By Rainer Maria Rilke
This is not really a novel at all; it's sort of a montage based roughly on the experiences of the author as a young man. Certain individual passages are riveting—like his description of Beethoven: "A man whose hearing a god had closed up, so that there might be no sounds but his own." What a fascinating way to look at the contradiction of a musician who is deaf but hears extraordinary things in his head. Rilke also writes of an illness during which certain absurd fears strike him—that a piece of thread might be as sharp as a steel needle, or that he might start screaming. I don't think I've ever read such descriptions of what it would be like to lose your grip. He has a vision that makes you less sure of your surroundings—and I find that stimulating.
By Graham Greene
This is about a man—the whiskey priest—on the run in a Mexican state during a purge of religious figures. The most poignant thing in the story, for me, is that the priest has had a child. He wants to repent, but how can you find salvation when you can't hate the sin? He's stuck in that paradox: The one thing that prevents him from repenting is love. That so interests me—the idea of looking for spiritual salvation in what is otherwise an impossibly compromised life.
By Giuseppe di Lampedusa
I wouldn't give a damn about the world of this book were it not for the fact that Lampedusa draws you into it in such an intoxicating fashion. The descriptions of 19th-century Sicily were written with such melancholy, honesty and lack of sentimentality that I found myself thinking this era was the most important thing. What blew me away, though, were the passages about death.
The prince, whose family is part of the dying aristocracy, says sleep is what the Sicilians want. They don't want anything forward looking. All their magnificent history and the things they worship—their cathedrals and castles and heritage—are things Sicilians love only because they're dead. It's a romance with sleep and death—a desire for what he calls voluptuous immobility.
By David Gates
Doug Willis is a man who's holed up in his country place after his wife and kids go back to town. His marriage is in a bad state, and he's obviously in some kind of midlife crisis. I'm so intrigued by how Gates describes the fantasy world of men, and how many of them want to be the kind of guy who can talk about engines, who knows Keith Richards guitar chords—as if that's going to matter in your 40s. I can see why women might only be able to read this as a science experiment, a sort of "Look what happens to men when you pull their wings off!" But there's a very tender note struck in the last scene. The couple has decided to split up, and Willis walks out late at night. Gates has taken you to a point where you think their relationship is irredeemable, but he shows there's that thing you can't put in the equation. The wife still goes after him. I found that quite moving—that in the end love feels like that, like familiarity.
By Anne Tyler
How do you evaluate a deed that has brought catastrophe? Tyler writes about Ian Bedloe, who thinks he's doing his brother a favor by telling him that his wife is unfaithful, and the brother subsequently drives a car into a wall and dies. Ian is 17 and said something stupid and, as it turns out, incorrect. I'm not a great believer in sitting cross-legged on a mountaintop throughout your life as a spiritual quest. What I find interesting is how an enormous spiritual journey unfolds in the banality of life. When Ian asks a minister how he can redeem himself, the minister replies, "You can raise the kids." It means throwing away college, throwing away his girlfriend, throwing away everything in order to be a father to these kids. At no point is it ever considered a noble thing, but he takes it on. He lives for something other than himself.
By William Faulkner
It's not the sheer art of Faulkner's literary experimentation that I admire. I'm haunted by the heat he describes and by the smells, which are almost always revolting. I know that's a strange reason to be attracted to an author, but I love it when writing is as potent as it is here. This novel is about sexual revulsion, racial revulsion, self-revulsion. It's such uncomfortable reading for modern audiences. The problem with racial identity is overwhelming to the main character, Joe Christmas. As a child, he heard nothing but whispering about his mixed blood, and he learns to despise that part of himself. This is a world where every piece of decency is marginalized and suffocated. It's funny, you know: This is my favorite of these books and the one I find the most difficult to talk about.
By Jonathan Franzen
Franzen captures how trivializing a family battle can be and how it can seem to be a fight for survival when, in fact, you're simply scoring points. Chip represents so much of what I'm familiar with: highly intelligent, educated people who become fractured and cast adrift. You can liberate yourself from the rules, decide you don't want to be on the treadmill, you're not going to be Joe Schmo—but once you've cut loose from all that, you can be quite lost. Franzen shows how often love between these people is impossible—how hard love is, how it isn't cozy—how problems aren't something you can break down by everybody hugging one another and forgiving and making it okay. It just blows up in all their faces.