This is a list of books I’ve read and that I recommend.
It’s not a list of “the best books” – in fact it’s not an organized list at all. It’s a jumble of books, with everything mixed together: fiction, non-fiction, high literature, quickie fun reads. It’s a list of (about) 100 high points from my years of reading. Enjoy.
The Complete Stories, Flannery O’Connor
O’Connor’s short stories are jewels, typically set in the South (where she grew up), often portraying characters grappling with some moral flaw. One of the best American writers.
Sexy, Joyce Carol Oates
Sure, she’s one of America’s literary lions, but she also writes books for the juvenile audience. This wonderful, sparely written novel aimed at the teen set is honest and unafraid. Of the several I’ve read by her, I enjoyed this the most because it’s pared down; when her prose is stripped to its core, the sharp, disciplined poeticism of her style shines through.
Front Row at the White House, Helen Thomas
One of my heroes, Thomas was an intrepid reporter who covered the White House from JFK to George Bush. This non-fiction account of her career is the inside scoop. Once when I was in DC on a writing assignment, she agreed to speak with me, and we talked for about an hour about journalism. Fascinating. She was gracious and funny.
The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X, Alex Haley
Damn, this is a great book. Malcom’s unflinching story of growing up black between the 1930s and the 1960s, evolving from street hustler to Muslim leader, is a must-read. An American classic that will survive the test of time. This book influenced me enormously.
The Poisonwood Bible, Barbara Kingsolver
Kingsolver’s well-written tale of a missionary family’s move to Africa in 1959 is full of vivid detail; you can see the grasslands and feel the searing heat. A story of real hardship, and ultimately, change.
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
Made into a successful movie, Hornby’s story of the love misadventures of a record shop owner who constantly makes songs lists is sheer fun. Hornby’s “About A Boy” is good, too.
The Maltese Falcon, Dashiell Hammett
One of the original noir detective novels. Hard-boiled private eye Sam Spade is an amoral character whose only allegiance is to himself – beware if you’re a scheming brunette who thinks she can pull a fast one.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
This Czech-born writer writes deep and thoughtful novels with interesting characters and involving narrative lines. He’s written a lot of good books: “The Book of Laughter and Forgetting,” “The Joke,” “Life is Elsewhere,” “Laughable Loves.” They’re all wonderful reads.
The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton
Ah, be still my beating heart. What a book. This tale of angst among teen gangs is pure poetry. It’s written for a juvenile audience but I reread it as an adult and it holds up beautifully.
The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky
The dark Russian novelist’s tale of the impossibility of being innocent in a corrupt society is a challenging but worthwhile read. Also worth the effort are “Crime and Punishment” and – probably his most enjoyable read – the short story “White Nights.”
White Palace, Glenn Savan
Lightweight but very well done story of an unlikely romance between a young advertising writer and a waitress at a fast food joint. Quite entertaining. The book is far better than the forgettable movie with Susan Sarandon and James Spader. On a personal note, Glenn (now passed away) was a friend of mine. He wrote the book while we were waiting tables together, and showed me drafts of it in progress. He was a talented and well-schooled writer, having attended the Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Fortunately for me, he was a generous teacher who helped me quite a bit with my own writing. At the time I was writing a music column for a local paper, and Glenn went over my writing with me, sentence by sentence. I’ll always remember him fondly.
Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck
American lyricism at its most poetic and rough-hewn. This is the great American novel, exploding one of our central myths – that upward mobility is available to all – while telling the soul-stirring story of the Oakies fleeing the Dust Bowl. Most everything by the Pulitzer Prize-winner author is very good: “East of Eden,” “Tortilla Flat,” “The Winter of Our Discontent,” “Of Mice and Men.”
Prep, Curtis Sittenfeld
Sittenfeld’s closely observed story of a young woman in a cloistered prep school was a surprise hit. After a slow beginning, the book’s insight about class and the struggle for identity makes it an involving read.
The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, Jane Wagner
This is a Broadway play available in book form. (The play was performed brilliantly as a one-woman show by Lilly Tomlin.) Full of funny, wacky insights into modern life.
In Cold Blood, Truman Capote
Wow, this is a hell of a book, a true non-fiction masterpiece. Although it chronicles a horrible crime, much of the prose is close to musical. Capote was a virtuoso stylist.
Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball, Stefan Kanfer
Kanfer wastes no words in this essential guide to the iconic comedienne’s life. No, she wasn’t the greatest human being.
Bobos in Paradise, David Brooks
A right-leaning Op/Ed writer for The New York Times, Brooks is an astute social observer. “Bobos,” short for “bourgeois Bohemians,” is Brooks’s term for affluent Americans who prefer a kind of hippie veneer. In other words, a fair portion of the Boomer generation.
Word Freak, Stefan Fatsis
Fatsis went inside the sub-culture of Scrabble, profiling its eccentric personalities. Along the way he played competitively himself, and he brings us inside his very personal struggle to push his game higher.
The American Scene, A Reader, H.L Mencken
Mencken, one of America’s top social observers in the early 20th century, was a brilliant, free-thinking curmudgeon who wrote it as he saw it. Much of his writing has a funny, biting irony. One of my heroes.
Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger
This novel of teenage angst transcends adolescence and seems to actually capture real human experience on paper. A classic, of course, but one that lives and breathes. Also fabulous by the hyper-reclusive Salinger is Franny and Zooey and Nine Stories.
End Zone, Don Delillo
Fantastic, funny book. Set in a small college in Texas, this slender book by one of America’s great novelists is as much about style – that inimitable Delillo archness – as about metaphor, though it’s also rich in metaphor. And don’t miss Delillo’s masterpiece, White Noise – a major achievement that’s as humorous as it is deep.
On Writing Well, William Zinsser
This book has been reprinted a gazillion times, and is found in every bookstore in America. More than a great instructional book, it has a tone of voice that keeps you company and urges you on. I’ve read it three times, and still pick it up from time to time. Also good is Sol Stein’s “Stein On Writing.” Stein isn’t the writer that Zinsser is, but his scholarly dissection of the craft of writing is very helpful. While you’re at it, pick up Ben Yagoda’s The Sound on the Page, which talks about voice and style in writing.
Collected Stories, Tennessee Williams
Oh God, Tennessee, I worship you. These stories are overflowing with humanity, insights into the perversity of human experience, and a full-blooded dark humor. What a dude – a dude among dudes. And if you’re renting movies, don’t miss Williams’s The Night of the Iguana with Richard Burton and Ava Gardner.
Conspiracy of Fools, Kurt Eichenwald
Eichenwald takes the arcane story of how Enron pushed itself into collapse and makes it novelistic and compulsively readable. Also good are Eichenwald’s Serpent on the Rock, about corruption at Prudential Securities, and The Informant, about a price-fixing scandal at Archer Daniels Midland.
A Perfect Storm, Sebastian Junger
Yes, the non-fiction book can be a great narrative. Junger, a gifted storyteller, brings us along on a doomed ship off the New England coast. Also good (though not quite as good as ‘Storm”) is Junger’s A Death in Belmont.
The Corrections, Jonathan Franzen
Virtuosically well written, “The Corrections” is literary high art that’s fun to read. I also enjoyed Franzen’s memoir, The Discomfort Zone, though it’s not at the level of The Corrections.
Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett
This short, absurdist, existentialist play (available in book form in every bookstore) is a must-read for every truly culturally literate person. “Let’s go” / “we can’t” / “why not?” / “we’re waiting for Godot.”
Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce
Light and dark intermingle lyrically in this story of an Irish schoolboy who transcends his parochial upbringing. At one point the protagonist, Stephen Dedalus, spends days and days in a dark mood – it goes on for many pages – only to find relief by going to Catholic confession. Suddenly, his mood is light and spring-like. It’s almost funny, yet it fully captures the reality of the character’s emotions. Also highly readable by Joyce is his collection of short stories, The Dubliners.
Letters From the Earth, Mark Twain
Kept from publication during his life – it would have caused a riot – this caustic and very funny book takes a pair of sharp scissors to Christian orthodoxy. Also supreme by Twain, of course, is “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” a book that will stand for the ages because of how it chronicles the moral growth of Huck as he comes to understand Jim, the runaway slave. Twain is a foundational American writer and humorist.
A Medicine for Melancholy, Ray Bradbury
They call it science fiction but this collection of stories, and most of Bradbury, far transcends the robots and space ship genre. I find his prose style to be surprising and fresh – usually as entertaining as the stories themselves. Other must-read titles by Bradbury are Fahrenheit 451 and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Trivia about Bradbury: as a very young man he had no typewriter, so he had to go to the LA County Library and rent one for ten cents an hour. The experience taught him to write quickly.
Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, Anne Frank
This is a fabulous, deeply special book – I think of it as a sacred book. Written while the teenaged Frank’s family was hiding in an attic from the Nazis, her level of perception is crystalline. I read it as a teen and enjoyed it, and read it again as an adult (a version that included the supposedly racy parts taken out when first published) and was deeply impressed.
Den of Thieves, James B. Stewart
It’s amazing how interesting Stewart makes this non-fiction account of Wall Street corruption in the 1980s: rapscallions like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milliken come to life. Stewart now pens a column about the financial sector for The New York Times.
Dreaming of Babylon, Richard Brautigan
A funny spoof of the hard-boiled detective genre, featuring a down-on-his-luck detective with only one bullet in his gun. The detective’s problem (or one of them) is that every time he comes close to solving the case, he starts daydreaming of the glorious gardens in the ancient city of Babylon. Unique and very fun.
Bright Lights, Big City, Jay McInerney
Captures a moment in time in 1980s-era New York City party life: plenty of cocaine, late night clubbing, everything focused on the surface. But the book – which is a ton of fun – ultimately finds something deeper in its protagonist.
Captain Horatio Hornblower, C.S. Forester
Action adventure books (a multi-volume set) set on the high seas in an English war ship. Along with its exciting battles, Forester creates a nuanced Captain Hornblower, full of self-doubt.
The Young Pitcher, Zane Grey
Naive fiction written in the early 1900’s, aimed at young male readers. Yet Grey’s tale of Peg Ward, a college freshman hoping for glory on the ball field, is far more charming than standard pulp fiction.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, Tom Robbins
What happened to Tom Robbins? The master of the wacky, reality-stretching yarn – always chock full of laugh-producing similes – churned out a bunch of great titles, then kind of petered out. Cowgirls is one of his best, but he’s got others: Still Life with Woodpecker, Jitterbug Perfume, Skinny Legs and All.
The Body Farm, Patricia Cornwell
This best-selling detective author churns ’em out as fast as her adoring readers can consume them. If you’re stuck on an airplane – or if you want an escape from it all – Cornwall is the ticket.
Devil in the White City, Erik Larson
Superb non-fiction book. Intertwines two narratives set in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, with suspense and Larson’s top-flight prose style. The book sold about 1.5 zillion copies – with good reason.
The Thurber Carnival, James Thurber
I adore James Thurber. While some of his humor is dated, much of it is timelessly fresh, and his crystal clear prose is the model of style and efficiency. He has a supreme ability to underplay a joke. I’ve read some of these stories many times. His darkly-shaded short story “One is a Wanderer” is one of my all-time favorites.
Cold Mountain, Charles Frazier
A highly enjoyable book. Frazier’s novel intertwines two stories: a deserter from the Confederate army making his way across the South, hoping for a reunion with his loved one; and his beloved Ada’s struggles to survive on a hard-scrabble farm. The book is a sensuous treat. We see, hear, feel – definitely feel – both these epic struggles.
Dating Game, Danielle Steel
This pulpy page-turner seems written specifically for middle-aged women. But the appeal of this story of a woman in midlife dealing with starting over after her marriage disintegrates goes beyond its target audience.
A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens
Dickens’s story of the French revolution has it all: adventure, suspense, love, revolution, vivid characters, great writing. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
Remembrance of Things Past, Marcel Proust
I only got through one of the volumes in this seven-volume work, but it’s not to be missed. There’s a great passage in which Swann, who’s romantically obsessed with Odette, thinks he sees her on a crowded street. As Proust describes Swann’s flutter of emotions, it timelessly evokes what it’s like to catch a glimpse of someone you’re infatuated with.
Funny thing about Proust, he adored long sentences. His writing approach seemed to be: why should a sentence ever end? Why not just use yet another comma? Like this 137-word monster from “Swann’s Way”:
“Unlike so many people, who, either from lack of energy or else from a resigned sense of the obligation laid upon them by their social grandeur to remain moored like houseboats to a certain point on the bank of the stream of life, abstain from the pleasures which are offered to them above and below that point, that degree in life in which they will remain fixed until the day of their death, and are content, in the end, to describe as pleasures, for want of any better, those mediocre distractions, that just not intolerable tedium which is enclosed there with them; Swann would endeavour not to find charm and beauty in the women with whom he must pass time, but to pass his time among women whom he had already found to be beautiful and charming.”
The Da Vinci Code, Dan Brown
Have you heard of this book? Maybe with a bit more publicity, it could catch on. Kidding aside, what a shocker: a mega-mega-hit that criticizes organized religion. The times they are a-changin’.
Brave New World, Aldous Huxley
Huxley’s dystopian vision of the future, in which all people are graded on scale of one to five, and “a gram is better than a damn” (a reference to mood altering drugs suggestive of Prozac) is a horrifying but insightful. And somehow, even fun to read.
1984, George Orwell
This can be seen as the companion book to Huxley’s “Brave New World”: a dark vision of a totalitarian future. The book was exceptionally prescient in forecasting government spin and an omnipresent watchful eye. While you’re exploring Orwell, “Animal Farm” is also a great read.
Cell, Stephen King
The master horror writer imagines a world in which cellphones turn much of the world into zombies. Most of this book is quite entertaining – the open is great – but I found the end to just sort of grind into boredom. I admire King but I’m not a big fan.
Swimmer in the Secret Sea, William Kotzwinkle
Really a special book, a novella. Tells the story of a young couple’s efforts to come to terms with the death of their newborn in natural, intimate prose. Touching without being cloying.
Stranger in a Strange Land, Robert Heinlein
Towering science fiction classic portrays life among modern earthlings through the eyes of a visitor from another planet. Highly philosophical, including an attempt to explain the nature of humor. Is all humor an expression of pain?
Pure schmaltz, a weepy boy-loves-girl story that sold something like 1.5 billion copies. You won’t respect yourself for turning the pages, but you’ll turn them.
Woody Guthrie: A Life, Joe Klein
Simply put: Woody Guthrie is the American dude: compulsively creative, traveler, poet, songwriter, social activist. This biography is a superb rendition of his rich life.
Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
Vonnegut’s books are easy to read, but that doesn’t mean they’re not deep. Using his experience as a survivor of the U.S. firebombing of Dresden in WWII, he wrote this powerful anti-war novel, one that’s funny and poignant. Most of Vonnegut’s books are good.
Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin
The journalist Griffin, a white man, used hair dye and make-up to make himself appear to be a black man. His non-fiction account of traveling through the South in the late 1950s is a biting indictment of racism. Very interesting.
Dune, Frank Herbert
Wildly imaginative, this is one of the best-selling science fiction works of all time. Driving the sprawling plot is a vast power struggle on the desert planet of Arrakis over control of Melange (a crucial substance). Watch out for those giant worms.
The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien
Don’t confuse the movie, a Hollywood special effects confection, with this powerful work of literature – the two are very different things. Tolkien’s masterpiece is, at heart, about the corrupting nature of power. I love the scene in which two best friends exchange the all-powerful ring; even these close friends experience a flicker of distrust. In the movie it’s glossed over with a few sparkles of light.
Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole
Toole committed suicide in 1969, so he never saw publication of his first and only novel. What a comic masterpiece it is. Its hero, a 30-year-old medievalist who lives at home with his mother in New Orleans, is adept at avoiding reality. But reality (or really, surreality) intrudes, in a story that’s a one-of-kind mix of melancholy and humor.
Marilyn, Barbara Leaming
Leaming’s well-researched biography of the troubled Marilyn Monroe is a fascinating read. She skips Marilyn’s early years, devoting greater detail to her more interesting career years.
The Stranger, Albert Camus
A weird book, to be sure. This 1942 existential classic seems divorced from reality (or all too real?) as it tells of a murder, a trial, and in the end, the protagonist’s decision about God. Does anything mean anything? Only if the individual thinks it does, argues Camus.
The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand
Rand’s ultimate thesis was that all of life is determined by the individual. Or, as she put it, “man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.” She exemplifies that theory in this tale of a young architect who refuses to compromise.
The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Chapter after chapter, everyone hangs out and drinks in Paris cafes in the 1920s. The book is probably overrated as a classic, but Heminway’s clean, well-lit style still makes it an enjoyable read.
Catch-22, Joseph Heller
Wonderful book. Set in WWII, this crew of bomber pilots faces a no-win situation known as “Catch-22”: They can request to be grounded if they can prove they’re crazy, but if they ask to be grounded, that proves they’re not crazy (because it shows they fear for their safety – a sign of sanity). My favorite character is a pilot who always chooses to do the least pleasant thing, because he feels it makes his time last longer.
The Firm, John Grisham
Grisham ain’t deep but his legal thrillers are reliable entertainment. A bunch of his are good: “The Rainmaker,” “The Street Lawyer,” “The Last Juror,” “The Client.” His non-fiction book, “The Innocent Man,” is also good.
Deliverance, James Dickey
Great, well-written story about four regular guys who get attacked on a float trip on an isolated Southern river, forcing them to struggle for survival. The book is better than the movie, but the movie’s pretty good.
Tropic of Capricorn, Henry Miller
Miller’s frank sexual details made this title controversial when first published in the 1930s, but that only obscured the fact that it’s high-quality literature. An enjoyable read.
The Run of His Life: the People versus O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Toobin
You’d think the story of the O.J trial would be so well worn as to be unreadable, but Toobin’s telling makes it larger and deeper. His pacing is great and he provides a compelling exploration of race and the criminal justice system. Anytime you see that Toobin byline – he writes for The New Yorker – it’s worth reading.