WSIRN Ep 175: Your library called and they want their books back

Readers, last fall my book tour for I’d Rather Be Reading took me to Denver, Colorado, where I enjoyed meeting an amazing crowd of readers at the fabulous independent bookstore BookBar. It was my second visit to BookBar but my first event there and they could not have been more wonderful or welcoming hosts. One of the delights of going on the road was getting to meet so many readers—some for the first time, and some that I felt like I already knew, because either I’d met them in person before or had been friendly with them online for many years. Today’s guest Michelle Wilson falls into the second category. She’s the one who first urged me to visit BookBar—as a reader—and last fall we got to not only meet in person, which was lovely, but also we had the opportunity to sit down and talk about the books we loved, and the books we WISHED we could read… but that didn’t seem to be out there. Today we get to continue that conversation.

I’m so pleased to have Michelle on the show today to talk about the character type she has noticed were missing from the bookshelves, and to recommend some titles to fill that void in her life. It’s not easy, which is probably why it’s such a fun conversation.

Let’s get to it!

What Should I Read Next #175: Your library called and they want their books back with Michelle Wilson

Click here to read the full episode transcription (opens in a new tab).

Books mentioned in this episode:

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The Heart, by Maylis de Kerangal
The Patience Stone, by Atiq Rahimi
Lucky Boy, by Shanthi Sekaran
Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi
The Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, by Sue Grafton
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures, by Anne Fadiman
My Year of Rest and Relaxation, by Ottessa Moshfegh
Comemadre, by Roque Larraquy
The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, by Tommy Tomlinson
Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing As We Age, by Mary Pipher
• Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun, by Sarah Ladipo Manyika
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf
Alternate Side, by Anna Quindlen
• Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
An Unnecessary Woman, by Rabih Alameddine
• Lonesome Dove, by Larry McMurtry
• The Last Picture Show, by Larry McMurtry
• Rhino Ranch, by Larry McMurtry
• The Joy Luck Club, by Amy Tan
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray
• House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende
In the Midst of Winter, by Isabel Allende

What do you think Michelle should read next? Tell us in the comments section!


Leave A Comment
  1. Jackie says:

    I loved Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney. It’s about an 85-year-old woman taking a walk and reminiscing about her life while also continuing to live in the world. She isn’t magical but is powerful and amazing!

  2. Deborah Ball says:

    how wonderful to hear someone else despised My Year of Relaxation as much as I did! I thought it was just my middle aged nurse self, but I totally connected with your angst, and I was so thankful it was a library book and not one I wasted money on! I would suggested Lisa See’s new book the Island of the Sea Women. While fictional, it has heavy historical significance as it ties into our current political climate with North ad South Korea. Like Michelle, I enjoyed the multigenerational strong women in the story and gaining empathy and insight into a much different culture.

  3. Mary Noel says:

    Try all of the Ruth Galloway books by Elly Griffiths. A strong woman who goes her own way and who values her independence. In addition, how about the best book I read last year: News of the World? I can’t praise it enough.

  4. Jennifer Rittall says:

    Going way way back to the 1980’s with The Shell Seekers by Rosamund Pilcher. This is the story of Penelope, a 64 year old mother of 3 grown children. The Shell Seekers is the name of a painting that was painted by Penelope’s father and does figure prominently in the story, but there is so much more in this sweeping tale. I too am in my 50’s and related so much to Penelope.

  5. Stephanie Towne says:

    Michelle-I KNEW I liked you! 🙂 I have been reading Kinsey for over 20 years and have always wanted to be her when I grew up. I cried when I heard that Sue passed and will miss her greatly.

  6. Bethany Maenz says:

    Michelle, I think you might like The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth. It’s a backlist title from her, an Australian author, and one I’m using for my 2019MMDReading Challenge. It’s a multigenerational story of three midwives who are a diverse set of characters even though they are related. You might love it or hate it depending on how well it deals with hospital verses home midwifery relationships, but for my ignorance, it was great and learning something new. It switches perspetive between the daughter, mother, and grandmother.

    • Marla Jensen says:

      This is a good recommendation! I didn’t think of it while I was listening but when I read this comment I was like oooh yeah!

  7. Marianne Bond says:

    This is a non fiction – memoir – but believe you will love it – Deep Creek: Finding Hope in The High Country by Pam Houston. She lives in Colorado so you may already know of her.

    • April O'Hare says:

      84 Charing Cross Road is one of my all time favorite surprise good reads. It was so incredibly charming and sweet (without headiong down a saccharine path) all packed into this tiny little book. Totally 2nd this suggestion!

  8. Annette B Silveira says:

    I was so excited when you mentioned Kinsey Millhone and Sue Grafton. I’m pretty sure I haven’t ever heard these books mentioned before and I’ve always wondered why. I love them so much and I’ve reread many of them multiple times. I’m so sad that Sue died before she could complete the series.

  9. Patty Flaherty says:

    Last summer I read Women and n Sunlight by Frances Mayes. It was about 3 older woman. Nothing too deep but a good beach read. Made me hungry though!

  10. Ashley says:

    It might be a stretch but I thought of In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden. I’ve only read one of these, but I also thought of the Aunti Poldi series by Mario Gidrdano.

    • Kristin says:

      Love In This House of Brede – one of my favorites. Also, I loved Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym about four aging colleagues in the workplace – I left that book feeling hopeful about getting older.

  11. Wendy says:

    Michelle – I’m in my 50s too! Have you read Olive Kitteridege? If not, I highly recommend that book and author.

  12. Ruth Heller says:

    Great episode. The topic reminded me of one of the 2018 Read Harder prompts–read a novel about a female protagonist 60 or older. My read for that category was Cathleen Schine’s They Might Not Mean to But They Do. The novel is built around 86 year-old New Yorker Joy Bergman and her changing relationships with her ailing husband, her adult children, and her career/workplace. It’s rare to find such a fully developed older woman at the center of a novel. Schine writes about a difficult subject with gentle humor. I appreciated her insights into Joy and her 50-ish daughter Molly’s points of view.
    I’ve just begun a fantasy novella with 55 year-old math professor/adventurer as main character, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe, by Kij Johnson. To early for a full-hearted recommendation, but it seems very promising so far.

  13. Michelle, I’m an older reader too and at times it would be nice to read books with older protagonists. I have two suggestions, though they are books from the UK. The first is a book Anne has suggested to another guest, Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. Her most famous book is The Shell Seekers, which I think also has a middle aged, to older protagonist. This book takes place in England and Scotland and has group of characters of various age ranges, but the center of the story is an older woman who brings everyone together.

    Then, if you loved the Sue Grafton books, (Thanks for that recommendation by the way.) you may enjoy the Cadfael series by Ellis Peters. There are 21 books about a 12th century Benedictine Monk who has fought in the crusades, been a sailor, before becoming a monk at age 45 or 50. He’s now the herbalist for the monastery and the town of Shrewsbury, which is on the border with Wales, Cadfael’s home country. Because of his skills, he’s called upon to not only help heal people of the town but solve crimes as well. I read the entire series last year and was sad when I finished the last one.

  14. Abigail M says:

    I was listening to this podcast and was wondering if Anne would mention McMurtry. He has the reputation of writing women well. Some of his books have been big misses for me, but not because he didn’t write the women characters well, they were just bad. This will not be a popular opinion but I really like Texasville. I believe the second in the Picture Show series, but it stands on it’s own. I love Duane, and I love Karla. Some (most?) would call her quirky. To me she’s vivid and funny. Duane’s Depressed is good too. Heck, Terms of Endearment is pretty good too. Have fun!

    • Libby says:

      I think you’d enjoy Remnant Population by Elizabeth Moon. It’s sci-fi, but the main character is a woman in her 70s or 80s (I think? It’s left ambiguous, but her kids are grown and the way she talked about life gave me the impression she had years not decades of life left, if that makes sense). It’s definitely in the soft sci-fi genre, and focuses more on the internal thoughts of this older woman than on technology or space exploration, and how societies value people at different life stages. If you’re open to reading sci-fi, I think it fits the older female character wish list very closely.

  15. Kyla Pearlman says:

    YES!!! Michelle Wilson – we have so much in common, including our taste in books! I love narrative non-fiction of the public health genre (The Spirit Catches You, The Ghost Map, Henrietta Lacks, and I feel you on Paul Farmer). I work just up the road at Boulder County Public Health and was the HIV/STI/Syringe Access Coordinator there for a few years. Other public health books I highly recommend are: What the Eyes Don’t See (Flint lead crisis), Just Like Us (Latina girls in Denver), Being Mortal (death with dignity), And the Band Played On (I’m sure you’ve read this…inspired me to go into public health), The Remedy (history of TB), What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day (woman living with HIV – fiction), The Great Believers was ok, but not my favorite.

  16. BarbN says:

    Thank you, Michelle, for being the stand-in for all of us 50-somethings. I am way too shy to be a guest on the show, and now you’ve done it for me! I’ve also wondered about the lack of realistic, strong older women in fiction. Great recommendations (both yours and Anne’s). With several of the authors mentioned (Larry McMurtry, Amy Tan, Isabelle Allende), I’d read and enjoyed their early books but for some reason hadn’t read the newer ones. I even downloaded a new (to me) Kinsey Millhone this afternoon– I haven’t read one since somewhere around E or F back in the early 90s. Thanks for a great episode.

  17. Mrgan says:

    Have you tried Liz Byrski from Australia-she writes many books featuring women in their 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond. Her latest is A Month of Sunday’s….

  18. Cher says:

    I was delighted by Olga Tokarczuk’s Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. I read it about thirty books ago and I still find myself thinking it over. I’m pretty sure it’s going to be one of my favourite books of the year.

    It has two elements that might appeal to Michelle: it’s a Polish book in translation, and the main character is a retired woman. She has a very distinctive voice and I took a while to warm up to her, but ended up absolutely loving her.

  19. Sarah Christine says:

    I would love for Michelle to read Katharine Hepburn’s autobiography “Me: Stories of My Life”. She is that witty, self confident, scrappy, yet kind and deep women that Michelle loves. (I’m also a Kinsey Millhone fan.) Hepburn’s voice also really shines, it’s so fun. Read it and let us know what you think!!

  20. Holli Leann Petersen says:

    Even though the book wasn’t for me, I’d recommend White House by Amy Bloom. Lots of people loved the book, so I think I had an unpopular opinion.

    Also, I’d suggest the Call the Midwives series of books. They’re excellent and feature strong, independent women living and working in a time when those traits aren’t valued.

    I read someone else recommend Auntie Poldi – that’s a strong YES for me, too. Also, The Wives of Malabar Hill.

  21. Sue S says:

    Hi Michelle and Anne,
    Great subject! There are definitely too many female protagonists who are young/gorgeous/kookie/quirky/magical/clueless/impetuous, etc!
    Doris Lessing writes about all ages of women and she was so prolific, there are lots of wonderful novels…you might start with The Summer Before the Dark, about a woman in her forties and her passage from youth to old.
    Also, anything by Muriel Spark
    And from two years ago, have you read Pachinko yet? Terrific cultural perspectives told thru the stories of women at different times in their lives.

  22. Amanda says:

    Louise Penny’s series has so many 50+ characters, it’s Canadian, and crime/mystery fiction….so much love for this series ❤️

  23. Andi says:

    Michelle, you and I are kindred readers. Give me strong women all day. Have you read The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud? So good. Older woman strong. Smart. Broken. So good

  24. Patricia says:

    When I started listening, I thought, “she needs Anne Tyler.” LOL. Agree about her characters crossing from quirky to ditzy, especially in her more recent work. Anyway. I recently read “Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont” by Elizabeth Taylor and “Inheritance” by Dani Shapiro. Barbara Kingsolver is another author who might appeal. Another commenter disliked but recommended “White Houses” – I loved this book. Beautiful last paragraph! Also agree about “Olive Kitteridge” and anything by Elizabeth Strout. And Ann Patchett, especially “Bel Canto” which is an all time favorite.

  25. Karen Wehman says:

    The book that came to my mind was The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. The concierge, Renee, is a mature woman of a certain age who simply lives her life until it is upended.

  26. Nancy Dwyer says:

    Loved this podcast episode! I thought of a few suggestions for Michelle . . “Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand” by Helen Simonsen, “Tales of A Female Traveling Nomad-Living at Large in the World” by Rita Golden Gelman and “Olive Kittedrige” by Elizabeth Strout, and a lighter one that is slightly silly but very well written: “Calling Invisible Women” by Jeanne Ray.

  27. Nancy says:

    A few others mentioned Tove Jansson and Rumer Godden. Both are wonderful writers, both have been deceased for about 20 years. The Summer Book by Tove Jansson and The River by Rumer Godden are my favorites. Neither are super easy to find but that does not sound like it would be difficult for you.

  28. Sarah J Askins says:

    I loved “The Book of Polly”, and its main character is an older woman. Polly became a mother in her 50s by a freak accident pregnacy, and you read about how their relationship develops. Also, this is one of the funniest books that deals with cancer(it sounds so weird but true).

  29. Lori Matthews says:

    Loved this episode and will look for many of these recommendations! My favorite book of all time is The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert. I’m surprised it hasn’t been suggested yet!

  30. Jennifer Shepard says:

    I second the recommendation for Muriel Spark, which I hesitated to do initially because few of her books feature 50+ year old women as protagonists. Spark hit her stride as a novelist after she was 40, and the overall tone of her fiction reflects that maturity/sensibility. Also, in a similiar vein: Penelope Lively, Tessa Hadley, and Jane Gardam.

    (Anne: happy to see the Rabih Alameddine [pronounced Robby Ah-luh-muh-deen] recommendation!! Glad he’s getting his due.)

  31. Emily says:

    Recommending Unsheltered for Michelle. It might be a little shiny (last Fall I think) but the main character is a likeable and normal woman in her 50’s. Enjoyed the show!

  32. Heather B says:

    I’d recommend “The Unexpected Mrs. Pollifax” by Dorothy Gillman; it’s one of my favorite books ever. I also really enjoyed “Invisible” by Lorena McCourtney. Both are about women who have to rediscover themselves in the older years, in very unexpected ways.

    • Diana says:

      I second the Mrs. Pollifax books. My grandmother gave me the first one when I was a teenager and Mrs. Pollifax remains one of my favorite characters of all time.

  33. Sarah says:

    Recommendations I have: The Sisterchicks series by Robin Jones Gunn, The Mitford series by Jan Karon, Animal Vegetable Mineral (memoir) by Barbara Kingsolver (recommend this one on audio!), Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Was really fun to listen to this episode!

  34. Becky says:

    Some that came to mind – Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver, My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich (maybe the protagonist would be seen as too wishy washy), the Agatha Raisin series by M. C. Beaton, and Miss Marple series by Agatha Christie.

  35. Chelsea says:

    This might have been my favorite episode yet! I could relate to everything Michelle said and wrote down all of the books mentioned. I wonder if she has read any of Lisa Genova’s books? “Still Alice” is an obvious choice, but worth mentioning.

  36. Jana Botkin says:

    Michelle, you were a breath of fresh air! I’m 59 and we seem to have similar reading habits. Some recent non-fiction that really pulled me in as if they were novels and have stuck with me in spite of reading too fast: Hillbilly Elegy (J.D. Vance), Dreamland (Sam Quinones), and Slow Medicine (Victoria Sweet). The first is someone digging his way out of poverty and ignorance, the 2nd is how and why the opioid problem came about, and the 3rd is by a doctor learning different ways of treating patients through her various experiences.

  37. Meg says:

    On the whole lack of older women in literature, I loved the novel “Calling Invisible Women” by Jeanne Ray which is a fun twist on that topic.

  38. Angela Frith says:

    A few suggestions of books with 50-plus female protagonists: MC Beaton’s Agatha Raisin series – spunky retiree solving mysteries in the Cotswolds, Alice Steinbach’s Without Reservations and Educating Alice – memoirs about the authors time traveling as self-education, Barbara Kingsolver’s Unsheltered- love its exploration of a female scientist in the 1870s, and Jaswal’s Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows- thought-provoking about women’s sexuality as they age.

  39. Barb says:

    Well, I’ll add my thumbs up for this episode! Michelle, you have a lot of book twins out here in cyberspace. I logged in to suggest Pachinko which was already mentioned above. I second the recommendation. Thanks for being a guest to offer up this topic and thanks Anne and to all above for a extending my TBR!

  40. Teri says:

    I’d recommend Stones for Ibarra by Harriet Doerr. Definitely a backlist title! But, it touches on the struggle of understanding different cultures and trying to reinvent oneself in later years.

  41. Michele says:

    If you’d like a short but totally lovely book about a fiesty woman with loads of character, read 84 Charing Cross Road by Helen Hanff. It maybe on my 10 desert island book list. I think you will LOVE it.

  42. Natalie says:

    You could try:
    “The Reluctant Fortune Teller” by Keziah Frost
    “The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules” by Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg
    “An Elderly Lady Is Up To No Good” by Helene Turnsten

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