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Books David Finished in 2014

  • Peter Dickinson: Tefuga

    Peter Dickinson: Tefuga
    Tefuga is by Peter Dickinson, a novelist who is both prolific and difficult to pigeonhole. Thus he has never received as much attention as he deserves. He is, after all, the author of science fiction, mysteries, and children's books in addition to his "serious novels." An artist so promiscuous cannot be taken seriously. Tefuga, however, is evidence that he should be. It is set in Africa—Dickinson was born in Zambia to a father in the colonial service—and though it was published nearly thirty years ago, this tale of a woman and her husband in colonial Nigeria still sparkles with perceptiveness about colonialism, and its evil twin, the patriarchal world that delimited "a woman's place." Dickson's version is brilliantly constructed. As we learn the story through the diaries of the woman at its center, and also through the film being made about her life years after the events by her son, there is a sense of mirrors in mirrors: the reflections are the same as "reality," but not quite. Perhaps Dickinson's neatest trick is making his colonial couple sympathetic without saddling them with anachronistic attitudes about the role of the British in Africa, or about the Africans over whom the British ruled. Some of their attitudes are naive, and some downright repugnant, but they all seem accurate to the milieu.

  • Ross Macdonald: The Galton Case (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

    Ross Macdonald: The Galton Case (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
    This could be one of the best in the Lew Archer series. It's the story of an impostor who is not an impostor, of a past that will not remained repressed. Freud, as always, is the presiding deity.

  • Naoyuki Ii: The Shadow of a Blue Cat (Japanese Literature Series)

    Naoyuki Ii: The Shadow of a Blue Cat (Japanese Literature Series)
    The most surprising thing about this pleasant, but very conventional, novel is that Dalkey Archive--known for their adventurous list--chose to publish it. It examines the life of a middle-aged man leading the not terribly exciting life that most middle-aged men live (and as I am one myself, I will say it is accurate). To bring the mundane life into focus, Ii surrounds his protagonist with an uncle who is a bit of a Bohemian, and with a daughter who's begun to move with a fast crowd and ends up pregnant, briefly married, and divorced. There's the odd reference to writers like Oe and Sade, marijuana, and '70s radicalism, but none of these are developed in any depth. There are also philosophical musings about love--both eros and agape--and our responsibilities as members of society, but all of this seems tacked on. It is, instead, the skillful realism of the depiction of the late '90s in Japan that keeps one turning pages.

  • Gregory Dunne: Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman

    Gregory Dunne: Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman
    Cid Corman, Gregory Dunne's excellent Quiet Accomplishment: Remembering Cid Corman makes clear, valued poetry in part for the way it brings people together. Thus Dunne's strategy, to write about Corman and his work, but also about people, and not least himself and how we was affected by the man and the work, is wise. Dunne's analysis of Corman's work is strong, but is made stronger by the human element around it, the same element that helped make Corman's work the wonder that it is.

  • Ross Macdonald: The Doomsters (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

    Ross Macdonald: The Doomsters (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
    As one continues through Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer books one stumbles across hints about the events in Archer's life that have made him who he is. He has been, we learn, an abused child, a juvenile delinquent and young hood running the streets of Long Beach, California, a cop, and a husband. He is none of these things any more, and in this book more than any of its predecessors, he is morose about some of the turns his life has taken. He is coming to understand, as he roots through the rot that characterizes a California town called, with no small irony, Purisima, that a black-and-white good-and-evil view of the world is insufficient, and also with the notion that he may be neither as good or bad a man as he feared. Freud, as always, is the presiding genius in Macdonald's novels, but existentialism seems to have entered the picture as well.

  • Thomas Pynchon: Bleeding Edge: A Novel

    Thomas Pynchon: Bleeding Edge: A Novel
    Thomas Pynchon is one of our most reliable novelists. I can't think of one of his books that isn't full of fun, from the snap and crackle of his sentences to the wacky humor to the serious look (in a fun house mirror) at the world. Bleeding Edge is no exception. In it Pynchon takes us to New York City and back to the early days of the Internet. He creates a wonderful and entirely convincing Jewish fraud investigator, Maxine, to guide us through it, and Maxine's cynical take on the world--tempered, always, by Pynchon's nostalgic humanism--provides the perfect ride through the world of wonders we may never have known New York was in the early days of this century.

  • Charles Olson: Call Me Ishmael

    Charles Olson: Call Me Ishmael
    Charles Olson's Call Me Ishmael is a work of literary criticism that falls squarely into what it's hard not to think of as the American eccentric school. Think: Edward Dahlberg, Guy Davenport, D.H. Lawrence (Lawrence, of course, was English, but it was in his Studies in Classic American Literature that his critical eccentricity emerged). Since these are the kinds of critics one wants to read and reread, this is entirely a good thing. When Olson is talking about Melville's work most explicitly as in the long chapter on Shakespeare's influence, he seems correct and scholarly. In the more speculative chapters, like the one where he blames Melville's post-Moby Dick fixation on Christ for the enervation (in Olson's view) of his later work he is exciting and convincing. The compression and pop of Olson's prose throughout is exemplary, and the juxtaposition of the FACT sections of the book with Olson's more essayistic chapters jars readers into thought.

  • Jerome Charyn: Marilyn the Wild (Isaac novel)

    Jerome Charyn: Marilyn the Wild (Isaac novel)
    A manic police procedural that could, I think, only have been written in the '70s. While Roth and Bellow were advancing the cause of Jewish-American literature, Jerome Charyn was creating the Jewish-American thriller. Charyn's book shares with the work of those literary lions a love of language and an eye for the absurd, particularly the absurdity of the community of which he was a part. Marilyn the Wild is the first of a quartet; I look forward to the remaining three.

  • Haruki Murakami: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel

    Haruki Murakami: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: A novel
    A woman is raped and a man who is not the rapist pays for the crime in ways other, and perhaps more severe, than judicially. He comes to understand that the people who lead to his paying this severe price also paid a price, that his pain, their pain, the pain of the woman who is raped and later murdered are linked like the network of Kanto trains that forms the frontispiece of the (Chip Kidd designed) book. Haruki Murakami in his least fantastic mode has given us, in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki, a moving novel about the connections human beings form, break, and cannot break.

  • Teju Cole: Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction

    Teju Cole: Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction
    Teju Cole's first novel, Every Day is for the Thief, is similar to his second novel (the first one published outside of Nigeria), the justly lauded Open City in that both feature a protagonist exploring a city. In Open City the metropolis is New York; in Every Day it is Lagos, and in each case the protagonist is a young and cultured Nigerian not unlike Teju Cole, who due to his upbringing as well as personal predilections is an outsider--or feels himself to be one--in the city through which he wanders. The prose is quiet, but exquisite; the form straddles the line between essay and fiction; and the revelations, such as they are, are subtle, with those threatening to poke their head through in Every Day being even less obvious than those in the slightly more dramatic Open City. Cities are where we live now, are the way we live, now. Teju Cole, working in the tradition invented by Sebald, is preeminent among artists now devoted to painting for us our lives, now, in those places.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • David Sedaris: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls; Essays, Etc.

    David Sedaris: Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls; Essays, Etc.
    I recently discovered David Sedaris’ humorous, mostly personal, well observed, lovingly crafted essays in the online press and enjoyed them greatly. Decided to buy a book of them, but in the bookstore there were a dozen titles. In the end I picked the most recent, and, well, enjoyed it greatly. I appreciated his courage to push the envelope with sometimes controversial material (e.g., his China travel impressions). The book also showcases his versatility in taking on other voices. There’s even some poetry to finish up with. One verse: “Most every ev’ning Goldilocks/snacks from Kitty’s litter box./Then on command she gives her missus/lots of little doggy kisses.” (****)

  • Anthony Holden: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them

    Anthony Holden: Poems That Make Grown Men Cry: 100 Men on the Words That Move Them
    Every since high school, I’ve found poetry difficult so I bought this collection to see if I could learn to appreciate it better via the tear ducts. The format is simple: a hundred famous people, many poets themselves, each briefly introduce a poem that moves them. Though often baffled, and never overcome, I enjoyed the ride. But for me, it’s country music that most readily mists the eyes. Tim McGraw’s “You Get Used to Somebody” and “Nashville Without You,” for example, never fail. (***)

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople - From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube

    Patrick Leigh Fermor: A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople - From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube
    "A Time of Gifts"/"Between the Woods and Water"/"The Broken Road" The trilogy describing a youthful walk across Europe in the 1930s is absorbing, fascinating and full of beauty. I thoroughly enjoyed every step of the way. (****)

  • Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking

    Frederic Gros: A Philosophy of Walking
    A thoughtful compendium of ideas about walking that includes abstract ideas like freedom, historical accounts like pilgrimage, and biographies of philosophers and writers for whom walking was important in their lives. It’s a book both grave and wild, offering wisdom in measure to the effort you put into reading it. (***)

  • Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual

    Alain de Botton: The News: A User's Manual
    Alain de Botton makes a (to me) convincing case that there are few categories of news that couldn’t be reported in a more useful way. And that realization was enough to wean me off my addiction to internet news sites. Now, instead of multiple daily visits seeking novelty and diversion, I go to the Guardian and Japan Today sites once for just a few minutes each. And I’ve canceled my Guardian Weekly subscription. So this book has been life changing, and reading it is the beginning of an, I believe, more healthy relationship with news media. (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Her
    I enjoy being provoked to think, and Spike Jonze's “Her” is provocative. The story about a divorcee in near-future Los Angeles raises thoughts about love, consciousness, and being human. The acting, the script, the look of the film are superb. One for the short shelf next to “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight,” and “My Dinner with Andre.” (DVD) (*****)
  • Like Father, Like Son (そして父になる)
    (2013, written and directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda) This story about parents and children was of great interest but I wanted to know the feelings of all the parties (the mothers, the fathers, the children). The author had to focus the story somewhere, but chose the least interesting—to me--of the group. Perhaps the problem was the lack of charisma of the main actor? I appreciated the unpredictability of the story, the freshness of the topic, and the realism of story and performances. (***)
  • The Grand Budapest Hotel
    It took me a long time to get Wes Anderson. Moonrise Kingdom was the first film of his that I liked, and I enjoyed this one even more. One of the threads of the story (a whimsical, witty yarn from pre-World War II Europe) is Mendl’s, a legendary storefront patisserie. Desserts aren’t a dietary necessity, but what a rich pleasure they are when you find a good one. You’ve found one here. “The Grand Budapest Hotel” is every bit as tall, baroque and delicious as one of Mendl’s signature three-tiered confections. (****)
  • The Great Beauty
    A 65-year-old man reappraises his life among Italy’s upper classes. My brother called it “a heady mixture of inspired shots, acting and dialogue” and that will serve for me, too. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful film, steeped in Rome’s antiquity, that doesn’t add up to very much at all. (**)
  • Frozen
    Did the scriptwriter not realize that two heroines aren’t better than one because they cancel each other out, and neither can be given a proper rousing conclusion. "Frozen" is imaginative and there’s lots to enjoy, but it’s too long and rather flat. I’m giving it an extra star for the eye-popping 3D animation. (***)

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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