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.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Love in the Time of Cholera

Not the very best, vintage Marquez, but he is a writer that does not make many mistakes. Perhaps, though, this is leaning a bit towards the more facile Latin American literature of a, say, Isabel Allende.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories

Has much of the late autumn sadness that 100 years has. The end of something, the new yet to appear. But not for the colonel, of course.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: One Hundred Years of Solitude  *

The first “serious” novel that knocked me off my feet. Must have read it tree times or so? Never forget the ice cream, nor when you are older and ‘wiser’ and see the circular structure and that perhaps the revolution eats its own children, in the end? It is still a monument of literature.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The Autumn of the Patriarch

A darker, more moribund mood than in the exuberantly colourful major opus.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez: The General in His Labyrinth

A late entry in the Latin American caudillo canon. OK, but not more than that.

Peter May: The Enzo Files

The whole bunch of them. Enzo Macleod is a lovely and loveable, but flawed, character. May, however, is too good a writer to make Enzo a mere cliche. And Enzo gets older and frail. And there are wonderful descriptions of life in France which is always a plus for an old Francophile such as I. It is also a bonus that the forensic science involved is realistically described.

Alexander Mccall Smith: Espresso Tales

Cute: he does have a knack. Also skewers certain, ahem, styles of new-age parenting.

Cormac McCarthy: Blood Meridian  *

Quite possibly the single most terrifying novel I have read. Perhaps you can understand a lot about the American mind and the propensity for violence from reading it? It is, of course, utterly nihilistic and pointless what happens, but it stays with you for a long time.

Cormac McCarthy: Border Trilogy

I definitely remember reading All the Pretty Horses, but am in doubt about reading the two other tomes. I don’t think I did. I guess the writing is supposed to be a virtuosic stylistic experiment? Nevertheless, I should probably return one day and give it all another try. Or maybe not.

Ian McEwan: Black Dogs

I saw it got reasonable reviews while I found it unfocused and — in the end — not very catchy.

Patrick McGrath: Spider  *

Perhaps the most unreliably unreliable narrator like for ever? Chiling and scary, and a masterpiece of plot and of language.

Jon McGregor: Reservoir 13

This is brilliant. The stereotypical mystery: cute, blond girl disappears. Many suspects. Tension. And yet, and yet: that is not the point, at all. Wonderful.

Adrian McKinty: Sean Duffy books

I read the series so far (the first six books). It is a wonderful setup: a Catholic member of the RUC, living in a heavily Proddy neighbourhood. Trouble is bound to occur. And also a perfect setting for social commentary, as the Troubles are present in the background and occasionally take centre stage. Shameful that this series did not become McKinty’s breakthrough as it has a lot more to tell than your cosy village murder caper does.

Adrian McKinty: The Chain

Sadly — well, not really but still — this and not the Sean Duffy books became McKinty’s big break, including the ever-important American market, and the elusive movie contract. Not that it is a bad book, and it does have a really, really exciting plot and plot twists: but it does not have the atmosphere and the political background he does so well in the other books. Sadly: that is what the “market” wants. Not sadly: McKinty can now make a living off his writing.

Albert Memmi: Racism

Interesting, but I did not know enough to fully evaluate his argument at the time when I read it.

China Mieville: Bas-Lag series

I am not, normally, a fantasy or S/F person. True: I like Tolkien (or did, as a YA — which is when you should read heroic stuff like that). Never mind that: I always found life too short to get into that kind of pulp fiction. But I did read this, mainly because there was a learned discussion about it on a blog I like and frequent. Of course, while quite a few high-profile fantasy and S/F authors are fairly libertarian or reactionary, Mieville is anything but, and this is probably also what made me read through all three tomes in this epic. It is an okay read, sometimes frightening (!) and always weird, and more informed by Marxist politics than you would know – Luxemburg and Trotsky in particular.

Denise Mina: Garnethill

A very good trilogy: interesting and unusual characters (to say the least), an intriguing environment, and inventive storylines. A very nice break from the common mould of these crime stories —- but still also very Tartan Noir. Really recommended.

David Mitchell: Black Swan Green

A good and humane story about … stammering? And the travails of being a teenager.

David Mitchell: Cloud Atlas

I think my feelings about has cooled: it is a tour de force, but does it have actual depth?

David Mitchell: The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Ponderous and over-researched. Way too long for the story it tries to tell.

Elsa Morante: Arturo's Island

Quite different from the major opus, and does not scale the same heights. But then few novels do. Good on its own premises.

Elsa Morante: History  *

Up there, probably, with the best 3-4 books I have ever read. An enormous achievement.

Jan Morris: Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere

Vaguely disappointing and much too idiosyncratic.

Walter Mosley: Devil in a Blue Dress

I only read a few of the first Easy Rawlins books, but realized that perhaps I should endeavour to do some more?

Haruki Murakami: After Dark

This makes you wanna go to safe, nocturnal Tokyo so badly.

Haruki Murakami: Norwegian Wood  *

Perhaps an outlier, thematically, in the Murakami canon, but a sweet story, drenched in bottomless yearning and nostalgia.

Haruki Murakami: The Windup Bird Chronicle

More mainstream Murakami, and a classic already.

V. S. Naipaul: A Bend in the River

Say what you will about Naipaul (and he may well be a brute in his private ways): he is one contemporary writer who actually still gives a fuck about the world outside his own boudoir. A modern-day Conrad, perhaps. Here, the fear and heat and humidity and fear creep under your skin. And the pointlessness of it all.

Jo Nesbø: Harry Hole (1-8)

Sure: entertaining, and some clever and genuinely exciting plots. But making Harry Hole a physical superman (and adding all that senseless violence) gets old along the way.

Anais Nin: Delta of Venus

So racy, oh la la. I suppose that once you get over the titillation, then it could be interesting to ponder if there is a specifically female voice here?

Ben Okri: The Famished Road

Actually a very tough read, and I am not sure I ‘got it’.

Jussi Adler Olsen: Department Q (1-6)

Cute plots, but end being repetitive and slightly boring. For some reason, the characters never really grow: all are flat, none round.

Michael Ondaatje: In the Skin of a Lion  *

For my money, this is a better book than the English Patient that came after it. Perhaps because instead of a somewhat soapy romance, we here have an almost angry social realism.

Michael Ondaatje: The English Patient

I know that some people disparage Ondaatje for his flowery language. I don’t, but I also think that the prequel — In the Skin of a Lion — is the better book.

George Orwell: 1984

The original dystopian novel. Not much to say. It is just as good as people say.

George Orwell: Animal Farm

Oh, didn’t we all read this in school? Nevertheless: Comrade Napoleon never disappoints.

Richard Osman: The Man Who Died Twice

Yes, another quite cozy murder story. He sells well, and he is a gifted writer. Perhaps his straddling of the comical and the gory does not always succeed 100%?

Richard Osman: The Thursday Murder Club

Cozy tea-and-doily crime caper. But perhaps a notch up, and with a little more interesting characters? OK way to spend a rainy afternoon.

Nicholas Ostler: Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World  *

An excellent scholarly but accessible book about, eh, languages — or how language can dominate and then disappear again. It is interwoven with the social and political history of the regions where it happens.

Charles Palliser: The Quincunx

Hard and convoluted, and not sure I ‘got it’ all the way. But as meta-historical meta-Dickens quite effective. The craftmanship is unbelievable.

Louise Penny: A Fatal Grace

Sure, I read the first 6 or 7 Inspecteur Gamache books. Lots of brie and baguette consumed, and lots of cosiness. But as the series moves on, things do get darker, and Ms Penny is not afraid of letting a good person really be a baddie. But perhaps they are also too monotonous in the longer run.

Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael series

Read a couple of the early volumes. Nice change of pace, and reasonably well researched. But really more Midsummer cosy than Medievally gory.

Jan Potocki: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa  *

The whole story being this book is wild; and the yarn it spins is sublime. Hard to believer how old it really is. And how clever.

Terry Pratchett: The Colour of Magic

Well: my reading of Discworld ended after one volume. I guess life is too short?

Neil Price: The Children of Ash and Elm - A History of the Vikings

A very interesting summary of what we know (and do not know) about the Vikings. Indeed: interesting to see how queer and different they were, once you peel the Christian lens off and look at facts. And very well written.

Thomas Pynchon: Gravity's Rainbow

A book that makes Ulysses seem like a breeze. Not sure it is worth the effort, but the vision and the techniques are grand indeed.

Ian Rankin: A Song for the Dark Times  *

The beautiful thing about this — and any other instalment — of this Tartan Noir series is that the flawed hero gets older, fatter, and sicker and that the stories themselves follow the times and topics. (And this note also reflects that I have read every Goddamn tome in the series …) The best detectives do not spring into this world fully formed, they rather develop and mature and change, just like real human beings (also, think Wallander, Beck, and so forth). This one is as good as any other in this Magnum Opus of crime writing that is really social commentary only ever-so-slightly camouflaged. Also: not a whole lot of action. Rebus is just not in shape for that sort of thing.

Ian Rankin: The Rebus books  *

What can I say? The Rebus books may be “police procedurals” but in reality, they are some of the finest realistic looks at life in Scotland.

Derek Raymond: He Died with His Eyes Open

Holy-moly: talk about a depressing read. But painfully well written.

Erich Maria Remarque: All Quiet on the Western Front

Did not know at the time that this is not considered very high-brow. But it is a strong anti-war statement and an interesting enough story.

Graham Robb: The Discovery of France - A Historical Geography

Quite a conundrum. Clearly, Mr Robb has some experience with France, but it does not seem to be a loving affair. Judging from this book, France was — up until the years just before WWII — an underdeveloped swamp, populated by swarthy and barely literate midgets. It is a strange book.

Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Erasers

Read it when I was just a wee one, and although I admired it, I don’t think I grasped the finer points.

Alain Robbe-Grillet: The Voyeur

Sort of a pastiche crime story, and as such probably very influential if you care to look. A fun read (strange thing to say).

Kim Stanley Robinson: Red Mars

As I don’t normally like SF as most f the authors seem to be male, libertarian nutters. Robinson is anything but, so I gave this a shot. Know what: it is still just SF. I mean: I admire the details and the research that clearly went into this. But it is, to me, numbingly dull.

Hans Rosling: Factfulness

Torn here: Rosling states what should be obvious, and gets abused by the Right (who cherry-pick) and ostracized by the Left (who read him wrong). But it sort of gets around to not much at all.

Philip Roth: American Pastoral  *

Very inventive and so many twists and turns and general, American craziness and it is all there, and even in his dotage, Roth can write rings around most other writers — including a few Novel Prize winners.

J. K. Rowling: Harry Potter series

Of course, I read the whole series.

Juan Rulfo: Pedro Paramo

For such a small book it sure has made a big impact. Central to the whole magical realism-thing.

Salman Rushdie: Midnight's Children

An incredible, kaleidoscopic, and slightly mad story. Not just a wee bit inspired by magical realism.

J. D. Salinger: The Catcher in the Rye  *

Surely established in the canon of 20th-century litt — for very good reasons. Brillant.

Walter Scott: Ivanhoe

At least more and better calories than your standard pulp. Never a dull moment.

Hubert Selby Jr.: Last Exit to Brooklyn

Probably the bleakest and most hopeless set of stories I can remember reading. Well, maybe not: but certainly bleak and depressing. And very well written.

Robert Silverberg: The Book of Skulls

Sure, Silverberg is — it seems — a loony that used to be close to L. Ron. Neverminding that, this is a really worthwhile and slightly crazy read.

Georges Simenon: Maigret and the Headless Corpse

Because classic. And had not read for so long. Maigret is most certainly not an action hero, nor is he a hard-drinking loner with woman trouble. Quite au contraire. Welcome to a slower world, a grittier Paris, days of fog and rain, and very cheap white wine in dive bars in parts of Paris that are now flush with money and pretty things. Plus que all that changes.

Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: The Martin Beck novels

They planned to write 10, and they did. Although not really Scandi noir, hugely influential as they made politically charged crime novels very visible and successful. All are good.

Ali Smith: Autumn

I have only read this part of the quartet. It left me rather unimpressed and feeling that it is sleekly superficial. It ticks a lot of fashionable items, but there does not seem to be much emotional impact; on the other hand, it is not coldly intellectual, either. But I, at least, was not very engaged.

Martin Cruz Smith: Gorky Park

The first of a series, as it turned out, of Arkady Renko books. Well researched, believeable plots, and an atmospheric look at life behind the then curtain.

John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath

A perennial classic, and of course more for the contents than for being a path-breaking work of modernism.

John Steinbeck: The Winter of Our Discontent

I read it at a young age, and am not sure I fully understood it — other than it being somewhat pessimistic and bleak.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped

Boom: action, swords, heroes, heroines. Good yarn.

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Black Arrow

There is something about old action stories such as this being so much better on the literary level than today’s crappy majority.

Clifford Stoll: Cuckoo's Egg - Tracking a Spy Through the Maze of Computer Espionage

So long ago. Remember it as a cute real-life thriller, although Mr Stoll is a little full of himself.

Peter Straub: Ghost Story

Straub is, if anything, a professional writer. Wonder what he could do if he found the right material?

Jonathan Swift: Gulliver's Travels

Read it as a child and found it amusing. Probably did not really understand the finer points.

Jake Tapper: The Devil May Dance and The Hellfire Club

Yes, Mr. Tapper can write and he can think up interesting plots. But other than the various salacious titbits about actual, historical persons, there is a lot of unlikely action and a lot of ready-for-that-movie-or-tv-series situations. And I imagine that Tapper at some point studied James Ellroy rather closely?

Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch  *

Fantastic. If you survive the first 50 pages you are in for a major treat.

Donna Tartt: The Secret History

Exciting and wacky, but not at the level of the goldfinch.

Hervé le Tellier: The Anomaly

Perhaps not “hi-brow” as such, but beautifully inventive and has a nice surprise at the very end that puts everything in the story in a slightly different perspective. Highly recommended and very entertaining while also provoking a thought or two.

E. P. Thompson: The Making of the English Working Class  *

As history writing goes, this is path-breaking and breathtaking.

Hunter S. Thompson: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

If nothing else, very entertaining in that over-the-top way.

J R R Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings

What to say? Read as a young teenager, read again later. Sure: flawed, sentimental, maybe racist, surely conservative. Also heroic and entertaining and a damn good yarn.

J. R. R. Tolkien: The Hobbit

A fine prequel. In some ways — because it is shorter and more concentrated — at least the equal of the Rings.

Leo Tolstoy: Anna Karenina  *

It is very long, and there are a lot of characters, and in essence, it is ‘just’ a tragic love story. It is also among the finest novels ever written.

Leo Tolstoy: War and Peace  *

Probably the best novel I ever read (as in more than once). Stiff competition from the Brother, but in the end: there is little more to say. I shall read it once again soon.

John Kennedy Toole: A Confederacy of Dunces  *

One of the funniest books I ever read. Laugh-out-loud stuff (so take care where you read it. Or not.) Strangely: when I wanted to read it again some time after my first round, it seemed funny — I expect the novelty has worn off.

Leon Uris: Exodus

Why did I actually read this? I was young, so that must be my excuse.

Fred Vargas: Commissaire Adamsberg series

Eccentric detective, weird stories, and good writing.

Jules Verne: Around the World in 80 Days

Was a very riveting read for a young teenager. Wonder what I would feel today?

Gore Vidal: Hollywood

I know I am supposed to find Vidal brilliant — but he just does not do much for me.

Christopher Vogler: The Writer's Journey

So, Vogler wrote the memo that made Disney use a framework based on Joseph Campbell-s hero journey and later expanded the memo into this. For a certain form of fiction (and perhaps even other narratives) it is clearly a useful and successful framework. Whether it is universal and cross-cultural is another matter.

Tara Westover: Educated - A Memoir

I think Prez Obama recommended this? Anyways: a thrilling memoir of growing up against all odds in a family that belongs to a Mormon splinter group. Absolutely crazy things happen, and if you ever wondered where the cray in America is: look no further. Perhaps it also explains where the MAGA voters came from.

Colson Whitehead: Harlem Shuffle

Excellent. On the surface, almost a pastiche of somebody like Chester Himes, but given that Whitehead writes about the past, however recent, we must assume that he has picked out the themes of which he writes with 20/20 hindsight? Indeed, it is a sweeping social history in the guide of a crime thriller or a crime thriller in the guise of social history. And he is a marvellous writer, always.

John Williams: Stoner  *

The unexpected hit from a few years ago. I can see why it is being compared to Mme Bovary, mutatis mutandis.

Laura Wilson: The Innocent Spy & An Empty Death

Ted Stratton is the unusual detective in an English crime novel: working-class, devoted family man, smart, painfully aware of the class society in which he has been cast. And the books are well-researched (they are set during WWII) and you can almost see and smell the darkened streets and the petty and not-so-petty crimes Stratton must deal with.

Don Winslow: City On Fire

The well-written first volume in what should become a trilogy about Irish and Italian gangsters slugging it out in Providence, RI. Interesting set of characters, and good insights into mob culture and the changing legal and cultural landscape in which the gangs operate, but ultimately young Danny Ryan is too one-dimensional. Winslow does not quite pull off the trick of making Danny a crook that we harbour some sympathy for, up to a point (à la Walter White).

Tom Wolfe: The Bonfire of the Vanities

Hahaha. A firework of ideas, turns and twists, and details. Such considerable talent could be used for something way more critical of the state of late capitalism. Instead, we get funny haha anectodal episodes.

John Yorke: Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them

Of course, Mr Yorke has had success in developing scripts for the BBC, but this does not warrant his rather smug tone here, especially as his book does not offer any great or new insights.

Marguerite Yourcenar: Memoirs of Hadrian

You would think, if you are 14 and just loved Graves’ Claudius, that this was more of same. It is not. But it is a highly and deeply literary novel that is perhaps aimed at the 14-year olds.

Carlos Ruiz Zafon: Cemetery of Forgotten Books 1-4  *

Absolutely wonderful. Though it should be said that I did feel that the second volume slowed down – but the third picked up again and then some. The much later fourth volume adds a bittersweet ending — in more than one way.

Kim Zetter: Countdown to Zero Day

Detailed and fascinating walkthrough of the origins, purpose, and distribution method of the infamous Stuxnet exploit. Not too technical.