Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Coming-of-Age (Because sometimes it is hard to be a teenager)

  • Wildlife by Richard Ford. Exquisite prose, a clear-eyed depiction of a kid watching his parent's marriage unravel. Brilliant.

  • The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. The movie is better (a rare case when that's true), but reading the book is a pleasure. Hinton is a genius at capturing the desperation felt at the coming-of-age moment.

  • This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff. If there is a better coming-of-age book than this, I'd be surprised.

  • The Final Club by Geoffrey Wolff. The brothers Wolff know how to write a coming-of-age tale. This one begins with a kid going to his first year of college at Princeton, and his life unraveling thereafter.

  • The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. Girls, friends, fights, and basketball--who knew high school would be so eventful? Throw on top the fact that the only other Indian at school is the mascot, and you've got a recipe for complications.

  • The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides. The story of five sisters in a Catholic household who are forever shaken after one of them succeeds in ending her life. The aftermath of the others is no less harrowing as their parents attempt to sweep the whole incident under the rug and begin shutting the remaining girls off from the outside world. Set in the 1970s, the story is told from the point of view of the boys in the neighborhood who make it their mission to save the remaining girls.

  • The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon. Captures the voice and understanding of what it means to be autistic with startling and eye-opening language.

  • One for Sorrow by Chris Barzak. Fifteen-year-old Adam is haunted by one of his classmates--a murdered boy named Jamie--in Youngstown, Ohio. Ghost and boy become friends, and not just that but part of a love triangle. But can you really live when you're tethered to the afterlife?

  • Looking for Alaska by John Green. Miles goes to boarding school in search of "The Great Perhaps" and finds himself - and some risk-taking friends - along the way.

  • Paper Towns by John Green. Quentin learns the hard way that perception is not always reality when his neighbor, the popular Margo Spiegelman, on whom he's had a crush for years, disappears, leaving cryptic clues behind.

  • All Over But the Shoutin' by Rick Bragg. Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg's first of three books (The others are Ava's Man and The Prince of Frogtown) about growing up and family. True stories, and very well done.

Do Bears REALLY Do That in the Woods?

  • My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. the seminal book on the making of a naturalist and also a very funny look at one of the oddest families in literature. Set prior to WWII this is British humor at its best and also a peek into how a childhood love of nature can set you on your path for life.

  • Journey to the Ants: A Story of Scientific Exploration by Bert Holldobler and Edward O. Wilson. By weight, the world ant population equals the world human population, and represents half or more of the world's insect biomass. The authors give an amazing glimpse into the various species' ecology.

  • Digging Dinosaurs by John R. Horner and James Gorman. "I know of no better account of how paleontological fieldwork is conducted... Horner walks the reader up all these important avenues with delightful ease." -- Boston Globe. "Popular-science writing at its best." -- Los Angeles Times. "... a fascinating tale told with modesty and clarity." -- Booklist. Why is this book out of print??

  • "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" by Richard P. Feynman. "Richard Feynman was a great scientist, a winner of the Nobel Prize, remembered equally for his laboratory work on liquid helium and his wonderful, unquenchable vitality and sense of humor. His lighthearted approach to life made his lectures a delight and his scientific accomplishments all the more intriguing. Feynman was interested in everything. He painted, traded ideas with Einstein and Bohr, calculated odds with Nick the Greek, accompanied ballet on the bongos. Here is Feynman's astonishing life story -- a combustible mixture of high intelligence, unlimited curiosity, eternal skepticism, and raging chutzpah. Anyone who can read it without laughing out loud is crazy." -- Los Angeles Times Book Review

  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach. A fascinating exploration of what happens to our bodies after we're dead whether we donate them to science or not. Roach writes with enough whimsy and humor to easily overcome the gross-out factor of her subject.

Shorts (Story Collections, That Is)

  • Athletic Shorts: Six Short Stories by Chris Crutcher. Meet six different guys, some who've been in Crutcher's earlier books, and see how they handle real slices of life.

  • Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman. A terrifying circus that disappears with one of the spectators, a story called "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" that proves that girls really are an alien species, and more.

  • Tales of the Unexpected by Roald Dahl. Dahl wrote some great kid stories, like Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, but now you're old enough for the adult stuff. Hold on, it's going to get nasty!

  • The Baby in the Icebox by James M. Cain. A collection of short stories by one of the masters of the hardboiled detective story. Dark and creepy, Cain's stories dealt in sex, greed, and violence. Full of characters concocting (and believing) the most absurd plans. A gritty introduction to the genre.

  • Red Spikes by Margo Lanagan. Lanagan is a unique voice in fantasy, and her short stories are vigorous, brutal in their honesty, and gorgeous in their craft. Her characters wrestle with worlds and situations on the cusp of stark and drastic change, and each one has to grapple with whether they can make it through such radical transformations.

  • Selected Stories by Philip K. Dick. This is where most of the movies come from--"Minority Report," "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" (Total Recall), "Paycheck." 'Nuff said.

  • Twice Told: Original Stories Inspired by Original Artwork by Scott Hunt. Twenty authors contributed to this collection, which offers ten pieces of art by Hunt, and two wholly different stories inspired by each piece of art.

Okay to Read Without a Cup

  • Blind Side: Evolution of a Game by Michael Lewis. an amazing exploration both of how football has changed, and how it changed the life of of one extraordinary young man.

  • Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game by Michael Lewis. A must read for baseball fans and stat-junkies.

  • Sunday Money: Speed! Lust! Madness! Death! A Hot Lap Around America with NASCAR by Jeff Macgregor. Very funny and totally intriguing, whether you know anything about NASCAR or not.

  • Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team and a Dream by HG Bissinger. A look at small town Texas' obsessive high school football fans.

  • Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. You may have seen the movie, but the book is a thousand times better - will leave you breathless.

  • Paranoid Park by Blake Nelson. Paranoid--which non-skaters call "the unauthorized skate park beneath Eastside Bridge"--is under a cement overpass, and it's where the real skaters, the Streeters, hang. If you're not a Streeter, don't go there alone.

  • Stotan! by Chris Crutcher. Swim team's challenge week forever changes the lives of a group of friends. Running Loose, Ironman, and Whale Talk are also excellent sports-related reads.

  • Swimming to Antarctica by Lynn Cox. Memoir of a woman who for a time held multiple world records (not just women's records) for channel swimming. It may seem an obscure sport but her dedication to it is inspiring, as is her political use of her talent. A woman athlete who can whup all you guys--c'mon, you know you love it.

  • Knights of the Hill Country by Tim Tharp. What it is like to be the high school football hero and then get injured. This is the story of two friends - one is the team's best player and one who used to be and who football can tear you apart just as easily as it built you up. A reminder of how things can go wrong for your whole life, depending on how you approach a game.

  • Samurai Shortstop by Alan Gratz. A baseball tale set in turn of the century Japan: Toyo Shimada tries to bridge the gap between his life in high school and his family's legacy as samurai. Can baseball be the answer to his father's demands for Toyo to follow bushido?

  • Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso (graphic novel). This biography of Satchel Paige is different from many biographies in that it uses Paige as a window into pre-civil rights America, digging deep into Satchel Paige as a living legend. The book is told from the point of view of a sharecropper who played in the Negro Leagues for a short time. Plus, really great baseball comics--Sturm and Tommaso make the plays and strategies of the games as vivid as any baseball comic ever.

Fantasy Books That Aren't LOTR Rip-offs

  • His Majesty's Dragon (and sequels) by Naomi Novik. If the Napoleonic wars were fought with dragons for battleships...

  • Good Omens by Neil Gaiman & Terry Pratchett. The end of the world is coming. But Crowley (a demon) and Aziraphale (an angel) have both become a bit attached to, like, their lives and all. Plus there's this little problem: the Antichrist--also known as Adam--has no idea he's evil incarnate, and is actually quite an ordinary nice young man. Round out the cast of characters with witch hunters, Satanic nuns, and the Four Motorcyclists of the Apocalypse and you've got an indescribably hilarious book.

  • Elric of Melnibone by Michael Moorcock. To keep life balanced between chaos and law, the gods sometimes have to do very bad things. So does Elric.

  • Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake. A fantasy unlike any other. No quest. No wizard. Just an endless castle, mired in ritual, populated by madness and stalked by raw ambitious evil.

  • The Misenchanted Sword by Lawrence Watt-Evans. On the run through a boggy marsh, a bad scout meets an equally bad wizard who, trying to help, gives him an enchanted sword that turns out to be a killer. This is the first novel in the Ethshar series - they're set in the same universe, but you can read them in any order.

  • The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper. Arthurian characters and British legends intertwine with more contemporary characters in a classic clash between the Light and the Dark.

  • Corbenic by Catherine Fisher. This sets up as the standard fantasy - guy gets on train, gets off at wrong stop, nothing is as it seems, clearly he's in some fantasy world. But then, when Cal is asked to do a great deed instead of falling for it, he refuses. And gets back to the station, back on the train and back to his conventional life. Except what he saw and almost did has changed him. The question - wrapped around some Grail Myth and the Fisher King legend - is what would you do if you were asked to do something outside the realm of reality? And what would happen if you said "No." Awesome book from start to finish - simply awesome.

  • Swords & Deviltry/Swords Against Death by Fritz Leiber. When you're done with Conan and before you hit Elric, this is the sword and sorcery series you need to read. Barbarian Fafhrd and thief the Gray Mouser are the Hope and Crosby of the fantasy set, their adventures as amusing as they are action-packed and bloody. In the relationship between these two unlikely partners, sword and sorcery was imbued with its first undercurrent of real humanity.

Monday, April 28, 2008

War: What Is It Good For?

  • The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. One of the most significant books about war ever written and a devastating portrait of the Vietnam War in particular. If you want to know what a grunt's life was like in Vietnam, you must read this.

  • If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O'Brien. O'Brien's war autobiography. He writes about why he fought in a war he did not choose and how he survived. Again, devastating. To many historians, he is the voice of this war.

  • Amaryllis by Craig Crist-Evans. The story of two brothers, one who goes to Vietnam and one who waits for him to come home, plays out in stories of life on the FL beach in the 1960s. Both sides of this novel are intense but it is the look at life back at home that truly elevates it to something special.

  • Kipling's Choice by Geert Spillebeen. Many of us know the stories of Rudyard Kipling (The Jungle Book, Kim) but few know that he urged his young son to go to war so he could become a man and then lost him to battle only a few weeks after he reached the front lines. This is WWI at its most honest and the way Spillebeen depicts John Kipling's lonely death and his father's desperate search to discover what happened does much to dispel the myth that war is glorious.

  • The Blue Helmet by William Bell. For our lucky Canadian readers (it still has not been published in the US) this book about a UN peacekeeper who comes apart after returning home shows the impossibility of preserving peace through war. The teen protagonist, who is inches away from joining a gang for no particular reason, learns much about the reality of violence and the price it demands from all those who become lost within it.

  • Dateline: Troy by Paul Fleischman. For anyone who ever wondered why Homer is relevant (and I was one of you), Fleischman juxtaposes short passages from The Iliad with newspaper clippings, photographs and ephemera from modern wars. It's war art and highly combustible - and the first time I truly understand what the Greeks had to say on war.

  • Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda by Jean-Philippe Stassen (graphic novel). An intense and devastating portrait of the Rwandan tragedy through the eyes of a teenaged boy whose normality is ripped away by violence and genocide.

  • Pride of Baghdad by Brian K. Vaughan and Niko Henrichon (graphic novel). An allegorical story, based on true events, of four lions who escape the Baghdad Zoo after a bombing raid. Their experiences on the streets of Baghdad, and their internal struggles, parallel those of the Iraqis themselves.

  • Here, Bullet by Brian Turner. A collection of poems about what it is to be a soldier from a veteran of the Iraq war.

  • Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell. Orwell fought against Franco's fascists in the Spanish Civil War. A bullet in the throat almost killed him. This account of his experiences also explains the political machinations that led to the fascist victory.

World-Shaking Sci-Fi

  • The Puppet Masters by Robert Heinlein. Old-school rock-n-roll science fiction: fast, noisy and nuts with the fate of the world at stake.

  • A Stainless Steel Rat is Born by Harry Harrison. First in a series. The Rat really is the galaxy's greatest crook, but somehow, he always ends up cheating only bad guys...

  • Hospital Station by James White. The first in the Sector General series. Sector 12 General Hospital is a 384-level medical space station. It's located in deep space and designed to treat a wide variety of xenobiological life forms -- furred bipeds, methane breathers, and more.

  • Pandora's Legions by Christopher Anvil. Fast paced, funny, good old space adventure, from the days when going to space didn't mean being a NASA scientist with a PhD, but being part of a unit who got the job done. Nobody looks too hard at the methods; all that matters is ...results. (Also under the heading 'War').

  • The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. Peeing your pants laughing--it's not just for little kids anymore.

  • A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr. Will tomorrow's religions be based on today's scrap paper?

  • Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. The other Ender books had a hard time living up to the first, but Ender's Shadow comes highly recommended.

  • Gun with Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem. The hardboiled detective -- combined with some truly clever sci-fi weirdness, it's an awful lot of fun.

  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Somehow strikes the balance between awesome cyberpunk action novel and spoof of cyberpunk action novel. Hilarious and a classic, and a great intro to his other novels (The Diamond Age and Cryptonomicon are also highly recommended).

  • Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip K. Dick. A true sci-fi classic that inspired the movie Blade Runner.

  • The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick. Philip K. Dick's stuff is weird and awesome and maybe even mind-blowing. This book imagines America having lost World War II, and under the thumb of Nazi Germany and Japan.

  • A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. An ultra-violent fascist Britain as viewed by our teen narrator, the leader of a gang who gets caught up in the politics of correctional reformation and behavior modification. Told in a first-person gumbo of slang that includes archaic English and Russian words (the British Cold War fear was invasion and occupation when it was written) it's a bold piece of horror-show political and social satire.

  • Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. A fictitious Nobel laureate creates a substance called Ice-9 which, when it comes in contact with liquid water molecules, turns them all into ice at room temperature and could theoretically freeze the planet. Vonnegut adds a fictional Caribbean island run by a despotic leader (hailed by the US as "one of freedom's greatest friends"), and a religious leader with Zen-like beliefs into the mix, both of whom are competing for the attention of Nobel laureate's heirs who are in possession of Ice-9. Slaughterhouse Five usually gets all the attention, but might just be Vonnegut's best.

  • Sun of Suns by Karl Schroeder. Mindbending physics jammed into a swashbuckling adventure: inside a planet-sized space sphere, inhabitants experience atmosphere but not gravity, so they create spinning city states and miniature fusion suns and do battle like it's 1799 in wooden space ships. High adventure and huge ideas on almost every page = awesome-ness.

  • The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson (graphic novel). This classic space epic begins in the slums of a bleak future and ends beyond the stars, following the unlikely hero Halo Jones as she just tries to achieve one thing: getting out.

  • The Uglies sequence by Scott Westerfeld. In a post-apocalyptic world with hoverboards and rusted out cities, everyone gets plastic surgery at 16 that makes them beautiful. But is that really a good thing?

  • Growing Up Weightless by John M. Ford. A great coming of age novel set on the moon.

  • Prowlers quartet by Christopher Golden. When Jack's best friend Artie dies, cops say it was a freak attack by wild dogs, something that will never happen again. Then Artie appears to Jack as a ghost and tells him what really happened: it was shapeshifters, Prowlers, things that look human but are definitely not. This quartet is action-packed and heart-racing. Wait 'til you read the scene at the subway station.

  • War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells. The granddaddy of all alien invasion stories begins, "No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's..."

  • 1984 by George Orwell. People are political prisoners within their own country. Everyone is overseen via "telescreens" by Big Brother's Thought Police. Winston, a worker in the Record Department of The Ministry of Truth, finds himself resisting, not completely accepting the "news" as it is reported. Essential reading, even if (especially if) you don't like science fiction.