Over the holidays and even a bit after them, I took refuge in books with proven track records. The problem with mostly reading new books is that about half the time, I’m disappointed. And for the sake of my mental health, I needed the tried and true to get to mid-January unscathed. Unsurprisingly, I loved many of the classic books I read! Because the reason they’re classic is that many people have already loved them!
I feel a bit silly writing reviews for them, because they’re none of them very new (well, most of them), and in some cases I am literally a century behind the times. But indulge me. Perhaps you just need one more person to tell you to read one of the titles below. Let me be the catalyst, because these books all deserve as many eyes as possible.
Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen by Christopher McDougall (Knopf). If you’ve been in my store at any point in the last month, I have probably thrust this book at you with the eerie vigor of a recent convert. That’s because I am one. This book has changed my life. Well, it’s changed my exercise habits. Which is now changing my life. I have gone from really wanting to enjoy running but secretly loathing it to actually lacing up my shoes on purpose and finding an odd zen in my own wheezing.
If you have no interest in running, have no fear, this book is also a fantastic adventure story of the highest caliber. Just don’t be surprised if you start wondering if you, too, could run an ultramarathon. (A thing I have begun to wonder every day.)
The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I’m not sure what else remains to be said about a book so beloved that multiple people have told me that they re-read it on an annual basis. Maybe you, like me, shy away from books with one or more precocious teenage narrators. Try to swallow back your bile for this one. I promise.
As a side note, I read this book on a dark and cold winter night. And, because I was so drawn into the story, I drank an entire bottle of cheap sweet red wine while doing so, much too quickly. I cannot recommend this experience highly enough.
Percy Jackson and the Olympians, Book One: The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan. When Bookdwarf said that this series might be better than the Harry Potter books, I thought she was crazy. Now I no longer think that she is crazy.
Moby-Dick: Or, The Whale by Herman Melville. People have been trying to get me to read this book for years and I have ignored them every time. I am not interested in whales or how they used to be killed, and every time I opened to a random page to get a feel for the writing, I got an eyeful of Melville pontificating on the nature of whiteness and purity or a whale chase.
If only someone had thought to tell me that it is FUNNY! (And that the pontificating on whiteness is actually genius, and the whale chases are actually enthralling.) I could have loved it years ago! If only I had listened to the people who told me that those random chapters on Melville spouting (ha! oh, c’mon, it’s funny) off about random ideas were, in fact the gems of the book. I hope you are not so stupid as me and have already read this book.
The Curse of the Appropriate Man by Lynn Freed (Harcourt). It breaks my heart that the only reason I picked up this book was because it was a remainder at Idlewild Books. I really should have paid full price for it. This is one of the finest short story collections I have read in maybe ever. I’ve already read it twice. Be aware going into it that it’s set in apartheid-era South Africa and so, is incredibly painful to read in places. The racism of the characters is so thick at times that I was cringing and squinting my eyes at the pages. But find it within yourself to accept the injustices of the time and place in order to read through the book, because at its heart this book gets closer to the dark and stormy and perverted parts of the female soul than most.
Also, I think we can all agree that is one of the top ten book titles of all time.
The Prisoner by Thomas Disch (Penguin). Like most thinking human beings, I love the original Prisoner TV series, even the stupid episodes like “Living in Harmony,” and found AMC’s recent attempts to remake the series tragic. However, after reading Disch’s novelization of the original show, I kind of understand where they were going with the remake. It is still horrible. But I see where they were going.
If only they had just remade Disch’s book exactly! I would have gotten cable so that I could watch it over and over. This is the first book I’ve read by Disch, but I’ll be going back for more. I ignored my family for a large portion of Boxing Day to read this book instead (and I actually like my family). I actually wish I had saved it for the train ride home, because this is the epitome of the perfect novel for traveling.
The Untouchable by John Banville (Vintage). Another writer who doesn’t really need my help, but here I am, giving it anyway. I love a good spy novel, so of course I loved an even better disgraced-spy-unmasked-and-hiding-in-his-house novel. Also, it is British. I find that novels about social disgrace are about ten times better when they are British (hi, Anne Perry and Penny Vincenzi!).
Written Lives by Javier Marias (New Directions Press). It is one thing when a book is laugh-out-loud funny. It is another when a book repeatedly makes you laugh out of SHEER JOY. I read parts of this while traveling and kept wanting to read paragraphs out loud to the other people in my train car (I did not, not that they would have heard me over their insanely loud phone conversations).
This book is, for those who love authors, the reading equivalent of dancing a sloppy tango in someone’s backyard after one too many beers on a cool summer night, the wind in your hair and all the good things about life floating around you. If you are a writer—or, through some fluke of nature, a person obsessed with books who is NOT a writer—you should call out sick, go get this book, and read it right away. Right away, I said!
The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross (Picador). If Written Lives is a tango, The Rest is Noise is a sandwich on thick pumpernickel. Delicious! But very, very chewy, and almost certainly not something to be finished in one sitting. It might be different if you know anything about classical music and its history. I did not, except that I knew I really liked string quartets and Bach and cellos. So it took me two weeks to read through this, one chapter at a time. More than one chapter and my brain closed up shop for the day.
This is the first book I’ve ever read that I think might have been improved by being digital. As it was, I often stopped to go on Youtube and listen to songs and composers Ross recommends (for some reason I missed the fact that the book has a fantastic website until I got to the end). And then, using the music I liked, over time built a Pandora station with all the stuff I liked. I recommend doing this as well. It’s helping me to remember things about the book that I would probably have forgotten otherwise, and has also made my homelife much nicer-sounding.
So, that is the end of me telling you to read books you’ve probably already read. Hopefully you haven’t already read all of them. (But if you have: call me!) And then tell me what book I should read that I have probably already read.