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Books David Finished in 2023

  • Kestrel, James: Five Decembers (Hard Case Crime, 150)

    Kestrel, James: Five Decembers (Hard Case Crime, 150)
    This is an exceptional novel. It's published by Hard Case Crime, but that needn't put anyone off. It's a fantastic character study of the protagonist, who, yes, happens to be a detective, and that detective moves through some fascinating milieux: pre-Pearl Harbor Honolulu, Hong Kong just before and during the Japanese occupation, and Tokyo during the war. We come to care enough about this character and his quest, and the prose is sufficiently tight that we forget the few less than believable plot-turns. I was very happy to stumble on this one.

  • Shakespeare, William: Troilus and Cressida (Folger Shakespeare Library)

    Shakespeare, William: Troilus and Cressida (Folger Shakespeare Library)
    Two intertwining plotlines, one to do with love, one to do with war, and when the plotlines become intertwined things can't end well. Shakespearean language and wit are the icing on the cake, or maybe they are the cake. Because I was reading this with a student, I spent two many weeks turning the not very many pages which lessens the effect. I look forward to reading it again.

  • Russell, R. B.: Fifty Forgotten Books

    Russell, R. B.: Fifty Forgotten Books
    This is a superb memoir by the bibliophile, publisher, collector, author, musician, and full-time dabbler (his word), B.R Russell. It's an artful weaving together of the books he has read and collected with the life he has lived—of course they are not separable. (For the record, I knew [had not forgotten] eleven of the books he writes about and had read three of them).

  • Allingham, Margery: Mystery Mile (Albert Campion)

    Allingham, Margery: Mystery Mile (Albert Campion)
    In this, his second outing, Albert Campion has come to the fore, and it is, for that, a better novel than the first. I look forward to watching the character develop, and as the first book in the series came out in 1929, the last in 1970, he has a lot of years in which to grow and change. I'm eager to see how Campion with all his oddities deals with the swinging London he will encounter, but I'm several volumes away from that.

  • Ngugi, Mukoma Wa: Black Star Nairobi (Melville International Crime)

    Ngugi, Mukoma Wa: Black Star Nairobi (Melville International Crime)
    I picked this book up for the setting. Detective novels are a great way to get to know a city. I wish the detectives had spent all their time in Kenya's capital, but to my surprise, events took them to both Californias, Baja and Del Norte. The novel didn't suffer for that, but did leave me wanting more Nairobi, so perhaps I'll go on to what I've only just figured out is the first novel in the series. An oddity of the book is that the bad guys are part of an organization that is in every way like an extreme Communist cell in their belief that their ideal makes a few, a few hundred, or a few thousand deaths justifiable. I wonder why Ngugi decided not to make the baddies communists.

  • Kobek, Jarett: I Hate the Internet

    Kobek, Jarett: I Hate the Internet
    "Literary fiction was a term used by the upper classes," Jarrett Kobek writes, "to suggest books which paired pointless sex with ruminations on the nature of mortgages were of greater merit than books which paired pointless sex with guns and violence." Kobek's I Hate the Internet is neither literary fiction nor, by his own admission, a good novel. For that, we must be grateful. It is a screed filled with astute and pointed observations of the society in which we've ended up, and bitter good humor (think late George Carlin). Read it and weep. And laugh.

  • Austen, Jane: Persuasion: (Peacock Edition)

    Austen, Jane: Persuasion: (Peacock Edition)
    After having considered sense, sensibility, pride, and prejudice, Jane Austen gives us, in her final completed novel, persuasion. One is struck, once again, about how for all that her novels end with marriages, most of the marriages shown and anticipated are not blissfully happy. There are exceptions like the Admiral and his lady in this novel, and, we assume, Anne and Captain Wentworth, but on the whole we see couples who do not seem well-matched stumbling into matrimony together. Likewise, in this, perhaps the darkest of Austen's novels, we see a great deal of hypocrisy and unearned arrogance, frivolity, and thoughtlessness. Austen was a satirist and looked at her society with a gimlet eye. I'll miss her penetrating gaze, so I suppose next it's on the juvenalia and false starts for me since life without Austen is unappealing, and it's a bit too soon to start a reread.

  • Celestin, Ray: Sunset Swing (4) (City Blues Quartet)

    Celestin, Ray: Sunset Swing (4) (City Blues Quartet)
    Some time ago I read a review of Ray Celestin's Sunset Swing. The review convinced me that, as I'm a connoisseur of LA noir, it was definitely a novel I wanted to read. I also learned from the review that it was the fourth novel in what I guess is called the "City Blues Quartet," so I figured I'd better read the initial three volumes first. I did, and now having completed the fourth, I am convinced that the novels, which move from New Orleans to New York to Chicago to Los Angeles, are together a fantastic achievement, and also that Sunset Swing is a suitable crown, the strongest of four very good books, made strong partially by the patient work Celestin has done setting things up as the series moves along. The characters who populate the books (including a trumpeter named Louis Armstrong), which cover more than thirty years, are mostly either old or dead at the end of Sunset Swing, but Celestin has left a thread he could pull—a young protégé of a seventy-year-old detective—if he decides he wants to keep the ball rolling. If he does, I'm there for it.

  • Austen, Jane: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume V: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion

    Austen, Jane: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume V: Northanger Abbey and Persuasion
    This volume contains Jane Austen's last two completed novels, Northanger Abbey and Persuasion. I'll write here about Northanger Abbey. I had always thought of it as being my least favorite Austen novel. Now I wonder if it might be my favorite in a very strong field. I enjoyed the fun Austen has with novel-reading and its consequences, the pastiche of the gothic she provides, the mockery she makes of the mansplaining Thorne, and of course the elegant prose and brilliant construction. I've even come to enjoy the manner in which she picks up the pace in the last few pages to get her heroine happily married. Austen, it seems, understands that the happy marriage––a foregone conclusion from the beginning––is far from being the most important part of her creation. Looking forward to Persuasion.

  • Haynes, Natalie: A Thousand Ships: A Novel

    Haynes, Natalie: A Thousand Ships: A Novel
    One cannot tell the story of a war, Calliope notes in Natalie Haynes's A Thousand Ships, while ignoring half of those who live through it—or die because of it. A Thousand Ships is an account of the Trojan War, but told entirely from the perspective of the women who, with a couple of exceptions, are barely there in Homer. These voices were missing, and Haynes's skill in bringing them to life gives us an absolute tour de force. A Thousand Ships is an exceptional addition to the canon.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • McEwan, Ian: On Chesil Beach

    McEwan, Ian: On Chesil Beach
    This short novel (about a middle-class couple courting in 1950s UK) is a penetrating character study, a revealing portrait of recent history and attitudes, and a lyrical view of a corner of rural Oxfordshire. (***)

  • Michael Chabon: Wonder Boys

    Michael Chabon: Wonder Boys
    Rollicking, tongue-in-cheek saga of a failing writer and, in his own view, failing human being in present-day Pennsylvania, told to sometimes great comic effect, and with plenty of wry home truths about the urge to create, academia, love, drugs, self-delusion, and the general navigation of human life. A delight from cover to cover. (****)

  • Pico Iyer: A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations

    Pico Iyer: A Beginner's Guide to Japan: Observations and Provocations
    This short book – a series of quotes and observations -- was opaque but never dull: very little made sense to me, but here and there I glimpsed a Japan I know. (**)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible

    Barbara Kingsolver: The Poisonwood Bible
    I read novels to be caught up in great stories and characters, and to experience new things. I might experience a different time period; perhaps a different life path to contrast with my own. The Poisonwood Bible offered me a whole continent, culture and way of life, plus a slice of unknown (to me) history in this tale of an American missionary who takes his wife and daughters to a jungle village in the Belgian Congo/Zaire just prior to independence. It was one of the richest and most enjoyable reading experiences of my life. (*****)

  • Ian McEwan: Lessons

    Ian McEwan: Lessons
    What a wonderful novel this is: a man’s life in post-war Britain from cradle to age. Writing and structure as smooth as silk, with glorious psychological insights that I might have had about my own life if I was as smart as the protagonist. The most enjoyable novel I’ve read since Franzen’s Crossroads. McEwan has written so much great stuff. This feels like a culmination. I’d love more, of course, but I thank him for all he has given us. (*****)

  • Hugh Walpole: The Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories
    This is a varied collection of short stories, including ghost, horror and comedy, written in the 1920s by a then-popular British writer. They are entertaining, rich with description, and are of course of their time, shot through with the fine distinctions--today diluted but still in place--of Britain's class system. I think the greatest difference from contemporary writing is the condescension toward some of the characters: “little Jack Harding left his little house in Ealing for the Charing Cross Road where he had a little bookshop.” The writer and his readers must have enjoyed feeling superior to these weak men and risible women. (**)
  • Rose Tremain: The Gustav Sonata

    Rose Tremain: The Gustav Sonata
    The story is of two Swiss families during World War II, and the peril of and prejudice against Jewish residents and evacuees even in neutral Switzerland. It also follows the lives of the families’ two only children. There is great realism and empathy here. The storytelling is propulsive, and is quite a feat in itself: sprinkling enough clues so the conclusion makes sense, but not enough to tip off the surprise. Enjoyable. And moving. (****)

  • Michael Chabon: The Final Solution

    Michael Chabon: The Final Solution
    1944: a legendary detective, living out his retirement in the English countryside, cannot help becoming involved in a case of murder, mystery and a missing parrot. This novella is dense and requires concentration, and is rewarding for all that. An afterword by the author, calling for a wider view of literature, is as good as the book itself. (***)

  • Ann Patchett: The Patron Saint of Liars

    Ann Patchett: The Patron Saint of Liars
    Set from the 1930s to the 1970s, this story of a mother, a father, a daughter and a Catholic hostel for unwed mothers in rural USA covers a lot of ground, but is unfocused and plodding, and finally unsatisfying. Does this debut novel have anything to suggest the brilliance of its author’s later masterpieces? Yes: empathy and extreme daring. (**)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer

    Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer
    On farmland in southern Appalachia on the edge of National Forest mountainside, teeming with animal, vegetable and human prey and predator, local inhabitants and outsiders clash, come to terms and strive for survival. Wonderful characters and a story that is realistic, bracing and sensual, and bursting with love and anger. Overall, this novel is a wise and ecstatic celebration of life and nature, human and otherwise. (*****)

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

  • Living
    The original “Ikuru”, made and set in postwar Tokyo, is about a bureaucrat facing his impending death. This remake, “Living,” set in postwar London, stays close to the original. I found it plodding but at the same time rushed with a lot of telling: verbal summaries instead of the way things were shown in the original for us to come to our own conclusions about. My moviegoing companions were less critical, so I suspect this version plays better without the comparison. But there is another major difference between the two movies. The original is centrally a critique of society with the individual redemption serving that theme. This has the opposite emphasis, and I think it’s the weaker for it. (Theater) (**)
  • Everything Everywhere All At Once
    Marvel-type multiverse madness in contemporary suburban US, centered on Michelle Yeoh (excellent, playing off her career to date) and a game supporting cast. I didn’t even try to make sense of what went on, and didn’t laugh once at the comedy. A long slog for no discernable reward. A movie clearly not made for me. (Theater IMAX; no stars)
  • The Fabelmans
    Spielberg gives us apparent memories of childhood with nuanced portraits of his mother and father. It doesn’t add up to much more than that--though it does take in antisemitism, and the lesser position of women in family and society--but for him to memorialize his parents and draw his early life in the context of being brought up by them was a ride I enjoyed going on. Modest to a fault, its only indulgence is an unnecessarily long running time. (Theater) (***)
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
    In a small island community off Ireland, as civil war rumbles on the mainland, a friendship turns bitter. On reflection, this might have been an allegory about the stupidity and intransigence of the two sides in the civil war. I didn’t warm to the story and movie; a friend loved it; another friend was ambivalent. (Theater) (*)
  • She Said
    This is a version of the true story of how two intrepid journalists at The New York Times brought the seemingly untouchable movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to account. It’s a compelling tale of extreme courage, and an uncomfortable but valuable window on how women may suffer personally and professionally at the hands of toxic male power. Eye-opening, and an excellent film on every level. (Theater) (****)

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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