The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks

If you’ve ever had any contact with the Hebrew Bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament), then you probably know a little bit about the story of King David. Often recognized as the first person in history to have a biography written about him from birth to death, his tale is one of epic …

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

The Nightingale tells the tale of two French sisters in World War II. Vianne is timid and self-conscious, and feels herself to be weak. Her husband is her foundation, and her eight-year-old daughter Sophie is her joy. Isabelle, however, is vivacious and rebellious. Kicked out of countless boarding schools for bad behavior, she covers her …

Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta

Under the Udala Trees tracks the life and loves of Ijeoma, a Nigerian girl who discovers at a young age that she loves women and not men. Beginning with her experience of the war between Biafra and the Nigerian government, we follow Ijeoma when she is sent to another village to be a housegirl, where …

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie

The plot of Midnight’s Children revolves around the life of Saleem Sinai, a boy born in Bombay at the exact stroke of midnight when India achieved independence from British rule. Due to this ominous birth, Saleem’s life (and the lives of 1,000 other children born during that midnight hour) becomes magically and devastatingly intertwined with the life of the new India. Remember how, in Forest Gump, Gump always stumbles into some important moment in history by accident, or how his actions somehow lead to an important event taking place? Midnight’s Children is like that, but the tale is woven and braided together in such a complicated pattern that it’s difficult to understand how only one mind could have contained and produced it all. Elements repeat subtly and enchantingly; sorrow and joy are intertwined with such complexity that one feels, upon finishing the book, that one has lived through someone else’s lifetime—it’s exhausting and disorienting to say the least, and yet it’s an experience unparalleled in all my years of reading.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

As an anthropologist, I’m always torn when I read books about other cultures, straddling the line between a fascination with how other people live and think and a hyper-critical eye toward how those people are represented. That is, until I discovered Behind the Beautiful Forevers. The story is one of incredible insight and nuance. Although …

The Woman in the Dunes, by Kobe Abe

Imagine a world enveloped in endless waves of sand. You find yourself, somehow, held hostage in an eerie village pocked with cavernous sand pits, tasked day in and day out with shoveling back the encroaching sand. The sand never stops flowing; it rots your skin and crusts in your throat as you sleep. There is …

First Frost, by Sarah Addison Allen

Captivating. That was the word floating in my head from the first to the last page of First Frost. Allen’s prose winds itself around your senses, wrapping tiny tendrils of wonder through your imagination. The book manages an almost effortless mingling of bright, dream-peppered youth and astute yet self-questioning adulthood. This seamless narrative concoction lends …

The Rainman’s Third Cure: An Irregular Education

Ok. I don’t usually like autobiographies, but I’m making an exception for this one. It’s probably because Peter Coyote’s personal charm and presence of mind pervade the writing. It might be because he went to my alma mater (Grinnell College) and was my first big interview as a writer. Maybe it’s because he has an …

A Fall of Marigolds, by Susan Meissner

In many ways, A Fall of Marigolds is reminiscent of Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier, only it has fewer layers and less depth. The story follows a beautiful patterned scarf, which is associated with love, loss and courage for two women separated by 100 years. Taryn, a single mother living in New …