Photo: Getty Images/David Levenson
1. Jodi Picoult
Her first story, entitled "The Lobster Which Misunderstood," was written at age 5. From there, she studied at Princeton, publishing two short stories in Seventeen
magazine while still in college and went on to Harvard. To date, she has written 19 books, including popular titles like My Sister's Keeper
, Perfect Match
and The Tenth Circle
"She talks about the gray areas of what most people see as black-and-white issues. She makes you look at situations from each character's point of view rather than from the outside looking in. As a result, after reading one of her books, she tends to flip your thinking about certain subjects and be a little more open-minded." — Sianna, Opelousas, LouisianaBooks that made a difference to Jodi Picoult
2. Elizabeth Berg
Though Elizabeth Berg has loved writing ever since she could hold a pencil, when American Girl
magazine rejected her first poetic submission at 9 years old, it took 25 years for her to try again. A consistent New York Times
best-seller, Berg received the New England Booksellers Award for her body of work in 1997 and her novel, Open House
was chosen as an Oprah's Book Club selection in 2000. She has also been honored for her efforts to raise awareness for breast cancer. Living outside of Chicago with her dog, Homer, Berg has said she dreams of living on a hobby farm with lots of animals, including a chicken.
Read Elizabeth Berg's Kitchen Soup for the Soul
3. Alice Munro
Alice Munro grew up in Wingham, Ontario, reading Eudora Welty
, Carson McCullers
, Katherine Anne Porter, Flannery O'Connor
and James Agee
. Then, she moved on to John Updike
, John Cheever
, Joyce Carol Oates
, Peter Taylor, William Trevor, Edna O'Brien
, Richard Ford and especially William Maxwell. Generally regarded to be one of the world's foremost writers of fiction, Alice Munro's stories involve all-knowing narrators who explain the complexities of life, love and relationship in small-town settings, usually Huron County, Ontario. With comparisons to the works of William Faulkner
and Flannery O'Connor
, her books have brought her international acclaim and a multitude of awards, including the 2009 Man Booker International Prize given to her in Dublin for "a body of work that has contributed to an achievement in fiction on the world stage."
4. Toni Morrison
Toni Morrison was the only African-American child in her first-grade class and the only one who could read. As she grew, she read constantly—Leo Tolstoy
, Fyodor Dostoyevski
, Gustave Flaubert
and Jane Austen. While in college, Toni Morrison began to write a story about a black girl who longed to have blue eyes. Years later, it would evolve into her first novel, The Bluest Eye
. Her second novel, Sula
, was nominated for the National Book Award. And Song of Solomon
, her third, won the National Book Critics Circle Award. Morrison's fifth novel, Beloved
won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction and the American Book Award. Beloved
was also adapted for the screen, starring Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover. The New York Times Book Review went on to name Beloved
the best American novel published in the previous 25 years. In 1993, Morrison became the first African-American woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature. Her first novel published after her win was Paradise
, which completed a trilogy that began with Beloved
5. Kathryn Stockett
Centered on African-American maids working in white households in Jackson, Mississippi, during the 1960s, The Help, Kathryn Stockett's first novel, was one of your most popular reads. Although it was initially rejected by at least 45 publishers, the book became an award-winning film written and directed by Stockett's childhood friend Tate Taylor.
"As heart-warming as it is heartbreaking, The Help tells of the push and pull of politics, community, family and personal struggles to which we can all relate." — Debbie, Preston, Connecticut
6. Anchee Min
Though she was born in Shanghai, the New York Times
has called Anchee Min "a wild, passionate and fearless American writer." At the age of 17, Min was sent to a labor camp near the East China Sea, where she endured unthinkable hardships until she was spotted one day by talent scouts in the cotton field. In 1984, with the help of a friend overseas, Min left China for Chicago. Within six months, she had taught herself English, in part by watching American television shows like Sesame Street
and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood
. Within 10 years, she had published her best-selling memoir, Red Azalea
, weaving the story of her childhood in communist China, which has been compared to The Diary of Anne Frank
. Her books attempt to re-record histories that have been falsely written, often praised as historical fiction of the first order. Her most recent book, Pearl of China
, is a fictional account of the 40 years that writer Pearl S. Buck
spent in China.
Photo: Getty Images/Jemal Countess
7. Maya Angelou
Perhaps the first time you heard of Maya Angelou was in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
, but it was surely not the last. It became the first in a series of six books, chronicling her life. Tackling big themes such as identity, family and racism, she has earned a National Book Award, more than 30 honorary degrees and a Pulitzer Prize nomination. And she's not done yet.
8. Amy Bloom
Author Amy Bloom claims that her best-selling novel Away
changed her life in one significant way: She is no longer mistaken for Judy Blume. With two novels and three collections of short stories to her name, she has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Plus, Bloom writes for magazines such as The New Yorker
, The New York Times Magazine
and O, The Oprah Magazine
. Bloom is currently the Writer-in-Residence at Wesleyan University.
9. Gaile Parkin
In Baking Cakes in Kigali, Angel Tungaraza is a professional cake baker and amateur matchmaker. Having recently moved to Rwanda with her husband, Angel busies herself looking after her five orphaned grandchildren and running her cake business from their home, catering for her neighbors and their friends.
"Not only does she bake amazing personalized cakes for local people of prominence and friends, but she also finds a way to help them socially and uplift their spirits to help them realize their full potential in life and how to achieve them. At times, both a sad and heart-warming novel." — Barbara, Thousand Oaks, California
10. Louise Erdrich
A Native American author of novels, poetry and children's books, Louise Erdrich writes what she knows—her grandfather served as a tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians and her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Her first novel, Love Medicine
, received rave reviews and won the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. Her novel The Plague of Doves
was a finalist for the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Due to her use of setting, her works have drawn comparisons with Nobel Prize–winning author William Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County novels
. Erdrich is also the owner of Birchbark Books
, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Read a review of her latest book, Shadow Tag
11. Michelle Huneven
Michelle Huneven's first two novels—Jamesland
and Round Rock
—were both New York Times
notable books of the year. Her novel Blame
was one of O
magazine's 10 Terrific Reads of 2009
. When not writing novels, Huneven teaches creative writing at UCLA and is an accomplished restaurant critic and food writer for the LA Weekly
and the L.A. Times
. She has also written about food for the New York Times
, O, The Oprah Magazine
and Food & Wine
, winning the 1995 award for newspaper feature writing from the James Beard Foundation.
Get the Reading Group Guide for Blame
12. J. California Cooper
"I love all of her books, but some that really stand out are Homemade Love, Some Love, Some Pain and In Search of Satisfaction. When I need wholesome reading with some substance and wisdom about self-love and acceptance, I turn to J. California Cooper." — Chavon, Bermuda
"Her style is deceptively simple and direct, and the vale of tears in which her characters reside is never so deep that a rich chuckle at a foolish person's foolishness cannot be heard." — Alice Walker, Pulitzer Prize–winning author
Photo: Getty Images/Rogan Coles
13. Margaret Atwood
An author, poet, critic, essayist, feminist and social campaigner, Margaret Atwood began writing at age 6 and hasn't stopped since. Perhaps best known for her novels and short fiction, she also has 17 books of poetry under her belt. Winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award and Prince of Asturias Award for Literature, she was short-listed for the Booker Prize six times, winning once, and has twice won the Governor General's Award.
14. Joyce Carol Oates
As a child, Joyce Carol Oates attended the same rural, upstate New York one-room schoolhouse that her mother once had. At 14, her grandmother gave her a typewriter, and she began writing novel after novel throughout high school and college. By 19, she had won a short-story contest sponsored by Mademoiselle
magazine. Next, she earned her master's degree in a single year at the University of Wisconsin and married her husband, Raymond Smith, after just a three-month courtship. At 28, her first novel, With Shuddering Fall
, won the National Book Award. One of the most prolific authors in recent history, Oates has written 56 novels, more than 30 collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, plays, innumerable essays and book reviews, as well as longer nonfiction works on a myriad of subjects—the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the fiction of Dostoyevsky and James Joyce
, studies of the gothic and horror genres and nonliterary subjects such as painter George Bellows and boxer Mike Tyson. She has also written a series of experimental suspense novels under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith. When not writing, Oates is a Distinguished Professor of Humanities at Princeton University.
15. Jenna Blum
Jenna Blum began her career with a first prize in Seventeen magazine's National Fiction Contest. Her debut novel, Those Who Save Us, is a war story, a mother-daughter drama and a poignant exploration of the legacy of shame. Oh, and an award-winning New York Times best-seller.
"The true-to-life story reflects the courage and solitude that the German women went through during the war. So real, I actually gasped during one of the paragraphs and felt empathy for the character who was being emotionally tortured." — Barbara, Southampton, Pennsylvania
16. Octavia E. Butler
If science fiction thrillers are your thing, you need to read the award-winning Octavia E. Butler. Perhaps best known for her three series—Patternist, Lilith's Brood (Xenogenesis) and Parable—her standalone novels were about vampires and time travel long before they were hip. She described herself as "comfortably asocial—a hermit in the middle of Seattle—a pessimist if I'm not careful, a feminist, a black, a former Baptist, an oil-and-water combination of ambition, laziness, insecurity, certainty and drive."
"Butler's ability to take real life and combine it with science fiction is phenomenal! One can relate to the popular issues and not predict the outcome, and in some cases, the ending is the beginning."
— Angela, La Mesa, California
17. Anita Diamant
The Red Tent
may have been Anita Diamant's debut novel, but even avid readers like Julia Roberts were wowed. The Los Angeles Times
said: "By giving a voice to Dinah, one of the silent female characters in Genesis, the novel has struck a chord with women who may have felt left out of biblical history. It celebrates mothers and daughters and the mysteries of the life cycle."
18. Anna Quindlen
Anna Quindlen joined the world of newspapers as a copy girl at the age of 18. Today, three of her five novels have been made into movies—Black and Blue
, starring Mary Tyler Moore and One True Thing
, starring Meryl Streep
, Renée Zellweger
and William Hurt. Add to that two children's books and six nonfiction books, including Thinking Out Loud
, her 2000 collection of New York Times
Op-Ed "Public and Private" columns and A Short Guide to a Happy Life
in 2000, which made her the first writer ever to have books appear on the fiction, nonfiction and self-help New York Times Best Seller
lists. Quindlen went on to win the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary.
19. Constance Kellough
Constance Kellough is the president of Namaste Publishing, the publisher that brought us Eckhart Tolle
. In her book The Leap
, she proposes that consciousness is a reality anyone can enter at any time. The key is stillness, not silence. The Leap
promises to help you stay present with the physical realm in a profoundly deep way. As the Zen masters say: Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood and carry water.
"This is a book of crystalline vibration...The Leap
assists humanity to purposefully, passionately and compassionately support our leap into a new reality." — Ann, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
Photo: Getty Images/David Livingston
20. Martha Beck
One of 10 children born into a Mormon family in Provo, Utah, Martha Beck has grown to become a prominent sociologist, therapist, life coach, O, The Oprah Magazine
columnist and best-selling author.
"There is no other author, woman, human being in the public eye, that I admire more than Martha. There are no words to describe her genuine fabulousness!"—Susan Spokane, WashingtonBooks by Martha Beck:
Photo: Getty Images/Gerry Penny
21. Karen Armstrong
Detailing history of the three major monotheistic traditions— Judaism, Christianity and Islam —plus Buddhism and Hinduism, the highly successful A History of God
traces the evolution of the idea of God from its ancient roots in the Middle East through to the present day. Karen Armstrong has published more than 20 books on comparative religion to date.
"She became a nun at 16 and, ultimately, one of the world's authorities on religion. She touched me because her research is exhaustive, accurate and respectful of every person's choice of faith." —Catherine, Oakland, CaliforniaMore on the book A History of God
22. Alice Sebold
Alice Sebold has a lot of life experience from which to draw inspiration. Growing up in Wisconsin, she moved to New York to attend Syracuse University. The last day of her freshman year, she was headed back to her dorm when she was raped in a tunnel. She later identified her attacker to the police, and he received the maximum sentence. After college, she became frustrated with her failing ambitions to write poetry and dabbled in heroin. Soon, she moved west, living in a cabin in the woods, writing by the light of a propane lamp. Today, she has three published novels and plenty of loyal readers.
Photo: Getty Images/Michael Gottschalk
23. Lisa See
"Lisa See tells interesting stories that are based in historical fact about Chinese women and their love, friendship, rivalry and miscommunication with one another and men. There is an aesthetic and ethereal quality about her writing. She makes the reader feel like they are part of the scenes she is describing and has us understanding something about that the Chinese culture that even most Chinese do not know about!" — Alice, State College, PennsylvaniaWhat to read next: Snow Flower and The Secret Fan
24. Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society was the first novel from this aunt and niece pair. Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer passed away in February 2008 just after completing the book she had been thinking about for 20 years. Annie Barrows is also the author of the children's series Ivy and Bean and The Magic Half.
"This story, presented in letters, was a well-crafted tale about the German occupation of one of the English Channel islands and its citizens. A story of the power of the human spirit and a community that cared for one another is presented in the most unexpected and skilled way. Readers, treat yourself to this unique story and the people of Guernsey."
— Lynn, Ritchfield, Ohio
25. Jane Bowles
Jane Bowles wrote just one novel, one play and six short stories—of which "Camp Cataract" is generally considered her masterpiece—yet Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote and John Ashbery all considered her to be one of the finest and most underrated writers of American fiction. Bowles' travels, marriage to composer and author Paul Bowles and lesbian explorations all played a big role in inspiring her writings, refining her wit and cultivating a loyal following of devoted readers. Bowles died from complications with alcoholism in Malaga, Spain, in 1973.
26. Elin Hilderbrand
Elin Hilderbrand's novels are set on and around the island of Nantucket where she lives. The author of 12 novels, her 2009 novel The Castaways
became a New York Times
best-seller. When not writing, Hilderbrand stays busy raising her three children. Hilderbrand, an expert at writing the ultimate beach read, says that: "As much as I adored Edgar Sawtelle
, it was not a great book for the beach. It was better by the fire."
Before moving to New York City, Katherine Russell Rich was employed, repeatedly, in the food service industry. Cutting that career path short, she became an assigning editor at various magazines, including GQ
. Fortunately, other writing opportunities did come along. Rich's first book, The Red Devil
, details the clash of personal and professional when she is diagnosed with cancer while working in an industry that exalts perfection. Her second book, Dreaming in Hindi
, is about the year she spent on assignment in India for The New York Times
learning to speak Hindi. The story recounts a wild, sometimes dangerous year that included camel riding through the desert, teaching art classes for the deaf, poets and palaces, a naked photo scandal, a murder plot and the now-infamous Gujarat riots that occurred not far from Udaipur, where 2,000 people were slaughtered. As if that weren't enough, in between stories of India, Rich explores the science of language acquisition—this is a journey of both linguistic awakening and self-discovery.
Read the prologue to Dreaming in Hindi
28. Anita Shreve
Anita Shreve attributes the occasional dark streak in her work to the influence of Eugene O'Neill
, whom she discovered as a senior in high school, having barely recovered from her junior year love affair with Ethan Frome
by Edith Wharton. Shreve became a Boston high school teacher but quit to spend three years in Nairobi, Kenya, reporting for African
magazine. Back in the United States, Shreve worked with a number of magazines until her first novel, Eden Close
, was published in 1989. 16 more novels followed, including the 25th Oprah's Book Club selection, The Pilot's Wife
. In spring 2002, CBS aired the film version of The Pilot's Wife
, starring Christine Lahti, and that fall The Weight of Water
, starring Elizabeth Hurley and Sean Penn
, was released in theaters. Her novel Resistance
was turned into the 2003 movie starring Bill Paxton
and Julia Ormond
Books that made a difference to Anita Shreve
29. Ann Patchett
Ann Patchett's first published byline was in The Paris Review
while she was still in college, but that didn’t stop Seventeen
magazine from publishing only one in five of the nonfiction pieces she produced while on staff. After nine years of the same frustration, Patchett lost it, screaming to a despised editor, "That's it. I'll never darken your door again!" And she didn't. Her first novel, Patron Saint of Liars
, was named a New York Times
Notable Book in 1992. She has released three more novels since. Her fourth novel, Bel Canto
, won both the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize in 2002, and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. Patchett remembers one reviewer's take on Bel Canto
—"He had this one line that really bothered me when he said that my first three books were extremely competent but basically 'women's fiction.' I'm paraphrasing, but he said that this was the jump into 'real' literature, to which I wanted to say, "Because that's what interests you
!'" Patchett's follow-up novel, Run
, garnered rave reviews from readers and critics alike.
30. Barbara Kingsolver
was many things before she became a writer—archaeological digger, copy editor, house cleaner, classical pianist, biological researcher and translator—and has said, "If we can't, as artists, improve on real life, we should put down our pencils and go bake bread." Fortunately for us, she's been able to keep writing. Through her novels, we've come to know the Cherokee nation in The Bean Trees
and Pigs in Heaven
, U.S.-backed Contras in Animal Dreams
and the political powers of colonial and postcolonial Africa in The Poisonwood Bible
—humanizing the fragility of community, economic injustice and our cultural differences. A 2000 Oprah's Book Club
selection, The Poisonwood Bible
was also short listed for the Pulitzer Prize and the PEN/Faulkner Award.
In 2000, Kingsolver was awarded the National Humanities Medal, and her latest work, Lacuna
, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. In addition to her seven fiction novels in print, her nonfiction work Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life
was a best-seller. To date, her work has been translated into more than 20 languages.
Photo: Getty Images/Darryl Bush
31. Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott earned every writers' respect with her book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life
. After Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith
, her largely autobiographical style and self-deprecating wit earned her something of a cult following.
"I try to write the books I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives, human hearts, spiritual transformation, families, secrets, wonder, craziness—and that can make me laugh...Books, for me, are medecine." — Anne Lamott
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