Naomi Dushay's annotated list of great books. All of these are favorites; the bold means WOW! Last updated 07/20/2001 .
Angelou, Maya (I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, The Heart of a Woman ...) As with Lillian Hellman, her memoirs are in many volumes. The two I've read so far are fascinating reads of an African-American woman's experiences. Her experiences are far from ordinary, by the way!
Conway, Jill Ker (The Road from Coorain) A wonderful autobiography of an extremely bright Australian woman raised in the lonely outback and exploring her academic potential. This woman became the president of Smith College.
Delaney, Sarah and Elizabeth (Having Our Say) A delightful book about the life experiences of 100+ year old black sisters. Terrific.
Hellman, Lillian (Pentimento, An Unfinished Woman, Maybe, Scoundrel Time, "The Children's Hour") Though there is much in her memoirs that never happened, or that didn't happen to her, as stories, they are still riveting. Her play "The Children's Hour" was written with much assistance from Dashiell Hammett, and it's a fine play. The movie "Julia" starring Jane Fonda is from a tale in Pentimento (again, though the story never happened, the character Julia is based on a real person (whom Lillian Hellman did not know well) and the story is excellent.)
Herriot, James (All Creatures Great and Small, etc.) These stories make me laugh out loud, which is a rarity I cherish.
Hickam, Homer H. Jr. (Rocket Boys) Autobiography of a boy in a West Virginia coal mining town whose imagination was captured by Sputnik. In a town where everyone's life, past present and future, is coal mining, except for the relief of high school football, this boy's fascination with space propels him to teach himself calculus and all the other necessities to build rockets in a town that lacks even one library book on the subject. Well written and full of humanity and the power of a dream.
Hinton, Milt. (Bass Line) Cool autobiography of the great jazz bassist, liberally sprinkled with Milt Hinton's photos of his colleagues.
Krakauer, Jon. (Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster) Riveting account of the ill-fated climbing expeditions on Mount Everest in 1996. I couldn't put it down.
O'Day, Anita. (High Times, Hard Times) A well written account of the fascinating, bizarre life of this great musician.
Pepper, Art. (Straight Life) An incredible view of the great alto saxophonist's life. Horrifying and fascinating viewpoints with respect to drugs and women are matter-of-factly laid out. Wonderfully put together by his anthropologist wife -- she leaves in his own contradictions. I read a few paragraphs of this book in a bookstore, and couldn't stop wondering what happened next. After two weeks, I bought the book. A friend told me this was also his experience of this book -- we were horrified and yet fascinated by the stories, and they demanded to be read.
Ruff, Willie. (A Call to Assembly) A black french horn player's autobiography. Interesting insights into racism in the military, among other things. A good read.
Wolfe, Tom. (Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test) Terrific book that covers the 60's and Ken Kesey. (Actually, a biography, not an autobiography.)
X, Malcom (Autobiography of Malcolm X) Compelling account of a black man coming of age in American society and his struggle to be a positive force for change.
I enjoy fiction, but the trick is to find the fiction that I enjoy. The common thread seems to be intriguing, fleshed out characters that evolve and grow in their understanding of themselves, society and the world. Or something like that.
Arnow, Harriette (The Dollmaker) Gripping story of a Kentucky woman and her family struggling to adapt to modern society.
Atwood, Margaret (Handmaiden's Tale, Cat's Eye) Canadian author that explores female relationships with society in her novels. I particularly liked these two.
Burgess, Anthony (A Clockwork Orange) Heavy, violent, but fantastic -- intriguing and provoking.
Busch, Frederick (Girls) Wonderful storytelling about decent people caught in difficult, confusing situations. Complex characters with interwoven lives.
Casey, John (Spartina) Great story about a crusty New England boat builder and his complex relationships with others. I also liked his recent novel The Half-Life of Happiness, but not as emphatically. And no, it's not a sequel.
Cheever, John (The Wapshot Chronicles) "Caustic fictional portrait of an eccentric New England family."
Clavell, James (Shogun, Taipan) Epic novels about Japan and Hong Kong, respectively. Riveting. I love the way he illuminates different hopes and objectives of many different characters. I like these two of his novels best.
Golden, Arthur (Memoirs of a Geisha) - amazing book told from the perspective of a young girl who becomes a Geisha due to circumstances beyond her control. Reading this book feels like an illicit glance into a hidden society.
Guest, Judith (Ordinary People, Second Heaven, Errands) Insightful, powerful, yet accessible writing depicting relationships and individuals changing in the context of tumultuous personal events.
Kesey, Ken. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest) This is a classic, and for good reason. Great story, great characters, well-written.
Kingsolver, Barbara (Animal Dreams, Pigs in Heaven, The Bean Trees) Fantastic novels about women on journeys of self discovery, interwoven with their relationships to their loved ones.
Malamud, Bernard (The Assistant, The Natural) Moving stories that seem to question the roles of the antagonist and the protangonist.
Michener, James (The Drifters, The Source but not everything else) Epic, historical novels. Aside from Tales of the South Pacific (yes, like the musical), I like these two best. The first is about a group of youths in the 60's, growing up and learning about society. The second is a bizarre history of Israel in novel format.
Piercy, Marge. (Woman on the Edge of Time, Vida, Gone to Soldiers, Small Changes, Braided Lives) Engaging fiction about people interacting and developing a sense of self. I'd call her a woman's writer, because many of her novels seem to involve women struggling to become full members in society.
Proulx, Annie (The Shipping News) Tale of a single dad's struggle to find his way in the world. The author finds a whole new way of writing English. It takes a little getting used to, but for me it more accurately mirrors the language of my mind than standard English.
Quindlan, Anna. (One True Thing) This was a great movie AND a great book. A young career-woman's life changes as she becomes a caretaker for her mother. Not depressing, but instead a triumph of how a crisis can spur beautiful growth in oneself and one's closest relationships.
Rawlings, Mary. (The Yearling) You know, the story about a boy becoming a man and a yearling becoming a deer.
Rush, Norman. (Mating) Amazing story about a female nutrition graduate student and her experiences of love and sociology experiments in Africa.
Russo, Richard. (Nobody's Fool, Straight Man) Highly amusing novels with fully developed, believable characters. A perfect balance of cynicism against humor in the closed environments of a small town or a small college english department.
Salinger, J.D. (Catcher in the Rye, other writings) I've read Catcher in the Rye at least 8 times. Salinger's prose just glides along, and his unique, yet wholly believable characters struggle to realize selfhood with self respect.
Smiley, Jane. (One Thousand Acres, Horse Heaven) The first is a novel illuminating relationships between husband and wife, among three sisters and their dad, and all intertwined with a farm. Many parallels between this plot and "King Lear" as was pointed out by a German acquaintance of mine. The second is a wonderful, charming epic novel of sorts, with a wonderful elevation of horses to nearly primary characters.
Steinbeck, John. (The Grapes of Wrath) Worthy of its reputation. Moving story of a rural family's struggle with the drought and the depression.
Tan, Amy. (The Kitchen God's Wife, The Joy Luck Club) These are lighter, VERY enjoyable stories about Chinese-American female experiences.
Warren, Robert Penn. (All the King's Men) I took this out from the library not sure if I'd already read it or not. After about 20 pages I remembered reading it. I went to look something up at the end, and found myself reading the book backwards (well, forward, but in chunks backwards). I ended up reading it again. It didn't lose its power at all.
Wolfe, Tom. (Bonfire of the Vanities) Terrific book about a big macher on Wall Street who takes a dive (and it's a great book, even if the movie wasn't so hot).
I love a well-written mystery with interesting, multi-dimensional characters. In search of such books, I've read far more than is indicated in this list. These are the cream of the crop, in my opinion.
Burke, James Lee (Dave Robicheaux mysteries) His detective is a believable recovering alcoholic and Vietnam vet from Iberia, Louisiana. Relationships between the detective and the women in his life, the folks he loves and the crime figures he deals with are all intriguing. I'd read these in order of publication, as the detective's life evolves through the books.
Carr, Caleb (The Alienist) Wonderful historical mystery set in New York City in the early part of the 20th century. Fascinating view of the field of psychology back then and the role of the police.
Chandler, Raymond (The Big Sleep, Lady in the Lake, The Long Goodbye, etc.) The second most famous name in hard-boiled detective fiction. Philip Marlowe lives here.
Connelly, Michael (Trunk Music, etc.) Hieronymous (Harry) Bosch is a capable detective struggling with his flaws and his desire to do things his way within the bureaucracy of Los Angeles. Excellent.
Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan (the Sherlock Holmes stories) Worth reading. Really.
George, Elizabeth - wonderful mysteries with a set of characters that interact in realistic, flawed relationships and that grow and change. There's the detective who's a lord, his anti-snob, slovenly but capable female partner, the maimed forensic pathologist and his beautiful young photographer wife, and the forensic assistant, who happens to be involved with the detective/lord. She touches tough issues, such as anti-Pakistani racism. I'd read these in order.
Hammett, Dashiell (The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, etc. - there's only 6 or so) Powerful writing, with realism contained in spare prose. Hammett was the founder of hard-boiled yet well-written detective fiction. His tales of convey the notion that every character is lying at least some of the time.
Harvey, John. Charlie Resnick, his detective, is a schlubby has-been sort of guy who loves jazz and has four cats all named for jazz performers. An excellent depiction of the proverbial nice guy who somehow doesn't connect with people so well. Easy Meat is amazing as it delves into homophobia, among other things. Read these in order if you can, but it's not crucial.
Hiaasen, Carl. Goofy mysteries set in Florida with funky, goofy characters. Like the guy who's hand is bitten off by a barracuda who gets a weed whacker put on as a prosthesis. Very funny. Hiassen used to be a journalist, and his mysteries subtly weave in many societal issues, especially conservation of Florida.
Hillerman, Tony. His mysteries give the reader an inviting window into a Native American culture and the southwest.
Hunt, David. (Trick of the Light, The Magician's Tale) Intriguing mysteries set in San Francisco. The main character is a female photographer with a rare form of color blindness that means she only can see the world in black and white, and she's also light sensitive. Besides this, the plots are interesting, and the stories are written well.
James, P.D. Great bunch of mysteries, some of which have been made into screenplays aired on PBS's "Mystery". Her detective is a poet on the side. Interesting, complex relationships among the characters.
Mcdonald,Gregory. (Fletch, Carioca Fletch.) Something about the irreverence of the main character and the flow of the prose tickles me. There are nine or so Fletch books, but I think these two are far better than the others.
Mortimer,John. (the Rumpole mysteries) Rumpole is a delightfully quirky barrister in London. Some of these stories were made into PBS specials for "Mystery!"
O'Connell, Carol (Mallory's Oracle, The Man Who Cast Two Shadows, Killing Critics) Excellent mysteries. The detective is an extremely capable computer whiz who has pathologies in coping with other people and twisted values. The characters are so fascinating, you just want more and more prose about them. Read in order.
Sayers, Dorothy. (the Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries) Thoroughly enjoyable light reading. Mysteries without the gore. I started with Murder Must Advertise and fell in love (with the book, the writing, and Lord Peter Wimsey). It might be a good idea to read them in chronological order, as his life does evolve.
Turow, Scott. (Presumed Innocent, etc.) Well written books generally centered in and around the world of law. Also, don't miss One L, his book about his first year at Harvard Law School. This is the story that became the script for the Paper Chase.
Vine, Barbara (The Chimney Sweeper's Boy, others) A pseudonym for Ruth Rendell. I prefer the Barbara Vine books, as most of the Rendell books I've read tend to be full of truly horrifying personalities, with much attention devoted to illuminating their characters. I'm more drawn into the story for Barbara Vine's books.
Generally speaking, I'm not a big fan of Science Fiction. The following are books in the genre I found to be exceptional.
Brunner, John (Stand On Zanzibar) Amazing book. Simply amazing. The focus is on overpopulation, but it's a great story with interesting characters.
Stephenson, Neal (Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon) Great books. Great characters, interesting plots, quirky, amusing views of society. Cryptonomicon deals mostly with cryptography, start up high tech companies, the beginnings of computer science and Southeast Asia. It seems obvious that it might appeal to me, but the book was recommended to me by an artist ... so try it!