Kevin Powers' first novel, The Yellow Birds, was a National Book Award finalist. In his second, A Shout in the Ruins, the Iraq combat veteran unspools an epic story of the South, rooted in war and a slaveholding Virginia plantation.

Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson (Picador, $16).

Ruth and Lucille, the sisters at the center of Robinson's 1980 novel, exhibit those strange, contradictory yearnings many of us share: for home and stability, but also for freedom from all of our unasked-for legacies. This is a book of rare beauty and humanity.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner (Vintage, $17).

In his Pulitzer Prize–winning 1971 novel, Stegner created an epic of the American West by assigning narrating duties to an aging historian in a wheelchair who has decided to write a biography of his pioneer grandmother. Through this story of storytelling, Stegner created a richly textured account of a different set of longings: to look back, and to head west.

Mr. Potter by Jamaica Kincaid (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $15).

In this portrait of a flawed but ordinary man, who is seen through the eyes of his estranged daughter, Kincaid constructs a work of profound depth and complexity of feeling. It unfolds with the power of myth or fable and is structured with the precision of the very best poetry.

East of Eden by John Steinbeck (Penguin, $18).

In this well-loved novel, a loose retelling of Genesis, the fates of two families intertwine in California's Salinas Valley. I struggle to think of another book with as much wisdom and compassion. Its opening description of the valley also happens to be one of my favorite passages written in the English language.

Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo (Grove, $16).

A man promises his mother, on her deathbed, that he will find his father. The story that then unfolds may leave you with more questions than answers, but those questions are always richly rewarding to ask. Are we all fundamentally the same? What is the past, and what does time do to us? Is death the end? This novel defies categorization, except for the category of masterpiece.

Crossing the River by Caryl Phillips (Vintage, $16).

This book is about the African diaspora, its dislocations and its tragic consequences, and it is so extraordinarily rendered and so ambitiously crafted that one comes away feeling acquainted with the sublime. It is, to my mind, a singular achievement.