Munich Airport by Greg Baxter

An ex-pat American living in London learns that his sister, Miriam, who had been living in Berlin, has died of starvation. The news is both a shock and possibly expected. At any rate, it catalyses arcane reactions in her brother, who has not spoken to her in at least five years, and in their elderly widowed father whose estrangement from her extends even further into the past. Father and son meet in Berlin and undertake the repatriation of the body with the help of a consular official named Trish. Apparently standard bureaucratic delay prevents the release of the body for more than two weeks. And in that time both father and son, and to a lesser extent Trish, undergo flights of alienation and excess — renting a furnished luxury penthouse, hiring a car to undertake a trip down the Rhine and into Belgium and Luxembourg, immodest gourmandising, drinking to excess, sexual profligacy, and self-harm. This, followed by a starvation diet which may purge them of both their excess and their reason. Once Miriam’s body is released, they can begin their journey home. The father has chosen to fly them all out of Munich Airport so that they will not need to change planes, but when they reach Munich, the airport is socked in with heavy sleet and fog. So much so that their flight — indeed all flights — has been delayed interminably. And this is where we pick up the story with the brother narrating their current predicament interspersed with reflections on what has preceded that in the previous two weeks as well as earlier moments in the lives of Miriam, her brother and her father.

In the stateless state of those who have already passed through security at an international airport, grounded by the murky fog that paralyses airports and action, and faced with a constitutional ambivalence about his father, himself and everything else, we follow the brother’s not always trustworthy impressions. But ultimately nothing is clear or fully explained. An underlying sense of menace pervades but it has no clear source. Emotions are fractured and changeable. And perhaps the only moments of clarity come when the son speaks about the advent of twelve-tone music and especially the music of Alban Berg.

That singular break with tonality seems also to be the model for Baxter’s treatment of the novel. Not so much a case of anti-narrative as the abandonment of narrative, or rather narrative as the underpinning structure of the novel. Themes of death and excess cross against those of loss and abandonment or harm and self-harm. But there is no centre, per se, and so we are carried along solely by the power of Baxter’s prose itself. And what prose that is! I was transfixed. Constantly unsettled. And ultimately a bit in awe. This is a novel that warrants re-reading almost immediately. Highly recommended.

Peace by Richard Bausch

The intense existential doubt precipitated by moments of life and death struggle, catastrophic moral choice, and, yes, the peace that passeth understanding meld in this frighteningly clear and poignant tale. It is 1944, the Italian campaign, and three men are tasked, along with an elderly Italian guide, to scout up a low mountain in order to ascertain what forces of retreating Germans lie ahead. Go up a mountain and come back down. If that isn’t the basis of an archetypical narrative arc, I don’t know what is. Simple. But that stripped down symbolism and its corollaries reverberates throughout this haunting story.

Of course the three GIs are carrying far more than their packs. Bausch masterfully flashes back to their time before the landing, and in the case of one, Corporal Robert Marson, to his life in a suburb of Washington D.C. It is more than fear for their lives though that burdens them. An incident has occurred shortly before they are ordered out on this reconnaissance. That incident and their deliberation as to how to respond to it sets the moral choice before them. As if that weren’t enough, they find themselves encountering, from a distance, the slaughter of Jews by the retreating German forces, and on their return journey, the very real threat of death dealt by an unseen sniper.

Bausch’s writing here is so taut, so fully under control, so pitch perfect, that you will find your pace through the story to be almost breathless. This is fine writing indeed. And though it is a short novel, it feels replete. Highly recommended.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

On rereading Pride and Prejudice in this beautiful Belknap Press annotated edition edited by Patricia Meyer Spacks, I am struck by the almost irrepressible joy evinced at various points by so many of the actors in the drama. Take Jane, the oldest of the Bennet sister, and her perfect bliss at the familial joy that will result from her happy union with Mr. Bingley. She wonders, “how shall I bear so much happiness!” Or take her perfectly insensible youngest sister, Lydia, whose joy on becoming the first wed of the sisters burbles forth heedless of the shame brought on her siblings and parents by her escapade with Mr. Wickham. Or take Mr. Bennet’s delight at the obsequiousness of his cousin, Mr. Collins, or the inanities of Mrs. Bennet. And finally, take Elizabeth’s willingness to laugh at and with her proud husband to be, Mr. Darcy. Joy rises to the surface like cream. And it is joy to which we are fitted, each to our nature.

This is such a lovely edition. It is in a large format allowing the annotations to accompany the text directly. There are numerous notes discussing fine points of interpretation given generous presentation by Patricia Meyer Spacks, though at times she reserves judgement on their felicity. And there is an excellent introduction, also from Professor Spacks, which is fully conscious of the fact that most who pick up this edition of Austen’s classic will be rereading it. And the joys of rereading, especially of works that merit rereading such as this one, are many. For myself, I relish the slower pace at which I take the text, revelling in each expected but still surprising turn of events. And yet, subsequent to Elizabeth’s re-acquaintance with Mr. Darcy at Pemberley, I still find myself racing onward almost desperate to see Elizabeth reach her deserved joy.

For an early work, admittedly reworked and finally published after the success of Sense and Sensibility, I think that Pride and Prejudice points to much of what will solidify in Austen’s later writing, especially her very fine Emma. But perhaps it is the youthful exuberance that this novel cannot cloak which more than anything encourages the devotion so many readers have for it. After all, we will have our joy.


The above edition of Pride and Prejudice was a gift I received the Christmas before last. I held it in reserve through the year waiting for the ideal time to savour it. Events overtook me such that it wasn’t until this past Christmas that I felt the inclination to indulge myself. I’m glad I did. Hardly anything restores me the way rereading one of Austen’s novels does.

See also

Reading – a year in review, 2014

2014 was a good year for reading. I discovered new authors whose work I enjoyed: C.S. Richardson, Dennis Johnson, ZZ Packer, Ali Smith, Donald Antrim, and Greg Baxter. I continued my affection for authors with whom I had already been acquainted: Richard Ford, Elena Ferrante, Ben Lerner, George Saunders, Lars Iyer, Lorrie Moore, and Colm Tóibín. I also wrote short reviews of each book I read this past year and posted them on LibraryThing, a few of which I re-posted here on this blog. I’m already looking forward to another great year of reading ahead.

Stats from my 2014 reading list:

  • 16 were borrowed from our public library
  • 18 have Canadian authors
  • 11 were chosen due to personal recommendations from friends
  • 7 are by authors who appear more than once on the 2014 list
  • 1 was being reread
  • 1 was read aloud by my wife and me
  • 15 are non-fiction
  • 0 are ebooks

Books read in 2014 (72):

  • Davis, Philip. Reading and the Reader
  • Ford, Richard. A Multitude of Sins
  • Keyes, Daniel. Flowers for Algernon
  • Birrell, Heather. Mad Hope
  • Cole, Teju. Open City
  • Evison, Jonathan. The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving
  • Curtis, Rebecca. Twenty Grand and other Tales of Love and Money
  • Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road
  • Moore, Lorrie. Bark: Stories
  • Patchett, Ann. This is the Story of a Happy Marriage
  • Boyden, Joseph. Through Black Spruce
  • Burnside, John. Black Cat Bone
  • Welty, Eudora. One Writer’s Beginnings
  • Crummey, Michael. Under the Keel: Poems
  • Richardson, C.S. The End of the Alphabet
  • Humphreys, Helen. Coventry: A Novel
  • Saunders, George. Pastoralia: Stories
  • Eggers, Dave. The Wild Things
  • Bellow, Saul. Ravelstein
  • McLeod, Alistair. No Great Mischief
  • Saunders, George. CivilWarLand in Bad Decline
  • Richardson, C.S. The Emperor of Paris
  • Maillet, Antonine. The Tale of Don l’Orignal
  • MacLeod, Alistair. Island: The Collected Stories
  • Maillet, Antonine. Pélagie: The Return to Acadie
  • Fraile, Medardo. Things Look Different in the Light
  • Morgan, Robert J. Rise Again!: The Story of the Cape Breton Island, Book One
  • Coady, Lynn. Play the Monster Blind: Stories
  • Toltz, Steve. A Fraction of the Whole
  • Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son
  • Homes, A.M. The Safety of Objects
  • Fitzgerald, Penelope. At Freddie’s
  • Strout, Elizabeth. Olive Kitteridge
  • Queenan, Joe. One for the Books
  • Lee, Hermione. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life
  • Ferrante, Elena. Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
  • Iyer, Lars. Wittgenstein Jr
  • Saunders, George. The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil
  • Homes, A.M. May We Be Forgiven
  • Smith, Ali. Artful
  • Munro, Alice. Who Do You Think You Are?
  • Ferrante, Elena. Troubling Love
  • Lerner, Ben. 10:04
  • Gawande, Atul. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
  • Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
  • Baxter, Greg. The Apartment
  • Scheffler, Samuel; Kolodny, Niko (ed.) Death and the Afterlife
  • Horn, Dara. The World To Come
  • Browne, Renni and Dave King. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to edit yourself into print
  • Davis, Lydia. The End of the Story
  • Packer, ZZ. Drinking Coffee Elsewhere
  • Ferrante, Elena. The Lost Daughter
  • Ford, Richard. Let Me Be Frank With You
  • Tóibín, Colm. The Heather Blazing
  • Fforde, Jasper. The Eye of Zoltar
  • Lipsyte, Sam. The Ask
  • Hadley, Tessa. Married Love
  • Smith, Ali. The Accidental
  • Berger, John. Bento’s Notebook
  • Antrim, Donald. The Verificationist
  • Beckett, Bernard. Genesis
  • Bausch, Richard. Someone To Watch Over Me
  • Hadley, Tessa. Everything Will Be All Right
  • Birkerts, Sven. The Other Walk: essays
  • Barnes, Julian. Levels of Life
  • Finucan, Stephen. Foreigners
  • Didion, Joan. Slouching Towards Bethlehem
  • Toews, Miriam. All My Puny Sorrows
  • Antrim, Donald. Elect Mr. Robinson For A Better World
  • Smith, Ali. Girl Meets Boy
  • Galloway, Steven. The Cellist of Sarajevo
  • Beattie, Steve W. (compiler), Davidson, Craig (compiler), and Nawaz, Saleema (compliler). The Journey Prize Stories 26


Let Me Be Frank With You by Richard Ford

“A few good words,” observes Frank Bascombe at the end of the final novella of Richard Ford’s, Let Me Be Frank With You, and “the day we have briefly shared is saved.” It summarizes Frank Bascombe’s near elegiac take on grief, death and the fear of death, and what makes life worth living. And it perfectly captures my take on Richard Ford’s latest.

For those who have followed Frank Bascombe from The Sportswriter, through Independence Day and on to The Lay of the Land, there was always one more holiday looming. The earlier novels took place, over the course of Frank’s life, at Easter, July 4th, and Thanksgiving. So it will come as no surprise that the four linked novellas, or long short stories, here mark the the last few weeks leading up to Christmas. Frank is now 68, retired, living once again in Haddam with his second wife, Sally. It is the aftermath of hurricane Sandy and the destruction that followed in its wake has peeled back the skin of The Shore. Vast amounts of real estate are destroyed, including Frank and Sally’s old house (they sold up and moved inland 8 years previous). The survivors, one way or another, are receiving grief counselling. And maybe all of us, including Frank though he denies it, are in such need. Endings are in evidence. Indeed, as Frank notes, “that things end is often the most interesting thing about them.” Frank’s end is still being postponed, though death surrounds him, suffusing even the house in which he and Sally live (due to a horrific scene that occurred there 30 years earlier), placing its determinate finger on Frank’s first wife, Ann, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and rattling its last rasp in the form of Eddie “Ole Olive” Medley, a former friend of Frank’s from the years shortly after his divorce. Only the reassuring presence of Ezekiel Lewis and those few good words of Christmas cheer and fellowship can stem the tide. It doesn’t seem like much, but it is enough.

Ford’s Bascombe has moved on from his Permanent Period to the Next Level, which is characterized as much by letting go (of friends, real estate, cares and concerns) as by Frank’s identification with his Default Self. But of course Frank can never really hold to his stated intentions. Perhaps his true essence just keeps seeping through, as Ann might say, or maybe it is just hard for someone without an essence, as Frank would claim, to hold on to things, especially things as insubstantial themselves as intentions.

It might sound odd to describe Ford’s return to Frank Bascombe as a breath of fresh air. But fresh is exactly how this feels. A few good words, indeed. Highly recommended.

See also