As we all adjust to a new, temporary reality without sports, live music, theater, or any kind of social gatherings, we here at Amazin’ Avenue have been looking for recommendations of things to keep ourselves entertained over the coming days/weeks/months, and we thought it would be good to collect some of our own recommendations and share them with this great community. We’ll do a post each for a variety of things, today focusing on the written word. The format here is simple, as we’ll run down each participating AA writer or editor and his or her picks. And whenever this is all over and it’s safe to gather again, we’ll definitely put together the best AARGH ever.
Kurt Vonnegut Bibliography: It’s impossible for me to select one book from my favorite author, so I’m going to cheat and recommend diving in from start to finish (not like we all don’t have time). Vonnegut’s distinctive voice and razor-sharp wit connect especially well during troubled times, which makes this an appropriate time to give his works some attention. Whether it’s his classics like The Sirens of Titan, Slaughterhouse-Five or Cat’s Cradle, or his less-heralded works like Player Piano, Bluebeard, or Mother Night, there’s something for everyone to enjoy. Some of the best sci-fi literature is contained within his pages, but at their core, they are a satirical examination of the absurdity of life and modern society. The bonus is that his books reference past works, so reading the whole collection will reveal great references you may not have picked up on by only reading one or two of them. So It Goes.
Shoeless Joe (W.P. Kinsella): For those unfamiliar with Shoeless Joe, this is the story that Field of Dreams is based on. I read it for a Baseball Literature class in freshman year of college, and it immediately became my favorite baseball book. For fans of the film, there’s even more to love in the writing, as the romanticism around America’s Pasttime is in full swing from page one. The famous “word is baseball” scene is one of my favorite pieces of text in any fiction piece. In addition to the great tidbits about baseball’s history, J.D. Salinger being a character and central focus in the book’s plot is something that was sorely lacking in the film (Catcher in the Rye remains my favorite book, so it gives Shoeless Joe some added meaning for me).
American Gods (Neil Gaiman): American Gods is the most recent book I finished reading, which I decided to dive into after completing Good Omens. I had no prior knowledge of Neil Gaiman’s works before these two, and while I was captivated by both, I found myself more hooked on American Gods than I have been with any book I’ve read in a long, long time. It was unpredictable, funny, dark, weird, twisted, and original. It’s rare to read a book where every page surprises you and excites you more than the previous page. The book relies heavily on mythology, and a battle between America’s old gods and new gods takes center stage; however, at its core, American Gods is a very human story with a sympathetic Shadow, the central character. It’s impossible to accurately summarize the book’s plot, but I can guarantee you won’t want to put this one down as soon as you pick it up.
Born a Crime (Trevor Noah): Trevor Noah has done an admirable job taking over for comedy legend and hardcore Mets fan Jon Stewart after the icon departed from The Daily Show in 2015. Noah has been very open about sharing his origin as a child born in South Africa during apartheid to a white father and a black mother, and his book delves deeper into his experiences. His background makes him the comedian who is today and has shaped his worldview, and the book is an honest, funny, and eye-opening look at some of those moments, big and small, that have had a profound impact on the man he became. Beyond being a hilarious book, there’s some great tidbits in here and also some really heavy topics that paint a complete picture of Noah. The book is well worth the read for fans and for comedy lovers alike.
Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout (Laura Jane Grace): Laura Jane Grace has never been one to pull any punches or hide anything from her audiences. She’s been one of the most honest frontwomen in music since her band, Against Me!, hit the punk scene in the late 90’s and made a name for themselves with their 2002 debut album Against Me! is Reinventing Axl Rose. Perhaps this openness is why it was especially surprising when she came out as transgender in a 2012 Rolling Stone article. Since then, she’s become a vocal advocate for LGBTQ rights, and her band’s subsequent release, Transgender Dysphoria Blues, provided an in-depth look at her struggles. In her book, she expands on stories from her childhood and throughout the band’s history, including her struggle with gender dysphoria and coming to terms with who she really is. It’s a brutally honest look at her pain, but includes some moments of levity. She’s not afraid to mock herself or admit her faults, and her openness serves her well. Even if you’re unfamiliar with her music, it’s still an auto-biography worth reading.
The 7 1⁄2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton: I recommend this book to everyone and everyone should read it whether you are a fan of mysteries or not. It was unlike anything I had ever read before and it is one of those books that I was mad you could only read for the first time once. However it should come with a warning label because it will absolutely ruin all other books for you. I went into such a reading slump after this book because I wanted to read something else like it and there just isn’t anything out there. Rereading is also an acceptable course of action.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman: I made the mistake of reading this in the airport and while some parts are genuinely funny it is also a massive tearjerker. It’s impossible to not fall in love with Backman’s characters while the story unfolds around them. The plot does not suffer in favor of character development and Backman deftly balances both. It’s deeply touching and is a good reminder of what human connection can do.
The entire Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: “Words are, in my not-so-humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic. Capable of both inflicting injury, and remedying it.”
Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer by James L. Swanson: Despite knowing the history of what happens to Lincoln, this narrative nonfiction reads like fiction. It is exquisitely researched, entirely readable, and endlessly captivating. If you are a history buff this is a good choice to pick up.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak: Told from the perspective of Death, the story follows young Leisel Meminger who is a book thief. She is taken in by a German family who is hiding a Jewish man in their basement in 1939. This is classified as a Young Adult novel but don’t let that label scare you off. It is beautiful, heartbreaking, and stays with you long after you put the book down.
Starman Omnibus Vol. 1 by James Robinson, Tony Harris, et al: My favorite comic book series of all-time is “Starman” by James Robinson, Tony Harris, Peter Snejbjerg, Wade Von Grawbadger, et. al. The first volume of the omnibus collection, unlike some later volumes, is easy to find still, and is well worth your time and money. “Starman” is a tale of legacy, fathers and sons, brothers, family, love, loss, and having a cosmic staff that lets you fly and shoot energy from the stars. Heartfelt and superheroic, “Starman” has something for everyone, and if you can make it through the issues found here and not run out to get Vol. 2, I don’t know if we can hang out anymore.
A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker: I love a book where nothing happens. There is nothing better than spending a few hundred pages inside someone’s routine, their thoughts, and their environment. Nicholson Baker is your guy if that’s your jam too, and A Box of Matches is one of his most accessible novels. The premise is simple: the narrator gets up early, before dawn, gets dressed, makes coffee, and lights a fire. This book is the tale of enough mornings to work through a box of matches.
Nothing really happens, but you get a real sense of who the character is and what he’s all about. And I love it so, so much.
All Summer Long by Hope Larson: Even though being a teenager, more or less, sucks, it’s always nice to revisit that time through a lens of hopefulness. All Summer Long is a story of a summer vacation spent learning the guitar, learning which friends you can trust, and longing for life to be something else, even though you’ll spend the rest of your life wishing it was as carefree as a teenage summer.
The book absolutely nails adolescence without becoming maudlin, cheesy, or angry, and inspires us all to pick up our guitars and start bands. Let’s do it, you guys!
The Institute by Stephen King: King works best in short stories and epic novels, and The Institute is the latter. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: gifted kids are taken from their homes to harness their full potential, only it turns out the whole process is evil and disgusting. So, the concept may be slightly played out, but the fullness of King’s writing is on display here, and he manages to rein in his notoriously sloppy endings for a well-played, enjoyable novel.
My Brain is Hanging Upside Down by David Heatley: It feels somewhat dismissive to call this book a ‘graphic memoir,’ because it goes so much deeper into Heatley’s psyche than most memoirs attempt. Heatley examines his dreams, his childhood, his sex life, and his choices, problematic and noble, in this whirlwind of a book. Oversized and emotive, the book will stick with you for years after you read it.
Beartown by Fredrik Backman: Fredrik Backman is my favorite modern contemporary author. He has a way of creating characters, stories, and places that make you never want to leave his world. Beartown is a book about a hockey team, but it isn’t really about the hockey team. It’s about what that hockey team represents to a small town and how one event can set off a chain reaction that affects everyone in a community. This book is captivating, page-turning, poignant, heartfelt, chilling, and beautiful. There is a sequel to Beartown called Us Against You that is just as good as the original. The pair of novels have stayed with me ever since I read them in the summer of 2018 and made me pick up more of Backman’s work, none of which has disappointed so far.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles: You know the feeling of a warm hug from a friend you haven’t seen in awhile? This book feels like that, which is why I thought it was perfect for this exercise. It’s just so comforting. Amor Towles should teach a clinic on his ability to craft an engrossing story without a true antagonist. Every character is likable. In a world so full of anxiety, negativity, and anger, this book was such a welcome respite. Seeing the world through the Count’s eyes makes it feel like a much more welcoming and amazing place. If you described this book to me, I’d probably furrow my brow and think it doesn’t sound very interesting. And quite frankly, on the surface, not a lot actually happens in this book. But somehow it is still so captivating. Towles makes me want to be a part of the Count’s world, as limited as it is within the walls of the Metropol. This book is thoughtful, whimsical, full of characters that I love, and exactly what is needed for anyone practicing social distancing right now.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot: The first of two nonfiction recommendations on my list, this book changed the way I looked at science as an enterprise and the way I looked at myself as a scientist. But you don’t need to be a scientist to enjoy it. This book tells the story of the woman we have to thank for countless biomedical discoveries over the decades since her cells were immortalized in the lab without her knowledge or permission. “If our mother is so important to science, why can’t we [the Lacks family] get health insurance?” is among the ethical questions this book grapples with as it tells the story of the cell line that changed the world and the poverty-stricken family that did not see one penny of the profits their relative generated. A thought-provoking and important book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a must-read.
When the Crowd Didn’t Roar by Kevin Cowherd: I couldn’t make this list without recommending a baseball book! I’m sure most of the readership of this site has read or is at least aware of all the Mets-related offerings in the literary world, but When the Crowd Didn’t Roar is a fantastic read for baseball fans of all stripes. It is especially relevant as we consider the possibility that if baseball does return this season, we may see games played without fans. This book is a reminder that there is some precedent for that—the April 29, 2015 crowdless contest between the Baltimore Orioles and the Chicago White Sox. When the Crowd Didn’t Roar tells the story of that game and the events that preceded it, featuring interviews from players, sportswriters, umpires, and others who experienced the situation first-hand. I lived in Baltimore during the 2015 uprising that brought the city to its knees and I thought this book did a fantastic job of capturing all of the factors at play and the significance of the crowdless game, which unfortunately soon may not be as unique as it was at the time.
The Stand by Stephen King: This recommendation comes with a major caveat: if reading a book about an epidemic that wipes out nearly the entire population will upset you right now, stay away. But this is far and away my favorite post-apocalyptic novel and my favorite King novel. And King himself took to Twitter to reassure the public that coronavirus is NOT like The Stand. The Stand is truly an epic work, with the unabridged version clocking in at over 1,000 pages, which is why it’s the perfect book to keep you company if you suddenly find yourself having loads of free time stuck inside. The first half of the book is about the epidemic but the latter part of the book morphs into a true Good vs. Evil showdown with some fantasy elements thrown in. It’s classic Stephen King mastery all around and holds a special place in my heart personally for keeping me company through a rough time in my life. I hope it can do the same for you.
A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking: I don’t read nearly as much as I used to, and I’ve had to leave most of my books at my parent’s place while I’ve been in school for checks notes way too long. That said, I recently picked up and re-read A Brief History of Time, diving back into Stephan Hawking’s wonderful lessons on cosmology written for an amateur space lover. For those of you with even a passing interest in the origins or deeper workings of our universe, this book is a fantastic avenue to learn a lot without relying on any prior knowledge. Despite being one of the brightest minds of his generation, Hawking rights in a colloquial, down to earth style, interspersing humor and anecdotes as he explains complex concepts to the reader as if they’re five. It’s a pleasure to read and an even greater pleasure to contemplate after the fact.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy: Post-apocalytic fiction may be a subject matter that hits too close to home for some people at this difficult time, but for those who are looking for a good book in that genre, there is nothing better than The Road. The book follows a nameless father and son as they make their way through a barren wasteland. Most of the time when I see people they’re discussing this book, I seem them talking about how unbearably grim it is—and indeed, the world that McCarthy shows us is an unfathomably harsh one, and we see the depths to which humanity is willing to fall in order to survive. Nevertheless, I still see the novel as one that is filled with a message of hope—the basis of which lies in the relationship between the man and the boy, who fight to survive and maintain their morality in the name of their love for each other. That, along with McCarthy’s gorgeous prose, makes this a novel that I recommend without reservation to just about everyone.
The Blind Assassin, by Margaret Atwood: The Handmaid’s Tale is unquestionably the book that Atwood will be remembered for, and it’s my favorite of hers as well. Having said that, The Blind Assassin gives it a good run for its money—though it provides a very different type of reading experience compared to her dystopian classic. The majority of the book is a work of historical fiction which follows the life of Iris Chase, both in her present as an elderly woman and in her past as a young woman before and during World War II. Mixed in with these snippets of her life story is a science fiction novel-within-a-novel called The Blind Assassin. We spend the majority of the book waiting for these narrative strings to come together, and when they finally do we are treated with an absolutely haunting book about the struggle to be seen as we truly are.
The Fixer, by Bernard Malamud: For my money, Bernard Malamud is one the most underappreciated writers in American literature, and The Fixer is his undisputed masterpiece. The book is inspired by the true story of a Jew living in Tsarist Russia who is imprisoned for a crime that he did not commit and then denied the ability to receive a fair trial. In experiencing the brutality of confinement and persecution, Yakov Bok—the main protagonist—goes from being someone who rejected political causes and who simply wanted to live in peace to a man who understands that there is no such thing as an apolitical person, and we all hold a responsibility to fight back against injustice. It’s a message that has arguably never been more relevant than this current moment in time, and it makes what was already an essential work of literature even more important.
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi: In some ways, Homegoing—which was Gyasi’s very first publication—is really a collection of short stories, but to classify it as such would be to ignore the underlying connection between each of the stories told in the book. Each chapter follows a different descendant of two lines of the same family originating in Ghana. The book spans generations, starting in the eighteenth century and going all the way up to the present day in America. Along the way, we see how these two lines of families—one which profited off the slave trade in Africa, and the other which fell victim to it—all suffer due to the lingering effects of this original sin, which in turn tells us a story of how our country as a whole still suffers thanks to that same sin. Gyasi’s second book is scheduled to be released later this year, and this first book established her as a young author worth watching.
Someone Who Will Love You in All Your Damaged Glory, by Raphael Bob-Waksberg: The creator of BoJack Horseman decided that destroying our hearts in only one artistic medium wasn’t quite enough for his taste, so he had to go and write a collection of short stories that, like his Netflix show, is simultaneously incredibly funny and incredibly poignant. All of the stories deal with relationships in some manner—predominantly romantic, though not entirely—and the majority of them are as delightfully quirky as you’d expect them to be coming from a guy who made a show about a depressed horse. You never quite know what to expect from each story—one satirizes the ridiculousness of wedding culture, while another is narrated by a dog—but they all possess the same level of heart to them. The collection as a whole offers a reminder that all of us, no matter how damaged we may be, deserve someone who will help us navigate our way through this crazy world of ours.