Yes, it is about a man's affair with his stepdaughter, and yes, the content is devastating, but it is also perhaps the most thrilling celebration of words I've ever encountered. English was Nabokov's third language after Russian and French, and it is said this book was in fact about his passionate love affair with the English language. For as many times as I've read this novel, I discovered a whole new level of nuance when I listened to Jeremy Irons reading it on tape.
Autobiography of a Face By Lucy Grealy
A memoir of a woman who survived a rare form of cancer as a child, only to have to live out her life trying to survive disfigurement and endless reconstructive surgeries. The book is brilliant because it takes one person's tragedy and uses it to explain why none of us feel we are pretty enough. It also gives chilling insight into children's capacity for cruelty. Lucy died last year at the age of 39. It's my personal goal to make sure people keep reading her book.
Random Family By Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
LeBlanc spent ten years following two girls into their adulthood in the South Bronx. Their lives are surrounded by drugs, crime and so much madness that it's amazing they are able to function, much less make a stab at raising their children. The subjects are neither condemned nor exonerated; they're just human beings who've been born into incredibly hard lives. It's a chance to read how news stories and welfare laws are lived out by real people.
The Magic Mountain By Thomas Mann
Hefty German literature that is well worth your time. Hans Castorp goes to visit his cousin in a sanatorium and winds up staying for years. If the story seems a little slow at first, believe me, it is, but therein lies the beauty. The Magic Mountain is the perfect cure for too much television and a life that is pulled in a million directions. It will teach you the pleasures of staying still and concentrating deeply on the smallest moments of life, as those turn out to be the moments that yield the greatest revelations. I so wish I had written this book.
Niagara Falls All Over Again By Elizabeth McCracken
This is a love story, but not that kind of love story. It's a book about two comedians who come up together through vaudeville, make it big in the movies, and fizzle out on television. Through all the jokes, fame and failure, their relationship is as complicated and true as any marriage. The story is so funny and so tender I thought it should have been a huge bestseller. When you finish it, treat yourself to McCracken's first novel, The Giant's House.
The Good Soldier By Ford Madox Ford
I buy this book in bulk so I can give a copy to anyone who might wander by. It is a gorgeous and heartbreaking novel with one of the most ambitious narrative structures I've ever seen. Two couples are best friends. Three of them are involved in an intricate series of lies. The fourth, who has been kept in the dark, is the one who tells us what happened. The novel has one of the greatest opening lines: "This is the saddest story I have ever heard."
The Human Stain By Philip Roth
Lists of well-loved books are always changing—I just read this novel last week. It starts as a story about political correctness and moral superiority, but it becomes an examination of identity in the deepest sense. There isn't another novelist who comes close to Roth for passion and relentless honesty. Read his first book, Goodbye, Columbus, and his Pulitzer Prize-winner, American Pastoral, to see the full arc of Roth's extraordinary career.