Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s book column, where authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re looking for a book to console you, move you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (because you’re here), love books. Maybe one of their favorite titles will also become one of yours.
Elizabeth McCracken’s eighth book, The hero of this book (Ecco) follows a writer reflecting on her late mother’s life and their relationship as she wanders London. Details may blur the line between fact and fiction, but this is a novel.
The Boston-born, Austin-based author has also written a memoir, short story collections (two shortlisted for the National Book Award) and a National Book Award finalist. The Giant’s House which is adapted for the cinema by Nick Hornby and directed by Andy Serkis. A graduate and teacher at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she is the James Michener Professor of Fiction at the University of Texas at Austin and the recipient of grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others. .
She played candle light bowling in a league growing up; thought she could be a poet and studied playwriting with Derek Walcott; holds an MLIS (Masters in Library Information Science) and has served as a public librarian; once won $500 of Prairie Lights books as a graduate student in Iowa City; has been cited at freewillastrology.com; Tweet swim reports from Barton Springs Pool; gate a dumb phone so you don’t get distracted by the internet; has lived in France; and Lily Anna Karenina in 4 p.m.
Love: hotel roomsventriloquism, Kaweco fountain pensdrive in uk, puppets, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and semicolons. Do not like : elves, having his picture taken, occasional dosers. Immerse yourself in one of his book recs.
The book that…
… made me cry uncontrollably:
Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy. Full disclosure: I’ve never cried uncontrollably over a book, movie, or piece of art. I have a hard heart. I never cry because things are just sad; I weep at the beauty and the strangeness and the human will to search for meaning –not transcendence, but meaning – in difficult times. At Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, a book of poems, always moves me to tears.
….I read in one go, it was that good:
I read Brit Bennett The evanescent half everything at once. It was the first book I read at the start of the pandemic that showed me a world so alive, with characters so completely real, that I fell into it and fell out of my boring life.
…helped me through a breakup/loss:
The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, an anthology edited by Kevin Young. Poetry is what I need if I’m not moored.
… shaped my view of the world:
Before reading the Grace Paley short stories (first in Huge changes at the last minutethen in her Stories CollectedI might have thought that a short story could only do one or two things, and not – as Paley stories do – move a reader to tears or laughter, describe the way people live and talk, be surreal and true to reality at the same time, and above all wondering, literally, how we are going to live in the world.
… I recommend again and again:
At Riva Lehrer Golem Girla brilliant book about an interesting artistic life, illustrated with amazing paintings by the author.
…I would give a new grad:
by Lynda Barry What it is. Useful for anyone who wants to use art – writing, drawing, pen on the page – to understand life and then create things.
… made me laugh out loud:
by Paul Lisicky Later: My life at the end of the world is so good and full of lust, intelligence and understanding of what it means to cry and find each other at the same time. It also includes a section about the author dragged into a parade while wearing a big soft ice cream cone hat that makes me laugh just thinking about it.
…I would love to be made into a Netflix show:
Paul takes the form of a mortal by Andrea Lawlor would make a great series: funny, human, episodic, full of events, and also sex, and also joy and complexity.
… I bought for the last time:
by Elizabeth Crane This story will changea memoir by a wonderful fiction writer.
…features the coolest book jacket:
The goose book by Yiyun Lee, who is equally weird and beautiful on the inside, a page-turner about female friendship and the nature of fatherhood.
… has the best title:
My answer to this has remained stable for years: that of David Bowman let the dog drive.
…features a character I love to hate:
Carolina Bastard. What’s better than a hateful character? A detestable child character. I love everything about Dorothy Allison Carolina Bastardincluding Shannon Pearl, a horrible, morbid, mean child who still lives in my heart.
… is a master class on dialogue:
Richard Price is criminally underrated as a novelist. lush life is my favorite of his books, but they’re all full of funny, scary, and fantastic dialogue.
… to the greatest end:
by Stephen Kuusisto planet of the blind is a beautiful book, and the ending is beautiful and unforgettable, but what hit me like a gong nearly 25 years ago when I first read it, and still rings in my head, is End of thanks: “My greatest debt of gratitude goes to the Burkett family of Fairfax, Virginia. Bill, Reba, Bill Jr. and his sister Anne Marie raised my guide dog. And then they let her go.
…describes a house I would like to live in or a place I would like to visit:
Betsey Trotwood David Copperfield is one of my favorite characters in all of fiction. I’d love to visit his house (although Dickens is a brilliant writer of interiors, among other things, so in some ways I feel like I did).
…I consider literary comfort food:
by Joseph Mitchell How far to the old hotel never fail me. It was one New Yorker writer with a penchant for eccentrics and eccentrics. Me too.
I have an imaginary summary of the things I’ve done that have touched the literary world without any effort for me. My first and perhaps favorite entry: I was the first person to read Bel Canto by Ann Patchet. I read it in manuscript while sitting in a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All of her books are amazing, of course, but I still remember the feeling of being entirely pinned to my barstool, not knowing what was next, or how she did it.
…who remembers the recipe of a favorite dish:
My mother loved Mary Poppins books so much that it is impossible for me to separate my own love from hers: I love them because she loved them and as she would say, she was always right. She gave me a copy of Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookbook with a Story. I always cooked his very English recipes: Zodiac cake (with chocolate, and decorated with stars), roast chicken. But my favorite recipe was pastry cream, because my mother liked that too. Soft and full of protein – my mum was a big champion of protein – baby food, but also magical the way it hardens in the oven.
Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:
The Boston Public Library, with its dioramas and murals. Books will sustain me 98% of the time, but sometimes I need a diorama.
Riza Cruz is a New York-based editor and writer.