Alec Ash’s recommendations

STAFF PICKS: Alec Ash on What Novelists Read

About Alec Ash

Alec Ash is literary editor at Five Books, and a freelance writer living in Beijing. Follow him on Twitter @alecash


Who better to suggest a good read than a novelist? Continuing our summer “Staff Picks” feature, Alec Ash selects five recommendations straight from the horse’s mouth

One of the pleasures of browsing the Five Books archive of some 900 interviews is discovering hidden gems, or rediscovering forgotten classics, as recommended by people who know a thing or two about good writing. Another is just sheer curiosity about what writers read. I’ve put together a smorgasbord of novels, poetry, short stories and travel writing, as chosen by five of my favourite novelists who have been on the site. Perfect choices for your holiday reading list.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton (selected by Jay McInerney)

First up, selected by the author of 80s cult classic Bright Lights, Big City, a look back at New York at the turn of the 20th century. Published in 1905, The House of Mirth was Edith Wharton’s breakthrough novel about New York aristocracy, and young socialite Lily Bart’s rise and fall. The title comes from Ecclesiastes 7:4 – “The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth” – and presages the tragic ending. It’s very readable, the perfect introduction to Wharton, and as McInerney says, the themes stand the test of time: “Americans are always fascinated with the wealthy. It’s a bit of an illusion to imagine ours to be a classless society, as novelists like Wharton made brilliantly clear.”

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan (selected by Armistead Maupin)

From East coast to West now, with San Francisco’s premier novelist in residence Armistead Maupin recommending Amy Tan’s bestseller The Joy Luck Club. This is a different experience of the city – that of four Chinese-American women (four corners of a mahjong table) and their daughters. As Maupin puts it, “The device makes clear the distance between the old world of China and the new world that these women inhabit in San Francisco ... As Amy Tan enduringly shows, these people are San Franciscans through and through.” The book has a particularly engaging structure, with stand-alone segments about intertwining relationships. Amy Tan is a very talented story teller, and this novel will grip you from beginning to end.

Collected Poems By Philip Larkin (selected by Ian McEwan)

Ian McEwan and his literary set (Martin Amis, Christopher Hitchens et al) are the first to admit the profound influence on them of Philip Larkin. “Martin Amis and I,” McEwan told Five Books, “used to meet up before going out in the evenings in the 70s, and spend an hour downing a bottle of wine and reading aloud and celebrating Larkin ... His poems are part of my mental furniture.” The power of Larkin’s poetry, according to McEwan, is in his “deceptively conversational” style, combined with a “restrained dark humour”. This collection is perfect for dipping into on contemplative evenings, and you will soon find yourself going back and back again.

Matters of Life and Death edited by Tobias Wolff (selected by Jim Shepard)

Jim Shepard is better known as a short story writer than as a novelist, which makes him the perfect choice to recommend a classic collection of stories, Matters of Life and Death. This anthology from the 80s features the likes of Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Mary Robison, and the editor, Tobias Wolff, is himself an accomplished short story writer of the same generation. As such it is “a snapshot of the very best storywriters of an entire decade” at a time when “the short story was heading into its heyday in terms of literary prestige”. Click through to Jim Shepard’s interview for more collections like this, and to find out why he compares short story writing to guerilla warfare.

Following the Equator by Mark Twain (selected by Paul Theroux)

Seeing as Paul Theroux is more widely known for his travel writing than for his novels, I thought it fitting that he in turn selected novelist Mark Twain’s lesser known travel book, Following the Equator. This is the remarkable account of Twain’s travels around the colonial world (mostly India, Australia and South Africa) on finding himself bankrupt after an investment went wrong. It’s very entertaining, with fictional stories embedded in the narrative. What’s more, as Theroux told us, finding an old copy of this hidden treasure was his inspiration for the trip which became The Great Railway Bazaar. Which just goes to show how wide reading breeds good writing.

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