Feature

Elizabeth McCracken's 6 favorite books that tackle tough topics

The author recommends works by Rachel Ingalls, Jeanette Winterson, and more

Elizabeth McCracken's new novel, The Hero of This Book, follows an author who visits London while mulling whether to write a memoir about her recently deceased mother. Below, McCracken recommends six short novels that tackle big subjects.

Maud Martha by Gwendolyn Brooks (1953)

This is a beautiful and odd book, a full portrait of its eponymous character elliptically told in 34 chapters. It's a novel by a poet that follows a logic of thought and sound. You almost can't believe how Brooks goes from one thought to another, but it's also clear the book could be no other way. Reading Brooks' sentences makes you feel smarter, capable of making those leaps. Buy it here.

Utz by Bruce Chatwin (1988)

Utz opens at the 1974 funeral of its title character, an obsessive porcelain collector. He is an enigma; most of this book is enigmatic. It's also one of the funniest books I know, but it's about the dangers of objects, how the love of collecting can bend a collector's morals into prison bars. Buy it here.

A Prayer for the Dying by Stewart O'Nan (1999)

This is one of my favorite novels of the past 25 years — about a small Wisconsin town hemmed in by a diphtheria epidemic on one side and wildfire on the other. When I have students who want to write a book in the second person, this is where I steer them: the finest example I know, a tour de force. Buy it here.

Mrs. Caliban by Rachel Ingalls (1982)

I've loved this novel since I discovered it at the public library where I shelved books as a teenager. It's about an unhappy married woman who falls in love with a large amphibian. I reread it recently and found myself still as full of wonder as I was 40 years ago. Buy it here.

A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies (2021)

A married couple gets terrible news about a pregnancy, initiating a short, tender, often very funny book that's about the meaning of abortion in people's lives, and how no abortion is about a single person making a single decision on a single day. It's also about shame, parenthood, marriage, anxiety, and how all of us are long stories. Buy it here.

The Passion by Jeanette Winterson (1987)

I'm in awe of what Winterson fits into this tiny book: two different points of view, a meditation on telling stories, the sweep of history (one of the characters is a servant to Napoleon), and genuine surprise on every page. There's really no writer like Winterson, who works in a small space and yet somehow on an enormous canvas. Buy it here.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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