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.
Five-time novelist Lily King recently published her first collection of short stories, Five Tuesdays in Winter (Grove), following Euphoria (2014), inspired by Margaret Mead’s life, which won the Kirkus Award, was a finalist for the National Book Critics Award, and was optioned by the BBC for a limited series, and Writers & Lovers (2020). For the latter, the Massachusetts-raised, Maine-based author mined familiar territory for the protagonist of Casey Peabody, a 30-something yet-to-be-published writer grieving her mother’s death, living in a 6×10 potting shed, and supporting herself by waitressing. The book is being adapted for film by Toni Collette, who will also direct and produce.
The NYT-bestselling King has spoken about the financially precarious road from holding bookstore, restaurant, and teaching jobs to publishing her first novel at 36. Other pinch-me events: a Macdowell Fellowship, a Whiting Award, interviewing Judy Blume, who inspired her to start writing at eight years old.
She’s lived in Spain (as a high school English teacher in Valencia, she knew so little Spanish she didn’t even know “hola” was spelled with an “h”), France (as an au pair), and Italy; writes longhand with mechanical pencils in ruled spiral notebooks from Staples at a desk her late stepfather made, dislocated her shoulder twice during sex, has two dogs named Theo and Albus (Dumbledore), and could see herself as a singer-songwriter or anthropologist. A fan of: languages, the ampersand, Fleabag, eating eggs before writing in the morning. Not a fan of: golf. Let’s tee up her recs.
The book that:
…made me weep uncontrollably:
Man Gone Down by Michael Thomas. I was traveling in China and wept openly in public for a long time when I finished that book.
…I recommend over and over again:
So so many, but perhaps most of all The Evening of the Holiday and The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard because not enough people have read her yet. She writes about place and love and heartbreak with beauty and wisdom.
…shaped my worldview:
Cammie McGovern’s Hard Landings. It’s both a deeply moving memoir about raising her son Ethan who is autistic, as well as an impeccably well-researched history of the treatment of the disabled in this country.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Oh William! by Elizabeth Strout. I love it so much and do not want it to end. Strout is brilliant.
…I’d pass on to my kids:
…I’d gift to a new graduate:
Beloved by Toni Morrison. It doesn’t get better than that.
…made me laugh out loud:
All of Dan Zevin’s books—I keep my husband up if I read them in bed.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Landslide by Susan Conley. It’s the story of a mother and her teenage boys in a fishing village in Maine after her husband has had a very serious accident on his deep-sea trawler. Vivid, moving, poignant—Kate Winslet would be perfect as Jillian.
…I first bought:
Every Judy Blume novel in the ’70’s as soon as they were published. I was obsessed.
…I last bought:
The Right to Sex by Amia Srinivasan. I sent it to my daughter but now I want a copy, too.
…has the best title:
Alice Munro’s Friend of My Youth. I would like to call every book Friend of My Youth.
…has the best opening line:
Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar: “It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.” I remember reading that in ninth grade and I didn’t know who the Rosenbergs were yet, but I felt the power of that event, the way it riveted the book to a particular time, to a particular despair.
…I consider literary comfort food:
I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, and Brother of the More Famous Jack by Barbara Trapido. For me literary comfort is really good writing with a lot of humor and great love story.
…I could only have discovered at Print:
…that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:
Jill’s Tenderloin and Roasted Tomatoes minus the tenderloin from Ann Hood’s Kitchen Yarns.
Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:
A few months ago I had a virtual event through my Italian publisher at a bookstore in Tropea, Italy called Libreria il Pensiero Meridiano. I only saw pictures of it online but it is perfect and I would like to live just above it and visit a lot.
Read King’s Picks
Man Gone Down
The Evening of the Holiday
The Transit of Venus
A Visit from the Goon Squad
Very Modern Mantras
Judy Blume Essentials
The Right to Sex
Friend of My Youth
The Bell Jar
I Capture the Castle
Pride and Prejudice
Brother of the More Famous Jack
Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.
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