Five Classic Books You May Have Missed

From Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstones to Donna Tartt's The Secret History.

Brown Girl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall

I’m not proud of this, but unfortunately there are some writers whose work I only get into after they have died. So though I had vaguely heard of the late great Paule Marshall, a contemporary of Toni Morrison and James Baldwin, and a MacArthur fellowship recipient, I only finally decided to crack open her debut novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, after reading Edwidge Danticat’s moving remembrance of Marshall and Morrison and after seeing Brown Girl, Brownstones on this list of the 100 most important books by black women.

And now I’m furious with myself that it’s taken me so long to read this masterful coming-of-novel. The book is a gorgeously written, nuanced, heartbreaking story of one immigrant family living in Brooklyn just before World War II. Selina, the novel’s protagonist, is a dreamy, curious little girl who likes to write poetry and chat with the two other tenants in their brownstone, an old white lady who remembers the Scotch-Irish family who used to live in the building before they fled to the suburbs, and Suggie, a cleaner who drinks rum and has sex with random men to escape the monotony of her job. Selina is kindred spirits with her father, a handsome idealist who has inherited a plot of land in their native Barbados and dreams of building a grand house on the island. Standing in the way of that dream is his practical, formidable wife Silla, referred to as “the mother.” She wants to buy the land and use the money to buy the brownstone which they currently only rent. Ida, Selina’s older sister, is her mother’s docile ally.

Writing in elegant, graceful prose, Marshall walks us through this wrenching story about the elusiveness and futility of the so-called American dream, the strait-jacket of racism, and the claustrophobia of living in a tight-knit, highly judgmental, striving immigrant community. I finished the book with a profound sense of gratitude that it had come into my life even if it was a little late. Get your copy. — Tomi Obaro

They Were Sisters by Dorothy Whipple

I picked up this book when I was in London a few years ago visiting Persephone Books, a British publisher and bookseller that publishes lost or out-of-print work written by (mostly) women in the 20th century. Dorothy Whipple's work was most popular during the interwar period — so much so that two of her novels (including They Were Sisters) were made into films in the '40s — but her brief period of fame didn't carry into the second half of the century, and I personally had never heard of her when I visited the bookstore. Persephone-published books all have the same light grey cover, chic and uniform. I honestly have no idea why I picked up They Were Sisters specifically among that sea of grey book jackets, but this novel was such a lovely surprise of a read.

The three Field sisters grow up close and protective of one another but, as they age, their lives unravel and diverge dramatically as a result of the very different marriages the sisters enter into. Whipple’s writing is clever and character-driven, and her unflinching examination of the impact of domestic violence on the psyche and family unit feels particularly radical knowing the book was originally published in 1943. They Were Sisters reads like a bleaker take on the Austenian trope that a marriage to the seemingly “right” person is an inherently good thing. While Austen’s sunny-marriage-plot heroines’ conclude their stories with wedding bells, Whipple complicates the narrative that marriage is an unambiguous means to a happy ending. Get your copy. —Jillian Karande

The Plot Against America by Philip Roth

In some corners of the internet (I suspect for example, this one) saying you like Philip Roth takes on the tone of a confession — it’s a weakness of sorts. And I get it, he’s an easy target — an undeniably talented writer whose lack of interest in the interiority of his female characters could be maddening.

And yet here I am confessing that I’ve loved his writing, ever since I read American Pastoral back in college. When HBO announced that it was adapting his 2004 novel The Plot Against America, I decided now was as good a time as any to read the book.

Set in the 1940s, The Plot Against America imagines what would happen if the pioneering aviator and noted Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindeberg won the presidential election against Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1940. The narrator is a boy named Philip Roth, who like the real Roth, grew up in Newark, New Jersey, in a working-class Jewish family.

Roth is particularly adept at capturing the nation's slow descent into genuine chaos and terror. At first Lindbergh and his cronies are at pains to insist that life will go on as normal for Jewish families across the country. People like Roth’s father who think Lindbergh is bad news are told they are being paranoid. But then, things spiral out of control. The doublespeak from the Lindbergh administration and calls for isolationism (“America First” is his slogan) feel frighteningly appropriate for our current moment.

The Plot Against America is not necessarily a comforting read but it is an immersive one that will take you to another America, at least for a few hours. Get your copy now. — T.O.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

I knew of Donna Tartt — her alleged reclusiveness, her immaculately tailored men’s suits and elegant bob, but I must confess that I had never read any of her novels before finally deciding to rectify this error during lockdown. A former colleague recently tweeted that 1992’s The Secret History (published when Tartt was just 28) was the “perfect” Donna Tartt novel and since the New York Public Library has a robust digital collection, I was able to check out the book within minutes and greedily read it on my Kindle in the span of a few days.

I was hooked from the opening line: “The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

What follows is an immersive, slow-boiling elegant thriller set in fictional Hampden College, based on the famously hedonistic Bennington College of the early ‘80s, which Tartt attended alongside the writers Bret Easton Ellis (the book is dedicated to him) and Jonathan Lethem. (I highly recommend reading this oral history about their time there when you’re done with the book).

The book’s narrator, Richard Papen is a lower middle class California transplant to Hampden who finds himself enamored with an enigmatic group of five students who take advanced Greek classes with a mysterious, charismatic teacher named Julian Morrow. The group is comprised of a pair of gorgeous blond twins: Charles and Camilla, Francis, a closeted heir with an alcoholic mother, the aforementioned Bunny, and the highly intelligent, obtuse Henry.

How Bunny ends up dead — and why — is the suspense that drives the novel, but the pleasure of this book really lies in Tartt’s gorgeous, evocative writing. Her prose is immaculate and the world she depicts — of rural New England and an isolated, privileged campus, of these highly intelligent but deeply cruel students who drink booze like water, smoke incessantly and spend money with wild abandon is utterly riveting.

Richard is the Nick Carraway figure of the novel, first enamored and then repelled by this rarefied setting. (The book also carries a bit of the compelling melancholy of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited). When I finished The Secret History, I immediately wanted to read it again to see how she pulled it off. This time though, I’ll be buying it. Get your copy now. —T.O.

Aké: The Years of Childhood by Wole Soyinka

Some years ago, when I was living in Nigeria for a summer, I ran into Wole Soyinka at a cultural center in Lagos. There he was with his signature cloud of white hair, no entourage around him. Knowing only that he was the first African to win the Nobel Prize for literature, I felt compelled to ask him for a photograph which he gruffly declined.

There were no hard feelings; I took the encounter as a sign that I was supposed to continue writing and blogged about it like a nerd. But even after that chance encounter, I never made any serious attempt to read his work, cowed by both his prolific output and the inaccessibility of his most famous medium, plays, which I generally hate reading, much preferring to see them mounted on a stage.

I’ve been trying to take more of a bucket list approach to my reading under lockdown, however, and so after reading a spate of white American authors back to back, I decided it was time to give Soyinka his due. I chose to read his childhood memoir, published in 1981, five years before he would win the Nobel.

I had a vague idea that Soyinka could be a comical writer (I had read what Soyinka has dubbed his “overanthologized” poem “Telephone Conversation”), but his sense of humor really comes across in this delightful account of his early years, growing up in a rambunctious household as the son of a headmaster and headstrong saleswoman in the city of Abeokuta in southern Nigeria.

From getting lost while following a crowd of masqueraders to the conflicting disciplinary methods of his parents, Soyinka paints a compelling picture of a pre-independence Nigeria, complete with neighborhood fixtures, like Paa Aditan, the self-appointed warrior ready to defend the town from Hitler and an ingenious family guest who always knows how to wheedle his way into getting more food.

And then there is Soyinka’s thrilling recounting of the Abeokuta Women’s Revolt, spearheaded by the brilliant activist Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti, Wole’s aunt and mother of the Afrobeat pioneer Fela Kuti. I finished the book with a renewed appreciation for Wole Soyinka’s considerable talents. Get your copy now. — T.O. ●

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