Reading List 2021

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.


Heida, A Shepherd At The Edge Of The World by Steinunn Siguroardottir, translated by Philip Roughton, (c2016) English edition John Murray 2019
interesting vignettes of life on a remote farm in Iceland, focuses on the political fight to block a plan to flood her valley for a reservoir

The Mao Case by Qiu Xiaolong, Minotaur Books 2009
another satisfying story in the Inspector Chen series; extreme care is necessary in a case with roots in the Cultural Revolution and linked to the Great Leader

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, Scribner 2016
a vivid evocation of colonial New York City and homage to the 18th century novel; unusual twists to the story, a very showy entertainment


Landmarks by Robert Macfarland, (c2015) Penguin Books 2016
a beautifully written slow-reading pleasure; reflections on landscapes and the language created through long intimacy of living within a particular place

China in Ten Words by Yu Hua, translated from the Chinese by Allan H. Barr, Pantheon Books 2011
completely fascinating; brave, witty, and shocking; Yu uses his life experiences as a prism to illuminate the elements of contemporary Chinese society


The Dry by Jane Harper; Flatiron Books 2016
well plotted mystery, strong on local color of drought-ravaged Australia

Cold Storage, Alaska by John Straley, Soho Press 2014
very appealing story, a kindlier example of the ironic/goofy style of crime novel

The Republic of Imagination, A Life In Books by Azar Nafisi; Penguin Books 2014
she shares her insights and love of literature; focus on books that illuminate the American experience

A Student Of History by Nina Revoyr, Akashik Books 2019
author is a fine stylist, but I was left feeling like the protagonist’s thesis advisor that the promise of the early chapters was unfulfilled

Earthlings by MURATA Sayaka, translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori (c2018) English edition Grove Press 2020
a deeply sad, surreally comic story, a harsh critique of society’s pressures to conform

Without Ever Reaching the Summit, a journey by Paolo Cognetti translated from the Italian by Stash Luczkiw; (c2018) HarperOne 2020
meditative trek in Nepal, a pure example of a trip that is all about the journey

Synthesizing Gravity, Selected Prose by Kay Ryan; Grove Press 2020
essays characterized by humor and insight, much on the act/nature of writing

The Big Both Ways by John Straley; Alaska Northwest Books 2008
depression era story with colorful memorable characters and setting in Northwest and Alaska

The Oedipus Cycle by Sophocles, translated from the Greek by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald; Harcourt Brace and Co.

The Forger by Cay Rademacher, translated from the German by Peter Millar; (c2013) Arcadia Books ed. 2018
Final volume in the very interesting and satisfying mystery series set in Hamburg in the immediate post-war years


The Mountains Wait by Theodor Broch; 1943 Michael Joseph Ltd. illustrated by Rockwell Kent
memoir of life in northern Norway and the coming of WWII by the Mayor of Narvik

WHY WE DRIVE, Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford 2020 William Morrow
engaging stories illuminate his critique of the dangers of big tech and bureaucracy to personal freedom and creativity

Patrick Melrose by Edward St. Aubyn Picador edition 2015
being a cycle of five novels: Never Mind; Bad News; Some Hope; Mother’s Milk; At Last comic and terrible, heartbreaking and hopeful, the boyhood to adult middle age of an upper class Englishman; brilliant dialogue, wonderful prose

Lord Grizzly by Frederick Manfred c1954 Univ. of Nebraska edition 1983
vigorous vivid story of the mountain man Hugh Glass, who famously survived a mauling by a grizzly bear

The Silver Branch by Rosemary Sutcliff c1957 Oxford Univ Press
one of the author’s engaging series of novels about Roman Britain

Tokyo Ueno Station by YU Miri c2014, translated by Morgan Giles Riverhead Books edition 2020
through the memories and reveries of a homeless man’s ghost we see something of the hardships of life for the poor in post-war Japan; poetic, dream-like prose

I Was Jack Mortimer by Alexander Lernet-Holenia (c1933) translated by Ignat Ivesy 2013 Pushkin Press edition
terrifically entertaining thriller set in Vienna

Inferno by Dante Alighieri, A New Verse Translation by Michael Palma
W. W. Norton 2002

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman, Viking 2020
so much fun, a really witty clever warm-hearted mystery

The Vanished Library by Luciano Canfora, translated from the Italian by Martin Ryle; University of California Press 1989
scholarly sleuthing untangles references and allusions to libraries in the ancient world, particular focus on the great library of Alexandria

Continue reading “Reading List 2021”

but what about the cat?

When I really want to make time I take off my glasses and let the text blur as the pages flip by. Collating the scores of volumes of The Gentleman’s Magazine could absorb much too much time if I let my eyes stop at every intriguing heading or story. It was the original “magazine”, (the editor appropriated the French word for “storehouse”) founded in 1731 as a digest of everything an educated man might want to know about. Original contributions and excerpts from other periodicals and books cover the political, scientific, and military news, poetry and publishing, the stock market, births and deaths, natural history, letters from readers, engravings, etc. etc. Every issue is packed with temptation for the curious, and, of course, I often succumb.

My project is to review each volume for any damage or loss before offering the set for sale through my Library’s online store. A few years before my retirement, the Library decided to deaccession a huge number of old periodicals. Why many (like TGM) were ever made part of a public library collection remains a mystery, but I was determined to rescue as many as possible from the dumpster and put them into our store. Even the most intresting and historically important periodicals are a slow sell, though, and they mostly sat in storage waiting for attention – a classic someday project.

A grand project for a volunteer in other words. Now I can give them that time and attention, and there’s no guilt if I let myself get distracted from time to time by a report on the troubles in the colonies or an engraving of a very toothy hippopotamus or a funny news story.

from volume 47, 1777

Historical Chronicle
February 22

The ship Phoenix, from London to Gainsbrough, was unfortunately set on fire by a cinder’s falling on a cat in the cabin, and the cat’s running frighted into the half-deck, where was stowed a quantity of hemp, which instantly burst into a flame, and, more than 20 barrels of powder being on board, so intimidated the ship’s company, that they quitted the vessel, to preserve their lives, and soon after she blew up.

a poet on ‘memory’

I don’t think I can speak at sufficient length about the importance to the poet of avoiding or ignoring Kodak moments. If a poet seeks to make or keep memories, how will she ever know which ones contain true power, which would assert themselves on their own? Perhaps her very definition of memory would change if she didn’t get her Kodak moments developed. Maybe memory would not hold individual scenes at all; maybe it would have no detail; maybe it would not rise up–the pines of that morning in Yosemite scraping the interior of her skull; maybe it would be nacreous, layered regions of pleasure and attraction in the mind. Any sense of tint in the depth of the gleam would arise so slowly as to be imperceptible. I am speaking of the memory that might result from repetition. I am interested in the long ways of knowing, where the mind does not seek strangeness. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

from Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

Memory does not do our bidding, even when we are most intent on fixing a moment or an experience in our memory. Perhaps it’s just as well. Perhaps we should struggle less to make “perfect” memories. Perhaps we should fret less about all that we can’t remember. We must be less in love with foreground if we want to see far.

A word I’m pleased to learn: “nacreous” meaning lustrous, as mother-of-pearl. Nacreous gleams of memory, a wonderful image.

“doing” beats “disrupting” in WHY WE DRIVE: Toward a PHILOSOPHY of the OPEN ROAD by Matthew B. Crawford

Ripe seeds of invention everywhere abound, and it awaits only a certain combination of need, of circumstance and, above all, perhaps, of chance, to decide which shall germinate.
The High-Speed Internal-Combustion Engine by Harry Ricardo, 1923

“Ricardo’s “ripe seeds of invention”…begin to germinate around some settled platform…allowing a body of communal expertise to develop. The impatient optimizer may see such an inheritance as an obstacle, something to be swept away in the name of forward progress. Human beings are often bullheaded in their attachment to something suboptimal. Call it loyalty, call it perversity, or call it a cultural inheritance, this conservatism has at times been responsibe for amazing leaps forward, paradoxically enough…tradition can itself be an engine of progress. It organizes the transmission of knowledge. It also provides an idiom for some shared endeavor, and a set of historical benchmarks, such that one can imagine oneself outdoing particular human beings who came before, and who worked wthin the same basic limitations. Tradition thus provides a venue for rivalry in excellence, the kind that sometimes brings a whole community to new and unexpected places.

In this respect, I think it is fair to call hot-rodding an art form.”

This is, I’m certain, the most entertaining and engaging work of political philosophy that I will read all year. Crawford tells great stories about what we could call the “car culture’ to make serious arguments for defending the personal freedom integral to the act of driving, and the human virtues cultivated in making and doing stuff to cars. He attacks the particular threat of the autonomous car to critique the larger issues posed by the intrusion of ‘big data tech’ into our society.

Hot-rodding as an art form is a little tongue in cheek, but he’s not talking about street racing. He describes the ingenuity, creativity, and passionate pursuit of making something better, something imagined and created through a high level of craft. I’m never going to pick up a wrench let alone tear down an engine, but I can sincerely admire the skill and passion that the car enthusiast pours into realizing a personal vision.

His title is what caught my attention. Didn’t quite have me at “Drive” but he hooked me with “the Open Road”. I love to drive and I love a road trip above almost anything. The prospect of the so-called autonomous car fills me first with bafflement – who doesn’t want to be in control and enjoy the physical sensations of driving? – and then incredulity – who thinks these systems would be any more error free or secure than any other bug and hack riddled software that we know? – and then fear and outrage – are some “experts” going to force us to relinquish yet another piece of personal independence and active agency?

I feel more and more uncomfortable with what has been aptly named “surveillance capitalism” (Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism) and anxious about its relentless extension into our lives. I have no wish to be a passive engine of consumption, but it is harder and harder to defend privacy and avoid (or even recognize) the little nudges and gentle steerings that intrude into every activity.

“…the Blob that seeks to claim every nook and cranny of human experience as raw material to be datafied and turned to its own profit. What this amounts to is a concentration of wealth, a centralization of knowledge, and an atrophy of our native skills to do things for ourselves.

However one comes down on a contest such as that between…consumer convenience and a living wage, between waiting an extra five minutes to hail a cab versus spending an extra ten minutes in traffic because the streets are flooded with empty Ubers, shouldn’t these questions be decided by us, through democratic contest and market forces? That is not at all what is happening. It is more like colonial conquest, this new and very unilateral form of political economy.”

Definitely a bigger issue than keeping my car keys. That’s important too. I like to drive, I like to use the skills developed over many years and miles of driving, I like making the choice of route even if it’s not GPS “optimal”, and I enjoy (mostly) the interaction with fellow drivers as we share the community of the road.

“To drive is to exercise one’s skill at being free, and one can’t help but feel this when one gets behind the wheel. It seems a skill worth preserving.”

2020 in books

I try always to carry a book with me for those times when I anticipate or fear I might have to wait – the doctor’s office, obviously, but to smooth all those little gap times between the activities in a day, too.

“Waiting” is what this past year has been about and books have helped a lot. I read more, though not as much as I thought I would. Streaming K-Dramas helped a lot too, and going for walks. And of course, food must be prepared and the house cleaned even when largely housebound, so, all in all, more books were read but not an especially large total.

I read 77 books in 2020, 25 non-fiction and 52 fiction. 28 titles were works translated into English. The desire for escapist entertainment must account for the number of mysteries in the list, but the quality was generally quite high across all genres. It was a bit hard to pick only ten for the years’ “best” list. See the Post ‘Reading List 2020’ for more information on each book.

10+3 Favorites for 2020


A House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorhead
Black Count by Tom Reiss
Enemy of All Mankind by Steven Johnson
The Anatomy of a Moment by Javier Cercas


The Return by Hisham Matar
Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb (transl. Hungarian)
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin (transl. German)
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa (transl. Arabic)
Darkness At Noon by Arthur Koestler (transl. German)
Measuring The World by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. German)

I reread The Lord of the Rings trilogy and must put it in the “always a favorite” category.

Special recognition in the ‘just plain fun’ category for The Glorious Hussar by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Best new-to-me mystery discovery is Death On Demand by Paul Thomas. The earlier titles in the short series aren’t readily available here. I liked this so much I sent to a bookseller in New Zealand for copies of the other four novels featuring Maori Detective Ihaka. The internet is good for some things!

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.


A Long Retreat: In Search of a Religious Life by Andrew Krivak 2008 Farrar, Straus, & Giroux

Ma’am Darling: 99 Glimpses of Princess Margaret by Craig Brown 2017 4th Estate the 20th century refracted through her life; insightful on celebrity culture; imaginative technique and structure

In the Country of Men by Hisham Matar (c2006) 2007 The Dial Press a sad, delicate novel of a boy whose family and world are caught up in political terror

Continue reading “Reading List 2020”

wounds of melancholy

( in medieval Estonia, a student hopes to make a fresh start at a new University)

Laurentius sighed in exasperation, closed his eyes, and started making a serious effort to get to sleep. The carriage shook monotonously, the wheels engaging the furrows in the weathered road surface with a regular measured rhythm, like the swinging of a clock’s pendulum. He imagined that the carriage was a large golem made by Rabbi Eliyah, with people stuffed into its stomach like strips of paper, each one with the name of the Lord written on it. But how does that strip of paper feel inside the mchine’s stomach? Does it have its own place there, or is it just passing through, whiling the time away in boredom? What is it like inside a human? Where does the soul come from, and where does it go? What about inside his parakeet?

Laurentius shook his head and looked around uneasily. He didn’t want to get bogged down in those kinds of thoughts – he had to make sure he stayed rational. But he couldn’t help himself. Fragments of thoughts, individual sentences and memories permeated the edge of his consciousness like blood soaking into a bandage. This was the wound of his consciousness, which he dressed and treated, but to no avail. Laurentius had tried to immerse himself in learning, literature, theatre, other people’s company, anything to soothe this wound and help it heal. But it festered; the same thoughts kept recurring and the bad blood kept rising to the surface.

from The Willow King by Meelis Friedenthal

a truly novel laundry idea

One of the delights of browsing among old books is the possibility, the expectation even, that something curious and interesting will turn up. I recently picked up an attractive vintage book at my library book sale which both picqued my curiosity and was full of odd and interesting information

More than I actually want to know about the opportunities, challenges, hazards, and rewards of operating a commercial laundry business but fascinating to browse. My favorite entry describes the unusual technique for bleaching linen devised by a clever Frenchman who must have reaped a great return in advertising value whether or not his method was effective.


An enterprising Parisian laundry company bleaches linen by balloon. A few hundred feet up the air is nearly as pure as in the open country, and it is in this ozonized air that the linen is dried by the aid of a captive balloon. The linen is attached to bamboo frames, and being rough-dried while taking its aerial voyage, a considerable quantity is taken at each ascension. There are about six ascents during the day, and an extra charge of from five to fify centimes is made for each article thus treated.