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.
Angie Cruz was studying to be a fashion designer at FIT and working at a Madison Avenue cashmere store when she switched to English literature, eventually getting her MFA at NYU. (Edwidge Danticat was her instructor). She just released her fourth novel, How Not to Drown in a Glass of Water (Flatiron Books), which she worked on in Google docs on her phone during commutes. Her last book, 2019’s Dominicana, which took a decade to write and four years to sell, was shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction, and GMA Book Club’s inaugural pick.
Born, raised, and based in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York, Cruz is also the founder and editor of literary and arts journal Aster(ix), an associate professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and creator of @dominicanasnyc on Instagram, a digital archive featuring Dominicans in New York.
Cruz was a visual arts major at LaGuardia High School, interned as an assistant photo archivist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, considered getting a PhD in history, taught in Texas and Chile, has done something creative to help her writing (painting, cooking, taking singing lessons on YouTube), collects wooden and ceramic dolls from her travels; and presented at Brooklyn Community College, where her single mother (who inspired Dominicana) studied accounting at night and worked in a lamp factory during the day to raise two children.
Likes: The NYC subway, doing research, taking photographs, rain, tequila and dark chocolate. Dislikes: Camping.
The book that:
…helped me through a breakup:
Abandon Me by Melissa Febos helped me breathe when I was full of ache, feeling so much despair. She writes beautifully and honestly about a long-distance love affair and all the ways she lost herself in it. I finished the book and read it again. It was medicine.
…made me miss a train stop:
Why Didn’t You Tell Me? by Carmen Rita Wong. She’s a wonderful storyteller, and I immediately found myself invested in the family drama. It’s an important story that explores being raised Chinese and being Afro-Latinx, complicating the ways we think about identity.
…I recommend over and over again:
I find myself recommending Widow Basquiat by Jennifer Clement all the time. It’s the perfect gift for anyone who loves Basquiat, but also for anyone who’s interested in hybrid memoir and great literature. I also recommend her novel Prayers for The Stolen, especially to students because of the economy in her sentences.
…currently sits on my nightstand:
Sleeping Alone: Stories by Ru Freeman and the memoir Voice of The Fish by Lars Horn. I am very excited to get to these.
…made me laugh out loud:
One night I read When We Make It by Elisabet Velasquez to my niece around the kitchen table and we laughed so hard because the story of Sara growing up in Bushwick, Brooklyn was painfully familiar. What is it that people say? Reir para no llorar?
…I’d like turned into a Netflix show:
Dealing in Dreams by Lilliam Rivera would make a great Netflix dystopic series about Las Mal Criadas, a girl crew who have to figure out how to survive the Mega City mean streets.
…I last bought:
Neruda On The Park by Cleyvis Natera and Woman of Light by Kali Fajardo Anstine. Both about strong women in impossible situations taking matters into their own hands.
…has the best title and …has the best opening line…:
I love this title: The Man Who Could Move Clouds, A Memoir by Ingrid Rojas Contreras.
And the first line: “They say the accident that left me with temporary amnesia is my inheritance. No house or piece of land or chest of letters, just a few weeks of oblivion.”
…has the greatest ending:
From Infinite Country by Patricia Engel: “When a cumbia came on, he asked our mother to dance, and we watched our parents sway, finding each other’s rhythm as if they’d never fallen out of step, as if the past fifteen years were only a dance interrupted waiting for the next song to play. I wondered about the matrix of separation and dislocation, our years bound to the phantom pain of a lost homeland, because now that we are together again that particular hurt and sensation that something is missing has faded. And maybe there is no nation or citizenry; they’re just territories mapped in place of family, in place of love, the infinite country.”
…features the coolest book jacket:
Chinelo Okparanta’s Harry Sylvestor Bird.
…has a sex scene that will make you blush:
Cantoras by Carolina De Robertis is so pleasure-centered and sensual about five Uruguayan queer women finding sanctuary in the intimacies of their relationships while living under an oppressive dictatorship.
…made me weep uncontrollably:
I read Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin while a resident at La Napoule Art Foundation in the south of France. I read the last 30 pages out loud to the sea and cried and cried.
…should be on every college syllabus:
My Broken Language by Quiara Alegría Hudes is a brilliant storyteller. Hudes’s emergence from playing music to doing theater to writing this memoir is inspiring and useful to anyone who is still trying to figure their life out. It’s evidence that in one life a lot can happen.
…I consider literary comfort food:
The Odd Woman and the City: A Memoir by Vivían Gornick. I often carry this book around because when I read it I want to write. I love how she tells a story and also how she writes about New York.
…sealed a friendship:
The Professor’s Daughter by Emily Raboteau. I fell hard for the way she writes and asked her out to tell her how much I loved it. We have been good friends since. I can’t wait until her new book, Lessons For Survival, comes out in 2023 about climate emergency and motherhood.
…that holds the recipe to a favorite dish:
Loves You by Sarah Gambito is a book of poems that also teaches us something about cooking, eating, and being in community. It was while reading it that I was introduced to one of my favorite dishes: Chicken adobo. Here’s a poem by Gambito to read, to cook, then eat.
Riza Cruz is an editor and writer based in New York.