1969 Book Club: TOP TEN BOOKS


The winning titles of the 1969 Book Club poll.


Portnoy's Complaint

Philip Roth
Among the most audacious novels of the 20th century, Roth’s fourth novel, described by the New Yorker as "one of the dirtiest books ever published,” is presented as one long therapy session, enabling Roth to get into maximum detail about Portnoy’s obsessive self-love. "LET'S PUT THE ID BACK IN YID!," Portnoy famously shouts at his therapist—something that Roth would never shy from again.
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The Left Hand of Darkness

Ursula K. Le Guin
Le Guins’ most celebrated novel beat out Slaughterhouse Five for the 1970 Hugh Award, and still stands as among the most groundbreaking depictions of gender committed to the page with its use of gender-fluidity and neutral pronouns. Yet gender is only a background concern here; more powerful is the question of war versus peace.
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I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Maya Angelou
This evocative first volume of Angelou’s six books of autobiography is a powerful testament to a young girl’s survival in the American south during the Depression Era, as well as a paean to the power of books to rescue us from some of the depravations of life. Terrorized by racism, traumatized by rape, Angelou gives up speaking until books help to unlock her voice again.
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The Tremor of Forgery

Patricia Highsmith
Considered by Graham Greene to be Highsmith’s best novel, and set just a few years earlier, in 1967, The Tremor of a Forgery is infused with apprehension, fueled perhaps by civil unrest in America and the Six Days War in the Middle East. Hugh Dancy, who selected as among his ten favorite books for One Grand, described it as “typically masterful in the way it measures out information and suggestion, laced with a growing sense of dread.”
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Travels with My Aunt

Graham Greene
Greene described this book as “the only book I have written for the fun of it,” and it shows. Not unlike Auntie Mame, it involves a larger-than-life older woman and unabashed hedonist, Aunt Augusta, who takes her bourgeois nephew on a journey from London to Istanbul and beyond to South America. George Cukor turned it into a memorable movie featuring Maggie Smith as Augusta.
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Bullet Park

John Cheever
Although he was a prolific writer of short stories, Cheever only wrote five novels, including this dark and disturbing exploration of the way fate can hinge on chance. A mouthwash salesman meets a stranger, setting in motion a chain of events that leads to a kidnapping. Although John Gardner, in the New York Times, described Bullet Park was a “magnificent work of fiction,” many of Cheever’s fans were unsure what to make of it. “Those devotees of his New Yorker stories who mistakenly believed that, because Cheever wrote about them so accurately and compassionately, he must be one of them turned away from Bullet Park, as if Cheever had suddenly been discovered taking notes at a cocktail party,” wrote Jesse Kornbluth in a 1979 profile of Cheever.
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The French Lieutenant's Woman

John Fowles
Widely hailed as a postmodern classic, the seeds of The French Lieutenant’s Woman were planted by an image that came to Fowles, of “a woman [who] stands at the end of a deserted quay and stares out to sea.” The novel’s principal device it to overlay the story of a disgraced and abandoned woman in an English fishing town in the mid 19th century with the narrator’s voice intervening in the action, and eventually becoming a part of it. A successful movie starring Meryl Streep helped expand the novel’s reputation, and in 2010, Time magazine included it among the “100 best English-language novels published since 1923.”
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Life is Elsewhere

Milan Kundera
An intimate portrait of the relationship between a mother and her son, Life is Elsewhere follows the life of Jaromil, a posturing no-good poet growing up between World War II and the Prague Spring. Reviewing it in the New York Times, Paul Theroux wrote, “It is, among other things, a novel of tremendous elasticity, stretching in all directions as it moves forward; it is also very funny.”
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The Edible Woman

Margaret Atwood
Atwood’s first novel also established some of her principal themes, particularly her concern with gender and objectification. As the title suggests, the novel works as a metaphor for the way women are marketed to men, and couples Marian McAlpin’s impending marriage with her growing revulsion for food, to the point where she can barely eat a salad leaf. Atwood plays with form in interesting ways, including shifting the voice from first to third person as a way to represent Marians detachment from reality.
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Kurt Vonnegut
Imprisoned beneath the city of Dresden during the infamous 1945 Allied bombing of that city, this was Vonnegut’s account of that firestorm seen through the eyes of his protagonist Billy Pilgrim – “tall and weak, and shaped like a bottle of Coca-Cola.” Pilgrim’s war service is followed by other traumas as he establishes himself as an optometrist and raises his own family. The book’s anti-war sentiment struck a chord in 1969 and became Vonnegut’s most enduring success, while establishing him as one of America’s most distinctive literary voices.
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