Bleak House by Charles Dickens (1853). Dickens is best known for his immense plots that trace every corner of Victorian society, and Bleak House fulfills that expectation to perfection. The plot braids the sentimental tale of an orphan unaware of her scandalous parentage with an ironic and bitterly funny satire of a lawsuit that appears to entail all of London.
Blithe Spirit by Noël Coward (1941). As the Nazis bore down on Britain, Coward filled London theaters with this gay and witty farce about death. The sublime silliness begins when a writer holds a séance to research his novel on a murderous fake psychic. Who should appear but his first wife, dead these six years and none too happy about wife number two.
Blood Meridian: Or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy (1985). D. H. Lawrence famously remarked that the archetypal American hero was a stoic, a loner, and a killer. Cormac McCarthy’s tale of the formation and dissolution of a band of scalp hunters in northern Mexico in the late 1840s embodies that dire maxim.
Bluebeard by Kurt Vonnegut (1987). On one level this is a wickedly hilarious satire of the world of art. Yet, it is also a heartfelt story of American dreams, as a minor artist, whose lack of confidence led him to put down his brush and start collecting other people’s work, looks back on his life, analyzing his high points and low.
Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldúa (1999). The author uses poetry and prose—mythology, history, memoir—in this passionate account of two types of borders. The first is the physical one between Texas and Mexico. The second is psychological, mapping borderlands defined by sex, race, class, culture, and religion.
Break It Down by Lydia Davis (1986). Through crisp, propulsive sentences laced with knowing irony, Davis plunges readers into various streams of consciousness in her debut collection. Ideas rather than action animate these thirty-four stories—some no more than a paragraph long, most set in a character’s racing, obsessive mind.
Breaking and Entering by Joy Williams (1988). A teenage couple breaks into empty vacation homes in Florida to live “the ordered life of someone else. . . .
Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann (1900). Subtitled “The Decline of a Family,” Mann’s first novel chronicles the shifting fortunes of four generations of German merchants. A brilliant literary colorist, adept with rich jewel tones, earthy pigments, and deep chiaroscuro alike, Mann recalls the Dutch Masters in his painterly command of bourgeois interiors and intimate domestic scenes.
Bullet Park by John Cheever (1967). Happily married with one child, Eliot Nailles is a chemist working to make better mouthwash. Paul Hammer is a Yale graduate and aimless drifter who moves to Nailles’s leafy suburb of Bullet Park. There he plans to take revenge on the bourgeoisie—by murdering Nailles’s son.
Cal by Bernard MacLaverty (1983). Cal is a young Catholic trapped by the violence strangling Northern Ireland. With other members of the Irish Republican Army, he helps murder a Protestant policeman. Life takes a turn when he falls in love, and then offers a cruel twist when he learns that she is his victim’s daughter.