1. Prayer for the Dying, by Stewart O’Nan
Is this a novella? At under 200 pages, it’s slim and horrifying and gorgeous, one of my favorite books of all time. This one poor guy is the Sheriff, the Undertaker, and the Doctor for a small town after the Civil War and he’s really trying his hardest. And then a plague hits.
2. Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes
One we all read way back when, and tell me honestly: have you ever been able to forget it? (Even better, I think, at thrusting you into what it must be like to be retarded than Of Mice and Men, whose ending I spent a lot of time furiously rewriting in the ninth grade, while calling out curses to the author.) And what happens in this one is even worse. God, I wish I’d somehow thought of it myself.
3. Jesus’ Son, by Denis Johnson
What Raymond Carver did for his generation, Dennis Johnson did for ours. The weird poetic humor and dense unaffected tragedy here have been envied by everyone now who wants to write. Me, too.
4. Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen
Do you know a teenage girl? Give her this book. (And I’ll admit it: this one might be cheating, because it’s not fiction. But it reads like it is, and Kaysen’s spare prose packs in so much truly inventive wordplay and tricks of narrative that sneak up on you to tap you on the shoulder. No, your other shoulder.)
5. The Good Times are Killing Me, by Lynda Barry
Lynda Barry writes like no one else—on nearly every page I’m awestruck—and the nakedly hilarious weird honesty makes you get filled up with exuberance and then suddenly you’re crying. Just like adolescence.
6. Fauntleroy’s Ghost, by Vinnie Wilhelm
I thought I’d take a peek at this one morning and then I was late to work because I just could not put it down. Ambitious, arch and witty with a strong driving plot and fifty surprises to go with your heartswellings. Also there’s a part about Fidel Castro’s penis you won’t soon forget.
7. Ballad of the Sad Café, by Carson McCullers
Somehow McCuller’s gusto and force makes the most bizarre love story feel really true and natural, so that even when details start to verge on the realm of magical realism it all just teeters and balances perfectly. Plus, the lovers all hate each other until they finally grease themselves up and fight. Which is even better than it sounds.
8. Where We Come From, by Judy Budnitz
A woman is gigantically pregnant for years and years in the title piece from Nice Big American Baby, but first we begin with her seven brothers and her abandonment of her own mother and then we move into her many foiled attempts to catapult herself across the border so that she can give birth on American soil, so that a whole world and three generations of struggle are all carried on the strange back of this strange plot.
9. Time’s Arrow, by Martin Amis
So bizarre. And so perfect. Everything in this story runs backwards, literally, starting with a character jumping up out of his coffin and being carried back to his bed where he slowly gets well. Once a week, a maid comes to his house and messes everything up. A hurt knee is mended by a quick slap to the concrete. I was so into this that I didn’t even anticipate the mind-blowing turn in the middle. And then the magical joke of the narrative suddenly closes in on you and you realize that there is so much more going on here and that what’s going on will break your heart.
10. Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O’Nan
You know how if you were a really amazing artist you could just capture real life and it would be art? I’m awestruck by the beauty and realness of the humor and heartbreak here, and the naturalistic take on our daily lives now. As if Seize the Day were written about the Red Lobster.
11. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
12. Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman
13. Heart of Darkness, by Joseph Conrad
14. Hounds of the Baskervilles, by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
15. A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
16. Turn of the Screw, by Henry James
17. Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood
18. Project X, by Jim Shepard
19. Miss Lonelyhearts, by Nathanael West
20. Tony Takitani, by Haruki Murakami
21. Goodbye, Columbus, by Philip Roth
K. Kvashay-Boyle is a fiction writer living in Los Angeles. Her stories are widely anthologized in places such as Best of McSweeney’s, Best American Non-Required Reading, Politically Inspired Fiction. She’s been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, won one of 15 best stories by Pittsburg Arts and Letters American Short Reading Series, and her story “Saint Chola” is currently in development as a feature film.