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I'm putting together a birthday package for my girl. I'm trying to find something for her that she's never read. Her favorites are the lost-generation authors, specifically Ernest Hemingway. Contemporary authors she likes include David Sedaris and Alex Garland, though I know that's a bit of a gap. She just finished up school, and I'd love to find something for her that she can read for herself as opposed to the English Major Book List. Any suggestions?

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Hooray for birthday books! Has your lady read anything by Hemingway's ex-wife Martha Gellhorn? If she hasn't, you could very well be introducing her to her new favorite author, which will score you major points. Travels with Myself and Another, Gellhorn's memoir, is a phenomenal book about her relationship with Hemingway and her adventures in journalism around the world. She's a strong, confident writer in her own right—don't tell anyone, but I like her stuff better than Hemingway's—and she's got a wicked sense of humor. There is a great biography about her, too, called Gellhorn, that would be a good companion volume. It's not as lively as Gellhorn's own writing, but it's interesting.

If she's already discovered Gellhorn, maybe she hasn't read George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London? It's a great book by a great author about bumming around Europe and working in kitchens. It could lead to a lifelong love affair with Orwell books that aren't 1984 and Animal Farm (Keep the Aspidistra Flying, for instance, is a British Catcher in the Rye; it's not the best intro to Orwell, but it's a fantastic book).

And if those are too high-profile for her, you should get her The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy. It's kind of a lost classic from that generation, recently revived by the New York Review of Books. It's a hilarious book about an American woman in Europe.

I'm a big fan of pulpy mystery/action novels (Ian Fleming, The Thin Man, etc.), but I need a change of pace and a few classy books to impress my girlfriend. Right now I'm reading John Henry Days by Colson Whitehead and really enjoying it. Any recommendations along that line? Any recommendations along the lines of Fleming or The Thin Man (I can't totally deny my need for fast-paced novels)?

Sorry for not giving you much to go on. I will give anything a try. Thanks for the help.

Michael In Ballard

I feel as though I've stepped into the middle of a romantic comedy about a brainy girl and the cool, unbookish guy who loves her. First, I am compelled to say that there's absolutely no shame in liking Fleming and The Thin Man. (You might like Raymond Chandler, too, and his slightly less cool but much more pulpy cousin Jim Thompson.)

That said, let's get you laid.

If you like Whitehead, and John Henry Days is suitably impressive for the lady you're into—I love JHD, by the way—I bet you'll like Michael Chabon. His newest novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, is a mystery, but it's also a weird alternate-history deal. Chabon is incredibly nerdy, but the ladies love him. Likewise with Jonathan Lethem. The last time he was in town, the audience was evenly split between men and women, which is a rarity in the world of readings.

But if you're looking for classy literature (classy as in will-one-day-win-the-Nobel-Prize) that is speedy, plot-based, and a kick in the pants to read, you should both read some Haruki Murakami. Start with either Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World or Sputnik Sweetheart. Eventually build up to Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Murakami translates Chandler novels into Japanese, and his writing carries some of that same punchy, quick-moving style. It will appeal to the Dashiell Hammett fan in you, and you'll be broadening your scope incredibly.

And everybody—man, woman, gay, straight, classy, raunchy—loves Patricia Highsmith.

I loved The Children's Hospital, Moby-Dick, Lorrie Moore's "How to Become a Writer," East of Eden, Icelander, Alice Munro's "Labor Day Dinner," Borges's "The Aleph," Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Sweet Thursday, Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, and John Barth's "Lost in the Funhouse."

I also enjoyed Longitude and The Discoverers.

What should I read?

Best, Jenny

First, my compliments: You read some really great stuff. It's nice to see someone who enjoys dense books and also ventures into science fiction and fantasy.

If you enjoyed The Children's Hospital, have you read Chris Adrian's debut novel, Gob's Grief? I enjoyed it more than Children's—I'm totally in the minority, I know—and it's about Walt Whitman and a man who builds a machine to bring back the Civil War dead. It's a really great book.

I've noticed that you don't venture much into postmodernism with your examples, but I would urge you to give David Foster Wallace a try. If Infinite Jest has been ruined for you by the kind of people who read Infinite Jest, you might want to try The Broom of the System. But he's smart and funny and meticulous in a very Melville kind of way.

Carlos Fuentes might be up your alley, as well. I prefer Terra Nostra, his enormous, sweeping epic. It's like all of Mexico in one novel.

And for shorter stories, Amy Hempel is one of the best around. She knocks my socks off, and I bet you'll like her if you like Moore and Munro.

Let me know what you think.

What a quick and thorough response!

I did read Gob's Grief. I've read a book of DFW short stories but not tried out his novels. So I'll go there and then work my way down your list. Thanks so much, mister!

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