A Sportsman’s Notebook by Ivan Turgenev (1852). Set in the Russian countryside, this series of linked, introspective story-essays describes the rambles of a young nobleman shooting game on the vast estates of Russia’s aristocracy.
A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams (1947). Set in the once working-class French Quarter of New Orleans, Williams tells the story of Blanche DuBois, an alcoholic relic of the waning genteel South, and her brother-in-law, the sensuous working-class brute Stanley Kowalski.
A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (1993). This novel is, at its core, a love story: Lata and her mother, Mrs. Rupa Mehra, are both trying to find—through love or through exacting maternal appraisal—a suitable boy for Lata to marry.
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens (1859). It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.... These well-known and loved lines begin Dickens's novel set during the bloodiest moments of the French Revolution. When former aristocrat Charles Darnay learns that an old family servant needs his help, he abandons his safe haven in England and returns to Paris.
A Voice Through a Cloud by Denton Welch (1950). “Though Welch has the abilities of a novelist,” John Updike wrote, “misfortune made him a kind of prophet.” In this autobiographical novel, Welch describes the bicycle accident that left him partially paralyzed at age twenty, the painful treatments he suffered, and the loneliness he endured.
Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (1936). Weaving mythic tales of biblical urgency with the experimental techniques of high modernism, Faulkner bridged the past and future. This is the story of Thomas Sutpen, a rough-hewn striver who came to Mississippi in 1833 with a gang of wild slaves from Haiti to build a dynasty.
Aesop’s Fables (c. sixth century b.c.e.). Though their origins are vague—Aesop may have been born a slave in Asia Minor in 620 b.c.e.—these tales use talking animals to personify human virtues and vices. Fables such as “The Hare and the Tortoise,” “The Lion and the Mouse” and “The Fox Who Lost His Tail” show that “slow and steady wins the race,” “appearances can be deceiving,” and “misery loves company.”
Ahab’s Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund (1999). “Captain Ahab was neither my first husband nor my last” reads the opening line of this novel, which imagines the life of the woman married to the obsessive captain from Moby-Dick. And what a life it was—running away from home, posing as a boy to get aboard a whaling ship, tragedy at sea, cannibalism, and then domestic life in New Bedford, Massachusetts.