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My Short List of Great Novels and Why

My Short List of Great Novels and Why

Isn’t it difficult to name your favorite books?

Or, maybe not.

But I love so many of them, narrowing down a list proves, well, tough.

I posted a few weeks ago about why I love Lit Fic. And mentioned that if someone was seeking a good read, I’d be glad to give a list.

Many folks took me up on it!

So here’s short list and why (my long list would take 3 days to get through), off the top of my head. Although I’m sure as soon as I post this, I’ll think of 20 more! And I’m limiting this to novels for the same reason (although I love nonfiction too).

And no, they aren’t in any particular order except for the final one 🙂

1). The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

How timely is this now. Although I read it when it came out, and it chilled me to the bone (even though I don’t love Dystopian), how apropos it is for today. Set in a time when women are no longer allowed to read, well, that’s the least of their worries . . .

2). The Color Purple by Alice Walker.

I have to confess, I’m an avid Walker fan. The way she brings to life her characters, who inhabit worlds I’ll never know. But Celie’s story didn’t at all seem foreign to me. What a beautiful way Walker told this, through letters to God . . .

3). Beloved by Toni Morrison.

Okay, may as well stay on abusive notes since I’m there 🙂

I am in awe of an author who can make a completely sympathetic character of one who kills her children. But ahhh . . . understand you do. Sethe comes to life in all of her complicated, swirling color. Difficult to read. Difficult to put down.

4). Horseman Pass By by Larry McMurtry.

Let’s change the tone to the guys some here!

And again, I’m an avid McMurty fan. But I think this first book of his, is his best. What a stark (and true) portrayal of the changing West, of the hardscrabble souls who tamed it, and specifically one old rancher in west Texas whose way of life was dying before his aged eyes.

This is Texas.

You may know it by the film starring Paul Newman, Hud.

5). Wanderer Springs by Robert Flynn.

This, too, is Texas. In places as poignant, it’s a more modern version than McMurtry’s book, but creates what life truly is like in small-town Texas, and how the old ways are gone. Something I know all too well . . .

6). A & B

And while we’re on Texas, and not on nonfiction, I have to include these two. Although both are narrative nonfiction, they read like novels.

Empire of the Summer Moon is the definitive history of Texas (and not what we were taught in school!), and S.C. Gwynne does a masterful job of storytelling throughout.

And John Graves’ Goodbye to a River is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read. Just stunning in the evocation of what Texas once was, and will never be again. Known as the definitive work about Texas, I absolutely agree.

Okay, I swear, no more lapses into nonfiction!

7). The Time it Never Rained by Elmer Kelton.

Dressed up as a Western (and sold in that genre), it’s really literary. During the Texas drought of the 1950s, Charlie Flagg refuses questionable government assistance. The metal of this man, his strength and courage . . . he embodies my ancestors.

8). Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.

One last Texas one . . .

Disclaimer: This is the bloodiest, most-violent novel I’ve ever read. And I hate violence. But you become desensitized to it fairly soon in the story.

What the real West was like. Boiled down to its essence, it portrays the white male ego at its peak.

This is the Great American Novel.

9). The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy.

Obviously I believe this man is brilliant. He is.

This book is the second in the Border trilogy, which I confess, I couldn’t read very far. As soon as they started torturing the wolf, I was out.

But through the opening scene came one of the most beautiful passages in literature I’ve ever seen, so I’ll include it for you here:

“They were running on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and turned and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world entire.”

10). The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoevsky.

Well, I just love the Russians. But none as much as Dostoevsky.

Nobody can much agree on this one, but the brilliance of this truly innocent and “positively beautiful man” on a world where scheming, manipulation, and money rule the day resonated to my core.

Note: Not for the faint-of-heart reader, these Russians!

11). The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway.

Full confession—I adore Hemingway. Everything he wrote. And while picking this one out of his vast oeuvre is almost cliché, give me a story of finding triumph in the depths of defeat.

Give me the beauty, the poignancy of such writing. I am there.

12). Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad.

Yep, I’m a Conrad buff too. And this is my fav of his.

And I disagree with much of the common wisdom about it—it’s not that Kurtz went mad because his psyche was corrupted. But rather, the psyche is that terrifying place within us all, when dug out to its core, where we all have hints of madness.

This is where the line came from that most folks attribute to Apocalypse Now. It’s actually Kurtz’ final judgement on the psyche, and on mankind:

“The horror! The horror!”

Again, Conrad is not for the feint-of-heart reader! His prose, his stories and characters are all thick and dense.

13). The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Another cliché’d choice, but I love this book. Fitzgerald actually did capture the age.

And, you gotta love a novel where the narrator isn’t the main character—that’s incredibly difficult to pull off!

Funny enough, I actually love Fitzgerald’s short stories more than his novels. “The Ice Palace” is one of my favorite stories ever, about a Southern girl gone to the North. I can relate!

14). As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner.

If you want to understand the South—truly understand the South—then Faulkner’s your guy.

Multi-layered, told in stream-of-consciousness style (for which he was famous), the sensibilities of each Bundren family member (including the deceased’s!) comes tumbling through.

Again, Faulkner’s not for everybody. Like fine cabernet, he’s truly an acquired taste.

15). Diminished Capacity by Sherwood Kiraly

This is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read!

It’s about dementia, and having gone through that, I can attest that the disease is not funny at all. But Kiraly found that odd balance of truth and humor here, and I laughed my way through this entire thing.

16). All the Kings Men by Robert Penn Warren

I’m a political animal. I love the study of politics (as opposed to politics itself).

And there isn’t a better book for unveiling the nuances of it. Yep, “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” as Lord Acton said.

No one has presented it better than Penn Warren, and in a more entertaining fashion to boot.

I still threaten to get a Willie Stark for President bumper sticker . . .

17). A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley

What is family? What are the secrets we contain? How does this relate to family dynamics?

The King Lear story plays out through an Iowa farmer intent on leaving his land to his three daughters.

Beautiful, nuanced, I saw my family there. You’ll see some of yours there as well . . .

18). The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

While I absolutely adore her short fiction, this novel put her on the map.

Who are the chosen ones? Who are the misfits, the forgotten and rejected people? And who decides?

Set amidst the South’s racial tensions, this book gives you questions rather than answers. And done in such beautiful fashion.

19). To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

You know—the one you were forced to read in high school so hated!

But give it another shot now, with the wisdom of maturity. I can guarantee you’ll read it with entirely new eyes.

Deserves all of the praise ever given it.

20). Sent for You Yesterday by John Edgar Wideman

This book simply broke my heart. I originally read it 30 years ago, and remember it like yesterday.

If you want to know, truly want to know, what living in the inner-city ghetto is like, this is for you. It will cause you understand in a way that you never knew existed.

And, it’s stunningly beautifully written.

21). The Kite Runner by Kahled Hosseini

Do you want to understand life in Afghanistan? The “others” among us?

Funny enough, Hosseini has that rare gift of bringing the universal to the different.

This poignant story with its breathtaking crux will hurt your soul, but bring it to redemption as well.

22). The Milagro Beanfield War by John Nichols

I’ve talked about this book before 🙂

It’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. A social commentary that doesn’t remotely read like one, it’s about regular folks just trying to get by, and get along, in a changing world.

Nichols is a master.

23). The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy

Conroy is another you either love or hate. There seems no middle ground as per reviewers of his work. He got skewered by so many . . .

Obviously, I adore him!

And while I love all of his books, this is the one I return to. I’ve read it 4 times.

Talk about family secrets. But so beautifully told:

“My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call. I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Coleton . . .”

24). The Frank Bascombe trilogy + 1 by Richard Ford

The Sportswriter, Independence Day, The Lay of the Land, and Let Me Be Frank with You

I’ve written about Ford and Frank before 🙂

Rarely has any character in literature taken hold of me like Frank Bascombe did. Is it because I came from a similar tragedy as he did? Is it because his acerbic insights tickle my funny bone and border on the profound?

Or is it just because Ford’s writing is as stellar as is any now in the game.

I don’t much care at this point, do I.

These books are just brilliant.

And finally, as those who know me know, the last one on my list is my favorite for all reasons:

25). A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean

And yep, I’ve written about this book more than once too 🙂

It’s simply the most beautiful book I’ve ever read.

But enough about my thoughts; I’ll leave you with this:

“Then in the arctic half-light of the canyon, all existence fades to a being with my soul and memories and the sounds of the Big Blackfoot River and a four-count rhythm and the hope that a fish will rise.

Eventually, all things merge into one, and a river runs through it. The river was cut by the world’ 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.”

This Post Has 36 Comments

  1. Cathy Sykora

    A wonderful list with some excellent reads. A few I haven’t had the chance to read yet.

  2. Reba Linker

    You ask: “Isn’t it difficult to name your favorite books?” Yes, and I live in terror of that question! (Like this interview question is a big issue in my life – lol!)

    Though I spend much of my time with my nose buried in a book, I find that I live the experience deeply while I am in it, yet don’t have the filing/evaluating system in place that some people seem to use to rank their favorites. Also, I read so widely and age-inappropriately as a child, and books sort of washed over me, affecting me, while I didn’t quite have perspective on what was occurring. And some I loved dearly, yet barely remember titles and authors. (I will have to re-read Romain Rolland just to see if I really do love his books as much as I seem to remember loving them as a child.)

    And how does one judge? I recently very casually picked up a non-fiction book in a barter library in a friend’s building. It was so powerful that it haunted me for days. In fact, I still push it away whenever it crosses my mind, that’s how painful it was. Would I recommend it? I’m not so sure.

    Anyway, enough about me! Thank you, Susan, for your beautiful share of the books you love, many of which I haven’t read (I now gravitate towards non-fiction). I’ll bookmark it and seek out your recommendations!

    1. Susan Malone

      I understand entirely, Reba! I’m like that too–I read so much, and become so engrossed in books, that many become my very favorite one while I’m reading. Then it’s tough to list them! I did this off the top of my head, and of course, in the last few days have thought of dozens more I didn’t include. Lol. Another list at another time!

  3. Vatsala Shukla

    I remember so many of these books from my teenage years when I had to do book reviews to earn extra pocket money, Susan. My parents gifted me a love for books in the long run although at that time all I could think of was how many I had to read and review to get the latest BeeGees album. 🙂

    I’m so glad The Color Purple made your list.

    1. Susan Malone

      Oh, I love that, Vatsala! What a fabulous parent thing to do 🙂

      And don’t you just love The Color Purple. One of my all-time favs.

  4. Natasha Botkin

    Very cool list. Many on your list, I very much enjoy. Some I have not heard of and look forward to reading. Thanks! xoxo

  5. Rachel Lavern

    I can never name my favorite books. There are just too many and every time I go to my bookshelves to make a recommendation, I find myself picking up something new to read. Now that would not be a bad thing except that it takes my attention away from whatever book I am currently reading.

    1. Susan Malone

      It’s really tough for me too, Rachel. There are SO many books I love! And of course, I can think of 50 more now . . .

  6. Beverley Golden

    What an amazing list of great reads, Susan, many of these are considered classics in the literary world. Although I am not a fiction reader, I gravitate to non-fiction, I loved “To Kill a Mockingbird”, what it stands for and its message. As a lover of pop culture, I do remember seeing many of these in their movie form. I do know that reading the book is a very different experience than seeing the film, however, the film lover in me often prefers to ‘see’ the story on a screen. Thanks for sharing your passion and love of reading!

    1. Susan Malone

      What a good time to pick up fiction again, Beverley! Yep, we experience books and films differently. And almost always, the book is better than the film 🙂 Not always (I can think of a couple off the top of my head where the movie was actually better. Sometimes lots better!). But give some of these a try!

  7. Meghan

    Oooooohhhhhh, good list! I read almost half of these in my youth as part of school curricula but remember few details. Hemingway is one of my favs too! I haven’t read any fiction for about four years since I’ve been focused on non fiction works related to business. I miss my days of summer vacation at the beach with a good novel in hand!

    1. Susan Malone

      Treat yourself to a novel, Meghan! The benefits are legion 🙂

  8. Awesome list Susan! I have read some for them for sure but there are others that I don’t think I’ve even heard of? Just reading your descriptions made me want to search Amazon!!!! Thank you for taking the time and sharing your list with all of us. ~Kathy

    1. Susan Malone

      I always love bringing obscure fiction to folks, Kathy! Try some of these–they’re great books1

  9. Sue Kearney

    I just read a good one: “Five Quarters of the Orange,” by Joanne Harris (author of “Chocolat”). Really good! I’m making note of some of yours I haven’t read yet. Thanks, will share.

    1. Susan Malone

      I SO loved Chocolat, Sue! Will have to try this one. Thank you!

  10. Alene Geed

    A comprehensive list. Honestly I am surprised at how many I have not read myself. Heart of Darkness is on my list for this year though.. and I did love the Kite Runner

    1. Susan Malone

      Wasn’t The Kite Runner just beautiful, Alene. Hope Heart of Darkness moves you!

  11. Kimberly

    I have read a few of these, but there are quite a few I haven’t thanks for the great list!

  12. Anne

    Thank you for this list! I’m always looking for good books to read. Now you’ve gone and done the work for me 🙂

  13. Richard McMaster


  14. Candess M Campbell

    Susan you were reading my mind! I am ready for a new book. I have read several of these, but looking forward to making a choice. Given you are an award winning author, I trust you completely!

  15. We have some of the same favorite books. Some others of my favorites are The Red and the Black and A Prayer for Owen Meany. Totally different! But I love them both!

    1. Susan Malone

      Love Owen Meany, Jennifer! Will try The Red and the Black. Thank you!

  16. Lorii Abela

    I am not a fiction or novel person. However, I think that is interesting that you have tried to pick and share your favorites with us. You must have been reading for many years now because that is what I have noticed with novel story readers, they have captured the interest earlier in their life.

    1. Susan Malone

      Since childhood, Lorii 🙂 Give some of these a try!

  17. Joyce Hansen

    What a wonder selection, Susan. Some I read years and years ago and there’s guilt as you bring them back to life. You also made me realize how much time I spend reading non-fiction. Time to get out my library card.

  18. Roslyn Tanner Evans

    What I love most about your list are the passages you quote and the brief explanations why you are recommending them. Despite having an online business I read no nonfiction or business related but am a prolific novel reader. Mostly novels about women & life’s struggles. I do think it has given me a foundation of wisdom, empathy, compassion. I also read detective stories & mysteries because the info might come in handy.
    I am a speed reader & I prefer reading from cover to cover in a sitting (usually do this) & I know I could not do that with many on your list that is unfamiliar. Some of my best friends are poets, English prof, readers & I will share this list with them.

    1. Susan Malone

      Roz, I can tell you read fiction so prolifically–it comes out in your wisdom, empathy, and compassion. That’s one of those gifts fiction gives us!
      And thank you for the share! Would love to know what your friends think 🙂

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