6 More (Lists) of 12 (Novels) 

 

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

Once again, the lists below come from different segments of the larger NYUAD community. 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.

Sabyn Javeri
Assistant Professor, Arzu Center for Literature and Languages, Habib University, Visiting Assistant Professor, NYUAD
 

Brick Lane by Monica Ali
The Cost of Living
by Deborah Levy
Disgrace by J.M Coetzee
I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al Shaykh
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon
The Lover by Marguerite Duras
My God Is a Woman by Noor Zaheer
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Quilt and Other Stories by Ismat Chugtai
The Submission by Amy Walden
Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Read More about this List

BOOKS THAT MAKE YOU RECONSIDER

These books helped me find my own voice as a writer, creatively as well as stylistically. They challenged my perceptions, made me reconsider my biases and helped me experiment with craft. These writers have powerful voices, and their books helped me find my own voice as a writer.

Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain

Rokeya Hossain wrote this feminist utopian novella in 1905 in English to make her point about the lack of opportunities for women compared to those who held the reins of power.  Everyone should read this book because it subverts the image of the oppressed Muslim woman and shows how women have offered resistance through the ages but in different ways. Also, the fact that she is relatively unknown, never getting her due, makes this the first book on my list.

The Quilt and Other Stories by Ismat Chugtai

Ismat Chugtai was a fiery female writer writing in the early 1900s writing about things such as gender politics, homosexuality, child sexual abuse, and marital rape at a time when such things were not acknowledged much less discussed. She is one of the first South Asian writers to objectify male characters and toy around with the idea of gender-role reversal, bringing forth the idea of toxic masculinity in South Asian Muslim culture. Her stories are important because they show us that the personal is political, especially when it comes to South Asian literary history, from which women writers like her are often excluded. It’s important to me because when I was growing up in Pakistan, as a young girl, I had no female literary heroes to look up to. Reading her made me realize that I come from a rich history of fiery female writers who were not afraid to raise their voices. So why should I be?

The Lover by Marguerite Duras

Duras breaks every rule in the book when it comes to writing. She defies all conventional publishing wisdom, and she gets away with it. I chose this novel because her writing gave me permission to find my own voice.

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This is not a novel but a memoir. Perhaps it was the timing of when I read it, but it really made me understand that there is something universal about the pain and pleasure of being a woman who is financially and emotionally independent. This book made me think about so many things, about motherhood, about the wage gap between men and women, about lifting heavy groceries, about the stamina needed for writing …

Outline by Rachel Cusk

I chose this novel for its craft. Outline lacks a traditional plot because it is a series of conversations. But there is such a synergy in Cusk’s words that the outline of the plot begins to emerge as you read. Read it for the skill and for the uniqueness of her writing style….and for the courage it takes to experiment.

The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon

At first this seems like a ridiculous novel. But then when you reflect upon it and absorb it you realize what is ridiculous is the impossible standards of beauty and morality placed on women…. This is the story of a tall woman who goes through extraordinary lengths to conform to societal standards of a delicate feminine beauty, amongst other things. I chose it because it makes one think about the pressures of femininity placed upon women, and the fact that often these are self-imposed.

I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops by Hanan Al Shaykh

This is a beautiful collection of short stories, set across Lebanon and London, which shows the violence of history through women’s’ eyes. Hanan writes beautifully and traces the pain of civil war, of exile and of lost beauty. This is a book which talks about politics without advocacy, without sermonizing. Simple stories of everyday people caught in global politics—they have much more impact than authoritative novels that try to tell you what to think. Read it for the beauty of the storytelling.

Disgrace by J.M Coetzee

When I first read this book, I thought it was about arrogance and privilege and one’s invisibility to it. The second time I read it, after a gap of ten years, I thought it was about shame and guilt and self-sabotage. It’s a book which will make you think about why we do the things we do, why we accept things the way they are, and what it takes to create change, whether in the world around us or simply deep inside our own selves.

The Submission by Amy Walden

I feel the literary history of the American novel has been split into before and after 9/11. But very few novels address this directly. Walden does, making us think about the before and beyond in ways that are not often very creative and engaging, but nevertheless important.

Brick Lane by Monica Ali

She was called the female Salman Rushdie when her book was being launched, and her book carved out a much-needed space for BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) writers to tell their stories. It’s another story that she was never allowed to tell any other story. I chose this book because it is a reminder of the single story that is expected from Asian authors. It makes me think about so many things, about representation, about identity, about publishing, about politics, about orientalism and othering.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri

The fall of Dhaka is told from the eyes of a child, the homesickness of an immigrant through a housewife who cant find the right kind of Indian fish, the infidelity of a housewife through a car ride with a Sikh taxi driver … This is one of the most complex yet also simple pieces of storytelling that I have ever come across. Read it for the craft.

My God Is a Woman by Noor Zaheer

I came across this novel in a skip. I picked it up simply because it had God’s name on it and some deep-rooted religiosity in me feared throwing God’s name in the thrash. But when I held the book in my hands, faintly smelling of wall paper glue, I was struck by the title. I started reading it and read it in one straight sitting. I can’t really remember what happens in it but I know it left me with a strange empowering feeling. This was a time when I was just discovering my own voice as a writer, and I remember it gave me courage and a sense that stories matter. Besides, what a title! You have to read a book with a title like that!

Lauren Kata
Archives and Special Collections Librarian, NYUAD

1984 by George Orwell
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Beloved by Toni Morrison
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The Harp in the South by Ruth Park
Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende
Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

Read More about this List

If I had to impose a one word theme across the list, I’d select “Accessibility.” These are novels that help us to access the past, other cultures, or other histories through stories and characters that humanize complex experiences, making it easier for us to connect and understand. They give us different perspectives by offering us access to small insights into different psychologies. They are also novels that I’ve observed being accessed and consumed and enjoyed across spaces, age groups/generations, cultures, and countries. 

1984 by George Orwell

“Who controls the past …” As an archivist, I’ve always been particularly attentive to the themes in 1984 and how Orwell and this novel sets us up to be critical citizens about the power of information and who controls it. In terms of global cultural literacy, I’m interested in how different readers would take the novel and consider its (prescient) themes in different dynamics across hemispheres. Also: what is it about dystopian settings that sustains?

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

In the past few years, on airplanes and reading rooms and coffee shops, across different countries, so often I’ve seen this book tucked under the arm of fellow travelers. It’s clear to me it’s a beloved and quite accessible novel (so many of my self-described “non-reading” friends and family members all claim to love it). I think pilgrimage stories can be very accessible in general, especially in this age of mindfulness. The Alchemist is also a short and non-complicated read covering many universal themes.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I included Alice because of how it continues to inspire cultural creations, products, representations and pop culture, and I appreciate those references. It’s always interesting to me how derivatives reimagine and ripple across the globe.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

I chose this novel because Adichie is such a strong, contemporary voice to help us access (toward understanding) the complexities of being part of the African diaspora, of different ways racism is experienced, of migration experiences and struggles, of the meaning of “home” and “homeland”; and through very thought-provoking language and writing. When literature—through dynamic, well-rounded characters and everyday scenes!—can do this for us, that’s notable. 

Beloved by Toni Morrison

With Beloved, Morrison created a story and characters who provide access to the psychological, traumatic, and multi-generational impacts of slavery. Awareness of those impacts, and slavery’s legacy, is a path toward cultivating a shared global understanding through literature. The novel is also a heartbreaking and literally haunting story of an American family that’s raw, violent, dark, and also very much about love, and sacrifice; it was an incredible experience reading it.

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Aside from the fact that The Count of Monte Cristo was a beloved shared book between my father and me, I chose it because I find it accessible in terms of multiple, and dramatic, universal themes, for example: love, separation, revenge, regret. This novel for me is a fun way to experience these themes as they are presented in an earlier era, and through fascinating and vivid characters. This is also one of the world’s classic novels that taught me how to flex my “patient reader” muscle; how to navigate through a large book with many characters, keeping track to get to the rewarding conclusion. 

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I included Everything Is Illuminated on my list for a couple of reasons. OK, first: it is one of the few novels I have read for which the film version broke the cliche of “the book is better.” In fact, I recommend the experience of reading the book along with experiencing the cinematic interpretation of the characters and this poignant story.  The characters and the story became so real; beautiful and comical and painful. The idea of crossing generations and boundaries to come to a deeper understanding of one’s own history and identity, and to unearth truth, was also accessible to me.  

The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy

About a decade ago, I started to become aware of how often I’ve been offered a copy of The God of Small Things as a “must read” by friends, colleagues, and students; which illustrates not only the novel’s popularity but also how different people have found the story to be accessible. For me, this novel was a different way for me to access India’s political past and the emotional dynamics of the caste system!—through a tragic yet beautifully, poetically-written family story. 

The Harp in the South by Ruth Park

Reading this novel, set in the Surrey Hills neighborhood of Sydney in the 1930s, added a layer of understanding of Australian culture and society, which added value to my first-time visit to that city (like a good tourist-traveler, I read the novel during my stay). As I walked the streets, seeing the end caps and kiosks that proudly displayed multiple prints and editions of The Harp in the South, I was also struck by how certain titles are woven into a place’s “brand.” Reading the story itself was a door into imagining what the now gentrified streets surrounding my AirBnB in Sydney once were. An earlier version of life there became accessible to me.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

Home Fire is a masterful example of how an author can weave a story employing multiple narrator perspectives. As a consequence, my experience reading the novel was very cinematic, yet with all of the bonuses that come with knowing the characters’ thoughts through the novel’s narrative. I included it in our list of novels that might help cultivate a culturally literate citizenry because it’s precisely these multiple perspectives that taken together, bring us closer to the quite complex, contemporary issues and stereotypes Shamsie explores. 

The House of Spirits by Isabel Allende

In my note about The Count of Monte Cristo, I described it as a book that requires a lot of stamina and muscle for navigating a dramatic saga. Similarly, Allende’s Chilean saga also requires the reader to patiently follow her story through multiple generations and time, in order to experience various different themes. If one agrees that magical realism is a genre that “communicates culture,” then The House of Spirits could contribute to a “global cultural literacy” in Allende’s use of the genre and what we learn about her culture through those examples.

Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen

I included a Jane Austen novel on this list because of her sustained popularity and (seeming) ubiquity. I find the novels to be easy reading, and easy access to a life of an earlier time and society. So what? Well, I like when novels offer that window of connectivity. I think another interesting aspect of Austen’s novels is her style, and the way she writes characters almost as personas, in order to present different examples of principles and arguments. To that point, I chose Sense and Sensibility for my list, as opposed to Pride and Prejudice, because I think it better illustrates that style (P&P being hailed more as “the” classic romance and Elizabeth Bennet as an ultimate heroine).

Taneli Kukkonen
Professor of Philosophy and Interim Dean of Arts and Humanities, NYUAD

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck
Dune by Frank Herbert
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco
The Four Wise Men by Michel Tournier
The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz
Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The Wanderer by Mika Waltari

Read More about this List

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck

Because in the end, solidarity is all we have.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Because space opera is the best kind of opera.

The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem

Because nerd culture has taken over the world.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco

Because conspiracy theories should at least be this playful.

The Four Wise Men by Michel Tournier

Because the global elites, too, may one day end up in the salt mines.

The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

(Or any Jeeves novel, really). Because for all the reprehensible legacies of empire, at least it gave us Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

Because … do I need to tell you?

Midaq Alley by Naguib Mahfouz

Because locality matters.

Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevski

Because something in these portraits should strike home with everyone.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler

Because with the looming ecological catastrophe, hope has to be hard-won.

The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

Because, in some circles, social mobility is best left to sociopaths.

The Wanderer by Mika Waltari

Because a Finn should nominate at least one Finnish book, and this one has (reasonably historically accurate) swashbuckling in the Ottoman empire.

Note: These are very clearly the picks of someone who grew up in Northern Europe. That’s alright: we all come from somewhere.

Sunny Liu
Financial Analyst

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
Bhagavad Gita by Veda Vyasa
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Man Paradise Lost by John Milton
Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust
Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo
The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Read More about this List

INSPIRED BY FOOD

The rationale from this list stemmed from my love of the culinary arts. I’ve always found food to be a great conduit for culture, and it’s often said that the great cuisines around the world are Turkish / Ottoman, Chinese, French, Indian, and Italian. I have very limited knowledge of Turkish / Ottoman culture, and I’m sure people from NYUAD would be vastly more qualified in submitting lists including books from that culture. I have tried to include the rest.

Picking Dante’s Divine Comedy for Italy led me down the path of including additional Christian novels as Abrahamic faiths have dominated Western culture for the past two thousand years. The Brothers Karamazov enlightens us about Orthodox faiths, which in America tends to be forgotten, and touches Russian culture. Finally, I wanted to include some of my own American influence in this list and give voice to Black America and Southern America. These two communities and their interactions form some of the persistent conflicts in American culture, and their synthesis creates the contradictions we see in American life today.

If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino

Italian, post-modern novel about the joys of reading. Great start for a reading list, and outlines the joys that should come from experiencing the books going forward.

The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu

Next is a modern Chinese science-fiction novel with scenes from the Cultural Revolution, modern day China, and thoughts of future problems and paths of progress. Helps frame and understand the mind of modern China in political and technological terms. I find the Ken Liu translation to be great in introducing the idiosyncrasies of Chinese creating friction for the reader and hopefully guides them to explore more of Chinese culture. Also leads into The Dark Forest, which is an incredible book in its own right.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms by Guanzhong Luo

Epic Chinese historical novel known throughout the East Asian world. Its cultural implications are still felt today as modern Asia hearkens back to this setting in this time period like Western Europe does to Medieval times. It’s the counterpoint to The Three Body Problem above. The beauty and scale of this novel should help readers understand China’s reverence for its history, contributing to the conservativeness we see in Chinese society today.

Paradise Lost by John Milton

Moving from Eastern thought to Western thought. Few things have influenced Western thought as much as the Bible, and the background of the story of the Bible is set in Genesis. Milton’s epic poem renders that story in astonishing detail, and the characters in this poem continue to resonate with people and culture today. Not strictly a novel, but its importance in culture is so vast it should be included.

The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky

The culminating work of Russian and Orthodox literature. The Brothers Karamazov explores the Russian psyche and its relation to Christianity. It helps the reader explore Orthodox Christianity and its underlying themes, themes which shaped Western thinking until The Great Schism.

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

 The culminating work of Italian and Catholic literature. What The Brothers Karamazov is to Russian Orthodoxy, Dante’s Divine Comedy is to Italian Catholicism. Yes, there’s quite a bit of focus on Christianity in this part of the list, but it is one of the largest religions in the world and has influenced Western thinking for the past two thousand years. Also not strictly a novel, but I think it fits well enough that it should be included. 

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Moving on, we explore the poor, rural south in this novel of Faulkner’s. America’s culture, these days, is fractured and uneven with a stark urban / rural divide. This novel helps bridge that gap.

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison 

Personally, I found this novel engrossing and captivating, having read this in a feverish haze of 16 hours. It’s an incredible work of art that depicts the varied life and experiences of African Americans, and we should praise the depiction of those experiences especially in such fine prose. I find Invisible Man much more engrossing than comparable novels like Native Son.

Remembrance of Things Past by Marcel Proust

For the beauty and lyricism of Proust and French culture.

The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolano

I’m not well versed at all in Latin American culture, but I’d love to read this book. A modern Latin American novel, but also an ode to Latin American literature, with sentences as light as air and as grounded as earth.

Bhagavad Gita by Veda Vyasa

 I’m not well versed at all in Indian culture either, but the Bhagavad Gita seems to have had a profound influence on Indian and Hindu thought and culture. From my understanding, this book is a classic in Indian literature, so I’d love to read, learn, and understand more about it.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I close with this book to remind us to keep a sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. Remember that human culture is still sometimes absurd, contradictory, and insignificant in comparison to the universe. Let’s keep ourselves humble and keep learning / reading about the unexplored cultures out there.

Ken Nielsen
Associate Director of the Writing Program, Director of the Writing Center, NYUAD

Babettes Gaestebud (Babette’s Feast) by Karen Blixen
Borgmesteren Sover (The Mayor is Sleeping) by Martha Christensen
Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte: Towards the Stars-the 1922 translation) by Martin Andersen Nexø
Fiskerne (The Fishermen) by Hans Kirk
Gör mig Levande Igen (Make Me Alive Again) by Kerstin Ekman
Haervaerk (Havoc) by Tom Kristensen
Himmel og Helvede | Den Yderste Graense
(Heaven and Hell / The Outer Limit) by Kirsten Thorup
Profeterne I Evighedsfjorden (The Prophets of Eternal Fjord) by Kim Leine
Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove
Sult (Hunger) by Knut Hamsun
Vinterbørn (Winter’s Child) by Dea Trier Mørch
Wilhelms Vaerelse (Wilhelm’s Room) by Tove Ditlevsen

Read More about this List

 

Babettes Gaestebud (Babette’s Feast) by Karen Blixen

Most people only know Karen Blixen as Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa, but I find Babette’s Feast to be her best text. In it she combines her keen sense of observation with her tight yet meandering prose. It tells the story of the foreigner who enters a tight knight and religious community. It’s a story of disruption of change and turtle soup. It tells a story of a religious community on the West coast of Denmark—a place that I feel connected to.

Borgmesteren Sover (The Mayor is Sleeping) by Martha Christensen

Christensen is one of Denmark’s most important social realists. This particular novel (her novel Dansen med Regitze (Waltzing Regitze) is more famous) tells the story of an alcoholic wife of a mayor during one lonely night of deciding whether or not she has to leave her husband. Christensen’s prose allows us insight into the mind of the protagonist in a way that, through repetition, provides us a sense of the quiet desperation of a woman forced to make a change.

Ditte Menneskebarn (Ditte: Towards the Stars-the 1922 translation) by Martin Andersen Nexø

Nexø’s novel is an early example of social realism in Danish. Nexø’s novel describes the life and struggle of Ditte—the novel’s protagonist.  Nexø is also the author of Pelle the Conqueror, but I personally find Ditte Menneskebarn to be a better novel. 

Fiskerne (The Fishermen) by Hans Kirk

In his first novel, Kirk describes the life of a group of fishermen and their families on the Western coast of Denmark in the early 20th century.  It’s a story about religion and the battle between the more pious and the less pious, but, more than that, it’s a story of how religion is necessary to survive the harsh living conditions on the Western coast and the task of sailing the North Sea. My father was a fisherman and this book has always been special to me.

Gör mig Levande Igen (Make Me Alive Again) by Kerstin Ekman

A war is happening somewhere in Europe. A group of women have a reading group and meet to discuss literature and how to escape the cynicism and darkness they see around them and in themselves. Ekman—also a great crime fiction writer whose Händelser vid Vatten (literally Incidents by Water, English translation Blackwater) is also a great read. In Gör mig Levande Igen Ekman uses a symphony of voices to tell a complicated and multi layered narrative about the anxiety of Swedish society, change, and anxiety. If you can, read it in Swedish. Ekman is almost impossible to translate.

Haervaerk (Havoc) by Tom Kristensen

Haervaerk follows the human deroute of Ole Jastrau as he attempts to escape his bourgeois life by drinking himself to death. Kristensen takes us on a magnificent and vivid journey of self-destruction. A fascinating study of masculinity in all its glorious fragility. And a key novel to read about Copenhagen in the 1920s and 1930s.

Himmel og Helvede | Den Yderste Graense (Heaven and Hell / The Outer Limit) by Kirsten Thorup

Thorup is—in my opinion—one of the most important contemporary Danish novelists. Himmel og Helvede is an epic novel about Maria and her life in 1980s Copenhagen marked by her existence in an environment of colorful characters in her parents’ kiosk and boarding house. Den Yderste Graense follows the same characters and their intertwined lives. I read and reread these books as a teenager.  Thorup’s prose is beautiful, dark, at times meandering, but always precise.

Profeterne I Evighedsfjorden (The Prophets of Eternal Fjord) by Kim Leine

Leine has become an important novelist in the early 21st century.  His work (including his first novel Kalak) on the Danish relation to Greenland (a complicated colonial relationship) is one of the most interesting in its honest assessment of Danish history and power.

Sommarboken (The Summer Book) by Tove Jansson

Jansson is probably most famous as the writer who invented the Moomin universe. In her prose for adults (not that adults shouldn’t read the Moomin books, please do), Jansson is sparse and precise and tells a moving story of the relationship between a grandmother and her granddaughter during a long Finnish summer.

Sult (Hunger) by Knut Hamsun

I remember vividly reading this novel. Following the starving protagonist walking through Oslo was at once terrifying and funny to me as a young teenager. Years later while visiting Oslo for the first time the novel colored my experience.

Vinterbørn (Winter’s Child) by Dea Trier Mørch

Vinterbørn is—to me—a key feminist novel from the mid-1970s. Mørch tells the story of a group of women brought together by giving birth at a hospital in Copenhagen. They’re from all layers of society and the novel tells a complicated story of women’s lives. It’s illustratred by Mørch’s own prints. I remember reading this novel and feeling being given insight to a world that I will otherwise never have access to.

Wilhelms Vaerelse (Wilhelm’s Room) by Tove Ditlevsen

Tove Ditlevsen is experiencing a renaissance in Denmark and internationally with new translations being published.  Wilhelms Vaerelse is a masterpiece of autofiction—a story about a divorce as experienced by Lise Mundus. It’s Ditlevsen’s last novel before her suicide and her most experimental. The way Ditlevsen moves from hilarity to angry desperation within a sentence is awe-inspiring.

Deborah Lindsay Williams
Clinical Associate Professor and former Program Head of Literature and Creative Writing, NYUAD; Editor, Electra Street
Co-Editor, Oxford History of the Novel in English, Volume 8: American Fiction since 1940

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha
Dune by Frank
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
July’s People by Nadine Gordimer
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Maus by Art Spiegelman
The Overstory by Richard Powers
Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Read More about this List

 

Dictee by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha

This book forces us to think about form and language, and it brings to the surface a history that’s been hidden to much of the world; it’s also profoundly beautiful.

Dune by Frank Herbert

Almost every day I see something in the Emirates that calls to mind something from Dune — the idea of water as wealth, the power of the dream to transform a landscape–and so it seems like a perfect novel for this place. But it is also a novel that pointed to our current global moment: the destruction that is inevitable if a world (or worlds, in Dune’s case) depends on one substance (spice, oil) for its entire economic system.

A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

 Sprawling, capacious, painful, beautiful prose, and a portrait of mid-twentieth century India under Indira Gandi (never referred to by name; she is only “The Prime Minister”) that you’ll never forget.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

A book about parenting, loss, imagination, ambition, compassion (and its failures)—and a fiercely articulated statement about the need for women to be full members of society.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

I chose this novel because when I read it originally, it seemed scary but impossible…and it has since started to achieve the status of prophetic. Because Atwood does world-making brilliantly and because the epilogue also manages to be a fabulous satire of every academic conference I’ve ever attended (and because she wrote a sequel thirty-odd years later that manages to be equally brilliant)

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison

It’s a bit of a baggy monster of a book but as a meditation on race, power, and mid-twentieth century US culture, it’s extraordinary. Not to mention that the prose is brilliantly beautiful.

July’s People by Nadine Gordimer

When it was published in 1981, the novel was a speculative imagining of the end of apartheid, which didn’t happen for another 13 years; now it is a historical novel that forces us to confront structures of complicity and obligation, loyalty and allegiance, and is also an amazingly written piece of fiction.

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

It’s a novel that passes the Bechdel test–a book centered on the domestic lives of women in which their own dreams, ambitions, failures, and tragedies provide the plot–and in part that’s why, of course, it has for so long been dismissed as unimportant, a book for kids.

Maus by Art Spiegelman

It’s a novel, a biography, a memoir, a history, and a re-invention of the comic.

The Overstory by Richard Powers

Well it’s about trees, and it’s a hugely ambitious novel about climate change that made me re-think how I see the natural world. It’s baggy and perhaps gets a tad didactic — but then again, maybe that’s what the climate crisis warrants.

Seasons of Migration to the North by Tayeb Salih 

Although I’ve not been able to read it in Arabic, the novel’s power still resonates: the power and damage of language, the illusory nature of civilization, the difficulty of finding “home,” the pain of belonging–and of not belonging, the need for rootedness, the violence of ordinary life and of relationships between men and women.

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison

Beloved is often regarded as the tour-de-force, and it is, but I think this book might ultimately be the “better” novel—and it features Pilate, the amazing woman with no belly button. The story of Milkman Dead and his family is the story of transformation and loss, set in the US context, but with resonance far beyond the US borders.

Inspired to contribute a list of novels to the “12 Things Project”? Click here to get to our submission form.

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