Books David finished in 2017

  • Eric Haggman: The Apology

    Eric Haggman: The Apology
    Eric Haggman's first novel, a thriller, does one very important thing right: he keeps things moving along. Thrillers are not intended to be read slowly. If one doesn't feel compelled to fly through the pages, then there's a problem. The headlong rush that Haggman largely succeeds in providing, though, is slightly undermined by the implausibilities of the plot (the Vietnamese police investigating the apparent kidnapping at the novel's center include our advertising man protagonist in every aspect of the investigation, including, at one point, handing him an AK47 for his personal use) and the Sax Rohmer-like exaggerations of the evil that, at least for the purposes of the novel Haggman seems to believe, lies at the heart of Asian societies. The Japanese police for example, can't be merely corrupt, but must be one of the most corrupt police forces in the world. The novel ends with the protagonist and his love interest, having moved through Vietnam and Tokyo, in Capetown, and things are left wide-open for a sequel, so this won't be the last we hear of this crime-fighting ad-man.

  • Ross Macdonald: Black Money (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)

    Ross Macdonald: Black Money (Vintage Crime/Black Lizard)
    I continue my traversal of the saga of Lew Archer, and am happy to report that this Black Money is a worthy exploration of the dark side of the California sun.

  • Alan Moore: Jerusalem

    Alan Moore: Jerusalem
    Alan Moore's Jerusalem is a maximalist novel in all the best ways. Rich in character, observation, and event, it is equally rich in a philosophy and metaphysics that are informed by cutting edge physics. It is, however, in once sense, minimalist: Almost every one of the 1200+ pages of the novel are set in Moore's hometown, Northhampton, where he still lives. One quickly sees, however, that the geographical limitations he has imposed upon himself (there are occasional side-trips to Blake's Lambeth) are the farthest thing from impoverishing. Rather, because Moore, like certain cutting-edge physicists, takes seriously the notion that the past isn't really past, that everyone who has ever lived, lives, the Northhampton he gives us is anything but constrained. Indeed, one feels he could have given us another thousand pages set there that would have been as riveting as those he has given us. One reason for this is that the prose, always rich, sometimes bordering on the baroque, and never amenable to skimming, is well-wrought enough that one finds oneself returning to reread sentences, paragraphs, pages simply for the pleasure of letting the words dance through one's mind again. One is glad, though, in the end, that Moore stopped exactly where he did because the novel is an exquisite formal object, one in which every one of the many, many threads is neatly, but never glibly or perfunctorily, tied off. It's probably heresy to say so, but it seems to me a pity that Moore, a great novelist (his little-read first novel, Voices of the Fire, is also excellent) wasted so many years on comics.

  • Teju Cole: Known and Strange Things: Essays

    Teju Cole: Known and Strange Things: Essays
    Teju Cole is, I think, the most interesting writer of his generation. One reason for this is that he manages to blend a very sophisticated aesthetic sensibility with an equally sophisticated political engagement. His masters are, on the one hand, W.G. Sebald, and, on the other, John Berger. Having placed Cole where I believe he belongs in the pantheon, I am a bit surprised that I didn't enjoy his collection Known and Strange Things more than I did. The essay is a favorite form, and the essays of Cole's I've read here and there have always been stimulating. In fact, several of those previously read essays are included in this collection, and they are just as good as I remembered them. I have to confess, though, that it's those essays, his greatest hits, as it were, that seem to me the best in the collection. It's not that the other essays are not worthy; indeed, several of them are, no doubt, essential for anyone who wants to think seriously about photography. That could be me: I remember my excitement upon first encountering Susan Sontag's On Photography, but Cole's essays seem to me more for the specialist than Sontag's tour de force. It is probably just that, though the reviews, appreciations, memories and other fugitive pieces here collected, though models of their kind, taken together lose some of their power, a slackening I never felt when turning the pages of Open City. I only hope that, unlike other multi-talented authors who've written superb novels and then turned away from the form—Pankaj Mishra, Ian Buruma—that Cole hasn't decided to abandon the genre in which, thus far (and it's still early days) he's had his most impressive success to date.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Elizabeth Strout: Olive Kitteridge

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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

    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. (**)

  • Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry

    Rachel Joyce: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry
    It’s sometimes sketchily written, sometimes overwrought, and characters feel subordinate to the books big ideas. But what ideas! That our lives can become fossilized. That good people can make horrible mistakes. That receiving is as difficult and blessed as giving. This novel of an unlikely man’s walk through England is compelling enough to overcome its shortcomings. (***)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Florence Foster Jenkins
    New York. 1944. A society hostess decides to resume a singing career. This comedy drama is both funny and highly emotional. Meryl Streep disappears, as always, into the title role in an acting tour de force. The décor and costumes are stunning. It’s a glorious hammy entertainment, but a friend pointed out the message which I’d missed: there are few winners, many losers, and the only really important thing is to try. (Theater) (****)
  • Deadpool
    I probably only got two-thirds of the jokes about the conventions of superhero movies and 80s/90s pop culture, but it was really funny. It was also really violent and bloody, so I almost walked out early on, but ended up sticking around for the jokes, and looking away from the screen for a significant amount of time. The opening credits and the after-closing-credits squib were funny enough right there, and then there’s the movie. This was recommended by a friend. Thanks friend. (****)
  • Hail, Caesar!
    This is a gentle, loving, sometimes hilarious parody of 40s/50s movie studios, directors, genres and stars. For most of the time I had a grin on my face, rooting for it, willing it to be funnier. And then, when it was over, something strange happened. My moviegoing companion and I laughed harder recalling the jokes than we did seeing them for the first time. There is so much going on that’s so clever, I know I’m going to enjoy it even more when I see the DVD. (***)
  • Spotlight
    A paean to investigative journalism, to having the courage to tell the truth that no one wants to hear, and an encouragement to the Catholic Church to clean up its act. A friend said she appreciated the sober photography, the camera always in the right place, and the classical editing, with no attempt to jazz things up with handheld sequences or fast cuts. The superior writing and acting are more than up to the task of delivering riveting cinema. Timely and excellent. (*****)
  • Bikes vs. Cars
    Passionate documentary of bicycle activism around the world. Activists and drivers see the world as A vs. B. and the underdogs claw a way forward, one cycle lane at a time. It makes me long for a future when we can all just get along without trashing the climate and killing each other. (***)

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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