Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez (1985). Márquez takes the love triangle to the limit in this story of an ever hopeful romantic who waits more than fifty years for his first love. When his beloved’s husband dies after a long, happy marriage, Florentino Ariza immediately redeclares his passion. After the enraged widow rejects him, he redoubles his efforts.
Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (1984). The form of this novel, about two Native American families, reenacts that of a traditional Chippewa Indian story cycle—fourteen stories told by seven characters, forming a collage that forces the reader to sift through and weigh voice against voice, truth against truth.
Lucy by Jamaica Kincaid (1990). Nineteen-year-old Lucy happily leaves her West Indian home and domineering mother to work as an au pair for a well-off and well-meaning American family. But as she develops a new sense of self and independence, she is forced to grapple with life as an outsider, a servant, and a woman of color in a country obsessed with race yet blind to history.
L’Assommoir (The Dram Shop) by Émile Zola (1877). Like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this story—of the downfall of a Parisian laundress—turned a burning social issue into a sensational best-seller. The desperate alcoholism of Gervaise Lantier and her husband held a mirror to the shocking moral condition of the urban poor. But it is saved from mere didacticism by Zola’s eye and ear.
Macbeth by William Shakespeare (1606). The shortest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, Macbeth runs along at breakneck speed, elevating Macbeth from Thane of Glamis to Thane of Cawdor to King of Scotland in two brief acts.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857). Of the many nineteenth-century novels about adulteresses, only Madame Bovary features a heroine frankly detested by her author.
Mahabharata (fifth century b.c.e.). Said to be the second-longest epic poem in the world (behind Tibet’s Epic of King Gesar), the Mahabarata is also, along with the Ramayana, one of the two defining books of Hindu culture. Its core narrative relates the clashes between two groups of royal Indian cousins—one descended from gods, the other from demons.
Masquerade and Other Stories by Robert Walser (1878–1956). Beloved of other writers but not known to a broad reading public in America, Walser was a formative influence on many writers, including Franz Kafka and Robert Musil.
Man’s Fate by André Malraux (1933). Chronicling the communist uprising against Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists in Shanghai in 1927, this novel is a revolutionary’s cookbook.
Manchild in the Promised Land by Claude Brown (1965). Fierce, unsparing language and plenty of street jive power this autobiographical novel recounting Brown’s early life as a drug dealer, hustler, and thief amid the numbers runners, prostitutes, cops, and hardworking parents of Harlem in the 1940s and 1950s.