1. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My favorite book of all time. It blends together my boyhood love of comic books and my grown up passion for storytelling. It is one of those books you want to read as slowly as you can and wish would never end. “Escaping” seems to be the ongoing theme of this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. Ironically you’ll find it hard to escape after you’ve finished it. This bittersweet story stays with you. One of my favorite quotes from the book: “Take care—there is no force more powerful than that of an unbridled imagination.”
2. Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy and Profiles in Courage For Our Timeby Caroline Kennedy
Two books, two authors, two different periods of American history. JFK’s original book, with a follow-up by his daughter nearly 50 years apart, restores your faith in government and politics. These timeless profiles showcase the selflessness of some political heroes, especially at a time when we yearn for more leaders who are like them. I love politics and these books definitely inspire me.
3. To Kill a Mockingbirdby Harper Lee
I believe this is the greatest American novel ever written. I encourage people to re-read this book every several years. As a youngster, it taught me that acts of heroism come in all forms. As an adult, the novel’s social and historical significance of equal rights inspires me. There is such purity to this book because it is so remarkably real.
4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
The first time I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History twenty years ago, I knew it was an instant classic. It’s a thrilling psychological thriller with memorable characters that play like a Greek tragedy. Best of all, it’s a book about friendship and our longing for acceptance and bonding.
5. Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
The word “masterpiece” is thrown out a lot in the literary world. But this book definitely deserves that title. It cleverly folds in history, science, and unpopular (and frankly uncomfortable) topics like incest and intersexuality. The hermaphroditic aspect of the book serves as a tool for uncovering the hidden secrets of this highly dysfunctional family.
6. Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
This book introduced me to David Sedaris. Since then, I can’t get enough of his wit and sarcasm. I’ve read many of his other books and I’ve seen him at the Meyerhoff several times. When he reads his stories, it feels like you’re hearing the fun experiences of a friend. As Sedaris says, “If you aren't cute, you may as well be clever.”
7. An Hour Before Daylight by Jimmy Carter
For me, Jimmy Carter is the best “former president” this country has ever had. His tireless humanitarian work is extraordinary. This memoir allows readers to understand the cultural, soci-economic, and political situations in rural Georgia that shaped him. No matter what political side you are on, this is a must read. It’s not a presidential story, but an American story.
8. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon
Yes, this is the second Michael Chabon book on my Top 10 list. (See a trend?) This is definitely my all-time favorite “coming-of-age” book: the restlessness of youth, wrestling with sexual orientation and the over-the-top characters you meet. Like another great coming-of-age book, The Perks of Being a Wallflower (also set in Pittsburgh—Baltimoreans, don’t hate me), both books are written in the tradition of The Catcher in the Rye as it reflects on love and friendships.
9. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson
Like Romeo and Juliet and West Side Story, this is a story of forbidden love, but with World War II as a backdrop in the Pacific Northwest. This book stuck with me because it was the first time I learned about the hardships Japanese Americans endured after Pearl Harbor. The social commentary this book encompasses is relevant today.
10. The Tower Treasure by Franklin W. Dixon and The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene
These are the books that started it all for me. The Tower Treasure is the first book of The Hardy Boys series and The Secret of the Old Clock is the first in the Nancy Drew Mysteries. I remember devouring each book and couldn’t wait to start the next one. It is similar to what children and young adults experience with the Harry Potter books nowadays (also some of my favorites). These may not be National Book Award winners, but I’ll always thank Frank, Joe, Nancy, and their group of friends for starting my love of books and reading.
To read our "In the Kitchen With" interview with Encina, pick up a copy of our September issue.