The second half of the alphabet was the harder of the two parts of the “A to Z” list. One reason is not surprising. I haven’t read a lot of books beginning with “Q” or “Z”, thereby severely narrowing the field of contenders. On the other hand, I was surprised how many books I consider among my all-time favorites started with “S”. The choice there was difficult and, although I haven’t quite completed it yet, I speculate at least two books from there will make my list of 10 books I can’t live without. One interesting note. While Part 1 of the list was heavy on books I read in the 1970s, today’s list is populated most with books from this decade.
N — Notes to Myself: My Struggle to Become a Person, Hugh Prather (1975). Okay, so this is touchy feely stuff but these thoughts and observations from Prather’s journals gave me some insight at various times I felt things weren’t going well. It is perhaps the most worn and underlined book in my library.
O — The Outsider: A Journey Into My Father’s Struggle With Madness, Nathaniel Lachenmeyer (2001). A son’s memoir about his father isn’t unusual. But when that father goes from university sociology professor to homelessness, mental institutions and squalor due to paranoid schizophrenia, the take is more than a bit different. After his father’s death, Lachenmeyer tries to reconstruct his father’s life, using letters he received after his father left the family and interviewing those who knew him in those intervening years. It is one of the more compelling stories of mental illness — and the disappearing safety net for those who suffer them — I have read.
P — Perdido Street Station, China Mieville (2002). This is one of two books on today’s list that are near impossible to describe. At best, you can call thise one a combination of fantasy, science fiction and horror. However you describe it, Mieville creates a fascinating world that leaves part of you wanting to read faster to see what is going to happen and another part of you saying slow down because you’re enjoying it so much.
Q — QB VII, Leon Uris (1985). A respectable choice given the few books eligible here. This is a fictional account of a British libel suit against an author who identifies a noted doctor as having worked at a Nazi death camp. How much you enjoy the book may depend on how much you like its rather faithful adherence to British legal practices, which are unfamiliar to most Americans.
R — The Russians, Hedrick Smith (1977). This letter, like the following one, had plenty of contenders for some reason. In fact, I went back and forth among several books. Ultimately, though, this intimate portrait of Russians and their country won out. Somewhat dated now because it was written in the Cold War era, it is one of those books that lets you see the people of a country and the reality of their lives, not just its politics and government.
S — The Sparrow, Mary Doria Russell (1996). Despite several excellent contenders, there ultimately was no doubt which would end up on this list. Russell’s tale centers on a Jesuit priest assigned to a Jesuit-organized mission to a planet from which a radio signal of beautiful music has been received. The story unfolds from two perspectives — one telling of the journey, the other of accusations made against him in the aftermath of the mission, of which he is the only survivor. A brilliant use of SF as a vehicle to explore issues of faith, religion and morality.
T — The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien (1999). Quite simply the finest book about the Vietnam War I have ever read. It is comprised of short stories that have enough commonality to almost make it a novel. Although fictional, it feels more like memoir. O’Brien, who hails from Worthington, Minn., won the National Book Award for his earlier novel, Going After Cacciato. I not only found this book to be better, it was so “unputdownable” I was irritated by the interruption caused when the plane I was on when I began reading it landed.
U — Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose (1996). This highly readable rendition of the Lewis and Clark is my favorite work of Ambrose, who did as much over the last couple decades to popularize American history as any other author. Although relying heavily on the journals of the expedition, Ambrose goes far beyond that and helps us understand the magnitude of this undertaking and journey.
V — Voices from Chernobyl, Svetlana Alexievich (2006). This book is exactly what it purports to be — an oral history of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster told exclusively in the voices of those directly affected by it in one way or another. Journalist Alexievich simply lets those she interviewed tell their stories with no commentary or narrative (or even questions) of hers. Not only does the book help us understand the magnitude of the disaster, it shows its impacts and effects at the personal level.
W — A World Lit Only by Fire, William Manchester (1993). Granted, you can’t tell an in-depth history of the Middle Ages in approximately 300 pages. Yet in-depth history was not Manchester’s goal and his book is a masterpiece for grasping a basic understanding of that time period. It is written so well it started me on a medieval history kick for several years. Along with the much longer and more detailed A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman, it remains my favorite work on the period and Manchester is the only author to appear twice on this list.
X — The X-President, Philip Baruth (2003). This is the story of a woman hired in 2055 to help write the official biography of the 109-year-old former president known only in the novel as “BC.” And if you can’t figure out who “BC” is, you haven’t been awake over the last 15 years. Baruth has an interesting take on the effect of decisions “BC” made and some he didn’t that led to a the US being in a losing world war. How to solve that problem? Time travel, of course.
Y — The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didon (2005). Didion’s award-winning memoir of her husband’s sudden death and the ensuing year was one of my favorite books of 2005. Yet it isn’t just about sorrow. It gives us a broader insight into grief and grieving and the impact of loss on life as a whole. As I said in my review, her recounting of how even minor things could set off what she called a “vortex” of memories is one of the things that makes the book stand out.
Z — Zanesville, Kris Saknussemm (2006). Almost a year ago, I asked, “In what part of the universe does this guy’s mind reside?” That question still exists today as Zanesville remains one of the most unclassifiable works I have ever read. Trust me when I say Saknussemm’s description of the book as “techno-theological post-American monster vaudeville” is as good a description as any. He takes us to Texas, New York, South Dakota (where “the speed of culture” runs slower) and “LosVegas, Nevadafornia” in a wonderfully weird vision of a future America.
I really resent the idea that the only reason someone might be good or moral is because they’re religious. I do what I do . . . without hope of reward or fear of punishment. I do not require heaven or hell to bribe me or scare me into acting decently.
Mary Doria Russell, The Sparrow