping a book diary, but I think I wouldn’t have enough entries, I’m not reading that much for pleasure at the moment. One thing I am reading is the final Tales Of The City book, The Days Of Anna Madrigal, which is a sort of bitter sweet read since it’s the last instalment about the characters. These books always remind me of a grown up version of boarding school books.

I’m about to start reading a sci fi for a book club, Native Tongue by Suzette Haden Elgin, which is a dystopia where “the 19th Amendment was repealed in 1996 and women have been stripped of civil rights. A group of women, part of a worldwide group of linguists who facilitate human communication with alien races, create a new language for women as an act of resistance.”

Elgin invented a language for the book, and Wikipedia quotes her talking about this, it’s quite funny:

“Native Tongue was a thought experiment, with a time limit of ten years. My hypothesis was that if I constructed a language designed specifically to provide a more adequate mechanism for expressing women’s perceptions, women would (a) embrace it and begin using it, or (b) embrace the idea but not the language, say “Elgin, you’ve got it all wrong!” and construct some other “women’s language” to replace it. The ten years went by, and neither of those things happened; Láadan got very little attention, even though SF3 actually published its grammar and dictionary and I published a cassette tape to go with it. Not once did any feminist magazine (or women’s magazine) ask me about the language or write a story about it.

The Klingon language, which is as “masculine” as you could possibly get, has had a tremendous impact on popular culture—there’s an institute, there’s a journal, there were bestselling grammars and cassettes, et cetera, et cetera; nothing like that happened with Láadan.

My hypothesis therefore was proved invalid, and the conclusion I draw from that is that in fact women (by which I mean women who are literate in English, French, German, and Spanish, the languages in which Native Tongue appeared) do not find human languages inadequate for communication.”

18

Meredith 07.05.16 at 6:26 am

Weirdly, I replied to you via Corey. (Only because I have been too preoccupied to check in here much?) Anyway, thanks for the read rec’s!

19

Doug 07.05.16 at 6:51 am

“Elgin invented a language for the book, and Wikipedia quotes her talking about this, it’s quite funny”

Not least because of her implied equality in popular culture between a language that appears in one novel and one that comes from a fictional universe that comprises five live-action TV series, an animated TV series, thirteen major motion pictures, more than 100 books, half a century of fandom, and more.

20

Maria 07.05.16 at 8:01 am

Thank you, Meredith.

21

ZM 07.05.16 at 10:50 am

Doug,

Yes I did think of that too ;-)

But john c. halasz is saying on Corey’s thread that you can’t really communicate at all, citing Wittgenstein. He said Wittgenstein was tormented — maybe he would have reached a different philosophical conclusion if he had Klingon to express his feelings ;-)

22

ZM 07.05.16 at 10:58 am

Star Trek: The Philosophical Investigations.

Young Cadet Wittgenstein is drafted into The Starship Enterprise to work in their ethical standards department, and he makes reports back to HQ about the ethical nature of all the encounters with alien races. He is greatly relieved of the frustrations this puts him to by rather free use of Klingon.

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