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Off the beaten path

  • Oct 9, 2010
Books you've probably never heard of, but that are well worth your time. I've split them roughly equally between fiction and non-fiction.
A Melon for Ecstasy
Quite possibly the funniest book I have ever read in my life. Written as a series of letters; as the correspondence mounts, the overall message becomes hilariously clear. Never get between a man and his trees.
Strumpet City

Anyone tempted to read Leon Uris's appalling "Trinity" should read this book instead. Where Uris presents his usual overly simplistic view of history, complete with cartoonishly shallow  "characters, James Plunkett's novel presents a much richer tapestry. "Strumpet City" is an old-fashioned, sprawling novel, following a large cast of characters during a critical period in Irish history - the great Dublin lockout of 1913. It is a subtle, nuanced account and a very satisfying read.
Out of all the chaos and pain of the AIDS epidemic in New York, as first his friends, and then he himself, were getting sick and dying, David Feinberg wrote two 'plague diaries' that captured the times perfectly with unflinching honesty. Eighty-Sixed is the first of the pair (the other is Spontaneous Combustion). It's raw, visceral, confused, angry, satirical, and one of the funniest books you will ever read. The second book is just as affecting, and just as funny. Much of the material written about the epidemic doesn't hold up over time - Feinberg's account is the honorable, unforgettable, exception - one which still holds extraordinary emotional power.
The Sparrow
I'm not a particular fan of science fiction, but this novel, about an exploratory mission to a newly discovered planet in the Alpha Centauri star system, is not your run of the mill first contact story. An engrossing story, with a fascinating premise and engaging characters, it also addresses deep questions about faith, relationships and human resilience.
See the full review, "Flawed, but brilliant.".
This memoir of Irish journalist Nuala O' Faolain is completely engaging and has a raw, unguarded honesty that makes it very moving. It's the perfect antidote to "Angela's Ashes", which I found bogus and manipulative. "Are You Somebody?" is an unforgettable record of how it was for one particular very smart woman to grow up in a society that had not yet evolved to treat smart women as something other than second class citizens. Some of O' Faolain's choices and compromises may make the reader flinch, but her story is never less than fascinating. She writes eloquently, never veering into sentimentality - there is a toughness about her that offsets her emotional neediness and commands the reader's respect.
Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in
This first book was an unexpected success for Nassim Taleb. It's a lively, engaging exploration of how we humans are typically hard-wired for flawed thinking about chance and risk. In this first book, Taleb's writing is clear and engaging and doesn't suffer from the pomposity that crept into his later work after he became famous.
I know what you're thinking - an exploration of the ethical aspects of current practices in the American beef industry - how much fun can that be? The answer is - quite a bit, as this quirky, accomplished novel by Ruth Ozeki shows.
The artist J.S.G. Boggs used to entertain himself (and others) by drawing money , then trying to use his drawings as if they were legal tender. Unsurprisingly, this lands him in trouble more often than not, but surprisingly often hilarity ensues. Lawrence Weschler documents some of that hilarity in this entertaining book.
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader
This collection of essays by Anne Fadiman, focusing on topics related to books and reading, is simply awesome.
I Capture the Castle
A story that's hard to characterize, but that's absolutely terrific.

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March 29, 2011
Excellent list of both fiction and nonfiction reads. I'll have to check out some of these titles, especially "The Sparrow." My reading group selected that book, but I was unable to participate in the discussion. I heard it was good, though.
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