books i would totally recommend

April 22, 2008

I used to read more than I read now. And by “read” I mean, read books, not magazines, or billboards. I still read, but I feel myself gradually moving away from fiction and into other stuff, like magazines (The Economist–definitely my favorite, but impossible for me to get through before the next issue arrives), non-fiction books, like war history (loved the John Keegan WWI and WWII stuff, for example), and science (well, for me, I guess it’s psuedo-science, light stuff, like “A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson” and “The Big Bang”), and lots of news and even blog stuff on the Internet.

But I’m trying to get back to fiction. I just finished Ken Follett’s “Pillars of the Earth.” I cannot figure out why I found it so compelling. It’s not that well written, it’s a bit, um, I dunno, common. But I found myself reading it at stoplights in my car. Go figure. So it’s on this list.

Anyway, this is just going to be a list of books I love. I’m not scholar, and I’m rarely hoity toity. I realize that most of the books on my list are conventional, non-adventurous. I haven’t decided whether to apologize for that or not. I tried to read Goedel, Echer, Bach, An Eternal Golden Braid, by Hofstadter once, and my head hurt. That book is NOT on this list, but props to Robert for recommending it way back when. Robert is smarter than me. I just like what I like. And I like these books. I’m sure there are other books I like that I can’t remember right now. I’ll add them to the list, which, by the way, will be in no particular order. For example, the books will NOT be listed by genre. Nor by year. Or Author.

In short, it’s just a list of books I love. I’m happy to add books to the list, so long as they meet the criteria. That is, they must be books I’ve read, and that I love.

In no particular order (did I already say that?):

Hamlet–What can I say? Although, I much prefer viewing Kenneth Branagh’s movie version to actually reading it. Not that I haven’t read it. Oh, I’ve read it.

John Keegan’s World War I and World War II–It’s gritty in detail, sometimes too mundane, but I love the way it gives both the strategic, um strategy stuff, and the view from the man on the ground. Great stuff.

The Good War, by Studs Terkel–Amazing in it’s breadth, from a gay soldier to John Kenneth Galbraith, this is still my favorite book about any war, much less World War II. Props to Bob for recommending this book back in the day.

The Razor’s Edge, by Somerset Maugham–This is a book that I think of all the time, when I find myself wondering if I’m wasting my life working for a small software company. But then the light changes and I have to drive again.

Beloved, by Toni Morrison–I first read this in college, and just loved it. Even though I get extreme white liberal guilt whenever I read it, I still love it.

A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson–How can you not get behind a title like that? Don’t YOU want to know about everything? And Bill writes it like he’s sitting with you on the beach, drinking a diet coke.

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole–Ignatius J. Reilly is kind of like Frodo for me–He lives. I really hope to see a movie version of this book. I would like to see Itnatius brought to life. Will Ferrel comes to mind.

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley–The vision of kids sleeping while being programmed with subliminal messages returns to me sometimes. Usually when I’m whispering stuff into MY kids’ ears while THEY sleep.

King Lear–I love everything but the ending. And I’ve already said all I’m going to say about that.

Catch 22, by Joseph Heller–“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian observed. “It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne–I think I’ve always had a soft spot for Hester, but I just didn’t know it until I read this.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut–I realize this is Vonnegut’s most accessible novel. I’m all about accessibility.

A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams–Don’t Panic.

The Big Bang, by Simon Singh–More than an explanation of the Big Bang, this is really more a chronicle of the history of science and the scientific method that LED to the theory of the big bang.

Darkness At Noon, by Arthur Koestler–I read this in high school, for Mr. Norton. I distinctly remember reading this, and for the first time grabbing onto a BIG IDEA. I know, it’s weird, but before this book, books were nothing but science fiction short story anthologies. Maybe that’s just me.

The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon–I read this in Phil Snyder’s contemporary lit class, and I remember thinking “wait, this is supposed to be postmodern junk, theory disguised as fiction. Why do I LIKE this?”

The Awakening, by Kate Chopin–One of the first feminist type novels I read. Along with some of the postmodern stuff I read in college, I would call this a life-changing novel for me.

Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad–I remember in high school, one of the English teachers, Bonnie something, speaking to a collection of English classes, talking about this novel, and getting all emotional (suicide in front of high school kids) about how each of us has a heart of darkness inside us. Like a dutiful high school student, I scoffed. But I never forgot. And you know what? It’s true!

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Attwood–With just a twist, a push, a shove maybe, this could be us. Ick.

The Catcher In the Rye, by J.D. Salinger–I named my youngest son after Holden Caulfield. I have high hopes for him. Funny thing is, I read this long after I went through my alienation, angst phase. It almost made me long for ennui, where I had none.

Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger–I think I have a thing for first novels from authors. I love this: “Here’s what I saw,” Rube warns his readers. “Here’s how it went. Make of it what you will.”

The Monkey Wrench Gang, by Edward Abby–You get Abby’s politics, but through a much more entertaining voice. Hayduke lives.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find, by Flannery O’Conner–I love Flannery. A critic once said about her: “She creates a contrast of violent action with humorously and carefully drawn characters and a philosophy that underscores her devout Roman Catholic faith.” In other words she’s like an old woman version of Quentin Tarantino. What’s not to like? All Flannery is good, but this collection is really all you need.

Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett–I don’t know why I loved it. I don’t even know IF I loved it. But it’s a thousand pages, give or take, and I couldn’t put it down. You do the math.

Many Things Have Happened Since He Died, by Elizabeth Dewberry Vaughn–Kind of turned me on to Southern Writing, if that’s a thing. She has a gift.

Life of Pi, by Yann Martel–I don’t know if this is great fiction, but I love the idea of not missing the better story. I never want to miss the better story.

Lord of the Rings–You know, the dialog sucks, the writing is artificial and pretentious, and there are very very few meaningful women characters. And yet. And yet. What are you gonna do?

18 Responses to “books i would totally recommend”

  1. brkeyes7 Says:

    “reading…at stoplights..” If I ever see you reading while walking down the sidewalk I will run you over.

    Ignatius is alive and well. He’s been reincarnated as Harlan from soveryalone blog. Maybe you’ve read it.

  2. KT Says:

    You should try SM Stirling’s books. His website has sample chapters (for instance, up to the first 11 chapters of one book, 9 of another, etc) so you can check it out before you buy.

    I also enjoy Neil Gaiman… YMMV!

  3. Rob Says:

    Will Ferrell was actually cast as Ignatius for a movie then the production was cut…bummer.

    I’m actually thinking Philip Seamour Hoffman would be great for the part.

  4. Rob Says:


    would have been a better follow up than “…bummer” please update my last post.

  5. mark Says:

    I read “The Crying of Lot 49” under the same circumstances as you, except someone besides Phil Snyder was teaching the class. I didn’t care much for the book but likely would have were Phil the one teaching it–that guy made literature that didn’t interest me engaging and forced me to become a better writer at the same time. My senior year, I started signing up for his classes regardless of what he was teaching even though I knew I’d have to work harder for those three credits than in any other class I was taking.

    It’s funny that you wrote this post, because in the last few weeks, I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t reading enough fiction and needed to find something good to read. Last fiction I read was on my last business trip a few months ago: “The Pearl” by John Steinbeck. Somehow I got a degree in English without reading this one but am glad I went back for it.

  6. Rachel Says:

    thanks for the list. I have actually only read a few of those so I guess I’ve got a lot of catching up to do. Kim’s turn. She’s not off the hook, pass it on.

  7. egaoiran Says:

    Man I need to read more.

  8. dug Says:

    brad, i hadn’t considered the similarities before, but it fits. oh fortuna!

    kt, i don’t wanna read sample chapters. i’m happy to buy a book, hate it, and throw it away. i’ve got money to burn.

    rob, yes, now that you mention it, philip seymour hoffman would be perfect. but i’d put will ferrell a close second.

    mark, phil was the man. there are maybe 5 major influences on me, career and reading development-wise, and he’s one. and i only took two classes from him. i’m guessing he has no idea who i am, but i’ll never forget him.

    rachel, maybe i’m the one needing to catch up. do YOU have a list?

    sleepy, lighten up. reading is for sissies.

  9. BotchedExperiment Says:

    On the Road – I know it’s kind of trite to cite it because it’s one of those books you read when you’re really young, and yet it changed my life. Same with Desert Solitaire.

    Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by Shirer – Probably the best book ever written about a society. Read it if you’ve ever wondered ‘how could a country of regular people become (collectively) the biggest bunch of monsters in modern history?’

    Albert Speer’s Autobiography – If Speer had wanted to get control of the 3rd Reich, we’d all be speaking German right now. An insight into how regular people wind up supporting AND opposing the unimaginable.

    Jawbreaker by Gary Berntsen – How the CIA with a few million dollars and a few dozen special forces kicked the Taliban and Al Qaeda out of Afghanistan. Oh, and how the CIA was going to do it BEFORE 9/11 happened, but got yanked out of the country.

  10. mark Says:

    While Botched is throwing around the non-fiction, I’ll propose “Nothing like it in the world.” Stephen Ambrose’s account of building the trans-continental railroad is absolutely fascinating.

    Dug, I doubt Phil remembers me, either, but I’m sure there are hundreds of former students who feel about him the way we do. I wish our almost-free market system were better at rewarding people like Phil Snyder for the value they provide to society.

  11. Elden Says:

    I have three books that I recommend to everyone. I have a 100% success rate with all three of these recommendations.

    1. Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. I don’t laugh out loud when reading books, but I do when I read this one. Can’t help it. Kingsley Amis’s first novel, and the only one that’s any good.

    2. Straight Man, by Richard Russo. This is essentially the continuation of Lucky Jim, but now he’s American and has stayed in academia his whole life. I like most of Richard Russo, but I like this book best. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say this is my favorite novel.

    3. Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. A fictional biography (with touch points of real events at key moments) of real-life early 20th century magician Charles Carter. Intrigue, inventiveness, magic, danger, double crosses galore. A charming romp.

    4. Princess Bride, by William Goldman. I add this not to my list, but to yours, because you left it off inadvertently.

  12. Rachel Says:

    I do have a list on my blog except that it is edited to include only books I think people who read my blog would actually enjoy. I love Kate Chopin but didn’t put her on my list because I don’t want to give the wrong idea about me =)I will come up with a non-edited version of favorites and let you know when I post it.

  13. dug Says:

    elden, you are as wise as you are fat. straight man is, in fact, wonderful. super duper wonderful.

    and, of course, the princess bride is a glaring omission. i am embarrassed. shamed. i just punched myself in the face.

    i liked lucky jim. didn’t love it. i loved “small world” by david lodge, which is like a modern send up of lucky jim. but i guess i didn’t love it enough to list it.

  14. KanyonKris Says:

    I liked “Undaunted Courage” (Lewis and Clark) better than Ambrose’s “Nothing like it in the world”.

    I enjoyed “Dune”.

    For non-fiction, “Into Thin Air” (the 1994 Everest disaster) was gripping, as was “Touching The Void” (more harrowing mountain climbing) and even “Between a Rock and a Hard Place” (Aron Ralston pinned by a boulder in a Utah slot canyon).

  15. dug Says:

    kris, both of those are good, but i agree, i enjoyed undaunted courage more.

    i liked dune when i read it, but i don’t think it holds up. i know it’s weird to continue to love lotr and not dune, but i think lotr has themes and characters that last forever, and dune, as time goes on, seems gimicky to me.

    into thin air, very good, touching the void, also very good. when i read rock and a hard place, i wasn’t halfway through before i started wishing he would just shut up and die already. i was literally rooting for the rock and the hard place.

    i recommend “vagabond for beauty”, the story of everett ruess, the kid who wandered into the southern utah dessert and disappeared.

  16. KanyonKris Says:

    I read Dune once when I was a teenager, and again a few years back. Hardly a test of rereadability.

    Ralston’s format choice of mixing the slot canyon story with his other adventures kind of worked, but mostly annoyed me – kept interrupting the flow of the story. But the backstory showed me he’s nuts – high risk adventure junky. I was into canyoneering at the time so it was easier to forgive the book’s flaws. Hmm, I should have realized that and not recommended it for general reading.

    I’ll check out “Vagabond for Beauty” and “The Monkey Wrench Gang” along this outdoor theme.

  17. dug Says:

    yeah, it wasn’t the format of rock and a hard place that annoyed me, it was ralston. he sounded like a total asshole. and since he’s the one who wrote the book, and controlled how he came across, well, if he’d wanted to make himself look better he could have. maybe this was as good as he could make himself look. which was like an asshole.

  18. Bob Says:

    I have so many things to say about your list that I have nothing to say.

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