Recommended Novels

By Sean Carroll | July 26, 2006 4:06 pm

In the course of a long life, you’re going to get asked to recommend a good book to read. What should you say? Of course a sensible answer depends on who is asking, but we don’t know that, so let’s limit ourselves to books that tickle our own fancies. And we can assume, given the high-powered sophistication of this here blog you’re reading, that The Da Vinci Code won’t be first on your list. In fact, let’s also assume that you wouldn’t suggest Pride and Prejudice or Ulysses, as the idea is to make suggestions that your interlocutor may not actually have heard of.

So here’s my list — five novels that haven’t ascended into the literary canon (and are unlikely to do so), yet had me gasping with delight or shuddering with (a pleasant kind of) horror. My own personal cutoff for being obscure enough to count as an interesting recommendation was “less well known than Flaubert’s Parrot,” which otherwise might have made the list.

  1. The Debt to Pleasure, John Lanchester. This one is a favorite of various CV bloggers, as I recall. A wonderfully dark novel, structured loosely around a series of recipes. You won’t learn any new culinary tricks, but you’ll be drawn into the wicked plotting of Tarquin Winot as he spins his schemes with considerable savoir faire. The first book I recommend to people I think highly of.
  2. Thus Was Adonis Murdered, Sarah Caudwell. The opposite of dark, although there is a murder, and a good deal of British tax law. Caudwell has written a mystery novel populated by barristers of supernatural wit and cleverness, resulting in one of the most consistently amusing books I’ve ever read.
  3. The Wasp Factory, Iain Banks. Back to darkness. Banks is a prolific author, alternating between “straight” fiction and science fiction novels. This was his first, and it’s a masterpiece of twisted imagination. There’s a surprise ending, but the convoluted path by which you get there has a terrifying internal logic.
  4. Love in a Dead Language, Lee Siegel. No, not that Lee Siegel. This one is a professor of religion at the University of Hawaii, who has written the best postmodern-pastiche novel I’ve come across. Structured loosely as a translation of the Kama Sutra, complete with puzzles and self-reference and fourth-wall breaking. Likely to be most appreciated by academics.
  5. The Book of Revelation, Rupert Thomson. Picked up on a whim in an airport bookstore, this is a disturbing short novel about a ballet dancer who is kidnapped by a group of women and used for their sexual pleasure. The quick response is “that doesn’t sound so bad,” but the truth is that is very much is. This book is a thoughtful examination of deep issues of identity, freedom, and obsession.

I could confidently recommend any of them, with the understanding that my tastes are not exactly universal. Your mileage may vary.

  • Rien

    Sounds like you might enjoy “Geek Love” by Katherine Dunn.

  • donncha

    If This Is A Man – Primo Levi

    Non-fiction, it is Levi’s account of his time in Auschwitz. A very moving book, especially since Levi uses it more to examine human nature rather than to take potshots at his captors. It’s usually includes The Truce, which is Levi’s account of his circuitous journey back to Italy after being liberated.

    Note: If This Is A Man is the European title. I think it’s called Survival In Auschwitz in the US.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    Absolutely loved “Debt to Pleasure.” Here’s five more recommendations from my own bookshelves, based on your “obscure” criteria, with the added criterion of only listing women writers (hey, I had to cut down the list somehow!):

    1. “The Bone People,” by Keri Hulme. Devastating novel by a native Maori woman, telling the story of a reclusive writer/painter living along in a tower by the New Zealand Sea whose quiet life is altered by the arrival of a mute boy and his Maori foster father.

    2. “The Golden Pavilion,” by Dawn Powell. Powell is an unjustly forgotten novelist from the 1930s and 1940s who hung out with James Thurber and e.e. cummings, among others. Witty, biting satire, with a colorful cast of characters that includes “the bore that walks like a man” and an artist who achieves success by faking his own death.

    3. “Wide Sargasso Sea,” by Jean Rhys. An elegant retelling of “Jane Eyre,” from the perspective of Rochester’s Caribbean-born wife, the quintessential Madwoman in the Attic.

    4. “The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories,” by Angela Carter. Eerie retellings of classic fairy tales, definitely not for the kids. For Carter in a more biting, satirical mood, try the ful-length novel “Wise Children”

    5. “I Capture the Castle,” by Dodie Smith. Classic coming-of-age tale, long out of print, set in rural England and told from the perspective of a teenage girl.

    I would have included Jeanette Winterson’s “Gut Symmetries,” except it’s hovering right on the edge of the “obscure” criteria.

  • Ijon Tichy

    Novel, eh? Here’s some, but I can’t guarantee any compelling protagonists with obstacles to overcome:

    * Lanark: A Life in Four Books, Alasdair Gray (1981). A portrait of the artist as a young man in a dystopian version of Glasgow.

    * The Tunnel, William H. Gass (1995). How much wind can one tunnel produce? As Gass honestly demonstrates, a lifetime’s worth.

    * Prologos, Jonathan Bayliss (1999). Oh brave new world, that would ignore monumental works such as this!

    * The Universal Baseball Association, Inc.: J. Henry Waugh, Prop., Robert Coover (1968). Supernatural or natural, your laws are figments of your overactive imaginations. Roll the dice!

    * Baldrick’s Navel, S. Baldrick (ca. 1800). This semi-biographical magnificent octopus (excerpt: “Once upon a time there was a lovely little sausage…”) by a servant in the employ of Prince George the clod, son of Mad King George III, was proclaimed by that renowned brainbox Dr. Samuel Johnson to be the greatest fictional work in the English language, greater even than the contemporary Edmund: A Butler’s Tale, Edmund Blackadder (ca. 1800), which was “a giant roller coaster of a novel in four hundred sizzling chapters … a searing indictment of domestic servitude in the eighteenth century, with some hot gypsies thrown in.”

  • Elliot

    A new one and a couple of “oldies”

    “Everything is Illuminated” Jonathan Safran Foer – a jouney across Russia in search of ancestors. Well written and entertaining

    Now a few which will show my age…

    Catch 22 – Joseph Heller – A wonderful books about the absurdity of war.

    The Foundation Trilogy – Issac Asimov – O. K. Its Sci-Fi but in many respects the definitive expression of the genre. And the source of one of my favorite all time quotations “Violence is the last resort of the incompetent”.

    For great reading in the short story arena – Flannery O’connor is absolutely brilliant.

    And of course there “the great american novel” which I have been writing for 25 years but is always in a state of revison 😉

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    Another Blackadder fan! Huzzah! For those unfamiliar with the writer S. Baldrick, the “S” stands for “Sod Off.”

  • Brad

    If you like breaching the “fourth wall” then

    Intrusions, by Ursula Hegi

    Also, “Dialogue with Death”, by Arthur Koestler. Basically him just sitting in a cell during
    the spanish civil war, waiting to be shot, but very thought provoking.

  • Richard E.

    I just read “Fun Home” by Alison Bechtel ( — it is autobiography, rather than even thinly veiled bildungsroman, and a “graphic autobiography” at that, since it is in comic book form.

    It is moving, erudite, witty and a heartful exploration of the author’s relationship with her father, and the best thing I have read in ages.

    Like Sean, I am a big Sarah Caudwell fan — the actual mysteries seem to be largely secondary to the erudite banter.

    I also rather liked the Number 1 Ladies Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith (it reminds me of the Little World of Don Camillo, in its fond simplicity if not its detailed content) but read one of the more recent members of the series recently, and it seemd to have jumped the shark, or at least succumbed to the somewhat condescending cuteness it has always risked.

    Speaking of which, I recently reread Dorothy L Sayers’ Gaudy Night, which is sometimes annoying dated, but an example of novel that is cleverer than the genre in which it ostensibly lives. (I was then moved to Netflix the DVD of the BBC adaptation, which was thin and unsatisfying).

    And since this a physics blog, I might add that I was leafing through my copy of “Light Speed” a novel written by David Frame, who was at grad school with me, back in the day. It is a libertarian satire on the nanny state, and has as its premise the idea that government of New Zealand has legislated that the speed of light should be 100 km / hour, in order to make it impossible for cars to drive at dangerous speeds (a mash-up of Mr Tompkins and Ayn Rand).

    It is not Great Literature (as I am sure even its creator would admit). But you have got to give points to any novel where a bomb with a timer in a briefcase may have actually been in the briefcase for much longer than 24 hours, since the briefcase and its owner were in (rapid) motion during most of that interval.

    But this is also reminding me that not much leisure reading has been going on since the arrival of Boy #2 in my household almost six months ago :-) At least by me, and of adult fiction, at any rate — I have read a large chunk of the Magic Treehouse series to Boy #1 over the last few months. And their mother is (among many other excellent things) a book reviewer, so it may be time to raid her stack of books.

  • Richard E.

    PS While I think about it, another not particularly recent book which deserves mention in this company is The Absence of A Cello, by Ira Wallach — it concerns a brilliant physicist who has gone bankrupt while trying simultaenously to prove that parity is not conserved, and make running while running a consulting business. I believe it was converted into a play which is still sometimes staged by amateur groups — it has lovely, crackling dialogue and a genuine understanding of science, or at least scientists.

  • macho

    Don’t know if this counts as obscure but Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell is a great summer read.

  • Supernova

    I really enjoyed Atonement by Ian McEwan, which plays tricks with time, narrative, and memory, and has one of the best endings I’ve read in a long time. I also highly recommend My Year of Meats by Ruth Ozeki for wonderful wry humor combined with acute social commentary about men and women, America and Japan, and the meat we eat.

    Great topic! I’ll have lots of new stuff on my list the next time I go to the library.

  • santhosh maruthi

    Among the more unuusal books i have read is Flight of the Phoneix

    it was also made into a movie …

    Belongs to the adventure genre

    and if you are in the mood for some quick reading check this out … Link

  • Amara

    How ‘well-known’ of an author would you accept? Would authors: J.L. Borges, Herman Hesse, Julio Cortazar, Umberto Eco, Paulo Coelho, Isabel Allende, Doris Lessing be too popular? (my guess is yes). You said no classics like Ulysses, but what about Gilgamesh?

  • Carl Brannen

    Try “A Winter’s Tale” by Mark Helprin.

  • Amara

    btw, I have a small list I wrote a few years ago, that I call a “Booklist for Renaissance Humans”, however only part of the books in that particular list are novels. I didn’t take time yet to describe each of the books, either, but I think most would be well-known here.

  • John Branch

    I’ve taken Sean’s advice, added a bit of risk, and ordered the last novel on his list as a gift for a friend. In passing (because I’m one of those people whose day job pays him to notice such things) I should point out that the actual title of Rupert Thomson’s book, to judge from the cover at Amazon, is singular: The Book of Revelation. We all know what the plural of that names.

    Sean’s list is another proof that Cosmic Variance offers many delights beyond those of learning about current developments in a few areas of physics.

  • erc

    Jennifer: I capture the castle was made into a film in around 2003/04 , and was published by Red Fox after that. It is available from Amazon, so anyone who wants to follow your advice can!

  • Sean

    Thanks, John, it’s fixed. I was too focused on spelling “Thomson” correctly.

  • spyder

    Novels?? I don’t really like them; it is a personal thing. For example, when Harpers monthly came out with a two-parter this month i was relieved because i figured i didn’t have to read an extra hundred pages, whew. And though i have read them, and am all to familiar with many of words of the authors listed above, the closest i get to literature these days is reading Michael Berube’s blog and comment threads.

    I do read poetry, and there is always new poetry out there, some even in books (yes song lyrics do count as poetry). One of the good new ones is Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing. Louise Erdrich and Sherman Alexie have new works out too, both of whom speak in the 21st century through indigenous native voices of this continent and this earth. The lists are limitless. I hugely recommend you take ten extra minutes in your favorite bookstore and stroll into the poetry section and literally grab any new volume and read some of it.

  • HI

    I’ve been looking for books to read and these are nice suggestions.

    I will add two:

    “Inter Ice Age 4” by Kobo Abe. Written by the author of “The Woman in the Dunes” (which is also highly recommended) and first published in 1959, this is a science fiction that involves artificial intelligence, biotechnology and even global warming (sort of). The story also includes a murder case and some conspiracy about human embryos. Unfortunately, the English translation may not be easily available. In that case, try “The Woman in the Dunes” which is both his best and most famous novel, or “Face of Another.” But “Inter Ice Age 4” is probably Abe’s most entertaining novel that combines many interesting elements.

    “The Assault” by Harry Mulisch. I’ve only read “The Assault” and “The Discovery of Heaven” by this Dutch author and I liked them both. “The Assault” is a story of a Dutch man who lost his family near the end of WWII. The mystery of what exactly happened to his family and how the incident that lead to their death happened is gradually unveiled many years after the war.

  • Say Lee

    So far none of the books has rung a bell, even though I do enjoy reading and have a fair share of my home space devoted to books. I’m more into techno-thrillers but none has imparted a lasting impression.

    Here my take is more related to reading style. I normally don’t have the luxury nor stamina to finish a book at one stretch. So a book of a few hundred pages can take up to several library renewals each three-weekly. Another less desirable habit is perhaps reading several books in an alternate fashion, which does not help cultivating empathy with the authors.

  • harald hardrada

    if you want to have fun, go back to the obvious: tintin — for instance, his two books about going to the moon were far ahead of their time & are still more sophisticated than anything nasa’s human missions do, especially now that nasa’s ex-nazis have all died off & left a bunch of second-rate hacks to carry on

  • Stu Savory

    The Time Traveller’s Wife.

  • N. Peter Armitage

    Hmmm… How ’bout?

    A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole: “The latter part of a wise man’s life is taken up in curing the follies, prejudices, and false opinions he had contracted in the former.”

    100 year of Solitude: G.G. Marquez: Yeah sure, it’s poppish after Oprah got involved, but this is my list right?

    Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (1941) – Rebecca West: Are we confining ourselves to novels? The greatest travel memoir ever written.

    Slaughter House 5? or Cat’s Cradle?: Anyway… something by Vonnegut.

    Cantor’s Dilemma: Carl Djerassi: This is not haut literature, but I appreciate what Djerassi is doing with his “science-in-fiction” movement. A great scientist writing pretty damn good fiction. Working scientists will recognize themselves and their collegues inside.

  • Stephan

    “The Dispossessed” by Ursula LeGuin

    It’s an interesting exploration of anarchism (of the older, socialist type; not neo-liberalism) that is the story of a physicist from an alien world that comes to a world not too unlike our own. Technically science fiction, but focused on people like ourselves, not speculative technology. It is my book in the genre of utopia novels, though strictly speaking, The Dispossessed is about an “ambiguous utopia.”

  • Supernova

    I’ll second The Dispossessed — reread it recently and enjoyed it as much as ever. It’s a very thoughtful exploration of how science interacts with politics, as well as an excellent science fiction story with many echoes in history and current events. Plus, LeGuin is a terrific writer. Another one I love of hers is Always Coming Home, which bends the boundaries of science fiction to include literature, art, music, anthropology, and folklore.

  • Bob E.

    Legacy of Heorot by Niven, Pournelle, Barnes.
    Sci/Fi which may violate the list criteria, but every person to whom I recommened this book could “not put it down”. A friend stayed up all night despite admonishments from his wife and came dragging into work the next day. I had a hard-bound version which got passed around the company. There was a waiting list as its reputation grew. It came back to me quite worn.
    It’s a “don’t mess with mother nature” book set on a newly colonized and apparently idyllic planet. There is a sequel, but not nearly as good.
    Enjoy, Bob

  • Vince

    If I wanted to read a really good “physicsy type” science fiction novel, which one should I read?

  • Amara

    Some excellent hard science fiction:
    Robert Forward: Dragon’s Egg
    Charles Sheffield: Tomorrow and Tomorrow
    Larry Niven: Ringworld
    James Hogen: The Two Faces of Tomorrow
    Fred Hoyle: The Black Cloud

  • Elliot

    re: SCIENCE fiction – David Brin usually gets the science right.

  • Amara

    Oops, I spelled Hogan’s name wrong. I forgot about Brin; I haven’t read his fiction yet, but I read his comet dust papers. The others are ‘known’ for their hard science (very funny to critique Hoyle for his science fiction, you know). In the list we should add Greg Egan, Gregory Benford, Geoffrey A. Landis. I would add Damien Broderick to this list too, even though he is not a physicist/engineer/astronomer like the others, I do know he works extremely hard to show accurate physics.

  • Elliot

    Yes Greg Egan is another writer that clearly has done his homework on the science/math.

    Of course Asimov is in my view the greatest non-fiction expositor of science to the masses. In addtion to his fictional contributions.

    Another one that I would not consider HARD science but was a good read was “The Sparrow” by “Mary Doria Russell??”

  • Bob E.

    Re: Larry Niven’s Ringworld…

    In the first novel in the series he did NOT get the physics correct. A solid ring orbiting a star is unstable as can be shown by simple mechanics and an integral (which is a bit messy – I worked this out yeras ago). The story I remember is that some students at MIT also came to this conclusion and advised Niven who added thrusters to the outside of his Ringworld in the sequel novels.

  • janet

    Interesting list. I loved the first three (though I’m not sure that they’d make my list if I was making one) and have never heard of either of the other two. Well, I’m not sure I should say I loved “The Wasp Factory” — it’s a difficult book to love, as the choice of book-jacket blurbs on the edition I own, some from horrified pans of the books by various critics, seems to acknowledge.

    I’m gratified to see “I Capture the Castle” mentioned by one of your commenters, since it was my first thought when I asked myself “hmmm, what would I include on this list?” It’s been in and out of print, actually — it’s treasured by a surprising number of people, mostly women.

    My next thought was “The Queen’s Gambit,” by Walter Tevis. I know nothing about chess and don’t know whether it’s any good on that score, but nearly everybody I know who has read it has been literally unable to put it down. I myself sat up half the night finishing it (it’s not a long book, but I’m a relatively slow reader for a bookworm).

    My next thought after that was “Swordspoint,” by Ellen Kushner, a fantasy novel described by one reviewer as being what might happen if Noel Coward wrote a vehicle for Errol Flynn.

    Next: “A Mixture of Frailties,” by Robertson Davies, about a young Canadian woman who goes to England to study to be a singer. It’s the third book of The Salterton Trilogy, but it stands on its own — Davies’ trilogies are sets of three related books, NOT series of three. Either that or “Fifth Business,” which is the first book of The Deptford Trilogy.

    “The Mind-Body Problem,” by Rebecca Goldstein. Mathematicians and philosophers and physicists, oh my!

    That’s five, but since someone beat me to “I Capture the Castle,” I will add “The Nine Tailors,” by Dorothy Sayers. Her novels are argubly canon, at least within the mystery genre, but “The Nine Tailors” is often ignored because Harriet Vane isn’t in it.

    Ask me again tomorrow, I’ll come up with another list.

  • Amara

    Bob E: Dyson spheres are unstable too. I would say if physics students are taking the time to work out the physics, then IMO that novel has ‘enough’ accurate science to be scientifically intriguing for people who want hard science fiction.

  • Bob E.

    Amara re: Ringworld
    I agree absolutely.
    Niven is one of my favorite S/F authors and I have read most of his novels with great enjoyment. One cannot expect novelists (or even physicists!) to get all the physics correct all the time. It did not dawn on me that Ringworld would be unstable until I read about the MIT student “discovery” and then proved it for myself. I think there was a Star Trek episode based the Dyson sphere concept, but now I’m getting way off-topic.

  • Jennifer Ouellette

    I think Janet and I have very similar tastes in literature. :) I loved “The Queen’s Gambit” — you really CAN’T put the damn thing down! — and also consider “The Nine Tailors” to be among Sayers’ finest work (second only to “Gaudy Night”). Both rise far above”genre fiction.”

  • Allyson

    For the love of YA…

    My Heartbeat, Garret Freymann-Weyr: Wee girl who adores her older brother and his best friend (for whom she has a delicious crush) starts to understand that maybe her older brother and her crush are smooching. Heartachingly messy and gorgeous.

    My Sister’s Keeper, Jodi Picoult: A thirteen-year-old girl, born out of a test-tube cocktail for maximum matchage to her older sister, seeks medical emancipation from her parents. She’s been, to her mind, not much more than a container for spare bodyparts for her cancer-riddled sister. They’re tied together like conjoined twins in a lot of ways, forcing the healthy sister to live her life in hospitals.

    Each chapter alternates the first-person perspective of the affected parties; mom, dad, test-tube sis, lawyer, child advocate…eerily absent the voice of the sick sister throughout.

    Way Past Cool, Jess Mowry: Life inside an Oakland gang as told by the kids, most in preteen and early teen years. Intense, lovely, raw-knuckle storytelling.

  • Michael Bacon

    My favorite novel is “Remains of the
    Day” by Ishigura. It started as a poem and did a great job of maintaining the tone to the end. And it was somebody writing in a second language. Also like “All the Pretty Horces.”

  • Tina Rhea

    I add another vote for Dorothy L. Sayers’ best novels, Nine Tailors and especially Gaudy Night. Some people complain that Gaudy Night isn’t really a mystery, but even if you agree, it’s a fine book about deciding what to do with your life, as well as a literate romance.

    Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered is splendid, and so are the sequels The Shortest Way to Hades and The Sirens Sang of Murder– I marked the wittiest bits in the margins so I could find them quickly. Sadly, I recommend you avoid the fourth book, The Sybil in Her Grave, written after a long hiatus and much inferior.

    Patricia McKillip is a beautifully poetic author of books of fantasy, some considered YA but I still enjoy them. My old favorite is the Riddlemaster trilogy: Riddlemaster of Hed, Heir of Sea and Fire, and Harpist in the Wind.

    People may well know about these, but when I’m ill, tired, or depressed, I reach for P.G. Wodehouse, or Terry Pratchett’s fantasy. If you like Pratchett’s description of an indignant duchess– “Her bosom rose and fell like an empire”– you have a lot of fun ahead of you. Start with any book about the City Watch, the witches, or Death.

  • HI

    Michael Bacon:

    I absolutely love Ishiguro. “Remains of the Day” is the best. “Never Let Me Go”, which I finished reading recently, was fascinating too. The only reason I didn’t mention these was I thought they might not be obscure enough.

    But I wonder if it is correct to say English is his second language. He moved to UK when he was six, so technically English is probably the second language he learned. But he grew up and has lived in UK since then and he admits that he doesn’t speak Japanese well.

  • funny

    You have it all wrong. Obviously the piece of literature that fits Sean’s criteria of an obscure, yet entertaining summer read, which he would recommend only to people he thinks highly of, is Sean’s very own “Spacetime and Geometry: An Introduction to General Relativity “. There is a surprising ending, but the convoluted path by which you get there has a terrifying internal logic. You won’t learn any culinary tricks, but you will be drawn into the wicked plotting as the author spins his schemes with considerable savoir-faire. The novel is populated by barristers of natural wit and cleverness. Sean is a prolific author alternating between “straight” fiction and science fiction. In short: best picked up on a whim at an airport; structured loosly as a translation of Kama Sutra; likely to be most appreciated by academics.
    Go to California, Sean!

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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