Make Me More Interesting

I recently turned 25 and realized that there are a lot of things that I don’t know about that I would like to know more about. One of them is fiction. I rarely, rarely read fiction. Part of the reason is that I feel guilty reading fiction, like I am cheating on my non-fiction partner. I say to myself, “If I am going to be reading, I should be reading non-fiction.” However, like any good 19th c. Mormon knows, there is enough of me to go around. So I am looking for you all to set me up by recommending a few books in each of the following categories:

1. Mormon Literature. I really have only read The Backslider, which I loved. Are there other “classics” or future classics out there?

2. Latin American Literature. I haven’t really read anything here.

3. Indian Literature. I know that there have been a ton of highly acclaimed novels coming out of India and Indian diaspora in recent years, but I don’t really know where to start.

4. African American Literature. I haven’t even read Beloved even though I bought it many years ago. It’s that bad.

I’d also take open suggestions either for other categories of literature or other novels that are particularly good. Please explain your choices to help me figure out what I want to start with!

21 Replies to “Make Me More Interesting”

  1. I enjoyed reading “The Namesake” by Jhumpa Lahiri as a fascinating look into Indian culture in the Eastern US. And my sister (whom I trust in all things literature) recommends The God of Small Things.

    And I would also suggest, if you’re looking for good literature on other cultures with American influence, that just about ANY Chaim Potok novel is worth the time. My favorites are “The Book of Lights”, which has a lot of depth and soul searching as it is written from his experiences, and both “My Name is Asher Lev” and “The Gift of Asher Lev”, dealing with exploring the art and need for expression within.

  2. I recommend anything by Gabriel Garcia Marquez…his writing style is really dense, but if you like the magical realism that typifies LA literature, it’s amazing. I personally like “One Hundred Years of Solitude” the best.

    “Like Water for Chocolate” is also pretty good…same magical realism, with delicious food descriptions.

    And finally, one of the best short stories I’ve ever read is “San Manuel Bueno, Martir” (Saint Emmanuel the Good, Martyr) by Miguel de Unamuno. It’s a story of life, death, and faith, and it’s really stuck in my head since I read it over 5 years ago.

  3. I should note that Unamuno was a Spanish author and the story’s set in Spain, but there are themes regarding the Old and New World.

    But it’s really good, regardless of the continent.

  4. I’ll toss out a suggestion for the Latin American literature category: Pedro Páramo, by Juan Rulfo. It takes on Mexico’s struggles toward modernity in a highly readable and interesting way, but I like it primarily for the religious elements and themes that run throughout the novel. University of Texas Press has a good summary of the book here.

    I’m with you in general, though, re: fiction and non-fiction.

  5. I definitely second the recommendation of Garcia Marquez.

    In terms of African-American literature, read your copy of Beloved–it’s definitely Morrison’s best book. I would also recommend Nella Larsen’s Passing. Not only is it a quick read, it’s a really interesting look at the meaning of racial identity. I’d also recommend James Baldwin–he has some really fabulous essays (technically non-fiction, I know, but they read like literature).

    Suggestions outside of your categories:

    *If you like intellectual/postmodern fiction, I’d definitely recommend Richard Powers. He often gets compared to writers like Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace, but I find his books much more human and less ironic. His most famous book is probably Gold Bug Variations, but I’d recommend starting with Prisoner’s Dilemma (a fascinating look at American history, family, and the need for trust), or Galatea 2.2 (a book about cybernetics, identity, and relationships/marriage). Those are probably my two favorites of his books.

    *If you like modernist fiction, I would definitely recommend Virginia Woolf. Stream-of-consciousness at it’s best. I also love Joyce, but she’s more accessible than Joyce’s best stuff (Ulysses).

    I’ll start with those recommendations, but if these seem interesting, let me know, and I have plenty more (as an English teacher and grad student, reading fiction is what I do).

  6. I would recommend looking into Russian literature–especially something by Dostoyevsky. You can start with something smaller likes Notes from the Underground or go straight to the bigger stuff like Crime and Punishment. You just have to stick it out. It is a little hard at first, but the style will grow on you. You will be amazed at how someone who wrote 150 years ago could have the same kind of ideas about society and people that are prevalent today. Also, I think Dostoyevsky would have made a good member of the Church. He has some fascinating spiritual stuff in his works, especially in Brothers Karamazov which includes an allegorical chapter called The Grand Inquisitor.

    I highly recommend checking this out, but it is not light summer reading.

  7. I know historians who have made similar confessions and shared similar sentiments about novels. Some tackle this problem head on by studying how historians can learn from novelists and actually improve their writing. Maybe reading fiction can improve our ability to reach the public through our writing. If that is the case, maybe we should be reading fiction without feeling guilty. I just started getting back into some science fiction.

  8. When you are ready for Icelandic (suggest Indritason), Swedish (s Henning Mankell), and Japanese (s Haruki Murakami) literature suggestions let me know, as that has been my focus the last few years.

    I will have to look it up but I have read a few entertaining Indian books a while back. Brick Lane (Monica Ali) was good, as was the Corner Shop (Roopa Farooki). They are the only titles I remember right now. Oh yeah, Q&A by Kikas Swarup was the basis of Slumdog Millionaire and pretty enjoyable. If you go to my blog and select only book reviews you can pretty much see what I have read over the last year with links to the authors.

    FWIW, I hope you have read the Kite Runner and A 1000 Splendid Suns already. Plus I kind of liked Life of Pi.

  9. TT,

    I can’t follow directions, so I am going to recommend that learning more about music will make you much more interesting than reading more books. The best money I have ever spent in my academic life was The Teaching Company’s course entitled, How to Listen To and Understand Great Music. It made much much more interesting. Being able to follow and analyze a Bach fugue, a Mozart minuet and trio, or a Beethoven symphony is truly interesting. Plus, the sheer joy watching others cringe at Schonberg while you listen with pleasure makes you feel really interesting.

    Of course, if you can do all of this already, disregard my advice.

  10. Good news, Vikas Swarup (of Slumdog Millionire fame) has just released a new book. I just picked it up from my library’s new shelf yesterday (but unfortunately I cannot remember the title).

  11. In your African American literature column, I would say that you should definitely go find your copy of “Beloved” and spend some time in that story. It is heartbreaking but beautiful; a true masterpiece. A little bit harder work than some of the other novels, but definitely worth it.

    Another powerful and breathtakingly beautiful book about slavery (and life) is Edward P. Jones’ “The Known World.” The stories and characters overlap and weave in and around each other to create a gorgeous finished work. Amazing writing, and an unforgettable story.

    Also two books about Americans in Africa: “The Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver is amazing storytelling. Kingsolver lived in Africa for a time as a child, and that experience gives her remarkable insight into the ambitions, hopes, and flaws of some of those who go to Africa hoping to fix it.

    “Mating” by Norman Rush is smart, insightful, and a joy to read. The main character is a PhD student who finds herself adrift in Botswana. She becomes intrigued by a celebrity aid worker passing through, and becomes fixated on meeting him. The book is more about two people than about Africa, but it’s a fabulous read anyway.

    Now you just need a couple of weeks with nothing else to do….

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