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

Rainier Writing Workshop – Year One Books, Part 2

Thanks to my long list of RWW reads for year one of my creative writing MFA program, I bring to you the second half of my reading recommendations! If you haven’t already, do check out the first half of the list for more educational and insightful reads. In any case, here are the rest of my findings!


9. Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney

conversationsFrances and her best friend Bobbi are college students who perform spoken word poetry and are noticed by an interested journalist. This sets off a series of events that lead Frances and Bobbi to become closer with the journalist and her husband, to the point where relationships get tangled and affairs are common. This book flows very easily. From a reader’s perspective, the pacing was steady and the writing style allows for quick reading. Because I’m not a big fan of romance (though I’m beginning to warm up to the genre), I didn’t find Conversations with Friends to be especially entertaining, and the characters seemed highly hypocritical. I can definitely see why this book would be popular, though; in addition to the number of positives like the pacing and style, there are a few emotional moments that hit home, and the plot is unique.

10. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

testamentsI cannot stress enough how much this book surprised me! A sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, The Testaments takes a look at how Gilead operates and how it potentially could be taken down through the widely varying perspectives of three women. I’ve already written an analysis, so I won’t gush too much, except to say that Atwood outdid herself with this massively suspenseful and meaningful sequel. I found The Handmaid’s Tale difficult to read, as I’m sure many do, but the widened scope (using three POV characters and allowing their voices to differ and shine) makes this into a stellar book in its own right. Those who haven’t read the first book in the Gilead saga need not wait. The Testaments stands out on its own.

11. The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams

privilegeExploring the short story form has been one of this year’s biggest delights and surprises. Williams masters the short storm form well, and the proof of her proficiency is in this 46-story collection.

My favorite has to be “The Farm,” where Williams uses rising urgency to up the stakes and emotional level of important scenes, through the use of uncertainty, both in the characters and in the reader. This collection can last you a while, and it’s nice to slow down and enjoy each story one at a time to see what makes each one work.

12. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro

good womanI had a lot of fun with this book, and it’s another great example of an engaging and educational short story collection. I especially love Munro’s use of foreshadowing, particularly in the novella included in this collection: the dialogue of specific characters ties into the titles of the story sections.

Munro’s writing style reminds me of Charles Dickens, in that it has an old-fashioned feel (in my opinion) and really takes its time. If you’ve already decided to read the Joy Williams book I listed earlier, this is a good companion collection.

13. The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

giantHere’s another great book by Kazuo Ishiguro! I truly enjoyed The Buried Giant for its mystical, fantastical feel. The story captures the essence of the self-discovery story, especially for main characters Axl and Beatrice, as they travel to their son’s village in search of their lost memories. Along the way, they meet a knight, the child he’s taken in, and many more colorful characters. This book taught me not only how to choose a perfect title based on the contents of the story (and not necessarily a literal summation like so many other medieval-style books), but also how to weave clues into the adventure, only to be revealed later as key plot points and emotional turns.

14. The Diving Pool by Yoko Ogawa

diving poolThese three novellas, all in one book, fit perfectly together. These are surreal, dark, and intricately unique studies of the potential dark side of humanity, each novella strange and yet oddly alluring. Ogawa uses deep, personal thoughts through the POV characters in order to bring out a feeling of sympathy and understanding toward these deeply flawed characters.

My favorite installment is “Dormitory,” for its suspense and mystery mixed with a certain amount of humanity that is crucial to the story.

15. The Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender

flammableYes, it’s another Aimee Bender book! I swear, I can’t get enough of this author. This time, Bender presents many odder situations (this is the third work of hers that I read, and it seemed to be the most strange), but each one feels absolutely believable because the emotional touches complement the magical realism so well. I especially enjoyed “Loser,” which combines a young orphan’s ability to “find” anything with his grief over losing his parents at such a young age. Even though his impossible situation could never happen to a reader, it’s easy to identify with someone so human. Bender has a knack for making the fantastical feel close to the heart.

16. Wonder Boys by Michael Chabon

wonder boysGrady has been writing his massive novel for seven years, and he still isn’t remotely finished. But when his best friend/potential editor flies in to spend some time with him and Grady stops his outcast student from committing suicide, this struggling writer is launched into an unfortunate and hilarious adventure.

The humor that Chabon uses to craft a conversational tone that’s easy to follow and easy to laugh at, even when bad things happen. Humorous images, memorable lines, and underlying tragedy only serve to make this book a surprisingly fun experience.

17. The Panic Hand: Stories by Jonathan Carroll

panicThe final book on this list completely boggled my mind. The combination of humor and horror in this short story collection presents a sense of awe-inspiring scariness. I made the mistake of reading “Tired Angel” alone at night. Carroll’s use of casual conversation in the first-person narrative, combined with a chilling second-person “you,” creates such a spooky atmosphere that even a single word, “soon,” can give me the shivers.

Carroll also weaves together ideas of God, religion, and their relationship to the human soul, which sounds heavy and but is actually very fun!


I had so much fun learning from these insightful authors via their work! When I look back on my first year of RWW, I’m amazed at how much I’ve learned and I get excited about the possibilities of implementing their techniques into my own writing. Just by active reading, a writer can learn a lot about how the writing craft. I hope that you find some helpful techniques in these stories like I did!


Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash