When readers ask me what my favorite books are, I freeze. There are so many wonderful books out there! And my answer is influenced by many things—what I’m reading, what mood I’m in, what my reading needs are (research or pleasure). But there’s a common denominator to the books I love most: the characters seem like real people and they stay with me throughout the years, like old friends. I feel less alone because of some commonality of experience—whether it’s the description of the way the light looks or an emotional situation, I think: Oh, that’s so true; I just didn’t think of it that way before. And I learn from my favorite books. Here are some of them.
STILL LIFE WITH BREAD CRUMBS is about a middle-age female photographer who discovers that she can no longer afford her mortgage, son’s tuition, or father’s assisted living bill unless she rents her valuable New York apartment and moves somewhere much cheaper—a tiny town in the woods. STILL LIFE is a hilarious study of the difference between urban and rural lifestyles (check out the part about how people treat their dogs). And it’s a portrait of resilience: from financial exile, the heroine fashions a new creative project, offering hope that we can start over again at (almost) any age.
WILD is one of those classics that reflects different lessons whenever you re-read it. The first time I read Cheryl Strayed’s memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail solo as a twenty-something reeling from her young mother’s death from cancer, I marveled at how brave Strayed was. I can’t even travel without a hairdryer. I read it again recently, when my own mom was dying of cancer and it became my survival guide. Some griefs are so big you have to do something extreme to save your own life, to stop your flail. And sometimes you have to simply carry it every day, like a monster backpack.
A solo thousand mile journey on the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mojave Desert through California and Oregon to Washington State taken by an inexperienced hiker is a revelation. Told with suspense and style, sparkling with warmth and humor, Wild powerfully captures the terrors and pleasures of one young woman forging ahead against all odds on a journey that maddened, strengthened, and ultimately healed her.
I’ve loved post-apocalyptic novels ever since reading Stephen King’s THE STAND as a teenager. In STATION ELEVEN, most of the world has been decimated by flu and the survivors have to form new societies. This novel features—among other characters who come together eventually in a masterful puzzle—a traveling Shakespeare troupe who perform despite mortal danger because, as their borrowed-from-Star-Trek mantra proclaims, “Survival is insufficient.” With lush writing, STATION ELEVEN reminds us to treasure what we have (Electricity! Internet that delivers products to our door! Coffee!).
For fans of “The Walking Dead”
While “The Walking Dead” hero Rick Grimes and his gang are keeping hope alive but losing their grip fast after a zombie apocalypse, STATION ELEVEN’s Kirsten Raymonde and her band, the Symphony, have dedicated themselves to keeping the remnants of art and humanity alive after a mysterious pandemic has ravaged civilization.
See above. The ultimate post-apocalyptic novel: 99.9 percent of humanity dies from plague (released in an Oops! moment by the US Army) and the few people left draw together from all regions of the country—New York City, Maine, Nebraska, Texas, Las Vegas—to regroup and fight a battle of good against evil. THE STAND is really an epic story about America, showcasing Stephen King’s astonishing scope of imagination, humor, and canny grasp of human psychology in dire circumstances.
An apocalyptic classic, Stephen King’s novel is a vision of a world ravaged by plague and caught in a bitter struggle between good and evil. When a patient escapes from a biological testing facility, carrying with him a strain of super-flu that destroys a majority of the population, two surviving leaders emerge. Whoever is chosen will lead—and change—humanity forever.
I grabbed this collection at Barbara’s Books in O’Hare because I love Ann Patchett’s novels, and these essays have stayed with me like friends. They’re all lovely—about determination, friendship, morality, and, yes, Patchett’s unusual path to marriage. My top two are her descriptions of writing her first novel and her love for her dog, Rose (who was not, she’ll tell you, a substitute for the baby she never had).
At Off the Shelf, we not only love to write about great books we’ve read, we also love to talk about them endlessly—inside the office and out (where it’s more acceptable to drink wine). We’ve collected these fantastic titles that are perfect for book clubs because they incite thoughtful reflection, introduce readers to worlds they’ve never experienced before, and are beautifully written.
I adore short stories, reading them and writing them—all my novels start out as short stories. This Pulitzer Prize–winning story collection centers on Olive, a woman as outwardly stony and difficult as the Maine soil she lives on but as tender and perplexed as everyone else on the inside. OLIVE KITTERIDGE offers a special perspective: the stories are interconnected, so we get to watch Olive’s friends, family, and neighbors wander in and out of each other’s lives and what happens to them over the years.
At times stern, at other times patient, at other times in sad denial, Olive Kitteridge is one of literature’s most complex characters in recent years. This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel offers profound insights into the human condition—its conflicts, its tragedies and joys, and the endurance it requires.
Donna Tartt’s debut novel—about a group of elite Bennington students who study Greek with an enigmatic instructor and end up committing murder after a night in the woods—is not only a riveting story but also the most exquisite writing I’ve ever read. Tartt is such a dizzyingly good writer. And THE SECRET HISTORY is so snarky and funny that certain scenes always make me snort aloud.
If your favorite character is Jonathan Byers
The misunderstood, unhappy kid who yearns for an East Coast college where he can forget his modest upbringing and meet sufficiently interesting friends? Sounds like Richard Papen, the narrator of Donna Tartt’s first novel, THE SECRET HISTORY.
I worked as a waitress and prep chef in my twenties, so I’ve known my share of chefs. What I didn’t know: they can write. While I was researching my new novel THE LOST FAMILY, in which the hero is a chef, I picked up Anthony Bourdain’s tell-all of his rise to culinary fame and what really happens in kitchens (you don’t want to know, but you won’t be able to look away). A profane, passionate, and hilarious love letter to food, cooking, and restaurants, KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL took my chef memoir virginity, which I suspect Bourdain would have been pleased to know.
There are food memoirs, and then there is KITCHEN CONFIDENTIAL. Anthony Bourdain arguably kicked off the celebrity chef phenomenon with this wickedly funny memoir/expose that revealed the “sex, drugs, and bad behavior of haute cuisine.”
I’ve loved Belva Plain’s novels ever since swiping them from my mom’s nightstand—sweeping multi-generational sagas, often featuring Jewish families, with moral dilemmas at their heart. RANDOM WINDS, both my favorite and my mom’s, is about a doctor, Martin Farrell, who grows up impoverished in upstate New York and gets bankrolled to study neuroscience by his wealthy father-in-law—but Martin is in love with his physically challenged wife’s sister, and she with him. Oy.
When’s the last time you read a Pulitzer Prize winner that was also an adventure novel? THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is so gripping that I had to read with one hand over the right-side page (I read only print) so I wouldn’t see what happened next. This important novel about a slave trying to escape her grossly cruel master via an actual, physical railroad underground (an authorial fantasy) is an up-all-night page-turner.
One of Oprah’s 2016 selections, THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD is a magnificent tour de force chronicling a young slave’s adventures as she makes a desperate bid for freedom in the antebellum South via the Underground Railroad.
Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is an addictively readable saga about two Texas Rangers, Woodrow F. Call and Augustus McCrae, herding a band of ragtag cowboys and cattle from Lonesome Dove, Texas, to Montana “before the bankers get it all.” As they battle storms, drought, hunger, violence, mercenaries, scalpings, snakes, and women both cold and gold-hearted through this panorama of the American West, the characters are so funny, moving, and real that my family has talked about them for years. My black Lab, Woodrow, is named after Woodrow F. Call.
A love story, an adventure, and an epic of the frontier, this Pulitzer Prize— winning classic is the grandest novel ever written about the last defiant wilderness of America. Journey to the dusty little Texas town of Lonesome Dove and meet an unforgettable assortment of heroes and outlaws, whores and ladies, Indians and settlers. Richly authentic, beautifully written, always dramatic this is a book to that will make you laugh, weep, and dream.
This 1961 novel about a couple whose marriage implodes when they move from New York to the suburbs and then scramble to prove they’re not soul-dead like everyone else is what my friend Mari calls “the suburban cautionary tale.” Richard Yates definitely doesn’t give us the rainbow-and-bluebirds view of human nature. But what he does so well is show people as they really are, with their secret fantasies and ambitions, their disastrous good intentions and tiny flaws—and their wicked funniness and unexpected moments of beauty.
An evocative portrayal of the opulent desolation of the American suburbs, Revolutionary Road is perhaps literature’s most penetrating portrait of the Mad Men era. The story of a couple who have lived on the assumption that greatness is only just around the corner, Richard Yates demonstrates with heartbreaking compassion and remorseless clarity how Frank and April betray not only each other, but their best selves.
I stole FEAR OF FLYING off my mom’s shelf when I was 11. It was the infamous edition whose cover showed a zipper parting to reveal a woman’s bare torso and cleavage. This novel—Erica Jong’s 1970s barnburner blockbuster about Isadora Wing, who abandoned her suffocating marriage to run off with a vaguely stinky but sexy European man and reinvent herself as a writer—became my feminist Bible and my primer on How to Be a Woman Writer. The novel is famous partly because of its scandalous sexual content—women actually thought like that?—but to me Isadora’s ambition burns just as fierce and bright as her quest for the “Zipless F*ck” and was the first time I saw a match for my own.
Isadora Wing. Bright, blond, brash, brilliant, a frustrated poet in a sexually unfulfilling marriage who goes to Vienna, meets a man, climbs in his car, and tries to figure out where she’s going and where she's been. Isadora gave birth to a million chick-lit heroines and made an equal number of college girls dream about the adventures they, too, could have.
The Game of Thrones and Harry Potter series are both masterworks of imaginative literature that have been thrillingly translated to the screen, but for my taste, I’ll go with Gone with the Wind. Like the Stark family and the residents of Hogwarts, Scarlett and Rhett are such vivid characters on the page that you can’t imagine them being portrayed adequately on film—until suddenly, there they are, each work only enhancing your enjoyment of the other.