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Elizabeth McCracken Book Recommendations

Welcome to Shelf Life,’s book column, where authors share their most memorable books. Whether you’re looking for a book to comfort you, touch you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (since you’ve been here), love books holds. Perhaps one of their favorite titles will become one of yours.

Elizabeth McCracken’s eighth book, The Hero of This Book (Ecco), follows a writer who reflects on her late mother’s life and their relationship as she wanders through London. Details can blur the line between fact and fiction, but it’s a novel.

The Boston-born, Austin-based author has also written an autobiography, short story collections (two long-listed for the National Book Award), and National Book Award finalist The Giant’s House, which is being made into a movie by Nick Hornby and directed by Andy Serkis. She is a graduate of and teaches at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the James Michener Chair in Fiction at the University of Texas, Austin, and a recipient of grants and grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts, among others.

She played candlestick bowling in a league growing up; thought she could be a poet and studied playwriting with Derek Walcott; has an MLIS (master’s degree in library information science) and was a public librarian; once won $500 worth of Prairie Lights books as a graduating student in Iowa City; was quoted in; Tweets swim reports from Barton Springs pool; carry a non-smart phone so as not to be distracted by the internet; has lived in France; and read Anna Karenina in 16 hours.

Loves: hotel rooms, ventriloquism, Kaweco fountain pens, UK driving, dolls, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and semicolons. Dislikes: fairies, in the photo, the occasional backstroke. Immerse yourself in one of her book reviews.

The book that…

… made me cry uncontrollably:

Our Andromeda by Brenda Shaughnessy. Full disclosure: I have never cried uncontrollably over a book, a movie or a work of art. I am harsh. I never cry over things that are just sad; I cry for beauty and strangeness and the human willingness to search for meaning – not transcendence, but meaning – in difficult times. Brenda Shaughnessy’s Our Andromeda, a book of poems, always moves me to tears.

….I read it in one sitting, it was that good:

I read The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett in one sitting. It was the first book I read during the early days of the pandemic that showed me a world so vibrant, with characters so real, that I fell in and out of my dull life.

… helped me through a breakup/loss:

The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, an anthology edited by Kevin Young. Poetry is what I need when I’m not moored.

… has shaped my worldview:

Before reading Grace Paley’s short stories (first in Huge Last Minute Changes, and then in her Collected Stories, I might have thought a short story could only do one or two things, and not – like Paley’s stories do) a reader to tears or laughter, describing how people live and talk, being surreal and realistic at the same time, and most importantly, quite literally, asking how we should live in the world.

… I recommend again and again:

Riva Lehrer’s Golem Girl, a brilliant book about an interesting, artistic life, illustrated with the author’s amazing paintings.

… I would give to a recent graduate:

Lynda Barry is what it is. Useful for anyone who wants to use art – writing, drawing, the pen across the page – to understand life and then make things.

…made me laugh out loud:

Paul Lisicky’s Later: My Life At The Edge of the World is so good and full of lust and intelligence and understanding of what it means to grieve and find yourself at the same time. It also includes a section about the author being dragged into a parade while wearing a large hat shaped like a soft serve ice cream cone that makes me laugh just thinking about it.

…I would like to become a Netflix show:

Andrea Lawlor’s Paul Takes the Form of a Mortal Girl would make a great series: funny, humane, episodic, eventful, and also sex, and also joy and complexity.

…I recently bought:

Elizabeth Crane’s This Story Will Change, a memoir by a great fiction writer.

…has the coolest book cover:

The Book of Goose by Yiyun Lee, which is just as strange and beautiful inside, is a page turner about female friendship and the nature of authorship.

…has the best title:

My answer to this has been steadfast for years: David Bowman’s Let the Dog Drive.

…has a character I love to hate:

Bastard from Carolina. What could be better than a detestable character? An abominable child’s character. I love everything about Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, including Shannon Pearl, a terribly sickly mean kid who still lives in my heart.

…is a masterclass on dialogue:

Richard Price is criminally underrated as a novelist. Lush Life is my favorite of his books, but they’re all full of funny, terrifying, fantastic dialogue.

…has the best ending:

Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto is a wonderful book, and its ending is beautiful and memorable, but what struck me like a gong almost 25 years ago when I first read it, and still resonates in my head is it End of Acknowledgments: “My greatest thanks go to the Burkett family of Fairfax, Virginia. Bill, Reba, Bill Jr. and his sister Anne Marie raised my guide dog. And then they let her go.”

…describes a house I would like to live in or a place I would like to visit:

David Copperfield’s Betsey Trotwood is one of my favorite characters in all fiction. I’d love to visit her house (although Dickens is a brilliant writer of interiors, among other things, so in a way I feel like I did).

… I consider literary comfort food:

Joseph Mitchell’s Up at the Old Hotel never lets me down. He was a New Yorker writer with a penchant for eccentrics and eccentrics. Me too.

…Surprise me:

I have an imaginary summary of things I’ve done that touched the literary world, without having to do anything myself. My first entry and arguably favorite: I was the first person to ever read Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto. I read it in manuscript while sitting in a bar in Cambridge, Massachusetts. All her books are amazing, of course, but I still remember feeling all pinned to my barstool, not knowing what was coming, or how she was doing it.

…which contains the recipe of a favorite dish:

My mother loved the Mary Poppins books so much that it’s impossible for me to separate my own love for them from hers: I love them because she loved them and, as she would say, she was always right. She gave me a copy of Mary Poppins in the Kitchen: A Cookery Book with a Story. I cooked all the time his very English recipes: Zodiac cake (chocolate and decorated with stars), roast chicken. But my favorite recipe was baked custard, because my mother liked that too. Sweet and full of protein – my mother was a great champion of protein – infant food, but also magical, the way it was in the oven.

Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:

The Boston Public Library, with its dioramas and murals. Books will support me 98% of the time, but sometimes I need a diorama.

Read McCracken’s pick:Our AndromedaThe Vanishing HalfThe Vanishing Half

Now 33% discount

The art of losingThe art of losing

Now 41% discount

Huge last minute changesHuge last minute changes

Now 34% discount

The collected storiesThe collected stories

Now 37% discount

golem girlWhat it isLaterPaul takes the form of a mortal girlPaul takes the form of a mortal girlThis story will change

Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.

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