My Short List of Great Novels and Why

My Short List of Great Novels and Why

Isn’t it difficult to name your favorite books?

Or, maybe not.

But I love so many of them, narrowing down a list proves, well, tough.

I posted a few weeks ago about why I love Lit Fic. And mentioned that if someone was seeking a good read, I’d be glad to give a list.

Many folks took me up on it!

So here’s short list and why (my long list would take 3 days to get through), off the top of my head. Although I’m sure as soon as I post this, I’ll think of 20 more! And I’m limiting this to novels for the same reason (although I love nonfiction too).

And no, they aren’t in any particular order except for the final one 🙂

1). The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

How timely is this now. Although I read it when it came out, and it chilled me to the bone (even though I don’t love Dystopian), how apropos it is for today. Set in a time when women are no longer allowed to read, well, that’s the least of their worries . . .

2). The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

I have to confess, I’m an avid Walker fan. The way she brings to life her characters, who inhabit worlds I’ll never know. But Celie’s story didn’t at all seem foreign to me. What a beautiful way Walker told this, through letters to God . . .

3). Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Okay, may as well stay on abusive notes since I’m there 🙂

I am in awe of an author who can make a completely sympathetic character of one who kills her children. But ahhh . . . understand you do. Sethe comes to life in all of her complicated, swirling color. Difficult to read. Difficult to put down.

4). Horseman Pass By by Larry McMurtry.

Let’s change the tone to the guys some here!

And again, I’m an avid McMurty fan. But I think this first book of his, is his best. What a stark (and true) portrayal of the changing West, of the hardscrabble souls who tamed it, and specifically one old rancher in west Texas whose way of life was dying before his aged eyes.

This is Texas.

You may know it by the film starring Paul Newman, Hud.

5). Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn.

This, too, is Texas. In places as poignant, it’s a more modern version than McMurtry’s book, but creates what life truly is like in small-town Texas, and how the old ways are gone. Something I know all too well . . .

6). A & B

And while we’re on Texas, and not on nonfiction, I have to include these two. Although both are narrative nonfiction, they read like novels.

Empire of the Summer Moon is the definitive history of Texas (and not what we were taught in school!), and S.C. Gwynne does a masterful job of storytelling throughout.

And John Graves’ Goodbye to a River is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Just stunning in the evocation of what Texas once was, and will never be again. Known as the definitive work about Texas, I absolutely agree.

Okay, I swear, no more lapses into nonfiction!

7). The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton.

Dressed up as a Western (and sold in that genre), it’s really literary. During the Texas drought of the 1950s, Charlie Flagg refuses questionable government assistance. The metal of this man, his strength and courage . . . he embodies my ancestors.

8). Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

One last Texas one . . .

Disclaimer: This is the bloodiest, most-violent novel I’ve ever read. And I hate violence. But you become desensitized to it fairly soon in the story.

What the real West was like. Boiled down to its essence, it portrays the white male ego at its peak.

This is the Great American Novel.

9). The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.

Obviously I believe this man is brilliant. He is.

This book is the second in the Border trilogy, which I confess, I couldn’t read very far. As soon as they started torturing the wolf, I was out.

But through the opening scene came one of the most beautiful passages in literature I’ve ever seen, so I’ll include it for you here:

“They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire.”

10). The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Well, I just love the Russians. But none as much as Dostoevsky.

Nobody can much agree on this one, but the brilliance of this truly innocent and “positively beautiful man” on a world where scheming, manipulation, and money rule the day resonated to my core.

Note: Not for the faint-of-heart reader, these Russians!

11). The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

Full confession—I adore Hemingway. Everything he wrote. And while picking this one out of his vast oeuvre is almost cliché, give me a story of finding triumph in the depths of defeat.

Give me the beauty, the poignancy of such writing. I am there.

12). Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Yep, I’m a Conrad buff too. And this is my fav of his.

And I disagree with much of the common wisdom about it—it’s not that Kurtz went mad because his psyche was corrupted. But rather, the psyche is that terrifying place within us all, when dug out to its core, where we all have hints of madness.

This is where the line came from that most folks attribute to Apocalypse Now. It’s actually Kurtz’ final judgement on the psyche, and on mankind:

“The horror! The horror!”

Again, Conrad is not for the feint-of-heart reader! His prose, his stories and characters are all thick and dense.

13). The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Another cliché’d choice, but I love this book. Fitzgerald actually did capture the age.

And, you gotta love a novel where the narrator isn’t the main character—that’s incredibly difficult to pull off!

Funny enough, I actually love Fitzgerald’s short stories more than his novels. “The Ice Palace” is one of my favorite stories ever, about a Southern girl gone to the North. I can relate!

14). As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

If you want to understand the South—truly understand the South—then Faulkner’s your guy.

Multi-layered, told in stream-of-consciousness style (for which he was famous), the sensibilities of each Bundren family member (including the deceased’s!) comes tumbling through.

Again, Faulkner’s not for everybody. Like fine cabernet, he’s truly an acquired taste.

15). Diminished Capacity by Sherwood Kiraly

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read!

It’s about dementia, and having gone through that, I can attest that the disease is not funny at all. But Kiraly found that odd balance of truth and humor here, and I laughed my way through this entire thing.

16). All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

I’m a political animal. I love the study of politics (as opposed to politics itself).

And there isn’t a better book for unveiling the nuances of it. Yep, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton said.

No one has presented it better than Penn Warren, and in a more entertaining fashion to boot.

I still threaten to get a Willie Stark for President bumper sticker . . .

17). A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

What is family? What are the secrets we contain? How does this relate to family dynamics?

The King Lear story plays out through an Iowa farmer intent on leaving his land to his three daughters.

Beautiful, nuanced, I saw my family there. You’ll see some of yours there as well . . .

18). The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

While I absolutely adore her short fiction, this novel put her on the map.

Who are the chosen ones? Who are the misfits, the forgotten and rejected people? And who decides?

Set amidst the South’s racial tensions, this book gives you questions rather than answers. And done in such beautiful fashion.

19). To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

You know—the one you were forced to read in high school so hated!

But give it another shot now, with the wisdom of maturity. I can guarantee you’ll read it with entirely new eyes.

Deserves all of the praise ever given it.

20). Sent for You Yesterday by John Edgar Wideman

This book simply broke my heart. I originally read it 30 years ago, and remember it like yesterday.

If you want to know, truly want to know, what living in the inner-city ghetto is like, this is for you. It will cause you understand in a way that you never knew existed.

And, it’s stunningly beautifully written.

21). The Kite Runner by Kahled Hosseini

Do you want to understand life in Afghanistan? The “others” among us?

Funny enough, Hosseini has that rare gift of bringing the universal to the different.

This poignant story with its breathtaking crux will hurt your soul, but bring it to redemption as well.

22). The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

I’ve talked about this book before 🙂

It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. A social commentary that doesn’t remotely read like one, it’s about regular folks just trying to get by, and get along, in a changing world.

Nichols is a master.

23). The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Conroy is another you either love or hate. There seems no middle ground as per reviewers of his work. He got skewered by so many . . .

Obviously, I adore him!

And while I love all of his books, this is the one I return to. I’ve read it 4 times.

Talk about family secrets. But so beautifully told:

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Coleton . . .”

24). The Frank Bascombe trilogy + 1 by Richard Ford

The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and Let Me Be Frank with You

I’ve written about Ford and Frank before 🙂

Rarely has any character in literature taken hold of me like Frank Bascombe did. Is it because I came from a similar tragedy as he did? Is it because his acerbic insights tickle my funny bone and border on the profound?

Or is it just because Ford’s writing is as stellar as is any now in the game.

I don’t much care at this point, do I.

These books are just brilliant.

And finally, as those who know me know, the last one on my list is my favorite for all reasons:

25). A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

And yep, I’ve written about this book more than once too 🙂

It’s simply the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.

But enough about my thoughts; I’ll leave you with this:

“Then in the arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’ great flood and runs over rocks from the basement of time. On some of the rocks are timeless raindrops. Under the rocks are the words, and some of the words are theirs.

I am haunted by waters.”

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