Books David Finished in 2019

  • Edward Phillips Oppenheim: The Great Impersonation

    Edward Phillips Oppenheim: The Great Impersonation
    I bought a huge collection of stuff by E. Phillips Oppenheim for a couple of dollars. They all fit on my kindle, and so were easy to take to Vietnam where I read most of this, the first novel in the collection, on a bus in the course of a five-hour ride. Well-done pulp that it is, it was useful for killing some time. It's nice to know there's more where that came from on the device in my pocket. I'll never be caught without something to read.

  • Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep and Other Novels (Penguin Modern Classics)

    Raymond Chandler: The Big Sleep and Other Novels (Penguin Modern Classics)
    Because sometimes one needs to read three Philip Marlowe novels in a row on top of a novel about an LA band and Nathaniel West's classic about the city, not least for lines like these: I went out to the kitchen to make coffee—yards of coffee. Rich, strong, bitter, boiling hot, ruthless, depraved. The life-blood of tired men.

  • Sam Sweet: Hadley Lee Lightcap
    A biography of a band is among the sorts of books I am least likely to pick up, but . . . the Internet. I used to subscribe to a magazine called Arthur. Shortly after I subscribed the magazine went broke. I was slightly pissed off that they had taken my money, but . . . so it goes. Years later the publisher, Jay Babcock, contacted me and in an effort to make things right sent me an Arthur t-shirt. The gesture counted; it wasn't something he had to do. Some time after that I started following Babcock on twitter, and also getting his occasional email newsletter. On twitter he linked to a 42-minute instrumental version of Wichita Lineman. This amazed me, and lead in turn to a book called Hadley Lee Lightcap by Sam Sweet. I read an excerpt online and was stunned enough that I ordered it before realizing that it was a band biography. And indeed, one could easily read the book as a novel, a memoir, or even, in parts, prose poetry. (Also, and as a former Angeleno this resonated with me, a book about Los Angeles, and more specifically North-East Los Angeles.) The book got me interested in the band it was about, Acetone, a minor indie band that made a few albums but never found much success. In tandem with the book a collection of their work has been released, and it is as mesmerizing as the book, and in some of the same ways: slow, subtle, and beautiful. I am now searching for more of Acetone's work (most of which has not been digitized) as well as the bands the guitarist, Mark Lightcap, has been involved in in the wake of Acetone. I recommend both book and band.
  • 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)
    A reread of The Day of the Locust, a book that gets better ever time. Nathaniel West's choice to employ Juvenalian satire to capture Los Angeles is wise, and though his masterpiece was written in the the 30s, the book rings as true today as ever.

  • Graham Holliday: Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table

    Graham Holliday: Eating Viet Nam: Dispatches from a Blue Plastic Table
    I just returned from a trip to Vietnam and one reason I made the trip was to dine on that country's legendary street food. I did that, maybe visiting eight or ten stalls in my time there, but, as I turn the last page of Graham Holliday's Eating Vietnam, I can only say I want to go back, because there's so much more to eat and experience in those sidewalk stalls which seem the heart and soul of Vietnamese city life. The book is maybe 80 percent about the food and the people who make it. I used it when I was there (he gives addresses, and google maps is your friend) to enrich my experience (but of course didn't limit myself to his recommendations). The food writing, as much of a feast as it is, works in tandem with the other twenty percent, the part about who Graham Holliday was when he was exploring Hanoi and Saigon. The biographical bits were fun and resonated with this reader, who, like Holliday, took the expatriate path while still young. Fortunately, the memoir bits are never too precious, as is often the case with food-memoirs. The book is a must-read for anyone planning to visit Vietnam.

  • Esther Kinsky: River

    Esther Kinsky: River
    For various reasons, I put Esther Kinsky's River down when I was in the middle of it, and didn't pick it up again until a good while later. I'm glad I did pick it up again, and also that it's not a page-turner, the sort of book that would be harmed by such lackadaisical reading. Rather, it's a contemplative work (school of Sebald) and benefits from slow and focused reading. Each chapter can stand alone, though a river flows through all of them. River satisfies in a way that is less ephemeral than the pleasure we get from less ambitious works.

  • Matthew Turner: Sweden

    Matthew Turner: Sweden
    Sweden, Matthew Turner's first novel, gives us a historical milieu that has been all but completely neglected by those writing fiction about Japan in English: Japan during the years of the American invasion of Vietnam. It is the story of several American deserters, and the Beheiren (an actual group of Japanese activists who opposed the Vietnam war and supported deserters), and also several other significant people and places from that time. Some of these are actual people and appear under their own names: the founder of Beheriren, Makoto Oda; the American poet and ecological activist Gary Snyder, among others. The American deserters meet these people in actual places: the commune on Suwanose where Nanao Sakaki (who appears in the book under another name) and friends established a community; and another Japanese commune, the Yamagishi-kai (introduced under another name) which still exists. In separate plot-threads the novel follows different deserters from their service, their desertion, their contact with Beheiren, and their eventual fates. Turner pulls this off well. Moving between the threads allows him to maintain the suspense, and also to show us that there are different kinds of deserters, different kinds of Americans. Some do their best to adapt to the culture and the trying conditions under which they must live. Others are all-too-accurate versions of ugly Americans. Some actually oppose what the Americans were doing in Vietnam. Some simply—and understandably—want out. Turner manages to introduce the history his readers will need to know for the most part with grace: there are very few "As you know, Bob . . . " style info-dumps. And he succeeds in making the history interesting enough that we will want to look up some of the sources he draws on, and which are detailed in the Acknowledgments.

  • Neal Stephenson: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel

    Neal Stephenson: Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel
    Fall: Or, Dodge in Hell has many of the qualities one expects to enjoy in a Neal Stephenson novel. There are quirky and endearing techies among the characters, there are telling and witty observation of society, and there are cutting edge ideas from the fringes of science and information technology. To focus on the latter, the novel imagines a time when the singularity, sort of, arrives. It has become possible to scan people's brains (and eventually their bodies, too, because of course, they're not really separable) and thus make it possible for those people to "live" forever. I suppose people who think about these things have thought about this, but the fact that rebooting these consciousnesses and keeping them "alive" would require processing power, servers, and . . . in short, money had never occurred to me. Stephenson goes a step further, and imagines the world in which these disembodied consciousnesses—the term of art is "processes"—"live." In this place where they live, as more and more processes are uploaded they begin to interact with each other and start to spawn processes of their own. When an arrogant and overweening tech tycoon (shades of Elon Musk) is uploaded and brings with him notions he had in meatspace about how processes should structure their world, a conflict arises in that cloud-based world. This, for me, is where Stephenson's novel goes off the rails. The conflict and the attendant quest are lifted out of good old fashioned swords and lords style fantasy novels and draw on the mythology on which those novels are generally based. Stephenson is nothing if not a competent writer, and he writes competent swords and lords, but I found myself wishing he'd get back to the techies in Seattle who were keeping the cloud world running. Stephenson says his novel owes a debt to David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality. Because the ideas driving this novel were compelling, I'm heading off to the big river to order it now.

  • Dorothy M. Richardson: Pilgrimage: v. 1 (Virago Modern Classics)

    Dorothy M. Richardson: Pilgrimage: v. 1 (Virago Modern Classics)
    Dorothy Richardson is often described as a forgotten modernist, a precursor of Joyce and Woolf in her use of stream-of-consciousness narration and perhaps for her habit of not always giving every last detail. The thing is that those techniques have become so naturalized that one hardly notices them in what seems, really, to have more in common with some Victorian triple-deckers. There are differences to be sure: much more of this novel takes place in the protagonist Miriam's head, and there is much less running around in the world than one finds in Victorian novels. The novel is not worse, and perhaps better, though for having a clear place within the lineage of the form. Volume 2 sits nearby. I look forward to continuing with the series.

  • Tana French: The Witch Elm: A Novel

    Tana French: The Witch Elm: A Novel
    This novel—call it suspense, call it crime, call it literature—is one of the slowest burning slow burners I have read. Atmosphere is privileged over plot, and for those who sometimes have a hard time caring about who done it, this is welcome. Creeping dread rather than white-knuckle thrills and chills is the order of the day in this slow coming to terms with a long-ago murder.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves

    Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves
    A first-person memory of coming of age in backwoods Minnesota. On the plus side: incisive writing; insightful observation of human psychology and the natural world both. On the minus, I never got caught up in this fragmented account. It meandered up to the big reveal halfway through, then meandered on to the end. There is extreme veracity in its portrait of the loneliness of childhood and, for better or worse, how a child is victim of the adults around them, but that didn’t add up to a compelling novel for this reader. (*)

  • George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo

    George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo
    This is an astonishingly original novel about the Lincolns and their son who died in childhood. It’s a delightfully easy (tons of white space) and moving read. It occasionally feels padded. It is also full of wisdom. NB. When you start out, there is dialog with the speaker’s name. Unlike a play, the speaker’s name is below, not above, the dialog. If you don’t get this, you will end up going back to the beginning to figure out who said what (and who has the enormous member). A deserving winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. (****)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

    Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture
    Sebastian Barry creates compelling, believable characters. Here we have two: the head psychiatrist of a mental hospital in contemporary rural Ireland, and a female centenarian in his care. Barry is also a master storyteller who here brings the troubled recent history of Ireland alive as we follow the life of the latter character to its shocking climax. Most of all, this is a story that glows with compassion for humans and their lot. (****)

  • Richard Powers: The Overstory

    Richard Powers: The Overstory
    This is a weird one. The author wants us to experience that trees are complex sentient beings, and deserve more than being taken for granted at best, or clear cut at worst. There is also that humans are fatally despoiling their planet. He weaves a fiction to bring all this to life, and the writing is great, but it’s so agenda-led that the characters and story are dead on arrival. Sometimes literally: why, I wondered, did the exercise require visiting extreme trauma on each of his too-large cast of characters before the real story begins? Full disclosure: on p. 461 my patience ran out; I stopped forcing myself to read further.

  • Barbara Kingsolver: Unsheltered

    Barbara Kingsolver: Unsheltered
    “Unsheltered” is about a middle-class family in contemporary New Jersey, and people in the same town—what was a utopian community—a century earlier. And about the startling human tendency to be blind to truth when the truth is unsavory. Compelling characters. Great intelligence. Humor. Writing so good it’s invisible. There are even hard-won artistic flourishes to ice the cake. A deeply satisfying delve into human psychology, and fiendishly clever at drawing parallels between past and present. This is a work of art. (From personal taste, and my extremely limited viewpoint) it seems a novel of the decade.

  • Anna Burns: Milkman

    Anna Burns: Milkman
    This novel is an easy entrance to experiencing the Troubles of Northern Ireland, through the eyes of a young woman coming of age. The sheer horror amid everyday life is matter-of-factly and starkly related. Hidden behind the meandering account, and she does go on and on sometimes, is solid structure and a commitment to truth-telling. And as the writing rarely puts a foot wrong, we can excuse the overly hopeful and humorous coda. (****)

  • Tom Fay: Must-See Japan

    Tom Fay: Must-See Japan
    There’s information online for planning a trip to Japan, but it’s handy to have a concise print guide to the best the country has to offer the visitor. This self-published volume covers the bases, and will be helpful both to the traveler and to the Japan resident entertaining guests from abroad. Updated for 2018. (***)

  • Sally Rooney: Normal People

    Sally Rooney: Normal People
    Early on I admired Rooney’s bravery in getting inside the head of high school kids. But from then on it was [SPOILER: IF YOU HAVE ANY INTENTION OF READING THIS, QUIT READING HERE] the romance trope of people obviously matched with each other being kept apart for no good reason other than to make some sort of story before they are brought back together at the end. The redeeming feature of this novel were the psychological insights that made me think, yes, that is exactly how it is. But I didn’t care about the protagonists’ fate here, let alone in the inevitable sequel. I do want to thank the author for one more thing: not going the full Yanagihara with her character’s weaknesses, and so sparing me that kind of reading pain. (*)

  • Walter Abish: How German Is It

    Walter Abish: How German Is It
    A collection of characters, points of view, plot lines and non-sequiturs that depict Germany going about life in the shadow of Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. I’m not a fan of novels in which the writer holds back information to supposedly make things more mysteriously interesting, nor novels with surreal interludes (the coloring book), where events are dropped (the mass grave) or inadequately explained (the shooting by the bunker). There is also the constant intrusion of meta-questions (“Could everything be different?”) that rarely add to the prose, and mostly take the reader out of the story. (*)

  • W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz

    W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz
    It begins with a meeting of minds over architecture, from where it drifts into a witnessing, both down-to-earth and dreamlike, of the most horrific event organized by humans in the 20th century. The account, punctuated by surprising photographs, is sometimes too mystical for this reader, but is always compelling. (***)

Books Mark read recently

  • Daisy Johnson: Everything Under

    Daisy Johnson: Everything Under
    As fish stories go, this is a whopper. I was completely lost by page 100, so I went back and re-read. It's legal, I suppose. While the narrative requires a bit of work, once I did find my feet I was rewarded with atmosphere and surprise. As a young man, I enjoyed many days on the Sacramento Delta, tooling around in a zodiac. This book gave me pleasure again in remembering all that, and... there is also a Bonak! Keep track of what's what in each of the chapter titles. Enjoy the looseness and creativity of this most interesting gender-jumping, time-hopping novel. (****)

  • Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

    Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger
    The last days of a once wealthy upper-class family as they are haunted by bad energy in their neglected castle. The narrator is a local doctor, who is often called out, and who finds himself attracted to the spinster daughter who lives there. Creepy things happen. We are not sure if the doctor is telling the truth. Sarah Waters is masterful at painting the atmosphere of each scene. (*****)

  • Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room: A Novel

    Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room: A Novel
    Hmmm... Interesting yet meandering narrative of young SF Bay woman committed to life in prison. Some good insight, and the locations in the novel were all familiar to me: Martinez, Port Costa, Crockett, SF; but the plot felt a little like watching "Orange Is the New Black." Most of the anecdotes, make one want to take a shower. The tension builds near the end, thank goodness. (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture: A Novel

    Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture: A Novel
    Barry's writes a heartbreaking story of a young woman who is shunned by society after she is thought to have had an affair. Brilliantly written from the point of view of a one-hundred-year-old patient in a mental hospital, and a parallel narration by her psychiatrist who tries to help her. The interaction between the doctor and patient is gentle and mysterious. Barry perfectly captures the atmosphere and the feeling of a decrepit mental hospital, and in flashbacks of the patient's life, the wild coast of Northern Ireland. Don't miss this one. (*****)

  • Anna Burns: Milkman (Thorndike Press Large Print Basic)

    Anna Burns: Milkman (Thorndike Press Large Print Basic)
    Well-deserved Booker Prize winner for 2018. An 18 year-old girl with a sweet "maybe boyfriend" is terrorized by an older controlling anti-government paramilitary leader. Perhaps it is set near Belfast? On any ordinary day she fears encounters with this leader, this Milkman, who stalks her relentlessly. At times as grim as a decapitated cat; at other times buoyant with the comic energy of wee sisters begging for chips. Beautifully written passages, as only an Irish writer could. Please note: the wrong decisions we make when it comes to love. Perhaps it goes without saying. (I ordered the large print by mistake.) (*****)

  • George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel

    George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
    Saunders transports readers to a place where ghosts are hanging out and interacting with each other as they try to manipulate the feelings of humans. The book focuses on a time just after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie. Unique, colorful, insightful— also tinged with the sadness of death. Likely a masterpiece. (*****)

  • Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves: A Novel

    Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves: A Novel
    A remarkable voice tells the story of high school girl living in the woods with her parents--descendants of a defunct commune. Across the lake a young family moves in, and the girl's loneliness wanes as she watches over the couples' son, teaching him about the woods. Shunned by others at school, the bonds developed with the family across the lake lead the girl to struggle with larger questions. A fast moving narrative. I could not put this one down. (****)

  • Walter Abish: How German Is It

    Walter Abish: How German Is It
    This book is enjoyable and funny. Amish has a knack for distinguishing characters with nuance; all of it with some take on his idea of a post-war German mindset. At times I felt at sea because of a loosely strewn narrative... but there are enough people having sex and a penchant for quirkiness to keep most readers happy. I felt the ending was a little too quick, but one has to stop writing sometime. My friend Alan alerted to me to some of the historical inaccuracies critics contend with this book. Not knowing much German history, this didn't get in my way, however, point taken. I can't end this review without writing how much I like the book cover. (****)

  • W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz (Modern Library (Paperback))

    W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz (Modern Library (Paperback))
    Beautifully written account, of another's account, of a search for lost family after WWII. Austerlitz studies old buildings; train stations, schools, libraries, prisons, etc. He recounts his findings to the author, and during their lifetime of random and casual meetings, intertwines a family biography that begins when Austerlitz was sadly sent away by his mother--at age 4-- who was fearful of the German invasion into Prague. Wonderful long winded sentences that occasionally move emotionally happy and sad, and back again, before we finally reach the period. (*****)

  • Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis

    Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis
    This is a really creepy story. It has stayed on my mind for days after having finished reading. A man wakes one morning to discover he's turned into an insect (a dung beetle, if I remember correctly). Kafka is brilliant in letting us see the details from the eyes of a bug: what he desires, what are his thoughts and failings; how those in the house react to the bug who was once a loved family member. Kafka sentences are long-winded, but I enjoyed reading him again, having eons ago read The Trial. This story is haunting-- and somehow beautiful-- and not to be shunned. (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Joker
    This comic book origin story is filmed with operatic flourish. Unfortunately, as a hater of revenge and violence, and a fan of law and order, I wasn’t the target demographic. I waited for it to end, averting my eyes during the bloodshed and brutality, and tut-tutting its apparent incitement to anarchy. Joaquin Phoenix commits completely, and I mean completely, to the title role. To borrow the conclusion from the Guardian’s Pass Notes-- Don’t say: “More blood! More phlegm! More snot!” Do say: And the Oscar for Best Actor goes to…”
  • Stan & Ollie
    Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are in the twilight of their career, touring their music hall act around postwar Britain and Ireland. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly disappear into their roles, life imitates the duo’s slapstick art, and then the wives arrive: “Two double acts for the price of one” as a character remarks. It’s a delightful speculation, and ultimately moving as we witness the prickly bromance, and the end of professional lives well lived. (****)
  • Bohemian Rhapsody
    It may be undistinguished as a movie, but then there’s the weird, charismatic Freddie Mercury channeled by actor Rami Malek, some innovative visuals… and the music! (**)
  • Green Book
    Green Book follows a predictable path but, thanks to a superior script and inspired acting by the two leads, it’s fresh and absorbing. But then I'm a sucker for the chance to witness fellow humans exhibiting courage and overcoming their flaws to become better people. One moviegoing companion wasn’t in complete agreement, finding some parts too broad and cliched. Nevertheless, this popcorn-crowd-pleasing “movie” movie won Best Picture this year, so maybe Hollywood did institute a Best Popular Movie Oscar after all. (****)
  • Shoplifters
    This entertaining story of an urban Japanese family on the margins does what I always hope a movie might do: make us more understanding of the plight of others. (DVD) (***)

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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