novels make life worth living.

“I am drawn to any story that makes me want to read from one sentence to the next. I have no other criterion.” — Jhumpa Lahiri

This is a short list of my all-time favorite novels, memoirs, and the occasional non-fiction books. To make it onto this list means I finished the book and turned right back to page one again, or read it multiple times. The favorites of my favorites.

. . . . . . . . . 

Animal Vegetable Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

I love most Kingsolver books, but this non-novel is perhaps my favorite — a memoir about a year spent eating and living off the land on an Appalachian farm.


Atonement by Ian McEwan

Horribly sad contemplation on the nature of sin and personal penance. Sound fun? It’s actually a pretty smooth read.


The Bone People by Keri Hulme

The first and, as far as I know, the only novel ever written by Kiwi Keri Hulme, it tells the story of an unlikely family in the form of a mute orphan, a Maori widower, and a surly woman who lives alone — a hermit in a tower. Full of intricate descriptions and replete with a Maori glossary, this one strikes deep to the creative heart of the matter.


Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

Because I am from Massachusetts and my ancestors helped settle Cape Cod, and because Martha’s Vineyard is a special place in my heart, and because I too once lived miserably in Cambridge, under duress, for the sake of Learning Important Life Lessons, this book hit me on a profoundly deep level. A great historical fiction glimpse into what really happened when the religious convictions of our country’s settlers met the wild spirituality of the native Americans, and how that clash destroyed a culture.


A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole

John Kennedy Toole’s one and only book is a paean to the romantic, beautiful, weird, corrupt, broken Southern city of New Orleans and its strange inhabitants. If you too are weird and broken and romantic and have ever lived inside the heart of NOLA for even a day, you will understand.



Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips

Three lonely lives are stolen on the remote Russian Kamchatka Peninsula, and here’s how all of the other lives around them unravel.


The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

Forget the movie (excellent, but different). So impeccably written, so engaging and riveting. Pure poetry. A Hungarian count mistaken for an English spy in the last days of World War II; a French Canadian nurse in love with a Sikh; a posse of British expatriates adrift in the African desert. But the real main character of The English Patient is a world senselessly delineated by maps and borders that ruin lives, break hearts, and determine fates at seeming random. Heartbreaking, deep, and powerful.


Cooking With Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson

When I read this book I was traveling a lot, and laughed out loud so many times on airplanes that I eventually had to stop reading it in public places. About a curmudgeonly old dude who moves to a hilltop in the Italian Alps to get away from it all and write a book, but ends up locked in a battle of wills with his hateful neighbor. He tries to kill her with kindness by constantly inviting her over for dinner and whipping up truly revolting concoctions like “Fernet Branca and garlic ice cream.”


Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran

I adored every minute of this book. About a nine-year-old amateur inventor, jewelry designer, astrophysicist, tambourine player, and pacifist. If you read the back of this jacket, you might not quite get the gist of the prize that lies within. I picked this one up and put it back down a million times until it was synchronistically recommended to me three times in one week. Taking this leap of faith was the best decision I ever made. It made me feel like one hundred dollars.

Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner

I have been a big fan of Brosesser-Akner’s for a long time as a profile writer for the New York Times and other elite publications. So when she put out her first novel, I thought, this is probably going to be disappointing. Wrong. This is one of the best novels I’ve read in years and I cleaved deeply to the story of a couple enduring a standard divorce, with the wife’s story told unwittingly by the husband — two terrible, tragic, lovely people just trying to muddle through.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

I am generally late to hop on bandwagons but I am jumping on this one unabashedly. This was the first Franzen book I actually enjoyed (although I did struggle partway through The Corrections and How To Be Alone) and I get it now. I get the Franzen furor. This is a book that will make you ashamed of your freedom and long for the imprisonment of a bourgeois life.

Frannie and Zooey by J.D. Salinger

The other great J.D. Salinger book. I am not exaggerating when I say this novel may have gotten me through growing up. My first copy was my mother’s old paperback from the 60′s. About a girl so full of malaise that she can’t be bothered to get off the couch. Besides, the cat is so comfortable. Sample quote: “I’m just so sick of pedants and conceited little tearer-downers I could scream.”


The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

A harrowing childhood elevated by the ephemeral beauty and sorrow of art. I’ve heard some snooty critics say this wasn’t well-written enough for their liking. Whatever. It won the Pulitzer and made me cry several times.


Greenwood by Michael Christie

The majesty, miraculousness, steadfastness, humanity, and tragedy of trees — and the people who live among them.


Hamnet by Maggie Farrell

This is historical fiction at its richest and most imaginative — creative liberties taken with the birth and death of Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (a real child who did in fact die at age 11, ostensibly of the Black Plague).


Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie

I would tell you about this brilliantly inventive children’s book by one of my favorite writers, but it’s a P2C2E.


The Hours by Michael Cunningham

I don’t often think that men can write about women in a way that’s true, but Michael Cunningham nailed it in this heart wrenching paean to poetry, flowers, life, and suicide. It’s also a rare example of a book that translated well into a movie. Makes me pretty much despondent every time.


The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

I came to Isabel Allende late in life and am so glad I saved this jewel of a book to read in a dark time of endless pandemic, to be reminded that I still live in a fairly peaceful first-world country, and to be equally reminded of the exquisite pain and beauty of life everywhere in the world. 


I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness by Claire Vaye Watkins

To be a mother without a superego, to fly away from one’s family and life and never return, to follow the past into the future, to live as one’s alter ego, to follow only impulse. This is the story you never read about mothers, a work of autofiction I related to deeply but was simultaneously riveted and horrified by.


Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

All the components of a perfect book: animals, the sea, a voyage to a far-off land, disaster, heartbreak and a sobby ending.


Labor Day, Joyce MaynardLabor Day by Joyce Maynard

This book has my favorite last line I can remember reading, but in order to appreciate it, of course, you have to read the entire book slowly and with reverence. Which is easy, because it’s excellent.


The Life Before Us by Romain Gary

A love story about an orphaned 11-year-old Arab whore’s bastard named Momo and the love of his life, his 68-year-old adopted mother, Madame Rosa, a survivor of Auschwitz and retired whore herself. A good friend recommended this obscure, translated-from-French ’70s novel. If words like “obscure” and “dying whore” and “translated” don’t sound that compelling to you, just take my word for it. I wanted to eat every sentence in this book. 


The Life of Pi by Yann Martel

This is the book that if I recommend it to someone and they don’t like it, I make a silent little note of judgment in my mind. About a young Indian boy who, after a strange series of perfect-storm-like incidents, gets stranded on a small boat in the Atlantic Ocean with a tiger. But not really about that at all, in the end. Makes you think hard about what it means to believe in something.

I had the pleasure of hearing Yann Martel speak, and it changed my life. I wrote about it in a little ditty called Read a Fucking Book.


Matrix by Lauren Groff

Lauren Groff is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. It started with Acadia, but Matrix grabbed me in the gut. So many themes — religion, feminism, sexuality, the Middle Ages, unrequited love. Like most straight women of my era I once loved to  petulantly threaten to become a nun if this relationship doesn’t work out. This book feels like an “Oh yeah?” to that idea. I also loved reading this follow-up review in the Atlantic: The Writer Who Saw All of This Coming, by Sophie Gilbert.


Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

Salman Rushdie is a brilliant fiction writer unfortunately best known for his scandalous and controversial fourth book, The Satanic Verses. Midnight’s Children is usually considered to be (and is) his best book. It won the Booker Prize in 1981, and then won the Booker of all Bookers later on down the line. What’s it about? I don’t really remember. I just remember that it was a joy to read, had a lot of very vivid descriptions of chutneys, and enthralled me from beginning to end.


My Year of Rest & Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh

This book about a depressed twentysomething in the decade I myself was a depressed twentysomething was so close to home, so riveting, so chilling, so sorrowful, so full of rapture.


No One Belongs Here More Than You by Miranda July

Miranda July is weird, and her short stories are creepy. And those are compliments. I wish that I wrote these stories, but I didn’t, so all I can do is hope that someday Miranda July will acquiesce to being my best friend. But she probably won’t, because she clearly doesn’t need people. I aspire.


Of Human Bondage by Somerset Maugham

At 565 pages, it took a certain grim determination to get through this old classic under library due-date pressure, but hells am I glad I did. About the meaning of life (hint: there is none) and the human condition. If you’re basically a depressive, like me, and you wonder what you might have in common with a 30-year old dude with a club foot in early 20th-century England, read Of Human Bondage.

Ohio by Stephen Markley

On being ensnared by the trauma of high school forever. So relatable, and so beautifully written.


On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

A novel written by a poet, with a sadness that is palpable and a cadence that propelled me through three nights of reading like a possessed person. I am normally a speed reader. I had to consciously slow down so as to not miss a single word or punctuation mark. 


Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

A story about a “half-mad expedition to transport a glass church across the Outback.” I had to look that up on Powell’s because I read it years ago and the plot is hazy. What I do remember clearly is that I was mesmerized by the descriptions of the glass chapel floating through the jungle, and the tragic relationship between Oscar (played by Ralph Fiennes in the movie) and Lucinda (played by Cate Blanchett). I liked the movie too. But that’s another list.


The Overstory by Richard Powers

I worked for this 500-page book, and it was worth the effort. I can’t possibly describe it better than Barbara Kingsolver (another favorite novelist) did in her prosaic New York Times book review.


Prague by Arthur Phillips

I read this before I went to Prague and Budapest. I’ve often thought of reading it again, but I am not sure I want to be reminded of my time in Eastern Europe. I’m sure the protagonists — a bunch of American expats, stuck in the bleak post-Cold War capital of Hungary, who are perpetually talking about getting out of Budapest and going to sunnier Prague — would concur.


The Red Tent by Anita Diamant

I love me some fictionalized biblical history. This story of Dinah, daughter of Jacob and sister of Joseph (he of the technicolor dreamcoat), is the vivid adventure you don’t hear in the Bible: how Dinah was first built up and then vilified by her family tribe. How she was forced to rely on her own internal strength and surpass heartbreak and trauma in order to go on to become of the most revered midwives in the land. This is a story every woman should read. Men, don’t bother.


The Road by Cormac McCarthy

Not funny. Not funny at all. Dark, actually. Depressing, to say the least. And, in a strange and twisted way, kind of uplifting. Does that make me mental? At any rate, Cormac McCarthy is a contemporary American literary genius. He can write the hell out of a story.


Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs

There is nothing so hilarious as a fucked up childhood. Except a fucked up childhood that took place in my hometown. This book reminds me of the band of freaks that used to take care of me and my brother when my mom was a single waitress who worked nights. I was terrified by and fascinated with the lot of them. My favorite quote ever comes from the opening of this book: “Look for the ridiculous in everything and you will find it.”


The Secret History by Donna Tarrt

Deeply intellectual, depraved misfits at a fictional college in Vermont accidentally kill a man while trying to replicate the idea of bacchanalia. Watch their lives unravel.


The Secret Lives of Color by Kassia St. Clair

The fascinating stories behind the colors that pigment our human history and the enormous lengths that dye-makers would go to in order to produce the verdigris, orriment, vermillion, and puce we now take for granted with our clothes imported cheaply from China.


The Shame by Makenna Goodman

This is a truly modern motherhood story about a woman living in rural Vermont in a facsimile of the olden days, who rejects it all for one brief moment in what is either a mental breakdown or a bold creative spree.


Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

It’s a wee bit on the long side and tends toward the too-gangster-for-me at points, but the brilliant first page of this memoir-ish novel won me over for good. The cadence is riveting, and throughout there were plenty of spiritual insights to keep me tidily impressed. Also, there is nothing like the sense of accomplishment after finishing a book that’s bigger than your head.


Tender is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald

I recently re-read this classic after seeing the imaginative movie Midnight in Paris. This was one of my favorite books as a teenager, and now I remember why. Fitzgerald, besides being a raving alcoholic who partied himself out by the age of 44, was a brilliant and troubled novelist with a fantastically dramatical life. Tender is the Night is the story of a bunch of privileged expats in France who combat their upper class ennui by constantly creating drama of the most useless order.


This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

“I was so alone that every day was like eating my own heart.”


Tinkers by Paul Harding

Remember when writers used to go on and on and on describing the ruthless beauty of nature? This one still does, and also, the human heart. 


Troubles by J.G. Farrell

A kooky story about a British army officer who comes to Ireland to finally be with his longtime fiance after the Great War ends in 1919. His fiance turns out to be a spooky freak and basically disappears shortly into the book, leaving him to make his way among the other riffraff who seem to live permanently in the ramshackle hotel her father owns on the sea. All around them, Ireland is falling apart because of “the troubles.” Riveting. (And here is why it won the Lost Booker Prize in 2010, even though it was written in 1970.)


Washington Black by Esi Edugyan

 This novel, about a black slave who becomes free and leads a highly unconventional, imaginative, all-over-the-place life, has a rare vividness to it. It starts in Barbados, winds its way to Nova Scotia, into the Alaskan wilderness, across the sea to London and Amsterdam, and finally to Morocco. There’s a rich heart and deep curiosity to this book, and it was a page-turner in the most reverential sense of the phrase.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

There are generally two kinds of books: 1) Books that are exceptionally well-written and that you feel good about reading 2) Books that you can’t put down because they are like candy. This book is at the rare intersection. I loved this story of a young fuckup who decides, sans any hiking experience, to hike the PCT from southern California to northern Oregon one summer. I read this in 3 late-night reading binges.


Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

Damn beautiful, haunting and sad story of the black plague and how suffering destroys faith. “I cannot say I have faith anymore. Hope, perhaps. We have agreed that it will do, for now.”



PS If you’re ever at a loss for what to read, you can’t go wrong by picking a book off the Booker Prize list. They are, without exception, all phenomenal reads.