Reading round-up: mid May

Time for another look at some of the books I’ve been reading recently…

Andy MillerAndy Miller, The Year of Reading Dangerously (2014)

With all the business of work and family, Andy Miller had read only one book for pleasure (The Da Vinci Code) in three years; then he found a second-hand copy of The Master and Margarita, and started reading:

…borne aloft on Bulgakov’s impassioned words, I felt the dizzying force of books again, lifting me off the 6.44, out of myself, away from Mrs Atrixo [a fellow-commuter of Miller’s who would manicure herself on the train] and her hands. How had I lived without this? (pp. 30-1)

Spurred on by that feeling, Miller made a list of fifty books he’d always meant to read (and that he’d told people he had read, when he hadn’t), and challenged himself to read them; The Year of Reading Dangerously is his account of that time. Some of the books he likes, some he doesn’t; but Miller is always entertaining when he writes about them, and there’s always a keen sense of how personal this reading is to him.

Reading this book reminded me of Eleanor Catton’s idea of literature as encounter, because that’s very much what Miller is describing here (indeed, he and Catton make some of the same points). This volume isn’t a list of ‘fifty books you must read’; it’s the story of one person rediscovering what he loves about books, and finding a place for them in his life. It’s an inspiring piece of work.

The Year of Reading Dangerously is published in the UK by Fourth Estate, and will be published in the US by Harper Perennial on 9 December.

Oscar Coop-Phane, Zenith Hotel (2012)
Translated from the French by Ros Schwartz (2014)

Now this is an example of how important social media can be for translated books and small publishers: Zenith Hotel (published by Arcadia Books) comes covered in quotes from bloggers, bookshops and other people on Twitter (it even bears the #translationthurs hashtag created by Stu from Winstonsdad’s Blog). And if all that praise wasn’t enough to raise a sense of expectation, there’s also the fact that Oscar Coop-Phane was only 24 when he won the French Prix de Flore for this, his first novel.

What we have in Zenith Hotel is a short (not even 100 pages) portrait of a day in the life of a prostitute named Nanou, and her clients. With great economy, Coop-Phane depicts a succession of men, each with their own individual situations and concerns; but makes clear that, when they go to their appointment at the Zenith Hotel, each man is no more (or less) significant than the rest. Tying the book together is the world-weary voice of Nanou, who refuses to tell us much about herself: the most important thing is what’s happening now, and what she needs to do to keep going. Ros Schwartz’s translation creates fine distinctions between these characters whom we glimpse briefly but clearly, underlining the subtlety of Coop-Phane’s work.

Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers, A Hologram for the King (2012)

This was a choice for my reading group, one I was looking forward to as my first experience of reading Dave Eggers. I don’t know quite what I was expecting – probably the kind borderline fabulism that (rightly or wrongly) I tend to associate with McSweeney’s – but it wasn’t what I got. A Hologram for the King is the story of Alan Clay, a middle-aged consultant who has travelled to Saudi Arabia in the hope of making the business deal that will turn his work and life around – if only the King would turn up so Alan can make his presentation.

I gather that this book is written in a plainer style than is usual for Eggers (the literary equivalent of an acoustic set, perhaps); I think the sparseness does have its moments, but not as many as I’d hope for. I appreciate the parallel Eggers creates between the difficulties of Alan’s personal life and the USA’s economic situation, but… A Hologram for the King just never really came to life for me. Still, I would like to try reading Eggers again one day; hopefully this title was just a blip.

A Hologram for the King is published in the UK by Penguin.

Lois Lowry, The Giver (1993)

My reading group also recently started a science fiction offshoot, for which this was the first choice. I hadn’t come across book or author previously, though it’s a YA title that I would have been roughly the right age for at the time of publication, and it’s the sort of book I would have read. I think the teenage me would have liked The Giver very much; but the adult me still enjoyed it.

Lois Lowry starts by briskly outlining some of the contours of her fictional world. This is an enclosed community where everything is highly structured, even growing up: every year, there’s a ceremony at which children are given the appurtenances of the next phase of their lives; until they reach Twelve, when age no longer matters and they begin the ‘assignment’ which will occupy them for the rest of their lives. Relations between children and adults in the same family unit may seem oddly distant, and there are clear hints that some catastrophe happened in the past; but this society appears to work well enough. Our protagonist is Jonas, who at Twelve is sent to The Giver, an old man who will pass on the community’s memories – suffice to say, there’s a reason most people don’t remember them.

I liked The Giver for its crispness of telling, and its thoughtfulness on issues of individuality and conformity. There’s also a wonderful shift of perception halfway through which I was nowhere near predicting. I think the book is let down slightly by its ending, which is a little too abrupt – not so bad in the context of the four-book series which The Giver begins, but it leaves this volume feeling unbalanced on its own terms. My teenage self would have wanted to read on.

The Giver is published in the UK by HarperCollins Children’s Books.

Anna Jaquiery, The Lying-Down Room (2014)

This is the first in a new series of crime novels set in Paris, written by French-born and Australia-resident Anna Jaquiery. Commandant Serge Morel investigates the grisly murder of an elderly woman, a case which will lead him into the past of Soviet Russia – all while his father is slowly succumbing to dementia, and there’s turbulence in his personal life. Jaquiery balances the different elements of her novel well, and the historical thread adds an interesting dimension. All in all, the Morel series is off to a good start with The Lying-Down Room.

The Lying-Down Room is published in the UK by Mantle.

Reading round-up: early March

Rebecca Hunt, Everland (2014)

EverlandThe author of 2010’s Mr Chartwell returns with a tale of polar exploration. In March 1913, three men embark on an expedition to an uncharted Antarctic island which is being dubbed ‘Everland’ – a journey that we know won’t end well, as we’ve already seen others of their ship’s crew go after the men a month later, and find only one alive. In 2012, the men’s expedition has become famous, and three researchers set out from their base on their own trek to Everland. Over time, the two expeditions start to parallel each other – subtly at first, then more overtly, in terms of both events and the frictions that develop within each group. Hunt places her characters in a situation where they’re trapped by their environment, then uses the parallels between the two groups to underline just how much they are trapped.

Tamara Astafieva, Born in Siberia (2014)
Translated from the Russian by Luba Ioffe

Born in 1937, Tamara Astafieva became a television editor for the Soviet press agency, Novosti. This book is a collection of autobiographical essays (and the occasional poem) sent by Astafieva a few years ago to an old acquaintance, British TV director Michael Darlow (who also provides linking commentary throughout). Born in Siberia illuminates a time and place in history that I personally didn’t know about; and Astafieva comes across as a bright, charismatic personality who is a pleasure to meet through the pages of her book.

Graham Greene, The Quiet American (1955)

This was my book group’s latest choice: the tale of Thomas Fowler, a British journalist working in Indochina, and the idealistic American Alden Pyle, who believes that the  war can be ended with a ‘third force’. Reading The Quiet American was an unusual experience for me, as I saw the film back in 2002, but don’t remember much about it; so the book kept snagging on shadowy memories. I often find it difficult to get into books written in the 1950s and earlier (I don’t know why; a cultural distance that’s hard for me to cross, perhaps); and this was true for Greene’s novel to an extent – though I appreciated its nuanced exploration of morality; and the ending could still shock me, even though I knew what was coming.

Carlos Busqued, Under This Terrible Sun (2009)
Translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, 2013

I said to myself that I would only buy an e-reader if I felt that I were truly missing out on ebooks that I wanted to read. I finally reached that point when I started hearing about publishers like Frisch & Co., a Berlin-based who specialise in digital works in translations; and my first electronic title is one of theirs.

Under This Terrible Sun (the first novel by Argentinian writer Busqued) begins as Javier Cetarti – who does little more than lounge around his apartment watching documentaries – learns that his mother’s lover has killed her, and Cetarti’s brother. The bearer of this news, Duarte, has an idea to cash in on a life insurance policy, and Cetarti is happy to play along. But Duarte has darker motivations than Cerarti realises. Busqued’s novel works almost by stealth: the characters will drift along for a while; then something sinister or violent will intrude – unbidden at first, then with growing tension, until… ah, but that would be telling.

Rachel Kushner, The Flamethrowers (2013)

Flamethrowers

In 1977, Reno (not her real name, but it’s as much as we’ll get) heads east on her motorcycle to New York, where she becomes involved in the art scene. A relationship with an Italian artist leads her to Milan, where a more political revolution is taking shape. The Flamethrowers is a long novel, dense with incident; yet in some ways Reno’s narrative voice remains detached from it all. Kushner‘s novel reflects on performance, and finds it in all the worlds through which Reno moves – and not always to the good. The ending manages to be poignant, chilling and optimistic all at once.

Emma J. Lannie, Behind a Wardrobe in Atlantis (2014)

Mantle Lane Press is a new small publisher focusing on short volumes by writers with an East Midlands connection. This, Mantle Lane’s second book, is a set of eight short stories by Derby-resident Emma J. Lannie. Lannie’s stories are snapshots of characters at key emotional moments, and are shot through with flashes of myth or fairytale. So, for example, ‘Rapunzelled’ sees a girl caught in the shadow of her photographer sister as they go on a shoot in an abandoned tower; while the narrator of ‘Not Gretel’ wanders through the forest, leaving her old life behind, in search of… something. This book is an intriguing start to Lannie’s career, and I look forward to reading more from her in the future.

Reading round-up: early February

Roelof Bakker & Jane Wildgoose, Strong Room (2014)

A new project from Roelof Bakker, the artist-photographer behind the 2012 anthology Still, presented as  a stapled booklet fastened with a crocodile clip. Like the earlier anthology, Strong Room contains a selection of Bakker’s photographs of the vacated Hornsey Town Hall; but, where Still was perhaps more about space, this collection is focused on detail, and how physical objects can be both permanent and transient.

The images in Strong Room are close-ups of objects in the Town Hall: the torn upholstery of chairs in the council chamber; boxes of nuts and bolts in the maintenance room; document files in the strong room. It seems to me that Bakker is highlighting that the context in which these objects mattered has gone, and what’s left is their abstract detail.

Alongside Bakker’s photographs is a short piece in which writer Jane Wildgoose describes an instance of requesting an old document from a medical library. It seems a fairly unremarkable act, but Wildgoose uses it to reflect on themes of past and present, virtual and physical: using the electronic technology of her laptop to call for a hefty leather-bound tome which is handled with great care. Wildgoose’s text approaches the same issues as Bakker’s photographs from a different angle; all adds up to a thought-provoking whole.

Darkness at NoonArthur Koestler, Darkness at Noon (1940)
Translated from the Hungarian by Daphne Hardy

This was my book group’s most recent selection, and it generally went down well. I was undecided after reading Darkness at Noon as to whether it was a book for me, and I’m still not sure after our discussion. This book is the tale of Rubashov, once a high-ranking official in his country’s governing Party, now imprisoned and interrogated as a traitor to the regime. Koestler’s depiction of a show trial is grimly effective, with reference to people being executed for holding the ‘wrong’ opinions on seemingly trivial subjects, and Rubashov being inexorably worn down. I still suspect that Koestler’s prose is a bit too clinical for me to experience its full force; but, then again, that detachment is part of the point. I’m glad I read Darkness at Noon, though; and I wouldn’t have read it if not for the book group.

Eliza Granville, Gretel and the Dark (2014)

In Vienna of 1899, eminent psychoanalyst Josef Breuer is intrigued by his latest case, a girl he calls Lilie, who claims to be a machine. Some years later, young Krysta is living in a strange new place, where she befriends a boy named Daniel, whom her uncle insists is not a real child. Gradually, the two stories intertwine, as Josef tries to find out more about Lilie, and Krysta’s world grows darker. Along the way, Granville reflects on different ways in which people may put stories to use: to justify terrible prejudices, but also as a source of hope and (literal) escape. And the closing revelation is of the sort that makes me feel like reading the novel again, to see what else there is to find.

Antti Tuomainen, The Healer (2010)
Translated from the Finnish by Lola Rogers (2013)

In a Helsinki beset by the effects of climate change, poet Tapani Lehtinen searches for his missing wife, Johanna. He learns that Johanna, a journalist, was researching ‘The Healer’,  a serial killer targeting those he deems responsible for climate change, with the aim of ‘cleaning up’ society’s ills. Tapani starts to wonder whether Johanna’s work took her too close to The Healer. There’s an interesting sparseness to the atmosphere of Tuomainen’s novel, but overall The Healer doesn’t quite work for me. The near-future setting doesn’t seem to add much (there is a subtext comparing the encroachment of climate change to Tapani’s personal situation, but I don’t find it to be carried through), and the resolution of the mystery plot is corny.

Mother Mother

Koren Zalickas, Mother, Mother (2013)

Things are not going well for the Hurst siblings. The eldest, Rose, disappeared in her last year of school. Violet attacked her brother, Will, and has been sent to a psychiatric institution. Will, who has autism and epilepsy, is looked after and home-schooled by his mother, Josephine, who obviously knows best for him – doesn’t she? But now Violet is receiving letters from Rose, who appears to be happily settled in a new life; and child protection officers are calling on Josephine… The ghastly truth of what’s really happening in the Hurst household is only gradually – and effectively – revealed in an interesting debut novel from Koren Zalickas.

Reading round-up: late January

The ThiefFuminori Nakamura, The Thief (2009)
Translated from the Japanese by Satoko Izumo and Stephen Coates, 2012

Nishimura is a pickpocket, and so spends his days blending in even as he stands apart. He was once part of a group brought together by a man named Kizaki to rob a set of documents from a speculator’s house – or, rather, to be the expendable distraction, as the speculator was killed soon after. Now Kizaki is back, and has a new proposition for Nishimura. In this lean and spare novel, Fuminori Nakamura is concerned to explore what it means to live a life like Nishimura’s. The title of The Thief may not just refer to its protagonist; it could also be seen as applying to Kizaki, who has stolen Nishimura’s control over his own life. The layers of theft and manipulation go all the way down.

Dr Benjamin Daniels, Further Confessions of a GP (2014)

This is a follow-up to the first book in The Friday Project’s ‘Confessions’ series, whose (usually pseudonymous) authors pull back the curtain on their various professions with a collection of anecdotes. I’ve enjoyed all of these books that I’ve read; but I find there’s something particularly special about Daniels’ titles. He’s a good raconteur, that’s for sure; but he also controls tone superbly. He goes from telling  amusing stories, to expressing heartfelt opinions on particular aspects of healthcare, to poignant reflections on the patients he knows he can’t save. Both his books are well worth reading.

Yoko Ogawa, The Diving Pool (1990-1)
Translated from the Japanese by Stephen Snyder, 2008

A collection of three novellas by the author of Hotel Iris; as in that novel, Ogawa explores some dark psychological territory in a way that belies the spare tone of her prose. The title story’s narrator is infatuated with her foster-brother, and prone to a blank cruelty which is unlikely to lead anywhere good. In ‘Pregnancy Diary’, a girl chronicles the ups and downs of her sister’s pregnancy, which she seems to regard with equal parts fascination and contempt. ‘Dormitory’ is more dreamlike (or nightmarish), as a woman returns to her old college dormitory, finding it a very strange place indeed. (For more on The Diving Pool, see Tony Malone’s readalong at January in Japan.)

Skinning Tree

Srikumar Sen, The Skinning Tree (2012)

As Japanese forces encroach on India during the Second World War, young Sabby is sent from his family in Calcutta to a boarding school in the northern hills. Sen’s novel is a portrait of Sabby’s illusions being comprehensively shattered, and the consequences that follow. Not only is school discipline harsh; the bright world which Sabby imagined himself to inhabit is taken from him. He has become Anglo-Indian without ever knowing what England means. And where the school’s regime fosters violence, so the boys follow – to a tragic end that Sabby can barely bring himself to recall.

Lee Ki-ho, At Least We Can Apologize (2009)
Translated from the Korean by Christopher J. Dykas, 2013

Jin-man and Si-bong met in a psychiatric institution, where they were routinely beaten by the caretakers for… well, they didn’t know; so they started coming up with their own wrongs to confess. When the institution is raided and shut down by the authorities, the two stick together because Jin-man has nowhere else to go. They set up in business, offering apologies on behalf of other people; and, if there’s nothing to apologise for, Si-bong and Jin-man will find something – or create it. The pair go to ever greater lengths as Lee’s novel progresses; and the book never quite turns in the way you might expect, up to the very end. (This book is part of the Library of Korean Literature series from Dalkey Archive Press.)

Reading round-up: early January

Happy New Year! To kick off my blogging in 2014, I have a new Reading Log page for the year; and here’s a round-up of some of the books I’ve read lately…

***

Taste of Apple SeedsKatharina Hagena, The Taste of Apple Seeds (2008)
Translated from the German by Jamie Bulloch (2013)

When her grandmother dies, Iris inherits the old house. She returns to the village of her childhood to sort through everything; but finds that stepping back into her old world is not as easy as trying on her aunt’s dresses – and that there are family secrets to be uncovered. There’s a nice sense of place about Hagena’s novel, and some poignant reflections on loss (Iris’s grandmother had dementia before she died; her forgetting stands in contrast to Iris’s remembering and learning). Characters and memories circle around Iris in an intriguing dance, which ends with the prospect of further hope and sadness to come.

Matthew Hart, Gold (2013)

Journalist Hart brings together history, economics, and reportage in this account of gold’s changing role in the world economy. It’s a fascinating story to someone like me who doesn’t know about the subject; the way Hart tells it, it’s almost as though the idea of gold has become more important than the substance itself. I’m impressed with the range of Hart’s book, and with how deftly he ties all the threads together.

Ash Cameron, Confessions of an Undercover Cop (2013)

Another book in the Friday Project’s series of professional memoirs, this is a collection of tales from the author’s twenty-year police career, in both London and northern England, and in various sections of the force. Typically for this series, Cameron’s stories are a mixture of the humorous and dark, but always make for fascinating reading.

Equilateral

Ken Kalfus, Equilateral (2013)

In the last decade of the 19th century, British astronomer Sanford Thayer leads a grand engineering project: the construction of a giant equilateral triangle that will be seen from Mars -a signal to the great civilisation believed to reside there.  As Kalfus chronicles the scheme’s trials and tribulations, the ironies are plain to see – not just that of the great faith in the Martians’ existence and superiority (a faith which looks rather more misplaced to us), but also that Thayer remains enamoured of the Martians while having no regard for his Arab workers. The cool tone of the writing makes Equilateral a novel to savour.

Robert W. Greene, The Sting Man (1981)

This book is about Mel Weinberg, a hustler who was recruited by the FBI in the 1970s to work on Abscam, a sting operation that investigated public corruption (and which inspired the film American Hustle). I found the earlier parts of the book, covering Weinberg’s pre-Abscam career, to be the most interesting; Greene portrays Weinberg as an intriguingly ambivalent character: charismatic to an extent, repellent in other ways. Either way, though, Weinberg’s audacity is quite something to read about.

Nicholas Griffin, Ping-Pong Diplomacy (2014)

This is an account of: the development of table tennis as a sport, and the political dimension that was seemingly present from the start as the rules were codified. Griffin (a journalist and novelist) focuses particularly on ping-pong’s role in the thawing of relations between China and the USA during the 1970s, when table tennis players could move between the two countries in ways that diplomats could not. I knew barely anything about this part of history, and found Griffin’s book illuminating.

Reading round-up: books for Christmas presents

This isn’t meant to be a guide to Christmas gift ideas as such (for that, let me direct you to Kim’s excellent series of posts over on Reading Matters). It’s more that I’ve read a few books lately which, it struck me, would make good Christmas presents; so I thought I’d put them together into a blog post, and add in some other titles that I reviewed earlier in the year.

Non-Fiction

Letters of Note, ed. Shaun Usher

This huge, lavishly illustrated collection of letters (based on the website of the same name) is an ideal gift for anyone interested in the personal side of history, or who likes letters and books as objects. Read more about it in my original review.

Wordsmiths & Warriors by David and Hilary Crystal

This is an illustrated travelogue of significant places in the history of the English language in Britain. I haven’t seen the finished book, as I read a proof version when I reviewed it; but I’ve no doubt that it will look beautiful.

Fred's WarFred’s War by Andrew Davidson

Andrew Davidson’s grandfather Fred was a medical officer of the 1st battalion Cameronians during World War One. Although photography was banned on the front line, Fred and several other officers had cameras with them, and took photographs of their lives at war. Davidson uses these images to tell the story of the 1st Cameronians during the year that Fred was a serving officer. It’s a vivid and intimate account; there’s a real sense of the war gradually coalescing around the men as they march through France. Though Davidson refers to the photographs, he doesn’t caption them, which adds to the sense of this being an unfolding story for the men involved. Fred’s War gives a personal portrait of the conflict which is not quite like anything I’ve come across before.

Girl from Station X

The Girl from Station X by Elisa Segrave

Here’s another book based around personal wartime accounts, this time the diaries of Elisa Segrave’s mother Anne, who was stationed at Bletchley Park during World War Two. Again, it’s a fascinating glimpse into history, seeing Anne move from her privileged girlhood world into her wartime career; but this is Elisa’s story as much as Anne’s. Segrave describes how Anne’s diaries revealed to her a side of her mother that she had never known, and enabled her perhaps to understand Anne as she had not previously been able to. This double story is what particularly intrigues about The Girl from Station X.

Fiction

The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton

Yes, I know: any excuse to enthuse about The Luminaries. But it is just the sort of big hardback novel that would make a great Christmas gift, especially for readers who may have been undecided about trying it out for themselves (it may take them well into the new year to read it, too).

If not The Luminaries, then Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or Sergio de la Pava’s A Naked Singularity may also fit the bill (I have heard great things about both, but haven’t read them, so I can’t give a personal recommendation).

Crystal MirrorThe Crystal Mirror by Tim Malnick and Katie Green

From three long books to a much shorter one. This is a crowd-funded collection of “timeless tales for children and grown-ups alike”, written by Tim Malnick and illustrated by Katie Green. The five stories are all about characters changing their outlook on life to find a way forward, from the painter imprisoned in a bare tower room, to a bat fascinated by daylight. Malnick’s prose has the rhythms of a classic fairytale, and Green’s illustrations are gorgeous. I may not be quite the intended audience for The Crystal Mirror, but I found the book absolutely charming.

Non-Fiction about Fiction

Novel Cure

The Novel Cure by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Subtitled “An A-Z of Literary Remedies”, this book has suggestions for reading to help alleviate a variety of ailments. Some are quite tongue-in-cheek (David Vann’s Caribou Island as a cure for enthusiasm with DIY; Christie Malry’s Own Double-Entry by B.S. Johnson to treat fear of doing your tax return); others more serious (Wuthering Heights to cure a desire to seek vengeance; Mrs Dalloway to tackle that Monday morning feeling). But the entries are always written with wit (I especially love the entries which spoof the style of the book being recommended; my favourite is the one for House of Leaves) and enthusiasm. After reading The Novel Cure, or even just dipping into it, you’ll almost certainly have some new books that you want to try. Now, what’s the cure for an exponentially increasing to-read pile..?

“There is a great difference between a letter to a friend and history written for all to read”

Simon Garfield, To the Letter (2013)
Shaun Usher, Letters of Note (2013)
Kressmann Taylor, Address Unknown (1938)

A few weeks ago I read Tom Standage’s Writing on the Wall, which argues quite convincingly that there are analogues of social media (that is, ways of sharing information through personal networks) going back 2,000 years in history. From that point of view, there’s more continuity between how we communicate now, and how we used to, than one might suppose. But I’ve had cause to think about these issues again after reading a couple of new books from Canongate which are all about the history of letters. I’ve been wondering whether there is something unique about letters that might potentially be lost.

totheletterSimon Garfield has written a number of acclaimed non-fiction books (including 2010’s Just My Type, a history of typography, which I have been meaning to read for ages). His new book, To the Letter, is subtitled ‘A journey through a vanishing world’; so we know that this isn’t going to be just a factual account but – well, a love letter to letters. ‘Letters have the power to grant us a larger life,’ says Garfield (p. 19), telling of how he became intrigued by the story of a magician named Val Walker, after discovering a set of Walker’s correspondence for sale at an auction. There are similar glimpses of different lives and stories throughout To the Letter, as Garfield weaves together the history of postal delivery, the contents of letter-writing manuals, and notable correspondents from throughout the centuries, all into a fascinating tapestry.

If, like me, you have ever enjoyed writing or receiving letters (or both!), there will be plenty to delight you in Garfield’s book. But also, there will almost certainly be something to cause a feeling of regret and disappointment; for me it was learning that the Postman Pat theme has been changed  so he brings ‘parcels to your door,’ rather than letters. (Now I look into this further, it seems that the change came about because the new series is about Pat running a parcel delivery service, which alters my view a little, though I suppose it’s still illustrative of a general trend.) The thing is, though, that I’m really just being nostalgic for the trappings of the physical letter here; if I want to get to the heart of what letters really represent, I think I need to go deeper than that.

Tom Standage’s first example of historical social media in Writing on the Wall is Cicero staying in contact with Rome by copying and sharing letters, some of which were intended to be public documents. Garfield also has a chapter on the Romans, but he make a distinction between the public (in a sense performative) correspondence of a Cicero, and the letters of someone like Pliny the Younger, which were generally more private.  The sense of letters as a private and personal space comes through time and again in To the Letter, perhaps never more so than in the wartime correspondence which intersperses the book. Chris Barker (an RAF communications officer stationed in the south Mediterranean) began writing home to his friend Bessie Moore (who translated Morse code messages for the Foreign Office) in 1943; as time went on, their friendship turned to love – and the expression of that love as we see it in their letters is deeply affecting. I was as captivated by the tale unfolding in their correspondence as I could have been by any fictional story.

Perhaps this is what the personal letter fundamentally represents: a space for an extended, reflective engagement between two individuals. This is something that can also be accomplished by email, of course; but I do think that the act of physically writing a letter encourages it more. Either way, Simon Garfield’s book leaves me appreciating letters anew, and thinking that perhaps I should write more of my own.

***

lettersofnote

The quotation heading this post is from Pliny (as mentioned by Garfield); I think it’s correct, but I was also struck on reading To the Letter (especially the Barker-Moore correspondence) at how letters can turn history inside-out, can give a view that one might not see otherwise. That feeling was brought to mind again when I read Letters of Note, a book based on Shaun Usher’s website of the same name. This book was published in association with the crowdfunding site Unbound; so that’s an online service used to facilitate a printed book derived from a website that celebrates paper correspondence – phew! Letters of Note reproduces the text of 125 letters, often alongside images of the actual documents. It’s a big, beautiful object.

It is also wonderful to read. There are the amusing entries, such as the young Queen Elizabeth II sending President Eisenhower her recipe for drop scones; or an eight-year-old boy’s letter to Richard Nixon (who was recovering from pneumonia at the time) urging him to ‘be a good boy and eat your vegetables like I had too!!’. There are letters which, as I said earlier, open up history in a way that only personal documents can: Francis Crick’s letter to his young son describing the newly-discovered DNA molecule; or a Japanese lady’s farewell to her samurai husband, whom she was sure would fall in battle. There’s the poignant and the inspiring, the romantic and the furious. I could go on, but Letters of Note is something you really have to experience for yourself. It’s difficult to imagine a better demonstration of the power and value of written correspondence.

***

addressunknownNow seems a good time to talk about what I’d imagine to be one of the most powerful epistolatory stories in the English language. Kathrine Kressmann Taylor’s Address Unknown was first published in Story magazine in 1938; I read it this year in a stand-alone volume published by Souvenir Press. It takes the form of a correspondence between Max Eisenstein, a Jewish American gallery owner; and his old friend and business partner Martin Schulse, who has recently returned to Germany as the tale begins, in 1932. At first, Schulse is hopeful for the future of his country under Hitler, but also expresses his reservations to Eisenstein. Schulse’s attitude soon hardens, though, and he orders Eisenstein to stop writing. The American attempts to appeal to his old friend’s better nature, but Schulse will have none of it – until events take a tragic turn, and the letters become weapons.

I think it’s the epistolatory form that really makes this story; Taylor brings together the personal and performative  aspects of letter-writing, using both to cutting effect. We see the changing nature of the two men’s relationship, and sense the deep personal connection that Eisenstein wishes were still there (and that letters can forge and capture so well). But I’m also struck by how much the letters in Address Unknown don’t show – how they filter out certain aspects of their thoughts. I’m thinking especially of the ending, where the letters advance implacably (you’ll have to read the book to see what I mean), and we have to infer what must be in their writer’s mind. Letters may be able to forge a connection between two people, but Taylor’s story shows how they might also sever one irrevocably.