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Welcome to Shelf Life, ELLE.com’s books column, in which authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re on the hunt for a book to console you, move you profoundly, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’re here), love books. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours, too.
When Yiyun Li switched from pursuing a PhD in immunology to writing, she was in an ideal place to pivot studying at the University of Iowa. She ended up getting a master’s degree in immunology there in addition to MFAs in fiction and creative nonfiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Marilynne Robinson was her instructor.) Her ninth book is The Book of Goose (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about two childhood friends and a literary hoax. Her numerous distinctions include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and three PEN Awards.
The Beijing-born and -raised, New Jersey-based author teaches at Princeton University, where she is director of the creative writing program, and a contributing editor to literary magazine A Public Space, where she led an online book club—700 attended the Zoom meeting, and 3,000 subscribed to the newsletters—to read War & Peace during the pandemic. (She reads that and Moby-Dick every year.)
Li played accordion as an adolescent, was required to serve in the Chinese army for a year, reads novels set in places she plans to visit, counts Marianne Moore as her favorite poet, and has a cockapoo named Quintus.
The book that…
…helped me through a loss:
C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It was the first book I read after losing a child, and it was a life-preserving reading to me.
…kept me up way too late:
Anna Karenina. The night before the most important English exam in college in Beijing, I stayed up late to finish the novel, an older English translation. The next day I fell asleep during the exam.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
This Real Night by Rebecca West, which is the second novel of her Saga of the Century trilogy. I read the last hundred pages while waiting for a red-eye flight from California to New York, and I sobbed shamelessly at the gate.
…I recommend over and over again:
A Lucky Man by Jamel Brinkley. It’s one of those rare collections that each story could be a novel itself.
…shaped my worldview:
A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile by James Alan McPherson, my mentor. McPherson is an under-read and under-appreciated thinker and writer. I have become the writer I am, I think, largely because of the essays in this collection.
…made me rethink a long-held belief:
Garth Greenwell’s Cleanness. I used to think that sex was impossible to write. Cleanness changed my mind: sex could be a landscape as intense, intricate, and boundless as the psychological landscapes of the characters’ minds.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
The Hero of This Book, Elizabeth McCracken’s latest novel. I am a longtime admirer of McCracken’s writing, and this new book has all the great elements that make a superb McCracken country, which is both geographical and temporal, and which is funny, sad, thoughtful, provocative, intimate, surprising. It’s a thrilling read.
…made me laugh out loud:
The Family Chao by Lan Samantha Chang. The novel is a homage to The Brothers Karamazov and weaves dramatic energy with wry humor in such a perfect manner that I found myself laughing out loud all the time while reading it.
…grew on me:
Ágota Kristóf’s The Notebook trilogy (The Notebook, The Proof, The Third Lie, translated by Alan Sheridan, David Watson and Marc Romano). I read the late Hungarian writer’s trilogy on a trip to Moscow in 2017. Over the past five years, the novels continue to occupy my consciousness as a living thing, as though the world as I experience it has moved into Kristóf’s creation.
…sealed a friendship:
Tom Drury’s Hunts in Dreams. Years ago, I recommended the book to a new acquaintance. She read the novel on a cross-country trip, and, after finishing it, looked at the other books in her bag and decided to reread the Drury novel instead. She has since become my best friend for the past 20 years.
…makes me feel seen:
W-3 by Bette Howland, a memoir about Howland’s stay in a psychiatric hospital as a mother of young children. I always feel that it is a book I will never write, and will not have to—Howland already wrote it.
…fills me with hope:
Grief Lessons, Four Plays by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson. Having experienced some grief in my personal life, I have found that reading the plays is the closest experience of saying things that can never be adequately put into words. And that, surprisingly, feels one of the most hopeful things one can get from books.
Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.