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


Angela said...

Wow, this will keep me busy.

Definitely getting myself the Eleanor of Aquitine biography as I already know a little of her amazing story.

I have about 10 of the fiction ones you list in the house already on my 'to read’ pile which now is actually a shelf. Must try William Faulkner too (I have Go Down Moses). Love Jane Eyre! How many girls fall for Mr Rochester and search for him all their lives? Also your Irving trio is exactly what I would have picked.

As I say, lots of food for thought. And thanks for my mention too.

Amalari said...

Great list! We agree on most authors and most books but I would add: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, J. M. Coetzee, Jane Austen, E. M. Forster, Patricia Highsmith, Thomas Hardy, a single book by Larry McMurtry, "Lonesome Dove,"and Charlotte Bronte. That's without consulting the bookshelves in which case I would be all day listing them all.

Megan said...

Wow - what an excellent list of books! I am printing it off immediately so that I can read the ones that haven't yet made it onto my own list. I would also have to add Toni Morrison (esp. Song of Solomon) to the list. Can't wait to read some fabulous books!

Anonymous said...

(clap clap)
I love listS of things to do! Book to read? Best of all:)

Lea said...

At last, the long-awaited Reading List! Thank you, Debra. I look forward to becoming Well-Read. Hope to connect with you soon... this week or next?

E Duff said...

Great list, Debra. I'm adding a few of these to the list I carry in my wallet in case I have a few unexpected minutes in a good bookstore! Particularly enjoyed seeing The Seville Communion on the list; that's one I recommend as well.

Angela said...

Thought it was worth adding this Big Read list from the BBC.

This is the top 50 must-read titles, as voted by the British Public in 2003. (the full 100 titles can be found at )

1. The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien
2. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
3. His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman
4. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams
5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, JK Rowling
6. To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
7. Winnie the Pooh, AA Milne
8. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, CS Lewis
10. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
11. Catch-22, Joseph Heller
12. Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
13. Birdsong, Sebastian Faulks
14. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier
15. The Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger
16. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame
17. Great Expectations, Charles Dickens
18. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
19. Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Louis de Bernieres
20. War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy
21. Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
22. Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, JK Rowling
23. Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, JK Rowling
24. Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban, JK Rowling
25. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien
26. Tess Of The D'Urbervilles, Thomas Hardy
27. Middlemarch, George Eliot
28. A Prayer For Owen Meany, John Irving
29. The Grapes Of Wrath, John Steinbeck
30. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
31. The Story Of Tracy Beaker, Jacqueline Wilson
32. One Hundred Years Of Solitude, Gabriel García Márquez
33. The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett
34. David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
35. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
36. Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson
37. A Town Like Alice, Nevil Shute
38. Persuasion, Jane Austen
39. Dune, Frank Herbert
40. Emma, Jane Austen
41. Anne Of Green Gables, LM Montgomery
42. Watership Down, Richard Adams
43. The Great Gatsby, F Scott Fitzgerald
44. The Count Of Monte Cristo, Alexandre Dumas
45. Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh
46. Animal Farm, George Orwell
47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens
48. Far From The Madding Crowd, Thomas Hardy
49. Goodnight Mister Tom, Michelle Magorian
50. The Shell Seekers, Rosamunde Pilcher

Nene said...

What a lovely list. Many I didn't know, quite a few I love too.
One that made me raise an eyebrow was Pamuk's Snow. I found it SO MUCH in the vegetable category. I'm ever so glad that I've read it and found it to be a fantastic book, but I can't say I tore through it like a box of Belgian Chocolates!

Like Amalari and Angpang and others I could add many, but will stick to just one, the best book I've read in the last year or so: Turbulence by Giles Foden. Totally Chocolate!

Huw said...

Oh golly, I'm intimidated by such a long list of books, knowing that I will never read half of them. Those that I've read on this list I have loved - especially the Marquez and the Life of Pi - though Snow took me forever because it was such hard going! I would add more Graham Greenes - The Power and the Glory, The Heart of the Matter and A Burnt-Out Case. And Don Quixote. And my favourite mystery writer is G K Chesterton.

Rebekah said...

Hi Debra - Am busy reading the few on your list that I hadn't heard of/hadn't gotten to (like Life of Pi).

Would add The Book Thief by Markus Zusak. Best book I have read in a long time.

And I too love mysteries. My new favorites are Kate Atkinson and Sophie Hannah.