Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (1971). “It’s perfectly clear that if every writer is born to write one story, that’s my story,” Stegner said of this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel. The narrator is a divorced, wheelchair-bound professor recalling the life of his pioneer grandparents. He was crude and adventurous, she sophisticated and self-possessed.
Answered Prayers by Truman Capote (1987). Unfinished and perhaps unfinishable at the time of Capote’s death in 1984, this roman à clef was his savage chomp at the hands that fed him—the manicured, diamond-freighted hands of Upper East Side socialites and assorted New York celebrities. Bitchiness, bile, and sexual braggadocio vie in this gossipy, literary vivisection of high society.
Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare (1606). One of Shakespeare’s late Roman plays, Antony and Cleopatra has a sense of fading grandeur about it, as the great warrior Antony succumbs to the exotic luxuries of Egypt and the heady sexual powers of her queen Cleopatra, thus neglecting his duties to Rome.
Atonement by Ian McEwan (2001). When Briony Tallis, a precocious adolescent on an English estate, writes a play to mark her brother’s homecoming in 1935, she sets in motion a real-life tragedy that marks the end of her innocence.
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.
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (1987). On one level this is a wickedly hilarious satire of the world of art. Yet, it is also a heartfelt story of American dreams, as a minor artist, whose lack of confidence led him to put down his brush and start collecting other people’s work, looks back on his life, analyzing his high points and low.