This post is now one year old! Which means I have some revising to do.
It pains me to rank my favorite books, though I often fantasize about plucking my shelves clean of those that aren’t fives with an exclamation point. (What can I say? I have a minimalist streak I rarely act upon.) But for you, I have made the effort. Here are ten of my favorite fiction selections and five of my favorite volumes of poetry, in no particular order.
I’ll be tinkering with these lists until I die.
1. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. I opened this book for the first time as a senior in high school and have read it every winter since. Darkly funny and painfully moving.
2. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I have read this book every summer for the last decade, and it improves with every reading. This may sound strange, but closing the last page of TKAM is similar to the afterglow of good sex: magical and sad and utterly satisfying. Is there a book more purely American than TKAM? I doubt it.
3. The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales. I have loved Grimm’s Fairy Tales since I was a child. They’re well-written, human, and exceptionally interesting. Some of the most interesting stories are the ones which never make it into anthologies.
4. Where I’m Calling From by Raymond Carver. Carver is the master of the short story. This book changed me, so much that after reading it, I bought my own copy even though Jason already owned one.
5. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien. This is one of my go-to book recommendations, partly because I’ve never personally met someone who didn’t like it. It’s completely captivating.
6. Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia by Marya Hornbacher. Wasted is actually a memoir, but it’s so important to my development as a writer that I couldn’t leave it out. Not for the faint of heart (or those currently suffering from eating disorders, as it’s very triggering), Wasted is unflinchingly honest. This is my favorite of Hornbacher’s work so far.
7. Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes. This is a small book, but written with Hughes’ trademark wry humor, and the writing, I shouldn’t have to tell you, is wonderful.
8. How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. There is a certain Welsh loveliness to Llewellyn’s prose, and the story is simply haunting. I find myself thinking about it at odd, frequent moments.
9. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Another book I read yearly (in the fall), I’m astounded that A Tree Grows in Brooklyn isn’t more popular. Not only is it a terrific, female-centric coming of age story, but it also stands out as starkly American.
10. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. I couldn’t decide whether I wanted to slow down and savor this book or consume the entire thing at once. Mindblowing.
Very Honorable Mentions aka I Really Can’t Narrow it Down!: Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, I Know This Much Is True by Wally Lamb, Jazz by Toni Morrison, Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood.
1. Love is a Dog From Hell by Charles Bukowski. Bukowski takes up a lot of space on my shelves. He’s often painted as a misogynist, but I’ve honestly never spotted that in his work—and trust me, I’m looking. There’s a big difference between writing a misogynist character and writing with a misogynist perspective.
2. Rose by Li-Young Lee. Lee has a wonderfully sensual writing style. “Persimmons” is a masterpiece.
3. Dreaming Frankenstein by Liz Lochhead. What a find! Lochhead has a wonderful sense of humor and a feminist sensibility, both traits I appreciate. Plus, I love the fairy tale themes in this collection.
4. Extravagaria by Pablo Neruda. What can I say about Neruda that hasn’t already been said? His work is breathtaking, and not in that Seinfeld ugly baby way. The whimsical “To the Foot from its Child” is especially astonishing.
5. This Is My Century by Margaret Walker. Walker is a very practical poet, very concise, and I love her for it. “Lineage” is a great example.