54 Books, 54 Favorites

Why 54? This list was created the year of my 54th birthday.

Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
Charles Ryder’s enchantment with the Marchmain family first came to my attention in the 1981 Masterpiece Theatre series with Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews. A longtime favorite. Published 1945, American and British editions.

Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Stuart Brent of the once famous Stuart Brent bookstore on Michigan Avenue in Chicago had this novel in paperback on his recommended table.  He placed it in my hand with high recommendation.  I do the same (virtually). Published in 1860. From Penguin Books: “A gripping tale of murder, intrigue, madness, and mistaken identity, Collins’s psychological thriller has never been out of print in the 140 years since its publication.”

Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
du Maurier’s most famous novel (published 1938) beginning with that famous line, “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” It’s spoken by the second Mrs. de Winter, who lives in the haunting shadow of the first (the beautiful Rebecca). I read this novel as a teenager and right in the middle of an intense, narrative moment – when I was completely involved – my sister shouts to me from the bathroom that she needs toilet paper.  (“In a minute.” – “No, now!”) Totally ruined the moment for me.

My Cousin Rachel by Daphne du Maurier
Another suspenseful, dark novel by du Maurier about a nephew who suspects his uncle’s widow murdered her husband. Takes place in Italy and England. Published in 1951.

Of Human Bondage by William Somerset Maugham
Maugham’s masterpiece published in 1915.  The answer’s in the carpet says it all.

A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
Not an easy classic to read (murder, rape, violent crime) but on the list because of a professor who taught the novel in one of my college lit courses.  He delivered a powerful message about character and individuality, that which makes us who we are, that which cannot be manipulated.  Became a famous Stanley Kubrick movie (1971). Novel was published in 1962.

The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene
So many of Greene’s novels I could list here, but this is the top choice in Greene’s dramas, versus his comedies. Story is about the ever-so-good yet unhappy police commissoner Scobie in a West African town. He dutifully cares for his pitiful wife and falls into tragedy. Published in 1948.

Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene
A comedy about a retired, staid bank manager who travels with his elderly crazy aunt to foreign cities. Fun reading. Published in 1970.

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrel
Hilarious and heart-warming memoir on the island of Corfu. More on this one in TLC post “The pony problem.”

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson
Mary Catherine Blackwood and her sister Constance live with their Uncle Julian isolated from the community in the old family home. Mystery surrounds the poisoning of other family members in the past. A distant cousin arrives and upsets everything.  Chilling stuff. Published in 1962.

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson
The back of my Popular Library paperback from 1962 says this by The New York Times reviewer: “I can vouch for the fact that (this) is no book to read yourself to sleep with in a lonely house…a super-deluxe ghost story … will make many a reader wonder after he turns off the light if he really is alone in the dark room.”  More chilling stuff. Published in 1959.

Parallel Lives: Five Victorian Marriages by Phyillis Rose
Essays about the marriages of five writers: John Ruskin, Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, Charles Dickens and George Eliot. According to Time magazine on the back of my 1984 paperback: “Three of the unions were devoid of passion, one degenerated into a widely publicized scandal, and the sole happy one was the most shocking of all.” Well written with fascinating insights and revelations. Published 1983.

Saving Graces: Images of Women in European Cemeteries by David Robinson
100 beautiful black and white photographs taken in European cemeteries of female statues weeping, swooning and sighing over the graves. In his afterword, David Robinson writes, “To me, these women symbolize the aspiration for eternal life, not the acceptance of death.”  Published in 1995.

An Infinity of Little Hours: Five Young Men and Their Trial of Faith in the Western World’s Most Austere Monastic Order by Nancy Klein Maguire
Maguire follows the journey of five young men who arrive at the gates of a Carthusian Monastery seeking entry in 1960. It’s an intimate look at the most rigorous and ascetic monastic order in the Western world.  Not often do I read a book I don’t want to end, but this was one. I felt sad when I reached the last page that my journey with these fascinating Carthusians was completed. Published 2006.

Bless the Beasts and the Children by Glendon Swarthout
I read this novel in manuscript form on a beach in Canada.  My family vacationed at Chippewa Lodge and so did a family from New York, the father being a v.p. at Doubleday.  He brought the manuscript with him and let us read it. I missed the dinner bell, still wrapped in my towel in the beach chair, reading about the misfits from Box Canyon Boys Camp on a mission to save a herd of buffalo and themselves. Published in 1970.

A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies by John Murray
A stunning debut collection of short stories that take place in Nepal, New Guinea, Africa and India. The characters are surgeons and medical researchers searching for life meaning. Beautiful writing. Published in 2003.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
The classic novel of the governness who falls in love with Mr. Rochester while the mad wife lives in the attic. When I was reading it in college, I was so “into” the story that one afternoon I confused reality with fiction, thinking Jane Eyre was a friend in trouble, and I needed to run back to the dorm room and talk to her. Perhaps that’s what it means when a book is a friend.

Lord of the Flies by William Golding
The classic tale of British school boys stranded on an island after a plane crash, struggling to establish order and descending into savagery. I read this novel waiting in the lobby of the YWCA while my mom was in a Junior League meeting.  I’ll never forget sitting alone in what I recall as a cold room, gripped by Golding’s novel. Published in 1954.

The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever
Published in 1978 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize. An unforgettable collection for what it says about New England famlies and their hopes, needs and dysfunctions. Herein are the famous stories “The Enormous Radio” and “The Swimmer.”

Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
A novel that made me laugh out loud about a Brooklyn detective with Tourette’s syndrome.  A National Book Critics Circle Award winner. Published in 1999.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
A novel about an autistic 15-year-old boy who is the lovable albeit complicated narrator. When he finds a large dead poodle in a neighbor’s yard – murdered with a garden fork – he decides to find the killer. A revealing fictional account of the world of autism. An absorbing book. Published 2003.

How I Came Into My Inheritance (And Other True Stories) by Dorothy Gallagher
An astonishing memoir of one family’s sometimes twisted, sometimes desperately perverse behavior. The dust jacket states, “These stories stand on their own — vivid, ironic, darkly funny, and completely original in style.” Published in 2001

The Stations of Solitude by Alice Koller
“A splendid book from the heart,” which I wrote in a review about this memoir for The Plain Dealer. (Most critics, though, gave it a bad rap.) It’s the sequel to An Unknown Woman, about Koller’s escape to Nantucket where for three winter months she lived alone with a German shepherd and struggled to make sense of her life. In Stations of Solitude, she merges back into mainland life but on her terms. Published in 1990.

During the Reign of the Queen of Persia by Joan Chase
One of my longtime favorite novels by an Ohio author for its evocation of family, farm life in Northern Ohio and the bond between generations of women. Told through the unusual collective viewpoint of “we” from two sets of sisters,  the book was originally rejected by an editor that wanted it rewritten into a more conventional voice.  Chase said “no” and went on to find another publisher and win critical acclaim for the novel. Published in 1983.

Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively
An absorbing novel that spans the lifetime of a woman journalist, with focus on a brief, passionate love affair during World War II. Winner of the Booker Prize. Published in 1988 (American Edition).

Ellen Foster by Kaye Gibbons
Gibbons first novel published to critical acclaim. The opening sentence immediately sets the stage and pulls in the reader: “When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy.”  Narrated by the 11-year-old Ellen about a difficult childhood. Published 1987.

44070: The Conspiracy of the Twentieth Century by Rudolf Vrba and Alan Bestic
This is Vrba’s memoir about his incarceration  in the Maidanek, Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps, his miraculous escape from Auschwitz and his communication to the West about the inner workings of the extermination factories.  I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking about this memoir.  Unforgettable story. The book came to me from Rudi Vrba, after we met at a publishing conference at Stanford. Published in 1964 as I Cannot Forgive.

Nothing to Declare: Memoirs of a Woman Traveling Alone by Mary Morris
A book that gave me the courage to travel alone.  The dust jacket states, “In a woman’s life almost every choice involves risk, and in Nothing to Declare Mary Morris gives us a stunning account of those risks in one woman’s journeys through Latin America.” Published 1988.

French Lessons by Alice Kaplan
Another memoir, this one centered on the desire to speak a foreign language and the life that unfolds around that desire. Interesting, especially for Francophiles, which I don’t claim to be, but I love to study French. Published 1993.

Great Books by David Denby
At the age of 48, film critic Denby had a mid-life crisis and went back to school at Columbia University to study the classics. He writes about being middle-aged among college students and his wrestling with the works and philosophies of Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Dante, Hegel, Nietzsche and many more. Uplifting and thought-provoking. Published 1996.

Jennie Gerhardt by Theodore Dreiser
Novel about a lower class girl caught up with wealthy men, submitting to them sexually to help her family financially. Jennie is hard to forget, hard not to love and hope for.  Her story is set in Columbus, Ohio, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Chicago.  Columbus residents who remember The Neil House, across from the State Capitol, will recognize it in the first pages. Published in 1911.

The Giant’s House by Elizabeth McCracken
Engaging novel about the friendship between 26-year-old librarian Peggy Cort and a  boy who changes her life — James Carlson Sweatt is six foot five at age twelve and continues growing into a very large man.  The dust jacket states it’s “an unforgettably tender and quirky novel about learning to welcome the unexpected miracle…” Published 1996.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion
Some of the best essays ever written.  My favorite is “Goodbye to All That” about leaving New York City, with its first line, “It is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends.” Published in 1968.

Still Life with Insects by Brian Kiteley
A small novel (114 pages) about an amateur entomologist struggling to regain his equilibrium following a nervous breakdown. A fascinating journey of understanding. Gorgeous writing. Published in 1989.

Ten Seconds by Louis Edwards
A debut masterpiece published in 1991. Watching a 10-second track race, an African American man sees his past flash before him, second by second. His next novel N: A Romantic Mystery is nowhere near the mastery of his first.

Dubin’s Lives by Bernard Malamud
Great lines in this novel about a prize-winning biographer, William Dubin, involved in a love affair with a woman half his age and seeking new life for his passing years. Here’s one of those lines:  “I’m taken by those who celebrate life by making much of their own. It’s a subtle altruism.” Published in 1977.

A Very Long Engagement by Sebastien Japrisot
An engaging WWI love story that kept me guessing until the end of whether or not Mathilde’s fiance was still alive.  Never saw the movie that came out in 2005. Novel published in 1993 (American Edition).

The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne by Brian Moore
This is Moore’s first novel that brings to life spinster Judith Hearne. She  struggles with despair over her fate of unattainable love and domesticity. Sad and memorable. Published in 1955.

A River Runs Through It and Other Stories by Norman MacLean
Maclean published this novella and stories  in 1976 when he was 73. The novella is a seductive story about youth, Montana, love and fly fishing with the most moving last lines ever written:  “Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’s 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.”

I Cannot Get You Close Enough: Three Novellas by Ellen Gilchrist
For several years I read Gilchrist’s short stories, following the lives of Anna, Traceleen, Olivia, Rhoda and other crazy and memorable characters that Gilchrist writes about in each of her books.  I adore this collection’s title, evoking a story before the telling even begins. Published in 1990.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
A Pulitzer Prize-winner to sink into during summer evenings.  From Penguin Books Classics:  “Confined to a wheelchair, retired historian Lyman Ward sets out to write his grandparents’ remarkable story, chronicling their days spent carving civilization into the surface of America’s western frontier. But his research reveals even more about his own life than he’s willing to admit. What emerges is an enthralling portrait of four generations in the life of an American family.” Novel published in 1971.

Ravelstein by Saul Bellow
A novel about Abe Ravelstein, a celebrated midwestern university professorwho prides himself in mentoring and shaping future influential politicians.  An extraordinary character in Ravelstein said to be created from Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind and once a professor at the University of Chicago. Published in 2000.

Humboldt’s Gift by Saul Bellow
A long-time favorite about Charlie Citrine whose life is in shambles and the gift that comes to him from friend Von Humboldt Fleisher. You can’t help but feel Charlie’s pain as he reels from boring career failure, bitter divorce demands, love affair anxieties and mafia trouble. That said, Anatole Broyard panned the book in a 1975 New York Times review.

Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
A memoir about life as a functional alcoholic. Caroline Knapp started drinking when she was 14 and kept at it through her college years and into a successful career as a journalist with a Boston newspaper. Nobody knew she had a problem. Her honesty makes this book a compelling read. It hit the best-seller list. Published in 1996.

Now in November by Josephine W. Johnson
A novel I’ve given as a gift, a powerful story about a farm family struggling in the heart of the country during the 1930s drought and Great Depression.  It’s written with poetic/seductive language and narrated by the memorable second of three daughters — a stunning work along the lines of best Willa Cather. Pulitzer Prize winner. Published in 1934.

The Long Night of White Chickens by Francisco Goldman
A woman running an orphanage in Guatemala is murdered and an American friend tries to uncover the truth of her death. Beautiful writing, lyrical and suspenseful.  Published in 1992.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Richard Yates’ 1961 novel about April and Frank Wheeler’s 1950s suburbia entrapment and identity struggle is well written with simple but moving prose.  Read more about it in the post The revolutionary road not taken.

An Unfinished Season by Ward Just
Novel about politics, business, family and love in 1950s Chicago. Wilson Ravan works a summer job at a Chicago newspaper and spends evenings at glamorous North Shore debutante parties. He falls in love with Aurora Brule, the daughter of a renowned psychiatrist, a man haunted by his experience during World War II.  Poignant with human desire and regret. Published 2004.

That Night by Alice McDermott
Suburban Long Island in the 1960s is the setting of this novel about high school sweethearts torn apart. A poignant elegy to teenage love. Published in 1987.

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott
Instruction on how to write and also hilarious advice on how to manage a writer’s life, which, for all readers, translates into how to live life in general. Published in 1994.

The Florist’s Daughter by Patricia Hampl
Hampl’s memoir reflects on her midwestern childhood while she sits at the bedside of her dying mother.  The dust jacket says, “a tribute to the ardor of supposedly ordinary people.” Hampl’s honesty made me feel close to her.  Published 2007.

Dispatches by Michael Herr
One of the most absorbing, shocking and utterly entrancing reports on the Vietnam War.  Author John le Carré said of it, “The best book I have ever read on men and war in our time.”  The New York Times quote on the back of my copy reads, “It is as if Dante had gone to hell with a cassette recording of Jimi Hendrix and a pocketful of pills: our first rock-and-roll war.” Published 1977.

The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
How do you tell a war story? O’Brien, who also penned the Vietnam novels Going After Cacciato and If I Die in a Combat Zone, says you tell it as you seem to remember it. It is in this seeming that he captures what it’s like to be a foot soldier in the Vietnam War using a series of narratives, ranging from the grotesque to the philosophical. As convincing as it is mezmerizing. Published in 1990.

They Marched into Sunlight by David Maraniss
I read this historical account of October 1967 far into the summer night on my porch.  The dust jacket says, “Maraniss weaves together three very different worlds of that time: the death and heroism of soldiers in Vietnam, the anger and anxiety of antiwar students back ome, and the confusion and obfuscating behavior of officials in Washington. Published in 2003.

6 thoughts on “54 Books, 54 Favorites

  1. Happy Birthday, Kassie. And thanks for the intriguing list. I’ve already printed it for use on “emergency” book buying forays. I can’t wait till you turn 100!


  2. What an achievement — not your ability to list 54 great books but your ability to ONLY list 54 books! Several on your list are on my “to be read” shelf already, thanks to your earlier recomemmendations. But I think I’ll take time out to try my own favorites list…..Wonderful job!…And Happy Birthday.


  3. Kassie,
    Loved the list! We share some favorites & you’ve got some on there I’ve never read – your summer b’day list is just in time for my summer reading list!


  4. Just finished, “A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies”. You describe the book as stories about people looking for the meaning of life. To me it was stories about people trying to figure out tragic things that have happened in their lives. Not very uplifting. What did you find in this book that I might have missed that encouraged you to put it on your short list?

    I appreciate you putting out a list since I couldn’t do that! I also like your blog since I am always looking for books. Just started, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime,” which I selected from your list. Now I want to stay home all day and read this book. A great choice.


    1. The exquisite portrayals of the characters and their situations – yes, not very uplifting – in the exotic locales and what they do to make sense of their lives – that’s what draws me to this collection, made so very moving by Murray’s writing. Sometimes to get to life meaning means surrendering to that which is most difficult, or facing it, which I found these characters did. Some with grace. Some simply out of being lost.

      Images from this book remain with me – such as the woman walking out of her house and down to the river where she climbs into a tree, sits on a limb and imagines India on the other side (“Acts of Memory, Wisdom of Man”). At one point she says to her son, “We all make choices in our lives … You will have to make choices, too, Harry.” He replies, “I understand.” And then she says, “Be yourself, Harry … This is the best you can do.”

      I found the difficult personal journeys in these stories – physical and spiritual – to be unforgettable and infused with – perhaps attempts at – finding reason, meaning.

      Thanks for your comment. I’m always intrigued when some love a book and others don’t, or some find a message or purpose in a story that others don’t – how we attach differently to what we all read.


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