As the Fall season turns into Winter and people start going into hibernation mode as the weather gets cold and snowy, here is my 1st volume of book recommendations that will last you through the next few months:
1.) Catch 22 by Joseph Heller is my favorite book of all-time and has been ever since I read it at the young age of 16. This was the first novel that I had read which was satirical in content and utilized the concept the dark humor, which made it an enjoyable and fun read. Main characters such as Yossarian, Orr, Chaplain, Nately, Snowden, etc. were all really well-developed so you know who they were and their individual backgrounds before the end of the novel. It did help that for the first part of the book, each of the first eleven chapters were told from a different character’s perspective rather than focusing on Capt. John Yossarian for every chapter.
Describing the events from different points of view through the third-person in a non-chronological order really made it unique in a way. This made Catch-22 an easier read as this kind of format gave me as the reader the chance to put the different events together into a singular plotline rather than spell it all out for me as other non-fiction novels usually do. This novel also introduced to me several important themes that I have thought about or come into conflict with in my own life. Examples of some of these themes being: Absurdity, ridiculousness of bureaucracy, questioning one’s religious faith, and the power, influence of greed and capitalism over others.
2.) Freedom by Jonathan Franzen is another favorite and an excellent fiction novel focusing on an American family, the Berglund’s, and the complex relationships that they have with each other, their friends, and their lovers. Their story takes place over the course of one generation from the late 1970’s up until the beginning year of the Obama administration, in 2009. Each family member is well represented in Franzen’s novel with the narrative flow going from Walter (the father) to Patty (the mother), and then on to the children of Joey and Jessica. Franzen also develops his supporting characters to be an integral part of the story such as Richard Katz, Lalitha, Connie, and Jenna who all play a role in the unfolding of the novel. Freedom also successfully goes back and forth from first-person to third-person narrative quite easily and without any major hiccups.
One of my favorite things about this novel is that incorporates into the plot the major events in American history and society that have happened over the past generation. Examples of these events in the book include the burgeoning environmentalist movement, 9/11, the Iraq war, and the rise of social media. I believe Franzen does a great job of bringing out the peculiarities and absurdities that encompasses American suburban life and he really shows you how the family changes over the years due to these outside events but also the changing relationships that mark these people’s lives. A fascinating novel overall, I highly recommend it.
3.) The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer is my favorite non-fiction novel and a book that should be read by any American who wants to understand the current state of our society, culture and our politics. Packer is an excellent reporter for The New Yorker who previously wrote a book about the struggles of the U.S. endeavor in Iraq in The Assassin’s Gate. Packer got the inspiration for writing this novel after he comes home from Iraq and witnesses the 2008 financial crisis and the collapse of the markets. Along with the auto industry, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, he realizes that the major institutions that have held America together with a sense of unity were falling all around him. The author does an excellent job of focusing on three ordinary Americans and detailing their personal history from the beginning of ‘The Unwinding’ in the late 1970’s up until the 2012 election.
These three people are Dean Price, a struggling tobacco farmer in North Carolina who wants to revitalize the farmland by providing biofuel to school buses; Tammy Thomas, a black woman from Youngstown, Ohio who becomes a community organizer after losing her job multiple times from the closure of the factory plants along this rust belt city; and Jeff Connaughton, who comes to Washington as a staffer for Senator Joe Biden but becomes disillusioned by the lobbying, big finance levers that are pulling the strings of our politicians and leaders. One of my favorite things about this book is that Packer contrasts these three ordinary Americans with the giants of American pop culture, politics, music, and society by giving brief chapters devoted to the success of individuals of Oprah, Peter Thiel, Sam Walton, Jay-Z, Newt Gingrich, Alice Waters, etc. A must read in my opinion.
4.) The Social Animal by David Brooks is another great non-fiction novel that I have read and re-read over the past couple of years. Out of all the books on this list, it has probably influenced me the most as a person. I usually disagree with Brooks’ op-ed columns in The New York Times due to his conservative leanings but when it comes to sociology, human psychology and understanding the sub-conscious, Brooks has done the research and it really shows through in this book. The most fascinating aspect of this book is how he sets it up as a fictional novel with a male and a female character named Harold and Erica respectively.
Mr. Brooks uses a lot of recent research and findings to assert conclusions and summaries while charting an imaginary course for these two characters’ lives from Birth/Early Life to Death. My favorite chapter of the book and an area that relates to me personally is when Brooks describes the recent phenomenon of ‘The Odyssey Years’ or a person’s twenties where they are deciding what to do with career, marriage, and whether or not to have children. Brooks contrasts the ‘On The Road’ vs. ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ type of lifestyles that young people often choose between as they come out of the Odyssey years. He details the differences of how to live such as ‘Single v. Married’ and decides its better for a person to establish roots in a community rather than going from place to place indefinitely. He makes a compelling argument using recent research for explaining what molds us into who we become in each major stage of our lives.
5.) A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn should be mandatory reading for any high school student in America who’s enrolled in a U.S. history class. Unfortunately, it wasn’t required reading for me in my Advanced Placement course which was a shame. Luckily, I was able to read it during my senior year of high school when a family member recommended the book to me and left me with a copy. The lasting appeal of Zinn’s novel is that unlike many other history books, it deals with the lives of ordinary Americans struggling through the different, tumultuous periods of our short history and the author does an excellent job of relying upon interviews, data, and statistics to give their side of the story.
Learning about the struggles of the Native Americans, the Women’s Rights movement, Civil Rights movement and other marginalized Socialists and Labor Rights activists like Eugene V. Debs was illuminating for millions of readers and myself. If only more politicians and the elite would read Zinn’s words, perhaps we as Americans would learn not to repeat the mistakes of the past and truly realize the notion of “Equality for all.” Lastly, one chapter of A People’s History that I continue to believe is very prescient even today is titled, “The Coming Revolt of The Guards” where Zinn hints at the discontent of American society even back in the early 2000’s due to the collapse of organized labor, growing wealth inequality, and the marginalization of the poor. Even though it’s a non-fiction book rooted in the past, Mr. Zinn had a lot of words of warning for our collective future.