Thursday, September 10, 2009

For Your Reading Pleasure

Inspired by an invigorating literary conversation on Twitter with my friends @Amalari and @Angpang, I decided to compile a list of my favorite books in the categories of fiction and biography, the two categories I love best.

The list below is not even close to complete nor did I go about compiling it in any scientific way. I merely went to most of my bookcases and wrote down the titles of books that have swept me away - from my own work, my own world, and my own sense of time and responsibilities. These are the books that made me glad I was an adult and could stay up all night reading without parental interference or the need for a flashlight under the covers. In a few cases, they're books I did read with said flashlight when I was young enough to be told to get to sleep by said parents.

Because of the "swept away" criterion, I have not included books I think are very, very good, but which fall more in the eat-your-vegetables category of reading than in the tear-through-a-box-of-Belgian-chocolates category. (Don't get me wrong. I love vegetables. That's just a different list.) Mrs. Dalloway, for example, is a fine book, but for sheer delight and irresistible forward motion, it cannot compare to Michael Cunningham's extraordinary The Hours. (If you've only seen the dumbed-down movie in which the central plot complexity is given away in a very early frame, you've missed quite a treat. The book requires you to be smart as it magnetically pulls you in and along; the movie requires only that you be awake.)

Just so you know, it's killing me a little not to include mysteries, which I adore. Agatha Christie, P.D. James, Ngaio Marsh, Josephine Tey, Sara Paretsky, P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Sayers, Dick Francis, Elizabeth George, Elizabeth Peters, Deborah Crombie, Patricia Cornwell, Anne Perry, Sue Grafton, Nevada Barr - and many others whose names I'm sure will come to me the instant I hit "Publish Post" - have afforded me hours adding up to years of pleasure, puzzlement and revelation. But that's also a list for another day.

Finally, I didn't have time to go to all my bookcases this afternoon. Even if I had, there would still be omissions. I loan and give books to people all the time, so my collection doesn't begin to include all the books I once owned, let alone the ones I've borrowed from other people, loved, and returned.

For all these reasons, the list below is only the beginning. I doubt I'll ever manage to compile a truly complete list of my favorites, but I promise to get closer in subsequent posts. Will you add your favorites by commenting on this post, either with the names of your additions or with a link to your own list on your own blog?

Biographies (I think the first four are superb, the others very good):

Savage Beauty, by Nancy Milford (about Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Henry James, by Leon Edel

John Adams, by David McCullough

Emerson: The Mind on Fire, by Robert Richardson (about Ralph Waldo)

Frida, by Hayden Herrera (about Frida Kahlo)

The Lonely Empress, by Joan Haslip (about Elisabeth of Austria)

Eleanor of Acquitaine, by Alison Weir

Fiction (in no particular order, because I follow no shelving system. I rely on my memory when I'm looking for a book; the occasional frustration caused by memory lapses is more than outweighed by
the adventure of running into something unexpected or forgotten):

Iain Pears, The Dream of Scipio

David Liss, A Conspiracy of Paper

Robert Girardi, Madeleine's Ghost

Gloria Naylor, Bailey's Cafe

Reynolds Price, Kate Vaiden

Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, Chronicle of a Death Foretold

Graham Greene, Our Man in Havana, The End of the Affair, The Quiet American

Aldous Huxley, After Many a Summer Dies the Swan

Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, Time in its Flight

Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

Gregory Maguire, Wicked

Jane Smiley, A Thousand Acres

Orhan Pamuk, Snow

Arturo Perez-Reverte, The Seville Communion

George MacDonald Fraser, Flashman

Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

Jhumpa Lahiri, Interpreter of Maladies (short stories, which normally irritate me slightly, but these are a marvel)

Alice McDermott, Charming Billy

Joan Chase, During the Reign of the Queen of Persia

Joseph Heller, Catch-22

Anne Tyler, Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Ladder of Years, The Accidental Tourist, Breathing Lessons (all her books are highly readable; these are my favorites)

John Irving, A Prayer for Own Meany, The Cider House Rules, The World According to Garp (ditto the Anne Tyler comment)

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Kent Haruf, Plainsong

William Faulkner, Light in August, The Sound and the Fury, As I Lay Dying (my all-time favorite writer; these are the best of the best, but all his books are glorious)

Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things

Wally Lamb, She's Come Undone

Haruki Murakami, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Michael Cunningham, The Hours

Pat Conroy, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, The Water is Wide, The Lords of Discipline

Theodore Dreiser, An American Tragedy

Anthony Trollope, The Barsetshire Novels

Harper Lee, To Kill a Mockingbird (in my opinion, THE Great American Novel)

Mary Renault, The King Must Die

Dorothy Allison, Bastard out of Carolina

Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine

Steven Millhauser, Martin Dressler

Thomas Hardy, The Return of the Native

Julia Glass, Three Junes

Michael Malone, Handling Sin

Paul Theroux, The Mosquito Coast

J. D. Salinger, Nine Stories (the sine qua non of short stories)

Tom Wolfe, A Man in Full

Michel Faber, The Crimson Petal and the White

Evelyn Waugh, Decline and Fall

John Fowles, The Magus

Madeleine L'Engle, A Wrinkle in Time

Louisa May Alcott, Little Men, Jo's Boys

Mona Simpson, Anywhere But Here

Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

Jane Mendelsohn, I Was Amelia Earhart