Palate cleansers for a picky reader?
October 13, 2010 6:36 PM   Subscribe

What are some stunning, absorbing novels that won't overlap with my homework?

I like to read well-written, sweeping, escapist novels before going to sleep. I'm also in a graduate program for which I have to spend most of my waking hours reading about pre-modern European history. I just finished David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, which was a lot of fun. I'm also about 150 pages into Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum, which (although I loved In the Name of the Rose years ago) so far makes me feel like I'm doing homework. No more homework, please. I have plenty already.

I've really loved the Japanese novels I've read (which include lots of Murakami and, back in high school, Banana Yoshimoto, but not much else), and if you have any suggestions not mentioned in this post, I'd love to hear them.

As for non-Japanese books: I loved Bolaño's 2666 (but not The Savage Detectives, weirdly), and have really enjoyed every David Mitchell novel so far, especially Cloud Atlas. I'm cool with fantasy or sci-fi elements if the book is very well-written, but I am not into overly sentimental or cute magical realism à la Isabel Allende. I'm already aware of the existence of Infinite Jest. French-language recommendations would also be fine, if you have any.
posted by oinopaponton to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (33 answers total) 65 users marked this as a favorite
La Vie mode d'emploi manages to be sweeping without leaving a single apartment complex.
posted by Paragon at 6:45 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

2nding Paragon's suggestion.
posted by spasm at 6:51 PM on October 13, 2010

I'm in the middle of "The Thousand Autumns" myself, and also loved many of the other books and authors you mentioned. You might like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. (I wasn't as big a fan of the other Chabon books I read, though all of them were at least somewhat good.)
posted by mbrubeck at 6:54 PM on October 13, 2010

One Hundred Years of Solitude -
posted by carmicha at 6:55 PM on October 13, 2010

Vikram Chandra's Sacred Games.
posted by thomas j wise at 6:56 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

Margaret Atwood- Oryx and Crake and The Year of The Flood, as well as The Blind Assassin (which is my favorite of hers, but less in sync with the other books you mention).
posted by questionsandanchors at 6:57 PM on October 13, 2010

Maybe Carter Beats the Devil?
posted by lapsangsouchong at 6:58 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

I am a big fan of Perec's Life: A User's Manual.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:04 PM on October 13, 2010

posted by googly at 7:05 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Sorry to be dense, but can you clarify, especially for those who have not read Foucault's Pendulum, what exactly you want and what exactly you want to avoid? Does Foucault's Pendulum have a lot of pre-modern European history? Is it that basically you're open to any well-written, stunning, absorbing, sweeping, escapist novels that do not include pre-modern Europe?

That actually doesn't sound picky; it sounds like it would include many from these threads asking for novels that are epic and not written by white men, for a Murakami fan II, famous & influential (novels or otherwise), encapsulating the NY persona, about SE Asia... I'm sure there are many more; just peruse tags like "books" and "literature."
posted by salvia at 7:09 PM on October 13, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also Ishiguro's The Unconsoled.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:09 PM on October 13, 2010

I just got totally swept up in The Gone-Away World. On the Japanese side of things, I got very intensely involved in every book by Shuskau Endo I've read, but especially Silence.
posted by mchorn at 7:13 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I hit "post" too soon. Off the top of my head...

One Hundred Years of Solitude - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

A Prayer for Owen Meany or The Cider House Rules - John Irving

John's Wife - Robert Coover

The Brothers Karamazov - Fyodor Dostoevsky

Empire Falls - Richard Russo

I Know This Much is True - Wally Lamb

Light in August - William Faukner
posted by carmicha at 7:13 PM on October 13, 2010

Oh, and Canetti's Auto-da-Fé.

Sorry I keep coming back, I keep remembering more well-written, engrossing, sprawly books!
posted by grapesaresour at 7:24 PM on October 13, 2010

Mysteries are awesome palate cleansers. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is my favorite.
posted by Mid at 7:37 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you liked Jacob de Zoet, you'll probably like Mathew Kneale's English Passengers and Margaret Atwood's Alias Grace. They're both sweeping historical novels that are impossible to put down. I think you'll like the work of Peter Carey too, they don't give just anyone three Booker prizes (and very nearly four).
posted by Wantok at 7:48 PM on October 13, 2010

Have you tried Junot Diaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao? Or anything by Kazuo Ishiguro? They are not restful, if you need your before-bed reading to put you in a bedtime frame of mind, but they're quite absorbing.
posted by mlle valentine at 8:26 PM on October 13, 2010

Response by poster: Does Foucault's Pendulum have a lot of pre-modern European history?

Worse-- intellectuals endlessly discussing obscure pre-modern European history and pseudo-history. It's like sitting in the grad student lounge.

Great suggestions so far-- thanks!
posted by oinopaponton at 9:32 PM on October 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you liked In the Name of the Rose, I'd recomend Baudalino. It's a story with an incredibly unreliable narrator. There's quite a bit of medieval history and myth in there (it is Eco, after all), but it's in the context of a fantastical story.

Disclaimer: I loved Focault's Pendulum, so my advice in the matter may be suspect.

I'd also recommend The City and The City by China Mieville. It won this years Hugo, but don't let that mislead you- it's not really sci-fi and the story and the psychological twists in it are wonderful.

Also, have you read any Italo Calvino? I've always found his books to be a treat.
posted by Hactar at 9:50 PM on October 13, 2010

If you're comfortable with post-WWII European history then try WG Sebald's 'The Emigrants'.
posted by rigby99 at 9:53 PM on October 13, 2010

The best two books I have read lately, both of which I learned about from other AskMeFi's:

The Possibility of An Island. This book blew me away. It is very David Mitchell-esque in its sci-fi elements and structure. I think it is a great book, but be warned the subject matter is dark, to put it mildly. I couldn't put it down, but I'm not sure I ever want to read it again.

The Magicians. Very escapist, hard to put down, but under the occasional silly pop culture references it has some very deep stuff to say about growing up and being an artist.
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:00 PM on October 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Richard Yates by Tao Lin. Very modern & entertaining.
posted by ellevira at 10:19 PM on October 13, 2010

I'll throw this out there: B. S. Johnson's, The Unfortunates.
posted by philad at 12:20 AM on October 14, 2010

I was totally absorbed by Kate Morton's The House at Riverton. Just finished The Forgotten Garden last night. Both solve hundred-year-old family mysteries that reveal themselves over time.
posted by mdiskin at 2:15 AM on October 14, 2010

Steven Erikson's Malazan series. Looooooong-form fantasy, but with extremely well fleshed out characters, good plotting, humor, deep time, etc.
posted by sebastienbailard at 2:19 AM on October 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Vernor Vinge's A Fire Upon The Deep and A Deepness In The Sky: immersive, cerebral, satisfyingly huge. Cool macro-level ideas alongside good psychological realism.

The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia by Ursula K. Le Guin: a big thought experiment starring an admirable, memorable protagonist, with lines and scenes I still come back to.

Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy: also immersive and satisfyingly huge; a few bits make me cry every time. Set in post-WWII India for contrast with your current studies. I can always reread Haresh's battles in the shoe industry, the harrowing aftermath of Maan's and Firoz's confrontation at Saeeda Bai's, Professor's Mishra's scheming around Pran's promotion, Lata, Amit, Mrs Rupa Mehra, Kalpana, I'd go reread a hundred pages right now if I were not aiming to stay on track.

World War Z by Max Brooks: believable, first-class worldbuilding, grim satire, chills, thrills, relentless inevitability yet surprises and twists on every page.

The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach: seems to start out a family-scale fantasy, expands into space opera, epic in scope but always personal and believable. Empires fall and rise, investigators work on eons-old mysteries, and you see bits and pieces from several perspectives. Very good. Translated from the German.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N.K. Jemisin: thoughtful, epic, made me care about palace intrigue, sexy and vivid. First sample chapter.

Crescent by Diana Abu-Jaber: sensual, vivid, moving, great prose.

The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope: sweeping feeling (set in England, published 1875 in case that's a problem), the dead-on psychological description you expect from Trollope, affords you cackling at characters' rises and falls.
posted by brainwane at 2:36 AM on October 14, 2010

I've heard good things about The Pillars of the Earth. Several people at my work read it, and when I went to pick up a copy the youngish guy at the bookstore told me it is one of his favorites. It's not the sort of fiction I enjoy (long, lots of characters and detail) but the couple of chapters I did read were reasonably engrossing.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 3:17 AM on October 14, 2010

I'm currently reading The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, which is excellent, has me completely absorbed. Another recent favourite is American Gods by Neil Gaiman. Either one will take you completely out of your current time and place. Both have the same sort of mystery/noir/almost-magical tone as Murakami, and the narrators/central characters of these novels remind me very much of say, Toru from The Wind up Bird Chronicle or Kafka from Kafka on the Shore.
posted by greenfelttip at 5:10 AM on October 14, 2010

A little less high brow than the prior recommendations, but absorbing as all get out:

Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. I just finished re-reading it. Took me all summer, but so good.
posted by Leezie at 7:08 AM on October 14, 2010

Seconding Outlander. I like to read a chapter of something each morning to wake up, and I couldn't wait to jump in again.
posted by Madamina at 7:34 AM on October 14, 2010

My husband (an avid reader and English professor!) has lately turned me on to two books in particular. I can't put either of them down (yes, for some reason I read books simultaneously).
These are both really good "journey" books, i.e. easy to get lost in and very captivating.

A Bend in the River
posted by elisebeth at 8:36 AM on October 14, 2010

This might be a controversial answer, but Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is compulsively readable, kind of a no-brainer (save the longish sections on the environment and population, which maybe aren't as heady as Franzen would like to think) and fun. I got through it in a couple of days, and it usually takes me a couple weeks to read a novel that long.

If you haven't read Mitchell's Black Swan Green, try it.
posted by prior at 11:51 AM on October 14, 2010

Name of the Wind, Patrick Rothfuss.
posted by krieghund at 2:21 PM on October 15, 2010

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