Much maligned in these politically correct decades as the father of all colonialist Dead White Males, Kipling is, to this African-American woman at least, simply a cultural product of his age, and he remains one of the great storytellers of all time. Kim, his masterpiece, set in the India of the Raj, is the tale of ragtag English-Irish orphan Kim O'Hara, who scrapes together a living in the streets and bazaars of Lahore. When he impulsively becomes the traveling companion of a Tibetan lama on a pilgrimage, the boy steps into a mad series of adventures throughout India. The breakneck plot eventually allows Kim to claim his strange heritage—that of a white Briton whose heart lies in the subcontinent. The book—which for its epoch is quite respectful of Indian culture—is simultaneously a passionately observed travelogue, a Buddhist parable, a coming-of-age story, and a thumping good spy-adventure yarn. What more could anyone want?
Winter's Tales By Isak Dinesen
I discovered Isak Dinesen when I was at Harvard, and her work transformed my idea of fiction. Nowadays she is mainly known for Out of Africa, her exquisite memoir of life in colonial Kenya, but I prefer these wonderful stories. They are like folktales reconfigured by a fiercely original mind, and they are brought to life with colorful description that borders on poetry. Stories like "Sorrow-Acre" are dramas about the nature of love and destiny and death whose scenes remain in the mind like baroque miniatures. "The Sailor-Boy's Tale" is a compressed epic, and "Alkmene," reminiscent of Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, shows the sad waste that ensues when a romantic hero and heroine refuse love.
Goodbye, Columbus By Philip Roth
I'm a sucker for novellas. This story of the doomed summer romance of Brenda Patimkin—the original Jewish princess—of Short Hills, New Jersey, and Neil Klugman, the poor librarian from Newark, was published when Roth was 26, and it has the crisp assurance of young genius. With a light touch, Roth takes on big contemporary themes—race, religion, social class, the generation gap, the price of following the American Dream. Neil's temptation in a world of swimming pools and nose jobs and suburban splendor is not a small one: to give up his freedom, and probably his immortal soul, in exchange for the golden girl, Brenda. Yet none of this weighs on the reader; we spend our time laughing at nouveau riche antics, or bedazzled by Roth's enchanting imagery (Brenda's graceful head and neck as a long-stemmed rose; the Patimkin basement refrigerator as a cornucopia of fruit). Roth went on to produce greater works—Portnoy's Complaint, The Human Stain, The Plot Against America come to mind—but he has never again written with such high spirits.
Colored People By Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The world knows Gates as a groundbreaking scholar who has enlarged the canon of African-American history and literature. But did we know the man was funny? His memoir, Colored People, is one of my favorite books. The story of Gates's childhood in the hamlet of Piedmont, West Virginia (population 2,500), is both a self-portrait and a warm, sometimes poignant, sometimes hilarious depiction of a close-knit African-American community with a century of roots in the region. Although Tolstoy maintains that all happy families are alike, Gates's clan appears unique, as we watch him grow up on Rat Tail Road, sustained by a lively throng of kin—his millworker father, his cultured mother, his uncles, aunts, and the redoubtable matriarch Big Mom—whose talents and mutual support flourish even during the harshest years of segregation. Gates interweaves tales of town celebrations and scandals with autobiography, as the country moves through the dawn of the civil rights movement to the radicalism of the late sixties. "I am not Everynegro," he writes. "I am from and of a time and place—Piedmont, West Virginia…. So this is not a story of a race, but a story of a village, a family, and its friends. And of a sort of segregated peace." A classic as deeply American as Huckleberry Finn.
A Sportsman's Notebook By Ivan Turgenev
When I spent a student exchange year in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1970s, I was joined at the hip to a battered copy of Turgenev's classic, A Sportsman's Notebook. I was in the Lenin Library, writing my first book, Russian Journal, and this modest yet haunting collection of descriptions of 19th-century peasant life offered me generous insight into the soul of the enigmatic country around me. The compassionate eye of the narrator—a peripatetic rural gentleman whose hunting expeditions take him through the estates, villages, woods, and fields bordering his home—conveys to us the mixture of earthy humanity and soaring spiritual beauty typical of Russian literature and life, then and now. Episodes and personalities range from the near mystical (in "The Live Relic," a paralyzed peasant girl has become a sort of local saint) to the chilling (in "The Knocking," a group of drunken men seem to hint casually at murder). In Turgenev's time, A Sportsman's Notebook helped awaken the awareness of the Russian upper classes to the human qualities of the peasantry; nowadays it is an unforgettable portrait of a vanished world.
Roman Tales By Alberto Moravia
When I first came to Italy, I had this book in my suitcase. Moravia is renowned for novels like The Woman of Rome, but I prefer his short stories. This collection, published in the 1950s, is composed of tales narrated by working-class Romans. They are taxi drivers, paupers, dishwashers, and they speak of love, hatred, revenge, the twists of family life, and the quirks of fate in and around the teeming streets of the Eternal City. These funny, raunchy, oddly tender stories acted as a cultural translation for me before I learned to speak Italian; they showed me that Italy, contrary to its reputation, is not a place of grand romance or earthy innocence but a place where cynicism reigns, and where, as a result, most sinners are forgiven and welcomed at the dinner table. Roman Tales is saturated with the physical atmosphere of Italy: the smell of fresh coffee, the bitter taste of fava beans, the hubbub of markets. Moravia's prose also gives the feeling of timelessness, of being somehow close to myth. "Rain in May"—the story of lovers plotting patricide—suggests that in Rome, ancient forms of tragedy lie just below the surface of daily life.