Book Bytes

by Marylaine Block

Books Too Good To Put Down--Serious Fiction


note: if you want to get your hands on any of these books, and they're out of print, click here.

O.K., so you say, what do I mean by serious fiction? The works that I'm including here are A) books that invite you to think seriously about life and the human condition, or B) books that evoke profound emotional responses, or C) books that you learn even more from on a second reading.

Edward Abbey. The Monkey Wrench Gang. Four unlikely rebels work together to screw up the machinery that is destroying the mountains and rivers of the west: a doctor, his receptionist and lover, Bonnie Abzugg, Vietnam vet George Hayduke, Seldom Seen Smith. But the destruction of bulldozers and Other expensive earthmoving equipment makes a lot of people real mad, and they go gunning for the gang. Hayduke appears to have done a death dive, and the other three, caught, put on an excellent semblance of penitents doing community service to make up for their offenses. Don't believe it for a minute, though. They return in Hayduke Lives. Here the stakes are higher, as is the damage to be wrought by a fantastically huge piece of equipment that rips everything in its humongous path. But it is mortal. Its mommy never told it not to play near cliffs.

Margaret Atwood. The Handmaid's Tale. Men have taken the world back, by firing women from their jobs and cutting off their bank accounts and credit cards. (If this sounds implausible, keep in mind that something of the sort if happening now in Afghanistan.) Women now have only two roles: wives, or servant babybreeders for wives. This is a scary book.

Joel Barr. Chapters and Verse. A charming book about a bookstore-owner, E. Baker, who selects her a nice enough young man as her successor and retires. This young man, Matthew, spends the rest of the book pondering about people and how they relate to books. He also spends a lot of time trying to solve the mystery of who E. Baker is (and eventually, where E. Baker is). E. Baker is a fascinating character, and Matthew becomes an interesting person in his own right over time. The story is told largely in letters.

Ray Bradbury. Fahrenheit 451. In a future society, books are outlawed, but they live on nonetheless, kept alive by a dedicated band of booklovers who have become living books, having each committed a complete book to memory. You can burn a book, but you can't burn it out of people's minds. A booklover's nightmare, redeemed by booklovers.

David Brin. The Postman. Nuclear war and the disease following it were bad enough, but what was left was nearly destroyed altogether by violent survivalists. Sixteen years after the holocaust, Gordon, who has wandered westward seeking a place where someone will take charge and restore civilization, inadvertently becomes that person. Nearly freezing, he takes the uniform coat from a dead postman and finds he has become a symbol that government continues to exist somewhere, that somewhere responsible people are restoring order. At first he denies that he is indeed a postman, but other people won't accept his denial--their need to believe is too powerful. He takes their mail and delivers it, as he travels, and, acting as if he is a representative of government, hands down edicts guaranteeing civil liberties and personal freedom. But the civilized communities continue to struggle against the evil and power-mad. Gordon finally has to decide whether the preservation of the myth is important enough to defend with people's lives.

Octavia Butler. Parable of the Sower. In 2025, all sense of community has vanished with most of the jobs. The people who have a lot live in well-guarded fortress communities, while the people who have a little are continually on guard against the desperate starving people and druggies who raid, rape, and murder them and set fire to their homes. Lauren Olamina, a young black girl, daughter of a preacher, is a sensitive, who literally feels others' pain in her own body - a hindrance when her own community is raided and she has to kill somebody to escape along with two other survivors. They set out to walk north to Washington, where it's rumored there are jobs that pay money instead of indebtedness to the company stores, and along the way they pick up several traveling companions. Lauren no longer has any use for her father's Christianity, and instead begins to create her own religion of Earthseed; her companions become her converts.

Orson Scott Card. Lost Boys. A computer genius has moved his family and taken a new job, which turns out to be boring. Furthermore, his employers are trying to steal the game he has written. Meanwhile, his son is being terrorized by a teacher who not only bullies him but invites the other kids to bully him also; the child finds comfort and companionship among imaginary friends--who seem to be the young boys who have been murdered recently. Eventually the father realizes that his son is in serious danger. Throughout, we see the actions of a man who tries sincerely to live and practice his Mormon faith. Also see Card's wonderful Ender's Game. A government takes its talented children and trains them by way of video games to be warriors against interplanetary enemies--but some of the war games aren't games at all. The government uses the children and discards them if they fail. Ender succeeds, in ways nobody anticipated. This isn't just fantasy, it's literature. This is the first book in a series that includes Speaker for the Dead and Xenocide. Also, The Treasure Box, about a remarkable man who falls in love with a woman and learns too late she is a deadly succubus.

David Carkeet. The Greatest Slump of All Time. A fine novel about a team that stands a chance to win the world series in spite of the fact that their team includes a bunch of players suffering from depression, the world's most boring human being, a manager who gives the worst peptalks in history, a sneaky outfielder who plays some splendid game-winning tricks on his opponents, and a player who has just realized that he hates his wife.

Robert Coover. The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop.. A brilliant book about a man who creates his own world, and then vanishes into it entirely. Waugh has created an entire baseball league, inventing the players and their histories and statistics, as well as the teams and their historica rivalries. He then plays out their games with dice and a complicated set of rules, and keeps the statistics and writes up each addition to the history of the league. Day by day, the real Waugh becomes grayer and less substantial, as the Manager takes over his life.

Douglas Coupland. Microserfs. [email protected] is part of a house full of computer geeks, who follow Michael in his new OOP! computer venture startup to Silicon Valley, where ever so slowly, they begin to have actual lives. An interesting feature--characters are introduced by the seven categories they would choose in Jeopardy. (Our staff went around asking each other what our 7 Jeopardy categories are. Very revealing.)

Don DeLillo. White Noise. What a strange book it continued to be right up to the end. It seems almost structureless, like there's no particular reason why it should have started when it started, and ended when it ended, a real slice of life sort of thing, though it does take us through a crisis in the life of a marriage, and at the same time takes the skewer to academic life--the hero is a professor and scholar of Hitler, who is desperately struggling to learn German.

Peter DeVries. The Vale of Laughter. The story of a man with an irresistible urge to impersonate Groucho Marx. This has its up-side, in that the man is genuinely funny. The downside, of course, is that he uses his wit as a barrier against the world, and as a way of avoiding recognizing and dealing with his problems and relationships. It's a genuinely funny, witty book, and a profoundly sad one too. Also recommended, DeVries' Reuben, Reuben, which asks the question, "are men and women actually members of the same species?" And answers it in the negative.

Ron Faust. Fugitive Moon. A manic-depressive pitcher is suspected as a serial killer. He thinks he's innocent, but can't be sure because he doesn't remember everything he's done in his manic phase. The pitcher thinks and talks throughout about ideas. Lacking any sense of the emotive power of the ideas and words, he continually hurts and angers people. He despises the babble people use to conceal their absence of thought, and he lapses continually into parody of televangelist-babble, Ginsu-knife-babble, politician-babble, sportscaster-babble, etc. It is really a book about the power of language, told in brilliant language.

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch. One of the two funniest books ever written about the end of the world. (Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide is the other.) Armageddon is scheduled to occur, but the 11-year-old anti-Christ was switched in his crib with the wrong baby, and the demons have been carefully training the wrong child, who is ordinary, and totally lacking in the required powers. When the demons track down the correct anti-Christ, he is unwilling to play his part--he likes the world just fine and wants to see a lot more of it. The motorcyclists of the apocalypse, who are seriously annoyed that all the good scourges were taken by the four horsemen, are not to be missed.

Dorothy Gilman. The Maze in the Heart of the Castle. A kind of Pilgrim's Progress for a golden boy, suddenly deprived of both parents, and trying to understand why and how this has happened, and what meaning there could be in a world that allows that to happen. He meets many people who, in one way or another, shrink from life, and tempt him toward an easier path; he also meets and loves those who will betray him. But he survives and learns. Beautifully written, well suited for reading aloud, this book can be as meaningful to ten year olds and adults alike.

Bob Greene. All Summer Long. High school buddies meet again at a high school reunion, and resolve to spend a summer bumming around the country together, reliving their youth and getting to know one another again. The summer adventure changes them all and deepens their friendship, and gives two of them the courage to make radical and necessary changes in their lives. A really beautiful story of male bonding that you have to be over 40 (but not necessarily male) to appreciate.

William Hallberg. The Rub of the Green. A fine novel about a professional golfer who puts everything he's got into his game, because golf is a lot easier to deal with than people or emotions. When he does allow himself to care about somebody, he assaults the man who is attacking her, and ends up in prison; his chosen prison labor is creating a two-hole golf course. The thought that goes into playing a good game, or creating a course is well-depicted. And the hero comes to terms with himself over the course of the novel.

Donald Harington. The Choiring of the Trees. Some authors are good at telling stories, some are good at painting pictures with their perfectly chosen words, and some are good at creating living,breathing characters. Harington is one of the great writers who does all three. This is a story of a man framed and wrongfully convicted of rape and sentenced to death in Arkansas in the early 1900's, and of the woman who is convinced of his innocence and determined to save him.

John Hersey. The Child Buyer. About a brilliant young boy, a misfit spurned and humiliated by his peers, and the company that would like to buy him and use him. Told in the form of Congressional hearings, which makes it read a lot like a play, it is also a brilliant parody of politicians and their rhetoric.

Russell Hoban. Riddley Walker. At some time in the future, centuries after nuclear holocaust, society has somewhat reconstructed itself, and people are beginning to attempt to reconstruct written language based on the sounds of existing language. This makes the book a challenge to read--it almost has to be read aloud to be understood, because of course, spoken language has shifted, and the spelling is almost totally phonetic. Society has come to distrust profoundly anything smacking of science and technology, because of the disaster it led to, and society reinforces this distrust by constantly reiterating a parable of the temptation of science and knowledge, told in puppet shows.

Shirley Jackson. We Have Always Lived in the Castle. There are those who will argue that Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House is her best work, but I like this one, a story about a girl, who survived the massacre of her family, becoming, in the eyes of the townspeople, the primary suspect. The novel is moody, atmospheric, and the heroine is fascinating.

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Last updated August, 2006

This site is created by Marylaine Block,
Writer, Book Reviewer, and "Librarian without Walls."

All links on this page checked December 12, 1997.
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