Olen Steinhauer's 6 favorite books
The best-selling author recommends works by James Joyce, Milan Kundera, and John le Carré
Olen Steinhauer's latest novel, "An American Spy," continues the saga of reluctant CIA assassin Milo Weaver.
Olen Steinhauer's latest novel, "An American Spy," continues the saga of reluctant CIA assassin Milo Weaver.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce (Dover, $3.50). Portrait is the book that made me, at age 19, want to become a novelist. Before Joyce settled down to write Ulysses, he had already made his mark with this coming-of-age story. Nothing can compare to Stephen Dedalus gazing out at the sea and deciding to become an artist, to "re-create life out of life."

Mao II by Don DeLillo (Penguin, $15). With a prologue that's worth the price of admission, this remains my favorite DeLillo. A reclusive novelist, believing that the cultural role of the artist has been subsumed by terrorists, abandons his long-gestating novel and heads out into the world, with disastrous results.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré (Penguin, $16). Read this and try to argue that espionage novels are a lesser form of literature. While I hold other spy novels in high esteem, Le Carré's seminal tale of a cuckolded, retired intelligence agent hunting through files and backgrounds for a mole remains the yardstick against which I regularly (and with disappointment) measure my own fiction.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien (Mariner, $15). Is this Vietnam War book a story collection or a novel? Is it autobiography or fiction? Is its subject soldiering or fiction writing? A virtuoso, metafictional performance that poses more questions than it answers, The Things They Carried ends up becoming quite possibly America's greatest war novel.

The Lover by Marguerite Duras (Pantheon, $12). As brief and intense as an ill-conceived love affair, and just as memorable. A 15-year-old French girl in Vietnam embarks on an affair with an older, rich Chinese man, telling her story with a lyricism and raw emotion that's hard to shake.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera (Harper Perennial, $15). How is it possible to write such a philosophically challenging work that is this entertaining and wildly funny? I still don't know, though I've read the novel innumerable times. Everything builds from a simple dilemma — Tomas must choose between domestication and sexual freedom — and snowballs into a celebration of the rich and bountiful breadth of living. I want to be Kundera when I grow up.

Olen Steinhauer's latest novel, An American Spy, continues the saga of reluctant CIA assassin Milo Weaver.



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