What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book (8 page)

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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Lisa Taddeo

on
Fever Dream
by Samanta Schweblin

The first time I got drunk after becoming a mother culminated with one of the worst hangovers of my life. My daughter was just about two. It was the first time we'd gotten a babysitter, and the occasion was my birthday. My husband did it all by himself: secured the babysitter, who inexplicably/predictably ate everything in our fridge, and made the impossible-to-get reservation at the hot new sushi spot. I was stratospherically impressed and excited. We ate copious amounts of sea urchin, and I drank my weakness, hot sake, like it was life-giving green tea.

The next morning was full of sun and my daughter was thrilled to be alive. I heard her bound into my room though I could not see her because my eyes were swollen shut with the mean glue of booze. I asked my husband for one more present. Please take our child away from me so she won't see her mother like this, like the college girl
she once was, bent over the toilet, crying, hating herself for having those last four carafes of sake. If only she had stopped at three.

He took our daughter to the park, and I did something I hadn't had the luxury of doing during the day in such a long time – I read. I read an entire book. The book was called
Fever Dream
by Samanta Schweblin and it scared the living shit out of me, I think, in precisely the way I needed.

Fever Dream
is about environmental disaster and motherhood linking hands in a ghastly but gorgeous way. It is about earthhood. It is a beautiful, singular, slim beast of a novel and I can say a million things about it but I don't want to ruin it for the reader. The thing I will say, the thing that stuck with me, was the way the novel dealt with a desire for something I'd craved my whole life and had only grown exponentially since I'd become a mother – the superpower to be able to prevent a terrible thing from happening.

In the novel's original language of Spanish, the title more closely translates to
rescue distance
. The mother, Amanda, is always trying to calculate the amount of distance that may exist between her and her daughter, Nina, wherein she still has enough time to get to her if something bad happens.

Since my daughter had been born, I'd been trying to calculate the rescue distance every
day of our lives but didn't have the words for it. When I woke up hungover, I felt like I'd thrown my notion of rescue out the window. I felt like a terrible mother. But after reading
Fever Dream
, I newly felt like now I had the tools to understand in a way that I hadn't before what my role was and how different my role was from what I thought it should be. It is a book that feels hopeless and yet provides hope. AKA:

This can happen but it has not happened yet.

We can still save each other. We just need to read more, and listen more, and hear more, and love more. And hate less. Read more, to hate less. And start with this book. It is the kind that provides life experience like a primer, and it's beautiful and sad, and like all sad things that are also beautiful, it is also full of hope. The same hope I had that morning when I swore I would never wake up a hungover mother again. At least not on hot sake, that's for sure.

Lisa Taddeo is a journalist, novelist, screenwriter and author of non-fiction and short stories. Best known for her work of non-fiction,
Three Women
, which won a British Book Award and which she is adapting for TV,
she has also written a novel,
Animal
, and a short story collection,
Ghost Lover
. She has written for numerous literary magazines and is a two-time recipient of the Pushcart Prize.

Meena Kandasamy

on
The God of Small Things
by Arundhati Roy

The God of Small Things
came to us in tiny doses.

First, we read in the papers that a young Indian woman was bringing home the Booker Prize. I was a 13-year-old teenager in Chennai (Madras) in 1997, and her win was a welcome change for us from the other achievements that routinely bombarded us from the newspapers – an Indian woman won Miss World, an Indian Woman won Miss Universe. For geeky-nerdy girls like me, Arundhati Roy was a beacon of hope and a welcome validation: Indian women could do other things than take part in beauty contests.

The second time, Arundhati Roy was sued for obscenity for
The God of Small Things
– and this only made my resolve to read the novel even greater.

The third time, many months after it was released, I held a physical copy of this book when
it was ordered for our school library. I cajoled the librarian to let me take it home for a night. I remember reading it with awe, with admiration, with tears in my eyes. I went to school the next day having finished the book, never having slept a wink, and I could not stop talking about it to all my girlfriends.

We all took turns reading it. Something even more beautiful transpired: we would sit around in a circle on our school desks and take turns reading its loveliest pages aloud. I remember reading aloud the last chapter (‘Cost of Living'), I remember the lovers coming together for a midnight tryst, I remember the lines, ‘Biology designed the dance. Terror timed it', I remember the beautiful way the novel ends on a Malayalam word (
naaley
, which means tomorrow) that the lovers tell each other.

This was a book that made promises. This was a book that kept them.

This was a book that made me feel that one could do something magical with language. This novel made and unmade language for me. Everything about this book felt like perfection when I first read it as a teenager; everything about it feels like perfection when I reread it now.

For all of the ornate, lyrical writing, for all of the sentence cadences that made one's heart stop-jump, it is an extremely political text. It is a novel
of place – it captures the paradise-like beauty of Kerala like no other. It is a novel of childhood – no one can write the rebellion within little hearts with the feistiness of Roy. It is a novel of abuse – the abuse of state power, the abuses of feudalism, the predatory abuse of a child by OrangeDrink LemonDrink Man. It is also a novel of immense resistance and great beauty.

Ammu, 31 years old (‘a viable, die-able age') when the novel opens, is a heroine like no other, and I appreciate her all the more now that I'm a mother of two small children just like her, and I'm in my thirties, too. Roy wrote of her protagonist: ‘She wore flowers in her hair and carried magic secrets in her eyes. She spoke to no one. She spent hours on the riverbank. She smoked cigarettes and had midnight swims.' She was conventional and unconventional at once. It is impossible not to fall in love with such a heroine. It is impossible for such a heroine not to fall in love. And when she falls in love, she transgresses caste and class.

Her story with Velutha (labourer, Untouchable) is the pulsating heart of this novel. Roy writes about caste taboos that enforce endogamy: ‘It really began in the days when the Love Laws were made. The laws that lay down who should be loved, and how. And how much.' It is a deceptively simple sentence; it hides the horror
that caste codes are capable of committing. Years afterwards, when I visit an atrocity zone like Dharmapuri where hundreds of villages of Dalit (ex-Untouchable) people have been burnt to ashes because of an inter-caste marriage, when I read about the honour-killings of inter-caste couples, I remember the quiet defiance of Roy's protagonists. The love that wrapped Ammu and Velutha together, a love that allowed them to tamper with the Love Laws, a love that is made eternal in her words is a love that is alive even today, and it is a love that is almost always punished with death in my country.

This is a book that will always stay with me. I urge every one of you to pick it up. It will change the way you look at love, at rivers, at beauty, at children, at marriages, at men, at women, at death. It will change the way you look at yourself. It will change the way you want to change the world. Roy breathes life into language in every single sentence.

Meena Kandasamy is an Indian poet, novelist and translator. The author of three novels, including
When I Hit You
, which was shortlisted for the 2018 Women's Prize, she has also written two collections of poetry, two essay collections and has translated numerous works from Tamil into English.

Taiye Selasi

on
Moon Tiger
by Penelope Lively

I have loved books – in a very literal sense – for as long as I can remember; in my earliest memories of myself, at three or four, I am holding one open. By about 15, I knew – beyond a shadow of a doubt, and despite a new interest in kissing – that the greatest pleasures in the world were reading and writing prose. I devoured the books assigned at school, the greatest hits of 19th- and 20th-century literature, and adored so many that I never quite knew how to answer the question of a favourite. Each book I rated held for me as a reader an irreplicable magic: the humour in this one, the poetry in that, the world-building, the word play, the plotting. Victorian classics, Icelandic epics, Nigerian bildungsromans. I read insatiably, indiscriminately. I was, proudly, a promiscuous lover of literature.

Then, at 21, I fell in love. I can't quite remember who gave me the book or suggested that I read it. In
retrospect, it seems improbable that I hadn't read it before. What I'll always remember is how it felt to start that book one autumn day, the blue-green cover of the paperback, not heavy in the hands. There was the usual pleasure, the magic aforementioned, but a feeling, too, without precedent: the sense of experiencing a text not as a reader but as a writer. Minutes into those first pages – with their quickly shifting narrators – I knew that I was reading the work of the writer
I
wished to become. If I were to succeed in achieving my childhood dream of becoming a published author, it would be (I vowed) because I'd written a book like this one. As a reader, I have no favourite book. As a writer, I have
Moon Tiger.

All these years later, all these books later, I have remained utterly faithful. No other novel has ever displaced this touchstone for me as a novelist. Needless to say, Penelope Lively won the 1987 Booker Prize because
Moon Tiger
is a masterpiece. But for me the joy of reading it rested, from the start, on something more intimate than admiration. Curious, the intimacy:
Moon Tiger
tells the story of an upper-class Englishwoman (Claudia), of her brother, lovers and daughter (in order of importance), of wartime Egypt. None of the novel's content aligns with any part of my life. I didn't ‘see myself' in the story; rather, I found myself in the telling.

The
way
that Lively tells her story told me that I'd been had, that the rules of ‘good writing' (as I had been taught them) were
not
sacrosanct, that the walls built around ‘literary fiction' could be jumped at will. Bouncing back and forth between past tense to present, starting sentences without subjects, ending paragraphs with ellipses, moving from first person subjective to first person omniscient to third person objective and back again: this was the wildest, freest, most thrilling prose I'd ever read. It left me giddy, wondrous. Was writing
allowed
to be so free?! Was a writer?

I'd identified, as a dutiful student, my three favourite features in fiction: repeating motifs (M. Kundera), nonlinear narrative (W. Faulkner), poetic prose (C. McCarthy). But I'd never read one novel that combined all three, and that did so with such apparent ease. I was not naive enough to imagine that writing
Moon Tiger
had been easy for Lively. Rather, I could sense first an easiness about the novel's dazzling structure, the assembly of its disjointed paragraphs, and second the
novelist's
ease with these moving parts – as if Lively had never doubted the structure she'd created, despite its never having existed. The novel seemed to be writing its rules – or better, teaching its reader its rules – as it went along, the unfurling of form as dazzling as
the unfolding of content. I read the novel again and again, underlining words I couldn't define at the time (sybaritic, paroxysms), inserting asterisks and exclamation marks (repeats on page 117!), as one studying some ancient text. With almost every sentence I asked myself: How is she making this work? Until one day an answer came. Trust. Lively trusted herself to rewrite the rules, I finally understood. She trusted her talent, yes, but more (and much harder), she trusted her text.

And that she
was
she – not Mr Kundera, Mr Faulkner, Mr McCarthy, with utmost respect to all – but a British woman born in Cairo who lived down the street from me in Oxford? This, in a literal sense too, changed my life. By so obviously believing in her rebellious prose, Lively gave me permission to believe in mine.
Moon Tiger
is the novel that set me on the path to becoming an author – or, more to the point, on the path to authoring wild, disjointed
Ghana Must Go
. I'd always loved books. Only after reading
Moon Tiger
did I know that I could write one. Perhaps all novelists are faithful to one such novel? Not the favourite but the one that sets us free?

Taiye Selasi is a British-American author and photographer of Nigerian and Ghanaian descent. She holds degrees
from Yale and Oxford universities, is the author of the much-discussed essay, ‘Bye-Bye Babar (Or: What is Afropolitan)', the short story, ‘The Sex Lives of African Girls', and the
New York
Times-bestselling
Ghana Must
Go, which was published to worldwide acclaim in 2013. A local of many cities, she currently lives in Lisbon.

Nikesh Shukla

on
The Spider-Man comics
by Marvel

Like kitchens at parties, the back of the comic shop was where you'd find the ‘cool' kids. We were the nerds, the ones who traded comic books at school, tried to read everything we could, couldn't afford anything, used our meagre resources to buy issue ones and foil variant covers because they would hopefully make our families fortunes decades later. They didn't, but the richness of that experience found me, in my twenties, still standing at the back of the shop, reading the funnies. Instead of Junaid and Riaz, my childhood accomplices, I would run into the writer Inua Ellams and we'd sit by the stacks reading for an hour silently, before going our separate ways. It's where we forged a lifelong kinship.

Like the rest of the ‘cool' kids, I read Spider-Man comics obsessively. It was the mid-1990s and we were in a particularly contentious era for Spidey fans. It started with the introduction of a
new symbiote, Carnage, who was more ruthless and terrifying than Venom, and ended with the resurrection of Aunt May, who died during the controversial Clone Saga. It was a pretty heady time to be reading the funny books.

I connected with Spider-Man in a spiritual way. I was Peter Parker. He was me. Maybe I was one of his clones. An Indian version. A Pavitr Prabhakar almost (nerd alert: there
is
an Indian Spidey. His name? Pavitr). This was way before nerd culture became mainstream. When we were the bullied kids, the kids everyone rinsed, the kids who hid, at breaktime, and even at the back of the comic book shop, reading, swinging through friendly neighbourhoods, slinging webs, thwipping the baddies and traversing the multiverse in search of justice. Definitely not the ‘cool' kids.

Peter Parker's dual identity – one moment the science nerd, the other as friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man – spoke to me. I empathised with the way he switched between shyness in one life and cockiness in the other. He wore different masks and spoke in different languages, much as I did.

My parents weren't wealthy and the worst thing I could do, in their eyes, was waste money. Comics were a waste of money: specifically, a fiver a week, earned through a paper round, on several
issues that took 15 minutes to read, and then five minutes to reread a day later.

The idea of putting on a suit and being a better version of yourself appealed to me. For Superman, putting on the suit entailed being himself (Clark Kent being the everyday mask he wore); for Spider-Man, putting on the suit meant being everything Peter Parker couldn't be. I found comfort in that. In life, I was Peter Parker; reading comics, I was Spider-Man. I dreamed of the confidence with which Spider-Man dispensed of Doctor Octopus or the Green Goblin; the cockiness with which he deployed his web-shooters; the wisecracks he flung at villains with abandon.

‘I'm glad you remembered the hyphen,' he told Electro. ‘Most people leave it out.'

‘Too bad you couldn't get a new hairstyle,' he told Doc Ock.

Comics became a lifeline as I approached my teenage years. Spider-Man lived with the consequences of bad decisions he made. To be in physical danger because of bad decisions, because of the burden of guilt, because of the need to hide your true self, that was me as a teenager.

I lived in fear of being beaten up. Not because there was any real threat of someone knocking me out, but because I was a teenager and I wore my outsider status like a brick wall that I was always
on the verge of getting shoved against. Comics allowed me stillness, escapism, a world where quiet nerds like me could make a difference.

The more comics I read, the more I became obsessed with being a writer. I didn't care what: short stories, the great American novel, film scripts, arcs for comics, raps. I wasn't fussy.

My first, terrible attempts at writing were synopses for Spider-Man arcs that were yet to be written. Thankfully, this juvenilia no longer exist because when I moved out of home with my girlfriend at 22, I decided I could no longer have ties to such childishness. I threw it all away. I think back to what those issues taught me about storytelling, how they gave me the tools to pace, to ensure that dialogue is punchy, exciting, realistic and not overwritten.

The biggest thing comics taught me about writing was that bad writing involved characters explaining the plot to each other. Good writing showed you the plot. Writing those synopses, in a brown exercise book, I honed these skills.

I wrote Peter Parker into my school. I made his antagonists my own. I made Mary-Jane a girl he got the train with. I resituated his battles with Sandman and the Vulture in north-west London. Peter Parker became a cypher for me. Spider-Man became the best possible version of myself.

Nikesh Shukla is a British writer of novels and YA fiction, editor of essay collection
The Good Immigrant
and co-editor of
The Good Immigrant USA.
A Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and a member of the Folio Academy, he has also authored a book on writing and a memoir,
Brown Baby: A Memoir Of Race, Family And Home
.

BOOK: What Writers Read: 35 Writers on their Favourite Book
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