“White Noise” by Don DeLillo (1985)
One of the truly great, subversive, darkly funny novels of recent decades. Anyone who works at a university, or has driven by one, should read this brilliant book about fears, phobias and deceptions in a small college town, USA. Winner of the National Book Award in 1985.
“The Dog of the South” by Charles Portis (1979)
Portis’s novels are eccentric and laugh-aloud wonderful. Ray Midge’s wife runs off with her boyfriend, Ray’s Ford Torino, and his boyhood .410 shotgun. In the South, you don’t ever steal a man’s Ford Torino and .410 and expect him not to chase you from Little Rock down through Texas and into Mexico. The chase ends in Belize, where Ray Midge has an epiphany that Central America would be a better place if everyone read the biography of Lord Nelson.
“I Don’t Know How She Does It” by Allison Pearson (2002)
A funny, incisive novel with an appealing narrator who is the mother of two small children and the star of her London brokerage firm. Kate Reddy’s first person voice is zippy and hilariously entertaining, and you’ll learn more about contemporary England than you would if you read a dry sociology textbook.
“The Waterworks” by E. L. Doctorow (1994)
A page-turning gothic thriller set in 19th century New York City, written by one of the country’s most brilliant stylists. An aging newspaperman sets out to discover what happened to a missing colleague and uncovers ghoulish scientific experiments, Boss Tweed politics, and Dickensian ills and abuses of every sort.
“Moth Smoke” by Mohsin Hamid (2001)
An elegant and sensuous first novel about contemporary Pakistan. A young man living on the fringes of the Lahore elite begins a spiral into drugs and a dangerous affair with the wife of his politically powerful best friend. The story reveals much about Pakistan’s uneasy dance between secularism and state religion, social stability and despotic power, and the quest for international respect amid the nuclear arms race.
“Last Mountain Dancer” by Chuck Kinder (2004)
An unruly romp through that mysterious land known as West Virginia, where “legendary mountain dancers, moonshiners, stupendous marijuana farmers, snakehandlers, blood-feudists, mystery midgets, mothmen and horny space aliens…drop into my home state as regular as clock-work….” Kinder’s voice is unique in American letters: simultaneously poetic, heartbreaking and gonzo hilarious.
“Chronicles, Vol. 1” by Bob Dylan (2004)
Forget that grumpy old guy you see scowling into the camera with his pencil-thin mustache a-twitching. This is the Dylan we all want to know and love. Young, innocent, yearning, funny, brilliant, romantic, enormously curious. He recounts his working-class upbringing in Hibbing, Minn., and how he made his way to Greenwich Village in the late ’50s, a country boy who became a legend.
“Southern Food: At Home, On the Road, In History” by John Egerton (1993)
After spending most of his career writing about race, class and region, Egerton turned to how food reveals Southern stories, positive and negative. In the process, he wrote a classic book about food and culture. It’s a cookbook, oral history, travel literature and cultural study all at once—it helps me think, makes me hungry and feeds my wanderlust.
“Southern Belly: The Ultimate Food Lover’s Guide to the South” by John T. Edge (2002)
Edge has recorded restaurant stories from around the South that explore foodways, families, communities small and large, memory and innovation. As a Southern reader, I find much that is familiar here, but also much that I did not know—because Edge is meticulous in his detail, always asking which South, for whom, and where.
“Cooking Lessons: The Politics of Gender and Food” edited by Sherrie A. Inness (2001)
With articles on foods as diverse as fried chicken, bananas, biscuits, tortillas and Jell-O, this more scholarly anthology explores how our national and regional ideas of masculinity and femininity are played out in kitchens and on dinner tables.
“The Power and the Glory: A Novel of Appalachia” by Grace MacGowan Cooke (2003)
I helped bring this book back into print, and it remains one of my favorite page-turners. The story of a mountain girl who must come down to the city to work in a textile mill, Cooke’s 1910 novel has everything from romance, to car chases, to wandering chiropractors.
“Prodigal Summer” by Barbara Kingsolver (2001)
The perfect book to read in an old chair on a front porch. Kingsolver’s story of three women in a rural mountain community is at turns controversial, lyrical and fulfilling. Ultimately, food unites not only the women with each other but also the human and nonhuman world.
“Astro Turf: The Private Life Of Rocket Science” by M.G. Lord (2005)
In this multi-faceted book, Lord delves into the history of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory through a personal narrative that details both family relationships and a microscopic cultural history. She captures the heyday of robotic space exploration by uncovering the sub-culture in which her rocket scientist father immersed himself while her mother was dying of cancer.
“The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini (2003)
A heartbreaking story and a vivid window into a culture few Americans understand. Against a historical backdrop of 30 years in Afghanistan, Hosseini blends a deeply personal story with a tragic history of oppression and destruction. Colorful depictions of everyday life in Kabul are woven into the young narrator’s story.
“Assassination Vacation” by Sarah Vowell (2005)
I became a fan of Vowell hearing her on NPR’s “This American Life.” Her sardonic humor and intelligence permeate all her commentaries. Her newest book is a particularly fun romp through American history via an unusual tourist itinerary—the sites of famous presidential assassinations.
“You Are Here: Personal Geographies And Other Maps Of The Imagination” by Katharine Harmon (2003)
As someone who loves to stare at maps almost as much as traveling, I found this book to be a gift. The maps in this book will not help you get to any actual destinations. There are maps of the body, DNA, time, moods and popular culture. These maps of the imagination are more vast and varied, whimsical and inspiring, than any map of a particular location.
“The Garden In the Machine: A Field Guide to Independent Films About Place” by Scott MacDonald (2001)
MacDonald is one of the strongest and most passionate advocates for the appreciation and study of avant garde film. This book is a great resource for anyone interested in contemporary film that has constantly pushed the boundaries and inspired many established Hollywood directors with radical artistic leaps away from the mainstream.
“On Photography” by Susan Sontag (1977)
I read Sontag before I ever made a film. Her brilliant analysis inspired me to dig deeper as an artist and to see my work in the context of an incredibly influential history of photography. When Sontag died this past year, I revisited “On Photography” and came away with an even greater appreciation of her sensibility and her way of examining the world through the media we use to depict it.
“Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores The Hidden Side Of Everything” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner (2005)
Just when you think you have figured it all out, it’s refreshing to read something that asks questions about a range of contemporary ideas and uses an effective economic model to answer them. This book deals with relevant issues and analyzes them in ways that turn expected notions upside-down—from crime and abortion to naming trends in society.
“Mongo: Adventures In Trash” by Ted Botha (2004)
OK, I confess, I am a trashophile. In Austin trash hunting is certainly not as respectable as it is in Manhattan, where I lived for 12 years. When I heard someone came out with a book on the subject, I had to read it. “Mongo” is filled with hilarious stories of the author’s encounters with fellow dumpster-divers and his analysis of this unconventional sub-culture.
“Brownsville” by Oscar Casares (2003)
Casares, who hangs his professional hat in our English Department, explores the lives of seemingly rather ordinary Mexican Americans (and an occasional Anglo) in south Texas, people who turn extraordinary in the meticulous, well crafted prose of this gifted young writer.
“Remembering the Alamo: Memory, Modernity and the Master Symbol” by Richard Flores (2002)
Flores, associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts, reminds us that throughout most of the 19th century, no one really cared much about the Alamo, the site of that epic battle in 1836. How and why Texans and the nation began to remember the Alamo in the 20th century is the complicated and illuminating story that Flores has to tell, a story all Texans should know.
“Brown: The Last Discovery of America” by Richard Rodriguez (2002)
Rodriguez is one of our most perceptive public intellectuals and essayists who writes with grace and elegance. Here he explores the Latino condition in the United States through the metaphor but also the pungent reality of the color brown but sheds even more light on what it might mean to be an American today.
“The Book of Lamentations” by Rosario Castellanos (1996)
A probing lyrical novel set in indigenous Mexico. A must read if you really want to get beyond “touristic” Mexico and go deeper into the most fundamental contradictions and tensions that plague that sad and tortured country, many of whose citizens are now among us.
“On Heroes and Tombs” by Ernesto Sabato (1988)
Ostensibly a conflicted love story, Sabato’s vivid imagination, keen intellect and marvelous prose make this novel a probing exploration of Argentina but also the Latin American and human condition.
“The Baroque Cycle” (The trilogy of “Quicksilver,” “The Confusion” and “The System of the World”) by Neal Stephenson (2003-2005)
This epic trilogy will fill up your summer—these three books total 2,612 pages—but you will be grateful. Stephenson is a novelist with the biggest ambitions and an imagination to match. “The Baroque Cycle” is a fictionalized history of the beginnings of computing, set in the late 17th century, and a rip-roaring adventure tale. Like pirate books of your youth wrapped around an amazing description of the dawn of science and rationality.
“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson (1999)
Another tour de force by Stephenson, this time an ingenious weaving of two story lines, both about encryption, one set during World War II and the other in modern times. The earlier story is about the efforts of wartime cryptologists to crack the codes of the Axis enemies, while their descendants in the second story use digital encryption to set up their own currency.
“War Trash” by Ha Jin (2004)
Ha Jin is perhaps the greatest writer writing in English today, all the more amazing in that English is his second and only recently acquired language. Originally from China, he writes in a way that utterly transports you to another time and place. “War Trash” is a hypnotic and completely absorbing novel about a Chinese soldier in the Korean War who is captured and endures the brutal politics of prison camps.
“Little Scarlet: An Easy Rawlins Mystery” by Walter Mosley (2004)
The latest in the delightful and addictive series of books featuring the wonderful character Easy Rawlins, a good man in bad circumstances. A tense mystery set in the days just after the Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965. Mosley perfectly captures the liveliness and the sadness of a poverty-stricken and simmering neighborhood of memorable characters.
“Cloudsplitter” by Russell Banks (1998)
A thunderbolt of a book, one of the great books of the 20th century. The fictionalized story of John Brown, the fanatic anti-slavery activist who launched an armed attack on Harper’s Ferry, Va., in 1859, as told by his son, Owen. A sweeping and cinematic novel by a masterful and poetic writer.
“The Blind Watchmaker” by Richard Dawkins (1986)
“The Blind Watchmaker” is both a great explanatory text on evolution for the general public (as well as more advanced science students), and a reasoned refutation of intelligent design. Dawkins provides lucid, naturalistic explanations for evolution of complex features (e.g., the eye) without appealing to the idea of a designer.
“The American Way of Death Revisited” by Jessica Mitford (1998, revised)
An eminently readable and humorous expose of the funeral industry and how it exploits people at their most vulnerable. It is a testament to Mitford’s witty writing style that the chapters dealing with grotesqueries like embalming and funeral trade shows lose their macabre edge and instead illuminate the predatory tactics, questionable tastes and excesses of the mostly overlooked death industry.
“Age of Reason” by Thomas Paine (1795)
Paine’s work provides a thorough analysis of the Judeo-Christian scriptures, and outlines his arguments against biblical inerrancy and the benevolence of the biblical deity. Believers and nonbelievers alike should read Paine’s thought-provoking arguments, if only to gain insight on the 18th century perspective on the Bible from a founding father and staunch deist.
“Collected Fictions” by Jorge Luis Borges (1998)
These stories represent all of Borges’ fictional writings and touch on themes such as the nature of infinity, time, dreams, memory and reality. Borges is known for the richly textured, dreamlike quality of the alternate universes he creates, and the integration of metaphysics into his fantasy and detective fiction.
“Life of Galileo” by Bertolt Brecht (1938)
A compelling character study of a troubled genius and his conflict with, and eventual capitulation to, the Catholic Church. Galileo’s rumination on the nature of science is informed by his personal experiences: “Science trades in knowledge, which is the product of doubt. And this new art of doubt has enchanted the public…. They snatched the telescopes out of our hands and had them trained on their tormentors.”
“The Trial” by Franz Kafka (1925)
“The Trial” recounts the experiences of a man arrested for an unspecified crime. In this book, Kafka captures the alienation, dread and anxiety of modern existence through the eyes of the protagonist.
“Sizwe Bansi is Dead” by Athol Fugard (1972)
Fugard’s play focuses on the South African law that restricts the travel and employment of black citizens 16 and older by requiring the use of individual identity passes. The lead character assumes the identity of a dead person to find employment, and his day-to-day struggles provide a glimpse into the plight of Africans during the apartheid era.