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Martha Southgate's Top Ten List
1. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989). During a car trip, Stevens—a career butler who has existed at once on the fringes and within the bird’s nest of the British ruling class—reflects on his lifetime of service to the late Lord Darlington. Blinded by his devotion to “duty,” he cannot admit that his late master was a fascist sympathizer and cannot see that he has forfeited the possibility of leading his own life. Now in old age, Stevens faces a sense of loss without the emotional acuity to comprehend it.
2. The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison (1970). Pecola Breedlove, a young black girl, prays every day for beauty. Mocked by other children for the dark skin, curly hair, and brown eyes that set her apart, she yearns for normalcy, for the blond hair and blue eyes that she believes will allow her to finally fit in. But as her dream grows more fervent, her life slowly starts to disintegrate in the face of adversity and strife. A powerful examination of our obsession with beauty and conformity, Toni Morrison’s virtuosic first novel asks powerful questions about race, class, and gender with the subtlety and grace that have always characterized her writing.
3. Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison (1977). As witty and agile as a folk tale, psychologically acute and colorfully drawn, this novel blends elements of fable and the contemporary novel to depict a young man’s search for identity. In her protagonist, Macon Dead, Morrison created one of her greatest characters, and his reluctant coming of age becomes a comic, mythic, eloquent analysis of self-knowledge and community—how those things can save us, and what happens when they do not.
4. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon (2000). The golden age of comics and the Holocaust power this Pulitzer Prize–winning saga about two Jewish cousins in Brooklyn who create the Nazi-bashing superhero, the Escapist. Through the tragic, comic, often superhuman adventures of Joe Kavalier—a refugee determined to rescue the relatives he left behind in Nazi-controlled Czechoslovakia—and Sammy Clay, Chabon weaves a lyrical and magical tale about war and mysticism; the connections between love, fear, hope, and art; and the nature of escape.
5. Stories of John Cheever (1912–82). Seemingly confined to recording the self-inflations and petty hypocrisies of suburban WASPs, Cheever’s short fiction actually redefined the story form, mixing minimalism and myth to create uniquely American tragicomedy. A master of the ambiguous ending, Cheever could also be direct: In “The Swimmer,” a man dreams of his family as he blithely “swims” home through his neighbors’ backyard pools, only to collapse at the door of his empty, locked house.
6. The Age of Grief by Jane Smiley (1987). This novella and collection of stories explore the vicissitudes of love, friendship, and marriage with compassion and insight. In “The Pleasure of Her Company,” a lonely, single woman befriends the married couple next door, hoping to learn the secret of their happiness. In “Long Distance,” a man finds himself relieved of the obligation to continue an affair that is no longer compelling to him, only to be waylaid by the guilt he feels at his easy escape. And in the incandescently wise and moving title novella, a dentist, aware that his wife has fallen in love with someone else, must comfort her when she is spurned, while maintaining the secret of his own complicated sorrow. Beautifully written, with a wry intelligence and a lively comic touch, “The Age of Grief”captures moments of great intimacy with grace, clarity, and indelible emotional power.
7. The Feast of Love by Charles Baxter (2000). In a re-imagined “Midsummer Night's Dream,”men and women speak of and desire their ideal mates; parents seek out their lost children; adult children try to come to terms with their own parents and, in some cases, find new ones. In vignettes both comic and sexy, the owner of a coffee shop recalls the day his first wife seemed to achieve a moment of simple perfection, while she remembers the women's softball game during which she was stricken by the beauty of the shortstop. A young couple spends hours at the coffee shop fueling the idea of their fierce love. A professor of philosophy, stopping by for a cup of coffee, makes a valiant attempt to explain what he knows to be the inexplicable workings of the human heart Their voices resonate with each other—disparate people joined by the meanderings of love—and come together in a tapestry that depicts the most irresistible arena of life.
8. As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner (1930). The Bundrens of Yoknapatawpha County have a simple task—to transport their mother’s body by wagon to her birthplace for burial. Faulkner confronts them with challenges of near biblical proportions in this modernist epic that uses fifteen different psychologically complex first-person narrators (including the dead mother) through its fifty-nine chapters. Soaring language contrasts with the gritty sense of doom in this novel that includes the most famous short chapter in literature: “My mother is a fish.”
9. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964). Eleven year-old Harriet M. Welsch is a spy living on New York's Upper East Side. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?
10. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2010). Bennie is an aging former punk rocker and record executive. Sasha is the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. In this novel, which won the National Book Critics Circle award for fiction and was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner award, Egan brilliantly reveals their pasts, along with the inner lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs. With music pulsing on every page, this is a startling, exhilarating novel of self-destruction and redemption.