Looking for some books to get me through the winter...
November 22, 2011 5:22 PM   Subscribe

Help me MeFites! Help me find the books that will allow me to space out during the holidays.  I'm looking for some engrossing, non-taxing, but not stupid, novels to read that will take me away from my ordinary modern life and its attendant pressures. Can you help?  

Books I've enjoyed recently: 
Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
The Living, by Annie Dillard
Specimen Days Michael Cunningham, particularly the final story, "Like Beauty"

The key features I'm looking for are:

Good writing...sometimes when I'm reading I feel like I can see the material being workshopped, and it takes me out of it. I think I like 'non-fussy, but precise' writing.  

Deliverance from my ordinary existence....I'm not typically a genre fiction person, but I notice that the books that I've liked recently have been otherworldly -- one about a cattle drive to Montana in (I think) the 1860's, one in the late 1880's Pacific Northwest, and one in some strange dystopian future where our lives were shared with beings from other planets.  So I'm open to genre fiction of any kind as long as it's considerably physically different than my life. I don't want to come across MacBook Airs, Facebook, Spreadsheets, sous vide, attachment parenting, Toyotas....etc. I want to know about the troubles one might experience having to figure out how to make a fire in the middle of the woods or something.

I like strong, well-developed characters  you can have some intimacy with. I think I prefer modern writing even about historical things, because it's more relatable through a modern filter (so I don't want to read a book that takes place in the civil war that was written right after the civil war). I like a clear plot that you can see moving more than internal exposition. 

I dont' want anything depressing where everyone dies in the end (Cormac McCarthy = engrossing, but not fun) . Some ups and downs and sadness is fine, I just don't want them to kill everyone. It makes me feel a little tricked.
posted by A Terrible Llama to Media & Arts (48 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Disclaimer that I have not read your faves, but would "The Help" be too lightweight for you? I found it really engrossing and just delightful. I was worried the horrifying racism/awful things happening in the South in the time period it's set in (1960s) would be too disturbing, but while they are disturbing, their presentation in this book is nowhere near approaching, say, McCarthy-level disturbing.
posted by pupstocks at 5:25 PM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: I just (literally an hour ago) picked up Helprin's Winter's Tale for a re-read. It's a fun, playful bit of magical realism(?) set in an idealized, turn-of-the-century New York City and surrounds. It's somewhat long and I remember finding it engrossing when I first read it, six or seven years ago.
posted by gauche at 5:29 PM on November 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

How about some Jonathan Lethem? I find most of his impossible to put down once I start. Motherless Brooklyn would be a good place to start. Fantastic book, very engrossing.
posted by machinecraig at 5:34 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Have you read "Ender's Game"? I'm not familiar with your faves, but otherwise I think it fits your description.
posted by DoubleLune at 5:36 PM on November 22, 2011

Does it have to be a fiction novel? I am a fan of John McPhee's meditative "new journalism' style books. Uncommon Carriers, for example, is a series of short stories about the life and work of various people in the transportation industry- a truck driver, a cargo ship captain, a barge crew. There's also The Control of Nature which is about, well, see the title. The nice thing about his books is they tend to be written in series of connected but somewhat independent segments, which makes it easier to put down the book during the busy holidays with lots of interruptions. The whole attraction is that they suck you in but are NOT impossible to put down, so you can still get everything else done. (Some books, you could set a bomb off next to me and I wouldn't notice. More importantly, the cookies could burn and I wouldn't notice!)
posted by Wretch729 at 5:37 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've traditionally been a science fiction fan but was recently carried away by easy reading into historic colonial Africa by Wilbur Smith. Try his Ballantyne series or something a little more contemporary like The Sunbird - it got me interested enough to do this.

For wide swathes of history, Edward Rutherford's Sarum and other books I've found engrossing enough outside of my preferred genres.
posted by infini at 5:39 PM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: I haven't read the books you listed, but from your description:

Robertson Davies, these.

Donna Tartt, "The Little Friend" and "The Secret History".

In a more speculative vein, Rudy Rucker's short story collection "Gnarl" has strong escapist value.
posted by kengraham at 5:40 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Time to trot out my usual fiction faves for best escapist-entertainment: The Sword and the Scimitar (aka Ironfire), set in the Mediterranean around the Siege of Malta in the 1560s. A few characters die and there's a fair bit of violence even before the siege, but it's not too depressing - there's some romance along the way - and it's definitely engrossing. Another historical epic with more romance and less gore is The Far Pavilions, set in British India of the 1850s. Both are plot-driven with vivid characters and engrossing story arcs, long enough to last you for many hours of mental vacation. Reasonably happy endings too, all things considered.
posted by Quietgal at 5:45 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

Mystery: Elizabeth Peters's Amelia Peabody novels will give you a look at the difficulties of late Victorian Egyptology. Lindsey Davis will make you fall in love with the Sam Spade of ancient Rome, one Falco, a wisecracking, soft-hearted P.I. Both series are delightful and on the light side, though well-written. Davis's "The Course of Honor" is also set in ancient Rome--Falcoless, but very educational on the topic of the path to the purple. DH loved McMurtry's Berrybender chronicles, Frazier's "Cold Mountain" and the McMurtry collaboration, "Zeke & Ned."
posted by MonkeyToes at 5:50 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, a completely different world, Japanese Empire in 1799, and very much modern writing about historical things. I didn't know anything about this period in history, and I loved this book.
posted by gladly at 5:55 PM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

Here's a thread focused on genre stuff that may be helpful; here's another.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:57 PM on November 22, 2011

All The Living, by CE Morgan. Her prose is a lot like Dillard's and I could not put this beautiful, lyrical book down.
posted by incountrysleep at 6:09 PM on November 22, 2011

Good writing

My favourite, "popular" good writers below; I like to think of this category as "airport books that don't feel like a lobotomy:

Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith, or any of this books, really. Very well written and he gets the details so right even academics thought he had been to Russia when it was published.

The Parker novels by Richard Stark (aka Donald Westlake, his books are all great too). Hard-boiled neo-noir, tight taut prose that doesn't insult you but makes a damned fun ride.

Death Comes For The ArchBishop by Willa Cather - I think you would really enjoy this if you liked Lonesome Dove. In some ways it's like a proto-Lonesome Dove. Cather is a beautiful writer.

The Grand Sophy, by Georgette Heyer. Or most of her Regency Romances but I would go with this or Cotillion perhaps. Wonderful, Wilde-esque stories; hilarious, intelligent and so funly plotted. These books have me chuckling aloud on the train and that is a rare achievement. Very like Austen, but without a certain archness which I don't really respond to in Austen (sacrilege I know).

- I really really enjoyed this book it was lovely and smart and just beautifully written; an astonishingly assured debut novel. Think of it as "Perfume" for optimists, without the latter's heavy-handedness and out-of-control narrative.

Packing For Mars, by Mary Roach. Roach's book is non-fiction, but her mission to humanise astronauts is both fascinating and frequently hilarious. Very funny.

Holmes on the Range by Steve Hockensmith is a fun mash-up of sherlock holmes wannabe cowpokes, it's probably the least "smart" book on the list, but I had a good time with it.

Me, Cheeta, the gloriously bitchy fake memoir of Johnny Weissmullers monkey friend in the original Tarzan movies. Modelled from memoirs like David Niven's (also recommended), I found this originally a quirky conceit, but was surprisingly touched by the end; this isn't just a one-joke book.

The Flashman Books are a lively neo-imperialist parody, following the bullying Flash from Tom Jones' Schooldays.

Let me know if you're after more - I just don't want to give you something depressing (though Lonesome Dove certainly couldn't be called the Happiness Express!) :)
posted by smoke at 6:10 PM on November 22, 2011 [4 favorites]

I just read The Sojourn by Andrew Krivak. It was a finalist for the National Book Award, and it was really very good. I read it in a sitting. There are quite a few deaths, it's set in WWI, but I didn't find it depressing at all.
posted by OmieWise at 6:18 PM on November 22, 2011

Seconding Winter's Tale, except that it gets a bit dense and tedious in the middle when Helprin ponders the metaphysics of city life, but that's also much of its beauty.

I recommend Jeffrey Eugenides' new novel, The Marriage Plot, which is so exceedingly enjoyable that you're already halfway through the novel before you realize he's also writing solid literature.*

Alice Munro's short stories are also very lovely and readable.

not to suggest "solid literature" isn't an enjoyable read, but sometimes I want to plow through some David Markson and sometimes I just want to zone out to AV Club TV recaps
posted by zoomorphic at 6:21 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I've been really enjoying Barbara Trapido lately. And by enjoying, I mean staying up all night reading even though I've got work the next day because I just can't stop myselfm
posted by Wantok at 6:21 PM on November 22, 2011

I think you want A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth. Or Tolstoy; Tolstoy sounds perfect.
posted by villanelles at dawn at 6:22 PM on November 22, 2011

Here is a very good review of The Sojourn from the Wash Post.
posted by OmieWise at 6:23 PM on November 22, 2011

You might like !Q 84, Haruki Murakami's latest. I had to give my copy back to the library before I could finish it, and I am kicking myself for not paying the $1 a day fine for new release books.

The story is imaginative and otherworldly, and his writing is precise and weaves ideas together without being able to see the seams.

Happy reading!
posted by shortyJBot at 6:50 PM on November 22, 2011

Seconding Mary Roach's "Packing for Mars." In fact, anything by her is a treat.

Also in the wonderfully written, engaging literary nonfiction vein is Ian Frazier's "Travels in Siberia."

David Mitchell's "Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet" is also an absorbing, literary, not-overly-workshopped read. His "Cloud Atlas" is amazing, but definitely weird, and the hectic holiday time may not be the best time to appreciate it.

If you haven't seen the movie, Kazuo Ishiguro's "Never Let Me Go" is tremendous. I don't know how engaging it would be if you already knew the story.
posted by elizeh at 7:18 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Oh, this was the other thread I was looking for - "Beach reading for snobs."
posted by restless_nomad at 7:19 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Laurie R. R. King's Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell novels are good for this--they are erudite, very intelligently constructed, and enthralling and evoke the interwar period in Great Britain, taking their protagonists to the Holy Land, India, and San Francisco circa 1925, and revisiting the Yorkshire moors and the scene of the Hound of the Baskervilles.

I asked a somewhat similar question about seven months ago and got many wonderful answers, some of which might be good suggestions for you, too.
posted by tully_monster at 7:32 PM on November 22, 2011 [3 favorites]

If you like Westerns, "The Sisters Brothers" is very good. I third Mary Roach. What about Gaiman's Neverwhere? Geraldine Brook's March? (I liked The Year of Wonders, but it's about the plague, so.) The Ghost Map is good non-fiction, as is In The Heart of The Sea and The Poisoner's Handbook.
posted by jeather at 7:32 PM on November 22, 2011

Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
posted by Ideefixe at 7:44 PM on November 22, 2011 [2 favorites]

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen is a great escapist book. Dakota by Martha Grimes is underappreciated and I can't imagine why - I got very, very involved in it.
posted by aryma at 8:06 PM on November 22, 2011

I think the Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe would be perfect. (Don't hold the movie against it)--It is writen in a very non-linear style somehow.
Like, you how you learn things about your family as you grow up...bits and pieces, here and there, stories that stand on their own, but tell a bigger one when you are old enough to look back an understand it. And then you realize that you know something, and suddenly something makes sense, but it just feels like, well of course it is, didn't you know that, and then you turn the last page, and wish that there were pages and pages more.
posted by SLC Mom at 8:15 PM on November 22, 2011

Best answer: Seconding Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell.

I've been loving the Game of Thrones books, even though I generally loathe fantasy. I find there are juuust enough fantasy elements to make it escapist (if they weren't there I'd probably be like "why don't I just read real history?") but not so many as to be annoying. And it is a weird, very full imagined world, with very deeply, skillfully drawn characters.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:18 PM on November 22, 2011

I've been loving the Game of Thrones books, even though I generally loathe fantasy. I find there are juuust enough fantasy elements to make it escapist (if they weren't there I'd probably be like "why don't I just read real history?") but not so many as to be annoying. And it is a weird, very full imagined world, with very deeply, skillfully drawn characters.

I concur. Caveat: lots of the many protagonists die horribly.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:10 PM on November 22, 2011

Game of Thrones books

The OP says, "I dont' want anything depressing where everyone dies in the end" - Don't read game of thrones; it's full of rapes, murders, massacres and more. Everyone dies.
posted by smoke at 9:15 PM on November 22, 2011

I would recommend the Wimsy detective stories by Dorothy L Sayers. Imagine Jeeves and Wooster crossed with Sherlock Holmes, between about 1925-1940.

Everything by Ursula le Guin. Especially the Left Hand of Darkness, the Telling, and the Dispossessed. Sci-fi, but she does excellent characterisation and worldbuilding.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 9:16 PM on November 22, 2011 [1 favorite]

I highly recommend Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce. It's a beautifully written piece of literature and at the same time, just a darn good story. I think it would match a lot of the things you're looking for: although it takes place in modern times, half the story is about an elderly aboriginal man who has to survive in the remote wilderness of Northern Ontario; the other half is about his niece, who leaves the north to search for her missing supermodel sister in Manhattan. Although the characters definitely don't have an easy time of it, it won't leave you feeling miserable. While it isn't a comic novel, the narrative voices are often quite dryly humorous.

I recently taught it to a group of non-English majors who are mostly kind of indifferent to fiction. Much to my surprise and delight, the entire group latched on to it with great gusto and discussed it passionately every class. Listening to them, you would think the characters they were talking about were real-life friends and acquaintances. Several of them told me that they'd had to force themselves to put it down so they could go to sleep or go to their biology class or cook dinner for their kids; many of them said it was the first novel they'd actually enjoyed.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:24 PM on November 22, 2011

In the non-fiction department: both "The Lost City of Z" and "The Devil and Sherlock Holmes" by David Grann are very well-written and gripping reads. Simply couldn't put down "The Lost City..."!

Seconding Mary Roach. I particularly enjoyed Stiff, but I suppose a certain morbid tendency is required to find the topic of cadavers entertaining...
posted by apolune at 12:40 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Steven Saylor's Roma Sub Rosa series might be for you, it's set in Rome in 80 A.D (the first one), and stars Gordianus the Finder, who is contracted as a detective by a young Cicero about to argue his first case, which involves patricide.

They're incredibly well-done novels, with a nice cast of recurring characters: his slave at first, later his family, also Cicero and a number of names you might know from Roman history, following them through a very interesting period of the Roman empire. They are realistic about what life in Rome was like, but are not depressing (but not fluffy, either).
posted by ariunderscore at 2:26 AM on November 23, 2011

Seconding both Donna Tartt books. Also The Story of Edgar Sawtelle absolutely transported me on a vacation a couple of years ago. The descriptions make it sound a bit precious, but it's fabulous.
posted by Cocodrillo at 3:02 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

The Shipping News by E. Annie Proulx.

Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

The Cider House Rules by John Irving

Lucky You by Carl Hiassen

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
posted by h00py at 5:26 AM on November 23, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins. Yes, it was written in 1860, but the writing is clearer and less digressive than other writers of that period (Charles Dickens), and it has one of the best female characters of the 19th century (Marian) and one of the creepiest villains (Count Fosco).
posted by betweenthebars at 6:22 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Diana Gabaldon is trashy, okay, but I hold by my opinion that Outlander and its first couple sequels (they bog down after that) are possibly the best, purest, most totally absorbing escapist trash ever. I'm also going to second the above recommendation for Dorothy Sayers and Laurie R. King and add Ellis Peters' mysteries as well. I've been reading them in bits and pieces for, oh, my whole life or something and they really are beautifully written and completely absorbing. They are also not a "series" in the modern sense - you can read them as you come across them at yard sales and used book stores and never feel that you have missed some critical early plot point. She's best known for the Brother Cadfael medieval mysteries but I really like her 1950s/early 60s George Felse mysteries as well.
posted by mygothlaundry at 7:33 AM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

I just finished Ready Player One by Earnest Cline and loved it. If you were playing video games and listening to music in the '80s, it is full of great references. It is a quest story with some romance thrown in. The writing is fairly simple and it is a quick read.
posted by agatha_magatha at 10:02 AM on November 23, 2011

I just read Franzen's The Corrections and it was way engrossing.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:29 PM on November 23, 2011

Best answer: I recently started Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey-Maturin series and I think it fills your requirements. This is the first book.
posted by fairfax at 12:58 PM on November 23, 2011 [1 favorite]

Seconding ``The Corrections''. In a somewhat similar vein, ``White Teeth'' and ``On Beauty'' by Zadie Smith are both really excellent.
posted by kengraham at 2:24 PM on November 23, 2011

Yes, the Aubrey-Maturin series. They do exactly what you're asking. They're wonderful.
posted by lapsangsouchong at 3:26 PM on November 23, 2011

The Aubrey-Maturin series *is* wonderful, but please be aware that it has an enormous number of nautical terms you may or may not know. I found myself flipping to the front of the book, and its detailed diagrams of various sails/masts/rigging, so I could understand what I had just read. YMMV, but I found this non-relaxing.

This next rec is tangential to your request for a novel, but I just started rereading "What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew: From Fox Hunting to Whist-the Facts of Daily Life in Nineteenth-Century England." Each chapter outlines the facts of a given subject area, and features how they were used in various 19th-century novels. I'm reading it right before bed, and tend to dip in and out of it, which makes it light reading. You will amass a lot of trivia about, say, the hierarchy of servants in a grand house and how street recycling worked.

I loved McMurtry's "Duane's Depressed," which, while contemporary, is still specific to its time and place (Texas in the 1980s). Karla Moore is a force of nature and Duane is more surprising than he looks--and you'll end up caring about them more than you think you might. McMurtry has a nice feel for small town life and its machinations.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:08 PM on November 23, 2011

Surprised there hasn't been any Wodehouse suggested yet. Almost any of his ouevre might do, but you could start with the Jeeves and Wooster books, perhaps with Right Ho, Jeeves.
posted by peacheater at 9:00 PM on November 23, 2011

Response by poster: These are fantastic. Thanks everyone.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 8:48 AM on November 24, 2011

I wonder if you might like Eva Ibbotson? I've They're often classified as teen/young adult books, but I quite enjoyed them. I've read A Countess Below Stairs, Magic Flutes, and A Song for Summer (warning: World War II).

Two others:

I really enjoyed A. S. Byatt's Possession.

I'm also nearly finished with Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, which takes place in the UK and has very likeable main characters.
posted by kristi at 11:52 AM on November 24, 2011

Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" is about "the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England. It is set in the middle of the 12th century, primarily during the Anarchy, between the time of the sinking of the White Ship and the murder of Thomas Becket. The book traces the development of Gothic architecture out of the preceding Romanesque architecture and the fortunes of the Kingsbridge priory against the backdrop of actual historical events of the time." I read it a long time ago, but have never had the urge to re-read.

"Possession," recommended above, is excellent.

Victorian murder mystery: Anne Perry has two series that are quite good--the novels that feature William Monk, and the novels featuring Thomas Pitt. Dark, detailed, but a little...chilly.
posted by MonkeyToes at 3:26 PM on November 25, 2011

Everything by:

Annie Dillard
John Le Carre
Kurt Vonnegut
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Nicholson Baker

Also Rose in a Storm by John Katz.
posted by heatherann at 12:45 PM on November 27, 2011

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