Usually, undergrads are so caught up in the classics that their contemporary lit game is embarrassingly weak. The most pretentious of them won’t even pick up a novel published in the twenty-first century unless it’s been extensively analyzed, venerated, republished, and enthroned in the imaginary literature Valhalla they all seem to think exists. Use this an an opportunity to go on the offensive with some of the present-day greats they definitely should have read (but probably haven’t).
Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer
It’s important you know about the three big Jonathans of contemporary lit: Jonathan Franzen (the really opinionated one), Jonathan Lethem (the genre-bender), and Jonathan Safran Foer (the Jewish vegetarian). All of these guys have rightly occupied lofty perches on best-seller lists, so they border on being too “mainstream” for some purist literature students. Don’t let that deter you, as they’ve all written books worthy of the praise they’ve received. Foer’s novel is a work of magical realism interwoven with two separate plots; the first follows the journey of the author as he travels to the Ukraine in search of the woman who saved his grandmother’s life during the Nazi occupation, and the second is the sad story of a family in the small town that Jonathan and his hilarious translator Alexi are searching for. The movie adaption is also worth watching—it stars Elijah Wood and the gypsy punk Eugene Hutz.
- Say this: “Foer published this when he was 24. When’s your award-winning best-seller coming out?”
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Diaz
More recent times have given rise to increased publication of works by authors of different ethnicities, who write to give voice to minorities that have been hugely underrepresented in Western literature. Dominican writer Junot Diaz’s 2007 novel is a multi-voiced, multi-generational story that follows the ill-fated life of Oscar and his cursed family. Although it’s set in present-day New Jersey where Oscar’s family now lives, the novel often shifts focus to delve into the experience of Dominicans living under the bloody dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo.
- Say this: “Oscar’s ability to ultimately overcome Trujillo’s fuku certainly gives hope to the awkward comic book nerd in us all.”
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Similar to Diaz’s book, Americanah is another powerful story that deals with the immigrant experience. It focuses on the lives of two characters who fell in love while they were in a Nigerian university; Ifemelu warily comes to America on a scholarship and eventually starts a blog about the racism and obstacles she and others have experienced, while Obinze struggles to make a life for himself as an undocumented immigrant in London. It’s not only an important novel about the African diaspora and race problems within developed countries, it’s also an authentic and refreshing exploration of human experience.
- Say this: “The reign of dead white guys with beards has finally ended.”