I’ve been working on this list for a couple of weeks. I also plan on doing Non-Fiction and other categories in my out-of-control library. Some authors are represented multiple times. Other authors aren’t represented at all. For no real reason. This is a list of books I love, classics and contemporary. I’ve written posts about them all at one point or another. I recommend them all, if you’re looking for something to read!
Possession, by A.S. Byatt.
The first Byatt I read, and for that I am glad, since the couple of novels she wrote before Possession, while good, did not grip me like this one did. On the strength of Possession I read everything she wrote. The book was a profound experience. It tells the story of two Victorian-era poets – as well as two 20th-century literature scholars. A literary mystery. Byatt lampoons academia, lampoons post-modernism, but also (as a post-modernist herself) uses the dual-storyline to examine issues of identity, language, and love. If you’re a book-reader, and can’t experience anything without thinking, “OMG, this is like that scene in Dickens/Austen/Eliot …” then you’ll recognize yourself in Possession too. Can we respond to anything in a fresh way anymore? Or is the weight of history and opinion just too damn heavy? How much of that weight of history forms US as well? We act according to codes. We “believe” in things that alter our behavior. What is lost is the possibility of connecting to one another.
Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
In an insane world, putting a high premium on sanity is the definition of Insanity. Only the insane ones know what’s REALLY going on. The Catch-22 (originally Catch-18 – his publishers made him change it) of the book. Ranks with my favorite books of all time, and despite the fact that the O’Malleys are Catch-22 fanatics (and basically shun you until you’ve read the book), I came to it late. I was reading it in August, 2001. Devouring it. Laughing out loud and making scenes on busses and subways, tears streaming down my face. Major Major Major Major. I mean, come on. That book is wrapped up in 9/11 for me. I was reading it on the bus that morning, and then put it down when it became clear something was happening across the river (none of us could see it – you all out there in the world and other parts of the country had a clearer view than we did – buildings were in the way, and nobody’s cell phones worked that morning). It would be the last fiction I could read for over a year. But it was creepily relevant to that totally insane time. A masterpiece.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov
Another one I came to late. Once you read it, it never leaves you. It becomes a reference point for so much of American life. Unforgettable.
Mating: A Novel, by Norman Rush
Hated by some, revered by others. I’m in the latter group. This book! This book! It is a first-person narrative (Norman Rush is, obvi, a man, and the book is narrated by an unnamed woman). The woman lives in Botswana, an anthropologist with a busted thesis. Aimless. Disheartened. She hears of a colony out in the desert run by a mysterious Socialist activist named Nelson Denoon. He’s a feminist and thinks that the world, in general, would be a better place if women were in positions of power. The community he created is a trial run: women run it, the men are subservient support-staff. All kinds of crazy rumors about Denoon reach our narrator back in the capital, so she decides to trek out there and see for herself what is happening. After a death-defying (literally) week-long journey through the desert, just her and a pack-mule, she reaches the colony. And that’s all I’ll say. Some people are enraged by the voice of the narrator, which is arch, self-aware in an obsessive way (she examines every moment for its subtext and symbols and meaning), with a daunting vocabulary. Keep your dictionary nearby. To me, it is a celebration of the challenges faced by cerebrally-driven sexually-alert brainiac women – “difficult” women, so to speak. I LOVED the voice of the novel. There are unforgettable scenes: the trek through the desert, a catharsis while looking at Victoria Falls, the first time she encounters Denoon at a raucous meeting of Socialists, and etc. It’s a profound book about “intellectual love,” falling in love with someone’s mind. Often laugh-out-loud funny too.
Hopeful Monsters, by Nicholas Mosley.
One of my favorite novels. Top 5. I’ve recommended it to others, who are put off by its questioning breathless style. It’s a book about concepts and theories: political, scientific, social. It’s a book that tells the story of the 20th century through the two separate stories of Eleanor, a Jewish girl growing up in Berlin just as Hitler took power, and Max, a British boy raised in the elitist strange environment of the Bloomsbury group. The two characters have the same voice. It is not a normal novel. The ideas are the most important thing. These are ideas that I hold dear – or, not so much ideas – but questions. What was that whole time about? Mosley (son of British fascist leader, Oswald Mosley, whom he has distanced himself from entirely) examines it from all sides. The Berlin battles between Communists and Social Democrats. The rise of Nazism. The growing understand about genetics and DNA. Einstein’s theories about time and space. Rosa Luxemburg’s political ideas. The Manhattan Project. The Spanish Civil War. It’s the definition of epic. And yet it’s connected and coherent: it is the ideas that hold the whole thing together. I adore this novel. I don’t like easy reads. I am drawn more to challenges.
Amongst Women, by John McGahern
John McGahern only wrote six novels and a memoir. All of them are worthwhile, but Amongst Women is his masterpiece. The story of an Irish family, with a father – an old bitter Patriot who had fought in the Irish civil war, the defining event of his life – and three daughters, who circle around their difficult father, trying to please him. The book is a portrait of the Irish family – in particular the very specific relationship between Irish fathers and their daughters. Devastating. But beautifully written. The characters live.
The Bone People: A Novel, by Keri Hulme
I just recommended this first novel (and, sadly, only novel – at least so far) to someone on Twitter. Keri Hulme is a writer from New Zealand, Bone People is her first book – which then went on to win the Booker, and rightly so. How often does an author appear with a truly unique voice? Almost never. There are really only three characters in the novel: Kerewin, a Maori woman, cranky and hermit-like, who lives in a stone tower in the middle of a swamp. She is self-sufficient, and likes it that way. She does not like people. She has set up her life to avoid other people. Into her cloister arrives Joe, an unrepentant drunk with a fucked-up life, and Joe’s little son, trying to deal with his messed-up father. Kerewin is not cuddly, romantic, or secretly yearning for something else. But the interactions with Joe and his son … change her. They are all changed. But the reason to read this astonishing book is Hulme’s writing style. It’s unlike anything else. It’s gorgeous. I have been waiting 30 years for her to publish another novel.
The Shipping News, by Annie Proulx
My introduction to Annie Proulx, as I’m sure it was for most people. I was bombarded with so many recommendations to read it, including the guy I was in love with at the time (“You gotta read it. It reminds me of you.” I still don’t know why he said that) – that it was almost annoying. I mean, strangers were basically coming up to me saying, “Have you read The Shipping News yet?” Finally I read it and could see what the fuss was about. The final page makes me cry.
Middlemarch, by George Eliot
An unbelievable accomplishment and read it makes me … amazed … that it even exists. That George Eliot existed. Who else could pull this off? I’ve written a lot about it so I won’t go over that here. But she tells the detailed story of the emotional/social/sexual/economic situation of one small English town, on the verge of the Industrial Revolution. It is a snapshot of an entire culture. Or, snapshot is wrong. More like a wall-mural filled with exquisite detail. Dorothea Brooke haunts me. I feel like that would have been me, in another era. I take her personally. The book also has one of the best descriptions of what it feels like to be buried in financial debt that I have ever read. A masterpiece. Eliot easily flows between the prosaic and the almost God-like omniscience, a quality that is no longer valued (unfortunately). But she sticks on the ground with her characters, and then, in a moment’s notice, flies into the stratosphere and makes a comment about what is happening. Such a confident style.
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West, by Cormac McCarthy
Harrowing. No other word for it. A random post I wrote about “The Judge” still generates comments: people find it who have just read the book and need to talk. Unforgettable writing. Brutal. Brilliant.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
I always forget how SHORT this book is. So vast, and yet so compressed. Side note but related: I adored Baz Luhrman’s movie. Now THAT is the Gatsby on the page. People who complained that the movie was “excessive” did not understand the source material. At ALL. Robert Redford and Mia Farrow being dreamy and filmed through a gauzy filter is not the story. Leo WAS Gatsby. And, best of all, the film had the big-ness, the mythic quality, that is at the heart of that story. As short as it is, it is epic. It is American, in all its hopes and failures. It’s HUGE. The film – and Leo’s performance most of all – understood that in its DNA.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson
She is one of my favorite writers. Her short stories are superb: frightening, domestic, eerie, uneasy. This is a novel and I won’t say much about it except seriously: if you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor …
The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson
One of my favorite books ever written. I remember where I was when I read it. I remember the impression it made. I had already read Winterson’s novel Sexing the Cherry – I believe that was my first introduction to her. I was hungry for more. The Passion completely swept me away. I wrote a big post about my “journey” with Winterson here. I’ve stuck with her through all of her experimental phases, mainly on the strength of The Passion. Great book.
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
I mean, duh. But here’s the deal: I was forced to read it in high school and found it a chore. My friends and I sat on the beach, inhaling it for our summer reading, cramming it in in the final week of August, and complaining about it. Why is every other chapter some marine biology lesson? Why? WHY??? I had read Charles Dickens as a child, stretching my vocabulary, books that were too “old” for me. But Moby Dick was beyond me. Then, in my 30s, I re-read it again and the top of my head blew off. The richness of it, the strangeness of it – it is unlike any other book. It is completely modern. It is still ahead of its time, ahead of ours. We haven’t caught up to him yet.
Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler
One of the most surprising things about the Soviet show trials in the 1930s, put on like theatre for gullible Western press (Stalin’s “useful idiots”) was the confessions. All of these people confessed to the most heinous crimes. That meant they must have done it, right? There had to at least be SOME guilt on the accused’s part. Because otherwise … how? Confessing to something you did not do seems absolutely extra-ordinary to those sitting comfy on the outside. NOTHING could make me say I committed a crime if I HADN’T committed the crime, right? The problem of false confession, or confession gathered under strenuous pressure, is still with us. An actual confession is often more compelling (to a jury, anyway) than physical evidence. We can see what happened with the Central Park Five, who were compelled to confess after being separated from their parents, and kept up for over 24 hours, in isolated interrogation rooms, being worked over. If you want to understand how someone confesses to something they did not do, if you want to know the process of “being broken down”, described in minute detail, then you need look no further than Darkness at Noon. It tells the story of what it is like to be broken down, and then built back up – in the image required by the State (penitent contrite traitor) – from the inside. It describes the process: how it happens. It’s one of the most important novels of the 20th century.
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Another masterpiece, and should be included in any Best Books of the 20th Century list. The story behind the book, how it was written, is almost as fascinating as the novel itself. Bulgakov wrote it in the mid-to-late 1920s at a time of great chaos in the brand-new Soviet Union. The terror was ratcheting up. The reality was becoming clear. Lenin was dead. Stalin was in. Kirov hadn’t been murdered yet, but that was coming. Perceptive people like Bulgakov sensed that something was coming. Something even worse than what was happening at that moment. Bulgakov finished the book, but knew he could not attempt to get it published. It would mean his head. Even just the manuscript felt too dangerous, so Bulgakov burned it. My God. He started it up again a couple of years later, writing most of it from memory. Things had gotten worse. It was 1931. Kirov was murdered in 1934, so the Terror was still to come, but Bulgakov saw which way the wind was blowing. What must it be like to write a book that you know can never be published? A book so explosive that it will mean your own death if it ever sees the light of day? Bulgakov died in 1940, and the book was (mostly) finished. It would not be published (and then only by an outlet in Paris) until 1967. During his lifetime, Bulgakov had written things before which had been banned (a play was personally picked by Stalin for condemnation). So he was clearly a rebel. He wrote whether things would be published or not. There was a sequel to all of this: His plays continued to be banned. He could not make a living. He wanted to leave the Soviet Union, and was so desperate that he wrote a personal letter to Stalin, begging for permission to leave. Stalin actually called him and asked him if he was serious. Bulgakov said that he felt as a Russian, he needed to stay in Russia, but he could not get work. Stalin gave him permission to work at the theatre, and Bulgakov found work as a translator, etc. Extraordinary events. Alongside all of this tumult, he was working on The Master and Margarita, one of the most subversive books of all time. The Devil comes to atheistic Soviet Moscow. What happens then? All kinds of fantastical things. Fantastical sinister things. A breathtakingly brilliant novel.
Bleak House, by Charles Dickens
One of my favorite Dickens. It made me laugh out loud, it made me cry. A gigantic sprawl of a novel.
At Swim-Two-Birds, by Flann O’Brien.
“Flann O’Brien” is one of those names – like William Butler Yeats, James Joyce, Brendan Behan, Maud Gonne – that reaches so far back in my childhood that it pre-dates my memory. They were the atmosphere of our home, the books on the shelves, the art on the walls. They were there before I understood their importance. I think I first read At Swim-Two-Birds in college, on my own. The first sentence, with its arch over-written self-consciousness, made me laugh out loud, and it still makes me laugh out loud:
Having placed in my mouth sufficient bread for three minutes’ chewing, I withdrew my powers of sensual perception and retired into the privacy of my mind, my eyes and face assuming a vacant and preoccupied expression.
I mean, honestly. That is ridiculous and hilarious. The book defies description, really. It’s the grand sweep of Irish history, told through a dirty Dublin current-day filter. Mad King Sweeney walks the streets. Finn McCool is alive and well. It’s modernist, for sure, and – like most Irish writers – Flann O’Brien struggled with the shadow of Joyce. Irish writers still struggle with the shadow of Joyce. It informs their writing. That’s what happens when a giant emerges from your own culture (so much so that he was on their currency – ironic, considering that Joyce found Ireland so unbearable that he couldn’t live there. AND ironic, considering that Ireland banned Ulysses for decades. Typical!) Love At Swim-Two-Birds. Get ready to laugh out loud in public.
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
My favorite novel. I often forget how WEIRD it is. And then I read it again and go, “Oh yeah. This book is wacko.” The cross-dressing incident? So that Mr. Rochester, disguised as a woman, can quiz Jane, basically saying, “Do you like Mr. Rochester? Check Yes or No. I’ll see you in gym class.” It’s insane. People who lump Charlotte together with Jane Austen can’t have understood either writer. What do they have in common? Similar era and vaginas. That’s it. Jane Eyre is OUT THERE.
We Need to Talk About Kevin: A Novel, by Lionel Shiver
This book tormented my life for a good 4 days. I could not put it down. I canceled appointments so I could finish it. The VOICE of that novel. It puts an ice-cube down your back. It is claustrophobic narration. You yearn for omniscience because our narrator is not, in any way/shape/form, reliable. I needed to talk to my friend Beth about it, so I sent her a copy immediately. She read it, and called me, screaming her outrage about the husband. “I wanted to throw the book against the wall!” See? I hadn’t “gotten” that, but she – as a teacher – knew the type, and hated the type. We had some awesome conversations about it. Don’t see the movie – it didn’t capture the psychological horror of this book. Read the book.
Geek Love: A Novel, by Katherine Dunn.
I’ve written a lot about this book. I remember where I was when I finished it. I was sitting on the front porch of my house in Mt. Airy, outside Philadelphia. A cup of cold coffee sat beside me. And the trees were exploding in green. Mt. Airy is very very very green. My boyfriend was taking a run. The final page of the book made me BURST into sobs. Normally, if a book makes me cry, it’s a more gentle affair, tears in my eyes, trickling down my face, etc. But this was an explosion. The only other book that brought on a similar explosion was Ian McEwan’s Atonement. My poor boyfriend returned from his run to find his girlfriend, who had been calm when he left her, pacing and sobbing on the porch. I never said dating me was easy or relaxing. But I’m worth it, y’all. The experience of that book was so pointed, so upsetting, so emotional – that I have never read it since. I have stayed the fuck away from it as though it is radioactive. But I feel like I’m ready to give it another try. Those characters. That story. My God, read it read it read it.
Winter’s Tale, by Mark Helprin.
As my friend Mitchell said to me, “This is a book rife with fin de siecle sentiments. With a little bit of ancien regime.” I love it when Mitchell throws French words around. An unforgettable experience, with writing as beautiful as it gets. The opening sequence with the swirling fog, and the sentient white horse. The den of thieves in the reservoir tunnels. The consumptives lying on the roofs of the brownstones, shivering in the freezing air. The frozen Hudson River with a tent city set up on it. The magical icy town up north, with the gigantic ice wall spanning the Hudson. The realism of the presentation, and yet the totally fantastical plot. It is one of those rare books that makes me see the world in a different way. I cannot count how many times I have looked around my surroundings, in New York, a city I have lived in (or near to) for decades, and think, “This is like Winter’s Tale.” I had to review the movie for Ebert, and it was terrible, and I couldn’t help but mention the novel. I was at a screening once and talking to another critic and she said, “If I’ve read the book, I put it out of my mind entirely.” I see her point. I do. A film must be judged on its own merits. But analysis is personal, it is not objective, and I try to bring everything I know to whatever I’m writing about. If I don’t know jack-squat, then I don’t try to sound like I do know jack-squat, but if I have some other perspective, then fuck yeah, I’m sharing it. It’s relevant. It’s PART of why the movie failed, because it didn’t understand the book. Hot sex scene, though. The book is magical.
Missing Reels, by Farran Smith Nehme
I wrote about it on my End-of-Year wrap-up, but wanted to put a shout-out to it here again. Farrah is a friend, a film critic and brilliant thinker, with a blog I will always be thankful I discovered, The Self-Styled Siren. Missing Reels is a mix of slapstick comedy, screwball reality (there’s one image that I think of often, of a cab racing down the street, screeching to a stop, and two people leaping out of opposite sides: I mean, I could SEE that unfurling like a film, and it makes me laugh out loud), and a puzzle-piece mystery. It takes place in 1980s New York, a time when the city was still clogged with revival theaters and art-house theatres. A young broke film fan, working in retail, and living with two gay men, comes across a movie mystery: her downstairs neighbor is an elderly woman, immaculately dressed (always), and possibly with some sort of illustrious/infamous past. It is revealed that she was a star during the silent era, and starred in a film called The Mysteries of Udolpho, a film that has since been lost. Allegedly. Our young heroine becomes determined to see the film, to find it, to rescue it. Her search leads her all over Manhattan, tracking down leads through film preservation societies, professors, film fans, and long-distance phone calls to this or that organization/individual/random home-owner – who might have some knowledge about this mythical lost film. Missing Reels is a celebration of nerdiness, first of all, a beautiful portrait of obsession and passion, and where our passions lead us, if we are just courageous enough to follow them. Normal people who do not get obsessed with tell such individuals to calm down, to let it go. But obsessives are constitutionally unable to calm down. Passion/obsession makes life worth living. Farrah’s prose is lively and funny, and the many characters that populate her novel are engaging, intelligent, and distinct. Everyone speaks with their own cadence, their own tone of voice (something many novelists are unable to accomplish). There’s a romance that takes on a distinctly screwball aspect, and he gets sucked into her obsession. It is a requirement, actually. I found myself dying to hear about the lost film, for it to be found, for it to be shown, for that piece of our cinematic past to be restored. And so, in its sneakily powerful way, it is a statement of the importance of film preservation. Farran does not lecture, though. She keeps the pace moving, the dialogue snippy and amusing, and the plot – with its multiple intersecting layers of confusion and mystery-solving – is engaging and compelling. You have to find out what happens!
A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man, by James Joyce.
I was going to put Ulysses on this list, and I suppose you could say I just did, by commenting on it. But I’ll spare you. You have to come to that novel on your own. You have to ignore its intimidating reputation. It is important to remember that the whole thing is really a lark, a series of experiments in sound and imagery, filled with farts, and limp penises, and menstrual blood, and masturbation (male and female – I mean, the whole book ends with an orgasm, that also happens to be one of the most beautiful sequences in all of literature). It’s filled with silly jokes. But I understand. You have to come to it on your own. Portrait of the Artist, however, is far more accessible, although by the end of it, you can feel the prose fragmenting, shattering, the common and well-known form of the novel breaking up, becoming 100% subjective. A harbinger of things to come. James Joyce felt he had to rid himself of the influence of Family/Religion/Country, and Portrait of the Artist shows that progression, from young toddler-boy to college student. There are brilliant passages, unforgettable images, a lot of hilarity, a lot of political talk and religious talk, not to mention the most famous scene, the “tundish” scene – which, if you click into it, tells the entire problem of foreign occupation better than any pamphlet ever could. The sheer abyss of language, of not understanding one another, and a consciousness growing in our “young man” narrator that the language he speaks was not the language of his ancestors, because that language had been stamped out by a cultural genocide. Tundish. I remember when I first read the book I had to go to my father to talk about it. And we talked extensively about the “tundish” scene and went through it together.
Nineteen Seventy-Four: The Red Riding Quartet, Book One, by David Peace.
Okay, so this is a quartet, right? There are four books that make up the whole. I read them all in quick succession a couple of years ago. They are so complex and layered that I felt I couldn’t take a break from them because I would lose the thread. Now I never say this about anyone, really, but I make an exception for David Peace: If anyone is actually picking up the Joycean mantle, in terms of language, it’s David Peace. I mean, I was blown away by his writing: the sheer experimental levels of it, its devotion to its own reality (as opposed to the more commonplace reality of being clear to the reader), its layered images/symbols/metaphors, its bravura style … It’s tough-going at times. Language repeats, obsessively, throughout. We are in the mind of the serial killer. We are in the mind of others who become obsessed. Whodunit, is the real push of this police procedural. But the reason to read it is Peace’s magnificent experimental writing. I don’t say experimental in a condescending way. I just mean that it is actually trying something new, it is attempting to give the inner experience of its characters, the way the brain works, putting together information … and the attempt is mainly successful. I judge its success by the fact that I could not put these books down if you paid me.
The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
All the graphic sex scenes in the world cannot compare to the hotness of this:
I had to have her, if I hung for it.
I had her.
Birds of America: Stories , by Lorrie Moore
She is one of my favorite writers. A master of the short story. Her novels are not as good. They lack the focus of the shorter form. She has a bunch of collections out, but Birds of America is the best. She can be both tragic and hilarious, sometimes in the same story. Nobody really like her. You could recognize her prose in a line-up in a dark alley.
Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger.
It’s rare the book that makes you realize you need to radically change your life, and then do so. I was sitting in a cafe on Ashland Street in Chicago, having coffee and reading this novel. It was 1995, and I was recovering from a trainwreck of a breakup, cavorting with my regular makeout-buddy (whom I thank God for to this day, because he was a constant source of amusement, outright comedy, and wacky adventures through some very dark times), doing plays, but somehow spinning my wheels. I wasn’t happy. I read Franny and Zooey in one sitting, feeling a tremendous source of energy flowing into me, so huge that it scared me. Because the book was demanding something of me. It was this paragraph in particular:
“Somewhere along the line – in one damn incarnation or another, if you like – you not only had a hankering to be an actor or an actress but to be a good one. You’re stuck with it now. You can’t just walk out on the results of your own hankerings. Cause and effect, buddy, cause and effect. The only thing you can do now, the only religious thing you can do, is act. Act for God, if you want to – be God’s actress, if you want to. What could be prettier? You can at least try to, if you want to – there’s nothing wrong in trying.” There was a slight pause. “You’d better get busy, though, buddy. The goddam sands run out on you every time you turn around.”
I felt a finger pointing at me. I felt the urgency. I would be gone from Chicago in less than 5 months, having applied to grad school, flown to New York to audition, gotten in, packed up, and left. I count Franny and Zooey as the first step in that process of total upheaval. I have mixed feelings about the choice to leave Chicago now. I wish I had stayed. But whatever, I didn’t, and I needed a push in order to perceive reality, that I actually was in charge of my own life. I love this book.
The Flamethrowers, by Rachel Kushner.
The hype around this book was alienating to me. I resisted reading it, because I don’t like to be told what to do. If everyone and their mother is like, “This novel is brilliant,” I resist. I’m a contrarian. I’ll come to it in my own time, thankyouverymuch. Finally, though, I read it. All I’ll say is the hype is justified. The “voice” of the novel is its own thing, and I love the mixture of art and politics that fuse the story together. The Flamethrowers plays by its own rules, and Kushner seems to feel no obligation to create a conventional story, conventionally told. Good for her. Unfortunately, she also was one of the cowards who protested the recent PEN award for Charlie Hebdo. I was so bummed when I saw her name on that despicable list. Don’t let that deter you from reading the novel, if possible. If that incident had occurred before I read The Flamethrowers I would have been DAMNED if I picked up a book written by her, so I understand if you just can’t. However: The Flamethrowers is really something.
Inherent Vice: A Novel, by Thomas Pynchon.
Earlier I said that it’s rare the book that makes me burst into sobs. It’s also rare the book that makes me laugh as loud and long and hard as a Charlie Chaplin film. Inherent Vice is so funny that I had to put it down and cackle with laughter, tears streaming down my face, multiple times. It is a dazzling feat of paranoia, mood, and hilarity. It captures a time: the death of a time, the birth of a new time. When I read it, it felt completely un-adaptable. (Oh me of little faith.) How on earth do you portray the swirling conspiratorial feel of that early-1970s California time, post-Manson? The book is a private-detective story, a Sam Spade high on drugs, but as you go further into the maze, you start to realize that it doesn’t matter “who” was responsible. Trying to figure it out is irrelevant. We are ALL responsible. But God, Doc Sportello. Big Foot. These characters … so crazy and so so so funny.
Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel.
Ohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygodohmygod, to quote my sister Jean. I am waiting with baited breath for the final installation of the trilogy. Publication cannot come soon enough. Oh, Hilary Mantel, thank you for existing.
Then We Came to the End: A Novel, by Joshua Ferris.
Another laugh-out-loud funny book. I cherish the books that make me laugh even more than the books that make me cry. Comedy is more profound than tragedy, not to mention more difficult. My sister Siobhan was the one who recommended this book to me. I picked it up and could not put it down. It’s one of the greatest books about the American white-collar work-force that exists (I’d put Heller’s Something Happened on that list, maybe the top of the heap. Melville’s Bartleby is, perhaps, the earliest entry in the genre.) It’s Office Space in literature form. The most striking thing about the book (and it’s incredible that it works so well: you forget the “gimmick” of it almost immediately) is that the narrator is the plural “we.” How on earth does Ferris pull it off?? What that “we” ends up doing is homogenizing the work force in this one particular office, making it clear that the group has coalesced into a whole, one organic being. It’s hilarious, that “we,” and the characters you meet (Benny!) are all familiar types. If you’ve ever worked a dumb job in an office, this book will be filled with moments of recognition. My God, someone took the time to delve into the monotony and silliness of such jobs, the close-quarters aspect of it (you spend more time with your co-workers than you do your own family), the pettiness of it (arguments about office chairs and printers take on vast emotional significance), the jostling for power, and also – the sheer BOREDOM at the heart of many jobs. It’s a brilliant feat of storytelling, an amazing first novel.
Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna.
Another first novel. I’m not a big first-novel person. But enough people I respect mentioned this novel repeatedly, so finally I picked it up. It is a portrait of the downward spiral of a crack-up. Sounds same ol’ same ol’ right? Another Bell Jar. Well, no. Having had one or two of these crackups myself, I found Inglorious harrowingly on the money. Damn near unreadable because it was so accurate. My soul and heart surged with YES YES THAT IS WHAT IT FEELS LIKE. I’m not sure I need to read it again. It’s super-upsetting, but excellent excellent excellent.
Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain.
I had a huge crush on Huckleberry Finn at 10 years old. I yearned for him. I loved him. I saw his sensitivity, and wanted it to be cherished. I wanted the world to be kind to him. I hung out on that raft with him and Jim, and thrilled at the prospect of creating your own world, your own reality, unmoored from the dual shores of the Mississippi that represented obligation, oppression, and cruelty. I was little, but I got that book.
Beware of Pity, by Stefan Zweig.
Holy SHIT is the most appropriate response. READ. IT. I’ve written quite a bit about it, and Stefan Zweig as well. Anyone who saw Grand Budapest Hotel will recognize the influence of Zweig (much of it was based, loosely, on his writing about the final hey-day of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, an entity he felt strongly about.) He loved the Empire, valued it, because it seemed to let him live free, openly, as a Jew. That all changed with the rise of Hitler and the changing tenor of the times in Vienna. Zweig and his wife fled. When the Nazis marched into Vienna, and the crowds welcomed them with open arms. After traveling about, Zweig and his wife ended up in Brazil in 1940. The two of them committed suicide together, in despair about the state of the world. Awful. Beware of Pity is an extraordinary novel about a young soldier placed in a garrison town, who becomes enmeshed in a rich family’s twisted emotional life. It is a brilliant and cynical examination of what “pity” means, and as the title suggests, Zweig felt uneasy about the uses of pity. It should be avoided. You’ll have to read the book to understand why. My mother just read it, and we have had many enthusiastic conversations about it. Zweig was a wonder.
Crime And Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Any element of “crime” and “punishment” that is NOT included in this novel is not worth knowing.
Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson.
My first encounter with this extraordinary and strange writer. It’s a fantastical tale, involving elements of fairy tales, myths, legends, tall tales … it takes place in Elizabethan England. There’s a monstrous gigantic woman called The Dog Woman who lives in the swamps on the Thames. There’s an explorer who brings back the banana to England from one of his travels. It’s both realistic and mystical – Winterson’s stock-in-trade. She’s also quite funny.
The Talented Mr. Ripley, by Patricia Highsmith.
Highsmith is the ice pick in the back, the footsteps on your grave. I’m slightly obsessed. She tells the story of a psychopathic mind from inside that mind. All of the Ripley books are great.
Bartleby, The Scrivener A Story of Wall-Street, by Herman Melville.
Mentioned above. The crushing drudgery of clerking work. The claustrophobic office. The sheer pettiness of it all. Into that world strolls Bartleby. I will never forget him. I think about him often.
Bad Behavior: Stories, by Mary Gaitskill.
God, these stories. I’ve read Gaitskill’s novels, too, but I think she, like Lorrie Moore, is most suited to the short story. Her second collection, Because They Wanted to: Stories is also excellent. Bad Behavior, though, is one of the most impressive debuts I’ve ever read. It was an announcement more than a book: Gaitskill Has Arrived. They’re terrifying grubby little stories, with moments of transcendence, detailing the lives of damaged people devoted to sexual deviance. With varying degrees of enthusiasm. “Secretary” is from this collection, maybe her most famous story, since it became a film (which I actually enjoyed: they got the spirit of it, although some of the disturbing underbelly was not addressed.) Gaitskill’s characters enjoy being punished. They are lonely. Sad. These stories feel major. None of her novels come close to the profundity and power in Bad Behavior.
Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brien.
These books are tied up in my dad for me, so although I tore through the first 8 books, I’ve been unable to read them since. They make me sad. But I LOVE them. They are some of the most pleasurable books I have ever read. Almost every page has a jewel on it.
Prep: A Novel, by Curtis Sittenfeld.
I have my sister Jean to thank for this recommendation. Another first novel! Extraordinary. The reason to read it is for the “voice.” Apparently, in the various workshops Sittenfeld took, the feedback she got was to alter the voice: it was too unsympathetic. (Sigh. Our culture and its fanaticism about “relateability” and “likability” and “feeling good.” It’s a cult. Resist it. It will take work but fucking resist. It’s a conspiracy to keep us harmless and soft.) Prep tells the story, in first-person narration, of a girl’s four years in a hoity-toity prep school. It sounds YA-ish. It is not. It is an adult book, full of piercing observations, stuff that will make you think, “Wow. I have never heard that particular specific TYPE of interaction described so unbelievably accurately.” She GETS the tiny moments that are HUGE in their implications.
Going After Cacciato, by Tim O’Brien.
Along with The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien’s collection of short pieces, Going After Cacciato is one of the best novels about Vietnam that there is, if not the best. The writing! The way Cacciato takes on a mythic presence, something to strive towards, “the substance of things hoped for.” Is Cacciato still out there? What does he mean to you? To me? To all of us? A great great book.
The Likeness, by Tana French.
Oh my God, these books. Tana French has written a series of books about a fictional homicide department in current-day Dublin. The first book in the series was Into the Woods. I believe she is still going. I’ve read four of them so far. Each one superb, dark, deep, with stretches of effortlessly beautiful and insightful writing. They’re crime novels, but their REAL topic is the Celtic Tiger, and its catastrophic collapse. That’s the background of these books. She gets it better than Anne Enright or John Banville does, the two current heavy-weights of Irish contemporary literature. Each book has a different narrator, another character working homicide. The characters move in and out of each other’s books. They are all connected peripherally. Love them, they are addictive.
11/22/63: A Novel, by Stephen King.
A masterpiece. A great American novel. Don DeLillo can go fuck himself. He’s never written anything this good. (Not that he criticizes King, but often critics mention King as being “almost” as good as DeLillo’s White Noise or Libra or whatever else. “It deserves to stand alongside DeLillo.” they pontificate in their ridiculous earnestness. Etc. DeLillo is perceived as “serious” and King is not. Fuck that. Seriously: Underworld was about 400 pages too long. I’m not kidding. FOUR HUNDRED. EDIT THAT SHIT, MAN. King writes long books too and 11/23/63 is long, but not a word too long, and it is far more “serious” than anything DeLillo has attempted. Because in DeLillo I always always feel the ATTEMPT, rather than the successful end-result. He strains for profundity.) I didn’t mean to bitch about DeLillo, but his status as Great American Novelist is irksome to me, when people like King are sidelined into genre.
Villette, by Charlotte Bronte.
One of the saddest books I’ve ever read. One of the best books about loneliness I’ve ever read.
Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann.
This book is insane and right up my alley. It is a modern-day screwball comedy. The characters are witty wise-crackers, who say stuff like “Hey, pal, watch where you’re goin’.” It is Carole Lombard, William Powell, Cary Grant, in current New York. It’s a middle-aged romance between a plastic surgeon and a crazy damn-near cat lady. She’s a feminist on near-anarchic lines, she wants to topple the whole patriarchy, and he has devoted his career to making women look younger, i.e. more desirable. It sounds lecturing. It is, in a way, but so funny that her message is buried in hilarity. I want to live in this book. These are people with serious things on their mind, who treat every interaction like a comedic pie-in-the-face opportunity.
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam.
How had I not read this book before? How had it escaped my notice? It’s about the dying days of the British Empire, really. But the characters, especially that lead character. Unforgettable. Beautiful writer.
A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel.
I love this gigantic novel almost more than I do her Thomas Cromwell trilogy. It’s a book about the French Revolution, told (alternately) by Danton, Robespierre, and Camille Desmoulins. Politics. War. Judgment. Revolution. Who says women only write books about domestic trivia? Mantel is a heavy-hitter who is interested in Power. How does power operate? What does it feel like to the men who are powerful? How do they maintain power? And what happens when the tide turns? Highly recommended.
The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge.
Considering my Stalin obsession, I have no idea how Victor Serge escaped my notice for so long. Commenter John Vail, a valued reader of this site, recommended Serge to me, and I cannot thank him enough. First I read Serge’s Memoirs of a Revolutionary, which I could tell, from the first page, was essential reading. I devoured it. Next up, The Case of Comrade Tulayev, a novel. As anyone even mildly familiar with 20th century history knows, the 1934 murder of Kirov was the “excuse” Stalin needed to launch the Terror. As Robert Conquest wrote in his magnificent The Great Terror: A Reassessment:
This killing [the murder of Kirov] has every right to be called the crime of the century. Over the next four years, hundreds of Soviet citizens, including the most prominent political leaders of the Revolution, were shot for direct responsibility for the assassination, and literally millions of others went to their deaths for complicity in one or another part of the vast conspiracy which allegedly lay behind it. Kirov’s death, in fact, was the keystone of the entire edifice of terror and suffering by which Stalin secured his grip on the Soviet peoples.
Kirov shows Stalin’s evil genius, and the genius lies in the fact that although everyone knew that he had to have ordered it, his fingerprints on the deed were nowhere to be found. Classic Stalin. Anyway, Victor Serge, who was actually a “believer”, and traveled back to Soviet Russia in the 20s to work for the new regime, felt which way the wind was blowing. He may have been the first – at least the first to record his thoughts about it. Many people, by 1936, understood that Stalin’s Russia was bad bad news. But it took someone extremely courageous and far-thinking to perceive that in 1926, 1927. Victor Serge did. The Case of Comrade Tulayev is the lightly-fictionalized account of the murder of Kirov (only in the book he is named “Tulayev”) and how that one supposedly random murder reached out its tentacles and suffocated an entire nation of millions of people. A masterpiece.
The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood.
The voice is cold and flat-affect. Traumatized. The shock of what has happened. Some cataclysmic event has occurred and a fanatical brand of Christians have taken over the U.S. government through acts of terror and a slow-creep of bureaucratic strangling. Women are on the table, as women always are, when power is discussed, when groups struggle for power. In Atwood’s dystopia, women of child-bearing years are hired out to be “handmaids” to infertile couples who work for the regime, commanders and lieutenants, etc. Those considered undesirable are placed in homes of prostitution, or shipped off to shovel nuclear waste in distant locations. The only thing a woman is valued for is her womb. Atwood imagines that world at its most extreme. Considering the talk in the last couple of years about rape and the inexcusable confusion about female anatomy, and the push to police female sexuality, which basically boils down to: Women should not be allowed to have sex for fun. I mean, that’s what’s going on. Anyway, The Handmaid’s Tale still reads like science-fiction, we aren’t there yet, but we are closer now than we were when the book came out.
The Shark-Infested Custard, by Charles Willeford.
His writing is unmistakable. The book is a tough pill to swallow, in its casual amorality, but that’s why it’s so good, so valuable. It’s a bell jar of male entitlement, and Willeford understands it like few others do. He also is able to portray it, from the inside. Not describe it – that’s too easy – but portray it, in a series of shifting narratives amongst one group of friends. I wrote a piece about the book, and some guy showed up sneering at my “take” on it, that I was part of the conspiracy that wanted to feminize men, that couldn’t deal with the fact that “this is the way men ARE, bitch.” Methinks he doesn’t understand that portraying something is not an endorsement. It’s like those who felt validated by Archie Bunker, because their minds are too dull to pick up on irony. Willeford does not let any air into that bell jar. He’s a great writer.
The Stand, by Stephen King.
Another of his great novels. I go through the Lincoln Tunnel every day, and I’m telling you, there’s not one day that I don’t think about that scene in the Lincoln Tunnel, with all the stalled cars, and the dead people, and having to shoot the gun to light the way out. The bullets ricocheting through the gigantic tube that had become a mass grave. I should read the book again. It’s been years.
At Close Range : Wyoming Stories, by Annie Proulx.
I love her series of Wyoming stories collections, but this one is the best. Her writing! Tough and gnarly and weird. Her own thing. She writes about misfits and eccentric and tough old broads and tougher old cowboys. And the landscape … her sense of atmosphere keens through these stories like a mournful wail.
The Grass Harp, by Truman Capote.
Mitchell and I read this story together in college, I think, and we still talk about it. We still reference it constantly. A magical story of a group of unhappy misfit people who create a utopia in a tree house.
Gold Bug Variations, by Richard Powers.
My friend Ted and I (he blogs about art, culture, books, and neuroscience here) are OBSESSED with this novel. How to describe it? It takes as its structure The Goldberg Variations. Glenn Gould’s famous recording of it, at least. It is about the mid-20th-century fight to isolate DNA and it is also about two separate romances – one in the “now” and one back then. It is about the dovetail of science and music, and the connections Powers makes between DNA and the structures of the Goldberg Variations are dizzying. It’s an intellectual feast, with three main characters: one a NY public librarian, the other a faded scientist who had an illustrious past helping to crack the genetic code, and a kind of extroverted man-about-town who romances the librarian and the two of them befriend the scientist. The book is also about love. We love love love this novel.
Breaking and Entering, by Joy Williams.
What an extraordinary novel. A beautiful novel of Florida. An aimless couple, together since they were teenagers, spend their weekends breaking into the homes of the rich, who are out of town. They loll about, taking baths, cutting each other’s hair, sleeping, walking on the beach. When the weekend is over, they head home to their lives. Their sorry dreary lives. Williams’ writing is dreamy, and the book is filled with memorable characters.
Then She Found Me, by Elinor Lipman.
A writer labeled with the “chick-lit” stamp. Unfair. I imagine the cutesy covers would put off men from reading them. That would be a mistake. In general, I hope that men do not move past books only because a woman wrote them. I certainly don’t pass by books just because a man wrote them. This should be a two-way street. Elinor Lipman is a prolific novelist, and so for those of us who love her, that is a blessing. She writes comedies, but there’s so much social criticism in them as well. She’s a modern-day Jane Austen. Her books are filled with weirdos and eccentrics, people who sort of stumble into love with each other, and put each other through hilarious hell. Then She Found Me was the first one I read, so that’s why it’s on the list, but you should check out all of them. Her books often make me laugh out loud.
Dubliners, by James Joyce.
The collection of short stories that launched him into the world. Each one has its own merit, but they should be read as a whole – and preferably in order. Because the last story in the collection is “The Dead,” the best short story ever written. It’s hopeless to argue, at least with me. You won’t win. What happens when you read the collection in order is that you get this multi-faceted prismatic detailed portrait of Dublin and its inhabitants. It’s hugely cynical. There are the unhappy spinsters, the daydreaming young boys yearning to get out, the young lovers hoping for escape, the busybody ladies working on the concert, the loafers, the party-hounds, the political wrangling in the social clubs, the boarding houses and public houses, the church. Joyce is NOT kind. He comes bearing his pen like a sword, attacking all that he found imbecilic, phony, and anti-human in his country. But then … but then … he ends with “The Dead.” Which redeems us all. Even in its tragedy. There, suddenly, is love. A swoon of love. The final four paragraphs are among the most beautiful passages in all of literature. And, as Mary Gordon wrote about it:
Consider the daring of Joyce’s final repetitions and reversals: “falling faintly, faintly falling” — a triumph of pure sound, of language as music. No one has ever equaled it; it makes those who have come after him pause for a minute, in awed gratitude, in discouragement. How can any of us come up to it? Only, perhaps, humbly, indifferently, in its honor and its name, to try.
And he did it all when he was twenty-five. The bastard.
Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather, by Jincy Willett.
Now. I am from Rhode Island, and this book takes place in Rhode Island, and boy, does Jincy Willett GET Rhode Island. That’s the first thing. Second of all, this is again one of those rare books that made me laugh out loud repeatedly. I gave it to my dad for his birthday. I was in the kitchen making coffee or something, he was reading it in the living room, and I heard these wild guffaws coming from down the hallway. It tells the story of two sisters. It tells the story of a hurricane bearing down on the state, which is in a tizzy of panic. Rhode Islanders love to panic about weather. Because of 1938. Jincy Willett has written other novels, and her latest, Amy Falls Down: A Novel, is also hilarious, a sort of sequel to The Writing Class. Willett writes about writers, professional and amateur. She’s brilliant at it. In Winner of the National Book Award there is a character who is a “local poet” – which reminds me of something my father once said, “Nothin’ worse than a local poet.” I think I bought my dad this book BECAUSE of the portrait of the “local poet.” There’s one scene where the poet, seated at a child’s desk (with the chair attached) tries to stand up in outrage to make his point, but he is caught by the desk, and so stands there, crouched over, frozen. I think I laughed for five minutes at that image. I am still laughing. I am a huge fan of Willett’s work. I’m slightly embarrassed right now because she reads and comments here, which I love! I wholeheartedly suggest you check out all of her novels, as well as her collection of short fiction, Jenny and the Jaws of Life. I mean, the title alone.
What Maisie Knew, by Henry James.
A tour de force of narration and first-person perspective. Told from the standpoint of a little girl caught up in the dissolution of her parents’ marriage. Her parents are clearly monstrous narcissists, the both of them, but she is a little girl, and they are her parents, and most of what is happening she does not understand. She does not have the experience to say, “Hey. I’m an innocent child. Please do not subject me to this adult ugliness.” James tells the entire story only from “what Maisie knew.” It’s tremendously upsetting.
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck.
One of the byproducts of my early obsession with James Dean and the film, was that I read John Steinbeck’s book afterwards. I was 13 years old. It’s a huge book. Dense, complex. The story told in the film is the last section of the novel, the final generation. But there are two generations that came before, all of whom have congregated in the fertile Salinas Valley. It is the story of brothers, all of whom have names that start with either “C” or “A.” There is Cathy, one of the best descriptions of an amoral psychopath in literature. I’ve written about it, and her, ad nauseum. I’ve read the book about 4 times at this point, and once I became old enough to really understand it, more and more was revealed to me. There’s the big sprawling Irish-family “neighbors,” with the Chinese cook, Lee, who is the moral center of the story. He doesn’t “see all” or anything like that, in any condescending way, but he has made a choice to live according to a philosophy, to meet the struggles of life having thought out beforehand who he wants to be, and it is THAT that gives him the perspective necessary to see what is REALLY going on. Others just react. He is thoughtful, slow, contemplative. I almost like East of Eden more than The Grapes of Wrath. It’s more of a sprawl of a book, with about 10 different stories told, as opposed to one. But it’s rich beautiful stuff.
House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski.
I legit woke up screaming from nightmares while I read this book. One of the scariest books I have ever read. How to describe it? It is about a house that is bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. But there’s so much more to it. There are footnotes, copious footnotes, that eventually start arguing with one another, battling for power, for control over the narrative. There’s a guy who found the manuscript about the house, a scholarly manuscript, and this guy lives in a blue-collar gritty world of bikers and tattoo artists and strippers. He is obsessed with this house, with getting the word out about the family that apparently disappeared into the house, never to be seen again. I was truly RATTLED by this book. Brilliant.
Lives of the Saints, by Nancy Lemann.
A beautiful Southern comedy. I made Mitchell read it when we were living together in Chicago. I’m obsessed with this book, and with her. She’s only written five books, all of which I adore. Nancy Lemann, where are you? Are you working on something now? I beg you: come back!! It tells the story of an aimless young post-college woman, who is from Louisiana, and returned after 4 years at Brown. She doesn’t know what she’s doing with her life. The entire community is engulfed in various gentle scandals. She parties all night long, interspersed with existential struggles. She and her friend Claude Collier, a wild man who wears seersucker suits and is a magnet for comedy of errors, circulate, going to bars and blues clubs. Nothing really happens. It’s not a book about its plot (none of her books are). It’s a book about a mood, and a place, and a time.
A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens.
Cinematic, before there was cinema. Those cobblestones drenched with red wine. The way the narrative flies back and forth across the channel. The unforgettable creation of Sidney Carton, one of my favorite Dickens characters ever. A brilliant book. I had to read it in 10th grade, and I thrilled to it even then. I like the political revolution parts best.
It, by Stephen King.
My favorite novel of his, although 11/22/63 immediately took its place in the King Pantheon. It is about a monster, of course. But it is really about friendship. And how friendship (and a gentle gang-bang between friends – what?) can save us all. Drenched in bittersweet nostalgia for childhood, one of King’s real gifts as a writer. He remembers. The closing sequence of the book made my heart ACHE.
Scoop, by Evelyn Waugh.
I have written a lot about this book and about how I read it because of Christopher Hitchens’ book review of it. The book review made me laugh out loud. The book itself was so funny that there was a memorable occasion where I was reading it on my bus commute home and was laughing so hard, and yet trying to be quiet about it, that my face literally froze into an agonized comedy mask. Evelyn Waugh was one of my “gaps” in reading. I was not an English major. I read the classics in high school and in undergrad was an Acting student. So I was on my own in terms of reading material. I came to Waugh late. Scoop was the first one I read, and I found it unbearably painfully funny (and biting and vicious about the voracious foreign press). I’ve read all of his stuff now. He’s one of my favorite writers. So thank you, Mr. Hitchens!
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving.
My friends and I are huge John Irving fans. Mitchell, me, David, all read the latest John Irving, and discuss and reference and rave. My father loved John Irving too. I think Cider House Rules was his favorite. But Prayer for Owen Meany came along at the right time for me, a book that spoke into some kind of experience that was personal, a book that introduced unforgettable characters – and hilarious set-pieces (the Christmas concert!! Too much!), and ended on a sweeping high note so painful/right that I thought my heart would burst. Also, tangential: I have about 500 cousins. I am desperately close to all of them. We grew up together. I have had more fun with my cousins than any other group on the planet. Still. The “cousin” relationship, at least one of this nature, has not been sufficiently explored in literature. Maybe it’s a rare occurrence? The relationship between Melissa and Michael in Thirtysomething was so pleasing to me because it was that rare thing: a close relationship between adult cousins. And they NAILED that dynamic. They are not siblings, they are cousins. It is different. And Prayer for Owen Meany understands “cousins” on the deepest level. The fun they all have together is often quite literally death-defying.
Christine Falls, by Benjamin Black.
As I’m sure most of you know, Benjamin Black is John Banville’s pseudonym. John Banville writes serious novels that get nominated for the Booker Award, almost with a yawn attached at this point. John Banville felt cramped by “John Banville” and had other things he wanted to write, so he created “Benjamin Black.” Benjamin Black writes crime novels that take place in quiet 1950s Dublin. The lead character is a gloomy alcoholic (or sometimes dry-drunk) pathologist named Quirke, who, through his job, gets involved in solving all of these murders. I think there’s 5 books in the series now. I just finished the latest one on my vacation. They are great crime books, but they are also wonderful on the dreary gas-lamp quiet vibe of 1950s Ireland, when the Church was more monolithic than it is now, and scandals were pushed under the carpet. Some of the scandals uncovered are enormous, having to do with orphanages and Magdalene Laundries. Others are more prosaic. But they’re a lot of fun. To be honest, I find some of “John Banville” a bit ponderous. Benjamin Black though, never!
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick.
I’ve probably read this book 10 times. A masterpiece.
Cat’s Eye, by Margaret Atwood.
While The Handmaid’s Tale is her most famous novel, and probably always will be, Cat’s Eye is her best book. One of the best books about girls, and what girls do to each other, in existence. Magnificent writing, too, Atwood at her very best.
The Children of the Arbat, by Anatoly Rybakov.
I believe this was banned in Russia for many years, and you can see why. It tells the story of “the Arbat”, the sort of Greenwich Village of Moscow, in the 20s and early 30s. The Revolution is over, and it’s not yet clear, at the outset, what that will mean on the ground. Surely life will go on as before, yet better, with more opportunities? But abysses start to open. Fractures become apparent. The bohemian group of students and artists and loafers and partiers starts to break apart, forced to by the increasing paranoia, the insistence that you join the apparatus of the State. Meanwhile, far off, is Stalin, in his office, getting shaved, smoking his pipe, making decisions. It is a brilliant portrait of an unknowable man, the most unknowable dictator in modern history. He controlled history to such an extent that it is difficult to find accurate information on him, although historians have done a pretty good job piecing together his timeline. However, the timeline takes us only so far. Plenty of people went through similar things at that time, and did not become a Stalin. What made Stalin Stalin? Think before you answer. One of his distinguishing characteristics that sets him apart from other absolute dictators was that he had patience. He could sit and wait for YEARS before he got his revenge. But he never forgot a slight. He nursed grudges for decades, biding his time until he saw the opportunity to strike. Rybakov’s portrait of Stalin is incredibly convincing. The book ends with the murder of Kirov. You feel a swoon of despair. All of the people you just read about, came to care about over 500 pages, will probably die.
The Country Girls Trilogy, by Edna O’Brien.
I like the first installment of the trilogy the best, but they’re all wonderful. Another great novel about what it is like with girls, and what female friendship is really like. Country girls. Move to Dublin. Romances. Trouble. 1950s. How it works out. How it doesn’t. O’Brien is a giant in Irish literature and rightly so.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon.
A glorious show-off of a book with a great plot about the early days of comic books in New York City, as well as the Jewish immigrant experience. I’ve been a Chabon fan since his first novel, The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh. I’ve read them all, but I admit, I had to put down Telegraph Avenue: A Novel. This just happened. I just couldn’t do it. That showoff quality that worked so well elsewhere became too grating for me in that book. I FELT him, the author, showing off too much, “showing” his work, his research, with a kind of “See all the work I’ve done? See my research?” It was a turn-off. I could be wrong about it, and I just wasn’t in the mood for it right now. Could be. What I love about Kavalier & Clay is that thing I was bitching Don DeLillo about up above. It is profound without straining for profundity. It keeps its eyes on the details, because the details matter. The characters. The love triangle. New York City in the 30s. The threat of totalitarianism. The bohemian circle. The Jewish thing. The explosion of creativity. It’s all there, all filtered through characters I believe in. With writing that is daunting in its high-flung vocabulary and unexpected imagery. I’m not a book critic, obvi, so I’ll just say this: From the opening sequence, with the golem and the escape, the book FEELS deep. You know you are about to step into some deep deep waters. He makes that clear, without fanfare or fuss. Great book.
1984, by George Orwell.
When current political talk gets me down, I pull out this book to remind myself how it’s done, and also to remind myself of the stakes. “Newspeak” is alive and well right now, and neither side – left or right – is off the hook as far as I’m concerned. All of them speak in a pre-programmed language, filled with shorthand, meant to obscure the truth, rather than reveal it. Orwell was more prophetic than even he knew, and he knew a lot. A courageous writer. Seen as a traitor, still, in many circles, because he criticized something that emerged from the Left. He understood something that very few people “got” until it was too late: that Socialism was never about handing over the power of production to the people. It was ALWAYS about consolidating power into the hands of a very small elite caste. From the get-go, it was a power-grab. The revolution was betrayed. But those at the top always knew the truth. That’s the secret in the “secret book” and that was the thing nobody wanted to look at, or deal with, in real life. 1984 is brutal, but bracing. I read it about once a year. It’s a short one, you can whip through it in a day and a half.
Light Years, by James Salter.
Salter just died, and the outpouring of love/affection for this writer was truly heartwarming. He did not win many prizes, he did not make a lot of money with his novels, but he is a master of the form. Seriously, nobody does with prose what he does. You can’t even believe it works. There are sequences in A Sport and a Pastime that honestly just add up to short sentences of description. Okay? The flowers were blue, the tea was cold, the sun was warm. But in his hands, these things shimmer with life, with depth, with meanings beyond meanings. It is deceptively simple, what he does. His imitators are legion, and for the most part they all suck. To quote Yeats on Jonathan Swift:
Imitate him if you dare.
All of his books, as well as his memoir, are well worth checking out, but I’m putting Light Years on this list because it was my introduction to Salter. I read it at the age of 23. I was too young for it. I resisted the book. I almost didn’t even understand it, even though the writing, as I mentioned, is clear as crystal. I was talking with a friend on Facebook about this and he had an identical experience with Light Years. It wasn’t until we got older, in our 40s, that we re-visited the book and felt its power, understood its implications. Not for the faint-hearted. Brilliant writer. He is so missed already.
Play It As It Lays, by Joan Didion.
Along with all of her essays, Didion is, of course, a novelist as well. I’ve read all of them, and Play It As It Lays is the real keeper. Has there ever been a writer who gets California like she does? Steinbeck, certainly, but his California is different, his California is the one that existed before all the orange groves were cut down, before the freeways came in, before everything. Play It as It Lays is a brilliant Los Angeles novel, and the voice of the narrator is cold as ice, bleak as a desert. Nothing will grow there. The voice is flat, knowing, and traumatized. I found it so off-putting, so terrifying, the depression of it, the hopelessness, the cold-ness. There are sequences about driving on the freeways that I didn’t understand until I got into “the zone” once during one of my times in L.A. It was a moment when I suddenly understood the appeal of those gigantic writhing roads, of going as fast as you can, of fleeing, of going going going – ocean on one side, mountains in front of you, desert on the other side. The ultimate border-land. This is a chilly chilly piece of work, one that haunts you long after you finish the book.