“Cloud Atlas” by David Mitchell (2004)
This book is a clever puzzle of sorts, with Mitchell weaving six stories and points in time into a single frame. The writing is lush, contemplative and witty with plots that keep the pages turning. It’s an enthralling and impressive work.
“Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” by Jonathan Safran Foer (2005)
The second novel of this talented writer follows nine-year-old Oskar Schell on his mission to find the lock that fits a key belonging to his father, who was killed in the attacks on the World Trade Center. Foer finds some of the most devastatingly beautiful ways to express grief and how people come to terms with it.
“Brick Lane” by Monica Ali (2003)
Spanning about 30 years and culminating around 9/11, this novel looks at the life of a young Bengali woman in an arranged marriage, living in the East London neighborhood of Brick Lane. It deals with the larger contemporary issues of immigration and acceptance while focusing on the emotional and physical maturity of a young woman.
“Ahab’s Wife” by Sena Jeter Naslund (1999)
If you’ve read “Moby Dick,” perhaps you remember Captain Ahab’s succinct, yet sorrowful lament about the wife he left behind. This novel tells her story, how they meet and the intricacies of their relationship. It is worth reading whether or not you enjoyed “Moby Dick.”
“You Are Not a Stranger Here” by Adam Haslett (2002)
This debut shows Haslett as the rare writer who has mastered the short story. His stories may be bleak, but he writes about everyday human suffering with intelligence, sensitivity and grace.
“A Long Long Way” by Sebastian Barry (2005)
It’s no surprise after reading this lyrical novel that Barry is also a talented poet. He tells a moving story about the almost-forgotten Irish soldiers of World War I who fought in the British Army while their homeland erupted into a struggle for independence. He writes with compassion about the fear, confusion and mixed loyalties of these young Irishmen. Barry’s archive is housed at the Ransom Center.
“The House of Paper” by Carlos María Domínguez (2005)
This enchanting little story is a delight for book lovers. After a professor receives a mysterious, mortar-encrusted book in the mail inscribed to his recently deceased colleague, he sets out to discover its secret. The ensuing journey is an homage to the odd places bibliomania can take us.
“The God of Small Things” by Arundhati Roy (1997)
Upon reading the first couple of paragraphs of this novel, I wondered how Roy could possibly sustain the intensity of her prose for the remaining 320 pages. She does. This book is a real gift, providing a fascinating window into post-colonial India through a rich and intimate portrait of an Indian family.
“Half A Life” by V.S. Naipaul (2001)
A young man of Indian descent, Willie Chandran, arrives in London struggling to understand who he is and what his life should be about. His father, a Brahman, married a woman of a lower caste, and the repercussions of this union live on in the life of the young man at every turn.
“White Teeth” by Zadie Smith (2000)
Welcome to present day multi-cultural London! From reflections on arranged marriages (“You mean your wife’s not bloody born yet?…Where I come from…a bloke likes to get to know a girl before he marries….”) to ethnic and religious food rituals (“I don’t eat pork”), to melting-pot ideals (“We’re all English now, mate.”), Smith manages to explore the complexities of urban, multiethnic realities with both humor and thoughtfulness.
“The Human Stain” by Philip Roth (2001)
Roth plays with our assumptions about race and turns them on end in this novel about a college professor whose students accuse him of racism. If perhaps a critique of ivory tower mind-sets, the novel runs much deeper than that, asking us to reflect on human nature itself. Compelling, if deeply flawed, characters keep you turning the pages.
“Wolf Whistle” by Lewis Nordan (1995)
A novelized account of the lynching of Emmett Till, “Wolf Whistle” brings us face to face with the horrors of Jim Crow Mississippi. When the young Till arrives from Chicago to visit relatives, he violates local taboos by whistling at the wife of a white store owner. The transgression costs him his life. In the course of telling this story, Nordan gives us a brilliant glimpse into the paradoxes and contradictions of Southern life.
“Light in August” by William Faulkner (1932)
What could be more fun than a master novel by a master novelist? Faulkner takes us into the inner darkness of the human condition with prose that is simply unmatched. What I love about this work is his ability to explore the deepest questions via allusion, invoking them with great subtlety and texture, yet never letting us off the hook. May be my favorite novel of all time.
How about some recent Austin-authored books? These are excellent: “Hounds of Winter” by James Magnuson (2005) and “Waterloo” by Karen Olsson (2005).
“Gardens in the Dunes” by Leslie Marmon Silko (1999)
Grandmother Fleet, one of the last of the Sand Lizard Tribe, is a gardener, teaching her granddaughters, Sister Salt and Indigo, traditional lifeways. The Ghost Dance and U.S. soldiers come to disrupt their lives, and Indigo is sent to an Indian residential boarding school. She escapes and finds another garden tended by a scholarly and eccentric couple. Silko shows how intelligence and learning, as well as plants, can flourish in arid lands.
“Whale Rider” by Witi Ihimaera (1987)
Named after her Maori tribe’s cultural hero, eight-year-old Kahu returns to live with her great-grandparents, Koro Apirana and Nanny Flowers. Koro seeks a male heir to continue the hereditary leadership of the tribe, all descendants of Paikea, who first traveled to Aotearoa/New Zealand on the back of a whale. With her gift of whale speaking and unalterable love for her family and traditions, Kahu challenges the male-dominated primacy of her iwi or tribe.
“Baby No-Eyes” by Patricia Grace (1998)
In 2005, Maori writer Grace was declared a living icon of New Zealand Art. In this novel she introduces the themes of sovereignty and cultural protocol in the midst of a family tragedy. Te Paania, a pregnant Maori woman, loses her baby after a car accident. More traumatic than the accident is the handling of the baby’s body by the hospital.
“Reservation Blues” by Sherman Alexie (1995)
In 1992, legendary bluesman Robert Johnson returns to the Spokane Indian Reservation and inspires the formation of Coyote Springs, a Native rock band. Band members Thomas Builds-the-Fire, Victor Joseph, Junior Polatkin and a handful of followers go on the road. Along the way, they recount the power of basketball and further define what it means to be Indian.
“Solar Storms” by Linda Hogan (1995)
Angel Jensen, long abandoned by her abusive mother, carries her anger and fear with her on a journey to affirm her station among generations of Native women living in the lake country bridging the Minnesotan-Canadian border. Her self-discovery leads to a canoe journey to the far north to save ancestral land targeted for flooding by a hydroelectric dam. This novel teaches how love and acceptance are tied to identity.
“Tales of Burning Love” by Louise Erdrich (1996)
Jack Mauser’s four living ex-wives are stranded in his red Explorer in the midst of a blizzard on the outskirts of Fargo on their way from his funeral. One by one, each woman retells her one secret love story, a burning love that helps them survive the cold. The novel reminds us that friendship, especially among women, arrives in many forms and at strangely opportune moments.
“Places Left Unfinished at the Time of Creation” by John Phillip Santos (1999)
Santos’s inter-generational memoir probes the mysteries, remembering and selective forgetting of his San Antonian family. He traces his indigenous past in Mexico through its migration to El Norte. This lyrical story is infused with magical realism, the strength of elderly women, and the details of everyday life from Maja talcum powder to a first communicant’s white clip-on tie.
“A New Birth of Freedom: Human Rights Named and Unnamed” by Charles L. Black (1999)
From a purely formal perspective, Black is a beautiful writer. He never meanders. He is always concrete. You could read it just for that. But in this slim volume Black sets out a vision of justice that radiates from our constitutional traditions and he reaffirms a faith in the dream that Lincoln made plain at Gettysburg.
“Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues” by Catharine MacKinnon (2006)
MacKinnon has had a transformative impact on the way we understand or even undertake a gendered critique of the law and its institutions. Her groundbreaking work on sexual harassment in the workplace, on pornography and now on women in human rights discourse makes this a must read. Confronting the gendered identity of the state and state power implicates international law and the understanding of human rights that is embedded in it.
“The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gómez” by John Rechy (1991)
Of the many novels Rechy has written, this felt most like a place I knew. Not just Los Angeles, but that imaginary place that forms at the confluence of cultures in the southwest, but especially, for me, in California and Texas. It is a place that is desperately real, yet is always open to grace, especially grace in small things.
“Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert (2006)
This was an amusing book to read both because it asked what turns out to be a hard question—Do you know what makes you happy?—and because it is hilariously and engagingly written. Gilbert demonstrates how the limitations of our imagination prevent us from seeing the range of alternatives that are always there and makes you question whether you are truly aware of your own role in shaping the world you inhabit.
“The Lady in the Lake” by Raymond Chandler (1943)
Chandler shows that detective fiction can be literature. I chose this novel because it begins and mostly takes place in my hometown. He captures the dark side of the golden west through the effect it has on the characters that inhabit it. Like Joan Didion in “Where I Was From,” Chandler shows the corrosive potential in the lies people tell themselves.
“Water Follies” by Robert Jerome Glennon (2002)
As you are lounging by the pool or the river or the lake this summer, read this book and think about the water around us, its importance and our willful ignorance of its limits. Glennon is a graceful writer who elegantly captures complex social and natural systems and shows how we are dependent on the water around us and beneath us.
“Running with Scissors” by Augusten Burroughs (2002)
This one is a guilty pleasure. I found it disarmingly funny because in mining his own dysfunctional childhood Burroughs encourages us to laugh at a train wreck. That it is his train wreck helps alleviate the guilt, but mostly the humor and the wonderful writing do that. It is one of those books that I was surprised to find my mother reading: We can’t both find it funny, can we? But we did.
“The Stillness of the World Before Bach: New Selected Poems” by Lars Gustafsson (1988)
Homesick in New York City and leafing through a battered New Yorker, I came upon a poem titled “Austin, Texas.” It evoked my hometown and its special fertility of ideas, art, flora and fauna so exquisitely that I burst right into tears. How could it be that Austin could be captured so perfectly by a Swedish poet? Come to find out, Gustafsson is a University of Texas at Austin professor and lived here much of his adult life.
“A Legacy Greater Than Words: Stories of U.S. Latinos and Latinas of the WWII Generation” by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez (2006)
This new compendium of interviews and photos from the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project fascinates me to no end! Based on a remarkable oral history project that is full of life’s telling details, these emotional recollections make today’s paltry concerns pale by comparison.
“Birds of Texas: A Field Guide” by John H. Rappole with Gene W. Blacklock (1994)
My fellow traveler, Mike, is butterfly obsessed, but, since vacationing recently in Rockport/Fulton, we’ve taken on a new interest in bird watching. It helps to have an excellent paperback field guide like this one, with corresponding ranging area maps, descriptions and photos. Tip: take this book (and insect repellant) with you on a summer visit to the Aransas Wildlife Refuge.
“The Once and Future King” and “The Book of Merlyn: The Unpublished Conclusion to ‘The Once and Future King’” by T.H. White (1958 and 1977)
Long about August, go lie down in a darkened air-conditioned room and immerse yourself in another time. Depressed about the state of the world? You might find some answers in T.H. White’s allegorical take on the Arthurian legends, such as Merlin’s advice to Wart (young King Arthur) to “learn why the world wags and what wags it…when the world about you is devastated by evil lunatics….”
“Shadow Dancing in the USA” and “Letters at 3AM: Reports on Endarkenment” by Michael Ventura (1985 and 1993)
You’ll come away from Ventura’s impassioned essays with horrible new insights into the decline of our empire. Thankfully, though, I always feel an attendant lessening of anxiety over our rapid downward spiral by reading Ventura’s work. This might be a bit serious for summer reading, but things are getting seriouser and seriouser, said Alice!
“Tracks” by Robyn Davidson (1980)
Davidson trekked 1,700 miles across the Western deserts of Australia, with three camels and a dog in the late 1970s, and wrote a stirring narrative of her adventures.
“Snake” by Kate Jennings (1997)
A compressed, poetic, compulsively readable, powerful family saga depicting the lives of four people on a farm in New South Wales (Australia) during the post-World War II era.
“In the Lake of the Woods” by Tim O’Brien (1994)
Everybody knows “The Things They Carried,” but “In the Lake” is even better; it tells, by means of engaging experimental techniques, the story of a politician whose past in Vietnam, specifically at My Lai, returns to destroy him.
“Birdsong” by Sebastian Faulks (1996)
Faulks’ long, Zolaesque novel about love and war set during World War I. If you think you’re not interested in that long-ago tragedy, this novel is guaranteed to make you rethink that position.
“No Country for Old Men” by Cormac McCarthy (2005)
The fastest read of the summer, it operates at breakneck speed. The country of the title, borrowed from Yeats, is far West Texas, and nobody writes about that landscape better than McCarthy.