So, you hate the book you’re reading. Or maybe you just feel blah about the book you’re reading. Or maybe the book you’re reading is good, but a different book on your shelf just looks so appealing, and you can’t help reaching for it… suddenly, you have a stack of 5 half-read books on your nightstand, and you’re still browsing the library catalog for something new. If you relate to any of those scenarios, today’s episode is for you. Guest Jamie Wright is a self-proclaimed “book quitter” and she’s asked for my help turning things around.
Let’s get to it!
JAMIE: That experience of just loathing, it stayed with me and so I don’t finish books. [BOTH LAUGH] I feel bad saying that.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 228.
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, I know right now many of your routines have been upended and you may be looking for an escape from the news. Whether you’re looking for your next read or you just want to sit back and enjoy a little book talk, back episodes of What Should I Read Next may be exactly what you need right now. Our episodes are evergreen and we have collections of our 200+ episodes as Spotify playlists. Go to whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/Spotify and start bingeing … Uhm, I mean, relaxing or bibliotherapying … Is that word? It’s not, but I hope that listening to a few episodes will do you some good. That’s whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/Spotify. And if you have suddenly have kids at have home that need a little entertainment, we even have a playlist of episodes for kids. Again, just visit whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/Spotify.
So, you hate the book you’re reading. Or, maybe you just feel blah about the book you’re reading. Orrrrrrr, maybe the book you’re reading is good, but a different book on your shelf just looks so appealing right now, you can’t help reaching for it… suddenly, you have a stack of 5 unread books on your nightstand, and you’re still browsing the library catalog for something new. Readers, if you relate to any of those scenarios, today’s episode is for you. Guest Jamie Wright is a self-proclaimed “book quitter,” and she’s asked for my help turning things around.
It’s a fun one. I totally relate to her dilemma. Let’s get to it!
Jamie, welcome to the show.
JAMIE: Thank you so much for having me, Anne.
ANNE: We were all excited at What Should I Read Next headquarters when we saw your interesting request.
JAMIE: I kinda threw a lot of interesting requests at you, so [BOTH LAUGH] I’m curious to see what grabbed your attention.
ANNE: You also said that your book club was going to be super excited about this whole venture.
JAMIE: Oh, yes. I learned of your podcast through friends at my book club. It was kind of one of those things that was getting passed from person to person in conversations before and after our actual official book discussions, and so a friend of mine recommended the podcast to me, and then we collectively recommend the podcast to everyone else. And in fact the last few months we’ve been discussing our own, you know, favorite books and what we’re currently reading kinda in a What Should I Read Next format, and it’s really broadened my personal reading horizon.
So, last month when we had our book club meeting, I tried really hard not to tell them that I had received an email from you saying that you had accepted my submission. [LAUGHS] I tried really hard to make it a surprise because I thought that would be cooler, but I am not cool enough to hold that in, so we were all very much excited together.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Before you couldn’t restrain yourself and the news spilled out, how did you envision this unfolding? Was everybody just gonna wake up on Tuesday morning and look at their app and go, what?!
JAMIE: Yeah, yeah, I just thought it’d be kinda cool if - if you know, my friends downloaded the next episode and like, wait a minute, that’s Jamie! Like I don’t know. I thought that’d be funny, but again, I’m not cool enough [ANNE LAUGHS] to pull that off.
ANNE: I don’t have that kind of patience either though. I’m there with you.
ANNE: Tell me about your book club. How long have you been together?
JAMIE: I’m going to say we’ve been going on three years now. A little bit over three years. So it’s been a long, kinda a long standing group. It started when I was kinda in the small kids at home, isolated phase of motherhood, you know? I was kinda working on my Master’s degree part time and just really needing more connection with myself and with my own identity as opposed to just my identity as a mom, you know? Started some informal conversations with friends at my church and at my job I noticed that I just was delighted to be surrounded by a few friends who really had the same passion for reading that I had.
If there’s one thing I love more than reading it’s talking about reading, so we just got together, all of us together to start to have those discussions and so we have a monthly meeting. The format basically is we discuss the book that we’ve been reading over the past month and then we select our next book, the host, whoever’s hosting that month brings three titles that they’re interested in reading, and then collectively we vote on the one that we want to read together. So that’s been how we’ve selected books up until now, and it’s been very interesting. I think we’ve all broadened our horizons a little bit, but we definitely have a certain genre or type as a group, I think, that we gravitate toward more than others. [LAUGHS] But it’s been really fun, and it’s good to have those friendships.
ANNE: Does your book club type tend to align with the books that you gravitate towards yourself?
JAMIE: I think yes, and sometimes I wonder if that’s my fault because [BOTH LAUGH] I think there have been times when my overenthusiam for a certain genre of a certain book can like sway the book as a whole to also be which I’m not gonna - I’m not gonna feel ashamed for that, you know, it’s fine. We have kinda swung toward the same genres that I tend to gravitate toward personally but, you know, bringing in new titles that maybe I’ve never heard of, discussing them together and weighing them on their merits and not just oh, this is the type of book I like.
ANNE: Jamie, we read in your submission that you’ve been feeling somewhat burned out on your go-to choices of sci-fi and fantasy, is that what you’re hinting at here?
JAMIE: Yeah, a little bit.
ANNE: Oh, no! [LAUGHS]
JAMIE: I feel bad saying that! I still think I always love my speculative fiction. I enjoy, you know, the flights of fancy and the imagination. I enjoy seeing the tropes put together in different and new and surprising ways, but I think part of it is I’m just less surprised than I used to be. I’m learning too that it’s just not a certain type of book that I’m really engaging in. There’s more to it than that. There’ve been plenty of books that may fall into the genre of trust that I would traditionally say, oh yeah, that’s my kind of book that I’m just kinda like eh. I don’t finish them. I’m not feeling engaged with character, and so, I don’t know if it’s just maybe I need to move in a different direction, I still think I’ll always love speculative fiction in general. I like genre fiction. I like the imagination engaged with what I’m reading, but I don’t know. It’s just not - it’s just not that anymore if that makes sense.
ANNE: You know what’s funny here is that you actually are a counselor.
JAMIE: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And I’m only qualified as a bibliotherapist. [JAMIE LAUGHS] So I wonder if it feels like the shoe is on the other foot today, considering what you do by day.
JAMIE: I love it, Anne, because I was telling my husband yesterday that I’m, like, I feel like I’m going into a counseling session. Like I’m expecting book therapy here and I need to not do that to Anne. [LAUGHS] I need to have different expectations for this conversation.
ANNE: I just want to be clear if there is a bibliotherapy concentration, yeah, I didn’t take it.
JAMIE: Yeah, it’s all good. It’s all good. You do well at what you do. [BOTH LAUGH] The thing that I think I’m realizing is that when I have a book that is exactly what I expect in terms of okay, this is the hero’s journey. They start here. They go through these trials. You know, they lose their mentor at some point. They’re motivated to do wonderful things, and then they return from their hero’s journey. You know, whatever - whatever that traditional arc, that arc that’s normal [LAUGHS] I just feel a little burnt on it. I don’t want things to be predictable in that way all the time.
Like I’m okay if there’s still a normal narrative arc to what I’m reading, but I don’t want that to be all it has to offer. And I think sometimes in the fantasy and sci-fi genres, there’s a lot of sameness because a lot of these books I think are written by people who love the genre because of that narrative arc, that hero’s journey. It doesn’t feel as genuine to me. I want things to feel more like life than that, and it can still feel like life if it’s happening on an alien planet. I just want it to feel like they’re actual people having actual reactions, even if they’re in a completely bizarre situation.
ANNE: Tell me if this resonates with you: I have a friend who’s a novelist and she says after doing what she does for as long as she’s done it, that now she knows too much and it’s kinda ruined reading in her regular genre for her because she knows the beats. She knows the conventions. She knows how far a publisher will let you push it and still publish the book, and she’s like, you know, I feel like [LAUGHS] I’ve seen it all. And I am gonna have to find something completely different to read if it’s going to read fresh and surprising and enjoyable to me and not like work. And I understand it’s not work to you, but if you’re reading because you want to appreciate the - the power of the human imagination and the worlds they can dream up and put on the page, you want to be surprised by what people can come up with and it sounds like that’s become a struggle.
JAMIE: Yeah, I want to be surprised, and I also just - I also think I want people who feel like people. I want the characters to feel genuine, and maybe that’s part of it is sitting in sessions with clients day after day, I get good at telling what decisions a person’s going to make, be they destructive or healthy. And yeah, people surprise you all the time but you kinda get … There’s a familiarity to the human experience and the human thought process that when it feels forced, when it feels contrived, when it feels like an author is running their character through a series of challenges in a very formulaic way, yeah, the avarice multitude is lost for me.
ANNE: Now you mentioned you don’t finish a lot of books.
JAMIE: Heh. Yeah. It’s something chronic.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Tell me more about that.
JAMIE: [LAUGHS] I’ve been a book quitter since probably late high school. So I’m not one of these that used to finish books, you know, religiously. I think I read Moby Dick my junior year of high school and it ruined me forever. [ANNE LAUGHS] I just can’t muscle my way through it when [LAUGHS] I’m not enjoying it, and I’m cool with that. Like I’m really okay.
ANNE: Did you muscle your way through Moby Dick back then?
JAMIE: I did, and I regretted it. I regretted it so hard. I wish I had quit it. I’m sure if I read it as an adult it would be a different experience. Maybe I’d have more appreciation.
ANNE: And it stayed with you.
JAMIE: It stayed with me, that experience of just loathing, and so [ANNE LAUGHS] I don’t finish books. In fact I would say that I probably quit more books than I finish. I feel bad saying that because I feel like that demonstrates a disrespect for the work that authors put into their books, and I don’t want to do that. I quit books that I might be enjoying. This is … I don’t know. It’s becoming more pathological, Anne.
I quit a lot of books because I think I’m a bit of a mood reader. I just kinda go wherever I’m feeling it that day, and so I have perpetually on my nightstand a stack of like seven great books that I probably started and I stopped somewhere in the middle, but I may be intending to finish them one day and then eventually they get cycled back onto my bookshelf and maybe I’ll pick them up again in a couple years. But they’re not gonna get finished right now that’s for sure.
ANNE: So you don’t feel half-hearted about quitting books.
ANNE: You’re a proud book quitter.
JAMIE: [LAUGHS] Well it’s kinda what it is. Whether I’m proud of it or not, it’s a reality I can’t really change at this point.
ANNE: And yet you said that you’re not thrilled with quitting more books than you finish right now, but you’re okay with mood reading, right?
JAMIE: Yeah, I’m good with mood reading. I think I would just like you know, 10% more sticktoitiveness you know, to actually power through when it’s dragging a little bit, to finish it [ANNE LAUGHS] and experience the resolution. It’d be nice if I finished like 60%. The ones I’m actually enjoying I’d like to be able to finish those ones.
ANNE: Okay. So if this is a scale, you’d like the balance to tip in the other direction.
JAMIE: Yes. Just a little.
ANNE: I’d love to hear about a book you’ve read recently that pulled you right through, that you were reading it at the right time. You were in the mood for. It was the right book for you. It made you want to keep going.
JAMIE: The last book that felt that way to me, I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. And I will say I kinda had that … I had to put a little intention into it. I developed this rhythm last week when I was reading it of like waking up in the morning, you know, did a little bible reading and then I would sit down before the rest of my family was up and in my face, and I would read that for, you know, 20, 30 minutes in the mornings. And it developed a rhythm that was really lovely and the tone of the book was so lovely.
And you know, from page one what’s going to happen at the end of that book, but the way it unfolded was really beautiful and the characters involved, I cared about them deeply and I wanted to understand the way in which they were going on their journey. So I felt it was easy to stay engaged. It also helped that it was a little shorter, but at the same time I have to acknowledge it may have been influenced by the fact that I knew this recording was coming up, and so I was like, I love reading. I want to read more. [ANNE LAUGHS] And so there was that extra, you know, oomph of engagement with reading in general. You know, you observe a thing and it changes it. So I can’t guarantee that wasn’t part of it, but I still really enjoyed that experience.
But in terms of, like, just those irresistible reading experiences that you cannot get off the couch, you have to keep turning the pages and one chapter immediately pulls you into the next one, and it’s almost like you would have to make an effort to tear yourself away from the book. I’ve had plenty of those in my life, but I have not had many recently. Those kinda reading experiences kinda feel like something that was a characteristic of my reading life when I was younger, but can’t really for practicability reasons be a part of my life as it stands right now.
ANNE: Something I hear from a lot of adult readers, this may or may not resonate with you, is that in periods of stress, fatigue, and busyness, it’s hard to muster the enthusiasm for the reading life. Which is something a lot of other readers don’t relate to because they’ll be like, how, I need my books to get through the stressful seasons and tired seasons, so that doesn’t apply to everyone. And I don’t know if those apply to you right now, but it is something that could be interesting to consider. Because when you talked about your reading experience recently, you started talking about the rhythms of the reading life, so you didn’t need that sticktoitiveness because you developed a pattern that was working for you. You also had a What Should I Read Next recording on the horizon.
JAMIE: [LAUGHS] That helped.
ANNE: That’s so interesting. Well maybe we can just schedule regular monthly check-ins. [LAUGHS]
JAMIE: There you go! You know.
ANNE: I mean, you’re supposed to go see your counselor regularly, right?
JAMIE: It’s true. It’s true.
ANNE: This is how it works. [BOTH LAUGH] I’ll see what we can do with that. Jamie, I’d love to get into the more specifics of your reading life. Are you ready to talk about your books?
JAMIE: Absolutely. I’d love to.
ANNE: Okay well you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next.
JAMIE: The first book that I picked was The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss and I know this has been mentioned on your podcast before. I think the last time I heard someone mention it though, it was the book they didn’t like, so. This is, you know, a conventional in some respects, hero’s journey, just as I was mentioning earlier. However, it’s much more personal. The bulk of the story is told from the first person perspective. Person speaking in their own voice about their own story. It’s much closer to the person’s experience, which I appreciated.
Now I do think that the criticisms were valid; it does have some parts that eh, I can see people not enjoying, but I loved it. This is a book that absolutely pulled me in from beginning to end. It was surprising in many ways. It didn’t follow conventional plot structure. I cared deeply about what was going on with this person’s life and the main character named Kvothe, I cared deeply about what was going on with his life. I thought he was too perfect in some ways and deeply flawed in others and a bit of an egoist and kind of irritating to his friends and, like, so he was … He was deeply flawed, and I think there’s also that element of he might be an unreliable narrator about his own story as well. Which I love a good unreliable narrator.
Also I would say Patrick Rothfuss has beautiful language. He wrote this story with very careful word choice and there are whole sections of the dialogue that if you read them out loud, you realize, oh this is written in verse. Like rhythming couplets of people talking together, and so the words of this book are crafted in a just beautiful way. So it’s a book that I feel stands up for rereading as well, which I enjoy rereading books when they have that kind of impact on me. So I’ve revisited this one several times.
ANNE: What compels you to revisit a book that you’ve read?
JAMIE: Sometimes I go back to a book if I really just want to re-experience the mood that I experienced the first time I read it.
JAMIE: If I can’t find a new book that’s going to hit me in that particular spot, I’ll go back to an old book happily that will. I especially love rereading if it’s a book that I felt had unplumbed depths last time I read it. So, maybe I got the surface level plot, but you get the impression that there’s more underneath the surface if you dig a little deep, you’re going to get deeper levels of meaning. I love that.
So this is one of those books where the first time like I said I didn’t realize that sections of dialogue were written in verse, I realized that one the second or third rereading and I realized it when I was reading it out loud to my husband because it’s more obvious when you’re reading it out loud. So I enjoy that; I enjoy the surprises each time you revisit a text.
ANNE: This is a doorstop novel. It’s 700-ish pages.
JAMIE: Yes. It’s a big one.
ANNE: You mentioned that you were just reading I Think The Owl Called My Name and it was short and that probably helped, and I was - I was just trying to get a feel for what may have changed. ‘Cause when you talk about mood reading, there can be … It’s Tuesday night and I have an hour between now and dinner, and what do I feel like reading right now? But we can also be talking about actual seasons or years of your life where some reading preferences are more dominant than others. So I’m just trying to get a sense of the rhythm here. Okay. That’s The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss.
JAMIE: I think in general I enjoy a doorstop novel. Right before I read I Heard The Owl Called My Name, the last book I finished before that was A Gentleman in Moscow, so don’t necessarily think I’m having an aversion to a longer book. I think in some cases a shorter book is easier to finish because you get the end faster, but in general I don’t mind sinking into a book for a long stay if I feel like I’m connecting with the characters in it.
ANNE: Sinking into a book, I like the way you put that. Jamie, what did you choose for your second favorite?
JAMIE: The second book I picked was The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. This was a book I included on my list of three because it surprised me so much how much I enjoyed it. I don’t even know why I picked this one up, Anne. I think I heard you talking about it on the podcast with someone, but obviously I didn’t have a good enough memory to know what it was about when I picked it up. I think I’d read part of one of his other novels like The Buried Giant. Like I had gotten halfway through that, and I enjoyed the half that I had read. So I’m like oh, I’ll try this one because you know, it won some prizes, and it’s his most well-known title. And it was again, one of those … I sunk into the perspective of this main character. I loved him so much. I just loved him. I found it so funny.
This is a book where I think most people wouldn’t find it as funny as I found it, but I found myself in stitches over this book. Like not only in places where you’re supposed to be laughing because he’s talking about trying to develop a sense of humor which is legitimately very funny. [ANNE LAUGHS] But also parts of this book where it’s just the human foibles, right? Like he’s just completely missing the signals that are going on around him and it’s absolutely hilarious until it’s utterly tragic, you know. So this book skated that line - that emotional line between humor and tragedy really, really beautifully for me personally in my experience. Again it’s a book that doesn’t really have a conventional plot structure. You know, it’s, like, a butler going on a road trip. That’s the whole book, but I really enjoyed understanding who he was and there was a beauty to it that I really appreciated.
ANNE: You are exactly right in describing this book as a butler going on a road trip, and yet that description [BOTH LAUGH] I’m picturing him like in a convertible in a Hawaiian shirt with the top down…
JAMIE: I know!
ANNE: And a diet coke in his hands, and that’s not what the book is at all. [LAUGHS]
JAMIE: No, no, not at all.
ANNE: Skating the line between humor and tragedy. That’s - that’s good.
JAMIE: I had a college professor who used to say that comedy is just tragedy in long-shot. So you have an event that is absolutely horrifying and deeply tragic to the person who’s experiencing it, if you see it from far away, it’s humor. You know what I mean? So anytime you have a sitcom, if you are actually in those sitcoms, they would be deeply uncomfortable, you know what i mean? And absolutely unfunny, but we laugh, you know, to see the pratfalls and the deeply awkward moments. So I think acknowledging where that line is and I don’t know, maybe my line’s in a different place than other people’s, but as long as there’s a lot of empathy for the characters, I enjoy that understanding, that perspective on folly I guess, and when it goes from being humorous to being real.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so interesting. I like how you put that. What did you choose to round out your favorites list?
JAMIE: My third favorite that I selected was Wool by Hugh Howey. And this is a book that I encountered only because of book club. It was selected as a read for one month, like pretty early on, so this was a few years ago that I read it. And I just remember having a very engaging experience reading this book. It’s not first person. It’s a third person, but each of the people who you’re following, you really kinda understand their motivations and their decision making process. It’s kinda set in this dystopian future, but you don’t know what’s going on or how people got there or what’s really true and what isn’t. There’s some really delicious suspense in this book that makes it very satisfying and very unexpected in ways. It just was a really solid read. And again, I found it very surprising. I didn’t know what to expect when I went into it and it just took you on a good ride.
ANNE: Have you read any of the other books in this series?
JAMIE: I started the second one, but I checked it out of the library and there was a hold on it, so I couldn’t keep it until I finished it. I had to return it before I finished it. And it’s one of those books that I wish I had finished because I was enjoying it, but I just couldn’t finish it in time before I had to return it to the library. So one of these days, I’m going to get it out of the library again and finish it because I think it is definitely worth finishing. I just haven’t - haven’t done it yet. This is what I’m saying about my book quitting being a bit of a problem sometimes.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Should I give you What Should I Read Next homework? Read Wool book #2?
JAMIE: [LAUGHS] Yes, maybe I need that. I don’t know.
ANNE: Jamie, you said that you have a book that you strongly disliked.
JAMIE: [SIGHS] Yes. I did. I strongly disliked it.
ANNE: And it’s one that’s been loved on this podcast.
JAMIE: Red Rising by Pierce Brown, and I just could not tolerate this book. I tried really hard, and I read the first one. So I did finish the first book in the series, and then I got halfway through the second book in the series before I said nope. I’m done. Never - not gonna finish it. This is an instance in which my book quitting came in handy. [ANNE LAUGHS] I was recommended this book by a college friend whose opinion I value a lot. So I gave it a good solid try and I’m sorry, Ethan, my friend from college, I just - I couldn’t. This book … Mm, it made me so mad.
ANNE: Tell me more.
JAMIE: The issue that I had with it primarily was in the way that I treated his female characters. From book one, page one...
JAMIE: You know that the main character is going to go on this hero’s journey again, you see the plot laid out in front of you, so you know if he’s going to go on this hero’s journey that of course his wife who’s there from page one is gonna have to die, probably sooner rather than later. And it just felt like such a plot contrivance from day one. Like of course, this is what’s going to happen, and of course she’s going to be used as a bit of set dressing to motivate his character development and not as an actual person, which just always feels disrespectful. Even though I understand why it’s a trope and I understand that people are like well, it’s a way to emotionally motivate you know, and whatever. I want characters to be characters. I don’t want them to be objectified in that way.
And I think book two, I got about halfway through it and it just continued, female characters kinda being killed off or marginalized for emotional punch for motivation for the main male character and I just kinda got disgusted with it after a while. I couldn’t stomach it. It wasn’t enjoyable enough for me to overlook that. It just soured the whole experience.
ANNE: Something I appreciate about this show and the reading experience is that we hear from listeners every week who say that book that guest didn’t like sounds right up my alley. I’m requesting it immediately, and the book that guest loved is so not for me either. I read it and I hated it or I am never ever reading that.
So I can’t imagine that what you just said is really going to rush readers out to their bookstore or library [JAMIE LAUGHS] but I do love how tastes differ, and that is okay. That is more than okay. That’s a good thing. And you don’t have to sound apologetic about liking what you like. And disliking what you don’t. So, Jamie, right now, you recently finished I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven and A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Jamie, on your submission form, you shared the books you love which we appreciate. That’s very important. But you also shared three authors you love, and I thought it was interesting how there wasn’t an overlap between the two lists.
JAMIE: I thought it was odd, and that’s the reason I shared it. The three authors I love are Brandon Sanderson, Tana French, and Connie Willis. Those are three authors that I really, really trust. I think I’d picked up any book … I’d be more likely to pick up any book if I saw their name attached to it. These are authors that I love, but if you’d noticed, none of them are the authors of those books that I love that I mentioned earlier in the podcast. [LAUGHS] So that seems curious to me and I can’t really explain why that is.
ANNE: Oh, no. I wanted to ask if you had a working theory.
JAMIE: Ah … Well, okay. My best theory is that … And this is maybe going a little too deep into my psyche. Maybe I need to stop navel gazing, but my best theory is that these authors are people that I feel like I’ve gotten to know through reading their works and I really enjoy knowing more about them through each new book that they write. I think they’re all authors that have a fair bit of range in what they’ve written, like they’re not just doing the same kind of protagonist in the same kind of situation, and I think … You start to learn, you know, after you read two or three books by the same person, you start to learn what’s important to them and what they see as valuable in the story and what ideas fascinate them.
And I enjoy that process of getting to know an author through their work, and I think there are some authors that once you’ve read enough books by them, it’s like you’re visiting it with a friend the next time that you open one of their books. These authors are ones that feel like friends to me. Like I think I would open their books and just think, okay, Brandon, what do you have for me today, you know? Or all right, Connie, let’s read this one. [ANNE LAUGHS] I have no idea where it’s going but I want to sit for that conversation.
So that’s why they’re my favorite authors, even though maybe I can’t select one book of theirs that I would say is a transcendent reading experience. You know, I could say maybe where I onboarded if that makes sense. Where I got captured by their writing and maybe that would be, oh, that’s a book I love. But there’s a certain familiarity to my favorites. Whereas the books I think ooh, that was an experience, they’re usually a bit more surprising than that.
ANNE: I really like the sound of that theory. I think you might be onto something. And also, looking at the difference between the authors you love and your favorite books, I’m reminded of a piece I read right around the turn of the year. If I can track down what it is, I know we’ve shared it in a newsletter, we will put it in show notes. But this piece was evaluating the bestselling books of the previous year and the prior years as well, and was pointing out that the books that have become runaway bestsellers, that the public’s really latched onto, are books that tend to break genre conventions, that are very unusual in plot or structure or telling. They stand apart. There’s no formula for those books.
And that makes me think of what you were saying earlier about how you’re less surprised than you used to be, but apparently people still like to be surprised, and you couldn’t predict these bestsellers because they weren’t like what came before. I don’t know if when you look at the favorite books you chose today if you think, oh, those do break the mold of what I have read in the past … I know you said that for The Remains of the Day. I’m not sure how you feel about the other two. But that might be worth pondering.
JAMIE: I think there’s some truth to that. Like that surprising desire for something novel is probably just a big part of the way that I approach life, you know, I enjoy new things. And if I look at the authors that I have selected as favorite authors, I would say that each of them is fairly atypical in the genre that they represent. You know, Brandon Sanderson kinda does his own thing with magic systems, and the way that he structures plot is much more precise than many other writers who kinda tend to write by the seat of their pants. He also makes much more interesting settings.
Tana French, she just absolutely understands the way human relationships feel and work and she writes such beautiful, genuine descriptions. It just feels utterly different than anything else in the detective or mystery genre. And then you have Connie Willis who kinda writes science fiction, kinda writes humor, kinda writes history. Like she defies a lot of genre restraints as well, which I love.
ANNE: I have never read Brandon Sanderson. Or how about I have not yet read Brandon Sanderson or Connie Willis, but I woke up this morning thinking isn’t it time for Tana French to announce a new book? It feels like time to me. [JAMIE LAUGHS] Not - not that I’m you know, impatiently tapping my foot thinking like come on, come on, Tana. But I love her writing and she’s been putting them out every two years and The Witch Elm came out in 2018, and I’m just ready for news.
JAMIE: Same here. I agree. I’m waiting for the next one, and that’s kinda how I am about Brandon Sanderson too. You know, he’s very much in the fantasy/science fiction genre, but he is prolific. That guy publishes I wanna say two books a year on average. Some of them are doorstops, like he has thousand page novels that he comes out with every other third year, something like that. He writes a ton, which is wonderful for those who want to read voraciously. He’s kinda known as the magic systems guy who will, like, write fantasy, but do more of a hard magic system that has kinda underlying logic to it, and is more inventive.
The thing I like about him a lot is he treats his characters with respect. They each have their own development and he cares about researching things to make it feel true and feel genuine, and I really appreciate that. I think that’s one thing that I value deeply is when authors seem to have a lot of respect for their characters. And then Connie Willis, she’s written stuff all over the place and I really enjoy her writing. Although I will say she’s one of the three that I have not read everything that she’s written, but the things that I have read, I deeply enjoyed.
ANNE: Well you have some books to look forward to then.
JAMIE: I do.
ANNE: Jamie, what are you looking for in your reading life?
JAMIE: Well one of my long term quests as a reader [LAUGHS] is to find more books that show representation of married or committed couples where they’re both full characters in the story and it’s not a story about them getting together or breaking up. I think oftentimes, we only see people in committed relationships when the relationship itself in somehow in peril. Apparently after a person gets married or commits to a person, they no longer get to have new experiences or grow or go and do things, or be a full character. Like that attitude is well, life ends when you’re married, which I think is absolute garbage and I think anyone who’s been married can attest to the fact that it’s absolutely garbage. I think there’s a dearth of books out there that actually show married people as people where being married is part of who they are, but it is not the full story.
ANNE: This is a challenging question because when you talk about that, I think there have to be books out there like this, and yet there’s no algorithm for that. There’s no neat tidy list anywhere. You can’t - you can’t run that through a search engine and come up with a list of answers. Fiction thrives on tension, and so many stories are about the tension that happens in a relationship, so - so when I start thinking about what we want to find to add to your list, we want stories of married couples facing an external crisis, not one in their relationship. It’s a novel. There’s gonna be a crisis.
JAMIE: Well and I’m fine with whatever external crisis impacting their relationship, right? Like I’m fine if whatever external crisis is going on has an influence on the way that they relate to one another, I feel like that feels absolutely genuine. I just don’t want it to be all that’s going on in the book.
ANNE: Jamie, are you looking for generally happy stories? Maybe not happy stories, but maybe looking for couples who are generally satisfied with their relationships, or do like totally disastrous marriage stories count as well?
JAMIE: [LAUGHS] I’m fine with a little bit of disaster, but I have a hard time when it’s hopeless. In general, I can read some pretty tough stuff and some pretty gritty stuff, but if it goes down the hopeless avenue, I just, I quit. It’s not even a preference issue at that point, I just - I peace out and I say, I get enough of that in work. I don’t want to go there for my reading life.
ANNE: It’s funny when I read your request I envisioned stories where the couples are intact at the end of the novel, but then I realized that’s not actually what you said, so I wasn’t sure if I was projecting on you.
JAMIE: Mhmm. Yeah.
ANNE: If I got lucky or if there was something in the way you put it that made me think that.
JAMIE: Nope, I’d love it if they’d stay together.
ANNE: So we want a little hope, and not total devastation.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, we’ll see what we can do.
ANNE: So, Jamie, the books that you love are The Name of The Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, The Remains of The Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Wool by Hugh Howey. Not for you is Red Rising by Pierce Brown and the rest of the series. And recently you’ve read A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles and I Heard The Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven. You are feeling a little weary of your go-to fantasy and sci-fi genres, and would love to find stories of married couples facing challenges together. I love how on your submission you said that since you are feeling burned out on your go-to choices of sci-fi and fantasy, maybe something more grounded would be right for you right now. That being said, I would really like to start with a, like, solidedly fantasy recommendation. Can I do it?
JAMIE: Oh, please do.
ANNE: ‘Cause I just finished this book. I’m not a go-to fantasy reader, but I just finished this book and it was so good!
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, the book is The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin. Are you a reader of her work? Speaking of prolific authors.
JAMIE: I have started, and this is horrible, Anne. I’ve started two or three of her books. I have not made it all the way through one of them.
ANNE: Well I think this is a good one to start with then. I’ve read several of her books. I haven’t read any complete series because she has written a lot of series. This book has such purposive page turning energy and it’s so inventive. I was just reading this thinking, I have not read nearly as many fantasy/sci-fi novels as you have, but I was just reading this thinking how on earth did she come up with this in her human brain? [JAMIE LAUGHS] Like this is so fantastically inventive and imaginative. Something else I also really was aware of when I was reading this book as I’m sure that this book has depths that my brain did not take in. This would definitely be worth a reread for me, I’m certain there’s stuff that went over my head, and I still was all in from the beginning. I loved it.
To write this book, N.K. Jemisin really built out a short story that she included in her 2018 short story collection called How Long Til Black Future Month? And that is called The City Born Great, and you can Google and find that online and read it right now. We’ll put it in show notes. The idea here is that New York has reached the point in its development as great cities have, rarely but definitely, throughout time … You know, the great cities of civilization, think Rome and Athens and Sao Paulo. Now New York City has reached the stage of human development and it is about to become alive. And when it does, what happens is there are five boroughs that are personified - the avatars of Manhattan, The Brooklyn, The Bronx, The Queen, and poor, neglected Staten Island. So they all have humanlike avatars who have to come together and fight as a team to save the city.
It’s very realistic in its setting in New York City. It’s like reading an action movie, and it is also so [LAUGHS] fantastically, strange, weird, and wonderful and so fast-paced. And the combination of that could never ever happen. How do you come up with that? And oh, you are describing streets that I literally walked down a couple weeks ago when I was in New York is so effective. The antagonist is strange and scary. This is not a horrific book by any means, but it’s just so creepy. She makes the stakes feel very powerful and the solution at the end is perfect, and also, really, really funny. How does this sound to you?
JAMIE: I think that sounds fun. Like I said, I’ve tried a couple of N.K. Jemisin’s books in the past and gotten kinda halted midway through, but this sounds like one I could definitely give a try. I think it sounds like a very interesting premise.
ANNE: That is The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin. This is the first in a planned series. I believe it’s to be a trilogy. It’s about 400 pages. It goes so quickly. I’m sure many people will sit down and read this in an evening. Okay. That book does not feature married couples living out some version of a happy ever after. At all. But I would like to go that direction now if you’re ready.
JAMIE: I am.
ANNE: Jamie, once I started making a list, and I also asked our patrons at our What Should I Read Next patreon … That’s patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext … What they could recommend. Some of the books they recommended are definitely tragic, but there are a lot of happy and hopeful ones that I hadn’t thought of, which is why it’s so great to ask your fellow readers instead of type this request in the Google. Because if you do, you come up with, I mean, is this something you’ve tried to search for this online? [JAMIE LAUGHS] Is this something you tried and failed?
JAMIE: Ah, yeah, I didn’t get very far.
ANNE: There was a book that came to mind when I read your request and I thought I don’t know. The couples get together in the beginning, but I think our patrons might have convinced me that while it’s true the two couples this novel tracks do in fact get together in the beginning of the book, it’s clear from the beginning that they belong together. They’re gonna be together, and the story is about what that looks like over the next 50, 60 years.
ANNE: So with those caveats in place, can we do it?
ANNE: This book is The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall. Is this one you’ve read or you’re familiar with? It came out last fall.
ANNE: This book is a story of two marriages that lasted for over forty years, and in some ways it’s really similar to a book that I really love, Crossing to Safety. I would definitely not call it read alike. But from the very beginning of the book, you know that these couples have lived out much of their lives together because from the first line, you know that one of the men has died. The other is completely upset and the relationship between the two women of the couples is complicated. And then in the final paragraph of the book, it picks up from that moment and you find out what happens next. But the rest of the book is about how you got from the first sentence to the final paragraph. Everything that happened in between.
The Dearly Beloved follows these two couples. First independently, but then their fates become entwined. They both meet each other in college and they meet and fall in love and this happens really, really quickly. So, in 1963 the couples come together, and this is unprecedented in the book's timeline. The husbands become co-pastors of the Third Presbyterian church in New York City in Greenwich village. This is a church that historically has been white, comfortable, and middle class, but it’s the ‘60s and it’s trying to figure out how to be the church it wants to be in the world as it is now. And when the leadership of the church goes to call the new pastor, they’re debating between these two men. Charles and James, and they have totally different styles and they see how each would benefit the church and they have no idea how to choose facing what they feel like they’re facing in 1963 New York.
So they decided to flock convention and choose both and offer this unusual co-pastorship to the two men. Which means their fates are bound together for the next 40 years and also, while there’s much good that comes out that, there’s also as I think you can understand, a lot of tension that comes from this unusual relationship. And there’s a lot of tension between the women as well. It’s worth saying though: this is a book that is set very much in a church but I wouldn’t by any means call this the genre that is Christian fiction.
What I love about this book is that the women and their relationships and their struggles and their tension, the tension between two of them, is every bit of important, maybe more so in the story as the relationship between the men. Based on what you said about some books that you’ve disliked in the past, I think that’s important to you. And then you’ve talked a lot about how you want your fiction to feel genuine, and something that makes me think this book could be a good pick for you is that Cara Wall is writing what she knows. Her parents lived in Greenwich Village. They moved there in the 60s. Her father studied at NYU. Her mother was the receptionist at First Presbyterian Church, the church that inspired this book, and have been members there for over 50 years. Wall said she practically grew up in the place where she set this story.
So this is a story about marriage and friendship and faith and while these couples are definitely not happy all the time, it’s a hopeful story. How does that sound to you?
JAMIE: That sounds beautiful. Totally hit the nail on the head, and I want to go find it right now and read it.
ANNE: I’m happy to hear that. So I did just say happy all the time. I toss that out accidentally because it’s a phrase, but it reminded me that there’s a novel called Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin who I definitely knew better as the author of food memoirs like Home Cooking, which I love. Her attitude coming to this is how come fiction features couples that are falling apart? Not living out happy relationships? And this book was her answer.
It’s about two childhood best friends who get married and then have to navigate life after that. I think this could be the right book at the right time for a lot of people who just want a break from the angst that is so often present in contemporary literary fiction. It came out in 1978. It’s also set in New York City. I think this could be a fun one for your list.
ANNE: That’s not the direction I intended to go. Now we’re going to pivot based on your love of mystery … Well, you didn’t say you loved mysteries. You said you loved Tana French.
JAMIE: I do love Tana French. And I like mysteries too as a genre. I’ve gone on mystery jags before.
ANNE: All right. Well if you feel like jagging in that direction, I think Celine by Peter Heller could be a promising pick for you. Is this a book you’re familiar with?
JAMIE: Isn’t Peter Heller the guy who wrote The River?
JAMIE: Okay. I read that last year because you recommended it on the podcast and I loved it, so this is a good start, but I haven’t heard of Celine before.
ANNE: Ah! There’s so much to love about this story. So going back to the stories that feel true to life, this story is heavily based on Peter Heller’s own mother, who was in probably both a private investigator who solved hundreds of cases, often missing persons cases for private clients over the years, and she was an artist. This book does so many things that other books don’t do, and it does them all in the same story. It does them so well.
Celine is a wealthy woman, an artist who lives in New York City, and she has been happily married for many, many years to Pete. We talked to Peter Heller for the Modern Mrs Darcy book club back in November and something we asked him was, are you Pete? Did you write yourself into the story? Like is this you? Is this you injecting yourself into your mom’s history? And he was like nope! My mother was happily married to Pete for many, many years. I didn’t even change his name. So I thought that was kind of fun to know, that person as well was based on someone who was very, very real and important to the author.
But what happens is Celine, there’s this funny line at the beginning of the book where she makes a crack about how she’s called The Prada P.I., which was ridiculous because she would never wear Prada. She’s a Gucci woman. [JAMIE LAUGHS] So the book has a wry sense of humor, which I thought was really really fun since we’re solving a grisly crime.
ANNE: So what happens is this young woman Gabriela shows up on her doorstep. She’s suddenly very motivated to solve a missing persons case that unfolded a long, long time ago. Her father was a photographer. He went missing in Yellowstone many years ago. His body was never found and because of things that had just started happening, Gabriela’s determined to figure out what really happened back then, right now. So Celine and Pete take off for Yellowstone to solve the crime. She’s in her 80s. She’s on oxygen. She has emphysema. She has this man by her side that she’s committed to and can’t do her job without and she’s going into the past to solve Gabriela’s story. So it unfolds on two timelines.
His writing is really beautiful. The plotting is tight. The setting is interesting and it feels so true to life even though it’s nothing I’ve experienced in my life and wouldn’t imagine it’s anything you would have either or would in the future. I hope not, Jamie. [JAMIE LAUGHS] It feels so real. I think it could be a good fit.
JAMIE: That sounds really interesting. Yeah, I think I would definitely pick that up. Especially since I had a very good experience reading The River. That’s definitely a winner.
ANNE: Oh, I’m glad to hear that. So Jamie, the books we talked about were The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall, and Celine by Peter Heller. What do you think you’ll read next?
JAMIE: Well as of today, The City We Became isn’t out yet. I think my strategy is going to be looking for both The Dearly Beloved and Celine in the library and then whichever one arrives first. [LAUGHS] is the one I start with, but I think if they arrive at the same time, I’ll probably start with The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
JAMIE: Thank you so much, Anne. It’s been a pleasure.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jamie today, and I’d love to hear what YOU think Jamie should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/228 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. Readers, we’ve also been doing transcripts for some time now. To get those, go to whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com and look for the transcript.
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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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● Moby Dick by Herman Melville
● I Heard the Owl Call My Name by Margaret Craven
♥ The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
● A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
♥ The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
● The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro
♥ Wool by Hugh Howey
▵ Red Rising by Pierce Brown
● Author Brandon Sanderson (try Mistborn)
● Author Connie Willis (try All Clear)
● Author Tana French (try The Witch Elm)
● The City We Became by N. K. Jemisin
● The Dearly Beloved by Cara Wall
● Happy All the Time by Laurie Colwin
● Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin
● Celine by Peter Heller
● Short story The City Born Great by N. K. Jemison, via Tor.com
What do YOU think Jamie should read next?