The year I first swam in the Mediterranean. The year my wife became pregnant again. The year I finally finished Homage to Catalonia. The year I finally began a new novel. The year I fell in love with Diego Velázquez. The year of questionable decisions in a Neapolitan disco. The year I learned about kombucha. The year I would move overseas for a while. The year I would sometimes wonder why I’d ever come back. The year of the Trump hole. The year of YouTubing Mr. Rogers for self-medication. The year everybody needed to get the f*** off the Internet. The year of spectacular mid-Atlantic fall.
I’ve always believed in the idea of a zeitgeist, but there are years when the local topography feels especially entangled with the global map. 2016, for me at least, was not one of those. When I look back, I can’t avoid the sense of democratic crisis in Europe, or the open conflagration in the Middle East, or the airborne toxic event that was the U.S. presidential election. Winter may well be coming. Yet I also remember, at the more intimate level on which life is mostly lived, moments of mystery, adventure, and grace that seem connected to some other story entirely. Nowhere were those moments more readily available than in the books I chose to read. Perhaps it’s most accurate to say, then, that 2016 was a year that gave me plenty of reasons to keep reading.
As ever, it’s hard to settle on a single title to recommend above any other, but I think I can get the list of absolute best things I read this year down to four. Around the start of a three-month sojourn in Barcelona, I tackled Javier Cercas’s The Anatomy of a Moment, and found it to be be one of the most penetrating, mature, and nuanced books about politics ever written. Cercas’s ostensible subject is the coup that nearly toppled Spain’s fragile democracy in the early ’80s. It’s a story he unfolds with a characteristic blend of factual scruple and novelistic technique: the pacing is Three Days of the Condor by way of 24 Hour Psycho. Underneath, though, is an argument about heroism that feels both true and profoundly at odds with our usual assumptions. In the context of a government of men, Cercas suggests, real and durable greatness is marked by compromises, trade-offs, disappointments, and missed opportunities, rather than their absence. Not to give away the ending, but maybe politics is more like real life than we’d like to imagine.
While in Iberia, I also read José Saramago’s Blindness, and immediately regretted the 20 years it took me to pick it up. It, too, works as a kind of political allegory, with hard-to-miss Platonic overtones, but even more than Cercas, Saramago sees power relations as emergent properties of the whole rich mess of human experience: love, sex, death, community. That he can convey this richness with such impoverished means — the characters are all, for most of the novel, imprisoned in a building they can’t see — is a miracle of art. As beautiful and harrowing as its obvious model, The Plague (and for my money more lifelike in its intimacies), this is a novel people will still be reading in 100 years, if they’re still reading at all. Or indeed, still alive on planet Earth.
Another discovery for me this year, though of a different sort, was the Finnish-Swedish author and illustrator Tove Jansson. Best known for her ingenious Moomin comics, Jansson also wrote several books aimed at adults, including the The Summer Book. Not much happens in this portrait of a headstrong girl and her equally headstrong grandmother and the island where they spend their summers, but that’s the novel’s great virtue. The Summer Book is pure loveliness. The movements of tides and winds and boats and insects loom larger for our narrator than the currents of history, and the profound quiet of the setting — I’m reminded of Akhil Sharma’s description of a prose like “white light” — allows us to hear Jansson’s unsparing and ironic tenderness, a tone that remains purely her own, even in translation.
The fourth of my European discoveries this year was Christopher Isherwood. I was on my way to Berlin and, like the guy who wears the concert tee-shirt to the actual concert, decided to take Goodbye to Berlin. What drew me in initially was Isherwood’s (to my ear) flawless prose, which by itself would put him in a select group of 20th-century English novelists. But the real rewards were the book’s surprising scope and depth. For my money, Isherwood and his fictional avatar cast a more comprehensive eye on their moment than Evelyn Waugh or Henry Green or even Graham Greene. The novel walks the tragicomic line with an irreproachable poker face, and so maybe sets an example for us all in these shall-we-say interesting times.
Later, back on U.S. soil, I found myself allergic to my traditional time-waster, the newspaper, and so tried to escape into the news of other periods, to restore some perspective. Around the time of the party conventions, I read Miami and the Siege of Chicago, and (though it’s an odd kind of compliment) found it to be Norman Mailer’s most disciplined performance, and one that still resonates today. Barbarians at the Gate, which I found for a dollar at a library book sale in Maine, has likewise aged well, in part because the rank self-dealing it depicts now seems a kind of national ethos. As for Volker Ullrich’s Hitler: The Ascent…well, I guess it says something that I turned to this for refuge. Much was made earlier this year of certain historical parallels, but even as it reminds us that “it can happen here,” the book is also detailed enough to illuminate the ways it’s not happening here, not yet, and needn’t ever, unless we let it.
As for contemporary fiction, I read a lot of what you might call flaneurial fiction, fiction in the shadow of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, and maybe Robert Walser’s The Walk. I finally read, for example, Teju Cole’s Open City, a New York novel of exquisite intelligence and refinement, weaving together urban anomie, the history of Dutch colonialism, and the aftermath of September 11. I read Valeria Luiselli’s haunting debut, Faces in the Crowd (which does the same for Harlem, potted plants, and Federico García Lorca), and Álvaro Enrigue’s psychedelic Sudden Death (Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, tennis, the conquest of the Americas). Then, in search of further antecedents, I read, belatedly, Enrique Vila-Matas’s Bartleby & Co., whose wit and melancholy sent me on a Vila-Matas bender.
In a somewhat different vein, I read Amit Chaudhuri’s beautiful Odysseus Abroad and Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. These are flaneurial novels in the sense of being plotless, but for the essayistic digressions of a Cole or a Luiselli, they substitute the momentum of a quest, a walk with a destination. And each, I think, further complicates the ongoing debate about fictiveness and authenticity. Though neither hides its “reality hunger,” exactly, each deploys on its autobiographical material a novelistic imagination as powerful as anything in Charles Dickens…it’s just tucked in the corners, where you don’t quite notice it. The result in each case is a work where the world and the word are beautifully in balance. (In August, when I finally got around to Paula Fox’s Desperate Characters, I was reminded that this subtle form of transformation is an old-fashioned form of magic.)
As for current fiction that more fully gratifies my own imagination hunger, I can point to Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins, a tour de force of wit, suspense, and history. I can point to Nathan Hill’s The Nix, whose disparate concerns — video games, parental neglect, political anger — are bound together by the warmth, charm, and wit of the author’s voice. And I can point to Don DeLillo’s Zero K, whose extraordinary final pages seem a capstone for the author’s work of the last 20 years. To quote DeLillo himself (writing of Harold Brodkey), it’s been one of “the great brave journeys of American literature.”
Finally, speaking of great, brave journeys, I can’t look back on this year without talking about Go Down, Moses. I’ve been reading my way through the Faulkner oeuvre for almost 20 years now, and am down to what I think of as the “third shelf;” soon I’ll be left with only Requiem for a Nun and Soldier’s Pay. I’ve put off reading GD,M in its entirety because many of the short stories it collects are available in other forms; I don’t know how many different versions of “The Bear” I’ve read in my lifetime. But Go Down, Moses, taken as a whole, is really a novel, and one that reminds me of all the novel can do, as in this description of Sam Feathers’s wilderness grave:
the tree, the other axle-grease tin nailed to the trunk, but weathered, rusted, alien too yet healed already into the wilderness’ concordant generality, raising no tuneless note, and empty, long since empty of the food and tobacco he had put into it that day, as empty of that as it would presently be of this which he drew from his pocket — the twist of tobacco, the new bandanna handkerchief, the small paper sack of the peppermint candy which Sam had used to love; that gone, too, almost before he had turned his back, not vanished but merely translated into the myriad life which printed the dark mold of these secret and sunless places.
The dark mold, the secret and sunless places, yes, but also the axle-grease and the peppermint candy, the specific, local, and alive, and the living generality that heals it all together. It’s an act of imagination on Faulkner’s part, and on his reader’s, but no less real — in fact more real — for it. And maybe in the most sunless part of this generally dark year, that’s reason enough for hope.
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I did something in 2014 that would throw a wrench into anyone’s reading: I bought a bookstore. Selling books, as I wasn’t surprised to find, doesn’t leave much time for reading them. Also, it meant I became — not for the first time, but never so publicly, on such a daily basis — a professional reader, as many of us are lucky to end up being in one way or another, as teachers or editors or researchers or some other line of work that corrals your attention from the luxury of polymorphous curiosity into something more traditionally productive, in my case trying to keep up with some of the new releases I might be able to share with my customers.
So, early in the year, my reading shifted back from personal to pro, but there were good books on both sides of the divide. And aside from a few favorites (see below), what I find myself remembering as vivid reading experiences are not consistently excellent books like Marilynne Robinson’s Lila, Ben Lerner’s 10:04, David Markson’s Reader’s Block, Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book, Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel, Brendan Koerner’s The Skies Belong to Us, and William Gibson’s The Peripheral — all very good books I’d happily put in your hands if you walked into my store — but the more jagged-edged books I might hand you with a caveat.
I remember, with delight, the first half of Anthony Trollope’s The Eustace Diamonds — “Finally reading Trollope,” I told everyone, or, rather, tweeted. “What took me so long to sample this deliciousness?” — before his stamina started to outlast mine. I was delighted too with the first half of Joseph O’Neill’s The Dog and the voice he captured, as companionable as Netherland’s but more chilling (like P.G. Wodehouse telling a J.G. Ballard story), even if for me that voice never grew into a full book. I admired and enjoyed Farther and Wilder, Blake Bailey’s biography of Charles Jackson, but I wondered if his subject was worth his talents until the final third — usually the least interesting in any biography — when Jackson’s accumulated troubles, and his belated reckoning with them, made his life profoundly moving. And though Joel Selvin’s Here Comes the Night had for me a hole at its center == the interior life of its ostensible subject, unsung record man Bert Berns, remained a cipher — I loved Selvin’s hepcat riffs on Berns and his fellow “centurions of pop.”
And then there were the books I loved best, all novels, it turns out. The best book I read this year was Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North, which I hope I don’t need to say much about. In Manny Farber terms, it plays a white elephant game rather than a termite one: tackling a major national and personal subject head on and relying on the traditional methods of the novel to do it. It’s the kind of book that wins awards, and in this case deservedly so. I also loved Michael Winter’s Minister Without Portfolio, a much more termite-ish book after it gets beyond an early Big Event and settles into working out the everyday morality of rural life in a reticent romance I was startled to realize reminded me of Kitty and Levin’s in Anna Karenina.
Merritt Tierce’s debut, Love Me Back, more or less tore my scalp off. She tells the story of a single mom waitressing her way up the service-industry ladder to a high-end Dallas steakhouse, with disarming amounts of sex and drugs along the way, and strips it of any success — or redemption — story arcs. Desire and discipline and self-destruction are constant forces that ebb and flow and are by no means sated by the story’s end. Peter Mountford’s The Dismal Science is also about the always underserved topic of work: a high official at the World Bank decides to speak a few truths (which he’s not entirely certain are true) and thereby blow up his life. In part I loved it because it captured the culture of Red-Line-to-Shady-Grove D.C. and Maryland I grew up in like no other fiction I’ve read, and in part because it’s the kind of novel where a character walks into a room and you get the feeling that neither he, nor his creator, knows what he is going to do there until he does it. (Right afterwards I read Mountford’s previous novel, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, a companion to this one, and liked it nearly as much.)
And lastly, the first book I read all year (if the January 2 train ticket still inside is to be believed) is the only one close to Flanagan’s in my mind: J.M. Ledgard’s Submergence. It’s both an excellent book and a jagged one. Its jaggedness — the resistance I felt when reading it, and the thing I feel obligated to warn about when I’m recommending it — is its almost perverse formality. To someone schooled in the hi-lo tendencies of our time, Ledgard’s elevated style is a provocation; I’m not sure there’s a contraction in the entire book, for instance, aside from a few in dialogue. And the characters in his dual storyline, who connect for a few days at a quietly luxurious hotel on the French coast, have an equal sense of exceptional cultivation. They think of life in terms of centuries: one a mathematician and ocean researcher who, as she prepares to descend to the floor of the Atlantic in a tiny submersible, is confident her name and her discoveries will live for hundreds of years, the other a British spy in Africa whose thoughts, as he is held hostage by Somali jihadists, keep returning to his English forebears and the utopias they imagined half a millennium before.
I find myself wanting to make fun of Submergence, to goof on its gravity (and on Ledgard himself, whose author bio describes him as “a thinker on risk and technology in emerging economies”), but the thing is, I can’t. He pulls it off, and earns every bit of profundity he claims. And it’s the thinking in centuries that does it: the awareness of the massive scales of biology and history, alongside the poignancy of individual existence. I often don’t care about the ends of novels, and I can’t tell you what finally happened in many of the ones I love most, but there are some endings that, in the process of tying things up, open up an abyss of meaning that’s almost unbearable. This is one of them.
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I am sometimes tempted to create and claim an alternate childhood: sepia memories featuring fantastical lands, imaginary friends and foes, brilliant DIY costumes and dwellings; and, of course, books upon books from which such storytelling genius sprung. I am a writer, after all, and what is a writer if not a card-carrying lonely bookworm from birth?
But in my real childhood, we didn’t have books; my parents weren’t readers. In any case they would not have read to us, because English was not their first language, and, looking back, I recognize that they were too troubled and exhausted for bedtime rituals like storytime. My sad childhood story, then, is that, without the solace of books, I was simply lonely. In pre-adolescence I became a romantic with low self-esteem, fixating on boys to sweeten the bitter sadness. Then, as a teenager, I stumbled from depression into organized religion: God would fill all that loneliness with his unconditional and all-powerful love. It was an irresistible idea at the time; it was what there was.
Books didn’t save me until I was an adult. They are still saving me. Another way of saying this is that, literarily, I am about 11 years old — falling in love over and again with that secret understanding, the deep solace that odd, lonely children typically find in books about odd, lonely children. I am consoled by beautiful, strange, truthful books quite as if I were still that achey-hearted, depressed young girl: I prefer these books to humans as true friends, and even seem to believe that they were written for me.
This is my best explanation for why the adult stories and novels of Tove Jansson (pronounced TOO-vuh YAHN-sun) have captivated me so fully. For some 25 years, Jansson wrote and illustrated the beloved Moomintroll books for children — 15 books that made her Finland’s best-known author abroad. In 1968, at age 54, she published Sculptor’s Daughter, a collection of short childhood memoirs, and from then on wrote almost exclusively adult fiction — 11 books over the next 30 years. But the Moomin books, and the years she spent writing them, evidently stayed with her; the result was a stirring art, both light and dark, consoling and disturbing, spare and intricate. A simplicity of expression belies the mystery of Jansson’s art — ostensibly plain, teeming with profound delights and worries — all of which this reader’s stunted, sad-girl soul is grateful to have discovered.
Hopefully many more will soon share in the bounty: in honor of Jansson’s centenary (she died at 86), New York Review Books is releasing this fall an extensive collection of Jansson’s stories, The Woman Who Borrowed Memories. Drawing from five previously translated collections, the new book will join three of Jansson’s adult novels — The Summer Book, The True Deceiver, and Fair Play — in the NYRB Classics series.
Jansson’s transition from writing for children to writing for adults strikes one as rather seamless; as if, like the boats and icebergs that populate her Nordic setting, she floated slowly but fatefully, propelled by gentle undercurrents and the occasional potent storm — from dawn, to dusk, to dark and starry night.
Earlier this year at The Millions, Alix Ohlin wrote:
Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin…Tove Jansson understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood.
What Jansson understood too was that the same secrecy and strangeness permeate all human experience; and that much of what we fear, want, and love remains unchanged, from beginning to end.
Sculptor’s Daughter is the book that straddled Jansson’s two literary careers, both temporally and substantively: the vignettes written in present tense, especially, read like a child speaking to another child, even as the insights and observations resonate hauntingly for the adult reader. In “Parties,” for example, Jansson invites us into the raucous evenings hosted by her artist parents, and we understand that we are encountering both the child in real time and the author in retrospect:
I love Daddy’s parties. They could go on for many nights of waking up and going to sleep again and being rocked by smoke and the music and then suddenly a bellow would strike a chill right down to my toes…
The table is the most beautiful thing. Sometimes I sit up and look over the railing and screw up my eyes and then the glasses and the candles and all the things on the table shimmer and make a whole as they do in a painting. Making a whole is very important. Some people just paint things and forget the whole. I know. I know a lot that I don’t talk about.
All men have parties and are pals who never let each other down. A pal can say terrible things which are forgotten the next day. A pal never forgives, he just forgets and a woman forgives but never forgets. That’s how it is. That’s why women aren’t allowed to have parties. Being forgiven is very unpleasant.
Family photographs are interspersed with text, as if a book without visuals was not yet conceivable for Jansson; and the images, like the memoirs themselves, evoke the range of emotions — from silliness (her father’s pet monkey Poppolino) to melancholy (a lone boat, the endless horizon) to danger (white water crashing beneath a black sky) to perfect safety (smiling, towheaded Tove at Christmastime).
The Summer Book (1972), Jansson’s first adult novel, features a six-year-old girl and an octogenarian grandmother as co-protagonists. “That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad,” Ohlin wrote, observing too the seamlessness in Jansson’s oeuvre, “—that it has moments of earthy humor…renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.” Sophia and her ailing but plucky grandmother (both wonderfully complex characters) spend the summer on a tiny island-among-islands in the Gulf of Finland in the wake of Sophia’s mother’s death. The mother is barely mentioned, the father distracted and solitary; their absence is an absolute tragic presence at the same time it is irrelevant to the games, explorations, and battles between Sophia and Grandmother — rendered in Janssonian prose that is at once austere and rich, and in vignettes with titles like “The Cat,” “The Cave,” “The Neighbor,” and “The Enormous Plastic Sausage.”
Along with idyll, sadness, and humor, there is fury, terror, art, philosophy, religion, science, and — perhaps most importantly in the universe that is Jansson’s child-adult continuum — play. For Jansson, play is all, and eternal — it is work, love, conflict, and art. In “The Magic Forest,” Grandmother sits on the forest floor and whittles “outlandish animals” from “wood that had already found its form…that expressed what she wanted to say,” and she collects bones. Sophia asks what she is doing, and she says, “I’m playing.” Sophia joins in the game, and when she finds “a perfect skull of some large animal” to add to the collection, they bring it to the magic forest, where it “gleamed with all its teeth.” Suddenly, Sophia screams, “Take it away! Take it away!” There is little narration accompanying this moment, but the reader recognizes the raw panic of a six year old whose mother has abruptly disappeared from her life. Death has entered the game, has overwhelmed both art and play, and Jansson’s restraint is powerful: henceforth, “Grandmother often went to the magic forest when the sun went down,” that is, without Sophia, on her own.
Sophia and Grandmother are playmates, partners in crime, and arch nemeses: together they create adventures, console each other, and argue. Their companionship is as genuine and complex as any between adult peers, perhaps more so. A testament to the fineness of the novel’s art — its authentic gaze into life’s beauty and pain — is that, when we discuss the book as a text in one of my undergraduate classes, I can choose — depending on the arc of the discussion and my sense of the students’ emotional maturity — whether or not to bring out the implication, in the final moments of the final vignette (“August,” the end of summer), of Grandmother’s impending death; and thus Sophia’s double abandonment at such a young age. The complexity of the relationship stands on its own, and the students have generally not seen that sorrowful ending without prompting; perhaps they can’t bear to.
The responsibility of that decision is one that I believe Jansson herself would appreciate. A theme that tracks from The Summer Book into Jansson’s stories, and most notably into The True Deceiver, is that of “pure” honesty. It seems clear that during her many years as a famous children’s book author, Jansson struggled with the question of whether children need protecting from the hard truths of life, or if, like the child of “Parties” — little Tove herself — it was better to understand, from an early age, “That’s how it is.” In The Summer Book, when Sophia and Grandmother find a dead sea bird, Sophia becomes angry and insists on a good story to explain it; despite herself, Grandmother concedes and tells her that he died when he was singing, “right when he was happier than he’d ever been before.” Later, when Sophia prays to God to “make something happen” because she is bored, a great storm comes, and she is frightened for having caused it; Grandmother again calms her by telling her that she herself prayed for the storm first.
But in a story called “The Cartoonist,” and then later in The True Deceiver, Jansson — through the characters Samuel Stein, an upstart cartoonist, and the helplessly kind children’s book author Anna Amelein — takes up this question directly, vis-a-vis the letters that illustrators receive from children. Stein is learning the ropes of the cartoon business, and to his elder colleague Carter, who never opens the letters he receives, he says, “You can’t do that. You’re famous, they admire you. Those letters are from children, and they need to be answered.” To which Carter replies: “You’re too young. It’s better for them to get used to it right from the start, you know, used to the fact that things don’t turn out the way you imagined and that it doesn’t matter that much.”
Similarly, Anna’s newly arrived roommate and nemesis Katri Kling, an orphaned outcast in a small Finnish village defined by her cold rationalism and terrible honesty, says, “suddenly vehement” —
“But how long can they rely on what’s not reliable? For how many years do we fool these children into believing in something they shouldn’t believe in? They have to learn early, or they’ll never manage on their own.”
Jansson renders a worthy battle between the always-nice, mushy-minded Anna and the ruthlessly effectual Katri, challenging the reader to see just what’s at stake on both sides of the argument.
“And what about this one?” Anna went on. “Where’s the chitchat? He’s tried to draw a rabbit — obviously no talent at all — so here you could write something like ‘I’ve hung your picture above my desk’…You can fill nearly a whole page with the skating and the cat if you write big enough.”
“Miss Amelin,” said Katri, “you’re actually quite cynical. How have you managed to hide that?”…
“That doesn’t matter. The whole point is to give them a nice letter. You have to learn how it’s done. But I wonder if you can. I almost think you don’t like them.”
Katri shrugged her shoulders and smiled her quick wolfish smile. “Neither do you,” she said.
Time and again, Jansson took up this question, pitting blunt frankness against hand-wringing nicety. Mari and Jonna, the two women artists who live and work together in Jansson’s final, autobiographical novel Fair Play, embody yet more shades of this conflict. Jonna is matter-of-fact and unsentimental; Mari is more self-doubting and emotional. One day, Jonna shoots a seagull that has been devouring eider chicks; Mari gets upset: “You just love guns! You just can’t stop!” When she calms down, she begins to philosophize, passive-aggressively, about the temperament of the natural hunter: “He’s considered to be bold and a little dangerous. You know, a person who plays for high stakes, who can be ruthless and take chances that other people don’t dare take.” Jonna reminds Mari of a wounded gull that Mari once tried to nurse back to health, but it was “full of worms. You can’t mend what’s totally broken,” and so Jonna killed it with a hammer.
“There are times,” Jonna went on without listening, “there are times when a healthy ruthlessness is the right thing.”
A near-exact episode, between young Tove and her friend Albert, occurs in Sculptor’s Daughter, after which Tove thinks, “[I]t was lovely to be able to cry. Everything was over and everything was all right. Albert always put things right.”
The ongoing, necessary struggle between compassion and candidness — the need for “healthy ruthlessness” in the midst of conventional politesse — permeates all of Jansson’s work and seems to me central to her sense of what it meant to be a “woman artist.” It’s women — weak and pathetic women — who are dogged by what her characters often refer to as a “bad conscience.” There seems always to be one such troublesome (female) soul in Jansson’s fiction: in Sun City, her dark comedy about a retirement community in St. Petersburg, Florida, it’s Evelyn Peabody, about whom the more sensible and aesthetically-minded Mrs. Morris observes:
[T]he woman stood there and rambled on about how of course he was an unpleasant old man but she had to do her best to comfort him because after all there was some good in every human being…she thought fleetingly of how often it seems to be the case that compassion derives from guilt and gives rise to contempt. Ready-made virtues struck her as being common, and she didn’t like Miss Peabody.
Nobody at the Berkeley Arms home really does; even the “unpleasant old man” Mr. Thompson rejects her so-called compassion. At the annual spring ball, the mayor drops dead in the middle of the dance floor, and Miss Peabody promptly goes to pieces:
Peabody just went on crying, from tension and exhaustion, for all the people who died from dancing and for all the people who never got to dance…
“Peabody,” said Thompson sternly, “now that’s enough. Did you really care about the Mayor?”
“No! Not about him, not about anybody! But people’s lives are so sad!”…
“Bullshit,” said Thompson. “Peabody, there’s something wrong with you. If you’ll stop and think about it you’ll discover you don’t feel sorry for anyone in the whole world, but you don’t dare stop and think.”
But as clear as Jansson is about the follies of guilt and abstract compassion, she never holds her characters in contempt. She gives Peabody her due, which is to say she allows her as much of an interior life as every other character (the novel employs roving narrative omniscience with great skill). In a deft shift from third person to first person, a fascinating and somewhat frequent feature in Jansson’s fiction, we get this insight into Peabody’s emotional backstory:
The smell of wet grass and the sigh of the rain carried her far back in time and she could remember without pain. As always, she thought about her father. She loved him. He took them on a picnic every Sunday…There were too many of us, Peabody thought, and we were too little, and Mama worried all the time—there might be snakes and ticks and it might rain. Papa would run around setting things up. One time when it was cold and windy, he found us a barn. And one time he tried to build us a hut out of pine boughs. But it was too much for him…And then it started to rain, and he gathered us under a huge tree and Mama said if there was lightning, a big tree was the most dangerous place to be. And once I tried to tell her that we liked danger, but I don’t think she heard what I said.
Jansson shifts not only into subjective first-person consciousness, but into the territory of — what else — childhood. When Peabody remembers her parents, she remembers their anxiety and over-protectiveness, and at the same time, as an old woman, she misses being taken care of by them. She has become helpless and pitiable without them. “She should have remembered that it was always better to leave decisions to other people and not let yourself be misled by compassion. Once again, Peabody had made herself miserable, and there was no one to talk her out of it.” Contrast with Jansson, whose father was a confident, free-spirited sculptor: he kept a pet monkey and all manner of animals in the house, and in the story “The Monkey” (clearly based on her father, for the character is a sculptor), he watches his monkey dash out from under the warmth of his coat and up into a tree in the freezing cold: “[H]e thought, you poor little bastard. You’re freezing, but you’ve got to climb.” Danger, cold, what have you: you’ve got to climb.
“We say the phrase ‘a happy childhood’ as if it’s a given,” Ohlin wrote, “as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness.” In her memoir, Jansson never says, outright, “My childhood was very happy,” or perfect, or ideal, and I wouldn’t guess she thought that. But what we feel, in her descriptions of what it was to be a child, is a stunning directness: unmediated, unprotected, unadulterated by “bad conscience” or anything other than pure life itself. It’s that full range of experience that brings comfort and safety, not being shielded from darkness or ugliness.
Jansson respected the fine tuning of a child’s sensibilities: children know better than anyone — better than they do as adults — that the world is a dangerous, beautiful, terribly alive place. And a place — as in stories like “The Storm” and “The Squirrel,” featuring female characters whose conflicts are waged within their own minds — where one must work things out for oneself, often in pained solitude. I knew all this as a lonely child, and when I finally found literature, those truths were reflected back to me, and I found comfort. Am still finding it. And very much so in Jansson. Thankfully, art may be slow, but never too late.
In a rare moment of lyricism, Jansson wrote of storytime with her mother:
Through endless forest dark and drear no comfort near a little girl alone did roam so far from home the way was long the night was cold the thunder rolled the girl did weep no more I’ll find my mother kind for in this lonely haunted spot my awful lot will be beneath this tree to lie and slowly die.
Very satisfying. That’s how it was when we shut the danger out.
That’s how it was.
Probably mine was the only Swedish-New Mexican family in the Canadian suburb where I grew up, the only house where the shelves were cluttered with Scandinavian gnomes and Hopi kachina dolls. We lived far from any relatives, and our nuclear family unit formed a country all our own, with a specific culture, language, and mores. My father was a professor and my mother had been a teacher, so our country’s currency was books. We liked nerd humor. Sometimes we spoke in fake German accents for no reason. We were odd.
I may have been the oddest. In a neighborhood dominated by youth soccer and hockey leagues, I was a delicate child who flinched at every revolution of the tether ball, with a vocabulary not so much precocious as inappropriate to the time and place. For a while, I decided it would be cool to have a signature oath, something I read in a book, so I took to exclaiming “Blood and bones!” whenever the occasion seemed to call for it. My best friend, who managed to be smart without geekiness, withstood this for exactly one day before sighing wearily, “Please stop that.”
But I couldn’t stop — as soon I dropped the oath, I’d come up with some other weird behavior. I was too used to taking my cues from books. When I read Heidi, for example, I felt an electric surge of recognition. Not because of her pious personality or love of nature, but because Heidi, gone to live with a rich family far from home, squirrels away white dinner rolls in her room to bring back to her grandfather, not realizing they’ll grow stale before she can return to him. The perplexed family opens her closet one day to discover a cache of old bread on the floor.
I was absolutely the kind of kid who would hide stale dinner rolls in her room.
Childhood, as I knew it, was rife with secrecy and weirdness, with actions that made sense to you but not anybody else. It’s no wonder that I fell in love with Moomin.
Tove Jansson, who created Moomin, understood that secrecy and strangeness are endemic to childhood. She was born in Helsinki, the daughter of Swedish-speaking parents, a sculptor father and an illustrator mother. In the recently re-published Sculptor’s Daughter, a charmingly oddball collection of childhood memories, Jansson describes idyllic summers spent on an island in the Gulf of Finland while her parents made art and entertained a ragtag string of companions — a geologist; a woman who tried to decoratively re-tile their front steps, rendering them unusable; a monkey named Poppolino. The child Tove roamed around the island by herself, always independent, apparently never lonely. At one point, she took to following the geologist as he worked, unnerving his girlfriend, who turned around and yelled at the child to go home. Tove didn’t care, and kept following until she and the girlfriend had an argument: “I went a little closer and humiliated her by saying the most terrible thing of all: amateur! You’re an amateur! You’re not a real artist!”
To be a real artist was to Jansson the most important, the only, thing. As an adult, after art school, she drew political cartoons for a number of places, most notably the satirical, anti-fascist magazine Garm. In these cartoons, she sometimes drew little trolls in the margins or by her signature, creatures that evolved into a series of children’s characters called Moomins. The Moomintroll family featured first in a series of books, then in a comic strip that ran in newspapers; both were wildly popular. The books became bestsellers in Finland and the U.K., bringing Jansson — who spent much of her life living on a remote island with her companion the artist Tuulikki Pietilä — an income that didn’t deter her from continuing to work feverishly.
The Moomins remain especially popular in Finland, where it is a matter of national identity (some Finnair planes have Moomin characters painted on them) and in Japan (my brother just bought me some Moomin T-shirts at Uniqlo). In North America, though still popular, the Moomin books never attained quite the same reach. I’m sure that I was the only kid in my neighbourhood reading the books, and I still come across many people who’ve never heard of them at all.
Jansson would be 100 years old this year, and a flood of publications is coming forth to commemorate the anniversary. In addition to Sculptor’s Daughter, there is a breathlessly appreciative, slightly jumbled biography by Boel Westin. The Canadian publisher Drawn and Quarterly has been issuing the comic strip versions of Moomin in beautiful new editions, and New York Review Books has been republishing her acute, surprising, adult fiction. Jansson was far from forgotten, but the breadth of her achievement is now clearer than it has ever been before.
Moomin is called a troll, but he looks like a hippopotamus that can walk on its hind legs. He is pale, with no special powers or attributes. He lives in Moomin Valley with a family evidently modeled on Jansson’s own — creative, eccentric, welcoming to strangers. Moominpappa is kind but self-involved, forever preoccupied with writing his memoirs or a novel. Moominmamma is unflappably warm, always rustling up meals and producing snacks and tummy powder from her handbag. An assortment of creatures fills out the cast, some semi-realistic, others truly strange, like the Hattifatteners, mute, wordless white beings that look a bit like ambulatory mushrooms. Some of the characters have edgy qualities through which Jansson’s leftist leanings and wry sense of humor can be discerned. Moomin’s close friend Snufkin is an anti-establishment nomad who disdains all possessions except his pipe and hat. Hemulens are self-absorbed depressives, and even the male ones wear dresses. There is a philosopher muskrat who makes a study of unnecessary things.
The universe of Moomin is sometimes magical, with a hobgoblin hat that can change Moomin into an ugly version of himself, but it is also cozy, a paracosm where danger is slight and the next meal of pancakes is never far away. Yet despite the hominess, the key feature of the Moomin books is a thrumming note of melancholy. Wistfulness colors many of the scenes, as well as a sense of restlessness that undercuts the security of the family, the valley, the home. Moomin is often struck with sad-ish feelings that he can’t define. Finn Family Moomintroll captures a typical moment this way: “It was the end of August — the time when owls hoot at night and flurries of bats swoop noiselessly over the garden. Moomin Wood was full of glow-worms, and the sea was disturbed. There was expectation and a certain sadness in the air, and the harvest moon came up huge and yellow. Moomintroll had always liked those last weeks of summer most, but he didn’t really know why.”
Maybe it seems funny to praise a series of children’s books for their melancholy. But when I think about what drew me to Moomin, I’m sure it was this sense that even a lovely summer night can have a certain sadness in the air. Classic children’s books like Charlotte’s Web or Where the Red Fern Grows help acquaint children with the sorrows that exist in life. But the sadness in the Moomin universe is more a facet of temperament than event; the books presume that children are already familiar with it, and locate it within themselves.
We say the phrase “a happy childhood” as if it’s a given, as if we understand it to be the most desirable thing. But the richly varied experiences of childhood, even at their most positive, must be more complicated than happiness. Moomin is a reasonably happy character — he’s not hapless or neurotic, at least — but his emotions range across a complex moodscape where happiness, as a label, doesn’t necessarily apply. What Moomin feels is often inarticulated; not quite sadness or happiness, but rather childhood emotions and moods that are not categorized or perhaps even nameable by adult language. When he comes across a giant ruby stolen by two tiny mice-creatures and hidden in their suitcase (a combination of the criminal, the magical, and the ordinary that is typical of Jansson), it strikes him as both beautiful and fearsome; “crimson flames shot out of its heart and it seemed like a great black tulip with stamens of fire.” Moomin first wishes his friend Snufkin could see it. And then “he stood there a long, long time while time grew weary and his thoughts were very big.”
Time grew weary and his thoughts were very big. It is a large world to experience and Moomin, like many children, has neither the language nor the perception to understand it completely. Sometimes they don’t know why they like things, or why they don’t. Sometimes they are overwhelmed. The Moomin books acknowledge this state without disparaging it or explaining it away. It simply exists. In her 1961 essay, “The Deceitful Writer of Children’s Books,” Jansson wrote that “the immature reader is often spellbound by what is unspoken and disguised. This risky but meaningful undercurrent is not incompatible with the child’s own inaccessible sense of mystery, tenderness, and cruelty. And fear.” In Moomin, I didn’t stumble upon a strange new universe; I found an atmosphere that matched the strangeness I already felt inside.
Jansson, who lived to be 86, produced many non-Moomin stories, as well as paintings, drawings, and other artwork. She also wrote adult novels, the best of which are The Summer Book and The True Deceiver. Not coincidentally, the two books have a great deal in common — both center around a relationship between an older woman and a younger one that is intricate and anti-sentimental. And both are infused with landscape, an island in summer in one, a small town in winter in the other.
The Summer Book is, I think, a perfect novel. The plot is simple to nonexistent: a six-year-old girl named Sophia spends the summer with her grandmother on an island in the Gulf of Finland. They wander about the island, play games, and have occasional spats. We learn in almost casual asides that Sophia’s mother has recently died, and her father seems to spend most of his time sleeping. The girl and her grandmother have only each other, but there is nothing saccharine about their bond. Amid the quiet descriptions of nature are conversations that hint at philosophical, religious, and emotional truths. At one point they get into an argument about Heaven, genuinely furious with another. In another scene, Sophia wants to play a game in which she calls the grandmother Mama and grandmother calls her Dear Child; the grandmother changes the subject. As Kathryn Davis points out in her introduction to the NYRB edition, Jansson wrote the novel in 1972, at the age of 60, a year after her own beloved mother had died, so she seems to have placed herself in the positions of both older woman and bereft child, each facing death in her own way. That The Summer Book feels simultaneously idyllic and sad — that it has moments of earthy humor (the grandmother teaches Sophia a song about cow shit) renders it very much a piece with the Moomin books.
The female dyad in The True Deceiver is darker and weirder. In a remote, wintry village, a reclusive children’s book artist, Anna, takes in — or is taken in by — a wolvish younger woman named Kati. As with The Summer Book, both women seem to have sprung from Jansson’s life — the older one burdened by her need to respond to her public; the younger woman wild, determined and willful — as if she had sprinkled herself across the pages. The relationship is taut and tension-filled. As you read, it’s almost impossible to get a handle on either character, to know where you stand with them or where they stand with each other, and the result is both infuriating and fascinating. It’s a mystery novel with no corpse or detective, only a palpable, unsettling feeling of criminality. It examines the prices of solitude and community without landing squarely in favor of one or the other. The two women, both outsiders, grow fiercely bound together and, like Moomin, they may not even know why.
Jansson was an artist and a businesswoman, an idealist and a pragmatist. She initially proposed to a man before making her life with a woman. She felt trapped by the success of the Moomin stories at times, but was too practical to walk away from it. She was able to take whatever strangeness she found in her own life and parlay it into stories, endlessly.
Reading is a tactile experience and never more so than in childhood, as our first encounters with covers and spines and illustrations are imprinted on our minds. My own childhood memories of beloved characters are inextricably tied to specific editions of books; Anne Shirley and Bilbo Baggins will forever look as they did the first time I saw them on a jacket. Jansson controlled the way we’d think of Moomins by including her own illustrations from the start, even in the text-dominated stories. She always knew how a Moomin should look, a Snufkin or a Haffenratter. Her strong visual aesthetic and droll humor were also perfectly suited to the rhythm of comic strip panels. They ran for years in a Swedish newspaper to which my father subscribed; he cut them out, translated them, and pasted them into a binder to me, forming my very own Moomin book, which to this day is probably my favorite gift ever.
These comic strip versions of Moomin are the ones currently being reissued by Drawn and Quarterly Books, a Canadian publisher. Of these, my favorite is called Moomin Builds a House. (It’s about Moomin building a house. Jansson liked directness in titles.) As a host of visitors descends upon his home, Moomin decides to build a sort of cottage out in the woods as an escape. One of the visitors to it is a tiny, obnoxious girl named Little My who plays Lucy to Moomin’s Charlie Brown. She torments him constantly, though in the end, the Moomin universe being what it is, she also helps him out.
Moomin’s house turns out rickety, slanted, hopelessly askew. I wanted one just like it. Inspired, I asked my dad, who was going out to run errands, to bring back a bunch of planks from the hardware store (I guess I meant 2 x 4s? I had no idea what I was talking about) so I could build my own house in our back yard. I was pretty sure I could do it — how hard could it be to nail some planks together into a house? If Moomin could make it happen, so could I.
“Okay,” he said absentmindedly. The planks did not materialize.
So another plan was foiled, just as it had been when I cut up some of my mother’s clothes to make myself a dress with puffed sleeves (see: Anne of Green Gables) and got in trouble. I never made a house. Instead, I used a series of available neighborhood hiding spots. There was a large bush in front of some townhouses down the street that I liked to crawl under. In retrospect, I wonder what the neighbors thought, seeing me dive into their landscaping, but it was Canada, and everybody was too nice to say anything. I sometimes hung out next to some giant boulders in the park across the street. My world was the suburbs, not the Finnish archipelago, and I can’t say it held the same loveliness as Jansson’s own childhood. But I worked with what I had.
I needed the bush and the boulders for the same reason Moomin needed a house: to have a place of my own, to meander inside my own head and see what I could find there. Moomin likes his home, his parents, and his friends, but he sometimes leaves them behind, because “a discovery (next to Mysterious Paths, Bathing and Secrets) was what he liked most of all.” Like the children in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and The Secret Garden and many other books, Moomin’s adventures often begin with a secret place — a cave; a spot by a stream; the house he builds — that only he knows about, a knowledge that feels powerful to him, though he usually winds up sharing it with the rest of the community in the end.
The secret places in children’s books don’t just make children feel special; they make them feel recognized as people, layered and large and complex enough to hold something hidden inside. Perhaps, too, they represent a part of the self that is drawn to strangeness and ambiguity, to unnameable emotions and unrealistic goals, but can be lost as we grow to understand the world better; a part we forget when we have to grow up.
In Comet in Moominland — another direct title — a cave discovered by Moomin and his friends saves his family from what seems like imminent apocalypse. As the seas dry up and creatures flee the valley and a comet nears the earth, the Moomins and their friends hunker down inside it: “They thought everything had been burnt up or smashed to atoms when the comet came down, and that their cave was the only thing left in the world.” What I love is that even once the comet passes, they don’t rush to leave the cave to see what has happened outside. Instead, they stay there together, listening to the silence, not at all worried by the things they don’t yet know.
Some years ago, before my first novel found its eventual home, several editors in a row said the book was “too quiet.” I was told at the time that this was just a euphemism for “no obvious marketing angle,” but I found it interesting to consider the idea that some novels are quiet, whereas others are loud.
In her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit writes movingly of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein. Shelley gave birth to four children, but only the fourth survived. “In the years she gave birth to all those too-mortal children,” Solnit writes:
…she also created a work of art that yet lives, a monster of sorts in its depth of horror, and a beauty in the strength of its vision and its acuity in describing the modern world that in 1816 was just emerging. This is the strange life of books that you enter alone as a writer, mapping an unknown territory that arises as you travel. If you succeed in the voyage, others enter after, one at a time, also alone, but in communion with your imagination, traversing your route. Books are solitudes in which we meet.
But before the meeting comes the solitude, the book as a private space that a reader steps into, and nowhere is this clearer to me than on the subway. On any given morning, a majority of my fellow passengers are reading. It’s a way to pass the time, of course, but it seems to me that escaping into a book in these moments is also a bid for some measure of seclusion.
In the places where everyone drives, the roads fill with single-occupancy vehicles in the mornings and the late afternoons, thousands or millions of drivers in their solitudes. On a subway commute, packed in with strangers in an underground train, solitude is more elusive. We resort to small tricks to find some space for ourselves: the noise-blocking headphones, the iPad, the book. I wear earbuds on my commute, but unless I’m too tired to read or the person next to me is loud, the iPod in my pocket is dark. I just want things to be a little quieter, so that I can disappear into my book more fully. In those moments I just want to be a little more alone.
It probably goes without saying that you’ll crave different solitudes at different moments in your life, both in books and in physical places. I have an immense love for loud books. Novels like, say, Nick Harkaway’s, about which I’ve rhapsodized at length, books that come galloping into your life with their doomsday machines and schoolgirl spies and ninjas and leave you daydreaming for days afterward about clouds of mechanized bees. But on the other end of the spectrum, there’s the immense pleasure of novels like Teju Cole’s Open City, which I finally got around to reading a few weeks back. Very little happens in Open City, plotwise. It’s a very intelligent meditation on memory, dislocation, family, music, national identity, and other interesting topics, but the action is mostly a man wandering the streets of New York. I found it mesmerizing.
Lately, possibly because it’s been a long summer of continuous hard work on a new novel and I don’t want to think about plot just now, or perhaps because my annual allotment of vacation days at my day job resets every September 1st, I’ve been out of vacation time since February, and reading quiet books is the closest I can get to a vacation at the moment, I’ve discovered a new appreciation for books that fall on the quieter end of the spectrum.
Any definition of what constitutes a quiet book will naturally be subjective, but I think the important point here is that quiet isn’t the same thing as inert. I’m not talking about the tediously self-conscious novels written by authors who use “literary fiction” as a sort of alibi, as in “my book doesn’t have a plot, because it’s literary fiction.” I rarely get more than fifty pages into these books before they join the books-that-need-to-get-out-of-my-apartment-immediately pile by the front door. Nor is quiet necessarily the same thing as minimalist. Raymond Chandler’s prose is minimalistic, but his stories aren’t quiet.
The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials. If the solitude you crave at the moment is a quiet one, here’s a short reading list of quiet books that I’ve recently read and admired:
1. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
The book takes the form of a letter written by an aging Congregationalist minister, John Ames, to his young son. I found the language extraordinary.
2. Open City by Teju Cole
A young psychiatrist, Nigerian-born, walks the streets of New York City. The walks open the city to him and serve as a respite from the stress of his working life.
3. Snow Hunters by Paul Yoon
A North Korean man defects and immigrates to a coastal town in Brazil following the Korean War, where he becomes a tailor’s apprentice. An elegant account of a quiet and solitary life.
4. The Number of Missing by Adam Berlin
A deeply moving chronicle of drinking, friendship, and grief. Paul was among the scores of Cantor Fitzgerald employees who died in the World Trade Center. In the months following the 9/11 attacks, his best friend, David, moves like a ghost between the bars of Manhattan, sometimes with and sometimes without Paul’s widow, Mel. Both are falling, but David is waiting for Mel to fall first, so that he can catch her.
5. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
Sophia, age six, and her grandmother, who’s nearing the end of her life, while away the days of a summer on a remote island in the Bay of Finland. Jansson’s depiction of both characters and of their relationship is delightful.
6. The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
A classic in Australia. A couple raise their children in the slums of 1940s Sydney, “in an unlucky house which the landlord had renumbered from Thirteen to Twelve-and-a-Half.”
Image via Michael Veltman/Flickr
There is no greater way to spend your summer than flat on your back on the hot sand or in a chaise lounge by a pool (preferably with nearby waiters serving adult beverages). So while you’re laid out and baking this season check out these books whose landscapes and characters are bone-dry, desolate, charred, or wasted. The relentless emptiness, absence of morality, and anesthetized and vacuous characters will provide a different kind of “trashy” beach read. The ennui will be a perfect complement to your cocktail.
Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion
Play It As It Lays follows the trajectory of Maria Wyeth, a burnt-out actress bouncing between Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and the Mojave Desert. The lovers, ex-husbands, and friends in Maria’s orbit take opiates and gin for menstrual cramps, rent apartments when the plumbing in their Beverly Hills mansion backs up, and wash up in motel rooms in the desert on the edge of movie sets.
Play It As It Lays is precise, highly controlled, and, at least on the surface, utterly devoid of emotion. Her narrators report, they do not emote. What distinguishes Didion’s work is the polarity of that highly controlled narrative voice set against the utter disarray — “disorder was its own point” — of the worlds her characters inhabit. In other words, Didion composes scenes of excess, disintegration, and violence using a voice utterly devoid of all three.
Polarities are Didion’s specialty — vulnerability and toughness, exposure and privacy, detachment and emotion, despair and hope — and her utilization of them injects her work with an extreme sense of pressure.
The emotional weariness of her characters and their sense of doomed fatalism belie not just a wicked survival instinct, but also a sense of hopefulness – albeit a hopefulness whose origins and presence they themselves do not understand. It is Maria, the infamously detached protagonist of Play It As It Lays who says, “I know what ‘nothing’ means, and keep on playing. Why, [her friend] BZ would say. Why not, I say.”
Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker
Cassandra Edwards, a brilliant, intense Berkeley grad student, is hell-bent on sabotaging her twin sister Judith’s wedding, and returns to her family’s ranch in the foothills of the Sierras to do just that. Cassandra’s first person narration is utterly spellbinding and it takes no effort for the reader to understand how Judith falls for Cassandra’s manipulative charm over and over again once we so easily do the same (think verbal pyrotechnics).
Cassandra is at once conniving, self-aware, frantic, irrational, despondent, lucid, adoring, and shockingly sympathetic. Her neurotic attachment to her sister as some extension of herself, their lush-of-a-retired-philosophy-professor father, and their willfully oblivious grandmother make for a family story like none other. As Cassandra discovers that that her force of will is not enough to keep the people she loves in orbit around her, her sense of order and ties to reality begin to crumble.
Baker’s writing, like her protagonists, is vivacious and funny as hell and the dialog is as good as it gets. Cassandra is totally nuts and incredibly sympathetic — and you will be completely enraptured by her.
Another Country by James Baldwin
Set in Greenwich Village, Harlem, and France, Another Country centers around six people who are all, in some way, connected to Rufus Scott, a jazz drummer in New York City. Baldwin’s cast of characters leads us into the weeds of their lives, and we are privy to things that we should never see and won’t easily forget. Another Country is haunting and the pictures Baldwin conjures are searing.
Thematically, it touches on pretty much everything: race, sexuality, gender, class, passion, love, loss, grief, friendship. You name it, it’s in here. It’s a book about how we hurt and need each other in equal measure; the ways in which we entwine ourselves into the lives, and the bodies of the people we love. The things we pay for, and how we pay. The Washington Post dubbed this book, “An almost unbearable, tumultuous, blood-pounding experience.” And really that sums it up perfectly.
A Way of Life Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien
Born to movie star parents in the Golden Age of Hollywood, the unnamed narrator of A Way of Life Like Any Other grew up in the (kitschy) lap of luxury on the family estate, Casa Fiesta. “Was there ever an ass so pampered as mine,” he wonders at the outset of the novel? But the glory days are over. His parents’ careers have disintegrated and their marriage has come apart. In the wake of his former life this man-child struggles to make a path forward for himself.
A deadpan, cutting, and catty comedy of manners, O’Brien uses a razor sharp and devastating wit to talk about the world and the family his narrator came up in. A surprisingly moving coming-of-age story laced with a healthy dose of glitter and camp.
The Summer Book by Tove Jansson
The only book on this list that has a sort of cooling effect, The Summer Book is an unsentimental series of vignettes that opens a window onto the lives of six-year-old Sophia and her grandmother who are spending the summer on a small island in Finland after Sophia’s mother dies. Pretty much nothing happens in this book: attention is focused on minutiae and things are handled from an emotional remove that we’ve come to expect from the Swedes. The writing is crisp and somewhat distanced and experiences are observed rather than felt; to wit:
Every year, the bright Scandinavian summer nights fade away without anyone’s noticing. One evening in August you have an errand outdoors, and all of a sudden it’s pitch-black. A great warm, dark silence surrounds the house. It is still summer, but the summer is no longer alive. It has come to a standstill; nothing withers, and fall is not ready to begin. There are no stars yet, just darkness. The can of kerosene is brought up from the cellar and left in the hall, and the flashlight is hung on its peg beside the door.
According to The Independent (London),” The Summer Book manages to make you feel good as well as wise, without having to make too much effort… [it] says so much that we want to hear in such an accessible form, without ever really saying anything at all.” If that’s not the perfect summer read, I don’t know what is.
Image via Stewart Butterfield/Flickr