some books earn teacher’s devotion

Elizabeth McCracken, novelist and former librarian

Novelist Elizabeth McCracken admits that when she ran the circulation desk at the Somerville Public Library, she went easy on people returning books late. “I always cut deals,” says the author of “The Giant’s House.” A graduate of Newton North High School, Boston University, and Iowa Writers’ Workshop, McCracken now teaches at the University of Texas, Austin. She discusses her new story collection, “Thunderstruck and Other Stories,” with novelist Paul Harding at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Porter Square Books in Cambridge and at 7 p.m. Thursday at Newtonville Books.

BOOKS: What are you reading currently?

MCCRACKEN: By and large I’ve been reading graduate student theses. I taught a memoir class this semester and so I read a bunch of memoirs that I love for that, such as “Hyperbole and a Half,” a graphic memoir by Allie Brosh. Her illustrations are hilarious. The memoir is about a clinical depression she went through. I love the intersection of things that are as dark as they can be and as funny.


BOOKS: Which memoir did your students go for?

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MCCRACKEN: There was no clear favorite, which I like. We read Edwidge Danticat’s family memoir, “Brother, I’m Dying”; Geoffrey Wolff’s “The Duke of Deception” about his dishonest father; James McBride’s “The Color of Water” about his white mother; and Maxine Hong Kingston’s “The Woman Warrior” about growing up Chinese-American.

BOOKS: Do you ever teach books that you don’t like?

MCCRACKEN: I have to think it’s a good book. There are a few books I won’t teach because I love them too much, like Paul Monette’s “Borrowed Time” about his partner dying of AIDS. I thought about teaching it, but if any of my students said they didn’t like that book I wouldn’t like them anymore.

BOOKS: What do you think it is that inspires such devotion with some books?


MCCRACKEN: I read “Borrowed Time” in graduate school, and I felt like it changed me. Because of that, if somebody said they didn’t like it, it would feel so personal. I’m afraid to reread “Veronica” by Mary Gaitskill because I just love that with my whole soul. I don’t think I will ever teach that novel because my love of it feels mysterious. I’m not sure I could dissect it and am not sure I would want to. I respond to the book’s mystery.

BOOKS: What other writers fall into that category for you?

MCCRACKEN: I love Emily Dickinson, Carson McCullers, and Grace Paley. What else? Nabokov’s “Lolita.” I always joke with my students that whenever I try to think of an example of something I always bring up “Lolita.” I also love Rose Tremain, an English writer who’s incredibly well known in England but maybe not that well known here. Edward P. Jones is my favorite living writer of short stories.

BOOKS: Is there any kind of novel you avoid?

MCCRACKEN: The kind of novel where the writer isn’t that interested in what they are writing about. There’s no material that they are engaged in. They love their characters and care about their work, but there’s nothing else. I see that problem in a lot of graduate student applications. I want the writer to be really interested in what they are writing about.


BOOKS: What will you read this summer?

‘I see that problem in a lot of graduate student applications. I want the writer to be really interested in what they are writing about.’

MCCRACKEN: I have a stack of books that I don’t have to read with a pen in my hand waiting for me, which includes Roxane Gay’s new novel, “An Untamed State,” and a story collection, “Inappropriate Behavior,” by Murray Farish, a former student of mine.

BOOKS: Do you have any reading habits?

MCCRACKEN: I’m looking at my reading chair in my office. It was my grandfather’s chair. I’ve had it since 1990 as my main reading chair. For years it was covered with this incredibly stained yellow chintz. The back pillow had cigarette burns in the same place on either side. I had it recovered at the beginning of the semester. It looks good, but I haven’t had time to spend days reading in it to see whether it still has the magic.

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