Kelsey Swintek is one of the City Books Fall 2021 Writers-in-Residence. Her essays have appeared in Hobart and Nowhere. She publishes a weekly newsletter called Lucky Rigatoni, where she writes about musings, shares her photography, and renders occasional epiphanies. Kelsey received her Masters of Arts in Comparative Literature and Art History from the University of St Andrews and is currently working on her first collection of essays. The following books are the titles that have most influenced her writing and creativity–with annotations in Kelsey’s own words. Click on a title to purchase a book and follow Kelsey on Twitter @kelseyswintek.

My Name is Asher Lev – Chaim Potok

I love Potok’s translation of the places and characters of Brooklyn into brush strokes, shading, and composition. As a writer, I struggle with the same questions that Potok explores here. Should great artists honor the truth of their own experiences in their art, or first consider the feelings of others? Where is the overlap between self and craft, and what allows for it?  When is art a form of betrayal?

To the Lake: A Balkan Journey of War and Peace – Kapka Kassabova 

Read this book if you, like me, are compelled by memory, place and history. Kassabova travels to the home of her maternal ancestors, Lake Ohrid and Lake Prespa. There, she collects the stories of strangers, questions identity through the lens of national borders and over and over returns to the water itself. 

Trick Mirror – Jia Tolentino

I’ve followed Jia’s writing since I read her NYT Letter of Recommendation for Cracker Barrel, and her debut collection of essays did not disappoint. Her writing defines what it means to be a millennial woman in today’s culture. Her tone is light but not flippant, serious but not heavy. I love her essay about her personal history online, starting from her middle school blog. Other highlights include her thoughts on optimization (made me scream YES) and her essay on weddings. 

Intimations – Zadie Smith

There’s something unnerving about reading a book about 2020, written in 2020, in the immediate aftermath of 2020. Zadie Smith underlines the racial reckoning in the US after the death of George Floyd and addresses the trauma of enduring a pandemic amidst a toxic political climate. Reading this felt like catching up with an old friend. 

My Brilliant Friend – Elena Ferrante

Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels consumed me. She writes of girlhood, of ironclad friendship, of family tension, of insecurities and triumphs. Ann Goldstein’s translation carries the rapidity and ferocity of Italian language. Naples, for me, is the main character of this epic. Naples is loud, dirty, enchanting, haunting. Ferrante writes, how much of where we’ve come from stays with us forever, and how much can truly be escaped? 

Bright Archive – Sarah Minor

I bought this collection of visual essays after seeing a post about it on my Instagram feed. Each essay tells a story in its arrangement on the page. As I read, Minor has me flip the book upside down, then right-side up and back again. Her writing is dynamic and playful, and I admire the way she uses her personal history as a lens to explore wider eccentricities and oddities. My favorite pieces include her essay on the laundry chute as well as the one about time in an Italian commune.

Rings of Saturn – W.G. Sebald

I read this book as an assignment in college. Sebald plays with language, with memory, with the reader. The story is a collection of tangents and digressions, that of course, are ultimately all related. Translated from German, the sentences are so long that I’d often run my finger along the page to force myself to follow along. Once I figured out the rhythm, I felt my thoughts stretch out as well, languid, meandering.

The Way She Feels – Courtney Cook

TWSF is a standout on my bookshelf – literally. Cook illustrates in pop-art style colors: bubblegum, aqua, chartreuse. She writes about her struggles with mental illness and belated diagnoses of BPD with a clarity that shocks you. She confronts the public perception of her diagnoses (“how come only serial killers have bpd?”). Her prose is honest and brave, and inspires me to write without fear of judgment. 

Normal People – Sally Rooney

My close friend in the UK read this book and immediately bought it for me in anticipation of my visit. “You have to read this,” she implored, staring at the closed book on the table between us as we sipped coffee. “Now.” So all I have to say: you have to read this book. Now.