Shelf Life: Celeste Ng
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.
Set in a dystopia where civil liberties are eroding and anti-Asian hate goes unchecked, Celeste Ng’s third novel, Our Missing Hearts (Penguin Press) explores otherness and race. It’s a theme that threads through her first two novels: Everything I Never Told You (to be adapted as a series) and Little Fires Everywhere (which was a Hulu series with Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington), both NYT bestsellers. Lucy Liu voices the audiobook.
Born in Pittsburgh and raised there and in Shaker Heights, OH (as much a character in Little Fires as Elena and Mia), Ng—a recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Foundation—now lives in Cambridge, MA. Ng wanted to be a poet or paleontologist or astronaut; majored in English at Harvard and got her MFA from the University of Michigan; worked in textbook publishing, partnered with We Need Diverse Books to fund publishing internship grants; makes miniatures (see her creations on her IG @pronounced_ing, including one marking the time she was a NYT crossword puzzle answer); learned to drive on a stick shift VW; is handy; got an Asian American Girl doll at 15 because representation matters; and has had at least two random brushes with celebrity (dropped pen returned by Jon Hamm, elevator ride with Peter Dinklage).
The book that…
…helped me through a loss:
After my father died suddenly, I needed a distraction—a long one—so I reached for the longest book on our shelf, The Lord of the Rings trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien and read it cover to cover. (Even the songs.)
…I’ve re-read the most:
For many years, I used to take The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas with me anytime I traveled. I’ve probably read it 20 or more times.
… kept me up way too late:
On vacations, I will take a giant stack of Agatha Christie novels and read one every day. I never remember who this killer is, even when I’ve read it before, and I always have to stay up to finish because I HAVE TO FIND OUT. I don’t know how she does it.
…I last bought:
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw.
…taught me this Jeopardy!-worthy bit of trivia:
Entangled Life by Merlin Sheldrake changed the way I look at fungi. They can solve mazes! And avoid obstacles! And form partnerships with other organisms! It’s creepy and fantastic.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
I seldom cry while reading, but Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell had me sobbing.
…should be on every college syllabus:
Something by a non-white writer, something by a queer writer, and something by a non-American writer. For starters.
…that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:
I learned to cook from my mom’s 1969 Betty Crocker’s Cookbook, which is so much a product of its era that I put it into my first novel. Her basic cake recipes are still the ones that I turn to.
…makes me feel seen:
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston. One of the first books where I saw my multiple identities—American, Chinese, daughter—on the page, and after all these years it’s still one of the most powerful.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey by Homer. I’m reading it bit by bit.
…I recommend over and over again:
…I read in one sitting, it was that good:
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy. After I finished my first reading, I immediately turned it over and began reading it again. I still read it, in whole or in part, almost every year.
…I consider literary comfort food:
Books I read as a kid: Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones; From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, by E. L. Konigsburg; the Ramona series by Beverly Cleary.
…shaped my worldview:
On Immunity by Eula Biss. It reminded me that we’re all deeply interconnected—whether we like it or not—and asks the very good question “What will we do with our fear?” I wish everyone in the world would read it.
Bonus question: If I could live in any library or bookstore in the world, it would be:
The British Library! I’d never run out of things to read.
Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.