A Premature Attempt at the 21st Century Canon

This is one of the 210 lists we use to generate our main The Greatest Books list.

  • The Last Samurai by Helen DeWitt

    "The Last Samurai" is a unique, intellectual novel that follows the life of a young boy named Ludo, who is raised by his single mother, Sibylla. Sibylla, a freelance transcriber, educates Ludo in various subjects from Greek to mathematics, using the film "The Seven Samurai" as a moral compass. As Ludo grows older, he embarks on a quest to find his father, using clues from his mother's past. His journey leads him to several men who could potentially be his father, each encounter teaching him more about the world and himself.

  • The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen

    The novel revolves around the lives of the Lambert family, an old-fashioned midwestern couple and their three adult children. The parents, Alfred and Enid, are dealing with Alfred's Parkinson's disease and their own marital problems, while their children are each facing their own personal and professional crises. The narrative explores the themes of family dynamics, societal expectations, and the struggles of modern life. The story climaxes with the family's last Christmas together at their childhood home.

  • Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

    The novel is a haunting tale of three friends, who grow up together at a seemingly idyllic English boarding school. As they mature, they discover a dark secret about their school and the purpose of their existence, which is to become organ donors for the rest of society. The story is a profound exploration of what it means to be human, the morality of scientific innovation, and the heartbreaking reality of love and loss.

  • How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

    This novel is a semi-autobiographical exploration of friendship, art, and the question posed by the title. The protagonist, a young playwright, struggles with her art and personal life, navigating complicated relationships and seeking answers about how to live a good and meaningful life. The narrative blends elements of fiction, memoir, self-help, and philosophy, resulting in a unique and thought-provoking exploration of identity, creativity, and the human condition.

  • The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante

    "The Neapolitan Novels" is a four-part series that explores the intricate and lifelong friendship between two women from Naples, Italy. The series spans several decades, beginning in the 1950s, and provides a detailed examination of the women's lives, struggles, and the societal pressures they face. The narrative delves into themes of identity, friendship, love, violence, and socio-political changes in post-war Italy. The series is known for its rich character development and vivid portrayal of female friendship.

  • The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

    "The Argonauts" is a genre-bending memoir that chronicles the author's romantic relationship with her fluidly gendered partner, their journey to become parents, and their experiences with queer family-making. The narrative intertwines personal anecdotes with critical theories on gender, sexuality, and identity, challenging traditional notions of family, motherhood, and love. It offers a powerful exploration of desire, limitations, and the possibilities of language, pushing the boundaries of what memoirs can do and be.

  • 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

    The novel is a sprawling, ambitious work that spans continents and time periods, centering around an elusive, reclusive German author. It intertwines five different narratives: a group of European academics searching for the author, a professor in Mexico dealing with his own personal crises, a New York reporter sent to cover a boxing match in Mexico, an African-American journalist in Detroit, and the horrifying and unsolved murders of hundreds of women in a Mexican border town. The narratives are linked by themes of violence, mystery, and the search for meaning in a chaotic world.

  • The Sellout by Paul Beatty

    This satirical novel follows the story of an African-American man living in a small, agrarian town on the outskirts of Los Angeles. After his father's death, he attempts to reinstate slavery and segregation in his town as a means of creating a sense of identity for himself and his community. The novel explores themes of racial identity and equality in America, challenging societal norms and expectations through its provocative narrative.

  • Outline by Rachel Cusk

    "Outline" is a novel that follows the story of a woman who travels to Athens to teach a writing seminar and engages in a series of conversations with various people she encounters. These include fellow authors, students, and locals, each of whom share intimate details of their lives, allowing the protagonist to reflect on her own experiences and emotions. The book explores themes of identity, storytelling, and the complexities of human relationships.

  • Atonement by Ian McEwan

    Atonement is a powerful novel that explores the consequences of a young girl's false accusation. The narrative follows the lives of three characters, the accuser, her older sister, and the sister's lover, who is wrongly accused. This false accusation irrevocably alters their lives, leading to the accused's imprisonment and eventual enlistment in World War II, while the sisters grapple with guilt, estrangement, and their own personal growth. The novel is a profound exploration of guilt, forgiveness, and the destructive power of misinterpretation.

  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

    This book is a raw and honest exploration of grief and mourning, written by a woman who lost her husband of 40 years to a heart attack while their only child lay comatose in the hospital. The narrative delves into the year following her husband's death, a year marked by grief, confusion, and a desperate hope for things to return to normal. The author's poignant reflections on death, love, and loss serve as a powerful testament to the resilience of the human spirit.

  • Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

    The novel follows a young American poet on a prestigious fellowship in Madrid, Spain, where he grapples with his work, relationships, and sense of self. He struggles with his own perceptions of authenticity, both in his poetry and his personal life, while navigating the cultural and language barriers of a foreign country. The protagonist's experiences are marked by a constant tension between reality and artifice, as he questions the value and impact of his own art in the face of world events.

  • The Flamethrowers: A Novel by Rachel Kushner

    Set in the 1970s, the novel follows a young woman known only as Reno, who moves to New York with dreams of becoming an artist. She becomes involved with an older, established artist who is a member of the city's avant-garde scene. The story also delves into the world of Italian motorcycle racing and radical politics, exploring themes of art, feminism, love, and betrayal. The narrative shifts between Reno's experiences in New York and Italy, and the history of a radical movement in Italy.

  • Erasure by Percival Everett

    This novel follows a successful African-American academic and author who, frustrated by the publishing industry's expectations and stereotypes around black literature, pens a satirical novel under a pseudonym. The novel becomes a huge success, forcing him to grapple with the unexpected consequences of his critique on the industry. He is also dealing with personal issues, including the disappearance of his sister and his mother's declining health. It's a complex exploration of identity, race, and the literary world.

  • Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides

    The book follows the life of Calliope Stephanides, a Greek-American hermaphrodite, who narrates her epic story starting from her grandparents' incestuous relationship in a small village in Asia Minor to her own self-discovery in 20th century America. The novel delves into themes of identity, gender, and the American dream, while also providing a detailed history of Detroit through the eyes of three generations of an immigrant family.

  • Platform by Michel Houellebecq

    "Platform" is a provocative novel that explores the intersections of sex, business, and terrorism. The protagonist, a middle-aged man working in the French Ministry of Culture, embarks on a journey to Thailand after the death of his father. While there, he falls in love with a travel executive and they start a business capitalizing on sex tourism. However, their venture is violently disrupted by an extremist group, leading to tragic consequences. The novel is a critique of Western consumerism and a commentary on the clash between Western and Islamic cultures.

  • Do Everything in the Dark by Gary Indiana

    This book presents a disjointed narrative of a group of aging artists and intellectuals in New York City who are dealing with the aftermath of their youthful, hedonistic lives. As they grapple with issues of aging, depression, suicide, and the loss of their creative abilities, they find themselves trapped in a dark, cynical world, haunted by their pasts and facing an uncertain future. The novel offers a bleak but insightful look at the human condition, exploring themes of despair, regret, and the struggle to find meaning in life.

  • The Known World by Edward P. Jones

    "The Known World" is a historical novel set in antebellum Virginia, exploring the complex relationships between slaves, free blacks, and whites. The story revolves around a black man who becomes a slave owner, his wife, and their slaves. It provides a unique perspective on the moral complexities and personal consequences of slavery, while also examining the intricate social hierarchy of the time. The narrative is filled with richly drawn characters, each with their own stories and struggles, offering a vivid portrayal of a little-known aspect of American history.

  • The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

    This novel presents an alternate history where aviator-hero and rabid isolationist Charles Lindbergh is elected President in 1940, leading the United States towards fascism and anti-Semitism. The story is narrated through the perspective of a working-class Jewish family in Newark, New Jersey, experiencing the political shift and its terrifying consequences. The narrative explores themes of prejudice, fear, patriotism, and family bonds under the shadow of a fascist regime.

  • The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst

    Set in the 1980s during the era of Margaret Thatcher's conservative government in Britain, this novel follows the life of a young gay man named Nick Guest. Coming from a middle-class background, he moves into the home of his wealthy friend's family and becomes infatuated with the opulence and power of the upper class. As he navigates his way through this new world, he also explores his sexuality, all while dealing with the societal and political implications of the AIDS crisis.

  • Veronica by Mary Gaitskill

    The novel revolves around a woman named Alison, who was once a fashion model in Paris and New York during the 1980s. The story is told in a non-linear fashion, flashing back and forth between her glamorous past and her present life as a middle-aged, low-paid office worker suffering from Hepatitis C. She reflects on her complex and toxic friendship with the titular character, Veronica, an older, eccentric woman who eventually dies from AIDS. The book explores themes of beauty, youth, mortality, and the harsh realities of life.

  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy

    In a post-apocalyptic world, a father and his young son journey through a desolate landscape, struggling to survive. They face numerous threats including starvation, extreme weather, and dangerous encounters with other survivors. The father, who is terminally ill, is driven by his love and concern for his son, and is determined to protect him at all costs. The story is a haunting exploration of the depths of human resilience, the power of love, and the instinct to survive against all odds.

  • Ooga-Booga by Frederick Seidel

    "Ooga-Booga" is a collection of poems that explore the human condition in the modern world with a brutally honest and often controversial perspective. The author uses vivid and dark imagery to depict themes of love, death, politics, and societal decay. The poems are often characterized by their unflinching examination of the darker aspects of life, and their ability to incite both discomfort and reflection in the reader.

  • The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

    This novel tells the story of Oscar de Leon, an overweight Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey who is obsessed with science fiction, fantasy novels, and falling in love, but is perpetually unlucky in his romantic endeavors. The narrative not only explores Oscar's life but also delves into the lives of his family members, each affected by the curse that has plagued their family for generations. The book is a blend of magical realism and historical fiction, providing a detailed account of the brutal Trujillo regime in the Dominican Republic and its impact on the country's people and diaspora.

  • Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

    The novel is a historical fiction set in the 1500s, during the reign of King Henry VIII. The story is told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell, a man of humble beginnings who rises to become the King's chief minister. The narrative explores the political and religious upheavals of the time, including King Henry's break with the Catholic Church and his controversial marriage to Anne Boleyn. The protagonist's cunning, ambition, and survival instincts are central to the plot as he navigates the treacherous waters of the Tudor court.

  • The Possessed by Elif Batuman

    "The Possessed" is a compelling narrative that combines memoir, criticism, and travel writing to explore the author's deep fascination with Russian literature. Through her experiences as a graduate student at Stanford, her travels to Turkey, Russia, and Uzbekistan, and her encounters with other scholars, the author delves into the works of great Russian authors such as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov, while also reflecting on the nature of literature, identity, and the human condition.

  • The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

    A young girl discovers she has a magical ability to taste people's emotions in the food they cook. As she navigates through her life, she learns more about her family's secrets and struggles, especially those of her mother and her genius brother. The novel explores the complexities of family life, the burdens of extraordinary abilities, and the meaning of taste in a literal and metaphorical sense.

  • Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

    Mr. Fox is a novel about a writer who is challenged by his imaginary muse to stop killing off his female characters. This leads to a series of stories within stories, where reality and fantasy blur. The writer, his wife, and the muse navigate through these narratives, exploring themes of love, identity, and the power of storytelling. The novel is a mix of fairy tale, romance, and mystery, with a metafictional twist.

  • Lives Other Than My Own by Emmanuel Carrère

    "Lives Other Than My Own" is an emotionally charged narrative that explores the lives of two women who have experienced immense loss, one from a tsunami and the other from cancer. The author, through his personal encounters, delves into the raw emotions, resilience, and the profound bonds of family and friendship that emerge from these tragic circumstances. The book is a thoughtful exploration of empathy, offering a poignant look at the strength of human spirit in the face of adversity.

  • Zone One by Colson Whitehead

    The novel takes place in a post-apocalyptic world where a pandemic has turned many people into zombies, or "skels." The protagonist is a survivor who is part of a team tasked with clearing out the remaining skels in Zone One, the area in and around lower Manhattan. The story alternates between the present and the past, revealing the protagonist's experiences during the initial outbreak and his struggle to hold onto his humanity in the face of such devastation.

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

    This thrilling novel revolves around the sudden disappearance of a woman on her fifth wedding anniversary. As the investigation unfolds, all evidence points to her husband as the prime suspect. However, the story takes a twist as the wife's diary entries reveal a darker side to their seemingly perfect marriage. The narrative alternates between the husband's present-day perspective and the wife's diary entries, leaving readers in suspense about what truly happened. The book explores themes of deceit, media influence, and the complexities of marriage.

  • NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith

    This novel follows the lives of four Londoners - Leah, Natalie, Felix, and Nathan - as they navigate adulthood in the diverse, vibrant, and sometimes volatile neighborhood where they grew up. The narrative explores themes of identity, class, friendship, and the complex nature of urban life, intertwining the characters' stories in a way that reflects the interconnectedness and fragmentation of city living.

  • White Girls by Hilton Als

    "White Girls" is a collection of essays that explore the concept of "white girls" as the author sees it - a cultural and racial construct, rather than a literal description. The book delves into the author's personal experiences, pop culture, history, and his own identity as a gay black man. It examines figures from pop culture, literature, and the author's personal life, including Truman Capote, Michael Jackson, and the author's own sister, to explore themes of race, gender, identity, and the love and loss that comes with friendship.

  • My Struggle by Karl Ove Knausgaard

    The book in question is an autobiographical novel that delves deeply into the minutiae of the author's life, exploring his personal relationships, emotions, and the everyday experiences that shape his identity. It is a candid and introspective narrative that spans across various stages of his life, from childhood to adulthood, and examines themes such as family, death, love, and ambition. The author's unflinching honesty and detailed prose invite readers to reflect on the complexities of their own lives, as he scrutinizes the ordinary moments that, collectively, define who we are.

  • The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

    The book follows the life of a young boy who survives a terrorist bombing at an art museum, which kills his mother. In the confusion following the explosion, he steals a priceless Dutch painting, The Goldfinch, which becomes his secret treasure and eventually draws him into the criminal underworld. The narrative explores themes of loss, survival, and the power of art to shape human destiny.

  • Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

    "Dept. of Speculation" follows the story of a woman navigating her life as a writer, a wife, and a mother. The novel explores her journey through marriage, motherhood, and the struggles of maintaining her own identity amidst these roles. It also delves into the hardships of dealing with infidelity and the complexities of love and relationships. The narrative is presented in fragmented pieces, reflecting the protagonist's scattered thoughts and emotions.

  • All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews

    All My Puny Sorrows is a poignant exploration of the complex relationship between two sisters, one a successful concert pianist battling severe depression and the other a struggling writer trying to support her. The narrative delves into themes of mental illness, suicide, love, and the power of familial bonds. It grapples with the moral and ethical questions surrounding assisted suicide, the struggle to understand a loved one's pain, and the lengths to which one might go to help them find peace.

  • Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

    "Citizen: An American Lyric" is a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of racial prejudice in contemporary America. The book, written in a blend of poetry, prose, and visual images, delves into the everyday experiences and microaggressions that people of color face. It also addresses larger events from the news that have impacted the Black community. The book is a powerful commentary on race, identity, and belonging, challenging readers to confront their own biases and perceptions.

  • Black and Blur by Fred Moten

    "Black and Blur" is an exploration of black studies, performance, aesthetics, and politics. It delves into the intersections of critical theory, social science, and philosophy, challenging traditional definitions and understandings of blackness. The book uses an array of topics such as contemporary art, music, and literature to deconstruct and critique the conventional frameworks of authority, identity, and culture. It presents a new perspective on the complexities of blackness and the potential for social and political change.

  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon

    The book follows the lives of two Jewish cousins, one a skilled escape artist and the other a talented artist, before, during, and after World War II. They create a popular comic book superhero, which brings them fame and fortune. However, their success is complicated by personal struggles, including the escape artist's attempts to rescue his family from Nazi-occupied Prague and the artist's struggle with his sexuality. The narrative explores themes of escapism, identity, and the golden age of comic books.

  • The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

    The final installment in a fantasy trilogy, this novel follows the young protagonists as they continue their journey through parallel universes. They find themselves in the world of the dead, where they lead a rebellion against the oppressive authorities. Meanwhile, celestial forces are gathering for a final, apocalyptic battle. The young heroes must also confront their own destiny, which is tied to a mysterious object known as the amber spyglass. The story explores themes of love, sacrifice, and the nature of consciousness.

  • True History of the Kelly Gang by Peter Carey

    This historical novel is a fictionalized account of the life of Australian outlaw Ned Kelly, told in the form of a journal written to his daughter. The narrative explores Kelly's life from childhood, his family's struggles with poverty and the law, his involvement in horse thievery, and his eventual formation of the Kelly Gang. The story culminates with the gang's infamous standoff with the police at Glenrowan, providing a humanizing perspective on a figure often portrayed as a ruthless criminal.

  • The Beauty Of The Husband by Anne Carson

    "The Beauty of the Husband" is a poetic exploration of a failing marriage. Told in 29 tangos, the narrative unfolds the story of a woman who remains in love with her husband despite his numerous infidelities. The husband, a charming and deceitful character, is portrayed as a figure of magnetic attraction and revulsion, with his wife drawn to his charisma and repelled by his dishonesty. The book is a profound examination of love, betrayal, and the complex dynamics of relationships.

  • The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: A Novel by Louise Erdrich

    The novel presents the story of Father Damien Modeste, a beloved figure who has served the Ojibwe Native American community at Little No Horse for over a century. As death approaches, Father Damien pens a letter to the Pope revealing his true identity; he is a woman named Agnes DeWitt who adopted the disguise of a priest after the real Father Damien died. The narrative explores themes of faith, identity, and the often complex relationship between Native American communities and the Catholic Church.

  • Austerlitz by W. G. Sebald

    The novel follows the story of Jacques Austerlitz, an architectural historian who was brought to England on a Kindertransport from Czechoslovakia during World War II. As an adult, Jacques embarks on a journey to uncover his past, including his original identity, his parent's fate, and his own lost history. The narrative is a haunting exploration of memory, identity, and the lasting impact of the Holocaust.

  • Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

    The novel is a gripping tale set in Victorian England, revolving around two young women, a petty thief and a rich heiress, whose lives intertwine in unforeseen ways. The thief is part of a con to defraud the heiress of her fortune, but as the plot thickens, the lines between deception and truth, loyalty and betrayal, love and manipulation get blurred. The narrative is filled with unexpected twists and turns, exploring themes of gender, sexuality, and class, and keeps the readers on the edge till the end.

  • The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers

    "The Time of Our Singing" is a complex narrative that follows the lives of a mixed-race family in America from the 1930s to the 1990s. The family, born from the union of a black woman and a Jewish man, grapples with racial identity, familial bonds, and the power of music. The story is told through the perspective of one of the sons, a talented singer, and delves into themes of race, identity, and the struggle for civil rights in America.

  • The Book of Salt by Monique Truong

    The novel is a fictional account of a Vietnamese cook who works for Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas in 1920s Paris. The protagonist, Binh, narrates his experiences of being an outsider in both his homeland and abroad, while exploring themes of identity, love, and the bitter taste of displacement. The story cleverly intertwines historical events and figures with the personal journey of Binh, creating a rich tapestry of cultural and emotional exploration.

  • Mortals by Norman Rush

    "Mortals" is a complex narrative about a Milton scholar and CIA operative named Ray Finch stationed in Botswana. The story explores his personal struggles with his marriage, his brother's death, and his professional life. The narrative also delves into his philosophical and psychological musings, providing a deep exploration of his character. The book presents a rich tapestry of African politics, CIA covert operations, and the human condition, all set against the backdrop of Botswana.

  • Home Land by Sam Lipsyte

    The novel is a darkly humorous account of a man named Lewis Miner, aka "Teabag," who is living a less-than-successful life. Lewis, who is in his thirties, writes hilariously bitter and sarcastic updates to his high school alumni newsletter, detailing his various failures in love, work, and life in general. The book is a biting satire of American life and the concept of success, filled with black humor and sharp, witty writing.

  • Oblivion: Stories by David Foster Wallace

    "Oblivion: Stories" is a collection of eight thought-provoking short stories that delve into the complexities of the human mind and the struggle to understand reality. The stories explore a range of themes, from corporate culture and advertising to insomnia and existential dread, often blurring the line between reality and illusion. The characters are often trapped in their own minds, wrestling with their perceptions and struggling to make sense of their world. The narratives are filled with intricate details, complex narratives, and challenging themes, reflecting the author's unique style and keen insight into the human condition.

  • Honored Guest by Joy Williams

    "Honored Guest" is a collection of short stories that explore the themes of death, loss, and grief. The narratives delve into the lives of various characters dealing with these themes, such as a mother dying of cancer, a woman coping with her mother's death, and a girl struggling with her father's unexpected passing. The stories are poignant and often surreal, offering a deep examination of human emotions and the complexities of life and death.

  • Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky

    "Suite Française" is a two-part novel set during the early years of World War II in France. The first part, "Storm in June," follows a group of Parisians as they flee the Nazi invasion. The second part, "Dolce," shows life in a small French village under German occupation. The novel explores themes of love, loss, and survival, and provides a unique perspective on life in France during the war. The book was written during the war but was not discovered and published until many years later.

  • The Sluts by Dennis Cooper

    "The Sluts" is a disturbing and provocative exploration of the underbelly of male prostitution, told through a series of online forum posts. The narrative centers around a young male escort named Brad, whose enigmatic and potentially deadly allure captivates a community of men obsessed with extreme sexual practices. As the users share their experiences and fantasies about Brad, the line between reality and fantasy blurs, leading to a shocking climax. The book is a chilling commentary on the commodification of the human body, the nature of desire, and the dark side of the internet.

  • Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

    This book is a haunting collection of personal accounts about the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl in 1986. The author has meticulously gathered and woven together interviews from survivors, including former workers of the plant, residents, and soldiers. Each narrative reveals the physical and psychological impact of the disaster on individual lives, creating a deeply moving oral history of an event that has had profound consequences on the people of Belarus and Ukraine.

  • Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link

    "Magic for Beginners" is a collection of nine short stories that delve into the surreal and fantastical. The narratives are often set in strange, magical worlds, where the ordinary and mundane collide with the extraordinary and bizarre. The book explores themes of love, loss, and the blurred boundaries between reality and fantasy, often leaving the reader questioning their own perception of the world. The stories are wildly imaginative and often darkly humorous, offering a unique blend of magical realism and speculative fiction.

  • The Afterlife: A Memoir by Donald Antrim

    This memoir presents a deeply personal account of the author's struggle with alcoholism, depression, and the complex emotions arising from the death of his mother. The narrative explores their tumultuous relationship, marked by her alcoholism and his attempts to come to terms with her death. The book provides a raw and honest look into the author's journey towards understanding, acceptance, and recovery.

  • Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell

    Set in the harsh poverty of the Ozarks, the story follows a determined, hard-bitten teenage girl who, in the face of her drug-dealing father's disappearance, takes on the responsibility of caring for her two younger siblings and mentally ill mother. When she learns their house will be taken away unless her father shows up for his court date, she embarks on a dangerous journey through the criminal underworld to find him, encountering violence and betrayal along the way.

  • Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong'o

    The book is a satirical exploration of a fictional African dictatorship, focusing on the rule of a despotic leader and the corruption and power struggles within his regime. Amidst this political turmoil, a self-proclaimed wizard and a rebellious young woman become entangled in the machinations of the state, and their actions ultimately challenge the status quo. The novel combines elements of magic realism with political satire, providing a critique of post-colonial African politics while also exploring themes of love, power, and resistance.

  • American Genius: A Comedy by Lynne Tillman

    This novel follows the thoughts and observations of a woman living in a residential institution that houses great minds of various fields. The protagonist's thoughts weave in and out of topics such as skin, Native American history, cats, Zeno's paradoxes, and so on, in a stream-of-consciousness style. The narrative reflects on American history, culture, and society through the lens of a unique, intellectual, and possibly unstable mind.

  • Eat the Document by Dana Spiotta

    This novel explores the lives of two former radicals from the 1970s who are now living under assumed identities. The narrative interweaves their past and present, revealing the consequences of their actions and the lengths they must go to keep their secrets. The story is also interjected with the perspective of the woman's son, who is on a quest to uncover his mother's past, adding another layer of intrigue and complexity.

  • Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone by J. K Rowling

    The story follows a young boy, Harry Potter, who learns on his 11th birthday that he is the orphaned son of two powerful wizards and possesses unique magical powers of his own. He is summoned from his life as an unwanted child to become a student at Hogwarts, an English boarding school for wizards. There, he meets several friends who become his closest allies and help him discover the truth about his parents' mysterious deaths, the dark wizard who wants to kill him, and the magical stone that holds immense power.

  • Sleeping It Off in Rapid City by August Kleinzahler

    "Sleeping It Off in Rapid City" is a collection of poems that portray various American landscapes, from the bustling cities to the quiet, rural areas. The author uses vivid imagery and a unique perspective to depict the beauty, complexity, and often overlooked aspects of these places. The poems also explore themes of isolation, reflection, and the passage of time, offering a thought-provoking and evocative exploration of America and its diverse landscapes.

  • The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga

    "The White Tiger" is a darkly humorous novel set in modern-day India that explores the country's class struggle through the eyes of an ambitious and cunning protagonist. Born in a poor village, he moves to Delhi to work as a chauffeur for a rich family. He eventually breaks free from his life of servitude by committing an act of shocking violence, and uses his newfound freedom to become a successful entrepreneur in Bangalore. The story, told through a series of letters written to the Chinese Premier, is a scathing critique of India's social and economic disparities, and the corruption that permeates all levels of society.

  • The Lazarus Project by Aleksandar Hemon

    The novel follows two intertwined narratives. In the first, set in 1908, a Jewish immigrant is wrongfully accused of anarchism and murdered by the Chicago Chief of Police. In the second, set in modern times, a writer from Eastern Europe is investigating the century-old murder, leading him on a journey across Eastern Europe and eventually back to the United States. The narratives explore themes of love, immigration, and the pursuit of the American dream.

  • Home by Marilynne Robinson

    "Home" is a deeply emotional narrative that explores the themes of faith, redemption, and the complexity of family relationships. The story revolves around the Boughton family, particularly the prodigal son, Jack, who returns home after twenty years. His struggle to fit into the family and society, and his sister Glory's attempts to help him, form the crux of the story. The book delves into their past, revealing secrets and regrets, and provides a profound reflection on love, loss, and forgiveness.

  • Fine Just the Way It Is by Annie Proulx

    "Fine Just the Way It Is" is a collection of nine short stories that explore the harsh and often brutal realities of life in Wyoming. The tales delve into the lives of a range of characters, from ranchers to rodeo cowboys, and their struggles with the harsh environment, economic hardship, and personal demons. The stories are marked by the author's characteristic dark humor and vivid descriptions of the American West, offering a stark, unromanticized portrayal of life on the frontier.

  • Boyhood: Scenes from provincial life by J M Coetzee

    "Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life" is a semi-autobiographical novel that explores the author's childhood in South Africa during the apartheid era. The narrative delves into the complexities of family dynamics, racial tension, and the struggle of a young boy trying to understand his place in a divided society. The protagonist grapples with his identity, torn between his Afrikaner heritage and his English schooling, while also navigating the trials of adolescence. The book offers a poignant and often painful reflection on the formative years of a boy growing up in a fraught and turbulent time.

  • Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays by Eula Biss

    "Notes from No Man's Land: American Essays" is a collection of essays that explores the concept of race in America. The author uses personal experiences, historical events, and cultural analysis to examine the complexities of racial identity, privilege, and the often unacknowledged history of racial violence in the United States. The book also delves into the author's own struggles with her white identity and how it intersects with her experiences of living in predominantly black neighborhoods.

  • Spreadeagle by Kevin Killian

    This novel is a satirical look at modern-day America, focusing on a tech mogul who purchases a large portion of the state of Michigan to create a utopia for the wealthy. The narrative is told through the perspectives of a variety of characters, including the mogul's personal assistant, a porn star, and a teenage girl. The novel explores themes of capitalism, technology, and the American dream, all while presenting a critique of the extreme wealth and power held by a select few in society.

  • Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart

    This novel is a satirical romance set in a dystopian near-future where America is on the brink of financial collapse, youth obsession rules, and love is the only salvation. The story revolves around a middle-aged, neurotic man who falls in love with a much younger woman in a society where digital communication is the norm, and privacy is a thing of the past. Their relationship unfolds amidst a backdrop of economic and social chaos, providing a poignant commentary on modern life.

  • Seven Years by Peter Stamm

    "Seven Years" is a novel about a complex love triangle. The protagonist is a man who's married to a woman he doesn't love, while he's obsessed with another woman who he doesn't understand. The novel explores the themes of love, desire, and the passage of time, as it jumps back and forth between different periods in the protagonist's life. Over the course of seven years, the protagonist grapples with his feelings and the consequences of his actions, leading to a series of dramatic and emotional revelations.

  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes

    This novel revolves around a middle-aged man, Tony Webster, who is forced to reevaluate his understanding of his past when he unexpectedly receives a lawyer's letter that drags him back into his complex history with his university friends, Adrian and Veronica. The book explores themes of memory, history, and time, showing how our understanding of the past can be distorted by our own perceptions and emotions. As Tony delves into his past, he realizes that his memories may not be as accurate as he once believed, leading to a surprising revelation.

  • 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

    The novel is a complex and surreal narrative that intertwines the lives of two protagonists: a woman assassin who becomes embroiled in a mysterious and dangerous cult, and a male writer caught in a complicated love triangle. As they navigate their respective challenges, they unknowingly cross into an alternate reality, referred to as 1Q84, where the lines between fact and fiction blur. The novel explores themes of love, fate, and the power of the individual against the constraints of a conformist society.

  • The Gentrification of the Mind by Sarah Schulman

    "The Gentrification of the Mind" is a critical examination of the impact of the AIDS epidemic on American society and culture, particularly in relation to urban gentrification. The author argues that the loss of a generation of artists, writers, and thinkers due to the AIDS crisis led to a homogenization of culture and thought, similar to the way gentrification leads to a homogenization of urban neighborhoods. The book is a powerful critique of the erasure of diverse voices and experiences, and a call to remember and honor the lost history of those affected by the epidemic.

  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: A Novel by Ben Fountain

    The novel follows Billy Lynn, a 19-year-old soldier, who, along with his fellow soldiers in Bravo Squad, becomes a hero after a harrowing Iraq battle and is brought home temporarily for a victory tour. During the tour, they're honored at a Dallas Cowboys game, which exposes the commercialization and shallow appreciation of their sacrifices. Amidst the celebration, Billy grapples with his understanding of heroism, patriotism, family, and the stark contrast between the realities of war and America's perceptions.

  • Capital by John Lanchester

    This book provides an insightful commentary on the financial crisis of 2008, focusing on the residents of a single street in London. It explores the lives of various characters, including a banker and his shopaholic wife, a Senegalese footballer, a Polish builder, and an 82-year-old woman who has lived in her house since birth. The narrative delves into their intertwined lives, their dreams, and their fears, providing a detailed snapshot of a society in flux due to the financial turmoil.

  • The MaddAddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood

    The MaddAddam Trilogy is a dystopian series set in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by a man-made plague. The story revolves around a small group of survivors, including a bioengineer who helped create the new world, a woman who is the last of a religious sect, and a man who may be the last human with natural birth. The narrative explores themes of genetic engineering, corporate domination, and the consequences of playing God. The trilogy also features a new species of humanoids, designed to be peaceful, cooperative, and sustainable, who may be the future of life on Earth.

  • A Constellation of Vital Phenomena: A Novel by Anthony Marra

    This novel is set in war-torn Chechnya and tells the story of a young girl whose father is abducted by Russian forces. A neighbor hides the girl in a nearby hospital where a talented surgeon, who is haunted by his past, works. Over the course of five days, their lives intertwine in a beautifully woven tale of love, loss, and the desperate struggle for survival. The narrative explores themes of hope, resilience, and the profound connections that can form even amidst terrible circumstances.

  • Taipei by Tao Lin

    This novel follows a young writer living in New York City who is struggling with drug addiction and emotional disconnection. He embarks on a series of failed relationships and travels to Taipei, Taiwan to visit his parents. Throughout the book, he tries to find meaning and purpose in his life, exploring themes of identity, memory, and the digital age. Despite his struggles, the protagonist's journey is filled with humor and insight, providing a unique perspective on modern life.

  • Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward

    This memoir is a poignant exploration of the author's life growing up in a poor, rural, predominantly black community in the Southern United States, and the tragic deaths of five young men close to her, including her brother. Through her personal experiences, the author provides a powerful critique of systemic and institutional racism, poverty, and the lack of opportunities for black men in America. The narrative weaves together these stories of loss, revealing the devastating impact of societal inequities on marginalized communities.

  • Family Life by Akhil Sharma

    Family Life is a poignant, semi-autobiographical novel that follows the experiences of an Indian family that immigrates to America in the late 1970s. Their dream of a better life is shattered when the older son suffers a terrible accident that leaves him brain-damaged. The story is narrated by the younger son, who struggles with the pressures of his parents' expectations, the trauma of his brother's condition, and the cultural dislocation of being an immigrant in America. The novel explores themes of family, love, loss, and the immigrant experience.

  • How to be both by Ali Smith

    This novel is a dual narrative that explores the interconnected stories of a 15th-century Italian Renaissance artist named Francesco del Cossa and a modern-day teenager named George. The book is divided into two parts, one set in the past and one in the present, and the order in which they are read can change the reader's interpretation of the story. The novel delves into themes of art, gender, sexuality, and the fluidity of identity, while also examining the ways in which we perceive and understand the world around us.

  • A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

    "A Brief History of Seven Killings" is a multi-voiced novel that explores the attempted assassination of a world-famous reggae singer and its aftermath. The narrative spans decades, starting from the turbulent 1970s in Jamaica through the crack wars in 1980s New York to the changing world of the 1990s. The story is told from the perspectives of various characters, including gangsters, journalists, and CIA agents, providing a complex and gritty insight into the violent underbelly of Jamaican politics and the far-reaching influence of the drug trade.

  • Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish

    This novel tells the story of a U.S. Army veteran suffering from PTSD and a Chinese Muslim immigrant, both struggling to survive in the harsh realities of New York City. Their lives intersect and they form a relationship, trying to make sense of their past traumas, navigate the complexities of their present, and find hope for a better future. The book provides an intense, gritty portrayal of life on the fringes of society, highlighting issues of immigration, class, and the human cost of war.

  • The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

    "The Sympathizer" is a gripping spy novel set during the Vietnam War. The protagonist is a half-French, half-Vietnamese army captain who is a communist double agent. After the Fall of Saigon, he moves to America with other South Vietnamese refugees and struggles to reconcile his dual loyalties as he continues to spy on his fellow countrymen in exile. The novel explores themes of identity, war, and politics, while providing a unique perspective on the Vietnam War and its aftermath.

  • The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

    "The Light of the World" is a deeply moving memoir about the author's life with her husband, an Eritrean-born chef and painter, their love story, and the grief and healing she experiences after his sudden death. The book is a reflection on their family life, their shared passion for art, and the author's journey through the pain of loss. It's a poetic tribute to a life well-lived and the enduring power of love.

  • The Broken Earth Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin

    The Broken Earth Trilogy is a captivating science fiction series set in a post-apocalyptic world where a woman with the power to control seismic activity is on a quest to rescue her kidnapped daughter. This world, called the Stillness, regularly experiences catastrophic climate change events known as Seasons, which its inhabitants constantly prepare for. The series explores themes of oppression, survival, and the human capacity for adaptation, all while providing a thrilling and poignant narrative that keeps readers engaged from start to finish.

  • What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell

    The novel explores a complicated relationship between an American teacher living in Bulgaria and a young male prostitute named Mitko. The narrative delves into themes of desire, shame, and the legacy of the past, as the protagonist grapples with his own identity and sexuality. As the relationship between the two men evolves, the protagonist is forced to confront his past, his feelings of isolation, and the societal norms that shape his existence.

  • Albert Murray: Collected Essays & Memoirs by Albert Murray

    This collection of essays and memoirs by a renowned American literary and jazz critic offers a profound exploration of the African-American experience. The author's writings cover a wide range of topics, from music and literature to race and identity, providing readers with an insightful perspective on American culture. His memoirs offer a personal look into his own experiences and thoughts, further enriching his exploration of these themes.

  • The Needle's Eye by Fanny Howe

    "The Needle's Eye" is a collection of essays that explores the themes of childhood, spirituality, and social justice. The author uses personal anecdotes, literary references, and philosophical musings to examine the mysteries of faith, the complexities of human relationships, and the struggle for social equality. The book is a thought-provoking exploration of the human condition and the search for meaning in a chaotic world.

  • Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag

    "Ghachar Ghochar" is a compelling novella that explores the dynamics of a close-knit Indian family whose lives change dramatically after a sudden financial windfall. The story, narrated by an unnamed protagonist, examines the moral and emotional complexities that arise from their newfound wealth, leading to tension, corruption, and a disintegration of their former values. The title, a nonsense phrase coined by the family, symbolizes the tangled mess their lives have become - a situation so complicated that it's beyond any solution.

  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

    The novel follows the story of a teenage girl who witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. Living in a poor neighborhood but attending a predominantly white, wealthy private school, she must navigate the dichotomy of these two very different worlds while grappling with the trauma of her friend's death. As she becomes more involved in activism and advocacy, she must confront the reality of racism, police brutality, and societal injustice.

  • All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

    The novel follows the life of a 39-year-old single, childfree woman living in New York City who is dealing with the societal pressures and expectations of adulthood. Her journey is marked by her struggle to find happiness and fulfillment in her own terms, despite her unconventional lifestyle. The protagonist grapples with her relationships, career, and the looming presence of her family's tragedies, all while trying to understand what it truly means to be "all grown up".

  • The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir by Thi Bui

    This illustrated memoir captures the story of a Vietnamese family who fled to America after the fall of South Vietnam in the 1970s. The narrative traces their journey and struggles as refugees, while also delving into the family's complex history and relationships. The author uses her own experiences as a new mother to explore themes of parenthood, identity, and the enduring effects of displacement and trauma.

  • Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions by Valeria Luiselli

    This book is a powerful exploration of the critical issue of child immigration, focusing on the experiences of Central American children who arrive in the United States without their parents. The narrative is structured around 40 questions that the author, as a court interpreter, must ask the children to help determine their fate. The book provides a deeply personal and moving account of the human stories behind the ongoing debate over immigration and asylum laws.

  • Priestdaddy: A Memoir by Patricia Lockwood

    This memoir follows the unique life of a woman who grew up in an unusual religious family. After a financial crisis forces her and her husband to move back in with her parents, she reflects on her upbringing in a household where her father, a Catholic priest, held an eccentric and often contradictory sway over the family. The book explores themes of faith, family dynamics, and the struggle to find one's identity amidst the chaos of an unconventional childhood.

  • Red Clocks by Leni Zumas

    In a world where abortion has become illegal in America, in-vitro fertilization is banned and the Personhood Amendment grants rights of life, liberty, and property to every embryo, five women navigate these new barriers. A single high-school teacher desperate for a child, a frustrated mother of two, a pregnant teenager, a polar explorer from the 19th century, and a maverick herbalist facing charges of attempted murder for trying to help women with unwanted pregnancies, all grapple with the implications of these restrictive laws on their lives and identities.

  • The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories by Denis Johnson

    "The Largesse of the Sea Maiden: Stories" is a collection of five short stories that explore the human condition in all its raw beauty and despair. The stories weave together themes of death, loss, and redemption, with characters ranging from an advertising executive facing a terminal illness to an incarcerated man reflecting on his past. The narratives are imbued with the author's signature blend of grit, grace, and dark humor, offering a poignant exploration of life's complexities and contradictions.

  • Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday

    This novel consists of two seemingly unrelated sections. The first part is a love story between a young American editor and a much older, famous writer. The second part is about an Iraqi-American economist detained by immigration officers in London. The two narratives converge in a surprising way, exploring themes of power imbalances, injustice, and the complexity of human relationships.

About this list

Vulture, 100 Books

A panel of critics tells us what belongs on a list of the 100 most important books of the 2000s … so far.

Added over 5 years ago.

How Good is this List?

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