My brother Peter is almost 12 years younger than me (we have the same zodiac sign, which is noteworthy in an Asian family, if not exactly meaningful). He’s a brilliant kid, smart and self-motivated with a good sense of humor and a great way with words. His primary interests lie with science and sports, which are not my areas of expertise, but he’s read and enjoyed the books he’s read in school (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, Of Mice and Men – the ones you would guess). He turned fifteen yesterday, and since he has all the video games he could possibly need, I gave him a stack of books. He joked that they would be decoration for his new bookshelf. Fair enough. I have many, many books on my shelf that I won’t touch for a while, but they do inspire aspiration.
I got him seven books (about $100 with my members discount at Skylight Books). I wanted to pick books that I’d read and enjoyed, that I thought would be appropriate for a fifteen-year-old kid. At that age, my favorite book was Catch-22, which he already owns (and hasn’t read, but plans to read). I think I was sixteen when I read As I Lay Dying and Lolita, and those are the books I generally credit with my lasting love of reading. For Peter’s birthday, I picked books that were somewhere between Heller and Faulkner in difficulty.
1. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
This was the first book I thought to get him, since I associate it strongly with Catch-22 as a fun literary romp best read in one’s teens. I think I read it in late high school or early college, shortly followed by Cat’s Cradle, which I liked even better.
2. The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler
I read this book my freshman year of college and it changed my life. My novel is a response and homage to Chandler, and it couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t read The Big Sleep. I got this one for my brother for two reasons. One, I want him to get some context before he reads my book. Two, it’s a fucking excellent book, and it’s a reasonable read for a high school kid.
3. A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor
Short stories are good for an adolescent attention span, and I enjoyed this collection when I read it last year. The stories are fun and gothic, and shit happens that isn’t a series of epiphanies. I wanted to make sure I gave Peter a few classics that he won’t necessarily read in school, and Slaughterhouse, The Big Sleep, and A Good Man fit the bill.
4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
I read this one on my friend June’s recommendation when I was in eighth grade. It is the first and only John Irving book I’ve ever read, and I’m not sure why. I really loved this book. It was long but pretty easy to get through, and the story was fascinating. I remember it remarkably well, considering I haven’t touched it since Peter was a baby.
5. Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
This is not my favorite David Mitchell novel, but I’m a lot farther removed from boyhood than my little brother. I like David Mitchell’s style. His prose is pretty and well crafted but very accessible. In fact I’m thinking I could’ve gotten Peter number9dream or Cloud Atlas instead. Maybe next year.
6. The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
I read this a few years ago and had mixed feelings about it to be honest. I disliked the narrator and found the style a bit glib. But! It was a fun, fast, kind of epic read, and I loved a lot of things about it. I liked the way it folded in history with a folkloric flourish, and it was certainly hard to forget. Junot Diaz actually came to my school, and he was a great reader/speaker. Also, I love this interview he did with the Boston Review: http://www.bostonreview.net/BR37.4/junot_diaz_paula_moya_drown_race.php.
7. A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
As long as he’s reading a pile of books, he might as well hack into the latest Pulitzer winner, right? Plus, this one’s beautifully written, easy to read, with an engaging short story format. Also, I will not have my little brother growing up thinking only men can write great books, because it just isn’t true.
Since I am not the worst, most self-absorbed sister in the world, I did ask Peter in advance if I could get him books for his birthday. He said sure, so I hope he reads some of these and finds them worthwhile. My fiancé bought him a couple Grantland books to even out the reading material, and I’m sure he’ll get to those first, and that’s okay.