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February 2018










Books David Finished in 2018

  • William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library)

    William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar (Folger Shakespeare Library)
    I read a play or some sonnets every year, and when I do, I always wonder why I don't read more Shakespeare more often.

  • Taiyo Fujii: Gene Mapper

    Taiyo Fujii: Gene Mapper
    This is an entirely satisfying science fiction novel. The science being fictionalized is genetic modification, and it is refreshingly unorthodox in that it does not see genetic modification as something about which we should shriek and panic, and ends on an optimistic note. The technologies imagined for the future in which the action takes place are interesting, the information dumps never tedious, and the protagonist is believable, while some of his sidekicks are amusingly colorful if slightly unbelievable. Maybe I'll go order something else by Fujii.

  • Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque

    Natsuo Kirino: Grotesque
    This book is aptly titled: it's a book about grotesque people and how they got to be that way. It's a mix of philosophy (nihilist) horror (grotesquerie, see above), and social criticism (it's society that turns people into monsters). The book covers a lot of ground—maybe too much. We hear about Aum Shinrikyo, the hardship of life in rural China, eating disorders, elite girls' schools, and so on. That so many of the characters are, one way or another, diarists, and that we read their diaries seems a bit too easy of a way for Kirino to dump the information we need on us, but the voices she gives these chroniclers are arresting, and the characters' various accounts conflict in interesting ways. I suppose I may read more Kirino, but Grotesque is definitely the sort of book that leaves you feeling you need to read something completely different before returning to her world.

  • James K Elmborg: A Pageant of Its Time : Edward Dorn's Slinger and the Sixties(Hardback) - 1998 Edition

    James K Elmborg: A Pageant of Its Time : Edward Dorn's Slinger and the Sixties(Hardback) - 1998 Edition
    James K. Elmborg's monograph on Edward Dorn's "Gunslinger" is well-written and sheds useful light on the poem. His reading is based on the idea that in "Gunslinger" Dorn was very much responding to the social and political times in which its four books of "Gunslinger" were written: roughly 1968-1972. He's certainly not wrong that "Slinger" is a product of its times, but—and I think Elmborg would agree with me—there are certainly other ways to read the poem as well. Poetry tends not to be either/or, but also/and.

  • Jane Thynne: A War of Flowers

    Jane Thynne: A War of Flowers
    Jane Thynne's series of novels about an actress turned spy continues with another perceptive look at life in the Third Reich. As has been the case with previous entries in the series this novel is particularly perceptive because she focuses on women, in this case, the enigmatic Eva Braun. These novels are proof that historical novels can be done without laying down great swathes of fustian.

  • David Auerbach: Bitwise: A Life in Code

    David Auerbach: Bitwise: A Life in Code
    I first discovered David Auerbach's writings on his (mostly) literary blog, Waggish. I probably went there first when I was reading everything I could find about Samuel R. Delany, but I can't quite reconstruct the chain of books and blogs that brought me there. From Waggish I went on to Facebook friendship with Auerbach, and now to his first book, Bitwise. I'm glad I followed the links. Bitwise is an engaging and informative memoir of his life in computers as (you'll excuse the expression) a young computer-nerd, as an engineer at Microsoft and Google, and then, having come out the other end, as this book demonstrates, an insighful writer on computers and how they have changed us and the world we live in. What sets this book apart is that Auerbach, thanks to his interest in literature and philosophy, has a life outside of computers, so he is able to straddle the insider / outsider line in a way that is fruitful.

  • Edward Dorn: Ed Dorn Live: Lectures, Interviews, and Outtakes (Poets On Poetry)

    Edward Dorn: Ed Dorn Live: Lectures, Interviews, and Outtakes (Poets On Poetry)
    More grist for the Ed Dorn mill.

  • Edward Dorn: Two Interviews

    Edward Dorn: Two Interviews
    Some useful tidbits here to deepen one's appreciation of the work of Edward Dorn.

  • Edward Dorn: Gunslinger

    Edward Dorn: Gunslinger
    In the ferment of the long 1960s it seemed especially incumbent upon young artists to, as Pound is popularly believed to have urged, make it new. When making it new it is, unfortunately, easy to make it bad. Happily, the works of those whose zealousness exceeded their ability to innovate fruitfully are not remembered. Attempting to recall them--was there a poet who names himself after a deer's horn?--though, brings the raging success of a work like Edward Dorn's Gunslinger into stark relief. In this long narrative poem, he succeeds in giving us something we hadn't had before, something that, though grounded in its time continues to sing fifty years after its genesis.

  • Jane Thynne;: The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne (2014-10-09)

    Jane Thynne;: The Winter Garden by Jane Thynne (2014-10-09)
    Another in Jane Thynne's series of historical thrillers set in and around World War II Europe. In this one, the protagonist, Clara Vine, is still in Berlin in the run up to the war, and Thynne continues to write well about that period, instructing us in history that is particularly interesting, because her focus is often on what those years were like for women during those years. It's also a heck of a thriller, though the unveiling of the bad guy was less of a surprise than I had hoped for. It was the sadistic Nazi after all, rather than the idealistic upper-class Englishman. Imagine that!

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Lafcadio Hearn: Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation

    Lafcadio Hearn: Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation
    A century ago, as it remade itself into a modern power, Lafcadio Hearn sought to explain his adopted home Japan in terms that educated Westerners might understand, drawing copious parallels with ancient Greece, and describing its religion on its own terms rather than through a Christian lens. He saw Japan as akin to a bonsai tree: centuries of social control had created an extraordinary charmed fairyland of exquisite beauty, fast disappearing as industrialization took an ax to its roots of ancestor worship and community ties. The book is heavy on history, but the analysis is penetrating. Hearn’s thesis can be summarized by the quote he uses to open the book: “Perhaps all very marked national characters can be traced back to a time of rigid and pervading discipline.” (***)

  • Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

    Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
    The tragedy of Vietnam’s colonial past culminating in the horror of the war and its deathly aftermath; the humiliation and marginalization, historic and ongoing, experienced by Asians in the United States; all are grist for this tart and uncomfortable novel. It works its way to being as realistic and surreal as Apocolypse Now, and has similar ambition. More educational and salutary (thanks for that) than enjoyable. (**)

  • Roz Chast: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

    Roz Chast: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
    Roz Chast’s (autobio)graphic novel of the ambivalent daughter and her ageing parents’ last years is hilarious, insightful and moving. Pure joy to read. (*****)

  • Andrew Sean Greer: Less

    Andrew Sean Greer: Less
    A failing writer is turning 50, has parted from his partner, and decides on a whim to travel around the world from one dubious author gig to another. It’s rare (Elizabeth Strout; Ian McEwan…) to feel that I am in good hands: that this writer will steer me true, and Greer joins the list. It’s another book to thank the Pulitzer for steering me toward. Comic and profound. (****)

  • Basil Hall Chamberlain: Things Japanese
    To read this is to journey back 100 years to Meiji Japan, an exotic topsy-turvy land given encyclopedic treatment by a British expat whose observations, while level-headed, are shot through with the empathy-lite class and racial prejudices of his time. 500-plus pages of often fascinating detail about a country joining the modern world at breakneck speed after 200 years of isolation; its art, music, food, bathing, war with Russia, new colony Formosa and all else, the wonder being not how much has changed since 1904, but how much has remained the same.
  • Louis Sachar: Holes

    Louis Sachar: Holes
    An excellent yarn for kids and adults, simple yet complex, short and expansive, fantastic and real, with memorable characters and situations, and a story you can’t predict. It’s serious and funny, and, above all, fun. I’d say it only puts a foot wrong once, at the end of Chapter 18. (*****)

  • Tim Kreider: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You

    Tim Kreider: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
    Tim Kreider’s latest book of essays is as fun to read as his last “We Learn Nothing.” He riffs on relationships, sex, teaching, religion, politics, keeping a pet, summer vacation and more. Kreider is intelligent, extremely gifted as a writer, and is honest enough to be very funny. We are sometimes asked who living or dead we’d invite to a dinner party, and Kreider would be on my list. (No drawings in this volume, so I’m going to have to order one of his earlier books of cartoons to get my Kreider cartoon fix.) Color me grateful to have a book like this to read. (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Abide with Me

    Elizabeth Strout: Abide with Me
    Abide with Me, Elizabeth Strout’s “difficult second album,” is about a minister in a small US town in the 1950s, and it centers on loss. Compared to other Stout novels, I had less of the vivid sense of “yes, this is how people are,” but it has moments of flickering brilliance, and is never less than an enjoyable read. (***)

  • Jon McGregor: Reservoir 13

    Jon McGregor: Reservoir 13
    Wow. An entirely original novel: an objective report of life in a North-of-England village, the environment and the people, over a number of years. I had a hard time remembering the characters: my only criticism. Otherwise, it’s an exquisitely balanced, somewhat profound narrative, with observations of flora, and fauna human and otherwise, of all ages, that are gloriously right. (****)

  • Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son

    Adam Johnson: The Orphan Master's Son
    A novel about North Korea. The storytelling is competent. The content is entirely shocking: In the 50 years or so since the Korean War, has a society really evolved into this hell (I don’t use that word lightly) on earth? What a privilege it is to read novels—this novel—that transport me to experiences, to lives, outside my own. (***)

Books Mark read recently

  • Paul Bowles: Collected Stories, 1939-1976

    Paul Bowles: Collected Stories, 1939-1976
    Thanks, David Cozy, for recommending this. These refreshing, tension-filled stories, took me to worlds I have never encountered before, North Africa and The Sahara Desert, a variety of places and communities... Bowles writing is fresh, educating, and unpredictable. Great writing from and about the Muslim world and beyond. My favorite in the collection was "How Many Midnights?" How about you, reader? (*****)

  • Lorrie Moore: 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories (The Best American Series ®)

    Lorrie Moore: 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories (The Best American Series ®)
    This is a treasure trove of short stories, each one a gem. The short stories in this volume progress from the year 1915 to 2015. Read chronologically, I gained notions on how short stories writers changed and improved over the years. Interspersed with autobiographical notes on each author, as well as commentary from the editors on the eras in which they wrote, the stories feel bound to a good home in this collection. A heavy book, but I could not put it down. My personal favorites were Fitzgerald's "Babylon Revisited," John Updike's "Pigeon Feathers," Joyce Carol Oates' "By the River," Charles Baxter's "Harmony of the World," Jamaica Kincaid's " Luella," Akhil Sharma's "If You Sing Like That for Me," and Jhumpa Lahiri's "The Third and Final Continent." I will go back to these stories again in the future. Such beautiful writing. Such a magical book. (*****)

  • Cesare Pavese (author): The Beautiful Summer (Penguin European Writers)

    Cesare Pavese (author): The Beautiful Summer (Penguin European Writers)
    An intimate, buoyant story of one summer for a seventeen year-old woman attempting to fit-in with some older experienced Bohemian artists. Pavese captures her lack of confidence perfectly as she falls in love with a handsome painter and encounters her co-horts teasing and bullying. A small, fun book to read, and for the most part, the reader feels the exuberance of youth in the 1930's, in an Italian city, and the possibilities and boredom that accompanies a Bohemian lifestyle there within. (****)

  • Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way

    Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way
    Sebastian Barry takes you by the hand and leads you into the trenches of Belgium during WW1. This is one Irishman's story of the horrors of war. Brutal, and extremely well written, A Long Long Way is unflinching in detailing man's inhumanity and cruelty toward each other. (****)

  • Edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard: Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories

    Edited by James Thomas and Robert Shapard: Flash Fiction Forward: 80 Very Short Stories
    I purchased this collection to find stories for my EFL students who claimed my previous short story selections were too long. This collection of eighty very short stories solves that problem, (each story is about a page and a half,) but I found most of the stories underwhelming and quickly forgotten. A few standouts however are worth mentioning here: "Stories," "The Voices in My Head," "Jumper Down," "Bullhead," "All Girl Band," and "My Date with Neanderthal Woman." These contained tension and/or light-hearted comic energy that most readers will appreciate in this very short format. (**)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Call Me By My Name
    As languid as an Italian summer, a tale of first love that, thanks to impeccable performances, feels true, calling us to dare to open our hearts. (DVD) (****)
  • Darkest Hour
    Gary Oldman’s terrific Oscar-winning Winston Churchill impersonation aside, this movie moves glacially, and the rewriting of history brings little. Snoozefest. (Theater) (**)
  • Isle of Dogs
    Dogs are under threat in an affectionately stereotypical future Japan. It’s a leisurely tale told in whip-fast animation, liberally peppered with humorous touches. The voice work and animation are clever and fun. Pure Wes Anderson dark whimsy. (Theater) (4 stars for me, but 2 for my moviegoing companion.) (****)
  • Paterson
    A movie observing likeable people going about their lives; a love song to a city and to poetry. Sounds more or less up my street, so why am I thinking of friends who’ll enjoy it more than I did. As far as movie-ness (artificiality), there are no more coincidences than in something by Rohmer. For me, it played fine but just didn’t spark. (DVD) (**)
  • The Post
    This is how, in the Vietnam War era and pre-Watergate, a whistleblower and US newspapers bravely confronted the Nixon White House over freedom of the press. It’s also the startling story of a Washington society matron confronting gender prejudice, internalized and external, when thrust into a history-making role. It's a solid, suspenseful, satisfying account, tidily acted by Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, with clear parallels to current times. It also sent me to Wikipedia to learn more about The Pentagon Papers, Daniel Ellsberg, Katherine Graham, Ben Bradlee and the rest. (Theater) (****)

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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