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09/21/2018

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Books David Finished in 2021

  • Penman, Ian: It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays, 2012-2018

    Penman, Ian: It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays, 2012-2018
    Excellent essays about excellent music, Ian Penman’s It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track is the sort of music writing that is all too rare. His starting points are icons like, among a few others, Charlie Parker, James Brown, Donald Fagen, Elvis, and movements like the Mods, and from these he spins meditations that resonate and would repay rereading. Sometimes the critical essay seems like the most exciting writing out there.

  • Conrad, Joseph: Almayer's Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (Modern Library Classics)

    Conrad, Joseph: Almayer's Folly: A Story of an Eastern River (Modern Library Classics)
    It’s hard to disagree with the critics who have noted that this, Joseph Conrad’s first novel, is not among his best. One actually notices, reading Almayer's Folly, that the prose is, at time’s awkward. This isn’t surprising when one remembers that English was just one of Conrad’s languages, and not his first, or even his second. Having said that, there are passages of real beauty, particularly in the final chapter when we watch the ruined Almayer try to forget the daughter who has deserted him for a Malayan prince. Likewise the story moves along well enough that we manage to make it past the bumps occasioned by the racial orthodoxies of the time: savage Malays, opium-addicted Chinese, civilized whites. In the end, Conrad does seem to call some of these orthodoxies into question in making a non-white woman, Almayer’s half Malayan daughter, ultimately the novel’s heroine.

  • Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Volume One)

    Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: The Complete Sherlock Holmes (Volume One)
    I decided, as one does, that the time had come to reread the entire Sherlock Holmes canon, not haphazardly, but in order, so my old Doubleday edition came down off the shelf. I’ve now finished Volume One, which contains The Sign of the Four, A Study in Scarlet, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes. Taken together, what a grand tapestry they are. Things I noticed this time: how often evil comes from abroad, whether it’s the mystic East or the only slightly less heathen North America, and how often the notion surfaces that “blood” explains people’s character; this must have been a popular notion at the time as it courses through the veins of a great deal of Victorian fiction. It seems quaint now, but I suppose it’s no more naive than the notion so many in our time adhere to that this or that gene directly determines people’s characters.

  • Wilson, Andrew: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith

    Wilson, Andrew: Beautiful Shadow: A Life of Patricia Highsmith
    Patricia Highsmith wrote a lot of books and had a lot of lovers. This fact governs Andrew Wilson’s biography of the writer, with most of the middle chapters of the book devoted first to the work she was doing during the years with which the chapter is concerned, and then to the relationships she was turbulently moving through. Writers' lives, we are reminded, are seldom as interesting as their work, but because the work is interesting—very!—we read on in hopes the life will, in some way, illuminate the work. I’m not sure that Wilson’s biography does: the work remains perplexing, and so does its author, an odd woman who, one feels certain, would be, in our time, placed somewhere on “the spectrum.”

  • Lagalisse, Erica: Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples (KAIROS)

    Lagalisse, Erica: Occult Features of Anarchism: With Attention to the Conspiracy of Kings and the Conspiracy of the Peoples (KAIROS)
    I’m happy to have chosen this stimulating work as my first finished book of 2021. Lagalisse does two things: gives a historical account of the hidden religious and occult roots of the apparently atheistic left (that A with a circle around it has its roots in freemasonry) and, having laid that groundwork discusses how those of us who hope for a better world might productively engage with those who endorse more or less outlandish theories of conspiracy. As someone who has little patience with religion and spirituality, and deplores what is popularly known as conspiracy theory, especially because it all seems to boil down to “it’s the Jews,” I found this a challenging (also illuminating) account.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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. (*****)
  • Ann Patchett: Commonwealth

    Ann Patchett: Commonwealth
    A series of almost short stories gradually circle and coalesce into a novel about an extended family in California and Virginia, with characters moving from their prime to middle and old age. It’s about nothing more than the vagaries of life, finely and artfully observed. Compelling and satisfying. (****)

  • Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me

    Ian McEwan: Machines Like Me
    What you get from recent McEwan: a story that centers on a deeply researched and thought-through aspect of life and society, delivered through impeccable writing, interesting characters, and imaginative, life-and-death suspenseful plotting with twists galore. This one, cleverly set in an alternative 80s London (Kennedy survived Dallas; the Beatles got back together, and much more) is about artificial intelligence. While somewhat padded, it’s absorbing, thought-provoking, and, yes, moving. A master at work. I enjoyed it very much. (****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again: A Novel

    Elizabeth Strout: Olive, Again: A Novel
    Elizabeth Stout is for my money the greatest living writer I have encountered. If you compared her writing to art, it would be hyper-realistic illustration. The insight into human nature and veracity in describing it is extraordinary. Then there’s that her body of work connects with itself, with characters and locations reappearing within and between books for added resonance. I’ve enjoyed to varying degrees everything she’s written, and this collection of stories is way up there at the high end of the barometer. In it, characters face up to life and death, and Olive Kitteridge navigates old age in contemporary small-town USA. (*****)

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

  • After the Storm (海よりもまだ深く)
    Still Walking (2008), a tribute to Kore-eda’s mother in the form of a slice-of-life domestic drama, turned out really well. By reuniting the main actors Abe Hiroshi and Kiki Kirin in After the Storm (2016), a similar portrait of family, and similarly titled after a pop song, he was probably, to mix metaphors, going back to the same well in the hope of conjuring up further magic. Indeed, the actors match or surpass their earlier performances. The themes of the films are broadly similar: the unpredictability of life: there is luck sometimes (the protagonist here wins a minor literary prize), but usually not. And if we are unlucky enough to be victims of our character or appetites (here it is sex and gambling) or of straitened circumstances, we’re going to live lives of frustration and disappointment unless we take the joys of life as they come: in both films these are mostly related to family and to food. Still Walking was a bullseye, and this is not far from the zone. As The Guardian film critic Peter Bradshaw observed in reviewing this movie (better than I ever could), “There is such intelligence and delicacy in Kore-eda’s film-making, such wit and understated humanity.” (****)
  • Roma (Alfonso Cuaron, 2018)
    A servant and the middle-class family she works for in a Mexican city in 1970. Although there is more drama here than in most movies, it is simply an impeccably filmed, absorbing time capsule and slice of life. This gives us latitude in what we take away. One friend said she learned about Mexico. Another complained that there wasn’t one likeable male character. We watch how men and women cope, live, and die in a patriarchal society, and there is something of Ozu in the meditative, clear-eyed observation. For me, I mostly felt it as a sober love letter to the filmmaker’s childhood. (DVD) (*****)
  • Marriage Story (2019, dir. Noah Baumbach)
    A movie about a relationship, albeit one that is going wrong most of the time we witness it. Such is the verisimilitude that we feel like flies on the wall, watching this family and its dilemmas. This is committed acting up and down the cast, and great moviemaking. Relationships are never easy, and you’ll surely find something here that reflects your own experience as you watch these people doing their best to navigate the labyrinth. (DVD) (****)
  • 1917
    1917 is the story of a life-and-death mission in the WWI trenches involving two soldiers. It is almost unrelieved high-ratchet tension, and an eye-opening confrontation with the reality of war. Watch this tour de force in IMAX if you can. (*****)
  • Jojo Rabbit
    Anti-war broad comedy and dense tragedy featuring a 10-year-old Nazi youth in the last months of WWII. You know it’s going to be loopy when one of those Beatlemania German-language singles plays over opening credits of documentary crowds wild about Hitler... and why not when the movie is about mindless hero-worship. The film is indeed nuts in the best way; surreal-hilarious, skirting close to offensive but staying the right side of the balancing act. The script and pacing are too loose, but all in all it works. I laughed, I cried. I often didn’t know why I was crying unless it was about, oh, the humanity. A good time was had. (****)

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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