Book Recommendations

Fairly often, people ask me for book recommendations. Current students, former students, and adult friends who know I’m an English teacher and ravenous reader want to know which books I’ve enjoyed and which I think they should read next. I usually quickly offer a few titles and then–a couple of hours later–I smack myself on the forehead and wonder, ‘How could I have forgotten (book X)?”

Thus, this list is as much a reminder for myself as it is a resource for anybody in search of a good book. I’m going to start with just ten titles, but that’s only a beginning. I’ll add to this post as time allows. Thus, the only limitation I’ve given myself is that I’ll only include books that I found most well-written, interesting, and worth the time I invested in reading them. I won’t include any book that I teach in my classes, although each one of them qualifies for this list. If you’d like to know about those, feel free to ask.

Be warned: I’m comfortable with not-so-happy endings, violence, adult language, moral ambiguity, issues of race and gender politics, and pretty much any other kind of content that advances the themes of a good book. If that’s not your cup of tea, this list might not be useful to you.

1. In the Fall by Jeffrey Lent

The novel begins when a Union solder returns to his New England home after serving in the Civil War, bringing with him the black woman he met and married while he was in the South. In the Fall follows three generations of a biracial American family as they grow farther and farther away from the family’s Southern black roots. When the soldier’s descendants begin to look into the mysteries of their past, they’re confronted with people and events that test them and everything they think they know about who they are. This is not a well-known novel, but I recommend it constantly.


2. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger

Ruben Land’s lungs nearly gave out just minutes after he was born. His father, Jeremiah, saved him by commanding him “in the name of the living God” to breathe. Over the course of Ruben’s life, his father performs many semi-miraculous acts, but the reader is left to wonder whether Jeremiah truly is invested with miraculous powers or if Ruben just seems him through the worshipful eyes of a child. When a violent crime forces the family to leave home in search of one of their own, the Lands rely on Jeremiah to bring the family back together.


3. Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

An optimistic would-be farmer, his unhappy wife, a sharecropper and his wife, and the sons of both families are the main characters in this novel. Jordan uses a false accusation, a bold defense of a friend, and the race politics of the not-so-distant Southern past to explore the relationships between her cast of characters. The last chapter of this book will ring in your ears for a long, long time.


4. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris

Set in an office building as the dot-com boom begins to deflate, this novel is narrated in the first-person collective: “we.” The collective voice narrates the layoffs, firings, office romances, rumors, and day-to-day trials of the employees at a company that’s in the process of downsizing. It sounds like a total drag when I describe it that way, but the interesting narrative voice and the realistic characters make this novel remarkable.


5. The Song of the Dodo: Island Biogeography in an Age of Extinction by David Quammen

This is a huge scientific nonfiction tome, and it’s worth every dense, challenging page. Quammen begins with pre-Darwinian studies of ecology, particularly on islands and other insularized environments. He then follows every major study and theory of the biogeography of islands, including the discovery and extinction of the dodo, the famous extinction from which the book takes its title. The final goal is to study the human role in contributing to dividing previously vast expanses of wild habitat into much smaller islands of undisturbed habitat, the effects this division has on wildlife, and the ways people can preserve the natural world more effectively in the future.


6. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann

The central event of this novel is Phillippe Petitte’s high-wire walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. All over the city, people watched in person and on television. Rich penthouse dwellers, struggling addicts, aspiring artists, and tough-talking prostitutes make up a pond across which the ripples of Petitte’s performance drift. More than any other novel I’ve read, Let the Great World Spin demonstrates how closely we connected we are to other people, even those whom we’ve never met.


7. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman

Don’t read this book all at once. It’s Whitman’s life’s work, and it’s too much to take in if you read it all the way through. Instead, read a few poems each day and let Whitman’s ideas wash over you. I’ve never read any writer who loves, celebrates, and trusts humanity more than Whitman, and Leaves of Grass is his complete statement of his ideology. Start at “Song of Myself” and see if you find yourself hooked.


8. Flight by Sherman Alexie

This is my favorite young adult novel. In a post-Fault in Our Stars world, that’s saying something. The protagonist, Zits, is a Native American whose alcoholic father is distant memory. While living in a foster home, he suffers a traumatic experience that causes him to live through a series of jumps from one body to another like the old TV show Quantum Leap. With each new experience, he sees a new side of parent/child, Native/white, immigrant/American-born, and privileged/impoverished relationships. When he finally flashes back into his own body, he’s ready to face his own life in a new way. I wish I could recommend this book to my students, but the characters insist on talking like real people, which isn’t always school-appropriate.


9. The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

This book is nonfiction, but it’s written like a novel. Larson tells the story of the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893, including the technological advances in construction, electricity, technology, travel, and entertainment the fair prompted. Simultaneously, the reader watches the movements of a serial killer who bought a building, modified it for his needs, and opened it as a hotel during the global gathering in Chicago. Although it’s not really a mystery, this book is a crime drama, set within a larger context that will reveal many surprising facts about how the Chicago World’s Fair shaped modern America.


 10. Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden

This novel follows a returning Canadian Native American WWI soldier from his arrival at a train station near his home, up the river in a canoe with his aunt, back to his childhood village home. Addicted to morphine in the wake of injuries he sustained in the war, the soldier fades in and out of consciousness as his aunt paddles the canoe. When he’s awake, he’s mostly silent, but when he’s unconscious, he sees flashbacks of his experiences in the trenches. This is a powerful portrayal of the effects of war on those who experience it first hand. 



0 Responses to “Book Recommendations”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: