Another Country (1962) by James Baldwin
Rufus is a black man and failed jazz musician. Rufus is abusive to his southern, white girlfriend, Leona. In a fit of despair, he kills himself by jumping off the George Washington Bridge. What follows is the meltdown of his small group of friends.
Cass and Richard are in a loveless marriage. Vivaldo can't finish the novel he's been working on for years and starts to sleep with Rufus' sister Ida. Eric is gay and has a sexual history with Rufus. He returns to the US from France and starts sleeping with Cass. No one can see the racism and classism that cages them all in. It all falls apart.
A beautiful study of a specific time and place in US history. Magical and unpredictable,this is the art of characters being unable to accept the world at hand and unwilling to move passed it when they are confronted with it.
How To Live; OR Life of Montaigne In One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010) by Sarah Bakewell
How does one live? In 2011 it is almost a shocking question to try to answer. Sarah Bakewell attempts to by drawing from one of the strangest works of non-fiction ever written.
First published in 1580, Montaigne's Essays is a sprawling, rambling attempt to explain everything. Literally. He traces his own thought process through endless corridors. Each of the 107 essays is a meditation on the man as much as the topic he supposedly is discussing. Bakewell takes the Essays and turns them inside out in an attempt to see how Montaigne thought and to examine what lessons we can glean from them today. To actually explain how Montaigne lived is to explain how humanity lives.
Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine (2010) by Alina Bronsky
"As my daughter Sulfia was explaining that she was pregnant but that she didn't know by whom, I paid extra attention to my posture. I sat with ,y back perfectly straight and folded my hands elegantly in my lap."
This is how we are introduced to Rosa and her 17 year old daughter Sulfia. What follows is a farce of Soviet-era refugees in Germany. Rosa is a beleaguered woman. Her husband is an idiot, her daughter stupid, and everyone around her is less then she wants or needs. The book follows about two decades of the family's life.
What feels like a simple light novel about family pain turns out to be so much more. Bronsky weaves beautiful characters that breathe on the page and threaten to move in with you. Rosa is one of the most infuriating creations I've ever seen. She is an unreliable narrator, foul tempered and fussy, but you love her so much more for it.
Broken Glass Park (2008) by Alina Bronsky
I enjoyed Hottest Dishes so I decided to check out Bronsky's recently first novel. You can see the growth between the two books. Hottest Dishes is more ambitious, funnier, it reaches a littler further out of the box. Broken Glass Park is much darker, more brutal, serious. A quick scan of this book's first paragraph compared to Hottest Dishes will tell you much:
"Sometimes I think I'm the only one in our neighborhood with any worthwhile dreams. I have two, and there's no reason to be ashamed of either one. I want to kill Vadim. And I want to write a book about my mother. I already have a title: The Story of an Idiotic Redheaded Woman Who Would Still Be Alive If Only She Had Listened To Her Smart Oldest Daughter."
That is Sascha, a teenage misanthrope who before novels end will have taken care of her aunt and little sister as well as plotted a murder and taken a naive boys virginity. Brutally honest with a concrete ending.
Just Kids (2010) by Patti Smith
What can be said about a book that is universally praised?
Read this book. It is rapture.