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March 2014








Books David finished in 2017

  • Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One

    Elena Ferrante: My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One
    This is a realist novel focusing on the friendship of two girls growing up poor in Naples in the 1950s and 60s. It is dense in detail, and gives a compelling picture of how difficult it is for ambitious young women to escape from such a place, and also how it is necessary for them to do so. One looks forward to seeing how the two girls we have watched grow in this inaugural novel move through the remaining three books in the series

  • Ron Rosenbaum: The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups

    Ron Rosenbaum: The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups
    The Shakespeare Wars is a good introduction to some of the various controversies around the works of William Shakespeare with which scholars, actors, directors, and fans of the bard are concerned. Wisely, author Ron Rosenbaum wastes no time on the conspiracy theories related to who wrote the plays (because it couldn't have been that upstart crow William Shakespeare!). Instead he spends his time, for the most part, examining the discussions, arguments, and debates that arise from the simple fact that we possess no manuscript of any of the plays or poems in Shakespeare's hand. Rather we have versions, and the big question is which version should be given precedence, or how, in a principled fashion, are the various versions, to be used to create a text true to what Shakespeare might have intended. (Reading that sentence you see, of course, the problem: how can we know what Shakespeare intended?) All of that is fascinating, but the book is marred by three things. First, the various swipes that Rosenbaum feels obliged to take at "theory" date the book badly. Second, the humor that Rosenbaum injects into the book is almost always leaden and predictable, and third, he seems to believe that sentence fragments are somehow more effective than complete sentences. I say he seems to believe this, because it's clear that he can write good English when he wants to, but for some reason often feels compelled to attempt something else. Still, this is a good primer on what we talk about when we talk about Shakespeare.

  • Ross Macdonald: The Instant Enemy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

    Ross Macdonald: The Instant Enemy (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
    I am sad that I have almost finished my traversal of all Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer novels. The quality never slackens, and there are always treacherous and fascinating Freudian undercurrents coursing through the Southern California badlands.

  • Lars Martinson: Tonoharu: Part Three

    Lars Martinson: Tonoharu: Part Three
    We were once told that Lars Martinson's saga of an American English teacher in the Japanese outback would run for four volumes, but it now appears that this, volume three of Tonoharu, is to be the conclusion. I've expressed elsewhere my frustration with the abrupt manner in which the previous volumes ended, and the long waits between them (volume one was published in 2008), but given that the delay was clearly occasioned by the high quality of the artwork in this comic, one certainly forgives Martinson for that (though one is grateful, too, that one can now sit down and read the whole story without years-long intermissions between parts). An example of that quality is seen in the first pages, an account of a trip the protagonist, Daniel, takes in Japan which is a tour de force. These twenty wordless frames are deft in depicting both the pleasure and the boredom of solitary travel. Martinson has also succeeded in volume three in bringing together Daniel's alienation and low-grade depression with the much more dramatically acted out response of the exotic Europeans to expat life. The threads are drawn together. Finishing volume three, one wants to go back and read the whole story again.

  • Eric Haggman: The Apology

    Eric Haggman: The Apology
    Eric Haggman's first novel, a thriller, does one very important thing right: he keeps things moving along. Thrillers are not intended to be read slowly. If one doesn't feel compelled to fly through the pages, then there's a problem. The headlong rush that Haggman largely succeeds in providing, though, is slightly undermined by the implausibilities of the plot (the Vietnamese police investigating the apparent kidnapping at the novel's center include our advertising man protagonist in every aspect of the investigation, including, at one point, handing him an AK47 for his personal use) and the Sax Rohmer-like exaggerations of the evil that, at least for the purposes of the novel Haggman seems to believe, lies at the heart of Asian societies. The Japanese police for example, can't be merely corrupt, but must be one of the most corrupt police forces in the world. The novel ends with the protagonist and his love interest, having moved through Vietnam and Tokyo, in Capetown, and things are left wide-open for a sequel, so this won't be the last we hear of this crime-fighting ad-man.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

    Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
    A British butler looks back on his life. A tour-de-force of voice--that was what impressed me. It's also an eye-opener to its time. I liked it more than The Buried Giant which I gave 3 stars to, but less than books I give 4 stars to. 3.5 stars. (***)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

    Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge
    A set of short stories of extreme verisimilitude about the inhabitants of a US small town, each story centered on, or including, or at least mentioning the title character. It’s about doing the best we can, of putting up a front, of trying to relate successfully to others, of trying to survive our circumstances… and the insecurities, frailties, and anxieties that lie beneath all that. I feel I know more about and have more compassion for myself and others for having the curtain ripped back like this. For me the book was at its most effective when it examined ageing and loss. Now I can’t wait to read more by Strout. (*****)

  • Michael Crummey: Sweetland

    Michael Crummey: Sweetland
    I usually confine my fiction reading to Booker and Pulitzer blockbusters, but this recommendation by a friend is more a Sundance indie. The vividly described setting—remote islands off Newfoundland—stays with you, but it was sunk for me by a main character—stubborn, ornery, self-centered--I could care less about. (They say other people upset you if they display traits you don’t like in yourself… if so… busted!) (*)

  • Alexandra Harris: Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies

    Alexandra Harris: Weatherland: Writers & Artists Under English Skies
    A beautifully written account, scholarly and approachable, of how English weather is reflected in 2,000 years of art and literature. We find that different times have had different views of the seasons; how cold, damp, and grey English weather has been and still is; and how until recently there was little escape from the rain and mud. My take away is a renewed enjoyment in looking at clouds. Thank you to Levi Stahl’s I’ve Been Reading Lately blog for the recommendation. (***)

  • John Williams: Butcher's Crossing

    John Williams: Butcher's Crossing
    This western novel by John Williams of “Stoner” fame is about dreams and human frailty, and the squalor and rigor of frontier life when hunters followed the buffalo. In classic style, it opens with the arrival of a city boy in a dusty prairie town, and ends with a departure, not long afterward in terms of time, but a lifetime of experience later. The location, characters and story are described in movie-like detail. It’s a solid, muscular depiction of a mythical reality that’s part of America’s rural roots. (****)

  • Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See

    Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See
    The lives of a small cast of disparate characters, charted in short, impeccably written sections, gradually intersect and swirl together through the rise of Nazism in Germany, and during the occupation of France. It’s a vivid picture of the painful devastation of war, and of human endurance and courage, written for maximum empathy, and told with page-turning suspense. (****)

  • : In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor

    In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
    This collection of letters between two good friends, a down-to-earth aristocrat (youngest of the Mitford sisters) and an urbane, cosmopolitan writer and war hero, spans most of their lifetimes. They write to entertain and support each other, and in the process we get glimpses of aristocratic pursuits, the Mitfords, and the restless life of an adventurer missing publisher’s deadlines. All in all, a correspondence sparkling with fun and gossip. (**)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • La La Land
    This tuneful musical romance falls well short of, yet modestly updates its classic predecessors. While it genuflects to every cliché, it consistently surprises. But mostly it’s a heartfelt and clever homage to Hollywood, the city of Los Angeles, and to jazz. As a friend said, “I was entertained.” (Theater; IMAX) (****)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins
    New York. 1944. A society hostess decides to resume a singing career. This comedy drama is both funny and highly emotional. Meryl Streep disappears, as always, into the title role in an acting tour de force. The décor and costumes are stunning. It’s a glorious hammy entertainment, but a friend pointed out the message which I’d missed: there are few winners, many losers, and the only really important thing is to try. (Theater) (****)
  • Deadpool
    I probably only got two-thirds of the jokes about the conventions of superhero movies and 80s/90s pop culture, but it was really funny. It was also really violent and bloody, so I almost walked out early on, but ended up sticking around for the jokes, and looking away from the screen for a significant amount of time. The opening credits and the after-closing-credits squib were funny enough right there, and then there’s the movie. This was recommended by a friend. Thanks friend. (****)
  • Hail, Caesar!
    This is a gentle, loving, sometimes hilarious parody of 40s/50s movie studios, directors, genres and stars. For most of the time I had a grin on my face, rooting for it, willing it to be funnier. And then, when it was over, something strange happened. My moviegoing companion and I laughed harder recalling the jokes than we did seeing them for the first time. There is so much going on that’s so clever, I know I’m going to enjoy it even more when I see the DVD. (***)
  • Spotlight
    A paean to investigative journalism, to having the courage to tell the truth that no one wants to hear, and an encouragement to the Catholic Church to clean up its act. A friend said she appreciated the sober photography, the camera always in the right place, and the classical editing, with no attempt to jazz things up with handheld sequences or fast cuts. The superior writing and acting are more than up to the task of delivering riveting cinema. Timely and excellent. (*****)

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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