If you go home with someone and they don’t own any books, don’t fuck ‘em. — John Waters said that. Not me. I wish it were me though.
Ten fiction novels I loved, and think you might like too, though it’s possible you won’t like them at all, in fact, you might hate them, in which case, you will have read a book that you did not like.
1. Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012)
Indian Horse by the late Ojibway author Richard Wagamese is essential reading, especially if you’re Canadian — however, I recommend this book to everyone, highly.
Indian Horse follows Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway man from northern Ontario that was forcibly removed from his family as a young boy during the ‘Sixties Scoop’ (the Canadian government separated aboriginal children from their homes and their families and forced them to these schools, which were funded by the Canadian federal government, and ran by churches. The residential school system has been formally recognized by the Canadian government as cultural genocide.)
If you want to understand more about the lasting and deeply troubling impacts of the residential schools on aboriginal people, look no further than Indian Horse. I have yet to read a novel that so beautifully and harrowingly takes on the topic of residential schools and traces the trauma it caused for the lives of those aboriginal children that were forced to go to these schools. The residential schools operated between the 1870s and 1990s — the last residential school in Canada closed in 1996, only 26 years ago. Indian Horse is a short, powerful book that has stuck with me through the years ever since I read it, and I’ve recommended it countlessly to others, and have yet to hear someone say they didn’t love it.
2. White Ivy by Susie Yang (2020)
White Ivy by Susie Yang is so, so good. I rarely hear people talk about it, and have yet to see someone recommend the debut novel here on Medium. I could easily be mistaken, and I apologize if that’s the case. If you’ve read the novel, please let me know in the comments, I’m curious to hear your thoughts!
White Ivy is a literary fiction novel that follows Ivy Yang, a Chinese-born American-raised young woman that is utterly tenacious, and maybe a little misguided too. It’s a rags to riches story with unexpected twists and turns and has thriller-ish elements, but it’s not a thriller proper. I found White Ivy to be compulsively readable, instantly gratifying and had a hard time putting it down physically, which is why I binge-read it.
However, unlike a lot of binge-y reads, sometimes you find yourself feeling dissatisfied after like what you read doesn’t stick. That’s not the case here. White Ivy is about social status, it’s a nod to classic novels like The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and also contemporary classics, like The Secret History by Donna Tart. I loved it, I wish more people read it and maybe this list will inspire some to actually pick it up, who knows?!
3. Educated by Tara Westover (2018)
Educated by Tara Westover is a memoir that’s received significant acclaim and hype, and I’m here to say you can trust what the people say about this book. Usually I shy away from books that are super-hyped, but Educated reminded me that sometimes people know what’s good.
Educated is a memoir based on Tara Westover’s incredulous upbringing in her Mormon fundamentalist, survivalist family, living in Utah. Tara never went to public school, she was never issued a birth certificate (along with her siblings,) and she, along with her family member live on the fringes of society and are off-the-grid, so to speak. Her father is an extremist with clear mental health problems, and the family endures psychological abuse and is also often put in physically precarious and dangerous situations.
I describe this book as ‘incredulous’, because that’s how I felt while reading it — how can this be real? Besides that, Tara is inspiring, she is bright, determined, and does not try to pull sympathy from her readers (which is something I worry about when it comes to memoirs.) I was engrossed in her story and her ability to work with what she was given. This is a book that can take you out of a reading slump and make you excited to read again. Check it out, if you haven’t.
4. An Exciting And Vivid Inner Life by Paul Dalla Rosa (2022)
An Exciting And Vivid Inner Life has all the elements I look for in a book. That said, it might not be for everyone, which is okay, and I’m learning to accept that not everyone likes the same books as me. To give you taste of Rosa’s writing (so you can see if it’s for you,) here’s an excerpt:
“I tried to read but it was hard. I had to be calm, which meant I had to be drunk. I had only brought a few novels with me into the country and so I reread the same ones. Instead of reading a whole book, I would read from the parts where the protagonist was at their lowest and in the last thirty pages somehow steps out of the narrative reborn.”
It’s like that throughout, and it’s not plot-heavy. It’s a collection of clever, insightful, and genuinely funny short stories that follow a cast of confused characters that are trying to find their place in the world. Rosa’s writing style reminds me of Elif Batuman in its humour and observational acuity, along with the general fact that his writing is an absolute pleasure to read. I’ve heard he’s working on his first proper novel, and I’ll be waiting to pick that one up as soon as it comes out. SO, if you’re looking for a read that will grip you from the first page —An Exciting and Vivid Inner Life should do the trick.
5–6. The Idiot by Elif Batuman (2017) and Either/Or (2022)
Yes, I’m going for two books, respectively for my 5th and 6th choices on this list — The Idiot and Either/Or, both by Elif Batuman. Either/Or is a sequel novel to the acclaimed debut novel: The Idiot. Both books stand on their own, and you don’t need to read The Idiot before reading Either/Or (but you should.)
Both novels follow Selín, a student starting at Harvard University studying Russian Literature, and she is not an idiot. Selín ends up going to a tiny Hungarian village because she thinks she loves a boy named Ivan, or maybe she does love him. Though not ‘plot-heavy’ in the strict sense of the term, The Idiot does not lack in excitement, and I felt smitten reading it the whole way through. Selín is objectively cool and is someone I would want as a friend. Misguided? Sure. Young, naive, precocious — maybe. But she’s honest and perceptive, clever and quippy, and she puts in words what we’re all thinking.
The Idiot came out in 2017 (which is when I first read it,) I don’t personally Tik-Tok, but I’ve heard it’s gained recognition over there on ‘Book-Tok’, which is great to hear. If Batuman’s writing was not resonating with the people, that would be a concern (a personal one, for me.)
Batuman’s sequel to The Idiot, Either/Or was released earlier back in March of this year (not to be confused with Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, though that’s what it’s named after,) and it brought Selín back into our lives, picking up where we left off, and following her through another year at Harvard, navigating being a young, single woman that’s probably more interesting and smarter than most of the people around her (except maybe not, since they’re at Harvard.)
So you can get a sense of whether Batuman’s writing is for you, here’s an excerpt from Either/Or:
“I found myself remembering a book I’d read where a woman looked in a mirror for the first time after seven years in a gulag, and the face looking back at her wasn’t her own, but that of her mother. I immediately recognized how shameful, self-important, and obtuse it was for me, an American college student who hadn’t checked email for three months, to compare herself to a political prisoner who had spent seven years in a gulag. But it was too late — I had already thought of it.”
Both books are great to read them both!
7. The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevson (2021)
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Danish author Tove Ditlevson is made up of three parts: childhood, youth, and dependency. Ditlevson is a renowned Danish author, The Copenhagen Trilogy is her seminal work and it was recently translated in 2019 by Michael Favala Goldman, and is now available to read for English-speaking audiences.
Ditlevson’s writing is deeply personal, confessional, and prescient in the sense that Ditlevson herself was ahead of her time. The Copenhagen Trilogy is a memoir comprised of Childhood, which delves into Ditlevson’s life growing up, she talks about her passion for writing and becoming a poet. We learn how important writing is to her, and how much it means to her to become a poet and a writer (especially as a woman, at a time when women were not respected as writers.)
The section on Youth is where she looks to find a partner and husband and start a family. I don’t want to give anything away here, though it’s not really a spoiler-y type of book. It’s dark, at times depressing, and tragic. It’s the way Ditlevson writes about her life that is like nothing I’ve read before, and it’s her writing that makes this book unforgettable, and one I recommend (but only if you’re also into depressing and dark novels, happy books are not really my thing.)
8. The Day of the Locust (1939)
The Day of the Locust by Nathanael West follows the protagonist Todd Hackett, a young artist that graduated from Yale and moves to Hollywood to work on movie and television sets. What a shame it is that this book doesn’t get more attention, I read it many years ago and I’m considering rereading it now.
The Day of the Locust is a novel about people that go to Hollywood chasing dreams of stardust, only to find that they’ve bought into a lie. It’s a gritty look at the underside of Hollywood, with a cast of characters that are depraved and somewhat morally deplorable (read: Faye Greener.)These characters are unforgettable, not to mention — it’s from this book that Homer Simpson got his name, from Nathanael West’s original Homer Simpson (who, by the way, is nothing like the cartoon character we know.) This book is criminally underrated, highly entertaining and one you should read asap.
9. Luster by Raven Leilani (2020)
Another kick-ass debut novel, Raven Leilani’s Luster was all the rage in 2020 when it first came out, and it’s deserving of every word of appreciation it receives. Leilani is a gifted writer and she can write a book and develop a character for damn sure. The story follows Edie, a young African American woman that lives in New York City and is trying to make ends meet, and figure her shit out.
She starts seeing an older married man, and things get just so weird and move in directions you will not suspect. This book is hilarious and I can guarantee it will pull you out of a reading slump and make you excited to pick it up. I was glued, (glued!!) to the pages, I loved occupying Edie’s internal mind, and reading her thoughts and observations was a treat I hope to receive again soon. I can’t wait for Leilani comes out with her next novel, which hopefully is sooner rather than later.
10. The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2019)
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez is about an unnamed narrator whose friend, that’s a famous novelist, commits suicide leaving his Great Dane named Apollo behind. The friend (or protagonist in the novel) then takes it upon herself to provide a home for this massive dog, despite her apartment’s regulations that there are no dogs allowed.
If that premise doesn’t sound promising to you, I get it, that summary wouldn’t exactly compel me either. But like most books, the devil is in the details, and it’s about the writing, and Sigrid Nunez is a first-rate writer. She has an observational quality and humour to her writing that is entirely my thing and up my street. Her most recent novel, What Are You Going Through?, is another compulsively readable novel, and I patiently wait until Nunez delivers us another one of her thoughtful and clever novels.