How can you distil a reading bucket-list to ten books? The Business Optimizer team is always up for a challenge – so we’ve debated and considered to create this top ten list of books everyone should read right away.
By John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck won the Pulitzer Prize for his novel The Grapes of Wrath. The story is an epic human drama that was considered shocking and controversial when it was first published. It follows the Joad family, forced to travel west from Dust Bowl era Oklahoma in search of the promised land of California. Publisher Penguin says, “Their story is one of false hopes, thwarted desires and powerlessness, yet out of their struggle Steinbeck created a drama that is both intensely human and majestic in its scale and moral vision.”
By Jane Austen
Austen’s impeccable rendering of Victorian manners, sharp observation and pitch-perfect characterisation means you can return to her books again and again. Pride and Prejudice might be her best-known work, but the youthful hubris of Emma is, perhaps, even better. The Guardian contends, “Its heroine is a self-deluded young woman with the leisure and power to meddle in the lives of her neighbours. The narrative was radically experimental because it was designed to share her delusions. The novel bent narration through the distorting lens of its protagonist’s mind. Though little noticed by most of the pioneers of fiction for the next century and more, it belongs with the great experimental novels of Flaubert or Joyce or Woolf.”
By Tom Wolfe
This 1987 satirical novel is a story of ambition, racism, social class, politics, and greed in 1980s New York City. As a snapshot of a moment in time and the prevailing political climate, it’s unforgettable. Wolfe’s book was deliberately cynical, examining the various institutions of New York with disdain. However, even at the time, it was controversial, as the Guardian explains, “The novel became identified with the greed and overindulgence of the 1980s. It was called racist for the way it depicted key political figures in the black community as opportunistic; yet it was described as Dickensian by its supporters for its wide-ranging critique of New York life.”
By Charles Dickens
For some real Dickensian critique of life, turn to A Christmas Carol. A thin volume by Dickens’ standards, this is an accessible but polemical classic. It tells the story of how miserly Ebenezer Scrooge learns the value of compassion and kindness after being visited by three ghosts in the early hours of Christmas morning. While the novella can be enjoyed as a timeless tale of redemption, Dickens intended it as a work of serious political activism. The Guardian opines, “It’s interesting because we’re living right now with unprecedented levels of homelessness and individuals needing the support of food banks. We have the binary between extreme wealth on one hand and those inured to poverty on the other. You feel the resonance of A Christmas Carol seems to get stronger every year.”
By Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Sudamericana Press published One Hundred Years of Solitude by the (then) little-known Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez in 1967. Unexpectedly, it went on to sell over 45 million copies and garnered García Márquez acclaim as one of the greatest Spanish-language writers in history. It is a literary classic and the Bible of the style now known as magical realism. The Atlantic says, “Over the years, the novel has grown to have ‘a texture of its own’, to use Updike’s words, and it became less a story about Latin America and more about mankind at large. William Kennedy wrote for the National Observer that it is ‘the first piece of literature since the Book of Genesis that should be required reading for the entire human race’.”
By Louis de Bernieres
This hypnotic novel about a local doctor’s daughter on the Greek island of Cephalonia in 1941, her love letters to her fiancé on the frontline and the experiences of the Italian occupiers of the island is a very human story about the futility of war. The Times Literary Supplement says, “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin achieves that rare feat of saying something new about war… fusing with remarkable felicity the cosmic and the tragic, the lyrical and the epic… and, without offering easy answers, it poses difficult questions about love and suspicion, trust and betrayal, creativity and destruction.”
By Mario Vargas Llosa
The Feast of the Goat was hailed as another of the great emblematic novels of Latin America in the twentieth century. It weaves the story of Urania Cabral, a New York lawyer, who returns to the Dominican Republic after a lifelong self-imposed exile together with the powerful story of the climax of the Dominican Republic dictator Rafael Trujillo’s reign. As Trujillo clings to power, a plot to push the Dominican Republic into the future is being formed. It very much feels like a story for our times as Mario Vargas Llosa eloquently explores the effects of power and violence on the lives of both the oppressors and those they victimised.
By Andre Dubus III
This 1999 novel is a beautiful but dark exploration of American life and the tensions around immigration. Set amid the frequent, flowing fogs and unsteady sands of Pacific suburbia, it explores in sensitive detail how differing visions of the American dream collide. Publisher Penguin explains, “Kathy is a young recovering alcoholic recently separated from her husband. When her family home is repossessed, she is devastated. Her house is sold at auction to Behrani, a former Iranian Air Force officer for whom it represents an entry into real estate and a passport to the future for his family and his own version of the American Dream. For Kathy, its loss is the last of a series of insults life has dealt her and the stage is set for a gut-wrenching tragedy.” Told in beautiful descriptive prose, the novel examines what happens when ordinary people are repeatedly trapped by circumstances and transformed by events until, finally, they destroy one another.
By Eva Ibbotson
The author of the children’s classic Journey to the River Sea wrote a number of romantic novels for young adults that drew on her own experiences fleeing Eastern Europe during the Second World War. The Secret Countess is a perfectly constructed love story and a beautiful, understated celebration of two cultures colliding. Anna Grazinsky, a young Russian countess, has lived in the glittering city of St Petersburg all her life in an ice-blue palace overlooking the River Neva. But when revolution tears Russia apart, her now-penniless family is forced to flee to England. Marian Keyes says it’s “A fairy tale for grown-ups. It’s unapologetically romantic but it’s also extremely funny, wry, dry and witty – and hugely uplifting”.
By Colson Whitehead
The Guardian describes this book as “luminous, furious and wildly inventive”. The story begins on a particularly vicious Georgia plantation, where all anyone wants to do is escape. Whitehead plays with the historical metaphor for the network of abolitionists who helped ferry slaves out of the south. Protagonists Cora and Caesar are led to a subterranean platform where a train pulls up, heading north. The Guardian says, “it’s a brilliant conceit, and from this point forwards, the book takes on a visionary new life.” The journey has a distinct allegorical flavour, with each state presenting a new face to the horrors of slavery. “This thrilling, genre-bending tale of escape from slavery in the American deep south contains extraordinary prose and uncomfortable home truths… [it] wears its research lightly, but the subtly antique prose and detailed description combine to create a world that is entirely convincing.”