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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.
N.K. Jemisin understands that to build worlds, you must understand this one. The only person to win three Best Novel Hugo Awards in a row (for each title in the post-apocalypse Broken Earth trilogy), the NYT-bestselling science fiction and fantasy author has just published The World We Make (Orbit), the second in her Great Cities duology (first was The City We Became), among her many books. She also won a Best Short Novelette Hugo for Emergency Skin and Best Graphic Story Hugo for Far Sector, a Green Lantern spinoff for DC Comics and wrote the script for the film adaptation of the Broken Earth series, to be produced by Michael B. Jordan’s Outlier Society.
The Iowa-born Jemisin grew up between Mobile, Alabama and Brooklyn, where she now lives. A psychology major at Tulane who got a master’s in education at the University of Maryland, she was a college career counselor and academic advisor, wrote the Otherworldly SFF column for the New York Times Books Review, and received a MacArthur Fellowship.
She’s a gamer and gardener, has a ginger cat named King Ozzymandias (Ozzy for short) and tuxedo cat named The Marvelous Master Magpie (Maggie for short), teaches a MasterClass on world-building, has a Patreon, was on Time’s 100 Most Influential People list (write-up by Stacey Abrams), once toasted Spam sushi over a heat vent on a Hawaiian volcanic crater, is into anime, manga, and sentai, is cousins with W. Kamau Bell, and likes candy corn.
Good at: Writing fan fiction under pseudonyms. Not so good at: Double dutch, texting fast. Her book recs below YW.
The book that…
…kept me up way too late:
Tailchaser’s Song by Tad Williams, which starts like a children’s story and then becomes something Very Dark.
...shaped my worldview:
Dawn by Octavia E. Butler.
...I read in one sitting, it was that good:
Mechanique by Genevieve Valentine.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
The 1619 Project by Nikole Hannah-Jones.
…I’d pass on to a kid:
Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
…I first bought:
Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren. I have it on good authority that when I was about four, I bought this with gift money.
…should be on every college syllabus:
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? by Beverly Daniel Tatum, PhD.
…I never returned to the library (mea culpa):
I scrupulously returned books to the library and must defend myself on this point!
…sealed a friendship:
A first edition of The Lord of the Rings, which I lent to a friend who recently contacted me about them, sparking the friendship again after a decade!
...features the most beautiful book jacket:
A copy of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám with a damask cover of grapevines in ruby and black.
...everyone should read:
One of the many books by queer and POC authors that are under challenge by conservatives, via your local library. If they’re no longer available at your library because the conservatives got there first, join your local Library Board and fight to reinstate them. Reading–and the freedom to speak truth to power–is part of a framework of equity and justice that is under attack in a way not seen for a generation. Fight for all books. Or else.
...that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:
Salt Acid Fat Heat by Samin Nosrat. After a lifetime of food defined by what it didn’t have, this book is a revelation–it’s less about a specific recipe from the book than it was about changing my relationship to ingredients and preparation.
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