Novelist and critic Thomas Mallon is the author of Henry and Clara, Dewey Defeats Truman, and Bandbox. His latest novel, Fellow Travelers, is set in McCarthy-era Washington, D.C.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys (Modern Library, $20). Ludicrously enjoyable. A decade-long (1660–1669) 10-course feast of ambition, success, marital contentment, extramarital groping, fire, and plague. Arguably the first full-blown diary in English—a prototype that reached perfection without even trying.
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray (Bantam, $7). Its subtitle is “A Novel Without a Hero.” But what a heroine—and what a narrator. One of the most cynical and entertaining novels ever written. At its center, Miss Rebecca Sharp, who “had the dismal precocity of poverty . . . she had been a woman since she was 8 years old.” In the first chapter she flings Johnson’s Dictionary from the window of a carriage; in the 66 that follow she rewrites every existing definition of moral behavior.
The Collected Poems of Wilfred Owen (New Directions, $13). What Keats would have produced had life substituted poison gas and hand grenades for urns and nightingales. Owen’s stirring combination of lyric and narrative, of gentleness and brutality, still has the power to harrow the emotions.
Alice Adams by Booth Tarkington (Classic, $13). A near-great book by a mediocre artist and as such something of a mystery as to how it even exists. A heartbreaking story of mid-American pretension and embarrassment—Balzac comes to Indiana.
On the Contrary: Articles of Belief, 1946–1961 by Mary McCarthy (out of print). Out of print? A scandal! The book that made me want to become a writer. A collection of literary criticism, political commentary, travel writing, and memoir by the most intelligent and astringent writer in post–World War II America.
The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe (Bantam, $16). Perhaps more exclamatory than unfailingly accurate, but no book will ever capture the outsize personalities of the early Space Age better than this one. Only two of the seven original Mercury astronauts are still alive, and more than 30 years have passed since we came home from the moon that Project Mercury began to reach for.