Home/Prufrock/Book Recommendations from Prufrock Readers during the COVID-19 (Updated)

Book Recommendations from Prufrock Readers during the COVID-19 (Updated)

George Dunlop Leslie, Alice in Wonderland (1879), via Wikimedia Commons.

Since we all may have some extra reading time on our hands, I asked readers to send me their favorite book (fiction or nonfiction, classic or contemporary) of the past five years. Boy, did you all deliver. Here’s the list, which I’ll continue to update over the next few days. Any comments that appear after the titles are from the readers who recommended the book (in some cases, slightly edited).

[Note: New recommendations added to the bottom of this post.]

Fiction:

Ivo Andric, Omer Pasha Latas: Marshal to the Sultan. “Set in the mid-19th century Ottoman Empire (mainly Sarajevo), it is an engaging work, beautifully translated for NYRB Classics by Celia Hawkesworth.”

Kate Atkinson, Transcription

Sebastian Barry, The Secret Scripture

Pearl S. Buck, The Good Earth. “It was a gift from a coworker and outclassed anything I’ve bought on my own since. Not sure what that says about my awareness of my own tastes.”

Boccaccio, The Decameron 

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita 

Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. “Amazingly written book; my heart pounded just as fast the second time I read it.  Highly recommended!”

Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. “I have always loved the Russian novelists, but I had focused more on Tolstoy before. One day when I went to the English book store in Korea, I saw this. I decided to read it, knowing that it was considered a great classic. It was such a perfect choice. I felt like every page spoke to me at that time. I read nearly the whole thing on a flight from Korea back to the States.”

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda. “A very wise book, and reads quickly despite its length.”

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Louise Erdrich, LaRose. “Hope despite tragedy, humor despite darkness, redemption despite depravity.”

Hans Fallada, Wolf Among Wolves and Every Man Dies Alone. “For readers interested in Weimar and Nazi Germany . . . well written and insightful, though tragic.”

Penelope Fitzgerald, The Beginning of Spring. “Always hard to pick the ‘best,’ but as of this moment today, this is my favorite novel from the past 5 years.”

Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Deep North

Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier. It’s “the only novel I’ve ever finished and immediately started reading again. And as someone usually intimidated by great works of modernism, I found it highly readable.”

Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon. It is “a product of the early nuclear age about a community surviving an apocalyptic war.”

Graham Greene, The Power and the Glory. “I fell in love with his writing style. And as someone who feels many connections to Mexico, this book was a great invitation to learn about the Mexican Revolution and think about such important topics as faith, doubt, and meaning.”

Victoria Hislop, Those Who are Loved

Paulette Jiles, News of the World

Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther detective series. “For fun.”

Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion 

Michael Lacoy, The Mystical Adventures of Stavros Papadakis. “This under-the-radar novel touches on topics that will be getting more attention thanks to the virus: death, God, and family—basically, the important things.  It’s witty and well-written, and has vivid characters and memorable scenes and dialogue.  Entertaining yet provocative—what a novel should be.”

Thomas Mann, Doctor Faustus. “A lot of people are mentioning Magic Mountain right now, for obvious reasons. I love Magic Mountain, but I think . . . Doctor Faustus . . . is Mann’s best book, and one of the two or three greatest novels of the 20th century.”

Hilary Mantel, The Mirror & The Light. “Has the interior life of a man of politics and action ever been more deeply excavated?”

Alice McDermott, Ninth Hour. “You would think a book that begins with a suicide would make for depressing quarantine reading. But, oh, what a beautiful exploration of how we serve one another well or poorly in our human relationship and our relationship to God.”

Larry McMurtry, Lonesome Dove. “One of the great American novels and if one is going to be locked in the house for weeks on end it is the perfect time to read a door stopper.”

V. S. Naipaul, A House for Mr. Biswasand A Bend in the River.

Michael O’Brien, Island of the World, The Father’s Tale, and Sophia House.

Veronique Olmi, Bakhita: A Novel of the Saint of Sudan

Anne Patchett, The Dutch House

Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country

Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

Terry Prachett’s Discworld novels. “They are an achievement, able to be funny and interesting at the same time.”

Charles Portis, True Grit. “One of the best books I’ve read over the last several years. It manages to be a quick fun read and pleasing adventure as well as having real depth. It manages to be funny and sad at the same time while dealing with issues of grace, duty, and revenge.”

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev. “A sort of Jewish Portrait of the Artist, Potok’s novel powerfully explores his protagonist’s struggle between his Hasidic faith and culture on one hand, and his God-given artistic talent and vocation on the other. The only book I’ve ever read which brought me to weeping. Stunning.”

Boleslaw Prus, The Doll

Georges Simenon’s Maigret detective series. “For diversion.”

Wallace Stegner, Crossing to Safety

John Steinbeck, East of Eden

Rex Stout’s detective novels. For when “I have enough energy to admire a good turn of phrase but not enough energy to think about character development and complicated plots.”

Junichiro Tanizaki, The Makioka Sisters. “It’s as if Tanizaki read Tolstoy and Austen and decided to do a mash-up set in Japan set in the years immediately prior to WWII. Billed as a story about a once-well-off family trying to arrange suitable marriages for its two youngest daughters, it includes so much more.”

Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch. “Don’t judge it based on the movie. It’s a meandering, melancholy tale that continually weaves in reflections on art.”

Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow.  It is “a wonderful tale of an extended period of house arrest.”

Trollope’s Palliser novels, “which deal with parliamentary politics in London in the late 19th century, but of course also with love and marriage, Trollope’s métier. They are long and absorbing, great for those with too much time on their hands.”

Anne Tyler, Searching for Caleb

Sigrid Undset, Kristin Lavransdatter. “Though it does touch on the Black Plague, I recommend it because it’s simply a masterpiece of medieval fiction, and a wonderful study of love, sin, grace, and repentance in a woman’s life. Undset’s other medieval fiction (Gunnar’s Daughter and The Master of Hestviken series) shouldn’t be overlooked, either.”

Sigrid Undset, Ida Elisabeth

Walter Wagerin, Jr., The Book of the Dun Cow, which “is about a diabolical pandemic.”

David Foster Wallace, The Broom of the System 

Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall

Charlie Wheelan, The Rationing. “The book, which came out last year, is laugh-out-loud funny and eerily prophetic about the government’s bungled response to a public health crisis.”

Tad Williams’s Memory, Sorrow, andThorn series. A “post-Tolkien epic fantasty” that is “engrossing, patient, alternately witty and melancholy, full of wonder and empathy, and beautifully written.”

Niall Williamson, This Is Happiness

P. G. Wodehouse’s novels.

Philip Wylie, The Disappearance

 

Nonfiction:

Bill Bryson,In a Sunburned Country

Doug Clark,The Last Whalers: Three Years in the Far Pacific with Courageous Tribe and a Vanishing Way of Life

Frances Faviell, The Dancing Bear. “Interesting memoirs of early post-WW2 Berlin.”

Carolyn Forsché, What You Have Heard Is True

David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years. “The work wanders around at times, but synthesizes a wide range of materials and sources to produce a fresh perspective on money, capital, debt, and social relations. In particular,, the chapters on debt and slavery in African culture was highly innovative and introduced me to an entirely different set of anthropological and oral sources I had not known about.”

David Grann,The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession

Jack Goldsmith, In Hoffa’s Shadow

Adrian Goldsworthy,Pax Romana

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan

Dan Jones, Plantagenets and War of the Roses. “Incredibly informative (I learned a lot of detail about things I sort of had a vague idea about) and also preposterously entertaining. They are not ‘big idea’ history, but just a great read that also leaves the reader significantly more knowledgeable than when he began.”

Patrick Raden Keefe, Say Nothing

Erik Larson,In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt,The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting Up a Generation for Failure

Kostya Kennedy,Pete Rose: An American Dilemma

Brian Moynahan, Leningrad, Siege and Symphony: The Story of the Great City Terrorized by Stalin, Starved by Hitler, Immortalized by Shostakovich

Geoffrey Parker, Global Crisis: War, Climate Change, and Catastrophe in the Seventeenth Century. It “is a wonderful read, and it’s over 700 pages long.”

Brian Phillips,Impossible Owls: Essays

Simon Reeve, Step by Step

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward

Alexandre Tharaud, Montrez-moi vos mains. “An elegiac essay on music and piano . . . His description of music is Proustian in his ability to evoke images to the inner eye and music to the inner ear.”

David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. “The man is a lot, but I really love his writing voice when he’s in journalist-ish mode. The titular essay and the one about David Lynch are highlights.”

Christopher Ward, And the Band Played On

Ralph C. Wood, Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South

Sharon Wright, The Mother of the Brontës

 

Poetry and Plays:

Lord Byron, Don Juan

George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor’s Dilemma

 

New Recommendations (updated 3/19/20):

Fiction:

Chris Adrian, The Children’s Hospital. “A very long book but I think worth the read. A massive rainstorm seems to have once again flooded the Earth and a children’s hospital in San Francisco has become unmoored from its foundation, floating on the deluged planet like a new Noah’s Ark.”

Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

Patrick O’Brian, Master and Commander. “Book one in his Aubrey/Maturin series—A fabulous series for those who like historic fiction”

Alexandre Dumas, Twenty Years After. “It is the middle child between its better-known companions, The Three Musketeers and Le Vicomte de Bragelonne (Man in the Iron Mask), but it is better than either of them and, I believe, Dumas’s second best novel after The Count of Monte Cristo. The themes become more relevant each day—how to stay friends with political enemies, the question of the best manner of governance, to whom should we be loyal: king, country, employer, friends? All of these and more are explored in this rich work, but almost no one reads it, while I keep coming back to it year after year.”

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man. “This is a great American novel, if not the great American novel. In it Ellison takes possession of Western literature from Homer to Dostoyevsky and Hawthorne and Poe and all the rest of his American predecessors.  He appropriates them all for his own uses.  The story draws the reader inexorably on with its dream logic. Although the story is in some respects dated, it has an incredibly contemporary feel. Yet Ellison seems somehow to have fallen out of fashion. He would refuse to be stifled by the identity politics of our cultural authorities. I’m still trying to figure out how we are to take the novel. It can’t be as a realist work, can it? If you read the book in high school or college, as all my friends seem to have done, you owe it to yourself to give it another look.”

Penelope Fitzgerald, Human Voices. “This book can teach us something about what it means to live in a time of crisis.”

Robert Graves, I, Claudius

Winston Groom, El Paso

Anton Myrer, Once an Eagle. “Finely wrought battle scenes, a primer on leadership and character, it’s easy to see why this novel, which spans the years between WWI and Vietnam, is required reading at the nation’s military academies.”

Louise Penny’s Gamache detective series.

Marilynne Robinson, Housekeeping. “Having read Gilead and Home, I was not prepared for how surreal the story is and how sad. Beautiful prose.”

Paul Scott, The Raj Quartet. “One of those reading experiences I wish I were about to discover for the first time. I can’t think of a better, more complete world to enter and be enchanted by during a time of quarantine.”

Eugene Vodolazkin, Laurus

Stefan Zweig, Chess Story. “The narration is so compelling that it reads very quickly while offering provocative insights into fairness, nobility, sanity, and the bounds of human ingenuity both under the duress of solitude and in the compromising company of others.”

 

Nonfiction:

Bernard Cornwell, Waterloo

Matthew Crawford, The World Beyond Your Head 

William Deresiewicz, A Jane Austen Education. “Deresiewicz is one of the most important social critics of our time, and all his books ought to be more widely read.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor, A Time of Gifts. “A good way to experience travel while we’re all cooped up.”

Kyle Harper, Fate of Rome. It “is easily one of the best non-fiction books of the last five years. It makes the case that pandemics and environmental change played a far more important role in the decline of the Roman Empire than previously thought. Beyond that, however, it’s a pleasure to read an historian in absolute command of his material, from the opening invocation of Aeneas at the mercy of the wind and waves to the concluding reflections on the similarities between Rome and our own times.”

James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small. “One of the funniest writers I’ve ever read.”

Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Sabbath

Robin Wall Kimmerer, Gathering Moss.

Henri Neuwen, The Prodigal Son

Hugo Rahner, Man at Play

Don Richardson, Peace Child

J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy

Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns

 

Final Recommendations (updated 3/20/20)

Albert Camus, The Plague

J. L. Carr, A Month in the Country

Dale Davis, True Word for Tough Times

Mark Helprin’s A Soldier of the Great War.  “Narrated by an old man, a veteran of the Italian alpine campaign against the Nazis, as he travels the countryside with a young man on the verge of real manhood. It’s not only a gripping drama, but a reminder of how much history and memory is carried by our oldest and most endangered neighbors.”

about the author

Micah Mattix is the literary editor of The American Conservative and an associate professor of English at Regent University. Follow him on Twitter.

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