List compiled for Jen K D, but you can use it too, if you want. I'm going for a good fun-quality ratio in each book--so none of these books are just "good for you"--they're all enjoyable.
Shining Through, Susan Isaacs. This book is the most fun ever. The narrator, Linda, is funny and smart, but susceptible to bad choices--the kind you can understand. You get all the drama and gravity of World War II, along with a great office-gossip storyline.
Note, however, that this is Susan Isaacs' best book. So if you want to give her a try, I recommend starting with Lily White. It is, in my opinion, her second best, and that way you get to read both, but the second one is even better than the first, which is always a good way to do it.
His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman. The three books are actually called The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass. You have to be willing to read YA fantasy novels, but these are so much more than that. It's about religion and its role in society, and science and the meaning of life, and it's very sophisticated. I cried and cried and cried. I can't wait to read them again.
Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro. He wrote The Remains of the Day, which I haven't read yet, and When We Were Orphans, which I'm reading now. (And by the way, what's with everyone's delusion that he's going to actually FIND his parents after 15 years?) Never Let Me Go was the first of his books that I read, and it was just lovely. He's so clear and uncomplicated, yet so very complex and personal. This is a book with a science fiction plot, but it is in no way a science fiction book. It's not the near future or an alternate reality. It's England, here and now, and it's about what makes us human.
The Midwives, Chris Bohjalian. I've been meaning to reread this, so I base this recommendation on my memory of how good this book is. Again, it's the best of his work. There isn't a lot to say about it; it's a coming of age story about a girl whose mother is a midwife who might or might not be in legal trouble. This author deals often with people whose lifestyles fall just between fringe and mainstream--homeopaths, dowsers, midwives--and his stories are often about people trying to find a place for these things in an "ordinary" worldview.
Which Lie Did I Tell?, William Goldman. Bill Goldman has written some of my favorite books (The Color of Light, The Princess Bride), but you're more likely to have seen his movies. He's a screenwriter, with credits like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All The President's Men, The Stepford Wives, and The Princess Bride. This book is part how-to for aspiring screenwriters, part memoir, part gossip-fest. He's got some very good insights (my favorite: In Hollywood, nobody knows anything. They like to pretend they can tell what will be a hit and what won't, but nobody understands how craft becomes magic), but his ability to tell a good anecdote and very conversational writing style really carry this book.
The Nun's Story, Kathryn Hulme. I will always recommend this, though it's not up everyone's alley. It's a very internal, quiet look at the life of a nun from the time she enters a convent, through her travels to various nursing posts, and to Africa, in the Belgian Congo. It was a movie with Audrey Hepburn, which I also love. Both book and movie are somewhat slow and very straightforward--there is no poetry here, except that the experience is poetry. Even the sparest writing style lets that shine through. I find this book lovely, and though I can't say I have reason to believe it'd be your exact cup of tea, Jen, I have to recommend it anyway.
That's all for now. More later, I'm sure.
In a quest to better myself, in the literary sense that is, I also asked my friend Ann to compile a list of "must reads". Her recommendations are below. I don't think there are overlaps, so I'll have lots to occupy me for the next several months. More suggestions are always welcome.
The Botany of Desire: A Plant's-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan
A book in four parts about the relationship between humans and plants. Specifically, apples, potatoes, marijuana and tulips. The subject is wide-ranging (covers the economics of the Dutch Tulip bubble, the role of alcoholic cider in American life, and the awesomeness of getting ripped on bong hits) and the book is written in the voice of a guy who mostly just loves to garden.
Pollan’s also written some good journalism – he wrote a very long piece about growing illegal poppies in his garden for Harper’s that’s a fun read.
Guns, Germs and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and Collapse by Jared Diamond
Guns, Germs and Steel, which you already know about, is the only one I’ve read straight through, but I loved what I read of The Third Chimpanzee, which is another macro-history/anthro book about the role of speech (and language) in the evolution of humanity. Some argue that tool use or big brains made humans unique from other apes, and Diamond thinks it was speech. Collapse is his newest, just out a couple of months ago, and I’ve only read reviews, but it’s apparently very much in the vein of GG&S – a big-picture look at human societies.
This article from 1998 is supposed to be a decent taste of the subject matter of Collapse, it’s about Japan specifically:
Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill
Another good macro-history – this one examines the influence of disease on the course of human history and culture. The big focus is on the bubonic plague in Europe, but there’s also plenty about the effects of European diseases on native populations in the Americas and vice-versa (syphilis was introduced to Europe from North America!) The book was written before AIDS, but recent editions should have some additional material that specifically addresses how AIDS works in McNeill’s paradigm (which, duh, it pretty obviously does).
The Great War and Modern Memory by Paul Fussell
Rites of Spring by Modris Eksteins
Both of these books cover roughly the same subject matter – the impact of World War I on European culture and society. Fussell takes a more narrow view, examining the war per se and its influence on the arts, covering mostly (maybe exclusively? I read it a few years ago) Modernist English writers and getting into a lot of detail about trench life and how aspects of it were carried back into the greater culture (one great example is pre-printed postcards that were distributed to troops with boxes to check off – “I am well/injured and on/off the front lines,” etc. These were arguably the first example of routinized communication of this type.)
Ekstein’s scope of time is wider (he starts with the build-up to war, and carries the narrative through to WWII) as is his scope of subject – he covers a range of art forms and social movements across most of the major European countries involved in the war. There’s a really interesting long section about All Quiet on the Western Front that’s neat if you (like me) had to read the Remarque novel in high school and didn’t quite get the full impact of it ‘cause you didn’t know the history and social context of it well enough yet.
If you want to read both of these, I’d start with the Eksteins, and go to Fussell second.
The Size of Thoughts by Nicholson Baker
Baker’s more well-known as a fiction writer, but this book of essays is probably my favorite of his works. It’s a collection that is united mostly by style and the idiosyncrasy of Baker’s choice of subjects: the pleasure of writing on a pink eraser with a ballpoint pen, the history of the card catalog, the etymology of the word ‘lumber.’ He focuses obsessively on the minutiae of the world, which is either something you’re into, or you’re not. Personally, I’m into it.
If you end up liking this, you might also enjoy Double Fold, which is another nonfiction book by Baker about arguably pointless obsessions – this one is his attempt to convince anyone who’s interested in being convinced that the pulping of old newspapers in favor of, at first, microfilming, and now digital scanning and storage, is a misguided effort. He ended up liquidating a big chunk of his retirement savings to buy a run of a semi-obscure New York newspaper that printed pages in four colors and is clearly worth saving, just from looking at the page reproductions printed in Baker’s book.
The Greek Myths by Robert Graves
Robert Graves is a writer I first read about in The Great War and Modern Memory, but that book deals mostly with his WWI memoir Goodbye To All That. He was also a classicist (wrote the novel I, Claudius, which I’d also recommend) and had a very interesting meta-take on the entire Greek mythos. The preface to this collection (usually a two-volume deal) is a bit rambling, and deals mostly with Graves’ methodology, but there’s a hilarious aside where, in giving an example of his desire to determine what the real-world analogs to mythical objects, events and places, he explains that he’s pretty sure the food of the gods – ‘nectar and ambrosia’ is a reference to wine cults and psychedelic mushrooms, and that he knows how great and god-like they make you feel, ‘cause he’s tried them. If you’ve ever read any Joseph Campbell, Graves takes the exact opposite attitude toward myths – he looks for archaeological evidence of their historical roots, instead of generalizing them as collective expressions of human psychology a la The Hero with A Thousand Faces.
The Golden Gate by Vikram Seth
This might be my favorite book ever – it’s a novel of average length, written entirely in verse. And no candy-ass free or blank verse, I mean full-on metered sonnets, page after page after page. The story is a modern one, about 1980s San Francisco and a bunch of yuppies looking for love and trying to stop nuclear proliferation, among other things, sort of in the tradition of the English mock-epic where the petty concerns of average people are treated very seriously, and the form alters the content in some way. There’re some books where a stylistic trick or unique form, for better or worse, comes across as gimmickry. Personally, gimmick or no, I love those books, but though this seems at first glance like one of them, it really transcends what seems like a gimmicky premise because it’s so well written.
Seth has also written straight prose novels – A Suitable Boy is the mega-long truly epic one, and I haven’t read it, but An Equal Music is very good (and also not like 1,000 pages long).
Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis
What I said before, about gimmickry? This is another one that I’d argue transcends the label, but I wouldn’t argue quite as strongly as I would for The Golden Gate. That’s one of my favorite books, Martin Amis is one of my favorite writers, and this is my favorite of his fiction books. It’s a short novel written in the first person from the perspective of the main character – sort of. The narrator could almost be described as the characters conscience or soul, but mostly reads like a consciousness trapped in a man’s body with no agency of its own who is absolutely horrified by himself, and does not realize (though the reader does quite quickly) that the character is moving backwards through time. He describes, for instance, how appalling it is that he has a habit of walking up to small children delighting in brand new toys or sweets, grabs them right out of their hands (how sad the children become!), and daring to walk into the nearest shop and exchange the treat or toy for money. Bastard, right? Turns out the guy really is a bastard, but it takes a while to get there. The novel begins with his death, ends with his birth, and there’s a lot of seriousness behind what, again, is a form-over-content kind of premise.
On the non-fiction side, Amis’ collection of essays on America, Visiting Mrs. Nabokov is good, and if you’ve read more than a few of his novels, or those of his dad Kingsley Amis, his memoir Experience is awesome.
The Chocadebajos de los Gatos Trilogy by Louis de Bernieres
This is a series of novels set in a fictional Latin American country that combines familiar aspects of several of them – political corruption driven by drug money, large numbers of ‘disappeared’ people, rural bands of Communist guerrillas, powerful religious figures, and poor-but-happy-and-best-left-alone rural towns. There are elements of magical realism, but not so many that I’d characterize the books as being of that particular literary type. Just random things – giant tame panthers (the Gatos of the title) wander around and are adopted as pets by villagers, and a man is visited and comforted by the ghost of his daughter.
If you can’t deal with a trilogy, his latest, Birds Without Wings has just been released in paperback. Corelli’s Mandolin, the one that was turned into a movie (barf) is my least favorite of his books, but still very good compared to most fiction.
The Intuitionist by Colson Whitehead
This is one of the most imaginative books I’ve read in a long time. It’s part noir mystery, part racial allegory, part nerdy procedural, except that the procedure is the inspection of elevators, rather than the conducting of trials or running a hospital – elevators (and escalators too, though they’re a less-prestigious and somewhat neglected aspect of the Vertical Transport field) are serious business, and the main character is apparently being set up to take the fall for the failure of a high-profile elevator which she was responsible for inspecting. The conspiracy (of course there’s a conspiracy) is complicated and imaginative, and it’s still unclear to me just how much of the real history of elevators and escalators that’s discussed in the book is drawn from history as opposed to total bullshit, but I sort of don’t care. Whitehead’s written one other novel: John Henry Days, which I’m eager to read.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
One of those books that nearly got the author killed – I know a couple of native-born Russians (not Gene) who would make everyone in the world read this book if they could. It’s very typical Russian writing – sort of fatalistic, really funny in spite of that, and filled with wonderful characterizations and absurd events. The gist of the plot is that Satan comes to Moscow, accompanied by a bureaucratic type and a giant talking cat that wears pants and gets really huffy with people who condescend to him. Jesus is around too.
I feel compelled to add a defense here (if anyone ever makes it to the bottom of this comment) that Jen asked me specifically for LIGHT reading because Ann's list is pretty serious. I would have put Guns, Germs and Steel on the list, if I wasn't going for fun. So, um, okay.
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