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 409 reviews so far. Titles marked with a * are particular favorites.

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.

Toni Morrison: Song of Solomon

Dizzying magic realism with important themes throughout, and well worth a read. Perhaps, for me, even a reread as I was quite young, perhaps too young when I first read it.

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.

Henry Nielsen, Hans Siggaard Jensen, Keld Nielsen: Skruen Uden Ende

For being a ‘story of Western technology’, actually (1) good on images, (2) good on short articles but (3) bad on a larger narrative. What is the ultimate purpose of putting a considerable output into this book, and then having this outcome?

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?

Henrik Nordbrandt: Egne Digte

Middle-bro Danish poet, very popular. Accessible and has his hearft inthe right place. As for the poems: I am not totally -whelmed in either direction, but there are gems. And a lot of fluff.

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.

Sarah Perry: The Essex Serpent

Like: wow. What a debut. Gothic, spooky, Freudian (a serpent, hint-hint), and atmospheric.

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.

Robert M. Pirsig: Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

It is something you typically read as a teenager or YA and do not really understand. Now I am not sure what there is to understand? But, hey: Pirsig and this protagonist are technical writers!

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: Discworld

I tried. I guess I will never be a fan (read the first 2-3 volumes).

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.

Thomas Pynchon: Vineland

When Pynchon wants to be less esoteric, we get something like this. Sure, it is good, and if by any other writer it would be highly rated. But it being a Pynchon, we would expect a bit more.

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.

Erich Maria Remarque: Arch of Triumph

So very sad and romantic. Also: makes you want to drink a lot of calvados.

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.

Philip Roth: Goodbye, Columbus

Great fun, and a view into the neuroses of middle-class American-Jewish living that I would not have otherwise.

Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint

“a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor,”. Who can get forget that piece of liver???

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.

Ole Sarvig: Den Sene Dag  *

The elder statesman of Danish 20th century poetry. I don’t care much for the increasing level of religion that pops up across this career, but as a modern poet, he has few equals in Danish.

Benito Scocozza: Feudalismen

My old lecturer at uni. A book about ‘feudalism’ from an awovedly Marxist-Leninist pont-of-view. What that that phrase again: ‘The poverty of theory’. There is little discernible theory here, and no engagement with the whole debate around feudalism, so, actually, a piss-poor book. But he was a nice chap.

Walter Scott: Ivanhoe

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

W. G. Sebald: The Rings of Saturn  *

Very different from most other books you will read. Actually: hard to pinpoint exactly what it is about. But beautifully written, and you may want to read Thomas Browne and take a long walk.

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.

Henryk Sienkiewicz: Quo Vadis

Yadda, yadda. I was young and can be excused.

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: Of Mice and Men

Required in junior high. But OK, and appeals to sensitive teenagers.

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.

Neal Stephenson: Snow Crash

Although I am not at all into this genre, this story does have some merit to it; and the writing is exquisite: you most of all feel like you are being hurtled through a dark corridor, not knowing where you are heading, and why. And this is a good thing.

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.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Treasure Island

Was so wonderfully entertaining and slightly scary when I was but a wee one.

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?

Peter Straub: Mystery

He is a good writer, but eternally in search of material that would flatter his talents.

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.

Paul Theroux: The Mosquito Coast

I remember it as being entertaining — but not Earth-shattering. Theroux is certainly an accomplished writer, but sometimes you might wonder why he is writing?

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.

Rupert Thomson: Air and Fire

Set in the blazing heat of Baja, a complex story about engineering, and love, and trust, and such.

Rupert Thomson: Dreams of Leaving

A remarkable alternate story: slow-burning, but as you realize what is going on, it gets quite creepy.

Rupert Thomson: The Five Gates of Hell  *

In my mind, Thomson is vastly underestimated. While he is a magnificent wordsmith, he also tackles deep and troubling issues. As in this American dystopian necropolis.

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob  *

Enormous, erudite, and intriguing. You will want to walk the streets of Smyrna in the evening in the summer heat and drink the strong wine and hear Jakob talk and talk and talk. Time moves slowly, very slowly, and then accelerates. This Polish-Jewish-Catholic-German-Whatever world is ever expanding and full of promise, and death, but Yente is probably still around. My advice? Read it, and see for yourself.

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.

Scott Turow: Presumed Innocent

The first in a now seemingly endless series of well-done legal thrillers. No better nor worse than anything else in this genre.

Leon Uris: Exodus

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

Erik Valeur: Det Syvende Barn

Very long, very professional thriller with a twisted plot and speedy writing. But very long, as I said, and not something that has not been done a million times before.

Jonathan Valin: Harry Stoner series

For some obscure reason, I read a couple of these. Very, very dated; and speckled with obscure right-wing outbursts.

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.

Jacques Werup: Tiden i Malmø

Well-known Swedish musician and poet. There are good things here.

Kjell Westö: Tritonus

We follow famous conductor Thomas Brander as he struggles with ageing, his #MeToo-past catching up, living alone, his fraught relationships with neighbours and offspring, and so on. Wonderful to read a novel that takes classical music seriously, and for that alone, I would recommend it. On the other hand: Brander is not exactly that interesting so there is that.

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.

Gerald S. Hawkins, John B. White: Stonehenge Decoded

Read it many years ago when I was a teenager interested in these things — so my father got it for me. I vaguely remember it being eye-opening as it was the first adult non-fiction I read.

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.