Loved These Classic Novels? Try One of These Contemporary Books
Happy 50th birthday to some of our favorite novels and hello to some new contenders!
By David Adams
In literature as in history, 1969 was an eventful year. A man walked on the moon; thousands flocked to upstate New York for a concert called Woodstock; and a college dropout published one of the greatest anti-war novels of all time. From Slaughterhouse-Five to The Godfather, we’re celebrating five masterpieces on their 50th anniversary and recommending 10 contemporary books you may like just as much.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
With a brilliant mix of comedy, tragedy, metafiction, philosophy, and a plot that zooms from the battlefields of WWII Europe to outer space, Slaughterhouse-Five captured the zeitgeist of the 1960s counterculture and transformed Kurt Vonnegut from an obscure science fiction writer into a household name. The novel’s hero, like its author, is a survivor of the Allied firebombing of Dresden in 1945. But unlike anyone else on Earth, Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time, hopscotching between the defining moments of his life without rhyme or reason. It’s a condition he might have picked up on the planet Tralfamadore, where he was exhibited in an alien zoo by toilet plunger-shaped creatures who see in four dimensions and can experience the past, present, and future at will. Their fatalistic response to death and disaster—”And so it goes”—serves as the novel’s refrain and Vonnegut’s stinging moral indictment of man’s inhumanity to man.
If you love Slaughterhouse-Five, you might like:
Friday Black by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah: This darkly comic debut story collection employs fantastical premises—a theme park where white patrons act out their racist fantasies on minority actors portraying “thugs;” a weapon that condemns its victims to live out the same day over and over again—to satirize the corrosive effects of racism, violence, and consumerism on American culture.
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: In the pantheon of American humorists, there is a direct line connecting Mark Twain to Kurt Vonnegut to George Saunders. In his first novel, the short story master and MacArthur “Genius Grant” winner takes a slice of real history—the death of Abraham Lincoln’s 12-year-old son Willie—and spins it into a mesmerizing fable about war, grief, forgiveness, and the imperative to set aside selfish needs for the greater good.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
When James Baldwin brought Maya Angelou to a dinner party in 1968, his goal was to cheer her up in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. But the guests, including Philip Roth, were so fascinated by the poet, dancer, and civil rights organizer’s stories of her hardscrabble childhood in Stamps, Arkansas that Baldwin soon had a new mission—to get Angelou to write her autobiography. She demurred, but when an editor suggested that it was just as well, since an autobiography could never be written as literature, Angelou accepted the challenge. The result is one of the most powerful and unforgettable memoirs of the 20th century, a story that bravely catalogues the traumatizing effects of racism, sexism, and poverty on young black women in America and still finds a way—like Angelou herself—to emerge triumphant.
If you love I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, you might like:
Hunger by Roxane Gay: After experiencing a shattering act of violence that forever changed the way she thought about her body, Roxane Gay began to overeat as a means to protect herself. By the time she was in her 20s, she was morbidly obese. In this bracing and beautifully written memoir, Gay details her journey to reclaim her sense of self and fiercely condemns a culture that so harshly judges women’s bodies.
There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald: In his journey from a blighted neighborhood in Dallas, Texas to the hallowed halls of Yale University and Harvard Business School, Casey Gerald has traced the course of the American Dream. But this stunningly original memoir makes clear that he is no believer in myths and platitudes. He would rather put his prodigious talents to use in tearing down a system that uplifts a few “exceptional” minorities in order to condemn the rest.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
Although he had already published three books and won the National Book Award, Philip Roth didn’t become “Philip Roth” until he wrote this exuberant 250-page monologue of “a lust-ridden, mother-addicted young Jewish bachelor” unburdening himself to his psychoanalyst. Filled with obscene humor—including an infamous sex scene with a piece of liver—and unflattering portrayals of Jewish family life, the novel earned stinging rebukes from religious leaders and conservative literary critics. But the controversy landed Portnoy’s Complaint on bestseller lists and made Roth a hero to younger writers who were thrilled by his willingness to break the rules of “serious” fiction. Over the course of his long and distinguished career, Roth wrote some of the finest novels in American literature, but none have entered the popular consciousness with the same audacity and staying power as Portnoy’s Complaint.
If you love Portnoy’s Complaint, you might like:
You Know You Want This by Kristen Roupenian: Sexual anxiety is at the forefront of this mesmerizing debut by the author of “Cat Person,” the New Yorker story that went viral in late 2017. That much-discussed tale of sex and misogyny in the digital age is joined by eleven tales exploring the region of the human psyche where disgust and desire cohabitate. Roupenian delights in shattering readers’ assumptions; her confidence and bold imagination mark her as a writer to watch.
Lake Success by Gary Shteyngart: A boorish hedge fund manager leaves his wife and autistic son in order to find himself. “Who cares?” you might ask. The last thing we need is a story about the tribulations of the obscenely wealthy. But Gary Shteyngart’s latest novel is both a razor-sharp satire of America in the Age of Trump and a raucous revenge fantasy in which the anti-hero loses his dignity in order to regain his humanity.
The Godfather by Mario Puzo
This epic crime novel spent 67 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list and sold more than 9 million copies in its first two years of publication. Mario Puzo, who also wrote the screenplay for Francis Ford Coppola’s Academy Award-winning adaptation, based his story on the notorious Five Families of New York City, whose illicit schemes and byzantine organizational structures had recently been the subject of congressional hearings. The character of Vito Corleone was an amalgamation of real-life Mafia bosses Frank Costello and Carlo Gambino; singer Johnny Fontane was based on Frank Sinatra. Puzo also borrowed from the novels of Honoré de Balzac and Fyodor Dostoevsky to give his story an expansive scope and deep emotional resonance rarely seen in crime fiction. The film trilogy, featuring a cast of virtual unknowns who would go on to become Hollywood royalty, cemented The Godfather’s reputation as the definitive portrait of Cosa Nostra in America.
If you love The Godfather, you might like:
The Border by Don Winslow: The conclusion to the Power of the Dog trilogy is a timely and profoundly affecting story about the fall of a Mexican cartel boss, the rise of a new heroin epidemic in America, and the powerful business and political interests that profit from the drug trade. This epic series—which begins with The Power of the Dog and The Cartel—is both sheer entertainment and an irrefutable argument for why the war on drugs has been such an abject failure.
November Road by Lou Berney: A loyal lieutenant in a New Orleans mob family unwittingly becomes involved in the assassination of President Kennedy. Realizing that he’s a loose thread his bosses will want tied up, Frank Guidry heads for Las Vegas. On the way, he crosses paths with a young mother and her two kids fleeing her abusive husband, at which point the novel becomes a rich and poignant character study without losing any of its propulsive suspense.
The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton
Written while Michael Crichton was still in medical school and published weeks before the first lunar landing, The Andromeda Strain was an immediate sensation, terrifying readers with its plausibility and marking a major turning point in the career of one of America’s most successful authors. When a military space probe falls to earth and unleashes a deadly microorganism on a small Arizona town, five of America’s leading scientists must race to understand the extraterrestrial superbug before it spreads across the globe, killing millions. At the suggestion of his editor, Crichton wrote the book in the style of a New Yorker science article, resulting in a story so convincing many believed it was true. Fears ran so high that the 26-year-old author appeared on TV with Walter Cronkite on the night of the Apollo 11 moon landing to reassure viewers that the astronauts wouldn’t be returning to Earth with diabolical space germs.
If you love The Andromeda Strain, you might like:
American War by Omar El Akkad: Sparked by climate change and debates over the use of fossil fuels, a second American Civil War breaks out in 2074. Just when peace is about to be achieved after decades of drone strikes, refugee camps, and suicide bombings, a Southern terrorist unleashes a devastating biological agent on the country. Debut novelist El Akkad reported on the war in Afghanistan and the military tribunals at Guantanamo Bay; his stunning dystopian vision is all the more terrifying for its firm basis in reality.
Semiosis by Sue Burke: Two centuries from now, human colonists arrive on a planet they name Pax. The new world is lush with familiar plants, but when they begin to radically alter their chemical structures—fruit that was edible one day is poisonous the next—it becomes clear that the planet’s flora is sentient—and at war with the humans. Unfolding over hundreds of years as the colonists struggle to survive while learning how to communicate with a truly alien life form, this page-turning thriller asks profound questions about evolution, the nature of language, and the meaning of intelligence.