Books David Finished in 2021

  • Rickman, Phil: A Crown of Lights (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 3)

    Rickman, Phil: A Crown of Lights (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 3)
    The simple premise that if you accept that your sky god exists you’ pretty much have to accept that other supernatural entities exist, filtered through Phil Rickman’s imagination, continues to produce excellent, intelligent thrillers.

  • Jackson, Shirley: We Have Always Lived in the Castle
    To say that Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” is one of the great modern short stories written in English is hardly a minority opinion. I’ve moved on now from that classic and read a couple of Jackson’s novels, and of course they’re good, but I regret to report that they are not as rewarding. Perhaps the best thing about this novel is what it has in common with “The Lottery”: the depiction of an “idyllic” village in all its sinister evil and also that the evildoers escape not only consequences, but also blame.
  • Rickman, Phil: Midwinter of the Spirit
    So uncongenial do I find the religious worldview that I generally avoid books that have much to do with it. (Marilyn Robinson? No thanks.) Oddly, though, having read two of them I've found myself drawn into Phil Rickman's series about the Anglican Vicar Merrily Watkins. They are, as books about religions would have to be, fantasies, but he makes his view of religion interesting by taking seriously supernatural entities other than the Christian skygod. The old gods of the British Isles are also present, and also, of course, the archfiend. Author Phil Rickman seems to be on the side of the Christians, but only just and Merrily Watkins, though she becomes an exorcist (or deliverance counselor as the new Anglican church has it) is also conflicted. These are good tales well told. I will continue with the series.
  • Cusk, Rachel: Kudos
    Just a few days ago I wrote elsewhere that, having read the first two books in Cusk’s trilogy, I would read the third, but only out of a sense of duty. I did my duty, and am here to report that it was worth it. Although there are things I didn’t like about this book, I respect what Cusk has done here more than I did when reading the earlier books. She has written what we used to call autobiographical fiction, but now call “autofiction” and has made it new by almost entirely eliding herself from her own story. The obscured vision we get of the protagonist is made of the stories she hears, some of which, in quite interesting metafictional ways are about the story we are reading. The characters who tell their stories to the protagonist—the female characters at least—become the protagonist silently listening to them talk.
  • Finley, M. I.: The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics)

    Finley, M. I.: The World of Odysseus (New York Review Books Classics)
    I’m happy to see that this book still lives in a new edition from NYRB, but I’m also happy to have read it in the old Viking Compass edition (once available for $1.95) that I found on my shelf. For various reasons I see myself dipping into the classics again soon, and this view of Greek society in what we guess would have been the time of Odysseus, and in the time of Homer, telling that tale a few centuries after the age of heroes, was a good place to get my feet wet. What is always fascinating in reading Homer or about that time is being reminded that the past really is another country.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 1)

    Rickman, Phil: The Wine of Angels (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 1)
    I’m happy that I stumbled across the name Phil Rickman in a blog I sporadically check. When I went to Amazon to learn more and found someone complaining that his books were like a combination of Henry James and Jane Austen (the reviewer meant this as a criticism) I figured the books must be worth checking out. I forgot that people who write that sort of review don’t actually read Austen or James so of course his “criticism” is inaccurate, but I’m still grateful to him for steering me to this odd and delightful book: a thriller, a novel of manners, a character study of the newly appointed female vicar of a Herefordshire village in which the author moves skillfully between various plot threads and has a way with sentences. I am happy to report that this is the first in a series of (so far) twelve books. And it reminded me of the music of Nick Drake.

  • Stone, Robert: Dog Soldiers

    Stone, Robert: Dog Soldiers
    I first read Dog Soldiers maybe 25 years ago and at the time I counted it my favorite novel by a living writer. I’ve just completed my first rereading of it in a while, and I think it’s gotten better. Or rather I, as a reader, have gotten better. One thing hasn’t changed: I’m still in love with Stone’s cynical hipster voice and view. Stone is no longer among the living, so how does that affect the rankings.

  • Bradley, Marion Zimmer: The Firebrand

    Bradley, Marion Zimmer: The Firebrand
    This feminist retelling of The Iliad with a few other ancient stories sprinkled in is long, and sags in a way that The Iliad never does. If Bradley had managed to cut, say, a couple-hundred words would it have achieved the austere rightness of the masterpiece on which it was based. Probably not, but a substantial cut would, I think, have made this a better book.

  • Powell, Dilys: The Villa Ariadne

    Powell, Dilys: The Villa Ariadne
    This is a memoir that centers on a house rather than on a person. From that house spin of tales of archeology, war, and travel. Although it purports to be a unified book, it is fairly obviously separately written pieces cobbled together. We have, for example, the personal reminiscences of the author, Dilys Powell's involvement with the Villa Ariadne on Crete, a center of archeological research established by Arthur Evans; the stories of some of the people involved with the villa, most notably the archaeologist and war hero John Pendlebury, assassinated by the Nazis during their occupation of Crete; and a bit about Powell's wanderings around Crete in the post-war years and her reunions with some of the people involved with Pendlebury and other British during the war years. I found myself wishing that Powell were a little less good-natured. She mentions but shies away from discussing, much less taking a side on, the controversies over Evans's reconstructions at Knossos or the controversies to do with the decipherment of Linear B by Michael Ventris. She even finds it difficult to say a bad word about the German occupiers of Crete, the only exception being the butcher of Crete, General Müller. It was his replacement, the apparently less brutal General Kreipe who was kidnapped by Paddy Leigh Fermor and his colleagues, and it is one of the book's disappointments that, though he is mentioned and discussed, Fermor does not make a cameo appearance in The Villa Ariadne.

  • Holdstock, Robert: Mythago Wood (The Mythago Cycle, 1)

    Holdstock, Robert: Mythago Wood (The Mythago Cycle, 1)
    I don’t read much fantasy, mostly because too much of it is swords-and-lords Tolkien knock-offs. This one’s different and better. The author’s deep knowledge of the myths and legends that England has given us, it’s deep psychic history, make it as rich as the wood where much of the action transpires. I found the early pages, in which a young Englishman, just back from his service in the Second World War, feels his way into the strangeness that has engulfed the family home the most compelling part of the book. Things lag a bit when the quest (books in this genre always have a quest) gets underway.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue

    David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue
    This novel is a glorious paean to creativity and a heyday of popular music. David Mitchell stitches his fictional band Utopia Avenue into real events and personalities of the day, and for me some of the funnest parts are the imagined hangings out with 60s luminaries like Francis Bacon, Brian Jones, Frank Zappa, and Jerry Garcia. As usual, Mitchell sets himself challenges—one is creating music through prose—and as usual he aces them. He also – sigh – inserts his multi-book ongoing woo-woo saga into this story, but a little claptrap is a small price to pay for ace storytelling and writing as smooth as silk. (*****)

  • Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time

    Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
    Yeah, yeah, yeah! In 2021, the Beatles' music holds its own, but their times have receded into history. Even those who lived through the 1960s as I did have probably forgotten just how world-changing, all-consuming and hysterical was the whirlwind that was Beatlemania, when four cheeky Liverpool lads seduced a nation and the world with their wit and irreverence, injecting fresh joy into popular music, and dealing a body blow to Britain’s class system in the process. The Beatles have been written about so much, could there be anything more to say? Rather than one more plod along the familiar timeline, here we have the tale through a kaleidoscope of facets—150 of them; telling detail, eccentric focus and journalistic flair combine to bring the story and times to vivid life again. Bravo! (*****)

  • Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night

    Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night
    Disorganized, repetitive, shot through with a careless, toxic misogyny that presumably characterized the time of writing (1930s), this is one man’s jaundiced journey through the depths of human folly, cruelty and degradation. Yet the leisurely bathe in the cesspool of humanity is bejeweled with sparks of insight, empathy, lyricism, and mysticism. Here is shit and wisdom: angry, cynical, profound, and highly readable in a crackling translation. An uncomfortable read, but I'm very glad I did it. It was quite a ride! (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman

    Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman
    An engaging tale of an Irishman in Africa with the British army, and a marriage that becomes an alcohol-soaked nightmare. The protagonist is Jack McNulty, brother-in-law of Roseanne in Barry’s "The Secret Scripture". That book was a single; this is an album track. (***)

  • Ali Smith: Autumn

    Ali Smith: Autumn
    A fragmented fragment of a book rooted in angst-ridden Brexit Britain. It begins with (to me) too many tedious rants on bureaucracy (in the form of righteous conversations with obdurate officials). But it’s also a pleasant read, with passages about nature, Shakespeare, Dickens (his best and worst of times) and clever puns galore. Finally, it’s about a charming relationship between a precocious girl and a surrogate parent, and there’s another between a brother and sister, and it ends with a rose-tinted view of the 60s, and a glorious riff on the forgotten life of a (real-life!) 60s artist. (***)

  • Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star

    Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star
    This book took me back to my youth when I thought about sex constantly, and it was painfully frustrating because you could never get enough, and you couldn’t have the people you desired, and when you did get it, it was often unsatisfying because what you and your partner wanted to do or wanted from it were out of synch. Hollinghurst captures all that with clear-eyed and compassionate veracity, inside a story of a young Englishman’s stay in a Belgian town. It’s beautifully written, with intelligence, insight, and well-captured detail. These assets more than compensate for a few longueurs, and a less-than-satisfactory story arc. (****)

  • Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

    Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
    Nine snappy short stories about contemporary North American life and emotions, written with great insight into the human condition. Not a dull word. A master at work. (****)

  • Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

    Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
    This might be the most important book I’ve ever read, both as history and self-help. Humans are going to die and, alone among creatures, know it. This terrifying knowledge is kept unconscious through everyday distraction, immortality beliefs and projects, and by bolstering our culturally-derived sense of importance. Unfortunately, we also target cultural and religious outsiders as part of the defense against our unthinkable demise. This has been the story of the human race. The authors use experimental evidence to refine Ernest Becker’s insights into the human denial of death. There is no escape, but I hope I can think on this evidence to better understand my own terror of the inevitable, and its inevitable grip upon my mind. (Oh, and this book is written in a breezy pop-culture style for easy digestion.) (*****)

  • Donna Tartt: The Little Friend
    Donna Tartt’s intricate, suspenseful plots suck us in. Three novels. The first, The Secret History (1992), was a gripping read that I rather disliked for its characters. The latest, The Goldfinch (2013; Pulitzer Prize), was even more thrilling, with a more sympathetic cast. And now The Little Friend (2002), with a gorgeously realized (autobiographical?) setting in small-town Mississippi, a rainbow of finely-drawn characters of all ages, races, backgrounds, and a plot that climaxes with impossible tension both in the middle and again at the end. The conclusion is less than perfect--Tartt did better with The Goldfinch—but it’s hardly a flaw as loose ends are more or less tied up. (I think I know who the killer was.) To the author I say, thank you for so many hours of pleasure and diversion, and for your wonderful characters like The Little Friend’s Harriet. I have shared their lives, which have enriched mine. (*****)
  • Ann Patchett: Commonwealth

    Ann Patchett: Commonwealth
    A series of almost short stories gradually circle and coalesce into a novel about an extended family in California and Virginia, with characters moving from their prime to middle and old age. It’s about nothing more than the vagaries of life, finely and artfully observed. Compelling and satisfying. (****)

Books Mark read recently

  • Scanlan, Kathryn: The Dominant Animal: Stories

    Scanlan, Kathryn: The Dominant Animal: Stories
    This is a book of super-short fiction. Of the 40 or so stories, most are less than two pages. Nothing in the writing here is beautiful or kind, but somehow I whizzed thought it all. Some stories leave out points that would have made them more accessible. What the heck happened? A lot of the stories end on a sudden whim of observation and leave one wanting to read more. Most of the stories focus on a negative experience with a male, with strange detail, and after finishing a story, I often wanted to take a hot shower to get clean. I did enjoy "Design for a Carpet" and "Mother's Teeth." (**)

  • Woodrell, Daniel: Woe to Live On: A Novel

    Woodrell, Daniel: Woe to Live On: A Novel
    Confederate soldiers on a journey to fight Yankees in Missouri and Kansas. Woodrell's voice in this novel is similar to Cormac McCarthy's. Lots of brutal killing and torture and the story seems to float along on southern dialog and an internal monologue of fear by the speaker. There are moments of occasional humanity, but for the most part the plot is a thin gruel of spilt blood, wandering, waiting, and revenge. (***)

  • Munro, Alice: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

    Munro, Alice: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
    There are three standout stories in this very fine collection by Alice Munro. She has a real knack for creating a variety of believable characters. The title story was my favorite: two teenagers pull a sour trick resulting in a surprising ending. In the story "Queenie" we see a young woman scrambling to make her way in the world, using a bad marriage as a way to make some progress. The final story, "The Bear Came Over the Mountain" veers off into occasional long-winded reflection, as one man struggles with the loss of his wife to Alzheimer's. Munro is a master story teller. (*****)

  • Waters, Sarah: Fingersmith

    Waters, Sarah: Fingersmith
    Sarah Waters: Fingersmith Such a good story: the get rich scheme of a handsome scoundrel twists and turns into... Two women in the story are quite duped into role playing. A lot of playful sex is talked about, but not much happens in the way of happiness or fulfillment. As always, Waters is right on target with the voices and the atmosphere in this London area thriller. (*****)

  • Barry, Sebastian: The Temporary Gentleman: A Novel

    Barry, Sebastian: The Temporary Gentleman: A Novel
    What a sad story. This novel takes place on the Gold Coast in Africa, where an Irish soldier/engineer recounts his life growing up near Galway and Sligo. Back and forth we go between Ireland and Africa. Like an unseen shadow, in Ireland, what slays the characters in this novel is alcohol. Back in Africa, the memories of the homeland, and the attempt at living again are equally daunting foes. Excellent story telling. (****)

  • Donna Tartt: The Little Friend

    Donna Tartt: The Little Friend
    Donna Tartt's second novel does not disappoint. The story of a young girl, Harriet, who seeks to revenge the death of her brother, Robin. The backdrop is a small town in Mississippi, and the goings on of 4 or 5 sisters, whose lives all changed with the murder of young Robin; hung from a tree. Harriet wants to solve the mystery. Who killed him? She gathers clues, and encounters the wrath of the local druggies. Quite a page-turner, and like Tartts' other two novels almost nothing is left out or glossed over. There were times in the novel where I felt her writing fell short; places where I couldn't actually see what was happening from the writing, as is the case when she encounters the villainous brother, Danny Ratliff on top of the water tower. The writing perspective seemed off (who was where and when?) as a battle ensued. But one is so caught up in the narrative we read on and on. Also, who is the little friend who is suggested in the title? Harriet? Hey? Robin? I don't think it is the best title she could have thought of for such a wonderful and awful story. (****)

  • Strout, Elizabeth: Olive, Again: A Novel

    Strout, Elizabeth: Olive, Again: A Novel
    A wonderful sequel to an earlier collection of stories, Olive Kitteridge. Clearly, Strout is a masterful writer; each of the characters in her stories I can see clearly in my mind. These stories span Olive's life from middle-age to old-age, with thoughtfulness, kindness, reflection, and regret. In a general way of summing up, this collection tells us that life sends us problems that are most times not of our own making-- and that we do our best with what we have to work with, and what we think is best to do at the time. The prevalence of loneliness that comes with old age is a dominant theme in the later stories here. Read this book. (*****)

  • Strout, Elizabeth: Olive Kitteridge

    Strout, Elizabeth: Olive Kitteridge
    It's been more than a few years since I first read this wonderful collection of stories. As a prelude to reading her next collection, Olive, Again, I read these stories again. Wonderful insight into a community in Crosby, Maine and how they encounter each other. Henry and Olive Kitteridge function as the main characters, and each story includes them if in even a small way. Prior to my second reading, my favorite story was The Piano Player, but this time I enjoyed Incoming Tide most. Her stories can veer into a local gossipy mode, yet there is always tension lurking in the next sentence. (*****)

  • Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star: A Novel

    Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star: A Novel
    Edward Manners goes to Belgium to teach English to two boys who are getting below average marks in high school. When not teaching, he helps out at a museum focused on a Jewish painter who was hidden from the Nazis during WWII. Manners falls in love with one of his students, and a lively adventure ensues as Manners undertakes to seduce him. The narrative is fun, at times cynical of gay life, and there is a lot of sex. One also learns a good deal of personal history of growing up in post-war England and Belgium. Hollinghurst is a brilliant writer, and I learned many new words. (*****)

  • Alison Moore: The Pre-War House and Other Stories

    Alison Moore: The Pre-War House and Other Stories
    After reading the Booker Prize nominated The Lighthouse, I was excited to read this earlier collection of 24 short stories from Alison Moore. They are a little underwhelming; as if written by a grad student. Moore is great at creating tension and awkward scenes. She is an artist when painting a picture of place and atmosphere. Some stories are creepy, and one longs for a hot bath. However, I found them to be a bit formulaic. By the third or fourth story, I was keeping my eyes open for the one clue in the narrative that I would return to in climactic ending sentences. I like Moor's sparse style, and I will read more of her work (written after The Lighthouse) in the future. (***)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • (Pixar animation): Soul
    When it’s earthbound, Soul is a mesmerizing, gloriously animated, boisterous slice of life, and a paean to jazz and New York. When things turn more fantastical, for all the visual creativity and zany wackiness, it’s less compelling. Overall, charming but less than the sum of its parts, and we wondered how much kids, the primary audience, would enjoy it. (DVD) (***)
  • Yesterday
    The more you know about pop music past and present, the more fun this movie is, but even a vague familiarity is enough to access most of the jokes in Richard Curtis’s richly funny, razor-sharp, unpredictable script. Add sweet direction from Danny Boyle, and spot-on performances across the board (Kate McKinnon’s agent from hell is a standout) for a joy from start to finish. It is also a glorious tribute to the music of the Beatles. Kudos to the stakeholders of the same for granting permission to use it in this hilarious labor of love. (*****)
  • Little Women (2019)
    Greta Gerwig, who wrote and directed, makes a “Little Women” for our times as we oh so slowly exit male-dominated culture. It looks ravishing with its chiaroscuro. The performances are bang on the money. The timeline is fragmented, but early confusions about when and who’s who soon disappear, and the fractured tale unfolds with a bracing and mesmerizing logic. Small touches of stylization add to the interest. Brava indeed! (DVD) (*****)
  • Parasite
    I disqualify myself from commenting on this movie because the plot ultimately depends on violence, and I can’t handle violence in entertainment (unless there’s a veneer of real life-ery as in 1917). That said, it was engrossing, beautifully made, cleverly scripted, superbly acted, fascinating in its scenes of Korean life, never predictable. (DVD)
  • After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く)
    Still Walking (2008), a tribute to Kore-eda’s mother in the form of a slice-of-life domestic drama, turned out really well. By reuniting the main actors Abe Hiroshi and Kiki Kirin in After the Storm (2016), a similar portrait of family, and similarly titled after a pop song, he was probably, to mix metaphors, going back to the same well in the hope of conjuring up further magic. Indeed, the actors match or surpass their earlier performances. The themes of the films are broadly similar: the unpredictability of life: there is luck sometimes (the protagonist here wins a minor literary prize), but usually not. And if we are unlucky enough to be victims of our character or appetites (here it is sex and gambling) or of straitened circumstances, we’re going to live lives of frustration and disappointment unless we take the joys of life as they come: in both films these are mostly related to family and to food. Still Walking was a bullseye, and this is not far from the zone. As The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw observed in reviewing this movie (better than I ever could), “There is such intelligence and delicacy in Kore-eda’s film-making, such wit and understated humanity.” (****)

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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