At least once a week, I have someone asking me for a book recommendation. I mean, not to brag or anything, but I’m pretty darn good at giving suggestions. Because of this, I wanted to make a list of books that I’ve read and enjoyed. I do not have ANY patience for boring books, so if I’ve finished a book, it means I liked it. I don’t finish a book just because I started it– that’s a giant freaking waste of my time.
I have a tendency to veer towards tales of woe, murder and dysfunction. However, I also like books that bring hope, books that provide reassurance and those that make me feel like I’m a part of something BIGGER. My hope is that you can find something interesting, engrossing (or gross), helpful or just plain entertaining on this list.
Also, three things:
1. These books are in no particular order and I did not group them by genre. I’ve found that when I read through lists that are grouped, I usually skip over categories that I’m not interested in, thereby possibly missing something I might like.
2. All of these books can be purchased on Amazon by just clicking on the title (see how easy I made it for you?). I get a “finder’s fee” if a book is purchased, but this “finder’s fee” doesn’t increase the cost of the book (Amazon makes me tell you that, FYI).
3. This list was originally going to be 100 books long, but WHOA. This list of 52 took me three days to write, so I’ll save the next 50 for another post.
So, here goes nothing. I present to you 50 books that RULE:
Far From The Tree by Andrew Solomon
I talk about this book ALL OF THE TIME. The author gathered 10,000 pages of interviews with families that have children with various disabilities, terminal illnesses, children that end up murderers (including Dylan Klebold’s parents). He wrote about the challenges of raising a child that is different from the “perfect” child that you expected to have. It’s heartbreaking, but also renews your faith in human beings and the love that they’re capable of sharing. It’s long, but it’s so worth your time. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, READ IT.
What Is The What by Dave Eggers
This is categorized as fiction, but it’s based on the true story of a Lost Boy from Sudan who moved to America. The story goes back and forth between his experience in Sudan and his experiences in America. It is intense and heartbreaking, but there is, surprisingly, a lot of humor in it, also. I remember when I reached the last page I practically cried because I didn’t want the book to be over (this never happens, by the way).
A Stranger Beside Me by Ann Rule
This is a classic, really well written true crime book. This is Ann’s true story of Ted Bundy and her personal relationship with him BEFORE and AFTER his killings. Side note: pretty much any Ann Rule book, uh, rules.
The Dirt: Confessions of the World’s Most Notorious Rock Band by Tommy Lee and Vince Neil
This book is…….crazy. Obviously it’s about Motley Crue and all of their shenanigans, but these shenanigans are jaw dropping. I couldn’t believe what I was reading half of the time and I loved every.single.second of it. I even got my father-in-law to read it!
Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World’s Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb
This is about the hunt for Adolf Eichmann after his escape to Argentina at the end of WWII. Eichmann was one of the main architects of the Third Reich, responsible for deporting and killing millions of Jews. I’m not really a “spy thriller” kind of gal, but this book was super fast paced and it was fascinating to learn about all of the tactics that were used to capture him. Fake passports? Cameras imbedded in briefcases? Stabbing someone with a needle to sedate them? Check, check and CHECK.
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt
I barely EVER read fiction, but I had heard this was good so I picked it up in an airport on a trip and forced myself to read it. It’s the story about a boy who loses his mother, a painting and finding out that things are never what they seem. This book is a doozy, but it’s the type of book that you read compulsively into the night even though you have to GO TO BED. Please don’t let the length scare you!
A Father’s Story by Lionel Dahmer
This is a book written by Jeffery Dahmer’s father (just in case the author’s name didn’t give it away). Lionel writes about Jeffrey growing up, along with the regrets and sadness that he experienced after realizing that the son he loved was truly a monster. This was another one that I couldn’t stop reading even though my eyes were BURNING.
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Joan is, hands down, one of my favorite writers. She is a sharp observer of life and I feel like after every sentence of hers that I read, I say, “OH, YES” and nod my head, knowingly. This particular book is about the life and death of her daughter who passed away shortly after Joan’s husband died. The book about Joan’s husband’s death is called The Year of Magical Thinking and it is also a must read.
Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer
Jon Krakauer is an another author that I love. I swear, he could write a book about dirt and I would think it was FASCINATING. This book is a history of Mormonism intertwined with the story of a double murder committed by two brothers in the name of God.
Empty Mansions: The Mysterious Life of Huguette Clark and the Spending of a Great American Fortune by Bill Dedman and Paul Clark Newell Jr.
This is the story of a woman who grew up in one of the wealthiest families in NYC and ended up living in a hospital towards the end of her life. She was somewhat forgotten about until people got curious and wondered who this old lady was and WHY WAS SHE LIVING IN A HOSPITAL?
River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
Teddy Roosevelt + the Amazon river = a crazy adventure story. I’ll never forget the scene where the author talks about Teddy sleeping in the dark in the rainforest with monkeys SCREECHING all night long. Um, no thanks, I’ll stay home.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Everyone knows what this book is and I’m sure people are pretty over it. BUT, I had to put it on the list. After a years-long fiction drought, this is the first novel I had read in a decade and I LOVED IT. Ever since then, I’ve been all like, “Where’s my next Gone Girl, grrrrl?”
The Indifferent Stars Above: The Harrowing Story of the Donner Party by Daniel James Brown
I cannot tell you how much I love this book. I have recommended it to maybe 4,5,6 people and they have all loved it. As the title suggests, it’s about the failed Donner trek. There are so many times while reading it that I yelled, “NOOOOO, don’t take that path!” or “NOOOOO, I would never want to eat my sister!” Anyway, you get the idea.
Smoke Gets In Your Eyes: And Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty
I am terrified of death so the fact that I read this and loved it says something. Caitlin has a website called The Order of the Good Death and is an advocate for reforming the funeral industry in the United States (she also has a lot of good stories about dead bodies). This book is about her start in the industry and while some of it was scary to read, it ended up making me feel a *little* bit better about dying.
The Rules of Inheritance by Claire Bidwell Smith
This woman lost her mother, her father and her best friend in short order and it is her take on working on her grief (in good and not-so-good ways) and surviving tragedy. She is really, really honest about losing her mother and I found her honesty to be refreshing.
Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Do you think living in the Unites States is bad? Read this and you’ll have a new appreciation for life. Did someone budge in line in front of you at the grocery store? Well, at least you’re not eating GRASS for dinner.
Mrs. Astor Regrets: The Hidden Betrayals of a Family Beyond Reproach by Meryl Gordon
I remember when Brooke Astor died and there was all of this hullabaloo about her son stealing her money and allowing her to live in filth. It turns out that this was all true, but this tells the back story of her life and, truth be told, I adore reading about rich people so I LOVED IT.
And The Band Played On: Politics, People and the AIDS Epidemic by Randy Shilts
This is an extensive piece of investigative journalism that delves into the history of the AIDS epidemic in the United States. Randy Shilts was simultaneously praised and derided for this book that brought so much needed attention to this disaster that was/is the AIDS crisis.
Dead Men Do Tell Tales: The Strange and Fascinating Cases of a Forensic Anthropologist by William Maple
At least once a month I think about the scene in this book where a man sticks a knife in a radiator and repeatedly rams his head into the knife, killing himself. If you want more of this, this is your book!
Shot in the Heart by Mikal Gilmore
Mikal Gilmore is a music journalist that writes for Rolling Stone and I always find his articles to be some of the best in that magazine. I like him so much that I even read his article about Gregg Allman (I don’t care about Gregg Allman). He also happens to be the brother of Gary Gilmore, the first man to be executed after the United States reinstated the death penalty and this is his story. Also, he chose death by firing squad, which is pretty badass, in my opinion.
Night by Elie Wiesel
This masterpiece is Elie Wiesel’s horrific account of living in, and surviving, the death camps as a teenager during WWII.
The Autumn Balloon by Kenny Porpora
I picked this book up on a clearance rack at the bookstore. I had never heard of it, but because it screamed DYSFUNCTIONAL FAMILY I bought it. After reading it, I was surprised that I had never heard about it. I related to a lot of what he had to say and I could FEEL his descriptions of his family members, their hurt and his resilience. I can still SMELL his description of wearing clothes that stank like smoke.
The Girls Who Went Away: The Hidden History of the Women Who Surrendered Children for Adoption in the Decades Before Roe v. Wade by Ann Fessler
This is a heartbreaker about woman who were forced to give up their children for adoption before Roe v. Wade became. The book describes the pressures put on these mothers to give up their children and the psychological effects of having their children torn from them.
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collusion of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman
This is the story of a young Hmong girl in California experiencing severe health issues and the difficulties navigating two different cultures that have very different views on healthcare. The story is also woven with the history of Hmong community in America. It has one several awards for non-fiction.
The Five Invitations: Discovering What Death Can Teach Us About Fully Living by Frank Osteseski
Frank Osteseski is the founder of the Zen Hospice Project and has worked with thousands of dying people. This is a meditative book on the meaning of life and the necessity of having awareness of, and, embracing death. I found it to be helpful in reframing my thoughts on death and with letting go of regret and expectations.
Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography by Jean Harvey Baker
Most books on the Lincolns focus, obviously, on Abraham Lincoln with Mary Todd playing a side role as the “crazy” wife. This book shed new light on her intelligence, her involvement in politics and her fierce independence. It was eye-opening to read a different theory of why she was perceived as being so unstable and “crazy.” It’s clear that she was seen as a threat instead of being seen as a woman with smarts and an opinion. Grrr.
While The City Slept: A Love Lost to Violence and a Young Man’s Descent Into Madness by Eli Sander
This is an in-depth look into a murder that very well could have been avoided had the perpetrator had mental health services as he was growing up. The author won a Pulitzer Prize for journalism after covering this story in 2012.
Wondering Who You Are: A Memoir by Sonya Lea
What if you were married to a man you didn’t know anymore and this man had no recollection of your past? The author wrote this book about her marriage and her husband’s memory loss after undergoing a medical procedure. He had forgotten everything about their lives and their marriage and this is a candid tale of how they managed to get through this mess.
Trapped Under the Sea: One Engineering Marvel, Five Men, and a Disaster Ten Miles Into the Darkness by Neil Swidey
How do you feel about going into a 10-mile-long tunnel under the ocean, only able to breathe because you’re attached to a long hose that pumps oxygen? I think that it sounds like a terrible idea and, as it turns out, it WAS a terrible idea. What’s the deal with tunnel? Five men entered this tunnel to complete an engineering project in the Boston harbor in 1999 and, well, not all of them made it.
Rosemary: The Hidden Kennedy Daughter by Kate Clifford Larson
Most people know about Rosemary Kennedy and how she was shunned by her family, sent away and eventually lobotomized. Through her mother’s diary and family interviews, you are able to see the love that her family had for her AND are reminded of what a terrible father Joe Kennedy turned out to be.
Lit: A Memoir (P.S.) by Mary Karr
Remember how I said that if I didn’t like a book in the first 5 pages I toss it out? This might be my one exception. On a trip to Atlanta, I only brought this ONE book and had no choice but to read it. Essentially, Mary Karr is a literature professor with an awful past who drinks herself into oblivion, eventually redeeming herself. Sometimes overwritten, but an honest look at a struggling woman/writer/mother/daughter. I ended up really, really liking it.
Wolf In White Van: A Novel by John Darnielle
If you know me, you know that I hate the band The Mountain Goats. John Darnielle is the band’s singer/songwriter so it is utterly astounding that I even picked this book up, let alone READ it. I hate to admit it, but I really liked it. It’s a story of a young man who is isolated because of his face disfiguration. He creates a through-the-mail role-playing game and gets tangled up in this imaginary world, which ends in disaster. I didn’t particularly enjoy the details about the game itself, but if you’ve ever felt marginalized or like an outsider, you’ll be able to relate.
In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson
This is from the author of Devil in the White City, the story about the serial killer, H.H. Holmes. Have you read that book? I think EVERYONE has. Anyway, this is about WIlliam Dodd, the first American ambassador sent to Nazi Germany in 1933. His whole family joins him and we end up getting a front row seat to Hitler’s Germany as it unfolds during WWII. Fascinating.
People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished From the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up by Richard Lloyd Parry
A young woman goes to Tokyo, disappears and her remains are found a year later. A clash of cultures and an inside look into the grief experienced by Lucie Blackman’s family made for a good, quick read. See also: the underground Japanese culture is CRAZY.
Fortune’s Children: The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt by Arthur Vanderbilt II
Have I mentioned that I love stories about rich people? Particularly rich people who crash and burn? This one is my FAVORITE. There is so much scandal, so many terrible people and the amount of money that these people blew through is OUT OF THIS WORLD. Seriously, their houses? The parties they threw? OH.MY.GOD. I’m sure the cost of ONE curtain panel in ONE of their dining rooms was the same price as my house.
Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckly Firestorm of 1894 by Daniel James Brown
This was written by the guy that wrote The Indifferent Stars Above, the book about the Donner Party? Anyway, this is the first of his books that I read and I read it, get ready for it, on my HONEYMOON. A book about a raging firestorm in Northern MN is super romantic, right? I will never get over his descriptions of the firestorm or the vision of that train of death barreling down the tracks (I’m not being dramatic!).
All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg
Rick Bragg wrote this unforgettable account of growing up dirt poor, with an abusive wretch for a dad, but a mother that goes 18 years without a new dress so that her children can survive. There is a reason that Rick Bragg has won a Pulitzer Prize and this is a perfect example of why.
Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
This book follows the true life story of a man and his family impacted by Hurricane Katrina while being targeted due to the War on Terror. Dave Eggers is one of my favorite authors and it never fails to amaze me at how well he is able to fully capture his subject’s lives with his storytelling.
The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
In 1888, an epic snowstorm swept through the midwest. It killed 500 people and many children were trapped in the blizzard on the way home from school, devastaing the lives of the many immigrants that had just moved to the United States. It sounds awful, right? It’s heartbreaking, but a page turner.
Fatal Vision: A True Crime Classic by Joe McGinniss
Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a Green Beret, was accused of killing his pregnant wife and two children, but did he really do it? This book is so crazy suspenseful and is probably my #2 favorite true crime book of all time (and I’ve read a lot of them). Side note: Whenever we run across this book at a book store my husband always asks me if I want another copy of “the book with the green hat on it” and then laughs his ass off.
The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living by Dalai Lama XIV and Howard Cutler
Whenever I’m OVER IT and feeling like a loser, depressed or in a spiral of death anxiety, I can open this book to any page at random and find something helpful. I find a lot of comfort in the principles of Buddhism so maybe I’m biased, but I think that the Dalai Lama’s quotes would resonate with anyone.
True Crime Addict: How I Lost Myself in the Mysterious Disappearance of Maura Murray by James Renner
If you don’t know the case of Maura Murray and you’re interested in true crime, this is for you. This case has fascinated me forever and it completely took over the author’s life for a period of time. He retraces her steps, talks to her family members and, while he didn’t solve the case, what he finds out is intriguing.
Home Is Burning: A Memoir by Dan Marshall
Dan Marshall moves home to help his family take care of his father who was diagnosed with ALS. This is a pretty depressing subject, but I found myself laughing more than crying. He’s crass and makes fun of everyone, including his cancer stricken mother, bless her heart.
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
This is a profound, honest memoir of a journalist’s 20-year battle with alcohol. This is one of the first memoirs that I read on this subject and it has stayed with me. I followed Caroline for many years after reading this because I felt like I needed to know how she was. I just really wanted her to make it!!
Blackout: Remembering Things I Drank To Forget by Sarah Marshall
Another book about drinking (I have a thing for addiction memoirs), but this one is a DOOZY. She calls alcohol the “gasoline of all adventure” and there are definitely some cringeworthy adventures happening here (falling down stairs, waking up with men she doesn’t know). It all sounds really depressing, but she’s funny and REAL, which I liked. I figured that had I known her when I was 22, we would’ve been best friends.
The Glass Castle: A Memoir by Jeanette Walls
Another dysfunctional family story which spent 7 years on the New York Times bestseller list. The author was raised in a family where the kids had to fend for themselves while living with an alcoholic, but loving, father and a mother who was disinterested in family life. This one’s a classic.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
The author’s grandparents were originally from Appalachia and eventually settled in the Rust Belt of Ohio. It was a continuous struggle to pull themselves out of povery and this book delves deep into the history of white working-class America and their struggles. J.D. Vance eventually escapes his family cycle to become a Yale educated lawyer and his tale is very apropos for the times that we are living in.
Blitzed: Drugs in the Third Reich by Norman Ohler
Hitler liked drugs. A lot of drugs. In fact, he essentially built and funded his own methamphetamine factory because he liked drugs so much. Hitler + drugs = BAD.
The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan
Have you noticed that I like books about environmental disasters? There’s just something about the ferocity of nature and the lengths that people go to in order to survive these disasters. It makes me realize that maybe having to shovel 3 inches of snow isn’t THAT big of a deal. But, long story short, this is the story of the biggest fire to break out in the United States and the creation of land conservation in America (thanks Teddy!).
The Good Nurse: A True Story of Medicine, Madness and Murder by Charles Graeber
This is an account of a nurse who was not so good. Well, he was good at KILLING people and it’s crazy how long he got away with it. How long? 300 PEOPLE LONG.
Whoa, that’s a lot of books right there. Whether you buy one, get one from the library or steal a copy from a friend, let me know what you think. Like the book? Tell me. Hate the book? Tell me.
Let’s discuss! Comment in the space below.