I think it’s Steven King who said it originally, but it’s become a mantra for me: to be a good writer, you have to be a good reader. As such, I thought I’d write some posts on my favorite books, broken down by genre, with a description of what I liked about them as well as a quick synopsis of what they’re about.
In this edition, I’ll discuss my favorite classics, literary, and NW fiction.
Feel free to add your faves in the comments!
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Maybe the best book I’ve ever read.
For Whom the Bell Tolls is Hemingway at his finest. The back drop to the story is the Spanish Civil War, and Robert Jordan, our protagonist, is tasked with taking out a railway bridge the Fascists are using to move supplies and troops to the front.
But then something unexpected happens: he falls in love with a girl who’s embedded with the guerrillas he joins. The story ripples with tension: the love affair, defection, fire fights, espionage, and whether or not Jordan can complete his task–and if he can, at what cost?
I cannot recommend this book highly enough, and like so many on this list, very hard to put down once you’ve started reading (to me this is a quality all good books share).
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
A fantastic novel written entirely in letters, mostly from our protagonist Celie, a character we follow from the beginning as young girl whose situation is so desperate she writes letters to God, trying to understand her place in the world. She writes: “I am fourteen years old. I am I have always been a good girl. Maybe you can give me a sign letting me know what is
happening to me.”
Through Celie’s eyes we see what it’s like to grow up black in a broken home in 1900’s rural Georgia. But surprisingly, racism isn’t the primary conflict she deals with, because what we see most starkly in The Color Purple is what it’s like to live in an era where domestic abuse rules the day; a society where it’s common for husbands to beat their wives, and women, especially women of color, are often raped with no legal recourse or consequences for their abusers.
But Celie is a survivor, who year by year, gains the strength, conviction, and spirit to leave the cycle of abuse and start a new life for herself. This the only book on this list I’ve had the privilege to teach, and every year I get excited to share her story with a new crop of students.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
I feel like if someone asked me about what the Great Depression was like, I’d be better off to hand them this novel than an objective historical account.
In the Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck is simply masterful, alternating chapters between the Joad family and vivid descriptions of what America looked like in this era.
Fair warning: this is a tragedy. It is not a happy story, nor one that should be particularly easy to read–and yet it is so compelling it’s almost impossible not to keep turning pages. The story begins with Tom Joad exiting prison and returning to his family whose crops have been destroyed by the Dust Bowl and have no alternative but to head west to California. But at each step along the way, calamity follows–sometimes due to human frailty, sometimes just plain old bad luck, but bit by bit it takes its toll as the continue their journey on Route 66.
I won’t say more because I don’t want to spoil it, but the ending is one of the strangest things you’ll ever read. A fantastic novel that should be required reading for every American.
The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
One of those stories that, without an overly complex plot or characters, manages to be both rich and captivating–I think the first time I read it took me less than a week because I just couldn’t put it down.
Buck’s story takes place in rural China around the turn of the 20th century. It follows the life of Wang Lung, who starts off as a poor young farmer and is married to a neighbor’s slave, O-Lan. Through hard work and good fortune the family grows and becomes prosperous, but as we might expect, nothing lasts forever, and we see them both struggle and thrive in good times and bad.
The story so vividly explores the complexity of family and relationships: a wife’s devotion to her husband, a father’s love for a handicapped child, men’s lust for beautiful women, and children who alternately love, hate, honor, and take cruel advantage of their parents.
Perhaps the best way to explain The Good Earth is simply that it sparkles because it so beautifully captures the human story. Brilliant story telling.
Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
A novel that surprisingly few people have read because it is both obscure and the language is so complex. It takes awhile to get into and fully understand how Pynchon is telling his story, but once we understand his language the payoff is huge.
The story takes place primarily toward the end of World War II, following various characters in several areas of the European theatre–first in London, then in France, Germany, etc. However, because the narrative jumps around, it’s impossible to explain the plot in a linear sequence, and I won’t bother trying.
So let’s get into what the story is about, and that is primarily the nature of war and how it affects our species. In terms of complexity, it is the complete opposite of a book like The Good Earth–a myriad of plot threads that turn and twist throughout–and yet manages to do the same thing, which is to capture what it means to be human, even in a time as tumultuous and confusing as World War II.
Oh, one thing I should add: parts of this story are absolutely hysterical. I found myself laughing out loud on many occasions, sometimes to the point where people around me would ask, “hey, what’s so funny?” But given the story, there was no way I could explain, other than to tell them they should read the book.
And so should you!
The Tenth of December by George Saunders
An unbelievably interesting and novel collection of short stories by one of the greatest writers of our time. “Victory Lap”, “Escape from Spiderhead”, and the collection’s namesake, “The Tenth of December” are personal favorites, but every story is filled with powerful, curious, and sometimes even silly plots, characters, and ideas.
The thing I love most about Saunders is how he deconstructs the human condition through streams of consciousness in his characters and toys with our preconceived notions of how things are and ought to be, often by putting us as readers in situations that are bizarre, extreme, and absurd.
Just an absolutely fantastic collection that every fan of literary fiction should pick up, and even though they’re short stories with no connection to each other, once you start, it’s hard not to read Tenth of December cover to cover.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
Haunting and simple, yet elegant.
With The Road, McCarthy–a prolific author of novels like All the Pretty Horses, Blood Meridian, and No Country for Old Men–transports us to a post apocalyptic world where all the vegetation has died, society has fallen apart, and the only rule left is to survive.
If you can.
The plot follows a boy and his father, traveling cross country seeking the coast with the hope that perhaps things are better there or they can get on a boat to escape the chaos and death that pervades their lives. On the way they have to avoid ranging Mad Max-like bands of hooligans and cannibals, while scavenging anything of value they can use to survive, especially food.
McCarthy writes the story in language that’s simple and spare, using only periods for punctuation. It sounds odd, but it fits the story perfectly.
Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
A beautiful story about a logging family and a small community on the Oregon Coast. For the most part we follow the lives of two brothers, Leland and Hank Stamper, who could not be more different.
At the open, Lee returns from the east coast after their mother dies, and begins working for the family again. The story is driven forward by two conflicts: the first is the battle between the union loggers and the Stamper family. The union is on strike, asking for a pay increase, but the Stampers undercut their leverage by agreeing to supply the local mill with the lumber the union loggers would have supplied.
The second conflict is between the two brothers, Hank, who’s hard headed, conservative, and loves to work, and Lee, who’s more artistic, free spirited, and doesn’t see a future in logging. Their interpersonal struggle is combined with those of the family–particularly Viv, Hank’s wife.
Like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Kesey’s language and storytelling are heartbreaking, beautiful, and unique. It is simply marvelous–to be honest, if someone put a gun to my head and said I get to read one book for the rest of my life, I’d probably choose this one.
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
A heartwarming, charming, sexy little novel that transports the reader back and forth in time as well as across the globe.
In Beautiful Ruins, Walter weaves a cast of bright, curious, and sometimes tragic characters together, as the threads of their lives intertwine and commingle. From the set of Cleopatra in Rome to Italy’s Amalfi Coast to a producer’s couch in Los Angeles to a dying woman’s bedside in Idaho, the story flips back and forth between the 1960’s and modern day, so that we see how both the characters and world change over time.
What I love most about the story is how Walter illuminates the humanity of each of his characters: their hearts, perspectives, and desires. You’ll also enjoy his cheeky prose, which is paradoxically simple and yet profound–“dirty” literary fiction, if such a thing exists.
Mink River by Brian Doyle
I came upon Mink River after reading that Doyle, semi-famous in Oregon, had passed away at the young age of 60 in 2017. I have to admit I bought the book back then, but didn’t read it until recently over this past last summer.
It is brilliant. The opening page contains some of the best writing I’ve ever read; in short, Mink River is the story of a fictional Oregon coastal town (apparently I have a thing for that) and it’s characters. Doyle writes the story such that we follow these characters simultaneously so that we see what each one is doing at similar times during each day, how they separate and merge and contribute to the life of their small town.
When we discussed this in our English Teacher book club, one reader said it was one of the most deeply spiritual books he’s ever read. I agree. Mink River is filled with that sort of magic, and Doyle incorporates Gaelic and Native American wisdom, folk tales, language, and culture into the story as well–we even see how animals such as bears and crows think about the world around them.
Another reader in our book club said this might be better than Sometimes a Great Notion… I won’t go that far, but it’s certainly up there in terms of capturing the spirit and heart of a town.
A must read for sure.