Consider this...

"You can't look at a sleeping cat and be tense." - Jane Pauley

Favorite reads of 2013

John read some really good ones this year, at least two of which were a real joy to read -- for the language.


John Buchan, Witch wood

John is a long-time Buchan fan and wonders why he never read this one before. It is one of Buchan's best, maybe the best of all. It takes place in 17th-century Scotland against a backdrop of religious wars. There are superstitious villagers and strange goings-on in the wood. And there is a priest who turns detective and starts wondering if all this is really what god had in mind. The ending is one of Buchan's most serious and actually quite a surprise.

Kishwar Desai, Witness the night

Imagine an Indian detective novel, where the detectress is a lady social worker who investigates what looks like a case of infanticide. A real thriller which adresses serious issues.

Hjalmar Bergman, Les Markurell de Wadköping

Great novel by one of Sweden's greatest authors, unfortunately not that well known in the rest of the world. John had to read it in French, but watch out for an English translation. A serious comedy which makes lots of fun of a small Swedish town in 1913. Takes on the bourgeoisie (sometimes sympathetically, but mostly not), school teachers, local politicians and the nouveau riche in a manner of which Dickens would have been proud. The main character, Mr Markurell, is vulgar and comic, but finally attains an almost Shakespearian summit of self-recognition and lucidity.

David Foster Wallace, Infinite jest, Brief interviews with hideous men

Infinite jest is Wallace's masterpiece and, again, John wonders why he took so long in getting along to reading it. It is a big, serious, long and somewhat complex novel, but not really incomprehensible if one pays attention. (The on-line wiki helps too.) Certainly no more difficult than, say, Gravity's Rainbow. Lots of characters, several plots, including a tennis school, indy movies, the dope scene and AA. In one scene, you can almost hear the music swelling up in the background. DFW's prose is a real pleasure to read.

Brief interviews with hideous men is a stranger -- and shorter -- book. Composed of replies to interview questions (which one never sees) by a group of fairly self-centered men -- let's say it right out, assholes -- it really takes apart the masculine attitude towards sex and women. Quite moving in places, too. Some stories are not interviews and John thinks they are the best.

Deon Meyer, Thirteen hours; Blood safari

Meyer is a South African thriller writer who knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat right to the novel's end. Since his novels take place in South Africa, there is a note of exoticism, as well as a sense of the beauty of the land and the difficulty facing Africans, particularly policemen, in the post-apartheid situation. Thirteen hours is a quasi-real-time thriller about an American girl fleeing killers and features a number of memorable South African cops of both sexes and all colors. Blood Safari is another great thriller. And Meyer has written more, all real cliff-hangers. Some of his books are pretty negative, although that is less true of these two.

Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, The leopard

John read this book during and after a trip to Sicily, where it takes place. The story of one man coping with his own aging as well as with changing social and political times, this is really one great novel. Highly recommended.

Roberto Bolano, 2666

John had read another Bolano, The savage detectives, without being carried away, but decided to try the 900-page 2666 anyway. Wow, what a book! John is not sure it is a great book, although it could be, but it is an extraordinary book. A real pleasure to read for the text, an excellent translation (except for one example, "... it wasn't her." Ouch.) It is a novel in five novella-length parts. From starting off with four German-lit scholars in search of an elusive German author. it becomes a book about many things -- war, love, sex, murder, nobility, fidelity, sanity/insanity, exploitation and more. But it is always about books and writing (like The savage detectives) and the place of literature and writers in society -- no, in the world; no, in the whole goddam universe. Actually, it probably is a great book.

Alan Lightman, Mr g: a novel about the creation

A light, humorous, but eventually quite moving story about a creator who startsmaking universes, including ours. Lightman is, among other things, a theoretical physicist at MIT.  

J. D. McDougall, A short history of planet earth

Great story of the formation and history of the planet we live on, told understandably.

Richard Fortey, Earth, an intimate history; Life, an unauthorized biography

There are geology books which are excellent introductions to physical and historical geology. Then there are the books of Richard Fortey. Fortey's books are not textbooks and, in John's opinion, not good for learning the subject. But they are simply wonderful field trips. Yes, trips. Fortey has a way of describing a tour of, say, the 250-Mya supercontinent Pangea or of the Cretaceous Era as if you were actually wandering around it with Fortey as guide and companion. He does the same for current environments, like the area around Vesuvius. It is very human, a combination of field trip and tour guide and not to be missed.

Mikhail Bulgakov (trans. Michael Denny), The master and Margarita

John read this book about 30 years ago and had forgotten about it. It is a very special book. Funny and moving at once. It looks like it is becoming a classic and it deserves it.

Dante Alighieri, The comedy: Inferno; Purgatory

About 50 years ago, John read the Inferno, but could not get into Purgatory, so to speak. This time, he made it through Purgatory and loved it. Sure, there is a surfeit of Catholic symbolism, which must be glossed over, but there are beautiful moments. One of John's favorites is the arrival in Purgatory of one of Dante's old friends, a great singer. At Dante's request, he starts to sing. All the dead stop what they are doing and listen in rapt attention, loving and  being moved by the music, a thing of life. Of course, a bureaucrat from Purgatory puts a stop to it, but the point has been made. It is like when Henry Adams feels he has his hand on the knob of the door to the next life (if there is one) and stops and turns around for a brief, last look at this one. John still cannot get into Paradise, though, for all the cloying religious claptrap.

Abdulrazak Gurnah, The last gift

Another of Gurnah's wonderful books mixing past and present and different families in a fascinating and moving story. By the sea, by the same author, is also excellent.

Arnaldur Indridason

Indrdidason is an Icelandic police-thriller writer and a very good one, if a tad gloomy and taken with the idea of freezing to death. But if you are looking for excellent crime novels in exotic places, and you like Meyer and Desai, try anything by Indridason.