I take recommendations fairly seriously – probably too seriously, if I’m being honest – because it means so much to me when someone points me toward something I really love. Great literature is one of the things I care about enough to seriously overthink. So if you are looking for something excellent, here are 15 books I would recommend without reservation to pretty much anyone who loves reading.
1. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
At risk of sounding like Stefon from Saturday Night Live, this book has everything. Twins, war heroes, Jehovah’s witnesses, biracial kids, doctors that bleed from their eyes, and FutureMouse! Smith’s sprawling 2000 debut spans continents and generations, exploring issues of race, post-colonial assimilation, religious fundamentalism, and questions of fate and chance (among many other ideas). United by the friendship of Archie Jones, an Englishman, and Samad Iqbal, a Bengali Muslim, brought together by WWII, this novel bounces around through time with multiple narrative viewpoints, dropping in with their spouses, children, and friends. Smith plays with the ideas of predestination, using both separated twins and a mouse whose life is genetically pre-programmed, juxtaposed with fundamentalist beliefs about the Rapture and devotion to Islam. It is not surprising that Salman Rushdie famously praised such an original, layered, ambitious, complex, and utterly fascinating book, and it still stuns me that Smith was only 24 when she wrote it. There was also a very enjoyable BBC miniseries made in 2002, and if you find a way to watch it online, please let me know.
2. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
With multiple narrative viewpoints, elements of magical realism, and sprawling historical complexity (you’ll notice some recurring preferences on this list) it is surprising that this book feels so incredibly intimate and personal, a credit to the tenderness of Ozeki’s beautiful prose. After the devastating 2011 tsunami, a novelist in the Pacific Northwest named Ruth finds a journal among the debris, written by a lonely and isolated 16-year-old Japanese American schoolgirl, Nao, living in Tokyo prior to the tsunami. Nested in Nao’s story is that of her Buddhist nun grandmother, who has lived over 100 years and appears to hold secrets to transcending time and mortality. Through the stories and mysteries of these three women, Ozeki brilliantly weaves philosophy and spirituality with quantum physics in one of the best books I’ve ever read. Though the ideas may sound heavy, Ozeki makes everything clear and accessible with a deft elegance to her language and thought and a truly compelling tale.
3. Euphoria by Lily King
Inspired by the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead, this novel crafts a delightful love triangle in the jungle of New Guinea full of yearning, jealousy, and desire. Following the anthropologists’ sometimes harrowing interactions with the tribe they are studying as they attempt to classify all of human nature on a grid system, we see the professional rivalry between Nell and her brutish, aggressive husband Fen through the eyes of Andrew Bankson, who joins their research as a probably unreliable – or at least highly biased – narrator falling hopelessly in love with Nell. This book is compulsively readable, with delightful language and details of the jungle that stuck with me for years afterwards.
4. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
When I start listing my favorite books, this one usually jumps to mind first. Jhumpa Lahiri writes with such exquisite detail, rich characterization, and sumptuous language that you feel like you have known her characters your whole life and become deeply invested in their happiness. Following the Ganguli family from Ashoke and wife Ashima’s arranged marriage and immigration from Calcutta to Cambridge, Massachusetts and the experiences of their son Gogol (the titular namesake) this gem of a novel explores themes of family, heritage, the clashes between first and second generation immigrants, loss, longing, identity, loyalty, and love. There are moments of poignancy so intense it aches, along with moments that made me cry with joy. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve thought of the descriptions of tiny scenes like Gogol watching his parents cook and eat, or when Ashima abandons her forest green knitting project on the T in a moment of sorrow. This book is so intensely human it feels alive, and I aspire to someday write with the clarity and completeness of emotion that Lahiri seems to do so effortlessly.
5. The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
This book was written by my high school best friend, so I was already super excited to read his debut novel, but within the first few pages I forgot who the author was and got swept away by a delightful, highly original, wonderfully inventive book. Crafted through a series of stories told by an unreliable, unnamed narrator and linked details (a gold watch, unrequited love, writing, aspiration, reinvention) the stories layer upon themselves until you can’t be sure what the “real” truth, if any, might be. Traipsing the globe from North Carolina to Sri Lanka, Iceland, the Grand Canyon, Africa, New York, and Luxembourg (I’m sure I forgot some places), the narrator takes the line from Emily Dickinson as his mantra, “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant,” adding up to heartfelt, playful scenes full of brilliant fun and rich detail, revealing deep truths about coming of age and becoming who we mean to be in the world.
More than a few times while reading this book, the author’s name at the top of the page would catch my eye and startle me, and I was so absorbed in reading that I thought dopey things like, “Oh wow, this author has the same name as Kris – I should tell him, he’d probably get a kick out of that!” (Yes, I get dumb when I’m completely drawn in.) If you like this book, I also highly recommend Why We Came to the City, his second brilliant novel that will make you spray tears (in a good way).
6. Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
It is weird praise, but I learned so much from this book it haunts me. Adichie is a formidable writer, to begin with, crafting strong characters with unique voices. Moving among Nigeria, America, and London, it begins with the beautiful romance of teenage Obinze and Ifemelu, each struggling with their conflicted identities and what it means to be Yoruba and Nigerian under a corrupt military dictatorship. Ifemelu immigrates to the United States, where she discovers American racism and the unique challenges black women face. Writing a blog called Raceteenth, Ifemelu provides a fascinating perspective on American life and culture as an outsider assimilating, and I regularly think about the critiques presented in both Ifemelu’s writing and scenes where Adichie deftly details the care and cultural implications of black hair with more specificity and clarity than I’ve ever read.
When Ifemelu returns to Nigeria, she sees it through new eyes, and we are invited to explore its idiosyncrasies with her in a tone that is conflicted with nostalgia, frustration, affection, hope, and exasperation. The exploration of Obinze’s adult life and struggles, especially the compromises he has to make, put a warm, human face on issues of migration, 21st-century masculinity, family, fidelity, and existing within systems without being crushed by them. At heart, there is an amazing star-crossed love story full of unforgettable moments of tenderness and beauty, but this is literature in the greatest whole-world sense, digging at the very fundamentals of being human.
As something of a chaser or a companion piece to Americanah, I would also highly recommend the short novel Every Day is for the Thief by Teju Cole, a Nigerian writer from New York who writes a fictionalized experience of his return to Lagos after 15 years.
7. The Seasons of the Soul by Hermann Hesse
If you are like me, you may think of Hermann Hesse as a Very Serious German Author of Important Tomes, best known for profound works like Steppenwolf, Siddhartha, or Narcissus and Goldmund, but it turns out he is also quite the honeydripper and a natural poet. Written while he was living in an unheated apartment in Switzerland, starving and foraging for food in the forest, these poems are dazzling in their beauty, hope, and luminous clarity. Hesse later described this time as, “the fullest, most prolific, most industrious and most passionate time of my life,” and his fervent enthusiasm and lust for life ripples through every page. These poems are both lushly romantic and existentially complex, exploring what it is to be human and alive in the moment, connected to the earth through the seasons and gifts of nature. I’ve been keeping these poems on my Kindle to read with the next person I truly, passionately love.
8. The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind: Creating Currents of Electricity and Hope by William Kamkwamba
This amazing, inspiring true story of a boy who taught himself about electricity and built a windmill in the middle of draught and famine in Malawi reads like an intense novel. I feel like Kamkwamba still doesn’t fully know what an extraordinary thing he did, on leave from school when his family couldn’t afford his required uniform and tuition fees, motivated to generate electricity so he could study by lights at night instead of a kerosene lantern, and hopeful that with irrigation pumps, his village could get a second planting of crops each season. His ingenuity, persistence, cleverness, and community-mindedness are truly stunning, and his success is a triumph. Told with humility and vulnerability, this book details both the joys of tinkering and discovery and the heartbreak of losing loved ones to (preventable) famine. One of the most remarkable lines recounted in the book was when William was asked to give a short speech at a TED talk, saying how he wanted to make the windmill, “And I tried, and I made it.” I don’t believe it is possible to come away from this book without crying and gaining a renewed sense of wonder and possibility.
9. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
This is probably my favorite book, or at least the best book I’ve ever read. “Sprawling” is a vast understatement for this saga that begins at midnight on the day of India’s partition and independence, whirling Saleem Sinai through a multi-generational history of India steeped in magical realism and gorgeous symbolism. As part of a group of children born during the first hour of independence in possession of supernatural gifts and telepathy, Saleem serves as an allegory for independent India, confronting its past, enduring a series of migrations and wars, going through a period of amnesia, and fighting to survive the Emergency under Indira Gandhi. The tone is mythical and dreamlike, at times confoundingly mysterious, dwelling as much in the alchemy of mango pickles as scenes of ethnic cleansing, weaving together a whole tapestry of experience as complex, conflicted, and ultimately beautiful as India itself.
There was a movie made in 2012, which I haven’t watched yet (that will be remedied shortly) but which I hope can capture even a fraction of Rushdie’s magnificent, painterly storytelling.
10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
This book was recommended to me by a guy in a Park Slope book club that I only briefly belonged to, who evidently suggested it at every meeting and lamented, “No one will ever take me up on it, but it’s a really beautiful book.” Years later when I got around to it, I wished I could give that guy a huge hug and thank him profusely, as it is simply wonderful and extremely well-deserving of its Pulitzer. Following the stories of cousins Sammy Clay, the nebbish son of a strongman living with his mother in Brooklyn, and Joe Kavalier, an artist and dashing escape artist who smuggled himself out of Nazi-invaded Prague, the story follows their creative collaboration to create a series of comic books and their various adventures and heartbreaks in love and life in mid-century New York. Incorporating Jewish mysticism in a plot with the Golem, unforgettable war scenes in Antarctica, a wonderful love story, and Chabon’s unique surfeit of empathy for his characters, this book is lushly, beautifully written, generous with details and idiosyncrasies, and exquisitely crafted. It is a literal masterpiece, full of both comedy and sorrow that left my heart swelling with emotion.
11. Life of Pi by Yann Martel
When I first moved to New York I was working for an artist, and we bonded over how we both had been carrying this book around in our bags for the past year but couldn’t seem to crack the first 50 pages. It wasn’t that the book wasn’t engaging, but rather the opposite – it felt too special and important to read absent-mindedly on line at the post office or in an impatient mood on the subway. It was tempting to skim the early passages about Pi’s exploration of culture and spirituality to get to the adventure story with the tiger, but that would have been a huge mistake, as they established the poignancy and philosophical context that gave the rest of the book such depths of meaning and beauty. When I finally had the chance to savor this book (on a plane ride to India) it felt like it had come back to me at exactly the right moment in my life. Pi is an introspective and clever narrator, telling the story in a tone rich with riddles and symbolism, making for playful unreliability and a fableist’s smirk of magic and myth. This is a book to really sit down with and give your full attention, as it is such a compelling story it would be easy to miss how profound a contemplation it is of human existence, spirituality, and our place in nature.
And the 2012 movie starring Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan (his second appearance here – he picks great projects!) was actually wonderful, appropriately capturing the spiritual qualities and magic that made it so much more than a story about being trapped with a tiger on a life raft.
12. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
My first – and so far still my favorite – Murakami, this book is a masterpiece of magical realism. As with so many of my favorites, it includes a sprawling story, elements of mysticism, interchangeable identities, and grappling with historical conflicts and their fallout (this time in Manchuria during WWII), told in a measured, elegant tone that makes no word feel wasted. It is hard to know, reading Murakami in translation, if the original Japanese is as precise and pure in its tone, but I suspect if possible it is even moreso. As complex and sometimes outright strange as the images and ideas woven together in this story are, Murakami handles them with a confidence and assuredness all his own. While certainly a challenge structurally and thematically, there are dreamlike moments of stunning lucidity, and I will particularly never forget the scene of an elephant escaping a zoo or certain haunting moments at the bottom of a well.
13. Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee
As its title may suggest, this novel is the dark, sparse, heartbreaking tale of high-minded Professor David Lurie’s fall from grace in post-apartheid South Africa. In something of a Humbert Humbert torment, David truly seems infatuated with his young student Melanie, but by the light of day their encounter is revealed to be rape. Stripped of his career and status, David moves out into the country to live with his daughter Lucy, a lesbian who is then attacked by a group of young men while David is helpless to protect her. The novel explores loaded themes of race, power, violence, and cruelty, in astonishingly clear, often brutal language. Wrestling with the questions of whether broken men can ever achieve redemption and whether the wounds of apartheid can ever heal, this powerful novel is both prescient and timeless, and Coetzee’s writing is a master class in tension and storytelling.
14. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez
I first read Gabriel García Márquez in the same literature class that introduced me to J.M. Coetzee, along with Günter Grass, Alice Munro, and Marilynne Robinson, and I often think I owe that professor another thank-you note. We read One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I later learned is cited alongside Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the books most frequently claimed to be loved by people who have never read them. I find Love in the Time of Cholera to be a more accessible and straightforward novel, still rich with the elements of magical realism and lushly romantic descriptions that show Márquez to be a special kind of genius. Following the unraveling and re-raveling love story of Fermina Daza and her frequently overwrought, ardent boyfriend Florentino Ariza from their youthful long-distance proclamations of love by telegraph, their separation, reconnection and forward into their old age, this novel is seductive, sympathetic, and packed full of gorgeous descriptions of even the most mundane details.
15. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel
This was my favorite book in high school, my gateway drug into magical realism and Central / South American writing and culture, and still among the most passionate, sexiest books I’ve ever read. When youngest daughter Tita de la Garza is heartbroken by her mother’s insistence that she cannot marry her beloved Pedro and instead must follow the family tradition of caring for her mother the rest of her life, she sinks her devastation into cooking. Pedro marries Tita’s sister so he can stay close to her, and Tita discovers her magical gift for concentrating her emotions into her food, overwhelming guests with lust, sadness, or anger. With incredibly beautiful language full of desire and vivid detail, Esquivel paints scenes that are passionate, sensual, cruel, and deeply satisfying.
I did see this movie, released in the US in 1993, but as enjoyable as it was (at times), it couldn’t capture the steamy, brooding romance or the poetic descriptions of cooking and magic that made Esquivel’s novel such a pleasure.
I hope you will find something you love as much as I’ve loved these books. For more recommendations, or to see what I’m currently reading, hit me up on Goodreads.
As I mentioned, I always appreciate good recommendations and talking about books, so please don’t hesitate to point me toward my next great book or let me know what you thought of anything on this list!