Wrapped Up in Books
November 17, 2008 7:25 PM   Subscribe

I need some new favourite writers! Please recommend some ones that I'll love as much as Mark Kurlansky and Italo Calvino, etc.

I've read everything that Mark Kurlansky, Michael Pollan, Jared Diamond, Kurt Vonnegut, Douglas Adams, and Italo Calvino have ever put on paper (that I know of. I tend to get absorbed in writers). Recently I've enjoyed Boris Akunin, Umberto Eco, and Haruki Murakami. Thomas Pynchon, Simon Winchester, and Mark Monmonier are also beloved. What have you liked that are similar to any of those guys?

I really like single-item histories (like Kurlansky's Salt, Cod, etc) and geography/geology-related nonfiction.

What amazing books am I overlooking or unaware of? I need something new for my long train commute!

Thank you.
posted by troika to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
Don Delillo for fiction, for both fiction and nonfiction maybe the late David Foster Wallace, for nonfiction maybe Carl Sagan or Steven Jay Gould, maybe Timothy Ferriss or David Quammen.
posted by box at 7:32 PM on November 17, 2008

More fiction: Neal Stephenson. More nonfiction: James Burke, Eric Schlosser.
posted by box at 7:37 PM on November 17, 2008

Kazuo Ishiguro.
posted by turgid dahlia at 7:39 PM on November 17, 2008

For non-fiction like Kurlansky, try Trevor Corson and Carl Zimmer.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 7:43 PM on November 17, 2008

Mark Danielewski, House of Leaves. And of course Borges (Calvino's brother from another mother).
posted by waxbanks at 7:46 PM on November 17, 2008

I just finished "Disgrace" by Coetzee, which I couldn't put down. He's philosophical, traumatic, and smart as hell. I'd also recommend Borges (no writes language so mathematically pristine) and I second Delillo. David Markson hits notes of postmodern absurdity that Pynchon could only dream about.
posted by zoomorphic at 7:51 PM on November 17, 2008

Edward Whittemore. And the under-read Jerusalem Quartet.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 7:52 PM on November 17, 2008

Weird. I feel like Kurlansky and Calvino don't necessarily have a lot in common, but I have also read all of their work. In a similar vein to Cod, somebody once recommended Trevor Corson's The Secret Life of Lobsters, which was really interesting, if not quite as charismatic as Kurlansky's work. If you enjoyed 1968 or his other more urban works (like that Lower East Side novel of his), maybe you'd enjoy Jonathan Mahler's Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, which is a pretty good snapshot of the vivid, gritty overwhelmingness of New York in the late 1970s. Or hewing to a more innocent time, Eric Kraft's acclaimed but virtually unknown novels, including my favorite, Where Do You Stop? I think Calvino's poetry is fairly unique, but Borges, of course, and then branching off, maybe you'd like some of Karel Capek's dystopian work, like War With The Newts. Or of course there's that old favorite, John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces. Perhaps Yuri Olesha's Envy. I couldn't tell you what thought process strings these together, honestly.

Actually I am going to make exactly two recommendations, which I think will do you a lot of good in the long run, but will be totally useless on your long commute. The first is that you read Don Marquis' Archy and Mehitabel. The second is that you track down a copy of Wendal, His Cat, and the Progress of Man, by V. Campudoni, long out of print.
posted by thejoshu at 7:58 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Try George Saunders' short story collections for bleakly hilarious oddball scenarios; they're like Calvino put through a mean, sad, funny postmodern wringer. And yeah, David Foster Wallace fits nicely on both your fiction and non-fiction lists; just dive into the essays in "Consider the Lobster" or "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" for non-fiction, and "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" or "Oblivion" for fiction (I haven't read the massive "Infinite Jest").
posted by mediareport at 8:04 PM on November 17, 2008

I really like the writers you've mentioned, so I feel compelled to list some of my own favorites.

Cormac McCarthy is regarded as one of the great living American novelists. His prose is unmatched! Some of his work tends toward the violent, it that matters to you. Here is a charming interview he did with Oprah.

I also love Dorothy Allison's work. Her work often tends toward the South and strong female characters. However, I am a manly dude and from the Northeast, so that should say something about the strength of her writing. She's most famous for her novel Bastard Out of Carolina.

I like Steven Milhauser's stories too. He's a writer's writer, much like Calvino and Eco.

Tim O'Brien can tackle the psycho-political narrative almost as well as Vonnegut, and his simple, unadorned prose also reminds me of Vonnegut. Check out The Things They Carried, which reminds me a lot of Slaughterhouse Five in that it's about war and the psyche.

Non-fictioneers I like:
Malcom Gladwell, who just came out with a new one I haven't read yet. He's among the new wave of pop-economists, like Steven Levitt (and, to an extent, Jared Diamond).

I've been rereading zines lately. Doris collects issues of a zine from 1991-2001. It deals with personal stuff: relationships, traveling, growing up... but I like the very personable way Cindy Crabbe writes.

This might not be your thing but it's exciting to me: Access All Areas is a compilation of reprinted material from a zine called Infiltration that came out from about 1996-2002, which was about sneaking into buildings just for the thrill of going places you weren't supposed to be.

Lastly, two academics I love to read:

First, Stanley Fish who started as a Milton scholar but moved into teaching Law. Skip his books on literary theory (too dense for anyone but a lit crit nerd) and instead look for his collections of essays. He also regularly writes for the New York Times.

And then my other favorite academic, Slavoj Zizek, the world's most popular Marxist-Lacanian-Hegelian philosopher. Skip over his mostly-philosophical books and instead look for his political writings. He infuses his writing with references to movies and television that make his ideas exciting to read. I like his introduction to Lacan a lot, for this reason.
posted by hpliferaft at 8:07 PM on November 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Fiction-wise, I'd recommend Kobo Abe, John Fante, and Victor Pelevin. In the non-fiction realm: Ryszard Kapuscinski, Bill Buford, and Joan Didion.
posted by Alex Voyd at 8:48 PM on November 17, 2008

I have a serious suspicion that you'd like Philip K. Dick, based on your humorous/cerebral sci-fi selections. You also might enjoy early Douglas Coupland (Microserfs, Generation X, Polaroids from the Dead), which are, more or less, straight fiction that are heavily geographically specific.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 8:58 PM on November 17, 2008

Graham Greene lived through nearly the entire 20th century (1904-1991) and wrote dozens of novels that dealt with many of the significant places and events of the century, from a now practically forgotten period in Mexican history of a totalitarian regime, through the world wars and Viet Nam. He was a journalist for prominent London papers, a novelist, and was in the British Secret Service for many years, so that many of his novels emanate from his travels either as a journalist or a Secret Agent.

Geography is a central factor in all of his works, hence my recommendation. Amazon has a number of his books, including The Power and the Glory, a novel about the Mexican regime mentioned above, widely regarded as his best book, although there are others that rival it in my opinion. One of his finest is The Comedians, which takes place on the island of Hispaniola, where Haiti and the Dominican Republic share an island and nothing else in common. It's amazing, startling, and rather sad to read a novel of Haiti in the 1930's and recognize in it the Haiti of today.

Graham Greene novels center around political as well as personal intrigue, he seemingly being drawn to the seamy aspects of every locale to which he traveled/was assigned, often third world countries that lent themselves to his style and themes. Place is central to his writing...if you've traveled where he goes, you know he's been there...if you haven't, you feel YOU'VE been there by the time you've finished the book. He has an unerring eye for truth, unexpected insights into the deepest motivations of his characters, and is a clear-eyed political observer.

I tirelessly...and usually fruitlessly...recommend his books...So far as I know only three people to whom I've recommended Greene, have become 'hooked'...One is an avid reader friend of mine, another my husband, and the last a daughter (just one, not both!). And there's me. I could probably subsist reading and re-reading nothing but his 60-odd novels, collections, and non-fiction works in round robin fashion until I die.

So, you, Troika, are another recipient of my suggestion. I admit I am not familiar with the writers you mentioned so have no idea if his style will appeal to you...the reason I suggest Greene is your mention of geography, which is a strong thread running through everything he writes. But he is clearly not to everyone's taste, as my history of non-converts to his writing attests. Yet to those of us to whom he appeals he's a gripping writer of suspense, a brilliant student of people, places, and politics; a fine writer. I have a deeper and broader grasp of the sweep of twentieth century history for having read him, but since it's been in novel form, it's been painlessly enlightening.

(Google him)
posted by mumstheword at 12:18 AM on November 18, 2008


oh, and maybe Donald Barthelme, Michael Chabon, Jorge Luis Borges...
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:17 AM on November 18, 2008

Have you read any of Roald Dahl's adult fiction? He had a keen mind for schadenfreude, and many of his stories take on a sci-fi element.
'Tales of the Unexpected' and 'Switch Bitch' are very good, and varied enough that I'm pretty sure you'll like at least a few of them.
posted by indienial at 1:21 AM on November 18, 2008

Robertson Davies! damn I love that bearded old curmudgeon. A pile of quotes from his books can be found ">here
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:44 AM on November 18, 2008

rats! it looked fine in preview. quotes actually here
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 1:47 AM on November 18, 2008

troika I wasn't going to, because I wouldn't group him with the other writers you mentioned, but 5_13_23_42_69_666, Robertson Davies is the first name that popped into my head.
posted by Restless Day at 4:45 AM on November 18, 2008

I can but second a lot of the suggestions. I had thought of Dick and Coetzee as well. I like a lot of the same authors you do and the last time I fell like crazy for an author was Roberto Bolaño. I recommend starting off reading some of his short fiction to see if you like him (I collected some links to short stories of his together earlier this year and made a post to the Blue). If you do, read The Savage Detectives, it's amazing.
posted by Kattullus at 4:51 AM on November 18, 2008

Try The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts. If you like Kurlansky's books I think you'll probably like that.

Also try the philosophy books of Alain de Botton. I've found them to be thought provoking, entertaining and generally delightful. I particularly enjoyed "The Consolations of Philosophy" and "Status Anxiety".

I've also recently enjoyed: The Code Book, The Great Arc, Genome and Them. So these may also fit the bill. Also, If you like geology, then The Map That Changed the World should hit the spot.
posted by jonesor at 5:40 AM on November 18, 2008

If you like Murakami you should read Kenzaburo Oe and Kobo Abe, they kind of did what he does long before he did and better.
posted by The Straightener at 6:23 AM on November 18, 2008

Kevin Brockmeier.
posted by nita at 8:00 AM on November 18, 2008

I really like single-item histories (like Kurlansky's Salt, Cod, etc) and geography/geology-related nonfiction.

Mary Roach.
posted by mudpuppie at 11:13 AM on November 18, 2008

If you like Vonnegut, you may enjoy Richard Brautigan.

Try also: Donald Barthelme and David Foster Wallace.
posted by hot soup girl at 1:22 PM on November 18, 2008

I don't know if it's passé to suggest Paul Auster, but if you like Calvino, you may enjoy the New York Trilogy, Music of Chance, and Moon Palace. They are fun stories that overlap themselves and have good twists and turns. They're literary and heady, but not overwhelming. You should try them.

Auster's non-fiction work is hardly single-subject, but I found his The Invention of Solitude to be challenging and engrossing.

And Louis Sachar's Holes is a fantastic ride. It's a kids' book, so you can read it in a weekend afternoon, but you'll be happier for it.
posted by elmer benson at 5:42 PM on November 18, 2008

Some great suggestions here, but I'm astonished no one has mentioned John McPhee (non-fiction, and up your alley).
posted by 31d1 at 7:21 PM on November 18, 2008

Calvino compiled an anthology of everyday and visionary "horror stories" in his Fantastic Tales. He picks some of his favorite tales and authors who preceeded him in one volume. Including E.T.A. Hoffmann, Nikolai Gogol, Poe, Hans Christian Andersen, Henry James, H.G. Wells, Theophile Gautier, Rudyard Kipling. etc. It is best taken in as an introduction to the history and evolution of fantastic literature than an engrossing modern best-seller.
posted by Student of Man at 10:33 PM on November 18, 2008

For fiction-- Jose Saramago, Michael Ondaatje, Mikhail Bulgakov. Seconding Kazuo Ishiguro. His _The Unconsoled_ especially seems like something you might like--there's something unnerving about the story, it sort of feels like it's slipping its gears around you as you read it. Nthing Delillo and Borges and David Foster Wallace (Infinite Jest is awesome and worth it (but be forewarned, it ends abruptly, which is TOTALLY MADDENING)).

I know several people who list Nabokov's Pale Fire as their favorite book for its experimental and thinky nature, though I haven't read it. Tom Stoppard for brilliant and absurd plays. And there's always the prolific and funny and kind-of-precious-but-so-creative-you-forgive-him Tom Robbins (that's how I feel about him, anyway).

I'm not as well-read in non-fiction, but I'll recommend Jane Jacob's classic The Death and Life of Great American Citites if you're at all interested in the planning aspect of geography. And for a good cocktail-party conversation starter, Rachel Maines has a very interesting and pretty scholarly book on the history of the vibrator.

happy reading!
ps: Great thread, everybody! I'm coming back to this one next time *I* need book suggestions!
posted by aka burlap at 7:31 AM on November 19, 2008

I'd recommend Albert Cossery. Looks like it's not easy to find one of his books in English though. But to me, it's really worth it.
posted by nicolin at 2:32 AM on November 21, 2008

Iain banks
Tom robbins
Jeff Noon (although he can be a bit annoying to read and a head f**k)
posted by chelegonian at 3:20 PM on December 17, 2008

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