My Top 5 Novels of All Time

Every December 31st I sit down with the list of books I read that year and choose the best ones. I usually end up with 10 bests plus 5 honorable mentions. I include this many because I’m fortunate enough to be in the time of life when I can choose to read whatever I want, so I usually like every book I read. Sometimes whittling the list down is hard work.

Recently I saw a meme in an online book group: What are your top 5 novels of all time?

If choosing 10 or even 15 from a year of reading is hard, how difficult could it be to pick my top five books of all time? I decided to give this challenge a try.

To my surprise, the top four came quite easily. Although I’ve read a lot of books in my time, these four novels have stuck with me because they hit that sweet spot of my encountering them at a time when I needed what they have to offer.

1. To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee

Cover: To Kill a MockingbirdI remember this book being on the reading curriculum in eighth grade. I did the math, and 1960 was the year I finished eighth grade, so my memory may be correct. However, it’s possible that my memory is distorted. I distinctly remember feeling outraged when, three or four years after I was in eighth grade, the mother of a then eighth grader filed a complaint over having her daughter read a book about rape. Maybe I did read it in eighth grade, or maybe it didn’t land on the curriculum until later and I read it on my own.

Whichever is the case, this is the book that has stuck with me the longest and that I have reread the most often. Whenever I get to feeling down on my fellow man, I reread this book to restore my faith in humanity. (In fact, I’m due for another reread soon.)

Yet, as much as I’d like to think that I love this book for its themes of justice and human compassion, I’m pretty sure the novel stuck with me because my father died in 1960, two months before I turned 12, after a long and painful separation from my mother and me. The portrayal of Atticus Finch, the wise and caring father, probably impressed me just as much as the story of Atticus Finch, the brave lawyer who defended Tom Robinson. If it’s true that we can live vicariously through literature (and I believe it is), then this book probably comforted me through my fatherless adolescence.

2. All the King’s Men (1946) by Robert Penn Warren

Again, I’m not sure when I first read this remarkable novel. My memory places it in eighth or ninth grade.

This is the novel with which I discovered how powerful a fine work of fiction can be. For the first time, all the pieces of the literary criticism puzzle fell into place: the use of the first-person narrator, the metaphor of the narrator’s last name (Burden), the powerful (for both the narrator and the reader) epiphany, the quality of the prose.

I don’t remember why I first read this book. It’s possible that it was on a reading list for school (in which case, I would probably have come across it in ninth grade). I can’t imagine how else I would have found it. Nobody in my household was a reader, and we didn’t have many books around. But no matter how I came upon it, I always think of this novel as my initiation into adult reading. I have reread it a couple of times in my adulthood, and it holds up very well.

3. Disturbances in the Field (1983) by Lynne Sharon Schwartz

This story features a group of people who have known each other since their college days, when they used to get together and discuss philosophical ideas. In the book’s present time, these people are entering middle age.

I read this book when I was about the age of those characters and was beginning to realize that life is much more complicated than school prepares us for. In late adolescence and early adulthood, when we are beginning to be able to reason abstractly, we tend to think in dichotomies: it’s right to do this and wrong to do that, you either believe what I believe or you’re on the other side.

But life is very seldom so simple. Approaching middle age, I had had enough life experience to realize that what sounds convincing in theory often isn’t directly applicable in reality, that actual situations are usually not black or white but one of many—way more than 50—shades of gray between the two extremes. Like the characters in this novel, I had to learn by experience how to navigate life’s big events such as love, marriage, parenthood, death, and grief.

4. A Little Life (2015) by Hanya Yanagihara

This recent novel is a lot like To Kill a Mockingbird in the sense that it’s one of the most moving, poignant books I’ve ever read.

This big novel covers the lives of four men who met as college roommates. The story opens just after they have graduated from college in Massachusetts and have all moved to New York City to undertake their careers as an actor, a lawyer, an architect, and an artist. In 814 pages, the book unfolds their intertwined lives in magnificent detail.

The story of how four people come together to form a surrogate family moved me because, like all four of them, I grew up in a dysfunctional, non-nurturing household and went off to college to start a new life.. One of the four characters, who becomes the focal point of the book, suffered a horrific childhood that he’s unwilling to talk about. The other three all intuit that he needs their protection and support, and the novel probes both the high and low points of their shifting constellation of interpersonal relationships. As someone who has been fortunate enough to meet a crucial person whom I needed at each significant point in my life, I found this novel both poignant and ultimately uplifting.

Although these four books came easily, number five was a tough decision. Only one more spot on the list remained, yet several books came to mind:

  • Plainsong by Kent Haruf
  • The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • The Help by Kathryn Stockett
  • Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf

When I looked at the first four, I realized that they give a chronology of my life, from childhood to early adulthood to middle age and then to older age. This suggested that the last spot on the list should also go to a book about my current point on life’s continuum, older adulthood. The Blind Assassin, Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk, and Our Souls at Night all fit that category. On the other hand, Plainsong is about the most effectively written novel I’ve read.

But after a lot of dithering I have decided to go with the following choice:

5. The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett

When I was 57, I felt driven to go back to school because of a nagging feeling that there was more I needed to learn through formal schooling, not just life experience. I started a doctoral program in psychology during which several pieces fell together seemingly by magic. I wrote my dissertation on life stories and received my doctorate on my 63rd birthday.

One of those pieces that fell magically into place was this novel. Set in 1962, it’s the story of a young, white southern woman who dares to write down the life stories of the African American women who work as maids in her community. This book strongly asserts the belief that everyone has a life story and that everyone’s life story deserves to be heard.

In my late-life doctoral study I realized that it’s especially important for us to seek out and learn from the life stories of marginalized people and of people different from ourselves if society is to evolve and persevere. For that reason, this novel won the final spot on my list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time.

How about you?

What titles are on your list of the Top 5 Novels of All Time?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Suggestions Needed!

My husband and I are getting ready to leave on a one-month vacation. I’ve already decided what clothes and accessories to pack, but I’m stressing out about what reading to bring along. I’m talking about those big, frothy stories that you can dive into on a long plane trip or while sunning on a ship’s deck.

I don’t want anything too refined that will require taking copious notes so I won’t have to struggle with notebook, pens, sticky notes, and my book while confined to a coach airplane seat. Some people call the kind of books I’m talking about here airplane books or beach reads. In remarks about one of these books on Goodreads, one reader wrote, “I would put this book in the category of a soap opera.” Yep, that’s about it.

To give you some idea of the kind of recommendations I’m looking for, here are five frothy pleasure reads I’ve indulged in.


The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough

This book is my prototypical definition of this reading category. McCullough’s three-generational family saga has it all: illicit love, sex (both illicit and licit), marriage, motherhood, religion, secrets, family ties, money, fame, sweeping landscape vistas, and merino sheep.

The Thorn Birds tells the stories of three generations of the Cleary family, who at the beginning of the book leave a life as poor farmhands in New Zealand to travel to Australia, where they are destined to inherit Drogheda, the huge family estate. Most of the book centers on Meggie, one of the Cleary children; Ralph, the Catholic priest who falls in love with her; and Dane and Justine, Meggie’s children. Tragedies ensue, but what drives the story is McCullough’s deft and deep characterization that keeps readers involved in the lives of these people.


The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Goodreads describes this as “a huge, brash thunderstorm of a novel, stinging with honesty and resounding with drama.”

The story opens in New York City, where Tom Wingo has arrived after his twin sister Savannah’s latest suicide attempt. To help Savannah’s psychiatrist better understand her troubled patient, Tom narrates the story of their childhood in a dysfunctional family raised in the low country of South Carolina. Steeped in Southern tradition, the narrative includes family conflict, strict religious belief, infidelity, sibling relationships, and the effects of physical and emotional abuse. Pat Conroy’s outstanding writing turns the Wingo family story into a tale of tragic, mythic proportion that brings both suffering and catharsis to readers.

The movie starring Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand is a good rendering, but read the book first.


The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

According to Ken Follett himself, this is his favorite of his novels and readers often tell him it’s their favorite as well. This big novel, set in England at the beginning of the twelfth century, uses the building of a magnificent cathedral as the focal point for a look at history: at the corruption of the nobility, at the lack of political stability, at the corrupt church, and at the peasants, who are at the mercy of all three. The story focuses on a few representatives of each category, and Follett’s depth of character development kept me reading for more than 900 pages to find out the fate of each.

There is a sort-of sequel, World Without End, that tells the story of the building of a new bridge in the same fictional town. There are references to the characters of Pillars, but this second novel can be read on its own. It’s basically the same story set 200 years later, with a bridge substituted for the original cathedral.


The Immigrants by Howard Fast

This is the story of how Dan Lavette, son of an Italian fisherman, builds a shipping company into a financial empire. Featuring the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, the novel explores the status of immigrants on the West Coast and the growth of industry in California over the first decades of the twentieth century. And of course there are love stories involved: a loveless marriage and some passionate love affairs. In the end, though, the story probes the relationship between wealth and happiness.

This is the first novel in the Lavette Family series, with five more that continue the family saga:

  • Second Generation
  • The Establishment
  • The Legacy
  • The Immigrant’s Daughter
  • An Independent Woman

I discovered this series not long after the first novel was published in 1977 in a neighborhood book-swap. I’d read them all again.


The Books of Rachel by Joel Gross

This novel encapsulates 500 years of Jewish history, from the Spanish Inquisition to the founding of Israel. The story focuses on the Cuheno family. From the fifteenth century on, the first daughter of each generation has been given the name Rachel and the family heritage of courage and faith, represented by the family diamond.

The story opens in the present time, just before the marriage of Rachel Kane as her father presents her with the diamond and its story. The book then flashes back to fifteenth century Spain with the story of the first Rachel, then presents the stories of four more generational Rachels. Some of these stories are painful to read, since they deal with antisemitism through time and the horrors it has produced. Overall, though, this narrative is uplifting with its continued emphasis of faith, perseverance, and hope.

There is a prequel, The Lives of Rachel, that goes back further into history, beginning in Judea in 168 B.C.E.


Now that you know what I mean by frothy pleasure reads, what books would you suggest that I take with me on vacation?

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

The idea of time travel has fascinated artists, scientists, and historians for centuries. Authors have used the possibility of traveling through time to explore some of the big questions of human existence.

Here are five examples.

Time and Again by Jack Finney

When a secret government organization recruits advertising artist Si Morley for its time travel experiment, Morley jumps at the chance. His friend has the remnant of a partially burned letter dated January 1882, and Morley intends to see what he can find out about the letter writer and intended recipient. One temptation of time travel is that travelers will like some other time period better than their own. When Morley falls in love with a woman from the world of 1882, he must decide exactly who he is and where he belongs.

This 1970 novel is one of the most popular time-travel books, and its reputation is well deserved. Finney creates a compelling picture of life in New York City at the end of the nineteenth century and even makes time travel seem like a logical possibility. If you’re new to time travel literature, this novel is a good place to start.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This novel uses time travel to present an unlikely love story. Clare and Henry are soul mates, but Henry suffers from a rare genetic condition that throws him into temporal free fall whenever he experiences a high-stress situation. Although Henry cannot control when he vanishes and to what time period he travels, he always lands at some point in his own life time—either his past, present, or future. And he almost always lands somewhere and somewhen near Clare.

Much of the novel focuses on how both Clare and Henry learn to live with his unusual condition. But its emotional center is their love story, which transcends all the complications of their lives.

11/22/63 by Stephen King

One of the most intriguing aspects of time travel literature is consideration of this question: What if someone could travel back in time and prevent some tragic disaster? This is the situation Jake Epping, a 35-year-old English teacher from Maine, encounters. Jake’s friend Al has discovered a portal back to 1958 in the rear of his diner. Al has been traveling back and forth, gathering information necessary to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

When Al’s failing health prevents him from finishing his mission, he recruits Jake to take up the cause. Using Al’s research, Jake settles into a life in 1958 Texas while planning to thwart Lee Harvey Oswald’s attack in Dallas. But like Si Morley in Time and Again, Jake discovers that life in another time period has potential complications. And even if Jake can stop the assassination, should he? What are the consequences of changing the past so drastically?

Kindred by Octavia E. Butler

In 1976 in California, Dana, an African American woman, is suddenly pulled through time and plunked down in pre-Civil War Maryland. She saves a drowning white boy, only to find herself staring down the barrel of a shotgun. Just as her life is about to end, she is pulled through time once again and deposited back into her present life. Dana experiences several more of these time-wrenching experiences, always landing in the life of the same young man.

Octavia E. Butler was the first black woman to write science fiction, and this is her best known and most often studied novel. Butler won both Hugo and Nebula awards and in 1995 became the first science fiction writer to receive a MacArthur Foundation Genius Award. This novel uses time travel as a trope for exploring questions of cultural history and social justice.

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.

Focusing on the World War II fire-bombing of Dresden, Kurt Vonnegut examines the meaning of history and of human existence in what has become one of the most famous anti-war literary works of all time. This novel considers war not only as a broad, abstract concept of history but also as a human experience that affects all the people it touches.

No description can possibly do this novel justice. You must read it. It’s short, but you’ll continue to think about it for the rest of your life.

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

10 Memoirs That Explore the Mother-Daughter Relationship (in remembrance of Debbie Reynolds & Carrie Fisher)

Shortly after the deaths of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds on subsequent days, Susan Dominus examined the strained relationship between this mother and daughter in the New York Times: Debbie Reynolds and Carrie Fisher, a Mother-Daughter Act for the Ages. Dominus writes:

There is something about celebrity mother-daughter acts like the one lived by Ms. Fisher and Ms. Reynolds that capture the imagination in a way that famous father-sons simply do not.

I’d say we can leave out the words celebrity and famous. Even the most ordinary mother-daughter relationship is archetypal, fraught with push-pull, attract-repel, love-hate, bond-reject, up-down, engage-disengage, support-undermine dynamics.

The HBO documentary Bright Lights, first aired on January 7, 2017, further reveals the intertwining lives of Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds.

And here are 10 memoirs that focus on the relationship between mothers and their daughters:

Fierce Attachments by Vivian Gornick

Returning to My Mother’s House by Gail Straub

Don’t Call Me Mother by Linda Joy Myers

The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Then Again by Diane Keaton

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

Traveling with Pomegranates: A Mother-Daughter Story by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor

Mother Daughter Me: A Memoir by Katie Hafner

We’ll Always Have Paris: A Mother/Daughter Memoir by Jennifer Coburn

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Of the 42 books I read in 2016, these are the top 15 (listed alphabetically by author):

Cook, Thomas H. The Chatham School Affair
du Maurier, Daphne. Rebecca
French, Tana. Broken Harbor
Haruf, Kent. Our Souls at Night
Hawley, Noah. Before the Fall
Knowles, John. A Separate Peace
Plath, Sylvia The Bell Jar
Stedman, M.L. The Light Between Oceans
Strout, Elizabeth. My Name is Lucy Barton
Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life

Honorable Mention

Connelly, Michael. The Wrong Side of Goodbye
Galbraith, Robert. Career of Evil
King, Stephen. 11/22/63
Sweeney, Cynthia D’Aprix. The Nest
Updike, John. Of the Farm

How About You?

What were the best books you read in 2016?

 

© 2017 by Mary Daniels Brown

Best Books of 2016: Final Installment

LITERARY HUB’S BEST BOOKS OF 2016

The staff of Literary Hub offer their choices of the year’s best books in a list vastly different from typical best-seller lists.

The Top 10 Library Stories of 2016

OK, this isn’t a best books list, but it IS a book-related summary of the year’s events.

Great Reads

An interactive guide to The Seattle Times’ best books recommendations from the past few years.

10 OVERLOOKED BOOKS BY WOMEN IN 2016

This piece starts out with the reasons why a list of outstanding books written by women is necessary.

The Year in Reading

From The New York Times:

In this season of giving, we asked some notably avid readers — who also happen to be poets, musicians, diplomats, filmmakers, novelists, actors and artists — to share the books that accompanied them through 2016.

THE 60 BEST BOOK COVERS OF 2016, AS CHOSEN BY DESIGNERS

this year, we had a healthy quantity of beautiful, inventive, arresting, unforgettable book cover designs, many of which deserve recognition.

BEST OF 2016

I’ve included a couple of these in earlier installments, but here’s the complete list of the year’s best books in the following categories:

  • poetry
  • comics
  • economics
  • philosophy
  • nonfiction
The 10 Best Movie Adaptations of 2016

Critic Lisa Rosman lists her favorite book-to-film adaptations of the year.

The 11 Best Poetry Books Of 2016

From BuzzFeed

13 of Off the Shelf’s Favorite Book Recommendations from 2016

Off the Shelf is made possible by a small group of passionate readers who love nothing more than discovering fantastic books and sharing them with Off the Shelf readers. We recommend books that move us to laughter and tears—and everything in between. It gives us great pleasure to offer you a collection of our favorite single-title recommendations from 2016.

The folks at Off the Shelf offer lists of recommended books on particular topics throughout the year. They have recommended all of these books during 2016, but not all of these books were published this year.

BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD

An earlier list of best books lists included the top five books of the year as voted by Book of the Month members. Here, BOTM announces the overall winner.

THE YEAR’S BEST OVERLOOKED BOOKS, ACCORDING TO BOOKSELLERS

A bit of a different twist on a best books list.

A Year in Reading: 2016

From The Millions comes a round-up of the year’s reading from a great host of writers, including Tana French, Richard Russo, Annie Proulx, and Megan Abbott.

The 30 Best Books of 2016

Compiled by Daniel Ford on Writer’s Bone.

The best books of 2016 list you get when you combine 36 “Best Books of 2016” lists

Yes, you read that right:

By combining 36 different qualitative “best books” lists by everyone from the New York Times to The Telegraph to a smattering of celebrities (full list of lists here), Quartz has created the Ultimate Authoritative Unimpeachable Top 20 Books of 2016.

Get A Global Perspective With 5 Of The Year’s Best Books In Translation

I don’t know about you, but I don’t read enough literature translated from other languages. Why is this important?

There’s a great quote by Haruki Murakami: “If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking.” This, of course, is two-fold, because it also means that if you want to think more broadly and gain a larger understanding of the world, you will seek out lesser known books, and from different places.

THE BIGGEST LITERARY STORIES OF THE YEAR: THE FINAL 5

The folks at Lit Hub present the top five literary news stories of 2016. If you jump into the link clicking maze, you can see the other 25 news stories of the year, too.

Top Crime Books of 2016

This is the lead-in page to individual lists of the year’s five best books by various folks at Crime Fiction Lover.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Last Week’s Links

15 Incredible Movies That Started As Books

How many of these have you heard of or seen? I’ve heard of nine but have only seen five.

On the Merits of Annotating

There’s no doubt than annotating books makes us active readers. Here’s how Anthony DeFeo writes his notes in the margin:

As I read, I keep a pen in hand. Whenever something comes along that intrigues me — if a reaction pops into my head, or I have a prediction, or I want to make a note of something useful for future reference as a writer — I jot it down between the margins.

Divided times: how literature teaches us to understand ’the other’

Fiction teaches us to think creatively about difference. Anthropological studies, psychoanalysis, sociology – all offer theoretical descriptions for what a novel teaches by example and by identification. “The imitation of an action”, is what Aristotle called tragedy. It would be difficult for one to think up a more groundbreaking mode of understanding the mind and the heart. Guilt, jealousy, despair, violence, anxiety, irrationality, the fear of death – nothing that is human is foreign to literature.

It’s not your grandma’s Book of the Month Club

I rejoined Book of the Month last summer when I discovered how much it has changed since I last joined back in the early 1970s.

10 THINGS YOU DIDN’T KNOW ABOUT HOW THE NY TIMES BOOK REVIEW WORKS

Since I rely a lot on the New York Times Book Review, this article caught my eye. Here are the two tidbits I found most informative:

  1. “The Book Review at The Times reviews about 1% of the books that come out in any given year.”
  2. The best book reviews are emotional.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Yet Another Installment: Best Books of 2016 Lists

13 Most Shelved Books on Off the Shelf in 2016

Off the Shelf is a site that offers lists of recommended books on all kinds of different topics. It also allows readers to register so that they can place recommended books on their personal shelves. This list reveals which books were shelved the most during 2016 (though not all were originally published this year).

BOOK OF THE YEAR AWARD

These are the five finalists in Book of the Month’s readers’ poll for the Book of the Year Award.

Longreads Best of 2016: Under-Recognized Books

A hefty list of books that critics wish had gotten more love in 2016.

Off the Shelf’s 15 Favorite Book Lists from 2016

A list of lists from Off the Shelf.

Best poetry collections of 2016

Fiction takes up most of my reading time. If you, like me, could use some exposure to poetry, here are some suggestions.

Added bonus: At the bottom of this article you’ll find links to all the other Washington Post best books of 2016 lists.

16 Overall Favorite Books of 2016

From Maria Popova.

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Even More Best Books of 2016 Lists

Adam Woog’s 10 best mysteries of 2016

Seattle Times book reviewer Adam Woog lists his favorites in one of my favorite literary genres.

PW’s Top Authors Pick Their Favorite Books of 2016

A short list compiled by Publishers Weekly.

2016 By the Books: A Month-by-Month Reader’s Guide

This list takes a bit of an unusual approach to analyzing the books of 2016:

For help understanding what the heck happened in 2016, and how Trump stands to inherit it all, check out these 12 books paired with each month’s major news.

10 Overlooked Books of 2016: From The Red Car to Future Sex

It was a profound year for the written word and yet many incredible books remain unsung. Here are ten books from 2016 that deserve your time and attention.

The Best Children’s Books of 2016

Maria Popova chooses her favorite picture books of the year.

These are the top 100 books of the year, according to Google

The year’s top “books and graphic novels … ranked based on their popularity in the Google Play store.” This method of evaluation means that not all the books listed here were published in 2016.

Customer Favorites: 2016’s Top-Selling New Releases

From Amazon: “List counts only first editions published in 2016 and includes paid units in print and Kindle.”

The mother list is broken down into several categories:

  • Top 20 Overall Customer Favorites for 2016
  • Top 20 Customer Favorites in Kids & Young Adult
  • Top 20 Most Wished For Books of 2016
  • Top 20 Most Gifted Books of 2016

 

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown

Some More Best Books of 2016 Lists

NPR’s Book Concierge: Our Guide To 2016’s Great Reads

NPR has put together a list of 309 books that staff and critics liked this year. On this page you can see the covers of all the choices. Or you can use the filters on the left side of the page to isolate particular kinds of books you’re interested in.

The Greatest Science Books of 2016

If you’re not yet acquainted with Maria Popova and brainpickings, let this be your introduction. Here she lists the year’s best science books, but she will probably offer lists in other fields in the near future as well.

Best Books of 2016

I’m always particularly interested in the Goodreads awards because they are chosen by ordinary readers, not critics or professional reviewers. Lots of types of books are features:

  • fiction
  • mystery & thriller
  • historical fiction
  • fantasy
  • romance
  • science fiction
  • horror
  • humor
  • nonfiction
  • memoir & autobiography
  • history & biography
  • science & technology
  • food & cookbooks
  • graphic novels & comics
  • poetry
  • debut Goodreads author
  • young adult fiction
  • young adult fantasy
  • middle grade & children’s
  • picture books
Bill Gates names his five favorite books of 2016

Just in case you’re interested in the reading habits of one of the world’s richest men …

The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2016

The list includes novels and short story collections.

© 2016 by Mary Daniels Brown