I’ve recommended books in translation to many guests in the past, but this week we’re venturing away from reading in English, with Parisian reader Florence Breuvart. Because she reads in both French and English, Florence often gets to choose between reading a work in translation, or reading an author’s words in their original language. Today my challenge is recommending Florence’s next reads in both languages.
I’m also chatting with Florence about a very precious personal book collection, what makes a classic a classic, and her ongoing quest to buy fewer books.
Let’s get to it!
Connect with Florence on Instagram!
ANNE: I love the visual of you sitting at your computer or holding your phone reading all the one- and two-star reviews. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 223.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
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Readers, I’ve recommended books in translation to many guests in the past, but this week we’re venturing away from reading in English, with Parisian reader Florence Breuaert. Because she reads in both French and English, Florence often gets to choose between reading a work in translation, or reading an author’s words in their original language. Today, my challenge is recommending Florence’s next reads in both languages. [LAUGHS] I also have some pronunciations challenges as you will hear.
I’m chatting with Florence about a very special personal book collection, what makes a classic a classic, and her ongoing quest to buy fewer books. Let’s get to it!
Florence, welcome to the show.
FLORENCE: Hi, thank you for having me.
ANNE: Oh, it’s my pleasure. So it’s always a delight to talk to international guests. I’m in the United States, so when I say international, that’s from my perspective. I’m sorry. [FLORENCE LAUGHS] But we’ve talked to readers in Europe and in North America and in Australia and New Zealand, but I don’t believe we’ve ever talked to one in Paris, which makes me a little bit jealous but also excited.
FLORENCE: Yeah, I’m very happy to be the first Parisian. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Are you a Paris native?
FLORENCE: No, I began living in Paris for six … It is my sixth year. But I’m from southwest of France.
ANNE: What brought you to the city?
FLORENCE: My job basically, but I like it. It’s … There’s so much to do in Paris.
ANNE: What do you do professionally?
FLORENCE: I’m a lawyer. Yeah, I’ve been doing that for seven years now.
ANNE: And when you say there’s so much to do in Paris, what are your favorites?
FLORENCE: I love going to all the art exhibitions. There’s always one or two going on that I want to see. Two days ago, I went to my sister to a Tolkien exhibition and it was all about his books and his walk and a Lord of the Rings books and movies, and it was amazing.
ANNE: Where was that? That sounds fascinating.
FLORENCE: It’s one of the biggest library, research library in Paris, organized every year some exhibition about like an author or like a theme.
ANNE: I imagine in Paris you have many options for those cultural opportunities.
FLORENCE: Yeah, and we have many, many amazing libraries. International one. I know there is one which is really famous. It’s called Shakespeare & Co, and there is this lovely cafe next to it and you find really good English books actually.
ANNE: Ugh. I haven’t been to Paris since the ‘90s. I would love to go back. I do have a copy of a Jane Austen book, I think it’s Love & Friendship, that my friend brought me from Shakespeare & Co when she was there last year. It has their little bookplate in the front, but it’s not the same as going yourself.
FLORENCE: Yeah, you have to go back.
ANNE: So you said that there were many English books for sale there, and yet you’re a native French speaker. Florence, I know that you read across many different languages and i would love to hear how and why you do that.
FLORENCE: Yeah, I read a lot in English and actually, last year, I read 72 books total and 42 were in English. More than half of them. [LAUGHS] I started when I was a teenager. I think the first book I read in English was Harry Potter.
ANNE: Oh. [LAUGHS]
FLORENCE: Yeah. Not the first one. My sister and I, we were huge fans, and we read the first ones in French, but back then, there were like four months between the times of English version was released and the time the French version was released. So for the fifth book, I think we just couldn’t wait, so we bought [ANNE LAUGHS] the book in English and we read it. I was actually amazed to discover that I could read it in English and understand all the story. So that was kinda a clicking moment. Since then I continue to read books in English. At the beginning, read more easy and light books. I think I read The Gossip Girls books, which is [BOTH LAUGH] not really like really smart literature, but it’s good. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, but it’s great practice.
FLORENCE: Yeah, and you learn a lot actually. You learn a lot of words and expressions that you don’t learn in class, so [LAUGHS] yeah. And then we moved to Minneapolis in Minnesota in the U.S. I went to law school there for a year. I brought some French books with me [LAUGHS] but there is a limit to how many books you can bring with you in your suitcase, so I had to buy books there. So I continued to read regularly in English. Then I went back to Paris. I moved again a few years ago to Dublin in Ireland and again, I was … I had more access to books in English, which was really part of my reading life. And now I’m back in Paris. It’s been a bit more than three years now. I think I love reading more in English because reading this, speaking the language, and so reading or at least listening to books because I also listen to books on audible, I think it’s a really great way to continue to have this some link with the language and not to use all my English. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Yeah, so it used to be out of necessity and now it’s out of choice. What a fun way to stay caught up, and I relate to what you’re saying. I’m not sure how I’d navigate now if I was drop into Germany, but I used to be fluent in German.
ANNE: And I remember picking up novels just to see how much i felt like I could read them when I was in Germany, and I remember reading Bridget Jones’s Diary and the sequels in German. I had a very difficult time with the British names knowing if they were Germans nouns I did not know the name of or just unfamiliar proper name to me. Now I obviously didn’t take it away like you did, but it was heartening to discover that I actually could read it and understand it. But I love that you can listen to the books on audible because that just adds a whole another dimension.
FLORENCE: Yeah, exactly, and the thing I love about being able to read in English is that you have access to like so many books. Like books that has not been translated yet or even books that are from another language that are not translated into French. For example, I read and loved Beartown, the Fredrik Backman.
ANNE: Fredrik Backman.
FLORENCE: Yeah. There is no French version of it, so I find that you also have access to the author’s own words and even though I think translations do such a part and are really good translators out there, it’s not the same as reading in the original language and I feel like you’re always losing a bit when you read a book in translation.
ANNE: Yes, and I always like knowing as a reader that I’m reading the words as the author intended them to be written.
FLORENCE: Mm-hmm. Exactly.
ANNE: How did you decide what books you do want to read in your day to day French?
FLORENCE: Books in other languages like if it’s a Spanish author, I read it in French probably. I’m trying to read actually more books in by French author because I’ve been reading so many books in English that I have to look more back to French author.
ANNE: When did you begin making French authors a priority?
FLORENCE: Just a few months ago and it’s kinda 2020 resolution. [LAUGHS] But because we have so many great authors in French, and I actually saw this tweak on your blog for the 2020 challenge, you picked French authors for books in translation.
ANNE: Yes, I did, but you know what I considered including in that post and that’s the post that went up in January that’s called something like what I’m probably reading for the 2020 reading challenge is a new book that an old podcast guest Mel Joulwan put on my radar called The Governesses. It’s by Anne Serre and she recommended that I read it translated into English, but Serre’s a French author and it’s originally written in French. Is that one that you know?
FLORENCE: No, actually, I don’t know this one. I know the two books you put in your blog post, but I don’t know this one.
ANNE: I know I put in a book that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and still haven’t by Muriel Barbey and that’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
FLORENCE: The other one is actually like the author is both French and Iranian. Disoriential?
ANNE: Ooh, yes!
FLORENCE: I read it in November I think and so it’s both … It’s a family story and it’s both between Iran and France. It’s really good.
ANNE: Which language did you read it in?
FLORENCE: In French.
ANNE: Well I’m glad to hear that. It is on my priority reading shelf, and I’m very much looking forward to reading it soon. Florence, we talked about which language you would read in, but what do you decide what to read?
FLORENCE: So your podcast [LAUGHS] gave me a lot of good recommendations. I also get some recommendations from friends and my family. My sister is also a big reader. Also on bookstagram, I find really good books. Also I have books from my mom that I’m going through. So my mom passed away something like five years ago. She was a really big reader. She had a lot of books, and so when she died, we had to sell the apartment because my sister and I, we’re living in different cities, and my mom was living by herself at the time, so we had to sell the apartment. And we had to go through her stuff, and what we wanted to keep, sell, or throw away. And that included books. She had so many. I decided to actually keep a lot of them, and so five years later, after her death, I’m still picking books from her bookshelves and I really like to have this connection with her.
ANNE: What has she lead you to read?
FLORENCE: We already read Clothes, and we really shared this love for books. One of my favorite teenager book was Gone With The Wind, and she made me discover it and she made me discover the movie and we used to talk about it and watch the movie together. We really loved that. So that’s one book that’s really dear to me. Yeah, after she died, while I was going through her books, I discovered that she had many books by Steinbeck, which is one of my favorite authors, but I didn’t even know we shared this passion for Steinbeck. [LAUGHS]
FLORENCE: At the same time, we never had the chance to talk about it, but it was quite a good surprise to discover that we like yeah, we really have the same taste and we love the same books.
ANNE: Steinbeck in French. [FLORENCE LAUGHS] He would have liked that. How do you know when it’s time to look to your mother’s bookshelves?
FLORENCE: I don’t know. I guess I’m sure that people who have been through a loss can relate, but for me, the hardest part of grief is missing all the little things and like daily things. And for me, it’s being able to talk about books with my mom and being able to like call her and tell her oh my God, I read this book. It’s so good. You should read it. Even if I can’t do that, I can pick a book, knowing that she read it and probably liked it. She kept it, so yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Florence, how would you describe your reading life right now?
FLORENCE: 2019 was one of my biggest reading year yet. So I’m enjoying it because I’m also training for [LAUGHS] a run, a 30k run. I’m trying to increase good audiobooks.
ANNE: Is the increased audiobooks a big change for you?
FLORENCE: A bit. Sometimes I struggle to find a good audiobook. One that because when you’re running, your mind can just wonder, so [LAUGHS] I know that I started some audiobook that I did not finish because I couldn’t keep my attention. I couldn’t stay focused the whole entire book.
ANNE: What kind of books do you like on audio?
FLORENCE: I think mystery is a good genre. I read some contemporary historic fiction. What did not work, nonfiction. I’m not a big nonfiction reader anyway, and I tried on audiobook. I thought maybe this would work because I listen to a lot of podcasts so I thought nonfiction as an audiobook would work, but it did not.
ANNE: I hear many readers who say that they cannot get into fiction on audio, but they do great with nonfiction.
ANNE: But - but I’m with you. I really struggle with nonfiction on audio. [BOTH LAUGH] What are you listening to right now when you’re running?
FLORENCE: I’m listening to Mythos by Stephen Fry. I know you’ve heard of it.
ANNE: Yes! How is that? I haven’t read it.
FLORENCE: It’s good actually. It’s really good. I love Greek Mythology. I love listening to his version. It’s really fun. I think it’s good because it’s a whole big story, but it’s sequenced in small stories. So even if my mind wondered a bit, I’m still able to get back to the story.
ANNE: That’s important.
ANNE: Florence, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’re reading now and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose your favorites?
FLORENCE: Okay, so that was really difficult. [BOTH LAUGH] So I decided to focus on books that I have not heard, or at least not often on podcasts. Also books that I have read on the past year or the past two years because I have a really bad memory, so [LAUGHS] I picked books that I could still remember the story and the characters.
ANNE: I like the way of choosing that. And you are so right. I don’t believe that we have discussed these books on the podcast. We definitely haven’t featured them.
FLORENCE: Oh, I’m glad.
ANNE: Did you have a hard time choosing the book that wasn’t for you?
FLORENCE: I actually hesitated between two. [BOTH LAUGH] Yeah. I picked this one because I think it’s quite an unpopular opinion. So I wanted to express why I’m part of the few that did not enjoy the book.
ANNE: Okay. But first we’re going to start with your favorites.
ANNE: Florence, what did you choose for your first?
FLORENCE: So the first one is Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb, and as I say I don’t think I’ve ever heard Robin Hobb on the podcast and for me, she writes some of the best fantasy books. It’s not my most explored genre. I read Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, but that’s pretty much it. But I love the books by Robin Hobb, and so Ship of Magic, it’s set on a fictional place. It’s quite complicated to sum up, but, so it resolves around ships that can be brought to life when family members of the same family have died on the ship. And so we follow one of these families, and the story begins when the father of the family dies on his ship, and the ship comes alive. So his daughter Althea she assumes and everybody assumes that she will come after her dad and take on the shape of the ship. But really covered that he actually gave the shape to her sister and this decision is going to affect the life of all the family members and many others.
And Robin Hobb, she builds this incredible and complex world. It’s actually revealed gradually throughout the story and the characters’ perspective, so it’s done quite naturally. What I love the most about this books is that it’s not just about magic, about the ships and there are pirates, and all that is part of the universe, but the books are actually more about the characters and how they’re involved in the books. So she’s really good at creating complex personalities and there are even characters that you don’t really enjoy don’t really appreciate at first. But they go through some difficulties. They face some loss, and they love or don’t love, and you find that you appreciate them at the end. So I like that.
And so it’s really character-driven book, which is really my [LAUGHS] type of book. It’s a multi-point of view. So you have to follow all this different perspectives and you’re switching from one characters to another. But she manages to make each story really unique. I like that because there are a lot of female characters in this book. I feel like with many authors, you have one female character who is strong and interesting, but all the others, they are quite shallow or not as interesting. But here, all the female characters are complex and you have a whole spectrum of personalities. And so it’s a trilogy and I already read the second book. Actually waiting a bit to read the last one [LAUGHS] because I don’t want it to be over.
ANNE: I admire your patience. [FLORENCE LAUGHS] I’ve not read these, but I’ve seen them and they are substantial.
FLORENCE: Yeah. They are.
ANNE: Do you enjoy long books?
FLORENCE: I do actually, yeah. I think they give more. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That is good to know.
FLORENCE: Okay. So the second one is Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende. Isabel Allende is actually one of the authors I discovered through my mother’s books after she died. But it was not this one. It was the House of the Spirits. That’s part of my mom’s books. I had it on my TBR for awhile, and I believe I heard it mentioned on the podcast and it gave me the nudge to open her book, and I loved it. I really enjoyed it.
And so I bought Daughter of Fortune a few months ago, and I enjoyed it as well. And so this one is … It takes place in Chile, like mid-19th century and it’s a story of a girl, Eliza, who grew up in a family, in a English family living in a British colony in Chile. And Eliza was adopted by this family. She grew up and she was never really part of the family and when she turns 16, she falls in love with a boy that’s shortly leaving for California where he’s going to find some gold. She decides to follow him.
So it’s all about adventure and her search for her lover that gradually turns into another kind of journey, and she’s going to meet a lot of interesting characters. We also see how her family at the same time in Chile, while she is in California. So I enjoy, like, family stories and I really liked the historical aspect also of the story that’s also taking place in California and San Francisco during the gold rush. I find it quite fascinating.
ANNE: That sounds wonderful. I know we have talked about Isabel Allende on the podcast. We’ve talked about The House of the Spirits, Ava Luna, more recent work like In the Midst of Winter, but I’ve never read Daughter of Fortune. That makes me want to run, pick it up.
FLORENCE: It’s a good one.
ANNE: Now how did you round out your favorites list, Florence?
FLORENCE: So I chose Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami. So this one is quite slow compared to the two books I talked about before, which I don’t mind actually. So this one is a coming-of-age story. It takes place in Tokyo in the ‘60s and it’s the story of Toru, who’s a student and we learn that he lost his best friend a few years ago and he reconnects with his best friend’s girlfriend. So we see him going through this grief, but also like a lot of heartbreaks. So I know it’s been described as a bit of a depressing book, which is true because it talks about loneliness and death and grief and all that, but I find that there is also a lot of hope in the story as it is written. It’s really shows how life can be at the same time painful and full of love, but at the same time, you can heal and you can move on and there is always hope. It’s really atmospheric and I really loved the character. I really loved Toru, even though I was sometimes angry at his choices in the book. But I think he’s a really, really great character.
ANNE: I have not read that Haruki Murakami. I’ve read his book about running and I’ve been meaning to read 1Q84 for ages, but I haven’t read Norwegian Wood.
FLORENCE: 1Q84 is quite different actually. It’s almost like it’s two different authors. It’s quite weird. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, that’s so interesting. I noticed that you said it combines grief and hopefulness.
ANNE: Is that a theme we see in your favorites?
FLORENCE: Yes, actually, yeah. I like books reflect life, even if it’s through like a fantasy books, but you can … The fact that you can see yeah, all the things that you go through life reflect in a book, I really enjoy that.
ANNE: I’ll keep that in mind. Now, Florence, it’s time for unpopular opinions apparently. [FLORENCE LAUGHS] What was the book that wasn’t for you?
FLORENCE: So the book that was not for me is Educated by Tara Westover. I actually can see why people liked the book and why it received so much praise. I did not hate the book [LAUGHS] it’s just that that while I was reading it, there were many things that were bothering me and at first, I couldn’t really put my finger on it. So it’s a true story. She’s telling her story and I could not help but feel that some elements were missing, and that it was biased. And that I did not have all the facts and that was kinda bothering me.
When I read a book and I don’t really enjoy it, I usually go on Goodreads [LAUGHS] and go through all the two-stars comments to read from people that - that felt the same way. I think I still have the need to feel validated in a way, [BOTH LAUGH] so I … Even though I recognize that it’s a story that is really impressive and the way how she managed to go through all this abuse she went through when she was a child, it’s really impressive. And I can see how she chose that education should be a priority and I would think is important. But despite all that, there was still something that was missing from it.
ANNE: I did not realize that this at the time I read it and I have to admit that I would be more in your camp, I read this shortly after I read The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah, which I really enjoyed, and I felt like with Educated, I was reading the same book in a different genre that was not as satisfying. What I heard from readers, well from What Should I Read Next listeners, is that the audio narrators are the same on both, and it was very jarring for them to listen to those books which came out close-ish to the same time, back to back on audio. And that the stories just got a little jumbled because the stories were similar and then the voice was identical and that it was just a very strange experience. I didn’t know at the time I read it shortly after it came out, that her family’s objected to the content of the book. So I’m just thinking about what you said about how you felt like you weren’t getting the whole story.
ANNE: Tell me more about reading all the negative reviews on Goodreads.
FLORENCE: I don’t do that when I like a book. [LAUGHS] But when I don’t enjoy the book I’m reading, sometimes I do it while I’m reading it. I really need to know why and sometimes I feel it’s difficult to articulate [LAUGHS] so I go on Goodreads and I read the reviews. More often than not, I find someone that felt the same thing that I’m feeling and yeah, I’m like yeah, I’m not the only one not enjoying this book that got so many great reviews. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: So that is validating, but you know, there are other reasons than validation to read those negative reviews like I think it was Jamie Golden who said on a episode here on What Should I Read Next that when she’s deciding whether or not to read a book, she always reads three positive reviews, but also three negative reviews to see why the people who didn’t care for it felt that way. I’m not saying you need … I like your system, Florence, and I’m glad it’s working for you, and I love the visual of you sitting at your computer or holding your phone reading all the one and two-star reviews. [FLORENCE LAUGHS] But for readers who are wondering how those negative reviews could serve a purpose, well they can be validation, but they can also help you decide if a book is right for you. Because what we all the time at What Should I Read Next listeners is they can listen to you describe Educated, Florence, and think oh, that actually sounds something I do want to read, so we know that those books that aren’t for you are often right for another reader. And when you get on Goodreads and you see those negative reviews, you can see if they thought was it poorly written or was it just completely not to their taste? I love that you do that and thank you for sharing that with us here.
FLORENCE: No problem.
ANNE: What have you been reading recently?
FLORENCE: So I just finished rereading Jane Eyre. I was reading it in English for the first time actually. I really enjoyed it. And I started The Fact of the Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich [LAUGHS] I’m not sure if I’m saying it right.
ANNE: It sounds good to me.
FLORENCE: It’s … I really like it. It’s nonfiction. But I think the way she’s written, she included a lot of conversation and details that are adding to the story and make it a bit more like fiction. I think I’m halfway through it and I’m really enjoying it.
ANNE: What inspired you to pick that one up?
FLORENCE: I think I read so many great things about it, and also the fact that it’s about disparity and a bit about judicial system in the U.S., which I studied [LAUGHS] so I found this an immensely interesting.
ANNE: Florence, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
FLORENCE: One thing I would love to do in 2020 that is to read more classics. I used to have part of my TBR list dedicated to classics, but I got a bit distracted by new books. So I would love to read more classics, but not necessarily 18th century books, but more books that are still referenced years after they were published. It would be actually helpful to another of my 2020 goal which is to buy less books. [ANNE LAUGHS] Since last year, I’ve been trying to go more to the library, to borrow books from friends, or even to use buy used books, and it is a bit easier to do that when the books you are looking for have been published for awhile. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Very true. Okay, books that we’re still talking about that are still apart of the conversation.
ANNE: Alright, Florence, your favorites were Ship of Magic by Robin Hobb; Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende; and Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami, which you pointed out was slower paced, but you still loved it. Not for you was Educated by Tara Westover, and then recently you’ve been reading Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte and Mythos by Stephen Fry. And you’re looking to read more classics. Alright, I have set myself up in a dangerous situation here, which is speaking French to a French-speaker. We talked about how I studied German, right? I can barely read French off a restaurant menu. [FLORENCE LAUGHS] But there’s a French author that has a connection to Isabel Allende. I like that connection. I like that he’s a modern classic and think you may enjoy his work. The author is Henri Troyat. Is this a name you know?
FLORENCE: Yeah, I do.
ANNE: Have you read him?
FLORENCE: No, I don’t think so.
ANNE: Well I think I’m going to be glad about that. Isabel Allende has said in interviews that his works, well specifically his book La Lumiere des Juste is a book that is always in her life, is one she relies on. And she said that this book, which is actually a four book series, and he is a prolific writer. He actually did a well regarded, apparently, fun-to-read biography on Tolstoy, which I thought of when you mentioned that you’d just been to the exhibit, but Isabel Allende has said that she’s read these books in French as a teenager and they really changed the way she felt about books she wanted to read and the books she wanted to write. They were the first historical novels that she loved. They were all about family. They had tragedy and hope and unforgettable characters. They are often political and they had a lot of social conflict as well. What I think of in America as being the middle march kind, often when she writes, this is how you put it, that she smell Troyat’s ghost watching over her shoulder. So the one that she cited is La Lumière des Justes, which is a four-part series, and for English speakers you’re out of luck. Only it looks like the first part has been translated into English, and that is called The Brotherhood of the Red Poppy, and it is not easy to find. But that was printed in the United States in 1961. This book is from the late ‘50s for French readers.
His best known work is La Neige En Deuil, for English speakers that would be Snow in Morning. And this is from the early ‘60s. I’m not sure if it’s in translation for English readers, but I can tell you that it was made into a film with Spencer Tracy, so we could see it that way in the United States if we don’t speak French. The story is actually based on a real plane crash that happened in the ‘50s. It’s Air India Flight 245. Podcast listeners will know that the plot makes me think a little bit of Visible Empire, which is based on another French plane crash actually. In this book, a plane crashes on a snowy peak and the protagonist is trying to figure out why. What happened? Who did it happen to? And how did events conspire to unfold in this way? Troyat was prolific in French. He just died in 2007, but was writing right up to the end. So if you like him, you have so much across multiple genres to choose from. how does that sound?
FLORENCE: That sounds actually right for me. I love family stories. I know that he’s well known in French, and also I was checking also, but I haven’t read anything by him, so I’m looking forward to start.
ANNE: Florence, for your second book, you mentioned that you really enjoyed Greek mythology and I’m wondering about a contemporary I think British novel that has a connection to mythology as in it’s actually a retelling of Antigone. The book is by Kamila Shamsie, and it’s called Home Fire. Is this one that you know?
FLORENCE: No. Not at all.
ANNE: This book was long listed for the 2017 Man Booker Prize. If you’re not familiar with the story of Antigone, that is absolutely fine. You won’t miss anything, but if you do know it, or do a refresher first, first of all, you’re going to know exactly how it ends, but also you’ll be able to appreciate the story on another level as you’ll get to see how Shamsie decided to reinterpret and reimagine the plot points of the old myth.
This becomes a story of two sisters traveling between Boston and London. It does feel so modern. You really wouldn’t know this had ancient roots. The first line is “Isma was going to miss her flight.” She’s in the airport. She’s desperate to make her flight. She thinks she’s allowed enough time, but she’s wearing her hijab, and so she gets pulled off for special screening and you hear her internal commentary speech talking about that. This is the story of two sisters and one of them falls in love with someone she thinks is the perfect man. His father is a really important person in the British government.
What these sisters don’t want anyone to find out is their brother got in trouble for something they don’t want anyone to know about. And what is not immediately apparent to the one sister and her new boyfriend is who they are to each other and how their families can’t be joined because of political appearances. They get swept up into something bigger than themselves with devastating consequences. This book has a shattering powerful ending. Oh, it’s just so good. When I look at your books, I see that you really like stories that feel like they have weight and significance that like really engaging, interesting, enjoyable stories to read on the story level that also have deeper meaning that speaks to the human condition. And Home Fire really does both those things very well. How does that sound?
FLORENCE: Ah, that sounds good. I love books that are meaningful things, and I like into the description, I like the fact that it’s also about brother and sisters. I feel like you don’t see that relationships that much in books, so yeah, I’m looking forward to reading it.
ANNE: Home Fire was just published in 2017. It is not a classic. Neither is the one I’m about to recommend. I’m just going to sneak it in here. This is a YA science fiction series that has some elements that you like, but I’m not certain it’s right for you. You may enjoy listening to it on the run, which is why I’m going to sneak it in here. The book is called A Spark of White Fire, the first book in the celestial trilogy series by Sangu Mandanna. Easy to read. It’s fun. It has a meaning that goes deeper than just the story. It’s about love and belonging. How to cope when your allegiance is torn.
You describe Ship of Magic and you said that it was an epic fantasy that had a sentient ship. A Spark of White Fire has a lot of those same elements and it’s also, it is inspired by an ancient Indian story as well. It’s a loose retelling of the Mahabrahata, which I thought you might find to be a fun connection ‘cause we’ve seen that interest in your books. So this book is about an estranged princess. Nobody knows that she’s still alive, but she comes back to her family’s kingdom to claim what is hers because the kingdom is facing something dire and she believes she is needed.
In this book, there’s a sentient warship whose name is Titania and that is going to be the prize that goes to the warrior who wins the king’s competition. Esmae comes back after a 17-year absence to take what’s hers for the sake of her family. I was not familiar with the myth before hand, but you definitely don’t need to be to enjoy it. But if you do, again, just like Home Fire, that’s going to be another layer of readerly interest. How does that sound? Is that too far outfield for you? You hadn’t mentioned any YA, but it could be fun.
FLORENCE: Yeah, I don’t read YA. I don’t really know why. As you say, I think it might be really good to listen on audiobook. So yeah, I’m adding this one.
ANNE: Maybe worth a try. But finally going back to a more modern classic, I’m wondering if you’ve read the works of A. S. Byatt.
ANNE: Okay. I’m glad to hear that. So she is a contemporary British author. She’s still writing. She’s been writing for a very long time. The book that already I think has modern classic status is her novel Possession, which is a literary mystery that’s been compared to the works of Jorge Luis Borges. It’s about two scholars who are researching the lives of Victorian poets. This is what they do. They only care about the work and they are thrown together in this quest to discover these original manuscripts. These manuscripts feature heavily in the book. You read a lot of the invented works of Randolph Henry Ash, and Christabel LaMotte. You read their letters and their journals and their poetry.
There’s a plot line unfolding in centuries prior and then there’s a story unfolding right now in the present day for these two scholars. And these in parallel plot lines, you have two love stories unfolding as we get to know all four characters as the readers and we watch the poets get to know each other and the scholars get to know each other. This is a standalone work, widely praised. This was published in 1990. So we’re 30 years out at this point. I don’t know if that counts as a thorough classic yet, but I believe it’s a modern one, and it’s one that’s definitely still being talked about and still relevant to literature today. How does that sound?
FLORENCE: I think it can be still be a classic even if it was published 30 years ago.
ANNE: Well you know a good indication that her early works are still relevant is that they just last year started going into audio versions for the first time. Possession came first, and I know that her 2009 novel, The Children’s Book, came shortly thereafter.
ANNE: That was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, the British actress who does a good amount of audiobook narration and she’s one of my favorites.
FLORENCE: Oh! Good to know.
ANNE: For more A. S. Byatt, she has a wonderful series that begins with The Virgin in the Garden. This is the first book in her Frederica Potter quartet, loosely named after the protagonist, and I read this forever ago. I’d really like to read it again. This series follows the unusual life of a Cambridge Academic starting the 1950s. Byatt is so good at writing realistic, female characters, and these novels are smart, leisurely paced, like the Murakami, so I like that’s not a downside for you, but they’re not slow. Like they’re thoughtfully paced. They’re definitely cerebral, but I think for your reading life, that will be just fine. That was the series that begins with The Virgin in the Garden by A. S. Byatt.
FLORENCE: Good. I’m always looking also for good books with great female characters, so I think that’ll be a good one.
ANNE: I think she’ll be a good fit for you then. Florence, we covered some ground. We talked about Henri Troyat, specifically La Lumière des Justes, we talked about Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie, briefly detoured to A Spark of White Fire, and then we finished with A S Byatt. Possession and The Virgin in the Garden. Of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
FLORENCE: I think I will try to find Home Fire. I really liked the Antigone story when I was young, so I really want to read this retelling.
ANNE: Well I hope you’re successful and that you enjoy it. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
FLORENCE: Thank you for having me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Florence, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/223 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can find Florence on Instagram @ShouldIReadIt_
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
● Beartown, by Fredrik Backman
● The Governesses, by Sarah Serre
● The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
● Crescent, by Diana Abu-Jaber
● Disoriental, by Negar Djavadi
● Author John Steinbeck (try Of Mice and Men)
♥ Ship of Magic, by Robin Hobb
♥ Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende
♥ Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
● What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami
● 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami
▵ Educated, by Tara Westover
● Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë
● The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
● Mythos, by Stephen Fry
● La Lumiere des Juste, by Henri Troyat
● The Brotherhood of the Red Poppy, by Henri Troyat
● La Neige En Deuil, by Henri Troyat
● Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie
● A Spark of White Fire, by Sangu Mandanna
● Possession, by A. S. Byatt
● The Children’s Book, by A. S. Byatt
● The Virgin in the Garden, by A. S. Byatt
● Shakespeare & Company in Paris, France
● Blog post: What I’m (probably) reading for the 2020 reading challenge
What do you think Florence should read next?