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Best books … chosen by Simon Schama
Scholar and art critic Simon Schama is the author of Rough Crossings and other popular histories. His most recent BBC series, Simon Schama’s Power of Art, won an International Emmy last week.
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he Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa (Pantheon, $14). One of the greatest historical novels of all time, up there with War and Peace and Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian. It deals with the nature of time and the caprices of history, as well as power, love, and appetites, with vivid poetic precision. Set in mid-19th century Sicily, the book smells of gorgeous danger and sexy lassitude.

Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth (Norton, $15). An award-winning novel that speaks directly to the subject I’ve been saturated in for the past few years: the slave trade. Deeply researched and slightly crazy, but written with startling immediacy.

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell (Penguin, $14 for each novel). I hated this quartet of novels when I read it at age 16, dismissing it as D.H. Lawrence with olive oil. Obviously, I was too young. I reread the quartet this summer and thought it one of the most astonishing performances in fiction—the last word on the self-deceptions of sex and love.

The Gastronomical Me by M.F.K. Fisher (North Point, $15). A collection of pieces by the greatest American writer whom no one in Britain has heard of. Absurdly pigeonholed as a food writer, Fisher does, indeed, write about food—but in all its connections with our thoughts, senses, passions, and memories.

Westward Ha! by S.J. Perelman (Burford, $13). Woody Allen and Groucho learned their best bits from Perelman. This is the sublime Sid in full cry: merciless, hilarious, immortal.

Zeno’s Conscience by Italo Svevo (Vintage, $15). Weird, funny, and deadly. Svevo’s 1923 novel begins with the narrator trying to find a
crisis grave enough to justify giving up smoking. He fails. It ends with the First World War, a shocking coda. In between, monstrous, sweet truths, and lies about love and marriage. What else is there?

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