bertramonline > readings

Art Garfunkel famously keeps track of the books he has read since 1968. As of writing this, the count is 1327 (he does not add a review). I thought I could do something similar but I am adding short reviews of books as I read them, and I rake my brain over what I read over the last decades. This is, evidently, a work-in-progress: there are 301 reviews so far. Titles marked with a * are particular favorites.

Douglas Adams: Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency

‘We solve the whole case’. Enough said.

Theodor W. Adorno: Minima Moralia: Reflections From Damaged Life  *

Melancholy and poignant, Theodor’s elegantly formulated observations are as relevant now as they were then.

Kingsley Amis: Lucky Jim

Sure, Kingsley is a miserable git, and this book shows it. But it is also quite funny, innit?

Benedict Anderson: Imagined Communities  *

Classic and a frontal attack on originalism and nationalism and tradition. Dude: we all be mixed anyway. And the past is truly a different country.

Jane Austen: Pride and Prejudice

I guess all that could ever be said has already been said many, many times.

Paul Auster: The New York Trilogy

The first Auster I read, and still books very much in his more theoretical phase, and before he starts being more conventionally entertaining. At least some of the writing is headache-inducing, but that is perhaps more a sign of how little challenge most other literature poses now?

Fredrik Backman: A Man Called Ove

Perhaps the cutest feel-good book ever? I adore it. The movie is not bad either.

Honore de Balzac: Eugenie Grandet  *

Ah, Balzac. Strange to say that an almost two hundred years old book about somewhat ordinary people can be that exiciting?

Honore de Balzac: Father Goriot  *

A very classic and central Balzac. Do not miss. Someday we can discuss if he was a realist or not (I wrote a paper once that argues — pace Adorno — that Balzac was quite a delusional and feverish fabulist).

Honore de Balzac: Lost Illusions  *

Oh dear: another Balzac for the list and for the favorites.

John Banville: Snow

Banville now writes crime fiction under his own name, not as Benjamin Black. Perhaps his earlier belief that there is a qualitative gap between real and genre literature has mellowed? In any case, this is as good a crime story as you will ever read. Very atmospheric (he does that part so well) and OMG: the Catholic church is still the boogeyman and then some.

Benjamin Barber: Jihad vs McWorld

Perhaps too dualistic and simplistic, but still a decent argument. But the world moves fast, so it is showing its gentle wrinkles here and there.

Julian Barnes: Pedant in the Kitchen

A jolly enough and rather short compilation of what I supposed started as newspaper columns, and all being around and about cookbooks. A subject dear to my heart. I applaud Mr. Barnes’ love of Marcela Hazan; but do not quite understand the reverence for Mme. David. I mean: yes, I also dipped my tooes into Frenc and Italian cooking guided by here, but here is an awful lot of “a handful of this” and “cook until done”. Not very precise, that. Sometimes you wonder if she even cooked some of the recipes first at all.

Mary Beard: SPQR- A History of Ancient Rome

I have seen Ms Berad live and she does seem a very competent, funny, and engaging historian. This book, however, is slightly disappointing: it is very hard to figure out what the main argument is supposed to be, so in the end, everything is a little hazy, a little off.

Frans G. Bengtsson: The Long Ships

Vikings! So very funny. I probably read it when I was 10? Perhaps time for a reread.

John Berendt: Midnight In The Garden Of Good And Evil

Very gossipy entertainment.

Louis De Bernieres: Captain Corelli's Mandolin

I know people are quite critical of this, but if you do not expect high literature and settle for entertainment, I see litle wrong with it.

Laurent Binet: Civilizations

Wonderfully inventive alternative history. A few alternate turns, and everything ends up different. It is a riveting read (though a slow part in the middle), but certainly worth it.

Benjamin Black: Christine Falls

John Banville’s crime-writing alter ego. Yes: interesting characters, and a grey and chilling portrait of a poorer Dublin, mired in fog and Haute Catholicism. It struck me that it would be rather good as an atmospheric TV series – and it turns out that it is, indeed (although casting the very good Gabriel Byrne as Quirke is quite funny as the Quirke in the book is a bit of a man-mountain). In the end, though, exactly what you would expect from Dublin Noir: not worse, not better.

Anthony Bourdain: Kitchen Confidential

Overwhelmingly honest tale of what it is really like to work in a restaurant kitchen. Strange to see how unorganized some aspects are, how haphazard deciding on menus is; how much coke was snorted. Anthony was a mensch and a fabulous writer and he is sorely, sorely missed.

Anthony Bourdain: Les Halles Cookbook  *

Although I rarely cook from this book, it is a testament to the great man and a New York that is probably fading away all too fast. Anthony’s New York was gritty and exciting: now the brasserie is gone as well. But he was a fabulous writer in his own way, and this cookbook has much great writing and reflection on things. And photos that perfectly catch the whole vibe. The recipes are OK, a certain style of what he says is not haute cuisine but the food of the little brasserie on the corner where they still do things the old way: you know, the place that we look for, but never quite find.

Karin Boye: Kallocain  *

Swedish dystopia written by an inside/outsider that predates Orwell and Huxley while having touchpoints with both. Why has this masterpiece not been made into a movie? On second thoughts: probably well enough that it has not been butchered.

Bill Browder: Freezing Order

A speedy read, and not much new if you have followed Mr. Browder over the years. Still: if you want to have the names of all the Western enablers of Putin and Russia, look no further. Also worth noticing: German Spiegel found it in their hearts to bombastically claim that Browder’s account of the death of Sergei Magnitsky is “faulty”, but when you look at their claim it is but a minor detail. Even stranger: this is the sort of Russian disinformation that Browder in some detail looks at in the book. Weird.

Bill Bryson: I'm a Stranger Here Myself - Notes on Returning to America After Twenty Years Away

Darker and slightly more bitter than his other back-to-America book. But trying to be polite and non-political in that very NPR way is stifling in something that could have been a dark omen of the years to come in America. It does not quite get there.

Bill Bryson: Notes from a Small Island

The first Bryson I read, and fun it is. It is absolutely one of his better efforts. The man can surely write: he does not always have subject matter that challenges him enough.

Bill Bryson: The Lost Continent - Travels in Small-Town America

The quest for the lost and forgotten America is epic: will they ever find that town hall square and the church with the spire and the white picket fence? OK, but don’t go out of your way to read it.

Bill Bryson: The Road to Little Dribbling

Magnificent title. Good observations about a country slowly being bent out of shape by cars and conservative politics and lack of public transportation and so on and so forth. But not quite: it also has funny placenames and quirky characters, and it is, in the end, still somewhat jolly. Probably not worth reading.

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita

Read it for the second time recently. Still quite clearly an early clarion call of magical realism. Wonderful imagery of Moscow in the first years after the revolution: still hope, but we can see the darkness creeping in. And an astonishing imagination.

Dino Buzzati: The Tartar Steppe

Good — and many years after reading it I became aware that it is also a central and influential book in the 20th-century canon. But what I found interesting was also that something that is “modern” and “high brow” can also be entertaining and engaging.

Italo Calvino: If On a Winter's Night a Traveller  *

Metafiction at its best. Calvino writes circles around the majority of the younger postmodernists. Very good.

Truman Capote: In Cold Blood

I found it exciting when I read it as a teenager, but thinking about it now I can see that perhaps there are a number of issues with the thing.

Peter Carey: Oscar and Lucinda  *

Carey said, interestingly enough, that when he writes a “historical” novel, he writes the story first and only then researches (and changes what then must be changed). I had not thought about that before, but have (I realize) read a few books where the author did a lot of research and (Goddammit!) it will be fitted into this book. To hell with the story! Carey is the diametrical opposite. A wonderful book.

Alejo Carpentier: Explosion in a Cathedral  *

Or, rightfully ‘The Age of Enlightenment’. A wonderful book about revolution, enlightenment, terror, love, Europe and Latin America, and much more.

Alejo Carpentier: Reasons of State

A very philosophical book – but, alas, I don’t really recall many details.

Alejo Carpentier: The Lost Steps

Exciting and exotic, Carpentier utilizes his musicological background, in a story that takes us deep into the jungle, and the past.

Caleb Carr: The Alienist

Thrilling and well-researched, and an accurate, fictional (!) portrait of New York anno dazumal.

Caleb Carr: The Angel of Darkness

More of same, but somehow less successful.

Matthew Carr: The Devils of Cardona

Well-researched historical crime fiction set in a Spain where we find the inquisition as well as secret Moslems. As good — or even better — than a lot of this sort of book, and as I did not know a whole lot about this period it was also factually interesting.

John le Carre: A Legacy of Spies

Diving deep into the past, it retells the stuff in ‘Spy Who In from the Cold’ from new angles, and we get a deeper understanding of the duplicity and cruelty of intelligence operations. It shows a by-now ancient writer at the heights of his powers.

John le Carre: Our Kind of Traitor

This solved the old question: what would le Carré do once the state that Karla worked for disappeared? Fear not: turns out that the ensuing kleptocracy gives as much material. One could only wonder what inspired the currently ongoing war in Ukraine would have given him? Meanwhile: this is yet another wonderful read.

John le Carre: Silverview

The last, alas. And, for once, perhaps not completely up to snuff? The old spies finally face a world that has lost its lustre. Perhaps le Carré did so as well? (But even a middling le Carré is much better that the output of the other 99%).

John le Carre: The Constant Gardener

Yet another from the master. But not among the very best, I think.

John le Carre: The Honourable Schoolboy

Actually, quite a while since I read it. I suppose it was OK?

Steve Cavanagh: Eddie Flynn

The series (most of). Seemed at first to be a reasonably interesting series with some new angles on the American judicial system and so forth. But in the longer run, yet another kind hearted-but-troubled attorney/detective that (and this is an irritating thing) turns out to be quite the improbable action hero? Jeez, Louise.

Miguel de Cervantes: Don Quixote

Fun story: I went to the local library to get this book when I was quite young, and the rather maternal librarienne refused to let me take it out unless I could pronounce the title correctly. So — a nice yarn it turned out to be. Some would say the first (European) novel, and that is probably also almost the case.

Michael Chabon: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay  *

Chabon is an exquisitely professional writer that actually can apply his skills to very different subjects. So this is about the Holocaust, comics, magic, FBI, McCarthyism, and it is very good.

Michael Chabon: The Yiddish Policemens Union

What kind of warped mind came up with this mad plot and such a richly detailed alternative history? Chabon is a true pro who puts his considerable skills to many different genres. Perhaps, though, less gripping than, say, Kavalier and Clay as we always know it is a sort-of fantasy. Still.

David Chang: Momofuku  *

Another cookbook that in words and photos (and food) catches a specific moment in time of a New York that we can now only mourn for as we walk past the boarded-up stores, the frozen yoghurt emporia, and the latest Gucci shop. David Chang is a fine writer in the Anthony Bourdain-school of writing, and the recipes are quite approachable and bang full of flavor.

Bruce Chatwin : The Songlines

Wonderful and mysterious and surely worth reading.

Bruce Chatwin: Utz

A strange one about a porcelain collector. Well: not strange, but good. But strange considering Chatwin’s other books.

Bruce Chatwin: What Am I Doing Here

Damn good essays. ‘Gone to Patagonia’ indeed.

G K Chesterton: The Man Who Was Thursday

Not particularly funny or good or well written.

Susanna Clarke: Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell  *

Imagination, skills, research, fantasy galore: this is one heck of a book. Perhaps it really is this the best English fantasy since Tolkien? Who am I to tell? Entertaining, but it actually does make you think, too.

Susanna Clarke: Piranesi  *

As the follow-up to her major breakthrough with Norrell and Strange, this book was not only very long in the making: it is also utterly, utterly different. Perhaps even different from most other books you have read? You only slowly realize what it is even all about, and then something makes you change that perception. As intellectual endeavour and novel writing, this is very, very highly ranked and recommended.

Jonathan Coe: Rotters' Club, The Closed Circle, Middle England

A broad sweep of English history of the last few decades, as seen through the prism of a small, and a somewhat oddball group of friends. Coe is an excellent writer and juggles between the comical and the deadly serious. But the books do lose steam along the way, and the characters are, in the end, not that captivating.

J M Coetzee: Age of Iron

“Previously insulated from racial hatred, Mrs Cullen starts to realize that her neat little white world doesn’t match the reality of police brutality against black people.” One of Coetzee’s best books, and an especially forbidding and hard read. “Children of iron, I thought. Florence herself, too, not unlike iron.”

J M Coetzee: In the Heart of the Country

A very early Coetzee, and quite different. If this was the first of his books you picked, you might not go any further.

J M Coetzee: Life & times of Michael K.

An eerie and wonderful book, taking s through the world as experienced by an innocent and slow person. Things happen to Michael that he does not understand why happen, and yet he pushes on and perhaps finally gains freedom?

J M Coetzee: Life and Times of Michael K

More than wonderful in so many ways. It manages to show the horror of racism and Apartheid but also to departicularize it so we are not off the hook just because we are here and not there.

J M Coetzee: Waiting for the Barbarians

Confusing that the plot is more-or-less the same, in general terms, as in Dino Buzzati's The Tartar Steppe. But only so much that if you read Buzzati, you vaguely make the connection. Not that it matters. This is a more mature, still subtle, but immensely powerful Coetzee, who, as ever, talks about the politics of this world without talking about the politics of this world.

Leonard Cohen: Beautiful Losers

Actually, as time has gone by, this seems to be a highly regarded novel. Perhaps I should read it again? I guess I expected something else back then: something more like the romantic singer’s songs.

Leonard Cohen: Favourite Game

Vaguely remember this. Artists, starving, sex, and so on, I think.

Wilkie Collins: The Moonstone

Wonderfully entertaning Gothic crime caper.

Wilkie Collins: The Woman in White

Also wonderfully entertaining Gothic crime caper.

Michael Connelly: Harry Bosch, the series

Yes: I guess I read the whole lot (and saw the TV series — which, as it happens, diverge in subtle ways). While on one side, Harry Bosch is the quintessential troubled detective, he has many other layers and is in no way as one-dimensional as some of the brethren. Well-made plots, gritty streets, and jazz.

John Connolly: Charlie Parker series

One of the more “literary“crime writers, and this is a very long series of which I have but read the first few. Mixes a noir thriller with the paranormal, and does create visions that are actually very scary — but as the books progress, it also becomes clear that the underlying (and somewhat monotonous) theme is Catholic guilt.

Joseph Conrad: Lord Jim

Yes, an adequate book, but besides Nostromo, I have never really been able to figure out why Conrad is held in such high esteem.

Joseph Conrad: Nostromo  *

Wonderful and multifaceted book about revolutions and capitalism and unlikely heroes and the Latin American reality. And a very thrilling read, and entertaining while still “literature”.

Joseph Conrad: The Secret Agent

Funny enough (and better than Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday), but let us be clear: this is not peak Conrad.

James Fenimore Cooper: Deerslayer

At the very least got me interested in finding out more out the actual wild indians.

James Fenimore Cooper: The Last of the Mohicans

Wonderful. Said 10-year-old Henning.

Patricia Cornwell: Scarpetta

The Scarpetta books (I have read a few) are nice (1) because they have a female protagonist, (2) the forensic details are exact, (3) there is no three?. In fact, they are pretty boring in the long run.

Jim Crace: Arcadia  *

Jim Crace is one of my favourite authors, and this is a major opus. He may be “old-fashioned” as much as he is certainly not a post-modernist but firmly rooted in the grand historical tradition of narratology. Tant pis if he did not get the meme about the end of the grand narrative: every book of his, one way or the other, proves that narrative, grand or petit, is very much alive and doing very well indeed. That his politics are close to mine is just another bonus. The subject of this book is, in its own way, the original accumulation, the rise of capitalism, the temporal and physical divide between rural production and late capitalism, and on and on. But it is, first of all, a very good story, and in no way a political pamphlet.

Jim Crace: Being Dead

Death, bereavement, afterlife (but not religious). A late work in the Crace canon, and a more introverted voice. As always: recommended, highly.

Jim Crace: Continent

His debut. In his own words: “a novel in stories about an invented continent struggling with the dislocations of progress”. Also: one of those books a budding writer would read and then say “Why did I not think of that?” And also: yet another book where Crace manages to say something historically and politically in an artistic way with zero preaching.

Jim Crace: Signals of Distress

Crace never lets you down, even if — as it seems to me to be the case with this one — the inspiration was not at peak level here.

Jim Crace: The Gift of Stones  *

Yet again: Crace uses a precise historical moment —- the end of the Neolithic —- to weave a tale around social upheaval and change. He said himself that it could be a metaphor for Blighty under the rule of That Woman. But that is not even important to know for reading the book.

John Crowley: Little, Big

A big favorite of Harold Bloom’s, surprisingly. I am torn, but will perhaps give it another try, one fine day.

J. M. Dalgliesh: Dark Yorkshire

I have read #1, The Divided House and #2, Blacklight, so far. Pure Yorkshire noir, with all the bells and whistles: a tired, jaded detective with drink & woman trouble; heart of gold, though; solves the crime. But the environment is interesting, there are twists and turns, and an OK way to spend a few rainy afternoons. Now: is there any dark and rainy place left that does not have its own Noir subgenre?

Will Dean: A Tuva Moodyson Mystery

Three of them: Dark Pines; Red Snow; Black River. So, an Englishman sets stories about a deaf, queer journalist in a Swedish smalltown in the middle of exactly nowhere, with pitch-black nights and icy cold winters and a cavalcade of sinister and nefarious criminals? Know what: it works.

Will Dean: Bad Apples

Strangely disapponting after the first three that I found excellent. For one thing: so many red herrings thar are just abandoned (if you show a gun in the first act …) And so many pages describing a tense situation that is quite similar to one in a previous instalment. And ending on a cliffhanger, almost like your typical TV series episode: stay tuned? Is the missing second half of this story coming out soon, perhaps?

Daniel Defoe: The Life and Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe

A good story, but so much more. Really: this touches upon so many aspects of the genesis of capitalism, et cetera, that perhaps the fact that it is a good story is lost?

Don DeLillo: Underworld

The shot heard around the world… Yes, very American and very basebally. As a non-American I am sure I miss something and do not fully grasp all the cultural references. But writing this — and looking it up on Wikipedia — it occurs to me that maybe I should read it again?

Michael Dibdin: Ratking

The first of the Inspector Zen series, but the only one I have read (perhaps so far). Aurelio Zen is an interesting and well-formed character, and the book is (as good crime stories tend to be) a chilling portrait of an Italy riddled with organized crime.

Michael Dibdin: Ratking

The first of a series. Aurelio Zen is a different kind of detective and all-around Italian mother’s boy. The plot is spicy and exciting, and perhaps I should seek out some of the following volumes?

Charles Dickens: A Tale of Two Cities

Swaahbucklingly good yarn, and quite an outlier in the oeuvre. This could have been, say, from the pen of Walter Scott, could it not? Or is it, gosh, a kissing cousin of the Red Pimpernel? Still. A nice light entertainment.

Charles Dickens: Bleak House  *

Bleak, indeed. Not exactly your cosy Pickwick-Dickens. Convoluted and almost impossible to fully get a grip on — but that does not matter, after all: the essence is the dystopian and dismal world it paints a grey picture of. Not so Jolly England. And, also, one could and would argue that it is a precursor of the postmodern novel (calling Thomas Pynchon). Mutatis mutandis, of course.

Charles Dickens: David Copperfield  *

Dickens somewhere between the comedic and the serious: and therefore exactly in the perfect spot.

Charles Dickens: Great Expectations  *

A favorite among the many Dickensian faves.

E L Doctorow: Billy Bathgate

Doctorow sure does take a lot of flack, but I remember rather liking this historical-factual yarn. But perhaps there is some truth to the observation that he tends to use his literary skills as cover for stories that are, essentially, banal and sentimental?

E L Doctorow: Loon Lake

The Kirkus Review said: ““Imagine a fair-to-good novel by Kurt Vonnegut in his more socio-economic, Mr. Rosewater-ish vein. Then imagine that it’s been scrambled, weighed down with self-conscious prose, and avant-garded up (Joycean) run-ons, blank verse, skewed tenses and pronouns) by someone intent on making a literary impression. That, unfortunately, is the general effect of this artful but lifeless picaresque novel – which follows the crossing 1936 paths of a very young vagabond and a somewhat older failed-poet, both of whom love a tormented beauty and both of whom wind up under the wing of a great tycoon.” Seems about right.

E L Doctorow: Loon Lake

I found it confusing, but readable. Now I realize that Doctorow is not as highly regarded as I thought (or as he once was) and that book, in particular, is being held in contempt. Prob not worth the effort.

E L Doctorow: The Waterworks

If you have to mix history and fiction, this is a valid way to do it. While picturing a squalid and corrupt New York (no nostalgia here), and adding a feverishly mad medical plot, Doctorow creates a very readable story.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: Crime and Punishment  *

One of those books that could change your life when you read it. At least your literary life.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Brothers Karamazov  *

Don’t know: only read it twice. Still growing on me.

Fyodor Dostoevsky: The Idiot

Yet another massive missive from the depth of the Russian darkness.

Arthur Conan Doyle: The Adventures and Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes

Classic, entertaining, and actually well written.

Andre Dubus III: House of Sand and Fog

So, so much better than the movie version.

Alexandre Dumas: The Count of Monte Cristo

Ah, yes. More adventures and hi jinx, and so much more intelligent than most of what is published in this genre these days.

Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers

Yay: action, dangerous ladies, swashbuckling camaraderie, horses … what is not to like? Seriously: the majority of present-day action thriller writers could learn a lot here. A lot.