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11/26/2011

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Books David Finished in 2015

  • Paul Wilkinson: International Relations: A Very Short Introduction

    Paul Wilkinson: International Relations: A Very Short Introduction
    As the title says. I read it with a student who needed, well, a very short introduction. Not bad for what it is, but the book could do with an update.

  • Walter Scott: The Antiquary (Oxford World's Classics)

    Walter Scott: The Antiquary (Oxford World's Classics)
    In her introduction to Walter Scott's The Antiquary, Nicola J. Watson notes that this novel has "perhaps been the most underestimated work of (since the end of the nineteenth century) our most persistently underestimated major writer." Since I had bought into the underestimation, I had never read Scott until picking up The Antiquary, and though I enjoyed this novel a great deal, because it is apparently atypical, I can't say for sure that Scott's underestimation is undeserved. What is, according to Watson, atypical about The Antiquary, is the lack of action, the absence for most of the novel of its hero, and the mishmash of genre, which she's right to say are just the sort of thing that certain modern readers (me included) find attractive. That one can, all within the space of a few hundred pages, get a bit of not terribly fustian history, a bit of gothic, a bit of social comedy, and some lovely landscapes seems recommendation enough for readers in our time. Now, to decide whether I want to read any or the other, perhaps more typical novels, in Scott's Waverly series.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Paul Martin: Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure

    Paul Martin: Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure
    This deft, witty study, leavened by entertaining anecdote, encourages us to maximize pleasure by seeking it wisely while side-stepping the problems of habituation and addiction. The bottom line for Martin is little but often. Sex (social or solitary) and chocolate (made from pure cacao solids--sucking, not chewing) “tick all the right boxes, including availability, frequent repeatability and legality. When used correctly, they can deliver intense pleasure with a good ending and improve your mental and physical health.” Martin also suggests sensitizing ourselves to often overlooked pleasures of daily life, such as walking, dreaming… and finishing a book. His book was a pleasure to read and finish (in a good way). (****)

  • Julian Baggini: What's it All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life

    Julian Baggini: What's it All About?: Philosophy and the Meaning of Life
    In answer to the title question, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy famously offers “42” and this book doesn’t aspire to improve on that. What it does offer is a “rational, secular” examination of some other possibilities such as life after death, happiness, pleasure, fame, success, love, living for today, and helping others, in terms of whether they can offer satisfying answers. The book is bracingly and logically argued, with just one fail in its unwillingness to take on attempts to lose the ego... which is ironic as it's the source of the question in the first place. Did I say the book didn’t offer a final answer? That’s not quite true, because it does say that Monty Python’s is not far off the mark. You know the one: “Well that’s the end of the film. Now, here’s the meaning of life.” (An envelope is handed to her.) “Thank you, Brigitte.” (She opens it, and reads.) “Well, it’s nothing very special. ‘Try to be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then, get some walking in, and try and live together in peace and harmony with people of all creeds and nations.’” [So this, being a good book, contributed. Many thanks. And now for a walk.] (****)

  • Alain de Botton & John Armstrong: Art as Therapy

    Alain de Botton & John Armstrong: Art as Therapy
    I never “got” art. It makes me feel stupid when I have no response to it, and I usually don’t. Even when a work is pleasing to the eye and mind, I couldn’t tell you why. So enormous thanks to The School of Life for this book, which interprets art, architecture and craft from all periods and parts of the world as artifacts that can help us understand ourselves and life better. I realized the immense joy I get from art when it is suggested to me for what purpose I might view it. Together with wide-ranging discussion on the place and use of art in life past and present, the book suggests contemplating particular works for therapeutic purposes, which I found convincing and useful. This fascinating, handsomely illustrated volume was one of my 2014 books of the year. (*****)

  • 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. (***)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Interstellar
    Like the recent “Gravity,” this delivers thrills in space, but while “Gravity” was about maximizing the nail-biting tension, this is also interested in telling a jigsaw puzzle of a story. I don’t particularly enjoy the effort of putting the bits together, and there’s always the suspicion that they don’t quite fit, so I’m not a Christopher Nolan fan. I'm also not interested in doomsday scenarios, and this sort of literal escapism. All that said, this is terrifically well made, highly exciting, and it looked and sounded great in IMAX. (Theater, January 2015) (***)
  • Boyhood
    A sister and brother grow up. These scenes from childhood and family life in the U.S. are as specifically American as Ozu is Japanese, but in the same way, the understated truthfulness invites us to see ourselves and our own lives in them. For me, they evoked compassion for humanity struggling to make a life and to make sense of it all. Director Richard Linklater’s signature realism makes this a precious experience. As a friend said, it felt a privilege to be invited to view their lives. (Theater) (*****)
  • 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. (****)

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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