I am a list maker by nature, but this catalogue of my favorite novels is difficult to undertake. In the same way the features of a landscape change as the sun sails overhead, the stories I love shift around constantly in my thinking; now illuminated, now in shadow.
So here are just a few of my favorite novels. They are not ranked in any particular order, and I’m sure every time I look back at this I’ll lament the authors and titles I left out. But if stranded on a desert island, these are the books I’d like to have with me, to keep me company in my solitude.
I first read a terrible prose translation of The Odyssey in high school that left me cold. When I read this translation by Robert Fitzgerald, it was a whole new experience, and it lit my fire Big Time. The Odyssey is meant to be sung, and Fitzgerald’s rendering is truly lyrical. I developed a pretty heavy crush on Odysseus, so crafty and clever. His reunion with Penelope is one of the most powerful depictions of love and fidelity I’ve ever seen. “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending…”
Shirley Jackson’s stories creep me out. It’s a delicious feeling that keeps me up at night thinking — and peering wide eyed into the shadows. Since reading The Lottery, I’ve loved everything I’ve been able to get my paws on. She’s a master of tormenting you (in a good way) with the terrible weight of what she leaves unsaid. There’s a sense of spiraling menace that frightens and enthralls. I feel like I can’t grasp the whole picture, and it’s maddening and wonderful at once. The story of the benighted Blackwood family is Ms. Jackson at her best.
I read this book during a long bus trip when I was fifteen. I was so racked by chills, I thought I was running a fever when I finally reached my destination. Beloved is hard to categorize: a ghost story, an intimate history, and a horror story — the monster here being the legacy of slavery in America. It’s also a sobering and heartbreaking meditation on motherhood, memory, and the terrible extremities we’ll go to for love. How do we continue to live after unspeakable suffering and trauma? This is a beautiful and haunting book.
I think I read this book in two days. It was literally glued to my fingers. Gillian Flynn’s prowess at managing insanely intricate plots, and characters more layered than onions knocked my socks off. I like dark, and this book’s got darkness to spare. But what really shot the story through the stratosphere was the feeling I had of being swept up in the torrent of the Dunnes’ folie a deux, and all of it laced with biting humor. When I finished it, once I’d collected my jaw from the floor, I ran out and bought her two previous novels.
I found this novel in a used book store in Bangor, Maine, while I was home at my dad’s house for winter break from college. I disappeared into my bedroom and was not seen again until the New Year. This book is so dense and sprawling, from a snowball thrown in Deptford in 1908 to…well, to the places where life merges with myth and magic. It blew my wee brain. And the best part is Fifth Business is only the first book in the Deptford Trilogy, which will blow your wee brain, concluding with the aptly named World of Wonders.
I didn’t read this book until I was in my thirties. A misguided babysitter sat me down in front of the animated movie at too tender an age, and it took decades to overcome the trauma. When I finally girded myself and checked out Watership Down from the library, I discovered a story more beautiful, poignant, and unforgettable than I could have imagined. The prose is dreamy and subtle, and the tale of Fiver, Hazel, and their companions consumed me to the very end. I still think about these characters with affection and longing.
This is actually a series of seven books, but let’s treat it as one story, which it is. I love Stephen King. I started reading his books when I was about ten, and he remains my favorite author. I love the mythical elements, his unlikely heroes, and the Dark Tower series truly is the nexus where all that is wonderful in his storytelling converges. Roland Deschain and his ka-tet, and their quest for the Dark Tower, would make Joseph Campbell sing for joy. I stopped reading book seven two years ago because I couldn’t bear for the tale to end.
Once you meet him, I challenge you to forget Ignatius J. Reilly. He is an extraordinary character, a localized hurricane of personhood: bombastic, histrionic, mendacious, slothful, and above all, freaking hilarious. This book is relentlessly and brutally funny, and as I devoured it I was dizzy from the pace and sore from laughing so hard. By the end, I felt like I’d been beaten mercilessly with a stick, but in the best way. And its setting, the city of New Orleans, is a larger-than-life character in her own right.
I read this book in the eighth grade. It was the first time I really considered justice, and even more importantly, our personal responsibility to it. The book is at turns funny, scary, sad, provocative, and always firmly set in Scout’s inimitable voice. I felt submerged in her world, so evocative and atmospheric was this book. To this day, in times of trouble, I remember the unselfconscious decency and quiet courage of Atticus Finch. Would I do the right thing, even at my own peril? I hope so. To Kill a Mockingbird challenges me to try.
Yes, it’s another series. I’m cheating so I can take more books with me to that desert island. I just love these novels. The worlds are so expertly crafted, the characters so richly drawn, and the plots, subplots, and sub-subplots are like a spider web that holds you entangled. You probably know that Mr. Martin is not squeamish about killing off the characters we love. For me, this ratchets up the tension. You truly can’t guess what’s going to happen next, and no one is safe. And I’m rather partial to dragons.