Read a Goddamn Book: Contemporary Fiction

As I am now working at a bookstore, it seems appropriate that I should begin a list of book recommendations, doesn’t it? It turns out that not many customers ask for recommendations, but I decided to make a list anyways because I want to.

See, this list isn’t purely to tell you all what books you should read. While it is partially that, there are plenty of book lists out there on the internet.

This is more personal.

By making this list, I’m giving myself the chance to look back on all of the books I’ve read and see which ones were the most memorable and impactful. It also gives me the chance to remember all the books that I had planned to read, but never did for one reason or another.

If anything, making this list has made me realize that there’s a vast library of books that I have never opened. It’s humbling and depressing and exciting, all at the same time.

The list will be split into multiple parts that I will upload periodically with the post title Read a Goddamn Book followed by the genre I will be focusing on. The first (this post) will be on Contemporary Fiction.

Contemporary Fiction is defined as “a story set in modern times with no fantastical elements.” As you’ll soon see, I am a huge fan of sci-fi and fantasy, but I love contemporary fiction novels as well. As the books are grounded in realism, the characters are instantly relatable and thus, their stories are powerfully moving. If done right, of course. If you’re looking for books that challenge your perspective in life, contemporary fiction is for you.

And so, without further ado, here is my list.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
Anybody who’s recently asked me for a recommendation would know that I’ve been raving about this book. Most of the story is about an overweight, nerdy, and socially awkward Dominican American named Oscar and his futile search for love. Sounds…dumb? Trust me, this is one of the most fascinating and heartbreaking stories I have ever read. There’s a reason this book won the Pulitzer Prize. Flawlessly weaving the Spanish language, Dominican history and pop culture references into the story, the prose is wonderfully unique and has even inspired me to incorporate more Korean into my own work. This book remains in my top ten favorite books of all time.
(And yes, there’s some magical realism included, but whatever. Don’t nitpick. It doesn’t look good on you.)

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Hosseini’s debut novel, The Kite Runner, is an amazing book. This is, dare I say it, even better. Following two Afghan women throughout multiple decades with a horribly abusive husband and the rise of the Taliban, this novel pulls absolutely no punches. But then again, this is the author who wrote about child rape in his first book, so what did you expect? And despite the overwhelming amount of violence and misery that the characters are subjected to, there is an unmistakable undercurrent of hope that keeps you invested and wanting. If you want a real, unflinching look at what it meant to be a woman in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, read this novel.

Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami
This is my first (and only, which I need to fix) foray into Murakami’s work. And man, I understand why he receives so much praise. This is a simple story of a Tokyo college student and his relationships with two vastly different girls. Beyond that, there’s hardly a plot and it’s more about the atmosphere that Murakami creates. It’s a strange mixture of a college student’s despondent feelings of going nowhere in life and the confusing intricacies of love. So if you like lots of action in your stories, you probably won’t like this slow-burning, introspective type of book. It’s very artsy-farsty.
Also, I don’t know if it’s because of the differences in Japanese sentence structure or if it’s exclusive to Murakami, but the way the words flow and express thought is simply beautiful. Sorry, you guys probably don’t care about that, but the English major in me was constantly geeking out. Major props to the translator too.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel
Pi is the son of an Indian zoo owner who, after the ship containing all of their animals sinks, is left stranded alone on a lifeboat with an adult Bengal tiger. However, that’s not a wholly accurate summary of the book, although that’s what it’s marketed as. As much as it is a survival story, it’s also a very spiritual one. I’ve known people who began to read it and were turned off by the long first portion of the book where Pi explains his childhood and how he decided to practice Hinduism, Christianity, and Islam all at the same time. Actually, I was one of them. I just wanted to see him train the tiger, dammit!
Which is understandable and, no doubt, that part is extremely exciting and impressive. But after I finally brought myself to read it, I realized that beginning is necessary to truly understand Pi’s character and his spirituality that he clings to throughout his ordeal. It’s what gives the rest of the story gravitas and power.
People who know me know that I’m not a particularly religious guy. But this is the book that makes me want to believe.

Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts
This semi-autobiographical book follows Gregory Roberts who, in the book, goes by the fake name of Lindsay Ford. He is an escaped Australian convict who arrives in Bombay, gets robbed, and is forced to live in the slums. He sets up a free health clinic and as the story progresses, integrates himself into the culture, evades authorities, trades with lepers, gets involved with criminal organizations, and a whole bunch of other things.
I don’t know if anyone will follow my recommendations, but if there’s one book among these five that I’m sure very few people will read, it’s this one. Why do I make this pompous and presumptuous prediction? First off, it’s really long. The paperback copy that I have is 933 pages. And secondly, it’s just so dense without a real sense of plot. It’s hands down one of the hardest books I have ever read.
That said, I think it’s a masterpiece. There’s another word for dense and that’s rich. Roberts’ descriptions are so vivid and vibrant, Bombay leaps out of the page and paints itself right in front of your eyes. The story is fascinating yet meandering, exciting yet exhausting, unbelievable yet so earnest, all at the same time. It’s an experience.

Honorable mentions: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

What I Want to Read Next: The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver, Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace, Room by Emma Donoghue

Reflection: Wow, that ended up a lot longer than I anticipated.
It’s interesting that none of the books are about white Americans. The only white protagonist is an Australian that lives in India. Hmmm.
Also, I need to get some more women writers in my life. I never consciously excluded women writers from my reading habits, but it seems to have happened anyways. It’s something for me to work on.

Anyways, I will probably post another one of these next week. Stay tuned!

P.S. If anybody has recommendations for me, please let me know! I love learning about new books.


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