Interesting books and movies
(* means not suitable for ages approx. 16 or under, ** means also suitable for middle school students, otherwise generally for ages 14-99)
updated February 2021
|General non-fiction||Non-fiction geopolitics|
|Fun fiction||Classic fiction|
Movies and TV
|Funny||Will become classics|
|Grade Z 1950's science fiction||TV mini-series|
General non-fiction books
On the Clock: What Low-Wage Work Did to Me and How It Drives
America Insane, by Emily Guendelsberger. A journalist spends a month
each working in an Amazon warehouse, a call center and McDonalds. The
working conditions are even worse than you could possibly imagine.
The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats by Daniel Stone. How most of the foods we take for granted were first introduced to the USA. Combination of travelogue, science, and adventure
Surely Youre Joking, Mr. Feynman, by Richard Feynman, memoirs of the Nobel-prize-winning physicist. My favorite chapter is the one on lock-picking. If you like it, read the sequel What Do You Care What Other People Think?
Yeager: An Autobiography by Chuck Yeager (he broke the Mach 1 sound barrier)
Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer, disastrous climb of Mt. Everest
** Never Cry Wolf by Farley Mowat. A naturalist studies wolves in the Canadian arctic
The Ship Who Wouldn't Float by Farley Mowat. A landlubber restores a sailing ship with hilarious consequences
The Falcon and the Snowman by Robert Lindsey. A rebellious Southern California teen becomes a Russian spy. If you enjoy it, read the sequel The Flight of the Falcon
Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong About the World--and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling. Entertaining and informative look at statistics and people's perceptions of reality. By the founder of DollarStreet.org
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper. A dictionary editor explains how the definitions of words are created and how they change over time. A must-read for word lovers.
Dogsong (or the juvenile book Wintersong) by Gary Paulsen. He trains dogs to race in the Iditarod and everything goes wrong
Travels on my Elephant by Mark Shand. A British expatriate purchases an elephant and travels around India on it, meeting interesting people.
Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain. He apprentices to a pilot on a sternwheeler. Full of wry humor.
Child of the Jungle by Savine Kuegler. The daughter of missionaries grows up living with a tribe in new Guinea.
The Man Who Never Was by Ewen Montagu. A little-known but fascinating counter-espionage operation during World War II.
The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean. Little-known factoids and stories about the elements.
Napoleon's Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History, by Penny Le Couteur. The impact of certain substances on history, and our world today
Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice for All Creation: The Definitive Guide to the Evolutionary Biology of Sex, by Olivia Judson. Fun facts about sex in the insect world and other critters.
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild, by Lawrence Anthony. Anecdotes from a game warden in southern Africa.
Alex and Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Discovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence - and Formed a Deep Bond in the Process, by Irene Pepperberg
Do Your Ears Pop in Space? and 500 Other Surprising Questions About Space Travel, by R. Mike Mullane. A retired astronaut's answers to people's FAQs.
Theo Gray's Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home - Put Probably Shouldn't, by Theodore Gray. Do most of these outdoors, please!
Stiff: the Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach. What happens to cadavers
The Word Detective by John Simpson who was the chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. For word-lovers and people who enjoy etymology
Camels, Skulls, and Cobras: A Wild Ride Across India, by Jim Wiltens. An American and a Brit buy camels and ride them for months across India, meeting interesting people and having adventures. Get to known northern India without risking Delhi Belly.
Why Won't You Apologize? Healing Big Betrayals and Everyday Hurts by Harriet Lerner. Excellent book to help heal relationships and psyches.
The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan. Fascinating story behind the food we eat. Traces food from farm to table, stopping along the way to examine the politics of farm subsidies and the phoniness of the "organic" label on food. A must-read.
The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck. In 2011, two men, three mules, and a covered wagon travel the length of the Oregon Trail. Mix of adventure, history, horsemanship and interesting people.
* Not Without My Daughter by Betty Mahmoody. An American woman held hostage in Iran tries to escape.
The Mother Tongue: English and How It Got That Way by Bill Bryson. The history of the English language. Fun for word nuts.
* Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond. Fascinating mix of social sciences and hard sciences to explain why certain countries are more advanced than others. A must-read.
Arrest-Proof Yourself by Dale Carson and Wes Denham. What to do, and more importantly, what to NOT do to keep from attracting attention of the police. A must-read for teenagers, young adults, parents of teenagers and young adults, and anyone involved in political protests.
* The World Without Us by Alan Weisman. Fascinating mix of ecology and history. What would the world be like if there were no people?
** The World's Great Stories: 55 Legends that Live Forever by Louis Untermeyer. Very short retellings of classic tales, designed for middle-school students, but worth reading by anyone.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler. The author spent the years 1998-1999 teaching English in a small town in provincial China. Fascinating glimpse into another culture.
* Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year by Harvey Cox. Written by a Baptist professor of theology at Harvard who is married to a Jewish woman. Learn more about your faith, other peoples' faith, and the historical background behind both.
How We Got Here: A Slightly Irreverent History of Technology and Markets by Andy Kessler. The interplay between inventions, finance, technology, and history. Who gets rich, the inventors or the investors, and why?
Substitute: Going to School with a Thousand Kids, by Nicholson Baker. Thinking of becoming a teacher? Want to know what it's like teaching K-12 nowadays?
Energy for Future Presidents: The Science Behind the Headlines, by UC Berkeley physics professor Richard Muller. Looks at the feasibility and impact of various types of energy, and also looks at Fukushima nuclear power plant meltdown, Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill, to see how their true impact contrasts with the view in the popular press. Written in a chatty, entertaining style, I couldn't put this book down.
*Infidel by Ayyaan Hirsi Ali. The author grows up as a fundamentalist Muslim in a Somali refugee camp, emigrates to the Netherlands, and gets elected to the Netherlands State Assembly. Examines the clash of culture between the third world and the developed world, and the clash between modern and fundamentalist Islam. If you enjoy this book, read her sequel Nomad.
Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific and Getting Stoned with Savages: A Trip Through the Islands of Fiji and Vanuatu by J. Maarten Troost. Two books by a Canadian who spent two years living on tiny islands in the South Pacific. His adventures are told with a sardonic humor. Great armchair travel.
Non-fiction books about economics, geopolitics, and their impact on society
Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations by the noted economist Thomas Friedman. Examined how geopolitics is heavily influenced by our rapidly-changing pace of innovation and climate change, contrasted with people's slow ability to handle and accept such change.
Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass by Theodore Dalrymple. Life in the underclass and why it persists as it does, written by a British psychiatrist who serves in a slum hospital and prison.
A Colony in a Nation by journalist Chris Hayes. The origins of the mass incarceration system, caste segregation, and racial segregation in the US. Did you know that the Boston Tea Party was sparked by lowering (not raising) the taxes on tea?
American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Collin Woodard. The characteristics of various regions of the US and why they developed that way. Fascinating mix of history and cultural anthropology. Think you understand the red state/blue state divide? Think again.
To End a Presidency: the Power of Impeachment by noted Constitutional scholar Laurence Tribe. The history and implementation of impeachment, and its potential impact
Superfusion: How China and America Became One Economy and Why the World's Prosperity Depends on It by Zachary Karabell. Think you understand free trade and protectionism? Think again.
Wars, Guns, and Votes: Democracy in Dangerous Places by Paul Collier. Examines different types of government in the Third World. Fascinating mix of economics, political science, history, and current events. Many of his well-researched findings will surprise you. A must-read for anyone interested in international relations or how to break the cycle of poverty in developing countries. If you enjoy it, read his previous book The Bottom Billion.
A Fine Mess: A Global Quest for a Simpler, Fairer, and More Efficient Tax System, by T. R. Reid. Should be required reading for every American. We all gripe about the byzantine tax code, but how do other countries tax their citizens? What could we do instead? Non-partisan, written in an entertaining style, chock-full of nuggets of history.
Hand to Mouth: Living in Bootstrap America by Linda Tirado. Should be required reading for people raised and living in suburbia. An honest portrayal of the life of the working poor.
*The Devil's Highway by Luis Alberto Urrea. Harrowing account of illegal immigrants crossing the desert to the USA. If you find it interesting, also read Enrique's Journey A boy travels from Honduras the the USA to be reunited with his mother. Not for the squeamish.
The World of Mexican Migrants: The Rock and the Hard Place by Judith Adler Hellman. Insight into illegal immigration.
The Travels of a T-Shirt in the Global Economy: An Economist Examines the Markets, Power and Politics of the World Trade, (2nd edition) by Pietra Rivoli. Globalization from an economic and geopolitical perspective.
Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate by George Lakoff (get the second edition). The choice of words you use in a political debate strongly influences the outcome.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. Finding patterns in data from Google searches and what you can learn from them - much more than you might think.
Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming by Paul Hawken. Examines 100 different types of technology and methods for combating global warming.
Molvania, Phaic Tan or San Sombrero by Santo Cilauro. Fake "travel guides" to non-existent countries. The more you've traveled, the funnier they are.
America's Dumbest Criminals by Daniel Butler or The Darwin Awards by Wendy Northcutt. How to remove yourself from the gene pool by doing really dumb things.
Dave Barry Does Japan, Dave Barry in Cyberspace, or Dave Barry Hits Below the Beltway . Very funny.
Selected short stories by James Thurber, appearing in The Thurber Carnival and other Thurber short story collections. My favorites: The Night the Bed Fell, The Day the Dam Broke, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and The Dog that Bit People.
Fun fiction books
The Princess Bride by William Goldman, swashbuckling adventure, even better
than the movie!
*Infinity Hold by Barry Longyear, violent convicts dumped on a planet invent a government out of anarchy
And Then There Were None (also titled Ten Little Indians) by Agatha Christie. Classic murder mystery.
The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Volume One, If you think sci-fi is trash, you haven't read these! The best sci-fi short stories ever written. If you like them, also read Volumes 2A, 2B, 3 and 4. My favorites in Volume One are Nightfall, Arena, Mimsy Were the Borogroves, and Flowers for Algernon.
A few short stories by Rudyard Kipling from the collection Just So Stories. My favorites: The Elephant's Child and How the Alphabet Was Made
* QB VII by Leon Uris. An
eminent doctor is accused of collaboration with Nazis during World War II.
Hawaii by James Michener. Fictionalized epic history of Hawaii. Skip the opening chapter on geology.
The Source by James Michener. Epic historical fiction about Israel/Palestine. Helps to understand the current situation there.
Centennial by James Michener. Epic historical fiction about Colorado. Skip the opening chapter on geology and dinosaurs.
Inherit the Wind by Jerome Lawrence. Play based on the Scopes monkey trial. Or watch the excellent movie starring Spencer Tracy.
Roots by Alex Haley, the fictionalized epic history of a black American family tracing its roots back to Africa.
Compare the current failed attempt at nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan to their post-WW-II counterparts in Germany and Italy in the excellent historical fiction novels Armageddon by Leon Uris (Germany) or A Bell for Adano by John Hersey (Italy). While fiction, they took actual historical occurrences and retold them as if they had happened to fictional characters. Like Iraq, Germany and Italy were recently cobbled together from smaller entities speaking different languages and, in the case of Germany, different religions.
Classic fiction books
Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. (if you like it,
also read the sequel,
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn)
Animal Farm by George Orwell. Social commentary
The Bible - rather than read the entire thing, you might find a kid's version which recounts the most popular stories from both Testaments. The King James translation isn't very accurate, but is poetic and the most-quoted. Different translations preserve the meaning better. My preferred translation for the Old Testament is The Living Torah (translated by Aryeh Kaplan), which is translated for accuracy (not poetry) and has lots of explanatory footnotes. I can also recommend Asimov's Guide to the Bible written by the noted Boston University professor, polymath, and science fiction novelist.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. Dystopia
**Call of the Wild and/or White Fang by Jack London. Sled dogs and men in the Yukon gold rush era
*A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. Violent dystopia. Not for the squeamish
The Crucible by Arthur Miller. Play about Salem witch trials that indicted McCarthyism
The Food of the Gods by H. G. Wells. Sci-fi classic about Frankenfood, written in 1904.
Foundation, Foundation and Empire, and Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov (read in order). Classic sci-fi trilogy.
**The Gift of the Magi, short story by O. Henry. The ultimate irony. The Last Leaf is another of his excellent stories
The Good Earth by Pearl Buck. Follows the fortunes of a family of peasants in pre-Revolution China
I, Robot by Isaac Asimov (not to be confused with the awful movie with a totally different plot). Excellent short story collection. If you like it, also read The Rest of the Robots, or the combination The Complete Robot, which contains both earlier books.
The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. The original muckracker's 1906 exposé of the Chicago stockyards. Led to the passage of the Food and Drug Act.
Kim by Rudyard Kipling, the adventures of a poor orphan in India in the 1800s.
The Nine Billion Names of God by Arthur C. Clarke. Collection of classic sci-fi short stories. Make sure to read the title story and The Star. The cult film 2001: A Space Odyssey was based on the story The Sentinel.
1984 by George Orwell. Authoritarian dystopia. A must-read.
The Once and Future King by T.H. White. A humorous (but very long) retelling of the King Arthur legend. The basis for the Disney movie The Sword in the Stone.
* One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. Who is mentally ill and who is sane in this crazy world?
Any famous play by William Shakespeare. Watch the movie version or read a synopsis first to help you understand it.
**Any Sherlock Holmes short stories and novelettes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Find a collection and read several, in any order. The Complete Sherlock Holmes has them all in chronological order.
** Short stories by Mark Twain. My favorites are The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, and The £100,000 Note
Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Very different from the Disney movie. Skip the numerous sequels.
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Growing up in the segregated South
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson. Pirates, buried treasure and adventure on the high seas. Quaint language.
Movies (rent or borrow if you haven't seen them yet)
Doctor Zhivago, epic about a man whose life is disrupted by the Russian Revolution
** The Wizard of Oz, an icon of Americana.
** Fantasia (the 1940 original), amazing hand-drawn animation set to classical music. If you like it, also see Fantasia 2000
Lawrence of Arabia, epic struggle for Arab independence from the British during WW I. More than 3 hours long
Casablanca, classic Humphrey Bogart romance-during-the-war film.
Gone With the Wind, epic set during the Civil War. An American icon.
*The Great Escape, Allied POWs during WW II engineer an escape. All-star cast.
The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Gold-prospectors strike it rich. Or do they? John Ford directs Humphrey Bogart. Slow-paced but worth watching
Twelve Angry Men, jurors deliberate on a murder case. Must-see performance by Henry Fonda. No special effects, fancy sets, sex, or violence. Just excellent acting and a marvelous script.
*Schindlers List, multiple-Oscar-winning movie about the Holocaust
The Magnificent Seven, quintessential Western with an all-star cast
Scary: (Unless you really like the genre, one of these Alfred Hitchcock films is plenty.)
Vertigo, Rear Window, *Psycho
Airplane, satirizes disaster films, particularly Airport.
Top Secret, makes fun of war movies and Elvis movies at the same time. Campy and very, very funny.
** Its a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Screwball 1960s comedy with an all-star cast. A must-see. Starts slowly but picks up steam once the characters are introduced.
** The Gold Rush Classic silent film starring Charlie Chaplin as the Little Tramp in the Alaska gold rush. Slow-paced by modern standards, but well worth watching.
** Arsenic and Old Lace. Two sweet old ladies have a deadly secret.
** Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, classic 1960s romantic comedy.
Any movie featuring the Marx Brothers such as A Night at the Opera or Monkey Business. All are slow by modern standards, so be patient and wait for the funny parts.
** The Music Box 15-minute short film featuring Laurel and Hardy moving a piano up an endless flight of stairs. A must-see. View online https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t3y8SJblixY
** assorted Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, or Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Roadrunner, etc.
The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by The Reduced Shakespeare Company. Spoofs of the Bard's plays
West Bank Story. Re-telling of the classic musical West Side Story with Palestinians and Israelis. Download this 15-minute film from iTunes for $3. It helps to have seen the movie West Side Story.
* Blazing Saddles. Spoof on western movies and also spoofing race relations. Profanity and the n-bomb make it unsuitable for pre-teens
* The Tall Blond Man with One Black Shoe. Comedy spy caper. Make sure to get the version in French with English subtitles, not the awful remake in English with Tom Hanks,
Will become classics:
** Raiders of the Lost Ark now renamed Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, Swashbuckling adventure
** Back to the Future. A fun time-travel romp but don't take the "science" seriously. If you like it, watch both sequels.
Dave. An ordinary American becomes the acting President of the United States. Fun yet thought-provoking.
Big. A 13-year-old boy wishes he were grown up. His wish comes true, but he's not ready for the adult world.
Outsourced. An American businessman is sent to India to run an outsourcing operation. Thoughtful look at the culture clash.
Classic Broadway musicals (Unless you really like the genre, one musical is
West Side Story, Romeo and Juliet retold in 1960s New York City. The quintessential musical.
** The Sound of Music, Based on true life, a nun becomes a governess to a wealthy Austrian
Fiddler on the Roof, life in a Jewish village around 1900.
** My Fair Lady, retelling of the Pygmalion story in Victorian London
*Cabaret, love blossoms in 1930s Berlin
** Mary Poppins, a magical governess transforms a Victorian family. The first movie to blend live-action with animation.
** South Pacific. romantic view of life in the military in the South Pacific during WW II.
** The King and I, based on real-life Anna Leonowens, an Englishwoman becomes governess to the children of the King of Siam.
Grade Z 1950s science fiction: (pick just one unless you're a glutton for punishment)
** So bad, they're good! The worst (I mean the best) include
Plan 9 From Outer Space
The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Attack of the Killer Tomatoes
The Monolith Monsters
Or pick one from http://www.badmovies.org/movies. The more raindrops, the worse (better) it is!
Jesus Camp. How members of the religious right raise their kids in Kansas. A must-watch for ardent leftists to help understand the American heartland
** The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill. Escaped parrots form a breeding colony in San Francisco, and interact with the residents.
TV mini-series, streaming on Amazon Prime:
Galavant*. If you loved The Princess Bride, you'll love Galavant. Satirical musical comedy with knight-errants, a kick-ass damsel, and a wisecracking squire.
Downton Abbey. Telenovela set in 1920s-1930s England with lush costumes and sets. Interesting cast of characters. After the two seasons of the mini-series, watch the 2019 movie sequel.
Inspector Morse. Classic detective show set in Oxford, England in the 1970s
Cadfael. Detective series set in medieval Wales, with lush costumes and sets.
(* means not suitable for ages approx. 16 or under, ** means also suitable for middle school students, otherwise generally for ages 14-99)