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December 2019











Books David Finished in 2021

  • Rickman, Phil: The Magus of Hay (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)

    Rickman, Phil: The Magus of Hay (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)
    The overlap between the Nazis and the New Age is hardly a secret, but it is sometimes ignored. Recently, as our friends among the yoga and wellness communities so often make common cause with anti-vaxer mask-eschewing, Q-Anon rabble those kind of connections have come to the fore. Phil Rickman draws on this in The Magus of Hay, with added intrigue provided by the “City of Books,” Hay-on-Wye.”

  • Phil Rickman: The Secrets of Pain: Merrily Watkins Mysteries, Book 11

    Phil Rickman: The Secrets of Pain: Merrily Watkins Mysteries, Book 11
    Phil Rickman's vicar Merrily keeps on, this time encountering a renascent Mithraism in the English/Welsh borderlands. Not much seems resolved at the end, but it's hard to say because the end was very confusing indeed.

  • Berberova, Nina: The Ladies from St. Petersburg

    Berberova, Nina: The Ladies from St. Petersburg
    Three excellent short pieces by the Russian emigre writer Nina Berberova. The first is about a mother and daughter, the titular ladies from St. Petersburg, who visit friends in the country at a time when unrest—not yet called revolution—has begun to roil their country. The second is about a woman who is a refugee from that fighting in a Russian town which the the violence has not yet reached. Both are brilliantly written (and brilliantly translated by Marian Schwartz) realist pieces rich in carefully chosen details. They are among the earliest of Berberova’s stories. The last, “The Big City,” is perhaps her last story. It is about an immigrant who has washed up in New York City, and evokes not the resonant realism of Chekhov, but the fantastical Amerika of Franz Kafka, and is just as wonderful. I’m happy that I have another of Berberova’s books waiting on my shelf.

  • Otake, Eiko and William Johnston: A Body in Fukushima

    Otake, Eiko and William Johnston: A Body in Fukushima
    Years ago I saw some black-and-white photographs of Nijinsky dancing and was amazed that these still renditions of Nijinsky’s movement could convey what an electrifying performer he was. William Johnston’s photographs of Eiko Otake at various locations, mostly in Fukushima, do something similar. He captures Otake in pain, stumbling, beaten, exhausted by the landscape—ghost towns, rubble, concrete tetrapods, artifacts, bags of radioactive waste—through which she moves. I have seen neither Nijinsky nor Otake perform; the pictures I have seen of what they have done convince me that I understand, to some small extent, their powerful responses to the places their bodies were.

  • Rickman, Phil: To Dream of the Dead (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)

    Rickman, Phil: To Dream of the Dead (Merrily Watkins Mysteries)
    Archaeology, village life, Christianity and other superstitions, friendship, love, and a crime story: Phil Rickman weaves them together with panache, making this one of the best in the series. He’s done that thing that successful series authors do: He makes us miss, between tales, the recurring characters.

  • Jackson, Shirley: Shirley Jackson: Four Novels of the 1940s & 50s (LOA #336): The Road Through the Wall / Hangsaman / The Bird's Nest / The Sundial (Library of America)

    Jackson, Shirley: Shirley Jackson: Four Novels of the 1940s & 50s (LOA #336): The Road Through the Wall / Hangsaman / The Bird's Nest / The Sundial (Library of America)
    Everybody's read "The Lottery." Of course they have. It's one of the great American short stories. Many are motivated by the excellence of that tale to move on to The Haunting of Hill House and We Have Always Lived in the Castle, and they are fine novels, but the novels she published in the 1940s and 1950s are at least as good, so we must be grateful to Ruth Franklin and the Library of America for bringing together The Road Through the Wall, Hangsaman, The Bird's Nest, and The Sundial in this volume. Reading them in the order they were published is rewarding in that we see Jackson grow as a novelist. The Road through the Wall is fine, but both her vision and her prose are more piercingly effective in the latter three novels. In Hangsaman and The Bird's Nest we follow young women who are losing their grip--Jackson was as fond of females in trouble as Hitchcock--and then in The Sundial we move on to the end of the world. The novels are unnerving in the way much of Jackson's work is, but they are also--and many people forget this about Jackson's fiction--funny. One would like to say that her growth and development continued after she published The Sundial, but the truth is the later novels, though very good, are not better. She reached her peak here, and remained there.

  • Eisler, Barry: The Chaos Kind

    Eisler, Barry: The Chaos Kind
    I snapped Barry Eisler’s newest up the minute it was available and am not sorry I did. It’s interesting how the intermeshing series of novels he writes have moved away from the lone assassin, John Rain, to books about a merry band of brothers and sisters with Rain as just another member. Hope he gets a new one out soon.

  • Rickman, Phil: The Fabric of Sin: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 9)

    Rickman, Phil: The Fabric of Sin: A Merrily Watkins Mystery (Merrily Watkins Mysteries Book 9)
    This is the ninth of these I read, and I’m impressed at how high a standard Rickman maintains. The Masons and the Templars are in the mix this time. Good fun.

  • Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Slander

    Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Slander
    Dolores Hitchens was prolific. She composed series of detective novels as well as several stand-alones. Unfortunately she only managed two in this series, because she hits her stride in this one, making the detective more interesting, and spinning a crime more horrible and tangled for him to rectify than she managed in her first. Still, one is grateful that the two “Sleep With” novels were resurrected.

  • Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Strangers

    Hitchens, Dolores: Sleep with Strangers
    Yet another private eye novel set in Southern California, in this case in and around Long Beach. Since I've spent some time in that city—walked those mean streets—it was fun to follow the action. Throwing a bit of a spanner into the works is the chapter where the detective kidnaps his client, an attractive woman barely out of her teens, because, to give it the most charitable interpretation, he believes she is guilty of three or four murders and that he is helping her to escape. The aging detective has spun a fantasy where they marry in Las Vegas and flee to Mexico. She asks him to take her home, but instead, he drives out into the country, and though the standards of the time keep this from being absolutely explicit, appears to rape her. I can't decide if it is surprising that this novel was written by a woman. Maybe the answer is that it's not. A woman of that time might have good reason for finding it absolutely plausible that a good guy could also be a rapist, and that his act wouldn't even be seen as criminal.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Bryan Washington: Lot

    Bryan Washington: Lot
    A collection of sometimes linked stories of growing up poor, black and gay in Houston, Texas. Raw and vivid, often sad and painful, and never less than compelling. (***)

  • : Leonard and Hungry Paul

    Leonard and Hungry Paul
    This is a delightful novel about two introverted people who are friends. And how they find their ways into mainstream life on their own unusual and healthy terms. Its acute observations of contemporary British life are often hilarious. This is the kind of book that is pressed into the hands of customers by bookstore employees. Consider yourself so pressed—and enjoy it, too. (****)

  • Bryan Washington: Memorial

    Bryan Washington: Memorial
    A twenty-something gay couple in Houston, Texas, separately tell the story of their relationship, their childhoods with fractured families, and eventual reconnection for better or worse with their parents. The veracity/bullshit* ratio begins shaky, but is finally in favor of the former. Written in short attention-span-friendly sections that make you want to read the next one and the next, I found this novel unputdownable. And finally moving (in spite of a cop-out ending). [*bullshit = people don’t talk like that/that doesn’t happen in real life] (****)

  • Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies/The Mirror and the Light

    Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall/Bring Up the Bodies/The Mirror and the Light
    This is a magnificent, epic account of the rise of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII in Tudor England Although the books follow along from each other, there is some repetition that would be welcome if you had read each book when it appeared – i.e., several years apart – but which detracts when reading them back to back. Mantel cleverly brings a past society to vivid life, and that of course makes us compare it with our own. She is also a stone-cold excellent writer. What a treat rereading/reading these over the summer. (*****)

  • David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue

    David Mitchell: Utopia Avenue
    This novel is a glorious paean to creativity and a heyday of popular music. David Mitchell stitches his fictional band Utopia Avenue into real events and personalities of the day, and for me some of the funnest parts are the imagined hangings out with 60s luminaries like Francis Bacon, Brian Jones, Frank Zappa, and Jerry Garcia. As usual, Mitchell sets himself challenges—one is creating music through prose—and as usual he aces them. He also – sigh – inserts his multi-book ongoing woo-woo saga into this story, but the claptrap is a price I'm willing to pay for superb storytelling and writing as smooth as silk. (*****)

  • Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time

    Craig Brown: One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time
    Yeah, yeah, yeah! In 2021, the Beatles' music holds its own, but their times have receded into history. Even those who lived through the 1960s as I did have probably forgotten just how world-changing, all-consuming and hysterical was the whirlwind that was Beatlemania, when four cheeky Liverpool lads seduced a nation and the world with their wit and irreverence, injecting fresh joy into popular music, and dealing a body blow to Britain’s class system in the process. The Beatles have been written about so much, could there be anything more to say? Rather than one more plod along the familiar timeline, here we have the tale through a kaleidoscope of facets—150 of them; telling detail, eccentric focus and journalistic flair combine to bring the story and times to vivid life again. Bravo! (*****)

  • Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night

    Louis-Ferdinand Celine: Journey to the End of the Night
    Disorganized, repetitive, shot through with a careless, toxic misogyny that presumably characterized the time of writing (1930s), this is one man’s jaundiced journey through the depths of human folly, cruelty and degradation. Yet the leisurely bathe in the cesspool of humanity is bejeweled with sparks of insight, empathy, lyricism, and mysticism. Here is shit and wisdom: angry, cynical, profound, and highly readable in a crackling translation. An uncomfortable read, but I'm very glad I did it. It was quite a ride! (***)

  • Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman

    Sebastian Barry: The Temporary Gentleman
    An engaging tale of an Irishman in Africa with the British army, and a marriage that becomes an alcohol-soaked nightmare. The protagonist is Jack McNulty, brother-in-law of Roseanne in Barry’s "The Secret Scripture". That book was a single; this is an album track. (***)

  • Ali Smith: Autumn

    Ali Smith: Autumn
    A fragmented fragment of a book rooted in angst-ridden Brexit Britain. It begins with (to me) too many tedious rants on bureaucracy (in the form of righteous conversations with obdurate officials). But it’s also a pleasant read, with passages about nature, Shakespeare, Dickens (his best and worst of times) and clever puns galore. Finally, it’s about a charming relationship between a precocious girl and a surrogate parent, and there’s another between a brother and sister, and it ends with a rose-tinted view of the 60s, and a glorious riff on the forgotten life of a (real-life!) 60s artist. (***)

  • Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star

    Alan Hollinghurst: The Folding Star
    This book took me back to my youth when I thought about sex constantly, and it was painfully frustrating because you could never get enough, and you couldn’t have the people you desired, and when you did get it, it was often unsatisfying because what you and your partner wanted to do or wanted from it were out of synch. Hollinghurst captures all that with clear-eyed and compassionate veracity, inside a story of a young Englishman’s stay in a Belgian town. It’s beautifully written, with intelligence, insight, and well-captured detail. These assets more than compensate for a few longueurs, and a less-than-satisfactory story arc. (****)

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

  • No Time To Die
    Daniel Craig’s Casino Royale brought me back to the Bond franchise, but this was my least favorite of his five outings. Craig is as superb as ever, and there are a few amazing action set pieces, but the villain’s weak, the story’s opaque, and shooting henchmen dead for 2 hours plus gets tedious. For the first time I wondered, why am I watching this mayhem. But, OK, it wasn’t charm free: for me, the movie was stolen by Ana de Armas! (**)
  • Groundhog Day
    A cynical local TV personality finds himself in small-town America. Very funny, very clever and thought provoking, 28 years after its 1993 release, I can’t fault it. (DVD) (*****)
  • Supernova
    The acting is all in this Colin Firth Stanley Tucci two-hander, and it is superb. The theme (after lengthy scene setting): when you suffer dementia, what right do you have to end your own life to preserve your identity and spare those who love you. And for that person’s partner, what right do you have to ask them to suffer their own living erasure in the name of love. The conclusion is side-stepped, for this is still too much a hot-button issue to come down on one side or the other, but to raise it and have it portrayed in wonderfully human terms is helpful. (DVD) (***)
  • The Father
    A straightforward incident in the lives of a daughter and father becomes a fiendish puzzle that requires hard work on the viewer’s part. The complexity is in service of painting the mental challenge that getting old may pose, and the movie succeeds in giving us a vivid, convincing experience of that mental state, together with the emotions—paranoia, guilt and gratitude among them—it may cause. The screenwriters pull off a seeming impossibility: this is actually two movies with the same script, one on first viewing and the second on reflection, or a repeat view. Anthony Hopkins earned his best actor Oscar. This difficult but engaging film, which takes us somewhere we or a loved one may well disappear into, is a sobering education. (DVD) (****)
  • Minari
    An Asian immigrant family repair to rural Arkansas for their shot at the American dream. The story arc is drama as documentary, "Nomadland"-style: leisurely, observant, surprising, involving, finally satisfying. Watching it is time well spent. (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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