Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon (Picador, $20). Pynchon achieves perfect verisimilitude as we follow surveyors Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon through 18th-century North America. This 1997 work is the greatest road-trip novel and literary treatise on friendship since Don Quixote.
Daniel Deronda by George Eliot (Oxford, $10). Daniel Deronda, one of Eliot's greatest characters, has a dramatic encounter with a young Jewish woman before discovering that he too is Jewish. The book is a grand orchestration, composed, in equal measure, of sweeping romance and the stark reality of prejudice.
Montauk by Max Frisch (out of print). This 1975 novel draws on the Swiss writer's own life, particularly his tragic love affair with poet Ingeborg Bachmann. More importantly, the novel weaves together diary-like entries to achieve a deeply affecting melancholy.
The Carrier of Ladders by W.S. Merwin (Copper Canyon, $18). Merwin is the great poet of departures. I admit to having a favorite in this collection, which can be found in the anthology The Second Four Books of Poems. It's "Edouard," about one of Merwin's great friends. "Edouard shall we leave / tomorrow / for Verdun again / shall we set out for the great days / and never be the same / never."
Women in Their Beds by Gina Berriault (out of print). Many of Berriault's characters apprentice themselves to their worst instincts yet aren't necessarily the worse for it. At times Berriault's short stories exhibit a noir-like sensibility; other times, she's a documentary realist. Her story about the search for a reclusive writer in Mexico made me feel lost and haunted, like my soul didn't have a return passport.
The End of the Affair by Graham Greene (Penguin, $16). "This is a record of hate far more than of love," says writer Maurice Bendrix as he recalls his affair with one Sarah Miles. Each time I read this novel, I want to be Maurice writing it, yet also want to inhabit the life of Sarah's cuckolded husband and definitely the life of Sarah herself. Her death sets both men free to be imprisoned by the past.
— Howard Norman's novels The Northern Lights and The Bird Artist both were National Book Award finalists. His new memoir, I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, features vignettes from childhood and from his years toiling in the Arctic.