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June 2017








Books David finished in 2017

  • 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.

  • Nicci French: Thursday's Children: A Frieda Klein Mystery (Frieda Klein Mysteries)

    Nicci French: Thursday's Children: A Frieda Klein Mystery (Frieda Klein Mysteries)
    The first case with which she was involved, way back on Monday, involved identical twins. One of them was a guy who had some problems. The other was a bad guy, a very bad guy, and he becomes a sort of stalker and nemesis of Klein's. He's a recurring character who everyone except Klein believes to be dead. That's one reason a lot of people think she's nuts. (More . . . .)

  • Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday: A Frieda Klein Mystery

    Nicci French: Waiting for Wednesday: A Frieda Klein Mystery
    Among Klein's friends is a police detective. She's often working at cross-purposes with him, and gets him in all kinds of trouble, but he comes to respect her: how could he not since she's more or less always, in the end, right. (More in the next post, by which I mean the post above.)

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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. (**)

  • Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

    Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay
    A rollicking saga about cousins growing up Jewish in New York and in Prague in the 1930s, and the birth of comic books. This fiction woven with fact is funny, tragic, epic, and intimate by turn. It’s fluidly written as it sprawls all over the map, with a cast of characters you are glad to follow anywhere. Glorious. (****)

  • 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." (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • 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) (****)
  • 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) (*****)

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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