Today’s guest Mandy Lambert came to me with a nuanced problem — why do some books with heavy topics leave her feeling uncomfortable, while other books tackling difficult subject matter make her feel understood and connected to humankind?
So, Mandy and I are picking apart the ingredients of her favorite and least favorite books to discover the subtle difference between a hard book that pays off in the end, and a hard book that’s just… hard. Like every week, I hope through our discussion you’ll be able to see the patterns in your own reading life and take that knowledge with you when choosing your next read.
Let’s get to it!
You can hear more from Mandy on thisbrightlife.home.blog
MANDY: Everyone was kinda like, oh, it’s in a library? And they envision kinda like ... I don’t know - not a pretty library. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 229.
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, last week we made lemonade from these coronavirus lemons and hosted what we called Stay at Home Book Tour. This was a series of online events with 5 authors whose book tours have been postponed or cancelled because of coronavirus, this includes me. We pulled it together really quickly and so we didn’t get an announcement into last week’s podcast. But I wanted to make sure you knew that we’ve planned another week of great author chats. Week 2 of Stay at Home Book Tour starts April 6, and we’ve got such a great line-up for you, and I’m thrilled that we have several What Should I Read Next alums in the bunch: Mary Laura Philpott, Susan Meissner, Melanie Shankle, Deanna Raybourn, and the By the Book duo Kristen Meinzer and Jolenta Greenberg.
To join us live, get replays of past events, and get news and updates about our Stay at Home Book Tour, sign up for our free email updates on Modern Mrs Darcy. Look for the blog post called “Everything is Cancelled, so Join Us for Stay at Home Book Tour” on ModerMrsDarcy.com—the sign up form is in that post. Readers, we hope to see you there.
Today’s guest Mandy Lambert came to me with a nuanced problem — why do some books with heavy topics leave her feeling uncomfortable, while other books tackling difficult subject matter make her feel understood and connected to humankind? Today, Mandy and I pick apart the ingredients of her favorite and least favorite books to discover the subtle difference between a hard book that pays off in the end, and a hard book that’s just… hard. Like every week, I hope through our discussion you’ll be able to see the patterns in your own reading life and take that knowledge with you when choosing your next read.
Let’s get to it! Mandy, welcome to the show.
MANDY: Hi, Anne.
ANNE: I was excited to see you’re in Virginia Beach because when I was in college, I was near there and I had friends there, and I don’t think I’ve been there in many, many years, but my brain is back there with you this morning.
MANDY: My now-husband got a job here, and we got married here last summer in a library.
ANNE: You got married in a library?
MANDY: We did.
ANNE: I’ve heard about a lot of bookstore weddings, but not as many library weddings.
ANNE: I’d love to hear about it. How did you end up getting married in a library?
MANDY: We had the reception actually in the Slover library in downtown Norfolk Virginia, which is about...
MANDY: ...20 minutes from Virginia Beach, and I just found it online. It was perfect. It has the old historic building on one side, and then they have a modern kinda glass ceiling other half, and we had it down in the lobby. So it was just really awesome. Beautiful pictures, and we did a lot of book details with like the decorating.
ANNE: So you got married in the lobby. Is that the old part or the new part?
MANDY: It is the new part, so it had a big glass front and there was uplighting and once we got kinda the table and tablecloths in, it looked really library but done up for an event. It was really cool.
ANNE: It sounds amazing. Seeing that we’re talking right now on a podcast called WSIRN, I’m imagining it wasn’t just the beautiful space that drew you to this space for your wedding.
MANDY: No, I love reading, and I just thought this was so unique and exciting. It turned out awesome. Everyone was kinda like, oh, it’s in a library? And they envisioned kinda like … I don’t know. Not a pretty library [BOTH LAUGH] but when they came …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I have always loved my local libraries, but the branches I visit the most I wouldn’t wanna …
MANDY: So everyone was pleasantly surprised.
ANNE: Is your husband a reader too?
MANDY: He is. He is more into nonfiction than I am.
ANNE: How much did he lean into the library theme?
MANDY: We didn’t do everything library themed, but my mom and I made some really cool little touches. We did the table numbers with old books that we spray painted and wrote the numbers on.
ANNE: Did it matter what they were? Or did you choose them because they were, like, navy?
MANDY: My mom did match the theme of the book to like who was sitting at the table. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh really?
MANDY: Yeah. She got really - really into it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Would that have been obvious to the people sitting at the table?
MANDY: Not at all. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I love it.
MANDY: And then we designed bookmarks for the name cards for each of the guests on their plate to show them where to sit. And my favorite thing that we did was I made little scrolls for each of the 75 guests that had an individualized, personally picked out book quote.
ANNE: That sounds amazing and really special and also extremely challenging. What was the process like of choosing the individualized book quotes for each guest?
MANDY: Yeah, it was really time consuming, but really fun. I was Googling book quotes about love and friendship and I have this big excel sheet on my computer now with 75 different quotes. And then it was just really fun, like matching them to the people I thought like for kids that came, I did quotes from Dr. Seuss, Charlotte’s Web, and Peter Pan.
For my dad, we read all the Harry Potter books together and we started when I was six cause that’s when the first few came out, and I was learning how to read, and we would read a sentence at a time out loud. We finished reading the last Harry Potter … It came out when I was in high school. It was a cute tradition that we had, like through all the years reading it together, so I did the quote for him from Harry Potter.
For one of my bridesmaids who I became friends with in high school English, we became friends acting out Hamlet in our class, so ...
MANDY: … Obviously I did a quote from that book for her. One that was really good was for my maid-of-honor. It’s from What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen. “The person you call at 2 A.M., no matter what, you can count on them even if they’re asleep or it’s cold and you need to be bailed out of jail, they’ll come for you. It’s like the highest level of friendship.”
ANNE: Ohh. That’s so sweet!
MANDY: There was tears from … [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That’s what I was going to ask.
MANDY: …Various people.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That sounds like a teary situation.
MANDY: Yeah. And then another really funny one ... [LAUGHS] So my roommate from college was there and so we had a lot of fun college times together, and for her quote, I used one from The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. “There’s nothing like puking with someone to make you into old friends.”
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Thank you, Sylvia Plath.
MANDY: It was hard for, like, some guests that I didn’t know super well, like my parents’ friends or people’s spouses and those were a little more generic, fun, love, life quotes.
ANNE: I don’t want to project on you like oh my gosh, that must have been so hard, but the closest thing I have to relate it to is is in my third book Don’t Overthink It. This is the first book of my three where I do have introductory quotes for every chapter. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do in the past and just I didn’t understand the timelines of how that worked as an author and it didn’t get done in time. [MANDY LAUGHS] But first 2/3rds of the quotes came really, really easy, like I knew exactly what words I wanted to introduce the chapter.
But the last third, I mean, it was so hard to find the right idea from a source that I was comfortable sharing … Not just comfortable but that I was excited to put in front of my readers’ eyes. Ugh, it was so hard. I totally had the excel spreadsheet going too, but you had 75 wedding guests and I think there’s maybe 13 or 14 chapters in my book.
MANDY: Yeah. No, I found the same thing. It was really easy for the beginning. I had already thought of ones where I had memories with certain people or kinda had the easier to find life quotes out there, but I was trying to be really conscious of, like, how people would interpret the quote. This could go wrong if I don’t think this through. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: But it sounds like there were happy tears.
MANDY: Yeah. It all went well.
ANNE: Well that sounds like a wonderful way to begin a new chapter of your relationship, ooh, pun totally not intended. [MANDY LAUGHS] Mandy, when you’re not in the middle of planning a wedding, how would you describe your reading life?
MANDY: I’ve heard a lot of listeners also say this. I loved to read as a kid, and then in high school, all the books we had to read for school, I just either wasn’t ready for them or they weren’t presented in a way that got me excited. I don’t know. I just think there’s so many better books than what is picked for a lot. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Well first of all, tell us what books you were particularly scarred by.
MANDY: I read The Diary of Anne Frank for school when I was 11. Like, no. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, Mandy. I want to say that sounds young to me, but [WHISPERS] I’ve never read that book.
MANDY: Okay. Well it’s sad. It’s very depressing. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I know that much. So 11 was a little young for you.
MANDY: Yeah, and just all the Shakespeare, like I couldn’t get into it so then I kinda rediscovered reading what I really wanted to read in college. And now I do a lot of audiobooks because of my commute to and from work, and I can really get through a lot of audiobooks, and I just love that. I think that’s the best invention ever. Like you’re reading while you’re doing something else. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like it comes alive and some of the books on audiobook are just like magical they way ... [LAUGHS] they way it’s told.
ANNE: When my son was struggling through The Merchant of Venice, which I really, really loved, he just couldn’t get the hang of reading a play. And also he was so, so young. I think he was in like 7th grade. Too young for Shakespeare. And what I mean by that is before readers are like throwing rotten tomatoes at their … Don’t throw rotten tomatoes at your phone. That’d be disgusting. What I mean by that is just exactly what you’re saying, that I don’t think we do our young readers any favors by giving them books before they’re ready to read them because I think that serves as inoculating you against classic literature that you may appreciate or any kind of literature. It can be contemporary. Instead of exposing you early to the wonders of the written word, you’re like this is over my head. Really boring and I don’t want any part of it. Let’s watch TV.
And there’s great stories on TV too, like I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with that, but I do hate the thought that readers don’t want to pick up books for years because they think reading is not for them. What really happened is they tried something before they were ready for it.
Okay. Stepping off the soapbox. [MANDY LAUGHS] Of course in 7th grade my son was really struggling with Shakespeare when the first assignment was read 30 pages by yourself out of context and then let’s come back and talk about it, and we downloaded the audiobook, which did make it easier.
MANDY: I think I reflected this in the books I picked and kinda how I rate different books. I personally will rate a book higher if I enjoyed it, even if the writing wasn’t like the best or most artistic or most unique that - that I’ve ever read, and I just feel like a lot of the books that you have to read are maybe picked because they’re literary masterpieces. But I just think also enjoying it and having a good plot and having the characters and relating to it is just so important and can be underrated with what’s considered an important book to read.
ANNE: Well I’m interested in hearing more about that when we get to your books. Mandy, you’ve said that in college you got back to more what you wanted to read. Did you know what that was all along? How would you describe what you are excited about reading?
MANDY: This also helped when I was picking quotes for my guests. I really like reading a lot of different genres and a lot of different books, and I find I kinda … I don’t want to read just one kind of book all in a row, so I’ll kinda rotate between shorter, like quicker books, like maybe modern, maybe more classic. I was surprised to find that I like historical fiction, and when I was looking at the books that I picked, two of them are historical fiction. One in the U.S., and one in Europe, and that was just surprising to me just ’cause I didn’t … Like sometimes I find history hard to relate to, or not always engaging, but I find when it’s in historical fiction form, I really get excited about hearing what it was like living in these different times.
ANNE: Are you ready to get into your books?
ANNE: Well you know how this works. You are going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. So, two historical novels. One that’s more contemporary and you were surprised. Maybe not surprised by your favorites, but surprised by what they said about your reading life. Does that sound right?
MANDY: Yeah, I think so. The first book I chose was Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fanny Flagg. I heard about it by watching the movie first with my mom, and for her wedding scroll quote, it just said “To Wanda,” which if … [ANNE LAUGHS] If you’ve seen the movie or read the book, that’s like just a key phrase. It’s just silly and fun.
Basically that book is about a woman in the ‘80s who meets an old woman at a nursing home and that woman tells basically her life story about growing up in a small southern town in the ‘30s. All kinds of things happen. There’s a murder. There’s friendship. There’s family. There’s love. Like it’s about finding yourself, about confidence, about friendship.
ANNE: I remember this movie being really incredible. I haven’t seen it for over 20 years. Am I still going to love it? This is what I want to know.
MANDY: Yes. I like the book better, which is funny because I watched the movie first. I feel like sometimes I sorta learn towards whichever one I see first. But I liked the book better and it’s kinda interesting. One of the main parts of the book is a lesbian relationship and it’s so funny because in the movie, it implies it for a five-second scene. Like it is so subtle, and then I read the book and I was like, wait a minute.
ANNE: When I started reading Fannie Flagg, I didn’t begin with Fried Green Tomatoes as I should have. I worked my way backwards from her newest release at the time I was persuaded to jump in with The Whole Town’s Talking. And I gotta say if you are new to Fannie Flagg and are intrigued by the idea, Fried Green Tomatoes is such a wonderful place to start. Mandy, what did you choose for your second favorite? I always feel like we’re ranking them. We’re not. Your next book you love.
MANDY: This one is The No Angel series by Penny Vincenzi. It’s a trilogy, and No Angel is the first one. It starts during World War 1; the trilogy goes I want to say through the second World War. I’m not sure. It was a while ago I read them, but it progresses over time. It has the main characters and then the second book is the children of the main characters are adults, and then the third book is kinda the next generation.
So this one is definitely what I consider more - more of like the fun kind of easy read and situation where even if it’s not winning a writing prize or anything, I just like loved it so much and had so much fun and that is just as important or more than really technically good writing. And it has a really strong female character that’s kinda ahead of her time and she gets into the publishing world as a woman which doesn’t really happen back then.
I love how all the characters are complex and how you see this strong-willed character and you see, like, the good things she gets from that, and you also see how maybe that’s not always so good. And each of the characters in the book is like that, and I think that makes them more - more like real people. Like their best traits can also be their worst at different times.
ANNE: Do you remember how you found this series?
MANDY: In college right when I started getting really back into reading and realizing that there was so - so much more about there than just what you’re given in English class or college classes or whatever. Since then I have read another book by her, An Absolute Scandal.
ANNE: What did you think about that one?
MANDY: I did not like that one quite as much.
ANNE: Mandy, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?
MANDY: This one kinda goes in a different direction, but I actually do see similarities now that we’re talking about it. I chose The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I say this one is different because it’s more modern and it takes place in the recent past or present day and it is about an immigrant family that comes from India to the U.S. Kinda what that’s like for them and then also for their - their son who is raised from an Indian family, but in an American culture and kinda how he develops his identity and it goes through themes of loyalty and expectations. And I just loved how it was new perspective for me that I don’t have. I love that multigenerational book which I’m realizing is kinda similar to [LAUGHS] the other ones I picked since all three of them take place over different generations. [LAUGH]
ANNE: Interesting. Well that’s good to know.
MANDY: I love the different perspectives of different family members I guess. Like how the mom’s experience is one way, and then their kid has a totally different experience but they kinda come from the same. Early when books kinda touch on that humanity.
ANNE: Okay, Mandy, let’s talk about a book that wasn’t for you. What did you choose?
MANDY: This is part of my [LAUGHS] conundrum that I’m facing.
ANNE: Literary conundrum.
ANNE: Keep talking, Mandy. This sounds fun.
MANDY: I just need you to explain [LAUGHS] why I have these opinions because there are certain books that I read. They are too depressing and they just give me this like, ugh feeling after. I’m not sure if it’s just subjects that they are talking about that really, like, make me unhappy or if it’s the way it ends. If it’s not really uplifting at the end, it’s kinda a sad ending without any hope or with any change or with any coming of age or anything. Or if it’s the writing style when I feel like sometimes authors kinda throw in kinda shock factors that are just kinda unrealistic. Like so the one I picked that I didn’t like is The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo, which I know a lot of people really did like.
ANNE: I really liked this.
MANDY: Yeah. It was engaging. It was complex characters, but I just … Especially the one … The oldest sister and everything she goes through in her life, I mean, they’re just every kind of awful thing that you could expect in one family and by the end I was like that’s scary! I don’t want to, like, go on and have that happen in my life with my family and my kids. I was like ugh! Too much.
So I also like a lot of sad books with some really heavy topics, so that’s why I don’t understand, like, in which situations is it maybe too heavy, and in others, I’m like oh, I really get that feeling of humanity and understanding and, like, really love how reading it and getting that experience.
ANNE: That’s interesting. And what you’re saying really resonates because I know I read a lot of books in which awkward and heavy things happen and I’m glad I read them, and yet I also just abandoned reading a book, I think I was maybe 60 or 70% of the way in because I just could not handle the … One of the main storylines was about an older man, like way inappropriately to a 16 year old girl, and I just could not deal. Like I did not want to read another word. Maybe that ended hopeful, but I wasn’t going to stick around to find out.
ANNE: Let’s talk more about The Most Fun We Ever Had. This is a long book. Multigenerational novel. It really opens with a bang. I mean, the inciting incident is pretty brash. Right off, I feel like they tell you … This is a family who loves each other and they’re deeply connected and yet they do really horrible things to each other.
MANDY: Yeah, I think that actually might be part of why I couldn’t handle it. And like, it’s odd because a book I really liked was The Glass Castle, which has plenty of elements of sadness and you know, families. But I think it was just in The Most Fun We Ever Had it was every single character was being awful to each other. Like I think at least in The Glass Castle, the siblings took care of each other and there was just … I don’t know. There was still like an element of things being okay. A safe way that they could keep going, but I just didn’t like seeing just everyone treating each other awfully. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m wondering if there’s something here about the difference between people behaving badly, not just because they’re people, but people acting, like, almost cruelly, and then people enduring hard things. And maybe behaving badly and hurting each other badly, but I wonder if there’s some kind of difference there between … I’m picturing one version of a novel in which characters are just like throwing elbows at each other and shooting daggers with their eyes. And another version where they are burying up under extraordinarily different circumstances. And I think the action can almost look the same. The posture would be very different through different characters. Could it be something there?
MANDY: Yeah. I actually totally think that’s what it is. I was talking about this with a friend, and I was just trying to figure out and two of the other books that I didn’t like that were kinda like the heavy ick factor was Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine and The Girl on the Train. Those are two examples of things that I was just like, like Eleanor Oliphant, I was like, this is so sad because it’s so in her head and she’s really emotionally struggling, and she has alcohol problems and it just is like painful. And then The Girl on the Train it was like all the shock factor, whoa. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And that book almost feels dreamlike because you’re never quite sure who’s telling you what.
ANNE: Is it accurate and is it because they are lying to you because they can’t remember because they were blacked out again?
MANDY: That stresses me out. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay, so, no books that feel dark for the sake of being dark.
MANDY: Yes, exactly.
ANNE: Something else I’m noticing about Eleanor Oliphant and The Most Fun We Ever Had, Eleanor is coping. When the story begins, you don’t realize what she’s dealing with, and as it slowly reveals, ugh, it’s hard to read. And there’s a parallel here with Eleanor Oliphant that I won’t go into for spoilers [MANDY LAUGHS] and all kinds of reasons.
But in The Most Fun We Ever Had, the book is ostensibly about the parents generation, the parents’ perfect marriage and through the course of the book you’re like peeling back the layers to see the past pain there that’s been buried. As you move through the book, you’re being brought to the surface and it doesn’t feel good to read about.
I mean, it ends … The book I would say is ultimately hopeful and I also really enjoy a good picture of how different people in a family experience the same situations in different ways, and it certainly does that, but I can see how the tone is not one that you would want to read. But that is so interesting. Okay. So why are some heavy books heavy … Why do they feel too heavy for you, and why do others about similar topics feel okay?
MANDY: And I’m also curious to see, like, how maybe that changes over time for me or in different stages of life. I’m just wondering if that could also have an effect on when a book feels, like, too much verses when you’re like oh, that was a great emotional experience.
ANNE: I’m glad you said that. That’s a really interesting point, and I don’t by any means mean oh, we solved the conundrum. But I am interested in hearing if you approach your future reads with just having that musing going in the back of your mind, if it could set some further insight into why certain books feel to you and why others are very difficult to read.
ANNE: Mandy, what are you reading right now?
MANDY: What I just read, and this is also interesting compared to what we were just talking about, is from your podcast I got the recommendation of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Amy Bender.
ANNE: It’s 201 with Brian Eichenberger, “The Hidden Value of a Terrible Reading Experience.”
MANDY: Okay, so this is probably one of the weirdest books I’ve read. [BOTH LAUGH] So thank you.
ANNE: I’m laughing ‘cause I see the truth in it.
MANDY: Yeah. I don’t think it’s for everyone. I tried to explain the plot to Matt, my husband, and he was like, um, what? Like the elements of magic in there that are just like super odd. But I think because I heard it on your podcast and I heard it talked about in a good light, I was much more willing to give it a chance, and it’s funny because you also said it isn’t rated very high and a lot of people don’t love this book. And I found that when I was kinda exploring if I wanted to read it. There was all these people like giving it two stars reviews, and I think I listened to it on audiobook, and I was looking at the Audible reviews. It’s narrated by the author, and people were saying couldn’t get through this book. Sad narrator. Keep saying the word “said.” [LAUGHS]
It’s funny because when I listened to it, okay, that is really true. She does say “he said, she said” a lot. And she does sound really sad. But I felt like it kinda enhanced the experience because it is kinda a sad, slow book, and the main character is a little girl, so it’s I think the more simple writing and the kinda slow for me made it better.
But yeah, see, it was all sad and also had elements of the parents and what their marriage really was and how her mom really feels, and her starting to realize it. But I think the hopefulness of the ending and just the progression of the main character throughout the book made me understand why these sad things happened and how that helped her grow as a person rather than just depressing things thrown in there and then you just have to feel bad about it after. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. I want to throw a term out for you. It’s something that I jotted down many moons ago, noticing as a reader this is something I really enjoy reading, and as a writer, it’s something that I’d like to evoke in my readers. And that is “moral elevation,” which I know sounds like a philosophy class, but are these words that you know together?
MANDY: I don’t, but it sounds important to me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Moral elevation is what we experience when we see acts of selfless or moral beauty. So it’s that like kinda tearful, soaring sense you get when you see someone doing something good for humanity. That makes me think of Mr. Rogers, [MANDY LAUGHS] which could totally be true, but also like seeing someone sacrifice themself whether that’s making a sacrifice or you love The Harry Potter books.
MANDY: I do.
ANNE: You see characters die in service of a good cause, and that feeling you get when you read about that happening. I mean, those parts are so good even though they are so sad. And it’s because when you see someone doing something for the sake of someone else because it’s the right thing to do, we do experience this warm, fuzzy, moving, uplifting feeling. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake is a hard and heavy book, and yet, she’s not like throwing her elbows around. She’s acting out of love for those she cares about.
MANDY: I think all of the characters do. It’s mainly about her and her parents and her brother, and I think even the times when you kinda see them hurting each other, it’s not malicious. Especially as the story of the brother develops, it doesn’t seem intentionally harming each other. It’s because they’re struggling with something, and so I just think it’s a lot different than maybe some books that I didn’t like that are more characters at one another.
ANNE: All right, Mandy, let’s do this.
ANNE: So you love Fried Green Tomatoes by Fannie Flagg, The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri, and the series beginning with the book No Angel by Penny Vincenzi. Not for you was The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo. And lately you’ve been reading and really enjoyed, which is significant here, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Amy Bender. We’ve talked a lot about how you love, well, you love historical fiction much to your surprise, but also love a good story that doesn’t have to be example of literary fabulousness.
MANDY: Yes. Yes you have summed it up so well. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m interested in exploring this idea of reading things that are hard, but finding them presented in a way that you feel like, I don’t know, that you’re participating in the common goodness of humanity and not a propensity to tear each other to pieces.
ANNE: ‘Cause you can find both in fiction, every day.
MANDY: Oh yeah.
ANNE: Okay. Listeners, if you follow me on Instagram or on Goodreads, you may be thinking she’s finally reading that book. It's only a matter of time before it’s going to appear on the podcast, and today’s the day. Mandy, have you read Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout?
ANNE: This is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a really long time, and finally did, and let me tell you right off, here is the reason I think it could be so great for you. I actually wrote down a quote in my journal, not gonna give it to anybody at a wedding though, Mandy [MANDY LAUGHS] if you’re wondering why. But I’m not usually a quote writer downer, but I was for this one. The context here is that it’s almost like a short story collection. What Elizabeth Strout does, and she does this so well, is she rotates perspectives through this small town in Maine, the Olive Kitteridge family get more air time than the rest of the community. She portrays moments in people’s lives, and it’s amazing. She can have somebody walk into a grocery store to buy milk, and pretty soon they’re remembering the day their husband left or the affair they almost had.
It’s not stream of conscious like Faulkner, but she’s portraying how people think about their lives in the moments that haunt them and how these everyday encounters have the possibility of making us more human and more compassionate and more open to each other in a way that feels more really elevating. Or how a pretty mundane interaction can chip away at our sense of worth even, I would say in this book. All that being said, Olive Kitteridge in her brain is noting one time, she says, sometimes now, Olive had a sense of just how desperately hard every person in the world was working to get what they needed. Because life is tough.
But what I like about this book and what I like about it for you is that she writes about hard things, but she writes about the regular difficulty of being a person in the world. And she does it with I think it’s almost like she’s looking out for moments of goodness. If that sounds boring, just pick it up and read a few pages. I think that would banish your misconceptions really quick. I have to admit. I’m not always quick to pick up a book titled by a character’s name ‘cause you don’t know the character.
MANDY: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
ANNE: Like you don’t … You don’t care. They - they have to win you over. But I think Olive and her crew in Crosby, Maine may win you over. And if you do enjoy this, I would pick up the next book Olive, Again. I just finished it. I think it’s even better.
MANDY: That sounds like everything I care about in my reading and in real life. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That is Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, and also please read if only for the chapter called Light Olive Again. I think it has what you love about everything we just discussed encapsulated in like eight pages.
MANDY: That’s exciting.
ANNE: Okay. There are a couple books that I don’t imagine are on your radar, although I’ve certainly been wrong before, almost sleeper selections at this point that I still think you may enjoy. They’re little more … They’re not surefire hits, Mandy, but I don’t know if you’d stumble across them. Do you want to give it a try?
ANNE: Well I was thinking Susan Howatch could be a really interesting author for you, particularly her 1985 novel Sins of the Fathers. But let’s give you something shorter. Are you familiar with the Nayomi Munaweera novel Island of a Thousand Mirrors?
MANDY: No, I am not.
ANNE: Okay. This came out about five years ago. It’s slender. It’s 200-something pages. This is a novel spanning the Sri Lankan Civil War. It officially began in 1983. It just ended recently in 2009. I believe Munaweera originally didn’t believe she would include the ending of the war in the novel, but because of the time in which she completed it, she thought, this is the fitting ending. And what I like about this for you … It does share some common elements with The Namesake. In The Namesake, you have an Indian family immigrating to Massachusetts and in Island of a Thousand Mirrors, you have a family leaving Sri Lanka and coming to Los Angeles. So opposite coasts, but some common threads there you’ll recognize.
I think it’d be interesting to read similarities and differences between the two books and the two family experiences. But what I really like about this book for you is it is definitely a book about hard things. I think this would be amazing on audio because the descriptions are so rich. It’s so atmospheric. Her prose is so evocative. But what I also really like about this for you is that while it is about loss and pain and war, as you can imagine, it’s an intense story, but you also see happiness and freedom. Not just subsequent to in the midst and what she really does is she takes this particular experience. I mean you and I are never going to experience the Sri Lankan civil war. But It’s incredible to be how much story she packs into 200-something pages.
My hope is that you would find this book rewarding because I think we’re drawn to reading about things that are difficult because we are human, and that is part of our experience. My hope is that you find that she writes about them in such a way that you feel saddened, of course, but also in awe of the human experience. I think it’s a story you may find rewarding. What do you think?
MANDY: That sounds really interesting. Definitely has - has different perspectives and I don’t know, the way you describe it makes it sound really complex and interesting.
ANNE: Well that is Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera. Finally, I didn’t see this one coming today, but there’s a really good historical novel coming out. It’s called Code Name Hélène. It’s by Ariel Lawhon. It’s set during World War II and those of you thinking, I read a lot of World War II historical fiction. I don’t need anymore. That was Ariel’s take on this too, like are you kidding me? Why is this story that’s been dropped in my lap a World War II historical novel? I don’t want to write another one. So that being said, this is such a good book.
Ariel is a friend of mine, so I have talked to her at length both before, during, and after the writing process. This comes out on March 31st. The book is done and has been done for a long time. But what I love about this is it’s historical fiction, which you enjoy. It’s an amazing story. And unexpectedly perhaps to you, it has some parallels with the No Angels series. Those are glitzy novels, and [MANDY LAUGHS] Code Name Hélène is about a socialite turned spy. The book was almost called The French Spy, but wasn’t because Nancy Wake, the spy at the center of this book, was actually born in Australia. So that could be confusing.
Nancy Wake is one of those larger than life people who are just incredible to read about. Code Name Hélène is one of her code names, and this is not a multigenerational family saga where you get different perspectives of the different generations, but there’s two interwoven timelines, which is really interesting and really makes you want to keep turning pages and see what happens next. And you know where the story is going in some ways, but in other ways you don’t at all. So the way she plays with time is really interesting and really serves the story. Ariel uses four different aliases used by Nancy Wake to tell the story. Code Name Hélène was her final one.
What I love about this for you is it’s a story of the French in World War II. Nancy Wake is working in their service. But it’s also a love story, just as important in this book. It is Nancy meeting her husband, the Marseille man named Henri. Even though she swears that her little purse-sized dog that she adopts fairly early in the story, that he would be the love of her life. [MANDY LAUGHS] Henri appears out of nowhere and slowly wins her over, and that story is so important in the book. It’s so heartwarming to read about and while Ariel is not making this up, I mean, she’s telling a woman’s life story. The love story setting against the backdrop of the terrifying World War II encroaching into France is so, so effective, and I think may be the recipe for a wonderful reading experience for you. How does that sound?
MANDY: It just sounds, like, great in every way.
ANNE: That is Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon. So of the books we talked about today, Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout, Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera, and Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon, of those books what do you think you’ll read next?
MANDY: Well I’m super excited for Code Name Hélène, but since it isn’t coming out for another month, I’ll start with Olive Kitteridge, that sounds like a really great fit for me and I’m excited to see what you were talking about with the humanness and lightness, how it comes out in the writing.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
MANDY: Thank you.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Mandy, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/229 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can hear more from Mandy on her blog: thisbrightlife.home.blog
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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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Readers, it is a difficult and confusing time. This past week, we released two bonus episodes on Patreon to meet you where you are.
The first bonus episode is available to everyone. It’s a book recommendation that has helped me during times of great loss and grief, and I think a lot of readers could use it in their life right now. Please feel free to share this episode with anyone in your life who might need it. I also released, a patron-exclusive episode recommending 5 happy, hopeful reads, something many of you have mentioned you’ve been in dire need of.
If you are looking for bookish community during an isolated time, now is a wonderful time to become a Patron. We are holding our quarterly Spring livestream on April 9th, which is a community get-together to chat about what we’ve been reading off our home bookshelves, and share recommendations with other readers. I hope you will join us!
Books mentioned in this episode:
Some links are affiliate links. More details here.
● Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
♥ Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
● The Whole Town’s Talking by Fannie Flagg
♥ No Angel by Penny Vincenzi
● An Absolute Scandal by Penny Vincenzi
♥ The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
▵ The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo
● The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
● The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
● Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
● Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout
● Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera
● Code Name Helene by Ariel Lawhon
● WSIRN Episode 201: The hidden value of a terrible reading experience w/ Brian Eichenberger
● Stay at Home Book Tour
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What do YOU think Mandy should read next?