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April 2014






Books David Finished in 2024

  • 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.
  • Doctorow, Cory: The Bezzle
    This is the second in Cory Doctorow's Martin Hench series. First, one has to applaud Doctorow for making the protagonist of these stories an accountant. That's a ballsy move. It also, maybe, tells us a bit about the books. The characters and the plot exist in these books in significant part as pegs that Doctorow can hang ideas and information on about society, particularly those aspects of society that need to change. In this book, he takes on the for-profit prisons that are a stain on whatever moral integrity the USA still possesses. The appeal he makes is compelling, and fortunately, he manages to give us what we need to know about the fraud and greed that are such powerful forces in society (for-profit prisons exist for profit: to make somebody money), but just when we're thinking that a tutorial on financial chicanery isn't really what we read a novel for, Doctorow ropes us back in with compelling characters, a plot that moves along, and a winning writing style. I'm looking forward to the next entry in the series.
  • Orwell, George: A Clergyman's Daughter
    So tepid were the reviews I found online that I almost didn't read this excellent novel. It's clear to me now that the reason people didn't like it is simply that it isn't 1984 or Animal Farm. Of course it's not, but that shouldn't be a problem because what we have in place of those novels is a fine observation of society, astute criticism of aspects of society, and even some thought-provoking philosophical discussion. (I come down on the side of hedonism, though I'm sure that's not what Orwell intended.) A Clergyman's Daughter has more in common with the realism of Arnold Bennet than the dystopian 1984 or the fabulist Animal Farm. It also has more in common with Orwell's first novel, Burmese Days, but it's technically much better. I look forward to seeing him grow further as I continue my year of reading Orwell.
  • Connelly, Michael: The Concrete Blonde (A Harry Bosch Novel, 3)

    Connelly, Michael: The Concrete Blonde (A Harry Bosch Novel, 3)
    The tracking of a serial killer and more of the backstory of Detective Harry Bosch: Everything we've come to expect from Michael Connelly's series. Published in 1994 and set in the aftermath of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, The Concrete Blonde reminds us that people still smoked (tobacco) as much as Bosch does, even at that late date. It is equally surprising that the psychologizing of a serial killer could be so simple, but the book--with additional courtroom drama--is as good a read as the first two entries in the series. (And it also reminded me that there was once a place in Hollywood that specialized in kosher burritos.)

  • Davies, Kevin: The Golden Age of Paraphernalia

    Davies, Kevin: The Golden Age of Paraphernalia
    As is the case with much of the most interesting poetry, language is foregrounded in The Golden Age of Paraphernalia rather than meant to fade into the background. There are allusions, bits and fragments of found language, fractured quotations, and information taken from a variety of domains. Whole sections of the poem are broken up, and the pieces are placed in a collage-like relationship with pieces of other sections; the prevailing organizing principle is parataxis. All of that could make the poem sound terribly daunting, but in fact, it's fun to read, not least because of the humor that infuses even the bleakest moments. And as the book is--not only, but also--political, there are plenty of those. (I'd love to quote from the poem, but it's almost impossible to format poetry in these squibs.) I've had this book on my shelf for years. I probably picked it up after reading about it on Silliman's blog. I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to it.

  • MacLaren-Ross, Julian: Memoirs of the Forties

    MacLaren-Ross, Julian: Memoirs of the Forties
    Julian MacLaren-Ross was, "with his carnation and silver-topped cane, his fur coat and his dark glasses," a Soho Bohemian. The first part of this collection, short reminiscences and his unfinished memoir, read as one would expect them to: the stories of a skilled and slightly tipsy raconteur holding up any one of the series of bars he seems to have moved between. These anecdotes are, for the most part, amusing: how he scraped by with no money among equally penniless friends, how he racketed about with Dylan Thomas, and his meetings with others such as Graham Greene and Picasso. All of that is just warm-up and context, though, for what follows: seven of the short stories he produced, stories which seem, according to the memoir, to have been often rejected or accepted but not paid for. They are seven gems. Most of the stories take place on the home front during the Second World War, and Maclaren-Ross observes that world carefully and writes about it with wit and aplomb. I can see why he was considered a coming young man.

  • Orwell, George: Modern Classics Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)

    Orwell, George: Modern Classics Burmese Days (Penguin Modern Classics)
    To say that this is a warts-and-all picture of British colonialism doesn't seem quite right when, in most cases, colonialism was all warts all the time. Reading George Orwell's novel about colonial Burma, one sees the part these warts played in making Burma the messed up country that it is today. Though the novel, Orwell's first, breaks some of the strictures he later laid down for how writing should be, and he indulges in a lot more descriptive scene-setting in Burmese Days than he did in his later books, the book is better for that. The landscapes he evokes are populated by a cast of unattractive characters, not least the protagonist, who is a cowardly, self-pitying, unprincipled mess. Orwell succeeds in making this mess a real human being, though, so we do feel sympathy for him and understand how, in the various corners he's backed into, he responds so poorly. Next time you come across an evocation of the good old days of gin-and-tonics on the verandah as the tropical sun goes down, administer a little Orwell as an antidote.

  • Connelly, Michael: The Black Ice (Harry Bosch)

    Connelly, Michael: The Black Ice (Harry Bosch)
    Here it is almost mid-February, and I'm still honoring my New Year's resolution: to read my way through Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch series. Once again, this was a good one, and as Bosch is based in Hollywood, exploring his beat with him takes me back to my teenage years on the Boulevard. This one also took us South of the border, and it's always a pleasure to visit one of my favorite countries. Looking forward to the next installment.

  • Orwell, George: Down and Out in Paris and London

    Orwell, George: Down and Out in Paris and London
    As it says on the tin. This is a memoir of George Orwell's time as a poor man among poor (mostly) men. When he's cast off poverty in Paris for poverty in London, the memoir shades over into polemic and suggestions for how to ameliorate the situation. The polemic and suggestions could be boiled down to something like, "Poor people are people. There is no reason to fear or despise them." This commonsense insight has not been embraced in much of the world, most notably my natal place, the USA, so it's tempting to say that nothing has changed. It seems to me, though, that with the fentanyl plague sweeping America, things have, in fact, changed. They've gotten worse.

  • van Gulik, Robert: The Haunted Monastery: A Judge Dee Mystery

    van Gulik, Robert: The Haunted Monastery: A Judge Dee Mystery
    This is my first time following the adventures Judge Dee in Tang Dynasty China. He's a sort of Sherlock Holmes and like the detective who may have inspired van Gulik to create him, he has a sidekick, but the sidekick, unlike Watson, sometimes seems more astute than his boss. That I could read this in one of the old green Penguin Crime editions (1966) added to the pleasure.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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. (***)

  • John le Carré: A Murder of Quality

    John le Carré: A Murder of Quality
    A straightforward… and yet so devious… murder mystery that had me guessing (and getting it wrong) to the very end. The background (elite English public school in the class-conscious 1950s) is sketched in broad strokes, but the main characters – the amateur sleuth (le Carré’s beloved ex-spy George Smiley), police inspector, teachers – are fully rounded. Absorbing and fun. (***)

  • Denton Welch: In Youth Is Pleasure & I Left My Grandfather's House

    Denton Welch: In Youth Is Pleasure & I Left My Grandfather's House
    The 1945 novel about a hyper-sensitive English youth’s early 20th century summer holiday is pure teen anxiety with fictional veneer. The prose is straighforward; the motivations quirky. It is most interesting as a picture of middle-class life and prejudices 100 years ago, as is the recollection of a youthful walk that follows. It reminded me of my own adolescent mood swings and self-centeredness, though the protagonist is more of an aesthete than I ever was. (**)

  • Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

    Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
    A man born in rural poverty in India tells the story of his life. This warts-and-all exposé of rich and poor, country and city begins with colorful cynicism and humor, but turns darker. An enlightening but uncomfortable read because reading about suffering, squalor, corruption and hopelessness is uncomfortable. (**)

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

  • Poor Things
    In retro-sci-fi patriarchal Europe, a woman finds her way to freedom. This is hyper-imaginative comic storytelling, with crackling script, cinematography, art direction and music. Emma Stone and Mark Ruffalo have scenery-chewing roles that they take and run with. It's overlong and probably not essential, but overall it’s... wow! (Theater) (****)
  • Reality
    "Reality" is a verbatim dramatization of an actual FBI questioning of a whistleblower suspect. At the least, it's an interesting portrait of current FBI interrogation methods. It also asks us to consider free speech vs. state control in a democratic society (though the movie makes it clear at the end where its sympathies lie in this particular case). This is superior filmmaking, somehow managing to turn little more than dialog into a tense and riveting 82 minutes. (Theater) (***)
  • The Darjeeling Limited
    Wes Anderson near his quirky best in a tale of three American brothers visiting India. It’s a diverting one-of-a-kind entertainment, droll and beautifully cast. That it loses steam toward the end is minor criticism. I enjoyed it. (DVD) (***)
  • 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)
    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) (***)

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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