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.
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.
Cane by Jean Toomer (1923). A hybrid of literary forms—poetry, prose, and drama—and a groundbreaking work of black literature, this book is a collage of portraits of African Americans from the urban North to the rural South.
Casa Guidi Windows by Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1851). The first part of this two-thousand-line poem, composed in 1847, reveals Browning’s excitement at the independence she and husband Robert found in Florence.