I struggle with giving recommendations of any kind – movies, music, games, TV shows, and books especially. I worry that my taste is so niche that no one else will like what I like – or worse, that my recommendation will reflect some bizarre personality trait that will forever change that person’s perception of what I’m all about. So when you find me giving an emphatic recommendation, when I’m begging you to experience something, it’s because I believe so strongly that it isn’t just for weirdos like me.
It definitely helps to know the other person’s tastes. I thought that the movie Your Name was so beautiful and moving that I want everyone else to see it, too, and have a nice therapeutic cry, but I also understand that a lot of people are not about that weeaboo life. That’s totally fine; in fact, it’s probably for the best. Personally, I’m offended when someone recommends any young adult-genre books to me or any movie where violence and gore are featured prominently. Y’all gotta know by now that those are not part of my brand.
So when I say I would recommend these books to anyone, I mean that I would include no less than the following people: my family, friends, coworkers, neighbors, Bible study group, strangers, significant others, and people whose opinions of me I genuinely care about. It should come as little surprise that the majority of these picks were also recommended to me by friends and family – the people who know me best.
In no particular order:
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie (1936)
An extremely useful book with a very lousy title. It would be more accurate to call it Common Sense for Dealing With People. It contains gentle reminders that other people are just like you and want to be treated with dignity and respect. Wild, right? But sometimes we do need those reminders, especially when we hit social roadblocks. Recommended to me by my mentor.
The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell (2008)
An entertaining romp through New England history. This is worth listening to on audiobook – Sarah Vowell has a very distinct voice. I am partial to this particular book of hers because I’m from the region, but I think it is enjoyable for anyone interested in learning about our country’s earliest days. I also really liked her book Unfamiliar Fishes about Hawaii’s history and its “acquisition” (very dramatic air quotes) by the United States. Recommended to me by a close friend.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (2017)
We, the Drowned by Carsten Jensen (2011)
Usually I’d feel a little uncomfortable recommending books exceeding 500 pages, but these two stories made huge impressions on me. Both are translated works by non-American authors and both are multi-generational family sagas – the first about the Korean experience in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Japan, and the second about sailors from the Danish town of Marstal. I read Pachinko when it started receiving a lot of critical acclaim, and I picked up We, the Drowned completely on a whim (actually because of the very good cover art).
Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson (1953)
Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson (1957)
Shirley Jackson is best known for her spooky stuff. People read “The Lottery” in high school to scare them out of being judgmental little terrors, and now that The Haunting of Hill House has a Netflix remake, Shirley Jackson is probably more popular than ever (at least, since she first published “The Lottery” and got flamed for it). A lot of folks don’t know that she has written humor, too, centering around her family life with her husband and children. Life Among the Savages and Raising Demons are those rare books that made me laugh out loud. Shirley Jackson is masterful at calling attention to small, seemingly mundane details – only this time, it’s for the sake of humor rather than horror. I’m on a quest to read everything Shirley has written, and if you don’t have a taste for horror, this is a book anyone can and will enjoy.
Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel (2013)
I picked this up at the small, dusty library at one of our deployment sites. Where better? As I worked my way through this book, I had a hard time containing my emotions – especially when reading in public. This investigative account of Iraq war veterans readjusting to civilian life will be challenging to read if you, too, have served, but it is so important that stories like these – true, tough, sobering stories – become part of our American collective social consciousness. So many people live their lives completely unaffected by our many wars churning overseas; they have to know what it’s like for the people who come home from them.
The Wonder by Emma Donoghue (2016)
An English nurse is sent to a small Irish town to observe a child, hailed as a miracle from heaven, who claims she can subsist entirely without food or water. Is the child telling the truth? If not, to what lengths will she go to maintain the lie? This story, based loosely on true events, demonstrates the careful balance between scientific skepticism and human empathy. It poses a tremendous moral question about the limits of personal autonomy. Recommended by a book podcast, and read it almost entirely in one sitting.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (2018)
This is a little closer to the “weirder” end of the spectrum given the subject matter one of the principle characters is obsessed with, but this is a short and important story about identity and belonging amidst intense social pressure to be different. The main character finds herself falling behind other people her age, socially – she only works part-time and has no interest in dating or starting a family. She is completely fine with it until the people around her make feel like something is wrong with her for being happy with what she has. There is something wrong with her, but not in the way that everyone thinks. Recommended by a ton of book reviewers toward the end of 2018.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo (2011)
Oh yes, you know I’m on this bullshit right now!
Despite being very interested in cleanliness and organization, I put off reading this book for ages. I was afraid of being browbeaten into minimalism, shamed for wanting to surround myself with all of my worldly possessions. But, at the start of this year, Marie Kondo’s show on Netflix was released, and she got wildly popular – and also widely condemned. I read her book not with the intention of implementing her method into my life, but to get educated on her ideas so I, too, could participate in The Discourse™. Unfortunately for me, Kondo is such a sweet and charming person, and her ideas about keeping only the belongings which bring you the most joy seem so fundamentally true and useful, that I couldn’t find much wrong with her system. In fact, I discovered that her critics were deliberately or mistakenly misconstruing Kondo’s principles. I am in the process of tidying my house right now.
Harry Potter (series) by JK Rowling
Obviously. Yes. Of course.
I am astonished that I am meeting grown adults who never experienced the Harry Potter stories. But what if the appeal wears off with age? Are the books still enjoyable as an adult? I started re-reading them a few months ago and, yes, these books are absolutely still a delight. So if you’re late to the Hogwarts Express and worried that it won’t appeal to you anymore, fear not: these stories are just as magical now as they were decades ago. JK Rowling is an incredible storyteller. Her ongoing murder-mystery novels (the Cormoran Strike series) are also very, very good, but I know that genre is pretty niche and not for everyone.
Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer (1996)
If I were to write a book, I would want to write one just like Jon Krakauer.
This is an account of Chris McCandless, a young man who hitchhiked his way up to Alaska to live alone in the wilderness – and how he died. This is, I think, the only book recommended to me by my brother, who has way more interesting hobbies than reading. It appealed immediately not only to my love of investigative journalism, but also my heart’s deepest desire, which is to live in complete solitude in nature. This story shows clearly the dangerous line between idealism and cold, hard reality, and it is something I will never forget. Jon Krakauer is a truly gifted writer.
The most fascinating thing about this list is that none of my most favorite authors or books are on it. These books are so important to me that recommending them to someone else makes me feel intolerably vulnerable. Having someone reject them would feel like they are also rejecting me. It’s hard not to take it personally when it is your most favorite thing. These books reflect who I am.
But I am going to be brave. Here are some of those books, just in case:
Cryptonomicon or Anathem by Neal Stephenson
Mélusine by Sarah Monette
Saga (comic series) by Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples
The Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Fingersmith by Sarah Waters
The Likeness by Tana French
Priestdaddy by Patricia Lockwood
I hope some of these books will strike you as interesting. Please feel free to recommend your favorite books to me! I am always happy to read the things that you think are important or left an impression on you.