Readers, as audiobooks have become more available and more popular over the years, they’ve become a bigger part of so many of your daily routines. And mine too! Today I’m chatting with everyday expert Leanne Hunt about the history of audiobooks, and her decades-long connection with the format. She came to me looking for book recommendations that explore the inner life of characters, and lush sensory descriptions of setting and expression, so pull out those TBR lists if you are ready to be truly transported.
Let’s get to it!
You can learn more about Leanne’s life and writing at blindhorsewoman.blogspot.com.
LEANNE: I have a screen reader on my phone, which when people hear it reading, they can’t understand it. It sounds like gibberish, because it’s unexpectedly fast for most people but I’m used to it. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 226.
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.
Readers, as audiobooks have become more available and more popular over the years, they’ve become a bigger part of so many of your daily routines. And mine too! Today I’m chatting with everyday expert Leanne Hunt about the history of audiobooks, and her decades-long connection with the format. Leanne came to me looking for book recommendations that explore the inner life of characters, and lush sensory descriptions of setting and expression, so pull out those to-be-read lists if you are ready to be truly transported. Let’s get to it!
Leanne, welcome to the show.
LEANNE: Hi, Anne, it’s lovely to be with you. I’m really excited to be here. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I don’t believe I’ve spoken with a South African guest before.
LEANNE: I don’t think so either, except maybe somebody who once lived in South Africa who’s living somewhere else now. I occasionally hear an accent that I recognize. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, I’m happy to hear that! Tell me a little bit about where you are.
LEANNE: I live in Johannesburg now, which is the biggest city. People will know it because it’s our biggest city, although it’s not the most beautiful city. The most beautiful city is our Cape Town and Durban, and I was born in Durban. Went to school there. I’ve always lived in South Africa, but I do enjoy travel, and my daughters are both living in the U.K. and Ireland now. It’s mid-summer here. The hottest month of the year, February, and I know that most of your listeners are probably are in their winter, so [LAUGHS] it’s quite different.
ANNE: Leanne, this question is going to sound silly, but I think you’ll get the spirit of it if my words are not the best, but can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like to be a reader in South Africa?
LEANNE: You know, generally, the literacy level in South Africa is really very low. We’ve had huge problems with our education department over the years through the Apartheid era, where the majority of the population didn’t get a good education. I was one of the fortunate ones that went to a good school. My dad had gone to university, so I was brought up as a reader and I was friends with other readers. And my best friend’s mother actually was a speech and drama teacher, and from a very early age, she introduced both of us, my best friend and I, to reading and the library. And then my mum sorta, you know, took over from there, and I just remember going to the library literally once a week to exchange books and I was an avid reader. Yeah, I was very fortunate, and I think that’s developed my love of reading just being in a friendship group where everybody loved books.
LEANNE: For myself though, I began losing my sight at age 13 or 14, so I had a lot of difficulty reading, you know, through my high school years. It became a real anxiety for me because you know, we’d have to read passages of a textbook in class and I would stumble over the words and lose my place and then say the wrong thing, and it was really humiliating. Until it got to the stage where my teachers realized that I actually had a very serious problem and they excused me from reading at school. When I was 17, I was declared legally blind and the condition I have is macular degeneration. Started when I was young, so they call it early onset macular degeneration. From that age, from 17 onwards, I’ve been relying on audio. My books in audio format. It certainly wasn’t like it was today, we read audiobooks on cassette tapes.
ANNE: The history of audio literature here in the United States is really fascinating. And I don’t know what it’s like in South Africa, but you do, and I’m so curious to hear.
LEANNE: The history of audiobooks all over the world is due to the fact that blind people had to, have access to reading materials. Volunteer organizations started up in many places, South Africa certainly wasn’t the first, but it was quite an early adopter. So we had an organization called Tape Aids For the Blind. It was entirely run by volunteers who would read bestsellers and popular books onto cassette tapes, and I know that they would make like a master copy and then runoff copies to send out to members. The postage was all free, so once I sorta became a member and could prove that I actually had a sight impairment, my membership was entirely free after that. And when I was at university, I did a B.A. degree. I majored in English literature and all my textbooks were on tape as well. And I know that at that stage, they had to access some of my textbooks from America. Rise of the Novel, I think it was 17th century, Samuel Richardson, those kind of authors. They were all read in an American accents because [BOTH LAUGH] they were the libraries that had those books.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so funny.
LEANNE: Yeah. But it was quite clanky, you know, it was quite clanky having those cassette tapes. And over time, they would become stretched, you know. And sometimes the recordings weren’t great or the tape would tangle up and I became quite a master at untangling tapes inside the cassette cases. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: With any format, there are benefits and there are drawbacks. I hadn’t thought about needing to become a master tape detangler...
LEANNE: No. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: ...As becoming a necessary part of the audiobook experience.
ANNE: Here in the United States, my grandfather used to be a narrator. We have the Kentucky School for the Blind right near downtown.
LEANNE: Ooh, yeah.
ANNE: And he read books I think even before he retired, but he told me how he loved to know the process behind things and he told me how audio literature was first created as a resource for blind people. I believe in the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s, it was focused on veterans who were blinded during combat.
LEANNE: Oh, yeah, that would make sense. Yes, people returning from the war, and I’m not sure when Tape Aids For the Blind started, but by the time I joined, and that was about 1980 I think, certainly there was a vast library already and the books had, you know, that were on cassette went back quite a ways. So it certainly had been around for a long time. Many of our members were very elderly, although they catered as well to students coming in.
ANNE: Well audiobooks have greatly increased in popularity. Huge gains. Year over year just in the past few years, and there’s no comparison between like 1960 and 2020. But with every increase in technology, you don’t have to detangle that tape anymore. It’s not a specialized skill. [LEANNE LAUGHS] So many more people are listening. Many of those people have no idea though what the roots were of developing this audio technology. So Tape Aids for the Blind was completely free when you started listening to audiobooks.
LEANNE: Completely free. Because I have a lot of technology at my fingertips, I don’t use them anymore. It was about 2015 I stopped because by that stage, I was getting spoiled with choice by Audible. The difficulty with Tape Aids, I think you could request books you wanted on tape, but most of them were maybe library top choices kind of thing. So there wasn’t that ability to select books in a particular niche you were fascinated with.
For most of my life, I’ve been served up a diet of books and they’ve been good books, but I would say general fiction, women’s fiction, and clean was one of my requirements. I didn’t like, you know, bad language, and I also didn’t like violence and that kind of thing, so I would have a reading list and categories that I would enjoy. They would just send me in the post a selection of books all the time and I would return. But I never knew it was coming. It wasn’t, there wasn’t that lovely thing being able to go online now and scroll through or look up something that you’ve heard on a podcast and find it and order it. You know, the privilege of doing that is huge. You know, and I think, for sighted readers, you wouldn’t - you wouldn’t know that, you know, it’s something for me that is very precious to be able to choose a book that I want to read.
ANNE: Do you remember at what point that really shifted for you?
LEANNE: Well I think it was probably around 2014. I began to get interested in some sort of unusual topics and I couldn’t find the kind of books I wanted to read and it was particularly in the area of nonfiction. So for an example, I became interested in the enneagram and I wanted to get books on the enneagram. They just weren’t available through Tape Aid. You know, nobody had heard of that before. So I’d go onto Audible and I’d go onto Kindle because I also have an old-fashioned Kindle, which has the experimental screen-reading software…
LEANNE: … Offered as a feature. I don’t know that the new ones have it, whether you have to install it separately. But I realize that I could use that, I could literally have access to the entire Amazon ebook library which is huge and people have written on, you know, the most arcane subjects, but I could get those. [BOTH LAUGH] Yes. Just lovely.
ANNE: So it was a book about the enneagram that drove you to try out this new format.
LEANNE: Yeah, I go through these phases where I’m interested in very niche topics. Like I was very interested in permaculture.
ANNE: Help me, Leanne. What is permaculture?
LEANNE: Oh! Okay. Well if you know organic gardening…
LEANNE: … It’s sorta in the same vein. Permaculture is all about sustainability and landscape design where you really are taking into account the way that nature actually works. And whatever you take out of the ground, you put back in the ground in the form of compostable, that kind of thing. So I became very excited because it was something I do in my own garden at home, you know? So I wanted to read whatever I could find online about permaculture and of course listen to podcasts. And then I’d swing to a different topic, and then read about those things, and I’m an insatiable reader. It’s just, I love, as I say, the privilege of being able to go online and find a book that I want to read and order it, and it’s just like Christmas. [LAUGHS] It’s just wonderful.
ANNE: If you can hear me laughing a little, it’s because I was recalling to myself how you might feel anytime a reader says, but my library doesn’t have it in right now. I’m so frustrated. What am I going to do? I imagine that kind of complaint sounds different to you.
LEANNE: Yeah, ‘cause I had to wait years to read certain books. [LAUGHS] I remember when the Dan Brown book came out. I think it was The Da Vinci Code. It wasn’t available, and I was desperate to read it because it was, just everybody was talking about it. It was years and years and years. By the time I did, it’s still in my to-be-read pile [BOTH LAUGH] because I haven’t actually gotten around to reading it because there’s so much else that’s wonderful. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m in the United States, so on What Should I Read Next when I look around me for books release now and what publication dates are, I’m basing those off publishing dates in the United States. Just being a reader in South Africa, are you able to obtain most of what’s available if you’re going through Audible?
LEANNE: As a reader in South Africa, I’m not that aware of what’s going on in South Africa because I don’t listen to local book shows at all. We used to have a lovely one on radio which I always listened to, but that got moved off, and now I don’t even know what’s in our local bookstores because I don’t read hardcopy books. So my exposure to books is all going to be online. It’s through Amazon. It’s through podcasts. You know, I will be aware of a new book coming out, and then I’m probably following the American release date. And then sometimes I might pre-order a book there and it’ll come out there that day perhaps, but that’s not a big deal for me ‘cause generally what happens is I will put a book on my list of things to read, and when I feel like reading a book, I’ll go through that list. If it’s not available, I’ll just go off something else. It’s not a case I need to read anything because I’m writing a review on it or anything like that. It’s purely for my own pleasure.
ANNE: You have been listening to audiobooks for the majority of the time they’ve been available to the public. How has your perception of what that experience is like evolved over the years?
LEANNE: Look from a purely technical point of view, I used to have to put tapes into a recorder and take them out, and you know, it was all that sort of one at a time process, which - which was clanky. Now I use an app on my smartphone and when I start reading a book, it’s brilliant because I just press play and then it plays and it holds my place and I’ll get to the end of a book, return it or it’ll just sink down to the lower place in my library and I’ll start the next one. So I mean, you know, how it works on a smartphone. It’s really incredibly easy. So from that point of view, it’s wonderful.
I’ve always found that the readers most of the time are really competent and recordings are good quality. With the Tape Aids ones, we would sometimes get fantastic narrators and would sometimes get very, very ornery, average to poor narrators. [BOTH LAUGH] You know, and you couldn’t speed up the tape. Whereas now, I just enjoy it that I can put it on 1.25x and go a little bit faster and - and you know, there’s a lot of advantages nowadays. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I really relate to that. I’m definitely aware that I have the option to listen to an audiobook and I love that it’s an option for me, not an essential.
ANNE: But sometimes we’ll have a book on CD in the house because that’s how it came to the library or somebody was loaning it to us or something and not being able to speed it up, it makes me realize how I don’t listen to things at 1.0x speed anymore. What speed do you listen to What Should I Read Next at?
LEANNE: No, I listen to your podcast at ordinary speed.
ANNE: Oh, well, thank you. [LAUGHS]
LEANNE: Most podcasts I do very few that I listen to at faster and it’s usually the ones that might be sorta more written as a script and then read out. [LAUGHS] You know, I don’t like those ones though. But I must say, sometimes I’ll read a book, particularly a nonfiction book and then a narrator will read it slowly, thinking that the reader needs more time to digest it. But personally I find that can actually make it quite harder to digest because by the time you got the end of the sentence, you’ve forgotten the beginning of the sentence. And you can’t hold a thought in your mind because my mind will be raising all sorts of either objections or applying the principal to my life or whatever. If the narration is quick enough for me to just focus on it, that’s brilliant. That’s what I prefer.
ANNE: If it’s moving a little faster, it doesn’t give you space to let your mind wander?
LEANNE: Yeah. I guess so. But then I also know that I listen to everything a little faster, so my screen reader on my computer is quite fast and I have a screen reader on my phone, which when people hear it reading, they can’t understand it. It sounds like gibberish because it’s unexpectedly fast for most people. [ANNE LAUGHS] But I’m used to it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Leanne, you said you are an insatiable reader.
LEANNE: [LAUGHS] I set a goal of 80 books each year for myself and I usually hit it with one or two over. And I read both fiction and nonfiction, but as I say, I enjoy so much being able to select and choose. So I don’t read according to obligation or duty or what I think I should read. It’s really according to what I feel like reading. And if I got a book on my list that I felt like reading last year, for example, and my tastes have changed because I’ve kinda moved into a different space, I will choose something different. And I just enjoy the flexibility to be able to do that and especially the immediacy of being able to go online, choose a book, download it, and it’s in my library and I can start it. [LAUGHS] Such a pleasure.
ANNE: That sounds great to me. How do you decide what to read?
LEANNE: Well, as I say, I do keep a list and books from podcasts, I always write down anything that interests me. I also have my favorite authors. Sometimes I’ll just literally on impulse, browse or I might put in a search term. Like if I feel like reading a book about gardening, I might even put in a search term like gardening and see what pops up because I’m thirsty for something that will feed that part of me, you know? [LAUGHS] And then no matter what it is, if it’s fiction or nonfiction, if it just talks about gardening and flowers, that’s lovely and I’ll be happy.
ANNE: That sounds delightful. Leanne, how did you choose your favorites for today and your not-so-favorites?
LEANNE: I keep a long list on Goodreads, so for the last … Um, gosh, nearly 10 years, I’ve been keeping a list on Goodreads of my reviews and my star ratings and things. So I went through that to remind myself, but I had an impression of what sorta books. I wanted to sorta focus the kinda books to talk to you about, so it really wasn’t going to be my all-time best books in every category. Because as I said to you, I have these interests in different areas [LAUGHS] and then it would be too wide. So I chose books that were fiction novels. I also wanted to choose books that demonstrated something that I particularly valued about reading.
Because I have a visual impairment, I particularly enjoy books that describe visual details very well. So I wanted to choose books that describe a garden setting or perhaps a home setting or described the way that a character moved and dressed and the facial expressions and that kind of thing. But in a way that I can really relate because I can’t see facial expressions. I can’t see the way that somebody has decorated the dining room table, and I can’t see the way somebody’s laid out the garden for example. But I have enough memory of sight and I can do these things myself. I also have enough imagination to be able to visualize if there’s a beautiful scene described, I can visualize it and I just feel delighted by reading about beautiful things. And I very much like to read about lovely things rather than sorta ugly and distressing things. Although my tastes sometimes go there, but for today. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Leanne, I can’t wait to hear what you’ve chosen.
ANNE: You are going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next.
LEANNE: I'm very excited to hear what you have to advise. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: What did you choose for your first favorite?
LEANNE: Okay. I love Barbara Kingsolver’s novels and I particularly love her audiobooks because she actually reads them. She’s a marvelous narrator. She’s an incredibly intelligent person and when she describes things, I find that her descriptions and the way she narrates her descriptions, it’s like music. It’s just so beautiful. The book I chose was Prodigal Summer because it’s a woman who’s a tracker in a sorta forest area. I believe it’s in Lexington, VA, so I don’t know the area myself. Never traveled to the United States, but I have a very good feel for it [LAUGHS] from the book of the kind of landscape and the topography and the feel of the forest and the streams and the people that live in that area. I listened to the sample from Audible today to remind myself, and I just fell in love with it all over again because her descriptions and voice when she’s describing these detailed and very particular things, she - she just describes them in such a magical way.
So Prodigal Summer for me was an awesome book because a) they are intriguing characters who talk about the most fascinating things. There’s one woman there who’s very big into, I think it’s sorta an ecological theory of predators and prey in describing the way that the predators and the prey were in balance or becoming out of balance in the environment. I learned so much. There was a lot of natural history that was built into the discussion between the two characters, and then there was romance as well which I always enjoy, but for me, I particularly enjoyed the character Deanna who’s the tracker. A solitary individual who just has this very intimate relationship with nature, and I just, I so enjoyed that. [LAUGHS] The person with quite a philosophical insight, a sensory connection with the land. It was just - just awesome.
ANNE: It’s been years since I’ve read this, but I remember the writing just being so lush, like you could smell the grass and the earth.
LEANNE: And the word “prodigal,” we know the story of the Prodigal Sun, “prodigal” actually means abundant, lavish. [LAUGHS] The scenery in that particular book, everything is just going wild and it’s reproducing and it’s full of things happening, and burgeoning, and this is fruitfulness. It’s really amazing.
ANNE: I’m glad you enjoyed that. One of the reasons I really enjoyed reading her descriptions is that she is close enough to me geographically and it’s fun to see your own space described.
LEANNE: Mm, absolutely.
ANNE: I did not realize that she read her own books. That’s not something that’s common for novelists to do, and I’m especially impressed that they’re so good.
LEANNE: She’s beautiful. When she reads it, I just fall in love with her voice. Cause it’s … I just feel like I could listen to her forever.
ANNE: Have you read her nonfiction book Animal, Vegetable, Mineral?
LEANNE: I have. I think she reads that one too, and I enjoyed it a lot, but she sorta intersperses her own observations with her husband’s and her daughter’s observations, so it wasn’t for me as poetic and beautiful as her own writing is.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear you’ve read it knowing how much you appreciate both. Leanne, what did you choose for your second favorite book?
LEANNE: Okay, my second favorite book is an English author. Her name is Katie Fforde, and you spell her name with a double f. I think it’s Welsh. This is an author I discovered through Tape Aids for The Blind, and I read a lot of her books several years ago. She became a favorite author of mine, and so I just read everything they had in the library by her. It’s very light romance. All the characters in her books are not necessarily young women, but resourceful women who start sorta new career by accident.
The one I chose was Thyme Out simply because it’s the one I can remember the most vividly. The book is about a woman with sorta cottage garden and she is producing micro greens for a local restaurant. It’s the description of the gardening process that I so enjoyed. The fact that she would cultivate these new things and experiment with them, bring them to the restaurant and let the restaurant try them out as their sorta garnishes and things. At the time, you know, I was just moving into my own passion for gardening and seeing how other people did it. I think what intrigued me so much was the whole story of a woman using what she had, using her garden, and turning it into a business, and then of course, it’s the lovely story of, you know, the challenges that she meets, she has along the way, and the people she meets and the friends she makes, and the ones that are opposing her dream. It’s very simple romance, but I was intrigued to find out that she’s hailed, Katie Fforde’s hailed in England as the modern Jane Austen, so I thought you’d find that interesting. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I do! I’ve never read her.
LEANNE: Yeah. I think you would enjoy her a lot. The books are very fresh and very English. I can say that my experience with the audiobooks from Audible, they’re read by a narrator called Jilly Bond, and I didn’t enjoy them as much as I enjoy the narrators at Tape Aids for The Blind. And I think that the reason for that is that the narrators that read them for me when I started, read them as serious romances. They were just as, you know, you would read Jane Austen, you’d read it sorta as it unfolds. A bit of emphasis on the different characters and that, but they would be straightforward.
The narration on Audible is very much as a humorous book, and I just find that there’s more expectation placed on the reader to find this person may be a bit silly and that person a bit pompous, and I don’t like being fed that information by the narrator. I’d like to form my own opinion, so that is one thing that I can say, narrators influence your impression of a book just by the way they interpret the characters or the way the action is going.
ANNE: Is Time Out a good place to start with her books?
LEANNE: Well, you know which one I loved and I think it would very, it’d be fun for many of your readers, there’s one called Recipe for Love, which is based on a reality TV cooking show. [ANNE LAUGHS] And so you’ve got contestants and you’ve got them doing bake offs and things like that. And I loved that one. I really found it very lively and quite current, you know, quite relevant. The one I read recently, just to sorta get back into the Katie Fforde thing for me, was one called Living Dangerously about a potter.
ANNE: She’s written quite a few.
LEANNE: She has. She’s written lots, and I think that depending on a reader’s particular interest, she’s written about market gardeners, and … Oh, Wild Designs is lovely. It’s about a woman who enters the Chelsea Flower show and it really, it’s really inspiring for anyone with an artistic bent. There’s lots of women moving into whole new, what do you call it? Like a second, a second start, a fresh start into something new. And generally creative, which I always appreciate.
ANNE: That sounds delightful. [LEANNE LAUGHS] Okay, I’m making a list. That’ll keep me busy for awhile. Leanne, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?
LEANNE: I chose Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty. She’s an Australian author who I know you know, and I love her books, especially on Audible format. The narrator is somebody called Caroline Lee, who just does such justice to the characters in the book. She’s also an Australian and I find that Liane Moriarty has a particular gift for writing about mums with little children. Caroline Lee reads the children in the most amazing way. I just fall in love with the children in the books through the narrator.
That’s Truly Madly Guilty, it’s sorta the most serious of the books that I’ve read of Liane Morarty’s, and I enjoyed it because it deals with some hard themes and I don’t want to spoil it for anybody, but the setting is something very ordinary. It’s just a barbecue on the weekend, six friends get together. The kids come and play. You know, the conversations that are held between the people and the way they’ll all sorta have a glass of wine and chat and joke, I just enjoy it because I can relate so well. In South Africa, we have sorta similar culture to Australia, where you sit out in the garden and drink a glass wine, watch the kids in the pool, and that’s … It’s very real to me. And it’s the little details in her writing that I find, they - they make the writing so strong because it really can feel as if you’re actually there with the characters.
ANNE: How did you choose the book that wasn’t for you?
LEANNE: I chose it because it really wasn’t for me but surprisingly so, because it’s a book that I know many people have raved about and loved. I chose The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton, and it was the second Kate Morton book that I read. And I wasn’t happy with the first one, so the second one I was trying out and I thought I’ll give this one a chance because I’d actually heard you talk about it on the show. And the premise sounded interesting. The young girl witnessing a crime and sorta later in life, putting all the pieces together. But the majority of the action is historical and it takes place sorta in war time England.
And I found the distance between contemporary London life and the historical depiction, I found it too hard to bridge that. Especially because if you remember if I look for in books is a description of the world I cannot see, so I want to know the world that is today. [LAUGHS] And if somebody could describe contemporary London to me, then that’s brilliant ‘cause that’s the way I can sorta go and visit my daughter. You know, I’d be able to feel like I just walked into the novel. But historic London, it felt remote. I couldn’t relate to it. I didn’t even feel like I liked the character much, you know? And know that I was supposed to feel compassion for them. So it was difficult.
And what was especially surprising to me was that Caroline Lee, who reads the Liane Moriarty book that I recommended on Audible, she reads The Secret Keeper. Again, you know, she reads beautifully but I just didn’t like the characters. For whatever reason, it just didn’t appeal to me. Probably the action is a little slow. The mystery took forever to sorta unravel. It didn’t feel that I really was following the thought processes. I kinda got distracted I think. I know that the plot was incredibly clever. I did feel that it was a very good book in plotting, but I actually think for me, I would have taken out a whole third of the book [LAUGHS] you know? The whole third of the middle [ANNE LAUGHS] and end it quicker. [LAUGHS] So I’m sorry to say that because I recognize her as a very talented writer, but not for me.
ANNE: Well it’s okay for not everything to be in your wheelhouse.
ANNE: What have you been reading lately, Leanne?
LEANNE: The one I’m still reading at the moment which I could just really recommend, it’s called Rough Magic, and it’s a memoir. An English woman who wrote a race that is in Mongolia, I think, it’s a 1,000 kilometers on horseback and you ride on pretty much unschooled ponies and it’s an unsupported race. So it’s a really daring race that they ride over several days.
This particular writer, she’s very poetic in her writing, describes the ponies and the steps in Mongolia beautifully. And she’s got a lovely sense of humor and she’s humble about her achievements. She actually won the race, but you know that right up front. She unfolds the journey as how it sorta went from her diary entries. I’m thoroughly enjoying this and probably give it a really good rating. Audible format, it’s great as well. She doesn’t read it herself, but it’s beautifully read and I can highly recommend that one.
The other one I’m reading at the moment is called Number One Chinese Restaurant and this one I took from a recommendation from a podcast because it’s very much out of my normal kind of reading style. I don’t usually read about restaurants and cities and yeah, I think the whole hectic thing of how a restaurant is run, it’s not something I’m familiar with at all, I enjoyed it because I can see it. The story is very compassionately told.
The narrator is somebody called Nancy Wu, I recognize her name because she’s an Audible reader elsewhere. But in this one, I felt like she had also prejudiced me against the characters. I felt that she read it as a very dark novel with a lot of corruption and malice and underhandedness, which I didn’t necessarily find in the actual characters. [LAUGHS] I read it feeling, this is heavy. I’m not enjoying it. And then when I took a step back and thought about the actual story, I thought no, if I read it on paper, I wouldn’t - I wouldn’t be having this reaction. So I think it again it’s to do with the narration. The book itself I’ve enjoyed because it describes so much of the lives of the people that worked in the restaurants, their individual challenges, their tragedies, their mistakes. I found it very insightful for me to read about an American-Chinese restaurant. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I love kitchen books myself, though I’ve not read that one. I think it’s actually on my Kindle though, Leanne.
LEANNE: Well I can recommend it. It’s tender.
ANNE: Oh, that’s not what I expected.
LEANNE: No, it’s a tender read. If you come to the point of view of people are so fallible, you know? And they perhaps do their best, they make really bad mistakes. But in the long run, you can understand why everybody does what they do. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Leanne, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
LEANNE: I’m looking for books about people who love their lives in a very domestic setting. I’ve written a couple books myself and I’m fascinated by writers and artists and the way they structure their lives. They’re often solitary people. Or they spend a lot of time alone and I’ve spent a lot of time on my own, and I have my own little routines and rituals. And I always find it fascinating to read about other writers and artists. And I’ve read very few books about writers and artists. I just feel like I would love to dip into some and be inspired through fiction about people like me, who live quite quiet lives.
ANNE: Okay, so here’s what we have to work with. You love Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver; Time Out by Katie Fforde; and Truly Madly Guilty by Liane Moriarty. Not for you is The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton. And books about artists or writers would be appreciated. Okay, also lush lyrical descriptions. I’m definitely zoned in on that. Okay. Here’s what I’m thinking. First of all, have you read the newest Liane Moriarty book Nine Perfect Strangers?
LEANNE: No. It’s on my wishlist I believe. [LAUGHS] I haven’t read it.
ANNE: The reason I mention it is because it’s also narrated by Caroline Lee. No change there. The narrator you love. My favorite character in the book is Francis. The romance novelist who’s a little older. She’s on the verge of washing up. She’s afraid she’s about to become completely irrelevant. She’s not on good terms with her publisher, or rather I should say her publisher is really not happy with her right now. Her long standing career is in danger and that is the mindset that she brings in to this health retreat that she goes on with … As one of the nine perfect strangers.
ANNE: I love her. Just for that character alone, I think you might really enjoy that book.
LEANNE: Two aspects there because a health retreat also appeals to me. I enjoy it when characters come together in a different setting and as strangers and then find out about each other through whatever the program is. I always enjoy that. [LAUGHS] So that sounds great.
ANNE: I really hope you enjoy it and it does have a lot of the same elements you’ve enjoyed before.
LEANNE: It’s on Audible I’m pretty sure and it sounds lovely because I didn’t read the write up at all when I put it on my wishlist. I just read that it was Liane Moriarty and so it goes on my wishlist because it’s an author I enjoy. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It is in fact on Audible. All books we’re talking about today are on Audible.
LEANNE: Oh, great. Okay.
ANNE: I’m making sure.
ANNE: Okay, next up, this isn’t a writer, but an illustrator at the center of this novel.
LEANNE: Ah. Okay.
ANNE: Does that sound like maybe something we could work with?
LEANNE: Oh, yes, yes.
ANNE: Okay. Well the book I have in mind is The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman. She’s written several books now, but this is my favorite. It’s also her debut. The premise here - it sounds sad, so I have to assure you that it is funny, tender. It has a really fresh voice. And I know you might not expect that given the premise, which is our character Lilly is a widow. Her husband died in a car accident right in front of their house four years prior and she hasn’t been ready to move on. There are some tender and also funny conversations she has with her therapist where she says, I’m in a rut. But it’s my rut and I like it here. I’m okay with that.
LEANNE: [LAUGHS] Yes! Oh, I like that.
ANNE: She has her daughters and she feels like that’s enough. But then at work, she’s given a special project to illustrate a book about vegetables and she doesn’t know a lot of vegetables. So her publisher sends her to a six-week gardening class.
LEANNE: [GASPS] Ooh, it sounds gorgeous. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: When she does this, not only is she about to get her hands dirty in the garden but she meets … It’s almost like the health spa set up. She is plunged into this new community of fellow gardeners and they end up meaning much more to each other than anybody expected when they entered this only six-week class. But the experience changes everyone and there’s time at her desk with her drawings. Time with others. I think you could describe this book as lovely.
LEANNE: That sounds really fun. It doesn’t sound sad to me because there’s always that opportunity to, well, to have a fresh start and I think especially to see your own life in a new way, which is probably what happens when she’s on this gardening course. So, that sounds very hopeful to me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Spoken like a writer.
LEANNE: Yes! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And a regular reader. [LEANNE LAUGHS] Now knowing that you enjoy reading fiction and nonfiction, I’m wondering if you have read any of the works of Annie Dillard.
LEANNE: No. But I’ve heard you say she’s a wonderful writer.
ANNE: Now she’s written fiction and nonfiction. I personally really enjoy her nonfiction. Her fiction is really interesting. She tells stories that are very hard to categorize in terms of structure. And she plays with some themes that are really interesting. Oh, but I love her nonfiction. I love her essays. But she has a couple books that I think may be interesting to you, especially knowing your interest in the writing life and of really evocative descriptions.
A short work, it’s 2/ 1/2 hours on Audible, but it’s one that I love so much. It’s called The Writing Life. I fell in love with this book when I first read an excerpt I think when I was in high school. Sometimes I look back at high school Anne and I think oh, you poor dear. [BOTH LAUGH] You had terrible taste. But that does not apply to this one. So this book is almost like a memoir, but her language is really descriptive. She goes into great detail. She loves metaphors. It’s a little fantastical at times, but I think you may actually enjoy that. Some people have said, oh, this is such navel gazing. How much do we wanna know about the writing life? But Leanne, you want to know about what it’s like to be a writer.
LEANNE: Exactly. Yeah.
ANNE: So The Writing Life is a book about what it’s like to be a writer, but also she has two nonfiction books. I mean, she has a whole slew of nonfiction books and essay collections, but the ones that I really recommend to you are Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, which is her experience in land actually very close to the places that Barbara Kingsolver was writing about in Prodigal Summer.
LEANNE: Oh, okay.
ANNE: She walks into the woods down by the creek. She writes about what she sees, and it’s really, it’s really lovely. Really descriptive. She wants the reader to read it and feel like they can see everything that Annie Dillard is seeing.
LEANNE: Ah, that’s lovely ‘cause that’s a writer that’s writing my need I need in a way, you know? [LAUGHS] Meeting me exactly where I’m at.
ANNE: And then another long form nonfiction work by her is an An American Childhood where she writes about growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950s, and all three of those books are narrated by Tavia Gilbert.
LEANNE: Okay. Well that’s lovely because I haven’t read any of Annie Dillard’s books, but if I start with The Writing Life, then I can get a sense of who she is and then branch out into the longer ones, so that sounds really great.
ANNE: I do like the sound of that. For our final book, I’m wondering if you’ve read any Anne Tyler.
LEANNE: No, that’s another author I hear about a lot and I’ve often thought I might like her books, but I’ve never actually gone there, so [LAUGHS] what do you recommend?
ANNE: There’s a really fun connection between Liane Moriarty. The connection is very straight forward. Liane Moriarty loves Anne Tyler. She told this funny story once … I think it was when I interviewed her in South Carolina for a SIBA event, but she told a story about how one of her very first reviews said you know, it’s kinda like Liane Moriarty reads like a mediocre Anne Tyler. And Liane Morairty says, “I’ve never heard a better compliment. Me and Anne Tyler in the same sentence? I’m somewhere in the ballpark? This is amazing. I’m so happy, you have no idea.”
And you would never mix them up and confuse one for the other, but do have a lot of things in common. They’re writing about a lot of domestic situations, everyday life. They’re writing about characters that are a little bit quirky, but who you can totally imagine being someone in your neighborhood. And they combine humor and tragedy without becoming depressing or melodramatic. They’re both very readable, so the book I’m wondering about for you is one that’s about a writer, although not I imagine the kind of writer you want to emulate. The book is The Accidental Tourist. It’s about a travel writer.
ANNE: Except he’s a travel writer who hates travel. When he goes to write these travel guides, the point of these guides is to make the traveler, and in this case, he’s often writing for business men who he imagines sharing preferences. He wants to help them conduct themselves abroad in such a way so that they can feel like they have never left home.
LEANNE: Oh! [LAUGHS] That’s an interesting angle because many of us, and I enjoy travel, I just like to be in a new place. I like to feel it. It’s so much … [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Well then you will enjoy laughing at Macon because he does not share your sentiment.
ANNE: At the beginning of the book, he’s not in a great place. His wife wants a divorce. They’ve been through a tragedy together. The way he’s trying to cope is by systemizing his life and as you can probably guess, it’s not working out for him. But then he falls and breaks his legs. There’s a misbehaving dog involved in this whole process.
So after he breaks his legs, the dog trainer who does not believe in systematizing anything, unruly compared to his attempts, keep everything nicely defined and contained and orderly and exactly as he expects. His whole world is completely disrupted by this woman who comes in to help him train his dog who is out of control. And so this man who fears change has to do with a lot of it all of a sudden. Even as you feel like she’s mocking them, she writes about them with such affection that I think this author based on your loves could be a really comfortable fit for you.
LEANNE: That sounds great. I’m very keen to try Anne Tyler because I hear her name spoken a lot and I don’t have a reference for that at all, so it’ll be interesting to at least … I’ll start with that one and then I’ll form an opinion and go from there. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: The Accidental Tourist on Audible is narrated by Joe Barrett. I don’t know if you pay attention to length. We haven’t discussed that yet. This one comes in at right about 11 hours at regular speed.
LEANNE: I like to get bang for my buck, so I tend to enjoy the longer books, you know, and I’m quite happy to go for sorta up to 17 or 18 hours. Anything that’s over 20, I will take it on as a project. [LAUGHS] But then it’s a longish project. I generally don’t buy anything that’s under five hours because I feel it’s not worth the dollar price that I have to pay for it because we have to exchange our money for dollars and it’s not a happy exchange. [LAUGHS] So that’s generally why I sorta choose midrange books probably from six, six to twelve is my preference.
ANNE: So except for The Writing Life, I think we nailed it on the length.
ANNE: Okay, Leanne, we touched on Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty; The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman; the assorted works of Annie Dillard; [LEANNE LAUGHS] and The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler. Of those books, what do you think you’ll listen to next?
LEANNE: I think I’m going to go for The Garden of Small Beginnings because it hits a lot of chords for me. I’m sure it’s going to be easily available, and it just sounds lovely because to go on a six-week gardening course with characters in midsummer in South Africa … [BOTH LAUGH] It can only go well. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I hope you love it and I can’t wait to hear what you think. Leanne, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
LEANNE: Ah, Anne, it’s been so much fun and I really appreciate your interest and also your recommendations ‘cause they sound really spot on thank you.
ANNE: Oh, that means a lot.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Leanne, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/226 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can learn more about Leanne’s life and writing at blindhorsewoman.blogspot.com.
Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!
If you’re on twitter, let me know there @AnneBogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books -O-G-E-L. Tag us on instagram to share what YOU are reading. You can find me there at annebogel and at whatshouldireadnext. Our newsletter subscribers are the first to know all the What Should I Read Next news and happenings; if you don’t get those Tuesday emails, sign up now at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.
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And thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
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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♥ Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
● Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
♥ Thyme Out by Katie Fforde
● Recipe for Love by Katie Fforde
● Living Dangerously by Katie Fforde
♥ Truly Madly Guillty by Liane Moriarty (Leanne recommends the narration by Caroline Lee)
▵ The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton
● Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer
● Number One Chinese Restaurant by Lillian Li
● Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
● The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman
● The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
● Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
● An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
● The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler
What do YOU think Leanne should read next?