10 Surprisingly, Shockingly O-M-G Good Books!

*Image source unknown.

This week’s original idea for “Top 10 Tuesdays” (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish) was “Authors I’d Like to See on a Reality Show“.  This one turned out to be too hard for a lot of folks (although I think I could manage – Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, Agatha Christie, David Foster Wallace…. That’s 7. I’ll leave the other 3 to your imagination!) – so they decided to open it up to whatever we choose.  So, my topic is Top 10 Surprisingly Enjoyable Reads! Wherein, I list and talk about 10 books that were much better than I expected them to be.  Go!

01.  The Garden of Eden by Ernest Hemingway.  This book blew me away.  It was not at all what I expected from Hemingway, and I’m pretty familiar with the dude at this point.  It was so honest and so personal – something that, yes, Hemingway’s work always is, but it was, in a way, more sensitive and delicate than his other works.  I found this one to be incredibly beautiful and rather fascinating as an autobiographical study.

02. The Ways of White Folks by Langston Hughes.  A collection of short stories written during the incomparable Jazz Age and as a response to W.E.B. DuBois’s The Souls of Black Folk.  Hughes takes what was a well-meaning anthropological study and exposes its unintentional but ever-present racism and condescension.  The stories range from sad to hilarious and from typical to tragic.  Hughes demonstrates his genius, here, not only in the stories themselves, but in his evaluation and deconstruction of DuBois’s work (right down to the very meaningful difference between the titles’ use of the words “Folk” vs.”Folks”). 

03. The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville .  One of the books I recommend most often to lovers of literature.  This book is almost always overlooked, both by students of American literature in general and by students of the period (or of Melville) specifically.  I found it nothing short of brilliant!  Melville died tragically without recognition; even Moby Dick, his masterpiece, was almost lost to obscurity (it was thanks to a researcher, decades later, that the work -and its author- were finally recognized).  Reading this one in conjunction with Milton’s Paradise Lost is an experience well-worth having!

04. The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens.  I have not been too enamored by any YA Fantasy books since the completion of the Harry Potter series.  So, when I received an ARC of this one last year, I didn’t have very high expectations.  After reading and reviewing it, however, I made sure to set my calendar so that I could go pick-up a copy of the first edition first printing as soon as it was released (and I did!).  The sequel (The Fire Chronicle) releases later this year, and I am super-stoked to get my hands on it!

05. Lust for Life by Irving Stone.  A fictional memoir (or biographical novel?) about the life of Vincent van Gogh.  The narrative is based on actual letters written between van Gogh and his brother, so it is both factual and personal. I don’t know a whole lot about art – I took one Art History course in college and did well-enough, but while I’m interested in the subject, I can’t pretend to be any kind of resource or critic.  This book, though, is so well written that I found myself learning about and appreciating art and “the process,” without having much relatable experience.  The author seems highly reputable (an incredible researcher with honest intentions), which made the experience even more enjoyable for me.

06. Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.  This might be the first book to have ever made me actually laugh-out-loud.  I’m not typically one for memoirs or autobiography (despite my applause of Book #5 above), but I found this particular work to read like fiction, though it was based on factual events.  For me, that’s a great thing, as it means the narrator isn’t only a real person, but also a great storyteller.  Parts of the book are absurd, sure, but there’s nothing I love more in my books than an epically dysfunctional family.

07. The History Boys by Alan Bennett. Along with poetry and non-fiction, another type of literature I don’t seem to read enough of is drama.  While the premise of this one did sound interesting – an English teacher trying to guide and influence his students at an English all-boy’s school- I didn’t see much in the blurb that made me think “this is gonna be somethin’!”  Fortunately, a friend had mentioned how great the movie is – and I’m typically adamant about reading books/plays before watching.  So, I read the play.  And then saw the movie.  And then read the play again.  And then saw the movie again.  And so it goes, every couple of years.  I read very few books multiple times (because I always have so much new material on-deck)… the fact that I’ve read this one at least three times is saying something, alright!

08. Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald.  I am not the biggest Fitzgerald fan.  I enjoyed The Great Gatsby and some of his short stories, but I just “liked” This Side of Paradise.  I read Tender is the Night in graduate school, though, and was utterly stunned.  There might be a pattern, here, in that I find a lot of my favorite/surprisingly enjoyable reads are autobiographical in nature.  This one deals directly with the tumultuous relationship between Fitzgerald and his troubled wife, Zelda (whose one published novel, Save Me the Waltz, deals with the same time period and was recently reviewed on this blog).  I related, personally, with a lot of what Fitzgerald was going through, which also, I think, made me appreciate the book on a deeper, more personal level.

09. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy.  This book intimidated me like no other.  I had read and enjoyed both Anna Karenina and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, so I’m not sure why I felt this one would be so daunting.  Perhaps it’s because War and Peace is considered one of “the” great literary tomes, one that all serious readers and intellectuals either hope to read or take pride in having read at some point.  The story (or, should I say, stories) was beautiful and the philosophy explored was stimulating and passionate.  I couldn’t believe that such an intensely serious (and lengthy) work could be so much fun to read.  I have to also thank the translator for making this experience a great one.  If anyone has been putting this one off, as I had been, because they feel it will be “too hard” or “too dense” – pshaw!  Take it from me, you want to read this one!  It’s actually (seriously) a page-turner.

10. A Single Man by Christopher Isherwood.  I had never heard of Isherwood, until stumbling across this book in the “Recommended For You” section of Amazon.com.  The book is about how a man deals with life, after the death of his long-time partner.  How do we get used to living alone and being single again?  What do we become, after half of what used to define us has disappeared?  This is by no means a fun read; it is, in fact, quite sad and difficult.  That being said, it is very, very human and, although the relationship explored is a homosexual one, the message and experiences are, I think, completely relatable to all of us and particularly to those of us who are growing older (in a relationship) and worry about that future time, or to those of us who have already lost our other half.  So good.

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19 thoughts on “10 Surprisingly, Shockingly O-M-G Good Books!

  1. First of all, I love that you have an image of Lucille Ball. I LOVE her. You get bonus points for that picture. 🙂

    I’ve only read one of the titles on here (War and Peace), so I added a bunch to the big old TBR. I remember you talking about that Melville title awhile ago and I’ve been looking for a copy. Can’t wait to get to it!

    • Hahaha. Yeah, I adore her, too… there’s a biography out there that sounds really interesting. I used Google image (typed in “surprising!”) and that was one of the first to pop-up, so I couldn’t resist!

      I’m actually glad to hear that a lot of these are new to you – you’ve obviously read/heard of a ton of books, so if I’m still managing to spread the word on some really great ones that aren’t all that well known, then I feel accomplished. Yay me!

      The Melville is a MUST in my opinion. I did a massive research on it in graduate school and ultimately wrote a paper on it and on Melville’s influences (the primary of which is Paradise Lost). If you get the chance, I definitely recommend it (the Norton Critical Edition, in particular).

      Which of the others have you interested, may I ask?

      • Well, I think I’ve read part of the Hughes title before, but not the whole thing. Hemingway always interests me, but I haven’t gotten to that one. Oh, and The Emerald Atlas. I love good fantasy, and I haven’t really heard too much about that one! I have the Fitzgerald title on my list, so I’ll be getting to it sometime in the near future…so many good books.

        I have a bio on Ball somewhere…can’t remember where I put it. I’ve loved her since I was a girl. I own all of “I Love Lucy” on DVD and subject Matt to marathons ALL the time. She was such a comic genius.

  2. I haven’t read The Garden of Eden by Hemingway, though I’ve ready almost everything else the man wrote. I will definitely have to look into it! Love Hem.

    I also enjoyed Running with Scissors. Since reading it, I’ve actually developed a fascination with them.

    I completely agree with you about This Side of Paradise being kind of eh. Not my fave, although I adore The Great Gatsby. I have Zelda’s biography on my shelf and can’t wait to read it–she interests me a great deal.

  3. I loved The Emerald Atlas!
    I had a lot of fun with the Top Ten Tuesday this week – somebody needs to get working on the reality show I have planned, because I know it would be awesome.

  4. I read Running With Scissor just this past week. My ex-boss had said never to read him or Cormac McCarthy. I hated The Road, enjoyed No Country For Old Men, and I now adore Augusten Burroughs. A rough life, to be sure, but he has turned it into a livable one.

    • So glad you’re going to give them a try! I hope they don’t disappoint! I know not every book will be received the same way by every reader, but these are definitely some of my favorites (and definitely some of the most pleasant surprises).

  5. I love both of these topics! I agree Agatha Christie would be great on a reality TV show! Nice pics for the OMG Awards! I really should check out more Hemingway because so many people rave about him and I wasn’t the biggest fan. Must pick up a new book.

  6. I love that you have such a great mix of books! Through this list I’ve added some books to my TBR list! I love The Garden of Eden so much, and I agree it is one of the most personal books. It also reads very tender for me, loving, which is different from his other works.

  7. I didn’t do the TTT rounds this week but this post deserved a comment. In fact, I’d quite love to see Mark Twain and Ayn Rand on the same show. Wouldn’t that just be swell?

    And I, too, was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Emerald Atlas. I like to read YA books as a rule but I tend to stay away from middle grade novels. This one definitely surprised me. It didn’t hurt that the big bad witch reminded me viscerally of Glory, the Big Bad from season five of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

  8. I’m also drawn to autobiographical works, so I’ll have to check out your Fitzgerald selection. I also own a copy of The Confidence-Man based on your recommendation. And of course you know I own Lust for Life. 🙂

  9. Really glad Running With Scissors made this list. I have read everything that Augusten’s written and love him more and more with each passing work. I’ve even read his brother’s (John Elder Robison) novels about his diagnosis with Asperger’s. (Even got to see him speak) Not only are they an absolutely fascinating family, but they are talented writers as well!

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