No One is Here Except All of Us by Ramona Ausubel
I have read this four times since it was published. And considering I don’t have much time to read, the fact that I dedicated four of my book-choices to the same book should say something. It’s about a village of Jews in Romania during World War II who decide to reinvent their world in the face of tremendous evil. Beautiful writing (“Time was a dazzling lie, a magician worth a bird in his hat. The truth, I felt certain, was that everything happened at once. How old was I? I was every age at the same time. All the days of our lives were today.”) and a terrific debut novel.
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
I found this to be a devastating book but I do recommend it. Reviews of it are very polarized so you’ll either love it or hate it. Hopefully you’re not in the hate it category, because I’ll feel bad.
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
I really enjoy Coelho’s work because he usually writes parables or allegories. This particular one is about the power of the imagination and the strength that can be found within our own souls.
Venetia Kelly’s Traveling Show by Frank Delaney
I just found out recently that this is the first in a trilogy and went around grinning like a fool for the rest of the day. Just thinking about this book makes me happy. It is tremendous fun.
The Little Book by Selden Edwards
I wrote a review about this book for my blog when I first read it, and it’s much more coherent than anything I’d write at the moment, so I’m just going to plagiarize from myself. “A fantastic back-and-forth between the present-day and 1800s Vienna, The Little Book brings in classical music, art, psychology, philosophy, baseball, and rock-and-roll. The story does contain fairly pervasive talk about sex (mainly because Freud is a major character), but – for the first time in a long time of reading – it all seemed necessary to the plot. It’s an interesting look at father-son relationships and at how history affects life every day. An incredible debut novel.” (There is now a sequel out, but I think I’ll have to reread this and then read the sequel.)
The Carpet Makers by Andreas Eschbach
Eschbach is a famous German science fiction writer; The Carpet Makers is the only one of his works to be translated into English thus far. It’s an interweaving of stories about a planet full of carpet makers. This sounds kind of lame, but I promise it isn’t! I just don’t want to give away too many details. If you like science fiction or fantasy, try this.
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
This is about a 9-year-old in New York City following September 11. I found it to be very healing and redemptive, but also quite honest about heartache and pain.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
I wouldn’t say that I enjoyed this book, because it’s not that kind of a book. But I did find it unbelievably thought-provoking and well-deserving of the many accolades it received. It’s one of two books on here related to the aftermath of 9/11.
The World to Come by Dara Horn
This is my standard book recommendation anytime anyone asks me for something to read. It has everything one could ever want in a book. This is my #2 favorite book after Anna Karenina.
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
When you read this, make sure you have someone to talk with about it. I think it really should be required reading in high school English classes. It’s a great story and is even more than just a story at the same time.
Song Yet Sung by James McBride
On the other end of the spectrum from by George is Song Yet Sung. It is not funny, charming, or clever, but it is well-written. McBride writes powerfully about the impact of slavery on those who lived through it, and by extension, on those today. It is quite graphic and violent, but I didn’t feel like any of it was unnecessary. Spoiler alert: I cried more reading this than any other book I can think of since Where the Red Fern Grows in fifth grade.
Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky
This is actually two novels in a planned series of five about life in France during World War II. Nemirovsky didn’t write the other three because she was detained by the Germans for being a Jew and died in Auschwitz. The Suite is tremendously powerful in its own right but the back-story adds even more weight to it. It’s sad and very beautiful.
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett
For a book about a hostage crisis, this is very uplifting. There are some really great characters here and I enjoyed it a lot.
by George by Wesley Stace
The two narrators of this book are an 11-year-old in the 1970′s and a ventriloquist’s dummy during World War II. You know you want to go read this right this second. Seriously. It is funny, charming, clever, and well-written – the best of everything.
Zuleika Dobson by Max Beerbohm
This is a fabulous parable about the futility of the pursuit of beauty. It’s a quick read but I haven’t been able to forget it.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
There is so much to love about A Tale of Two Cities, not least the tremendous amount of redemption portrayed therein. I really should read this again.
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
I have not read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Brothers K, but I am assuming it’s tremendous based on their work on Anna K. and War and Peace (which I think truly is the second-best novel ever but it’s really just not my thing, so I didn’t put it on the list). Anyhow, there is so much wisdom that Dostoevsky conveys throughout this book that it’s really impossible to comprehend all of it, even with multiple readings. But it is worth it nonetheless.
The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
Don’t read this if you’re looking for a happy book, because this is very, very far away from one. I found Greene’s writing to be truly lovely even about terrible, sad things, which is quite an accomplishment. This is the other book on this list (besides Anna Karenina) that I immediately began again upon completion.
Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
Steppenwolf changed my life. I still remember reading it and weeping on the train going into Chicago during college. I finally understood a great many things about myself.
Green Mansions by W.H. Hudson
This isn’t a tremendously well-known book but I think it’s one of the greatest love stories in literature.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
Another one of the greatest love stories in literature, the tale of Quasimodo and Esmeralda is heartwrenchingly beautiful.
Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
The movie was great, the musical is terrific, but the book is better: it’s the best one.
Dubliners by James Joyce
I’ve tried Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake. I came away from the twenty or thirty inexplicable pages I managed to read thinking that James Joyce was either a complete lunatic or a complete genius. I leaned toward lunatic until I read Dubliners, and now I lean toward genius. This is a great set of stories.
The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
I wrote my senior thesis about the connections Flannery O’Connor draws between violence and grace; these stories all figured quite largely in said thesis. There is a lot of violence, but there is even more grace. Such true stories.
The Moviegoer by Walker Percy
There is a lot of really great existentialist philosophy in The Moviegoer, mixed with a healthy dose of Southern charm. I loved this book.
The Hobbit; or, There and Back Again and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
My dad read these aloud to my sister and I after dinner when we were growing up. I loved them, and really need to read them again.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
I started this multiple times because many, many lists put it at the very top of the best novels ever. I couldn’t get into it, and I couldn’t understand what the big deal was about it. Then I got my hands on the translation done by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Not only did I finish it, I immediately started over and read it again once I reached the end. This has some of the best character development in all of literature. Pick up the P/V translation and read it as soon as possible if you haven’t: it’s the best novel ever.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The classic tale of the differences between inner and outer beauty, Oscar Wilde’s work about Dorian Gray is disturbing in the best of ways.