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01/19/2014

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Books David Finished in 2024

  • Saki (H.H. Munro): The Best of Saki
    This is a collection of short, sharp, hilarious, dark and glittering gems. Start with the names: Framton Nuttel, Bertram Kneyght, Octavian Ruttle, Theophil Eshley . . . and many more. Saki begins to take the Edwardian stuffing out of his characters with their monikers and goes on from there to ensure that, with razor-sharp wit, they are filled full of holes. As Tom Sharpe writes in his introduction, "Start a story and you will finish it. Finish one and you will start another." (It occurs to me that this would be a good before-nodding-off book for Julian.) [Julian replies: Would love to borrow it for that purpose!]
  • Comyns, Barbara: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead
    Time: seventy years ago Place: Warwickshire Having read that before launching into Barbara Comyns's 1954 novel, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, one might be on guard for another tiresomely twee account of English country life back in the good old days. Instead, this: "The ducks swam through the drawing-room windows. The weight of the water had forced the windows open; so the ducks swam in. Round and round the room they sailed quacking their approval; then they sailed out again to explore the wonderful new world that had come in the night." The novel continues like that: a flood of startling images described in a way that is accurate and arresting, in prose wholly original. This river bursting its banks flows through the lives of the Willoweed family and the village in which they live. There is death, love, adultery, beauty, failure, success and childlike wonder in all of it. It's a ride everyone should take. In his perceptive introduction, Brian Evenson, laments that "Comyns's dark pastoral is an overlooked small masterpiece, and one that has opened pathways that other writers have yet to pursue." That was true in 2010 when Evenson was writing, and alas, it remains true today.
  • Hughes, Dorothy: The Fallen Sparrow
    Dorothy Hughes, they say, was known as the queen of noir. Assuming she deserves that accolade, this must be one of her weaker efforts. The plot, which jumps from a prison cell in fascist Spain to New York City cafe society, is ridiculous and none of the characters all fairly cardboard. I turned the pages to the end, but will not seek out more Hughes (though to be fair, I did like Ride the Pink Horse better than this, and I still have not read the novel reputed to be her best, In a Lonely Place, which became a Nicholas Ray / Humphrey Bogart film).
  • Orwell, George: Essays
    Just as I had never read more than the two Orwell novels that everyone reads, I had never read more than a few of his essays. My first reaction is surprise that the right has latched on this avowed Democratic Socialist. I guess they like that he criticizes the English left of his time for their allegiance to the Soviet Union, and their flip-flopping during World War II when the USSR was an ally of the Nazis, and then wasn't anymore. Of course, Orwell is right to criticize the left of his time for this, but his preoccupation with it is now of primarily historical interest. That's a quibble, though. The essays are, throughout, remarkable, first for the sense that Orwell is entirely honest. None of it is humbug. And second for the fact that the word "I" seldom appears, and Orwell is not, like many of our most popular essayists, obsessed with his feelings, his traumas, himself (though the essay about his awful, yes, traumatic, time at the boarding school at which he did time, is excellent). It's also interesting to see the roads, for the most part, not taken. His "Thoughts on the Common Toad" suggests that Orwell could have been an excellent nature writer, while his purely literary essays indicate that he was an able literary critic.
  • Orwell, George: Coming Up For Air
    In Coming Up For Air, George Orwell follows what I've come to see as his template. The protagonist begins in an unpleasant situation, escapes (to some extent) from that situation, and finally, more or less willingly returns to the initial situation. Each of the variations that Orwell plays on this theme has been well-done. In this novel, he makes the suburban London from which our protagonist escapes seem convincingly tawdry, the village England of the protagonist's youth seem, without sacrificing realism, idyllic, and the life to which he returns after escaping from the suburbs seem still tawdry, but a life like any other. I've enjoyed my traversal of Orwell's other three novels.
  • Perleman, Bob and Barrett Watten, Steve Benson, Carla Harryman, Tom Mandel, Ron Silliman, Lynn Hejinian, Rae Armantrout, Ted Pearson: The Grand Piano: An Experiment in Collective Autobiography, Part 1, San Francisco 1975-1980
    This is volume 1 of a 10-part collective autobiography by ten poets associated with Language Poetry. Once upon a time, it seemed like a good idea to buy all ten volumes when the set was offered at a good price. I have to confess that, having finished part 1, I'm not so sure. Ron Silliman is my favorite poet of the bunch, and I liked his section of autobiography the best, too. Other parts were interesting, but do I really want to read all ten volumes? Hmmm. We'll see.
  • Harkaway, Nick: Titanium Noir
    Noir and science fiction have always, or at least since William Gibson's early novels, gone together well. Titanium Noir is another example of this. We have a sort of detective who is not a cop (as he often reminds people) but works with the cops, in this case to figure out who killed a scientist who also happens to be a titan. That's where the science fiction comes in: In the world Harkaway has created, there is a therapy that turns those who can afford it into mighty almost immortal giants. This imagining gives Harkaway a subtle way to think about class and other ways human beings have of relating to each other, all wrapped up in a riveting who-done-it. The sentences Harkaway uses to tell his tale are often surprising and full of fun.
  • Botsford, Alan: mamaist: New and Selected Poems
    Alan Botsford’s mamaist: New and Selected Poems is a book varied enough that most readers will find something to like in it. At the same time, and for the same reason, only the most catholic of readers will like all of it. The formal variety, the wordplay, and the not always temperate emotion that characterizes these poems, we guess, might be attributable to the “numinous, life-altering burst of insight and upheaval” that Botsford experienced, he tells us, in January of 1988. Bursts tend to throw off all kinds of things.
  • Connelly, Michael: The Last Coyote
    Why do people say it's difficult to stick to New Year's resolutions? I haven't had any trouble sticking to my resolve to read the Harry Bosch series from beginning to end. The Last Coyote sags a bit in the middle: Bosch is a bit of a basket case, so it's not surprising that he's sent to see a shrink, especially after he puts his commander's head through a window, but that doesn't make the facile psychologizing any more compelling. What is compelling is Harry doing investigator things as he attempts to solve the very cold case of his mother's murder. It is compelling enough that I'll download the next in the series now.
  • Orwell, George: Keep the Aspidistra Flying
    Another superb novel by George Orwell. Like, I suppose, many people, I had only ever read the two Orwell novels that everyone has read. I'm happy to have moved beyond them to this delightful novel about a miserable man, a man whom Orwell succeeds in making us care about. The novel is set in the 1930s, and as in many English novels from the middle third of the last century, England seems a pretty bleak place. It is, however, as Orwell's protagonist learns, the only place we've got, so we might as well make the best of it.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
    A thrilling balls-to-the-wall account of a Dominican family in the US, and their prior life and later returns to the homeland, which – in its agony and ecstasy – is the real star of this tale. Laid back and electric, both. Superb. (First read 9 years ago, and almost totally forgotten.) (****)
  • Barbara Kingsolver: Pigs in Heaven
    What a surprise: here are characters from Kingsolver’s debut "The Bean Trees," developed, deepened, facing life’s challenges, with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as a backdrop. A glorious marriage of hyper-realism and outrageous coincidence, this is top-notch socially conscious storytelling. (****)
  • Elizabeth Chatwin & Nicholas Shakespeare (Eds.): Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin
    Letters carefully linked with background comment as necessary. There are also footnotes, sometime by the person addressed in the letter, expanding, explaining, and occasionally – when his wife Elizabeth – contradicting what was in a letter. Chatwin, gifted and complex, was a hard-working and compelling correspondent. The result here is a sensitively edited, enlightening account of a life both awe-inspiring and tragic. (***)
  • Lafcadio Hearn: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
    Hearn arrived in Japan 130 years ago, and the essays penned here are of a new and thrilling world discovered. The tone is sepia for his first trip down kanji-filled and lantern-decorated streets, and on a rickshaw excursion to Kamakura and Enoshima, but when he’s in his garden with the plants and insects it might be yesterday. The strangeness of Japan does cause overreliance on adjectives like “tiny,” and on the multiple myths and legends and ghostly tales related at length. My only great surprise was his support of his students’ vows to die for their emperor (“That wish is holy”). Hearn was a fascinating character, and this is a fascinating book. (***)
  • Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

    Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
    The hijinks of college teens on an expenses-paid stay in New York take a dark turn when the narrator, driven all her life, loses her way mentally. (*)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna

    Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna
    This tour de force faux reconstruction of a life through autobiographical notes is a glorious thing. It follows the protagonist through the household of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and then Lev Trotsky during his exile in Mexico, and forward into the mounting anti-communist hysteria of postwar USA. Meticulous research and superior writing create verisimilitude which, together with Kingsolver’s compassion, makes a powerful pitch for social justice and a better world. Educational and engrossing. (****)

  • Ann Patchett: Tom Lake

    Ann Patchett: Tom Lake
    With a background of Thornton Wilder’s play “Our Town”, parents and daughters struggle with a New Hampshire cherry harvest during the recent pandemic, as the daughters question their mother on her youthful affairs with the stage and a future movie star. It seems like thin gruel, but it’s beautifully constructed and revealing of human character and connection. Sublime. (And yes, it does make you want to rediscover Thornton Wilder.) (*****)

  • Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens

    Yuval Noah Harari: Sapiens
    This is a history of humanity and its ideas about itself from its beginnings to the present and possible future. Time and again, it broadened my parochial views of myself and the forces in the world today. Most of all, it actually did what John Gray (“Straw Dogs”) tried to do: disabuse me of any fantasies about human “progress”. Fascinating, profound, engrossing, eye-opening, humbling and, best of all, written to be understood and enjoyed. My book of the year. A classic. (*****)

  • Rose Tremain: Absolutely and Forever

    Rose Tremain: Absolutely and Forever
    An upper-middle-class English “gyal” grows up posh in the 50s and 60s, and does her best with life beyond. It’s a tale of obsession, with B-grade plot and characters that felt, to this reader, half-baked. (*)

  • Ann Patchett: These Precious Days

    Ann Patchett: These Precious Days
    Reading these essays is like hanging out with an intelligent and compassionate friend. The subject matter is personal – her extended family, writing, literature, her decision not to have children -- with the title essay about a late-life friendship the longest. Being in Ann Patchett’s company is a stimulating pleasure. (***)

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

  • The Holdovers
    1970: an elite New England prep school over the Christmas holidays. Sure, it’s by-the-numbers, but this artfully shot, warmly acted, smartly written, big-hearted tale of pain and redemption is a touching pleasure. (DVD) (***)
  • Kill Your Darlings
    A recreation of the birth of the Beats in the 1940s. War rages in Europe. Ginsberg has a troubled family. He meets the charismatic, transgressive Carr at staid Columbia University who introduces him to Kerouac and Burroughs, and a New Vision is born. Then there’s the murder. Entertaining if you already know all that, but probably not otherwise. (DVD) (**)
  • Plan 75
    My fault. The title gave me to expect a drama about the issue of assisted dying, but instead I got a tedious, fragmented, unfocused, break-the 4th-wall arty (and criminally underlit) drama set in a Japan where the old are encouraged to end their lives to benefit society. And Baisho Chieko, as charismatic as ever. (DVD)
  • Angels in America
    A six-part miniseries set in New York City in the early 1980s during the Reagan-era “gay plague” AIDS years. It’s a fabulous and engaging mix of drama and fever-dream fantasy, literate sometimes to the point of obscurity, with relatable characters portrayed with commitment by its A-list stars. A bold, unapologetic, successful stab at destigmatizing, contextualizing and humanizing a horrible disease. (DVD) (***)
  • Past Lives
    Celine Song’s love saga contrasts Korean and American cultures. The two leads are great, but the script is fuzzy -- leaning heavily on some folk-philosophy about destiny -- and the pace is… glacial. A subtext about “a one” vs. “the one” is hardly developed. It’s fresh, life-like, brave, but I expect more from a movie. (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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