I found it so hard to pick only one Roth novel, but this has astonishing character studies. It's the story of Swede Levov, a golden boy who marries a former Miss New Jersey. It's a perfect-seeming life—except his daughter becomes a terrorist who plants a bomb that kills someone at a nearby post office. Swede tracks her down and finds her living in a hovel with a piece of fabric over her mouth because she doesn't want to breathe in and kill microbes. It's the most incredibly dramatic scene about a father trying to reason with his daughter, who's completely lost to him.
My Ear at His Heart By Hanif Kureishi
I think Kureishi is one of my favorite British writers. This is a memoir of how he came to his profession, and it begins with him finding an abandoned manuscript of his father's. Kureishi's mother was an Englishwoman, and his father had emigrated from India with dreams of literary acclaim (which never happened). I've come across mother-daughter memoirs, but there's something about male relationships that feels more secret and less familiar to me.
Howards End By E.M. Forster
The two very idealistic Schlegel sisters live together in London in the early 20th century. The novel is about the difference between ideas and real life and how both sisters learn to live—and learn to love. I first read it as a teenager, and then I reread it this past Christmas. Margaret and Helen are such unusual characters: two women struggling to put their morals and ideals into practice. And what's beautiful and interesting are their failures.
On Beauty By Zadie Smith
The reason I went back to Howards End was that last fall I read this book, and it is an homage to that novel. This is the story of Howard, an English transplant to a New England university; his African-American wife, Kiki; and their children. Howard is all intellect, and his wife is all instinct and passion. In a way, that's what both books are about—how limited the intellect is. As a teenager, I thought the famous passage in Howards End about "only connect" meant we have to connect with each other. But actually Forster writes about connecting prose to passion. The prose in life is our intellect.
An Intimate History of Humanity By Theodore Zeldin
This is an exploration of the history of emotions and social customs of humans. It was a bit of a hit in England. Zeldin presents stories of people from different cultures and eras on topics such as how the art of conversation developed. I thought people had always had conversations, but apparently they began as exchanges of simple information. I'm making the book sound dry, but it's not. Just look at a couple of the chapter headings—like "Why There Has Been More Progress in Cooking Than in Sex." That's probably the best way to explain it.
An Anthropologist on Mars By Oliver Sacks
Seven case studies of people who have a neurological disorder—for instance, color blindness—and the creativity that comes as a result of the seeming handicap make up this collection. The title is taken from my favorite essay, about Temple Grandin, an autistic woman who has this tremendous compassion for animals and designs very humane slaughterhouses. She says that when she sees human beings interacting with each other, she feels like "an anthropologist on Mars." The most extraordinary scene is when Sacks learns that she's made herself "a hug machine." I suppose what was so moving about it was her resourcefulness. She needed some kind of physical contact but couldn't accept it from someone else, so she created her own way of soothing herself.