As I’ve already said, I read mostly non-fiction. But now and then I stumble onto some piece of fiction that I read, say, on a plane trip. Not all such things are memorable, but I will now and then note something here that I’ve particularly enjoyed. And, as I note below, these tend to have in common that I want to reread them.
Aharon Appelfeld. Badenheim 1939. Boston: David R. Godine, 1980.
It is the spring of 1939, and the resort town of Badenheim, in the vicinity of Vienna, is welcoming its summer visitors, Jewish middle-class folks. The characters attempt to engage in their usual activities, though seem oblivious to the danger in ominous signs that they misread. They focus on an impending trip at the end of the summer to Poland, where they envision the prospect of a good life. But we readers know that a more terrible fate awaits them.
Aharon Appelfeld. The Iron Tracks. New York: Schocken, 1998.
Erwin Siegelbaum, who was released from a concentration camp forty years earlier, has been riding trains in a giant circular route in postwar Austria. His path takes him on an annual cycle with recurring stops at familiar places. He shops for Jewish objects at auctions and flea markets, and resells them to trusted agents as a way of financing his endless travels. He also hopes to locate the former Nazi officer who murdered his parents, so he can pay him back for the long past deed.
Nicholson Baker. The Mezzanine. New York: Grove Press, 1988.
This is a totally quirky book. It covers an hour of the narrator’s day, a lunch hour from his business day. But it goes into excruciating detail about all manner of things triggered by the day, starting (and also ending) with a broken shoelace. Much of the detail is covered in very long footnotes, some spanning three pages. But the net effect is hilarious delight at the whimsy of the minutiae and of the narrator’s selection of details to focus on. The effect on me has been to consider many of the details of my own life, often to my merriment. All in all, a totally absorbing tiny volume, which I reread immediately in order to reabsorb many of the insightful details.
Nina George. The Little Paris Bookshop. New York: Broadway Books, 2013 (translation 2015).
Obviously, the title of this caught my eye, so I took it with me on a trip. It was full of surprises, and was soon quite engaging. The bookshop in question was a boat on the Seine, and the proprietor was an odd fellow who was a “literary apothecary.” He would size up a patron, and recommend books that he felt would help them. He has a letter from a love that he has not opened, fearing it’s content. But he decides to sail to Provence in search of an answer. An author friend hops on board the boat as it’s leaving, and they share an interesting journey, somewhat limited by their absence of money or credit cards. The trip, and the final destination, are both full of twists and turns. It’s an engaging story.
Louisa Hall. Trinity. New York: Ecco/HarperCollins Publishers, 2018.
This is a fine piece of historical fiction, so interesting in fact, that I read it through twice, right in a row — something I can’t ever recall doing before. It weaves in aspects of the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer with a series of fictional characters who encounter him at different stages of his life. It ranges from a Secret Service agent who tracks a visit he made in the 1940s, leaving the Los Alamos site to visit a girl in San Francisco, an event that plays a major role in his later trials and tribulations, to a woman reporter, recently separated from her husband over his infidelity, to conduct one last interview of Oppenheimer as he’s nearing death from cancer. In between are a series of other characters that encounter Oppie in other settings. Hall does a masterful job of linking all the issues in Oppie’s life with the complexities of the lives of these fictional characters he encounters. It is so well done that I’m sure I’ll be reading it again, and perhaps again.
Jason Lutes. Berlin. Dawn & Quarterly, 2018.
This engaging graphic novel is set in the Berlin of the late 1920s. As historical fiction, it intermingles the stories of a number of key characters with the real events of the fall of the Weimar Republic and the rise of the Nazis. It’s a tumultuous time, with rising tensions as the Communist Party tries to gain a foothold, anti-semitic actions are rising, and individuals struggle with the economic crisis triggered by the global depression. Individual characters struggle with their own issues as they try to sort out their lives amidst the swirl of events. The graphic format lends itself well to this narrative, and the imagery is an ideal way to intermingle events with personal narratives. The story flows so well that one is surprised to find it ending after 549 gripping pages.
Judith & Niel Morgan. Dr. Seuss & Mr. Geisel: A Biography. New York: Random House, 1995.
Theodor Seuss Geisel was one of the most remarkable authors of the 20th century. He created a genre of children’s stories unlike anything before, a rich mixture of lively prose or poetry and incredible imagery that he drew. Many of us grew up with his amazing stories, initially as children ourselves then later as parents and grandparents as we shared them with subsequent generations of children. The Morgans had a longtime relationship with Geisel, who was their neighbor in La Jolla, California. So they had special access to him as a person and as an interesting historical figure. He tended to be reclusive, not enjoying interacting with the public, even though he was of course much in demand. He worked closely with his first wife, Helen, who tragically committed suicide when she was xx years old. But he not long after married a friend from La Jolla, Audrey, who supported him through the last couple of decades of his life. This excellent biography brings us the fascinating details of his life and the rich backstories surrounding his amazing oeuvre.
Richard Powers. The Overstory. New York: W.W. Norton, 2018.
This is an extraordinary novel. It builds upon the recently discovered findings that trees communicate with each other, either through their roots underground or through emissions between their leaves. It stresses the rich social nature of botanical life forms, setting aside the idea that only animal life is social. The novel also has an unusual structure. In the first eight chapters we are introduced to eight sets of people who initially seem to have nothing to do with each others. But then the ensuing chapters show how they get entangled in the struggle to save old growth trees in the West. The commercial forces that want to lumber these trees meet these various characters in bitter episodes that are richly described. It’s an extremely moving story, and its complicated structure makes me eager to read the 500+ page drama again. Now that I look back at the other fiction I’ve reviewed here, this desire to reread is a common theme. I guess this says something about the kind of fiction I enjoy.
Michael Sims. Arthur & Sherlock: Conan Doyle and the Creation of Holms. New York: Bloomsbury, 2017.
This fascinating volume traces how Arthur Conan Doyle came to write the novels and stories about Sherlock Holmes. Doyle was trained as a physician, and during his training he became fascinated with the investigative style of one of his teachers, Dr. Joseph Bell. Dr. Bell used the rich investigative style to do medical diagnosis that Doyle later manifested in Holmes. Doyle was also seriously interested in writing, and though he had a medical practice, he at the same time wrote stories, novels, and even some non-fiction, much of which was published before he ever attempted to write about Holmes and Watson. But he also read widely in the existing literature on detectives, and was especially influenced by Voltaire’s Zadig, Edgar Allan Poe’s Dupin, and Emile Gaboriau’s Lecoq. Sims does a nice job of tracing the threads of influence on Doyle, and then following how he implemented them at first in a couple of novels, then in the stories. It’s a great read for any fan on Sherlock Holmes.