Mr. Litlove’s Reading Plan

I need to pick your brains, blogging friends. Mister Litlove recently expressed a desire to read more widely and to fill in the gaps in his knowledge of modern classics. You may imagine that I started to leap on this – and then paused, midair, like those cartoon characters who discover they’ve gone over the edge of the cliff without realising. The thing is, Mister Litlove is incredibly hard to choose books for, and much as I enjoy the challenge and take it up regularly at birthdays and Christmas and so on, I’m running out of ideas here.

In fiction, Mister Litlove reads primarily for the plot, but he likes to receive something edifying en route. He’s keen on novels with ideas in them, but no vacuous happy endings, please. Also he has little patience with experimental novels and a profound horror of ‘padding’ (so that’s pretty much the 19th century out). He’s done well in the past with the following: David Mitchell, Ian McEwan, John Irving, John Fowles and David Lodge. I gave him a Richard Powers novel once but he didn’t like it because he found it a bit pretentious and a bit implausible; he got through Franzen’s Freedom with a similar critique. He has enjoyed some Michael Frayn novels (but not all) and loved the beginning of Max Barry’s Company, but felt it trailed off towards the end. He has loved some science fiction – John Wyndham, Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard, but I can’t imagine him settling down with an Asimov or a Terry Pratchett. He likes to keep it real. He will occasionally read thrillers, and has enjoyed Lee Child and Harlan Coben in recent months – but he tires of them easily.

On the whole he’s more of a non-fiction reader, and has enjoyed lots of books about economics, popular science, religion, current affairs and, in an ideal world, woodworking. Years ago I gave him Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own, which he loved, and recently he went so far as to buy himself The Case for Working With Your Hands: or Why Office Work Is Bad For Us and Fixing Things Feels Good. I’d love to find more books along these lines but woodworkers who write are a rare breed.

So I’ve been trying to put a list together for him and this is as far as I’ve got: I’ll think he’ll like Ford Maddox Ford’s The Good Soldier, Nabokov’s Lolita, Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons (he loved Bonfire of the Vanities). It’s worth trying Donna Tartt’s The Secret History on him and Richard Ford, probably The Sportswriter. I’ve got high hopes for Phillip Roth’s The Human Stain. And perhaps Neil Gaiman? Although I haven’t read him myself. I’d like him to try Graham Greene’s Our Man In Havana (although school scarred him with The Power and the Glory). And about here I get stuck.

What am I missing? Which modern classics should he try (with a good chance of getting through them)? And do you know of classic non-fiction books that I could add to the mix? I’ve only got eight books on the list so far – help!

30 thoughts on “Mr. Litlove’s Reading Plan

  1. Conrad goes well with Greene. Exotic settings, forward motion, non-padded, fact-based, non-experimental.

    How is he with travel books? Expeditions to the Antarctic or the Amazon? Brushes with death?

    Richard Russo would go well with Ford & Wolfe & Roth – I’m thinking specifically of the gritty realism of Straight Man. Or maybe William Kennedy’s Albany novels.

    Leonardo Sciascia’s Sicilian novels are a nice blend of fiction (they work as mysteries) and current affairs (Mafia, corruption) that are still all too relevant in Italy.

  2. He is a tough one! Check to see whether you did indeed give him “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman” and if not, then put that on the list. Also Brian Greene especially “Fabric of the Cosmos.” It’s about space, time and reality. His first book, “The Elegant Universe” is also supposed to be really good but I haven’t read it yet. And he has a new book out that I want to read called “Hidden Reality” Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.” Has Joshua Foer’s “Moonwalking with Einstein : the art and science of remembering everything” made it over there yet? I have not yet had the chance to read it, but I’ve heard the author talk about it on the radio and it sounds awesome. I’m going to go out a limb and suggest the scifi book “The Dispossessed” by Urusla LeGuin. It’s more to do with politics and huma behavior than with science. If I think of anything else I’ll send them your way.

  3. Mr Litlove has more and more common points with Mr Emma. Should they start chatting about their lives with book worms?

    So Mr Emma liked
    – Syrup by Maxx Barry (and Company too),
    – I Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe,
    – Creating a World Without Poverty: Social Business and the Future of Capitalism by Muhammad Yunus
    – All David Lodge
    – Julian Barnes
    – Some John Irvings but we don’t have many of them at home as I don’t like him and usually he tries books from our shelves,
    I wouldn’t buy him the Donna Tart or Richard Powers. I’m not sure he’d like The Human Stain, I’d choose The Plot Against America instead.

    If Mr Litlove likes David Lodge, he might like Nick Hornby. Or Jay McInerney? (The Good Life) Jim Harrison? Somerset Maugham? Richard Russo? What about Murakami, the non-surreal ones like East of the Border, West of the Sun ?

    Other ideas that come to my mind:
    – Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan. (review on my blog and on Caroline’s blog too)
    – Down and out in Paris and London by Georges Orwell
    – The Road by Jack London
    – The Terrible Privacy of Maxwell Sim by Jonathan Coe
    – Any book written by Fred Vargas
    – A book from Caroline’s War Readalong

    I hope that helped. Good luck with your list.

  4. Litlove, hello. That’s quite a task you have.

    Some suggestions:

    *Fiction*
    Joseph Heller — Something Happened (a business novel, but also a domestic one), or Catch-22
    Stanley Bing — Lloyd: Or, What Happened (a business novel that peters out at the end, but has pie charts and office rivalry, and is amusing enough for the first half or so)
    Joshua Ferris — Then We Came to the End (told in first person plural, but that’s no different than how we often talk; business environment)
    Harry Mathews (one t) — My Life in CIA (funny, odd, but not too experimental, and a bit of a political thriller also)
    Zoran Zivkovic – Hidden Camera (menacing)
    Fish, Soap and Bonds – Larry Fondation (about homeless people)
    Night Works – Thomas Glavinic (a man wakes up in europe and it seems everyone else in the world, including his girlfriend, has disappeared)

    **Non-Fiction**
    Hans Erich Nossack – The End: Hamburg 1943 (firebombing)
    Apsley Cherry-Garrard — The Worst Journey in the World (one of Scott’s men who survived)
    Alan Weisman — The World Without Us (what would happen to the world as it is right now if we suddenly disappeared)

  5. Here are the votes from the Norwegian jury:
    – J. M. Coetzee (everything)
    – Haruki Murakami (everything of him too)

    if he is into crime
    – Jo Nesbo
    – Stieg Larsson: Millennium series

  6. Okay so I am just going to throw a guess out there: would he like Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose? I read Crossing to Safety, which I know you read as well–and I loved it. But Mr. Litlove does not sound like he would like that one. I have not read Angle of Repose, but I vaguely know what it is about; perhaps he might try though I understand it might not be his cup of tea, so to speak. And I can I say that I would second your choice of The Secret History. I loved that book!

  7. Nonfiction: Just about anything by Tracy Kidder would be a great addition, and his books have an amazing range of topics, from life in an assisted living facility to a pioneer doctor bringing hope to the third world.

  8. The Leopard, by Guiseppe de Lampedusa.

    I’m reading it at the moment and it’s excellent, a sort of compact version of the 19th century realist novel which (broadly speaking) follows the decline of the Sicilian nobility. Perhaps that sounds a bit boring – it’s not, honest. Quite hot-blooded, in fact.

  9. Anything by Oliver Sacks, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures. I like well-written non-fiction on how the brain works, and with his interest in woodworking, I think he’d find Temple Grandin’s visual thinking interesting.

  10. I have one 19th c suggestion: Esther Waters by George Moore. It’s not at all wordy. It dates from the 1890’s but has more of a modern style. It has interesting factual information about the impact of betting on the society of the time.

  11. For modern nonfiction classics, how about In Cold Blood or The Executioner’s Song? Or on a different note, Travels with Charley by Steinbeck? And more recently, there’s Into the Wild by John Krakauer.

    This one is a long shot, but your mentions of science fiction, ideas, and religion puts me in mind of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. Then there are Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novels, Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Those seem more Wyndham-esque than Asimov-esque to me.

  12. I second Graham Greene (The Quiet American) and John le Carre (“The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Since he likes John Irving (tragic-comedy), I would recommend Kurt Vonnegut, my favorites are Slaughterhouse 5 and Galapagos. On the non-fiction front, how about Bill Bryson? Often his books make me laugh out loud.

  13. I heartily recommend “Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson. It’s hard to classify as a book – it’s a kind of techno-thriller, set in both the modern day and WW2, and it deals with themes of war, history, espionage, technology, romance, humour – everything, really. Which is not to say that it’s incoherent, not at all (although the ending felt a bit rushed). It’s even got a light touch of fantasy thrown in there.

    Stephenson is one of my favourite writers. I suppose he’s “sci fi”, really, although the tag doesn’t quite fit. But I consider his Baroque Cycle to be one of the best series I have ever read. Starting with a play performed in Trinity college, in front of Charles II, it’s an immense achievement, a trilogy which wears its scholarliness lightly, and is immersive and so very entertaining. So, er, if Mr LL is up for some “historical” fiction, maybe try him on that too? Especially if he reads and enjoys Cryptonomicon.🙂

  14. Most of the authors I’d have suggested have been given by other awesome readers, so I’ll resist shouting Graham Greene again (although I’d suggest starting with Brighton Rock if he’s into Philip K Dick as it’s old style seedy detective/gangster story feel might remind him of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). I’d suggest a book that’s not yet a modern classic, but probably will be soon ‘The City and The City’ by China Melville, which mixes traditional detective stuff with clever political commentary and sci-fi.

    Would he go for Peter Carey do you think? I like The History of the Kelly Gang, but it might be a bit experimental lite from what I remember, so maybe Jack Maggs instead, which is a piece of Dickens revisionism with intrigue and mysterious strangers. I recommend him because he always seems to crop up as a contemporary to McEwan. And maybe some classic crime might work well, like ‘The Maltese Falcon’.

    And not at all a modern classic, but a good thriller that has been made into a film, ‘Mystic River’ by Dennis Lehane. I’m just starting to explore his stuff and like it quite a bit (and I get bored of thrillers very easily).

  15. I think that Mr TH may have similar tastes, so I asked him. He suggested- the Glass Palace by Amitav Ghosh, Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by kate Summerscale, Birdsong by Sebastian Faulks or Stuart by Alexander Masters… We agreed that not all would fall in the ‘modern classic’ category but might be enjoyable reads for a non-fiction reader…
    Good Luck!

  16. What about:
    Richard Russo, Empire Falls
    Muriel Spark, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
    Anita Brookner, Hotel Du Lac
    Graham Swift, Shuttlecock
    Christopher Isherwood, Berlin Stories
    E.M. Forster, pretty much everything
    Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited
    Kingsley Amis, Lucky Jim
    Michael Cunningham, The Hours
    Alice Munro, The Beggar Maid

    Have no idea what holds this list together–except that they all have pretty good stories, are not all that experimental or pretentious.

  17. I would recommend In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Norwegian Wood by Murakami, The Remains of the Day by Ishiguro, and anythng by John le Carre. He might also enjoy Alias Grace by Atwood, and A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth, if he’s into massive books. But it reads very fast, I assure you!

  18. My dear blogging friends, you are MAGNIFICENT. I knew you would be. And Mr Litlove is very touched that you have thought up all these excellent suggestions for him. Several of them turn out to be books he has read already and loved – which just goes to show what insightful and pertinent suggestions they are. We thought we’d put a list together of the books he’ll be reading, as well as the ones already mentioned that he’s enjoyed. Watch this space – as soon as I can pin him down, I’ll post it here.

  19. Mr Litlove sounds to have a similar reading taste to me so I’ll suggest my favourite book: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. I hope he finds lots of wonderful books thanks to this post!

  20. Some great suggestions here – looks as if I arrived too late! I’d just add “So Long, See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell. There’s a review on my site from last year – it’s certainly got a good plot, no pretension, no padding, and some great ideas. Maybe Cormac McCarthy’s The Road as well? And definitely Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – one of my favourite books recently.

  21. How about Dennis Lehane? I’m in the middle of The Given Day right now, and it’s very good, a good story that deals with Boston in the post-WWI period. It’s very real (with some real people in it, although they aren’t the main characters) and exciting, and a great glimpse into the place and time.

  22. Hello, dear Litlove!

    Knowing Mr Litlove – or rather, knowing him better many years ago than I do now! – I second the Neal Stephenson suggestion, and would add to Cryptonomicon etc some of the books he co-authored with his uncle J Frederick George, including The Cobweb – which I remember finding very funny. And as an appeal to the engineer in him, I can recommend the heroic haul up to the mountaintop of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, which left me deeply affected if not traumatised and might have a similar affect on him.

  23. And more fantastic suggestions – thank you! (and a special hello to you, too, dear Jon!). I do apologise for not getting the lists up that I promised. The first week of term just floored me as usual and I am only just catching up on a backlog of emails, etc. But hang on in there – Mr Litlove is already embarked on his new reading programme and loving it, so I will get my act together asap. Big love to you all.

  24. It looks like you’ve already got more suggestions than he could possibly read in the next year or so, so I won’t try and guess, but I do hope you’ll let us know what you decide on and what he thinks of them. Happy reading!

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