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11/23/2011

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Books David Finished in 2016

  • James Ellroy: Perfidia

    James Ellroy: Perfidia
    The good thing about James Ellroy is that his prose has style, or to be more precise, his prose is other than the approved plain style. The bad thing about Ellroy is that—and this is something that threatens any writer who attempts something other than that safe plain style—his style had become mannered. In the last Ellroy I read, and this was some years ago, it seemed to me that his prose style had become a parody of itself: taut and austere had become all one sentence paragraphs, one word sentences, and I tired of it. Further, since his characters walk the same mean streets as Philip Marlowe, it was hard not to draw comparisons. Ellroy came up short in those comparisons, but to be fair, so does pretty much any other writer of this kind of fiction. But . . . I decided to give him another try. With Perfidia he's launched a new series of novels set in and around Los Angeles. This one takes place during the days just before and after Pearl Harbor, and if the novel has one great strength it his his demystification of the "greatest generation," those sometimes heroic alcoholic racists and bigots about whom, for our sins, we hear so much. Such demystification is more than welcome, and I was so sucked into the labyrinthine scheming of his characters, some of whom, like Bette Davis and Fletcher Bowron, existed off the page, that the style became a non-issue. When I purposely slowed my pace to have a close look at what Ellroy was doing with words I found that he had drifted toward the safe plain style and away from machine gun bluntness, and this did not seem to me to be a bad thing. His prose will never be literary—thank the GSM for that—but it now seems appropriate for the stories he wants to tell.

  • Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems (Phoenix Poetry)

    Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Samuel Taylor Coleridge: Selected Poems (Phoenix Poetry)
    It was nice to sit down and not just read the odd Coleridge poem here and there, but to read several together. One sees, at least in this collection, his Christianity drop away and his gloom increase, and can only speculate on the role opium played in all this. I'm eager now to sit down with the Coleridge biography that's been sitting on my shelf for a decade or so.

  • Tim Powers: Medusa's Web: A Novel

    Tim Powers: Medusa's Web: A Novel
    An artful mix of science fiction and Hollywood fiction that will ring true to those of us who have lived in Hollywood, but were not in "the business." Tim Powers gets the landscape right, and that provides a good grounding for the truly other aliens he creates and those aliens' meddling in human affairs, particular the affairs of an odd family in a gothic estate—such places exist—just a few blocks north of Sunset. Unfortunately, and since I read this novel right after Jeanette Winterson's The Passion this was thrown into stark relief, Powers's sentences get the job done, but that is all.

  • Jeanette Winterson: The Passion

    Jeanette Winterson: The Passion
    I remember when books like Oranges are Not the Only Fruit were appearing and readers around me, readers I respected, were excited. Somehow, though I never picked up a Jeanette Winterson novel until now. My loss. The Passion is a superb historical novel, that is superb precisely because it does not foreground the fustian and tedious detail that weigh down much of that genre, but rather is a book that can be read for its beautiful sentences. Set during the Napoleonic wars it weaves together the story of a cook in Napoleon's army and that of a gambler from Venice. One moves eagerly between the two tales, and the delight is only doubled when the story lines come together. Now, to start getting caught up with the rest of Winterson's work.

  • Zoran Živković: The Compendium of the Dead
    The trilogy concludes in a way that reaffirms the obvious: Zoran Živković is more interested in books and how they are made than in hard-boiled detectives and how they detect. The writer, not Živković, maybe, refers to the books that comprise this trilogy as "vegetarian mysteries," because no one is killed, or if they are they don't stay dead. And yes, this is the kind of book in which in which the author of which appears in the book to comment on it. Not for everyone perhaps, but good fun for those who like that sort of thing.
  • Zoran Živković: The Grand Manuscript
    The plot thickens as detective Dejan Lukić is called in to investigate the disappearance of a novelist from an apartment that, empty, is locked from the inside and which has no other means of egress. The much anticipated manuscript on which that novelist was at work has also disappeared, and as it may or may not have the power to endow those who read it with immortality, we see that once again Živković's bookish world is fantastic. But then books can endow their characters with immortality, so maybe it's not as fantastic as all that. Like the first book in the trilogy, this book can stand on its own, but it is inextricably connected to the first, and some of the philosophical fun will only be apparent to those who've read both.
  • Zoran Živković: The Last Book
    This is the first book in an as yet unpublished trilogy of detective novels by Zoran Živković. Because it is Živković, and tipped off by the title, readers won't be surprised to find that it is bookish and includes elements of fantasy. In this, the first volume, customers of a book store begin to die, though there is no discernible cause of death. The investigations of detective Dejan Lukić reveal that--the fantasy and the bookishness collide--the cause of death may well be a book, the last book, or the book of which the last book is a part. The book reads well on its own, but becomes more interesting after one has read the second in the trilogy and sees how threads begun in the first volume are developed.
  • Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard

    Giuseppe di Lampedusa: The Leopard
    A self-aware Sicilian prince, the Leopard of the title, in the time of Garibaldi observes the world he has known crumble. Occasionally sad, occasionally furious, he watches for the most part with detachment; his creator, the author, Giuseppe di Lampedusa, views the Prince with humor and affection as he ambles through his life. There is no great action in the book, but Di Lampedusa makes the characters who surround the prince--Sicilians and Northerners, new men and old--human. His compassion for his characters, however flawed they are, reminds one, though the milieu couldn't be more different, of the greatest of all humanist artists, Yasujiro Ozu.

  • Edmund Crispin: Holy Disorders: Gervase Fen #2

    Edmund Crispin: Holy Disorders: Gervase Fen #2
    I guess a novel published in the mid-1940s still qualifies as a Golden Age mystery, and thus legitimately partakes of the cleverness and silliness that characterize that category. One unusual aspect of Edmund Crispin's Gervase Fen books is that the title character, though typically eccentric and erudite, is also entirely unappealing. Indeed one becomes much more interested in characters who appear in this novel, Holy Disorders, but will not return in the rest of the series, because, well, they can't. I'd better stop here before giving anything away, because solving the puzzle is a big part of the attraction of novels of this sort, and advance knowledge would spoil the fun.

  • George Steiner: Errata: An Examined Life

    George Steiner: Errata: An Examined Life
    I've always admired polymaths, and George Steiner definitely falls into that category. He berates himself, near the end of his memoir, Errata, for having spread himself too thin, for not having devoted his career to one or two of the big ideas he has written books about before moving on to other things. For me, though, it's precisely his breadth that fascinates, and it is no surprise that the thing he appears least interested in is himself. He devotes very little of this memoir to what he did when and why, but a lot to what he has thought about, studied, and learned. True, there are one or two chapters that begin with sentences like, "During the war years the French Lycée in Manhattan was a cauldron," but most chapters open with propositions such as: "It is plausible to suppose that the period since August 1914 has been, notably in Europe and Russia, from Madrid to Moscow, from Sicily to the Arctic Circle, the most bestial in recorded history," and proceed from those beginnings in essayistic fashion. Because Steiner is a great mind it is a pleasure to follow his thinking about music, war, place, God, and other topics. I hope that there is still a place in intellectual life for scholars who, like Steiner, decline to devote themselves to a narrow specialty.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life

    Hanya Yanagihara: A Little Life
    This saga, which features supple prose and sometimes luminous description, follows the lives of four college friends and a handful of others close to them, but it eventually centers upon one life of almost unrelieved mental and physical pain, chronicled in excruciating detail. After dutifully reading the first 350 pages, I could bear it no longer and paged past the sufferings of the subsequent 350. I think I know what the author was aiming for—something that’s spelled out on the last page—and the book succeeds at it, but a homeopathic dose of the bitter medicine would have done it for me. (****)

  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant: A novel

    Kazuo Ishiguro: The Buried Giant: A novel
    My first Ishiguro, and a new genre for me: Arthurian fantasy romance. In spite of pixies, ogres and dragons, it pretty much worked; I lost myself in the mannered prose and solid storytelling, and now want to know more about that period of history. I regretted the vague ending. There were other loose ends; I don't desire a sequel but if it came I care enough about the characters to want to read it. However, nothing here makes me reach for earlier Ishiguro. (Let me know if I should.) (***)

  • Graham Swift (and 24 others): The Penguin Book of the Beach

    Graham Swift (and 24 others): The Penguin Book of the Beach
    It was a brilliant idea to compile a book of short stories by world writers, all related to the beach: the sand, sun, sparkling sea, swimming, seaweed, fish. (Storms and dead bodies, too, of course.) Perfect reading in the run up to summer, and now I can’t wait to spend time on the real thing. (***)

  • Artemis Cooper: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure

    Artemis Cooper: Patrick Leigh Fermor: An Adventure
    Patrick Leigh Fermor: adventurer, lover, polyglot, grecophile, author, both bon vivant and frequenter of dive bars, at home with aristocrat and peasant, a person of courage, loyalty, and with an extraordinary gift for friendship. His eventful life is given a splendid and honest telling here. (***)

  • Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad

    Jennifer Egan: A Visit from the Goon Squad
    At first, the chapters came on like short stories about overlapping characters. Then it was annoying that these tour-de-force fragments seemed so arbitrary and hard to piece together. It finally coalesced into a novel--albeit one dashed to pieces--with characters I grew to love. After finishing, I’ve started right back at the beginning, to glean information about them that I missed first time around. It is an irritating book, but written with such verve, passion, inventiveness and skill that all is forgiven and then some. My favorite novel since "Atonement" maybe. (*****)

  • Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake

    Jhumpa Lahiri: The Namesake
    A story of an immigrant experience, of growing up, of relationships, told in a relentless present tense. It took me awhile to be wholly interested in the characters, but the straightforward, detailed telling gradually drew me in. (***)

  • Mark Haddon: A Spot of Bother

    Mark Haddon: A Spot of Bother
    (author of the amazing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”) This, about a UK middle-class family from multiple perspectives, is so light it practically reads itself. The psychological insights and sharp, amusing observations kept my interest. I'm not good with blood, so the gore sometimes made it a queasy read, but mostly it was a lot of fun. (***)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Deadpool
    I probably only got two-thirds of the jokes about the conventions of superhero movies and 80s/90s pop culture, but it was really funny. It was also really violent and bloody, so I almost walked out early on, but ended up sticking around for the jokes, and looking away from the screen for a significant amount of time. The opening credits and the after-closing-credits squib were funny enough right there, and then there’s the movie. This was recommended by a friend. Thanks friend. (****)
  • Hail, Caesar!
    This is a gentle, loving, sometimes hilarious parody of 40s/50s movie studios, directors, genres and stars. For most of the time I had a grin on my face, rooting for it, willing it to be funnier. And then, when it was over, something strange happened. My moviegoing companion and I laughed harder recalling the jokes than we did seeing them for the first time. There is so much going on that’s so clever, I know I’m going to enjoy it even more when I see the DVD. (***)
  • Spotlight
    A paean to investigative journalism, to having the courage to tell the truth that no one wants to hear, and an encouragement to the Catholic Church to clean up its act. A friend said she appreciated the sober photography, the camera always in the right place, and the classical editing, with no attempt to jazz things up with handheld sequences or fast cuts. The superior writing and acting are more than up to the task of delivering riveting cinema. Timely and excellent. (*****)
  • Bikes vs. Cars
    Passionate documentary of bicycle activism around the world. Activists and drivers see the world as A vs. B. and the underdogs claw a way forward, one cycle lane at a time. It makes me long for a future when we can all just get along without trashing the climate and killing each other. (***)
  • 45 Years
    Woefully underwritten drama about a long-married middle-class UK couple depends on stars Charlotte Rampling and Tom Courtenay for everything, and barely gels. (*)

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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