Living Rich: Contemporary “Classics”

What do a Jewish teenager… the American son of Indian immigrants… and a hermaphrodite have in common? Keep reading to find out…

One of the best and least expensive (even free!) ways to live a rich and full life is to immerse yourself in good books. Of course, with around 300,000 books published each year in the U.S. alone, it can be next to impossible to know what’s worth reading and what isn’t.

To get you started on some contemporary novels, I’ve listed a few of my favorites. All three are bildungsromans – coming-of-age stories that involve a transformation of self. All three are beautifully written. And all three should help you see the world from a new perspective.

Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer. This book follows two young men – Alex and Jonathan – as they track down the Ukrainian woman who saved Jonathan’s grandfather from the Nazis. Alex’s “blind” grandfather and his “seeing-eye dog” Sammy Davis Jr., Jr. guide Jonathan on his journey as Alex translates. Alex (who narrates much of the book) is Ukrainian, and his English isn’t perfect. Jonathan is a germaphobe and a vegetarian. Interweaved throughout is a history of Jonathan’s great-great-great-great-grandmother Brod, retold as a magical, mythical fable. Underlying everything is the horror of World War II – and the pain that often comes with self-discovery.

Why you’ll love this book: The book is satisfying on both a literary and an emotional level. The writing is different from what you find in a typical novel – but unlike so many “experimental” writers, it doesn’t seem forced. Nor is it irritating. And Foer really pulls you in and makes the characters a part of you. It’s at times humorous, fantastical, and gut-wrenching – and always original.

Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. “I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.” After this startling beginning, you’ll go on to discover that there is more to protagonist Calliope Stephanides than meets the eye. The book also covers Calliope’s family history – and the events leading up to her realization that she does not fit the female identity she’s been living with. And, echoing Calliope’s inner struggle, it touches on the political and economic turmoil – in Asia Minor, Detroit, and Berlin – around the Stephanides family.

Why you’ll love this book: This isn’t your run-of-the-mill “girl finds herself” novel. The very heart of this book is different. But even more appealing is the rich world swirling around outside of Calliope’s inner journey.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. Gogol Ganguli’s unusual first name is the first thing that sets him apart from his peers. And throughout this novel – which covers 25 years of Gogol’s life – he is reminded again and again that he doesn’t quite fit in. While the book circles around some of Gogol’s romances, it’s really about a love affair with his cultural identity.

Why you’ll love this book: In addition to containing lovely, descriptive prose, and following flawed, complex, and relatable characters, this book has universal appeal. It speaks to American-born children of immigrants who are struggling to resolve both sides of their identities. It speaks to Americans who may not understand the feeling of separateness their friends may be experiencing. And, in fact, it speaks to anyone who’s ever felt different or out of place.

Each of the above books costs less than $12 on Amazon. Or you can check them out for free at your local library.

[Ed. Note: Tell us which books you think are worth reading right here.]