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[this is good] the "warm tatami" image in your haiku on the end said more to me than the many words that came before - nicely done

Only a Blockhead


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Books David Finished in 2022

  • Celestin, Ray: The Axeman

    Celestin, Ray: The Axeman
    A novel about a serial killer in which Louis Armstrong is a character seemed a bit too precious. I finally succumbed, though, when I learned that the fourth novel in the quartet of which this is the first is set in Los Angeles, and is reputed to be a tour de force. The good news is that Satchmo (still "Lil Lewis" in this novel) is a minor, albeit well-done, character who doesn't distract from the other denizens of the novel's New Orleans, the well-executed plot, or the exquisite prose of author Ray Celestin. I'm looking forward to continuing through the quartet, each book of which takes place in a different city, each a stop in the migrations of the African diaspora in North America.

  • Adair, Gilbert: A Closed Book

    Adair, Gilbert: A Closed Book
    I nearly closed this book (ahem) halfway through, but just a page or two after the halfway point the penny dropped. Once I got what Adair was doing he had me. One wishes Hitchcock was still around to make a film of this, though so much takes place on the page it wouldn't have been an easy translation.It's the story of a writer who is not only blind but eyeless and the amanuensis he hires to help him complete what he believes will be his last book. But maybe the helper is not only there to help. And maybe he's not the only one recording the writer's words.

  • Twight, Mark F.: Poison: Sermons on Suffering
    I hate self-help books, and really, the whole concept of "self-help" as it seems generally to be understood, so I could try to finesse this by calling Poison a book of essays or philosophy. I wouldn't be lying if I did, but Twight's pieces *are* essays that are intended to help people live better lives, so yeah, self-help, I guess. What enabled me to make my way through more than 400 pages of these sermons? First, I admire the author, Mark Twight, a world-renowned climber. I respect what he did in the mountains, which was, as he boils it down, trying to see how light he could go. He also explored how long he—and by extension, we—could go, climbing continuously for 24, then 40, then 60 hours, breaking records and nabbing first ascents along the way. I find this sort of achievement easier to admire than the qualifications that self-help gurus usually boast (gave a TedX talk, got a YouTube Creator award . . . ). Then there's the fact that Twight is not about offering easy answers—all you have to do is: get rid of a bunch of stuff, quit eating gluten, sit on a cushion and space out for fifteen minutes a day, journal every morning . . . . He says stuff like: "Sometimes I get sick. / Mostly other people make me sick. / They don't give me germs. / They give me poison. / They poison me with their excuses.Their laziness. They want the result without the work. / They believe their desire can change the nature of things. / Just because they want it. / Suddenly." Those last three lines sound a lot like the advise of a lot self-help hucksters, all those Deepak Chopraites and believers in "The Secret." I like that Twight is as disgusted with that sort of guff as I am. I like the way that Twight tells his truths, too: "Style is the man himself," as some Frenchman said. I may have mentioned in my review of Twight's Kiss or Kill that he's very much school of Bukowski as filtered through punk rock (the soundtrack for many of his climbs). Finally, though Twight is much more goal-driven than me, and his goals are not mine, his advice is sensible and bracing in its harshness: Not clean your room or—Lord pickle and preserve me—make your bed, but push yourself harder than you have ever pushed yourself, harder than you ever believed you could push yourself. That's inspiring and maybe helpful advice.
  • Johnson, Joyce: Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir

    Johnson, Joyce: Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir
    This is a much better book about the Beat milieu than On the Road. I'm glad that Johnson never took Kerouac's advice that she shouldn't revise, and that her model as a writer was James (Henry) and not Jack. The memoir does lag a bit when she's recounting the year-and-a-half or so that she was involved with Kerouac. That's how profoundly uninteresting he is. That she never really calls him out for being the shit that he was says a lot for her maturity and balance. It may also speak to Kerouac's charisma: he does seem to have charmed a lot of people.

  • Kerouac, Jack: On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics)

    Kerouac, Jack: On the Road (Penguin Modern Classics)
    The great mystery is why this mediocre book is so widely loved by so many people who should know better. The prose, for all Kerouac's blathering on about his technique, or lack thereof, is profoundly uninteresting. (It's telling that fans who quote from this book always quote the same line: "The only people that interest me . . . .") The "minor characters" as Joyce Johnson in her much better book of that title might have called them—women, Mexicans, Blacks, country people—are patronized, and for all the furious trips back and forth across the country, the novel is strangely static. A friend recently remarked that it really belongs in the YA section, but even there it would be outclassed. Beat poetry > Beat prose.

  • Sayers, Dorothy L.: Clouds of Witness: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)

    Sayers, Dorothy L.: Clouds of Witness: A Lord Peter Wimsey Mystery (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries)
    Two books in and Harriet Vane has yet to appear. I don't know if her appearance will make the books better or worse. I seem to dislike English jocular slightly less than I have in the past.

  • Doolittle, Hilda: Helen in Egypt: Poetry (New Directions Books)

    Doolittle, Hilda: Helen in Egypt: Poetry (New Directions Books)
    Quality mysteries, thrillers, and science fiction; Victorian novels; high modernist poetry and fiction: This is how my taste runs these days. H.D.'s anti-epic, Helen in Egypt, falls into the last category, and is profoundly satisfying for the way it draws us into the mysteries that Helen, in the poem, attempts to unravel. Among these conundrums: was she present at Troy, how did she end up in Egypt, why did Achilles attempt to strangle her when—maybe—they were already dead. H.D.'s imagism owes more to tanka than to Tennyson and is all the better for that. The language dances and sings without recourse to crude devices. It's worth a reread, another reread, and a deep-dive into the criticism. I'm glad I talked my graduate student into focusing on this.

  • Cherryh, C. J.: Inheritor (Foreigner series Book 3)

    Cherryh, C. J.: Inheritor (Foreigner series Book 3)
    The third in the series satisfies, but as its ending is in no way conclusive it's not a surprise to find that the series goes on (and on and on). I'm not complaining. I'll probably continue, though not right away, mostly because the characters, even the non-human ones, are engaging. That I still can't really get a grasp of Atevi politics is not enough to deter me. I'm pretty sure the protagonist, through whose consciousness we experience this world, doesn't entirely get them either. (And yes, another cheesy cover.)

  • Nguyen, Viet Thanh: The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)

    Nguyen, Viet Thanh: The Sympathizer: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)
    This book came out in 2015. It’s sequel came out last year. I read a review that made me want to read that sequel, but figured I’d better read the first volume first. The result of doing so is that I probably won’t go on to read the sequel. The Sympathizer is okay, perceptive about life as a divided person and life in the Vietnamese refugee community, but somehow, at this late date, the perceptions don’t seem terribly fresh. I become increasingly convinced that contemporary literary fiction is just not for me.

  • le Carré, John: Call for the Dead: A George Smiley Novel

    le Carré, John: Call for the Dead: A George Smiley Novel
    A favorite author, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, wrote an excellent article about John le Carré in which he convinced me that I really should delve into the work of that legendary writer more deeply than I had. I'm glad he did. His protagonist, the ironically named Smiley, is a marvelous protagonist: intelligent, morose, erudite, and depressed: He is human. Through Smiley we revisit the Cold War: Russia and East Germany are enemies, but communism is not without its attractions. The game is afoot, and Smiley, in his plodding way, is in the thick of it. I'm glad there are several more books in the series.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Jonathan Franzen: Crossroads

    Jonathan Franzen: Crossroads
    Midwest US, early 1970s. A middle-class family--pastor father, enabling mother, kids Clem, Becky, Perry, Judson--navigate the counterculture and the religious beliefs offered as guides to the chaos of life, then as now. Intriguingly labyrinthine construction; penetrating psychological analysis. Funny, empathetic, thought provoking, unpredictable, smoothly and simply readable, Crossroads is a thing of beauty. (*****)

  • William Trevor: The Collected Stories

    William Trevor: The Collected Stories
    Over 1000 pages of nearly 100 short stories about ordinary people written from the 1960s to 1980s and set almost without exception in contemporary times. Characters are drawn with realism and depth. Stories, equally realistic, hold the interest and frequently surprise. Many are set in rural Ireland and I don’t know if they show their age. The very few that include gay male characters exhibit stereotypes, thankfully outdated now but a reflection of their times. I thank Elisabeth Strout for recommending Trevor, and indeed their work shares acuity, veracity, and extraordinary compassion. They are both gifted storytellers, and a great pleasure to read. (***)

  • Ann Patchett: The Dutch House

    Ann Patchett: The Dutch House
    A story about an extraordinary house, a brother and sister’s relationship, and the vagaries of family life in postwar, middle-class America. Upon that skeleton, Patchett lays characters and story arcs of great verisimilitude. Gorgeously constructed, mostly engrossing, finally moving, this is a deeply satisfying read. (****)

  • Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road

    Anne Tyler: Redhead by the Side of the Road
    To me, this slight story of the day-to-day life of a middle-aged man in contemporary suburban US was as one-note and clunky as the main character. Either I missed out, or author not on form. (Great [and misleading] noir-ish title!) (*)

  • Kate Atkinson: Life After Life

    Kate Atkinson: Life After Life
    A family lives through and between the World Wars. It’s a loving portrait of middle-class England, and it is pitch-perfect in capturing the arch, entitled, yet entirely benign banter of the middle classes before they found out in the 1960s that they were no longer unchallenged top dog. Most of all, this novel is an extraordinary tour-de-force of structure. It’s wise, wryly funny, and a great pleasure to read. Pleasure as in satisfaction rather than joy--the vivid recreation of the horror of both the WWII London Blitz and the fall of Berlin gives a sense of how it must be for some in Ukraine at this moment. (*****)

  • Lauren Groff: Matrix

    Lauren Groff: Matrix
    An odd book. It’s a bildungsroman of a medieval woman of royal birth who is sent to a nunnery, but after that it gets contrary. It’s religious and agnostic; realistic and mystical; spiritual and carnal, historical and modern…. Most of all it’s feminist in a wonderfully eye-opening (to this male) way. I began the novel with no particular interest in the characters, but the author clearly loves them so much that she only wishes good for them. That unusual generosity entirely won me over. At the end, I moved the book off my lap so tears would not stain it. If I may be contrary as well, a three-star masterpiece. (***)

  • Oliver Burkeman: Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use it

    Oliver Burkeman: Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use it
    I always enjoy Oliver Burkeman’s self-help suggestions, often eye-opening and helpful, always deftly delivered with humor. His latest book, purportedly about time management, is actually an examination of how to manage life as a human. It guides us through our mistaken beliefs about time and our relation to it, and the counter-productive thought patterns and actions we take as a result. It doesn’t stop there: Burkeman shines a light on the calm, creative, loving space that appears when we face the realities of human life. I am grateful for the many valuable insights, plus it’s an easy, fun read. File this one under “Practical Philosophy.” (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Oh William!

    Elizabeth Strout: Oh William!
    New York: a recent widow relates her memories of a former husband as they discover family secrets in rural Maine. Just as you must master representational art to be able to make abstract, you must be a solid conventional writer to write as artlessly as the narrator of Oh William! It continues Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible, but can stand alone as well. It is most pleasurable for its razor-sharp psychological observation, and for the vulnerability of characters we can empathize with. A delight to read. (****)

  • Khaled Hosseini: And the Mountains Echoed

    Khaled Hosseini: And the Mountains Echoed
    Absorbing, kaleidoscopic account of family relationships over several generations, centered on Afghanistan falling into chaos. Psychologically acute, epic in scope, the ending moved me to tears. (****)

  • Rose Tremain: Islands of Mercy

    Rose Tremain: Islands of Mercy
    1865. In the spa town of Bath, England, and in the jungles of Borneo, divers individuals attempt to find a way in life. Through engaging characters and propulsive storytelling with compelling twists and surprises, we get a credible recreation of Victorian life and mentality, with its full-on racial and sexual prejudices and inequalities that continue to blight our lives. I haven’t read Rose Tremain before, and really enjoyed this. (****)

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

  • Licorice Pizza
    Rambling self-indulgent slice of it’s-funny-‘cos-it’s-true about growing up white and or Jewish in LA in the 1970s, a time when men felt entitled to behave even more shittily than they do now. Unfocused. Overlong. Mostly likeable. (**)
  • Encanto
    This Disney animation is a modern fairy tale for all ages set in Colombia, South America, with fun characters and catchy music. I think the moral is “be yourself.” Frenetic enough to require multiple viewings. (DVD) (***)
  • Top Gun Maverick
    Summer 2022’s premier popcorn movie (we noted a lot of popcorn in the audience) works in itself as a nail-biting actioner with an emotional story. It works as a sequel reprise of the story and the action. And IMAX might just pull you in so you actually forget where you are…. For this winning celebration of summer and its movies, we thank ageless Tom Cruise and the 10,000 people the credits tell us worked on this. (*****)
  • C'mon C'mon
    This is a weird one. If there’s a story, it’s a man trying to take care of his sister’s out-of-control kid. It seems largely improvised, and is spliced with quotations from books, and documentary-style sound-bites of young people talking about life and speculating about the future. Joaquin Phoenix’ acting has been tainted for me by his over-the-top turn as the Joker. The whole seemed an empty exercise, and it was difficult to watch a kid being unhappily contrary. P.S. For some reason, it’s in black-and-white. P.P.S. The friends I watched it with all loved it. (Streaming) (*)
  • Belfast
    Belfast, Northern Ireland, late 1960s. Branagh takes on a huge challenge here--nothing less than recreating a childhood--and he pretty much succeeds with this love letter to a time and place, to family, and to movies, that finds the humor and everydayness in what essentially became a war zone. It’s a film about many things, not least the gut-wrenching challenges of staying safe and making ends meet, but most of all, I think, it’s a loving ode to his parents for raising him, for making the best of it, and for being their beautiful, flawed selves. (Streaming) (****)

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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