Each week on WSIRN, I help a guest (and hopefully some of you) choose your next read. Well I hope this week you’re planning on making your next read my new book Don’t Overthink It–which is out today!
I am always hearing from listeners about connections you’ve made either by being on the show yourself or by making friends in the blog or instagram comment sections. Today’s guest Elizabeth Barnhill had one of these delightful stories to share. She popped into my DMs recently to say “Anne, I wanted to let you know that you are a bookstore matchmaker. I was listening to your show 2 years ago when you interviewed Alison Frenzel about opening up Fabled bookshop in my hometown…”
I can let Elizabeth and Alison share the rest of that story, as they both join me today to chat about what it’s been like to open an indie in Waco, TX. Then we’ll get down to some book matchmaking and set Elizabeth up with 3 titles to read between all the advanced readers copies that she reads for a living now.
I can’t wait to come check out Fabled Bookshop for myself on Tuesday March 24. You can visit our events page to get tickets and get the lowdown on all my spring travels. Check it out, I’d love to meet you in person.
Now, let’s get to today’s episode!
ALISON: There are pop rocks inside of our drinks because in the BFG, the bubbles have to go down, so we really had to do our research. [ANNE LAUGHS] What would make bubbles go down?
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 225.
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.
First up today, I have exciting news. My new book Don’t Overthink It is here!!!! It’s out today, March 3rd, and I’m so happy you can now get it IN YOUR HANDS. You may have heard me read chapter 13 back on episode 216. If not, go back and listen, and not just because so much of the feedback we heard on that episode was wow, I don’t generally consider myself an overthinker but I need this book right now.
Buy your copy wherever new books are sold: your favorite independent bookstore, your go-to online retailer, or get a signed copy now from my local indie Carmichael’s bookstore. I will also be signing heaps of copies on tour starting this week. I’ll be in Madison, CT at RJ Julia on Wednesday and The Strand bookstore in New York City on Friday. I hope to see you there or at another one of my events happening this spring. Visit modernmrsdarcy.com/events to get all the information.
For now, to order your copy or for more information about Don’t Overthink It text OVERTHINK to 44222. That’s one word OVERTHINK to 44222. This book is going to help you stop overthinking, but to get more info about the book and how to order your copy text just the word OVERTHINK to 44222.
Readers, I am always hearing from listeners about connections you’ve made either by being on the show yourself or by making friends in the blog or instagram comment sections. Or in person at my events. Today’s guest Elizabeth Barnhill had one of these delightful stories to share. She popped into my DMs recently to say, “Anne, I wanted to let you know that you are a bookstore matchmaker. I was listening to your show 2 years ago when you interviewed Alison Frenzel about opening up Fabled bookshop in my hometown…”
She goes on, but I’m going to let Elizabeth and Alison share the rest of that story, as they both join me today to chat about what it’s been like to open an indie in Waco, TX. Then we’ll get down to some book matchmaking and set Elizabeth up with 3 titles to read between all the advanced readers copies that she reads for a living now.
Let’s get to it!
Alison, welcome back to What Should I Read Next, and Elizabeth, it’s a pleasure to have you here. Welcome to the show.
ELIZABETH: Thank you for having us.
ALISON: Thanks so much.
ANNE: This story actually starts in May of 2017. I talked to Alison for the podcast. We published our episode #77 that day, it was called “How to Save the Shop Around the Corner,” and if you’re thinking, that reference sounds familiar. Yes, it totally does! In that episode, among plenty of other things, literary matchmaking, we talked about our loves and hates, and we also talked about the bookstore in Waco, TX that Alison was in the process of creating with her co-founder Kimberly. I didn’t realize that something happened that very day that the podcast episode was released. I mean you both did, but I didn’t realize until I got a message from Elizabeth back in the fall?
ELIZABETH: I was listening to your podcast that fateful day in May, and heard that there was the possibility of an independent bookstore being opened in Waco, my hometown, and my jaw nearly hit the floor. I’m a huge independent bookstore fanatic, and I always dreamed of living in a town that had an independent bookstore. Just so happened that my sister was a friend of Alison’s. And I called her up, and I said, I know this sounds weird, but I really want to talk to you because I’m just so excited about the possibility of having an independent bookstore in Waco. And fast forward several years, and now I’m the book buyer at the store. So not only are you a book matchmaker, but you helped us come together.
ANNE: It’s funny when I’ve been out on book tour and at events, like I was at SIBA, the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance show back in September, I met another pair of readers, the owner and an employee who met thanks to What Should I Read Next. And I’m sure there’s many more, and readers, we would love to hear that. You can email us. Brenna@modernmrsdarcy.com and Anne@modernmrsdarcy.com, we would love to know. So now you’re the book buyer at Fabled, a bookstore that is now up and running and operating, and like, flooding my social media. It’s so photogenic and beautiful, and I can’t wait to see it for myself on March 24th when I’m there on book tour for Don’t Overthink It. Tell me a little bit about opening your doors to the public after all these years.
ALISON: I would say it feels a lot like having another baby. [LAUGHS] Which I would have never said if I had not gone through it because it’s just all the behind-the-scenes labor that nobody sees, the things you have to understand and know that you never thought you’d have to understand and know. But we just kept pushing forward and taking steps forward and we opened in August of 2019, and we’ve been open right now, our little baby is five months old. And so it also feels like we can be away from the store for a little bit. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know like, you can leave your child at home with a babysitter and it’s going to be okay, but it’s been so amazing. We have just felt the enthusiasm of the Waco community. There’s a huge reading population here, and they have just celebrated us and it’s just been wonderful to connect to people locally. And we even have people who’ve driven up from Austin and down from Dallas to come visit us and it’s been wonderful.
ANNE: I’d love to hear more about Waco as a community. I’ve only spent maybe two hours of my life in Waco. I’m making amends. [ALISON AND ELIZABETH LAUGH] But honestly, true confessions. I was on book tour for I’d Rather Be Reading, and I was driving from Austin up to Fort Worth from Book People up to Monkey & Dog, and my friend Tsh Oxenreider, who I know you’ve hosted an event for in the store that looked like so much fun. I was wishing so hard I could be there.
ANNE: She said, hey, you may want to stop off, you know, just for fun, because you can, ‘cause you got a car, just see the Silos. You can say you did it, maybe get a scented candle and think of me. So my friend and I, we stopped. We browsed. I had no idea that was a thing, ‘cause I don’t watch HGTV. [ELIZABETH AND ALISON LAUGH] I know it’s a college town ‘cause we have friends at Baylor, and I know I have some dear friends who have moved there and really loved the community, but I don’t, I don’t know why. Like tell me a little bit about what Waco feels like and why it’s such a great place to have an indie bookstore.
ALISON: My opinion is that Waco is just the right size because, well, first of all, it has a college, and then you also have enough of a population that you don’t see everyone you know everywhere you go, but you see just enough people to feel connected. I think it’s a community especially that has rallied for our downtown community, especially since the Silos just opened. I mean, we’re of course thrilled for the Gaines, and love them and learned to kinda figure out what it looks like to operate. Now it’s like a tourist town in some ways. That has been like a nuanced that everyone’s had to learn in the last few years, but it’s been so great. And it’s been fun too because you’re probably two blocks away from the Silos, and so we often have people who visit Magnolia come over and visit us as well. So it’s been really, really exciting.
ELIZABETH: It’s also convenient to so many places, I mean, an hour and a half from Dallas. We’re an hour and a half from Austin, hour and a half from College Station, and we’re right on the busiest highway, well, the most well-traveled highway in America.
ANNE: What?! Really?
ELIZABETH: It’s true. Yes. So if you’re, you know, driving from Austin to Dallas, which a lot of people do, we’re about a minute off of highway 35. I love our community. I’m not originally from here. I’ve lived here I guess for 30 years, but living in a college town, there’s just a lot of culture and a beautiful place to be.
ANNE: I can’t wait to be back and I also know something about our listeners. We are the kinds of people who will drive many, many miles and hours out of our way to visit an independent bookstore that we’ve heard about, that we’ve listened to the owner or the book buyer on a podcast, that we saw a beautiful photo of on social media. So far, my experience of Fabled has been limited to second hand accounts from readers who say, oh my gosh, I’m so glad you told me Fabled existed because I went and it was amazing, which makes me think, you know, I’m so glad, but also [LAUGHS] so jealous.
Something that is very clear just from seeing how you laid out the store and the kind of books you have on the shelves, but also, the details of the architecture in the little nooks and crannies you created, it seems like it was very much designed with the whole reading and bookstore experience in mind. I’d loved to hear a little bit about what kind of vibe you were going for with your store.
ALISON: We really set out to be really intentional about little details about the store. Part of our mission statement involves kind of embracing the nostalgia factor of reading. So we have lots of little elements in the store, a banner that says “long live the bookshop,” a secret entrance into the kids’ section, which is a wardrobe. Our event space is called the spare room, or “the spare ‘oom” if you are a Chronicles of Narnia Reader. We have a huge wooden owl that greets you when you come in. We just really wanted to set out to delight and surprise people.
When you first fall in love with a book, when you start reading, I feel like is kinda the experience as delight and just awe and that’s something we’ve embraced and our inventory especially too, we wanted books that are contemplative and offer empathy and that goes from fiction to nonfiction, which is an undertaking to find all of those. But it’s something that we really set out to do because as probably every reader knows, every independent bookstore has its own flavor. So it was tempting to kinda listen to what everybody else is doing, but we really tried to lean in to what do we love about books and what do we think our community will embrace too?
ANNE: You said that you had a very serious responsibility at Fabled, and that is protector of the vibe.
ALISON: My staff has named me that because I do. I get very … Well, the funny part is that anytime there’s music playing, I’m very particular what kind of music it should be, so a lot of times I’ll change the music. [LAUGHS] When I come in, of course, it’s all good natured, but it is. I think a vibe is so important and everything kinda comes into that. I mean, if you hosted a party, you know that. Will it be too hot? Will it be too cold? How loud does the music need to be? Where do people put their things? Do they, do we have plugs in the right places? But not too many, because you know [LAUGHS] don’t want everyone just camping out, so there’s so many things to consider and we really want to just offer so much hospitality and even our cafe, we have lots of drinks that we offer. We have raspberry cordial, we have a muggle mocha, and we even serve Frobscottle from The BFG, which if you’re familiar with Frobscottle, there are pop rocks inside of our drinks because in the BFG, the bubbles have to go down, so we really had to do our research. What would make bubbles go down? [ELIZABETH AND ANNE LAUGH]
ANNE: In 2016, did you imagine you’d be researching pop rocks?
ALISON: I always laugh because my Pinterest algorithms are always all over the place [ANNE LAUGHS] just the things that I’m searching.
ANNE: First of all, what you’re saying reminds me of something I think I’m always saying about books, we don’t need to hear the details about the plot. We don’t need to hear precisely what happened. What readers want to know, what I know you can really speak about in a way that we all like [LAUGHS] lean forward and want to listen is what the reading experience was like. How did a book make you feel? And when you’re describing what you wanted the Fabled experience to be like, is what I kept coming back to, like, when people leave your bookstore, they may not remember exactly how you laid out your genre sections, but they’ll remember what it felt like being in the store. And also I keep thinking every time I see a photo of your gorgeous sofa on Instagram, I think I have never seen a sofa like that in a bookstore. So it’s interesting to hear you say that you know you’re not doing things the way that’s necessarily always recommended. And I really admire that and the results that you’re getting from that.
ELIZABETH: I’m somebody who’s been a huge independent bookstore lover for years and anywhere I go, I will find an independent bookstore and I once drove 3 hours out of the way just to visit Square Books ‘cause I always heard it was so great in Oxford, MS. So I feel like I know what I’m talking about. [ANNE LAUGHS] I walk into Fabled and I’m just stunned that I get to be a part of it. It's so beautiful. I just love sitting in a sofa and watching people come in and the look of wonder in their faces, so I know I’m biased, but I am so proud of what we have in Waco. So thankful that we have it here.
ANNE: So you and Alison met and you hit it off, and then at what point did you all determine that you were going to work for Fabled and that book buyer is the right role for you?
ALISON: When I met Elizabeth, I was hoping some way she would have a role in it because she reads so much and even just within our community when she posts about a book that she reads, there’s always so much engagement. People will know her around here for her reading, and she’s a speedreader, which I’m always jealous of [LAUGHS] because she just gets to read so much more than the general public. Once we started and we knew we needed an adult book buyer and a children’s book buyer, and I was like, this would be the perfect person for it, and if she would take the job I would just be thrilled. Like it was made for her.
ANNE: Elizabeth, tell me what you do as a book buyer.
ELIZABETH: Well, there’s so many things. Well, I love being in the store, but my very favorite thing to do is meet people who walk in and they say, “can you recommend a book?” to me, so I’m always channeling my Modern Mrs Darcy [LAUGHS] and finding out what they love [ANNE LAUGHS], what books have they read lately, and introducing people to books they’ve never heard of before and then hearing how much they love them. That’s - that’s the most rewarding part of my job. Another thing I love in the store is we have an end cap that’s just book club picks, so we have, you know, what these national clubs are reading as well as our local book clubs. Everyone has a different name and they’re all fun to see, and so I’m in contact with book clubs all over the community every month to find out what they’re reading, which is so much fun.
I read a lot of literature on, you know, what books are coming out, talking to publishers about books I need to read. I’m doing a lot of reading ahead of time. Right now I’m reading books that are coming out in May and June. One of my favorite things to do which we just hosted our first reading to preview, is having an event where the community comes in and I kinda talk about all the new books coming out that ... in the next couple of months. That’s the biggest thing is seeing the trends, what Waco is wanting to read, what we need to buy more of, what we need to abandon, as well as trying to find the next great book. It’s a wonderful job. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well it has been so fun for me and for so many of our listeners to watch y’all’s doors open, welcoming readers in. So thanks for letting us in on that journey.
ALISON: Absolutely. Thanks so much, Anne. Thanks for cheering us on. We truly appreciate it.
ANNE: Oh, it is an honor and a privilege. So, Elizabeth, as a book buyer, you get to think about what readers in general want to be reading, but you’re also an individual reader with your own taste and preferences and styles and history.
ELIZABETH: It’s been a challenge at the job to know exactly what I like to read, but also know that I’m not the only person and trying to find books that maybe aren’t to my taste, but are well written. It’s been a unique challenge in the job.
ANNE: Is that anything you really thought about before?
ELIZABETH: No, not at all. You know, even finding books with similar topics, but wanting to find the ones that are written the best way and as Alison said, finding books that really create empathy. A fun and unique challenge.
ANNE: Elizabeth, I’d loved to hear what that thought process looks like for you when you’re considering what titles to carry. Can you walk me through, like, I mean, I know that even though Fabled has a pretty large inventory, I think Alison told me there are 15,000 books on the shelf.
ALISON: Mmhm. Yup.
ANNE: That’s a really broad selection for a bookstore, but that is not everything by any stretch of the imagination. So every book has to earn its spot on the shelf.
ANNE: When you’re looking at similar titles, how do you decide what makes it onto the shelves and what perhaps readers can find on their own and not in your bookstore?
ELIZABETH: Well fiction for me is a lot easier. I feel like I have a fairly good grasp of well written fiction, and again, my whole life I have research books and what people say about books. There are books out there that again are not to my taste, but are well received, so that’s something I certainly keep in mind. Mind, body, self-help, even society books are a little more difficult ‘cause a lot of them don’t create the empathy but are important books, so a lot of times we just guess. We’re fishing right now. [ANNE AND ELIZABETH LAUGH] It’s just a guess.
ANNE: Wait, what do - what do you mean by society book?
ELIZABETH: Not regency. [ANNE AND ELIZABETH LAUGH] More like current events, that sort of thing. We’re trying to find books that are again, important, but are a little more empathetic. They’re a little harder to find I guess. We’re giving ourselves time to give, we’re just going to throw them out there and see what will sell and we’re still trying to figure out what the Waco and central Texas community wants. It’s been fun.
Every day, I love to check, what is sold? You know, what are people excited about? It’s surprising to me how many classics sell. We’re constantly selling classics and reordering classics, so that makes me very proud of our community. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Can you give me a feel for how many readers walk in the door in search of a certain book? Like they’re on a mission. They want to know if you have a specific title, and they’re going to leave with it that day, and how many readers walk in not knowing what they want to read, but they decide while they’re in the store?
ELIZABETH: Oh, I think I would say 50/50, you know, people come in and you can tell the ones … I actually had a woman a couple weeks ago say I am having surgery on my knee and I would love for you to pick out six books for me. And here’s what I love. Those are so much fun. [LAUGHS] I love talking to people who don’t know. They just say, I just read The Dutch House. What books can you recommend that are like that?
ANNE: Elizabeth, has choosing books with the whole community in mind change the way you think about your own reading life?
ELIZABETH: I definitely am reading books that I would not have picked out on my own based on recommendations from other readers who come into Fabled, as well as recommendations from publishers. So the more I read, the more I realize there are books, there are more books out there that I want to read, which is a wonderful problem to have. [ANNE AND ELIZABETH LAUGH]
ANNE: It’s wonderful and it’s a problem.
ELIZABETH: It is, yes. I’m a very goal-oriented person and I have to realize I will never read all the books. I will try, but I will never read them all. So I’ve got to be okay with that.
ANNE: [SIGHS] Indeed. Aside from that sentiment, yes, I feel like I’m constantly re-realizing that.
ELIZABETH: Yes, it’s a good discipline. You’re just going to have to do the best you can.
ANNE: Well, Elizabeth, you know how this works. Are you ready to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, what you’re reading now, and then we’ll talk about what you can read next?
ELIZABETH: I’m ready to go.
ANNE: All right. Elizabeth, how did you choose these books?
ELIZABETH: You know, I read two or three books a week and I’ve done for most of my life. So I have a very good idea of categories of books that I liked. It’s very easy for me to pick out a book and go, oh, that’s exactly what I want, so I’m going to kinda go with a good example and different categories of books that I’m really drawn to.
ANNE: That sounds like a really interesting way to choose, so what did you choose for your first book for your first category?
ELIZABETH: First one is one I read last year. The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal. There’s so much that I loved about this book. It starts off, it’s the relationship between two sisters and it’s fractured when one of the sisters tricks the other one out of her inheritance. We see their lives take on two vastly different trajectories. Let’s say, one makes a ton of money in the beer industry, but doesn’t succeed in her relationships. The other one does not do well financially but succeeds in making people happy.
So for decades they go on and don’t speak to each other and then one day, one of their granddaughters comes into the picture and needs help from both of these sisters. So at the heart of the story is hope and redemption, forgiveness and a group of awesome old ladies who rescues the granddaughter. There’s a lot of beer making, which I know nothing about, but I love a story about forgiveness and redemption. Probably one of my favorite types of books to read.
And also, for 20 years, I was a speech pathologist before I became a book buyer. I worked with the elderly and I feel like they’re sorta a disenfranchised members of our society, so any kind of book that has an older person who kinda redeems himself or saves the day, it just thrills me. Sorta like A Man Called Ove, Arthur Truluv, these stories really speak to me.
ANNE: You know that for our purposes today, it really doesn’t matter what I thought about this book, but I did really love The Lager Queen, and I know absolutely nothing about beer. Ah, this was just such a fun, feel-good story.
ELIZABETH: You know, life is hard. It’s good to read a happy, sweet book. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Not like plenty of hard things don’t happen, but it’s just so ultimately hopeful, and I really enjoyed it.
ELIZABETH: Yes, yes, and the book he wrote before that, Kitchens of the Great Midwest was also one I really liked. It was told in a unique way and I just, I really enjoy this author. I think anything he writes I’ll read.
ANNE: I haven’t read his first one yet.
ELIZABETH: Oh, you need to. And I think it’s a good audible book.
ANNE: Oh, that’s good to hear, ‘cause I love The Lager Queen on audio. I thought it was fantastic in that format. Elizabeth, what did you choose for your second favorite book and also much loved genre?
ELIZABETH: Okay, so I am going with nostalgia with this one. When I was in high school, I made a goal for myself every summer to read a really long book. I read Gone with the Wind one year; Roots one year; and The Thorn Birds one year, and all three of them were life changing books for me. But I think, or you talked about Gone With the Wind and Thorn Birds on your podcast, so I’m going to go with Roots by Alex Haley.
Alex Haley spoke at the University where my father was a professor in the late ‘80s and they bought his book. So I happened to pick up the book in high school and just stumbled upon one of the best books I’ve ever read. Alex Haley traces his lineage back to ancestors who are brought over from Africa on a slave ship, thanks to stories that his grandmother told him. So the story starts with Kunta Kinte and the 1700s and goes all the way to 1900s. I could not put this story down. I was so engrossed in the story. A lot of people are familiar with the mini-series that came, maybe in the ‘70s or ‘80s. The book is of course so much better than TV, so I highly recommend it to anyone.
ANNE: I haven’t read that one yet, but I love the way … You’re absolutely right. We haven’t had Roots featured on the podcast before, but we have The Thorn Birds and Gone With the Wind. So I like that you’re bringing yet another heavy book that many people have heard of but haven’t necessarily read into the light here.
ELIZABETH: It’s just very impactful for me as a high schooler to read this story.
ANNE: That is not the book every high schooler would necessarily gravitate to.
ELIZABETH: That’s me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: The longer the better. How do you feel about your 700-pagers these days?
ELIZABETH: I’m all for it. In fact, at the bookstore this year, Stephen Harrigan came. He has a book called Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas, and it’s 900 pages and I read the whole thing and he actually wrote in the front of my book that I deserve a prize for reading the whole book so. [BOTH LAUGH] So I do not shy away from large books, no.
ANNE: Elizabeth, what title did you choose to complete your favorites collection?
ELIZABETH: Well I wanted to give a nod to my love of nonfiction, specifically I don’t know what this says about me but I am a sucker for natural disaster stories, so I chose The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. I love Erik Larson. Anything so … Timothy Egan is someone who’s I would say similar to Erik Larson where he takes a story that maybe we don’t know very much about and turns it into a very readable nonfiction book.
So The Worst Hard Time is about the history of the dust bowl, and he interviews survivors of this disaster and what humans did to cause the disaster and what was done afterward to prevent it from ever happening again. And I was fascinated by the story and highly recommend it.
ANNE: I’ve heard great things about that, and he’s written such an interesting collection of stories over the years. Just his topics are probably consistently fascinating to you.
ELIZABETH: I agree. The Immortal Irishman was great. He just reminds me of Erik Larson, so if you like Erik Larson, maybe you should try Timothy Egan. But a natural disaster, even human disaster stories, I just love reading what the heroes do. How do survivors manage to live through it and it kinda reminds me of true crime. I think a lot of women will say they like true crime to learn, you know, how to make sure you don’t ever get into this situation, so you know, I like to read books on volcanoes exploding or earthquakes to know how to … [LAUGHS] how to survive.
ANNE: Truly extraordinary circumstances.
ELIZABETH: Yes, yes, The Children’s Blizzard is one similar to that that I loved. Kingdom of Ice, Great Halifax Explosion, and I just finished Midnight in Chernobyl, that was another great one, but these are all well-written books on natural and manmade disasters that I find fascinating.
ANNE: Elizabeth, do you like to read fiction that encompasses natural disasters?
ELIZABETH: Not as much as nonfiction. I would say I’m more interested in the actual stories, but I’m always open to fiction as well. Especially if there’s one well-written on a natural disaster.
ANNE: Now, Elizabeth, tell me about what books are not for you.
ELIZABETH: I would say the book that I did not really love was The Brothers Karamazov, and I know my father will be so disappointed to hear this. He had recommended it to me and I started it and trudged through the entire thing and just didn’t really love it. I think - I think when people talk about a character-driven book, I’m much more plot-driven. This was definitely a character-driven book and there were certainly beautifully written; however, nearly 800 pages of a character-driven book just was a little too much for me. I did not really appreciate The Brothers Karamazov, but I do have it proudly displayed in my bookshelf, maybe a marathon trophy. [ANNE LAUGHS] I trudged through it and I made it through the other side.
ANNE: What are you reading right now?
ELIZABETH: Right now I’m reading books that are coming out in May and June for my spring reading preview. I’m halfway through Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles. I’m really enjoying that. I love Paulette Jiles. Of course she writes about our home state of Texas, and so far, it’s really good.
ANNE: I’m excited to read that one. I loved News of the World, her one that came out most recently before this one, and I can’t wait to get my hands on this new book.
ELIZABETH: She wrote one years ago called Stormy Weather that I enjoyed. Again about the dust bowl, I don’t know why that’s so fascinating to me, but it was a great book. I also just finished Long Bright River and that was probably my first five-star read of the year by Liz Moore.
ANNE: I’ve been wondering if I should succumb to the buzz and pick this one up.
ELIZABETH: You may not … if you’re a little sensitive, I’m not sure [LAUGHS] if you would like it. [BOTH LAUGH] But it’s a police drama, really, but it’s actually character-driven as well.
ANNE: Elizabeth, what do you want to be different in your reading life?
ELIZABETH: Well I think I’m always trying to speed through all the newest releases. Sometimes I don’t stop and smell the roses and sit with a book as long as I probably should, but maybe, and maybe even reading some older titles that I might have missed along the way that were especially good. But other than that, I feel like I’m kinda living my best reading life, getting to be on the front .... front edge of books coming out, which is so much fun for me.
ANNE: You may have your dream job. You are still allowed to acknowledge that it’s not without its tensions when it comes to what it does to your reading life.
ELIZABETH: Yeah, I think when I’m reading a book, I’m always in the back of my head thinking can I recommend this book [LAUGHS] to people? You know, there’s books that maybe if that wasn’t part of my job, I would soldier on through, but if I’m reading a book and thinking, I just, I can’t in good conscious recommend this book, I usually will abandon it.
ANNE: So slowing down, maybe going with some older titles. Not feeling overwhelmed by all the books you need to get through as fast as you can.
ELIZABETH: Absolutely. Mhmm.
ANNE: So, Elizabeth, the books you loved were The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal; Roots by Alex Haley; and The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan. The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky not for you. A little slow. Sorry, Dad.
ELIZABETH: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And you’re interested in sweeping family dramas, multigenerational stories and relationships. Sounds like you love a good redemption story.
ANNE: Hopeful. Also, you love a good natural disaster story. Or a manmade disaster story. You love a good catastrophe.
ELIZABETH: Nondiscriminatory. Any kind of disaster story. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: We could pile up your list with like 20 of those right now. Those are fun titles to work with. Okay, so when I think about natural and manmade disaster stories, so many, and there’s new ones coming out every day like you reference A Great Halifax Explosion, which is a pretty recent release.
ELIZABETH: Yes, I’m excited.
ANNE: It’s funny. I was searching my brain for the title of the book thinking you would really enjoy this, and then you mentioned that you already had. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] So that’s a no. Have you read the … I don’t think it’s a stretch to call this a modern classic. The Sebastian Junger Book, The Perfect Storm. Have you read this?
ELIZABETH: Oh, yes. I loved The Perfect Storm.
ANNE: Obviously that’s a story of a natural disaster. “Perfect Storm” meaning an almost textbook example of a horrific storm in the Atlantic ocean.
ANNE: That’s what’s “perfect” about that storm. His writing style is consistent no matter what he’s talking about. I think you may enjoy him approaching other topics, especially that of forest fires. Fire by Sebastian Junger is so fascinating. I’m so sorry to say that since the time he first wrote this book, forest fires have become an even greater issue. It’s something we’re seeing more and more consistently in our news cycles, which I hate. We had a podcast, Amelia, who her episode is called “Rebuilding a Library in Paradise” where she talks about losing everything in the fire in Paradise, CA.
ELIZABETH: I listened to that. It was heartbreaking. There’s a brand new book out that I got sitting in my room about that very event, so I’m anxious to read that one.
ANNE: I didn’t know about that. That’s very interesting. We’ll stay tuned to the Fabled Instagram to see what that is.
ELIZABETH: Oh, yes.
ANNE: This book, Fire. It’s actually a collection of I guess you call them essays. It’s a nonfiction collection. Forest fires aren't the only thing he talks about in this book. He also talks about their forensics of war in the Kosovo valley of death. The Whale Hunters is the title of one.
ANNE: His beginning story of … I keep calling it a story. I think because it’s so riveting to read. His beginning piece in this collection is called Fire. He looks at forest fires through the lens of history and biology, but also through the lens of the firefighters who are attempting to bring a specific fire under control. As someone who’s fascinated by disasters of any kind, and by the power of the natural world…
ANNE: I think you’d just find it really fascinating. How does that sound to you?
ELIZABETH: That sounds great. I love reading about heroes. Reading about the power of the natural world. That sounds right up my valley, and a well written story.
ANNE: Elizabeth, the thing about wanting to read older books that we haven’t read before is that I may assume that you’ve read them, being a book lover and someone who loves long books and someone who’s been reading for a long time. Someone who tackled The Brothers Karamazov. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] You said that you loved the Timothy Egan story about the dust bowl, The Worst Hard Time. Have you read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck?
ELIZABETH: Yes, I have read The Grapes of Wrath. Beautiful story. I loved it.
ANNE: What about his sweeping family saga also set in California, East of Eden?
ELIZABETH: I have not read East of Eden.
ANNE: How do you feel about adding this one to your list?
ELIZABETH: Because I’m reading so much new releases, I went through our classics recently and just wrote down all of the classics that I have not read yet I want to read in the next few years, and East of Eden was one of them.
ANNE: Elizabeth, today is the day.
ANNE: It does have a lot of things going for it that you like. So we got the sweeping family saga. We definitely have interesting characters, complex characters. There’s a lot of characterization here, but there is definitely a lot of plot. We’re a little light on redemption and forgiveness. Like really, really light. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] in this story; however you warned me off your first five-star book of the year, Long Bright River, ‘cause you thought it might be a little grim and grisly for me, so I think you can go there, am I right?
ELIZABETH: Yes. Grim and grisly is not a problem.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. So this is set in California, Salinas Valley. It shows how two families through the generations are inextricably and also [LAUGHS] they’re tied together in a way that’s not really helping anyone. So we have the Trasks and the Hamiltons. You know Steinbeck loves his symbolism. This is called East of Eden. These two families are supposed to be carrying out the biblical rivalry that goes all the way back to the second generation in that book between Cane and Able. Oh, how much to tell you about this book because I didn’t realize when I picked it up, that in 1952 Steinbeck would be writing about a character who … Readers, you can correct me on this, but mental illness really drives the story here. I was not expecting that when I picked up East of Eden.
So what Steinbeck does is he shows you how these two families need each other and also torment each other through the years, and it is undoubtedly tragic. There are glimmers of hope. You’ll get there if you push through the end, and I think you will. It’s a long book. It’s 600, 700 pages, but it’s one that propels you through the story. There is an upbeat, but not in the middle, Elizabeth. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] If you do want to read a sweeping classic that has stood the test of time, that really examines human nature, and the generational sins of families, really fascinating readable in a surprising way to the modern reader. How does that sound to you?
ELIZABETH: I think that sounds great. It almost sounds like a classic version of Ask Again, Yes.
ANNE: Oh, absolutely.
ELIZABETH: And I loved that story, so I am very interested in reading books that have stood the test of time, so I am, with your endorsement, I will definitely pick this up.
ANNE: Right. Now let’s go brand new. This is a June release. June 16th. This might be on your nightstand right now for this reason. That is The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton.
She’s the one who wrote Next Year in Havana.
ELIZABETH: Oh, yes! [LAUGHS] I have it on my nightstand!
ANNE: It sounds like it could be a really fun pick for you.
ELIZABETH: Sounds like it.
ANNE: So in this novel, the focus is not on the hurricane. What is potentially the worst hurricane of the century that hit Key West in 1935. But this is going to sound so funny because it’s not at all like Ryan Stradal’s, and yet I think readers who enjoyed Ryan Stradal’s book, there’s a lot of the same themes to recommend it in The Last Train to Key West.
ELIZABETH: Would you say that this is a trilogy where you have to read them all? Or do they standalone?
ANNE: They standalone, absolutely, and you know, it’s funny. There was a link between the first two books, but now it’s been long enough, maybe a year since I read her second book. If there’s a character link between the two books, I don’t know what it is.
ANNE: It completely stands alone.
ELIZABETH: Good to know. Okay.
ANNE: This book is told from three perspectives, that of three different women, and they all are in very different circumstances in life and in society. One woman at the beginning of the book is extremely pregnant, waiting tables in Key West. Her life is not in a good place. One woman is Cuban, and she has just married her husband, a New Yorker, who seems to be involved in something kinda shady, which is why her family was eager to marry her off because they were getting a lot of money out of it, and she wanted to be a wife and mother, so she was okay with this, but she doesn’t know him at all. She’s just been married. She’s setting off on her honeymoon in the Key West area, and then she’s moving on up to New York to be with him. She’s just really not sure what her life holds. And one of the women has just left New York. We might say fled New York, and she’s taking the new railroad down to Key West. She’s fleeing from a man, looking for another. That’s all you know at the beginning.
Something fun and different about this novel is it unfolds over the course of one weekend of labor day weekend in 1935. This is very much a book of its time and place. The depression is pervasive in this book, and the effects its having on the people, on their lives and what they can put on the table, I mean, how they clothes themselves, and the stress it’s bringing to so many personal relationships. When the storm comes, it just pushes everything to a fever pitch. The forecasters don’t think it’s going to hit, but the locals have seen things like this before, and they’re nervous. At the same time, there’s this meteorological crisis brewing in each of these women’s lives and I was delighted to see the stories intersect in ways I didn’t foresee, but really enjoyed reading about. How does that sound to you?
ELIZABETH: That sounds really good, and I love reading about the Cuban culture.
ANNE: Chanel Cleeton’s bio says that she grew up on stories of her family’s exit from Cuba following the events of Cuban revolution.
ANNE: She’s writing about a history she’s experienced on her own, even though she herself is originally from Florida.
ANNE: Agreed. I’ve really enjoyed reading her works. She writes really fast reading, fun historical fiction and there’s so few books that I’ve read set in and around Cuba and I really enjoyed that connection, which is less present here than it is in her previous books. Here it’s all in the history of the one character, Mirta. The one who married the, you know, is he a gangster or isn’t he?
ELIZABETH: [LAUGHS] Her books have sold really well at our store, so I’m very excited to read it and to be able to endorse it for our readers.
ANNE: It’s not about the hurricane, but I mean, I love that to a reader like you, the hurricane is like ooh, yay, check that box. [ELIZABETH LAUGHS] One more plus in the pro-column.
ELIZABETH: There you go.
ANNE: So Elizabeth, the books we talked about today were Fire by Sebastian Junger; East of Eden by John Steinbeck; and The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton. Of those books, I mean, I have to ask you, which one you gonna read next?
ELIZABETH: Oh, I think I’ll read the Chanel Cleeton book just because it’s already sitting here.
ANNE: The one already on your nightstand. Meant to be. Elizabeth, thanks so much for talking books with me today.
ELIZABETH: Oh, thank you so much, and we look forward to seeing you at Fabled soon.
ANNE: I can’t wait. March 24th, I’ll be there.
ELIZABETH: Very good. We can’t wait.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Alison and Elizabeth, and I’d love to hear what YOU think Elizabeth should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/225 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
Follow Elizabeth on Instagram @wacoreads, and ogle the gorgeous Fabled bookshop @fabledbookshop on Instagram or in Waco, TX if you’re local or visiting. I can’t wait to come check out Fabled Bookshop for myself on Tuesday March 24. I’ll be there on tour for Don’t Overthink It. Please visit modernmrsdarcy.com/events to get your tickets for this event. I’ve also got the lowdown there on all my spring travels. Check it out, I’d love to meet you in person.
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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:
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● The BFG by Roald Dahl
♥ The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal
● Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal
♥ Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
● Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
● The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
● Big Wonderful Thing: A History of Texas by Stephen Harrigan
♥ The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl by Timothy
● Author Erik Larson (try The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America)
● The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan
● The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin
● In the Kingdom of Ice: The Grand and Terrible Polar Voyage of the USS Jeannette by Hampton Sides
● The Great Halifax Explosion: A World War I Story of Treachery, Tragedy, and Extraordinary Heroism by John U. Bacon
● Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
▵ The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
● Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles
● News of the World by Paulette Jiles
● Stormy Weather by Paulette Jiles
● Long Bright River by Liz Moore
● The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger
● Fire by Sebastian Junger
● Fire in Paradise: An American Tragedy by Alistair Gee and Dani Anguiano
● The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
● East of Eden by John Steinbeck
● Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane
● Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
● The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
What do YOU think Elizabeth should read next?