6 (Lists) of 12 (Novels) 

 

The six lists of novels presented here are contributions to Electra Street’s “Twelve Things Project,” which collects suggestions for works, ideas, and events that should be included in a future dictionary of global cultural literacy. [Click here for more information about the project.]

We suggested that respondents might think of their lists as the basis for the syllabus of a course that they’d like to take or teach. (We arrived at the number twelve by taking the number of weeks in an NYUAD term — 14 — and subtracting two for introductory and concluding sessions and exams.) We weren’t asking for “desert island” lists of what our readers considered to be the 12 greatest novels of all time, merely a set of 12 books that they’d suggest every global citizen would profit from reading.

The lists below come from different segments of the NYUAD community: students, past and present faculty, and visitors. But any Electra Street reader is welcome to submit a list. If you’re inspired to contribute by what you read below, scroll down to the bottom of the page for a link to our submission form.

Aathma Niramala Dious
Junior, Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD

Aadujeevitham [Goat Days] by Benyamin
Alif the Unseen  by G. Willow Wilson
The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
Heroes of Olympus: Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripati
The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi
The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy
Mahashewta by Sudha Murty
Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson
The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Read More about this List

 

BURNING BOOKS: MAGIC, MYTH AND REBELLION

Aadujeevitham [Goat Days] by Benyamin

Based on real-life situations for migrants in the Gulf, Aadujeevitham (originally written in Malayalam) is the story of Najeeb who gets trapped by his employer in the middle of desert to take care of Goats. The book struck me hard, both from Benyamin’s sensitive yet honest writing of Najeeb’s situation and my place in the Gulf too.

Alif the Unseen  by G. Willow Wilson

Wilson mashes the modern world of computers with folklore in an intricate manner that made me finished the book in a day. It’s strong plot keeps you reading till the end

The Book Thief by Markus Zuzak

The book was momentous for me in two ways: the first being that Zuzak knew the voices of his characters so well I heard them in my head. While there are many books that deal with multiple perspectives of the Holocaust and Nazi regime of World War II, Zuzak uses the microcosm of Liesel’s life to really delve into questions of death, justice and knowledge. I read the book at high school when I wondered why learning and reading were so important. The Book Thief captures what I think of literature in the contemporary times: it’s magical, introspective about what we are, a constant throughout time—and absolutely necessary, especially in times of dissent.

After all, there is a reason they burn libraries first in wars.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

I clearly have a fascination with books burning (the story behind, not the action itself). The book, titled after the temperature at which the book burns, follows Guy, a fireman, who doesn’t put out fires, but instead makes fires out of books, which are illegal in this speculative world. Interestingly, screen-based media seem to be okay.

Heroes of Olympus: Mark of Athena by Rick Riordan

Rick Riordan’s expansive Greek Mythology series is also a blast from my high school days. Mark of Athena is my favorite from the Heroes of Olympus series, which mediates between Greek and Roman Mythology. It focuses on my all-time favorite female main character Annabeth, who is the demigod daughter of Greek Goddess Athena as she is tasked with finding the statue of her mother. This book highlights a kind of warrior that is often ignored in adventure books: the scholar. The highlight of the book is that Annabeth uses her intelligence to get past her obstacles in the journey.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie 

I have a soft sport for Antigone, and Shamsie really elevates the Greek tragedy to meet the complicated structures of modern politics and how it seeps even to the family level. I really enjoy reworking of mythologies and old stories and Shamsie does justice to Antigone

Immortals of Meluha by Amish Tripati

The first in the Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripati, this novel reworks the mythology of the Hindu god of destruction, Shiva, into the human world of the city of Meluha, with the idea that the gods were first human. I admire well done reinterpretations of mythologies and this book has done exactly that, building up the nuances present in the folklore to the different hierarchies within the people of the city.

The Krishna Key by Ashwin Sanghi

Like Immortals of Meluha, Shanghi incorporates the mythology of Lord Krishna from The Mahabharata into a anthropological thriller where the main character Ravi has to solve the murder of his childhood. With placing the biography of Krishna alongside Ravi, the story is extended beyond the epic and goes into questions of history, lineage and how far do our myths follow us.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy

Roy’s second book captures the tremors in the current landscape of contemporary India by combining characters from multiple parts of life with the most violent moments of Indian history. She is masterful in dealing with all the different politics of body, community, nation and world. 

Mahashewta by Sudha Murty 

Along with the Indian social hierarchies within families that woman face daily, the protagonist Anupama also deals with vitiligo creeping onto her skin and her life. Sudha Murthy’s strength is simplicity and this book, in its simple writing captures the characters and hierarchies they are a part off, with a bittersweet ending to match. Originally written in Kannada.

Mistborn: The Final Empire by Brandon Sanderson

I have yet to find a book that matches up to Brandon Sanderson’s skill with world-building. The Mistborn series reworks old concepts of metal alchemy in a brand-new manner, while exploring autocratic governments, hidden evils and class structures.

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

 In this novella meant for children, a boy’s trip to his local library turns dark when he gets imprisoned by the old librarian of the library and has to navigate a maze with a sheep man. The absurdity of the story gripped me till the end.

Ria Golovakova
Senior, Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

Read More about this List

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar is semi-autobiographical novel, creating a poignant portrait of depression and the subtle changes in perception that accompany mood disorders. It is a tale of personal struggle from within and without, as Esther Greenwood is catalyzed into mental illness with work pressure at her internship and gender-based oppression from young men and others in her environment.

His Dark Materials Trilogy by Philip Pullman

His Dark Materials is a British fantasy trilogy, vastly underrated and often dismissed as just children’s fantasy. This series was written, however, as an inverted retelling of Paradise Lost, reclaiming the Christian myth and presenting the original sin as humanity’s biggest accomplishment, not failing. These three books trace the adventures of the 12-year-old Lyra Belacqua and Will Parry across multiple parallel worlds as they wrestle with religious authorities and attempt to figure out the nature of mysterious Dust which seems to connect all the worlds together.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Bronte’s novel is one of the strongest examples of women’s literature in the Western tradition, centered on the unconventional romantic heroine Jane and the various stages of her life from childhood to becoming a governess at Thornfield Hall and meeting the mysterious Mr. Rochester. This book is filled with discussion on gender and class and the constraint that these categories impose, as well as the quiet anger that Jane feels as the victim of both classifications.

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

Ondaatje’s fictionalized memoir is to me the ultimate tropical book. It depicts heat as an important aspect of daily reality, and the backdrop to generations of family drama in colonial and post-colonial Colombo. The political and personal histories mix together to create a compelling portrait of collective trauma and the difficulties in attempting to heal from it as a prodigal son returning to native land.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

If nothing else, Lolita is an absolutely breathtaking portrait of a pathological mind. Nabokov takes his readers to the inner world of Humbert Humbert, a pedophile obsessed with his young adoptive daughter. This novel is a psychological masterpiece, portraying Humbert’s thinking empathetically yet not excusing or glorifying him. How can one rationalize clearly immoral behavior? What is a pedophile’s perception of himself and his desire? Nabokov provides a way into thought processes that most would never even attempt to conceptualize, and guides his readers out through the disarray that inevitably follows.

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien

The Lord of the Rings Trilogy was a cultural phenomenon, defining the high fantasy genre and opening up multiple generations of readers to an epic tale of magic and good vs. evil. The original books continue to be masterpieces in their own right, despite having very successful movie adaptations.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Considered to be the best novel ever written by most Russian speakers (and many others) around the world, The Master and Margarita is a masterpiece of dark humor, political satire, and creativity in face of repression. Its main cast includes the devil, a talking black cat, a witch, and an author locked in a mental hospital, roaming around Stalin’s 1930s Moscow and causing disarray throughout many layers of its cultural elite. This narrative is interspersed with the story of Pontius Pilate conducting the trial and subsequent execution of Yeshua Ha-Nostri (known to us as Jesus of Nazareth). Religious and mythical allusions paint the portrait of political repression and uncertainty under the Stalinist regime, but revel in the freedom of the human mind.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Norwegian Wood may be considered one of Murakami’s most conventional works, but it is also one of the most beautiful. It is a sincere story of nostalgia and loss, a coming of age in Tokyo in the 1960s and a tragic portrait of modern alienation and depression. How can we deal with losing loved ones to suicide, and how can we keep growing up if the dead never will? How much can others be helped and when does responsibility for them no longer lie with us? Where can we locate reasons for living on?

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

This 19th-century romance is a masterpiece of quick wit, entertaining banter, and brilliant characterization. Elizabeth Bennet remains one of fictions most intelligent and interesting heroines, and she is surrounded by a cast of strong personalities who play out the dramas of class and daily existence in 1813 England.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts

Shantaram is a fictionalized memoir about an Australian bank robber who escapes from a high security prison and flees to Bombay, where he lives in the slums, sets up a free health clinic, works in the Mumbai underworld, serves in the Arthur Road Prison, gets freed by the Afghan mafia, works in the black market currency exchange, and leaves to Afghanistan in the middle of Soviet-Afghan war to smuggle weapons. The nearly 1000 pages are a love letter to the chaos of Mumbai and the many, many people who inhabit it and the unconventional paths that many of them take.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde

Wilde’s novel is one of the most successful explorations of beauty and how often it gets confounded with goodness, when in reality beautiful people can easily be immoral and evil. Philosophical themes get embellished with Wilde’s clever humor and beautiful writing, creating an overall very satisfying read. 

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera

“If every second of our lives recurs an infinite number of times, we are nailed to eternity as Jesus Christ was nailed to the cross”, the first chapter opens, introducing Nietzsche’s idea of eternal return. History is shown to be terrifying both if it is only experienced once and if it re-experienced infinitely. Yet, this grand setting is for a story about four simple people: the surgeon Tomas, his wife Tereza, his lover Sabina, and Sabina’s lover Franz. Through the dramas and infidelities of their lives Kundera manages to express the political instability of 1960-1970 Czechoslovakia and the uncertainty of living in the modern world. If every decision is to be relived in eternal return, how much responsibility does it bring with it?

Judith Graves Miller
Professor of French, NYU; former Dean of Arts and Humanities, NYUAD

Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar
Beloved
by Toni Morrison
Combray (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust
Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevski
Dangerous Liaisons
by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
David Copperfield
by Charles Dickens
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
Don Quijote
by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Madame Bovary
by Gustave Flaubert
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Texaco
by Patrick Chamoiseau

Read More about this List

 

I have chosen novels that are, in almost all cases, beautifully written, where craft is apparent, where every sentence is a joy.  I think this is a list for people who also like to write, or at least to think about what writing can do.

Don Quijote by Miguel de Cervantes

This novel does a great parodic gloss on chivalric literature, makes wonderful fun of various pretensions, sets up the kind of partnership between a loopy master and a calculating servant (both, however, more complex than this) that we will see over and over in Western literature; and can be read in a myriad of ways that still make sense in the 21st. century.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García-Márquez

This novel offers wonder and imaginative leaps as  antidotes to the harshness of real world politics and  narrow emotional constructions.  It also offers a sharp critique of US imperialism.  And, like Quijote, it makes us laugh at characters and love them at the same time.

Beloved by Toni Morrison

It is more than a good idea to confront the most awful ghosts of history, here US history, and learn about resilience and compassion as well as about how vile human beings can be.  And all of this in the most beguiling prose style.

Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee,

This novel is a reckoning, as is Beloved, of crimes based on the notion of race and how that has played out, in this case, in post-apartheid South Africa, but it is also about shaming and confused repentance.  It is not an easy novel to live with and it is good to live with that.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

This French classic, with its ironic sub-text and  telling metonymies, captures the transformation of French society (and hence European society) at the end of the 19th century.

Combray (from In Search of Lost Time) by Marcel Proust

This novel, like Madame Bovary, also deals with transformative society, but stresses the remarkably varied subject positions of the narrator-main character, as he comes to grips with what it means to create a life through remembering it.

Home by Marilynne Robinson

This is an intimate novel, of small scope but very deep emotional valence.  It grapples with belief, with ethics, and with building community in a profoundly American setting.

Algerian Cavalcade by Assia Djebar

This is a complex, mosaic portrayal of the intersection of colonialism and erotic desire, combining with great resonance a coming-of-age story, documents from the French take-over of Algeria (1830), and personal narratives of women resistance fighters during the Algerian war for independence in the 1950s.

Texaco by Patrick Chamoiseau

This is a charming weaving together of archives with stories from the post-colonial  French Antilles, communicating very successfully  people’s connection to the landscape and to oral and storytelling traditions.

David Copperfield by Charles Dickens

The more one reads Dickens, the more wonderful his novels become, melodrama slipping into irony, characterization becoming allegory.  The fantastical nature of the adventures, in light of our contemporary melodramatic imagination, tells us something about our own celebrity culture.

Crime and Punishment by Feodor Dostoeivsky

How do we slip into the mind of a killer?  How do we understand the slide into something resembling insanity?  How can we capture the contagious alienation of the modern subject?  Maybe this novel helps to move us to a place of understanding.

Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos

To have a taste of what epistolary writing can be ….   to plunge into a closed world coded very differently from our current times and, yet, capable of speaking to manipulation and power through desire.

Carlo Pizzati
Novelist and Journalist, Author of Mappillai: An Italian Son-in-Law in India (2018)

Candide by François-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire
The Castle by Franz Kafka
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Hunger by Knut Hamsun
Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto
Old Masters: A Comedy by Thomas Bernhard
One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Open City by Teju Cole
Pierre; or, The Ambiguities by Herman Melville
Rudin by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev
The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Read More about this List

A CIRCULAR HISTORY OF GLOBAL CITIZENSHIP

This journey through the novels for the global citizen attempts to create a link, through 200 years of literature, between what seems local and is universal. It begins in the heart of Europe with some classics or lesser known classics of the canon and moves into a wider world, ending in an extremely timely topic, and into more specific and contemporary themes. It’s a list hooked in history but trying to prove its circularity.

[Editors’ Note: In contrast to the other lists, we present this one in chronological order of publication.]

Candide (1759) by François-Marie Arouet known as Voltaire

This novel is a marvelous satire of often unfounded optimism, a satirical work poking constant fun at Leibniz’s philosophy, which has become contemporary again as it provides a very enlightening view on the need to approach the evils of reality, not ignoring them. It seems like something a Gen-Z author could write about Millennials.

Pierre; or, The Ambiguities (1852) by Herman Melville

This is a pioneering novel of the psychological genre. The underlying themes of sexual confusion and transgression make it fresh and contemporary. It’s been argued that it anticipates Freud’s assertion that the sexual behavior of each human being transgresses “the standard of normality.” It is also a very early exploration of gender-fluid roles, exploring incest and open relationships. A romance satirizing romances, a philosophical work satirizing philosophers and philosophizing. Its exploration on moral relativism is an important subject of reflection for the global citizen.

Rudin (1856) by Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev

This work is an important reflection on the conflicting archetypes of Hamlet, the excessively introspective character, and Don Quixote, the impulsive, enthusiastic, and carefree personality ready for action even if meaningless and pointless. It’s a strong lesson in the necessity to find the right balance between these two drives in order to get a hold of yourself in life.

Hunger (1890) by Knut Hamsun

This is the dire story of a starving young man whose sense of reality is slipping into a delusional existence, with mental and physical decay described in detail. It is also an investigation on a character’s inability to pursue a career, to fit in, a very contemporary conundrum. The human mind is the main object of the novel, mixed with the challenges of urban civilization, symbolized by the complexity of metropolitan life.

The Castle (1926) by Franz Kafka

This masterpiece describes our modern relationship with unresponsive and irrational bureaucracy, the interaction of the individual with an obscure and arbitrary controlling system. It seems like an indispensable eye-opener on a very universal evil—an organization keeping you from attaining your goal, although its main purpose is to help you attain it. A useful lesson valid worldwide. 

One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) by Gabriel García Márquez

The multi-generational story of the Buendía family is both about the inescapable repetition of history and the weight of the ghosts of the past, intertwined with the complexity of the present. An exploration of fatalism juxtaposed to idealism, which is often characterized as representative of Latin America but which, as the novel’s global success proves, is very universal.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1984) by Milan Kundera

This is an intriguing and refined love story but also a political tale describing not only marital intrigue and a reflection on belonging, on the Heimat (the homeland), and on nostalgia. The characters escape Soviet controlled Czechoslovakia to exile themselves in Zurich, but then are brought back by their own feelings to the Czech countryside. It’s an investigation of differences in cultures, in the contrast of an era, that of the Cold War, which is now surpassed, but which represents in a historical context, differences that are still alive in a wider global context.

Old Masters: A Comedy (1985) by Thomas Bernhard

These ruminations on the meaning of art, centering on an 82-year-old music critic who for 30 years sits on the same bench every other day in front of the same painting in a museum in Vienna for four hours at time, is an analysis of family ties, society, our relationship with the State, the importance and limits in our existence of arts and culture. It appears as a very Austrian-specific context, but it is a very global novel, with universal topics who all global citizens can and should relate to.

Kitchen (1988) by Banana Yoshimoto

This novel is way ahead of its time. Its most interesting character is a transgender woman, Eriko Tanabe, seen through the eyes of her son’s girlfriend, Mikage Sakurai, who is struggling with the loss of her grandmother, who was her last surviving relative. It is a tender story, exploring delicately the nuances of affection and of sentimental bonds. It reveals a particular Japanese sensitivity, but it reaches so deep that it touches a global nerve, which explains its international success.

Open City (2011) by Teju Cole

This walk through New York with a contemporary flaneur, Julius, a man completing his last year of psychiatry fellowship, has no plot. It doesn’t need it. The strength of this book is the investigation of our relationship to culture, music and art, through the capital of 20th century cosmopolitan identity.

The Vegetarian (English translation 2015) by Han Kang

This is the story of a generational conflict which is however ensconced in a very current setting, dealing with our relationship with vegetarianism, but also in a much wider conflict between sensibilities. It could be a simple plot of a homemaker who upsets family life by simply refusing to eat meat, but it’s a much more important work, digging deep into violent masculinity, traditional stubbornness, resistance to change, the normal versus the alternative, attempting to cohabit. It’s a powerful message from Korea.

Home Fire (2017) by Kamila Shamsie

A perfect novel for today’s global citizen, Home Fire re-imagines Sophocles’ Antigone unfolding among British Muslims in contemporary London, the Pasha family. In the end, it’s a masterful demonstration of the eternal recurrence of archetype. Instead of ancient Greece, we are in today’s London and our heroes and villains are British Pakistanis, a boy who joins the jihad in Syria and wants to come back, the attempt by his twin sister to safe him, the failure, the tragedy, the hypocrisy of power.

Jonathan Shannon
Professor of Anthropology, CUNY; Visiting Professor of Anthropology, NYUAD

1984 by George Orwell
Another Country by James Baldwin
Beloved by Toni Morrison
Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa
The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham
The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar
Zoli by Colm McCann

Read More about this List

Unbalancing Acts: Or, Our Messed Up World

It seems as if the common thread here would be stories of oppression, whether colonial, racial, sexual, ethnic, national, or combinations of these. Literature is not sociology (thank god!) but usually can offer readers deeper insights into the human condition, including our confrontation with evil and the corrupting influence of power and money. At the same time, fiction indicates points of resistance to these malevolent forces. Most of these works also struck me as beautiful in their craft, and especially in an era of banal 140 or 280 character missives, everyone should read beautiful, powerful writing. I tried to eschew classics and the list is dominated by male authors — a regrettable product of my own unbalanced reading lists. For example, I might have added Hanan al-Shaylh’s “Zahra’s Story” to the list to include a Middle Eastern woman’s voice about women’s oppression, war, and sexual violence (perhaps at risk of perpetuating stereotypes of the region?), or Ahdaf Soueif’s “The Map of Love.” But as much as I like them, I didn’t feel as if they merited the top 12 list…. I have no excuse for avoiding Virginia Woolf, or Patricia Highsmith (everyone should read crime fiction!). But there we have it.

Finally, an honorable mention to Barbara Kingsolver’s Flight Behavior. As we confront climate change, who better than Barbara Kingsolver to guide us through the complex territory of a changing world with her close observations of nature — human nature included — and how the domestic and global collide in times of crisis. Kingsolver is an excellent observer of nature (as in her “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle”), and her perspicacity has the potential to bring currency to the kind of urgency about climate change that scientists, for all their data and screaming, cannot seem to manage.

1984 by George Orwell

A useful guide to contemporary living. Add to Atwood’s “Handmaid” and you have an accurate understanding of what motivates the Trump and Pence era…

Another Country by James Baldwin

I had to stop reading Baldwin in 1992 because his work was so powerful a critique of racist American society it had me depressed. But it’s essential reading not only for (white) Americans but for anyone who wants to understand the contradictions of America concerning race, class, gender, sexuality, and all those other analytical “lenses” that are more powerfully understood through literature than through, say, literary criticism (just sayin’).

Beloved by Toni Morrison

This is an amazing work on many levels: beautiful language, at times searingly painful narrative. While it treats the enduring legacy of slavery in American society, it speaks to universal truths about the power of love and family. Heartbreaking but global citizens need their hearts broken. Often.

Death is Hard Work by Khaled Khalifa

This is a powerful account of the atrocities and absurdities of the Syrian revolution. Among the greatest humanitarian tragedies if recent memory the Syrian revolution is at once the most documented and the least understood. Khalifa, who remains in Damascus, writes in a way that beings us “near” to Syrians — not in their shoes but with them as they experience the cruelties and banalities  of oppression — much like Djebar’s goal in her work. Like Rushdie, he shows how fiction can be very dangerous.

There are some excellent Syrian women writers who are braver than Khalifa, but they tend to produce memoirs (Samer Yazbek, The Crossing; A Woman in the Crossfire) that makes me wonder about genre and gender constraints.

The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje

I wanted a war story on this list — global citizens need to think about war and its consequences — but I also think global citizens should be exposed to beauty. Ondaatje’s prose is gorgeous and he evokes through the interrelated stories of the principle characters whole worlds and histories. Don’t see the movie. Read the novel. 

I almost chose Romain Gary’s “La promesse de l’aube” but a) it’s mainly memoire, b) it would seem pretentious to suggest something in French, and c) there are likely better works on WWII (and I think it’s translated into English).

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

 From dystopian fiction to current events… this work more than many is prescient, frightening, and provocative. It was curious in 1985, a bit too close for comfort as a film in 1990, and thorough depressing today in an era of rampant Trumpian misogyny coupled in an unholy alliance with theocracy and populism.

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

A delightfully imaginative take on partition to be read along with Habibi’s “Pessoptimist.” Rushie’s powers of evocation are genius, and like Habibi he addresses themes of colonial legacies and the dangers of nationalist zeal through a whimsical tale, this time based loosely on the Arabian Nights. Rushdie also, through his (infamous) work “Satanic Verses” (also whimsical, like “Midnight’s Children”) shows how literature can be a dangerous affair. Art matters.

The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham

Yes, another classic by a European male, but I recall this work as important to me as I struggled with conventions and the existential angst while attempting to create a meaningful life in a meaningless world. OK, I was 22 and living in Paris, so it went with the location. But the novel endures in my imagination. Some might choose Maugham’s “Of Human Bondage” but this is a more compact treatment. So at a minimum more portable …

The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist by Emile Habibi

I might have chosen a novel that treats the human side of the tragedy of Palestine that is rarely aired, such as Ghasan Kanafani’s “Return to Haifa,” but this work is an equally intense though whimsical and satirical response to occupation and longing in Palestine. Habibi’s “pessoptimism” – a mix of pessimism and optimism — speaks to broader themes of displacement and memory, and is also one of the first science fictions works in Arabic since it deals with aliens as well. It also helps readers unfamiliar with the contradictions of the conflict and the history of white settler colonialism at once see why Palestinians will not forget (or be quiet; Lan Nasmat! ) and how these stories might illuminate others on the world stage today. There are many such stories, often far more overtly political, but this one offers a more nuanced entry into engagement with the loss of occupation.

Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

This well-known work reveals how European colonialism affected indigenous communities in Africa. It’s of course a staple in world lit and even cultural anthropology classes, and for good reason: well-written, engaging, and critical while not entirely succumbing to a naive embrace of nativism. It speaks back to empire with nuance.

Women of Algiers in their Apartment by Assia Djebar

This is not strictly a novel but a collection of short stories, but given the experimental nature of the work, we can and should consider it a novel. Djebar confronts orientalist stereotypes of Muslim women as exemplified, for example, in the eponymous painting by Delacroix (Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement, 1834), but set in Algeria of the 1990s during a time of civil unrest. Global citizens need to know more about Eurocentric imaginings about Muslim women, and this work allows readers to walk, not in the footsteps of Algerian women, but – as Djebar stated – “near them.” The proximity afforded by close reading “near” or along side protagonists might be more affective than any (spurious) claim that imagining oneself in the shoes of the Other produces empathy.

Zoli by Colm McCann

Following the theme of civilization and its discontents, here we have another great example of European hypocrisy: the treatment of Romani peoples. This superbly written tale — based like many of McCann’s work on historical research — is an excellent foray into the the byways of Otherness in WWII-era Europe. Equally relevant for today’s world of rampant bigotry.

James Traub
Sheikh Mohammed Scholars Program Principal Instructor, NYUAD

Journalist and Author of What Was Liberalism? (2019)

The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
All the King’s Men by Robert Penn Warren
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
Atonement by Ian McEwen
Beloved by Toni Morrison
A Bend in the River by V. S. Naipaul
Bleak House By Charles Dickens
A Harlot High and Low by Honoré de Balzac
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Palace Walk by Naguib Mahfouz
Rabbit, Run by John Updike
Transparent Things by Vladimir Nabokov

 

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