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Judy Budnitz's Top Ten List
1. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (1955). “Lolita, light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul.” So begins the Russian master’s infamous novel about Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged man who falls madly, obsessively in love with a twelve-year-old “nymphet,” Dolores Haze. So he marries the girl’s mother. When she dies he becomes Lolita’s father. As Humbert describes their car trip —a twisted mockery of the American road novel —Nabokov depicts love, power, and obsession in audacious, shockingly funny language.
2. Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (1992). Although the title comes from Lou Reed’s song “Heroin,” it assumes another meaning in this collection of eleven linked short stories about a character who endures drug addiction, car crashes, and violence to learn who he is and achieve some grace. The characters sometimes seem futile as they score drugs and scrounge for money and love, but the real story is the narrator’s fumbling process toward self-discovery.
3. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren (1946). In perhaps the most famous American political novel, Warren tracks the unsentimental education of Jack Burden, an upper-class, college-educated lackey to Willie Stark, the populist governor of Louisiana (whom Warren modeled on Huey Long). Burden spirals into self-loathing as he learns how political sausage is made, then finds a moral compass after Stark’s assassination —all told in a bleak poetry that marries Sartre and Tennessee Williams.
4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960). Tomboy Scout and her brother Jem are the children of the profoundly decent widower Atticus Finch, a small-town Alabama lawyer defending a black man accused of raping a white woman. Although Tom Robinson’s trial is the centerpiece of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel —raising profound questions of race and conscience —this is, at heart, a tale about the fears and mysteries of growing up, as the children learn about bravery, empathy, and societal expectations through a series of evocative set pieces that conjure the Depression-era South.
5. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (1877). Anna’s adulterous love affair with Count Vronsky —which follows an inevitable, devastating road from their dizzyingly erotic first encounter at a ball to Anna’s exile from society and her famous, fearful end —is a masterwork of tragic love. What makes the novel so deeply satisfying, though, is how Tolstoy balances the story of Anna’s passion with a second semiautobiographical story of Levin’s spirituality and domesticity. Levin commits his life to simple human values: his marriage to Kitty, his faith in God, and his farming. Tolstoy enchants us with Anna’s sin, then proceeds to educate us with Levin’s virtue.
6. The stories of Isaac Babel (1894–1940). “Let me finish my work” was Babel’s final plea before he was executed for treason on the orders of Josef Stalin. Though incomplete, his work is enduring. In addition to plays and screenplays, some in collaboration with Sergei Eisenstein, Babel made his mark with The Odessa Stories, which focused on gangsters from his native city, and even more important, the collection entitled Red Cavalry. Chaos, bloodshed, and mordant fatalism dominate those interconnected stories, set amid the Red Army’s Polish campaign during the Russian Civil War. Babel, himself a combat veteran, embodied the war’s extremes in the (doubtless autobiographically based) war correspondent–propagandist Kiril Lyutov and the brutally violent Cossack soldiers whom he both fears and admires. Several masterpieces herein (including “A Letter,” “My First Goose,” and “Berestechko”) anticipate Hemingway’s later achievement, and confirm Babel’s place among the great modernist writers.
7. The House of Breath by William Goyen (1950). Poetic, serpentine prose becomes cascades of memory and emotions in this story of a man who returns to his tiny hometown of Charity, Texas. As he lovingly depicts the town —its landscape, folk, speech, superstitions, and fables —Goyen provides what the novelist Katherine Anne Porter described as “a sustained evocation of the past, a long search for place and identity, and the meaning of an intense personal experience; an attempt to cleanse the heart of its mysterious burden of guilt.”
8. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (1961). Trying to avoid the conformity of their suburban neighbors on Revolutionary Road, Frank and April Wheeler talk of moving to France where Frank might write the great book or think the great thoughts April believes he is capable of. However, infidelity and alcohol abuse dissolve their dreams as Frank and April lose faith in each other and themselves in this exquisitely painful novel.
9. Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme (1981). Giant of postmodernism, creator of worlds both surreal and mundane whose only constants are surprise and change, master of brief, epiphanic stories called sudden fiction, Barthelme juggled many balls, wore many hats. Though he wrote four novels, he was best known for his short stories. This compilation of stories from the 1960s and 1970s includes the tale of a giant balloon that engulfs Manhattan, “The Balloon,” and the youngsters who bring death to everything they touch, in “The School.”
10. The Street of Crocodiles by Bruno Schulz (1934). Out of his childhood experiences in the Polish city of Drogobych, Schulz (who was also an artist and a Jew) fashioned this fantastical semiautobiographical short story collection in which his father becomes a bird, a year has thirteen months, and the very furniture is aquiver with kinesthetic metaphor and the sudden transformational power of dreams. The book is one of the few surviving works of Schulz, who was murdered by a Nazi officer in Drogobych in 1942.