Every so often a book comes along that captures your attention so fully that the next thing you know, it’s 3:00 a.m. and you still can’t quite bring yourself to put it down. Elizabeth Brundage is very familiar with this phenomenon, as both an author and a reader. Her recent thriller, All Things Cease to Appear, is just one example of a book that will keep you up all night. It’s a dark and riveting story about two deeply unhappy families and the gruesome murder that ties them together. It will keep you guessing all the way to the last page.
Given her expertise, we asked Elizabeth to compile a list of just a few of the books that have enthralled her through the wee morning hours over the years. Keep reading to find out more!
When I first read this novel in high school, it changed the way I thought about reading and what novels could do. The story is very simple, yet heartbreaking. Rereading it as an adult and a writer I found it even more moving. Wharton’s beautiful prose gently illustrates the humility and repression of nineteenth-century Starkfield. Frome’s love for his infirmed wife’s cousin, a tortured, unspoken, and impossible romance, at once condemns and redeems him and offers a last chance at happiness.
Outerbridge Reach by Robert Stone
This is a great novel about one man’s determination to prove himself as a sailor as he crosses the world’s oceans on a lone voyage, ultimately rediscovering himself in the process. Stone gradually reveals the complex emotions that drive the successes and failures of his characters. This novel is ultimately about the true journey of one’s life, an adventure into the soul.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
One of the best portrayals of a sociopath I’ve ever read. Highsmith really knew people, their obsessions and compulsions. She understood the driving forces of ego, the deeply hidden desires that motivate people to do terrible things. She must have been a very studious observer of behavior to be able to invent such complicated, fascinating, and thoroughly unforgettable characters.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene
This is a deeply personal, moving novel about love and loss, and the trickery of faith, written with the intensity of a thriller. I love all of Graham Greene’s novels but this one feels very personal, very intimate, and it’s deeply affecting, especially considering that it was written in 1951.
One of my favorite books of all time. Salter captures the complex nuances of a marriage as it begins to unravel and the desires that drive people together and apart, both as lovers and as friends. It’s a novel that has its own particular music, with sentences that are so striking, precise, and fresh, you want to reread them again and again, and each time you do they seem brilliant and new. In a few short descriptive lines Salter conjures a whole world. This is a book you can read over and over again and always find something new and interesting to think about as a result. You can’t predict its drama and outcomes, and that’s what makes it truly exceptional.
I was sick in bed when I first read this incredible novel, and I found myself unable to get up until I finished it, and once I did I couldn’t stop thinking about it. One of the most moving, gripping, thought-provoking, and terrifying novels I’ve ever read (the movie didn’t do it justice). It’s a purely told tale, written in the simplest, truest language. In a father and son’s struggle to survive, the deepest complexities of love, faith, and hope are revealed. McCarthy is a masterful writer.
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
Coetzee writes with mesmerizing clarity. Set in post-apartheid South Africa, this is a fascinating story about a professor who loses his job after sleeping with a student (he has slept with many) and takes refuge on his daughter’s farm on the Eastern Cape. An act of horrific violence inspires this father and daughter to question the lives they’ve lived in their destructive, broken country. This book gets to the heart of hate, racism, and the treachery of apartheid’s fallout.
Paris Trout by Pete Dexter
This is a brilliantly written novel about a true sociopath, Paris Trout, an “upstanding” member of southern, white society, who murders a fourteen-year-old black girl in a small Georgia town in the 1950s and insists he hasn’t done anything wrong. Trout is the incarnation of racism and this is a gripping, deeply disturbing book.
Aura by Carlos Fuentes
This is one of my favorite ghost stories and is unlike any other book you will read. Fuentes is an elegant, sensual writer and this is a short, mysterious novel that captivates you from its very first page.
I read this novel on a long flight to Europe and remember crying in my seat at the end, consumed with a sense of terrible loss. It’s a very moving story about a man who has terminal cancer. At this point in his illness, Dad Lewis and his wife are coming to terms with the life they have led, their marriage, their family, the mistakes and the moments of brightness that have kindled their lives. While it may sound depressing, it was actually one of the most uplifting and reaffirming stories I’ve ever read. A deeply affecting masterpiece by a remarkably sensitive, intuitive writer.
White Noise by Don DeLillo
I was in my early twenties when I first read this and it knocked me out for its originality and boldness. Published in 1985, it’s a hard book to summarize because it’s not a standard narrative and there’s so much there beyond story. It’s about a college professor, Jake Gladney, a Hitler expert, who lives with his wife and their children from (several) previous marriages in a small midwestern town. Gladney is the everyman of our times—distracted, insecure, uncertain, terrified of dying, and obsessed with connecting the dots of life in his search to understand the meaning of it.
When I read this masterpiece back in college, it changed the way I thought about novels and what they can do. A friend of mine once said Atwood’s writing made her wanting to eat it with a spoon, savoring all the flavors, and I think that’s a perfect description of the effect ofAtwood’s marvelous writing. This is an absolutely brilliant dystopian novel that has become even more significant over time. In fact, I highly recommend reading it right now.
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
A slow, contemplative, and ultimately deeply stirring novel about a group of expatriates in Paris after World War I. In many ways, it’s a bold novel for its courageous examination of difficult, unspoken subjects like impotence and the magnetic undercurrents of sexuality, and it’s an unforgettable love story. Hemingway took on subjects that other writers avoided and he had a remarkable, exclusive vision of the world.
A deceptively simple novel about a man who is somewhat detached and removed from his life. When his mother dies, for instance, he feels nothing. He ends up killing a man for no apparent reason and feels no remorse, unmoved by the spiritual underpinnings that dictate most lives. As an atheist, he sees the world around him as purely physical, and his refusal to repent and accept God gets him executed. A fascinating story that Camus considered “absurdist” that is equally as relevant today as when it was first published.
This is an adventure story told from the perspective of a great St. Bernard named Buck who represents the animal inside us all. What makes this novel such an exhilarating read is London’s straightforward, elegant prose, and his ability to conjure the world through a dog’s particular perspective—the sights, smells, and sounds of the forest, the land, the other dogs and people he encounters, with a vividness that engages all your senses. Jack London was a true original.
This book had a major impact on my desire to become a writer. Cain’s prose is spare and beautiful. When it was published in 1934 it was considered scandalous for its brazen portrayal of sexuality and even today it might make some readers squirm. Cain’s vision of the world, the sense of despair and hopelessness, firmly established noir as a powerful literary contender that dared to expose the raw and desperate emotions hidden at the very bottom of our souls.