Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $14). Reporting from the front lines of the 1960s, Didion highlights fragmentation and the loss of narrative, which, 40 years later, remain our prevailing cultural dislocations. Cogent, piercing, ruthless, the essays in this book are models of the form.
The Confessions of St. Augustine (Dover, $4). Featuring the first self-conscious first-person narrator in literature, Augustine’s account of his spiritual journey from dissolution to transcendence radiates with humanity. Living 1,700 years ago, he faced the same issues of evanescence and meaning that we confront today, and describes them here with astonishing honesty and grace.
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson (Picador, $13). Johnson may be the best American writer now working, a pilgrim of consciousness in a world of distraction, and this collection of linked short stories is his masterpiece.
Almost Dead by Assaf Gavron (HarperPeren-nial, $15). A black comedy about suicide bombing, in which a 30-something Israeli survives three attacks in one week and becomes a national symbol of resilience. The moral heart of the novel, through, resides in a second protagonist, a conflicted Palestinian terrorist lost in the depths of coma sleep: His dream-like memories make palpable both his reluctance and complicity.
Stop-Time by Frank Conroy (Penguin, $15). Published in 1967, Conroy’s coming-of-age narrative predates the modern memoir mania by 30 years, and remains essentially unsurpassed. Moving between adult reflections and recollections of childhood, it is, in many ways, an inquiry into memory, identity, and the fragility of our constructed selves.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger (Back Bay, $14). Not just for adolescents, Salinger’s landmark novel is, among other things, a portrait of a teenager losing his grip. “You don’t like anything that’s happening,” Holden Caulfield’s sister, Phoebe, tells him, and as the book progresses, Holden, adrift in Manhattan with no idea of how to navigate the world, experiences the fallout of that alienation, as his possibilities get stripped from him one by one.
—David L. Ulin is book critic of the Los Angeles Times. He is the editor of the award-winning anthology Writing Los Angeles and author of the new book The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time