My Multicultural Summer Reading List

Here are some of my favorite novels. I highly recommend them if you are looking for a good read this summer.

NOTE: Per the comment thread, we are going to discuss MUDBOUND here later this summer. If you are interested in participating, please let me know!

by Hillary Jordan

This is the novel that inspired my return to blogging; I wanted to tell as many people as possible to read this book. Set in 1946 in the Mississippi Delta, Mudbound chronicles the life of white farmers, the McAllans, and their black sharecroppers, the Jacksons. Each family has a loved one who returns from WWII, and their tandem struggle to accept life in Mississippi after fighting fascism abroad sets in motion events that will devastate both families.

Publishers Weekly calls it "a superbly rendered depiction of the fury and terror wrought by racism."

This novel had a profound effect on me, which I describe here.

On Beauty
by Zadie Smith

On Beauty follows the conflict between two academic rivals-- white liberal Howard Belsey (married to an African American woman) and Monty Kipps, an Anglo-Caribbean staunch conservative. Set in a fictional Ivy League-esque college, the novel relentlessly probes America's cultural wars, forcing the reader to examine her understanding of issues surrounding class, race, and gender. It is brash and brilliant and more than a little funny.

Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times says On Beauty is "[t]hat rare thing: a novel that is as affecting as it is entertaining, as provocative as it is humane."

Queen of Dreams
by Chitra Banerjee Davikaruni

In Queen of Dreams, recently divorced artist and mother Rakhi navigates complicated relationships with her often-infuriating ex-husband and her secretive mother. As a child of immigrant parents, Rakhi is hurt by her dream-teller mother's refusal to speak of her native India. Eventually, she discovers her mother's dream journals and learns that some bonds cannot be broken, even in death. This story is a unique, mystical look at the Indian-American experience. It is also exquisitely written:  I've underlined lyrical, gorgeous prose throughout the book.

As the Seattle Post-Intelligencer says, "Powerful...complex, poetic...Examines family secrets, the meaning of dreams, the search for identity -- an ambitious agenda of themes that reflects Divakaruni's mature talents."

Half Life
by Roopa Farooki

Beautifully written, Half Life begins with Aruna Ahmed Jones walking out on her new husband and boarding a flight to Singapore where she left Jazz--her best friend and (failed) lover. Suffering from bipolar disorder and a sense that she is caught between two worlds and might belong in neither, this is a touching, evocative book about self-discovery --  how easy it is to leave and how hard it can be to stay.  

The Independent (UK) calls it, "Utterly compelling...Moments of utter emotional bleakness are rendered bearable by the fragile beauty of the images Farooki uses to describe them. This is proper storytelling – we are provided with a character we find ourselves caring about, and want to discover what becomes of her. One thing will always stand out when it matters: the author's voice. And Farooki has one to be proud of."

Kitchen Chinese
by Ann Mah

Kitchen Chinese follows Chinese American Isabelle Lee, who has just lost her job at a posh New York magazine and been dumped by her boyfriend. She flees to Beijing to stay with her sister, a successful attorney with whom she has a difficult relationship. Isabelle lands a job writing restaurant reviews for an unprestigious ex-pat magazine. Set against the backdrop of modern China, what ensues is a funny, touching story about finding oneself and love in unlikely places.

Publisher's Weekly says, "Isabelle's Beijing immersion, coupled with her chick lit arc, provides a refreshing and fun narrative, helped along by a fantastic heroine whose insights into modern China and the expatriate experience will intrigue readers."

The Reluctant Fundamentalist
by Mohsin Hamid

The Reluctant Fundamentalist is told in a single monologue from the perspective of a young Pakistani man who, for a time, lives the American dream. Changez graduates at the top of his class at Princeton, is hired by an elite valuation firm, and falls in love with a captivating, if troubled, American woman. As he speaks, apparently to some sort of American operative at a cafe in Lahore, his story of disillusionment with his adopted country post-9/11 unfolds. The book is both literary and a thriller.  I read this novel in one sitting, and after I turned the last page I sat in shock, trying to figure out if what I thought happened had just happened.

As The Seattle Times says, "Changez's voice is extraordinary. Cultivated, restrained, yet also barbed and passionate, it evokes the power of butler Stevens in Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day... brilliantly written and well worth a read."

All that Glitters
by Alisa Valdes-Rodriquez

All that Glitters tells the interconnected story of two women -- Latina Mackenzie de la Garza, a professional cheerleader and talented photographer who coaches inner city kids and dreams of being a photo journalist, and African American Zora Jackson, one of the top sports agents in the country. This book at first feels like a deceptively quick read as the two women deal with relationship and career struggles. However, Valdes-Rodriquez weaves serious issues and confronts stereotypes throughout the narrative. It is thoughtful but not preachy, fun but not frivolous.

Time Magazine has dubbed Valdez-Rodriquez the "Godmother of Chica Lit" and named her one of the "25 Most Influential Hispanics in America".

Purple Hibiscus
by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Purple Hibiscus tells the devastating story of 15-year-old Kambili, raised in a wealthy Nigerian home, daughter to the village's most respected man. Behind closed doors, Kambili's father is a religious fanatic (Catholic) who deals out swift and severe punishment to the members of the household, including Kambili's mother who suffers serial "inexplicable" miscarriages.

A summer with her aunt changes everything for Kambili. Against the backdrop of a military coup, and her mother's final desperate act, Kambili learns that she is stronger than she could have imagined.

This book is at once disturbing and beautiful. It is rich with details of Nigerian culture, and provides a not-so-subtle commentary on the more horrific effects of meddling in other countries--both by political leaders and religious ones.

From Publishers Weekly: "By turns luminous and horrific, this debut ensnares the reader from the first page and lingers in the memory long after its tragic end."

The Invitation
by Anne Cherian

In The Invitation, twenty-five years after graduating from UCLA, Vikram invites three of his first-generation Indian immigrant college friends to his Newport mansion for his son's graduation from MIT. Life has not gone as planned for any of them, each of whom struggles with disappointment with his or her career, marriage, or children. At first, they all try to keep up appearances, but soon each is forced to face reality. This novel is a wonderful chronicle of the Indian American experience and the universal struggle to define love, family, and success.

Publishers Weekly says, "Cherian’s straightforward storytelling is riveting and rarely goes amiss."

A Free Life
by Ha Jin

A Free Life is a quiet but exquisite novel following the Wu family as they leave China and make a life in the United States. Nan Wu is a writer at heart, but finds himself forced to sideline literary aspirations in order to support his family. The story is rich with details about everyday life -- about the quotidian heartbreaks that can seem insignificant from the outside. There are struggles and successes, and we are rooting for the Wu family throughout.

Slate calls it, "Deeply affecting...engrossing....The charm of A Free Life comes from its cheerful subversiveness, its gentle upending of the most persistent myths about the creation of art."




  1. Thanks for the list! You are wearing me down with Mudbound. I will read it! And it's also good to see a Ha Jin recommendation. I've tried a couple of his books but never got into them.

    1. Ha, Davin! Clearly, I won't rest until you either read Mudbound or see its cover in your sleep.

      Seriously, I just think it is so well done and so critically important. But also difficult to live with, as I mentioned. Not a "beach read" at all, but well worth the emotional toll it takes.

  2. Love your list. Thanks for putting in so much work to pull it together. I had Mudbound on my list of things to check out but most of these are new to me. Looking forward to looking at some of these others!

    1. Thanks, Wendy!

      Re: Mudbound, see my comment to Davin about not resting until you read it. But be prepared for its heaviness. I definitely read something lighter after I finished.

  3. Thank you for putting together this list. Looks like some good selections.

    1. It's my pleasure. Thanks for reading!

  4. Mudbound: no faces.
    On Beauty: no faces.
    Queen of Dreams: ambiguous silhouettes.
    Half Life: ambiguous cut-off face.
    Kitchen Chinese: head blocked by umbrella.
    The Reluctant Fundamentalist: half of face covered by graphic elements.
    All that Glitters: no faces.
    Purple Hibiscus: black arm partially camouflaged by graphic element.
    The Invitation: ambiguous slice of figure.
    A Free Life: figures obscured by distance.

    1. And aren't they gorgeous??

      They are. Alone, and collectively.

      Which is why I have a love/hate thing with e-books. I love the convenience, I ADORE being able to get a book RIGHT AWAY, wherever I am.

      But? I love the look and feel of books. I love the way they sit like art and beauty and someone's truth on my bookshelf.

      Especially these books.

  5. Hopped on over from twitter. Great list, some great titles. I've read a few, need to read some more.

    1. Thanks, Ben. Happy reading!

  6. I'm ashamed to say that the only one I've read is ON BEAUTY. It was, of course, stunning. I'm in awe of Zadie Smith.

    Once I'm finally finished with the behemoth that is INFINITE JEST, I plan on ransacking the public library for your suggestions. MUDBOUND first.

    In the future I'm going to blog my own list. And your book will be on top.

    1. I think we could have a small Zadie Smith fan club here. And a MUDBOUND discussion group.

      I hope you get a chance to read some of the others. And you are very kind to say that about your own list, Sarah. Thank you!

    2. What if you set a deadline in about six-eight weeks for a discussion on Mudbound? I'm up for that! And you can invite the author. (And maybe she could give me a prize?)

      By the way, I just started a book called The Buddha In The Attic by Julie Otsuka. Have you heard of it?

    3. Davin, I love this idea! If you're serious, I will cajole the others to paricipate. Any chance we could get Scott? How is Scott??

      Also? ALSO. The Buddha in the Attic is on my bedside table. RIGHT NOW. Underneath what I am reading presently, which is The Art of Fielding.

      We might have to talk about The Buddha in the Attic, too. Maybe we need a multicultural book discussion group!

    4. I've ordered Mudbound, so I'll be ready. Are we allowed to throw down the gauntlet on your blog?

      As for The Buddha in the Attic, I think I will finish it tonight. It's a very short book. Happy to discuss!

      I'd be up for a book group, but I should warn you I can be a very slow reader at times. I go through phases.

    5. Of course, Davin! If this blog isn't for throwing down the gauntlet, what is it for? :)

      Sarah Hina and Wendy Russ are IN. I'll invite others; feel free to do the same. Should we aim for the beginning of August?

      I'm really excited. Because even though I couldn't talk about the book for awhile after I finished it, after that there is so much to say.

  7. Some day I'll come to this list. Some day.

    Right now, I've a big list that I want to read of my own. And a big list I have to read to be able to work better (on management, marketing, etc).

    P.S. I hear you on the e-book/paper book thing. Sarah & I discussed it too. I love trees too, but there's the feeling of holding a book, smelling the pages, and the happy/sad feeling you get as you can see while reading that there just a few more pages left, that the e-books just can't recreate.

    When I was around 10 yrs old, I found my Dad's stash of Perry Mason books. The pages were all yellow, barely attached on the hinges. The pages had an inexplicable wonderful smell. Till date, it's the best treasure I've found.

    1. You're young, Aniket. You've got time!

      Your description of your father's books is wonderful. I have noticed that, for someone who is so hard on his own work, your effortless writing is so often quite beautiful.

  8. I read what I write, so I've been immersed in the wonderful world of YA fiction for a very long time, with a few forays here and there to books for bigger kids. I do hope to get to read more this summer, and perhaps more widely, and Mudbound sounds like it should be at or near the top of my list. Thanks!

    1. I think any one of these books would be a great choice -- I actually think you would really enjoy The Reluctant Fundamentalist, based on some of your writing on your blog.

      But if you do read Mudbound, and of course I hope that you do, please join us for the discussion!