Recommendations for fiction?
September 12, 2004 4:28 PM   Subscribe

A friend in a sociology graduate program has turned to me for advice and I could use yours: she is required to read a book of fiction (a novel or short story collection) per week for a course, and wants recommendations.

I gave her Winesburg, Ohio, which she loved. I've thought of The Handmaid's Tale, The House of Mirth, and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, but everything else I consider seems either too lengthy or too light. There are no restrictions on her choices except that they have literary merit. Thanks for your help.
posted by melissa may to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Since it's a sociology program, if she is not of delicate sensibilities, I would say Irvine Welsh's Filth.
posted by falconred at 4:33 PM on September 12, 2004

1 per week sounds kind of a rapid pace...

djinn by alain robbe grillet is nice and short and weird.
and there's always the various borges short story collections.

slightly longer:
the black book by orhan pamuk
new york trilogy by paul auster
posted by juv3nal at 4:36 PM on September 12, 2004

Response by poster: She is not at all delicate. She's good and funny and earthy and so deserves good things to read. I should also say she's had her fill of dry, jargon-filled academic prose, and that her course of study can be fairly depressing, so anything with elements of comic relief would be stellar.
posted by melissa may at 4:40 PM on September 12, 2004

Best answer: Well, I'm a grad student in English who's just now studying for my comprehensive exams. Here are some novels from my comprehensives list which are readable in a week of manageable reading, and which are awesome (I'm leaving some stuff, like Tristram Shandy, off):

Daniel Defoe: "Robinson Crusoe"
Charlotte Bronte: "Villette" (a *great* read)
Joseph Conrad: "Lord Jim" and "Heart of Darkness"
James Joyce, "Dubliners"
Virginia Woolf, "To the Lighthouse"
J. M. Coetzee, "Disgrace"
Ian McEwan, "Atonement"
Thoreau, "Walden" (not a novel, but it ought to be acceptable)
Twain, "Huckleberry Finn"
Fitzgerald, "The Great Gatsby"
Hemingway, "The Sun Also Rises"
Willa Cather, "The Professor's House"
William Faulkner, "The Sound and the Fury"
Ralph Ellison, "Invisible Man"
Jane Austen, "Persuasion" (her best, I think)
Henry James, "Portrait of a Lady," "The Wings of the Dove," "The American"
Vladimir Nabokov, "Lolita," "Pale Fire"
W. G. Sebald, "Austerlitz," "The Rings of Saturn"

More recent books: "Forgetting Elena" and "The Farewell Symphony" by Edmund White; "Rock Springs" by Richard Ford; any collection by Raymond Carver.

(I love all these books, and I say your friend should take this as an opportunity to read the best. If you haven't read Sebald's novels I recommend them especially).
posted by josh at 4:42 PM on September 12, 2004 [1 favorite]

Isaac Asimov's Foundation might be of interest to her given the subject matter.
posted by riffola at 4:43 PM on September 12, 2004

Ooh, a chance to recommend my favorite: Donna Tartt's "The Secret History", the story of a group of New England college students who suddenly find themselves murderers. It's just fascinating, extremely well-written, and I would think there would be a lot of sociological issues fascinating for someone with her background.
posted by GaelFC at 4:44 PM on September 12, 2004

Best answer: All of Chuck Palahniuk's books are easy to read in a week, gripping in a sort of "this is sort of gross but very interesting" way and very well written. I would recommend Choke, Lullaby, Fight Club or Survivor. [link]

All of the Number 1 Ladies' Detective Agency Books are interesting little mystery books -- think Encyclopedia Brown for grown-ups -- that are doubly interesting because they take place in Botswana with this neat little fat lady detective. Not quite heavy literature, but also, nice words, nice stories. [link]

Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhauser [or others by Millhauser, most notably The Knife Thrower and Other Stories]. He has a great command of the language, writes not ovely long pieces and is a wonderful story teller. Weird characters. [link]

Richard Brautigan's The Abortion [link]

Lovely Bones by Alice Seybold tragic and sort of lovely, it's a "our world, as viewed from heaven" story about a murdered girl [link]
posted by jessamyn at 4:49 PM on September 12, 2004

David Schickler's collection "Kissing in Manhattan" is also very likeable and quite good.
posted by josh at 4:50 PM on September 12, 2004

Response by poster: GaelFC, I thought of that book too, especially since I just read it again recently. It's perfect for an academic, isn't it? My big concern, though, is length. She's got to bolt down one of these a week, and that's a very long book. But I'll definitely recommend it to her for outside reading.

Thanks, everyone -- keep them coming! (And I can't believe I didn't think of The Great Gatsby right off -- my lit comps weren't that long ago. Sheesh).
posted by melissa may at 4:53 PM on September 12, 2004

Another top-notch, short book: "The Fall" by Camus. Really amazing.
posted by josh at 4:58 PM on September 12, 2004

Barthelme's The Dead Father has a narrow appeal, but to some it's far more interesting than some of the titles presented upthread.

I am stunned that MeFi's own jessamyn is the number one google result for many Barthelme google queries. Splendid taste.
posted by Kwantsar at 5:05 PM on September 12, 2004

of the novels I've read recently, these might be the most interesting:

White Noise (Don DeLillo)
A Confederacy of Dunces (John Toole)
Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (Stanislaw Lem)
Galapagos (Kurt Vonnegut)
posted by sfenders at 5:10 PM on September 12, 2004

I just finished reading The Horned Man by James Lasdun. It's a slim book (~200 pages), but there is not a wasted word in there.

While awaiting the arrival of my hottie date at Kramer Books in DC I found a paperback academic edition with study questions, so it should be pretty easy to find. Also, it's won boatloads of awards (for something only published in 2002).

I just peeked at the Amazon reader reviews, and boy does this ever generate some polar reactions. I have a good idea of why that is, but to say so would interfere with the enjoyment of those that choose to read it.

On preview, I now question whether that's the best recommendation, because the narrator does have a pretty twee manner throughout, but the powerful impact of the novel's resolution arises from the way that manner is contradicted, so there's a huge payoff for sticking with it.

But, if she wants to go another way, and really is not squeamish at all and open to something edgy, I would mischievously recommend The Metamorphosis of Prime Intellect. The complete text is available online (free of charge), and it is also available as a bound book.
posted by NortonDC at 5:18 PM on September 12, 2004

Best answer: White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty - wickedly funny; satire at its best.
Interpreter of Maladies, Jhumpa Lahiri - gorgeous collection of short stories loosely tied to the Indian immigrant experience. I've read it maybe 15 times now.
The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri - a fantastic fast read and absolutely bang-on for our generation
Book of Daniel, E.L Doctorow - roman a clef (more or less) on the Rosenbergs
Sula, Toni Morrison - no Morrison mentioned this far?!
Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison - must read
Native Speaker, Chang-Rae Lee - clear, precise, meticulous and yet sweepingly beautiful
No-No Boy, John Okada - the US reactionary stance has a long history; this is about Japense Americans in internment camps (and after)
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson - Puget Sound Japanese-Americans in the 1950s (as I recall); you can almost taste his descriptions of the mountains, moss, quiet, forest. Delicious read.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen - I don't love this as much as some people, but its acerbic wit has stayed with me a long time.
David Sedaris -- any interest there?
Borges -- has many short stories that would be wonderful
Raymond Carver -- any collection [on preview, as mentioned above!]
Forty Stories (or Sixty Stories), Donald Barthelme [on preview; or the Dead Father, as mentioned above]

What kind of Sociology is this? Would Foucault count?!
posted by fionab at 5:22 PM on September 12, 2004

  • "Oryx & Crake" by Margaret Atwood took me all of a trip from Winnipeg to Chicago (by air) to read. "Bluebeard's Egg" is a collection of her short stories that's quick to read, and "The Handmaid's Tale" is slightly longer, but still should be doable in a week.
  • "The Woman Who Walked into Doors" by Roddy Doyle is a pretty quick read.
  • Anything by Nick Hornby is easy to read; "High Fidelity" is his best.
  • Finally, "The Life of Pi" by Jann Martel, "Generation X" by Douglas Coupland, and "The Stone Diaries" by Carol Shields are marginal, but would be doable if your friend is a faster-than-average reader.

posted by Johnny Assay at 5:25 PM on September 12, 2004

The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris -- in keeping with the quick and comical request. Also, White Teeth by Zadie Smith which is described as too long by some users on Amazon, but I found it to be such a fast read that I didn't really notice.
posted by sa3z at 5:26 PM on September 12, 2004

Ah, three more: "Kokoro" and "The Wayfarer" by Natsume Soseki. Both of them are available in really beautiful editions from Tuttle. These are two of the most beautiful novels I've ever read -- "Kokoro" is especially beautiful -- very evocative of Japan as well.

And I'd recommend Amy Hempel's short story collection "Tumble Home," too. Hempel is a great, great writer who's only written a few short books and so is under-read. She deserves to be -- this collection in particular is very wry and amazing.

So: if I had to pick five from my big list to add some variety to a semester of reading, I'd pick: Dubliners, Kokoro, Villette, Austerlitz, and Tumble Home.
posted by josh at 5:29 PM on September 12, 2004

Ursula K. LeGuin's Lathe of Heaven is very good, especially from a socio perspective. Also her book The Left Hand of Darkness. Her father was a noted anthropologist, so many of her stories are quite appealing to those of us who enjoy the topics.

Anything by Richard Brautigan.

Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers is an excellent book on civic responsibility.

and for something a bit whimsical I would suggest Tolkien's children story, Roverandom.
posted by sciurus at 5:31 PM on September 12, 2004

Barry Hughart, "Bridge of Birds"
Gregory Mcdonald, "Fletch"
Tim Powers, "Last Call"
posted by robocop is bleeding at 5:48 PM on September 12, 2004

Cannery Row
The Mezzanine
Double Whammy
posted by plinth at 6:03 PM on September 12, 2004

Kwantsar reminds me that Barthelme's Amateurs is truly one of the great collections of postmodern and yet accessible and amusing fiction that I know of. Short, too. A few selections: The Great Hug, Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby, and the completely excellent The School

Other short weird books in this vein include Pynchon's The Crying of Lot 49, Delillo's White Noise and Tom Robbins' Still Life With Woodpecker. Notable and also short is Kenzaburo Oe's Teach Us To Out Grow Our Madness.
posted by jessamyn at 6:12 PM on September 12, 2004

A lot of these are very easy-reading classics, but are sometimes overlooked as "Get around to it someday" novels. They're all very good.

H.G. Wells, When the Sleeper Wakes
William Hope Hodgson, The House on the Borderland
Aldous Huxley, Brave New World
Upton Sinclair, The Jungle
George Orwell, 1984
Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

Some other good reads:
Will Self, The Quantity Theory of Insanity
Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 6:43 PM on September 12, 2004

Has Dave Eggers jumped the shark? 23 comments and nobody's mentioned him.
posted by PrinceValium at 7:38 PM on September 12, 2004

Is a sociological connection required?..if so, my input.

Looking Backward, Bellamy (utopian socialism)
Christie Malry's Own Double Entry Accounting, BS Johnson
Man withouth Qualities, Musil (alas. very long)
Auto de Fe, Canetti (also a tad long)
The Spell, Broch
The Plague, Camus
We, Zamayatin
Manhattan Transfer, Dos Passos
The Iron Heel, Jack London
Ayn Rand's books (with caveats)

loads more but a start.
posted by Duck_Lips at 7:43 PM on September 12, 2004

By travelling backwards into the past, Dave Eggers jumped the shark in 1997, when David Foster Wallace wrote Infinite Jest. Too bad you can't read that one in a week . . . .
posted by josh at 7:46 PM on September 12, 2004

Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon.

I second, third, whatever, anything by David Sedaris.

I saw High Fidelity mentioned earlier and second that recommendation.

The Wishbones or Election byTom Perrotta -- both are fun quick reads.
posted by szg8 at 7:48 PM on September 12, 2004

I am impressed by the names I haven't recognized...I consider myself fairly well read, but wow mefites...

Some of my favourite books of all time, and that I hadn't noted mentioned, are Salinger's less famous works. I love Franny and Zooey, Nine Stories (a collection of shorts, for anyone not familiar) and also Raise High the Roof Beam Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. I continue to reread those throughout my life.

Also, any of Douglas Coupland's can be knocked of pretty quickly. I liked All Families are Psychotic a lot. The novel was almost as good as its title! Vonnegut as well is usually a quick read.

I am curious Josh...I had Sebald recommeded to me, and found his stuff really hard to care about. Why do you like it? I hope that doesn't sound harsh, it is sincere...I agree completely about Coetze btw.
posted by Richat at 7:54 PM on September 12, 2004

Anything by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights
One Hundred Years of Solitude
The Age of Innocence
O, Pioneers
The Scarlet Letter
The Secret Garden
Short stories by Chekhov
Catcher in the Rye
Lord of the Flies
The Moonstone
To Kill a Mockingbird
Stories of John Cheever
The ABC Murders
Hadrian VI
The Box of Delights (great forgotton Children's Novel)
Name of the Rose
Memoirs of a Geisha
Don Quixote (new awesome translation by Edith Grossman)
Stories of Issac Bashiva Singer (recently collected)
The Color Purple
The Hobbit
Les Miserables
The Three Musketeers
posted by grumblebee at 8:00 PM on September 12, 2004

Any book in the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett. They are not all that long, they are full of wry British humor and are very rewarding to anyone who knows their cultural references.
posted by Lynsey at 8:08 PM on September 12, 2004

Haruki Murakami does some neat stuff.
posted by cohappy at 8:11 PM on September 12, 2004

From the "B"s and "C"s:

Beryl Bainbridge, Master Georgie
John Banville, The Untouchable
Pat Barker's "Regeneration" trilogy: Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road
T. C. Boyle, Riven Rock or Water Music
Anthony Burgess, A Dead Man in Deptford
Peter Carey, Jack Maggs, The True History of Ned Kelly, or Oscar and Lucinda
posted by thomas j wise at 8:22 PM on September 12, 2004

Murakami is a great addition cohappy.

Richat: I had a similar experience with Sebald at first: my girlfriend gave me "Austerlitz," about which I'd heard a lot, and I wasn't able to get into it or care about it. Then I had an entire day free in which to read the book, and it really sunk in. I think that because the prose is so meditative, it can be hard to read at less than 100%.

And the photographs! -- I love the way the novels tie a big knot out of history and memory, reality and fiction. I read Sebald right after studying a lot of 20th c. history, and reading Hannah Arendt's "Origins of Totalitarianism," and that opened him up for me a lot, too. It's postmodern, but it's serious and solemn, not flip and ironic.

The best way I can say it at the moment: Sebald's novels are historical elegies, and so you have to be in an elegaic mood, and a historical frame of mind, when you read them. Personally, I would put money on Sebald's being taught in universities fifty or a hundred years from now.
posted by josh at 8:29 PM on September 12, 2004

Blindness bye Jose Saramago is one of my current favorites.Here's the dust jacket:
"A city is hit by an epidemic of "white blindness" which spares no one. Authorities confine the blind to an empty mental hospital, but there the criminal element holds everyone captive, stealing food rations and raping women. There is one eyewitness to this nightmare who guides seven strangers-among them a boy with no mother, a girl with dark glasses, a dog of tears-through the barren streets, and the procession becomes as uncanny as the surroundings are harrowing. A magnificent parable of loss and disorientation and a vivid evocation of the horrors of the twentieth century, Blindness has swept the reading public with its powerful portrayal of man's worst appetites and weaknesses-and man's ultimately exhilarating spirit. The stunningly powerful novel of man's will to survive against all odds, by the winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature."

The amazon link gives too much away, IMO. This is at once the saddest and most beautiful book I have read in a long time.
posted by rfordh at 11:53 PM on September 12, 2004

Barry Unsworth - The Songs of the Kings. It's a retelling of the sacrifice of Iphigeneia, and very worth reading.
posted by emmling at 12:26 AM on September 13, 2004

murakami is good but many of his books may be hard to fit in in a week. One place to start might be "after the quake", a (short) collection of short stories.
posted by advil at 12:35 AM on September 13, 2004

Throw anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Herman Hesse at her. Not literally. Haha
posted by Blue Stone at 2:06 AM on September 13, 2004

Douglas Coupland - Life after God is a very quick read, and a remarkable book.
John Irving books tend to be long, but "A prayer for Owen Meany" comes reccomended.
Margaret Atwood - Murder in the dark. (Also good, short and easy to read)
Angela carter has some great short story collections.
Steinbeck - Of mice and men.

With the exception of Owen Meany, she should be able to polish that lot off in about two hours.
posted by seanyboy at 4:57 AM on September 13, 2004

Oh, I forgot -
Elizibeth Smart - By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept.
Also very short, but no so easy to read.
posted by seanyboy at 5:00 AM on September 13, 2004

Shopgirl byt Steve Martin (short, funny, and it just exudes love of people, if not humanity); Random Acts of Senseless Violense by Jack Womack (harrowing and brilliantly written, no love of people or humanity, a quick read); The Virgin Suicides by Jeffry Eugenidies (quick to read because it's not reallya story as much as it is an examination of how and why we construct our memories the way we do); The History of Luminous Motion (dense, but not terribly lengthy--sorry i've forgotten the author--it might be out of print); The Artist of the Missing paul lafarge (engaging, surreal, kafkaesque, excellent woodcuts thrown in for good measure)
posted by crush-onastick at 7:18 AM on September 13, 2004

Lorrie Moore. All quick reads. All (imo) fantastic.
posted by herc at 8:26 AM on September 13, 2004

Lots of good calls so far, but for a quick sociology-rich read, the first book that came to mind was Walker Percy's The Moviegoer.
posted by chicobangs at 8:26 AM on September 13, 2004

James Baldwin is (was?) an amazing stylist.
posted by callmejay at 8:28 AM on September 13, 2004

Oh! What about Philip Roth?
posted by chicobangs at 8:28 AM on September 13, 2004

I'll second the Kokoro recommendation. It's a really depressing book, though.

Russell Hoban has written some good shortish books of which the two best (that I've read) are Riddley Walker and Turtle Diary. Riddley Walker is really, really awesome. Really. Your friend should read it.

A Month in the Country by J. L. Carr
The Third Policeman or At Swim-Two-Birds by Flann O'Brien
Some Prefer Nettles by Junichiro Tanizaki

I would also recommend Sebald but would say The Emigrants over josh's recs simply because they're short stories. A week for Austerlitz strikes me as ambitious. (And josh: is it common for translated works to be on a comprehensives list for English students? I know that Sebald lived in England but he wrote in German, didn't he?)
posted by kenko at 8:50 AM on September 13, 2004

Flannery O'Connor's novel Wise Blood, or a collection of her short stories.
posted by emelenjr at 9:16 AM on September 13, 2004

No, Sebald isn't on my comps list -- I just added it in there!

Another good one: The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford.
posted by josh at 9:25 AM on September 13, 2004

I see a lot of classics here, but for a fairly recent one try [i]Lying Awake[/i] by Mark Salzman. Kind of arbitrary, but it's the last good short novel I've read.
posted by abcde at 9:47 AM on September 13, 2004

Oh oh! John Crowley's Little, Big may be too long for a week but he's got shorter works that I can't recommend specifically as I haven't read them, but which I bet are good.

Italo Calvino's The Baron in the Trees and The Invisible Knight & the Cloven Viscount (two novellas) are good and quick.
posted by kenko at 10:03 AM on September 13, 2004

I like Hoban's Riddley Walker alongside Pilgermann. Also, AS Byatt's Frederica quartet (The Virgin in the Garden, Still Life, Babel Tower, and A Whistling Woman).

I often find Philip Roth pretty hard to read, and I was in stitches when one of the Booker committee said that admitting Americans to the contest would be unfair, because it would be so hard to compete against the likes of Philip Roth. I have to admit, though, the American trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist, and The Human Stain) made me see where she was coming from.

It's very long, so probably unsuitable, but Don DeLillo's Underworld actually made me interested in baseball (which is really saying something). People love White Noise, I see, but my favorite is Libra.
posted by caitlinb at 10:20 AM on September 13, 2004

In the past six months the two of the most interesting novels that I read both dealt with mental disabilities.

The Speed of Dark by Elizabeth Moon is a fascinating story about Lou, a high-functioning autistic. It has much more depth then The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. Moon's son is autistic and she writes in first person so we really get a chance to understand Lou's thought processes.

The main character of Set This House In Order by Matt Ruff, Andy Gage, is the public face of a multiple personality. The "house" of the title is an imaginary house inside Andy's head that was built by father figure Aaron and it is where Andy tries to maintain order among all the many personalities. Andy is at the same time trying to manage life outside his head.

While all the novels of John Steinbeck are great, quick reads, my personal favorite is Tortilla Flats. It's both hilarious and touching. The scene where the homeless couple "enjoy" a pretend feast of pictures of food
still haunts me.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 11:55 AM on September 13, 2004

If she's looking to do a book a week, I wouldn't recommend Underworld. Awesome book, but at approximately 7,465 pages, it's not a sprint. I do second Libra, though, for exactly that reason.

It feels like we're all missing something significant. Salinger? Fitzgerald? Kesey? Jim Carroll? David Bradley? Larry McMurtry? Doctorow (E.L. or Cory, whichever)?
posted by chicobangs at 12:55 PM on September 13, 2004

If sociology (or adjoining psychology) is the subject, you cannot skip over anything by J G Ballard.. all of his novels (and he has hundreds of short stories, too) tackle sociology in some way or another. I like to think of his work as being psy-fi (psychology fiction).

I'd particularly recommend High Rise, for a look at the impact of living in a tower block on the psyché of groups, or Concrete Island, a study of internal space and its representation in the larger world. These books are both quite short.

His short stories tend to be 2-50 pages, and you can get a 1000 page book containing all of them for about $30.
posted by wackybrit at 1:27 PM on September 13, 2004

Response by poster: All these comments! You are all aces. I am very happy.

I sent my friend a starter list last night with many of your titles and told her I would follow up with some of your additional suggestions.

I provided Amazon links to everything so she could get some background and quick availability information, and included several of your suggestions that I'd never heard of, but whose descriptions excited me. I'll be doing some reading of my own out of this.

Coming up with a boatload of short novels was a tough assignment, and I couldn't have done it without all your help. If you think of any more in the next few days, I'll be monitoring this thread, and the more the better. Thank you all so much, kind readers.
posted by melissa may at 2:42 PM on September 13, 2004

If they haven't read Hawthorne's short novels yet, now would be a very good time.

Same goes for Melville's amazing fable Bartleby the Scrivener. (They made a great movie version of this with David Paymer and Crispin Glover a couple of years ago, by the way.)
posted by chicobangs at 3:14 PM on September 13, 2004

Throw anything by Kurt Vonnegut or Herman Hesse at her. Not literally. Haha
posted by Blue Stone at 2:06 AM PST on September 13

magister ludi in a week? not if you want to get anything meaningful out of it.

it occurs to me that paul bowles might not have been mentioned yet. he writes a mean short story as well as some novels you might have heard of.
posted by juv3nal at 5:22 PM on September 13, 2004

how about some philip k. dick?
posted by pikachulolita at 10:16 AM on September 14, 2004

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