Today we’re chatting with my friend Raelene Bradley about how books have guided her and her husband Jordan as they work to fulfill their longtime dream of living off the land with their own farm (if the last name is ringing a bell, you might remember Jordan from his WSIRN appearance wayyy back in Ep 127: Seeking professional help for quitting books)
Raelene’s stories of reading in the fields with her horse as a child, and audiobooks to accompany milking time… ugh, it’s the stuff of dreams, readers. We’re also talking about the surprising disappointments from Raelene’s biggest reading year ever, and I’m helping her on her journey away from quantity and toward quality, by recommending she read a touching memoir, lush historical fiction, and a little something… unexpected.
Let’s get to it!
You can get a peek at Raelene’s charming family farm (and her much-beloved milk cow) on Instagram @belvederefarms.
Join our Patreon community to gain access to a huge archive of bonus episodes, and join WSIRN producer Brenna and me during our upcoming livestream on July 2nd.
RAELENE: I think you had said something like you had read like 200 or something. I was like psh. If Anne could read 200, [ANNE LAUGHS] I could read like a hundred. Like for sure. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: This is a point where I have to step in and say that it’s quality over quantity. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 241.
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, we have something FUN coming up in our What Should I Read Next Patreon community: our next livestream is right around the corner.
These are live online events Brenna and I do quarterly with our community members that 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.
Our next livestream is Thursday July 2nd. If you aren’t a member of that community yet, now is a great time to join us. 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 already have your guide), plus you get close to 50 What Should I Read Next bonus episodes.
And of course you’ll get to hop on live with Brenna and me, on July 2nd.
Find out more about our bookish community at patreon, P-A-T-R-E-O-N, patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext
Readers, today we’re chatting with my friend Raelene Bradley about how books have held her hand and guided her and her husband Jordan as they worked to fulfill their longtime dream of living off the land with their own farm. If Raelene’s last name is ringing a bell, you might remember Jordan from his What Should I Read Next appearance wayyy back in Ep 127, titled “seeking professional help for quitting books,” where he tells the story of my friend Raelene and her friend Anne.
Raelene’s stories of reading in the fields with her horse as a child, and audiobooks to accompany milking time… ugh, it’s the stuff of dreams, readers. We’re also talking about the surprising disappointments from Raelene’s biggest reading year ever, and I’m helping her on her journey away from quantity and toward quality, by recommending she read a touching memoir, lush historical fiction, and a little something… unexpected.
Let’s get to it. Raelene, welcome to the show.
RAELENE: Thank you. I am delighted to be here.
ANNE: It’s summer of 2020 and I feel like our paths to recording this episode started a long, long time ago.
RAELENE: Yeah. Really long.
ANNE: Okay. How would you tell this story?
RAELENE: Well I think you started your blog in like 2008, I think?
ANNE: Oh wow! I was going to go back to 2018, but okay, keep talking.
RAELENE: I think we can go all the way back there.
ANNE: It was actually 2011. It wasn’t quite … I mean, we’re under the decade mark, not over it.
RAELENE: No, it’s gotta be earlier, Anne, because I remember in the … Okay, I guess I can’t tell you when your blog started. [ANNE LAUGHS] But I remember …
ANNE: I’ve been reading some pretty funky books that mess with time recently, I’m ready to listen to whatever you have to say.
RAELENE: [LAUGHS] Sitting in my apartment in California, we were in grad school and reading your post and I came to you via Tsh Oxenreider ...
ANNE: Oh thank you, Tsh.
RAELENE: And she was talking about you and so … And I started reading and I was like man, this lady really knows what she’s talking about … She totally knows books. And so I have been following you … Okay, so whenever it is, I’ve been following you from the beginning and I always tell my husband oh, my friend Anne says, “da da da…” or “oh, hey, my friend Anne said the other day …” He’s like wait, is this the Anne from the blog, from Modern Mrs Darcy? I was like yeah, yeah, yeah, my friend Anne, so. I feel like we’ve been friends for a really long time even if you didn’t actually know that.
ANNE: I found out about this in April 2018 when your husband Jordan came on the show and I have to tell you although you probably know this is a What Should I Read Next first … I think it’s a What Should I Read Next first … I’ve talked to a couple of spouses together who’ve come on because they’re looking for titles they can read together. But I got to talk to Jordan and that’s episode 127, listeners, it’s called “seeking professional help for quitting books.” And he told me about my friend Anne, and so I was so excited … I told him to give my best to my friend Raelene, and then we got to meet not that long after that in Olympia, WA at Browsers Bookshops. We just got like a happy What Should I Read Next family going here. Andrea Griffith, the owner of Browsers, was on What Should I Read Next, Tsh she brought us together. It was on What Should I Read Next right at the very beginning. So we got to meet in Olympia and we’ve gotten to see each other in person since then as well which has just been lovely.
RAELENE: Every time is just better than the last.
ANNE: What are we going to do next?
RAELENE: Well, the sky’s the limit. You should come visit. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I would love to come to the farm, which leads us to tell us a little bit about your place in the world. You mentioned that the milk cow is impacting your reading life. I think you actually mentioned it in the same breath as the baby on your submission form.
ANNE: You have a baby and a milk cow. They’re both really changing the rhythms of your reading life, but when I talked to Jordan I think I was talking to him about packing up and living in the camper as a big adventure, but really it was because you had no place to go.
RAELENE: Yeah. We lived … We spent the whole summer in our subaru just sorta wandering through the parks of the west. So [LAUGHS] because yeah, we had nowhere to go. We wanted to purchase the farm and we’d put in an offer, but he wouldn’t - the seller wouldn’t take the offer until we sold our house because he wouldn’t do it contingent until we sold it in Nevada. So we sold our house in Nevada, packed up all of our stuff into the warehouse there and then sort just spent the summer wandering around until things finally came through. It was, you know, up and down as house purchases go, and then we finally were able to move in October of 2015. We’ve been here almost five years.
ANNE: Well I love seeing your Instagram posts about life on the farm and the dew on the grass and the milk cow and the cheese making and the canning all the things and the produce and the markets. And paint a picture for our listeners who can’t look at those, or who want to hear more.
RAELENE: So we have a farm in Northeast Ohio. We have 47 acres. We have five kids, and so we have a huge garden and we grow most of our own food. We have a milk cow. She needs to be milked twice a day. Once in the morning, once in the evening. We have chickens for laying eggs and we grow chicken for meat birds as well. And we have pigs, turkeys last year. We decided not to do turkeys this year because they’re a little bit crazy. [ANNE LAUGHS] But yeah, we have lots going on. All the time. So cheese making and canning and gardening and growing and raising kids and all the things.
ANNE: That sounds like a lot. [RAELENE LAUGHS] And yet somehow on top of this you were going to get to this in a few minutes, I think, but you’re also a big reader.
RAELENE: Yeah. I’ve always been a reader. I grew up on a cattle ranch in northern British Columbia. My parents weren’t big, weren’t huge readers, but somehow I always was reading. And I got in trouble a lot for reading and not doing chores. But I found a sorta work around. I would take my horse and I would check cows or check fence and I would take a book with me and I would read while I was riding my horse.
ANNE: Read a paper book.
RAELENE: Yeah. ‘Cause you know, audiobooks didn’t exist back then. As you’re looking down and reading the book but the ground is also going by, I had a good horse, right? So I didn’t have to, like, worry about, but yeah, I would get dizzy sometimes. So … Or sometimes I would stop and get off … don’t tell my mom … And I would sit in the meadow while the horse grazed, and I would read my book for a little bit when I thought oh, it’s about time I should go finish my job and get home. I was always reading. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So I imagine this is normal life to you but I grew up in a first ring suburb in Louisville, Kentucky where I mean I thought it was pretty idyllic to be reading walking down the sidewalk, which I didn’t do very often. So I mean, I’m just picturing basically modern Anne of Green Gables, like, the soft golden light is slanting across the fields. I mean, was that what it was like or was it just your normal life?
RAELENE: Well it still felt like that, and now looking back on it, I’m like oh yeah, well, it was my normal life. But for sure, it seemed idyllic at the time. Even as a kid it was pretty great. It was pretty great. Wide open spaces, lots of room to run. I mean our closest neighbor was like five miles away, so. It was a lot. And here even now, our neighbor isn’t very close. Like our closest, he’s like half a mile away or so.
And my kids like to spend a lot of time reading. They like to climb the tree out here and sit in the branch and read. I let them read more than my mom was willing, but still, I’m always like chores first, then reading. But they read a lot ‘cause we’re big into reading. And we read all the time. So lately I’ve been reading or listening to an audiobook while I milk the cow, and that’s been great because it’s quiet and [LAUGHS] especially in the morning ‘cause it’s early in the morning. Nobody else is awake. It’s just me and the cow. It’s quiet. Nobody’s interrupting. Nobody’s touching me and pulling me and asking to be fed. [LAUGHS] That’s pretty nice.
ANNE: Raelene, has reading been a constant in your life?
RAELENE: Yeah for sure. For sure. I wanted to be an English major when I went to school but I thought, well, I wanted to be a lawyer more, so I got a degree in political theory. And then I realized I didn’t want to do that and so I got a Master’s degree in English literature. [LAUGHS] That was after I was married and after I had kids though. We sorta carved out time and made that happen. But yeah, reading’s always been important. And I think even for, like, escape for sure and for enjoyment but also for learning. Like I read a lot of farm books.
I grew up on a ranch, but man, it is so different being in charge of the farm and like in charge of all the responsibilities and making all the decisions and the finances and all of this … You know, all of these animals that are, like, under my stewardship. I have so much, ugh, to learn. And so I read a ton in terms of, like, figuring out what to do next and how to make these decisions and what’s the best thing to do with this, and how do we approach this problem or this issue and so certainly for enjoyment and a lot for learning too.
ANNE: Knowing so little about farm life, I mean, Raelene, all I know is from reading memoirs and novels and the occasional gardening book that touches on what is your daily reality. I think I lack the knowledge and the information that you can even dream of the things you might need to find out. What are some of the things that you didn’t realize you’d have to learn through reading to live your life on the farm?
RAELENE: [SIGHS] That's a good question. Um, all the things. [ANNE LAUGHS] So again like when you grow up, even when you do this stuff when you’re growing up, like I grew up with a garden, right? And I knew about planting peas and carrots and those kinds of things. But also that was in northern Canada, and then we moved here to northeast Ohio, and oh my gosh, things are so different. There are bugs that I have never seen or heard of that can ruin your whole plant. I can grow tomatoes here and melons and eggplant, like, that was not even a possibility in Canada. So I’m learning to grow all of these different things.
And I’m learning about soil, so I’ve read all kinds of books about gardening, no-till gardening, improving soil, about composting, about different plants, about companion planting like which plants to put together so that they improve each other’s productivity. Jordan is super into food. Super. He is the foodie of foodies. The best way for Jordan to have, like, good food is to like make it all himself. Sometimes we sit down, he’s like, hm, I don’t know. This is only like 97.45% homemade. [BOTH LAUGH] Like maybe if I ground my own flour it might be. I was like oh my gosh, stop it already. [LAUGHS] But like so he is super into, like, making his own food and figuring out that stuff out, so even way back early he was wanting to make cheese and figuring that out. So we’ve been dreaming for a milk cow for a long time.
We got her, Sandy our milk cow, last fall. She was pregnant but not yet lactating ‘cause she doesn’t lactate until she has the calf, and so I read so many books about how to keep a family cow because this was a huge deal. I grew up on a cattle ranch but beef cattle are so different from dairy cattle which maybe, I don’t know, you don’t know, they’re different in terms of, like, their nutritional needs. In terms of their confirmation, what they look like. Ugh. So much stuff.
So I read, I don’t know, seven? Eight different books and handbooks. Old ones from, like, the turn of the century to, like, new ones on how to keep a cow and you know, what to do with her, and I probably read too much about, like, all of the things that could go wrong because I worry about this cow so much. Like it’s a little bit better now like I’m four months in since she calved. The first month, oh my gosh, I worried about her so much. I was like does she have metastasizes? Does she have ketosis? I don’t even know, is she okay? Is she going to have … Like all these things that couldn’t even happen at the time in the year, I still worried about ‘cause I knew about them. [LAUGHS] So maybe I knew too much. But we’re in a groove now. We’re doing good. We’re like besties. I spend more time with her some days than I do with my husband because you know, rain or shine. [BOTH LAUGHS] She has to be milked.
ANNE: Raelene, it sounds like you’re a reader who enjoys learning from the books you’re reading whether or not you’re learning about how to do something, or you just encounter a time, a worldview, an experience in fiction that you haven’t had before. But I’m wondering if you approach the books you’re reading explicitly to learn, like how to care for a milk cow differently from your more recreational reading.
RAELENE: Recently like in the last year, I put my finger on like exactly what I really love in a good book. Really strong characters and as I’ve looked back through the stuff I really loved, I notice that it’s often a strong female character who overcomes despite difficult circumstances or overwhelming odds or you know, being the underdog or whatever it is. Some difficult trials that they overcome and they triumph with that for sure. Also like a really strong sense of place. That’s really important to me. In some ways like a gothic novel, like that house itself is a character so that the sense of place or the setting or wherever that is is a character … I guess you could almost say that’s like living on the farm. The farm itself here is a character. It matters in the story.
And then also that I come away having learned something, like that is really important to me. That makes me feel satisfied with my reading experience. Like, ugh, that’s so cool. I didn’t know that. Or I didn’t think about that perspective in that way before that I feel like I have this new idea or that I’ve learned something from my book. So those, like, three key elements really help to say like, aha, this is a book for me.
ANNE: What prompted that realization? Have you been keeping a reading log? Did you read something that triggered an aha moment? Like how did you put that together because many people are not yet able to be so articulate about what they know they love in a good book.
RAELENE: Part of it is listening to your podcast because you ask everyone like all the time, like, what it is it [ANNE LAUGHS] or you’re really good at sussing out, ahh, about these few books I see that this is so, this prompts me to think, oh, what is it that I love about books? What is it … da da da … And Jordan and I whenever we’re on a date almost always, almost always it’s, like, okay, what’s your three favorites right now and why? [BOTH LAUGH] Which is the one that you hate right now and why? And so we revisit your format like all of the time, so we’re always thinking about this.
But I read Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing last … I don’t know … last summerish and that really helped me to put my finger on it because it’s about this girl who grows up pretty well, without a family, in a swamp by herself. She’s super resourceful. She figures it out and she learns the swamp. And I learned so much about the botany and the biology of the swamp, right? Of these swamplands that I never would have known and she is this, you know, young strong character and she has no family, she has no one and yet you know, she’s able to triumph and overcome and she just becomes an expert, a naturalist, in the swamp because she knows so much. And she learns to draw and to watch all of these animals and the plant life and figure out what they do and why and, you know, she just becomes this really powerful, knowledgeable woman because of her experiences.
So there was a really strong sense of place there, you know, the swamp where it was set. This really strong female character, and I really learned a lot about, you know, the botany, the biology, the floral and fauna if you will of the swamp and I was like, ah, this is why I love these kinds of books. [LAUGHS] And I was really able to put my finger on it and be like this is it. This is the key. And then as I’ve looked back over my reading and since then, I’ve been like yes, okay, this is why I love this book. This totally makes sense. I’ve been keeping a reading log on Goodreads since like 2008 and I think I realized last year that was when Goodreads started, o I have this huge ...
ANNE: Oh wow.
RAELENE: … Thing to pull from, but I mean of course my tastes have changed since and sorta refined. It’s been a lot of years to sorta keep track of your reading. But yeah recently I’ve been able to put my finger on yeah, those are three things that are sweet spots for me for sure.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. And I still have not read that book. I feel like I’ve been saying this a lot on the podcast recently [RAELENE LAUGHS] because it keeps coming up but do you think I would enjoy it?
RAELENE: I think so. I mean, it’s gotten a lot of hype, right? Sometimes readers don’t read books because they’ve had so much hype, right? They’re like mm, I don’t know. I am like that. I’m like ugh. Is it really worth it? I don’t know. Maybe if everybody just loves it. Because I’ve read books before that have a huge hype and I’m like ugh, this is totally not for me. I don’t even know what the big deal is. But even though it has a lot of hype, it really was one that was influential in my reading life in sorta like helping me to realize what I love. And I made Jordan read it and he loved it. And he’s way more, like, picky than I am about … [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: So if you both love it, that’s really saying something.
RAELENE: Yeah. For sure. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. I like it. You said that a couple years ago you read the most books you ever read in a year that it was over a hundred. And it didn’t end up being a great reading life for you, though I imagine you expected it to be because of the volume you read.
RAELENE: Exactly. And that was the point, I was like yeah. Like I’m going to read as many books as I can. I think you had said something like you had read like 200 or something. I was like psh. If Anne can read 200, I can read like a hundred. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like for sure. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Is this the point where I have to step in and say that it’s quality over quantity. Everyone listening, that is not a goal.
RAELENE: Yeah. For sure, like ...
ANNE: If you read one book last year and you want to read ten, like, I support this. If you want to read more like, we can help you, but the number itself is not what’s meaningful. Okay. Stepping down off the soapbox. Raelene, tell me more.
RAELENE: Well so I will step right back on the soapbox and be like yes, cause I thought I could read lots of books. Let’s do it. So I went after it, and I was like yeah, I’m just going to read all the things. I would check out books from Overdrive like what’s available to listen to. You know, not necessarily being discerning about whether I was going to like it or not, it was available and I heard about it, and sure, let’s do it. And it was not great.
So you know, don’t read all the books. Just read the best books, right, the books that are meant for you. I think it was really what I learned. Because it wasn’t about the number. And so since then I’ve been more discerning about choosing books that I think I really am going to enjoy. And it is not just, you know, getting through a certain number or hitting a hundred or whatever it is for the year because that wasn’t helpful. I did that and didn’t love it. But I’ve been much better about it.
One thing that I’m much better about is giving myself permission to spend a little bit of money and buy an audiobook or paperback that I’m pretty sure I’m going to enjoy because then I enjoy it more and I get way more out of it than just picking whatever’s available through my library and whether I have heard about it or know about it or like if I’m going to like it.
ANNE: So you’re saying that if you have a pretty good feeling about a book, you’ll go on and spend the cash to bring it into your life that time instead of prioritizing books where they’re like the big thing they’ve got going for them is that they’re available now.
RAELENE: Right. And also I used to, like, just hear about a book and like ah, that sounds interesting, and put it on hold at my library. And so then I would have this whole stack of books and would be like, wait, why, do I like these … Why did I … I don’t know. And so I’m a little bit more discerning again about even what I put on hold at the library.
Which is not to say I don’t put too many on hold. Like I have downstairs on my kitchen table like a stack of, like, ten books because my library just switched to curbside. The summer reading guide just came out, so I just added a whole bunch, way more than I can possibly read in the next month before they’re due but I still put too many books on hold at the library but at least I know that they’re books for sure that I know I’m going to want to read instead of being just like eh, this sounds cool. Let’s pick it up.
ANNE: And so have you felt the difference?
RAELENE: Yes. Year before last was the year of lots of books and last year was much, many much fewer books. [LAUGHS] But they were so much better and this year even better. I’m getting so much better at this, so that most of my reads now are like four or five stars.
And I remember last year before the summer reading guide came out, I was like Anne, help me pick more, you know, four and five star books. I’m so burnt out with these like three star ones. And you were very kind [LAUGHS] and gently said, Raelene, they can’t all be four to five stars. You know, we have to have the balance. You have to have the mix, and that’s true. But I’m still trying my darndest to get more four and five star books, and most of them have been. They have been. So I’m getting better at, like, honing in at what really is going to be good and picking the ones that are really for me. And it’s made a huge difference.
ANNE: Okay. So do you agree that they can’t all be four and five star reads? Or do you think I’m full of it?
RAELENE: Yes and no, but thanks. [BOTH LAUGH] Because I think the better that you get at figuring out what’s for you, right? The more … Or the percentage of four and five star reads go up. But you still need to read I think two and three stars to again figure out is this book for me? Is this genre for me? Is this author for me? Is this a book that I did not enjoy reading but was still important? ‘Cause I’ve read three star books like that for me where, eh, this wasn’t really for me but I’m really glad I read this. And I still think about it a lot.
RAELENE: I’ve noticed recently that the books that I give the lower stars to, I tend to review more verbosely. Like I say more things about them. [LAUGHS] Maybe because I feel like I have to justify giving fewer stars where I’m like yeah, I love this. That’s good. Whereas if I gave it fewer stars, it’s like, okay, well, let’s think about why this was not for me or why I did not enjoy this experience or why da da da … Those kind of things. So …
ANNE: Of course I’d love to read all five star books, but if I’m reading all five star books then it means I am not taking any chances. I’m not trying new things.
ANNE: I’m not reading unknown authors, and you put that really well. Thank you.
RAELENE: For sure. And I think you just have to push, you know, your comfort zone because if they’re all five stars, it means you’re too entrenched I think in what is good for you that maybe it’s time to try something different.
ANNE: And tell me why it might not be great to be entrenched.
RAELENE: Oh because then it’s, you know, it’s just … You’re just reading all of the same things and you don’t get any new perspectives or new voices or new ideas. For me anyway. I need to try new things and do something different either a different genre or a different way things are written or a different kind of author. But also like I don’t know, it’s … You can find five star reads for you that were unexpected. Those are the best, right? When you did not expect to love this book and then you did when it came from like an unexpected source or you had no idea what it was going to be about and then it was amazing, so those are the best.
ANNE: Well I’m excited to talk about your books. How did you pick these?
RAELENE: I decided to pick one all time favorite, one very recent favorite because you know, I can’t pick like three of my all time favorites, and one farming favorite, right? Cause I read tons of books about farming [LAUGHS] and stuff like that, so I picked a farming favorite.
ANNE: Okay, let’s do this.
ANNE: Readers, I’ve been wearing ThirdLove bras for several years now. In fact, I’ve officially replaced all of my old bras with ThirdLove, and I couldn’t be happier or more comfortable. My new favorite bra is their 24/7 lace contour plunge bra. It’s really pretty, comes in great colors, and it’s so comfortable with memory foam cups, no-slip straps and a scratch-free band with a printed label instead of a tag.
Trying a variety of styles with ThirdLove is easy. Every bra is backed by their Perfect Fit Promise–giving you 60 days to wear it and wash it and if you don’t love it, return it for free.
Using the Fit-Finder quiz you can find your perfect fit in under 60 seconds.
I found my perfect fit and now I wear ThirdLove every day.
ThirdLove knows there’s a perfect bra for everyone, so right now they are offering What Should I Read Next listeners 15% off your first order!
Go to ThirdLove.com/READNEXT now to find your perfect-fitting bra… and get 15% off your first purchase! That’s ThirdLove.com/READNEXT.
ANNE: Raelene, 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’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. What’s up first?
RAELENE: So this my all time favorite or Anne … Let’s say Anne all time favorite because, you know, I can’t just pick one. It’s West With the Night by Beryl Markham and it’s a memoir written by Beryl herself, obviously. She grew up on a farm. It was a huge farm in the heart of British East Africa. So this is like in the early 1900s. She learns from the Native Nandi, the Native population there, to steal silently through the forest, right? She hunts with only a spear. She would run off with them and they would teach her all these things. Her father trained racehorses and she wanted to learn how to train racehorses and so she did, and she was amazing.
Several weeks later she was, you know, a young woman, she encounters a stranger on the road and he talks to her about what it’s like to fly and she gets a desire to do that. And so she gets her pilot's license and she flies and she’s a mail deliveryman. She’s a African bush pilot. She’s an elephant Safari scout. She flies all over East Africa. Eventually she flies from Cape Breton, or that’s where she lands from England to Cape Breton. All across the Atlantic all alone, and she is the first person to do so, man or woman, to cross the Atlantic, and I didn’t know that.
So she does all of these amazing things in her life [LAUGHS] but the writing is just so beautiful. It’s well written. It’s fascinating. It’s engaging. It’s just really, really enchanting, and I think one of the things that’s so incredible about it and makes it so captivating is just the way she writes it. Her choice of verb and phrase, the words themselves, they draw you in. They give you pause. She’s funny, she’s witty. She’s pensive. She’s frank. She’s practical, and she gives really stunningly accurate descriptions of human character. It’s just … I loved it.
One of my favorite lines comes towards the end, it’s short, but she says “flight is but momentary escape from the eternal custody of earth.” And I just thought that was so beautiful.
RAELENE: Hemingway said this of her, “she said as she is she has written so well and so marvelously well that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. But she can write rings around all of us who consider us writers.” I mean that’s pretty high praise. And so … [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That’s high praise.
RAELENE: I loved it. So again like it hits all of those points right? Like I really strong female character who triumphs despite you know her odds. I don’t know. She has lots of things going for her but she’s a really great character and I learned something new and had a really strong sense of place. I mean almost all memoirs set in Africa have that strong sense of place which is just really beautiful.
I think if we talked about West With A Night, we have to mention Circling The Sun by Paula McLain because she wrote sorta an imagined memoir in Beryl’s voice, but I didn’t love this. So I had read West With a Night before and obviously I had loved it, but I didn’t like this because I felt like it was too grounded in like McLain’s own time and she’s trying too hard to paint Markham’s life, her failures, her hardships with like the tropes and successes of like a 21st century feminist and I didn’t like that. Like Markham, she was brilliant and strong and independent in, like, a society that, like, discouraged that in women and so McLain tends to make the focus of her memoir all about her relationships with men. That’s what really bugged me.
Like Markham is this strong, independent character and I felt it did her a disservice to make this novel about her relationships with men, that it really took away from so much of the power of Markham’s own personality and her own experiences, and her own voice really. Markham’s own words are so powerful and so beautiful that it put Hemingway to shame, I think we should read those.
ANNE: Raelene, what did you choose for your next favorite?
RAELENE: My next favorite is a just recent favorite. I read this really recently like last month. It’s The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and this is a novel in verse and it’s a young adult novel. This young girl, she’s the daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic and she’s growing up in New York City. She is such a strong character. Her name is Xiomara, and she’s so fun. She has so much spunk. And she’s dealing with all of the things that you would as a teenager, you know, like a new crush. She’s figuring out who she is and what she loves. She has clashes with her mum, who is really strongly religious and she’s not sure if she is or if she wants to be. And she writes in her notebook in verse and one day her English teacher invites her to be a part of the poetry club. And she really, really, really wants to but she feels weird about it and then later it turns out that it conflicts with her religious classes that her mum wants her to attend, and so she can’t go to those. But I think it’s just a really relatable, understandable coming-of-age growing up sort of novel.
But what I loved about it so much is the writing, right? The poetry of it. It has such a strong sense of place, like you can really feel her neighborhood, her school, her home. You really feel like you’re there with her and the poetry is just really about creating word pictures, right? Like creating this fully formed idea in your mind with words. And they tend to be … you know, in poetry the words are maybe a little bit fewer or they’re spare and they often link concepts that maybe you wouldn’t have thought to put together, and yet they’re so powerful.
One thing that I really liked about this novel in verse is that the style and the form of the verse changes all throughout the story. So there’s one whole section written in haikus, and I thought it was really fun. And Acevedo manages to teach you about the form and structure and purpose of a haiku, so she’s doing this, but then she also tells you the protagonist, right, that’s Xiomara is hiding in the bathroom cause she doesn’t want to eat lunch in the cafeteria, like a totally normal teenage thing. But it’s so potent that she’s able to do both of these things and she tells you how she feels in that moment and that all happens in haiku. It’s brilliant.
ANNE: She’s brilliant.
ANNE: I love her work. And did you listen to that one on audio? Or am I projecting?
RAELENE: No, I read this one. It was so great. I did read then afterwards her next one With The Fire on High, and I listened to that one audio and that was such a great experience because that’s read by her. That really helps to set again that whole tone, that sense of place because she reads it and so you get her accent and her … And that’s really poetic too even though it’s not written in verse. But I just … I just love these ideas and these images that happen in poetry. Like one of my favorites, she says, “the words sit in my belly and I use my nerves like a pulley to lift them out of my mouth.” [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That’s good.
RAELENE: Beautiful image I think.
ANNE: And since this has now become the Elizabeth Acevedo fanclub, she has a new one out that’s also fantastic. It just came out in May and it’s called Clap When You Land. It’s another novel in verse, and I can vouch for that one on audio. Not that that’s necessary. I mean I think her reputation precedes her, but it’s fantastic.
RAELENE: I think one thing that I like about not reading novels in verse in print is that you can see the verse and you can see the line breaks and you can see, like, where the haikus are. And this one particularly title of each poem is also part of the poem, and it’s maybe easier to see that. So I liked that about reading it, you know, in print.
ANNE: You know now that you mentioned it I’m scanning back through my experience with novels in verse and realizing that far more than I usually do in my reading life even though I’m a rereader, I’ve done a lot of these novels in verse in both formats. So when I’m listening to the words I can picture it, but when I’m reading the words I can hear the author’s voice in my head because I’ve done both. I don’t know if we’re going to get a lot of rereaders on board with reading novels in verse if we’re going to tell them like you have to do it twice [RAELENE LAUGHS] to get the full experience for every single book, but I’m just going to say maybe try it sometime, readers, and see how it serves you.
RAELENE: And often these novels in verse, at least the ones that I’ve read, are pretty short, you know. They go by pretty quickly so I think it’s worth it.
ANNE: I feel like I get a lot of experience for the time I put in.
RAELENE: For sure.
ANNE: Okay. So that means it’s the farming favorite that remains.
RAELENE: Oh, yes, the farming favorite, so this is The Dirty Life: On Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball. Pretty typical city folk to farmer kind of [LAUGHS] kind of story. She was a journalist and she was assigned to go out to this farm in Pennsylvania, interview the farmer. He was doing things differently, and they had this huge CSA community supported agriculture movement going on, just news of farming and involving the community and so she was sent out there to get the scoop. And so long story short, she falls in love with the farmer. Ahh. [ANNE LAUGHS]
Though it’s not really about that, it’s maybe a little about that, but then they find a farm in New York and it’s this whole adventure of how they decide to do that. And then their first year on the farm while they’re trying to get the farm going but also deciding to get married, and so they’re going to throw this party and have a wedding on the farm. They come to the farm in late fall and they have so much clean up to do. So much work to do which I totally understand. And they get a milk cow and she, like, learns to milk this cow.
I just could totally relate to her. The barn, there’s this one passage, she talks about being in the barn and she’s milking the cow and she looks around in this barn that’s been abandoned, you know, for years and years and years and has laid empty now has the warmth and smell and feel of animals. I almost cried. I was like ahh, that’s like our farm. [SOBBING SOUNDS] [BOTH LAUGH] And I just … I just felt like it I was in the trenches with her, you know, like learning to milk this cow and having a fridge full of milk and not knowing what to do with it. Or having so much to do and having to get up early in the morning and do all of this, and wanting to go to bed but it’s not dark yet and the chickens aren’t in the coop yet! So you can’t go to bed because you have to shut them in, you know.
So… I just loved it and it was really powerful and she talks a lot about the hardships. Like so many people tell me and see you know on Instagram or whatever our farming life and it looks so idyllic and beautiful and charming and it is. All of that. But it is also so much work and so much tragedy, you know, like you make mistakes and you lose animals and you lose crops and you mess stuff up and you have to fix things all of the time. It’s really hard work and I just really appreciated that she was willing to talk a lot about that, right, so that you get both the euphoria and the excitement and the joy of growing food and supporting and providing for your community. Then also all of these things that can go wrong and when they go wrong.
And her model and their farm is to really involve the community, and they want to be able to provide all of your food needs, so everything from grains like oats and barley and cereals to meat to cheeses to vegetables and produce and throughout the year. And so you really eat when you purchase, you know, a share from them, you really eat everything from the farm. And that was really inspiring for me too because that’s what we are trying to do, you know? Feed the farm from the farm, you know, we feed our family seasonally and as you do that, it really changes the whole way that you see and understand farming and gardening and growing and seasonal produce and seasonal foods and what that means. And I just really appreciated you know, both her take on it, her experience.
At one point she leaves, she goes on assignment. She gets, like, a freelance assignment to write a travel book in Hawaii. So she goes and she spends a month in Hawaii. I was like ah, this is like the greatest vacation! Just like leave your farm for a month, that sounds great! And she’s like I don’t know if I want to go back. But eventually she finds a farmer in Hawaii because she needs to get her hands in the dirt again and he does things so differently from her fiancee and she’s like ugh, I’m so much more grateful for him. And she just really appreciates him because she sees this other perspective in the way someone else does it, and she comes back and she’s recommitted. And it’s just a lot about, you know, what is the best life and what does it mean to work for a dream, and what does it mean to work hard and to see something come to life and come to fruition.
ANNE: That’s so interesting to hear you describe why you love this book because I have this downloaded. I haven’t begun listening to it yet. It’s been in my app for a couple months now, but I’m thinking if I picked it up because I’ve enjoyed similar books like Michael Pollan and he has that farmer that he loves, that he talks about. I’ve read all his stuff and I’ve read a couple books like this. They’re just escape and imagination and it’s vicariously experiencing somebody else’s adventure. You’re reading it through a totally different lens. It’s more encouragement and therapy and commiserations sometimes.
RAELENE: Absolutely. Yeah all of those things. Like Kingsolver’s was like that too.
ANNE: Ooh. When you mentioned the crazy turkeys, I wondered if you had read Animal, Vegetable, Mineral because she talks about the turkeys.
ANNE: And I think specifically they’re trying to mate them so that they can grow their own thanksgiving turkeys and I remember her saying like hi, I can’t … Biology works, right? But this is never going to work. [BOTH LAUGH]
RAELENE: Yeah. Jordan likes to say that turkeys are just goats with feathers because they climb on everything and they get all over [BOTH LAUGH] and they don’t stay where they’re supposed to stay. And … [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Thank you. I really needed to explain to me why ... [RAELENE LAUGHS] Now it makes sense. But it didn’t at first.
RAELENE: Yeah. So they like to roost on the porch and they poop all over the porch and they’ll roost on the roof and then we try to keep them contained where they’re supposed to be contained, and then they get out. So we’re taking a break.
ANNE: Raelene, we already talked about how reading a book that’s not for you can be really informative about your reading life, can really help you discover what you do like, and how to define your taste. So with that in mind, tell me about a book that wasn’t for you.
RAELENE: Okay, so this book is The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory. And I picked it up last winter. So in February, Jordan and I were about to go to Italy. We were going to spend two weeks in Italy. And I wanted something that was light and fun and romantic, right? It seemed like the perfect vacation read. So I picked it up. I paid money for it. [LAUGHS] Because I was going to take it to Italy with me, I took more books than I did clothes ‘cause you know you can change outfits. [ANNE LAUGHS] a lot but you can’t reread books, so I took way more books than I probably should have. But I did read them all.
And so this is one of them and I was really looking forward to it and I heard a lot of you know, hype about it. I’d seen it in lots of different places and so I was excited for it. And it had a cute premise, right? This girl’s in a not great relationship and her boyfriend proposes to her at Dodger Stadium on the Jumbotron and she’s like ahh, no? [LAUGHS] And then there’s a little bit of a fallout and so this guy swoops in with his sister and rescues her. So that’s cute.
And I’ve, you know, read romance novels before and enjoyed it. It was going to be light and fluffy but what I hated about this book is that he had no flaws. He was perfect. Like the biggest fault he had was that he cared too much about his mum and his sister, like his dad was not in the picture, he had passed away and he cared too much and so he was really duty bound to take care of them. And ugh, I was just so annoyed.
Usually you know, you read like these historical romances about The Countess and The Duke and whatever and he’s terrible and violent and so stubborn or they have, like, these big obstacles to overcome, like pride and prejudice for example. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know like these things that they have to work through and work out and come together on and it works because you know, there’s this clash, back and forth and then you know, they figure it out and they figure out they love each other anyway despite this they’re able to work it out.
But I just felt like this guy had no flaws. It was just too easy. And she was doing plenty of, like, growing up and you know, figuring stuff out too. But I was just annoyed that he had no flaws. He was perfect. He was the perfect gentleman. He was the perfect lover. He was the perfect bother, you know? Now [LAUGHS] and maybe for a lot of people yes, sing me up for that. [ANNE LAUGHS] For sure I want that.
ANNE: Oh, yeah. A hundred people just added that to their reading list.
RAELENE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, exactly. But for me it just felt a little bit too good to be true. I don’t do too well with, like, light and fluffy because I tend to get to the end and I’m like, hm. That was not satisfying. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well you already said that you know you love the novels when characters are triumphing despite overwhelming odds, so that’s completely consistent. Not that we can’t like things that don’t always like perfectly aligned but that is jumping out at me. No perfect men in the novels we recommend today.
RAELENE: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
ANNE: What have you been reading lately?
RAELENE: Lots. I just finished this memoir called Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer and I really wanted to love this. Jordan got this for me for Mother’s Day. So it’s a story about a thousand kilometer horse race on wild ponies across the Mongolian steppe, and it seems so promising. So this girl, she’s 19. She’s a little bit flighty. She’s just been sacked from her au pair job in Austria. She has nothing to do. She kinda on a whim, signs up for this horse race. It’s called The Longest and Toughest Horse Race in the world, and this is true. This is not a novel, this is a memoir, so it’s true. And it’s kinda like the old, like the old pony express kind of thing so they go from station and station and at every station they change ponies, and it’s a thousand kilometers all across Mongolia. They end up making, like, roughly a circle around the country and it’s hard, and she, you know, encounters, like, storms and floods and cold and wind and heat ‘cause it’s in the summertime, happens in August.
And I just really wanted to love this. It seemed to have all of those elements right, like really strong characters, she’s a bit of an underdog. This strong sense of place, right? The Mongolian steppe that should have been that, and that I would learn something new. And I was so excited for it. But it kind of fell flat because the writing was really flighty. It’s more like a daydream, sorta, like, stream of consciousness. In the beginning I was even sorta annoyed with her because she does like silly things. She doesn’t really prepare. She doesn’t know how to use her GPS locator and she’s like meh, she kinda gives up on doing it. She’s like I’m just going to follow somebody.
But what I really wanted from the memoir and from most memoirs is I really want it to be meaningful, right? To there have been this experience and then have some distance and have some reflection and have some wisdom come out of this. In fact, right at the end, she’s at a dinner party, a woman asked her if it changed her and she’s, like, whoa. No. I can’t say that it did. You know seven days edging my way through land and air, no, not really. [LAUGHS] I was like what! You just had this amazing experience. It should have changed you, right? And I wanted it to be about that. So I still - I still am thinking about the book I wanted it to be, even though it wasn’t that.
ANNE: Okay. What are you looking for in your reading life right now?
RAELENE: Well I really love beautifully written works, so I would love to read more verse novels. Or at least something that has really beautiful, lyrical, poetic language that I really love. So that for sure. And you know, I always want it to be engaging and worth my time. I realized that recently with, you know, with the pandemic and the lockdown and things like that, a lot of people are turning to lighter reads that are just fun go tos. That’s not my go to. My go to is like mysteries and thrillers, and I was thinking about that the other day, and I was like oh, well, when I was young, I read tons of Nancy Drew and then I read everything by Mary Higgins Clark, and then I read all of the John Grisham. Right like that was my go to when I was young, and I was like ah, maybe that has to do with that, right? Like when we seek comfort we go back to what we read most of when we were kids. I thought that was interesting.
ANNE: There could definitely be something there. And I’m definitely keeping in mind you like to learn things no matter what you’re reading.
RAELENE: That’s very true.
ANNE: Okay. Are you ready to do this?
RAELENE: Yeah, let’s do it.
Readers, something I’ve learned about many of my fellow readers is that we love learning, just for the sake of new knowledge and experiences.
If you love to learn, now is the perfect time to sign up for The Great Courses Plus. I enjoy learning with Great Courses because I can do it on my schedule. It’s easy to watch or listen at any time, and I love the satisfaction that comes from learning something new. I’m always surprised by the connections I make when reading, talking with friends, or listening to podcasts because of what I learned from The Great Courses Plus.
With thousands of lectures from the world’s best professors and experts, The Great Courses Plus is a great way to explore new topics or hone your skills. Choose an extra nerdy bookish course like How to Read Shakespeare or practice Watercolor Techniques. You might find a new hobby, and you’ll certainly find surprising new connections in the books you read.
With The Great Courses Plus App you can watch or listen at any time, from your phone, tablet, or internet connected TV.
I know you’re going to love The Great Courses Plus too! So don’t wait any longer, now’s the perfect time to sign up for this limited-time offer: Start your Free Month at hegreatcoursesplus.com/READNEXT!
ANNE: Okay, so, Raelene, you loved West with a Night by Beryl Markham, The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo, and The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball. Not for you was The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory because no perfect men for you in a romance novel. Your characters need to overcome something for it to really feel satisfying. Can we start with a memoir?
RAELENE: Yeah, I’m for that.
ANNE: Okay. The first one I had in mind is The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander. She’s a poet. She teaches poetry at Yale, or at least she did at the time when this was published and it’s so obvious in the story’s richness and language. The prose just … I mean I called it prose but it reads so beautifully which I think makes it a great choice for you. This memoir also has that distance, that reflection, that wisdom that we know that you enjoy. She’s an American. She was born in Harlem. Her husband was born in Eritrea in East Africa, and he came to New Haven where they met and he was a refugee from war. They both are artists. If you see the cover of the book, it’s completely gorgeous. It’s this really saturated painting, and that’s his painting.
She describes their home and their life together and it sounds like this amazing, vibrant, multicultural extravaganza that you just wanted to invite yourself to the party. There’s food, there’s friends, there’s music, there's art. But the story she’s telling is how he died just four days after his 50th birthday. It sounds so sad, but it’s such a joyful book. She’s looking back at their life together, their love-story, and the impact of losing him and losing him so young on her life. I could barely put this down, and I think it sounds right up your alley. I think at the very beginning of the book she says something like it seems like the story I’m about to tell you is a catastrophe, but in fact, it goes way back and it’s not a tragedy but it’s a love story. How does that sound?
RAELENE: It sounds a lot like From Scratch. I love it.
ANNE: All right. Next I’m thinking of Euphoria by Lily King. Are you familiar with this book?
ANNE: It won a lot of awards and her one Writers & Lovers just came out in March and of course when a new book comes out, people also talk about the author’s backlist, so if you’re thinking …
ANNE: … Readers, I’ve heard this title recently, I think that’s why. Even though it came out oh, seven, eight years ago now. This novel is set … It might be the ‘30s. It’s definitely between the Wars in Papua New Guinea. It’s based on the life of Margaret Mead and this story of how Lily King came to the subject matter is absolutely fascinating. So this is her third or fourth novel. It was very different at the time from her other novels. Well not just at the time. It's very different from Writers & Lovers too, which is strictly contemporary about a writer and largely about the writing life.
But what happened is that she was with a friend in a little bookstore that her friend wanted to take her too because she loved it. The inventory at the bookstore was not that great, but Lily King wanted to buy something, so she was browsing and she found this biography of Margaret Mead, and she bought it as a token to buy something to give money to the bookstore and to show her friend, look, I’m trying. And she didn’t think she’d ever read it.
But she did end up reading it and she was just captivated by what she found on the pages about the life of Margaret Mead, who’s an anthropologist. I don’t know what life was like in New Guinea in the ‘30s but Margaret Mead was a trailblazer, a woman in the field in the ‘30s. But Lily King said that you know, biographies start at childhood and that Margaret Mead was interesting from the get go, even before she found the subject she wouldn’t study that she was just a rebel in an iconic class and she just thought there was things wrong with society and she was motivated to go fix it. She took all those things with her into anthropology and she had an agenda to her work that Lily King just wasn’t expecting to encounter and she found it really interesting.
So she’s reading this biography and she gets to the part where she’s in her 30s and she’s with her second husband in the middle of New Guinea and things are not going well. Their marriage is rough. Their work is not going well either. And then they meet this other anthropologist in the field and instantly Margaret Mead feels this connection and there’s chemistry. But you’re in the middle of Papua New Guinea doing work and this is not good.
Lily King just became fascinated, like twelve pages in the biography, and she thought oh my gosh. I didn’t see this coming but this would make an amazing novel. So that’s the set up. So what she does is she fictionalizes it and she puts three anthropologists in the field in Papua New Guinea between the wars. The married researchers are doing controversial work. They’re studying South Pacific tribes when this other anthropologist stumbles into the middle of their camp. Soon they’re producing their best work ever but emotionally there are fireworks and not the good kind.
And something else that’s really interesting about this book beyond just the history and just the emotional connection or lack thereof that these characters feel is the way that King details the tribes. There’s like journal entries from Nell Stone, the Margaret Mead character in the book. It has that strong sense of place that you can also enjoy. I think you may really enjoy this on several levels. How does it sound?
RAELENE: Yeah, that sounds really good.
ANNE: That’s Euphoria by Lily King. And then I want to maybe go out on a limb on our third pick. Are you up for that?
RAELENE: Let’s do it.
ANNE: Okay. So we talked about books that take you by surprise. You know, the ones that you really enjoy that you didn’t know you wanted. So it’s a new release. It came out this winter. It’s from Sarah Gailey. It’s called Upright Women Wanted. Do you know anything about it?
RAELENE: No, nothing.
ANNE: Here’s the premise: I can do this in four words.
ANNE: Outlaw, librarians, lesbian spies.
RAELENE: Hm, interesting.
ANNE: What are your first thoughts?
ANNE: Outlaw for sure. Librarian? Yes. I’m here for that. Yeah. Let's do all of it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So, this is such an interesting genre mashup. It’s the kind of book I picked up on the recommendation of a friend. It was not on my radar. It’s short. It’s a novella. It goes really quickly. You know, it’s a little bit fantasy, it’s a little bit dystopia. It’s like a neo-Western vibe. But it starts with a woman on the run from a bad marriage after her partner has been hanged because she possessed unapproved materials that were not on the officially sanctioned government reading list. And in the book, unapproved materials are capital letters. The librarians’ job is to dispense approved materials and make sure people don’t have that other insurrectionist kind.
So she’s gotta get out of there before her family marries her off to a scary, respectable man who shares a name with one of my children and I just really hated reading that in the book. Ugh. [RAELENE LAUGHS] You know, he was the bad guy when every time I saw his name I was like ahh.
RAELENE: I know.
ANNE: So what she does is she takes shelter with the librarians and she hits the road, and so they’re going through the territory doing their business. But she quickly discovers that these librarians are not on the side of the state at all. Not only that there’s two women are clearly, it finally dawns on her, not just work partners but life partners. The apprentice librarian who’s being trained to take the role later is nonbinary and just a note, the author Sarah Gailey is also nonbinary and use they/them pronouns. What I loved about this book is it was just constantly surprising in every way and what Sarah Gailey does here is so unexpected. Like how do they come up with this stuff?
So Esther’s looking around here going okay, things are not what I thought they were. And there’s one moment where a librarian pulls out a revolver instead of a rifle and she’s like okay a rifle would be just fine for whatever might happen in the desert, but why does she have a revolver? I didn’t understand the difference until I read and I saw ooh, a revolver was a man’s weapon made to win an argument so these librarians are not messing around and they’re encountering some bad dudes.
This book is making some really strong statements about society, but it’s doing it in such a cheeky way that you don’t feel that Gailey has like a megaphone with their message. You just feel like they're fascinating and brilliant and they’re making you laugh on every page. Even as they’re dismantling the patriarchy and writing society’s wrongs, shooting up gangsters. How does that sound?
RAELENE: Crazy. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: But in a good way?
RAELENE: I think so. I mean it’s unexpected, right? So we’ll have to see.
ANNE: It is unexpected. Since we’re talking about fantasy/dystopian/interesting never-quite-done-before takes on the west, I think it might be fun to match that up, I’m sneaking in a bonus pick I’m sorry, which also does an interesting historical spin on the American west and that is … I just started seeing this everywhere. I think I heard Gwyneth has a club now and she picked it and that has to be why. But it’s by C Pam Zhang. It’s called How Much of These Hills Are Gold. it just came out in April. Is this a book you’ve seen around?
RAELENE: No I haven’t.
ANNE: It’s set in the American west on the frontier. It’s a Western mining town during the very beginning of the gold rush. There’s two kids, their names are Lucy and Sam, and they’re burying their father who just died. That’s not a spoiler. That’s the very first thing that’s happening in this story. Actually what they’re doing is they’re on a quest to find two silver dollars because their father has taught them that the only proper way to bury someone is with two silver dollars, one on each of their closed eyes. And so it’s clear that they’re young. They’re desperate. They’re in a dangerous time, in a dangerous place. Now they have no protection because their last parent has died.
You know their mother is gone but you - she’s presumed dead but you don’t really understand what exactly is happening. But there’s a couple of places in the story where with just a sentence, the author shifts your understanding of who a character is or what a character really did or why this family’s actually in this situation right now. She doesn’t tell the story in a linear fashion. She begins with the death of the father and then she takes you back to what happened when these two kids had a mother and a father and what happened then and how they got from here to there and it’s touching and it’s surprising and really, really sad.
And what I don’t think I’ve told you yet is that these orphans are the children of Chinese immigrants and in the backstory you see how they happen to come to California and how they happen to end up in this mining town and how the odds were always stacked against them, what it was like to come, what is like to labor in the mine. And also some little things like the family desperately needs money so they want to put their kids, they want to make it look like their kids are older and put them in the mine. A girl gets an eighth of a pay that a boy would. Just little details like that that make you go oh, this poor family.
For you, the prose is absolutely beautiful and I think you’ll really enjoy that aspect of it. But the way she can shift your understanding by just revealing like one tiny piece of information is something that I think any lover of literature and learning like you demonstrated will really enjoy, also this setting is just beautifully drawn. Really vivid and atmospheric. I think you’ll appreciate that aspect as well.
RAELENE: That sounds really good.
ANNE: That was How Much Of These Hills Are Gold by C Pam Zhang. Okay, Raelene, so today we talked about The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander, Euphoria by Lily King, and then a twofer, Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey, and How Much of These Hills are Gold by C. Pam Zhang. Of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
RAELENE: This is hard. I think I’ll try The Light of the World first, and then probably How Much of These Hills Are Gold, but it might depend on what the library has available. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I relate to that. Raelene, this has been a joy. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
RAELENE: Oh, thank you, Anne. It’s been so great.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Raelene, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/241 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can get a peek at Raelene’s charming family farm (and her much-beloved milk cow) on Instagram @belvederefarms.
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, follow the show there @readnextpodcast. You can find us on Facebook at What Should I Read Next Podcast. Tag us on instagram to share what YOU are reading. Find us there 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 go to whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for our free weekly delivery.
If you enjoy this podcast, would you let us know and your fellow readers too by leaving us a review on Apple podcasts. Those reviews go a long way in helping other readers find the show and we appreciate it so much.
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.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
Books mentioned in this episode:
Some links are affiliate links. More details here.
• Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
♥ West With the Night by Beryl Markham
• Circling the Sun by Paula McLain
♥ The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo
• With the Fire On High by Elizabeth Acevedo
• Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
♥ The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love by Kristin Kimball
▵ The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
• Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palme
• Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
• The Light of the World by Elisabeth Alexander
• Euphoria by Lily King
• Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
• How Much of These Hills Is Gold by C Pam Zhang
What do you think Raelene should read next?