Consider this...

"We find ourselves, not as a central player in the life of the cosmos, but as a tiny epiphenomenon, flourishing for a brief moment as we ride a wave of increasing entropy from the Big Bang to the quiet emptiness of the future universe. Purpose and meaning are not to be found in the laws of nature, or in the plans of any external agent who made things that way; it is our job to create them." - Sean Carroll, "From eternity to here"

Thanks to recommendations from sister Marjie and friend Jean, 2011 was a year when John was introduced to a number of authors he had never read — some recent, some less so. These included Nick Tosches, Cormack McCarthy and Junot Diaz. But there are some old acquaintances on the list too.

Stéphane Hessel, Indignez-vous!

The first book on this year’s list is openly political. The English title of this very short book is Time for outrage: Indignez-vous!. It undoubtedly made good reading for the OWS movement but it goes beyond that, pointing out the extent to which we are being screwed every day by those who control the current politico-economic system and inciting us to get up off our arses and go do something about it. Anything!

Nick Tosches, In the hand of Dante; Unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll

Friend Jean discovered and recommended Nick Tosches, of whom neither Siv nor John had ever heard before. His books were the discovery of the year. Like previous American writers Bellow or Pynchon or many others, Tosches mixes literary description with frank (read raw) speech, used to reflect the character of the person in the story. In the hand of Dante has two narrative streams — one concerning the life of Dante in a traditional literary style, the other in the contemporary USA in a completely different one. Be prepared for vulgarity — sometimes hilarious. Tosches wants to shock, but the result is not tape à l’oeil but part of the fabric of the story. First line:

“Louie pulled off his bra and threw it down upon the casket.”

And that’s just for starters!

Unsung heroes of rock ‘n’ roll is a collection of articles about musicians like Big Joe Turner, Cecil Gant, Ella Mae Morse, Wynonie Harris and others who evolved rock ‘n’ roll from previous styles before it moved into the white world in the hands of Bill Haley (who gets a chapter) and Elvis Presley (who does not, but who is often mentioned). If you want to learn who Elvis learned his hip movements from, read this book. And listen to the music.

Dave Goldberg and Jeff Blomquist, A user’s guide to the universe

Undoubtedly the most fun of the explanations of modern physical science John has read. One or two points remained obscure, but John consulted the book’s web site, where he asked a question of the author and actually got an answer — and a very good one. It’s a damn shame that people depend so much on modern science, even risking their lives by blindly trusting gadgets big and small which are based on it, and yet do not seem to care a thing about how it works. Read this book!

Cormack McCarthy, No country for old men; Blood meridian; The road

John had heard about how gloomy McCarthy is and reading these three books confirmed that he is indeed. Almost everything that can go wrong in a McCarthy book does. But the writing is gorgeous (though sometimes a bit flowery). No country for old men is told partially by a very llikeable sherrif, who saves the story from the gloom of a totally evil villain who does in almost everybody else. The road is a horrific future-disaster story which overflows with love and the will to live. Blood meridian is saved by nothing but the writing. Yes, the hero almost shows signs of being less ignorant and less cruel at the end than at the beginning, but it gets him nowhere. At least, that’s what John thinks, because the end of the book is not clear. John would love to hear other peoples’ versions of the end.

Alexander McCall Smith, The no. 1 ladies’ detective agency (and other novels in the series)

A good antidote to too much McCarthy, the first few books of Smith’s stories of a traditionally-built Botswana lady detective are marvels of humor and comprehension. Great relaxed reading. But as the series went on (and on), John’s interest waned. Still, you should read a few.

Bruce Chatwin, The viceroy of Ouidah

Another book about Africa by a non-African. But this one is special. It is only about 100 pages long and concerns, among other things, the life of a Portugese slave trader in Dahomey, modern-day Benin. But the writing is some of the most lively you will come across, so the book is at once funny, engrossing and — eventually — terribly moving. A great book!

Elif Shafak, The bastard of Istanbul

Siv and John spent two weeks witn friends in Turkey, so it was de rigueur to read some Turkish novelists. Shafak’s The bastard of Istanbul may not be great literature, but it is a very good and fun story well told which will open you up some life in Turkey — and the massacre of the Armenians — without becoming gloomy. A very good read.

Orhan Pamuk, My name is red; The black book; Istanbul, memories and the city

Another Turkish author, and a more literary (difficult) style than Shafak’s. My name is red is a great medieval Turkish murder mystery (yes, a bit like The name of the rose) and quite fascinating. John found The black book to be far less fascinating and does not recommend it. Istanbul, memories and the city is Pamuk’s ode to the city he grew up in and is quite good to read — especially if you have visited the city are planning to do so. Wandering around in Istanbul, John managed to find some of the old wooden houses Pamuk describes.

Téa Obreht, The tiger’s wife

Moving on to another nationality… This one is a great story set in an unnamed Balkan country by a 25-year-old Belgrade-born authoress. Well worth the fame it and she have earned. Definitelly an excellent read.

William Gaddis, Carpenter’s gothic

Gaddis is one of the lesser-known American novelists’ novelists of the 2nd half of the last century. His books can be as hard to find as to read. This one is very good, but not too difficult, and has whetted John’s appetite for more — as soon as he can get it. Gaddis’s style here is not always fun to read, especially long rants by the husband, who is a jerk (to say the least). The parts about the wife are far more enjoyable and moving. If you are interested in modern literature, read this.

Jennifer Egan, A visit from the goon squad; The keep

Egan has the gift of keeping a story changing, sometimes by having a minor character from one chapter become the central one of the next story. Goon squad is a reflection on the contemporary (and future) USA in the pop-music world and opened up a new world for John. The keep is a stranger novel which really plays around with what seems to be going on. It will definitely surprise you. Also, it’s a page turner.

Terry Pratchett, Equal rites; Carpe jugulum

Tired of Harry Potter (especially the authoress’s iron grip on the franchise, which has made her probably the richest woman in the UK)? Bored with the Ring? You have already read all the Earthsea books and perhaps were not turned on at all by the dark materials? Thank god I’m an atheist and thank god for Terry Pratchett! Pratchett’s books are totally non-serious, do not preach, are fascinating and inventive and funny as hell. And there are enough of them to last you a while. If you have not yet visited Discworld, run to your local bookstore (or Amazon, if you are one of those…) and get any book by Pratchett. The two mentioned here are great choices. John looks forward to reading them all.

Roberto Bolaño, The savage detectives

This is supposedly a great Latin-American book. John thought it was a pretty good one. He liked it better as he read, but is not sure if that was the book’s fault or his own. Frankly, he is not particularly interested in the milieu of young Mexican poets, a kind-of Mexican La Bohème, though Bolaño is Chilian. But eventually the book became interesting and the end is quite moving. The style is special, being mostly a story told by a rather large number of the characters, so is not necessarily easy reading. John will probably try another book by Bolaño.

Arundhati Roy, Broken republic

Where would we be without Vandana Shiva, Naomi Klein and Arundhati Roy? Roy is wonderful — angrier than Shiva and less loguacious than Klein. This book contains three essays about India’s terrible and shameful handling of the adivasis, the original inhabitants of India before the arrival of the Aryans. The government is ignoring its own Constitution and chasing the adivasis from their lands in order to give it over to mining companies who then destroy the landscape. This is one of Roy’s best political books. She describes the situation in the first part. In the second — and longest — part, she spends an extended period on the run with Maoist revolutionaries, who are currently protecting the adivasis from atrocities by Indian army troops. It is accompanied by wonderful photos Roy took herself. The third essay corrects the impression left by the second, that the Maoists are all great guys. It is a complicated situation which can only be solved by the cooperation of all concerned, but the government shows no signs of budging from their position. After six trips to India, John and Siv love India — but not this aspect of it.

Thomas Pynchon, Mason & Dixon

After all those new names, it was great to get back to a re-read of one of Pynchon’s best books. Written in the style, grammar and spelling of the 18th century, the story concerns not only the astronomer and the surveyor (a Quaker!) who plotted the famous line, but also the retelling of their story after the American Revolution. The great thing about this book is the writing: It is such a joy to read that John was unhappy when he finished it. The story carries you along. It is loaded with fascinating and funny historical and not-so-historical characters, such as George Washington and Ben Franklin, but also a talking dog, a robot duck who (which?) falls in love with a French chef and — inevitable chez Pynchon — Pig Bodine. Pynchon still has a marvelous gift for names — one young lady is called Tenebrae! John cannot avoid the temptation of a quotation which will tell you much:

” … Who claims Truth, Truth abandons. History is hir’d, or coerc’d, only in Interests that must ever prove base. She is too innocent, to be left within the reach of anyone in Power,—who need but touch her, and all her Credit is in the instant vanish’d, as if it had never been. She needs rather to be tended lovingly and honorably by fabulists and counterfeiters, Ballad-Mongers and Cranks of ev’ry Radius, Masters of Disguise to provide her the Costume, Toilette, and Bearing, and Speech nimble enough to keep her beyond the Desires, or even the Curiosity, of Government…. ” (Mason & Dixon, p. 350)

Pynchon’s book lives up to his own character’s recommendations.

By the way, there is a great Pynchon Wiki (web site) to help you out with historic references, characters and terms in all of Pynchon’s books (

Junot Diaz, The brief wondrous life of Oscar Wao

Dominican-born Diaz helped John get over having no more to read in Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon. Diaz’s writing too is a joy to read. And his story is gripping and moving. And, like Egan, his characters can take over the story and bomb off into their own story. So this story of loves (yes, plural) under the awful Trujillo dictatorship in the Dominican Republic is a great one indeed. Do not be put off by the Spanish terms. You will not find most of them in a dictionary, but many are explained on-line in the on-line “concordance” to this book.

Bonne lecture and happy reading!