At least I’m not alone. After confessing during a call for book recommendations my struggle with the highly regarded “The Devil in the White City” others came forward to admit they also had a hard time finding their way through Erik Larson’s intertwining tales of the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair and notorious killer Dr. H.H. Holmes.
One reader in fact told me she absolutely hated it but at a friend’s urging had picked up another Larson book, “In the Garden of Beasts,” and had a completely different reaction to the story of an American family navigating Hitler’s Berlin. Give it a try, she said.
Yet another “Devil” defector approached me at a government meeting and handed over “The Expats.” Not great literature, she warned, but it kept her riveted.
But that’s the thing. I never called for great except in the sense that the recommendation be something that held one’s attention or provided good cocktail fodder. Give me something new to indulge. Give me something that takes me out of my reading box or even plays into my favorite genres.
And give readers did, much to my surprise and delight.
“The Gift of Nothing” by “Mutts” cartoon creator P. McDonnell was one unexpected idea. Five minutes of the summer but worth sharing with all, the recommender said.
“The Fault in Our Stars,” came another. The title sounds sweet, what is the plot? I asked. The direct answer, “Kids with cancer. You know, an uplifting classic.”
Two very different books. Two things I never would have discovered on my own.
Same goes with “The Hangman’s Daughter,” a mix of medieval torture, history, some witchcraft and it appears a whole lot of brutality. The woman recommending it said as much in her message, saying it is “super written” but warning me twice not to knock her for suggesting such a violent book. Note to her: A peek at my library would place any worries to rest.
Other book ideas — and sometimes the books themselves — came in. “The Pillars of the Earth,” for one. “The Imperfectionists” and “The Devil’s Tooth” were others with a particular journalistic bend and the latter even including an obsession with sharks. Who needs “Sharknado” with this type of recommendation?
One local even suggested his own unpublished manuscript.
Many didn’t stop at individual books but advocated entire series — James Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club books, John Sandford’s “Prey” series (“Stolen Prey” a particular page turner, I’m told), John Grisham and David Baldacci. Lilian Jackson Braun with her “The Cat Who …” series, the Travis McGee novels by John MacDonald (“read ’em all” the suggester encouraged).
Of course, this same person also recommended one book I absolutely hated (Wally Lamb’s “She’s Come Undone”; my apologies to him and to Oprah’s Book Club) and one that I have on a must-read list, “Bossypants” by Tina Fey. Just goes to show you never to gauge a person’s taste by one book (or its cover). The list also included a few by author A.M. Homes who’ve I’ve enjoyed in the past. This book will change your life. This I discovered was the recommended book’s title, not a promise.
Who knows though? Any of these books might be the one that does change my life, or yours — or not. Perhaps they will be simply a lovely way to let the day fall way or while away a couple hours here and there.
The same friend who loaned me “Brideshead Revisited,” the book on which I’m procrastinating and for which I sought alternatives, said his mother always told him that if you read, you’re never alone.
The same also holds true when you reach out to other readers.
Michelle Durand's column “Off the Beat” runs every Tuesday and Thursday. She can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone (650) 344-5200 ext. 102. What do you think of this column? Send a letter to the editor: email@example.com.