Today I’m helping Courtney Wallace, a Cincinnati reader, with a reading practice I hear surprisingly little about—her recent mid-year checkup on her reading goals. I hear a lot of talk about goals for the reading life—both numerical and content goals—at the start of every year. And I hear plenty of year-in-review summaries from readers. But when Courtney mentioned her mid-year assessment I realized how rarely I hear readers stopping in these middle months, to take stock of how their reading life has been thus far, while there’s still plenty of time to work on those reading goals before years’ end.
On this episode we review Courtney’s reading year so far and discuss what she hopes the rest of the year holds, giving you plenty of reading reflection inspiration along the way. We also discuss the importance of the book community, and particularly in-person events, as well as one simple thing she’s doing to slow down and appreciate what she’s reading.
Back-to-school season is similar to the New Year for many of us; it’s a time of new beginnings and fresh starts. My hope for you is that Courtney’s mid-year checkup inspires you to evaluate your reading year so far and make any course corrections you need heading into this new season.
Let’s get to it!
Connect with Courtney on Instagram @IncessantBookworm.
Speaking of back-to-school, as we’re turning our attention to fall we want to look head to what books are coming out this fall. And this fall is loaded with great titles. September 1st we’ll be giving our patreon community a little preview of the top 40 titles I’ve loved, the ones I’m looking forward to, and the titles that have the book industry abuzz. Join our community to take part in the Fall Book Preview live on September 1st.
COURTNEY: I had a [LAUGHS] 30 before 30 list and one of those items was to read every book that I owned, and that did not happen. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 246.
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, in this episode you’ll hear me mention writing blurbs or reviews for our fall book preview. Last year’s first fall book preview was such a hit with our community members, we’re bringing it back with a bonus. Fall is shaping up to be an amazing season for new books. You can join us live on September 1st when I share 40 hot new fall books during a mix of titles I read and loved, titles I can’t wait to read, and titles the book industry is abuzz about for the season to come.
I’ll also share sleeper hits. Well, hits to me that I have thoroughly enjoyed that I hope you’ll read even if you won’t find them on end caps everywhere.
Okay, so what’s the bonus?
This year for the first time we are creating a fall book preview magazine to accompany our online event. Think expanded summer reading guide. I’ve been quietly working on this since May and I can't wait to put it into your hands on September 1st.
Our fall book preview event and printed companion magazine are exclusively for members of our Modern Mrs. Darcy book club and What Should I Read Next patreon communities. Go to patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext and while you’re there, enjoy bonus episodes, behind the scenes content, and more. And you’ll get in on the unboxing action and that fall book preview magazine come September 1st.
It’s going to be a great season for books and we’re going to have so much fun diving into it together. Hope to see you there.
Readers, today I’m catching up with Courtney Wallace, a Cincinnati reader who you may know as Incessant Bookworm on Bookstagram, who I got to meet briefly in person last year at a local book festival, and was a delight to indulge in book talk at length today.
I wanted to talk to Courtney about a reading practice I hear surprisingly little about, and that is her recent mid-year checkup on her reading goals. I hear a lot of talk about goals for the reading life. Both numerical and content goals at the start of every year. And I hear plenty of year in review summaries from readers when it’s that time. But when Courtney mentioned her midyear assessment, I realized how rarely I hear readers talking now in these middle months to take stock of their reading life has been thus far while there’s still plenty of time to work on those reading goals before year’s end.
Today we review Courtney’s reading year so far and discuss what the rest of the year holds, giving you plenty of reading reflection inspiration along the way. We also discuss the importance of the book community and particularly in person events. I know, I’m sorry. As well as one simple thing she’s doing to slow down and appreciate what she’s reading.
Back to school season is similar to the new year for many of us. It’s the time of new beginnings and fresh starts. My hope for you is that Courtney’s mid-year check in inspires you to elevate your reading year so far, and make any core corrections you need heading into this new season now while you still can. Readers, it’s a fun one today. Let’s get to it.
Courtney, welcome to the show.
COURTNEY: Thank you so much for having me.
ANNE: I’m so glad we got to meet when we did. We crossed paths back in the fall in Cincinnati. You know that might have been my last literary festival for the current era.
COURTNEY: Oh, the books by the banks event?
ANNE: Yes, cause you are a Cincinnati-area reader, aren’t you?
COURTNEY: Mmhmm. Definitely. I love it here.
ANNE: There is a new bookstore I’ve been really hoping to make it to, and now it’s going to be a long time. But is it called Downbound Books?
COURTNEY: Yes, that’s one of my favorite neighbors in Cincinnati. It’s in northside. It’s a really eclectic neighborhood, and it’s the perfect spot for a bookstore.
ANNE: Well it was so much fun to see the literary community in Cincinnati in action. I have family there, so I’m up there all the time, but we’re usually on a mission. I don’t get to indulge all the bookishness when I’m there. ‘Cause I’m supposed to be you know, at a potluck, or at a Thanksgiving dinner. But it was so fun just to go up for my own sake and get to meet readers. And I’m so glad we got to meet then.
COURTNEY: Definitely. Yeah, it was cool to meet you in person, and a lot of other local authors in the area were able to come out, so it was cool to be able to support them, too.
ANNE: It’s a joy to live in a town with a vibrant literary community where you know that you’re surrounded by people who love and really tangibly value books.
COURTNEY: Yeah, I’m part of a bunch of Instagram groups and Facebook groups that just love books. And I’m also a part of a couple of Meet Ups in the area too, ‘cause when I first moved out here, I didn’t know anybody. [LAUGHS] And I knew books were a common thread of people in building communities, so that was one of the first things I looked for was a book community to build friends. And most of them are virtual friends, I’d say. But it’s good to be able to meet up and have those in person group book buying experiences. There’s a warehouse of books … It’s based off the Cincinnati Public Library and it’s the Friends of the Library, and they have a small bookstore and I’ve met up with a few other book lovers and we just shop and talk books. So it’s a bunch of fun.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so lovely. I didn’t know that about you. So when you moved to town, that was the way you first started connecting with people.
COURTNEY: Mmhmm. Yeah ‘cause I knew my passion area, so I was like might as well start there and see where it takes me.
ANNE: Yeah. What brought you to Cincinnati?
COURTNEY: So I applied for a job out here. So I’m originally from the east coast. Grew up in Jersey and went to school in Virginia, but wanted a different vibe, and so I decided to move to the midwest. Because it was still in the eastern time zone, so still easy to get [ANNE LAUGHS] home even though people, a lot of my family think Ohio’s in central. And I’m like nope, I’m still … You don’t have to wait an hour. Like I’m good. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m in Louisville, I get that a lot, and I hear you on the eastern time zone.
COURTNEY: But I wanted to be somewhat close to my family. So it’s only a nine hour drive back home and then I have family down in Florida, so just wanted to stay somewhat within a good driving or flying distance.
ANNE: I can appreciate that. Well, Courtney, one of the reasons I wanted to talk to you today. I mean, I know you’re a devoted reader. I always love seeing what you’re picking up on Instagram. But you recently talked about a mid-year reading check-in, and I thought that was such a smart idea. It’s something that I thought many of our listeners would enjoy hearing about, might want to do themselves.
Here in the book community, and here on What Should I Read Next, we talk a big game about reading plans for the year right around, before and after January 1st. And we often do reading look backs and reviews of our year gone by, but we don’t often pause in the middle to see how things are doing; what we want to change; what’s going well; what needs to be recalibrated; what goals need to be tossed out the window. But you recently took the opportunity to do that in your own reading life.
COURTNEY: Yeah, so I took a bunch of prompts, and I’m a big reflective person. I love setting goals and then looking at that halfway through or whatever time blocks I set for that or kinda check-in points for those. And I wanted to make sure, like you were saying, that I’m staying on track with what I wanted. And if something’s not working the way I thought, then it’s okay to change it. Like I don’t have to stick to these like carved out plans or have something set in stone. I’m okay with the adaptability of it.
But just wanting to reflect and see if I’m gaining more lessons I wanted to learn. I’m a big life long learner, so I want to make sure that I’m gaining more knowledge and learning more about myself in my reading. And if that’s not happening, what do I need to change with the genres that I’m picking, the types of books that I’m picking, and this is a good point to be able to do that.
ANNE: Have you done an intermittent check-in like this before?
COURTNEY: Yeah, so I … Well with my … Yeah, so I run a book blog and that is a time where I look at everything that I’ve been posting, everything that I write about, and I do a lot of reviews for books that I’m reading, and that’s a good point to see what I’ve learned from those books, so I do that at the halfway point of the year and then I also do that in December to look back at those goals.
ANNE: Is this something you do only for your reading life or for the rest of your life as well?
COURTNEY: Mostly for my reading life. I am not a big New Year's resolutions person. I do set goals, but they’re more lifelong achievements and I have different time blocks. Like before I’m currently 30 and I had a [LAUGHS] 30 before 30 list or bucket list, and one of those items was to read every book that I own and that did not happen. [BOTH LAUGH] And I still have - I still have quite a few leftover and you know as we ...
ANNE: How many is quite a few? Are we talking about like 17 or 700?
COURTNEY: Probably like a hundred. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. That’s still a lot of books.
COURTNEY: I know. And yeah, I always … And I had this one goal a few years ago where I would not buy any new books or reserve any books from the library. The only thing I could get that I didn’t currently own were audiobooks because my commute is so long and I wanted to still read, and still have that opportunity. But that failed probably around March. [BOTH LAUGH] When I picked up something else from the library.
ANNE: What happened?
COURTNEY: I can’t remember what books they were, but you know those new releases that come out, you’re like oh my gosh, I want to read that so much and I can pause what I’m reading now. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You know I do. [LAUGHS]
COURTNEY: So that was the culprit, which was understandable. I’m sure I’m not alone in that. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Uh, no, you’re definitely not. So read between the lines, it sounds like you do set goals for your reading life.
COURTNEY: I do, and I love just seeing and reflecting on what those are and changing if necessary. And just continuing to grow.
ANNE: Give me a feel for what some of those goals might look like.
COURTNEY: All right, so for example, this year I wanted to expand culturally the kind of books that I wanted to read, so I looked around on different reading challenges across the Internet and on Goodreads. And there’s a lot of read around the world type challenges, and I really like that. Especially now we’re not able to travel too much, or pretty much anywhere [LAUGHS] that might be of interest or like a bucket travel place. So I decided to dedicate each month to read two books that are set in different locations intentionally.
So I do a U.S. state, and then I do a country. Just to diversify my reading a little bit more, and I hadn’t really paid attention to where my books were set beforehand. I hadn’t made a note of that, of the books I’d read previously. But I wanted to consciously think about the cultures that are being represented. And I have to be careful there because sometimes there could be books that are set in different places that might be a stereotypical view of that location. So I need to figure out how to discern between this is an account of what it could look like if I travelled there, whether I’m a tourist or native to wherever that location is, or is this just I imagine this is what this place is going to be like based off what Hollywood or other sources of entertainment tell us it should be like. So, and that’s okay if I do that. I just want to be aware going into it what is accurate and what is figment of our imagination.
ANNE: How is that reading goal going?
COURTNEY: It’s going really well. I’m currently looking at … let’s see, Peru. I have one for that called The Grass Dancers. I just picked that one up from the library. And then Chasing the Sun is set in North Dakota, and I believe that is around the Native American population in those states. I don’t know. I feel like it’s a good time to diversify my books that way and be more intentional especially with what’s going on in our country right now, just wanting to be more inclusive and more aware of people that have different beliefs, have different religions, lifestyles, whatever it may be and just have a better understanding and respect for.
ANNE: Yeah, absolutely. Tell me about another goal you set for yourself.
COURTNEY: And I do set the number goals, like I am one of those folks that’s like all right, I’m going to aim for this quantity. Sometimes it’s just an arbitrary number I just pick out of thin air. I’m like what do I think is a goal that stretches me but also I feel like I can accomplish and still be able to reflect on the books I read. ‘Cause I have a really hard time wanting to achieve that goal, but remembering what I read or taking the time to pause and think through what was the message of this book because I want to jump into the next one real quick. So even though I set that hard number at the beginning of the year, I need to make sure I reflect on the book after I’m done reading it. And that’s why I basically did this mid-year challenge to begin with is to slow myself down.
ANNE: Oh, interesting. Okay. We’ll come back to that. [COURTNEY LAUGHS] I know a lot of our listeners really relate to what you say about knowing that you would benefit from pausing a little bit and yet having a big to be read stack that they want to attack the next one, so I’d love to hear what are some of your favorite ways to invite yourself to pause and reflect a little on the book you just finished before moving on.
COURTNEY: Well as I’m reading if it’s a physical print book I do use a lot of tabs. They’re ones that you can write on, so I know people go back and forth of whether you can write in books or not. I go back and forth, too, of what I want to do. [BOTH LAUGH] If it’s going back to the library, I usually just underline things in pencil, but if it’s my own copy, I’ll write the notes in the margins just like an initial reaction, and most of it’s just quotes that just make me think or if something’s relevant to the times now or something that happened to me in the past I make a note of it. Like very quickly and once the book is done I go back and reflect on okay, what, why did I mark this? Why did I think that was important right in that moment?
I do want to finish the book, yes, but I also want to take some time and sit with that thought or why did I have that reaction to begin with and why is that important to me to dive a little bit deeper into it. That is one thing that I do, and then I also share them online. So I share the quote on different social media channels or I’ll write a review on it, and the way I do reviews is a little bit different. It’s not necessarily I liked the book, or I saw that this style was consistent. Or the characters were well developed. I take a more personal approach to it. So I pull out a few quotes, reflect on why that was an important quote for that character and how that relates to me, and why I find that profound or made me think.
So I put a lot of personal emotion and reflection into my review, and I think that helps me connect it better to the content. And I wonder too when I put this out into the world is that what people are looking for? And I know this is more for me to be remember what I’ve read and to understand what I wrote and why it was important, but I think that helps other people try to find meaning in it too, how they reacted to that quote or if they not necessarily agree to disagree, but what did that make them feel in the moment?
ANNE: Do you like to do these reviews right after you finished the book? Is that a way that you pause a little, and I’m saying this as someone who definitely wants to get on to the next and then ends up with a huge backlog. I don’t do review-reviews, but right now I’m working on our fall book preview and I’ve read a ton of books and I intended to write those little blurbs immediately after. I know I have books I finished three months ago that I haven’t written those for yet.
COURTNEY: [LAUGHS] I try to do it within a week or two of finishing it, and by that time I have started other books. When I pick my next read, I make sure it’s not in the same genre or too similar because I will get confused. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That’s the laugh of recognition. Uh-huh. [BOTH LAUGH]
COURTNEY: And sometimes I get nervous of what I want to say and that’s why I put it off because I know I’m going to go deeper and I know it struck an emotional cord that i need to reflect on and work through more and in my head before I put it out there or have that review out. So I think that holds me up of, oh man, I just read this really deep quote or this made me think about this incident when I was whatever age, and I just need to sit with that for a moment and reflect on how I want to communicate that in written form. So it’s churning in my head mentally, but it’s not physically written down yet because I just need some time with it.
ANNE: I can appreciate that. I know that not every reader is this way, but I know myself to be a slow processor and I might feel differently about the book the minute I close it than I will in two weeks, and partly I want to see, is it the kind of book that keeps calling me back? And that I do think about that sticks in my thoughts and has relevance to my daily life. You know, I may have a conversation with a friend and it may remind of something in a book and I love that when that happens. So I try to give myself a little time, but then it becomes three months.
COURTNEY: Mmhmm. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Now you mentioned that one of the reasons you like to do this mid-year review is it does call you to slow down. How does that work for you?
COURTNEY: By looking at a lot of the themes of what I’m looking at. So I took a look at books that I read up to this point and I try to pick out all right, what - what am I seeing here? What can I group into lifelong learning themes or what - what am I seeing overall in the patterns that I’m creating? Whether it’s intentional or not, it’s kinda fun to look back that way to see, like, what kind of path I was on. [LAUGH] What made me go in this direction of the books that I picked, and I do set monthly TBR goals but those usually ebb and flow depending on how fast or slow I read or if something else catches my interest at the bottom of the stack or whatever.
So I love looking back at the themes and then going from there to see okay, if this was the biggest one that I saw, do I want to dive deeper into that grouping? And I’m all over the place. [LAUGHS] But if you take a look at my Goodreads now of what I’ve read this year, you’ll see a smattering of young adult, of fantasy, nonfiction, just every possible genre you can think of is covered and that was not intentional. I wasn’t trying to diversify in that regard my reading habits, but it was just interesting to see that there wasn’t too much of an emerging theme. And I had to think of myself, is that what I want? Do I want to continue in these different directions, or do I want to narrow my focus down for the rest of the year? And that’s when I think more about what am I learning, what am I gaining from these different pieces and those are what I’m hitting on to continue in that direction if I would like.
ANNE: What were some of your takeaways?
COURTNEY: I am very much thinking that I am an independent person, and like … I don’t know. [LAUGHS] I’m the youngest of four kids, so I’m used to people kinda looking out for me and just having that mindset, but one of the reasons I moved so far away is to become more independent. And I feel that a lot of the books that I’m reading is more about how people are doing that too, of they weren’t in a good situation or they just wanted to make a name for themself or whatever it may be. And that is a lot of what I see in the first half of the books that I’m reading for this year is people taking charge, being more independent, carving their own paths, setting their own goals. And they may fail along the way, but I just love seeing the accounts of how they got to where they are.
ANNE: Is that a theme you wish to continue?
COURTNEY: I believe so. I feel like I have so much respect for people that just go and have the courage to try something new. And while I’ve been in quarantine, I have been challenging myself with other types of goals. I’m not a big fan of having my face [LAUGHS] or recording my face or anything like that on things. But I’ve challenged myself to be more comfortable, and it’s helped me gain more confidence in myself and to be able to communicate in a different kind of way that I didn’t think I’d be ready for.
Seeing that these characters or sometimes the memoirs and the true life or real life accounts of people are pushing themselves, it’s having an effect on me that I am able to push myself to become a better person or better version of myself. Not necessarily that there’s anything wrong with me beforehand, but just a more confident person. Aand I’ve always struggled with the self-confidence piece and being able to put myself out there and take those risks, just like these characters that I’ve been seeing has been so beneficial. It’s been nerve wracking [LAUGHS] for sure, but I feel that I’ve grown from the other side of it.
ANNE: I hope that feels really good. And I’m hoping this is a good time to ask you about one of your new quarantine projects because I have questions.
COURTNEY: Okay, yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You have a very new booktube account. You’ve done what, like a half dozen, eight or nine videos so far?
COURTNEY: Pretty much, yeah.
ANNE: So you just said you don’t like to put your face out there, but you’re doing it and you’re doing it so well. Seriously, these are so good.
COURTNEY: Thank you.
ANNE: That must have been a big leap for you. I would never have had any idea watching it, but I’d love to hear what compelled you to give that a try. ‘Cause it just seems really not easy [LAUGHS] from the outside.
COURTNEY: Oh, yeah. I - I give major props to people who do this regularly. [LAUGHS] I attended a professional development conference not too long ago. It was a blogging conference, and it was for any type of blogger, any type of topic. And of course I do book blogging, and a lot of what they were saying is wanting to build a community or build a relationship with people is that they want to see your face. They want to be your friend, and I understood that ‘cause I am thinking of the people that I follow and I love being able to see their face and hear their voices and it feels like they’re talking to me.
And one of my missions is to create an inclusive book community where we share resources and build relationships that way and I need to be doing that myself. Like I can’t be hiding behind not necessarily words, or pictures of books or anything ‘cause those are valuable and of course I want to put those out there, but I feel like I need to put myself out there [LAUGHS] a little bit more to build relationships with other people and to build this book community that I value so much.
COURTNEY: So I saw a webinar of how to create videos through just using your phone ‘cause I didn’t want to do this whole I gotta buy an expensive camera. I gotta get lightning. Anything like that. ‘Cause I didn’t know how good it was going to be. I wanted to start small and work from there. So I just took my cell phone and [LAUGHS] it’s funny ‘cause at this point you’re right, I’ve done about a dozen or so videos and my personalities coming out a lot more.
But if you look at the first video oh my goodness, I was super quiet. My mom, she watched it, she said you need to speak up a little bit more. [BOTH LAUGH] I was like oh my goodness, this is nuts. But yeah, the first video I did I feel like … Oh, it was a reading vlog so I did a readathon. It was a week long readathon, so I had a week to get comfortable with putting my face and my voice out there for people to see and hear.
I’ve learned a lot from it. I have gained confidence, and this last one I put out not too long ago. So my friends had watched and they said they were cracking up because it’s exactly how I talk in real life [BOTH LAUGH] and that’s how I want it to be. I want it to be natural and authentic.
ANNE: Which is surprisingly hard to do!
COURTNEY: Mmhmm. ‘Cause you’re not talking to anybody like in front of you, you’re talking to your phone. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Which is harder than it sounds. I mean, I don’t have a booktube channel. Obviously. But I have recorded even more than usual these days because of quarantine, a lot of videos that are greeting an audience, talking about something you need to sound coherent, but it’s just me sitting in a room by myself staring at my little computer camera and it’s so much harder than it seems like it should be.
COURTNEY: Yeah, especially in the beginning. I stopped and redid so many videos. It took, pfft, probably twenty minutes to do like a ten second blurb. [ANNE LAUGHS] Or like just to say hey, my name’s Courtney.
ANNE: That actually doesn’t sound so bad. [COURTNEY LAUGHS] I might have expected more. Okay, Courtney, you mentioned in passing that one of the reasons you wanted to do this was because you really believe in the value of having an inclusive book community. And now that you say it also I can see in some of the things you do you’re inviting people to talk back to you. You’re setting up challenges like the read around the world that they can participate in. So it’s so fun to see this in action, but now like take us into your head, like what are your guiding principles here?
COURTNEY: So when I hadn’t really travelled anywhere, I went off to college and I still hadn’t. I didn’t do any study abroad experiences, which I was - I was an art history major, which you would think I would [LAUGHS] probably want to travel somewhere to see the art. But I was fine just staying and seeing it through a digital kind of lens. But I decided as one of my goals to celebrate before I went to the real world after grad school, to travel on my own for the first time. This was a huge goal for me, especially being the youngest. I’m one that is pretty protected by my family, but I needed to break from that and kinda be my own person.
So I decided to travel to England and France on my own and just see what happens and learn about the different cultures. And I know I chose England because well one, I love London. I am a big anglophile. Like it’s amazing how many British TV shows and how much tea I drink. So that was obvious, but I wanted to include France as well just to see how I would do in a foreign language setting or a language that I didn’t speak. So that was my first taste of all right, I’m going away from what I’ve always known and my comfort area because where I grew up and where I went to school were very similar in the people I surrounded myself with and kinda the towns I lived in, being like a suburban town outside of a city. So I wanted to try and see what else is out there.
So as I was traveling, I met some great people and that was also scary because I don’t know. [LAUGHS] I think my mom’s instilled in me the like oh, don’t talk to strangers, or don’t do this and that. [ANNE LAUGHS] And yes, I know, I need to just be careful, especially as a woman, but I just need to be trusting and just learn to talk with other people because it’s the way you learn a different culture is to talk to people that are living there. So that I found was such a great experience to be able to hear from the different people that I was talking to, and to connect with them online. So I’m friends with them on social media as well. We don’t keep in touch as much as we did before, but I just thought it was fascinating.
And that I think was the start of I want to see the rest of the world. I want to … Either through books or in person, to know what else is out there, what I’m seeing because I’m so used to this bubble that I’ve put myself in or I’ve been put in since I was born up until I became an adult that I wanted to expand that knowledge and just have other people be apart of that conversation that are different from me.
ANNE: So having experienced that yourself, that finding community even when it was difficult, I can really see you consciously wanting to smooth the way to welcome other people into a warm community that’s gathering around something that everyone has in common and loves together.
COURTNEY: Yeah, and I think that’s what makes the reading community awesome too, is that you can approach the book in so many different ways. And I welcome that, like I mentioned with the different book quotes that I pick out. So that might have a meaning to me that is very personal, but it could have a different meaning to somebody else that’s experiencing something that might be something I would never experience depending on where they’re from or how they grew up or whatever the case may be. So I welcome that conversation.
And when I was in grad school, so I went to grad school for … it was a type of counseling degree and we had a lot of conversations in our class and we did group counseling together. So I got to learn from all of my peers and we had disagreements, but that’s okay because … Oh, what’s the term? It’s, um, controversy with civility is the term I like to use. So it’s not necessarily conflict or like a negative thing to disagree with somebody but it just sparks a conversation of why we may think differently and that’s okay, because we’re going to learn from each other. And that’s the approach I take with wanting to create an inclusive community is there’s not necessarily a wrong opinion. It’s a door to open a conversation to something else.
ANNE: Okay. There’s one more thing that I need to ask you about your mid-year book review. When you started talking about your mid-year book review on Instagram, I don’t know that was the word that you chose right off the bat. You called it something else, and it didn’t sound quite as balanced and measured. [BOTH LAUGH]
COURTNEY: It was the mid-year freakout book tag.
ANNE: Yeah, okay, that’s relatable. So I know that this is a book tag going around and everyone shares their things, but tell me a little more about why those words might be appropriate to the situation.
COURTNEY: I have a lot of books that I want to read. [LAUGHS] I’m sure that’s the same for a lot of other readers, so getting to this point of oh my goodness, I only have six months or x amount of months of the year, how realistically am I going to read the rest of the ones that I want to read? Or what am I going to prioritize or should I go out and buy that book now or wait until next year? [LAUGHS] So there’s so many thoughts of what can wait, what can I not put off because it’s such a hot topic book right now. So I feel like there’s so many influences coming in of what you should be reading now, or just different things that are happening in the world that are inspiring different books you want to add and move ahead of the pile that you already started that you’re kinda trying to figure out, okay, where do I even start? I don’t even know what to do.
But I like doing this freakout tag ‘cause it just, I don’t know, I like seeing what was my biggest surprise, what was my biggest disappointment from this year so far, and what do I have to look forward to. That’s part of it, too. It’s not necessarily looking back. It’s what do I want to change moving forward, or is there something coming out that I definitely want to add to my to be read pile or my gift list or something along those lines.
So it’s a positive thing, too. There is something like oh, how many more to do you have to read for the rest of the year? How are your goals? But it’s also what do you want to accomplish? Like these are your goals. Like nobody is forcing you to do this. So you can make them however you want.
ANNE: That made me laugh, and also made me nod in recognition. And if you didn’t care so much, there would be nothing to freak out about.
ANNE: Well, Courtney, I can’t wait to talk about your books. 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, with your goals in mind of course, about what you may enjoy reading next. I’d loved to hear how you chose this, Courtney.
COURTNEY: So as I was looking at my book list, I knew immediately two of them that I wanted to pick out because they had such a big impact on me and all three of them, they’re in different genres so that’s not a surprise [LAUGHS] based off how my first half of the year has looked, that they look a little bit different.
So the first one I chose was The Library Book by Susan Orlean, and this is a nonfiction book about the library in general, but also the rationale behind it was the fire in Los Angeles that burned down a library. So Susan Orlean takes us through different perspectives of the library system. She talks to patrons. She talks to community members, to librarians, and I loved that because that’s what made me fall in love with that kind of style of writing. Do you call it an ethnography? Like a telling or an observation of a certain topic. So I got introduced to …
ANNE: I don’t know, but that’s a fancy word I’m going to look up.
COURTNEY: [LAUGHS] So I … When I was in college, I had two different classes where I had to observe a community or observe some kind of experience and write about what I noticed in that time. The first one I did was about black Friday shopping. So I sat in a mall and observed the actions, observed the behaviors of customers, kids, of just everybody in that community and just wrote about it. And it was fascinating just to sit and just watch things happen.
So that approach of observing and talking to people in an environment around something really sparked my interest. And she writes it so beautifully and has so many good accounts of her experience, too. It’s a book about books so you can’t go wrong with that either. [BOTH LAUGH] But I just loved the storytelling element of it. It’s so different from what I had read in the past, and I loved it. I wasn’t usually a big nonfiction fan, but because it’s told in a story form and something that I can relate to and have a passion for, it was one of my favorite books of all time.
ANNE: Well that sounds really interesting. You know, I own two copies of this book and I still haven’t read it. [COURTNEY LAUGHS] But I think it would be perfect for me. That was The Library Book by Susan Orlean. What did you choose for your next favorite?
COURTNEY: I chose Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. I had read a bunch of his books in the past. The first I had read was A Man Called Ove, and that was just a beautifully written as well as a quirky and emotional book for me. And we read that as part of my book club. So I already knew I liked his style. So when I got a hold of this one, I was already ready to enjoy it or was expecting to enjoy it and it did not let me down.
So this, as I mentioned, am a big fan of people being independent and kinda finding themselves in the unlikeliest of places, and this is what happens with this character Britt-Marie, so she found out that her husband was cheating on her and had a heart attack. So she decided to leave and take a job in a random small town where she knew nobody and the characters that she meets are funny and sarcastic, and she’s - she’s very particular. She doesn’t understand that at this point in the beginning of the novel, but I just love how open she becomes and how open minded she is.
‘Cause in her normal life or her old life, she probably wouldn’t have been in contact with these people or this town to begin with. So she stretches herself and she basically doesn’t want to die alone is the reason [LAUGS] that she goes out here besides trying to get away from her husband that was cheating on her. So she wants to find a community or find purpose.
Clearly I’m not going to spoil the ending of it, but I just loved the quirky characters. The sarcasm. And like the simple language that packs a punch. I think that’s what I love about his writing. It’s not over flourished or overly detailed. You can get so much out of the dialogue or the short descriptions of what he’s talking about.
ANNE: That was Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman. What did you choose for your final favorite, Courtney?
COURTNEY: The last one I chose was Dear Girls by Ali Wong, and this I listened to on audiobook. So she reads it, which I love when authors are the voices or the narrators on the audiobook because I think it adds a lot more personality to their words, or because they wrote them. So this is about her as a comedian, as a female comedian writing letters to her daughters. And the letters are all about as a working mom in a male dominated profession, how do you stand out, or how do you gain confidence to go after things that you didn’t necessarily think were for you or something you’re really passionate about, but maybe society says that’s not what you should be doing.
So I love that she’s giving this empowerment to her young daughters about her experience and how she overcame them. Of course she’s a comedian, so she does it in such a funny way. [LAUGHS] And the way that she does it on the audiobook, she gets into her style of bits when she’s on the stage doing a comedy routine. So I love that personality shining through in that. I would probably read the print book as well, but just listening to the audio just made it so much more relatable.
I just love how honest and heartfelt it is because she’s writing this to her daughters, to girls that she doesn’t care what they do. They don’t have to become a comedian themselves. They can do whatever they want, but know that it is possible to overcome different challenges to do what you want to do and what you’re passionate about.
ANNE: Okay, so that’s Dear Girls by Ali Wong. This is an interesting portrait we’re putting together of you as a reader, Courtney. [COURTNEY LAUGHS] I like it. Now tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
COURTNEY: So I chose Ulysses by James Joyce and this … I had this on my list for a couple of reasons. One, I am a big Gilmore Girls, Rory Gilmore fan, and there’s this reading challenge going around. It’s been around for a while, of all the books that were mentioned in the show, and this was on that list pretty early in the first season, and I thought to myself, I want to be like Rory. I want to read this book that is very famous. And I just wanted to be like Rory, basically. [LAUGHS] So that was the first reason.
The second reason my local library was doing a book discussion, and I had not done an in-person book discussion before, and I felt this was again another way to join the book community around Cincinnati so I felt that was another reason to finish this book. And I didn’t know too much about it beforehand. I knew that it was based off the Odyssey, or a more contemporary version of the Odyssey. I knew it had different references to Catholicism, but other than that I was open to okay, this is a classic. This is on a lot of reading lists for different English classes. This is a book I probably should have read in high school, but it wasn’t on my list, so I’m going to give it a try.
And ugh. It was very challenging. Not that I’m opposed to challenging books, but I just couldn’t understand what was happening. Every chapter he writes in a different style, a different writing style, so it was hard to kinda catch onto what he’s trying to say. Or after a while you kinda know what the voice of the author is once you dive into a book and once you know it’s going to be consistent, but because he kept changing things up, I got lost so many times. And I did have a reference book near me, so I had to refer to that several times throughout.
So I guess because I didn’t understand what was happening and I didn’t understand the references that were being made to the Odyssey and Catholicism, I found it very hard to follow. But the discussion was great. We talked generally about what the book was about, but I felt like I was lost and the discussion itself helped clarify or clear up what was happening ‘cause I just couldn’t figure it out. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: For better or for worse, on episode 17 of What Should I Read Next, way back in April 2016, Andi Cumbo-Floyd chose this the book she, and she use the word hated, she said she hated this book and she said, “he was just trying to be too smart for his own good.” And she just could not with the wordplay and she thought it was pretentious and impenetrable and she teaches English composition. She’s, you know, been studying for years and she’s like, you know, I could, but I really don’t want to and I don’t like you at all. That was basically her take. [COURTNEY LAUGHS] Courtney, what are some of the books you’ve been picking up recently?
COURTNEY: I just finished Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston, and this follows two young men. One is the son of a female president in the United States, and one is in line for the throne in England. And they have a really, like, a hate relationship with each other or friendship, not even friendship. They just don’t like each other at the beginning or the book. But this is a LGBTQ book and I decided to read it for pride month.
And this is what I mean about diversifying my book choices a little bit more and being more intentional, but I did want a contemporary love story and I had seen this on so many people’s lists, books that people have read in a day. It took me longer than that [LAUGHS] not because I couldn’t finish it in a day, I just had other things coming up. But I could see how it would be a quick read because you just want to know what’s going to happen to them as they develop this intense relationship that might be seen as troublesome. It could be seen, especially in the positions that they’re in as a conflict of interest, and just some other social issues involved with that. So I just wanted to see how that would play out.
ANNE: That was a win for you.
COURTNEY: Mmhmm. Yup. I think I gave it a four out of five.
ANNE: All right, Courtney, you had your mid-year reflection recently. You’ve already said that we could go in basically a zillion different directions because you read widely, so I’m really listening close here. What do you want to be different in your reading life?
COURTNEY: I want to be able to focus more on the quality of my reading than the quantity. I do have very lofty and high expectations for myself. I do set goals that are pretty high in terms of numbers of books I want to read. But that doesn’t really matter if I can’t retain what I’ve read or if I’m talking about a book to a friend or to somebody that I meet, if I can’t tell them how I felt about it, or what I learned from it. So I want to be able to focus on the lessons learned, the themes emerged from the books that I am reading, so that I am confident when I’m talking about them later and not just reading just to reach a number but actually to learn something from the books that I’m reading.
ANNE: Do you have any ideas for what kinda changes you might make to make that happen?
COURTNEY: This is a joke, but I probably should be doing this. [LAUGHS] But my audiobook listening speed is … It’s at a 1.85x right now, so that could probably one thing that is pretty easy to slow down because those are ones that I feel like I can finish so quickly because I could be doing chores around the house or I’m driving to work or wherever I need to be going that’s a long enough distance to listen to an audiobook. When I’m thinking of, okay, I need to reach this number of read, I always go to audiobooks because I can increase that speed and just plough through it.
So that’s one that is super easy just to maybe put it down to 1.25x or something like that, so I can still retain what I’m listening to. ‘Cause I did mark a book earlier this year two out of five on Goodreads, I need to go back and think. Was it because I listened to it at a high speed or was it I just wasn’t interested in it? And I can’t tell the difference and that’s a problem of needing to slow down so I can actually make an accurate review of what I’m reading.
ANNE: Okay, so you’ve got a couple of ideas. What kind of books do you want to look for today?
COURTNEY: I do like this theme of independence and overcoming an obstacle because that’s something that I strive for, and I only ask for help when I’ve exhausted all my resources. [LAUGHS] I’m one of those folks that just doesn’t want things, I guess, or I hope a lot of people are, I just don’t want things handed to me. I want to work towards it and know that I’ve earned it because of how hard I’ve worked. So any books that show somebody overcoming a lot of challenges or striving to better themselves and working hard for it.
ANNE: Well that’s very specific. I like it. And we can do that. I have titles in mind. The ones I’m thinking of are all pretty contemporary. Is that okay with you?
COURTNEY: Yeah, that’s great.
ANNE: All right.
Courtney, we’re looking for books that are focused on independence and overcoming obstacles. I don’t say focused on like it’s a checklist, but we’re looking for books that have a theme like that throughout, and also since I know that you like to read widely and in a variety of genres, we’re going to try to do that. First of all, I’m thinking about a YA book that just came out earlier this summer by Leah Johnson. It’s called You Should See Me In a Crown. Do you know this one?
COURTNEY: I’ve seen this one around, yeah.
ANNE: Okay, I like this for you. So if you want to do your tour around the world, this is just your new state next door that’s set in Campbell County, Indiana, outside Indianapolis. And it’s about this high schooler whose name is Liz. And Liz is about to overcome some obstacles and assert her independence, but first here’s what you need to know about the world she’s set in, she is Black, her family is poor, she has one dream. It’s to go to the fancy college with the really excellent orchestra so she can become a doctor. To do this, she needs a great scholarship.
Now Campbell County Indiana, it’s basically the prom capital, if not the state, it might actually be the country. Campbell County historically makes a huge freaking deal about their high school prom. Liz couldn’t care less, except if she becomes prom queen, she wins the money she needs to go to Pennington College. And so all of a sudden, Liz who’s always seen herself kinda as an outsider, who has her one bestie that she you know, sticks to, and doesn’t - she doesn’t consider herself a popular kid. She thinks they’re all jerks anyway. Suddenly she is opting in to the competition to become prom queen. There is all kinds of things she never saw herself doing that suddenly she’s doing to become prom queen.
Her best friend is obsessed with her winning. She has this spreadsheet like tracking Liz’s every move to see if she’s like moving the polls, is she doing better and should she be seen doing this. And Liz has a history with a boy named Jordan, they used to be besties. But then he dissed her hard publicly on the first day of high school and they haven’t talked ever since, but Gabi, her best friend, has noticed when they’re seen together, it’s really good for Leah’s numbers and Leah wants the $10,000 because this is about her future.
So you can see how with this set up, this poor girl, I mean literally, her family is poor. They don’t have money and that’s a drumbeat here. Liz doesn’t want to tell everyone that, obviously, which leads to some complications when she meets the new girl who moves to town and Liz has never been out, she’s queer, but she doesn’t want people to know because she lives in rural Indiana. She’s figuring she’ll get out of town, she’ll go to college, and then she’ll live the life she wants to live. But she really likes this new girl who she meets competing for prom, and when this girl finds out that Liz is deeply committed to the prom process, that just doesn’t go well.
This book is about hard things. Oh, just thinking about this book I have a big smile on my face because overcoming obstacles, asserting independence, finding yourself and doing great things, it’s just so fun. How does that sound, Courtney?
COURTNEY: I love the sound of that, and I think about when I’m striving for goals or trying to overcome obstacles. I’m fearful of things that I need to sacrifice in order to make those dreams happen, and I’m wondering how she overcomes those, too.
ANNE: I’m interested to hear what you think. I listened to this on audio, it was excellent in that format, and not 1.85x speed. It’s a fast listen. I think at regular speed it’s about eight hours, so it’s not a long book. But I hope you find it to be an enjoyable one.
COURTNEY: Yeah. That sounds awesome.
ANNE: Okay. Next I’m thinking of one that has a completely different tone than You Should See Me In A Crown, but we know that you read widely, so maybe this will sound interesting to you. I think it has a lot in common with Britt-Marie Was Here. Also when I read it I thought oh my goodness. Anyone who loves Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine is going to want to know about this book. So this book is called Dear Emmie Blue. It’s by Lia Louis. Is this one you’re familiar with?
COURTNEY: I have not heard of this one.
ANNE: It just came out in the U.S. this summer. It came out in England where it was first published a little, I think earlier this spring. It has a really beautiful color that’s an oceany shade of blue with a red balloon on it. Here’s why I like this for you. So first of all, you talked about traveling to England and France, and this book is set in England and France.
This is a book about a woman who as you can imagine is named Emmie. She has a hard past. She went through something difficult that’s referred to obliquely. You know she has this shadow over her past that still affects her today, but you don’t know exactly what it is until the end of the book. But I imagine to a lot of people and especially to a lot of women, it’s the kind of thing that can be really relatable. And I know that’s vague, but she has this thing in her past that impacted her deeply that has really worked her over good, poor thing, for reasons that have nothing to do with.
When she was 16 years old, she participated in a balloon launch at her high school. And I was a little surprised it happened in this book with the timeline because I mean, I did a balloon launch in elementary school and we now know that those are so bad for the environment. People don’t do these anymore, but Emmie Blue did one at her high school when she was 16, and the little card attached to it, the idea was somebody’s going to find it and you’ll get a penpal. So she had her name and her email address, weeks later, a French boy named Lucas found her balloon and emailed Emmie and they became basically long distance best friends and pen pals.
If you want a little fun backstory, Lia Louis has written about how letter writing has always been so deeply personal and intimate to her and it’s something she values highly and she really wanted to write a book that focused on building a relationship through letter writing.
At the very beginning of the book, it’s 14 years after this balloon was first launched. Emmie and Lucas are at dinner talking about something important and she’s been in love with him forever and she thinks he has to know, and she thinks he’s going to propose, and instead he says, guess what? I’m getting married. And she has been living her whole life waiting for it to start basically when she gets to have a life with Lucas and she finds out that she’s not having it, and it sounds like a spoiler, but all that happens by about page five. And Emmie is forced to really reevaluate, what are you looking for? Is this relationship what you think it is? In the meantime, her mom, who she has always had a messed up relationship with and you will see why, pops back into her life. She suddenly is dealing with a whirlwind of events and emotion all at once. We’re looking for books about independence and overcoming obstacles and this is a happy book even though she goes through some hard things and I think you might enjoy it, Courtney. How does that sound to you?
COURTNEY: I love that, especially you were talking about the power of letter writing and that’s something I wrote about a while ago of like the lost art [LAUGHS] of that, of receiving pen pal letters in the mail. And so I’d love to see how that relationship started based off the balloon launch that you mentioned, by how you got to that point and kinda where not sure where it went wrong, why Lucas doesn’t reciprocate those feelings towards Emmie. So I think that would be really good.
ANNE: This is going to sound really strange, but this book also reminded me so much of a Christina Lauren book coming out in October. It’s called In A Holidaze, which weirdly is a Groundhog kind of novel but it also has some other themes that fit in with Dear Emmie Blue, so if any readers want a fun, lighthearted pairing, that could be a good one. But you have to wait until October for the Christina Lauren.
So, finally, I thought it might be fun to throw in some nonfiction in this mix. What do you think?
COURTNEY: Mmhmm. I would love that.
ANNE: Okay. I’m thinking of a food memoir that comes out this September from David Chang. So this is … I want to call it a food memoir because it’s by a chef. It’s by David Chang, who is the founder of Momofuku. I have to say, I haven’t been to a ton of restaurants, but I went to Momofuku Noodle Bar when I was in New York five, six years ago and that was a really fun connection to have. You don’t have to have that connection to enjoy this book. He has a Netflix show called Ugly Delicious. This is not his first book, but this one is called Eat A Peach.. I didn’t know that Momofuku meant “lucky peach,” in I believe Korean. He is Korean-American. His parents are Korean immigrants.
But this book is so fun, and what I like about it for you is it’s not a straightforward food memoir. He is talking about his history becoming a successful restaurateur. He talks about all the mistakes he made along the way. But he also talks about a lot of things that you maybe wouldn’t expect to find in this kind of book, which I just really loved for it, and I hope that many readers connect with it.
He talks very openly and often about his history of depression and suicidal thoughts. He talks about his upbringing as the son of Korean immigrants and what it was like to be raised by his specific parents with their specific culture background and how that impacted him. He also has this kind of wink, wink, nudge, nudge I shouldn’t be giving business advice. I’ve done it all wrong, but it’s worked out. Let me tell you why.
At one point in the book he goes to see a corporate executive coach who says oh my gosh, you’re doing everything wrong. And what’s amazing about you and your business is that you do all these things wrong, you sometimes treat people really badly, and yet they have this fierce loyalty to you which means you’re doing a lot right. But wow I’ve never seen results like this. He has such an interesting background. There’s so many fascinating anecdotes. He’s obviously set out to be really open about somethings that people don’t like to talk about that he thinks he should talk about more and I think you might find that really interesting. How does that sound to you?
COURTNEY: Yeah, I love hearing how people that are, not necessarily creative geniuses, but have made their mark in nontraditional ways or have approached things getting the same result but not the way that was expected, kinda seeing their life story up to that point. Like you said, he faced some challenges leading up to where he is now, so what - what made him who he is today? I love having that backstory or their personal accounts of how they got to where they are.
ANNE: Something that I think may make this especially interesting for you is that he frequently says there’s a right way to do certain things in the restaurant business. Like there’s a path he’s supposed to follow. There are prices he’s supposed to charge. And he says, I don’t care. That’s not what I want to do. That’s not who I want to be. That’s not what I think the people want. Like the people - they don’t know what they want. They don’t know what it is until they see it, but like, I know that I don’t want to do things that they’re supposed to be done. So let’s just figure it out, and if not, I’d rather quit than have to do that thing that everybody else is doing.
COURTNEY: I love that a lot. Just going on your own path.
ANNE: That is Eat A Peach, a memoir coming this September from David Chang. Courtney, we talked about three books … Well, we talked about a ton of books today, but we talked about You Should See Me In a Crown by Leah Johnson, Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis, and Eat A Peach by David Chang. I realize that not all these titles are on the shelves of your local bookstore yet, but of those three titles, what do you think you may enjoy reading next?
COURTNEY: I think the nonfiction food memoir would be the best one just ‘cause I think that is the one about the nontraditional approach to things. I think that could be really intriguing and kinda carving your own path. That’s what I always strive to do as I’m setting my goals. Yes, it’s nice to be amongst people that are doing things very similarly, but I want to make my own mark and be unique, and I think that’s what he’s accomplishing with his restaurant and the way that he’s approaching this memoir is you can be unique and still have success with what your goals are.
ANNE: Well I’m glad that sounds good to you, and I hope you enjoy it. Courtney, this has been a delight. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
COURTNEY: Thanks for having me. It’s been fun.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Courtney today, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/246 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
Readers, as you heard today, I’m a big fan of the work Courtney’s putting into the world. I recommend you follow her on Instagram @IncessantBookworm and visit her blog, that’s at incessantbookworm.com. And of course look for that new YouTube channel. She’s on YouTube as Incessant Bookworm.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening. And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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♥ The Library Book by Susan Orlean
♥ Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman
♥ Dear Girls by Ali Wong
△ Ulysses by James Joyce
• Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
• You Should See Me in a Crown by Leah Johnson
• Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
• Dear Emmie Blue by Lia Louis
• In a Holidaze by Christina Lauren
• Eat a Peach by David Chang
• Courtney’s Youtube channel
• Books by the Banks
• Downbound Books
• The Rory Gilmore reading challenge
• Mid-year book freak out
• Ep 17: Smart, slightly eccentric, diverse books with Andi Cumbo-Floyd
• Ugly Delicious