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08/31/2010

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Books David Finished in 2018

  • Avram Davidson: Masters of the Maze

    Avram Davidson: Masters of the Maze
    Much of the best of Avram Davidson's work has been republished. That leaves the less than five-star Davidsons, and 1965 Masters of the Maze, I am afraid, falls into that category. That's not to say the Davidsonian wit and eccentric erudition is not there and not a delight; it's just that the novel as a whole is less than gripping. For completists only, I would say.

  • Henry James: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers (with a Preface by Henry James)

    Henry James: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers (with a Preface by Henry James)
    The Turn of the Screw is among the best short novels I have read. It a ghost story in which we are uncertain that the ghosts exist, an examination of class anxiety, and it contains one of the most subtly constructed unreliable narrators in English literature. As ghost stories should be, it is terrifying, but mostly because it unmoors us: we are never quite sure how we are to take this uncanny, unsettling tale.

  • Attica Locke: Bluebird, Bluebird

    Attica Locke: Bluebird, Bluebird
    Attica Locke seems to understand that who done it is always the least interesting part of any who-done-it. Thus she builds a world—rural East Texas—and gives us a look into African American life in that part of the world, that is complex and compelling. Her protagonist, a Texas Ranger whose marriage is on the skids, who is drinking too much, and who cares too much—or so his colleagues seem to believe—about the injustices African Americans suffer in much of the United States, is someone we're glad to meet and follow as he comes to understand that the two murders that happen in Lark, Texas are not simple, and that, as another Southern writer said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

  • Maria Thomas: African Visas

    Maria Thomas: African Visas
    I read Maria Thomas's first two books years ago, and remember enjoying them. I thought that was all she had written, but then I stumbled across this in a used book store. It is a collection published a couple of years after she died in a plane crash in Africa, her subject, the place she had spent much of her life. As is often the case with posthumous publications, it's a mixed bag. The novella, The Jiru Road, which anchors the collection is not as accomplished as her other work; one guesses it was an early attempt at a novel, though her talent does shine through in places. The short stories are a mixed bag: some barely concealed memoir, others that seem to end without resolution, but not in a way that resonates. Maybe I'll go back and have another look at the two books published before this one: Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage and Antonia saw the Oryx First.

  • Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost (Persephone Classics)

    Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost (Persephone Classics)
    I am grateful to the feminist presses such as Persephone that have that have long been at the forefront in bringing us superb novels that have been forgotten. A recent discovery they, and then, thanks to them, I, have made is Marghanita Laski's 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost. It survives as much more than a period piece: it is a book that grips one both intellectually and emotionally. Set mostly in post-war France we follow the protagonist, a prissy, self-centered English intellectual with whom it is quite easy to identify in spite of (because of?) his less than attractive personality as he moves through a France still far from recovery in search of his child, a boy who, in the chaos of war, was lost. The problem is, he's not sure if he wants the boy, and when it's impossible to prove that a boy who may be his son and who is living, malnourished and deprived with the rest of the inmates in an orphanage, he is tempted to use that as an excuse not to take responsibility for him, to return to his ordered and comfortable life. Read the book and find out what he decides.

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    Every so often one needs to reread these stories, and it is the stories, rather than Doyle's novels, to which one wants to return. I was recently discussing the awful Dan Brown with a friend, and we wondered why anyone read his work when there was pulp so much more satisfying—these stories, for example—available. This phenomenon remains mysterious.

  • Ira Nadel: Cathay: Ezra Pound's Orient (Penguin Specials)

    Ira Nadel: Cathay: Ezra Pound's Orient (Penguin Specials)
    This little book was a pleasure to have in my pocket--it's that small--for the last few days. It includes a few chapters of background about Pound and the creation of his collection, Cathay, but the pay-off is, of course, the facsimile edition of Cathay that appears in the book's final pages. One can argue with the accuracy of Pound's translations, and many have, unsurprisingly, since he didn't know Chinese, but one can't argue with the beauty of the poems he has given us. How can one tire of "Song of the Bowmen of Shu," Or "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," or really any of the poems in Cathay?

  • Dale Pendell: Walking With Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown

    Dale Pendell: Walking With Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown
    Norman O. Brown was a name to be reckoned with back in the seventies, but, though I was a student at UCSC, where he taught, I never took a class with him, and though he was considered important, I have never read anything he wrote. I have now, however, thanks to poet Dale Pendell, accompanied him on a few walks. Pendell, who did study with him at UCSC got in the habit of walking and talking with him, and managed to remember their talks and records them here. They are rich enough in ideas and broad enough in range of reference that the recto pages of the book are filled with useful and interesting explanatory notes while the verso pages contain the conversation. The book was an enjoyable and stimulating read, but it made me miss Santa Cruz more than it made me want to read Brown.

  • Hideo Yokoyama: Six Four: A Novel

    Hideo Yokoyama: Six Four: A Novel
    One opens this book expecting it to be a police procedural, and in a way it is. Perhaps, in that it's actually a novel about working in the bureaucracy that the police department is, and, by extension, any bureaucracy, it is the first honest police procedural. It includes all the frustrations and ass-coverings, and slow-downs, and stonewalling, and paper-shuffling, that any of us privileged to work in a company or a hospital or a university or . . . a whole lot of places, will know all too well. As such, it can be, like spending one's days as a cog in a bureaucratic machine, a bit of a grind; the long novel drags in places, and there are no gun-battles or car chases or colorful characters to spice things up. What saves it, though, is that, though it is a clear eyed account of bureaucracy, it is not a simplistic attack on bureaucracy. The protagonist, a detective who's been moved to Public Relations, comes to appreciate that bureaucrats do serve a necessary function, that a society of lone wolves of the type that are lionized in most pop culture, would not be one in which most of us would want to live. The book revolves around kidnappings of two girls and one girl, the detective/bureaucrat's daughter, who has gone missing. One of the girls we know from the outset was murdered. Author Hideo Yokoyama drops enough clues about the daughter that it's hard not to be pretty sure about where she is at the end, but it is not confirmed. As for the other girl, well, that would be a spoiler, so I'll stop here.

  • William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (New Penguin Shakespeare)

    William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (New Penguin Shakespeare)
    Of course I've been reading in the sonnets for years: this poem, that sequence, but this is actually the first time I've sat down and read them, 1-154. I waited too long. It's something everyone should do, and something I will certainly do again. Of course there are individual poems that stand out, but taking them as a whole, the continued poking and prodding at ideas, metaphors employed differently from one sonnet to the next, enriches the experience.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Ian McEwan: Nutshell

    Ian McEwan: Nutshell
    Nutshell is both audaciously original, and quintessential McEwan in story, mood, humor. It’s dense with big ideas (e.g., the horror of the possible collapse of civilization vs keeping perspective on the simple joys and privilege of being alive), too dense for me to absorb in one reading. So it didn’t exactly jell for me, as, say “The Children’s Hour” did. But I sure was sucked into the plot, unputdownable toward the end. (***)

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques

    Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques
    A small gem of a novel set in the olive groves of Greece, and during Mardi Gras on a small ill-fated Caribbean island. The history, the local French nobility, the verdant surroundings, the heat and the pageantry are lovingly sketched, with the writing sometimes reaching an ecstasy of description. A celebration of dubious colonialism that ratchets to a gripping and moving finale. (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: Days Without End

    Sebastian Barry: Days Without End
    With this novel, I lived some of the fraught days of the European, often Irish, settlement of the US, the genocidal battles with Native Americans, and the slaughter of the civil war. It's well-trodden ground in fact and fiction, and the novelty here is an unusual narrator recounting singular experiences in a past vernacular (an authentic-sounding triumph of voice) that often finds humor and lyricism alongside the horror and hardship, the lice and the cold and the hunger. Read this and salute the human survival instinct, and be grateful to live in a more comfortable and peaceful time and place. (****)

  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
    Some sections felt too long at first, but perhaps that's because I hadn't adjusted to the (s)pace of an almost 800-page novel. This story of a boy growing up (and what a story!) is luminously written - not a word out of place - with descriptions of experiences I haven't had that seem profoundly right. It even morphs into something of a thriller near the end, before rounding out with an affecting coda. It's truthful, shying away from nothing, and wholly satisfying. Now I can't wait to read Tartt's other two books. (*****)

  • Geraldine Brooks: March

    Geraldine Brooks: March
    Onto the template of the idealistic Little Women (which should be (re)read prior to this for maximum enjoyment), Geraldine Brooks crafts an addendum that relates a more realistic, harrowing, and achingly human story of the father, the mother and the civil war. (***)

  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

    Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
    Here’s a young adult novel that has endured since the 1860s, and frequently appears on my radar (most recently in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, where it inspired young Lila and Elena in 1950s Naples). I was glad to have the Oxford World's Classics edition which explains its literary background, and how autobiographical it is. Like other books for young people of the period, it includes moral lessons, and these are still compelling today because humans want to be good so that they may be loved, and children feel this need most acutely. There is also the irrepressible joie de vivre of the characters, warts and all, that comes from the author’s memories of her own childhood. To read Little Women is to be embraced in the warm bosom of an idealized loving family. (***)

  • Susan Perabo: The Fall of Lisa Bellow

    Susan Perabo: The Fall of Lisa Bellow
    This story of a contemporary suburban US family opens as young adult, swerves into mystery thriller and psychodrama, then character study, and winds up lunging toward literature. As a page turner it more than succeeds. The typos (p. 154, line 18; p. 238 last line) suggest this was more a job of work than a labor of love.

  • Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels

    Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels
    I first read this when I was 17 or so, trying to figure out what life was all about, and Kerouac, the seeker, was the perfect companion: buddhism, the bottle, elation, depression, regrets, nostalgia for childhood, mother, jazz, whores, companionship, crazy friends disturbing the peace, peacemaking (“it’s hard enough to live in a world where you grow old and die, why be dis-harmonious.” p. 204), all set down with enormous vitality: fizzing poetry struggling to make the meaningless meaningful, and vice versa. Its sheer intensity and raw honesty makes it my second-favorite Kerouac (after “Dharma Bums”). Rest in peace, ol’ Jack Duluoz, and thank you for all of it. (****)

  • Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend

    Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend
    A wonderfully detailed conjuring of growing up in a poor district of Naples in the 1950s centering on the friendship between two girls amid the neighborhood gossip, feuds, alliances, inequality, loves, violence, celebrations. Both girls show promise beyond their oppressive surroundings as they struggle to make sense of their world and who they are. The first of four volumes. (***)

  • Paul Harding: Tinkers

    Paul Harding: Tinkers
    In this novel a man is dying; then we move to his epileptic father, and then to the grandfather. It is fragmented; there are passages of opaque poetic prose; you sometimes aren’t sure what’s going on. There is pastoral description, extreme horror (describing an epileptic fit), even backwoods “humor”. I’m guessing that the sloppy copy-editing is because when a writer isn’t trying to communicate to a reader, the reader unconsciously responds in kind (on p. 83 Joe is called Jack; on p. 149 father is spelled faher). This is a major novel, a Pulitzer winner, but I sadly rate it a waste of time.

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • The Post
    This is how, in the Vietnam War era and pre-Watergate, a whistleblower and US newspapers bravely confronted the Nixon White House over freedom of the press. It’s also the startling story of a Washington society matron confronting gender prejudice, internalized and external, when thrust into a history-making role. It's a solid, suspenseful, satisfying account, tidily acted by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, with clear parallels to current times. It also sent me to Wikipedia to learn more about The Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee and the rest. (Theater) (****)
  • Coco
    Mexico: the Day of the Dead. This delightful, entertaining, enlightening animated movie made me laugh and cry more than any I’ve watched recently. (Theater--IMAX) (****)
  • The Shape of Water
    A fantasy that’s hard-nosed and thrilling, entirely original while comfortably familiar, nostalgic yet contemporary, slyly humorous, and a paean to tolerance and inclusion. Magic. (Theater) (*****)
  • Arrival
    A linguist tries to find a way to communicate with aliens. I don't watch much sci-fi so this was refreshing. The story confused me some until my smarter partner clarified it. What is extraordinary (though perhaps not to sci-fi fans who know the potential of the genre) is that it ends up an affirmation of life, which is a rare and always welcome lesson. (DVD) (***)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    A small town in the midwest in the aftermath of a murder. I look to stories to make sense of life’s chaos, but this one presents mostly just the chaos, making this corner of the US seem a lawless, racist, homophobic and generally scary place (to my sensibilities, softened by life in gentle Japan). That leaves entertainment, and the pleasures here are strong performances, dark humor, and not knowing what might happen next. (Theater) (***)

Things NC Consumed Recently

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
    More than forty years on since my last reading, this classic novel is remarkable not so much for its romantic longings as for its emphasis on American violence, its depiction of a country in which California hardly matters and its meeting of the Mid West and East Coast. Plus its succinct nine chapters, its elegant prose and its almost noirish tone: Tom breaking Myrtle's nose would seem to foreshadow Lee Marvin throwing hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in The Big Heat - and the use of flashbacks helps too. I'd like to thank the publicity for the recent film version and my current cold for sending me back to the novel (and my young self).
  • Isabelle Eberhardt
    In 1904, Isabelle Eberhardt drowned in the desert, leaving behind, among other things, various writings in French (a novel, travel notes, a journal, short stories), Islam, Lake Geneva, a husband, debauchery in kif, sex and alcohol, and a small collection of male clothing, which she wore habitually, along with her man's name. The lazy say she was an early hippie, because of her nomadic, hedonistic life, and being the first one to die at 27. Lindqvist has her in a line from Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Celine and Genet. Her story can only get stranger and more fascinating. "In The Shadow of Islam", "The Passionate Nomad", "The Oblivion Seekers" and Annette Kobak's biography are one way in. You'll find there an apt fatal romanticism for vast desert spaces and a depiction of Islam to ponder. Among other things.
  • Listen to Britain - Humphrey Jennings
    Terence Davies is surely right to say Listen to Britain is in part an attempt to define the nation on the eve of its being invaded. But that invasion never came. A little prematurely, Humphrey Jennings's film records what left later, with something messier, less defined usurping through the back door. Terence Davies is surely right to say Listen to Britain is one of the greatest things these islands have produced.
  • Patience (After Sebald)
    Grant Gee's documentary uses a palette of pale black and white, maps and talking heads to comment on W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, an account of his walk through Suffolk. Unlike the book, where a variety of genres (and photographs) coheres to make a recognisable whole, the film suffers slightly from a lack of direction. It is too specific to serve as an introduction and lacks an overriding arc that might describe a thesis. However, with its archival footage, interviews with the author and shots of the route taken, it is essential viewing for those already in thrall to all things Sebaldian - even if the ending, alas, veers close to Conan Doyle and fairies-in-the-garden territory.
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