Category: Books

Reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius

Statue head from Carl Mille's antique collection at Millesgården, Lidingö
Statue head from Carl Mille’s antique collection at Millesgården, Lidingö

I’ve started reading Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius, the complete collection translated by Richard M. Gummere; the dog-eared paperback edition I had read and re-read earlier was only a selection of forty letters out of the 124 he wrote.

Seneca has always fascinated me (and many others), writing so eloquently about how to live a good life, only concerned with your character, etc. – only to live his life quite differently. Many brand him a hypocrite, but I think he was merely human, struggling like all of us. I think he tried. Behind the scenes, he managed the empire during the first years of Nero‘s reign, an uninterested Nero happily leaving him to it, and he did a pretty good job together with Burrus. One wonders how things would have gone with him as a ruler. Would he have become a philosopher emperor or given in to his less, shall I say, flattering sides? We’ll never know.

It’s hard to imagine the insecurity of life at court, especially at Nero’s. Assassinations, even of close family members (Nero had his mother put to death, for example, and he’s also suspected of murdering his wife), executions or orders for suicide, and exile were an everyday business. Seneca could see Nero sinking into madness a little more every day, fearing he’d be next. He was almost ordered to commit suicide by Caligula and escaped it only because Caligula thought he was dying (of tuberculosis); later, he also spent eight years in exile in Corsica under Claudius. Maybe he thought power and riches would protect him from the whims of the capricious rulers. But those would only threaten or become the envy of an emperor.

He was forced to retire eventually, and curiously enough, Nero let him go after refusing him twice before. He left his riches to Nero, retired to the country, read philosophy, and wrote these letters, among other works. Unfortunately, it didn’t save him in the end. Accused of being involved in a plot to assassinate Nero, he was forced to take his own life.

The Letters may be his attempt to be stoic about his fate (pun intended). He had no riches or power anymore, but a Stoic wouldn’t need them. Or maybe the distance from the court provided the perspective he needed. It certainly made it easier for him to live a little closer to his Stoic ideals.

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The Best Books I Read in 2021

Close up of a woman reading a book. Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash.
Photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

Look up the previous year’s list here.

Best Fiction Books

  • Rudyard Kipling, Kim (re-read). Kim, one of Kipling’s masterpieces, is the story of Kimball O’Hara, the orphaned son of an officer in the Irish Regiment who spends his childhood as a vagabond in Lahore. The book is a carefully organized, powerful evocation of place and of a young man’s quest for identity.

  • Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness (re-read). The finest of all Conrad’s tales, Heart of Darkness is set in an atmosphere of mystery and menace, and tells of Marlow’s perilous journey up the Congo River to relieve his employer’s agent, the renowned and formidable Mr. Kurtz. What he sees on his journey, and his eventual encounter with Kurtz, horrify and perplex him, and call into question the very bases of civilization and human nature. Endlessly reinterpreted by critics and adapted for film, radio, and television, the story shows Conrad at his most intense and sophisticated. 

  • Robert Silverberg, Downward to the Earth. A SF classic from 1970. One man must make a journey across a once colonised alien planet. Abandoned by man when it was discovered that the species there were actually sentient, the planet is now a place of mystery. A mystery that obsesses the lone traveller Gundersen and takes him on a long trek to attempt to share the religious rebirthing of the aliens. A journey that offers redemption from guilt and sin. This is one of Robert Silverberg’s most intense novels and draws heavily on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and the reason I re-read Conrad’s story). It puts the reader at the heart of the experience and forces them to ask what they would do in the circumstances.

  • David Weber, Honor Harrington series starts with On Basilisk Station. Having made him look a fool, Honor Harrington has been exiled to Basilisk Station in disgrace and set up for ruin by a superior who hates her. Her demoralized crew blames her for their ship’s humiliating posting to an out-of-the-way picket station. The aborigines of the system’s only habitable planet are smoking homicide-inducing hallucinogens. Parliament isn’t sure it wants to keep the place; the major local industry is smuggling; the merchant cartels want her head; the star-conquering, so-called “Republic” of Haven is Up To Something; and Honor Harrington has a single, over-age light cruiser with an armament that doesn’t work to police the entire star system. But the people out to get her have made one mistake. They’ve made her mad. Another SF classic, a bit verbose sometimes but overall entertaining and well written.

  • Roger MacBride Allen, Caliban. Before his death in 1992, Isaac Asimov conceived the next step in robot evolution: Caliban; Roger MacBride Allen wrote the books. Caliban is the first in the trilogy (the others are Inferno and Utopia). In a universe protected by the Three Laws of Robotics, humans are safe. Robots are bound by law to care for and to obey them. But when an experiment with a new type of robot goes awry, Caliban is created. He is without guilt or conscience–and he has no knowledge of or compassion for humanity.

  • C. Robert Cargill, Day Zero. In this harrowing apocalyptic adventure C. Robert Cargill explores the fight for purpose and agency between humans and robots in a crumbling world. It was a day like any other. Except it was the last . . . It’s on this day that Pounce discovers that he is, in fact, disposable. Pounce, a styilsh “nannybot” fashioned in the shape of a plush anthropomorphic tiger, has just found a box in the attic. His box. The box he’d arrived in when he was purchased years earlier, and the box in which he’ll be discarded when his human charge, eight-year-old Ezra Reinhart, no longer needs a nanny. As Pounce ponders his suddenly uncertain future, the pieces are falling into place for a robot revolution that will eradicate humankind. Complement with A Sea of Rust set in the same world.

  • Peter Heller, The Dog Stars. A dystopian tale of global disaster, survival, and belief. Hig, bereaved and traumatised after global disaster, has three things to live for – his dog Jasper, his aggressive but helpful neighbour, and his Cessna aeroplane. He’s just about surviving, so long as he only takes his beloved plane for short journeys, and saves his remaining fuel. But, just once, he picks up a message from another pilot, and eventually the temptation to find out who else is still alive becomes irresistible. So he takes his plane over the horizon, knowing that he won’t have enough fuel to get back. What follows is scarier and more life-affirming than he could have imagined. Complement it with Emily St John Mandel, Station Eleven and Cormac McCarthy, The Road.

  • Stephen King, Mile 81. At Mile 81 on the Maine Turnpike is a boarded-up rest stop, a place where high school kids drink and get into the kind of trouble high school kids have always gotten into. It’s the place where Pete Simmons, armed only with the magnifying glass he got for his tenth birthday, finds a discarded bottle of vodka in the boarded up burger shack and drinks enough to pass out. Not much later, a mud-covered station wagon (which is strange because there hadn’t been any rain in New England for over a week) veers into the Mile 81 rest area, ignoring the sign that says “closed, no services.” The driver’s door opens but nobody gets out.  By the time Pete Simmons wakes up from his vodka nap, there are half a dozen cars at the Mile 81 rest stop. But two kids and a horse are the only living things left…unless you maybe count the wagon.

  • Dan Simmons, Summer of Night (book 1 in the Seasons of Horror series). A horror classic. It’s the summer of 1960 and in the small town of Elm Haven, Illinois, five twelve-year-old boys are forging the powerful bonds that a lifetime of change will not break. From sunset bike rides to shaded hiding places in the woods, the boys’ days are marked by all of the secrets and silences of an idyllic middle-childhood. But amid the sundrenched cornfields their loyalty will be pitilessly tested. When a long-silent bell peals in the middle of the night, the townsfolk know it marks the end of their carefree days. From the depths of the Old Central School, a hulking fortress tinged with the mahogany scent of coffins, an invisible evil is rising. Strange and horrifying events begin to overtake everyday life, spreading terror through the once idyllic town. Determined to exorcize this ancient plague, Mike, Duane, Dale, Harlen, and Kevin must wage a war of blood—against an arcane abomination who owns the night…

  • Dan Simmons, Children of the Night (book 2 in the Seasons of Horror series) In a desolate orphanage in post-Communist Romania, a desperately ill infant is given the wrong blood transfusion—and flourishes rather than dies. For immunologist Kate Neuman, the infant’s immune system may hold the key to cure cancer and AIDS. Kate adopts the baby and takes him home to the States. But baby Joshua holds a link to an ancient clan and their legendary leader—Vlad Tsepes, the original Dracula – whose agents kidnap the child. Against impossible odds and vicious enemies– both human and vampire – Kate and her ally, Father Mike O’Rourke, steal into Romania to get her baby back. Book 3 in the series, A Winter Haunting, isn’t as strong as the first two.

  • Dan Simmons, Carrion Comfort. 1) THE PAST… Caught behind the lines of Hitler’s Final Solution, Saul Laski is one of the multitudes destined to die in the notorious Chelmno extermination camp. Until he rises to meet his fate and finds himself face to face with an evil far older, and far greater, than the Nazi’s themselves… 2) THE PRESENT… Compelled by the encounter to survive at all costs, so begins a journey that for Saul will span decades and cross continents, plunging into the darkest corners of 20th century history to reveal a secret society of beings who may often exist behind the world’s most horrible and violent events. Saul’s quest is about to reach its elusive object, drawing hunter and hunted alike into a struggle that will plumb the depths of mankind’s attraction to violence, and determine the future of the world itself… Stephen King called Carrion Comfortone of the three greatest horror novels of the 20th century” and he is right.

  • Christopher Golden, Snowblind. Golden updates the ghost story for the modern age. The small New England town of Coventry had weathered a thousand blizzards . . . but never one like this. Icy figures danced in the wind and gazed through children’s windows with soul-chilling eyes. People wandered into the whiteout and were never seen again. Families were torn apart, and the town would never be the same. Now, as a new storm approaches twelve years later, the folks of Coventry are haunted by the memories of that dreadful blizzard and those who were lost in the snow. As old ghosts trickle back, this new storm will prove to be even more terrifying than the last. With richly textured characters, scarred and haunted by the ghosts of those they loved most, Snowblind is rooted deeply in classic storytelling. Christopher Golden has written a chilling masterpiece that is both his breakout book and a standout supernatural thriller.

  • Shane Carrow, End Times series (six books). Across Australia’s vast deserts and snowy mountains, from zombie-choked cities to Outback strongholds, End Times is 1500+ pages of epic zombie apocalypse adventure. New Year’s Day: midsummer in Australia. On the west coast, twin brothers Aaron and Matt King have graduated high school and are savouring their last few months of summer holidays before adulthood – while on the other side of the country, something has fallen from the sky, heralding the dawn of a new age. As a terrifying plague spreads across Australia and the world, Aaron and Matt find themselves beset by anarchy and violence, fleeing the city, scrambling to survive. As the months go by, the twins grow from desperate refugees into hardened survivors – yet all the while they are haunted by cryptic dreams and an inexplicable urge to travel east, towards the source of the cataclysm, to uncover the secret behind the rise of the undead.

  • Mira Grant, San Diego 2014. The prequell to The Newsflesh trilogy (another epic read). It was the summer of 2014, and the true horrors of the Rising were only just beginning to reveal themselves. Fans from all over the world gathered in San Diego, California for the annual comic book and media convention, planning to forget about the troubling rumors of new diseases and walking dead by immersing themselves in a familiar environment. Over the course of five grueling days and nights, it became clear that the news was very close to home . . . and that most of the people who picked up their badges would never make it out alive. Mira Grant is the open pseudonym of Seanan McGuire.
A cup of tea on a pile of books
Photo by waad salman3 on Unsplash

Best Non-Fiction Books

  • Mortimer J. Adler & Charles Van Doren, How to Read a Book. Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text. Also included is instruction in the different techniques that work best for reading particular genres, such as practical books, imaginative literature, plays, poetry, history, science and mathematics, philosophy and social science works.

  • Howard Gardner, The Discipled Mind. This brilliant theory of multiple intelligences reexamines the goals of education to support a more educated society for future generations. By exploring the theory of evolution, the music of Mozart, and the lessons of the Holocaust as a set of examples that illuminates the nature of truth, beauty, and morality, The Disciplined Mind envisions how younger generations will rise to the challenges of the future—while preserving the traditional goals of a “humane” education. Gardner’s ultimate goal is the creation of an educated generation that understands the physical, biological, and societal world in their own personal context as well as in a broader world view.
  • Gary Hoover, The Lifetime Learner’s Guide to Reading and Learning. Book lover Gary Hoover lives in a 33-room building, of which 32 contain his 57,000-book personal library. Few people have “consumed” or learned from and remembered as many books. In this book, Gary Hoover lays out his method for capturing important ideas contained in books in 30 minutes (or less) without speed-reading. The book contains a multitude of tips about how to learn efficiently, how to find and buy books, and an annotated list of 160 books for expanding your knowledge – from history and geography to entrepreneurship and architecture. The book concludes with an extensive section on how to think creatively and see things that others do not, and how to separate the wheat from the chaff and see the forest beyond the trees.

  • Ryan Holiday & Stephen Hanselman, Lives of the Stoics. For millennia, Stoicism has been the ancient philosophy that attracts those who seek greatness, from athletes to politicians and everyone in between. And no wonder: its embrace of self-mastery, virtue and indifference to that which we cannot control has much to offer those grappling with today’s chaotic world. But who were the Stoics? In this book, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman offer a fresh approach to understanding Stoicism through the lives of the people who practiced it – from Cicero to Zeno, Cato to Seneca, Diogenes to Marcus Aurelius. Through short biographies of all the famous, and lesser-known, Stoics, this book will show what it means to live stoically, and reveal the lessons to be learned from their struggles and successes. The result is a treasure trove of insights for anyone in search of living a good life.

  • Massimo Pigliucci, How to Be A Stoic. A philosopher asks how ancient Stoicism can help us flourish today. Whenever we worry about what to eat, how to love, or simply how to be happy, we are worrying about how to lead a good life. No goal is more elusive. In How to Be a Stoic, philosopher Massimo Pigliucci offers Stoicism, the ancient philosophy that inspired the great emperor Marcus Aurelius, as the best way to attain it. Stoicism is a pragmatic philosophy that focuses our attention on what is possible and gives us perspective on what is unimportant. By understanding Stoicism, we can learn to answer crucial questions: Should we get married or divorced? How should we handle our money in a world nearly destroyed by a financial crisis? How can we survive great personal tragedy? Whoever we are, Stoicism has something for us–and How to Be a Stoic is the essential guide.

  • Donald Robertson, Stoicism and the Art of Happiness. The Stoics lived a long time ago, but they had some startling insights into the human condition-insights which endure to this day; and they created a body of thought with an extraordinary goal-to provide a rational, healthy way of living in harmony with the nature of the universe and in respect of our relationships with each other. In many ways a precursor to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Stoicism provides an armamentarium of strategies and techniques for developing psychological resilience, while celebrating all in life which is beautiful and important. By learning what Stoicism is, you can revolutionize your life and learn how to seize the day, live happily and be a better person. Robertson, a a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist himself, shows how to use this ancient wisdom to make practical, positive changes in your life.

  • Sharon Lebell, The Art of Living. “Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” The Stoic philosopher Epictetus was born on the eastern edges of the Roman Empire in A.D. 55, but The Art of Living is still perfectly suited for any contemporary self-help or recovery program. To prove the point, this modern interpretation by Sharon Lebell casts the teachings in up-to-date language, with phrases like “power broker” and “casual sex” popping up intermittently. But the core is still the same: Epictetus keeps the focus on progress over perfection, on accomplishing what can be accomplished and abandoning unproductive worry over what cannot.

  • John E. Sarno, The Mindbody Prescription. Dr. Sarno reveals how many painful conditions-including most neck and back pain, migraine, repetitive stress injuries, whiplash, and tendonitises-are rooted in repressed emotions, and shows how they can be successfully treated without drugs, physical measures, or surgery. 

  • Studs Terkel, Working. Studs Terkel’s classic oral history Working is a compelling look at jobs and the people who do them. Consisting of over one hundred interviews with everyone from a gravedigger to a studio head, this book provides a “brilliant” and enduring portrait of people’s feelings about their working lives. Complement it with John Bowe, Gig, a wide-ranging survey of the American economy at the turn of the millennium.

  • Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought. Even in our cynical age, the legendary story of jungle doctor Albert Schweitzer, self-sacrificingly devoted to the service of humanity, inspires. His classic autobiography, first published in 1933, speaks directly to modern readers in its searching appraisal of this “period of spiritual decline for mankind,” an age in which science, technology and power seem divorced from ethical standards. In earnest prose Schweitzer discusses his research into primitive Christianity and his search for the historical Jesus; his love of Bach, “poet and painter in sound”; his fancy for rebuilding old church organs. His philosophy, which he called “Reverence for Life,” blends mysticism and rationalism, with an impulse to release the “active ethic” he sees latent in Christianity. For Schweitzer, reverence for life was not a theory or a philosophy but a discovery—a recognition that the capacity to experience and act on a reverence for all life is a fundamental part of human nature, a characteristic that sets human beings apart from the rest of the natural world. Complement it with Reverence for Life. “Reverence for Life” was Schweitzer’s unifying term for a concept of ethics. He believed that such an ethic would reconcile the drives of altruism and egoism by requiring a respect for the lives of all other beings and by demanding the highest development of an individual’s resources.

  • Gitta Sereny, Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth. From 1942 Albert Speer was the second most powerful man in the Reich and Hitler’s right-hand man. Gitta Sereny, through twelve years of research and through many conversations with Speer, his friends and colleagues, reveals how Speer came to terms with his own acts and failures to act, his progress from moral extinction to moral self-education and the question of his real culpability in the Nazi crimes.

I’ve used the publishers’ book descriptions for all the books on the list this year.

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The Copenhagen Trilogy

Parul Sehgal, the book critic at The New York Times, called The Copenhagen Trilogy a masterpiece, and her recent brilliant review pushed the book at the top of my wish list.

How does great literature — the Grade A, top-shelf stuff — announce itself to the reader?

Nabokov spoke of the shiver between the shoulder blades. Emily Dickinson required more persuasion. “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off,” she wrote in a letter, “I know that is poetry.”

I’m sorry to say that I occasionally experience it as the dishonorable and squirrelly impulse to hoard the book in question, to keep it my secret. This can prove difficult, as you might imagine, given my line. All of which is to say, I bring news of Tove Ditlevsen’s suite of memoirs with the kind of thrill and reluctance that tells me this must be a masterpiece.

The Dazzling Effect of Books

Let’s have a book quiz, shall we? The only thing better than reading books is talking about books. Books = Life as everybody knows. 

The Big Book Quiz Part 1

  • Do you prefer reading old-fashioned books or e-books? 

Tough question. A few years ago, I would have answered “real books”, but I admit that I prefer e-books nowadays. Why? For several reasons: 

a) They’re cheaper. Swedish e-books are, in general, more expensive than paper books (and Swedish publishers are complaining e-books don’t sell!), but I buy them through the US Kindle store; thank God for deals of the day! I buy so many books that I can’t afford to buy hardcovers at full price. 

The only exception is the annual book sale, a big thing in Sweden. All bookstores (including online) would offer discounted books, starting the last Tuesday in February (prettily timed to around the 25th when the monthly salaries are paid out in Sweden) and until the beginning of March. Heaven for book lovers. Then I would load my book bag with hard-covers.

Books on bookshelves. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

b) They don’t take up any room. I have a library room, and it’s crammed with books, obviously. There are books in every room of the house, except the guest toilet. That last bastion will fall, too, eventually. If you have as many books as I have (we’re talking several thousand), you appreciate anything not requiring more storage space.

c) They’re portable. Nowadays, this is not an issue anymore, since we’re not traveling anywhere because of the pandemic. 

But back in the golden days, pre-Covid-19, when the only travel annoyance was the safety checks or flight delays, I would always bring at least a couple of books with me. 

In fact, one of my fears was that I would run out of reading material during the trip. I would read while waiting at the gate, during boarding, during the flight, and at the hotel before going to bed. You cannot imagine how many books I would need for a longer trip! Some people are terrified of flying. Me? Running out of reading material.

To say nothing about the weight or bringing the “wrong” book, you know, when you feel like reading a science-fiction novel, and all you have is a biography.

Enter e-books. Suddenly, I didn’t have to worry about luggage weight, running out of books to read, or bringing the wrong books. 

d) They’re not set in stone; or paper, rather. I love being able to customize the page color, font type, and size. I wear glasses, and I appreciate everything that helps my eyes, like larger fonts.

To cut a long story short, e-books are practical for several reasons. But I do miss being able to argue with the writer on the margins (I know you can add comments in e-books, but it’s just not the same), leafing through the pages to see what my old me commented on, or that unmistakable smell of a freshly bought book. Oh well, February 25th is almost here.

Books on bookshelves. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
  • Paperback or hard-cover?

Another tough question. A few years ago, it would have been hard-covers; they feel luxurious, like books should. But nowadays, I’m more for convenience (age may have something to do with it). Paperbacks are smaller, take up less room, and are more pleasant to hold when reading.

  • Genre or Nobel Prize winner?

Both. A good book is a good book, period. There’s this misconception that genre books are somehow the lesser literature. I don’t buy that. Good quality genre books are good books; forget the “genre.” Publishers and booksellers invented genres to help them sell books.

  • Do you finish reading a bad book or do you abandon it?

I struggled with this my whole life; I couldn’t NOT finish a book, no matter how bad or boring it was. I would feel guilty because that poor author had worked so hard to write a book, and I, the reader, simply discarded that effort. I felt the author’s eyes drilling on my back, truly I did. 

I’m happy to report that I realized eventually that I couldn’t continue that way. You know, so many books, so little time … Nowadays, I curate my reading carefully; it’s not often I have to abandon reading a book. But if I have to do it, I’m quick and remorseless about it.

  • Do you read translations or original language?

An easy one. Original for the languages I speak (Romanian, Swedish, English, French), translation for the rest. I don’t count German here, although I’ve taken it for eight years at school and can manage some light reading. 

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Ray Bradbury’s Writing Advice For Writers To Be

In one of his lectures collected in the slim volume titled “Ray Bradbury: On Writing,” Bradbury talks about young people dreaming of writing a novel. His advice? Start small. Don’t start with a novel, which will take a long time to write, only to find out at the end it wasn’t good enough.

On Writing

Practice your skills, learn how to write by writing short stories. Write one short story a week. You’ll have the satisfaction of completing something in a relatively short period of time, and you’ll learn a lot. You’ll learn to compact things; to look for ideas; to see a metaphor, and how to write it. At the end of the year, there should be at least one good story. And you’re learning the craft.

Write What You Want to Read

Write what you want to read. Write about what you love, what you hate; write about what you fear; write with joy and abandon. Writing should be fun, not a chore.

Writing is not a serious business. It’s a joy and a celebration. You should be having fun at it. (…) I’ve never worked a day in my life. The joy of writing has propelled me from day to day and year to year. I want you to envy my joy.

Close up of book shelves, two of them dedicated to writing. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

On Reading

As a writer, you should write a lot, and read a lot, too. The library is your school of writing, as it was his. Ray Bradbury never went to college; he couldn’t afford it. But he went to the library several times a week and, in his words, “graduated from the library”.

I want you to live the fever pitch. I want you to go to the library. The great thing about libraries is surprise, isn’t it? To pull books off the shelf and not know what they are (…).

What Should You Read?

Read and learn from the best. Every night, before going to bed, read one short story, one poem, one essay from various fields. Do this for a thousand nights, and you’ll have a solid education.

Ray Bradbury’s Recommended Reading

Short Stories

Short Stories

  • Roald Dahl
  • Guy De Maupassant
  • John Cheever
  • Richard Matheson
  • John Collier
  • Edith Wharton
  • Katherine Anne Porter
  • Eudora Welty
  • Washington Irving
  • Melville
  • Edgar Allan Poe
  • Nathaniel Hawthorne



  • Aldous Huxley
  • Loren Eiseley
  • George Bernard Shaw
  • G. K. Chesterton

Go back and read the classics.

  • Shakespeare
  • Alexander Pope
  • Robert Frost

My Reading Education

I grew up in a home where there weren’t many books, but the ones we had were all classics. There was a book series collecting the classic works of both Romanian and foreign authors of all time. That was a gold mine for a child with an inquisitive mind, thirsting for knowledge, curious about everything. My parents didn’t forbid me to read any books; thankfully, they didn’t practice age-appropriate reading.

So I grew up reading Jules Verne, Daniel Defoe, and Mark Twain’s children’s books. In fact, my sister read them to me before I could read them myself. You could say I was primed for reading (thank you, sis!).

But I also read Balzac, Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, W. M. Thackeray, Emily Brontë, and Charlotte Brontë. I probably read Anna Karenina, Vanity Fair, Wuthering Heights, and Jane Eyre a dozen times before I went to university.

Book Cover of Anton Chekhov Stories. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
My edition of Chekhov’s Stories.

At the university, we were required to read the classics. I was one of the few students who actually read the whole list.

They’re classic for a reason: they’re well written and show us the universal in people, humanity, our world. They endured hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Which best-sellers of today would still be best-sellers in fifty years?

Long story short, reading classic works is a good, free education. I would add Anton Chekhov, Sake, and Katherine Mansfield to Bradbury’s list of short stories.

I leave you with the best quote from this lecture (The Hygiene of Writing).

Don’t live on your god damned computers and the internet and all that crap. Go to the library.

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A Highly Personal List Of Best Dystopian Novels

An abandoned car under a tarpaulin in the woods, an illustration for dystopian novels. Black and white photo by Mihaela Limberea.

It’s no secret I love a good dystopian novel, and if it’s science-fiction, even better. It seems that I’m not alone: almost all of these novels have been turned into movies or TV series. Although, after living through 2020, I’m not sure how popular dystopian books or movies would be. But who knows? Maybe we’ll still watch them and find solace in their misery; our world is still better. (Is it? Here you have some food for thought to last you a while).

Ranting done, here’s my highly personal list of best dystopian novels.

I’ve been a longtime fan of Stephen KIng’s novels (and his On Writing is my writing bible). I like all his books, but some I love a bit more, and The Stand remains my favorite; the best Sci-Fi/Horror and the ultimate Stephen King book. It’s huge (around 1.400 pages, and I love to lose myself in long books) and spellbinding, sucking you in and never letting go. If you haven’t read it, I envy you that first reading.

I’m looking forward to watching the new series, although the reviews have been lukewarm. It seems Stephen Kind doesn’t have any luck with the film adaptation of his novels. The Shining is the exception that proves the rule. Cell was…decent, but that’s about it; unfortunately, because King’s novels are made to be brought to the screen. Bonus: Stephen King ranks the best and the worst adaptations of his books.

Station Eleven is a deeply melancholy haunting book, a page-turner and a poem at once, set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse. Think Cormac McCarthy meets Joan Didion. 

Twenty years after a flu pandemic that wiped out most of humanity, a small group of actors and musicians – The Traveling Symphony – travel in a caravan to various communities to play music and perform Shakespeare plays in a post-apocalyptic world. “Because survival is insufficient.” says on the side of their caravan—storytelling as a means of spiritual survival, hope, and connection.

A mini-series based on the book is in production. In an eerie coincidence, it began filming in Chicago in mid-January, the same week the first case of coronavirus was confirmed in the U.S.

  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road.  A deeply unsettling, post-apocalyptic novel about a father and son’s fight to survive, winner of the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a simple and short melancholic book, with a raw emotional pull that offers nothing to comfort.

A father and his son walk alone in a post-apocalyptic, devastated America, where nothing moves but the gray ashes of the snow and the unforgivingly cold wind. Sustained only by their unconditional love, they move slowly and cautiously towards the coast, a beacon of hope in a land that lost all hope.

Starring Viggo Mortensen in one of his best roles, the 2009 movie is an excellent adaptation; visually compelling, grim and desolate and terrible as you’d expect from the book. Depressing too, I won’t lie; The Road is not one of those end-of-the-world movies with lucky escapes, unlikely action scenes, and a happy end.

  • Marlen Haushofer, The Wall, written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, is a haunting survival story, disturbing and beautiful, by the Austrian author Marlen Haushofer (1920 – 1970).

The book is a journal kept by a never-named narrator, a middle-aged woman, the only survivor of an unknown event that killed everyone and sealed her off by a transparent and impenetrable wall somewhere in the Austrian Alps.

It’s a reflective book, going very slowly, and if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-filled end-of-the-world novel, this is not it. It’s more like The Road, terrible things happening in an unforgiving world, narrated in a slow and desolate way, to become unsettling and heart-breaking stories.

There’s an Austrian movie based on the book, Die Wand (2012), but it’s not largely available outside Austria and Germany. It’s on Amazon Prime in some locations; sadly, not in Sweden. Here’s the trailer. And an interview with the director, Julian Pölsler, talking about the book and challenges in making the movie.

The hero, Robert Neville, seems to be the only human left in the world, the rest being killed or turned into vampires. He spends his nights barricaded indoors, praying for dawn; and his days, killing as many vampires as he can while they’re sleeping.

Matheson combines science-fiction and horror (including vampires, decades before vampires became fashionable) into a fundamental piece about humanity; about loneliness, survival, and prejudice in a plague devastated world.

The movie is fine but has little to do with the book. It’s good to know if you’ve seen the movie and want to read the book.

I don’t want to spoil your discovery of this gem of a book. Suffice to say that there’s indeed a dog (in danger), a loving human desperate to save the said dog, all in the background of a post-apocalyptic world.

It’s a young-adult book, but don’t let that fool you. It’s a thrilling and heartwarming book, and I didn’t want it to end. And when it did, I hoped Fletcher would come back to this world and give us more.

To read more posts about books, click here.

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The Zone: No. 11, Dec 31, 2020 – Special Edition

  1. Welcome To The Zone!
  2. The Zone: No. 2 – Oct 22, 2020
  3. The Zone: No. 3 – Oct 29, 2020
  4. The Zone: No.4 – Nov 5, 2020
  5. The Zone: No. 5 – Nov 12, 2021
  6. The Zone: No. 6 – Nov 19, 2020
  7. The Zone: No. 7 – Nov 26, 2020
  8. The Zone: No. 8 – Dec 3, 2020
  9. The Zone: No. 9 – Dec 10, 2020
  10. The Zone: No. 10 – Dec 17, 2020
  11. The Zone: No. 11, Dec 31, 2020 – Special Edition
  12. The Zone: No. 12 – Jan 7, 2020
  13. The Zone: No. 13 – Jan 14, 2020
  14. The Zone: No. 14 – Jan 21, 2020
  15. The Zone: No. 15 – Jan 28, 2020
  16. The Zone: No. 16 – Feb 4, 2020
  17. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!

Welcome to this special, end-of-the-year edition of The Zone! Banksys perfect illustration of 2020, various ways to exorcise 2020, books of the year picked by Seth Godin, Tim Ferriss, and others, the lost day of Kiribati, and more. Happy New Year!

I think we all agree that the most merciful thing you could say about 2020 is that it is over. There were glimpses of light and moments of joy, of course, and those we should cherish. Here’s the last list of the year. Have a wonderful weekend, stay safe, and be kind to one another. I’ll be back next year!

  • How to exorcise 2020. I’m sure I’m not the only one thinking about exorcism these days. I’m tempted to use the Colombian tradition of burning the “old year” (año viejo). It seems fitting, somehow.
  • The most striking images of 2020, selected by BBC Culture. It’s fascinating how one year can be gone so quickly and so slowly at the same time. We happened to be in Australia during the devastating bush fires, and we believed that would be our most dramatic memories of the year. All that seems to be so far away now; bush fires merely an inconvenience.
  • 1,273 People Share Their Best Life Lessons from 2020. From Mark Manson’s excellent newsletter Mindf*ck Monday. He asked his subscribers: “What have been your biggest lessons from 2020?” And 1.273 people answered. It’s fascinating reading. I found that the best blogs and newsletters (and Manson has both) have great readers, and very often, their comments are as interesting as the article.
  • Austin Kleon and Seth Godin‘s end of the year book lists. These men are responsible for many of my book purchases. It’s a good thing. Austin Kleon has a great newsletter, too, by the way.
  • The Smithsonian Magazine‘s editors picked 25 favorite articles from the year we’d rather forget.

My Zone

Most Popular Posts in 2020

A Quote I’m Pondering

Yes, I’ve always been a dreamer, and yes, I have always tried. And dreams are special things. But dreams are of no value if they’re not equipped with wings and feet and hands and all that. If you’re going to make a dream come true, you’ve got to work with it. You can’t just sit around. That’s a wish. That’s not a dream.

Dolly Parton, in an interview in Bust magazine

From My Photo Archives

Red and blue reflections on ice. Photo by Mihaela Limberea

The red walls of the Lidingö Boat Yard reflected on the ice.

Winter collage by Mihaela Limberea

I wish you a very, very Happy New Year! May 2021 bring you and yours much joy and happiness!

The Best Books I Read in 2020

My book shelf, including the best books of 2020. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.


I’m grateful for having both, and the time and peace of mind to enjoy them. I read two or three books a week, and I read every day. I cannot image a life without books. Here are a few that stayed with me a little longer this year, in no particular order.

Best Fiction Books

  • Stephen King & Joe Hill, In the Tall Grass. This is a novella collaboration between Stephen King and Joe Hill, a short horror masterpiece. Trivia: Joe Hill is King’s son. Stephen King and his wife, Tabitha (herself a novelist), were inspired by the Swedish trade unionist Joe Hill (formerly Joel Hägglund) and named their son Joseph Hillston. When the son grew up to be a writer, he chose Joe Hill as his pseudonym.
  • Marlen Haushofer, The Wall is a haunting survival story, disturbing and beautiful, by the Austrian author Marlen Haushofer (1920 – 1970). If you love animals, you will love this book. And maybe shed a tear or two. I listened to the book first, narrated by Kathe Mazur, and I cannot recommend the audio edition enough. Mazur’s soft and calm voice deepens and enhances the text.
  • Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Mexican Gothic. An isolated mansion. A chillingly charismatic aristocrat. And a brave socialite drawn to expose their treacherous secrets. . . . “a terrifying twist on classic gothic horror” (Kirkus Reviews) set in glamorous 1950s Mexico. I read this in one day.
  • Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow.  An old-fashioned novel (in the best sense of the term) about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel. The best kind of escapism, the perfect book to curl up with and forget the world outside.

Best Non-Fiction Books

  • Sönke Ahrens, How to Take Smart Notes. I know I’ve just said the list has no particular order; however, I did want to put this book first. It changed my life, as dramatically as it sounds. I was looking for a better way of organizing reading notes before kicking off the research on my non-fiction book and found this book. It describes an excellent note-taking system, indeed, but its’ great benefit lies in helping you focus on thinking, understanding, and developing new ideas in writing. It sounded like it would be too good to be true, but I was intrigued enough to give it a try, and I was hooked once I did. The method was developed for academic writing, and the book is heavy on theory and light on the application. If you can stand it and give it a try, you’ll be hooked too. This site, entirely dedicated to it, is a good complement to the book. It provides more concrete examples and practical applications.
  • James Clear, Atomic Habits. Accomplish more by focusing on less.  Actionable and practical strategies to build positive habits by focusing on small improvements that would build up over time.
  • Adam Savage, Every Tool’s a Hammer. Adam Savage shares his golden rules of creativity, from finding inspiration to following through and successfully turning your idea into reality. 

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The Zone: No. 10 – Dec 17, 2020

  1. Welcome To The Zone!
  2. The Zone: No. 2 – Oct 22, 2020
  3. The Zone: No. 3 – Oct 29, 2020
  4. The Zone: No.4 – Nov 5, 2020
  5. The Zone: No. 5 – Nov 12, 2021
  6. The Zone: No. 6 – Nov 19, 2020
  7. The Zone: No. 7 – Nov 26, 2020
  8. The Zone: No. 8 – Dec 3, 2020
  9. The Zone: No. 9 – Dec 10, 2020
  10. The Zone: No. 10 – Dec 17, 2020
  11. The Zone: No. 11, Dec 31, 2020 – Special Edition
  12. The Zone: No. 12 – Jan 7, 2020
  13. The Zone: No. 13 – Jan 14, 2020
  14. The Zone: No. 14 – Jan 21, 2020
  15. The Zone: No. 15 – Jan 28, 2020
  16. The Zone: No. 16 – Feb 4, 2020
  17. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!

Another way of measuring performance, the best Christmas album, crown shyness, herding cats, and more in The Zone No. 10.

Christmas tree decorations. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Martin Place Christmas Tree, Sydney 2019. A world ago.
  • Ear Candy: the best Christmas album of all time is Frank Sinatra‘s The Christmas Album, without any doubt. I listen to it on repeat from the first advent to Christmas. A new favorite this year is Ingrid Michaelson‘s Songs for the Season. It sounds like a classic album from the 1940s, maybe the soundtrack to an old black and white Hollywood Christmas movie – but it’s from 2018. The album, inspired by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, has a nostalgic touch that is wonderful!
  • While we’re still on the subject of 2020: bad sex award canceled as public exposed to ‘too many bad things in 2020.’ 
Tree crowns showing the crown shyness phenomenon. Photo by Dag Peak.
Dag Peak, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Still on the subject of trees: have you heard about crown shyness? It’s a phenomenon observed in some tree species, in which the crowns of fully stocked trees don’t touch each other, forming a canopy with channel-like gaps. Their version of “social distancing?”
  • Tsunami from Heaven: an amazing rainstorm time-lapse captured by photographer Peter Maier in Austria.
  • Tuesday was the Cat Herders Day! The whole of 2020 has felt like an enormous exercise in herding cats.

My Zone

A Quote I’m Pondering

As I see it, not everyone who publishes a book is an author. They’re just someone who has published a book. The best way to become an author is to write more books, just as a true entrepreneur starts more than one business. The best way to become a true comedian, filmmaker, designer, or entrepreneur is to never stop, to keep going. They hustle, they keep creating. Very few of us can afford to abandon our gift after our first attempt, convinced that our legacy is secured. Nor should we. We should prove to the world and to ourselves that we do it again…and again.

Ryan Holiday

From My Photo Archives

Close up of red amaryllis flowers with a decorated Christmas tree and fairy lights in the background. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
Red Amaryllis

NB: There won’t be a Zone post next week as it’s Christmas Eve. You shouldn’t be surfing the web then, even for such great content as this. Take care, be safe, and don’t forget to laugh!

The Zone will be back on December 31st with a special year-end edition.

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To read more The Zone posts, click here.

The Zone: No. 9 – Dec 10, 2020

  1. Welcome To The Zone!
  2. The Zone: No. 2 – Oct 22, 2020
  3. The Zone: No. 3 – Oct 29, 2020
  4. The Zone: No.4 – Nov 5, 2020
  5. The Zone: No. 5 – Nov 12, 2021
  6. The Zone: No. 6 – Nov 19, 2020
  7. The Zone: No. 7 – Nov 26, 2020
  8. The Zone: No. 8 – Dec 3, 2020
  9. The Zone: No. 9 – Dec 10, 2020
  10. The Zone: No. 10 – Dec 17, 2020
  11. The Zone: No. 11, Dec 31, 2020 – Special Edition
  12. The Zone: No. 12 – Jan 7, 2020
  13. The Zone: No. 13 – Jan 14, 2020
  14. The Zone: No. 14 – Jan 21, 2020
  15. The Zone: No. 15 – Jan 28, 2020
  16. The Zone: No. 16 – Feb 4, 2020
  17. So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish!

The Map of Doom (say what?), Cal Newport on technology improving productivity, The Queen’s Gambit, and more in The Zone No. 9.

  • The Map of Doom: A 20 minutes summary of all the threats to mankind, ranked. All right, apparently still on annus horibilis. Let’s move on to less gloomy subjects, shall we?
Harry Potter inspired ASMR – Hogwarts Library
A picture of Hippocampal mouse neuron juxtaposed to a picture of a  Cosmic web to show similarities in structure.
One of these pictures is the brain, the other the universe. Which is which?
  • The Tom & Jerry movie is coming to theaters 2021. Yay! I grew up with Tom & Jerry cartoons, so I’m looking forward to it; the trailer looks promising.
A picture of the NK department store in Stockholm, Sweden with a huge Christmas tree hanging from the ceiling. The scene depicts a book signing by author Maria Varga Llosa in 2010, the year he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Mario Vargas Llosa signing books at NK in 2010.
  • First Nobel Peace Prizes were awarded to Red Cross founder Jean Henri Dunant and peace activist Frederic Passy on December 10th, 1901. I would look forward to the Nobel Prize ceremonies (literature only, to be honest) and the usual book signing by the Nobel literature laureate in the NK department store every year. Alas, not this year. Everything is digital. Fingers crossed for next year. Hope dies last as they say.

A Quote I’m Pondering

Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work. Every great idea I’ve ever had grew out of work itself. 

 Chuck Close

From My Photo Archives

Close up of white Christmas roses or Helleborus in full bloom. Photo by Mihaela Limberea.
Helleborus in full bloom. I know it’s called a Christmas rose, but it usually blooms in March here. Normally we would have a lot of snow between November and February hence the March blooming. But not this year. It seems everything is different this year.

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To read more The Zone posts, click here.