Like all writers, I love to read.
There are certain books that, for me, set the gold standard for writing in that they change the filters through which I see the world permanently. I come back to them time and again—not as badges of honor to bandy about during cocktail hour, (James Joyce, Ulysses—I admit I never made it past the prologue) but quietly, inside my heart, as my own life unfolds page by page.
If there is a uniting theme to these 15 works I guess it would be the strangeness of the world, the strength of certain people who inhabit it, the unavoidable sadnesses we must all endure and the secret beauty that pokes its head around every crumbling door, lifts up the wings of the most common mosquito and flavors every cup of water, be it from a tired, dusty well or a bubbling stream.
If you, like me, are always looking for the next great book, here you go.
In this novel about twin Indian boys born and abandoned in Ethiopia, Cutting For Stone ties together complex individual stories with the greater narrative of the turbulent 1960’s in which the characters live. Vergese’s mastery is in articulating the unique paradox of being trapped between cultures, and the ways in which our basic humanity can transcend all circumstances.
2) Fall On Your Knees by Anne Marie McDonald
After a slow start, Fall On Your Knees blooms into a tour de force, exposing the Piper family secrets with relentless veracity. This book takes us to places we thought we never wanted to go and will haunt even the most jaded reader long after the last page is turned. I often cite this as my number favorite book of all time.
3) Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
A kind of adult version of Dr. Suess’s “Sneetches”, Geek Love tells the story of a circus family who breeds their own children to be freaks. I am particularly fond of books that work despite a seemingly impossible premise, and this is one of them. No stone is left unturned on the subjects of family dynamics, jealousy, greed, and abiding, if twisted, love.
4) Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund
If I could choose to emulate a fictional character, Una Spenser would be at the top of the list. The barely mentioned wife of the whaler in in the original Moby Dick, Una Spenser is given her—not just day, but life—in the sun in this lush, imaginative tale. Feminists (and anyone who loves women) will rejoice as she comes out of the shadows and claims what is hers, despite tremendous odds.
5) Let the Great World Spin by Collum McCann
Stringing together several disparate stories with a deft hand, Collum McCann has built a thing of beauty and unreasonable breadth, much like his tightrope walker creates in this amazing book. Taking apart the pieces of people living in New York in the 1970’s—from an Irish monk residing among prostitutes to mothers grieving the loss of their sons in the Vietnam war—and putting them back together in unexpected ways creates a rich, unforgettable tapestry of human anguish and hope.
I first read this book in college, and I remember feeling truly empowered by it. Janie, the main character, goes through three major transformations in her life which are precipitated by the three different relationships she has with successive husbands. In each of her incarnations, she becomes stronger and more self actualized than the last, until finally, she is woman enough to bear the grief of her last husbands passing and continue living joyously on her own.
7) Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
Housekeeping is such an odd book, sort of a sustained meditation on the lonely out-of-the-way lives of Ruth and her sister who are cared for by a progression of eccentric relatives. The slow erosion and decay of the house the characters live in as well as the characters themselves is an homage to the constantly shifting reality of life, and the melancholy, wistful tone somehow makes us long for all the lost things in our own lives.
8) Tinkers by Paul Harding
Tinkers would make a lovely companion book to Housekeeping, as it zeros in on just a few characters but manages to encompass the immensity of time and the universal experiences of loss and love in a similar tone. Told from the viewpoint of a dying man whose brain as it disintegrates becomes capable of profound comprehension, this is the sort of story that—for a brief moment—seems to make everything in the world make sense.
9) Of Plagues and Peoples by William H. McNeill
The only non-fiction book I’ve included on this list, Of Plagues and People struck a real nerve with me. It posits that human civilization was actually forged purposefully by microscopic organisms, and that we are—in a very real way— merely puppets responding to the puppet master.
I have no idea how Rohinton Mistry packed all the elements of this almost unbearably sad, exquisitely written, epic novel into one work, but it is something to behold. Capturing the madness of poverty in India and the things it drives people to do, it will leave an echo in your heart for years to come.
11) 1984 by George Orwell
Like many, I initially read this in high school when unrequited love was the main dish of the day. The fact that is has (spoiler alert) a sad ending just went to prove that my teen aged cynicism was well founded. But 1984 is not just a sad story, nor is it simply a political statement, it preservers as a classic because Orwell conjures deep characters living on the fringes of a shallow world—as all the most interesting people do.
12) The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields
The Stone Diaries, like several of the novels I’ve chosen, has hard scrabble beginnings. But the spare life of its humble characters unfolds over generations into a yawning family tree, each branch of which is captivating in its own way. I love the way Sheild’s story feels as inevitable as life, and yet as accidental as choosing the wrong person to marry.
The language of The Good Earth is plain but its subject, complex; the shifting fortunes of a Chinese family and their entire culture in the early 1920’s. Despite not being Chinese herself, Buck deftly transports us to a time when women were severely oppressed and castes were firmly in place. We watch in tense confusion as an old way of life crumbles even as a new way of life has yet to be discovered.
14) How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
This heartbreaking story of the Morgans, a Welsh mining family who watch helplessly as their modest but bucolic way of life falls apart in the wake of greedy mine owners, is one of the saddest I’ve ever read. To bear witness to the pain these characters feel is challenging, but important, and is mitigated by Llewellyn’s gorgeous and poetic language.
15) A Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin
Ah, that A Winter’s Tale had been left undisturbed by Hollywood brass. In book form, it is an ephemeral story, at once magical legend and character driven romance. It is the original siren song that sent me on my way to Manhattan; city of dreams and nightmares and everything in between. If you can’t quite get a handle on what’s actually happening in A Winter’s Tale, don’t fret, Helprin knows quite well and will give you plenty of room to speculate.
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Editor: Catherine Monkman
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