WSIRN Episode 227: Putting your money where your literary values are

Today’s guest Sterling Hardaway values efficiency and growth in his reading life, which has led him to a hefty serving of nonfiction to learn new exciting things, fiction that sidesteps predictable tropes to deliver a truly unique reading experience, and seeking out authors whose perspectives have been historically underrepresented. So my challenge today is recommending 3 books that won’t tread the same old ground, and offer him something new

I hope you’re ready to forge a new literary path today. Let’s get to it! 

You can check out what Sterling is reading on Instagram!


STERLING: I know it’s a controversial opinion, especially on a book podcast, but...

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Was that noise you ducking? I think that’s what I heard. [BOTH LAUGH]


ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 227.

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, my new book Don’t Overthink It came out March 3rd and I’ve already heard some amazing stories from you all. Like Kim who said: “I love books that help me identify the problem, see the desired outcome, and then break it down into small steps I can take to improve. This is one of those books! Just yesterday I became mired down in unhelpful ‘what if’s’, and recognized that I was overthinking. And then stopped and diverted myself to something more productive.”

Thanks for that, Kim. And readers, this is exactly what I hope you’ll find, too. That with the help of Don’t Overthink It, you can recognize when you’re overthinking and you’ll learn how to pivot from there. It might take awhile to create these new habits, but even recognizing those moments when overthinking creeps in is a big step in the right direction and it feels really good to take it.

If you haven’t picked up a copy, find Don’t Overthink It at your local bookstore, on amazon or in your public library–and if they don’t have a copy yet, place a request for them to add it to their collection. Get links to your favorite retailer: just text OVERTHINK to 44222.

Today’s guest Sterling Hardaway values efficiency and growth in his reading life, which has led him to a hefty serving of nonfiction to learn new exciting things, fiction that sidesteps predictable tropes to deliver a truly unique reading experience, and seeking out authors whose perspectives have been historically underrepresented. So my challenge today is recommending 3 books that won’t tread the same old ground, and offer him something new.

I hope you’re ready to forge a new literary path today. Let’s get to it!

Sterling, welcome to the show.


STERLING: Thanks for having me, Anne.

ANNE: Purely coincidentally, or no, let’s say serendipitously, [STERLING LAUGHS] we got your submission right as we were getting ready to send out invitations ‘cause what we tend to do is send those out in batches, and we build our calendar for six weeks and then we let it rest for a little. But yours came in at the exact right moment and we thought, oh, I want to talk to him. So thank you for making that possible.

STERLING: Thank you. Yeah, yeah, I applied on a whim and it was just like, what do I have to do lose? Like why not? [LAUGHS]

ANNE: No, nothing to lose, and I’m glad you did, and to everyone listening, and you too, Sterling: it’s not like a competition. It’s not like, are you a good enough reader? We’re always looking for an interesting mix of guests and books and geography and background and concerns and conundrums and yeah, I’m excited to talk. So Sterling, where are you this morning?

STERLING: I’m in San Francisco this morning.


ANNE: Did you grow up there? Or was it work that brought you there?

STERLING: [LAUGHS] No, so I actually grew up in Mount Vernon, New York which is in Westchester, a suburb 20 minutes north of the city. Went to college in the midwest, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin at-

ANNE: I’m about to go there for the first time.

STERLING: [GASPS] I have so many recommendations. It is literally the most underrated city in America and I think you’ll have an amazing time.

ANNE: I’ve heard that over and over again. Okay. What’s a favorite Milwaukee thing?

STERLING: It does depend on the time that you visit because Milwaukee winters are pretty rough. But no matter what time of the year you go, the Milwaukee Public Market is a fantastic cornucopia of everything great that Milwaukee and Wisconsin food have to offer. There’s obviously great dairy there, like all the sort of cheese curds that you want, which are these sorta squishy, fatty, delicious nuggets of cheese. [ANNE LAUGHS] I mean there’s also a great vegan place there.

It’s like any sort of public market, hall that you go to like at Faneuil Hall in Boston. But I think there, everyone goes there, old, young, and you see all the sort of great people in Milwaukee there that’ll come through and it’s a great time. And - and it’s indoors, so even if it’s -5 degrees out [BOTH LAUGH] you’ll have a good time. But in the summertime, it’ll be sorta central to the riverwalk so you can see the water and all those things. So check out the Milwaukee Public Market.

ANNE: That sounds amazing. Thank you. Sterling, was it personal reasons that you brought you to San Francisco? ‘Cause I know many people dream of living in the beautiful city and experiencing the climate. Was there a professional component there as well?

STERLING: It sorta was more personal than professional. I really do love traveling to different places and living in different places, so I thought the Bay Area would be sorta great to explore for a couple years. So I’ve sorta loved every minute of my time in San Francisco. That said, I’ve spent my whole career sorta in social impact and working at non-profits, so you know, for the sorta next stage of my career, the best place to marry the two of those interests would be in the Bay.


ANNE: You mentioned that a through line in your work has been making processes more efficient. I’m interested in hearing if we’re going to hear that same propensity reflected when you discuss your reading life.

STERLING: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. So I think I’ve always sorta loved steps and process and sorta documenting things. I think one example of that is when I was a kid, I don’t know what I was thinking when I was six years old, but I was like, Santa is really busy, and I’m not sure if my parents are going to be able to sorta prioritize correctly, so maybe what I should do is create a sorta … Go through the Toys-R-Us catalog and create a sorta prioritization system so that my parents know exactly what are the things that I want a lot. You know, if you have like free time or whatever, you can get these other things.

So, I literally sorta made a list with a tracking system of you know, if it had five Christmas trees on it [ANNE LAUGHS] then it was like a top, you gotta get this like Hot Wheels set, but you know, if it had two Christmas trees, you know, don’t worry about it. Like, I think that has sorta followed my career [ANNE LAUGHS] whenever I don’t see something that exists to make things clearer and easy for people. I try to build that.

So a lot of that has been through, you know, working with CRM technology, making processes efficient there, but also working project management tools. So I’m a big fan of a good project management tool. The great thing about it is you know what you’re doing for that project, right? But I think the real value out of those things are you can always go back to them and you don’t have to reinvent the wheel when you tackle a similar project. And it’s also good for sorta growth ‘cause you can reflect on, oh, maybe I should have done that a different way or maybe next time, I’ll do this, you know, this step before that step.

To pivot it to reading, I think that has definitely followed me in my reading life ‘cause I do like to document what I read and how I felt about what I read so that it’s easy to share those thoughts with other people. But it’s also easy for me to go like, oh, wow, I really didn’t like that book three years ago and I just reread it and now I’m like, there’s actually some stuff in here that’s valuable.

ANNE: So you can track movement of your own self across time also.

STERLING: Exactly.


ANNE: I’m envisioning. like. the documentary of your reading life.

STERLING: As long as it was produced by Ken Burns or Ken Burns-esque [ANNE LAUGHS] so it just has to, like, slowly peer into my, like, Goodreads profile [LAUGHS] or something.

ANNE: I love it. So, tell me about your reading life. What do you tend to pick up?

STERLING: So I really do tend to pick up nonfiction books. I studied international affairs and economics in college, so that is really sorta interdisciplinary history, political science, language, so economics, so I do like sorta nonfiction books that span across those different fields, and I can learn something new; I can learn something different a bit more deeply.

But I also do like sorta have personal interests in technology and business and sports and entertainment, so like a good deep dive book on you know one of my favorite athletes or one sorta aspect of a sport is also really interesting to me. So I do like a really well-written, thorough, nonfiction book, and that’s what I tend to pick up.

Occasionally I do read fiction. I think for me it has to be a sorta very, very engaging, can’t be sorta cookie-cutter for me. And I have to know it’s really worth my time ‘cause I love nonfiction so much that like fiction has to really hit a bar.

ANNE: ‘Cause otherwise you wish you were reading a book about economics.

STERLING: Exactly. Exactly. The other thing about fiction is this is a controversial opinion, fictions are much more like to be optioned for a movie or a TV show, and I do think there are a lot of quality adaptations and I don’t see much value in reading a book when a quality sorta film or TV adaptation already exists. So …

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Was that noise you ducking? I think that’s what I heard.

STERLING: [LAUGHS] I know it’s a controversial opinion, especially on a book podcast, but I just feel like there’s never just going to be enough shows about you know, behavioral economics, so I do think that like, now that books can be either entertainment or learning, visual mediums are a little bit more inviting for that. But they’re still great things for learning-tainment if you will.


ANNE: So you said that you are not interested in cookie cutter fiction, tell me - what does that mean to you?

STERLING: I think for me I have to feel like the novel is really unique. I can’t feel like I already know the characters, which I feel like happens a lot especially with, you know, genre fiction that I’ve read where I read a romance novel and, you know, it’s, like, I know this woman. I know this man. Like … I may not know exactly what’s going to happen, but I know that you know, a star-crossed lovers trope, and they’re gonna have some sort of conflict, and then they’re gonna get back together from the conflict or there’s gonna be some dramatic irony and they’re not going to get back and you’re going to feel heart torn. Like that’s just going to be how it goes.

So for me, a book written by Toni Morrison is something I’ll always be engaged and settle up for because of the books I’ve read from her, there’s no character, or really no plot that I was ever familiar with before her book, you know? It’s just so creative and unique and you can tell it’s like coming from her distinct voice and some of her personal experiences that it doesn’t feel familiar in a way that I feel like a lot of fiction novels do.

ANNE: And you know you’re describing the romance tropes, and I’m suddenly realizing how many romance novels and women’s fiction I’ve read recently that have been set in San Francisco.

STERLING: So actually you know, maybe as a bonus, I do like to sorta learn about the places I’m living in or through reading, so I would up for at least one, you know, romance novel if it’s based in San Francisco if it feels like it takes upon a character of its own.

ANNE: Sterling, you hinted at Toni Morrison and how she’s always fresh and surprising and you really enjoy her work and will keep reading her, so on that note, are you ready to talk about the books that you love?


ANNE: Okay. You know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’re reading now and we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next.


STERLING: Okay. We can start off with Toni Morrison.

ANNE: Let’s start with Toni!

STERLING: Yeah. So a book that I love, Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison. So I’m really not going to describe the plot because it’s just I would do a disservice to it. But again, the characters are so rich and so unique. There really isn’t any sorta book like it and it also integrates aspects of the Bible that I think are really interesting. So hints at the name like Solomon. I do think for those reasons, it was a sorta easy choice as very, as one of my favorite ones, even though all of them are great. I think Song of Solomon sorta spoke to me in a way a bit more personally.

The first time I read it was actually in high school. I think my mom actually just recommended it to me and so I read it over the summer. Then I just loved it. But I was going into my junior year of high school, and one of the assignments we had to do for our English class was read a book and then teach it to the class, so we had to do a presentation on the book as well as the author.


ANNE: Interesting.

STERLING: Though I did sorta love my education, I was really sorta reflecting on the fact that wow, there were actually in our English class, there were actually no authors of color and no women. I kinda intentionally was like, alright, and sorta started off this presentation as “well, since we don’t have any Black authors or women authors on our curriculum, I decided to choose Toni Morrison,” which definitely surprised and delighted my English teacher at the time. It was a great book and I was glad I got to introduce it to my classmates and introduce Toni Morrison. That is one fiction book I will sorta always go back to.

ANNE: Sterling, what did you choose for your second favorite?

STERLING: Okay so as I said, I love sports and I love a good sports biography or autobiography. So Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby I think is really a cut above any sports biography or really any biography I’ve ever read. The great thing about sports biographies, you know, it tells you the story that you expect is like, you know, read about it after you know what their upbringing was and you know, their work ethic and tribulations that they’ve had and their triumphs and all those things. And people say great things about them. It’s usually an enjoyable time.

But Roland Lazenby’s The Life starts off talking about Reconstruction Era economics in North Carolina where Michael Jordan’s family is from. So it doesn’t even sorta start off with Michael Jordan was born and when he was born, but when sorta his like great-grandfather was born. And the time he was born in and the consequences that he was born in. So that it was really a sorta take on biography that I’ve never seen.

It’s 672 pages long. It’s an investment, but you think about who Michael Jordan was and still is in not just sports but in culture and in business. I think Michael Jordan’s life is worth 732 pages and in it, you don’t just learn about Jordan, but North Carolina, where he’s from. You learn about Chicago, where he sorta changed a franchise there with the Chicago Bulls and changed a city. You learn about the NBA and how they grew and Nike and it’s such an expansive book. Roland Lazenby sorta talks to every single person that every encountered Michael Jordan [BOTH LAUGH] and you really do get a sorta, doesn’t vilify him, but doesn’t, you know, deify him either. You get an accurate view of what his 360-perception is, in the basketball world and business world and just like his personal life that I think is really incredible. So - so I recommend it to any sports fan.


ANNE: That actually sounds really interesting to this non-avid basketball fan.

STERLING: [LAUGHS] My third book is Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. And it’s written by two economists, lawyers; they have a lot of degrees. [ANNE LAUGHS] So it’s written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I think if you’ve studied economics or law or political science, you have seen these names. They write a lot of like case studies and academic papers as well.

I will say that this book really sorta changed my life. It is a behavioral economics book, and it’s really just about how do policy makers, how do businesses, how do governments make choices and make policy prescriptions that aren’t prescriptive but actually allow people to change their habits? Everything from, like, how do we get people to stop smoking without banning smoking. Right? Because the research shows that when you just sorta take away a thing, it doesn’t actually stop behavior.

So what they talk about is this concept of ... it’s gonna sound weird [LAUGHS] out of context, they talk about this concept, they call it libertarian paternalism and what that really means is giving people choices but nudging them through sorta positive incentives to the choice that you want them to make that’ll actually improve their life and improve the well-being of society. So I found it very helpful on a personal and professional level.

Not giving people ultimatums is really the right way to go whenever you want to do sorta change management, move someone in a good direction. You should really give people options, but make it very obvious if there’s an option that’s sorta more beneficial for them. It is a bit of a heavy book but I think that it is very well written and has sorta real world examples that people can draw from and sorta understand how to apply it.

ANNE: Well, and it’s clearly a book that has stayed with you.

STERLING: Yes. I think especially professionally, it’s one of the books I’m most often recommend to people, especially for policy makers, but I think even sorta product managers, people who work in tech or teachers really benefit from it too because [LAUGHS] teaching is all about helping your students make good choices, so it’s a book that I love.


ANNE: Sterling, tell me about a book that wasn’t for you. Was this hard to choose?

STERLING: [SIGHS] No. [ANNE LAUGHS] This was not hard to choose.

ANNE: That’s what most people say.

STERLING: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. [SIGHS]

ANNE: [LAUGHS] I was going to say tell me more, but that sigh says a lot right there.

STERLING: This is not a scree against Ernest Hemingway. I just think that … I think one of the reasons I really abhor this book so much is I read way too much Ernest Hemingway in high school. I think there were like three sorta required readings on our curriculum and it’s just like, there are other authors. I think that’s one of the things, but I did sorta go back to this book a year ago and I still hated it, so I gave it … [ANNE LAUGHS] I gave it space. I gave it time. Out of that context and it’s still just wasn’t for me.

I will say this, it’s very honest in what it’s giving you by title. [ANNE LAUGHS] Just an old man and the sea. It’s … I know there’s deeper things some people can extrapolate from it, but I just can’t. It’s just a book that sorta does nothing for me, and it’s interesting because it is so short like most Hemingway, but it feels like it drags on and on and on, like I’d much rather read like the 700-page Russian literature than this because at least there’s interesting things in there and character and story, and I feel lost at sea when I’m reading this book.

ANNE: Oh, well played. Sterling, what have you been reading lately?

STERLING: I just recently finished Notes From a Young Black Chef, and that is by Kwame Onwuachi. I really like that book, so he’s a … He’s only 32 years old and opened a couple of fine dining restaurants. He was on Top Chef as well. So what I liked about this book is it was a really sorta emotionally raw and captivating memoir from someone who’s had sorta an exceptional career in such a short time.

We’re sorta in the same age range, which is unique for someone when I’m reading a memoir. Usually it’s someone who’s sorta much older than I am, like my parents’ generation or my grandparents’ generation, so that was interesting, and there aren’t a lot of by the sense of the title, young, Black chefs out there. Or really Black chefs out there in general that you hear about, so hearing about his story was really interesting. There are dishes in his life that he sorta cooks or his mom cooks, that are sorta integral to the story, and in those chapters he gives you the recipe for those dishes, which I find is a really cool moment.


ANNE: I really liked the way you described that. I read that at my husband’s urging. He read it first when it came in the house back in the fall and really enjoyed it. Sterling, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?

STERLING: So right now, I’m really looking to read more authors of color and specifically nonfiction authors of color. So every, every sort of year I do some sort of reading challenge, so not just the number of books I read, but you know, something sorta interesting. So last year I did, you know, I have to document like one learning from each book I read. Another book I sorta did a social media read, so for every book that I read, I have to sorta share it out on social media.

This year my reading challenge is to only purchase books from authors of color. ‘Cause what I’ve noticed is in my reading especially because I read so much nonfiction, that it tended to be sorta a genre that’s dominated by, you know, white men of a certain age who, I think, are brilliant thought writers and leaders like Malcom Gladwell and Adam Grant and General Stanley McChrystal, but I thought about what does it sorta say if all of the leadership books I’m reading are written by sorta a middle aged white man? Like the way we think about diversity and equity and inclusion, we talked about how it’s more profitable, more equitable to just have a diverse workplace. I wanted to see if I could challenge myself to find more nonfiction writers of color in those spaces to see what those perspectives were and if I was sorta missing things in my reading diet and really my learning diet.

ANNE: Your reading diet. I love it. You’ve read nonfiction prolifically but it sounds like you didn’t really realize how challenging it would be to find nonfiction writers of color until you did make that personal project for yourself.

STERLING: Yeah, I’m definitely finding a challenge with it. And maybe you could just do this test on your own, but when you Google Black fiction authors or Latinx fiction authors or hard to come up with a post that are not all memoirs of public figures. That I found really interesting and really the only sorta ways I’ve found these books are through sorta word of mouth, book clubs and websites that solely focus on authors of color. So like one example of that is I don’t know if you know the rapper Noname, she’s from Chicago.


ANNE: All I know is the name.

STERLING: One sorta interesting thing outside of her music, she actually started a book club. It’s called Noname’s book club and you can like find it on Twitter or you can find it at And her sorta mission with that is to find spaces across the country and across the world where people can one) access public libraries and use that as a space to read, but also prioritize authors of color.

I’ve found that as a great space to sorta see what they’re reading and learn about authors whose names I’ve never heard of and it’s interesting with social media how you can kinda sorta change your own feed that way. So you know, when I engage with that content on that Twitter account, there’s other similar accounts that I can follow and then get a trickling in of other books and different authors I’ve never even came across.

ANNE: That’s good. That’s really interesting. And also I’m seeing on Noname’s book club one of the books I was thinking about recommending to you, so we’ll see if you read it already or not.


ANNE: We’ll get there in a second. So more nonfiction authors of color. You mentioned that you wanted to read more fiction as well, ‘cause that’s not something you naturally gravitate towards.

STERLING: Definitely open to a little bit more fiction. It’s good to have a break from these very heavy nonfiction books, so I do like to sorta schedule those in every once and then.

ANNE: I’m curious to get your thoughts on a few titles I’m thinking of.

ANNE: So the books you love are Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and Michael Jordan: A Life by Roland Lazenby. Not for you The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway, and you recently finished Notes from a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi. So we’re looking for nonfiction writers of color and more fiction books.


STERLING: Yes. I’m excited.

ANNE: Well I’m nervous as always. [STERLING LAUGHS] But I was thinking about recommending this really interesting genre bending nonfiction book to you and then I see that it was the September book club, the nonfiction pick for Noname’s book club. Are you familiar with The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty?

STERLING: No, actually.

ANNE: The subtitle is “A Journey Through African-American Culinary History in the Old South.”

STERLING: [GASPS] Oh, this sounds like my book already.

ANNE: Oh, good, good, good. [STERLING LAUGHS] This is a really interesting book because it’s both cultural history and also personal memoir. It was published a few years ago. The one thing that does give me pause and I hope I can convince you that it’s okay, is that it is not a tight narrative. So you really love making processes efficient; I would just like to reassure you that Twitty is a storyteller. So this isn’t like a information dump. He’s exploring lots of different topics that come together in really interesting ways.

And you mention that most of the memoirs you read are by people like your parents’ generation. Twitty is older than Onwuachi, but younger than your mom and dad. And Twitty himself is a gay, Black Jewish man who currently lives and teaches Judaic studies in the metropolitan DC-areas, so he himself-


STERLING: Wow, okay.

ANNE: Has a history that you don’t see a lot, which gives someone a unique launching point to explore the culinary history of the American South. His focus here in this book is … This is in his own words so I don’t screw it up … “The food ways of Africa, enslaved African-Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas and how those things come together.” Genealogy is really important. In fact, there’s a whole deep dive chapter about why and how it’s so difficult for African-Americans in the United States to trace their genealogy. I can only imagine-

STERLING: Oh my gosh, I know.

ANNE: How much research had to be involved for him to trace his family history to the incredible extent that he did. But what he’s doing is he’s documenting a connection between the history of the food culture and the American south, and his family history, and so many other people’s family history, moving from Africa to America, and moving from slavery to freedom. He covers a lot of topics, some of which probably already envisioning, but I will bet that there are some that you are not at all. Like there’s heritage gardening; why persimmons were so important in the foods of African-Americans who were enslaved. He talks about the role of corn and rice in low country South Carolina. That’s probably one you can imagine. His narrative has a very conversational like, I want to tell you a story tone to it, and at the same time it’s clear that he knows his material inside out. And I think you could find it really interesting. How does that sound?

STERLING: That sounds incredible. I’d be excited to read that.

ANNE: Okay. That is The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty. Now for fiction, ‘cause I would love to give you some good novels. How about a baseball book?


STERLING: I love a baseball book.

ANNE: Okay. It’s a strange - a strange baseball book though.

STERLING: I like strange.

ANNE: Okay. This is the new novel. It just came out in February from the author Gish Jen who is prolific, but this is the first book I’ve read by her and it combines two things that many readers love, but don’t often go together. And that is dystopian fiction, which we really don’t see represented in your picks, but I think the baseball is going to pull you along here I hope. And also it’s got technology and economics here. The world building she does, where she gets into the details of technology and business after society has [LAUGHS] … There was no collapse referenced in the book, but society is not in a good place when the novel opens.

This is the United States as it’s now known as AutoAmerica. It’s broken down into what are basically two castes. We have the “Netted,” and you’re probably picturing Hemingway and his nets, but that’s not it at all. [STERLING LAUGHS] That’s an Internet reference, the “Netted.” ‘Cause they have it, and if you’re “Surplus,” the other caste, you don’t. The Surplus people make up the undercaste, one that’s not necessary; their only function in the world is to be consumers. They have to consume what only the Netted produce, otherwise the Netted don’t have a reason for being.

The story’s mostly set among the world of the Surplus, and we hone in on one family. A wife who’s a crusader for social justice and therefore always getting in trouble. She’s just returned from a three-year prison sentence when the novel opens. Her … Used to be a professor, but now that her job is no longer needed, husband and their 17-year-old daughter who is a baseball prodigy. Morale is low, and the one thing that they love that is bringing them together that’s giving them hope to live in a purpose for being, is baseball.

And so someone in the book starts this underground baseball league as something to do and something to distract, but also a tool of the resistance. But of course, it gets complicated and I like this for you because it brings together that you know you enjoy in a package but you have not seen before and haven’t read. The baseball writing is so, so good. There’s this one passage where Jen talks about the mathematics of baseball, and maybe that doesn’t sound riveting, but like-


STERLING: No, it does.

ANNE: And I love that. [STERLING LAUGHS] And listeners, if you didn’t think mathematics and baseball could be riveting, you need to read this passage in The Resisters. You said that you love Toni Morrison because her novels are so unique, like you’ve never seen anything like them before. I don’t think you’ve ever seen anything like The Resisters before either. So how does that sound?

STERLING: This sounds incredible, and it does seem like it ties together all the sorta interests that I have, so I am willing and ready to read this one.

ANNE: That is The Resisters by Gish Jen. And then I kinda want to load you up with more novels, but [STERLING LAUGHS] let’s go a different direction. Because of your love for Toni Morrison, and your aversion to Hemingway, because of the way you describe them, I’m wondering about the writing of James McBride. If you look on Goodreads, which I know you’re an avid user of, this is the book that vastly more people have read than anymore of his works according to this site. That is his memoir called The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. It’s beautifully told. I listened to this on audiobook, and there were different voices narrating James McBride’s character and his mother’s character. And I say character, but this is - this is memoir. It’s pure nonfiction.

He’s a beautiful storyteller and his story is an interesting one, a really touching one. It’s his best known work. But for a nice entry point, he has a short story collection that just came out a few years ago. It’s called Five Carat Soul. There’s a series of four stories in the book that are loosely connected and they all revolve around a musical group called Five-Carat Soul, which is where the title comes from. But what I like about this for you is you like unique stories. You like things you haven’t seen before, and all these stories are so inventive, and they are so different.

I think maybe from other works you may have read before, but also from each other, I think it could be a really interesting and gratifying sampler of his work. If you enjoy that, or if you don’t pick it up right away, he has a new book coming out in early March called Deacon King Kong that looks fascinating and I can’t wait to get my hands on it myself but I haven’t read it yet. That is Five-Carat Soul by James McBride. How does that sound?


STERLING: It looks like I already added the James Brown book at some point to my Goodreads shelf, so I think I’ll certainly start off with Five-Carat Soul.

ANNE: I like the sound of that. And for San Francisco novels [STERLING LAUGHS] there are so many. I don’t know if you have any of these lingering on your list. For romance novels, Jasmine Guillory has set a recent one in San Francisco; Sara Desai has one called The Marriage Game coming out in June that’s set in the Indian community in San Francisco. Food plays a major part. Amy Tan has a book; actually I think she has more than one book set in San Francisco, but The Bonesetter’s Daughter springs immediately to mind.

There’s a really interesting book by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni called The Mistress of Spices. It’s her debut actually and she’s since then written like 20 books, but the premise is there’s a woman who runs a spice shop in contemporary Oakland, and she knows what spices to give people to evoke certain emotions. So it’s a little bit romance. A little bit family story. There’s magical realism. I don’t know if that appeals to you or not.

STERLING: That sounds great. I do like magical realism. I actually … All of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez books I’ve read and then I also just read the Murmur of Bees by Sofia Sergovia.

ANNE: Yeah.

STERLING: I do like a good magical realism book, especially family stories, so yeah.

ANNE: Alright. Well toss that in as a bonus then.

STERLING: [LAUGHS] Okay, great.

ANNE: So, Sterling, of the books we talked about today, The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty, The Resisters by Gish Jen, and Five-Carat Soul by James McBride, what do you think you’ll read next?

STERLING: Huh. All of them sound great and I do think I’ll probably read all of them before the end of the year. I actually do need to schedule in a break from nonfiction soon, so I think I’ll start off with Five-Carat Soul by James McBride.

ANNE: I love that you are deliberately scheduling in a nonfiction break.


STERLING: Yes. I sorta over analytically [LAUGHS] control my reading laugh.

ANNE: Well I don’t know. It’s not over analysis if you’re analyzing it the amount you want to that makes you happy.

STERLING: I think I would need to analyze how much I’m analyzing it. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: Please do, and report back on what you find out.

STERLING: Will do.

ANNE: Sterling, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.

STERLING: Thank you, Anne. I really appreciate it.


ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Sterling, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can check out what Sterling is reading on his Instagram; he’s @ster724.

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if you’re on twitter, let me know there @AnneBogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books -O-G-E-L. Find me on Instagram at annebogel and at whatshouldireadnext. Our newsletter subscribers are the first to know all the What Should I Read Next news and happenings; sign up for our list at and you will get our free weekly delivery on Tuesdays.

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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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Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby
♥  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler
The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway
Notes From a Young Black Chef by Kwame Onwuachi
The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
The Resisters by Gish Jen
The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride
Five Carat Soul by James McBride
The Marriage Game by Sarah Desai
The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan
The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Also mentioned:

Noname’s book club

What do YOU think Sterling should read next?


Leave A Comment
  1. Kate says:

    Sterling, I loved “Temple of My Familiar” by Alice Walker (fiction) and “Reading with Patrick” by Michelle Kuo (non-fiction). Michelle Kuo’s book is about her experiences teaching english literature to black high school students in Arkansas; I highly recommend it.

  2. Donna H says:

    I was so excited to hear you didn’t like The Old Man and the Sea either (I picked it for the one I didn’t like in Episode 83) and it cracked me up that your explanation was so similar-I mean, everything is kind of there in the title 🙂 And if you haven’t read Atomic Habits yet I’d recommend that one based on your thoughts on Nudge.

    • Ruthie says:

      I don’t think anyone LIKES The Old Man and the Sea. They read it for other reasons… usually involving a school assignment. 🙂

  3. Homes says:

    Sterling mentioned Gladwell in his list of white male authors and I know a lot of my friends have been surprised to find out that Gladwell is not white – his mother is Jamaican. See this longish article by him (originally published in The New Yorker, I believe), examining his and other family members experiences as black/biracial West Indians versus the black American experience.,%20Black%20Like%20Them.pdf

  4. Karen says:

    I would recommend There, There by Tommy Orange if you are looking for a new voice in fiction. He writes of the plight of the urban Native American and it takes place in the Bay Area.

  5. Monica Meisenheimer says:

    I recommend The Flight Girls by Noelle Salazar to everyone I talk books with. It’s a historical fiction novel during WWII, but told from the side of female pilots and their involvement stateside in the war efforts. Well written and such an interesting story told from a unique perspective.

  6. Debra McGuire says:

    Check out A Drop of Midnight: A Memoir by Jason Diakite. He is a Swedish rapper whose father is an African-American from Harlem and his mother a white woman from Pennsylvania. They emigrated to Sweden in the 1970s in search of a better life. It’s fascinating!

  7. Nina says:

    For a mix of Toni Morrison and nonfiction, there is actually a new nonfiction book called ‘The Toni Morrison Book Club’ by four professors at The College of New Jersey: Juda Bennett, Winnifred Brown-Glaude, Cassandra Jackson, and Piper Kendrix Williams. They each tackle one of Morrison’s books and approach it not only through an academic lens, but also how they respond to it on a personal level. For instance, in talking about ‘Beloved’, the reaction to Sethe’s treatment of her children comes from a black mother responding to a current world that is violent toward young black people. I’ve only just started this one, but it is really gripping on both the intellectual and the emotional fronts so far.

  8. Janna says:

    For San Francisco fiction, I recommend Tell No Lies by Gregg Hurwitz. It’s a thriller set in the city. Also reading one Anne mentioned: The Bonesetter’s Daughter and loving it so far.

  9. Nancy says:

    Thanks for the great episode! I’m excited to have been reminded of Kwame Onwuachi’s book. I have that book on my TBR list and with all that’s happening right now, it might just perfectly fit the bill!

  10. Ruthie says:

    I was washing dishes and listening to this episode. After hearing about Sterling’s book picks, and then learning that he’d just finished Notes From A Young Chef, I declared out loud (to absolutely no one but the faucet), “The Cooking Gene! The Cooking Gene!” It was almost a RELIEF to hear you recommend that book first to Sterling! I hope he enjoys it, although, as you said, it “isn’t an efficient read.”
    LOVED the Stay At Home Book Tour interview with Patti Callahan Henry, and now I’m eager to read Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which I hadn’t previously considered as a potential read for myself. Looking forward to viewing your discussion of Don’t Overthink It (which I already own!), and am so excited about the whole Stay At Home lineup. THANK YOU FOR DOING THIS!

  11. Jill Duffin says:

    Maybe – The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern for Sterling. Unusual fiction with some magic.
    There There by Tommy Orange is definitely not your run-of-the-mill novel. Sterling may like it as it is recommended above (Me – did not finish – too contemporary for my taste)
    Also agree – Reading With Patrick – excellent nonfiction. Loved it!

    P.S. I am new to WSIRN – started listening on my walks and now addicted! So much fun and informative for the reading life!

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