Consider this...

"A house without a cat, and a well-fed,well-petted, and properly revered cat, may be a perfect house, perhaps, but how can it prove its title?" - Mark Twain

(This was first published as a Facebook note.)

These are not necessarily books written in 2008, just ones John read during the year. He has not picked the top ten, just the top ones, and there happen to be ten. Here they are, in no particular order. The list includes some books on evolution, some excellent novels and a wonderful classic John had not yet discovered.


Ernest Gaines, “A gathering of old men”, “The autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman”, “A lesson before dying”

Gaines writes about Blacks in the Louisiana bayou country, so he is a kind of Black James Lee Burke. Indeed, he now occupies the chair at LSU that Burke had before him and figures as the teacher of Robichaux’s daughter in one of Burke’s books, so they must at least be acquainted. He is a marvellous writer in his own right and his books are all very moving — bringing laughter and tears all at the same time. And that’s something.

Vikram Chandra, “Red earth and pouring rain”

A charming (literally) and hilarious book which takes place in the 19th century in India and in the 20th in India and the USA. It is one of those books like “The Arabian nights” where a character in story n tells story n+1 and so forth. Among the characters are a talking monkey and several Indian gods, all sitting around listening to and telling stories. It’s delightful and funny and — yes — moving too.

Henry Adams, “The education of Henry Adams”

John was only a century late getting around to reading this fascinating story of a 19th century artistic man trying to come to grips with 20th century technology. Adams wrote it in the third person and John really liked that.

David Sloan Wilson. “Darwin’s cathedral; Evolution, religion, and the nature of society”, “Evolution for everyone, how Darwin’s theory can change the way we think about our lives”

The first book changed John’s ideas on religion (though not his religion). The second one is a fascinating account, comprehensible but not always easy, of what Natural Selection really is all about.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, “The slave”

Who would have thought of reading Singer? John was not crazy about the Singer novels he read years ago just after he (Singer) got the Novel Prize. This book is special, though. A fascinating, always changing and extraordinarily moving story about a Polish Jew stolen into slavery in the 18th(?) century. Wonderful! Tears 100% garanteed.

Huston Smith, “The world’s religions”

Another modern classic which John finally got around to reading and loved. Smith is a practicing Christian who does an hour or two of meditation every day. His accounts of the world’s major faiths failed to convert John, though they did get him to look more closely into Buddhism, but they are done in a manner unique to Smith and are quite fascinating.

Richard Powers, “The time of our singing”

John’s and Siv’s French friend, Jean, who had also recommended Ernest Gaines to them, came through again by finding this book. It is a wonderful, absorbing and moving story of a Jewish refugee who marries a Black woman and raises a family who are so musical you just have to love ‘em. Its characters are all deeply involved in the history and meaning of the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 20th-century USA. The writing is dense enough you have to (and want to) really pay attention, and it is rewarding in every paragraph. The novel also works in ideas from General Relativity in an astounding way, integral to the story, which enables the author to sew the whole thing up with a wonderful ending about the nature of time! No, in which the nature of time becomes part of the story. No, that’s not it, in which the nature of time provides a coda (John said it was musical) which ties it all together and explains something essential to the story. Yes. And Powers is white!