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books I’d like to be reading

In no particular order:

The Teacher Wars — Dana Goldstein (I’m about 3/4 of the way through, but haven’t found the time to finish.)

Creative Schools — Ken Robinson and Lou Aronica

Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman (I’m somewhere in the middle of this brilliant book.)

Three by Cain — James M. Cain (I’ve finished one of the three short novels in this compilation.)

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood . . . and the Rest of Y’all Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education — Christopher Emdin

How We Learn — Benedict Carey

The Underground Railroad — Colson Whitehead

How to Win Friends & Influence People — Dale Carnegie

Mathematics in Western Culture — Morris Kline

Mathematics: The Loss of Certainty — Morris Kline

Something by Elmore Leonard

The Round House — Louise Erdrich

Scorecasting: The Hidden Influences Behind How Sports are Played and Games are Won — Tobias Jacob Moskowitz and L. Jon Wertheim


the orphan master’s son


Adam Johnson tells this story of love and identity inside an amazingly real-feeling North Korea, neither glossing over nor glorifying atrocities and human rights violations. Instead, he immerses the reader in a culture that feels upside down – where children clean chemical vats and adults disappear for days, conscripted off city streets to work in rice paddies; where parents teach their children that, even though sometimes you have to denounce each other publicly, you’re still holding hands inside; where a father and husband can be killed and replaced by a stranger overnight, and the family will barely acknowledge the change. Always, on every street and in every home, loudspeakers tell the “Dear Leader”-approved news and warn of imminent invasion by the decadent Americans. Disconnecting your loudspeaker is a serious offense; citizens are encouraged to rat out their neighbors. After all, something may be wrong with the speaker, and you wouldn’t want them to miss an emergency announcement.

This is a powerful, sad, and deeply affecting novel with moments of transcendent beauty. It reminds me of why I loved books in the first place.

top novels

New addition: The Orphan Master’s Son (#11), by Adam Johnson

1 One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
2 Beloved – Toni Morrison
3 To the Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf
4 Mrs. Dalloway – Virginia Woolf
5 Molloy – Samuel Beckett
6 Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
7 Underworld – Don DeLillo
8 Middle Passage – Charles Johnson
9 White Noise – Don DeLillo
10 Middlemarch – George Eliot

11 The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
12 Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
13 Suttree – Cormac McCarthy
14 Housekeeping – Marilyn Robinson
15 Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
16 The Brother’s Karamazov – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
17 The Plague – Albert Camus
18 Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
19 Darkness at Noon – Arthur Koestler
20 Lord Jim – Joseph Conrad

21 The Poisonwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
22 The Great Gatsby – F. Scott Fitzgerald
23 Native Son – Richard Wright
24 All Quiet on the Western Front – Erich Maria Remarque
25 Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
26 On the Road – Jack Kerouac
27 The Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison
28 Ceremony – Leslie Marmon Silko
29 Wolf – Jim Harrison
30 Narcissus and Goldmund – Herman Hesse

31 The Master and Marguerita – Mikhail Bulgakov
32 Blindness – Jose Saramago
33 A House for Mr. Biswas – V. S. Naipaul
34 Written on the Body – Jeanette Winterson
35 The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi)- Herman Hesse
36 The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
37 Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy
38 The Intuitionist – Colson Whitehead
39 The Bone People – Keri Hulme
40 Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck

41 The Tin Drum – Gunter Grass
42 Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
43 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – Alexander Solzhenitzen
44 Gravity’s Rainbow – Thomas Pynchon
45 Motherless Brooklyn – Jonathan Lethem
46 Americanah – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
47 The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
48 1984 – George Orwell
49 The Fortress of Solitude – Jonathan Lethem
50 To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee

51 Old School – Tobias Wolff
52 The Uncomfortable Dead: (what’s missing is missing) – Paco Ignacio Taibo II & Subcommandante Marcos
53 Huckleberry Finn – Mark Twain
54 Mao II – Don DeLillo
55 Catcher in the Rye – J. D. Salinger
56 A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
57 The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne
58 Frankenstein – Mary Shelley
59 Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
60 As I Lay Dying – William Faulkner

61 The Red Badge of Courage – Stephen Crane
62 A Tale of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
63 Neuromancer – William Gibson
64 For Whom the Bell Tolls – Earnest Hemingway
65 Generation X – Douglass Copeland
66 Brave New World – Aldus Huxley
67 The Chosen – Chaim Potok
68 Doomsday Book – Connie Willis
69 Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Berniere
70 Fall on Your Knees – Ann-Marie MacDonald

71 Middlesex – Jeffrey Eugenides
72 The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
73 All the Pretty Horses – Cormac McCarthy
74 Dr. Zhivago – Boris Pasternak
75 The Crying of Lot 49 – Thomas Pynchon
76 Fahrenheit 451 – Ray Bradbury
77 Gorky Park – Martin Cruz Smith
78 White Teeth – Zadie Smith
79 The Stone Canal – Ken MacLeod
80 Schizmatrix – Bruce Sterling

81 The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. LeGuin
82 The Loved One – Evelyn Waugh
83 The Metamorphosis – Franz Kafka
84 The Fall – Albert Camus
85 Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
86 Straight Man – Richard Russo
87 A Small Death in Lisbon – Robert Wilson
88 Disgrace – J. M. Coetzee
89 Kindred – Octavia Butler
90 The Road – Cormac McCarthy

91 The Palace of Dreams – Ismail Kadare
92 The Street – Ann Petry
93 The Feast of Love – Charles Baxter
94 Fear of Flying – Erica Jong
95 Clockwork Orange – Anthony Burgess
96 The Old Man and the Sea – Earnest Hemingway
97 The Star Fraction – Ken MacLeod
98 He, She, and It – Marge Piercy
99 The Dispossessed – Ursula K. LeGuin
100 The Shipping News – E. Annie Proulx

101 The Parable of the Sower – Octavia Butler

Okay, I admit I didn’t want to drop The Parable of the Sower all the way off my list, so this list becomes “top novels,” instead of “100 top novels.”

This begs the question, why not add more than 101? Why not make it 200? or 500? So far, the answer is that I don’t want to spend the time on that. Maybe in the future.

the murder of roger ackroyd


Agatha Christie is the master of the mystery novel. In The Murder of Roger Ackroyd she delivers another brilliantly clever plot told in subtle, succinct prose that leads you down every garden path on the way to the surprising resolution. I read this one because it made #1 on the Guardian list of the best Christie novels. It lived up to the billing.

the little sister


The Little Sister is all atmosphere and attitude. Chandler’s protagonist, Phillip Marlowe, more observes the action than drives it forward. He is pessimistic and tired, even as he cracks wise at any opportunity. Women throw themselves at him, but he can’t seem to marshal the energy to do more than kiss them once or twice and keep up the banter. He’s a step behind every murder, and the loosely knit plot keeps the reader feeling even further behind. (I repeatedly found myself looking back in the book to see what I’d missed, only to realize that I didn’t miss anything; the details weren’t there to notice.)

At the same time, having just read The Maltese Falcon, it was hard for me not to notice that many of the plot devices were similar. If, as some commentators suggest, Little Sister is partly a response to Chandler’s experience in the movie business, I think it’s also paying homage to Hammett’s classic.

the maltese falcon


Dashiell Hammett tells this classic story in terse, punchy sentences that take the reader around San Francisco and through a twisty plot with Sam Spade, private eye. Spade is worldly, jaded, at times childish, and always chauvinistic. Despite his shortcomings, his ability to assess people and their motivations is remarkable, his insights and intuitions not perfect, but close enough to do the job. In the end we see that, for Hammett, Spade’s flaws are reflections of the world in which he lives.

have his carcase


It took me a long time to read Have His Carcase. Sayers’ detailed style is, perhaps, a little slow for the contemporary ear. On the other hand, it speaks to the real pace of most police work. They laboriously check every lead, slowly eliminating possibilities till they narrow it down to the real killer. It’s not exciting, but it is satisfying because it works.

silence of the lambs


In Silence of the Lambs, Thomas Harris uses straightforward clear prose to tell the story of an aspiring FBI agent, Clarice Starling, assigned to help track down a serial killer by interviewing the brilliant sociopath, Hannibal Lecter. When the serial killer kidnaps the daughter of a US Senator, the chase is on to rescue the daughter before she dies a gruesome and lonely death.

The novel is part procedural, but the best moments are personal. The dynamic between Starling and Lecter is brilliantly rendered. I found myself waiting for more.

I never saw the Academy Award-winning movie adaption. The book is good enough on it’s own.

dear committee members


Jay Fitger is a middle-aged professor of English and creative writing at Payne (pun intended) University, by his own admission a “second-tier,” liberal arts college.  Though fully-tenured, he is sagging under the pressures of a writing career in neutral, a personal life in reverse, and the general neglect of the liberal arts in academia.

Nevertheless, numerous students and colleagues request letters of recommendation from him for things ranging from administrative positions at the college to jobs in paintball emporiums to $400 scholarships. Fitger completes these letters and does mention the recommendee, but feels free to add whatever else he wants. Personal issues, critique of the institution to which he writes, and praise of the traditional letter as opposed to the electronic form are common themes.

A representative sample:

Dear Committee Members,

This letter recommends Ms. Stella Castle to your graduate institution in the field of public policy. And to begin the recommendation on the proper footing: no, I will not fill out the inane computerized form that is intended to precede or supplant this letter; ranking a student according to his or her placement among the “top 10 percent,” “top 2 percent,” or “top 0.000001percent” is pointless and absurd. No faculty member will rank any student, no matter how severely lacking in ability or reason, below “top 10 percent.” This would be tantamount to describing the candidate in question as a witless beast. A human being and his or her caliber, intellect, character, and promise are not reducible to a check mark in a box. Faced with a reductionist formula such as yours, I despair for the future, consoling myself with the thought that I and others of my generation, with its archaic modes of discourse, won’t live to see the barren cyberworld the authors of your recommendation form are determined to create.

Even if you sympathize with Fitger’s sentiments, it’s hard to see how such a letter can help Ms. Castle regardless of what praise he heaps on her after this first paragraph.

In my own life as an academic, I have known my share of Fitgers. They are pompous, self-centered, and not very nice. The (mostly unacknowledged) privilege they enjoy is matched only by the degree to which they feel persecuted and powerless. It is a potent brew. In Dear Committee Members, Julie Shumacher has captured them in all their delicious irony. I see it as a cautionary tale: there but through compassion, love, and hopefully humility go I.



cover her face


The Maxie family is English, landed, and cash-poor. The son works as a doctor in London. The daughter is divorced and living at home with her mother. Together with a long-faithful servant, they can barely keep up the house and nurse the invalid father, near death. When they hire an unwed mother with an infant son and some attitude above her station, it’s not hard to see who will die. Who did it is another story.

With more red herrings than a fish market and P. D. James’ cheeky, understated prose, it’s a pleasure to read. If, in the end, she implies that the victim is to blame, I put that down to a previous generation’s sensibility (the novel was published in 1962) and the class differences that so often pervade English literature. If you like British mystery shows like Father Brown or Midsomer Murders, you’ll enjoy the book.

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