1. Darlington's Fall by Brad Leithauser (Knopf, $19).
A novel in verse, and devastatingly beautiful. A boy in Indiana, mesmerized at age 10 by a butterfly that lands on his sleeve, grows up to be a lepidopterist. His life changes when he falls from a cliff while reaching for a specimen. Darlington's Fall leaves the reader breathless, both from the narrative excitement and because of poetry's call to repeat, reread, recite.
2. Miss Mackenzie by Anthony Trollope (Norilana, $14).
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One of Trollope's lesser-known novels, but one of my favorites. A sheltered spinster (she's 35!) inherits an unexpected fortune, and suitors begin buzzing around her. But she stuns the world by refusing them all. She's a remarkable female character to find in a 19th-century novel, even in Trollope.
3. O Pioneers! by Willa Cather (Dover, $4).
In this novel, written in 1913, Cather illuminates the dangers of independence, the way it leads to isolation and thus loneliness. I was lucky enough to read Cather for the first time as an adult, and it was thrilling. It was like someone opening a door and letting pale plains sunlight stream in.
4. The Old Filth Trilogy by Jane Gardam (Europa, $47).
Really, any novel or story by Gardam is worth reading repeatedly. Her characters are unpredictable and irresistible. In this trilogy of novels, they are also old. Old age is a kind of forced independence, as all the props of one's former life fall away, and Gardam's characters meet their new lot with sanguine curiosity. The trilogy is a masterpiece.
5. Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym (Open Road, $15).
Pym was imagining her and her sister getting old when she wrote this comic, oddly romantic story about spinster sisters living together. The two women live full, rich, and utterly individual lives within the quiet confines of convention, and they're astute observers. I have read this book probably a dozen times.
6. Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish (Tyrant, $17).
This 2015 debut novel follows the paths of a traumatized American veteran and an illegal immigrant from far-off China. They fall in love and struggle to survive in what sometimes seems like even farther-off Queens, New York. Though at times the story is bleak, it's also lush with hope.
— Cathleen Schine's new novel, They May Not Mean To, But They Do, follows an 86-year-old trying to fend off her children's ministrations.
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