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
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, 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
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 out 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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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. (****)
In Tearing Haste: Letters between Deborah Devonshire and Patrick Leigh Fermor
This collection of letters between two good friends, a down-to-earth aristocrat (youngest of the Mitford sisters) and an urbane, cosmopolitan writer and war hero, spans most of their lifetimes. They write to entertain and support each other, and in the process we get glimpses of aristocratic pursuits, the Mitfords, and the restless life of an adventurer missing publisher’s deadlines. All in all, a correspondence sparkling with fun and gossip. (**)