This list compiles my favorite literary titles I’ve read since 2005. This repeats my capsule review/synopses that I write for my Reading/Writing chronologies (see link at top). I’ll update this list over time, with my most recent recommendations appearing at the bottom. See also my list of favorite novels and a list of writers who have influenced me. In 2011, I started writing book reviews on a regular basis … albeit slowly (here’s a list).
Restless Nights by Dino Buzzati. Italian allegorical writer. Light-hearted brief tales with deeper darker overtones. Update: This book is not only the best thing I’ve read all year, but the best thing I’ve read in 5 years. Good luck finding this rare and amazing book. See also his other collection: The Siren and other Stories
13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley. Great explanation of why the novel genre is relevant in the 21st century. Jane Smiley writes not with scholarly rigor but an artisan’s practical eye. Nonetheless, she indicates a historical awareness of what her predecessors have done with the novel and what the novel is capable of. Her short essays about 100 novels are nothing special (though they are interesting to browse through).
Fat City by Leonard Gartner. Classic hard-boiled California novel about down-and-out-boxers. Recommended by Neil Pollack and ultimately Denis Johnson–see this article) . Stylistically speaking, the taut sentences remind me of either Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver. But stories about boxers–ugh! Can’t someone declare a moratorium? Update: Although the ending left me hanging, the writing was sad, compelling and taut. Each paragraph was a work of art, and I like how the book transcends the idiotic genre of boxing. It is about love, failed relationships and disappointed dreams. Favorite scenes: picking the onions, Billy Tully’s return to his ex-wife (how heart-breaking). As I finish, I just don’t know what to make of it, except to appreciate where it took me, what I saw.
Tales from Ovid, tr. by Ted Hughes. Compelling rendering of the Metamorphasis by a great poet. Unfortunately incomplete translation, these poems bring ancient legends to life. Update: An extraordinary retelling that has whetted my appetite for Ovid.
Other Hand Clapping by Marco Vassi. Spiritual/erotic journey by erotic writer Marco Vassi. Taut masterpiece about meditation, introspection and jealousy. Compare to Moravia’s Contempt. (I’m writing a critical essay about Vassi, so I’m reading a lot by him at the moment).
Chris Crawford on Interactive Storytelling, by Chris Crawford. Videogame designer Chris Crawford imagines an immersive videogame for telling stories and speculates how it might be constructed (from a programming point of view). A fascinating work; he’s clearly thought about this subject for a while. I have no doubt that some 15 year old somewhere will pick up this book and write a literary/gaming engine incorporating Crawford’s algorithms that will transform the world.
I’m the Teacher, You’re the Student by Patrick Allitt. Fun personal account by a distinguished history professor about teaching a one semester class. Loaded with insights, anecdotes and suggestions. Things I found intriguing: his total disregard for personal problems of students when accepting excuses (students need to be responsible for their actions, he says), his analysis of why student papers are so poorly constructed (there are many reasons, but it has a lot to do with writing not for a general audience but for the teacher ), why plagiarism is harmful (it prevents the teacher from seeing into the students’ mind). What struck me was how keenly Allitt perceived gaps in understanding and how much material they could digest for a semester class.
America by Alistaire Cooke. Famed Brit writes an engrossing panoramic history lesson for the general reader. Cooke has a jaunty first person style and an eye for unusual details. I listened to his Letter from America for years and was afraid his writing on the page would pale by comparison. Happily, I report this not to be the case.
How to Live on 24 hours a day. Arnold Bennett. Short essay about maximizing the use of your time. Absolutely relevant to this day and age. http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext00/24hrs11.txt
Red China Blues, by Jan Wong. Amazing 1st person account of a Canadian-Chinese who studied in China during the Cultural Revolution and who revisited China over the decades. Wong is a great writer and dramatically shows how living in China both brainwashed her and made her skeptical about politics. Here’s an interview with her about Tiananmen Square for a pbs documentary http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tankman/interviews/wong.html
Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald. Remarkable and romantic novel that is philosophical, whimsical, light-hearted, humorous and yes, joyful. Compare to Kundera’s Unbearable Lightness of Being.
The Conversations: Walter Murch and the Art of Editing Film, by Michael Ondaatje. Extended thoughts by Murch on various film projects. Great anecdote about how he reedited Welles’ Touch of Evil to conform with Welles’ original instructions. Update: This book just gets better and better. I’m now calling it one of the most important essays on art and creativity I’ve found. See also: In the Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch.
An Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (free, on my ereader). This long book, raved about by Martin-Seymour Smith, is easy to get into and seems to be more of a character study than a plotted novel. (I just started). It’s a bit slow going, although I appreciate Bennett’s fascination with ordinary people and ordinary lives. This is a long book, so I’ll be staying with it a while. Update: This is now one of my alltime favorite books.
A Rebellious Heroine, John Kendrick Bangs. Free download, metafictional comedy. Looks cerebral and light-hearted. And funny. (Upon finishing) I am feeling very positive about what’s going on ontologically here, although the conceit is somewhat cute.
Six Records of a Floating Life (Penguin Classics)by Shen Fu. Short novella/autobiography about an official and his wife. Besides giving an excellent glimpse into aspects of Chinese culture (flower arrangement, filial piety and mythologies), this story is fascinating and lovely to read. At times the story is sad, but you appreciate the ability to go into the world of 18th century China.
Lucian, Satires. A series of Voltairian parodies and sketches. Hilarious.
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov. Terrific.
Laughing Sutra by Mark Salzman (highly recommended). Update: This book turned out to be the most enjoyable thing I’ve read this year. A picaresque tale of a young Chinese monk wishing to travel to the US to locate some mythical Buddhist scripture. I laughed and laughed some more. I didn’t realize this until after reading, but the book is an homage to Journey to the West.
Three Comrades, by Eric Remarque. Tale of three buddies (who fought together in WW1) mess around, sell cars (in 1936!), deal with growing old, go on dates. It’s easy to forget in Germany between WW2 that normal living went on. See my essay about the book. Highly recommended.
How Proust Can Change Your Life: Not a Novel by Alain De Botton. Idiosyncratic light-hearted biography of Proust’s life. Best read of the year.
The Curtain by Milan Kundera. Outstanding collection of meditations about the novel and its place in history. I loved every page! Highly recommended.
Travels with Lisbeth. by Lars Eighner. Classic tale about being homeless in Texas. I’m enjoying this work a lot, but there’s really nothing typical about his homeless story. One conceit of the memoir is why such an eloquent person would be roaming the streets, but if you forget about that for a moment, you can appreciate Lars Eighner’s insights into life from the point of view of a down-and-outer. Highly recommended.
Contempt by Alberto Moravia. Second time reading. This is one of the most psychologically absorbing novel I’ve ever read. It is sad and tragic, though Moravia has all sorts of insights into relationships and the human heart. It’s funny; I’ve read some other mediocre stuff by Moravia and didn’t expect much here. Oddly, I wasn’t particular enamored by the film when I first saw it (before reading the book). Now that I’ve read the book, I’m tempted to watch it again for curiosity’s sake. Highly recommended.
Writing in the Dark. Essays by David Grossman. This Israeli writer writes about morality and art with the seriousness of a Camus and the introspection of Proust. Highly recommended.
Eureka Street by Robert McLaim Wilson. Really terrific social novel about living in Belfast during the political turbulence of the 1990s. In many ways this is a perfect novel. Lots of subplots and reprises and characters. I’ll be honest; I haven’t been really interested in the internecine squabblings of Belfast, but this book made me care about it. This is a rough bawdy novel with lots of skirmishes, outbursts, silliness and even introspection. Someone compared it to Bonfire of the Vanities or the Corrections; never having read that, I don’t know how apt this comparison is, but I enjoyed being surprised by new characters and situations. The central character is a boorish fellow who is utterly sick of the political nonsense swirling about him; in a way he just lets everything slide over him without caring. By the end, we learn that he has turned into an assertive and active character has started to care (and so do we the readers) Highly recommended.
Great Voyeur: observations on my sexual history. By MC Radiance. Comic tell-all about a young man’s sexual history. Free & Creative Commmons. This book is both funny and light-hearted and a delight to read (so far). The mulitalented MC Radiance has published a number of fast-paced, imaginative and sexually explicit books on Feedbooks. A critic compared him to Tom Robbins; I would add Garcia Marquez, Salmon Rushie and Terry Southern. I haven’t read enough to know if there is any depth or great themes, but so far it reads very well.
Fiction of Jack Matthews. I’ve been reading a lot of Jack Matthews, and the works are uniformly excellent (and my ebook publishing company is publishing some of his titles). Among my faves: Sassafras. Comic epic tale about a phrenologist in 19th century America. This comic & philosophical tale is like the American Candide. Gambler’s Nephew, A highly readable and historically accurate story about how an accidental killing of a slave in 19th century USA affects various families and communities. A old-fashioned yarn told with cunning and irony. Hanger Stout, Awake, tale of a happy-go-lucky high school student who finds himself the victim of a con job. Crazy Women. Short story collection where a different kind of crazy woman (to use the term loosely) appears in each story. (All the short stories are great though). Booking in the Heartland, wonderful essays about the art of book collecting, plus some investigations into some “found books” with delicious histories. See this interview I did with Matthews.
Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley.
Zombification: Stories from National Public Radio by Andrei Codrescu. Highly recommended.
Man Jumps out of an Airplane. Stories by Barry Yourgran. Highly recommended. My Review.