Bel-Ami by Guy de Maupassant (1885). Like a late nineteenth-century Tom Wolfe, Maupassant reveals the codes and rivalries of social success by chronicling the rise of Georges Duroy, a handsome, down on his heels ex-soldier. Duroy’s chance comes when an old army buddy hires him at his newspaper, La Vie Parisienne.
Beloved by Toni Morrison (1987). It’s a choice no mother should have to make. In 1856, escaped slave Margaret Garner decided to kill her infant daughter rather than return her to slavery. Her desperate act created a national sensation. Where Garner’s true-life drama ends, Beloved begins.
Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Döblin (1929). Credited as the first German novel to adopt the technique of James Joyce, this novel tells the story of Franz Biberkopf, who, on being released from prison, is confronted with the poverty, unemployment, crime and burgeoning Nazism of 1920s Germany.
Bertha (1959) and George Washington Crosses the Delaware (1962), two plays by Kenneth Koch. These two plays about the exuberance of war are from the renowned New York School poet who said his dramatic influences included Shakespeare’s chronicle plays, Alfred Jarry’s parody of Macbeth, Ubi Roi, the experimental music of John Cage, and A Visit from Saint Nicholas by Clement Moore.
Bhagavadgita (fifth century b.c.e.). An eighteen-chapter section of the Mahabharata, this “Song of God” is a dialogue between Prince Arjuna, a warrior on the battlefield, and the Supreme Lord Krishna, who appears as a charioteer. The two discuss the true self that is not destroyed in death and states of release from the human realm of suffering.
Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia by Rebecca West (1941). While England slept, West clearly saw the danger of Hitler, who embodied for her the “genius of murder which has shaped our recent history.” Her account of a trip from Dalmatia to Kosovo reads like the cry of a modern Cassandra.
Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). Dickens is best known for his immense plots that trace every corner of Victorian society, and Bleak House fulfills that expectation to perfection. The plot braids the sentimental tale of an orphan unaware of her scandalous parentage with an ironic and bitterly funny satire of a lawsuit that appears to entail all of London.
Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward (1941). As the Nazis bore down on Britain, Coward filled London theaters with this gay and witty farce about death. The sublime silliness begins when a writer holds a séance to research his novel on a murderous fake psychic. Who should appear but his first wife, dead these six years and none too happy about wife number two.
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985). D. H. Lawrence famously remarked that the archetypal American hero was a stoic, a loner, and a killer. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of the formation and dissolution of a band of scalp hunters in northern Mexico in the late 1840s embodies that dire maxim.