When asked what her Top Twenty Books are, Marnie Mueller writes: "I've chosen books that have provided succor in times of need and/or which informed my fiction even though I read some of them long before I ever considered writing as a profession. What I seem to love in these books is an edginess, or a sociopolitical backdrop, or attention to literary form. There are other books, such as Madame Bovary, which I find to be perfect, but they are not the ones I would pick as my influences nor as my companions in the night."
IN A FREE STATE BY V.S. NAIPAUL
This is the book where Naipaul found his material and his voice. It gave me permission to write my own material and it opened the door on the rest of Naipaul's brilliant, original work.
REVOLUTIONARY ROAD BY RICHARD YATES
This is a mid-twentieth century masterpiece which bridges that moment when the 1950s turned into the 1960s. It taught me how brave a writer must be and how disciplined in the artistry when diving that deep.
ASYLUM BY PATRICK MCGRATH
Just the best book in decades on sexual obsession. And watch out for that unreliable narrator!
THE PONDS OF KALAMBYI BY MIKE TIDWELL
This Peace Corps memoir is a classic. It tells the story of the clash of sensibilities of the First and Third Worlds and most powerfully of the change of consciousness of a young individualistic, capitalistic man coming up against the values of a communal culture.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT BY ERICH MARIA REMARQUE
I don't think I've ever read such pure, limpid prose. The book feels almost as though it hasn't been written, as if the words simply appeared on the page. That lesson in simplicity of form and voice teaches as much as does the novel's depiction of the horrors of war.
DEMOCRACY BY JOAN DIDION
She's a great stylist, but she's also one of the best political novelists that we have. In this one she gave poetic voice to something that had been nagging at me a long time -- the issue of our (North America's) political narcissism.
THE RAZON'S EDGE BY SOMERSET MAUGHAM
There is a scene in this book, showing the agony of unspoken sexual envy, that is the best of its kind in all of literature. The book is terrific -- interesting content and novelistic technique -- but I can recommend it for that scene alone.
DANIEL DERONDA BY GEORGE ELIOT
This is an extraordinary and grand, yet flawed book. It should give permission to any writer to reach as far as her ambition will allow. Technically, I learned the simple trick of using cliff-hangers at the ends of chapters to keep people reading even when you're dealing with weighty material.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER BY GRAHAM GREENE
To me this is the great Graham Greene's greatest book. It is a transcendent novel, matched only by his The Power and the Glory. I mourned the death of Skobie for months after reading this book.
MY MORTAL ENEMY BY WILLA CATHER
This is Cather at her harshest and most psychologically honest. It is a chilling story of a failed marriage. I guess I love it because it is so different from her other work and yet informs our reading of her opus.
HOLLYWOOD BY CHARLES BUKOWSKI
A great down and dirty book. Shockingly funny and sad and perfectly written. What I really admire about Bukowski is that he stayed with Black Sparrow Press for his entire career.
THE QUIET AMERICAN BY GRAHAM GREENE
I always say if John F. Kennedy had read this book, he never would have led us into the Vietnam war. It is a brilliant deconstruction of how much damage naive, meddling super powers can do in the developing world.
THE COMEDIANS BY GRAHAM GREENE
This is a perfect book to my mind, in form, in its use of politics in fiction, in its black comedy, in its cautionary moral. It is certainly the best novel ever written about Haiti and maybe even the Caribbean. It's a lesson in how-to, as are all of Greene's novels, for those of us who write political novels.
THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE BY JAMES M. CAIN
When I first read this, after having picked it up on the street for fifty cents, I thought, This is a totally existential novel. Years later I found that it was Camus' main influence in the writing of The Stranger.
A SPORT OF NATURE BY NADINE GORDIMER
I love Gordimer's work, but I'm especially fond of this book. It is a messier, more passionate, more unguarded novel than her others. I completely loved and believed the characters. I learned a great deal about melding politics with the personal from this novel.
GOING AFTER CACCIATO BY TIM O'BRIEN
One of the very best books on the emotional toll of the Vietnam war on the people who fought in it. When going through my own struggles after returning from the Peace Corps, this story of flight and imagination in the service of maintaining one's sanity spoke to my own denial and need for emotional repair.
THE WAR: A MEMOIR BY MARGUERITE DURAS
By letting us read this early unformed journal, Duras has given us an invaluable insider's document of the French resistance and of the psychological and physical aftermath of World War II. It also lets us see an entirely different side of the brilliant Marguerite Duras.
MY OLD SWEETHEART BY SUSANNA MOORE
In this book you live queasily inside the symbiotic relationship of a mother and daughter. I don't know how Moore did it, but she is enormously successful in going way down into that creepy place which some of us know only too well.
WHITES BY NORMAN RUSH
These stunning and difficult stories are the finest to emerge from writing by ex-Peace Corps writers. They are equal to Naipaul's best work. When I read them I felt that I wasn't alone in my darkened vision of expatriate life in the Third World.
THE REAL LIFE OF ALEJANDRO MAYTA BY MARIO VARGAS LLOSA
This is an astonishing and very experimental novel. It tells an unsentimental, complex story of the development of a revolutionary. Sometimes it is hard-going as Vargas Llosa switches point of view in the middle of paragraphs, but always in the service of following deeper into the underlying, psycho-sexual issues that contribute to the formation of a radical, political activist.