Here is my (highly idiosyncratic) lists of favorite books, movies and videos I have enjoyed in the last couple of years. I really don’t mind books and movies that are depressing, violent, have subtitles, or have a lot of bad language and sex. So my suggestion: read a little bit about any of these works before you venture into them. Neither list is in any particular order (the movies, more in the order that I saw them, the books at least start out alpha by title). I have been keeping the movie list since I started my Netflix subscription (and started watching a lot of movies during my daily elliptical workout). The book list I started much later, so it isn’t as complete. Send me recommendations of things that you think I might enjoy. I can’t really include a list of favorite classical music because there are so many things I like, but my favorite composer of all time is Haydn. I never get tired of his music!
Update: April 2022
My current favorite single author is Anthony Trollope (1815-82). He is frequently despised by English professors but his stock is coming back, as noted in recent New Yorker article. He really gets the dance of class, gender, status and has deep psychological insights (along with some lovely humor and irony). A good gateway for Trollope is Dr. Wortle’s School or The Warden followed by Barchester Towers. These aren’t his best books, but they are short and give you a real feel for what he can do. The BBC mini-series of The Way We Live Now is fantastic and there is also a BBC mini-series on the Barchester novels. Avoid, please, the recent Amazon mini-series of Dr. Thorne. It gets the scenery and plot right, but not the subtlety that make Trollope so interesting.
The Secret History, Donna Tartt (reminds me of my Interdisciplinary Humanities Class)
Home and Gilead, Marilynne Robinson. Two beautiful books describing the same characters from different perspectives, both deeply thoughtful and insightful.
Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson. Set in the San Juan islands, sort of a mystery/love story.
Bonfire of the Vanities, Tom Wolfe. Riveting story and incredible social commentary with great humor. Actually it reminds me of Trollope, my highest compliment .
A Visit from the Goon Squad, Egan (ingenuous and brilliant, and, fortunately, you don’t have to care about non-classical music). Just read the chapter on the safari, and if you aren’t blown away, don’t read the rest of it.
American Rust, Meyer (reminds me of Russo books, but more depressed)
Cloud Atlas, Mitchell. Complex architecture of seven stories, all making a single point. Uncharacteristically, I liked the movie but if you haven’t read the book it won’t make much sense. I just finished his new oneThe Bone Clocks, also great.
Empire Falls, and others by Russo (love these books so much I hate when they are over)
Fateful Lighting , Guelzo (a civil war book that gives the big picture politically and economically, not so much on the battles).f
Freedom, Franzen (wow, just a really great plot with a lot of insight, also sorry when it ended). I liked The Corrections and Purity too.
God of Small Things, Roy (Amazing book set in India).
Guns, Germs, and Steel, Diamond (like Malcolm Gladwell books, this is the sort of thing you have to tell everyone about).
One Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley (the plot of King Lear set in a farm).
Hamilton, Chernow (wonderfully written book about Alexander H, what a tragic figure)
History of the World in Six Glasses, Standage (very amusing history viewed by drinks, beer, wine, rum, coffee, tea, coke).
How it all began and Consequences, Penelope Lively (gentle novels with beautiful plots and deep themes as well).
Interpreter of Maladies, Jumpa Lahiri (great stories about Bengalis living in the US, and about the immigrant experience generally, liked her other books too).
Light Between the Oceans, Stedman (just a charming book club sort of book).
We are Water, Wally Lamb. If you want a really fat book, Lamb is for you. I liked some of his other books as well.
Name of the Rose, Eco, and Possession, Byatt (great and clever novels, both of which discouraged me from trying to write a novel).
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card. I read a couple of the prequels which were OK and I rather liked Speaker for the Dead, as well.
Old Man’s War (and sequels, first scifi I have enjoyed since Ender’s Game) Scalzi
On Saudi Arabia, House (Saudi Arabia, what a mess, worse than I could have imagined).
Philosophy Made Simple, Hellenga (a novel, not a philosophy book, despite title — a wonderful whimsical story)
Prodigal Summer, Kingsolver (great blend of storyline, sociology, and easy to understand ecology)
Secret Scripture, Barry (Sebastian Barry is a friend, but this is a fascinating book set in Ireland. If you don’t know Irish history, you might have to read up on it a bit, or just see the movie: The Wind that Shakes the Barley).
Song of Achilles, Miller (very clever retelling of Trojan war story)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Diaz (fascinating storyline also takes you through the horrifying world of the D.R)
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, Skoot (science, sociology, history, racism, medicine, all in one fascinating book. Set in Baltimore, so I especially like it.
The Imperfectionists, Rachman (interlocking stories about a newspaper in Italy)
The Power of Habit (I love all of these popular social psychology books, but this one was especially interesting).
Transatlantic, Colum McCann (liked it especially having been to Northern Ireland during some of the time periods described),
Marriage Plot, Eugenides (another blockbuster old fashioned novel)
Some favorite multi-volume series: The Raj Quartet(Paul Scott) – also check out the BBC mini-series, The Jewel in the Crown. Explores the issues of colonialism and race. Also loved: A Dance to the Music of Time, 12 volumes from Anthony Powell, sort of a portrait of English society through the middle of the 20th century (mini series of this one too, but not so great). Robertson Davies also wrote several great series – I enjoyed The Fifth Business and What’s Bred in the Bone. And finally, of course, the Karla novels of John LeCarre, starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and, of course, the amazing mini-series and recent movie based on those.
Room, Emma Donohue (although superficially unrelated, this is really about Plato’s allegory of the cave)
Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan (an interesting perspective on the traditional spy stories)
A Suitable Boy, Virkam Seth (over a 1,000 pages but worth it – a tale of modern India)
The History of Love, Jennifer Eagan
A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (fascinating picture of modern Japan, with deeper themes)
Goldfinch, Donna Tartt (main character is sometimes kind of nasty, but I couldn’t put this book down).
The Big Short, Michael Lewis. A great business book, and now I know what a credit default swap is.
Augustus, John Williams. Clever historical novel about the emperor, I also liked Williams’ other book: Stoner.
The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer, Siddartha Mukerjee (an insight on virtually every page).
Life after Life, Kate Atkinson. Perhaps a bit drawn out but a clever literary device and an insightful look at the WWII years. I also liked her related story: A God in Ruins.
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Gabrielle Zevin, a sweet, short, heart-warming love story, mystery.
An Officer and a Spy, Robert Harris. Amazing historical novel about the Dreyfus affair. What a story! They should make it a mini-series.
The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng. A beautiful and meditative book that touches on some painful events, but is ultimately about forgiveness and recovery.
The Husband’s Secret, Liane Moriarty. Great vacation reading, fast paced, enormously clever. I liked her other books like Big Little Lies and What Alice Forgot.
I enjoyed The Art Forger by Shapiro. Although the plot gets a bit farfetched you also learn a bit about art.
Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, i. I found this very interesting in thinking about my own recent transition of retirement.
I think Daniel Mitchell’s books are extremely imaginative and engrossing. So far I liked Cloud Atlas best (the movie version is interesting after you have read the book but otherwise incomprehensible) but I also really enjoyed Bone Clocks and Slade House.
Kate Atkinson is another recent favorite, I especially liked A God In Ruins, but I thought Life After Life was also excellent. The two books together are companion volumes that give a good sense of history of the WWI and WWII years in England and Germany.
A Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson turns Shakepeare’s bizarre play, Winter’s Tale, into a modern novel (not an easy task) that is interesting on its own.
A lot of artist biographies are boring, but I really liked The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals, and Breakthroughs in Modern Art, by Sebastian Smee.
The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout — I also read some of the stories from Olive Kitteredge, which were amazining.
I just reread Chaim Potok’s book, The Chosen. It is always a risk to read a book that one enjoyed 30 years ago, but this one holds up well. The tensions within religious movements — a theme of this remarkable book — have only become more intense since it was written.
Alan Drew’s new novel, Shadow Man, is terrific. In has some of the characteristics of a thriller, with a page-turning plot and a serial killer. Its real appeal, however, is the depth of its understanding of some very believable characters. Full disclosure: Alan teaches at Villanova and I have known him for years. I liked his first book, Gardens of Water, as well.
Right now I am rereading some classics. The Forsyte Saga starts out in a rather mechanistic and humdrum fashion (it is about a rather mechanistic and humdrum person), but rapidly picks up steam in the later volumes. The Count of Monte Cristo holds up really well. To me it seems just as powerful for a reader today as it would have been its intended audience. For a novel of its length, the writing is incredibly economical. As I read the first third of the book, at least, I could hardly find a single word that could be cut without doing some damage.
Chernow’s Grant biography is outstanding, although I can’t imagine it will ever be a hit musical like his Hamilton biography. In a way, the theme of the book is that Grant’s life wouldn’t be suitable for a musical.
I like modern takes on Greek mythology and I especially enjoyed Pat Barker’s take on the Iliad in The Silence of the Girls, where she tells the story of Briseis, one of the captive young women.
I was blown away by The Overstory by Richard Powers, one of the most original books I have read.
I have written a short fiction book myself, called After Monte Cristo. Depending on how you look at it, it is either an amateurish novel or a brilliant example of what is called fan fiction. If you are interested in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo (especially if you have never read the original), I think you will find it very entertaining. Amazingly, I got a wonderful review from France (Google translator will translate it for you). It was extremely gratifying to feel that at least one person completely understood what I was trying to do.
Margaret Atwood’s sequel to the Handmaid’s Tale is an important book, but I thought the sequel, The Testaments, was even more rewarding. It explores the same vision of the future as the earlier book, but is more nuanced.
Of course, my favorite book is How to Hide an Empire, by a precocious young historian named Daniel Immerwahr. As you can see from this review in the New York Times, I am not the only one who thinks it is brilliant. He is a scholar and has a wonderful scholarly book, but this new book is designed for a popular audience. He has a youtube lecture on one of the chapters that will give you a feel for it.
The Heart by Maylis de Karangal is, like the Overstory a completely original book. Entirely set in a single day, it is a medical thriller with fascinating explorations into the hearts of a remarkably diverse group of people, who have in common that they are part of the story that follows a human heart from a death to an implant in another person.
I liked Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge pretty well, but I thought her more recent book, Olive, Again, was truly remarkable. “The End of the Civil War Days,” was particularly outstanding — the ultimate coming out story.
Anna Karenina was always a favorite book but I hesitated to tackle War and Peace, I was afraid it would be boring. Being locked down by the Coved-19 virus gave me courage. What a book! Such amazing characters and such a rich understanding of human nature.
Caste by Jeanette Wilkerson. I read quite a few things about race in America, but this book was for me the most powerful and insightful. Among other things, it gives a real insight into the popularity of Donald Trump.
Broken Harbor by Tana French. I enjoy a thriller now and again and I was really impressed with this one because of the sense it gave not only of a particular mystery but of the impact of the 2008 crash on Irish culture.
The Plot by Jean Hanff KIorelitz. This one is sort of a literary thriller. The plot is engaging and it raises some interesting literary/philosophical questions along the way.
Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr and Station Eleven by are two somewhat books that I enjoyed recently. Each describes a future world with a plague (both written before Covid) and each talk about multiple characters that, initially appear unrelated. Both bring the threads together nicely in the end. Not great literature, but certainly good reads.
As noted above, I liked all of Jonathan Franzen’s previous books and his most recent, Crossroads, did not disappoint. Interestingly, Sally Rooney’s book, Normal People, got a lot of praise – I enjoyed it myself. The books had a similar way of approaching relationships, but I thought Franzen’s vision was both deeper and wider.
Favorite Movies and Videos
Bend it like Beckham
Once were Warriors
Y tu mama tambien
Raise the Red Lantern
The Road Home
Talk to Her
City of God
Italian for beginners
Lost in translation
The Station Agent
Day for Night
Spring fall winter summer, and spring again
King of Masks
Victoria and Albert TV
Lagaan (if you like Ballywood)
Bride and Prejudice (also for Bollywood fans)
The Best of Youth TV
Tae Guk Gi: The Brotherhood of war (highly violent)
Postmen in the Mountains (Nashan naren nagou)
Eat Drink Man Woman
Something the Lord has Made
Letters from Iwo Jima
The Way we Live Now (BBC mini-series)
Band of Brothers (another great mini-series)
Walk on Water
The Black Book
Gone Baby Gone
Rachel Getting Married
I have loved you so long
The Wire (HBO series)
Rome (HBO series)
Salt of the Earth
Invictus (and Color of Money)
Rails and Ties
Lars and the Real Girl
The King’s Speech
As it is in Heaven, an amazing movie about the power of choral music (I am a life long choir member).
Masterpiece Contemporary: Collision
Red Cliff (international version)
House of Cards (both BBC and Netflix miniseries)
Girl with Dragon Tattoo (Swedish and English versions)
Under the Same Moon
Even the Rain
Of Gods and Men
Newsroom (Season I)
Downton Abbey (1-3)
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel
My week with Marilyn
A better life
The Imitation Game
The Woman in Gold
Premium Rush (not my usual kind of movie but I really enjoyed it)
Brooklyn, didn’t care for the book, but loved the movie. Worth seeing for the star’s eyes alone — amazing.
Room, even better than the book, which one rarely finds.
Temple Grandin, usually I avoid triumph of the human spirit movie but this rocked.
Bridge of Spies
Big Eyes (this about the woman who painted those children with enormous big eyes and how her husband took credit for her work ).
I watch a lot of Art History videos from Netflix but the one I like best is the BBC series: The Private Life of a Masterpiece.
Some mini-series that I liked: The Americans (first season – got a bit bored with subsequent seasons). I liked the movie of Fargo and but I liked the TV mini series even more (amazingly, both seasons were fantastic, second even better than the first). I also liked The Fall and loved Billions (both seasons have been strong).
Manchester-by-the-Sea, as good a film as it is depressing.
I really enjoyed the new PBS Shakespeare series, the Hollow Crown. The first season, Richard II, Henry IV pt 1, Henry IV pt 2, and Henry V was amazingly well done, but skip Henry IV, pt. 2. It is one of Shakespeare’s worst plays, in my humble opinion, and without it the other three really hang together as an integrated saga. As the critics point out, it really is an Elizabethan “game of thrones.” I liked their Richard III, although in some ways I still prefer the 1995 version with Ian McKellen, one of my all time favorite Shakespeare films. The BBC’s The White Queen also covers some of the same material in a decent fashion departing from Shakespeare’s satanic vision of Richard III.
Hacksaw Ridge – both very violent and rather heartwarming.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople People. Quirky but delightful and even heart-warming, set in the New Zealand bush.
The Crown is excellent. In a way it is about how young Elizabeth grows into her role as queen and then, perhaps, gets stuck there. Unfortunately, I watched season one in the beginning of the Trump administration and I had a pleasant fantasy that the the gravity of the role of President might also transform its current holder. My hopes in that direction were cruelly disappointed.
Three Billboards outside Ebbing Missouri, what a great movie.
Truth (2015). This movie, starring Robert Redford and Cate Blanchett, wasn’t well received when it came out. The movie covers the news stories about George W Bush’s national guard service and the fall of Dan Rather for some possible errors in what was generally a well reported story. I thought it was fantastic, and especially relevant to today’s discussions of the role and veracity of the media.
I quite enjoyed the BBC series Happy Valley season 1 and season 2. Compared to the women who play in all the American crime shows, the lead character (played by Sarah Lancashire) is such a refreshing image of what a police officer could be. It’s great to see a crime thriller where the lead character is a grandmother. For the same reason, I also like Vera, especially after season three when they finally have subtitles so you can understand what they are talking about. Sticking with British video series, I really enjoyed Unforgotten, season III.
I just watched the entire Ken Burns series on Vietnam. Of course, I followed this closely at the time but I still learned a great deal. It made me feel truly sorry for LBJ and even more outraged at the behavior of Nixon. Like most Americans, I knew very little about the period after the American withdraw and that story is as tragic as what went before.
Like everyone else, I suppose, I am spending more time watching made made for TV series. I thought Broadchurch, after a slow start was terrific. I am also enjoying Einstein from the Genius series, although I was struck by one thing. An important theme of the series is how Einstein’s first wife, Mileva, got no credit for her scientific work and contributions. But then the series goes on to cover Einstein’s incredibly important contemporary, Fritz Haber. (Haber’s wife was my remote cousin, Clara Immerwahr.) They highlight her suicide, which may have had something to do with his involvement with poison gas, but the series makes no mention of the fact that she was a scientist in her own right. I resisted watching the Handmaids Tale because I enjoyed the book and the sequel, but the first several seasons of the video were very well down. Eventually the plot got too contrived for me, as so often happens with videos. For that matter, I really enjoyed the first several seasons of A Place to Call Home. It is basically a soap opera but the writers keep upping the level of drama enough to carry me through three seasons.
Going back to movies, I don’t watch a lot of romantic comedies but I loved Crazy Rich Asians. Of course, the plot seems to be derived from The Framley Parsonage, by my favorite Victorian author, Anthony Trollope. In both a young aristocrat falls in love with a remarkable young woman from “the other side of the tracks.” She may not have the young man’s social background, but she is too proud to marry him against the objections of his mother. I won’t spoil the ending, also reminiscent of Trollope’s book.
I generally don’t care for movies that are Triumph of the Human Spirit, part 7000 and I am also not a fan of sentimental movies about dogs. Having said that, I thought Megan Leavy was a remarkable movie about a woman marine and her dog with some very believable scenes from the Iraq war as well.
Calvary is an extremely arresting movie. I’m not entirely clear what the movie is trying to say but I can’t get it out of my mind. It might remind one of First Reformed, which is deep but also too slow and boring for me.
The Netflix series, Unbelievable, is one of the most remarkable videos that I have ever seen. It is up there with the Wire and other hits. The first episode — about a rape victim whose report is met with unbelief — is truly painful. But don’t give up, because in the second episode we meet some remarkable women detectives who slowly turn things around. One can only think that this series reflects the perspective of women. There are no fist fights, nothing graphic, and we only see the rapist in some later and very undramatic scenes. The series is quite faithful to the true story on which it is based, as becomes clear from an episode of This American Life where the actual participants are interviewed.
I was really impressed by HBO’s Chernobyl series. One of the reviews said that the details are often fictional or distorted, but the larger truth about this disaster (that could have been infinitely worse) was driven by human factors endemic to the old Soviet Union.
I greatly enjoyed Richard Jewell, Clint Eastwood seldom disappoints and this unlikely hero had a remarkable story.
My friend, Owen McCafferty did the screenplay for Ordinary Love, which is a remarkable movie about a couple going through breast cancer. It isn’t either a tragedy or a triumph of the human spirit, it is just two smart and funny people dealing with a problem a lot of people have faced. But as I watched it, I wondered, why has no one made this movie already. And thanks to Liam Neeson, a big star who wanted to be in this smaller but important film.
As I have mentioned, I am a major fan of Art History videos. My favorite personality for an art history video is the great Waldemar Januszczak. Many of his videos are available on Amazon Prime. I particularly liked Renaissance Unchained and Baroque: From St Peter’s to St Paul’s. where he traces how the Baroque developed from Italy to England. While we are on that topic, I am also really impressed by Fake or Fortune. This series dramatically blends art history, connoisseurship, conservation science and the art market to discuss mysteries about various art works.
Amazingly, I didn’t see the HBO series of Angels in America when it first came out. It is breath-taking in every way. It is a masterful play and a brilliant effort of turning a great play into an even greater video, with an all-star cast thrown in.
Coming out of the pandemic, I was totally impressed with Drive My Car. By coincidence I was also taking an online course on Post Modern theater, so I loved the way the movie blended in a production of Uncle Vanya. However, I don’t think you need to know the play to enjoy the movie.