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Books David Finished in 2020

  • Rafael Reyes-Ruiz: The Samurai

    Rafael Reyes-Ruiz: The Samurai
    This is the third book of the Roppongi Crossing Trilogy, a triad that is the loosest-limbed trilogy I have ever encountered. Characters drift between books, though the focus shifts among them. Issues such as human trafficking hover in the background, but it would be difficult to say that human trafficking is what the novels are about. If one took a stab at trying to identify what the novels' main concern is one might say that the novels are about the kinds of lives many of us lead: in countries other than where we were born speaking languages other than our mother tongues and hanging out with people similarly cosmpolitan. There are vague plots in each of the books, but nothing with much forward motion; the narratives tend to just peter out, and even at books' end remain unresolved. In that sense, the books are highly realistic accounts of cosmopolitan life in Japan, Thailand, the US, and the rest of the world.

  • Rafael Reyes-Ruiz: The Shape of Things

    Rafael Reyes-Ruiz: The Shape of Things
    A long time ago a book called The Ruins by Rafael Reyes Ruiz drifted into my hands. I read it and enjoyed it, even as I noted that a lot of ends were left dangling. I didn't realize at the time that the book was part of a trilogy of which The Shape of Things is the second volume, though the trilogy of which it is a part is a trilogy in only the loosest sense of the term, or maybe the tightest. It is not bound together by narrative, and as far as I can tell only one character from The Ruins reappears in The Shape of Things, and he just features for a brief cameo. What does bind the books together are the author's concerns with migration, both migration of people including the forced migration of young Thai women to Tokyo, but also the transmigration of souls. Characters in these novels frequently run into people they believe they've known before—and maybe they have! That gives the sense that the novel is fantastic, but it actually focuses quite a bit on the mundane. The protagonist, after a stint as a Bohemian traveler in Bangkok, is, for most of the novel, an administrator at an English school in Tokyo, a school that might be a front for something else. Reyes-Ruiz's portrait of the would-be writer who ends up in a failing marriage and a job he doesn't love is compelling, though one does sometimes want to slap the guy for being so unaware of what goes on around him. But these ideas about the book are provisional until I go on to read the third volume of the trilogy (which can be read in any order), The Samurai.

  • George Alec Effinger: The Exile Kiss (The Budayeen Cycle Book 3)

    George Alec Effinger: The Exile Kiss (The Budayeen Cycle Book 3)
    This is a worthy end to George Effinger's Budayeen Trilogy (though it seems to me it could easily have been continued, too). I'll miss Effinger's cyberpunk alternative Middle East, and also his protagonist, Maurîd Audran, whose growth as a character was satisfying to follow as the series progressed.

  • Alejandro Zambra: Not to Read
    People who like to read inevitably read, from time to time, books about reading. Not to Read is one of those, and it's a good one. Often what makes books like this seem good is that the reading life the writer describes, in the course of his or her essays, is one that is congenial to us. Zambra's reading life is congenial to me because he doesn't read out of obligation, or because he thinks reading is good for him, or to learn; reading may be good for him (and us) and we may learn, but anyone who reads out of a love less simply explained will appreciate Zambra's essays. There's a lightness of tone that conveys depth much better than heaviness, a diversity of interests that leads us to encounters with (mostly post-Boom Latin American) writers of whom we haven't heard, and there's writing compelling enough that even when we're reading about writers we haven't read or even heard of we are drawn in. Now maybe I'll pick up Zambra's Bonsai, one of the shortest novels on my shelf. It's been sitting there for a while, but I've felt no obligation to read it.
  • William Gibson: Agency

    William Gibson: Agency
    Agency has been called both a sequel and a prequel to William Gibson's last novel, The Peripheral. In it, like Alan Moore does in his monumental Jerusalem, Gibson once again takes the notion of parallel universes seriously. It's about time that authors start doing so, because some serious physicists have made it clear that it's not just a metaphor. In Gibson's version the different universes or timelines can communicate with each other, but if communication is made that starts a new timeline: there'll be one where the communication happened and one where it didn't. That might sound intimidatingly mind-bending, and at times it is a challenge, but as always, we're in good hands with Gibson as he introduces us to his cast of hipsters and techies from our time as well as the folks who populate other stubs (as the timelines are called) and exist in a future (but not THE future). The writing, as expected, is punchy, and Gibson's humor is always wry. The election of Donald Trump forced him to delay the release of Agency while he did some necessary rewriting. I hope a similar disaster won't prevent him from getting his next novel out in a timely fashion.

  • George Alec Effinger: A Fire in the Sun: Marid Audran Trilogy, Book 2

    George Alec Effinger: A Fire in the Sun: Marid Audran Trilogy, Book 2
    The second installment of the Marid Audran trilogy continues to show the influence of Raymond Chandler, but also takes on a Godfather-like grandeur as Audran moves further from his origins as an Algerian street-kid through pill-popping private eye toward mob boss of the neighborhood called Budayeen. The humor remains too, and the exotic fun of a cyber-punk Middle-East.

  • Maureen Duffy: Capital (Harvill's London Writing)

    Maureen Duffy: Capital (Harvill's London Writing)
    The middle volume of Maureen Duffy's London series, Capital is, with the rest of the series, another example of the way certain writers love London and are able to bring it to life in their fiction, and not just London today but the London that has been. Among Duffy's contemporaries, one thinks, for example, of Iain Sinclair in many books and his friend Michael Moorcock in Mother London. The three books in Duffy's series are a trilogy not in the sense that they are bound together by common characters, but by one common character, London, and she makes the richness of the city's history along with the richness of its population—many-hued and with diverse passions—vivid. Why isn't Duffy more talked about when the subject of important English novelists of our time comes up?

  • Maureen Duffy: Londoners

    Maureen Duffy: Londoners
    A long time ago I read the first of Maureen Duffy's London trilogy, Wounds, and was so excited by it that I immediately got my hands on the two that come after it, Capital and Londoners. Although I have yet to read the second of the three volumes, I had Londoners at hand so I opened it . . . and couldn't put it down. The novel follows a jobbing intellectual and writer whose life overlaps with Villon, the poet on whom he is working and this point of view provides a great window onto one of the world's great cities. Anyone who is not tired of life will enjoy it.

  • Paul Beatty: The Sellout: A Novel

    Paul Beatty: The Sellout: A Novel
    Several years ago I was riding the Blue Line from Long Beach to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles. As we passed through Compton, the gritty urban neighborhood of "Straight Outta" fame, I looked out the scratchy plexiglass window and saw, to my surprise, an elderly black man riding a horse. I didn't realize it then, but he must have ridden out of (or we were passing through) the ten-block section of Compton that is the largest urban agricultural zone in the Los Angeles basin. That memory surfaced because I've been reading Paul Beatty's The Sellout, which is set in a town called Dickens, clearly modeled on Compton, and features a protagonist who is a farmer plowing fields clearly modeled on Compton's. The book is a satire on race—and when Americans say race, as Beatty points out, they always mean black—in the USA. Beatty is nothing if not clever, and his skewering of everybody on all sides of various racial issues is often funny, but he does go on. Imagine a Richard Pryor routine lasting the equivalent of 268 pages and you get the idea. It's not that his jokes become less funny as he goes, but his zingers do lose a bit of their zing. Contributing to this is his addiction to one particular device: lists of three or four things to illustrate a point, the first two or three being serious and predictable, the last surprising, maybe shocking for some, and funny. To offer just one example, picked out on a random flip back through the book: " . . . the only thing you absolutely never see in car commercials isn't Jewish people, homosexuals, or urban negroes, it's traffic." Maybe, I begin to theorize, the best satires are short. But I suppose only someone who never finished Gulliver's Travels would say something like that.

  • László Krasznahorkai: Satantango

    László Krasznahorkai: Satantango
    Eastern European modernism at its darkest, Satantango was clearly inspired by some of the canonical modernists of the West. The first section of the novel, for example, features a cast of misfits and castoffs on a decrepit farm estate waiting for Irimiás, a figure who they believe, for reasons that are unclear, will lift them out of the mud in which they spend their lives—the rain never relents in this novel, and the mud is thick. He comes, but it will amaze no reader to learn that he is not the savior they thought he was. We experience the muck from which Irimiás refuses to raise them through the shifting perspectives of various characters, and this perfect dance between the different views that Krasznahorkai gives us is mesmerizing. That dance, the dexterous prose of George Szirtes's translation, and the bleak vision make Krasznahorkai's work challenging and unforgettable.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • 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. (*****)

  • Paul Beatty: The Sellout

    Paul Beatty: The Sellout
    A rollicking fantastic fantasy about race. The subject is contemporary black America. It’s deep, sharp, uncomfortable and most of all hilarious. What a book! Could anyone, I wondered jealously as I read, bring such intelligence, learning and levity to my own gay minority? Because this balance of bitterness, insight and humor is the way to tell the story of an oppressed group that has its own particular and obvious virtues to bring to the table. (Russell Davis, I nominate you. It's a book waiting to be written.) (*****)

  • Sam Sweet: Hadley Lee Lightcap
    The meticulously researched, rollicking, affectionate story of a 90s band that might have but didn’t make it big, by way of art school, surfing, depression, drugs, passion, human frailty, and less fashionable corners of LA. Most of all, it’s a love letter to music, how it’s made, how it can synch with its time and surroundings, how it can eat you alive, and when the stars align, how it can transcend the pressures of the music business to become life-affirming art. (****)
  • Alison Moore: The Lighthouse

    Alison Moore: The Lighthouse
    Two sympathetic characters live lives filled with poor decisions, bad faith, suffering and cigarette smoke. I became somewhat interested when their paths cross at the end, but there’s no resolution, only a suggestion of tragedy. Does this tale signify anything beyond describing, in flat prose and random detail, the downs and downs of daily life? (*)

  • Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

    Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger
    This story about a decaying grand house and family in post-WWII England comes on like a mystery for us to pit our wits against: a genre work of the most literate kind, with masterly period recreation featuring class divides, rationing, and the language of the time. But for me, the narrator was annoyingly obtuse in the face of happenings that appear supernatural. And the thing goes on and on, only to fail to deliver the whodunnit that the whole exercise seemed to rest on. (**)

  • Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves

    Emily Fridlund: History of Wolves
    A first-person memory of coming of age in backwoods Minnesota. On the plus side: incisive writing; insightful observation of human psychology and the natural world both. On the minus, I never got caught up in this fragmented account. It meandered up to the big reveal halfway through, then meandered on to the end. There is extreme veracity in its portrait of the loneliness of childhood and, for better or worse, how a child is victim of the adults around them, but that didn’t add up to a compelling novel for this reader. (*)

  • George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo

    George Saunders: Lincoln in the Bardo
    This is an astonishingly original novel about the Lincolns and their son who died in childhood. It’s a delightfully easy (tons of white space) and moving read. It occasionally feels padded. It is also full of wisdom. NB. When you start out, there is dialog with the speaker’s name. Unlike a play, the speaker’s name is below, not above, the dialog. If you don’t get this, you will end up going back to the beginning to figure out who said what (and who has the enormous member). A deserving winner of the 2017 Man Booker Prize. (****)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture

    Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture
    Sebastian Barry creates compelling, believable characters. Here we have two: the head psychiatrist of a mental hospital in contemporary rural Ireland, and a female centenarian in his care. Barry is also a master storyteller who here brings the troubled recent history of Ireland alive as we follow the life of the latter character to its shocking climax. Most of all, this is a story that glows with compassion for humans and their lot. (****)

Books Mark read recently

  • 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. (***)

  • : The Best American Short Stories 2019 (The Best American Series ®)

    The Best American Short Stories 2019 (The Best American Series ®)
    Each October, I am excited to get my hands on a great collection of short stories. 2019 was no exception. Editors Anthony Doerr and Heidi Pitlor have chosen some remarkable gems including "No More than a Bubble" where two college guys meet two college girls at a party: well, hello there!; "Hellion" where a pre-teen tomboy shows a same age visitor the ins and outs of living in the country; Jeffrey Eugenides "Bronze" where a young man explores the terrain of same sex curiosity; Mona Simpson writes the thoughts of a psychologist who's patient wonders if he's chosen the correct wife; Karen Russell tells the wonderful tale of a doctor who keeps the dead staying dead, ruined by rumor in "Black Corfu"; Sigrid Nunez' protagonist wants to murder his wife in "The Plan." How will he do it? But the editors left the best story for last: "Omakase" by Weike Wang. One night a young couple go out for sushi... Such a great story! (*****)

  • Alison Moore: The Lighthouse

    Alison Moore: The Lighthouse
    The main character (named Futh) goes on a walking course in Germany after separating from his wife. It is a search for the young man to find himself. Futh is rather naiive, and accounts the story of his selfish family and the folks he meets along his journey. Truly a wonderful book! Not a word out of place. (*****)

  • Daisy Johnson: Everything Under

    Daisy Johnson: Everything Under
    As fish stories go, this is a whopper. I was completely lost by page 100, so I went back and re-read. It's legal, I suppose. While the narrative requires a bit of work, once I did find my feet I was rewarded with atmosphere and surprise. As a young man, I enjoyed many days on the Sacramento Delta, tooling around in a zodiac. This book gave me pleasure again in remembering all that, and... there is also a Bonak! Keep track of what's what in each of the chapter titles. Enjoy the looseness and creativity of this most interesting gender-jumping, time-hopping novel. (****)

  • Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger

    Sarah Waters: The Little Stranger
    The last days of a once wealthy upper-class family as they are haunted by bad energy in their neglected castle. The narrator is a local doctor, who is often called out, and who finds himself attracted to the spinster daughter who lives there. Creepy things happen. We are not sure if the doctor is telling the truth. Sarah Waters is masterful at painting the atmosphere of each scene. (*****)

  • Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room: A Novel

    Rachel Kushner: The Mars Room: A Novel
    Hmmm... Interesting yet meandering narrative of young SF Bay woman committed to life in prison. Some good insight, and the locations in the novel were all familiar to me: Martinez, Port Costa, Crockett, SF; but the plot felt a little like watching "Orange Is the New Black." Most of the anecdotes, make one want to take a shower. The tension builds near the end, thank goodness. (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture: A Novel

    Sebastian Barry: The Secret Scripture: A Novel
    Barry's writes a heartbreaking story of a young woman who is shunned by society after she is thought to have had an affair. Brilliantly written from the point of view of a one-hundred-year-old patient in a mental hospital, and a parallel narration by her psychiatrist who tries to help her. The interaction between the doctor and patient is gentle and mysterious. Barry perfectly captures the atmosphere and the feeling of a decrepit mental hospital, and in flashbacks of the patient's life, the wild coast of Northern Ireland. Don't miss this one. (*****)

  • Anna Burns: Milkman (Thorndike Press Large Print Basic)

    Anna Burns: Milkman (Thorndike Press Large Print Basic)
    Well-deserved Booker Prize winner for 2018. An 18 year-old girl with a sweet "maybe boyfriend" is terrorized by an older controlling anti-government paramilitary leader. Perhaps it is set near Belfast? On any ordinary day she fears encounters with this leader, this Milkman, who stalks her relentlessly. At times as grim as a decapitated cat; at other times buoyant with the comic energy of wee sisters begging for chips. Beautifully written passages, as only an Irish writer could. Please note: the wrong decisions we make when it comes to love. Perhaps it goes without saying. (I ordered the large print by mistake.) (*****)

  • 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 time just 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. (****)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • 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. (****)
  • Joker
    This comic book origin story is filmed with operatic flourish. Unfortunately, as a hater of revenge and violence, and a fan of law and order, I wasn’t the target demographic. I waited for it to end, averting my eyes during the bloodshed and brutality, and tut-tutting its apparent incitement to anarchy. Joaquin Phoenix commits completely, and I mean completely, to the title role. To borrow the conclusion from the Guardian’s Pass Notes-- Don’t say: “More blood! More phlegm! More snot!” Do say: And the Oscar for Best Actor goes to…”
  • Stan & Ollie
    Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are in the twilight of their career, touring their music hall act around postwar Britain and Ireland. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly disappear into their roles, life imitates the duo’s slapstick art, and then the wives arrive: “Two double acts for the price of one” as a character remarks. It’s a delightful speculation, and ultimately moving as we witness the prickly bromance, and the end of professional lives well lived. (****)
  • 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! (**)

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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