The best novels about creativity, self-discovery, and (re)invention

Who am I?

I’ve always been fascinated by our creative urges and ambitions, and by what makes us who we are and why we make the choices we do. While I’m interested in many aspects of human experience and psychology, from the mundane to the murderous, I’m especially drawn to narratives that probe our deeper psyches and look, particularly with a grain of humor, at our efforts to expand our understanding and create great works—or simply to become wiser and more enlightened beings. What is our place in the universe? Why are we here? Who are we? The books I’ve listed explore some of these matters in ways both heartfelt and humorous.


I wrote...

In Search of the Magic Theater

By Karla Huebner,

Book cover of In Search of the Magic Theater

What is my book about?

In Search of the Magic Theater, narrated alternately by the twentyish Sarah and the fortyish Kari, begins as something of a female version of Hermann Hesse’s renowned Steppenwolf. Why, the rather staid young cellist Sarah wonders, should her aunt rent their spare room to the perhaps unstable Kari Zilke? Like the nephew in Steppenwolf, Sarah finds herself taking an unexpected interest in the lodger, but Sarah is unable to stop at providing a mere introduction to Kari’s narrative of mid-life crisis and self-discovery, and develops her own more troubled tale of personal angst and growth, entwined with the account Kari herself purportedly left behind.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Steppenwolf

Karla Huebner Why did I love this book?

Like many readers of my generation, I discovered Hermann Hesse when I was in high school. I think my favorite back then was his Narcissus and Goldmund, but Steppenwolf was the book that really stuck with me, with its portrayal of midlife anxieties and grumpiness paired with wild yet strangely wise youth—both somehow seeking enlightenment. When rereading Steppenwolf as an adult, I also began to realize the extent to which it is a novel about the Weimar Republic, set during that brief, culturally vibrant period between postwar economic disaster (Germany suffered hyperinflation of approximately 29,500 percent in 1923) and Hitler’s rise to power. The generational fears and hopes, and morose “Steppenwolf” Harry Haller’s curious redemption or rediscovery of self through sex, jazz, and drugs, eventually inspired my own novel.

By Hermann Hesse, Basil Creighton (translator),

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Steppenwolf as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Harry Haller is a sad and lonely figure, a reclusive intellectual for whom life holds no joy. He struggles to reconcile the wild primeval wolf and the rational man within himself without surrendering to the bourgeois values he despises. His life changes dramatically when he meets a woman who is his opposite, the carefree and elusive Hermine. The tale of the Steppenwolf culminates in the surreal Magic Theater—for mad men only.

Steppenwolf is Hesse's best-known and most autobiographical work. With its blend of Eastern mysticism and Western culture, it is one of literature's most poetic evocations of the soul's journey…


Book cover of Lady Oracle

Karla Huebner Why did I love this book?

Lady Oracle was one of the novels I read in the several years after first having the vague notion that I might like to write a novel akin to Steppenwolf but that would be set in the approximate present day and have a female protagonist. As Lady Oracle’s main character is a writer who, after periodically reinventing herself, now fakes her own death, flees her intellectual, non-dancing husband, and holes up in an Italian village, I saw possible avenues for my own husband-leaving Kari. Would Kari flee to another country? Would she have secret lovers or a history of being fat? Would she, too, fake her own death? Kari ultimately didn’t follow many of Joan Foster’s paths, but she might have.

By Margaret Atwood,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lady Oracle as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

By the author of The Handmaid's Tale and Alias Grace

*

The trick was to disappear without a trace, leaving behind me the shadow of a corpse, a shadow everyone would mistake for solid reality. At first I thought I'd managed it.

Fat girl, thin girl. Red hair, brown hair. Polish aristocrat, radical husband. Joan Foster has dozens of different identities, and she's utterly confused by them all. After a life spent running away from difficult situations, she decides to escape to a hill town in Italy to take stock of her life.

But first she must carefully arrange her…


Book cover of Lyre of Orpheus

Karla Huebner Why did I love this book?

I’ve been a devotee of Robertson Davies since my early twenties, when my alternately terrifying and delightful supervisor at the Pacific Lumber Company recommended Fifth Business to me. While all of Davies’s mature novels (the Deptford trilogy and the Cornish trilogy, as well as The Cunning Man) have commonalities with my own novel in their explorations of creativity and the psyche, here I’m recommending The Lyre of Orpheus. Why? It tells the simultaneously comic and deep story of a group of foundation directors who find themselves sponsoring and even helping script an opera begun by E.T.A. Hoffmann, now to be completed by their protégé, a brilliant but obnoxious and somewhat gender-ambiguous young composer. Davies’s account of the opera’s genesis and production helped me create my characters’ own theater piece.

By Robertson Davies,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lyre of Orpheus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Hailed as a literary masterpiece, Robertson Davies' The Cornish Trilogy comes to a brilliant conclusion in the bestselling Lyre of Orpheus.

There is an important decision to be made. The Cornish Foundation is thriving under the directorship of Arthur Cornish when Arthur and his beguiling wife, Maria Theotoky, decide to undertake a project worthy of Francis Cornish -- connoisseur, collector, and notable eccentric -- whose vast fortune endows the Foundation. The grumpy, grimy, extraordinarily talented music student Hulda Schnakenburg is commissioned to complete E. T .A. Hoffmann's unfinished operaArthur of Britain, or The Magnanimous Cuckold; and the scholarly priest Simon…


Book cover of Pastoral

Karla Huebner Why did I love this book?

Pastoral is one of my favorite recent discoveries. It’s one of a quincunx of novels linked by exploration of five classic literary genres—in this case the currently unfashionable pastoral. Newly ordained priest Christopher Pennant isn’t greatly pleased that his first parish assignment is to a rural town where sheep are numerous. He assumes he’ll be a suitable shepherd to the humans, people he expects to be simple and straightforward. Of course, they aren’t. They’re not only as complex as people anywhere else, but very unexpected. Father Pennant not only finds he has a self-appointed cello-playing chef as rectory caretaker, but he witnesses three possible miracles. Or are they trickery? I love the depth and gentle humor in the priest’s attempts to understand his parishioners and himself. And nature, too.

By André Alexis,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Pastoral as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

There were plans for an official welcome. It was to take place the following Sunday. But those who came to the rectory on Father Pennant's second day were the ones who could not resist seeing him sooner. Here was the man to whom they would confess the darkest things. It was important to feel him out. Mrs Young, for instance, after she had seen him eat a piece of her macaroni pie, quietly asked what he thought of adultery. Andre Alexis brings a modern sensibility and a new liveliness to an age-old genre, the pastoral. For his very first parish,…


Book cover of Sorcerers

Karla Huebner Why did I love this book?

Sorcerers is the tale of teenaged Eliot, who’s growing up in Philadelphia in the 1950s and strives to learn magic. Let’s not confuse this with the magic found in Harry Potter, the Narnia books, or in any of today’s fantasy worlds; Eliot studies basic stage-magic tricks and gains entrance to the Sorcerers, a club of aspiring teen magicians. Some Sorcerers are adept and elegant; others graceless gawks. As the novel develops, there's mystery, and to everyone's surprise, some of what might be termed "real magic" and strange power. This is a bildungsroman about human possibility, which is what prompts me to recommend it here. It's subtle and unusual, with a deep understanding of humanity and spiritual development. I've not encountered many novels that attempt what this one does. 

By Jacob Needleman,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Sorcerers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In this novel steeped in esoteric wisdom, a young man joins a club of teenage magicians called The Sorcerer's Apprentices and is swept up into a world of magic.


You might also like...

The Emerald Necklace

By Linda Rosen,

Book cover of The Emerald Necklace

Linda Rosen Author Of The Emerald Necklace

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Novelist Swimmer Public Speaker Reader Lover of gardens

Linda's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

It’s 1969. Women are fighting for equality. Rosalee, an insecure sculptor, and Fran, a best-selling novelist, have their issues. Will their bitter envy of each other and long-held secrets destroy their tenuous friendship? Or will Jill, Rosalee’s granddaughter, and the story behind her emerald necklace bind them together?

A multi-generational novel of friendship and frenemies, envy, and long-held secrets that explores current issues through a historical lens. The Emerald Necklace sheds light on that inevitable time when lovers, family, friends, and circumstances change and force you to reinvent yourself whether you want to or not.

The Emerald Necklace

By Linda Rosen,

What is this book about?

"Engaging and mysterious, The Emerald Necklace sheds light on that inevitable time when lovers, family, friends and circumstances change and force you to reinvent yourself whether you want to or not." –Rebecca Rosenberg, award-winning Champagne Widows series

Three months after her husband's death in 1969, Rosalee Linoff is determined to jump back into life.

For her, that means returning to her art. She desperately wants to be accepted as a talented sculptor, but that requires she dig up the courage to submit her work again - and be judged. Her paralyzing insecurity mounts when she meets her new neighbor, best-selling…


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