Ayn Rand: Atlas Shrugged (Penguin Modern Classics)
A user called Theta9 on LibraryThing summed it up. "There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year-old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs."
Helen Garner: The Spare Room
The people we love can be infuriating and self-destructive, especially when they're sick. How does a carer continue to care? This tale quietly rips your heart out. Nobody describes the minutiae of every day life with the same clarity and symbolic force which Garner brings.
Victoria De Grazia: Irresistible Empire: America's Advance Through Twentieth-Century Europe
A beautifully written treatise on how Europe became middle-class after World War I, under the influence of the USA. The mercantile community in those newfanged Rotary Clubs, were considered racy and radical. Thomas Mann was a Rotarian. No shit.
Byron Sharp: How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don't Know
If you're a marketer, get your hand off it and buy the damned book. Your job is simpler than you think.
Rudolph Herzog: Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler's Germany
The author, son of film-maker Werner Herzog, traces the jokes people told abou the Nazis in order to prove that most people knew the nature of the regime. To me, this slender collection of political humour shows that there simply weren't enough jokes cracked, not that there lots of sly jokes which showed a public spirit of resistance. The funniest and cruellest jokes, ironically, often came from Hitler's victims themselves.
Sean Condon: My 'dam Life: Three Years in Holland (Lonely Planet Journeys)
Sean has an ear for the cadences of modern, media-warped speech. He has a heart for the subtle humiliations which life deals out to the ordinary bloke, and he retalliates by humiliating the famous in return. A genuine, new, and distinctive voice in literature. He's also a pal, so buy his books. A lot.
Bill Wasik: And Then There's This
Boy, have I had it with Tipping Points, Flat Worlds, and anything 2.0. So imagine my delight when one of these so-called business books turns out to be a gem. Wasik is a gentleman adventurer in the world of new media. An amateur pundit with a day job as a rock journalist, he dips a toe in the water of viral culture every so often, and manages to beat the pros. He was, after all, the man who invented the flash-mob. Name one other writer on cyberculture who starts his book by quoting John Stuart Mill. That's class.
Thomas Doherty: Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality, and Insurrection in American Cinema, 1930-1934 (Film and Culture Series)
It was six years between the birth of the talkies and the enactment of the draconian MPAA Production Code in 1934. But in those few short years, Hollywood relased some of the most subversive, racy and cynical movies it would ever make. The parallels with our own time, as the forces of censorship stir again, are frightening. the cover shows ten items which the Production Code would never allow. Among them, an inner thigh, wickedness unpunished, drug use, consumption of alcohol that is not essential to the plot and the mockery of religion. I ask you: what's left that's worth making movies about?
Herodotus: The Histories (Oxford World's Classics)
Herodotus was the Perez Hilton of Ancient Greece. No gossipy detail misses his evil eye. Pericles? Don't get him started...
Tony Hendra: The 80s: A Look Back at the Tumultuous Decade 1980-1989
This book was written in 1978, as a joke. It is read, in 2009, as an historical document.
Peter C. Whybrow: American Mania: When Too Much Is Not Enough
How being a nation of immigrants messes with American heads (and waists). Incredibly insightful.
Mrs. Dorothy Parker: The Portable Dorothy Parker (Viking portable library)
She's a total bitch. But you knew that.
P.J. O'Rourke: Republican Party Reptile
O' Rourke says he's a Republican, but he appears on NPR. A (political) party animal. His viewpoints, in large measure, suck. But I bet he mixes a mean Gimlet.
Mary Karr: The Liars Club
Like Nick Flynn, another poet tells her tale of childhood neglect and abuse. The portrait she paints of her star-crossed parents, held together by lust and divided my tragedy, will bring you to tears.
Nick Flynn: Another Bullshit Night in Suck City: A Memoir
How does it affect your soul, if you're working in a homeless shelter, and your dad checks in? And you have to throw him out for bad behaviour? A gut-wrenching tale of family dysfunction, emotional torture, and (yes) vanity. Flynn is a poet, and he tells his tale in a way that's morbidly beautiful.
Muriel Spark: The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie
The relationship between a gifted student and a truly inspiring teacher is an intimate one. So intimate, the student and teacher can resemble two lovers, with their intrigues, passions, and potential for betrayal. Spark's cool, detatched style is at odds with the simmering emotion that runs through this tale of adolescent self-discovery. It makes her story all the more heartbreaking. A masterpiece.
Mark Leyner: My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist
Dali once described surrealism as the chance meeting of a fish and an anvil on an ironing board. As a modern surrealist, Leyner provides plenty of anvils, but the fish are somehow missing. A dozen eskimos in bowler hats have just rung the doorbell, and I must get my llama to make them hot fudge sundaes. Do I make myself clear?
Bruno Schulz: The Street of Crocodiles and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)
Magic realism at its best. Also seek out his Sanatorium under the Sign of the Hourglass.
Japan Travel Bureau: Japan in Your Pocket: "Salaryman" in Japan No. 8 (Eibun Nihon Etoki Jiten)
Perhaps the funniest book on Japanese culture ever written. And it's meant to be serious. Did you know that the highest ranking executive gets the safest seat in a taxi? I didn't, until this book explained all those silly details of business etiquette. Special section on how to curse your bucho.
Dana Thomas: Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster
A staggeringly well-written book from a former Washington Post fashion correspondent. The many hundreds of billions of dollars which passes through the hands of the luxury goods industry has not trickled-down to the people who actually do the work. Once proud brands tarnish their reputations by badge-engineering. A merciless expose of luxury marketing, but one which respects the artisanal ideals which spawned the industry in the first place.
Gore Vidal: Myra Breckinridge & Myron
Today, Vidal concentrates on scathing essays and scandalous memoir. But you'll find his best work in his early satires. Myra Breckenridge tells the story of a ball-busting post-op transexual woman who wreaks revenge on the millieu of B-list celebs and wannabes who spurned her as a man. This short book carries not an ounce of fat; every word packs a punch. It is, without doubt, his masterpiece. The sequel, Myron, runs longer, and is just a little too aware of its own cleverness. Irritated at a Supreme Court decision on censorship, Vidal replaces each of the proscribed nine dirty words with the names of the Justices themselves. Oddly, the judges all seem to sport names which suit the purpose. I am especially fond of the name for a vulgarity which refers to the female genitalia; Justice Whizzer White.
Michael Heyward: The Ern Malley Affair
This is so post-modern, it makes your head spin. In 1940s Australia, two would-be poets Harold Stewart and James McAuley grew tired of rejections from avant-garde literary journals. As a lark, the two composed what they thought was were silly parodies of the prevailing modernist school, and submitted them under an assumed name to Angry Penguins, a new journal published by the Adelaide dandy Max Harris. Harris said they were brilliant. The (real) authors revealed that the poems were frauds. Or were they still brilliant, even if the poets responsible never intended them to be? A fascinating artistic morality tale, which still stirs arguments in Australian academic circles.
Chad Kultgen: Average American Male: A Novel
Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus. Drop me off on Mars, OK?
Robert Whiting: You Gotta Have WA (Vintage Departures)
Prospective expats often ask me for tips on doing business in Japan. This book, which tells the story of American baseball players recruited to Japanese clubs in the eighties, proved the single most useful guide to how a Japanese organisation works. Richard Whiting is a sportswriter who has spent most of his career in Japan, and carved a niche for himself explaining the curiosities of Japanese team sports. Check out his most famous work, The Chrysanthemum and the Bat.
Alice Miller: The Body Never Lies: The Lingering Effects of Cruel Parenting
I have suffered through endless therapy sessions, support groups, and self-help books which proclaim the abused must forgive their oppressors in order to find peace. Alice Miller calls bullshit on this quatsch, and shows that victims make better progress if they do NOT forgive their abusers. I concur.
Philip Roth: Portnoy's Complaint. (Vintage)
A seminal work. In more ways than one.