Columbia University writing professor Binnie Kirshenbaum is the acclaimed author of four novels, including An Almost Perfect Moment and Hester Among the Ruins.
The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne (Bantam Classics, $4). It’s as if Hawthorne wrote with mirrors instead of words: You can read this book a dozen times (as I have) and still not quite figure out who is guilty and of what exactly.
History by Elsa Morante (Steerforth Italia, $20). This is simply a most beautiful and heartbreaking meditation on the tragedy of war. Set in Italy during World War II, it chronicles the hard and sad days of one woman, her children, and the search for a safe place.
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Shadows on the Hudson by Isaac Bashevis Singer (Plume, $16). Set on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (as opposed to the Polish landscape of most of Singer’s work), this novel, a discourse on the fickle state of love, introduces us to one of the most charming rogues in literature. Favorite line: “There’s something that’s stronger than love.…Laziness. The fear of moving from a fixed place.”
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $14). The linguistic pyrotechnics are enough to recommend this, perhaps the greatest American novel. It’s side-splittingly funny, the passion sticks to the pages, and it renders sympathy for a pedophile.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (Bantam, $6). If this novel doesn’t make you search for what is valuable in life, if it doesn’t urge you to pursue happiness, then nothing will. This story of a dying man’s realization that his perfectly admirable bourgeois life has been a waste is, or ought to be, a wake-up call.
Death in Venice
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