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March 2014



Books David Finished in 2023

  • Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind (text only) by M. Mitchell

    Margaret Mitchell: Gone With the Wind (text only) by M. Mitchell
    The things we do for our students. One of mine wants to write a thesis about this, so I figured I'd better read it. And the truth is, I'm not sorry I did. It is, readers, a good book. It is so carefully written sentence for sentence, and so structurally sound—not an easy feat with a book as long as this one—that one almost forgets the rather sickening romanticization of America's most benighted region, the Southeast, and the excuses made for slavery. Almost, but not quite. Another thing that drives these hideous blemishes into the background is the more or less unabashed feminism. Scarlett is nothing if not a strong woman who knows what she wants and sets out to get it. True, she swoons when Rhett rapes her (yes, of course a wife can be raped by her husband), but she gets over that pretty quickly. And the character of Rhett is brilliant. Mitchell seems to have understood that he would have taken over the novel if allowed to do so, so it's nice how he'll disappear for great swathes of the story only to reappear and dominate again. One thing I can tell my student is that I'm certain that there is enough to say about this novel that she can write an interesting thesis on it.

  • Marlowe, Christopher: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: From the Quarto of 1604

    Marlowe, Christopher: The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: From the Quarto of 1604
    Christopher Marlowe was England's preeminent playwright before that other guy became for all time England's preeminent playwright. I'm sorry that it's taken me so long to get around to reading him. This was good fun, and will serve as a cautionary note to overly ambitious scholars.

  • Didion, Joan: Play It As It Lays (FSG Classics)

    Didion, Joan: Play It As It Lays (FSG Classics)
    It's wonderful to reread a book as exquisitely written as this one at the stately pace called for when one is reading it with a student whose first language is not English. I look forward to many more rereadings.

  • Eisler, Barry: AMOK: A Dox Thriller

    Eisler, Barry: AMOK: A Dox Thriller
    Another cracking Barry Eisler thriller, this one set in Texas and Timor.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Hugh Walpole: The Silver Thorn: A Book of Stories
    This is a varied collection of short stories, including ghost, horror and comedy, written in the 1920s by a then-popular British writer. They are entertaining, rich with description, and are of course of their time, shot through with the fine distinctions--today diluted but still in place--of Britain's class system. I think the greatest difference from contemporary writing is the condescension toward some of the characters: “little Jack Harding left his little house in Ealing for the Charing Cross Road where he had a little bookshop.” The writer and his readers must have enjoyed feeling superior to these weak men and risible women. (**)
  • Rose Tremain: The Gustav Sonata

    Rose Tremain: The Gustav Sonata
    The story is of two Swiss families during World War II, and the peril of and prejudice against Jewish residents and evacuees even in neutral Switzerland. It also follows the lives of the families’ two only children. There is great realism and empathy here. The storytelling is propulsive, and is quite a feat in itself: sprinkling enough clues so the conclusion makes sense, but not enough to tip off the surprise. Enjoyable. And moving. (****)

  • Michael Chabon: The Final Solution

    Michael Chabon: The Final Solution
    1944: a legendary detective, living out his retirement in the English countryside, cannot help becoming involved in a case of murder, mystery and a missing parrot. This novella is dense and requires concentration, and is rewarding for all that. An afterword by the author, calling for a wider view of literature, is as good as the book itself. (***)

  • Ann Patchett: The Patron Saint of Liars

    Ann Patchett: The Patron Saint of Liars
    Set from the 1930s to the 1970s, this story of a mother, a father, a daughter and a Catholic hostel for unwed mothers in rural USA covers a lot of ground, but is unfocused and plodding, and finally unsatisfying. Does this debut novel have anything to suggest the brilliance of its author’s later masterpieces? Yes: empathy and extreme daring. (**)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer

    Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer
    On farmland in southern Appalachia on the edge of National Forest mountainside, teeming with animal, vegetable and human prey and predator, local inhabitants and outsiders clash, come to terms and strive for survival. Wonderful characters and a story that is realistic, bracing and sensual, and bursting with love and anger. Overall, this novel is a wise and ecstatic celebration of life and nature, human and otherwise. (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Lucy by the Sea

    Elizabeth Strout: Lucy by the Sea
    A 60ish writer is taken to Maine by her ex-husband in a bid to escape the Covid pandemic in New York. This is the next chapter (after Oh William!) in the lives of Lucy Barton and other of Strout’s recurring characters. It bursts with insight and empathy, and I found it as compulsively readable as her other novels. (*****)

  • William MacAskill: What We Owe The Future

    William MacAskill: What We Owe The Future
    I’m not sure I “got” this book, but I don’t want to invest more time in going back to check. The philosophical speculations about possible future scenarios are carried out in their own happy bubble with no mention of alternate points of view (like Lovelock’s Gaia for example). This disassociation made me wary of joining the author in his hot air balloon. The book was recommended by someone I respect, so I may have misjudged. (*)

  • Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

    Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
    A memoir of a daughter growing up in an artistic family in small town USA, and the strange parallels, literary and otherwise, she finds with her unique and mysterious father. Compelling images and insightful text combine in a highly readable search for truth hidden in the familiar and often humorous everyday lives of all concerned. Or as The Times puts it far more succinctly on the back cover: "A sapphic graphic treat". (****)

  • Charles Portis: True Grit

    Charles Portis: True Grit
    In later life, a woman narrates her memories as a 14-year-old improbably setting out to avenge her father’s murder. It’s a glorious telling in a singular voice that immerses us in the bad old days of American West. Here is history and heart-stopping adventure, with plenty of wry comedy mixed in. The Coen Brothers nailed it in their recent movie, but of course, as always, the book is better. Pure pleasure. (*****)

  • Damon Galgut: The Promise

    Damon Galgut: The Promise
    On the eve of the end of apartheid, an omniscient, smart-ass narrator sweeps us around, through and into the often venal thoughts and lives and deaths of a white South African farming family and diverse characters in their orbit in a way that fuses inhabitants, landscape, and politics to compelling and often humorous effect. (***)

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

  • She Said
    This is a version of the true story of how two intrepid journalists at The New York Times brought the seemingly untouchable movie mogul Harvey Weinstein to account. It’s a compelling tale of extreme courage, and an uncomfortable but valuable window on how women may suffer personally and professionally at the hands of toxic male power. Eye-opening, and an excellent film on every level. (Theater) (****)
  • Drive My Car
    A story about characters and relationships in the entertainment world in contemporary Japan. I suspect it went over my head. While it’s mostly conventional in form, I enjoyed how it subverts certain cinematic conventions in refreshing ways (running time; music; credits; language; monolog). I wondered about the fetishization (smoking; vinyl records; classic cars; driving). I need a second look to get more out of it… and maybe understand what the point of the whole long exercise was. (***)
  • Maggie's Plan
    New York intelligentsia tragicomically fall in and out of love. Pithy observation and spicy dialog echoing back-in-the-day Woody Allen, but from the women’s point of view. Julianne Moore is a standout. Sags a little in the middle, but basically a delight. (DVD) (****)
  • 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. (DVD) (**)
  • 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) (***)

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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