Books that feature great writing AND great storytelling?
September 2, 2009 10:06 AM   Subscribe

Books that feature great writing AND great storytelling?

Often critically acclaimed books feature great writing but weak storytelling (DeLillo is a fantastic stylist), great storytelling with lackluster prose (Dostoyevsky perhaps), but rarely both sentences to savor and stories to remember (Jane Austen).

Please recommend some books that feature both great sentences and paragraphs AND brilliant storytelling!

These don't have be novels. Short story recommendations are welcomed as is non-fiction.
posted by shotgunbooty to Writing & Language (50 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I love Edith Wharton. Will she do?
posted by bluedaisy at 10:09 AM on September 2, 2009

Carlos Ruiz Zafon's Shadow of the Wind fits the bill, I think, even though it's in translation. It's a little bit cheesy at the beginning, but it really draws you in and the way the story unfolds is riveting.
posted by oinopaponton at 10:10 AM on September 2, 2009

Cruddy by Lynda Barry is a magnificent (and truly sickening) example of a writer bending the novel format to accommodate her storytelling gifts.
posted by hermitosis at 10:12 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Prompted by all the movie hoopla, I recently read The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and was so blown away by it as a short story that we steered far clear of the movie. More recently, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas has some of the most beautiful prose I've read in a long while.

For non-fiction storytelling, I've mentioned Barbara Tuchman here before, especially her stuff on World War 1 (The Proud Tower, The Guns of August, and The Zimmerman Telegram). Also, just about anything by Daniel Boorstin.
posted by jquinby at 10:12 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke
posted by Jelly at 10:12 AM on September 2, 2009 [3 favorites]

If you like DeLillo and the modern, sci-fi, anti-postmodern, or anti-aesthetic literature, I have some recommendations:
E.L Doctorow ("The Waterworks" especially)
Tom Robbins
Jonathan Franzen
Thomas Pynchon
posted by jbreyfogle at 10:15 AM on September 2, 2009

I'd nominate the Yiddish Policeman's Union by Michael Chabon...
posted by momentofmagnus at 10:18 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

The one that scores highest on both counts for me is Blood Meridian.
posted by burnmp3s at 10:23 AM on September 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Just finished Dan Chaon's new novel Await Your Reply, and I think it fits the criteria.
posted by gnomeloaf at 10:29 AM on September 2, 2009

Following along momenofmagnus' line of thought, I also recommend The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon; I'm rereading it for the first time in several years, and am just blown away by both the writing and how deftly he builds the world the characters inhabit.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 10:40 AM on September 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'd say "The Rum Diary" by Hunter S. Thompson. Also "White Apples" and "Sleeping in Flame" by Jonathan Carroll.
posted by PunkSoTawny at 10:44 AM on September 2, 2009

Anything from Mike (I call him Mike ) Chabon, especially The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay.

Anything from Neal Stephenson, especially Cryptonomicon.
posted by vito90 at 10:49 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Steven Millhauser is my go-to author for stuff like this. He tells slightly fantastical stories that seem absolutely credible. He has a huge vocabulary but doesn't use it to bludgeon you with. I'd suggest getting started with Martin Dressler or maybe The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (first chapter here) if you're in more of a short story mood.
posted by jessamyn at 10:51 AM on September 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

Take a look at Amy Hempel's short stories.

Also, anything by David Gates--his two novels Jernigan and Preston Falls, and his short story collection Wonders of the Invisible World.
posted by Prospero at 10:51 AM on September 2, 2009

If "bad" grammar and punctuation don't bother you, Cormac McCarthy's The Road has wonderful, poetic imagery and a moving story. I'm reading it for a second time, which I rarely do with a novel.
posted by The Deej at 10:54 AM on September 2, 2009 [2 favorites]

I have to second The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Not only is the story interesting, but I found his writing style riveting.

If you don't mind translations, I am a huge fan of Julio Cortázar's stories, and of Roberto Bolaño's The Savage Detectives (novel) for the same characteristics you describe - great story, great writing.
posted by DrGirlfriend at 10:56 AM on September 2, 2009

I have to say that I read most of Neal Stephenson's Anathema, and I wouldn't call the prose or storytelling very skilled. But that's just one man's opinion.

I always recommend Ken Kesey's Sometimes a Great Notion.

I think that book has got what you're looking for, in spades.

Blood Meridian is a great book, but I think the prose definitely outpaces the story. You should still read it, though.
posted by elder18 at 10:59 AM on September 2, 2009

The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Wow.
posted by relucent at 11:00 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Burning the Days by James Salter. His writing about West Point and his time as a fighter pilot in the Korean War is incredible.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 11:07 AM on September 2, 2009

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart,
posted by robocop is bleeding at 11:13 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Dickens Dickens Dickens!
posted by Bardolph at 11:17 AM on September 2, 2009

Well, this question assumes some shared opinions (that probly ain't shared) about what is "good" writing style and storytelling. So here're my opinions.

I have to second Cormac McCarthy. Blood Meridian if you can handle the violence. The Road if you can handle the despair. And pretty much anything else if you can handle the other bits that make up the darker side of humanity. You also need to be able to handle his nontraditional dialogue, grammar, punctuation and (sigh) writing style.

Pinckney Benedict especially his short stories in "Town Smokes" and "The Wrecking Yard". I came to him before McCarthy but I imagine if it had been the other way around, I would have seen McCarthy's influence in there. Anyway. Spectacular stories and great writing.

George Saunders. The absurdity throws off some people. Me like.

Edward Abbey. I believe him to be one of America's under-appreciated writers. He can be base and vulgar. He revels in the unrefined and carnal, but his education shows through in his writing. He can tell a damn fine adventure story that will make you want to become a savage and eat raw flesh while celebrating the infinite beauty of the universe. Or maybe that's just me. This is a writer most often appreciated by guys. Guys who like being dirty. His political bent throws off most people who are conservative or liberal, democrat, republican or libertarian. He pisses most people off. But it reads like poetry to me. Especially his poetry. But I don't really like poetry all that much. So I mainly read his prose.
posted by Seamus at 11:36 AM on September 2, 2009

my list from another thread
posted by mr. remy at 11:38 AM on September 2, 2009

Tom Wolfe, The Right Stuff.

John Irving, The Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Maybe The World According to Garp.

William Goldman, The Princess Bride.

Most of these have been made into good-to-great movies except A Prayer for Owen Meany, which was made into a decidedly mediocre one.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:39 AM on September 2, 2009

Neal Stephenson sometimes can lose me a bit on plot.

But Snow Crash has a super tight plot and his normal great writing.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:39 AM on September 2, 2009

oh and just noticed the plug for cryptonomicon. My second favorite stephenson book.
posted by bitdamaged at 11:39 AM on September 2, 2009

While Jean Shepherd's stories are never complicated in terms of plot, the read extremely well. I particularly like "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" and "Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and Other Disasters". Shepherd mastered the style of turning tiny happenings into epic adventures.

I've always loved Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird" in terms of both language and story.

Willa Cather's "My Antonia" is another gem.

The thing that ties all these writers together in my mind is that they weave the story like a tapestry and reading them is like having the author there unfolding the store for you, anticipating your next question.
posted by plinth at 11:40 AM on September 2, 2009

Playing the Jack by Mary Brown.
posted by eatdonuts at 11:44 AM on September 2, 2009

Ann Patchett - Bel Canto
Jane Smiley - Good Faith or A Thousand Acres
Joyce Carol Oates - We Were the Mulvaneys
Jeffrey Eugenides - Middlesex
Margaret Atwood - Alias Grace
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:54 AM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
posted by Nerro at 11:55 AM on September 2, 2009

The English Patient
are both wonderfully told and beautifully written.
I, too, look for this, and would therefore second Cormac McCarthy, Pynchon and add Wm. Gaddis.
David Mitchell is fabulous as well.
I guess it's only a matter of taste, but i thought Jonathon Strange was one of the worst books I've ever picked up. simply a failed exercise in trying to be DFW.
posted by OHenryPacey at 12:12 PM on September 2, 2009

Excerpts picked more or less at random. (Well, I cheated a bit with Hammet. Okay, I cheated a bit with Lolita too. But it wouldn't have mattered what I picked from that, Nabokov is unparralled for style.) Books in a variety of styles, that are interesting for both style and plot.

Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov.
Part II, Chp 1: And so we rolled East, I more devastated than braced with the satisfaction of my passion, and she glowing with health, her bi-iliac garland still as brief as a lad's, although she had added two inches to her stature and eight pounds to her weight. We had been everywhere. We had really seen nothing. And I catch myself thinking today that our long journey had only defiled with a sinuous trail of slime the lovely, trustful, dreamy, enormous country that by then, in retrospect, was no more to us than a collection of dog-eared maps, ruined tour books, old tires, and her sobs in the night — every night, every night — the moment I feigned sleep.

Red Harvest, Dashiel Hammet
p. 1: I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn't think anything of what he had done to the city's name. Later I heard men who could manage their Rs give it the same pronunciation.

Fingersmith, Sarah Waters
p. 127: 'For you know I shall be very rich,' she said simply, 'once I am married?'
She shivered and smiled and clutched at my arm, and then she drew me to her and put her head against mine. Her cheek was cool and smooth as a pearl. Her hair was bright with beads of rainwater. I think she was weeping. But I did not pull away to try and find out. I did not want her to see my face. I think the look in my eyes must have been awful.

What Was She Thinking, Zoe Heller
p. 119: It is mad to describe a middle-aged adulteress as innocent, and yet there is something innocent about Sheba. It goes without saying that she is capable of all kinds of sin. But she is not one of life's schemers. She does not have the cunning that is required to connive and plot---at least not in any sustained, committed way. I am more inclined at this point to see her first account as the sort of quasi-confidence that young children impart when they want relief from the burden of a secret but are unwilling to face the ramifications of full disclosure. Down in that basement studio, I believe that she wanted to tell all.

Geek Love Katherine Dunn

P. 141: There are parts of Texas where a fly lives ten thousand years and a man can't die soon enough. Time gets strange there from too much sky, too many miles from crack to crease in the flat surface of the land...Horst hmself was reminsicing about the Texas town called Old Dime Box..."Roxanne Tuxbury always rides a kick-start cycle," explained Horst, "and the thighs on that woman are a long and strong as her laugh, which you can pretty much pick up in Arkansas if the wind is right. She wears a little leather halter three hundred and sixty-five days of every year."
posted by Diablevert at 12:25 PM on September 2, 2009

Some great suggestions here. I'm going to nth Chabon (Wonderboys is great, too), as well as Joyce Carol Oates, Jeffrey Eugenides (The Virgin Suicides is beautiful), and Margaret Atwood (The Handmaid's Tale, anyone?). Jean Shepherd is fun. Also, add Michael Cunningham to your list. I enjoyed Jonathan Strange . . ., but my mother, who likes her books faster-paced, found it a snooze--and it is a bit twee. On the other hand, I found Mitchell's Cloud Atlas to be totally drab on a story-level, even though the concept was cool. If you don't mind weird alien sex, Octavia Butler tells a pretty engaging and well-written story. And Neil Gaiman's books tend to be vividly, prettily written, but gripping as well, though I found Neverwhere to be the least effective of his novels.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:29 PM on September 2, 2009

John Erving: A Prayer for Owen Meany, Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp

Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant -- Anne Tyler
posted by availablelight at 12:49 PM on September 2, 2009

aaagh---that's John IRVING
posted by availablelight at 12:50 PM on September 2, 2009

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell has some of the best writing and storytelling I've read in years. It's also pretty popular here on the Green. The best part of his writing is that the story takes on multiple voices, and he's a master ventriloquist.
posted by farishta at 1:10 PM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

I would say anything by TC Boyle. That guy can weave a fantastic story. He's so wonderfully descriptive, but also really imaginative in the plot. Some of my favorites are: The Tortilla Curtain, Drop City, and East is East.
Also, The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean is marvelously written and is also a fascinating story (nonfiction).
posted by bluefly at 1:31 PM on September 2, 2009

Shelly Jackson's marvelous, yet flawed Half Life. Sometimes she gets a little too carried away with her own cleverness, and the story collapses at a certain point, IMO, but she certainly can turn a phrase, and the narrative is very compelling.
posted by Lieber Frau at 1:41 PM on September 2, 2009

Give the Cormac Mcarthy books The Road and Blood Meridian a try.
posted by tylerfulltilt at 1:45 PM on September 2, 2009

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. Most of the short stories in Forty-Nine Stories are very good to excellent.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.
posted by kirkaracha at 1:49 PM on September 2, 2009

The dynamic duo of Jonathan Safran Foer (Everything is Illuminated) and Nicole Krauss (The History of Love) have imaginative prose and captivating stories.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 1:53 PM on September 2, 2009

I highly recommend the late, great Carl Sagan's only novel, Contact. Sagan's straightforward science books are certainly worth reading, but I do wish he'd written more fiction.

For a nonfiction entry, I'll offer Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers.
posted by bryon at 2:22 PM on September 2, 2009

Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
posted by tinatiga at 2:28 PM on September 2, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. Canadian historical fiction. Also by her, Cat's Eye, a classic Canadian Gothic, and Blind Assassin, a Booker Prize winner that combines perspective and twists reality in a beautifully structured way.

As for John Irving, I always go first with The Hotel New Hampshire. It is trashy but fantastic, with a crazy plot involving bears, motorcycles, a blind Jewish man in Vienna. Vienna. New Hampshire. A crumbling East Coast boarding school. Run-down hotels. Prostitutes. Radicals. And, one of my favorite phrases ever, "schlaglobers and blood." Oh, also: taxidermy, people dressed up as bears, a circus of midgets ... though the movie is terrible and the book is not his best work, I do think it is the best introduction to John Irving.

Other writers to consider: Robertson Davies. He wrote long trilogies, masterpieces of deceit and malice and mystery. If you read Davies, you always, always start with Fifth Business. Some of his best quotes, however, are in other books. If you do end up liking him Fifth Business and the Deptford Trilogy from which it comes, it's also worth reading the Cornish Trilogy.

Indeed, excepting John Irving, let's stick with the Canadian authors and add one more: L.M. Montgomery. Her Anne series is often thought of as nothing more than a children's story, but her writing is remarkable. She wrote many other novels, and very many short stories, which were published in volumes in the 1980s. Most of those are, sadly, out of print, though they are the best collections of her work once you have finished with Anne. If you are planning to read Montgomery, I'd recommend a companion like one of Irene Gammel's books.
posted by brina at 2:57 PM on September 2, 2009

Oh! And you might also try reading Geraldine Brooks (not Canadian, alas), whose books Year of Wonders and March are both beautifully woven stories.
posted by brina at 2:58 PM on September 2, 2009

Oh, and Carson McCullers's stunning and way too rarely recommended The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
posted by oinopaponton at 5:44 PM on September 2, 2009

Based on the books you used as examples of good storytelling, prose (and both), try Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy. It's easy to tell his first love was poetry.
posted by notcomputersavvy06 at 4:30 AM on September 3, 2009

Best and most beautiful things I can recommend:
"Ada, or Ardor" by Vladimir Nabokov
"Bonfire of the Vanities" by Tom Wolfe
"The Enormous Room" by ee cummings (yes, he's a novelist too)
"The Great Gatsby" and/or the highly underrated "Tender is the Night" - Fitzgerald
And I second Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion."
posted by lucky25 at 9:49 PM on October 13, 2009

Infinite Jest (previously all over Mefi, the web). The structure is at least superficially loose (resembling perhaps a fatter Pynchon novel) but the prose is pyrotechnic and the story is gripping.
posted by grobstein at 10:14 PM on October 21, 2009

PS if you've never read The Hobbit. . . .

It's amazingly tight. Gone are the stilted elevations of The Lord of the Rings; the language of The Hobbit is efficient and fast, and often quite funny. The story is pretty sweet as well if I may etc.
posted by grobstein at 10:17 PM on October 21, 2009

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