help me find fantastic books?
January 7, 2006 9:00 PM   Subscribe

Looking for really fantastic reads for 2006. Please help.

I have been feeling really bummed that out of the 46 books I read in 2005, only two or three were what I would consider really great books to read. Maybe a few more for 2004 but the number is still considerably low. I want 2006 to be full of fantastic books and I really need recommendations. I've already read previous similar threads here and researched extensively online but I am having a hard time compiling a list that I am happy with.

Here are my requirements: fiction - has to be relatively character based, well written and a book I can't put down. It can be classic or popular. here are a few I'd put in that category: The Kite Runner, The Time Traveler's Wife, Mystic River (tho the last ten pages were terrible), Great Expectations, A Prayer for Owen Meany, one hundred years of solitude, the unbearable lightness of being. As you can see, my taste is all over the place. I generally don't read mystery or sci-fi and never read horror. for non-fiction, I want books that are well written and don't read like they should have been long articles. I've enjoyed the Tipping Point, most of Feynman's work, the elegant universe, personal history, a million little pieces, and mauve just to give you an idea.

Also if you like the work of a particular author, I'd be delighted to find out about new authors. A few I like are: Dickens, Kundera, Coelho, Tyler, Irving, Hornby, Banks, Davies.
posted by karen to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I got some great responses from this thread, and it sounds like we have similar tastes. As always, I recommend The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Cloud Atlas to anyone who will listen.
posted by bibliowench at 9:14 PM on January 7, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Kokoro or Sanshiro, both by Natsume Sōseki. Late Meiji Japanese author, very character-based.
posted by hototogisu at 9:16 PM on January 7, 2006

Try The Emporer of Scent and all of Dave Eggers' work. You might also like The Quark and the Jaguar or Godel, Escher, Bach (or Cosmos or The Dancing Wu-Li Masters or any of those classic layman science books).
posted by kcm at 9:16 PM on January 7, 2006

Also JD Salinger and maybe even James Clavell if you have a looooong weekend. Dostoyevsky?
posted by kcm at 9:17 PM on January 7, 2006

Three I enjoyed in 2005:
Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
Jonathan Lethem: Fortress of Solitude
Jeffrey Eugenides: Middlesex
posted by AwkwardPause at 9:17 PM on January 7, 2006

my favourites last year - wittgenstein's mistress; the goldbug variations; number 9 dream; hard boiled wonderland
posted by andrew cooke at 9:18 PM on January 7, 2006

ooooo Murakami (hard boiled wonderland) -- I would HIGHLY recommend Kafka on the Shore and Norwegian Wood first, as HBW is very very odd at times esp. if you're not familiar with his style. Brian Greene has written some new stuff since The Elegant Universe as well. I didn't like Freakonomics, very thin. Blink was OK but not as good as The Tipping Point.
posted by kcm at 9:21 PM on January 7, 2006

I'm reading "Kafka on the Shore" at the moment and am already dreading the end. Damn, it's good. I've never read Haruki Murakami before, but am making mental notes to read everything he ever wrote -- it's that good. It's translated from the Japanese and the translator must have been awesome, it's so smooth, and hilarious in parts, which sometimes lacks in translated books.

I also loved "Out," also set in Japan, and "Prep," set at an American boarding high school in the 1980s.
posted by GaelFC at 9:22 PM on January 7, 2006

Vikram Seth.
posted by rob511 at 9:28 PM on January 7, 2006

This thread on SF genre benders also had some excellent titles.
posted by Dag Maggot at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2006

V.S. Naipul.
posted by blue mustard at 9:38 PM on January 7, 2006

Anything by Colm Tobin, but my personal favourite is The South.
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz.
The Sea by John Banville.
Anything by Jane Smiley, I liked A Thousand Acres and Horse Heaven in particular, the scond one is a lot lighter.
The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien. Or anything by her. Warning- will make you depressed.
You Shall Know Our Velocity by Dave Eggers. Good. Really.
The Dream of Scipio by Iain Pears.

Happy Reading!
posted by fshgrl at 9:41 PM on January 7, 2006

Iain Banks, The Crow Road or The Wasp Factory or The Bridge or Espedair Street or Complicity or A Song of Stone.

Barry Hughart, Bridge of Birds. The Story of the Stone and Eight Skilled Gentlemen follow on.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:44 PM on January 7, 2006

Theres a book of Feynmans letters that just came out. Might wanna look into that.
posted by atom128 at 9:45 PM on January 7, 2006

Best answer: Off the top of my head, books I've read lately and really loved--a bunch of these books are in a course for which I'm teaching in the spring on the post-war British and American novel:

Tolstoy - Anna Karenina
Flaubert - Sentimental Education
Cather - The Professor's House
McEwan - Atonement
Powers - Galatea 2.2
Hamsun - Hunger
Roth - American Pastoral
Süskind - Perfume
... and I'll second Soseki - Kokoro, one of my favorite books ever.

Judt - Postwar
Tuchmann - The Guns of August
Sante - Low-Life
Menand - The Metaphysical Club
Bierce - Phantoms of a Blood-Stained Period

Sorry there aren't links to Amazon... I'm a graduate student in literature, so I read a *lot* of books; these are the ones that come to mind whenever I recommend books lately!
posted by josh at 9:49 PM on January 7, 2006

Stuff I've liked so far this year (and December):
The People of Paper by Salvador Plascencia, wherein the characters wage a "war against the commoditization of sadness" against the omniscient narrator.
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace, an excellent collection of footnotes and essays. (Does it matter if it reads like it should be long articles if it is? :)
The Areas of My Expertise by John Hodgman, the funniest almanac ever written. Read the opening P in the linked review for a few snippets that should give you an idea of whether it suits you or not.
posted by moift at 9:52 PM on January 7, 2006

The best new-to-me classic I read last year was My Antonia. I also read Ishmael, The Story of B, and My Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, and I recommend all three to anyone interested in philosophy/religion/civilization - they are fiction, but made me think more than most nonfiction.
posted by gatorae at 10:01 PM on January 7, 2006

Best answer: The Time Traveler's Wife was one of my favorite reads of last year and I just picked up Ursula, Under because there's a Niffenegger blurb on the cover(!). I was so very excited, so sick of reading bad books, finally a recommendation i can trust. Alas, the writing is so awful I think I may have to quit it within the first 150 pages. How completely unfair that a stellar novelist would have such unfortunate taste in novels.

If you've never read Chronicle of a Death Foretold it's my very favoritest Garcia Marquez. Happy Baby by Stephen Elliott is beautifully and sparely told.

It's been recommended/read to death, I'm certain, but I can never really get enough of Geek Love.

Both Dry and Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs made me laugh and cry (non-fiction, both). Oh! And on the non-fiction point, A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel is very funny.

Two books I really love but are both told from a child's point of view (warning in case that's definitely not what you're looking for) are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and When I Was Five I Killed Myself.

David Schickler's Kissing in Manhattan got me out of my great Novel Slump of 2004.

Finally, Adam Haslett's You are Not a Stranger Here. Wonderful.
posted by birdie birdington at 10:02 PM on January 7, 2006

karen, our tastes are similar. Have you ventured into historical fiction? There are some incredible books in that genre--one I never tried until last year.

Here are the best books I read last year, although all are older:

"Katherine" -- Anya Seton (historical fiction)
"Lonesome Dove" -- Larry McMurtry (fiction)
"There Are No Children Here" -- Alex Kotlowitz (nonfiction)
"The Handmaid's Tale" -- Margaret Atwood (fiction)
"My Antonia" -- Willa Cather (fiction)
"Stiffs" -- Mary Roach (nonfiction)
posted by lilybeane at 10:05 PM on January 7, 2006

I have to agree with GaelFC. I read my first Murakami book (also Kafka!) and have since read many others. Without a doubt one of my new favorite authors.

I also recommend Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson, and pretty much every Kurt Vonnegut book ever.
posted by symphonik at 10:06 PM on January 7, 2006

I have to threadwhore again and second Vonnegut, Stephenson (most of it, save the last cycle), and Burroughs.
posted by kcm at 10:10 PM on January 7, 2006

Okay I know you said fiction, but if you like dogs even a little you have to read Marley and Me. It's an increidbly well-written, honest, laugh-out-loud memoir and I absolutely loved it.
posted by radioamy at 10:19 PM on January 7, 2006

Franzen - The Corrections.
McMurtry - Lonesome Dove. I always deferred this one, thinking it was gonna be a western. The best prose ever written about friendship, ever.
Empire Falls or Nobody's Fool - Russo.
posted by docpops at 10:26 PM on January 7, 2006

Classics I dearly love:
-- House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. Wharton is like Jane Austen (have you read Austen? You'll probably like her if you like Dickens!), only American and -- I think -- somewhat more complex.

-- The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald. This book is so well-known that I probably don't need to say anything about it. It's THE American novel. Great characters; amazing prose.

-- Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte. Deeply atmospheric, gothic tale. Haunting characters. Great writing.

Modern novels:

-- Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. You mention that you like Dickens. This recent novel is a brilliant mixture of Harry-Potteresq magic set in a Dickensian world, told in Dickens-like prose.

-- Amy and Isabelle by Elizabeth Strout. This is the best exploration of a complex mother, daughter relationship I've ever read.

-- The Extra Man by Jonathan Ames. Ames creates a sort of blended style of F. Scott Fitzgerald and P. G. Wodehouse. But his books have a perversely (and very funny) sexual slant and they're set in our time. If you enjoy this book, Ames has written a sort-of sequel called Wake Up, Sir, which isn't as successful as "The Extra Man," but it's still quite enjoyable.

-- Here's a group of books you might want to read: Catcher in the Rye, Cats Eye, Rule of the Bone, Prep, The Glass Castle* and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Each deals with childhood in a unique way. [*nonfiction, but reads like fiction and goes well with these other books.]

Devil in the White City by Eric Larson may be the best non-fiction book I've ever read. From Amazon: "Author Erik Larson imbues the incredible events surrounding the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with such drama that readers may find themselves checking the book's categorization to be sure that The Devil in the White City is not, in fact, a highly imaginative novel. Larson tells the stories of two men: Daniel H. Burnham, the architect responsible for the fair's construction, and H.H. Holmes, a serial killer masquerading as a charming doctor."

-- ANYTHING by Oliver Sacks, but I deeply love The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Sacks is a neurologist who writes about really quirky mental disorders.

-- The Quest for Corvo: an Experiment in Biography by A. J. A. Symons. This may be the oddest and most entertaining biography ever written. Amazon says, "One day in 1925 a friend asked A. J. A. Symons if he had read Fr. Rolfe’s Hadrian the Seventh. He hadn't, but soon did, and found himself entranced by the novel—“a masterpiece”—and no less fascinated by the mysterious person of its all-but-forgotten creator. The Quest for Corvo is a hilarious and heartbreaking portrait of the strange Frederick Rolfe, self-appointed Baron Corvo, an artist, writer, and frustrated aspirant to the priesthood with a bottomless talent for self-destruction. But this singular work, subtitled “an experiment in biography,” is also a remarkable self-portrait, a study of the obsession and sympathy that inspires the biographer’s art."

-- Goedel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas Hofstadter. What does the work of a mathematician, a painter and a composer have in common? This fascinating, fun, maddening book -- which has an affinity with Lewis Carroll's "Alice" books -- opened my eyes to a world of ideas.
posted by grumblebee at 10:41 PM on January 7, 2006

Note to other posters in this thread: Karen mentioned that "I generally don't read mystery or sci-fi and never read horror"
posted by grumblebee at 10:43 PM on January 7, 2006

I hear you, grumblebee - regardless, though: They say they don't generally read SF, but do like Iain Banks. I'd really recommend his Iain M. Works - stylistically and thematically it's often not as far from his non SF work as many people might imagine...
posted by Jon Mitchell at 11:30 PM on January 7, 2006

Lately I have loved (and frequently recommended on these here MetaFilters):
The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt (nothing to do with the stupid movie!)
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
Ahab's Wife and Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund.

There are many, many more, but others seem to have it covered with Kavalier and Clay and Middlesex (READ THAT), so I'll leave it at this.
posted by librarina at 11:49 PM on January 7, 2006

Avaryan Rising is about as good as any medieval fantasy gets.
posted by merlin17 at 12:30 AM on January 8, 2006

ps my recomendations were for books, not authors. i've read several, although not all, of marakami's books and in my opinion hardboiled wondeland is by far the best - much more coherent and complete than the others. w's mistress is significantly better than the other book i've read by markson (vanishing point) - better characterisation, stronger plot (important given the "experimental" style). however, everything i've read so far by richard powers has been good.
posted by andrew cooke at 12:36 AM on January 8, 2006

sorry, murakami (if you're searching on amazon etc).
posted by andrew cooke at 12:37 AM on January 8, 2006

I'm reading "All He Ever Wanted by Anita Shreve and am gripped by it. I bought it in a rush changing planes and if I'd known it was set in 1900 I probably wouldn't have bought it, but it's beautifully written and the characters are very well drawn and convincing.

Another favourite, which I return to every few years, is The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (from which the TV series The Jewel In The Crown was adapted. It's not an easy read, there's a lot of politics in it about the partition of India after WW2, but the characters and story are gripping.

I also like Gail Godwin's The Odd Woman and Violet Clay - intelligent women's fiction.
posted by essexjan at 3:06 AM on January 8, 2006

There are some great recommendations here. From my side, two immediate thoughts were "An Equal Music" by Vikram Seth, and "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt. I have read and re-read both many times, and always come back to them. Seth's book is the only novel I have read that writes convincingly about music and for me completely disproves the dictum that music cannot be expressed in words, hence why we have it. And "The Secret History" just blew me away - ostensibly a murder mystery but actually a deep meditation on the nature of guilt, existence and what it's like to be human. Beautifully written, haunting and some amazing characters.

Also, try "Gould's Book of Fish" by Richard Flanagan - about which there is an excellent MeFi post here.

Finally, for a book which I explore on a cyclical basis once every year or two, and which changes every time, I'd recommend "The Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell. It has gone out of fashion, but is an incredibly rich portrait of pre- and post-war Alexandrian intellectual life. It is actuallt four books, 3 of which cover the same events but from different angles, and the 4th of which resolves some of the differences. A brilliant exploration of character and viewpoint, and the writing is outstanding if rather ornate.

Plus anything by David Mitchell - "Cloud Atlas", "Number9 Dream", "Ghostwritten" - for a similar exploration of perspective and character.
posted by greycap at 4:27 AM on January 8, 2006

two non-fiction books that i read last year and highly recommend: on intelligence by jeff hawkins and sandra blakeslee and nature noir: a park ranger's patrol in the sierra by jorden fisher smith. i'd also recommend rebuilt: how becoming part computer made me more human by michael chorost (related this this thread).

on the fiction front, my recommendation would have been the kite runner.
posted by jimw at 5:36 AM on January 8, 2006

I third (or whatever) the recommendations for Murakami. In addidition to the titles listed in the thread already, I also recommend Dance Dance Dance.

Another fantastic book by a Japanese author is A Personal Matter by Kenzaburo Oe.

Both of these are books I could not put down once I started reading them.
posted by smich at 7:35 AM on January 8, 2006

Oops. Here's the link for A Personal Matter.
posted by smich at 7:37 AM on January 8, 2006

It's not a new book, but I'm still affected by Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones. Probably one of the best books I've ever read. You mentioned Mystic River, so I was wondering if you read another work by Lehane, Shutter Island? It wasn't as good, but the mystery is wondering what really happened, and so it's worth it.
posted by visual mechanic at 7:44 AM on January 8, 2006

Sorry about the bad link and bold formatting in my comment, I don't know how that happened.
posted by visual mechanic at 7:45 AM on January 8, 2006

A few novels which are well-to-brilliantly-written, have fascinating characters and I could not put down:

Jonathan Franzen: The Corrections
Henry James: The Portrait Of Lady
Kurt Vonnegut: Cat's Cradle
JD Salinger: Franny and Zooey (if you like short stories, btw, his Nine Stories is hands down my favorite collection)
Thomas Pynchon: The Crying Of Lot 49
Antoine St Exupery: The Little Prince
posted by Ash3000 at 8:56 AM on January 8, 2006

Kavalier and Clay has already been mentioned, but I would also recommend Chabon's Wonder Boys and The Final Solution. Both were wonderful.

I also highly recommend The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. Beautiful and heartbreaking.
posted by beautifulstuff at 8:57 AM on January 8, 2006

Since you list One Hundred Years of Solitude, you may want to try the other books by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (at least the fiction.) He has some other incredible novels and several collections of short stores. One Hundred Years is probably near the top of my favourite novels of all time - so you may be disappointed that nothing else he has wriiten is quite as wonderful. Still, most of it is heads above most fiction.
posted by sixdifferentways at 10:08 AM on January 8, 2006

I've been enjoying rereading Hermann Hesse, particularly "Glass Bead Game."

Anything Don DeLillo is fantastic. "Americana" is great, as well as "Underworld" which should take you a couple weeks to plow through.

I also recently read "The Sheltering Sky" by Paul Bowles. Good stuff. John Fowles "The Collector" is a creepy classic.

"Infinite Jest" by David Foster Wallace is on my all-time fave list.
posted by slogger at 10:55 AM on January 8, 2006

I'm currently reading The Brothers K by David James Duncan, and while I haven't finished, so far I love it.

Also in the middle of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which I fully expected to hate, but am pretty intrigued by. This makes me think that anyone who finds the description to be something they'd like would really really like it.

The best book I read last year was one I picked up at the airport: The Twentieth Wife. Another book I wasn't sure of, but absolutely loved. It may lend itself more towards female readers, I'm not sure.

The books that I really enjoyed and recommed to everyone, though, are Memoirs of a Geisha, A Home At The End of the World by Michael Cunningham, The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, Lamb by Christopher Moore, and I'm sure there's more but I'm blanking out at the moment.
posted by dpx.mfx at 11:02 AM on January 8, 2006

I second the Fortress of Solitude by Lethem

and I'm still touched by The Minotaur Takes A Cigarette Break

oh, and the book about the autistic boy who goes on a mission to solve a mystery of the dead dog.
posted by stavx at 11:21 AM on January 8, 2006

the book about the autistic boy who goes...
the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime. sweet book.
posted by andrew cooke at 11:32 AM on January 8, 2006

If you haven't read them already...
Isabel Allende - House of spirits
Umberto Eco - Foucault's Pendulum
Italo Calvino - Invisible Cities
Winesburg, Ohio - Sherwood Anderson (short stories)
Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis (note: mild religious bent)
Equus by Peter Schaeffer (modern drama, but a great read)

for nonfiction I'd recommend
- Linked - Barabasi (casual read about small world networks)
- any books by Petroski (the pencil, to engineer is human)

ps. I also loved Garcia Marquez, Kundera, Coehlo, and Davies... so I'll be checking out some of the suggestions.
posted by ejaned8 at 11:51 AM on January 8, 2006

My brother has a book, Will Storr vs. The Supernatural coming out soon.

It's out in the UK on the 19 of January, is coming out in Australia in February and in the States, I think, in October. I know I can't comment on it without someone shouting "bias", but I've read it and it is really good non-fiction; really scary in places and laugh-out-loud funny in others.
posted by TheDonF at 12:19 PM on January 8, 2006

My recommendations are sort of all over the place, but here goes:

Nick Bantock - The Griffin & Sabine Trilogy (the coolest mystery/love story ever because you can vicariously read someone else's mail)
Anne Michaels - Fugitive Pieces
Karen Joy Fowler - The Jane Austen Book Club
Timothy Findley - Pilgrim
John Lanchester - The Debt to Pleasure
Anonymous - The Bride Stripped Bare
Vikram Seth - The Golden Gate
David Adams Richards - Mercy Among the Children
Nuala O'Faolain - My Dream of You

Diane Ackerman - A Natural History of the Senses, A Natural History of Love
Laura Kipnis - Against Love: A Polemic
Xinran - The Good Women of China
John Armstrong - Conditions of Love
Po Bronson - What Should I do with my Life?
M. Mark & C.S. Pearson - The Hero and the Outlaw
Amanda Hesser - Cooking for Mr. Latte
Polly Evans - It's Not About the Tapas
Sarah Turnbull - Almost French

Oh, and I always say this, but ANYTHING by Alain de Botton--my favourite is still his first novel, On Love or Essays in Love, depending on whether it's the American/British publication.
posted by phoenixc at 2:06 PM on January 8, 2006

I recently read Gene Wolfe's The Knight and The Wizard books and they were the best fantasy I've read in years. They were recommended in a sf book thread a month or so ago, I think.
posted by 6550 at 7:46 PM on January 8, 2006

The book I've enjoyed the most in the last 6 months is Q by Luther Blissett. The story centres on an anabaptist revolutionary around the time of Martin Luther and his nemesis. Not totally dissimilar to the more accessible Eco stuff but good characterisation and a naturalistic approach to character - kind of a historical version of Banks almost.
posted by biffa at 3:08 AM on January 9, 2006

3 writers to discover (if you haven't already): Harry Mulisch, Siri Hustvedt, Rohinton Mistry.
And Joan Didion, past and present works.
Didn't see "A Million Little Pieces' on this list but it seems to be stirring up some controversy about it's veracity on The Smoking site. For writing skills and reading pleasure I'd pass on it anyway and read Didion's current 'The Year of Magical Thinking'.
Thanks; this is a really smart list!
posted by lois1950 at 3:36 AM on January 9, 2006

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