Novelist Jodi Picoult is the author of 10 No. 1 New York Times best-sellers, including Small Great Things and Leaving Time. Her new novel, A Spark of Light, is set at a Jackson, Mississippi, abortion clinic targeted by a vigilante gunman.
First Light by Charles Baxter (1987).
An estranged brother and sister meet for the first time in years. Instead of allowing them to reconcile, Baxter reels backward to show what broke apart their relationship. I was so blown away by this technique, I swore that one day I, too, would write a book in reverse. And that turned out to be A Spark of Light.
Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (1937).
Dinesen is the pen name of Karen Blixen, who left Denmark for a coffee farm in Kenya. What has always interested me about this memoir is how Dineson/Blixen reveals the least about the things that meant the most, such as her relationship with Denys Finch-Hatton. I love the idea that writers sometimes realize that words cannot cover the things they need to say.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak (2005).
A foster child in Nazi Germany is placed with a family who later hide a Jew in their basement. This is a story about the power of words to hurt and to heal. But what really makes it special is Zusak's prose, and the sheer audacity of having Death as a narrator.
The Life of Pi by Yann Martel (2001).
This is the book I wish I'd written. A boy found floating in a lifeboat in the Pacific tells his rescuers a story involving a hyena, a zebra, an orangutan, and a tiger that were in the boat with him. When no one believes him, he says that he was on the lifeboat with three other people, one a bloodthirsty chef who killed the others. His rescuers (and the reader) must decide which version they believe. How can a writer not love a novel that asks to whom a story belongs?
A book I'm still thinking about a year after reading it. When Abraham Lincoln's son Willie dies, other spirits in the graveyard all have something to say. What results is a collage of narrative that somehow yields a story about grief and loss but also inspiration.
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward (2011).
Ward is, simply put, a legend in the making. This story haunts me, illustrating how the fierceness of family can be both tender and as destructive as the storm — Hurricane Katrina — that provides the novel's backdrop.