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April 2019











Books David Finished in 2022

  • Celestin, Ray: Mobsters Lament (City Blues Quartet)

    Celestin, Ray: Mobsters Lament (City Blues Quartet)
    Whoops. Forgot to write about this after I finished it a few weeks ago. Celestin continues to follow the path of the black diaspora in North America, this time taking us from Chicago to New York. He paints a lively and convincing panorama of the Gotham of the immediate post-war years, from Brooklyn docks to gangster-inhabited penthouses to bebop clubs in Harlem. Our understanding of the regular characters deepens, and we are happy to see Louis Armstrong once again make an unobtrusive appearance. Next stop: Los Angeles.

  • French, Tana: In the Woods: A Novel (Dublin Murder Squad)

    French, Tana: In the Woods: A Novel (Dublin Murder Squad)
    I've read a couple of Tana French's standalone novels and admired them for her willingness to allow things to move very slowly. In an artistic world in which suddenness and shock are valued it is nice to see a writer push back against that. Seeing that French's deliberateness of pace seems to be almost a trademark, I was interested to see what her version of a police procedural would be like, and thus I opened the first in her Dublin Murder Squad series, In the Woods. I must confess that, in a context where things generally move at a sprightlier pace, I found myself wanting things to move a little faster, but that was only at first. Once I had let go of my expectations of the form I settled down and enjoyed turning, deliberately, the pages. I especially admired French's misdirection. The mystery that we think will be solved by the end of the book is simply given up on as unsolvable, and the crime that the murder squad detectives are working on is resolved in a way that is satisfyingly inconclusive. It's hard to see where French will go, with her eminently dislikable protagonist, from here, but there are, I think, five more books in the series so go she does.

  • Harvey, Alex: Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles (Reverb)

    Harvey, Alex: Song Noir: Tom Waits and the Spirit of Los Angeles (Reverb)
    This is a good overview of Tom Wait's career up to around "Swordfishtrombones." Waits is an interesting enough guy, and Alex Harvey a skillful enough writer, that one isn't really disappointed that the book is about eighty-five percent Waits and only fifteen percent "the spirit of Los Angeles." Likewise, one isn't too bothered by odd errors that suggest that Harvey is much more interested in and up to speed with Waits than in the metropolis and its literature, the raw materials that made Waits possible. (Homer Simpson—no relation to the character of the same name on a popular animated TV series—is an important character in Nathaniel West's classic LA novel, The Day of the Locust, but he is not an artist or the protagonist of the book as Harvey claims.) There's no evidence Waits or his partner and collaborator Kathleen Brennan, who, Harvey rightly recognizes, reinvigorated Wait's work and perhaps even saved his life, talked to him at all; Harvey did a good job with what he had.We're left eager for their version, but maybe they've been giving us their version all along, in the art.

  • Miskowski, S.P.: Knock Knock (Skillute Cycle)

    Miskowski, S.P.: Knock Knock (Skillute Cycle)
    I haven't read a horror novel since . . . maybe I've never read a horror novel. (Surely Frankenstein doesn't count.) I heard about this one from an acquaintance on Twitter, and thought I might as well try something different. I'm not sorry I did, because in addition to the, well, horror, there's an excellent picture of life in the Pacific Northwest and—if a man can get away with saying this—what seems like an excellent depiction of what it's like to grow up and live female. The novel follows three girls in the small Washington town of Skillute from the time they innocently perform a half-understood ritual in the forest (this is a horror novel, after all) in the late 1960s up through the present day, though actually not all the girls make it that far. We come to know and care about these girls and then women through alternating sections devoted to each of them. Most interesting, perhaps. is the dreadful thing that is at the root of the horror Miskowski gives us: an alien life invading and then emerging from your body: pregnancy and childbirth. That's what the initial ritual is meant to ward off, and it's from this that the horror emerges.

  • von Reinhold, Shola: Lote

    von Reinhold, Shola: Lote
    To misquote Eliot Weinberger, this is not a novel about someone "getting divorced in Connecticut [written] by someone . . . getting divorced in Pennsylvania." That is, it is not conventional lit-fic. It is, instead, a work that is informed by literature, art, and theory. The protagonist, Mathilda, is a black Briton fascinated by the bright young things, a group of flamboyant and mostly gay socialites on the scene in the 1920s and 30s. She notices that in their milieux, and among the somewhat more restrained Bloomsbury bunch, people with her pigmentation are, to say the least, underrepresented. She begins to look for them and, finally focusing on an (imaginary) black poet named Hermia Druitt, sets out in search of this Afro-Scottish artist who, Shola von Reinhold convinces us, hobnobbed with BYTs and Bloomsberries alike. Mixing actual scholarship with historically grounded fiction, von Reinhold lets us follow Mathilda on her quest. Mathilda's efforts to bring attention to the forgotten Druitt remind us of actual black artists whose lives and works have been suppressed.

  • West, Nathanael: The Day of the Locust (New Directions Paperbook)

    West, Nathanael: The Day of the Locust (New Directions Paperbook)
    The Day of the Locust is one of those novels that gets better with every reading. Thanks to West's ruthlessness and the clarity of his vision it is certainly the best Hollywood novel we have seen or are likely to see. And in the great mob scene that closes the novel can any contemporary reader fail to see a Trump rally?: " . . . the cultists of all sorts, economic as well as religious . . . all those poor devils who can only be stirred by the promise of miracles and then only to violence. A super 'Dr. Know-All Pierce-All' had made the necessary promise and they were marching behind his banner in a great united front of screwballs and screw boxes to purify the land. No longer bored, they sang and danced joyously in the red light of the flames." For "Dr. Know-All Pierce-All" read, well, you know who.

  • Cross, Amanda: In the Last Analysis (Kate Fansler)

    Cross, Amanda: In the Last Analysis (Kate Fansler)
    Amanda Cross was the pseudonym of Carolyn Heilbrun, a professor at Columbia University—the first woman to obtain tenure in the English department there—who specialized in modern British literature. She tried to keep her mystery-writing alter-ego a secret, but a fan ferreted out the truth, and one can see why that fan was suspicious. All of the many entries in this series are set in academia, and the detective is a professor in the English department of a university not unlike Columbia. I should know by now that I don't do well with insufficiently hard-boiled mysteries, but the literature jokes and references made this one a bit less of a slog than it might have been for this one-time English major and incessant reader. Maybe I'll read another one someday?

  • Babel, Isaac: Collected Stories (Penguin Classics)

    Babel, Isaac: Collected Stories (Penguin Classics)
    I'm not the first to note the similarity between Isaac Babel's stories and the paintings of Marc Chagall. In that both rose out of the Russian Pale of Settlement, the similarity is unsurprising. As much pleasure as we take from Chagall's work, though, for all its similarity with Babel's fiction, we can't help but note that the violence among which Babel's stand-in, "with spectacles on [his] nose and autumn in [his] heart," moves in the stories gives his fiction a harder edge, a conflict—Babel, the consummate Jewish intellectual, rode with Cossacks during the Russian Civil War—that seems absent from the nostalgia of Chagall's canvases. For that reason, the stories seem to evoke a level of existence that Chagall's work neglects. In the laconic detachment, too, Babel's creations seem quite different from those of the Russians we have known. Those of us fortunate enough to discover the Russians in our youth will always return to them and always be rewarded.

  • Celestin, Ray: Dead Man's Blues: A Novel

    Celestin, Ray: Dead Man's Blues: A Novel
    Dead Man's Blues is as good, or maybe better, than the first in the series. Author Ray Celestin continues to trace the black diaspora North from New Orleans to Chicago, and uses history effectively (rather than drowning us in fustian). Louis Armstrong, who was, history attests, on good terms with Al Capone, reappears, and the mobster, too, takes a turn. I'm eager to move on with Celestin and his characters, to a new city, New York City, and a decade further on to the place and time where the next novel is set.

  • Ames, Jonathan: The Wheel of Doll: A Novel (The Doll Series, 2)

    Ames, Jonathan: The Wheel of Doll: A Novel (The Doll Series, 2)
    Happy Doll, having lost his private eye license after his shenanigans in the previous book is now a "security consultant." His new calling takes him to the Pacific Northwest, but there are still lots of good LA moments, including a bit in Marina del Rey where my parents lived for a while. One understands, somewhat in advance of detective Happy Doll, who the villains are in this book, but that doesn't matter. The fun is watching him find out, and then react. I wonder when book 3 will be out.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Ann Patchett: The Patron Saint of Liars

    Ann Patchett: The Patron Saint of Liars
    Set from the 1930s to the 1970s, this story of a mother, a father, a daughter and a Catholic hostel for unwed mothers in rural USA covers a lot of ground, but is unfocused and plodding, and finally unsatisfying. Does this debut novel have anything to suggest the brilliance of its author’s later masterpieces? Yes: empathy and extreme daring. (**)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer

    Barbara Kingsolver: Prodigal Summer
    On farmland in southern Appalachia on the edge of National Forest mountainside, teeming with animal, vegetable and human prey and predator, local inhabitants and outsiders clash, come to terms and strive for survival. Wonderful characters and a story that is realistic, bracing and sensual, and bursting with love and anger. Overall, this novel is a wise and ecstatic celebration of life and nature, human and otherwise. (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: Lucy by the Sea

    Elizabeth Strout: Lucy by the Sea
    A 60ish writer is taken to Maine by her ex-husband in a bid to escape the Covid pandemic in New York. This is the next chapter (after Oh William!) in the lives of Lucy Barton and other of Strout’s recurring characters. It bursts with insight and empathy, and I found it as compulsively readable as her other novels. (*****)

  • William MacAskill: What We Owe The Future

    William MacAskill: What We Owe The Future
    I’m not sure I “got” this book, but I don’t want to invest more time in going back to check. The philosophical speculations about possible future scenarios are carried out in their own happy bubble with no mention of alternate points of view (like Lovelock’s Gaia for example). This disassociation made me wary of joining the author in his hot air balloon. The book was recommended by someone I respect, so I may have misjudged. (*)

  • Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic

    Alison Bechdel: Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic
    A memoir of a daughter growing up in an artistic family in small town USA, and the strange parallels, literary and otherwise, she finds with her unique and mysterious father. Compelling images and insightful text combine in a highly readable search for truth hidden in the familiar and often humorous everyday lives of all concerned. Or as The Times puts it far more succinctly on the back cover: "A sapphic graphic treat". (****)

  • Charles Portis: True Grit

    Charles Portis: True Grit
    In later life, a woman narrates her memories as a 14-year-old improbably setting out to avenge her father’s murder. It’s a glorious telling in a singular voice that immerses us in the bad old days of American West. Here is history and heart-stopping adventure, with plenty of wry comedy mixed in. The Coen Brothers nailed it in their recent movie, but of course, as always, the book is better. Pure pleasure. (*****)

  • Damon Galgut: The Promise

    Damon Galgut: The Promise
    On the eve of the end of apartheid, an omniscient, smart-ass narrator sweeps us around, through and into the often venal thoughts and lives and deaths of a white South African farming family and diverse characters in their orbit in a way that fuses inhabitants, landscape, and politics to compelling and often humorous effect. (***)

  • Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet

    Maggie O'Farrell: Hamnet
    An account of the family of an English playwright so revered that His name is not mentioned. It immerses us in a credible recreation, accurate or not, of the everyday life of ordinary people 500 years ago. The conjuring of the gifted wife is particularly compelling... until she become a puppet of the plot, and the whole thing tips over into grief-porn. (**)

  • Alice Oseman: Heartstopper

    Alice Oseman: Heartstopper
    Volume 1 of a graphic novel about teens navigating love and sexuality in a British grammar school. It’s a delight, and evidence that, while democracy and the environment appear to be crumbling, we are also making leaps of empathy toward a future where, despite our differences, we can -- as Rodney King hoped for -- “all get along”. (****)

  • Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge

    Evan S. Connell: Mrs Bridge
    Set between the World Wars, written in the 1950s, a knowing, affectionate look back at the life and thoughts of a Kansas City country-club matron, mother and “office widow” (husband barely home), told through day-to-day vignettes. It reminded me quite a lot of my own childhood and upbringing (UK 1950s). (***)

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

  • Drive My Car
    A story about characters and relationships in the entertainment world in contemporary Japan. I suspect it went over my head. While it’s mostly conventional in form, I enjoyed how it subverts certain cinematic conventions in refreshing ways (running time; music; credits; language; monolog). I wondered about the fetishization (smoking; vinyl records; classic cars; driving). I need a second look to get more out of it… and maybe understand what the point of the whole long exercise was. (***)
  • Maggie's Plan
    New York intelligentsia tragicomically fall in and out of love. Pithy observation and spicy dialog echoing back-in-the-day Woody Allen, but from the women’s point of view. Julianne Moore is a standout. Sags a little in the middle, but basically a delight. (DVD) (****)
  • Licorice Pizza
    Rambling self-indulgent slice of it’s-funny-‘cos-it’s-true about growing up white and or Jewish in LA in the 1970s, a time when men felt entitled to behave even more shittily than they do now. Unfocused. Overlong. Mostly likeable. (DVD) (**)
  • Encanto
    This Disney animation is a modern fairy tale for all ages set in Colombia, South America, with fun characters and catchy music. I think the moral is “be yourself.” Frenetic enough to require multiple viewings. (DVD) (***)
  • Top Gun Maverick
    Summer 2022’s premier popcorn movie (we noted a lot of popcorn in the audience) works in itself as a nail-biting actioner with an emotional story. It works as a sequel reprise of the story and the action. And IMAX might just pull you in so you actually forget where you are…. For this winning celebration of summer and its movies, we thank ageless Tom Cruise and the 10,000 people the credits tell us worked on this. (*****)

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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