The novelist on unforgettable voices ancient and modern.
Catherine Chung’s critically hailed debut novel Forgotten Country weaves a web of folklore and family stories around the lives of two Korean-American sisters. When we asked her to recommend three favorite books, she picked an eclectic trio of works that range across genres and epochs.
Translated by J.C. Mardrus and E.P. Mathers;
“This is my favorite translation of Arabian Nights, which I’ve loved since I read the children’s version as a kid. I love the setup, which begins with Sharhazad, a woman who spins a spellbinding maze of stories night after night to trick her husband the Sultan into postponing her death each day. She is counting on these stories and his curiosity to save her and her people from his vendetta against women: it turns out he has already killed all of his previous brides. What she creates is a tapestry of interwoven tales that is as complicated and dazzling as you could ever hope for — it is no wonder that the Sultan remains enthralled for a thousand and one nights, or that he falls in love with his courageous wife as she teaches him a lesson in humility and wisdom. The writing and the stories in here are an absolute delight.”
By James Baldwin
“‘Our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult — that is, accept it.’ Oh, James Baldwin — I will forever love you. This collection of essays blew my whole mind the first time I read it. It’s so impassioned and brilliant, and stylistically gorgeous — but more than that, it’s compassionate and clear-eyed and wise and brave. It taught me so much about how to think deeply about things and how tightly bound our lives are to the stories we tell. This is a book that shows us how to face and grapple with our own demons: it is a book that even now, helps me live.”
By Louise Erdrich
“‘We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall.’ This is the opening to the first Louise Erdrich book I ever picked up, and I’ve been hooked (and hungry) ever since. It’s an exhilarating, powerful read that begins with the voice of Nanapush, a tribal elder recounting the history of his people, and who (along with Fleur Pillager who makes her appearance in the next chapter) is one of my favorite characters of all time. Told in alternating storylines, this book surprised me with its gorgeous, ecstatic writing, and its vitality and largeness of vision. It has all the stuff of real life — gossip and scandal, humor and tragedy — and opens out into a world filled with beauty and grit, endurance and breathtaking sorrow.”