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.
Last April, Cecily Strong’s essay on losing her beloved 30-year-old cousin, Owen, to glioblastoma, was published. That essay has since become a memoir, This Will All Be Over Soon (Simon & Schuster), out today [8/10]. A Saturday Night Live cast member known for, among many things, Girl You Wish You Hadn’t Started a Conversation With at a Party, British singer/girlfriend Gemma, and impersonations since 2012, the two-time Emmy nominee currently stars in the comedy series Schmigadoon! on Apple TV+. Co-starring Keegan-Michael Key and a Who’s Who of Broadway (Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming), the show follows a couple who happen upon a town trapped in an American musical.
It was a dream role for Strong, who started drama classes at three to burn off energy and whose first community theater experience was appearing in The Grapes of Wrath at Village Players Theatre in her hometown of Oak Park, IL when she was eight. She studied theater at CalArts then pursued comedy in Chicago. Her first comedy gig was on a cruise ship, but she’s also sold wine, worked reception at Planned Parenthood, acted in a Wisconsin driver’s ed video, been a judge on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars, and hosted the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
She grows vegetables and calla lilies at her house in New York’s Hudson Valley and keeps a wig drawer in her house in L.A.; has a dog named Lucy she nicknamed Lucia Maserati Donatella Versace; is a puzzle fan who subscribes to Games magazine; went door-to-door for Barack Obama in Kalamazoo; and wrote unsent letters to childhood crush Leonardo DiCaprio. Likes: the U.S. women’s national soccer team (she played as a kid), Ketel botanicals, surprises, 90 Day Fiancé, long baths. Dislikes: eating meat, rainy days, phone calls except for emergencies and business, bugs (but can’t kill them).
The book that…
…helped me through a breakup:
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant. After I broke up with my first love, I wondered if I’d ever feel that way about someone again. In The Red Tent, the main character has that same type of love I felt at that time, and she says she finds a different type of love later in her life…and that it’s a little less crazed. I don’t know why, but that comforted me. I suppose it made me feel my devastation was validated. Around that same time I read, and really liked, The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff. That book exemplified the feeling of such loneliness that it could drive someone to search for a connection back home and even in their own family history. It’s probably this book that inspired me to spend 800 hours working on my own family tree. I’ll still work on that damn thing to this day.
…that made me weep:
A LOT of books have made me weep, so I’m going to go with The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, because the non-linear timeline made it so that I wept at so many different points throughout the book and after! Oh, and I should also include Where The Red Fern Grows by Wilson Rawls, because I was sent to the guidance counselor in sixth grade when I couldn’t stop crying after finishing that book during class.
…I recommend over and over again:
The World According to Garp. John Irving is just a great storyteller, and that first chapter is incredible. Who doesn’t love a great story?
…that shaped my worldview:
I don’t know that it necessarily shaped my worldview, but I read Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins in my late teens, which I think is a time when we are maybe hungriest to learn what our worldview even is, and I remember feeling like my mind was blown! I was thinking it was the coolest book I’d ever read and Salome was dropping the veils for me, too.
…I’d pass on to a kid:
It’s been a while, and it’s probably way dated, but Free To Be… You And Me by Marlo Thomas seems like a great book for any kid. Did it come with a record?
…that made me laugh out loud:
There are so many! I love everything David Sedaris and have had dreams where he and I are best friends. But I’m going to go with Ellen Degeneres’s My Point…and I Do Have One, because I remember reading it at the same time as my friend Anthony (who was also a theater nerd and nerd in general) and we would get on America Online and email each other back and forth about what we thought were the funniest jokes.
…with the best title:
The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie. This book is one of my favorites in general, but it also has the best chapter names.
…has the best opening lines:
I guess I’d have to go with I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid. “The road is mostly empty. It’s quiet around here. Vacant. More so than anticipated. So much to see by not many people, not many buildings or houses. Sky. Trees. Fields. Fences. The road and its gravel shoulders.”
…that should be on every college syllabus:
The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness by Erich Fromm.
…I brought on an important trip:
I got to perform in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival with some classmates from college, and it was my first big trip without parents and I think only the second or third time I’d been out of the country. I was 20 or 21 and with friends doing our little show in another country during a crazy festival so there were tons of people and we’d go to shows every night. I saw Eugene Mirman, who was one of my favorite comedians, and I went to a crazy didgeridoo dance party. Anyway, the book I brought was What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt. It’s a book a cool Italian woman named Pinuccia recommended to me after she served us octopus in her insanely stylish apartment in Florence (on a different trip). I wound up sharing the book with another friend by the end of the trip because I loved it so much (and it’s another one that made me weep uncontrollably)…and I loved all the art history!
…I have re-read the most:
Hard to say. I don’t re-read books very often. At least not novels. I think I’ll look at Virginia Woolf essays now and then, and I first read her in high school which was 75 years ago. So that must mean I’ve re-read her a good deal.
…I consider literary comfort food:
I guess it’s a strange answer because of the types of books she writes, but anything by Tana French. I just know I’m really going to like it, and the ending is going to be something that ties up the story but in a way that guts you. I’m not explaining that well, but it’s ok because she’ll know what I mean. My dad is also a huge fan, and he and I usually call each other when a new Tana French book comes out to make sure the other knows about it.
…that makes me feel seen:
Sextrology by Stella Starsky and Quinn Cox. I have always been that obnoxious friend who’s way too into astrology, and this is my favorite book. I read it every time I start a new relationship, no joke.
…that everyone should read:
Dog Songs by Mary Oliver. I discovered Mary Oliver through a friend, and I love her. I have one of her poems sitting right in front of me at my desk at work, because it makes me remember I’ll be ok. Her poems are really good at that—she explains life and sometimes really heavy feelings or ideas in such simple and beautiful ways. And these poems all involve dogs! So the book is doubly wonderful.
…has the recipe to a favorite dish:
The book I want to be the answer to this question just because I loved it so much is Like Water For Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. That book is soooo sensual and whatever Fifty Shades of Grey is to people, it was that for me. I don’t use any of the recipes, but I’ve tried putting an onion on my head while cutting onions.
…that I asked for one Christmas:
I didn’t technically ask for it but LOVED it when I got it as a Christmas gift from my dad—the big Obama in pictures book by Pete Souza!
…that taught me this Jeopardy!-worthy bit of trivia:
So, this isn’t quite Jeopardy! trivia, but I think about keeping my car’s steering wheel facing straight ahead until I’m ready to turn left because of A Widow For One Year by John Irving. I drive just rarely enough that I think I say this to every passenger in the car when I’m waiting to turn left at a light.
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