From Books

Books Read 2015


Ragtime by EL DoctorowOne list to show them all. Not another three-part monstrosity this year. Just a quick tour of the 48 books I read in 2015. One sentence apiece should be more than enough to remember them by, though there is no way I will manage to write so efficiently.

Literary stamp collecting: again this year I have indicated the books that show up on my self-compiled “Great Books of the 20th Century” lists. Placements on my  Great Novels ,  Great Sci-fi and Fantasy Novels  and  Great Crime Novels  lists, garishly color-coded, are given where applicable. My relatively rare non-fiction reads are highlighted in yellow.

Ladies and gentleman …
 —

  • 92   12  John le CarreThe Spy Who Came in from the Cold
       A great novel that transcends the genre of spy fiction; a page-turner with depth. (See also Tinker.)
  • 38  Theodore DreiserAn American Tragedy
       Meh. I didn’t like it any better than I did his Sister Carrie in 2014.
  • Ake EdwardsonSail of Stone
       Swedish noir, a weakness of mine. Eric Winter is a worthy and updated successor to Martin Beck (see any one of the links to Wimsey and Beck on this page to understand what I mean by that).
  • Time out of JointPhilip K. DickTime Out of Joint
       More weirdness from a fevered and fertile mind. Part Franz Kafka, part The Truman Show, all Philip K Dick. I know of no movie based on this book, but it might make a good one. Its publication in 1959 might have made it a candidate for an episode of The Twilight Zone. It seems made for a spooky Rod Serling summing-up. The title is from Hamlet.
  • 38  Ford Madox FordThe Good Soldier
       Intriguing and unsettling novel about some seriously dysfunctional relationships. An alternate interpretation of its meaning (centered on its unreliable narrator) makes me want to reread it more closely with that in mind.
  • Jay JacobsWild Years: The Music and Myth of Tom Waits
       Biography of a one-of-a-kind musical genius. Recommended.
  • Watership DownRichard AdamsWatership Down
       It must be 40 years since I first read this wonderful book. It was all I had remembered. More in some ways. I had forgotten about the comical and heroic gull Kehaar. Wonderful story for adults and children.
  • 69  Joseph ConradHeart of Darkness
       In the West, probably the most widely-read work of fiction set in Africa. An outsider’s view. Unsatisfying.
  • 22  Chinua AchebeThings Fall Apart
       An insider’s view of Africa, Achebe’s novel should be at least as widely-read as Conrad’s novella.
  • 62  E.L. DoctorowRagtime
       A fun novel, making liberal and playful use of historical characters of the day (first decade of the 19th century) AND a humorous-while-serious commentary on the racial tensions of the time. Coalhouse Walker’s story earns the 2015 Man Bachster Prize for fiction.
  • Leonard Mlodinow and Stephen HawkingThe Grand Design
       String theory, eleven dimensions and a “multiverse” without the need for a creator: Hawking and Mlodinow speculate beyond what current evidence can prove with a fascinating science-fictiony feel.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooRoseanna
       The first novel in the authors’ 10-volume “Story of a Crime.” A remarkable debut. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • Philip K. DickDivine Invasion
       Second of three books in Dick’s VALIS trilogy, a riff on gnostic themes. Not one of my favorite novels in his oeuvre.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Man Who Went Up In Smoke
       See Wimsey and Beck.
  • The Day of the Locust 26  Nathanael WestThe Day of the Locust
       Hollywood Babylon in the late 1930s. Fitzgerald-esque. Did Bob Dylan name is song “Day of the Locusts” after this book? Did the creators of The Simpsons name Homer Simpson after a character in this book? I don’t know the answer to either question.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Man on the Balcony
       Creepy. Compelling. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • 92  E.M. ForsterHowards End
       Solid novel. Successfully translated to the movie screen for Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
  • 36  Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Laughing Policeman
       Beck’s family life becomes central to understanding him as a character in this series. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • 61  Gunter GrassThe Tin Drum
       The first of three books about World War II read in quick succession. The three–see Sophie’s Choice and Slaughterhouse-Five below–offer unique and at times controversial perspectives on the war and, in two of three, accounts of Nazi atrocities against non-Jewish victims. This one features a physically and emotionally stunted toy drummer from Gdansk.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Fire Engine That Disappeared
       See Wimsey and Beck.
  • Sophie's Choice 62  William StyronSophie’s Choice
       Very powerful story of a Polish victim of the Nazis and the devastating choice she is forced to make. Engrossing. Moving. Emotionally, difficult to read. I hadn’t read it and I haven’t seen the movie. Somehow, I always thought its title referred to an abortion. No abortion was ever this tough.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooMurder at the Savoy
       See Wimsey and Beck.
  • Peter TateFlights of Fancy
       The subtitle, “Birds in Myth, Legend, and Superstition,” describes this book’s subject. It is laid out something like a field guide, with each chapter covering a single bird. Good idea, underwhelming execution.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Abominable Man
       If this novel did not influence Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, I have missed my guess. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five 62   10  Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five
       Vonnegut’s autobiographical account of the Allied bombing of Dresden during World War II. He was there. Presumably, Billy Pilgrim’s time travels are among the purely fictional elements in this story. Probably Vonnegut’s best-known work.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Locked Room
       See Wimsey and Beck.
  • Geza VermesThe Story of the Scrolls
       I have been fascinated by the Dead Sea Scrolls for years and during the 80s I followed Biblical Archaeology Review’s coverage of the fight to wrest control of these invaluable manuscripts from the monopolizing and glacially-slow scholars to whom they had been entrusted. Vermes is my favorite New Testament scholar and a gifted writer on the subject of ancient biblical and quasi-biblical manuscripts.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooCop Killer
       See Wimsey and Beck.
  • Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley (ed.)Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think
       Essays in praise of Richard Dawkins and in particular of his watershed book, The Selfish Gene.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per WahlooThe Terrorists
       Weakest book in the series. The international terrorist organization as portrayed is just not believable. The US Senator/Presidential candidate central to the plot seems to be a mashup of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • James AgeeA Death in the Family
       See Agee (Not That One).
  • A Walk in the WoodsBill BrysonA Walk in the Woods
       Bryson’s entertaining tale of his attempt to hike the length of the Appalachian Trail. Just a cut below his Notes from a Small Island in my view. I am looking forward to seeing the recently released Hollywood film based on this memoir. It stars Robert Redford and Nick Nolte. The hilarious Kristen Schaal (played Mel on Flight of the Conchords) appears as a crazy hiker met on the trail, which is sure to be a kick.
  • *  H.G. WellsThe Time Machine
       See H.G. Wells, Clairvoyant?.
  • 28  Robert HeinleinStranger in a Strange Land
       Human born during a mission to Mars returns to Earth, displays psychic powers, lives in a commune and founds a new religion. Sometimes interesting, sometimes tedious. Gave us the word “grok.”
  • A Bend in the River 71  V.S. NaipaulA Bend in the River
       Naipaul is a fascinating figure. A British citizen born in the Caribbean (Trinidad) of Indian parents, he had a unique perspective on colonialism: as both the colonizer and the colonized. Last year I loved his Dickensian A House for Mr Biswas. This tale, not a comic one, did not disappoint. Set near an unnamed river easily identifiable as the Congo, it once again gives us Africa from the perspective of an outsider. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness suffers in a comparison.
  • Jim ThompsonAfter Dark, My Sweet
       Crime noir from an underappreciated master of the genre.
  • Manjit KumarQuantum: Einstein and Bohr …
       Winner of the 2015 Bachster Prize for nonfiction. See The Great, Geeky Quantum Debate.
  • Dorothy L. SayersGaudy Night
       Lord Peter woos Harriet Vane in Oxford. As much a romance as a detective story. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • 100 Years of Solitude 14  Gabriel Garcia MarquezOne Hundred Years of Solitude
       A sprawling tale of six generations of the Buendía family, founders of the fictional town of Macondo, isolated near the Caribbean coast of Colombia. Matriarch Úrsula Iguarán lives to be well over 100 years old and sees the rise and fall of the town and everything in between. The novel is a landmark in the magical realism movement of which García Márquez was so influential. It is considered to be his greatest achievement. I had a difficult time enjoying his Love in the Time of Cholera (see my blog post “Gabriel García Márquez” in which I spoke ill of the then very recently deceased author). I had no such difficulty with this one and, given enough time, will read it again.
  • Philip K. DickThe Transmigration of Timothy Archer
       Dick’s last novel, published posthumously in 1982 and thematically similar to the first two volumes of his unfinished VALIS trilogy. At this point, Dick was consumed by his fascination with Gnostic scriptures and this novel reflects that interest. In my opinion it is not among his best works, though it did garner him his fifth Nebula award nomination (he never won).
  • John le CarreThe Honourable Schoolboy
       One of three le Carre spy thrillers to feature George Smiley. Less compelling than Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (see Tinker). Still very good.
  • Graham GreeneLoser Takes All
       Novella from one of my favorite writers.
  • The Drunkard's WalkLeonard MlodinowThe Drunkard’s Walk
       Humans are hardwired to recognize patterns and this makes it very difficult for us to recognize randomness even while we are immersed in it. Don’t blame Mlodinow; he does a remarkable job here of making sense of the subject for those of us who are not mathematical physicists.
  • Dorothy L. SayersBusman’s Honeymoon
       More of a romance than a detective story. Sayers finally marries her creation. See Wimsey and Beck.
  • 53  Philip RothAmerican Pastoral
       When I read Roth’s Everyman last year, I was reminded of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (here). In this novel (with thematic similarities to Everyman), Roth makes an explicit connection to Tolstoy’s story:

    “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done.” Ivan Ilych’s life, writes Tolstoy, summarizing, right at the outset, his judgment of the presiding judge with the delightful St. Petersburg house and a handsome salary of three thousand rubles a year and friends all of good social position, had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. Maybe so. Maybe in Russia in 1886. But in Old Rimrock, New Jersey, in 1995, when the Ivan Ilyches come trooping back to lunch at the clubhouse after their morning round of golf and start to crow, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” they may be a lot closer to the truth than Leo Tolstoy ever was.

    Swede Levov’s life in American Pastoral turns out to be anything but ordinary.

  • 24  Josephine TeyThe Daughter of Time
       The mystery writer employs an interesting device in order to “investigate” Richard III and the death of the princes in the Tower. She has her detective, Scotland Yard’s Alan Grant, laid up for weeks in a hospital where he is intrigued by a chance look at a portrait of the king. With research help from a graduate student, he takes a critical look at the monstrous biography of Richard passed down to us by Sir Thomas More and the Tudors.
  • 23  Richard WrightNative Son
       Undoubtedly the most sobering read of the year. See Chicago’s Native Son.
  • *  H.G. WellsThe War of the Worlds
       See H.G. Wells, Clairvoyant?.