The number one email I get from friends and family members:
Hey, I know you read a lot. Do you have any book recommendations? I want to read something new, but I don’t have any ideas. I want something good… and not too weird.
So here are some things you could read. I am putting this here for myself as much as for the next few people who are curious about books. I can’t usually remember titles on the spot.
But know this: The more I read for reviews, the less I care about the labels good or bad. Those don’t have as much meaning to me anymore, and I’ll happily spend time with a book that’s outside of my own comfort zone because I’m interested in finding out who the right person is for that book. (Which is, my reading strategy, and probably should be the topic of another post.)
Also, a lot of what I read is weird. Part of that is by design–I like to read and review books from indie or small publishers, and often what gets published by those smaller places is content that’s not mainstream. So I know many of my reviews don’t appeal to a wide audience because those books wouldn’t (and those books are still valuable). But here’s an attempt to round up some recommendations for the masses. These are things I think most people would like, grouped by (sort of) their genre. Their HSP genre, that is… how I would describe them to you over a glass of wine and some delicious cheese.
An imperfect list in no particular order (with apologies to any book I forgot):
Weird, But Not Too Weird
So you want to read something outside the norm? Something artsy or dark? Something that will challenge your worldview a little? These books were so weirdly beautiful/tragic that I was completely drawn to them. All different subjects, all great writing, and all kind of bizarre.
A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is a darkly comic book about three sisters trying to outlive a family curse. They descended from a Jewish chemist who invented Zyklon (a fictionalized Fritz Haber), and they spend their entire lives trying to pull together while dealing with a troubled family line. I reviewed it for the LA Times here.
Binary Star is a sad but alluring book by Sarah Gerard. I reviewed this one here. Binary Star is told from the point of view of a damaged anorexic on a cross-country journey with her (also) dysfunctional husband. Fun, right? I promise it’s good. Gerard’s language is beautiful and her characters see the world in terms of celestial bodies. It’s an amazing book.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is and end-of-the-world tale about a traveling band of musicians who roam around playing music and putting on Shakespeare’s plays for small towns in a post-apocalyptic America. A few of the characters are old enough to remember life before the event that took out most of the world’s population, and over the course of their journey they begin to solve a mystery from before things went south.
Tender Data by Monica McClure is a book of poetry. I reviewed it here for Electric Literature. McClure gets into issues of femininity and puts her speakers in direct confrontation with the world. It’s raw and sometimes messy, but the language is beautiful and you will be captivated by McClure’s honesty.
Stuff that Really Happened
There’s only one history writer for me, and it’s because I am totally, completely, hopelessly biased. Since I got to interview him last year, I’ve been blabbing to anyone who will listen about “best friend and National Treasure” David McCullough. But he can sure pen a historical tome. I promise I’ll get around to Doris Kearns Goodwin one day, but here are some recommendations of books I’ve read by BF/NTDM in the meantime. They won’t disappoint.
What’s Happening Now
This is a book that provoked really strong feelings in me, which is why I think it’s important to read. As an educator in America, I really found it both moving and challenging. Coates doesn’t pull any punches.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Based on Stuff That Really Happened
I’ve mentioned both of these books before, but (apparently?) I know a lot of people who are into historical fiction, so I will keep recommending them. Excellently researched and evocative works based on real women’s lives.
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver is based on the life of Florence Owens Thompson, the woman in the “Migrant Mother” photograph by Dorothea Lange. Silver writes in alternating perspectives of the photographer and the subject.
Neverhome by Laird Hunt tells a fictionalized story of a woman who dresses up like a man to fight in the Civil War (to spare her husband, who is too weak to fight). This really happened, and Hunt’s flair for the detail and language of the time bring his characters to life in an enjoyable, complex story.
When did we agree to call it Cali?
I have a bit of an obsession with books about California, something I can trace directly to the summer I spent reading East of Eden by John Steinbeck. Ever since, I’ve been captivated by authors who write California well, and these do:
Valley Fever by Katherine Taylor is a gorgeous love letter to the Fresno Valley. I reviewed this book for LARB, and I am still so smitten with Taylor’s lush descriptions of fruit trees, wide open spaces, and grapevines. Fresno book? Yes please.
The Beautiful Unseen by Kyle Boelte is a small book about fog in San Francisco, and the author dealing with his brother’s suicide. It’s quiet, calm, and spellbinding. If you’ve ever sat on the beach and watched the fog consume the hills of the city, you will love this book. It haunted me.
Short on Time? Read in chunks.
I didn’t like short stories until grad school. In fact, other than whatever I was assigned at UC Davis as an undergrad, and whatever I prepped to teach, I hadn’t read a whole lot of short stories. But something happened when I started to read a lot of short story collections for reviews and my thesis in my last year of grad school–I fell in love. I really like short stories now, and I’m better at knowing how I should read them–I can’t sit down and devour them all at once like a novel. So here are some great things I’ve read in the last few years, and these are all good for picking up, putting down, and picking up again. They’ll transport you.
A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin is a more recent read, and Berlin’s stories walk an amazing line between ordinary and macabre. Her protagonists write of real life without ever becoming self-indulgent. She gets to the heart of human emotion without ever sentimentalizing. She was a master of characterization in just a few words. I reviewed Cleaning Women for Las Vegas Weekly here, and I had trouble keeping my words short.
Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman isn’t too recent, but it bears mentioning because I love it so much. I read this one in grad school just before the author came to guest lecture. These are tragic, magical stories filled with love and awe.
Stories about Complicated Ladies
I don’t know what else to call these books. But they’re the kind of thing you can lose yourself in over a period of days, or use to transport yourself to another world of friendships, affairs, betrayal, and a whole host of issues about what it’s like to be a smart lady with all the feelings. I loved both of these, and they’re completely different from each other.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante is probably the book you’ve been overhearing your friends talk about. Go read it. It is the first of four books by Ferrante (a pen name, which somehow adds to the draw) about two friends in post-WWII Italy. I’m on the second one and it’s just as good. MBF follows the women through their girlhood and adolescence. It’s great.
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum was the “it” book earlier this year. (It was touted as 50 Shades for the literary crowd). Jill was my poetry professor at UCR, but I promise you my fandom would be just as maniacal if I didn’t know her. This book felt like a rare treat–each sentence is beautifully constructed, and it’s a multi-layered story about a dangerous woman. Loved it.
What I’d Recommend to My Students
I read Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet for a review at The LA Times, and I was really struck by how much this book carried a message that my AVID kids need to hear. It’s about a first-generation college student who doesn’t know how to handle college once she gets there. I would put it in any of my students’ hands in a heartbeat (and have already done so a couple of times).
The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud is the kind of book I’d recommend to my former AP kids. For some reason, Camus’ The Stranger really strikes a chord with a few students each year. Daoud’s masterful telling of the story from the perspective of the unnamed Arab’s (invented) brother is stunning.
Books Where Stuff Happens
A large portion of the conversations I have with my students about books have something to do with helping them find books “where things happen.” Many of them are impatient and don’t want to trudge slowly through a dry historical narrative to get to the good parts. If you’re looking for books where there is a lot going on all at once (and right away), these are some pretty good bets.
Everyone and their mom has already read The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins. You might as well join the club. My sense is that you’ll either love it or hate it. (My two favorite emotions to have about a book!) I dug this book (and I stand by my review, even though I’ve talked to so many people who hated it). I think it’s a creative take on a crime novel. The main character doesn’t know if she did it.
All This Life by Joshua Mohr was a book I also reviewed, and it is one of the best constructed books I’ve read in a long time. Mohr weaves together the stories of many different people in San Francisco in this tale that examines how technology links us together–sometimes inextricably.
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg is another book where action takes center stage. Tod was my thesis advisor at UCR, and this book from last year shows what he does well–characters with complex inner narratives, often struggling to move forward in life. In this case, though, the guy struggling to move on is a criminal posing as a rabbi. It’s a fun book, and the main character’s deeper spiritual questions keep the work from being cliche. A fun read, but also thought-provoking.
And there you go. Does that give you someplace to start? If you need more, you can find me over at Goodreads.