Today’s guest is a self-proclaimed “book glutton” who reads in between everyday moments at home, at work, and even while she’s walking. Grettel Castro is a biostatistician living in Miami, Florida. She emigrated to the United States from Cuba at the age of 14, but her voracious appetite for reading started much earlier. Readers, I’m sure many of you will relate to Grettel’s story of falling in love with books as a young reader, as well as her current mixed feelings on big literary award-winning novels.
Grettel loves backlist books, or as she says, older novels that have “simmered” for a while. So today, in addition to getting tips on walking with an open novel in my hands, I’m recommending three great books with literary staying power.
Let’s get to it!
You can snoop on Grettel’s reading life on Instagram @6wordsbookreviews.
ANNE: I mean, I hear you saying you want the book recommendations, and yet I keep thinking about how that TBR might crush you.
Grettel: It’s okay. I’m strong. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 251.
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, Fall is here. If stacks of books and freshly sharpened pencils make your heart go pitter-patter, we have a treat for you. Right now in the Modern Mrs Darcy book club we’re going back to book school. This season we’re learning to read better together in accessibly nerdy and super enjoyable classes that will help you go deeper with your books, brighten your book talk, and have more fun in your reading life.
And since book school is part of the Modern Mrs Darcy book club, you’ll get to pair what you’re learning with the books we’re reading and the authors we’re chatting with this Fall. Book school is under way, so join now. Go to whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/bookschool or click the link in the show notes.
Today’s guest is a self-proclaimed book glutton who reads in between every day moments at home, at work, and even while she’s walking. Grettel Castro is a biostatistician living in Miami, Florida. She emigrated to the United States from Cuba at the age of 19, but her voracious appetite for reading started much earlier.
Readers, I’m sure many of you will relate to Grettel’s story of falling in love with books as a young reader as well as her current mixed feelings on big literary award winning novels. Grettel loves backlist books or as she says, older novels that have simmered for a while. And so today my goal is to recommend three great books with literary staying power. Let’s get to it.
Grettel, welcome to the show.
Grettel: Thank you, Anne.
ANNE: If I’m not mistaken you are our first Cuban reader to appear on What Should I Read Next.
Grettel: I am so glad! And I hope I’m not the last one.
ANNE: And we were very excited at What Should I Read Next HQ to get your submission form talking about your history growing up in Cuba and learning to read there as a child. I’ll let you tell the story. Will you tell us about your background?
Grettel: Sure. I was born in the ‘80s in Cuba and I was coming of age in the ‘90s, and I don’t know if your listeners are too familiar with the history, but the ‘90s in Cuba were an interesting time. That was the decade that was called the Special Period and basically that meant a lot of rationing, a lot of problems. There was blackouts every other day. I remember that I loved to read. I didn’t stop reading just because the light was out, but I remember I’d have to read under a kerosene lamp and it didn’t stop my love for reading even though light was a scarce resource at night. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Grettel, so many readers and listeners of the show relate to the idea of, you know, growing up loving books and reading all the books they can get their hands on, and yet it’s clear to me that you have a different relationships with books than I do if only because I’ve never copied out a book by hand.
Grettel: Oh, yes. [LAUGHS] I - I copied two textbooks by hand.
ANNE: Not just books, but textbooks.
Grettel: The thing is that, again, I was growing up in a time that photocopies were nonexistent. I couldn’t really buy the book. It was just a book that lent to me and I was leaving Cuba. It was a textbook on English literature and English grammar. So there were two textbooks, one in English literature, another one in English grammar, and I knew I was coming to the States and I needed to know how to speak English at a kindergarten level. I couldn’t take the books with me because they were lent from a friend, and I said well, let me just copy them. And I copied the grammar textbook and I copied the literature textbook. I’m going to tell you, it did help me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: How long does it take to copy a textbook?
Grettel: Well it was a grammar textbook. It wasn’t skinny. It wasn’t just like …
ANNE: [LAUGHS]This is making my hand hurt thinking about that.
Grettel: Yeah. But my heart was so happy. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I really thought you were going to say it was a statistics book, but no that came later.
Grettel: Oh my God, no, a statistics textbook I wouldn’t copy ever because the Greek formulas alone.
ANNE: But I know this morning, I’m in Kentucky and you’re in Miami, aren’t you?
ANNE: Tell me about how you got from here to there.
Grettel: So I told you I was in Cuba until I was 19 years old. My father had left eight years prior to me coming here. So when I was 19, finally the paperwork cleared and then I came to join my father with my mom.
ANNE: And what do you do there now?
Grettel: In Miami, I’m a statistician. I work at a medical school and I help medical students do their research rotations to graduate, so basically I help them complete their research projects.
ANNE: And you may be the first biostatistician we’ve had on the show as well. All kinds of firsts today.
Grettel: I am so glad I am the first Cuban biostatistician. [BOTH LAUGH] I don’t think there’s many.
ANNE: What appeals to you about that field?
Grettel: Well interesting story, I like many kids grew up wanting to be a veterinarian and I almost accomplished that. I entered … Before I left Cuba, I did my exams and I could have entered the university to study that, but then I left. And I wanted to pursue it when I came here but things got difficult in terms of, like, the veterinarian school were going to be away from home, home being Miami, and I didn’t want to again leave after I had been without my dad for eight years, so I made a compromise and I said what can I study at … It’s something I like in terms of biology related but I also like math and that came across ,and I just followed that pathway and I’m really happy with it. I’m not … I’m not sad I did that.
ANNE: Well good, I’m glad you found something that suited you. Grettel, what’s your reading life like these days?
Grettel: These days I’m a book glutton. [BOTH LAUGH] I read anything. I read many, many things. I have a very low threshold for satisfaction, I guess. I read when I wake up, before the baby wakes up. So I - I try to squeeze in a page or two and then during the day, every time I have some time off, you know, at lunch time or when I am walking from building to building, I always have a book in my bag so I read continuously throughout the day at any moment. Before I go to sleep I also read, at least an hour.
ANNE: Okay, so you said you read when going from building to building. Is that a book in your hand or a book in your ears?
Grettel: In my hand.
ANNE: Okay tell me about that.
Grettel: That started when I was going to school. I had to walk to go to school when I was a kid. It got boring after a point because it was the same path every day. And one day I had a book in my bookbag, and I took it out and I started reading while I was walking, and I didn’t get killed, so [ANNE LAUGHS] I said oh it’s safe. [LAUGHS] And then I learned how to walk and read at the same time and I do that now.
ANNE: You learned how to do it.
Grettel: Yeah. I guess I started by having the book ... [LAUGHS] Oh my God, this is going to sound silly, but …
ANNE: No, I want to know because I’m thinking there probably are practical tips you could share but I don’t know what they are because I’ve never learned how to do that. [LAUGHS]
Grettel: I wouldn’t call them practical tips in case someone just gets killed because of my practical tips. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: We’re not going to sue you with the … No trip and fall cases coming your way.
Grettel: Please don’t try this at home.
ANNE: So purely hypothetically if you’re going to give guidance, what might you say?
Grettel: Okay. So I put the book in a position that I could look at my feet and the book at the same time, so basically my feet I could see below the book and then the book was lifted a little bit open so I could read and walk at the same time. And look at my surroundings. [LAUGHS] I look like a zombie. [BOTH LAUGH] Maybe you can only get away with that when you’re 11, but it worked. Now I am cooler about it. Now I just put it to the side and I’m looking to my side and the territory in front of me is clear.
ANNE: Okay. Grettel, I didn’t know we were going to talk about this today, but I’m glad we did. I think what it speaks to is the priority of reading in your life. And I admire that.
Grettel: I made it a priority. I love books since I was a kid and books love me back. [ANNE LAUGHS] And I remember that my dad gave me books when I was a kid and I used to, I just remember right now the feeling I had when I read the pages and it was like being hugged by him at the same time. I always cherished that.
ANNE: Oh, that sounds so special.
Grettel: My dad was a special person.
ANNE: Now Grettel, I was excited about one of the topics you said you wanted to discuss today. I’m referring to Grettel’s submission form at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest and that was about the intriguing and often controversial topic of literary prizes and awards.
ANNE: Take it away.
Grettel: So when I wrote to you, I had just finished a book that had been, like, shortlisted for many prizes and I finished the book and it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it. It’s not quite that, it’s just that I didn’t think it was the best of the best of that year. And again, I don’t think I have the credentials to criticize the people who gave out these prizes because I obviously don’t know better than them.
But it’s just my love and enjoyment wasn’t quite the same. There’s other books that have been given prizes that I have loved and enjoyed and thought they deserved, like Lincoln in the Bardo. I loved that book and I think it was the Man Booker for the year it was published. But for some others, again, it’s not like I don’t enjoy them. It’s that I don’t see the hype to be so prized.
ANNE: There’s a lot to unpack here. Let’s start with the question everybody’s going to write in and ask: what was the book in question?
Grettel: Oh, Lord, I don’t want to do that. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Give us a hint.
Grettel: Everybody loves it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: No, okay, but see that leads us to the next point, which is when we see a lot of fuss being made about a book, when we see like on Instagram that everybody seems to love it, or when we hear a lot of positive reviews or when we see that it’s selling well, and we read it and just don’t understand what the fuss is about, it can feel because we’re keeping our opinion to ourselves like it’s just us. And it’s never, it’s never just you.
And also I hear you deferring, saying, well, maybe the people choosing, maybe they know more about books than I do, but I do want to say that you’re a reader that knows how to walk and read at the same time. [Grettel LAUGHS] I think your opinion about what you’re reading can be trusted, although I appreciate the humility that, like, comes from readers saying I don’t know, like I’m open to learning more, let me hear about it. So I appreciate that humility and at the same time, I’m inclined to trust your opinions about this reading experience and not think you just got it wrong.
Grettel: Let me just clarify that it’s not that I think that it’s a bad book. I don’t think it is a bad book. I just think it wasn’t the best that year.
ANNE: Right, and from these awards, from many of these awards, you’re expecting them to highlight the best books. You put a lot of expectations on a book when you give it an award, so go ahead.
Grettel: Station Eleven. It could have been, my expectations were too high. Because of the hype and because the premise is so good, the premise of that book, fantastic. It’s like Shakespeare in a dystopian world? I’m in. And then I mean, I don’t know, it didn’t really grab me. I enjoyed … I think I gave it like a three stars on Goodreads, but it wasn’t a five star review as I was expecting it to be. Like Lincoln in the Bardo was that. It was amazing. Like I’ve never read something like this. It was great.
ANNE: A joke we have at my house that we’re saying all the time these days is low expectations are the key to happiness. [Grettel LAUGHS] Conversely when you have really high expectations about a book, it’s easy to fall short. I love it when readers, whether they are people I’m going to talk to in my living room or a guest I’m going to talk to on the podcast when you don’t agree about a book, there’s so much to talk about instead of a mutual love fest, which can be interesting. But maybe not as much so as when readers differ in their opinions. Let me say that something that I love about Station Eleven is her voice and her style, the way she draws connections between these disparate things.
Grettel: To me it’s kinda like background noise. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Explain yourself ‘cause that didn’t sound good.
Grettel: So it’s really like indirect music, does that make better sense? It’s like the music you hear in the background and you don’t know you're hearing it and after a while you realize you’ve been listening to that tune for a while and it catches you. That’s the way I describe her tone, which is good, I don’t have any problem with her tone. I think she has … She has a lot of merit as a writer. It’s just that probably my expectations were too high for Station Eleven. I did enjoy The Glass Hotel. I keep coming back to her because I like her tone.
ANNE: That’s interesting, but what I’m saying is I personally really am drawn to the way she tells stories and the reason is because that’s distinct from so many other writers. And anyone who does anything in a distinct way is going to appeal to some readers and not others, and it’s fine to finish a book and say you liked it and yet I can see you looking around going, like, oh my gosh, what am I missing that the National Book Award people loved?
Grettel: You’re describing my same reaction. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It’s okay for us to have different opinions about books and it’s also okay to acknowledge this book was incredibly well written, and it’s just not for me. Like that’s okay too.
Grettel: That’s how I feel. It has merit. I think it does have merit. I do recognize that.
ANNE: But this brings us back to the larger question, which is all these books are winning awards. We’d like to think that these books getting awards are the best of the best, so I’m not sure the question on the table is is that really true or or a corollary question but not the same question is if these books are the best of the best, how can I then tell which of these books are right for me?
Grettel: Ah, that’s an interesting question. Sometimes I think it’s you have to focus on the prize or the award. I found that I am usually, like, better, the Man Booker for example, which kinda, like, new things that writers do in literature like new formats or new at readers, then I do with other types of awards that are more like literary in a sense like academic.
ANNE: Yes, and what you’re pointing out is there are so many different books awards. I read something other day that said because there are so many, there’s something like a hundred book awards for every thousand books published these days. Some of them are small, like I was asked to serve on a committee for a specific southern law school’s book award. You know, every school can have their book award and that’s how we end up with so many. But then there are the big ones that many readers have heard of. And Grettel, one of the reasons I’m so glad you brought up the question is it’s a question that we get at What Should I Read Next? and for my blog Modern Mrs Darcy all the time, like, what are some of the major awards? What do they mean? And how are they decided?
Grettel: There’s so many that sometimes you can feel you’re drowning in them. What I do is I go to like niche awards, like The Hugo is for science fiction. There’s another one for horror. I don’t remember the name now. But I’m sometimes ...
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I don’t know the award for horror books because probably if I saw a book received that, I’d go running in the opposite direction.
Grettel: [LAUGHS] But I usually go, like, to niche awards that I probably know what to expect from the winner.
ANNE: So you mention the Man Booker, which is awarded each year for the best novel written in the English language. It used to be only books published originally in the U.K., but just in the past ten years, I think it was 2014, the scope was widened to include any book originally published in English. It’s true, the books they’ve chosen in recent years you can see that they really are awarding those who are being more experimental like you mentioned Lincoln in the Bardo.
ANNE: Wolf Hall won. Remains of the Day is a Booker prize winner. We’ve got the Pulitzer, was given out a ton of various awards every year including the prize for distinguished fiction, also they give prizes for journalism and nonfiction and a whole slew of categories. Those are for books by an American author. And they say that preferences are given to works dealing with American life, and yet like All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr won a few years ago.
Let me tell you, there’s a prize that I turn to all the time. I don’t know if this is going to be reflected in your reading taste but when readers are coming to me for book recommendations, I often find myself pointing to–The Alex Awards.
Grettel: I didn’t know about that one.
ANNE: Oh. Okay, well let me tell you about it. These are books that are written for adults but have special appeal to young adults ages 12 to 18. So these are adult books that are great for teen readers. They’ve been giving them out for a little over 20 years now. For example, some of the winners for this year are Dominicana by Angie Cruz, The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.
Grettel: Oh, I loved The Nickel Boys. I adored that book.
ANNE: Okay. Red, White, and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston. So these books aren’t specifically written for the teen market but they’re books that may really appeal to teens. When teens, or adults are looking for books for those teens, are like I don’t know, I’m not loving the YA section. I don’t want to read nonfiction. What should I do? The Alex Awards are a great place to look.
You mentioned some of the genre specific awards and I’m so glad you said these, like, I always love to see what’s chosen for Edgar awards, the best works in mystery fiction, nonfiction, television, etc. It’s presented by the mystery writers of America. Some winners have been Before The Fall, Code Name Verity, The Expats, Columbine in fact won best fact crime. And then you mentioned The Hugo and The Nebula that are given for science fiction and for fantasy.
Grettel: Yes. I love that genre.
ANNE: There are so many more. I mean many readers are familiar with The Newberry, The Caldecott, The Printz that’s given for YA fiction. Are there any other ones that you really pay attention to?
Grettel: I usually pay attention to the Nobel one. The Nobel Prize, but again, it’s a hit or miss for the Nobel. I loved Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of The Day, I think, won.
Grettel: I don’t remember and that’s why I don’t want to disclose it, but I just don’t remember which one was that won the Nobel and I was like, mm.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, so I hear you saying that even though you feel like these awards don’t steer you well in your reading life, you’re still drawn to see what these committees are choosing. And it’s putting in my mind the fact that so many readers turn to the awards because there are so many books being published every year and these committees for the various prizes can in a sense really narrow down the potential titles that you may be reading. Is that something that appeals to you?
Grettel: Yes. That is something that appeals to me and also because many times they do assert, I read many books that have been chosen that have been good. It’s just that it’s not all the time. It’s not a 100% satisfaction guarantee. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Do you feel like it should be?
Grettel: I expect it [LAUGHS] to be. But maybe that’s a bad expectation on my side.
ANNE: Well, this is interesting, and I’m saying this as a reader, not as an authority figure, right? But I think what these prizes really do is they show you what a group of people is looking for to fulfill the requirements of the award that they’re seeking to bestow. As readers, we all value different things. We’re looking for different things out of our reading experiences. We’re looking to learn about different things and experience different emotions and we enjoy different kinds of styles and tones and themes and subject matter and that’s all fine and good.
But those committees aren’t necessarily aligned with what we’re looking for in our reading life. When they go choose who to bestow their prizes on, they’re looking for the books that speak to what’s important to that committee. That’s fine. I mean, of course they have to have a lens through which they’re looking to, you know, similarly cut through all the books published to find the ones that are best suited to their award. If as readers we don’t understand what they’re looking for and what kind of work they’re seeking to shine a spotlight on, then we’re going to end up frustrated.
Grettel: Yeah. They probably should release a memo with [ANNE LAUGHS] these are the reason why … Like for example, this year I think it was the National Book Award was won by two books. The Testaments by Margaret Atwood and Girl, Woman, Other, by Bernardine Evaristo they both got a tie. I mean, that is one of the cases that okay, I am cool with using two books because I’ve read both and I love Margaret Atwood, but The Testaments wasn’t really … I didn’t enjoy it as much.
ANNE: I’ve read a lot of strong opinions about that decision. I’ve not read The Testaments.
Grettel: I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I did The Handmaid’s Tale.
ANNE: Your voice says it was fine.
Grettel: It was fine. It wasn’t award-worthy. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Yeah. And yet have you read Girl, Woman, Other?
Grettel: Yes, I did, and that one is really interesting. It’s very different. I like books that are different. I wasn’t expecting that. It was very creative. Very, very creative.
ANNE: If it matters, The Testaments won The Booker.
Grettel: There you go.
ANNE: And that’s so interesting because the chairman of The Booker campaign, it was The Booker that The Testaments and Girl, Woman, Other share said “the rules firmly state you can only have one winner.” But the judges were like eh. We’re doing two.
Grettel: [LAUGHS] Maybe they should follow that lead and everybody should have two. At least you’re going to know that you’re going to like one better than the other.
ANNE: Obviously you’re so interested in how literary awards affect you and your choices as a reader. Are you also interested in how they affect the broader literary landscape?
Grettel: The real reason I go to the literary awards because my to be read list is about 9,000 books long and I need to narrow that down. [ANNE LAUGHS] I go to them and I see which ones have won in the previous years so that I can just select one that is worth it and that has withhold with time. I wasn’t really checking them for the impact that they might have in the literary future. I wasn’t that deep. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: These awards, you know, make some readers shake their fists and [LAUGHS] others roll their eyes and others applaud, but all at the same time they do have a real impact on sales and especially school curricula, but let’s say … Let’s talk about your 9000 books [Grettel LAUGHS] that you just kinda snuck in right there. That’s a lot of books, Grettel.
Grettel: I get trigger happy on Goodreads. [ANNE LAUGHS] It’s so easy, you just have to click the want to read button and then it just … You just have it on your list. So I just put everything in there. I just read the description and since I told you I’m a book glutton, everything appeals to me. So everything goes into the list and now it’s … that pile is getting bigger and unmanageable.
ANNE: So, Grettel, when you’re seeking to narrow it down, are you cross-referencing your 9,000 books on your Goodreads to be read list with various literary prizes? How are you doing this?
Grettel: Well sometimes I cross reference with literary prizes. Sometimes I do that with the other pile of books I have at home with lists of books. I’m going to sound like a nerd, but I have... [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: We welcome that here.
Grettel: Every time I see a book published about a list of books, I buy it, so I have James Mustich 1001 Books to Read Before You Die. I think there was another book by the same title printed in the U.K. that I bought as well, and I have all of Nancy Pearl’s books of like Book Lust and Book Lust to Go and Book Crush. So I have all the lists of books to be read and basically I just cross reference with the other literary prizes and if they pass that test, I’m like, oh, interesting. It’s going into my want to be read list. I try to read as much as I can, but I don’t think I’m going to make it to the end of my life to finish that list.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Not even if you stop adding to it today.
Grettel: I think even if I die with a book in my hands I’m still going to have another 10,000 to go.
ANNE: So with 9,000 titles on your to be read list, how do you actually decide what to read next? I mean when the time comes to choose another book?
Grettel: Sometimes one book will trigger my interest for another one, like, I used to get down the rabbit holes. So for example if I read a retelling of Cinderella, so when I read Cinder, I of course finished the series, but then I got interested in like the retellings and I discovered Wicked and Maguire in general has awesome retellings and then I went into the rabbit hole of retellings of fairy tales, and some of them are really creative.
ANNE: I’m really nervous to add more books to your to be read list, but it sounds like you welcome the additions if you’re buying Nancy Pearl and Jim Mustich, so I’m going to try not to feel too guilty about it. I’m really excited to hear more about your specific titles. Are you ready to talk about them?
Grettel: Yes I am.
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ANNE: Okay. You know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’re reading now and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these, Grettel?
Grettel: Honestly I just wrote the first three that came to my mind when I was filling the entry form because if I put too much thought into it, I would never submit the entry form [ANNE LAUGHS] and then I’ll never be talking to you. So I’m just like put the three that first come to your mind, Grettel, and then let it go, you’ll probably never going to be chosen anyways. [LAUGHS] So.
ANNE: So don’t overthink it. I like it. Grettel, what did you choose for your first book?
Grettel: The first book was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
ANNE: That’s a fun one.
Grettel: Science fiction at its best. It’s really hard to talk about the book without spoiling it because it is so crazy, but then he has so much puns and play with words. There’s some juxtapositions there that make the reader go like, huh. Like paranoid android or what is the solution to the question of the universe and life and everything is a number, like the answer to a third grade problem.
ANNE: We were just talking about that book this week ‘cause with our Fall Book Preview, there’s so many books coming out this fall. It’s not going to be good for your TBR, Grettel, but fall’s always a big season. Then so many books were pushed back from spring and early summer to fall because of the coronavirus. Publishers thought we want to give these much anticipated titles their best shot at being successful and make it into readers' hands, so we’ll push them into the next season. There’s a lot of books coming out.
Grettel: I’m looking forward to it.
ANNE: Well, it’s - it’s going to be 10,000 soon. [BOTH LAUGH] And so for the fall book preview, we had 40 titles which I thought was excessive, but not over the top. But then I realized I’d forgotten a book that I’d already read and loved coming this fall, and so I snuck it in. Then we had 41, which doesn’t have quite the ring to it you know? 41?
Grettel: You can make it 42! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Exactly because 42 is Douglas Adams’ answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. So it’s 42 and that’s why. Thank you, Douglas Adams.
Grettel: Oh, I love it. [ANNE LAUGHS] Anyways if people haven’t read it, just grab it and read it. It’s so short. It’s condensed fun and it will make you think about so many things while you’re cracking up. [ANNE LAUGHS] That is just worth the trip.
ANNE: I’ve been thinking about reading it again and now you’re definitely pushing me over that edge.
Grettel: It’s a fast read. If anything, it won’t take you too long.
ANNE: But then you’re gonna want to read the rest of the series.
Grettel: Oh, I know. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Grettel, what did you choose for your next book?
Grettel: The next book was Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury. I love Ray Bradbury, and Something Wicked This Way Comes is probably my favorite one from him. I do like Fahrenheit 451 but Something Wicked This Way Comes is my favorite. There’s a small town America and there’s a carnival of horrors that comes to town, probably like a week before Halloween or something, so it’s very eerie and very atmospheric. And in this midnight show that they put up, they promise all the attendees that they were going to get, you know, their dreams were going to come true and they’re going to be young forever. And everybody of course is drawn to it, and it’s kinda like a cautionary tale of be careful of what you wish for in a sense because it soon goes very, very bad this carnival and people start to realize that their nightmares are coming true.
But basically what I took away from the book is that it doesn’t matter how terrible reality is, if you can laugh about it, you can just shutter the hall of mirrors and you can just displace the smoke and it’s just, laugh about your issues or your problems and the doubt is going to go away. And that’s what I took from it and I love that and I try to remember that every single day because it doesn’t matter how bad it gets, if you can laugh about it, now it’s going to be good.
ANNE: Okay. And your first book is really seriously funny. I’m thinking this is not a coincidence. Grettel, what did you choose for your third favorite?
Grettel: I haven’t been able to talk about this book with many people because for some reason it’s not that popular. It’s called The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. This writer, I found him through this book, and after that I wanted to read everything he wrote because his prose is so great. It … I - I don’t want to say beautiful or musical because people think that I am describing something boring but it is very moving.
Something else I love about books, it’s … when the ending just grabs me by surprise and it ties everything I’ve been reading together. So this book is about very like different stories from six different characters and at the end, everything just comes unraveled by … So everything makes sense when you get to the final chapter. And it … You get to the final chapter so moved and so in love with the way he writes that I immediately grab every other book he wrote and I think I read like three more. And all of them are in the same appealing voice and rhythm in his prose.
ANNE: Oh, that sounds really interesting. Now, Grettel, tell me about another book that wasn’t right for you.
Grettel: Oh, here we go. And I hate to talk about books I don’t like because I know that people do work hard for writing a book and I myself cannot write a sentence so it feels pretty petty talking about books that I didn’t enjoy. And I do think this might have been a book that wasn’t for me at the moment and the book is The Chimes by Anna Smaill. I think it was listed also for an award and that’s probably how it ended up in my to-be-read.
When I read the premise of the book, I was really excited because it’s a dystopian London. People cannot form memories and cannot communicate with words. So that was incredible. I’m like, how can human cope … But then there’s this musical instrument that erases people’s memories and then people are forced to communicate through music and through sound. I was sold. I heard that premise and I was immediately sold.
But then when I started reading the book, it didn’t quite grab me. The tone was a little bit superific and I found myself falling asleep every time. Until this day, that’s the only book I haven’t been able to finish.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] As we’ve said, timing is everything.
ANNE: Grettel, what are you reading right now?
Grettel: Right now I finished a book called The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fanny Flagg. It’s kinda a sequel to Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
ANNE: I’m thinking about reading this, yeah, I’m very interested. How did that go?
Grettel: So this I got through Netgalley. I don’t think it’s out yet. I think it comes out in the fall. That was incredibly good. It felt like a hug from Grandpa [ANNE LAUGHS] ‘cause I got to meet again everybody that I had met at the Fried Green Tomatoes. It was good to see how they end up and it was like a visit to hometown and meeting old friends. It was really - it was really moving. I really enjoyed it and the other book that I finished recently I think you might like because it’s called The 99% Invisible City.
ANNE: That sounds like me.
Grettel: It’s a nonfiction book. It’s basically about like city planning, how cities get the heights of their buildings or sidewalks and streetlights and things like that and I know that you’re into city planning, so you might enjoy that.
ANNE: Uh, yes I am, and yes I might.
Grettel: There is another galley so it might come out in the fall.
ANNE: Ooh, I need to get my hands on that then. Grettel, you love The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, and The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy. Not for you is The Chimes by Anna Smaill, and recently you’ve read The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fanny Flagg and The 99% Invisible City by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt. Grettel, what do you want more of in your reading life?
Grettel: I do read a lot of fiction and sometimes I want a nonfiction book to pair well with the fiction I’m reading. That’s usually hard to find because I don’t know how to find too many nonfictions that would pair up well with a fiction book. Whenever I do read a nonfiction book, it’s fascinating to me, like I get so into it and I really enjoy it so probably should do more of that.
ANNE: Oh there are a lot of directions we could go here. I’m ready to explore. Are you ready?
Grettel: I am ready.
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ANNE: Okay, so here’s what I’m keeping in mind that you have 9,000 books [Grettel LAUGHS] on your to-be-read list and I’m not eager to add to it unless I think you’ll find it worth it to add one more title to the list. I’m definitely keeping literary awards in mind. I’m paying attention to books that have won awards in part because I think they’re likely to be on your list and finally you’d really love to find a nonfiction title that pairs well with what you’re currently reading. How does that sound so far?
Grettel: Sounds good. And I promise you your suggestion is going to be in the top of pile.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] No pressure or anything. I’m definitely noticing you didn’t choose exclusively science fiction for your favorites but two out of three were.
ANNE: Ooh, something else I’m noticing, Grettel, is that your favorites are not recent releases. So The Illusion of Separateness was in the last 10 years, but not the last one or two, and Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury those books are decades old. So tried and true definitely seems like a way to go. Tried and true meaning how about books people are still reading many, many years after they’re released.
Grettel: Absolutely. I usually go with the older books like paperback releases are usually my go-to. I don’t have that building up, going for the shiny new book. I just let it rest and simmer and see if it gets good tasting and then I’ll go and grab it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I like the way you described that. First up I’m wondering about a book that was published maybe five years ago. It’s been called an homage to Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and 334 by Thomas Disch. It’s by Cuba’s greatest living science fiction writer. How does this sound to you?
Grettel: Oh my God, why I don’t know about this?
ANNE: Okay, well that sounds like a great start. So this book is an award winner as well but it won an award that is not the radar of many book lovers who are more familiar with the big ones like The Pulitzer and The Nobel and The Man Booker. The author here is Yoss, that’s the pen name for the Cuban sci-fi writer José Miguel Sánchez Gómez. Is this an author you’re familiar with?
Grettel: No, I don’t know why I don’t know him.
ANNE: Okay. The book award here is The Prix Julia Verlanger... This is reminding me of my episode with Florence Breuaert. That’s 223, starts with 5 stars for negative book reviews. She’s a French reader and we talked about French books and ah, I pronounced that French badly with a Kentucky accent badly. Okay. Enough about that.
Let’s talk about Yoss. But the award that Yoss won was the The Prix Julia Verlanger. It’s run by the … We’re just going to call it the French Foundation rather instead of needing to say...
ANNE: … the Fondation de France. [Grettel LAUGHS] Okay. It’s awarded annually to science fiction work of adventure or fantasy and his book A Planet For Rent won it. This book has been out for about five years. What I like about this for you is it’s science fiction. It’s inventive. It might be going a little far to call it experimental, but it’s more like a series of vignettes and it’s got a really interesting premise and that is things have just gone horribly on Earth. Earth is the planet for rent, and on the opening page here’s what it says. It’s almost like you’re reading like an advertisement or like you can picture somebody like on the sidewalk calling out hey, who’s interested in what I have for sale? I’m just going to read it to you.
“For rent, one planet that’s lost it way in the race to development that showed up at the stadium after all the medals had been handed out.” That’s kinda a fun science won literary prizes but okay, back to it. “When all that was left was the consolation prize of survival. For rent, one planet that learned to play the economics game according to one set of rules but discovered once it started playing, the rules had been changed.”
Earth is trashed, finally collapsing under its own economic environmental problems. But we are rescued by alien colonizers who decide to rebrand it as a tourist destination. And so all the poor citizens of Earth are living [LAUGHS] these meager, unhappy existences whether that’s working for the new police, by the aliens who’ve come to colonize them. They’re working as black marketers. They’re dealing drugs. They’re working as social workers which is what they call prostitutes, or they’re desperately trying to escape. Something else I like about this for you is that Yoss is explicitly writing about his country of Cuba.
Grettel: I was going to say that just is it makes the island, or the history of the island, in a science fiction setting and I am drooling right here.
ANNE: Yeah, he’s writing about the Cuba he knows from the ‘90s. And he says that, in this specific book, he’s often writing about Cuba. So what Yoss says he loves about science fiction and writing in this genre is you can comment on contemporary events without coming at it directly even though you’re very much explicitly and deliberately telling stories about our present day situation. He calls sci-fi a mirror that we place in the future to understand our present better. Saying that the reflection is better than if we tried to look at our present directly.
Here’s a quote from him. He says, “When we write stories about 24th century characters facing problems that currently appear fantastical, these characters really often are contemporaries fighting every day dilemmas in disguise.” And he also says hey, hey, like, I’m writing in Cuba and have been for years and like, do I comment on current politics? No. But can I write sci-fi that comments on current politics? Absolutely yes.
Grettel: Oh my God, I wish you could see my face. I am...
ANNE: I wish I could too.
Grettel: ...Smiling ear to ear and my jaw is in the floor. Like both things at the same time. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Not sad about that. That was A Planet For Rent by Yoss, the pen name for José Miguel Sánchez Gómez. If you like that, there’s more where that came from.
Grettel: Oh. I can’t wait. That’s a great start, Anne.
ANNE: I’m wondering if we go back in time if we might find a book that’s already on your list or maybe you’ve already read it. I’m wondering about the sci-fi classic, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin. Is this one you’ve read?
Grettel: I love Ursula K. Le Guin. I - I - I think the only thing I’ve read from her is The Left Hand of Darkness.
ANNE: Ooh, okay.
Grettel: So I am on board. And I actually have the complete works of her in my bookshelf.
ANNE: Okay. So I don’t feel bad recommending this one then. I guess, I mean, I hear you saying you want the book recommendations and yet I keep thinking about how that TBR might crush you. [LAUGHS]
Grettel: It’s okay. I’m strong. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: You built those muscles over time. [Grettel LAUGHS] This is a 1971 novel. It’s short. It’s less than 200 pages. You could read this, well I don’t know how many buildings you’d have to walk between, but I don’t think it’d take you long. And this one did receive nominations for the 1972 Hugo and the 1971 Nebula award, two awards we know that you pay attention to because of the genres they cover. And it also won The Locus award for best novel in 1972. So do you know anything about this book if you’re familiar with Le Guin?
Grettel: No, not at all.
ANNE: Okay. I haven’t read enough by her. I’m reading more sci-fi on purpose this year. I need to read more Ursula K. Le Guin because she’s a legend.
Grettel: She is talented.
ANNE: So talented. And has really changed the face of the genre and also prolific so her works could keep readers busy for a good, long time. So this book is about a man whose dreams change reality. When he dreams things, they happen, and he’s there for a justly afraid of having those dreams. And because of these dreams, he gets sent to a psychiatrist who realizes the power this man has and how he could maybe instead of maybe helping him the way he seeks, he could work with him or work against him maybe to harness how reality is being changed. And to do this, he brings in a lawyer who he hopes will help him reclaim his agency even though the world is changing around them, and the things that Le Guin does with the lawyer are absolutely fascinating.
But the reason I bring up those three characters is the book is told from the points of view of these three people who are looking at the same situation but have very, I mean, their interests are competing here. Of these three characters, there’s the poor man who dreams, the psychiatrist who sees the potential, but then the attorney is so fascinating because you know Le Guin writes about race and gender and society and culture in incredibly prescient ways. The lawyer is a Black civil rights lawyer. In this story, there’s this … Wow, how do I describe this, Grettel.
Grettel: I know Le Guin is hard to describe.
ANNE: I’m really finding that.
Grettel: Because even with The Left Hand of Darkness, I wouldn’t want to say anything that would spoil it so it’s okay. I am sold already. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I don’t want to give anything way, but the way Le Guin plays with race and identity in this novel that she wrote that was published in 1971 is absolutely fascinating. A 177 pages feels like a small investment of time but a huge potential payoff in reading enjoyment and mind-blowingness., totally a word, right?
Grettel: Oh, I am onboard. What’s the name again?
ANNE: That is The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin.
Grettel: I am so on board.
ANNE: All right. Book three, let’s go nonfiction.
Grettel: Let’s go.
ANNE: Stop me if you’ve read this but Ray Bradbury wrote again a short, brilliant little book called Zen in the Art of Writing. Have you read this?
ANNE: Okay. We’re keeping out in the 70s, this came out in 1973 for the first time. I first encountered this in a writing class maybe 10 years ago and this is Bradbury peeling back the curtains — do you peel back curtains?
Grettel: Oh, yes. [BOTH LAUGH] And pull up floors and bring down roofs. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well he does all of that talking about his process and you said that you really like humor in books. I wouldn’t say that funny is, like, the guiding emotion here, but he is pumped up to talk about his work. Like he says the first thing a writer should be is they should be excited. He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasm. He needs vigors or what is he doing writing anyway? But what emerges is the man behind the fantastical stories that he somehow comes up with. I mean, how does he come up with these premises? I have no idea. But he talks about it here and it’s very clear that a part of his process was putting his butt in the chair and working really hard all the time.
And the thing that has really stuck with me that continues to blow me away that I think about all the time is his process for writing short stories back when he was getting his beginning. Now we read these stories like Dandelion Wine, All Summer in a Day, and we think, oh my goodness, we must have been mulling that over for years but probably not. He probably sat down on Monday, knew he was going to ship something off to a magazine Friday afternoon, so he better come up with a good idea and he tells you by day by day throughout the week, he moves the story from initial idea to first draft to polishing it to putting in the mail Friday afternoon and it blew my mind. We’re talking about mind-blowingness.
I don’t think you have to be a writer at all, just a lover of the written word to appreciate this, but the subtitle here is essays on creativity, and the way he talks about his own process but also his general thoughts about how creative people should work, the purpose of doing such work. He also writes poetry. There’s poems in this book and that’s fun too. You said that you like the idea of nonfiction works that may augment and enhance your fictional reading experience and I think you tell me, how does this sound?
Grettel: That sounds great and I love Bradbury. I think he wrote Fahrenheit 451 in nine days if I’m not incorrect.
ANNE: I did not know that but I believe it.
Grettel: It was set as a short story. The Fireman, I think it was called and then he wrote it in nine days and I think he edited it and it’s what Fahrenheit 451 is today.
ANNE: Well he does talk about the writing of Fahrenheit 451, so he probably said that. It’s a serious book. I mean it’s called Zen in The Art of Writing. He gets really philosophical but also his philosophy is funny.
Grettel: But it’s Bradbury. Yeah.
ANNE: Like some of the essays called “The Care and Feeding of the Muse.” [Grettel LAUGHS] But also “Drunk and in Charge of a Bicycle.”
Grettel: Oh, I love it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. That is Zen in The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. All right, Grettel, so today we talked about A Planet for Rent by Yoss, The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K Le Guin, and Zen in The Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury. Now I think I have a hunch based on what you said about the current state of your bookshelves and what is on them, but of those three books what do you think you may enjoy reading next?
Grettel: If I could read the three of them at the same time I would because they all sound great, but I think I’m going to start with A Planet for Rent.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. Also I’m loving the image right now of you juggling three books walking down the sidewalk walking between buildings at work. [LAUGHS] Grettel, this has been a joy. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
Grettel: Thank you, Anne, you have been a delight.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Grettel, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/251 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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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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• Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
• Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
• Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
• The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
• Dominicana by Angie Cruz
• The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
• Red White and Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
• Before the Fall by Noah Hawley
• Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein
• The Expats by Chris Pavone
• Columbine by Dave Cullen
• The Testaments by Margaret Atwood
• Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo
• The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
• 1000 Books to Read Before You Die by James Mustich
• Book Lust: Recommended Reading for Every Mood, Moment, and Reason by Nancy Pearl
• Cinder by Marissa Meyer
• Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire
♥ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
♥ Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
• Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
♥ The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy
▵ The Chimes by Anna Smaill
• The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop by Fannie Flagg
• Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg
• The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide to the Hidden World of Everyday Design by Roman Mars & Kurt Kohlstedt
• A Planet for Rent by Yoss
• The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin
• Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
• The Booker Prize
• The Pulitzer Prize
• The Hugo Award
• The Alex Award
• The Edgar Award
• The Nebula Award
• The Nobel Prize in Literature
• The Newbery Medal
• The Caldecott Medal
• Prix Julia Verlanger
• The Fall Book Preview on Patreon or the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club
• WSIRN Episode 223: Five stars for negative book reviews, w/Florence Breuvert
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What do YOU think Grettel should read next?
Let us know in the comments!