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Only a Blockhead


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Books David Finished in 2015

  • Lea O'Harra: Imperfect Strangers: An Inspector Inoue mystery

    Lea O'Harra: Imperfect Strangers: An Inspector Inoue mystery
    Lea O'Hara's Imperfect Strangers is set in Japan, and as such must necessarily tell us about the country. She mostly does a good job of that, avoiding particularly tedious info dumps and by teaching us things about Japan that are actually, you know, true. The puzzle she creates--who murdered the head of a small Christian university in Kyushu--is fun enough to try and unravel, though she does take her time about introducing one or two characters who are keys to figuring things out. All in all a diverting read by this first-time mystery author.

  • David Lagercrantz: The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series

    David Lagercrantz: The Girl in the Spider's Web: A Lisbeth Salander novel, continuing Stieg Larsson's Millennium Series
    David Lagercrantz does a good job of continuing Steig Larsson's Millenium Series. The politics underlying the novels remain the same, and the characters don't do or say anything that seems at odds with the characters as Larsson depicted them. As riveting as Larsson's narratives could be he was not always a graceful writer, and the info dumps sometimes clunked down rather heavily. Lagercrantz--intentionally?--follows in the master's footsteps, both in creating a gripping narrative, but also in the heavy clunks.

  • Elizabeth Jane Howard: All Change (Cazalet Chronicles)

    Elizabeth Jane Howard: All Change (Cazalet Chronicles)
    This is the fifth and final volume of Elizabeth Jane Howard's Cazalet Chronicles. As such, it has a valedictory feel to it, but is nevertheless a necessary read for those who've followed the family through the generations. As a whole the series is a skillfully done social chronicle of a hundred or so years of English life.

  • Zoran Zivkovic: The Library

    Zoran Zivkovic: The Library
    This is a reread. I picked it up again because I'm writing a few short pieces for the Kurodahan Press blog about Zivkovic. The stories are as fresh as when I first read them: good fun in the key of Borges.

  • Anthony Trollope: Phineas Redux (The Palliser Novels)

    Anthony Trollope: Phineas Redux (The Palliser Novels)
    At a pace of about one volume a year I continue to work my way through Trollope's Palliser novels. In Phineas Redux the central character, Phineas Finn, turns radical in a way that is surprising from a writer as essentially conservative as Trollope. Finn becomes entirely disillusioned with the government of which he has always wanted to be a part, and seems, at novel's end, to have, angry and disgusted, withdrawn himself from it entirely. One expects this won't last, and that even his marriage to the wealthy, attractive, and very independent Madame Goesler--a marriage, by the way, of a Catholic to a Jew in Victorian England--will not be enough for him.

  • Gerald Brenan: South from Granada: A Sojourn in Southern Spain (Kodansha Globe Series)

    Gerald Brenan: South from Granada: A Sojourn in Southern Spain (Kodansha Globe Series)
    Although I won't go South of Granada this trip, Gerald Brenan's memoir of the seven years he spent living in a village called Yegen, which is on the other side of the Sierra Nevada, is a stimulating introduction to Andalucia. Having served as a captain in World War I he set out with his (very small) service pay to find a place where he could begin to educate himself. Having become convinced that such instruction as he had received in university was worthless, he, followed by the two-thousand tome library he hoped to master, set out in search of an appropriate and affordable place to buckle down. Yegen, an extremely remote village proved to be the place. Unlike so many other travelers and expatriates of Brenan's generation and ours, he is not insufferable. Rather than attempting to remain aloof from the natives, he involves himself in the life of the village, and, in the long walks he takes (walking was often the most practical way of getting around), also in the life of the region. He lived better than the peasants in his village, but not quite as well as the local bourgeoisie. And he writes with an easy elegance, neither attempting to make of himself one of those oh so (not) amusing characters that other travel writers thrust themselves forth as, nor trying to efface himself from the narrative entirely. Brenan was, before turning his back on it, sort of a junior member of the Bloomsbury set. His accounts of visits to his Spanish fastness by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Carrington, and Lytton Strachey (however brilliant Lytton's table talk, one would never want to travel with him) impart to the account added value, unnecessary, but delightful just the same.

  • Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing: A Novel

    Alexander Maksik: You Deserve Nothing: A Novel
    I generally avoid novels that have their genesis in MFA programs, but I'm glad I happened to pick up this one, You Deserve Nothing. It's the story of Will, an American teaching at an international school in Paris-- reading about that city is always a pleasure--who has an affair with one of his students. That's a banal enough subject, but dividing the story into sections with different characters as the central focus works. There's also lots about teaching, and the relationships, healthy or otherwise, that can grow up between student and teacher. In this the book reminded me of many of Guy Davenport's fictions, which often have an older man mentoring young people at their center. With Davenport we're never meant to consider the sex that goes on between teacher and student as evil, and I think author, Alexander Maksik's stance is similar. Will is a good teacher: he cares about his students, including the one over whom he loses his job.

  • Josephine Tey: A Shilling for Candles

    Josephine Tey: A Shilling for Candles
    Another well written mystery by Josephine Tey. The three bucks I paid for her complete works is looking to be a good investment.

  • Donald C. Wood: And if Strangers Come to Supper

    Donald C. Wood: And if Strangers Come to Supper
    If, like Donald C. Wood, author of And if Strangers Come to Supper (and like the author of this review) you've lived in Japan for a long time one reason you've done so is that you find a lot of things about the place fascinating. Most of us learn early, though, that as inexplicable as this may be, not everyone finds Japan as fascinating as we do. This presents a problem for Japan obsessed novelists: how can they write about Japan without writing about Japan? Wood's solution is to write about an American whose Japanese-American wife has recently died leaving him with a newborn baby, and his increasing involvement--due largely to his curiosity about a gap in his wife's diary--with her family and their business, a Japanese restaurant in Texas. The novel is compelling enough, especially in the early pages before the protagonist reconnects with his wife's family--thus no need for info-dumps--but later, when he is living and working with them the constant explanatory digressions slow things down: "What's that," I asked. "It's a mixture of tonkatsu, onion, and egg, flavored mainly with soy sauce and sugar . . . . "What's tonkatsu?" and so on. One does keep turning the pages, though, to learn the departed wife's secret, skipping over, if one is familiar with Japan, the guide book stuff. One enjoys, too, the subtle use Wood makes of the Japanese folktale, "The Crane Wife."

  • Christopher Isherwood: The World in the Evening

    Christopher Isherwood: The World in the Evening
    First published in the 1950s, Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening is a novel that seems many years ahead of its time in its treatment of sex, both homo- and hetero-. It follows the path of a rentier named Stephen Monk through his sexual and social entanglements moving from his present to his past and back again. The novel seems, for its time, particularly enlightened because Monk's forays into same-sex entanglements and also his heterosexual adventures, are neither condemned nor celebrated. Likewise, his sexuality--either kind--is never thought to be definitive. Rather, the sex he has is just something he does. The focus is more on how kind or unkind, manipulative or honest with himself and his partners, Monk is, and what is celebrated at the end is not that Monk has come out (he hasn't, really. Isherwood is never that crude), but that Monk has, finally, attained some sort of emotional maturity. That's right, folks. A novel from the '50s about a sexually ambiguous man who is neither destroyed by society or an icon of liberation. Who would have thunk it?

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Nick Hunt: Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn

    Nick Hunt: Walking the Woods and the Water: In Patrick Leigh Fermor's footsteps from the Hook of Holland to the Golden Horn
    In 2011, Nick Hunt sets out to replicate Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 1933 walk across Europe, for the experience, and to see what had and hadn’t changed. The surprise is that Hunt is every bit as perceptive and eloquent a writer as Leigh Fermor was. He has crafted a vivid, poetic book from his epic adventure. Above all, it gives us a sense of the way of life and thought of each country he trudged through: Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria… countries that used to be little more than names to me. Thoroughly enjoyable armchair travel. (*****)

  • Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat

    Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat
    Beautifully observed, sometimes almost magical word pictures of the twists and turns of a couple’s quiet life on an old estate in a Tokyo suburb as Showa became Heisei. With appearances by the title cat. (***)

  • Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie

    Laurie Lee: Cider with Rosie
    Zesty memoir of a childhood in an English village 100 years ago. For all that has been lost, I wouldn’t want to have lived there. Damn, have we moved a long way in the last century, and mostly for the better. (***)

  • Junot Diaz: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao

    Junot Diaz: The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao
    Through novels, I live lives I’ll never live. This is about the Dominican Republic, both generally (the horrors, told with a humor only possible when anger has mellowed to acceptance) and personally. It’s written with verve and love, and I loved it. (*****)

  • Ali Smith: How to Be Both

    Ali Smith: How to Be Both
    The first part is a stunt: recreating the voice of a medieval painter as he tells his life story—opaque, often hard to follow, but interesting, and I was won over by the end. So it was disappointing to segue into a less successful modern-day family saga, with arch conversations and smug 60s references, and a poorly thought-through try at combining with the earlier part. (**)

  • Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk

    Helen Macdonald: H is for Hawk
    From the rawest of material—grief, depression, blood sport--Macdonald fashions an intelligent, vivid, vital portrait of countryside and wildlife in southern England that transcends its nature book genre. To add to the fascination, she mirrors her story in the tale of related experiences that author T.H. White, wounded in his own way, had had 80 years earlier. It is a thrilling, extraordinary book. (****)

  • David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks

    David Mitchell: The Bone Clocks
    I haven’t enjoyed a book so much in I don’t know how long. David Mitchell is still getting better. His forte is multiple stories that weave into each other. This is a massive, magnificent entertainment with a barbed sting in the tail. OK, yes, it includes a genre that I’m not ordinarily interested in, but I went along with it and it worked. It was Booker longlisted. Did the judges not shortlist it because of genre prejudice? (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
    This is all you'd hope a Mission Impossible movie would be. The twist-filled plot is more-or-less comprehensible. Tom Cruise is ageless. A resourceful heroine (Rebecca Ferguson) is a welcome addition. The non-stop mayhem and extreme peril was thrilling when it didn’t make me look away. It was, all in all, exhausting. The next Bond movie “Spectre” opens on December 6, so I have two months to get over this movie and be ready for that one. (Theater) (**)
  • Selma
    A powerful, eye-opening history lesson about the courageous fight in 1965 for racial justice in the U.S. South against seemingly insuperable odds. David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King is a wonderful performance that catches King’s private struggles and his compelling public oratory. The movie is also a memorial to the blood shed and the lives given by people unwilling to follow a status quo they knew was wrong. (Theater) (****)
  • Wolf Children (おおかみこどもの雨と雪)
    A wonderful third animated feature (after The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars) from Hosoda Mamoru. It begins in Tokyo, with student life and first love, and growing up human but different--well, I suppose the title gives that away. It honors Miyazaki and Totoro when the action first moves to the country, and it honors the efforts of neighbors in helping each other, and of parents in helping their children find their way in life. In only one climactic scene did I think the movie lost the plot, but I give it 5 stars anyway. (DVD) (*****)
  • The Imitation Game
    On the one hand, true stories rarely fit the arc of a satisfying drama. On the other, they can cry out to be dramatized. Faced with this enigma, the filmmakers have wrestled a passable drama from an astonishing story, and the superior acting makes it work better than it might. It is long, and I was riveted throughout. (Theater) (****)
  • The Theory of Everything
    Stephen Hawking and his family’s courage and suffering are unimaginable. This movie takes us through it, in the name of what, entertainment? Heavy on adversity, light on cosmology, it’s extraordinarily painful to watch. (DVD)

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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