Patricia Engel’s Enduring Friendships Always Include Books
What books are on your night stand?
“The Easy Life,” by Marguerite Duras, “Small Things Like These,” by Claire Keegan, “The Hero of This Book,” by Elizabeth McCracken, “Fiona and Jane,” by Jean Chen Ho, “Heart Berries,” by Terese Marie Mailhot, and “Abyss,” by Pilar Quintana.
What’s the last great book you read?
I recently reread Edwidge Danticat’s “The Art of Death,” an extraordinary exploration of ways we make meaning from death both in life and in literature. It was even more revelatory reading it from this point in the pandemic.
Are there any classic novels that you only recently read for the first time?
Not a novel, but C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed.” It was one of a few books that helped me articulate the recent loss of a loved one.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I currently live between Florida and the New York area so my ideals are beachside on a warm day or while sinking into the sofa on a cold and gray one, a bound book in my hands because I love the feel of paper pages. The reality is that these days my reading tends to happen at night or in short increments between other tasks, and that I’ve become much more habituated to reading in digital formats.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
One of my favorite books that many have heard of and love well, but maybe less so outside of Latin America so it’s one I often recommend, is “In the Beginning Was the Sea,” by Tomás González. It’s beautiful, compact, and shocks at every turn.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
Laura Restrepo, Edwidge Danticat, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Louise Erdrich, Elena Poniatowska, Laila Lalami, Jesmyn Ward, Héctor Abad Faciolince, Angie Cruz, Natalie Diaz, Santiago Gamboa, Ann Patchett, Roxane Gay, Carolina De Robertis, Jorge Franco, Alexander Chee, Piedad Bonnett, Jennifer Clement, Quiara Alegría Hudes, John Murillo, Daisy Hernández, Luis Alberto Urrea — and many more.
What do you read when you’re working on a book? And what kind of reading do you avoid while writing?
I’m writing even when I’m not writing. Perhaps even more creative work gets done when I step away and let my unconscious assemble loose pieces, so I can’t say I avoid anything at any particular time. But the deeper I get into a project, the more my reading becomes focused on details that have to do with the inner worlds of my characters. When I hit walls in my work, I often return to books that formed me as a young reader and writer, like the journals of Albert Camus.
“The Faraway World” is your second story collection, in addition to three novels. Are there writers of short fiction you particularly admire?
There are many and it’s hard to narrow it down. A few who have recently published dazzling story collections are Lauren Groff, Manuel Muñoz, Danielle Evans, Brandon Taylor, Ayşe Papatya Bucak, Anthony Veasna So, Laura van den Berg, Mariana Enriquez and Caitlin Horrocks.
What makes for a good short story, as opposed to a novel-length narrative?
I love stories that read like a world in miniature, immersive, containing movement and transformation, and novels that shift and ignite with the arcs and ellipses of a far-traveled and hard-earned journey. Whether a short story or a novel, my favorites give the rush of meeting someone who transfixes you in the first conversation with playfulness, intimacy or surprise, when you intuit a new alchemy but don’t yet know what it will mean. So it goes with a story whether it’s told within a dozen or hundreds of pages.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
Every enduring relationship includes the sharing of a book, sometimes very early on. It touches me when people ask me to read a book because it’s special to them. It’s like being granted permission to peek inside their soul.
What’s the most interesting thing you learned from a book recently?
The human body registers emotional pain with the same impact as physical injury.
Which subjects do you wish more authors would write about?
I think some fiction writers may resist sentimentality so as not to be controlled by it. I’d love if more books embraced vulnerability free of cynicism, questions of existence and uncharted spiritual terrain.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
Compassion, nuance and untethered honesty.
How do you organize your books?
By no system that anyone could follow but me. It’s a purely nostalgic method. Shelves for books that bring me the most joy, books that were gifts from dear ones; signed books, my favorite childhood books, shelves for books I inherited, books that have taught me some important lesson; my most worn, reread and lent-out books, of which I tend to keep multiple copies. My books are mostly clustered by language, but that’s for remembrance purposes too. My shelves are a bit like that old TV show “This Is Your Life,” and at times it’s as if my books come alive and speak directly to me. I would feel sad to have them organized any other way.
What books might people be surprised to find on your shelves?
I still have all the books that I read from high school through college.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I loved reading and was not very picky about my books. I most enjoyed books starring animals with human-resembling lives and complex community dynamics like the “Rats of NIMH” books, or even Greek mythology. My parents kept me supplied as much as they could but when I ran out of books I’d dip into my older brother’s shelves, repeat read a collection of biographies on historical figures written for children (I don’t recall the name) or browse the Encyclopaedia Britannica. I vividly remember when the Time-Life “Mysteries of the Unknown” books started to arrive one by one in the mail each month. I was 10 or 11. I devoured them and still have them all.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I’d make it a gathering of departed literary heroes I’ve been speaking to in my imagination for some time: Toni Morrison, Clarice Lispector and Anaïs Nin.
What books do you find yourself returning to again and again?
The books my parents have given me at various points in my life. Among those, the ones I pick up most frequently are “Paula,” by Isabel Allende, given to me by my mother, and “Man’s Search for Meaning,” by Viktor E. Frankl, given to me by my father.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m looking forward to reading “Take What You Need,” by Idra Novey, “When the Hibiscus Falls,” by M. Evelina Galang, and “Who Gets Believed? When the Truth Isn’t Enough,” by Dina Nayeri.