#tobyreads: Diagrams of Lives


I’d been meaning to read Beth Steidle’s The Static Herd for a while now. It’s a slim book, but a powerful one, juxtaposing scenes from a life with medical terminology ominous in its context and implications, diagrams, and illustrations. There are questions raised here of family, of mortality, and of things that go unnoticed; what it all adds up to, in the end, is a kind of impressionistic portrait of several interwoven lives, nestled alongside a meditation on observation and interpretation.

André Alexis’s novel Childhood takes a similar approach, but does so in a very different way–it begins with its narrator recounting the experience of being raised by his grandmother, but what’s occasionally a straightforward narrative sometimes gives way to more formally-structured reminiscences. (This makes sense; the narrator, we eventually learn, will grow up to be a scientist.) Here, the narrator’s sometimes-evasive encounters with his family, and the secrets hidden by all, is reflected and paralleled by the narrative’s form, sometimes confessional and sometimes formally rich.

Victor Serge’s Conquered City delves into a year in the history of the Russian Revolution, focusing on revolutionary and counterrevolutionary actions in St. Petersburg. The canvas here is vast, following a broad array of characters and their shifting fortunes. (This was my first time reading Serge; I’d say that some of John Dos Passos’s work would be a solid point of comparison.) It’s a memorable description of chaos, and of warfare ideological and physical.

I’d read some glowing reviews of Rachel Cohen’s Bernard Berenson: A Life in the Picture Trade, and ended up reading it the week before Christmas. Berenson’s life on its own is fascinating, and his work as an art historian and  appraiser makes it even more so; Cohen explores how his work developing theories of aesthetics remains relevant to how we talk about art today. And in the midst of all of this, there are scenes of life vividly rendered, from Bostonian intellectual society to Berenson’s experiences during both World Wars.

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