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.


The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Picador 2015
thoughtful humane cultural critique at the heart of this wildly painfully comic satire of American life

How To Read The Air by Dinaw Mengestu, Riverhead Books 2010
our lives as stories, as experienced and (mis)understood by ourselves and others; fine prose, perhaps overlong (book group)

Warsaw 1920: Lenin’s Failed Conquest Of Europe by Adam Zamoyski, Harper Press 2008
the conflicts and political struggles continuing after the Armistice are largely forgotten; this is an admirably concise compelling account of the unlikely victory that stopped soviet expansion for a generation

Reading In The Dark by Seamus Deane, Knopf 1997
a boy growing up in 1950’s Belfast tries to learn the truth of family secrets, family troubles as part of the political Troubles of Northern Ireland; psychologically acute, deeply sad, told in such distinctive and beautiful language

Rizzio by Denise Mina, Pegasus Crime 2021
novella about the murder of David Rizzio, the private secretary to Mary, Queen of Scots


At Night All Blood Is Black by David Diop, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis; (c2018) Farrar, Straus and Giroux English ed. 2020
a complex mesmerizing narration by an African soldier in the trenches of WWI; familiar themes of war guilt and madness in a fresh context of African culture and issues of colonialism

Trial and Error by Anthony Berkeley, (c1937) Arcturus Publishing 2012
a wonderfully witty, clever story from the “Golden Age” of mystery writing

Kiss Myself Goodbye, The Many Lives Of Aunt Munca by Ferdinand Mount; Bloomsbury 2020
a genealogical excavation reveals a brazen, pitiful, stranger than fiction life

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djeli Clark, Tor 2019
amusing fast-paced fantasy

Republic of Detours: How The New Deal Paid Broke Writers To Rediscover America by Scott Borchert; Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2021
a study of the Federal Writers’ Project to create the American Guide series of guidebooks to each state; the author tells good stories of many of the writers and political figures involved and shapes a guidebook of sorts to this complex, ambitious, improbably successful project

The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks, Flatiron Books 2015
very appealing mix of memoir, daily farming diary, and the natural and cultural history of England’s Lake District

The Hearing Trumpet by Leonora Carrington, (c1974) NYRB 2020
wildly imaginative doesn’t begin to describe this surrealist folk story celebrating eccentricity and the joyful exuberance of life

M. King’s Bodyguard by Niall Leonard, Pantheon Books 2021
entertaining thriller to foil anarchists plot at Queen Victoria’s funeral, a kind of fact-based origin story for MI5


These Women by Ivy Pochoda, Harper 2020
a literary mystery story focused on the women, largely disrespected and marginalized, of a poor LA neighborhood

The Missing American by Kwei Quartey, Soho Press 2020
exceptionally interesting setting in contemporary Ghana for this well written and satisfying mystery story

Blacktop Wasteland by S. A. Cosby, Flatiron Books 2020
plenty of thriller action for street cred, but it’s the noir tone of milieu and character development that gives it uncommon intellectual heft and interest

The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich, Harper 2020
compelling story, memorable characters and vivid prose create a truly wonderful novel (book group)

The King At The Edge Of The World by Arthur Phillips, Random House 2020
a remarkable feat of historical imagination and witty storytelling carries the philosophical speculation ever so lightly (book group)

Murder In The Age Of Enlightenment, Essential Stories by AKUTAGAWA Ryunosuke translated from the Japanese by Bryan Karetnyk; Pushkin Press ed. 2020
a selection of stories by one of the foremost writers of early 20th century Japan

Outside The Box: How Globalization Changed from Moving Stuff to Spreading Ideas by Marc Levinson, Princeton Univ. Press 2020
fascinating history and analysis of the expansion and changes of world trade from mercantilism to the present

The Mystery of Henri Pick by David Foenkinos, translated from the French by Sam Taylor; (c2016) Pushkin Press edition 2020
an entertaining comic mystery story, nicely blended satire and warmth in the portrayal of the world of writers, readers, and publishers


Dead Man Running by Steve Hamilton, Putnam’s 2018
always readable mystery series, even with a serial killer story, but I hope McKnight stays in the UP for his next case

The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis, (c1946) Library of America ed. 2020
a sharp, witty academic mystery; wonderfully entertaining

Dying Every Day: Seneca At The Court Of Nero by James Romm, Knopf 2014
very well written study; stakes are high for the philosopher Seneca in his role as tutor and mentor of the young emperor

Whiplash River by Lou Berney, Wm Morrow 2012
exceptional comic crime story, really really fun read

Fire and Brimstone: The North Butte Mining Disaster of 1917 by Michael Punke, Hachette 2006
a compelling story and skillfully set within the larger issues and events of the region and nation; outstanding popular history

The Corpse Bridge by Stephen Booth, Harper Collins 2014
one of a long-running series; solid plotting, good characters, richly detailed picture of a less familiar rural England

Human Acts by HAN Kang, translated from the Koran by Deborah Smith; c2014, English ed. Hogarth 2016
an extraordinary novel; tragedy conveyed in prose somehow, simultaneously, both brutal and poetic

Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths, Houghton Mifflin 2021
lively and amusing mystery as writers are murdered and red herrings prove abundant


Hokkaido Highway Blues, Hitchhiking Japan by Will Ferguson, (c1998) revised ed. Canongate 2003
following the cherry blossom bloom from one end of Japan to the other seemed like a great idea; the author’s very funny, affectionate and insightful look at the people and culture of Japan

A Man Named Doll by Jonathan Ames, Little, Brown and Co. 2021
LA mystery novel all about style, great opening page sets the tone
“Hadn’t rained this long in years, and LA had turned Irish green: the brown, scorched hills were soft with new grass, like chest hair on a burn victim.”

The Left-Handed Booksellers of London by Garth Nix; Harper Collins 2020
entertaining YA fantasy, good characters and lots of book references

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, translated from the German by Phillip Boehm; (c2018) English ed. Metropolitan Books 2021
originally published in 1938, newly edited and translated; story with the gripping immediacy of the author’s lived experience escaping from nazi Germany; the protagonist’s self discovery at the core of a literary thriller

Echo on the Bay by ONO Masatsugu, translated from the Japanese by Angus Turvill; (c2015) English ed. Two Lines Press 2020
an absorbing seemingly simple story in a small Japanese fishing village; echos of the past continue to shape and reveal contemporary lives

The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu; Tor 2021
dystopian fantasy set in Edinburgh, appealing heroine

Rescuing The Planet Protecting Half The Land To Heal The Earth by Tony Hiss, Knopf 2021
Plenty of anecdotes and inspiring accounts of good conservation work to liven the science


Baseball Haiku, The Best Haiku Ever Written About the Game edited with translations by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura, W. W. Norton 2007
who knew that baseball haiku was even a category? very entertaining and a good introduction to the history of the Haiku form in Japan and America

When Red is Black by Qiu Xiaolong, Soho Press 2004
one of an exceptional mystery series set in Shanghai, insights into the making of contemporary Chinese society that go far beyond the usual pleasures of “local color” in a foreign setting mystery novel

The Order Of The Pure Moon Reflected In Water by Zen Cho, Tor 2020
a bandit walks into a coffee shop… a fantasy story about finding your path in troubled times, with a little wuxia for fun

The Vanishing Valazquez by Laura Cumming, Scribner 2016
a delightful and exhilerating book; the poignant story of a man obsessed with one painting frames the larger study of Velazquez’s art and the author’s persuasive encouragement to us to engage with art, to really “see” it

A Stranger To Myself, The Inhumanity of War: Russia, 1941-1944 by Willy Peter Reese, translated by Michael Hofmann; English ed. Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2005
an extraordinary memoir, no battle accounts but uniquely personal and vivid fragments of the experience of war and soldiering

Ordinary Men, Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland by Christopher R. Browning, Harper 1992
both scholarly and gripping

The Distance by Eddie Muller, Scribner 2002
everything you’d want in a noir crime story, wonderfully entertaining and evocative picture of post-war San Francisco’s boxing world


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

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, 1977 Knopf
wonderfully rich lyrical language; outstanding choice for return of Book Group

The Salt Path by Raynor Winn, 2018 Penguin Books
well-written and moving account of a long-distance walk, the familiar metaphor of life as journey in reality

Bat Out of Hell by Francis Durbridge, (c1972) Arcturus Press 2012
fast, entertaining English mystery; the author turned his BBC thriller serial into a novel

Greenmantle by John Buchan, (c1916) Oxford Univ. Press edition 2008
further adventures of Richard Hannay (39 Steps); fast-paced tale of espionage and intrigue as our hero and colleagues foil a plot in the WWI Middle Eastern theater


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

Continue reading “Reading List 2021”

baseball is…

Life? Quite possibly. Poetry? Most definitely. Poetry in motion, sure, but also as words on a page.

Empty baseball field
–A robin,
Hops along the bench

Jack Kerouac (threw and batted right-handed) composed this, the first American baseball haiku, in 1959. The first ever baseball haiku was written by Japanese poet SHIKI Masaoka (threw and batted left-handed) in 1890.

spring breeze
this grassy field makes me
want to play catch

More than two hundred delightful examples of baseball poetry are collected in Baseball Haiku, edited by Cor van den Heuvel and Nanae Tamura. A short informative essay introduces the major poets in the development of modern haiku in both Japan and America and suggests some of the natural affinity shared by baseball and haiku, each having a connection with Nature and a focus on the individual moment. Each of the poets is introduced with notes about his poetry and interest in baseball.

from Randy Brooks

carrying his glove
the boy’s dog follows him
to the baseball field

from SEI Imae

walking home
with his glove on his head
shrieking cicadas

from Tom Painting

bases loaded
a full moon clears
the right field fence

from Brenda Gannam

handsome pitcher
my eyes drift down
to the mound

The apparent simplicity of Haiku is notoriously tempting to the poetry rookie. Who can resist the temptation to try one?

game on TV
a roar pulls my eyes
up from a book

Book News – “The Passenger”

The Passenger by Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz is another forgotten novel having a belated popular success. The Deutsche Welle news site gives an interesting back story to the novel’s creation and rediscovery.


One has to wonder at and admire the determination of small publishers everywhere who continue to bring fresh voices and viewpoints to the marketplace. How boring would it be to see only mass market titles in your favorite bookstore? Readers unite! Show your appreciation, take a chance on an unknown author. Go to that favorite (independent one, I hope) bookstore in person or online and buy a small-press book today!


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”