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Books David Finished in 2015

  • 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.

  • William Gibson: The Peripheral

    William Gibson: The Peripheral
    I loved William Gibson's Bigend trilogy, though it sagged a bit in the third volume. I'm happy to see that, with The Peripheral, the first novel to appear since the Bigend trilogy, he's back on his game. It's science fiction, but as is the case with most of Gibson's work, it's grounded in a noir sensibility and a feel for the grittiness of how people--in this case poor American Southerners--live, and especially how they talk. Time travel is one of the components of the novel, and it, and the paradoxes time travel brings with it, are artfully handled. The book is rich with the intriguing characters, good talk, and clever speculation we have come to expect from Gibson, who really is one of the more interesting American (though long based in Canada) novelists now working.

  • 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

  • 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. (*****)

  • Jonathan Franzen: Freedom

    Jonathan Franzen: Freedom
    Reading “Freedom” is to be immersed in a family and a culture. Franzen is a master of storytelling and artful construction on a large scale; he’s a master at developing characters in their flawed magnificence; a master of setting: rural and urban America in the present and recent past. “Freedom” shows decent people doing shameful things, and apparent good fortune having terrible consequences, and terrible situations being blessings in disguise. In showing the mystery and difficulty of growing up, and inviting our compassion for human frailty and a feeling of privilege at being party to other people’s lives, it’s like the movie “Boyhood” writ vast. Both magnificent creations paint life as tough and glorious. (*****)

  • 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). (****)

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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