I’m a big reader. I always have been. I love to read before bed. Or actually, while in bed, because with my insomnia I rarely sleep. So I read a LOT! There have been so many books that have impacted me. Made me laugh. Made me cry. Seared my soul. Here are 22 of my favorite books of all time:
My Brilliant Friend (Neapolitan Novels Book 1) by Elena Ferrante – Originally written in Italian by an anonymous author with the pen name Elena Ferrante, the Neapolitan Novels are a must-read. Set in a struggling neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples, they follow the intense female friendship between Lila and Elena over the course of nearly a lifetime. The characters are deep and flawed and their relationship is both beautiful and terribly complicated. The prose is stunning and the cadence of the language is unlike anything I have ever read. (Perhaps it’s because I read it in translation.) Do yourself a favor and indulge in this series. It’s amazing.
The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough – I picked this book up when we were traveling in New Zealand and Australia. I like to read something set in the place I’m visiting if possible. Little did I know it would become one of my favorite books of all time. It’s an epic tale centered around the pure, forbidden love between a girl and a priest. A priest whose first love will always be God. It’s heart-wrenchingly wonderful. And no, I haven’t watched the mini series.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed – This book will crack your soul open. Written by Cheryl Strayed when she was “Sugar,” the advice columnist for a website called The Rumpus, it’s a collection of incredibly poignant responses she wrote to reader questions. And it is BRILLIANT!!!! The best life advice ever. I have gifted this book to every woman I love. Cheryl Strayed is such an inspiring person. She’s witty and deep and honest in a way that is so wonderfully brutal. (And I say that even after I bumped into her once at the Hamilton premiere, and I was so excited I touched her shoulder and said, “Hi!” She looked at me and said, “Do I know you, or are you just a fan?” I was stunned and muttered, “Just a fan …” and walked away. But despite that, Cheryl Strayed is still one of my idols. Although if you meet me in person, please say hello. I promise I won’t ask if you’re “just a fan.”)
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir by Jenny Lawson – This memoir is so funny you will literally pee yourself laughing. It’s an hysterical collection of essays about all of the most embarrassing moments of Jenny’s life. Let’s just say one involves an arm that gets stuck up cow’s butt. And speaking of meeting people, I once met Jenny Lawson while waiting for a shuttle to an awards ceremony. We were the only two waiting and I got all awkward and fan girly and started babbling about my boobs. I was wearing a dress I hadn’t worn since before I had kids (and of course didn’t try on before leaving for the trip) so my boobs we spilling out of it. I was so self-conscious about it that I just kept talking about it (because when I feel awkward I go full-on babble-mouth). I’m sure Jenny was THRILLED when the shuttle came and she could escape me.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier – The title character of this book isn’t even in the book. And the main character/narrator doesn’t even have a name. And that’s just the tip of what makes this novel so hauntingly wonderful. It’s a suspenseful, romantic, intense gothic novel set in a mansion called Manderley that is so vivid I feel like I’ve actually been there.
On The Road by Jack Kerouac – This book made me want to pack it all in and hit the road. And this was before I had kids!!! My husband laughed at me when I told him I was reinventing myself as a beat poet. But the book is that inspiring. It will make you want to change your life. It follows the cross-country journey of two beatniks and celebrates the wild, wonderful, creative spirit.
Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi – This debut historical fiction novel is remarkable. It follows the descendants of two women from Ghana (one a slave and one a slave-owner’s wife) generation after generation. It will change you. It is raw and real and will leave you thinking long after you close the last page.
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott – This story of four very different sisters struggling to survive and stay positive as they face the difficult realities of their lives stole my heart as a young girl. Of course, I related to the feisty Jo the most. But all of the girls’ perseverance in times of hardship is inspiring. I recently re-read the book with my daughter and it still holds up as one of the best.
An Invitation to a Beheading by Vladimer Nabokov – I was an English Literature/Theater major in college, but I took every Russian Lit class I could. I LOVE Russian novels. They are so dark and complicated and satyrical. And Nabokov is one of my favorites. He is obviously most famous for his novel Lolita, but Invitation to a Beheading is my favorite book of his. It is an absurd, mind-boggling, funny yet tragic book that begins with the sentence, “In accordance with the law the death sentence was announced to Cincinnatus C. in a whisper.” In a whisper. What an amazing sentence. In the novel, Cincinnatus C. awaits his beheading after being sentenced to death for “gnostical turpitude” an imaginary crime with no real definition. His crime is essentially being an individual and not conforming to a totalitarian society. He is given no date of execution and spends his days dealing with a crazy cast of characters including chipper jailers who don’t seem to understand why he loathes them. The novel is deliciously absurd and the writing is amazing in English. I only wish I could read it in the original Russian.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy – Like I said above, I love Russian literature. And this book is the best of the best in that genre. It’s an epic tale that is centered around the love affair between the married Anna Karenina and the smitten Count Alexei Vronsky. It explores big themes like love, fidelity, jealousy, and the hypocrisy of society when it comes to men and women. Anna is a fierce female character you will fall in love with.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerers Stone by J.K. Rowling – I loved the Harry Potter books the first time I read them over a decade ago. And I loved them when I re-read them with my kids. The magic! The suspense! The epic battles between good and evil! What’s not to love? I’m still waiting for my owl to come with my invite to Hogwarts. I’d make a mean Quidditch player (that’s a lie, I suck at sports and I’m afraid of heights).
Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides – “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of l974. . . My birth certificate lists my name as Calliope Helen Stephanides. My most recent driver’s license…records my first name simply as Cal.” Thus begins this amazing novel about gender identity and hermaphroditism. Cal is a character that gets into your heart and never leaves.
She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb – I love Dolores Price, the main character of this book, possibly more than I’ve ever loved a fictional character. So much so that I missed her terribly when I finished the novel and kept wishing I could still be in her world. Wally Lamb’s writing is incredible. His heroine is so real and raw and her triumph over neglect and rape and mental illness made me want to shout from the roof tops.
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon – I started reading the Outlander series because when I asked for book recommendations on MyLifeSuckers’ Facebook Page like 80% of you said OUTLANDER!!! I fell down the rabbit hole and gobbled up all 8 books in the series in a row. I mean how could I not? Every book is a cliff hanger. The series starts in 1945 when the heroine Claire walks through a cleft stone in an ancient henge and ends up in 1743 where she meets a hot, Scottish Highlander called Jamie. Somehow the lovers always end up in different centuries and so you have to keep reading and reading and reading hoping they will be together forever. My favorite story about the Outlander books is when my friend Amanda went to Barnes and Nobel to buy the next book in the series and couldn’t find it. She approached the help desk and told them she searched everywhere in historical fiction for the Outlander books but came up empty-handed. The woman stared at her over her glasses and said, “Honey, those books are in romance.” LOL!!! That said, I did learn a lot of Scottish history from these books. As well as how to get it on beneath a bearskin on a freezing winter night in the 1700s.
Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen – This heartbreaking story of a traveling circus is impossible to put down. The love story between the abusive circus owner’s wife Marlena and the kind, resident vet Jacob is dangerous and beautiful. They are joined not only by a passion for one another, but by a love for the poor animals in the circus. Particularly the elephant, Rosie.
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell – I just read this recently, and while I was obviously disgusted by the racist language and references to slavery in the book, there is something so compelling about the bratty, self-obsessed, tough-as-nails Scarlett and her affair with the equally awful Rhett, that the book captivated me. I liked it so much that I’m embarrassed to say I needed more Scarlett and read the sequel written in 1991.
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris – This collection of personal essays made me want to be a writer. Sedaris’ hilarious stories about his family inspired me to share my own. He’s so self-deprecating and adorable, I just love everything he writes. My first introduction to Sedaris was through a story in this book called “The Rooster.” It’s one of the funniest essays ever written, and I’ve loved Sedaris ever since I read it. His stories about his life and family are hilarious yet somehow always deeply touching and poignant. You’ll laugh! You’ll cry! You’ll want to write a memoir!
The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls – Years ago when I was in a writing class working on a play, a woman mentioned this book to me. She said my story reminded her of Jeanette Walls’ memoir. I finally picked the book up years later and I definitely resonated with the eccentric, chaotic, dysfunctional childhood riddled with alcoholism and abuse. The writing is spectacular and it will make you feel so much better about your parenting.
Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – The night before 6th grade started, I stayed up all night sobbing while reading the end of this book. We had moved once again (it was almost a yearly thing when I was a kid) and I was terrified to start at a new school. So I found my friends in books. I was incredibly attached to the brave, quirky Anne, so when tragedy befell her, I felt it in my soul. I re-read the book to my daughter a few years ago and loved Anne and her earnest lust for life just as much as I did when I was a kid.
White Oleander by Janet Fitch – This story of a teenager living in the LA foster care system after her mother is imprisoned for killing her boyfriend with oleander sap is heartbreaking and wonderful. The writing is beautifully poetic and spoke to the wounded, artistic parts of my soul with lines like this: “No one becomes an artist unless they have to.”
Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden – The writing in this book is so extraordinary it truly feels like a memoir. It’s a historical fiction novel about two young girls from a small fishing village in Japan who are sold by their father to become geisha girls. The glimpse into the world is heartbreaking and fascinating at the same time. This book made me love geisha. So much so that when I was in Kyoto I saw a group of geisha girls walking through town and stopped to stare in awe. One of the ladies smiled at me and said hello in English and I almost fainted on the spot.
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving – John Irving is an incredible writer. I love all of his books, but this novel about an unlikely, diminutive, squeaky-voiced hero sent by God on a mission is perhaps his best.
And that’s my list! I hope it inspires you to get your read on. xo, Deva