Julie Otsuka on Colson Whitehead, 'A Moveable Feast,' and the Book That Surprised Her

·5 min read
Photo credit: Jean-Luc Bertini / Illustration by Yousra Attia
Photo credit: Jean-Luc Bertini / Illustration by Yousra Attia

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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.

Julie Otsuka has said she’s a “tortoise by nature” so her third novel, The Swimmers (Knopf), out today, is an event (anticipated by the likes of Colson Whitehead). The book, about dementia, comes 11 years after her NYT-bestselling The Buddha in the Attic, a PEN/Faulker Award winner and National Book Award finalist about Japanese picture brides in 1900s San Francisco, and 20 years after When the Emperor Was Divine, about a Japanese-American family’s incarceration during WWII. Otsuka, whose grandfather was arrested by the FBI after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and whose mother, grandmother and uncle were incarcerated at a camp in Utah for three years, is a frequent speaker about her debut, which remains a popular college and community read.

The California-born and -raised, New York-based author kept two pet turtles as a kid; was senior class president in high school; majored in art at Yale to become a painter (she also studied sculpture); started writing fiction at 30; got her MFA from Columbia; received a Guggenheim Fellowship; was influenced by Hemingway among others; lived in West Berlin for a year where she taught a painting class at the American Army base; went to secretarial school and worked at a construction management company until she sold her first book; has two brothers; participated in Junior Lifeguards as a SoCal teen; and doesn’t own a TV.

Likes: Cezanne, Joan Mitchell, Richard Diebenkorn, the movies of Hirozaku Kore-Eda, writing in cafes (in non-pandemic times) with Blackwing Palomino pencils, practicing German, Clairefontaine notebooks with graph grids.

The book that…

…kept me up way too late:

Jill Ciment’s The Body in Question. A jury duty romance, who knew? What a brilliant idea. I bought it for the concept (the main characters are introduced to us as C-2 and F-17), and read it because Ciment is such a sly, engaging writer who knows how to tell a good story. A funny, morally complex page turner that is unexpectedly affecting.

…I recommend over and over again:

Colson Whitehead’s The Colossus of New York. I adore this book and have read and reread it many times. The writing is taut, with a percussive, rhythmic undertow that pulls you right in. And that voice. Jaunty, wicked, wry. A gritty valentine to an older, bygone New York, the New York City of my youth and the city that I will never stop loving in all its many incarnations.

…that I read in one sitting, it was that good:

Marguerite Duras’ The War. Duras’ memoir—written while she waiting for her husband to return from Bergen-Belsen—is almost hallucinatory in its clarity and dread, and annihilatingly gorgeous. I read it in an afternoon, in a library in Bloomington, Indiana, where I was—for three short unhappy months when I was twenty-five—in graduate school for painting. Her words felt truer to me than anything I could ever put down on the canvas. The following month I dropped out of school and moved to New York City.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

Rachel Cusk’s latest novel, Second Place. I reread Cusk’s “Outline” trilogy (Outline, Transit, and Kudos) during the first year of the pandemic, and was blown away yet again. She’s a brilliant, truly original thinker and writer who seems to be working at the very edges of what language can do and what we mean by ‘story.’

…that made me laugh out loud:

The Throwback Special, by Chris Bachelder. Every other line in this novel—about a group of men who gather every year at the same hotel to reenact a famously gruesome football play—had me quietly chortling to myself in the café I regularly frequented in the pre-pandemic days. He completely nails the humor and heartbreak of middle-age. Hands down the funniest book I’ve read in years.

...I last bought:

Rabih Alameddine’s The Wrong End of the Telescope. I’ve been meaning to read this ever since it came out—a novel about a trans Lebanese doctor who goes to Greece to help out with the refugee crisis.

...has the best title:

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré. I’ve never read this book, or anything by le Carré, but I’ve always loved this title, and wish I’d thought of it myself. It’s mysterious and evocative and hints at some quiet obsession beneath a respectable surface of calm.

...has the best opening line:

Jamaica Kincaid, The Autobiography of My Mother: “My mother died at the moment I was born, and so for my whole life there was nothing standing between myself and eternity; at my back was always a bleak, black wind.” Nobody writes like Jamaica Kincaid—fierce, angry, magnificent, utterly hypnotic prose.

…that made me feel seen:

Camp Notes by Mitsuye Yamada. A book of poems about Yamada’s time, during WWII, in what we Japanese Americans call ‘camp’. I read this book when I was nineteen, and taking a class on women’s poetry, and remember thinking, oh, I didn’t know you could write about this! It was unusual at the time, and made an impression on me.

...I could only have discovered at Hacker Art Books on 57th Street in NYC:

A catalog from a 1984 Giorgio Morandi exhibit at La Fundación Caja de Pensiones in Madrid. I moved to New York City in my mid-20s to become a painter and used to spend hours browsing through the shelves at Hacker Art Books, which had an extensive selection of books you couldn’t find anywhere else. I’m obsessed with the work of Morandi—he painted the same bottles over and over for years—and this catalogue was a rare find. The store, alas, has long since closed.

...surprised me:

Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. I never thought Hemingway—fishing, hunting, a man’s man—would be ‘for me.’ But these essays, which I first read almost 30 years ago, were not at all what I was expecting. They felt so immediate and fresh, as if they’d been written yesterday. Full of humor and pathos, and with a quiet, melancholy undertow. After A Moveable Feast I went on to read all of his short stories, and most of his novels, and have been an unapologetic Hemingway fan ever since.

...I’d want signed by the author:

Badenheim 1939 by Aharon Appelfeld. I’ve read no other book that so perfectly captures the “moment before.”

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