Literature is shelved in the P section on the 2nd floor of Library West. The most recent contemporary American fiction is in the PS 3600s.
Other contemporary literature in English is in the PR 6100s.
Call number ranges:
PS 700 - PS 3626
PS 8001- PS 8599
PR 2199 - PR 6126
PL 2661 - PL 2979
PQ 1600 - PQ 2686
PT 1501 - PT 2728
PQ 4265 - PQ 4926
PL 784 - PL 866
PG 3300 - PG 3493.96
PQ 6271 - PQ 6726
Katherine Mansfield was a modernist writer born in New Zealand, but who spent most of her productive years in England. She is often compared to Virginia Woolf, or at least, early Woolf. Some of these stories are based in the New Zealand of Mansfield's childhood, and others in London. Mansfield explored deeply interiorized people, and was interested in the ways in which women responded to stereotyped gender roles. Previously viewed as a rather marginal figure in literary modernism, she has been rediscovered by feminist authors and scholars. She is a virtuoso at communicating mood through setting and symbolic elements.
If you're just trying the stories on for size, try "Miss Brill" first. It has one of the best moments of pathos I've ever seen in fiction and will make you regret it if you've ever made fun of lonely people. Also try "The Garden Party" for a brilliant evocation of New Zealand at the turn of the century.
Kate Atkinson, Behind the Scenes at the Museum
A funny, wry and thoroughly unreliable narrator. Borges once said that the purpose of reading is to inoculate the reader against textual innocence. This novel takes a shot (vaccine joke) at that. It also perfectly captures London in the post-war years, a kind of class consciousness that Americans never quite seem to grasp, the secrets families try to hide from each other and the outside world, and the way that children completely miss out on what the adults are doing. Trigger alert for the tender-hearted: a pet shop burns down (with pets). If you can’t stand the thought, even in fiction, read any other Atkinson novel (most of them contain happy, living dogs).
E. M. Forster, Howards End
Sexual politics before we had a name for sexual politics. Arguable E. M. Forster's greatest novel, it's currently 38th on the Modern Library's top 100 English-language novels of the 20th century list. The novel features a trio of middle class sisters trying to evolve out of class prejudice (and to help their aristocratic friends do the same). It also involves a plot to overturn a will, the vexed inheritance of an estate, manslaughter, sexual entanglements and hidden secrets, and the ways in which idealism can be blindsided by harsh reality. A novel that's as interesting as it is well-written. If you like the book, there's a Merchant Ivory production starring the redoubtable Emma Thompson, then married to Kenneth Branagh, and Helena Bonham Carter, soon to be married to Kenneth Branagh. Also Prunella Scales from Faulty Towers, and Anthony Hopkins just because he's magnificent.
J. G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun
Ballard will be remembered for his post-apocalyptic novels, many of them anticipating environmental crises that can no longer be called science fiction, but are entering the realm of our everyday lives. This semi-autobiographical novel, however, details the experiences of a young British boy separated from his parents in the chaos of the 1941 bombing of Shanghai harbor and detained in a Japanese concentration camp on the outskirts of the city for the duration of the World War II. This actually did happen to young Ballard, whose father worked for a British textile firm in China. In the novel, young James is forced to fall back on his own resourcefulness, curiosity, and charm to survive. In his real life, Ballard was interned along with his parents, rather than alone, but the book’s depiction of the despondence of British civilians who had ruled an empire, along with befuddled missionaries, functionaries, US expats and grifters, and a frustrated and increasingly desperate camp commander are compelling. As is young James’s admiration for the Japanese, especially the kamikaze pilots at the airstrip adjoining the camp, whom he sees as the most heroic people present. To balance that perspective, Ballard also shows you what young James failed to understand about his privileged life under the umbrella of colonialism, including the hatred felt for him by the Chinese he regards as disposable or inconvenient servants. It is a beautifully written and compelling novel, short-listed for the Booker Prize. There is also a film by Stephen Spielberg, which is unfortunately Spielberg at his most self-indulgent, but it features a 12-year old Christian Bale doing the best acting of his career.
If you loved Pride and Prejudice and Emma, well, now for something a little different. This is Jane Austen with a Gothic twist. That is to say, it's a deft parody of the gothic novels so popular during the Regency period. Austen sends up everyone, including Ann Radcliffe, Sir Walter Scott, and a lot of people now little read except by scholars in the field. The heroine, young Catherine Morland, has read too many Gothic novels, and so when she is invited to stay in an ancient abbey, she of course imagines it to be haunted, to be the scene of murder, and other things that usually happen in novels. This results in confusion, wrong impressions, and embarrassing errors, but fortunately there is a satisfactory ending to the whole thing.
Melissa Bank, The Girls' Guide to Hunting and Fishing
A very funny coming-of age novel (or rather, a series of interconnected short stories) narrated by a young teen learning about sexuality while she observes her family both finding partners and falling apart. I've heard a lot of students call it a chick book (a term I hate), but if you have already decided that you dislike chick books you might consider tht A) it's been translated into over 30 languages so you might be missing out on something, and B) you might want to learn something about how women actually live in the world in case you ever have to interact with one.
Reviewer "Flibberty Gibbet" on Amazon said the following about it, and I agree with their assessment completely:
"Someone gave this to me when I was a teenager, and it was like a light in the dark, murky world of insecurity and dating. The author is an incredibly versatile writer, mostly following the life of one character (Jane) but weaving in other stories as well. Overall the theme is about looking for love and dating, but instead of the usual "woman seeks Mr. Right and finds him at the end," the main character very frequently has to say goodbye to men she loves, because she is with them for the wrong reasons or it just doesn't work out. The book, and her story, isn't ultimately about finding Mr. Right at all - but about maintaining integrity as a person in the awkward, self-conscious quest that is dating."
Russell Banks, The Sweet Hereafter
This is a rich and complex novel with multiple narrators who each have a unique perspective on a tragedy that affects an entire small town in upstate New York. As you read, you learn how complicated motive can be, how our levels of stress and anxiety affect our judgment, and how complex our moral choices are in response to trauma. The story revolves around a school bus that slides on an icy road into a lake, killing fourteen children. The two survivors, the driver and a teenage girl, narrate, as well as the father of two of the dead children, and a lawyer who has come to town to try and drum up a lawsuit. It is a compelling, gripping story with an unpredictable ending.
If you like the book, there is also a lovely movie version, directed by Atom Egoyan, which contains an extended metaphor, something very difficult to do well in film. You can find the dvd at the Law Library. Library West has a copy on Blu-Ray.
Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm
Find the movie (sorry, we don't have it YET-- try Netflix). Make popcorn and brownies. Invite some friends who love books and movies, and would read The Great Gatsby again just because it's a good book. If you love the movie, get the book. If you don't think the movie is hilarious, you won't like the book either, so scroll down for other recommendations. The plot of this book is what would happen if Zelda Fitzgerald got lost in the English countryside, stumbled on some benighted farm family from the mid-19th century in need of a Jazz Age remodel, and set out to drag them kicking and screaming into the 20th century. There's some nice humor at the expense of D. H. Lawrence (who deserves it), and a great deal of humor at the expense of big city folk who think it would be romantic to live in a little farmhouse in the country in England. Cheers!
Pat Barker, Regeneration.
One of the best novels about shell shock (now called PTSD) I've ever read. Based on the true story of poet Siegfried Sassoon, who served as a captain and won the Military Cross for bravery under fire (he single-handedly routed a trenchful of sixty German soldiers). While convalescing from a wound, he became convinced that the war was fueled by jingoism and that it didn't end because it served the greed of those who profited from the manufacture of war materiel. When he publicly protested the war he was sent to a psychiatric hospital where he was treated by the noted nerve specialist, WHR Rivers, and also met fellow poet Wilfred Owen, who tragically was killed a week before the Armistice. Sassoon himself returned to the lines, not because he believed in the war, but because he could not bear to abandon the men under his command. Barker imagines the conversations between these three men in the hospital, but also shows us the lives of working class soldiers, who are not treated to talk therapy but rather to shock "therapy" when their nerves give out. And she explores the deeper issues of courage, patriotism, pacifism, and PTSD in a beautiful developed narrative. If you love this book, there are two more that form a trilogy. Barker's novels are all wonderful, many of them set during either World War I or II, or in the period between the two wars.
Raymond Chandler, The Big Sleep
The godfather of American hard-boiled detective fiction, you've seen Chandler's work in a hundred parodies on shows like Family Guy and The Simpsons (even Sesame Street: remember Detective Grover?). The Big Sleep introduces private eye Philip Marlowe, and this book is consistently listed on everyone's top one hundred. Writer Ross Macdonald said Chandler "wrote like a slumming angel" and inspired his own work. Chandler invented the wisecracking, tough but sentimental private eye, and the use of the outrageous simile ("the guy stuck out like a tarantula on a wedding cake"). You can also appreciate his work in film versions, the best being the Howard Hawks version of The Big Sleep starring Bogart and Bacall in their second movie together, with more double entendre than you can shake a stick at. The library's dvd is # 5238.
A reading challenge: can you figure out who killed the chauffeur? The plot is so convoluted that Hawks's writing team couldn't, and when they called Chandler to ask, he said he wasn't sure either!
Steve Lopez, Third and Indiana
When I was going to school in West Philadelphia, crack cocaine was destroying middle class historically-black neighborhoods all over the city. It was relatively cheap, almost instantly addictive, and absolutely pervasive. My neighborhood close to the University of Pennsylvania was much safer than the one journalist Steve Lopez writes about in his first novel, Third and Indiana, but I still didn't walk the streets after dusk. In the morning there were often chalk outlines on the sidewalks near the local middle school playground, where the dealers hung out. (It's the same playground used for the opening credits in Fresh Prince of Bel Air, and got cleaned up a lot for that sequence.) Lopez writes with compassion and outrage about the life of his teenage protagonist and the young man's mother-- one desperate for money to support his mom and his aspirations, the other knowing exactly how mobbed up drug lords suck young people who are not themselves users into the sales process. Some of the minor characters seems a little like cliches (there's just so far you can push a South Philly accent before it sounds like an NBC comedy), but the novel demolishes the idea that wealthy people buying drugs is a victimless crime. The victims are legion, and many are children who leave nothing but chalk outlines on the sidewalks of Philadelphia.
I first read Toni Morrison's magisterial Beloved when it came out in 1987, and taught it every year from 1987 to 2017 when I retired from full-time teaching. But today, to honor Morrison's long fruitful life, and death on August 5th at age 88, I want to recommend to you Song of Solomon, a novel that reads like a prose poem, and one of the few in her canon that deals as much with the lived experience of Black men as it does with Black women. It's a coming of age novel, but more-- a coming to consciousness novel. The young protagonist exemplifies toxic masculinity in an era when we didn't have a word for that. He feels entitled, and is given much (sometimes too much), by his family, his friends, and his admiring coterie of young women whom he often uses and throws away. But when he uses and throws away his own cousin he must have a reckoning with his formidable aunt, who tolerates neither fools nor users, and whose grief over her death is surreal and absolutely real simultaneously. His story becomes a quest: to discover what it is to be a real man, to discover the truths of his ancestors and their triumphs and losses, to bear witness to history turning with a vengeance on the ghosts of those who enslaved his ancestors and destroyed their descendants. He must learn to fly, but he must learn that flying is not always flying away, and that when you fly away, others are left behind. He must confront his fears, his power, and his selfishness and learn to be a man in a culture where Black men are too often called boys and treated like boys. President Barack Obama named this as his favorite novel. It also won the National Book Critics Circle Award.
Richard Powers, Galatea 2.2
The plot: the protagonist must train a neural network (a computer) on a list of English literature classics until it can pass a basic essay exam. What he doesn't count on is that it will begin to questions its genesis, its gender, its name, its place in the universe, and then.... it will fall in love.
Once again, I let an Amazon reviewer tell you why you really need to read this book (and everything else by Richard Powers):
"Powers' absolutely astonishing gift of description. Whatever he tackles, his ability to describe it is electrifying. I don't read Powers for plot, or character development. I exult along with him in his intellectual prowess displayed in blazing blends of concepts, but I am most impressed by his sheer power of description. I suggest that you will be generously rewarded if you read Powers for this alone. He has the ability to transport your eyes to visual feasts, your ears to symphonic worlds if only in the sound of a clarinet, your hands to smooth or variegated textures and sinuous shapes. Powers can place you into any setting and soon have you immersed in it as virtual reality, exulting in its "real feel." I know of no other current author who possesses this gift at this level of consummate, artistic finesse." -- Kent Ponder