Life of Pi by Yann Martel (Mariner, $15). This Man Booker Prize winner is an utterly amazing book. Its ending was a sucker punch in the gut. I don’t want to say too much about the story, for fear of spoiling one of the most surprising twists ever, but read every word. Don’t skip a thing!
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz (Riverhead, $14). I devoured this raucous novel, lengthy footnotes and all, in two days flat—and have been shoving it into the hands of everyone I know ever since. Containing everything from comic-book references and science fiction to Oscar Wilde and a family curse, this book breaks all the rules.
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (Oxford, $9). Chaucer takes us on a pilgrimage with a broad array of very different “folk” telling some of the best stories ever put to paper. He was a master of voice—the characters come to life outside their stories, and each speaks in his or her own style, from the stately Knight to the ribald Nun’s Priest. My favorite? The Wife of Bath.
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen (Picador, $16). Despite all the press surrounding Franzen’s new book, Freedom, you owe it to yourself to go back and read his previous novel. This 2001 best-seller is a sprawling, glorious tale of the “corrections” needed by various members of a contemporary American family. It takes you from the interior landscape of senile dementia to the gun-toting culture of corruption and violence in late-1990s Lithuania.
Black Beauty by Anna Sewell (Dover, $3.50). This childhood favorite has stuck with me. Told from the point of view of a horse, its revelations remain haunting and relevant. A must-read for all who love animals.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Scribner, $14). It’s no surprise that this is one of everyone’s favorite novels. The Great Gatsby is one of the most amazing character studies of all time. Jay Gatsby’s undying love for Daisy makes him both vulnerable and careless; his opulent world is one of both entitlement and isolation.
—Novelist Sara Gruen is the author of the 2006 best-seller Water for Elephants. Her latest, Ape House, features a group of bonobo apes who become reality-TV stars. It was published in September by Spiegel & Grau