Desert Island Books – Rumaan Alam

Leave the World Behind Brooklyn-based author Rumaan Alam is one of the most disturbing and undeniable books I’ve read all year. A rapid exploration of race and class, an atmospheric portrayal of what the world might look like if it were to end. I devoured this in a single session while in Byron Bay for six weeks, and – given the catastrophic events of 2020 – I had a deep sense of discomfort long after the page turned. I loved the evocative feel of the setting, the impending sense of fear, and the pristine nature of the story.

When I started my Desert Island Books series a few years ago, I did so with the intention of getting reading recommendations that I might not otherwise have come across. and since I have not read a single literary tip from Rumaan, suffice it to say that I have a lot to read.

And so, from a book Rumaan read in third grade to the book Rumaan quotes as a near-perfect novel, here are the eight books he would take to the sandy shores of a desert island …

Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

I first read Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy when I was in third grade – I remember reading it again that same year, probably not long after I first finished it. I still visit it again and again, even though I’m far too old for that; The memory of the pleasure it gave me long ago still makes me happy now. I understand when people roll their eyes over adults reading children’s literature, but there is real wisdom in this strange little book.

Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann

One of the greatest reading experiences of my life was getting lost in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks on a deserted beach in Hawaii. It hardly seems like an escape – hundreds of pages on the decline of a wealthy German family in the nineteenth century – but it’s a fun and insightful book, one of my all-time favorite novels.

The Makioka Sisters of Junichiro Tanizaki

Junichiro Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters is pretty similar to Mann’s novel, except that it follows a Japanese family at the beginning of the 20th century. Tanizaki, however, is less interested in the big changes over the generations and focuses with heartfelt attention on the titular sisters who document the everyday stuff of the finest Japanese life. It should be boring, but it’s exciting.

The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard

Is it possible that The Transit of Venus is a perfect novel? I’ve told other readers and pushed the book on them like an avid seller. Shirley Hazzard’s story of two Australian sisters trying to make a living in post-war Europe is sharply told and deeply moving.

The warrior from Maxine Hong

I’ve never read a book that defies categorization more tenaciously than Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Not quite memoirs, not entirely new, not entirely folk tales, but an idiosyncratic mixture of all three, it’s a masterpiece, as big as the world itself.

The plague of the pigeons by Louise Erdrich

I loved every novel by Louise Erdrich, but I have a particular fondness for the plague of the pigeons. The story is brought to life by a riddle (the slaughter of an entire family, a baby, the only survivor), but the book is not just about finding a solution. It’s about how the story isn’t as distant as it seems, but rather defines the present moment.

Collected Stories by Lorrie Moore

It is impossible to choose a single collection of Lorrie Moore stories to accompany for the rest of my days. Fortunately, their collected stories mean I don’t have to choose. It’s a fat volume full of laughter and heartbreak, a kind of book you would never get tired of.

Look at me from Anita Brookner

I’ve found Anita Brookner’s novels to be such an extraordinary company over the past few years. She’s been so productive in life, but I’m rationing her and holding back the last six books she wrote for a time when I really need something new and surprising to read. My favorite book so far is Look at Me, a penetrating book about a shy art historian who is drawn to an open-minded and charming couple. Brookner wrote about romance (usually failed attempts) so many times, but this is more of a book on platonic intimacy that Brookner proves to be just as complicated and full.

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