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Books David Finished in 2015

  • Assata Shakur: Assata: An Autobiography

    Assata Shakur: Assata: An Autobiography
    Assata Shakur is an African American revolutionary currently living in exile in Cuba after escaping from an American prison. Her name's been in the news a bit lately because one of the arguments against the USA normalizing relations with Cuba is that they harbor terrorists, and when the the American right make this argument, Assata Shakur is usually the terrorist they are talking about. It's hard to know if she is guilty of the crime for which she was being held at the time of her escape, the murder of a New Jersey State Trooper. She is a self-identified revolutionary and she does not (or did not at the time of writing her autobiography, anyway) disavow violence in service to the struggle to better the condition of oppressed people. At the same time, these were the bad old days of Cointelpro, the massive and ruthless FBI operation against a variety of domestic political groups including the largely successful infiltration and harassment of the Black Panthers (Assata had been a member). As a part of this program, Assata was charged with a number of crimes on the East Coast simply because they were committed by a black woman who might, more or less plausibly, have been her. She was tried for more than one robbery, murder, and kidnapping for which she was acquitted. Thus it is not hard to believe that her conviction for murder in the killing of the New Jersey trooper was tainted in a number of ways. The autobiography doesn't quite tell, and for obvious reasons there are no details of her escape (though several people were arrested and charged for taking part in it). Whether one agrees or not with the actions that Shakur (may have) committed or abetted it is hard to disagree with most of her analysis of the situation of black people in the USA and America's history of racism. It is sad to note that it seems as accurate today as ever--even with a black president. The book is a gripping read. The slang with which Assata peppers her prose and the loose rhythms with which she writes enliven the book, as does the structure: beginning the night of her arrest for the trooper's murder, and then bouncing between that night and its aftermath and her earlier life where we learn how she turned into the disciplined revolutionary she became.

  • Avram Davidson: Peregrine Secundus

    Avram Davidson: Peregrine Secundus
    A few years ago I read Davidson's Peregrine Primus, the first in this series, and though I'm a great Davidson fan I was not overly impressed. Perhaps, though I'd picked the two books up in the same used bookstore haul, that's why I didn't rush to pick up Secundus. I finally got around to Secundus and found it to be altogether more delightful than its predecessor, not only witty and learned in the way one expects from Davidson, but also illuminating about life in the Dark Ages, especially in the far-flung outposts of what had been the Roman Empire. The good news is, you could easily read and enjoy Secundus without having read Primus.

  • Josephine Tey: Man in the Queue

    Josephine Tey: Man in the Queue
    Two dollars and sixty-four cents for the complete Josephine Tey on Kindle seemed like such a tremendous deal I just had to go for it, and, having enjoyed the first of the Inspector Alan Grant series, I'm glad I did. The plot is clever, and Grant is endearing, but what really drew me in is the quality of Tey's prose. She uses words well enough that I will go on with the series. After all, I paid for them.

  • Minae Mizumura: The Fall of Language in the Age of English

    Minae Mizumura: The Fall of Language in the Age of English
    Minae Mizumura's The Fall of Language in the Age of English is a long and winding lament for the national languages—Japanese being one of them—that have been, or almost inevitably will be, displaced by the English juggernaut. To make her case that this is happening, and that it is a bad thing, she leads us through some linguistic history, and her take is interesting because she comes to her topic as a novelist and a lover of literature rather than as a linguist or a nationalist (though one begins to suspect that she is a bit of the latter). "What was once a national language may be reduced to nothing more than a local language that no discriminating person takes seriously."

  • Christopher Smart: My Cat Jeoffry: A Poem by Christopher Smart

    Christopher Smart: My Cat Jeoffry: A Poem by Christopher Smart
    Christopher Smart, it can be assumed, did not have many visitors or much to do while a resident of Bedlam between 1758 and 1763. He was, however, or so it appears, visited by a cat called Jeoffry, and he made it his business to observe Jeoffry as he went about his daily business, and this daily business entered into the long religious poem Smart was writing, "Jubilate Agno," unknown to the public until 1939. Smart sees that Jeoffry is blessed and beloved of God in each of his small actions, from the the cat's first act of worship in the morning (and if you've observed cats you'll know what Smart is writing about here) to the cat's nocturnal duties: "For when his day's work is done his business more properly begins For he keeps the Lord's watch in the night against the adversary. For he counteracts the powers of darkness by his electrical skin and glaring eyes. For he counteracts the Devil, who is death, by brisking about the life." It seems entirely apt that a Polish literary theorist met in Delhi introduced me to this odd poem by a mad English poet.

  • Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)

    Robert Galbraith: The Cuckoo's Calling (Cormoran Strike)
    I've gone and done it. I've finally read a book by J.K. Rowling. Not, I hasten to add, a Harry Potter novel, but rather one that she wrote under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith, a more or less contemporary crime novel set in London and featuring a very large one-legged private eye with the unlikely name Cormoran Strike, and readers, it was good. The characters Strike encounters in the course of his investigation veer close to caricature at times--gay fashion designer, druggie pop star--but Rowling reliably veers off the well-trodden path and makes them more complex than we expect them to be. Strike himself is well done, too, with a back-story--father a rock star, mother a "super groupie," Oxford drop-out, Afghanistan war vet--rich in possibilities for future books in what will be, in fact already is, a series. (But somehow I still can't get interested in her childre . . . I mean "young adult" novels.)

  • Chris Kraus: I Love Dick (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)

    Chris Kraus: I Love Dick (Semiotext(e) / Native Agents)
    Dick, I should probably begin by saying, is cultural theorist Dick Hebdige, a real person. He's slightly fictionalized in Chris Kraus's book, but still, like the other characters: Kraus's real-life husband, the critic and theorist, Sylvère Lotringer, and Chris Kraus herself, he is, in the pages of I Love Dick, close enough to his flesh-and-bone analog. That the book includes real people, and that it includes essays on artists like R.B. Kitaj and conditions like schizophrenia, along with fiction that seems much more fictionalized than the book as a whole, makes it difficult to slot into a generic category--and that is exactly what makes it so interesting. It is made up of letters, phone messages, conversations, stories, essays, memoir, and fiction, and each of those components is well done, and each form illuminates the other forms that surround it. The always adventurous publisher Semiotext(e) seems to have made a specialty of publishing this sort of generically promiscuous work, and women seem to have made a specialty of writing it. It's exciting stuff, and has made Semiotext(e) a publisher whose offerings always get my attention.

  • Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World

    Pankaj Mishra: An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World
    I'm a Pankaj Mishra fan, and there is much for a Pankaj Mishra fan to enjoy in this book. It is a mix of memoir, philosophy, and history and each of those components is well done. It probably says a lot about me that I enjoyed most the bits about Mishra himself, a young writer from a village on the Indian plain holing up in a cabin in the Himalaya to turn himself into a writer, an endeavor that includes making the first tentative stabs at this book, and that I enjoyed least the (well-thought-out, highly informed) forays into Buddhist philosophy. Reading those sections I invariably found myself hoping for the return of the first-person. I believe, though, that those more sympathetic to metaphysical / ethical philosophy will enjoy these sections as much as I did the bits of autobiography.

  • Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis: A Novel

    Jeet Thayil: Narcopolis: A Novel
    Jeet Thayil's Narcopolis is Mumbai through the seductive smoke of an opium pipe. He gives us the city, mostly in the seventies, when there were, apparently, still dens where addicts (along with slumming hippies) could retreat to chase the dragon. In these smoky dens stories were lived, told, and dreamed, stories that feature Muslims and Hindus, transsexuals and thugs, along with well-brought up young Indian men. It is far from being a paradise, but it is a zone where a kind of freedom is available, freedom we see slip away as opium is displaced by heroin, and usually heroin badly adulterated with poisons. Thayil tells the stories of the individuals who pass through the smoke and on to the powder, and also of the city in which they live with poetic aplomb. His prose traps one in the dream he writes.

  • Rani Sircar: Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing Out of British India

    Rani Sircar: Dancing Round the Maypole: Growing Out of British India
    This is a memoir, published in 2003, by Rani Sircar, an Indian woman who was born during the Raj (a term, I learned from this book, that Indians don't use), and came into adulthood at about the time India gained its independence. She is mostly concerned to let us know how life was in the old days, to share with us what she calls her "sepia photographs" from her life mostly up until about the 1970s. If one started reading from the book's last chapter, where the author mostly complains about modern India, one might suspect that this is an exercise in rose-tinted everything-was-better-when-I-was-young nostalgia. Sircar is, as the earlier chapters reveal, nostalgic for some aspects of her youth, and some aspects of India in her youth, but her nostalgia is not simple, and she is under no illusions about Indian life under the (sometimes artfully camouflaged, sometimes not) colonial boot. Her experience of India, like any Indian's, is unique to her, and certainly colored by an Anglo-Indian education--she was taught Anglo-pagan rituals such as dancing around maypoles--and that she grew up in a comfortably middle-class Christian family. One might, for example, get the impression from her book that hunger and illiteracy were not problems in the India she has grown old in--they certainly weren't much in evidence in her set--but Sircar is a sharp and self-aware author: she calls herself on this in the book's final pages. All in all this is a fascinating and sophisticated look at a lost world.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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? (*****)

  • Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North

    Richard Flanagan: The Narrow Road to the Deep North
    It’s a tribute to our growing emotional maturity as a species that a novel like this 2014 Booker Prize winner could be written: an even-handed account of Australian and Japanese soldiers in World War II, focusing on the horrific POW camps in Burma. It opened the door to my perhaps one day comprehending the minds of those who venerate the spirits of the war dead at Yasukuni Shrine, even when they know it upsets their former adversaries. The harrowing descriptions of the camps were very powerful, but overall I found the book padded, repetitive, emotionally overwrought, and artlessly constructed. (**)

  • : The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters 1955-1962: A Selection

    The Lyttelton-Hart-Davis Letters 1955-1962: A Selection
    It was Blockhead’s David who suggested letter and diaries as excellent reading in bed before sleep, so it’s to him I owe the pleasure I’ve had doing that ever since. He’d previously lent me the six volumes of this correspondence which I enjoyed immensely. This is a one-volume digest. At first I missed the leisurely give-and-take, with each letter answering the previous one, but I soon settled into the treat of these exceptional passages that carry the story of their lives forward apace. Many thanks to George Lyttelton, Rupert Hart-Davis and editor Roger Hudson. (****)

  • Ian McEwan: The Children Act

    Ian McEwan: The Children Act
    A hugely enjoyable read, the more so for its brevity. This is a classic McEwan: clear, meticulous, a deep stab at an authentic view of a profession we depend on but do not know, compassionate drawing of flawed characters, preternaturally intelligent conversations; queasy suspense and fear of, or actual, violence, “we do not know what is going to happen” plotting. Magnificent, educational, satisfying. (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • 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)
  • 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) (*****)

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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