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Christopher Bollen's Top Ten List
1. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925). Perhaps the most searching fable of the American Dream ever written, this glittering novel of the Jazz Age paints an unforgettable portrait of its day— the flappers, the bootleg gin, the careless, giddy wealth. Self-made millionaire Jay Gatsby, determined to win back the heart of the girl he loved and lost, emerges as an emblem for romantic yearning, and the novel’s narrator, Nick Carroway, brilliantly illuminates the post–World War I end to American innocence.
2. Howards End by E. M. Forster (1921). This novel begins with literature’s most famous epigraph: “Only connect.” That search for human understanding—and the implied rarity of such knowledge—informs this saga of Margaret and Helen Schlegel, two bohemian sisters who become mixed up with the pragmatic, wealthy Wilcox family. In the confines of that family’s estate, Howards End, Forster sets a sprawling fable of class, money, love, psychology, and a changing England.
3. The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie (1988). After terrorists blow up their plane, two Indian actors fall from the sky. When they land, one has a halo, the other horns. This lush, lyric, sensual, and surreal novel then follows two main interrelated plots that skate along the blurry lines between good and evil, love and betrayal, knowledge and ignorance. The first plot line details these men’s tangled lives and strange transformations in London and Bombay; the second reimagines the life of Mohammed so critically that Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeni issued a death sentence against Rushdie.
4. The Waves by Virginia Woolf (1931). This grand experiment in narrative depicts six characters—from nursery school to the brink of old age—through a series of interior soliloquies. Stages in their lives are framed by bits of description of a day on a deserted beach; the book’s finale, their reunion at a London restaurant, is a tour de force. “The light of civilization is burnt out,” one character thinks while gazing at London’s night sky in this haunting, poetic meditation on time’s passage.
5. The Executioner’s Song by Norman Mailer (1979). This masterwork of literary journalism details the short, blighted life of Gary Gilmore who became famous after he robbed two men in 1976 and killed them in cold blood. After being tried and convicted, he immediately insisted on being executed for his crime. To do so, he fought a system that seemed intent on keeping him alive long after it had sentenced him to death. And that fight for the right to die is what made him famous. Mailer tells not only Gilmore's story, but those of the men and women caught in the web of his life and drawn into his procession toward the firing squad. All with implacable authority, steely compassion, and a restraint that evokes the parched landscape and stern theology of Gilmore's Utah.
6. The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio (1351–53). The Big Chill meets the Black Death when a group of seven women and three men leave Florence to escape the plague of 1348. To entertain themselves, they tell stories according to topics selected by that day’s appointed “king” or “queen.” Like the plague, the hundred tales, mostly of love and deceit, leave no strata of society unscathed, and many of them are delightfully bawdy and irreverent. Have you heard the one about the monk who seduced a woman by claiming to be the angel Gabriel?
7. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966). On November 15, 1959, in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas, four members of the Clutter family were savagely murdered by blasts from a shotgun held a few inches from their faces. There was no apparent motive for the crime, and there were almost no clues. As Truman Capote reconstructs the murder and the investigation that led to the capture, trial, and execution of the killers, he generates both mesmerizing suspense and astonishing empathy. In Cold Blood yields poignant insights into the nature of American violence through a detached yet penetrating account of the savage and senseless murder of a family.
8. The Quiet American by Graham Greene (1956). "I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused," Graham Greene's narrator Fowler remarks of Alden Pyle, the eponymous "Quiet American" in this terrifying and prescient portrait of innocence at large. Pyle is the brash young idealist sent out by Washington on a mysterious mission to Saigon, where the French Army struggles against the Vietminh guerrillas. As young Pyle's well-intentioned policies blunder into bloodshed, Fowler, a seasoned and cynical British reporter, finds it impossible to stand safely aside as an observer. But Fowler's motives for intervening are suspect, both to the police and himself, for Pyle has stolen Fowler's beautiful Vietnamese mistress.
9. The Bacchae by Euripides (408–406 b.c.e.). “Gods should be exempt from human passions,” says Cadmus, but such is not the case for Dionysus in one of the goriest Greek tragedies. Dionysus seeks revenge on Cadmus’s grandson Pentheus, a Theban king who has tried to quash the Bacchus cult in Thebes. Dionysus seduces Pentheus into witnessing a Bacchanalian orgy, where he is torn to pieces by the revelers, including his own mother.
10. The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (1955). Since his debut in 1955, Tom Ripley has evolved into the ultimate bad boy sociopath. Here, in this first Ripley novel, we are introduced to suave Tom Ripley, a young striver, newly arrived in the heady world of Manhattan. A product of a broken home, branded a "sissy" by his dismissive Aunt Dottie, Ripley meets a wealthy industrialist who hires him to bring his playboy son, Dickie Greenleaf, back from gallivanting in Italy. Soon Ripley's fascination with Dickie's debonair lifestyle turns obsessive as he finds himself enraged by Dickie's ambivalent affections for Marge, a charming American dilettante. A dark reworking of Henry James's The Ambassadors, The Talented Mr. Ripley provides an unforgettable introduction to this smooth confidence man, whose talent for murder and self-invention is chronicled in four subsequent Ripley novels.