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February 2012










Books David Finished in 2018

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes
    Every so often one needs to reread these stores, and it is the stories, rather than Doyle's novels, to which one wants to return. I was recently discussing the awful Dan Brown with a friend, and we wondered why anyone read his work when there was pulp so much more satisfying—these stories, for example—available. This phenomenon remains mysterious.

  • Ira Nadel: Cathay: Ezra Pound's Orient (Penguin Specials)

    Ira Nadel: Cathay: Ezra Pound's Orient (Penguin Specials)
    This little book was a pleasure to have in my pocket--it's that small--for the last few days. It includes a few chapters of background about Pound and the creation of his collection, Cathay, but the pay-off is, of course, the facsimile edition of Cathay that appears in the book's final pages. One can argue with the accuracy of Pound's translations, and many have, unsurprisingly, since he didn't know Chinese, but one can't argue with the beauty of the poems he has given us. How can one tire of "Song of the Bowmen of Shu," Or "The River Merchant's Wife: A Letter," or really any of the poems in Cathay?

  • Dale Pendell: Walking With Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown

    Dale Pendell: Walking With Nobby: Conversations with Norman O. Brown
    Norman O. Brown was a name to be reckoned with back in the seventies, but, though I was a student at UCSC, where he taught, I never took a class with him, and though he was considered important, I have never read anything he wrote. I have now, however, thanks to poet Dale Pendell, accompanied him on a few walks. Pendell, who did study with him at UCSC got in the habit of walking and talking with him, and managed to remember their talks and records them here. They are rich enough in ideas and broad enough in range of reference that the recto pages of the book are filled with useful and interesting explanatory notes while the verso pages contain the conversation. The book was an enjoyable and stimulating read, but it made me miss Santa Cruz more than it made me want to read Brown.

  • Hideo Yokoyama: Six Four: A Novel

    Hideo Yokoyama: Six Four: A Novel
    One opens this book expecting it to be a police procedural, and in a way it is. Perhaps, in that it's actually a novel about working in the bureaucracy that the police department is, and, by extension, any bureaucracy, it is the first honest police procedural. It includes all the frustrations and ass-coverings, and slow-downs, and stonewalling, and paper-shuffling, that any of us privileged to work in a company or a hospital or a university or . . . a whole lot of places, will know all too well. As such, it can be, like spending one's days as a cog in a bureaucratic machine, a bit of a grind; the long novel drags in places, and there are no gun-battles or car chases or colorful characters to spice things up. What saves it, though, is that, though it is a clear eyed account of bureaucracy, it is not a simplistic attack on bureaucracy. The protagonist, a detective who's been moved to Public Relations, comes to appreciate that bureaucrats do serve a necessary function, that a society of lone wolves of the type that are lionized in most pop culture, would not be one in which most of us would want to live. The book revolves around kidnappings of two girls and one girl, the detective/bureaucrat's daughter, who has gone missing. One of the girls we know from the outset was murdered. Author Hideo Yokoyama drops enough clues about the daughter that it's hard not to be pretty sure about where she is at the end, but it is not confirmed. As for the other girl, well, that would be a spoiler, so I'll stop here.

  • William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (New Penguin Shakespeare)

    William Shakespeare: The Sonnets and A Lover's Complaint (New Penguin Shakespeare)
    Of course I've been reading in the sonnets for years: this poem, that sequence, but this is actually the first time I've sat down and read them, 1-154. I waited too long. It's something everyone should do, and something I will certainly do again. Of course there are individual poems that stand out, but taking them as a whole, the continued poking and prodding at ideas, metaphors employed differently from one sonnet to the next, enriches the experience.

  • Alexander Stille: The Future of the Past

    Alexander Stille: The Future of the Past
    This is a fascinating collection of essays, as elegantly written as one expects of a regular New Yorker contributor, about the past and the way human beings relate to it. Moving from Egypt to China to Madagascar to Italy and beyond, author Alexander Stille illustrates the different ways we have dealt with the dilemmas that the past throws up: should we preserve it? what does it mean to preserve it? which moment of the past is the one that we should preserve? And, when preservation demonstrably adds to human misery even as the preservation does undeniable good, what then? It seems odd to say that such a book is dated, but, as it was published in 2002 one can't help but note that things have, of course, changed. Stille is beginning to worry about the Internet, for example, but he's more worried about TV. That one wants to follow up on many of the essays, and see how the situations Stille so skillfully describes have evolved is evidence of his success.

  • Anthony Price: The Labyrinth Makers

    Anthony Price: The Labyrinth Makers
    I read an article that made Anthony Price's Cold War thrillers sound alluring, and had the first in the series injected into my Kindle. Though a bit dated, it was a pleasure to read: literate, historically informed, and featuring a protagonist who one wants to know better, David Audley. I may have another one of these shot into my Kindle at some point.

  • Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding the End of the World

    Yuri Herrera: Signs Preceding the End of the World
    Yuri Herrera's first novel is slightly less linguistically adventurous than his second, The Transmigration of Bodies, which I read first, but is no less gripping. He manages to present a picture of the border and those who cross it in a manner that makes that picture neither agitprop nor apolitical in just the same way that Paradise Lost is neither agitprop nor apolitical. Herrera is a novelist I will follow, and one for whom I may have dust off my Spanish.

  • Yuri Herrera: The Transmigration of Bodies

    Yuri Herrera: The Transmigration of Bodies
    If you're not reading Yuri Herrera you should be. Brought into English from the original Spanish by Lisa Dillman, his language packs a punch which calls to mind, for example, the prose of Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian. Herrera's language is less gothic than McCarthy's is in that book, but no less stimulating. The plot is noirish and gripping, but this is a book that one reads for the language, the characters, and the settings that, together, are the building blocks of that plot.

  • Michael Pronko: The Last Train (Detective Hiroshi) (Volume 1)

    Michael Pronko: The Last Train (Detective Hiroshi) (Volume 1)
    Most thrillers set in Japan aren't very good. Barry Eisler was an exception, but his hero, John Rain, seems now to spend more time outside of Japan than in. That's why one greets with pleasure the inaugural entry in Michael Pronko's series about Tokyo detective Hiroshi Shimizu. It will come as no surprise to those who have read his essays that Pronko gets nothing about Tokyo or Japan wrong: He lives here and keeps his eyes open. It may come as a slight surprise that jazz is essentially absent from the book; Pronko is, after all, the premier writer about jazz in Tokyo. Perhaps the music he loves will be more present in the forthcoming volumes in the series. And of course readers who know Tokyo will relish the scene where an ex-sumo wrestler is thrown (by a young woman) through the plate glass window of Almond, the cafe in Roppongi that no one enters, but which has long been the landmark of choice for those meeting friends in that neighborhood.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques

    Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques
    A small gem of a novel set in the olive groves of Greece, and during Mardi Gras on a small ill-fated Caribbean island. The history, the local French nobility, the verdant surroundings, the heat and the pageantry are lovingly sketched, with the writing sometimes reaching an ecstasy of description. A celebration of dubious colonialism that ratchets to a gripping and moving finale. (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: Days Without End

    Sebastian Barry: Days Without End
    With this novel, I lived some of the fraught days of the European, often Irish, settlement of the US, the genocidal battles with Native Americans, and the slaughter of the civil war. It's well-trodden ground in fact and fiction, and the novelty here is an unusual narrator recounting singular experiences in a past vernacular (an authentic-sounding triumph of voice) that often finds humor and lyricism alongside the horror and hardship, the lice and the cold and the hunger. Read this and salute the human survival instinct, and be grateful to live in a more comfortable and peaceful time and place. (****)

  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
    Some sections felt too long at first, but perhaps that's because I hadn't adjusted to the (s)pace of an almost 800-page novel. This story of a boy growing up (and what a story!) is luminously written - not a word out of place - with descriptions of experiences I haven't had that seem profoundly right. It even morphs into something of a thriller near the end, before rounding out with an affecting coda. It's truthful, shying away from nothing, and wholly satisfying. Now I can't wait to read Tartt's other two books. (*****)

  • Geraldine Brooks: March

    Geraldine Brooks: March
    Onto the template of the idealistic Little Women (which should be (re)read prior to this for maximum enjoyment), Geraldine Brooks crafts an addendum that relates a more realistic, harrowing, and achingly human story of the father, the mother and the civil war. (***)

  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

    Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
    Here’s a young adult novel that has endured since the 1860s, and frequently appears on my radar (most recently in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, where it inspired young Lila and Elena in 1950s Naples). I was glad to have the Oxford World's Classics edition which explains its literary background, and how autobiographical it is. Like other books for young people of the period, it includes moral lessons, and these are still compelling today because humans want to be good so that they may be loved, and children feel this need most acutely. There is also the irrepressible joie de vivre of the characters, warts and all, that comes from the author’s memories of her own childhood. To read Little Women is to be embraced in the warm bosom of an idealized loving family. (***)

  • Susan Perabo: The Fall of Lisa Bellow

    Susan Perabo: The Fall of Lisa Bellow
    This story of a contemporary suburban US family opens as young adult, swerves into mystery thriller and psychodrama, then character study, and winds up lunging toward literature. As a page turner it more than succeeds. The typos (p. 154, line 18; p. 238 last line) suggest this was more a job of work than a labor of love.

  • Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels

    Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels
    I first read this when I was 17 or so, trying to figure out what life was all about, and Kerouac, the seeker, was the perfect companion: buddhism, the bottle, elation, depression, regrets, nostalgia for childhood, mother, jazz, whores, companionship, crazy friends disturbing the peace, peacemaking (“it’s hard enough to live in a world where you grow old and die, why be dis-harmonious.” p. 204), all set down with enormous vitality: fizzing poetry struggling to make the meaningless meaningful, and vice versa. Its sheer intensity and raw honesty makes it my second-favorite Kerouac (after “Dharma Bums”). Rest in peace, ol’ Jack Duluoz, and thank you for all of it. (****)

  • Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend

    Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend
    A wonderfully detailed conjuring of growing up in a poor district of Naples in the 1950s centering on the friendship between two girls amid the neighborhood gossip, feuds, alliances, inequality, loves, violence, celebrations. Both girls show promise beyond their oppressive surroundings as they struggle to make sense of their world and who they are. The first of four volumes. (***)

  • Paul Harding: Tinkers

    Paul Harding: Tinkers
    In this novel a man is dying; then we move to his epileptic father, and then to the grandfather. It is fragmented; there are passages of opaque poetic prose; you sometimes aren’t sure what’s going on. There is pastoral description, extreme horror (describing an epileptic fit), even backwoods “humor”. I’m guessing that the sloppy copy-editing is because when a writer isn’t trying to communicate to a reader, the reader unconsciously responds in kind (on p. 83 Joe is called Jack; on p. 149 father is spelled faher). This is a major novel, a Pulitzer winner, but I sadly rate it a waste of time.

  • Elizabeth Strout: Amy and Isabelle

    Elizabeth Strout: Amy and Isabelle
    Amy and Isabelle is Elizabeth Strout’s magnificent debut novel from 1998. The title characters are a 16-year old girl and her single mother. They live in a small U.S. community that’s portrayed in Under-Milk-Wood omniscient style with sober affection over the course of a single unbearably hot summer. It has more plot and is more conventional than later work, Olive Kitteridge onward, but has the same core concern with and compassionate insight into human feelings and frailty. Here Strout conjures the agonies of a parent’s love for a child and, conversely, the insecurities of growing up and a child’s love/hate feeling for a parent. I see now that Strout is a novelist of kindness. The setbacks of life can be devastating. “But what could you do? Only keep going. People kept going; they had been doing it for thousands of years. You took the kindness offered, letting it seep as far in as it could go, and the remaining dark crevices you carried around with you, knowing that over time they might change into something almost bearable.” (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Coco
    Mexico: the Day of the Dead. This delightful, entertaining, enlightening animated movie made me laugh and cry more than any I’ve watched recently. (Theater--IMAX) (****)
  • The Shape of Water
    A fantasy that’s hard-nosed and thrilling, entirely original while comfortably familiar, nostalgic yet contemporary, slyly humorous, and a paean to tolerance and inclusion. Magic. (Theater) (*****)
  • Arrival
    A linguist tries to find a way to communicate with aliens. I don't watch much sci-fi so this was refreshing. The story confused me some until my smarter partner clarified it. What is extraordinary (though perhaps not to sci-fi fans who know the potential of the genre) is that it ends up an affirmation of life, which is a rare and always welcome lesson. (DVD) (***)
  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
    A small town in the midwest in the aftermath of a murder. I look to stories to make sense of life’s chaos, but this one presents mostly just the chaos, making this corner of the US seem a lawless, racist, homophobic and generally scary place (to my sensibilities, softened by life in gentle Japan). That leaves entertainment, and the pleasures here are strong performances, dark humor, and not knowing what might happen next. (Theater) (***)
  • Fences
    A great big old-fashioned drama about an African-American family in the 1950s, centered on a patriarch who is a scary individual (as was the protagonist of Manchester by the Sea). It’s still more of a play than a movie, but it does the job of showing that there are reasons, personal and social, for the way people are. The drama is profound; the performances almost impeccable. (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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