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Melissa Bank’s Top Ten List
1. 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.
2. 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.
3. The stories of Ernest Hemingway (1899–1961). Love and war, childhood and adolescence, and initiation and experience are recurring themes in these journalistically spare, often autobiographical stories. Some, including “A Very Short Story,” are merely snapshots, barely a page long. Others, such as Snows of Kilimanjaro” are multi-layered stories within a story. Among the best are those featuring Hemingway’s doppelganger Nick Adams, whose youthful innocence in an Edenic Michigan becomes an almost jaded stoicism through combat and failed romance.
4. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952). A retelling of Cain and Abel set in California’s Salinas Valley between the Civil War and World War I, this novel takes off when Adam Trask realizes that maybe he shouldn’t have married the lovely yet soulless prostitute Cathy Ames: on their wedding night she betrays him with his brother. Still, they produce twin boys, but Cathy, driven by undeniable demons, forsakes the newborns for her old life. Adam tells his rivalrous sons —Caleb, the bad penny, and sweet Aron —their mother is dead. But when Caleb learns the truth, the family’s uneasy peace gives way to mayhem and a searing battle between good and evil as characters grapple with their destiny.
5. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day — the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
6. The stories of Raymond Carver (1938–88). Culled from his own hard-drinking, working-class upbringing in the Pacific Northwest, Carver’s stories depict relationships in various states of decay, the unsung losses of unsung people, and the prolonged misery of ordinary people delivered in a sly understated tone sometimes called dirty realism. A master of the short story, Carver’s name was only beginning to be mentioned in the same breath as Hemingway and O’Connor when lung cancer brought him down at the age of fifty.
7. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). Dorothea Brooke is a pretty young idealist whose desire to improve the world leads her to marry the crusty pedant Casaubon. This mistake takes her down a circuitous and painful path in search of happiness. The novel, which explores society’s brakes on women and deteriorating rural life, is as much a chronicle of the English town of Middlemarch as it is the portrait of a lady. Eliot excels at parsing moments of moral crisis so that we feel a character’s anguish and resolve. Her intelligent sympathy for even the most unlikable people redirects our own moral compass toward charity rather than enmity.
8. Washington Square by Henry James (1880). James deeply admired Balzac. Here he pays homage to the Frenchman by recasting the novel Eugénie Grandet. The setting now is New York but the dynamic is the same: despite her father’s best, often cruel, efforts, an unexceptional, though wealthy young woman falls in love with a dashing fortune hunter. James leaves the reader to wonder which man hurt her worse: the father who told the truth or the lover who deceived her?
9. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). During a car trip, Stevens —a career butler who has existed at once on the fringes and within the bird’s nest of the British ruling class —reflects on his lifetime of service to the late Lord Darlington. Blinded by his devotion to “duty,” he cannot admit that his late master was a fascist sympathizer and cannot see that he has forfeited the possibility of leading his own life. Now in old age, Stevens faces a sense of loss without the emotional acuity to comprehend it.
10. Nine Stories by J. D. Salinger (1953). Salinger gave his story collection the title Nine Stories, and that simple, enumerative title is just right, for the stories can be counted off like beads on a string: “For Esme with Love and Squalor,” “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” and “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut,” whose last line, “I was a good girl, wasnI?” never fails to break the reader’s heart. The pitch-perfect voices Salinger provides his characters make their dead-serious search for meaning taste like candy.