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Books David Finished in 2019

  • Rex Stout: Nero Wolfe Mystery - Death of a Doxy

    Rex Stout: Nero Wolfe Mystery - Death of a Doxy
    Because who wouldn't want to read a mystery featuring an overweight orchid-loving beer-guzzling gourmet and learn new words like "doxy."

  • Terry Ann Carter: Tokaido
    An artful account in poetry and prose (the form is called haibun) of Hiroshige's experience of the Tokaido, one of Japan's great roads, intertwined with those of a modern poet who may or may not be Terry Ann Carter. I would quote from it, but I've passed the book on to a friend who is currently walking the Tokaido and passed through my town in the course of his journey.
  • Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood

    Flannery O'Connor: Wise Blood
    Flannery O'Connor was a believing and practicing Catholic, and she wanted her reader to know it. "That belief in Christ is to some a matter of life and death has," she remarked, "been a stumbling block to some who prefer to think it a matter of no great consequence." That belief in Christ has been tremendously consequential for the world has to be accepted—mostly for the malign influence the Church and its minions have had—but that, of course, is not what O'Connor means. It's hard to know exactly what she does mean, though, because in her Southern Gothic world religion and both the pursuit of it and the retreat from it seem to give rise to horrors. One must add, though, that the horrors are often tremendously funny, for as O'Connor also reminds us, this is a comic novel, though she adds that "all comic novels that are any good must be about matter of life and death." Have a laugh, marvel at the warped creatures O'Connor's imagination has conjured, and think about the comic, tragic vision of the world and belief that she presents.

  • Gregory Dunne: Other/Wise

    Gregory Dunne: Other/Wise
    Poetry can sing for any number of reasons. Sometimes it is precisely a poet's lack of wisdom that does the trick. The poems to which a confused mind in the throes of agony and ecstasy and never anything in between gives rise can be howls beautiful, terrible, and altogether compelling. Gregory Dunne, in Other/Wise, doesn't do this. Rather, unlike the collections of howls, which are often the books of young men and women, and which are sometimes made very bad by the chaos that might have made them great, Dunne writes from a place of settled experience. He—one assumes the speaker of the poems is Dunne—has come out the other side, and is now looking back, surveying the life he has lived and the present the life he has lived has given him. The book is filled with memories of parents, friends, and people he has known. These poems are sometimes sentimental, but never in a way that is cloying, as in "Visiting," where he recalls hearing, on a visit home, his father, sitting in a La-Z Boy, " . . . calling out / to his wife - Good night, love! - / helping me to hear / how those words fall / into the familiar / order of their lives / as quietly as snow / falls through the night / and fills the surrounding mountains / with the approaching / white water rivers of spring." The rhythm which Dunne skillfully insinuates into his words moves us at a stately pace. The river, not calm but raging, gives the poem a welcome turn. There are poems about the news, about the poet's children, about art, and much else. What binds them is the quiet confidence Dunne has, and the contemplative view he takes of the world and with which he infuses his poems. There are no howls here, but there is poetry that satisfies in a quieter way.

  • Joy Waller: Pause :: Heartbeat
    We barely need to hear any more that people can make lives in Tokyo and Japan that consist of the same ingredients as lives elsewhere: work, family, friends, play. And we certainly no longer need to hear about weird and exotic Japan: that's mostly Western media fantasy anyway. In Joy Waller's Pause :: Heartbeat she gives us in poems written in a variety of styles, a side of Tokyo and Japan which those who read in English (but don't live here) may be less aware of: streets, night, sex, drugs—and the love, ecstasy, and pain that can be found there—are prominent. Of course the Beats, who would seem to be a primary influence on Waller, wrote lots of poems about the various ecstasies, licit and illicit, that they were experiencing, but the males among them got most of the attention, and well, boys screwing around, at the end of the day, isn't really all that radical. What is refreshing here is that the female protagonist of many of Waller's poems (who may or may not be identical with their author) does her screwing around with the same matter-of-factness as the Beat bros. But what poems are about is never where the real action is. It's what poems are that is interesting, and the good news is that Waller's poems are well-made. She favors short lines, and is skilled at knowing where to divide up an image/line for maximum effect. Like this, for example, a poem called "Blank Space": tear / the anniversaries / from your mind / like sheets / of white paper / from an unused pad: this / is when / that didn't / happen
  • Barry Eisler: Livia Lone (A Livia Lone Novel Book 1)

    Barry Eisler: Livia Lone (A Livia Lone Novel Book 1)
    Because I'm addicted to Barry Eisler's thrillers.

  • Alan Botsford: mamaist: a different sort of light

    Alan Botsford: mamaist: a different sort of light
    Poets sometimes become so smitten with a style that they start to write all their poems in that style. That, of course, is a trap. The second trap happens when they write poems that leave one, after the last line is read, with nothing: nothing to think about, nothing memorable, not a belly laugh, a giggle, or a grimace. Alan Botsford, in his most recent mamaist tome, subtitled "a different sort of light" falls into neither of these traps, writing in a variety of styles and leaving us with poems that remain in memory. He calls some of his mamaist work "generic poems," by which he means poems that use "generic" langauge—everyday words and phrases—and twists them in a way that refreshes them. It's the creativity and wit in some of these poems that, I think, will stay with me the longest. And this is the last book I will finish reading in the Heisei Era.

  • Barry Eisler: The Killer Collective

    Barry Eisler: The Killer Collective
    Another good thriller from the always reliable Barry Eisler. He manages to bring all of the protagonists of his previous books together for Killer Collective and except for one, they all get out alive.

  • Tom Griffith: Anasara: A Peace Corps Journey

    Tom Griffith: Anasara: A Peace Corps Journey
    This is a memoir by a friend of mine about his time in the Peace Corps forty or so years ago. It is also an account of his spiritual awakening: he becomes, as he wryly notes, not a Buddhist like all the other cool kids, but an Evangelical Christian. That he is funny (also very serious) about his spiritual awakening, but never strident or defensive is a marker of Tom's skill as a writer. As an atheist who has a hard time believing that the good religion—any religion—has done for the world outweighs the bad, and can't think of even one good reason to believe in sky gods, I am predisposed to be, at best, uninterested in accounts of how people come to god, but Tom's skill made me enjoy following his journey even if it's not one I would ever take myself. Generally, when the spiritual intrudes into memoirs my eyes glaze over, and though this wasn't the case with Anasara, I did find the part of the book that dealt with his life in Niger more compelling than the tribulations that eventually brought him to Jesus. It's rather astounding that young, unformed people are sent out into the world to do good in places that are far from easy, and it was fascinating to see how Tom and his colleagues rose to the challenges they faced, and sometimes succumbed to them. The honesty with which Tom admits what he understands as his failures is stunning, and the vigor with which he beats himself up for these very human failings is equally stunning, if also saddening. Tying it all together is Tom's very fluent prose, an excellent vehicle for his humor, and also his wisdom. He knows himself well.

  • Agatha Christie: The Murder on the Links: A Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries)

    Agatha Christie: The Murder on the Links: A Hercule Poirot Mystery (Hercule Poirot Mysteries)
    I just finished a biography of Edward Gorey. He was a huge Agatha Christie fan, so I figured I'd give one (free, courtesy of Project Gutenberg) a go. It was okay, and gathered momentum as it went, but cozys—that's what these kind of mysteries are called—have always been a little too soft-boiled for me. That hasn't changed.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Walter Abish: How German Is It

    Walter Abish: How German Is It
    A collection of characters, points of view, plot lines and non-sequiturs that depict Germany going about life in the shadow of Hitler, the Holocaust and World War II. I’m not a fan of novels in which the writer holds back information to supposedly make things more mysteriously interesting, nor novels with surreal interludes (the coloring book), where events are dropped (the mass grave) or inadequately explained (the shooting by the bunker). There is also the constant intrusion of meta-questions (“Could everything be different?”) that rarely add to the prose, and mostly take the reader out of the story. (*)

  • W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz

    W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz
    It begins with a meeting of minds over architecture, from where it drifts into a witnessing, both down-to-earth and dreamlike, of the most horrific event organized by humans in the 20th century. The account, punctuated by surprising photographs, is sometimes too mystical for this reader, but is always compelling. (***)

  • Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis

    Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis
    Opening sentence: “When Gregor Samsa awoke one morning… he found himself transformed… into some sort of monstrous insect.” OK. So I guess this is either a horror story or an allegory, but to me it underwhelmed on both counts. (*)

  • Donna Tartt: The Secret History

    Donna Tartt: The Secret History
    I read this on the strength of “The Goldfinch”. Like that book, the story is rooted in the deep knowledge of a cultural field, in this case Greek language and literature. Empty calories, repetitive, but a reliable companion for many weeks that never wore out its welcome. And then, brilliant writer that she is, Tartt writes an epilogue of such charm and humor that it leaves you wanting more. (***)

  • Roald Dahl: Matilda

    Roald Dahl: Matilda
    Matilda is a perfectly delightful children’s story about a perfectly delightful child. A real treat. (*****)

  • Cesare Pavese: The Beautiful Summer

    Cesare Pavese: The Beautiful Summer
    In an Italian city, mid-20th century, a 16-year-old girl lives the ecstasy and agony of adolescence and adolescent love. This frenzied, disorganized, hyper-realistic recounting echoes Elena Ferrante’s more leisurely and detailed account in the first of her Neapolitan novels, which only confirmed that, yes, this is how it must have been there and then. (**)

  • Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess Boys

    Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess Boys
    Strout takes the issue of immigration, and perhaps in so doing, situates her book alongside a thousand other “relevant” contemporary novels, which might be why I hadn’t heard about it. It’s a compelling story of a family from Maine, USA that has all the extraordinarily penetrating insight into human nature of her other books. It’s terrific, educational, and the last of her novels I’ve read, so here’s my list of favorites. Joint #1 The Burgess Boys/Olive Kitteridge/My Name is Lucy Barton; Joint #2 Amy and Isabelle/Anything is Possible; #3 Abide with Me. I will be rereading all of them. (*****)

  • Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

    Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping
    This story of two sisters growing up in backwoods Idaho begins with the same grave, wise cadencies of Gilead, wistful and sometimes wry, then gradually slides into mystical and poetic descriptions beyond my level of comprehension and appreciation, riffing on life, death, family, the bible… by way of water and the moon. A telling both conventional and transgressive, with much to be appreciated. (***)

  • Michael Chabon: The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh

    Michael Chabon: The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh
    I’m not sure all the pieces quite jigsaw into place, but this is a rich, pleasurable read (about being young, about living in a city, about friendship) with light and darkness, and much satisfyingly acute observation. It’s the kind of book that makes you grateful someone took the trouble to craft it. Thank you Michael Chabon. (****)

  • Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach

    Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach
    A story about a New York family during the Depression and World War II. I felt a little bogged down in the middle stretches, but all that scene-setting pays off in the final third, and the penultimate sequence at sea is incredibly moving. The story also illustrates the vast distance we've traveled in overcoming racism and sexism in just one lifetime. (****)

Books Mark read recently

  • George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel

    George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo: A Novel
    Saunders transports readers to a place where ghosts are hanging out and interacting with each other as they try to manipulate the feelings of humans. The book focuses on a after the death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie. Unique, colorful, insightful— also tinged with the sadness of death. Likely a masterpiece. (*****)

  • Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves: A Novel

    Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves: A Novel
    A remarkable voice tells the story of high school girl living in the woods with her parents--descendants of a defunct commune. Across the lake a young family moves in, and the girl's loneliness wanes as she watches over the couples' son, teaching him about the woods. Shunned by others at school, the bonds developed with the family across the lake lead the girl to struggle with larger questions. A fast moving narrative. I could not put this one down. (****)

  • Walter Abish: How German Is It

    Walter Abish: How German Is It
    This book is enjoyable and funny. Amish has a knack for distinguishing characters with nuance; all of it with some take on his idea of a post-war German mindset. At times I felt at sea because of a loosely strewn narrative... but there are enough people having sex and a penchant for quirkiness to keep most readers happy. I felt the ending was a little too quick, but one has to stop writing sometime. My friend Alan alerted to me to some of the historical inaccuracies critics contend with this book. Not knowing much German history, this didn't get in my way, however, point taken. I can't end this review without writing how much I like the book cover. (****)

  • W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz (Modern Library (Paperback))

    W.G. Sebald: Austerlitz (Modern Library (Paperback))
    Beautifully written account, of another's account, of a search for lost family after WWII. Austerlitz studies old buildings; train stations, schools, libraries, prisons, etc. He recounts his findings to the author, and during their lifetime of random and casual meetings, intertwines a family biography that begins when Austerlitz was sadly sent away by his mother--at age 4-- who was fearful of the German invasion into Prague. Wonderful long winded sentences that occasionally move emotionally happy and sad, and back again, before we finally reach the period. (*****)

  • Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis

    Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis
    This is a really creepy story. It has stayed on my mind for days after having finished reading. A man wakes one morning to discover he's turned into an insect (a dung beetle, if I remember correctly). Kafka is brilliant in letting us see the details from the eyes of a bug: what he desires, what are his thoughts and failings; how those in the house react to the bug who was once a loved family member. Kafka sentences are long-winded, but I enjoyed reading him again, having eons ago read The Trial. This story is haunting-- and somehow beautiful-- and not to be shunned. (*****)

  • Louis Sachar: Holes

    Louis Sachar: Holes
    A fun full length novel for young readers. A boy is charged with a crime (stealing some sneakers) and for punishment is sent to a camp on a dry lake to dig holes. He meets other boys his own age who are truly delinquent, and learns though is own cleverness how to handle them. A subplot features the story of the relationship of a black man and a white woman who lived on the lake a hundred years ago. How does their story connect to the current one? (*****)

  • Roald Dahl: Matilda

    Roald Dahl: Matilda
    This is a funny and inspirational book for young people. I suppose readers might be anywhere from 9 to 12 years-old. This year I will turn 60, and I loved the book. It's the story of a young girl--Matilda, who is super smart--who endures an unloving family and no one who takes her seriously except for her teacher, Mrs. Honey. (*****)

  • Roxane Gay, Editor: The Best American Short Stories 2018

    Roxane Gay, Editor: The Best American Short Stories 2018
    Another wonderful collection of the short stories nominated and chosen from literary magazines and journals in 2018. My three favorite stories are "What Got Into Us" "Good with Boys" and "Suburbia!" (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess Boys

    Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess Boys
    Elizabeth Strout's latest novel is the story of three siblings from rural Maine. An accident from their childhood continues to influence their adult lives, especially in times of personal turmoil. The brilliance of The Burgess Boys is how the psychological transparency of each sibling, so precisely rendered by Strout, provides adequate tension for a climactic finish. Not nearly her best work, however. For that see Olive Kitteridge. (***)

  • 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? (*****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • Bohemian Rhapsody
    It may be undistinguished as a movie, but then there’s the weird, charismatic Freddie Mercury channeled by actor Rami Malek, some innovative visuals… and the music! (***)
  • Green Book
    Green Book follows a predictable path but, thanks to a superior script and inspired acting by the two leads, it’s fresh and absorbing. But then I'm a sucker for the chance to witness fellow humans exhibiting courage and overcoming their flaws to become better people. One moviegoing companion wasn’t in complete agreement, finding some parts too broad and cliched. Nevertheless, this popcorn-crowd-pleasing “movie” movie won Best Picture this year, so maybe Hollywood did institute a Best Popular Movie Oscar after all. (*****)
  • Shoplifters
    This entertaining story of an urban Japanese family on the margins does what I always hope a movie might do: make us more understanding of the plight of others. (DVD) (****)
  • The Favourite
    England, early 1700s. A venal, lonely monarch easily swayed by her appetites and weaknesses. It’s a sumptuous, imaginative, deliciously profane staging with wonderful acting but, with no sympathetic characters or dramatic arc, it became rather a slog. Watching the debauched, laughable culture made me wonder how future generations will judge our present excesses, which are probably no less ludicrous. Now, finding that it was based on a true story makes me eager to read Queen Anne’s Wikipedia page. (***)
  • I Am Not Your Negro
    Among the Trumpian trees, you lose sight of the forest, so it’s enlightening to be transported back to mid 20th Century US to witness the forest on fire: the seeming impasse of race relations at the time of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. We witness this agony through the eyes and mind of James Baldwin, whose wisdom was among the reasons the fire has receded. This beautifully rendered documentary and history lesson is worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time. It will make you grateful to be living today rather than yesterday, while making it clear how much more work there is to be done. (I was lucky to watch on the big screen [at Jack & Betty, the revival house in Yokohama]). Jack & Betty: http://www.jackandbetty.net (****)

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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