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BOOKS WE LOVE
Here's our annotated list of recommendations. It
will always be incomplete, but we had a lot more we wanted to add before
press time that will be added as soon as time permits. Pick out the ones
you like -- and let us know you liked 'em. (Incidentally, the Amazon
links below are supposed to be pictures of the actual dust jackets, but they
sometimes morph into orange ads for Amazon. We don't like it, but
can't stop it. Apologies ...)
Last Samurai, by Helen DeWitt. This has
nothing to do with Tom Cruise or the movie. This is the real
thing: great literature written by someone who's a lot smarter
than you. (And us too, of course.) The main character is a young
boy-genius (take your finger out of your throat, DeWitt makes us believe
it) who auditions seven men for a father-figure. Creaky premise
when spelled out like that,
but the book is witty, whip-smart, and funny as hell. If you don't love
language, then skip this one and go read Bridges of Madison County
by Norman Rush. Another great
book, sadly overlooked. Won the National Book Award while you were
asleep. The main character's voice is vital, unique, and utterly
riveting. One of the few female voices done credibly by a male
author (or so say the women we know). She's a doctoral student in
anthropology living in Botswana. Ends up pursuing Nelson Denoon,
the mysterious star anthropologist who's vanished into the bush to
create a utopia. The best-ever description of a relationship
between intellectuals. Moving, too.
Amazons, by Cleo Birdwell. Let us be the first to clue
you in: Cleo Birdwell is the pen name of Don Delillo. And
Amazons is his funniest book ever, not excluding White Noise.
More a series of riffs and set pieces than a novel, Amazons
is nonetheless meatier than most fiction published in the last five
years. Buy it used at
www.abebooks.com and save yourself some dough.
Last of the Wine, by Mary Renault, 1956. Alexias, a
young Greek, comes of age during the final phases of the Peloponnesian
War; he's schooled by Socrates (Plato's a classmate), fights the
Spartans, faces down the father who ordered him killed at birth (Mom had
second thoughts), competes in the Olympics, and meets Lysis, his
lifelong friend and lover. We make it sound melodramatic when
it's anything but. An achingly real historical novel -- you'll
learn a lot about ancient Greece -- it's also one of the most moving
love stories we've ever read.
Waves, by Virginia Woolf. Reading
Virginia Woolf is like being the student of a martial arts master:
she makes the impossible look easy, and you never, grasshopper, no matter how hard
you try, never grab that darn pebble before she closes her hand.
But we're trivializing: The Waves is a peak literary
experience, perhaps the peak. We've got lots more to say
And if the existence of such a perfect work of literature makes
you feel that you've wasted your life, just remember that you can't sue
Kleinzeit, by Russell Hoban, 1974. If Death came to
you in the form of a dirty chimpanzee, would you offer it a banana?
Never mind, it's not important. If you're a writer, you'll find no
better (and no more absurd) fable than Kleinzeit about creating
art and meaning in the shadow of death. Random pieces of this
book: Thucydides, a glockenspiel, a highly symbolic talking hospital ... Hoban is
unclassifiable -- read Kleinzeit back to back with Riddley Walker,
and we dare you to disagree.
to the Music of Time, by
Anthony Powell. You can't read
a 12-volume book like this without wishing other books were longer.
Here, Powell takes on one of the things that fascinated Proust (Powell's
obvious model): how people change over time. You can read
the first three books without realizing they're more than elegant,
gossipy confections - but read four, and you begin to realize how
expertly Powell is weaving old characters into the narrative, while
whipping up interesting new ones all the while. The ever-shifting,
pretentious Widmerpool is the most famous, but there are many more who
are equally compelling. (By the way, the link here only takes you to the
"first movement," a collection of the first four of the 12 novels you'll
need to read in order to add this notch to your bedpost.)
of Che Guevara, by Jay Cantor. Cantor won a
MacArthur grant back when they were still being given to geniuses. Why?
Read the damn book. Narrated - ultimately - by one of Guevara's
surviving buddies, it covers Guevara's early life and his struggles with
asthma, as well as his failed attempt to incite a revolution in
Bolivia. Narrative, journal entries, and metafiction make up the bulk of
this sophisticated, passionate book, rounded out with a miniature,
brutal history of the 20th-century (in which all revolutions are
inevitably crushed). This is an ominous novel of fierce politics and
fiercer characters that should never have been allowed to go out of
print. Get it at www.abebooks.com.
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