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.
Katie Kitamura’s prose has been called spare, minimalist, austere—but being named to President Obama’s summer 2021 reading list left her downright speechless. Her fourth novel, Intimacies, follows an interpreter at a war crimes tribunal in The Hague navigating two different types of relationships: one with her married boyfriend, the other with a former president on trial.
The Brooklyn-based California native grew up reading Agatha Christie and trained as a classical ballet dancer until she was almost 17, before living in London to get her PhD in American literature at the London Consortium. She is married to writer Hari Kunzru (they’re each other’s first readers, and they have two children) and teaches creative writing at New York University (Raven Leilani was one of her students). She compares writing her novels to cooking stews that require time, patience, and a lot of stirring. Her previous novel, A Separation, was a Best Book of the Year on multiple lists and is in development with Katherine Waterston. Likes: Rose Wylie paintings, Row 7 seeds, Noguchi, and “a cup of tea followed by a cup of coffee.” Doesn’t love: Writing with music on.
The book that:
…made me weep uncontrollably:
…I recommend over and over again:
The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg.
…I swear I’ll finish one day:
Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace. With apologies to my students.
…I read in one sitting, it was that good:
Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal. I was in a state of such dread and anxiety that I had to finish the book as quickly as possible.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
There are probably 50 or 60 books underneath and around my nightstand. But actually on my nightstand at the moment is the reissue of Henry Dumas’s collected short fiction, Echo Tree.
…I’d pass onto my kid:
Asako Serizawa’s Inheritors. It captures the fractured complexity of Japanese history and asks critical questions about how historical narratives are constructed.
…made me laugh out loud:
Raven Leilani’s Luster. I laughed out of delight and astonishment at the sheer depth of talent on display.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Alexandra Kleeman’s Something New Under the Sun [out in August].
.…I last bought.
Going through my receipts, I see that it is Jakuta Alikavazovic’s Night As It Falls.
…has the best title:
Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow.
…has the best opening line:
Recently, I read Avni Doshi’s Burnt Sugar, which begins: “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” One of those lines that opens up a world for the reader.
…has the greatest ending:
Sjón’s Moonstone. The final paragraph reconfigured my understanding of what the novel was doing, both conceptually and emotionally. As endings go, it’s a tour de force.
…I’ve re-read the most:
Probably The Portrait of a Lady, by Henry James. My understanding of the book changes each time I read it, and in turn shows me how I’ve changed over the years.
…I consider literary comfort food:
Anything by Patricia Highsmith, because she is consistently brilliant, acerbic, and ruthless.
…features the most beautiful book jacket:
The Copenhagen Trilogy by Tove Ditlevsen. I own three copies of this book, in part because of the sheer beauty of the cover.
…everyone should read:
Valeria Luiselli’s Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in 40 Questions, for what it tells us about immigration policy in the United States.
…fills me with hope:
Almost everything I read fills me with hope. Each time I open a book I open myself to another mind. It’s hard to think of a more optimistic act.
If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be: Shakespeare and Company in Paris. (In July, she and Jakuta Alikavazovic were the first writers to appear at an in-person event there in more than a year.)
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