Guest post from Jessica J. Lee
Reading while writing a book is controversial; some writers swear by it, while some swear off books entirely. I found it difficult to read memoirs while writing Turning, but I couldn’t swear off books entirely because I was in the midst of finishing my doctorate. So when it came to downtime, two things really helped: music I could lose myself in and reading books outside my genre (and of course, binge-watching Netflix).
I spent a lot of that time with headphones on, losing myself in sound, emerging ready to write. These are some of the tracks that helped me get there:
Below are the books that really stuck, in no particular order.
Margaret Atwood, Surfacing
More than any other book, Surfacing helped me not only reflect on the challenges presented by contemporary womanhood, but also on our portrayals of wildness and wilderness, masculinity, and family connection. It’s difficult to say, now, what captivated me so much about this book, but its grip tightened on me over the course of the year and its energy worked its way, in small eruptions, throughout my own text.
Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven
This was a novel I couldn’t put down, and then couldn’t stop talking about for months afterwards. Set in Toronto and the Great Lakes region, I was bound to love it, but the intensity and power of its protagonist—travelling a devastated world armed with a hatchet—captured my imagination and fuelled my own treks through a far-less terrifying landscape.
Doretta Lau, How Does a Single Blade of Grass Thank the Sun?
I carried this book with me for weeks, dipping in and out of its pages again and again, marvelling at Lau’s tidy prose. I don’t tend towards short stories—it usually takes me a while to get into something—but each of these was like a fragment chipped off of my own experiences as an Asian Canadian. From laughing to weeping, these stories carried me through a lonely time.
Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade
I read this poetry collection in deep winter, when I struggled to sleep though the nights were incredibly long. It was a refuge of beauty for me. I found myself copying out poems into my diary (‘To All Laments and Purposes’ is my favourite), something I’ve not done since I was a teenager, and repeating entire stanzas aloud, mesmerised by Howe’s quiet observations.
Theodor Fontane, Effi Briest
Fontane’s thoughtful characterisation of Effi had me re-reading passages, weeping when I least expected. I wanted to dislike it, if I’m honest, but watching Effi move from naive curiosity to an overwhelming sense of guilt, and ultimately tragedy, churned my stomach—and left me loathing the men who shaped her path.
Téa Obreht, The Tiger’s Wife
This novel had been on my to-read list for years, so I finally bought myself a copy. I found it enthralling—and its tales of a distant Balkan village in the wake of war so powerfully crystallised my own thinking about the landscape of eastern Germany and its own rocky history.
Anna Tsing, The Mushroom at the End of the World
This is the book that made its way from my PhD dissertation to Turning and everywhere in between: I was obsessed. Tracing years of fieldwork with matsutake mushroom foragers worldwide, it is part ethnography, part history, and rich with narrative beauty. Tsing helped me to think about landscape, and about how we grapple with the past in the present.