The best novels about people taking risky action outside of their realm

Vern Bryk Author Of Delusions of Clarity: A Novel of Intrigue and Perception
By Vern Bryk

The Books I Picked & Why

The Constant Gardener

By John Le Carré

Book cover of The Constant Gardener

Why this book?

I fully support the theme of this novel, the moral imperative of fighting injustice even when the odds are overwhelmingly against you, even when it is not officially your job.

In this thriller novel, an ordinary man discovers that the murder of his activist wife is somehow connected to a sinister conspiracy involving the global pharmaceutical industry. He is a simple man whose main passion in life is gardening, yet his moral outrage compels him to undertake an investigation for which he has no training or expertise.

I admire this character’s courage in the face of adversity, his perseverance in the face of futility. In today’s world, where behemoth bureaucracies, both governmental and corporate, have become way too powerful and unanswerable, the book’s message is more important than ever. No matter how small and powerless you feel, you don’t have a right to surrender. You are obliged to fight the good fight, even when you know you can’t win.

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Winter's Bone

By Daniel Woodrell

Book cover of Winter's Bone

Why this book?

I am impressed how this story reminds us of the everyday heroes all around us, ordinary people struggling to survive and take care of their families. Their personal battles don’t make the news or end up in history books, but the pluck and determination they exhibit are every bit as inspiring as the mythic heroes of yore.

In this crime novel, a 16-year-old girl must demonstrate courage, wisdom, and maturity beyond her years in order to protect her impoverished family. The girl has assumed responsibility for taking care of her two younger brothers and her mentally disabled mother. Her father, recently released from prison, has just disappeared. If he does not show up for his court date, the court will seize their house, which has been used to secure bail.

The teenager bravely sets off to find her father and save the house. The quest will take her into the dark, brutal, criminal underworld that her father inhabits. She confronts great challenges and suffers great violence, but persists in her mission, demonstrating her devotion to her family.

Woodrell’s grim portrait of backwoods poverty is also a moving and stark reminder of how hardship and trouble can force a young person to grow up quickly and take on adult responsibilities before they’re ready. It makes me concerned about whether we as a society are doing enough to help those who need it.

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Six Days of the Condor

By James Grady

Book cover of Six Days of the Condor

Why this book?

For me, this story is a lively reminder of the necessity of adaptability. Our mastery of life is essentially on-the-job training, an education that never ends.

In this espionage thriller, a man comes back from lunch to find everyone in his office murdered. Realizing that he is also a target, he goes on the run. But it’s not enough to escape. If he wants to survive, he needs to understand what’s happening. He must pursue his pursuers.

But he is completely out of his element here. His job was to read books all day. He has no experience being an agent in the field. He must learn everything on the fly to meet the challenges confronting him.

Like this character, our own survival depends upon us being able to acquire new skills quickly. Few of us will be chased by assassins, but all of us will periodically need to adapt to new situations and environments. This is not a deep book, but we can learn things even from simple adventures such as the trials of Odysseus or Robinson Crusoe. Change is always difficult, but we can handle it. We can adjust.

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The Quiet American

By Graham Greene

Book cover of The Quiet American

Why this book?

I’m always fascinated by moral quandary, particularly in a morally ambivalent age where there are no clear-cut good guys or bad guys, only the lesser of evils. No black and white. Just shades of gray. And yet, to live a fully engaged life, we must make choices, because turning our back on it all is the worst choice of all.

In this controversial novel, the lead character’s dilemma is two-fold. Whose side is he on, and whether he should get involved. He’s a journalist covering a war, and journalists are supposed to be neutral observers. But he has strong feelings about the kind of idealism that leads to death and destruction. When a planted bomb kills innocent civilians, an operative enlists the journalist’s assistance in assassinating the secret agent behind the bombing. The operative tells the journalist that, when people are dying, humanity requires you to choose a side. And the journalist does, thereby crossing the line from observer to participant.

The story is set in Vietnam, and I am old enough to remember the fierce debates over U.S. involvement, as well as the personal dilemmas that some young men faced. What was worse? Participating in a war they thought unjust? Or committing civil disobedience and refusing induction?

The specific foundations underlying such situations change from year to year, decade to decade, but the general question persists. How do we make complex moral judgments?

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By James Dickey

Book cover of Deliverance

Why this book?

I’ve had many occasions where life has tested me. Sometimes I passed with flying colors. Other times, well, the less said the better. And this story deftly illustrates that the toughest tests in life are ones you can’t prepare for, because they typically arrive unexpectedly.

In this literary novel, four middle-aged men who lead soft, suburban lives, go on a canoe adventure on a roaring river out in the wilderness. Out in the wilds, they will be tested both by nature and by evil.

They barely survive a rough set of rapids that destroys one of the two canoes. But the worst part of the adventure is a violent attack by two sinister mountain men. They manage to kill one of the attackers, but the second escapes to lie in wait for the adventurers.

To make it back home safely, the main character, who works in an ad agency, must climb a steep cliff at night with a bow and arrow, then find the nerve to kill the surviving attacker. I think of that scene and wonder if I would have had the fortitude for either part of that mission. Fortunately, I won’t ever need to find out. However, I do know that other tests lie in wait, and I know that when we dig deep enough, we can surprise ourselves.

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