Erika Swyler’s latest novel, Light From Other Stars, follows a young girl growing up in the shadow cast by the Challenger explosion, in a town that feels the strange effects of a machine that was invented by her father and seems to have influenced the very nature of time. Here, Swyler shares three books she’s recently enjoyed reading.
All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg
For me, picking up a Jami Attenberg book comes with the sense that I’ve stumbled across a diary I was unaware of keeping. Though the characters themselves are wholly unique personalities, there’s a deep honesty to Attenberg’s writing that’s almost universally relatable. Comedic melancholy is a tricky thing to pull off, but when it works, as it does in All Grown Up, it’s incredibly satisfying. In a series of vignettes, All Grown Up’s Andrea hits on the disillusionment we all feel when we think about aging. Andrea’s friends and family pass through different milestones of adulthood—marrying, having children, divorcing—while seemingly leaving her behind. The novel asks readers to question the validity of milestones and what a full life outside those milestones might look like. Almost all novels are in some way coming-of-age novels, and this is the one I choose to carry into my 40s. It made me feel more valid as a human. Andrea is so beautifully flawed that it’s difficult not to feel that you know her, or that you are her.
MEM by Bethany Morrow
I’ve recommended this book so many times my friends are sick of hearing about it. What if you could have all your bad memories, your personal traumas removed, but those memories kept existing as a shadow self? What if that shadow self became its own independent person? Delores Extract #1, the first extracted memory, stayed with me. Set in an alternate history 100 years in the past, Morrow’s world is rich, dark and nuanced. It’s a beautiful example of work that examines what it means to be human, and whether our traumas might be an integral part of our best selves. I hate to praise world building too much, but it’s perfect here. The play between the familiar and fantastic is subtle enough for the reader to envision a complex world without being distracted. There’s adventure, social commentary, romance and just the right amount of fantasy. There comes a point in novels like this where the easy road is to go dark and devastating; MEM takes the more difficult route and brings in light. For a short novel, it packs an enormous punch.
In West Mills by De’Shawn Charles Winslow
I’m a sucker for headstrong characters. Knot Centre, a smart, hard-drinking woman who makes no apologies for herself, is rendered in technicolor. I can’t wait for people to get their hands on this book. I think I was two pages in before I was smacked by a serious case of writer envy. Winslow’s use of voice is incredible. It’s not often than an author’s love for their characters come across so clearly on the page, and that’s part of what makes this book so special. There’s a kindness in not just the lyricism of the prose, but in the manner in which it approaches its subject. In some ways the novel almost serves as a handbook for accepting and loving difficult people over the course of a lifetime. Covering 46 years of small-town life in North Carolina, the characters are nuanced, real, prickly, but never are they rendered without the deepest empathy. It’s ambitious in scope, but always keeps its footing. It’s that rare wonderful book that feels like you’ve known it forever even though you’ve just met.
Author photo by Nina Subin