June 7, 2012
Below are books that were written within the last twenty-five (or so) years that I’ve recently read and enjoyed, and hope you might enjoy as well. Of course, this list is built entirely on my personal taste, which I recognize may or may not align with yours!
I plan to update this list periodically, so please let me know in the comments–what contemporary fiction have you read recently and loved?
Cloud Atlas (David Mitchell)
I recently finished this one on audio and honestly didn’t want it to end. Recommended to me by a good friend and talented fiction writer, this book is not for everyone–it jumps all over the place, featuring a half-dozen different narrators and wild fictional settings (many in the imagined, dystopian near-future). But if you are willing to go along with Mitchell, you will be rewarded with vivid, compelling characters and powerful musings on the nature of just about everything.
Cutting for Stone (Abraham Verghese)
This novel follows the story of twin brothers, Marion and Shiva Stone. Born to an Indian nun in an Ethiopian hospital, the boys are orphaned when their mother dies following childbirth and their father, a British surgeon, essentially abandons them. Luckily, the boys are adopted by two loving doctors at the same hospital, and the narrative follows their transition from childhood to adulthood against the backdrop of political unrest in Ethiopia. I simply devoured this one, and cried at the end.
Freedom (Jonathan Franzen)
This novel always invites a healthy debate whenever it’s mentioned in a gathering of readers–some (like me) appreciated the novel for its extended portrait of an average-yet-dysfunctional American family, while others found little to connect with or sympathize in the book. While I did find the characters frustrating, the power of the writing and movement of the narrative had me see them as very human, with very modern tragic flaws.
Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (Alison Bechdel)
If you think that a graphic novel can’t tell as powerful and nuanced a story as a traditional novel, read this. Here Bechdel tells the story of her childhood through both text and pencil drawings; the “Fun Home” of the title refers to the funeral home that her father, Bruce, an English teacher by day, ran. Bechdel’s family is eccentric, fraught, and loving, but it isn’t until young Alison comes out as a lesbian in college that she learns her father is also gay. He dies, mysteriously, just weeks later.
Home (Marilynne Robinson)
I think Marilynne Robinson is one of the greatest living American writers. Her style is not for everyone, as it’s slow, but if you give her about fifty pages, she’ll stun you with sentences that seem impossible for a mortal being to have written. Home is a companion book to Gilead, for which she won the Pulitzer prize, but you don’t have to read one to enjoy the other. This narrative is a modern re-imagining of the Biblical story of the Prodigal son.
Labyrinths (Jorge Luis Borges)
Another piece of literature that never budges from my penultimate list, this collection of writings contain some of the most inventive and brilliant short-short stories I’ve ever read. The way Borges’ mind works is dazzling; the world he sees in his mind’s eye is a pleasure to visit. This is magical realism for people who think they don’t like magical realism; if you read only one story, read “The Secret Miracle.” It is tremendous.
Let the Great World Spin (Colum McCann)
This novel made the literary rounds, so to speak, last summer, and for good reason. McCann is a talented new writer, and here he gives the “many-connected-narratives” treatment to a group of New Yorkers in August 1974, all of whom witness or are somehow connected to the tightrope walker who manages to walk between the Twin Towers one summer morning. Making a somewhat tired structural convention feel fresh, McCann’s characters are sharp, complex, and deeply human. This is one I could not put down.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloane)
A fun read–great for summer!–but one I didn’t feel guilty about being sucked into at all. This contemporary detective story felt like a grownup version of the kind of young adult novels I loved as a kid; slightly goofy-but-lovable protagonist, lots of super-geeky allusions, a seemingly impossible and ancient quest, and a happy (but not perfect) ending. You’ve got to be willing to suspend your disbelief for this one, and sometimes I find that suspension of disbelief is exactly what’s in order.
Regeneration [trilogy] (Pat Barker)
Recommended to me by more than one friend who knows of (and shares) my love of British historical fiction, this trilogy follows the real-life figure of Dr. William Rivers, an Army psychiatrist working at an officers’ hospital in the midst of World War I. Rivers’ patients, wounded physically and psychically, push him to question just what it is that he’s charged to do– “cure” his patients so that they might be sent back to war. Equal parts difficult and riveting.
State of Wonder (Anne Patchett)
I’ve gotten into the habit of listening to audiobooks, especially over the summer when I do a lot of driving. State of Wonder is the one from last summer that kept me in my car even after I had reached my destination, not wanting to stop the narrative. The novel follows the sympathetic figure of Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher who sets off to recover the body of her lab partner. To find him, she must first find her former professor, Dr. Anneck Swenson, who is doing groundbreaking research on the reproductive longevity of the women of a tribe living deep in the Amazonian jungle.
Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (David Eagleman)
This is the perfect bedside-table book because you can pick it up here and there without missing a beat. Each of the forty tales is an imagining of life after death–but these are not just fluffy, sweet little meditations. Eagleman is a neuroscientist with a bold imagination and keen understanding of infinity.
The Anthologist (Nicholson Baker)
A sweet little book that any reading nerds would love, as it’s full of literary references and puns. Paul Chowder is the anthologist for whom the book is named, working in vain to compose an introduction for his anthology of poetry that rhymes. As Paul narrates the book, talking poetry and personal troubles (a girlfriend who’s left him), you can’t help but find the self-effacing writer endearing.
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Junot Diaz)
Oscar is an overweight Dominican-American nerd who wants to be a writer someday, and he is the unlikely hero in this funny, cartwheeling narrative with a sharp, distinctive voice. Oscar’s family has been doomed by a curse that spans many generations, and the stories that stem out from this curse (and Oscar’s connection to it) are the novel’s blueprint.
The Brothers K (David James Duncan)
Too modern to be a “classic,” but one of the best books I’ve read recently. It’s a kind of American spin on the epic novel (so famously perfected by the French & Russians) and it follows a big, loving and often at-odds family in the 1960s & 70s. Baseball is a major motif, practically a character in the book, so for someone who loves the game, that enhances already strong storytelling & sense of character. I’m still thinking about scenes and themes several months after finishing it.
The Casual Vacancy (J.K. Rowling)
I have read (and am very fond of) the entire Harry Potter series, while Jill has not. However, we both loved this novel. Rowling’s power of characterization and the unflinching yet still empathic lens through which she views relationships–whether it be that of children and parents, married couples, or intersecting social classes–result in a very compelling read. Though she takes a little while to get started, once you’ve met the personalities whose lives intersect in this novel, they will stay with you. Rowling understands how we human beings work; she nails us.
The Crossing—Cormac McCarthy
One of my favorite contemporary American writers–Jill’s, too, though her favorite text of his is the uncompromisingly violent tour de force Blood Meridian. Personally, I prefer this novel for its story about a young boy who embarks on a mission to return a wolf to her homeland in the mountains of Mexico. McCarthy’s understanding of the natural world and man’s place within it are at once moving and refreshingly unsentimental.
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (Muriel Barbery)
Books are too often called “charming,” but this one actually is. Renee is the concierge of a Parisian apartment building filled with rich, pretentious occupants; in order to minimize her dealings with them, Renee pretends to be slow, uneducated, and plain–exactly what the building’s occupants expect. But Paloma, a young girl who lives in Renee’s building, begins to suspect that there is more to the concierge than meets the eye, and the two strike up an unlikely friendship.
The Epicure’s Lament (Kate Christensen)
A friend mentioned this book to me a while back, but I didn’t feel compelled to check it out until the author’s blog was recommended to me–wow. This woman can write. And somehow, in this novel, she manages to get you to care about a very unlikeable character, the misanthropic, self-centered epicure, Hugo. Food and literary references are woven throughout: for me, a definite bonus.
Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)
A collection of short stories reflective of the Indian immigrant experience, so naturally close to my heart. But even if the particulars don’t mirror you or your family, you will still be moved & devastated by the scenes painted here. Easy to keep by your bedside.
Willful Creatures (Aimee Bender)
Not a new book, but one I can’t stop recommending. Short stories packed with fantastical characters (a boy with keys for fingers?) and ideas (a museum of words?), but don’t be fooled—the fanciful elements often give way to moving moments. A delight to read.
Wolf Hall (Hillary Mantel)
Another fantastic piece of British historical literature, this one focuses on the figure of Thomas Cromwell, self-made man who works his way up the channels of courtly power to become Henry VIII’s most trusted advisor. The first fifty or so pages may leave you fatigued with character names, but if this is your genre, I promise you’ll wind up rooting for Cromwell and the vision of England he champions above anything else. What’s more, I think that Wolf Hall’s sequel, Bring Up the Bodies, is even better.