Middlemarch, by George Eliot
Glorious, sprawling, generous. It makes you wish you had not judged characters so quickly and that you could grow old with all of them. I read somewhere that it is a novel for adults, and it is, truly. It is a book I hope to read at every decade of my life, because I think each time it will have something new to teach me.
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf
A classic for a reason. My mind was warped into a new shape by her prose and it will never be the same again. The metaphysics she presents in the book are enacted in a way that allowed me to begin to understand that corner of philosophy.
Nightwood, by Djuna Barnes
There is something mysterious and unreachable about this novel, it makes you want to peer behind it somehow. It is rigorous and brave, never allowing the reader to become complacent. It is tragic and erotic and no matter how many times you read it, it eludes your grasp.
The Idiot, by Elif Batuman
She accomplishes in this novel what I’m always trying to do in film: make the mundane extraordinary not by adorning it but by telling it as it is. It combines deadpan humor with romantic yearning and makes you want to read more novels and maybe also try to learn Russian.
The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen
The plot of the novel is woven invisibly under you, and pulled out just as you are settling in. It is one of the best novels about a young woman that I’ve ever read. These moments of transformation and epiphany go by unnoticed by the outside world, but we have the privilege of being in Portia’s mind with her as she’s trying to figure out exactly how the world is put together and why people do what they do.
The White Album, by Joan Didion
She is my patron saint, and this collection of essays helped me understand the world I was not around for but that still shaped my life. Her truths are tiny knives, piercing the surface and bleeding out the illusions of life, especially life in California.
The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson
This book doesn’t fit neatly into a category. It’s personal but also global. It doesn’t prescribe anything; it raises questions. It allows the reader to feel as if they are watching this brilliant woman think in real time. It seems as if you are inside her mind with her. It’s funny and sexy and made me cry. And it is one of the best books on being a stepmother I’ve ever encountered.
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
In this book, Ms. Adichie has constructed a full-on romance that has the addictive power of a Jane Austen novel but with the specifics of life in Nigeria, as well as life in the United States as an immigrant. I fell in love with Ifemelu and Obinze in a way that I haven’t felt since I was a child reading novels for the first time.
The Dud Avocado, by Elaine Dundy
Funny, funny, funny. She’s wicked and wise. The main character is a total mess and a joy to hang out with. Every page has a great one-liner or quip and I felt like I never put down my pencil — I kept wanting to underline something.
Lives of Girls and Women, by Alice Munro
Alice Munro always gets to the thing inside me that knows, with certainty, that this is my one life. There is a penetrating sense of ultimate aloneness in her writing. And in just a sentence she can turn from the present to the future and then all the way into the past, making the reader feel as if they are experiencing the sweep of life as moments accumulate, and then double back and reconsider. It presents at first as just a drip drip drip … and then before you know it, you’re standing in a waterfall.