Timothy Egan's Picks

Book Cover Image. Title: The Johnstown Flood, Author: David McCullough

The Johnstown Flood

David McCullough

He's known for his later stuff, the big books on Truman and Adams and Americans in Paris, but this early book is a stunner. It's a moving, thoughtful, at times angry narrative about class and hubris, nature and the folly of man in the telling a single disaster that wiped out a town long ago. It's a textbook example for how to write history without being boring.
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Book Cover Image. Title: In Cold Blood:  A True Account of a Multiple Murder and Its Consequences, Author: Truman Capote

In Cold Blood

Truman Capote

Here's Capote at the height of his powers, and even as he's come under criticism for the methods and a bit of hedging, the book stands, still, as the best of the literary/true crime genre. It brought chills, and still does, reading it. There have been many imitators since, but no one has come close.
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Book Cover Image. Title: Angela's Ashes:  A Memoir, Author: Frank McCourt

Angela's Ashes

Frank McCourt

What do you expect - I'm Irish! But even putting aside that bias, this extraordinary memoir, written by a retired New York City school teacher with a wonderful gift, is easily the best memoir I've read in a decade. (A close second: This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff). The book is intimate, tragic, and textured -- you feel the hunger and gritty poverty of Irish life -- and yet totally devoid of sentimentality. Too many Irish books have a surplus of Paddywackery, (blarney and then some). McCourt's book is as pure as a stream outside his native Limerick.
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Book Cover Image. Title: The Year of Magical Thinking, Author: Joan Didion

The Year of Magical Thinking

Joan Didion

An American treasure, Didion justifiably won the National Book Award for her account of losing her husband to sudden death, and the void that followed. My mother died shortly after I read this book, and nothing was more resonant than Didion's three-dimensional prose. Like McCourt, she doesn't lay on the heavy sentimentality. She's elliptical, at times even opaque, but that's Didion and her power as a writer.
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Book Cover Image. Title: A River Runs Through It and Other Stories, Author: Norman Maclean

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories

Norman MacleanAnnie Proulx

Lean prose, terrific descriptions of Montana life and fly-fishing as a religion, this is another book by a late bloomer -- it wasn't published until he was 70. Robert Redford made a great movie out of it (starring a young Brad Pitt), but go to the lyrical source for the true joy. When I was travelling 50,000 miles a year for The New York Times, this is the book I always had in my bag, a source of inspiration whenever I was stuck on a sentence. (It's only sort of fiction -- a novella drawn from Maclean's life).
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Book Cover Image. Title: The Art of Fielding, Author: Chad Harbach

The Art of Fielding

Chad Harbach

First novels are usually disappointing, but one can always hope. And in this case, the author soars. The book reminded me a bit of the early John Irving novels. It has everything I look for in a Great American Novel -- friendship, love, loss, betrayal, sex, and baseball.
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Book Cover Image. Title: Catch-22, Author: Joseph Heller


Joseph HellerChristopher Buckley

When I was 15, and still thinking I might have a career as a pro football player (though only 110 pounds), I came down with a terrible case of mono, and was bedridden for half the summer. It ended my football career, but launched me into some terrific novels. That summer I discovered the darkly humorous, somewhat tragic account of World War II fighter pilots and the insanity of war. It's a big read that somehow manages to be consistently funny despite the inherent sorrow at the core of the book.
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