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23 April 2021

Then We Came to the End
Let Him Go
A Visit to Don Otavio
Aspiration
Two Rereadings: The Flame Throwers and The Little Friend.
The Code Breaker

Then We Came to the End.

I'm rereading this fascinating novel for the first time. Maybe this isn't the best time, though. We're almost a year into the pandemic, beginning to be anxious about waiting for a vaccine appointment, wondering how much of today's blizzard will melt before the next nor'easter hits this weekend... What unsalvageable jerks Ferris's "creatives" are, the men anyway. But that's what makes the book so gripping. Like any bunch of jackasses, they do ridiculous things, but their sloth and their knowingness are criminal. Needless to say, the late Trump administration has not made them the slightest bit less lifelike. (Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if one of them ran amok in the halls shouting "Stonk! Stonk!")

You can read what I had to say about it when I last read it here.

Let Him Go

Larry Watson's 2013 novel, Let Him Go, arrived the other day, and I read it in two swoops, excited to find that it was very well done the writing is fast and compelling, but supple and gratified to see how closely Thomas Bezucha's screenplay follows it. The film of Let Him Go, which was released in theatres last year and on DVD last week, is one of the great eccentric Westerns: it takes up the usual elements of the genre, gives them a good shake, and shoots out a surprising and disturbing story. It is also very well cast, with a trio of firecrackers in the leads. Diane Lane plays a tough lady who bites off more than she can chew, which is just another way of saying that Lesley Manville is simply terrifying as her adversary. As for Kevin Costner, I often thought while reading the novel that Larry Watson, ostensibly describing the character of George Blackledge, was actually describing Costner's recent performances, a laconic presence haunting the action until the moment when he suddenly takes it over.

The novel and the film make an exciting couple. It is in the nature of films to be more thrilling, more brilliant than the books on which they're based, but here, the congruence is so extensive that a good deal of that thrilling brilliance reflects back on the book. I'll have more to say about this, and when I do there will be a link to the page.

A Visit to Don Otavio

I am re-reading Sybille Bedford's first book, published nearly seventy years ago, as a way of regaining my bearings after the strange experience of reading Selina Hastings's new biography of Bedford. Having read just about everything that Bedford ever published I've stalled in the Huxley biography I know that few writers have surpassed her at the art of revealing very little personal information in a flood of ostensibly autobiographical disclosure. Hastings fills in a lot of what Bedford wanted to leave out, and while it is satisfying to hold the missing pieces to the jigsaw puzzle in one's hand, it is not very pleasant to look at them. If there's one thing that quickly sours for me, it's reading about bygone love affairs, especially when there's a regular pattern, as here, from passion to boredom. Even more curiously, Hastings's retelling of most of the well-known elements (the detached father whose greatest attachment was to his collection of ponderous antique furniture, the mother addicted to morphine) falls flat; instead of adding something to these tales, Hastings somehow subtracts. Anyone who read just one of Bedford's books before confronting this tome would be forgiven for exploring no further.

So I thought I'd better reacquaint myself with the sparkle of Bedford's prose before an unwonted reassessment provoked me, in the desperate and perennial search for shelf space, to remove her from the library.

Aspiration: The Agency of Becoming
Agnes Callard (Oxford)

Here is a book for every thoughtful person on my list. Yes, it's philosophy, but, also, it's Agnes Callard (born 1976 in Budapest but raised here). In one lovely little paragraph for the thought of which she thanks a friend, Callard writes:

For one can aspire not only to acquire, but to be free from a value. My parents' generation was the first to be faced en masse with the task of revising their sexual norms in the face of encountering homosexuality in their own children or in friends of their children. They aspired to rid themselves of the values that would dictate attitudes they found to be incompatible with the love they felt for these children. It is, in part, due to their aspirational work that homosexuality has a very different place in our culture today than it did thirty years ago.

For more, click here..

Two Rereadings: The Flame Throwers and The Little Friend.

On the always somewhat humbling experience of finding books to be much more gripping the second time around. What was one thinking?

The Code Breaker: Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing, and the Future of the Human Race
Walter Isaacson (Simon & Schuster)

This rather thick book profusely illustrated with photographs of the many people besides Jennifer Doudna who gave us CRISPR and the COVID vaccines is a whizbang magazine article "whizbang" because just about when Walter Isaacson was about to submit it for publication ("bound in a tome and sent off to Rome," if you remember that one), a new wrinkle to end new wrinkles added a new and very unexpected (but very heartening) dimension.

If, as I don't suspect, Jennifer Doudna is really the central scientist that Isaacson wants her to be, then he has done her a great disservice in the writing of this book. (Yes, I wrote that sentence to do that wrinkle justice.)

For more, click here.

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