In this time of pandemic and protest, we are identifying our duties to further ourselves as humans who care about other humans. Many of us are working actively against that which is unintentionally damaging. At the same time, others seek to educate, while others fight for change, or focus on building love.
One of the most effective ways to strive for these comes in reading stories. Letting them sink in, letting ourselves expand through them. This includes tales about ourselves and about others, those that comfort us, confront us, see us, and challenge us.
Today calls for much more work than reading fiction alone. But if we are to sustain our commitment to justice for what we believe in, then we must allow ourselves to recharge in beneficial ways.
The following list of books can help us do just that. These novels bear heartbreaking and life-affirming stories, if life-shattering as well. They may, depending on your identities and life experiences, open your eyes to new truths in the scope of human experience.
Regardless, these 11 books will remind you of what it means to be human, and of what matters most: how we connect with and show our love for ourselves and other human beings during times that call for real change.
1. The Bluest Eye
By Toni Morrison
A classic of classics, our first entry will smash your heart to pieces with its lyrical beauty and depth of reality. “The Bluest Eye” is the immortal Toni Morrison’s first novel and was initially published in 1970 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Morrison recognized and empowered Black readers by writing directly to them. She allows all audiences to witness the damage of racist beauty standards through a young girl who longs to have blue eyes.
You can purchase “The Bluest Eye” today.
2. Lie With Me
By Philippe Besson
From popular French author Philippe Besson (“Arrête avec tes mensonges”) comes this coming-of-age set in a small town during the 1980s. Brought to the States in spring 2019 by Scribner and translated by Molly Ringwald, this short novel centers on the teenage love affair between its precocious narrator and the distant, restrained Thomas. Launched to international attention by the “Prix Maison de la Presse,” Besson’s work explores self-acceptance and how it can rescue or destroy us.
You can purchase “Lie With Me” today.
By Octavia E. Butler
Known primarily for science fiction novels, Octavia E. Butler applies time travel to the slave narrative in this 1979 work from Doubleday. You can see its legacy in the upcoming horror film, “Antebellum,” starring Janelle Monáe and directed by Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The story makes metaphor of the generational trauma of slavery so as to bring the idea of emancipation to deeper psychological levels.
You can purchase “Kindred” today.
4. Love in the Time of Cholera
By Gabriel García Márquez
One of Gabriel García Márquez’s most successful works, “Love in the Time of Cholera” (“El amor en los tiempos del cólera”) is set during the turn of the 20th century in a coastal city believed to be based on Cartagena. Knopf brought the work to the States in 1988, three years after its original Columbian publication. Far more than a romance, the author’s signature use of magical realism comes through in his explorations of longing as internal and external sickness.
You can purchase “Love in the Time of Cholera” today.
5. Wise Children
By Angela Carter
The funniest and most optimistic of British author Angela Carter’s novels, “Wise Children” follows a pair of aging, twin performers. Carter’s witty prose carries the intellect and theatricality fit for both scholars and fans of the stage. The book, set in London, was published by Chatto & Windus in 1991, a year before the author’s untimely death. Bold discussions of paternity, fame, youth, and women in showbiz make this book uniquely memorable.
You can purchase “Wise Children” today.
6. Go Tell It on the Mountain
By James Baldwin
Among James Baldwin’s finest contributions, for he has many, comes his 1953 semi-autobiographical novel “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” published by Knopf. Set in 1930s Harlem, this is a story about community and, more specifically, the complicated relationships between teenager John Grimes, his family, and the church. The religiously informed language explicates themes of hypocrisy, paternity, and inspiration; and all this achieved in the author’s debut.
You can purchase “Go Tell it on the Mountain” today.
7. Flowers for Algernon
By Daniel Keyes
This 1966 short-story-turned-novel by Daniel Keyes has won numerous awards, mostly for its contributions to science fiction and for discussions of mental illness. The book, released by Harcourt, Brace & World, is made up of progress reports by Charlie Gordon, a patient undergoing cutting-edge surgery that could increase his intelligence. Gordon, after all, lives with untreated Phenylketonuria, a birth defect that can cause, among other developments, intellectual differences.
You can purchase “Flowers for Algernon” today.
8. A Thousand Splendid Suns
By Khaled Hosseini
“Kite Runner” author Khaled Hosseini wrote “A Thousand Splendid Suns” four years later in 2007 to wide praise. This Riverhead title finds “illegitimately” born Mariam caught in an abusive marriage and “privileged” Laila soon entangled in the same relationship with Miriam’s husband. From the unspooling of their complex relationship, Hosseini explores the often dark, often uplifting journeys of women through love and war in Afghan society.
You can purchase “A Thousand Splendid Suns” today.
9. Everything I Never Told You
By Celeste Ng
From Celeste Ng (“Little Fires Everywhere”) and Penguin comes this 2014 debut set in 1970s Ohio. When the adored child of an Asian-American family is discovered floating in a nearby lake, the search for truth begins. But at what price will it be obtained? This moving portrait of familial connection dives into a deeper meaning of home and what it takes to understand the people you claim to be closest to.
You can purchase “Everything I Never Told You” today.
10. The Ministry of Utmost Happiness
By Arundhati Roy
Published in the States by Knopf 20 years after her groundbreaking debut, “The God of Small Things,” this 2017 novel’s title may mislead you. The plot follows turbulent episodes of violence throughout India’s history. From Delhi and Kashmir to beyond, and across decades, Arundhati Roy’s intertwining theme of hope will stick with you. There may be dozens of characters to grapple with, but each of them makes an impact through their own moving story.
You can purchase “The Ministry of Utmost Happiness” today.
11. Salvage the Bones
By Jesmyn Ward
If you haven’t heard of Jesmyn Ward yet, you’re long overdue. Her most recent release, the 2017 “Sing, Unburied, Sing” won the National Book Award for Fiction. But her second novel, the 2011 “Salvage the Bones” from Bloomsbury, also won the award, making her the first woman to win two. The novel revolves around a Black middle-class family in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, so you can only imagine the struggles they are poised to overcome throughout the story.
You can purchase “Salvage the Bones” today.
About the Author/s
Tom Garback is currently pursuing a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing at Emerson College, where he is a Staff Writer, Blogger, Copy Editor, and Reader at various on-campus magazines. His fiction, poems, and essays have been featured in Thin Air, Blind Corner, Teen Ink, Oddball, The Magazine, Generic, Polaris, Gauge, and Sonder, among others.