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Reading List 2020

What I’ve read this year. I sample or skim some that aren’t included. Happily, I have lost the compulsion or sense of duty to finish every book I start.

July

Blood River: A Journey to Africa’s Broken Heart by Tim Butcher 2008 Grove Press
an extraordinary, foolhardy journey through the Democratic Republic of Congo to retrace the route taken by Henry Stanley to explore the Congo River; a compelling heartbreaking story of history, adventure, and the dangerous, desperate lives of the people today

A Way of Life, Like Any Other by Darcy O’Brien 1997 W.W. Norton
very little Tinseltown glitter in this satiric story of two washed-up movie stars and their son; based on the author’s childhood in Hollywood, one hopes that the comedy (and it is very funny, mostly) is more exaggerated than the bitter edge suggests

And Fire Came Down by Emma Viskic 2017 Pushkin Vertigo
tough, compelling Australian mystery, follow-up to award-winning Resurrection Bay

The Book On The Book Shelf by Henry Petroski 1999 Knopf
an engineer’s look at the design and technology aspects of the history of books and their storage

Murder In The Crooked House by SHIMADA Soji translated from the Japanese by Louise Heal Kawai c1982 Pushkin Vertigo edition 2019
a locked room mystery for fans of the intricate puzzle style

Food Will Win The War: Minnesota Crops, Cooks, and Conservation During World War I by Rae Katherine Eighmey 2010 Minnesota Historical Society Press
focuses on the enthusiastic citizen response to calls to feed the army and starving Europe, a large and complex undertaking; includes a good number of recipes for dishes like Victory Cabbage and Uncle Sam’s War Biscuits

The Glorious Hussar, The Best of the Exploits and Adventures of the Brigadier Gerard by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle 1961 Walker and Company
hugely entertaining stories of a Hussar in Napoleon’s army

18 Tiny Deaths, The Untold Story of Frances Glessner Lee and the Invention of Modern Forensics by Bruce Goldfarb 2020 Sourcebooks
very interesting history of the development of science based crime investigation; Lee created 18 exquisitely detailed miniature dioramas of crime scenes as training tools

Outlaws by Javier Cercas translated from the Spanish by Anne McLean c2012 2014 Bloomsbury
an absorbing thoughtful novel about how a summer of crime shaped the lives of three members of a juvenile gang, about the changes over time in how we understand our memories, and the destructive power of celebrity and media

June

The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore
c2010 Spiegel & Grau
a skillfully told dual biography; moving reflection on the people, opportunities, and choices that shape our lives

Death On Demand by Paul Thomas c2013 Bitter Lemon Press
Maori detective Ihaka is a wonderful character in this very well written and entertaining crime novel

Baksheesh by Esmahan Aykol translated from the Turkish by Ruth Whitehouse c2003 Bitter Lemon edition 2013
strong on the local color of Istanbul and the Turkish way of life

Rather Be the Devil by Ian Rankin c2016 Little, Brown
I always enjoy a visit to Rankin’s Edinburgh and this 21st(!) adventure of John Rebus and his colleagues has the pleasures his fans expect

Good Man Gone Bad by Gar Anthony Haywood 2019 Prospect Park Books
Haywood gives us a strong character in LA PI Aaron Gunner; a mystery grounded in contemporary social and racial issues

Lumen by Ben Pastor 1999 Van Neste Books
1939 Poland, a psychological thriller of conflicting loyalties and moral choices for the American priest and German officer investigating a murder

Continue reading “Reading List 2020”

the writer’s duty according to Doyle

…I am emboldened to say a few words as to my own conception of the art of fiction. That conception is that our treatment may be as wide as the heavens and as broad as the earth, if it does but attain the essential end of interest. All methods and schools, romance and realism, symbolism and naturalism, have the one object in view – to interest. They are all good so far as they attain that, and all useless when they cease to do so…You are right to make your book adventurous, you are right to make it theological, you are right to make it informative or controversial or idyllic, or humorous or grave or what you will, but you must make it interesting. That is essential – all the rest is detail.

But there comes the obvious retort. ‘You say “interesting” – interesting to whom?‘ The difficulty is not really a great one. The higher and more permanent work has always been interesting to all. The work which is the cult of a clique, too precious for general use, must be wanting in some quality. We know cases where obscurity of style has retarded the recognition of really great writers – but obscurity of style is not a virtue, and they were great in spite of it….If you were to make a list of the works of fiction which have proved their greatness by their permanence and by the common consensus of mankind, you would find that no narrow formula would cover them…the only point which they have in common is that each of them holds the attention of every reader.

It is just this power of holding the attention which forms the art of story-telling…It is imagination – and it is the power of conveying imagination. But we do not know what imagination is, and so all our definitions and explanations become mere juggling with words.

And still critics are found to write, ‘The book is interesting, but we confess that we are unable to say what useful purpose it serves.’ As if interest were not in itself the essential purpose!…[to help escape life’s troubles through] the window of imagination which leads out into the enchanted country…The life of a writer of fiction has its own troubles, the weary waiting for ideas, the blank reaction when they have been used, worst of all the despair when the thought which had seemed so bright and new goes dull and dark in the telling. But surely he has in return some claim to hope that if he can but interest his readers he fulfils the chief end of man in leaving others a ittle happier than he found them.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

from the Author’s Preface in The Glorious Hussar, The Best of the Exploits and Adventures of the Brigadier Gerard (originally published in 1902 Smith Elder edition of his work)

The Cemetery of Forgotten Books

As I walked through the tunnels and tunnels of books…I felt myself surrounded by million of abandoned pages, by worlds and souls without an owner sinking in an ocean of darkness, while the world that throbbed outside the library seemed to be losing its memory, day after day, unknowingly, feeling all the wiser the more it forgot.

Destiny is usually just around the corner…But what destiny does not do is home visits. You have to go for it.

from The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

the book as keepsake and souvenir: Shots from a Lawyer’s Gun

Among the many reasons I have too many books in my home, one of the most difficult to resist is sentimental attachment. I have practiced a fairly ruthless approach to the memorabilia issue, what might be called the detritus of a life. Precious little of it remains, making what does, perhaps, more precious than any evident value. And books, for me certainly, are among the most potent carriers of meaning and connections. Beyond its intrinsic merit, a book can also serve as a tangible link to a special person, a connection to the past, or a prompt for treasured memories.

I think a well-worn copy of Cheaper By The Dozen by Frank Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey is the only relic of my early school years. Holding it, seeing my name so carefully printed on the endpaper, I feel like laughing again with that lively family and at the memories conjured of my own family growing up.

I like receiving books as gifts but am wary of the danger of conflating gift with giver. I also like to give books, but almost never write an inscription. No pressure, you’re free to pass it on as you like. A written name works a kind of binding magic on me. One day while sorting books for the library book sale I opened an old dictionary to see my husband’s name and college address. It was an artifact of a time before I knew him, finding me somehow forty years later. Of course I brought it home.

My husband and I buy lots of books when we travel, only a few of which, museum guides for instance, might be classified as trip souvenirs. Many will prompt memories of a trip, of course, but that is an incidental function. Possibly only one time did I buy a pretty random book just to have a keepsake. The purity of its purpose can be seen in that I only got around to reading it this month, 17 years later, when a memory of carefree travel seemed especially desirable.

So, my daughter and I were walking across England – I love saying that, and it was absolutely one of the best things I have ever done – when our knees demanded a rest day. We took a tiny bus, slowly, sharing the road with many sheep, into the town of Shap where we spent a delightful day. We watched lawn bowling, walked to some ruins, ate Stilton with apricots (who knew it came in anything but blue?), and found a used bookshop. The shop keeper seemed very dubious about two Americans in boots and packs, and was rather short with my query for “something about sheep”. Undeterred, I browsed until I found something that looked rather jolly.

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I was looking at a book about English Game Laws, popular enough to have gone to a 6th edition in 1927. The author’s preface was highly humorous and many charming pen and ink cartoon sketches enlivened the text. No sheep, alas, but stories of real life in English countryside seemed a good alternative. I paid a few pounds, tucked it into my pack, and eventually carried it across the ocean to sit until whim should call for it.

So there it was, waiting for this right moment when I really wanted something that would take me traveling again if only in memories. And it turned out to be an interesting and rather entertaining account of a slice of English life and law. The author has a sharp wit and flair for anecdotes. The drawings are a welcome leaven to the mind-boggling intricacies of the laws and their application. The layers of laws, rights, and customs and the contradictions implicit and in practice are beyond the explication of even so skillfully plain a stylist as our author.

Really, although entertained, I felt quite baffled and concluded this was definitely more than I wanted to know about when and when not one may within the law shoot a particular animal/bird, or the circumstances when it is acceptable or prohibited to carry same away. My confusion seemed generally shared among the characters populating the stories of poachers, tenants, and feuding neighbors who seek counsel from Mr. Six-and-Eight in his chambers. At least, much work is made for lawyers and much talk for the pub. As learned counsel has it, “Nothing is certain in law except the expense.”

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secrets will out

(After midnight an old classmate drops in on Inspector De Vincenzi at the police station.)

De Vincenzi looked at him. Why in the world was he here at this hour? And why had he come?

They had been classmates and friends. They were certainly friendly, but not, perhaps, close. Come to think of it, where could one find closeness these days, with men all hurling themselves towards their own destinies, with their own passions, their own needs and all the vices of the human body?

Each one of us has a secret, and the man with one he can admit to is fortunate.

from The Murdered Banker by Augusto De Angelis

World Book Day

It’s good to have a day for all booklovers to celebrate together. And there’s something particularly comforting in the act of reading right now. There’s the comfort of familiar loved stories, the pleasurable distraction of new ones, and the comfort of the familiar tactile and sensory pleasures of reading.

Wallace Stevens captures the immersive experience in the poem The House Was Quiet and the World Was Calm.

The house was quiet and the world was calm.
The reader became the book; and summer night

Was like the conscious being of the book.
The house was quiet and the world was calm.

UNESCO actually names this “World Book and Copyright Day”. In respect of same, I will not copy the entire poem. It is available on the Poetry Foundation website:
read the entire poem here

tension rising in Death Going Down

Gaby heard the click of the receiver being replaced on the stand, then she moved away silently. Once she was in her bedroom and had got into bed, she took a packet of cigarettes from the drawer in her bedside table. Long hours unfurled ahead of her like an image multiplied in a house of mirrors. She smoked with relish, tricking her wakeful anxiety with the calm appearance of her gestures, her gaze lost in the whitish smoke that slowly dissipated in the darkness of the room.

from Death Going Down by Maria Angelica Bosco
translation by Lucy Greaves

Dogs and Bones

The dog that trots around finds the bone.

I love this proverb which I just heard for the first time in a Japanese mystery The Honjin Murders by Yokomizo. It’s also attributed to gypsies and must have been a favorite of Golda Meir, as it is often credited to her.

I feel the good humored encouragement to get up and do something, no need for a grand plan. Being active, following whim and curiosity may well lead to happy surprises and discoveries.

I didn’t see myself in the busy dog at first, but it occurs to me that my reading habits could be described as “trotting around”. I move through the world of books, across centuries and cultures with minimal direction, guided largely by serendipity (thank you Three Princes of Serendip).

I’m going to keep reminding myself to be more curious and venturesome in other ways as well. Who knows what other bones I might find?

The image of a curious dog brought a particular literary favorite irresistibly to mind. The inimitable Hank the Cowdog has many adventures on his ranch, as described by author John Erickson in a really delightful series of books. Hank is an up-to-date dog, too; check out his website hankthecowdog.com. Just thinking about Hank puts a big grin on my face!

…time has solidified

It’s only natural for a man, full of regrets and knowing he’ll die within hours, to be weak and make impossible requests. And then it’s equally natural for the person tending to that man to put on a cheerful front…so as not to let the dying man feel that he has been abandoned. Our final moments in this life aren’t generally an appropriate time for clear-eyed reflection; indeed, they always find us at our most sentimental. There’s no room left in them for rational thought, because time itself has solidified and expanded inside them like water becoming ice.

Khaled Khalifa from Death is Hard Work

a campaign worker’s lot is not a happy one

Yamasaki always wagered that he would be disillusioned; it was as if he kept up a constant bet with his youthful hopes. Yamasaki ranked as a genuine veteran in election campaigns, and he was absolutely indomitable, but a kind of masochistic fervor lodged within him. Corruption in an election or the victory of moneyed power did not in the lease surprise him; they seemed as natural as stones and horse dung along a road…(he was an) epicure of disillusion

After The Banquet by MISHIMA Yukio