A good novel acts as a window on the world its writer imagines. It may also reveal as much about the world its reader lives in every day. We asked English professor Julia Lee for her summer fiction recommendations. Choose for yourself whether they are windows or mirrors, or both. —The Editor
“The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett
This multigenerational novel follows the lives of identical twins Desiree and Stella, one of whom decides to pass as white. What begins as a story of racial passing also brings up interesting questions about gender passing and other socially constructed identities. Half of the novel takes place in Los Angeles, and one of the main characters attends LMU!
“Interior Chinatown,” by Charles Yu
Winner of the 2020 National Book Award, this novel made me laugh out loud. Yu imagines America as a procedural cop show called “Black and White,” with the protagonist endlessly trying to break out of his typecast role of “Generic Asian Man.” Written in the form of a screenplay, the novel is a devastating satire of Hollywood, which makes sense given Yu’s other career as a screenwriter for shows like HBO’s “Westworld.”
“The Night Watchman,” by Louise Erdrich
Based on the life of Erdrich’s own grandfather, a night watchman and member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, this novel follows Thomas Wazhashk’s fight to prevent the “termination” of Chippewa land ownership and treaty rights by Congress. Erdrich is one of my favorite writers, and this novel is both a love letter to Erdrich’s grandfather and a continuation of his legacy of resistance.
“Parable of the Sower,” Octavia E. Butler
Published by Butler in 1993, “Parable of the Sower” is an Afrofuturist novel that opens in the year 2024 (just around the corner). California has become a dystopian hellscape, ravaged by climate change, poverty and violence. Read this book and you will experience chills at how accurately Butler prophesied our current moment — and how she imagines a way forward. (To learn more about Butler, check out LMU alum Lynell George’s new book, “A Handful of Earth, a Handful of Sky: the World of Octavia E. Butler.”)
“Pachinko,” by Min Jin Lee
Warning: this is a Very Long Novel. It reminds me of my favorite Victorian novels — enormous door-stoppers covering generations of a family. In this case, the novel is about the Zainichi — ethnic Koreans living in Japan who survived grinding poverty and discrimination by opening up pachinko parlors (gambling being one of the few industries open to them). I adore Lee’s compassionate moral vision and world-building.
“A Bug Collection,” by Melody Mansfield
This collection of stories is a whimsical exploration of life through the eyes of mayflies, katydids, dung beetles and more. Melody was one of my colleagues and mentors when I first began teaching almost 25 years ago, and she recently passed away from breast cancer. This book so beautifully captures Melody’s warmth, grace, humor and love of the natural world — qualities she held onto even when facing her own death.
“The Woman in White,” by Wilkie Collins
Collins is sometimes credited with writing the first detective novel (others claim it was Poe). I’ve always loved this novel because it’s a crazy page-turner, with a mysterious woman dressed in white (who may have escaped from an insane asylum), an Italian count with pet white mice, and a fake baronet named Sir Percival Glyde. Collins was a master of the “sensation novel” (basically, 19th century thrillers), and this one is chock full of cliff-hangers and shocking secrets.
Julia Lee is a professor of English in the LMU Bellarmine College of Liberal Arts. She is the author of “The American Slave Narrative and the Victorian Novel” and “Our Gang: A Racial History of ‘The Little Rascals.’” Her novel, “By The Book,” was published under the pen name Julia Sonneborn.