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October 27, 2006 7:51 AM   Subscribe

I just finished the last book on my Must Read list. Help make me a new one.

Short-Listed Favorites: Lolita, Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Middlesex, Autobiography of Red, White Teeth, God of Small Things.

Gathering dust on my shelves: Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo. No conspiracy theories or White Man crises about how mass media and technology are snuffing out our souls.

I've undergone the mandatory high school and college reading lists, so I'm looking for something new and mind-blowing.
posted by zoomorphic to Writing & Language (56 answers total) 69 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl

Cannery Row
and Tortilla Flat by John Steinbeck
posted by caddis at 8:00 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: So it's Interesting Modern Novels, hold the Suburban Angst, is it? Ok, then; I finally got around to The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay and it's been a marvelous, odd, fun, consistently engaging read.
posted by mediareport at 8:02 AM on October 27, 2006

Bruno Schulz - get your Street of Crocodiles on - it's funny, melancholic and the prose is mind-blowing without being tortured.
posted by einekleine at 8:05 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: The Baron in the Trees by Italo Calvino. A Hero of Our Time by Lermontov. Troubles by J.G. Farrell. Hunger or Pan or Mysteries by Knut Hamsun. Anything by Tobias Wolff. The Master by Colm Toibin. Beckett's First Love. Anything by George Orwell. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. If you like Lolita, try The Book of Evidence by John Banville.

War and Peace, if you haven't read it, is probably the number 1 must-read.
posted by Mocata at 8:11 AM on October 27, 2006

Carter Beats The Devil by Glen Gold was a fun time. I would also second mediareport on Kavalier & Clay.

No love for DeLillo though? For me it's not what he's saying, but how he says it. That man does magic with his sentences.
posted by hominid211 at 8:23 AM on October 27, 2006

Ditto on Kavalier & Clay. Effing phenomenal book. Give it time, though, because it takes a few chapters to get going, but once it does, it's staggeringly good. LOVE it.
posted by shiu mai baby at 8:44 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: Borges, Labyrinths or Collected Fictions, if you haven't already. A.S. Byatt, starting with Possession (or the four-book series starting with The Virgin in the Garden if you like a little more historical flavor and have a lot of time). Angela Carter, though perhaps more magical than the realism you're listing. Also take a look at Hanif Kureishi. And Naipaul? (I'd second Banville and Calvino.)
posted by RogerB at 8:53 AM on October 27, 2006

Borges' Collected Fictions is the most mind-blowing thing you'll ever read.
posted by Gortuk at 8:54 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: I'm making a wild guess that most of the stuff you've read has been stuff originally written in English, and probably several translations from French. If that's the case, look for some of the greats from other languages.

-Definitely read some Jorge Luis Borges
-Maybe some Carlos Fuentes (I'm personally not a big fan) El Naranjo would be a good one.
-One Hundred Years of Solitude
-The Alchemist or Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

Do you like epic poems?
-Homer, if you haven't read him already
-The Lusiads by Camoes
-Lots of countries (well, at least some) have official national epic poems

By the way, these mostly happen to be Latin American, because I study Spanish and Portuguese. I can't recommend to much non-british, french or american literature outside of romance languages.

-Niketche by Paulina Chiziane. I just saw her speak at my school.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:54 AM on October 27, 2006

Gortuk, jinx. I agree totally. I have that book. Also get his collected poetry.
posted by gauchodaspampas at 8:55 AM on October 27, 2006

I've had great luck with the BBC's Big Read list...I've enjoyed the vast majority of the ones I've read, and it sure beats taking a random book off the bookstore shelves.

Please do share your Must Read list...
posted by sLevi at 8:56 AM on October 27, 2006

These aren't especially "academic" or "mind-altering" books, but if you enjoy fiction, I'd recommend anything by Nelson DeMille. He wrote "The General's Daughter" which was turned into a movie, as we know, and as usually happens, the movie did the book absolutely zero justice. He writes a lot about military and military law - one of his books, Up Country, was fantastic. It's about a Vietnam Vet who has to go back through Vietnam on a "special ops" type thing and relives his war experience. DeMille's books are all REALLY good, and he writes the characters to have such dry, sarcastic wits that I often find myself laughing out loud while reading.
I highly recommend everything he's written, I think I've read pretty much all of it!
posted by slyboots421 at 8:58 AM on October 27, 2006

Ask the dust by John Fante
posted by fire&wings at 9:01 AM on October 27, 2006

Empire Falls, by Richard Russo, is a great book. Maybe not quite as mind-blowing as Kavalier and Clay, but amazing in its own way.
posted by dseaton at 9:04 AM on October 27, 2006

I don't know whether non-fiction interests you, but Bert Holldobler and E.O. Wilson's The Ants is mind-blowing.
posted by owhydididoit at 9:05 AM on October 27, 2006

You mention Autobiography of Red, which I've never heard of, but it reminds me that I am Red is a great book by Orhan Pamuk, who recently won the Nobel.
posted by booth at 9:09 AM on October 27, 2006

"Green Grass, Running Water" by Thomas King.

"Empire Falls" may be the award winner, but I preferred Richard Russo's hilarious "Straight Man".

If you're considering non-fiction - I just finished reading "Consider The Lobster" by David Foster Wallace last night. I glossed over a few pieces, but there are some exceptional pieces in there ( "Up Simba" in particular).
posted by backwards guitar at 9:12 AM on October 27, 2006

Response by poster: I love that no one's recommended me Everything Is Illuminated yet. Hated that book, but that's what usually gets brought up when people read my list.

sLevi, my Must Reads were: The Beauty of the Husband, The City in Which I Love You, Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Norwegian Wood, Interpreter of Maladies, Ariel, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, I Served the King of England, and A Gesture Life (the last four should have been up there among the short-listeds, but I wanted to be brief).

I own Kavalier and Clay, so I'll read that next. Keep 'em coming, and thanks for all the suggestions so far!
posted by zoomorphic at 9:13 AM on October 27, 2006

Response by poster: booth- Anne Carson is one of the best poets writing in the English language today. The tragedy is that no one ever reads her!
posted by zoomorphic at 9:16 AM on October 27, 2006

I've read (and enjoyed) five of your seven favorites. Out of the past couple of years, I'd recommend Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Also Simplify by Tod Goldberg.

And whenever I'm really out of something to read, I go back to John Irving. He has his flaws, but the books are entertaining. Just pick one that was made into a movie.

If you want any nonfiction, I also really enjoyed A Death in Belmont by Sebastian Junger.
posted by faunafrailty at 9:17 AM on October 27, 2006

The tragedy is that no one ever reads her poetry!

On that front, grab the collected works of George Oppen.
Also dittoing the recommendation for some Borges.
posted by juv3nal at 9:29 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: The Last Samurai by Helen Dewitt is great. No relation to the movie of the same name. It's about a single mom and her son, and watching the movie Seven Samurai. Quirky characters; best if you have seen Seven Samurai, which you should see anyway.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx was a big hit in the 1990s, so you might already have read it or decided you hate it. But I think it's great; a good book to read in the winter. The first 50 pages or so are crazy depressing, so you have to be patient to get to the good stuff. Again, quirky characters.
She has written a bunch of other stuff, lately mostly westerns, which are lovely.

-John McPhee The Control of Nature -- four longish nonfiction magazine articles
-Keri Hulme The Bone People
-Alice Munro's short stories
-David Foster Wallace Infinite Jest -- can be a pain in the ass at times, and is one million pages long, and lacks an ending, but still one of the best books I've read. It's about addiction. So it has a bit of "tv is killing our souls" but it also has legless Quebecois separatists and long rants about topics both serious and trivial, and ok maybe some conspiracy theories but also antidotes to those. Try to distance yourself from the pretentiousness and it really is a rewarding enjoyable read. Plus it will keep you in reading material for a month.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:36 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: Also, try Salman Rushdie Midnight's Children. Very enjoyable, though a weak ending as I recall.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:37 AM on October 27, 2006

"Ceremony" by leslie marmon silko. Great book no one ever read!

Also, you should try Ulysses out. It's worth it!
posted by milarepa at 9:37 AM on October 27, 2006

Response by poster: I keep meaning to pick up Rushdie, but I always tackle Satanic Verses and then realize I'm in way over my head in terms of the frenetic sociopolitical backdrop. I've read Joyce in college (I personally think Woolf did everything Joyce did, but better and with less pompous fanfare), and loved 100 Years of Solitude.
posted by zoomorphic at 9:49 AM on October 27, 2006

I asked a similar question a while back and got some great responses...

A new favorite of mine is Fun Home by Alison Bechdel.
posted by exceptinsects at 10:14 AM on October 27, 2006

Robertson Davies to me had a similiar feel to Kundera (spirituality themes/drama/theatre, set in academic canada). If you haven't read Kundera's other works, those.

I'd second Gabriel Garcia Marquez. You may not like Coehlo (it reads somewhat like a sermon at some points), but read a few pages in the bookstore and give it a try.

Grendel by John Gardner.

I like some of the same books, and my all time favorite is Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio -- it's great for the character sketches, but it's basically the drama of a small-town in the 1940s.
posted by ejaned8 at 10:15 AM on October 27, 2006

Midnight's Children is Rushdie's most accessible, I think.

Ian McEwan
Martin Amis
Cormac McCarthy
Graham Greene
John LeCarre
J. M. Coetzee
posted by thinkpiece at 10:21 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: Based on your shortlisted favorites, I can highly recommend Gould's Book of Fish: A Novel in Twelve Fish, by Richard Flanagan. It's one of the wittiest and most involving books I've read in years.

booth: I recommend Autobiography of Red to anyone who will listen. It's fantastic.
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 10:23 AM on October 27, 2006

I'd say if you loved Lolita, go for more Nabokov: Pale Fire, Ada, Pnin, Bend Sinister. The stories are terrific, too, especially "Signs and Symbols", "The Vane Sisters", "Cloud, Castle, Lake" and "That in Aleppo Once..."

Also, seconding recommendations for Bruno Schulz, Annie Proulx, Cormac McCarthy, anything by Alice Munro.
posted by trip and a half at 10:40 AM on October 27, 2006

Alice Munro is great.
posted by caddis at 10:46 AM on October 27, 2006

Based on what you love, I'd recommend "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" by Dave Eggers. And "The Poisonwood Bible" by Barbara Kingsolver -- please don't let the Oprah endorsement scare you away.
posted by nancoix at 11:15 AM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: I got some great recommendations from people here, but they were definitely more, uh, "guy"-ish books than what you have listed. Worth checking out what people suggested, though, as many of them were excellent suggestions.

Have you read any Jonathan Lethem? Motherless Brooklyn and Fortress of Solitude got all the press, but his earlier books (Gun with Occasional Music; As She Climbed Across the Table) are great, too, if a little more tilted toward (literary) sci-fi, which doesn't sound like it's your bag.

I second the recommendation of DeWitt's "Last Samurai," and if you like that, I would definitely recommend checking out Brian Hall's "The Saskiad."

Finally, I'll go a bit out on a limb and suggest Ken Kesey's "Sometimes a Great Notion." I'm working my way through it fairly slowly, and it definitely took some time to adapt myself to its rhythms, but it's turning out to be fucking spectacular. Imagine if Faulkner had lived in the Pacific Northwest, and had had a chance to read the Beats before he started writing. It's certainly not for everybody, but I'm beginning to come to the conclusion that it may well be one of the truly great American novels.
posted by dersins at 11:20 AM on October 27, 2006

Response by poster: Books mentioned that are on my shelf: Grendel, Atonement, 3 Munro collections, Last Samurai, Possession, Homer, more Nabakov. I feel sorry for them now, since I loved them just as much as the ones I mentioned previously.

The rest of these suggestions are just fantastic, and I'll start marking favorites soon. Thanks for saving me from the solitary Amazon browsing that always ends up with a very long wish list and an empty cart.
posted by zoomorphic at 11:56 AM on October 27, 2006

A second for Sometimes a Great Notion and Borges. Though it plays heavily with society and technology, Paul Theroux's Mosquito Coast is an intense and well-written work.
posted by anotherbrick at 12:10 PM on October 27, 2006

Lorrie Moore; Ron Hansen; Lydia Davis
Mary Scott, Not in Newbury
One strategy is to check out some of the Best American Short Stories collections from the library. It's a good way to sample a bunch of new authors quickly, and the selected authors often have other novels/short story collections you can branch out to.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:25 PM on October 27, 2006

If you haven't read Anna Karenina or The Brother's Karamazov, they are amazing.
posted by josh at 12:44 PM on October 27, 2006

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger and The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue are two of the best pieces of new fiction i've read in a long time. both are heart-rendingly amazing.
posted by mikoroshi at 1:01 PM on October 27, 2006

I can't believe I forgot to mention Coetzee. I found that reading Elizabeth Costello after Disgrace really helped, though that might just be me.

Especially if Borges and Calvino click for you (and after reading all of Kafka's novels, too), a novel that deserves more attention is Dubravka Ugresic's The Museum of Unconditional Surrender.

Take a look at Jeanette Winterson, too.
posted by RogerB at 1:29 PM on October 27, 2006

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

And regarding the Irving books - I particularly love "The Hotel New Hampshire" and "A Prayer for Owen Meany". Please also consider his non-fiction collection "Trying to Save Piggy Sneed"
posted by AuntLisa at 2:54 PM on October 27, 2006

Second Calvino, especially If on a winters night a traveler, probably the only book written in the second person that anyone would ever care to read.

If you're not frightened off by something that's nominally science fiction, I heartily recommend The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, one of the cleverest and most engaging books I've ever read (originally sold as four books, now generally as two large trades). Gene Wolfe is to sf what Borges is to fantasy.

The Count of Monte Cristo is extraordinarily enjoyable. If you're not interested in the vagaries if 19th c. Paris society you can probably get by with the abridged version.

I agree that Infinite Jest is worth the annoyance of reading it.

Finally, go get all of Michael Connelly's Harry Bosch detective novels. For some reason Connelly's characters never use contractions in their speech, but beyond that the books are a stellar way to waste time.

Also: read some good comics.
posted by vraxoin at 2:58 PM on October 27, 2006

Two westerns (written recently): Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian, Ron Hansen's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I remember Patrick Suskind's Perfume as great, though I read it years ago. Ingenious Pain by Andrew Miller killed me, too. Man, I love a good book and plan to mine this list of MeFi faves myself.
posted by eve harrington at 5:45 PM on October 27, 2006

Non-fiction, but Godel, Escher, Bach generally takes the cake for blowing minds.
posted by gsteff at 6:53 PM on October 27, 2006

Best answer: If you like books that tell really good, multi-layered, interconnected stories, then I can't recommend enough that you read David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and Mario Vargas Llosa's Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter.

Two books on my to-read list Julio Cortazar's Hopscotch and Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. I've heard great things about both of them.

I also want to second two suggestions above: caddis' mention of Alice Munro (and if you like short stories, I can recommend more in that vein) and AuntLisa's mention of Bel Canto.

Also, have you read Montesquieu's Persian Letters or Voltaire's Candide? Both of those combine philosophy with plot, and I enjoyed them for their storytelling alone.
posted by anjamu at 7:04 PM on October 27, 2006

I'm thirding Bel Canto, which was so good that I actually stopped before the ending and started it again because I couldn't bear having it end yet. Absolutely fantastic.
posted by honeydew at 7:32 PM on October 27, 2006

The Magician's Assistant by Ann Patchett is also great reading. My strongest suggestion is for you to read both Blindness and Seeing by Jose Saramago.
posted by melissa may at 10:37 PM on October 27, 2006 [1 favorite]

Second Calvino, especially If on a winters night a traveler, probably the only book written in the second person that anyone would ever care to read.

Camus might have something to say about that.

A worthy addition to the library, btw.
posted by juv3nal at 1:28 AM on October 28, 2006

Best answer: White Oleander - Janet Fitch (again, don't let the oprah thing affect you on this)
Identity - Milan Kundera
The Dream of a Ridiculous Man - Dostoyevsky (paradisian)
Why I Am So Wise - Nietzsche (Nietzsche's arrogance is so outstanding in this novel as to be highly amusing and engaging)

But my main recommendation: anything by Banana Yoshimoto. Her writing is very spare, and highlights simple beauty. But it's more than that. Try any of these first: Goodbye Tsugumi, Asleep, Kitchen. Or her collection of short stories, Lizard.

(I am also yet another person urging you to read Borges..... his poetry as well as his fictions.)
posted by mjao at 5:50 AM on October 28, 2006

Bridge of Birds by Barry Hughart - A novel of ancient China that never was. Amazing fantasy/fiction/alternative history. Funny and completely charming.
posted by Ekim Neems at 10:01 AM on October 28, 2006

Best answer: Winter's Tale, by Mark Helprin, is my favorite book of all time. I could try to describe why I love it so much, but others have done a much better job than I ever could. For example, Benjamin De Mott’s 1983 review (on the New York Times website; free registration required) does this wonderful book justice. I completely understand Mr. De Mott when he says "There’s far more that I would wish to say about the book - so much more that I find myself nervous, to a degree I don't recall in my past as a reviewer, about failing the work, inadequately displaying its brilliance." His conclusion is right on: "Not for some time have I read a work as funny, thoughtful, passionate or large-souled. Rightly used, it could inspire as well as comfort us. 'Winter's Tale' is a great gift at an hour of great need."
posted by merejane at 11:46 AM on October 28, 2006

A couple of books that would probably suit you, and are not larded with the intellectual pretentiousness of much highly lauded contemporary writing. (And, most important, they were thoroughly unputdownable for me.)

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry.

Men in Black by Scott Spencer. Spencer is flabbergastingly underrated. This book has nothing to do with the movie by the same name; it's just a coincidence.
posted by jayder at 5:13 PM on October 29, 2006

Gathering dust on my shelves: Pynchon, Roth, DeLillo. No conspiracy theories or White Man crises about how mass media and technology are snuffing out our souls.

I saved this response until now, as it really does not fit all of your requirements. My favorite book of the last few years, and by quite a wide margin, was Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections. It was a brilliant book, very readable, very well written from the sentences up through the major themes. However, Jonathan is a white man, and his major theme here is how our souls are being snuffed out by modern life. I think he captured our current condition about as well as any writer has. It really was quite the page turner though. It was as much fun to read as Harold Robbins, yet nearly as deep as Pynchon, Roth or DeLillo. There were detractors, but it seemed to me that most of them just thought it wasn't difficult enough to get from one page to the next to be worthy of their praise. He had me laughing, and sometimes crying, through the whole book. I can't wait until he comes out with a new novel.
posted by caddis at 6:12 PM on October 29, 2006

Another late entry because eve harrington mentioned westerns*. Lonesome Dove is epic and beautiful and heartbreaking and one of my favorite books.

Nobody mentioned another recent favorite, and a quick read: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. A heroic story set on a small stage.
posted by booth at 7:03 AM on November 2, 2006

I'd fourth Bel Canto.

You might also check out Jhumpa Lahiri's books. Her writing is easy to read, yet compelling. I went through both of her books in about a day each.
posted by reenum at 7:17 AM on November 3, 2006

Best answer: Country of My Skull by Antje Krog
posted by whimsicalnymph at 10:28 PM on November 4, 2006

If you're going to read Borges' Labyrinths, read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. Difficult to get into (he says the first 100 pages are a sort of filter, and only the reader that can be lead as he wants passes), but really rewarding (the Apocalypse! A murder mystery! Philosophy! Good prose!)
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:51 AM on July 4, 2007 [1 favorite]

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