Shameless Self-Promotion






Books David Finished in 2019

  • Jane Thynne: Faith and Beauty

    Jane Thynne: Faith and Beauty
    I took a break from the long and magisterial German novel I'm reading to read a historical thriller about Germany in the run up to World War II. It's the fourth in the series of Clara Vine novels, and is as good as those that preceded it. Spoiler alert: Clara doesn't kill Hitler.

Books Julian Read Recently

  • Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping

    Marilynne Robinson: Housekeeping
    This story of two sisters growing up in backwoods Idaho begins with the same grave, wise cadencies of Gilead, wistful and sometimes wry, then gradually slides into mystical and poetic descriptions beyond my level of comprehension and appreciation, riffing on life, death, family, the bible… by way of water and the moon. A telling both conventional and transgressive, with much to be appreciated. (***)

  • Michael Chabon: The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh

    Michael Chabon: The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh
    I’m not sure all the pieces quite jigsaw into place, but this is a rich, pleasurable read (about being young, about living in a city, about friendship) with light and darkness, and much satisfyingly acute observation. It’s the kind of book that makes you grateful someone took the trouble to craft it. Thank you Michael Chabon. (****)

  • Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach

    Jennifer Egan: Manhattan Beach
    A story about a New York family during the Depression and World War II. I felt a little bogged down in the middle stretches, but all that scene-setting pays off in the final third, and the penultimate sequence at sea is incredibly moving. The story also illustrates the vast distance we've traveled in overcoming racism and sexism in just one lifetime. (****)

  • Lafcadio Hearn: Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation

    Lafcadio Hearn: Japan: An Attempt at Interpretation
    A century ago, as it remade itself into a modern power, Lafcadio Hearn sought to explain his adopted home Japan in terms that educated Westerners might understand, drawing copious parallels with ancient Greece, and describing its religion on its own terms rather than through a Christian lens. He saw Japan as akin to a bonsai tree: centuries of social control had created an extraordinary charmed fairyland of exquisite beauty, fast disappearing as industrialization took an ax to its roots of ancestor worship and community ties. The book is heavy on history, but the analysis is penetrating. Hearn’s thesis can be summarized by the quote he uses to open the book: “Perhaps all very marked national characters can be traced back to a time of rigid and pervading discipline.” (***)

  • Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer

    Viet Thanh Nguyen: The Sympathizer
    The tragedy of Vietnam’s colonial past culminating in the horror of the war and its deathly aftermath; the humiliation and marginalization, historic and ongoing, experienced by Asians in the United States; all are grist for this tart and uncomfortable novel. It works its way to being as realistic and surreal as Apocolypse Now, and has similar ambition. More educational and salutary (thanks for that) than enjoyable. (**)

  • Roz Chast: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

    Roz Chast: Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?
    Roz Chast’s (autobio)graphic novel of the ambivalent daughter and her ageing parents’ last years is hilarious, insightful and moving. Pure joy to read. (*****)

  • Andrew Sean Greer: Less

    Andrew Sean Greer: Less
    A failing writer is turning 50, has parted from his partner, and decides on a whim to travel around the world from one dubious author gig to another. It’s rare (Elizabeth Strout; Ian McEwan…) to feel that I am in good hands: that this writer will steer me true, and Greer joins the list. It’s another book to thank the Pulitzer for steering me toward. Comic and profound. (****)

  • Basil Hall Chamberlain: Things Japanese
    To read this is to journey back 100 years to Meiji Japan, an exotic topsy-turvy land given encyclopedic treatment by a British expat whose observations, while level-headed, are shot through with the empathy-lite class and racial prejudices of his time. 500-plus pages of often fascinating detail about a country joining the modern world at breakneck speed after 200 years of isolation; its art, music, food, bathing, war with Russia, new colony Formosa and all else, the wonder being not how much has changed since 1904, but how much has remained the same.
  • Louis Sachar: Holes

    Louis Sachar: Holes
    An excellent yarn for kids and adults, simple yet complex, short and expansive, fantastic and real, with memorable characters and situations, and a story you can’t predict. It’s serious and funny, and, above all, fun. I’d say it only puts a foot wrong once, at the end of Chapter 18. (*****)

  • Tim Kreider: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You

    Tim Kreider: I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
    Tim Kreider’s latest book of essays is as fun to read as his last “We Learn Nothing.” He riffs on relationships, sex, teaching, religion, politics, keeping a pet, summer vacation and more. Kreider is intelligent, extremely gifted as a writer, and is honest enough to be very funny. We are sometimes asked who living or dead we’d invite to a dinner party, and Kreider would be on my list. (No drawings in this volume, so I’m going to have to order one of his earlier books of cartoons to get my Kreider cartoon fix.) Color me grateful to have a book like this to read. (*****)

Books Mark read recently

  • Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis (Norton Critical Editions)

    Franz Kafka: The Metamorphosis (Norton Critical Editions)
    This is a really creepy story. It has stayed on my mind for days after having finished reading. A man wakes one morning to discover he's turned into an insect (a dung beetle, if I remember correctly.) Kafka is brilliant in letting us see the details from the eyes of a bug: what he desires, what are his thoughts and failings; how those in the house react to the bug who was once a loved family member. Kafka sentences are long-winded, but I enjoyed reading him again, having ions ago read The Trial. This story is haunting-- and somehow beautiful-- and not to be shunned. (*****)

  • Louis Sachar: Holes

    Louis Sachar: Holes
    A fun full length novel for young readers. A boy is charged with a crime (stealing some sneakers) and for punishment is sent to a camp on a dry lake to dig holes. He meets other boys his own age who are truly delinquent, and learns though is own cleverness how to handle them. A subplot features the story of the relationship of a black man and a white woman who lived on the lake a hundred years ago. How does their story connect to the current one? (*****)

  • Roald Dahl: Matilda

    Roald Dahl: Matilda
    This is a funny and inspirational book for young people. I suppose readers might be anywhere from 9 to 12 years-old. This year I will turn 60, and I loved the book. It's the story of a young girl--Matilda, who is super smart--who endures an unloving family and no one who takes her seriously except for her teacher, Mrs. Honey. (*****)

  • Roxanne Gay, Editor: The Best American Short Stories 2018 (The Best American Series ®)

    Roxanne Gay, Editor: The Best American Short Stories 2018 (The Best American Series ®)
    Another wonderful collection of the short stories nominated and chosen from literary magazines and journals in 2018. My three favorite stories are "What Got Into Us" "Good with Boys" and "Suburbia!" (*****)

  • Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess Boys (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)

    Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess Boys (Turtleback School & Library Binding Edition)
    Elizabeth Strout's latest novel is the story of three siblings from rural Maine. An accident from their childhood continues to influence their adult lives, especially in times of personal turmoil. The brilliance of The Burgess Boys is how the psychological transparency of each sibling, so precisely rendered by Strout, provides adequate tension for a climactic finish. Not nearly her best work, however. For that see Olive Kitteridge. (***)

Films Julian Watched Recently

  • I Am Not Your Negro
    Among the Trumpian trees, you lose sight of the forest, so it’s enlightening to be transported back to mid 20th Century US to witness the forest on fire: the seeming impasse of race relations at the time of the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. We witness this agony through the eyes and mind of James Baldwin, whose wisdom was among the reasons the fire has receded. This beautifully rendered documentary and history lesson is worth 90 minutes of anyone’s time. It will make you grateful to be living today rather than yesterday, while making it clear how much more work there is to be done. (I was lucky to watch on the big screen [at Jack & Betty, the revival house in Yokohama]). Jack & Betty: (****)
  • Call Me By My Name
    As languid as an Italian summer, a tale of first love that, thanks to impeccable performances, feels true, calling us to dare to open our hearts. (DVD) (****)
  • Darkest Hour
    Gary Oldman’s terrific Oscar-winning Winston Churchill impersonation aside, this movie moves glacially, and the rewriting of history brings little. Snoozefest. (Theater) (**)
  • Isle of Dogs
    Dogs are under threat in an affectionately stereotypical future Japan. It’s a leisurely tale told in whip-fast animation, liberally peppered with humorous touches. The voice work and animation are clever and fun. Pure Wes Anderson dark whimsy. (Theater) (4 stars for me, but 2 for my moviegoing companion.) (****)
  • Paterson
    A movie observing likeable people going about their lives; a love song to a city and to poetry. Sounds more or less up my street, so why am I thinking of friends who’ll enjoy it more than I did. As far as movie-ness (artificiality), there are no more coincidences than in something by Rohmer. For me, it played fine but just didn’t spark. (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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