I like science fiction, but one of my favorite kinds of books is the kind set on Earth, in the present or recent past, but in a subculture that is really vividly described and interesting. A good example is The Chosen by Chaim Potok, one of the Books That Blew My Mind. Here are 7 others that, while not quite as mind-blowing to me personally, also have that ability to transport me to a different “world” on this planet:
1. Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson is set on an island off the coast of Washington where the main industries are strawberry farming and salmon fishing, and a significant part of the population is Japanese-American. It’s primarily the story of a 1950s murder trial, but it delves into several characters’ memories of the previous two decades.
2. The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni is a very unusual fantasy set in the real world. Tilottama grew up in India but was chosen to become a Mistress of Spices, a sort of magical healer who is stationed somewhere to help people. She now lives and works in a little shop in Oakland, California. Getting wrapped up in the people’s crises tempts her to rebel and break the rules she was taught. (This book has a weird, breathy, oddly punctuated style of prose that is magical if you’re in the right mood, annoying if you’re not–I recommend reading it when you feel open-minded and playful, feverish, or very hormonal.)
3. The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan is a book of connected short stories written from the perspectives of four mothers who immigrated from China to San Francisco and their four daughters born and raised in the United States. China, Chinatown, and the daughters’ experiences of and mothers’ perceptions of mainstream America all are very interesting. (I’m not an Amy Tan fan in general; I’ve read several of her other books and didn’t like any of them as well as this one.)
4. The Color Purple by Alice Walker is tough to read because of the unpleasantness–poverty, incest, abuse, lies, etc.–but it’s worthwhile for the resiliency and spirit that eventually win. I especially love the part when Celie discovers the hidden letters. It certainly does make me grateful that I am not an African-American in the Deep South a few decades ago, but only reading about it! (The film version is really great, too!)
5. The Ladies’ Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis is set among the gossiping women of a tightly-knit Orthodox Jewish community in . . . Memphis. Who knew there were any Jews in Memphis?! The combination of customs that are familiar to me through my neighborhood with the landscape and culture of Tennessee is really entertaining, and the story of this community’s relationship with a newcomer is poignant.
6. Entries from a Hot Pink Notebook by Todd D. Brown is the fictional diary of a fourteen-year-old boy who knows he’s gay but lives in semi-rural blue-collar Maine. I’ve never been to Maine and have only heard about it from people who vacationed there, and while in some ways it’s like semi-rural blue-collar anywhere, there are some interesting quirks. Many aspects of the story are sad and desperate, but others are very funny, and I love the way Ben gradually changes from assuming he belongs in Basic Education to realizing he’s pretty smart.
7. What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell is the story of a Holocaust survivor who comes to Los Angeles and starts a cosmetics business with an African-American friend, then swindles her–and for decades afterward, they and their descendants try to work it out. This story has lots of interesting characters and lots of subplots, but it all comes together amazingly well. Various neighborhoods of L.A. serve as several different “worlds” in which the story unfolds.