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Books David Finished in 2020

  • László Krasznahorkai : War & War

    László Krasznahorkai : War & War
    There are a lot of good novels in the world, and more of them are being written and published every day. For this we must be grateful. It is something greater than gratitude that we feel, however, we encounter the work of a writer like László Krasznahorkai. In this account of beauty and horror and history, of how we are trapped with them and in them, he is clearly aiming for something greater than good, and he achieves it. War and War is the third of the four novels that he considers his "one novel." The three I have finished are monumental. I look forward to the crown that the fourth will surely be.

  • J. D. Salinger: Nine Stories

    J. D. Salinger: Nine Stories
    I never liked Catcher in the Rye. I guess that's what kept me away from Salinger's other work such as the nine stories collected here. That was my loss. These stories are brilliant enough that he makes the sort of people who in our time would be NPR listeners (I'm an NPR listener) interesting. Most of the stories are funny and sad at the same time, a blend that's hard to concoct, but wonderful when it works. I think I'll continue with the Glass family's antics.

  • Erle Stanley Gardner: The Case of the Fan-Dancer's Horse
    I realized that my university library has several Perry Mason mysteries, hard-covered volumes apparently salvaged from an Occupation military base, "Camp Sendai," so why not, I thought, read through them in chronological order? I started with this one, published in 1947. It's high-quality pulp and still reads well, the only exception being the weird essentialism in the opening pages of the books about the "Mexican race." At least the stereotypes Gardner was employing were positive ("courtly grace"). The dialogue is snappy, the prose is tight, and it's always a pleasure to see the odious Hamilton Burger humiliated in court. (I only just noticed, typing this, the pun contained in the District Attorney's name. Duh.)
  • Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics)

    Daniel Defoe: A Journal of the Plague Year (Penguin Classics)
    Daniel Defoe's account of the Great Plague of London, which took place in1665, is instructive about that time, but also about our own. Human psychology doesn't seem to have changed much, as comparing the response to our current plague with the one Defoe describes, demonstrates. We have not yet reached the horrors experienced during the Great Plague—there are no dead carts rolling through the streets—and reading about them in Defoe makes one hope that we never do. One reason the things Defoe recounts are so compelling is he never, as it were, raises his voice. Perhaps it was from him that later writers learned that the most effective way to recount horrors is calmly. And Defoe recounts, calmly, much that is fascinating in a world come undone. To offer just one example, one Londoner undone by the distemper is described thus: "He, though not infected at all but in his head, went about denouncing of judgement upon the city in a frightful manner, sometimes quite naked, and with a pan of burning charcoal on his head. What he said or pretended, indeed I could not learn." Will there be a better book about a pandemic? I doubt it.

  • Cixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem

    Cixin Liu: The Three-Body Problem
    This is a fine blend of mind-bending astrophysics and compelling fiction made even better by its being told through a Chinese lens, not the typical Anglo-American one that governs most of the science fiction we get in English. It is a novel of first-contact driven by Liu's feeling that there's no reason to believe that first contact with extraterrestrials will be benign, let alone beneficial for humanity. I look forward to seeing how this plays out in the next two volumes of the Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy.

  • Yoko Danno: Further Center: Poems 1970 ~ 1998

    Yoko Danno: Further Center: Poems 1970 ~ 1998
    Most of this book is filled with some of the best poems by a living poet I've read in a while. This would the first two-thirds of the book which is made up of carefully chosen words sparingly used in the service of careful description, like this (I wish Typepad would let me format it properly): "the glazed / ground / began to thaw: / she looked / back / to shake / the dew / from her straight hair: / the pointed trees / stood leafless against / the slippery sky / like / a triumph." "Triumph," surprises us, and is evidence of the skill with which Danno, a Japanese who writes in English, makes use of the language. One wonders if, as with Beckett and Conrad, writing in a language that is not her first makes Danno a better poet than she would otherwise be. The last third of the book is largely given over mostly to a prose poetry fantasia in memory of her son, who died in a mountain climbing accident. For all the emotional power of this section, reading it one often feels the same dread as when collared by someone who announces: "I had the strangest dream last night."

  • Alejandro Zambra: Bonsai

    Alejandro Zambra: Bonsai
    Bonsai is a novella as spare and elegant as, well, a bonsai. The tone is light and airy, the story less so. A couple comes together and parts. For reasons that seem to have nothing to do with the relationship, the woman, offstage, spirals downward and kills herself. The man goes on, grows a bonsai and, while pretending to do something else, writes a novella called Bonsai. We're glad that he (or Zambra) did.

  • László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance

    László Krasznahorkai: The Melancholy of Resistance
    Central European modernist apocalyptic darkness beautifully done. The Melancholy of Resistance is a work of high realism, because yes, one of the world's faces is dark and apocalyptic, and Krasznahorkai's sentences, sometimes chapter-long streams of consciousness, keep us from getting lulled into comfort, away from the real and into the fantastic. Add to this a love story, humor, and brilliant portraiture and the author's achievement becomes clear. Readers of this will be eager to continue with the bleak honesty of Krasznahorkai's engagement with the world.

  • 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.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Donna Tartt: The Little Friend
    Donna Tartt’s intricate, suspenseful plots suck us in. Three novels. The first, The Secret History (1992), was a gripping read that I rather disliked for its characters. The latest, The Goldfinch (2013; Pulitzer Prize), was even more thrilling, with a more sympathetic cast. And now The Little Friend (2002), with a gorgeously realized (autobiographical?) setting in small-town Mississippi, a rainbow of finely-drawn characters of all ages, races, backgrounds, and a plot that climaxes with impossible tension both in the middle and again at the end. The conclusion is less than perfect--Tartt did better with The Goldfinch—but it’s hardly a flaw as loose ends are more or less tied up. (I think I know who the killer was.) To the author I say, thank you for so many hours of pleasure and diversion, and for your wonderful characters like The Little Friend’s Harriet. I have shared their lives, which have enriched mine. (*****)
  • 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. (****)

Books Mark read recently

  • 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. (***)

  • : 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.) (*****)

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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