My Best 2004 Holiday Reads

This holiday included a lot of airport and flight time, and I’ve never enjoyed reading anything more in such circumstances than Alexander McCall Smith’s novels about Precious Ramotswe at her No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency in Botswana. Easy to read and full of fun and wisdom, Precious Ramotswe’s take on life sounds true to my experiences in Nigeria when I was in the Peace Corps years ago. A book in this series (there are five now) lasts me from the gate at the Flint Michigan airport to the baggage claim someplace eight hours away. The latest–this year’s reliably good read–was The Full Cupboard of Life. Other titles lend a clue: The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Tears of the Giraffe, Morality for Beautiful Girls, The Kalahari Typing School for Men.

A longer read, on a different level, is a book in Martin Cruz Smith’s Arcady Renko series. These mysteries, which include Gorky Park, Red Square, and the latest, Wolves Eat Dogs, offer an exciting armchair look at contemporary Russia. Far more than that, MC Smith is a master craftsman. Every sentence is a joy to read; metaphors are fresh and unpretentious; characters are many-sided and engaging; the plot is unpredictable. Who would think that a novel taking place largely in Chernobyl, the worst nuclear power disaster in history, would be fun to read. I’ve been a big fan of Smith ever since I read Red Square. His books offer a blueprint in novel-writing. Maybe I’ll attempt one.

Last, I really enjoyed reading The Winter Queen, by Boris Akunin, a translation from the Russian. The language is so lovely that I couldn’t believe it was a translation (Andrew Bromfield did this one), and the plot was interesting. This time I got a historical visit to Russia–Moscow in the 1870s. I felt betrayed, though, by the end. I was actually angry about it. As a writer myself, I feel a responsibility to my reader, and I felt Akunin enjoyed too much playing God.