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August 2019











Books David Finished in 2024

  • Cabrera Infante, Guillermo: Guilty of Dancing the Chachachá
    Nobody has more fun with language than Cabrera Infante, and the fun is infectious. Each of the three stories in this collection begins with a couple in a restaurant, but as each is associated with a different kind of music, they are not identical. The final, a foray into the chachachá, is a delight. Let's dance!
  • Connelly, Michael: City of Bones
    One of the best in the series so far. The bones from below the city of light surface, and Harry Bosch finally decides to leave the LAPD—which makes sense, because somehow I'd remembered him as a private eye rather than a policeman from the few entries in the series I'd read before starting this systematic traversal.
  • Newby, Eric: A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush
    In the amateurism of the two adventurers who set out on this "short walk," in Newby's dry and self-deprecating humor, in the stoicism and dry wit with which Newby and his companion (barely) survive the walk, this book strikes me as quintessentially English, or at least quintessentially English of its time. I'm a colonial, though, so what do I know? Evelyn Waugh agrees with me on this, though, so there's that. At the tail end of their journey, our adventurers cross paths with the legendary Wilfred Thesiger. He gives them dinner, at the conclusion of which he watches them blowing up their air mattresses and, in a line that closes the book and serves as is exemplary, remarks, "God, you must be a couple of pansies."
  • Fallowell, Duncan: London Paris New York: A Precarious Tale
    I somehow stumbled on a YouTube video of Duncan Fallowell in his book-filled Notting Hill apartment talking about books. I was enraptured and began to seek out his work. This is the first of his novels that I have read, and it was a delight. Jane Austen is the author I'd compare him to for the wit and the concern with social relations. Fallowell is witty, like Austen, but also funny in different ways. Some of the set-pieces, parties filled with high culture luminaries and diplomats, made me nearly laugh out loud. And, responding to a different world than Austen did, he is also more vicious: in the end there is not marriage but a double murder. The observations and aperçus on the way to that tragedy keep one delighted. I will read more Fallowell.
  • Weinberger, Eliot: The Life of Tu Fu
    Many years ago, as a young man, Eliot Weinberger gave up writing poetry, deciding instead to stick to writing essays and doing translations. He became an important translator and our best essayist. Now he has returned to poetry, and, always under the tutelage of Ezra Pound, has given us his Cathay. Like Pound's work, it is a collection of poems inspired by China, or more specifically, by the work of the great poet, Tu Fu and is, Weinberger tells us, "not a translation of individual poems, but a fictional biography of Tu Fu derived and adapted from the thoughts, images, and allusions in the poetry." It is a collection of crisp, clear images set next to each other and allowed to resonate. It is what we want, what we need, from poetry, from literature, from life.
  • Le Carré, John: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
    This is one of the best of Le Carré's anti-Bond novels that I've read so far. Smiley remains a glum cuckold, booted from the Circus, but now brought back to unearth a mole. The mole is much more charming and attractive than the protagonist, so much so that one is almost sorry to see him brought down. In fact, Smiley, having sprung his trap, is sorry. There is no victory dance.
  • Connelly, Michael: A Darkness More than Night
    This one was a cracker. Connelly seems more confident as a writer here, doing some interesting things with the form. He skillfully mixes two threads (which, of course, in the end, come together), one that features Bosch and all his darkness, the other featuring a sort of milquetoast retired FBI agent. Bosch lives in the darkness; the FBI man is, by the end, besmirched.
  • Kapoor, Deepti: Age of Vice
    "Behind every fortune lies a crime," Balzac said, or many crimes in the case of the Indian oligarchs featured in Deepti Kapoor's rivetting Age of Vice. She gives us a panoramic view of Indian society from those oligarchs and their scions all the way down to a boy enslaved at the age of eight. All of the important characters—that boy, Ajay, Sunny, the heir presumptive of one of the wealthy families, and the journalist, Neta—are fully realized, and though they come from different worlds we see that they are damaged in parallel ways, shunt off the tracks they should have taken. The novel is something like a blend of Dickens and Mario Puzo's The Godfather; it includes the best of both literary worlds.
  • (Riding) Jackson, Laura: Progress of Stories
    The stories collected in this volume are modernist, difficult, original, and like nothing else I have ever read. This makes them sound like something I would love, but by the time I approached the last of them, turning the pages had become a chore. This is, I am sure, as much on me as on Jackson. For one thing, most of the stories take the form of the author explaining the worlds and situations that feature in the stories. In some of the shorter stories, this seems okay and even amusing, but in many of her stories she goes on and on and on. I couldn't help but contrast her work with Lydia Davis's much shorter stories, and Davis's stories are, it seems to me, much more rewarding. Jackson's prose is exquisite. She knows how to use words, and this makes me think I might do better with her poetry, and there is something in these stories I didn't love that makes me want to approach Jackson's work again, albeit from a different angle.
  • Oppen, George: Selected Poems
    "It is the arbitrary fact, and not any quality of wisdom literature, which creates the impact of the poets." So writes George Oppen in his essay, "The Mind's Own Place," and it describes well the impact that his poems have. There is no preaching here, no fluff, no garish decoration: just the thing itself. A testament to the quality of Oppen's work is that paraphrase is not only unnecessary but destructive. So instead, have one of his most famous poems (Typepad will destroy the formatting): Veritas sequitur ... In the small beauty of the forest The wild deer bedding down— That they are there! Their eyes Effortless, the soft lips Nuzzle and the alien small teeth Tear at the grass The roots of it Dangle from their mouths Scattering earth in the strange woods. They who are there. Their paths Nibbled thru the fields, the leaves that shade them Hang in the distances Of sun The small nouns Crying faith In this in which the wild deer Startle, and stare out.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Anne Enright: The Wren, The Wren
    Why didn’t I get into this portrait of an Irish family/celebration of nature? The scattered structure: first person/third person? The dark places it sometimes went: self-harm; child abuse; animal abuse? Because it seemed the author was clearing a bunch of disparate good ideas out of her notebook? For this reader, in spite of its verve and sensitivity and surprise, it didn’t hang together or really go anyplace. (**)
  • Paul Lynch: Prophet Song
    I don’t note books I don’t finish, but here’s an exception: a finely written account of a family facing totalitarianism and war. It was relentless: I continued reading as a training in empathy, but it was finally too upsetting to continue. The horror is knowing the events of the story are being lived in Ukraine, Palestine and anywhere migrants are in flight.
  • Chris Broad: Abroad in Japan
    A serviceable entry in the foreigner-fish-out-of-water/my-adventures-learning-to-love-Japan genre. The UK author gives it a high taboo-word-per-page ratio, with some variants that must have arisen since I lived there ("Double fuck!"??). (**)
  • Barbara Kingsolver: Flight Behavior
    An absorbing novel about an east-coast rural family and a surprise ecological event. Mesmerizing, entertaining, thought-provoking. (****)
  • Junot Diaz: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
    A thrilling balls-to-the-wall account of a Dominican family in the US, and their prior life and later returns to the homeland, which – in its agony and ecstasy – is the real star of this tale. Laid back and electric, both. Superb. (First read 9 years ago, and almost totally forgotten.) (****)
  • Barbara Kingsolver: Pigs in Heaven
    What a surprise: here are characters from Kingsolver’s debut "The Bean Trees," developed, deepened, facing life’s challenges, with the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma as a backdrop. A glorious marriage of hyper-realism and outrageous coincidence, this is top-notch socially conscious storytelling. (****)
  • Elizabeth Chatwin & Nicholas Shakespeare (Eds.): Under the Sun: The Letters of Bruce Chatwin
    Letters carefully linked with background comment as necessary. There are also footnotes, sometime by the person addressed in the letter, expanding, explaining, and occasionally – when his wife Elizabeth – contradicting what was in a letter. Chatwin, gifted and complex, was a hard-working and compelling correspondent. The result here is a sensitively edited, enlightening account of a life both awe-inspiring and tragic. (***)
  • Lafcadio Hearn: Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan
    Hearn arrived in Japan 130 years ago, and the essays penned here are of a new and thrilling world discovered. The tone is sepia for his first trip down kanji-filled and lantern-decorated streets, and on a rickshaw excursion to Kamakura and Enoshima, but when he’s in his garden with the plants and insects it might be yesterday. The strangeness of Japan does cause overreliance on adjectives like “tiny,” and on the multiple myths and legends and ghostly tales related at length. My only great surprise was his support of his students’ vows to die for their emperor (“That wish is holy”). Hearn was a fascinating character, and this is a fascinating book. (***)
  • Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar

    Sylvia Plath: The Bell Jar
    The hijinks of college teens on an expenses-paid stay in New York take a dark turn when the narrator, driven all her life, loses her way mentally. (*)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna

    Barbara Kingsolver: The Lacuna
    This tour de force faux reconstruction of a life through autobiographical notes is a glorious thing. It follows the protagonist through the household of artists Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and then Lev Trotsky during his exile in Mexico, and forward into the mounting anti-communist hysteria of postwar USA. Meticulous research and superior writing create verisimilitude which, together with Kingsolver’s compassion, makes a powerful pitch for social justice and a better world. Educational and engrossing. (****)

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

  • Killers of the Flower Moon
    The 1920s: the oil-rich Osage Nation Reservation in Oklahoma is awash with con-artists trying to grift a piece of the action. And the murders begin... The acting is powerful: De Niro and Lily Gladstone are effectively subdued, leaving the histrionics to DiCaprio. Every frame of the bloated running time adds to the atmosphere, but a more disciplined director than Scorsese could have brought this story in at a reasonable 2 hours, saving the excess for a director’s cut or TV version. As it is, the initial horror is unrelenting and exhausting, making you wonder if you want to continue through the 206 (count ‘em; we did) minutes. (Streaming) (***)
  • Oppenheimer
    This story of the man and the weapon is told with flair and imagination. It’s shattered into fragments of time and space for added mystery, suspense, impact and sometimes irony. Surprising and sometimes shocking. (I avoided the 3hrs-no-intermission at the theater, so was glad to see it on DVD.) (***)
  • The Holdovers
    1970: an elite New England prep school over the Christmas holidays. Sure, it’s by-the-numbers, but this artfully shot, warmly acted, smartly written, big-hearted tale of pain and redemption is a touching pleasure. (DVD) (***)
  • Kill Your Darlings
    A recreation of the birth of the Beats in the 1940s. War rages in Europe. Ginsberg has a troubled family. He meets the charismatic, transgressive Carr at staid Columbia University who introduces him to Kerouac and Burroughs, and a New Vision is born. Then there’s the murder. Entertaining if you already know all that, but probably not otherwise. (DVD) (**)
  • Plan 75
    My fault. The title gave me to expect a drama about the issue of assisted dying, but instead I got a tedious, fragmented, unfocused, break-the 4th-wall arty (and criminally underlit) drama set in a Japan where the old are encouraged to end their lives to benefit society. And Baisho Chieko, as charismatic as ever. (DVD)

Things NC Consumed Recently

  • F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby
    More than forty years on since my last reading, this classic novel is remarkable not so much for its romantic longings as for its emphasis on American violence, its depiction of a country in which California hardly matters and its meeting of the Mid West and East Coast. Plus its succinct nine chapters, its elegant prose and its almost noirish tone: Tom breaking Myrtle's nose would seem to foreshadow Lee Marvin throwing hot coffee in Gloria Grahame's face in The Big Heat - and the use of flashbacks helps too. I'd like to thank the publicity for the recent film version and my current cold for sending me back to the novel (and my young self).
  • Isabelle Eberhardt
    In 1904, Isabelle Eberhardt drowned in the desert, leaving behind, among other things, various writings in French (a novel, travel notes, a journal, short stories), Islam, Lake Geneva, a husband, debauchery in kif, sex and alcohol, and a small collection of male clothing, which she wore habitually, along with her man's name. The lazy say she was an early hippie, because of her nomadic, hedonistic life, and being the first one to die at 27. Lindqvist has her in a line from Villon, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Celine and Genet. Her story can only get stranger and more fascinating. "In The Shadow of Islam", "The Passionate Nomad", "The Oblivion Seekers" and Annette Kobak's biography are one way in. You'll find there an apt fatal romanticism for vast desert spaces and a depiction of Islam to ponder. Among other things.
  • Listen to Britain - Humphrey Jennings
    Terence Davies is surely right to say Listen to Britain is in part an attempt to define the nation on the eve of its being invaded. But that invasion never came. A little prematurely, Humphrey Jennings's film records what left later, with something messier, less defined usurping through the back door. Terence Davies is surely right to say Listen to Britain is one of the greatest things these islands have produced.
  • Patience (After Sebald)
    Grant Gee's documentary uses a palette of pale black and white, maps and talking heads to comment on W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, an account of his walk through Suffolk. Unlike the book, where a variety of genres (and photographs) coheres to make a recognisable whole, the film suffers slightly from a lack of direction. It is too specific to serve as an introduction and lacks an overriding arc that might describe a thesis. However, with its archival footage, interviews with the author and shots of the route taken, it is essential viewing for those already in thrall to all things Sebaldian - even if the ending, alas, veers close to Conan Doyle and fairies-in-the-garden territory.
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