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Books David Finished in 2020

  • Krasznahorkai, Laszlo: Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming

    Krasznahorkai, Laszlo: Baron Wenckheim's Homecoming
    In a one-star review on Amazon.com a dissatisfied punter says of this novel, “Fans of Ulysses by James Joyce will probably enjoy this novel.” He seems to mean it as a criticism. As odd as that may be, he’s not wrong: Those who enjoy novels in which the author strives not for mere competence but for greatness, and achieves greatness, will enjoy this artful mingling of voices from in and around a provincial Hungarian city, the things that happen there, mundane and odd, the threads the conductor of this symphony picks up and drops, the entirely satisfying aesthetic delight Laszlo Krasznahorkai gives us. Read this novel now. You won’t read a better novel any time soon.

  • Bonner, Geraldine: The Girl at Central

    Bonner, Geraldine: The Girl at Central
    Every so often one gets the urge to dip into a popular novel from a hundred or so years ago and one can do that easily because there are lots of them available for free on Guttenberg. Unfortunately, having given in to the urge, one usually remembers that there are better ways to spend one's reading time than on popular novels from a hundred or so years ago.

  • Bataille, Christophe: Hourmaster: Novel

    Bataille, Christophe: Hourmaster: Novel
    This is a book about entropy, about how time passes, clocks run down. There may be beauty in that, and Christophe Bataille worked hard to make it manifest, but as the pages passed, my interest ran down. I was glad the book was short.

  • Dorothy Richardson: Pilgrimage: v. 2 (Virago Modern Classics)

    Dorothy Richardson: Pilgrimage: v. 2 (Virago Modern Classics)
    The fourth and fifth novels in Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage novel sequence, The Tunnel and Interim, make one more certain that the sequence really is an important piece of the history of the novel. Published in 1919 and 1920, the novels (which Richardson saw as chapters in a longer work) are different from, but can be compared to Joyce's, Woolf's, and most of all Proust's masterpieces, and don't suffer by comparison. Miriam is an intelligent well-read young woman making her way in the world, and Richardson gives us the stream of this woman's consciousness and this stream seems (full discosure: I'm male) entirely believable and often enlightening about how it is to experience the world as a female. London, too, plays a central role in these books. We learn the city with Miriam, and are never tired of it.

  • Liu, Cixin: The Dark Forest (Remembrance of Earth's Past)

    Liu, Cixin: The Dark Forest (Remembrance of Earth's Past)
    Half-way through The Dark Forest, the second in Cixin Liu's Remembrance of Earth's Past trilogy, I felt that it was doing what the middle book of trilogies tends to do: sag. The book picked up, though, and the last third became increasingly compelling, particularly as the characters at the center of the drama were developed and the cosmic sociology that is the fictional science most interesting in this science fiction is spelled out in more detail. Further, the overarching shape of the book comes into focus toward the end and its structural integrity becomes more palpable and thus more satisfying. The series, it seems to me, could end without a third book, so it will be interesting to see why Liu was compelled to go on.

  • Eden, Meg: Drowning in the Floating World

    Eden, Meg: Drowning in the Floating World
    Meg Eden's Drowning in the Floating World is a collection of poems, most of which are devoted to the 3/11 tsunami and the Fukushima meltdown, with a brief look-in at the atomic bombing of Japan. Her gift as a writer is her ability to capture these horrendous scenes in a few lines, and to enter into the minds of people (also the animals and buildings) that have been through these disasters. I say this is her gift as a writer rather than as a poet, because some of her poems, it seemed to me, would work as well as prose, or were prose divided up into lines. Adding to this sense was that she clearly intends her poetry to serve a didactic function: See, for example, the list of "additional resources" she includes, clearly the research that enabled her to write these poems even though she was not in Fukushima for the triple-disaster, but in Fukuoka on one of the several visits she has made to Japan. There is nothing wrong with grounding poetry in history and doing the research to make sure that grounding is sound, but by making her poetry for the most part topical, even when the topic is as big as 3/11, she limits the resonance of her poems. I did say, though, that her gift is reporting on the minds of others, and sometimes other things, and the scenes they might have lived through (or not). Here, for example, is the opening stanza of "Town Hall" in which the narrator is a building that survived the tsunami: "Watching the town resurrect, / I remain unfixed / mouth filled with birds," and yes, this is arresting. The rest of of the poem does not disappoint. It's one of several poems in the book that I enjoyed, but as a whole, the book left me wanting something more: more adventurous use of language and something deeper than I found in the dive I and most other residents of Japan took into the news, the YouTube videos, and the blogs that grappled with the horror of that day.

  • Suga, Keijiro: Transit Blues (Ipsi Chapbook)

    Suga, Keijiro: Transit Blues (Ipsi Chapbook)
    Transit Blues, featuring the poem of that title, is a chapbook showcasing some of the work that poet and critic Keijiro Suga first published between 2012 and 2018. As we are reminded in these poems, "transit" is cognate with "transformation" and "translation." Moving between states and moving between places are parallel with movement between languages. Thus it seems appropriate that, except for one written originally in English, the poems are translations moved from Japanese into English by the author or the author and a collaborator, Doug Slaymaker, and moving between is a recurring motif. Suga writes in the title poem: "Transition. My perception is in transition. / My position on the ghost train in the sky / Is a juxtaposition of my forgotten past and my foretold future," and "Your position and transposition urge translation." These are the movements that interest Suga, and will interest readers of these poems.

  • László Krasznahorkai : War and War

    László Krasznahorkai : War and 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, when 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 book 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.)

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

    Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, Tom Pyszczynski: The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
    This might be the most important book I’ve ever read, both as history and self-help. Humans are going to die and, alone among creatures, know it. This terrifying knowledge is kept unconscious through everyday distraction, immortality beliefs and projects, and by bolstering our culturally-derived sense of importance. Unfortunately, we also target cultural and religious outsiders as part of the defense against our unthinkable demise. This has been the story of the human race. The authors use experimental evidence to refine Ernest Becker’s insights into the human denial of death. There is no escape, but I hope I can think on this evidence to better understand my own terror of the inevitable, and its inevitable grip upon my mind. (Oh, and this book is written in a breezy pop-culture style for easy digestion.) (*****)

  • 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. (*)

Books Mark read recently

  • 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. (***)

  • : 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. (*****)

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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