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1. Candide by Voltaire (1759). In this withering satire of eighteenth-century optimism, Candide wanders the world testing his tutor Pangloss’s belief that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” When Candide loses his true love, gets flogged in the army, injured in an earthquake, and robbed in the New World, he finally muses, “If this is the best of all possible worlds, what are the others?” In response to life’s mysteries, he concludes, the best we can do is patiently cultivate our own gardens.
2. Henry V by William Shakespeare (1599). The final play in the Second Henriad (with Henry IV, Parts I and II), Henry V is, ostensibly, a celebration of Henry’s victory over his archenemy, the French, at Agincourt in 1415. Henry thus construed is a great national hero. But the play actually subverts, or at least compromises, such a reading. We see Henry collude with the church to prosecute a vicious campaign for nationalistic, rather than necessary, reasons. The brave king broods on the burdens of kingship and the righteousness of his cause, but then casually orders the slaughter of French prisoners. The epilogue looks forward to the reign of Henry VI, who lost all that Henry V gained and more, as if to question the worth of all this killing.
3. The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner (1929). A modernist classic of Old South decay, this novel circles the travails of the Compson family from four different narrative perspectives. All are haunted by the figure of Caddy, the only daughter, whom Faulkner described as “a beautiful and tragic little girl.” Surrounding the trials of the family itself are the usual Faulkner suspects: alcoholism, suicide, racism, religion, money, and violence both seen and unseen. In the experimental style of the book, Quentin Compson summarizes the confused honor and tragedy that Faulkner relentlessly evokes: “theres a curse on us its not our fault is it our fault.”
4. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers (1940). After his roommate of ten years becomes mentally ill, the deaf-mute John Singer moves to a boarding house, where he serves as an emotional buffer for a host of isolated “grotesques” who pro ject their own longing onto him. This inspiringly sad story of misfits in a working-class Georgia town is attuned to the racial and social dynamics of the Depression-era South. Yet, McCullers also conveys a pervasive loneliness and desperation broader than any given historical moment.
5. East of Eden by John Steinbeck (1952). A retelling of Cain and Abel set in California’s Salinas Valley between the Civil War and World War I, this novel takes off when Adam Trask realizes that maybe he shouldn’t have married the lovely yet soulless prostitute Cathy Ames: on their wedding night she betrays him with his brother. Still, they produce twin boys, but Cathy, driven by undeniable demons, forsakes the newborns for her old life. Adam tells his rivalrous sons —Caleb, the bad penny, and sweet Aron —their mother is dead. But when Caleb learns the truth, the family’s uneasy peace gives way to mayhem and a searing battle between good and evil as characters grapple with their destiny.
6. Hombre by Elmore Leonard (1961). Displaying his trademark ability to turn pulp into art, Leonard elevates the classic Western through the story of John Russell, a white man raised partly by Apache Indians who taught him how to fight and survive. The action begins when Russell boards a stagecoach and is rejected by passengers because of his roots. When outlaws pounce, the others turn to him for protection. Will he or won’t he? Leonard answers that question in this action-filled tale while probing Western myths, issues of race, and our responsibilities to our unlikable fellow man.
7. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood (2003). In this richly imagined speculative novel spiked with doomsday humor, Atwood envisions a world where our hubris, obsessions with technology and profit, and environmental abuse result in hell on earth. As her rueful narrator, Snowman, struggles to survive in a harsh postapocalyptic world, he becomes a reluctant guru for a bioengineered tribe of innocents (created by the mad genius, Crake), recalls his ruthlessly competitive lost world, and asks: What does it mean to be human?
8. Montana 1948 by Larry Watson (1993). In language that is as direct and spare as the title, twelve-year-old David Hayden tells of the summer when his father, the sheriff of Mercer County, Montana, is forced to choose between justice and family. Watson evokes the Montana landscape and mindset masterfully, but his true accomplishment is the unadorned but subtle portrayal of a flawed man seeking to do the right thing in the face of terrible pressure.
9. Rabbit Angstrom — Rabbit, Run (1960), Rabbit Redux (1971), Rabbit Is Rich (1981), Rabbit at Rest (1990) — by John Updike. Read as four discrete stories or as a seamless quartet, the Rabbit novels are a tour de force chronicle, critique, and eloquent appreciation of the American white Protestant middle-class male and the swiftly shifting culture around him in the last four decades of the twentieth century. From his feckless youth as a promising high school athlete and unready husband and father in Rabbit, Run; through vulgar affluence, serial infidelity, and guilt as a car dealer in Rabbit Redux; to angry bewilderment over 1970s social upheaval in Rabbit Is Rich, the meaningfully named Rabbit Angstrom gamely tries to keep up with it all, to be a good guy. But the world is too much with, and for, Rabbit, who staggers through literal and metaphorical heart failure before finally falling in Rabbit at Rest.
10. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985). Márquez takes the love triangle to the limit in this story of an ever hopeful romantic who waits more than fifty years for his first love. When his beloved’s husband dies after a long, happy marriage, Florentino Ariza immediately redeclares his passion. After the enraged widow rejects him, he redoubles his efforts. Set on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, this wise, steamy, and playful novel jumps between past and present, encompassing decades of unrest and war, recurring cholera epidemics, and the environmental ravages of development.