Like all prizes, the Pulitzers can be hit or miss. Luckily, there are some great books to be found on the winner list. Here are some of my favorites (in no particular order):
Less, by Andrew Sean Greer (2018)
This feels like a very refreshing choice because comic novels tend not to be taken seriously and because it does a deep dive into the life of a middle-aged gay man–which is something that can usually only operate on the perimeter of mainstream pop culture. Beyond that, it’s a very tender, heartfelt novel about love and life and art.
Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri (2000)
One thing I like about the Pulitzer Prize is that it gives short story collections a fair shake (in fact, a second short story collection was also a finalist for this year: Annie Proulx’s Close Range: Wyoming Stories). Lahiri’s writing is gorgeous and elegant and left a big impact on me. The first story in this collection, A Temporary Matter, is one of my all-time favorites. I reread it frequently.
The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (1921)
I read this as part of my book bucket list and I just loved it. This was the third book to win a Pulitzer and the first by a woman. It’s about Newland Archer, heir to one of New York City’s best families, who finds himself torn between May Welland, who would be a proper match for him, and May’s opposite: the Countess Ellen Olenska, who has been touched by scandal and who does not conform to the ideals of polite society. While it’s not as humorous as Jane Austen, this is just as sharply critical of society and it also makes some astute observations about how things change over time.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon (2001)
Two Jewish cousins, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, become giants in the comic industry and use their main creation, The Escapist, to fight World War II in the public’s mind. Sam struggles with his sexuality and Joe struggles with life as a refugee from Prague and a sort of survivor’s guilt. It’s about how art relates to important issues, and it uses both comic book tropes and comic book lore to tell its story. It’s brilliant.
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole (1981)
Published eleven years after Toole’s suicide, this novel proved to be a landmark classic in American literature. It also has laugh-out-loud comic sensibility that doesn’t get in the way of its heftier plotpoints and features one of my all-time favorite characters in literature: the irrepressible fussbudget Ignatius J. Reilly–a brilliant man who is nevertheless thoroughly incapable of making his way in the world. He has been described as a “fat Don Quixote,” and that’s actually pretty apt.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner (1972)
This book has been the source of some controversy because of Stegner’s heavy use of both the life story and the letters of Mary Hallock Foote, who was the basis of this book’s character of Susan Burling Ward. Regardless of that, I just love this book and the way it frames Susan’s story by telling it through the lens of her grandson, Lyman Ward. It’s as much about how we create the histories we want as it is about pioneer life in America. It is a truly brilliant book.
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr (2015)
I don’t usually like books with purple prose, but something about the way Doerr writes made me fascinated by his way of looking at the world–even if it is sometimes excessively descriptive. It’s a deeply affecting story about a blind girl named Marie-Laure, who is living in Paris on the edge of Nazi occupation, and a brilliant German boy named Werner who has no future outside of the coal mines in his town until he is snatched by the Nazis and forced into the army. Their stories begin a collision course involving a supposedly cursed diamond, and I was spellbound for the entire duration of this reading experience.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (1961)
Liking To Kill a Mockingbird may not seem fashionable since it feels so ubiquitous in the United States (this is the one novel most Americans are most likely to have read thanks to having been assigned it in school), but I just love what it has to say about human nature and society. I have not read the quasi-sequel that was published a few years back, Go Set a Watchmen, and I don’t ever plan to.
The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead (2017)
I poo-pooed this novel a bit when it was published because I had already read Yaa Gyasi’s Homecoming by the time it came out and I felt like I had already gotten everything everone else was getting out of this book from Homegoing. Having said that, with time I can appreciate what The Underground Railroad did and the ways it has stuck with me.
All the King’s Men, by Robert Penn Warren (1947)
This classic novel about the rise and fall of a once-idealistic politician is also bruise-black in a way that only feels more relevant over time. Inspired by the story of Huey Long, this is the sprawling story of Willie Stark, who starts out as an idealistic lawyer and ends up a corrupt and wildly powerful governor. It plays with morals and ideals in memorable and resonant ways.
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy (2007)
I think what I like so much about this novel featuring a father and son trying to navigate a brutal post-apocalyptic world is that despite how bleak it seems, it has tinges of hope to it. It’s a suspenseful novel that is also truly heartbreaking and difficult to forget.
The Color Purple, by Alice Walker (1983)
Walker may have recently revealed herself to be a problematic person, but I’ve long called this novel one of my all-time favorites. The first half of the book is comprised of letters Celie, a poor, abused, and uneducated African American girl living in the south in the early 1900s, writes to God asking for help. The second half is letters written to Celie’s sister, Nettie, whom she has been separated from. It’s a brutal and uncompromising book but also beautiful in its way.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz (2008)
Stories like this one don’t usually win Pulitzer Prizes, but there’s no denying how great it is. Oscar de León is an overweight Dominican boy whose obsession with science fiction has ostracizes him from the other kids in his neighborhood. It also has footnotes, and I love me a book with footnotes. When I used to describe this book to customers at Borders, they seemed confused, but once they read it they understood how great it is.
The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever (1979)
Most of the stories in this collection had been published elsewhere before being compiled into one master volume, so it feels slightly unfair that this was even eligible, but there’s no denying that this overview of Cheever’s work is a tremendous piece of literature.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan (2011)
These interconnected stories about people who have a connection to Bennie Salazar, an oddball record company executive who puts gold flakes in his coffee and has seriously bizarre taste when it comes to deodorant, is also a daringly inventive take on storytelling. One of the stories is even in the form of a PowerPoint presentation. Egan thought of each story as a song on a concept album with a central theme, and the result is a stroke of genius.