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Books David Finished in 2014

  • Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat

    Takashi Hiraide: The Guest Cat
    This is the third Japanese novel I've read in a row in which cats play an important part. None of these books, though, are what might be called cat books, though the cat in Takashi Hiraide's The Guest Cat, Chibi, has a larger role than the felines in the other novels. Chibi, though he actually belongs to their neighbors, enters the lives of a couple, both free-lance writers, living in a leafy Tokyo neighborhood. As the couple become more involved with the cat, they also seem to become more engaged with life and with each other. In a simpler novel, that would be the story: an animal friend helps its people wake up to the beauty of life. Cats die, though, and cottages in leafy Tokyo neighborhoods with rents that free-lancers can afford are just as transitory. The narrative becomes complicated, and also the manner in which it is told: we learn that the novel we are reading is, in part, an account of its own creation, an act which may not, without Chibi, have taken place.

  • Mieko Kanai: Oh, Tama!

    Mieko Kanai: Oh, Tama!
    Cats. If you spend any time at all on the Internet, and you're not a cat person yourself, you've had enough of them, even when they're riding on Roombas. It would be a shame, though, if the same impulse--quite a healthy impulse--that makes you scroll past the cat pics on Facebook caused you to miss novels like Mieko Kanai's Oh, Tama!. Tama is a cat, but the novel is not about cats, and indeed Tama, gravid when when we first meet her, seldom emerges from the closet where she nurses the kittens she soon has after being dumped on our protagonist, a sporadically employed free-lance photographer called Noriyuki. She is in the novel for a reason, though. It is unlikely she could identify the father of her kittens, and Oh, Tama! has much to do with parents, or rather paternity, and children. We see, as the novel unfolds, how several characters who lack strong family ties form a family of sorts for themselves, a family with all the ambivalence of a biological family. If that sounds trite--isn't this the premise of several popular TV shows now?--it isn't. The odd bits of life that Kanai captures in the interactions of these characters draw us in even as they are never exactly important. This novel is one in a series of "Mejiro" (a Tokyo neighborhood) novels that Kanai has produced. Upon finishing this one I immediately ordered the only other entry that's been translated into English. One character who I'm sure will recur is the "lady novelist" who falls asleep at parties.

  • Dorothy L Sayers: Murder Must Advertise

    Dorothy L Sayers: Murder Must Advertise
    I've never really warmed to the English jocular tradition, but I've just finished, with real enjoyment, a Lord Peter Wimsey novel by Dorothy Sayers. The mystery is . . . well, who really cares who done it . . . but the incidental observations, the jaundiced view of advertising (Wimsey is embedded at an advertising agency), and the fun with language made the novel a great deal of fun. Perhaps I'm growing up . . . or old. Maybe I'll finally get P.G. Wodehouse?

  • Miklós Bánffy: They Were Divided (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall the Transylvanian Trilogy)

    Miklós Bánffy: They Were Divided (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall the Transylvanian Trilogy)
    One can't expect a trilogy of novels that climaxes with the advent of World War I to end happily, and Bánffy's masterful trilogy does not. He sees the war as having been avoidable, and that it was not avoided as a disaster. The political thread that forms a significant part of the novels is bleak, and so are the stories of the characters' lives. The cousin whose self-destruction we have followed comes to a sad end, as does the romance Balint, the upright and well-meaning cousin, has pursued for years. The three novels together form a fascinating ride through pivotal years in Hungarian history, a history I now wish to know better.

  • Jake Arnott: The House of Rumour: A Novel

    Jake Arnott: The House of Rumour: A Novel
    Scientologists, Nazis, alien-abduction enthusiasts, rock glitterati, science fiction writers who take themselves entirely too seriously: Southern California has them all, and they all strut their stuff in Jake Arnott's novel House of Rumour, along with real-life oddities like the Ayn Randian borderline-fascist sci-fi writer Robert Heinlein, scientologist-in-chief L. Ron Hubbard, and physicist and occultist Jack Parsons. Arnott successfully choreographs this ragbag of Southern Californian eccentricity (and worse) into an engaging novel that is a successful depiction of that charged locale in the immediate aftermath of World War II, a time when the space program was just taking off, and science fiction writers and readers saw their dreams coming true (thanks in part to the conveniently de-Nazified physicists now at work in the hills above Pasadena). Lay over this an occult grid—which may be just a creation of various countries' secret services, or maybe not—and one has a picture of the times at once accurate and intriguingly bent.

  • Miklós Bánffy: They Were Found Wanting (Writing on the Wall: The Transylvania Trilogy)

    Miklós Bánffy: They Were Found Wanting (Writing on the Wall: The Transylvania Trilogy)
    A lot of trilogies sag in the middle. This one doesn't. Indeed, rather than seeming like a discrete entity, it's very much a continuation of what has come before and is just as excellent. We continue to watch as one cousin loses himself to debauchery (and maybe loses his life--we're left uncertain), while the other tries to live up to what he sees as his responsibilities as an aristocrat and a land-owner while at the same time he continues to be involved in an affair with a married woman whose husband is fond of firearms and far from stable. As this volume proceeds it calls to mind more and more "The Grand Illusion." The aristocrats dance and play and the politicians concern themselves with trifles as Europe skates closer to the disaster of World War I.

  • Donald Fagen: Eminent Hipsters

    Donald Fagen: Eminent Hipsters
    Anyone who's ever paid attention to Steely Dan's lyrics knows that Donald Fagen can write. They will also know how he writes: cynically, sardonically, and with consummate style. That carries over to his prose in this book, the first half of which is a series of essays about the eminent hipsters--Henry Mancini, Ike Turner, Ray Charles, et al--of the title, artists who showed young Donald, when he was growing up in suburban New Jersey, "how to interpret [his] own world." (Note that the use of the word "eminent" with regard to these hipsters is a rare example of Fagen not being ironic.) The second half is a diary he kept while on a Dukes of September tour in which he makes it clear that going on tour when you're sixty-four is a very different thing than going on tour when you're twenty-four. One reviewer suggested that Fagen was channeling his crabby Uncle Morty as he bussed from venue to venue. If that's the case, Uncle Morty was very funny indeed.

  • Ross Macdonald: Find a Victim: A Lew Archer Novel

    Ross Macdonald: Find a Victim: A Lew Archer Novel
    This entry in the Lew Archer saga seems slightly less well-constructed than the others, but still there are sentences, paragraphs, and pages that will bring a smile. Also, further hints are dropped about Archer's past: he was, we learn, married and divorced.

  • Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall: the Transylvanian Trilogy)

    Miklos Banffy: They Were Counted (The Transylvanian Trilogy) (The Writing on the Wall: the Transylvanian Trilogy)
    They Were Counted is the first book in a trilogy published in Hungary in the 1930s and '40s. Anyone reading this first entry will be happy that it is a trilogy, that having finished it one is not expelled from Edwardian-era Hungary, a world unfamiliar and fascinating. Miklós Bánffy has populated this world with human beings—Hungarian aristocrats for the most part—who are entirely convincing even as they live a social round that will be strange to all of us except for the glimpses we've seen of it in literature: we follow two cousins as they move from ball to hunt to duel to casino, from mountain castles to town houses in Budapest, and watch one destroy himself with debauchery, and the other try diligently to do the right thing as a large landowner and a politician. All of it is fascinating, elegantly and leisurely told.

  • Kazushi Hosaka: Plainsong (Japanese Literature Series)

    Kazushi Hosaka: Plainsong (Japanese Literature Series)
    Kazushi Hosaka's Plainsong is a plain song indeed, a novel of the mundane. In offering a reader a novel with no apparent action he is taking a risk, but careful reading reveals that something significant does happen in the book, and it is perfectly foreshadowed by the appearance of a stray kitten at the novel's beginning: the friends who populate the novel turn into a family. That friends can form a family is an idea that seems a bit old in 2014—are there any sitcoms that don't have this premise these days?—but Hosaka's book, we must remember, came out in 1990, and not in the West but in Japan.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • George Saunders: Tenth of December

    George Saunders: Tenth of December
    This is a rewarding collection of short stories about inequality, morality, human folly and meaning well. Saunders writes with compassion, and is excellent with voice so we find ourselves inhabiting his fascinating characters. The stories are suspenseful, funny, and well observed. If all this sounds on the bland side, know that the stories are sometimes deeply weird for mixing in science-fiction trappings. I love the Victorian classic “The Diary of A Nobody” so I was amazed to find a hilariously pitch-perfect update in “The Semplica Girl Diaries” (until it edges in an altogether darker direction). Unless you want a spoiler for that story, I’d advise skipping the book’s introduction until you finish the volume. (*****)

  • David Nicholls: One Day

    David Nicholls: One Day
    With a train to catch and without reading material, I grabbed this 2009 novel I’d never heard of off the bookshop paperback carousel. The story follows Emma and Dexter from an almost hook-up on the summer day in 1988 when they graduate from a British university, through the next 20 years. Each chapter captures their evolving and intersecting lives in snapshot fashion, on the same day at yearly intervals. It’s a rich read which I enjoyed very much. The characters are carefully drawn with great compassion, and the conclusion brought tears to my eyes. (****)

  • Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways

    Robert Macfarlane: The Old Ways
    This is my book of the year. MacFarlane records his progress along ancient paths, recalling history and describing what he sees. His depictions of nature (for the ways he navigates are almost all rural) are original and arresting in a “yes, that’s just what it’s like” way: “the pylon’s lyric crackle” “A tern beats upwind: scissory wings” “the sound of gull-cry and wave-suck.” There’s even a ghostly episode that would fit right into Levi Stahl’s I’vebeenreadinglately October blog posts. (*****)

  • Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing: Essays

    Tim Kreider: We Learn Nothing: Essays
    Reading this book of essays by Tim Kreider, the astringent cartoonist, is like hanging out with a smart and funny friend, as he shares his hard-won insights into human fallibility. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with him. As David Foster Wallace says on the back cover, “Kreider rules.” (*****)

  • Dr. Kenjiro Setoue: Doctor Stories from the Island Journals of the Legendary Dr. Koto

    Dr. Kenjiro Setoue: Doctor Stories from the Island Journals of the Legendary Dr. Koto
    “Lost in this life, I have somehow grown old.” Dr Setoue signed up to work at a remote island clinic in Southern Japan for six months, and 36 years later is still there. His journals portray Japanese life and its webs of responsibilities, and the particular opportunities offered by island life. “I am not always busy, neither besieged by work nor play, and this allows for quiet time to look closely at myself [and to think about my work and life].” He relates how he brings state-of-the-art medical care to a place where people once died of illness and accident for lack of it, and in doing so finds “the happiness that comes… from feeling deeply that what I [do] is of help to someone.” Much of his work is ministering to the old, for the island’s population is ageing as it shrinks. Medical cases are described in such numbers that I couldn’t help but gain a better sense of the illnesses and disabilities that are in store for me as I grow older. The book is physically beautiful with a lot of excellent photographs that, like the journals, bring the island and its people to life. My only criticism is some unnecessary repetition. Thanks to David from introducing this book in a Blockhead post (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Frozen
    Did the scriptwriter not realize that two heroines aren’t better than one because they cancel each other out, and neither can be given a proper rousing conclusion. "Frozen" is imaginative and there’s lots to enjoy, but it’s too long and rather flat. I’m giving it an extra star for the eye-popping 3D animation. (***)
  • Philomena
    It’s a mother/child (based on a true) story designed to move, with optional indignation at the powers that caused the pain. It tries a bit hard, and hypocritically exhibits the kind of journalistic manipulation criticized in the film itself. But that’s all and only the better to deliver the Good Story we crave. Steve Coogen is as winning at obnoxious/serious as he is at obnoxious/funny. And Judy Dench does full, delicious justice to a wonderful part. Screw it, for pleasure and emotional satisfaction I’m giving this 5 (out of 5) stars. (*****)
  • Nebraska
    Father/son road trip: contemplative, beautiful to look at in widescreen black & white, and very funny, with way-above-average casting and acting across the board. (The underlying arc is identical to “Dallas” for characters and audience both: initial dismissive judgment gives way to a more nuanced understanding, unleashing compassion.) (****)
  • Dallas Buyers Club
    Less a story than a slice of life as big and brash as Texas. It’s set in the terrifying early days of AIDS, and Matthew McConaughey’s central performance makes you forget there’s an actor involved. (***)
  • American Hustle
    This is an actors’ piece: everyone excellent (Bradley Cooper a little over the top). Take away the A-list talent and music cues, and you’d have an A-grade TV series about confidence tricksters in a queasily recreated 1970s. As a movie, plenty original, overlong (my moviegoing companion notes a bloated first act) and not funny enough. But it set us up to talk about the endemic corruption in the world, so it wasn’t all bad. (***)

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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