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Books David Finished in 2023

  • le Carré, John: A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley, 2)

    le Carré, John: A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley, 2)
    This is the second in John LeCarré's series of novels featuring George Smiley. He is a spy in most of the books, but not in this one. Instead of engaging in espionage, Smiley, because of his intelligence background, is called upon to investigate a murder at a posh English boarding school. This set-up results in a novel that succeeds in every way: the plot is tight, the characters believable and interesting, the social critique biting, and the prose style is good enough that aspiring writers should pay close attention to it. I'll move on to the third novel in the series, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, soon. This is the novel that made LeCarré's name, though it's hard to imagine that it will be better than A Murder of Quality.

  • Plomer, William: Turbott Wolfe: A Novel (20th Century Rediscoveries)

    Plomer, William: Turbott Wolfe: A Novel (20th Century Rediscoveries)
    Turbott Wolfe is a very short novel into which author William Plomer manages to incorporate a lot. Set in colonial South Africa, there are corruscating caricatures of fellow whites with names like Flescher and Bloodworth (with one exception every one of the white settlers' appearances are grotesque). There are the "natives," who, in opposition to his ghastly colonial neighbors, Wolfe at first views sympathetically and then idealizes. Most of all, there is the portrait of Turbott Wolfe, who, dying, tells his story to one William Plomer. The author manages to make the man complex enough that, at novel's end, we are not sure whether to dismiss him as a dilettante and a failure, or respect him as a man with laudable principles. Maybe both. Maybe neither. After publishing Turbott Wolfe, Plomer left South Africa. I had forgotten that his next port of call was Japan where he spent a few years teaching literature. The country was to give him material for his novel Sado and other Japanese stories.

  • von Kleist, Heinrich: Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist

    von Kleist, Heinrich: Selected Prose of Heinrich von Kleist
    Translator Peter Wortsman notes that Heinrich von Kleist's stories "were condemned by scandalized critics as 'hack jobs,' 'sheer nonsense,' 'senseless frivolities,' 'the work of a deranged mind,' 'un-German, stiff, twisted and coarse.'" Perhaps it is his refusal or inability to craft fiction that would have pleased these hidebound critics that accounts for the regard in which he is held today. It is no surprise that more perceptive readers have had no trouble seeing Kleist's worth. Franz Kafka, for example, reports that he read Kleist's novella "Michael Kohlhaas" with reverence. Thomas Mann remarks that "Kleist's narrative language is completely unique . . . even in his day nobody wrote as he did." Neither do many people write like him today. Wortsman's translations seem to me (I read no German) to effectively convey the power of that prose, but I can't help but have a nagging suspicion that, unable to experience the the author's "tangled, knotted, overloaded sentences . . . painstakingly soddered together . . . and driven by a breathless tempo," (Mann) in German I am not experiencing the full splendor of this work. One is grateful to translators. And yet . . . .

  • Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics)

    Cather, Willa: Death Comes for the Archbishop (Vintage Classics)
    Willa Cather says that, in Death Comes for the Archbishop, she wanted to create “ . . . something without accent…,” and, “something in the style of legend, which is absolutely the reverse of dramatic treatment.” This is exactly what she does, and it gives us a novel that succeeds in a way entirely different from most plot-driven (i.e. most) fiction. The novel is episodic, and the prose has that Catherian flatness which is somehow never dull, but has the splendor of a granite slab rather than that of a rushing river. Landscapes always play a major, if not the major, role in her works. Landscapes do change and move, but at a rate that is geologic rather than human. This change as it happens is unintelligible to the human eye. Cather's fiction seems to progress in the same way. As with the films of Ozu, the plot is secondary, and what has moved us is mysterious, but we are moved, and something did happen.

  • Margery Allingham: Look to the Lady: An Albert Campion Mystery

    Margery Allingham: Look to the Lady: An Albert Campion Mystery
    Whoops. Should have entered this one before The Cambodian Book of the Dead. It's another good one from Margery Allingham. I still have a hard time with Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers, but these are okay. As Doyle did with Sherlock Holmes, she has created a main character in Albert Campion who delights us whenever he ambles onto the page. This novel would seem to confirm that Allingham shares with other writers of the period a fascination with the atavistic beliefs and superstitions that are barely hidden in rural England, and that can surface in bloody and macabre ways. In any case, this buried knowledge does make for some good plots, as M.R. James and others have shown us.

  • Vater, Tom: The Cambodian Book Of The Dead (Detective Maier Mysteries)

    Vater, Tom: The Cambodian Book Of The Dead (Detective Maier Mysteries)
    South-East Asia, as anyone who has been there knows, is an alluring place. It is no less attractive in fiction, and indeed the setting is one of the strongest facets of Tom Vater's Cambodian Book of the Dead. It is a detective yarn that follows a German detective on a job in Cambodia. To the extent that it is about the people and the place, it is good fun. When metaphysics enters into it, it tends to bog down, but Vater would probably argue that metaphysics has to enter into it. As he notes at one point, "Every Cambodian has seen a ghost." The book, too, suffers from the Fu Manchu problem: Asian bad guys can't just be bad; they must be bad in ways that are exotic and stretch belief. Although there are non-Asian bad guys in this novel, only the Cambodian has, for example, an army of pubescent girls in black Khmer Rouge pajamas who are trained to kill. Will I continue with the series? Maybe.

  • Teffi: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea (New York Review Books Classics)

    Teffi: Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea (New York Review Books Classics)
    For no particular reason, I seem to be reading memoirs by Russian women who lived through the Russian revolution. I'm glad to have pulled Teffi's Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea off the shelf. In a translation by Edythe Haber she has a lovely voice, at once capable of humor, but also of evoking the horrors and hardships she lived through without hysterics. The horror, hardship, and humor are all present in this paragraph about life on a barely seaworthy ship that carries her through part of her journey. Also Teffi's lovely tone: "The first days of heroics, when Colonel S. had stood on the deck, rolled up up his sleeves, and kneaded dough for flatbreads, a gold bracelet jingling on his handsome white wrist, while a famous statistician sat beside him and calculated in a loud voice the total weight of the bread to be baked, in proportion to the number of working souls on board, and then half-souls and quarter-souls—those first days of heroic amateurism were gone." The Russians never disappoint.

  • Willa Cather: My Ántonia

    Willa Cather: My Ántonia
    This is the third of Cather's Pioneer trilogy, and it's as good as the first and second entries, which means it's very good indeed. In the first, O Pioneers!, we get a portrait of the unforgiving Nebraska plains and a woman who thrives there. In the second, we get a woman whose art allows her to escape her harsh, provincial homeland (this time the Colorado desert), and in My Ántonia we are given, through the eyes of her best friend—lover really, though it's never consummated—a woman who thrives, in spite of much, in her rural home. One reads Cather and is tremendously moved. It's never clear how her clean, simple prose does this to us, and that mystery is a marker of her greatness.

  • Doctorow, Cory: Red Team Blues: A Martin Hench Novel (The Martin Hench Novels)

    Doctorow, Cory: Red Team Blues: A Martin Hench Novel (The Martin Hench Novels)
    Although I've enjoyed the bits and pieces of Cory Doctorow's work that have come my way, I think this is the first novel I've read by him. I'm glad I did. The protagonist is . . . wait for it . . . an accountant, but that doesn't stop him from getting on the wrong side of the Zetas and some Azerbaijani bad actors. Some of the technical detail involving Bitcoin and blockchains went over my head, but the accountant's wry take on life in and around San Francisco and Silicon Valley keep one turning pages, along with, of course, the well-constructed plot. Doctorow, in this case through his characters, has a lot to tell us about the modern world: the sources of its injustices and also how things might be made better.

  • Rowe, Simon: Mami Suzuki: Private Eye
    It is impossible to write a book in as well-established a genre as detective fiction without nodding to the established classics of that genre. The haru-ichiban, for example, that blows through Kobe in the first of the stories Simon Rowe gives us about the private eye Mami Suzuki, will certainly call to mind the Santa Anas that blow through Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles. Of course, all the writers carrying on the genre after its progenitors not only preserve the conventions but do their best to tweak them. The most successful entries are those which preserve enough of the things that make the genre appealing but also include tweaks enough to make it new. Rowe's detective is something out of the ordinary. She is a single mother taking care of both her daughter and her own mother. She has a day job at the front desk of an international hotel, so she's only able to moonlight as a private eye, and she drinks a bit more than is good for her (and unlike a lot of hard-boiled detectives, the alcohol she consumes actually affects her). Like the best fictional detectives, though, she does not remain the same. Like an actual human being, she changes as we move through the pages so that not all of her quirks remain in place at book's end. She is an appealing enough character that one looks forward to more in what will surely be a series.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

    Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
    A glorious hardboiled noir set in the Jewish immigrant and indigenous communities of a fictional post-WWII Alaska; a murder mystery that twists and turns with the requisite red herrings and hidden clues. So fabulously rich that you are in awe of the world building; so gorgeously written that you sometimes stop and marvel, wondering how does anyone come up with images and metaphors that creative and apt. Chabon confirms his genius. (****)

  • Irene Nemirovsky: The Fires of Autumn

    Irene Nemirovsky: The Fires of Autumn
    A middle-class French family live -- and die -- through WWI, the 30s and WWII. Vivid, fragmented, insightful, compassionate, with descriptions of war at home and on the front lines that are the more painful for being read as the Russia-Ukraine conflict drags on... When. Will. We. Learn. Thank you Sandra Smith for translating this and 11 other works from the French by this prolific author who died in Auschwitz. (***)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead

    Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead
    This is a close update of David Copperfield: the self-told tale of a boy growing up poor and orphaned in 1990s rural Virginia. Kingsolver’s Dickensian intent to use her storytelling smarts to shine light on failures and injustices and encourage a will to right the wrongs is laudable, and there is almost enough compelling plot, detail and style to carry us through an often painful story that fictionalizes devastating defects in welfare services and medical treatment in a marginalized part of America. Sometimes hard to pick up, but mostly hard to put down. (****)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Bean Trees

    Barbara Kingsolver: The Bean Trees
    A first-person narrative of a teenager escaping her rural upbringing (Kentucky) for the city (Tucson, Arizona). The novel is roughish… unbalanced… but the core is sound: compelling story and characters, and a sense of what it’s like to grow up / live poor – or as an undocumented refugee -- in the USA. Franzen, Strout, McEwan… I add Kingsolver to that short list of writers I gratefully follow anywhere. (***)

  • Claire Keegan: Small Things Like These

    Claire Keegan: Small Things Like These
    A (Booker Prize shortlisted) long short story about a working family man in a small town in the recent past. The plot reflects recent Irish history, and it’s written with uncommon verisimilitude and unassuming beauty. (***)

  • Catherine Hakim: Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital

    Catherine Hakim: Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital
    This 2011 book continues to be ahead of its time. We have data-based evidence that men are hornier than women, and the conclusion that this male sex deficit means the sex trade is a necessity. Men stigmatize the sex trade because they want it free, and they don’t want women to have power over them. The patriarchy pushes monogamy as it helps less attractive men get a partner. Erotic capital -- one’s attractiveness and charisma -- confers concrete advantages as do wealth, intelligence, education, and social connections. Men stigmatize it (“dumb blonde”) as it empowers women. Anyone – male and female -- can enhance and exploit their erotic capital (You’re ugly? Get a body, and practice politeness.) Feminism, in its laudable attempts to level the patriarchal playing field, shoots itself in the foot by denying a male sex deficit exists, and dismissing erotic capital as a sexist distraction. That’s a lot of fascinating material, which makes it all the sadder that the book is repetitive and disorganized to the point of being unreadable. (**)

  • Tim Kreider: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You

    Tim Kreider: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
    In Tim Kreider’s essays, life is – in Homer’s* immortal words – “funny ‘cause it’s true.” It’s true because Kreider is fearlessly honest about himself, and funny because, well, figuring out how to navigate and survive this wonderful, lousy world is hilarious if you don’t take yourself and life too seriously. This is Kreider’s second collection (and my second reading of same). The first “We Learn Nothing” (2012) was classic, and this (2018) is just as good. I eagerly await the next. [*Simpson, not Greek poet] (*****)

  • 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. (**)

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

  • Asteroid City
    In a 50s “Our Town” kind of play, stuff happens on an artificial desert set. Wes Anderson movies are quirky, but this one seems all quirk and no substance. It’s full of ideas and gags, but is there a point? I’ll damn it with the faintest praise and say I wasn’t bored. (Theater) (*)
  • A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’Ete) (1996)
    A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’Ete) One young man and three women on vacation on the Brittany coast. Through lots of conversation, Eric Rohmer recreates the insecurity of youth, and the raging hormones that drive the quest for relationship… and how it’s both different and the same for both sexes. This is mature Rohmer: a seemingly effortless recreation of life within a plot of artificial coincidence. (DVD) (***)
  • Twenty-four Eyes
    This 1954 saga, from the golden age of Japanese cinema, follows a teacher and her students from elementary to high school and beyond on a bucolic, impoverished Inland Sea island, tracing events from the 1930s through World War II. It’s a thing of aching beauty, awash with humanity, sentimentality and nostalgia, and assembled with a sure and dispassionate hand. (DVD) (***)
  • Adam (2019)
    Dramedy of a high school kid who stays with his lesbian sister in New York over the summer and gets entangled with her gay and trans friends. “A” in all categories: acting; filmmaking; story; and sensitivity to the communities it portrays. Bravo/Brava! I wonder if the fiery soliloquy at Trans Camp was an inspiration for America Ferrara’s in “Barbie”? (Theater) (****)
  • Barbie
    Barbie has warmth, sly charm and is brim-full of creative ideas. There are some good jokes and some smart analyses of how it is to be a woman in a patriarchal world (wonderful soliloquy by America Ferrara), but overall it’s more a mish-mash than a coherent whole. (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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