100 Favorite Books

August 16, 2015

A foolish exercise. A year or so ago, I put together a list of my 50 favorite novels on a now-defunct site I shared with Cate. I knew right away it was a flawed list. In the first place, I limited myself to novels, which meant there were wonderful story collections and poetry collections and memoirs and other books that were not included in the list. In the second place, I made the mistake of listing books I had just read. I know myself well enough to know that I can fall victim to a recency effect. My opinion of a book often changes overtime, and so some things were ranked much higher than they should have been.

And so, because I am a sick, sick man, I’m doing it again. Over the next few days, I’ll roll out a list of my 100 favorite books ever, as of this moment. They may be from any genre. They may be on here because I love them, because I know they are great, because they changed how I thought about something, or in the case of the top-tier, all of the above.

As best I can tell, the pool I am drawing from consists of seven or eight hundred books. On Goodreads, I am currently listed as having read 624, but I’m sure I have missed many things that were read in younger days and then forgotten. Obviously, such books have no place on this list.

Additionally, I am limiting myself to books I read before the start of this calendar year, meaning I have had at least seven and a half months to calm down about them. I have read several books this year that will almost certainly push onto the list next year. I do intend to update this every year. Because, again, I am a sick man. So, without further ado, here is the first part of the list. I give a sentence or two explanation for each book because otherwise, I would die.

To be helpful, I have marked non-novels thusly:

*Story collections (10)
**Poetry (8)
***Memoir (5)
∞Nonfiction (5)
†Drama (5)
‡Children’s books (2)

  1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – I simply have a hard time imagining someone doing a better job painting a full and nuanced picture of humanity.
  2. Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon – I could draw parallels between this and Anna, but let’s just say this might be number one if you caught me on a different day.
  3. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville – Or this might because, well, it makes you feel that there are no answers in life, only questions.
  4. Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson* – Sort of a story collection. Sort of a novel. This book has certainly had a greater effect on me than anything I’ve ever read. And like any of those above it, could be number one on a given day. The last time I read it was probably the 10th or 11th overall and I found I’d gotten too close, I saw too much of Anderson’s process. Anyway, this is the lowest it will ever be.
  5. The Children’s Book by A.S. Byatt – I think Byatt understands sexual desire as well as anyone I’ve ever read. That, plus fairy tales, plus 1900s England. It’s great.
  6. Orkney by Amy Sackville – I read this last year or the year before and I have never been able to stop thinking about it. The definition of a haunting novel.
  7. A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway – My favorite Hemingway and maybe the most powerful ending of any book I’ve read.
  8. All the Days and Nights by William Maxwell* – Short stories perfected. I’ve never read a better story writer than William Maxwell.
  9. The Great Enigma by Tomas Tranströmer** – My favorite collection of poems ever. No contest.
  10. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood – This isn’t as famous as The Handmaid’s Tale, but it should be. A brilliantly constructed mystery with all of the usual Atwood themes.
  11. All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren – The protagonist in one of my unpublished novels is named after the protagonist in this book. There is a reason for that. This is what I think about when I think about Southern Gothic.
  12. Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri* – Lahiri does a better job talking about cultural disconnection than anyone I’ve read.
  13. Rose by Li-Young Lee** – While The Great Enigma is my favorite volume of poetry, these may be the most beautiful poems I’ve ever read.
  14. The Surrendered by Chang-rae Lee – Lee has a quote about how the best fiction is about when exactly the wrong thing happens and that this can celebrate life. He’s onto something, and this is his best run at it.
  15. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell – I do not understand how Mitchell can so easily write inso many radically different voices, but he is a master at it.
  16. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann – Colum McCann’s best work, which is saying something, since everything he’s written is pretty well a masterpiece.
  17. Bel Canto by Ann Patchett – I am always impressed at what she does with a plot that seems ridiculous. A real and good exploration of love.
  18. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee – I recommend this over the first draft that was recently published.
  19. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez – When I first read this book it confused me. Once one accepts that it is a novel of place and not of people, it reaches new heights.
  20. The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway – I have taught this a great deal in recent years. I think it takes at least two readings to really appreciate. No book I know says more wit fewer words.
  21. Stoner by John Williams – A perfect novel. Truly perfect.
  22. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris*** – Everybody knows about Sedaris. I think this is his best, most of the time.
  23. Zoli by Colum McCann – Here’s Colum McCann again, get used to it. Zoli is one of the best drawn portraits of a single character I have read. Deft and sensitive.
  24. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri* – The book that made her famous. Great stories.
  25. Selected Poems by Robert Frost** – “Mending Wall.” That’s all I have to say.
  26. Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser – When this was initially published it was heavily edited without Dreiser’s consent. Read the edition published by UPenn in 1981.
  27. The Folded Leaf by William Maxwell – Such a quiet book. Not the novel of his that gets the most attention, but his best, I think.
  28. A Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov – Nabokov knew how to write creepy and insane. The construction of this book is fascinating.
  29. Taft by Ann Patchett – The setting of this book isn’t nearly so ambitious as much of what Patchett has written, and that allows for more focus on character.
  30. A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson*** – The best of Bryson’s many wonderful works. The only thing of his I’ve read that feels like an entirely coherent story rather than an assortment of amusing tales.
  31. Complete Poems by T.S. Eliot** – I took a class on Eliot in college and it sold me on his poems. We should all be so careful with the things we make.
  32. The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene∞ – The world is not made the way you think it is made.
  33. Transformations by Anne Sexton** – Eerie and critical of society and honest.
  34. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn – The saddest book I’ve ever read, and that’s saying something.
  35. Fishing the Sloe-Black River by Colum McCann* – These stories showcase McCann’s ability to empathize with the least among us. Something he does better than any writer I’ve read.
  36. Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem – When real people get super powers.
  37. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver* – Carver’s stores are always raw. And that rawness is always true and accurate.
  38. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien – There are not enough books like this.
  39. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien – Or like this. O’Brien takes possession of meta-fiction in a way I’ve never seen anyone else manage.
  40. Possession by A.S. Byatt – This is subtitled: A Romance. Which is good. I always like when people venture into genre and really show how it can be handled by creative mind.
  41. The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Startlingly true. Atwood has said that everything in the book was happening somewhere in the world when she wrote it.
  42. East of Eden by John Steinbeck – It’s easy to understand why so many find Steinbeck to be the great American novelist.
  43. The Street by Ann Petry – The best books, I think, deal with huge issues through the smallness of the individual. This shows race in America in the most honest way I’ve seen.
  44. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton – Wharton was wonderful at seeing through the gilded age, even if she was part of it.
  45. Walden by Henry David Thoreau*** – For a certain kind of person, the idea of being alone in a cabin in the woods and contemplating oneself is extremely appealing. I am such a person.
  46. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe – The best possible response to Heart of Darkness, but not just a response. The story is too human to be mere protest.
  47. Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It by Maile Meloy* – Meloy’s stories remind me of Chekhov in their ability to find deep meaning among the seemingly ordinary and to lead us forth in a truthful, if sometimes hurtful, way.
  48. The Tempest by William Shakespeare† – My favorite Shakespeare. Prospero is wonderful complex.
  49. Macbeth by William Shakespeare – I hated this in high school. Related: In high school, I was dumb.
  50. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon – Here’s Chabon again. This book, perhaps like nothing else he’s written smiles like only the reformed can smile.
  51. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – Whenever I read Irving, I feel a sense of mourning. Even his light is tinged with darkness.
  52. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro – Sometimes, we go to great lengths to excuse ourselves from what we have done and thought.
  53. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Expury‡ – Is this a children’s book? Maybe. Maybe not. Everyone should read it either way.
  54. The Sea by John Banville – A deceptive book. It seems ordinary enough and then, well…
  55. Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak – Sprawling and Russian and honest in a time and place where honesty was forbidden.
  56. Dancer by Colum McCann – Oh, just Colum McCann convincingly writing lots of different people in lots of different place. Largely Russia and New York. Jerk.
  57. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith – The only reason this isn’t taught as much as other coming-of-age novels is because it was written by and about a woman.
  58. In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat by John Gribbin∞ – A splendid explanation of a side of reality that makes no logical sense to those of us in the macroscopic world.
  59. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – I think everyone know about this book.
  60. Dubliners by James Joyce* – I like Joyce best before he gets too pretentious.
  61. A Book of Birds by Amy Tudor** – The only book on here by someone I know. Beautiful poems. Indispensable.
  62. Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller – I read this much later than most, I guess. At the perfect time, probably, as I saw fully the struggles with defining the value of a man.
  63. Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett*** – Friendship, in all its functional disfunction.
  64. Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine – Everything you think you know about gender is wrong and here’s the science to back it up.
  65. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – What do others see when they look at us? Something like this, probably.
  66. Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison – A disturbing book, but disturbing in a way that we all need to experience.
  67. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens – This was required reading in freshman English in high school. It was the first book that made me understand what great literature is.
  68. Catch-22 by Joseph Heller – In some ways, this is to war what Invisible Man is to racism. A brilliant exposition of the absurdity.
  69. First Love by Ivan Turgenev – I’m about to delve more into Turgenev, but this one was heart breaking, even more so because of it’s brevity.
  70. The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey – Just a perfect retelling of an old fairy tale. Perfect.
  71. No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe – People forget that Achebe wrote books other than Things Fall Apart. They shouldn’t. This follows that story. It’s wonderful.
  72. King Lear by William Shakespeare – Imagine if you kept making the worst possible decisions.
  73. The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne‡ – Milne has a wisdom in the second set of Pooh stories. They are gentle and earnest and true.
  74. The Stranger by Albert Camus – I don’t know why Pooh is sandwiched by such grimness, but there it is.
  75. American Pastoral by Philip Roth – To quote my college lit professor: “I’m no Philip Roth fan, but American Pastoral…
  76. Tinkers by Paul Harding – I didn’t think this was a great book when I finished it, but it wouldn’t leave me alone. It still hasn’t.
  77. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin – All this did was remake the world.
  78. Selected Stories by Anton Chekhov* – Oh hell, pick any collection of Chekhov short stories. They’re all great.
  79. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver* – Carver’s stories are brutal. He holds up a mirror and shows you how you really are.
  80. A Model World by Michael Chabon – Bright, shining stories.
  81. Love Is a Dog from Hell by Charles Bukowski** – I am terrible and you are too, and that’s just fine.
  82. Selected Poems by Langston Hughes** – I love the sound of Hughes’ poetry. If anyone wants to come read it aloud to me, just say so.
  83. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsey-Abaire – I’ve taught this as often as any text, and it happened entirely by accident.
  84. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking – If you want an overview of physics, this is where you start.
  85. Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris*** – Sedaris normal humor but with a little more heart than he often shows.
  86. For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway – The opposite of what Hemingway is supposed to be and still wonderful in the ways Hemingway is nearly always wonderful.
  87. My Antonia by Willa Cather – A wonderful novel about frontier America and its settlers.
  88. The Awakening by Kate Chopin – One of the great rule-challenging books.
  89. Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee – Two of his in a row. Both about different kinds of regret.
  90. A Gesture Life by Chang-rae Lee – And how responsible we are for the things that happen around us if we do not try to stop them.
  91. Middlemarch by George Eliot – Give me Eliot over Austen any day of the week. A wonderfully wry book.
  92. 2666 by Roberto Bolano – I will never read this book again. It is a masterpiece and I am glad that I read it. But it is a soul-killing masterpiece.
  93. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangaremba – I read this for an African lit class in graduate school and it’s always stayed with me. At its heart, it’s about the pressure to do better.
  94. The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger – This book is as misunderstood by the general population as anything I’ve read.
  95. Home by Marilynne Robinson – I like this better then Gilead and in my circles, at least, that makes me weird.
  96. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers – Like The Sun Also Rises but with characters who are 15 years older.
  97. The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea by Yukio Mishima – This feels like a forerunner to everything Hideki Murakami does.
  98. Madam Bovary by Gustave Flaubert – A wonderful book for showing us how stupid the world is. Not for the optimist in you.
  99. An American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser – Dreiser did not think well of America and its obsession with wealth. It’s hard to argue with the case this novel lays out. A tragedy that really is distinctly American.
  100. The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon – What if Jesus came back as a a gay man? Also, a murder mystery.

July Book Log

August 2, 2015

1. A Thousand Mornings by Mary Oliver (3/5) – This has to be one of the most uneven collections of poetry I’ve ever read. Some of it was transcendently brilliant and some of it made me wonder who would possibly think to include it in a book of poetry. So, naturally, what you end up with as a whole is something right in the middle of the road.

2. Ancestors by William Maxwell (4/5) – This is the first nonfiction I’ve read from Maxwell and, while not perfect, it was very good. In this book, Maxwell traces his family as far back as he can and tells all he can learn of their stories. When he is very far back, this makes for some dry chapters that aren’t much more than listings of facts and circumstance, but as he gets closer to the present and more reflective, the book becomes enchanting. Chapter 17 is among the best writing I’ve ever read. I’ve yet to be anything other than glad to read something by him.

3. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (5/5) – A wonderful collection of short stories. There are no faults or let downs here as she describes the lives of people who are often caught between worlds and classes and societies. Having read this and Americanah, I’m going to read her other two books an everything else she writes forever.

4. Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (3/5) – This was both a classic I hadn’t read and a book on Cate’s list for me this year. I thought it was fine. Alcott can write nice prose, but there is a real lack of conflict throughout much of the book and many of the characters – especially the mother – are so idealized as to be completely unbelievable.

5. The Bees by Carol Ann Duffy (5/5) – The second collection of her poetry I’ve read in as many months. I quite liked Feminine Gospels, but this was even better, I think. I struggle to write about poetry with any real insight, but I think she’s someone I’ll revisit often. She has a knack for conveying feeling without syrup.

6. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole (2/5) – This was  the longest member of my too-read shelf. I had actually been looking forward to it, which made it even more disappointing. I don’t always care for picaresque works and this one, I thought, went on far too long. If it had been 150 pages, I’d have loved it, but 400 pages of the same jokes eventually wore thin.

7. Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint-Expury (5/5) – I read this because I came across it and because re-reading The Little Prince recently was so moving. It’s one of the best memoirs I’ve read. Saint-Expury had that rare gift of being able to write truth after truth after truth without ever seeming to preach. I may have read more of this aloud to Cate than any other book this year.

8. Binocular Vision by Edith Pearlman (4/5) – Pearlman is a brilliant writer whose stories I hadn’t encountered before. In general, I found many of the stories to be wonderfully inventive. The only issues, really, is that this is a very long collection and with short stories, that can become dangerous as it allows tics and tendencies to become easily exposed. Still, I’ll certainly get a hold of my own copy for this and my writing students will be reading some of these at different times.