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Books David Finished in 2020

  • Highsmith, Patricia: The Boy Who Followed Ripley

    Highsmith, Patricia: The Boy Who Followed Ripley
    Ripley acquires a son of sorts, a stripling who has just committed his first murder. Ripley, who has murdered a few times by this point in his life, attempts to show the lad how one moves on from these little unpleasantnesses, but things do not end well—though they do end—for the young killer. Ripley fails as a father figure and returns to his sybaritic and undeniably pleasant life with the beautiful, undemanding, and not at all moralistic Heliose. And we’re happy that the pathological Mr. Ripley is able to do so.

  • Highsmith, Patricia: Ripley's Game

    Highsmith, Patricia: Ripley's Game
    I’m of an age to remember when existentialism was a thing. Not only was every undergraduate with any intellectual pretensions at all happy to think of him or herself as an existentialist (without, you know, actually reading Being and Nothingness); every writer aspiring to create literature did his or her best to create characters in the throes of existential dilemmas. Patricia Highsmith was no exception, even in this, the third Ripley outing, published in 1974 when existentialism wasn’t quite as hot as it had been. We see an ordinary man, manipulated by Ripley, to be sure, but also making choices, choices that involve this good bourgeois with murder and the mafia. We watch him, in short, “break bad,” and when one considers that one reason (but not the only reason) he does so is that he’s dying of leukemia and would like to leave some money for his wife and son we can only wonder how much Highsmith influenced that seminal TV show.

  • Highsmith, Patricia: Ripley Under Ground

    Highsmith, Patricia: Ripley Under Ground
    Highsmith continues her investigation of the self, how it is constructed, and the lengths to which one might go to defend it in this outing which finds Tom Ripley a comfortable family man with a wealthy wife. We watch Tom present himself as a painter who is dead, but whose forged paintings continue to sell. We watch the forger fall apart, ruined by having allowed his work—his identity—to be superseded by the work of the dead painter he so much admires. We watch as Highsmith lays it all before us with her characteristic cold perfection, and are satisfied.

  • Highsmith, Patricia: The Talented Mr. Ripley

    Highsmith, Patricia: The Talented Mr. Ripley
    I think it’s time to take a deep dive into the icy cold world of Patricia Highsmith, starting with the first of the Ripley novels. It’s a tale of identity theft avant l’internet, a time when, if you stole someone’s identity, you’d probably have to kill him, and maybe a few bystanders, too. Ripley does, and feels no guilt to speak of. Highsmith remains aloof, neither judging him nor making him likable. Her prose is cool and exquisite. Maybe that’s why Gore Vidal calls her a modernist?

  • Cusk, Rachel: Transit: A Novel (Outline Trilogy, 2)

    Cusk, Rachel: Transit: A Novel (Outline Trilogy, 2)
    A real estate agent, a contractor, a writer, a student, an Albanian builder, an old lover: These are just some of the people who the Rachel Cusk-like protagonist talks with in Transit, a novel, like its predecessor in the trilogy, made of conversations. As in the first volume, the conversations she reports on shed light, obliquely, on the reticent narrator, and also touch on a variety of philosophical issues ("fate" takes center stage) with a similar lack of sledge-hammer bluntness.

  • Mandel, Emily St. John: Station Eleven

    Mandel, Emily St. John: Station Eleven
    This is a book with elements of science fiction that is absolutely realistic. Some of it chronicles a pandemic and its aftermath; the pandemic is the “Georgian Flu,” and the aftermath is the end of civilization as we know it. But Station 11 is not one of those tiresome surviving the apocalypse novels, not least because central characters, believing that “survival is not enough,” are keeping Shakespeare and symphonic music alive, but also because there are other threads to this novel that take place pre-apocalypse. The threads are woven together with such subtlety that one never marvels at how Mandel manages to keep all the balls in the air until later. Likewise, just as the theater and music that are central to the novel are essentially communal, so one would be hard-pressed to identify the novel’s main character, or even the novel’s central conflict. All of it is just mesmerizing.

  • Shakespeare, William: Henry VIII (Folger Shakespeare Library)

    Shakespeare, William: Henry VIII (Folger Shakespeare Library)
    This seems to me the weakest of the Shakespeare plays named for a king. Perhaps that’s why it’s not usually included when one speaks of the history plays. There’s lots of pomp, though: a trial, a coronation, a royal birth, all with their attendant festivities. Too bad about the Globe burning down after a cannon fired during one performance set the roof on fire.

  • French, Tana: The Searcher: A Novel

    French, Tana: The Searcher: A Novel
    I liked this novel as much as I did Tana French’s last one, The Witch Elm, and I liked both a lot. It’s set in the Wild West of Ireland, a region we experience through the eyes of her protagonist, an ex-cop who hails from North Carolina by way of Chicago. He’s an outsider who, as readers will expect, gets drawn into the dark bog underlying the village to which he’s relocated, and in her quiet way—more a matter of mood and atmosphere than action—French makes every page compelling. I guess I’m a Tara French fan.

  • William Shakespeare: Richard III (Folger Shakespeare Library)

    William Shakespeare: Richard III (Folger Shakespeare Library)
    A play about a hateful deformed tyrant from the past read today calls to mind the hateful deformed tyrant so prominent now.

  • Tesson, Sylvain: The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga

    Tesson, Sylvain: The Consolations of the Forest: Alone in a Cabin on the Siberian Taiga
    Sylvain Tesson is an eminent and prolific French travel writer. In The Consolations of the Forest he writes about what happens when he stops traveling to spend six months in a remote cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal. He gets occasional visitors, but for the most part he is alone with nature and his thoughts, and records both in a daily journal of his time on the lake. That he is kept company by cigars, vodka, and an eclectic library make his journal entries more seductive than they would have been if he had fallen prey to the spiritual claptrap that drives some anchorites to become hermits or that those anchorites succumb to when alone with their thoughts but lack booze, books, and tobacco.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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: fine, but not essential reading. (***)

  • 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. (****)

  • Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me

    Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me
    What you get from recent McEwan: a story that centers on a deeply researched and thought-through aspect of life and society, delivered through impeccable writing, interesting characters, and imaginative, life-and-death suspenseful plotting with twists galore. This one, cleverly set in an alternative 80s London (Kennedy survived Dallas; the Beatles got back together, and much more) is about artificial intelligence. While somewhat padded, it’s absorbing, thought-provoking, and, yes, moving. A master at work. I enjoyed it very much. (****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again: A Novel

    Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again: A Novel
    Elizabeth Stout is for my money the greatest living writer I have encountered. If you compared her writing to art, it would be hyper-realistic illustration. The insight into human nature and veracity in describing it is extraordinary. Then there’s that her body of work connects with itself, with characters and locations reappearing within and between books for added resonance. I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees everything she’s written, and this collection of stories is way up there at the high end of the barometer. In it, characters face up to life and death, and Olive Kitteridge navigates old age in contemporary small-town USA. (*****)

  • Paul Beatty: The Sellout

    Paul Beatty: The Sellout
    A rollicking fantastic fantasy about race. The subject is contemporary black America. It’s deep, sharp, uncomfortable and most of all hilarious. What a book! Could anyone, I wondered jealously as I read, bring such intelligence, learning and levity to my own gay minority? Because this balance of bitterness, insight and humor is the way to tell the story of an oppressed group that has its own particular and obvious virtues to bring to the table. (Russell Davis, I nominate you. It's a book waiting to be written.) (*****)

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

  • Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, 2018)
    A servant and the middle-class family she works for in a Mexican city in 1970. Although there is more drama here than in most movies, it is simply an impeccably filmed, absorbing time capsule and slice of life. This gives us latitude in what we take away. One friend said she learned about Mexico. Another complained that there wasn’t one likeable male character. We watch how men and women cope, live, and die in a patriarchal society, and there is something of Ozu in the meditative, clear-eyed observation. For me, I mostly felt it as a sober love letter to the filmmaker’s childhood. (DVD) (*****)
  • Marriage Story (2019, dir. Noah Baumbach)
    A movie about a relationship, albeit one that is going wrong most of the time we witness it. Such is the verisimilitude that we feel like flies on the wall, watching this family and its dilemmas. This is committed acting up and down the cast, and great moviemaking. Relationships are never easy, and you’ll surely find something here that reflects your own experience as you watch these people doing their best to navigate the labyrinth. (DVD) (****)
  • 1917
    1917 is the story of a life-and-death mission in the WWI trenches involving two soldiers. It is almost unrelieved high-ratchet tension, and an eye-opening confrontation with the reality of war. Watch this tour de force in IMAX if you can. (*****)
  • Jojo Rabbit
    Anti-war broad comedy and dense tragedy featuring a 10-year-old Nazi youth in the last months of WWII. You know it’s going to be loopy when one of those Beatlemania German-language singles plays over opening credits of documentary crowds wild about Hitler... and why not when the movie is about mindless hero-worship. The film is indeed nuts in the best way; surreal-hilarious, skirting close to offensive but staying the right side of the balancing act. The script and pacing are too loose, but all in all it works. I laughed, I cried. I often didn’t know why I was crying unless it was about, oh, the humanity. A good time was had. (****)
  • Joker
    This comic book origin story is filmed with operatic flourish. Unfortunately, as a hater of revenge and violence, and a fan of law and order, I wasn’t the target demographic. I waited for it to end, averting my eyes during the bloodshed and brutality, and tut-tutting its apparent incitement to anarchy. Joaquin Phoenix commits completely, and I mean completely, to the title role. To borrow the conclusion from the Guardian’s Pass Notes-- Don’t say: “More blood! More phlegm! More snot!” Do say: And the Oscar for Best Actor goes to…”

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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