Welcome to Lifetime, The books section of ELLE.com, in which the 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.
When Yiyun Li transitioned from pursuing a PhD in immunology to writing, she was in a great place to pivot her education to the University of Iowa. She ended up earning a master’s degree there in immunology in addition to a master’s degree in creative fiction and nonfiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. (Marilynne Robinson was his instructor.) His ninth book is The goose book (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), about two childhood friends and a literary hoax. His many honors include a MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship and three PEN Awards.
The Beijing, New Jersey-born and raised author teaches at Princeton University, where she serves as director of the creative writing program and editor-in-chief of a literary magazine. A public spacewhere she ran an online book club—700 attended the Zoom meeting and 3,000 registered to the newsletters—to read War & Peace during the pandemic. (She reads this and Moby-Dick every year.)
Li played accordion as a teenager, had to serve in the Chinese army for a year, reads novels Position in the places she plans to visit, counts Marianne Moore as her favorite poet and has a cockapoo named Quintus.
Love: Irish literaturereading dictionariesdoing research, she flower identification app, loneliness. Let one of his book recommendations below be your final companion.
The book that…
…helped me through a loss:
CS Lewis An observed mourning. It was the first book I read after losing a child, and it was a life-saving read.
…kept me up way too late:
Anna Karenina. The day before the most important English exam at Peking University, I stayed up late to finish the novel, an older English translation. The next day, I fell asleep during the exam.
… made me cry uncontrollably:
This real night by Rebecca West, which is the second novel in her Saga of the Century trilogy. I read the last hundred pages while waiting for a red-eyed flight from California to New York, and sobbed shamelessly at the door.
…I recommend again and again:
A lucky man by Jamel Brinkley. It’s one of those rare collections where each story could be a novel in itself.
… shaped my view of the world:
A Region Not Home: Reflections from Exile by James Alan McPherson, my mentor. McPherson is an under-read and underappreciated thinker and writer. I became the writer that I am, I think, in large part because of the essays in this collection.
…made me rethink a long held belief:
Garth Greenwell Cleanliness. I used to think sex was impossible to write. Cleanliness changed his mind: sex could be a landscape as intense, complex and limitless as the psychological landscapes of the minds of the characters.
… currently sits on my bedside table:
The hero of this book, the latest novel by Elizabeth McCracken. I’ve been a longtime admirer of McCracken’s writing, and this new book has all the great elements that make a great McCracken Country, which is both geographical and temporal, and which is funny, sad, thoughtful, provocative, intimate, surprising. It is an exciting read.
… made me laugh out loud:
The family chaos by Lan Samantha Chang. The novel is a tribute to The Karamazov brothers and weaves dramatic energy with wry humor in such a perfect way that I found myself laughing the whole time reading it.
… grew on me:
Ágota Kristóf’s 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 during a trip to Moscow in 2017. Over the past five years, the novels continue to occupy my consciousness as a living being, as if the world as I saw him had moved into Kristóf’s creation.
… sealed a friendship:
by Tom Drury hunts in dreams. Years ago I recommended the book to a new acquaintance. She read the novel while traveling across the country and, after finishing it, looked at the other books in her bag and decided to read Drury’s novel again instead. For 20 years, she has become my best friend.
…gives me the impression of being seen:
W-3 by Bette Howland, a memoir about Howland’s time in a mental hospital as a mother of young children. I still feel like this is a book I will never write and never have to – Howland has already written it.
… fills me with hope:
Mourning lessonsFour plays by Euripides, translated by Anne Carson. Having experienced some heartache in my personal life, I have found that reading the plays is the closest experience to saying things that can never be properly put into words. And that, surprisingly, seems to be one of the most promising things you can get from the books.
Riza Cruz is a New York-based editor and writer.