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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Monday, April 21, 2014

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The Rhinns of Galloway: picturesque now, but scene of a hard-won existence a century or more ago.
The Rhinns of Galloway: picturesque now, but scene of a hard-won existence a century or more ago. (Photo: Colin McDonald, Wikimedia Commons)

10 great books ... off the top of my head

In a "they told two friends and they told two friends" kind of a deal on Facebook, Molly Snyder posted 10 books, off the top of her head, no hesitation, which led Katharina Hren to do the same, which led me to do the same.

I usually just look past these things on Facebook, because I'm not very good at lists like this. I read far too many books and listen to far too much music – and too much of it affects me in some way – to ever successfully narrow things down to 10. But the key is to name them without thinking too hard about it.

The books that pop up are by definition ones that stick with you, because they spring right to the front of your consciousness from somewhere down deep.

Here is my list, which I feel like is a pretty good nutshell of who I am and who I've been as a reader – and beyond – since high school, which is when I read two of these...

  • "The Land of the Leal" by James Barke – Scottish author Barke was best known for his five-volume series of novels about Robert Burns, but I adored his epic novel of life across nearly a century in the poverty-stricken agricultural communities of Scotland's Rhinns of Galloway. Like Elsa Morante's wartime epic below, it was an emotional rollercoaster.
  • "The Butcher Boy" by Patrick McCabe – McCabe's book is dark and funny (and tragic) at the same time and if you can find the book on tape, you can hear the author himself read the book. That's pretty unbeatable.
  • "The Stranger/The Outsider" by Albert Camus – The book that (along with "The Fall" and "The Plague") made me think, as a high-schooler, that it'd be cool to go to Algeria. I still think it, now and again.
  • "La Storia/History" by Elsa Morante – This has never been considered Morante's masterwork, but it sucked me in, held me tight and hit me hard when I read it in English. My attempts at reading in Italian haven't gotten far.
  • "The Moon and the Bonfires" by Cesare Pavese – This one I've read in English and Italian and adored it in both for its prose and for the insights it gave me into the places from which my family hails.
  • "Consider the Lillies" by Iain Crichton Smith – I love Scottish fiction from a variety of eras and this slim 1968 novel of the Highland Clearances is a perfect example of Smith's gorgeous prose. He was also a brilliant short fiction writer, as you can see in the collection "Listen to the Voice."
  • "Up in the Old Hotel" by Joseph Mitchell – I've always been fascinated by New York and its history and neighborhoods and people and Mitchell was a master of telling some of the eight million stories in the naked city. This is a sort of greatest hits of his reportage for the New Yorker and from his books.
  • "Cat's Cradle" by Kurt Vonnegut – I was a big fan of Vonnegut in high school. If I remember correctly my friend Phillip Levy turned me on to him, and maybe lent me a copy of this short satirical novel set on a small Caribbean island that started me on a tear through Vonnegut's incredible oeuvre.
  • "A Glasgow Trilogy" by George Friel – Originally published as three separate books, Canongate collected them into a single book, where they seemed to benefit from being read as three parts of a whole. Friel's wit and humanity breathes life into these stories set in Glaswegian tenements of the mid-2oth century.
  • "Il mondo dei vinti" by Nuto Revelli – Revelli was a master of oral history and this book, in which he interviews 270 people who grew up on farms in the hills and valleys of Piedmont, Italy, in a world defined by poverty and suffering but also by tradition and joy. Revelli's work, but especially this book, opened my eyes to what the "good old days" were really like.

I'd love to see your lists. Post them below using the Talkbacks feature.

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