Book Recommendations by Julie Otsuka

Welcome to Lifetime, The books section of ELLE.com, in which the authors share their most memorable reads. Whether you’re looking for a book to console you, move you deeply, or make you laugh, consider a recommendation from the writers in our series, who, like you (because you’re here), love books. Maybe one of their favorite titles will also become one of yours.

Julie Otsuka said she was a “turtle by nature”, so her third novel, swimmers (Knopf), released today, is an event (anticipated by the likes of Colson Whitehead). The book, on dementia, comes 11 years after her NYT– no longer sold The Buddha in the AtticPEN/Faulker Award winner and National Book Award finalist on Japanese brides in 1900s San Francisco, and 20 years later When the emperor was divine, about the incarceration of a Japanese-American family during World War II. Otsuka, whose grandfather was arrested by the FBI after the Pearl Harbor bombing and whose mother, grandmother and uncle were incarcerated in a Utah camp for three years, is a frequent speaker about its early days, which remain popular college and community reading.

The California-born and raised, New York-based author kept two pet turtles as a child; was senior class president in high school; majored in art at Yale to become a painter (she also studied sculpture); started writing fiction at age 30; earned his MFA from Columbia; received a Guggenheim Fellowship; was influenced by Hemingway among others; lived in West Berlin for a year where she taught a painting course at the US Army base; went to secretarial school and worked at a construction management company until she sold her first book; has two brothers; participated in Junior Lifeguards as a SoCal teenager; and does not have a television.

Likes: Cézanne, Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, Hirozaku Kore-Eda films, writing in cafes (in non-pandemic times) with Blackwing Palomino pencils, practicing German, Clairefontaine notebooks with graphic grids.

The book that…

…kept me up way too late:

by Jill Cement The body in question. A jury duty romance, who knew? What a brilliant idea. I bought it for the concept (the main characters are introduced to us as C-2 and F-17), and I read it because Ciment is such a snarky, endearing writer who knows how to tell a good story. A funny and morally complex page-turner that affects in unexpected ways.

…I recommend again and again:

Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York. I love this book and have read and re-read it many times. The writing is taut, with a percussive, rhythmic undertow that pulls you in. And that voice. Jaunty, mean, ironic. A gritty valentine to an older, bygone New York, the New York of my youth and the city I will never stop loving in all of its many incarnations.

… which I read in one go, it was so good:

Marguerite Duras’ The war. Duras’ memoirs – written as she awaited her husband’s return from Bergen-Belsen – are almost mind-blowing in their clarity and dread, and annihilatingly beautiful. I read it in one afternoon, in a library in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was – for three miserable months when I was twenty-five – in graduate school of painting. His words sounded truer to me than anything I could ever write on the canvas. The following month, I dropped out of school and moved to New York.

… currently sits on my bedside table:

Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, The second place. I re-read Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy (To present, Transitand Glory) in the first year of the pandemic, and was blown away yet again. She’s a brilliant and genuinely original thinker and writer who seems to work at the edge of what language can do and what we mean by ‘story’.

…It made me laugh a lot:

The Return Special, by Chris Bachelder. Every other line in this novel — about a group of men who meet at the same hotel every year to re-enact a famously gruesome football match — had me laughing quietly in the cafe I regularly frequented in the pre-pandemic era. It completely nails the humor and heartbreak of the Middle Ages. By far the funniest book I’ve read in years.

… I bought for the last time:

At Rabih Alameddine The wrong end of the telescope. I’ve wanted to read this since it came out – a novel about a trans Lebanese doctor who travels to Greece to help solve the refugee crisis.

… has the best title:

The Constant Gardener by John le Carre. I’ve never read this book, or anything by Le Carré, but I’ve always loved this title, and I wish I’d thought of it myself. It’s mysterious and evocative and alludes to a quiet obsession beneath a respectable surface of calm.

…has the best opening line:

Jamaica Kincaid, My Mother’s Autobiography“My mother died the moment I was born, and so all my life there was nothing between me and eternity; behind me there was always a dark and black wind. Nobody writes like Jamaica Kincaid – fierce, angry, beautiful and utterly hypnotic prose.

…which made me feel seen:

camp notes by Mitsuye Yamada. A book of poems about Yamada’s time during World War II, in what we Japanese Americans call the “camp.” I read this book when I was nineteen, and I took a class on women’s poetry, and I remember thinking, oh, I didn’t know you could write about this! It was unusual at the time and stuck with me.

…I could only have discovered at Hacker Art Books the 57and Street in New York:

A catalog of a 1984 Giorgio Morandi exhibition at La Fundación Caja de Pensiones in Madrid. I moved to New York in my mid-twenties to become a painter and spent hours browsing the shelves of Hacker Art Books, which had a huge selection of books you couldn’t find anywhere else. I’m obsessed with Morandi’s work – he painted the same bottles over and over for years – and this catalog was a rare find. The store, alas, has long since closed.

…surprised me:

by Ernest Hemingway A moving party. I never thought Hemingway – fishing, hunting, a man’s man – would be “for me”. But these essays, which I first read almost 30 years ago, were not at all what I expected. They felt so immediate and fresh, like they were written yesterday. Full of humor and pathos, and with a calm, melancholic undertow. After A Moveable Feast, I continued to read all of his short stories and most of his novels, and have been a die-hard Hemingway fan ever since.

…I would like signed by the author:

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. I haven’t read any other book that captures the “before moment” so perfectly.

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