Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc (Scribner, $17). LeBlanc spent 10 years shadowing an impoverished “random family” in the Bronx to create one of the most harrowing works of nonfiction ever. It’s a mix of anthropology, street-smarts, and nonstop heartbreak, written with style and compassion.
1984 by George Orwell (Signet, $8). Orwell’s dystopian nightmare strikes me as also being a powerful love story of two people trying to get it on amid a repressive political system. The oddball British actress Suzanna Hamilton starring as Julia in the film adaptation—hot.
Native Speaker by Chang-rae Lee (Riverhead, $15). Chang-rae Lee was my mentor in grad school, but everything I needed to write about the joys and terrors of the immigrant experience I found between the covers of this novel. I teach this book in my immigrant-a-go-go fiction course at Columbia, and it never fails to impress my students with its profound statements on what it’s like to leave one homeland for another.
Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth (Vintage, $15). Break out the liver, Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint is still the funniest thing between book covers. It’s also a life-changing book for many Hebraic men of my generation, one that taught us that our neuroses stem from a common bloodline—so it’s okay to feel nervous and depressed all the time!
Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev (Dover, $3.50). Fathers and Sons is one of those 19th-century Russian novels that feel even more timely circa 2010. It’s about fathers and sons, and men and women, and a repressive society that’s heading toward disaster. Serfs up!
Pnin by Vladimir Nabokov (Vintage, $14). You’ve journeyed across the entire nation with Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert in Lolita, now join the master’s most sympathetic hero as he tries to walk across a college campus without tripping over a squirrel. I teach this one in my Hysterical Male fiction class and it tends to leave everyone in happy hysterics.