Akhil Sharma

Set in the author’s hometown of Delhi, India, Akhil Sharma’s Family Life is a novel with the lived-in nuance and warmth of a great memoir. The story of Indian brothers eager to come to America — only to endure tragedy along the way — offers humor in the boys’ prayers to Superman, and poignant grace in a family’s unity as strangers in a strange land. This week, Sharma celebrates books he adores, each somehow wrestling with coming-of-age and finding hope in sharp wit.

A Farewell to Arms
By Ernest Hemingway
“Probably Hemingway’s best novel. I read this book closely to see how he handles remembering loss, how he faces tragedy while preserving love. My usage of the word that in place of commas is largely due to this book. Look at how Hemingway uses that in the opening sentence to frame the images.”

Selected Stories of Anton Chekhov
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
“The supreme short story writer of all time. Among the amazing thing about Chekhov is how even when he is writing about very grim things, the adoration of the physical world which is present in his stories contains and redeems the sadness. ‘Peasant Women’ is breathtaking in the surprises it holds.”

This Boy’s Life
By Tobias Wolff
“One of the funniest and best written coming-of-age stories I have ever read. There is so much tenderness and truth in the book that it should serve as the gold standard for memoirs. I examined this book under a microscope as I was trying to write my own book. One of the weird things I discovered when I did this was how completely different memoir is from fiction. Even basic things like exposition and dramatized reality cannot be used in the same way as they are in fiction.”

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down
By Anne Fadiman
“An extraordinary story about how illness is perceived in non-Western cultures, the book is able to be both enormously respectful of these cultures while placing them within a contemporary context. What I gained from this work was seeing how the author handled representing the physicality of illness, making it palpable but not allowing it to overwhelm the narrative.”

Father and Son
By Edmund Gosse
“Along with A Boy’s Own Story, this is probably the single best coming-of-age memoir I have ever read. It tells the story of Edmund Gosse, a great British critic and minor poet, whose father was a scientist who ruins his career by opposing Darwinism. Among the reasons this book is extraordinary special is the story of Edmund’s mother dying of breast cancer and going to various faith healers as she dies. This was another book I tried to learn from. I think I did not learn much about technique, which is what I had hoped to learn, but was tremendously enriched anyway.”