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.
Marie Benedict. Carnegie’s Maid. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks, 2018.
Andrew Carnegie, despite desperate origins as a Scottish immigrant, emerged as the wealthiest American, perhaps ever, accrusing a vast fortune through unscrupulous and suspect methods. But in his mid-30s, he decided that he would use his vast wealth to help those less fortunate get access to education and resources that would allow them to improve their situation. The hundreds of Carnegie libraries are perhaps the best known of these efforts, but he also funded a wide range of educational and health resources. He became the first great philanthropist, and worked to encourage other wealthy people to pursue similar efforts. It has been a long-standing mystery as to what happened to set of these impulses. The historical record is silent on the matter. So Marie Benedict, whose own family had benefitted from the rich resources that Carnegie created, pursued the matter through an interesting novel of historical fiction. A poor Irish immigrant, Clara Kelley, stumbles onto an opportunity to become the maid to Andrew Carnegie’s mother in Pittsburgh. Though she has no background or relevant skills, she is smart and resourceful, and becomes an excellent servant to the Carnegie mother. But she gets tangled up with Andrew, initially via a shared interest in his business activities, but eventually in a romantic relationship. But she hesitates to pursue this, as she fears that it could lead to her being found out and cut off the income she gets as the maid, which she mostly uses to support her downtrodden family back in Ireland. It’s an engaging story, with the usual interesting twists and turns. I won’t spoil the ending, but the whole thing is a plausible account of how Andrew Carnegie could have become the famous philanthropist.
David. S. Brown. Paradise Lost: A Life of F. Scott Fitzgerald. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017.
This is a particularly interesting biography, as it is written by a historian rather than a literary scholar. Thus, he over and over ties Fitzgerald’s work to what it says about what’s happening in the historical periods in which he is writing. And Fitzgerald’s life spans an especially interesting period of the twentieth century: the so called Roaring Twenties, which Fitzgerald himself called the Jazz Age, and the Depression of the 1930s, which put an entirely different interpretation on all of the upbeat sentiments of the Jazz Age. Brown discusses in detail the many key writings of Fitzgerald, all of the novels and many of the short stories, the latter of which provided much of the financial support for the spendthrift habits of Scott and his complicated wife, Zelda. Scott’s life was of course colored by his long-term struggle with alcoholism, and his wife’s descent into severe mental illness. Scott’s many friends are a who’s who of literary figures of that era, especially Hemingway but most of the others as well. Edmund Wilson, the literary critic, plays a very special role in interpreting Scott’s accomplishments and ultimately his long-term popularity. As Brown points out in his reflections on Fitzgerald’s literary legacy, The Great Gatsby sold almost nothing in the years immediately following its publication, yet by 2013 it had sold roughly 25 million copies worldwide. He also frequently comments on what earlier biographies said, and often updates impressions that were planted in these earlier ones. I enjoyed reading Brown’s contextualizing of Fitzgerald’s life and work, though at times he goes into on too long about the detailed interpretation of specific stories.
Mary V. Dearborn. Ernest Hemingway: A Biography. New York: Vintage Books, 2017.
Triggered by my reading of several Hemingway books after watching the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary on PBS, I acquired and read this detailed, recent biography of Hemingway. He is a complex person. Despite his enormous talent as a writer, he is a very mixed bag as a person. He can be loving, kind, and fascinatingly sociable. But he also holds grudges, alienates friends, is touchy about criticism, and has a surprising series of marriages. He affects the macho man, with deep interests in bullfighting, deep sea fishing, hunting, and similar pursuits. He serves as an ambulance driver in Italy in World War I, observes first-hand the Spanish Civil War, and while covering World War II as a correspondent, participates in fighting with French partisans. He is very accident prone, and as a result suffers serious brain injury that in part leads to his serious psychological imbalances the results in his death by suicide. One interesting feature of Dearborn’s style is that she often refers to earlier biographers, as many of the details of Hemingway’s life remain controversial as the available historic records are either missing or contradictory. Hemingway himself often altered or invented his recollections of events and people, making the biographer’s task often very difficult. But this is on the whole a very satisfying and richly informative account of one of the 20th century’s most important writers.
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.
Ernest Hemingway. A Farewell to Arms. New York: Scribner, 1929 (1957).
The occasion of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s new documentary on Ernest Hemingway led me to purchase a recommended sample of his writing, and as both Burns and Novick said this was their favorite novel, I decided to read it first. And from their documentary, I realized how closely the story matches Hemingway’s own experience serving as an ambulance driver in the Italian army as they fought against Austria and Germany in the mountains separating Italy from those two World War I allies. The American narrator of the novel falls in love with an English nurse, who also later plays a role in his recovery from serious injuries on the front. While the details differ in a number of ways, the love story in the novel has an unhappy ending just as Hemingway’s own love story in the same situation did. For someone who doesn’t read a lot of fiction, this novel certainly captured my attention, and I finished it before the documentary finished its run on PBS.
Ernest Hemingway. A Moveable Feast. New York: Scribner, 1964 (1992).
This is a memoir of Hemingway’s years in thee 1920s in Paris, published posthumously. It has interesting portraits of many of the figures he knew and interacted with, such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, James Joyce, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among many others. He and his first wife are happily in love, and get by on modest finances that nonetheless allow them to enjoy many aspects of Paris itself, and go on lengthy ski trips to Austria and bullfighting trips to Spain. INterestingly, Hemingway himself labeled this as a work of fiction, though of course it is explicitly based on real people called by name and many events that actually occurred.
Ernest Hemingway. For Whom the Bell Tolls. New York: Scribner, 1940 (1968).
This novel is often claimed to be Hemingway’s best. It is a drama set in the Spanish Civil Way, which Hemingway himself covered in order to help with the screenplay for a film about the war and prepare reports for the North American Newspaper Alliance. In the nevel, Robert Jordan is an American demolition expert who is on an assignment to blow up a bridge in coordination with a planned attack against fascist forces, in the mountains of Spain. He is attached to guerilla forces, where he falls in love with the beautiful Maria. Somewhat to my surprise, while we learn of his mission to destroy the bridge at the outset of the novel, the act itself does not occur until the end of the book, nearly 450 pages later. Along the way we learn a lot about the war itself, including a dramatic telling of an atrocity committed by the Republican forces against the fascists. There is also the annailation of guerilla forces that are to assist in the bridge operation. There are a couple of stylistic oddities that are strange to the 21sr century reader. He tries to capture the distinction in Spanish between formal and informal references through the use of “thee” and “thou” in the dialog involving the carious characters. It reads very oddly to our current ears. And he avoids the use of profanity, though words like “muck” or “chicken-crut,” for the even odder use of “obscenity” as in “I obscenity the milk of they Republicanism.” But despite these, it’s a gripping story and a brilliant portrait of an especially awful war.
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.
Viet Thanh Nguyen. The Sympathizer. New York: Grove Press, 2015.
This novel portrays a half-Vietnamese, half-French, Communist double agent living in Los Angeles after the fall of Saigon. He lives among expatriate Vietnamese who have escaped the Communist takeover of Vietnam, and participates in their plans to resume the fight against their former enemies, all the while feeding information back to his Communist superiors in Vietnam about how these plans are shaping up. It is an incredible tale, and a searing portrayal of the American fiasco and betrayal in Vietnam. It is an excellent example of how we can learn many truths via fiction. It justifiably won the Pulitzer Prize.
Jodi Picoult. Wish You Were Here. New York: Ballentine, 2021.
This is a novel based on the COVID-19 pandemic. It has surprises galore, that I don’t want to give away here. But in an Author’s Note at the end, Picoult reveals the extensive investigations she engaged in that makes one of the major elements of the narrative plausible.
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.
Kim Stanley Robinson. The Ministry for the Future. New York: Orbit, 2020.
This is a fictional account of the near future of climate change. It covers roughly the period from the late 2020s to roughly 2050. It probes the things that are likely to happen, and it explores what could be done about them. The Ministry for the Future is a United Nations organization, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland, that is charged with overseeing all of this. It is a gripping account, with many twists and turns in the plot. It is laced with technical digressions about the basis of the kinds of interventions that are tried. A colleague of ours who studies climate change said the technical interventions are plausible and have a reasonable scientific foundation. We read this as the first step in a reading group that is exploring climate change. It certainly provided rich grist for our discussions.
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 of Sherlock Holmes.