Books David Finished in 2023

  • Keane, Molly: Mad Puppetstown

    Keane, Molly: Mad Puppetstown
    I'm reveling in Lydia Davis's Collected Stories at the moment, and those sent me to an interview with Davis on YouTube. The interviewer asked her what she was reading, and she mentioned Molly Keane (AKA M.J. Farrell). So much do I respect Davis that I had to immediately Kindle off and get my hands on a Keane novel. I'm glad I did. Puppetstown is the name of an Irish country estate we first see through the eyes of a child, Easter Chevington. It is, at first a kind of paradise. Keane makes us believe in that paradise, and also believe it when the paradise comes crashing down in an early iteration of "the troubles." Easter, her mother, and her brothers flee to England. One brother is happy there and ends up engaged to a society debutante. Easter and her other brother are less at home and return to their Irish estate only to find that, having been left in the care of an eccentric aunt, Puppetstown is falling apart. You can never go home, but in the end, it seems, they do. Looking forward now to getting back to Lydia Davis, and, of course, more Molly Keane.

  • Salih, Tayeb: Season of Migration to the North (New York Review Books Classics)

    Salih, Tayeb: Season of Migration to the North (New York Review Books Classics)
    A man comes to town. A Sudanese man, that is, returns to his village after seven years studying an "obscure poet" in England. This post-colonial book is different from many others in that it wasn't written in the (European) colonizer's language but in Arabic. It is a little gem, rich both in language and literary reference (Othello, Heart of Darkness), and structurally exquisite. It is, as well, an evisceration of the colonial and then post-colonial situation. Salih gets the balance between these qualities and concerns just right. Kudos, too, to Laila Lalami, whose Introduction is a superb essay on the book. (As is my usual practice, I read the introduction after finishing the book.)

  • James, M. R.: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary

    James, M. R.: Ghost Stories of an Antiquary
    Attempting to get in the spirit of the season, I started this book around Halloween 2022, but for some reason put it down and didn't get around to finishing it until yesterday, weeks after Halloween 2023. I don't know why I put it down, because the stories are gems. It's interesting to observe that, as Lovecraft's stories were driven by anxieties about those with the wrong nationality and pigmentation, these are driven by anxieties about the lower classes. How very English.

  • Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London

    Ben Aaronovitch: Rivers of London
    This book, the first in a series, comes highly recommended, and I'm glad the recommenders enjoyed it. I wish I had enjoyed it as much as they did, but I found this mystery with a supernatural twist to be a slog. I'm not sure why I finished it. Oh well. Can't win them all.

  • le Carré, John: The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel

    le Carré, John: The Looking Glass War: A George Smiley Novel
    Another Le Carré exposé of the sordid and mundane side of spying. As usual, the best scenes are those in which Smiley is present, but as also seems usual, Smiley is not present for most of the novel. I like the character well enough, though, that I'll keep reading in hopes of catching glimpses of him.

  •  : The Most Secret Memory of Men: A Novel

    : The Most Secret Memory of Men: A Novel
    Senegal, France, The Netherlands, Argentina: this novel moves around a lot, and not only geographically. It is a sort of literary quest novel, literary in two senses: It is written with enough care, imagination, and originality that one must use the L-word, but also in the sense that the protagonist is searching for the reclusive author of a book with which he has become obsessed. Books and authors, that is, are seen as worthy objects of desire. The book for which the protagonist is searching, we learn, is made of pieces taken from other books (the author, Elimane, is accused of plagiarism). The book in which that book appears, Mohamed Mbougar Sarr's The Most Secret Memory of Men, is, likewise, filled with allusions to other works, both African and otherwise. One can't help but think of Bolaño, and there are cameos by Witold Gombrovics and Ernesto Sábato. Indeed, Elimane, the author the protagonist is searching for, was called "the African Rimbaud," mostly because after bursting onto the scene he went silent. I was happy to join in the quest that this mythic detective/ghost/erotic, satyrical novel is.

  • Hand, Elizabeth: The Book of Lamps and Banners (Cass Neary, 4)

    Hand, Elizabeth: The Book of Lamps and Banners (Cass Neary, 4)
    I liked Cass Neary, the punky, strung-out, noirish wreck who is the heroine of this series, enough that I read the first two books. Irritatingly the third is not available on Kindle (why?), so, contrary to my normal practice, I jumped ahead to the fourth book. It was good enough to make me look again to see if the third book had surfaced, but alas it hasn't, and at this late date I don't suppose it ever will. Oh well. I didn't feel lost or confused in The Book of Lamps and Banners, and enjoyed the spiral (because Cass's trajectory usually seems downwards) through England, Sweden, and Iceland. I also enjoyed the dip into the world of rare books and arcana, and also the glimpse, I think, of an actual rare book dealer known to those of us who like odd books. Almost makes me think I should spend too much for the paperback version of the third book in the series.

  • Arrabal, Fernando: The Red Virgin

    Arrabal, Fernando: The Red Virgin
    I couldn't quite motivate myself to count the words in each of the short chapters of Fernando Arrabal's The Red Virgin, but I have a sneaking suspicion that each chapter is of exactly the same length.This sort of Oulipoean constraint leads me to believe that Arrabal, who lives in France and has long been involved with the avant-garde there, has rubbed shoulders with those tricksters, though a quick Google search offers no confirmation for that. Whether or not the Oulipo lurks in the background, the novel, the testimony of a woman who had isolated her daughter in the hope that such a life would allow the girl to succeed in an alchemical quest, is an stimulating read. The mother attempts to make her daughter perfect; when her daughter veers away from her mother's version of perfection, the mother kills her. The most unbelievable thing about all of this is that it is based on a true story.

  • le Carré, John: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels)

    le Carré, John: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley Novels)
    In this one George Smiley is a spy, but he's far in the background for most of the book. I missed him, and wish he had spent more time at center stage, but still, this novel was a very good anti-James Bond. Le Carré doesn't hesitate to show us that English spies live lives devoid of Bondian extravagance and glamor and also that England and her spies were just as morally bankrupt as the Communists with whom, during the cold war, they crossed sabres.

  • le Carré, John: A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley, 2)

    le Carré, John: A Murder of Quality: A George Smiley Novel (George Smiley, 2)
    This is the second in John LeCarré's series of novels featuring George Smiley. He is a spy in most of the books, but not in this one. Instead of engaging in espionage, Smiley, because of his intelligence background, is called upon to investigate a murder at a posh English boarding school. This set-up results in a novel that succeeds in every way: the plot is tight, the characters believable and interesting, the social critique biting, and the prose style is good enough that aspiring writers should pay close attention to it. I'll move on to the third novel in the series, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, soon. This is the novel that made LeCarré's name, though it's hard to imagine that it will be better than A Murder of Quality.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Rose Tremain: Absolutely and Forever

    Rose Tremain: Absolutely and Forever
    An upper-middle-class English “gyal” grows up posh in the 50s and 60s, and does her best with life beyond. It’s a tale of obsession, with B-grade plot and characters that felt, to this reader, half-baked. (*)

  • Ann Patchett: These Precious Days

    Ann Patchett: These Precious Days
    Reading these essays is like hanging out with an intelligent and compassionate friend. The subject matter is personal – her extended family, writing, literature, her decision not to have children -- with the title essay about a late-life friendship the longest. Being in Ann Patchett’s company is a stimulating pleasure. (***)

  • John le Carré: A Murder of Quality

    John le Carré: A Murder of Quality
    A straightforward… and yet so devious… murder mystery that had me guessing (and getting it wrong) to the very end. The background (elite English public school in the class-conscious 1950s) is sketched in broad strokes, but the main characters – the amateur sleuth (le Carré’s beloved ex-spy George Smiley), police inspector, teachers – are fully rounded. Absorbing and fun. (***)

  • Denton Welch: In Youth Is Pleasure & I Left My Grandfather's House

    Denton Welch: In Youth Is Pleasure & I Left My Grandfather's House
    The 1945 novel about a hyper-sensitive English youth’s early 20th century summer holiday is pure teen anxiety with fictional veneer. The prose is straighforward; the motivations quirky. It is most interesting as a picture of middle-class life and prejudices 100 years ago, as is the recollection of a youthful walk that follows. It reminded me of my own adolescent mood swings and self-centeredness, though the protagonist is more of an aesthete than I ever was. (**)

  • Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger

    Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
    A man born in rural poverty in India tells the story of his life. This warts-and-all exposé of rich and poor, country and city begins with colorful cynicism and humor, but turns darker. An enlightening but uncomfortable read because reading about suffering, squalor, corruption and hopelessness is uncomfortable. (**)

  • Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union

    Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemen's Union
    A glorious hardboiled noir set in the Jewish immigrant and indigenous communities of a fictional post-WWII Alaska; a murder mystery that twists and turns with the requisite red herrings and hidden clues. So fabulously rich that you are in awe of the world building; so gorgeously written that you sometimes stop and marvel, wondering how does anyone come up with images and metaphors that creative and apt. Chabon confirms his genius. (****)

  • Irene Nemirovsky: The Fires of Autumn

    Irene Nemirovsky: The Fires of Autumn
    A middle-class French family live -- and die -- through WWI, the 30s and WWII. Vivid, fragmented, insightful, compassionate, with descriptions of war at home and on the front lines that are the more painful for being read as the Russia-Ukraine conflict drags on... When. Will. We. Learn. Thank you Sandra Smith for translating this and 11 other works from the French by this prolific author who died in Auschwitz. (***)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead

    Barbara Kingsolver: Demon Copperhead
    This is a close update of David Copperfield: the self-told tale of a boy growing up poor and orphaned in 1990s rural Virginia. Kingsolver’s Dickensian intent to use her storytelling smarts to shine light on failures and injustices and encourage a will to right the wrongs is laudable, and there is almost enough compelling plot, detail and style to carry us through an often painful story that fictionalizes devastating defects in welfare services and medical treatment in a marginalized part of America. Sometimes hard to pick up, but mostly hard to put down. (****)

  • Barbara Kingsolver: The Bean Trees

    Barbara Kingsolver: The Bean Trees
    A first-person narrative of a teenager escaping her rural upbringing (Kentucky) for the city (Tucson, Arizona). The novel is roughish… unbalanced… but the core is sound: compelling story and characters, and a sense of what it’s like to grow up / live poor – or as an undocumented refugee -- in the USA. Franzen, Strout, McEwan… I add Kingsolver to that short list of writers I gratefully follow anywhere. (***)

  • Claire Keegan: Small Things Like These

    Claire Keegan: Small Things Like These
    A (Booker Prize shortlisted) long short story about a working family man in a small town in the recent past. The plot reflects recent Irish history, and it’s written with uncommon verisimilitude and unassuming beauty. (***)

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

  • The Darjeeling Limited
    Wes Anderson near his quirky best in a tale of three American brothers visiting India. It’s a diverting one-of-a-kind entertainment, droll and beautifully cast. That it loses steam toward the end is minor criticism. I enjoyed it. (DVD) (***)
  • Asteroid City
    In a 50s “Our Town” kind of play, stuff happens on an artificial desert set. Wes Anderson movies are quirky, but this one seems all quirk and no substance. It’s full of ideas and gags, but is there a point? I’ll damn it with the faintest praise and say I wasn’t bored. (Theater) (*)
  • A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’Ete) (1996)
    A Summer’s Tale (Conte d’Ete) One young man and three women on vacation on the Brittany coast. Through lots of conversation, Eric Rohmer recreates the insecurity of youth, and the raging hormones that drive the quest for relationship… and how it’s both different and the same for both sexes. This is mature Rohmer: a seemingly effortless recreation of life within a plot of artificial coincidence. (DVD) (***)
  • Twenty-four Eyes
    This 1954 saga, from the golden age of Japanese cinema, follows a teacher and her students from elementary to high school and beyond on a bucolic, impoverished Inland Sea island, tracing events from the 1930s through World War II. It’s a thing of aching beauty, awash with humanity, sentimentality and nostalgia, and assembled with a sure and dispassionate hand. (DVD) (***)
  • Adam (2019)
    Dramedy of a high school kid who stays with his lesbian sister in New York over the summer and gets entangled with her gay and trans friends. “A” in all categories: acting; filmmaking; story; and sensitivity to the communities it portrays. Bravo/Brava! I wonder if the fiery soliloquy at Trans Camp was an inspiration for America Ferrara’s in “Barbie”? (Theater) (****)

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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