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"There are two means of refuge from the miseries of life: music and cats." - Albert Schweitzer

Favorite reads of 2014

Very and varied good books this year.

 

Jane Smiley, A thousand acres

This is quite a book. The initial situation (but not the rest) is inspired by King Lear, so it is a sort of King Lear in Iowa. Lear becomes Larry, owner of the eponymous thousand-acre farm, who decides to leave the farm to his three daughters, but then decides to leave out the youngest. Smiley then lovingly follows her characters through the subsequent conflicts with their father and, sometimes, each other. It is very well worked out, with each life's course seeing to flow logically. There is no really bad character, aside perhaps from the Gloucester equivalent. Violent events do happen and Lear/Larry does wander alone in a storm, but the result is not what you would expect. It turns out sadly, as things often do in our lives. But it is one of those books about the breakup of a family which is in fact talking about family values and "togetherness". Actually, it is quite a beautiful book and an absorbing one too. In spite of each character's deficiencies (who has none?), You end up sympathizing greatly with almost everyone. A really excellent read.

Njal's saga (Trans. Robert Cook)

Since we visited Iceland this summer, some Icelandic sagas were in order. Of the 6 or 8 read, Njal's saga is certainly the best, at least the one which speaks most clearly to contemporary readers. I looked at several translations and found Cook's to be the most direct, economic and dramatic. Number two would be the famous Laxdaela Saga.

Lydie Salvayre, Pas pleurer

For once, the Prix Goncourt was well awarded. This book will last. It is the account of Salvayre's Spanish parents, of the early days of the Civil War. Taking place in a small village, it describes the struggle between anarchists and communists on a small but repesentative scale. But above all, it is a loving portrait of Salvayre's mother. A really absorbing and touching story.

Antonio Munoz Molina, A manuscript of ashes (Beatus ille)
Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The shadow of the wind

Both these books, by spanish authors, are brimming over with atmosphere and the sense of history and the past. It seems to be a thing spanish authors are good at, as is Lydie Salvayre.

Zafon's best-seller drips with atmosphere -- of Franco-era Barcelona. There is more than just a whiff of Umberto Eco in the story of the son of a bookseller who chooses his own book to conserve from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books. His subsequent adventures, amorous, political and mysterious, all take place against the backdrop of the beautifully rendered city of Barcelona, which Zafon clearly loves. A very absorbing book. I found the second book in the series (to be a trilogy, at least), The Angel's Game, to be too filled with superstitious clap-trap to take anywhere near seriously, plus it was gory and excessively violent. But The shadow of the wind is a gripping and enjoyable read.

I read Molina's book years ago in french and loved it, so it was fun to reread it in english. It is a murky and atmospheric mystery, again with echoes of Umberto Eco, about books and literature, the Spanish Civil War, love, jealousy and murder. Very engrossing.

Mohsin Hamid, The reluctant fundamentalist

A very curious book by a Pakistani author who lives part-time in Pakistan and part-time in many other places, including London, New York and Mediterranean countries. The book concerns a young Pakistani man who goes to the USA to study and does so well he gets a job with a company assessing other companies. Of course, he eventually realizes that the corporate world is not for him, but the surprise comes later. The novel is short and fast-moving and nicely told by the protagonist to someone else in a restaurant in Lahore, so the style is somewhat special. A very good book, with an ending you might or might not figure out ahead of time.

Robert M. Sapolsky, A primate's memoir

Sapolsky is a neuroendocrinologist who has spent many years in the wilds of Kenya studying baboons. Before reading this often hilarious book, you would never believe baboons could be so interesting. For instance, as a reaction against his Jewish upbringing, Sapolsky gives all the baboons biblical names -- Solomon, Benjamin and so on. The book also describes modern Africa and the tourist industry which menaces the animals by its neglect. And when a plague attacks "his" baboons, Sapolsky becomes dramatic and lyric all at once. He is a very funny and a very good writer and this book is a really great read.

Shyam Selvadurai, Funny boy

Funny boy is a collection of short stories about the author's infancy and coming of age in Sri Lanka. The stories go together to make up what is really a novel. You don't figure out until half-way through the first story that the "I" figure, is destined to be a homosexual. After all, he is just figuring it out too, which makes for great poignancy. Subsequent stories discuss the racist attitude of the prevalent Sinhala society to the Tamils, like Selvadurai's family; young love and school; and the family's being forced to flee to the United States when open conflict breaks out. Historically and humanly, an excellent book.

Crime and thrillers

Peter Robinson, In a dry season (+ 25 others)

I really liked Robinson's crime novels about Inspector Banks, especially the Yorkshire atmosphere and landscape which Robinson conveys so well. Some of them (especially Aftermath) are pretty gory, though. Like many such series (also on television), there is a soap-opera element running through them: Will Banks's son become a great rock star? Will Annie and Banks make up? But they are generally quite good as crime books go and enjoyable to read. But don't expect a Yorkie Raymond Chandler, though.

Arnaldur Indriðason, Arctic chill

Indriðason was probably one of the reasons we decided to visit Iceland, and not the other way around. All his books are good (though also with some soap mixed in, as with the continuing story of Erlendur's dope-addicted daughter) and portray the darker side of Iceland (which we saw none of). Indriðason is an excellent writer, better than Robinson, and his stories are generally quite gripping. But if you can't stand cold, pass by. Many of the books talk about cold. hypothermia and  freezing to death. Arctic chill, the last one in the series about Indriðason's Detective Erlendu, is especially chilly, but very absorbing. Essentially, Erlendur comes across as a really nice guy, in spite of having been a lousy parent.

The others are only for science buffs:

François Jacob , La logique du vivant; Jacques Monod, Le hasard et la nécessité

Two of three 20th-century classics from french scientists (along with Levi-Strauss's Triste tropiques) Jacob tells the history of the science of biology, of which I knew almost nothing. Npw I know who all those streets in Paris's Quartier Latin are named after (Cuvier, Buffon, etc.) Monod, who was a friend of Camus, writes about man's place in the universe, but also about the discovery by himself, Jacob and Lwoff of the mechanism of gene regulation. It does get fairly technical at times, especially when talking about stereometry of molecules.

Also recommended for science: The Oxford Very Short Introduction Series, especially those on the earth, the History of life, Paleoanthropology, Human evolution, Cosmology, Nothing (yes, that is a title, talking about space and energy fields, including Higgs) and .. Postmodernism.

Surprisingly, I found some of the ... for dummies books to be quite good, in spite of the unbearable "cuteness" of some of the section titles ("What's all the pus about?") and the constant over-heavy and long references by title, rather than page number, to other parts of the book. Some of them are quite thorough. I liked the ones on Geology, Neuroscience, Anatomy and physiology, and Molecular and cell biology.

Both the Oxford VSI and the ... for dummies books can be excellent introductions (and sometimes more) to scientific subjects.