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Books David Finished in 2023

  • Austen, Jane: Pride and Prejudice (Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen)

    Austen, Jane: Pride and Prejudice (Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen)
    The Austenathon continues with what many consider to be her best novel. It is close to perfect (with a slight lag at the end where Austen does what novelists of her time had to do: tie up all the loose ends). Even allowing for that Homeric nod, novelists of any time have a lot to learn from Austen in general and this novel in particular at both the sentence and the structural levels. Likewise, the manner in which she weaves together harsh reality--marriage has as much to do with money and position as with love--and romantic comedy is seamless (and seems to have nothing to do with cinematic romcoms). Looking forward to continuing my traverse through her works.

  • Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon

    Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon
    This is the best of the Hammett novels I've read, mostly because Sam Spade is the best of his characters (so far: I still have the Thin Man to go). The best novels of this sort are often character driven. It's having encounters and experiences through the eyes of the protagonist that pushes us on, not the urge to solve a puzzle. Like his Los Angeles counterpart, Philip Marlowe, Spade is cynical, often unpleasant, but, in his way, noble. Hammett writes in a 1934 introduction to the novel, "[Spade] is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been and what quite a few of them in their cockier moments thought they approached. For the private detective does not—or did not ten years ago when he was my colleague—want to be an erudite solver of riddles in the Sherlock Holmes manner; he wants to be a hard and shifty fellow, able to take care of himself in any situation, able to get the best of anybody he comes in contact with, whether criminal, innocent stander-by, or client." Exactly.

  • Jenkyns, Richard: A Find Brush on Ivory: An Appreciation of Jane Austen
    The subtitle gives it away: this is an appreciation of Jane Austen, and the book is all the better for that. Jenkyns clearly loves the author's work, and he is able to explain why. That is much harder to do than to explain why one dislikes, or even hates, a work. Actually, the more one detests a work, the easier it is to write about. Jenkyns's style is appropriate to Austen. His prose and argument is witty, clear, and perceptive, just like the object of his study. His insights will illuminate each volume of the Austen canon.
  • Austen, Jane: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume I: Sense and Sensibility

    Austen, Jane: The Oxford Illustrated Jane Austen: Volume I: Sense and Sensibility
    It is a truth universally acknowledged that you can never go wrong with a Jane Austen novel. Or if it’s not universally acknowledged it should be, though like most novels worth rereading, Austen’s books give different kinds of pleasure as one reads and rereads them at different stages of one’s life. My reaction to Sense and Sensibility, Austen’s study of different ways of being in the world, at the age of 63, is exquisite pleasure. Though it’s pretty clear that Austen means to come down on the side of sense, it may be true that the less sensible of the two sisters who embody these qualities tipped the balance in a way Austen may not, originally, have intended. “Angular,” one critic calls the novel. I’m still thinking about that.

  • Hammett, Dashiell: THE DAIN CURSE

    Hammett, Dashiell: THE DAIN CURSE
    Hammett's detective, sometimes known as the Continental Op, is fleshed out from the character we met in Red Scare. Most count that one the better novel, but I enjoyed The Dain Curse more, thanks to that richer picture of the protagonist. The dialogue also seemed snappier, and the plotting is tight. Most books of this sort move from start to finish in an ever-rising crescendo with a coda tacked on at the end where things are explained for those who might have missed this or that detail. Hammett, however, seems to structure his books differently. There are distinct movements, each with its own crescendo. The movements are, of course, related and follow logically from one to the next. His novels are, in the best sense of the word, symphonic.

  • Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Dover Thrift Editions: Biography)

    Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium Eater (Dover Thrift Editions: Biography)
    Thomas De Quincey has been criticized for making the pleasures of opium seem greater than the pains. I once received a prescription for three days worth of opiated cough syrup, and I can see how compelling the pleasures can be. The cough syrup didn't, alas, give me the power to produce prose like De Quincey's, whether he is describing walking the London streets as a homeless and hungry youth, painting his notion of happiness (a snug cottage in winter), or detailing the architectural, aquatic, and orientalist dreams that plagued him when the drug had started to turn on him. Is it any surprise that De Quincey was friends with Samuel Taylor Coleridge?

  • Hammett, Dashiell: Red Harvest

    Hammett, Dashiell: Red Harvest
    I suspect that Raymond Chandler will always be dearer to my heart that Dashiell Hammett, though both are important and delightful American novelists. One reason may be that those of Hammett's protagonists that I've encountered thusfar are not as appealing as that tarnished knight, Marlowe. Still, Hammett is a fine writer capable of passages of real beauty, and in his time working as a detective for the Pinkerton agency he picked up some resonant slang. He employs it in the book, and lots of it would flummox me without some helpful context. I'll be reading and rereading more Hammett. Will my ranking of him relative to Chandler change? We'll see.

  • Smoot, Jeff: Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14

    Smoot, Jeff: Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14
    Skateboarding, surfing, and rock climbing are three sports I will almost certainly never do. Yet for some reason, these pastimes and the people who practice them fascinate me. I follow skateboarders online, the best memoir I've read in the last several years is William Finnegan's Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, and I've just finished Hangdog Days by Jeff Smoot, a history/memoir of (mostly) American climbing. Smoot's writing chops are nowhere near Finnegan's, but still, it was interesting to enter that world for a few hundred pages. I was glad to have read it, and look forward to the first great skateboarding memoir.

  • Berger, John: I Send You This Cadmium Red

    Berger, John: I Send You This Cadmium Red
    This book is a record of a correspondence between John Berger and artist John Christie, a collage of letters, images, quotations, and the art books that Christie makes. Color is the motif that gives the book whatever unity it has. About halfway through, I found that I had stopped reading and was, instead, skimming, stopping here and there, arrested by an image, a quotation, a snatch of a letter. My favorite part of the book was three short poems by Berger, and I suspect I would have paid more attention as I paged through the book if more the writing had been his. In fact, though, Christie is the more loquacious correspondent, and his letters tended not to hold my attention. It was a pleasant book to page through in the way that coffee table books--it's almost that large--can be, but no more than that.

  • Wasson, Sam: The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood

    Wasson, Sam: The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood
    The '70s, which I lived through in Hollywood, was truly one of Hollywood's golden ages, and Roman Polanski's Chinatown is emblematic of that golden time. Unsurprisingly, in the story of its making, even surrounded by icons like Polanski, screenwriter Robert Towne, and producer Robert Evans, Jack Nicholson takes center stage, and one sees that he really is the last Hollywood movie star—with all the glamor and excess that implies. In spite of the excess, Nicholson seems the sanest of the major players who made Chinatown a reality and seeing how dysfunctional his collaborators were, it's a wonder the film got made at all. I'm glad it was, though, and in spite of Wasson's sometimes clunky prose it's a riveting story

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Ian McEwan: Lessons

    Ian McEwan: Lessons
    What a wonderful novel this is: a man’s life in post-war Britain from cradle to age. Writing and structure as smooth as silk, with glorious psychological insights that I might have had about my own life if I was as smart as the protagonist. The most enjoyable novel I’ve read since Franzen’s Crossroads. McEwan has written so much great stuff. This feels like a culmination. I’d love more, of course, but I thank him for all he has given us. (*****)

  • 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. (*****)

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

  • Everything Everywhere All At Once
    Marvel-type multiverse madness in contemporary suburban US, centered on Michelle Yeoh (excellent, playing off her career to date) and a game supporting cast. I didn’t even try to make sense of what went on, and didn’t laugh once at the comedy. A long slog for no discernable reward. A movie clearly not made for me. (Theater IMAX; no stars)
  • The Fabelmans
    Spielberg gives us apparent memories of childhood with nuanced portraits of his mother and father. It doesn’t add up to much more than that--though it does take in antisemitism, and the lesser position of women in family and society--but for him to memorialize his parents and draw his early life in the context of being brought up by them was a ride I enjoyed going on. Modest to a fault, its only indulgence is an unnecessarily long running time. (Theater) (***)
  • The Banshees of Inisherin
    In a small island community off Ireland, as civil war rumbles on the mainland, a friendship turns bitter. On reflection, this might have been an allegory about the stupidity and intransigence of the two sides in the civil war. I didn’t warm to the story and movie; a friend loved it; another friend was ambivalent. (Theater) (*)
  • 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. (***)

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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