Adams, The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul For those of
you who, like me, don't get heavily into the whole aliens thing, you can
still enjoy the genius of Douglas Adams. Personally, I think this is his
best work by far (Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency actually
comes before this one and is connected to it (naturally), but they can
stand alone too). Oh, and it opens with a slightly acerbic chick named
Kate who's trying to get to Oslo (I lived in Norway
for a while, and they don't deliver pizza there either).
Angier, Woman: An Intimate Geography - a best-seller and
one of many similar-seeming books out there (the vast majority of which
I haven't read so I probably shouldn't criticize, even implicitly, but...).
But this one is really worth reading. Even more so, perhaps, for men than
women, though if you're a man who is so lost in your own point of view
that encountering someone else's is in itself threatening, it won't do
you any good anyway.
Baker, Vox - I recommend everything this guy's ever written
(and I do it often), but if I had to pick one that was most interesting,
most unique, most successful, it would be Vox. The story is about
a phone sex conversation, and the novel itself consists entirely
of this one long conversation. Baker pulls off the gimmick beautifully,
and along the way the He and the She involved are fascinating and fun,
while Baker's take on sex and intimacy (and above all, language!) is wonderful.
If you're uncomfortable with the very explicit sex, though, read The
Børretzen, "The First Norwegian"- This short story is taken from
Norwegian humorist Børretson's The Norwegian People's Sorrowful Life
and History (1968). I did a rough (very rough) translation of it when
I was 17 and had just returned from a year in Norway. My Norwegian has
only deteriorated since then, so it'll have to stay rough, but you
can read it here anyway.
Luis Borges, "The Library of Babel" - quite possibly my favorite
short story ever. It's in the collection called Ficciones, and Borges
is well worth getting to know in general.
Chion, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen - A very technical
and complicated academic book on cinema sound, but it's the best of the
major books out there (as of the time I read a bunch for a course several
years ago). He's simply got it right, that's all.
Clapp - She's got many titles of Children's/YA
historical fiction, and they're all great. Sometimes hard to find anywhere
but local public libraries, but they beat the hell out of the vast majority
of what's in print, and shouldn't be relegated to the dustbin quite so
Colwin, Happy All the Time - Colwin is just a beautiful
writer, a little off the beaten path of mainstream modern American fiction-about-men-and-women-and-blah-blah-blah-real-life
- just off enough to be really saying something new about relationships
and people (for once). And off enough to be really funny, too.
e. cummings, The Enormous Room - He wasn't just a poet.
The Enormous Room is a novel about cummings' experiences as a POW
in France in WWI, and chock full of his own illustrations. It's great.
Don't bother with anything but the newer Liveright edition that has cummings'
original punctuation and lots and lots of colorful French phrases here
and there (there's a glossary in the back), plus the drawings.
Dostoevsky, The Idiot - I don't care if you hated having
to read Crime and Punishment in high school. Read The Idiot
instead. Stuff actually happens in this one, and often it happens very,
Alpern Engel, Mothers and Daughters: Women of the Intelligentsia in Nineteenth-Century Russia
- This one is hard to find (I know, I've been looking for years) but any
halfway-decent library should have it (but how many are halfway decent??).
Engel writes about a sub-group of the nineteenth-century radical intelligentsia
in Russia: namely, the women. There were a heck of a lot of them, in very
important positions in radical and terrorist organizations, which is one
of the odd phenomena for which Engels presents a convincing explanation.
This book goes a lot further than that, but I don't have room for it all.
If you're interested in gender in history, nineteenth-century Russia, or
radical politics and political terrorism, you'll find it fascinating, and
if you're interested in all three you should hunt it down now. It'll
also drive you to read the memoirs of many of the women portrayed - several
are published and readily available in English.
Evtushenko, Don't Die Before You're Dead - Evtushenko is
primarily a poet, and a very famous member of the 60s "Thaw Generation,"
though he's much less popular among Russians these days. He's considered
"less interesting" now than the younger, more uncompromising and less tempered
faces. Westerners make up for it though by thinking he's great (sort of
like the Gorbachev thing). And he is great. Thanks to his popularity over
here, he can often be caught touring universities and suchlike doing readings
from his poetry. If you can hear him read in person, it is well worth it,
as the experience is quite indescribable. For non-Russian-speakers who
can't see him in person, though, I suggest reading this prose novel first.
It's about the August 1991 coup and the collapse of the Soviet Union, and
maybe the best analysis of that situation I've ever read (including the
course list for Ronald Suny's University
of Chicago course on the collapse, which was actually really really
good. I won't even go into how much literature is out there trying to make
sense of 1991 and its aftermath, though, or how much of it is drivel).
Oh, and it's also bloody hilarious. Especially the bit with the hedgehog.
Fitzpatrick, Stalin's Peasants: Resistance
& Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization - In class
one day, Professor Fitzpatrick remarked that "one should never underestimate
the Russian peasant." This was one of the handful of Great Truths I took
away from my college education, and her book makes the case beautifully.
It's written so well that you'll never imagine you're reading an academic
text (one that also, as it happens, is an extraordinarily rich contribution
to the field of Soviet Studies). I bet you can't read just one chapter.
Sandman - a series of graphic novels, a.k.a. comics, that leave
me completely speechless. They're often funny, but make no mistake - they
are real, intense, beautiful, enduring and important works of art and literature.
Give them a chance. Maybe even start with Volume II, The Doll's House,
then backtrack to Volume I, Preludes and Nocturnes (as that one
is a slightly tentative introduction, only hinting at the greatness to
come, and also involving a lot of in-jokes and references to a comicbook
universe that most of us are only vaguely aware exists). When you've recovered
from reading straight through the entire series (and thank whatever lucky
stars or supreme beings you believe in that you could read them all in
a row and not have to wait month after unbearable month as the story unfolded
issue by issue over the course of eight years in the late eighties-early
nineties), then go check out Scott McCloud and prepare
to welcome a whole new artform into your life (and obsessive acquisatory
Gardiner, The Annotated Alice - Okay, Alice in Wonderland
is amazing enough all by itself. In Martin Gardiner's Annotated edition,
he provides not only background and references and helps explain some of
the now-archaic language, but he adds layers and layers of detail and delight
in the kind of puzzles, word games and artistic flourishes that make Lewis
Carroll so amazing.
Ginzburg, Journey into the Whirlwind - Possibly the best
of gulag memoirs, certainly one of the most well-known. There's also a
sequel called Within the Whirlwind, and it deserves mention that
Ginzburg's son, Vassily Aksyonov,
is a well-known and talented novelist in his own right. Personally, I think
Ginzburg's memoirs are a much better introduction to the facts and questions
of the Soviet Gulag system than the more obvious Solzhenitsyn tomes (Ginzburg
will make you want to read those, too, and by then it won't feel like work).
Gogol', "The Nose" - If your high school or college freshman lit
experiences taught you that Russian literature was only about Tolstoy and
Dostoevsky (and if they were really good, Chekhov), read this. While you're
at it, read Pushkin and Sinyavsky, and Akhmatova
and Nabokov and Turgenev. Then re-read Tolstoy and
Dostoevsky and Chekhov. Did I mention that "The Nose" is a really short
Goleman, Emotional Intelligence - Also a best seller that
might have been lost in the shuffle, especially if, like me, you tend to
wrinkle your nose at anything that reeks too much of self-help, pop-psych
or, well...best-sellers. But it's really good, and we all should know more
about Emotional IQ. Especially boys. cf. Kindlon, et
al, Raising Cain, below. It'll make the world a better place
for everybody - promise.
Gorey, Amphigorey - There are actually at least three collections
of Gorey's work under this title (Amphigorey Too, Amphigorey Also, Additional
Amphigorey...something like that), and they're all mind-bogglingly brilliant.
If you can't figure out why his style looks familiar, it's because he's
the guy who did those great illustrations for The
House with a Clock in Its Walls that you loved as a kid. He actually
wrote all kinds of things, most of them dark, some of them very very dark,
all of them illustrated with his weird and wonderful artwork. He does a
great send-up of Victorian family values and children's literature, too.
Graham, The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the
Fall of the Soviet Union - In a very unique format for an academic
book, Graham divides his narrative into two parts. The first is an absorbing
biography of a hitherto obscure Russian engineer named Palchinsky, whose
career just happens to have touched on, been shaped by, or been a living
embodiment of the course taken by technology and industry in the Soviet
Union. The second part uses Palchinsky as a take-off point to describe
the nature and failures of Soviet technology. There's a lot more in here
than you'll get from Newsweek,
it's convincing, and it goes down easy, too.
Hansen, The Royal Facts of Life: Biology and Politics in Sixteenth-Century
Europe - This book finally gets to all the interesting stuff about
monarchy that every other historian has ignored. Like, how miserable would
you be if you had syphilis and all the other diseases these guys always
seemed to have? How much of the craziness of European monarchies came from
all that inbreeding, and why didn't they figure it out? What was it like
for royal women, whose entire lives were devoted to one goal - a profitable
marriage and a healthy heir. Is it just me, or did European royal women
all just cease to exist after the heir was born, according to all history
written to date?? Oh, and this is also the book that, along with Wortman's
Scenarios of Power, inspired my BA essay
and brought me to a PhD program in Russian History at Columbia. He's also one of the guys behind those Chicken Soup for the Soul books, apparently. Weird.
Hautzig, The Endless Steppe: Growing Up in Siberia - A YA
memoir/novel about a young Jewish girl from Vilno who has the mixed fortune
to get caught by the Russians before the Germans could get her. She ends
up, eventually, living out the war and subsequent years in Siberia with
Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life - One of the reviews on
the back cover says that every woman should read this book, and I agree.
It's about writing about women - which not very many of us do - but it's
also about how women and men "write" narratives to make sense of women's
lives, their roles, and the possibilities open to them. Depending on your
narrative, the same actions can look like triumph or failure. For most
of recorded history, the narratives societies had for women were limiting,
degrading, and destructive. It's about time we paid more attention to where
we've gotten this shit from in the first place, and how very manufactured,
fallible, and ultimately counterproductive most of our narratives really
are -- for all of society, male and female.
Hellie, "The Structure of Modern Russian History: Toward a Dynamic
Model" - An essay that I read at least once a year, and still find something
new in every time. The sentences are often much longer and more unwieldy
than they should be, but it's worth slogging through.
Heyer - (and now for something completely different). If you've
always wondered why the vast majority of historical romances are all written
about one tiny little historical moment - Regency England - it's because
of Georgette Heyer. She started writing romances set in this period in
the 1940s (along with a bunch of mystery/detective novels I haven't read
yet and the occasional foray into other historical periods), and did it
so bloody well that everyone and her sister has been trying to imitate
her ever since, and failing. She's funny, her history is pretty good, and
her ear for authentic historical dialog (upper class British slang, especially)
is amazing. If you thought Peter Wimsey talked funny...
James, An Unsuitable Job for a Woman - P.D. James is one
of the best detective novelists of all time, a master of the "Detective
Novel of Manners" (to use Carolyn Heilbrun's term),
and the only detective novelist I know of who actually manages to work
real, solid character development into a whodunnit - every time. This title
is probably her most well-known, and introduces one of the few (and best)
female detectives in fiction.
Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth - One of the best children's
works ever written. I didn't discover it until last year, and therefore
hope to prevent other kids from suffering the same fate....
Kaplan, The Story of Jane: The Legendary Underground Feminist
Abortion Service - "Jane" was the name of an abortion service founded
at the University of Chicago, and
it's a fascinating story (which I discovered first in an amazing documentary
screened on campus a few years ago - alas, I've lost track of the title
or director's name).
Kharms, Kharmsiada / Anekdot: Komiksy iz zhizni velikhikh
- Kharms is a Russian absurdist writer, who I recommend even in translation.
If you've got the Russian, though, Kharmsiada is a must-have.
It's a small book of cartoons featuring all Russia's literary titans, in
all their, uh, glory.
Dan and Michael Thompson, with Teresa Barker, Raising Cain:
Protecting the Emotional Life of Boys - Okay, I'm not and have never
been a boy, but this book explained a hell of a lot for me. The only other
person I know who's read it so far is also a girl, and also not someone
who's ever been involved in actually raising a boy (though she does teach
some real doosies), so I'd be interested to know what actual boys think
of this. My first reaction to seeing it on the shelf at Barnes
& Noble was, christ, don't boys get enough attention as it is?
Just because we did the whole girl thing with Reviving
Ophelia -- the whole point of which is that all the conventional
wisdom, time and attention of our culture is devoted not to "children"
so much as to boys -- how on earth does it make anything but financial
sense to do a Reviving Hamlet? But I took a closer look, and had to retract
my cynicism in this one case. It's actually a book about how our society
forces boys into a mold (as unnatural to them as traditional "feminine"
models are for any real girls) that cause them to grow up into the adolescents
and men we all know so well - blindly destructive to themselves and the
rest of us, without an emotional clue and stunted because of it. The saddest
part is that is doesn't have to be that way.
LaBruce: Ride, Queer, Ride! - available
in the stranger and more alternative of bookstores, this contains full
scripts of M. LaBruce's films (Super 8 ½ and Hustler White)
as well as interviews, miscellania and lots of pictures. In case you didn't
hear about him on Entertainment Tonight, Bruce LaBruce is a gay porn star
turned filmmaker who made a brilliant little movie about gay porn called
Super 8 ½. Hustler White, alas, didn't nearly measure
up (ahem, in quality and artistic merit) to Super 8 ½, largely
because the project wasn't entirely in the hands of LaBruce - his bits
in HW are the brilliant highlights in an otherwise boring failed
attempt to be artsy and shocking and pornographic all at the same time.
Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
- Like I needed more excuses to sit around telling myself I'm going to
quit grad school and write the Great American Novel, but for anyone who
loves words, this is a great and fun tour into the world of writing.
Le Roy Ladurie - French historian, author of Montaillou
and many other great books. History at its very best, if you ask me. But
what would happen if someone turned this stuff in as a dissertation at,
say, Columbia University? Hmm?
Lennon, In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works
- Forget he's a Beatle for a second, and put these on your shelf next to Carroll and Joyce. See what happens.
Liftin and Kate Montgomery, Dear Exile: The True Story of Two Friends Separated (for a Year) By
an Ocean - My friend franny and I have to fight over which of us really
gets to be "Kate" and which of us is more "Hilary."
K. Massie, Nicholas and Alexandra - This is not great history,
but there's a reason it's the book that got practically everyone I know
interested in Russian history.
McCloud, Understanding Comics and
- If you're "not a comics person," all the more reason to take a look at
these. And will someone please employ this man to re-write every textbook
Nabokov, The Annotated Lolita - Just read the first page. (And yes, it's definitely worth getting the annotated edition.)
Nesbit, The Story of the Treasure Seekers - E. Nesbit was
one of the first writers of children's literature to actually write from
a legitimately child-like perspective. Hence, her books are also among
the first examples of children's literature that are great fun to read
(at any age).
Paley, Collected Short Stories - They're weird, radical
(politically and otherwise) and beautiful.
Peck, Ghosts I Have Been - This is the best of a four-book
children's series that's great from beginning to end. The series features
a girl from literally the wrong side of the tracks (her mother is a toothless
fortune teller, her father long since got run out of town) named Blossom
Culp. Rather to her surprise, she discovers she's got the gift of second
sight (much to her mother's envious disgruntlement), and adventures inevitably
ensue from there, often involving the reluctant rich boy from across the
tracks, Alexander, who to his own horror has a few supernatural gifts of
Marie Pope, The Sherwood Ring - a superb ghost story that
alternates between a modern setting and an historical tale told by a series
of personable ghosts who experienced some unusual guerilla warfare in upstate
New York during the American Revolution. The hero of the ghost story is
a Redcoat unfortunately named Peaceable Sherwood, who for some reason bears
a striking resemblence (if you ask me) to Lord Peter
Remnick, Lenin's Tomb - The best of many western journalistic
accounts of post-Soviet Russia.
The Vampire Lestat - I could take or leave the rest, but this one
is really extraordinary and beautiful.
Rimbaud, Complete Works, Selected Letters
(U of C Press
dual language edition) - The best motivation I've found to learn French,
which I'd been avoiding for many years now. I've typed in my favorite Rimbaud poem -- which IMHO is also the sexiest poem ever written -- called, "The First Evening." Enjoy. (link to French version also available on the same page)
Riordan and Sue Bridger,
eds and trs., Dear Comrade Editor: Readers' Letters to the Soviet
Press under Perestroika - Remnick's account may
be good, but nothing really compares to some primary sources. This is an
amazing and often very entertaining collection, presenting a much more
comprehensive and significant picture of late Soviet society than one might
imagine from the title.
Rose, Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages - This is
certainly a classic in its own way, but I've included it because there
may still be some people out there who think a set of short biographies
of a bunch of Victorian writers' marriages isn't up their alley. To those
people, I suggest at least reading her introduction and seeing what you
think. Basically, it's a book of good old-fashioned juicy gossip, based
on the thesis that the only way we can learn about and understand how relationships
work (or don't work) is to gossip - to understand what kinds of narratives
people have written about their own relationships, and what worked and
what didn't, and how important those narratives are in the first place.
K. Rowling, Harry Potter - Quick read them before the hype
becomes too much for you. They really are that good.
L. Sayers, Gaudy Night - The best and most famous of all
Sayers' wonderful detective novels. It features the climax of the long
drawn-out affair between Sayers' famous amateur detective, Lord Peter Wimsey,
and her less famous but even more interesting fictional-detective-fiction-writer-and-amateur-detective,
Harriet Vane. This book is equally about Harriet's love affair with Oxford,
a bit at least as real and entertaining to me as the relationship with
Wimsey. Did I mention that this is my favorite "romance" novel?
Schama, Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations) -
This is one of the less well-known titles by Schama, and maybe suffers
a bit from a deliberate lack of clear linkage between the various stories
it contains. Each section, though, is utterly absorbing, like all Schama's
histories. It follows the lives and deaths of James Wolfe and an historian
who studied him, Frances Parkman, in the first part, then George Parkman
and his murderer, Harvard professor John Webster, in the second. The account
of Webster's arrest and trial is probably the most interesting trial fiction
I've read since To Kill a Mockingbird.
Schama, by the way, is one of the best writers of history ever, and also
a professor here at Columbia.
Scott, Behind the Urals: An American Worker in Russia's City
of Steel- John Scott went to the Soviet Union with a lot of other Americans
in the 1930s, when the Depression was making Western capitalism look like
a miserably failed experiment (hm, sound familiar?) and the Soviet Union's
booming industrial sector seemed a model of just, humane, and prosperous
socialism in action. Scott finds that the story is considerably more complicated
than that, of course, and his account of work in Magnitogorsk is gripping,
sobering, and probably very accurate.
Sinyavski (a.k.a. Abram Tertz), The Trial Begins and
On Socialist Realism - Sinyavsky, who wrote under the pseudonym Abram
Tertz to express solidarity with Jewish writers and intellectuals who were
suffering persecution by the Soviet regime, was eventually sent to Gulag
himself in 1965, but not before publishing several works in the West, including
On Socialist Realism in 1959, an analysis of the inane "official"
style known as Socialist Realism and the predicament of the writer in Soviet
Russia, as well as the novel The Trial Begins in 1960. His politics
were important -- and almost suicidally gutsy under the circumstances --
but he's also one of the best writers of Soviet-era literature, by any
Keatley Snyder, The Changeling - a wonderful and imaginative
children's book. But then, how could someone named "Zilpha" not
write great children's lit?
Solanis, The SCUM Manifesto - Yes, she's the chick who shot
Andy Warhol (and from the movie with Lili Taylor). And yes, she was a more
than a bit off her rocker. But she also had some bloody great and true
ideas strewn in there with the weird stuff. Too easily dismissed.
Spence, The Death of Woman Wang -
Spence is a very well-regarded
Chinese historian, but this particular work is very controversial for its
novel-like style and occasional liberties with facts and sources. The liberties
he takes, though, are based on close readings of fiction from the same
region of sixteenth-century China, and they bring a very rich and authentic
quality to a shocking, gripping -- and nearly forgotten -- corner of Chinese
Thane, Dawn's Early Light - Thane wrote great, if sometimes
rather dated-feeling historical fiction. This is the first and best of
her series set in Williamsburg, Virginia from the period of the Revolution
(which this book covers) through the course of American history right up
to the twentieth century.
Toth, Ms. Mentor's Impeccable Advice for Women in Academia -
No woman in academia should be without it! (if only because it's a
great way to lighten us all up).
Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter - A trilogy set in medieval
Vidal, Burr - We all saw the TV movie based on his book
about Lincoln. That's actually just one in a series of good historical
novels, the very best of which is the first, Burr.
Volkogonov, Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy - He also wrote
biographies of Lenin and Trotsky, but this is the best and most important.
Volkogonov was a general in the Red Army and a historian for many years
under the Soviet Regime. As soon as perestroika opened things up, he used
his privileged access to government archives to do this research, finally
unveiling mountains of information Western historians have been having
to guess at for decades. (Disclaimer: my mom, who has only a casual interest in Soviet history, found this way too academic. Venture in at your own risk.)
White, The President's Daughter - Book one of a fine trilogy.
White was my favorite YA author for many years, and I've got most of her
books memorized by now. The older ones can be hard to find these days,
but her latest books are arguably even better - the YA title
The Road Home , and a mystery novel for grownups called All Emergencies, Ring Super . If you ask me, she's one of the most under-appreciated YA authors
Williams, Style: 10 Lessons
in Clarity and Grace - Based on Williams' famous University
of Chicago course on Professional and Academic Writing (popularly known
as the Little Red Schoolhouse), it's the most clear-headed and smart course
on writing you'll find anywhere. Every college student on earth should
have to read this book - the world, not to mention academia, would be a
much better (and clearer) place. (Note: If you happen to be a
Columbia undergraduate, forget everything you were told in L&R
(if you haven't already) and read this instead.)
S. Wortman, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian
Monarchy - Professor Wortman is my advisor here at Columbia, and this
book is why I came here. Just read it. (all of it - volume two is now finally