Chang-rae Lee on Elena Ferrante, ‘Luster,’ and the Book He’s Re-Read the Most

Illustration by Mia Feitel and Yousra Attia

Welcome to Shelf Life,’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.

On February 2, Chang-rae Lee published his sixth novel, My Year Abroad, about an American collegian’s adventures across Asia and in witness protection in New Jersey. Lee, a creative writing professor at Stanford University, also wrote The Surrendered (2011), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction. His On Such a Full Sea (2014) was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction, and his debut Native Speaker (1995) won the PEN/Hemingway award.

The Seoul-born, Westchester, N.Y.-raised Lee can’t seem to shake his history as a Wall Street equities analyst—a job he quit after exactly 365 days (he went to the recruitment on campus for the free Scotch and raw bar)—but he was also the restaurant critic for free downtown newspaper New York Press, which paid his salary in meals; a house painter; and assistant to the dean at FIT. His story for the New Yorker, Coming Home Again, about cooking for his mother when she was dying of stomach cancer, was made into a movie by Wayne Wang that premiered at the Toronto Film Festival in 2019 and was released last fall.

When writing, Lee lives for lunch, and his go-to meals are linguine with clams (his wife is Italian-American) and kimchi jigae. Let’s check out his literary appetite.

The book that:

…helped me through a breakup:

The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke.

…kept me up way too late:

A Separation by Katie Kitamura.

…I recommend over and over again:

The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides.

…shaped my worldview:

Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman.

…I keep trying to finish (I will, I swear):

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace.

…currently sits on my nightstand:

The Lying Life of Adults by Elena Ferrante.

…I’d pass onto my kid:

China Men by Maxine Hong Kingston.

…made me laugh out loud:

Tuff by Paul Beatty.

…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:

Luster by Raven Leilani.

…I wish I’d written:

The Confessions of Nat Turner by William Styron.

…I first bought:

Alive: The Story of the Andes Survivors by Piers Paul Read, the tale of a Uruguayan rugby team whose flight crashes in the Andes, leaving survivors to resort to cannibalizing their dead teammates to survive. For nine-year-old me, this was thrillingly horrifying.

…I last bought:

Trust Exercise by Susan Choi.

…made me want to be a writer:

On the Road by Jack Kerouac.

…should be on every college syllabus:

Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison.

…I’ve re-read the most:

In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway.

…I consider literary comfort food:

Mariette in Ecstasy by Ron Hansen.

…I could only have discovered at Powell’s Books:

1919 by John Dos Passos (a first edition!)

…I’d want signed by the author for my library:

The Names by Don DeLillo—grateful that he gave me a first edition, signed of course.

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