Books We Like

Baltasar and Blimundaby Jose Saramago The Inquisition and the construction of Portugal’s famous Convent of Mafra provide the backdrop for what is in my estimation José Saramago’s most moving work. Bullfights, autos-da-fe, a flying machine (the Passarola) fueled by “human wills,” and just enough sarcastic narrative intrusion to render the whole that elusive blend of postmodern fantasy and realism so many contemporary novelists are after – and it’s a love story, too.  Between monarchical whimsy and plebeian necessity, Saramago leaves no doubts as to his sympathies. He concludes with the “will” of one casualty of the Inquisition doing little else than remaining with whom and where it belongs. (Jason Lapeze)
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Waoby Junot Diaz  Some characters fade into the recesses of our brains after we turn the final pages of a book. Oscar Wao, however, is not one of those characters. More than remember Oscar, readers will want to follow him on Facebook, read his science fiction writing, borrow his comic books, and throw him a party; he is just so darn...huggable. Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2008) is the Pulitzer Prize-winning bildungsroman about the lovable but decidedly nerdy Oscar de León. Trapped in a world of machismo that equates masculinity with sexual conquests, Oscar suffers a painful adolescence in which he fails to translate Elvish into the language of love. Even though Oscar dreams of becoming an author, the novel never permits him to tell his own story. Friends and family hijack Oscar’s narrative, weaving their personal struggles into contradictory stories about his past. In the hands of Oscar’s well-meaning but troubled loved ones, the novel evolves from coming-of-age story into a tale about individuals, families, and nations—all suffering from fukú, the curse of the Caribbean. The curse is powerful, but so is the love of the dysfunctional de León family and the characters’ desire to rewrite their painful pasts. Oscar becomes the novel’s unlikely hero when he models for his family how to go from having no life to one that is “wondrous“ in so many ways.(Erin Wedehase)
The Changing Light at Sandoverby James Merrill James Merrill's postmodern epic poem is the always playful, often melancholy result of several years of contemplation and conversations with his long-term partner and poets living and dead. Indeed, Merrill's Ouija board is the foundation of this work, both its content and its tightly controlled structure (which includes a section for each letter and number on the board, as well as the words "yes" and "no"). Was James Merrill great at imitating the voice of W.H. Auden, or did W.H. Auden actually dictate new poems to Merrill from beyond the grave? Some people will tell you that James Merrill's house is still haunted because of this book. What more is there to say than that? (Lesley Graybeal) 
The Collected Poems of James Dickey John Crowe Ransom once said of James Dickey, "Mr. Dickey reaches for God. And sometimes God reaches back." And it is true that Dickey's early poems pulse with an energy that is both religious and pagan. The hard driving imagination he brought to the page is tempered by shapely craftsmanship in such poems as "The Heaven of Animals," "The Sheep Child," and "A Folksinger of the Thirties." After his novel Deliverance made him famous, Dickey's life and work turned him further from poetry, yet his ambition never flagged. His book length poem "Zodiac" attests to this, and some of his last poems show that the lyric impulse never left him. The critical apparatus that accompanies this book makes it likely that this will be the book future scholars turn to. But the real draw here are the sometimes flawed, but always vivid and truly felt poems of a man's lifework. (Al Maginnes)
Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn This epistolary novel focuses on several characters living on a fictional island, Nollop, named for the author of this famous pangram: "The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog." When the letters from this sentence begin to fall from the statue erected to Mr. Nollop, the island's Council sees the occurrence as a sign and decides to ban the use of the fallen letters. Through creative linguistic manipulations, Dunn tells a funny, and slightly frightening, story about the value of free expression. (Greg Johnson)
Fight Clubby Chuck Palahniuk Chuck Palahniuk’s first novel, Fight Club, was published in 1996 and led to a cinematic adaptation, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton, that has mesmerized audiences since 1999. Palahniuk successfully weaves his dark, satirical critique of capitalism and materialism into a plot that explores the fragmented human psyche spawned from social and economic power struggles, allowing for a myriad of theoretical interpretations. Through fistfights, domestic terrorism, and clever dialogue, Palahniuk delivers a postmodern tale that offers a controversial perspective of the American character circa 1990s. Tyler Durden, Palahniuk’s supporting character, holds nothing back when presenting one of the novel’s major themes: “‘ I’m breaking my attachment to physical power and possessions [. . .] because only through destroying myself can I discover the greater power of my spirit.” (Patrick Williams)
The Handmaid's Taleby Margaret Atwood This dystopian story of a world in which women's reproductive rights are controlled by the government fascinated me immediately. The book focuses on the tale of Offred, a handmaid who has been placed in the home of the Commander and his wife. There, she must have sex with the Commander once a month in order to bear a child that will be immediately given to the wife. Any attempt to escape is punished by death. The novel eventual reveals Offred's past life, her capture, and her terrifying training to become a handmaid in this world. The book is about power, reproduction, religion, and humanity, and it's just brilliant. (Lisa Martin)
In Harm's Way: The Sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis and the Extraordinary Story of Its Survivors, by Doug Stanton On July 30, 1945, soldiers aboard the U.S.S Indianapolis were returning from completing a mission to transport portions of “Little Boy,” an atomic bomb, during the end of WWII, but their return was interrupted by a Japanese submarine. Even with the clever survival tactics of the crew and captain, the American battle cruiser sank and hundreds perished. Survivors of the bombing had to then endure the physical trials and mental anguish of being adrift at sea as the ship’s sinking continued to go undetected by the Navy. And then, the sharks came. Survivors' accounts described the feelings and conversations as numerous sharks circled and fed on the frightened and exhausted men. Eventually, the remaining survivors were rescued, but the tragedy left unanswered questions and generated undeserved blame. Stanton describes the tragic event vividly and the survivor’s guilt that followed. It is a wonderful depiction of human endurance and heartbreaking bravery. (Melanie Morgan)
In Sunlight and in Shadow, by Mark Helprin Mark Helprin’s novels are always great tectonic shifts of Romanticism—love, beauty, justice, honor, heroism, and the abiding nobility of the human spirit. But none is quite the seismic event as his latest, In Sunlight and in Shadow. Set in 1940s New York City, it is, as one reviewer has noted, as much “paean” to New York City as it is a glorious love story between Harry, a Jewish veteran recently returned from WWII, and Catherine, a lovely WASP heiress with aspirations for the stage. To tell such a perennial story as the class-crossed lovers, and one that begins with love at first at sight at that, with ingenuousness, depth, and not one iota of irony is itself a marvel. But the novel’s exuberant prose, joyous humor, and imaginative narrative, and yes, its rendering of real Romantic love, are far more marvelous. (Kirsten Burkart)
Kindred, by Octavia Butler Twentieth century African-American woman Dana Franklin is transported to the antebellum South to save her white ancestor, Rufus, from drowning. After this first summons, she is drawn back again and again to save Rufus, each encounter becoming more dangerous than the last. During her stays in the past, she is forced to assume the role of a slave in order to survive and make it back to 1976. Kindred is a classic science fiction story about slavery and the scars it has inflicted on American society. It considers issues of race, class, and gender in a fast-paced novel that never lets up. Butler's work is insightful, suspenseful, and at times uncomfortable, but always hard to put down. (Monique Harris)
Orlando, by Virginia Woolf If you are comfortable with a work that for all its lightness and play attempts to contain absolutely everything—male and female, love and poetry, time and space—within its pages, then Orlando by Virginia Woolf is the novel for you. It follows the title character from a boyhood in the Elizabethan court across the tumult of three centuries (over which time, in as incidental an occurrence as Orlando's apparent immortality, he quite suddenly becomes a she) to the early part of the twentieth century. Published in 1928, Orlando exemplifies the Modernist rejection of traditional narrative, but does so in highly accessible form. Conceived in part as an expression of Woolf's admiration for her lover, Vita Sackville-West, it is moreover a love letter to the fluid potentialities of human experience more generally. The 1992 film adaptation, starring Tilda Swinton, is also terrific fun. (Liz Welch)
Ukridge, by P.G. Wodehouse This collection of ten short stories follows the often ill-fated schemes of Stanley Featherstonehaugh Ukridge, a yellow mackintosh wearing English bounder. Written in Wodehouse's usual witty and hilariously sarcastic style, these stories teach us how to "touch" someone for a fiver and enjoy the "big broad outlook" of the thing, as well as, providing a stinging social satire. And as a bonus, if you are a JK Rowling fan, you will find a lot of familiar names. Wodehouse was a favorite writer of hers and many other successful writers including Douglas Adams and Christopher Hitchens. (Richard Klein)
The Thousand and One Nights (Alf Layla Wa-Layla)by Muhsin S. Mahdi This is the one work I would recommend to everybody. The tales are both entertaining and profound, spiritual and erotic, surprising yet familiar. Among the work's most intriguing features is that, unlike earlier works of high literature, it finds its heroes among the powerless and despised, including women, beggars, merchants, fishermen, and thieves, and then thrusts them into the world of power politics, fate, and magic, where they bargain, trick, and connive their way to victory. Witty storytelling confounds the unjust laws of tyrants, common sense overcomes the supernatural, and negotiation changes the course of fate! The eroticism of the later stories will surprise anyone who thinks that Hollywood invented sex. (Joe Marohl)
Underworldby Don Delillo It's October of 1951, and, just as Ebbets Field is celebrating a Giants' pennant, the Soviets are conducting a nuclear test. Following dozens of characters, including J. Edgar Hoover and Lenny Bruce, DeLillo reflects on science, language, art, history, and loss. Framed by the chase for a mythic baseball, the novel relies heavily on postmodern techniques but remains a gripping read, propelling the reader backward into an exploration of what America has been and where it may be headed. Out of all of his novels, Underworld is Delillo's most ambitious and complete. (Brett Biebel)
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami  Toru Okada, the main character in this novel, is a 30ish professional going through the motions of life, finding meaning in its quotidian details (choosing his clothes, preparing his meals)—until his cat disappears, his wife leaves, and he lowers himself to the bottom of a deserted well. Thus begins his fall into a surreal world of political conspiracy and the supernatural. Although at times verging on light fantasy, this novel ultimately offers a visceral depiction and critique of the connections between violence and power—whether in domestic relations or large-scale conflict, such as Japan’s invasion of Manchuria during the Second World War. Violent, fantastic, whimsical, and sorrowful—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a profound examination of life at the end of the 20th century by Japan’s best-known contemporary writer and perennial Nobel Prize candidate. (Jim Neilson