This is my list of 10 books you might like to read this winter, just in time for your Christmas list, Hannukah register, or Kwaanza catalog. It was hard to pick just ten for this snapshot – if I had written this yesterday or tomorrow, the choices may very well have been different. You can pick these up cheap and used at your local bookstore, or free using interlibrary loan or at paperbackswap.com. My reviews of some of these books can be found at my Top 100 page
A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Let’s start here. This is the most beautiful novel I’ve ever read, and it is perfect to read in a room with a window at night, while you can see the snow fall. Or take turns reading it aloud to someone you love. The New York City of this book is the one that New Yorkers perceive, when they aren’t thinking about it. Upstate New York isn’t Syracuse and Westchester… it is a mysterious land of magic that no human has ever been to. I grew up thinking of it that way. Most New Yorkers think about it that way, if they are being honest with themselves. As far as the rest of the United States… who cares, really?
But that’s just the setting. The actual story is unabashedly non-cynical. There are heroes and villains and businessmen and time travel and a magical white horse.
I’m not doing it justice at all. Really, the best description of the book is the title – A Winter’s Tale. It is winter. Curl up and read a tale. Maybe we can all read it together.
(This beat out The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers)
The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (click for my full review)
My favorite novel of all time. It’s quality is understated. I didn’t realize it was the best book I’d ever read until a week after I’d read it. And then I read it again a few years later, and it didn’t lose anything. Four people in a town are friends with a deaf man, who cannot speak to them, but he listens. What is a friend?
(This beat out To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee)
Fevre Dream by George R R Martin
This is, in my opinion, the best vampire novel ever. I was handed this book by my friend Ed, and didn’t know it was a vampire novel, he just told me to read it. When I saw my first vampire, I was thinking, “Jesus. This was such a good book already! Why add vampires?” George R R Martin creates great characters and stories, whether the genre is vampires, 60’s nostalgia, epic fantasy, etc. This is a novel about vampires, but not a vampire novel.
(This beat out The Armageddon Rag and Sandkings, both by George R R Martin)
Shoot the Piano Player by David Goodis
Another quick read, this was my favorite novel of all time until I read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. David Goodis was a pulp fiction writer, and only after he died did people realize that his books were really well written. I sent this to my father, and my mother picked it up and read it, and she called to ask why I thought it was so good. “Did you read it, Ma?” “Yes.” “In one sitting?” “Yes.” “When was the last time that happened?” “Oh.” This is pulp fiction, but there are so many genuinely tender moments, some funny moments, and a population of complete losers who are real people. A man helps another man by just moving his shoulder slightly, knocking over some boxes. An impulse. And it leads to bad guys with guns.
(This beat out Pop 1280 by Jim Thompson)
Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
Everything people say about this novel is true. I hesitated to put such an obvious choice on the list. If you haven’t read it, you should. It’s very funny. The sequel, Restaurant at the end of the Universe, would have been part of it, but there was a deadline involved.
(This beat out Last Chance to See by Douglas Adams)
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (click for my full review)
You haven’t read this book before. You may think you have, but you are wrong. Every time you read this book, it changes, because you are older. And the experience of reading the book is radically different based on your age and life experience. When you first read this book, Holden was 16 – a kid a little older than you, or a little younger. Now you are older, and Holden is still 16. You are now more alienated than you were then. Or you are less alienated than you were then. Holden is still the same. But he is entirely different. So is Phoebe.
Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham (click for my full review)
I read this in High School, and it became my favorite book for a long time. Still is one of my favorites. This takes us through the first part of the life of a completely fleshed out person, and everything that happens in his past affects his present and his future. But not in a contrived way. In the way that your childhood and your travels and your friends have made you the person you are now. Some particular moments in this book grabbed me in a way no written text ever has. My opinion of the ending changes every time I read it – did it have a happy ending or did it not? Let’s talk when you’ve read it.
(This beat out Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck and Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky)
Dimension of Miracles by Robert Sheckley
People accused Douglas Adams of ripping off this book for Hitchhikers. I don’t think he did, but I think this is a wonderful quick-read comedy sci-fi story, back before comedy sci-fi was a genre. Some of it is dated. Some of it is prescient. (There’s a world where people actually have clothes with the logo on the OUTSIDE so people can see what brand it is! Isn’t that crazy?) You will finish it in one sitting, and won’t stop smiling. This was my favorite book for decades. It is still my favorite science fiction book. I have several copies so I can lend them. Come over this week.
(This beat out Store of Infinity or any other of Robert Sheckley’s wonderful collections of short stories)
Consciousness Explained by Daniel Dennett
A non-fiction book that seeks to explain consciousness, and does. Unless you disagree with the author’s model, in which case it doesn’t. But it’s fascinating in either case. This is a philosophy book for scientifically minded people who are turned off by squishy. Dennett starts by proving that consciousness and your five senses do not work the way you think they do, and he gives you experiments to try to prove his point. And he cites plenty of fascinating experiments throughout. This is a thick book, but it is absorbing. When I was finished, I felt some loss that it was over.
Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary
I wanted to include at least one children’s book. When I was young, I remember thinking of Beverly Cleary as “The Dangerous Author.” Because if I dared read a single page of one of her books, I would read through to the end, and then start at the beginning, and go until I was where I started. No matter how many times a grownup said, “Douglas, we are supposed to be doing Math now” or “Douglas, your mother is waiting in the car” or “Douglas, you were supposed to go to bed an hour ago!” All her books are great. I think this one is her best.
(This beat out Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling, and Tales From the Beanworld, a graphic novel by Larry Marder)
The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand
The joke I used to make was that The Fountainhead talked me into being an Objectivist and Atlas Shrugged talked me out of it. There’s a lot of truth to that joke, but if we were to discuss what I think of objectivism, then we’d have to go into the mathematics of the Prisoner’s Dilemma, and that’s not what this list is about. I think the Fountainhead is a great novel. Great story, characters, and twists you don’t expect. And a perspective you don’t expect. The heroes and villains are very clearly delineated (with an exception or two) – but there’s nothing wrong with that – this month I’m sure you are going to see a movie where the villains are evil and heroes are good. But Ayn Rand also makes them interesting. When I read this, I was blown away, and went to my brother Gordon and said, “You have to read this!” He had his own books to read and stuff to do, but there was something in my earnestness that caused him to take it from me and sit down, and read the whole thing in a very short time. I fondly remember the conversation we had after he read it. Great book.
(This beat out In Cold Blood by Truman Capote)