Erstwhile‘s editorial board offers recommendations for good fiction the members have recently read or hope to get to this summer.
Last year, Rebecca Kennedy wrote a good reminder about the value of reading fiction. The post proved a good segue into summer, so we have decided to offer some fiction suggestions again. Here are some titles we have recently read or hope to cross off our lists. From the whole board at Erstwhile: have an enjoyable summer, and happy reading!
Raymond Chandler’s oeuvre (1939-1958):
Hardboiled detective novels in the L.A. noir style. Chandler wrote his novels by fleshing out short stories he had previously written in the interwar period. Most of them feature his detective Philip Marlowe, which provides a level of continuity to the works.
George Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (2017):
An experimental novel that explores life, family, and love through the death of President Abraham Lincoln’s son in 1862, blending historical fact with the spiritual and supernatural.
Zadie Smith’s Swing Time (2016):
Moving from London to West Africa, Smith explores global inequality, race, and diaspora through a professional dancer and a famous singer’s assistant and the childhood friendship between them.
Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (2016):
This is a beautiful novel about the intertwined lives and histories of two African American teenagers. The book travels from the coast of western Africa to North America and explores the history of slavery and its repercussions through eight generations. A haunting story that will follow you far beyond its pages.
John Nichols’s The Milagro Beanfield War (1974):
It’s a total classic, and a lot of folks are likely to have already been there and done that. But, that being said, it’s a beautiful mix of history and fiction that explores environmental injustice and the endurance of hispanic culture in New Mexico. It’s funny, sad, and ultimately nothing happens, which is why the title of the book is really just a punch line! I would highly recommend it to everyone, but particularly folks who write about and think about the West.
Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016):
Whitehead’s National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize winning book is a must-read for American historians. In his conception of the Underground Railroad, the network of people who guided enslaved Africans and African Americans to freedom becomes literal: an actual railroad winds through the red clays and loamy black soils of the southern United States, taking passengers to the North. Whitehead follows one young woman, Cora, across her dangerous journey, during which liberation is never a guarantee. I read this book a couple months ago and found it gripping and moving; Whitehead never lets you forget the different stakes—for Cora, for the people who help her and the other escapees she encounters, and indeed for the soul of the country itself.
Annie Proulx’s Barkskins (2016):
I am, I admit, still in the midst of reading this 736-page tome. I’m also a long-time fan of Proulx’s writing—here, though, she has moved from her beloved Wyoming to the wooded eastern coast of New England, the Canadian Maritimes, and Quebec. In a multi-generational spanning several centuries, Proulx traces the history of the massive forests of what is today the U.S.-Canada borderlands through two different kinship networks: one of a mixed-race Mik’maq family struggling with racial marginalization and genocide, and the other, a French family that runs a logging empire. This is an environmental history writ as a novel, and her beautiful writing could be instructive for environmental historians.
José Joachín Fernández de Lizardi’s El Periquillo Sarniento (1816):
Published during Mexico’s war for independence from Spain (1810-1821), this is the first Latin American novel. In it, Lizardi emphasizes the systemic social decay of the colonial environment while he traces his protagonist’s journey from haciendas, streets, taverns, and highway banditry to moral reform and responsible, patriarchal household head. The novel served as a means of exploring the literature of the U.S.-Mexico borderlands in this piece from late last year.
Sandra Cisneros’s Caramelo (2003):
Cisneros’s second novel (after her famous debut, The House on Mango Street (1984)) is both a coming-of-age story of the young Celaya, a Mexican-American girl, and a family saga stretching over three generations, the Mexico-U.S. border, and the keystone events of 20th-century Mexican and U.S. history. Cisneros’s vivid writing is as captivating as her richly layered, deeply human characters, who wrestle compellingly with their identity, their family, their responsibilities, their dreams, and their own desires and emotions. The novel is semi-autobiographical, based on Cisneros’s childhood growing up in Chicago and San Antonio, where she now lives.
Tariq Ali’s Fear of Mirrors (1998):
I am looking forward to reading this novel that explores the rise and fall of the Soviet Union through the history of an East German family as they struggle to come to terms with the new realities of the 1990s. On a related note, Ali has recently written what sounds like a promising revisionist biography of Soviet leader Vladimir Lenin in honor of the centenary of the Russian Revolution.
Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011):
An aspiring poet struggles with authenticity and his art on a fellowship in Spain when the Madrid train bombings of 2004 occur. I actually suggested this short novel for inclusion on Rebecca’s list last year. It has become an experiment of mine to reread it every year to both see what new things I pick up and note my experience of the repetition. No author quite captures the interiority of an anxious academic the way that Lerner does.