At the request of a faithful reader, today I unveil my top-10 fiction list.
And what does it take to make the list?
A) The book has to be memorable. I read enough books that they almost whiz by like highway signs. Not all of them stick with me. Ah, but the ones that do, they’re like great road trips that I wish I could take again. I smile, years later, when I remember the little postcard moments, like time somebody thought chewing gum would help her love life, or the time somebody bought flowers and champagne just before their world came crashing down, or the time somebody looked into the eyes of the person who wanted to kill them.
B) The book has to portray humanity with a certain warmth. We have plenty of well-constructed novels that regard humanity as fools marooned on a large rock. Scene by scene, their characters grow more alienated from one another. The author doesn’t care. It’s the human condition and all, blah, blah.
No, the author needs to come down off his smart-boy high horse and grow some heart. He can make fun of his characters, but he also needs to make us understand why they got themselves into such fixes.
So, with that foreword, and pretending I listed them in countdown fashion, which I couldn’t figure out how to do, here are my picks:
- Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Now here’s an author that I regarded as cold, owing to the misery of having to read Of Mice and Men in high school. I later read Grapes of Wrath on my own, which softened me on Steinbeck somewhat.
- Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. I didn’t remember this one until I took a peek at my review, which reminded me of a certain drama queen therein, who lent quite the spark to this tale.
- Coupon Girl by Becky Motew. You’re not supposed to remember the fluffy books. But heroine Jeannie and company’s Sound of Music production still makes me smile.
- Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro. Munro has built a writing career strictly on short stories, every one of them as perfect as a well-mounded muffin. And I don’t particularly crave muffins. Unless they’re Munro’s.
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. If Munro ever wishes to step down from her pedestal, here’s the lady that should take her place. How do I account for liking Lahiri so much? Well, she writes about the children of Indian immigrants, who juggle old world values with their modern American lives. Mormons grapple with the same inside-outside conflict. Her short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth, almost made the list, but then we would have to call it Kristen’s Top 11, which doesn’t sound quite right.
- All We Ever Wanted Was Everything by Janelle Brown. Daddy plunges into a mid-life crisis. Mom takes to her bed and starts wine therapy. Two daughters gather around, each with a big secret. Do I call this fun? Yes, I do.
- Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. Oh, sorry, Ms. Lahiri. You may have to wait behind Ms. Patchett for your turn on the Alice Munro Pedestal of Perfection. Anyway, this is about a hostage crisis, which nearly turned me off. But by page 2 I was hooked.
- Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. Yes, yes, you wish I’d shut up about this series. Yes, it’s true that a couple Outlander books feel like Gabaldon shuffled a bunch of plot cards and drew from the deck. But still, this thing has grown like Oreo flavors. Her public went wild for the original and Gabaldon obliged them by coming out with double-stuff and mint and Christmas red and dipped and . . . And . . .
- The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall. I hate polygamy. Thanks to Udall for making it look bad in such a rollicking way. I simply can’t forget one of the church elders drawling, “You’d think an outfit like this would grow, but instead all we do is shrink.”
- Follow the River by James Alexander Thom. Wait. Before you open this book, have a little talk with your family. “Mama’s going to be out for awhile. Help yourself to tuna and peanut butter sandwiches. Or eat cereal and cookies, I don’t care. Bye-bye now.” They might still bother you, but I don’t think you’ll even notice them.
Add in Almond-Raspberry Tossed Salad (Yes, you see strawberries. We have raspberry refuseniks at our house.)