Mona Simpson

We are doubly pleased to welcome Mona Simpson to Top Ten Land, and not just because she was generous enough to provide us with two lists (one that goes up to 11!) of what she considers the greatest books.

She sends us her list at an exciting time, as she has just published her sixth novel, Casebook. It’s the beguiling story about an eavesdropping boy working to discover the obscure mysteries of his unraveling family. He uncovers instead what he least wants to know: the workings of his parents' private lives. And even then he can't stop snooping. Reviewing the novel for NPR, Julia Keller called it “a sort of cross between The Catcher in the Rye and Harriet the Spy.”

The novel continues Simpson’s long exploration of family dynamics. Indeed, while many writers tap their personal lives for their fiction; few have had as much compelling raw material to work with, or reimagined it with such artistry as she.

She was born in Green Bay in 1957 to Abdulfattah "John" Jandali, an immigrant from Syria who taught at the University of Wisconsin, and one of his students, Joanne Carole Schieble. They divorced when Simpson was five. Her father faded from the scene. She and her mother moved to Los Angeles, where Simpson took her stepfather’s last name.

Simpson’s debut novel, Anywhere but Here (1986) refracted these events to offer a moving, often comic portrait of wise child and her divorced mother, a larger-than-life American dreamer, who move from Wisconsin to LA. It won the Whiting Prize. It was at a reading for this novel that she discovered that her parents had had a child before her, whom they put up for adoption. His name was Steve Jobs.

The Lost Father (1992) continued the story, jumping ahead to when the girl, now a twenty-eight year-old medical school, becomes obsessed with the father she never knew (as Simpson had in her own life). She hire detectives to dredge up the past, thus eroding her savings, ruining her career, and flirting with madness in a search spanning two continents.

Her next novel, A Regular Guy (1996), depicted the strained relationship of a hi-tech millionaire with his out-of-wedlock daughter he had refused to acknowledge. Off Keck Road(2000), which details the lives of three Green Bay women, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award. Her 2010 novel, My Hollywood, explored the changing nature of family through the story of a wealthy Los Angeles couple and their Philippine nanny.

Her work has been awarded several prizes including a Guggenheim, a grant from the NEA, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, a Lila Wallace Readers Digest Prize, a Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize, and most recently a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

 Mona Simpson's Top Ten List(s)

For me it’s almost impossible to compare books by writers whose lifetimes intersect mine with books by writers who died before I was born, so I’m sending you two separate lists (with her won comments).


1. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (1927). This is a portrait of love, in movement. Mrs. Ramsay becomes an ideal. This is a book I wish I could have written, because I wish I could have grown up in the life that could inspire it.

2. Varieties of Religious Experience by William James (1901, 1902). I read Henry James’ work all the time and once spent a year reading no one but him, there’s not one Henry James novel on this list. I don’t prefer one novel over another. I just love being in the medium of his mind. But this is the only book by his brother that I’ve reread.  

3. Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (1860–61) was the first great novel I ever read and I remember my shivering thrill at discovering it’s demanding pleasures as Pip, after meets his patron in the cemetery and slowly grows into his life.

4. In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust (1913–27). I was once in a class in Berkeley, with two beautiful graduate students who were complaining about A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. The boy next to me shrugged and said, “It got me out of Bakersfield.”  A Remembrance of Things Past got me out of my twenties and the sorrow I was nursing. I’ve begun rereading it this time in French, infinitesimally slowly.

5. War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy (1869).conjures a complete world I want to live in.

6. Stories of Anton Chekhov (1860–1904). I will be reading these stories on my deathbed, with a mug of Yogi Egyptian licorice tea.

7. Middlemarch by George Eliot (1871–72). These characters remain so sharply defined, without even rereading the book. Unlike Jane Austen, whose sentences snap back at you with brisk pleasure. Eliot’s characters have indelible details. I remember Dorothea picking out her mother’s jewels. Mrs. Bulstrode lying down and taking off her jewelry. There’s so much about idealization in this book, about work, about bad marriages.

8. Lolita (1955) and Spring in Fialta (1936) by Vladimir Nabokov. How can anyone resist Nabokov’s sheer spanning intelligence, his games and linguistic guile? I love his profoundly sophisticated urbanity.

9. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847). I came to Jane Eyre later than I should have. I love the book, but can’t completely succumb to its romanticism. The world view of Vilette is closer to mine, but Jane Eyre is a perfect book.

10. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain (1884). The exuberance and American twang of the language are so beguiling and thrilling that when one reaches the abrupt ending when Jim tells Huck that his father has already died, (meaning that Huck has already grown up before our eyes) it registers as a stunning sleight of hand.

11. Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes (1605, 1615). I debated between Don Quixote and Moby-Dick, each representing one of the great, long reading experiences of my life, and chose Don Quixote only because it’s a warmer book.



The thrilling thing about this second list is that each of these books, by writers who were alive in my lifetime, is that they’re as deep and pleasurable as those on the first list.

1. Survival in Auschwitz (1947) and The Reawakening (1963) by Primo Levi.

2. The Emigrants by W.G. Sebald (1992).

3. The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (1954).

4. The Practical Heart by Allan Gurganus (2001).

5. Jamesland by Michelle Huneven (2003).

6. A House for Mr. Biswas by V. S. Naipaul (1961).

7. Stories of Alice Munro (hint, hint Alfred A. Knopf)

8. Charming Billy by Alice McDermott (1998).

9. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (1996).

10. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (2011).