The best American novels that mess with time

Why am I passionate about this?

If this list of books sounds like it would make for a great class, that’s because it is! These books form the core of an American Novels Since 1900 class that I teach at the University of Northern Iowa. I didn’t choose them initially because they mess with time, but after teaching them for a number of years, I couldn’t help but notice the ways in which they spoke to one another, and I guess I couldn’t help but be influenced by them as well.

I wrote...

The Cord

By Jim O'Loughlin,

Book cover of The Cord

What is my book about?

The Cord is a science fiction novel that follows life along both ends of a space elevator that connects an orbiting space station to an equatorial island. The story is told in a reverse narrative format that emphasizes the fragile but essential ties across generations. It is a book that messes with time, and I’ve been influenced by some great books which, appropriately, are listed here in reverse chronological order.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of A Visit from the Goon Squad

Jim O'Loughlin Why did I love this book?

Jennifer Egan’s 2011 novel (and its 2022 sibling novel, The Candy House) take readers back and forth through the recent past and near future as we drop in on the lives of characters at different turning points in their lives. Each chapter takes readers in a new direction that deepens, complicates, or thoroughly upends our sense of characters. It makes for breathtaking reading.

By Jennifer Egan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked A Visit from the Goon Squad as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


Jennifer Egan's spellbinding novel circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. Although Bennie and Sasha never discover each other's pasts, the reader does, in intimate detail, along with the secret lives of a host of other characters whose paths intersect with theirs, over many years, in locales as varied as New York, San Francisco, Naples, and Africa.

We first meet Sasha in her mid-thirties, on her therapist's couch in…

Book cover of Kindred

Jim O'Loughlin Why did I love this book?

In some ways, Octavia Butler’s 1979 novel is a conventional time travel narrative, but Butler’s investigation of American slavery and its lasting impact was prescient. Moving between the antebellum south and 1970s Los Angeles, Kindred implicitly asks us to consider the similarities and differences between the two worlds. Butler is both perceptive and generous in her ability to create and help readers understand flawed characters.

By Octavia E. Butler,

Why should I read it?

15 authors picked Kindred as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the New York Times bestselling author of Parable of the Sower and MacArthur “Genius” Grant, Nebula, and Hugo award winner

The visionary time-travel classic whose Black female hero is pulled through time to face the horrors of American slavery and explores the impacts of racism, sexism, and white supremacy then and now.

“I lost an arm on my last trip home. My left arm.”

Dana’s torment begins when she suddenly vanishes on her 26th birthday from California, 1976, and is dragged through time to antebellum Maryland to rescue a boy named Rufus, heir to a slaveowner’s plantation. She soon…

Book cover of Slaughterhouse-Five

Jim O'Loughlin Why did I love this book?

Vonnegut’s breakthrough 1969 novel does not respect the rules that govern most novels. He combines memoir and fiction, uses humor to describe grimly serious wartime conditions of WWII Dresden, and shatters the boundary between literary fiction and science fiction. Vonnegut’s protagonist also regularly slips in and out of time, appearing in different parts of his own life without warning or apparent pattern. All this sounds like it should be confusing, but Vonnegut’s accessible prose and careful craftsmanship make it a surprisingly accessible read.

By Kurt Vonnegut,

Why should I read it?

26 authors picked Slaughterhouse-Five as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A special fiftieth anniversary edition of Kurt Vonnegut’s masterpiece, “a desperate, painfully honest attempt to confront the monstrous crimes of the twentieth century” (Time), featuring a new introduction by Kevin Powers, author of the National Book Award finalist The Yellow Birds
Selected by the Modern Library as one of the 100 best novels of all time
Slaughterhouse-Five, an American classic, is one of the world’s great antiwar books. Centering on the infamous World War II firebombing of Dresden, the novel is the result of what Kurt Vonnegut described as a twenty-three-year struggle to write a book about what he had…

Book cover of The Sound and the Fury

Jim O'Loughlin Why did I love this book?

While no one would call Faulkner’s 1929 masterpiece “a surprisingly accessible read,” it remains a landmark of modernism and one of the finest examples of stream of consciousness prose. Faulkner takes readers deep into the minds of his perspective characters, showing the ways they think in real-time as they navigate a day while consumed by past traumas, unstable identities, and inherited historical burdens.

By William Faulkner,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Sound and the Fury as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A complex, intense American novel of family from the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature

With an introduction by Richard Hughes

Ever since the first furore was created on its publication in 1929, The Sound and the Fury has been considered one of the key novels of this century. Depicting the gradual disintegration of the Compson family through four fractured narratives, the novel explores intense, passionate family relationships where there is no love, only self-centredness. At its heart, this is a novel about lovelessness - 'only an idiot has no grief; only a fool would forget it.

What else…

Book cover of My Ántonia

Jim O'Loughlin Why did I love this book?

This may be the most surprising pick on my list. While Cather’s 1918 novel has been celebrated as a classic of midwestern literature and as an insightful feminist critique (rightly, in both cases), but it is also a book that is obsessed with memory and time. How, if at all, do we preserve memories of the times that shaped us? Does the passage of time diminish memories or give them iconic status? Does writing preserve or distort that which has happened? This is a book that can be read at any age, but the more you think about it, the more complicated it becomes.

By Willa Cather,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked My Ántonia as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Set in rural Nebraska, Willa Cather's My Antonia is both the intricate story of a powerful friendship and a brilliant portrayal of the lives of rural pioneers in the late-nineteenth century.

Part of the Macmillan Collector's Library, a series of stunning, clothbound, pocket-sized classics with gold-foiled edges and ribbon markers. These beautiful books make perfect gifts or a treat for any book lover. This edition has an afterword by Bridget Bennett and original illustrations by W. T. Benda.

Antonia and her family are from Bohemia and they must endure real hardship and loss to establish a new home in America.…

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Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

Book cover of Returning to Eden

Rebecca Hartt Author Of Rising From Ashes

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

Author Idealistic Storyteller Teacher Mother Seeker

Rebecca's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

Looking for clean romantic suspense with spiritual undertones?

Look no further than the Acts of Valor series by Rebecca Hartt. With thousands of reviews and 4.7-5.0 stars per book, this 6-book series is a must-read for readers searching for memorable, well-told stories by an award-winning author.

A dead man stands on her doorstep.

When the Navy wrote off her MIA husband as dead, Eden came to terms with being a widow. But now, her Navy SEAL husband is staring her in the face. Eden knows she should be over-the-moon, but she isn’t.

Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has no recollection of their fractured marriage, no memory of Eden nor her fourteen-year-old daughter. Still, he feels a connection to both.

Unfit for active duty and assigned to therapy, Jonah knows he has work to do and relies on God, who sustained him during captivity, to heal his mind, body, and hopefully his family.

But as the memories lurking in his wife's haunted eyes and behind his daughter's uncertain smile begin to return to him, Jonah makes another discovery. There is treachery in the highest ranks of his Team, treachery that not only threatens him but places his new-found family in its crosshairs.

Returning to Eden

By Rebecca Hartt,

What is this book about?

Presumed Dead, Navy SEAL Returns Without Memory of His Ordeal in the Christian Romantic Suspense, Returning to Eden, by Rebecca Hartt

-- Present Day, Virginia Beach, Virginia --

A dead man stands at Eden Mills' door.

Declared MIA a year prior, the Navy wrote him off as dead. Now, Eden's husband, Navy SEAL Jonah Mills has returned after three years to disrupt her tranquility. Diagnosed with PTSD and amnesia, he has no recollection of their marriage or their fourteen-year-old step-daughter. Still, Eden accepts her obligation to nurse Jonah back to health while secretly longing to regain her freedom, despite the…

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