When it comes to reading, I'm not the type of person who follows various bestseller lists for recommendations. I used to do that and wound up wasting my time reading a lot of crap. The DaVinci Code comes to mind.
From a reading standpoint, 2004 was a "word of mouth" year for me and I based my selections on recommendations from friends and fellow writers (and some who I consider both!) I hope that if you scan my list and you find yourself wondering, "did I read this?" you'll pick one of the following books up in 2005 because they're all really great and you can tell your friends they were recommended to you by a Seattle Simian.
One of my dear writer friends loaned me Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maas and I appreciated the examples of books Maas used when illustrating a point of character, plot or narrative development--so much so, I wrote down 30 or so titles of books I had either read long ago or missed entirely.
What follows, then, is a list of classics I've enjoyed this past year and some newer selections which I believe are also destined to withstand the test of time:
Rabbit is Rich
Rabbit at Rest - John Updike
You can't read one of the above without reading the other three (g'wan, read the first one and you'll agree). Updike delves into the human psyche, creating characters so real, I felt like I knew and really HATED Rabbit. The series spans nearly four decades during Harry "Rabbit" Angstrom's lifetime and Updike used some pretty sharp imagery with was consistent among all four books.
Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut
Easily one of the best books I've read. Vonnegut's matter-of-fact voice is suberb and the story borders on pee-in-your-pants funny to thought-provoking.
1984 - George Orwell
How'd I miss having to read this in high school? Maybe it was assigned in my Junior year, which, quite coincidentally, was 1984--but it was also the year I cut so many classes that my GPA plummeted to a mere 1.8. Either way, I'm glad I somehow skipped it because it's much more meaningful to me now, as a wisened old monkey in a world full of crazy motherfuckers who remind me very much of Winston Smith's comrades. I've seen the movie, of course, with John Hurt (and as a matter of fact, I rented it again after reading the book) and always admired the Apple commercial (that was THE commercial that did it for me in terms of getting my shit together and going to college to study advertising) but none of these things holds a candle to Orwell's descriptions of a world so completely fucked up. Where Vonnegut spelled out the ruins of Dresden (by comparing it to walking on the moon), Orwell's storytelling placed the reader in a war-torn London without having to use one rubble-esque descriptor.
Lolita - Vladimir Nabokov
Lolita is beautifully written, to the point where, as sick as it sounds, you (dear reader) start to feel sorry for the perv.
I can't help but read this book now and think of Jeremy Irons, because he brought Humbert Humbert to life, and I'm really turned on by his diction. He was perfect for that role.
Dry - Augusten Burroughs
I loved this book from the get-go as I, too, aspired to be (a female) Darren Stevens from Bewitched. Having spent 16 years in advertising and PR (mostly in agencies, too...my God, how sick is that?) I felt so connected to Burroughs in this novel and I loved his depiction of the agency world; but beyond that, Dry is a great story about staying sane and sober, in a world that's often better lived-in completely sauced.
Running With Scissors - Augusten Burroughs
Contrary to my review of Eggers's book, I found Burroughs's memoir so utterly fantastic, there were times I thought it was fiction. I couldn't believe his incredible story and I'm really looking forward to the movie's release in 2005.
You Shall Know Our Velocity! - Dave Eggers
Eggers's characters and setting are so vivid, I often believed this was memoir, not fiction. I was amazed by his storytelling. I could have done without the cow part, but...hey, that's me. I hated the short story Eggers wrote about the Golden Retriever drowning in a river, too.
Other books I recommend:
Martin Dressler - The Tale of an American Dreamer - Steven Millhauser
Perfume - A Story of Murder - Patrick Suskind
The Sound and the Fury - William Faulkner
To The Lighthouse - Virginia Woolf