Books Read 2010

Once again (2009, 2004, 2003, 2002), I kept track of what I read this year.

January

A Fatal Grace (2006) by Louise Penny, in the Three Pines series with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set near Montreal. Because the series is set in this very small fictional village, the killer is likely someone who’s not a ‘regular,’ which narrows the field quite a bit.  In this one, set in snow and frigid cold from Christmas to New Year’s Day, a vapid and cruel woman is killed in a ridiculously contrived manner during a curling game, and then a bag lady in Montreal is found dead as well. How are they connected and who killed them? As the police team works to solve the mystery, Gamache continues to deal with political fallout of a previous case. The central element of this series is its insistence on the intrinsic value of a heterogeneous community of people, who, whatever their differences, act in love and courage, and thereby create a magical place.

February

With No One As Witness (2005) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley/Havers (and Nkata) police procedural series. A serial killer who believes that life consists solely of suffering through whatever you’re handed is ‘releasing’ his victim’s souls after a ritualised process of judgment, admission, repentance, and punishment. The killer seems to choose his victims from a youth offenders rehab center in London, so the team focuses their investigative energy there, while each has his or her own personal problems to sort out: Barbara, recently disgraced and demoted, has put a foot wrong with her Pakistani neighbour and friend; Lynley and 5-months-pregnant wife Helen are trying to find christening clothes that won’t offend either family as Lynley navigates the treacherous political waters in the cop shop; and Nkata, elevated to DS mainly because he’s a black face for the media, persists in his desire for Yasmin and his anxiety on behalf of her fatherless son. I read the 772-page paperback and while I often put the book down, I looked forward to returning to the story each time. (I’m particularly happy with the turn taken in Lynley’s story!)

The Monster in the Box (2009) by Ruth Rendell, the 22nd and last in the Inspector Wexford series. Part police procedural, part social critique, part small-town cozy, this book is set contemporaneously but includes much reminiscing of Wexford’s young adult days (professional and personal), triggered when he once again runs into Eric Targo, an animal lover whom Wexford believes, with no evidence, to have committed at least two murders over the decades, including one when Wexford was a rookie. The social commentary track concerns the mores and beliefs, particularly concerning dating and marriage, of Moslem women and their families living in England. I found the book rather weak, thin and disjointed, though the stories dovetail in the end and the topic of marriage could actually be said to be the focal motif of the whole book.

Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009) by Barbara Demick, is a very readable, engaging, enlightening account of life in North Korea, from the end of WWII until 2008, focusing on the years of economic collapse from 1970-present. Demick tells the larger political and cultural story through the smaller stories of several eventual defectors (most to South Korea) and their families. The editing isn’t as tight as I would like: some of the same points were mentioned three times or more, in much the same phrasing from chapter to chapter. Otherwise, I recommend the book for anyone interested in learning the basics about the totalitarian regime that is North Korea under the Kims (Kim Il-sung, and his successor and son, Kim Jong-il).  Demick clearly details the factors that led to North Korea’s economic collapse, after being touted as ‘the Korean miracle’ in the 1960s,  and its consequent widespread famine. She offers numerous examples of privation, propagandising, the cult of personality created and maintained by the Kims, and systematic repression of individual rights ostensibly on behalf of ‘the people.’ The endnotes recommend books and reports for further study of various aspects of the culture.

Dust to Dust (2009) by Beverly Connor, in the Diane Fallon forensic anthropology series, set in Georgia. All the cases Diane is working on come together as one case:  an archaeologist severely attacked in a home invasion, an investigation into an apparently solved  murder that’s re-opened when there’s a new death related to the case, and an even older mystery concerning human bone used in tempering a pottery glaze. Complex mystery plot, less ‘lady in distress’ chaos than usual, and Diane’s usual aplomb and grace amidst violence, mayhem and recriminations; but one rather big editing error marred my enjoyment of this book: On page 33, there’s a copy of note left behind by someone unknown, and when it’s referred to again on page 114, a handwriting analyst suggests that the age of the note can be determined by how the letters in the word ‘missing’ are written — but ‘missing’ isn’t a word in the original note on page 33. Grrrr.

March

Friday Nights (2008) by Joanna Trollope, fiction about women in London of various ages and lifestyles. The oldest, Eleanor — single, childless and retired from her engaging career — becomes the catalyst for their intertwined relationships when she invites two young mothers  who live on her street to come over on a Friday evening. The group grows to include friends, coworkers, the children, and sisters, and then it morphs again as the women change: marriages and relationships founder, new men enter the picture (one in particular), kids grow up, jobs change and the women move. It’s a book about women’ choices — raising children with or without partner, devoting oneself to work, falling in love and negotiating marriages and friendships, etc. — but somehow manages to feel quite dated.  I don’t know why.

The Brutal Telling (2009) by Louise Penny, in the Three Pines series with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set near Montreal. This is the best of the series so far, a novel at whose center is a story of greed, fear of want and fear of being exposed, and betrayal, and around which twin themes of grace and a fall from grace, and imprisonment and freedom are entwined. The plot includes a hermit found murdered in the bistro; a couple from away who buys the Hadley place with the aim of making it an upscale spa hotel; a Czech son and father whose jobs place them close to the murder; and a child with Downs syndrome and an ‘asshole’ saint who once worked with Downs syndrome and who reappears after many years absence. There’s a lovely Ruth-shaped aspect of the book, too.

Hell Gate (2010) by Linda Fairstein, in the assistant DA Alexandra Cooper series, is crime fiction about human trafficking and prostitution, political corruption, and New York City architecture and history, particularly about the three mansions in Manhattan (Gracie Mansion, Hamilton Grange, and the Morris-Jumel house). I got a bit confused trying to keep track of the many politicos and their motives but overall liked the book for the reasons I like the series: the interplay between Alex, Mike, Mercer, and some of the other recurring characters.

Stealing Athena (2009) by Karen Essex. Historical fiction. Two parallel stories, one about Lady Mary Elgin, the wife of the Scottish Lord (Bruce) Elgin who in the early 1800s went to Greece and Turkey and brought back what are now known as the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Marbles, and the other a story that takes place more than 2000 years earlier, around 500 BCE, focusing on Pericles and his concubine Aspasia.(Socrates also figures in this story.) Threads common to both stories include the goddess Athena, women’s lack of legal and societal rights, women’s power (real and attributed) and powerlessness, types of communities (the democratic city-state of Athens, shipboard, Turkish harems, etc.), and especially women’s relationships with men (loved or abused wife, concubine, prostitute, sister-in-law, children, acquaintance) and women’s relationships with each other (sisters, friends, within harems,  as wary peers). Aspasia, the concubine in ancient Greece, seems to have a much better time of it than Mary, the wealthy wife in 19th century Scotland. It was genius to address these two periods and stories together, and the points of comparison and contrast are intriguing (and lead to a good book discussion), but the writing and plotting sometimes felt like a Harlequin romance.

April

The Demon of Dakar (2005) by Kjell Eriksson, in the Swedish crime fiction series featuring Ann Lindell. Disappointing. I just never got into the book; when I had to choose between playing a word game on my smartphone or reading this book before bed, I almost always chose the computer game. The plotting feels soooo sloooooow. The focus is on Manuel Alavez from Mexico,  in Sweden to visit his imprisoned brother and perhaps exact revenge on those who were complicit in his other brother’s death in the drug trade, including a  restaurant owner and his partner. The action mostly takes place around the restaurant and involves a single mother who’s a waitress there.

The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner, for book group. Hard going at first, until I popped over to Wikipedia for the plot synopsis. After that, much easier and I ended up really liking this book, especially the second section, in Quentin’s voice, which seemed to flow so naturally, to match so well his obsession and his disintegrating psyche.  I also loved that the major emotional force in the book, Caddy, doesn’t have a voice at all and is barely even active in the book.

May

The Black Cat (2010) by Martha Grimes, #22 in the Richard Jury crime series. Jury and Plant (and sociopath Harry Johnson’s dog Mungo) team up to figure out who is killing high-class escorts wearing very expensive and stylish shoes, in and around London. There are one or two chapters from the dog’s point of view, including dialogue with the cat — all of that is just a little too cute. Meanwhile, Jury struggles with his ambivalent feelings about Lu Aguilar, who is in a coma.

The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett, about race relations between white and black women (employers and maids) in Jackson MS in the early 1960s.  For bookgroup. Also quite a lot about the exclusionary tactics of Junior League women in small Southern towns and the narrow range of beliefs, clothing, leisure activities and social mores that were (and in many places, still are) “acceptable” for society women.  Some in my bookgroup thought it lightweight but I didn’t.

June
The Choir (1988) by Joanna Trollope, fiction set in modern-day England about clerical and other politicking around a boys’ school and cathedral church choir.  Took me forever to read, although the subject matter should have been interesting: relationships among lovers, friends, clerics, parents and children, and the political scheming and ordinary plotting that goes on among people in a small village.

The Secret Hangman (2007) by Peter Lovesey, in the Peter Diamond police procedural series set in Bath, UK.  My first of this series. I’d definitely read another. Rather equal parts police procedural and focus on Diamond’s private life, which in this case (spoiler!) dovetails with the murder plot, involving couples being strangled and then hanged in public spaces.

Noah’s Compass (2009) by Anne Tyler. Somewhat slower paced than her other books, this one focuses on an older man, his three (mostly) grown daughters, his ex-wife, and a new love interest. And, as is often the case, in Tyler’s book, a quirky sort of obsession that drives the plot.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) by Stieg Larsson, recommended by a friend. Took me a long time to get into it — there is about 150 pages of stage-setting — but in the end I enjoyed it and find the two protagonists (Blomkvist and Salander) compelling and appealing, fr the most part, though Salander seems her own worst enemy in many ways and I’m not sure I really feel I know Blomkvist. Not sure why the books are so popular — Val McDermid’s books are better, imo, though more brutal. I think there may be a lot of wish-fulfillment going on for readers, particularly with Salander’s ability to break the law regularly and with relative impunity, and to destroy people who treat her and others badly.

July

Blood Harvest (2010) by SJ Bolton, a thriller by way of ghost story, set in the rural Pennines (UK), where the townspeople continue to perform age-old rituals.  A newly arrived vicar and a psychiatrist with a physical disability are both involved with the mothers and children at the heart of the story — a story about little girls missing and murdered, little ghostly girls whispering and leading real children away from their homes, mothers grieving and frightened.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006/2009) by Stieg Larsson, the second in the trilogy. Some interesting revelations in this one, and a lot of brute and gory violence. Ending is in a way a bit of a cliffhanger.

Faithful Place (2010) by Tana French, her third crime novel, this one set in Dublin and told from the pov of a lower-class kid turned undercover cop. The plot is secondary to the exceptionally good writing and the exploration of dysfunctional families.

August

Run (2007) by Ann Patchett, a really good (bookgroup) read, set in Boston (and Cambridge), that explores family: what constitutes a family, how a family’s history matters, what secrets families keep, how parents’ dreams shape their children. I don’t usually like books about good (dutiful, compassionate, kind, unselfish) people, but those are the only ones inhabiting the world of this novel and I loved it. Somehow Patchett makes it palatable; I was glad she didn’t trod the well-used path of racial conflict or  bitter sibling rivalry for the sake of drama and sociological theorising.  Instead of exploiting the obvious, she’s nuanced.The several speeches and reflections about life and relationships, given by Doyle and by Father, appealed to me, too.

The Ice Princess (2008) by Camilla Lackberg, the first in the Erica Falck series, set in a small town in Sweden. Erica’s friend from childhood has been murdered and she and Patrik, a local cop, begin dating as they work to find out who did it. I agree with another reviewer that it’s annoying when Lacksberg allows the a character to have a key bit of information but doesn’t share it with the reader — this happens three or four times at least in the book.  It wasn’t an enthralling read — more measured and pleasant.

Borderline (2009) by Nevada Barr, in the Anna Pigeon series. This one is set in Big Bend National Park, straddling Texas and Mexico, and is very timely with the heightened discussion recently about that border.  The frantic outdoor action, mayhem and carnage starts early in this book and never lets up. The plot’s prongs, which dovetail, are an ill-fated rafting expedition of which Anna and Paul are part (as vacationers) and a politico with a strong anti-immigrant platform working her way up from mayor to governor. 49-year-old Anna’s thoughts and feelings about (potential) motherhood also figure largely.

September

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) by Stieg Larsson, the last of the Millennium trilogy. And by far the best. I really liked the plot this time, and I liked the legal aspects (though I don’t usually like legal thrillers). What I liked most [SPOILER alert] was that Lisbeth was safely locked inside the hospital for most of the book and therefore out of harm’s way. I could relax and read. Much less brutality in this book, and much more computer hacking and legal and logistical strategising and cat-and-mouse ploys. I’m glad Berger had a bigger role in this one, too.

Burn (2010) by Nevada Barr. Some people won’t read this book, in the Anna Pigeon series, because its focus is the trafficking of children for the sex trade. <Spoiler> It’s only in the last 30 pp or so that there is any description of these abusive acts or situations, and not at great length or with much graphic detail. (Still, some won’t like it; I wouldn’t if the focus were animal abuse.) I wouldn’t recommend the book, though, because the writing wasn’t really up to Barr’s usual standard — the plot was slow, the characters weren’t appealing, and if you read her books to feel you’re in  the great — if dangerous — outdoors, this won’t satisfy you: the characters are gangs of homeless teens, jazz singers, sex workers, and new age voodoo types, all set on the streets of New Orleans (except the very early scenes, in suburban Washington state).

Contentment Cove (2006) by Miriam Colwell. This book, by a Maine author, was written in the 1950s and set in that time period but only published in 2006. It’s a barbed and nuanced account of the social and emotional intersection of natives and incomers in a small coastal Maine town during one summer, told by three women: a somewhat naive and romantic native in her 20s who runs the local drugstore; a worldly and jaded artist in her 40s who was among the first outsiders to move to the island; and a snobby outsider in her early 60s, lately from Texas, who with her husband bought a summer house three years ago and immediately renovated it; then they decided to build a community pool for the islanders’ benefit. For 3/4 of the book, it’s just a slice of life, and I think it’s best as such; the last 1/4 brings plot movement and tragedy. Some have compared it to The Great Gatsby and I can see why, especially in the party scenes. (Read for bookgroup.)

October

In the Shadow of Gotham (2009) by Stefanie Pintoff, historical crime fiction set in New York City in 1905. First crime novel by this author, whose protagonist, Simon Ziele,  is a recently bereaved police detective of age 30. He joins forces with a professor of criminology at Columbia University to try to solve a murder in a town about 20 miles north of NYC, where Ziele is working after leaving his job in the city after his fiance’s accidental death. Most of the action takes place in the city, though, at Columbia Univ., in Chinese restaurants and opium dens, gambling houses, bordellos and brothels, and in various locations from the Bowery to Morningside, and bribery is ubiquitous throughout the story at all levels, from a Tammany Hall election to the personal dealings of the some of the characters. The women’s suffrage movement, and biased treatment of women, are also important. Plot and characters are average, IMO; what I like is the historical detail, setting and ‘mood’ of a period I’ve read little about.

Bay Boy (2010) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot series. For the first part of the book, Banks is on holiday in the U.S. and Annie has center stage. Then the roles reverse.  The plot involves an illegal gun, a botched attempt to retrieve said gun, big-time drug dealing, an exciting escapade turned armed kidnapping, and a number of ‘bad boys’ — from psychopaths who enjoy inflicting pain to criminal masterminds who are pillars of society to greedy and ruthless young men who attract young men. And all of it centers on Banks’ daughter, Tracy.

Year of Wonders (2001) by Geraldine Brooks, historical fiction about a plague outbreak in the 1660s in a small rural town in England. Told from the pov of a 20-yr-old woman, the book is sort of death, death, death, childbirth, death, childbirth, death, until the last 20 pp or so, which are just weird and felt completely jarring and rushed to me (and just about everyone else in my bookgroup).  Anna (the narrator), the town’s minister, and the townspeople have to make a series of choices about their response to the disease that is wiping out their town, chief among them: should they flee, probably carrying the disease with them to other places, or should they remain in self-quarantine, risking more and more illness themselves? They make their choice and suffer the consequences, which many in the village believe to be a punishment from God. From a Girardian perspective, the bits about superstitions, “witches” and the sudden movements of the mob were interesting.

November

Hypothermia (2007; 2009) by Arnaldur Indriðason. A police procedural that’s not; Erlendur’s police team is mentioned early on but soon he’s alone and investigating a bunch of closed or very cold cases, including an apparent suicide, three 30-year-old missing persons cases, and an apparent accident from decades ago. Erlendur’s own life (estranged wife, son and daughter, and the brother lost in a blizzard when they were children) is also part of the story, as usual. It was was pretty clear to me whodunnit  about halfway through but I still enjoyed the book much.

Bury Your Dead (2010) by Louise Penny is not as ‘cozy’ as usual. It’s actually three mysteries in one: a reinvestigation of the crime from the last book, the murder of the Hermit in Three Pines, by Jean-Guy Beauvoir; the murder of a Samuel Champlain fanatic in an Anglo historical institution in Quebec City (and the attendant historical, factual question of where Champlain’s body is actually buried); and flashbacks to a recent, haunting terrorism incident that Gamache,  Beauvoir and other members of the Sûreté were involved in. Less than a third of the book is set in the welcoming Canadian border town of Three Pines, and some historical sites, architecture and food of Quebec — and especially the Anglo-Franco divide — are described pretty extensively throughout. I enjoyed it.

Spider Bones (2010) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan series. This one is largely set in Hawaii, as forensic anthropologist Tempe goes there to work on a case at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and Ryan and both of their daughters tag along. Lots of jargon, acronyms, and facts and history about Hawaii — too much of all of it. I lost track somewhere of what and who we were trying to find. The low point was when Reichs has a cop tell a suspect that he may watch Bones (the TV show based loosely on this series!) but that it’s probably over his head. Only for devoted fans.

Never End (2007) by Åke Edwardson, second in the Erik Winter series, set in Gothenburg, Sweden, this time in a heat wave. An accidental re-read (I interlibrary loaned it, then realised I had read it a few years ago.) A young woman is raped in a park, then another is killed in the same park, and Winter realises the M.O. is similar to a 5-year-old murder case. He spends a lot of time reading the case files and looking at photos that show the murdered women standing in a setting with the same backdrop. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with his wife and daughter; wife is becoming less tolerant of the job all the time. Meanwhile his coworker Halders is having his own personal problems, and then a big professional one.  Sort of slow moving but not a bad read.

December

Port Mortuary (2010) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Most of the book is concerned with Scarpetta’s guilt and ruminations about her actions in the past and present, and her frustration and despair at being excluded from several current connected investigations. Lucy and Marino figure, but the main event is the strained relationship between Scarpetta and Benton. The plot itself is heavy on nanotechnology and the actions of military, governmental and quasi-governmental  organisations. Somehow the plot doesn’t hang together all that well, and the writing, particularly at the beginning, is not up to snuff. Not her best.

Ten Influential Books

Tyler Cowen at Marginal Revolution listed his 10 Most Influential Books and encouraged other bloggers to do the same. Below my list are links for a sampling of those who took the challenge, along with a little listing of the books I’ve read that are on these other folks’ lists (but not on mine).

Here’s my list of ten, in loose order of reading. All of these were revelatory in some way, if to no one but me. (As always, this is my list today; tomorrow or yesterday I might come up with a different one.)

  1. A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle – Strongest evocation of abundant and accessible love in the universe I’ve read yet, and of the dangers of rejecting love.
  2. A Dictionary of Difficult Words by Robert Hill – I love these words. This book revealed to me that the words most in use were only a small portion of what was available. Why don’t we use these juicy words? I mean, Erebian? jentacular? storge?
  3. The Paris Diary and The New York Diary by Ned Rorem – Devoured these in high school because they opened up whole new vistas  through Rorem’s language, thinking, experiences, relationships.  These are diaries.
  4. Wallace Stevens’ poems – Perfect marriage of intellect and heart. No sacrifice of mind to touch the reader deeply with what’s inchoate.
  5. Shakespeare in the aggregate for the powerful language, the humour, and the recurring themes of rivalry, twins and doubles, resentment, envy, justice, etc. (If I had to choose one play, it would be Measure for Measure)
  6. The Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton – Reading this led me to the rest of Merton’s works and on to other radical Christian thinkers, especially those whose impulse is to merge Christianity and  Buddhism, and led me away from my previous views of religion.
  7. Blue Highways by William Least Heat-Moon – Total wanderlust travelogue that provided a view to places I hadn’t been in the U.S. and inspired me to want to see those places and people for myself.
  8. Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin – Gave me a rubric with which to make decisions about what’s worth working (for money) for and what’s worth spending on.
  9. I See Satan Fall Like Lightning by Rene Girard – Probably the most influential book for me to date, along with the rest of Girard’s books and other Girardian material online. Inverted my articulated view of religion and both expresses and challenges my experience of human nature, society, culture, psychology, politics, economics.
  10. The Joy of Being Wrong by James Alison – Alison, like L’Engle, revitalises my faith in abundant, friendly love and reminds me of the fullness of life. He’s also an amazing writer and speaker who manages to say more than what his words alone can convey.

Runners Up:

  • The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce – read in high school and remember it widening my horizons
  • When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron – almost everything Pema says, in books, audio, video, or online, speaks to me
  • Letters Home by Sylvia Plath – very influential when I read it
  • Montaigne’s Essays – I remember feeling a kinship to Montaigne when I read these in college, which surprised me
  • Lying Awake by Mark Salzman – two big ideas here: madness vs. vision, and the perhaps subtle difference between them, and individual freedom vs. community good. Both are important apparent dichotomies to me.
  • The House by the Sea by May Sarton – strong sense of place and person that inspired my imagination for a “good life.”
  • Nicholas and Alexandra by Robert Massie – Personalised history in a way that set me aflame with curiosity and sympathy.
  • Going Crazy: An Inquiry Into Madness In Our Time by Otto Friedrich – another book that was very influential when I read it in high school, with its almost exhaustive study of psychosis in writers, artists, literary characters, ordinary people, etc.
  • The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz – Makes these four guidelines  (don’t assume; don’t take things personally; be impeccable with your word; always do your best) easy to remember. They seem so simple, even simplistic; yet these are four pivotal relationship principles, and failing to follow them leads us continuously to do violence and to experience needless suffering.
  • whatever the first crime novel I read was … And the aggregation of crime novels read in the last 20 years, which have no doubt influenced my anthropological, psychological, sociological, and political views.

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Books I’ve read that are on others’ lists (but not mine):

Plato’s Dialogues.

Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (I agree that it’s excellent on interiority, but it didn’t really engage me.) (I think he means Swann’s Way, the first in the 7-book In Search of Lost Time)

Voltaire’s Candide

The Narnia series by C.S. Lewis (though non-fiction by Lewis was influential)

JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and Jules Feiffer

Lord of the Flies by William Golding

Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh by Robert C. O’Brien

The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics

Dostoevsky’s Notes From Underground

Conrad’s Heart of Darkness

Austen’s Pride and Prejudice

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey

parts of A Theory of Justice by John Rawls, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, George Orwell’s Essays (and all of 1984).

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Other 10 Most Influential Books Lists:

Tyler Cowen

E.D. Kain at the League of Ordinary Gentleman lists books from childhood that influenced him

Jason Kuznicki at the League of Ordinary Gentlemen

Niklas Blanchard at It Don’t Mean Much, These Seats Are Cheap

EconJeff

Peter Suderman at The American Scene

Bryan Caplan at Library of Economics and Liberty

Arnold Kling at Library of Economics and Liberty

Jenny Davidson at Light Reading

Matthew Yglesias

Kieran Healy at Crooked Timber

The Money Illusion

Jacob T. Levy

Russell Arben Fox at In Medias Res

Whitney G at Yeah Right

Ivar Hagendoorn

Favourite Crime Novel Websites

A few websites that offer excellent comprehensive and/or in-depth information about crime novels.

LISTS

Stop, You’re Killing Me! lists more than “2,500 authors, with chronological lists of their books (nearly 29,000 titles), both series (2,900+) and non-series.” Also offers indexes by location, jobs and professions, historical time period of series character, and diversity (ethnicity, age, etc.), as well as category read-alike lists and lists of mystery award winners.

Clerical Detectives maintained by Philip Grosset: Excellent and expansive website offering information about authors and in-depth summaries of books in more than 50 series featuring clerical detectives — ‘any detective with a significant church or religious background’ including priests, ministers, monks, nuns, ex-nuns, rabbis, church administrators, a church organist, and the clerk of a Quaker Meeting. Also has ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Detective Nuns.’

BiblioMystery: Mysteries Involving Libraries and Librarians, maintainted by Candy Schwartz at Simmons College in Boston: Extensive list of library-related mysteries with their publication info and one-line synopsis of plot. These include “mysteries in which books, manuscripts, libraries of any kind, archives, publishing houses, or bookstores occupy a central role, or mysteries in which librarians, archivists, booksellers, etc. are protagonists or antagonists (and preferably the location or occupation is important to the plot or theme). Not academic mysteries or mysteries which happen to be about journalists, authors, or literary figures unless libraries, books, manuscripts, archives, and so on, are important to the plot.” Excellent. Look also at their Wishlist of similar books.

Thrilling Detective, a website specialising in private eyes and tough guys (and gals). Besides the regular magazine they publish, they also offer a “never-complete listing of private dicks and janes, and selected other tough guys and gals, listed by character, with all appearances in novels, short stories, film, television, radio and other media.”

Euro Crime offers an extensive bibliography (works listed chronologically, series in order) for European crime writers. “Currently includes authors born in Europe and only lists their crime novels (and not an author’s other types of novel).”

NEWS and REVIEWS

** For current crime novel news and annotated links to current reviews, Sarah Weinman’s Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind blog is excellent, a must-read.

Cluelass Bloodstained Bookshelf, listing books recently published and forthcoming (up to almost a year in advance).

Euro Crime blog offers “snippets about British and other European crime fiction, tv and film.”

Reviewing the Evidence offers weekly crime fiction reviews as well as an archive of past reviews.

Overbooked offers ongoing listings, synopses, and reviews of crime fiction, mysteries, suspense novels, and thrillers that have received good reviews from Kirkus, Booklist, Publisher’s Weekly, and/or Library Journal.

January magazine reviews crime fiction and offers interviews.  They also have a blog that covers crime and other genres.

Rap Sheet is a blog of crime fiction-related news.

DISCUSSION LIST

Dorothy-L is an emailed “discussion and idea list for the lovers of the mystery genre.” Topics include announcements by authors of forthcoming crime fiction; reviews, criticisms, comments, and appreciations of mysteries in the form of books, plays, and films; mention of great mystery book shops; and info on mystery awards and events.

Understanding American Bestsellers … and More

BookDaddy doesn’t think so (these points “seem to be pretty much standard-fare intellectual analysis/dismissal of mass-market books”), but for me (not having read the prior Korda book he refers to), this explains a lot. Like why it seems almost impossible to find a bookgroup book that’s not simplistic, moralistic swill (imo, of course!), and why much of what passes for spirituality seems so shallow and progress-oriented. Perhaps I’m just exemplifying item #3 … their comments validate views I already hold.

“1. American readers like happy endings.

2. We like simplistic answers.

3. For all of our search for answers, we’re happiest with books that validate the values we already hold. We don’t want to pursue any troubling inquiry into our own thinking.

5. Americans confuse spirituality with self-improvement and with financial success. It’s a mix going all the way back to the Puritans, and it’s still selling self-help books like mad.

8. Americans read for plot and character and don’t care a fig about literary style.”

(The above list is a sampling of the observations of Lisa Adams and John Heath, who read 200 books that are bestsellers in America and wrote Why We Read What We Read based on that experience. They’re now blogging their response to books read since then.)

I don’t think one has to dismiss mass market books, though. I feast on Peter Robinson’s and Reginald Hill’s crime series (one author Canadian, one British), because while they speak to issues of justice, revenge, forgiveness, redemption, punishment, grace, etc., they aren’t tidy morality plays where everything turns out well for the good and badly for the evil. In fact, the characters, for the most part, aren’t drawn as wholly good or wholly evil, but as human.

I can’t say the same for so many bookgroup books we’ve read over the last few years, including the recent bestseller,  Water for Elephants. One book we recently read — Philippa Gregory’s Earthly Joys, historical fiction based on the life of John Tradescant in the early 1600s in Britain — while it’s not my genre or writing style of choice, seemed to me to express the complexities of human experience, but I was only one of two people in my bookgroup who liked it; the others seemed to find the messy interpersonal relationships distasteful and disturbing, while they found value in the history and gardening aspects of the book (I liked the history, too). Our book for this month is The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards, and after reading reviews of it (most positive), I decided to give it a miss. This review in particular rang the death knell for the book for me:

“The book’s greatest weakness is that it is so clear that we must believe that the decision to give up Phoebe was wrong. Even if we agree with that — and I do —  the force with which that point is driven makes it seems as if David’s unhappiness is not just a result of his actions, but a kind of punishment. Perhaps we are supposed to see it that way, because that’s how he himself sees it, but sometimes it feels a bit like the author is meting out judgment and punishment on this character. It created a distance between me, as a reader, and him, and that distance kept me from ever falling completely into the world of the book. It felt too much like a moral lesson rather than a human story in those moments.”

I do read for pleasure and escape, but reading fiction that seems so at odds with the reality of human nature and experience (in my view) isn’t pleasurable, especially with so much of it badly written, and it paradoxically doesn’t offer escape, either, as what feel to me the falseness of the characterisation, relationships, and plot have me checking in continually with my own experience, comparing the fundamental assumptions of the novel (novelist) with what I see and feel, and feeling deceived and misled by what I’m reading when I do so.

When I read for escape, I read the two series named above, or a forensic crime novel, or even an Agatha Christie. Her cozies feature two primary detectives, Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, who both believe ‘good’ and ‘evil’ to be real entities operating in the world, and whose work is to vindicate the innocent (often falsely accused) by determining and proving the guilt of someone else. Sounds simplistic, but if you read them, you’ll find that the people who are guilty of many of the crimes are depicted as otherwise quite nice, even morally upstanding, people, sometimes overcome by circumstances, sometimes (often) people who seem pleasant but who are seething with resentment that finally is expressed with fatal consequences. What makes reading Christie pleasurable for me is her handle on the subtleties of resentment and rivalry and how it plays out in relationships over time.

Item #5,  “Americans confuse spirituality with self-improvement and with financial success,” seems patently obvious and yet so subtle in so many situations, so thoroughly cloaked in tasty goodness and mysticism. In Buddhist classes, the teaching (I think) is that meditation is for its own sake, not to accomplish something else, and yet in discussion, almost invariably, someone points to the progress they’ve made in some area thanks to meditation, or someone comments that with more practice, we will be able to make progress in some area. It seems very likely to me that a regular meditaton practice – indeed, any regular practice (‘practice’ at its root means simply ‘to do’) — will change something, but that’s not the point! The point of meditation is being aware, right now. It’s so hard to let go of the idea of improving, and of course, Buddhists are hardly alone. Christians, humanists, and others also want to get better, do better, be better. I’d like to do and be some things better, too. Most of the time, I know that that’s something separate from faith, from being in the flow of reality or truth or love, but sometimes I confuse the two. I don’t need more novels whose storylines and assumptions make it even easier to be deluded and blinded.

Book Year 2005

If my reading log is right — and surely it is not, as I forget about it from month to month — I read 37 books in 2005, compared with 46 in 2004.

That 37 includes 10 books read for a bookgroup (listed with U.S. publication dates):

  • Longfellow: A Rediscovered Life (2004) by Charles Calhoun, biography

  • The Kite Runner (2003) by Khaled Hosseini, fiction set in Afghanistan

  • Downhill Chance (2003) by Donna Morrissey, historical fiction set in WWII Newfoundland, Canada and after

  • The Assault (1985) by Harry Mulisch, historical fiction set in WWII Holland and afterwards

  • The Elegant Gathering of White Snows (2002) by Kris Radish, contemporary chick fiction

  • Tender at the Bone: Growing Up at the Table (1998 ) by Ruth Reichl, food memoir

  • Far From the Madding Crowd (1874) by Thomas Hardy, literary classic

  • The Red Tent (1997) by Anita Diamant, historical-ish Biblical fiction

  • Atonement (2002) by Ian McEwan, literary and semi-historical fiction, WWII, England

  • Isaac’s Storm (1999) by Erik Larson, non-fiction about the 1900 Galveston hurricane

I think my relatively low reading totals this year result mostly from reading one or two books over the course of several months, namely James Allison’s The Joy of Being Wrong (which I’m still reading) and Rene Girard’s Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (also still reading).

improbablecoverI notice that I didn’t much like a lot of what I read this year. I gave high marks to few books (in chronological order) of reading:

  • I See Satan Fall Like Lightening (2001), Rene Girard — a life-changing book for me. Reviewed in the Anglican Theological Review.

  • Improbable (2004), Adam Fawer — a debut novel, an action-packed suspense novel about probability theory. I wrote a review in Feb. 2005.

  • Downhill Chance (2003), Donna Morrissey — an evocative novel with a rural, cold, often stark Newfoundland setting and a small cast of characters the reader gets to know in 450+/- pages. Reviewed in The Antigonish Review.

  • The Assault (1985) by Harry Mulisch — a fairly short but compelling historical novel about guilt, innocence, the perspective of time, redemption, choices and their consequences. Good review at The Complete Review.

  • The Man with a Load of Mischief (1981), Martha Grimes — British crime novel, introducing Richard Jury and Melrose Plant. Reviewed at Amazon. Also: The Anodyne Necklace (1983), Martha Grimes — British crime novel, third in series. Amazon reviews.

  • The Verge Practice (2004), Barry Maitland — the theme this time is architecture, with a motif of gender reversals and confusion. Interesting. Scottish/Australian Maitland is always good for a crime novel with a nonfiction feel. 7th title in the Kolla and Brock series. Review at reviewingtheevidence. (I also read Babel this year; didn’t think it was as good as most of his others.)

  • Mrs. McGinty’s Dead (1952) aka Blood Will Tell, Agatha Christie — featuring Hercule Poirot suffering through a drafty house and bad cooking as he attempts to exonerate an innocent man and in doing so unearths secrets others wish to keep hidden.

  • One Grave Too Many (2003), Beverly Connor — the first in the Diane Fallon (forensic anthropologist) series, set partly in a Georgia museum of natural history. One of her best. A couple of good reviews. I also liked the follow-up, Dead Guilty (2004), reviewed here.

  • Atonement (2002), Ian McEwan — literary fiction set in England during one day before WWII, then during WWII in the French battlefield, then in the weeks, months, and years following. Most of the book, and the part I liked best, is the one-day at home in England part. I wrote some thoughts on this book, and The Complete Review has a good review (scroll way, way down)