The Vatican Cellars by André Gide (Gallic, $17). Gide's protagonist, a youth who aspires to create the perfect motiveless crime, is a close relative to Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley and Dennis Cooper's indolent rich boys. The section involving a scientist's revenge assault on a devotional statue is wicked and funny.
No Lease on Life by Lynne Tillman (out of print). Assured, compact, and masterful, this 1998 day in the life is the consummate New York City novel. Alive with the heroine's many frustrations and small, hard-won pleasures, it stands alongside Don DeLillo's Underworld and Italo Calvino's Difficult Loves in giving a concentrated and complex construction of character, time, and place.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (Europa, $13). Ferrante, like Tillman, has produced an impressive body of work. Pick any of her novels (better still, binge-read them all). Usually, a simple premise sets off a complex investigation. In this case, an academic reckons with her flaws on a beach near Naples. The novel has a revelation partway through (involving a doll) that is small, delicious, and hugely problematic. The writing, sentence to sentence, is as toned, disciplined, and strapping as a racehorse.
Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson (Bantam, $4). The next two books are close to my heart. In Kidnapped, two politically divided men on the run hurtle toward trouble. The novel's Scottish setting is contested territory, and Stevenson delivers a debate on self-determination while mapping one of the most enduring friendships in all literature. An effortless read, worth many revisits.
Close to the Knives by David Wojnarowicz (Vintage, $16). The unsurpassed, hard poetics of this 1991 memoir by a gay New York City artist are best complemented by My American History, Sarah Schulman's account of the AIDS crisis and activism. The urgency of the subject still stands, and the writing is startlingly beautiful, heartbreaking, and fierce.
The Family of Pascual Duarte by Camilo José Cela (Dalkey Archive, $13). A criminal accounts for his past. It's witty and brutal. Cela has both steel and sentiment in his subject and prose.
— Richard House is the author of The Kills, a 1,000-page novel in four parts that was long-listed last year for the Man Booker Prize. Now out in the U.S., the book follows a contractor in Iraq who goes underground to shield a corrupt multinational.