Today’s guest KJ Dell’Antonia is an author and podcaster. I had the pleasure of joining KJ and her cohost Jess Lahey recently on their podcast #AmWriting, and I’m excited for KJ’s new novel The Chicken Sisters coming out on July 28.
KJ is also, of course, a devoted reader, who encountered a problem many readers can relate to: she picked up a lot of the wrong books during a difficult time in her life, and those experiences changed her perspective on a hotly debated literary topic: trigger warnings. And here’s a trigger warning for this episode–KJ and I are going to talk about cancer, specifically breast cancer. It’s not the whole episode, and the conversation doesn’t go into detail, but we want you to be aware of that before diving in.
Today we’re also talking about moving beyond bedtime reading, covert audiobook operations, and how mystery novels could save your local bookstore…
Let’s get to it!
Readers, right now our Patreon community is a veritable celebration of summer reading. We’ve shared some wonderful bonus episodes recently, on topics like fantastic new romance novels, absorbing summer nonfiction, and our publicly-available episode covering spectacular books by Black authors. Our latest bonus episode is a casual home library chat with my husband Will about what summer reading is like for each of us this year.
Join our Patreon community now to gain access to a huge archive of bonus episodes, and join Brenna and me during our upcoming livestream on July 2nd.
KJ: I tried reading during a hockey game … People really frown on that. Like [ANNE LAUGHS] … like you get comments.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 240.
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, right now our Patreon community is a veritable celebration of summer reading. We’ve shared some wonderful bonus episodes recently, on topics like fantastic new romance novels that weren’t in the summer reading guide, absorbing summer nonfiction, and books by Black authors I’ve frequently recommended here on What Should I Read Next.
Our new bonus last week was a fun guest follow up with my husband Will who I talked to on episode 214. We discuss what summer reading is like for each of us in this unusual year, we share a pile of books and authors we both enjoy reading, and discuss what we’re each planning on reading next.
Our next Patreon livestream is Thursday July 2nd. These are live, online events Brenna and I do with our community members and they give you a chance to hear what’s happening around What Should I Read Next HQ, ask your questions of the two of us, and get your own book recommendations. If you aren’t a member of that community yet, now is a great time to join us there. You’ll get access to previous livestreams, the Summer Reading Guide Unboxing event we did in May (which is so much fun even if you do already have the guide), plus you get instant access to close to 50 What Should I Read Next bonus episodes.
Join now to get those perks and join Brenna and me live on July 2nd. Go to patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext and become a member today. That’s Patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
I think most readers know the feeling of picking up a book at exactly the wrong time and getting burned. Today’s guest KJ Dell’Antonia who picked up a lot of the wrong books during a difficult time in her life, and those experiences changed her perspective on a hotly debated literary topic: trigger warnings. And here’s a trigger warning for this episode — KJ and I are going to talk about cancer, specifically breast cancer. It’s not the whole episode, and the conversation doesn’t go into detail, but we want you to be aware of that before diving in.
Today we’re also talking about moving beyond bedtime reading, covert audiobook operations, and how mystery novels could save your local bookstore… let’s get to it!
KJ, welcome to the show.
KJ: Thank you for having me. I am so excited. I am a constant and passionate listener and I blame you for many, many incidents at my local bookstore.
ANNE: Ooh. Tell me about a good one.
KJ: Pretty sure I pulled Louise Penny, her first book, Still Life. I’m pretty sure that was you. Does that sound like something you recommended to someone recently?
ANNE: I mean now I have to make myself not talk about Louise Penny on the podcast.
KJ: [LAUGHS] Okay.
ANNE: ‘Cause it’s like I’ve hit some cosmic limit. We do try to spread around the book love, but basically, yeah, that could totally be my fault.
KJ: I got a little list here, but I also listened to one of the Book Riot’s Get Books, so you guys are jointly responsible, but I’ve got Southern Book Club’s Guide for Slaying Vampires. [ANNE LAUGHS] That wasn’t you. That was them.
ANNE: Not me. But that’s an amazing title.
KJ: Yeah, isn’t it? I ordered that from my bookstore too. Along with Don’t Overthink It. They’re gonna come together, so Don’t Overthink It is gonna snuggle right up with the Southern Vampire Slayers.
ANNE: Oh, so this is very recent. So you’re just getting started on Louise Penny?
KJ: I’m just getting started on Louise Penny and I have been … I was a passionate mystery reader as a teen and a young adult, and mystery is on my three top books. But I’ve been completely out of them for a long time other than Anthony Horowitz and Peter Swanson, I haven’t … Oh, and oh, what are the ones that the detective is a young girl in England and she lives with her dad and her two sisters and her sisters are wicked mean?
ANNE: Oh, yes! I’m so good at this game! Oh, I can picture them.
KJ: [LAUGHS] I can too!
ANNE: They are … Flavia. Flavia.
KJ: Flavia, yeah. So I did some of those. My husband has done all of them. That’s something we sorta would both read, which is very rare. I haven’t gotten through them all. I got a little frustrated with how mean the sisters were. [ANNE LAUGHS] Yeah that’s family and just … Can we just edge towards togetherness? But we never ever did.
ANNE: I don’t have a sister, but my friends who had sisters joked and said, well, you know. But what we need to do is get people hooked on a good series because if you liked Still Life, then you’ve got like 14 more books to read. And if you love the first Flavia book, you’ve got 7 or 8 more at this point.
ANNE: And so basically if we can sell you one book, we can sell 15 and we can keep the book business in business. Independent bookstores could always use some love and that’s especially true now in these weird, uncertain, virus-filled economic times. Mysteries for humanity.
KJ: Mysteries for humanity. I like it. It’s a plan. So I haven’t started Still Life yet, but it is in my … Rather deep TBR pile.
ANNE: All right. Can I give you my Louise Penny spiel?
KJ: Make me move it to the top of the pile.
ANNE: Well I am a devoted fan and also I think readers like to know going in that book one is quieter than the others. It’s slower to develop. In books two and three, the actual murders that are being solved are pretty weird. And then the series really hits its stride, I think, in book four.
ANNE: Where she also introduces the big like massive plot that carries over the rest of the series basically. We’re still seeing how that plays out.
KJ: Sounds extremely fun. Well I have to say that the mystery … I am not a thriller reader. It’s just not my thing, particularly the young women in peril genre. Just really makes me nuts. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m tired. Can you put some young men in peril for a change, please, people? So I’m not a thriller reader. So quiet mysteries are generally fine with me. When I go back and look at my mystery history, it’s on the cozy side. It’s on the weirdly cozy side. Margery Allingham, big, huge favorite of mine.
ANNE: I don’t know who that is.
KJ: Oh, okay. I’m just going to take a moment to cry quietly in the corner and then I’m going to come back …
ANNE: No, don’t cry. Don’t cry. Just tell me - just tell me about Margery.
KJ: Margery Allingham was one of the grand dams of British mystery along with Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers. She’s got a series, so you can support your bookstore with this, her detective is Mr. Campion. He is apparently a wealthy dilettante and the younger son of a family that it is clear that is extremely important in British life in this period which is circa-World War I and past-World War I. So he’s very important, but you sorta never know exactly is he royal, is he what. And he’s extremely fun and funny.
How can I sell … Some of them are super weird like there’s one where he’s looking for someone that’s trying to steal the chalice that’s kinda like a religious artifact and it turns out … I’m not really spoiling anything ‘cause these 100 year old books, but it seems all along as though there’s a weird mystical element to the mystery and it turns out there’s not a weird mystical element to the mystery, but there is a weird mystical element to life in this castle in England. I love them so much. I may have to go back and reread them just because we’ve talked about them.
ANNE: Do you need to start at the beginning if you’re just finding your way to Margery Allingham?
KJ: You absolutely do not. You should find one that appeals to you most. He starts out very young and she starts out fairly young as a writer and then he - he ages all the way into late middle age I feel like.
ANNE: It’s clear that mysteries have a prominent place in your heart and yet you started by saying that you don’t really read them anymore. At least not like you used to.
KJ: No, I don’t - I don’t know why. Right now I tend to read much more … Well I went through a really long nonfiction phase. I was working as a journalist. I needed a lot of information. I was writing nonfiction myself, so I feel like I left the mysteries when I was in the nonfiction phase and I may be coming back to them but there’s so much other fiction out there. I just haven’t sorta crawled back into the world of mysteries yet I guess.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Crawled. [KJ LAUGHS] Well tell me what the rhythms of your reading life are like these days.
KJ: Yeah, I’m in a fiction phase. I’m in a fiction phase. I’ve got a couple nonfictions going ‘cause I’ve always got a bunch of books going but I’ve been doing a lot of fun women’s fiction. I’ve been doing a lot of romance. I’ve been spending some time trying to figure out the differences between women’s fiction and romantic comedy and romance because that’s just sorta for fun.
ANNE: So what do you mean you’re trying to figure it out for fun? Are there spreadsheets? Are there charts? Or is this something you think about while you’re on the treadmill?
KJ: I have a podcast with a couple other writers called #AmWriting and one of them is a very successful genre romance writer. I’m working on women’s commercial fiction. The third is a nonfiction writer, and we will sit around and just … And not just on the podcast. We will literally sit around and go okay, what makes it a romance? Okay, there are rules in a romance, you know, they have to sorta be X scenes.
There are actually sorta established rules of what makes a romance vs a romantic comedy which usually has a sidekick who maybe doesn’t get their person. And then women’s fiction the romance can’t be at the center but it can … Anyway. There are … Rules is too strong and yet there are kinda rules. It’s really interesting.
ANNE: [GASPS] Ooh, and well once you start discovering then basically you’re obligated to go through a phase … You’re just angry. When you start noticing that people refer to Nicholas Sparks’ novels as romance.
KJ: Yes! What I get angry about is when people are like, oh, it’s just romance. ‘Because romance is … [ANNE LAUGHS] fun and they’re wonderful to read. And you know, I feel like science fiction and fantasy have managed to transcend that and some romance has. It is really funny what it ends up on the genre shelves and what ends up on the fiction shelves. And I have also because I just read a lot [LAUGHS] I’ve been having some fun with some science fiction-y/magical realism is more I guess how you would say it.
ANNE: Is this a new field of exploration for you?
KJ: No, it’s similar to the mystery. It’s going back. I moved around a lot as a kid. I wasn’t super sociable. I was the kid who always had my nose in my book. I was the kid with the book that she wasn’t supposed to be reading inside the book that she was supposed to be reading in class. I was the kid in the library at recess. All the cliches. I am them.
ANNE: I can picture like thousands of listeners just nodding right now.
KJ: I think so! That’s what I love about What Should I Read Next is that I just feel like I’m with my people.
ANNE: Yes, you absolutely are. And KJ, I have to tell you, that when you filled out your submission form at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, I don’t know if you realized this but the submission you sent us was different than others we’ve gotten before. Do you want to guess how?
KJ: Uh, longer? [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Basically yes. ‘Cause we always ask guests to tell us three books you love, one book that wasn’t for you, and what you’ve been reading lately. So you listed one book that wasn’t for you, two books that you’ve been reading lately, and then you added a section called extra recent reads and information, and there are 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21 — there are 22 books on here which I thought was so much fun [KJ LAUGHS] and probably says a lot about your reading life.
KJ: Yeah. Well I should say I am a really fast reader. I’m a skimmy kind of reader. If I’m not liking a book, bam. It’s gone.
ANNE: Okay. KJ, what do you want to be different in your reading life?
KJ: I’ve been trying to read not just at bedtime. I’ve been trying to have weekend and even weekday times when I’m actually sitting with a book and the laptop and the phone are put aside.
ANNE: I haven’t been a daytime reader in a while now unless I’m listening to an audiobook while I’m doing something with my hands, or unless I’m going on a run. But I’m in a place right now where I’ve been reconfiguring like all my work schedules. I’m supposed to be on book tour. I’m not … My kids are home because school’s out, and so I’m dealing with a lot of life. And I know that 2-4 PM is a time when my kids were younger and I was working from home, I loved to read then for just a little bit ‘cause that’s not a time of day where I could do any productive writing. I’ve learned that hard way by trying and it’s like bashing my head against the wall.
So I read a chapter, two of a good book and drink a cup of coffee and look at my to-do list and then regroup and move on. Starting at about 2 in the afternoon when my mental energy just plummets. But what I found is as we are reconfiguring what life looks like in my home and in my workplace ‘cause they’re the same thing for a lot of us right now, I’m realizing that when I have that low energy time of day, I go straight to the news and just keep scrolling. And I thought well I don’t need to know that much news, I have 40 pages left in this book that I couldn’t quite finish last night, I’m going to do that now instead. So I’m experimenting with daytime reading in a way I haven’t been in awhile. And I’d loved to hear about your own not-evening reading experiments.
KJ: I would try to take a couple hour block on a weekend and I will lay on a particular couch and the dogs will come in and if I’m reading on my kindle, I might knit while I read ‘cause I can do that. If I’m reading a paper book, I typically … It’s hard to read and knit with a paper book ‘cause of the pages and everything. And if it’s winter I’ll light a fire. I’ll really start to make a thing about it, and I sometimes will have a kid drift in with their book as well, and that’s certainly part of my hope but I’m really doing it for me.
ANNE: How’s that working for you? ‘Cause that sounds like it’s new. That’s something new you’re trying.
KJ: It definitely … It works. I mean, there are weekends where we have so much stuff that it’s really hard to pull that off. Then I just do it at night. Like instead of waiting until bedtime, I’ll read after dinner. My kids all play hockey. I tried reading during a hockey game. People really frown on that. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like - like you get comments. I can hide headphones under my hat, or like earbuds, so that can sometimes work. [LAUGHS] But then sometimes people talk to you. Anyway. I want to be there and watch, but I get really bored if I don’t have something else.
ANNE: Yeah. I imagine many readers can relate to that. [KJ LAUGHS] Well and also the feeling of just wanting to squeeze in more reading, even if we feel like we are reading a lot, it’s always more that we know we could be reading.
KJ: I have one parent each on two teams who is also a passionate book person. So we just sit and talk books. We’ve agreed and look like we’re just, you know, we’re analyzing the game, that’s what we’re doing, but it’s not. We’re just talking books, and it’s great.
ANNE: Did you know this before? Or did you recognize each other by the paperbacks you always had in your hands?
KJ: In one case I knew it before, and the other case, we just … We kinda came together because of a joint interest in not screaming at the kids on the ice. [BOTH LAUGH] And then the book thing, I think we probably looked at each other’s bags and started to … Then we started to have the same books. We’re not just co-parents of kids with things in common. We are actual friends. Which is … You know, it’s a difference.
ANNE: My wish for every reader is that they could have their online community of book people because then there’s always someone there to talk books when you have a hot take or need to ask a question, they are there for you. But also to have book people in your every day three dimensional life that you can, like, you know, peek on their side of the bleachers and say, whatcha bring with you today?
ANNE: What book is that? How is it? What do you think?
KJ: Well I sorta credit your podcast with turning me into someone that talks about books in person with anyone that I can get to because I realized how much I loved listening to you and your guests really just dig … Like it’s always interesting even if I don’t think I’m going to have anything in common with a guest or if the books aren’t … It’s just always interesting to hear why people like what they like. I have plenty to talk about at parties now as long as I find the right person.
I was in a coffee shop at a hockey tournament and I was going to write, but I didn’t have very much time and it wasn’t going very well and I had a book with me. So I closed my laptop and I got out my book. And I looked down the bar, I’m sitting at the bar, and there’s a guy sitting there and he too has an actual paper book. So I leaned over and I was like, what are the odds, two people reading actual paper books! And then we got into this long conversation recommending … We recommended the books we were reading, and we talked about all this stuff, and he suggested a particular book to me and I went home and realized that I had actually bought that book the week before at that local bookstore in that town.
KJ: So I immediately started it. But that was super fun.
ANNE: What was the book?
KJ: The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet by Becky Chambers, and it is thus far extremely fun. But I wish I could be like, I already had the book! And I started it and you were so right! [ANNE LAUGHS]
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ANNE: Well, KJ, I would love to hear more about the books that you loved. You know what we do here.
KJ: I do!
ANNE: So you’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, [LAUGHS] what you’ve been reading lately [KJ LAUGHS] and then we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these?
KJ: How did I choose … It was really hard. So I thought, well what do I want someone to know about what I read? What would be representative? So I kinda was trying to look for things that I want to read more things like, if that makes any sense. I picked Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers. It’s one of her Lord Peter Wimsey mystery series, but the reason I love it has very little to do with the mystery, and a great deal to do with the [LAUGHS] I guess it’s a very intellectual romance going on at the same time. People who love Doorthy Sayers and the Lord Peter Wimsey books either love that or they hate it ‘cause it’s all from his love interest’s point of view. It’s not from his point of view. And It’s just very different, but it’s set - it’s set at Oxford and I do tend to like books with academic settings. It’s got a huge sorta feminist side story, and that is really interesting to me. It’s a really interesting look right before World War II. Would have been the ‘30s. I like getting a glimpse from a contemporaneous author.
I was also trying to pick books that I had reread frequently, and that is one I had reread a lot. And then with my second book actually I had picked something I have never reread and may never well reread because it is so much exactly what I’m looking for. I picked There’s A Word For That by Sloane Tanen. I bought it at Book People in Austin in May of 2018. I know where I bought all my books and what bookstore, and yeah, that’s a little embarrassing but anyway I do. [BOTH LAUGH] That’s where I bought it.
ANNE: Is it embarrassing though? I find it’s incredible convenience ‘cause then yeah, you can pin point in time … I mean often those facts are verifiable. If you don’t have a reading journal, you’re not going to be able to look and see like what you read in April 2017, but your calendar probably knows. My Google Calendar definitely knows what city I was in.
KJ: When I was there. It’s kinda funny because I bought it because Gretchen Rubin had blurbed it and she never blurbs fiction, and I love her and she’s a good friend. And I thought, wow, I’ve never seen her blurb fiction and that’s so ridiculous because I am a writer and I blurb things, and I know. I know the way blurbs work. I know they don’t really mean very … I want them to mean something, and yet I still listen to them.
Anyway. Gretchen was totally right. It was an incredibly fun story about a failed child actress trying to find a life for herself. It has this one character who’s basically what if J.K. Rowling was a really, really, really mean drunk, and I don’t want J.K. Rowling to be a mean drunk, but man, reading about the idea of someone in her position …
ANNE: Well it’s the tone of the book. It turns the volume up on people’s traits so loud that it just becomes ridiculous.
ANNE: Not in a are-you-kidding, but in the like, gut-laughing sense.
KJ: Yeah, in a joyful way. So this writer, she’s written a whole series of books with the same name as her son. So it’s as though J.K. Rowling had a son named Harry Potter who’s stubbornly was refusing to not … To use any other name and going through life, and people at like coffee shops say what’s your name? Saying Harry Potter and having them laugh.
All of those pieces just really worked for me and then I was just this really funny and yet tender book with a great and satisfying ending. She really stuck the landing, which can be so hard. I just liked it a lot. While I might never read it again, and I might. Mostly I just wanted to share it and make all my friends read it. [ANNE LAUGHS] That was really for me. Not every book has to be something I need to reread every year. That would get a little bit daunting.
ANNE: So that’s There’s A Word For That by Sloan Tanen.
KJ: Right. And the third book I picked was I think I picked Life Among The Savages, but I might have picked Raising Demons. Both are by Shirley Jackson. Both are her family stories. I love her fiction as well, but I go back time and time and time again to the way she wrote about raising her family in a small town in Vermont that’s actually fairly close to me.
Anybody who’s a fan of her is gonna recognize, but it’s just the way that she writes so bitterly and angrily and yet so lovingly about her role as this incredibly talented housekeeper to her four rambunctious kids and her honestly less talented than she was but much better regarded husband. And they’re so funny!
ANNE: And a lot of people aren’t familiar with this side of Shirley Jackson at all. But if you’re wondering that she writes the kind of writing that, like, a book lover might understand, she has that quote where she says, “their home they live in is old, noisy, and full. When we moved into it, we had two children and 5,000 books, and I expect when we finally overflow and move out again, we will perhaps have twenty children and easily half a million books.”
KJ: Yes! I just love her.
ANNE: Now, KJ, tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
KJ: Okay. So a book that wasn’t right for me recently was All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. It’s not that this was a bad book but it was very, very, very … It was so much not for me that I was in a hotel at the time and I had to walk it down to the lobby and leave it there. I don’t care what happened to it. That book just couldn’t even be my space at that moment in my life. It was well written and she’s got a new book out that I’m actually kinda intrigued … I’m very intrigued by, so this is not about the author. It’s really about what it was. What it was was consistently something that I don’t want.
So All My Puny Sorrows is the story of two sisters, one of whom really wants to kill herself, and the other does not want her sister to kill herself. It’s not light. And it’s not funny. And it doesn’t take that situation lightly, and it’s a, you know, real look at mental illness, but I couldn’t - I couldn’t relate. And at the time, I was going through breast cancer and really clinging to my life and everything about it. So this was probably a testament to the writer that she did it this well, but I just couldn’t take it. I just couldn’t be there.
ANNE: What Miriam Toews does so well is write about heavy topics with deep thoughtfulness and sensitivity. Like Women Talking, her new one. I really appreciated the way she did that there, but she’s still writing about heavy topics and they can be so hard for some readers to read.
And I hear what you’re saying, like, that the way she made you feel was a testament to how well she did what she did, but I mean if a book is well written, that still doesn’t mean that it’s right for every reader. That’s not how books and reading works, and I can totally relate to the experience of needing to remove a book from your presence [KJ LAUGHS] so you didn’t have to look at it because you just could not.
KJ: Yeah, no …
ANNE: So was it gone in the morning? The book was?
KJ: I did - I did not return to that part of the lobby to look. I don’t know where it went. It’s gone.
ANNE: Okay. Wouldn’t even cast your eye in that direction.
KJ: It’s in Madrid somewhere, somewhere in Madrid an English language copy of this book is floating around without my help. After I abandoned that book, I just, I kept having the experience of picking up a book only to find that it had breast cancer as a … Or just plain cancer … as a strong plot element. What it made me think about was you know, trigger warnings that people give when they’re talking about books and trigger warnings that will see in book reviews. And I always kinda had a scornful attitude toward those like sorta those like ah, come on, you can spot this stuff for yourself. Just put it down. Whatever.
Having this experience, and really just not even wanting to turn the page and see the words, really made me think about why there’s really good reasons to have those trigger warnings. They are not silly. Like I picked up Jennifer Wiener’s Mrs. Everything. I didn’t even read the back ‘cause it’s Jennifer Wiener! Right? I was going to love it. Second page, the breast cancer is back. I just couldn’t. I love Jennifer Wiener, but no, not then.
Now I mean, I’m a year later. I’m through my treatment. I’m not going to die from this right now. That’s about all any of us can say, so I [LAUGHS] … Now I can kinda deal with it. But I just really didn’t want it.
ANNE: Yeah, I really appreciate that and I know that you weren’t saying this is where you were as a reader, but I have seen some in academia for example be extremely critical of trigger warnings, saying oh, it’s just a new kind of political correctness that people only have to read what they’re comfortable with. But not reading something that’s going to send you into a horrible spiral is a … That’s really important.
And when you’re describing your story about reading Mrs. Everything, I’m just thinking of an experience I had … Now it’s two houses ago, a wildly popular novel that I had heard so much about but had completely missed ‘cause nobody told me the novel contained a character who was living out the worst case scenario, but very real and possible scenario of a medical diagnosis that affected someone close to me. And I just … I had no idea. I really … I would not have picked up the book if I had known that. I continued reading it, telling myself like it’s just a novel, it’s fine. It was not fine. [LAUGHS] And I’m so sorry I read it, and I wish - I wish someone had told me. But these are so hard, KJ, as I know you know because … So I’m all in favor of trigger warnings, and yet they can be so hard to give especially if readers are looking for something that’s not commonly acknowledged as a trigger. Like if you don’t want to read about a book about cancer or you don’t-
ANNE: … Want to read a book that involves adultery. Like it can be really hard for readers who aren’t sensitive to those issues, even if they’re trying their best to remember, even if they’ve read that book cover to cover, they may not necessarily remember that one scene or that minor character or how it played out because it wasn’t the most important thing in the story. But to the person who picks up the book and really doesn’t need to encounter that topic right now, it can seem to be the most important thing in the story.
KJ: Yeah. It’s absolutely tricky.
ANNE: I do have a favorite place where I’ve stumbled upon trigger warnings in a book. Not the triggers themselves, but the trigger warnings. And it’s in a Taylor Jenkins read novel … before she really, like, took a hard turn with her career and went in a different direction which I’m fascinated by, but the book is One True Loves. It came out maybe four, five years ago. This is like the movie Castaway, but in this version, the Tom Hanks character comes home just before the wedding.
Our protagonist, Emma, she and her husband are travel writers. He dies in a tragic accident off the coast of somewhere, over a large body of water. He disappeared. He’s never coming home. Her parents run a bookstore, so they’re all huge readers. And she wants to pick up a book to read as she’s mourning, and she picks up a book. She’s not expecting it but the husband dies.
ANNE: I know. And of course she didn’t know because it was a plot twist.
ANNE: And it’s hard because some things that are spoilers to some people are trigger warnings to others, so that does get tricky. And I want to acknowledge that without diminishing the importance of trigger warnings. If your husband just died, you don’t want to read a book where the husband dies.
KJ: Right. I love that this is a meta because it’s a character who has this happened to them. I love that.
ANNE: It is, and in the next scene, her parents, the big readers who own the bookstore, she stumbles upon them in the living room with stacks and stacks of books between them and they are proofing every page so they can give her a big stack of books where no husbands die.
KJ: Ahh. Wow.
ANNE: And I just thought ah, that’s just the most loving example of book recommending I’ve ever encountered in the pages of a novel.
KJ: Well I guess a little ironically, I actually was … I had a friend who had cancer a few years ago and that’s what I was … I was in charge of making sure she was not given any books with cancer in them. I’ve actually done that for someone.
ANNE: You’re a good friend.
KJ: I needed someone to do it for me.
ANNE: Maybe someone who doesn’t read all the time won’t understand the significance of that, but readers get it, KJ.
KJ: Yeah. You need that. You need that. So if you have a friend who’s gone through something, there’s something you can offer to do.
ANNE: KJ, tell me what you’re looking for in your reading life right now.
KJ: I am looking for smart, okay. I’m - two things. I’m looking for smart fiction that is fun and entertaining and pretty light. I don’t - I’m not feeling the need to read about darkness and even more so now that the world is getting super weird, but I also want it to be - I want it to have some meaning. I want it to have some depth, and that is not say … You know, a really light, fun book like There’s A Word For That can have a lot of meaning and depth, so I want smart, but fun, entertaining, and I guess I like the issues that we look at to be more universal and thoughtful rather than sorta specific, not too much topical angst I guess.
Oh, the other thing that I really dislike in a book, and one of the reasons I think I tend to read more commercial fiction and not so much literary fiction, I really like my characters to grow and change. If the character starts out in one place at the beginning of a book, I want them to realize something about themselves and have learned and moved on by the end of it. I find that sometimes in literary fiction, almost feel like the fun for the reader is seeing them not change. Like seeing them sorta muddle through this situation without ever fixing it. I personally find that extremely frustrating. So I’m not looking for that. And then I’m always looking for a good memoir.
ANNE: Okay. We can work with this.
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ANNE: So, KJ, you love Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers, There’s A Word For That by Sloan Tanen, and Raising Demons and also Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson. Not for you was All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews, and we’re looking for books that are fun and hopeful, yet also smart and thoughtful. We don’t want to find things that are sad and stressful. I feel like all the books I’m about to tell you are books that are for you, which means I feel like there’s a high probability you will have read them already, and we’re just going to keep going.
KJ: [LAUGHS] Okay.
ANNE: The first one is Limelight by Amy Poeppel. Do you know this one?
KJ: I love her, and you’re right. That is for me.
ANNE: What I like about this is it’s lighthearted and funny, but goes to the underlying themes you were just talking about with separation anxiety, like, no-one is an island. We all need help. Your life can look really freaking amazing on the outside and still be a disaster as it is in the case of the … I picture the popstar here being Justin Bieber. is that wrong? Or does that just mean I’m old [KJ LAUGHS] and he’s the only pop star I could come up with?
KJ: No, I think it works. I think it works.
ANNE: I’m thinking about Abbi Waxman. She has a new book called I Was Told It Would Get Easier with no cancer incidences.
KJ: I would love to read that, and I do not know … I think I vaguely knew she had a new - a new book coming. We’ve actually had her as a guest on the podcast. This is great. Okay. New Abbi Waxman.
ANNE: I just finished reading this because I am also I imagine as many readers are at this moment in time, putting my heavy hitting, deep thought provoking, sad literary fiction on hold. I love that stuff. I love a sad book. But not at this specific moment in time and timing is everything. And so I picked up the new Abbi Waxman, and I wasn’t sure if my timing was amazing or awful on this because it’s about a mother-daughter duo on a college tour, and those college visits … I mean, I’m in the middle of college visits right now. So I thought this is either going to be amazing or this is going to make me want to curl up in the fetal position. Oh, it was so fun.
So this is narrated from two perspectives. We have a heavy hitting female attorney who’s a solo parent to a sweet, dear girl named Emily, but their relationship isn’t real great right now, which means the timing for this long planned group college tour to the east coast to see a bunch of exclusive schools there, it’s either perfect or anything but. But of course as in any novel with a mother-daughter duo on a road trip, they’re each dealing with some junk.
So they’re dealing with it individually and then they take their troubles on the road and it gets a lot more complicated and a little bit silly. I mean, it’s serious, like the mother’s having issues at work because her boss is a jerk who’s not promoting women because he doesn’t want to basically. And so the female attorney has threatened to quit and she’s freaked out about it because she has a high paying job that drives her crazy sometimes, but she wants it and she has to pay for college and so the thought of being unemployed is terrifying.
And her daughter is dealing with something that’s a little slower burn, and I’m just going to let you discover that because it really surprised how it played out. But she’s talking about issues that really matter in a way that is easy to read and won’t give you nightmares if you read it right before bed.
KJ: This is going to be perfect. Absolutely. I’m calling up/emailing my local bookstore and asking them to put that on my already deep orders stack.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So that was I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman.
KJ: What a great title.
ANNE: All right, KJ, listeners can’t see this from your submission. But on your submission you did say you love a juicy insider look at media, magazines, TV, and food professions.
KJ: Soo much. If you have written that book, just send it to me and I will read it.
ANNE: Okay. If you haven’t already read this, I think it’s just about perfect. Have you read Save Me The Plums by Ruth Reichl?
KJ: I have not read Save Me the Plums.
ANNE: If you love an insider look at food magazines, oh, it’s so much fun. And I … Okay, I’m a writer. I am interested in behind-the-scenes of pretty much everything and especially the magazines I like to read, the writing I’m interested in, recipes I’ve cooked from. Plus I know that I love Ruth Reichl’s food writing, especially I think Garlic and Sapphires was my favorite. ‘Til now. Save Me The Plums might have unseated it.
But I wasn’t a devoted gourmet magazine reader, even though I do remember asking my internist years ago when I was young and had no money for magazine subscriptions, hey, can I, it’s January, can I sneak out of here with the December, like, Christmas cookies issue? So I can, you know, just read it repeatedly when I need a comfort read? And she was like yes, totally, absolutely.
KJ: [LAUGHS] That’s awesome. That was a pretty magazine.
ANNE: It was so pretty.
KJ: I love magazines. It had like the square spine instead of like the folded spine, and it was so glossy. It was so lovely. Oh, a moment of mourning for Gourmet. And then it had lots of writing, not just recipes. [SIGHS]
ANNE: Well, and she talks about the writing in this book. So the story picks up in 1999 when she’s still the food critic at The New York Times and she’s asked to take a meeting and offered another dream job, which is to take over at Gourmet, where the owner, the CEO, I don’t speak magazine, but somebody important is saying hey, we’ve gotten stodgy, and we’ve gotta change. We want to make it relevant to today’s cooks. We think you can do it. Come on over.
And she says no way. And then we know she said yes. So what happens is she pulls you alongside for like .. It’s about ten tumultuous years. It starts in ’99 where they’re like here, here’s a ton of money. Use all our resources and revamp everything.
KJ: [LAUGHS] Oh, 1999.
ANNE: 1999. Oh, man. I wasn’t a writer in 1999. I’ve heard friends talk about what it was like to get paid in that decade in the magazine years, and I — it just doesn’t sound real. So she talks about how she took stock of the magazine and she looked at the cooks she knew and the readers she knew were out there and was like okay, this is what has to change. And hearing her thought process and then seeing ... Long delay, like she’s had plenty of time to reflect on that, and I personally really like a memoir that’s coming from that place of processed reflection.
KJ: Oh, ditto. I hate it when people write their memoir too soon and you just end up sitting there going, you know, this was for your therapist.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Exactly. And this isn’t like that. So you get to hear about the big picture stuff. You get to see what her day to day job was like. She describes the workings of the test kitchen and also, she describes how they chose which essays to run, and I was fascinated by the specific many pages devoted to David Foster Wallace’s notorious piece, Consider the Lobster, with all the footnotes like he did in Gourmet magazine.
ANNE: It’s so fascinating.
KJ: Ooh, I can’t wait to read that! I had no idea that was out there.
ANNE: It came out about a year ago in April 2019. It’s wonderful on audio.
KJ: I’m not an audiobook girl, but I sometimes like a memoir that way, so I might try it that way.
ANNE: It’s a joy. I mean even as she’s navigating how the bottom fell out and how everyone went broke and lost their jobs and showed up to work and there was a sign on the door, it’s a joy to read.
KJ: I bet. She’s an amazing writer. I read her memoir of her childhood and liked it a lot, but just … I hadn’t kept up.
ANNE: Okay. KJ, we’ve got one more pick and there’s so many different directions we could go. [KJ LAUGHS] Priorities, priorities, priorities … Okay, I’m going to go with something that I think is flying a little below the radar that’ll be harder to find otherwise.
KJ: Ooh, good.
ANNE: Although sometimes it’s just because the people I know aren’t talking about it, and that doesn’t mean that not everyone is reading it elsewhere. But what do you know about Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn?
KJ: I know that I picked it up randomly at a bookstore, didn’t … It was the same one where I bought The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet. I didn’t know anything about it really, and I probably wasn’t going to put it on top of my stack, so I’m really excited to hear you say that it’s good. ‘Cause I already have it!
ANNE: Well it’s so pretty and I think it might be a really fun one for you to read. It’s not that bad things don’t happen in this story—
KJ: A book where nothing bad hap — I mean I’ve read a couple of …
ANNE: Wait, that’s not a novel.
KJ: Yeah, exactly. [LAUGHS] Every so often British writers in particular who do serieses, every so often they’ll put one in the middle of the series where nothing happens and you’re like wow, okay. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Well in this book, bad stuff happens because that’s how novels work. Plot is propelled forward by conflict, but the conflict here is not provided by breast cancer but by the threat of professional doom and other kinds of splashy scandal. [LAUGHS] It’s a more enjoyable kind of bad stuff to read about if it hasn’t happened to you. And unless you have had, like, professional doom hanging over your head because you’ve forecast someone’s future and their wedding program because of where they placed the fairies on the font [KJ LAUGHS] I mean this - this is not a problem you’ve encountered, right? It’s going to be okay to read about?
KJ: No, that’s not one of my triggers. I think I’ll be okay.
ANNE: Okay. I think it might be fun to read this book about this woman who makes her living with her hands by doing gorgeous lettering and other kind of visual design for the exclusive set of clients who can afford to pay her in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood.
KJ: Well that is one of my imaginary lives.
ANNE: It’s so different from so many books that I’ve read that could have been similar in a lot of ways. So what happens is this poor woman, Meg, did encode a secret message on somebody’s wedding program. And it has come back to haunt her. In the wedding program, she encodes the word “mistake” because she thought it was. But when it comes out she did this, other people are not amused. All of a sudden she’s notorious and what kind of letterer is notorious?
That’s not the only thing going badly for her in her life, but seeing how she works it through and seeing how she approaches her work is so fun. So two elements I think you’ll really enjoy are the trip she takes, just walking around New York City for inspiration. And then her inner monologue as she approaches her work. Like the first line of her book is “on Sunday, I work in sans serif.” And she narrates you through like why she chooses—
KJ: Font nerdiness!
ANNE: Font nerdiness.
KJ: This is so for me. Yeah. All you had to say was font nerdiness, really, and I - I would have been there.
ANNE: I like burying my lede. Or at least I can’t help it. [BOTH LAUGH] I suspect I know the answer to this question, but of the books we talked about today, I Was Told It Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman, Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl, and Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn. KJ, which of these do you think you’ll read next?
KJ: I’m absolutely going for Love Lettering because I have it and I can start it right away and also it sounds like it’s just exactly the right flavor for what I need right now.
ANNE: I hope you love it.
KJ: Thank you! I feel pretty good about it.
ANNE: KJ, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
KJ: I don’t think I’ve ever had as much fun being a guest on a podcast.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with KJ. I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/240 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can visit KJ online on her website kjdellantonia.com, and check out her podcast #AmWriting. I got to be a guest recently and had a delight talking all things books and reading and publishing with them. KJ has a new book coming out July 28th. It’s called The Chicken Sisters. It’s available July 28th from Putnam. I hope you’ll check it out.
Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!
If you’re on twitter, let me know there @AnneBogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books -O-G-E-L. Follow the show on Twitter @ReadNextPodcast and follow us on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext. Our newsletter subscribers are the first to know all the What Should I Read Next news and happenings; if you’re not on the list fix that now by visiting whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for our free weekly delivery.
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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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• The Chicken Sisters by KJ Dell’Antonia
• Author Louise Penny (start with Still Life)
• The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires by Grady Hendrix
• Don’t Overthink It: Make Easier Decisions, Stop Second-Guessing, and Bring More Joy to Your Life by Anne Bogel
• The Flavia de Luce series by Alan Bradley (try The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)
• Author Margery Allingham (try The White Cottage Mystery)
• The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
♥ Gaudy Night by Dorothy L. Sayers
♥ There’s a Word for That by Sloane Tanen
♥ Raising Demons by Shirley Jackson
♥ Life Among the Savages by Shirley Jackson
▵ All My Puny Sorrows, Miriam Toews
• Limelight by Amy Poeppel
• I Was Told it Would Get Easier by Abbi Waxman
• Save Me the Plums: My Gourmet Memoir by Ruth Reichl
• Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
• #AmWriting podcast
What do you think KJ should read next?