Good Books
April 2, 2024 10:52 PM   Subscribe

I find it easy to find mysteries (though I do ask a lot of questions about them here heh), romances, fantasy/sf books in lists on the internet. I find it harder to find books that are really good stories but NOT genre. I'm interested in Good Books from any era as long as the older ones hold up relatively well re: racism, sexism etc. What other books would you recommend?

I have enjoyed I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith and Olga Dies Dreaming by Xochitl Gonzalez if it helps to have examples. I also like Louise Erdrich.
posted by azalea_chant to Media & Arts (29 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I've just finished Nada, by Carmen Laforet, about a young orphan coming to Barcelona in the 1940s to study literature, exploring the city and her freshly won freedom, while struggling to not get swallowed whole by her super dysfunctional extended family, gothic vibes, dark secrets, lingering effects of the civil war, catholicism and the franco regime hanging over everything like heavy clouds. A much bleaker version of gentile poverty, downward mobility, bohemian lifestyle of an impoverished middle class than I Capture the Castle (which I also loved a lot). And still it also has a wonderful youthfulness about it, inspite of everything, an openess to beauty, a hunger for exploration and adventure (and literal hunger too, the protatognist often prefers to buy flowers for her friends instead of food for herself).

I don't generally think that everyone should read a book just because I happen to like it, but in this case, I'm feeling a certain missionary zeal, because a) it's fairly short, and a real page turner, not much of an imposition and b) it's such a ride! It's got the sort of twist you feel a bit silly for not seeing coming, but I really didn't see it coming, which reveals the smallness of my faith. And also, I approve of the message, a vindication of not trying to lock the young girls up and keep them away from all the dangers waiting outside, because lots of dangers are waiting inside as well, and also the young girls do have good heads on their shoulders, they have good instincts, they can look after themselves, and they have their own demons too, so maybe don't underestimate them.
posted by sohalt at 12:40 AM on April 3

Your Ask is challenging for many reasons. The definition of "Good Books" varies wildly from person to person. I'm a reader, writer, and librarian who has talked with thousands of people about their bookish tastes, and Book X is Person A's beloved and Person B's bête noire. Think of polarized reactions to Jane Austen or David Foster Wallace, to name a couple: these reactions often involve fundamental disagreements about what makes for good literature, as well as good stories!

The question of how well a book holds up regarding racism, sexism, etc. is also contested. There are books that were published 20 years ago that were in their time well regarded for their treatment of such issues, and which are now in disrepute because society and readerships have moved on. Many people today love The Hate U Give, for instance, and it's going to be loathed by a bunch of people in 20 years because it doesn't conform to standards that won't be starting to form until 2034.

I have three suggestions for you.

1) Look for a Reader's Guide. Many such books exist, and an oldie timey version of such was The Reader's Guide to Contemporary Authors. It's a quarter century old at this point, but the book's mission was to offer exactly what you seek: a guide to how and why to read a bunch of authors, in and out of genre.

2) Look at Literature Map. Type in the authors you named. Go forth and look into the authors named as similar. That said... I typed in both of your authors, and the results did not cluster very well (you'll see what I mean), so it's possible you're looking for unicorns that don't map well to literature recommendation models.

3) Talk to a professional book recommender. AskMe is often great for book recommendations, but your local bookseller or public librarian may be able to offer more nuanced explanations and talk at greater length about your interests, and how they map to what's available at their particular book warehouse.
posted by cupcakeninja at 4:59 AM on April 3 [11 favorites]

Question for clarification: do you only want fiction, or are you open to nonfiction as well?
posted by brainwane at 5:09 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]

The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim. Saw a recommendation for it here on the green and grabbed a copy I saw in a little free library. Lovely.
posted by carrioncomfort at 5:38 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]

I would recommend Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. She won the Nobel for her work on it in i think 1920, but it's (in my opinion) very accessible and just a good historical tale of medieval Norway.
posted by branca at 5:46 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]

Where'd You Go, Bernadette? has some mystery elements but it isn't a typical one.
Headlong by Emlyn Williams is the book that King Ralph was based on, but it isn't a comedy like the movie was.

If you don't consider Middle Grade to be a genre but just an age description for the main characters, The View From Saturday is really good.
posted by soelo at 6:04 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

Talk to a professional book recommender. AskMe is often great for book recommendations, but your local bookseller or public librarian may be able to offer more nuanced explanations and talk at greater length about your interests, and how they map to what's available at their particular book warehouse.

Long-term bookseller here. My sense from the choices you mention is that you'd be the most fun kind of customer to recommend things to! But also, whether or not you like a book is going to depend on a lot of unpredictable things, like the style, the narrative voice and a bunch of things nobody else can really guess. When I've sold books to people like you, I've given them a stack of 8-10 books to look through and I'm happy if they leave with two. So yes, go into a bookstore or a library. If you can't/don't want to do that, you can always download samples of books for free.
posted by BibiRose at 6:22 AM on April 3 [5 favorites]

When I wanted to read more EPIC books I found this BBB top 100 books list kinda perfect because it cuts across genres, and at 100 it's manageable but large enough so that when you don't want to/have read all of Harry Potter for example, there's still a lot to choose from! I don't think I'd have ever read A Prayer for Owen Meaney without it, and boy what a provoking book that was - plus if you're thinking of dipping a toe into a genre, it slims your choices down. Of course, I love the BBC but other book lists are available!

Also I'd recommend in no particular order: A Suitable Boy, The Count of Monte Cristo, The God of Small Things, and another I'd definitely not have read if not for the list - Ulysses (it's the book my brain is most glad I read!).
posted by london explorer girl at 6:24 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

Librarian here, who was also a bookseller many moons ago. I know you asked for specific books but longterm, you want a system for finding new stuff. You want Goodreads. Follow a wide variety of readers, add your friends, and follow the feed of what they're reading and how they feel about the books (your home feed will aggregate the activity of the people you friend/follow). Set your reading preferences to include literature, and you'll also just get general recommendations for new books. Click through and read the descriptions and add anything that sounds interesting to your shelves. I am also a genre reader (and Goodreads is great for genre too!) but I have found some really excellent lit this way as well.
posted by biblioPHL at 6:54 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

Circe by Madelline Miller was so good. The description is terrible but the book was great.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:57 AM on April 3 [5 favorites]

You know another thing you can do, social media-wise, is follow some of those authors you like on Threads or Instagram or wherever that particular author hangs out. I get a lot of my own recommendations that way. I just checked out Xochitl Gonzalez and we've missed a book club she conducted a few days ago but she seems pretty active so you might want to watch her. Some authors make recommendations I don't understand, and some do engage in log-rolling but I read a LOT of books based on recommendations from favorite authors. But I do always download the free sample.
posted by BibiRose at 7:09 AM on April 3 [2 favorites]

I have lots of recommendations from various long-running reading projects!

First, since you like I Capture The Castle I suggest some of her other novels, The New Moon With The Old, The Town In Bloom and It Ends With Revelations. All are more melancholy and ambiguous than I Capture The Castle, but they definitely have some of the same types of melancholy and ambiguity found in that book. I liked The New Moon With The Old best but many people enjoy The Town In Bloom more.

Dodie Smith also has some memoirs which I would like to read but haven't tracked down yet.

I really enjoyed Arnold Bennet's Clayhanger - just an excellent early-modern growing up story. It has some pretty sad parts, but I was blown away by how good it was.

On a happier but vaguely-associated-with-Dodie-Smith-in-my-mind note: Margaret Drabble's early books, Jerusalem The Golden (falls apart a bit at the end but the first 2/3 are top notch), The Millstone, A Summer Birdcage. These are all novels with some ambiguity and a lot of sixties-ish ideas about straight relationships, but they're all written from the perspective of women who are becoming themselves in the face of opposition. Of Drabble's later novels, I particularly enjoy The Radiant Way. I think that The Needle's Eye is probably her best and most sophisticated book, but it's also pretty melancholy and has the most violence.

Early in the pandemic, I read all of Nancy Mitford's light novels and they really cheered me up. I also read Bridget Jones's Diary, which is extremely slight but better than I had been led to believe.

I also really liked The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald.

Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book, is one of my favorite novels. It is such a vivid picture of sixties San Francisco and it manages to have a hero who is in some ways kind of a jerk and kind of self absorbed but also a good person with a lot of potential and it's also extremely funny.

If you haven't read Mrs Dalloway, I highly recommend that - it's funny, because Virginia Woolf wrote very negatively about Arnold Bennett (who, granted, wrote a lot of potboilers) but Clayhanger and Mrs Dalloway are both IMO among the finest books of their period and have a lot of commonalities.

I get most of my non-genre book recommendations - at least books I really, really like - either from metafilter or from poking around on wikipedia. There's a lot of good-quality lit fic out there that is highly praised and often recommended but that does very little for me.
posted by Frowner at 7:14 AM on April 3 [4 favorites]

I like to read as many books from the short list from each year's Tournament of Books as I can.

(Basically ToB is a book nerd version of March madness.)
posted by DirtyOldTown at 7:30 AM on April 3 [3 favorites]

Some books I always recommend:
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
The Beach by Alex Garland

Some non genre books I've really enjoyed so far this year:
As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
The Girls by Emma Cline
posted by phunniemee at 7:34 AM on April 3

Perhaps listening to a podcast like Backlisted, looking at the website of Persephone Books, or looking at Ann Patchett's Parnassus Books Tiktok may help? These are all places I go for ideas, along with Goodreads friends.
posted by PussKillian at 7:45 AM on April 3

Response by poster: I'm not looking for nonfiction, I'm looking for fiction fiction, as in stuff that doesn't fit in a genre. Anything that is just really good, feel free to recommend things you've enjoyed - I'll try them and I can always stop if we don't have tastes that match. Mostly looking for more modern stuff (Like the Louise Erdrich or Xochitl Gonzalez) or classics that don't get talked about in school (Like the Dodie Smith).

The "How to find books like this" answers are helpful too, though I especially like hearing about books you liked.
posted by azalea_chant at 8:33 AM on April 3

classics that don't get talked about in school

Is that because you are have already read those, or because you don't think you'd enjoy them? If the latter, reconsider: I was never into Literature (with a capital L), perhaps out of a bias of having been forced to read those books in school. As an adult, however, I've often picked up books that I thought I "should" read and found that many are just good stories. Some that come to mind are Jane Eyre, The Great Gatsby, Slaughterhouse-Five, and Their Eyes Were Watching God. So take a look at the lists of "great books" and consider those that you haven't read. (Bonus: The older ones are online free, so you can read the first couple of chapters and decide whether you want to continue.)
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:48 AM on April 3

Oh dang, I meant to add some, although a lot of mine are older. The other Dodie Smith books are a good call.
I am passionate about George Eliot, if you're looking for older classics. Also the Austens, Vanity Fair, and Gaskell's North and South.
George Saunders' Lincoln in the Bardo was lovely.
I really enjoyed the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan books.
If you're ok with short stories, I recommend James Thurber.
posted by PussKillian at 8:51 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

I feel like I like Louise Erdrich in a similar way to how I like Alice Munro, Barbara Kingsolver, and Miriam Toews - stories of communities and women that are sometimes a little funny but mostly just real. You might like Heather O'Neill, too. Or The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton!

For other classics that don't get talked about in school, you could look at reading lists from other anglo countries, or prizes from those countries. (In Canada we have the Giller, for example.)

Seconding Sigrid Lavransdatter always, I read it from an AskMefi recommendation and it's just so, so good.
posted by phlox at 8:52 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

I have had similar difficulty finding non-genre books I enjoy, and I liked:
"Less" by Andrew Sean Greer
posted by adventitious at 9:12 AM on April 3 [1 favorite]

For I Capture the Castle, try:
Jane Gardam's A Long Way from Verona
David Mitchell's Black Swan Green
Margot Livesey's The Flight of Gemma Hardy
posted by minervous at 9:33 AM on April 3

Response by poster: A couple more examples of authors I've enjoyed: Emma Straub, Laurie Frankel. I like their ensemble casts.

And the not classics was just wanting to mostly hear about new-to-me books so if it is a less talked about classic and it might be new-to-me, feel free.
posted by azalea_chant at 10:49 AM on April 3

For another coming of age story, I enjoyed Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker.

Based on the other books you say you've liked, I have the feeling you might like Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver.
posted by Redstart at 12:01 PM on April 3

I feel like we have similar tastes. Here are some of my favorites, off the top of my head.
Station Eleven, A Gentleman in Moscow, Circe, Americanah, Bel Canto, The Rosie Project (a bit lighter), Hail Mary Project (sci fi but fun and great), Cloud Cuckoo Land, There There, Cutting for Stone, Beartown, All The Pretty Horses, the Nickel Boys. lonesome Dove. middlesex. the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. The Remains of the Day.

For literary American fiction I loved loved loved the trilogies by Maryline Robinson and Kent Haruf.

There's so much good fiction out there! Happy reading!
posted by emd3737 at 1:05 PM on April 3

Look among the novels of Rumer Godden; they are beautifully written and many have a mid-century bittersweet coming of age feeling like Dodie Smith’s.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:32 PM on April 3 [2 favorites]

Also, two books I stayed up all night to finish, Valley of Decision by Marcia Davenport and East of Eden, Steinbeck. Both multi-generations (the latter movie is only a small part of the book).
posted by TWinbrook8 at 1:52 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]

Absolutely everything by Colson Whitehead. He's my favorite literary fiction author hands down.
posted by epj at 4:25 PM on April 3 [1 favorite]

azalea_chant, I asked about nonfiction because you hadn't actually specified in your question that you only wanted fiction, and there are a lot of well-written gripping nonfiction narratives out there. Glad you clarified!

I recommend:

Pat Barker's Regeneration: A main character, an anthropologist and psychologist, is counseling British veterans of trench warfare during World War I. So deeply observant about human vulnerability and courage.

Vikram Seth's monumental novel A Suitable Boy (about a year in the lives of many intertwined people in mid-20th century India) is such a generous and loving book, so many people doing so many human things. Shoemaking! Electoral politics! Music! Love! Poetry, farming, sex work, riots, parenting, teaching, healing, gardening, romance.... and did I mention the shoe manufacturing?!?!?!

I want to recommend a few things to you that, while starring detectives, are not genre mysteries. First: Nicola Griffith's gripping, propulsive, addictive detective series starring Aud Torvingen (The Blue Place, Stay, and Always). As page-turning as candy and as deep as a meal -- stories of love, grief, work, sex, achievement, vengeance, cities, disability, and slow true friendships. Here's Griffith talking about what Aud represents to her. (Watch out for descriptions; blurbs about/summaries of Always may include spoilers for The Blue Place.) Second: Thomas Pynchon's Inherent Vice, a weird funny romp that is perhaps the most accessible Pynchon novel.

I saw from a previous question that you had enjoyed the fiction of Kate Racculia or at least her Westing Game-inspired Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts -- I also read that and found it funny, incisive, moving, clever, really insightful about human lives, sweet, and celebratory of ridiculous joys. Then I moved on to Bellweather Rhapsody and This Must Be the Place. Have you tried Racculia's other work? I think I liked Tuesday Mooney best but none of them were bad reads. Racculia writes novels about knocked-around people who sometimes make ill-judged decisions and find odd emergent relationships with each other, and -- like Philip K. Dick -- gives us the interiority of those characters and makes it comprehensible and relatable. In every book, sprinkled throughout, are little articulate crystals about particular kinds of experience that I don't think I've ever seen another author describe. My old high school American lit teacher told us that literature is about different ways of being human, and I enjoy how Racculia does that.

Vivek Shraya's The Subtweet was really engaging and so thoughtful about the ways that people's friendships and ambitions and identities get tangled up!

And, in case you are particularly trying to read books by nonwhite authors, Dreamwidth's "Writers of Color 50 Books Challenge" community crowdsources reviews of books by people of color. Many of them are novels.
posted by brainwane at 7:44 AM on April 4

A random selection of books I’ve read and enjoyed that I think you might also like:
  • How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water, by Angie Cruz (2022). A woman who immigrated from Dominican Republic to New York City 25+ years ago is laid off from her job and enrolls in a program that helps older workers re-enter the workforce. The whole book is her telling her life story to the employment counsellor she’s been assigned to.
  • Bird, Woman, Other, by Bernadine Evaristo (2019). Intertwined stories of strong Black women living in the UK. The women range in age from teenager to middle age to elderly, and are all along the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity. It’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. The format of the print book is a bit unusual—there’s very little end punctuation, but I promise you once you get going you don’t even notice it—it’s not really experimental in terms of narrative structure, just in terms of presentation. If you listen to the audiobook, it would sound no different from any other book.
  • The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee (2016). The intertwined lives of three women, all American expatriates living in Hong Kong.
  • The Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant (2014). An elderly woman recounts to her granddaughter what it was like growing up in a Jewish family in Boston at the turn of the 20th century.
  • City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert (2019). 89 year old Vivian Morris looks back on her life and tells the story of how she ended up in New York City in the 1940s as a costume maker in her aunt’s theatre.
  • Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett (2023). A woman tells her adult daughters the story of how she fell in love with a fellow summer stock actor who later became a famous movie star.
  • The Diviners, by Margaret Laurence (1974). This is a classic of Canadian literature and I think you would like it. I would be astounded if you’d ever read it in high school unless you are Canadian, and even then you may not have! (I didn’t.) It’s old, but surprisingly fresh, and is about a woman making her way in the world and pushing against society’s stifling expectations. I really love this book and am always amazed at Laurence’s skill as a writer. It has a surprising amount of humour for a book with such serious themes.

posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:07 PM on April 6

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