This page is something of a catch-all for non-genre literature that has a special place in my heart.
The TIN DRUM - Günter Grass
This 1959 novel established its author in the literary firmament. Our unreliable narrator—the quintessential unreliable narrator as exemplified by the single greatest first line I have ever read: Granted: I am an inmate in a mental asylum—is Oskar Matzerath, a man who willed himself to stop growing at the age of three. Through his untrustworthy eyes, we see many things, including the rise of the Nazi Party. It's a grotesque and engrossing read. The 1979 film, while excellent, can only scratch the novel's surface. Indeed, it ends halfway through the book but is well worth it for its many striking images, most famously, the one that serves as the background for this page.
To KILL a MOCKINGBIRD - Harper Lee
I include this classic because it was the novel that made me a lifelong reader. Assigned it in the 7th grade, I picked the book up reluctantly one weekend and didn't put it down until I had finished it a day and a half later. To Kill a Mockingbird showed me the power of story, character, and also played a role in informing my values as an adult. A perfect piece of prose.
GOD BLESS YOU, MR. ROSEWATER - Kurt Vonnegut
Snobs still turn their noses up at Vonnegut, call him an "adolescent" author. Screw those guys. His deceptively simple constructions and conversational style have a way of cutting through one's cynicism. I love Vonnegut's humanity that permeates every one of his novels and essays and short stories. I chose his 1965 God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, in part because it contains one of my favorite passages: Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you’ve got about a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies — ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.'
NAME of the ROSE - Umberto Eco
Italian author and philosopher Umberto Eco's most accessible novel is part murder mystery, part examination of faith and reason, set in an unnamed 14th-century Italian monastery. Written in 1980, it immerses the reader in the abstruse world of contemplatives prior to the Rennaissance and two hundred years before the Reformation tore Christendom asunder. The 1986 film of the same name is heavy on atmosphere and pretty entertaining but doesn't do justice to the novel's wonderful depth. For instance, the film trivializes the debate that takes place at the monastery, portraying it as a silly, pointless exercise ("Did Christ, or did he not, own the cloak he wore?"). Of course, that phrase was actually shorthand for the very real debate about whether the Church and its clergy should hold temporal wealth at all. For some reason, the DVD has gone out of print in the U.S., but the sublime novel is forever.
Eco also wrote a seminal article in 1995 on the characteristic features of fascism in the New York Review of Books. It's very much worth revisiting from time to time, given the era through which we are currently living.
Sadly, Eco passed away in 2016.
LOVE in the RUINS - Walker Percy
A weird tale of a psychiatrist who creates a hand-held machine to right the neuropsychiatric injuries of the human mind and soul. An exploration of spiritual ennui and the fragility of humanity.