This blog entry is inspired by my friend Andrew’s, which was inspired by the Ideal Bookshelf project by artist and illustrator Jane Mount. Jane paints portraits of people through the spines of their favorite books—the ones that define their dreams and ambitions and in many cases helped them find their way in the world.
I was curious about my own desert island booklist, so I rifled through my many, many shelves to curate a small collection. There are many books missing, especially my copy of Leif Enger’s PEACE LIKE A RIVER, which I profoundly adore, and also David Benioff’s CITY OF THIEVES, CONFEDERACY OF DUNCES by John Kennedy Toole, and Stephen King’s THE STAND.
ON THE ROAD, by Jack Kerouac
This book is sandwiched on its usual shelf between FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS by Hunter S. Thompson and 1001 PLACES TO SEE BEFORE YOU DIE. I read this when I was 17, just before I left to study in Bourges, France and backpack around Europe with my friend David. Written with abandon and wonder, Kerouac’s stream of consciousness inspired my lifelong appreciation of journeys big and small.
THE ESSENTIAL RUMI, translated by Coleman Barks
If I am lost in the middle of the woods of my mind, I open this book and read one of Rumi’s poems at random. Somehow, they point me in the direction I need.
Little by little, wean yourself.
This is the gist of what I have to say.
ONE, by Richard Bach
“Mistakes – call them unexpected learning experiences.” In this metaphysical semi-autobiography, the author and his wife are able to visit themselves via seaplane in past and parallel lives. It’s fantastical and often silly, but still, I love the idea of being able to take a 30,000 ft. view of life, charting (and changing) one’s destiny choice by choice.
MR. PINE’S PURPLE HOUSE, by Leonard Kessler
Mr. Pine lived on Vine Street in a little white house just like all the other houses. He wanted to make it stand out, but every time he planted a bush or a tree or did something else, all the neighbors copied him. So he finally decided to paint his house purple—and convinced all the would-be copy-cats to choose their own colors. This was my favorite book as a child and it still makes me happy to read it.
TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR, by Alice Walker
With supple language and a hint of magical realism, Walker tells a story about the history of all mankind—and the unique and universal struggles that make it all worthwhile.
ROUND THE BEND, by Nevil Shute
This is a gorgeous, mystical story about an Englishman who starts up an air charter company in Bahrain and his chief mechanic who finds spiritual value in technical precision and becomes a revered religious figure. It’s about airplanes, life, and opening oneself up to the possibility of the divine.
A RELATIVE STRANGER, by Charles Baxter
Somehow, when I was living unhappily ever after in Venezuela, this collection of short stories by Charlie Baxter found its way to me. Reading them, I was transported—breathtaken—back to life. I once told Charlie that I never finished the last pages of his novels and stories because I never wanted there to be a day that I wouldn’t have something left of his to read. Since then, I’ve finished them all, because they need to be read to the end, and because, as he gently reminded me, I can always go back to the beginnings.
THE SHIPPING NEWS, by E. Annie Proulx
This book won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award—and my heart. The characters, plot and even the syntax and punctuation are utterly original. This is a quiet story about a downtrodden man who finds friendship, love, and his own self-worth when he leaves his faithless wife and moves to his ancestral home in the dark and mystical wilds of Newfoundland.
THE LIVES OF THE MUSES, by Francine Prose
This is a thoroughly researched and beautifully written book by one of America’s smartest writers. Even her acknowledgements section is inspiring. In fact, one of her mentions—“Thanks, as always, to Howie Michels, for literally everything”—inspired the original title of my first novel, which has since been renamed ONE LAST TIME FOREVER.
THE DECAMERON, by Giovanni Boccaccio
I read this 14th century allegory in college and have returned to it several times since. The frame story encompasses 100 erotic, tragic, comedic tales—ten told by each of ten young people who fled plague-ridden Florence to a villa in the Italian countryside. It’s an unflinching tour of the times (rape and crimes against women are rampant) but the bawdy and irreverent tone throughout makes it irresistible.
FALL ON YOUR KNEES, by Ann-Marie MacDonald
I have no recollection of how or when this amazing book fell into my hands, but I remember the chill that goosebumped by skin when I read the opening sentence: “They’re all dead now.” What followed was a three-page prologue that deftly, hauntingly promised to deliver the goods. And it did. I’m certain this character-driven story informed the way I wrote WHISPER HOLLOW. Ann-Marie, if you’re out there, thank you.
THE LIAR’S CLUB, by Mary Karr
I don’t read a lot of memoirs, but when I heard Mary Karr read at Brazos Bookstore in 1996, I was smitten. She brought her sister along and gave her equal credit (Leica even signed readers’ books after Karr did) for this big, gritty, funny retelling of their childhood in east Texas. Like THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls, the accounts of her parents’ substance abuse and mental illness make for difficult reading, but Karr’s insight and humor lend the book its balance.
THE MEZZANINE, by Nicholas Baker
One word: footnotes.
ONE HUNDRED YEARS OF SOLITUDE, by Gabriel García Márquez
This story of the rise and fall of the Buendia family and their village Macondo is nothing short of perfect. Marquez spins their brutal truths, their tender lies into a magical, glittering tale that underscores the significance of family—even if we ultimately must die alone.
CONSIDER THIS, SENORA, by Harriet Doerr
Poignant and spare, Mrs. Doerr captured the tension between natives and newcomers in this elegant story about American expatriates living in Mexico. I read this book when I was an expatriate living in Venezuela, and not only did I connect with the story, I felt a kinship with the author, who published her first novel at age 74.