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.


Lawrence Durrell: The Alexandria Quartet

Pretentious, moi? But if you forgot the pseudo-intellectual framework around this, it is actually not a bad story and an interesting glimpse of a still-Hellenistic world that is now utterly gone.

Umberto Eco: Foucault's Pendulum

Overwrought? Not as good as the Name of the Rose.

Barbara Ehrenreich: Nickel and Dimed - On (Not) Getting By in America  *

She walks the walk: living on minimum wage for a year with no backup or cheats. It paints a depressing portrait of a supposedly wealthy country that just does not give an f*** about anybody or anything.

Bret Easton Ellis: American Psycho

Yo. I always thought it was mostly about a very unreliable narrator, a clear narcissist and perhaps more, and the murder scenes (and the very graphic sex) were fantasies of his? To the degree that it is also a story about the excesses of Wall Street and such, it does make points but does not throw any punches because it is set in a social and mental and political vacuum.

James Ellroy: The first LA quartet  *

Sure, Elllroy is a big dick-swinging loony and so — but he is also a very good writer when it suits him. This major work is, on the surface, a crime story but in reality more like that great American contemporary novel that everybody else either wants to write or says can no longer be written. Ellroy does not care: he wrote it.

J. G. Farrell: The Empire Trilogy  *

As historical (well: recent history) fiction goes, this is fantastic. The three novels share themes and most of all share a healthy scepticism about the British empire.

Elena Ferrante: The Neapolitan Novels

Oh, dear. I must confess: I only finished the first volume. I don’t know why it does not grip as it is supposed to as it really should have a lot going for it. Perhaps this is that rare instance where I should give the TV adaptation a try?

Mark Fisher: Capitalist Realism  *

A remarkable book from a remarkable person. A political manifesto and melancholy gaze at our predicament.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Beautiful and Damned

Although he is often thought to be a one-trick pony, I do find that a lot of the lesser-regarded works are quite beautiful and sad.

F. Scott Fitzgerald: The Great Gatsby  *

Always been in awe of the writing, the sadness, the ennui, of how FSF caught the zeit geist.

Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary  *

Why a story about a neurotic woman stuck in the sticks still fascinates is hard to explain in but a few words. But there it is: as hypnotic now as it was then.

Frederick Forsyth: The Day of the Jackal

Well. Fast-moving, violence, sex.

John Fowles: Daniel Martin

Disappointing. I know Fowles likes to try his hand at different genres, but this one is not really engaging.

John Fowles: The Ebony Tower

Carefully crafted and interrelated stories. A pity that few of the characters are somebody you would actually want to hang out with.

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant's Woman

The perennially postmodern metafiction. Or something. Probably overrated.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods

I don’t really like comics and sci.fi or fantasy. I like this one, though. A strange and weird story, but ends up being quite gripping, even with the slightly off-kilter and not realistic ensemble of characters.

Neil Gaiman: American Gods  *

A very wonderful and highly inventive book. The basic idea is excellent, and the execution pitch-perfect.

Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere

Wonderful thought experiment: what an angel actually does live under the Angel tube station. And so on and so forth. Very entertaining, and also worth noting that the idea of a parallel world in our midst is predating Harry Potter and Susanna Clarke.

William Golding: Lord of the Flies

Junior high reading. But the crux of the matter is that the book is way too pessimistic: the few real-life instances of a similar situation have shown that we are actually not atavistic sadists but rather kind and altruistic.

William Goldman: Marathon Man

Ok: but in this case, the movie is probably better.

Sue Grafton: A is for Alibi

Guilty as charged: I read a few of the Milhone alphabeticals. Airport lit if there ever was. Not really written for posterity (although casting a woman as a hardboiled detective is, of course, refreshing. But hardly original.)

Günter Grass: Cat and Mouse

I read it when I was too young to understand it: it seemed to be a plain story about some kids diving — but it is probably a lot more. Perhaps time for a reread?

Günter Grass: The Flounder

Wonderful magic realism.

Günter Grass: The Tin Drum  *

Hard to decide which Grass is the better — but I dare say it is probably this. Who can ever forget the wee Oskar?

Graham Greene: Brighton Rock

Greene’s books are all different I guess, and this early one is also one of the first I read. Lots of Catholic guilt and glimpses of a now very distant England.

Graham Greene: Our Man In Havana

Versatile scribe does a comedic spy thriller. It is, actually, entertaining.

Graham Greene: The Quiet American

You would think that a 1950s novel about American policy in South East Asia is dated — and you would be wrong. Uncannily precise about the failed and failing politics the USofA has pursued in the region, always tone-deaf to the hilt.

John Grisham: The Firm

Quick and entertaining but skin deep.

H. Rider Haggard: King Solomon's Mines

Exciting if you are 10; has a funny racist and/or imperialist smell later. Kipling, at least, is a better writer, if you must.

Dashiell Hammett: The Maltese Falcon

Stylistically, Hammett is a master and much more than pulp fiction, hard-boiled hack. Like Simenon, he is a bleakly modernistic writer if you care to look closely.

Knut Hamsun : Hunger  *

Hamsun’s major work, as far as I am concerned. A feverish look at the life of a struggling artist.

Robert Harris: Archangel

Harris does historical fiction, and then also alternative history. This is a what-if: what if Stalin had a son that was sequestered away? And what if sinister forces want him foisted upon the world? Now that I consider it again: perhaps it is not as far-fetched as it seemed to be when it was first published?

Robert Harris: Fatherland

Marvellously well done alternate history,

Paula Hawkins: A Slow Fire Burning

Darker and more convoluted than the train girl, and a tour de force of a number of unreliable narrators, protagonists, and witnesses. Let’s us look into a dark and seedy London, where very little is exactly what it seems.

Paula Hawkins: The Girl on the Train

Perhaps even the title is a cliche now, but the book was actually interesting enough as a crime novel and a quick read. Actually, it is a notch up from your bog standard cozy crime stories.

Joseph Heller: Catch-22  *

Should be required reading. So powerful.

Joseph Heller: Closing Time

A less slapstick and a more despairing sequel to Catch-22. So now we finally know what happened to Milo etc.

Joseph Heller: Something Happened

A chilling view of the emptiness of corporate life.

Mark Helprin: Winter's Tale  *

Little did I know when I first read this that I am not supposed to like Mark Helprin: he was, after all, a speech writer for Reagan ad is also very, very pro-Israel. Not things that get you a lot of cred with the popular crowd, and add to the fact that it seems to me that his output is quite uneven. Nevertheless, nevertheless: this book is a triumph of magical realism (yes!) and a deep love for New York. Approved.

Mark Helprin: Winter's Tale

I know that Helprin is politically tainted beyond repair and should be held at a very long arm’s length — it does not change the fact that this is a major New York-novel, heavily influenced by magical realism. And very good.

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell To Arms

Like The Bells, a romantic war story, written by a still young person. The optimism, even under the circumstances, is adorable.

Ernest Hemingway: A Moveable Feast  *

A lifelong fascination of mine with Paree possibly started with reading this. Although this Paris is long, long gone.

Ernest Hemingway: For Whom The Bell Tolls

If you read it at a certain age, there is so much romance. Perhaps too much if you read it later — and too little about the canvas where it all unfolds.

Ernest Hemingway: The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories

Papa doing what he does.

Ernest Hemingway: The Sun Also Rises  *

I guess, then, that this is the Hemingway you grow up to appreciate. Oh, the ennui, the hidden wound. The world has lost its color.

Mick Herron: Bad Actors

Of course, there is a lot of loud farting involved when Jackson Lamb and his motley crew of slow horses show up. Nevertheless, as always a fantastic read and an interesting plot – and you are left with the feeling that Mr. Herron has quite a dislike for Mssrs. Cummings and Johnson, no?

Mick Herron: Slough House

What is not to love about a farting, vulgar spy master partly in disgrace and surrounded by a number of misfits and fiascos? And make it dark comedy, please? This is very entertaining and certainly worth it, and now also a TV series, it seems.

Carl Hiaasen: Squeeze Me

Standard Hiaasen: funny, odd, Florida. And it is about Trump and his ardent, elderly supporters (Pussies for POTUS). And it is a fun, quick read on a lazy summer day when you happen to be housebound with a sore back (and a G&T at the ready). The ultimate fast food of crime stories. Not that that is a bad thing: we can all use some fast food occasionally.

Oscar Hijuelos: The Mambo Kings

Sex, mambo, sex, booze, sex. And so on.

Tony Hillerman: Leaphorn-Chee series

Actually a great series: unusual setting, nice, interesting detectives that we care about, not dependent on gratuitous violence for plot.

Chester Himes: A Rage in Harlem

The exploits of Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones are wildly entertaining, and the portrait of New York from a black POV is relevant and refreshing.

Homer: The Iliad

Dragged us through this in high school. Am eternally grateful, though.

Homer: The Odyssey

Dragged us through this in high school. Am eternally grateful, though.

Aldous Huxley: Brave New World

Of course. That and 1984 were hard to avoid back in high school.

Florian Illies: 1913

Sounds all so promising, but in the end, it is just a collection of factoids that are never really put together in any meaningful way.

Arnaldur Indridason: Reykjavik Murder Mystery

Also known as the Detective Erlendur series. I read them all (there are more available in Danish than in English). Said detective is about as far from you modern action man as can be, but he is a thoughtful but very lonely person, alienated from his more-or-less dysfunctional family. Iceland Noir indeed: a bleak, dark, and cold landscape, full of strange and perhaps supernatural beings, and an overarching theme of reconciling the distant past and your own impending death. For what little that actually happens, strangely fascinating, perhaps because the writing is so very good.

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

Kazuo –
I guess we all saw the movie, but the book is also quietly fascinating.

Roy Jacobsen: The Unseen

Norwegian trilogy (De usynlige, Hvitt hav, Rigels øyne), read in Danish (and apparently only volume one in English so far). Not a lot happens, except that everything happens. Set on a small, wind-swept and poor island off the coast of Nothern Norway in the years before, under, and after WWII. A society almost outside the modern world, and — interestingly — inhabited by strong and strong-willed women as the men tend to disappear and die on the ocean. Wonderful, and I was reminded of this from Hugh MacDiarmid’s poem ‘Island Funeral’: “While this thing lasted / It was pure and very strong.” A poem that is also about a seemingly uneventful life on a remote island, but a life that has a deeper meaning than we can easily understand today.

C L R James: The Black Jacobins  *

Opened my eyes to C L R James and the fact that you can be a sports fan and a revolutionary at the same time. And a well-written monograph about a both uplifting and shameful episode in Caribean as well as European history.

Henry James: Portrait of a Lady

Slow going. Some books, perhaps, do not age well? Or perhaps I am an insensitive brute.

P. D. James: Devices and Desires

Classic Dalgliesh. Slow, literary, polite, and all mind games.

P. D. James: The Children of Men

If you only know P. D. James as the creator of Adam Dalgliesh, this is certain to surprise you. A dystopian fantasy that is chillingly realistic.

Jerome K. Jerome: Three Men in a Boat

Hahaha. Wonderful.

James Joyce: A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Dear me: as a realist or naturalist, Mr Joyce shows a remarkable technique.

James Joyce: Ulysses

A monument, and quite funny (if you allow it to be). But for some reason, I could never really warm to it.

Franz Kafka: The Castle  *

Feverishly nightmarish and claustrophobic and a shot across the bow for 20th century litt.

Franz Kafka: The Trial

Of course, it is fabulous — but for me, personally, I find The Castle a notch better.

Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives

It was very exciting when I read it at age, oh…: 9?

Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll  *

I wrote a longer review of this, but, briefly, this (and perhaps also Wolf Hall) are what any historical fiction should strive to be.

Lars Kepler: The Hypnotist

Initially, I was positive, but the violence is just too exaggerated.

Jack Kerouac: Desolation Angels

Wild and romantic, but it seems to me as if Kerouac’s star is fading with each year that goes by.

Jack Kerouac: On the Road  *

Thorn about this: yes, reading it at a young age is certainly inspiring and such. In the long run and as literature alone: well… Still, for that first impression, it gets to be a favorite.

Philip Kerr: Bernard Gunther, the series

As historical fiction goes, splendid. Kerr obviously researched a bit. The early parts, the ones I have read, show more insight into the Third Reich than many other more ‘historical’ histories.

Stephen King: Billy Summers

Yay. King with a straight-up, non-paranormal thriller. And it is not a chilling portrait of an America that has lost its way completely? Say what you will about King — and I don’t like many, or even most, of his books — he is a mercurially gifted writer and storyteller and moral voice.

Stephen King: It

Yikes. Never have been able to look at clowns quite the same way again.

Rudyard Kipling: Kim

I think that when I was very young and innocent, I read this twice or so and found it to be probably the most exciting story I ever read! Of course, I later learned that Kipling was a very naughty imperialist and should be avoided at all cost, and I should probably somehow rinse myself of this experience. Still, though: it remains a fabulous yarn, give or take.

Heinrich von Kleist: Michael Kohlhaas

Oh, dear. He brought down the whole state, did he not?

Johannes Krause: A Short History of Humanity

A nice and not too technical walkthrough of recent progress in using DNA in archaeology and anthropology and thus widening our idea of where we came from significantly. Well written, and with a lot of humour that the stereotype says Germans do not have? Makes you wonder what Mr Krause’s DNA shows and whether he is really German?

Hari Kunzru: Red Pill

I wrote a longer review of this somewhere else here: in short, not overwhelmed.

Hanif Kureishi: The Buddha of Suburbia

Yes: funny, frothy entertainment. Kureishi has done much better.

Jens Lapidus: Stockholm Noir

Nah: much flash and violence; not enough meat.

Stieg Larsson: The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest; The Girl Who Played With Fire; The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

Well done, well researched, intereresting characters – but they are just a tad too black-and-white. The plots are something else, though.

D. H. Lawrence: Lady Chatterley's Lover

Haha: found out when I was a young ‘un that my parents has this, but that it was somewhat hidden on the shelf. What a disappointment to find out that the much-talked-about sex scenes are quite unexciting and not very graphical.

Halldor Laxness: Iceland's Bell  *

If you have to write “historical fiction”, do it as Halldor did. Does not get much better than this.

Ursula Le Guin: Earthsea 1-3

Probably YA, but enough depth to be read at all ages.

Ursula Le Guin: The Dispossessed

A scifi that even I can accept — perhaps also because Le Guin is that rare beast: a leftist scifi, and not a libertarian nutter.

Elmore Leonard: Get Shorty

Funny, smart, fast. Elmore can always make a rainy afternoon over before you know it.

Elmore Leonard: Get Shorty

As always: hi jinx and hilariousness and fast moves. Not bad at all.

Elmore Leonard: LaBrava

Fast moving, fun. As always,

Jonathan Lethem: Fortress of Solitude  *

Some of Lethem’s oeuvre is cartoonish for my taste, but this strikes a perfect balance of the fantastical, the historical, the sociological, and much else. And a story of a deep and enduring friendship.

David Lodge: The Campus Trilogy

Yes, the campus trilogy. Very funny, and early stabs at the woke fellow-travellers, you might say.

Alexander MacCall Smith: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series (the first 8-9)

So cute, So very cute.

Alistair MacLean: Guns of Navarone

Sure. Don’t judge: I was young. He can spin a story and create a plot, though.

Alistair MacLean: Where Eagles Dare

Sure. Don’t judge: I was young. He can spin a story and create a plot, though.

Hector Malot: Sans famille

I was howling when I read this at 10 or so.

Henning Mankell: The Wallander series  *

Hard not to see this as a magnum opus in Scandi litt – and not just crime stories. The most beautiful thing is that Wallanders grows and ages and changes his views. As people do, but fictional characters do not always.

Thomas Mann: Buddenbrooks

Essential reading. Especially here in the North.

Thomas Mann: Thomas Mann

Oh, so elegiac and beautiful. And almost as deep as the beauty of a Swedish teen. Nevermind.

Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall trilogy  *

Indeed worthy multiple prize winners. Historical fiction and probably quite well researched —- but Ms Mantel’s genius stroke is to make those centuries-old characters alive and modern without betraying their remoteness and the fact that lived in a much more savage time. Amazing it is that you haste through the story to see where it is going when you do know exactly where that is the whole time.

David Mark: DS Aector McAvoy

I read some of the series. Interesting characters: the Highland detective hooks up with the sexy Gipsy girl. Reasonable plots and twists, and thankfully free of some of the worn-out cliches that the genre encourages. So: somewhat recommended, but not exactly essential reading.