1. “Hokkaido Highway Blues: Hitchiking Japan” by Will Ferguson (1998)
After two years of teaching English to Japanese students, Ferguson decides to follow the northward-moving bloom of the spring cherry blossoms while hitchhiking from one end of Japan to the other. An offbeat, affectionate, moving and at times hilarious account of the unexpected country and people he encounters along the way.
2. “West with the Night” by Beryl Markham (1942)
A beautifully crafted book in which Markham retells events from her life as an African horse trainer, Africa’s first female bush pilot, her record-setting solo flight across the Atlantic and her African childhood. It was one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite books. Markham’s unique voice, narrow escapes and the book’s poetic style have kept this memoir a reader favorite since it was first published.
3. “Casting a Spell: The Bamboo Fly Rod and the American Pursuit of Perfection” by George Black (2006)
This book traces an interlocked cast of characters who have spent the last 150 years growing special bamboo in China, designing ever more efficient machines and injecting art into pursuit of the perfect fly rod. An engaging and literary story of the American Dream, from the origins of Abercrombie and Fitch and L.L. Bean, to the current group of master rod makers such as Hoagy Carmichel Jr. (son of the songwriter of “Georgia on my Mind”).
4. “Driving over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia” by Chris Stewart (1999)
This book about sheep shearing, building wooden bridges, being humble and learning another culture couldn’t be funnier or more honest. An English couple makes a seemingly inexplicable choice and moves into a decrepit stone farmhouse in the Spanish hills. This is not one of those warm and fuzzy books about moving to Tuscany, but a book about the uncertainties and joys of building a life and working farm in the middle of nowhere.
5. “Life on the Mississippi” by Mark Twain (1883)
This was the first work written on a typewriter. The always irreverent and entertaining Twain considered this his best book. This romantic and humorous story recounts his early days as a riverboat pilot and his return to the river 20 years later, told with the conflicted heart and cynic’s eye that have made Twain America’s best-loved writer.
6. “Death, Taxes, and Leaky Waders” by John Gierach (2000)
Gierach’s stores are theoretically about fishing, flyfishing mostly, but underneath they are about friendship, memory, the American West, nature, the choices we make, and the inconsequential encounters and incidents that make up a worthwhile life. Amusing, personal and self-deprecating, Gierach writes with lightness, subtlety and a lack of pretension about a life spent chasing fish.
7. “The No. 1. Ladies’ Detective Agency” by Alexander McCall Smith (1998)
This is the first of the popular series about Botswana’s only lady private detective, the large and plain-speaking Precious Ramotswe. These books are suffused with light details of daily African life, as Precious recounts the stories, choices and thought processes of her clients and suspects, told with a simple, affectionate and thoroughly habit-forming voice.
1. “Sula” by Toni Morrison (1973)
If you haven’t read Morrison yet, you might as well start at the beginning. “Sula” is the story of two women friends who grow up in a small town in Iowa. One stays and one leaves only to return and wreak havoc on the world she left behind. You start here and want to read everything Morrison has ever written. She is a writer whose words I want to eat.
2. “The Secret Life of Bees” by Sue Monk Kidd (2002)
Enter the world of bee-keeping women who take care of each other. The story begins with the suicide of the mother of a young girl. The girl finds the maternal love she lacks as well as the lost story of her mother’s life in the most unlikely of places. This is a poignant tale and a quick read.
3. “What Is The What” by Dave Eggers (2006)
This is a harrowing tale that examines the resiliency of the human spirit. It begins as we witness an armed robbery in Atlanta, Ga., and segues back to the war in the Sudan. How a man could have experienced such horror in life and still remain positive is an inspiration to us all.
4. “A Year In the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599” by James Shapiro (2005)
In 1599, Shakespeare arguably wrote four of the most important plays in the canon: “Henry V”, “Julius Caesar,” “As You Like It” and “Hamlet.” What was happening in Shakespeare’s world to have caused such inspiration? Shapiro guides you though the year, the mind, the soul of the Bard. A fascinating history lesson even if you don’t fancy history or the plays.
5. “Child 44” by Tom Rob Smith (2008)
This is a first-class murder mystery as well as a reminder of a period not long past. “Child 44” is a painstaking description of the Stalinist USSR and how one man searched for truth in a society “where there is no crime.” This is the author’s first novel. Keep your eyes open for his next one.
6. “Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague” by Geraldine Brooks (2001)
This is a romantic historical novel depicting plague in rural 17th century England. The heroine–whose humble beginnings and generosity of spirit are coupled with her survival instincts–leads a life that is, indeed, filled with wonders. Brooks breathes real life into her characters and makes you really care about them. If you like this one, you’ll also want to read “March” and “People of the Book” by the same author.
1. “Henderson’s Equation” by Jerome Lowenstein (2008)
An extraordinary novel about the relationship between a Jewish medical student from New York City and a Boston Brahmin professor at Harvard Medical School, set at the turn of the 20th century. We learn about the future of medical research, the importance of iconoclastic thinking and the clash of ethnic and religious cultures–all set against the background of a nation about to take its place as the new world colossus.
2. “The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game” by Michael Lewis (2006)
Few writers understand the relationship between sports and race, and between big-time athletics and popular culture, better than Lewis. This is a true story about a talented young African-American athlete, abandoned to the streets of Memphis, who is adopted by a white family. Before long, all are thrown into the frenzy of college football recruiting, which strains, but never breaks, the powerful bond between this young man and the only family he has ever known.
3. “Resurrecting Randi” by David Shepherd (2008)
I came across this book quite by accident, and I’m awfully glad I did. Set in Austin, centered around the University of Texas campus, it’s the story of a laconic professor who has finally reached academic stardom after years of misses, and a deeply troubled student who becomes the center of his new life. It gave me yet another jolt of how much remarkable literary talent is out there, overlooked by the big publishing houses.
4. “Straight Man” by Richard Russo (1997)
Written by Russo years before he won the Pulitzer Prize for “Empire Falls,” it remains for me the best novel we have about academic life in America. It is so ferociously on target, so sadly hilarious, as to make me ask, again and again: How did he get it SO right?
5. “Revolutionary Road” by Richard Yates (1960)
Though largely overlooked today, Yates was a master of realistic fiction. Set in the 1950s, “Revolutionary Road” is a brilliant depiction of middle-class American life at the dawn of baby-boom suburbia–an elegant and deeply disturbing book.
6. “The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War” by David Halberstam (2007)
I had to put one history book on the list–my contract apparently demands it–so this is my choice. Halberstam perfectly captures the incredible hardships, bravery and blunders of this vitally important yet largely forgotten conflict in ways that make you ache for the common soldier. The book–the last one written by Halberstam before his tragic death–is a tribute to his wonderful narrative gifts.
1. “¡Caramba!” by Nina Marie Martinez (2004)
In Martinez’ debut novel, cards from the Mexican lotería game provide structure for a plot that moves in and out of the lives of the residents of Lava Landing, a town named for a dormant volcano. The hardback edition offers a visual feast that includes a colorful array of maps, paper doll cut outs, newspaper clippings and an entire jukebox play list, all of which add depth to a provocative narrative about love, friendship and family.
2. “The Big Sleep” by Raymond Chandler (1939)
Hard-boiled at its finest, “The Big Sleep” epitomizes the paranoia, pessimism and cool of the era. The first of the Philip Marlowe novels, Chandler’s rapid-fire prose style helped to redefine a genre.
3. “A Plague of Doves” by Louise Erdrich (2008)
Another panel in a rich family tapestry woven over 13 novels, Erdrich’s new lyrical work plunges readers into a mystery that has plagued a town for generations. Those new to Erdrich’s work will find themselves immersed in a world where characters find humor in the midst of unspeakable tragedy. Erdrich’s hallmark use of multiple narrators once again demonstrates the idea of competing truths and the consequences of enduring fictions.
4. “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” by Luis Alberto Urrea (2005)
Set against the backdrop of pre-revolutionary Mexico, the novel centers on Teresita, a character based on Urrea’s own great-aunt, who discovers that she has the power to heal people with her touch. As word of her ability spreads, pilgrims flock to her home, which becomes the site of great faith and struggle. Reluctantly, Teresita becomes a moral and spiritual guide whose power even the government fears.
5. “The Dark Tower, Books I-VII” by Stephen King (1982-2004)
Inspired by a Robert Browning poem and 22 years in the making, the series follows Roland, a gunslinger, on his epic quest to reach the Dark Tower to save his world. Roland and the band of gunslinger apprentices he collects along the way move through and across time and space to worlds both familiar and foreign where William Faulkner, Harry Potter, Sergio Leone and the Wizard of Oz rub shoulders.
1. “What You Need to Know About Energy” by The National Academies Press (2008)
The well-respected National Academies of Sciences and Engineering produced this short book to explain some important fundamentals about energy. If you’re looking to learn the basics about different fuels, energy technologies and approaches to conservation, this book is a quick read and great place to start.
2. “The Prize: The Epic Quest for Oil, Money and Power” by Daniel Yergin (1991)
At 788 pages, this Pulitzer winner is beefy. But it reads smoothly and sets the standard for sweeping historical narrative of the energy industry. The book leaves no stone or oil war unturned, starting with oil production in Titusville, Pa., in the 1850s and ending with the first Persian Gulf War. This book is timeless and still relevant to today’s situation.
3. “Oil!” by Upton Sinclair (1927)
High energy prices making instant millionaires, scandals with oil-connected politicians, land grabs, far-off wars and the peculiarities of human relationships. Such is the context for Sinclair’s 1927 book on the oil business in Southern California, which was the inspiration for the recent movie “There Will Be Blood.” The author, whose prior book “The Jungle” led to the creation of the Federal Drug Administration, creates a fun, well written story that happens to be based on reality.
4. “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed” by Jared Diamond (2004)
Pulitzer winner for “Guns, Germs and Steel,” Diamond has pulled together another epic view, this time of societies that collapse. Ever wonder what happened to the natives of Easter Island, who seemingly used magic to create giant statues and then practically disappeared? This book gives an explanation for their story and gives critical background for today’s debates about international energy and environmental issues.
5. “The Great Warming: Climate Change and the Rise and Fall of Civilizations” by Brian Fagan (2008)
Climate change isn’t new: it’s happened many times in geological history, and once in relatively recent human history. This book pulls together a fascinating look at the science of examining historical climate records (tree rings, ice cores, etc.) and reveals how a warmer climate creates a mix of winners and losers depending on where you are in the world.
1. “The Johnstown Flood” by David McCullough (1968)
In an age of global warming, perfect storms and Katrinas, McCullough’s first book is as timely as ever. In 1889, more than 2,200 people died in Johnstown, Pa., victims of the catastrophic failure of the nearby South Fork Dam. McCullough’s storytelling gifts make this a great read, whether or not you have any interest in irresponsible industrialists or shoddy engineering.
2. “A Good Man Is Hard To Find and other stories” by Flannery O’Connor (1955)
My enrollment last fall in a short story writing class (a fabulous UT Extension course) has given me a new appreciation for this genre. If you have not read O’Connor before, don’t put off your encounter with this Southern Gothic master. Having lived in several Deep South states since first reading her decades ago, I find her grotesque characters and dark humor more compelling than ever.
3. “Snapshots” by William Norris (2001)
The author of this story of a modern-day family’s evolution over a quarter-century is the wonderful teacher of my aforementioned short story writing class. “Snapshots” is written backwards–the characters and their secrets are revealed in a series of chronologically receding episodes. Instead of aging, everybody gets younger. The novel’s strength lies in its characters and what they have to teach us about being a family.
4. “Terry: My Daughter’s Life-And-Death Struggle With Alcoholism” by George McGovern (1996)
Senator McGovern’s daughter Teresa died drunk in 1994, facedown in a snowdrift in Madison, Wis. In an effort to make sense of his loss, he has written this heartbreaking memoir. It is a fascinating tale not only of his daughter’s struggle with addiction, but also of McGovern’s own political career and family. Above all, it is an honest examination of the horrors of alcoholism and the deep denial that prevents so many of its victims from recovering.
5. “Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy (1873-77)
Simply one of the greatest novels ever written, it invites multiple readings with its amazing cast of characters, deft use of symbolism and deep insights. Constance Garnett’s was the translation of choice when I bought my copy years ago. Whether you read it for its literary and historical richness or for its wonderfully complex love stories, you’ll find something rewarding in this classic.
6. “Thank You For Smoking” by Christopher Buckley (1994)
I can’t get enough of Buckley’s political satire and this may be my favorite of his books. The story revolves around a trio of lobbyists for the tobacco, liquor and firearms industries, and the lengths to which they’ll go to spin positive opinions of their death-dealing products. My husband and I had a few near-death experiences ourselves when we read this book aloud on a road trip. It’s hard to center in lane while you’re laughing your head off.
7. “Dear American Airlines” by Jonathan Miles (2008)
I picked up this freshly published novel as an airplane read. The book is a single marathon letter to American Airlines, which has stranded thousands of passengers overnight at O’Hare because of some imaginary weather problems. What begins as a very funny rant becomes a poignant unfolding of the writer’s entire life story, with a touching novel-within-a-novel interwoven to great effect.