1. A Sudden Light by Garth Stein
I absolutely loved Stein’s first bestseller The Art of Racing in the Rain, so I was a little nervous about this novel living up to the hype. It surpassed the hype, to say the least. This book focuses heavily on family, spirituality, faith, self-identity, the pursuit of happiness, and the struggle we inevitably face with each one. I’m usually skeptical of bestsellers but Stein does not disappoint.
2. Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
I recently did an article on the best writing advice Bradbury gave in this book because there was just so much to take in. Bradbury explores his own journey becoming an author, how he got his inspiration for his most popular stories, and gives deep, meaningful advice for anyone who is as passionate about writing as he is.
3. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This book focuses on Oscar Wao, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey who could not be more different than the other Dominicans in his community. He is a science-fiction nerd who falls in love with girls constantly, yet lacks the skills to ever approach or convince them to reciprocate any feelings. The book also focuses on the curse that has plagued his family for generations, which will inevitably catch up to poor Oscar. You learn a lot about the Dominican Republic’s history, yet Diaz keeps you engaged with his natural, casual story-telling. Throughout the book you find yourself rooting for, pitying, and even resenting Oscar. Only a damn talented writer can make you grapple with how you feel about a main character that much.
4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
This novel really looks deeply into the cultural obstacles one faces when growing up in America with immigrant parents. Gogol’s parents were born and raised in India, and moved to the United States after an arranged marriage. Although they instill the Bengali culture and influence into his life, he is still an all-around American kid. As you watch Gogol grow up, you see all the difficulties he has to face with cultural clashes, the struggle for self-identity, and what it’s like to feel disconnected with your own heritage. Lahiri does a beautiful job moving through the narrative of his life.
5. The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr
A lot of the time, at least in my opinion, memoirs can be a hit or a miss. It’s like everyone is trying to scream, “Look how hard my life was! Look how fucked up my childhood was! Don’t you feel bad for me?!” Memoirists want to one-up each other and provide the most shock value in their stories. And although Karr does have some pretty intense and entertaining stories to tell, her narration while growing up makes it rich and honest. As she tells of a horrifying childhood experience, it is as if you are standing alongside that young child as it is happening. She is not focusing intently on hindsight, on what she learned, on her self-awareness. She gives you the story and lets you draw your own conclusions.
6. Atonement by Ian McEwan
This is one of my favorite books. It’s probably one of the most heartbreaking love stories ever written. And McEwan’s prose is just as beautiful and profound as the story. Two young people fall in love with one another, but life throws increasingly impossible hurdles in their way.
7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
This incredible novel follows the lives of five different people living in Nigeria who are all impacted by the Civil War in the late 1970s. Although their statuses, occupations, and races differ, their lives are all equally torn apart during the horrifying violence that took place. This book touches on love, tragedy, war, race, and even if it can be hard to relate at times, it is an incomparable narrative about the resilience of the human spirit.
8. Flappers and Philosophers by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors, and although I’m usually not drawn to collections of short stories, his style is too elegant to pass up. Each story is equally compelling and vivid, throwing you into a completely different era. Not to mention it’s ridiculously impressive how an adult male could capture the voice and emotions of teenage girls during that time.
9. House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III
This is a dark book, but damn is it good. Andre has the astounding capability to explore deep into people and their flaws, their fears, their weaknesses, their strengths, their darkest desires. Each character is so complicated and layered that it is unfathomable to think he could whip them all up in his head. This book and its differing characters will haunt you long after you’re done with it.
10. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
Structured as a book within a book, Krauss interlaces a story with characters young and old, suffering from love and loss. A manuscript written by an old man about the woman he loves becomes supposedly lost, until he discovers its publication as well as a young girl who is named after the woman in the book. Intricate connections ebb and flow throughout the book until it all comes together for a beautiful, satisfying ending.