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.
If you ever wondered what became of overachiever Tracy Flick—a name still associated with female political ambition since appearing in Tom Perrotta’s Election (1998) and the 1999 movie adaptation starring Reese Witherspoon in her breakthrough role, now you can find out in Tracy Flick Can’t Win (Scribner). (And yes, he’s sent copies to Witherspoon and Election director/co-screenwriter Alexander Payne.)
Perrotta has written six other novels, including Little Children (for which he and Todd Field were nominated for a Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar), The Leftovers (the acclaimed Peabody-Award-winning HBO series, for which he was a writer and executive producer), and Mrs. Fletcher (an HBO series, for which he was showrunner who hired mostly female directors and a female writer’s room.) He’s also written two story collections.
The New Jersey-born, Massachusetts-based author received an M.A. in English/creative writing from Syracuse University and taught creative writing at his alma mater Yale and at Harvard Extension School; wrote for his high school literary magazine; had a summer job collecting trash; and once wanted to be a musician. His recs below, and of course, you can always do as the Carver High School student body did: Pick Flick.
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. I picked this up in the midst of a bad breakup. Jane’s stoic, resilient voice made me realize that sometimes there’s nothing to do but look your troubles in the eye and get on with your life.
The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa. This is a lovely book about a work relationship that turns into something deeper. It’s a simple story told with profound tenderness.
The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. Levi wasn’t just an unflinching chronicler of the Holocaust. He was also a scientist, and this playful memoir recounts his lifelong passion for chemistry and the everyday magic it produces.
Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson. These heartbreaking stories about the lonely souls haunting a midwestern town wormed their way deep into my psyche. I feel them inside me everytime I walk down a suburban street at night.
Robert Caro’s multi-volume biography of LBJ. Caro has been writing this magnum opus for almost 50 years, so I figure I can take my time reading it. It’s worth every minute, though.
The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante. I admire Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but I like her shorter works even better. This one is a gem; Maggie Gyllenhaal’s film version does a great job capturing its brooding strangeness.
Patricia Highsmith: Her Diaries and Notebooks edited by Anna von Planta. Highsmith was a genuine eccentric with an amazingly hectic love life. Her diaries provide a vivid glimpse of literary and queer life in New York City in the middle of the 20th century.
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes. I read this for a college class, and it cracked me up. You know it's good if it’s still funny after 400 years.
The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I bought it off a paperback rack in a drugstore in the 1970s. I was the first person I knew who ever read it, and I told everyone I met that they should read it, too. That’s how the whole Lord of the Rings thing got started.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro: “My name is Kathy H. I’m thirty-one years old, and I’ve been a carer now for over eleven years.” It takes a long time for the reader to understand the significance of this bland opening, but it lands like a gut punch.
Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart. This is the first great novel of the Covid years, and it has some terrific sex scenes, too. Suffice it to say that things get pretty dirty in the shower.
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin. Baldwin’s bitterly truthful essays about race, literature, and American hypocrisy are as fresh today as they were when they were written back in the 1940s and 50s.
The Parker Novels by Richard Stark. I love crime fiction, and these lean, brutally efficient novels about an ice-cold criminal named Parker are the cream of the crop.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. There are certain things only great novels can do. Tayari Jones makes us feel the weight of American racism and the impossible pressure it places on her characters.