Now remember, these are not necessarily my all-time favorite books, but rather the best representatives of the best books on my shelves.
6. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Here we represent literary fiction. I read Cloud Atlas for book club a few years ago; I was mad when they picked it, because the back cover uses the word “postmodern” to describe it, and that word makes my brain melt. And then I started the book, and found the first chapter, written in the style of a diary of an 1800s ocean journey, hard to read. And I really didn’t trust the author to pull of the overly clever structure he was using. But I fell in love with the simplicity behind the complicated structure, with the connections between different styles of storytelling, with the mainstreaming of science fiction, with the incredibly different ways of addressing the same themes.
I have a fairly low tolerance for standard “literary fiction,” which too often loses track of its story in the face of its ideas. But when an author does it right, it can be amazing. Mary Doria Russell does something like this with The Sparrow, Marilynn Robinson in Housekeeping. The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, is another novel that uses beautiful prose and historical research to tell a series of stories that are really one story, about tolerance and faith and history.
I choose Cloud Atlas here both because it’s one of my favorites, and because it brings in another element that I find fascinating—mainstream fiction that bridges the gap with science fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another of my favorite example of this—a story that people who “don’t read science fiction” would pick up and enjoy, but that is science fiction both thematically and in plot.
7. Arrows of the Queen, by Mercedes Lackey. This is mostly a nostalgia choice, but it also represents something important. First, there needs to be a decent amount of fantasy on this list, because that’s what it takes to reflect what I read. But this was the first fantasy novel that I ever read. For my twelfth birthday, my aunt sent me three novels. One was Trespasses, a solid World War II family saga; one was People of the Wolf, which I think she picked because I liked Clan of the Cave Bear, and one was Arrows of the Queen. I could not for the life of me figure out why she picked these books—with the exception of People of the Wolf, they were like nothing I’d ever read. Somehow, I never ended up reading People of the Wolf, but read Trespasses several times (though I haven’t thought of it in years). And Mercedes Lackey became one of my favorite authors. I gobbled up the rest of her work ,waited for the new ones to come out, searched for anthologies where her stories had been published.
Sad to say, I’ve grown out of her a bit lately, but I think it’s more a matter of us growing apart—as her books go along, they get more complex and, I think, more flawed. But her early, simple work I can still go back to with the fresh eyes of someone who can be amazed at the person who came up with a world where everyone has a psychic connection to a sentient horse. And dammit, I still love her for it.
8. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. Because good funny is hard to find, but vitally necessary in life.
9. The Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks. And here we come to nonfiction. Since I would say that at least 90% of what I read is fiction, I only get to put one of these on the list, but there’s a broad range in here. I choose this one because I learned so much from it that I carry with me today—though it was written more than 15 years ago, it’s an excellent guide to the Middle East, if you’re willing to exclude any current events and just look at history. This is where I learned about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and about what is said in the Koran vs. what is practiced by tribal cultures that have adopted Islam over the centuries.
My nonfiction reading is kind of all over the map, though. I like pop psychology books and memoirs (An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jameson), books about how medicine works (Better, by Atul Gawande), autism memoirs (The Seige, by Clara Claiborne Park—I used to work in autism, and Clara Park was my advisor in college), and explorations of any subject that are either fun (Stiff, by Mary Roach) or titillating (Leaving the Saints, by Martha Beck). I’m a bit of a sucker, actually, for titillating when it comes to nonfiction.
10. Farthing, by Jo Walton. I think this is a good book to sum it all up, because it covers so much ground. It’s plain old good fiction. It’s thought-provoking, with an alternate-reality twist. It’s a mystery—I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I’m loyal to a few: Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri stories, and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. It’s speculative fiction, which I would say is not anything as flat-out fantastical as science fiction or fantasy, but it comes back to bridging those gaps between genre and mainstream, like Never Let Me Go. The book is about a murder mystery set in an alternate 1940s England, where Hitler rules continental Europe, and England and the U.S. remain out of the war. Ideas about right and wrong, loyalty, fear, and bigotry are examined in great detail by a flighty socialite of a narrator. It’s a wonderful book, and represents so much of what I’m hungry for when I read. You should really check it out.
So I wonder if this covers everything. You'll notice that I snuck a bunch more titles onto the list through the backdoor, but even there, I had to trim--Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman--humor, or nonfiction? A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren--how do I work it into the text of #10? Sadly, I don't; there's too much great stuff out there. But here's a glimpse, and, for anyone who thinks they might like what I like, a little reading list. So, enjoy.