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Books David Finished in 2021

  • Eisler, Barry: The Chaos Kind

    Eisler, Barry: The Chaos Kind
    I snapped Barry Eisler’s newest up the minute it was available and am not sorry I did. It’s interesting how the intermeshing series of novels he writes have moved away from the lone assassin, John Rain, to books about a merry band of brothers and sisters with Rain as just another member. Hope he gets a new one out soon.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Fabric of Sin: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 9)

    Rickman, Phil: The Fabric of Sin: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 9)
    This is the ninth of these I read, and I’m impressed at how high a standard Rickman maintains. The Masons and the Templars are in the mix this time. Good fun.

  • Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Slander

    Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Slander
    Dolores Hitchens was prolific. She composed series of detective novels as well as several stand-alones. Unfortunately she only managed two in this series, because she hits her stride in this one, making the detective more interesting, and spinning a crime more horrible and tangled for him to rectify than she managed in her first. Still, one is grateful that the two “Sleep With” novels were resurrected.

  • Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Strangers

    Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Strangers
    Yet another private eye novel set in Southern California, in this case in and around Long Beach. Since I've spent some time in that city—walked those mean streets—it was fun to follow the action. Throwing a bit of a spanner into the works is the chapter where the detective kidnaps his client, an attractive woman barely out of her teens, because, to give it the most charitable interpretation, he believes she is guilty of three or four murders and that he is helping her to escape. The aging detective has spun a fantasy where they marry in Las Vegas and flee to Mexico. She asks him to take her home, but instead, he drives out into the country, and though the standards of the time keep this from being absolutely explicit, appears to rape her. I can't decide if it is surprising that this novel was written by a woman. Maybe the answer is that it's not. A woman of that time might have good reason for finding it absolutely plausible that a good guy could also be a rapist, and that his act wouldn't even be seen as criminal.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Remains of An Altar: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 8)

    Rickman, Phil: The Remains of An Altar: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 8)
    I’m glad Phil Rickman wrote a lot of these, because they’re absolutely addictive. The supernatural is mostly displaced in this one by an SAS veteran turned minister, sleazy local politicians, and drugs. The novel is not the poorer for that.

  • Peace, David: Tokyo Redux: A novel (Tokyo Trilogy)

    Peace, David: Tokyo Redux: A novel (Tokyo Trilogy)
    It's been about ten years since David Peace published the second volume of his Tokyo Trilogy, Occupied City, which followed the initial entry, Tokyo Year Zero. One had begun to despair that volume three would ever get written, but the good news is that it did and that it was worth the wait. It is, verily, a crowning achievement. In it, Peace continues to tell the story of modern Japan through the crimes it has experienced: The Teigin Incident; the "Japanese Bluebeard," Kodaira Yoshio; and in Tokyo Redux, the Shimoyama Incident, as the murder or suicide—questions remain—of the then president of Japan National Railways is known. These are not crime novels, though, in the sense that they focus on a crime and its solution. Rather, they use these crimes as prisms to cast light on the history through which Japan has moved since World War II, or perhaps to show us the darkness, that exists in that history. I have noted elsewhere that non-Japanese have written great books about Japan and about its capital city, but that almost all of these books are non-fiction. I have suggested that Arturo Silva's Tokio Whip was the first great novel by a foreigner about Tokyo. Tokyo Redux may be the second, and these two gifted authors have neatly divided up the territory: Silva focusing on the contemporary, Peace on the historical.

  • Richard Stark: The Outfit

    Richard Stark: The Outfit
    The spare, simple perfection of Richard Stark's prose, his sharp eye, seem a good analog for the spare, simple perfection of his protagonist, Parker's, life as an independent thief and his cold, chilling view of humanity. We can't help but root for him, and to wish we were as unflappable. "Parker," as Luc Sante wrote, "is a brilliant invention."

  • Jackson, Shirley: Life Among the Savages

    Jackson, Shirley: Life Among the Savages
    I hesitate to admit that I don't really like the jocular in fiction—not even P.G. Wodehouse—because it makes me sound humorless. I can, however, recognize when the jocular is done well—as in P.G. Wodehouse—and that is the case with Shirley Jackson's early novel (cobbled together in significant part from previously published stories), Life Among the Savages. The subcategory of jocular into which this novel falls has been called "domestic chaos." It's a series of episodes in the life of a couple with two then three then four then five children, New Yorkers who have emigrated to Vermont. The narrative voice is the wife's, so we get her version of how she manages to hold things together with too many kids, not enough money, and a husband who is ineffectual in the way husbands were allowed to be back before men had to at least gesture toward the equality of the sexes. The narrator of the novel never complains about her lot, but there are some sly observations of the role she, like many other '50s housewives, is forced to play. The novel is, apparently, semi-autobiographical. The narrator, though, is never seen writing; one wonders how Jackson was ever able to find a room of her own and be as productive as she was.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Smile of a Ghost (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)

    Rickman, Phil: The Smile of a Ghost (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)
    Another good one from Phil Rickman. He really doesn’t like psychiatrists, and he doesn’t think much of lawyers, either.

  • Joritz-Nakagawa, Jane: Plan B Audio

    Joritz-Nakagawa, Jane: Plan B Audio
    The genesis of a book of poems must be, one imagines, somehow different from the genesis of a single poem. The genesis of this collection is the cancer through which the poet, Jane Joritz-Nakagawa has lived, through which she did not die. This is not clear from the first poems in the collection, but becomes stark as the series progresses. One imagines this reflects Joritz-Nakagawa’s initial confusion at what is happening to her body and then the harsh knowledge of her situation. There are cryptic couplets, haiku-like tercets, and a range of other containers for the experiences the poet has, the images that fill her mind. Her vision of hospital life is bleak: “This is a hospital so someone must die.” That the poet published this book suggests a happy ending. The poem does not offer one.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies/The Mirror and the Light

    Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies/The Mirror and the Light
    This is a magnificent, epic account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII in Tudor England Although the books follow along from each other, there is some repetition that would be welcome if you had read each book when it appeared – i.e., several years apart – but which detracts when reading them back to back. Mantel cleverly brings a past society to vivid life, and that of course makes us compare it with our own. She is also a stone-cold excellent writer. What a treat rereading/reading these over the summer. (*****)

  • David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue

    David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue
    This novel is a glorious paean to creativity and a heyday of popular music. David Mitchell stitches his fictional band Utopia Avenue into real events and personalities of the day, and for me some of the funnest parts are the imagined hangings out with 60s luminaries like Francis Bacon, Brian Jones, Frank Zappa, and Jerry Garcia. As usual, Mitchell sets himself challenges—one is creating music through prose—and as usual he aces them. He also – sigh – inserts his multi-book ongoing woo-woo saga into this story, but the claptrap is a price I'm willing to pay for superb storytelling and writing as smooth as silk. (*****)

  • Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time

    Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
    Yeah, yeah, yeah! In 2021, the Beatles' music holds its own, but their times have receded into history. Even those who lived through the 1960s as I did have probably forgotten just how world-changing, all-consuming and hysterical was the whirlwind that was Beatlemania, when four cheeky Liverpool lads seduced a nation and the world with their wit and irreverence, injecting fresh joy into popular music, and dealing a body blow to Britain’s class system in the process. The Beatles have been written about so much, could there be anything more to say? Rather than one more plod along the familiar timeline, here we have the tale through a kaleidoscope of facets—150 of them; telling detail, eccentric focus and journalistic flair combine to bring the story and times to vivid life again. Bravo! (*****)

  • Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night

    Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night
    Disorganized, repetitive, shot through with a careless, toxic misogyny that presumably characterized the time of writing (1930s), this is one man’s jaundiced journey through the depths of human folly, cruelty and degradation. Yet the leisurely bathe in the cesspool of humanity is bejeweled with sparks of insight, empathy, lyricism, and mysticism. Here is shit and wisdom: angry, cynical, profound, and highly readable in a crackling translation. An uncomfortable read, but I'm very glad I did it. It was quite a ride! (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman

    Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman
    An engaging tale of an Irishman in Africa with the British army, and a marriage that becomes an alcohol-soaked nightmare. The protagonist is Jack McNulty, brother-in-law of Roseanne in Barry’s "The Secret Scripture". That book was a single; this is an album track. (***)

  • Ali Smith: Autumn

    Ali Smith: Autumn
    A fragmented fragment of a book rooted in angst-ridden Brexit Britain. It begins with (to me) too many tedious rants on bureaucracy (in the form of righteous conversations with obdurate officials). But it’s also a pleasant read, with passages about nature, Shakespeare, Dickens (his best and worst of times) and clever puns galore. Finally, it’s about a charming relationship between a precocious girl and a surrogate parent, and there’s another between a brother and sister, and it ends with a rose-tinted view of the 60s, and a glorious riff on the forgotten life of a (real-life!) 60s artist. (***)

  • Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star

    Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star
    This book took me back to my youth when I thought about sex constantly, and it was painfully frustrating because you could never get enough, and you couldn’t have the people you desired, and when you did get it, it was often unsatisfying because what you and your partner wanted to do or wanted from it were out of synch. Hollinghurst captures all that with clear-eyed and compassionate veracity, inside a story of a young Englishman’s stay in a Belgian town. It’s beautifully written, with intelligence, insight, and well-captured detail. These assets more than compensate for a few longueurs, and a less-than-satisfactory story arc. (****)

  • Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage

    Alice Munro: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage
    Nine snappy short stories about contemporary North American life and emotions, written with great insight into the human condition. Not a dull word. A master at work. (****)

  • Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

    Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
    This might be the most important book I’ve ever read, both as history and self-help. Humans are going to die and, alone among creatures, know it. This terrifying knowledge is kept unconscious through everyday distraction, immortality beliefs and projects, and by bolstering our culturally-derived sense of importance. Unfortunately, we also target cultural and religious outsiders as part of the defense against our unthinkable demise. This has been the story of the human race. The authors use experimental evidence to refine Ernest Becker’s insights into the human denial of death. There is no escape, but I hope I can think on this evidence to better understand my own terror of the inevitable, and its inevitable grip upon my mind. (Oh, and this book is written in a breezy pop-culture style for easy digestion.) (*****)

  • Donna Tartt: The Little Friend
    Donna Tartt’s intricate, suspenseful plots suck us in. Three novels. The first, The Secret History (1992), was a gripping read that I rather disliked for its characters. The latest, The Goldfinch (2013; Pulitzer Prize), was even more thrilling, with a more sympathetic cast. And now The Little Friend (2002), with a gorgeously realized (autobiographical?) setting in small-town Mississippi, a rainbow of finely-drawn characters of all ages, races, backgrounds, and a plot that climaxes with impossible tension both in the middle and again at the end. The conclusion is less than perfect--Tartt did better with The Goldfinch—but it’s hardly a flaw as loose ends are more or less tied up. (I think I know who the killer was.) To the author I say, thank you for so many hours of pleasure and diversion, and for your wonderful characters like The Little Friend’s Harriet. I have shared their lives, which have enriched mine. (*****)

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

  • No Time To Die
    Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale brought me back to the Bond franchise, but this was my least favorite of his five outings. Craig is as superb as ever, and there are a few amazing action set pieces, but the villain’s weak, the story’s opaque, and shooting henchmen dead for 2 hours plus gets tedious. For the first time I wondered, why am I watching this mayhem. But, OK, it wasn’t charm free: for me, the movie was stolen by Ana de Armas! (**)
  • Groundhog Day
    A cynical local TV personality finds himself in small-town America. Very funny, very clever and thought provoking, 28 years after its 1993 release, I can’t fault it. (DVD) (*****)
  • Supernova
    The acting is all in this Colin Firth Stanley Tucci two-hander, and it is superb. The theme (after lengthy scene setting): when you suffer dementia, what right do you have to end your own life to preserve your identity and spare those who love you. And for that person’s partner, what right do you have to ask them to suffer their own living erasure in the name of love. The conclusion is side-stepped, for this is still too much a hot-button issue to come down on one side or the other, but to raise it and have it portrayed in wonderfully human terms is helpful. (DVD) (***)
  • The Father
    A straightforward incident in the lives of a daughter and father becomes a fiendish puzzle that requires hard work on the viewer’s part. The complexity is in service of painting the mental challenge that getting old may pose, and the movie succeeds in giving us a vivid, convincing experience of that mental state, together with the emotions—paranoia, guilt and gratitude among them—it may cause. The screenwriters pull off a seeming impossibility: this is actually two movies with the same script, one on first viewing and the second on reflection, or a repeat view. Anthony Hopkins earned his best actor Oscar. This difficult but engaging film, which takes us somewhere we or a loved one may well disappear into, is a sobering education. (DVD) (****)
  • Minari
    An Asian immigrant family repair to rural Arkansas for their shot at the American dream. The story arc is drama as documentary, "Nomadland"-style: leisurely, observant, surprising, involving, finally satisfying. Watching it is time well spent. (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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