As a writer (Tasa’s Song, She Writes Press, May 2016), I am a voracious reader. Fall is a great time to share cherished novels, from classics to those more recently published. I promise this will be the first of several recommended lists!
Racism is at the center of one of the most widely read American novels of the 20th century, as it is in a novel just released to great acclaim. In the Pulitzer Prize classic, To Kill A Mockingbird, Harper Lee examines racism during Depression-era Alabama when a black man goes on trial for the rape of a white woman. While narrator Scout Finch evokes the sultry summers and simple pleasures of small town life in the 1930s, the novel is a sobering tale of race relations in the Deep South during the Jim Crow era as much as it is a coming of age story that speaks to the loss of childhood innocence. As righteous southern lawyer, Atticus Finch stands firm against racism: he faces down a lynch mob and his children are stalked. Written in 1960 at the height of the civic rights movement, To Kill A Mockingbird became part of the national dialogue about race and justice, and an eloquent appeal for tolerance. In 2016, The Underground Railroad offers a poignant reminder of the racial trauma still part of our nation’s consciousness.
Colson Whitehead tells the story of a third generation slave, Cora, who lives on a cotton plantation in 1850s Georgia. After several brutal public whippings by the plantation’s new owner, she decides to flee north to freedom on the Underground Railroad. But, in Whitehead’s hands, the Underground Railroad is not a metaphor. There are tunnels, trains, and stations with engineers and conductors beneath the Southern soil, going through the American states Cora passes, each with different brutal political and social responses to slavery. There’s a relentless slave catcher named Ridgeway who is close on Cora’s heels. Cora is forced to flee again and again, embarking on a harrowing odyssey through time as well as space. In Whitehead’s gripping tale, the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era is illustrated within the saga of America, from the horrors of the importation of Africans to the unrealized promises in our cities today.
Two quite different, yet extraordinary, novels were published in 2005, each a portrait of a reimagined place and community. The books continue to resonate with me today. Never Let Me Go is Kazuo Ishiguro’s sensitive and haunting tale of friendship and love, especially precious in an alternative universe where certain children exist as clones, destined to donate their organs in early adulthood. We first meet the children frolicking at a private English school called Hailsham in the scenic English countryside, recalled by Kathy H., now thirty-one, who reflects on her upbringing in this insular environment where the children were brought up to believe they were special, where their humanism flourished. Yet, these children are the less fortunate and their society deals with them differently. She recounts her journey with two others—Ruth and Tommy—where they share the existential questions we all have, just much earlier. Ishiguro tenderly conveys this cloudy and amorphous reality that all children inhabit, in which there’s sensing without understanding, and clarity about some things, misunderstandings about others. In Bel Canto, Ann Patchett takes the reader to an unnamed South American country where a world-renowned soprano sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan and opera buff, a gesture his hosts hope will persuade Mr. Hosokawa to build a factory in their undeveloped
Third World homeland. But, in the opening scene, a varied group of eighteen revolutionaries infiltrates the vice-presidential mansion through the air conditioning ducts in hopes of capturing the president, who has stayed home to watch a favorite soap opera. And from here, things begin to go awry with hostages to include not only the titan Hosokawa and Roxanne Coss, the American soprano, but an assortment of Russian, Italian, and French diplomats, as well as a Swiss Red Cross negotiator named Joachim Messner who becomes a translator. As Coss resumes her practice each day, her voice lifts each soul, such that the common language of music bonds the hostages and terrorists into a community. Without the demands of the world to shape their days, life over weeks and months becomes more beautiful than anything they had known before. The friendships and compassion these characters discover veils the real world waiting on the other side of the garden wall. Lyrical, profound, and unforgettable Bel Canto is a virtuoso performance, like the best of opera.
In the right hands, a novel of linked stories can provide a deep exploration of character or theme. In Olive Kitteridge, a 2008 novel-in-stories and recipient of the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Elizabeth Strout builds a vivid portrait of a larger-than-life character, a retired seventh grade math teacher who lives in hardscrabble Crosby, Maine. Olive Kitteridge is at times stern, at other times patient, at times perceptive, at other times in sad denial. She is often unlikable. She deplores the changes in her little town and in the world at large, but doesn’t always recognize the changes in those around her. In thirteen self-contained narratives, Olive interacts with those living near her in Crosby: a lounge musician haunted by a past romance; a former student who has lost the will to live; Olive’s own adult child who feels tyrannized by her irrational sensitivities; and her husband, Henry, who finds his loyalty to his marriage both a blessing and a curse. As the stories continue and the townspeople grapple with their problems, a more complicated portrait of Olive emerges. She is brought to a deeper understanding of herself and her life—sometimes painfully, but always with ruthless honesty. A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan is also a novel of thirteen linked stories, more or less loosely organized around two central characters (an aging music executive and his assistant), told from upwards of fifteen viewpoints and spanning almost fifty years, from 1973 to 2020.
Time is the organizing principle, the theme explored throughout this 2010 masterpiece, but pop music serves as its subject matter and key inspiration. Egan’s is a rock and roll novel in its very structure as she weaves post-punk music within a complicated narrative. Awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Goon Squad reads like a serialized drama—spread out with lots of plots (Egan has said she was influenced by the Soprano’s). Like songs in an album, each story contributes to a larger vision, jumping around in chronology and making the reader—along with the characters—acutely aware of, and engaged in, a struggle with time. Storytelling always expresses time passing, but it’s particularly notable here as Egan zigzags across the decades, story by story, to keep time (and music that cuts through time) at the center of the reader’s attention. A goon is a hoodlum or thug, hired to intimidate or harm. Time itself is the goon of Egan’s squad, the very antagonist with which her characters struggle.