I am a firm believer that libraries and book stores are my oracles, and the novels on this list have chosen me as much as I’ve chosen them. As I’ve stepped deeper into my second half-century on this planet, the characters in these five novels have met me where I am: whether they took me away completely; helped me sort out the current state of affairs (internally and externally); or led me to reevaluate my history, and future, with a softer eye. Perhaps one of these books is exactly what you need right now, too.
In our Off the Shelf staff meeting I asked for recommendations for a book in which “nothing too bad happens,” and this was handed to me. True, nothing too bad happens, but the story of 78-year-old Harriet Chance’s journey to Alaska, and into her past, is not frivolous. It’s ripe, contemplative, funny, lovely, sad, and, ultimately, not tied up in a pretty little bow. Jonathan Evison’s unconventional writing style enhances the bittersweet feel of this novel, and you’ll be left empathetically revisiting your own life’s story and foibles.
James Baldwin could write about Post-it Notes and make them poetic, such is his gift for nuance, language, and story. Here he writes compellingly from the heartbreaking perspective of an American white man in Paris attempting to outrun his self-loathing and sexuality. This book was controversial when first published in 1956, and is as important now as it was then. Baldwin as always, has his finger firmly on the pulse of place, time, and society’s shortcomings. His writing is beautiful, and I can never get enough.
Read a Classic by an Author of Color
Set in the 1950s Paris of American expatriates, liaisons, and violence, a young man finds himself caught between desire and conventional morality. With a sharp, probing imagination, James Baldwin’s now-classic narrative delves into the mystery of loving and creates a moving, highly controversial story of death and passion that reveals the unspoken complexities of the human heart.
Oh, to find a safe, magical, nurturing haven in this harrowed world; released from the boundaries of ordinary life; where the departed communicate wisely with the living; and you are given breathing room (albeit with an expiration date) from your challenges in order to pull yourself up and start again. Menna van Praag has created that fantastical place in this charming, sweet, at times shadowy novel. I wish it were real.
I love historical crime fiction, particularly when it takes place in New York City and the plot includes a serial killer, forensics, and descriptions of food—an admittedly rare find. Caleb Carr’s deeply dark, cerebral thriller is akin to a long, rich meal in many courses. Meticulously researched, and soon to be a television series, you’ll want to take your time with this one and savor every bite.
Fast-paced and gripping, infused with a historian's exactitude, The Alienist conjures up the Gilded Age and its untarnished underside: verminous tenements and opulent mansions, corrupt cops and flamboyant gangsters, shining opera houses and seamy gin mills. Here is a New York during an age when questioning society's belief that all killers are born, not made, could have unexpected and mortal consequences.
I want to knock on 85-year-old Lillian Boxfish’s door, Bundt cake in hand, and be her friend. A feisty, independent feminist, and wildly successful retired Macy’s advertising copywriter, Lillian’s reflections as she walks the streets of New York City on New Year’s Eve in 1984 will enchant you. Charmingly, there’s a map of her walk in the hardcover edition. Start to finish, this book is plucky and utterly delightful; literary without being high-brow, and warming without a trace of saccharine or sentimentality.