As longtime Washington Post book critic Jonathan Yardley retires this week, he lists some of the books he’s cherished most during his 33-year tenure with Book World. Some of the titles here he reviewed for The Post, and others he read for the first time over those years.
William Boyd: “Any Human Heart” (2002). A stupendously ambitious novel that embraces the entire 20th century through the life of one 85-year-old man. The best novel by an amazingly versatile and unpredictable writer.
J.G. Farrell: “The Siege of Krishnapur” (1973). The first novel in Farrell’s trilogy about the British empire, this one set in India in 1857, the year of a bloody mutiny against Britain. Historical fiction at its finest, a true work of literature.
Ellen Glasgow: “Barren Ground” (1925). The author (1873-1945) was from an old and respectable Virginia family, but in this powerful novel she dissected the Old South myth and reduced it to shreds. The best novel by someone who wrote many very good ones.
Kazuo Ishiguro: “The Remains of the Day” (1989). Stevens, the English butler at the center of this beautiful novel about self-discovery and awakening, sounds more than a bit like Jeeves, but there’s no joking here. Ishiguro has written a deeply serious novel.
Henry James: “The Aspern Papers” (1888). This near-perfect novella, set in late-19th-century Venice, shimmers with that city’s beauty even as it gives us a man confronted with a terrible choice and then with an almost unbearable loss.
Henry James: “The Portrait of a Lady” (1881). In all American literature, only “The Great Gatsby” achieves such heights. James, who had a rare affinity for female characters, created his greatest in Isabel Archer.
Edward P. Jones: “Lost in the City” (1992). As the cover illustration makes plain, these are stories about Washington, but the Washingtonians here are African Americans who are trying to make their way through a complicated and risky social maze. Sensitive and beautifully written.
Edward P. Jones: “The Known World” (2003). A totally unexpected and totally successful surprise from Jones: a novel about a black man in early-19th-century Virginia who acquires a plantation and then acquires slaves. Few works of fiction have addressed the moral and human aspects of slavery with such clear-eyed candor.
Ward Just: “The Congressman Who Loved Flaubert” (1990). This is the Washington that readers expect to find in fiction, but in Just’s firm hands the lives of the powerful are anything except the material for pulp fiction. Read the title story for proof of the subtlety with which Just treats them.
Ward Just: “American Romantic” (2014). Just’s most recent novel and perhaps his best, though the competition is fierce. He returns here to the theme of innocent Americans abroad in a harsh world, and he’s never treated it so carefully and knowingly.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Love in the Time of Cholera” (1985). One of the great novels of the 20th century and one of the most beloved. A transcendent love story. With the author’s two other masterpieces — “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “The Autumn of the Patriarch” — this is literature on the grandest scale, yet intimate and human.
Ian McEwan: “Atonement” (2001). The best novel by far by one of the finest novelists now at work, both a tour de force and an utterly gripping mystery, psychological and otherwise. It is also that true rarity: a work of literature that became an international bestseller.
Peter Taylor: “The Old Forest and Other Stories” (1985). There is not a finer work of short fiction in American literature than the title story of this collection, and others — “The Gift of the Prodigal,” most particularly — are not far behind it. The book that brought this incomparable writer out of obscurity.
Peter Taylor: “A Summons to Memphis” (1986). Just when his admirers had come to despair of his ever writing a novel, all of a sudden there came from out of nowhere this perfect gem. As in the best of his stories, here Taylor takes Tennessee and turns it into the world.
Anne Tyler: “The Accidental Tourist” (1985). Tyler’s admirers may fight over which is the best of her many fine novels, this one or “Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant,” but never has she been funnier than she is here, and the dog, Edward, is merely immortal.
Mario Vargas Llosa: “Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter” (1977). There are two Vargas Llosas: the one who writes heavy, sometimes overtly intellectual fictional treatises (viz., “Conversations in the Cathedral”) and the one who writes deliciously smart, often hilarious entertainments. This is the best of the latter, a wonderfully evocative account of life in Lima about half a century ago.
Roger Angell: “Late Innings” (1982). The best baseball writer ever — often imitated, never rivaled — here gives us the national pastime from 1977 to 1981, years in which the game off the field often was contentious but the game on the field was as beautiful as ever. Angell is now in his early 90s but still reads as if he were, oh, 42.
Rick Atkinson: “An Army at Dawn” (2002). The first volume of the author’s magisterial World War II trilogy covers the fateful battle in Africa, where the Allies struggled to begin the process that led to ultimate victory. No one writes with greater sympathy for or understanding of the lives of ordinary soldiers than Atkinson.
Rick Atkinson: “The Day of Battle” (2007). The Allies thought the battle for Italy was going to be a cakewalk. Instead the struggle up the western side of the boot was long, brutal and bloody, culminating in one of the worst battles in history, at Monte Cassino. You feel as if you are there.
Rick Atkinson: “The Guns at Last Light” (2013). Finally, the D-Day landings and the race to Berlin. That was no cakewalk either, especially at the Bulge. As in the previous two volumes, Atkinson writes with deep admiration for the fighting men but without a scintilla of jingoism or triumphalism.
Russell Baker: “Growing Up” (1982). A classic American memoir, to rank with that of the author’s fellow Baltimorean (and fellow humorist) H.L. Mencken. Baker’s lovely narrative takes him from a Depression boyhood to marriage and the beginnings of a brilliant journalistic career, with his remarkable and memorable mother always at the center of the tale.
Max Hastings: “Inferno” (2011). This is history on the grand scale, indeed one is tempted to say super-grand. In 650 pages of dense but unfailingly readable prose, Hastings surveys not merely the war in Europe — to which Western historians invariably are drawn — but that in Asia as well. If you want to read only one book about World War II, this is the one. Encyclopedic.
Keith Lowe: “Savage Continent” (2013). The war may have ended, but Europe most definitely was not at peace. The hatreds and rivalries that the Nazis had aroused — or reawakened — seethed, especially in France and Eastern Europe. Lowe’s book is a powerful corrective to received historical wisdom and equally powerful reading on its own merits.
J. Anthony Lukas: “Common Ground” (1985). Boston in the 1960s and ’70s, the days of school busing and virulent racial animosity. This grand book, an American epic, sees the story in large and in small, always with irresistible narrative movement and with unfailing sympathy for all those caught in events they could not control and rarely understood.
Beryl Markham: “West With the Night” (1942). This memoir by a pioneering aviator — in her day those of the female variety were called “aviatrixes” — was originally published in 1942 and brought back to life in 1983. It captures all the thrills of aviation in its early days, is written in a most engaging voice and has lost none of its appeal over the years.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “Living to Tell the Tale” (2002). The great novelist lived long enough to write this vivid memoir of his youth and apprenticeship. It’s a pity he didn’t live long enough to tell the rest of the tale, but this is more than enough to satisfy his millions of admirers.
Eileen Simpson: “Poets in Their Youth” (1982). The author was married to John Berryman for a decade and a half, beginning in 1942, and hung out with all his friends: Randall Jarrell, Robert Lowell, Jean Stafford et cetera. They were a wild bunch and often an exasperating one, but Simpson sees them with a wry and sympathetic eye and, by the way, writes at least as well as any of them.
Jean Edward Smith: “Grant” (2001). The definitive biography of the great general and misunderstood president, and the book that did more than any other to restore him to the respect he managed to lose over the years. An essential American document.
Jean Edward Smith: “FDR” (2007). The second Roosevelt didn’t need to be restored to popular respect as Grant did, but telling the story of his momentous life in a single volume, and leaving the reader confident that nothing of importance has been left out: That is quite an achievement.
Henry Wiencek: “The Hairstons” (2000). This account of the white and black sides of the Hairston family is a milestone in the history of race in America. It is lucidly written, unfailingly sympathetic and richly informative. Scott Hairston, who played for the Washington Nationals during the 2014 season, is a member of this singularly attractive family.