1) Eye of the Needle, by Ken Follett. Genre: Spy Thriller, Historical Fiction, and Just a Weeee Tiny Bit Smutty.
Eye of the Needle is a classic, page turning thriller. Ken Follett, the author of a string of compelling page-turners (The Pillars of the Earth may be his most famous), offers up a World War II spy thriller. The stakes are high, the action is relentless, the bad guys are really, really bad. Special bonus: there’s a little Penthouse Forum-style smut at the end which might make you blush (when I was 14, I think I read that section about 100 times).
2) Seabiscuit, by Laura Hillenbrand. Genre: 20th Century History, Freaked-Out Real Life Bizzare Stuff
If you’re under the impression Seabiscuit is some whitewashed Disneyesque fairy tale about a horse due to the sappy, schmaltzy movie that came out in its wake, think again. The truth is often stranger than fiction, and in this non-fiction story there’s a lot of wickedly weird truth. We’re talking stranger than life characters: jockeys so desperate to lose weight that they ingest tapeworms and lie in enormous piles of composting manure. A self-made early 20th century millionaire and all the bizzaro eccentricities that go with it. Bawdy brothel parties south of the border. A U.S. populace shell-shocked by the depression and lifted up via the horse’s dramatic story (and horse racing in the 30’s was as popular as the NFL is today). And an amazing, unlikely story. Everyone I know who read this book couldn’t put it down.
3) The Given Day, by Dennis Lehane. Genre: Police Thriller, You-Are-There-In-The-Middle-Of-The-Madness Historical Fiction
The Given Day may have been my most enjoyable read since Catch-22 or Lonesome Dove. In fact earlier this year, when I wrote blog post about how impossible I found it to read on the iPad because of all its other functionality, I found The Given Day so engrossing it overrode my urges to surf the web and check my email. Lehane’s novel is set against the intense historical backdrop of 1919 Boston, where the Spanish Flu wiped out countless people, the Red Sox traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees, a police strike caused violence and mayhem in the streets, and anarchist bombs terrorized the city. The characters are tough, three dimensional, and nuanced, the story intense and unpredictable, and history is brought to life. Even hair products from the time period are woven into the story for a richly detailed portrait of life in a tumultuous year.
4) A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey. Genre: Semi-fictional Memoir, Personal Journey, In Oprah’s Face
I read James Frey’s amazing story about recovery from drug and alcohol abuse before the whole Oprah meltdown, where it was revealed that parts of the memoir were fictionalized. I don’t really care. The book is well written and you can’t put it down, whether it’s true or not. Frey may have made his alter-ego a bit more studly than he is in real life (i.e. getting a root canal without novocaine), but the truth of the matter is he did recover from addiction and his insights into his affliction are simultaneously heartbreaking and fascinating. You’ll find emotional bottom, love, friendship, and recovery in this well-written and compelling controversial book.
5) Barrel Fever, by David Sedaris. Genre: Essay Collection, Humor, Memoir, Gay Christmas Elf Narrative
If perhaps you feel, after years of fragmented web-reading, you have the concentration abilities of a coffee-drinking two-year old, maybe it’s best to start with a book of essays. David Sedaris’ Barrel Fever is laugh out loud funny, but it’s not for the easily offended or feint of heart. If you enjoy dark humor, you’ll enjoy this book. His stories are sometimes patently ridiculous (one in particular features David adopting kittens with his lover, Mike Tyson) or are true-to-life reflections on his absurd life experience (as a gay Macy’s Christmas elf, for example).
These books are also good books. I’ve also read books I couldn’t put down that I thought were bad. An example of this, which pains me to say, since I loved his earlier books, is Pat Conroy’s South of Broad. On the other side of the spectrum, there are tremendous books that are difficult to get through. An example of this is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead, where 10 straight pages of the same paragraph without any indentation (Roark’s courtroom speech), can lead even the deepest of readers to seek distraction.
So what about you, readers? What books do you find unputdownable but also good?