‘Generation X’ by Douglas Coupland (1991)
Every generation has its defining novel. For mine, it was Coupland’s “Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture.”
Besides giving us a name, and — by extension — Generations Y and Z, it catalogued our experience in an evermore rapidly changing culture. The Canadian author’s first book, it did what all great books do: It put an undefined truth into words.
Like most of Coupland’s novels, there is no real plot. The characters, three 20-somethings living in in Palm Springs with “terminal wanderlust,” tell each other stories that are like pop-culture parables: See the chapter “Purchased Experiences Don’t Count.” The narrative is accompanied by an index of coined terms like “McJob” — a “no-future job in the service sector” — or “Bleeding Ponytail” — a Baby Boomer “who pines for hippie or pre-sellout days.”
And the best quote never meant more than it does now: “Nothing very very good and nothing very very bad lasts for very very long.”
‘The Painted Veil’ by W. Somerset Maugham (1925)
Ernest Hemingway once said: “There is no friend as loyal as a book.” “The Painted Veil” is one book I return to time and again. A timely read, it is set in the 1920s in the fictional Chinese village of Mei-tan-fu, where a cholera epidemic has broken out.
At the heart of the novel is Kitty Fane — a beautiful, somewhat self-absorbed, young woman living in a bubble as a member of British high society but trapped in a loveless marriage with a bacteriologist, whom she is forced to accompany to Mei-tan-fu as he has volunteered to treat the sick there.
It turns out to be a life-changing visit. Surrounded by death and loss, Kitty develops a sense of purpose and independence, guided by her interactions with the French nuns who run a hospital in the village. “When love and duty are one, then grace is in you,” Mother Superior tells her. “And you will enjoy a happiness which passes all understanding.”
‘A Place For Us’ by Fatima Farheen Mirza (2018)
Mirza’s debut novel is an intimate look into the lives of an Indian-Muslim immigrant family in Northern California as they navigate religion, culture, and a Western upbringing. It opens with eldest daughter Hadia’s wedding, to which she invites her estranged brother, Amar. Told from the perspective of Hadia, Amar, and their parents, Rafiq and Layla, the book recounts how relationships in the family became strained.
As a young girl, scouring her local library for narratives by people of color — Khaled Hosseini, Jhumpa Lahiri, Bapsi Sidhwa — I wish “A Place for Us” had been there when I was growing up in an Indian-Muslim immigrant household myself. I revisit this book often — its generational, cultural, and religious expectations are all too familiar.
‘The Industry of Souls’ by Martin Booth (1998)
Alexander Bayliss is celebrating his 80th birthday by strolling around the Russian village of Myshkino, visiting his neighbors. He is happy and at peace with the world.
Through flashbacks, we learn that Bayliss is an Englishman arrested 40 years ago in the Soviet Union for espionage and sentenced to hard labor in one of Stalin’s infamous gulags. His family are told he is dead.
The story of how he survives to become a joy-filled 80-year-old is a tribute to love, friendships (especially those he strikes up with his fellow prisoners), dignity, and the power of the human spirit. There is humor here among the horrors; heartbreak too. It is an extraordinary and beautiful book, the epigraph of which has stayed with me since I first read it more than 20 years ago:
“It is the industry of the soul, to love and to hate; to seek after the beautiful and to recognize the ugly, to honor friends and wreak vengeance upon enemies; yet, above all, it is the work of the soul to prove it can be steadfast in these matters.”
‘The Magician’s Nephew’ by C.S. Lewis (1955)
Lewis’ “The Chronicles of Narnia,” a seven-part series set in a fantastical world where Aslan the lion represents good and the White Witch is a Turkish Delight-dispensing force of evil, has gained a global following. My favorite of the series, though, is one of the lesser-known titles.
My mother gave me a copy of “The Magician’s Nephew” when I was 12, and since then I’ve read it countless times. I even have a copy with the original illustrations by Pauline Baynes to give to my future children.
It’s the story of Aslan’s creation of Narnia after two children — Polly and Digory — happen upon a portal to different worlds.
Lewis was known for weaving his Christian beliefs into his books, and this one touches on moral issues such as forgiveness, original sin and temptation, but wraps it all up in a truly enchanting tale of a wondrous new world.
If you want to transcend the lockdown and travel to an awe-inspiring new universe — and take your children with you — this is your boarding pass.
‘Diary Of A Man In Despair’ by Friedrich Reck (1947)
Few books have had as big an impact on me as this one. An occasional diary kept intermittently between May 1936 and October 1944, it documents Germany’s painful descent into totalitarian hell. An extraordinary historical document, Reck’s visceral loathing of Hitler and his sorrow at the calamitous events that have befallen his beloved country are expressed with a lyrical invective that’s guided as much by humor as it is by hatred. Rarely has contempt and disgust reached such a level of beauty.
Importantly, Reck helps to dispel any lingering myth of universal German complicity in Nazi atrocities. Not only does he state categorically that “a man must hate this Germany with all his heart if he really loves it,” but he writes with admiration of Hans and Sophie Scholl, two student activists executed by the Nazis in 1943. “We will all of us, someday, have to make a pilgrimage to their graves and stand before them, ashamed.”
‘The Trumpet-Major’ by Thomas Hardy (1880)
Anyone who has experienced the pain of unrequited love will empathise with this book. Set in 19th-century rural England, the emotions revealed ring as true today as they did in that time so beautifully painted by the author.
It’s the story of a young woman, Anne Garland, who unwittingly steals hearts and who herself appears to have lost her one ‘true love.’ But equally transfixing is the vivid cast of characters displaying so many facets of humanity, from comic to tragic.
All are living their lives bound by the strict social rules of the day. A lady did not mix freely in society. Reputations, once lost, could come back to haunt, as seen in the tale of the woman who fleetingly won the heart of the brother and buccaneering nemesis of the hero John Loveday, the noble Trumpet-Major.
‘A Month In Siena’ by Hisham Matar (2019)
It’s hard to think of a single work by this British-Libyan novelist that falls short of literary perfection. But his most recent release, this meditative memoir about the author’s long-anticipated trip to Siena, Tuscany has become a personal favorite.
In this enchanting read, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author embarks on a journey of discovery of Sienese art, with which he has been fascinated since he was 19 — the same time as the traumatic and ongoing disappearance of his father, a Libyan diplomat and long-time opponent of the Gaddafi regime.
As Matar puts it, looking at Sienese artworks means listening to a “conversation” about “what a painting might be, what it might be for, and what it could do and accomplish within the intimate drama of private engagement with a stranger.”
‘Anyone Here Been Raped And Speaks English?’ by Edward Behr (1978)
This memoir of Behr’s time in hot spots across Africa and Asia in the 1960s and ‘70s, describes the ‘Maghreb Circus’, a motley crew of talented and irreverent journos, all intent on following and filing the best stories. The title is a question Behr heard asked in pursuit of an elusive tale. Not surprisingly, coming from the pen of a feted war reporter (among other things), the book is beautifully written, raucously funny in parts, yet also poignant in its descriptions of the human toll of conflict.
I can honestly say that Behr’s book had a huge impact on my life. Along with Peter Fleming’s “News From Tartary,” it ignited a passion for news gathering and travel that is still with me more than 30 years later. “Anyone Here” inspired my life and career choices and I mourned when its author passed in 2007.
‘The Little Book Of Lykke’ by Meik Wiking (2017)
Many might find this book a little “airy fairy” and, frankly, I wouldn’t blame them. I was skeptical at first. However, it isn’t all glitter and unicorns; it serves as a great reminder that finding happiness is much simpler than it seems.
Wiking is the CEO of Copenhagen's Happiness Research Institute (yep, that’s a real thing) and his book focuses on “lykke,” the Danish word for happiness. “I understand that remembering the positive, focusing on the positive, and finding out what works for us may not come naturally,” he writes, acknowledging that happiness means different things to different people. But the mix of anecdotes, data and studies (nerd alert, I love data) exploring the concepts of togetherness, money, health, freedom, trust, and kindness around the world makes the book engaging from start to finish. The “Happiness Tips” dotted around the book make for an instant boost.