seven books i’d recommend to an aspiring writer (but, really, in general, to anyone) (by request on instagram):
this is a weird list for me to think up, mostly because i feel like there’s something very personal about the books/writing we’re drawn to — and, by that, i mean that we’re drawn to different tones, nuances, narratives, themes, even styles that respond to our own unique experiences and preferences, and there are so many great books out there that speak to those differences.
it goes without saying that this is a list that’s entirely personal to me, given the type of writing i personally aspire to and the themes that attract me.  they aren’t really books about writing because i don’t find those personally useful/inspirational, but these are seven books that i find myself coming back to over and over again, especially when i could use some encouragement as a writer.  (:
01.  still writing, dani shapiro.this is the only book on/about writing i’ve ever read.  i appreciated it a lot, too — i stumbled across this book in a very timely moment when i was feeling discouraged because i was struggling in my own writing.  i basically read this book thinking, YES!  i agree! the whole time and immediately recommended it to my illustrator friend because a lot of the things shapiro says were things my friend and i had been talking about over the last few months.  
shapiro doesn’t try to romanticize or glamorize the writing life (to be honest, i don’t know how anyone could.  there’s nothing romantic or glamorous about it at all, “it” being the work itself, showing up everyday and sitting at your desk and trying to bleed words onto the page), but she talks about it honestly and openly, even when she’s discussing something like envy.  i appreciated her frankness and that this book gave me a little kick in the butt and got me to stop moping and get back to writing …
02.  the unabridged journals, sylvia plath.the first time i read plath’s journals, i’d find myself spazzing out over how much i related to her.  her internal struggles about being a writer and a woman and, oftentimes, a woman writer are laid out so bare on the page, and, to me at least, plath has always seemed so eminently relatable.  it doesn’t hurt that i enjoy her writing, too, because there’s a rawness to it, even if there is a voyeuristic feeling to delving into her personal thoughts and records of her life.  at the same time, though, it really is that rawness that i respond to, that humanness that makes her ultimately sympathetic and real.
03.  the english patient, michael ondaatje.ondaatje’s prose in the english patient — it’s hard to find words to do it credit.  his words drip off the page, and there’s this liquid sensuality to them that wraps you up and doesn’t let you go — and it’s very languid, too, very smooth and rich but not overwhelming or smothering.  the story is haunting, too, with the specter of war looming over them, and the language just serves the narrative and the settings so well.  it’s so beautiful — read it out loud; the words roll off your tongue like lovely morsels.
04.  the history of love, nicole krauss.if we’re talking aspirational prose, i automatically think of nicole krauss because she writes about loss in the most exquisite ways.  the last few pages of the history of love wring my heart — even now, just thinking about them, my eyes sting — and there’s so much heart in her writing, so much raw sensitivity and fragility, not of the weak sort but in the sense of the human body being a fragile, breakable but beautiful, living thing.  
i also highly recommend her debut novel, man walks into a room.  it’s not as stylized as the history of love, but it’s still beautifully written — and, again, the ways krauss writes about loss — i can’t get enough of it.
05.  never let me go, kazuo ishiguro.there is no book i have read more than i have read never let me go — in fact, i just finished reading it for the second time this calendar year, and i’m sure i’ll read it at least once more before 2014 is up.  there’s a beautiful thread of unease running under this entire book, and it pulls tighter and tighter as you get near the end, until you’re just unravelled yourself.
ishiguro does first-person so well — i’ve probably said this before, but i think that, while there are many writers who are good at first person, there are few writers who are great at first person, and ishiguro is one of those few.  he inhabits voice with such ease, so there’s a beautiful naturalness to kathy h’s voice, and that just unravels you more …
06.  anna karenina, leo tolstoy.i really should pick up the pevear/volokhonsky translation of this.  in my opinion, there’s just no reason not to read anna karenina — it’s engaging; it’s a fascinating portrait of russia in the late nineteenth century; and, okay, i will concede that not everyone will be as in love with nineteenth century russia as i am, but tolstoy gets a lot into anna karenina, delving into themes like jealousy and passion and happiness and marriage but does so by telling a story through these characters in a very realistic portrait of an actual world. 
and it’s fun!  i think it’s fun.  there’s such an opulence to this world that there’s a seduction to it.  it’s basically tolstoy’s fault that i’m fascinated by nineteenth century russia.
the other russian novel i’d recommend is dostoevsky’s the brothers karamazov.
07.  the corrections, jonathan franzen.i can’t not put a franzen on here.  when i reread the corrections earlier this year, the main thought going through my head was basically, these are real, fleshed-out people occupying a real, fleshed-out world, which honestly negates any kind of argument about likability or whatnot.  and my thing with franzen is that he makes it all read so easy.  the effort of his prose isn’t on the page; you don’t read him and think, wow, this guy is trying so hard to do something; and i admire that ease because we know the effort that does go into these books, not only his but any good book, the writing, rewriting, editing, again and again and again until it’s just right.  and, sometimes, you can see that laboriousness dragging down the writing, but not so in the corrections.
*
and here’s a bonus thrown in:  the opening passage to enduring love by ian mcewan.  the whole book is brilliant and one of my favorites by mcewan, but that opening passage in particular is awesome.  i typed it up here, so now y’all have no excuse not to read it.  then go get the book and read it.

seven books i’d recommend to an aspiring writer (but, really, in general, to anyone) (by request on instagram):

this is a weird list for me to think up, mostly because i feel like there’s something very personal about the books/writing we’re drawn to — and, by that, i mean that we’re drawn to different tones, nuances, narratives, themes, even styles that respond to our own unique experiences and preferences, and there are so many great books out there that speak to those differences.

it goes without saying that this is a list that’s entirely personal to me, given the type of writing i personally aspire to and the themes that attract me.  they aren’t really books about writing because i don’t find those personally useful/inspirational, but these are seven books that i find myself coming back to over and over again, especially when i could use some encouragement as a writer.  (:

01.  still writing, dani shapiro.
this is the only book on/about writing i’ve ever read.  i appreciated it a lot, too — i stumbled across this book in a very timely moment when i was feeling discouraged because i was struggling in my own writing.  i basically read this book thinking, YES!  i agree! the whole time and immediately recommended it to my illustrator friend because a lot of the things shapiro says were things my friend and i had been talking about over the last few months.  

shapiro doesn’t try to romanticize or glamorize the writing life (to be honest, i don’t know how anyone could.  there’s nothing romantic or glamorous about it at all, “it” being the work itself, showing up everyday and sitting at your desk and trying to bleed words onto the page), but she talks about it honestly and openly, even when she’s discussing something like envy.  i appreciated her frankness and that this book gave me a little kick in the butt and got me to stop moping and get back to writing …

02.  the unabridged journals, sylvia plath.
the first time i read plath’s journals, i’d find myself spazzing out over how much i related to her.  her internal struggles about being a writer and a woman and, oftentimes, a woman writer are laid out so bare on the page, and, to me at least, plath has always seemed so eminently relatable.  it doesn’t hurt that i enjoy her writing, too, because there’s a rawness to it, even if there is a voyeuristic feeling to delving into her personal thoughts and records of her life.  at the same time, though, it really is that rawness that i respond to, that humanness that makes her ultimately sympathetic and real.

03.  the english patient, michael ondaatje.
ondaatje’s prose in the english patient — it’s hard to find words to do it credit.  his words drip off the page, and there’s this liquid sensuality to them that wraps you up and doesn’t let you go — and it’s very languid, too, very smooth and rich but not overwhelming or smothering.  the story is haunting, too, with the specter of war looming over them, and the language just serves the narrative and the settings so well.  it’s so beautiful — read it out loud; the words roll off your tongue like lovely morsels.

04.  the history of love, nicole krauss.
if we’re talking aspirational prose, i automatically think of nicole krauss because she writes about loss in the most exquisite ways.  the last few pages of the history of love wring my heart — even now, just thinking about them, my eyes sting — and there’s so much heart in her writing, so much raw sensitivity and fragility, not of the weak sort but in the sense of the human body being a fragile, breakable but beautiful, living thing.  

i also highly recommend her debut novel, man walks into a room.  it’s not as stylized as the history of love, but it’s still beautifully written — and, again, the ways krauss writes about loss — i can’t get enough of it.

05.  never let me go, kazuo ishiguro.
there is no book i have read more than i have read never let me go — in fact, i just finished reading it for the second time this calendar year, and i’m sure i’ll read it at least once more before 2014 is up.  there’s a beautiful thread of unease running under this entire book, and it pulls tighter and tighter as you get near the end, until you’re just unravelled yourself.

ishiguro does first-person so well — i’ve probably said this before, but i think that, while there are many writers who are good at first person, there are few writers who are great at first person, and ishiguro is one of those few.  he inhabits voice with such ease, so there’s a beautiful naturalness to kathy h’s voice, and that just unravels you more …

06.  anna karenina, leo tolstoy.
i really should pick up the pevear/volokhonsky translation of this.  in my opinion, there’s just no reason not to read anna karenina — it’s engaging; it’s a fascinating portrait of russia in the late nineteenth century; and, okay, i will concede that not everyone will be as in love with nineteenth century russia as i am, but tolstoy gets a lot into anna karenina, delving into themes like jealousy and passion and happiness and marriage but does so by telling a story through these characters in a very realistic portrait of an actual world. 

and it’s fun!  i think it’s fun.  there’s such an opulence to this world that there’s a seduction to it.  it’s basically tolstoy’s fault that i’m fascinated by nineteenth century russia.

the other russian novel i’d recommend is dostoevsky’s the brothers karamazov.

07.  the corrections, jonathan franzen.
i can’t not put a franzen on here.  when i reread the corrections earlier this year, the main thought going through my head was basically, these are real, fleshed-out people occupying a real, fleshed-out world, which honestly negates any kind of argument about likability or whatnot.  and my thing with franzen is that he makes it all read so easy.  the effort of his prose isn’t on the page; you don’t read him and think, wow, this guy is trying so hard to do something; and i admire that ease because we know the effort that does go into these books, not only his but any good book, the writing, rewriting, editing, again and again and again until it’s just right.  and, sometimes, you can see that laboriousness dragging down the writing, but not so in the corrections.

*

and here’s a bonus thrown in:  the opening passage to enduring love by ian mcewan.  the whole book is brilliant and one of my favorites by mcewan, but that opening passage in particular is awesome.  i typed it up here, so now y’all have no excuse not to read it.  then go get the book and read it.

(“If I had a camera,” I said, “I’d take a picture of you every day. That way I’d remember how you looked every single day of your life.” “I look exactly the same.” “No, you don’t. You’re changing all the time. Every day a tiny bit. If I could, I’d keep a record of it all.” “If you’re so smart, how did I change today?” “You got a fraction of a millimeter taller, for one thing. Your hair grew a fraction of a millimeter longer. And your breasts grew a fraction of a —” “They did not!” “Yes, they did.” “Did NOT.” “Did too.” “What else, you big pig?” “You got a little happier and also a little sadder.” “Meaning they cancel each other out, leaving me exactly the same.” “Not at all. The fact that you got a little happier today doesn’t change the fact that you also became a little sadder. Every day you become a little more of both, which means that right now, at this exact moment, you’re the happiest and the saddest you’ve ever been in your whole life.” “How do you know?” “Think about it. Have you ever been happier than right now, lying here in the grass?” “I guess not. No.” “And have you ever been sadder?” “No.” “It isn’t like that for everyone, you know. Some people, like your sister, just get happier and happier everyday. And some people, like Beyla Asch, just get sadder and sadder. And some people, like you, get both.” “What about you? Are you the happiest and saddest right now that you’ve ever been?” “Of course I am.” “Why?” “Because nothing makes me happier and nothing makes me sadder than you.”)

Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

Only the last page was different. It said: THE DEATH OF LEOPOLD GURSKY. Litvinoff felt a gust of cold in his heart. He glanced at his friend, who was breathing heavily. He started to read. When he got to the end he shook his head and read it again. And again after that. He read it over and over, mouthing the words as if they were not an announcement of death, but a prayer for life. As if just by saying them, he could keep his friend safe from the angel of death, the force of his breath alone keeping its wings pinned for a moment more, a moment more — until it gave up and left his friend alone. All night, Litvinoff watched over his friend, and all night he moved his lips. And for the first time in as long as he could remember, he did not feel useless.

As morning broke, Litvinoff saw with relief that the color had returned to his friend’s face. He was sleeping the restful sleep of recovery. When the sun had climbed to the position of eight o’clock, he stood. His legs were stiff. His insides felt scraped out. But hew as filled with happiness. He folded THE DEATH OF LEOPOLD GURSKY in half. And here is another thing no one knows about Zvi Litvinoff: for the rest of his life he carried in his breast pocket the page he’d protected all night from becoming real, so that he could buy a little more time — for his friend, for life.

Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

A feeling of sadness came over him. All these years Litvinoff had imagined he was so much like his friend. He’d prided himself on what he considered their similarities. But the truth was that he was no more like the man fighting a fever in the bed ten feet away than he was like the cat that had just slunk off: they were different species. It was obvious, Litvinoff thought. All you had to do was look at how each had approached the same subject. Where he saw a page of words, his friend saw the field of hesitations, black holes, and possibilities between the words. Where his friend saw dappled light, the felicity of flight, the sadness of gravity, he saw the solid form of a common sparrow. Litvinoff’s life was defined by a delight in the weight of the real; his friend’s by a rejection of reality, with its army of flat-footed facts. Looking at his reflection in the dark window, Litvinoff believed something had been peeled away and a truth revealed to him: He was an average man. A man willing to accept things as they were, and, because of this, he lacked the potential to be in any way original. And though he was wrong in every way about this, after that night nothing could dissuade him.

Nicole Krauss, The History of Love

three passages:

from “my mother’s sadness” in the history of love:

2.  WHAT I AM NOT

My brother and I used to play a game.  I’d point to a chair.  ”THIS IS NOT A CHAIR,” I’d say.  Bird would point to the table.  ”THIS IS NOT A TABLE.”  ”THIS IS NOT A WALL,” I’d say.  ”THAT IS NOT A CEILING.”  We’d go on like that.  ”IT IS NOT RAINING OUT.”  ”MY SHOE IS NOT UNTIED!” Bird would yell.  I’d point to my elbow.  ”THIS IS NOT A SCRAPE.”  Bird would lift his knee.  ”THIS IS ALSO NOT A SCRAPE!”  ”THAT IS NOT A KETTLE!”  ”NOT A CUP!”  ”NOT A SPOON!”  ”NOT DIRTY DISHES!”  We denied whole rooms, years, weathers.  Once, at the peak of our shouting, Bird took a deep breath.  At the top of his lungs, he shrieked:  ”I!  HAVE NOT!  BEEN!  UNHAPPY!  MY WHOLE!  LIFE!”  ”But you’re only seven,” I said.

&

18.  MY MOTHER NEVER FELL OUT OF LOVE WITH MY FATHER

She’s kept her love for him as alive as the summer they first met.  In order to do this, she’s turned life away.  Sometimes she subsists for days on water and air.  Being the only known complex life-form to do this, she should have a species named after her.  Once Uncle Julian told me how the sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti said that sometimes just to paint a head you have to give up the whole figure.  To paint a leaf, you have to sacrifice the whole landscape.  It might seem like you’re limiting yourself at first, but after a while you realize that having a quarter-of-an-inch of something you have a better chance of holding on to a certain feeling of the universe than if you pretended to be doing the whole sky.

My mother did not choose a leaf or a head.  She chose my father, and to hold on to a certain feeling, she sacrificed the world.

&

19.  THE WALL OF DICTIONARIES BETWEEN MY MOTHER AND THE WORLD GETS TALLER EVERY YEAR

Sometimes pages of the dictionaries come loose and gather at her feet, shallon, shallop, shallot, shallow, shalom, sham, shaman, shamble, like the petals of an immense flower.  When I was little, I thought that the pages on the floor were words she would never be able to use again, and I tried to tape them back in where they belonged, out of fear that one day she would be left silent.