2017 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2017: 52
number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2017 stats

average read per month: 4.3 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (October)
number read in best month: 7 (January)

percentage by male authors: 40% (21 books)
percentage by female authors: 60% (31 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 88% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 57% (26 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 12% (6 books)

percentage of total liked: 58% (30 books)
percentage of total so-so: 13% (7 books)
percentage of total disliked: 29% (15 books)


I have time and inclination to read more but have trouble finding books I want to read.

My favourite books of the year were A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016), short stories by Fouad Laroui, The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo, and the Elena Ferrante 4-book Neapolitan novels. The only book I didn’t finish — just could not get into it — was Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. I read almost as many novels that were not crime fiction this year as I did crime fiction, which is unusual. Full book list.


Books Read 2017


Once again (2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I kept track of what I read this year; here is the full list.  As always, my reading is limited each month by being able to find books I really want to read. Recommendations always welcome!


Chaos (2016) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Set entirely in Cambridge, MA. Much more personal detail in this one, about her relationships with Lucy, Benton, Dorothy (her sister), Marino — which I like. All the action takes place in a 24-hour period, though there are memories and reminders of the past; if you haven’t read others in the series, the plot — a young woman is killed while riding her bike in a park — and musings may be a bit difficult to follow. I enjoyed it.

Reading the Forested Landscape: A Natural History of New England (1997) by Tom Wessels. For permaculture group. A sort of identification guide for central New England landscapes, looking at the signs of disturbance — fire, pasturing, logging, blights, beaver activity, blowdowns from various  kinds of storms — as a way to understand how the land has been used, how healthy it is, what kind of substrate underlies it, what woody and non-woody plants characterise it and why, etc.  Interesting and relevant.

A Gentleman in Moscow (2016) by Amor Towles. For a bookgroup. Spoiler below. One of the better books I’ve read in recent years (including his first book, Rules of Civility, which wasn’t nearly as good, IMO). Briefly, the plot is that in June 1922, as the Bolsheviks take over Russia, Count Alexander Rostov (Sasha to his friends) becomes a ‘Former Person,’ sentenced to live his entire life in the grand Metropol Hotel in Moscow and threatened with death if he steps outside it. As the book jacket puts it nicely, “the Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges relationships with the hotel’s other denizens,” including an earnest child called Nina who later has to leave her own child, Sophia, with the Count. The plot is simple, the book — moving among times and places; examining motives and intentions; and briefly but effectively considering such topics as the peppered moth of Manchester, the measurement of gravity, the movie Casablanca, bits of philosophy from Aristotle to Montaigne to Hobbes to Locke, etc. — is richly and elegantly complex.

The Trespasser (2016) by Tara French. Police procedural (most than most), crime fiction. A woman — dressed up, made up, “blond hair, straightened and sprayed so ferociously that even murder hasn’t managed to mess it up …. [s]he looks like Dead Barbie” — is found dead in her home, obviously interrupted while preparing a cozy dinner for two there.  Antoinette Conway, fairly new to the Murder Squad but already made wary and cynical by harsh hazing/sabotage, and her ready-to-please partner Steve Moran are given what looks like a simple domestic violence case. Excellent plot — much of it involving police work, suspect interviews, the delicate dealings within the team — with complex and interesting characters and relationships. Page-turner. Recommended.

Missing, Presumed (2016) by Susie Steiner. Crime fiction, another police procedural, set in Cambridgeshire, told in short chapters from multiple points of view, mainly Manon Bradshaw, the 39-yr-old single DS; Miriam Hind, the mother of the missing woman, Edith; and Davy Walker, Manon’s colleague on the police  force; and also Helena, Edith’s best friend. The police don’t have many leads after Edith disappears from her house one night and weeks go by as they investigate various possibilities. Well-written, heavy focus on Manon’s singleness and her attempts to find a man, offshoots about children in need of social services, lots of drinking, shagging, girl talk. I liked it but it probably has more appeal for women.

Less Medicine, More Health: 7 Assumptions that Drive Too Much Medical Care (2015) by Dr. H. Gilbert Welch. Extremely important book that I wish everyone would read. Welch — a Dartmouth medical school professor, internist at the VA Medical Center in White River Junction, VT, and a medical researcher — looks at the beliefs physicians and patients have that lead them to make poor decisions concerning medical care and provides evidence to show why we are mistaken. He makes convincing arguments that risks can’t always be lowered and trying to do so creates risks of its own; trying to eliminate a problem can be more dangerous than managing it; early diagnosis can (and usually does) needlessly turn people into patients; data overload can scare patients and distract doctors; action (vs. inaction) is not the reliably right choice; new interventions are typically not well tested and often end up being ineffective or even harmful; a fixation on preventing death diminishes life. If you have ever had CTs and MRIs that show nodules in organs, if you are considering surgery for lower back pain, if you are taking cholesterol lowering medication, if you are thinking about an ablation for a heart arrhythmia, if you are a woman at average risk of breast cancer getting yearly mammograms or a man at average risk of prostate cancer getting yearly prostate tests, if you are someone with a serious chronic disease trying to make decisions about what to do, if you are a well person who spends a lot of time worrying about your health — please read this book.  And if you smoke, stop!

Depraved Heart (2015) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. (Read out of order). Like the one that follows, this one is also set entirely in Cambridge, MA, in about a one-day period, and also focuses on Carrie Grethen, Lucy’s psychopathic former girlfriend, who two months earlier had tried to kill Scarpetta underwater with a spear as she was diving in the Bahamas. The plot starts with Scarpetta and Marino at the home of a woman who seems to have fallen and died while trying to change a lightbulb; as their perceptions of that scene shifts, Scarpetta is also watching a video on her phone, shot in 1997 when Lucy was at FBI school in Quantico. Scarpetta, made anxious by the video, rushes with Marino to  Lucy and Janet’s mansion, to find the FBI there with a blanket search warrant. The fun never really ends for this family. Reading it now, in the early days of Trump’s administration, is spooky, because at the heart of the novel is something called data fiction, or completely false data and information planted in official places like FBI records, medical records, criminal records, airline reservation databases, etc., to create chaos and suffering.


The Lost Boy (2009/2016) by Camilla Läckberg, in the Fjällbacka (Sweden) series with Erica and Patrik. Sort of a police  procedural — in the sense that the police solving crimes, and the character development of the officers, is central to the plot — but it’s even more of a creepy thriller. Multiple narratives are intertwined in alternating chapters; the one thing they all have in common is a heavy and usually not particularly happy focus on parents and their children (the last line of the liner jacket blurb asks “Is there anything a mother would not do to protect her child?”). There’s something for most everyone here: ghost stories about a small island, with a supporting 1870s flashback; domestic violence; bad childhoods; grandparents caring for kids; loss of a child and the grief that follows; adjustment to having infants; drugs, biker gangs, etc.

Stone Coffin (2011, 2016) by Kjell Eriksson. An Inspector Ann Lindell crime novel, set in Uppsala, Sweden. The novel starts with a brief glimpse of pharmaceuticals researcher Sven-Erik Cederen’s visit to the Dominican Republic, then switches to the hit-and-run deaths of his wife and their 6-year-old daughter in Sweden. Along the way, we’ve got animal rights’ protestors forcing a statement to be read on TV, a trip to Malaga, Spain, to work with detectives there on the case, and Ann, almost 40, considering whether and how to continue her relationship with Edvard, who is living on the isolated island of Gräsö. Eriksson’s writing and tone are always understated.

Crucifixion Creek (2014) by Barry Maitland, the first Harry Belltree crime novel (of three) set in Sydney, Australia. Harry is a homicide detective with a personal interest in the current case, which seems tied to the crash that killed his parents and blinded his wife, Jenny, three years ago. Joining forces with reporter Kelly Pool, he gets involved with an outlaw motorcycle gang, the Crows, as well as local politicians, lawyers, accountants, real estate developers, and others whose professional façades hide their degenerate hearts. Complex and engaging plot.

The Undesired: A Thriller (2015) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Two intertwined stories, one set at a juvenile detention home an hour outside of Reykjavik in 1974, the other set now, in Reykjavik, involving the death of a woman who falls out of a window, leaving her young daughter in the sole care of her ex-husband. Both stories are interesting but there are unresolved questions at the end, I thought.


The Catcher in the Rye (1951) by J.D. Salinger. Re-read, for a bookgroup. A book about teenage angst and alienation. I’m not sure whether it’s meant as a parody or not. Sixteen-year-old Holden Caufield comes from a wealthy NYC family and is now flunking out of his third prep school, not because he’s not smart enough but because, if we take him at his word, he can’t stand all the phony and mean people at this school and the other schools. Holden narrates the story, which he writes while in a mental institution for a nervous breakdown, which covers the week or so from the time he leaves his prep school (a few days before his expulsion would be enforced) after a fight with his roommate over a girl and heads to New York City, where he drinks a lot, sleeps little, and has disturbing and unsatisfying meetups and conversations with taxi drivers, an ex-girlfriend, a former teacher, a former prep school classmate, some women he dances with in a bar, a prostitute and her pimp, and finally, his beloved sister Phoebe. He’s a pathological liar with most people but less so with Phoebe. Other aspects of Holden’s life are told through an essay he writes about his late brother Allie, and some memories he shares with the reader, including about a classmate who jumps to his death after being bullied. Throughout his time in NYC, he is preoccupied with whether the ducks in the Central Park lagoon migrate in winter; people react oddly when he asks them. He is frequently depressed by what he sees, hears, and thinks, his thoughts seem to run in circles, and often he’s “not in the mood” to do things. He feels sorry for people frequently, gets a kick out of things that kids do and say, and he tells Phoebe that what he really wants to do in life is save children who are about to go off a cliff (the cliff of innocence?).

Garden of Lamentations (2017) by Deborah Crombie, #17 in the Kincaid/James series set in London. Much of this book is set around Duncan and Gemma’s home in Notting Hill. Gemma is investigating the case of a young nanny found murdered in the gated communal garden of a posh Notting Hill housing development, while Kincaid, after his former boss is brutally attacked moments after a clandestine meeting with Kincaid, is following through on his suspicions about corruption in the police force dating back 20 or more years. Complex plotting, which frankly lost my interest a few times as one too many names was introduced. I have read the previous book, of which this is a sort of continuation, but it had been a while and I didn’t remember exactly what happened; the events of the past (involving Angus Craig, Ryan Marsh, and others) are alluded to but not really stated clearly until page 300! Not her best effort, IMO.

The Master and Margarita (1967) by Mikhail Bulgakov. A book I have tried to read before without luck, but I finally got through it this time (for a bookgroup)! A sort of fantastical, dreamworld book — blurring the line between what’s real and false, what’s imagined and actual — apparently about life under Stalin and choices authoritarian leaders make believing (perhaps) that they are for the good of the state, but also a Faustian book about good and evil, the bargains we make in our lives, how to evaluate what we envision or sense when it seems impossible, etc.  Woland (the devil) and his retinue — consisting of Koroviev aka Fagott, wearer of checks and a pince-nez, an illusionist, “former choirmaster,” and nominal translator for Woland;  Behemoth, a large black who likes firearms and who can transform himself into human shape for a short time; and Azazello, a short broad-shouldered man with flaming red hair, a fang, a wall-eye, wearing a bowler hat — come to Moscow and wreak havoc, particularly among members of the Variety Theatre, with decapitations, lots of arson, black magic, abductions, counterfeiting. It’s one of those books that reminds me of a lot of other books I’ve read, especially Alice in Wonderland (with things turning into other things — like the Russian money turning into bottle labels and illegal foreign currency; things and people appearing and disappearing suddenly and impossibly; secret doors; grinning cats; people turning into pigs (the Duchess in AiW, Margarita’s downstairs neighbour in M&M); the imperious and nonsensical authority of the Red Queen; Alice‘s confusion and dismay and wanting things to make sense; and so on), and also The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, a little of The Prague Cemetery by Umberto Eco, and the Pontius Pilate story reminded me of Jim Crace’s Quarantine. The Master of the title is the author of a novel (within the novel) about Pontius Pilate’s decision to have Jesus executed and the guilt he holds because of that decision; Margarita is his married lover. I’m not sure why this novel is such a favourite of so many. Chapter by chapter annotations are online.

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate (2015) by Peter Wohllben. Read for my permaculture discussion group. Thirty-six short chapters about trees, with a focus on central Germany (and beeches) but nevertheless applicable to Europe as a whole, to North America (which is mentioned from time to time), and perhaps to other places. Wohllben — a forester who now runs an “environmentally friendly woodland” — is a tree sympathizer, cheerleader, and supporter. Sometimes his purple prose concerning trees’ feelings and body parts is scientifically suspect — as when he talks about pruning as “actually more like a massacre” and girdling as a brutal slow death; when he speaks of trees as having nerves, brains, and blood, and says that they “analyze” information; when he tells us that it’s “really painful” for a tree when chunks of its bark are pulled off or its roots are snipped; when he talks about trees’ alarm calls and their screams; and so on — but he also explains clearly and simply how trees communicate and share resources with other trees and defend against predators, how transpiration works, how trees reproduce and avoid inbreeding, how they age, what happens when they are wounded, how tree species adapt to climate and terrain (become specialists) over time, how trees interact with soil microbes, how various birds, insects, and other plants use trees, etc. His main case is that, for various reasons including how comparatively slowly trees grow and act, we maintain a false moral barrier between animals and plants, which, if we understood plants, and especially trees, better, we would realise is in error.

Death and the Maiden (2011/2012) by Frank Tallis, 6th in the crime series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer, and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve the murder of an opera diva in Mahler’s opera house. I read the other five in 2012 but missed this one. Set in 1903, already the menacing shadow of incipient Jewish persecution hangs over the city and the novel, as Vienna’s powerful and anti-Semitic mayor Karl Lueger is front and center. (Lueger, like Mahler and Freud, was a real person; he established the Austrian Christian Social Party, kept Jews from serving in his administration, and Hitler viewed him as an inspiration.) Meanwhile, Liebermann makes the moves on his heretofore friend, Amelia, who is more than ready for him to act.


The Soul of An Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness (2015) by Sy Montgomery. For a bookgroup. Loved it. Well-written book that’s packed with information and yet flows like a narrative. We get to know the individual personalities of four octopuses who have lived at the New England Aquarium in Boston, learn a bit about scuba diving and observing octopuses in the wild, get a play-by-play account of two octopuses mating, and learn a lot about the intelligence, cleverness, curiosity, and individuality of octopuses.  Recommended. 

Heart of  a Dog (1987, but written in 1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov. For a bookgroup. Satire. Much shorter than Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita, for which I was thankful, but just as unaffecting for me. The back of the book advertises it as “hilarious” and “brilliantly inventive,” but I didn’t find it either particularly, though at times it was amusing; this 123-page book felt to me like a simple conceit dressed up as a novel: Two scientists transplant the pituitary gland  and testes of a small-time criminal into a hapless stray dog, resulting in an ugly man who’s lecherous, vulgar, proletariat, a poor dresser, an alcoholic, a glutton … and who still likes to chase cats.

The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers (2012/2016) by Fouad Laroui (transl. Emma Ramadan). For a bookgroup. Loved it … resonated for me in many places, and it’s very funny. The book is only 130 pp long, a series of short stories that sometimes verge on philosophical meditations about — and explorations of the nuances of — feeling foreign, displaced, dislocated, an outsider, surrounded by the unfamiliar. The stories are somewhat connected by allusions, characters’ names, settings (a couple of stories are told in a coffee shop, the Cafe de l’Univers). Laroui is Moroccan and most of the stories are set there, with two in the Netherlands, one in Brussels. “Born Nowhere” really made me laugh, as did “The Invention of Dry Swimming.” “What Was Not Said in Brussels” felt so true, the way random phrases insert themselves in our brains and sometimes direct our thoughts.


The Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Permaculture: Creating an Edible Ecosystem (2013) by Christopher Shein. Re-read, for permaculture group. Good intro to the basics — principles, soil and mulch, seed starting and seed saving, fruit guilds, perennial and other vegetables, fruits and nuts, mushrooms — with lots of photos, sidebars, and illustrations.

A Glass of Blessings (1958) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. It’s hard to beat Pym for a certain kind of fiction: British cozy (but not mystery), insightful as to human psychology and motivation, brimming with observations about the nuance of relationships that look simple. In this one, Wilmet Forsyth is a woman of leisure in her 30s whose marriage, without children, is somewhat staid and settled; her husband gives her cash on her birthdays and is indifferent to what she does with her days. As she goes about her prescribed life of church-going, doing good works (but not nearly as earnestly or often as some of her friends, for which she feels guilty), and shopping, she imagines minor dalliances with a friend’s brother and her best friend’s husband. My favourite character is her mother-in-law, Sybil, who lives with them and who sees Wilmet as a complete individual despite her marriage to Sybil’s son; Sybil doesn’t seem to expect Wilmet to be anyone other than who she is (and never laments her lack of grandchildren).

No Fond Return of Love (1961) by Barbara Pym. Fiction. I loved that this one references Wilmet and Rodney and Piers and Keith from A Glass of Blessings (pp. 191-193), visiting a church that the main characters in this book, middle-aged unmarried women (and temporary housemates) Dulcie and Viola, are visiting. Pym was post-modern before post-modern was cool. This book is quite funny, because both Viola and Dulcie, free-lance researchers by profession who meet at a literary conference, are a bit obsessed with literary journal editor Aylwin Forbes, for reasons the reader really can’t understand other than his good looks; his unsuitable-by-all-accounts wife Marjorie is divorcing him, and he seems a rather weak and typical fellow, dodging devoted “suitable” women right and left as he falls in “love” with girls half his age and younger. Dulcie and Viola use their research skills and curiosity to track him down in various places, and they also track down Marjorie, her mother, his mother, and his celibate vicar brother, surreptitiously visiting their homes, churches, the bed & breakfast in Tavistock run by his mother, the family cemetery, and so on.

Bilgewater (1976) by Jane Gardam. Unfortunately, I read the Europa (2016) edition, which had at least 10 glaring typos that detracted and distracted from the story. I really liked Gardam’s Old Filth Trilogy, but this story, about a 16-year-old girl — intellectually precocious but socially stunted, and naive, isolated, used to the company of eccentric adults, now coming into her own — was not terribly engaging for me.

The Dollhouse (2016) by Fiona Davis. For a bookgroup. Debut novel. Rather run-of-the-mill “women’s novel” (focus on relationships among women and romances with men), told in alternating chapters, of a young woman (Darby) who came to New York City from Ohio to study at the Katherine Gibbs’ secretarial school in 1952, boarding at the Barbizon Hotel along with other wanna-be secretaries and models, and of a journalist (Rose) in her 30s living now in the same building. There is some intrigue concerning jazz clubs, a Korean spice store, the hotel maid, and Darby herself. All in all, a pleasant, undemanding read that gives a little flavour of 1950s New York.


The Wonder (2016) by Emma Donoghue, for a bookgroup, a novel set in the Irish countryside in the late 1850s (several years after the potato famine ended) about an English nurse, Lib Wright (trained by Florence Nightingale), who is brought to a small Irish village on a 2-week temporary assignment to observe — along with another nurse, a nun — what appears to be a miracle: an 11-year-old girl who is said to have survived for four months without food. It’s part mystery, part romance, part historical fiction. The most interesting aspect of it for me is Lib’s ambivalence about interfering to change a situation that she has been hired only to observe and report upon. When she feels a conflict between obeying her contract to the community to be a detached observer and obeying her conscious as she becomes attached to her patient, how does she resolve it? In that way, the book explores a deep question; in other ways, it’s somewhat formulaic and the ending much too pat and fantastic.

The Chalk Pit (2017) by Elly Griffiths, ninth in the forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway series. Bones found in Norwich’s tunnels and homeless people being stabbed to death converge in a ludicrous plot. If you can overlook that, the storyline of Ruth’s relationship with DCI Harry Nelson advances a bit, and there are some funny lines in the book. Cozy, but a bit inane this time.

Pastoralia (2000)  by George Saunders, for a bookgroup. Six short stories, all more or less contemporary, on themes of self-worth, status-seeking, shame, blame; the difference​ ​between​ ​how​ ​people​ ​present​ ​themselves​ ​and​ ​what​ ​they’re​ ​really​ ​thinking; the dichotomy​ ​between​ ​what​ ​we​ ​think​ ​and​ ​what​ ​we​ ​do; how ​we​ ​elevate​ ​and​ ​then​ ​degrade​ ​ourselves​ ​(and others)​ ​in​ ​seconds​ ​in​ ​our​ ​minds.​ ​Most of the characters are pathetic to some degree (weak, self-absorbed,​ ​unattractive​ ​physically,​ ​anxiety-ridden,​ ​callous​ ​and​ ​cruel, desirous​ ​of​ ​power​ ​and​ ​status,​ ​vengeful​)​, living demeaning lives, trapped in dysfunctional ​relationships — and yet sometimes it seems there’s more worth there than meets the eye. Someone else has said that in​ ​each​ ​story,​ ​”defective​ ​characters​ ​are​ ​trying​ ​to​ ​operate​ ​outside​ ​their​ ​comfort​ ​zones.” The tone is grim and sordid mixed with relentlessly optimistic dreams of grandeur. I enjoyed them.


The Voyage (1999) by Philip Caputo. For a bookgroup.  Historical fiction set at the turn of the 20th century (1900 or so), about a family with deep dark secrets and four boys (three Braithewaite brothers plus a friend, aged 13 to 18 or 19) with dreams of glory, love, adventure. They begin a 3-month journey in a schooner from Maine to Cuba as relatively naive and protected boys and end it much more worldly-wise, wearier, and still unaware of the Braithewaite family secrets, which great-granddaughter Sybil, living in Arizona in the 1990s,  tries to piece together from scrapbooks, letters, the ship’s log. Fascinating and definitely worth the read.

The Second Deadly Sin (2012./2013 transl) by Åsa Larsson, crime fiction set in northern Sweden, featuring Rebecka Martinsson and Kister Ericksson. Complex and engaging plot, with two alternating and related stories, one set in Kiruna today, the other in Kiruna in 1914, concerning multiple deaths in the same family, spanning several generations. Without spoiling the ending, I’ll say that the author’s choice to put Rebecka in the situation she did in the last action scene angered me and seemed totally unnecessary.

My Brilliant Friend (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), first of the four Neapolitan novels. I could not get into it for 2/3 of the book, but by the end, I wanted to read the next one in the series. Story of two girls and their impoverished, rivalrous, close-knit Naples community in the 1950s, as Lena and Lila grow up together from about age 8 to age 18, as friends, as competitors, and as models for each other in school, in love, in life. What finally won me over was the writing and plotting; as one Goodreads reviewer puts it, “The most beautiful part of the story is the way it is told: in a simple, anecdotal way without any intention of moving towards any climax.”


Police (2013) by Jo Nesbø, 10th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway (Oslo and other locations). Briefly, someone seems to be killing cops who were involved with unsolved cases. There are serial (gruesome, as usual) murders and multiple murderers, making for a complex, twisting, surprising plot. Enthralling but like all of Nesbø’s novels, not for the faint of heart.

Deadfall (2017) by Linda Fairstein, in the Asst. DA Alex Cooper series, set in New York (mostly uptown and the Bronx). Sort of a spoiler but it’s revealed on the second page: District Attorney Paul Battaglia, Alex’s boss, dies in her arms on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, after being shot. The feds wonder if Alex lured him to the killing spot, so she’s under serious and hostile scrutiny by the U.S. attorneys as they investigate his murder. Meanwhile, NYPD detectives Mike and Mercer, along with Alex, follow their own lines of investigation, which lead to the Bronx Zoo, the St. Hubertus Society (which Justice Antonin Scalia belonged to), Animals Without Borders, and a quick trip to a Montana big game hunting ranch.

Two Nights (2017) by Kathy Reichs, a stand-alone (or perhaps start of a new series) NOT in the Brennan series. There’s no forensic talk in this fast-paced thriller. Sunday (Sunnie) Night is a recluse of a woman who lives (with a feral squirrel) on an island off of Sullivan Island in SC, reachable only by boat. A former police officer and military veteran who saw action in Afghanistan, Night has deep psychological (and physical) scars and a small arsenal of Glocks and other assault artillery, though her sarcasm may be her most deadly weapon and her wariness her best defense. She’s asked to find a missing girl and the four perpetrators who killed the girl’s mother and brother in a terrorist bombing, which takes her to Chicago, Los Angeles, and the Kentucky Derby in Louisville. I wasn’t sure if I’d continue for the first 30 pages or so but then got into it.

The Thirst (2017) by Jo Nesbø, 11th in the Harry Hole series set in Norway, following immediately on the plot of Police, though taking place three years later. The vampirist is back, meeting women at bars through Tinder and then ambushing in their homes and killing them in gruesome ways. A vampirist expert is called in. Meanwhile, Rakel is having headaches and gets checked out at the hospital.

Walking on My Grave (2017) by Carolyn Hart, in the Death on Demand/Annie Darling series set on (fictional) Broward’s Rock Island, SC. These aren’t very good and I haven’t read any in a while but sometimes you just feel like a cozy, involving mostly rich people, set on an island, and this is the series for that time. The six or seven future heirs of Ves Roundtree’s considerable fortune all need money now and some resent her continued existence. How far will one of them, driven by greed, fear, or desperation, go? Meanwhile, Henny, Emma Clyde, and Laurel are all writing chapbooks about, respectively, classic crimes, the wisdom of her crime fiction detectives, and “merry musings” on life; these comprise the final pages of the book.


The Story of a New Name (2012) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), second of the four Neapolitan novels. Lena continue her memoir, telling her story of growing into her 20s, her sexual coming of age (particularly one summer vacation), her time at university in Pisa, and she tells Lila’s story of marriage, adultery, having a child, continuing her tumultuous life. The two women grow apart, come together, grow apart, come together, grow apart.

Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013) by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), third of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set as much in Florence as in Naples. Here, with the women in their 20s and 30s, Elena marries, has children, publishes a book that is provocative and makes her a bit famous and then struggles with her writing and in her marriage. Meanwhile, Lila works in a meat factory and lives with another man, Enzo, in a low-rent district, raising her son. Eventually both Lila and Enzo work as programmers for IBM. Both women become involved in the politics of the time, and this book focuses on social activism, feminism, socialism, the rights of the worker. As in book two, Elena and Lila move uncomfortably and ambivalently in and out of each other’s lives, often not seeing or speaking with each other for months. As Elena has expressed before, she comes again to the realisation that “I had wanted to become something — here was the point — only because I was afraid that Lila would become someone and I would stay behind. My becoming was a becoming in her wake. I had to start again to become, but for myself, as an adult, outside of her.”

The Maytrees (2007) by Annie Dillard. A hard book to get into. It’s a novel of a couple and their life together and apart, set mostly in post-war Provincetown, Cape Cod. Lou, not much of a talker, and Toby Maytree, a poet — who thinks a lot about how various kinds of natural light represent Aristotelean or Platonic thought, — meet and marry, have a son, make friends among their bohemian artist and fisherman neighbours (characterised early on as “social thinkers”), and care for each other and their friends in ordinary and remarkable ways. They are both big readers and laughers. The writing is often uber-poetic, spare yet awkwardly descriptive, as if trying hard to pack the array of short sentences to the brim with unheard-of word combinations, to the point where it doesn’t really make sense at times, even on an emotional level. I stopped reading about halfway through and read another book, coming back to this one afterward. I appreciated the focus on “the meaning of life” and how love manifests itself over a lifetime and among many relationships, but I didn’t actually care about any of the characters, whose self-containment was admirable but distancing. Lou is described as “throughout her life … ironic and strict with her thoughts.” She is described, when they are courting, as having “no agitation in her even gaze. …. Her silence made her complicit, innocent as beasts, oracular.”

Sleeping in the Ground (2017) by Peter Robinson, in the Banks/ Cabbot series, set in Eastvale and surrounds (Yorkshire). On the same day that Alan Banks attends the funeral of his first true love, Emily, several members of a wedding party are shot and killed or critically wounded by a sniper. Lots of twists and turns as the detectives — newbie Gerry Masterson is featured in this one — trace relationships backwards to find the motive for the killings. Very readable but not as engaging as some.


The Story of the Lost Child (2015), by Elena Ferrante (pseud.), last of the four Neapolitan novels, this one set almost entirely in Naples. Elena is with Nino, and she becomes pregnant with their daughter, Imma, while Lila becomes pregnant with Enzo with their daughter Tina. At Lila’s urging and for other reasons, Elena moves back to Naples, where the women live one floor apart. The years pass, the children grow, Elena has writing successes and failures, Lila struggles with some illnesses and her dissolving boundaries feeling, and at one point there is a crisis that forever affects Lila’s outlook and actions. When the book ends, the women are 60ish, their children grown, their lives still somewhat unsettled.

The Optimist’s Daughter (1969) by Eudora Welty. For a bookgroup. I read this short novel (180 pp but in big type with large margins) in about 2 hours. The plot is that Laurel’s father, Judge Clinton McKelva (age 71), undergoes eye surgery, dies soon thereafter in hospital (in New Orleans) as he is recovering, and Laurel (in her late 40s?) and her graceless, jealous, narcissistic step-mother of one year, Fay (also in her 40s), go home to the family house in small-town Mississippi, where friends and family await, to have the funeral and sort through things. It all takes place in about a week, with a little bit of flashback, mainly to Laurel’s brief marriage to Phil (he dies in the war), the Judge’s first marriage to Becky (Laurel’s mother), and Becky’s early life in West Virginia and the deaths of her parents (Laurel’s grandparents).  It’s the tone or attitude of the book that just escapes me. Fay and Laurel are counterpoints to each other in some way, some of the women in town are like a Greek chorus, and the book seems to explore the realms and limits of empathy and compassion. My favourite line is spoken by one of Fay’s relatives, a man who has spent most of his visit in the yard, who tells Laurel that “You got a lot of fat squirrels going to waste here.” The moral seems to be that “any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love.”


Mansfield Park (1814) by Jane Austen, for a bookgroup. A complex, long novel about Fanny Price, one of nine children of a disorganised “slattern” and an unmannered alcoholic, who goes to live with her wealthier aunt and uncle, the Bertrams, and their four children when she is ten years old. Edmund, the second Bertram son, who is 16 when Fanny comes to live with his family, is empathetic and kind and takes a particular interest in Fanny when he sees how miserable she is. He teaches her manners, honour, kindness, etc., and she in turn falls in love with him, but she can’t ever let that be known to anyone. Five years later, wealthy, agreeable Henry  Crawford falls in love with Fanny and wants to marry her; she wants none of it, seeing him as shallow and not very honorable, having observed him trifling with both her female cousins’ affections.  Still he perseveres, enjoying the challenge. Meanwhile, Edmund has fallen for Crawford’s sister, Mary, who is also a bit superficial and who, though she has feelings for him, is not happy that he has no inheritance and wants to be a lowly clergyman. The novel is nuanced, and though it’s written of the kind of society that doesn’t exist (at least in most places) anymore, many of the themes and truths are universal and timeless.

The Scarred Woman (2017) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Dept. Q novel (#7), set in Copenhagen, Carl Mørck. A bunch of cases, some cold and some not, come together, sending Carl and Assad investigating young women being hit by cars, another young woman shot, two beating deaths, and the death of their colleague Rose’s father. Complex and engrossing. I really like this series.

Death in the White Mountains: Hiking Fatalities and How To Avoid Being One (2017) by Julie Boardman. Non-fiction details of 219 deaths from 1849-2016 of hikers, ice- and rock climbers, and backcountry skiers in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Sections on death by  hypothermia (body temperature going too low), falling, avalanche, drowning, lighting and other freak accidents, hyperthermia (overheating), murder, and also from natural causes (mostly heart attacks), as well as a few accounts of lost hikers who have never been found. There’s some info about every death and longer stories about a handful in each category, some conclusions about common mistakes that lead to injury or death (e.g., not heeding weather reports, not turning back when weather worsens, not packing enough clothing or other items, hiking or climbing alone), plus warnings and suggestions about how to avoid dying in these ways when hiking, climbing, or skiing in the White Mountains or any wild place.

The Mistletoe Murders (2016) by P.D. James, four short stories. The first, third, and last are set at Christmas time and rather Agatha Christie-ish. The last two star detective Adam Dalgliesh. The second one (“A Very Commonplace Murder”) is quite different from the others, not at Christmas, no Dalgliesh nor any detective, rather sordid. In “The Boxdale Inheritance,” the third one, Dalgliesh investigates a murder that took place on Christmas Eve, over 50+ years ago.  I read them all in about 1-1/2 hours.

Dead Woman Walking (2017) by Sharon Bolton. Crime fiction/thriller. Fairly gripping throughout, quite gory and deeply unsettling at the start. Police detective Jessica and her sister, Isabel, a nun, go on a balloon ride with others in the north of England for Isabel’s 40th birthday. Mayhem ensues, entangling one sister in the black market organ market.

Murder at the Old Vicarage (1988) by Jill McGown. I read this in the early 1990s but it was a nice re-read before Christmas. It’s in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England (Suffolk area). Lloyd and Judy have their own issues, which pale in comparison to those of the Wheeler family — George, the non-believing vicar; Marian, his controlling wife; Joanna, their protected daughter; and Graham, Joanna’s frustrated husband. On Christmas Eve, things come to a head in the Wheeler household and then the lies and misdirection begin. A nice romp.


The Other Woman (1992) by Jill McGown, in the Inspector Lloyd and Sargent Judy Hill detective series, set in Stansfield, England. Complex crime novel with names/characters I could never keep straight. Well-written, and I think the convoluted plot hangs together,  but it didn’t compel me.

The Witches’ Tree (2017) by M.C Beaton, in the Agatha Raisin series, set some place in England (fictional Sumpton Harcourt). Pretty awful. The writing is clunky, the plot — involving witches, sex, money — convoluted and dumb, and the editing atrocious (lines repeated from one paragraph to the next, improper punctuation, and the last name of key characters in the cover flap doesn’t match their surname in the book!

Mystery in White: A Christmas Crime Story (1937; 2016) by J. Jefferson Farjeon, a classic crime novel republished recently. The story starts on a train but soon moves to a recently deserted manor home in the country where a disparate group of people (who have left the stalled train in a snowstorm to try to reach another station) finds shelter … and more. Part creepy ghost story, part traditional murder mystery, the novel is set at Christmas, with blinding heavy snow all around a well-provisioned house — food, fires, beds — and a cast of characters animated by complex motives and desires.

The Devil’s Wedding Ring (2015, transl. 2017) by Vidar Sundstøl, a crime novel set in Telemark, Norway, involving a 13th-century stave church and pagan midsummer rites, and spanning 30 years, from the time a folklore researcher disappears on Midsummer Eve in 1985 to the disappearance of a woman researching the same rituals in 2015 and the apparent suicide of a former policeman, who had been a colleague of Max Fjellanger, now a private investigator living in Florida. Fjellanger returns to Norway to attend his friend’s funeral, suspicious that he didn’t die by his own hand. He soon partners with quirky, insightful librarian and single mother Tirill Vesterli, and together they investigate, becoming convinced an ancient ritual is behind the violence. OK but not all that engaging.

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83-¼ Years Old (a novel by Hendrik Groen, 2014/2017). Groen, an “inmate” in an Amsterdam old age home, colludes with several other oldies to form the Old But Not Dead Club dedicated to keeping life lively and worth living; the club members plan interesting outings and meals for each other, look in on each other, and resist the unexplained rules and regulations of the institution where they live. Eventually, since most of the members are over age 80, illness and infirmity cast a dark shadow over the lighter aspects of living in community. Written with a light touch, but sometimes darkly humourous, the novel references many real and difficult issues of growing old.   

A bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed

Welcome to day 6 of 31 Days of Heterotopias: Motels and Hotels, a month of posts about how motels, hotels, and inns function as heterotopias and liminal spaces in society.  Each post will look at these ideas from its own vantage point, which may not obviously connect with the others, and which may mention motels and hotels only peripherally or may focus on them without referencing heterotopia or liminality. I won’t attempt to tie the posts together. They’ll all be listed here, as they are posted.

A friend — Jack, a college acquaintance, now friends on Facebook — asked me yesterday why I’m interested in heterotopias. He asked, I saw the question, then I went out with a few friends for a goodbye lunch for one of us (not me), where those friends asked me, What exactly is a heterotopia?


I gave my short spiel, then walked to the hair stylist, who, while she cut my hair, asked, What is that first word, that “h” word, heterotopia, what does it mean? I said I would send her the little piece I wrote, Heterotopias and Liminal Spaces. But meanwhile, Jack’s question stirred my mind: Why?


I had been looking earlier at an interesting and beautiful-in-its-way Tumblr page called Motel Register. The page’s writers seem to have a nightmarish view of motels; many of the images are dystopian, creepy, ominous, grim. Some are sort of bleakly glamourous, like this one:

CapriMotelMotelRegisterbleakglamourour(Above, not my photo)

A recent entry that caught my attention was the one on Crossroads, i.e., motels with that name, as well as the idea that motels are a crossroads, which is heterotopian:

“Crossroads. This is the ur motel marker. Traced back to its German roots, this two-letter prefix means ‘out of’ and ‘original’ all at once, just like a motel room promises adventure and solitude in the figure of the frontier. America in a nutshell.

“To be in a motel is to be at the crossroads — of adventure, the workaday grind, criminality, and life in general. Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.

“Everything is overdetermined on the road. You cower under the sheets of your adventurous spirit. The company of strangers is the only home you care to know.
If the ultimate promise of travel is self-discovery, the lonely night beside the highway might be the most authentic moment of your life.”

What this no-place place, this crossroads between real and unreal reveals is disillusionment: we are lonely and exist as solitudes, we seek adventure but we are cowards, we are people in pain seeking to escape pain.

There’s this lovely thought, a sort of mockery of nostalgia, about motel phones, on a night when the air conditioner, with its “hum like an airplane’s engines … wheez[es] out a bit of dread that finds your borrowed bed” and after you come back from a trip to the foreign bathroom, a crack in the curtain [which is why I always carry large safety pins] casts a spectral light spotlighting the obligatory telephone:

“Age finds you in an instant.  Frozen like a deer, your mind starts silently punching in your first phone number, still so easy to remember some 30 years later. 481-9371. And like that, you’re at home and so far away all at once.

Motels: They stand in for home, and in doing so remind us, in their bleak emptiness, that we are not home, not at all. Or perhaps they remind us that home, wherever that is, is not any better than this shabby and friendless motel, that “the company of strangers” is the only company — the only family, the only community — that exists anywhere for us.


So I go to lunch with friends (friends I had never met 8 years ago), go to get my hair cut, walk the mile or so home (taking a detour to photograph some butterflies in flowers at a farm stand but end up in love with these grasses in this light),


flip on NPR and listen to more discussion of Kazuo Ishiguro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature today, with the Nobel committee’s comments about his writing: Ishiguro “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” Others (NYT, mainly) write that “[h]is dual identity has made him alert to life’s dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.” (Shades of the mood at the Tumblr site, Motel Register.) They say, “he writes about what you’ve had to forget to survive in the first place, as an individual and as a society.” (From Never Let Me Go: “All children have to be deceived if they are to grow up without trauma.”) Prospect magazine calls him “the master of the quietly unsettling.”

Dislocations; the experience of being caught between worlds; that sharp and inescapable realisation of the abyss that lies black and gaping beneath our abiding hope that we’re connected, that we are solid, permanent, that we are who we think we are, who we appear, known and loved by those we believe we know and love; the necessity of forgetfulness about who we are and what’s been done to us, or what we have done, that enables us to function, and then the remembering, sometimes, that disquiets, quietly unsettles, calls into question everything.

What, I wonder, in our culture reinforces the illusions, tells us the lies that are needed so that we can function as it prefers us to function, helps us forget what we hold inside, distracts us from what’s true, asserts unacknowledged power over our options, our desires, our relationships with each other, with other species, with the earth?  Is it really an illusion, that we are connected to each other, or is the truth that we actually are and don’t see it, don’t feel it, and if so, why not? Why do so many people feel they “don’t belong”? Why are so many resources spent on making houses into homes, far beyond what’s needed in terms of shelter and comfort — the many home box stores, the TV stations, hundreds of magazines, newspaper sections devoted to home decor and desires, decorators, stagers, massive industries and hours of time devoted to the project of creating and recreating the home, over and over?



Today, again on NPR, I heard this interview with a reporter who wrote in the Atlantic magazine about ongoing and deadly fraternity hazings and about the “profound moral unease” that frat members may feel as they cross the line into criminality, certainly into cruelty and obscene carelessness, or they may cover up this sense of unease at the time, may express unconcern and callousness, only to have it seep out later, who knows when, why, and how. Because “there’s this sense that at the core of hazing is a kind of manhood that says, ‘You endure, you shut up, you keep the secrets’ and that’s how you go forward and become a man in this context.” A man doesn’t call for help. A man covers up, hides the significance of what he’s done and how he feels about it from himself, and moves on: “And … they take a breath the next day, the next month, even the rest of their lives, and realize what they’ve been part of ….”

Hiding aspects of who we are from ourselves and everyone else. Profound moral unease.


Because of the new Ken Burns & Lynn Novick series, Vietnam is bubbling in our collective consciousness again. I haven’t seen any of the series, though I was privy to a small discussion about it among people who have seen it, and I’ve listened to some news stories on it (this Maine Calling program on the documentary is particularly affecting); one thing that seems clear is that, like fraternity hazing, it was another circumstance — and a compulsory one for most, unlike fraternities — where young men (primarily) were put in a situation of doing terrible things and then having to bear the psychic consequences of their actions.

Profound moral unease. What do we do with it, as people, as a culture?

Then the news this morning of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the International Campaign To Abolish Nuclear Weapons — as the Nobel committee says, “the spectre of nuclear conflict looms large once more” — and I thought of the existential unease many of us experience, some consciously, some subliminally (that is, below the threshold of sensation, consciousness; affecting our mind without our being aware of it, so that we may deny it).

Unease. Disquiet. Dark thoughts of mortality, morality (acting in a way unaligned with our deepest values), alienation from self and others.

Welcome to the Crossroads Motel!

CrossroadsMotelMotelRegisterTumblr(Above, photo by Joseph Vavak. “Happy Easte”)


So, these are all things that interest me — I assume they interest most people in this culture? — and that are the essence of what heterotopian spaces evoke, I think.

When I am in a motel (as in a cemetery, garden, hospital, museum, on a ship in the middle of the ocean), in that “borrowed bed,” the knowledge that life is a way-station, an unlikely moment between nothingness and nothingness, perhaps, is as pervasive as the peeling wallpaper and the stark, unflinching lights over the bathroom sink.  I am travelling, not only here as a guest in this motel but also, at the speed of light, between birth and death.


And there is that dual sense of possibility, of being anyone, doing anything next, because time is floating and place is layered and who I am is unclear, fragmented, divided. As Motel Register reminds us, “Anything could happen here. And you could take one road or the other out of the parking lot. The choice is always, painfully yours.”


A heterotopia works on us by mixing up layers of life, layers of meaning, layers of time like yesterday, “when I’m old,” my 8th birthday. Normally, I may wake up at 6 or 8 a.m. and do this, then do that, then do this other thing, and then it’s time for dinner, and life goes on in this linear way, though the activities vary, from one moment to the next, and it might make sense to me at times, it holds me together and sets out boundaries. Time and space are defined by known boundaries.

But heterotopias disorder time, they subvert our sense of expectation and of what’s next, and often, by means of their temporal and spacial misalignment with our normal world, they contest, question, or subvert our usual sense of what’s important. Heterotopias stir up unknowing, throw established meaning into question, both our personal perspectives and ways of making meaning and also the significance and meanings assigned to things, events, people, places by others, by the society at large.

If you have been in a space of crisis (serious illness or injury, someone dying, natural disaster, war, abuse, etc.)  you may have felt the way an hour can last 10 hours, or vice versa. The experience of time in such a place, during such an event, intensifies, distorts, feels circular or exponential. And in this disrupted, out-of-the-ordinary place and time, our attitudes, beliefs, relationships, sense of self can suddenly feel provisional, less definite.


More, on a level above the personal, the relationships we observe among our society’s spaces — whose definitions and meanings derive from the prevailing cultural power structure; and in which we may participate willingly or not — can be called into question in heterotopic spaces. Michel Foucault’s (rather grand) claim was that heterotopias are critical to the functioning of the human imaginary (i.e., the deep-seated mode of understanding, the creative and symbolic dimension, through which we create the ways we live together collectively), and that without heterotopias societies will inevitably collapse into authoritarianism. In Foucault’s conception “the heterotopia is simultaneously both part of and apart from the hegemonic arena [i.e., from the power structure of the society]. It is something whose aim is to challenge the dominant culture yet at the same time it is constitutive of that very culture which it opposes and challenges – no culture exists that does not contain heterotopic spaces. So, it is clearly not the case that the heterotopia is seeking to replace the prevailing hegemony.” Yet it is meant to question, challenge, and subvert it, from within. (Much more on this at The Heterotopic Art Institutionat Traces of the Real, by Hugh McCabe, August 2014.)


Fiona Tomkinson, writing about Ishiguro’s novels in her article “Ishiguro and Heidegger: The Worlds of Art” (in Kazuo Ishiguro in a Global Context, 2015), asks “How do the protagonists survive the loss of their illusions and of their world? What is left when a world, floating or otherwise, vanishes ….?”

What may be left, going back to the Tumblr “Motel Register” site, is an authentic moment, perhaps a lonely, disconnected one, perhaps a moment when we come face to face with our cowardice, selfishness, lack of faith, pettiness, terror of the abyss, homesickness, heartache, helplessness, exhaustion. Perhaps a moment when we question what we know, what we believe, what we’ve been taught in our culture and by those who love us. Perhaps a moment when we don’t know anymore who’s bad and who’s good, who to exclude and who to include, who belongs and who doesn’t. Perhaps just a moment when we don’t know and don’t have to know, or one when we don’t rush to unravel a ball of tangled feelings … as we listen to the clanging air conditioner, feel the light from outside the motel room even through closed eyelids, and lie there on our borrowed bed, disillusioned with the promise of the motel room.



Seeking Comfort

I follow conservative libertarian Tyler Cowen’s Marginal Revolution blog (subtitled “Small Steps Toward A Much Better World”). Cowen, an economics professor at George Mason University, has now written a book called The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream and is on the interview circuit. This gist of the book (which I have not yet read) is that the U.S. has stopped investing in long-term big ideas and grand projects and is no longer a dynamic society but rather a stagnant one; it’s become complacent, medicating itself against pain, setting up “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings,” seeking comfort instead of taking risks to improve life. One example: We use technology to separate ourselves, stay indoors, hunker down, and satisfy a need for comfort (Facebook, Netflix) instead of to expand horizons and spur dynamism and productivity (driverless cars that will make sluggish commutes better, high speed rail, an internet of things, smart homes); or as the National Review puts it in their review headline, “When the Pursuit of Happiness Becomes the Flight from Pain:”

“Americans are making deliberate decisions on a mass scale that collectively add up to a culture that is avoiding risk, seeking comfort, and clustering together in like-minded communities.  Americans are less willing to move, to start new companies, or to live or work with people from different socioeconomic classes. We’re clustering with people of like mind, similar income, and the same race. It’s a devastating portrait of a nation that is losing its dynamism in favor of, essentially, ‘digging in.'” (in National Review‘s review)

Another artifact demonstrating a change in attitude: Science fiction written years ago was about how much better it would be in the future; now science fiction writing is mostly dystopian, envisioning a scary, chaotic, dark future.


Cowen spoke this week briefly on NPR’s Morning Edition and at length on WBUR’s “On Point” (and probably elsewhere; those are the two interviews I heard) and I really think he is on-target about how the U.S. has become risk-averse and self-segregated, and how this self-segregation leads to complacency but also surprise at how others think and act:

“[I]f you cease being challenged [by those whose lives are quite different from your own] and you think your way of life is the only way, ultimately that way will become weak, it will be subject to less improvement, you will enter a kind of bubble and continually be surprised by the challenges the outside world keeps on throwing at you. But you’re not very well-equipped intellectually to handle them. … [W]ealthier people tend to live together more than before and so do poorer people. And this is bad for the country as a whole and we see a version of this in the last election where so many people are shocked by the candidate who actually won.”

I wasn’t shocked by Donald Trump’s party nomination nor by his appeal to so many in the general election, partly because I live in a purple state and know and spend time with more than a few Trump supporters.

I’m also aware that support for the federal government has fallen precipitously in the last 50 years, and Trump  — a rich, mouthy businessman with no political experience whatsoever and who rarely spoke his lines from the teleprompter — was the ultimate anti-government, anti-establishment candidate. In 1964, 77% of Americans said that they trusted the government in Washington “to do what is right” all or most of the time.  In 2016, only 19% did. As Tracy McKenzie notes in his essay “Abraham Lincoln on the Rise of Donald Trump” (June 2016), “[p]opular trust began to fall off sharply after the Kennedy-Johnson years, thanks largely to Watergate and Vietnam, and although it has fluctuated sharply from time to time, the overall trend since then has been decidedly downward.”


But the main reason I wasn’t shocked or surprised is that I’ve studied Rene Girard’s work with mimetic theory, his keen understanding of how populism appeals and caters to resentment, and you only have to listen to or read interviews with Trump supporters to get a sense for the high level of resentment they feel. For example, for her book The Politics of Resentment, political science professor Katherine Cramer spent a few months with rural midwestern voters and found that “politics have increasingly become a matter of personal identity. Just about all of her subjects felt a deep sense of bitterness toward elites and city dwellers; just about all of them felt tread on, disrespected and cheated out of what they felt they deserved.” (Cramer’s article about her research in Vox, 16 Nov 2016)

[To be clear, resentment of the party/person in power usually drives us to vote for the “other side,” so we typically bounce from party to party in elections, switching back and forth every 4 or 8 or 12 years. In fact, Kelly Cramer, in her interview with the WaPo, says about liberals now: “One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, ‘There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?’;” in other words, now liberals are resentful of Trump voters and their perspectives. But that said, in this election cycle I think there were deep, long-held, even existential resentments at work, and that they were stoked and played upon by Trump, rather than tamped down with calls for unity and candidate promises to work across the aisle for the good of all, as is usual.]

Cowen, in his interviews this week, mentions a few of the reasons Trump supporters might be resentful, including ongoing job losses and severe wage stagnation over the last 50 years for most men. One could also point to the loss of whole job sectors, such that some skills are no longer useful; the loss of a way of life for many  — some because of policy changes like the closing of coal mines, and some because times change and jobs change with them, which is why there’s not a thriving blacksmith trade these days; the reality that now often both partners/parents in a middle-class family feel they have to work to make ends meet, which leaves little time for a rich family life and which makes them twice as vulnerable to potential job loss; the fact that home prices aren’t rising like they used to and in fact have fallen in some places over the last 10 years, leaving the middle-class, many of whose largest asset is their house, either underwater on the mortgage or unable to move or retire; and the student loan debt burden and difficulty finding jobs that young people are facing, among other factors. (Trump voters offer a number of reasons for voting for him, at Deadspin, 3 Jan 2017.)

Strict economic resentment is not the whole story, though.  Political scientist Roger Petersen points out  that globally, ethnic conflict often stems from “the feeling of injustice on the part of a privileged portion of society when it sees power slipping into the hands of a group that hadn’t previously held it.” Petersen says that “one of the underappreciated causes of ethnic violence was a change in the legal and political status of majority and minority ethnic groups.” But in countries with strong, legitimate governments, the loss of status by a privileged group that could have turned into ethnic conflict and slaughter instead is “channeled into another way of clinging to power and preventing another group from attaining it. Like, say, elections and government policies. ‘Dominance,’ Petersen writes, ‘is sought by shaping the nature of the state rather than through violence.'”


Girard’s work in mimetic theory, and the work of others who have written on the topic, tells us that we, humans, are fundamentally imitators of each other. We imitate each other unconsciously or unknowingly, and also consciously at times (especially when admiring celebrities, e.g.). We share desires among ourselves — desires to have things as well as more abstract but even stronger desires for status and identity — and we can either cooperate towards these desires (this is called love, and is related to a sense of abundance) or we can lock into competition and conflict with other desirers (this is called hatred, resentment, envy, and it’s related to an experience of scarcity).

In the U.S. (and elsewhere) lately, there has been a sense of scarcity — arising from the recession of 2007-2009 and our extremely slow economic recovery, and actually even before that, since the 1970s when income inequality really began to increase — as well as a sense of injustice among those previously privileged in society (i.e., white men at all income levels, 63% of whom who voted for Trump in 2016, and to some extent white women, too, 52% of whom voted for him), who feel their power and privilege slipping as others in society demand more, both of which give rise to a widespread resentment among those who feel they are getting the short end of the stick, that they don’t have a fair chance anymore, that they are being treated unjustly, that life used to be better for them. Those are the people at whom Trump aimed his 1950s-nostalgic, retro campaign message “make America great again.” (Cowen has dubbed him “the placebo president” and sees Trump’s look-backward message — bridges, tunnels, and coal mining, rather than the smart grid, broadband, long-term R&D — with its emphasis on short-term results as a kind of complacency itself.) As Cowen says, “We’re seeing a political backlash, yet without identifying the target correctly.”


I think that Eric Gans (in “Donald  Trump, Metaconservative,” March 2016) puts his finger on one key appeal of Trump to many white voters in 2016: Not only did Trump, almost alone among the Republican candidates, actually speak against “PC” values — what Gans calls victimary issues or victimocracy, and which some Girardians see as a “promotion of minority concerns not as group interests but in the guise of victimary social justice” — he also persistently embodied disregard for “PC” values:

“The term “PC,” by which conservatives refer to the victimary phenomenon when they do so at all, reduces it to a matter of etiquette, ignoring its deeper political implications. The Republican presidential candidates have almost entirely avoided victimary issues despite their preponderance in the Democratic program: reducing incarceration and criminal prosecution, restraining the police, raising women’s pay from ’77 cents on the dollar’ and granting women sex-related health benefits, granting ‘transgendered’ boys access to women’s bathrooms, identifying voter-ID laws with ‘voter suppression,’ and generally treating Wall Street, the ‘one percent,’ ‘millionaires and billionaires’ and ‘the Koch brothers’ not merely as greedy cheats but as sustainers of ‘white privilege’”—not to speak of encouraging the ‘crybullying’ about racism and the ‘rape culture’ that goes on at college campuses. Only Trump and, while he was active, Ben Carson (whose recent endorsement of Trump confirms their agreement on this point) have conspicuously denounced PC, and none have made it the focus of their campaigns, except on the point of limiting immigration, which Trump has made so to speak his trump card. … As I pointed out [previously], Trump embodies far more than he articulates resistance to the victimocracy.”

Reading Gans’s list of ‘victimary issues’ in the Democratic program, above, it’s not hard to see why white men (and many women) would either not care about these things — after all, if you already have privilege in a culture, why would you want to restrain the police, reduce incarceration, change how bathrooms are assigned, loosen voting laws, increase income for other people, etc.? — or would actively resent these commitments to groups of people who are mostly “other,” mostly people you don’t see or personally know in our self-segregated society.

Beyond the fact that the programs and issues don’t necessarily resonate for many white voters (i.e., those who don’t have to worry much about prison, cops, rape, racism, voting restrictions, and finding a safe public restroom) is the deeper anger at being perceived and talked about by liberals and in the (so-called liberal) media as unjust, ignorant, and in fact “deplorable” (Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s unfortunate term) because they disagree with liberals’ agenda. It’s maddening from the liberal perspective that they don’t recognise other people and groups as victims of a structurally and historically unequal, unfair, and often oppressive society; but from perhaps their own perspective, these Trump voters simply resent government interference in their lives, the coddling of weak-willed whiners, the redistribution of their hard-earned dollars to lazy/illegal and undeserving swindlers, and being told what they can say and what they can’t say by condescending intellectual effetes.

Trump’s constant rejection of the teleprompter telegraphed to his supporters and would-be supporters more than any specific words could do his refusal to be tamed and made politically correct by anyone. His crude off-the-cuff remarks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, his blaming sexual assault in the military on putting men and women together, his refusal to release his tax returns, his bragging about his penis size, his calling Senator Elizabeth Warren ‘Pocahontas,’ his disparaging comment that men who change diapers are ‘acting like the wife,’ and so on, all convincingly signalled his rejection of the PC culture that many supporters find, variously, obnoxious, silly, undermining, blasphemous, threatening.

Gans goes on to talk about how Trump, while rarely talking about PC by name, managed to loudly proclaim by his demeanor

his rejection of White Guilt. … Trump’s unexpected staying power … reflects to my mind far more than attractiveness to the benighted bearers of poor-white resentment. On the contrary, Trump’s continual emphasis on ‘deals’ suggests a sharp intuition of how to adapt conservatism to the current victimocratic context. … The contempt of the voting public for Washington’s inability to ‘get anything done’ reflects the fact that under the current [then-Obama] administration, the shift of Democratic politics from liberalism to progressivism, from focusing on the concerns of the working class to those of ascriptive minorities, involves a fundamental change from defending interests to seeking justice. The first can be negotiated on a more or less level footing with opposing interests; the second can only be be resisted by unregenerate evil-doers, which is more or less the way [Obama] and his potential Democratic successors characterize the representatives of the other party. In this noxious context, the (meta)conservative position is not to deny victimary claims, but to normalize them: to turn them back into assertions of interests to be negotiated as political questions were in days of old — in a word, into issues that can be settled by making a deal. …

“In their preoccupation with denouncing Trump as a false conservative, the guardians of the flame forget that at a time when the victimary left seeks to portray the normal order of things in American society as founded on privilege and discrimination, Trump’s supporters turn to him as a figure of hope because his mind, unclouded by White Guilt, views the political battlefield, foreign as well as domestic, as a place for making deals. This used to be called Realpolitik.”

This assessment makes a lot of sense to me. Some Trump supporters probably just wanted to stick it to the liberals, stick it to the status quo conservatives, and the hell with the consequences; some are really racial bigots and/or misogynists who feel Trump is one of them; some just hated Hillary Clinton for what she’s actually done, said, or been, or for what they mistakenly and conspiratorially believe she’s done, said, or been, or because she’s not feminine enough or too feminine; some wildly hoped Trump would really bring back coal jobs, expel Muslims, and lock immigrants out of the country; but many others probably voted reasonably in their own interests for someone whom they trusted to effectively and palatably negotiate progressive actions away just like a civil business deal. In identifying with Trump, they were (and are) identifying themselves as on an equal footing with those who are eager to judge them; they’re affirming that they deserve to be treated as moral equals with progressives and liberals in discussing civil rights and social justice, not as moral inferiors and deplorable humans as they have been accused.


[Added:] On the other hand, as Eric Meier notes in the comments, one could say that while Trump doesn’t articulate resistance to political correctness but rather embodies it (as described above), he certainly articulates, in his inarticulate way, that he is a victim (he claims the status both for himself and for his supporters) — and claims to victimhood are the stuff of which many conservatives would tell us that PC is made.

Anyone who follows Trump’s Twitter feed knows that he feels victimized and persecuted by the media and certain celebrities. He feels he was a victim of voter fraud (and in the primaries, that they were rigged against him), Trump yelled out at a rally in Oct. 2016 “I am a victim!” Kellyanne Conway, senior White House advisor, has explained how Trump and Trump staffers are victims of the biased media (more examples in How crybully Trump and his supporters excel at playing the victim).  Trump supporters also express outrage at their victimhood, at how the left and the media are so unfair to them, at how modern society’s too-soft, too-feminine culture causes them suffering (The Precarious Masculinity of 2016 Voters: Several recent surveys suggest that when men feel persecuted, they turn to Donald Trump for affirmation, The Atlantic, Oct. 2016;  Trump’s supporters believe a false narrative of white victimhood  : Trump voters believe that whites and Christians face discrimination — but they call the left sensitive snowflakes, in Salon, 17 Feb 2017; and Psychology explains how Trump won by making white men feel like victims. (Quartz, 11 Nov. 2016)

The Giradian point is that just about everyone and every group in our culture sees the benefit of claiming to be seen as a victim, even while diligently accusing the other group of playing the victim card. In his book Evolution and Conversion, Rene Girard notes that “Very often, Christian principles prevail in a caricaturist form, whereby the defense of victims entails new persecutions … You have to prove that your opponent is a persecutor in order to justify your own desire to persecute.” And in his book When These Things Begin, Girard comments that “In the United States and everywhere, a lot of current cultural phenomena can be unified by describing them as the discovery of new victims … It’s no longer possible to persecute except in the name of victims.” This is where we are today.

Dwight Longnecker talks about this phenomenon in “The Rise of the Bully Victim” at The Imaginative Conservative: “The problem is that everyone is jumping on the bandwagon. Being a victim is fashionable—ironically, becoming bullied is now the best way to bully others. It works like this: If you want to move forward in the world, make progress for you and your tribe, further your ambitions, justify your immoral actions, grab a bigger piece of the pie, and elbow others away from the trough, simply present yourself and your tribe as victims. Once you successfully portray yourselves as a poor, outcast, persecuted, minority group you instantly gain the sympathy of all. The first key to success in this campaign is to portray your victim condition as something over which you have no control. … The third stage of the campaign is the release of anger. Once the victim is identified and the information is widespread, the rage can be released. The anger must be expressed because, without knowing it, a new cycle of tribal scapegoating has developed. As the tribe gathers around the victim in sympathy, they must find the culprit, and their search for the culprit (whether he is guilty or not does not matter) sends them on the same frantic scapegoating quest that created their victim in the first place. The supposed persecutors have now become the persecuted. The unhappiness of the tribe (which presents itself as sympathy for the victim) is now focused on violence against the new victim.”

It sure didn’t hurt Trump’s cause, his claim to victimhood for himself and his supporters, when Clinton called them deplorables. Instant victim status there.

Gil Bailie in his book Violence Unveiled, talks about victimhood in the context of King Herod’s slaughtering of the innocents. He references a 1992 essay by Robert Hughes that seems ultra-relevant today:

In recent years, skewering the politically correct and the political correctness of those mocking political correctness has become a thriving journalistic enterprise. One of the more interesting examples of the genre was a cover-story essay by Robert Hughes, which appeared in the February 3, 1992, edition of Time magazine. The essay was entitled “The Fraying of America.”  In it, Hughes cast a cold eye on the American social landscape, and his assessment was summarized in the article’s subtitle: “When a nation’s diversity breaks into factions, demagogues rush in, false issues cloud debate, and everybody has a grievance.”

“Like others, Hughes found himself puzzling over how and why the status of ‘victim’ had become the seal of moral rectitude in American society. He began his essay by quoting a passage from W. H. Auden’s Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. The lines he quoted were ones in which King Herod ruminates over whether the threat to civilization posed by the birth of Christ is serious enough to warrant murdering all the male children in one region of the empire. (The historical Herod may have been a vulgar and conniving Roman sycophant, but Auden’s Herod, let’s not forget, is watching the rough beast of the twentieth century slouching toward Bethlehem.) Weighing all the factors, Herod decides that the Christ child must be destroyed, even if to do so innocents must be slaughtered. For, he argues in the passage that Hughes quoted, should the Child survive:

Reason will be replaced by Revelation . . . . Justice will be replaced by Pity as the cardinal virtue, and all fear of retribution will vanish . . . . The New Aristocracy will consist exclusively of hermits, bums and permanent invalids. The Rough Diamond, the Consumptive Whore, the bandit who is good to his mother, the epileptic girl who has a way with animals will be the heroes and heroines of the New Age, when the general, the statesman, and the philosopher have become the butt of every farce and satire.

“Hughes quoted this passage from Auden in order to point out that Auden’s prophecy had come true. As Auden’s Herod had predicted, American society was awash in what Hughes termed the “all-pervasive claim to victimhood.” He noted that in virtually all the contemporary social, political, or moral debates, both sides were either claiming to be victims or claiming to speak on their behalf. It was clear to Hughes, however, that this was not a symptom of a moral victory over our scapegoating impulses. There can be no victims without victimizers. Even though virtually everyone seemed to be claiming the status of victim, the claims could be sustained only if some of the claims could be denied. (At this point, things become even murkier, for in the topsy-turvy world of victimology, a claimant denied can easily be mistaken for a victim scorned, the result being that denying someone’s claim to victim status can have the same effect as granting it.) Nevertheless, the algebraic equation of victimhood requires victimizers, and so, for purely logical reasons, some claims have to be denied. Some, in Hughes’s words, would have to remain “the butt of every farce and satire.” Hughes argued that all those who claim victim status share one thing in common, “they have been denied parity with that Blond Beast of the sentimental imagination, the heterosexual, middle-class, white male.

“Hughes realized that a hardy strain of envy and resentment toward this one, lone nonvictim continued to play an important role in the squabbles over who would be granted victim status. Those whose status as victim was secure were glaring at this last nonvictim with something of the vigilante’s narrow squint. Understandably, the culprit was anxious to remove his blemish. “Since our new found sensitivity decrees that only the victim shall be the hero,” Hughes wrote, “the white American male starts bawling for victim status too.”


Michael Boyle, at The Sound of Sheer Silence blog, has actually (in May 2016) addressed this Cult of Victimhood, as he terms it, very articulately, and he links it to Trump’s strategy in this recent election. He goes into some detail about the Girardian take on victims, then outlines three problems that occur in society when we move from the fact of victimhood to the status or narrative of victimhood, the group identity as victims:

The first is that “the identity of the group is tied up in the status of being a victim.  Thus, perversely, there is an incentive for the minority to seek to be victimized, because it supports and reinforces the group identity, leading to counter-productive co-dependent relationships with the persecuting majority.”

The second, that “it creates a tempting platform to seize the moral high ground.  In light of the message of Jesus, we have an obligation to have special moral concern for victimsas victims.  But it does not follow that those that are victimized have some special moral qualities or status by virtue of being victims.  Being a victim does not necessarily make you wiser, or more just, or better able to discern moral realities in the world around you, because being a victim is ultimately and fundamentally arbitrary. As the great Ta-Nehisi Coates says, ‘[w]e, too, are capable of fictions because, as it turns out, oppression confers no wisdom and is rarely self-improving.’ … [T]his is an inversion for the old vision of the Sacred — whereas before the society explained that victims became victims through some narrative of moral failure, now the victims understand their victim status through a narrative of their own moral superiority.” This ends up dividing the world into victims (righteous) and victimizers (unrighteous), which “acts as a kind of moral shield for their own behavior.  The logical chain goes like this:  because I am a victim, I am righteous; because I am righteous, those that challenge or critique that righteousness (especially if the critique comes from those that victimized me) are per se wrong and their critique is per se illegitimate; thus, I can stay in a comfortable bubble of my own imputed righteousness. ”

And this lead to the third problem: “Because of the power of feature #1 and especially feature #2 of the Cult of Victimhood, everyone wants to get in on the action.  And, given both the pervasive nature of scapegoating and the cultural awareness of the phenomenon (even if inchoate) brought about by thousands of years of Judeo-Christian presence, everyone can get in on the action if they look hard enough.  Everyone can craft a story of why they are the “real” victims over and against some group of victimizers.”

So, Boyle concludes, to resolve this deadlock, we “try to adjudicate who are the ‘real’ victims and who are the ‘fake’ victims.  Girard would insist that this is an utterly futile activity, because all of these stories of victimhood are on some level true and on some level self-serving nonsense.  The fact of being the victim is true, but the narrative of why the victimization occurred, tied into to some group identity and moral status, is not. … Again, it’s crucial, here and elsewhere, to draw a very clear line between the fact of victimization and the status as a victim.  People get victimized, and we have a moral obligation to try to end the victimization.  But the Cult of Victimization makes that project more difficult, because it weaponizes victimization and intermixes genuine victimization with dubious claims of moral righteousness.  It also incentivizes out-and-out bogus claims of victimization, because the power of victimhood status is to enticing. ”


One more thing I found interesting in Cowen’s comments: He suggests the idea of a coming “reckoning,” which he says has probably already started, involving 1. an external crisis (foreign policy catastrophe, pandemic, economic crash, etc.), and our government not having the wherewithal to respond effectively fiscally, organisationally, and attitudinally — due to not having fiscal freedom within the budget to gear up spending, due to our waning credibility in foreign affairs, due to our preference for fighting against each other instead of seeking a solution we can all get behind; 2. rising debt burdens that we have trouble paying; and 3. a decline in the quality of governance in decision-making and execution, which he says we are seeing already:

“When you have a growing pie, most people are happy and they’re very forward looking, and they think about a brighter future and how they can contribute to that brighter future. When you’re closer to a fixed pie setting, people fight over the scraps on the table, politics becomes more combative, more rooted in insults, social media play a bigger role … and that is to some extent the world we’re in right now.”

Cowen thinks we don’t have the ability now to respond to a new crisis, and for those who have read much about mimetic theory, loud warning bells go off.  Rowan Williams, then-Archbishop of Canterbury, in 2008 well-summarised what happens in a society when internal divisions proliferate, when mimetic rivalry grows to a fever-pitch, pitting those in the society against each other:

“Because we compete for the same goods and comforts, we need to sustain our competition with our rivals and maintain distance from them. But to stop this getting completely out of hand, we unite with our rivals to identify the cause of the scarcity that makes us compete against each other, with some outside presence we can all agree to hate. … It doesn’t take much imagination to see how internally divided societies find brief moments of unity when they have successfully identified some other group as the real source of their own insecurity. Look at any major conflict in the world at the moment and the mechanism is clear enough. Repressive and insecure states in the Islamic world demonise a mythical Christian ‘West’, while culturally confused, sceptical and frightened European and North American societies cling to the picture of a global militant Islam, determined to ‘destroy our way of life’.”

Williams goes on to say that our tendency to unify against an identified enemy in order to reduce internal conflict “gives a fragile society an interest in keeping some sort of external conflict going. Consciously or not, political leaders in a variety of contexts are reluctant to let go of an enemy who has become indispensable to their own stability.”

And this is true in every context, both when we mark foreign powers and groups as enemies (and in fighting them feel comforted in our own unity against them) but also before and after we focus on those external enemies, when we see some of those in our society as the enemy, the “other,” as this last election cycle has made very clear that many of us do in the U.S.  Having an enemy always gives humans the sense that what’s wrong is out there, which is very comforting, because not only can we feel morally superior but we also don’t have to change anything in ourselves (or “our group”). We can just expel the enemy from our midst (who is already seen as other) or vanquish the threatening external enemy and all will be well, we mistakenly think.  In fact, we are addicted not only to soothing opiates these days, as Cowen notes, but we humans have always been addicted to the drug (pharmakon) of scapegoating to create unity, to the poison that feels like a remedy: we expel the other, who is seen as poisonous, and in doing so we temporarily heal the group’s inner division, which feels good. Briefly.

Many on the “left” accuse Trump and his supporters of scapegoating victims, of blaming our society’s woes on Muslims, Hispanics, so-called illegals, women, welfare recipients, Obamacare supporters, Obama supporters, climate change believers, scientists, the list is long — while many on the “right” accuse liberals of blaming and scapegoating Trump and his supporters, White House press secretary Spicer, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, climate change deniers, gun rights advocates, the list is long. Meanwhile, Trump has demonstrated both a strong desire to unify us against external enemies and a vanishingly slight grasp of diplomacy.

Makes you want to zone out with a good romantic comedy, doesn’t it?


2016 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2016: 71
number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2016 stats

average read per month: 6 books
average read per week: 1.4 books
number read in worst month: 3 (June, Dec.)
number read in best month: 10 (January), and 9 in Feb. and August.

percentage by male authors: 37% (26 books)
percentage by female authors: 63% (45 books)

fiction as percentage of total: 90% (64 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 69% (44 of 64 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 10% (7 books)

percentage of total liked: 66% (47 books)
percentage of total so-so: 25% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 9% (6 books)


My favourite books of the year were Life After Life (2014) by Kate Atkinson, The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James, A Girl in Winter (1946) by Philip Larkin, Little Black Lies (2015) by Sharon Bolton, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America (2015) by Colin Woodard (not an easy read but worth it), The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen, Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell, and Killer Look (2016) by Linda Fairstein. Full book list.

Books Read 2016

Once again (2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.


Life After Life (2014) by Kate Atkinson. Fiction, alternative history, read for bookgroup. Ursula Todd is continually born on a snowy night in England in 1910, and she continually dies, at various points in her childhood, teen years, adulthood, in various ways. Her lives’ intersections with World War II provide intriguing points for the reader to ponder. Well-written, spare in a certain way and yet rich in detail, nuance, significance. Although Ursula at times is almost conscious that she has lived this life or other lives, the philosophical implications are largely omitted from the story, which actually reads like a couple of novellas and a dozen or two short stories. I liked it a lot and recommend it.

The Drowning (2008/2015 English) by Camilla Lackberg. Crime fiction set in the small town of Fjällbacka, Sweden. Compelling (I read the book in two days) dark crime novel featuring Swedish couple Erica Falck, a writer who is now hugely pregnant with twins, and Patrick Hedstrom, her policeman husband. At the center of the mystery is Christian Thydell, who, with Erica’s help, has just published his first novel, The Mermaid, and whose life holds secrets — one of which is shared with his three childhood friends, Erik, Kenneth, and Magnus — that seem about to be revealed by an anonymous and threatening letter writer. I guessed the ending well before I read it, but I was never 100% sure.  Dark, not for those squeamish about harm done to children.

Speaking in Bones (2015) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan forensic anthropologist series, set in North Carolina. I enjoy these. In this one, a websleuth comes to Tempe to get her help with a missing person case that’s three years old, which leads to some treacherous hiking, introduction to a Catholic sect that performs exorcisms and emphasises the role of Satan, a new and interesting (and single) coworker cop in another county, and repercussions for some children with genetic physical and mental illnesses. Also in this story is her angst about Ryan’s marriage proposal and her relationship with her mother, who has cancer.

The Bostonians (1886) by Henry James, a novel (read for a bookgroup) set post-Civil War mainly in Boston, a bit in NYC, with the fight for women’s rights front and center. Verena Tarrant is a naive, generous, beautiful young woman with a gift for charming crowds as she speaks about women’s rights; Basil Ransom is a Mississippian of staunchly traditional values (e.g., he believes that women exist “simply to be provided for, practice the domestic virtues, and be charmingly grateful”), now struggling to make a living in New York. When he visits his somewhat stern cousin, Olive Chancellor, in Boston, he meets Verena and falls under the spell of her looks and voice, her “genial, graceful, ornamental cast.” The writing is typically Jamesian, with long, convoluted, lovely sentences, often slyly acerbic (for example, about Olive “mortally disliking” Miss Birdseye’s flat: “in a career in which she was constantly exposing herself to offense and laceration, her most poignant suffering came from the injury of her taste.” Similarly, “for the first time in her life, Olive Chancellor chose not to introduce two persons who met under her roof. She hated Europe, but she could be European if it were necessary”). The story moves a bit slowly, though, and in the end seems quite conventional, but perhaps its greatness lies in its observation and explication of the contradictory, muddled motives, assumptions, feelings, hopes and fears within each person and driving their relationships, which often prompt unanticipated, dismaying reactions and consequences, or even if anticipated, then unable to be overcome or redirected, whether due to the characters and personalities of the people involved, societal mores, or human nature itself.

The Drowned Boy (2013/2015) by Karin Fossum, in the Inspector Sejer series set in Norway. Konrad Sejer, who is having dizzy spells and considering visiting a doctor, and his sidekick Jacob Skarre, are called to a pond where a 16-month-old boy with Downs Syndrome has drowned. His father, Nicholai, is stunned and grief-stricken, but the inauthentic reactions of his mother, 19-year-old Carmen, get the attention of the police officers and cause them to look more closely at the case.  The book is about evenly divided between the Sejer’s life and police work and the boy’s parents’ life in the months after the death of their son; the plot is quite tidy and draws a few threads together. I read it in a day. As always, these books are understated and spare, well- (if somewhat slowly) paced.

Silent Creed (2015) by Alex Kava, in the Maggie O’Dell/Ryder Creed series.  FBI Agent Maggie O’Dell and K9 Search-and-Rescue dog handler Ryder Creed (along with his dog Bolo) are sent separately to the scene of a landslide in North Carolina, at the site of a top-secret federal biological research lab, at the same time as a Congressional hearing is going on concerning tests of biological agents on unsuspecting civilians and military personnel. Pretty much all plot and not much else.

In the Dark Places (2015) by Peter Robinson, crime fiction set in rural North Yorkshire, in the Alan Banks/Annie Cabot series. Always well-written and -paced, this story is darker than most, heavy on abattoirs and the slaughtering of animals. Winsome plays more of a role here, and Annie, though Banks’ musing on his romantic life (and of course selecting booze and music) takes up some space as well. Read it in two days.

Black Skies (2015) by Arnaldur Indriðason, crime fiction set in Iceland. Usually these involve Inspector Erlendur but he is away throughout this book and is only peripherally mentioned. This one focuses on his colleague, Sigurður Óli (Siggy), who is not nearly so introspective as Erlendur, as he tackles a case that begins with blackmail and ends in uncovering an international fraud ring. A parallel story concerns a deeply troubled man who was sexually abused as a child by his step-father. Dark indeed, yet told as always in a neutral, even way.

A Girl in Winter (1946) by Philip Larkin. Novel written by a poet, and quite poetic. It’s about Katherine Lind, a 22-year-old girl from Europe (we’re never told where) living in England during World War II, working in a library. The whole story takes up one winter day early in the war, in the first and last sections, and three weeks during the summer six years before, when she visited England for the first time, to stay with her pen pal Robin and his very English family (parents, sister Jane). Landscape is important in this book, both exterior and interior. The story is rather dark — not that anything awful happens but not much happy occurs, either. There’s a lot to think/talk about here, with Katherine’s sometimes suddenly shifting thoughts and impetuous actions, her constant thoughts about her own behaviour, her possible futures, the resignation she often seems to feel about it all.

The Crossing Places (2010) by Elly Griffiths, the first in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, who lives in a small house on the edge of a saltmarsh (imaginary, apparently) in Norfolk England, near the North Sea. I envy her house. In this book, she meets and works with DCI Harry Nelson, who needs help with some cryptic letters he’s received about a girl who’s been missing for 10 years. We meet Ruth’s neighbours, colleagues at the college where she teaches and past colleagues from a dig in the saltmarsh, and an old boyfriend. Plotting and writing quite good, for the most part, but the location is what drew me to the book and kept me reading. My quibble (bit of a spoiler, though not of the crime plot per se) is that Ruth starts out the book an overweight, single, childless 40-year-old woman who knows her own mind, has some self-talk about her singleness and weight, and avoids her censorious Christian family, and she ends the book pregnant, suddenly understanding of her parents (“somehow,” when she held one child, “she found a way back to her own mother”), friendly with a glamourous woman who wants to give Ruth a makeover.  It’s all so pat and easy. Will she be thin and married in the next installment?


The Janus Stone (2011) by Elly Griffiths, second in a series featuring archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in Norfolk, England. She and DCI Harry Nelson continue to negotiate their relationship, with Ruth now in the second trimester of her pregnancy, as the body and head of a small girl are discovered during the demolition of a mansion on an old street in Norwich– which had been first a family home, then a Catholic children’s home — to create condos. As Ruth is drawn into the case, someone begins to threaten her life. Bit of a police procedural, bit of a cozy.

The Keeper of Lost Causes (2011) by Jussi Adler-Olsen. First in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Quite good, the writing, the plot, the character delineation. Carl Mørck is a homicide detective suffering PTSD after a shooting incident that left one fellow detective dead and another paralyzed and wanting to die. Carl’s boss recognises his worth as a crime solver but wants to contain and isolate his personality, so he promotes him to head a new department, Q, headquartered in the basement, with little staff or money and a mandate to solve certain cold cases. The first cold case concerns Danish parliamentarian Merete Lynggaard, missing five years ago and presumed dead. Her story and Carl’s are alternated. Carl’s new assistant, Assad, is a perfect foil for Carl. Similar to Jo Nesbø’s Norwegian Harry Hole series in style, tone, darkness, but not quite as gritty, gruesome, noir.

The House at Sea’s End (2011) by Elly Griffiths, third in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. She’s had her baby (Kate) and is trying to figure out how to work, care for Kate, handle Nelson’s role in her life, etc., while meanwhile, she’s drawn into the discovery of six skeletons on a craggy beach at low tide, which we soon learn are German soldiers, killed in World War II. The case becomes Nelson’s when an old man, a Home Guard veteran, dies of unnatural causes.

A Room Full of Bones (2012) by Elly Griffiths, fourth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norfolk, England. Ruth’s (and baby Kate’s) relationship with Nelson changes, and DS Judy Johnson is given a bit of a bigger role in this plot, which concerns a curse associated with unrepatriated Aboriginal bones at a local museum, horse stables and trainers, and drugs smuggling.

A Dying Fall (2013) by Elly Griffiths, fifth in the Ruth Galloway series, this one set in Lytham and Blackpool, England. Ruth and DCI Nelson are both on vacation in the same place – quel surprise! Well, surprise for him, anyway. Ruth is there after a college mate dies in a suspicious fire after perhaps making a significant archaeological discovery, about which he’s sent her a letter which reaches her after his death. With her are her daughter Kate and their druid friend Cathbert. Nelson and Michelle have gone back to their hometown for two weeks of vacation with their mothers. Neo-Nazism, King Arthur legends, and academic shenanigans are the order of the day.

Little Black Lies (2015) by Sharon Bolton, crime fiction set in the Falkland Islands. Excellent, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Bolton tells the story of six days — from 31 Oct to 5 November 1994 —  with quite a lot of backstory included, from the point of view of three people involved in intense relationships, three years after one of them has lost her two sons in an accident, and the contemporary events of two missing children. I learned a lot about the Falkland Islands and a bit about the 1982 war, but the story itself is the thing: gripping, pulling the reader into its setting, into its web of relationships and secrets, into its atmosphere of grief and guilt. Highly recommended.

The Outcast Dead (2014) by Elly Griffiths, sixth in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK. While Ruth is helping to present archaeological facts about Victorian-era childminder “Mother Hook” — hung for killing the children in her care — on a TV show called Women Who Kill, she’s also helping DCI Nelson and DS Johnson investigate after one child is reported dead by his mother and another goes missing. Meanwhile, Ruth’s brother Simon comes for a visit with his boys, and Judy Johnson grapples with her marriage to Darren.

The Ghost Fields (2015) by Elly Griffiths, seventh in the Ruth Galloway series, set in Norwich UK, with a plot involving one local family, the Blackstocks, after a member of the family is found in a World War II plane dug up during construction for new homes. Ruth’s relationship with Frank (the American, back in England once again to narrate another TV episode), Nelson’s with Michelle, and David Clough’s with one of the Blackstock clan are all explored a bit. Not the best plot of the series so far.

The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) by John Irving. Novel (for bookgroup). Novel set in fictional Dairy (Derry?), NH, at a midcoast Maine seaside area (1937, then 1946-1957), for seven years in post-war Vienna Austria (1957-1964), and finally in New York City and again in midcoast Maine. You wouldn’t think that this story involving rape, prostitution, and bears, and narrated with an abundance of profanity, would be so funny, charming, sweet, and yet it manages to be. I liked it much better than Garp.


Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of An Acre, and the Making of An Edible Garden Oasis in the City (2013) by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates. Non-fiction, for  permaculture discussion group. The book, which focuses most of its attention on edible perennials (and not annuals like corn, tomatoes, etc), is divided into four sections — Sleep, Creep, Leap, and Reap — offered essentially in chronological order from 2000, when Toensmeier and Bates first rented a farmhouse together and started to put into practice some of their gardening ideas, to 2012, after they had lived in their duplex house in urban Holyoke, MA (zone 6) for about 8 years. Toensmeier writes most of the book, with Bates offering a handful of sidebars throughout. There’s more memoir in the book than in most gardening books, but it’s not overdone, and the experimental, “let’s try it!” farming and gardening practice of the two men (and later, their wives) shines through. Full-colour photos (center of book) and design sketches (Appendix A) help the reader envision the property and its changes, and Appendix B is a good list for northern gardeners of edible perennials to consider.

The Absent One (2012) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, second in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. I didn’t like this one as well as the first in the series, because there is some animal torture and killing and a lot of blood lust hunting in it. The plot concerns six basically psychopathic boarding school students (5 men and a woman), now grown up and several in prestigious positions of wealth and power in the Denmark, who for years thrived on watching “A Clockwork Orange,” doing coke, having orgies, and then terrorizing and sometimes killing random people. Their past has come back to haunt them now. Detective Carl Mørck and his sidekick Assad have a new member of their team, Rose.

A Conspiracy of Faith (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, third in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. Better than the second one, not as gruesome, though harm is done to children. Quite a complex crime plot; actually, there are two plots, unrelated, with the main one centering on a psychopathic, rather sadistic man, abused as a child, who makes money kidnapping children from large families involved in insular fundamentalist ‘Christian’ cults. There’s also growth in the Carl-Assad relationship as well as twists and turns in Rose’s character’s unfolding when her sister Yrsa comes to take her place for a while.

White Teeth (2000) by Zadie Smith. DNF. It took me 3 weeks to get to page 185 and then I gave up. I just never got into the story, about two men who met in World War II, Bangladeshi Samad Iqbal and Englishman Archie Jones, and their families in London. I looked at Wikipedia after I returned the book to the library and am glad I didn’t go any farther, as the plot seems to devolve. I found the part I read to be boring and tedious.

The Purity of Vengeance (2013) by Jussi Adler-Olsen, fourth in the Dept. Q series, crime fiction set in and around Copenhagen, Denmark. The best so far, in my opinion, the plot concerns the Purity Party of Denmark, which seeks to rid Denmark of all unworthy people — people of colour, immigrants, poor people, people deemed to have mental and physical deficiencies, and so on — and as part of its strategy to do so sterilizes women it considers wanton or wayward without their consent and aborts children carried by these mothers. At the center of the story are Curt Wad, a doctor who strongly believes in The Cause of Danish purity, and who performs these procedures and orchestrates the actions of others; and Nete Hermansen, a 1950s victim of The Cause.  The Purity Party, by that name, doesn’t seem to be actual, but forced sterilization in the Nordic countries was, and the island of Sprogø is also real: “between 1923 and 1959 … the island was used for containment of women deemed pathologically promiscuous, the main concern being unwanted pregnancies.”

The Silence of the Sea: A Thriller (2011) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, #6 in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Thóra is hired by the parents/grandparents of a family missing at sea on a celebrity yacht to help them file insurance claims and maintain custody of their youngest granddaughter, the only member of the family not on the ship. The story is told in chapters alternating Thora’s investigative work with the events that took place on the ship., and it is more of a thriller than a crime novel or mystery.


Someone To Watch Over Me : A Thriller (2013) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. Several storylines come together: a family is haunted after their prospective babysitter is killed in a hit-and-run; an on-air radio personality is hounded by accusing texts and phone calls; and Thóra is asked by a psychopath in a mental institution to overturn the conviction of a mentally disabled young man, found responsible for setting a fire that killed the other residents and a nightwatchman at the home for the severely disabled where he lived. Creepy in several ways. Took me a few weeks to read it, so I guess it wasn’t that enthralling to me, but the complex plots were well handled.

The Stranger (1942, 1988 edition Matthew Ward) by Albert Camus. Story of Meursault, a French man living in Algeria: his mother dies, he has a girlfriend (Marie), he gladly helps a male friend (Raymond) lure his own girlfriend back so he can abuse her further, then he shoots an Arab man on a beach because he (Meursault) is very hot. That’s the first part of the book, and the second covers his trial and imprisonment, neither of which seems to concern him overmuch (though  eventually he is sentenced to death). Meursault is very detached from his world, inert really except for his reactions to the sun and its glare (if he’s hot, watch out!). He seems uninterested in the suffering of others (people or dogs), lacking in empathy or compassion. In modern terms, he would fall to one side of the autism spectrum, not really able to understand the feelings or actions of others except by the most obvious clues, not because he inherently understands people (ex: “[The priest] was talking in an agitated, urgent voice. I could see that he was genuinely upset, so I listened more closely.”) It’s one thing to comment (as more than one reviewer has) “Even if we exist in a world devoid of meaning, why is it that our actions still bear so much weight?,” which seems a valid question in the context of this book, if the idea of existentialism pulls you; on the other hand, I think one can also wonder if, even in the absence of meaning, humans (and other animals) might naturally feel compassion for others, not because it’s construed to mean something, intellectually, but because we have imaginations and hearts, we know what fear, anger, longing, pain feels like. And on the third hand, Meursault is basically condemned for the crime not of killing another man but of not mourning his mother appropriately (having put her in a home, and then smoking and drinking coffee at her wake, and not crying at the burial — but, take into account, it was a very hot day!); because Meursault isn’t strongly affected by his mother’s death — he seemed to like her well enough in life, as he does his girlfriend, who wants more than that, in the form of declarations of love and preference — he is seen as inhuman in some way when perhaps he is just content. Romantic love, and grief when loved ones are gone, is a sign of attachment to others but not necessarily a sign of compassion; those feelings may be just as self-serving, self-focused, and pleasurable as the feelings one has when fulfilling primal urges, though we may ennoble the former. I don’t know what to make of the fact that so many things seem to occur at 2 p.m. in the book.

The Meursault Investigation (2013) by Kamel Daoud. This very short novel (like The Stranger) is a response to Camus’ The Stranger, set 1962 Algeria, after the French have left, written by the brother of the Arab that Meursault killed. Kind of genius. Very Girardian, very reminiscent of Conrad’s The Secret Sharer in the double/twin aspect. Definitely a must-read with Camus’ work.

My Name Is Mary Sutter (2010) by Robin Oliveira: Historical fiction/romance set in the first two or three years of the U.S. Civil War, with its heroine a 20-yr-old midwife, Mary Sutter, who wants to be a doctor (surgeon). I found it lightweight, clichéd, and clumsily written, for the most part, with some good scenes and thoughts, particularly Mary’s struggle making good choices. I’m going to go back and count how many times Mary’s unruly curls (could it be a clunky metaphor? her twin’s are described as “more easily tamed”) are mentioned, as I know it’s more than 50. And though she is described as somewhat of a mess in looks — features “far too coarse,” her chin sharp-angled, her body often sweaty and bloody, a bit ungainly, etc. — every man she meets falls for her. I did learn more about the Civil War, though not much more than I saw in Gone with the Wind, but the setting here is the Union: Albany NY, Manhattan, and then Washington DC and the bloody battlefields of Maryland and Virginia. I liked the bits with Sec. of State John Hay and Pres. Lincoln (and other historical figures) mulling the early days of the war, believing it would end in a few months, then constantly rotating military and political leaders in and out, hoping someone could end it. Dorothea Dix has a small role in the book, portrayed as a self-centered and self-aggrandizing control freak who doesn’t get her hands dirty.  Some might find the detailed descriptions of amputations or even difficult births too graphic, but that aspect seemed realistic and relevant to me.

Ashes to Dust:  A Thriller (2010) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, in the Thóra Guðmundsdóttir series. She takes the case of  Markús after three bodies and a head are found in his family’s former house on Iceland’s Heimaey Island, which was evacuated and covered in ash in 1973 when a volcano erupted nearby. Not long after she takes his case, his childhood friend Alda is found murdered at home, and Markús is a suspect in that crime as well. Not as compelling a read as some of her others but a good plot nonetheless.


Splinter the Silence (2015) by Val McDermid, in the Carol Jordan and Tony Hill series. I haven’t read McDermid in years because her books became too tense and agonizingly torturous for me, so I picked this one from the library’s ‘new books’ shelf with some trepidation. And I liked it. Of course a serial killer is front and center, and Carol and Tony have their serious personal issues (Carol’s in particular threaten to derail her and those around her), but the plot is interesting — a man is killing feminist women who speak publicly against men, in ways that look like suicide — and the complex mix of characters engaging and realistic.

My Name is Asher Lev (1972) by Chaim Potok. For bookgroup. Asher Lev is both a devout Ladover Hasid, living in Brooklyn in the 1950s, and an artistic prodigy “compulsively driven to render the world he sees and feels even when it leads him to blasphemy.” Asher is a child and teenager through most of the book, in conflict with his father, who travels the world to rescue Russian Jews and start Ladover (a made-up sect of Hasidism) yeshivos in many countries and who never understands his son’s unwillingness, as he sees it, to study and serve God in the way he (the father) sees fit. His mother, who loves them both, understands in part each of their passions, her husband’s for travel and salvation of Jews, her son’s for artistic expression of his feelings, though their conflict and their choices often leave her anxious, fearful, unsupported, caught in the middle of their tension between devotion to a moral calling and devotion to an aesthetic calling. Some themes explored: taboo, tradition, truth, honouring parents, family, what makes a satisfying life, individual vs. culture, religion, perception, imagination. Worth reading.

The Woman in Blue (2016) by Elly Griffiths, 8th in the Ruth Galloway series. This one, which includes very little archaeology (no digging and only a small bit of historical info), is set in Walsingham (Norfolk, England), the site of a religious shrine to Mary as well as a drug addiction center.  An old university friend of Ruth’s, Hilary, has become an Anglican priest (much to Ruth’s dismay) and is in town for a religious conference; she contacts Ruth because she is receiving nasty letters decrying women in ministerial positions. Even before she arrives, another woman, who has been getting treatment at the addiction center, is murdered on the church grounds, so Ruth’s and Inspector Harry Nelson’s paths cross once again. Clough, Tim, and Tanya are also featured, while Judy is home on maternity leave and Cathbad has only a minor role in the story.  So-so, not a favourite.

The Paris Wife (2011) by Paula McLain, a novel about Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Read for bookgroup. It’s the story of their almost-five years of marriage, most of it living in Paris, drinking heavily, meeting literary and other friends (Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, the Fitzgeralds, Gerald and Sara Murphy, Sherwood Anderson, Lincoln Steffens, etc), going to bullfights in Spain, him writing and her playing the piano, eventually having a baby (Bumby), eventually splitting up when Ernest falls for his second wife (of four), Pauline. Except for the time period (Paris in the jazz age)  and the people involved (pre-famous artsy people, either rich or bohemian or both), it a pedestrian story of a fairly ordinary, traditional marriage of a man who generally gets his own way and a woman who feels it’s her duty and pleasure to acquiesce to his needs and desires. Their suffering, even before the marriage begins to fall apart, is detailed.

Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart (2014) by Christopher Fowler, in the Peculiar Crimes Unit series. I haven’t read any others and I’m not sure why I started with this one, involving the digging up of recently buried bodies and the theft of the 7 ravens from the Tower of London. It’s well written, with quirky characters, but I got a bit lost in the all the convoluted plotting and occasional long lists of detail. By the end of the book, I had come back around but I can’t say I was really very engaged. If I read another, it will be for the characters.

Will Bonsall’s Essential Guide to Radical, Self-Reliant Gardening (2015) by Will Bonsall. Not a permaculture book per se, though he mentions it from time to time, but probably the best permaculture book I’ve read in the five or six years I’ve been studying it. Bonsall has an 84-acre farm in Unity, Maine, on which he raises (with very little rototilling) vegetables, fruits, permacrops, grains, pulses, oilseeds — and no animals at all. His writing is incisive, witty, clear, easy flowing, a pleasure to read. Topics covered include the vision of a garden without borders, composting, making mulch and green manures, soil and minerals, grassland management, propagating seeds, rocks and water, planting more efficiently (trellises, companion planting, new world vs. old world crops), chapters on crops (veggies, grains, pulses, oilseeds, permacrops), using the harvest by milling, baking, sprouting, freezing, fermenting, dehydrating, etc., and pests and diseases — usually the most boring (no pun intended) chapter in these books, this is one of the best in Bonsall’s.


American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures in North America (2015) by Colin Woodard. Non-fiction, for bookgroup. A bit of a slog to get through unless you love history, but worth it to inspire thought and conversation about the various cultures that make up North America (the focus is mainly on the U.S. but also includes important insight into Canada and Mexico). The 11 regions are Yankeedom, New Netherland, El Norte, Left Coast, Far West, New France, Midlands, Greater Appalachia, Tidewater, Deep South, and First Nation. The American Revolution and the Civil War are discussed at length. One of Woodard’s conclusions is that the U.S. needs its central government to function cleanly, openly, and efficiently, because it’s one of the few things binding us together, since we don’t share ethnicity, religion, or near-universal consensus on fundamental political problems.

Stoner (1965) by John Williams. A sad little novel about a midwestern college professor of English, set at the end of the 1800s in Missouri. He marries a woman he hardly knows and over the years suffers a series of personal and professional disappointments; it’s the kind of book that makes the reader queasy all along because they can see it’s not going to go well for the protagonist. The blurb on the back of the book says that William Stoner emerges “as an unlikely existential hero,” and I guess by virtue of living through it somewhat stoically, he fulfills the existential part, but I’m not sure I could call him heroic.

The High Mountains of Portugal (2015) by Yann Martel. For a bookgroup. A novel in three parts, set mainly in Portugal, first in 1904, then in 1938, and finally about 50 years later. In the first section, Tomás borrows his rich uncle’s Renault to drive to the high mountains in search of a certain crucifix he’s read about in a priest’s diary; in the second, a more philosophical section, a Portuguese pathologist’s wife lectures him about the similarities of Agatha Christie’s murder mysteries and the Christian gospel, and then he is visited in his office by a woman who wants him to look at a body; and in the third (which reminded me strongly of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael), Peter, a Canadian Senator, leaves Canada for the high mountains of Portugal with his new companion, a chimpanzee named Odo. The stories are tied together, and many similar themes emerge from the three:  the pros and (mainly) cons of human civilisation and “the crowd;” men at the end of their ropes who need a respite from their workaday lives (and their jobs are prominently mentioned repeatedly); strong focus on fathers and sons, especially loss of sons; the idea of an “appointment with death” (a Christie title) and the role fate plays in our lives; lice, vermin, and bugs that eat living people and corpses; men and their sorrow, despair, grief; slavery/freedom; and so on. I had a lot of trouble getting in to it but it was pretty readable after the first section.


Orchestrated Death (1991) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, first in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. Slider is a middle-aged London cop, whose life is changed when a young violinist is murdered.

Death Watch  (1992) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, second in the Bill Slider crime series set in London.When the body of a womanizing traveling salesman, Dick Neal, is found in a compromising position in a blazing motel room, the team at first doesn’t know whether it’s murder or suicide.

Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World (2015) by Linda Hirshman. Part law casebook, part biography of O’Connor and Ginsburg, a comparison-contrast through their histories, work experiences, values, law decisions. Ginsburg comes out looking much more of a champion for women’s rights, but Hirshman tries to make the case that if O’Connor hadn’t been the political, non-idealistic, non-activist she was, it would have been harder for Ginsburg and other judges to be appointed at high levels. Interesting discussions of feminism (equality feminism vs. difference feminism), co-ed vs. single-gender higher education, Ginsburg’s drive to have gender cases treated the same as race cases are under the 14th Amendment, etc.

Death to Go (1993) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, third in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. The crime plot is complicated, involving some bigwigs, some low-lifes, a bunch of Chinese men, and a lot of people named Peter; and Slider’s love life is also complicated when he can’t find his way clear to leaving his wife Irene, though it’s soon pretty easy to predict how that will be resolved. Seemed a particularly large number of puns and amusing wordplay in this one.

Grave Music (1994) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, fourth in the Bill Slider crime series set in London. When conductor Sir Stefan Radek is murdered as he’s about to start rehearsal in a nearby church, Slider has a new case and a reason to talk with his (barely) ex-lover Joanna again.  I guessed the killer (and motive) long before the book ended but it was still enjoyable.

Treasure Island (1883) by Robert Louis Stevenson. For a bookgroup. Adventure novel, old-fashioned tale of murder and mayhem on a (n almost-) deserted island, with lots of greed, drunkenness, pirates, and immorality. From Wikipedia: “Treasure Island is traditionally considered a coming-of-age story, and is noted for its atmosphere, characters, and action. It is also noted as a wry commentary on the ambiguity of morality—as seen in Long John Silver—unusual for children’s literature.”

Killer Look (2016) by Linda Fairstein, crime fiction in the Alex Cooper-Mike Chapman series, set in New York City. I flew through it in a few hours. I don’t know why I like her books so much, but I do. Alex and Chapman are finally together (since the last book) but the trauma from her kidnapping is causing her to drink too much and to give more rein to her anger (and frustration with feeling sidelined from the case) than usual. The case involves a top fashion designer (Wolf Savage) who dies seemingly by suicide, with a bag over his head in a hotel room. Lots of fashion info in this one, plus quite a bit of the setting in the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, a favourite spot of Fairstein’s (she featured it in an earlier book as well) and mine. Her boss, the District Attorney Paul Battaglia, doesn’t fare well here.


Blood Lines (1996) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 5th in the Bill Slider crime series. A music critic and opera expert, Roger Greatrex, is murdered in the bathroom at the BBC studios just before a panel discussion show.  Could the killer be his old friend and panelist opponent, Sandy Palliser; Greatrex’s or Palliser’s wife, or Roger’s mistress; another panelist, an audience member, or a BBC staff member; or even a fellow cop?

Killing Time (1997) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 6th in the Bill Slider crime series. Within a day after gay cross-dresser Jay Paloma comes to Slider for protection after receiving threatening letters, he’s murdered in his house. I guessed this one fairly early on but the plot and writing is interesting enough that that doesn’t really matter. DS Jim Atherton is in the hospital throughout (after his injury in Blood Lines), and DS Hart, a cheeky, confident young black woman, is filling in for him as Slider’s sidekick. More complications ensue in the Irene-Bill-Joanna triangle. Lots of Cockney slang in this one, much more than the others to date.

Shallow Grave (1998) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 7th in the Bill Slider crime series. Jennifer Andrews’ body is found in a trench dug by her jealous husband, who was repairing a terrace on the grounds of the Old Rectory in West London. But did he kill her? Meanwhile, Bill and Irene work through some divorce issues, and DS Jim Atherton continues to heal from his wounding in book 5. Not much Cockney slang in this one, but a new Det Sup — Fred ‘the Syrup’ Porson — brings his own brand of linguistic comedy to the series: “Porson talked like Peter Sellers playing a trade-union representative doing his first ever television interview. He chucked words about like a man with no arms, apparently on the principle that a near miss was as good as a milestone” (or, as Atherton says, Porson’s language mangling is “just psychosemantic”).

Blood Sinister (1999) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 8th in the Bill Slider series. When the body of middle-aged radical journalist Phoebe Agnew is found, strangled and tied to her bed, Slider and Atherton (who is unraveling emotionally a bit) look at people from her past and present: college friends Josh Prentiss and his wife Noni, Josh’s brother Piers, Piers’ lover and Phoebe’s downstairs neighbour Peter Medmenham, and others. Slider’s lover Joanna gets a job offer that would require her living in Amsterdam permanently.

Gray Mountain (2014) by John Grisham, for bookgroup, a novel about the destruction, corruption, and greed of the coal mining industry, and about a few lawyers who are trying to find justice for those destroyed by coal mining and the ills it brings to a community. It’s the first John Grisham book I’ve read and it was more meaty, detailed, and factual than I expected. The story focuses on Samantha Kofer, who’s just lost her high-flying corporate law job in NYC in the downturn of 2008, and who accepts an internship position at a tiny office in (fictional) Brady, Virginia, in the heart of Appalachia, where Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia meet. Early on she learns never to drink the water in coal country — everyone drinks only bottled water, due to the coal sludge that pollutes the water sources. I lost interest halfway through and read a few other books, then came back to it and the last half flew and was much easier reading somehow than the first; I think my reluctance to read it stemmed from the knowledge that though this is fictional, the situation he describes is real, extremely disturbing and disheartening … and ongoing.

Gone Tomorrow (2001) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 9th in the Bill Slider series. The body of Unlucky Lenny Baxter turns up in a gated Shepherd’s Bush park. Baxter is a small-time dealer in stolen goods and drugs, but as the team investigates, they find his connection to a larger crime organisation, run by a vicious, ruthless boss. OK plot, not my favourite, and I’m tired of the Joanna-Bill romance. Atherton is still amusing, as are Porson’s language mix-ups.

Dear Departed (2004) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 10th in the Bill Slider series. Chattie Cornfeld is killed while jogging. Is is the Park Killer striking again, or someone nearer and dearer? I liked this one even though I guessed much of it about halfway through.

Boar Island (2016) by Nevada Barr. I stopped reading Barr’s Anna Pigeon series a few books back but decided to give this one a try and really enjoyed it, if that’s the right word. I read it in a day. It’s set in Maine’s Acadia National Park and nearby in Bar Harbor, places I know fairly well; the book gives a bit of a flavour of the place, though not as evocative as her western-setting books. The plot — or actually, two separate plots — are about as twisted as they come. Anna’s goddaughter, teenaged Elizabeth, is being viciously cyber-stalked by someone in Boulder, CO (where she and Anna both lvie),  so when Anna is asked to fill in for 3 weeks as ranger at Acadia, she, Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s mom Heath (a paraplegic in a wheelchair), and their “Aunt” Gwen (a pediatrician in her late 70s), all head to Boar’s Island, a tiny private island owned by a friend of Gwen’s, off of Mt. Desert (where Acadia NP is). Meanwhile, NPS ranger Denise Castle, stationed at Acadia, has learned something that will change her life.

The Sympathizer (2015) by Viet Thanh Nguyen. For bookgroup. Fiction, rooted in the Vietnam War and its aftermath. We learn early in the book that the unnamed half-French, half-Vietnamese narrator is a man of two minds, a communist sympathizer and spy whose political beliefs are at odds with his personal loyalties.  He has been embedded as a captain with the military government in South Vietnam, and when Saigon falls in April 1975, he flees the country along with the South Vietnamese army general and the general’s family, as well as his close friend Bon (a true South Vietnamese patriot), leaving their other close friend, communist agent Man, behind. The narrator, along with many other South Vietnamese, lives and works in California for a while, where the narrator is called upon to act in ways he’d rather not, before he leaves for a 3-month stint in the Philippines to shoot The Hamlet, a film about the war in Vietnam, thinking he can give his countrymen a voice if he’s part of the project.  He later returns to California, then decides to go with Bon back to Vietnam to continue the fight for freedom. It’s made clear from the start that his narration is actually a confession to someone — and because it’s a confession, the narrator not only tells us about events but examines his thoughts, reactions, feelings, memories, and judgments to and about these events, and about his own stance as a man of two minds.  Won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Extremely well written. To say it’s a story of war, loyalty,  and betrayal doesn’t capture half the depth of it. For some reason, the tone reminded me of the film Kind Hearts & Coronets.


A Banquet of Consequences (2015) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley-Haver series. Gripping story of a grasping mother, Caroline Goldacre, and her two grown sons, Charlie and Will, and the lies and secrets held within a family, whose consequences for everyone — including Caroline’s husband Alistair; Will’s girlfriend, Lily; Clare, a well-known feminist author Caroline works for; and Rory, the author’s good friend and agent — are devastating. Detective Sargeant Havers is on her best behaviour, with a possible transfer to the hinterlands always a threat that Detective Superintendent Isabelle Ardery wields. Detective Inspector Lynley mediates on Havers’ behalf, for Havers to have more leeway so that she can do her best work, but Ardery is having no part of it. Lynley, meanwhile, is contemplating the future of his relationship with his zoo veterinarian girlfriend Daidre.

Game Over (2003) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 11th in the Bill Slider series. An environmental investigate journalist, Ed Stonax, recently dismissed in a sex scandal from the Department of Trade and Industry, is found murdered in his home. His distraught daughter Emily,  a journalist in New York City, comes over and begins to help the team uncover clues. Meanwhile, Slider is dodging bullets and other dangers that Trevor Bates (arrested in a previous case, now having escaped prison) is aiming his way in an escalating campaign of threats.  The puns and word play is fun.

Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi, “a memoir in books,” for a bookgroup. Better than I expected, but still not a favourite. Nafisi, who grew up before the Revolution, when everyday life was much more liberal than it is now in Iran, is a professor of literature trying to instill in her regime-oppressed students, especially the girls, a love of literature and a respect for the power of their imaginations to help free them from their own prisons. The book moves from her small reading group of a handful of women, back in time to her university classes (mixed gender) and their studies of Nabokov’s Lolita, Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (the trial of the book in her classroom was a favourite of many in my group), and few books each by Henry James and Jane Austen, back further in time to the (cursory) history of Iran, the Revolution and its changes, and her personal history living and going to college in America, then forward in time again to the small morning reading group. The book is centrally about how in literature, and in Iran, women are seen not as they are but only as figments of men’s imaginations and the focus of their desires. In exploring why we read fiction, the book also points to the prison we live in within our own experiences and point of view, and how fiction helps liberate us by giving us the opportunity to see through others’ eyes. Some themes: empathy vs. blindness/carelessness, imagination, integrity, dreams, banality and brutality (poshlost), identity (who names us?), ordinary life, freedom, absolutes vs. ambiguity.

Fell Purpose (2009) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 12th in the Bill Slider series.  Smart, beautiful, enigmatic, strictly parented Zellah Wilding is killed on Wormwood Scrubs, during the night of the fair. There is a selection of suspects, and the one you think probably did it, did. Not too much personal stuff about Bill and Joanna in this one, but there was a cringe-worthy, clichéd sentence near the start of the book about the feeling in a woman’s loins when she has borne a man a son. Gag.


Body Line (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 13th in the Bill Slider series. One of the better mysteries in the series. Well-to-do doctor David Rogers is murdered at home, execution style, and his girlfriend narrowly escapes out a window. Neither the girlfriend nor the ex-wife nor any of his other women, and there are many, seems to know what sort of medicine Rogers practices or where he works, but he has a huge amount of cash lying around and a lavish lifestyle, not totally attributable to the monthly checks he receives from a Swiss company.

Cloud Atlas (2004) by David Mitchell. For bookgroup. A postmodern novel that nests six different but interlocking stories into a fairly coherent whole. The first is Adam Ewing’s Journal, written mostly aboard ship in the Pacific, around 1850; the second, composer Robert Frobisher’s letters to his lover from Belgium in 1931; the third, a manuscript about a young woman journalist who’s uncovered a high-level corporate coverup in California in 1975; the fourth, a movie (it turns out) about a 60-something-year-old man trapped in a nursing home around 1990 or 2000; the fifth, a holographic recording of an interview with a cloned woman in Asia who has discovered the secrets of the corpocracy in which she lives in the near future; and last, an oral story told by a tribesman about a life-changing few months in his life on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the far future, when a woman from another culture visits them. Major themes include reincarnation, rebirth, and recurrence of patterns in people, cultures, and throughout the history of civilisation; predation, the strong vs. the weak, cruelty and domination; imprisonment, subjugation, enslavement and escape; perception, doubt, and how to know what to believe, especially about historical events. Motifs include ascents and descents and smoke and clouds (obscurity). Lots of think about.

Kill My Darling (2011) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 14h in the Bill Slider series. Soon after Melanie Hunter goes missing, her body is found by a man walking his dog, and there is no shortage of suspects, including the convicted wife-murderer living in the basement apartment, her boyfriend, and her stepfather. Not much domestic life or word play in this one, Porson aside.

Blood Never Dies (2012) by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, 15h in the Bill Slider series. A man who looks too classy for the attic apartment in which he’s been murdered (in a bathtub) leads the team on a lengthy search just to learn his name.  Not much of the personal relationships between Slider and Joanna or Atherton and Emily. Held my interest.

The Weight of Winter (1991) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. I like her use of language and her stories set in fictional Mattagash, Maine. This novel is a sort of series of interlaced stories about various townspeople early one winter: Amy Jo Lawler, thinking about putting her mother, Sicily, in a nursing home; Lynn and Pike Gifford’s turbulent, violent marriage and its impact on their children; Mathilda Fennelson, in her early 100s and reflecting on emotional events in her past; Charlene & Davey and their sick daughter, Tanya; the local bar and its habitués; and others. The writing is humourous, often bittersweet, never sappy or mocking.


The Bubble Reputation (1993) by Cathie Pelletier. Re-read. “[B]ittersweet but affirmative novel about a quirky, crisis-ridden family in small-town northern Maine may remind readers of Anne Tyler’s work. Exploring the ways people tend to pair off and the ways they respond when these bonds are broken, she follows the course of lonely characters bereft of their mates …. Rosemary O’Neal, a 33-year-old teacher, falls apart when William, her live-in lover of eight years, commits suicide during a trip abroad. While Rosemary seeks solace in isolation, loved ones gradually intrude on her privacy. Among them are her sister, an oft-divorced neurotic; her uncle, an overweight and overwrought gay man; and her roommate from her college days, who is now choosing between husband and lover” (from Publisher’s Weekly) This family very much resembles Anne Tyler’s dysfunctional, chaotic families. The writing is poetic, funny, with much use of repetition in this novel to signify thoughts and events going round and round in Rosemary’s head. A wonderful record of a year of grieving.

Smoke & Mirrors (2015) by Elly Griffiths: I requested this from the library thinking it was part of the Ruth Galloway series but unfortunately, it’s not. It’s part of another series Griffiths writes, called Magic Men, set in Brighton, England, after World War II, featuring DI Edgar Stephens (and his team) and his magician friend Max Mephisto, who met in the war. In this one, Max is in town performing in a pantomime show, and two children have gone missing in snowy weather.  I didn’t like the book nearly as much as those in her other series. If you have an interest in post-war local theatre or in fairy tales, this might be for you.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in Jazz Age New York (2010) by Deborah Blum. Interesting look at the development of forensic toxicology in the U.S., from about 1920 to 19365, and at the effect of Prohibition on alcohol deaths, the early aspects of consumer protections, and the jurisprudence of the time. Chapters are arranged in chronological order, each focusing on a poison (though other poisons are mentioned in most chapters) and on a poisoning story. It’s come to mind often since I read it.

When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi. Memoir. “At the age of thirty-six, on the verge of completing a decade’s worth of training as a neurosurgeon, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. One day he was a doctor making a living treating the dying, and the next he was a patient struggling to live. Just like that, the future he and his wife had imagined evaporated.” The first part of the book is Paul’s life before his diagnosis, the second is his life after. The writing is sometimes spare, sometimes poetic, but what makes this book memorable is how Paul grapples with his new reality, depicting painfully the seesaw between hope and fear, acceptance and despair, that accompanies a serious medical diagnosis. The central question of the book, and Paul’s life, is, what makes life meaningful? How does one live “when the future, no longer a ladder toward your goals in life, flattens out into a perpetual present?”


When The Music’s Over (2016) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks-Annie Cabot series. I didn’t like this one as much as usual. Plot involves two cases, one Annie’s investigating with Gerry, a young woman raped, thrown out of a van, and then battered to death, and the other Alan and Winsome are investigating, a fifty-year-old rape allegedly perpetrated by Danny Caxton, then a much-liked celebrity, now an old man.

Razor Girl (2016) by Carl Hiaasen, featuring ex-cop-now-restaurant-inspector Andrew Yancy, set in the Florida Keys.  The usual unlikely characters and convoluted plot, this one revolving around a made-for-TV redneck named Buck Nance, star of the hit series Bayou Brethren (think Duck Dynasty), and a crazed Buck-wanna-be criminal named Blister. Again, new next-door neighbors are planning a mansion that will encroach on Yancy’s natural view and the livelihood of the resident deer, so they must be stopped. Meanwhile, a dazzling redhead is ramming cars for money, pretending she’s lost control of the car while shaving her never-regions while driving. The mafia is involved, too.

Rules of Civility (2011) by Amor Towles.  Set in 1938 NYC among mainly the upper class bright young things, the novel follows Katey Kontent’s year from the time she and her roommate, Evey, meet wealthy Tinker Grey, on New Year’s Eve, through the changes in her life, and theirs, in the year following. At times a bit hard to follow — the author makes references to names or fleeting events from 100 pages previous, which rang a bell but which weren’t entirely clear to me without going back through the book to find the original mention — and I wasn’t sure I really understood Katey’s personality, but on the whole interesting and evocative of a time and place. Felt a bit like some of the later Woody Allen movies (Match Point, Cafe Society, etc).

2015 Book Summary

A la Jessamyn

number of books read in 2015: 54
number of books read in 2014: 52
number of books read in 2013: 47
number of books read in 2012: 50
number of books read in 2011: 55
number of books read in 2010: 34
number of books read in 2009: 74
number of books read in 2008:
number of books read in 2007:
number of books read in 2006:
number of books read in 2005: 37
number of books read in 2004: 46
number of books read in 2003: 40
number of books read in 2002: 30+ (3 months forgot to count)

2015 stats

average read per month: 4.5 books
average read per week: 1 book
number read in worst month: 2 (April, June, Oct., Nov., Dec.)
number read in best month: 10 (August), and 9 in July, 8 in March

percentage by male authors: 48% (26)
percentage by female authors: 52% (28)

fiction as percentage of total: 85% (46 books)
crime fiction as percentage of fiction total: 63% (29 of 46 books)
non-fiction as percentage of total: 15% (8 books)

percentage of total liked: 52% (28 books)
percentage of total so-so: 33% (18 books)
percentage of total disliked: 15% (8 books)


As always, the limiting factor in my reading this year was not being able to find anything I wanted to read.

I started reading two crime fiction series, the Joe Gunther series by Archer Mayor, set in Vermont, and the Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes series by Laurie King, both of which came with high recommendations from friends. After reading quite a few in each series, liking some and not liking others, my interest in them just petered out; the Joe Gunther series became boring, and the Russell/Holmes series became annoying.

My favourite books of the year were That Distant Land by Wendell Berry (short stories), All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr, and Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande. In general, I didn’t love much of what I read. Hoping for better in 2016! Full book list.