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Books David finished in 2017

  • Michael Allen Zell: Run Baby Run

    Michael Allen Zell: Run Baby Run
    The protagonist of this novel is an academic criminologist, Bobby Delery, who has left academia in Chicago and returned to his hometown, New Orleans, to assist the police. When one sees that Delery has an immediately antagonistic relationship with the police handling the case he is meant to help with it is hard not to assume we're going to have the traditional template: out-of-touch but brilliant expert trying to work with gritty, uncouth street cops, but oddly the novel becomes something different. The case is solved, but neither thanks to Delery's book learning nor the street smarts of the police. It's solved more or less by accident, and Delery happens to be at the right place at the right time. Along the way we get some diverting views of the always fascinating New Orleans, though as many of the most interesting characters are African American, one sort of wants to see what some African American New Orleans residents would have to say about the novel, considering that the author, Michael Allen Zell, is white. Then again, is he white? Maybe he shares a secret with Bobby Delery.

  • Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child: Neapolitan Novels, Book Four

    Elena Ferrante: The Story of the Lost Child: Neapolitan Novels, Book Four
    With The Story of the Lost Child Elena Ferrante concludes her novel in four parts about two girls who grow up in a Naples slum and spend the rest of their lives, in their different ways, dealing with that legacy and dealing with each other. The novels are superb realist fiction in the manner of writers like Balzac and Dickens, and thus give us a view from Italy, and Naples in particular, of what the world was like from roughly the 1950s to the 2000s. Most interesting to me was watching the narrator pass through the radical '60s and '70s, when Italy, and much of the rest of the world, was on fire. If you read one of these books you really must read all four. You'll want to, but more than that, you wouldn't be doing Ferrante's work justice if you stopped after a volume or two.

  • Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels, Book Three

    Elena Ferrante: Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay: Neapolitan Novels, Book Three
    Three quarters of the way through Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels one sees that she is, of course, right that the four books are really one long novel. Had I stopped reading after the first I would have thought it was a good book. Deeper in, though, the series approaches greatness, not least for the clear-eyed look at Italy during the turbulent '60s. The covers of these Europa editions sure are cheesy (but then so are the covers of the thrillers I read, but in a different way).

  • Ross Macdonald: The Goodbye Look

    Ross Macdonald: The Goodbye Look
    As detective Lew Archer moves into the '60s the books chronicling his investigations continue to be among the most theory-driven thrillers I've ever encountered, the theory being psychoanalysis. What makes them addictive is Archer's take on the world, Southern California in particular, and the specimens of humanity he encounters there. Lew has a brief affair in this book, and that's something new. Usually we get only vague hints about a broken marriage and women he's no longer with.

  • Pedro Domingos: The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World

    Pedro Domingos: The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
    Pedro Domingos, author of The Master Algorithm, is not just an explainer of machine learning. He is an enthusiastic proponent of it, a cheerleader even (though as he's an important player in the field that's obviously the wrong metaphor). This presents a problem to a reader like me who is suspicious of cheerleaders on general principles, but who in this domain know so little I can't with any confidence evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of his position. As confident as I am that there's a lot I don't know about artificial intelligence I am equally confident that I learned a lot from this book, and now, at least, have an idea what is at stake in the development of AI, and also what we as human beings living in societies don't need to worry about. It's hard to disagree with him that in this area as in others, knowledge is power: the more we know about this important technology the better we will be able to put it to work in service of what we want and need.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Shirley Hazzard: The Great Fire

    Shirley Hazzard: The Great Fire
    This novel quietly paints horrors and tragedies of war, in this case, in the aftermath of World War II. It is also a love story. I was sometimes jarred by a suddenly shifting point of view, or befuddled by high-flown and, to me, opaque passages, but the story and writing carried me along. The ending, encapsulated in the final line, earns it an extra half-star. (****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: My Name Is Lucy Barton

    Elizabeth Strout: My Name Is Lucy Barton
    Centered on a stay in a New York hospital, a woman relates incidents from her life. This novella is artfully artless, with an honesty that leads deep into human motivation and emotions, including the functions and dysfunctions of family, how we hurt ourselves and others, and the aching ecstasy that accompanies love. This is my second Elizabeth Strout, and it’s every bit as good as her "Olive Kitteridge." (*****)

  • Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad

    Colson Whitehead: The Underground Railroad
    Some stories need to be told over and over: tales of war, genocide and slavery, so that we can feel the horror from the inside, and be repulsed by the injustice and inhumanity. Reading the fantasy/reality of “The Underground Railroad,” I experienced the slavery of the American South more powerfully than before, and realize how it stretches its bloody fingers forward to shape the present still. Masterful and important storytelling that I’m grateful to have read. (*****)

  • 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. (***)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Lion
    I enjoy a good cry almost as much as a good laugh, and this tale of families, and a horrendous social problem, builds into a powerful tearjerker. The telling is surreal yet straightforward; empathy-inducing yet unsentimental. It’s an introduction to both India and Tasmania, and is beautifully acted. There’s a lot to like here. (DVD) (****)
  • Moonlight
    If compared to other movies in a vacuum, I’d rate Moonlight no better or worse than average, but thanks to the Academy awarding it Best Picture, it showed up at the local multiplex. It was exciting and moving to see a movie set in a to-me unfamiliar racial/cultural world. In 2017, through its existence and its celebrity, Moonlight adds to the momentum of embracing diversity, i.e., the marginal and despised, into a world of equal human beings. The story is extremely sad. It might also be, below its particular surface, the most improbably old-fashioned of love stories. (Theater) (*****)
  • 海街diary (Our Little Sister)
    Like Kore’eda’s masterpiece "Aruite mo Aruite mo" (Still Walking), this movie is rooted in a particular place and time of year, and the rituals that go with that. In this case, it’s the Shonan area centered on Kamakura and, although the movie follows a year of seasons, it’s the spring with its cherry blossoms, new beginnings and endings, that has center stage. The story and setting are a mixture of the idealized and down to earth. With so many characters interacting to push the plot forward, this very Japanese family drama may sometimes approach soap opera, but it is engaging, emotional, and never less than charming. (DVD) (*****)
  • 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) (****)

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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