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Reading List 2023

January

Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer, (c1944) Poisoned Pen Press 2021
a delightful entertainment, like the classic elements of a Golden Age mystery exuberantly exploding from a Christmas Cracker

The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney, Europa 2022
intricate procedural in darkest Glasgow

Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Syracuse Univ. Press ed. 2020
the stories of intriguing empathetic characters, all shaped by the political turmoil of their homelands, are intertwined with myths and folktales of Central Asia; lots of food for discussion in Book Group

Double Wide by Leo W. Banks, Brash Books 2017
I’m calling this very entertaining western mystery/thriller ‘noir light’ – lots of tough and snappy dialogue, characters on the fringe of Southwest society, but the exbaseball player protagonist is just too likeable for Noir (that’s a good thing)

The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by R. Costigan-Humes and I. Stackhouse Wheeler (c2017) Yale University Press 2021
an intense, gripping story of war at the Ukrainian-Russian border as a trip across town to reach the orphanage becomes a three day nightmarish journey; brilliantly conveys the confusion of identity and loyalty in the community, the confusion and uncertainty of the military action, and the misery and suffering of everyone

The Marshal at the Villa Torrini by Magdalen Naab, (c1993) Soho Press 2009
one of an excellent series of mysteries set in Florence; beautifully written with a very appealing and singular detective character

The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman, Viking 2022
the Thursday Murder Club solves a cold case in this third book of the improbably entertaining, witty, and warmhearted series

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller, Europa 2022
subtle, exquisite prose; a story of finding a way out of the trauma and guilt from a tragic mistake, the possibilities of healing and reconciliation

looking for books in the old Habsburg empire, a tale of three cities: pt 2 Vienna

Vienna at Christmas time is purely wonderful. All the constant pleasures of the city – the coffee houses and cafes, the museums, the arts and music performances, the shops – are magnified by the seasonal festivity. Huge displays of lights, decorations, and Christmas markets seemingly around every corner make it a delight to stroll the streets.

We did pop in to a couple of bookstores as we passed by, just to enjoy the sight and smell of books, but didn’t go looking for them. For new ones, anyway. The Tyrolia bookshop behind St. Stephan’s Cathedral is an old favorite. Not a big store but it always has something to add to my husband’s library.

Books have a way of finding me, though, or perhaps, being a bookish person, I just notice them more. I was casually viewing the Lower Belvedere’s collection of medieval art when I noticed a book in a saint’s hand. Then another, writing in a book, and another in his study with untidy bookshelves behind him!

The best and most unexpected book appearance was at the Weltmuseum (Ethnographic Museum). Was it really chance that led me down that bland hallway or were my steps guided by some magnetic force pulling me to discover Chaekgeori? And why was the exhibit extended by more than a month until I would be there? Methinks there be mysterious bookish powers at work.

Someone thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Austrian-Korean diplomatic relations. I don’t know that I would have, but I am delighted that it prompted this terrific exhibit. Chaekgeori translates as “books and things” and refers to a tradition of painting an arrangement of books, shelves, small treasures and objects. The style moved from scholarly court paintings into Korean folk art and continues to engage contemporary artists. All completely new to me and so interesting and so much fun.

I bought the catalog, of course, but it’s small and hardly added any weight to the suitcase. Oddly, though the exhibit captions included English, the catalog is only Korean/German. Good thing I’m happy just to look at the pictures!

looking for books in the old Habsburg empire, a tale of three cities: pt 1 Bratislava

Strictly speaking, we weren’t looking for books on our holiday trip. “We’re packing light, right? Only carry-ons, right? So we can’t buy books this trip.” I said. “Only carry-on, keep it light!” my husband agreed, “No books. Unless we find something really special, of course. Surely one or two would fit?” Our good intentions lasted into the second day.

And to be fair, I was the one who broke first. When touring the Bratislava castle the visitor must pass through a really attractive museum shop to reach the medieval tower. One would think it safe for the non-Slovak speaker to walk past the abundant displays of books. One would be wrong. “Oh look,” I said. “The exhibit catalogs are bilingual!”

2022 in books

My reading fell off a little from 2021 as the world reopened. I read 77 books, 57 fiction and 20 non-fiction. 30 titles were translated from other languages; many of those were mystery/crime novels but I still get points in the “exploring other cultures” category, right?

The non-fiction “best of” portion is easy this year. These four books would make such a list in any year.

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapucinski (transl. from the Polish)
We Don’t Know Ourselves, A Personal History of Ireland by Fintan O’Toole
The Black Sea by Neal Ascherson
From the Holy Mountain, A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple

Making choices among the novels is always a little harder. The best shine out but some of the very good must be left behind.

The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov (transl. from the Uzbek)
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Lady Joker, vol. 1 and 2 by TAKAMURA Kaoru (transl. from the Japanese)
Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Augustus by John Williams
Olav Audunsson, vol. 1: Vows by Sigrid Undset (transl. from the Norwegian)
Country by Michael Hughes
The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers (transl. from the German)
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Eight Dogs or Hakkenden, An Ill-considered Jest by BAKIN Kyokutei (transl. from the Japanese)

World Noir favorites

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (transl. from the French)
The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Erikson (transl. from the Swedish)
Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe
Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza (transl. from the Spanish)
Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette (transl. from the French)
The Body Snatcher by Patricia Melo (transl. from the Portuguese)

Best “off-beat, make you smile, life-affirming story” category

Long Live the Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth (transl. from the Norwegian)

And finally, special recognition in the “best book I bought for its title” category

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard (transl. from the French)


reading what I like, affirmed

Denise Mina, award-winning Scottish author of crime/mystery novels, defended reading for pleasure in a recent interview in The Guardian (Sept 30, 2022). It’s an engaging interview and prompted an addition to my library “hold” list. This writer of Scottish noir is a huge fan of P.G. Wodehouse. Clearly a woman I should get to know.

My comfort read
All my reading is comfort reading. On my 50th birthday I gave myself the gift of throwing aside any book I wasn’t finding engaging. There are plaster chunks out of the wall in my study. Life’s too short for reading things that aren’t for you.

looking for books, a road trip coda

Two days driving across the beautiful plains and prairie of southern Colorado and Kansas, we reached the end of the Flint Hills Scenic Byway and the official end of the grand Western Road Trip. Just a drive for home along the familiar sights of I70 ahead. But an unexpected final treat awaited in Council Grove, the small town at the end of the Byway.

Flint Hills Books is a delightful shop in a fine old bank building in the center of town. The space wasn’t large enough for a big collection but it was very well chosen with a particularly choice case of local interest. The bookseller was friendly and chatted while tallying our stack of books. We’d made her day, she said, but I assured her that she’d made ours.

Nothing more but to head for home and start reading!

looking for books, part 2: the road home from CA

The landscape of northern Arizona is so endlessly interesting and beautiful that I really wasn’t thinking of books at all. But books are where you find them and the true book lover is ever alert.

Marble Canyon is a tiny community (Wikipedia calls it “a populated place”) at the Navajo Bridge near Glen Canyon. A “wide place in the road” we would call it in the Midwest, but there’s a little services cluster of lodge/trading post/gas station. I get some gas and go into the station for a cold tea. What a surprise to find shelves of local interest books where one usually sees the beef jerky display.

I picked up a couple of histories of the Powell expedition and expressed my pleasure to the clerk. He beamed and gave himself a quick pat on the back. His doing, he said, and told us that he stocks a really big selection next door in the Trading Post. He did not exaggerate; it was an excellent collection of regional interest titles.

One of my favorite bookstores anywhere is Maria’s Bookshop, an essential stop in our periodic visits to Durango. It’s not especially large, it doesn’t feel overcrowded, yet the collection is so well chosen that I always find something unexpected and interesting.

The Southwest Book Trader is another favorite in Durango. This used book store might be the archetype of the “pack ’em and stack ’em” style. One threads the paths carefully through several rooms that, quite literally, could not hold another volume. Probably. We browsed a while and selected half a dozen or so interesting titles, brushing off a little soot from the smokestack of the famous Durango-Silverton Railroad steam engine. All part of the charm, as is conversation with George, the longtime bookseller and teller of tales.

looking for books along CA49, the Golden Chain Highway

The Gold Rush country of Northern California is a beautiful area of mostly small to very small towns. Not too promising as an environment for bookstores, but we found that books – like gold – are where you find them.

First strike in Nevada City. Harmony Books packs a good, balanced selection of books into its historic storefront. Right by the front door is a case of local interest material with the Gold Rush guidebook we’ve been looking for.

Murphys is small but bustling with tourists looking for wine instead of gold. Amongst the tasting rooms is the bright and cheerful Books on Main.

Auburn is an attractive county seat town where we were able to find both real gold – a massive nugget displayed in the fine county museum – and a few literary nuggets at William Smith Books. Smith Books is a very good general used bookstore, an increasingly rare find. The shelves are well filled and meticulously organized.

Museum and Park gift shops are often good sources for books too. The Visitor’s Center at Calaveras Big Tree State Park had an excellent selection and gave us a fine tote bag to carry them.

Front Street Books

Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas – as nice a small town bookstore as you’ll ever find. The stock is thoughtfully chosen with a strong but not exclusive emphasis on the local history and literature. Our purchases include a collectible Texas writer, contemporary Texas writers, several very small press translated from Spanish novels, a history of the US/Mexico border in WWI, and a couple of popular genre titles. Don’t miss it when visiting Big Bend National Park!