Year in Reading: Emily St. John Mandel

December 23, 2018 | 2 books mentioned 1 6 min read

Twelve notes for a Year in Reading essay:

1.     Do you have holiday traditions? Here’s one of mine: every December, I log into The Millions staff portal to upload my Year in Reading piece, and am somehow always astonished to discover that I haven’t written anything for The Millions since my last Year in Reading piece, a year earlier.

2.     Does anyone who isn’t independently wealthy have enough time to do everything they’d like to do? I suspect not. My affection for The Millions hasn’t dimmed since I started writing for the site nearly a decade ago, but I have an almost-three-year-old, who takes up all of the time that I don’t spend working on my new novel or chasing lecture fees to the far corners of the country. Time can be found here and there in the margins sometimes—hello from the Dallas airport!—but I do not believe that I can have it all. There are always improvements to be made in time management and efficiency—for example, you can save a lot of time in the mornings by eating breakfast standing up at the counter while you unload the dishwasher—but no matter how efficiently I work and how much coffee I drink, there are only 24 hours in the day and I need to be asleep for seven of them. Things fall by the wayside.

3.     When I give lectures I’m often asked if I’m going to start writing children’s books now that I have a child, which I’m sure is a question that male novelists who write literary fiction for adults get asked all the time too. I have no immediate interest in writing children’s books, but I do find myself considering children’s books much more closely than I used to, because there’s nothing like reading a book aloud four times in a row to gain a deep knowledge of the text. One of the books I was most fascinated by this year was Madeline, the children’s classic by Ludwig Bemelmans, which I could probably recite from memory at this point. (“In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines,” the book begins, “lived twelve little girls in two straight lines.”) The twelve little girls live under the care of a nun, Miss Clavel. In two straight lines they walk in the rain at Notre-Dame Cathedral and in the sun at Versailles; they eat at a single long table, six on each side, and even sleep in two straight lines in their dormitory. But when Madeline falls ill one night, the order is disturbed: Dr. Cohn arrives, diagnoses her with appendicitis, and whisks her off to the hospital.

I remember the book well from my childhood, but of course there are details that one only picks up on in adulthood. The book has a distinctly between-wars air about it. Cohn is a Jewish name. I checked the copyright—1939—and tried to convince myself of the irrationality of feeling a shiver of dread at the fate of a fictional character. In 1939, Dr. Cohn is still practicing medicine in Paris. The Nazis won’t arrive until the middle of next year.

4.    When the other children visit Madeline in the hospital, they gasp in amazement when they see “the toys and candy from Papa.” The toys are extravagant, in a compensatory way. Papa isn’t here in person, but he sure did arrange for a lot of toys, flowers, and chocolates. There seems to be no Maman in the picture, which is presumably why Madeline lives under the care of a nun. (One might think that a father who can buy all those toys might also have the resources to bring his daughter home and employ a live-in nanny, but it was a different time.)

5.    That night, Miss Clavel wakes to the sound of weeping. When she rushes into the dormitory, she finds all eleven of the remaining girls in tears: “All the little girls cried, ‘Boo-hoo! We want to have our appendix out too!’” My memory of reading this book as a child was that my childhood self found that last scene mildly amusing: look at those silly little kids, so desperate for attention that they wish they had appendicitis!

But all these years later, reading the book aloud to a small child, that last page provokes only distress. The children are crying because they long for what Madeline has temporarily gained: not just attention, but the attention of a parent. They are weeping in a dormitory, not a bedroom. The old house in Paris is charming, but it’s an institution. Miss Clavel cares for them, but does Miss Clavel love them?

6.     (A sobering aspect of parenting, one of many: you realize very early on that eventually, you are going to have to explain everything to your child, every detail of this world. Try not to imagine Dr. Cohn on the train to the Drancy internment camp; try not to think too much about having to someday explain anti-Semitism to your half-Jewish daughter.)


7.     The adult books I loved most this year were Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday, and The Reign of the Kingfisher, by T.J. Martinson, which is coming out in the spring. I realize it’s obnoxious to recommend a book that hasn’t come out yet, but it’s worth making a note of this one for later.

8.     A flipside to that thing about having to explain the entire world to your child: obviously it’s not all horror. I have had the honor of introducing her to her first peacock, her first butterfly, her first ice cream. I got to be the one to tell her that anything is possible in books. The idea surprised her, so it comes up in conversations quite often: “Bears and kids can be friends in books?” she asks, just confirming. Yes.

9.     (In books, twelve little girls can walk through Paris in their two straight lines indefinitely, with the summer of 1940 forever in the unimaginable distance.)

10.     If the sense of limitless possibility is what made me fall in love with reading—a childhood and adolescence spent in Narnia, in Middle Earth, on various science fiction-anthology space stations, in the company of Asimov‘s androids—I believe it’s the possibility of unexpected connections between narratives that fascinated me and kept me in love with reading over time. Consider Asymmetry: in its first section, an extended novella, a young editor and writer named Alice falls in love with a much older and very established novelist, Ezra, who’s been described as a very thinly disguised Philip Roth.* What at first seems like the story of a passing fling turns into something deeper and more propulsive; time passes and they remain together; she sits with him in the hospital when his health begins to fail. The next section is another novella, a powerful first-person account of an Iraqi-American man trapped in immigration hell at Heathrow. The two novellas would seem to be entirely unconnected, until in the third and final stretch, an interview transcript suggests a link, and that link resolves some of the pathos of the first section: Alice has forged her own path, she’s found a way to write convincingly from the perspective of a person whose life experience and worldview are completely different from her own, and she’s written something brilliant. It’s a truly elegant book. I’d say that it’s the narrative subtlety that makes the book such a pleasure, but it’s also the sheer quality of the prose.

*(11.     I completely missed the Philip Roth allusion myself, because I’ve been to a lot of literary festivals, where I’ve met a lot of writers who reminded me very much of Ezra, I mean literally dozens of them pontificating over interminable dinners and giving me unsolicited career advice, so it wouldn’t have occurred to me that he was based on a specific writer, but on the other hand I was apparently the last person in the world to hear that Asymmetry’s author and Roth had a long-ago romantic involvement.)

12.     T.J. Martinson’s debut novel is set in a Chicago that used to have a superhero. It’s one of those books that plays with genre in an interesting way: the prologue reads like a graphic novel, and the entire book reads like literary detective fiction. With a superhero in it. Back in the 1980s, a mysterious and inhumanly strong man known as the Kingfisher watched over the streets, until his mutilated body was recovered from the river. In his absence, crime once again began to rise. But did the Kingfisher really die? Or did he fake his own death? If he faked his own death, why won’t he return to save his city? Either way, the book suggests, we cannot wait for a new superhero, or for the return of the old one. We must save ourselves.

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is a staff writer for The Millions. Her most recent novel, Station Eleven, was a 2014 National Book Awards finalist. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.

One comment:

  1. The FisherKing novel looks great. Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll look forward to reading it. In March. When it’s published. Maybe I’ll look for an advance copy. But…three months from now, boy howdy, I bet it will be great to read…. (Just went back and instead of skimming, saw where you admit that recommending a book not yet published is obnoxious.)

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