The List of Books

    Reader Bio


    We awarded points for each selection – 10 points for a first place pick, nine points for a second place pick, and so on. Then we totaled up all the points and ranked them accordingly. Here are all the books ordered by the number of points each earned. In the parentheses are the initials of the authors that selected them and the points earned. Click on their initials to see their list. 

     

    (221) 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.

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    (214) Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author. Flaubert battled for five years to complete his meticulous portrait of extramarital romance in the French provinces, and he complained endlessly in letters about his love-starved main character— so inferior, he felt, to himself. In the end, however, he came to peace with her, famously saying, “Madame Bovary: c’est moi.” A model of gorgeous style and perfect characterization, the novel is a testament to how yearning for a higher life both elevates and destroys us.

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    (161) War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869). Mark Twain supposedly said of this masterpiece, “Tolstoy carelessly neglects to include a boat race.” Everything else is included in this epic novel that revolves around Napoleon’s invasion of Russia in 1812. Tolstoy is as adept at drawing panoramic battle scenes as he is at describing individual feeling in hundreds of characters from all strata of society, but it is his depiction of Prince Andrey, Natasha, and Pierre—who struggle with love and with finding the right way to live—that makes this book beloved.

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    (153) 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.

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    (152) 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.

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    (146) 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.

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    (135) Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). Hemingway proclaimed, “All modern American literature comes from . . . ‘Huckleberry Finn.’ ” But one can read it simply as a straightforward adventure story in which two comrades of conve­ nience, the parentally abused rascal Huck and fugitive slave Jim, escape the laws and conventions of society on a raft trip down the Mississippi. Alternatively, it’s a subversive satire in which Twain uses the only superficially naïve Huck to comment bitingly on the evils of racial bigotry, religious hypocrisy, and capitalist greed he observes in a host of other largely unsympathetic characters. Huck’s climactic decision to “light out for the Territory ahead of the rest” rather than submit to the starched standards of “civilization” reflects a uniquely American strain of individualism and nonconformity stretching from Daniel Boone to Easy Rider.

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     (124) Hamlet by William Shakespeare (1600). The most famous play ever written, Hamlet tells the story of a melancholic prince charged with avenging the murder of his father at the hands of his uncle, who then married his mother and, becoming King of Denmark, robbed Hamlet of the throne. Told the circumstances of this murder and usurpation by his father’s ghost, Hamlet is plunged deep into brilliant and profound reflection on the problems of existence, which meditations delay his revenge at the cost of innocent lives. When he finally acts decisively, Hamlet takes with him every remaining major character in a crescendo of violence unmatched in Shakespearean theater.

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    (123) The stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). The son of a freed Russian serf, Anton Chekhov became a doctor who, between the patients he often treated without charge, invented the modern short story. The form had been overdecorated with trick endings and swags of atmosphere. Chekhov freed it to reflect the earnest urgencies of ordinary lives in crises through prose that blended a deeply compassionate imagination with precise description. “He remains a great teacher-healer-sage,” Allan Gurganus observed of Chekhov’s stories, which “continue to haunt, inspire, and baffle.”

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    (120) Moby-Dick by Herman Melville (1851). This sweeping saga of obsession, vanity, and vengeance at sea can be read as a harrowing parable, a gripping adventure story, or a semiscientific chronicle of the whaling industry. No matter, the book rewards patient readers with some of fiction’s most memorable characters, from mad Captain Ahab to the titular white whale that crippled him, from the honorable pagan Queequeg to our insightful narrator/surrogate (“Call me”) Ishmael, to that hell-bent vessel itself, the Pequod.

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    (118) In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27). It’s about time. No, really. This seven-volume, three-thousand-page work is only superficially a mordant critique of French (mostly high) society in the belle époque. Both as author and as “Marcel,” the first-person narrator whose childhood memories are evoked by a crumbling madeleine cookie, Proust asks some of the same questions Einstein did about our notions of time and memory. As we follow the affairs, the badinage, and the betrayals of dozens of characters over the years, time is the highway and memory the driver.

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    (107) Ulysses by James Joyce (1922). Filled with convoluted plotting, scrambled syntax, puns, neologisms, and arcane mythological allusions, Ulysses recounts the misadventures of schlubby Dublin advertising salesman Leopold Bloom on a single day, June 16, 1904. As Everyman Bloom and a host of other characters act out, on a banal and quotidian scale, the major episodes of Homer’s ­Odyssey—including encounters with modern-day sirens and a Cyclops—Joyce’s bawdy mock-epic suggests the improbability, perhaps even the pointlessness, of heroism in the modern age.

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    (99) Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). Considered literature’s first great novel, Don Quixote is the comic tale of a dream-driven nobleman whose devotion to medieval romances inspires him to go in quest of chivalric glory and the love of a lady who doesn’t know him. Famed for its hilarious antics with windmills and nags, Don Quixote offers timeless meditations on heroism, imagination, and the art of writing itself. Still, the heart of the book is the relationship between the deluded knight and his proverb-spewing squire, Sancho Panza. If their misadventures illuminate human folly, it is a folly redeemed by simple love, which makes Sancho stick by his mad master “no matter how many foolish things he does.”

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    (89) One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967). Widely considered the most popular work in Spanish since Don Quixote, this novel—part fantasy, part social history of Colombia— sparked fiction’s “Latin boom” and the popularization of magic realism. Over a century that seems to move backward and forward simultaneously, the forgotten and offhandedly magical village of Macondo— home to a Faulknerian plethora of incest, floods, massacres, civil wars, dreamers, prudes, and prostitutes— loses its Edenic innocence as it is increasingly exposed to civilization.

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    (88) Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61). Dickens gives a twist to an ancient storyline—of the child of royal birth raised in humble surroundings. Looking back on his life, Pip describes his poor youth near marshes in rural England—his chance encounter with a murderous convict, his experiences with the strange Miss Havisham, who always wears a wedding dress, and his love for her beautiful adopted daughter Estella. As he approaches adulthood, Pip learns that he has a secret benefactor who arranges opportunities for him in London, wherein lies the tale, and the twist.

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    (87) Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1866). In the peak heat of a St. Petersburg summer, an erstwhile university student, Raskolnikov, commits literature’s most famous fictional crime, bludgeoning a pawnbroker and her sister with an axe. What follows is a psychological chess match between Raskolnikov and a wily detective that moves toward a form of redemption for our antihero. Relentlessly philosophical and psychological, Crime and Punishment tackles freedom and strength, suffering and madness, illness and fate, and the pressures of the modern urban world on the soul, while asking if “great men” have license to forge their own moral codes.

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    (81) The Odyssey by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?). Where The Iliad tells of war, The Odyssey is the story of survival and reconciliation following the ten-year battle with Troy. Where Achilles was defined by warrior brutality, Odysseus, King of Ithaca, is defined by his intelligence and wit. This epic poem follows Odysseus on his adventures as he struggles—against the threats of sea monsters and the temptation of the sirens’ song—to be reunited with his son Telemachus, his faithful, clever queen Penelope, and their kingdom.

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    (81) King Lear by William Shakespeare (1605). Considered one of Shakespeare’s four “core tragedies”—with Hamlet, Othello, and ­Macbeth—King Lear commences with Lear, having achieved great age but little wisdom, dividing his kingdom among his three daughters in return for their proclamations of love for him. Two of his daughters, evil to the core, falsely profess their love, while Cordelia, his good and true daughter, refuses his request. Enraged, Lear gives his kingdom to his evil daughters and banishes Cordelia. Lear pays a dear price for this rash act. The play systematically strips him of his kingdom, title, retainers, clothes, and sanity in a process so cruel and unrelenting as to be nearly unendurable.

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    (79) Dubliners by James Joyce (1916). Although many of these largely autobiographical stories evoke themes of death, illness, and stasis, nearly all offer their characters redemption—or at least momentary self-knowledge—through what Joyce called “epiphanies,” in which defeat or disappointment is transformed by a sudden, usually life-altering flash of awareness. The collection’s emotional centerpiece is its concluding tale, “The Dead,” which moves from a New Year’s Eve party where guests muse about issues of the day—the Catholic church, Irish nationalism, Freddie Malins’s worrying drunkenness—to a man’s discovery of his wife weeping over a boy who died for love of her. A profound portrait of identity and loneliness, it is Joyce’s most compassionate work.

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    (75) The stories of Flannery O’Connor (1925–64). Full of violence, mordant comedy, and a fierce Catholic vision that is bent on human salvation at any cost, Flannery O’Connor’s stories are like no others. Bigots, intellectual snobs, shyster preachers, and crazed religious seers—a full cavalcade of what critics came to call “grotesques”—careen through her tales, and O’Connor gleefully displays the moral inadequacy of all of them. Twentieth-century short stories often focus on tiny moments, but O’Connor’s stories, with their unswerving eye for vanity and their profound sense of the sacred, feel immense.

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    (72) The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1880). In perhaps the consummate Russian novel, Dostoevsky dramatizes the spiritual conundrums of nineteenth-century Russia through the story of three brothers and their father’s murder. Hedonistic Dmitri, tortured intellectual Ivan, and saintly Alyosha embody distinct philosophical positions, while remaining full-fledged human beings. Issues such as free will, secularism, and Russia’s unique destiny are argued not through authorial polemic, but through the confessions, diatribes, and nightmares of the characters themselves. An unsparing portrayal of human vice and weakness, the novel ultimately imparts a vision of redemption. Dostoevsky’s passion, doubt, and imaginative power compel even the secular West he scorned.

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    (72) The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929). A modernist classic of Old South decay, this novel circles the travails of the Compson family from four different narrative perspectives. All are haunted by the figure of Caddy, the only daughter, whom Faulkner described as “a beautiful and tragic little girl.” Surrounding the trials of the family itself are the usual Faulkner suspects: alcoholism, suicide, racism, religion, money, and violence both seen and unseen. In the experimental style of the book, Quentin Compson summarizes the confused honor and tragedy that Faulkner relentlessly evokes: “theres a curse on us its not our fault is it our fault.”

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    (71) To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927). The Ramsays and their eight children vacation with an assortment of scholarly and artistic houseguests by the Scottish seaside. Mainly set on two days ten years apart, the novel describes the loss, love, and disagreements of family life while reaching toward the bigger question—“What is the meaning of life?”—that Woolf addresses in meticulously crafted, modernist prose that is impressionistic without being vague or sterile.

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    (68) Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936). Weaving mythic tales of biblical urgency with the experimental techniques of high modernism, Faulkner bridged the past and future. This is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a rough-hewn striver who came to Mississippi in 1833 with a gang of wild slaves from Haiti to build a dynasty. Almost in reach, his dream is undone by plagues of biblical (and Faulknerian) proportions: racism, incest, war, fratricide, pride, and jealousy. Through the use of multiple narrators, Faulkner turns this gripping Yoknapatawpha saga into a profound and dazzling meditation on truth, memory, history, and literature itself.

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    (67) Emma by Jane Austen (1816). The story of Miss Woodhouse—busybody, know-it-all, and general relationship enthusiast—is a comedy of manners deftly laced with social criticism. The charm largely inheres in Emma’s imperfections: her slightly spoiled maneuverings, her highly fallible matchmaking, her inability to know her own heart. Emma teeters from lovable one moment to tiresome and self-centered the next. In writing her story, Austen found an ideal venue for her note-perfect, never-equaled archness.

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    (67) Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (1813). “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” reads this novel’s famous opening line. This matching of wife to single man—or good fortune—makes up the plot of perhaps the happiest, smartest romance ever written. Austen’s genius was to make Elizabeth Bennet a reluctant, sometimes crabby equal to her Mr. Darcy, making Pride and Prejudice as much a battle of wits as it is a love story.

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    (66) The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri (1321). Dante’s poetic trilogy traces the journey of a man’s soul from darkness (The Inferno) to the revelation of divine light (Paradiso) while providing commentary and gossip about the politics and prominent families of Florence. Led in his pilgrimage through the underworld and purgatory by the Greek poet, Virgil, Dante is escorted into paradise by his early beloved, Beatrice, while learning that, in order to ascend, he must be transformed.

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    (65) Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne (1759–67). Sterne promises the “life and opinions” of his protagonist. Yet halfway through the fourth volume of nine, we are still in the first day of the hero’s life thanks to marvelous digressions and what the narrator calls “unforeseen stoppages”—detailing the quirky habits of his eccentric family members and their friends. This broken narrative is unified by Sterne’s comic touch, which shimmers in this thoroughly entertaining novel that harks back to Don Quixote and foreshadows Ulysses.

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    (63) Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). Like Wuthering Heights, this is a romance set in the isolated moors of rural England the Brontës called home. Its title character is an exceptionally independent orphan who becomes governess to the children of an appealing but troubled character, Mr. Rochester. As their love develops, the author introduces a host of memorable characters and a shattering secret before sending Jane on yet another arduous journey.

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    (54) Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925). This masterpiece of concision and interior monologue recounts events in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a delicate, upper-class London wife and mother, as she prepares for a party at her home on a single day in June 1923. In a parallel subsidiary plot, a shell-shocked World War I veteran Clarissa encounters spirals into suicide rather than submit to soul-stealing experimental psycho­ therapy. The novel explores questions of time, memory, love, class, and life choices through Woolf’s intricate melding of points of view and powerful use of flashback.

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    (53) Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (1847). The author’s only novel, published a year before her death, centers on the doomed love between Heathcliff, a tormented orphan, and Catherine Earnshaw, his benefactor’s vain and willful daughter. Passion brings them together, but class differences, and the bitterness it inspires, keeps them apart and continues to take its toll on the next generation. Wuthering Heights tells you why they say that love hurts.

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    (50) The Bible.

    Appreciation of the Bible by Andrew Hudgins

    The Bible is both a holy book and a work of supreme fiction; those of us who read it both ways are doubly blessed. One does not need to believe in God to hear the majesty of the story that begins, “In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” A great story itself, the Bible is also the source of great stories, by geniuses from Dante to Dostoevsky, Faulkner to Thomas Mann, and the poetry of the Psalms echoes through great poetry from William Blake to Walt Whitman to T. S. Eliot.

     

    One does not have to believe Jesus is the Son of God to understand that his parables are penetrating works of fiction that embody complex truths about human nature. One need not believe Adam and Eve existed to see Genesis is, whatever else it is, a philosophically sophisticated and psychologically acute story about people’s innate response to authority, even loving authority. And it is perfectly possible to believe Moses and King David are fictional, and yet find true to life the Bible’s stories of these flawed men who succeed greatly, if only partially, while failing God time and again.

     

    And what of Jesus—a god entering history as a man and living as a mortal? True or not true, “the greatest story ever told,” in the majesty of its telling and the power of its message, has taught an entire culture how to think about love, suffering, and transcendence, and it has fundamentally colored the language by which we talk about everything.

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    (49) Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov (1962). “It is the commentator who has the last word,” claims Charles Kinbote in this novel masquerading as literary criticism. The text of the book includes a 999-line poem by the murdered American poet John Shade and a line-by-line commentary by Kinbote, a scholar from the country of Zembla. Nabokov even provides an index to this playful, provocative story of poetry, interpretation, identity, and madness, which is full to bursting with allusions, tricks, and the author’s inimitable wordplay.

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    (48) 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.

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    (47) Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). Dickens is best known for his immense plots that trace every corner of Victorian society, and Bleak House fulfills that expectation to perfection. The plot braids the sentimental tale of an orphan unaware of her scandalous parentage with an ironic and bitterly funny satire of a lawsuit that appears to entail all of London. In doing so, the novel encompasses more than any other Dickens novel, shows the author’s mature skills, and is the only Victorian novel to include an incident of human spontaneous combustion.

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    (46) Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952). This modernist novel follows the bizarre, often surreal adventures of an unnamed narrator, a black man, whose identity becomes a battleground in racially divided America. Expected to be submissive and obedient in the South, he must decipher the often contradictory rules whites set for a black man’s behavior. Traveling north to Harlem, he meets white leaders intent on controlling and manipulating him. Desperate to seize control of his life, he imitates Dostoevsky’s underground man, escaping down a manhole where he vows to remain until he can define himself. The book’s famous last line, “Who knows, but that on the lower frequencies I speak for you,” suggests how it transcends race to tell a universal story of the quest for self-determination.

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    (46) The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939). A powerful portrait of Depression-era America, this gritty social novel follows the Joad family as they flee their farm in the Oklahoma dust bowl for the promised land of California. While limping across a crippled land, Ma and Pa Joad, their pregnant daughter Rose of Sharon, and their recently paroled son Tom sleep in ramshackle Hoovervilles filled with other refugees and encounter hardship, death, and deceit. While vividly capturing the plight of a nation, Steinbeck renders people who have lost everything but their dignity.

    (SA 2) (PCle 1) (KH 1) (KK 1) (WL 3) (MMCPH 10) (GP 8) (BU 4) (SV 10) (TW 6)

     

    (45) The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925). The Trial is not just a book, but a cultural icon; Kafka is not just a writer but a mindset—“Kafkaesque.” Here, Everyman Josef K is persecuted by a mysterious and sadistic Law, which has condemned him in advance for a crime of which he knows nothing. Modern anxieties are given near-archetypal form in this parable that seems both to foretell the totalitarian societies to come and to mourn our alienation from a terrible Old Testament God.

    (ED 2) (JF 8) (LG 5) (JL 9) (BM 7) (DMe 6) (JS 8)

     

    (43) The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1380s?). Not so much a single poem as a gathering of voices ranging from bawdy to pious, this captivating work presents a panoramic view of medieval England. Vivid, direct, and often irresistibly funny, the tales are told by pilgrims making their way to Canterbury to visit the shrine of Saint Thomas Beckett. Each night another member of the party—a knight, a scholar, a miller—tells a story, and tale by tale, a portrait emerges of the diversity and delight of human possibility.

    (RB 5) (CE 8) (AHud 7) (DLod 8) (EM 7) (FC 8)

     

    (43) The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James (1881). James’s Portrait is of that superior creature Isabel Archer, an assured American girl who is determined to forge her destiny in the drawing rooms of Europe. To this end, she weds the older and more cultivated Gilbert Osmond, and eventually finds that she is less the author of her fate than she thought. Throughout, James gives us a combination of careful psychological refraction and truly diabolical plotting. The result is a book at once chilling and glorious.

    (KA 6) (PC 2) (SCraw 3) (GG 10) (VM 3) (JMEND 4) (CM 8) (JR 7)

     

    (42) Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899). In a novella with prose as lush and brooding as its jungle setting, Phillip Marlowe travels to the Belgian Congo to pilot a trading company’s steamship. There he witnesses the brutality of colonial exploitation, epitomized by Kurtz, an enigmatic white ivory trader. To understand evil, Marlowe seeks out Kurtz, whom he finds amongst the natives, dying. After Kurtz laments his own depravity through his final, anguished words—“The horror! The horror!”—Marlowe must decide what to tell his widow back home.

    (LKA 10) (PCap 2) (PM 9) (DM 8) (SO’N 6) (RW 7)

     

    (41) Persuasion by Jane Austen (1817). Eight years ago, Anne Elliot was persuaded by a friend to break off her engagement to a handsome naval officer because he lacked wealth and name. Now twenty-seven, her romantic prospects a dim memory, she encounters him once again, only now he is a grand success. Can she rekindle his love?

    (KA 10) (JBarn 8) (MG 2) (EH 5) (VM 4) (APat 2) (AWald 10)

     

    (41) The Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford (1915). A novel made seminally modernist through an unreliable narration that is part cubist, part Freudian, it tells the story of the prissy and rather thick John Dowell and his wife Florence who repeatedly meet British soldier Edward Ashburnham and his wife over the years at various upper-crust European spas. Dowell’s blindness to Edward and Florence’s hidden-in-plain-sight affair finally lifts, but his class solidarity with the man he calls a “good soldier” endures—a tension that creates an exquisite portrait of denial and the death throes of Edwardian gentility.

    (JBarn 4) (MG 10) (DL 8) (CN 9) (TP 6) (APat 4)

     

    (41) Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606). The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth runs along at breakneck speed, elevating Macbeth from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor to King of Scotland in two brief acts. It explores the psychology of ambition, abetted by supernatural forces, as Macbeth and his wife— one of the few successful marriages in the Shakespearean canon— engineer the murder of King Duncan and Macbeth’s usurpation of the Scottish throne. The pleasures of kingship are rare and brief, however, as the past comes to haunt the future, in ways obscurely prophesied by three witches, and Macbeth is brought down with a terrible swiftness matched only by the speed of his ascent.

    (PCap 7) (RFD 6) (BM 9) (SO’N 9) (RRash 10)

     

    (40) The Oresteia by Aeschylus (458 b.c.e.). Before Freud there was Aeschylus, who revealed the mind’s darkest impulses through this trilogy of plays mapping the mad round of retaliations that bring down the royal house of Atreus. In the first play, the Greek King Agamemnon— who sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia to appease the gods before setting sail for the Trojan War— and his slave, Cassandra, are slain by his wife, Clytemnestra. In the second play, Clytemnestra is slain by her son, Orestes (egged on by his sister Electra to avenge their father’s murder). In the final play, Orestes is freed from the Furies (or the curse) because, unlike the other characters— who search for scapegoats— he admits his own culpability, ending the cycle of violence through personal responsibility.

    (PCap 10) (JMEND 10) (BU 10) (AW 10)

     

    (40) Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985). D. H. Lawrence famously remarked that the archetypal American hero was a stoic, a loner, and a killer. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of the formation and dissolution of a band of scalp hunters in northern Mexico in the late 1840s embodies that dire maxim. Led by a soldier named Glanton and a mysterious, hairless, moral monstrosity known as the “Judge,” these freebooters wipe out Indians, Mexicans, and each other amidst a landscape of such sublime desolation one feels it leaching into their very souls.

    (MSB 8) (TBiss 7) (DAD 5) (BH 6) (SK 1) (MM 1) (GP 3) (BW 9)

     

    (40) Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). It’s a choice no mother should have to make. In 1856, escaped slave Margaret Garner decided to kill her infant daughter rather than return her to slavery. Her desperate act created a national sensation. Where Garner’s true-life drama ends, Beloved begins. In this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, the murdered child, Beloved, returns from the grave years later to haunt her mother Sethe. Aided by her daughter Denver and lover Paul D, Sethe confronts the all-consuming guilt precipitated by the ghostly embodiment of her dead child. Rendered in poetic language, Beloved is a stunning indictment of slavery “full of baby’s venom.”

    (SA 1) (BMC 7) (JC 2) (ED 5) (DAD 10) (DG 4) (DH 3) (AH 6) (HK 2)

     

    (38) The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942). The opening lines—“Mother died today. Or, maybe, yesterday. I can’t be sure”—epitomize Camus’s celebrated notions of “the absurd.” His narrator, Meursault, a wretched little Algerian clerk sentenced to death for the murder, feels nothing: no remorse, love, guilt, grief, or hope. But he’s not a sociopath; he’s just honest. An embodiment of existential philosophy, he believes in no higher power and accepts that we are born only to die. Our only choice is to act “as if” life has meaning and thereby gain some freedom.

    (SCraw 2) (ED 9) (DG 9) (BH 8) (KH 2) (JH 1) (HJ 7)

     

    (38) A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (1916). In this semiautobiographical novel, hero Stephen Dedalus rejects the world of his youth—Ireland in its provincialism, nationalism, Catholicism, and sexual guilt—for art. From its stream of consciousness technique to its descriptions of expatriate life in Paris, Portrait inspired nearly all the touchstones of twentieth-century modernism, the most important of which is the artist as a misunderstood god.

    (DAJ 6) (JGil 5) (GG 3) (TK 5) (BAM 7) (ST 10) (SV 2)

     

    (36) The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger (1951). After being dismissed from another prep school, Holden Caulfield—whose slangy, intimate narration defines this novel—has a series of misadventures in Manhattan before going home for Christmas. Haunted by the death of brother Allie, he wants what he cannot have—to snare the elusive Jane Gallagher, to run away with his sister Phoebe, to “catch” innocent youths before they fall into the “phony” world of adults. A timeless voice of adolescent rage and assurance, Holden may rank highest in the pantheon of antiestablishment heroes.

    (DAJ 2) (ABrav 2) (BMC 10) (CH 8) (AH 8) (AGold 6)

     

    (35) 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.

    (JBud 8) (JLB 7) (RFD 4) (DH 6) (GP 10)

     

    (33) Rabbit AngstromRabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990)— by John Updike. Read as four discrete stories or as a seamless quartet, the Rabbit novels are a tour de force chronicle, critique, and eloquent appreciation of the American white Protestant middle-class male and the swiftly shifting culture around him in the last four decades of the twentieth century. From his feckless youth as a promising high school athlete and unready husband and father in Rabbit, Run; through vulgar affluence, serial infidelity, and guilt as a car dealer in Rabbit Redux; to angry bewilderment over 1970s social upheaval in Rabbit Is Rich, the meaningfully named Rabbit Angstrom gamely tries to keep up with it all, to be a good guy. But the world is too much with, and for, Rabbit, who staggers through literal and metaphorical heart failure before finally falling in Rabbit at Rest.

    (LKA 5) (JBarn 2) (BEE 3) (GDG 2) (RG 2) (KK 4) (TM 1) (TP 2) (RR 3) (SS 1) (ST 8)

     

    (32) The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark (1961). The Miss Brodie in question is a wildly popular teacher in a 1930s Edinburgh middle school. She cultivates a group of chosen girls—the “crème de la crème,” as she calls them—and in return they must give her their absolute loyalty. Massive privileges accrue to the Brodie set, but Spark is most interested in what the girls sacrifice to be included among the elite in this tense yet charming novel.

    (ALK 7) (MMCPH 7) (AO 10) (AMS 8)

     

    (31) The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway (1926). Hemingway’s first novel recounts the revels and misadventures of the expatriate community—including the introspective writer Jake Barnes and the tantalizingly elusive divorcée Lady Brett Ashley—in Paris and in Spain’s bullfighting centers. For all their wit, wealth, or social clout and despite their rounds of drunkenness and debauchery as repetitious as the sun’s daily rising, Hemingway’s jaded, morally bankrupt characters can’t get no satisfaction.

    (DAJ 1) (BH 3) (BAM 5) (GP 9) (JPico 9) (RPri 4)

     

    (30) The stories of John Cheever (1912–82). Seemingly confined to recording the self-inflations and petty hypocrisies of suburban WASPs, Cheever’s short fiction actually redefined the story form, mixing minimalism and myth to create uniquely American tragicomedy. A master of the ambiguous ending, Cheever could also be direct: In “The Swimmer,” a man dreams of his family as he blithely “swims” home through his neighbors’ backyard pools, only to collapse at the door of his empty, locked house.

    (LKA 2) (TCB 1) (EC 10) (DMcF 5) (FP 6) (MSouthgate 6)

      

    (30) The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850). Hester Prynne is a sinner in the hands of seventeenth-century Puritans. Forced to wear the letter “A” for adultery, she is publicly disgraced and shunned. Despite her condemnation, Hester refuses to reveal the identity of her lover. Her husband, Roger Chilling­ worth, returns unexpectedly and seeks revenge. Chillingworth is a torment to the guilt-stricken minister, Arthur Dimmesdale, as is Pearl, the child born of Hester and Dimmesdale’s adultery. Ultimately, it is the fallen lovers, not the Puritans, who come to understand the nature of sin and redemption.

    (PA 4) (JI 7) (TK 8) (SMK 3) (AS 8)

     

    (29) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1865). Young Alice follows a worried, hurrying White Rabbit into a topsy-turvy world, where comestibles make you grow and shrink, and flamingoes are used as croquet mallets. There she meets many now-beloved characters, such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and the Queen of Hearts, in this linguistically playful tale that takes a child’s-eye view of the absurdities of adult manners.

    (KA 9) (RFD 2) (SMK 6) (JL 5) (DLod 1) (SO’N 2) (RP 4)

     

    (29) The Iliad by Homer (ninth century b.c.e.?). The glory and horror of war pulse through this epic poem about the thousand ships launched in battle after the Trojan prince Paris abducts the beautiful Helen from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. Through exquisite language Homer tells of capricious Greek gods and goddesses, fealty and honor between friends, and the terror of war. While crafting mythical tales, he creates an array of legendary heroes, especially Achilles, whose pride is as vulnerable as his heel.

    (FC 10) (LM 8) (RRash 8) (AW 3)

     

    (28) The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights (c. 1450).  Scheherazade receives the grim honor of marrying her King, who executes his wives on the day after the wedding night. Sche­ herazade delays her death by at least one thousand nights by telling tales that grow out of each other like the designs in a Turkish rug. Those childhood familiars, Sindbad, Ali Babba, and Aladdin, are all here.

    (DAJ 10) (HJ 10) (JSalt 8)

     

    (28) The Red and the Black by Stendhal (1830). Stendhal inaugurated French realism with his revolutionary colloquial style and the famous pronouncement, “A novel is a mirror carried along a highway.” Julien Sorel, the tragic antihero, rises from peasant roots through high society. In his character, the “red” of soldiering and a bygone age of heroism vies with the “black” world of the priesthood, careerism, and hypocrisy.

    (JL 7) (NM 3) (JCO 5) (LDR 6) (ES 7)

     

    (27) 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.

    (JBud 5) (PF 6) (AF 4) (RP 2) (JSalt 2) (GS 5) (JS 3)

     

    (27) As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930). The Bundrens of Yoknapatawpha County have a simple task—to transport their mother’s body by wagon to her birthplace for burial. Faulkner confronts them with challenges of near biblical proportions in this modernist epic that uses fifteen different psycho­logically complex first-person narrators (including the dead mother) through its fifty-nine chapters. Soaring language contrasts with the gritty sense of doom in this novel that includes the most famous short chapter in literature: “My mother is a fish.”

    (MCunn 3) (CE 4) (BH 9) (DM 5) (MSouthgate 3) (BW 3)

     

    (27) Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934). The heartbreaking, semiautobiographical story of two expatriate Americans living in France during the 1920s: a gifted young psychiatrist, Dick Diver, and the wealthy, troubled patient who becomes his wife. In this tragic tale of romance and character, her lush lifestyle soon begins to destroy Diver, as alcohol, infidelities, and mental illness claim his hopes. Of the book, Fitzgerald wrote, “Gatsby was a tour de force, but this is a confession of faith.”

    (RFD 8) (PF 8) (DH 2) (SM 5) (ES 2) (ST 2)

     

    (26) Catch-22 by Joseph Heller (1962). After flying forty-eight missions, Yossarian, a bomber pilot in World War II, is going crazy trying to find an excuse to be grounded. But the military has a catch, Catch 22, which states, (a) a sane man must fight, unless (b) he can prove he is insane, in which case (a) must apply—for what sane person doesn’t want to avoid fighting? This novel is a congery of appallingly funny, logical, logistical, and mortal horrors. It defined the cultural moment of the 1960s, when black humor became America’s pop idiom.

    (MCon 6) (RFD 1) (CH 10) (IR 9)

     

    (26) Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut (1969). Part science fiction, part war story, this is the story of Billy Pilgrim, a former World War II prisoner of war who survived the firebombing of Dresden, as did Vonnegut himself. Abducted by visitors from the planet Trafalmadore, Pilgrim comes “unstuck in time” and is thus able to revisit key points in his life and even his future. Written at the height of the Vietnam War, this muscular satire reveals the absurdity and brutality of modern war.

    (KA 5) (MCon 3) (DC 9) (CH 6) (GS 3)

     

    (24) Paradise Lost by John Milton (1667). Recasting the biblical story of Adam and Eve’s fall from grace, this epic poem details Satan’s origins, his desire for revenge, his transformation into the serpent, and his seduction of Eve. The poem extends our understanding of Christian myth in lush and challenging language. Though Milton seeks to explain “the ways of God to man,” he gives Satan— “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven”— the best lines.

    (AB 10) (MC 3) (FC 2) (AHas 9)

     

    (24) The Aeneid by Virgil (19 b.c.e.). Like Achilles and Odysseus before him, Aeneas makes sacrifices for friendship and descends into the world of the dead, but he never finds peace or a true home. Aeneas does find support and love from the Queen of Carthage, Dido, but he flees in the night, abandoning her to suicide, overthrowing comfort and home to remain true to his quest (and the spell of the gods) to found the city of Rome.

    (AB 4) (FC 5) (MD 6) (HK 9)

     

    (23) Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol (1842). Gogol’s self-proclaimed narrative “poem” follows the comical ambitions of Chichikov, who travels around the country buying the “dead souls” of serfs not yet stricken from the tax rolls. A stinging satire of Russian bureaucracy, social rank, and serfdom, Dead Souls also soars as Gogol’s portrait of “all Russia,” racing on “like a brisk, unbeatable troika” before which “other nations and states step aside to make way.”

    (MGait 2) (LG 1) (KK 3) (RP 3) (JSalt 4) (GS 10)

     

    (23) For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway (1940). Hemingway’s ambivalence toward war—its nobility and its pointlessness—are delineated in this account of Robert Jordan, an idealistic American professor who enlists with the antifascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Jordan’s idealism is quickly tested by the bloody reality of combat and the cynical pragmatism of his comrades.

    (JLB 8) (MCon 5) (LShriv 10)

     

    (23) The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann (1924). Hans Castorp visits his cousin at a sanatorium in the mountains of Switzerland. Soon he too becomes ill (maybe) and checks into the hospital—for seven years. In this sanctuary, Hans and the sanatorium’s denizens endlessly debate questions of morality, politics, and culture, as the “real world” moves inexorably toward the horror of World War I. A meditation on time, an inquiry into how life ought to be lived, and an unflinching look at evil, Mann considered the ideas in his monumental novel so challenging that he said it must be read at least twice.

    (KK 6) (RM 1) (RPow 1) (APat 7) (APhil 8)

     

    (23) Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman (1855–91). Whitman spent half his life writing, revising, and republishing this collection, which is, at heart, a love song to the idea of America. Uneven and exuberant, Whitman acknowledges that “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” yet he celebrates all of America in his long-lined free verse. Naming himself “one of the roughs,” Whitman places the natural over the artificial, native wisdom over scholarship, and praises the working man and foot soldier as fulsomely as he does President Lincoln.

    (MCunn 8) (AGold 2) (AP 4) (CS 9)

     

    (22) The stories of Eudora Welty (1909–2001).

    Appreciation of the Stories of Eudora Welty by Louis D. Rubin, Jr.

    At first glance, the people Eudora Welty usually writes about seem unremarkable, as are the mostly Mississippi towns, cities, and countryside they live in.

     

    To read her stories, however, such as “Why I Live at the P.O.,” “Petrified Man,” “Powerhouse,” “Moon Lake,” and “Kin,” is to learn otherwise. Through them you enter the realm of the extraordinary, as revealed in the commonplace. Each of Welty’s seemingly mundane people exhibits the depth, complexity, private surmise, and ultimate riddle of human identity. “Every-body to their own visioning,” as one of her characters remarks.

     

    There is plenty of high comedy. Few authors can match her eye for the incongruous, the hilarious response, the bemused quality of the way her people go about their lives. There is also pathos, veering sometimes into tragedy, and beyond that, awareness of what is unknowable and inscrutable.

     

    Her most stunning fiction is the group of interconnected stories published in 1949 as The Golden Apples. These center on the citizenry of Morgana, Mississippi, over the course of some four decades. In “June Recital” German-born Miss Lottie Elisabeth Eckhart teaches piano to the young. These include Cassie Morrison, who carries on her teacher’s mission, and Virgie Rainey, most talented of all, who in spite of herself absorbs “the Beethoven, as with the dragon’s blood.” In the closing story, “The Wanderers,” Virgie sits under a tree not far from Miss Eckhart’s grave and gazes into the falling rain, hearing “the magical percussion” drumming into her ears: “That was the gift she had touched with her fingers that had drifted and left her.”

     

    Welty’s richly allusive style, alive to nuance, is not really like anyone else’s. The dialogue (her characters talk at rather than to one another), the shading of Greek mythology and W. B. Yeats’s poetry into the rhythms of everyday life in Morgana, the depth perception of a major literary artist, all make her stories superb.

    (SMK 2) (LDR 7) (LS 5) (ES 6) (BU 2)

     

    (21) The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (1966). Bulgakov reshaped his experience of Stalinist censorship into a surreal fable featuring three characters: an unnamed author (the Master) whose accusatory fiction is denied publication, his self-sacrificing married lover (Margarita), and the incarnation of Satan (Woland), who simultaneously orchestrates and interprets their destinies. The ambiguity of good and evil is hotly debated and amusingly dramatized in this complex satirical novel about the threats to art in an inimical material world and its paradoxical survival (symbolized by the climactic assertion that “manuscripts don’t burn”).

    (KHarr 9) (DM 6) (AP 6)

     

    (21) Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens (1864–65). A miserly father dies and leaves his fortune to his estranged son—so long as he marries a woman he’s never met. While returning home, John Harmon appears to be murdered. He survives and goes undercover. As John Rokesmith, he becomes secretary to the man next in line for his father’s estate, Mr. Boffin. Clever coincidences and revelations follow in this novel notable for its wickedly funny treatment of middle-class society.

    (JR 10) (CS 6) (RW 5)

     

    (21) The Hamlet by William Faulkner (1940). The first novel in Faulkner’s Snopes trilogy—which was followed by The Town (1957) and The Mansion (1959)—The Hamlet is a series of linked stories centering on the family’s rise after the Civil War. Clever, ambitious, coarse, and unscrupulous, they embody Faulkner’s ambivalence for the New South, which he saw as a land of greater opportunity and diminished culture. Mixing humor, tragedy, violence, and pathos, The Hamlet is considered Faulkner’s last great novel.

    (KH 7) (RP 5) (ES 9)

     

    (21) 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.

    (MB 2) (TCB 9) (10 MSouthgate)

     

    (21) The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard (1980). Like planets moving across the sky—always the same yet always changing—this sumptuously written novel follows the lives of two orphaned sisters who leave Australia in the 1950s to begin new lives in England. While Grace turns to marriage for a safe transit through life, Caro charts a riskier course, one that brings her love and betrayal over the decades.

    (JE 9) (RR 2) (AS 10)

     

    (20) The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1351–53). The Big Chill meets the Black Death when a group of seven women and three men leave Florence to escape the plague of 1348. To entertain themselves, they tell stories according to topics selected by that day’s appointed “king” or “queen.” Like the plague, the hundred tales, mostly of love and deceit, leave no strata of society unscathed, and many of them are delightfully bawdy and irreverent. Have you heard the one about the monk who seduced a woman by claiming to be the angel Gabriel?

    (HJ 8) (LM 7) (VV 5)

     

    (20) The Possessed by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1872). Dostoevsky’s signature theme—the future of morality and the human soul in a Godless world—takes flight in this harrowing portrait of revolutionary terrorists who have surrendered their humanity to their ideals. The political satire throbs with urgency, but Dostoevsky raises this work to the level of art through rich characterizations of his combative principals: the well-meaning, ineffectual philosophical theorist Stepan Verkhovensky; his true-believing, monomaniacal son Peter; the conflicted, ” serf Shatov; and two vivid embodiments of good and evil—saintly Bishop Tikhon and urbane, satanic Nicolas Stavrogin.

    (PCap 5) (JH 10) (CM 5)

     

    (20) Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977). As witty and agile as a folk tale, psychologically acute and colorfully drawn, this novel blends elements of fable and the contemporary novel to depict a young man’s search for identity. In her protagonist, Macon Dead, Morrison created one of her greatest characters, and his reluctant coming of age becomes a comic, mythic, eloquent analysis of self-knowledge and community—how those things can save us, and what happens when they do not.

    (BMC 8) (MSouthgate 8) (SS 4)

     

    (20) The stories of  Alice Munro (1931– ). A master of the small epiphany, the moment of clarity, Alice Munro writes of men and women who struggle to reconcile the lives they have made with their sometimes confused longings. Largely set in urban and rural Canada, Munro’s stories feature characters whose inner lives gradually peel away to reveal themselves in all their richness and complexity. Munro’s plots do not forge ahead in a linear fashion, but loop and meander and take their time getting where they need to go, slowly revealing their characters and revealing what lies behind the choices they have made.

    (EC 7) (EH 4) (TJ 5) (LM 1) (CS 3)

     

    (20) The Man Who Loved Children by Christina Stead (1940). Stead said that writing this novel “was like escaping jail,” and one feels that great cathartic sweep as the dark side of family life unreels through astonishing scenes pitting Sam Pollit, the egotistical father “who loves children,” against his wife Henny, a household hetaera subject to rages, or his fourteen-year-old daughter Louisa, a precocious, hulking girl whose break for freedom crowns the book. Though this novel is semiautobiographical, Stead transforms personal revenge against her own outsized father into revelation.

    (RFD 10) (JF 2) (JL 8)

     

    (20) The Charterhouse of Parma by Stendhal (1839).

    Appreciation of Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma by Francine Prose

    Opening The Charterhouse of Parma is like stepping into the path of a benevolent cyclone that will pick you up and set you down, gently but firmly, somewhere else. You can still feel the tailwind of inspiration, the high speed at which Stendhal wrote it, and you can’t help admiring its assurance and audacity.

     

    Stendhal marks the boundaries of the more traditional nineteenth-century novel, and then proceeds to explode them. Just as Fabrizio keeps discovering that his life is taking a different direction from what he’d imagined, so the reader keeps thinking that Stendhal has written one kind of book, then finding that it is something else entirely. Stendhal writes as if he can’t see why everything—politics, history, intrigue, the battle of Waterloo, a love story, several love stories—can’t be compressed into a single novel. The result is a huge canvas on which every detail is painted with astonishing realism and psychological verisimilitude.

     

    First you are totally swept up in Fabrizio’s peculiar experience of the Napoleonic wars, then moved by the Krazy Kat love triangle involving Fabrizio, Mosca, and Gina, and throughout, astonished by the accuracy of Stendhal’s observations on love, jealousy, ambition, and of how the perception of biological age influences our behavior.

    I love the way Stendhal uses “Italian” to mean passionate, and how he falls in love with his characters, for all the right reasons. One can only imagine how Tolstoy would have punished Gina, who is not only among the most memorable women in literature, but who is also scheming, casually adulterous, and madly in love with her own nephew. Each time I finish the book, I feel as if the world has been washed clean and polished while I was reading, and as if everything around me is shining a little more brightly.

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    (20) So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell (1979). An old man recalls a story of murder and adultery in his childhood Illinois town, and how he came to betray the friend who witnessed them. This novel by the longtime fiction editor of The New Yorker is an American Remembrance of Things Past—­heart­ breaking in its portrayal of a boy’s loss of innocence, and savvy about memory’s self-serving nature.

    (LKA 7) (APat 5) (BW 8)

     

    (19) 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.

    (ABrav 9) (MB 5) (EF 4) (TP 1)

     

    (19) My Ántonia by Willa Cather (1918). Featuring a beleaguered central heroine who endures her father’s suicide, is driven to work in the fields, and is seduced, abandoned, and left pregnant, this ought to be a tale of tragic inevitability. Instead, this beautifully elegiac novel offers an unsentimental paean to the prairie, to domesticity, and to memory itself. As remembered by her friend Jim, Ántonia is as mythic and down-to-earth as the Nebraska she inhabits.

    (EF 7) (TP 5) (RPow 1) (BW5) (MW 1)

     

    (19) Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford (1928). Christopher Tietjens, “the last English Tory,” is an exemplar of the old order; his faithless wife Sylvia represents the new. Grounded in their relationship, this rueful modernist epic dissects the intricacies of Edwardian England and the forces unleashed by World War I that would, inevitably and necessarily, slay that genteel world.

    (ML 8) (BAM 3) (CN 8)

     

    (19) Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy (1891). When Tess’s mother learns that her humble family has lofty bloodlines, she sends her daughter out to cadge funds and land a rich husband. Instead Tess suffers cruel mistreatment and becomes pregnant. The baby’s death unleashes torrents of grief, guilt, and religious doubt. However, Hardy’s grim tale is lightened by his loving descriptions of the English landscape and his humorous rendering of local talk.

    (JGil 3) (JI 9) (RPri 7)

     

    (19) 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.

    (MB 8) (CE 2) (KH 6) (SM 3)

     

    (19) Independent People by Halldór Laxness (1934). The Icelandic Nobel laureate’s best novel is a chronicle of endurance and survival, whose stubborn protagonist Bjartür “of Summerhouses” is a sheepherder at odds with inclement weather, poverty, society in particular and authority in general, and his own estranged family. Laxness unflinchingly dramatizes Bjartür’s unloving, combative relationships with his step-daughter Asta and frail son Nonni (a possible authorial surrogate)—yet finds the perverse heroism in this bad shepherd’s compulsive pursuit of freedom (from even the Irish sorcerer who had cursed his land). This is an antihero for whom readers will find themselves cheering.

    (JF 1) (JH 5) (AHas 4) (DMe 9)

     

    (19) Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (1847–48). The subtitle is “A Novel Without a Hero,” and never was a hero more unnecessary. In Becky Sharp, we find one of the most delicious heroines of all time. Sexy, resourceful, and duplicitous, Becky schemes her way through society, always with an eye toward catching a richer man. Cynical Thackeray, whose cutting portraits of society are hilarious, resists the usual punishments doled out to bad Victorian women and allows that the vain may find as much happiness in their success as the good do in their virtue.

    (JB 1) (BEE 2) (TM 10) (MMCPH 6)

     

    (18) Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac (1847). Lisbeth (Bette) Fischer, a seamstress for the demimonde of actresses and courtesans and the poor relation of Baron Hulot, has a secret: she is helping to support a poor but noble Polish sculptor. Baron Hulot’s daughter Hortense discovers the secret and helps herself to the handsome sculptor. Bette then unleashes an underhanded stratagem dictated by her implacably vengeful heart: using Baron Hulot’s insatiable lust as a lever, Bette organizes her courtesan connections to ruin him, both morally and financially. Scary and psychologically acute.

    (EF 9) (TW 9)

     

    (18) Don Juan by Lord Byron (1819). Byron was a gentleman, a womanizer, a cad, and a liberator. He poured a lifetime of observations into this seventeen canto poem. Ostensibly about a Spanish boy sent abroad by his mother after an unfortunate love affair, it has the spontaneous gaiety of a man who is courteously maintaining the fiction that the reader’s experience of women, politics, poetry, and the world is as extensive as his own. Thus Byron transformed his greatest masterpiece—his life—into art.

    (JBarn 9) (JE 1) (JR 8)

     

    (18) Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1864). Aloof, unhappy, and tortured by his own “hyperconsciousness,” Dostoevsky’s narrator prefers to remain underground, away from normal life, because at least there he can be free. When he forces himself to dine with three schoolfellows, their carefree laughter and drinking sends him “into a fury.” Afterward, he is seemingly moved by the plight of a young prostitute. But neither pity nor love is re­ deeming in this story whose narrator asks: “Which is better—cheap happiness or exalted suffering?” Dostoevsky’s preference is clear.

    (JB 9) (EC 9)

     

    (18) Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937). Beautiful and high-spirited Janie Crawford wants love and adventure. But, as Hurston shows in her finest novel, living in an all-black town is no shield against the sexism that dictates her young life. Forced to marry one controlling old geezer, she deserts him only to end up with another. When she marries Tea Cake, Janie finally enjoys the essence of a true relationship. Her happiness is short-lived when disaster strikes, but it becomes the catalyst for ultimate self-discovery.

    (PCle 8) (ED 10)

     

    (18) The Stand by Stephen King (1978). This vivid apocalyptic tale with dozens of finely drawn characters begins with the military’s mistaken release of a deadly superflu that wipes out almost everyone on earth. The few survivors, spread out across the barren United States, are visited in their dreams by a kindly old woman in Nebraska and a sinister man in the West. They begin making their way toward these separate camps for what will prove to be a last stand between the forces of good and evil.

    (DFW 9) (JW 9)

     

    (18) The Tempest by William Shakespeare (1610). The happy peace that Prospero, a powerful magician and former Duke of Milan, and his daughter Miranda share on an enchanted island is broken when a group of Prospero’s former enemies and friends is shipwrecked there. Through the services of his two servants, the base Caliban, to whom the island had originally belonged, and the sprite Ariel, Prospero exacts revenge upon his stranded enemies while engineering the marriage of his daughter to a young nobleman. Anticipating themes that would inform colonial and postcolonial literature— usurpation, bondage, rebellion— ­this was Shakespeare’s last play without a collaborator.

    (KJF 9) (MG 4) (SO’N 5)

     

    (17) Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (1919). A collection of short stories about the inhabitants of a town whose physical isolation mirrors their psychological distance. With compassion and sadness, Anderson evokes small-town life and thought through a wide range of characters who are not visited by any tragedies save their own inability to forge a bit of happiness in their lives of quiet desperation.

    (EC 8) (DC 6) (SO’N 3)

     

    (17) Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1719). This rollicking yet existential adventure with deep religious undertones begins with fatherly advice: pursue a stable career. But the wastrel son denies his father because he is tempted by the sea. This salty path gets young Robinson kidnapped by Moorish pirates, sold into slavery, and shipwrecked on a remote island filled with cannibals. Yet this island seems an Eden to Crusoe, whose ingenuity enables him to tame the land, conquer the natives, and save the life of an islander, whom he makes his servant and christens Man Friday, as he comes to recognize and accept God’s will.

    (JC 7) (AG 10)

     

    (17) Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984). The form of this novel, about two Native American families, reenacts that of a traditional Chippewa Indian story cycle—fourteen stories told by seven characters, forming a collage that forces the reader to sift through and weigh voice against voice, truth against truth. The book’s main story—a long-standing love triangle among a husband and wife and the promiscuous Lulu Lamartine—is often upstaged by Erdrich’s antimythic portrayal of Native Americans cut off from their traditional land, culture, and gods.

    (TCB 10) (JHUMP 7)

     

    (17) Tom Jones  by Henry Fielding (1749). Squire Allworthy provides a loving home to his bad nephew Blifil and the bastard orphan Tom. Lusty Tom is sent away after an affair with a local girl whom Blifil desires, and he begins his picaresque adventures on the way to London, including love affairs, duels, and imprisonment. Comic, ribald, and highly entertaining, Tom Jones reminds us just how rowdy the eighteenth century got before the nineteenth came and stopped the fun.

    (FC 1) (AHud 5) (WL 7) (DM 4)

     

    (17) A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (1924). A handful of English people searching for the “real” India get far more than they bargained for—up to and including a terrifying transcendental experience in a very dark cave. Forster’s novel of the Raj is infused with a generous, liberal humanism; the author writes like a man determined that Indians should populate a novel of India, and he succeeds in this beautifully imagined portrait of both colonizer and colonized.

    (JC 4) (RPri 5) (MW 8)

     

    (17) Clarissa by Samuel Richardson (1747–48). This long epistolary novel—full of sexual tension, violence, and psychic conflict—tells the tale of the virtuous Clarissa Harlowe and her rakish suitor, Robert Lovelace. Disowned by her family, confined in a brothel and raped, Clarissa pays a high price for her morality. Yet she accepts her fate with a moving acceptance in this landmark of English realistic fiction.

    (EDon 10) (VV 7)

     

    (17) Candide by Voltaire (1759). In this withering satire of eighteenth-century optimism, Candide wanders the world testing his tutor Pangloss’s belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” When Candide loses his true love, gets flogged in the army, injured in an earthquake, and robbed in the New World, he finally muses, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” In response to life’s mysteries, he concludes, the best we can do is patiently cultivate our own gardens.

    (JBarn 6) (CE 1) (GDG 10)

     

    (17) The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (1905). Caught up in the web of old New York society, Lily Bart angles for a wealthy husband. Though presented with ample opportunity, the beautiful and well-connected Lily rejects one man after another as not rich enough, including her true love, Laurence Stern. When she becomes a hapless victim of her own ambition—blackmailed and wrongly accused of adultery—Lily is cast out of high society before making one final attempt to redeem herself.

    (JE 8) (KHarr 1) (MMCPH 8)

     

    (16) Labyrinths by Jorge Luis Borges (1964). Simultaneously philosophical and nightmarish, this collection of short stories, parables, and essays popularized both Latin American magic realism as well as metafiction. Borges, a blind Argentine librarian and polymath, here provides almost mathematically concise miniatures—of a man who remembers literally everything, for instance—that read like episodes of The Twilight Zone as written by a metaphysician.

    (MC 10) (NM 1) (DM 3) (IP 2)

     

    (16) The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler (1953). Chandler’s sardonic and chivalric gumshoe Philip Marlowe winds up in jail when he refuses to betray a client to the Los Angeles police investigating the murder of a wealthy woman. Marlowe’s incorruptibility and concentration on the case are challenged even more when the obsessively independent private eye falls in love, apparently for the first time, with a different rich and sexy woman. She proposes marriage, but he puts her off, claiming he feels “like a pearl onion on a banana split” among her set.

    (MC 1) (MCon 4) (GP 5) (RW 6)                 

     

    (16) Mrs. Bridge (1959) and Mr. Bridge (1969) by Evan S. Connell. This his and hers pairing, like twinned guest towels, reveals dirty fingerprints on the underside of a tidy looking 1930s Midwestern, middle-class marriage. Through fragments of conversations, overheard remarks, and wry observations, Connell slices into the Bridges’ relationship, first revealing Mrs. Bridge’s evaporation into suburban ennui, then exposing Mr. Bridge’s increasing distance and disdain. The novels, set a decade apart, reveal two dimensions of the troubled family, which includes three children.

    (EC 1) (DG 8) (MW 7)

     

    (16) Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939). This coming-of-age tale features Fante’s alter ego, Arturo Bandini: a poor, innocent, aspiring writer from Colorado, stretching out his limbo in 1930s Los Angeles. Bandini prowls the city’s dusty alleys for experience he can turn into prose, eats oranges in his hotel room, and dreams of success. Awkward with women, he falls for a troubled Mexican waitress but can’t sustain the relationship. He squanders what little money he earns. All he desires is literary glory, so that even when he nearly drowns, he thinks: “This was the end of Arturo Bandini—but even then I was writing it all down.”

    (ABrav 5) (DC 2) (HJ 2) (GP 7)

     

    (16) 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.

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    (16) The stories of Franz Kafka (1883–1924). Kafka’s fictions express existential alienation, but without the self-pity or blame; there’s great humor amidst the angst. Despite his radical modernism, echoes of Talmudic and European folk traditions and Kafka’s own formal High German prose style lend his fables all the timelessness of nightmare. His stories range from the slightest fragments, parables, and epigrams to the novella-length classic, The Metamorphosis. Featuring anthropomorphic beasts as well as magisterial paradoxes of “the Law,” Kafka’s inventive tales are a treasure-house of the neurotic and prophetic.

    (JCO 6) (APhil 10)

     

    (16) 1984 by George Orwell (1948). Orwell’s reputation as an antiauthoritarian arises in large part from this novel set in a totalitarian future in which citizens are constantly reminded “Big Brother is watching” as they are spied upon by the Thought Police and one another. In this landscape, Winston Smith is a man in danger simply because his memory works. He understands that the Party’s total control of its citizens is based on its ability to control its message and its citizens’ memories, and he is slowly drawn into a dangerous love affair and then an alliance, called the Brotherhood, of men and women united to fight Big Brother. Some of the vocabulary Orwell created for 1984—newspeak, doublethink, Big Brother—have become part of today’s vocabulary.

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    (16) Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift (1726, 1735). Lemuel Gulliver, a ship’s doctor, embarks on four wondrous voyages from England to remote nations. Gulliver towers over six-inch Lilliputians and cowers under the giants in Brobdingnag. He witnesses a flying island and a country where horses are civilized and people are brutes. Fanciful and humorous, Swift’s fictional travelogue is a colorfully veiled but bitter indictment of eighteenth-century politics and culture.

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    (16) The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952). Lou Ford is the boy next door—a deputy sheriff in his Texas hometown. But he suffers from “the sickness,” which urges him to kill women and others who get in his way. Through Ford’s chilling first-person narration, Thompson takes us inside the mind of a serial killer.

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    (16) The Fountain Overflows by Rebecca West (1956).

    Appreciation of Rebecca West’s The Fountain Overflows by Margot Livesey

    I don’t know why I waited so long to read The Fountain Overflows. There was a copy in the library of my Scottish school; after all, the novel sold 40,000 copies in 1956, the year it was published. Perhaps it was even in my father’s library, squeezed between, say, Aldous Huxley’s Chrome Yellow and Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, two novels I adored. The book was around but the truth is I didn’t want to read it, in part because I associated it with Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, West’s massive tome about pre–World War II Yugo­ slavia, which I didn’t want to read even more. I finally succumbed only a few years ago at the urging of a dear friend.

     

    Some books, much lauded on publication, rapidly gather dust, but luckily for me The Fountain Overflows remains as lustrous and passionate as when West penned the last page. The novel tells the story of the Aubrey family living in Edwardian London. Mr. Aubrey is a charismatic and unreliable journalist; Mrs. Aubrey, a former pianist, is an awkward woman of immense moral intelligence. Around these two orbit the Aubrey children: the musical Mary and Rose, the awful Cordelia who wants to be musical, and the beloved Richard Quinn. The story is told by Rose.

     

    One scene captures for me West’s genius. A man comes to complain to Mrs. Aubrey about her husband having an affair with his wife. After she has done her best to cheer him up, Mrs. Aubrey takes refuge in Madame Bovary and, by the time her husband arrives home, is absorbed in the novel. Together they praise and criticize Flaubert. Only then does she recall what brought herto pick up the novel in the first place. “I am really very heartless,” she cried, rising to her feet. “But art is so much more real than life. Some art is much more real than some life, I mean.”

     

    And this is exactly how I feel about The Fountain Overflows; it is more real, and more pleasurable, than most life.

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    (16) The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920). Martin Scorsese called his 1993 movie of this novel the most violent film he had made—quite a statement from the director of Raging Bull. The innocence here is not in the setting of 1870s upper-crust New York, whose starch-stiff social code hides a viper’s nest of jealousies and conspiracy, but in hero Newland Archer, a newlywed socialite who fancies himself simply an observer of his class. His infatuation with a European divorcée leads to a most unsentimental education on his true position.

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    (15) A Death in the Family by James Agee (1957). A Pulitzer Prize–winning work of autobiographical fiction tells the story of a Knoxville, Tennessee, family torn asunder by the father’s accidental death in 1915. In stunningly gorgeous prose, Agee chronicles the family’s life before and after the tragedy (as well as the larger community they live in), to depict the fragility of happiness, of family, and of life itself.

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    (15) The Regeneration trilogy by Pat Barker (1995). These three novels—­Regeneration (1991), The Eye in the Door (1993), and The Ghost Road (1995)—offer an unflinching look at World War I. Starting with the real-life psychiatric treatment of poet and British officer Sigfried Sassoon for shellshock, Barker shows how the war ruined but failed to replace nineteenth-century norms of gender, class, sexuality, and honor.

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    (15) Ficciones by Jorge Luis Borges (1944). Few twentieth-century literary works were as influential as Borges’s first collection of surreal “fictions.” Showcasing his deeply serious, brilliantly playful fascination with language, literature, and metaphysics, these seventeen stories—about imaginary books and labyrinthine libraries, cosmic detectives and strange lands—ask us to wonder about how we know what we know (or think we know) while helping light the fuse of postmodern pyrotechnics.

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    (15) Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (1972). Fearing that his empire’s vastness has made it “an endless, formless ruin,” Kublai Khan asks the traveler Marco Polo to describe it to him so he might understand and thereby control it. What Polo offers are accounts of surreal places—“hidden cities,” “trading cities,” and “thin cities” (whose buildings have no walls, floors or ceilings)—inhabited by people whose actions seem inexplicable in this novel of ideas concerned with memory and time, language and community, and the landscapes of the physical world and the imagination.

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    (15) The poems of Emily Dickinson (1830–86). Quirkily punctuated and rhymed, thoughtful and unsentimental, these brief, aphoristic lyrics meditate upon God, nature, and the internal weather of the emotions—“The soul unto itself / Is an Imperial friend—/ Or the most agonizing spy / An enemy could send.” A spinster who published only two of her nearly two thousand poems, Dickinson saw her work as a vehicle for spiritual exploration and as messages to a world “that never wrote to me.”

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    (15) Howards End by E. M. Forster (1921). This novel begins with literature’s most famous epigraph: “Only connect.” That search for human understanding—and the implied rarity of such knowledge—informs this saga of Margaret and Helen Schlegel, two bohemian sisters who become mixed up with the pragmatic, wealthy Wilcox family. In the confines of that family’s estate, Howards End, Forster sets a sprawling fable of class, money, love, psychology, and a changing England.

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    (15) The Power and the Glory by Graham Greene (1940). In all of Greene’s prolific career, he never surpassed the stark beauty of this tale of a priest who is virtuous despite himself. Set in Mexico during the revolution, when Catholicism was illegal, the novel follows the movements of a character known only as “the whisky priest”—he drinks, he bilks the faithful, he has fathered a child. But as his world narrows and he must make life or death choices, his life becomes a complicated display of salvation.

    (GG 5) (EM 5) (SS 5)

     

    (15) Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (1595). The story of star-crossed Veronese lovers, this early romantic tragedy painfully depicts the fatal course of young lovers ruined by circumstances beyond their control, belonging as they do to two families who hate each other for long forgotten reasons. The intense violence at the heart of the play is matched only by the intense passion of Romeo and Juliet, who pay the ultimate price for the brief, intense, and pure love they shared.

    (EDon 9) (LM 5) (JPico 1)

     

    (15) A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell (1951–75). Powell’s panoramic series of twelve freestanding novels, grouped in four “movements,” charts the careers of four public-school friends from 1921 to 1971 against the backdrop of rapidly changing London. Built mosaic-like from many intimate, seemingly inconsequential encounters and scenes, the narrative moves with the pace, prismatic glitter, and cumulative force of a glacier, sweeping along sex, art, business, politics, and values in its wake. Devotees, who consider Powell to be England’s answer to Proust, praise the elegant style, intricate plotting, and above all the masterly characterizations, in a work that encompasses comedy, tragedy, and realism.

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    (14) Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr (1984). Seeking renewal, Richard and Sara Everton leave San Francisco for a remote village in Mexico. There they hope to reopen Richard’s grandfather’s old mine, to “patch the present on to the past. To find out if there was still copper underground and how much the rest of it was true, the width of the sky, the depth of the stars, the air like new wine, the harsh noons and long, slow dusks.” In lovely, spare prose, this National Book Award–winning novel describes the Evertons’ flowering relationships with the vividly drawn people of Ibarra and the deadly illness that hovers over their happiness.

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    (14) The Tin Drum by Günter Grass (1959). This picaresque novel depicts the rise of Nazism in Germany and its terrible consequences through the adventures of Oskar Matzerath, “the eternal three-year-old” who stunts his growth at three feet and uses his tin drum and piercing screams as weapons against a mad world. Chilling and absurd, teeming with black comedy and dark insights into the human soul, The Tin Drum is both an artistic triumph and an act of reclamation. As the Swedish Academy observed while presenting Grass with the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1999, the novel “comes to grips with the enormous task of reviewing contemporary history by recalling the disavowed and the forgotten: the victims, losers, and lies that people wanted to forget because they had once believed in them.”

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    (14) Germinal by Émile Zola (1884). As in old pictures of Pittsburgh, a pall of industrial smoke seems to hang over Zola’s grim, stirring novel about a miners strike. Zola uses his usual style of fine-grained graininess to describe the lives crushed (sometimes literally) by work, and the excessive poverty to which the miners’ families seem condemned. His is a collective portrait in which his main character, Etienne Lantier, gets engulfed by the hugeness and dangerousness of the mines (which bear the sinister nickname Le Voreux, or “the voracious ones”) and the eventual revolt against the mining company.

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    (13) Death Comes for the Archbishop by Willa Cather (1927). Two French missionaries come to the vast and untamed deserts of New Mexico in 1851. Through a series of often symbolic stories about their shared and personal experiences over forty years, Cather depicts both vanished landscapes and timeless themes of faith, loneliness, and our relationships with one another and the natural world.

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    (13) David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1849–50). Dickens’s most autobiographical novel chronicles his hero’s ever-changing fortunes, beginning with his famous opening line, “I am born.” As a boy, David is swept between school and the workhouse; later, between the law and literature; and then between his vapid wife Dora and his true love Agnes. Ingratiating Uriah Heep, talented Mr. Micawber, devoted nurse Peggoty, and willing Barkis are some of the most memorable characters in the entire Dickens canon.

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    (13) Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser (1900). Ambitious farm girl Carrie Meeber comes to Chicago, gaining the favor of a wealthy bar manager named Hurstwood to avoid the sweatshops. The smitten man ditches his family, absconds with company funds, and moves to New York with Carrie. When he can’t find work his star falls as Carrie’s rises in the theater. Filled with the tensions between rural America and its bustling urban future, and between propriety and ambition, Sister Carrie is a haunting portrait of a nation’s contradictory impulses.

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    (13) The Bear by William Faulkner (1942). A highly atmospheric paean to the vanishing wilderness, this novella crisscrosses time and memory to chronicle Ike McCaslin’s coming-of-age through annual hunting parties in the Mississippi woods. Beginning with his first trip at age ten, we watch him master the art of hunting, learning the ways of men and the woods. The ultimate prize is the legendary bear, Old Ben, a symbol of the untamed world “which the little puny humans swarmed and hacked at in a fury of abhorrence and fear.” When sixteen-year-old Ike gets Old Ben in his sights, history, maturity, and ecological consciousness collide in a powerful rite of passage.

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    (13) The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1958). While liberal rebels roam the hills of Sicily, and rumors spread that Garibaldi’s army is poised for invasion, the old prince Don Fabrizio struggles to manage his vast and now threatened estates. “I belong to an unfortunate generation,” he says, “swung between the old world and the new, and I find myself ill at ease in both.” While charting what he sees as nineteenth-century Sicily’s necessary movement toward science and liberal politics, Lampedusa uses the admirable prince to suggest the traditions and values lost in the process.

    (JBarn 3) (RR 4) (JS 6)

     

    (13) The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing (1962). In her epic fusion of structural experiment and exhaustive realism, Lessing lays bare the splintered state of modern womanhood. In four separate notebooks, Anna Wulf records different aspects of her life: her consecutive and unfulfilling love affairs, her memories of Africa, her struggles with motherhood, and above all, her growing disenchantment with communism. Lessing’s novel foreshadowed the concerns of the women’s movement, becoming a major feminist text.

    (MD 3) (JE 10)

     

    (13) Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter (1962). The celebrated miniaturist’s only long fiction, which was thirty years in the making, is a bitter satire depicting a 1931 ocean voyage from Mexico (Veracruz) to Germany (Bremen). Inspired by Sebastian Brant’s fifteenth-century allegory of the same title, it is a portrayal of marital, class, and ethnic conflicts among passengers aboard the ship Vera (“Truth”). These include an ailing doctor, a drug-addicted “Contessa,” various uprooted Americans, gypsy dancers, and twin malevolent children. Praised for its artistry, condemned for its vitriolic anti-German sentiment, Porter’s Odyssey remains a fascinating, infuriating novel.

    (PM 6) (AP 7)

     

    (13) Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys (1939). On hell’s short bookshelf of great writing about alcohol, this novel is narrated by Sasha Jansen, a semi-writer at loose ends who is planning a permanent swan dive into the bottle. While Virginia Woolf thought women needed a room of their own for creative work, Jansen believes “a room is a place where you hide from the wolves outside.” Jansen’s fugue through 1930s Paris, while pursued by age, disapproving bartenders, and a stubborn gigolo, is a café blues song: stylish and haunting.

    (SC 6) (JE 7)

     

    (13) The Oedipus trilogy by Sophocles (496–406 b.c.e.). Like an existential sadist, Sophocles explores the tragic complexities of fate by hurling his characters into situations in which they are simultaneously guilty and innocent, forced to choose between right and right or wrong and wrong—or some painfully imprecise combination of the two. In Oedipus the King, Oedipus is desperate to escape his fate—that he will murder his father and marry his mother—yet inexorably fulfills it with devastating effect. In Oedipus at Colonus, the blind, self-exiled ruler moves toward faith and goodness as his sons battle for his throne. In the third play, Antigone, his loving and upright daughter is forced to choose with climactic consequence between equally worthy goals as Sophocles depicts our struggles to explain a world we can scarcely comprehend.

    (SMK 4) (AW 9)

     

    (13) 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.

    (MB 7) (GDG 6)

     

    (13) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). This novel might easily have become a victim of its own surpassing fame, which has removed all suspense from its central riddle: What is the relationship between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Yet as our narrator plumbs Dr. Jekyll’s descent into drug-addled, alter-ego madness, we are riveted by Stevenson’s portrait of the good and evil that lurks in one man’s heart. “This, too, was myself,” Jekyll says of Hyde. Somehow we suspect it’s us, too.

    (ALK 9) (IR 4)

     

    (13) 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.

    (KA 3) (JBud 3) (EF 1) (LShriv 6)

     

    (12) The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000). The golden age of comics and the Holocaust power this Pulitzer Prize–winning saga about two Jewish cousins in Brooklyn who create the Nazi-bashing superhero, the Escapist. Through the tragic, comic, often superhuman adventures of Joe Kavalier—a refugee determined to rescue the relatives he left behind in Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia—and Sammy Clay, Chabon weaves a lyrical and magical tale about war and mysticism; the connections between love, fear, hope, and art; and the nature of escape.

    (DAD 4) (MSouthgate 7) (AWald 1)

      

    (12) Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (1874–76). Daniel Deronda first sees Gwendolyn Harleth gambling at a fashionable resort and asks himself whether “the good or evil genius is dominant” in her. He is a man of ideas; she is an egotistical, spoiled girl. Can Daniel redeem her? Another character who needs saving is Mirah Cohen, yet through her, Daniel finds a form of salvation by discovering his hidden Jewish heritage in this novel that exposes the deeply rooted anti-Semitism of Victorian England.

    (PF 3) (HJ 9)

     

    (12) Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985). Márquez takes the love triangle to the limit in this story of an ever hopeful romantic who waits more than fifty years for his first love. When his beloved’s husband dies after a long, happy marriage, Florentino Ariza immediately redeclares his passion. After the enraged widow rejects him, he redoubles his efforts. Set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, this wise, steamy, and playful novel jumps between past and present, encompassing decades of unrest and war, recurring cholera epidemics, and the environmental ravages of development.

    (PC 3) (MC 2) (GDG 1) (DH 4) (RW 2)

     

    (12) Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis (1952). In this, the third book of The Chronicles of Narnia, King Caspian sets sail to the end of the world to rescue the seven lost lords of Narnia. Along with three English children—who have come to Narnia this time by stepping into a painting—and other companions such as the brave, sword-wielding mouse Reepicheep, Caspian has numerous adventures that resonate with Christian and classical mythology.

    (LG 4) (LMill 8)

     

    (12) Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov (1951). The son of a Russian aristocrat who was assassinated for his belief in democracy, Nabokov had a preposterously privileged childhood, including teams of governesses and servants and sojourns along the Riviera. When the Bolsheviks arrived, the family was forced to flee amid a hail of bullets. Later, as a student at Cambridge, Nabokov confronted those who romanticized the politics that exiled him. Ricocheting through time, space, and subject matter as it delves whimsically into the author’s literary influences and the minutiae of family history, this is a masterpiece of literary memoir.

    (AG 7) (AWald 5)

     

    (12) The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien (1990). A Vietnam vet, O’Brien established himself as a chronicler of the war in nonfiction works such as If I Die in a Combat Zone (1973) and his National Book Award–winning novel Going After Cacciato (1978). In this, his crowning work, a character named “Tim” narrates a series of stories about himself and other young soldiers in his platoon who wrestle with the decision to go to war, walk through booby-trapped jungles, miss their loved ones, and grieve for their fallen comrades. Using simple, emotionally charged language, O’Brien explores the moral consequences and conundrums of the war through daily details, such as the things soldiers carry in their backpacks, and timeless issues, especially the scars they will always bear.

    (SA 7) (EF 3) (MMCPH 2)

     

    (12) Appointment in Samarra (1934) and BUtterfield 8 (1935) by John O’Hara. The man Brendan Gill credited with inventing The New Yorker short story also wrote nicely observed novels of cynical slumming and sexual frankness. Appointment in Samarra relates the long weekend in which a Cadillac dealer gleefully destroys his life; BUtterfield 8 follows a cheap-date actress through the ferocious demimonde of speakeasy New York.

    (RG 7) (TW 5)

     

    (12) American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997).

    (JGil 4) (MM 8)

     

    (11) The Ambassadors by Henry James (1903). Middle-aged Lambert Strethers is sent to Paris to retrieve a young American whose wealthy parents fear he has taken up with an inappropriate woman, but Strethers sees that the young man is truly happy. Gradually, Strethers finds his flinty provincialism chipped away by Europe’s ease and freedom in this novel whose signature line reads, “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to.”

    (DMcF 10) (RBP 1)

     

    (11) 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.

    (LKA 8) (MB 1) (MM 6) (SM 2)

     

    (11) Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (1945). Waugh was one of the twentieth century’s great satirists, yet this novel, widely considered his best, is not satiric. It is, instead, an examination of Roman Catholic faith as it is used, abused, embraced, and rejected by the Flytes, an aristocratic English family visited by alcoholism, adultery, and homoeroticism.

    (LG 3) (MM 3) (PM 5)

     

    (11) Native Son by Richard Wright (1945). Set in Chicago in the 1930s, this novel tells the story of Bigger Thomas, an African American twisted and trapped by penury and racism. Bigger is on his way out of poverty when he accidently murders his employer’s daughter, a white woman. In this highly charged, deeply influential novel, Wright portrays a black man squeezed by crushing circumstances who comes to understand his own identity.

    (BMC 9) (KK 2)

     

    (10) Bhagavadgita (fifth century b.c.e.). An eighteen-chapter section of the Mahabharata, this “Song of God” is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, and the Supreme Lord Krishna, who appears as a charioteer. The two discuss the true self that is not destroyed in death and states of release from the human realm of suffering. As a cornerstone of Hindu faith and yogic philosophy, the Bhagavadgita has had a profound impact on philosophical and religious traditions in both the East and West.

    (CD 10)

     

    (10) Strangers in Paradise: Stories by Lee K. Abbott (1986).

    (TJ 10)

     

    (10) The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (1962).

    Appreciation of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes by Kathryn Harrison

    One day in August a man disappeared. The man was an entomologist and had set out into the desert with a canteen of water and a pack filled with the tools he used to collect specimens. It was his hope to discover an as yet unknown species of insect that lived in the sand dunes. Were he to find one, then he would be promised a kind of immortality: his name would be recorded and forever linked to the taxonomic identification of the bug—­his bug.

     

    Shifting sands, isolation, a quixotic attempt to defy mortal limits: even before the hero of Kobo Abe’s The Woman in the Dunes has missed the last bus out of the desert, the reader knows he is lost to an existential quest. Abe, trained as a medical doctor, writes as a clinician, dispassionately and with exactitude. In the dunes his hero, Niki Jumpei, falls captive to the enigmatic woman from whom he seeks shelter for a night. Having descended into the sand pit where the woman lives, Jumpei discovers that there’s no way out; he’s trapped in a sinister village where each citizen becomes Sisyphus. Every day Jumpei must join the inhabitants in their necessary work: shoveling away the sand that threatens to bury them and their homes.

     

    The Woman in the Dunes transcends the form of allegory—often lifeless and didactic—to engage its readers to the point of discomfort. It’s a claustrophobic novel, subjecting us to Jumpei’s mounting panic as he begins to suspect that he will never leave the sand pit, that meaningless striving is his, and our, inescapable fate.

     

     (10) Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (1958). Two years before Nigeria won its independence from Britain, Achebe published this clear-eyed novel set in the years leading up to colonial rule. Through the rise and fall of the admirable yet flawed tribal leader, Okonkwo, Achebe reveals the strengths and weaknesses of his nation’s traditional culture: its violence and superstitions, and its compassion, honor, and pride.

    (JC 10)

     

    (10) The Untouchable by John Banville (1997). Loosely based on the life of Cambridge spy Anthony F. Blunt, the novel opens in 1979, when seventy-two-year-old Vic Maskell’s crimes have been publicly exposed. As the world recognizes that this art curator was not who he seemed, Vic probes his past—vividly bringing to life his co-conspirators and the city of Cambridge—to determine his accuser’s identity. This suspenseful, philosophical journey reveals the fractured state of Vic’s identity: Irishman and Englishman, lover of women and men, betrayer and betrayed.

    (AS 6) (RW 4)

     

    (10) Ill Seen, Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (1981). In terse, haunting prose, Beckett’s novella meditates on the absurdities of life and death, our grim longing for happiness, and “that old tandem” of reality and its unnamable “contrary.” The narrative itself, boiled down to poetic reflections, focuses on an old woman enduring her last days in a remote cabin. In the end, though all is blackness and void, Beckett wishes on us “grace to breathe that void,” even momentarily.

    (JB 10)

     

    (10) The Book of Leviathan by Peter Blegvad (2001). Snappy puns, clever palindromes, stream of consciousness insights, and brilliant non sequiturs fill the dialogue bubbles of this surreal collection of comic strips that chronicle the epistemological adventures of a faceless baby named Leviathan, his wise pet Cat, and his favorite toy Bunny. Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson, and St. Augustine are among the luminaries whose words inform these tales that explore the world’s mysteries and absurdities through a child’s eyes.

    (MSB 10)

     

    (10) The Outward Room by Millen Brand (1937). Also a poet, Brand wrote sensitively about mental illness when the topic was still taboo. This novel tells the story of a woman who escapes from a mental institution and tries to adjust to “normal” life on the “outside.”

    (PCam 10)

     

    (10) Casa Guidi Windows by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1851). The first part of this two-thousand-line poem, composed in 1847, reveals Browning’s excitement at the independence she and husband Robert found in Florence. The second part, written after Austria’s reoccupation of Tuscany, is a more reflective, yet still hopeful, meditation on the streets outside the Browning home, Casa Guidi: “This world has no perdition, if some loss.” Casa Guidi and its companion poems argue strongly for the right of women to speak on matters of politics and state, not just the moral affairs of the home.

    (AT 10)

     

    (10) Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (1987). Unfinished and perhaps unfinishable at the time of Capote’s death in 1984, this roman à clef was his savage chomp at the hands that fed him—the manicured, diamond-freighted hands of Upper East Side socialites and assorted New York celebrities. Bitchiness, bile, and sexual braggadocio vie in this gossipy, literary vivisection of high society.

    (DC 10)

     

    (10) The Golden Argosy edited by Van H. Cartmell and Charles Grayson (1947).

    Appreciation of The Golden Argosy by Stephen King

    I first found The Golden Argosy in a Lisbon Falls (Maine) bargain barn called The Jolly White Elephant, where it was on offer for $2.25. At that time I only had four dollars, and spending over half of it on one book, even a hardcover, was a tough decision. I’ve never regretted it.

     

    Originally published in 1947 and reissued in 1955—but not updated or reprinted since—­The Golden Argosy is an anthology of roughly fifty-five short stories. The editors made no pretensions to “quality fiction,” but simply tried to publish the best-loved stories published in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, up to the post–World War II period.

     

    Though it is in terrible need of updating (there is no Raymond Carver, for instance, no Joyce Carol Oates, because such writers came along too late for inclusion), it remains an amazing resource for readers and writers, a treasury in the true sense of the word, covering everything from sentimental masterpieces such as Bret Harte’s “The Outcasts of Poker Flat” to realistic character studies such as “Paul’s Case” by Willa Cather.

     

    Every reader will find glaring omissions (Dorothy Parker’s “Big Blonde,” for instance), but you’ve got your Faulkner classic (“A Rose for Emily”), your Hemingway (“The Killers”), and your Poe (“The Gold-Bug”). It includes “The Rich Boy,” in which F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observes “the rich are different from you and me,” and overlooked gems from writers such as Sherwood Anderson (“I’m a Fool”) and John Collier (“Back for Christmas”).

     

    The Golden Argosy taught me more about good writing than all the classes I’ve ever taken. It’s the best $2.25 I ever spent.

    (SK 10)

     

    (10) The Professor’s House by Willa Cather (1925). The professor’s house was “almost as ugly as it is possible for a house to be.” Now it has been dismantled. Yet the house, a symbol of the past, keeps beckoning Godfrey St. Peter, a professor in his mid-fifties whose outward success at work and home mask a passionless heart. “Theoretically he knew that life is possible, may be even pleasant, without joy. . . . But it had never occurred to him that he might have to live like that.”

    (PCam 9) (ES 1)

     

    (10) The Awakening by Kate Chopin (1899). A terribly shocking book in its day, The Awakening tells the story of an artistic, twenty-eight-year-old New Orleans woman who finds life with her husband and two children unfulfilling. On summer holiday, she has an affair with a younger man. Revived, she leaves her family. But her happiness is short lived as she is punished by a society that has little tolerance for such independent women.

    (SMK 10)

     

    (10) Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee (1999). Fifty-two years old and twice divorced, Professor David Lurie thought the affair with his student might bring passion back to his life. Instead, it costs him his job and his friends when he refuses to repent his sin. He retreats to his daughter’s farm, hoping to build on their relationship and write about Byron. But his tranquil oasis is shattered by racial violence in this uncompromising novel by the South African Nobel laureate.

    (SCraw 1) (EH 6) (VM 2) (RR 1)

     

    (10) Waiting for the Barbarians by J. M. Coetzee (1980). A magistrate for an unspecified empire finds himself thrust into a growing conflict on the frontier. Fearing an invasion, the empire sends an army to eliminate the threat of neighboring “barbarians,” and the magistrate, accused of plotting with the enemy, is beaten and jailed. As he suffers these trials, the magistrate reflects on civilization and nature, suffering and oppression, and man’s barbarous tendency toward violence.

    (JC 8) (JS 2)

     

    (10) An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser (1925).Clyde Griffiths wants to be more than just the son of a Midwestern preacher. Leaving home, he follows a path toward the American Dream that is littered with greed, adultery, and hypocrisy. The brass ring seems close when he wins a wealthy girl’s love, but then very far away when a factory girl he impregnated demands that he marry her. In this disquieting social novel, Clyde faces a moral dilemma that reveals the corruption of his soul and the materialistic culture that seduces him.

    (BMC 2) (EF 8)

     

    (10) Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989). In this wild, oddball novel, Lily and Art Binewski purposely create a family of freaks and geeks by procreating under the influence of experimental drugs. This genetically altered “family” travels as a circus. Dunn’s carnival of misfits is a memorable, darkly funny, and emotionally trenchant portrait of love and family on the fringe.

    (JW 10)

     

    (10) Light in August by William Faulkner (1932). This novel contains two of Faulkner’s most telling characters, the doggedly optimistic Lena Grove, who is searching for the father of her unborn child, and the doomed Joe Christmas, an orphan of uncertain race and towering rage. Faulkner’s signature concerns about birth and heritage, race, religion, and the inescapable burdens of the past power this fierce, unflinching, yet hopeful novel.

    (CE 6) (JHUMP 2) (SK 2)

     

    (10) Sentimental Education: The Story of a Young Man by Gustave Flaubert (1869).

    (BEE 10)

     

    (10) JR by William Gaddis (1975). This formally unique, dense, National Book Award–winning novel is composed almost entirely of dialogue and reads like a stream of conversation. This satire of high finance features an eleven-year-old named JR who uses a pay phone and mail order scheme to build a vast business empire on paper with the help of a partner, a struggling composer named Bast who serves as the company’s public face.

    (LMill 10)

     

    (10) I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934). Here is everything you could want in a novel about ancient Rome: warfare and spectacle, scandal and intrigue (and still more intrigue). The Claudius of Graves’s imagination—a disarmingly charming pedant and reluctant tyrant—confides his beginnings as a crippled, unwanted child and the internecine dynastic struggles that left him the last man standing. It is soap opera on an epic scale, dramatizing the fall of Roman republican ideals.

    (AGold 10)

     

    (10) Airships by Barry Hannah (1978). Barry Hannah can make readers laugh about the grimmest subject while never for a second losing sight of the essential horror. In this story collection, the Mississippi writer creates a cast of scarred, hyperkinetic characters—including a Confederate soldier recalling the tragedy and glory of war to a contemporary man obsessed with his estranged wife—who are stumbling toward illumination.

    (BH 2) (BW 8)

     

    (10) The Golden Bowl by Henry James (1904).Great chess players used to test their skills by playing several matches at once. A similar sense of multiple levels and strategies animates James’s final completed novel. An impoverished Italian prince marries the daughter of a fabulously wealthy American art collector, who in turn marries the daughter’s best friend, who was once (unbeknownst to father and daughter) the prince’s lover. James examines one of his signature themes—the terrible vulnerability of love to betrayal—in this vertiginous, psychologically acute work.

    (TM 4) (RPri 6)

     

    (10) The Unbearable Lightness of BeingbyMilan Kundera (1984).

    (ABrav 10)

     

    (10) Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (1925). Lawrence feared that his account of the Arab revolt he helped lead against the Ottoman Empire during World War I was “too human a document.” His form of warfare, composed of Bedouin raids, heartened a generation sickened by the mechanized slaughter of Flanders Fields. This sexually ambiguous, daring archaeologist fascinates us for the same reason we still read The Iliad: our need for stirring examples of grace under pressure.

    (AF 10)

     

    (10) The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (1942). An amusing reversal of The Divine Comedy, this novel consists of letters from a senior devil (Screwtape) to his young nephew Wormword, teaching him how to tempt his first human “patient” to perdition. Lewis nicely balances theology and psychology, depicting hell as a bureaucracy with murderous office politics, and the loss of one’s soul as an imperceptible poisoning through chains of seemingly inconsequential sins.

    (DFW 10)

     

    (10) Embers by Sándor Márai (1942). Henrik, a nobleman of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Konrad, a humble man with ambition, became best friends in military school. They remained inseparable, even after Henrik married Konrad’s friend. Then, one night, their relationship ruptured. Forty-one years pass until they meet again before the embers of a fading fire, where they probe their relationship and their lives.

    (RW 10)

     

    (10) The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville (1857). Truth, trust, and hope serve as plot and protagonist in this often comic, philosophical novel that anticipated postmodernism by a century. As the good ship Fidèle heads down the Mississippi, a long string of passengers—some modeled on Emerson, Thoreau, and Captain Ahab himself—encounter a shape-shifting confidence man who tells them exactly what they want to hear in order to get what he wants, in a work that raised doubt to an art form.

    (ALK 10)

     

    (10) Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell (1936). Many sagas novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does. This Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of love and war creates haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of remarkably vivid characters. Through the white-shouldered, irresistible Scarlett and the flashy, contemptuous Rhett, Mitchell not only conveyed a timeless story of survival under the harshest of circumstances, she also created two of the most famous lovers in the English-speaking world since Romeo and Juliet.

    (JPico 10)

     

    (10) The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien (1967).

    Appreciation of Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman by A. L. Kennedy

    The Third Policeman is that rare and lovely thing—a truly hallucinatory novel, shot through with fierce logic and intellectual rigor. It is a lyrical, amoral, funny nightmare: the most disciplined and disturbing product of an always interesting writer. Our protagonist is “the poor misfortunate bastard”—a drinker, philosopher, and obsessive bibliophile. His sins grow with him, making a logical progression from book theft to burglary and murder—all this against a heightened version of poor, rural Ireland: a setting layered with absurd but weirdly recognizable detail. He then stumbles into a potentially fatal alternative reality: a haunting, teasing Irish countryside of parlors and winding roads from which it seems impossible to return.

     

    Beneath the music of O’Brien’s prose there is always a savage understanding of our failings, the pressures of poverty, greed, and fear. And there is always the dark humor that both excuses and condemns us. Our hero (who develops an entirely separate soul, called Joe) drifts into a weird landscape of jovially menacing policemen (who may or not may not be bicycles) and of inexplicable objects and mechanisms that operate beneath nature’s skin. His imprisonment and threatened execution seem even more troubling because they are nonsensical, perhaps even kind. Slowly it becomes clear that, among other things, this novel is about hell—a much-deserved, amusing, irrational, and entirely inescapable hell. Because, for O’Brien, hell is not only other people—it is ourselves.

     

    Beyond this, The Third Policeman is genuinely indescribable: a book that holds you like a lovely and accusing dream. Read it and you’ll never forget it. Meet anyone else who has read it and you’ll find yourselves repeating sections of its melodious insanity within moments. Meet anyone who hasn’t read it and you’ll tell them they must. Which will be the truth.

    (ALK 8) (AO 2)

     

    (10) The Birthday Party (1958) and The Homecoming (1965) by Harold Pinter.

    The Nobel Prize–winning master of menacing understatement subtly links exfoliating, abstract power struggles with banal domestic situations in two of his finest plays. The interrogation and abduction of a helpless (and perhaps guiltless) tenant makes The Birthday Party simultaneously celebrated as an ironic mockery of the phenomena of survival and continuity. In The Homecoming, a philosophy professor’s return to the domicile he and his wife share with his male relatives becomes a struggle for sexual dominance from which the lone woman emerges triumphant. The result is opaque, disturbing, enthralling drama.

    (AMH 10)

     

    (10) The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda (1962). The author uses a stream of consciousness technique to describe the fraught experiences and often choked-off feelings of a Spanish shopkeeper during the 1930s and 1940s as her nation becomes gripped by civil war and fascism.

    (SC 10)

     

    (10) Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606). One of Shakespeare’s late Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra has a sense of fading grandeur about it, as the great warrior Antony succumbs to the exotic luxuries of Egypt and the heady sexual powers of her queen Cleopatra, thus neglecting his duties to Rome. The play has a kind of baroque richness to both plot and language as Antony and Cleopatra delight in seclusion while the Roman forces opposing them, led by the sober and ambitious Octavius Caesar, close in on the lovers. Cornered, the emperor and queen bring the play to a suicidal climax that exquisitely fuses sexual pleasure and death.

    (MD 10)

     

    (10) “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout (2008). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “Prickly Maine denizen Olive Kittridge presides over these stories, and she’s as awful as she is appealing.  The novel unspools  thirty years of relationships,  illuminating small town life in Maine and the pain, panic and yearning of its people. What I love most about this book is that while women writers are sometimes falsely demeaned for not taking on the ‘big subjects’, Strout has shown there is nothing bigger or more important than the daily wonder of our lives.

    (CL 10)

     

    (10) The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki (1943–48). Serialized during wartime, this epic novel chronicles the decline of the Osaka family and the transformation of traditional Japanese society. As their fortunes wither, elder sisters Tsuruko and Sachiko try to preserve the family name and marry off the talented, sensitive Yukiko. All the while the youngest sister, Taeko, aches for freedom from her sisters’ conservatism. Tanizaki uses detailed descriptions of Japanese traditions, such as the tea ceremony, to underscore their fleetingness in an era of rapid modernization.

    (VM 7) (DM 1) (CS 2)

     

    (10) L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola (1877). Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this story—of the downfall of a Parisian laundress—turned a burning social issue into a sensational best-seller. The desperate alcoholism of Gervaise Lantier and her husband held a mirror to the shocking moral condition of the urban poor. But it is saved from mere didacticism by Zola’s eye and ear. The unbuttoned urban dialogue prefigures Celine and Henry Miller; the cinematic structuring of the novel’s great scenes suggests that Zola would have made a great film director.

    (TW 10)

     

    (10) Nana by Émile Zola (1880). Nana is a low-born courtesan who succeeds among the French elite. Zola meant his heroine to represent the corruption of the Second Empire under the twin stresses of hedonism and capitalism. But like some uncontrollable genie uncorked from a bottle, she becomes the greatest femme fatale since Helen of Troy. The most explicit of the classic nineteenth-century novels, Nana exists in the vital midpoint between Anna Karenina and Valley of the Dolls.

    (TW 10)

     

    (9) Aesop’s Fables (c. sixth century b.c.e.). Though their origins are vague—Aesop may have been born a slave in Asia Minor in 620 b.c.e.—these tales use talking animals to personify human virtues and vices. Fables such as “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Fox Who Lost His Tail” show that “slow and steady wins the race,” “appearances can be deceiving,” and “misery loves company.”

    (JSalt 9)

     

    (9) Mahabharata (fifth century b.c.e.). Said to be the second-longest epic poem in the world (behind Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), the Mahabarata is also, along with the Ramayana, one of the two defining books of Hindu culture. Its core narrative relates the clashes between two groups of royal Indian cousins—one descended from gods, the other from demons. War, disguises, asceticism, drunken brawls, and the god Dharma as a dog swirl through this magical panorama of ancient India, which also includes the famous sermon Bhagavadgita, the Hindu equivalent to the New Testament.

    (CD 9)

     

    (9) The Zoo Story (1958), The American Dream (1961), and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1962), three plays by Edward Albee. Albee is American dramaturgy’s master of black comedy and social satire. In The American Dream he lambasts that concept in a one-act farce featuring an over-the-top dysfunctional family and a murder. In The Zoo Story, a psychotic loner cannily provokes a complacent bourgeois into killing him. In the Pulitzer Prize–winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, an older couple savage each other and their unsuspecting guests at the dinner party from hell, until the climactic revelation of the secret that binds them together. Albee’s plays are less performances than ritual flayings, stripping away all pretense and artificiality in family and social life to lay bare the bleeding vitals.

    (AMH 9)

     

    (9) The Infinities by John Banville (2009).

    (TJ 9)

     

    (9) The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos (1937). A profound story of Christian faith constructed of the thoughts, half-thoughts, jottings, and observations, the joys and disappointments, of a priest in provincial France. The protagonist suffers through the novel—he is a martyr to a dark, often wicked world. But as he declines, the grace he receives builds.

    (MG 9)

     

    (9) The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler (1903). One of the great critiques of Victorian society and morality, this autobiographical novel charts the Pontifex family over several generations. Through the rise and fall of the main character’s piety, Butler rebukes a religious tradition that has grown oppressive and hypocritical. Though he completed the novel in 1884, Butler, a clergyman’s son, refused to publish this, his greatest work, during his lifetime.

    (PE 9)

     

    (9) The Fall by Albert Camus (1956). In conversations with a chance acquaintance, a once-successful Paris lawyer recounts his fall into psychological self-destruction after ignoring a woman drowning in the Seine. Ultimately, this existential antihero persuades himself that all good works are motivated by self-interest, all virtue merely a ploy for success or popularity. With no hope of redemption, he descends into debauchery and profligacy, impatient for the relative simplicity of death.

    (IP 9)

     

    (9) The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout (1955). Dermout was sixty-seven years old when she debuted with this semiautobiographical novel about a Dutch woman named Felicia raising her son in the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Felicia has a keen appreciation for the beauty and mystery of this lush and exotic world where spirits hover; she describes pearls as “tears of the sea” while telling her boy the ten thousand things that make the island. Her love of life and nature is challenged by violence and murder that bring sadness and summon the courage of resilience.

    (SC 9)

     

    (9) The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky (1868). Prince Myshkin—epileptic, unworldly, sensitive—is the “idiot” of the title, but his gentle, generous nature forces readers to question that assumption. Myshkin (a scarcely disguised self-portrait of the author) tries again and again to help the people he encounters, only to have his efforts mocked or misunderstood. On the surface a love story, the novel is a contemplation of goodness in the world, and while its conclusions are dark, the portrait of this simple, good man endures.

    (LShriv 3) (BU 6)

     

    (9) The stories of Andre Dubus (1936–99). The meditative leanness and working-class focus of Dubus’s stories often garners comparison to Raymond Carver, although Dubus is much more interested in religion (Catholicism) and place (the redneck towns northwest of Boston). His stories are shot through with brutal violence and alcohol, characters whoalternate between sanctity and transgression, and tough moral choices. In Dubus’s fiction, such as the novella We Don’t Live Here Anymore from his 1979 collection Separate Flights, lives change slowly; marriages crumble or move on, bruised and shaken; and his characters survive, to carry on after paying a price.

    (LKA 4) (JLB 5)

     

    (9) The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot (1860). Familial duty has seldom been so sadly rendered, and Eliot drew much from her own childhood in creating Maggie Tulliver and her self-righteous brother Tom. Passionate Maggie gives up her lover out of propriety and deference to Tom, but the character was thought so wicked that many nineteenth-century girls were forbidden to read this book. Despite having lived with a married man herself, Eliot dealt Maggie a harsh fate.

    (BU 9)

     

    (9) Medea by Euripides (431 b.c.e.). What would you do if the man who promised you love, children, and a throne, after convincing you to slay your brother and exile yourself from your home, decided to marry a richer woman instead? This play gives a whole new meaning to “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.” Medea takes rejection to horrifying levels, killing her children as revenge on Jason for his faithlessness and his manipulation of her. That she is not punished for this deed is a stunning conclusion to this riveting play.

    (PCap 9)

     

    (9) Sunset Song by Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1932). In this first and best volume of his famed trilogy, A Scots Quair, Gibbon chronicles the growth to womanhood of Chris Guthrie, an intellectually ambitious Scottish girl at odds with her “backward” village and her dour Calvinist father. Succeeding volumes take Chris to Aberdeen and explore the aftermath of world war and burgeoning labor unrest, but lack the concentrated intensity of Sunset Song’s rich renderings of individual, familial, and communal experience and destiny.

    (ML 9)

     

    (9) Howl by Allen Ginsberg (1956). The title poem is considered the signature poem of the Beat generation. In language that blesses, curses, sorrows, and comforts, Ginsberg laments “the best minds of my generation . . . destroyed by madness.” Begun in isolation and anger, the poem reaches a kind of saintliness and communion. What can be seen as a manifesto against the conformist society of America in the 1950s can also be read as a love poem for the promising idea of America.

    (SA 9)

     

    (9) 1982, Janine by Alasdair Gray (1984). In a fleabag Scottish motel, divorced and depressed, Jock McLeish once again seeks consolation and strength through massive doses of alcohol and sadomasochistic sexual fantasies (some starring a woman named Janine). Through frank, complex language Gray takes us inside the addled mind of a powerless man seeking to impose some control over his life.

    (MSB 9)

     

    (9) The Mayor of Casterbridge by Thomas Hardy (1886). In the first chapter Michael Henchard sells his wife and child at a country fair. When he meets his forsaken wife Susan and daughter Elizabeth-Jane years later, he is no longer a drunken hay-trusser but mayor of his town. Henchard has improved his position in life but not his disposition, and this tragedy of misplaced pride, torturous guilt, and immense bitterness is vintage Hardy.

    (PF 4) (JI 5)

     

    (9) The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst (2004). Nick Guest is a young gay man desperate for love, the son of a modest antiques dealer who wants to climb the social ladder. In gorgeous, closely observed prose reminiscent of Henry James, much of this Booker Prize–winning novel chronicles Nick’s amorous and social ascents in the drug-and sex-fueled world of 1980s England. Then comes AIDS and the cold, hard punch of Margaret Thatcher’s policies, which leave everyone on their own, including Nick.

    (AS 9)

     

    (9) A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen (1879). The original desperate housewife, pampered Nora Helmer commits forgery for the money she needs to take her sick husband on a lifesaving trip. When her husband discovers her deceit, he is appalled. He realizes that he doesn’t really know his wife, whom he looks on as little more than a “doll.” His confusion only grows when Nora boldly moves to forge an independent identity—apart from men, motherhood, and social convention.

    (SMK 9)

     

    (9) Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1900). Subtitled “The Decline of a Family,” Mann’s first novel chronicles the shifting fortunes of four generations of German merchants. A brilliant literary colorist, adept with rich jewel tones, earthy pigments, and deep chiaroscuro alike, Mann recalls the Dutch Masters in his painterly command of bourgeois interiors and intimate domestic scenes. In equally lucid detail, often with tongue in cheek, he probes the psychological depths of his characters as they follow the arc from Enlightenment vigor to Romantic decadence in this sprawling family saga bristling with comedy and pathos.

    (NM 2) (RR 7)

     

    (9) Doctor Faustus by Thomas Mann (1947). Mann retells the Faust legend as the story of wunderkind composer Adrian Leverkühn, who trades his human feeling for a brilliant career and demonic inspiration. Leverkühn’s biography, narrated by a faithful childhood friend from the vantage point of 1943 Germany, serves as a symbolic commentary on a nation’s cultural hubris and downfall. Mann probes the complex tensions between aesthetics and morality, culture and politics, in his trademark dense, precise, endlessly qualified prose. Given his theme—the culpability of genius in the sins of his society—the narrator’s almost infuriatingly overscrupulous command of language assumes a redemptive gravitas.

    (JB 7) (RPri 2)

     

    (9) Edwin Mullhouse : The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser (1972). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “An exuberant parody of a literary biography, Edwin Mullhouse is written by a child, Jeffrey, about his smashingly creative childhood friend, Edwin, the author of “Cartoons.” This book is so sly, so inventive, and so much fun to read, it threatens to combust on the page. At its heart is a dark crime, but the book is really full of clever surprises and it gives one of the best and most accurate portrayals of childhood I’ve ever read.”

    (CL 9)

     

    (9) The plays of Molière (1622–73). Even those who generally find French literature inscrutable enjoy Molière. Tartuffe, for example, the Christian hypocrite who attempts to seduce a young virgin, inhabits the same plane of immortality as Falstaff or Don Quixote. Molière’s comedy ranges from slapstick (The Doctor in Spite of Himself is as silly, and funny, as a Punch and Judy show) to the social satire of his greatest play, The Misanthrope, in which a man’s vow never to lie collides with society’s need for “white lies.” Molière impartially mocks both sides.

    (SCraw 9)

     

    (9) Essays by Michel de Montaigne (1533-92). 

    (RM 9)

     

    (9) The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970).

    (MSouthgate 9)

     

    (9) Life: A User’s Manual by Georges Perec (1978).

    Appreciation of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual by Arthur Phillips

    The first miracle: A novel built from a strictly limited construction—the description of one single moment in a Paris apartment building—blossoms into an encyclopedia of stories and life spanning centuries, the globe, the history of literature. The second miracle: A moving, humane novel composed of implausible, even impossible parts. Perec’s brainy puzzle-book somehow produces the exhilarating, alternating certainties that life is beautiful, cruel, sweet, meaningful.

     

    Life’s hundred and some tales about the residents of 11 rue Simon-Crubellier sometimes slow to Proustian crawls, and a reader’s joy is in lounging, savoring every turn of phrase. A page later, though, Perec (almost audibly laughing) gallops us into insane plots of revenge, kleptomaniacal magistrates, intricate con games, a billionaire’s entire life spent on a single project, and the heiress’s egg collection, the destruction of which prompted the inaccurate painting, which later hung in . . .

     

    Pictures within pictures, memories within memories, letters within letters, reflections of reflections, the novel represents the unachievable ambitions of the painter Valène, burning to accomplish on canvas what Perec actually did in text: a portrait of life in all its possibility, speed, variety, shimmer, impermanence, blindingly rich and achingly temporary.

     

    Published in 1978, Life is infinitely entertaining, but it also can change how you see your surroundings; the wall between novel and world leaks. If Perec can imagine four paintings (and their histories) reproduced inside yet another painting, and the wallpaper against which that work hangs, and the life of the man who selected the wallpaper, then suddenly the world outside the book more proudly displays its own wondrous plumage, imagined by some creator even more ingenious than Perec. That all of his work (or Valène’s, or Perec’s) is so painfully transient only adds to its splendor, just as the lives led in the apartments at 11 rue Simon-Crubellier are both madly full and too quickly finished, forgotten.

    (APhil 9)

     

    (9) Wheat That Springeth Green by J. F. Powers (1975). Joe Hackett wanted to be a saint. While training for the priesthood he wore the hair shirt and abandoned the pleasures of “smokes, sweets, snacks, snooker, and handball.” Twenty-five years later, his ideals dampened, his passions are baseball and beer. The arrival of an idealistic curate slowly snaps him back to life, “like wheat that springeth green,” in this comic novel about both the tension between earthly and spiritual goals and their mutual dependence.

    (AP 9)

     

    (9) Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977). Barbara Pym’s characters live in the margins of mid-twentieth-century English life, squirreled away in rooming houses, dead-end office jobs, and ever-shrinking church congregations. Her peculiar genius is to make these unpromising creatures the centerpieces of her work. With the acute, unflinching eye and dry sense of humor that invite comparison to Jane Austen, “Quartet in Autumn” follows four aging office workers in their dance with retirement, a changing society, and ultimate mortality.

    (PCam 4) (CS 5)

     

    (9) Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). Years before The Satanic Verses, Rushdie had already won the Booker Prize for this reverential and blasphemous novel. Two babies born at the precise moment modern India came into existence—one Muslim, one Hindu—are then switched at birth and grow up in the other’s faith. Midnight’s Children sets a plot of comic-book proportions—people with superpowers too lazy to band together—against the backdrop of the subcontinent’s conflict-ridden history, the language and idioms of Rushdie’s youth careening against each other with madcap imagination and jolting fury.

    (KHarr 2) (AWald 7)

     

    (9) Henry V by William Shakespeare (1599). The final play in the Second Henriad (with Henry IV, Parts I and II), Henry V is, ostensibly, a celebration of Henry’s victory over his archenemy, the French, at Agincourt in 1415. Henry thus construed is a great national hero. But the play actually subverts, or at least compromises, such a reading. We see Henry collude with the church to prosecute a vicious campaign for nationalistic, rather than necessary, reasons. The brave king broods on the burdens of kingship and the righteousness of his cause, but then casually orders the slaughter of French prisoners. The epilogue looks forward to the reign of Henry VI, who lost all that Henry V gained and more, as if to question the worth of all this killing.

    (GDG 9)

     

    (9) Othello, The Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare (1604). Othello centers on the black general of the Venetian army and his white wife, Desdemona, daughter of a Venetian senator. A brave and successful warrior essential to the security of Venice, Othello is extremely susceptible to jealousy, a weakness exploited by the villain Iago, whom Othello passes over for a lieutenancy in favor of another. Iago’s swift and lethal revenge is as brilliant to behold as it is terrible to watch, as good and innocent people die at the hands of a demonic genius in a play that refuses to satisfy the expectation that tragedy must reward virtue and punish vice.

    (EM 9)

     

    (9) Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1881–82). Young John Hawkins was told to beware a man with one leg. But after discovering a treasure map, he acquires a ship and hires—you guessed it—one-legged Long John Silver to cook for his ship and hire the crew, a band of villainous pirates. After writing this thrilling tale of adventure for his stepson, Stevenson remarked: “If this don’t fetch the kids, why, they have gone rotten since my day.”

    (TK 9)

     

    (9) The Master by Colm Tóibín (2004). In beautiful, perceptive prose suggestive of its subject, this novel brings readers inside the conflicted mind and soul of Henry James. Set between 1895 and 1899, when a mid-career James was reassessing his life, the novel flows with memories of his youth and accomplished family members. What emerges is the portrait of a man determined to avoid complications—especially those posed by homosexuality; who wrestles with his need to turn his life into art, and his desire to push away life so he can create his art.

    (DMcF 4) (AS 5)

     

    (9) Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset (1920–22). The Norwegian author’s vast trilogy depicts its eponymous heroine’s life: Kristin’s impetuous union with a dangerously unstable suitor; her arduous marriage and motherhood, endangered by her husband’s political activities; and the willed serenity of her later years, when her youthful folly yields to a commitment to spiritual growth. The energy of the Icelandic sagas blends with an immensely detailed panorama of fourteenth-century life.

    (LS 9)

     

    (9) The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (1939). Hollywood is not alluring in this savage, apocalyptic novel about fame and its perversions. Painter Tod Hackett comes to Hollywood to design sets and find success. Instead, he finds a population of the physically and psychically maimed crouching at the edges of the film industry, desperately believing that only luck and time separate them from stardom. At the end, their disappointment explodes into violence and Tod sums up his despair with his single great painting: The Burning of Los Angeles.

    (MCon 9)

     

    (9) A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947). Set in the once working-class French Quarter of New Orleans, Williams tells the story of Blanche DuBois, an alcoholic relic of the waning genteel South, and her brother-in-law, the sensuous working-class brute Stanley Kowalski. Their mutual attraction and repulsion drive the conflict in this sexually frank, lyrical melodrama about the boundaries between illusion and reality and the changing South.

    (PCle 9)

     

    (8) Mother's Milk by Edward St. Aubyn (2006).

    (AWald 8)

     

    (8) Père Goriot by Honoré de Balzac (1834). When law student Eugène de Rastignac falls for the high-maintenance daughter of Père Goriot, a wheat merchant King Lear who has impoverished himself elevating his daughters in Parisian society, he needs more money than he can make honestly. That’s when Vautrin, a fellow boarder at his pension, suggests that Rastignac might make his fortune . . . at the cost of a minor murder. The tension becomes almost unbearable as Rastignac wrestles with his conscience and readers confront Vautrin, whose contempt for conventional morality prefigures every existential hero since.

    (TP 8)

     

    (8) Troilus and Criseyde by Geoffrey Chaucer (1381). The first great love story in English, this epic poem tells the story of what befell two lovers, Criseyde and Troilus, during the Trojan war. Criseyde is a stunner: “So aungellyk was hir natyf beautee / That lyk a thing immortal semed she.” Troilus is a Trojan prince. Alas, Criseyde can’t dally in Troy—she is forced to leave to go to the Greeks, for whom her father, a soothsayer, is working. Her pledge of eternal fidelity to Troilus is broken when she is seduced by the Greek warrior Diomedes. Is she a tramp or a victim of circumstances? Chaucer overturns the tiresome clichés of medieval misogyny in his humanistic treatment of this story.

    (LG 2) (LM 6)

     

    (8) Bullet Park by John Cheever (1967). Happily married with one child, Eliot Nailles is a chemist working to make better mouthwash. Paul Hammer is a Yale graduate and aimless drifter who moves to Nailles’s leafy suburb of Bullet Park. There he plans to take revenge on the bourgeoisie—by murdering Nailles’s son.

    (AMH 8)

     

    (8) Uncle Vanya by Anton Chekhov (1895). Chekhov helped transform the theater through his pioneering use of indirect action—the gunshot fired offstage—and his ability to develop themes not just through dialogue but by creating a mood or atmosphere on stage. He was also a master of characterization. These skills are apparent in this wonderfully complex play, set on an estate in nineteenth-century Russia, which details the relationships among family members who look back on their lives with regret.

    (PCam 8)

     

    (8) Life & Times of Michael K by J. M. Coetzee (1983). A retarded, nearly mute, harelipped man goes native in a South Africa torn by civil war, living off the land before being picked up and passed among institutions. The echo of Kafka in this controversial novel’s title is deliberate: Michael K is caught in a fundamental life trap, embodying both the yearning to be free of language and politics and the impossibility of doing so.

    (KHarr 8)

     

    (8) No Country for Old Men (screenplay) by Joel and Ethan Coen (2007).

    (TJ 8)

     

    (8) Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad (1900). Marlowe, Conrad’s narrator here (as he is in The Heart of Darkness), ironically labels Jim, the disgraced first mate at the center of his tale, “one of us,” meaning the small British colonial elite. However, Jim violates the code one life-defining night when, in a panic, he abandons his sinking ship while the passengers sleep. The ship stays afloat but not Jim’s reputation. Later Marlowe finds the exiled sailor on a remote Indonesian island, where the natives give “Lord Jim” a last chance at self-respect.

    (PM 8)

     

    (8) The Secret Agent by Joseph Conrad (1907). A darkly comic work (and thus rare for Conrad), this novel follows a group of anarchists and spies—including an American who walks around with a bomb strapped to his chest—plotting to blow up London’s Greenwich Observatory. Often now misread as a condemnation of terrorism, The Secret Agent is really an ironic critique of abstract ideology and careerist bureaucracy—both forces that use and crush the individual.

    (GG 8)

     

    (8) The Deptford trilogy by Robertson Davies (1983). A single question—“Who killed Boy Staunton?”—hovers over this trilogy that begins when ten-year-old Percy “Boy” Staunton throws a rock-filled snowball at his friend Dunstan Ramsay. Instead he hits Mary Dempster, who soon gives birth, prematurely, to a boy with birth defects. The novels Fifth Business, The Manticore, and World of Wonders chronicle the lives of these characters and their families, developing themes of guilt, love, and responsibility while detailing “the consequences that can follow any single action.”

    (JI 2) (IP 6)

     

    (8) Hard Times by Charles Dickens (1854). “Now, what I want is, Facts,” reads the opening of this entertaining melodrama animated by impassioned social protest and indignant satire. In the humorless martinet Gradgrind, who preaches and practices uncompromising logic and efficiency, Dickens lampoons the soulless utilitarianism of Victorian philosopher John Stuart Mill. Such reason has spawned the grimy, industrial city of Coketown—which Dickens contrasts with a traveling circus—and informs the subplot concerning Stephen Blackpool’s inescapable, unhappy marriage (a sour fictionalization of Dickens’s own domestic miseries).

    (TM 5) (MW 3)

     

    (8) The White Albumby Joan Didion (1979)

    (ABrav 8)

     

    (8) The Ice Age by Margaret Drabble (1977). Drabble is a quietly dogged social novelist, and her books can be read collectively as a history of contemporary England’s soul. Here she uses Anthony Keating, a former BBC official turned failed real estate developer, to explore the gloomy interregnum between the go-go 1960s and the more seriously materialistic Thatcher era, when the cozy values of old England were growing increasingly shabby without any new values to replace them.

    (DC 8)

     

    (8) The Bacchae by Euripides (408–406 b.c.e.). “Gods should be exempt from human passions,” says Cadmus, but such is not the case for Dionysus in one of the goriest Greek tragedies. Dionysus seeks revenge on Cadmus’s grandson Pentheus, a Theban king who has tried to quash the Bacchus cult in Thebes. Dionysus seduces Pentheus into witnessing a Bacchanalian orgy, where he is torn to pieces by the revelers, including his own mother.

    (IP 8)

     

    (8) Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding (1742). The comic trouble starts when a naive footman rejects the advances of his employer, Lady Booby, and her servant, Slipslop. Cast out, he and the saintly Parson Adams hit England’s rough roads in search of Joseph’s beloved, Fanny Goodwill. Like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, the world rewards their goodness with violent complication. After Joseph finds Fanny—who might be his sister—Fielding amps up the sexually charged farce in this novel of friendship and virtue that satirizes Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela.

    (ES 8)

     

    (8) This Side of Paradise by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1920).

    (RG 8)

     

    (8) The Gate of Angels by Penelope Fitzgerald (1990). The year is 1912 and, it seems, reason is finally giving the heave-ho to faith. At least that’s what rector’s son turned Cambridge scientist Fred Fairly thinks, until a freakish bicycle accident connects him to the beautiful and mysterious Daisy Saunders. Though he has made a pledge of celibacy, he is now in love and so must puzzle the questions of chaos and order, fate, chance, and the wonders of the soul in this funny, sharp novel of ideas.

    (EH 8)

     

    (8) The Sheltered Life by Ellen Glasgow (1932). Glasgow’s signature themes—the place of women and the crumbling Old South—reached a high point in three comedies of manners set in the fictional city of Queenborough—­The Romantic Comedians (1926), They Stooped to Folly (1929), and The Sheltered Life (1932). Here, Glasgow depicts the declining fortunes of two tradition-bound Virginia families, the Archibalds and the Birdsongs. Through young Jenny Blair Archibald, she represents the possibility of feminine independence in this penetrating account of southerners being forced into the modern era.

    (LS 8)

     

    (8) Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy (1895). Hardy’s protagonists are souls ahead of their time, who dare to aspire and love in defiance of Victorian class structure and social mores. In this bleak but moving novel, class barriers stymie Jude, a self-educated stonemason and would-be scholar, while convention damns his lover Sue, a pagan protofeminist. The flawed hero and heroine win modern hearts, while the author’s ferocious outcry against legal marriage, established religion, and nature itself, still challenges us today.

    (TM 6) (LShriv 2)

     

    (8) Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (1981). Imitation is the most annoying form of flattery for archfiend Dr. Hannibal Lecter in this terrifying predecessor to The Silence of the Lambs. Red Dragon describes the original capture of cannibalistic serial killer Lecter and his subsequent indignation on hearing that another monster is imitating his sadistic methods. Harris skillfully leaves open who is manipulating whom when Lecter agrees to help the FBI track down the copycat, who matches Lecter eye for eye—literally.

    (DFW 8)

     

    (8) The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952). This poignant parable of an old Cuban fisherman’s valiant solitary struggle against a huge fish embodies Hemingway’s definition of courage: grace under pressure. After months without a catch, and deserted by his young protégée, ancient Santiago finally hooks an enormous marlin, which is also prized by a marauding shark, in this study of self-reliance, implacable nature, and equanimity in the face of insurmountable odds.

    (RW 8)

     

    (8) Almost Paradise (1984) and Shining Through (1988) by Susan Isaacs. The best-selling author’s gift for creating strong heroines and crisp dialogue are on display in these engrossing tales of romance. Almost Paradise examines the price a married couple—he’s a blue-eyed blue-blooded movie star, she’s a brilliant, half-Jewish woman with a less than illustrious pedigree—pay for fame. Set before and during World War II, Shining Through mixes romance with espionage as a poor girl from Queens marries the most handsome lawyer on Wall Street and eventually is sent on a secret mission to wartime Berlin.

    (JW 8)

     

    (8) Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson (1985). After a nuclear war devastates the planet, residents of what had been the Florida Keys try to rebuild their lives and communities in a landscape where shards from the obliterated past—religious stories, Jimi Hendrix records, parking decks—remain but are barely understood. By destroying and then rebuilding the world, including the invention of a strange dialect, Johnson’s daring novel probes the nature of communication, memory, and knowledge amid the palpable specter of death.

    (TCB 8)

     

    (8) The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka (1915). This harrowing narrative of a clerk, Gregor Samsa, who wakes from “uneasy dreams” to find himself transformed into a giant insect, is the quintessential Kafkaesque tale. Gregor is not dreaming; he really has become a bug who hides under the sofa to keep from horrifying his mother, and who is pummeled with apples and cursed by his father. The strange magic of the story is the way Kafka sustains our empathy with this creature, such that the bizarre and claustrophobic scenes intensify, and even haunt, our awareness of human vulnerability.

    (CH 5) (JMEND 3)

     

    (8) The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera (1978). A pastiche that deliberately recalls the narrative games of Tristram Shandy, this novel uses seven thematically linked tales (as well as forays into philosophy, musicology, literary criticism, and autobiography) to explore the permeable borders between Eastern and Western Europe, eroticism and banal libertinism, and the public versus the private, which Kundera sees as the shrinking, doomed cradle of civilization.

    (DAD 8)

     

    (8) Man’s Fate by André Malraux (1933). Chronicling the communist uprising against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in Shanghai in 1927, this novel is a revolutionary’s cookbook. It shows the planning and politics of the insurrection, the street battles that accompanied it, and the successful, remorselessly cruel nationalist counterattack (the nationalist general throws captured communists in the furnaces of a train). When the book was published in 1933, the Chinese revolution looked kaput. When the communists triumphed in 1948, it seemed prophetic.

    (AF 8)

     

    (8) Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885). Like a late nineteenth-century Tom Wolfe, Maupassant reveals the codes and rivalries of social success by chronicling the rise of Georges Duroy, a handsome, down on his heels ex-soldier. Duroy’s chance comes when an old army buddy hires him at his newspaper, La Vie Parisienne. Georges rewards his friend by coveting his wife, Madeleine, a smart, energetic free spirit who seems like Madame Bovary—after successful therapy. When her husband dies, Georges proposes literally over his corpse. But soon he is looking even higher . . .

    (TW 8)

     

    (8) The Ballad of the Sad Café by Carson McCullers (1943).

    (JGil 8)

     

    (8) The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami (1994). A cross between Dante’s Inferno, Through the Looking Glass, and Catch-22, this novel depicts the bizarre and often inexplicable journey of Japanese Everyman Toru Okada, whose missing cat prompts the disappearance of his wife, encounters with psychics and call girls, days huddled in meditation at the bottom of a well, and the breathtakingly graphic depiction of a man being skinned alive.

    (AO 6) (VV 2)

     

    (8) The Moviegoer by Walker Percy (1961).

    (JHUMP 8)

     

    (8) Norwood by Charles Portis (1966). The comic conversation and surreal adventure that distinguish Portis’s fiction shine in this first novel about Norwood Pratt, a war hero with country music dreams who’s stuck in a small Texas town. Seeking escape, Norwood decides to find an old Marine buddy who owes him seventy dollars. His trip to Manhattan and then Memphis is filled with quirky characters (a midget, an educated chicken), strange situations, and homespun wisdom: “Don’t let your mouth write a check that you’re ass can’t cash.”

    (WK 8)

     

    (8) The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988).  After terrorists blow up their plane, two Indian actors fall from the sky. When they land, one has a halo, the other horns. This lush, lyric, sensual, and surreal novel then follows two main interrelated plots that skate along the blurry lines between good and evil, love and betrayal, knowledge and ignorance. The first plot line details these men’s tangled lives and strange transformations in London and Bombay; the second reimagines the life of Mohammed so critically that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni issued a death sentence against Rushdie.

    (SK 8)

     

    (8) Scaramouche by Rafael Sabatini (1921). Swashbuckling swordsman, inspiring orator, actor, lawyer, revolutionary politician, Andre-Louis Moreau “was born with the gift of laughter and a sense that the world was mad.” He must employ all his skills in seeking revenge against the wicked aristocrat who murdered his friend, a young clergyman, for expressing democratic ideas. The tension mounts when Moreau learns his adversary hopes to wed his beloved. A master of action-adventure (his other works include Captain Blood), Sabatini paints Moreau’s story against the surging French Revolution, coloring his high drama with history and politics.

    (MC8)

     

    (8) The Raj Quartet by Paul Scott (1966–75). Made famous by a popular television series, this rich quartet of novels dramatizes the final years of British rule (“the Raj”) in India through explorations of several intersecting lives. Indian Hari Kumar’s interracial relationship with Englishwoman Daphne Manners, the career and sexual opportunism of Police Super­ intendent Ronald Merrick, the encroaching madness and despair of idealistic missionary Barbie Batchelor, and the failure of well-intentioned diplomat Guy Perron to decipher the riddle India poses for its would-be conquerors are painstakingly woven into an engrossing, unforgettable extended narrative.

    (SK 3) (RR 5)

     

    (8) Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald (2001). During decades of travels through Europe, a nameless architectural historian accidentally keeps meeting Austerlitz, a neurasthenic architect who is incrementally confronting his buried connection to the Holocaust. Incantatory and almost vertiginous in its repetitiveness, this one-paragraph novel depicts the struggle of a personal narrative to melt the frozen memory of collective trauma.

    (JB 4) (PC 4)

     

    (8) The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (1964). This parable about the parent–child bond features an apple tree that gives and gives and a boy who takes and takes. As the boy matures, his needs become harder to meet. But the tree never fails, ultimately sacrificing life and limb. Silverstein, who also illustrated this children’s book, casts no moral judgments in this open-ended tale that concludes with the boy, now an old man, sitting on all that’s left of the tree, a stump: “And the tree was happy.”

    (AT 8)

     

    (8) Sophie’s Choice by William Styron (1979). This novel is at once the story of a young writer’s coming of age and his slow uncovering of the story of Sophie, his neighbor in a Brooklyn boarding house and a Polish survivor of the Holocaust who has had to make a biblical choice between her children. Comic and tragic, the story moves with symphonic grace toward its final denouement. Looking back across the span of years, an older, somewhat wiser Stingo recreates in lush detail post–World War II Brooklyn and one man’s slow awakening to the horrors people are capable of.

    (DH 8)

     

    (8) Galpo Guccho by Rabindranath Tagore (1912). These beautifully structured stories are vast in range, moving from supernatural tales to historical stories of love. Tagore, who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, is especially good at portraying the little moments of daily life and creating vivid characters—often the poor and dispossessed in his native India—that continue to haunt us.

    (CD 8)

     

    (8) A Sportsman’s Notebook by Ivan Turgenev (1852). Set in the Russian countryside, this series of linked, introspective story-essays describes the rambles of a young nobleman shooting game on the vast estates of Russia’s aristocracy. As Turgenev depicts the beauteous intricacies of the natural world, he captures the suffering of Russian serfs, helping to convince his country’s leaders to abolish the feudal system.

    (DMe 8)

     

    (8) The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain (1876). Twain’s charming fictionalization of his Hannibal, Missouri, boyhood marks the passages, large and small, of youth: Tom plays hooky from school, courts Becky Thatcher, gets lost with her in the Bat Cave, and runs afoul of Injun Joe. Tom even manages to eavesdrop on his own funeral. The way he convinces his friends to pay him for the privilege of whitewashing his fence proves that he is a trickster for the ages.

    (AP 8)

     

    (8) The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde (1895). “The truth is rarely pure and never simple,” one character remarks in Wilde’s clever comedy about double identities. And white lies are even more complicated, as two young Englishmen of leisure learn when they try to avoid undesirable social obligations by claiming their noble services are required by needy (and imaginary) friends. When the worlds of their “friends” and fiancées collide, their confabulations turn to witty farce.

    (AG 4) (DL 4)

     

    (8) Stoner by John Williams (1965). Tom Bissel calls this “the best ‘quiet’ book I've ever read, and the most heartbreaking.”
    (TBiss 8)

     

    (8) The Easter Parade by Richard Yates (1976). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “Yates is one of my favorite writers, and he really isn’t as well known as he should be.  This searing story of two sisters, both destined for unhappiness, and their unfolding lives, is riveting. The novel follows the sisters, children of divorce, over four decades. Sarah settles into an unhappy marriage while Emily is torn by one love affair after another, and her burgeoning job success begins to fade out along with her romantic prospects. The ending, as Emily begins her slow spiral down is shocking and somehow inevitable. Gorgeously written, this book deserves to find a new audience.”

    (CL 8)

     

    (7) The legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. These tales of medieval chivalry, romance, and high adventure composed primarily from the twelfth through fifteenth centuries feature a host of iconic characters: Sir Galahad, Lancelot, Mordred, Guinevere, Merlin, and the Lady of the Lake. These are stories that gave us Camelot, the Round Table, and the search for the Holy Grail. Versions abound but the best place to start is with Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur.

    (JSalt 7)

     

    (7) Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868). Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy: for girls who grew up reading about these four sisters, the names run together as readily as John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Maybe the magic of foursomes explains this novel’s enduring appeal. Readers get their pick of heroines: motherly Meg, harum-scarum Jo, goodness-personified Beth, or naughty Amy. Cared for by their saintly mother, Marmee, while their father is away fighting in the Civil War, the sisters get into scrapes, go on larks, find love, and suffer loss. It’s the ultimate bildungsroman for girls.

    (RFD 7)

     

    (7) London Fields by Martin Amis (1989). Nicola Six, a psychic femme fatale in a soul-sick, lightly futuristic London, has a premonition that one of two men she’s just met will murder her, and then she works to make that happen. All of Amis’s tropes—the coming apocalypse, the self-consciousness of authorship, and hilarious clashes of sexes and classes—get full play in this sprawling romp of a novel.

    (TBiss 6) (RW 1)

     

    (7) Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen (1811). Austen doubled her heroines here, giving us the down-on-their-luck Dashwood sisters. Elinor, the cool-headed elder, seems to embody common sense, while Marianne is “eager in everything.” The novel’s joy comes from watching the girls shape-shift their way through their love troubles, trading back and forth between their roles and natures. As each girl is by turns hardheaded and hot-hearted, Austen’s novel reveals the fluid nature of identity.

    (DM 7)

     

    (7) Nightwood by Djuna Barnes (1936). Following the painful end of an eight-year lesbian relationship, Barnes crafted this avant-garde novel that explores love, desire, and obsession in rich lyric prose. Set mostly in Paris during the years between the world wars, Nightwood revolves around the mysterious Robin Vote and the two lovers she abandoned: her German husband, Baron Felix Volkbein, and an American woman, Nora Flood. Heartbroken and confused, the spurned lovers seek advice from a most unlikely source, an alcoholic transvestite named Dr. Matthew Dante O’Connor, whose solipsistic stream of consciousness ramblings suggest the mysteries and miseries of romantic love.

    (AF 7)

     

    (7) Herzog by Saul Bellow (1964). Moses Herzog has two problems: his book on imagination and the intellect has stalled and his second wife has run away with his best friend. In response to his loneliness and alienation he writes letters—funny, scathing, ruminant, intensely self-aware—to people living and dead (including Friedrich Nietzsche and Willie Sutton) about his Jewish upbringing, old friends and lovers, and the world’s mad hypocrisy. Through Bellow’s prose, philosophically rich yet sprightly antic, the novel takes on this quest: “The dream of man’s heart, however much we may distrust or resent it, is that life may complete itself in significant pattern.”

    (ST 7)

     

    (7) The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler (1939). This is the first novel featuring hard-boiled Los Angeles private eye Philip Marlowe, a tough guy with a fast gun and a quick wit. Noting that he “was neat, clean, shaved and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it,” Marlowe goes to work for a dying L.A. oil tycoon whose two lusty daughters have fallen prey to an array of drug dealers, pornographers, and bootleggers intent on separating the old man from his money.

    (CH 4) (RBP 3)

     

    (7) The Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov (1901). In this gloomy Russian drama, the youthful hopes of siblings Olga, Masha, and Irina Prozorov curdle with time into the desperate sins and bitter resentments of later life. Often called a play in which nothing happens, The Three Sisters—one of four major dramas written by Chekhov at the end of his life—is actually a masterly study in dramatic texture, its voices and themes counterpointing each other as if they were notes in an orchestral piece.

    (MD 7)

     

    (7) The Beans of Egypt, Maine (1985), Letourneau’s Used Auto Parts (1988), Merry Men (1994), a trilogy by Carolyn Chute. These grimly naturalistic novels, set in an inland “world” of house trailers and logging camps, depict the harsh lives and quiet dignity of the rural poor in Maine. The trilogy moves outward: The first novel creates a series of characters that are real grotesques, offering vignettes of adultery, drunkenness, and destroyed dreams. Life gets no easier in the second novel, but Big Lucien Letourneau, who runs an automobile junkyard, displays a rare and generous compassion. The third novel, which has the most political overtones, echoes the legend of Robin Hood to suggest how Egypt, Maine, and her people have been exploited.

    (MSB 7)

     

    (7) The Hours by Michael Cunningham (1998). This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel describes three women whose lives resonate with Virginia Woolf’s novel Mrs. Dalloway. There is Woolf herself, contemplating suicide even as she imagines her great novel; an American housewife in 1949 who can’t quite fathom her discontent; and a contemporary woman, a lesbian in a long-term relationship, whose great love, a man, is dying of AIDS. Melancholy, hope, and endurance suffuse this intimate novel that suggests, “There’s just this for consolation: an hour here or there when our lives seem, against all odds and expectations, to burst open and give us everything we’ve ever imagined. . . . [Still] we hope, more than anything, for more.”

    (AS 7)

     

     

    (7) The U.S.A. trilogy by John Dos Passos (1938). Infused with the radical politics of the 1920s and 1930s and littered with newspaper excerpts, stream of consciousness prose, and biography, this triptych weaves an epic American narrative tapestry. Comprised of the novels The 42nd Parallel, 1919, and The Big Money, U.S.A. follows a host of divergent Americans from childhood on up in their unique attempts to find a place in a nation teetering on the verge of social unrest. Mixing newspaper reportage with fiction long before the word postmodern gave academics something to write about, U.S.A. reads like a newsreel and a dream.

    (NM 5) (RBP 2)

     

    (7) The Radiant Way by Margaret Drabble (1987). While the title suggests a rational universe, this novel focuses on the jarring dislocations of three women who meet at Cambridge in the 1950s. The psychiatrist and mother Liz Headland—who ties together the trilogy The Realms of Gold, The Radiant Way, and A Natural Curiosity—­is joined by her friends Alix Bowen, a do-gooding teacher, and Esther Breuer, an art scholar. Their experiences run the gamut, from comfortable wealth to family problems to labor unrest to a grisly murder, as they reflect Drabble’s interest in characters trying to reach beyond their bourgeois lives.

    (DC 7)

     

    (7) The stories of Mavis Gallant (1922– ). Expatriate experience and cultural contrasts energize the knowing, roomy fiction of the native Canadian, sometime Parisian, master. Praised for her story sequences (such as the semiautobiographical Linnet Muir tales and those focused on aging French author Henri Grippes), Gallant also excels in generously detailed depictions of an unwanted arranged marriage (“Across the Bridge”), a German POW’s survival skills (“Ernst in Civilian Clothes”), and numerous other vivid dramatizations of displacement and rootlessness (such as “The Ice Wagon Going Down the Street,” “The Four Seasons”).

    (ML 2) (FP 5)

     

    (7) The Comedians by Graham Greene (1966). The poverty and desperation of Papa Doc Duvalier’s Haitian dictatorship inform this cynical tale of failed individuals trying to hustle something from a failed state. The comedians—who hide their true identities behind masks—include Mr. Brown, a failed art swindler and now inheritor of a waning imperial hotel, Mr. Jones, a con man, and the oblivious Mr. Smith, who dreams of establishing a vegetarian center on the troubled island. As Greene contrasts these schemers with men combating Duvalier, he delivers a gripping geopolitical novel that packs a moral punch.

    (CH 7)

     

    (7) The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948). The story of a good man enmeshed in love, intrigue, and evil in a West African coastal town. Scobie is bound by strict integrity to his role as assistant police commissioner and by severe responsibility to his wife, Louise, for whom he cares with a fatal pity. When Scobie falls in love with the young widow Helen, he finds vital passion again yielding to pity, integrity giving way to deceit and dishonor—a vortex leading directly to murder. As Scobie's world crumbles, his personal crisis makes for a novel that is suspenseful, fascinating, and, finally, tragic. (LShriv 7)

     

    (7) The Evening of the Holiday by Shirley Hazzard (1966). Over the course of a festive summer in the Italian countryside, Sophie, who is half English and half Italian, has an affair with Tancredi, an Italian who is separated from his wife and family. Hazzard’s first novel displays the talents and interests that mark her career: luminous prose, the tension between desire and morality, the necessity of choice, and the inevitability of endings.

    (PCam 7)

     

    (7) Winter's Tale by Mark Helprin (1983).

    (TJ 7)

     

    (7) Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (1890). Like Anna Karenina and Emma Bovary, Hedda Gabler is trapped in a loveless marriage, which she entered into for security and cannot leave for fear of scandal. Though she is “crowing for life,” societal norms constrict her, making Hedda a manipulative and frustrated woman. The appearance of her former lover—a brilliant, debaucherous writer—unspools a string of betrayals that end in death in this feminist play that showcases Ibsen’s ability to dramatize the burning social issues of his day.

    (PCle 3) (VV 4)

     

    (7) The Thin Red Line by James Jones (1962). Green recruits become hardened soldiers, their eyes reflecting the “thousand yard stare” of those who have seen too much, in this novel set during World War II’s battle for Guadalcanal. Narrated from the perspective of various soldiers assigned to Charlie Company, the novel reflects the complexity of war—the horror and heroism of its licensed murder—while navigating the “thin red line between the sane and the mad.”

    (DFW 7)

     

    (7) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey (1962). In Ken Kesey’s first novel, the insane asylum becomes an allegory for the larger world as the patients are roused from their lethargy by the arrival of Randall Patrick McMurphy, a genial, larger than life con man who fakes insanity to get out of a ninety-day prison sentence. By the time McMurphy learns that he is now under the cruel control of Nurse Ratched and the asylum, he has already set the wheels of rebellion in motion. Narrated by Chief Broom Bromden, an Indian who has not spoken in so long he is believed to be deaf and mute, McMurphy’s rebellion is a spectacular foretelling of what the 1960s were to bring.

    (MCon 7)

     

    (7) Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré (1974). This is the first novel in Le Carré’s Karla trilogy featuring aging, meticulous, self-effacing British spy George Smiley. Smiley is called out of forced retirement to root out a traitorous “mole” placed in the London headquarters of British intelligence by Soviet spymaster Karla. Working alone and without his agency’s resources for fear of alerting the mole, Smiley methodically sets about unmasking his quarry in this quintessential Cold War cloak-and-dagger yarn.

    (IP 7)

     

    (7) The Once and Future King by T.H. White (1958).

    (RG 3) (LG 4)

     

    (7) Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry (1947). It’s the Day of the Dead in Mexico, and Geoffrey Firmin, a British ex-diplomat and professional alcoholic, is eager to oblige, embarking on a self-destructive bender like no other in literature. Lowry, who left hospitalization for his own drinking problem on the day the novel was published, recounts it all with a searing stream of consciousness that nods to Faulkner and Joyce and which Martin Amis called “drunkenness recollected in sobriety.”

    (WK 7)

     

    (7) The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940). After his roommate of ten years becomes mentally ill, the deaf-mute John Singer moves to a boarding house, where he serves as an emotional buffer for a host of isolated “grotesques” who pro­ ject their own longing onto him. This inspiringly sad story of misfits in a working-class Georgia town is attuned to the racial and social dynamics of the Depression-era South. Yet, McCullers also conveys a pervasive loneliness and desperation broader than any given historical moment.

    (GDG 7)

     

    (7) Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller (1949). A broken Everyman, Willy Loman is about to be fired from his job as a traveling shoe salesman. In response he clings to fantasies—that he is “well liked” and that his troubled sons, Hap and Biff, are bound for greatness. A withering assault on the American Dream, the play is an affecting portrait of a man unable to understand the forces that have shaped his life.

    (CE 3) (AT 4)

     

    (7) The Paper Bag Princess by Robert Munsch (1980). The beautiful princess Elizabeth is about to marry Prince Ronald when a dragon destroys her castle, burns her clothes and kidnaps Ronald. The clothes-less Princess—and proto-feminist heroine—dons a large paper bag and hunts down the dragon and her cherished prince. She outwits the dragon but Ronald is not too happy because she is not “dressed like a real princess.”

    (JPico 7)

     

    (7) The Tale of Genji by Shikibu Murasaki (c. 1001–1010 c.e.). Reputedly the world’s oldest novel, this immense epic romance chronicles the (mostly amorous) adventures of Japanese Prince Genji, a lowborn youth who is adopted by an emperor and grows into a handsome prodigy both irresistible to women and obsessively preoccupied with them. Genji’s peregrinations outside the hermetic world of the imperial court stimulate an elaborate panorama of the life of the period; the author’s depictions of Genji’s various and ingenious sexual conquests still dazzle.

    (KJF 7)

     

    (7) McTeague by Frank Norris (1899). Gritty realism, social conscience, and American dreams power this tale of an oafish mineworker who becomes an unlicensed dentist in San Francisco. He marries a young woman and together they share a happy life, until she wins a small fortune in the lottery. This luck enflames their greed and the envy of their friends, leading to ruin for all and to one of the most memorable climaxes in literature: two men—one alive, one dead—handcuffed to one another in Death Valley.

    (SK 7)

     

    (7) Metamorphoses by Ovid (8 c.e.). Shining through Ovid’s poetic encyclopedia of myths involving the transformations of gods and humans is this Heraclitean truth: existence is change. His versions of Orpheus, Narcissus, Pygmalion, and Hercules have been etched in our collective memory. Yet he was, as a critic once said, “counter-classical”—fun rather than imperial, personal rather than grave. Of all the Latin authors, Ovid, who also wrote a sex manual, is the one who never once reminds you of a marble bust.

    (AB 7)

     

    (7) The Messiah of Stockholm by Cynthia Ozick (1987). In this novel from Ozick’s mystical period, Lars Andemening, a mousy, fortyish book reviewer for a Swedish daily, has a grandiose fantasy: that he is the son of Bruno Schulz, a Polish writer murdered during World War II by a Nazi officer. But when a woman turns up in Stockholm also claiming to be Schulz’s child and with a copy of Schulz’s long-lost novel The Messiah, Lars’s quest to learn about Schulz turns Oedipal.

    (TCB 7)

     

    (7) Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais (four books published between 1532 and 1552).

    Appreciation of François Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel by Fred Chappell

    The stories of the giant Gargantua and his giant son Pantagruel, of their birth, nurture, education, and heroic feats of arms; of Pantagruel’s voyages through strange lands and exotic cultures in search of ultimate wisdom; of their companions Rondibilis, Frère Jean, and the irrepressible, inexpressible Panurge; of their arriving at last in the abode of the Priestess Bacbuc whose oracular Bottle utters the final truth they have sought—these stories are impossible to summarize and set in order.

     

    It would be presumptuous even to try to do so, since one of the great themes of François Rabelais (1494?–1553) is glorious, raucous, exasperating, exhilarating, universal disorder. The author, a maverick cleric and observant physician, gave our modern world, at the moment of its birth in the Renaissance, its first comprehensive picture of what it was and what it could become. The world borrowed his name for its most treasured and common kind of humor: Rabelaisian, meaning rowdy, rude, satirical, unsparing, obscene, and sometimes cruel.

     

    As Rabelais invented a new literary form, the exorbitant picaresque satire, he invented a new language to express it. His pages are a Babel of polyglot puns, monkish obscurities, legalisms, overblown fustian, and street demotic. Lists abound: diseases and cures, body parts, herbs, geographical oddities, and cusswords in droves.

     

    Here is fantasy rooted in folktale, offering what only the great literary fantasies—­The Faerie Queene, The Tempest, Paradise Lost, Orlando Furioso, The Time Machine, and a few others—can: a vision of humanity in its relationship with the cosmos and with eternity. At the same time, it presents an earthy panorama of daily concerns and relationships. Unique among the great visionary works, Gargantua and Pantagruel is the only slapstick comedy. Among all comedies, it is one of the best.

    (FC 7)

     

    (7) Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys (1966).  Carolyn Leavitt writes:  “Suicidal and alcoholic Jean Rhys wrote shatteringly spare books about women being beaten down by life. Rhys takes the classic story of “Jane Eyre” and spins it on its head, telling it from the viewpoint of none other than Mrs. Rochester, the mad wife locked in the attic.  Instead of being just the symbolic shadowy presence she was in “Jane Eyre,” she becomes a full-blown fascinating character in her own right. A Creole woman taken away from her beloved Island life, her sexuality repudiated by her husband, she’s torn from the things and the person she loves, and she goes slowly mad.  Rhys said the fame this book brought her, at age 70, came too late.  Truly, an essential read.”

    (CL 7)

     

    (7) The Burning Plain and Other Stories by Juan Rulfo (1953). Like Ernest Hemingway, Rulfo found men who are shaped by violence too fascinating to judge or condemn. Set in the period around the Mexican Revolution, his short stories use pared down prose to portray peasants who are seized sometimes by historical forces and given the opportunity to create and destroy on a mass scale. More usually, they decimate or are decimated in miserable increments.

    (SC 7)

     

    (7) The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald (1995). An idiosyncratic chronicle of a walk along England’s eastern coast, this novel moves between physical encounters and prolonged meditations on history and memory. As the narrator visits derelict estates and slumbering villages, he ponders among other things Thomas Browne’s skull, Rembrandt’s Anatomy Lesson, Conrad’s journey into the heart of the Congo, the battle of Waterloo, and a villager’s model of Herod’s temple. Seemingly unrelated, the sketches weave a strange tapestry of grief, tranquility, nostalgia, and despair.

    (EH 7)

     

    (7) The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (1971). This picture book is a poignant environmental fable about a beautiful forest of Truffula trees destroyed for the sake of the mass production of curious garments called Thneeds. Long after the forest has been destroyed, the Once-ler who destroyed it comes out of his “Lerkim on top of his store” to tell this cautionary tale to children.

    (LMill 7)

     

    (7) A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (1943). Despite its hopeful title, this coming-of-age story set in 1912 offers an unflinching look at poverty, cruelty, sex, and death. As we watch eleven-year-old Francie Nolan vie with her favored brother for their mother’s love and deal resourcefully with privations and prejudice, Smith offers frank depictions of tenement squalor through the eyes of her resilient heroine.

    (JW 7)

     

    (7) Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). A coming-of-age story filled with high adventure and Scottish history, this is the story of David Balfour, an orphan sent in 1751 to live with his greedy uncle. To steal David’s inheritance, his uncle has him kidnapped and taken aboard a ship to America to be sold into slavery. David and another captive escape the ship. Then, while fending off a charge of murder, David heads back to the Highlands where he hatches a clever plan to expose his uncle’s wrongdoings.

    (AMS 7)

     

    (7) Arcadia by Tom Stoppard (1993).

    (LG 7)

     

    (7) The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien (1954–56). An Oxford medievalist, Tolkien drew on his vast knowledge of mythology, theology, and linguistics to imagine this epic trilogy. The books chronicle the hobbit Frodo’s attempt to destroy the magical ring of Sauron, Lord of Darkness. “The Fellowship of the Ring” introduces the men, dwarves, and elves summoned by the wizard Gandalf to protect Frodo. In “The Two Towers,” Frodo and his companion Sam continue their quest toward Mount Doom, while the rest of the fellowship are brought into the battle detailed in “The Return of the King.”

    (CD 6) (RPow 1)

     

    (7) A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (1980). “The funniest novel of the twentieth century,” said Donald Harington of this sprawling picaresque, which was awarded a Pulitzer Prize after Toole’s suicide. Its blustering, bumfuzzled antihero is Ignatius J. Reilly, an unintentionally hilarious, altogether deluded, and oddly endearing student of man who lives with his mother in New Orleans. Forced by a series of misadventures to finally find work, he endures stints as a pirate-clad hot dog vendor and a file clerk. As he meets strippers, lotharios, and other sharply drawn comic characters, Ignatius rants against the world’s stupidity and ponders his magnum opus, The Journal of a Working Boy.

    (DH 7)

     

    (7) Phineas Finn: The Irish Member by Anthony Trollope (1869). A handsome, romantically profligate young Irishman, Phineas Finn leaves his sleepy home and secret fiancée for the political world of London. As he charts the rise and fall of his calculating yet endearing hero, Trollope plunges us into the machinations of the day (especially “the Irish question”) and, for good measure, introduces not one, not two, but four fascinating love interests. The novel—the second in the Palliser series—is long. But Trollope reminds us that sometimes more is more.

    (CS 7)

     

    (7) The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982). As if being black weren’t hard enough, Walker’s Pulitzer Prize– winning novel shows how bad life can get if you’re also a woman. Wondrously, Walker gives voice to the unlikeliest of heroes—a barely literate teenager named Celie who writes letters to God as an escape from life with her monstrous stepfather. After raping and impregnating her, he forces her to marry Mr., a cruel older man. Hope comes in the form of Shug, Mr.’s lover, and together the two women begin to loosen the shackles of race and gender.

    (BMC 3) (ED 3) (SMK 1)

     

    (7) Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White (1952). If cats have nine lives, pigs have two—at least Wilbur did. First he is saved by eight-year-old Fern, who can talk to animals; then he is rescued by a wise spider named Charlotte, who spins a web that convinces people Wilbur is “Some Pig.” This clever, gentle, and funny children’s book offers much wisdom on life, death, and friendship before ending on a five-hankie note.

    (AT 7)

     

    (7) The Waves by Virgina Woolf (1931). This grand experiment in narrative depicts six characters—from nursery school to the brink of old age—through a series of interior soliloquies. Stages in their lives are framed by bits of description of a day on a deserted beach; the book’s finale, their reunion at a London restaurant, is a tour de force. “The light of civilization is burnt out,” one character thinks while gazing at London’s night sky in this haunting, poetic meditation on time’s passage.

    (BM 5) (JMEND 2)

     

    (7) The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin (c. 1760). This bawdy, funny, surreal, and encyclopedic Chinese classic stretches across 120 chapters. Reality and illusion shift constantly in the world of Jia Baoyu, scion of the wealthy but declining Jia family. He is a master at the arts of poetry, philosophy, and love but meets his match in his frail, beautiful cousin Lin Daiyu, one of the twelve beauties of Jinling.

    (AGold 7)

     

    (7) Disturbing the Peace by Richard Yates (1975). A meticulous, relentless account of failure and depression, this mordant novel examines the American pursuit of success in accents that echo Fitzgerald and O’Hara. Its protagonist, John Wilder, is a prototypical Yates underachiever: an advertising salesman misled by delusions of an artistic career (as a movie producer) and hampered by inherited weaknesses, a hopeful yet doomed marriage made during the glamorous Kennedy era, and a series of breakdowns that reveal his irreversible ordinariness. Not quite tragedy, but memorable indeed for its uncompromising, compassionate bleakness.

    (AMH 7)

     

    (6) Another Country by James Baldwin (1962)

    (JGil 6)

     

    (6) Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett (1953). Two vagabonds, Vladimir and Estragon, “blathering about nothing in particular,” provoke, challenge, and defend each other while they wait for the appearance of the mysterious Godot. Twice the tramps ponder hanging themselves from the branches of a nearby willow tree; twice they try to make sense of a stranger named Pozzo and his leashed servant Lucky. All the characters abide in a world peculiar for its absences: of meaning, rationality, consolation, and of course the slyly named Godot.

    (KH 3) (VM 1) (GS 2)

     

    (6) Woodcutters by Thomas Bernhard (1984). In this darkly humorous, hypnotically repetitious, stream of consciousness novel, an embittered and idealistic Austrian writer attends an “artistic” dinner party soon after the suicide of an old friend. With sharp psychological and emotional insight, Bernhard takes readers inside the mind of his narrator as he ruminates angrily on his hosts and their other guests, picking over his memories of his relationship with them and the dead woman.

    (LMill 6)

     

    (6) The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949). This signature exploration of dislocation follows three young Americans—a married couple and their friend—journeying across the North African desert in search of deeper truths. As their surroundings become more foreign and forbidding, they become unmoored as their connection to the world, each other, and themselves unravels in this work of deep psychological acuity.

    (DG 6)

     

    (6) Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown (1965). Fierce, unsparing language and plenty of street jive power this autobiographical novel recounting Brown’s early life as a drug dealer, hustler, and thief amid the numbers runners, prostitutes, cops, and hardworking parents of Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s. His portrait of inner-city blight rises to high tragedy as Brown paints it against the hopes of Southern blacks who came north for the promise of a better life.

    (AMH 6)

     

    (6) The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary (1944). Just out of jail, sixty-seven-year-old Gulley Jimson, a fast-talking, derelict painter obsessed with William Blake, works to complete his depiction of the Fall of Man in this wicked comic novel. Jimson is brilliant, irredeemable, and obnoxious. It is impossible not to cheer him on as he refuses to be defeated by the repeated setbacks he brings on himself through his selfish obsessiveness, insults, and thievery in this culmination of Cary’s London trilogy.

    (MSB 6)

     

    (6) The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1798). Intermingling the fantastic with the real, this long poem begins when a mariner with “long grey beard and glittering eye” asks a trio of wedding guests to hear his tale. One guest stays to learn how the mariner shot the albatross, considered an omen of good luck, and doomed his ship. Though saved from death, the mariner is condemned to walk the earth and tell his story, which may be read as a Christian allegory or as a warning against defiling nature.

    (BAM 6)

     

    (6) A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859).

    (EF 6)

     

    (6) A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley (1968). A cross between Charles Bukowski and John Kennedy Toole, this harrowing, hilarious autobiographical novel portrays a raw and likable barstool dreamer. He is a slovenly, all-American misfit headed for the psychiatric institution, who fills his head with all-American fantasies of fame, wealth, and beautiful women. He doesn’t live life but watches it; his great passion is California golden boy Frank Gifford of the New York Giants, who symbolizes his hopes and whose injury triggers his self-reckoning.

    (GP 6)

     

    (6) A Room with a View by E. M. Forster (1908). While the Brits might be repressed at home, they seem to lose their heads (and sometimes their clothes) in hot, hot Italy. This eagle-eyed satire of the Italian effect stars the wealthy and young Lucy Honeychurch, who switches hotel rooms in Florence with a lower-class British father and son and then fights her mounting attraction to the son as well as her building rebelliousness against the corset of Victorian manners.

    (RR 6)

     

    (6) Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1955). Usually the most disturbing book on the ninth-grade reading list—who can forget the pig’s head?—the Nobel laureate’s most famous novel depicts a group of boys stranded on an island after a plane crash. Some, like the intellectual Piggy, try to develop rules and society, but savagery takes hold and the boys revert to an order based on violence, tribalism, and eerie rites.

    (SK 6)

     

    (6) The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1930). Shortly after San Francisco private eye Sam Spade accepts a case from a beautiful and mysterious young woman, his partner, Miles Archer, is killed. Though Spade despised him, his code of honor compels him to solve Archer’s murder. As the two cases intersect, Spade finds himself involved with an eccentric assortment of thugs and con men, all in search of the titular black statue of a falcon said to be worth millions.

    (RBP 6)

     

    (6) A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959). Hansberry’s award-winning play was the first by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It focuses on the Youngers, a struggling African American family in 1950s Chicago, who must decide how to spend the $10,000 insurance money Mama collects from her deceased husband. Mama wants a home, her daughter Beneatha an education, and her son Walter a business. What ensues is a generational debate over values and whether or not African Americans can realize the American Dream.

    (PCle 6)

     

    (6) Turtle Moon by Alice Hoffman (1992). This is the story of a divorced woman, her disillusioned teenage son, and the events that change their lives in ways both simple and extraordinary. When Keith Rosen runs away from his Florida home - inexplicably taking along a motherless baby - his mother is perplexed and terrified. She takes off on her own journey to find him. The novel follows their path, in a suspenseful and beautifully written story.

    (JPico 6)

     

    (6) 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?

    (MB 3) (LM 3)

     

    (6) Fear of Flying by Erica Jong (1973). This iconic feminist novel of fantasy, liberation, and “the zipless fuck” kicked up plenty of dust in the early 1970s. The unpublished writer and unhappily married Isadora Wing yearns to fly free and receives her epiphany through an affair and the discovery of her own sexuality and power. Many critics dismissed Jong as a pornographer in literary clothing; her protagonist, they claimed, was as self-absorbed as the baby boomers themselves. But the book sold millions and became a touchstone for a much greater social movement.

    (DFW 6)

     

    (6) Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1990). Nineteen-year-old Lucy happily leaves her West Indian home and domineering mother to work as an au pair for a well-off and well-meaning American family. But as she develops a new sense of self and independence, she is forced to grapple with life as an outsider, a servant, and a woman of color in a country obsessed with race yet blind to history. Conveyed in Kincaid’s stinging yet poetic prose, Lucy’s awakening illuminates the divides between power and powerlessness, complacency and outrage, comfort and justice.

    (TCB 6)

     

    (6) The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998). Set in the Belgian Congo in 1959, it details Baptist preacher Nathan Price’s one-man campaign to convert African natives to Christianity in an unforgiving land. Kingsolver juxtaposes Nathan’s monomania with his wife Orleanna’s stoical solidarity with their four daughters, who react variously to their father’s missionary zeal and the culture it never manages to reach (much less transform), in this rich portrayal of American innocence and arrogance run amok.

    (EDon 6)

     

    (6) Bertha (1959) and George Washington Crosses the Delaware (1962), two plays by Kenneth Koch. These two plays about the exuberance of war are from the renowned New York School poet who said his dramatic influences included Shakespeare’s chronicle plays, Alfred Jarry’s parody of Macbeth, Ubi Roi, the experimental music of John Cage, and A Visit from Saint Nicholas by Clement Moore. Koch’s plays are brief, abrupt, language-centered, and childlike in their wonderment and humor, often undercutting heroic stances with a joke but always striving to capture what the playwright called “Dionysiac things.”

    (AT 6)

     

    (6) The Towers of Trebizond by Rose Macaulay (1956). In the tradition of novels satirizing encounters between eccentric British characters and foreign cultures, Macaulay follows the efforts of four travelers to improve women’s rights, and spread the blessings of the Anglican church, in Turkey. The novel’s first half brims with sharp comic insights. The second half is far more meditative as it focuses on the character Laurie—a church-goer conducting an adulterous affair—who suffers a crisis of faith that becomes a profound spiritual journey.

    (PCam 6)

     

    (6) Island: The Collected Stories by Alistair MacLoed (2000).

    (TJ 6)

     

    (6) Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934). Banned in America for twenty-seven years because it was considered obscene, this autobiographical novel describes the author’s hand-to-mouth existence in Paris during the early 1930s. A later inspiration to the Beat generation, Miller offers various philosophical interludes expressing his joy in life, hostility to social convention, and reverence for women and sex, which he describes with abandon.

    (PCle 4) (JH 2)

     

    (6) A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961). An Indian man living in Trinidad, Mr. Biswas is a tenant in some houses and an unfavored relative in others. All he wants is a home of his own. His adult son narrates this story of his monumental search for a home and all that implies. The quest becomes a metaphor for the displacements of postcolonial life in this novel that, while filled with poverty and loneliness, is also a teeming, comic epic of Hindu life in Naipaul’s native West Indies.

    (HJ 3) (CM 3)

     

    (6) Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie Olsen (1961). A progressive activist and single mother who toiled beside and fought for the working class, Olsen was fifty years old when this, her first book, was published. This deceptively slim volume of four short stories contains a lifetime of experience, depicting the often anguished lives of women and their children, the difficulties of aging, and the challenges faced by immigrants. The title story showcases her rich, spare language as it explores a troubled marriage: “how deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say . . . but the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them.”

    (ST 6)

     

    (6) Sheila Levine Is Dead and Living in New York by Gail Parent (1972). Perhaps the funniest suicide note ever written, this novel is the last goodbye of a single New York woman. When Shelia Levine hits thirty she decides it’s time to tie the knot. But finding a proper mate proves impossible in swinging Manhattan and her quest turns to hopeless despair in this clever, insightful, and often heartbreaking book.

    (JW 6)

     

    (6) Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton (1948). Written just before apartheid became law in South Africa, this novel exposes the nation’s racial problems through the story of a rural black minister who travels to Johannesburg to save a friend’s daughter, who has become a prostitute, and later, his son, who is accused of murder. This vivid portrait of South Africa is informed by the white author’s Christian faith, which suggests that only changed hearts can reform, and redeem, his nation.

    (AMS 6)

     

    (6) Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter (1939). The title novella of Porter’s celebrated collection follows her semiautobiographical protagonist Miranda (who appears elsewhere in Porter’s fiction) through the ordeals of World War I and the 1918 influenza epidemic. Detailed stream of consciousness narration depicts Miranda’s remembered Texas childhood, her work as a newspaper critic, and her romance with a handsome soldier, as well as the hallucinatory visions provoked by her own illness and slow recovery, the soldier’s death in combat, and an encompassing sense of personal and wider worlds threatened by encroaching catastrophe.

    (MG 6)

     

    (6) Edisto by Padget Powell (1984).

    (JHUMP 6)

     

    (6) All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929). Remarque drew on his military experience to craft this seminal antiwar novel. At the outset of World War I, Paul Baumer and his fellow Germans are gung-ho. As the senseless bloodbath continues, hope turns to disillusionment, and death comes to seem a welcome reprieve in this gritty and poignant tale.

    (SV 6)

     

    (6) Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel (1910). The masterpiece of one of France’s leading experimental writers, this novel begins with the shipwreck of a band of Europeans held for ransom in a mythical African kingdom. As they await their release, each displays a theatrical or technical skill to be showcased at a gala ball. In the novel’s second half, Roussel describes how the characters developed these surprising skills in pun-filled, allusion-fueled prose.

    (BM 6)

     

    (6) Patrimony by Philip Roth (1991).

    (AWald 6)

     

    (6) The Emigrants by W. G. Sebald (1992). The German writer’s works are melancholy compressions of life stories lined with large, historical themes. The Emigrants presents four portraits of exile: a doctor who flees to England, a persecuted teacher who takes his own life, a relative of Sebald’s who receives shock treatment in an American sanatorium, and a painter who moves to Manchester to escape the gathering Holocaust. Sebald’s haunted, almost hypnotic prose is juxtaposed with numerous photographs, which give the stories the feel of powerful documentaries. “And so they are ever returning to us,” he writes, “the dead.” Sebald is their archivist.

    (DL 6)

     

    (6) Last Exit to Brooklyn byHubert Selby, Jr. (1964).

    (ABrav 6)

     

    (6) Henry IV, Parts I and II by William Shakespeare (1596–98). These plays follow the rise of Prince Hal, son of Henry IV, from wastrel cavalier to powerful King Henry V, who would lead the English army to victory over the French at Agincourt in 1415, as dramatized in Henry V. Hal’s maturation from rioting prince to deadly serious king is not without complications, however, as he renounces a festive underworld of great verbal richness, unparalleled wit, and creative energy for a ruthless, sinister, and murderous world of Machiavellian politics where might equals right. The most famous casualty of this transformation is Shakespeare’s greatest comic creation, Sir John Falstaff, Hal’s boon companion in Part I, whom the prince summarily rejects in Part II.

    (JSalt 6)

     

    (6) A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare (1595). The summit of Shakespeare’s early romantic comedies, this play explores the troubled course of love leading to the marriages of King Theseus of Athens and Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, and two young aristocratic Athenian couples. The trouble begins when the king of fairies interferes with the Athenian couples via his agent Puck, who administers love potions to the wrong characters. The ensuing confusion is finally resolved in the fifth act as the royal marriage is celebrated by the performance of a hilarious piece of nonsense staged by simple guildsmen led by Bottom the weaver, whose dream gives the play its name.

    (KJF 6)

     

    (6) The Pillow-Book of Sei Shonagon (1592). This groundbreaking nonfiction work by a tenth-century lady of the Chinese court uses the list as the structure for personal essays that are bold, funny, unapologetic, and cantankerous. With titles such as “Embarrassing Things,” “Hateful Things,” and Things,” Shonagon reflects on her society, its mores in particular, and on humanity in general.

    (HJ 6)

     

    (6) The Old Forest and Other Stories by Peter Taylor (1985). Set in the South of the 1920s and 1930s, the genteel surfaces of Taylor’s stories cloak the unspoken tensions and the rigors of class and economics. Taylor creates stories that are novelistic in their pacing as he digresses and speculates on alternative possibilities to the narrative at hand. Often told by men reflecting on the past, these stories suggest that time does not slay mores and ideas but reinvents them.

    (EC 6)

     

    (6) Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy (1899). As a juror on a Moscow murder trial, the middle-aged dandy Prince Nekhlyudov recognizes the defendant as a girl from his family’s country estate whom he had once seduced and abandoned. Blaming himself for her fate, he follows her into exile in Siberia to atone for his actions and the loss of his youthful idealism. Part social exposé, part religious tract expounding Tolstoy’s unorthodox Christianity, the book lambastes Russia’s social divisions and inept justice system.

    (VM 6)

     

    (6) Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A hybrid of literary forms—poetry, prose, and drama—and a groundbreaking work of black literature, this book is a collage of portraits of African Americans from the urban North to the rural South. “Kabnis,” the third part of the book, unites the work’s themes in a story of Ralph Kabnis, an educated northerner who has come to Georgia to teach and is transformed as an artist by the beauty and violence of life there.

    (PE 6)

     

    (6) The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (1867). Trollope’s inimitable gift for combining the chatty and the epic found its greatest flowering in this, the sixth and final volume of his Barsetshire series. From a simple premise—a proud but poor clergyman, Josiah Crawley, is accused of stealing twenty pounds—Trollope creates a web of vivid characters and intrigues while completing a monumental set of works about mid-nineteenth-century England that rival the classics of George Eliot and Charles Dickens.

    (JR 6)

     

    (6) The Green House by Mario Vargas Llosa (1965).

    Appreciation of Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Green House by David Anthony Durham

    I remember wandering through the world literature section of my university library, feeling a bit lost, recognizing few names. On the recommendation of my writing instructor I was searching for a Peruvian novelist named Mario Vargas Llosa. I found a coverless edition of The Green House, one with no blurbs, no review quotes, no author photo or biography. The surprises found inside, then, were complete and unforgettable.

     

    With The Green House (1966), Vargas Llosa began to explore the ongoing battle that started the moment European culture collided with that of the Americas. The novel is populated by all segments of Peruvian society: indigenous Indians, people of Latin origins, immigrants cast ashore on Peru for myriad reasons—from nuns and Fathers to prostitutes and pimps. There’s even a Brazilian rubber baron–warlord–leper of Japanese ancestry. It ranges from the depths of the rainforest to windblown desert outposts. It’s a novel in which crimes are committed without remorse, conveyed with the brutal honesty of an author confronting the duplicitous exploitation tainting his nation.

     

    The story is rendered in prose as varied as its cast: inner monologue, assimilated dialogue, objective third person, or an omni­ scient point of view, with multiple timelines, concurrent plots, and scenes repeated in layering montage. Honestly, it’s rarely an easy read. One can see the influence of Faulkner, of Sartre and Flaubert, but the manner in which Vargas Llosa transmuted Western influences to enrich his tale remains remarkable. And, I wondered, if this Peruvian writer could do this, what else might be happening out there? By inspiring that question The Green House drew me into a much more complete world of literature. I’ve been grateful to Vargas Llosa ever since.

    (DAD 6)

     

    (6) The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (1963). This autobiographical novel, a raw, eloquent articulation of a young woman’s nervous breakdown after a summer working at a New York fashion magazine, is especially unsettling because it was published after Plath’s suicide. Her alter ego, Esther Greenwood, is a girl’s Holden Caulfield, ripping away the phoniness of the suburbs, the city, and the doctors who would shock her back into submission. Ultimately, Esther rallies against a sterile world and finds a way to live. Plath did not.

    (JGil 1) (SMK 5)

     

    (6) One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1962).

    The author draws on the eight years he spent in Soviet prisons to write this harrowing novel of the Soviet gulags. Inmates and prisoners are always cold, always hungry, always scheming for crumbs, and willing to betray each other for less in this Siberian labor camp. Though brutally dehumanized, many of Solzhenitsyn’s characters remain indomitable, making this novel an indictment of human nature and an ode to the human spirit.

    (EF 2) (BH 4)

     

    (6) The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty (1954). In this comic monologue filled with witty Southern colloquialisms and vivid images, Miss Edna Earle Ponder, who manages a hotel in a small Mississippi town, describes her family’s wonderfully peculiar history. Her story focuses on her uncle, the eccentric and irrepressible Daniel Ponder, whose poor marriages created as many problems as his generous heart.

    (LKA 6)

     

    (6) Miss Lonelyhearts by Nathanael West (1933). In this short novel on the soul-sickness of mass society, a New York advice columnist with a Christ complex is laid low by his taste for married women and his belief in his own redemptive powers. The letters in Miss Lonelyhearts were based on actual missives to residents of two hotels the novelist managed in the 1920s—letters West steamed open to read.

    (WK 3) (APat 3)

     

    (6) Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West (1941). While England slept, West clearly saw the danger of Hitler, who embodied for her the “genius of murder which has shaped our recent history.” Her account of a trip from Dalmatia to Kosovo reads like the cry of a modern Cassandra. As she details the stirrings of blind ethnic hatred among the Serbs and Croats, she offers a preview of nightmares to come.

    (AF 6)

     

    (6) Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar (1951). The French author started her novel at age twenty-one; she rediscovered it at forty-six, ending a mammoth bout of writer’s block. Two years later she completed this intimate first-person narrative of the second-century emperor. Through Yourcenar’s magisterial prose, Hadrian—a thoughtful, sensual man aware of both the fleeting nature of time and eternal verities—details his rise and his liberal policies, especially his belief that it is wiser to embrace your neighbors than to go to war against them. Ever the pragmatist, he notes, “Catastrophe and ruin will come; disorder will triumph, but order will too, from time to time.”

    (ML 5) (JS 1)

     

    (5) Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara (1972). A feminist and civil rights activist, Bambara strove to create literature that reflected the experiences of black women, the strength of black communities from the urban North to the rural South, and the challenges they faced. Showcasing Bambara’s talent for transforming her social concerns into art, the fifteen stories in this collection feature sharp-tongued first-person narrators who draw on their charm, resolve, and compassion to triumph over—or at least make peace with—life’s obstacles.

    (PCle 5)

     

    (5) The Sot-Weed Factor by John Barth (1960). Digressions, asides, and stories within stories fill this bawdy, raucous parody of eighteenth-century fiction that reimagines the life of Ebenezer Cooke, who wrote a satirical poem titled The Sot-Weed Factor in 1708. Overseeing his father’s Maryland tobacco plantation, Cooke tries to defend his prized virginity against women and men, while extricating himself from intrigues and counter-intrigues. Language sizzles in this Rabelasian tale that includes one of the longest lists of insults ever committed to paper.

    (DH 5)

     

    (5) A Legacy by Sybille Bedford (1956).

    Appreciation of Sybille Bedford’s A Legacy by David Leavitt

    A Legacy, Sybille Bedford’s remarkable first novel, might most simply be described as the story of two houses. “One was outrageously large and ugly,” Bedford tells us in the opening paragraph; “the other was beautiful. They were a huge Wilhelminian town house in the old West of Berlin, built and inhabited by the parents of my father’s first wife, and a small seventeenth-century château and park in the South, near the Vosges, bought for my father by my mother.”

     

    So Bedford sets us down, with remarkable velocity and confidence, right in the middle of the world to which she is going to devote the next 360 pages. This is the world of Germany before the Second World War. The owners of the Wilhelminian townhouse are Jews; the heroine’s father is a Catholic aristocrat living in a sort of splendid rural poverty. As she is “bundled to and fro” between these two houses, our narrator—a version of Bedford herself—describes for us not just the struggle of her own growing up, but the complex intermingling of three very different families, as well as the rumblings of social and political change that underlie and ultimately disrupt the domestic and marital dramas in which she is enmeshed.

     

    Because Bedford published A Legacy in 1956, her knowledge of what was to come invests the novel with an air of fragility and foreboding. The prose is stunning; raised in a mire of European languages, Bedford clung to English as a life raft, and she shows her gratitude by employing her adopted language with a grace and agility to rival Henry James’s. Yet what is perhaps most astonishing about this astonishingly rich novel—more memorable, for me, even than E. M. Forster’s Howards End, the other great English novel about houses—is the deftness with which its author reconciles two literary virtues that in other hands might seem irreconcilable: intimacy and grandeur.

    (DL 5)

     

    (5) Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow (1956). Bellow’s characters often stumble along comic paths toward equilibrium, and none of the Nobel laureate’s creations is more rollicking than Eugene Henderson. A multimillionaire cut loose in Africa, Henderson is a portrait of human striving, with his battle cry: “I want, I want, I want.” We follow him off the beaten tourist path, watching him blow up a cistern filled with frogs, make friends with a lioness, and be crowned the Rain King after he seems to end a long drought. As always with Bellow, comedy is the handmaiden of an ultimate optimism. “I am a true adorer of life,” Henderson says, “and if I can’t reach as high as the face of it, I plant my kiss somewhere lower down.”

    (EC 5)

     

    (5) A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess (1962). The linguistic virtuosity of this futuristic tale—told in nadsat, a russified English—lures us into an unwilling complicity in the drug-fueled bouts of ultraviolence committed by Alex and his droogs (comrades). While the book’s first part portrays these alienated sociopaths, the second part is an old-fashioned allegory: to win release from prison, Alex submits to behavior modification, trading his free will for freedom in this Cold War–era novel that protests against the intimate threat of totalitarian power.

    (PE 5)

     

    (5) Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain (1941). After shedding her philandering, unemployed husband, Mildred Pierce works menial jobs to support her two children before discovering a gift for making and selling pies in Depression-era California. She’s a strong woman with two fatal flaws—an attraction to weak men and blind devotion to her monstrously selfish daughter Veda. These weaknesses join to form a perfect storm of betrayal and murder in this hard-boiled tale.

    (JLB 4) (MCon 1)

     

    (5) The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain (1934). When a drifter enters her roadside diner, a sexy young woman imagines a new life. Together they plot the murder of her boorish husband in this noir classic, in which spare prose and desperate characters raise dime-store pulp to an art form.

    (WK 5)

     

    (5) The War with the Newts by Karel Capek (1936). This prescient and humorous Czech novel—part allegory, part satire, part science fiction romp—begins with the discovery of a new species of giant newt by a sea captain in an obscure tropical bay. Initially exploited for their pearl-harvesting abilities, the newts become the objects of scientific experimentation and then a massive global slave trade before they rise up and revolt, bringing humanity to its knees.

    (LMill 5)

     

    (5) Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward (1941). As the Nazis bore down on Britain, Coward filled London theaters with this gay and witty farce about death. The sublime silliness begins when a writer holds a séance to research his novel on a murderous fake psychic. Who should appear but his first wife, dead these six years and none too happy about wife number two.

    (AT 5)

     

    (5) White Noise by Don DeLillo (1985). Professor Jack Gladney teaches Hitler studies at the local college and trawls through the tabloid mall of American culture with his pill-popping fourth wife and their four preternaturally knowing children. Then an accident near their town generates a huge poisonous cloud—“an airborne toxic event”—and disrupts their uneasy idyll. This apocalyptic cult classic amusingly and then chillingly captures how media culture has become not just our atmosphere but our food and oxygen.

    (TCB 5)

     

    (5) Play It as It Lays by Joan Didion (1970). So pared to the bone is Didion’s prose, so intimate her understanding of psychic pain, one pictures her writing not with a pen but a razor. In this stark novel of soulless Hollywood, Maria, once beautiful and prized, now gaunt and withdrawn, struggles to regain her footing after her mother’s death, her young daughter’s institutionalization, an illegal abortion, and a divorce. As Didion exposes with steely restraint the poisonous contempt accorded women, she turns Los Angeles’s death-defying expressways and the lethal desert beyond into stunning metaphors for alienation.

    (DC 5)

     

    (5) The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas (1844). The fastest fifteen hundred pages in world literature begins on the wedding day of Edmond Dantès, when he is falsely accused of treason. He is condemned to a remote prison where he finds out who framed him and about a treasure hidden on the Island of Monte Cristo. After fourteen years he escapes, finds the fortune, and returns to Paris where he dazzles the swells while seeking revenge on his enemies.

    (ST 5)

     

    (5) The Lover by Marguerite Duras (1984). This Prix Goncourt–winning work might now be considered an early “fictional memoir.” Drawn from Duras’s life in prewar Indochina, it tells the story of the ill-fated love between a young girl and her Chinese lover. Lyrical, imagistic, and structured in cumulative short passages, Duras combines the beautiful and the terrible in this slim, compelling novel.

    (KHarr 5)

     

    (5) The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot (1915). Eliot’s first major poem is a dramatic monologue in the voice of a spiritually exhausted, emotionally sterile Everyman. Prufock has “measured out my life with coffee spoons.” He tells himself “There will be time to murder and create,” though he fears to act—“Do I dare to eat a peach?” Prufrock was only the first of Eliot’s many disillusioned city dwellers, but with his ridiculous name and fastidious appearance, he may well have been the most poignant.

    (RBP 5)

     

    (5) Red Shift by Alan Garner (1973). An ancient stone ax head connects the three young protagonists in this bleak science fiction novel set around Cheshire, England, during three time periods—the Roman Empire, the English Civil War, and the present day. Alienated from themselves and those they love, the three men—who share a similar name—feel the pull of a mystic force that they can’t quite fathom. Their experiences echo each other in this experimental tale told almost entirely in dialogue.

    (EDon 5)

     

    (5) Death of the Fox (1971), The Succession (1983), and Entered from the Sun (1990), a trilogy by George Garrett. Packed with conspiracies, intrigues, bright language, and even more colorful characters, these novels enter the mind and mores of late Elizabethan and early Stuart England through dramatic events: Death of the Fox hinges on the rise, fall, and execution of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1618; The Succession re-creates the royal rivalries that surfaced as James I assumed the throne in 1603; Entered from the Sun focuses on the possible political implications of the murder of poet and playwright Christopher Marlowe in 1597.

    (MSB 5)

     

    (5) Lanark: A Life in Four Books by Alasdair Gray (1981). In the maverick Scottish author’s testy allegory, four (eccentrically illustrated) “books,” which are presented nonsequentially, trace the lives of two protagonists who are a single frustrated artist. Grim naturalism depicts Glaswegian painter Duncan Thaw’s losing battles with public indifference and chronic illness. Blakean fantasy traces the parallel sufferings of Thaw’s eponymous alter ego, whose misadventures in the dystopian city of Unthank represent Thaw’s continuing miseries in the hereafter he inhabits following his suicide. Accusatory, opaque, redundant—the novel is also, oddly enough, compulsively readable and perversely memorable.

    (ALK 5)

     

    (5) Nothing (1926), Doting (1950), and Blindness (1952) by Henry Green. Green was the pen name for British industrialist Henry Vincent Yorke, whose kaleidoscopic, impressionistic novels (including cryptic plots and sentences without articles or verbs) have drawn comparisons to fellow high-modernists Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and Monet. Blindness details the terror of a blind young man confined to a room by his wife. Doting (a comedy of adulterous near-misses) and Nothing (about two ex-lovers whose children are getting married) consist almost entirely of pitch-perfect dialogue.

    (HJ 5)

     

    (5) The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene (1948).

    (RG 5)

     

    (5) Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy (1874).

     

    (5) The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris (1988). Dr. Hannibal “the Cannibal” Lecter is a deranged serial killer and a brilliant psychiatrist—who better to help the FBI profile psychos like Buffalo Bill, who loves peeling the skin off his lovely young victims? So the Bureau dispatches Clarice Starling, a smart, charming, slightly vulnerable agent, to Lecter’s prison cell. While playing mind games with Clarice, Lecter provides her with strange but telling clues, which she pursues against her superiors’ wishes and the clock ticking out the seconds for Buffalo Bill’s next victim.

    (DFW 5)

     

    (5) The stories of Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804–64). A child of the Romantic era, Hawthorne nonetheless remained haunted by his Puritan forefathers. Tales such as “Young Goodman Brown,” “My Kinsman, Major Molineux,” and “The Wives of the Dead,” are steeped in the subject matter and sensibility of colonial New England, and clouded by crime, sin, and persecution. He peoples them with Puritans, witches, American Indians, and revolutionaries, and narrates the fate of all with his trademark combination of lively Gothic fantasy and critical irreverence.

    (HK 5)

     

    (5) A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (1929). Based on Hemingway’s experiences during World War I, this romantic tragedy recounts the story of Frederic Henry, an American volunteer in the Italian ambulance corps who meets and eventually falls in love with a maternal yet alluring English nurse, Catherine Barkley. Eventually, they abandon the war for neutral Switzerland—Frederic and Catherine have made “a separate peace”—though other dangers await in this story of commitment, individual choice, and the narrow line separating courage and hypocrisy.

    (SV 5)

     

    (5) The Europeans by Henry James (1878). After the dissolution of her marriage to a German prince, Eugenia Munster and her artist brother Felix visit their wealthy relatives in the countryside near Boston. Felix’s easy sophistication and Eugenia’s fierce independence contrast with the pious Yankee values of their hosts in this sparkling novel of romantic intrigues that depicts the clash between European and American cultures and values.

    (AMS 5)

     

    (5) Pearl by Tabitha King (1988). A small inheritance brings Pearl Dickenson—a smart, resourceful, and independent African American woman—to rural Maine. She stays for the peace and security it seems to offer. She takes over a local diner and takes on two lovers, both of whom have troubled pasts. These liaisons turn to trouble, threatening Pearl and her community.

    (JW 5)

     

    (5) Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler (1940). An old Party member is arrested for treason in Stalin’s Russia. As his interrogators try to pry a false confession out of Rubashov, the state’s twisted logic—that Rubashov’s innocence, and his identity itself, are bourgeois luxuries compared to the task of preserving the revolution from exterior threats—is exposed in this novel, which deeply influenced how intellectuals in the West and dissidents in the East interpreted the Cold War experience.

    (AF 5)

     

    (5) Hombre by Elmore Leonard (1961). Displaying his trademark ability to turn pulp into art, Leonard elevates the classic Western through the story of John Russell, a white man raised partly by Apache Indians who taught him how to fight and survive. The action begins when Russell boards a stagecoach and is rejected by passengers because of his roots. When outlaws pounce, the others turn to him for protection. Will he or won’t he? Leonard answers that question in this action-filled tale while probing Western myths, issues of race, and our responsibilities to our unlikable fellow man.

    (GDG 5)

     

    (5) Of a Fire on the Moon by Norman Mailer (1971). Tom Bissell calls this Mailer’s “most neglected great book.”
    (TBiss 5)

     

    (5) The Betrothed by Alessandro Manzoni (1827). Romeo and Juliet had nothing on Renzo and Lucia, whose union is threatened by famine, plagues, riots, and the Thirty Years’ War. A vibrant portrait of seventeenth-century Lombardy, this novel combines a Dickensian cast of characters with Sir Walter Scott’s flair for romance. It is also a deeply religious work whose tragedies raise profound questions about God’s will and whose ultimate message is one of faith.

    (BU 5)

     

    (5) The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001). The son of a zookeeper, Pi Patel has an encyclopedic knowledge of animal behavior and a fervent love of stories. When Pi is sixteen, his family emigrates from India to North America aboard a Japanese cargo ship, along with their zoo animals bound for new homes. The ship sinks. Pi finds himself alone in a lifeboat, his only companions a hyena, an orangutan, a wounded zebra, and Richard Parker, a 450-pound Bengal tiger. Soon the tiger has dispatched all but Pi, whose fear, knowledge, and cunning allow him to coexist with Richard Parker for 227 days while lost at sea. When they finally reach the coast of Mexico, Richard Parker flees to the jungle, never to be seen again. The Japanese authorities who interrogate Pi refuse to believe his story and press him to tell them "the truth." After hours of coercion, Pi tells a second story, a story much less fantastical, much more conventional - but is it more true?

    (JPico 5)

     

    (5) The Chateau by William Maxwell (1961). Plus ça change: Harold and Barbara Rhodes, a young American couple, expect smiles and bouquets from their liberated hosts as they vacation in France soon after the end of World War II. Instead, they find—surprise!—European chilliness and inscrutability. While this novel’s situation comes straight from Henry James, its language and sensibility—deep empathy and a sense of lost worlds that is not the least bit nostalgic—is pure Maxwell.

    (PCam 5)

     

    (5) The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell (1945).

    (EF 5)

     

    (5) A Severed Head by Iris Murdoch (1961). Infused with Freudian theories—especially about male sexuality—and Jungian archetypes, this novel centers on a man who must search his soul and his mind after his wife leaves him for her psychoanalyst. With often dark, deadpan humor, Murdoch uses deception, adultery, and sex to address morality and responsibility, the nature of reality, and the power of the unconscious.

    (AMH 5)

     

    (5) The Complete Aubrey/Maturin novels by Patrick O’Brian (1914-200).

    (MM 5)

     

    (5) Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edgar Allan Poe (1836–47). These pieces influenced almost every contemporary genre, from adventure stories (“The Narrative of A. Gordon Pym”) to amateur detective mysteries (“The Purloined Letter”) to lurid horror tales (“The Cask of Amontillado”). Poe’s fascination with psychology and the dark sides of human behavior jump-started the first great age of American fiction and, through his influence on French symbolists such as Baudelaire, helped to transform literature in the nineteenth century.

    (MC 5)

     

    (5) La Flor de Lis by Elena Poniatowska (1988).

    Appreciation ofElena Poniatowska’s La Flor de Lis by Sandra Cisneros

    The little hand serving me coffee is also the hand that wrote the exquisite novel La Flor de Lis (1988). It seems absurd a writer of such worth should bother serving coffee to anyone, but it’s precisely this humility, this willingness to serve others, whether it be coffee, or novels, or testimonies, or tamales, that makes Elena Poniatowska a writer as well loved by cab drivers as by professors. The title alludes to France, but if you’re hip to Mexico City, you’ll know La Flor de Lis is also the famous tamale restaurant in la colonia Condesa.

     

    La Flor de Lis is a love story about mother and motherland, about love of México lindo y querido (pretty and best), a culture where mothers are revered as goddesses, and a goddess, la Virgen de Guadalupe, is revered because she is “the” mother.

     

    It’s a fairy tale told in reverse. Daughters of royalty flee France under siege from World War Il, and in the course of their childhood and adolescence in Mexico, we witness the discovery of what it means to belong to a culture, what it means to fall in love, and what, after all, it means to be a woman, because the story is steeped in the body of a woman, in the body of that country.

     

    Nowhere else have I read anyone describe the joy of scrubbing a courtyard with a bucket of suds and a broom. But it’s el zócalo, the central plaza of Mexico City that the narrator wants to scrub out of puro amor. And that ultimately sums up how a writer like Elenita became Elena Poniatowska. What we do for love, after all, is the greatest work we can do.

    (SC 5)

     

    (5) His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (1995–2000). This epic trilogy, comprised of Northern Lights (a.k.a., The Golden Compass), The Subtle Knife, and The Amber Spyglass, reconceives Paradise Lost as an adventure/fantasy from an atheist, humanist perspective. Like Adam and Eve, Lyra and Will embrace knowledge. But for them it is the path to liberation, not damnation. In thrilling quests across magic universes filled with demons, angels, and talking animals, they battle “the Authority” that demands faith while repressing freedom.

    (CD 5)

     

    (5) Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818). Readers should be grateful that Dr. Phil was not around in 1818. If he had been, Mary Shelley may have chosen to discuss her traumatic life with him. Instead, she turned trauma into art and wrote Frankenstein, in which the outcast Dr. Victor Frankenstein usurps God’s and woman’s life-giving power to create a monster who for all his desire cannot be loved. This novel about unwanted things is gripping, frightening, inspiring, and very different from the movies based on it.

    (AB 5)

     

    (5) Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko (1977). Like many returning soliders, Tayo, who is half white and half Laguna Indian, has a hard time readjusting to civilian life after World War II, when he was held prisoner by the Japanese. Instead of venting his rage or turning to drink, he connects with a medicine man who helps him find solace through traditional ceremonies that reveal life as a process of change and growth.

    (SA 5)

     

    (5) Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson (1986). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “A manipulative mother intent on making her daughter a star, journeys with her from Wisconsin to California.  Along the way, she tries on different men for husband potential and struggles not to let the fantasy become too threadbare when some broad daylight is splashed upon it. Simpson’s book is a gripping portrayal of mother/daughter dynamics, but it’s also the story of a thwarted American dream and the thorny nature of family love and need.”

    (CL 5)

     

    (5) The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987).

    (MSouthgate 5) 

     

     

     

    (5) On the Eve by Ivan Turgenev (1860). Turgenev’s ur-themes of authenticity and humanism are highlighted in this tragic love story in which Elena Stahov, the novel’s passionate and do-gooding heroine, falls in love not with the suitor her father has picked for her, but with Dimitry Insarov, a Bulgarian revolutionary who blazes like a flame against the feckless upper-middle-class Russians that make up Elena’s other suitors.

    (ES 5)

     

    (5) The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton (1913). A sharp critique of the limits society placed on women and the empty dreams it manufactured for them, this novel tells the story of Undine Spragg, a relentless social climber who will attach herself to any man to raise her station. Her ambition and her unquenchable need for prestige and flattery blinds her to the strengths of these men, whom she injures, and to her own humanity, which she surrenders.

    (JBarn 5)

     

    (5) Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse (1934). Including perhaps the funniest scene in the Wodehouse canon—Gussie Fink-Nottle’s drunken speech at the Market Snodsbury Grammar School—this madcap farce once again finds Bertie Wooster and his brilliant manservant Jeeves working to point Cupid’s arrows toward other hearts. Truth be told, newt-loving Gussie Fink-Nottle and droopy Madeline Basset belong together just as surely as Angela was made from Tuppy Glossop’s rib. After a series of gentle misunderstandings, Bertie and Jeeves may lift the scales from everyone’s eyes. Right ho!

    (AGold 5)

     

    (4) How German Is It by Walter Abish (1980). Abish wields not pen, but scalpel, vivisecting Germany’s cult of appearances and culture of denial. His protagonist is Ulrich, whose father was executed for plotting against Hitler. Ulrich—a cipher who married, conspired with, and has now informed on a left-wing terrorist—has returned to his fatherland after a long absence to seek his estranged wife and his own true paternity and patrimony. With the discovery of a mass grave and the descent of his model citizen brother into debauchery and thuggery, Ulrich sees the residue of prewar Germany in the postwar world.

    (HJ 4)

     

    (4) Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa (1999). The author uses poetry and prose—mythology, history, memoir—in this passionate account of two types of borders. The first is the physical one between Texas and Mexico. The second is psychological, mapping borderlands defined by sex, race, class, culture, and religion. She is particularly interested in intersections, “where the space between two individuals shrinks with intimacy.”

    (SC 4)

     

    (4) The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1986). Atwood offers another piercing fiction about humankind’s place in nature and women’s place in society in this chilling futuristic novel in which widespread sterility has led to totalitarian control of procreation. Offred has been forced into service as a Handmaid and will become a surrogate mother if the Commander manages to impregnate her before his embittered wife harms her. Garbed in a red habit and living like a slave, Offred covertly records her harrowing story, finding freedom in preserving her observations and in expressing her mordant wit and unnerving wisdom.

    (CD 3) (JW 1)

     

    (4) Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). In this richly imagined speculative novel spiked with doomsday humor, Atwood envisions a world where our hubris, obsessions with technology and profit, and environmental abuse result in hell on earth. As her rueful narrator, Snowman, struggles to survive in a harsh postapocalyptic world, he becomes a reluctant guru for a bioengineered tribe of innocents (created by the mad genius, Crake), recalls his ruthlessly competitive lost world, and asks: What does it mean to be human?

    (GDG 4)

     

    (4) Mansfield Park by Jane Austen (1814). Fanny Price is the least loved of Austen’s heroines: “prig” is a common complaint of her critics. It’s true that reticent, unsure Fanny Price, sent to live with her cold, wealthy relatives, lacks the Austen spunk. She doesn’t offer witticisms but recoils in horror at her cousins’ display of vices, including amorous behavior, sexual jealousy, and unbridled snobbery. Her passivity can grow wearing. But Fanny enables Austen to craft her darkest work, which asks: What happens when a good soul finds itself trapped in an immoral world?

    (SM 4)

     

    (4) Splendeurs et misères des courtisanes (A Harlot High and Low) by Honoré de Balzac (1847). Balzac claimed a crime lay behind every great fortune. Here his master criminal from Père Goriot, Vautrin, tests that hypothesis by orchestrating the rise of the poet, dandy, and social parasite Lucien de Rubempré. Vautrin is in love with him. So is Esther, a reformed prostitute. Vautrin counts on Esther’s feelings as the linchpin of his complex scheme. But love turns out to be one of life’s incalculables in this central novel in Balzac’s series, The Human Comedy.

    (IP 4)

     

    (4) Continental Drift by Russell Banks (1985). Working-class New Hampshirite Bob Dubois flees his existence as an oil burner repairman for what he assumes will be a warmer future in Florida. Not far from his new home, but in another social universe, Vanise Dorsinvilles undergoes a much more brutal journey to the sunshine state from her native Haiti. How their fates intertwine is at the heart of this story of the tenuousness of class, fate, and opportunity in a harsh country.

    (MSB 4)

     

    (4) The Book of Evidence by John Banville (1989). Frederick Charles St. John Venderveld Montgomery is an Irishman who has traveled the world. Back in his dull hometown, he becomes obsessed with a three hundred-year-old painting. He murders an old woman to secure it. Upon his capture for that crime, he offers a confession that reveals his savage heart and soulless existence.

    (ALK 4)

     

    (4) The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter (2000). 

    (MSouthgate 3)

     

     

    (4) Correction by Thomas Bernhard (1975). This dense philosophic novel consisting of two long paragraphs begins with the suicide of an Austrian scientist named Roithamer. As his childhood friend (and our nameless narrator) remembers him and sorts through his papers, we learn about an unhappy man who built a protective Cone in a local forest to provide his sister “supreme happiness.” Instead it leads to her death. Roithamer’s papers are defined by incessant revisions; his “corrections” deny all that came before; his last act emerges as his final correction.

    (BM 4)

     

    (4) The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen (1938). When orphaned teenager Portia Quayne comes to London to live with her effete, older half-brother Thomas and his cynical, sophisticated wife Anna, she finds warmth only in a crusty family servant—and in the inappropriate attentions of family friend Eddie, who toys heartlessly with the girl’s emotional adoration. Bowen brings Jamesian subtlety to bear on Portia’s revivifying loss of illusions and steady growth toward maturity. The result is a triumph of analytical precision in this tragedy of innocence endangered by unfeeling adults.

    (GG 4)

     

    (4) The Road to Wellville by T.C. Boyle (1993).

    (AWald 4)

     

    (4) Auto-da-Fé by Elias Canetti (1935). Peter Kien, an obsessive collector who only feels comfortable in his world of books, is tricked into marriage by his conniving and much older housekeeper. Soon she forces him out of his own home and into the streets, where Kien spirals into madness, plotting how to save his books from his wife and employing a desperate chess-playing dwarf to help him “carry” his invisible library around with him.

    (LMill 4)

     

    (4) In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966). On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood yields poignant insights into the nature of American violence through a detached yet penetrating account of the savage and senseless murder of a family.

    (LShriv 4)

     

    (4) Pricksongs & Descants by Robert Coover (1969). The story lies in the telling in this groundbreaking collection of metafictions. Through rich, playful language, Coover reimagines traditional tales, including Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and the Virgin birth. In stories such as “The Elevator” and “The Babysitter,” he makes the familiar surprising, suggesting that there is always another (and another and another) way of looking at things.

    (KA 4)

     

    (4) The Book of Daniel by E.L. Doctorow (1971)

    (JGil 4)

     

    (4) Silence by Shusaku Endo (1969). Set during the early seventeenth century, when Japanese Christians and the European priests serving them were persecuted and forced to renounce their faith, this novel focuses on a Portuguese priest whose travails force him to ponder “the silence of God . . . the feeling that while men raise their voices in anguish God remains with folded arms, silent.”

    (HaJ 4)

     

    (4) Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald (1934). Carolyn Leavitt writes: “No, it isn’t really great literature, but you’ll never read anything so raw and honest and feverish. Of course, Zelda is not as talented as her husband. She’s way too in love with strings of adverbs and adjectives, and her story is like a funhouse mirror, but “Save Me the Waltz” unveils the story of Zelda’s life that her husband plundered for his own work. It’s heartbreakingly sad even though it means to be a glamorous tale of a flapper/ballerina, and it gives a window into a tormented and talented woman who was never allowed to fulfill her own great expectations.”

    (CL 4)

     

    (4) Where Angels Fear to Tread by E. M. Forster (1905). “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread,” wrote Alexander Pope. That quote informs this biting tale that begins when a rich young widow, Lilia Herriton, travels to Italy. There she meets and marries a penniless Italian and dies in childbirth. Her relatives rush to retrieve the infant and give him a “proper” English upbringing. But his father objects in this first novel that signals Forster’s lifelong interest in cultural collisions and British hubris.

    (ES 4)

     

    (4) The Widow's Children by Paula Fox (1976). Tom Bissell considers this “the most intense novel I've ever read—and the best ending.

    (TBiss 4)

     

    (4) Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller (2001). When Fuller was a toddler in 1972, her loving, resilient, no-nonsense parents moved their family from England to Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) just as the indigenous peoples were rising up against their colonial rulers. This affectionate but unflinching memoir recounts the hardships and violence her family endured while farming in this poor land—three of her four siblings perished there—as well as the racism that infected her family and the segregation that strangled her community.

    (AS 4)

     

    (4) The Known World by Edward P. Jones (2003). Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, this rich, sprawling novel centers on the life and legacy of an African American man who was also a slaveholder. Through a wide cast of characters, who display a wide range of perspectives and emotions, Jones examines the concept of slavery, especially how the master–slave relationship corrupts the soul.

    (GP 1) (AWald 3)

     

    (4) Chronicle of a Death Foretold by Gabriel García Márquez (1983). Everyone knows that Santiago Nasar will be murdered by Pedro and Pablo Vicario when the bishop comes to bless their sister’s marriage. The story of Nasar’s last hours is recounted by his cousin, a reporter who returns to the small South American town twenty-seven years later to find out what happened. This quick but densely packed novella looks at how honor and ritual contribute to an entire community’s culpability in a single crime.

    (TCB 4)

     

    (4) 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.”

    (JBud 4)

     

    (4) She Had Some Horses by Joy Harjo (1983). Harjo is a celebrated Native American writer whose poetry often explores the connection between ancient traditions and the modern world. This collection of rhythmic, free-form poems searches for meaning in a mythic, mysterious world and for survival strategies in an often harsh landscape.

    (SA 4)

     

    (4) Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein (1961). A counterculture favorite during the 1960s, this novel tells the story of Valentine Michael Smith, who was born during the first flight to Mars. Reared by Martians, the orphan returns to Earth as a young man, where he questions the customs and values taken for granted there. Michael also learns he inherited a large fortune and the deed to Mars. As the world government tries to seize his assets, Michael forms a church preaching free love. His followers think he is the Messiah—and that spells trouble.

    (DFW 4)

     

    (4) Finnegans Wake by James Joyce (1939). In H. C. Earwicker’s dream, he is seen exposing himself in Dublin’s Phoenix Park and thrown in jail. This dream is Joyce’s famously impenetrable book, whose first sentence is a continuation of the last (making it, technically, impossible to begin or end). Joyce chronicles Earwicker’s dream—which is at once his sexual fantasy, a universal history, and a history of Ireland—in a punning variant of English that must be read out loud to be appreciated (or understood). This novel is surely the mad orphan of literature.

    (FC 4)

     

    (4) Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos (1782). A candidate for “most cynical fiction ever penned,” the story features two charming but depraved aristocrats, the Marquise de Merteuil and the Vicomte de Valmont, who try to relieve their boredom by plotting the seduction of a young virgin and a virtuous wife. Glittering like Milton’s Satan against the pallid ranks of the virtuous, they skillfully seduce the reader through the urbanely immoral philosophy they detail in letters to each other in this wicked satire of the Age of Reason.

    (EDon 4)

     

    (4) The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence (1915). Declared obscene and banned by British authorities, Lawrence’s novel about three generations of an English family boldly challenged conventional mores by openly depicting emotional and sexual needs. His protagonist, Ursula Brangwen, breaks from family tradition by going off to college and becoming a teacher. Free-spirited Ursula also experiments with her sexuality, having an affair with a Polish exile, Anton Skrebensky, and developing an intense attraction for an older woman. Her search for love is alternately disillusioning and liberating.

    (JCO 4)

     

    (4) Dom Casmurro by Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis (1899).

    Appreciation of Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis’s Dom Casmurro by Michael Griffith

    In 1878, nearing forty and afflicted by epilepsy and rickets, Machado, a successful but conventional Brazilian romancier, withdrew from Rio to convalesce. He returned not only rejuvenated but transformed; in coming decades he would write, among other works, three classic novels: Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas, Philosopher or Dog?, and Dom Casmurro.

     

    Dom Casmurro (“Lord Taciturn”) is Bento Santiago, an affluent old man undone by jealousy. He believes that his wife, Capitu, betrayed him; his friend Escobar must be the real sire of Bento’s son. Yet what’s most remarkable here is not the story but the storytelling. There’s its fragmented form (148 chapters in scarcely 250 pages); there’s Machado’s mixture of scathing satire with empathy for his narrator, whose autobiography is part legal brief, part cri de coeur, part special pleading, even (covertly, poignantly) part mea culpa. But Machado’s signal feat is his pioneering handling of unreliable narration.

     

    Though Bento prosecutes his case zealously, his evidence boils down to the oft-repeated fact that Capitu has “eyes like the tide.” Bento may be deluded, even reprehensible, but we are not allowed to laugh at him, to think ourselves superior. He’s like us. And if every narrator is subject to similar blindness and self-pity, how to trust anyone? The question would loom large in twentieth-century literature.

     

    The reader, too, is implicated. Bento writes, “[E]verything is to be found outside a book that has gaps, gentle reader. This is the way I fill in other men’s lacunae; in the same way you may fill in mine.” Reader, jury, do with me what you will. Machado admits into his text radical postmodern ambiguity, years before its heyday, for what book does not have gaps, is not made up of gaps?

     

    Allusive, psychologically penetrating, politically charged, darkly funny, Dom Casmurro links Sterne to Barthelme, Flaubert to Nabokov, and remains startlingly fresh.

    (MGri 4)

     

    (4) A Heart So White by Javier Marías (1994). Juan knows only this about his shady, twice-widowed father: before marrying Juan’s mother, he had wed her older sister, who committed suicide shortly after the ceremony. As Juan’s new wife becomes his father’s confessor, eliciting troubling truths, his own experiences begin to mirror those of his father in this Spanish novel that recalls the work of Henry James, Marcel Proust, and Thomas Bernhard.

    (VV 1) (RW 3)

     

    (4) Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (1985). Memorable characters (including prostitutes, outlaws, heroes, and Indians) grace this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel that examines the myths and reality of the American West through the story of two men driving cattle from Texas to Montana. As Augustus McCrae and W. F. Call undertake their adventure-filled journey, McMurtry debunks innumerable legends while suffusing his complex protagonists with the rugged dignity and loyalty of cowboy lore.

    (AGold 4)

     

    (4) The Black Prince by Iris Murdoch (1973). Bradley Pearson is a fifty-eight-year-old tax inspector who has written three books. Convinced he has a masterpiece within him, he quits his job and rents a tranquil cottage. His plan is thwarted at every turn, however, by the needs of his ex-wife, quarreling friends, his sister’s suicide, writer’s block, and his sudden passion for his friends’ twenty-year-old daughter. A murder caps off this philosophical thriller about marriage, love, and art.

    (JL 4)

     

    (4) The Enigma of Arrival by V. S. Naipaul (1988). This chilly yet hypnotic antinovel—devoid of plot or conventional psychologizing—shuttles among the narrator’s childhood memories of his native Trinidad, fictionalized accounts of that island’s colonization, and elegiac descriptions of his present life in Wiltshire, England, where the charms of rural English life are eroding under the pressures of modernization. With an immigrant’s attentiveness, Naipaul details the minutiae of bleak exile, revealing a writer at home only in language.

    (AW 4)

     

    (4) The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffennegger (2003). This is the remarkable story of Henry DeTamble, a dashing, adventuresome librarian who travels involuntarily through time, and Clare Abshire, an artist whose life takes a natural sequential course. Henry and Clare's passionate love affair endures across a sea of time and captures the two lovers in an impossibly romantic trap, and it is Audrey Niffenegger's cinematic storytelling that makes the novel's unconventional chronology so vibrantly triumphant.

    (JPico 4)

     

    (4) Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje (1982).

    (TJ 4)

     

    (4) Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (1996). An aimless insomniac, who makes his living helping an insurance company avoid paying valid claims, relieves his boredom by attending therapy groups for people suffering from deadly illnesses. His life takes a deadly turn when he and a friend start a fight club, where men gather to beat one another senseless. Soon anarchy is loosed upon the world, including a terrorist attack on the world’s tallest building, in this testosterone-fueled novel rippling with nihilistic irony and dark humor.

    (DC 4)

     

    (4) The stories of Grace Paley (1922– ). Paley’s political beliefs inform her stories, but she never writes cant. Her Greenwich Village surroundings infuse her work, making New York City seem like a small town. Her stories of what she calls “everyday life, kitchen life”—of frustrated wives, knife-wielding children, and cold men—are written in the freshest, loosest, most modern language imaginable.

    (AH 3) (DL 1)

     

    (4) True Grit by Charles Portis (1968). In this epic and often comic tale of retribution, greed, and ambition, sixty-nine-year-old spinster Mattie Ross recalls her youthful struggle to hunt down her father’s killer in the wild Indian territory of the 1870s. While Ross studies her scripture, she breaks bread with the foul-mouthed, seldom-sober Marshall who is helping her. Both a woman’s coming-of-age saga and an adventure riddled with biblical allegory, the novel reveals the depth of grit in characters plagued by contradictions.

    (GP 4)

     

    (4) Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers (1935).

    (AO 4)

     

    (4) The works of William Shakespeare (1564–1616). In a writing career of only two decades, from 1590 to 1610, Shakespeare produced the most influential canon of dramatic literature in history. His early romantic comedies (A Midsummer Night’s Dream), his darker mature comedies (Measure for Measure), his history-shaping history plays (Henry IV, Parts I and II, and Henry V), the great core tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, and King Lear), the late Roman plays (Antony and Cleopatra), and the final romances (The Tempest) are enduring monuments to an unparalleled genius. He was also a great poet. His 154 sonnets have shaped the efforts of every true poet thereafter. Indeed, Shakespeare’s two nondramatic poems—the Ovidian erotic poem Venus and Adonis of 1593 and its darkly brilliant sequel The Rape of Lucrece of 1594—were blockbusters that launched the young writer’s brilliant career.

    (ST 4)

    (4) Confessions of Zeno by Italo Svevo (1923). Hypochondriac, philanderer, dilettante, neurotic, and raconteur, Zeno is a hyperconscious modern man. His subversive memoirs, ostensibly undertaken as a psychoanalytic “cure,” relate youth, courtship, marriage, affairs, and business misadventures with a disarming blend of frankness and humbug. A savagely funny work about addiction, and fiction’s juiciest raspberry at psychoanalysis, Confessions of Zeno embraces his sickness and vices as his irreducible humanity.

    (CM 4)

     

    (4) The stories of William Trevor (1928– ). Trevor is less an innovator than a perfectionist of the short story form, with each instance featuring two or three well-drawn characters, a stoutly alluring situation, and not a word out of place. The hundreds of stories he has crafted during his long career are nearly all set in the Irish countryside, which Trevor reveals as surprisingly erotic, sinister, and altogether contemporary, its residents often bent like trees by the wind of a single event.

    (ML 1) (AP 3)

     

    (4) Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss (1999). A master of the amped-up, neonoir style, whose work reflects a deep concern with child abuse and a taste for raw vengeance, Vachss offers here forty-four stomach-churning stories featuring prostitutes and pederasts, neo-Nazis and savage punks, hit men and kidnappers, who inhabit a world where merciless street justice provides the only brake on evil.

    (JW 4)

     

    (4) The Loved One by Evelyn Waugh (1948). Dennis Barlow is an English poet working at a Hollywood pet cemetery. Arranging a friend’s funeral, he falls for a cosmetician at the posh Whispering Glades, a paradise for the human deceased, or Loved Ones. The funeral business and its ridiculous jargon (survivors of Loved Ones are Waiting Ones; bodies are viewed in the Slumber Room) provide lively “meat” (as employees privately refer to corpses) for Waugh to skewer.

    (AMH 4)

     

    (4) Vile Bodies by Evelyn Waugh (1930). This careening novel follows a group of shallow, well-off Brits to motor races and antic parties. Joining in on the Bright Young Things’ mad doings are a writer named Adam Fenwick-Symes and his on-again, off-again fiancée. War looms, but Waugh’s style—dry and bubbly as the novel’s flowing champagne—keeps us laughing, even as characters descend into madness or head for the battlefield.

    (AG 3) (TW 1)

     

    (4) Night by Elie Wiesel (1958). In this harrowing memoir of the Holocaust, Wiesel describes his journey from a religious Jewish childhood in Hungary to the Nazi concentration camps. Subsisting on bread and soup, forced to watch prisoner executions, the fifteen-year-old narrator struggles to support his father, who eventually dies one night in the cot below his. Ultimately freed by American soldiers, he is scarred by images that “consumed my faith forever” and “turned my life into one long night.”

    (ED 4)

     

    (3) Going to Meet the Man by James Baldwin (1965). Baldwin is best known for his political and autobiographical essays, but these eight short stories showcase his ability to capture the disparate manifestations of race in America. He vividly depicts an impotent white southerner who can only get aroused by thinking of racial violence and an African American man married to a Swedish woman. Baldwin also revisits his tried and true stomping ground of family violence in Depression-era Harlem.

    (DMcF 3)

     

    (3) Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie (1904). “All children, except one, grow up,” reads the opening line of this swashbuckling tale of that boy, named Peter Pan, who takes the Darling children to Neverland. There they encounter a host of immortal figures, including Tinker Bell and Tiger Lily, the Lost Boys, and Captain Hook, as readers learn that the best hedge against old age is to believe in our imaginations (and fairies). Initially produced as a play, the story was published as a book in 1911 under the title Peter and Wendy.

    (MGait 3)

    (3) Molloy, Malone Dies, and The Unnamable, a trilogy by Samuel Beckett (1951–54). Like the runner’s high or Zen meditation, Beckett’s opus yields the transcendence that succeeds tedium and pain. The trilogy chronicles a descent into living death by three narrators: vagabond, cripple, misfit. These characters are by degrees banished from the landscape, stripped of their paltry possessions, thrown back on the scatological world of the body, and ultimately confined to the madhouse of their heads, where language alone sustains and betrays them. Beckett’s trademark black humor and the stubborn, paradoxical endurance of these voices lighten a terminally bleak vision.

    (PA 2) (LMill 1)

    (3) Stories and Texts for Nothing by Samuel Beckett (1955). The Nobel Prize–winning playwright’s fiction shares the elliptical, elusive qualities of his celebrated dramas Waiting for Godot and Endgame. The Stories are bitterly comic acknowledgments of sexual failure and mortality (such as the masterly “Assumption”) that clearly foreshadow the later Texts for Nothing. These thirteen nonnarrative prose pieces are fatalistic outcries uttered by moribund outcasts awaiting oblivion: the resigned, the dying, and the dead—all saved from meaninglessness by the grave, eloquent music of a measured style that redeems, even as it snatches away, their humanity.

    (BM 3)

     

    (3) Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown (1964). If Kafka had watched a lot of children’s cartoons, this is the book he might have written. Young Stanley Lambchop wakes up one morning flat as a pancake, another victim of a falling bulletin board. He enjoys his flatness at first—sliding into envelopes, slipping through metal grates, foiling a gang of art thieves—but then others begin to mock him. The book’s imagination and deadpan humor is enhanced by Tomi Ungerer’s charming and very 1960s-looking illustrations.

    (AMH 3)

     

    (3) Underworld by Don DeLillo (1997).

     

    (3) Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929).

    (SY 3)

     

    (3) The Studs Lonigan trilogy—­Young Lonigan (1932), The Young Manhood of Studs Lonigan (1934), and Judgment Day (1935)—by James T. Farrell.

     

    Appreciation of James T. Farrell’s Studs Lonigan Trilogy by Tom Wolfe

    To writers born after 1950, James T. Farrell (1904–79) is known, if at all, as a “plodding realist” who wrote a lot of dull, factual novels now as dead and buried as he is. To writers born from, say, 1925 to 1935, however, the very name James T. Farrell strums the heartstrings of youth. To be young and to read Farrell’s first novel, Studs Lonigan! It made one tingle with exhiliration and wonder. How could anybody else understand your own inexpressible feelings so well?

     

    A trio of novels published between 1932 and 1935, the Studs Lonigan trilogy is an account—“story” implies more plot than it actually has—of growing up in a lower-middle-class Irish-Catholic neighborhood in Chicago as Farrell did. He had the wit to make Studs a boy not like himself at all but like the sort of self-willed tough kid who probably made Farrell’s own school days miserable by calling him “Goof” and pulling the goof’s cap down over his eyes, eyeglasses and all. The book’s opening lines stamp Studs’s studied pose indelibly:

     

    Studs Lonigan, on the verge of fifteen, and wearing his first suit of long trousers, stood in the bathroom with a Sweet Caporal pasted in his mug. His hands were jammed in his trouser pockets, and he sneered. He puffed, drew the fag out of his mouth, inhaled and said to himself:

     

    “Well, I’m kissing the old dump goodbye tonight”—the old dump being a parochial junior high school.

     

    I am convinced Farrell wrote those lines as a low-rent reprise to the far more famous lines James Joyce had opened Ulysses with eighteen years earlier: “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed. A yellow dressing gown, ungirdled, was sustained gently behind him by the mild morning air. He held the bowl aloft and intoned:—Introibo ad altare Dei.”

     

    Introibo ad altare Dei. For that bit of showboating by an Irish-Catholic intellectual in Dublin, Farrell had a good low-rent American raspberry: “Well, I’m kissing the old dump”—a Catholic school—”goodbye tonight.”

     

    Farrell, plodding realism and all, was quite conscious of Joyce and all other experimental writing of the early twentieth century. In Studs Lonigan he continually uses Joyce’s most famous device, stream of consciousness, and in a more sophisticated way than the maestro. He just doesn’t feel the need to keep prodding the reader with his elbow as if to say, “Be alert. This is experimental writing.”

     

    It is precisely through Joycean stream of conciousness that Farrell brings us beneath Studs’s hide, which the fourteen-year-old boy keeps as thick as he can, and shows us the tenderness, the love, and the sense of beauty Studs will do anything to prevent the world, meaning the other boys his age on the block, from detecting.

     

    To me, section IV of Chapter Four of the first novel, Young Lonigan, is one of the few sublime reflections of the feeling of being in love in all of literature. One scorching hot Chicago afternoon in early July when “life, along Indiana Avenue, was crawlingly lazy,” Studs goes for a walk in Washington Park with the prettiest girl on the block, Lucy Scanlan. As the two fourteen-year-olds head for the park’s wooded island, “Studs felt, knew, that it was going to be a great afternoon, different from every other afternoon in his whole life.”

     

    They cross the log bridge over onto the island and decide to climb up beneath the leafy dome of a huge oak tree and sit on a branch. Up in the tree it is as if they are removed from . . . the world . . . where Studs feels obliged to be so tough:

    The breeze playing upon them through the tree leaves was fine. Studs just sat there and let it play upon him, let it sift through his hair. . . . The wind seemed to Studs like the fingers of a girl, of Lucy, and when it moved through the leaves it was like a girl, like Lucy, running her hand over very expensive silk, like the silk movie actresses wore in the pictures. . . . They sat. Studs swinging his legs, and Lucy swinging hers, she chattering, himself not listening to it, only knowing that it was nice, and that she laughed and talked and was like an angel, and she was an angel playing in the sun. Suddenly, he thought of feeling her up, and he told himself he was a bastard for having such thoughts. He wasn’t worthy of her, even of her fingernail, and he side-glanced at her, and he loved her, he loved her with his hands, and his lips, and his eyes, and his heart, and he loved everything about her, her dress, and voice, and the way she smiled, and her eyes, and her hair, and Lucy, all of her.

     

    With that, Studs has enclosed himself in the cocoon of perfect love, sublime love. A century of psychologists and neuroscientists perfect in their rationalism—not to mention Studs’s gottabe tough, therefore gottabe carnal, therefore gottabe perfectly cynical adolescent cohorts, such as the wonderfully named fourteen-year-old Weary Reilly—have taught us that such “sublime” moments are merely subliminal wafts on the way to the one goal, which is no loftier than that of dogs in the park, namely, the old in and out.

    But Studs consciously, or stream-of-consciously, rejects such . . . rationalism . . . dismisses the notion of “feeling her up” and reduces the world to two people or perhaps only one. “They sat.” Farrell keeps repeating that sentence until it is like the ticking of a very big old clock. Studs and Lucy sat high up on a tree limb within a bower of leaves so thick, they shut out everything except the glittering surface of the lagoon and the sounds of children. There was no outside world. There was only Lucy, every perfect breath she breathed, every perfect morsel of her existence. Who, including any of the 20,000 attendees at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, can truthfully say that sublime feeling of two creatures dissolving into a single soul is not more thrilling than, in Rabelais’s phrase, playing the two-backed ­beast?

     

    “He wanted the afternoon never to end, so that he and Lucy could sit there forever; her hands stole timidly into his, and he forgot everything in the world but Lucy. . . . And Time passed through their afternoon like a gentle, tender wind, and like death that was silent and cruel. . . . They sat, and about them their beautiful afternoon evaporated, split up and died like sun that was dying a red death in the calm sky.”

     

    This invocation of death—red, silent, and cruel—creates a mood of foreboding, if my own reaction to it is any measure. The next thing Studs knows, there are graffiti scrawled on walls along Indiana Avenue reading studs loves lucy . . . lucy is crazy about studs . . . and others in that vein. Studs feels like a goof—the term boys used seventy years ago to mean dork—and hastily puts back on his bullet-proof vestments of gottabe tough, therefore gottabe carnal, therefore gottabe cynical. They had sat . . . and that afternoon up in the tree, we eventually learn, was to be the last touch of the sublime in Studs Lonigan’s short life.

     

    The Studs Lonigan trilogy eventually totalled 919 pages. The life of every individual, sayeth the sage, runs along the line created by the intersection of two planes: personality and social setting. I can’t think of any American novelist who ever drew that line more brilliantly than James T. Farrell in this trilogy. If this be “plodding realism,” let every American novelist start plodding Studs-­style, lest the American novel fall down in a heap and die, as it now seems wont to do.

    (TW 3)

     

    (3) A Simple Heart by Gustave Flaubert (1877). Included in the volume Three Tales, this is the story of Félicité, an uneducated and loyal servant who never questions her lot in life. She is sustained by her unquestioning faith and her great love for her nephew and for her mistress’s daughter Virginie. When she loses them both, she finds an unlikely recipient for her ardent affections—a parrot named Lulu.

    (ML 3)

     

    (3) Cold Mountain by Charles Frazier (1997). Frazier won the National Book Award for Fiction for his first novel, set in North Carolina during the Civil War. In rich language that evokes his nineteenth-century landscape, Frazier tells two interconnected stories exploring the themes of love and war and the natural world. The first concerns the Con­ federate soldier Inman who, like Odysseus, endures a series of deadly obstacles as he crosses the state to return to his home and the woman he loves. The second story centers on that woman, Ada, a pampered Southern belle who, with the help of the mountain woman Ruby, learns to fend for herself in a war ravaged landscape.

    (ES 3)

     

    (3) The Book of Embraces by Eduardo Galeano (1989). “Why does one write, if not to put one’s pieces together?” the Uruguayan author asks in this work of “literary collage.” Through scores of brief pieces both whimsical and earnest, Galeano recalls his personal life—including years of political exile and his heart attack—and topics large and small, ranging from his wife’s dreams to the art of graffiti to repression in Latin America. Together with his imaginative drawings, they render a vivid portrait of this compassionate and visionary author’s life and mind.

    (SC 3)

     

    (3) New Grub Street by George Gissing (1891). One of the earliest examples of English naturalism, this grim chronicle of literary life in late-Victorian London bitterly portrays its author’s own struggles to live from his writing. In contrasting dedicated artist Edwin Reardon’s commercial failure with superficial romancer Jasper Milvain’s popular success, Gissing pointedly skewers the distorted values of the marketplace, while tirelessly enumerating the many forces working against artistic purity and sincerity. The novel is a diatribe, yet lucid characterizations (particularly that of Reardon’s depressed, demanding wife) and raw accusatory intensity give it a claustrophobic, nagging power.

    (JL 3)

     

    (3) Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All by Allan Gurganus (1989). Smart, funny, sharp-tongued Lucy Marsden was seventeen when she married a fifty-year-old veteran of the Civil War, Captain William Marsden. Now ninety-nine, she recalls her historic life—especially her husband’s military service and the psychological trauma it inflicted, a slave’s journey from Africa, and Sherman’s march through the South—in vivid, colorful language.

    (EDon 3)

     

    (3) The Big Sky by A. B. Guthrie, Jr. (1947). Set in the 1830s and 1840s this epic tale of adventure captures the American West when it truly was wild, primitive, and free. Its central character is Boone Caudill, a Kentucky mountain man whose desire for virgin earth and clear skies pushes him across rough and glorious landscapes, where he encounters other intrepid searchers, while winning the love of an Indian chief’s daughter.

    (JLB 3)

     

    (3) A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving (1989). Set in a vividly drawn New Hampshire town in the 1950s and 1960s, this novel’s title character is a tiny boy with a “wrecked voice” and no talent for baseball. In fact, the only ball he hits kills the mother of his best friend, narrator Johnny Wheelwright. Owen’s disabilities make him the butt of jokes, yet he believes he is an “instrument of God.” Familiar Irving hijinks and humor abound in this story, which delivers a stirring meditation on history, hypocrisy, social justice, and faith.

    (JW 3)

     

    (3) The Castle by Franz Kafka (1926). K. has been summoned to work as a land surveyor at a giant castle, which he is never allowed to enter. As his confusion grows, he breaks a series of laws he cannot understand. Such is the stuff of dreams—and of Kafka’s final novel, which uses K.’s strange plight to portray the absurd, nightmare logic of the bureaucratic state.

    (PA 3)

     

    (3) Shah of Shahs by Ryszard Kapuscinski (1982). Tom Bissell said this “the work that showed me how nonfiction can be as artful and beautiful as fiction.”

    (TBiss 3)

     

    (3) Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence (1920). An angry young man before there were angry young men, Lawrence explores politics, art, economics, and sexuality through sisters Gudrun and Ursula Brangwen and their respective lovers. A sequel to his 1915 novel The Rainbow, this sprawling transcontinental saga challenges the limitations of traditional marriage, while detailing the potency of human sexuality, the quest for bohemia, and the destructiveness of World War I.

    (JCO 3)

     

    (3) Death in Venice by Thomas Mann (1912). With a skillful use of classical allusion, Mann’s vaguely homoerotic novella describes an aging writer’s platonic infatuation with a beautiful young boy in Venice. Gustav von Aschenbach is a tragic idealist who has dedicated his life to the study and pursuit of high art and beauty. In young Tadzio he recognizes both the embodiment and inevitable transience of perfection in this story of heartrending poignancy.

    (PM 3)

     

    (3) At Play in the Fields of the Lord by Peter Matthiessen (1965). Two Americans try to expand white culture in the jungles of Peru: a Christian missionary hopes to “civilize” the local tribes, and a mercenary plans to remove the locals through terror. In alternating chapters, Mathiessen chronicles their exploits, motives, and changing sense of self (the mercenary eventually goes native, with deadly results) in this complex story of good and evil and missionary zeal, of the quest for personal identity, and of the danger of imposing one culture on another.

    (EC 3)

     

    (3) Fuzz by Ed McBain (1968). Fueled by clever plots, sharp dialogue, and vivid characters, McBain’s series of novels set in New York City’s 87th Precinct is a gold standard of the police procedural. This novel features one of the genre’s great villains, the murderous Deaf Man, who taunts and ridicules his blue-clad adversaries.

    (DFW 3)

     

    (3) Ninety-two in the Shade by Thomas McGuane (1973). McGuane has always been fascinated by people who seek a truer life by living on the edge. Here he tells the story of a refugee from America’s consumer society who returns to Key West, where he lives in an old airplane fuselage and tries to realize his dream of becoming a skiff guide in the tropical waters. But that hope makes him seem threatening to a rival guide, who will kill to protect his turf.

    (CH 3)

     

    (3) Lies of Silence by Brian Moore (1990). A failed Irish poet who loathes his country decides to run away with his mistress to London. But then IRA terrorists snatch his shrewish wife, threatening to kill her unless he parks an explosive-laden car outside a hotel where a Protestant minister will be speaking. That is only the first moral vise that squeezes him in this fast-paced, philosophical thriller.

    (AS 3)

     

    (3) Jazz by Toni Morrison (1992).

    (CN 3)

     

    (3) Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (1953). This episodic novel details the often comic, unexceptional life of Timofey Pnin, a Russian teaching at an American college who has never mastered English or learned how to drive a car (like Nabokov himself). It is the telling of the tale that matters here, as Nabokov shifts time, mood, and perspective, eventually introducing a character, Mr. N., who makes us wonder about all we’ve seen and heard.

    (HaJ 3)

     

    (3) Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (1999). “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last” reads the opening line of this novel, which imagines the life of the woman married to the obsessive captain from ­Moby-Dick. And what a life it was—running away from home, posing as a boy to get aboard a whaling ship, tragedy at sea, cannibalism, and then domestic life in New Bedford, Massachusetts. Naslund captures all in rich detail as she deepens her portrait of this lively, intellectually and spiritually curious heroine.

    (SV 3)

     

    (3) Wolf Whistle by Lewis Nordan (1993).
    (BW 3)

     

    (3) The Famished Road by Ben Okri (1991). Azaro, the hero of Nigerian-born Okri’s spellbinding and hallucinatory novel, is a spirit child, or abiku, born to mortals. Though other spirits insist that he return to their comfy land, he chooses to stand by his suffering mother and bombastic, foolhardy father amid the poverty, violence, and instability of modern Africa. “It is more difficult to love than to die,” Azaro’s father says in this Booker Prize–winning novel that is equal parts dark mythology and political satire.

    (DAD 3)

     

    (3) Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1940). Orwell’s memoir of going to fight on the republican side in the Spanish Civil War combines early Hemingway’s disabused attitude toward war with Leon Trotsky’s talent for political analysis. Through vivid accounts of battle and political machinations, he defines the true meaning of the term Orwellian: “If you had asked me why I had joined the militia I should have answered: ‘To fight against Fascism,’ and if you had asked me what I was fighting for, I should have answered: ‘Common decency.’”

    (AF 3)

     

    (3) The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett (1992). St. Elizabeth's is a home for unwed mothers in the 1960s. Life there is not unpleasant, and for most, it is temporary. Not so for Rose, a beautiful, mysterious woman who comes to the home pregnant but not unwed. She plans to give up her baby because she knows she cannot be the mother it needs. But St. Elizabeth's is near a healing spring, and when Rose's time draws near, she cannot go through with her plans, not all of them. And she cannot remain forever untouched by what she has left behind . . . and who she has become in the leaving.

    (JPico 3)

     

    (3) Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (1997).

    (TJ 3)

     

    (3) The Radetzky March by Joseph Roth (1932). At the Battle of Solferino, a young peasant soldier saves the Austrian emperor’s life, and from that moment forward the fortunes of the von Trotta family are linked with the “Old Man,” Franz Joseph. Roth tracks the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and the era of honor and order it represents, through the dissolution of the von Trottas, especially the timid, exhausted Carl Joseph, who almost ruins his family through carelessness and risks his life in battle trying to imitate his grandfather’s lost heroism.

    (AB 1) (AF 2)

     

    (3) Light Years by James Salter (1975). This compact novel offers achingly perceptive scenes from a marriage during a twenty-year period. As Viri and Nedra Berland host dinner parties, shop in New York City, summer on Long Island, and take on lovers, they experience happiness, bereavement, isolation, and divorce. Through this portrait, Salter suggests that each person’s life is “mysterious, it is like a forest; from far off it . . . can be comprehended, described, but closer it begins to separate, to break into light and shadow, the density blinds one.”

    (PCam 3)

     

    (3) A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993).

    (MMCPH 3)

     

    (3) Dirty Snow by Georges Simenon (1950). As this darkest of noirs opens, nineteen-year-old Frank Friedmaier, already a pimp, thug, and petty thief, has just become a murderer. What follows are searing portraits of the cruel and alienated young man who sees violence as a form of self-definition and the corrupt grim world that made him.

    (JB 3)

     

    (3) The Maigret series of detective novels by Georges Simenon (1903–89).

    Appreciation of Georges Simenon’s Maigret Detective Novels by Iain Pears

    The Maigret series of detective stories, written by the Belgian Georges Simenon, are part of that rare breed of books—the mass-market entertainment that also works as great literature. Simenon is the master of atmosphere; with the lightest of touches he is able to conjure up Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, a seedy, largely poor city of shabby concierges and downtrodden traveling salesmen, of cheap hotels and squalid nightclubs, of hissing steam radiators and grubby shirt collars.

    Much of the narrative is liquor soaked—Maigret begins drinking after breakfast, interviews witnesses over brandy, and suspects over beer. Only rarely is a case concluded by unraveling clues; these are not whodunits. Rather, they are studies in character, of place, and of people. Simenon would have been a brilliant analyst. As often as not, the books end when Maigret (and through him, the reader) so understands the criminal that the suspect confesses all. Indeed, the reader is usually left sympathizing with the criminal, whose crime is reacting to limited choices and desperate circumstances.

    The books are so compressed they could almost be short stories, but Simenon populates them with an extraordinary range of characters—the overweight, perpetually sweating Maigret, his eternally patient wife (more acute, in many ways, than her husband), his juniors, and the gallery of pimps and prostitutes, petty criminals, shopkeepers, bartenders, small tradesmen, and canal barge pilots who make up his world. There is no reveling in the grime of the underworld; most of the characters dream of better things and live a life of disappointment. Out of their lives, Simenon created some of the most enduring and compelling works of the twentieth century.

     (IP 3)

     

    (3) The Lost Father by Mona Simpson (1992). Featuring the heroine from Anywhere but Here, the novel tracks Mayan Atassi’s search across two continents and to the point of madness for the man who has become her God—the father who abandoned her.

    (ALK 3)

     

    (3) Enemies, A Love Story by Isaac Bashevis Singer (1972). Herman Broder, who survived World War II by hiding in a hayloft for three years, marries the woman who hid him, and he now lives a life of duplicity in 1949 Brooklyn—having an affair, pretending to be a traveling book salesman while really ghostwriting for a rabbi. To top it off, his first wife—a concentration camp survivor who Broder thought was dead—shows up. Enemies is a classic Holocaust survivor tale, filled with guilt, paranoia, a little humor, and raw desperation.

    (SS 3)

     

    (3) Red the Fiend by Gilbert Sorrentino (1995).

    Appreciation of Gilbert Sorrentino’s Red the Fiend by Lydia Millet

    Gilbert Sorrentino’s most accessible, straightforward, and flawless novel, Red the Fiend (1989), explores the practical and psychic tribulations of young Red. He’s a dirty urchin full of frustrated want and suppressed rage who lives in a working-class Brooklyn neighborhood (circa 1940) with his weak-willed mother and grandfather and, most important, his bitterly cruel, tyrannical grandmother. She makes his misery her first priority, calculating every move to maximize his exquisitely perfect emotional torment; for his part Red gradually learns to parry each of her sly thrusts with an equally sly one of his own. Eventually, he derives the lion’s share of his meager joy in life from the daily toil of returning her loathing and attempting to give as bad as he gets. In brutal simplicity, with recourse to uniquely effective listing devices, the precise and beautiful prose lays bare the excruciating particularities of Red’s pain and shame and makes palpably real his journey from, if not innocence, at least relative neutrality toward craftiness and deft manipulation. With the grace and rigor of thought and language that earned Sorrentino’s reputation as a master of stylistic play and cold humor, Red the Fiend describes in direct terms this increasingly dangerous battle of wills as it rises to its unbearable boiling point. No other novel in recent memory evokes the desolation of lovelessness with such blunt passion.

    (LMill 3)

     

    (3) A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark (1988). Like all of Spark’s work, this novel is hard to define. Metaphysical farce? Literary mystery? At bottom it is a dark, elegant, hilarious tale centered on the zaftig widow Mrs. Hawkins. She spends her days and evenings giving advice to her eccentric rooming house mates and her coworkers in book publishing. Blackmail, suicide, and a crash diet power this story, but it is Spark’s all-too evident disgust with the business end of literature that gives the story its special kick.

    (DL 3)

     

    (3) Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971). “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story,” Stegner said of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. The narrator is a divorced, wheelchair-bound professor recalling the life of his pioneer grandparents. He was crude and adventurous, she sophisticated and self-possessed. Together they crossed the country during the nineteenth century; the vivid landscape becomes a character in this story of marriage, American mythology, and the flow of time and memory.

    (PE 3)

     

    (3) River of Earth by James Still (1940). Hailed upon its publication, then forgotten until it was reissued in 1978, this classic of Appalachian literature is narrated by a young boy whose Kentucky family is at a crossroads: Do they continue to lead their poor but independent life on the farm or go to work at the mining company? In portraying a changing world, Still evokes the constants of life: love, dignity, land.

    (LS 3)

     

    (3) The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron (1967). Based on an 1831 uprising, this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is narrated by Nat, a slave who feels commanded by God to lead a rebellion. Yet even as he plots the murders of white slave-owners, Nat recognizes that all men are slaves to their own passions and greed. Poetically narrated, the book probes the essence of subjugation and freedom, the peculiar bonds that complicated the relationships of slaves and masters, and the meaning of history itself.

    (BU 3)

     

    (3) Street of Lost Footsteps by Lyonel Trouillot (1998). Although set during a single night of horrific violence in Port-au-Prince, this fierce, surreal novel resonates with Haiti’s long history of blood and broken dreams. With irony and black humor, three narrators—a madam, a taxi driver, and a postal employee—witness chaotic clashes between forces of the Prophet and the vicious dictator Deceased Forever-Immortal, while reflecting on a society where “you can count yourself lucky . . . whenever you find you’re still alive.”

    (MSB 3)

     

    (3) Life on the Mississippi by Mark Twain (1883). This isn’t a book, but a two-part time machine. The first part is a work of literature, as Twain reimagines his salad days as a cub pilot learning to navigate the “fickle Mississippi.” His vivid you-are-there prose transports readers to the untamed land filled with rough-hewn people. The book’s second section, a travelogue begun seven years later, in 1882, is memoiristic and meditative. Having lived so long in the West and East, Twain sought to reconnect with the land of his youth and wellspring of his art, taking readers on a journey of discovery and rediscovery down a still fickle river.

    (PCap 3)

     

    (3) Montana 1948 by Larry Watson (1993). In language that is as direct and spare as the title, twelve-year-old David Hayden tells of the summer when his father, the sheriff of Mercer County, Montana, is forced to choose between justice and family. Watson evokes the Montana landscape and mindset masterfully, but his true accomplishment is the unadorned but subtle portrayal of a flawed man seeking to do the right thing in the face of terrible pressure.

    (GDG 3)

     

    (3) Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh (1928). This hilarious send-up of the English code of honor begins with Paul Pennyfeather’s “sending down” (expulsion) from Oxford. Reduced to teaching at a fourth-rate school, he encounters wonderfully named characters, including Lady Circumference and Lord Tangent, who prove ripe for satire. Pennyfeather also finds love with the impossibly rich and lovely Margot Beste-Chetwynde. But l’amour leads to a spell in the clink. Fortunately, Waugh says, “any one who has been to an English public school will always feel comparatively at home” in jail.

    (DC 3)

    (3) Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf (1922). Woolf’s first novel to depart from a linear, traditional style follows Jacob Flanders as he goes through Cambridge, carries on love affairs in London, and travels in Greece. Sitting with a girlfriend, he thinks, “It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us, it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” Ultimately, it is catastrophe that kills Jacob, as Woolf suggests war’s devastations through this novel’s final description of Jacob’s empty room.

    (TM 3)

     

    (3) The Branch Will Not Break by James Wright (1963). A poet with finely honed social and political concerns, Wright wrote beautiful lines about outcasts and human suffering. This collection marks the poet’s turn from more conventional forms toward lyrical free verse. Wright’s Collected Poems was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1971.

    (SA 3)

     

    (3) Eleven Kinds of Loneliness by Richard Yates (1962). Yates’s debut collection set the tone for what his career would bring: quiet, well-crafted stories and novels about people whose dearest hopes were thwarted, often by their own inability to realize them. Unrelentingly realistic in setting and subject matter, Yates repudiates any easy redemption in these stories. Like Walter Henderson, protagonist of the aptly titled “Glutton for Punishment,” these are men and women who slowly, bitterly, come to understand that their one true talent is for defeat.

    (AGold 3)

     

    (2) Eugénie Grandet by Honoré de Balzac (1833). Part of Balzac’s almost endless La Comédie humaine, Eugénie Grandet is his masterwork on the virus of greed and miserliness. Felix Grandet, a French millionaire, tyrannizes his family with his frugality, going so far as to personally measure the ingredients for each day’s meals. He dashes the romance between his daughter Eugénie and her penniless cousin Charles, setting in motion a bitterly ironic plot worthy of O. Henry, rendered with Balzac’s characteristic detail.

    (TM 2)

     

    (2) Rule of the Bone by Russell Banks (1995). Holden Caulfield meets Dean Moriarty in this sprawling coming-of-age story narrated with crisp assurance by a fourteen-year-old runaway. A victim of parental neglect, this lost, angry boy who names himself Bone commits crimes and acts of violence. After saving a seven-year-old boy from a pedophile, he lives in an abandoned bus with a pot-dealing Rastafarian. Together they travel to Jamaica where strange and murderous events take place as this wounded boy finds and defines himself.

    (JW 2)

     

    (2) 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.”

    (JBud 2)

     

    (2) The Loser by Thomas Bernhard (1983). Our narrator had studied the piano with his friend Wertheimer and the virtuoso Glenn Gould. Gould’s unapproachable brilliance compelled them to give up music. While this abandonment leads to their ruin, Gould’s career does not bring him happiness. The Austrian writer probed these themes—of the joy, pain, and meaning of art—in this and his next two novels, which comprise his “arts trilogy,” Cutting Timber: An Irritation and Old Masters: A Comedy.

    (CM 2)

     

    (2) Dreamtigers by Jorge Luis Borges (1964). Borges called this “straggling collection” of tiny prose pieces and poems his most personal book. It contains meditations on the usual Borges themes: doubles, time as a fiction, the incursion of literature on reality. Its famous piece, Borges and I, is the most compact confession in all literature, as the real Borges seeks to disentangle himself from the writer Borges, concluding: “I do not know which of us two is writing this page.” Such abysses of Escher-like perspective mark this Argentinianunique style.

    (SC 2)

     

    (2) Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953). Books are dangerous. They fill heads with ideas, make people think, question, causing harmful confusion. This is the ideology that informs Bradbury’s dystopia, whose citizens have traded independence for safe conformity, curiosity for the pleasures of wall-sized tele­ visions. Fireman Guy Montag, who doesn’t douse blazes but burns books, seems happy until his wife attempts suicide and he seeks answers that make him an enemy of this brave new world.

    (AH 2)

     

    (2) The Plague by Albert Camus (1947)

    (CN 2)

     

    (2) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke (2004).

    (MM 2)

     

    (2) The Public Burning by Robert Coover (1976). It is 1953 and Russian spies are everywhere, according to Fightin’ Joe McCarthy. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg are scheduled to fry in the electric chair in Times Square, and Uncle Sam has delegated Vice President Richard Nixon (who narrates much of the story) to ensure that the show goes off. Coover is a master of lingos, from Uncle Sam’s Davy Crockett yawps to Nixon’s resentful Rotarian tones. Oddly, Tricky Dick comes off as a rather endearing soul, a 1950s Everyman helplessly folded, spindled, and mutilated in Coover’s funhouse mirrors.

    (MCon 2)

     

    (2) Seven Gothic Tales by Isak Dinesen (1934). The pseudonymous Danish noblewoman (Baroness Karen Blixen) revived the texture and resonance of myths and folklores in this landmark debut collection. Its richly detailed stories, set in aristocratic surroundings and steeped in romantic hyperbole, explore conflicts between civilization and primitivism, notably in the magical transformation of a cloistered woman into an animal (The Monkey); the power a celebrated singer exerts over her admirers’ imaginations (The Dreamers); and four interlocking tales about concealed or mistaken identities, told by flood survivors (The Deluge at Nordeney).

    (GG 2)

     

    (2) The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas (1844). “An almost endless chain of duels, murders, love affairs, unmaskings, ambushes, hairbreadth escapes, wild rides,” is how the critic Clifton Fadiman described this swashbuckling tale. In 1625, young D’Argent travels to Paris where he joins three Musketeers who guard King Louis XIII and live by the motto “All for one, and one for all.” Together they foil a plot against the king hatched by the evil Cardinal Richelieu and the gorgeous spy “Milady.”

    (APhil 2)

     

    (2) The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald (1988). “It is Jane Austen crossed with Chekhov and Turgenev,” observed A. S. Byatt of this witty domestic novel set in Moscow on the eve of war and revolution. In the spring of 1913, Frank Reid’s wife leaves him and their three children to return to England. Frank, who was born in Russia and runs the print shop his British father founded there, deplores change. Character, not plot, rules Fitzgerald’s fictions; with subtlety and insight she reveals him navigating his new circumstances (and hoping for his wife’s return) while dealing with a host of vividly drawn, often idiosyncratic characters.

    (DL 2)

     

    (2) Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964).

    (MSouthgate 2)

     

    (2) Grimm’s Fairy Tales (1812–14). Where Hans Christian Anderson was sweetly folklorish and gentle, the German folk tales collected by Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm are gritty and fearless. Their legendary stories—among them Hansel and Gretel, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty—are as violent as they are enchanting. Though versions of the Frog Prince abound, the Grimms reject sentimental romance to tell a moral tale about keeping a promise. Their princess is a brat who throws the frog against the wall rather than kissing him to turn him into a prince. Grimm’s Fairy Tales deliver enchantment and moxie.

    (AH 1) (JSalt 1)

     

    (2) With by Donald Harrington (2004).

    (BW 2)

     

    (2) Dune by Frank Herbert (1965). Winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, and one of the best-selling works in science fiction history, Dune is a Shakespearean drama set on a withered planet. Conflict centers on Melange, a miraculous substance that extends life, grants psychic powers, and makes space travel possible. When the emperor transfers authority over this plant from the Harkonnen Noble House to the House Atreides, he sparks a chain of events that encompasses political intrigue, romance, war, and perhaps, the coming of the messiah.

    (DAD 2)

     

    (2) The World According to Garp by John Irving (1978). I first found this book when I was stuck in a miserable first marriage and living in Pittsburgh, a city that seemed to hate me. To say this book rescued my life is an understatement.  A wild and wooly tale of a writer and the characters in his life, the book is filled with joy and surprise after surprise. Irving zips through story lines,  blending comedy with tragedy,  for a wild, painful, exuberant ride of a novel.

    (CL 2)

     

    (2) The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898). A young governess who is the sole caregiver for two charming children living in a remote country manor finds herself battling for their very souls. James’s story of psychological duress and obsession has been called a ghost story, a thriller, and a horror tale. But its haunting power stems less from the supernatural than from the primal fear that we can’t always protect our children.

    (MCunn 2)

     

    (2) Alligator by Shelley Katz (1977). He’s the Moby-Dick of the Everglades—a twenty-foot-long alligator with eighty razor sharp teeth who stalks men for pleasure. Like all legendary beasts, this killer is a symbol of mankind’s weakness and a challenge to those who dream of proving their mettle. When two death-hardened adventurers vow to pursue this leviathan, the hunters become the prey in this atmospheric thriller.

    (DFW 2)

     

    (2) China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston (1980). Kingston won the National Book Award for this richly detailed, multigenerational novel about the Chinese American experience. Drawing on ancient legends, family lore, and history, she begins in the 1840s, with the building of the transcontinental railroad, and continues through the challenges posed by the Vietnam War era.

    (PCle 2)

     

    (2) The Marquise of O— and Other Stories by Heinrich von Kleist (1777–1811).

    Appreciation of Heinrich von Kleist’s The Marquise of O— and Other Stories by Paula Fox

    Heinrich von Kleist was born in 1777 and killed himself thirty-five years later in a suicide pact with a young lady, after having been blessed, or cursed, with a formidable talent for writing. During his brief life he turned out eight plays, among which is the marvelous one-act Robert Guiscard; eight stories, including the novella Michael Kohlaas; and a long story, The Marquise of O—. He also wrote a philosophical discourse, “On the Puppet Theatre,” a group of anecdotes, and some brilliant journalism.

     

    Von Kleist was a true Romantic, yet he is utterly modern in the swiftness and depth of his perception of his subjects. Perhaps he didn’t choose them—they chose him, as it often seems with such a writer, a kind of fatality of choice.

     

    In Michael Kohlaas von Kleist writes of the passion for justice turning a man into an outlaw. In The Beggarwoman of Locarno, a three-page arrow of a short story, a man sets fire to his own house. The Marquise of O—begins with an advertisement, placed in journals by a widowed Marquise, that pleads for the father of the child she is carrying to come forward and marry her. She hasn’t the faintest idea how her pregnancy came about.

     

    And here’s the remarkable opening line of “The Earthquake in Chile”: “In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of 1647 in which many thousands of lives were lost, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, who had been locked up on a criminal charge, was standing against a prison pillar, about to hang himself.”

    There are other stories of so lyrical yet violent a nature that the reader is infected with a fever of interest and admiration; at least this reader.

    (PF 2)

     

    (2) Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983). Cal is a young Catholic trapped by the violence strangling Northern Ireland. With other members of the Irish Republican Army, he helps murder a Protestant policeman. Life takes a turn when he falls in love, and then offers a cruel twist when he learns that she is his victim’s daughter. Ultimately, though, love offers a glimpse of life apart from sectarian violence and a path to redemption.

    (AS 2)

     

    (2) The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham (1919). Loosely based on the life of Paul Gauguin, this novel portrays a London stockbroker overcome by the need to paint. Abandoning his family, he moves to Paris and then Tahiti, where he lives in poverty and neglects his health, social conventions, and the feelings of others to pursue his obsession. Charles Strickland is selfish, but he is also a genius. And so the novel asks: What price art?

    (JLB 2)

     

    (2) The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers (1946). Twelve-year-old Frankie Addams’s summer has been routine until her brother, set to be sent to the battlefields of World War II, announces he is getting married. As the family’s cook Berenice says, Frankie falls “in love with the wedding.” McCuller’s evocation of a 1940s Georgia town in August will make you sweat, but Frankie’s desperation to connect with somebody sticks in your head like a sad, crazy tune.

    (EH 2)

     

    (2) A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul (1979). A fictionalized account of the violence and political tyranny that gripped Zaire after its independence from Belgium, the novel focuses on an African of Indian descent named Salim who opens a small store at a bend in the Congo River. Ambitious, multicultural, and interested in the West, Salim represents the hopes of the “new Africa.” These hopes are dashed by a corrupt and vicious government in this grim saga of the challenges faced by postcolonial nations.

    (HaJ 2)

     

    (2) The English Teacher by R. K. Narayan (1945). The Indian author reimagines the sudden death of his beloved wife through the life of an English teacher whose deeply satisfying marriage ends with his wife’s fatal illness. His deep despair is broken by devotion to their daughter and his successful efforts to communicate with his departed wife. Yet he does not achieve the inner peace he craves in this novel infused with Hindu spirituality, until he realizes that true happiness does not come from other people, but from within.

    (AMS 2)

     

    (2) The Selected Poems of Pablo Neruda (1970). Neruda’s biography is an impressive one, maybe even a heroic one: poet, ambassador, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. But his poetry is human-size stuff, packed with concrete images and honest emotion. The Chilean-born Neruda, who merged his leftist politics with Whitmanesque exuberance, took the objects and experiences around us and turned them into something bigger through stunningly immediate language.

    (CD 2)

     

    (2) Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill (1956). As one family unravels over the course of an evening, O’Neill offers harrowing portraits of the emotional abuse and the descent into madness and addiction that can result when parents and children withhold love and understanding from each other. O’Neilldrama cuts close to the bone, but his artistry and dramatic timing lift this dark tale to heights of sheer beauty.

    (AHas 2)

     

    (2) The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk (1990). An Istanbul lawyer searches for his wife, who seems to have disappeared with her half-brother, Jelal, a famous newspaper columnist. Chapters detailing Galip’s quest through the city’s twisted streets alternate with excerpts from Jelal’s writings, which Galip scours for clues. Both draw on Turkish history, religion, and culture—its conflicted place as a nation both Eastern and Western—to tell a rich, cerebral tale about the nature of storytelling and identity.

    (AP 2)

     

    (2) W, or The Memory of Childhood by Georges Perec (1975). Perec was an experimental French author fascinated by literary boundaries—one of his novels, A Void, does not contain the letter E. Here, autobiographical chapters recalling (and trying to recall) childhood memories, when most of his family was murdered in the Holocaust, alternate with those telling the fictional story of an Aryan island called W that becomes totalitarian. Gradually, we see that each section says what the other cannot, as the riveting stories form a meta-meditation on narrative form.

    (DM 2)

     

    (2) Clockers by Richard Price (1992). When cocaine dealer Strike Dunham’s hardworking brother confesses to murder, burnt-out detective Rocco Klein is convinced that Strike is behind the crime. As Klein turns the ulcer-ridden nineteen-year-old’s world upside down, Price provides a street-level look at America’s drug epidemic and searing portrayals of addiction—to drugs, power, status, and action.

    (GP 2)

     

    (2) V. by Thomas Pynchon (1963). This sprawling postmodern spy novel spiked with Rabelasian humor is ignited by a cryptic line in the journals of Herbert Stencil’s late father: “There is more behind and inside V. than any of us had suspected. Not who, but what: what is she.” The son’s search for the mysterious V.—involving a range of deliciously named characters, including the “schlemiel and human yo-yo” Benny Profane—stretches across three continents and two centuries, bringing Stencil ever closer to the secret powers that have conspired to control, and thereby corrupted, the modern world.

    (TCB 2)

     

    (2) Sergeant Getulio by João Ubaldo Ribeiro (1971). This deeply unsettling novel features one of literature’s most loathsome creations—a Brazilian policeman adept at torture, maiming, and beheadings. Yet, as he transports a political prisoner across remote and dangerous terrain, we see a man both resourceful and persistent. As he explains himself, we see a man driven by honor, loyalty, and morality. In the process this appalling figure seems almost appealing.

    (ALK 2)

     

    (2) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (1980).

    (TJ 2)

     

    (2) Goodbye, Columbus by Philip Roth (1959). Even if it only hinted at the depth of humorous rage Roth would later unload, this is the book that put him on the map. A novella coupled with five short stories, Goodbye, Columbus confronts issues of identity, class tensions within American Jewry, and a suffocating veil of conformity that exists amid so much American opportunity. By airing what many saw as his people’s dirty laundry, Roth gained a reputation as a self-hating Jew that was so pervasive even his mother asked if it was true.

    (MW 2)

     

    (2) What’s for Dinner? by James Schuyler (1978).

    Best known as a poet, Schuyler brings his eye for intimate details to this quirky comedy about three families in suburban Long Island. As his characters deal with rowdy children, alcoholism, and loneliness, Schuyler subtly explores the forces that tear people apart and bring them back together.

    (PCam 2)

     

    (2) Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone (1973). Tom Bissell said this novel “has the single greatest death scene I've ever read, and I read it, probably, every couple of weeks to remind me what prose can do.”
    (TBiss 2)

     

    (2) Sullivan’s Travels (1941), The Lady Eve (1941), and The Palm Beach Story (1942), three screenplays by Preston Sturges. Sturges enjoyed one of the great comic runs in Hollywood history while the world was at war. A master of sparkling dialogue, he revealed the zany absurdity of American life in the twelve pictures he wrote and/or directed from 1940 to 1944, especially these three classics that feature, respectively, a runaway director, a brilliant female con artist, and a runaway heiress.

    (AT 2)

     

    (2) Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (1992). Unsworth explores the “ancient urge” to “command attention, dominate one’s fellows” in this Booker Prize–winning novel that offers a gripping, panoramic view of the slave trade during the eighteenth century. Following a mutiny aboard a slave vessel and the creation of a utopian community in Florida, Unsworth portrays the fight against greed, disease, and humanity’s inhumanity. In this novel of two cousins who have opposing dreams, Unsworth faces the heights and depths of human nature.

    (EC 2)

     

    (2) Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (1987). On one level this is a wickedly hilarious satire of the world of art. Yet, it is also a heartfelt story of American dreams, as a minor artist, whose lack of confidence led him to put down his brush and start collecting other people’s work, looks back on his life, analyzing his high points and low.

    (PE 2)

     

    (2) Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser (1878–1956). Beloved of other writers but not known to a broad reading public in America, Walser was a formative influence on many writers, including Franz Kafka and Robert Musil. This collection of sixty-four short, sometimes essayistic, and always piercing stories published in the early twentieth century offers the Swiss writer’s take—meditatively, dreamily, truthfully, and often joyously—on subjects both microscopic and vast, from women’s gloves to medieval battles.

    (LMill 2)

     

    (2) A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh (1934). Leading lives of empty desperation, Waugh’s characters kill the days of their lives with petty concerns, silly parties, and unfulfilling affairs. A withering satire of England’s declining aristocracy, the novel showcases Waugh’s caustic eye and comic wit.

    (JR 2)

     

    (2) Voss by Patrick White (1957). A fearless man with a titanic ego, Johann Voss decides to prove his almost divine greatness by leading a party across the untamed Australian continent in 1845. Before his trip, he meets a young spinster with whom he will carry on a spiritual courtship through telepathy and dreams. Voss suffers immensely during his arduous journey; as he is humbled, he learns the meaning of Christian spirituality in this novel by the Australian Nobel laureate.

    (TK 2)

     

    (2) Our Town by Thornton Wilder (1938). This enduringly popular, Pulitzer Prize–winning play depicts small-town New England life (in fictional Grovers Corners, New Hampshire) with a unique combination of warm sentiment, wry comedy, and even a touch of surreal modernism in its moving final act. Childhood’s passage to maturity, love and marriage, birth and death are memorably enacted by the closely knit families of newspaper editor Webb and Doctor Gibbs, and observed by the benign Stage Manager who sagely connects their experiences to all our lives. Irresistible Americana.

    (TW 2)

     

    (2) Tennessee Williams: Plays 1937–1955. Through raw yet lyric depictions of violence, alcoholism, homosexuality, rape, loneliness, and frustrated passion, Williams helped transform and liberate the American theater. His most celebrated dramas, including his breakthrough hit The Glass Menagerie (1944) and the two plays for which he won Pulitzer prizes, A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1955), written in the Southern Gothic tradition of his native region, offer indelible portraits of fragile characters—especially lonely, frustrated Southern women—trying to hold on in a harsh world.

    (DMcF 2)

     

    (2) The Passion by Jeanette Winterson (1987). Henri is Napoleon’s cook. For eight years he has followed his diminutive idol. But now, in Russia—as the land turns deathly cold, soldiers starve, and Moscow burns—Henri becomes disenchanted by war. His life takes an exotic turn when he falls for Villanelle, a Venetian pickpocket and croupier who has literally lost her heart to another woman. In Venice, Henri’s passion turns toward madness as he learns “the difference between inventing a lover and falling in love.”

    (EDon 2)

     

    (2) La Bête Humaine (The Beast Within) by Émile Zola (1890).

    (JGil 2)

     

    (1) Watership Down by Richard Adams (1972). This imaginative epic chronicles the adventures of a band of English rabbits who possess their own language, history, and myth and who are searching for a new home after a human developer has destroyed their old one. Like the fables of Aesop, Watership Down is sneakily dark, full of drama and death and warnings about the fascist tendencies of the modern world, and explores moral ideas, including freedom and responsibility.

    (DAD 1)

     

    (1) Money by Martin Amis (1984). Subtitled “A Suicide Note,” this novel follows the death spiral of hedonistic film director John Self as he wrestles with Hollywood stars, New York producers, a flauntingly unfaithful London girlfriend, an anonymous ca.ller that seems to be coming from inside his head, and the writer Martin Amis. Money marries Amis’s comic talents and his preoccupation with the self-annihilating twilight of civilization.

    (CH 1)

     

    (1) The Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar. A lyrical tale about the desire to become one with the divine, this epic allegory by the twelfth-century Sufi mystic follows a group of birds who vow to find the legendary Simurgh bird. Their limitations and faults—the basis for rich parables—are revealed through their quest, which has long inspired readers to begin their own spiritual journeys.

    (MSB 1)

     

    (1) The haiku of Matsuo Basho (1644-1694). A spiritual seeker who practiced Zen Buddhism while wandering throughout seventeenth-century Japan, Basho helped transform the form of light verse that would become haiku into a serious art form. “Traveling sick; / My dreams roam / On a withered moor,” reads the last of his spare, evocative poems that recount his life and travels, while reflecting a range of moods.

    (AP 1)

     

    (1) The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett (1908). This is the tale of two sisters, shy Constance, who never strays from her rural English home, and adventurous Sophia, who marries and moves to Paris. Through absorbing depictions of their ordinary lives, which includes a masterful depiction of English provincial life and mores, Bennett suggests how character shapes destiny and how every destiny is fascinating.

    (MD 1)

     

    (1) Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953). Brooks is best known for her poetry about African American life in Chicago, winning the Pulitzer Prize for Annie Allen (1949). In Maud Martha, Brooks switches to prose fiction, recounting the stages of a young woman’s life during the 1930s and 1940s. The story follows Maud as she struggles with school, work, marriage, childbirth, and motherhood against the all-pervasive backdrop of racism and sexism. Told with unflinching honesty, sensitivity, and humor, Maud Martha is also a work of lyrical beauty.

    (SC 1)

     

    (1) Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey (1988). Carey explores some of his favorite themes—chance, risk, and dreams—in this Booker Prize–winning novel. Set in nineteenth-century England and Australia, it uses Dickensian details and set pieces to chronicle the lives of two protagonists who share a love of gambling: an English clergyman who has broken with his past and an Australian heiress with utopian dreams. This unconventional love story climaxes with a bold yet fragile scheme: to move a crystal church across the Australian outback.

    (CM 1)

     

    (1) Nights at the Circus by Angela Carter (1984). Nineteenth-century London, St. Petersburg, and Siberia are the three rings of Carter’s surrealist circus starring Fevvers, a trapeze artist with wings. As the bewitching Fevvers describes her life of brothels, freak shows, mad noblemen, and flying fame in high-octane Cockney slang, Carter also gives voice to a host of other characters, including the strong man, the lion tamer, and Sybil the pig. When a journalist tries to expose Fevvers as a hoax, this comic novel with feminist overtones becomes a meditation on identity and storytelling.

    (PE 1)

     

    (1) The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy (1991). The Cold War meets the age of terror in this pulsing techno thriller. Hoping both to derail Israeli–Palestinian peace and darken U.S.–Soviet relations, terrorists smuggle a nuclear weapon into the United States. Only one man can save the day, Clancy’s series hero, Jack Ryan, a CIA agent racked by personal and professional problems. Clancy brandishes his encyclopedic knowledge of the military—including plans for building a hydrogen bomb—while capturing a hero filled with doubt.

    (DFW 1)

     

    (1) Amours de Voyage by Arthur Hugh Clough (1858). A nineteenth-century figure who expressed twentieth-century skepticism about action and belief, Clough set this tragicomic narrative poem during the unsuccessful Italian Revolution of 1848–49. Much of the poem consists of letters from an erudite Englishman named Claude to his friend Eustace, describing his inability to commit to the woman he loves or engage himself in the political turmoil swirling around him. Yet, his self-awareness is so acute that he does not offer a lament of his limitations so much as an ironic self-portrait of an oddly decisive man.

    (JBarn 1)

     

    (1) Little, Big by John Crowley (1981). When Smoky Barnable marries Daily Alice Drinkwater, in a pagan ceremony attended by guests seen and not seen, he enters a strange and magical family. Through the pages of this multigenerational fantasy epic, Crowley details the Drinkwater family’s connection to the world of Faerie—“the further in you go, the bigger it gets”—and the tale that shapes their fate.

    (HK 1)

     

    (1) Break It Down by Lydia Davis (1986). Through crisp, propulsive sentences laced with knowing irony, Davis plunges readers into various streams of consciousness in her debut collection. Ideas rather than action animate these thirty-four stories—some no more than a paragraph long, most set in a character’s racing, obsessive mind. “I’m going to break it all down,” says the man in the title story, trying to calculate the cost of his last love affair. Like most Davis characters, he finds more questions than answers. And like most Davis characters, he is drawn with such empathy that he pulls the reader into his madness. Only when we take a step back can we laugh, deeply, at the absurdity of it all.

    (EH 1)

     

    (1) The Book of Ebenezer Le Page by G. B. Edwards (1981). The delight of this novel, set in England’s Channel Islands, is the cranky voice of its eponymous narrator. Recalling his long life on the isolated island, the farmer/fisherman Le Page describes his world on a local scale: family squabbles, romances, deaths. But history on a grander scale intrudes through the German occupation during World War II. “What a big fool this world is,” Le Page declares in an account of human folly suffused with wisdom.

    (RPri 1)

     

    (1) A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010).

    (MSouthgate 1)

     

    (1) Rites of Passage by William Golding (1980). The first volume of Golding’s sea trilogy, this Booker Prize–winning novel is set on an early nineteenth-century ship bound for Australia. The story, told through the journal entries of aristocrat Edmund Talbot, centers on the death of a parson on board. But the plot is secondary in this deeply observed, highly atmospheric tale that tackles three of the Nobel laureate’s favorite themes—the British class system, the nature of cruelty, and the sea.

    (BU 1)

     

    (1) When I Grow Too Old to Dream, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein (1935). Hammerstein’s credits are a history of the American musical, including Oklahoma, Carousel, South Pacific, The King and I, and The Sound of Music. He wrote this sweet love song, which has been recorded by everyone from Nelson Eddy to Nat King Cole to Doris Day, for the film The Night Is Too Young. The singer asks for a parting kiss, then adds, “And when I grow too old to dream / That kiss will live in my heart.”

    (AT 1)

     

    (1) The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett (1932). Retired gumshoe Nick Charles returns to Manhattan with his new heiress wife Nora, and their schnauzer Asta. The couple is quickly drawn into an investigation of a missing inventor and his murdered mistress. Hammett’s comic talents and infectious, rapid-fire dialogue take the lead in this stylish, cocktail-fueled yarn.

    (ST 1)

     

    (1) Some Other Place. The Right Place by Donald Harington (1972). This picaresque road novel with a ghostly twist centers on a young woman, a recent college graduate, and a shy eighteen-year-old boy who might be the reincarnation of an exuberant poet. Together they light out to learn about the dead man’s life and death; visits to his old haunts showcase Harington’s gift for describing the natural world. As the couple’s bond turns to love, the dead man’s spirit comes ever closer.

    (DH 1)

     

    (1) Closely Watched Trains by Bohumil Hrabal (1965). As if he doesn’t have enough trouble living in German-occupied Czechoslovakia during World War II, Milos Hrma learns he is impotent during his first sexual encounter. After trying to commit suicide, he returns to his job tending German trains while imagining ways to reassert his manhood. In an alternately funny and sad, lusty and bleak novel, politics and sex merge in a tragic climax that suggests the heroism of the common man.

    (ALK 1)

     

    (1) The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo (1831). Hugo’s grand populist opera stars the cathedral and medieval Paris itself as much as the hunchbacked bell-ringer Quasimodo, whose unrequited love for the gypsy dancer Esmeralda ends very, very badly. The book is far more nineteenth century than fifteenth, brimming with melodrama, anticlericism, and Hugo’s characteristic outrage at social injustice. The novel’s huge popularity in France was instrumental in a neo-Gothic revival there, as well as the preservation of Notre Dame itself.

    (MGait 1)

     

    (1) Les Misérables by Victor Hugo (1862). Twenty years in the writing, this masterpiece of melodrama sweeps across unspeakable poverty, assumed identities, the sewers of Paris, and the battle of Waterloo while also making time for love, politics, architecture, history, and Hugo’s burning invective against social inequities. The novel’s central struggle—between good-hearted prison escapee Jean Valjean and the indefatigable, by-the-book detective Javert—is about the need to temper the law with mercy and redemption, qualities often sorely lacking in Hugo’s time.

    (CB 1)

     

    (1) Pictures from an Institution by Randall Jarrell (1954). What happens when a brilliant poet writes a campus comedy? You get this lacerating look at academic pretensions and jealousies. Set in a women’s liberal arts college, the tale centers on Gertrude Johnson, a professor writing a novel about the “little people,” who has no clue about “what it was like to be a human being.” This somewhat plotless novel proves the perfect vehicle for Jarrell’s acid wit; every page boasts some beautifully put put-down, as here: “People did not like Mrs. Robbins, Mrs. Robbins did not like people; and neither was sorry.”

    (CS 1)

     

    (1) Heat and Dust by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (1975). In 1920s India, the wife of an English officer strangled by propriety falls for a minor prince with a taste for crime. She aborts their child and leaves her husband. Fifty years later, her ex-husband’s granddaughter returns to India to investigate the scandal. Through these two women Jhabvala suggests how the past informs the present, while presenting a vivid picture of India.

    (HaJ 1)

     

    (1) Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson (1955). “One night Harold decided to go for a walk in the moonlight.” But there was no moon. So the little boy drew one with his purple crayon. Then he drew a path to walk on. Soon he was using his purple crayon to create real adventures in the forest, ocean, and the air, before drawing a bead for home and bed. Creative, resourceful, and full of surprising purpose, Harold and his trusty crayon reveal the imagination’s power to remake the world.

    (RPow 1)

     

    (1) Parables and Paradoxes by Franz Kafka (1935). Composed after the author’s death of snippets from his novels, stories, notebooks, and letters, this collection ranges widely—from short pieces on Sancho Panza and Robinson Crusoe to Poseidon and Abraham. As he retells, often with dark humor, some of the West’s central myths, Kafka entertains as he reminds us that every story suggests another story.

    (SO’N 1)

     

    (1) On the Road by Jack Kerouac (1957). The ur-novel of the Beat generation, Kerouac mythologizes an America that is always just over the next hill or waiting in the next bar, the next town, the next bottle, or a lover’s bed, and “the mad ones” who chase such visions. Fueled by postwar recklessness and a desire for kicks, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty hitchhike and ride trains, but mostly they drive nonstop from coast to coast, seeking music, a tank of gas, new lovers, whatever they can find. Composing on a scroll of butcher paper run through a typewriter, Kerouac sought a language that would match the velocity of his characters and their exploits.

    (GS 1)

     

    (1) Nice Work by David Lodge (1988). Opposites attract in this third volume of Lodge’s campus trilogy that includes Changing Places (1975) and Small World (1984). A British government program aimed at bridging the gap between the academy and industry pairs a leftist feminist academic and a hard-driving businessman. Their relationship turns from hostility to respect in this comic novel that uses snippets from nineteenth-century English novels to explore divisions in society and literature’s power to bring people together.

    (IP 1)

     

    (1) The Assistant by Bernard Malamud (1957). New York shopkeeper Morris Bober will do anything to support his family, except compromise the best values drawn from his Jewish faith. He is sad, and his family suffers, as they struggle to maintain their integrity in a grasping postwar world. The arrival of a new assistant, an Italian with a checkered past named Frank, presents complications (he falls in love with Bober’s daughter) and opportunities, as Malamud develops a surprising father–son relationship that suggests people are essentially good.

    (HJ 1)

     

    (1) Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte (1944). Troubled by corruption in Rome, Malaparte embraced fascism as a young man. He soon wised up, and his Italian newspaper reports on the eastern front during World War II led the fascists and Nazis to imprison him. Kaputt, an episodic novel drawn from his reportage, juxtaposes the decadence of fascist leaders with harrowing depictions of war, including the murder of Jews in Romania, the siege of Leningrad, and Malaparte’s famous image of horses frozen on Lake Ladoga.

    (AF 1)

     

    (1) Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (1968). Outer Dark is a dark, Gothic tale set in Appalachia around the turn of the twentieth century. A woman is impregnated by her brother, who steals the child, leaves it in the woods, and tells her it has died of natural causes. She learns of her brother’s lie; separately they set out across the dangerous wilds to find the child, embarking on strange and chilling journeys informed by evil, dread, and mercy.

    (MGri 1)

     

    (1) The stories of Carson McCullers (1917-67).

    (ABrav 1)

     

    (1) Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998).

    (MMCPH 1)

     

    (1) That Night by Alice McDermott (1987). Primal emotions surge beneath the veneer of 1960s suburban placidity in McDermott’s searing tale of innocence lost. With her teased hair and elaborate makeup, teenage Sheryl epitomizes glamour. But after her father dies, Sheryl becomes pregnant and is sent away, precipitating a violent confrontation between the neighborhood men and Sheryl’s aggrieved boy­ friend. McDermott’s exquisite and haunting rendering of the painful revelations of youth and the mysteries of death and sex is mythic in its resonance.

    (AS 1)

     

    (1) Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001). When Briony Tallis, a precocious adolescent on an English estate, writes a play to mark her brother’s homecoming in 1935, she sets in motion a real-life tragedy that marks the end of her innocence. Through the awful ramifications of her one lie, McEwan explores the mysteries of writing itself, the moral ambiguities of art, and the arc of twentieth-century English history, especially during World War II.

    (GG 1)

     

    (1) Death in Midsummer and Other Stories by Yukio Mishima (1968). The diversity of this collection’s subject and form will surprise anyone who knows only Mishima’s legend, which he carefully created through an ascetic life and a failed attempt to ignite a bushido (samurai) movement in Japan—a move that ended with his ritual suicide in 1970. The tales—including a Noh play, a Buddhist fable, a comedy of manners, and a love triangle among three men—all reflect Mishima’s profound alienation from the drift and purposelessness of modern life.

    (PF 1)

     

    (1) The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906). This hopeful and heartbreaking tale begins when the father of three children is taken away one night by the authorities. Their resourceful mother tells them they must leave London for the country, where they will “play at being poor for a while.” Their adventures on and off the railway lines near their new home are touched with melancholy, as they long for and wonder about their missing father.

    (KA 1)

     

    (1) A Personal Matter  by Kenzaburo Oë (1969). The preeminent voice of Japan’s New Left from the 1960s, Oë brings a most un-Japanese rawness and rebellion to his semiautobiographical story of a young intellectual who fathers a brain-damaged baby. This modern morality tale juxtaposes its protagonist’s tortuous cerebral musings with a visceral world of blood and bile, sexual deviance, and medically sanctioned infanticide. Oë’s grotesqueries paradoxically render his characters more human and sympathetic, rather than less, while the sometimes self-conscious artifice of his language accommodates a society adrift from tradition and meaning.

    (DMe 1)

     

    (1) Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973).

    (JMEND 1)

     

    (1) The Human Stain by Philip Roth (2000). Mentioning two students who never come to class, seventy-one-year-old professor Coleman Silk asks, “Do they exist or are they spooks?” The students are black, and Silk is soon engulfed in a racially charged campus controversy that may expose his secret life. The imbroglio also sparks Silk’s libido, and he begins an affair with one of Roth’s most finely drawn female characters, an illiterate janitor. An attack on political correctness, the novel also explores Roth’s signature theme: the quest for personal identity free from society’s labels and expectations.

    (APat 1)

     

    (1) Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (1969). “I am the son in the Jewish joke,” Alexander Portnoy quips, “only it ain’t no joke.” Narrated as a confession to a doctor, the novel portrays Portnoy’s life as a long and tentative escape from the world of his hard-working, constipated father and his overbearing mother. Outrageous and frank in its treatment of sex, family, and Jewishness, this controversial novel is also a tale of generational shift, a rare ode to masturbation, and a stage for Roth’s usual nostalgia: “so piercing is my gratitude—yes, my gratitude!—so sweeping and unqualified is my love.”

    (WK 1)

     

    (1) Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain (1947).

    Appreciation of Jacques Roumain’s Masters of the Dew by Edwidge Danticat

    This novel charmed Langston Hughes and Mercer Cook so much that when they visited Haiti in the 1940s they decided to translate it. Theirs remains the only English translation. This is the plot: A Haitian young man goes to Cuba to cut sugarcane in the 1930s. When he returns to his village in rural Haiti, he finds that a drought has ravaged the entire area and a Romeo and Juliet–type feud between the two most powerful families stands in the community’s way of finding a solution.

     

    Like Romeo, the young man, Manuel, falls in love with the stunning daughter of the family that despises his and a battle ensues that results in tragedy, with some measure of hope. (To say much more would be giving away too much of the plot of this slim volume.) The book has often been called a peasant novel, but it is also an environmental novel, as well as a love story.

     

    I read this book when I was ten years old; it was the first novel in which I recognized people I knew living in circumstances similar to my life and my world. It was also the first time that I realized books could not only help us escape but hold a mirror to our lives, to help us examine a problem and ponder—along with the characters—a possible solution. It was my first engagée or socially engaged novel, one that showed me that the novel could have many roles, that fiction could be used for different purposes without losing its artistic merit. It made me want to write the types of books that could inform and entertain as well as help others live, through a powerful narrative, a heartbreaking, painful, and even redemptive experience.

    (ED 1)

     

    (1)  Snowblind: A Brief Career in the Cocaine Trade by Robert Sabbag (1998). Tom Bissell calls this “an impossibly stylish and gripping real-life thriller about life in the cocaine trade.”

    (TBiss 1)

     

    (1) Franny and Zooey by J. D. Salinger (1961).

    (RG 1)

     

    (1) Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (1938).

    (JUMP 1)

     

    (1) 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.

    (JBud 1)

     

    (1) The Fever by Wallace Shawn (1990).

    (TJ 1)

     

    (1) Ulverton by Adam Thorpe (1992). The fictional town of Ulverton—and the English language itself—are the central characters of this debut novel in which a dozen different voices detail three hundred years in the life of an English village. As he moves from the time of Cromwell to the 1980s in twelve rich chapters, Thorpe deploys language drawn from the period described. He also displays a mastery of literary form, inventing diary entries, sermons, drunken conversations, and film scripts to tell his story.

    (EDon 1)

     

    (1) The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle (1997).

    Beginning with his own spiritual crisis at age twenty-nine, Tolle describes how he achieved enlightenment by learning to live “present, fully, and intensely, in the Now.” Drawing on a variety of traditional teachings and techniques, Tolle urges readers to shed their attachments to the past, the future, and “the myriad forms of life that are subject to birth and death argues,” showing them how to tap into “consciousness in its pure state prior to identification with form.”

    (CD 1)

     

    (1) Daybook: The Journey of an Artist by Anne Truitt

    (AO 1)

     

    (1) A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain (1889). Few writers made ideas as entertaining as Twain, whose gifts are on full display when he transports an ingenious American named Hank “The Boss” Morgan to sixth-century England. The clash of sixth-and nineteenth-century mores allows Twain to offer scorching satires of compulsory religion, aristocracy, and superstition—and smart considerations of subjects ranging from slavery, trade unions, and technology to death and taxes—within the thrilling atmosphere of the Round Table and its legendary characters, including Lancelot, Merlin, and Guenever.

    (RP 1)

     

    (1) A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch (1950). “Though Welch has the abilities of a novelist,” John Updike wrote, “misfortune made him a kind of prophet.” In this autobiographical novel, Welch describes the bicycle accident that left him partially paralyzed at age twenty, the painful treatments he suffered, and the loneliness he endured. Filled with acute observations and revealing self-analysis, this intimate novel offers a wrenching portrait of despair.

    (PCam 1)

     

    (1) Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams (1988). A teenage couple breaks into empty vacation homes in Florida to live “the ordered life of someone else. . . . For they themselves were not preparing for anything, they were not building anything.” This picaresque novel describes the offbeat adventures of these alienated drifters—with alcoholic aristocrats and aged female bodybuilders—in sharply observant language that evokes the sadness, loneliness, and isolation of modern life.

    (DC 1)

     

    (1) Taking Care by Joy Williams (1982).

    (BW 1)

     

     

    (1) Summer Lightning by P. G. Wodehouse (1929). In more than ninety comic novels graced with odd names and perfectly weighted sentences, Wodehouse imagined a daft world of British privilege. He wrote many different series of books built around specific characters, including Mr. Mulliner, Psmith, Ukridge, and his most famous creations, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. One of the Blandings Castle novels, Summer Lightning is an intricate farce that displays Wodehouse’s penchant for anchoring his humor in ridiculous yet common circumstance—here it is a local competition to find the best pig—while exploring his great themes: social decorum and love.

    (JR 1)

     

    (1) The Prelude by William Wordsworth. Wordsworth wrote this poem three times, in 1799, 1805, and finally in 1850. The subject matter, his own life, was endlessly fascinating to him. Of greater interest today is Wordsworth’s theory of “spots of time,” moments or hours so illuminated by memory we revisit them throughout our lives. Wordsworth’s childhood ramblings through the English countryside, his education, walking tours of England and Scotland, and his witnessing of the Paris Rebellion are all captured here, yet this poem is less narrative than meditation by a poet determined to “have felt whate’er there is of power in sound.”

    (AHas 1)

     

    Room for One More?

     

    Jane Mendelsohn’s pick for the 21st century: The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2006).

     

    David Mitchell’s wild card: Lolly Willowes by Sylvia Townsend Warner (1926).

    The first-ever pick of the Book of the Month Club, Warner’s debut novel is a fantastical light comedy with feminist overtones. Lolly is a forty-seven-year-old spinster whose yearnings impel her to leave her London family for life in the rural village of Great Mop. With the help of a black cat, she enters “into a compact with the devil.” It turns out that this sleepy village—and much of Europe—is full of witches who are less menacing than bohemian. They “know they are dynamite,” she says of these women, “and long for the concussion that may justify them.”

     

     

    a guide to the world’s best books a guide to the world’s best books

     

     

    a guide to the world’s best books appendix:

    literary number games

     

     

    Top Ten Works of the Twentieth Century

    1.         Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    2.         The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    3.         In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

    4.         Ulysses by James Joyce

    5.         Dubliners by James Joyce

    6.         One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

    7.         The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    8.         To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

    9.         The stories of Flannery O’Connor

    10.       Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

     

    Ten Works of the Nineteenth Century

    1.         Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

    2.         Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

    3.         War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

    4.         The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    5.         The stories of Anton Chekhov

    6.         Middlemarch by George Eliot

    7.         Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

    8.         Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

    9.         Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    10.       Emma by Jane Austen

     

    Top Ten Works of the Eighteenth Century

    1.         Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

    2.         Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

    3.         Clarissa by Samuel Richardson

    4.         Candide by Voltaire

    5.         Tom Jones by Henry Fielding

    6.         Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

    7.         Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

    8.         The Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin

    9.         The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    10.       Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos

     

    Ten Works of the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries

    1.         Hamlet by William Shakespeare

    2.         Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    3.         King Lear by William Shakespeare

    4.         Macbeth by William Shakespeare

    5.         Paradise Lost by John Milton

    6.         The Tempest by William Shakespeare

    7.         Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare

    8.         Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare

    9.         The plays of Molière

    10.       Henry V and Othello, The Moor of Venice by William Shakespeare

     

    Top Ten Works of the Fifteenth Century and Earlier

    1.         The Odyssey by Homer

    2.         The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

    3.         The Bible

    4.         The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer

    5.         The Oresteia by Aeschylus

    6.         The Aeneid by Virgil

    7.         The Iliad by Homer

    8.         The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

    9.         The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights

    10.       Oedipus the King by Sophocles

     

    Ten Authors by Number of Works selected

    1.         William Shakespeare—11

    2.         William Faulkner—6

    3.         Henry James—6

    4.         Jane Austen—5

    5.         Charles Dickens—5

    6.         Fyodor Dostoevsky—5

    7.         Ernest Hemingway—5

    8.         Franz Kafka—5

    (tie) James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Vladimir Nabokov, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf—4

     

    Top Ten Authors by Points Earned

    1.         Leo Tolstoy—327

    2.         William Shakespeare—293

    3.         James Joyce—194

    4.         Vladimir Nabokov—190

    5.         Fyodor Dostoevsky—177

    6.         William Faulkner—173

    7.         Charles Dickens—168

    8.         Anton Chekhov—165

    9.         Gustave Flaubert—163

    10.       Jane Austen—161

     

    Ten Works by American Authors

    1.         The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

    2.         The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

    3.         Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

    4.         The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

    5.         The stories of Flannery O’Connor

    6.         Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner

    7.         To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    8.         Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

    9.         Beloved by Toni Morrison

    10.       The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

     

    Top Ten Works by British Authors

    1.         Hamlet by William Shakespeare

    2.         Middlemarch by George Eliot

    3.         Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

    4.         Ulysses by James Joyce

    5.         King Lear by William Shakespeare

    6.         Emma by Jane Austen

    7.         Dubliners by James Joyce

    8.         To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf

    9.         Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

    10.       Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

     

    Ten Works by Russian Authors

    1.         Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

    2.         War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

    3.         Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

    4.         The stories of Anton Chekhov

    5.         Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    6.         The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

    7.         Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

    8.         Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel

    9.         Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol

    10.       The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

     

    Top Ten Works by French Authors

    1.         Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

    2.         In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

    3.         The Stranger by Albert Camus

    4.         Candide by Voltaire

    5.         Germinal by Émile Zola

    6.         L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola

    7.         Nana by Émile Zola

    8.         Cousin Bette by Honoré de Balzac

    9.         The Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos

    10.       The Fall by Albert Camus

     

    Ten Works by Living Writers

    1.         One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

    2.         To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

    3.         Beloved by Toni Morrison

    4.         The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

    5.         Rabbit Angstrom by John Updike

    6.         Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

    7.         Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy

    8.         The Stand by Stephen King

    9.         The stories of Alice Munro

    10.       The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

     

    Top Ten Comic Works

    1.         Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

    2.         Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne

    3.         Joseph Andrews by Henry Fielding

    4.         Norwood by Charles Portis

    5.         The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

    6.         A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

    7.         A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare

    8.         The Ponder Heart by Eudora Welty

    9.         Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward

    10.       Right Ho, Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

     

    Ten Works of Fantasy and Science Fiction

    1.         Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

    2.         The Stand by Stephen King

    3.         Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift

    4.         The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

    5.         The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ by C. S. Lewis

    6.         Fiskadoro by Denis Johnson

    7.         The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkien

    8.         The War with the Newts by Karel Cˇapek

    9.         His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman

    10.       Dune by Frank Herbert

     

    Top Ten Mysteries and Thrillers

    1.         The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler

    2.         The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

    3.         Red Dragon by Thomas Harris

    4.         The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

    5.         Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carré

    6.         The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain

    7.         The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett

    8.         Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

    9.         The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris

    10.       Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss

     

     

    ­ Hit Wonders: Twenty-Three Works That Earned a Top Slot but No Other

    Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (DC)

    Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (MD)

    The Awakening by Kate Chopin (SMK)

    Bhagavadgita (CD)

    The Birthday Party and The Homecoming by Harold Pinter (AMH)

    The Book of Leviathan by Peter Blegvad (MSB)

    Casa Guidi Windows by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (AT)

    The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade by Herman Melville (ALK)

    Embers by Sándor Márai (RW)

    Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (JW)

    I, Claudius by Robert Graves (AGold)

    Ill Seen, Ill Said by Samuel Beckett (JB)

    JR by William Gaddis (LMill)

    The Golden Argosy edited by Van H. Cartmell and Charles Grayson (SK)

    L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola (TW)

    Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (TCB)

    Nana by Émile Zola (TW)

    The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis (DFW)

    Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence (AF)

    The Outward Room by Millen Brand (PCam)

    Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe (JC)

    The Time of the Doves by Mercè Rodoreda (SC)

    The Woman in the Dunes by Kobo Abe (KHarr)

     

     

     

     

    New List

    Pearl Cleage

    1. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).
    2. A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947).
    3. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937).
    4. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960).
    5. A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry (1959).
    6. Gorilla, My Love by Toni Cade Bambara (1972)..
    7. Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller (1934).
    8. Hedda Gabler by Henrik Ibsen (1890).
    9. China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston (1980).
    10. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939).




     

    Classic List

    Edwidge Danticat

    1. Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937).
    2. The Stranger by Albert Camus (1942).
    3. Germinal by Émile Zola (1884).
    4. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison (1952).
    5. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez (1967).
    6. Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987).
    7. Night by Elie Wiesel (1958).
    8. The Color Purple by Alice Walker (1982).
    9. The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925).
    10. Masters of the Dew by Jacques Roumain (1947).


     





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