The Sirens of Titan, by Kurt Vonnegut. I was on a sci-fi kick when I read Vonnegut's second novel and discovered worlds beyond and within the ones we thought we knew. The Late Mr. Vonnegut left me with a couple of things. One, for a writer, anything is possible, and two, however gloomy your outlook, a writer can entertain while explaining. One thing I find missing from all the reviews of his books is any mention of how damn fun they were to read.
Boss: Richard J. Daley of Chicago, by Mike Royko. The late great columnist for the Chicago Daily News, back in the days of afternoon newspapers, and later the Sun-Times, set the bar for biography so high that no one, so far as I know, has reached it since. Many biographers substitute volume for explanation. Royko explained what was important, and left the rest to the academics. Thus you can know everything you need to know about Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley in a brisk 224 pages.
Presumed Innocent, by Scott Turow. Turow still writes his fiction on a yellow legal pad on his way to and from work at a downtown Chicago law firm. In Presumed Innocent he created the perfect legal thriller. No one has crafted a more perfect ending, right down to the last sentence. The reader has no clue whodunit until the final chapter, after which the reader says, "Of course!"
The Shining, by Stephen King. King's mother gave him a tremendous gift. She worked two or three jobs and made sure her two boys stayed home and out of trouble by insisting they read a book AND write a report by the time she got home every night. Clever boy that he was, King complied, but eventually saved time by writing his own stories. While many of his works have translated to film and mini-series for television, I advise you to go for the real thing. Start with "The Shining," then go to its predecessor, "'Salem's Lot." Horror never had it so good.
Radical Chic & Mau-Mauing the Flak-Catchers, By Tom Wolfe. This was published in 1970, after his ground-breaking work, "The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test." The first essay infuriated the Left by reporting --in the style of New Journalism he helped invent--a dinner hosted by Leonard Bernstein for the Black Panters, the radical Black Power group. The second, Mau-Mauing, describes the corruption of one of LBJ's Great Society programs. Set in San Fransisco, Wolfe covers the way local gangs lined up for and received funds for anti-poverty programs by intimidating local bureaucrats. I make no comment here on the efficacy of either of these causes. But if you want to be in the room when they happened, this book is for you. I can't let this opportunity pass without plugging another of Wolfe's books, "The New Journalism," published in 1973. It contains some of the best writing you'll ever read, including Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Gay Talese and others who launched the most significant literary movement of a generation.
Wifey, by Judy Blume. Ms. Blume turned me on to a woman's point of view in Literature and thus opened doors which might otherwise have remained forever closed. It's the story of a married woman's sexual awakening. Bloom was a successful author of young adult fiction, most notably, "Are You There, God? It's Me, Margaret." Her foray into adult fiction containing explicit sexuality which, though tame by today's standards, earned her the scorn of many of her fans (their mothers, anyway). I decided to give her a try after hearing my own Mom disparage her work in a conversation with a friend. I've also enjoyed her other adult novels, "Summer Sisters," and "Smart Women." Even before tackling adult fiction, Blume received scorn from school librarians across the country for realistic depictions of 11-year-old girls. "...Margaret" was published in 1970, and the movement to ban anything approaching realism in schools continues unabated. If you want to support an author who deserves it, "Wifey," is a great selection.
The Mote in God's Eye, By Jerry Niven and Larry Pournelle. This writing team has disappointed me since this early 1974 sci-fi blockbuster. But that doesn't detract from this masterpiece about mankind's first contact with aliens. The description of the alien race and society is brilliant. My apologies to the more deserving sci-fi authors out there, but I'll never forget this book.
The Other, by Tom Tryon. The author was an actor and his 1971 debut novel easily eclipsed his film career. Here's a bit from a Life Magazine review:
The Other is not a very long book, but it contains enough menace and suspense to chill the hottest hammock afternoon, and along the way throws in such ghoulish niceties as a rat burial, an unattached finger, a baby embalmed in homemade wine, a boy impaled on a pitchfork, a carnival complete with hermaphrodite, five-legged pig and disappearing Chinaman...
Though the follow-up, "Harvest Home," was a fine book, Tryon never again approached the critical or commercial success of his debut. A home run in his first at-bat.
The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair. Sinclair's book is famous for prompting Teddy Roosevelt to create what would become the Food and Drug Administration. What broke Sinclair's heart was that the rest of the book--an scathing indictment of a corrupt American society--was largely ignored. Sinclair lived for two months among the immigrant laborers in the meatpacking industry. His descriptions of the packinghouses was stomach-turning, but "The Jungle" described the whole of society, from the mayor's office and the banks, on down to the shacks sold to the immigrants and the sexual slavery that snared their daughters. "The Jungle" ends with an impassioned call to Socialism. While Utoplia never took root in America (WWI obliterated the progress Socialists were making), I believe the indictment stands.
The Short Stories of Harlan Ellison. Perhaps the most ferocious writer ever to put pen to paper. His old stuff is easy to find. It keeps getting re-published in various collections. Don't miss "The Whimper of Whipped Dogs," and "I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream." Ellison has been cranking out short stories, novels and screenplays for more than 50 years. Be warned: His work is often graphic and brutal.