10 books everyone should read

(in my opinion)

I was excited to get a request from my friend Andres, for a list of my "10 books everyone should read," because it forced me (non-reluctantly) back to my bookshelf to see which books have had the biggest impact on the way I view the world. That is my criteria. Because while there are many books that interest based on my own personal taste and penchants (this includes South Asian politics and history, linguistics, Georgia history, travelogues), I recognize that this is not the material that needs to be on a list "for everyone to read." Spots on this short-list must be reserved for those books whose stories and message endure beyond their particular topic or subject at hand, and instead resonate with the human spirit, our universal soul.

These are the 10 books that have changed the way I see the world, and which continue to resonate deeply with me. Their subjects dive deep into universal love, pain, suffering, faith, healing, goodness, and evil. Humanity.


The Kite Runner, written by Khaled Hosseini (2004) - You will never see Afghanistan the same way. Possibly the most affecting book I have ever read. I wept for a nation.

Things Fall Apart, written by Chinua Achebe (1994) - I was supposed to read this book for World Lit in college, and couldn't devote enough time to it to learn the African names; I ended up with Sparknotes to pass the test. But it was assigned to me again in a West African History course the following year, and this time, I was absorbed in the story, blown away by the way its historical point echoes significantly on the state of modern Africa and post-colonial strife on that continent. The title comes from a famous poem ("things fall apart / the center cannot hold..."), and we witness how things do fall tragically and magically apart within one African tribe, when Christian missionaries arrive. It is a tale of the very good and the very bad to come of missionary work in Africa. Achebe forces you to examine both essential parts.

Brave New World, written by Aldous Huxley (1931) - If you've ever had a conversation with me about literature, chances are I've professed my love for this short-list classic dystopian thriller. I read it in high school and again in college, and its comments on the modern world ring truer today than when he wrote it more than 80 years ago. The other famous dystpoian tale, George Orwell's 1984, is based on a society where the Big Brother government is so controlling we have no freedom. Huxley's tale is set in a society where they have so much pleasure--in the form of free sex, pornography ("the feelies"--just your regular cinema experience that often ends in an orgy), and soma drugs to stay happy and carefree--that there is no need to keep us under control-- our addiction to pleasures does that for us. Imagine a world where we are so seduced by comforts that no one needs to be controlled by a repressive state. Far scarier, and far more accurate a depiction of what a dystopic future might look like (in my humble opinion). Gripping story.

American Born Chinese, written by Gene Luen Yang (2006) - If you don't feel like mulling over the failures of humanity (as a few of these others might), then start with this, an illustrated tale of life as a Chinese-American kid. It was my first foray into the world of the graphic novel, and I was blown away by how much emotion can be expressed in an illustrated little boy's face. (But then again, I should know already how emotional cartoons can be, after 18 years of watching Pixar movies.) A tale of cultural overlapping combines with the Chinese folk tale of the Monkey King, to make for a lighthearted, humorous commentary on growing up as a hyphenated American; in his case, Chinese-American.

Candide: Or Optimism, written by Voltaire (1759) -  This is another book that I basically ignored the first time it was put in front of me, and which became a stunning revelation when it was assigned to me a second time. I guess my high school perspective missed the massive amounts of humor in this classic work of satire. Voltaire's commentary on the relentless optimism of man--even in the face of never-ending bad news and disaster--is still a touchstone today. Read it (duh).



What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures, written by Malcolm Gladwell (2009) - I swear to you, Malcolm Gladwell's brain does not operate like the rest of ours. He sees the world in a fascinating way, and asks the questions many of us would never think to ask. Why are there numerous kinds and flavors of mustard, but only one kind of Ketchup? Is plagiarism really even a thing? (And does it matter all that much?) Are smart people overrated? This is a collection of the best articles Gladwell has written for the New Yorker in the last decade or so. And they will blow your little, intelligent mind. My favorite in the whole book: "John Rock's Error: What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn't Know About Women's Health." Among many other "why-didn't-I-think-of-this-before?" questions. And blessedly, he has some answers.

And the Band Played On: Politics, People, and the AIDS Epidemic, written by Randy Shilts (1987) - Shilts wrote The Book on the early HIV/AIDS epidemic, and the successes and failures of activists, politicians, doctors, scientists, and everyday people faced with the disease of a century. You can read my Amazon.com review if you don't believe me: this book is one of most important books I have ever read. It also confirms another truth: journalists are fantastic history writers. Shilts weaves a tale of human drama, and it reads like fiction. How else would I commit to 600 pages on this subject?

Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate over Science and Religion, written by Edward J. Larson (1998) - I'll give you a clue--the famous Tennessee trial on teaching evolution in public schools was nothing like you think it was. It was purposely challenged, and Scopes, a still-green young teacher, was the volunteer offender, who would be used to launch a legal war over the still-touchy subject of science and religion in schools. If you read one history book, read this one. Highly relevant today.


On Georgia and the South (Everyone should understand the South a little better, whether you live here or not!)

Beach Musica novel, written by Pat Conroy (1995) - The writing is extraordinary, and the drama compares to nothing else. This is a sweeping tale of a South Carolina family across several generations, spanning a century and tackling racial prejudice, a changing South, the Holocaust, multiple wars, and the battle wounds inflicted on a generation in Vietnam. Add a lot of family drama and coming-of-age tales of love (and loss), and you've got Beach Music. Perfect for the approaching long, hot Georgia summer.

Praying for Sheetrock: A work of nonfiction, written by Melissa Fay Greene (1991) - Greene lives in Atlanta now (and has written a wide variety of other works), but she was living near the places and events this book recounts in the 1970s and 1980s, when McIntosh County -- on the Georgia coast -- was still lagging far behind the rest of the state in grappling with desegregation and racial prejudices and injustices. The events really happened, though it reads like fiction. An important piece of history for anyone who lives in the South, or feels they want to understand it a bit better (or maybe this will only add to your complicated image of it--rightly so).


A note: I own all these books. I am willing to lend them out.


Summer reading list

Books I read this summer (and recommend)

For the preservationist you: The Last Days of Old Beijing: Life in the Vanishing Backstreets of a CIty Transformed by Michael Meyer

For the adventurous youthful side: Undress Me In the Temple Of Heaven: A Memoir by Susan Jane Gilman

For an all-out laugh (and very breezy, quick read): Laughing Without an Accent: Adventures of an Iranian American at Home and Abroad by Firoozeh Dumas

Your source of comedic relief on everything from unsolicited "help" on being a mom, to the old men's Christmas event at the YMCA (oh yeah, and a disastrous honeymoon on a cruise ship...): Bossypants by Tina Fey

For when you need to be reminded, we all start somewhere: On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King

OK, everyone's read it. Darn it, it's SO good. Read it again: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

For the kid (and really, the adult) in you: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (yes, again)

For the crime thriller fix: The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest by Stieg Larsson 

For adventure in the Brazilian Amazon, complex moral dilemmas, and mystery: State of Wonder by Anne Patchett


Books that I was enjoying, alas, did not finish (but still recommend!)

For a thoughtful analysis, crafted beautifully, on your missing father figure: Dreams From My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance by Barack Obama

For your do-gooder, "I want to change the world now" mood: It Happened On the Way to War: A Marine's Path to Peace by Rye Barcott


Books I read that were, eh...

Mostly trite gender analysis, of all our "little princesses": Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein

For when you want to hear a talented writer talk about his crippling childhood fear of Jesus, and his hatred of Fidel Castro: Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy by Carlos Eire

Bossy lady

I loved Tina Fey's memoir Bossypants. Her thoughts on being a woman in society, laughing at her own childhood, recounting the sagas of SNL writing days and Sarah Palin sketches, talk of her father, 30 Rock writing and development, motherhood, and in the intersection of all these things, was fantastic. I laughed all the way through it, especially because I listened to the audiobook, read by Ms. Fey herself! (The fact that I used an exclamation point means I'm serious. Those are rare.) It was like spending nine or so hours with her, laughing about life and being very real. Wanted to share one funny little quip, in which she is reflecting on her several-month escapade back in the fall of 2008, when she made a series of guest appearances on Saturday Night Live as Sarah Palin during the months leading up to the election. She's talking about how the vice presidential debates sketch was her favorite, and why.


One, I felt like I contributed a lot of jokes to this one, so my writer ego likes it best.

Two, Queen Latifah was there.

Three, I thought the speeches that Jim Downey wrote for Jason Sudeikis as Joe Biden were brilliant. Especially the stuff where Biden is trying to prove that he's not some Washington elite by talking about how he's from Scranton, Pennsylvania, "the most godforsaken place on earth." I thought that was ingenious, becuase not only was the ad hominem attack on Scranton a hilarious comedy left turn, it also exemplified what the election had become. Instead of talking about issues, everybody was trying to prove how "down-home" they were. "I'm just like you" was the subtext of every speech.

Politics and prostitution have to be the only jobs where inexperience is considered a virtue. In what other profession would you brag about not knowing stuff? "I'm not one of those fancy Harvard heart surgeons. I'm just an unlicensed plumber with a dream and I'd like to cut your chest open." The crowd cheers.

That continues to strike a cord these days...

I recommend her book highly--mostly to women, I might add, but many men will get some laughs as well. You can skip over the parts about stages of being fat and skinny in her life, and some of the motherhood bits--although those are some of the very best bits.


Ode to a great movie, in Kathleen Kelly's tangent on books

Nora Ephron is exceedingly talented, and she writes some of the most charming movies in existence. Even when they aren't box office hits, or even critically well-received, I usually enjoy them enormously. Of these, I have seen You've Got Mail hundreds of times, literally. Even though it involved dial-up modems and circa-1998 technology as the basis of its plot, the themes and story are timeless. Thirteen years after its release, it is one of the best chick flicks ever. Somehow she got the conversation and characters just perfectly, so that they transcend the very timely material at the plot's center (internet romance via AOL e-mail and chat rooms). Joe Fox (Tom Hanks) is the son of the wealthy CEO of the "big bad Fox Books superstore," and Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan) is the owner of the independent children's bookstore Shop Around the Corner. His newly-opened location just up the street from hers forces her out of business, but little do they know that these real-life enemies are each other's online crush. As I've gotten older, I've understood elements and little quips that I had missed in years prior. Kathleen's boyfriend Frank (played by Greg Kinnear) fully supports a neo-Luddite movement, for example, a term I learned once I got to college. He hates technology with a quirky vengeance.

Anyway, it is one of my all-time favorite movies. And I wanted to share a lovely quotation from Miss Kathleen Kelly herself, that really rings true in my own life and my memories of childhood and books. Beyond her comment, though, I think the same holds true in a life-long reader's experience; each book I read becomes a part of me, in some way making me the person I am. Those of my childhood hold particular warm spots in my heart, as images and stories from them can bring back a rush of emotions and memories when they resurface in my world sometimes. My love of books as a child has translated into the same kinds of emotion with and while reading today, though I can't say whether it was the chicken or the egg that lies at the start. (As in, Do I like to read because I had and read books, or did I keep reading because of my own interest?)

Kathleen's rant comes over her frustration with the newly-opened Fox Books, and her insistence that it won't affect her negatively. But she wanders from there in her characteristically charming way...

You know, the world is not driven by discounts, believe me. I have been in business forever. I mean, I started helping my mother after school here when I was six years old, and I used to watch her. And it wasn't that she was just selling books. It was that she was helping people become whoever it was they were going to turn out to be. Because when you read a book as a child, it becomes part of your identity in a way that no other reading in your whole life does and I... I've gotten carried away.