Reading List 2023


How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner, Currency 2023
might have been titled “get done so badly”; eye-opening analysis of those mega-projects that seem always to be over-budget and over-schedule

Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, (c1922) Penguin Books/ViragoPress 1980
well crafted psychological novel prompted good discussion (book group)

I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter Of Commissario Ricciardi by Maurizio De Giovanni, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel; (c2007) Europa ed 2012
it’s 1931 in Naples, the first story of the Commissario set at the opera; distinctive delightful noir

Making the Cut by Jim Lusby, Orion 1995
Irish mystery, well-drawn characters and an entertainingly twisty story

Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, translatd from the Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Turedi; (c1997) Europa 2018
marvelous language, an engrossing many-layered story of the last days of the Ottoman empire; first in the Ottoman Quartet

The April Dead by Alan Parks, Europa 2021
one of Europa’s World Noir imprint; Parks is an intelligent and skillful writer but his ’70s Glasgow is a very very dark place


The Engagement by Simenon, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis; (c1933) NYRB 2007
early non-Maigret novel; unsettling, pitiless and cold even for a noir

American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild, Mariner Books 2022
author is a notable writer of popular histories; examines the social hysteria, paranoia, and cruelties triggered and given license with America’s entry into WWI

Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders At America’s Edge by Ted Connover, Knopf 2023
life on the rural margins if not quite off-grid, a close look at the San Luis valley in south central Colorado (includes Great Sand Dune NP)

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, Soho 2018
ambitious effort to portray the social and cultural complexities of 1920’s India in a mystery story

Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City by Adam Brookes, Atria Books 2022
fascinating and well-told story of the extraordinary efforts made by the museum’s staff to protect the many fragile precious pieces of the collection

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, Riverhead Books 2023
sprawling gaudy story of crime and wealth in contemporary India

The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston; Orenda Books 2021
a unique voice in Nordic noir crime fiction; a warm, hilarious, absurdist thriller

Blood Curse: The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi by Maurizio De Giovanni, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar; (c2008) Europa 2018
Naples, 1931 mystery story; beautifully written, wonderfully atmospheric

The Greatest Slump Of All Time by David Carkeet, Harper and Row 1984
an exceptional, insightful comic novel of depression; players on a baseball team struggle with personal “slumps” as the team is mysteriously successful


Tokyo Zodiac Murders by SHIMADA Soji, translated from the Japanese by Ross and Shika Mackenzie; (c1981) Pushkin Vertigo ed 2015
complex puzzle story

Killshot by Elmore Leonard, William Morrow 1989
tremendously entertaining, great dialogue leavens the tension

52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard, Secker and Warburg 1974
first of his crime novels; a blazing fast read because I couldn’t put it down

The Boat of Longing by O.E. Rolvaag, translated from the Norwegian by Nora O. Solum; (c1933) Minnesota Historical Press 1985
a moving story of immigration, its hopes and costs; lovely, lyrical language in the descriptions of the sea and life in Norwegian fishing village (book group)

Picture in the Sand by Peter Blauner, Minotaur Books 2023
pure storytelling pleasure; a young Egyptian man caught up in the political turmoil of post-British Egypt in the 1950’s while working on the deMille production of The Ten Commandments

Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap; Knopf 2022
a tremendous novel, expansive in themes and engrossing in character and story; bubonic plague strikes a small island in the waning days of the Ottoman empire

Crashed by Timothy Hallinan, Soho Press 2012
a Hollywood comic crime novel with sharp writing and great characters; if you like this kind of thing, which I do, it’s a delight – I rationed the pages to savor the dialogue

In The Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty, Seventh Street Books 2014
1980’s Belfast, police detective solves a classic locked room mystery to catch an IRA bomber

Counting Sheep, A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling; Profile Books 2014
a remarkably interesting and enjoyable guide to all things sheep in the UK, historically and today; really a delightful book, especially for anyone who has enjoyed the sight of “woolies” dotting the hills and countryside of Britain

China After Mao, The Rise of a Superpower by Frank Dikotter; Bloomsbury 2022
a superbly readable account, dense with economic and historical detail and enlivened with anecdotes and personalities; the consistent repression and economic mismanagement described should finish the foolish expectations of democratic change; the chapter on the Tiananmen Square massacre is masterful and devastating

Iced In Paradise by Naomi Hirahara, Prospect Park Books 2019
another enjoyable, well written story from Hirahara; the mystery has a nice twist but the chief pleasure is in the picture of life on one of the smaller Hawaiian islands

Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded To The Greatest Losses Of Their Lives by Robert D. Richardson; Princeton Univ. Press 2023
a slim, thoughtful reflection on the impact grief had on the thought and lives of the three men and how their resilience can be models for each of us


Idol, Burning by USAMI Rin, translated from the Japanese by YONEDA Asa; (c2020) Harpervia 2022
sympathetic portrayal of a teenage girl and her obsession with a J-pop idol; winner of Akutagawa Prize

Billie Starr’s Book of Sorries by Deborah E. Kennedy, Flatiron Books 2022
2nd grader Billie collects the “Sorry” excuses and explanations she hears from adults

Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, George Braziller 1975
strongly autobiographical novel of a woman determined to be educated and independent; propulsive narrative takes Adah from childhood in Nigeria to the London slums as a young mother

A Death in Tokyo by HIGASHINO Keigo, translated by Giles Murray; (c2011) Minotaur Books 2022
a classic procedural with Detective Kaga; psychological insight, deeply moral

Evil Things by Katja Ivar, Bitter Lemon Press 2019
solid mystery story set in early 1950’s Finland, introduces an interestingly complex female detective who solves a tricky case in Lapland

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo, Tom Doherty Books 2022
modest novella about the value and importance of stories, personally and culturally; set in an appealing China-ish fantasy world

Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bloomsbury 2017
deceptively powerful novel; a story of lives disrupted in the post-colonial turmoil of 1970’s Zanzibar told in such measured subtle prose that I was immersed before I noticed my feet were wet

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, (c1991) Scribner 2021
a very witty, very odd novel, a bit unsettling but wonderfully entertaining for the language and dark comedy (book group)


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

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


The enemy’s victory was achieved entirely thanks to sinister machinations and money…a tremendous flood of money…swirled through the streets with manic frenzy … The money shone like a sun through the clouds, an evil, baleful sun. And while it winked in the sky, plants with poisonous leaves wide-spread grew thick, and rank grasses, cropping out in every direction, stretched sinister feelers from here and there in the city toward the clear summer sky.

After The Banquet by MISHIMA Yukio

Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

At 163 pages, this book invites consumption in two or three bites, like eating a rice ball or other snack food from the store. It’s better, though, to nibble. The protagonist is a very unusual woman and her observations and story are highly unsettling. I read it again immediately and find it lingering in my mind, like the flavor of an exotic food upon the palate.


Keiko, a social misfit from childhood, makes an unlikely heroine. She doesn’t understand why her family is so anxious to ‘cure’ her and have her behave like everyone else. It’s not hard to sympathize with them when Keiko uses a shovel to clobber a classmate on the playground. Everyone wanted him to stop beating up another child so she simply took effective action; the adult reaction baffled her. So it goes until she learns to not speak or act; she no longer stands out. She hasn’t changed internally, though. Stroking the cheek of her baby nephew, she finds it strangely soft, like stroking a blister. When her sister tries to quiet the child’s crying, Keiko looks idly at a knife on the table – it would be easy enough. It’s a chilling moment. She doesn’t act on those thoughts any more but still wonders why people don’t use the simplest means to accomplish what they say they want.

A job in one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores is a common temporary job for many, quickly left behind for a ‘real’ job or marriage. The structured routine of the store proves ideal for Keiko, however. Indeed, she feels “reborn” as a worker. She stays on for 18 years as managers (currently #8) and staff come and go. The store manual tells her how to act, other female staff provide models of clothing and speech which she can mimic, and the work gives her a sense of purpose. She thinks she’s finally pulled off being a person. We see that’s not quite the case outside the store environment when her sister pleads with her to go to counseling because ever since you started working at the convenience store you’ve gotten weirder and weirder.

The Convenience Store is both microcosm and metaphor of society. Both are forcibly normalized environments where foreign matter and exceptions are removed. Unruly customers, expired milk, and unreliable workers are expelled from the store. Young adults (especially men) who don’t pursue careers or (especially women) marriage are shunned, culled from the herd. Any oddity in a person’s life is massaged and interpreted until it can be explained and fit into a conventional social pattern.

Nothing is static or uniform, of course, despite the bemused comment of an elderly customer that this place never changes. Keiko reflects that all the units of the store – products, staff, customers – are constantly being replaced with the same but different units, like the cells of her body. The old lady was like one of eighteen years earlier, the eggs sold today are like those of yesterday but different, and she herself is a unit that will be replaced. Problems of the world intrude into this controlled environment too. A recently hired foreign worker, chronic staffing shortages, and a mentally deranged customer hint at the labor and social crises in Japan.

The author is very clever to let Keiko tell her story; a reader almost automatically feels a sympathetic interest in a narrator’s point of view. But the ambiguities and uneasiness created by such a heroine are considerable. Keiko, whose name means “happy child”, is not happy nor does she understand or want “happiness”. She sees society as a kind of hive or herd in which everyone unconsciously copies others’ behaviors – infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think. She has admirable qualities as an employee but her complete identification with the store is deeply odd. She is bereft when she leaves her job and can no longer hear its voice caress her eardrums.

The novel is a deft and deadpan satire of that universal human inclination to sort and explain everything/one into familiar patterns and categories. It’s easy to criticize Keiko’s conventional family and workplace for the excessive pressures for conformity that we associate with Japanese society. But I found myself trying to ‘understand’ her too, though in a more enlightened way of course. The English language edition subtly guides our expectations with the translation choice in the title. The title is more properly translated as Convenience Store Human or Person. (The word is also used as urban slang and in Dragonball circles as an insult meaning something like “idiot humanoid”.) “Woman” is a significant change and closes off a more open reading at the outset by emphasizing gender and the individual. My feminist instincts were easily engaged when she’s badgered to marry, or to find a more worthwhile job, or when she’s not promoted despite her exemplary performance in the store. Her return to a store that ‘needs’ her, crying out to her in its distress, feels like a victory and affirmation of personal choice. But really? What will become of her when she’s unable to meet the physical demands of the job, when she’s a worn cog and an unusable tool?

I think “Human” is a more interesting title, as well, as it encourages us to think about those qualities that make us human. Keiko in some respects seems like an AI construct of a human being; she’s a humanoid robot designed to serve this complex structured machine called a Convenience Store. How different, we should wonder, is our own life? how unreflecting our judgments? The career professional never unplugged, the retail worker whose personal life is captive to erratic shift scheduling, social media pressures to have a shiny smiley life – we can see much of contemporary life mirrored in this insightful and entertaining novel.

Moby Dick – Discuss

I met the challenge, I finished reading MD a half hour before Book Group.  In my defense, I was reading in the two weeks available after a long vacation trip.  Everyone in Group finished the novel in similar style except one, and we gave her a pass because she’s working and very pregnant.  Everyone enjoyed the reading experience but there was an occasional struggle.  You can’t make it a quick read no matter how pressed for time.  It really is a most curious novel.  It’s undeniably long, and heavy with facts, and nothing much happens until the final few chapters.  It’s also engrossing, populated with memorable characters, full of striking imagery and language and entertaining digressions into philosophy and political commentary.  This is a book for endless discussion.

Moby Dick continually surprises the reader and defies convention.  Everyone knows the opening, right?  Call me Ishmael is among the most famous of opening lines.  Only it isn’t. There are pages before we read that sentence.  The mock-serious tone is set when we’re given an etymology of ‘whale’ by a late consumptive usher and extracts from literature compiled by a sub-sub librarian.  Only then do we arrive at Chapter One and meet our narrator.  You can say the line opens the story, but attaching this prelude material gives our expectations a little shake out of comfortable convention.

Ishmael is a terrific companion and guide on this journey.  He has many admirable qualities; he’s curious, adventurous, willing to accept people and situations as he finds them.  He is practical, interested in science and facts, and a self-educated independent thinker.  Alone and rolling unattached through life, he is the outsider/observer reporting and commenting on the comedy and grief of life.  I try all things; I achieve what I can.

And he’s so funny!  Why doesn’t anyone comment about how witty Ishmael is?  I loved listening to him talk.Coming to an inn for the night, with anxious grapnels I had sounded my pockets and only brought up a few pieces of silver.   Frightened that night, had not the stranger stood between me and the door, I would have bolted out of it quicker than ever I bolted a dinner.  His philosophical reflections are marvelous and delightful in their unexpectedness.  When Tashtego falls into a sweet spermaceti coffin Ishmael muses How many, think ye, have likewise fallen into Plato’s honey head, and sweetly perished there?

Melville’s writing is richly descriptive.  A face showed a congruent small-pox had in all directions flowed over his face, and left it like the complicated ribbed bed of a torrent, when the rushing waters have been dried up.  Starbuck is a long, earnest man…flesh being as hard as twice baked biscuit…his thinness…merely the condensation of the man.  Moby Dick viewed: the appalling beauty of the vast milky mass, that, lit up by a horizontal spangling sun, shifted and glistened like a living opal in the blue morning sea.  Wonderful language that slows an appreciative reader’s pace like a sea anchor.

I’m trying to imagine where we – Ishmael and I – are as he tells the story of this fated voyage.  Possibly he is sitting alone and writing his recollections for later perusal.  But the narrative has the leisurely discursive quality of conversation and storytelling.  It has the pace of a voyage with long periods of near idleness and of simple repetitive work conducive to reflection or talk.  Perhaps I’m the new hand and he’s filling the days with instruction and tales.  I hope that he’s off the sea and snug in a comfortable sailor’s bar, spinning his tales for a mesmerized audience.




Reading Moby Dick

Every so often, when the interval between meetings will be longer than usual or when a consensus choice for next month doesn’t emerge or when, perhaps, we just feel a bit bolder one of my book group will look around and say, “what’s on your ‘to be read’ stack?” It’s an opportunity to pull out that giant Victorian novel (The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope) or serious social novel (The Street by Ann Petry) or unaccountably missed classic (Don Quixote by Cervantes).

One member asked if we were willing to read Moby Dick with her.  Another said she’d never read it either.  I admitted to reading it only a few years ago but had loved it and was eager to read it again.  The others had all read it a long time past and were ready to revisit.  So Moby Dick it is.  

A great book doesn’t require embellishment, of course, but often inspires it.  I had been lucky years ago to find a copy of the beautiful Random House edition (from the Lakeside  Press edition of 1000) illustrated by Rockwell Kent.  It was an extraordinary reading experience.


Curious about other fine editions, I learned of a 1979 printing by Arion Press with illustrations by Barry Moser.  I may never see one of the 265 original copies of that hand press edition, but The University of California offers a handsome trade edition.

Andrew Hoyem, the publisher of Arion Press, on the opening page:  “The wave of the ‘C’ of “Call me Ishmael” almost jumps out of the book like a Hiroshiga wave.”


Time to dive in…