Maria is our sister shop Underground Books' resident Swedish intellectual. You’ll find her at the shop, shelving books furiously to compensate for the rest of us slackers, battling neglected dust bunnies, or with her nose buried in some heavy volume of Russian literature or other brilliant giant of modern and classic literature. We love Maria for her gorgeous, brilliant, dreamy, wise, philosophical mind.
Fun, smart, and surprisingly emotional, this is a novel about time-travel, though the main character asserts that this, his self-proclaimed memoir, is really about the idea that “there’s no such thing as the life you’re supposed to have.” Tom lived in a 2016 in which Kurt Vonnegut was a respected philosopher and flying cars were commonplace, until he used his father’s time-machine to go back in time and accidentally wrecked the future/past. He returns to the 2016 we have now…which seems like a dystopia in contrast to the world of peace and endless clean energy he came from. All Our Wrong Todays begins playfully and rather whimsically, like a modern Vonnegut, but takes a more serious turn as Tom/John try to merge his parallel existences into one person—and he seems more like someone with multiple personalities disorder than a fumbling time-traveler. Highly engaging and page-turning. And oh, it is first and foremost a love story—funny, sweet, and occasionally heartbreaking.
It was one of the first books that really impressed me, I must have been fifteen when I first read it. I remember thinking that he (Dostoyevsky) truly saw the human mind in all its wretchedness and paranoia, but also in its ability for redemption and glory. Moody and gloomy—it seemed about right to my teenage mind, but also held in it a warning crawling from the gutters: “Beware, beware.” The Karamazov Brothers and Notes from Underground are also fighting for a place among my all-time favorites.
Despite opening with a couple of hundred pages of war battles and ball scenes, it is probably the best book I ever read. Somewhere half way through the 1200 pages, I felt my spirit elevated, my back straightened, and I thought that it was perhaps not too bad to be a human, after all. Besides being somewhat of a historical chronicle, it reads as Tolstoy’s philosophical opus. If you only plan to read one book by Tolstoy, I recommend War and Peace over Anna Karenina, which I didn’t find nearly as philosophically interesting.
I have a huge crush on Virginia Woolf, whose intellect shines through everything she ever wrote. Mrs. Dalloway was probably the first book of hers that I read, and it captivated me from page one with its cleverness and poetic prose. To follow Mrs. Dalloway for a day is to travel inside someone’s consciousness, which could easily be tediously intimate, if it wasn’t for the fact that Woolf is anything but sappy or redundant. To the Lighthouse, Between the Acts, and A Room of One’s Own are all high on my list.
Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, and The Bead Game by Herman Hesse...I really can’t pick one of them…I discovered Steppenwolf first, and loved the existential theme, which was hugely influential, but then Siddhartha spoke to my Buddhist inclinations, and The Bead Game tickled intellectual aspirations. All together they spoke to my longing to transcend and grow out of a fettered “normal” life.
This is also a book that I have read more than once and whose heroine, Isabel Archer, speaks to my heart. It’s a coming of age story, a story of freedom and individuality pitted against the restraints imposed by money, class, gender, and moral codes. It is beautiful world moving in between the old English society and the new America, a world of aristocrats, country houses, and trips to Italy—all tainted by greed and social ambition. The psychological portrait is one of the most pitiless and most interesting I’ve come across.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” I had heard the quote long before I read the book, and was predisposed to love it without glancing between the covers. Thoreau is my curmudgeonly friend who refuses to accept anything but a full and authentic life. His Walden is poetic and quiet, and feels like home.
Like Marquez, another one who should really be on my top list, Allende is a magical storyteller, and The House of Spirits oozes with rich characters, magical realism, and epic family lore. This was the book that made me think that I could never write a story as full and brimming with life as this one…and then really, what’s the point of writing at all? I fell in love with the character Clara, so stubborn and strong, loving and wise, quirky and wonderful.
This is probably my most frequently re-read book. Philosophy, love, eroticism, Prague, revolution, art, loss—it has all I ask for in a novel. It is clever, fun, and sad, but not in a maudlin way. You feel the book, and you feel with the characters, but the weight comes from the fleetingness of things rather than from their importance.
A new favorite, Oryx and Crake, a speculative fiction about a post-apocalyptic future in which most humans have died, and a new race is created. (Did I say too much?) This is one of the most juicy, smart, fun, scary and captivating books around. Atwood’s future sounds like our reality amplified, and with a triangular love story, and the apocalypse upon us, this is a book to discuss over coffee. Glenn/Crake is one of my all-time favorite characters, who it is easy to feel conflicted about.
My last book on the list is really just for fun. The title says it all, really. An absurd account of Jesus/Joshua’s coming of age through the eyes of his best friend Biff. Despite the outrageous language and sacrilegious themes, it is actually rather sweet, and you can’t help but love Joshua. He’s the best.
I’ve recommend this book to all my friends. It is a great story that is epic yet personal, with a sweet and tragic love triangle, loss, war, and escapism. It feels like a boy book and smells of cigarettes, N.Y.C., and comic books. I love Chabon’s use of language and his amazing vocabulary—it is not often that I need a dictionary when I read fiction, but I want to have one ready whenever I read his books. Kavalier is another one of those long-legged, broody, character crushes… For the slightly younger (or not) audiences I recommend Chabon’s Summerland, which is the best adventure you’ll ever be on. (Note the Coyote, a superb villain.)
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is one of the best books I’ve ever read, and that it is Gyasi’s debut novel dealing with one of the heaviest subjects of all time—the history of slavery—makes it even more impressive. The book follows two separate family branches through several generations starting with two half-sisters in Ghana, one gets sold to America, and the other gets married off to a white slave trader and whose children and grandchildren stay in Africa. Despite that you only follow the characters one chapter at the time, they are vivid and touchably real and you feel their love and sorrow to the marrow of your bones. To see the history of slavery and the African Americans’ plight from the days surviving the ships all the way up to forced incarceration and today’s racism is overwhelming, maddening, and heartbreaking, but also illuminating and powerful. I highly recommend it.