You asked, Moonlight Reader? To quote from one of my additional entries below: “As you wish …”
Without any further ado:
Hilary Mantel: Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies
When Lillelara added A Place of Greater Safety to her list, I could have kicked myself — because Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell books were definitely among the most impressive books I’ve read in the past couple of years. (A Place of Greater Safety as well, but the Cromwell duology even more so.) They’ve changed my perception of Cromwell from that of a ruthless schemer to an incredibly complex and astute person (and politician): perhaps still not somebody I’d have wanted to be around all the time, but definitely someone for whom I’m caring from afar and back across several centuries. And I’m both looking forward to and dreading the release of book 3 (now apparently scheduled for 2020).
Ben Jonson: The Alchemist
Speaking of scheming, the best evidence (if such a thing was needed) that get-rich-quick schemes are not the invention of the likes of Ponzi, P.T. Barnum, Madoff et al. — they’ve always been around. A ribald, laugh-out-loud satire that’s best experienced on the stage rather than on the page … Philosopher’s stone, anybody?
Ellis Peters: Brother Cadfael series
MbD has already listed this series’s first book, A Morbid Taste for Bones, but really, the whole series is absolutely canon for me. Peters condenses the complexities of the first English Civil War down to installments of roughly 200 pages, and she does so not only with great knowledge and insight but also with great empathy, through the eyes of one of literary history’s most engaging and worldly-wise characters.
Dorothy L. Sayers: Gaudy Night
And it’s the exact reverse here: I’ll be the first to get behind anybody’s adding all of Sayers’s writing to the list by way of a blanket reference, but the simple fact is that you haven’t really read Sayers until you’ve read Gaudy Night. It’s the crowning achievement not only of her Lord Peter Wimsey series (and Wimsey / Vane subseries) but of all of her writing, not only until then — no wonder she was essentially done writing mysteries after this one. MR rightly asked yesterday how come nobody has added Gaudy Night by name to the list, yet … it shall be so no longer!
Agatha Christie: Murder on the Orient Express, Murder at the Vicarage, Crooked House, Witness for the Prosecution, and The Mousetrap
We already have “all of Christie” (minus Passenger to Frankfurt) and several individual titles on the list, and I swear I’ve tried to really keep a lid on things, but … look, I just don’t think I want to look at a crowdsourced BL list that doesn’t at least contain the above-named books as well.
Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451
My personal tetralogy of must-read dystopias consists of George Orwell’s 1984, Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Orwell’s and Atwood’s books are already on the list. I’d (very grudgingly) be willing to live without Huxley (even though the opening chapter alone should send a chill down everybody’s spine, particularly in light of the recent advances in genetic engineering). But Fahrenheit 451 just has to be included — it’s never been more relevant than today, and it completely blows my mind that it was written in the 1950s.
Aravind Adiga: The White Tiger
I was initially going to include this in my first list, but took it off again after seeing that it was on the infamous published “1001 books” list. Given that we’ve since clarified that this is not necessarily an exclusionary criterium, I’m happily listing it again: This is one of the funniest, most acidly satiric tough-love letters to one’s own country (packaged as a letter to a visiting foreign potentate) that you’ll ever come across. Your laughter may be sticking in your throat a couple of times when you realize that you’ve just exposed your vocal chords to a razor blade hovering a nano-inch right above them, but even that won’t keep you from laughing out loud again and again on the very next occasion.
Louis de Bernières: Birds Without Wings
As book lists go, an exercise in contrasts vis-à-vis The White Tiger: Just as panoramic in scope, just as searing to your various and assorted body parts, though in this instance, your guts (individually and collectively): a foray into early 20th century Turkish history as showcased in one particular community and by the friendship of two boys; Turkish-Greek (Muslim-Christian Orthodox) relations, Galllipoli, women’s roles, displacement, diaspora and all. As gorgeously written as utterly devastating. (Some of the characters, I’m told, resurface in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin — which I’ve yet to read, though.)
T.C. Boyle: The Tortilla Curtain
Like Adiga’s, Boyle’s sword is satire first and foremost, but there is a good deal of anger here, too: Upper middle class gated community meets illegal Mexican immigrants — the quintessential Southern Californian culture clash. This book, too, has never felt more relevant than today.
Edna O’Brien: In the Forest and Down by the River
O’Brien caused a stir and got herself onto her country’s censorship index with her Country Girls trilogy (and given 1960s’ morals, at least in Ireland, that sort of figures), but it’s these two books by her that have left an indelible impression on me; on account of their topics (the prohibition of abortion — even in cases of incestual rape — in Down by the River, and a serial killing spree in In the Forest) and even more so because I’ve never before or since seen topics like these discussed in prose like O’Brien’s, with a brutal and yet lyrical immediacy that grabs you by the throat and never lets you go.
Bernard MacLaverty: Cal
If you only ever read one book on the (Northern) Irish “Troubles”, make it this one — simple as that. Short and profoundly heartbreaking, and if afterwards you still don’t have a sense of what’s (been) going on there, you never will.
Heinrich Böll: Die verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum) and Irish Journal
Böll’s two sides: One, an angry polemic on one woman’s loss of privacy, employment, security, and pretty much everything else as a result of a vicious tabloid campaign following on the heels of her being falsely accused of being a member of a gang of terrorists; the other, a humorous, upbeat and downright serene account of his life in Ireland (or at least, some of its episodes). Böll at his best in both instances, and taken together they showcase both the breadth and the depth of his writing.
Bertolt Brecht: Der aufhaltsame Aufstieg des Arturo Ui (The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui)
Brecht is best known for The Threepenny Opera, Mother Courage and, perhaps, The Caucasian Chalk Circle, but I’m not aware of any play that satirizes a demagogue’s rise to absolute power as trenchantly as this one, set in Chicago and written after Brecht had emigrated to the U.S. (There is no question that Arturo Ui is meant to be Hitler.) Like all plays, obviously best experienced on the stage; and I swear Ian McKellen took more than a page out of Brecht’s book when transposing Richard III to a fascist version of 1930s Britain in his 1995 movie — characterization, set decorations and all.
Su Tong: Raise the Red Lantern (aka Wives and Concubines)
The first narrative actually by a Chinese author set in the world that I had previously only known through Pearl S. Buck’s novels; and it completely broke my heart. (So did the movie starring Gong Li.) It’s not easy being a rich man’s young minor concubine … in fact, it may clean drive you insane.
Amy Tan: The Kitchen God’s Wife
The Joy Luck Club is a good book, but it’s here, in her second novel, that Tan really gets up, close and uncomfortably personal with married life in early 20th century China. Like most of her writing, partially informed by her own family’s experience, which adds ever so much more immediacy to the storytelling.
Colleen McCullough: The Thorn Birds
People may have watched the TV series for the romance (and, um, for Richard Chamberlain), but I’ll take any bets you like that you will read the book for the history, the sweeping canvas of Australia, and all of the characters — though there is, of course, only one Mary Carson, and that’s probably a good thing, too.
Margaret Mitchell: Gone with the Wind
Speaking of romance tearjerkers, though … Look, I know, it’s racist to the core and Ashley is the wettest of wet towels (even if he’s played by Leslie Howard in the movie). But Scarlett is a complete and utter badass, and that alone means she has every right to be on a list bearing that very word in its title; Rhett and Scarlett have more memorable lines of dialogue between the two of them than a whole other library’s worth of romance novels, and Mellie almost certainly is one of literary history’s most underappreciated characters. (Also, Rhett Butler will of course always be Clark Gable.)
Elizabeth von Arnim: The Solitary Summer
MbD listed this book’s prequel, Elizabeth and her German Garden, but I think the two should be read together; and though I haven’t read everything by von Arnim yet I’ve read enough to know that her books are absolutely part of my personal canon. Charming, witty, here also frequently contemplative — and way ahead of her time in terms of her insights on society. (Also, there’s an obvious reason why she nicknamed her husband The Man of Wrath.)
John Mortimer: Rumpole of the Bailey
This has to be one of very few examples of storylines first developed for a TV series later being turned into book form and making their central character an icon both on the page and on screen. Rumpole will always look like Leo McKern to me (it’s no coincidence that some of the book covers are cartoons mimicking him in the role, either); and I’ve learned more about common law criminal trials and about the differences between British and American criminal procedure than from many a textbook. Also, the manifold ways in which Mortimer kept Rumpole from actually “taking silk” (i.e., becoming a QC — queen’s counsel — in his own right and allowed to first-chair trials), and thus keeping him safely in the disdain of his wife Hilda, aka “she who must be obeyed”, never cease to astound me.
Peter May: The Blackhouse
I’m fairly late to May’s books and, based on what I’ve read to date, I’d have no hesitation in blindly recommending the entire Lewis Trilogy and everything else he’s written that is set on the Hebrides as well. As it is, I’m going to content me with one of the two books I actually have read so far, the first installment of the Lewis Trilogy. (The other book by him I’ve read is The Coffin Road, which is every bit as good.) Darkly atmospheric, gripping; just all around phantastic writing.
James D. Doss: White Shell Woman and Grandmother Spider / Tony Hillerman: Leaphorn & Chee series
Two series focusing on Native American cops and making the most of their Southwestern U.S. setting and the culture and mythology of the Native people at their core: Hillerman’s Navajo mysteries, I’ve been aware of for a long time (though not quite from the time of its actual beginning), but Doss’s Ute tribal investigator Charlie Moon, his best buddy sheriff Scott Paris and his shaman aunt Daisy Perika are fairly new to me, and boy am I glad I finally discovered them! I’ve read all of Hillerman’s mysteries — those by him, not the sequels by his daughter, that is — and love (or at least like) most of them well enough to recommend the entire series; my favorites are probably some of the first books after Leaphorn and Chee were first lumped together (after having initially worked alone in three books each): Skinwalkers, A Thief of Time, Coyote Waits, and Sacred Clowns, as well as the final book written by Tony Hillerman himself, Skeleton Man. — By contrast, I still have quite a bit of catching up yet to do with Mr. Doss, but he’s definitely a new favorite already, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of my journey through his catalogue. Of the books I’ve read so far, Grandmother Spider and White Shell Woman are far and away the best.
John Le Carré: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Quis custodiet ipsos custodes — who will spy on a spy; who’ll guard the guardians? The eternal question, ever since rulers first figured out that it might be worthwhile keeping tabs on their friends and enemies, abroad as well as at home (and also keep tabs on the people keeping those tabs); and nobody before or since nailed it the way Le Carré does here. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may have been his breakout success (and for a reason), but to me, in setting, characters, story arc and everything else, Le Carré’s writing will always come down to this one book. Even Stella Rimington (former head of MI 5) grudgingly acknowledged that he gets it right … and even if he had written no other book at all, his would still be one of the most important contributions to the genre — and to a wider understanding how secret services operate –, for this one book alone.
Edgar Allan Poe: The Masque of the Red Death
Heaven knows I’m no horror fan, and Poe creeped the heck out of me when we read The Tell-Tale Heart way back when in high school. While I acknowledge his mad genius, I admire some, but not all of his writing (The Black Cat is not a story I ever want to go near again in my life, and the Dupin Tales, though of course groundbreaking in terms of genre, leave me somewhat unimpressed from a storytelling perspective); but you’ll have to look long and hard to find another as spine-chilling portrayal, in the brief span of a short story at that, of a society literally partying itself to death in complete oblivion of the peril it has conjured right into its midst.
Stephen King: Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption
Even more than Poe, Stephen King is able to creep me out like nobody’s business, but even if you’re not into horror, if there’s one piece of fiction writing by him that I think everybody should read it is this one, for its middle finger salute to adverse fate if nothing else. (Also, Edmond Dantès has nothing on Andy Dufresne. And I’m saying this as a big fan of The Count of Monte Cristo.)
James Goldman: The Lion in Winter
Modern TV has discovered the Tudors as soap opera material (and there’s a point to that, obviously), but if there’s one family in the centuries-long history of the (immediately preceding) Plantagenet dynasty, it’s Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons, not coincidentally known as “the devil’s brood”. If you don’t believe me, watch this play … or the movie based on it. It gives a whole new meaning to the term “family feud” — and this all actually happened!
William Goldman: The Princess Bride
This, on the other hand, is a fairy tale. (Or is it?) Well, at least the best bits are; “S. Morgenstern” my foot. This one is of course worth it for the one-liners alone (as is, again and even more so, the movie — the Goldman brothers really had a run in Hollywood). And seriously, how can we possibly have a “favorite 500” crowdsourced list without this book on it?
Jules Verne: Mich(a)el Strogoff (aka The Tsar’s Courier)
One of the first adventure novels I was seriously hooked on; a ripping great yarn set in Tsarist Russia. It helped that there was a TV adaptation when I was in my most impressionable years in terms of hero worship, but who hasn’t ever wanted to be chosen to carry a secret message from the Tsar’s Moscow court all the way to Irkutsk in Siberia, fight bandits and Tartars on the way and have all sorts of other adventures (romantic, with a killer partner, included)?
Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped
Before there was Michael Strogoff (for me), there was David Balfour. Replace Russia by Scotland, and you had me at “adventure”: Jekyll and Hyde came later, but neither it nor The Treasure Island has ever occupied even remotely the place in my heart that is firmly reserved for the adventures of David Balfour. Als, note to Mr. Dickens: See, I really like your larger than life characters, but this little book is proof positive that you can deliver this sort of story in the space of a little less than 300 pages and even include a sea voyage and some nifty swashbuckling. It doesn’t have to be a 950-page brick like Nicholas Nickleby …
Giovanni Guareschi: The Little World of Don Camillo
Another book that I discovered via its TV adaptation, starring French comedian Fernandel as Don Camillo: The daily feuds of the local Catholic priest and his friend and rival, communist mayor Peppone, in small-town post-WW II Italy. Cheeky, funny and an all-around feel-good book — and always with an upbeat, hands-on solution to whatever problem has arisen in the course of the narrative (even if occasionally a somewhat … unusual one). If only all politics would work like that, village setting or not!
Francis Hodgson Burnett: Little Lord Fauntleroy
Yes, it’s sentimental (then again, so are The Secret Garden and A Little Princess, which tend to get somewhat more play when it comes to “must read” lists), and I know it’s not even a Christmas novel as written — it was only tweaked that way in the TV adaptation starring Alec Guinness and Ricky Schroder –, but it’s been one of my feel-good go-to books, around Christmas especially, since practically time immemorial.
T.S. Eliot: Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats
Most people know it because it’s provided all except one of the song lyrics and feline characters for the musical Cats, but seriously, people — whether or not you are a cat person yourself, just read it, laugh and enjoy. Eliot wrote this for his godchildren, and he obviously had a ball. He also knew cats really, really well.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Letters from Father Christmas
Tolkien’s letters to his children, responding to their letters and wish lists to Santa Claus (Father Christmas) — do yourselves a favor and get the hardcover edition, which is illustrated with Tolkien’s own drawings. This is where The Hobbit came from … and probably parts of Lord of the Rings as well.
Otfried Preußler: Die kleine Hexe (The Little Witch)
Otfried Preußler, in Germany, is sort of Frank L. Baum, Dr. Seuss and Lewis Carroll rolled into one — he is, or used to be, one of the most popular children’s authors for decades. Many of his stories were inspired by the myths and legends of his native Sudeten region (today: chiefly in Poland and the Czech Republic); including this one, which has always been my absolute favorite. Talk about a middle finger to adversity ending … — Preußler was also the first author to whom I ever wrote a fan letter … in first grade, when I had barely learned to read and write!
Bill Watterson: The Complete Calvin & Hobbes / René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo: Asterix the Gaul
Hobbes forever. — And you couldn’t grow up in Europe when I was a kid without knowing about (and loving) Asterix and his village of crazy Gauls.
And since books that are on “those lists” are no longer absolutely taboo, I’m hereby also offering the following additions from the “I know they’re on all of ‘those lists’, but they’re canon to me and there’s nothing to be done about that” department:
Jane Austen: Mansfield Park and Persuasion
All of Austen, really, but if I have to pick individual books, it’s always going to be Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Mansfield Park. Since Moonlight Reader has already added P&P, I’m obviously going to go with the other two. Of course you can’t help but love Lizzy Bennet (and Colin Firth is Mr. Darcy, period), but I’ve always had a special place in my heart for Austen’s quieter heroines; not least because they’re having so much more of a hard time sticking to their guns and they persevere nevertheless.
Charlotte Brontë: Jane Eyre
Not the only badass among the Brontë sisters’ heroines, but however much I may like The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Jane still takes the cake. We first met when I was barely a teenager — I guess that kind of lengthy acquaintanceship is just a bit too long to upend, even by charracters from the pen of another member of the same family of writers.
Elizabeth Gaskell: Cranford and North & South
It’s not hard to see how Gaskell and the Brontës (especially Charlotte) were friends. But where CB kept things essentially to a personal level, Gaskell took it to a wider scope (also, I can’t read North and South without seeing Richard Armitage as Mr. Thornton). Her greatest jewel, though, is Cranford and the microcosm of its village life — nowhere else does Gaskell’s wit and insight into human nature sparkle as much as there. Besides, how can you resist a book about a village where men are merely tolerated and nobody really dare dispute that women are the infinitely superior sex?
William Shakespeare: Macbeth, Richard III, Hamlet
For obvious reasons I’m tempted to list half his catalogue, but even if you’re not into Elizabethan theatre at all, the three plays by the Bard that you absolutely ought to see are Macbeth, Richard III, and Much Ado About Nothing. Since Tea, Stitch, Read thankfully already listed Much Ado, I’m going to stick with the other two — plus my personal favorite (after many meanderings), Hamlet. Nobody does the ruin of a human being — and his complete entourage — as the consequence of a single destructive character flaw like Shakespeare, and these three plays are among his very best.
Alexandre Dumas (père): The Three Musketeers
We already have The Count of Monte Cristo on the list, and I totally agree with that of course, but I met M. Dantès at around the same time as D’Artagnan and his friends, and they’ve been an item in my mind ever since. Besides, Artos, Portos and Aramis totally rule at wisecracking while swashbuckling. So onto the list they go!
John Steinbeck: The Grapes of Wrath
Steinbeck wasn’t on my high school curriculum, and that was perhaps fortunate, as no teacher had the opportunity to ruin him for me and I could discover him all by myself and in my own time. My two “must read” entries by him are East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath; since we already have East of Eden, obviously I’m going to go with his pull-no-punches, kick-in-the-gut Depression Era masterpiece.
Tennessee Williams: A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Williams named his fictional world “Dragon Country” and described it as an uninhabitable place of pain that is nevertheless inhabited — that’s really all you need to know about his plays. These two hit me the hardest by far.
Edith Wharton: The Age of Innocence
Wharton won the Pulitzer for this novel, and even if perhaps she’d already deserved one a lot earlier, there’s no question that it’s justified here. Social conventions were never so stifling, scheming never so vicious — and all hidden under a perfect, completely scratch-proof, shining veneer. In equal parts chilling and heartbreaking.
Virginia Woolf: Orlando and A Room of One’s Own
The first of these, Woolf’s tongue in cheek but heartfelt love letter to Vita Sackville-West (also one of the most approachable among her novels), the other one her feminist manifesto. It’s hard, indeed, not to recognize both Sackville-West and her beloved Knole in Orlando‘s title character and key setting, and this is one of the few books where both time travel and a gender swap really work for me. A Room of One’s Own, on the other hand, contains the famous “anonymous poet(ess)” quote, but it shouldn’t be reduced to that — it’s really quite a trenchant analysis of the history of women’s literature, and much of it still rings very true today.
A sex strike to prevent a war … maybe we should revive that idea, what do you think?
Sophocles / Jean Anouilh: Antigone
Antigone has been one of my heroines ever since I first came across her story, and not even a French teacher who almost managed to ruin Camus for me (whom, in turn, I had to rediscover on my own after having graduated from high school) could muddy those particular waters. In fact, in a way I’ve even come to love Anouilh’s version of the play just a tiny bit more than Sophocles’s original.
Jean-Paul Sartre: Huis Clos (No Exit)
L’enfer, c’est les autres — hell is other people. I didn’t have to see this play to form that particular conviction, but Sartre really nails it — and all he needs is three characters and a stage set with three chairs and a locked door.
George Orwell: Animal Farm
Yes, it’s manipulative to the nth degree, yet, “all pigs are equal but some pigs are more equal than others” and “four legs good, two legs bad” are far and away no longer applicable to the communist dictatorships that Orwell aimed this at. A worthy companion to his masterpiece 1984 (which is already on our list anyway).
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go
Ishiguro’s big theme is the unreliability of memory — and indeed, nobody does unreliable narrators like him. He deserved the Lit Nobel for these two novels alone.
Thomas Mann: Doktor Faustus, as well as Mario und der Zauberer (Mario and the Magician) / Klaus Mann: Mephisto / Heinrich Mann: Der Untertan (Man of Straw, aka The Loyal Subject)
The Mann family’s individual and collective takedown of the Nazi regime and the society that made the Nazis’ rise to power possible. Thomas Mann’s seducer (in the novel) and magician (in the short story; in both instances, an obvious parable for Hitler — with the novel’s Faustus standing in for the German people), aided and abetted by charismatic opportunists like Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, who mesmerized a people conditioned for centuries to obey and even slavishly adore authority without question, like the eponymous protagonist of Heinrich Mann’s novel.
E.M. Remarque: Im Westen nichts Neues (All Quiet on the Western Front)
In a sense, the prequel to the above-mentioned Mann family’s writings: the story of the lost generation bamboozled into joyfully rushing into the slaughter that would be WW I. This will make you angry, and it will also break your heart (several times).
And with that, I’ll leave it for the time being … nonfiction additions (if we still have space for them) to follow tomorrow!