The best books if great writing is your reason to live

The Books I Picked & Why

Quartet In Farewell Time

By Mary B. Durant

Book cover of Quartet In Farewell Time

Why this book?

Mary Durant was my mother. This was her first novel, published in 1963. When I read it, the proverbial light bulb popped to life in my very young head: I recognized the real-life people and events upon whom the characters and plot were based, and because of that familiarity, saw the way my mother had changed things around, invented circumstances, conversations and fashioned composite characters to create a story. It was a behind-the-scenes crash course in the art of fiction-writing, the marvelous synthesis by which the novelist spins fact and invention into literature. And I understood that really good fiction, though technically a "made up" story, is always imbued with Truth with a capital "T," and that great writing and Truth are inextricably intertangled.

My mother was a first-rate writer and reader, and because of her, I was initiated into the quasi-secret bandwidth of real literature. The key: it’s all in the writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. There are books I read over and over. Not because of the story; I already know the story. It’s to experience the writing again. You don’t listen to a great piece of music by, say, Bach or Mozart just once, do you? No. You listen over and over, to experience the genius. So it is with great writing.

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The Stories of John Cheever

By John Cheever

Book cover of The Stories of John Cheever

Why this book?

We might as well start with the master. Here are sixty-one of Cheever’s short stories, carefully curated. His breadth and depth are astonishing: an east-coast WASP who often set his stories in suburbia or in New York but ranged as far as Italy, Cheever, to the accompaniment of ice-cubes clinking in a bourbon glass, peels away the thin membrane of the seemingly banal and mundane so that we glimpse the mysterious seething unconscious forces that drive our lives. Some of his stories tiptoe right into the Twilight Zone: “The Enormous Radio” and his masterpiece “The Swimmer” bend the mind and put us in awe of his powers. I recommend reading this collection in order, as if each story were a chapter in a vast novel. I turn to Cheever again and again, to immerse myself in his writerly genius, and always emerge renewed.

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The Shark Net: Memories and Murder

By Robert Drewe

Book cover of The Shark Net: Memories and Murder

Why this book?

This is a memoir by a great Australian writer of literary fiction. Set in Perth in the late 40s, the 50s, and early 60s, this book is not fiction, but it’s as profoundly satisfying as a fine novel, and the author uses, with great artistry and authority, certain conventions of fiction. It’s coming-of-age interwoven with the chilling true-crime story of a lurking serial killer, who turns out to have close ties to the author’s own family; one of the victims is a boy the author knew. Perth, on the southwest coast of Australia, bordered by the Indian Ocean on one side and the vast Australian outback on the other, is often called the most isolated city in the world. It’s known for being a bland, safe place with a low crime rate, making it the perfect sundrenched-but-sinister setting for scandal, murder, and awakening sexuality. Drewe is a powerful writer, and he has fashioned a masterpiece.

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One Good Turn

By Kate Atkinson

Book cover of One Good Turn

Why this book?

Atkinson is a Scottish author who blends the murder mystery genre with superb writing. The result is startling, and not quite like anything we’ve seen before. As a murder mystery, this novel has it all. Set in Edinburgh, it’s rich with suspense, wild plot twists, a cast of truly memorable and unruly characters who are all, mostly unbeknownst to them, in an elaborate dance with one another. Atkinson tantalizes us with wicked secrets until the very last page. Darkly comic humor permeates throughout, and as we aficionados of dark humor know, it is the flip side of deep empathy for poor struggling, suffering humanity. Her rendering of a man dying from a blow to the head, told from the point of view of the victim in the last seconds of his life, could not have been written better by James Joyce himself.

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Wise Blood

By Flannery O'Connor

Book cover of Wise Blood

Why this book?

Arguably one of the best writers who ever lived, O’Connor’s voice was totally original, her richly atmospheric stories set in the American deep south. She died at thirty-nine but left a body of work that makes her immortal. Of the writers I read over and over, she tops the list. If you don’t know her work, Wise Blood is an excellent introduction. The cast of characters includes a bitter returning WW2 vet, Hazel Motes, who starts his own non-religion, a blind preacher who is not blind at all and who hoodwinks the rubes with his teen daughter as his partner-in-crime, and a cheerful idiot boy who becomes a devout acolyte in Motes’ “church.” There are prostitutes, greedy landladies, and rival charlatan preachers galore in this comic but deadly-serious morality tale. Thomas Merton said of O’Connor that when he reflected on her work, he “…did not think of Hemingway, or Katherine Ann Porter, or Sartre, but rather of someone like Sophocles.” Amen.

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