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5.24.2016


Shelfie: An Ongoing Exploration of Bookshelves
MICHAEL LANDWEBER




Like most writers, my house is full of books. This particular collection miraculously arranged itself as I was considering this blog post. It could have many names. Books I Love. Books That Have Influenced My Work. Books That I Want to Hang out with My Books. Books You Should Read. Books That I Have Sadly but Inevitably Forgotten Many Details About. Books That I Want to Reread. Books That I Will Try to Write a Few Pithy Sentences about Explaining Why They Are Important to Me Though Whatever I Write Will Probably Be Inadequate.




Being Dead—Jim Crace

I have ideas that do not seem like they should be written as novels, such as my latest book, Thursday 1:17 p.m., in which time stops except for one character who still moves. When I have these ideas and consider abandoning them, I think about Being Dead, in which the two main characters are dead at the beginning of the book. Not dead like ghosts or zombies. Dead like decomposing behind a sand dune dead. It is not a spoiler to say they are dead at the start and still dead at the end and much of the middle describes in great detail the aforementioned decomposition. Sounds like a horrible idea for a novel, yet in fact, it is a poignant meditation on life, death, and love.

The Sweet Hereafter—Russell Banks

This is one of the best books about tragedy and its aftermath that I have read. Set in a small town, the novel starts with a bus accident that claims the lives of many children and traces the varied expressions of grief that follow. It does not pander or flinch. It observes.

The Orphan Master’s Son—Adam Johnson

How do you write a novel about a place where almost no one has been and most of the terrible rumors are probably true? If you’re Adam Johnson writing about North Korea, you probably do some research, but mostly you commit fully to a surreal horrifying journey down the rabbit hole. World-building is a term usually used for fantasy and science-fiction writers, but every book builds a world, and this one does it better than most.

Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World—Haruki Murakami
The Brief History of the Dead—Kevin Brockmeier

These are the same book. These are completely different books. Okay, it isn’t really fair of me to say, but the structures of the two books are strikingly similar. In both, there are two parallel stories told in alternating chapters, one a near-future recognizable world on the verge of collapse and the second a surreal otherworld that eventually connects to the real one. And yet, they are stunning examples of how even if there are no new ideas in the world, no two authors will write the same book.

Of Mice and Men—John Steinbeck

I read this book in high school or maybe even middle school. I had been trying to write short stories. Nearly every story I wrote ended with the death of the main character. This is the first book I clearly remember that showed me what it meant for a character to be doomed. This book taught me that stories can end in tragedy for their noble but flawed characters, but it must be earned.

Room—Emma Donoghue

All novelists will tell you that place is important. So trust me when I tell you that setting a book in a single room where a mother and son are being held captive for years is a daunting task. File it under ideas that a writer should run away from. Unless you are Emma Donoghue, in which case you write a tale of survival that still haunts me.

Life of Pi—Yann Martel

Speaking of survival tales, this novel is also a totally crazy idea that shouldn’t work, but does. That may be my favorite category of book, the ones where the writer clearly stepped out a window onto a tightrope hundreds of feet above the ground without even knowing if it was secured to the building on the other side. Putting your main character on a lifeboat with a menagerie of zoo animals, including a very hungry tiger, is pure madness. Enjoy. (And get ready to argue about what really happens at the end.)

Life after Life—Kate Atkinson

Another successful tightrope crossing. In this one, the main character dies, frequently, being reborn each time. It is the same story retold over and over, but changing each time, slightly at first, but then drastically as the novel unfolds. It shouldn’t work. But it does.

Thursday, 1:17 p.m.—Michael Landweber

Landweber has been a huge influence on my work. In fact, you could say he has been the driving force behind it. Yeah, this is my new book. It is very, very happy sitting on this shelf.

The Complete Stories—Franz Kafka

“As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning from uneasy dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a gigantic insect.” The great thing for me as a young writer reading Kafka was the realization that you really can write a story about anything. If a man can turn into a giant bug in literature, then there was really nothing in my occasionally odd brain that was off limits.

The Things They Carried—Tim O’Brien
Interpreter of Maladies—Jhumpa Lahiri

There are very few similarities in style or substance in these two books, each a collection of short stories. O’Brien is writing a brutal depiction of war, while Lahiri shines a fresh light on the American immigrant experience. If you read them both, you will understand what a great short story is.

Never Let Me Go—Kazuo Ishiguro

Ishiguro is one of my favorite writers. This book is here because it is a high-concept, near-future work that seamlessly combines genre into literary fiction. To say much more would result in spoilers. I usually recommend this novel first, but really you can’t go wrong with any of Ishiguro’s books.

One Hundred Years of Solitude—Gabriel García Márquez

One review of my new book called it magic realism. I’m flattered to even be considered in the same genre of novels as Gabriel García Márquez. This book and Love in the Time of Cholera are two of the best books ever written. Yes. Ever. If you haven’t read them, go do it. Now.




MICHAEL LANDWEBER lives and writes in Washington, D.C. His short stories have appeared in literary magazines such as Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, Fugue, Barrelhouse, and American Literary Review. He is an Associate Editor at Potomac Review and a contributor to Washington Independent Review of Books. Michael has a soft spot for movies about talking animals and does not believe he would survive the zombie apocalypse. His first novel, We, was published in 2013. You can find him at mikelandweber.com.


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