A few weeks ago on Facebook, I responded to a meme called "15 Books I've Read That Will Always Stick With Me", a list one was supposed to create in 15 minutes or less. Now that I've had a little more time, some thoughts on what I picked (roughly in the order I first read them).
1. Roald Dahl - Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
I cited this particular book over all of the Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume I read as a kid simply because Dahl wrote adult books for kids (or kids books for adults, if you prefer). I never even saw the Gene Wilder film until I was a teenager. By then, it was a real letdown— perhaps Dahl’s sly, outlandish prose is best left to one’s own illusion, (although I still anticipate Wes Anderson’s version of The Fantastic Mr. Fox).
2. Harper Lee - To Kill a Mockingbird
The perennial classroom favorite, and deservedly so—this is the great 20th Century American novel, alternately droll and wrenching and always uncommonly humane without seeming preachy or self-important.
3. Jean Shepherd – In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash
In this collection of near-autobiographical short stories (which would provide the gist of the film A Christmas Story), brilliant, underrated monologist Shepherd presents a far more bent evocation of a 1930s childhood than Lee, and god bless him for it.
4. Leslie Marmon Silko – Almanac of the Dead
I’ve seen many a lengthy film where the journey, the duration of watching it and losing yourself in a particular world has a greater impact than the destination itself; Silko’s 800+ page tapestry of 20th century Native American/European American relations is a compelling literary equivalent.
5. David Sedaris – Naked
With his second book, Sedaris comes off like the Shepherd’s somewhat cranky gay son, relaying uproarious warts-and-all tales from his childhood with ingenuity and an ease that most humorists would kill to possess.
6. Dale Peck – Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye
Peck gleefully played around with genre and structure in his early books, and reached a dizzying peak in his third novel, a Kansas Gothic about a racially divided town with multiple narrators—nearly all of them worthy of their own books. Better known for his savage, snarky literary reviews, Peck hasn’t come up with anything so interesting since.
7. Tom Robbins – Skinny Legs and All
Like many of my generation, I went through a Robbins phase and I’ll be blunt—you either love or loathe his shtick. This is his most expansive tall tale, and it involves a giant van in the shape of a grocery store turkey, a restaurant co-owned by an Arab and a Jew (situated across the street from the United Nations, no less) and the most soulful can o’beans you’ll ever meet. And if that sounds overly precious, beneath it all is a beautiful, eloquent narrative about the necessity of art.
8. Michael Cunningham – The Hours
Since the author does not waste one single word in weaving together the stories of three women in different eras, I’ll only add that I’ve never read prose that captures the stark simplicity of haiku like this book does.
9. Lester Bangs – Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung
If blogging had been around when Bangs was alive, he would’ve probably posted more often than Perez Hilton. People now moan about all of the bad, self-indulgent writing inspired by Bangs’ confessional, conversational approach to rock criticism; this compilation confirms his influence and phenomenal talent.
10. John Irving – A Prayer For Owen Meany
I also went through an Irving phase, consuming many of his hilarious, overstuffed novels as if they were neverending comfort food buffets. This is his most unlikeliest, audacious effort, due mostly to the title character: a remarkably unsentimental midget of a child with (conceivably) a nails-on-chalkboard voice.
11. Marilynne Robinson – Housekeeping
Like Owen Meany, this is an unconventional tale of a 1950s childhood, but Robinson’s style is worlds away from Irving’s: simultaneously dense and plainspoken, her language meticulously guides the reader through unthinkable situations (like a flood) and intricately drawn characters like her spinster/proto-feminist heroine Sylvie.
12. Carson McCullers – The Heart is a Lonely Hunter
I read a considerable amount of McCullers before finally tackling this, her first and greatest work. It’s almost unbearably melancholic, but the compassion she lends her deaf-mute protagonist (and the young woman fascinated by him) is striking in how complete and engaging it feels.
13. David Mitchell – Cloud Atlas
It’s hard not to be impressed by the set-up: six stories, each in a different genre, structured like a Russian doll that folds back into itself, only together they make up one novel. In addition to Mitchell’s firm grasp of each genre, you have the reoccurring thrill of discovering each echo and revelation as the book gradually returns to where it began.
14. Tom Spanbauer – In the City of Shy Hunters
Spanbauer has only published four novels, but each one could be a candidate for this list, and his third is certainly his most ambitious. An epic about how AIDS ravaged Manhattan in the 1980s, it recalls a time and place so vividly and personally that in no time at all, you feel you know it by heart—and the character Rose may be the most imaginative drag queen ever devised.
15. Susanna Clarke – Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell
As lengthy as Almanac of The Dead but far more concise: Clarke’s fictional history of two dueling magicians in early 19th century England is compulsively readable, with a contemporary perspective that never jars with the parameters of the fantastic world she has conjured up.