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.
Scroll through Megha Majumdar’s social media, and it’s obvious she loves words. There are books she’s championing, authors she’s interviewing, voices she’s amplifying, writing classes she’s teaching, bookstores she’s supporting, publishing jobs she’s sharing, and essays and short stories she’s reading. (All in between food she’s made, like cherry pancakes and a leftover spaghetti omelet.)
Her debut novel last summer, A Burning (just out in paperback from Vintage), about three people pursuing dreams as the right wing ascends in India, racked up numerous distinctions: New York Times bestseller, shortlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Fiction, longlisted for the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize for Best First Book finalist, on more than a dozen best books of the year lists, plus a Margaret Atwood quarantine read.
Born in Kolkata, India, Majumdar moved to the United States to study at Harvard and later earned her master’s degree in social anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, for which she spent a summer in Senegal. Hard to believe she had trouble getting into kindergarten. Editor-in-chief of publisher Catapult, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband, a director and film editor, and likes green chiles, hiking, the Burning Worlds newsletter, Berkeley sidewalks and Grace Rajendran art.
The book that:
…kept me up way too late:
Sonia Faleiro’s gripping book of reportage, The Good Girls, about the investigation into the deaths of two girls in rural India.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir in which a neurosurgeon diagnosed with lung cancer confronts the end of his life, broke my heart. I remember a part where Kalanithi, quite sick at that stage, wished to have a child, and his wife asked if having to say goodbye to a child wouldn’t make dying more painful. He replied, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did?”
…I recommend over and over again:
Three phenomenal books come to mind: Chia-Chia Lin’s The Unpassing, NoViolet Bulawayo’s We Need New Names, and Angie Cruz’s Dominicana.
…made me rethink a long-held belief:
A great book that made me think differently about citizenship and passports—and as an immigrant, I think about these a lot—is Atossa Araxia Abrahamian’s The Cosmopolites.
…I read in one sitting, it was that good:
Saeed Jones’s How We Fight For Our Lives, a gorgeous, mighty memoir.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Can I speak about two books that sit on a metaphorical nightstand? I’ve been excited to read Julietta Singh’s The Breaks, which is about queer family-making, climate change, and the future, as well as Nadia Wassef’s Shelf Life, a memoir of running a bookstore in Cairo. They’re out this fall.
…I’d pass on to a kid:
I gifted Peter Godfrey-Smith’s Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness to a ten-year-old. She devoured it.
…I’d gift to a new graduate:
Caleb Azumah Nelson’s Open Water. A beautiful novel about two Black British artists preserving a space of gentleness in a hard, racist society, it has so much to say about protecting our inner lives and spirits and loves while living in our current world.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
The novella titled “My Monticello” in Jocelyn Nicole Johnson’s debut collection of the same name that will publish this fall, about a group of neighbors in a time of violent white supremacy.
…I last bought:
Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass. I read an excerpt from it and loved it.
…has the best opening line:
This is from very early in the novel Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford, where a mother says to her daughter: “It seems you’re old enough, Justine, that your salvation is your own burden. And if you want to ride a roller coaster in your first act as a spiritual adult, so be it.”
…I’ve re-read the most:
When I was little, I spent so much time with this huge Reader’s Digest atlas that we had at home. I love “reading” atlases—the place names, the ocean depths, whole continents in its pages, such a magical kind of book.
…I consider literary comfort food:
I know this isn’t quite how the question is meant, but a book I found comforting and exhilarating—a chance to travel very far outside Brooklyn and gaze back upon my concerns during the pandemic—was astrophysicist Janna Levin’s Black Hole Survival Guide. It’s such a playful and profound book. May I add, I discovered it online at Seminary Co-op Bookstore. They stock an incredible range of nonfiction.
…fills me with hope:
The great and enduring love of the Vietnamese family who settle in New Orleans in Eric Nguyen’s novel Things We Lost To the Water.
Sanjena Sathian’s Gold Diggers, a novel about immigration, ambition, and American history, surprised me so beautifully with its magical elements! I won’t say more. You’ll have to read it.
…I asked for one birthday as a kid:
I used to ask for these Nancy Drew 3-in-1 editions, three mysteries in one big book. I’d go to the bookstore on a special trip, get one of these, and read all of it in a day or two.
…taught me this Jeopardy!-worthy bit of trivia:
I learned from Marie Mutsuki Mockett’s American Harvest that broccoli is not a naturally occurring vegetable. I had no idea! It’s made from a lot of selective breeding.
If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be: A bookstore I dream of visiting is Point Reyes Books in California. They champion a lot of beautiful nature- and environment-themed books. Someday I’d love to see the hills and seashores in that part of California—I have heard there’s a waterfall on the beach nearby—and pop into the bookstore to buy from its always-inspiring staff picks. That would be a day to remember.
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