A reading list

levengerreadingchair11A couple weeks ago my friend Erin asked me for some book recommendations. Since I don't really know her taste in reading matter, I made a wide ranging and long list of everything I like that I could remember offhand. Since I haven't posted anything here in awhile (curse you, Facebook!) I figured I might as well. So here it is:  

A reading list for Erin


Not chick lit but good writing by women:


Lorrie Moore -- especially Birds of America, a book of short stories

Alice Munro -- any of her books, almost all of which are stories

Andrea Barrett -- anything, though you should start with Ship Fever, also a book of stories

Jhumpa Lahiri – She has one novel, The Namesake, and two collections of stories, The Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth. All great.

Maggie O’Farrell -- most recent: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox

Emma Donoghue -- most recent: The Sealed Letter

Kate Atkinson – she has a trilogy of mysteries, though they’re really character studies: Case Histories, One Good Turn, When Will There Be Good News

P.D. James -- slightly more traditional mysteries featuring Adam Dalgleish

Dorothy Sayers -- older mysteries that are good and well written, featuring Lord Peter Wimsy.

Scarlett Thomas – The End of Mr. Y – not really sure how to describe this book except that it verges on fantasy/surrealism. But I really, really liked it.

Alison Lurie – Foreign Affairs, The War Between the Tates and a couple set down here includes The Truth About Loren Jones and The Last Resort.


If you like mysteries, Swedish mysteries are kind of fun – I liked The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Erikssen. There are lots of others out there.


Narrative nonfiction


Ian Frazier -- Great Plains, Family or On The Rez

Tony Horwitz -- Confederates in the Attic, Blue Latitudes or A Voyage Long and Strange. I think Confederates is his best so far.

Sarah Vowell – best known from This American Life – her latest book, The Wordy Shipmates, is about the Puritan settlers in Massachusetts. Assassination Vacation is a historical travelogue with great interesting information about presidential assassins, especially the lesser knowns. Her other books are essay collections that deal with politics and popular culture, Take The Cannoli and The Partly Cloudy Patriot.


Calvin Trillin’s stuff is awesome and ranges from satirical poetry (which I skip) to reportage (U.S. Journal, Killings) to writing about food (Alice Let’s Eat and others). Also some heartbreaking memoirs, About Alice and Remembering Denny.


It depends on his subject matter by John McPhee’s nonfiction is pretty amazing, on everything from geology, living on the Alaskan frontier, being in the merchant marine and more.


Natural history for the nonscientist


Can’t do better than David Quammen, Song of the Dodo. He’s also got several collections of his columns for Outside and The Reluctant Mr. Darwin, a great recent biography.

One of my absolute favorites that is sort history of natural history is The Dinosaur Hunters by Deborah Cadbury, about the guys who found fossils in the early 19th century and started to figure out what they meant.


Historical fiction that verges on brain candy


Sarah Dunant -- In the Company of the Courtesan, set in Venice

Tracy Chevalier -- The Lady and the Unicorn (medieval France, I think) and Burning Bright (Stuart England, with William Blake as a character) (she also wrote Girl With A Pearl Earring, Holland, Vermeer)

Alison Weir -- Innocent Traitor (about Lady Jane Grey)

C.W. Gortner -- The Last Queen (about the Spanish queen known to us as Juana the Mad, who maybe wasn’t or at least had good reason to be)

Vanora Bennet --  Portrait of an Unknown Woman, about the adopted daughter of Sir Thomas More

Geraldine Brooks -- Year or Wonders (set in an English village during the plague) and March (what the absent father from Little Women was really up to)

Sena Jeter Naslund – Ahab’s Wife (what was going on back on land during Moby-Dick) and Abundance (Marie Antoinette’s story from her point of view)



History for the nonhistorian


David McCullough – especially The Johnstown Flood and The Path Between the Seas (about the building of the Panama Canal).

Russell Shorto – especially The Island at the Center of the World, about Dutch Manhattan



Kate Summerscale – The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, which is historical true crime, about a murder in a Victorian family and The Queen of Whale Cay, about this early 20th century Englishwoman who was a true eccentric – she drove ambulances in WWI, raced powerboats, created her own empire on a Bahamian island and carried around everywhere this weird looking doll that she named Lord Tod Wadley (the book has photos to prove it!).


General fiction:


MICHAEL CHABON – If you haven’t read him, do so right now. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh is his first, a great coming of age college novel. He won the Pulitzer for The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay and everyone I know adores it.

Nick Hornby – High Fidelity and About A Boy – it goes down easy but it’s not trash

Tom Perrotta – Little Children, Joe College, The Abstinence Teacher – see description of Hornby, only Perrotta’s American

John Irving – If you haven’t read him, my favorites are A Prayer for Owen Meany and Cider House Rules. The World According to Garp was his breakout book.

Jane Smiley – My favorites are Moo and Horse Heaven; she’s probably best known for A Thousand Acres, King Lear in Iowa, which won the Pulitzer Prize.

Patrick O’Brian – The Aubrey-Maturin series is famous for being really really well written (and well researched) historical fiction; even if you’re not into sailing, military history or history in general, they’re great. The first is Master and Commander, though the plot of that book bears little resemblance (OK no resemblance) to the movie they made based on O’Brian’s characters.

Ian McEwan – I really liked Amsterdam, Enduring Love was good too, and people say Saturday was great. I’ll admit here that I haven’t read Atonement yet.

Jeffrey Eugenides – I haven’t actually read Middlesex but everyone who has says it’s great.



Graphic novels


I’m not a huge reader of these but everyone everyone everyone should read Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, a memoir about growing up in her family’s funeral home – with her closeted gay father. It’s fantastic.

Eric Shanower’s series on the Trojan War, The Age of Bronze, is great so far (I think he’s on vol. 3 or 4).

I haven’t read it but Mark really loves Jimmy Corrigan, Smartest Kid on Earth by Chris Ware. And The Watchmen* made all kinds of lists as a great novel, not just a great graphic novel – and it’s about to be a blockbuster movie!


Books for kids and others:

The Harry Potter books are great reads if you haven’t read them.

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy are great books, period – The Golden Compass, The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass. Really great books.




I hate hate hate Dan Brown (Da Vinci Code guy) but there are some better written books along those lines:

Michael Gruber – The Book of Air and Shadows – about a newly discovered Shakespeare folio

Ross King – Ex-Libris – I actually can’t remember what this is about but it was good.

Arturo Perez-Reverte – The Club Dumas, a thriller that was made into a silly but fun movie starring Johnny Depp called The Ninth Gate.