TIME Books

29 Books That Will Enrich Your Inner Literati

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Answer by Cristina Hartmann on Quora.

Correction appended, March 31

For anyone who wants to attain the vaunted title of “being well-read,” it’s more about breadth than depth. (As for feeling well-read, read the postscript.)

To “feel” well-read in literature, it’s all about the categories, not the books themselves. Read a few books in a few different genres, time periods, points of views. I’ve thrown in a few controversial books, just so you know what all of the fuss is about.

Here’s how you can feel like a regular literati!:

Western Classics (Ancient & Modern): to give you a good foundation for the who’s who of Western literature.

  • The Odyssey (Homer): epic of a dude who just can’t get home without a little help from the gods. (Extra credit if you read the Iliad, too!)
  • A Tale of Two Cities (Charles Dickens): the quintessential story of the French Revolution, love, and longing.
  • Pride & Prejudice (Jane Austen): the story that started the “hate at first sight turning into love” trope.
  • Anna Karenina (Leo Tolstoy): Very long. Very melodramatic. Very Russian. Very classic!

Dystopia: the stuff of our worst fears and nightmares.

  • Nineteen-Eighty-Four (George Orwell): the book that introduced “doublethink” into our lexicon.
  • Brave New World (Aldous Huxley): another classic dystopia. Gammas, Deltas, oh my!
  • The Handmaid’s Tale (Margaret Atwood): a feminist spin on the genre.

Science Fiction & Fantasy: we can’t overlook the geeky cousin of the classics, can we?

  • The Lord of the Rings series (J.R.R. Tolkien): this guy made the epic (also called high) fantasy genre. Be warned, it’s a bit of a dry read.
  • The Foundation series (Issac Asimov): some of the pioneering stories in science fiction, natch!
  • Neuromancer (William Gibson): here’s something a bit more modern. Plus, you just can’t beat “The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel” as a snappy first line.

Great American Novels: these zeitgeist works practically defined a time period of U.S. history.

  • The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald): you can’t think of the Jazz Age without thinking of “old sport.”
  • Bonfire of Vanities (Tom Wolfe): the terrible movie nonwithstanding, this book captured the self-indulgence of the 80s NYC crowd.
  • The Grapes of Wrath (John Steinbeck): I dare you to get into a conversation about the Great Depression without thinking of this book. I dare you.

Literary Heavy Hitters: books that make people go “Whoa, dude!” when you say that you’ve read them.

  • Ulysses (James Joyce): stream-of-consciousness writing plus an unhealthy sexual obsession with an orphan with a limp equal literary greatness. True story.
  • Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace): fractals, man! Fractals!
  • Gravity’s Rainbow (Thomas Pynchon): lots of stuff happens that a lot of people pretend to understand.

Popular Fiction: those guilty indulgences that everyone has read (but won’t necessarily admit to it). Warning: this is U.S.-centric, feel free to indulge in your country’s guilty pleasures.

  • A Song of Ice and Fire series (George R. R. Martin): hey, there’s a popular HBO miniseries about it!
  • The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins): better than Twilight.
  • Fifty Shades of Grey (E.L. James): be torn between hilarity and despair in this BDSM spin-off of a Twilight fan fiction. Who knows, maybe this’ll spice up the bedroom.

Immigrant Experience (U.S./U.K.): ah, the magical experience of being thrust into a new culture.

  • Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri): say hello to our recent Indian arrivals! (For our tea-drinking cousins across the pond, try Monica Ali’sBrick Lane.)
  • Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan): the book that inspired a movie and furor in the Asian American community about stereotypes and Tan’s possible self-loathing. (For a less controversial read, try Ha Jin’s Waiting–and yes, there’s a lot of longing and waiting there.)
  • How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents (Julia Alvarez): how four sisters start to forget their Spanish and their native homeland of the Dominican Republic.

Non-Western Classics (Ancient): if Westerners get theirs, so should the rest of the world.

  • Ramayana (India): this is THE Hindu epic. Full stop.
  • Romance of the Three Kingdoms (China): a bit of Chinese history, highly romanticized and dramatized. Kind of like “A World Turns.”

Non-Western Classics (Modern): the stuff that you should read to feel worldly and well-read. (More applicable if you’re from the U.S. or Western Europe.)

  • One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel Garcia Marquez): this novel single-handedly legitimatized Latin American literature in modern times. Too bad you don’t know who he’s talking about half of the time.
  • To Live (Yu Hua): getting banned in China just adds to its street cred.
  • Things Fall Apart (Chinua Achebe): the sad tale of colonialism in Africa. Definitely merits a frowny-face.

Satire: throw in a little giggle into your reading list.

  • Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut): some say Slaughterhouse-Five is his best, I say this one. Also: Bokononism!
  • Catch-22 (Joseph Heller): come and see what the catch-22 is. I promise you, it’s gorgeously ironic.
  • The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (Douglas Adams): you kill two birds with two stones here: sci-fi and satire. Whee!

This is where I reach the end of my endurance. I haven’t even gotten into the non-fiction stuff, but alas … I must eat.

With this list, you’ll feel like you can dominate the Trivial Pursuit literature section! Life is good.

Postscript: since this question is more about sentiment than reality … I hate to break it to you, but if you’re truly a well-read person, you will never feel well-read. They’re always on the lookout for their next book—that category that they’re missing—to add to their impressive list. It’s a Sisyphean goal, really.

If you feel well-read, you’re probably not.

This question originally appeared on Quora: What books should one read to feel well-read?

More from Quora:

Read next: 15 Life-Changing Books You Can Read in a Day

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the title of the book Things Fall Apart.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Ethan Hawke’s Rules for a Knight to Hit Bookstores This Fall

The actor returns with his third book, with details revealed exclusively on TIME

Ethan Hawke, the author of two novels, is returning to bookshelves for the first time since 2002.

Rules for a Knight, due out this fall, will cap off a year that has included Hawke’s debut documentary (Seymour: An Introduction) and his fourth Oscar nomination (for Boyhood). Per Hawke’s publisher, Knopf—who shared details of the book exclusively with TIME—Hawke originally wrote Knight, a parable, as a gift to his four children. The publisher’s synopsis further reads:

“A knight, fearing he may not return from battle, writes a letter to his children in which he tries to leave a record of all he knows. He lays out the truth of the world as he sees it in a series of ruminations on solitude, humility, forgiveness, honesty, courage, grace, pride, patience, generosity, authenticity, and love. He presents an honest and joyful accounting of what the measure of our lives should be.”

In a recent interview with TIME, Hawke spoke about his evolution as an artist. “When I was young, I just had a tremendous amount of—joy is one word, hubris is another. I was just so excited to be a part of of anything creative,” he said. “‘I wrote 10 pages. Look! You should read it.’ And now as you get older, you’re like, ‘Okay, wait. There’s a lot of things you should read before I’ll waste your time with [my work].'”

That concern has evidently been overcome with a story that’s intended to speak to young people, and that’s explicitly intended as advice: Hawke’s publisher compares the book to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” and Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s Gift From the Sea. Like his character in Boyhood, Hawke, writing for his kids, is growing up.

After all, as the book instructs its reader: “A great knight uses his power to empower others.”

TIME Television

Game of Thrones Creators Say the Show Will Spoil The Books

"We’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place"

The power dynamics between Game of Thrones readers and watchers will soon shift.

The HBO show’s creators have revealed that the series will end before the books do—something fans have been aware of for some time given George R. R. Martin’s writing pace — and will follow the same plot. In other words, the show will be full of book spoilers.

Show runner Davide Benioff told Oxford Union:

We’ve been talking about this with George for a long time, ever since we saw this could happen, and we know where things are heading. And so we’ll eventually, basically, meet up at pretty much the same place where George is going; there might be a few deviations along the route, but we’re heading towards the same destination. I kind of wish that there were some things we didn’t have to spoil, but we’re kind of stuck between a rock and a hard place. The show must go on… and that’s what we’re going to do.

(h/t: Vanity Fair)

TIME Books

Becoming Steve Jobs Shares Jobs’ Human Side

Steve Jobs during a keynote address to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.
Paul Sakuma—AP Steve Jobs during a keynote address to the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference in San Francisco on June 6, 2011.

A new book out this week gives a fresh look at the controversial leader

Every new book about Steve Jobs will forever be measured against Walter Isaacson’s biography, which defined, for millions of readers, the man who built (and rebuilt) Apple.

But the people closest to Jobs — the people who knew him best — say Isaacson missed the mark. “I thought the Isaacson book did him a tremendous disservice,” says Tim Cook, speaking out three years later. “It was just a rehash of a bunch of stuff that had already been written, and focused on small parts of his personality.”

Isaacson’s not really to blame. He’s a skilled journalist, and he mastered an enormous amount of material in a very short time. But he didn’t get to spend much quality time with his subject until the last year and a half of Jobs’ life. Besides, he was hired to tell the story of what Steve Jobs did, not who Steve Jobs was.

There are only a handful of journalists who knew Jobs well enough to tell that story. There’s Steve Levy, formerly of Newsweek. There’s John Markoff of the New York Times. And there’s Brent Schlender of the Wall Street Journal and Fortune, who may have known Jobs best of all.

Becoming Steve Jobs was co-written with Rick Tetzeli, a long-time Fortune colleague, but it is told in the first person — Schlender’s first person — because it is, at heart, Schlender’s story, the story of a journalist’s 25-year relationship with a source.

The book comes richly pre-publicized. Fast Company, where Tetzeli is executive editor, has been dishing out the newsiest chunks like ice cream, one scoop at a time.

But it’s through Schlender’s stories, freshly told, often from taped interviews, that we get to know Steve Jobs as Schlender knew him. And it’s through these stories that each reader will assemble his or her own answer to the book’s central question:

How did a young man so reckless and arrogant become the most effective visionary business leader of our time?”

Jobs cultivated Schlender, gave him long interviews, called him to gossip and complain. Schlender visited Jobs at home; Jobs visited Schlender in the hospital, where they ended up together more often than either would have wished.

Their first meeting — in 1986, when Jobs was drumming up publicity for NeXT — didn’t yield the Wall Street Journal feature story Jobs was hoping for, but it did convince him that Schlender was okay, not a bozo.

“Not writing a feature was the first salvo in the twenty-five-year-long negotiation that marked our relationship,” writes Schlender in the prologue that kickstarts the book. “There was never a minute where the basic terms of our relationship weren’t clear: I was the reporter, he was the source and subject.”

And yet Schlender leaves Jobs’ invitation-only memorial service in October 2011 overcome with emotion for having lit into his source in their last phone call. Jobs had invited Schlender to pay a visit. But Schlender was in a dark mood. Not realizing how close Jobs was to death, he used the opportunity to air his grievances about their relationship. “After a few minutes, once I’d had my say, there was a silence on the line. And then he said he was really sorry.”

Schlender made a halfhearted attempt to schedule a visit but quickly gave up, to his everlasting regret.

Highly recommended.

This article originally appeared on Fortune.com.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

Want to Accomplish Great Things? Pick Great Heroes. Here’s How.

Full length of man dressed as superhero jumping in Brohm lake
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Eric Greitens is a Navy SEAL, Rhodes Scholar, boxing champion, and humanitarian leader. This piece is drawn from his recently published book, Resilience. The founder of The Mission Continues and the author of the New York Times best-seller The Heart and the Fist, Eric was named by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people.

Don't feel silly. We all need heroes.

Who’s your hero?

It sounds like a childish question, and that’s a problem. You need a hero. We all do.

Heroes aren’t just for kids. Adults who want to accomplish great things—a successful business, a happy family, a beautiful painting, meaningful work—need heroes as well.

Step 1: Accept that heroes have flaws and that, as an adult, you will be able to identify them

When I was a kid, my favorite superhero was Aquaman. I loved Aquaman. I loved how he could breathe underwater, swim like a dolphin and communicate with fish. I don’t know that I’ve thought about Aquaman as an adult—and that’s a shame. Lots of kids have heroes. Kids are natural idolizers.

But in time we have to “put away childish things.” And one of the most painful parts of growing up is coming to terms with the fact that there is no perfect hero: our parents are flawed, our favorite athlete or actor might be a jerk. Comic books aren’t documentaries.

To grow up is to understand that no one owns a complete set of virtues. Those who are brave might also be impatient. Those who are patient might also be unjust. The disciplined athlete is the undisciplined spender. The courageous soldier becomes the frightened father.

When we grow up—if we grow up fully—we no longer choose our heroes in a spirit of passive, all-consuming admiration, as a child does. We can choose actively, singling out the qualities we want to emulate, leaving aside the rest without regrets.

We can admire the profound wisdom of Plato without accepting, or ignoring, his deep elitism, which held that most of us have no hope of achieving wisdom at all. We can admire the free-thinking genius of Thomas Jefferson without accepting, or ignoring, his ownership of other human beings. We can admire the audacity of Richard Wagner, a nearly self-taught musician who became one of history’s greatest composers, without accepting, or ignoring, his hatred of Jews.

I’ve chosen famous examples here because everyone will know them. Your heroes may be more personal—a friend, a colleague, parent, coach or teacher. They too will be flawed. They can still be your hero. We can admire without ignoring, because we are adults, and that is what adults are capable of. We have to put away the idea that our heroes are perfect, if only because such a view of heroes begins to limit our view of our own lives.

If we believe that our heroes are flawless, we begin to believe that we, being flawed, are incapable of heroism. In this way, a belief in the perfection of others can inhibit our own growth. Sometimes people poke holes at and tear down heroes as an odd way to comfort themselves. If no one is heroic—the thinking goes—then why should I try? Yet flawed heroes—even fatally flawed heroes—are still heroic. Every Achilles has an Achilles’ heel.

Your hero is flawed. So are you. You have that in common.

Step 2: Recognize how heroes help you

We need heroes, because all of us have to do things that are hard.

What is difficult, painful, confusing, chaotic and worrisome in our lives can feel—because it is happening to us—as though it is unique. It’s easy to imagine that because you’re a unique person, your struggles are unique too. And it’s easy to become isolated, especially when things are hard.

Most heroes are heroic only because they have struggled heroically.

A hero can serve as a model. And a model might teach us how to deal with the death of someone we love, how to rebound from being fired, how to coach a loved one through a disabling accident, how to lead a team or how to raise a child.

Over time, we keep growing; the challenges in front of us change, and our sense of self changes with them. The model who taught us courage may be ill suited when the times demand patience. At each stage of our life, we pursue different dreams, learn different ways of living a good life and pass through different trials. We will, therefore, need different heroes.

Your hardship is real, but it is not unique. Learn from your heroes. Emulate the best in them.

Step 3: Be Heroic

Now, make yourself similar in another way: Go be heroic.


TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME Books

This Surprising Literary Trend Is Experiencing a Golden Age

Raymond Chandler
Ralph Crane—The LIFE Images Collection/Getty The writer Raymond Chandler, in 1943

Literary brands, delineated characters and franchises have existed since ancient times. Why is the continuation novel enjoying a golden moment now?

History Today

This post is in partnership with History Today. The article below was originally published at HistoryToday.com.

When asked recently why he wrote his most recent novel, the author John Banville answered: ‘Because I was asked to’. The book in question, The Black Eyed Blonde (published by Pan Macmillan in paperback this February) was written by Banville under his pseudonym Benjamin Black in blatant and acknowledged imitation of Raymond Chandler at the request of Chandler’s estate. It’s a setup that might inspire a film noir script: a decorated author (Banville) with a penchant for pseudonymously writing crime thrillers is approached by the estate of a long-deceased author. His task? Imitate one of the defining stylists of 20th-century literature. The reward? A best-selling novel and a substantial share of the accompanying spoils. The appeal for the Chandler estate is obvious: Chandler’s copyright will expire in the UK in 2029 and the value of characters – in this case Chandler’s famous PI Philip Marlowe – often exceeds the value of an author’s original texts.

The concept of one novelist ‘writing as’ another, usually to expand or continue a literary franchise, is known as a continuation novel, and is an increasingly familiar feature of the contemporary literary landscape. My copy of The Penguin Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory doesn’t include an entry on the continuation novel, but future editions probably will. In recent years Sebastian Faulks has written as P.G. Wodehouse, William Boyd as Ian Fleming, Sophie Hannah as Agatha Christie, Anthony Horowitz as Arthur Conan Doyle, and more. ‘When you read Anthony Horowitz’ new James Bond novel in September, you will think it is a lost Ian Fleming’, tweets literary agent Jonny Geller, who acknowledges that ‘the past five years has seen a significant rise in this model’ when I ask him about the popularity of such novels. We might be living in the second ‘golden age’ of television, but this is also arguably the first golden age of the continuation novel, which is arguably a less impressive development. It prompts various questions, such as: is literary publishing eating itself?

Homage, parody, pseudonym and forgery are commonplace throughout literary history, a potted survey of which might include the following key moments: in antiquity, a whole school of poetry was ‘written as’ Anacreon, referred to as the Anacreontea. In the late 18th century, children’s author Sarah Trimmer, who wrote the popular Fabulous Histories (1786), complained of being pirated on multiple occasions. Henry Fielding supposedly wrote a parodic sequel to Samuel Richardson’s Pamela titled Shamela. Later still, in 1907, Joseph Conrad had a breakdown while writing Nostromo and his friend (and later collaborator) Ford Maddox Ford wrote some of the book for him to ensure Conrad met serialisation dates. The 1913 novel Sherlock Holmes saving Mr. Venizelos, written by an anonymous author, is thought to be Sherlock’s first reincarnation (and also the first detective novel in Greek literature). Not all the above examples are nefarious in intent, but all in some way attempt to obscure the act of literary ventriloquism that is occurring.

The continuation novel differs from fan fiction (also enjoying a purple patch, which is unlikely to be a coincidence) chiefly in its ‘official’ nature. The books are commissioned by the deceased author’s estate, written with its approval, and marketed using both author’s brand associations. They are, in a sense, the logical conclusion of the familiar marketing tool of comparing a new author to an established author: ‘For fans of…’ or ‘Author A meets Author B’. The first well-known example of this model of publishing with an established author ‘picking up the torch’ on official business does not occur until the post-war period, when, in 1968, Kingsley Amis wrote Colonel Sun, a ‘new’ James Bond novel under the pseudonym Robert Markham at the behest of Ian Fleming’s estate. Tantalisingly one reviewer of Amis’ book noted that while it was unusual for an established author to continue a franchise in this manner, it was not unprecedented, though my search for an example predating 1968 has proved fruitless thus far. Continuation novels have detractors. ‘The posthumous pseudo-sequel never amounts to more than a nostalgic curiosity’ wrote, ironically, Kingsley’s son Martin Amis in a review of Perchance to Dream, Robert B. Parker’s authorised attempt to resurrect Chandler in 1991.

Why is the continuation novel so prevalent now? Literary brands have existed in some form or another since Homer. Why did no enterprising literary agent – a profession that has its roots in the late Victorian era – encourage a young, struggling George Gissing to ‘write as’ his idol Charles Dickens following the latter’s untimely death? Dickens was no stranger to franchising out his name: George W. M. Reynold’s Pickwick Abroad (1838) borrowed its titular protagonist from Dickens. Famously, Dickens and Wilkie Collins would write parts of each other’s books. EM Forster admired Jane Austen above all other writers, and today she is among our most rewritten authors. Why not expand her oeuvre in the early 20th century? The changing nature of intellectual property rights has much to do with the answer of course: they were less clear in the past, and more short-lived making forgery and plagiarism viable options. The literary brand, today, is a managed and controlled phenomenon. A dead author’s reach on social media (managed by their estate or publisher) can be vast. The person or people who control Socrates’ Facebook page have access to nearly 1.5 million people.

Aside from copyright, however, two interesting factors might be considered when explaining the present rise of the continuation novel, one recent and one not. Post-war publishing saw the paperback revolution, a change that according to Encyclopaedia Britannica ‘set book publishing upon a bolder and more adventurous course, turning it from a minor industry into one of sufficient growth and profitability to attract professional investors’. Arguably the eBook ‘revolution’ is a comparable growth area for the industry, ushering in a period of new potential profitability and markets. ‘Publishing’, says Jonny Geller, ‘is all about finding shorthand ways of capturing the reader by reducing intricate and complex narratives to bite size signifiers’. Few literary forms fit that bill like the continuation novel.

A more interesting theory might seek a precedent in the ancient world. In Edith Hall’s forthcoming Introducing The Ancient Greeks, (published by The Bodley Head in April) she describes how, following Alexander the Great’s death and the Wars of the Successors, Ptolemy I embarked on turning Alexandria into the world’s supreme center of civilisation. Central to this was the construction of the Library of Alexandria. Construction commenced around 297 BC, and Ptolemy imported the most acclaimed experts money could buy as well as bank-rolling a book-buying program that sent scouts to Rhodes and Athens with limitless money. Ptolemy’s venture was a success. Among those he brought to Alexandria was Callimachus who ‘knew more about ancient Greek literature than anybody before or since’, and changed the course of Western poetry by breaking with the literary culture amassed at the library with dense, erudite and cryptic poems. This period of literary experimentation was not to last. One of the detrimental effects of the library was to ensure that the past Hellenic literary tradition weighed heavily on the city’s poets and writers. ‘Almost as quickly as Ptolemy had brought the finest poets of his empire to its headquarters in Alexandria, innovation in Greek poetry ceased almost altogether’, writes Hall, who suggests that the recent resurgence in the popularity of the ‘pseudo-archaic Hymns of Callimachus or the whimsical, gothic response to Homer in Apollonius’s Argonautica’ is a due to our own age’s same ‘obsession with recycling inherited artifacts’.

The classics weighed heavily on Ptolemy’s Egypt just as their ‘modern’ incarnations do on our own. Does a period of widespread knowledge, readily accessible information and quick literary canonisation like that of Ptolemy’s Alexandria – and, with the internet, like our own – stifle creativity and innovation? If so, the rise of the continuation novel might be among the symptoms.

Rhys Griffiths is Publishing Assistant at History Today.

TIME portfolio

Meet the New Generation of Gender-Creative Kids

Lindsay Morris photographs a rural retreat where kids are free to be themselves

Raising a child who doesn’t conform to gender roles is a minefield, for even the most supportive parents. How do you let your children be themselves while also protecting them from bullies? That question led a number of parents to organize an annual four-day camp in the wilderness for their kids.

The result was an annual long-weekend camp that serves nearly 30 families, many of whom met several years ago through a therapy group for gender-nonconforming children in Washington, D.C. It started in a few hotel rooms in D.C. and evolved into a real camp usually held at religious retreats in various rural settings around the country. The children, ages 6 to 12, attend with their parents and siblings.

In 2007, Sag Harbor photographer Lindsay Morris began attending camp. She took pictures of the children and their families to document their camp experience. But as the years passed and her photo library grew, Morris thought about doing something more with the pictures. In 2012, thanks to the courage of some of the families, Morris’ photographs appeared in a cover story for the New York Times Magazine. The book, titled You Are You, is an expansion of that project.

At camp, the children do all the typical camp things. They canoe, they craft, they roast marshmallows. Almost all of the children are biological boys who like to wear girl’s clothing. The weekend culminates in a fashion show with the works: red carpets, a runway, and fans to blow the kids’ hair back. “We try to make them feel fabulous,” says Morris, “I think it helps carry them through the year — the memory of their parents and siblings in the audience clapping for them.”

The kids in Morris’ photographs fall across the gender spectrum. But they are too young to know which category they will grow into — if they fit into a category at all. Some will grow up to be transgender, others will be gender-conforming adults. Still more may decide to embrace a more fluid concept of gender. “Living with ambiguity can be very hard,” writes one of the parents in a reflection in the book. The beauty of the camp is that it allows the kids to live comfortably in the middle, a difficult space to occupy during the rest of the year.

Morris had many goals with the book. She wanted to illustrate gender-creative children in a joyful, supportive setting to counteract the painful things we associate with children who don’t conform. She wanted gender-variant kids and the adults who advocate for them to see that they are not alone. Along with the images and reflections, she has included a list of helpful books and support organizations available to families.

But her work’s greatest value may be in teaching us to see the potential joy of children who are allowed the freedom to be themselves.

For more information about the project and events, visit lindsaycmorris.com and youareyouproject.com.

TIME Books

In Hausfrau, Anna Karenina Goes Fifty Shades With a Side of Madame Bovary

Random House

Meet Jill Alexander Essbaum, whose debut novel is out Tuesday

To paraphrase Leo Tolstoy: All happy novels are alike; each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way. Unless that novel is Hausfrau. Jill Alexander Essbaum’s decidedly unhappy debut novel has already been compared to a wide range of other books, from the classics (Madame Bovary and Anna Karenina) to contemporary best-sellers (Fifty Shades of Grey and Gone Girl) — and she doesn’t mind the comparison.

Essbaum’s protagonist Anna Benz — whose story, like Anna Karenina’s, begins on a train — is a housewife outside of Zurich who has lived there with her husband and children for almost a decade without learning the language. As she slides into depression, sexual dalliances become a way to escape from her drab life.

We caught up with Essbaum, an award-winning poet and native Texan, in advance of her novel’s March 17 debut. She currently teaches creative writing to graduate students at the University of California, Riverside.

TIME: Your book has been compared by critics and by your publisher, Random House, to 50 Shades of Grey, Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina and even Gone Girl. What do you make of that?

Essbaum: I think it’s pretty neat! So let’s unpack this. Some of my friends have said, “Aren’t you offended that it’s been [compared to 50 Shades]?” I said, “That book has sold well, why would I be offended?” Obviously I think it’s the sex that people are comparing, although mine has a little less bondage in it. The Anna Karenina comparison is, you know, there’s a huge nod to Tolstoy with the name [Anna], and I think with Gone Girl, mine’s not a thriller, but the word that keeps coming up is “domestic noir.” I thought that was the coolest, I’d never heard it before, and I like that it’s about the underbelly of the inner workings of a household.

But Madame Bovary is key here, because this book is inspired by Madame Bovary, actually. I should be pretty emphatic: This isn’t a retelling, it’s an homage, it’s a nod. I’m intensely fascinated with Flaubert’s use of language and how he was always on the lookout for that exact right word, what a perfectionist he was in his craft — there’s just no loose threads in his writing. Because I come from a poetry background … the language was very important to me, so when people compare it to Flaubert, I understand that they’re comparing the character and the set-up, but I also really hope that they’re comparing the way that it’s being told and the language as well.

Anna is captivated by grammar and particularly homonyms. What draws you as a writer to all these homonyms?

My first love was jokes and puns. I’ve been working on a joke book for years now, and it’s mostly puns. Puns are built upon misunderstandings, most of the time phonic misunderstandings. The homonyms and homophones and little nuances of meaning — What’s the difference beween shame and guilt? Regret and remorse? — and false cognates, the way that these things don’t mean the same thing and because there’s this giant gap between them, they mean both things. Language is one of the few ways that [Anna] expresses herself legitimately and truthfully. But she can’t do it to anybody else, it’s only in her own head, and it’s her native language. She can’t speak truth, she can only do it through these weird grammar rules. Which is sad to me.

People often say it’s hard to write sex scenes well, and this novel has a few. How did you approach that?

Well, a smart aleck answer just ran through my head and I let that one go. “Lots of research!” No, I’m kidding.

I’ve heard some advance praise and critique that the sex scenes are very realistic, but other people have said, “Well, maybe they’re a bit gratuitous.” I would like to defend them because I don’t think they’re gratuitous at all. That’s the only time she’s literally naked and absolutely vulnerable. It would be like writing a book about a drug addict but never show him taking drugs. It would be silly not to show how invested she was. If I just said, “And then she went to his apartment and they had sex,” that would be problematic.

That said, I think I know what’s going on when people read it. I didn’t realize this until I heard it on an audiobook — at first I was a little bit shocked. I hadn’t realized how forthright these scenes were. I think that maybe as readers we might be a little bit embarrassed, because it’s like we’ve walked into a room we’re not supposed to be in, because it’s too intense and too intimate.

One way a sex scene can go really south, really fast, is that everything can be told in euphemisms rather than more directly. I’m pretty lyric in a lot of my explanations, but I really tried to avoid euphemisms. We use a euphemism when we don’t want to say the real thing, because either it embarrasses us or it scares us, or we’re not comfortable with it, or maybe we’re lying about it. If I wanted to gloss over that — you know, “And then they did the deed, and the end,” well that’s a lie, because they didn’t “do the deed,” they did this aggressive, physical act that consumed her and afterward left her feeling this certain way that I hoped that I showed through this prose. It was really hard to write.

I’m surprised people thought it was gratuitous, because to me it did seem like a very big part of her character.

Well, not everybody. Some have mentioned that they find her a very unlikeable character, and that is a completely legitimate critique. She’s not very friendly. But like I said, I don’t know that it’s gratuitous, but I think it is really embarrassing.

One of the themes that I almost didn’t even pick up on until toward the end is religion. It’s very subtle in the book, but it does keep coming back.

I’m so happy you asked that, you’re the first person who’s brought that up. I brought it up a couple of times to people and they scratched their heads a little bit. It’s secondary maybe to the grammar and the fire, but I think that this is a very religious book. Especially since the last conversation that she has that makes her feel any kind of decent is with the priest. She’s looking for consolation in a lot of ways: she’s looking for consolation in the language — she can’t find it. She’s looking for consolation in the arms of men — she definitely can’t find that. Her marriage is not working, and she’s asking these big, spiritual questions that everybody asks at one time or another.

Do you have plans for another novel in the works?

I’m writing around something right now, maybe about basketball, my passion. I love NBA basketball. It would be a good excuse to go to more games.

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