Previously: I decide to see how much of my old school’s reading lists I can read by the end of the ’08/’09 school year. First step is posting the lists then tagging which ones I’ve finished, which ones I’ve read, and then consider those numbers against the majority which I’ve never touched. I am a bad student.
The contemporary list includes brief synopses of each title, which themselves are presented alphabetically by author. I’m going to keep the synopses, but will only bold/italicize the titles. Again, I’m utterly appalled at how much I haven’t heard of on this list. Here we go.
AN ENGLISH DEPARTMENT LIST OF CONTEMPORARY OR NEARLY CONTEMPORARY BOOKS
- Ali, Monica. Brick Lane. This ambitious first novel tells of a Pakistani woman who emigrates to London after her arranged marriage.
- Allende, Isabel. The House of the Spirits. This combination of family chronicle, historical novel and magic realism presents three generations of the ardent, political and sometimes bizarre Truebas family as they survive and often instigate the personal and governmental revolutions in twentieth-century Chile.
- Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. This novel is a first-person account of growing up poor and white without respectability or family stability in the South.
- Alvarez, Julia. How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents. Here are fifteen interconnected stories about the four Garcia sisters, uprooted from their home in the Dominican Republic, starting out in New York City in 1960, and caught between an old life and a new.
- Atwood, Margaret. The Robber Bride. Three women rejoice too soon at the supposed death of their old rival, but eventually find ways of exorcising her power over them and the men in their lives.
- Baldwin, James. Going to Meet the Man. This is a collection of short stories, many set in Harlem or Greenwich Village, by this distinguished American writer.
- Barker, Pat. Regeneration. This blend of fact and fiction, set in 1917, explores questions of manhood, conscience, war, and sanity through the medical treatment of a shell-shocked poet based on Siegfried Sassoon. Wilfred Owen also makes an appearance.
- Barrett, Andrea. Servants of the Map. This is a collection of short stories, several of them set in the 19th century, about isolated and passionate characters with a keen interest in the natural sciences.
- Begley, Louis. Wartime Lies. This novel, autobiographical in nature, recounts how two Polish Jews, a
boy and his aunt, survive the Holocaust by living as Catholics in Warsaw and on remote farms until
the war ends.
- de Bernieres, Louis. Corelli’s Mandolin. During World War II, the ill-fated, ill-advised Italian
- campaign in Greece sets the victories of art and humanity against the squalid brutalities of war.
- Berry, Wendell. A World Lost. In this novella, a boy’s life in the countryside of rural Kentucky in
the 1940s is altered when his much-admired uncle is murdered.
- Bitton-Jackson, Livia. I Have Lived A Thousand Years. This account by a professor emerita of
Judaic Studies at CUNY deals with her internment as a young girl in the camps in 1943-1945, and
her return to her village. The sequel to this story is entitled My Bridges of Hope and describes her
and her family’s efforts in the years following to leave Eastern Europe.
- Byatt, A. S. Possession. Researching into the life of a Browning-like nineteenth-century poet,
Roland Mitchell, a young academic and literary critic, finds a mid-Victorian scandal, a modern
mystery, a wealth of manuscripts, and a romance of his own.
- Calvino, Italo. Cosmicomics. This witty book makes cosmology domestic and all too human.
- Chabon, Michael. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Brooklyn-born Sam Clay and his
refugee cousin Josef Kavalier forge their way into the golden age of the comic book against the
frightening backdrop of quickly-spreading Nazi occupation. Through art, love, and ingenuity,
Kavalier and Clay defiantly search for love and salvation.
- Chang, Jung. Wild Swans. Chang’s memoir recounts the stories of her grandmother, mother and
herself: three generations of women whose lives encompass the major cultural and political changes
of twentieth-century China.
- Colgate, Isabel. The Shooting Party. An Edwardian house party and pheasant shoot ends in
tragedy and in World War I.
- Conroy, Frank. Stop -Time. This classic autobiography, first published in 1967, portrays a boy’s
passage from childhood to adolescence: odd jobs and lost friendships, brutal schools, first loves,
and the early death of his father.
- Conway, Jill Ker. The Road from Coorain. The former President of Smith College, Conway
chronicles her life in the Australian outback. Surviving heat, wind, dust storms and back-breaking
work, her mother, through will, energy, and devotion, held together the family and brought security
as well as challenge to her children.
- Cunningham, Laura. Sleeping Arrangements. This is the memoir of a young girl raised in the Bronx
in the 1950’s by her two bachelor uncles.
- Cunningham, Michael. The Hours. This short novel, winner of the 1999 Pulitzer Prize, is a story of
the intellectual, emotional, and sexual complexities of life in Greenwich Village in the 1990’s. It is
enriched by its many echoes of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.
- Danticat, Edwidge. Breath, Eyes, Memory. A young Haitian girl joins her mother in New York City,
but cannot leave her Haitian heritage behind.
- Desai, Anita. In Custody. In this novel set in India, a young scholar goes in search of the last of the great Urdu poets, and finds him.
- Divakaruni, Chitra Banerjee. Arranged Marriage. This collection of stories describes the adjustment and struggle of Indian-born young women in America. Caught between two cultures, these women must search to define themselves.
- Durrell, Lawrence. Bitter Lemons. This piece of vivid travel writing describes the lush island of Cyprus just before partition.
- Edgar, David. Pentecost. This play is about the discovery of a crucially important fresco in a
church in a central European country engaged in furious internecine warfare.
- Fiennes, William. The Snow Geese: A Story of Home. Migratory restlessness inspires a young Englishman recovering from illness at his parents’ house in the countryside near Oxford to follow the immense flocks of snow geese in their flight from southern Texas to their breeding ground in the Arctic, three-thousand miles away.
- Fitzgerald, Penelope. The Blue Flower. This is a brief and lyrical recreation of the German romantic poet Novalis’s love for a tubercular girl.
- Franzen, Jonathan. The Corrections. A frequently comic, sometimes provocative, ultimately very moving saga of a somewhat dysfunctional middle-western family.
- Frazier, Charles. Cold Mountain. A fictional Civil War odyssey set in North Carolina as the war is ending, this novel tells the story of a soldier’s long walk home to be reunited with his love and is full of lively, memorable characters.
- Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Colored People. In his memoir of a West Virginia childhood in the 1950’s,
this eminent writer and scholar provides a personal view not only of his memorable relatives and
neighbors, but also of a time in American history when desegregation was changing the ways in
which racial boundaries and issues would be regarded for years to come.
- Goldberg, Myla. Bee Season. A girl’s newly discovered gift for spelling unleashes her family’s dysfunction. As her uncanny talent spurs her family members to look at her with new eyes, their gaze also shifts uncomfortably inward, with disturbing and stunning results.
- Goodman, Allegra. Kaaterskill Falls. In Washington Heights and the Catskill Mountains in the
1970’s, an orthodox Jewish woman quietly struggles for independence.
- Gordimer, Nadine. July’s People. This 1981 novel set in an imagined future South Africa is an
account of a liberal, white middle-class family rescued by their servant July from the terrors of a
civil war, as well as a probing analysis of the interconnectedness of political and economic power and
- Gotfryd, Bernard. Anton the Dove Fancier. This collection of true stories about the Holocaust is
written by a survivor.
- Greene, Melissa Fay. Praying for Sheetrock. This is a non-fiction tale of the fitful, surprising and
dramatic way in which the civil rights movement came to a remote county in the American south.
Grossman, David. The Book of Intimate Grammar. Trapped in a stunted body and a blighted family,
an imaginative young boy in Israel dreams of emulating his hero, the escape-artist Houdini.
- Guterson, David. Snow Falling on Cedars. In a small island community in the Pacific Northwest, a
Japanese-American is accused of murdering a white fisherman. This suspenseful courtroom drama
is also a novel of love and honor shadowed by racism.
- Haruf, Kent. Plainsong. This book tells in plain language four interwoven stories of characters who
live in a small farm town in the middle west.
- Haslett, Adam. You Are Not a Stranger Here. This collection of short stories depicts moments of
epiphany with compassion and intensity.
- Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. This novel was the winner of the 1989 Booker Prize in
- James, P. D. Original Sin. When the gorgeously impractical headquarters of a prestigious, if
financially embattled, publishing house becomes the scene of murder, the police arrive to
encounter, in its owners and employees, a company of ardent, eccentric, manipulative, obsessed
suspects. This novel is a very good read with few claims to profundity. [James has written many
other stylish and enjoyable mysteries.]
- Jones, Edward P. The Known World. Winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, this novel is the
story of Henry Townsend, an African-American slaveowner in antebellum Virginia.
- Kincaid, Jamaica. Lucy. A young woman from Antigua becomes an au pair in a stylish Manhattan
family with troubles of its own. It is a relentlessly clear-headed look at both adolescence and the
- Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. Kingston’s memoir blends fact, fantasy and myth to
describe the life of a Chinese-American young woman who grows up in California with a mother who
was formerly a doctor in China, a secret only her family shares.
- Kushner, Tony. Angels in America. Two full-length plays—Millenium Approaches and Perestroika—
use techniques of surrealism and the interaction of fictional and historical characters in order to
explore the corruption of the Reagan Administration, the AIDS crisis, homosexual identities, and
the meaning of living and dying in contemporary America.
- Lahiri, Jhumpa. Interpreter of Maladies. In this collection of short stories, winner of the 2000
Pulitzer Prize for fiction, Lahiri explores the difficulties of modern life for foreigners in America.
- Lamott, Anne. Bird by Bird. In this witty and encouraging guide to fiction writing, Lamott weaves
together practical advice and personal anecdotes.
- Laxness, Halldor. Independent People. An Icelandic small farmer struggles for survival in a country
snowbound for nine months of the year, and in a community whose main subjects of conversation are
sheep and poetry.
- Lee, Andrea. Sarah Phillips. The title character is a member of what she calls the “old-fashioned
black bourgeoisie,” and this novel is about racism and sexism as experienced by a privileged class.
- Lee, Chang-Rae. Aloft. With wit and deep feeling, this novel portrays a Long Island widower forced
to confront the life he has made when his girlfriend of twenty years moves out and his pregnant
daughter and her fiancé move in.
- Mahfouz, Naguib. Palace Walk. The first of a three-volume saga about a large, traditional Muslim
family living in Cairo at the time of the British occupation of Egypt in the early years of this
- Mamet, David. Glengarry Glen Ross. The fast-talking, scam-running salesmen in a cut-throat real
estate business dramatize the grim comedy of American illusion and exploitation.
- Mamet, David. Oleanna. A university professor’s office is the setting for a drama of pedagogical
and sexual harassment. You get to decide whether the drama is a problem play or a dark comedy of
personal and intellectual dishonesties.
- McCarthy, Mary. Memories of a Catholic Girlhood. This 1957 memoir by a renowned American
woman of letters coolly and intellectually chronicles a painful childhood and youth, with emphasis on
her education, her religious conflicts and her striving to be a “superior girl.”
- McDermott, Alice. That Night. This spare, reflective account of a single incident remembered “as
the moment everything changed forever” captures the power and poignancy of first love.
- McDermott is the author of Charming Billy, winner of the 1998 National Book Award.
- McEwan, Ian. Atonement. In a novel that begins in an English manor house in 1935 and progresses
to Dunkirk and London during World War II, a young woman writer must face the consequences to
those she loves of a youthful mistake and the elusive quality of forgiveness.
- McEwan, Ian. Enduring Love. A sudden accident catastrophically transforms the lives of those who
witness it. This is a vivid and unsettling story of obsession.
- McPhee, Martha. Bright Angel Time. Written by the daughter of acclaimed non-fiction writer John
- McPhee, Bright Angel Time tells the story of a family of sisters coping with the divorce of their
- Mishima, Yukio. Spring Snow. The first novel in Mishima’s tetralogy, The Sea of Fertility, chronicles the problematic love affair of two young Japanese aristocrats trapped by their families’ expiring courtly conventions.
- Moore, Lorrie. Birds of America. This is a funny and idiosyncratic collection of short stories.
- Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye. This early novel by the 1993 Nobel Prize winner for literature is
about an eleven-year-old girl who dreams of changing the color of her eyes.
- Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. The saga of an African-American family coming to terms with
dreams and possibilities of life in modern America, this novel exemplifies the rich language and the
deep, generous, and often humorous understanding for which Morrison is famous.
- Morton, Brian. Starting Out in the Evening. A young woman writes her masters’ thesis on her
favorite novelist, a seventy-two-year-old member of the so-called New York Intellectuals. This
funny and thoughtful novel depicts their relationship and examines the pitfalls and joys of the
- Paley, Grace. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Published in 1974, this is a collection of short
stories about modern urban life.
- Price, Richard. Clockers. Set primarily in a housing project, this is the story of a young drug dealer
and his world.
- Proulx, E. Annie. The Shipping News. In this oddly romantic novel, a grieving father and his two
little girls go to Newfoundland to make a new life for themselves in eccentrically uncomfortable
circumstances. This unusual book is as full of practical information as it is of humor and optimism.
- Robinson, Marilynne. House-keeping. This elegant tale focuses on a drifter aunt and her two nieces.
- Rodriguez, Richard. Hunger of Memory. A young Mexican-American scholar writes regretfully of
how academic ambition and success have distanced him from his native language and culture and,
even more painfully, from his parents and childhood world.
- Salzman, Mark. Iron and Silk. The memoir of a young American student of Chinese language and
history who goes to China to teach English and study the martial arts, Salzman’s story is funny,
poignant and undidactic about cultural differences.
- Schultz, Bruno. Street of Crocodiles. These dream-like short stories, translated from the Polish,
portray life in prewar Poland.
- Schwartz-Bart, Andre. The Last of the Just. Based on a Jewish legend that 36 just men hold up
the world, this novel follows the life and death of the last of these men through World War II.
- Seth, Vikram. A Suitable Boy. Set in contemporary India, this is the saga of four families and one
mother’s quest for a suitable husband for her daughter.
- Shalamov, Varlam. Kolyma Tales. A former inmate writes about life in the Gulag, the Soviet prison
camps in Siberia. The tales are translated from the Russian.
- Shepard, Sam. Curse of the Starving Classes. Fool for Love. Although Shepard admits to few
influences apart from early rock groups and country-western lyrics, his plays of familial violence,
emotional loss and American delusion belong also, if eccentrically, to the tradition of Eugene O’Neill.
- Smiley, Jane. Ordinary Love and Good Will. These two novellas explore with subtlety, poignancy,
and eloquence the complexities of modern family life.
- Smiley, Jane. A Thousand Acres. Winner of both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award,
this novel tells the story of a tyrannical midwestern farmer and his three daughters with haunting
echoes of King Lear.
- Smith, Zadie. White Teeth. Two generations of families (one white and Jamaican, the other
Bangladeshi) living in London are at the heart of this funny novel of ideas.
- Soyinka, Wole. Death and the King’s Horseman. A Nigerian king’s chief companion wills himself to
follow his sovereign into death in a world where British rule is merely—if tragically—an “incident.”
- Stoppard, Tom. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The events in Hamlet provide
the setting for the perspectives of two venial, inconsequential courtiers who try, unsuccessfully, to
make some sense of the laws of probability and the plots of tragedy.
- Stoppard, Tom. Arcadia. Landscape gardening and Fermat’s last theorem are only two of the
issues that connect characters from 1809 to characters from 1989 in a play where the second law
of thermodynamics yields to the inexplicable attractions of sex.
- Stout, Elizabeth. Amy and Isabelle. A girl and her single mother brave a long hot summer during
the late 60’s, working in a mill. The point of view shifts from the daughter to the mother, as each
discovers the secrets of the other.
- Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Suleri weaves together the genres of political history and personal
memoir in prose at once lucid and lush. The sensory power of her imagery brings to life these
recollections of childhood in postcolonial Pakistan and immigration to the United States.
- Tan, Amy. The Joy Luck Club. Three generations of Chinese women tell the stories of their lives in
China and in the United States. Daughters and mothers struggle to create their own identities and
to find meaning against the backdrop of immense social change.
- Tartt, Donna. The Secret History. Set on the campus of an unusually progressive New England
college, this novel examines the dynamics of a group of friends whose intellectual interests include
- Taylor, Peter. In the Miro District In narrative modes ranging from experimental poem through
Southern yarn-spinning to Jamesian psychological subtlety, Taylor variously portrays the intricacy,
legend-making, comedy and mystery of familial and communal relationships, mostly in the reluctantly
modernized vicinity of Nashville, Tennessee. (You might look at any collection of his stories.)
- Tolstoya, Tatiana. On the Golden Porch. These are contemporary Russian short stories.
- Updike, John. Gertrude and Claudius. Updike joins Tom Stoppard in imagining what happened
offstage in Hamlet—in this case, Updike takes a compassionate look at the adulterous mother and
stepfather of the difficult Prince.
- White, Antonia. Frost in May. This coming-of-age story focuses on a teenage girl in a convent school, whose trials with family, friends, and teachers complicate life.
- White, Theodore. Thunder Out of China. White provides a journalist’s account of China in the
1930s and ‘40s, a time of civil war, widespread famine, and foreign occupation.
- Wideman, John Edgar. Sent For You Yesterday. In a novel that combines the structures and
improvisations of a jazz piece, fifty years of Homewood’s life in the violence and exuberances of
the ghetto converge in a memory of love and murder.
- Wolff, Tobias. Old School. A boy at a New England prep school is consumed by two obsessions:
winning a school literary competition, the prize for which is a private audience with a famous visiting
writer, and maintaining the fictional self he has created in order to conceal his modest background
from his classmates.
- Wolff, Tobias. This Boy’s Life. Wolff’s memoir is highly regarded.
- X, Malcolm. The Autobiography of Malcolm X. The famed autobiography (as told to and partly
written by another writer, Alex Haley) tells the story of a leader whose journey from obscurity to
crime and imprisonment to impassioned authority is now almost legendary.
A SELECTION OF CONTEMPORARY POETS
Choose any volume by one or more of the following:
- Boland, Eavan
- Brooks, Gwendolyn
- Clampitt, Amy
- Gluck, Louise
- Hughes, Ted
- Kinnell, Galway
- Levertov, Denise
- Lorde, Audre
- Merrill, James
- Muldoon, Paul
- Nemerov, Howard
- O’Hara, Frank
- Oliver, Mary
- Rich, Adrienne
- Salter, Mary Jo
- Sexton, Anne
- Smith, Stevie
- Stafford, William
- Swenson, May
- Walcott, Derek
- Wright, James