hoping to find some good authors
March 26, 2005 2:21 PM   Subscribe

I'm trying to get into reading again, and am looking for fiction authors who write well-defined characters and seem genuinely to like people.

In high school I read a book or three a week, but most of it was pulp. In college I was an English major and promptly came to hate reading, mostly because I hated pinning every passing butterfly to a board with some belabored critical assessment. I wanted to read for fun, not to talk about Marxism or phallic symbolism or whatever pet topic the professor had in mind.

A couple of days ago I started, and quickly stopped, re-reading The Sun Also Rises. I'd remembered it as funny and smart; reading it now, I'm overwhelmed with the suspicion that Hemingway simply did not like people.

So. Now I'm looking for fiction again, but I don't know where to start. I want something that's entertaining, in practically any genre, but I had a couple of ideal characteristics in mind.

1) the story is not narcissistic.
2) the characters are all distinct, with strong personalities.
3) the author understands and is not contemptuous of the characters.

By this token I'd say that Their Eyes Were Watching God, One Hundred Years of Solitude, and almost anything by Louise Erdrich or Neil Gaiman are to the good. Switching to film (because I'm hard pressed to come up with more written examples), I'd say that Hayao Miyazaki's Princess Mononoke is a perfect example of what I'm looking for. I think the reasons for each character's actions are clear; they all seem to make sense; the conflict isn't caricatured and doesn't have a simple solution.

Oddly enough, the "not a narcissist" criterion eliminates most of the authors I read as an English major. (I must have had all the wrong professors.)

I'm ready to take up reading again, but, aside from reading more Hurston and Márquez, don't know where to start. What authors would you recommend?
posted by Tuwa to Media & Arts (55 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
This may be a little beneath you, but Terry Pratchett. He has a fantastic ear for dialogue, and he's humane. His books go down very easily. Try Equal Rites or Mort.

Also Dickens.
posted by Leon at 2:44 PM on March 26, 2005

Robert Louis Stevenson - Kidnapped
posted by vronsky at 2:51 PM on March 26, 2005

The Brothers K by David James Duncan. It's a family saga with the narrative propulsion I enjoy in pulp, and Duncan clearly cares for all his characters.

The Things We Used to Say by Natalia Ginzburg. Anything by Hrabal. The Good Soldier Sjvek.
posted by dame at 2:52 PM on March 26, 2005

Almost all the books in Daniel Pinkwater's "Five Novels" fit this. They're for young adults, but they're well written and hilarious.
posted by interrobang at 2:54 PM on March 26, 2005

Anything and everything written by Haruki Murakami. He's simply the best writer working today. (Start with Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World)
posted by MostHolyPorcine at 2:54 PM on March 26, 2005

I also like the sorts of books you describe. Based on your inclusion of Marquez/Mononoke it seems like you're not against magical realism. Here is a selection of books I've strongly liked some with links to reviews I've written of them, so, um self-links.

The Brothers K by David James Duncan [review] - very real Americana story about baseball and rural Americana
Little Big by John Crowley - Epic tale of a set of families in a slightly surrealistic setting. Marquez-ish but very American. Crowly also wrote Aegypt which is sometimes confusing but also very worth it.
The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers [review] - heady brainy book without being too precious, smartie writing but the main characters are not themselves insufferable
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenenger [review] - one of my faves from last year, high entertainment value but also a great romance [in the Marquez vein] and a good sci-fi plot.

You can hardly go wrong with more Marquez, by the way, he has a really great body of work overall. [on preview, hey, dame agrees!]
posted by jessamyn at 3:00 PM on March 26, 2005

You might check out Barbara Kingsolver, especially the books in the Pigs in Heaven group.
posted by anapestic at 3:08 PM on March 26, 2005

The Bluest Eye

Cat's Cradle
posted by leapingsheep at 3:11 PM on March 26, 2005

The Good Soldier Sjvek.

This is a fantastic book, but most of the characters are solely vehicles for Hasek's contempt, if I remember correctly.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 3:11 PM on March 26, 2005

anything by Peter Carey, Salman Rushdie, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Francisco Goldman, and White Teeth, by Zadie Smith, and Life of Pi, by Martell

and i second Dickens, Vonnegut, Pratchett.
posted by amberglow at 3:18 PM on March 26, 2005

Frank Herbert.
posted by ac at 3:26 PM on March 26, 2005

Huh, PST. I never felt like it was a "don't like people" kind of thing but a "people are absurd" kind of thing. But fair warning to Tuwa, which is really what counts.

Yay, Jessamyn agrees with one of mine. So I'm not all wrong.
posted by dame at 3:28 PM on March 26, 2005

Anna Karenina.
posted by SoftRain at 3:35 PM on March 26, 2005

Winter's Tale
posted by papercake at 3:38 PM on March 26, 2005

Response by poster: Leon: Pratchett beneath me? Not at all; I think he's great. Early this year I sent my sister a gift of those same two books that you recommended.

Everyone else: I'm familiar with Dickens and Vonnegut, but I've somehow missed Stevenson and Kingsolver entirely, as well as Anna Karenina.

All the rest of these suggestions are new to me, and all going on a list to take to the library in future.

Jessamyn is right; I don't mind magic realism. That, fantasy, sci-fi, horror, mystery, westerns--I don't usually choose not to read things based on genre.

Thanks for the suggestions, and more are welcome.
posted by Tuwa at 4:02 PM on March 26, 2005

Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides.
Yes, and Barbara Kingsolver.
I'm quite liking A.S. Byatt, though she takes a little getting used to; her characters are very good.
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (nothing to do with the Tom Cruise movie) and Fingersmith by Sarah Waters.
You might also like Sherman Alexie.
posted by librarina at 4:10 PM on March 26, 2005

I'm surprised no-one has yet mentioned Russell Banks.

I've read nearly all his output and I have to say your requirements are almost a description of his stories, tuwa. I am not gifted at describing fiction but his characters -- esp. Bone in Rule of the bone or John Brown in Cloudsplitter or the tragic sonofabitch in Affliction (whose name I can't remember just now) -- are vivid, human, real, complex.

I first read The Sweet Hereafter and it's a good place to start; or Rule of the bone. Don't try and jump in with Cloudsplitter; it's a big, big book in every sense and the setting and writing turned me off.
posted by docgonzo at 4:34 PM on March 26, 2005

Check out The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini. He is a new author so maybe this isn't a good answer but he makes a great debut. It is on the Customers who bought this book also bought list for Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides as mentioned by libarina.

I recently read Jerome K. Jerome's Three Men in a Boat and found it enjoyable and witty in a Mark Twain sort of way.
posted by geekyguy at 4:40 PM on March 26, 2005

Very broad question. Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro write some of the most believable characters I've read.
posted by painquale at 5:21 PM on March 26, 2005

Anything by Robertson Davies--one of the things that has always put him at the top of my list of favorites is the tremendous empathy he always demonstrates for his characters. (That, and the fact that he writes books where characters have long, intelligent and totally believable conversations about "big ideas".)

Davies can put his characters through all sorts of travails, embarassments, and selfish decisions, but he always keeps a crystal-clear focus on what makes them human and understandable. No stock "bad guys" or "heroes"...just a bunch of human beings going through some very entertaining situations.
posted by LairBob at 6:09 PM on March 26, 2005

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay. This is a story about a boy growing up in South Africa. It's wonderful and moving. Pandora's Star by Peter F. Hamilton. Sci-Fi, with a very detailed and developed world. Word of warning though, ends on a killer cliffhanger, and the sequel isn't out until Jan 2006!
posted by defcom1 at 6:16 PM on March 26, 2005

Moby Dick is always good once every couple of years. His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman-There in the youth section of the library but don't let this dissuade you.
Bad Dirt-Annie Proulx
posted by mookie at 6:19 PM on March 26, 2005

Wow and no one has mentioned.... Wilbur Smith He is is not exactly mystical, but what a fantastic read...


The Birds of Prey series.... wonderful fiction based on the nautical history of South Africa and Europe

Then the tales of Egypt and their evolving society:

River God

The whole series is amazing.
posted by Benway at 6:46 PM on March 26, 2005

Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay.
posted by the duck by the oboe at 7:15 PM on March 26, 2005

Jack Vance
Thomas Perry
Elmore Leonard
Robert Crais
John Brunner's Stand on Zanzibar (But not his The Sheep look Up)
Orson Scott Card (Except for Speaker for the Dead and Xenophobe)

Some of these write about criminals. I don't know if that means they fail your "like people" test.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:40 PM on March 26, 2005

A quick look at my mensch writer's shelf, with favorites in parentheses:

Carol Shields (The Stone Diaries), Ann Patchett (The Magician's Assistant), Jonathan Lethem (Motherless Brooklyn), E. L. Doctorow (Billy Bathgate), Bernard Malamud (The Fixer), I. B. Singer (short fiction, The Letter Writer), and Mark Salzman (The Soloist).

This isn't fiction, but My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell is an autobiography of his childhood as a budding naturalist in Greece and is written like a series of short stories, with some of the funniest and evocative descriptions of place and character I've ever read.
posted by melissa may at 7:48 PM on March 26, 2005

Julia Glass' "The Three Junes" fits this bill perfectly.

Also, anything by Ursula Hegi, particularly "Stones from the River"
posted by tristeza at 8:35 PM on March 26, 2005

Oooh, oooh, also anything by Richard Russo!
posted by tristeza at 8:36 PM on March 26, 2005

I'll second Chabon and Doctorow, and throw in Saramago (but not his most recent works--his earlier stuff, esp. Baltazar and Blimunda)
posted by amberglow at 9:02 PM on March 26, 2005

Russell Hoban, especially Turtle Diary.
posted by nicwolff at 9:06 PM on March 26, 2005

Folks not mentioned yet:

Iain Banks, try The Crow Road, Espedair Street, or The Wasp Factory (which is weird and grim but not contemptuous).

If you don't mind the author being contemptuous of (some of) the bad guys and making them pretty stupid, sometimes, you might enjoy Carl Hiaasen or Christopher Brookmyre (Brookmyre is to Scotland as Hiaasen is to Florida). But this is just the authors being bitchy, not misanthropists.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:30 PM on March 26, 2005

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb. Just a hellaciously good novel, in my opinion.
posted by Savannah at 9:33 PM on March 26, 2005

If you like sci-fi or fantasy, you should read the books of Lois McMaster Bujold. Her Vorkosigan books are awesome sci-fi, and her Chalion books are some of the best fantasy written in the past decade, I think.

She writes characters that will stay with you for years after reading her books.
posted by cerebus19 at 10:27 PM on March 26, 2005

Most of my favorite authors have already been covered, but I'll add Mikhail Bulgakov (Master and Margarita), Tove Jansson (the Moomin-Troll series), and of course Ursula LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness).
posted by azazello at 12:39 AM on March 27, 2005

Seconding Middlesex, by Jeffrey Eugenides. Possibly the strongest character portrayal and 'sense of fictional self' in a book that I've seen.
posted by wackybrit at 2:51 AM on March 27, 2005

Most Holy Porcine is absolutely correct. Haruki Murakami is the greatest. I would start with 'Norwegian Wood' though. Anything by Paul Auster also gets unconditionally recommended by me. Try 'Leviathan' for starters

For dry, stark, wit and humour you can't go past Bukowski!
posted by sconbie at 3:53 AM on March 27, 2005

A book that I've been spending a lot of time with recently is Antal Szerb's Journey By Moonlight. In Szerb's native Hungary, he's as well-known an author as (say) F. Scott Fitzgerald is in the US, but he's not as well known in the rest of the world as he ought to be. His characters frequently do foolish or self-destructive things, but Szerb is clearly fond of them all; his attitude seems to be not so much "Look at these fools" but "Look at us humans--how foolish we all are!"
posted by yankeefog at 5:17 AM on March 27, 2005

wittgenstein's mistress if you've got a moderate(?) knowledge of the western cannon (art + philosophy more than literature). maybe that goes against what you're asking, but the central (only) character is the most sympathetic, amusing portrait i've read in a long time. i swear i have a crush on her - smart, funny, bitter, sexy - but i think you probably have to get some of the jokes (and while i'm familiar with a fair amount of art, some classical stories, and modernish philosophy, i still felt i was missing a fair bit).
posted by andrew cooke at 5:43 AM on March 27, 2005

if you're going to read auster for characters, avoid the new york trilogy.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:44 AM on March 27, 2005

Too heavy for me. On the lighter side-

Wodehouse, Donald Westlake, Sarah Caudwell, Saki, Joe Keenan. Kyril Bonfiglioli, John Mortimer
posted by IndigoJones at 7:04 AM on March 27, 2005

P.G. Wodehouse (the Jeeves stories). Haven Kimmel (A Girl Named Zippy, The Solace of Leaving Early). Aimee Bender (An Invisible Sign of My Own). Lee Smith (Saving Grace, The Last Girls). Bill Bryson (A Walk in the Woods, In a Sunburned Country). Tony Horwitz (Confederates in the Attic, Baghdad Without a Map). Allegra Goodman (Kaaterskill Falls). Anne Lamott (Rosie). Anne Tyler (Breathing Lessons, A Slipping Down Life). Richard Russo (Straight Man, The Risk Pool). Margery Allingham (the Campion stories). Sue Monk Kidd (The Secret Life of Bees). Toni Morrison (Song of Solomon). Amy Tan (Joy Luck Club, Hundred Secret Senses). Dorothy Sayers (the Lord Peter Wimsey stories). Tolkien, Austen, Shakespeare...
posted by naomi at 8:19 AM on March 27, 2005

My favorite books are sympathetic, character-based stories and novels.

If you're looking for a kinder, gentler Hemingway, you should check out Raymond Carver. His writing style, though completely his own, is similar to Hemingway's minimalism. But Carver had a deep love of people. Carver himself was influenced by my favorite writer, Chekhov, who viewed people with great love, humor and pathos. I also recommend John Cheever (my favorite story is "The Ocean"), who's lovely characters are more upscale (i.e Updike country club set) than Carver's, whose are generally working class.

Those are all short story writers.

Lovely novels include "Amy and Isabelle," by Elizabeth Strout (best exploration of a mother/dauther relationship I've ever read), "Plainsong," by Kent Haruff (achingly lovely small town story), "To Kill a Mockingbird," by Harper Lee (the Greg Peck movie is equally lovely), "Memoirs of a Geisha" by Arthur Golden (might as well be scifi -- it's set in such an alien world to most Western readers), "House of Mirth" by Edith Warton (in-depth study of a poor, but beautiful, woman trying to live beyond her means in high society -- this is maybe my favorite novel: it's funny, touching, romantic, clear-headed, and stylistically beautiful).

A wonderful comic novel along these lines is "The Extra Man," by Jonathan Ames. It's a sort of New Yorker, Salinger-esque, sex confessional.

Other comic, character-based writers: do I even need to mention Jane Austen and P.G. Wodehouse?

A great, recent movie along these lines is "You Can Count on Me."

PS. I'm not sure where one draws the line between magic realism and fantasy, but I was astounded by Susanna Clarke's "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." It's like the fantasy novel Dickens never wrote. It's "magic realism" in the sense that it's set in a realistic world that happens to contain magic elements. As the title suggests, it's very character based. Parts of it are romantic, but it may -- in general -- be too cynical for you.
posted by grumblebee at 8:37 AM on March 27, 2005

I second naomi's recommendation of anything by Anne Tyler.
posted by grumblebee at 8:38 AM on March 27, 2005

as byatt's possession is a modern version of, say, austen. she's sympathetic to her characters, and they're distinct, although some are a bit caricatured. it's a great read and an old favourite of mine. the structure slops around a bit - maybe it's an "obvious first work" - but it's full of life and energy.
posted by andrew cooke at 9:14 AM on March 27, 2005

Maeve Binchy (especially Tara Road, Evening Class, The Glass Lake, Firefly Summer)
posted by suchatreat at 6:49 AM on March 28, 2005

(a) Possession is definitely not a first work.
(b) I don't think Dickens really liked people.

I like many of Byatt's earlier books better than Possession, myself: Still Life is probably my favorite. Dickens can be delightful, but if you're interested in Victorian prose and especially interested in reading things with a generous view of humanity, I'd recommend George Eliot (particularly Middlemarch) instead. I also love Wilkie Collins' Woman in White, which is lunatic, funny, and weird. It's a sensation novel, which has elements of the Gothic and elements of detective fiction all wrapped up in a kind of classic sprawling Victorian package.

I second Robertson Davies and Richard Powers. Gold Bug Variations is great; if you like that, also try Galatea 2.2. Don't read -- or at least, please please don't start with -- Gain or Operation Wandering Soul, which I think are his weakest books.
posted by redfoxtail at 8:20 AM on March 28, 2005

I read dense lit crit for fun. I began in the modernist canon at age 14 and never looked aside from serious reading 'til 30. Maybe it's odd, then, that the best read I've had of late is the science-fantasy series "His Dark Materials" by Phillip Pullman starting with "The Golden Compass" and continuing through the trilogy. I can't exaggerate how much I learned about writing, storytelling and human nature from those books. Smart and excellent.

I'll just note that what I felt I learned about human nature had next to nothing to do with the actions of the characters. It was more that the book revealed something about reading to me. Again, excellent.
posted by putzface_dickman at 8:34 AM on March 28, 2005

wow, sorry. i thought it must have been. but it does kind of lurch around a bit doesn't it?
posted by andrew cooke at 9:29 AM on March 28, 2005

I third Vonnegut and Pratchet - fun reads - and I'll up a Spider Robinson.
posted by PurplePorpoise at 10:12 AM on March 28, 2005

I just finished The Ha-Ha, by Dave King, which struck me as a sweet book about an invented community, kinda like Kingsolver's The Bean Trees. (Not "invented" as in SF, "invented" as in a bunch of unrelated people share a house.) I'd say King likes his characters a lot. Now, I also just finished A Changed Man, by Francine Prose, and I got the distinct impression she didn't like any of the characters very much. It was a little distracting, in fact. Pretty good story, though.

Oh, almost forgot to criticize earlier posts: I adore Bill Bryson's writing but I think sometimes he can come across as rather misanthropic. Funny, but misanthropic. As for Dickens not liking people, I say Bosh! And Bukowski: Now there's a guy who didn't like people, himself included.
posted by scratch at 10:58 AM on March 28, 2005

Lurch it does, no doubt about it.
posted by redfoxtail at 10:59 AM on March 28, 2005

Check out Book Lust by Nancy Pearl. It gives hundreds of suggestions for books according to whatever topic you want or mood you are in. Excellent addition to your library as a quick reference for chosing a book to read.
posted by Maishe at 12:07 PM on March 28, 2005

Response by poster: Awesome, thanks for the leads, everyone. (and the leads to more leads). This'll keep me busy awhile. :-)
posted by Tuwa at 7:05 AM on March 29, 2005

Oh, just one more, The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.
posted by exceptinsects at 1:48 PM on March 29, 2005

I forgot Gene Wolfe. None better.

naomi, Kaaterskill Falls is a book? Is it the basis for the strange murder-mystery movie I saw a while back? I watched it only because I'd been to the place.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 6:54 PM on March 29, 2005

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