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Alternative Culture Magazine

Cougar's Favorite Books:

Recommended Reading List


(Novels, Nonfiction, Writing, Sci-Fi)

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Literature bookstore

The Black Prince--Iris Murdoch
In this review, way better than, say, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children

A Farewell to Arms--Ernest Hemingway
This is one of those books that makes you think, this guy has figured out the best way to tell a story. Of course, it doesn't work for everyone else then to try to do the same thing. Because the great artist is always the first to discover a new "best way." In any case, Hemingway's objective method may not be the best presentation of every character or theme. But certainly in this five-act novel of tragic romance in the First World War, that method is perfectly suited to its main character, Frederick Henry. Henry is an American driving ambulances for the Italian army, who falls in love--against all his instincts--with a British nurse. Never delving into thoughts or feelings or interior material of any kind (with the exception of the occasional dream sequence), Hemingway sticks to the plain facts, however lovely or brutal. The result is a seamless texture of brushstrokes that paint a compelling story flawlessly, scene by scene, line by line. This is the way it was.

Hannibal--Thomas Harris
Harris outdoes himself here, following the popular Silence of the Lambs with a gruesome sequel. His engaging genius, Hannibal Lecter, is pitted against FBI special agent Clarice Starling--but also against a monstrously disfigured former victim, a self-serving Italian detective, and a sniveling bureaucrat whose brains are best served...freshly sauteed.

Clock Without Hands--Carson McCullers
McCullers tells another tale of bitterness and loss, set in the American South. Here racism is the central theme, leading to deadly violence in the end, and a perverse kind of justice.

The Sea, the Sea--Iris Murdoch
One of Murdoch's best. Like The Black Prince, this novel explores the angst of an artist (here a retired playwright and director) attempting to escape his past associates and relations. All, that is, except his first love, who turns up in his seaside village to haunt him afresh with the dream of impossible love.

One Continuous Mistake: Four Noble Truths for Writers--Gail Sher
A handbook of sage and pithy advice to help writers get and stay on track. With training in Zen and psychotherapy, this award-winning writing teacher addresses the roots of writers' malaise with sharp insights and calm inspiration.

Stephen King Hearts in AtlantisHearts in Atlantis­-Stephen King
A big surprise from the master of horror: a somewhat autobiographical and mostly realistic saga of the Vietnam generation. In retrospect, it's entirely fitting that King would bring his skills in tales of terror to the stories of men who fought in that war. These are the strongest sections of a book which follows a linked cast of characters sequentially from 1960 to 1999. King has the Joycean ability to write about the life of a twelve-year old boy in the naughty language of the twelve-year old, and to write about a group of college freshman with their own particular brand of embarassing bravuro and naivite. His adult characters are more compelling still to adult readers, and his skills of description, flair for American slang, and ability to capture the essence of a forever doomed and jaded culture are here at an all-time high.

Timeline--Michael Crichton
CrichtonStill the master of the cutting-edge concept; but the writing has gone all TV-script. If you like unbelievable action at a fast pace, this will work for you. I admit, I couldn't put it down, though it smacks of sellout.

Affliction--Russell Banks
Russell Banks is of that rare breed who can tell a gripping story AND display an eloquent mastery of the language. Even more rare, he's not afraid to TELL the story. You won't find a TV screenplay here, with minimalist dialogue and an allergy to description, explantion, psychological elaboration, and sheer unabashed narration. Banks is old-school, perhaps, but none of his powerful prose is wasted: it all coheres, compelling the picture to take more vivid life on the page. This is the story of a man--an "ordinary" New Hampshire small-town cop and well-driller--who disintegrates under the pressures of conventional manhood and a brutalized boyhood that haunts him till a cataclysmic reunion with his father.

The Book of Jamaica--Russell Banks
Banks gives his narrative imagination full rein in a book that unearths all of the mystery and convoluted history of this island. A white writer, the narrator, is plunged into ever-thickening plots involving drugs, politics, imperialism, race and murder, and by the end there is only one way to recover his shattered identity: a plane back to the mainland.

The Executioner's Song--Norman Mailer
... This vast tome--1024 pages--is an epic story of one man's fall to death through the American penal system. Epic because the whole scope of society is portrayed, from the Supreme Court down to the lowest prison rat. Mailer does a remarkably disciplined job of retaining an objective perspective throughout. Like his chief source and second protagonist, Larry Schiller, he seeks to report history, not to make it; to give the whole story inside and out, without embroidery. A thousand pages without embroidery? That's a lot of facts to report, and yet in the novelistic telling is proof of Mailer's understating, purely narrative genius.

UnderWorld--Don DeLillo
...DeLillo shows once again that he is a master of characteristic speech, of dialogue which is so often mismatched monologues, verbiage in search of proper vocabularly. Along the way he paints a large canvas of American society in the second half of the twentieth century, beginning with the twin metaphor of the 1951 baseball and nuclear "shots heard round the world."

Thomas Mann--Ronald Hayman
Hayman's book exposes Mann for his human weaknesses: his penchant for homoeroticism, and his battles with family, health, politics and his own writing obsessions. Yet in this completely researched biography, we cannot help but admire the man widely regarded as the finest (and last) great novelist of his era, for his devotion to his craft and for his willingness to take on the most challenging issues of the world, on his own terms.

Jude the Obscure--Thomas Hardy
...Hardy today seems overdone, melodramatic in the climax of this long tale. Still the book is riveting for its young hero's soul-searching, and the doomed relationships he falls into. And what a treat to read a real master of the English language, unafraid to use it to its fullest extent.

The Postman Always Rings Twice--James. M. Cain
...a classic of the hardboiled genre, yet strangely modern in its minimalist presentation of scene and dialogue. A master plot an character study, in the tragic mode.

The Brave Free Men--Jack Vance
...Book II of the Durdane Trilogy. Gastel Etzwane shines as musician-turned-ruler in a time of war: giving wise yet fallible directives, dining on salt fish and eels at riverfront inns...

The Genesis Machine--James P. Hogan
...I tried the highly touted Bruce Sterling and Gene Wolfe, couldn't get past chapters one. Hogan and Vance stand head and shoulders above the rest of the sci-fi tribe, IMHO. This novel is a heady read with its particle-physics science, but balances well with passionate human drama, tight dialogue and airtight plot.

In Cold Blood--Truman Capote
...Was it this book or the long winter night that inspired me to keep reading this from start to finish? The disturbing core of reality or the skillful, murder-mystery method in which the atrocity and its unraveling are presented? Perhaps simply the power of the author's objectivity, eliciting sympathy for all concerned by portraying fully their humanness?

Mao II--Don Delillo
...This writer has an uncanny ability to weave distinct and compelling style out of all-too-common dialogue and quirky characters. A tale simply but not flatly told; each line chosen, found as perfect, appropriate to the oddball world we live in; this is the revolution it must come not just to the world we speak of, but our language is never the same again.

East of Eden--John Steinbeck
...His masterpiece, also a good film. A long read with only a few sections not worthy of the rest. At the core is a compelling story of a family through several generations, recapitulating the Cain-Abel conflict in California's Salinas valley.

The Worm Forgives the Plough--John Stewart Collis
...Collis qualifies as the English Thoreau. An intellectual goes back to the land, and writes with eloquence, simplicity, freshness, clarity, insight, humility.

The Orange Tree--Carlos Fuentes
...Linked stories of conquest and magical realities

Flowers for Algernon--Daniel Keyes
...This classic from the high-school reading list is engagingly artful in using language style--in the form of the protagonist's journal--to reflect the stages of growth (and tragic decay) in consciousness.

The Day Before Midnight--Stephen Hunter
...nuclear holocaust threatening: our fate in the hands of a jiving convict and an ex-Viet Cong tunnel-lady. Hunter handles character and plot as well as weaponry and language.

Chocky--John Wyndam to introduce sci-fi to one's kid: this is a good one about benign alien possession.

To Live Forever--Jack Vance
...very early Vance, still great--in fact better than the novels of his recent years.

Lyonesse--Jack Vance
...the sci-fi master takes on fantasy, and carries it off with usual aplomb.

Identity Card--F.M. Esfandiary
...Iranian author writes perfect novel of bureacratic obfuscation compounded by cultural blinders.

Master Sniper--Stephen Hunter
...when a craftsman this good writes a thriller, I call it literature.

Under the Wheat--Rick DeMarinis
...uncategorizable short stories. Off the wall human realities and oddities. Unique.

Dirty White Boys--Stephen Hunter
...sounds rough: it is. But no one could do it better, balancing sympathy for "good" and "bad" alike.

Stop-Time--Frank Conroy
...a vivid and thoughtful autobiography by author of Body & Soul, a jewel of a novel

The Firm and The Client--John Grisham
... plain and lucid prose, gripping stories cover to cover

Brick Magazine
...the most consistently excellent literary mag I've seen

The Blue World­-Jack Vance
...simply another by my only favorite sci-fi writer

The Invasion of the Body Snatchers­-Jack Finney
...the classic thriller upon which two great movies were made

Rim­-Alexander Besher out-there account of life as it virtually could tend to be

The Origin of Language­-Merritt Ruhlen
...finally puts all of the pieces together in an understandable whole

At Play in the Fields of the Lord­-Peter Matthiessen
...a perfect novel, even better than the excellent film

Speak, Memory­-Vladimir Nabokov
...autobiography of greatest craftsman in English or, I suspect, Russian

Tough Guys Don't Dance­-Norman Mailer
...tongue in cheek, but so subtle the thriller works, too

A Confederacy of Dunces­-John Kennedy Toole
...a comic classic, a modern Gargantua

Turning Life into Fiction­-Robin Hemley
...worthy tips and exercises for writers

Galatea 2.2­-Richard Powers
...teaching a computer to talk, and to recognize beauty

Very Old Bones­-William Kennedy work by a top-notch literary novelist

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