Portrait by Miranda Barnes / Illustration by Yousra Attia
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.
How many well-deserved accolades were heaped upon Brit Bennett’s second novel, The Vanishing Half, about twin sisters, one of whom decides to pass as white? Let us count the ways: The book has spent 36 weeks on NYT bestseller list and was longlisted for the National Book Award; it was also the New York Public Library’s top borrowed title in 2020 and was bought by HBO, who beat out 16 other bidders, to be adapted into a limited series with Bennett as executive producer. And everyone from Barack Obama, who included The Vanishing Half on his list of favorite books of 2020, to Mariah Carey, who posted about it on Instagram as essential 2020 reading, is a fan.
Last year, Bennett also wrote the screenplay for her 2016 novel The Mothers, which was optioned by Kerry Washington, and she is currently at work on her next novel about two feuding singers. The California-bred, Brooklyn-based writer thought she’d be a lawyer like her dad; got her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan; once was a camp counselor to kids who were expelled for shoplifting; cares about the temperatures of her drinks; and likes sneakers, ’90s ballads, and cathedrals. Her praiseworthy picks below.
The book that:
…made me cry:
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai. I knew a book about the AIDS crisis would be a tearjerker but did not expect to full-out sob when I closed the book. I still tear up thinking about the final page.
…shaped my worldview:
The Color Purple by Alice Walker, which advocates, among other things, for art and beauty as a spiritual practice.
…I recommend over and over again:
Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones. I’ve told so many friends to read this book, and everyone has loved it.
…I keep trying to finish (I will, I swear):
Orlando by Virginia Woolf. Fascinating book but quite dense! I did finally see the movie with Tilda Swinton and liked it.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. Really looking forward to this one although I’m a big wimp when it comes to any story that is remotely scary.
…made me want to be a writer:
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton. I learned that the author wrote this book when she herself was a teenager, and I immediately wanted to do the same.
…I’ve re-read the most:
Beloved by Toni Morrison. I’ve read this book on my own, and read it in school, once twice in the same semester for two different classes. I generally believe that it’s impossible to write a perfect novel but Beloved is probably the exception.
…has the greatest ending:
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. A friend once gave me a framed copy of the final sentence of that book, which is surprising and rapturous. [“For now he knew what Shalimar knew: If you surrendered to the air, you could ride it.”]
…changed my mind about something:
The End of Policing by Alex S. Vitale, which not only presents problems with policing but suggests alternatives that I had not previously considered.
…made me laugh out loud:
Such a Fun Age by Kiley Reid, which is so precise in its humor and also made me cringe-laugh in each relatable awkward racial encounter.
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. Who would not want to see a queer historical murder-mystery? This book is thrilling and incredibly romantic.
…I’d gift to a new graduate:
A Home at the End of the World by Michael Cunningham. A novel about figuring yourself out and finding chosen family. I read it in my mid-twenties, and I don’t think it could have found me at a more perfect time.
…I last bought:
Leave the World Behind By Rumaan Alam. I’ve heard great things about this book and looking forward to diving in.
…I wish I’d written:
Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I still marvel over the fact that she wrote such a fully-realized world within a book that is largely inside a house. Such an ambitious and moving book that seems impossible for anyone other than a true master to write.
…kept me up way too late:
The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. This was the first book I finished after the quarantine began. It’s so propulsive, I couldn’t stop reading, and I was grateful to rediscover my attention span at a time when focusing on anything seemed impossible.
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