WSIRN Ep 190: There’s nothing like a little bookish momentum

Today’s guest has reached a crossroads in her reading life, and she’s come to me looking for a jump start for this new season.

Beth Wallen describes herself as a lifelong learner, and she’s about to have more time open up in her schedule to challenge herself, learn new things, and dive deeper into topics that already fascinate her. This is truly a precious opportunity, and Beth really has the guts to go against the grain of her usual reading taste, which makes for interesting and exciting literary matchmaking!

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Now… let’s get to Beth’s episode!

What Should I Read Next #190: There's nothing like a little bookish momentum with Beth Wallen

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

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here. If you’d like to support your local indie, check out And by all means, go grab one of these from your local library!

• Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
• 36 Books That Changed the World, from The Great Courses
• How Great Science Fiction Works, from The Great Courses
• Sci-Phi: Science Fiction as Philosophy, from The Great Courses
• The Dry, by Jane Haper
• The Lost Man, by Jane Harper
• Widow of the South, by Robert Hicks
• This Republic of Suffering: Death and American Civil War, by Drew Gilpin Faust
• Columbine, by Dave Cullen
• We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver
• The Pioneers: The Heroid Story of the Settlers Who Brought the American Ideal West, by David McCullough
• Author Willa Cather (try Shadows on the Rock)
• These Is My Words, by Nancy Turner
Reading Lolita in Tehran, by Azar Nafisi
• The Republic of Imagination, by Azar Nafisi
• The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain
• Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
• The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers
Good Morning Midnight, by Lily Brooks-Dalton
• Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
The Honest Truth, by Dan Gemeinhart
• The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
 ▵ His Dark Materials trilogy, by Philip Pullman
• Rush, by Lisa Patton
• The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
• Children of Blood & Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi
• The Sun is Also a Star, by Nicola Yoon
• So You Want to Talk About Race, by Ijeoma Oluo
• The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls, by Anissa Gray
• A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman
• The Huntress, by Kate Quinn
• The Signature of All Things, by Elizabeth Gilbert
• City of Girls, by Elizabeth Gilbert
• The Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill
• The Light from Other Stars, by Erika Swyler
• Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman
• In Praise of Wasting Time, by Alan Lightman
• The Accidental Universe: The World You Thought You Knew, by Alan Lightman
• On the Beach, by Nevil Shute
• A Town Like Alice, by Nevil Shute

Also mentioned:
• AudioFile magazine
• The Great Courses Plus a great sponsor of WSIRN!

What do YOU think Beth should read next?


Leave A Comment
  1. Jen Williams says:

    Beth, I highly recommend listening to Lincoln in the Bardo, the audio book is full of celebrities and really well done. However the content of the book has some mentions that you might want to avoid if you have a gentle constitution.

    I highly recommend ANYTHING Wil Weaton narrates!

    • Elizabeth Wallen says:

      Thanks for that recommendation. I love Peter Heller. I just finished the River, but I haven’t read this one. I shall add it to my TBR!

  2. Marcella says:

    Celine by Peter Heller might satisfy Beth’s wish for an interesting older female character. The description can sound like a detective story but my memory is of an interesting, adventurous woman

  3. Andrea says:

    You might be interested in Phaedra Patrick’s books. The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper is about a retirement age man discovering who his wife was before he knew her. It has some quirky characters and some great places. The Library of Lost and Found has a older middle aged, but not quite retirement age woman rediscovering her grandmother and the things she really loves.
    And I just found out she has two more books that I didn’t know about! So I’m off to get those now.
    One more author, Nick Thacker. He writes science fiction that is just barely ahead of where we are now. If you want to try science fiction, he might write something you would like.

  4. Libby says:

    Hey Beth! I’ve been on a streak of great nonfiction recently so thought I’d share! The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was fascinating, it’s about octopus cognition and intelligence. Prairie Fires by Caroline Fraser fits your backstory desire; it’s the historical perspective and more details about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s life and the pioneers in general. I also LOVED the Food Explorer by Daniel Stone, which is about a botanist from the USDA and his millionaire friend who traveled around the world looking for plants to introduce to American farmers in the early 1900s.
    Ship of Brides by JoJo Moyes is fiction, but it’s based on her grandmother’s real story of being an Australian war bride who married a British soldier and was transported by the British navy to England to reunite with her husband after the war. I vaguely knew people married soliders during the war, but had no idea the scope of it or the logistics of moving these women across the world!
    On audiobook I read and enjoyed Lawrence in Arabia read by Scott Anderson. Fascinating backstory of how Middle East politics ended up the way it is today, and the audio helped me get through long, unfamiliar Arabic names. I also really enjoyed Tara Westover’s Educated on audio.

  5. I love when I go into an episode thinking nothing will be for me and then walking away with a dozen books I now want to read!

    Beth, I have two recommendations for you.

    1. The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia. I’m reading this right now on audiobook and I’m really enjoying the narration! This story is about a newborn baby who is discovered abandoned under a bridge under a blanket of bees – real, buzzing bees. He has some physical challenges, but some supernatural abilities that more than make up for them. He’s discovered by an elderly woman who seems to have a supernatural connection to him. This book is set in Mexico around 1918 and features a sweeping tale of this family who takes the boy in. It’s not “fantasy” by any means… has more of a 100 Years of Solitude magical realism vibe. I’m about 20% in the book, but I’m already loving it and recommending it to everyone. Sure hope it doesn’t disappoint me!

    My second recommendation is Pavilion of Women by Pearl S. Buck. This tells the story about a woman of a certain age. She’s the matriarch of a traditional Chinese household and suddenly finds herself wondering what her place is in the world. She decides to get her husband a second wife to relieve some of her duties. This upends the household, but sets her free. I loved this book! I read it last year, but I still think about it regularly.

  6. Jayne says:

    Hi Beth and Anne, I agree with you the Audible narrator for The Huntress is very good as is the narrator for The Hate U Give. Two more narrators I especially enjoyed are Claire Danes on Handmaid’s Tale and Kathleen Wilhoite for Where’d You Go Bernadette? Oh, and anything Jeremy Irons is narrating!

    • Anne says:

      I LOVED Claire Danes on The Handmaid’s Tale. I read Bernadette in hardcover but I’m happy to hear Jeremy Irons did a great job. Thanks for recommending!

  7. Lisa Williamson says:

    Great episode! I have two titles to share with Beth. First, Leonardo DaVinci by
    DaVinci by Walter Isaacson. I think it will really speak to Beth’s love of science and her need for more art/humanities.
    Another recommendation is Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. It’s been out a long while (2010), but it is a sweeping novel set during the Ethiopian revolution. The story and characters will stay with you for a lifetime. The audio version is fantastic.
    Wait! One more… A Fine Balance (2001, Rohinton Mistry). I recently discovered (and devoured) this heartbreakingly gorgeous novel. Set in 1975, India, it follows the story of two tailors during the political unrest under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Another wonderful audio performance.

  8. Patti says:

    Beth – have you read “Crossing to Safety” by Wallace Stegner? It follows the lives of two couples beginning in their mid-twenties to retirement and beyond. It’s really beautiful. I also recently read and loved “All My Puny Sorrows” by Marilyn Toews. The protagonists are sisters in their late-30s-40s (I think) but their aunt and mother are vibrant, interesting characters, as well. They aren’t, however, the focus of the novel. But I loved it and those characters definitely left impressions on me. I also loved “Olive Kitteridge” by Elizabeth Strout. Olive is a cranky, spiky character but I found her fascinating. Anne Tyler’s novels often feature women in various stages of life but sometimes readers cannot take the high levels of quirkiness in her characters.

  9. Michelle Bernstein says:

    You may enjoy listening to Audiofile Magazine’s Behind the Mic podcast.
    Each episode highlights a wonderful audiobook in only 4 minutes with a sample of the narration and a brief description of the plot. Here it the link or you can subscribe on your favorite podcatcher:

  10. Hello Beth,
    I listen to this podcast all the way from Portugal and today I was in the car listening to you talk about how there are not so many books about middle age people and how you liked Reading Lolita in Theeran (which I also found so interesting) and it came to my mind that you might really like “Sweet Caress” by William Boyd (awful name and, on the Portuguese version, also awful cover – it has nothing to do with the book ). It follows the life of a female photographer who reports world wars I and II. It is fiction but you sort of forget it and it feels like a memoir.
    I’m 48 so I feel in the gut what you say about interesting female characters that are not in their twenties anymore.
    I hope you like it.

  11. Katie says:

    Beth – A recommendation about a book about an older female character: “Enchanted Islands” by Allison Amends. Based on true story of Frances Conway, we learn how a single older woman ends up doing WWII intelligence work in the Galapagos Islands. Literary with wonderful sense of place. Also touches on themes of loneliness and friendship.

  12. Leanne Hunt says:

    Beth, I am an avid audio book reader in your age group. I also love a strong sense of place. The following are all available in audio format: “City of Thorns”, a moving non-fiction account of nine individuals who grew up in the world’s largest refugee camp, written by Ben Rawlence; “Because we are”, about two children growing up against the backdrop of Haiti’s political troubles and the great earthquake, written by Ted Oswald; “The Colour”, an historical novel set in Australia that weaves together the fortunes of many people from diverse backgrounds, by Rose Tremaine; “Too beautiful to dance” set in Cornwall, by Diana Appleyard; and “The Summer I dared” by Barbara Delinsky, about a woman who redefines herself later in life. Also anything by Barbara Kingsolver, especially “Prodigal Summer”.

  13. Stacy says:

    Where The Crawdads Sing was a winner on audio ..the descriptions of the Carolina marshes were incredible and the arc of the main character, Kya, was so compelling!

  14. Joye Jonson says:

    Hello Beth, happy retirement! You might enjoy the Mrs. Pollifax series by Dorothy Gilman. A 62-year-old widow and grandmother applies for the CIA after deciding not to kill herself. Gilman started writing in the early 70’s and wrapped up the series in 2000 or so. I’ve gobbled them up on audio thanks to All Hail Barbara Rosenblat, aka ‘the Meryl Streep of audiobooks’.

    P.S. – George Newbern also played the groom in Steve Martin’s Father of the Bride if you need to see him being sweet and lovable. Talk about range :)))

    • Tracy Tobias says:

      OMG – I can’t believe I never looked it up. He was so familiar on Scandal! Yes – Father of the Bride!!! Secondly- his name was familiar, Anne, but I never put it together with audiobooks! I’ve “read” four books by him. He is a great reader. I LOVED A Town Called Alice ( great on audio!), but On the Beach – so depressing. So many better books out there to be depressed by. Recently read The Shell Seekers on audiobook and thought that had a great older protagonist. Loved it! I also recently enjoyed The Chilbury’s Ladies Choir. Lots of interesting female characters-most of the men are at war. Happy Retirement!!!

  15. Ashley says:

    You might enjoy Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty. One of the main protagonists (it switches viewpoints) is a woman in her late 50s or early 60s (I can’t remember exactly) and she’s definitely still living her life, making mistakes, having adventures. And while she is very funny, she’s not just comic relief. And the book is so much fun.

    Also, for books with a sense of place I always think of The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah (takes place in rural Alaska). Also, if you haven’t read it yet, Jane Harper’s other book Force of Nature shouldn’t be missed!

  16. Anne Marie says:

    Dark Matter by Blake Crouch is science fiction without robots – such an interesting read. I imagine you are already a fan of Doris Kearns Goodwin – Team of Rivals was excellent and would pair well with Lincoln in the Bardo.

  17. Julie says:

    Beth, you may like The Sparrow by Mary Doris Russell. Yes, it is tagged as science fiction, but it is more about the characters and what has happened than the space setting.
    I would also heartily second the suggestion of A Signature of All Things for a strong female story- you will be amazed how much you will care about moss!

  18. Dianne says:

    On the subject of reading about female progtagonists, I highly recommend “Rage Against the Dying” which is a great mystery that features a 59 year old ex-FBI agent.

  19. Lucinda says:

    I love listening to his podcast every week! Beth, I know you said you don’t like science fiction, however, I think you might like Ursula Le Guin’s book *The Left Hand of Darkness*. Though it takes place on a distant planet, all the action takes place there. An ambassador from a federation of planets arrives on Winter, that’s the name the off worlders call the planet, to try to convince them to join the federation. It’s a much more dangerous mission than he expects. He makes friends with one of the officials from one of the governments. This man protects the ambassador by guiding him through a desolate wintery landscape. They become more than brothers during the journey. Le Guin builds a fascinating world where values, spiritual practices, and governments are vastly different than ours, and yet, there are similarities as well. Ultimately it’s a story about the highest kind of love.

    This is the first of her books I’ve read, but I plan to read more. I hope you will eventually read it. I loved hearing about all the books you two talked about. My TBR gets longer every week.

  20. Lisa Russell says:

    I love this podcast and it is always the highlight of my week when I get to listen. I love hearing all the different book that people love and why they love them. I would like to recommend two books for Beth. They are both ones I read a long time ago but they have both stayed with me. The first one was given to me by my high school English teacher after I had read everything else in his room. It is Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairborn. It was published in 1966 when America was under racial conflicts that still resonate today. The second is Oliva and Jai by Rebecca Ryman. It is a historical novel set it India when it was under British rule. I have read many books in my lifetime and these two have have always stayed in my mind.

  21. Mariandrea says:

    Hello! Great episode! I too have difficulty embracing SciFi…so I identified with Beth…I love On the Beach by Nevil Schute…it’s one of my favorites. Also, Pachinko…but chances are you may have already read it. I really loved the story across four generations of Korean immigrants to Japan. I am currently listening to the audiobook of Ten Women and I am really enjoying it!

  22. Mary H says:

    Hi Beth,
    Listening to you, I was reminded of The Good House by Ann Leary. Excellent audio narrated by Mary Beth Hurt, featuring a mature female protagonist with an interesting career and personal life. I think you’d enjoy it.

  23. M Stickland says:

    The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant is the story of an 85 year old woman telling the story of her life to her granddaughter. Her Granddaughter asked her how she became the ‘woman she is today’ so this is the story she tells in response. A sweet story with historical details. The audio version is good as well.

  24. Eric Hansen says:

    This was a really good episode. I would like to play Devil’s Advocate if I may, however, respecting Science Fiction. Stories I would call “fantasy with lasers” is only one facet of the larger genre of Science Fiction. Isaac Asimov defined Science Fiction as stories about humankind’s place in a world impacted by changes in science and technology. That’s why in his book about robots, his focus is less on “pew pew” and more on the ethics of robots exemplified by the three laws and what happens when artificial intelligence is able to respond to those laws.

    Ray Bradbury, who writes beautiful prose, is along the same vein. His science fiction stories deal with science’s impact on society, whether it’s his cautionary tale about television replacing reading, Fahrenheit 451 (I know, but look up interviews with Bradbury about it), or a simple story about kids spending too much time being entertained by virtual reality in The Veldt.

    As for the women of science fiction, you will never go wrong with Octavia Butler (Dawn, Parable of the Sower) or Ursula K LeGuin (Left Hand of Darkness) or Doris Lessing (Shikasta).

    That’s my two cents on that. As for voice actors for audiobooks, I have listened to books I’d otherwise never pick up to read just so I can hear Frank Muller’s narration. He’s gone from us now, but if you can find anything by him at your library, bookstore, or online, check it out. He did a lot of his work with Recorded Books, Incorporated.

  25. Allyson Wieland says:

    Hi Beth — I resonated with much of what you said. Wish you lived nearby. We could have tea/coffee. Having retired from law into a less demanding job, I’m enjoying more time to read. I also listen to Great Courses while commuting (have about 25 of them!). Prof. Rufus Fears and Arnold Weinstein are among my favorite lecturers.
    A title you might consider is “The Book of Strange New Things” by Michel Faber. Main character Peter elects to travel to a scientific outpost on another planet (Oasis) to serve as pastor to the native life forms. He is able to communicate with his wife, Bea, back in England via a form of email. The book made such an impression on me that I was still thinking about it 5 months after finishing it. Science fiction is not something I read; however, the rich characters of this novel made me forget I was in another world. Apocalyptic events begin to unfold in the UK during his absence. Bea begs Peter to abandon his work on Oasis and come home. But Peter is forming close relationships with the Oasan creatures and finds his work extremely rewarding. In real life, as the author was writing this book, his wife was battling cancer. I wonder how much of the tug-of-war between family and vocation he personally experienced was portrayed in the novel.

    • Elizabeth Wallen says:

      Allyson, I would have loved to have met you for coffee/tea. We could discuss The Book of Strange New Things and Dr. Rufus Fears courses. Thanks for the suggestions.

  26. Paula Kercheval says:

    Great episode and I too join you as a lover of audio books! One of the perks I’ve enjoyed with my Audible account is the monthly “free” listens of Audible Originals. I just finished one of the July freebies today that I think you might enjoy: The Man Who Knew the Way to the Moon by Todd Zwillich. This true story about the journey to the moon was a chapter I had not previously known anything about, but this book brought my memories from 50 years ago fresh to the forefront.

  27. Sue Baum says:

    For a mature heroine with spunk, you can’t beat the Miss Julia series by Ann B Ross. The first book in the series, Miss Julia Speaks Her Mind, introduces the reader to the prim and proper Julia and her hilarious cast of characters. It’s kind of like a modern day Mayberry. A very fun light read!

  28. Vickie says:

    I would like to recommend the audio book of When All Is Said by Ann Griffin. It is a story that not everyone will like, but I found it very interesting. It is set in Ireland and the main character is an elderly Irish “curmudgeon” man. The narrator Nial Buggy’s voice really fits the character. The book opens with the main character sitting in a bar having a drink to each of the five people most important in his life. You hear the background of each of these five people. Very enjoyable, in my opinion.

  29. Rebecca Swisher says:

    Me too, I was traumatized by Lord of the Flies. I checked it out of the library when I was in 5th grade. I told the librarian my parents said it was okay, but I actually never mentioned it to them. It was so depressing.

  30. Elizabeth says:

    Meet Me At The Museum and Liane Moriarty’s newest book, Nine Perfect Strangers both have older protagonists and are both quite enjoyable but light reads.

  31. Jessica Johnson says:

    Beth you should read Celine by Peter Heller. Main character is a strong, older female that was refreshing to see!

  32. Meredith says:

    I really enjoyed Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand on audio (I always love listening to books not set in the US on audio, a good accent makes everything better) and I thought the narrator did a wonderful job! I loved the characters, and they’re not 20s or 30s either, so I thought this might check two of your boxes that way. Happy reading!

  33. Carol says:

    The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. This is a memoir written by a 50-something British woman that tells the story of what happened to her and her husband when, through financial loss and a difficult personal situation, they decide to walk the 600 mile stretch of the the Coastal path in southwest England. Her writing not only puts you in this place of wildness and beauty, but gives you touching lessons on the important things in life. Also – the Audio version of Dark Materials makes that series come alive! 🙂

  34. Nancy says:

    My favorite audio books of all time with particularly wonderful performances:
    The Harry Potter books (Jim Dale does an amazing job)
    Water for Elephants
    Educated by Tara Westover (memoir)
    Anything by and read by Maya Angelou
    The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

    More recently enjoyed on Audio:
    Where the Crawdads Sing (sad!)
    Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

  35. Erin says:

    Hi Beth! I’m sure you know about this already, but if you are a Supreme Court junkie, you will love the Radiolab podcast called More Perfect. One of my favorite podcasts ever, and I’m not even particularly into the Supreme Court!

  36. Diane says:

    Hi Beth and Anne,
    I listened to The Pioneers on Audible which was excellent.
    Elizabeth Is Missing might be right for you Beth. Memory loss-murder?
    I also liked Stranger In The Woods which is non-fiction. Hermit in Maine!
    Maize Dobbs series on Audio. Fabulous British narration. Goes through beginning of 1900’s into WW2. Medical, mystery.

  37. Gaye says:

    Meet Me at the Museum on audio was a gift. Absolutely loved the sense of place, England and Sweden, as conveyed through the letters and accents. I’m in a book hangover as I look for my next audio companion!!

  38. Heather Clements says:

    Love the idea I’d pairing nonfiction and fiction books. Another book to maybe pair with Pioneers would be Follow the River by Thom.

  39. Karyn Tageson says:

    What are the names of the actors mentioned in this episode? You all mentioned exceptional actors who record audiobooks.

  40. Mary says:

    Beth, have you read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor and To Dance with the White Dog by Terry Kay? Both deal with aging characters, how they handle moving into that stage of life and how their children consider them.

  41. Marcie Schwindt says:

    I recently read and loved Going Gypsy by David and Veronica James. It’s humorous non-fiction about a couple who retires, sells their house and buys an RV to travel the US when they send their last child off to college. Written from both of their POVs.

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