From my high school days:
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway made me hate Hemingway! I read it as a 9th grader with no idea about anything in the world. The main character seemed antiquated and yucky and "why would he care so much about this fish?" I hated it. I'm curious what age and some additional literary expertise would do to my opinions of this slim novel.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens was my second or third Dickens novel. Great Expectations was the first. I read it as a 9th grader and later undertook A Tale of Two Cities as a senior taking concurrent high school/college English courses. While I didn't first love it as much as GE, it's really stuck with me in a similar way. I remember a lot of the characters, I remember specific scenes and impressions, but it's another novel I think worth revisiting. It's also the best opening paragraph in literature!
From my early 20s:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamont was one of the first novels I read at the recommendation of Yahoo! Groups book discussion groups. At 21, I had not been reading for several years, but I'd just started back. As a student at Baylor, I spent a good deal of time in the art section of the library and picked up a slim biography of Auguste Rodin, the sculptor. That was all I needed to get back into the groove of reading for pleasure. When I joined the book discussion groups, I met a lot of the bloggers I'm still friends with today and I began to read outside of anything I'd read before. At this particular point in my life, I could go into a bookstore and be completely overwhelmed because I had no idea what to read. This novel was beautiful and thoughtful and everything I knew I wanted to read more of.
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross was another book I read at the recommendation of my book group buddies. It was a wooonderfully involving historical novel about a supposed female pope in the 9th century. My book group also had the opportunity to chat with the author, which is when I first realized how accessible many authors are to their readers. And what a delight that was to discover!
The Hours by Michael Cunningham made me think very seriously about womanhood and motherhood. At the time, at the age I was when I read it, I found it somewhat terrifying, but I could also relate to some of the feelings of isolation as I devoured it shortly after my grandmother passed away. It's one of the most oddly uplifting and hopeful books I've ever read, and the closing paragraphs remain my favorite conclusion of a novel.
From graduate school:
Call it Sleep by Henry Roth is one of those classics that not many people discuss anymore. It sort of got passed over in favor of other novels. An American Modernism professor introduced this book, and I remember camping out under the breakroom table in the university writing center inhaling this one before class time. It's a stunning novel of the immigrant experience that incorporates some of the bravery and experimental elements of the Modernist period.
The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak was a cryfest! It was also one of the best discussions we had in my Adolescent Lit class. I found an affinity for Holocaust novels in graduate school in all their incarnations. This was just a great book, and I'm still fond of the narrator, Death.
The Golems of Gotham by Thane Rosenbaum is sadly underread. It came to me by way of the same professor who introduced Call it Sleep. It's a wonderful mishmash of magical elements, history, and Holocaust. Specifically, it deals with the ways in which Holocaust families inherit the Holocaust trauma. It contains some of the most wonderful passages...
Despair, if nothing else, is a private matter. The mind isn't required to share such information. That's because the soul is the master of its own short-circuitry, the system shutdown, the fading pulse that monitors the brokenness of both spirit and heart. When a state of mind sinks to a point where the life itself--the day-to-day engagements, the nightly slumber and silences--becomes unbearable, who are we to second-guess or armchair analyze? There was no way to properly insert oneself inside the minds of the Levins and follow the logic of [Holocaust]survivors who would one day choose a synagogue as the setting to turn off their own life-support systems.
Mail Order Bride by Mark Kalesniko is a graphic novel I don't hear too much about. I read it right after grad school and found the characters to be a lot of fun: a nerdy, virginal husband and a waify, aloof mail order bride. This one was full of multi-ethnic issues that I felt compelled by and it was a lot of fun to discuss the book via conference call with the author.
From then on...
The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger was just fabulous. I loved the premise, the execution, and it made me bawl like a baby. I'm kind of a sucker for books that grab me by the heartstrings.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern is the most recent book on my list, so I won't gush any more than I already have. This is one of those books that was atmospheric enough and twisty enough and quirky enough that I want to feel the same sense of wonder again. I'll wait for the memory to fade a bit and pull the book out when I need to revisit that sense of fantasy.