6 Big Books on My Reading List

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Like most of you, I have big, ambitious plans for my future reading. Here are the Big Books that currently reside on my TBR shelves.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
paperback, 1392 pages

war and peace

 

Isn’t this book on just about everybody’s lifetime reading list? It seems to be one of the titles that separates the true book lovers from the wanna-bes.

 

 

 


Ulysses by James Joyce
paperback, 732 pages

ulysses

The comments from War and Peace also apply here.

This is the cover of the copy I bought for myself in Dublin, in the hopes that having a real Irish copy would make me more likely to actually read the book. Someday I hope to return to Dublin and walk Leopold Bloom’s journey around the city.

 

 


The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
hardcover edition, 567 pages

golden notebook

 

This book has been on my TBR shelf for so long that I no longer remember where I picked it up. But it’s a classic work of feminism, and I’m determined to get through it.

 

 


Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
hardcover, 562 pages

freedom

After reading Franzen’s The Corrections, one of the 6 Big Books I Keep Meaning to Reread, I eagerly bought the hardcover of this novel soon after it came out.

Alas, life intervened, and I still haven’t read it. But I’m going to. I’m definitely going to. Some time soon.

 

 


Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
hardcover, 1168 pages

atlas shrugged

I hear so much about Ayn Rand that I think I should read at least one of her works. A lot of people I know read either this book or The Fountainhead in college, but I guess I didn’t take the right course.

This is another one that’s been on my shelf for so long that I can’t remember where or when I bought it. I plan to take it with me on my next long, leisurely vacation.

 


The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon
paperback, 636 pages

kavalier and clay

 

I’m embarrassed to admit that I haven’t yet read anything by Michael Chabon. This is a shortcoming that I plan to correct someday soon with this Big Book.

 

 

 


Have you read any of these? What did you think? Which ones do you especially recommend? Or do you have other Big Books to recommend?

I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Reading Recommendations for Women’s History Month

9 WOMEN TO WATCH IN 2016

A list of “up-and-coming female writers [who] will have readers talking in 2016.”

115 READING RECOMMENDATIONS FOR BOOKS BY WOMEN

From Bookriot’s Amanda Nelson:

I jumped on the “One Book/One Like” Twitter bandwagon and decided to only recommend books by women for every like the tweet got. I made it up to 115 at the time of this writing, but I’m sure more will have been added before the post goes up. Check out my recommendations of excellent books by women, and add yours in the comments!

33 Life-Changing Books in Honor of International Women’s Day | Literary Hub

In honor of International Women’s Day, Women’s History Month, and all women everywhere, we asked the all-volunteer staff at VIDA to tell us about the books that changed their lives. Ran…

Source: 33 Life-Changing Books in Honor of International Women’s Day | Literary Hub

6 Big Books I Keep Meaning to Reread

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While scanning my bookshelves for Big Books I have read, I also found six that I have already read but want to read again.

You’d think that once through a Big Book would be enough, but in fact Big Books contain so much that they almost always withstand a second—or even a third or fourth—reading. In fact, rereading a Big Book often produces even more enjoyment than a first reading because you don’t have to hurry through to find out what happens. Instead, you can take time to savor the writing and appreciate the author’s technique.

Here, then, in no particular order, are six Big Books that I will definitely reread.

Middlemarch by George Eliot
paperback, 848 pages

middlemarchSerialized in 1871 and 1872 and published in a single volume in 1872, Middlemarch by George Eliot (pen name of Mary Ann Evans) portrays life in an English provincial town of the 1830s. The main character is Dorothea Brooke, an intellectual and idealistic woman who scholars say resembles the author in many ways. Brooke enters a disastrous marriage with a man she mistakes for her soul mate. In a parallel subplot, an idealistic young doctor, Tertius Lydgate, falls in love with a beautiful but superficial and vain woman, and these two also live an unpleasant married life.

In this Big Book Eliot populates the town with characters of all social classes, including laborers and shopkeepers, members of the rising middle class, and people of the landed gentry. Goodreads describes this novel as “pivotal in the shaping of twentieth-century literary realism.”

The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen
hardcover, 568 pages

correctionsThis Big Book by Jonathan Franzen won the 2001 National Book Award for fiction. The novel stands squarely in the canon of dysfunctional-family literature with its portrayal of the Lambert clan of St. Jude, a fictional midwestern city. Albert, the patriarch, has ruled the family with inflexible rules and plenty of rage for nearly 50 years. It’s no wonder that the three grown Lambert children have set out on their own mixed-up lives far from St. Jude.

As the novel begins, Albert has recently received a diagnosis of Parkinson’s disease. His long-suffering and perpetually unhappy wife, Enid, has set her heart on having the entire family reunite for one last Christmas dinner at the family home. We get to know each of the Lambert offspring as they work their ways around making it back home for that final confrontation with the past. Despite the subject matter, Franzen manages to keep the narrative from becoming a slogging Big Drag with astute psychological characterization and just the right touch of irony and humor.

An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears
hardcover, 691 pages

fingerpostSet in England in 1663, An Instance of the Fingerpost tells the story of the murder of an Oxford don through the narratives of four different witnesses. The complex situation involves history, science, and cryptography in an effort to arrive at the truth of what happened. One of my book groups back in St. Louis read this not long after its publication in 1997, and everyone loved it.

This Big Book was my introduction to the realization that there are as many sides to any story as there are participants. With its multiple narrators, it well illustrates the truth that some books are meant to be read more than once. Almost everyone in my book group said that, as soon as they finished reading it, they wanted to go back and read it all over again to appreciate how all the pieces of the story puzzle fit together. I’m embarrassed to say that I haven’t yet given this novel the rereading it so richly deserves. I should bump it up near the top of my reading list.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens
paperback, 887

bleak houseThis novel, considered by many to be Dickens’ masterpiece, was first published in a single volume in 1853. It mixes satire, romance, and mystery in telling the story of Esther Summerson, a ward of John Jarndyce, as a seemingly never-ending lawsuit grinds its way through the huge, inefficient bureaucracy of the English legal process.

Really, this Big Book is a much better read than this description makes it sound.

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
paperback, 546

poisonwood bibleIn 1959 Baptist preacher Nathan Price packs up his family, a wife and four daughters, and takes them from their home in Georgia to the Belgian Congo to spread The Word. Woefully inappropriately prepared, the family arrives in the midst of political upheaval. Price’s fire-and-brimstone form of Christianity along with his ignorance and arrogance soon alienate the local inhabitants even further. The first half of the novel deals with the family’s experiences in the Congo, while the latter half follows the family members’ lives for 30 years after they leave.

The most striking aspect of this Big Book is Kingsolver’s ability to create distinctive voices for each of the characters as they take turns narrating the story. This is the benchmark against which I evaluate all other novels that employ multiple narrators, an approach to fiction writing that is quickly becoming the norm.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
paperback, 529 pages

middlesexIt takes a Big Book to tell a family’s history. Middlesex tells the story of three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family as they leave a tiny village near Mount Olympus and travel to Detroit, where they live through Prohibition and then the 1967 race riots before moving to suburban Grosse Pointe.

Throughout the story, the novel focuses on Calliope Stephanides as she searches for the reasons why she’s not like other girls. Gradually Callie becomes Cal while remaining a fascinating narrator whom the reader follows with delight.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

10 Big Books I Have Read & Loved

Not too long ago, in the book section at Target, I overheard a woman say to her companion, “I stay away from big books.” They walked away, so I didn’t get to hear any more of the conversation, but it made me think about big books.

I can imagine many reasons someone might offer for staying away from big books:

  • Big books intimidate me.
  • Big books contain too much stuff for me to keep straight in my head.
  • Big books are too heavy to carry around.
  • Reading a big book requires a long time commitment.
  • I prefer shorter books that I can read quickly.
  • Big books deal with too many big ideas. I just want an entertaining story.

For my money, a book should be as long as it needs to be to tell its story. And a long story can be just as entertaining as a short one. In fact—and I know many readers who would agree with me here—if a story is well told, I sometimes want it not to end; occasionally I purposely wait to finish a book because I don’t want to leave those characters and their world quite yet.

Here, in no particular order, are some Big Books that I have read and loved. For the sake of definition, I use the term Big Book to refer to one of 500 or more pages.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
paperback, 515 pages

cloud atlasIn this brilliant novel David Mitchell uses intertwined stories to demonstrate how individual people and their fates are connected across space and time. The literary genres featured here include autobiography, philosophical inquiry, mystery, and speculative fiction in a narrative framework that circles back on itself to create the paradox of discrete moments within the vast expanse of human experience.

This big novel is challenging but not daunting. It well rewards the time spent on a slow and careful reading. This was my introduction to David Mitchell’s work, and I am slowly working my way through the rest of his work.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
hardcover, 773 pages

the goldfinchThirteen-year-old Theo Decker is devastated by the death of his mother. Having been abandoned earlier by his father, he is taken in by the wealthy family of a former schoolmate before his father claims him and moves him from New York City to Las Vegas in pursuit of his own agenda.

Theo spends his adolescence and young adulthood in search of love, family, and a sense of identity. Intrigue in the world of art and antiques keeps the plot moving. With an ever-growing cast of compelling characters, Theo’s coming-of-age travels take him between New York, Las Vegas, and Amsterdam in a journey during which he must learn what things are worth keeping and what ones he must let go of.

This big book caused a big critical controversy over the question, “Is it art?” I’m not going to contribute to that debate, with its unsavory suggestion that any work of literature that is popular cannot also be artistic or literary. All I can tell you is that, for me, this was a real page-turner.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl
hardcover, 514 pagesclamity physics

Marisha Pessl’s dazzling debut sparked raves from critics and heralded the arrival of a vibrant new voice in American fiction. At the center of Special Topics in Calamity Physics is clever, deadpan Blue van Meer, who has a head full of literary, philosophical, scientific, and cinematic knowledge, but she could use some friends. Upon entering the elite St. Gallway School, she finds some–a clique of eccentrics known as the Bluebloods. One drowning and one hanging later, Blue finds herself puzzling out a byzantine murder mystery. Nabokov meets Donna Tartt (then invites the rest of the Western Canon to the party) in this novel–with visual aids drawn by the author–that has won over readers of all ages.

Goodreads

If you like literary puzzles, you’ll love this big novel that requires readers to tolerate ambiguity and hold several possibilities in abeyance until the pieces all, finally, fall into place.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck
paperback, 601 pages

east of eden

Set in the farmland of the Salinas Valley in California, this novel retells the stories of Adam and Eve and of the rivalry between Cain and Abel through the intertwined generations of the Trask and Hamilton families.

Here Steinbeck created some of his most memorable characters and explored his most enduring themes: the mystery of identity; the inexplicability of love; and the murderous consequences of love’s absence.

Goodreads

And there’s no question over this big novel, as there is about Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, of whether it’s art. It most definitely is—an artful and rewarding reading experience.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt
paperback, 503 pages

secret historyAs a classics major myself, I was easily drawn into Donna Tartt’s first novel about an inner circle of “five students, worldly and self-assured, selected by a charismatic classics professor to participate in the search for truth and beauty. Together they study the mysteries of ancient Greek culture and spend long weekends at an old country house, reading, boating, basking in an Indian summer that stretches late into autumn.”

Many years later one of these students, Richard Papen, pens this confession of how willing he was to be drawn into this inner circle and of how far these young men went to experience what they considered the fullness of intellectual and emotional life.

This is a big novel full of big ideas:

Hugely ambitious and compulsively readable, this is a chronicle of deception and complicity, of Dionysian abandon, of innocence corrupted by self-love and moral arrogance; and, finally, it is a story of guilt and responsibility.

Goodreads

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
hardcover, 544 pages

life after lifeOn a snowy, cold night in 1910 Ursula Todd is born, the third child of a wealthy English banker and his wife. She arrives too soon and dies before drawing her first breath. On the same night Ursula Todd is born, takes a big breath, and lets out a loud cry, the beginning of but one of the many lives Ursula Todd is destined to live.

Throughout the novel Ursula Todd is reborn many times and dies many times, at different points in her life span. She seems to learn a little bit from each life that her unconscious mind carries into subsequent lives—because she is destined to live her life over and over again until she gets it right. The fate of modern civilization depends on her ability to get it right, finally.

This big book was a big hit: It was a winner in the 2013 Goodreads Choice Awards.

Possession: A Romance by A.S. Byatt
paperback, 555 pages

possession

Possession is an exhilarating novel of wit and romance, at once an intellectual mystery and triumphant love story. It is the tale of a pair of young scholars researching the lives of two Victorian poets. As they uncover their letters, journals, and poems, and track their movements from London to Yorkshire—from spiritualist séances to the fairy-haunted far west of Brittany—what emerges is an extraordinary counterpoint of passions and ideas.

Goodreads

This is another book you’ll love if you like literary puzzles. I liked this big novel so much that I’ve read it twice.

Underworld by Don DeLillo
hardcover, 827 pages

underworld

This book is so complex that I’m going to rely on Goodreads to describe it:

While Eisenstein documented the forces of totalitarianism and Stalinism upon the faces of the Russian peoples, DeLillo offers a stunning, at times overwhelming, document of the twin forces of the cold war and American culture, compelling that “swerve from evenness” in which he finds events and people both wondrous and horrifying. Underworld opens with a breathlessly graceful prologue set during the final game of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race in 1951. Written in what DeLillo calls “super-omniscience” the sentences sweep from young Cotter Martin as he jumps the gate to the press box, soars over the radio waves, runs out to the diamond, slides in on a fast ball, pops into the stands where J. Edgar Hoover is sitting with a drunken Jackie Gleason and a splenetic Frank Sinatra, and learns of the Soviet Union’s second detonation of a nuclear bomb. It’s an absolutely thrilling literary moment. When Bobby Thomson hits Branca’s pitch into the outstretched hand of Cotter–the “shot heard around the world”–and Jackie Gleason pukes on Sinatra’s shoes, the events of the next few decades are set in motion, all threaded together by the baseball as it passes from hand to hand.

Goodreads

Yet despite its complexity, the story keeps moving through all 827 pages. Similar to David Mitchell, DeLillo uses intertwined stories to create the sense of connected experience over 50 years of American life.

I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb
paperback, 897 pages

i know this muchThis book narrates the story of identical twins Thomas and Dominick Birdsey. The novel opens when the two are adults. Thomas has schizophrenia, and Dominick is his caregiver. It’s a complex story that jumps between the 1920s, the 1940s, the 1960s, and the 1980s to examine family relationships, the interconnections between generations, love, and responsibility (both personal and civic). Despite the presence of several storylines in different eras playing out throughout, the novel is easy to follow.

This big novel that deals with big truths has a big, loyal following. I know three people who name I Know This Much is True as the favorite book they’ve ever read. Many others say this is the novel that has stuck with them the most of all the books they’ve ever read.

If you haven’t read it yet, I—and a lot of other people—recommend that you give it a try. Chances are that you won’t be able to put it down until you’ve finished page 897.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
paperback, 973 pages

pillars of earthSet in twelfth-century England, this is the story of the building of a great Gothic cathedral. Several characters people the story: Tom Builder, who dreams of working on such a structure; Philip, prior of the fictional Kingsbridge who must fight the sin of pride in his own desire to build the world’s biggest church; Jack, Tom’s son, a master stone artist; and Aliena, a noblewoman who fights patriarchal prejudice to build a business.

But perhaps the two dominant characters of the novel are the cathedral itself and the historical age in which it is built. The cathedral becomes the focal point for pride, arrogance, and greed among the Church and the nobility, and for a source of sustenance among the peasant workers. In an age when geopolitical boundaries did not exist, power belonged to whichever nobleman could muster the biggest army. Peasants were at the mercy of the nobility, and peasants lived or died according to noble whim. The Church and the nobility jockeyed for power over the masses whose labor they both exploited.

Ken Follett had written a number of thrillers before he turned to this big story, his pet project. He spent years on the research necessary to write the book. In a foreword he says that many readers tell him Pillars of the Earth is their favorite of his novels. “It’s mine, too,” he says.

What about you?

Do you avoid big books, or do you embrace them? Are there any big books that you have read and loved?

Let us know in the comments.

Reading Suggestions

David Bowie’s Top 100 Books

Bowie’s top 100 book list spans decades, from Richard Wright’s raw 1945 memoir Black Boy to Susan Jacoby’s 2008 analysis of U.S. anti-intellectualism in The Age of American Unreason.

his list shows a lot of love to American writers, from the aforementioned to Truman Capote, Hubert Selby, Jr., Saul Bellow, Junot Diaz, Jack Kerouac and many more. He’s also very fond of fellow Brits George Orwell, Ian McEwan, and Julian Barnes and loves Mishima and Bulgakov.

I’m not sure if I could even put together a list of the top 100 books I’ve read, especially one as wide-ranging as this. Read it and be humbled.

Six Religion Books Headed to the Big Screen in 2016

I wasn’t sure I’d find anything I’d be interested in on this list, but I was wrong. One book that depicts the persecution of Christians in Japan during the seventeenth century is being made into a movie starring Liam Neeson. And—and this surprises me—a new film of Ben-Hur is due out in August.

The 10 Most Anticipated Book Adaptations of 2016

Get the scoop on these:

(10) Silence (TBA 2016)
(9) A Monster Calls (October 14)
(8) Inferno (October 14); Dan Brown’s Inferno, not Dante’s
(7) The Divergent Series: Allegiant (March 18)
(6) The BFG
(March 23)
(5) The Jungle Book (April 15)
(4) Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (November 11)
(3) The Girl on the Train (October 7)
(2) Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (November 18)
(1) Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (December 25)

The 27 Most Exciting Books Coming In 2016

Jarry Lee has put together this list of both fiction and nonfiction for BuzzFeed. Her descriptions make me want to read every one of these:

What Is Not Yours Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
High Dive by Jonathan Lee
The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee
The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
The Lost Time Accidents by John Wray
We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge
What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell
Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
Zero K by Don DeLillo
Girl Through Glass by Sari Wilson
Your Heart Is a Muscle the Size of a Fist by Sunil Yapa
LaRose by Louise Erdrich
Hunger by Roxane Gay
Bullies: A Friendship by Alex Abramovich
Modern Lovers by Emma Straub
Private Citizens by Tony Tulathimutte
The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel
What Lies Between Us by Nayomi Munaweera
The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni
Sudden Death by Álvaro Enrigue
The Narrow Door by Paul Lisicky
You Should Pity Us Instead by Amy Gustine
Night Sky With Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
Here I Am by Jonathan Safran Foer

My 10 Favorite Books: Gloria Steinem

This is one in a number of lists by people asked what 10 books they’d take with them if they were marooned on a desert island.

Gloria Steinem very practically answered:

“If I were marooned on a desert island, I would want a book on edible plants and building a raft, but here are 10 I would choose for the pleasure of big and new understandings.”

I love that phrase, “big and new understandings.”

Anyway, read why she chose these books:

The Mermaid and the Minotaur, Dorothy Dinnerstein
Exterminate All the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist
Two Thousand Seasons, Ayi Kwei Armah
The Sacred Hoop, Paula Gunn Allen
Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman
At the Dark End of the Street, Danielle McGuire
The Color Purple, Alice Walker
Sex and World Peace, Valerie Hudson, et al.
The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
Dark Matter, Robin Morgan

Bill Gates Blogs About Books

New York Times writer Katherine Rosman introduces us to the book area of Bill Gates’s blog, Gates Notes, in Move over, Oprah: It’s the Bill Gates book blog. Gates also writes about issues such as health care and education on the blog, but, according to Rosman, “his book reviews tend to generate the most attention.”

Blogging about books grew out of Gates’s years-long practice of “scribbling notes in the margins of books he was reading” and emailing recommendations to colleagues and friends. A few years ago he decided to post his recommendations on the blog. While his recommendations often involve books about science and public health, he has also recommended history, memoirs, and some novels.

Gates told Rosman that he reads about 50 books a year and that he prefers “old-fashioned books on paper” over digital readers. He usually avoids posting negative reviews, “explaining that he sees no need to waste anyone’s time telling them why they shouldn’t bother reading something.”

In Bill Gates on Books and Blogging Rosman continues with more information from her email interview with Gates. To her question about the role reading plays in his life, Gates answered, “reading is still the main way that I both learn new things and test my understanding.”

Gates lists the six favorite books he read in 2015 for Drake Baer in Bill Gates just revealed his 6 favorite books of 2015.

Bestselling Books of 2015

Harper Lee, Marie Kondo, and Jeff Kinney topped the print bestseller lists in 2015 for adult fiction, adult nonfiction, and juvenile books, respectively. Here are the 20 bestselling books of the year in each of those categories.

Source: Bestselling Books of 2015

Final Edition: Best Books Lists

The Books We Loved in 2015

Electric Literature’s Best Novels of 2015

The Best Children’s Books of 2015

The 15 Best Books of 2015

Adam Woog’s picks: The 10 best mysteries of 2015

10 Best Music Books of 2015

The Best Poetry Books of 2015

The Best Books Of 2015, According To O Magazine And Oprah.com

The 24 Best Literary Debuts Of 2015

Here are the most exciting new voices in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in 2015

Added bonus: links to several other “best books of 2015” lists at end of article.

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I know you’re interested in TV and movies as well as books, so here are a couple of those lists to check out.

2015’s Best TV: I Hate Top Ten Lists, but O.K., Fine, Here’s a List

A look back at 2015’s best/worst movies, in verse

My List: Best Books Read in 2015

It’s not quite the end of the year yet, but since it looks as if I won’t finish any more books in time, I might as well go ahead with my annual list.

I had an abysmal year of reading this year, only 28 books.

While most other “best books of 2015” lists include books published this year, my list includes any books I’ve read, regardless of when they were published. Here, listed alphabetically by author, are the 10 best of the 28 I read this year.

winesburgAnderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio
Connelly, Michael. The Crossing
Costello, Mary. Academy Street: A Novel
Cumming, Alan. Not My Father’s Son
Fowler, Karen Joy. We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
Green, John. The Fault in Our Stars
Highsmith, Patricia. The Price of Salt
Ueland, Brenda. If You Want to Write
Vine, Barbara. A Dark-Adapted Eye
Zindel, Paul. The Pigman

That’s eight novels and two works of nonfiction.

And here are a couple of 2015’s noteworthy books that I read but that did not make the cut:

Since my own reading total is so low, for those of you who’d like to see the accomplishment of a more productive reader, I offer you I read 164 books in 2015 and tracked them all in a spreadsheet. Here’s what I learned..