My Grad School Reading List


I submitted my graduate school thesis, which is the first 70 pages of my novel. I feel pretty okay about it (not great, because my novel isn’t finished yet). I’ll head to Paris for one last time in July, but already I’m mourning this program ending. Do I really not get to go to Paris twice a year? Are my writing deadlines (which I’ve agonized over for two years) really done? How will I stay accountable? And do I really not get personalized book lists anymore?!

As part of NYU’s low-res Paris Writers Program, students working toward an MFA in fiction are required to read 40 books and write response essays to them over the course of two years. The best part: The books are all recommended by talented and well-read faculty advisors and based on each student’s individual project. (My project is a novel about a chef from Northern Michigan to marries a diplomat and moves to Yemen where she works as the cook at the embassy’s outdoor lunch counter).

I’ve read books set in the Middle East (The Dog by Joseph O’Neill) and Northern Africa (Under the Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowels and Links by Neruddin Farah) to help me write place; I’ve read classics (Henry James and Proust and Nabaokov) to learn how the masters do it;  I’ve read authors of short fiction who can expertly tell a story without belaboring it (Lorrie Moore, Lydia Davis, Raymond Carver, and Flannery O’Conner) I’ve read books steeped in loneliness and isolation (Look at Me by Anita Brookner and An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine); I’ve read books about foreigners trying to make sense of the new places in which they’ve found themselves (Mating by Norman Rush); I’ve read books with complicated love triangles (Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen) and I’ve read books with impeccable pacing that reveal information at precisely the right moment (The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna).

I haven’t loved everything I read, but that’s the not the point. I’ve realized that while it’s super easy to read for pleasure, it’s difficult to take yourself out of the story and think “how did this author, specifically, accomplish x, y, and z.” And it’s very, very difficult to take all these tips and tricks and incorporate it into my own writing.

I was lamenting to someone about how hard it is to write a book and she said “But there’s so much crap out there.” I have not seen any of that crap over the past two years. Perhaps I should read some of it to boost my self-esteem. Or perhaps I should figure out a way to continue to get personalized book recommendations from world-class authors now that my graduate program is over.

Either way: For anyone interested (lovers of great books and aspiring novelists perhaps?) here’s my “school reading list” ranked (loosely) in order of books I found most helpful for my own writing.

Days of Abandonment by Elena Ferrante

The Hired Man by Aminatta Forna

A Heart So White by Javier Marias

An Unnecessary Woman by Rabih Alameddine

Look at Me by Anita Brookner

Mating by Norman Rush

Austerlitz by W.B. Sebold

Under the Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles

Like Life by Lorrie Moore

The Fixer by Bernard Malamud

The Quiet American by Graham Green

Lolita by Vladimir Nabakov

Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

The Dog by Joseph O’Neill

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Conner

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Passage to India by E.M. Forster

Portrait of a Lady by Henry James

Pnin by Vladimir Nabakov

My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante

Links by Neruddin Farah

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey

The Catherine Wheel by Elizabeth Harrower

Where I’m Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver

The Goldfinch by Donna Tart

Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust

The Painted Veil by Somerset Maugham

Seize the Day by Saul Bellow

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie

NW by Zadie Smith

The Collected Works of V.S. Pritchett

Cherí by Collette

All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

A Moveable Feast by Earnest Hemingway

To reading,

Em in Jerusalem

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