My Favorite Writers’ Favorite Books: Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay was sitting outside Hugo House one night when I went to a reading. My friend Jessica and I chatted with her about student loan debt. When we said good-bye and walked inside, my friend squeezed my arm in a very non-Seattle way and squealed, “Roxane Gay!”

Since then, she’s only gotten fancier. She’s a columnist for The New York Times and has her own publication. She’s just as grouchy, talking about her various nemeses on Twitter and blasting anyone who can’t spell her first name.

But what I admire her for most is the way she just says it, man. Your girl has been through some shit, and she writes about it all, especially in Hunger.

About reading, she says, “Basically, I love reading things that make me feel the same way I feel when listening to Beyoncé — slayed.”

Here are some of Roxane’s favorite books:

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

“She is one of my favorite writers, and I loved the ambitious, almost too ambitious, narrative structure of the novel and these little worlds she kept building and tearing down to move the story forward,” says Roxane. “The book is also set in Los Angeles, one of my favorite cities.”

Publisher’s description:

The acclaimed, bestselling author—winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize—tells the enthralling story of how an unexpected romantic encounter irrevocably changes two families’ lives.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

“That was a great book — DRAMA for days.”

Publisher’s description:

Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and thereby exposes herself to the hypocrisies of society. Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

I Am a Magical Teenage Princess by Luke Geddes

It’s this amazing collection of short stories that is sharp and dark and mostly about teenage girls,” says Roxane. “The highlight is the story ‘Betty and Veronica,’ about the Archie Comics characters as lovers in a high school. I will reread that story every chance I get. It’s amazing and also so sexy.”

Publisher’s description:
A helpless surfer girl drifts through time like flotsam, tormented by the bizarre cliches of drive-in-era B-movies. A reluctant teenage astronaut idles away her post-apocalyptic adolescence huffing gasoline and fooling around with her five brutish shipmates, all of them named Tommy. The beleaguered subject of an educational hygiene film longs to break free from the cruel social strictures of her celluloid world. A retired chimpanzee actor contemplates life after fame in a run-down motel room in Missoula. Two sisters go hunting for real-deal rebels in a desert town overrun with phony nostalgia.
In the stories of I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, Luke Geddes reexamines 1960s and contemporary popular culture with wit, insight, and pathos. A book for the magical teenage princess in all of us, this debut short story collection welcomes a unique and surprisingly wise voice to the world of letters.

The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton

Roxane calls this her “No. 1 go-to book.”

Publisher’s description:
One of Edith Wharton’s most famous novels—the first by a woman to win the Pulitzer Prize—exquisitely details a tragic struggle between love and responsibility in Gilded Age New York.

Newland Archer, an aristocratic young lawyer, is engaged to the cloistered, beautiful May Welland. But when May’s cousin Ellen arrives from Europe, fleeing her failed marriage to a Polish count, her worldly and independent nature intrigues and unsettles Archer. Trapped by his passionless relationship with May and the social conventions that forbid a relationship with the disgraced Ellen, Archer is torn between possibility and duty. Wharton’s profound understanding of her characters’ lives makes the triangle of Archer, May, and Ellen both urgent and poignant. An incisive look at the ways desire and emotion must negotiate the complex rules of society, The Age of Innocence is one of Wharton’s most moving works.

China Rich Girlfriend by Kevin Kwan

Roxane calls the second book of the Crazy Rich Asians “Soapy and hilarious.”
Publisher’s description:
It’s the eve of Rachel Chu’s wedding, and she should be over the moon. She has a flawless Asscher-cut diamond, a wedding dress she loves, and a fiancé willing to thwart his meddling relatives and give up one of the biggest fortunes in Asia in order to marry her. Still, Rachel mourns the fact that her birthfather, a man she never knew, won’t be there to walk her down the aisle.

Then a chance accident reveals his identity. Suddenly, Rachel is drawn into a dizzying world of Shanghai splendor, a world where people attend church in a penthouse, where exotic cars race down the boulevard, and where people aren’t just crazy rich … they’re China rich.

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Roxane says Homegoing was the last book that made her cray. “The brutality of what her characters endured made me sob. The history of this world is a bloody wound.”

Publisher’s description:
Ghana, eighteenth century: two half sisters are born into different villages, each unaware of the other. One will marry an Engli
shman and lead a life of comfort in the palatial rooms of the Cape Coast Castle. The other will be captured in a raid on her village, imprisoned in the very same castle, and sold into slavery.

Homegoing follows the parallel paths of these sisters and their descendants through eight generations: from the Gold Coast to the plantations of Mississippi, from the American Civil War to Jazz Age Harlem. Yaa Gyasi’s extraordinary novel illuminates slavery’s troubled legacy both for those who were taken and those who stayed—and shows how the memory of captivity has been inscribed on the soul of our nation.

Evicted by Matthew Desmond

“My God, what that book lays bare about American poverty,” says Roxane. “It is devastating and infuriating and a necessary read.”

Publisher’s description:
In Evicted, Princeton sociologist and MacArthur “Genius” Matthew Desmond follows eight families in Milwaukee as they struggle to keep a roof over their heads. Hailed as “wrenching and revelatory” (The Nation), “vivid and unsettling” (New York Review of Books), Evicted transforms our understanding of poverty and economic exploitation while providing fresh ideas for solving one of 21st-century America’s most devastating problems. Its unforgettable scenes of hope and loss remind us of the centrality of home, without which nothing else is possible.

Nobody’s Fool by Richard Russo

Roxane calls this and Straight Man by Richard Russo two of her favorite books.

Publisher’s description:
This slyly funny, moving novel about a blue-collar town in upstate New York—and in the life of Sully, of one of its unluckiest citizens, who has been doing the wrong thing triumphantly for fifty years—is a classic American story.

Small print: I’m a writer who connects writers with books, programs, and writer toys that make the writing life easier or more fun. As it turns out, people get paid for that. So some of the links I have are affiliate links, which means that, at no cost to you, I get a commission if you click through and buy something. If I recommend something you don’t agree with, just let me know. I stand by everything I suggest as a resource that will help you be the writer you want to be. 

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