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Books David Finished in 2016

  • Charles Bowden: Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields

    Charles Bowden: Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy's New Killing Fields
    This is one of the bleakest books I have ever read, and also, such a superb writer is Charles Bowden, among the most beautiful. Bowden tells us what is happening in Juarez—424 homicides in 2014, for example: it's still happening—and calls out the common lies about why it is happening: "But the nature of life here does not seem to penetrate the minds of people in other places. They seem to think that there is treatment [for mental illness] available here, but that because of the poverty, it is just more austere than in the wealthier zones of the earth. They talk about police corruption, but seem to think in terms of a place like Chicago, and so they do not perceive this as a real problem. They read about the murders, but tell themselves that murders are high in Detroit. They know people are poor, but convince themselves that the people are slowly rising and that soon things will be fine. They read that the Mexican army can be rough but never grasp the fact that historically the army has been stationed all over the country to repress and terrorize the people of Mexico." This is participant journalism where the participant is having no fun at all; cheap and ubiquitous drugs only add to the misery, and, as Bowden concludes, "... No one can figure out who controls the violence, and no one can imagine how the violence can be stopped." And this, Bowden suggests, is the future all of us can expect.

  • Sesshu Foster: Atomik Aztex

    Sesshu Foster: Atomik Aztex
    Foster uses a sort of multiverse model of reality (which may or may not mesh with the Aztec world view) to imagine a universe that contains a timeline in which the advanced Aztec civilization was able to subjugate the primitive Europeans thanks in large part to their mastery of scientific techno magic. Other timelines exist that are more like the one we live in, and our protagonist passes through several of them: he's in Russia fighting the Nazis, and in the city of Vernon exterminating hogs in a meat-packing plant. We move through these various realities the lightness that, say, Guillermo Cabrera Infante leads us through his phantasmagorical Havana. Lots of chuckles, and a certain amount of horror. Does it all, in the next, make sense? Of course not. As Foster says in an opening note, "Persons attempting to find a plot should read Huck Finn."

  • Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Curious Kitten (Pocket Books 724)
    The first Perry Mason mystery I read was published in the 1930s, this one in 1942. I cringed a bit when a houseboy who identifies himself as Korean but who everyone believes to be one of those wily Japanese was introduced, and happy that at the end, though suspicion had been cast on him, he wasn't the guilty party. The mystery was riveting enough, but it's the period details that are the most arresting. I wish for example, that I had read the following exchange before my most recent trip to the States: "Mason said to the man behind the counter, 'Two orders of ham and eggs. Keep the eggs straight up and fry them easy. Plenty of French-fried potatoes. Lots of hot coffee, and you might make two cheeseburger sandwiches on the side.'" I am going to memorize Mason's order before my next trip so I can try it out on an unsuspecting coffee shop waiter or waitress.
  • Jane Gardam: The Man in the Wooden Hat

    Jane Gardam: The Man in the Wooden Hat
    Although I very much enjoyed Jane Gardam's Old Filth, which told the story of a marriage of old English expats from the perspective of the husband, it took me a long time to get to the sequel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of the same marriage from the perspective of the wife. It does an excellent job of artfully reminding us that a marriage need not be perfect to be good.

  • Mary Renault: The Charioteer

    Mary Renault: The Charioteer
    I picked up The Charioteer, the first of Mary Renault's novels I've read, assuming, based on her reputation and the title that it would be one of her historical novels set in ancient Greece or Rome. It is not. It is, instead, an examination of gay life during World War II that is almost Jamesian in its obliquity. This seems appropriate in that, it becomes clear, gay people had in those day to be terribly oblique about who they were. Renault, who lived with a female companion, is sympathetic, but it is interesting to note that she promulgates some of the accepted wisdom of her time with regard to homosexuality, giving the protagonist, for example, an absent father and a domineering mother. I wonder what bromides about homosexuality and everything else that are being put about today we will chuckle at tomorrow.

  • Torii Shozo. Edited and Translated by Taylor Mignon: Bearded Cones & Pleasure Blades: The Collected Poems of Torii Shozo
    Surrealism generally works better on the canvas than on the page, but Taylor Mignon's translations of the poetry of the avant-garde poet Torii Shozo reminds me that literary surrealism can also be rewarding. As with surrealist paintings, surrealist poems work best when they have formal integrity, and when they throw off at least a few filaments connecting them to a world like the one in which we live. Torii's poems pass this test (and for a devotee of thrillers, the references throughout to the aesthetics of noir, to a world where trench-coated private eyes would not be out of place, are welcome).
  • Don DeLillo: Point Omega

    Don DeLillo: Point Omega
    Reading late DeLillo of late, I was slightly less than completely satisfied with Falling Man (see below), but was entirely enraptured with Point Omega. Here are the hypnotic sentences, the world as complex as life, and a formal shape that can make his books so compelling, so beautiful. I think of American novelists of DeLillo's generation, and when the others have fallen away, it's clear to me that it is DeLillo and Pynchon to whom we will always be eager to return.

  • John Berger: From A to X: A Story in Letters

    John Berger: From A to X: A Story in Letters
    John Berger is our best—our only really good?—engaged novelist. The issues explored in his novels always transcend, even as they include, day-to-day politics and are never trivialized or sentimentalized. The art in his novels is never buried beneath agitprop. His epistolary novel, From A to X, is the latest in a line of wonders. His late style glows.

  • Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop

    Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Stuttering Bishop
    Erle Stanley Gardiner's Perry Mason books seem to have been among Guy Davenport's favorite diversions, and that was enough to motivate me to buy the five on offer at a junk shop in a small California town. I was not disappointed with the earliest written from that stack, and experienced a bit of unearned nostalgia for a time when drivers seemed to routinely stock their cars with pints of whisky.

  • Don DeLillo: Falling Man: A Novel

    Don DeLillo: Falling Man: A Novel
    Every DeLillo novel is a gift, and considering the austerity and intelligence that characterizes DeLillo's vision of our time one might have expected his 9/11 novel to be the 9/11 novel. It isn't, I don't think, in part because of the cypher of a character around whom the novel turns, a cypher who is never quite satisfyingly ambiguous or illuminating. Still, as with every DeLillo novel there are sentences, paragraphs, that make one's jaw drop.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Mark Haddon: A Spot of Bother

    Mark Haddon: A Spot of Bother
    (by the author of the amazing “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”) This, about a UK middle-class family from multiple perspectives, is so light it practically reads itself. The psychological insights and sharp, amusing observations kept my interest. I’m not good with blood, however, and the gore sometimes made it a queasy read, but mostly it was a whole lot of fun. (***)

  • Marilynne Robinson: Gilead: A Novel

    Marilynne Robinson: Gilead: A Novel
    A dying pastor in the US Midwest in the 1950s writes a memoir to his young son. A triumph of voice. Novels are related to humanity’s burgeoning empathy. This extended mine. Haunting and affecting. (*****)

  • J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country

    J.L. Carr: A Month in the Country
    1920. A damaged WWI survivor is commissioned to uncover a mural in a Yorkshire village church. This is a glorious evocation of rural life in a summer of days gone by. It's about being young, rejection, love, and the hell of surviving a senseless, stupid war. It's also a bit of a mystery: one that reaches an extraordinary 600 years into the past. (***)

  • David Mitchell: Slade House

    David Mitchell: Slade House
    David Mitchell is a master of plot, storytelling, character, voice, setting, and bringing a period to life. His latest—a short, supernatural thriller set in a gray UK town--is a compelling, amusing tale of fiendish cleverness and surprise. Mitchell has to pay the rent, and if this is the kind of nonsense he wants to write, it’s fine by me. Reading him is sheer pleasure, and I’ll follow him anywhere. (*****)

  • Crispin Sartwell: Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality

    Crispin Sartwell: Obscenity, Anarchy, Reality
    It’s philosophy, and philosophy is hard, and I’m not even sure that everything he says is true. But it’s written with a swagger and raw personal honesty, and I found it as enlightening as opaque, as useful as baffling. Actually I first read it 10 years ago and I got a lot more from it this time. I expect to return again to this take-no-prisoners, balls-to-the-wall pursuit of the elusive truth of life and death. (****)

  • Dolores Payás: Drink Time!: In the Company of Patrick Leigh Fermor

    Dolores Payás: Drink Time!: In the Company of Patrick Leigh Fermor
    Charming, intimate memoir of the great PLF in the last few years of his life in his Greek villa above the sparkling Mediterranian, written by his Spanish translator. Though facing the infirmities of age, and struggling with the third volume of his Constantinople trilogy, he never let those interfere with the pleasures of life: booze, books, laughter, conversation, dancing, food, and friendships. (***)

  • Alice Munro: Dear Life: Stories

    Alice Munro: Dear Life: Stories
    A wonderful collection of stories, each impeccably wrought. The everyday settings are vivid, as are the troubled voices they hide. The language is scintillating: I often paused after reading a sentence to marvel at its aptness. The volume ends with some autobiographical fragments, also written in fine style. Alice Munro: a master at work. (****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Bridge of Spies
    Mid ‘50s. Tom Hanks is an US insurance lawyer sucked into the vortex of the cold war. I was moved by the story, and took it personally, because—all credit to the filmmakers and actors for immersing me in their tale--I realized the uncomfortable fact that--pragmatism versus values--I would compromise my moral principles in the face of enough peer pressure. The movie is the story of a man who resists the pressure, and how important that is for the good of society. I agree. And when push comes to shove, I fear I'll be found wanting. (*****)
  • Spectre
    The new Bond is superb: the thrills, the humor… the mythology. It may be my goodbye to action movies: There is horrific violence in the world, so a fictional version doesn’t feel like escapism. That said, this was an amazing (and at 2 and a half hours, a way too long) entertainment. (*****)
  • The Intern
    The leads are excellent, but they aren’t given a lot to do. It’s thin gruel--funny but not funny enough; charming but not charming enough; smart but not smart enough. It needed a Nora Ephron to punch it up and give it more truth or entertainment. Catch it on a plane for Hathaway and De Niro. (Theater) (**)
  • Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
    This is all you'd hope a Mission Impossible movie would be. The twist-filled plot is more-or-less comprehensible. Tom Cruise is ageless. A resourceful heroine (Rebecca Ferguson) is a welcome addition. The non-stop mayhem and extreme peril was thrilling when it didn’t make me look away. It was, all in all, exhausting. The next Bond movie “Spectre” opens on December 6, so I have two months to get over this movie and be ready for that one. (Theater) (**)
  • Selma
    A powerful, eye-opening history lesson about the courageous fight in 1965 for racial justice in the U.S. South against seemingly insuperable odds. David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King is a wonderful performance that catches King’s private struggles and his compelling public oratory. The movie is also a memorial to the blood shed and the lives given by people unwilling to follow a status quo they knew was wrong. (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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