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05/07/2017

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Books David finished in 2017

  • 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.

  • Iain Sinclair: My Favourite London Devils: A Gazetteer of Encounters with Local Scribes, Elective Shamen & Unsponsored Keepers of the Sacred Flame

    Iain Sinclair: My Favourite London Devils: A Gazetteer of Encounters with Local Scribes, Elective Shamen & Unsponsored Keepers of the Sacred Flame
    There is certainly no one better to read about London, and even more, those who write about London, than Iain Sinclair. Not only does he make one want to explore his counter-canon—Roland Camberton, B. Catling, John Healy, Robert Westerby, and more—he makes you want to read more Iain Sinclair. His critical and biographical explorations of these writers and the city he and they chronicle are written in a prose that is always vibrant and always absolutely Sinclair's. One of the few writers of our time who understands the importance of style, and is able to write with style without seeming mannered, Sinclair is among our finest literary essayists.

  • Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two

    Elena Ferrante: The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two
    The main character, Elena, continues to evolve away from her past, her neighborhood, her people, except for her friend, Lila, who has taken a different path, but one which, we suspect, will always be tangled with Elena's. As Elena moves away from her neighborhood to a different city, a different world, and as the world moves into the turbulent 1960s, the novel (Ferrante has said she conceives of the four "Neoplitan novels" to be, in fact one novel) also becomes more compelling, without, at the same time, losing the almost anthropological attention Ferrante pays to how young women from the working class in Italy lived then.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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. (***)

  • 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. (****)

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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