A neighbor asked me for book recommendations the other day, and afterward I realized, hey, I wrote this all into an email, which could be a blog post with scarcely more than copy-and-paste, and I bet I know other people who like books. So here you go! (It, uh, turns out I like memoirs. And haven’t been reading much fiction this year. Apparently.)
Good books I’ve read in the last year or so:
Dan Savage, The Kid. The Seattle sex columnist’s memoir of adopting a baby with his boyfriend. Funny, sweet, honest. If you’re familiar with his work you already know whether you like this.
Elyn Saks, The Center Cannot Hold. Memoir by a schizophrenic law professor. Eye-opening, compassionate.
Greg Rucka, Keeper, Finder, Smoker, Shooting at Midnight. (There are others in the series, but in my opinion it goes downhill after here.) Action & suspense centered around a slightly dorky bodyguard protagonist and his ragtag crew of friends and colleagues. Surprisingly good female characters, particularly given the genre.
Also by Rucka: Whiteout and Whiteout: Melt (graphic novels). Mysteries set in Antarctica. Again, astonishingly good female leads, spare and melancholic art. Whiteout is one of the best things I’ve read all year.
Atul Gawande. Everything he ever wrote (archives of his New Yorker essays are available free online; The Checklist Manifesto, Complications, and Better are among his books). A doctor who tackles problems not only of medicine but of decency, complex systems, and human performance. Deeply humane and thoughtful. Checklist Manifesto, his most recent, is wide-ranging (medicine, aviation, finance…) and has insights for self-improvement, management, coping with failure…any issue that arises in a complex task. Among the New Yorker essays, I’ve found the one on Virginia Apgar most memorable. (Yes, of Apgar score fame.)
Brenda Peterson, I Want to be Left Behind. Hilarious, thoughtful, and brain-twisting memoir of a fundamentalist childhood. (Along these lines also Kevin Roose’s The Unlikely Disciple. A Brown student, Roose decided his study abroad term would be at Liberty University, and found as foreign a place as any of his classmates did, which he chronicles with an open and caring mind.)
Among the best books I’ve read ever:
Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. An analysis of what makes cities lively and human and what kills them, conducted via incisive observation of the world around her, and delivered in cutting and brilliant prose. Will change the way you see the world around you.
Sudhir Venkatesh, Off the Books. Venkatesh stumbled accidentally into a Chicago drug gang and ended up embedding himself in the projects and analyzing their economy and sociology. A fish-out-of-water story, vivid characters, fascinating and upsetting insights into a very different world.