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Books David Finished in 2021

  • Rickman, Phil: The Smile of a Ghost (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)

    Rickman, Phil: The Smile of a Ghost (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)
    Another good one from Phil Rickman. He really doesn’t like psychiatrists, and he doesn’t think much of lawyers, either.

  • Joritz-Nakagawa, Jane: Plan B Audio

    Joritz-Nakagawa, Jane: Plan B Audio
    The genesis of a book of poems must be, one imagines, somehow different from the genesis of a single poem. The genesis of this collection is the cancer through which the poet, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa has lived, through which she did not die. This is not clear from the first poems in the collection, but becomes stark as the series progresses. One imagines this reflects Joritz-Nakagawa’s initial confusion at what is happening to her body and then the harsh knowledge of her situation. There are cryptic couplets, haiku-like tercets, and a range of other containers for the experiences the poet has, the images that fill her mind. Her vision of hospital life is bleak: “This is a hospital so someone must die.” That the poet published this book suggests a happy ending. The poem does not offer one.

  • Beckett, Samuel: The Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett: Volume III of The Grove Centenary Editions (Works of Samuel Beckett the Grove Centenary Editions)

    Beckett, Samuel: The Dramatic Works of Samuel Beckett: Volume III of The Grove Centenary Editions (Works of Samuel Beckett the Grove Centenary Editions)
    Drama is the literary avenue in which I am the least interested and about which I am the least knowledgeable (surely those phenomena are connected). The only playwrights in whom I’ve ever been fascinated by are William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett, whose complete dramatic works I’ve just finished reading. I can only agree with Edward Albee, who writes in the in the introduction to this volume: “You have before you one of the most important books of the second half of the twentieth century.” And what a treat it is to be able to take a step away from the page and toward the stage thanks to the many fine performances to be found on YouTube.

  • Takamura, Kaoru: Lady Joker, Volume 1

    Takamura, Kaoru: Lady Joker, Volume 1
    Some. The marketing for this book gives the impression that it is a crime novel. It is, but more than that it’s a state of Japan novel, not just today, but for the last eighty or so years. It is exhaustive. We read hundreds of pages about the marginal characters who will eventually commit the crime that is at the novel’s center. We come to understand the frustration they feel at having been shunt to the side. Then, once the crime at the novel’s center is committed—the target is a major brewery; think Kirin—the focus shifts to the corporation, the police and the press and their response to the crime, and that is treated, too, with painstaking attention to detail. This scrupulousness can slow the narrative down, but in the end it is rewarding. Actually, though, “in the end” may not be the most apt phrase, for we’ve only reached the end of the first volume. The second is still being translated. I look forward to publication day.

  • Hoare, Philip: Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant

    Hoare, Philip: Serious Pleasures: The Life of Stephen Tennant
    In his biography of Stephen Tennant, Philip Hoare writes of the British reaction to this forgotten aesthete: [their] appreciation of someone who had not tried too hard, who was not a success, but rather an amateur, more especially appealing because of his presumed eccentricity." Add that he was rich, flamboyantly gay, and seemed to live exactly as he wished, and the almost unbelievable Stephen Tennant, who achieved very little in his life--the great work, a novel called Lascar, was never finished--somehow becomes a fascinating character. A great deal of credit for that should go to the biographer first for determining to write a biography of a figure who can only be seen as minor, and then for convincing us that the oddball is worth knowing about. This biography is more seriously pleasure-filled than many a tome about a great man.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Prayer of the Night Shepherd (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 6)

    Rickman, Phil: The Prayer of the Night Shepherd (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 6)
    Merrily continues her conflicts with the bad, both supernatural and otherwise. Tightly written thrillers.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Cure of Souls (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 4)

    Rickman, Phil: The Cure of Souls (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 4)
    Whoops. I read this before The Lamp of the Wicked, but forgot to enter it. It was a good one taking place in hop growing country. It leans a bit too heavily on romanticized gypsy lore, but was fun to read nevertheless.

  • Beckett, Samuel: Novels I of Samuel Beckett: Volume I of The Grove Centenary Editions (Works of Samuel Beckett the Grove Centenary Editions)

    Beckett, Samuel: Novels I of Samuel Beckett: Volume I of The Grove Centenary Editions (Works of Samuel Beckett the Grove Centenary Editions)
    Having finished the late novels a little while ago, I went back to read the earlier ones. Murphy, Watt, and Mercier and Camier are all a delight and remind us what literature can do while also hinting at the heights Beckett would reach in the later fiction. Mercier and Camier, for its laugh out loud evocations of Laurel & Hardy and Abbot & Costello is the closest to my heart. Now I think I’ll go read a mundane account of Brooklyn hipsters in a failing marriage or a mid-Westerner who has become uncertain that his sky god is there for him all evoked in the most pedestrian of prose imaginable—not!

  • Rickman, Phil: The Lamp of the Wicked (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)

    Rickman, Phil: The Lamp of the Wicked (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)
    In for a dime, in for a dollar, I guess. If one is willing to suspend disbelief to the extent that one can, in order to enjoy a good story, accept the sort of supernatural entities that would make an exorcist necessary then I guess one can also accept that that the various rays occasioned by the transmission of electricity and cell phone signals are a serious threat to us and can also give rise to sensations that mimic those thought to be caused by he who shall not be named. The Lamp of the Wicked, even with the woo, is a good story and I will read on in the saga.

  • 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.

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

  • Minari
    An Asian immigrant family repair to rural Arkansas for their shot at the American dream. The story arc is drama as documentary, "Nomadland"-style: leisurely, observant, surprising, involving, finally satisfying. Watching it is time well spent. (DVD) (***)
  • Nomadland
    This deft blend of documentary and drama is about some people on the margins in America. At the center is actor Frances McDormand, who is here both enigmatic and charismatic. It’s a Rorschach ink blot of a movie. You will be drawn into its leisurely ambiguity, or not, to think about whatever you are attuned to: the glories of nature; economic injustice; friendship and family; the vulnerability of women; the pleasures and pains of being on the road. Or perhaps there will be a personal resonance, as the events depicted are above all true to life. (Stream) (***)
  • (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) (*****)

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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