Bestselling Novelist Lisa See’s 13 Favorite Books
Editor’s Note: Lisa See, bestselling writer of novels such as SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN and SHANGHAI GIRLS, doesn’t discriminate when it comes to the genre of books she enjoys to read. Just in time for the release of her latest novel THE TEA GIRL OF HUMMINGBIRD LANE, we got a peek into the beloved author’s bookshelf. Learn more about her latest novel in the video below.
Whenever I’m asked to name my favorite books, I go into a whirlwind of indecision. Should I list my favorite books written by women? Or make a list of my favorite books in a category—historical novels, adventure, autobiography, crime, mystery, thriller, or food? Maybe the list should be made up of the books on my nightstand, because surely what I have still ahead of me to read will be my absolute favorites. Or maybe it should be books by those writers who influenced me the most when I was growing up or have made me laugh or cry. You see? A whirlwind of indecision. The 13 books on this list are my favorites from a variety of categories, and here’s what they’ve meant to me.
1Angle of Repose
I used a couple of lines from this novel as the epigraph for my first book, ON GOLD MOUNTAIN, and they have come to symbolize how I see myself as a writer. “Fooling around in the papers my grandparents, especially my grandmother, left behind, I get glimpses of lives close to mine, related to mine in ways I recognize but don’t completely comprehend. I’d like to live in their clothes a while.” And that’s what I’ve been trying to do in my work—live in their clothes a while.
This is one of the greatest novels ever written, in which E. M. Forster so delicately, yet eloquently, addresses issues of class, nationality, and economic status. I first read it when I was falling in love with my husband. Forster’s epigraph, “Only connect!” comes from this novel. The full quote is “Only connect the prose and the passion and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.” You can see how besotted in love I was.
My mother wrote many books, but this is my favorite. On the surface, it’s about a handyman and the adventures he has going house to house in various Los Angeles neighborhoods, but what it’s really about is how a person becomes an artist. My mother, who recently passed away, was a big influence on me as a woman, wife, mother, and writer. Now I can open any of her books, but this one especially, and hear her unique voice and remember the amazing way she looked at the world.
I love, love, love this novel. Set in Los Angeles, it’s got romance, mystery, corruption, and violence, and cracking great language, because James Ellroy is a genius when it comes to the voices of cops, bad guys, politicos, and prostitutes. The various plots are complicated but dazzlingly interwoven. The film is one of my all-time favorites, too, and while the script doesn’t include all the intricacies of the novel’s various plotlines, it hints at them brilliantly.
5Into Thin Air
Yes, I know everyone is familiar with this story of the ill-fated Everest expedition, but that doesn’t make it any less extraordinary. For my husband and me, it brought up all sorts of ethical questions: Would we step over a dying person so we could get to the top of the mountain? What moral obligations do people have to train and be physically able to climb so they don’t put other people’s lives in danger? I once recommended the audiobook to friends going on a road trip. They became so obsessed with the story that they eventually trekked to the Everest Base Camp. Please don’t do that!
6The Age of Dreaming
I recommend this novel at least once a week. It’s inspired by the true story of Mary Miles Minter, a young and popular silent film star, who was involved in the still-unsolved murder case of director William Desmond Taylor. The main character is loosely based on Sessue Hayakawa, the first actor of Asian descent to become an internationally known star. The mix of mystery, period details, racism, and the whole unknown—at least to me—world of the silent film era is both thoughtful and captivating.
This is the first book in Willa Cather’s Prairie Trilogy, followed by THE SONG OF THE LARK and MY ÁNTONIA. These are devastatingly sad and sorrowful stories. They are also vividly American—with the beautiful yet cruel landscape, the precariousness of life on the untamed prairie, the unending heartache and heartbreak of love, and the ways families fail us, save us, and push us into doing things far beyond our capacities. Cather isn’t read much these days, but she should be. She forged new trails for American women writers.
You can’t go wrong here. The novel won the Pulitzer Prize, after all. Some say it’s the grandest novel ever written about the West, capturing its defiant and independent nature, its majesty and ugliness, its brutality and heartbreak. Some say that Larry McMurtry is the Shakespeare of the West, while others have suggested that LONESOME DOVE is our WAR AND PEACE. It’s a masterpiece, and I return to it often.
Jack is a five-year-old whose entire life has been spent in a single room with his mother, who was abducted and has been held captive since before he was born. This is one brave and smart little boy, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that he eventually finds his way into the larger world. How Jack views our modern world is singular, and his voice is so fresh and unique that there were moments when I felt like I, too, was looking at the world anew.
10The Woman Warrior
This is the only book on this list by a Chinese-American writer—a category of books that is hugely important to me both professionally and personally, so much so that I could make a list composed entirely of those. THE WOMAN WARRIOR launched the publication of all subsequent novels about the Chinese-American experience. It captures so many themes that are important to me as a writer: women’s history, the Chinese-American experience, the West, race and racism, and the nebulous borders between history, what Maxine Hong Kingston’s mother called “talk-stories,” and fairy tales, legends, and myths.
Just when you might be thinking that my choices have been a little dark, I throw in a rock-and-roll giant. I’ve never been a big fan of biographies and often memoirs seem self-indulgent, but count me in for music memoirs. LIFE is the absolute best in the category as far as I’m concerned. I’ve heard there was a ghostwriter. If so, what a superb job he did capturing Richards’s voice on the page. And what an even more remarkable job Keith Richards did remembering. Talk about adventures! Sex, drugs, and rock and roll all the way.
12The Jungle Book
For the end of my list, I’m going back to one of my favorite childhood books. Everyone is familiar with the story of Mowgli, but my favorite parts are the short stories, which are typically published in a separate volume. When I was a girl, I started every Saturday morning in bed, reading “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.” Saturday after Saturday, I couldn’t get up until the courageous mongoose had killed the evil and vindictive cobra who’d set her sights on killing a young British boy. Rudyard Kipling continues to inspire me. He was out in the world having adventures, and he was able to bring everything he saw and experienced into his writing, which is something I also try to do.
13The Kitchen Diaries
I love cookbooks! I have some that belonged to my great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother. I like to cook, but I much prefer reading cookbooks. I looked to see if any of my favorite Chinese cookbooks were still in print, but alas, no. So I’ve chosen a cookbook that I love to read and use. Nigel Slater has chronicled what he cooked every day for a year, and why. If I’m feeling stumped about what to make for dinner, I turn to that date in the book to see what he made. It’s always seasonal, of course, but he also writes about the market where he shopped that day, what the weather was like, and even in what mood he was. Inspiring.