House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski — House of Leaves was Inception before Inception was Inception. As a first person narrative of an academic critique of a documentary film that may or may not even exist, this 709-page tome is a complex monster of a book. Footnotes within footnotes à la David Foster Wallace, typographical tricks mimicking the schizoid state of the narrator, polaroids, poems, made-up quotes, and landmines, both expected and unexpected, this cult classic is impossible to describe. In fact, the only thing that comes close is Amazon’s classification: “Had the Blair Witch Project been a book, written by Nabokov at his most playful, revised by Stephen King at his most cerebral, and typeset by the futurist editors of Blast at their most avant-garde, the result might have been something like House of Leaves.” It’s a book aware of itself as a book, as it depicts a house aware of itself as a house. As Danielewski warns readers on the first page, “This is not for you,” somehow, these words ring true. Conservative readers may be wary of holding their book upside down in a mirror to read the print (don’t worry, this section doesn’t last long), but anyone who finishes this dense beast will sigh with appreciation, catching the love story to be found amidst this horror novel.
The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris — Maybe Arnold Schwarzenegger had it right when he characterized his opponents as "girlie men"; American politics lacks the machismo it once had. One only need examine the life of Theodore Roosevelt for example. Overcoming chronic childhood illnesses through rowing and boxing, TR quickly rose to prominence in New York politics and at the age of 42 became the youngest president in American history after the assassination of William McKinley.
The first in a series of three biographies by Edmund Morris about the legendary fratboy (member of DKE and Alpha Delt), The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt chronicles this early chapter of TR's life, including a particularly interesting segment on his undergraduate years at Harvard. A film adaptation coming in 2013 is also under development, rumored to be directed by Martin Scorsese and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, so you read this classic biography by the fire this winter long before it's in style.
The Kingkiller Chronicle by Patrick Rothfuss — Looking for a sword-and-sorcery epic that’s all at once riveting, mature and full of relatable, well-written characters? Look no further than Patrick Rothfuss’s fantasy epic, The Kingkiller Chronicle, which is currently standing at two published volumes and counting. The first book, The Name of the Wind, was a lyrical, enchanting tome that reminded many of a Harry Potter for adults and received enthusiastic and universal critical acclaim. The second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, garnered, if at all possible, greater critical acclaim when it came out earlier this year. The story thus far tells the tale of the flawed hero Kvothe in a series of narrated flashbacks, and takes on an almost bildungsroman-like aspect, while intertwined with hints of a greater, darker narrative that slowly unfolds through the course of the novels. These books are first-class material for reading while curled up at a (metaphorical) fireplace during winter, and perhaps deserve a place in the pantheon of acclaimed fantasy literature.
Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson — Drawing from the same well of passion that inspired his 2005 Stanford commencement speech, Isaacson’s monumental biography leaves readers with a similar desire to stay hungry and stay foolish. Discussing everything from the development of the iPod to the historic value of the house he grew up in, Jobs voluntarily participated in a series of no-holds-barred anecdotal interviews that eventually became this nearly 600-page brick of a book. The cover features a striking black-and-white portrait of Jobs, reflecting the organic, intimate quality of the true-story narrative within. While there isn’t a whole lot of new information for those who have been following Jobs’ career, the fact that the book is as intriguing as it is sans secrets or scandal is testament to Jobs’ simply incredible life. The books’ biographical nature does little to dramatize the events in Jobs’ life, but when your life events include the development of what is arguably the most influential technology brand in the past century, dramatization is not always necessary. As the book bounces back and forth from work to life, it becomes clearer and clearer that in the best way possible, Jobs’ work is his life. Apple may have been a product of the times, but this generation is also truly a product of Jobs’ work.
Reamde by Neal Stephenson — Neal Stephenson is one of the demigods of cyberpunk literature. His books explore the intricacies of the near future and the effects of technological change and progress on the human condition. His previous works, including Cryptonomicon, Snow Crash, The Baroque Cycle and Anathem all center around this theme of then tension between technology and society. His latest work, Reamde, is a globe-spanning, seat-of-your-pants thriller, set in the present day, that sees protagonists on a high-octane chase around the globe in pursuit of a kidnapped hostage, and involves the Russian Mafia, terrorists and a fictional MMORPG whose illicit nature is perhaps the key to the entire plot. In Reamde, activities that seem to have tenuous connection to the real world, such as online gaming, are seen to have insidious repercussions that reverberate in entirely unexpected and fascinating ways. I’m hard pressed to name a writer as wildly imaginative, urbane, sophisticated and technically accomplished as Neal Stephenson in the ranks of speculative fiction writers today. Reamde, like his other books, is a little hard going because Stephenson’s plotting is dense and his prose scintillatingly brilliant but not the most conducive to a quick scan-through. However, persevere and it will reward you in great measure.
The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas — Set in the country-slash-continent of Australia, the title The Slap refers to an isolated incident at a suburban barbeque in which an adult slaps an upset child. At first it sounds like an open-and-shut kind of thing — hitting kids is bad, right? But by the last page, you won’t know whose side you’re on. Sometimes we forget that other people have experience and thoughts and emotions and mental workings that are as expansive, weird, unexpected, and confusing as our own. Tsiolkas reminds us by shifting the point of view from character to character, offering eight individual accounts. The modern middle class characters are tied to one another by blood, friendship, drugs, and sexual affairs and Tsiolkas takes us into their minds one by one, creating a kaleidoscopic perspective of the shocking event, the reeling that follows, and the emotional dissonance that has been there all along. The Slap captures the intricacies, complexities, and sometimes utter senselessness of the human mind. The characters really drive the entire book - you believe them, you pity them, you question them, you get them. They're so real because they're so imperfect, especially in their relationships with each other. And the more you learn about them, the more you wonder if you can ever really know another person.
Drown by Junot Diaz — Before Junot Díaz won the Pulitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao in 2008, he was at Cornell, writing ten tales of American identity for his short story collection, Drown. Moving anywhere from a campo in the Dominican Republic to a crack den in “The Dirty Jerz,” Díaz depicts the bleakness of life for immigrants of color. Even for a skeptic who finds short stories collections somewhat scatterbrained and tales of cultural adversity somewhat trite, Díaz masterfully avoids both pitfalls with his refreshingly real voice. In fact, in “How to Date a Browngirl, Blackgirl, Whitegirl or Halfie,” the teen narrator sagely advises, “A local girl may have hips and a thick ass but she won’t be quick about letting you touch…A whitegirl might just give it up right then.” If it’s Díaz’s commitment to reality that hooks you in, that makes you want to be best friends with the author, it’s his controlled lyricism, his poetic passages that’ll keep you turning pages. Drown is an exceptionally strong debut, telling stories of lasting resonance.
The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon — Thomas Pynchon ("who?") is something of an enigma to Cornell students. Most of us have hundreds or even thousands of Facebook photos posted for all to see, while Pynchon has three known photos, ever. Even after winning the National Book Award in 1974 for Gravity's Rainbow, the (in)famously reclusive Pynchon sent stand up comic Irwin Corey to accept the award rather than make a public appearance. The Crying of Lot 49 is hilarious, tragic, and a short introduction to postmodernism á la Pynchon. After a long semester of structured, dull reading, this book will torpedo your notions of literary possibilities. There's a worldwide conspiracy complete with characters in every sense of the word, and the reader can only sit back and watch the chaos unfold. Pynchon's style may overwhelm, but masterful prose and brilliant references to Cornell make this one a must-read.