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04/08/2017

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Books David finished in 2017

  • Michael Schumacher: Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg

    Michael Schumacher: Dharma Lion: A Critical Biography of Allen Ginsberg
    Michael Schumacher's Dharma Lion can serve as a model of what a literary biography should be. It is the perfect balance of life and work, and doesn't try to prove too much about the life from the work, or the work from the life, though in as autobiographical an artist as Ginsberg such methods might be more justified than they often are. There was no doubt in my mind going in that Ginsberg is a major poet. That conviction was only reinforced, along with the notion that Ginsberg was as saintly an artist as we are likely to see, his association with the awful Chögyam Trungpa notwithstanding.

  • Nicci French: Sunday Morning Coming Down: A Frieda Klein Novel (7)

    Nicci French: Sunday Morning Coming Down: A Frieda Klein Novel (7)
    Sunday came, and though I had assumed this would bring resolution to the series, it didn't, of course, because why would a writer end a series which might continue to be successful, and about which he or she—in this case he and she writing under a female pseudonym—might have more to say. I have mixed feelings about this. I've always admired how David Simon said from the outset that "The Wire" would be five seasons, and then, story told, stuck to it. On the other hand, I probably will pick up Another Monday, or whatever it will be called, when it appears.

  • W. Somerset Maugham: The Razor's Edge

    W. Somerset Maugham: The Razor's Edge
    I read this a while ago, but forgot to add it. I enjoyed this book mostly for the quality of the prose: Maugham knew how to write mellifluous sentences. The story, of a young man searching for the proper way to live, is interesting enough, particularly in the glimpse it gives into the Vedanta that was popular among intellectuals when the book was written (some thought the main character was based on Christopher Isherwood), but slyest of all is Maugham's conclusion: there is not a good way to live a life, but several, and they are different or different people. Not exactly an earthshaking revelation, but refreshing in that one could image other ways the book might have ended.

  • Nicci French: Dark Saturday: A Novel (A Frieda Klein Novel)

    Nicci French: Dark Saturday: A Novel (A Frieda Klein Novel)
    Now I'll have to wait for the forthcoming Sunday.

  • Nicci French: Friday on My Mind: A Frieda Klein Mystery (Frieda Klein Mysteries)

    Nicci French: Friday on My Mind: A Frieda Klein Mystery (Frieda Klein Mysteries)
    The ending to this one has a bit of a deus ex machina twist that suggests the novels—Frieda's life and relationship to the crimes she solves—are going to take a different direction. Stay tuned.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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.” (*****)

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Half of a Yellow Sun
    This tale of a middle-class Nigerian family and servant on the Biafran side of the 1960s civil war and famine unfolds with the same grim inevitability as, say, “Grave of the Fireflies.” For this reader, it was a painful history lesson, and a window into the human reality of other such conflicts recent and current, from Cambodia to Syria, and the extreme suffering and loss they bring. As with “The Underground Railroad” and “The Known World,” I was deeply grateful to have read this although I didn’t enjoy it much; who can enjoy reading of cruelty and tragedy. The storytelling is competent, and comes with a final satisfying revelation. (****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Anything Is Possible

    Elizabeth Strout: Anything Is Possible
    Strout writes with notable veracity, revealing what we feel and think under our usual veneer of self-protection and social conformity. Together with compelling truth there is compassion, especially for difficulties like obesity, poverty and bad marriages. The vehicle here is short stories that cleverly jigsaw with characters and incidents in her previous novel “My Name Is Lucy Barton,” and with each other. Reading Strout is both a pleasure, and an encouragement to be a real person. (*****)

  • Edward P. Jones: The Known World

    Edward P. Jones: The Known World
    The antebellum South, with whites and even a few free blacks owning slaves. It's sublime storytelling of a superstitious time when God and the Bible guided thought and embraced the corrosive idea of humans as property, and there is mystery in both content and chapter titles. That said, it’s also a story woven in the truest of terms, featuring characters of the most treacherous and the most compassionate, but mostly going about their allotted lives with outcomes having less to do with virtue or infamy than with luck and circumstance. This microcosm painted in vivid detail shows that the aberration of slavery still infects the present, a mere few generations later. In simpler terms, through this book I lived for awhile on a slave estate in a corner of Manchester County, Virginia. (*****)

  • Adam Mars-Jones: Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father

    Adam Mars-Jones: Kid Gloves: A Voyage Round My Father
    I don’t think I’ll be able to capture my parents amply in words, so I admire Mars-Jones chatty, rambling account of his family, his own growing up with them, and of helping his mother and father as their deaths approached. It’s sometimes insightful and rarely less than fun, the more so for anyone gay, middle-class and British, who came of age in the 1960s. (****)

  • John Berger: To the Wedding

    John Berger: To the Wedding
    This story is told in a flat, grave, fragmented style, with a complex, quasi-mystical framing device. It leads up to the wedding in the final pages, a tour-de-force that leaps off the page and might have worked better as a self-contained short story. (**)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Blade Runner 2049
    I again find the wisdom in something John A told me years ago: make a point of doing things you wouldn’t normally do. I wasn’t a big fan of the original Blade Runner movie so wasn’t going to the new one, but a friend suggested it and I went along. It is splendid. The story was fine, furthering the replicant saga, but, like the original, it’s the way it looks that makes the impression. The post-apocolyptic locations are stunning, including being back in that Blade Runner futuristic Los Angeles, with its sexy billboards, Asian food and signage, grunge, constant rain. All the more reason to see it in IMAX 3D. The 3D is of a quality that makes you wonder why you’d ever want to see a movie without it. Nothing jumps out of the screen; it’s just a beautifully rendered three-dimensional world for you to inhabit. The music/sound is stunning as well. (****)
  • Hidden Figures
    The protagonists are working at NASA as the US space program pushes back against Soviet successes in the Kennedy era. There are genre conventions that sometimes verge on the hokey, but it’s basically a satisfying depiction of the racially oppressed in segregated 60s Virginia pushing back. I found myself shedding tears not only when the bigots saw the light, but also during the love scenes… this is good storytelling. A special shout out to Kevin Costner: I’d forgotten, if I ever knew, what a superb actor he is. Movie comfort food. (Theater) (****)
  • Dunkirk
    My moviegoing companion bailed on this one, saying she didn’t like war movies. I think Dunkirk sidesteps that description. It’s very well-made, and the soundtrack is particularly astonishing; I was privileged to see this in IMAX, with images and sound at their most extreme. There is some understated heroism, and a lot of equally understandable doing what one can for one’s own survival. The enemy is not named or shown beyond the planes that strafe the beach and boats, which is a step forward in war movies. It’s also a history lesson that honors the victors, and the enemy as always is given nothing, so there are more steps forward to be made. It’s a horror story you hope is going to end as soon as possible. I watched this as an anti-war movie: both sides fighting for their lives, and life is terribly cheap. (Theater; IMAX) (****)
  • Manchester by the Sea
    Acting comes first in this portrait of a volatile New England man and his extended family. Like "Moonlight," it’s unconventionally made. The eccentric soundtrack music sometimes screams, “This is art.” But it more than gets the job done: It’s real, powerful, sometimes funny, and it may move you. (DVD) (****)
  • 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) (****)

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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