Continuing my list of books that mattered to me.....
4. The World According to Garp by John Irving
When I was in college in the late 70s, John Irving was HUGE, and none of his books was more loved than "Garp." His literary star has fallen a long way since then (IMHO, he hasn't written a good book since "The Cider House Rules", but I still love this book, and I still pull it down from the shelf and re-read it periodically. The opening sentence always grabs me - "Garp's mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theatre." - and every character is amazing and original. I've flippantly summed up Irving's work as being about "hot sex and freak accidents" - there are plenty of both in "Garp," but there is also evidence of Irving's power as a storyteller. (The movie version is cute enough, but it doesn't hold a candle to the book.)
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
As a senior in high school, I was given a list of "100 Books You Should Read Before You Go to College." "Madame Bovary" was on that list, but I didn't manage to read till several years later. I now wish I could regain the hours I spent trying to stay interested in "The Mayor of Casterbridge" or "Moby Dick" to spend them on Flaubert's masterwork. I'm endlessly intrigued by stories of women whose appetites for drama,passion and beauty far exceed what their ordinary lives can provide them. And Emma Bovary - trapped in a marriage to a dull, provincial doctor; spending money and chasing lovers with foolish and reckless abandon - is the prototype of all such doomed seekers. Many 19th century novelists are a tough read for me these days. Even Jane Austen, who I adore, takes powers of concentration that my hopelessly Googled/Tivoed/21st century brain can't always summon. But Flaubert's prose remains sharp,engrossing and modern. (Skip the movie version with Isabelle Huppert - it's even duller than Emma's husband.)
6. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
Anne Lamott is the writer I want to be when I grow up - wickedly funny, painfully honest, smart-assed and heartbreaking all at once. She's about the only Christian writer I know who can write about Jesus without being all prissy, drippy and Sunday-schoolish. But "Bird by Bird" precedes her writing on faith - it is, in fact, a book about how to write. And Lamott doesn't pull any punches about how hard it is to write - at all, let alone to write anything good. Or how pointless it is to focus on getting published at the expense of doing the work well. But when you put her book down, I guarantee you'll be motivated to get to work on your own prose. (I'll bet you think there is no movie version of this one. WRONG! There is a video called "Bird by Bird with Annie." If you're an Anne fan, it's compulsory viewing.)
7. "Saturday" by Ian McEwan
This was a tough call. For the sake of space and brevity, I had decided to limit myself to seven books. And choosing McEwan's latest novel meant I had to forgo some other favorites like "A Patchwork Planet by Anne Tyler, "The Secret History" by Donna Tartt or "Any Human Heart" by William Boyd.
BUT having said that - I now praise this fine novel by one of my most recently discovered favorite authors. "Saturday" chronicles one day in the life of a London neurosurgeon - a day when the streets are filled with anti-war demonstrations and a day on which his own family members will face a serious threat to their own safety. It's a cliche to say "I couldn't put this book down" - but, really, I couldn't. McEwan evokes a growing sense of unease and foreboding as the story unfolds, while masterfully engaging us in the daily details of affluent Perowne family's lives. I can only hope the movie that is inevitably made from this book will be half as good as its source material.