Books David Finished in 2018

  • Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies

    Jane Bowles: Two Serious Ladies
    I'll be teaching this, so I've just reread it. It is rich enough that it bears many rereadings. Jane Bowles never wrote a boring sentence, and also creates characters who, in their actions and decisions, are mysterious enough to be compellingly human. As Millicent Dillon has pointed out in her excellent biography of Bowles, the novel is autobiographical, not in the crude story-of-my-life-lightly-fictionalized sense but in that each of the characters has Jane Bowles in her: her neuroses, her wit, her dissatisfaction, her splendor.

  • Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists

    Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: We Should All Be Feminists
    I take it as a given that we should all be feminists (though some of us will fail, from time to time, in our attempts to attain that status). I'm surprised, therefore, when I meet young women who, on the one hand, seem sympathetic to every goal associated with feminism, but who balk at calling themselves feminists. (It surprises me less and disgusts me more that many men not only won't call themselves feminists, but are actively hostile to the notion that women are human beings, too.) This little book (you can read it in thirty minutes) will enlighten many as to why, yes, we should all be feminists, and why we should be proud to wear that label.

  • Emily Hahn: Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North

    Emily Hahn: Congo Solo: Misadventures Two Degrees North
    Emily Hahn, in the 1930s, drove 3000 miles across the United States dressed as a man. She was the first woman to be awarded a degree in mine engineering from her American university. She wrote more than 50 books and 200 articles, most of which were published in The New Yorker. And she is almost forgotten today. She also spent time in the Congo when it was still a Belgian colony and writes interestingly, if sometimes jarringly, about her time there. Interestingly, because she is insightful and observant, jarring because the things she observes are repellent, and though she would sometimes agree with that assessment, as a woman of her time, she attempts to understand and not to judge too harshly the way the colonists and their white hangers-on treat the Africans. She assures us that the worst savagery of the Belgians is a thing of the past—they no longer cut off hands—but she observes with a shrug the way the colonists use the Africans as slave labor and deal harshly with them when they misbehave. They sometimes, for example, attempt to flee from the chain gangs on which they work on short rations and return home. This was judged to be appallingly bad behavior. This is an interesting book by an interesting woman who lacks the moral vision and historical perspective to see clearly (though she comes close sometimes) the horrors going on around her.

  • Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust (New Edition) (New Directions Paperbook)

    Nathanael West: Miss Lonelyhearts & The Day of the Locust (New Edition) (New Directions Paperbook)
    Nathaniel West didn't write much in his short life, but what he did write, particularly these two short novels, packs a punch. The Day of the Locust, in particular, remains an essential Hollywood novel, a novel in which everyone and everything is ersatz, but perhaps in a city and an industry built on illusion, this is nothing but crude realism. What is a constant surprise and delight is West's sharp eye and the equally sharp prose he uses to convey what he sees.

  • Don Winslow: The Cartel

    Don Winslow: The Cartel
    This novel about the narco-terrorists who have done much to destroy one of my favorite countries (in service to an insatiable North American demand for drugs) is superb. It can stand on the shelf next to Charles Bowden's non-fiction work, particularly Murder City, which focuses on Juarez, a location where some of Winslow's wide-ranging novel is set.

  • Avram Davidson: Masters of the Maze

    Avram Davidson: Masters of the Maze
    Much of the best of Avram Davidson's work has been republished. That leaves the less than five-star Davidsons, and 1965 Masters of the Maze, I am afraid, falls into that category. That's not to say the Davidsonian wit and eccentric erudition is not there and not a delight; it's just that the novel as a whole is less than gripping. For completists only, I would say.

  • Henry James: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers (with a Preface by Henry James)

    Henry James: The Turn of the Screw and The Aspern Papers (with a Preface by Henry James)
    The Turn of the Screw is among the best short novels I have read. It a ghost story in which we are uncertain that the ghosts exist, an examination of class anxiety, and it contains one of the most subtly constructed unreliable narrators in English literature. As ghost stories should be, it is terrifying, but mostly because it unmoors us: we are never quite sure how we are to take this uncanny, unsettling tale.

  • Attica Locke: Bluebird, Bluebird

    Attica Locke: Bluebird, Bluebird
    Attica Locke seems to understand that who done it is always the least interesting part of any who-done-it. Thus she builds a world—rural East Texas—and gives us a look into African American life in that part of the world, that is complex and compelling. Her protagonist, a Texas Ranger whose marriage is on the skids, who is drinking too much, and who cares too much—or so his colleagues seem to believe—about the injustices African Americans suffer in much of the United States, is someone we're glad to meet and follow as he comes to understand that the two murders that happen in Lark, Texas are not simple, and that, as another Southern writer said, "The past isn't dead. It isn't even past."

  • Maria Thomas: African Visas

    Maria Thomas: African Visas
    I read Maria Thomas's first two books years ago, and remember enjoying them. I thought that was all she had written, but then I stumbled across this in a used book store. It is a collection published a couple of years after she died in a plane crash in Africa, her subject, the place she had spent much of her life. As is often the case with posthumous publications, it's a mixed bag. The novella, The Jiru Road, which anchors the collection is not as accomplished as her other work; one guesses it was an early attempt at a novel, though her talent does shine through in places. The short stories are a mixed bag: some barely concealed memoir, others that seem to end without resolution, but not in a way that resonates. Maybe I'll go back and have another look at the two books published before this one: Come to Africa and Save Your Marriage and Antonia saw the Oryx First.

  • Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost (Persephone Classics)

    Marghanita Laski: Little Boy Lost (Persephone Classics)
    I am grateful to the feminist presses such as Persephone that have that have long been at the forefront in bringing us superb novels that have been forgotten. A recent discovery they, and then, thanks to them, I, have made is Marghanita Laski's 1949 novel, Little Boy Lost. It survives as much more than a period piece: it is a book that grips one both intellectually and emotionally. Set mostly in post-war France we follow the protagonist, a prissy, self-centered English intellectual with whom it is quite easy to identify in spite of (because of?) his less than attractive personality as he moves through a France still far from recovery in search of his child, a boy who, in the chaos of war, was lost. The problem is, he's not sure if he wants the boy, and when it's impossible to prove that a boy who may be his son and who is living, malnourished and deprived with the rest of the inmates in an orphanage, he is tempted to use that as an excuse not to take responsibility for him, to return to his ordered and comfortable life. Read the book and find out what he decides.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Jon McGregor: Reservoir 13

    Jon McGregor: Reservoir 13
    Wow. An entirely original novel: an objective report of life in a North-of-England village, the environment and the people, over a number of years. I had a hard time remembering the characters: my only criticism. Otherwise, it’s an exquisitely balanced, somewhat profound narrative, with observations of flora, and fauna human and otherwise, of all ages, that are gloriously right. (****)

  • Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son

    Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son
    A novel about North Korea. The storytelling is competent. The content is entirely shocking: In the 50 years or so since the Korean War, has a society really evolved into this hell (I don’t use that word lightly) on earth? What a privilege it is to read novels—this novel—that transport me to experiences, to lives, outside my own. (***)

  • Ian Buruma: Inventing Japan, 1853-1964

    Ian Buruma: Inventing Japan, 1853-1964
    This is a brief history of the nation from the Meiji era to modern times based, as is customary, on politics and international relations. Buruma has digested a library of source material and rendered it with astonishing concision, while including enough colorful detail to bring the history lesson alive. A pleasure to read, and I learned a great deal. (****)

  • Ian McEwan: Nutshell

    Ian McEwan: Nutshell
    Nutshell is both audaciously original, and quintessential McEwan in story, mood, humor. It’s dense with big ideas (e.g., the horror of the possible collapse of civilization vs keeping perspective on the simple joys and privilege of being alive), too dense for me to absorb in one reading. So it didn’t exactly jell for me, as, say “The Children’s Hour” did. But I sure was sucked into the plot, unputdownable toward the end. (***)

  • Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques

    Patrick Leigh Fermor: The Violins of Saint-Jacques
    A small gem of a novel set in the olive groves of Greece, and during Mardi Gras on a small ill-fated Caribbean island. The history, the local French nobility, the verdant surroundings, the heat and the pageantry are lovingly sketched, with the writing sometimes reaching an ecstasy of description. A celebration of dubious colonialism that ratchets to a gripping and moving finale. (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: Days Without End

    Sebastian Barry: Days Without End
    With this novel, I lived some of the fraught days of the European, often Irish, settlement of the US, the genocidal battles with Native Americans, and the slaughter of the civil war. It's well-trodden ground in fact and fiction, and the novelty here is an unusual narrator recounting singular experiences in a past vernacular (an authentic-sounding triumph of voice) that often finds humor and lyricism alongside the horror and hardship, the lice and the cold and the hunger. Read this and salute the human survival instinct, and be grateful to live in a more comfortable and peaceful time and place. (****)

  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch
    Some sections felt too long at first, but perhaps that's because I hadn't adjusted to the (s)pace of an almost 800-page novel. This story of a boy growing up (and what a story!) is luminously written - not a word out of place - with descriptions of experiences I haven't had that seem profoundly right. It even morphs into something of a thriller near the end, before rounding out with an affecting coda. It's truthful, shying away from nothing, and wholly satisfying. Now I can't wait to read Tartt's other two books. (*****)

  • Geraldine Brooks: March

    Geraldine Brooks: March
    Onto the template of the idealistic Little Women (which should be (re)read prior to this for maximum enjoyment), Geraldine Brooks crafts an addendum that relates a more realistic, harrowing, and achingly human story of the father, the mother and the civil war. (***)

  • Louisa May Alcott: Little Women

    Louisa May Alcott: Little Women
    Here’s a young adult novel that has endured since the 1860s, and frequently appears on my radar (most recently in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, where it inspired young Lila and Elena in 1950s Naples). I was glad to have the Oxford World's Classics edition which explains its literary background, and how autobiographical it is. Like other books for young people of the period, it includes moral lessons, and these are still compelling today because humans want to be good so that they may be loved, and children feel this need most acutely. There is also the irrepressible joie de vivre of the characters, warts and all, that comes from the author’s memories of her own childhood. To read Little Women is to be embraced in the warm bosom of an idealized loving family. (***)

  • Susan Perabo: The Fall of Lisa Bellow

    Susan Perabo: The Fall of Lisa Bellow
    This story of a contemporary suburban US family opens as young adult, swerves into mystery thriller and psychodrama, then character study, and winds up lunging toward literature. As a page turner it more than succeeds. The typos (p. 154, line 18; p. 238 last line) suggest this was more a job of work than a labor of love.

Books Mark read recently

  • Sebastian Barry: Days Without End: A Novel

    Sebastian Barry: Days Without End: A Novel
    A beautifully written, brutal novel. The story takes place during the time of the American Indian slaughters (in elementary school we were taught this was "manifest destiny") and the Civil War to end slavery. An Irish immigrant gives voice to a narrative of hardship, reminding one of Cormac McCarthy, only better. Each sentence is pretty much a gem. (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Abide with Me: A Novel

    Elizabeth Strout: Abide with Me: A Novel
    A small town minister and his family try to survive gossip and rumors coming from their community. Vulnerable characters in hopeless situations take on life's unanswerable questions. A good read with snappy dialog, but I prefer the concentration she gives her short stories, as in Olive Kitteridge. (***)

  • Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
    The theft of a small painting (of a goldfinch) is the focal point in this surprising intelligent thriller. Along the way, a boy grows up succumbing to a number of temptations, both good and bad. A long-winded read to be sure, but you'll enjoy every sentence and every perfectly chosen word. (*****)

  • Ian McEwan: Nutshell: A Novel

    Ian McEwan: Nutshell: A Novel
    A wonderfully clever book--written from the point of view of an unborn fetus. As with earlier McEwan novels, artfully described characters and dialog; this time in a plot to commit murder. There are reluctant parents, and lots of sex and drinking to boot. I couldn’t put it down, and I anxiously await McEwan’s next novel. (*****)

  • Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner

    Khaled Hosseini: The Kite Runner
    Excellent story about growing up and and the ravages of the war in Afghanistan. Insight into a people and culture I knew nothing about. Hosseini writes with pride, comic energy, and brilliant story-telling about his family in Kabul. Some parts of The Kite Runner are so sad you’ll see your unexpected tears on the page; other parts soar with the zest and exuberance of a new kite. (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Isle of Dogs
    Dogs are under threat in an affectionately stereotypical future Japan. It’s a leisurely tale told in whip-fast animation, liberally peppered with humorous touches. The voice work and animation are clever and fun. Pure Wes Anderson dark whimsy. (Theater) (4 stars for me, but 2 for my moviegoing companion.) (****)
  • Paterson
    A movie observing likeable people going about their lives; a love song to a city and to poetry. Sounds more or less up my street, so why am I thinking of friends who’ll enjoy it more than I did. As far as movie-ness (artificiality), there are no more coincidences than in something by Rohmer. For me, it played fine but just didn’t spark. (DVD) (**)
  • The Post
    This is how, in the Vietnam War era and pre-Watergate, a whistleblower and US newspapers bravely confronted the Nixon White House over freedom of the press. It’s also the startling story of a Washington society matron confronting gender prejudice, internalized and external, when thrust into a history-making role. It's a solid, suspenseful, satisfying account, tidily acted by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, with clear parallels to current times. It also sent me to Wikipedia to learn more about The Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee and the rest. (Theater) (****)
  • Coco
    Mexico: the Day of the Dead. This delightful, entertaining, enlightening animated movie made me laugh and cry more than any I’ve watched recently. (Theater--IMAX) (****)
  • The Shape of Water
    A fantasy that’s hard-nosed and thrilling, entirely original while comfortably familiar, nostalgic yet contemporary, slyly humorous, and a paean to tolerance and inclusion. Magic. (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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