I’m joining up with Sarah Bessey today (who has been sparking on online peek into one another’s bookshelves all week) to write about my favorite novels that I would recommend over and over again. The standbys, the ones that never let you down. I actually really suck at making lists like these (my memory is the size of a walnut), but I tried hard to remember the fiction books that changed me. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. The Brothers K by David James Duncan. Not the famous one you are thinking of, this one still gets at all the emotions of the human condition. Long, but not sprawling, I found this novel about families to be fascinating.
2. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. My mom has always said this is one of her favorite books, and I agree. Don’t we all love immigrant stories?
3. The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. I used to have it in my head that Kingsolver was a “popular” author in the vein of John Grisham or something. But boy, can that lady write well. This books makes me laugh and sob (sometimes on the same page) and I love how Kingsolver captures a whole lot about both toddlers and (unexpected) mothers in this book.
4. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book made me feel such intense emotions I felt angry with it at the end (it was that heartbreaking). Don’t bother with the terrible movie, just read this incredibly kind account of the devastation of 9/11.
5. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers. Fiction? Memoir? Literary Non-Fiction? Who knows. All I know is that I read this when I was 19 and I realized there are some people out there for whom the rules don’t apply (writing or life-wise) and that Eggers was one of them. I still find this book absolutely refreshing (and funny, and devastating).
6. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery . I recommend this book to every person I know who loves books. An underappreciated recent publication, this book is so well-written and tackles so many important themes that you will walk away feeling both a better and a smarter person after reading this book. This one is about loneliness, risk, alienation, happiness and tragedy. I will give you a dollar if you hate it, ok? That’s how much I think you will like it.
7. Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Well. This is the book that shaped my young adulthood, so I can’t leave it off the list. I still think about this book all the time, and how so many people I know mirror certain aspects of the text. How it gets to the heart of what all of us confused adolescents (and beyond) really want: to be in the business of saving many lives, even if we can’t articulate that.
8. East of Eden by John Steinbeck. I described it to my friend as “Steinbeck rewrites the book of Genesis based on a translation of The Message”. Epic in so many ways, it is the little details that get you. You know as a reader that Steinbeck gets the whole misery of the human condition thing, and he is gentle with it.
9. The Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling. Obviously. These books made me think more thoughts about God, good and evil, friendship, and love than most “Christian” fiction ever did. I wish I could have one teaspoon of the wit and whimsy of Rowling.
Ok, I have to be honest. I am going to stop at 9 because anything else will not really be true to the list. (There are also all sorts of embarrassing books I read and love that don’t have the same, erm, timeless appeal–YA books and the like–that I will not be putting on the Internets).
As I was writing this list I realized that in recent years I have derived the most pleasure from reading nonfiction essays from famous fiction writers. People who are so brilliant that their novels make me feel small and diminished seem to open up my world in their small and personal writings. Off the top of my head these would be David Foster Wallace, Michael Chabon, Ayelat Waldman, Madeleine L’Engle, and good ol’ Annie Lamott.
Ok, that was a ramble.
I want to know yours: what are the books you are always recommending? What are the books that give you the greatest sense of pleasure?