The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West (New Directions, $13).
The ultimate novel of Hollywood, written by a native (and the author of the masterpiece Miss Lonelyhearts). I read this when I was young, and my admiration fueled my ambition to be a writer. It is funny, wicked, satirical, and wholly in the American grain.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Penguin, $13).
Emma Bovary, married to a good-hearted drudge, has a healthy libido, a shopping addiction, and an unhealthy sense of romance. Flaubert's landmark work is both a romantic novel and a critique of romantic novels, and in its writing and observation it is modern and memorable.
Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $19).
This is one of those books that explain everything — in this case, the way humans gather in groups, how they seize power, and the symbols they value. It is a study in tyranny and in other forms of domination — among them, a mother serving food. Canetti put 30 years into writing it, and he deserved the Nobel Prize in literature he won decades later.
A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul (Vintage, $17).
This is Naipaul's masterpiece and a classic of family life. Much of it is based on Naipaul's own family. Hilarious most of the time and full of conflict, it is one of the few books that have caused me to laugh out loud.
Civilization and Capitalism, 15th–18th Century, Vol. 1 by Fernand Braudel (Univ. of Calif., $48).
Have you ever wondered where coffee came from and when Europeans began to drink it — or tea, or chocolate? Or when men began to wear trousers rather than robes? This book answers those and many more such questions, demonstrating the ingenuity, the opportunism, the bravery, the imagination, and the salesmanship of people throughout the world.
Henry David Thoreau by Laura Dassow Walls (Univ. of Chicago, $35).
There are many good Thoreau biographies; this one, due in July, is outstanding. Thoreau had a mind so original and opinions so startling, his Concord neighbors (including Emerson) did not know what to make of him. This sympathetic and exhaustive biography illuminates the man and his times.
— Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux is the author of dozens of books, including The Mosquito Coast and The Great Railway Bazaar. Mother Land, his latest novel, portrays a family whose matriarch is nearing 100 and still driving everyone mad.