Recently I was sent a form from a New York City college requesting suggestions for their 2016 freshman reading list. I haven’t yet decided on one specific choice yet, but here are some that I have been considering.
Nella Larsen, Passing (1929)
A short novel by one of the preeminent authors of the Harlem Renaissance, Larsen’s story concerns two African-American women who have been friends since childhood; one woman “passes” for white, which has dire consequences for the both of them in their racially-divided social circle.
Dalton Trumbo, Johnny Got His Gun (1939)
A stirring, disturbing statement about what war does to those who survive its battles, scarred physically and emotionally, sometimes in ways we couldn’t possibly understand unless we were inside that soldier’s head, hearing his unfiltered thoughts and his quest for answers he cannot receive.
Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1940)
There may never be a greater passage in American fiction to describe a teenage girl’s reaction to classical music mixed with her experience of first love: “This was her, Mick Kelly, walking in the daytime and by herself at night. In the hot sun and in the dark with all the plans and feelings. This music was her—the real plain her…This music did not take a long time or a short time. It did not have anything to do with time going by at all. She sat with her arms around her legs, biting her salty knee very hard. The whole world was this symphony, and there was not enough of her to listen… Now that it was over there was only her heart beating like a rabbit and this terrible hurt.”
Kōbō Abe, The Woman in the Dunes (1962)
A horror story – one in which perhaps not much action happens, yet it is all compelling. Who knew that so much drama could be wrought from the tale of an entomologist who falls into a pit on a beach in a remote fishing village?
Jim Carroll, The Basketball Diaries (1978)
A harrowing but beautifully written memoir of the adolescence of poet/punk rock icon Jim Carroll (1949-2009): growing up in New York, obsessed with playing basketball and eventually equally addicted to heroin.
Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (aka The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories) (1979)
A set of short stories which adapt classic fairy tales and folklore with a more mature audience in mind, increasing the amount of sex and violence but always utilizing Carter’s special talent for elegant language and description. Favorite story in the collection: “The Erl-King.”
Brian Friel, Translations (1980)
Language constructs barriers between some characters while other characters transcend its limitations in pursuit of love, in this play set in Ireland during the 1830s and featuring English and Irish dialogue.
Paul Auster, City of Glass (1985)/City of Glass: A Graphic Novel (2004), adapted by David Mazzucchelli and Paul Karasik
Whether you read Paul Auster’s original novel (the first in his New York Trilogy) or instead go for the graphic novel interpretation (bringing an already captivating story to wonderfully-drawn life, black-and-white like film noir), either version of the story of protagonist Daniel Quinn’s unraveling mind will be a page-turner. Especially recommended for fans of detective stories.
Tim O’Brien, In the Lake of the Woods (1994)
O’Brien is probably the greatest living storyteller of Vietnam War-related narratives, and in this novel – which I couldn’t put down from the minute I started reading it – the chapters drift back and forth between a modern-day missing-persons case and the murky past of the man who may or may not have committed the crime in question.
Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000)
Another book you won’t want to stop reading, a decades-long saga about family, religion, pop culture, sexuality, warfare, politics and a lifelong love of creativity and artistry, themes which many (if not most) people can either relate to or understand.