Tag: #independentbookstores

#5 The Marvelous Dr. Sacks

#5 The Marvelous Dr. Sacks

In Which I Meet (Sort Of) Dr. Oliver Sacks

I had the great good fortune to hear Dr. Sacks speak in the mid-eighties, at a now long-gone Borders Bookstore in Atlanta. He was on tour for “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”. As captivated as I was by the book, I was doubly charmed by his mellifluous speaking style and his obvious compassion and care for his patients. I knew at once that he would be an author I would want to read more of. As I have said of Dr. Sacks many times “he writes prose like poetry”.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat

This book is a splendid start for those who are discovering Oliver Sacks for the first time:

“Here Dr. Sacks recounts the case histories of patients lost in the bizarre, apparently inescapable world of neurological disorders: people afflicted with fantastic perceptual and intellectual aberrations; patients who have lost their memories and with them the greater part of their pasts; who are no longer able to recognize people and common objects; who are stricken with violent tics and grimaces or who shout involuntary obscenities; whose limbs have become alien… If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks’s splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired, to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do.”


One of Dr. Sacks’ Independent Bookstore Favorites:
In Greenwich Village, NY?
Check out Three Lives & Company
Visit Three Lives Online

About Three Lives: One of the greatest bookstores on the face of the Earth. Every single person who works there is incredibly knowledgeable and well read and full of soul.

Michael Cunningham, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for “The Hours”

Autobiography: Uncle Tungsten

If memory recalls, (and unfortunately it DOES) I got a “D” in chemistry in high school. Although “Uncle Tungsten” contains a great deal about chemistry due to his childhood fascination with the subject, he writes about it so clearly and passionately that not only did I understand his love of it, but I was able to grasp concepts that had bewildered me before.

The “Uncle Tungsten” of the book’s title is Sacks’ Uncle Dave, who manufactured light bulbs with filaments of fine tungsten wire, and who first initiated Sacks into the mysteries of metals. The author describes his four tortuous years at boarding school during the war, where he was sent to escape the London bombings, and his profound inquisitiveness cultivated by living in a household steeped in learning, religion and politics. But as Sacks writes, the family influence extended well beyond the home, to include the groundbreaking chemists and physicists whom he describes as “honorary ancestors, people to whom, in fantasy, I had a sort of connection.”

“I had intended, towards the end of 1997, to write a book on aging, but then found myself flying in the opposite direction, thinking of youth, and my own partly war-dominated, partly chemistry-dominated youth, in particular, and the enormous scientific family I had grown up in. No book has caused me more pain, or given me more fun, than writing Uncle T.–or, finally, such a sense of coming-to-terms with life, and reconciliation and catharsis.”

Oliver Sacks on Uncle Tungsten

A Personal Connection: A Leg to Stand On

In this book, it is Dr. Sacks himself who is the patient: an encounter with a bull on a desolate mountain in Norway has left him with a severely damaged leg. But what should be a routine recuperation is actually the beginning of a strange medical journey, when he finds that his leg uncannily no longer feels a part of his body. It was the first time I had come across the conception of “proprioception”:

Why a personal connection? When I was 14, I was hit by a car and suffered a compound fracture of my left femur. Left with a lifelong limp, I discovered many years later that some pain I was experiencing had to do with proprioception; my brain had stopped communicating with some of my leg muscles and the connection needed to be “re-activated” through therapy. Sacks writes beautifully about his (much more extreme) experience and branches out to include seeing injury and illness from the patient’s point of view and the inner nature of illness and health.


I wish every medical studient was required to read this book; the therapeutic effects of music on many kinds of illnesses is such important information. And Dr. Sacks’ love of all things musical shines through in every sentence.

Sacks’s deeply warm and sympathetic study is about pathologies of musical response and what they might teach us about the “normal” faculty of music. It reports on fascinating new findings from anatomy – a musician’s brain is easily distinguishable on a scan from those of others; and the passage from ear to brain is not a one-way conduit but works both ways, the brain being able to tune the ears, as it were. But mostly Musicophilia is about the more mysterious, and currently inexplicable, ways in which music affects the brain,

From The Guardian

An Anthropologist on Mars

I can offer no better picture of this book than Dr. Sacks’ own, from The New Yorker.

I hope to add to my collection soon!

Other Recommendations:

I wish I could say I have read every book Dr. Sacks has written, but I will. I can assure you that any book by him is worth reading!

Get started on your Oliver Sacks journey; here is a link to a list of his books.

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#3—Nordic Mysteries: (Final/Endelig)

#3—Nordic Mysteries: (Final/Endelig)

We Come to the End/What’s Next?

In my previous posts, I covered some of my favorite Nordic mystery authors. This is my final Nordic Noir post; future posts will cover individual authors, additional genres, and some of my many biblio-obsessions!

Yrsa Sigurdardottir: Iceland

One of the things I find most fascinating about this author is that she is also a director of one of Iceland’s largest engineering firms! Her work is found on bestseller lists all over the world, and films are currently in production for several of her books. Yrsa has also written for children, and won the 2003 Icelandic Children’s Book Prize with Biobörn.

The protagonist in her mystery series’ marvelous books is Thóra Gudmundsdóttir, an attorney and single mother of two. Book 1 in the series is “Last Rituals”. I find Thora to be a very appealing main character, and an refeshing change from the typical detective investigator. She also has a dry sense of humor that is often lacking in other books in this genre. Although it is not the first in the series, my favorite book so far is “The Day is Dark”.

In The Day is Dark, when all contact is lost with two Icelanders working in a harsh and sparsely populated area on the coast of Greenland, Thóra is hired to uncover the fates of the missing people. When she arrives in Greenland, she discovers that these aren’t the first two to go missing. The local townspeople believe that the area is cursed, and no one wants to get involved in the case. Soon, Thora finds herself stranded in the middle of a wilderness, and the case is as frightening and hostile as the landscape itself.

Chilling, unsettling, and compulsively readable, The Day is Dark is a must read for readers who are looking for the next big thing in crime fiction coming in from the cold.

From us.macmillan.com

Here is a list of the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir books in order.

In Flateyri, Iceland? Check out The Old Bookstore (Iceland’s oldest bookstore will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year!)
Read more about The Old Bookstore
Read an interview with the shopkeeper, Eyþór Jóvinsson

Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis: Denmark

The books by this writing team have an interesting approach; their lead character is not a detective but a Danish Red Cross nurse. Nina Borg has dedicated her life to helping those underserved by society—but her do-gooder tendencies often lead her into situations beyond the law’s protection. She has endangered her relationships with, and the lives, of her loved ones due to these tendencies. The books are not just great mysteries, but thoughtful meditations on society’s approach to those less fortunate.

The first book in the series, “The Boy in the Suitcase” was published in 2011; there are four books in total.

By the time the sequel, Invisible Murder, appeared a year later, readers knew that Nina was the main character, and she would continue as the series’ protagonist in the third and fourth books as well. In Invisible Murder, Nina has promised her husband not to volunteer with the asylum network that drew her into the previous story’s intrigue, but after she gets a call about sick Roma children living in an abandoned garage, Nina cannot help but get involved…The power of the series as a whole, notwithstanding the relentlessness of the first three stories and the somewhat slower development of the last, resides in the authors’ creation of one of the most distinctive characters in contemporary fiction. The Nina Borg books by Kaaberbøl and her collaborator Agnete Friis have given us a saga in which, as is the case with The Killing, the intensity of the woman around whom the story swirls draws us in and holds our attention.

From www.lareviewofbooks.org

In Seattle? Check out Elliott Bay Book Co.
Visit www.elliottbaybook.com
Follow them on twitter: @ElliottBayBooks

Helene Tursten: Sweden

Helene Tursten was a nurse and a dentist before she turned to writing. Books in the Irene Huss series include Detective Inspector HussThe TorsoThe Glass DevilNight Rounds, and The Golden Calf. Inspector Irene Huss is a 40-something detective and judo expert in Göteborg, Sweden. I must admit that I only recently discovered Tursten; I have only read “The Torso” and “The Beige Man” but I enjoyed both a great deal and it was rewarding to read books in this genre with a female protagonist. Click here for a full list of the Inspector Huss series.

In Brookline, MA? Check out Brookline Booksmith
Visit www.brooklinebooksmith.com
Follow Brookline on Twitter: @booksmithtweets

Lars Kepler: Norway

Lars Kepler is a pseudonum for authors Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander AhndorilI. I really like the Kepler books mostly due to the unconventional nature of Kepler’s protagonist Joona Linna, a Finnish Detective Superintendent at the Norwegian police’s National Operations Department. His background provides him with skills that allow him to overcome obstacles and solve cases that his colleagues find difficult or sometimes, impossible.

Joona’s parents emigrated to Sweden from neighbouring Finland when they were young. Joona’s father, Yrjö, was a policeman, and his mother Ritva a housewife. When Joona was twelve, his father was killed on duty by a man with a shotgun at a domestic incident.
After sixth form, Joona did his military service as a paratrooper, was recruited into Special Operations, and qualified for special training in the Netherlands in mixed close combat, innovative weaponry, and urban guerrilla warfare.
Joona left the military, went to the police academy, and is now an operational superintendent at the National Crime Police in Stockholm. His poor background and Finnish accent make him something of an underdog in society and in the police force – which is why he has learned to walk his own path.

From larskepler.com

He is a highly skilled crime investigator and his empathic personality gives him the ability to look beyond the image of the perpetrator as monster. He understands those who commit crimes, sees their fear and suffering, and perceives their desperate choices. This is most likely the reason why he has solved more complicated murder cases than any other police officer in Scandinavia.

In Poulsbo/Bremerton WA? Check out Liberty Bay Books
Visit www.libertybaybooks.com
Follow Liberty Bay Books on Twitter: @LIBERTYBAYBOOKS

Jussi Adler-Olsen: Denmark

I’m referring here to his “Department Q” book series. It features the deeply flawed chief detective Carl Mørck, who used to be a good homicide detective – one of Copenhagen’s best. Then a bullet almost took his life. Two of his colleagues weren’t so lucky, and Carl, who didn’t draw his weapon, blames himself. So a promotion is the last thing Carl expects. But it all becomes clear when he sees his new office in the basement. Carl’s assignment is to run Department Q, a new special investigation division that turns out to be a department of one. With a stack of Copenhagen’s coldest cases to keep him company, Carl has been put out to pasture. If you like “Cold Case Files” on A&E, you’ll love this series!

In In Williamsburg, Brooklyn? Check out Spoonbill & Sugartown
Visit www.spoonbillbooks.com
Follow Spoonbill Books on Twitter: @Spoonbillbooks

Last But Far From Least:

Although I was not able to cover them in detail I would be remiss not to mention some other marvelous authors in this genre:
—Kjell Eriksson, of whom the WSJ wrote “Riveting in tone and spirit…resembles the books of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, not to mention those of the modern master Henning Mankell.”
—Anne Holt, described by Jo Nesbo as “the godmother of moder Norwegian crime fiction”.
—Quentin Bates, English author who spent a decade in Iceland and writes the Officer Gunnhildur Series.
—Niklas Natt Och Dag, author of “The Wolf and the Watchman”, an intense and thrilling period mystery set in the late 1700s in Stockholm, Sweden.

Next Up:

Two of my favorite authors:
Jennifer Egan (@egangoodsquad)
Simon Winchester (@simonwriter).

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#2—Nordic Mysteries Continued

#2—Nordic Mysteries Continued


In my first post, I covered what I considered to be a Nordic mystery, how I discovered them, and the myriad reasons I love to read them. This post goes on to discuss additional authors.

The Master: Henning Mankell

Henning Mankell is best known as the author of the magnificent “Kurt Wallender” detective series, although he has written other excellent mysteries. The books below are laid out not in publication order, but in the order in which they are best read, which is chronologically according to the life of Wallander.

While I was photographing my books, I discovered (to my dismay) that I was missing one of the books in the series! I don’t own “An Event in Autumn”, an oversight I intend to remedy IMMEDIATELY by ordering it from an #IndependentBookstore (of course). It should be after “The Man Who Smiled”.

Why do I call Mankell “the master”? The complexity and depth of his plots, the settings he describes so vividly, but most of all, his central character. Wallender is deeply and profoundly affected by each case he works on. It’s Wallender who keeps me coming back to the books again and again, and why I think that Mankell has gone beyond the mystery genre to write great novels.

Credit goes to Fabien on howtoread.me for the following:

Kurt Wallander is a fictional character created by Swedish crime writer Henning Mankell. He is a cop working for the Ystad police department. He is the kind of detective that invests himself on a very personal level in order to solve a crime.

Divorced, Wallander also has a daughter who, like him, became a cop. She is at the center of one book, but Mankell didn’t give her a series after the suicide of the actress playing the role in the Swedish TV series.

“The Pyramid” is actually a collection of stories, starting with Wallander on his homicide first case as a twenty-one-year-old patrolman, but also as a young father facing unexpected danger on Christmas Eve, as a middle-aged detective with his marriage on the brink, as a newly separated investigator solving the brutal murder of a local photographer, and finally as a veteran detective.

In Atlanta? Check out Book Nook.
Check their FB page at https://www.facebook.com/thebooknookdecatur
Visit https://www.booknookbookstoredecaturga.com/

Back to Norway: Karin Fossum

My Fossum books in order of English translation

There could not be a bigger contrast between the detective in Fossum’s novels, and those portrayed in Nesbo and Mankell’s books. From Jeremy Megraw at Crime Fiction Lover:

Karin Fossum is exceptional, not just in Scandinavian crime fiction circles, but in the broader crime genre. Referred to as the ‘queen of crime’ in Norway, she came into the genre as a poet whose work in the health and social work field has informed her compassionate meditations on crime. Her creation, the mild-mannered Inspector Konrad Sejer, is not typical of Scandinavian detective figures. Don’t expect an unhealthy, hot-headed drunk with failed relationships and dysfunctional family issues. Sejer is a soft-spoken widower who never loses control nor runs foul of his boss. While many of his contemporaries have problems with authority, Sejer actually finds comfort in the concept, and the order it brings.

I like the Fossum books because of the deceptive simplicity of the writing, which makes them compelling reads that are easy to consume in a single sitting. NB: I read pretty fast, but especially so in the style inherent to many of the Nordic authors.

In Nashville, TN? Check out Parnassus Books (co-owned by Ann Patchett & Karen Hayes.)
Visit www.parnassusbooks.net
Follow Parnassus on Twitter: @ParnassusBooks1

Next Destination: Iceland and Arnaldur Indriðason

With a character more in keeping with the other detectives than Inspector Sejer, Indriðason’s creation Inspector Erlendur Sveinsson is a brilliant policeman, but also a gloomy and thoroughly anti-social figure who guards his privacy jealously. He is a solitary man who spends his free time reading his private library of papers about people lost in the wilds of Iceland. We learn that his obession with this subject comes from his sad history; as a child, he found himself in a bad storm with his little brother who was lost forever. He blames himself for his brother’s death, and periodically goes back to his birthplace to search for his body.

Missing: Hypothermia, Into Oblivion, The Shadow Killer

Set in Reykjavik, and across Iceland’s stony, unforgiving landscape, the books create a strong impression, reflecting the silent, glacial progress of Erendur’s battle with his own inner storms. His investigations provide rich insight into Icelandic culture, old and new. We hear a lot about certain issues – the criminal justice system, nationalism, racism, immigration, corporate greed, the welfare state. One book even touches on genetic disease. The small gene pool is a concern in this small, isolated country. These are thematic elements shared across the Nordic noir sub-genre. (emphasis mine.)

Jeremy Megraw, crimefictionlover.com

In Ann Arbor, MI? Check out Literati Bookstore
Visit www.literatibookstore.com
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Return to Sweden: Håkan Nesser

The Nesser books I own are from the “Inspector Van Veeteren” series; he is the author of several other novels. The interesting thing about the Nesser books is that they take place in a fictitious city called Maardam, said to be located in northern Europe in a country which is never named but resembles Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany. The names however are mostly Dutch (see blog #1, Janwillem van de Wetering).

The interesting thing about Van Veeteren is that the first five novels he is still a Detective Chief Inspector; in the last five novels he is retired, but sometimes he leaves his antiquarian book store to help out with investigations. Van Veeteren is a bit grumpy and cynical, enjoys dark beer and chess. He is very intuitive when it comes to reading people, a key factor in his success in solving his cases.

In London, England? Check out Foyles Bookshop
Visit www.foyles.co.uk
Follow Foyles Bookshop on Twitter: @Foyles

In my final Nordic mystery blog I will be discussing the following authors:

  • Helene Tursten (Sweden)
  • Lene Kaaberbøl (Denmark): Author of the “Nina Borg” series with Agnete Friis.
  • Lars Keplar (Norway)
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland)
  • Jussi Adler-Olsen (Denmark)

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#1—Nordic Mysteries: An (Almost) Lifelong Obsession:

#1—Nordic Mysteries: An (Almost) Lifelong Obsession:

Why Nordic Mysteries?

First a definition: when I say “Nordic” I refer to mysteries that take place in, and are typically written by, authors in the following countries:

  • Denmark
  • Finland
  • Iceland
  • Norway
  • Sweden

According to Wikipedia, “While the term “Scandinavia” is commonly used for Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the term “Nordic countries” is used for Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland…).”

Note that I have included one author from the Netherlands because his books fit well within the general characteristics of the genre. What do I consider to be those characteristics?

  • Spare, bleak yet beautifully written prose
  • Subtle and complex characters
  • Intricate, mesmerizing plots
  • The fact that the settings, whether in Oslo or a remote corner of Iceland, are almost as important as the characters themselves
  • In the serial mysteries (and almost all of them are) the main characters grow and change from book to book as events overtake them
  • The wry humor expressed in the midst of tragedy

In the Beginning: Denmark

My fascination with Nordic mysteries began almost a quarter of a century ago, in 1995, when I first read “Smilla’s Sense of Snow”. Its original Danish title is Frøken Smillas fornemmelse for sne, a novel by author Peter Høeg. It was translated into English by Tiina Nunnally. When I first read Smilla I knew that I had discovered a type of mystery I had never read before; my main experiences up until then had been with British mysteries. I fell in (literary) love.

What was it about this book that so captivated me? The blurb notes “Smilla Qaavigaaq Jaspersen is part Inuit, but she lives in Copenhagen.” I was drawn in by her first sentence:

It’s freezing—an extraordinary 0° Fahrenheit—and it’s snowing, and in the language that is no longer mine, the snow is qanik—big, almost weightless crystals falling in clumps and covering the ground with a layer of pulverized white frost.

What happened to her language? Where is she now? Why are the descriptions of the myriad words for snow so important to her? “Smilla” is not just a mystery; it’s also a love story and a tale of a vanishing way of life that reads like pure poetry.

As always when I discover a new genre of books that I like, I look around for what else is available in English. The popularity of Nordic mystery authors that would explode with the US publication of “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” in 2005 was still 10 years in the future.

In Atlanta? Check out A Cappella Books
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What Came Next: Stockholm, Sweden

Back in the ‘80s, I frequented a used bookstore in Atlanta (no longer there) called “Oxford Too” with a large mystery section. My bookstore search first turned up a series of ten Swedish mysteries written by a husband and wife, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. As with many books in this genre by the same author, they are best read in chronological order; what is known as the “Martin Beck” series is actually numbered. The reason for this is that the novels are more than just mysteries; they also reflect socio-economic conditions in Sweden seen through the eyes of Beck, the lead detective, and his colleagues.*

All the books are gripping, with intense driven plots interwoven with reflections on life in Stockholm; don’t let that stop you from trying these books because they are essential to the genre.

The first novel in the series is “RoseAnna”.

*If you have seen “The Laughing Policeman” film, it is based on book four in the series of the same name: The Laughing Policeman (1973). Stars Walter Matthau, Bruce Dern, and Louis Gossett Jr. I highly recommend it.

January 23, 2021: I recently came across a marvelous article by about these authors at crimereads.com by Neil Nyren: “Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö: A Crime Reader’s Guide to the Classics”.

In Portland, OR? Check out Powell’s Bookstore.
Visit http://www.powells.com
Follow Powell’s on Twitter: @powells

Next Destination: Amsterdam, the Netherlands

It was my great fortune to then discover the books by Janwillem van de Wetering, my one author outside the Nordic countries. In keeping with the genre, the books are so much more than basic mysteries. I’ll let Avram Davidson have a word on what makes his books unique:

Author of a highly acclaimed series of mystery novels, world traveller, former Zen student, and former police officer Janwillem van de Wetering brings an unusual perspective to the detective genre.  His novels and stories feature a diverse and richly drawn cast of characters and settings that range from the streets of Amsterdam to the Caribbean and from rural Maine to Japan, South America, and New Guinea.

His three main characters (a very unusual team) are Sergeant Rinus de Gier, Adjutant Henk Grijpstra, and the unnamed commissaris, their senior officer and spiritual guide (and owner of a beloved tortoise). The rewards of reading these books go far beyond the enjoyment of a good mystery plot; they venture into philosophy, spirituality (particularly Zen Buddhism) and wry humor.

The first book in the series, “Outsider in Amsterdam” was published in English in 1975. As with so many others, they are best read in order to enjoy the experiences and growth of the main characters. Click here for a complete list of books by van de Wetering; the “Amsterdam Cops” books are marked with an asterisk.

In New York City? Check out The Strand Bookstore.
Visit http://www.strandbooks.com
Follow The Strand on Twitter: @strandbookstore

Venturing On: Oslo, Norway and Beyond

My favorite Nordic mystery author is the Norwegian Jo Nesbo, who writes the “Harry Hole” series, commonly called “contemporary Nordic noir”. Reading these in order is highly recommended; characters and events (apart from the mystery plots) experience major changes as time goes on and are as captivating as the plots themselves. The first in the series is “The Bat”. Luckily, Waterstone’s has a great list.

If you are looking for lighthearted mysteries in a cozy vein, Nesbo is definitely not your glass of aquavit! Harry Hole has myriad demons that he struggles with throughout all of the books; the same goes for his colleagues and the few people he allows into his personal circle. But there is also a very dry humor and a complexity of storyline that make all the Nesbo/Hole books (and there are 12 of them) a must-read for mystery fans.

Here’s a short clip of Nesbo talking about his three favorite Harry Hole books: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=buSH4OsB88s&feature=youtu.be

In Denver, CO? Check out Tattered Cover Books
Visit www.tatteredcover.com
Follow Tattered Cover Books on Twitter: @TatteredCover

In future blogs I will be discussing the following authors, and as always, encouraging you to buy their books at an independent bookstore!

  • Henning Mankell (Sweden)
  • Karin Fossum (Norway)
  • Håkan Nesser (Sweden)
  • Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland)
  • Helene Tursten (Sweden)
  • Lene Kaaberbøl (Denmark): Author of the “Nina Borg” series with Agnete Friis.
  • Lars Keplar (Norway)
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir (Iceland)
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