Book Talk, Ramblings, Reviews, Tips and Tricks, Writers' Resource

Rainier Writing Workshop – Year One Books, Part 1

Good morning, bookwyrms! Boy, have I got an exciting surprise for you.

For those of you who checked out my The Rainier Writing Workshop post a while back, you’ll know that I’m currently working on my creative writing MFA with PLU’s low-residency writing program, RWW. With year one approaching its end, I wanted to share the books I’ve been reading throughout the year, as well as what I’ve learned from them.

I loved some of these books more than others. But each and every one of them taught me something important about writing, and they’re all worth a look. Here we go!

1. The Color Master by Aimee Bender

colormasterThis is the first of three Aimee Bender books on this list, and that’s because as soon as I read this collection of short stories, I fell deeply and inescapably in love with Bender’s writing. She writes magical realism with such a fondness and deliciousness, using sensory descriptions fantastically to depict the odd and unfamiliar as believable.

Bender’s focus on food in these stories is especially interesting, as it presents deeper meanings woven throughout the collection. Food and grief are linked together in a wonderful web. My favorites are “The Color Master” (of course) and “The Devourings,” both of which present inspiring stories that feel so very real.

2. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

birdThis book isn’t what I typically read, but it was good for me to get out of my comfort zone in order to learn something new. For instance, the pacing of this novel is very slow, but it works because of the introspective, thoughtful tone. The main character, Toru, begins a journey of self-discovery when his wife disappears one day and he starts having strange and troubling dreams. I won’t give too much away, but at a certain point, the pacing ebbs and flows perfectly, corresponding to the emotional ups and downs that Toru goes through. Every little detail has meaning, and every change in pacing serves a purpose.

3. Cathedral by Raymond Carver

cathedralI went crazy over this short story collection when I first read it, and the amazement still hasn’t faded. With each story, what could have been a mundane tale about normal people was crafted into something engaging, detailed, and beautiful.

My favorite stories from this collection are “Feathers” and “One Small, Good Thing,” both of which kept my interest and my imagination running at top speed. I especially love “One Small, Good Thing.”

Honestly, if you want to read some fantastic short stories, then Carver is the author for you.

4. A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving

meanyWhat happens when scrawny, tiny kid Owen Meany hits a foul ball and kills the mother of his best friend? This unfortunate event shapes the lives of both the narrating character, whose mother was accidentally killed by a wayward hit and Owen himself, who doesn’t believe in coincidences. This book carries so much weight and is paired with an almost ludicrous amount of character detail. The entire town is full of individualized people that are easy to understand, and Owen Meany himself has a larger-than-life quality even with his tiny stature. The story is full of feeling and a certain honesty that only comes from a look back on one’s childhood.

5. Little Black Book of Stories by A.S. Byatt

byattOh look, another one of my new favorite authors! A.S. Byatt uses a plethora of beautifully strange descriptions and incorporates fantastical elements into everyday life as seamlessly as if fairy tales are true. Her writing often uses a wonderfully descriptive list of sounds that make her stories take on a poetry-like feel sometimes.

“The Thing in the Forest,” my favorite story of this collection, is full of rhythmic beats and sounds that work together perfectly to create an entirely unique atmosphere. This beautiful collection is a must-read for fans of magical realism.

6. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

benderSpeaking of magical realism, we’ve got another Aimee Bender book on the list! I’ve had my eye on this story for a very long time, ever since I saw a lemon cake with chocolate frosting on the cover. Honestly, this cover made me hungry, and so did a lot of the descriptions of food. But our protagonist, Rose, turns nine she gains the ability to taste other people’s emotions in the food they make. What follows is a strange, heart-breaking tale of magical realism full of delicious descriptions that reveal a lot about the characters in Rose’s life, as well as Rose herself. This is the one book on this list that I would recommend to absolutely everyone, though it’s probably an acquired taste for some. This story remains my very favorite from Aimee Bender, the queen that she is!

7. The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy, ed. Carmen Maria Machado and John Joseph Adams

scififantThese are tales that chill your bones, make you gape in wonder, or steal your attention away from everything but the page. There’s a reason why this is the best American sci-fi and fantasy collection.

Even from page one, on the very first story, I learned how to use the second-person “you” to make a reader shiver. There are so many more lessons to learn from the stories in this collection, and every featured author has a writing technique to show off. I had a lot of fun with this read, especially because it introduced me to a wide variety of authors and voices in the sci-fi/fantasy genres.

8. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro

megoHailsham is an English boarding school and a place for children, including our protagonist Kathy, to learn just about everything there is to learn about in school…except for the outside world. As Kathy grows up, she realizes not only what it means to become an adult, but also truly understand the secrets that Hailsham hides. The pacing is very steady in this book, but my favorite aspect of it is that Ishiguro plants clues that can lead to the truth of Hailsham if a reader looks closely. That said, the twists and emotional turns the story takes are unpredictable and unexpected, to the point where, during the climax, I was breathlessly in love with Ishiguro’s execution. Extremely heartbreaking and doubtlessly poignant, Never Let Me Go roped me into the plot and, well…it never let me go.


Seeing as how the list of RWW books for my first year in the MFA program is a little long, I’ve decided to break it into two parts. Be on the lookout for part two to find more lovely (and educational) stories!



Photo by Laëtitia Buscaylet on Unsplash