1. The Girl of the Sea of Cortez, Peter Benchley
I loved a lot of books when I was a kid—the Bobbsey Twins series, the Little House books, Nancy Drew, the Betsy-Tacy-Tibb series, the Encyclopedia Brown books, anything by S.E. Hinton, the shocking Clan of the Cave Bear—but The Girl of the Sea of Cortez stands out as one of the most vivid and magical. My grandparents lived in this tiny retirement community in the middle of Florida with a tiny volunteer-run library, and that’s where I found this sweet book in which a girl has a deep relationship with the ocean and swims with a manta ray. I described a scene from the book in a recent article I wrote for Allure, and was shocked when the fact-checker discovered that I’d completely conflated two scenes: one where the girl gets a leg cramp as bull sharks circle below and one where the manta ray comes and lets her ride on its back to safety. But it’s been burned that way in my head for over 30 years now!
2. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I first read One Hundred Years of Solitude in an honors class in college. I remember how so many of the other books we read that semester were a chore to get through and then I opened this one and plunged into one of the most wonderful, beautiful and entrancing worlds I could imagine. It’s so sweeping and massive and yet feels like a story you’d hear while sitting around a fire under the moon. Pure pleasure. I love the very first page: the idea that the gypsies bring ice to Macondo and it’s the most astonishing thing anyone’s ever seen. It’s the kind of book that makes the everyday world seem brand new, and to this day I see magic in ice that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
3. CosmiComics, Italo Calvino
I love this whole collection but “The Distance of the Moon” is probably my favorite story, of any story I’ve read (you can read it here.)
I love the mix of the absurd with the beautiful, and the crazy gorgeous melancholy and sense of loss that pervade the whole piece. From the moment it starts, we enter this beautiful world that’s already been lost irretrievably—a time when the moon was so close to us that we could row out to it in a boat, toss out a ladder and climb up. Before I read this story I’m not quite sure I realized that you could write something so silly, so fantastic, and yet do it so beautifully and with such intense feeling. The ending of the story kills me—so beautiful, so sad, so perfect.
4. The Decameron, Boccaccio
I love the premise of The Decameron: that these are the stories told by a group of young people who’ve retreated to a villa outside of Florence to escape the plague. And that these stories are meant to delight and distract in the midst of such darkness (I always love that mixture of light and dark). The Decameron’s another classic that I was forced to read in college (I majored in Italian lit as well as English) and was surprised to find so full of life and humor and raunchiness and magic. Just wonder upon wonder, and stories that have been told and retold. I actually started my first novel at the same time that I had to write a report on the classic “three rings” story that appeared in several old Latin and Italian sources and made its way into The Decameron, too. The very first draft of my first novel incorporated that same three rings story; I loved the idea of stories so powerful that they survive for centuries.
5. Life in the Fields, Giovanni Verga
It was in an Italian literature class in college that I first read “La Lupa” (“The She-Wolf”) by the late nineteenth-century Sicilian writer Verga who was famous for his naturalist writing rooted to the harsh realities of peasant life in Sicily. I loved its drama: mothers crying over their dead sons; men losing their mind and crawling on their bellies in front of churches as penance; women stalking through the countryside in the burning afternoon, ravenous with lust; hot ax-wielding men covered in the grease of fermenting olives. I love that the title character Pina, “La Lupa,” is pure sensual ravenousness; I’ve often tried to imbue my characters with that same hunger. This story isn’t fantastic, but the emotions in it are so large that it feels fantastic, a world in which everything is heightened and strange and just a bit more wonderful, but still our own.