I was in New York in March. It was one of those March days when the sun shines hot and the wind blows cold, when it is summer in the light, and winter in the shade, to quote Charles Dickens. I revisited all my favorite bookshops downtown. I bought so many books I had to throw out some clothes to fit them all in my suitcase. How can you blame me though? On the subway, I found a local magazine that proudly featured a whole report on why New York City is and will always be the literature capital of the English-speaking world. There are so many poets, so many bookstores, so many cozy coffee shops to read in, there are so many stories. So despite already having compiled an essential reading list for NYC here is another one, simply because there are too many storytellers out there to leave undiscovered.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
“Literature can remind us that not all life is already written down: there are still so many stories to be told.”
It is August, 1974, and a tightrope walker is running, dancing, leaping between the towers, suspended a quarter-mile in the sky. In the streets below, ordinary lives become extraordinary as award-winning novelist Colum McCann crafts this stunningly realized portrait of a city and its people.
Corrigan, a radical young Irish monk, struggles with his own demons as he lives among prostitutes in the Bronx. A group of mothers, gathered in a Park Avenue apartment to mourn the sons who died in Vietnam, discovers how much divides them even in their grief.
Further uptown, Tillie, a thirty-eight-year-old grandmother, turns tricks alongside her teenaged daughter, determined not only to take care of her “babies” but to prove her own worth.
Elegantly weaving together these and other seemingly disparate lives, McCann’s powerful novel comes alive in the unforgettable voices of the city’s people, unexpectedly drawn together by hope, beauty, and the tightrope walker’s ‘artistic crime of the century.’
This is a lyrical novel as dazzling and dizzying as the city it portraits itself.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
“Wasn’t friendship its own miracle, the finding of another person who made the entire lonely world seem somehow less lonely?”
The narrative follows the lives of four friends in New York City after they have graduated from college. There is kind, handsome Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a quick-witted, sometimes cruel Brooklyn-born painter seeking entry to the art world; Malcolm, a frustrated architect at a prominent firm; and withdrawn, brilliant, enigmatic Jude, who serves as their center of gravity. Over the decades, their relationships deepen and darken, tinged by addiction, success, and pride. Yet their greatest challenge, each comes to realize, is Jude himself, by midlife a terrifyingly talented litigator yet an increasingly broken man, his mind and body scarred by an unspeakable childhood, and haunted by what he fears is a degree of trauma that he’ll not only be unable to overcome—but that will define his life forever.
This book has been discussed before on this site, and has been described as a 21st century epic. I sat for hours reading it in on a bench in Central Park, imagining the characters walking around the city.
The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty by Amanda Filipachhi
“Why is it that a connection that seems to have nothing to do with looks—because it feels so much deeper than that, like a connection of minds and souls—is actually entirely dependent on looks?”
A witty feminist fable that examines the thrills and pitfalls of beauty from the perspective of two polar opposites: Barb, an attractive and talented costume designer who, in hopes of finding true love, makes herself ugly via an elaborate costume; and Lily, an unfortunate-looking composer who uses her magical musical gift to make herself irresistible to the man who has rejected her. To complicate matters, Barb and Lily discover their close-knit circle of friends includes a murderer with a plan to strike again. Set in modern-day New York City, it’s a novel that satirizes society’s obsession with beauty and its “unfortunate importance” in the aspects of life that should be least superficial: friendship and love. With biting wit and offbeat charm, Filipacchi illuminates the labyrinthine relationship between beauty, desire, and identity, asking at every turn: what does it truly mean to allow oneself to be seen?
Foreign Gods Inc. by Okey Ndibe
“The white man knows many things,” the other whispered back, “but he doesn’t know how to tell a good lie.”
This novel tells the story of Ike, a New York-based Nigerian cab driver who sets out to steal the statue of an ancient war deity from his home village and sell it to a New York gallery.
A meditation on the dreams, promises and frustrations of the immigrant life in America; the nature and impact of religious conflicts; an examination of the ways in which modern culture creates or heightens infatuation with the “exotic,” including the desire to own strange objects and hanker after ineffable illusions; and an exploration of the shifting nature of memory, Foreign Gods is a brilliant work of fiction that illuminates our globally interconnected world like no other.
Lowboy by John Wray
“After that the school spread out flatter and wider it was probably the widest thing on earth. The ceiling came and brushed against my face it wasn’t painful but it was difficult to watch. Things kept on moving.”
William Heller is a 16-year-old boy who takes us on a journey beyond New York itself and into a mind that hopes for better things, including saving the world from global warming. With a surprising lilt in the narrative, John Wray pays homage to Catcher in the Rye without missing a step in his own story.