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Allen Barra's 6 favorite books

Allen Barra — critic, biographer, and sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal — recommends some of his go-to reads

The Elephant Vanishes by Haruki Murakami (Vintage, $15). A latecomer to Murakami’s short stories, I assumed these were simply footnotes to his novels. But his shimmering surfaces and chimera-like images are as well suited to miniatures as to broad canvases.

Pronto by Elmore Leonard (Harper, $8). U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a modern-day Wyatt Earp, inspired the main character­ in FX’s terrific series Justified. Typical dialogue: Raylan to hit man Tommy Bucks, “If you don’t choose to leave, then we have to play by your rules.” “I don’t have rules.” “That’s what I mean.”

The Rise of American Democracy by Sean Wilentz (W.W. Norton, $20). The best book by America’s greatest living historian lights a path from the Declaration of Independence to the first shots on Fort Sumter. “American democracy did not rise like the sun at its natural hour in history,” Wilentz writes. “Its often troubled ascent was the outcome of human conflicts, accommodations, and unforeseen events.” The outcome, he shows, was never certain.

The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron by Howard Bryant (Pantheon, $30). Aaron, baseball’s real all-time home run king, was the one genuine hero the game produced over the past 40 years. This is a perfect match of subject and writer; Bryant is both respectful to Aaron and emotionally reserved. The sports book of 2010.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Axis of Hope by Tariq Ali (Verso, $23.95). Critics who are complaining that Oliver Stone’s documentary South of the Border “didn’t ask the tough questions” about Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, and Bolivia’s Evo Morales can get the answers from the historian who co-wrote the film. 

Cultural Amnesia by Clive James (W.W. Norton, $17.95). Here’s classic beach reading: one and a half pounds and 850 pages of revisionist essays about the most important artists, intellectuals, and politicians of the 20th century (and a few that preceded it) by the finest cultural critic in the English language. Jean-Paul Sartre gets spanked. Tony Curtis—surprise!—gets praised. A feast for the intellectually promiscuous.

Critic and biographer Allen Barra is a sports columnist for The Wall Street Journal and writes about books and film for The Daily Beast. His latest book, Rickwood Field, A Century in America’s Oldest Ballpark, will be published on July 26

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