Books David Finished in 2019

  • 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.

  • Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 (Perennial Fiction Library)

    Thomas Pynchon: The Crying of Lot 49 (Perennial Fiction Library)
    Pynchon's first novel, it hardly needs to be said, is very good. And he only got better. There are laugh-out-loud bits, but Oedipa's nighttime wander through the city chills you to the bone, and the ending is one of the best conclusions you'll come across (spoiler: Lot 49 isn't cried). An auspicious start to a great career. When's his next novel coming out?

  • Rex Stout: Nero Wolfe Mystery - Death of a Doxy

    Rex Stout: Nero Wolfe Mystery - Death of a Doxy
    Because who wouldn't want to read a mystery featuring an overweight orchid-loving beer-guzzling gourmet and learn new words like "doxy."

  • Terry Ann Carter: Tokaido
    An artful account in poetry and prose (the form is called haibun) of Hiroshige's experience of the Tokaido, one of Japan's great roads, intertwined with those of a modern poet who may or may not be Terry Ann Carter. I would quote from it, but I've passed the book on to a friend who is currently walking the Tokaido and passed through my town in the course of his journey.
  • Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood

    Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood
    Flannery O'Connor was a believing and practicing Catholic, and she wanted her reader to know it. "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has," she remarked, "been a stumbling block to some who prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence." That belief in Christ has been tremendously consequential for the world has to be accepted—mostly for the malign influence the Church and its minions have had—but that, of course, is not what O'Connor means. It's hard to know exactly what she does mean, though, because in her Southern Gothic world religion and both the pursuit of it and the retreat from it seem to give rise to horrors. One must add, though, that the horrors are often tremendously funny, for as O'Connor also reminds us, this is a comic novel, though she adds that "all comic novels that are any good must be about matter of life and death." Have a laugh, marvel at the warped creatures O'Connor's imagination has conjured, and think about the comic, tragic vision of the world and belief that she presents.

  • Gregory Dunne: Other/Wise

    Gregory Dunne: Other/Wise
    Poetry can sing for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is precisely a poet's lack of wisdom that does the trick. The poems to which a confused mind in the throes of agony and ecstasy and never anything in between gives rise can be howls beautiful, terrible, and altogether compelling. Gregory Dunne, in Other/Wise, doesn't do this. Rather, unlike the collections of howls, which are often the books of young men and women, and which are sometimes made very bad by the chaos that might have made them great, Dunne writes from a place of settled experience. He—one assumes the speaker of the poems is Dunne—has come out the other side, and is now looking back, surveying the life he has lived and the present the life he has lived has given him. The book is filled with memories of parents, friends, and people he has known. These poems are sometimes sentimental, but never in a way that is cloying, as in "Visiting," where he recalls hearing, on a visit home, his father, sitting in a La-Z Boy, " . . . calling out / to his wife - Good night, love! - / helping me to hear / how those words fall / into the familiar / order of their lives / as quietly as snow / falls through the night / and fills the surrounding mountains / with the approaching / white water rivers of spring." The rhythm which Dunne skillfully insinuates into his words moves us at a stately pace. The river, not calm but raging, gives the poem a welcome turn. There are poems about the news, about the poet's children, about art, and much else. What binds them is the quiet confidence Dunne has, and the contemplative view he takes of the world and with which he infuses his poems. There are no howls here, but there is poetry that satisfies in a quieter way.

  • Joy Waller: Pause :: Heartbeat
    We barely need to hear any more that people can make lives in Tokyo and Japan that consist of the same ingredients as lives elsewhere: work, family, friends, play. And we certainly no longer need to hear about weird and exotic Japan: that's mostly Western media fantasy anyway. In Joy Waller's Pause :: Heartbeat she gives us in poems written in a variety of styles, a side of Tokyo and Japan which those who read in English (but don't live here) may be less aware of: streets, night, sex, drugs—and the love, ecstasy, and pain that can be found there—are prominent. Of course the Beats, who would seem to be a primary influence on Waller, wrote lots of poems about the various ecstasies, licit and illicit, that they were experiencing, but the males among them got most of the attention, and well, boys screwing around, at the end of the day, isn't really all that radical. What is refreshing here is that the female protagonist of many of Waller's poems (who may or may not be identical with their author) does her screwing around with the same matter-of-factness as the Beat bros. But what poems are about is never where the real action is. It's what poems are that is interesting, and the good news is that Waller's poems are well-made. She favors short lines, and is skilled at knowing where to divide up an image/line for maximum effect. Like this, for example, a poem called "Blank Space": tear / the anniversaries / from your mind / like sheets / of white paper / from an unused pad: this / is when / that didn't / happen
  • Barry Eisler: Livia Lone (A Livia Lone Novel Book 1)

    Barry Eisler: Livia Lone (A Livia Lone Novel Book 1)
    Because I'm addicted to Barry Eisler's thrillers.

  • Alan Botsford: mamaist: a different sort of light

    Alan Botsford: mamaist: a different sort of light
    Poets sometimes become so smitten with a style that they start to write all their poems in that style. That, of course, is a trap. The second trap happens when they write poems that leave one, after the last line is read, with nothing: nothing to think about, nothing memorable, not a belly laugh, a giggle, or a grimace. Alan Botsford, in his most recent mamaist tome, subtitled "a different sort of light" falls into neither of these traps, writing in a variety of styles and leaving us with poems that remain in memory. He calls some of his mamaist work "generic poems," by which he means poems that use "generic" langauge—everyday words and phrases—and twists them in a way that refreshes them. It's the creativity and wit in some of these poems that, I think, will stay with me the longest. And this is the last book I will finish reading in the Heisei Era.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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. (***)

  • Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis

    Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis
    Opening sentence: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning… he found himself transformed… into some sort of monstrous insect.” OK. So I guess this is either a horror story or an allegory, but to me it underwhelmed on both counts. (*)

  • Donna Tartt: The Secret History

    Donna Tartt: The Secret History
    I read this on the strength of “The Goldfinch”. Like that book, the story is rooted in the deep knowledge of a cultural field, in this case Greek language and literature. Empty calories, repetitive, but a reliable companion for many weeks that never wore out its welcome. And then, brilliant writer that she is, Tartt writes an epilogue of such charm and humor that it leaves you wanting more. (***)

  • Roald Dahl: Matilda

    Roald Dahl: Matilda
    Matilda is a perfectly delightful children’s story about a perfectly delightful child. A real treat. (*****)

  • Cesare Pavese: The Beautiful Summer

    Cesare Pavese: The Beautiful Summer
    In an Italian city, mid-20th century, a 16-year-old girl lives the ecstasy and agony of adolescence and adolescent love. This frenzied, disorganized, hyper-realistic recounting echoes Elena Ferrante’s more leisurely and detailed account in the first of her Neapolitan novels, which only confirmed that, yes, this is how it must have been there and then. (**)

Books Mark read recently

  • 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. (*****)

  • Louis Sachar: Holes

    Louis Sachar: Holes
    A fun full length novel for young readers. A boy is charged with a crime (stealing some sneakers) and for punishment is sent to a camp on a dry lake to dig holes. He meets other boys his own age who are truly delinquent, and learns though is own cleverness how to handle them. A subplot features the story of the relationship of a black man and a white woman who lived on the lake a hundred years ago. How does their story connect to the current one? (*****)

  • Roald Dahl: Matilda

    Roald Dahl: Matilda
    This is a funny and inspirational book for young people. I suppose readers might be anywhere from 9 to 12 years-old. This year I will turn 60, and I loved the book. It's the story of a young girl--Matilda, who is super smart--who endures an unloving family and no one who takes her seriously except for her teacher, Mrs. Honey. (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • 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) (****)
  • The Favourite
    England, early 1700s. A venal, lonely monarch easily swayed by her appetites and weaknesses. It’s a sumptuous, imaginative, deliciously profane staging with wonderful acting but, with no sympathetic characters or dramatic arc, it became rather a slog. Watching the debauched, laughable culture made me wonder how future generations will judge our present excesses, which are probably no less ludicrous. Now, finding that it was based on a true story makes me eager to read Queen Anne’s Wikipedia page. (***)
  • I Am Not Your Negro
    Among the Trumpian trees, you lose sight of the forest, so it’s enlightening to be transported back to mid 20th Century US to witness the forest on fire: the seeming impasse of race relations at the time of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. We witness this agony through the eyes and mind of James Baldwin, whose wisdom was among the reasons the fire has receded. This beautifully rendered documentary and history lesson is worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time. It will make you grateful to be living today rather than yesterday, while making it clear how much more work there is to be done. (I was lucky to watch on the big screen [at Jack & Betty, the revival house in Yokohama]). Jack & Betty: http://www.jackandbetty.net (****)

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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