Readers, I think many of you will relate to our guest today. Cliff Cullen was in the middle of his best reading year ever when…the pandemic hit. His one-time favorite reading habits, like listening to audiobooks during his commute, have had to change—but his voracious appetite for books remains the same. Today I’m recommending books in a wide variety of genres to suit Cliff’s eclectic reading taste and push the boundaries of his typical book selections.
We also discuss “themed” reading based on seasons or settings, reading your cookbooks, and the special accomplishment of reading every single book by your favorite author.
Let’s get to it!
You can follow Cliff’s cookbook adventures on Instagram @cookingwithclifton.
Our next livestream with our Patreon members is this Thursday, October 29. Join Brenna and Anne to ask them anything and to participate in a little live literary matchmaking. Find out more at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 256. 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, don’t miss our quarterly What Should I Read Next Patreon livestream this Thursday, October 29th at 1 PM eastern time. These are live online events Brenna and I do quarterly with our Patreon community members and they give you a chance to hear what’s happening around What Should I Read Next headquarters, ask your questions of the two of us, and get your own book recommendations.
If you aren’t a member of that community yet, now is a great time to join us. You’ll get access to previous quarterly livestreams, our fall book preview unboxing and digital magazine, and over 20 hours of bonus audio. And of course you’ll get to hop on live with Brenna and me on October 29th. Find out more about our bookish community at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
Readers, I think many of you will relate to our guest today. Cliff Cullen was in the middle of his best reading year ever when the pandemic hit. As you’ll hear, his one-time favorite reading habit, like listening to audiobooks during his commute, have had to change, but thankfully his voracious appetite for books remains the same.
Today I’m recommending books in a wide variety of genres to suit Cliff’s eclectic reading taste and to push the boundaries of his typical selections. We also discuss themed reading based on seasons or settings, reading your cookbooks, and a special accomplishment of reading every single book by your favorite author. Let’s get to it.
Cliff, welcome to the show.
CLIFF: Glad to be here. I am so excited.
ANNE: Well thank you. I can’t wait to talk books with you today. When we got your submission in, you described yourself as an eclectic reader and I am so excited about all the different paths of bookish exploration we can take today.
CLIFF: Yeah. Me too. I love to read. I’d loved to read since I was a kid. I honestly can’t think of a genre that I haven’t enjoyed or that I won’t read. Fantasy, true crime, horror, I love a cheesy love story.
ANNE: Okay, I have questions.
ANNE: And also I can immediately see some not problems exactly but specific challenges you may encounter like if you’re up for reading anything, I can only imagine what your to be read list must look like.
CLIFF: Oh, it’s ridiculous. [ANNE LAUGHS] My currently reading list ‘cause I have a bad habit of starting books and then stopping them ‘cause I want to read something else, it’s awful.
ANNE: Okay, but I just have to ask, you use the words “cheesy love story,” you gotta tell me what that means to you and what do you have any ideas on why you enjoy them so much?
CLIFF: I love a good story that really gets at like human emotion, you know, Simon vs. Homo Sapiens Agenda is kinda the one that’s coming immediately to mind that I really enjoyed. There’s not a lot of risk involved. It’s teenagers working out their emotions and feelings, which I guess means a lot for teenagers, but reading it as an adult, it’s just really fun to watch people figure out who they like, learning their sexuality in the case of Simon vs. Homo Sapiens Agenda. I love that. I love getting a window into someone else’s life.
ANNE: I can appreciate that. Okay, with all those options to choose from, you know we believe in quality over quantity. Quality meaning the books you want to read that you will feel like your reading time was well spent. But how much are you reading, like how often, how many books, how many hours? However you measure this.
CLIFF: [LAUGHS] So I do measure it. I measure it on Goodreads, and then I have a spreadsheet too. I read quite a bit. I was having the best reading year of my life until the pandemic hit, so [ANNE SIGHS] in January I read nine books and then in February I read twelve. A lot of those were audio, and then in March it dropped down to six [LAUGHS] which is where I’ve been hovering ever since then has been six books a month, which I know for some people is a lot and it has been for me in the past. But I typically read between eighty and a hundred books a year.
ANNE: So when we think about what you may enjoy reading next, you do have a lot of slots that could potentially be filled.
CLIFF: I do. Yes.
ANNE: Okay. And again, I just need to say again, step up on my soapbox [CLIFF LAUGHS] like it’s not a competitive sport. There is no right number of books. Like most is not necessarily best, and whatever you as an individual reader are hoping to do we’d like to help you do it and also like, make recommendations that will actually work for you. If you read one book a month, we would be thinking differently about what you may enjoy reading next. So Cliff, you live in Colorado, a state that I love and hope to visit again soon, circumstances willing. How did you end up there and what do you do there?
CLIFF: We’ve been in Colorado for two years. We moved here in 2018. My wife and I were living in California for the six years before that. That’s where I went to graduate school, so I went to a seminary in Pasadena, California, and we lived there for six years. Loved it, and then after I graduated it became pretty clear that we wouldn’t be able to afford to live there very long. We wouldn’t be able to buy a house or anything like that. And then I should say that I started working for my graduate school in the fundraising department as a student and found that I really loved it and had a knack for it. I’ve always been interested in science and so when we started looking at moving outside of California, I started looking for a science organization that I could fundraise for, so kinda lining up my interests with my actual skills.
Colorado was one of the few states my wife and I could agree on. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I grew up in south Florida. I love the ocean. I love the coast. I love the sun. I did live for a few years in Kentucky. I couldn’t handle the gray winters. It’s too much for me. It wasn’t enough sun. So Colorado has like 300 days of sunshine a year. It’s the only state that’s not on a coast that I could justify living in, so that’s what my wife and I agreed on. And I found a geoscience organization in Colorado that had an opening in their fundraising department, and so I fundraise for mostly students who want to become geoscientists. So for different scholarships and research grants for them. So that’s my day job.
ANNE: What does it even mean to have a knack for fundraising? And know that this question is being asked by an introvert who would rather die than ask people for money every day as part of my job. What does it take personality wise, skills set wise?
CLIFF: I’m an extrovert. In fact the last time I took the Myers-Briggs test, I came out 97% extroverted. So way up there on that scale. So I love talking to people. I love meeting with people. And then because I went to seminary and because I’ve always been interested in kinda helping people and kinda that pastoral side of things, if I find something I’m really passionate about it’s really easy for me to talk to people about it.
CLIFF: So as an extrovert, I love the meetings and then feeling passionate about getting students into geoscience. That’s something that I talk to people about. It makes it kinda easy, especially because the people we’re fundraising from love geoscience and care about geoscience probably more than I do because most of them are professional geoscientists. So when that’s in my mind, then I know that they’re just going to be excited to help the next generation be able to enter the profession.
ANNE: What do geoscientists do?
CLIFF: Basically anything related to studying the earth, so that could be anything from volcanos to studying earthquakes and plate tectonics, ocean floor mapping, so planetary geology, studying the geology of other planets. My favorite new word that I’ve learned since I started working there is palynology. [ANNE LAUGHS] It’s the study of ancient pollen in the fossil record.
ANNE: Wait, really?
CLIFF: Yeah. Mmhmm. I’m not a geoscientist myself so hopefully that’s an accurate enough description for any geoscientist you have in your audience.
ANNE: That is fascinating. Cliff, for whatever reason, maybe it’s ‘cause my kids are getting older, maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about my own work, I have been thinking a lot lately about the book that so many college students read, maybe still read at some point, and that’s the What Color Is Your Parachute book. Do you know what I’m talking about?
CLIFF: I am not familiar with this one. No.
ANNE: Maybe this was like the classic career handbook of 20 to 40 years ago and not right now, but the idea in the book is when you’re approaching your work, there’s two different things. There’s the field you’re working in, like you’re working in the field of geoscience, and then there’s the actual job you’re doing every day, which is your fundraising. And to be happy in your work you need to think about both those things like you could be an admin, but if you’re doing it at a publisher and get to send emails about the book world, that may bring you more satisfaction if you’re passionate about books and reading than it may be to be like an admin at a coffee shop.
I was thinking of that as you described how you got into your profession, like ‘cause you were clearly thinking about those two levels, and I’m also thinking about how many emails we get from readers that say I want to work in books and reading. Like how can I do it? And I would just urge you all to think about, like, your skills and the world you want to work in and it’s fun to see that in practice. I’m going to make my kids listen to the episode. [BOTH LAUGH] So Cliff, against that backdrop, tell me more about what your reading life looks like, especially at this moment in time.
CLIFF: So typically my job requires me to travel a lot, visiting donors, and that is not happening right now, obviously. And so I listen to a lot of audiobooks when I fly and travel and so that number of books that I’ve been able to consume over the last several months has really decreased, which is where the bulk of my reading has decreased is in the audiobook genre. So most of what I’ve been reading has actually been ebooks. I read on the Kindle a lot, and because it’s been such a stressful couple of months, I’ve kinda turned to some things that I’ve read before, you know, rereading Lord of the Rings which is just this big sweeping story and so it’s really easy to get lost in that. So that was really nice.
Typically I like to theme my reading, so I visited some donors in Maine last year — Maine and New Hampshire — and so of course I had to read a Stephen King novel while I was up there. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I was driving around visiting people in Maine and New Hampshire, and I was listening to Pet Sematary on the drive, which I loved and that was great. I haven’t been able to do that as much recently, so my reading’s kinda changed in that sense and I do listen to audiobooks still but it’s just not as much. I can listen to them at certain points throughout the day.
CLIFF: If I go on a walk or I try to commute every morning, which means I walk around the block so that it feels like me leaving my house for a couple of minutes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Yeah. I get that.
CLIFF: Yeah. So that’s kinda what my reading life is at now.
ANNE: That’s so interesting. I find that many readers don’t realize the habits they depend on to read regularly until it changes and that’s taken away, like your travel took away audiobooks time. Not that it took it away, but like, that was clearly something that worked for you and your reading life and then suddenly the structure of … I mean, I was going to say your life, but the world changes. And that’s not happening now.
I love that you said that you theme your reading, like that’s a verb. Is that something you enjoy doing even when you don’t travel? Do you like to cluster your books to read like multiple books that cluster around a certain subject or something like that?
CLIFF: I do. So even in the midst of the pandemic, I actually have been reading some pandemic books throughout. I read The Stand by Stephen King. A couple of Octavia Butler books are pandemic books. So I find that to be really helpful. I also really like summer reading and fall reading. I like Christmas and winter reading. Most Christmases I actually reread The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. That was probably the book that got me into reading while I was really young and so every year at Christmas, that just feels like such a Christmas-y book.
I kinda cluster them around how I’m feeling in that moment. That’s not always obvious with The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, a little more obvious but that’s kinda the direction I like to go. What am I feeling in this moment, what the fall colors make me feel, and then what kinda books fit with that type of reading. A lot of times that’s Stephen King. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Well we will definitely keep the seasonal reading in mind today. Now something that we ask our potential guests on our submission form, and readers, I’m referring to the one at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, is to give us a peek at your Instagram account if you have one, and this is absolutely not a requirement. It just lets us see a little bit about your life, which is why we ask, and your Instagram account is all about cooking. Would you tell me about that?
CLIFF: Yeah. So I started doing this a few years ago, so my Instagram account is cookingwithclifton. I have always loved cooking. My grandmother taught me how to make spaghetti when I was like eleven and then by the time I was twelve or thirteen, my dad had handed me over all of the grilling responsibility. [ANNE LAUGHS] And so, yeah, well that was South Florida so I think he probably didn’t want to be out in the heat grilling, but … So I’ve been cooking since I was really young.
It was really funny actually when my wife and I first got married, we were in college. The house that we moved into didn’t have a stove immediately. Took a couple days to get one, and all we had was a hot plate and an electric skillet, and my wife was like, I don’t know what to make with this. I was like oh I got this. And put together this great meal, and she always tells the story, she’s like why am I cooking? So I have pretty much been doing most of the cooking in our relationships since then. She’s kinda an amateur photographer, so she started taking pictures of my food and we just started posting them on Instagram.
But we’re starting to learn some new vegan meals. We’re not vegan. We’ve added some vegan meals to our repertoire so those should be showing up on the feed pretty soon. In fact, a couple months ago when kinda the blackout publishing movement happened, we purchased several cookbooks by Black authors and two of those were vegan cookbooks. We picked up Vegetable Kingdom by Bryant Terry and Sweet Potato Soul by Jenné Claiborn and those have been really fun. We’ve already cooked a bunch of meals outta those, and that’s been kinda really fun. That’s kinda reinvigorated my love of cooking to add something new, something fun to figure out, and I love cookbooks. That’s actually the bulk of our print books that we actually have in our house are cookbooks. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, really? You know that makes a lot of sense now that you say it. It’s just not as satisfying to read a cookbook on an iPad.
CLIFF: No, no, it’s not. I have a few ebook cookbooks, but no, it’s not the same.
ANNE: Cliff, are these strictly recipe sources for you or do you like to read your cookbooks?
CLIFF: Oh, no, as soon as I get them I sit down and read all the way through. I actually love a cookbook that also has stories and one of the fun things about Bryant Terry’s cookbook is actually he has playlists for music to go along with each recipe.
ANNE: Oh that’s so fun.
CLIFF: That’s super fun. So I love Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat by Samin Nosrat. That’s a great cookbook too, because she tells stories and different kinds of anecdotes and things in there that are just really fascinating, so I love the full process of the cookbook reading through, reading the introduction all of that.
ANNE: I’m with you on that. I love a good essay introducing the recipe or telling the story behind it. Well, Cliff, I can’t wait to get into your books and hear more specifically about what you love and what you don’t. Are you ready to get started?
CLIFF: I am ready.
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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’ve been reading lately and we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Cliff, how did you choose these titles?
CLIFF: So like it’s been said, I’m an eclectic reader. I read pretty widely. Lots of genres. So [LAUGHS] pretty tough to kinda narrow that down to three books, but I tried to choose books that were representative of my interests and things that I love and then I wanted to choose books that kinda stuck with me, so books that maybe kinda have characters that live beyond the books or books that I just can’t stop thinking about. So the first one that I chose is The Shark Club by Ann Kidd Taylor. I absolutely loved this book.
So it takes place in south Florida, which is where I’m from, and it follows a young marine biologist Maeve and I wanted to be a marine biologist growing up and my life took a different turn. I loved the character in this. It’s funny ‘cause it opens up ... This isn’t a spoiler, this is actually on the marketing copy, when she’s a teenager she’s bitten by a black tipped reef shark on the same day that she kisses her childhood crush. That kinda sets the tone for the story and I love it. It’s such a great love story, you know, there’s a love triangle. There’s a shark finning operation town, so it’s like a mystery that she’s trying to solve. It’s such a fun book. It feels like summer. It feels like being in south Florida. It’s so great.
ANNE: Okay. I have a confession. I started this, I think in 2017 when it came out, and I never finished it. It’s still on my shelf with the bookmark in it.
ANNE: I figured you could relate to that because you’ve done that, but that makes me want to go pick it up again right now. Did you know that it had all those factors that appealed to you when you picked it up? You’re in south Florida, you wanted to be a marine biologist, you pick up a book with that setting with that profession, tell me more about that.
CLIFF: I try to read as little about the books I pick up before I read them because I don’t want anything spoiled and sometimes marketing copy is not always a great description and actually will get to that in a little bit when we talk about a book I didn’t like.
ANNE: Oh yay.
CLIFF: [LAUGHS] Yeah. So that usually means I end up judging books by their cover and their title a lot, so the fact that this was called The Shark Club, just immediately I was like okay, I’m going to read this book having no idea what it was about. It just kinda happened.
ANNE: I’m glad it was such a success at the time. Cliff, tell me about your second favorite book. What did you choose for this one?
CLIFF: So my second favorite book is a huge swing from The Shark Club. It’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara. I love true crime. That’s one of the genres that I really read a lot of. This has to be one of the best books in the genre, and I know it’s come up a few times on the podcast both loved and hated.
ANNE: Has it really? Has it been a hated book?
CLIFF: It’s been a hated one at least once.
ANNE: Okay. ‘Cause I’m just looking at yes, it was Tara. Usually I have a pretty good memory but I did not remember that.
CLIFF: So Michelle McNamara is a true crime author and researcher. She started a hugely popular blog called True Crime Diary and she tragically passed away in April of 2016, but she devoted the last several years of her life to tracking down a serial killer that she dubbed The Golden State Killer. He was active in California in the late ‘60s and ‘70s. he was caught a couple years ago, and just a couple weeks ago he was sentenced. Part of the reason he was caught was because of her research kinda reinvigorated research in the case and this book is not for the faint of heart.
Like I said, I read, watch, listen to a lot of true crime and almost never does it affect my sleep, but this book did. It gave me nightmares. I read it after he was caught. I can’t imagine people who read it after it was released but before he was caught. That just knowing that person was still out there had to be terrifying. And I think one of the strengths of the book is that it really gets into what it was like for the victims, which was part of what makes it so terrifying and so intense. In my opinion though, that’s really what true crime should do. One of my favorite episodes of your show is actually I looked this up I didn’t just remember this off the top of my head [ANNE LAUGHS] but it’s episode 162 “the best bad ending you’ll ever read,” and you guys talked a lot about true crime in that episode.
ANNE: Yes, with Traci Thompson of The Stacks. ‘Cause she is an aficionado.
CLIFF: Oh man, such a good episode. I read most of the books that were recommended after that episode. But you guys talked about reading true crime from the perspective of people who aren’t normally centered in society. I can’t remember the exact words she used, but that was so helpful in understanding my own engagement with true crime because so much of it doesn’t elevate the victims’ and the survivors’ stories. It can actually elevate the crime or the person committing the crime and that’s not what I read true crime for. I read it to understand people’s experiences.
ANNE: I will keep that in mind when we talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Okay, you said that I’ll Be Gone in The Dark was a far cry from The Shark Club, but that feels right for an eclectic reader. So what did you choose for your third book?
CLIFF: So my third book I cheated a little bit is a series.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I’ll allow that.
CLIFF: Okay. So it’s The Xenogenesis or Lilith’s Brood series by Octavia Butler, so it was published under two different names. Originally it was The Xenogenesis. I included that here because I like that title better than The Lilith’s Brood, but it was just published under two different names and it’s a three book series. Dawn, Adulthood Rites, and then Imago is the third book.
I almost don’t want to say anything about this book because it’s so good but just a quick over. It takes place in a distant future where the earth has been decimated by humanity and this alien race takes some of the last remaining human survivors and puts them in like a cryogenic sleep to awaken later after they have healed the earth in order to kinda repopulate the earth. That’s like the most I want to say about it because it’s such a good book, but Lilith is one of the characters they wake up and it follows her story with her progeny after this kinda big cataclysm event hundreds of years in the future, maybe thousands, I can’t remember how far it is. The characters are so rich. The setting’s incredible. It’s amazing.
ANNE: I mean I hear what you’re saying about not wanting to say anything because one of the thrills of reading science fiction is to see what kind of worlds the authors come up with and that thrill of discovery is part of the fun. I think. What do you think? Is sci-fi a genre you read a lot of?
CLIFF: It is. I found myself recently getting more into sci-fi now partly because of Octavia Butler. I read a lot of fantasy growing up, so sci-fi’s kinda a recent addition for me but I’m finding I really enjoy it.
ANNE: You said because of Octavia Butler. Tell me more about that.
CLIFF: She’s from Pasadena, California.
ANNE: Oh I didn’t know that.
CLIFF: That’s where I kinda got introduced to her and then a friend of mine is actually doing a Ph.D on the theology of Octavia Butler’s works. But I had never read anything she had written until there was like, I think there was like three or four episodes of your show where Kindred came up.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I went through a period where I couldn’t stop.
CLIFF: Yeah, no, it was great. It was mentioned so many times I was like okay, I just have to read it. I have to get it and I have to read it, and I should have read it way before this, and I couldn’t put it down. That was the end of last year. I mean, as an adult I would love to spend all day reading and that book was one of those that I could’ve done that and just taken a break to grab a banana or something in order to keep going ‘cause it was so good.
And I immediately, as soon as I finished it, told my wife, okay, you have to read this book. She read it and she loved it. I decided that I wanted to read everything Octavia Butler had written at that point which I started in January and finished in May, so I’ve read everything that she’s published. I even found her book that was published Survivor that she ended up pulling from publishing ‘cause she ended up not liking it as much, but I found it.
ANNE: Oh I don’t know about this.
CLIFF: Yeah, so it was part of her Patternist series and it was published for a couple years and then she ended up not liking the direction the story went or not being pleased with the work and so she ended up having it pulled. You can still find copies of it some places. Used bookstores and things, but I found that and read that one as well, so I read everything that has been published by her.
ANNE: So you’re an Octavia Butler completist.
ANNE: How does that feel?
CLIFF: It feels really good. I am an Enneagram-3 and so completing something like that, having goals like that really appeals to me and so that feels like a big accomplishment to have read everything she wrote.
ANNE: Cliff, for your hated book and you said yeah, I have no problem saying hate for this book, what did you choose?
CLIFF: I chose The Curious Incident of the Dog and the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. I really did hate this book. Like I’ve mentioned I do have a habit of starting books and then moving onto another book before I finish it. This is one of the few books that I ever just stopped reading because I disliked it so much. It won several awards, so I really expected it to be good. I listened to it on audio, and it’s a short book, so I kept increasing the reading speed to try to get through it. I just couldn’t do it. And I’ve been really thinking about, especially because I didn’t finish the book, how to articulate what it was I disliked about it so much. Well part of it was the marketing copy. Presented it as the main character is supposed to have Asperger’s syndrome, but the author doesn’t diagnose the character and admitted that he actually doesn’t know a lot about the Autism spectrum. I think he even kinda wishes that wasn’t mentioned on the marketing copy.
To me when I listened to the book it really felt like it just played into the stereotypes of people with Autism. It was not something that really engaged with the true experiences of someone who is on the spectrum, and there’s all kinds of articles written about it online. One of the big reasons I think that I engage with books is to see a human story and this doesn’t feel like a human story. It felt pretty flat. It’s not that the character is on the spectrum that I disliked, it’s just the way that’s presented.
ANNE: Cliff, what I’m noticing is that you read this book that was not for you, but I’m hearing how you really had to take some time to break down why precisely that was. Cliff, what have you been reading lately?
CLIFF: So I am currently reading The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton. I’ve been kinda reading her last couple of books that she’s written so I’ve read Next Year in Havana and When We Left Cuba. Really enjoyed those. I know we talked about theme reading, this one was super fun because Last Train to Key West takes place during Labor Day weekend in 1935 when the hurricane hit the Florida Keys and derailed the train down there, and so that was really fun because Labor Day weekend just happened. That was not intentional. It was kinda a happy coincidence, so I really enjoyed that.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I remember my delight when I picked up a book … Oh, what was it? I can picture where I was by the pool in Florida actually when I started reading this, but I picked up the book and it said on July 5th, whatever year this important thing happened, and it was July 5th, and I was like ah, the universe is smiling on me today.
CLIFF: It’s so fun. It’s such a great coincidence. But that’s a great book. I’m really enjoying that. In fact when I was a kid I remember driving down to Key West at one point. At that point you could still see pieces of the railroad. I don’t know how many people know that history but there was the first way that you could really get down to Key West without getting on a boat was through this big railroad and it was destroyed in the 1935 Labor Day hurricane that hit down there, and so this book is all about that Labor Day weekend. It takes place over the course of the three days. So that’s been really fun. I’m almost finished with that, in fact last night I just got the point where the hurricane was really hitting. I had to tell myself that I needed to stop or else I was going to stay up all night reading. [LAUGHS] So I gotta finish that later.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That’s a fun item to look forward to on your to do list.
CLIFF: I’m really excited. And then I’m always reading an audiobook as well, and so I’m actually listening to Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey.
ANNE: Ooh. How is that? I loved that in print.
CLIFF: I love it. It’s so good. Like I said, I try to read as little about books before I read them. For some reason I wasn’t necessarily feeling this one but it came available from the library on Libby. I didn’t really have any other audiobooks to listen to, so I was like okay, well it’s been recommended and I’ll just start it. I was immediately hooked ‘cause it’s kinda like a detective noir novel in a world where magic exists and it’s just … It’s really, really good. I think I’m 70% of the way through it at this point, and I’m enjoying that one a lot. The narrator’s great. I can’t remember their name, but the book is very good.
ANNE: I first started reading Sarah Gailey this summer when I read their book Upright Women Wanted and then I read Magic for Liars, which I love, and then I happened to get a copy of their 2021 release A Life is a Dangerous Thing to Share, I can see it on my book cart from where I’m sitting. I’m kinda waiting. I don’t know why I’m waiting, but it’s not coming out until 2021. I want to be able to talk about it fresh, but I’m really looking forward to reading more of their work.
CLIFF: I will definitely read more their work as well. In fact I’ll probably go [LAUGHS] on the library website after we finish the call and add some more to my hold list. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Now that this is top of mind.
CLIFF: Yup. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I get how that works and also how that gives you a TBR with thousands of titles.
CLIFF: Oh my gosh, so many titles. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: All right, before we add more to your pile, Cliff, what do you want to be different in your reading life? What are you looking for?
CLIFF: I’m always looking for books that kinda push the boundaries of what I typically read, which because I read so widely, that’s difficult to find sometimes. Like for instance I just recently read The Deep by Rivers Solomon. I love that book. It was almost like it was written to be an audiobook. I listened to it on audio.
ANNE: I don’t know that one.
CLIFF: Oh, gosh, I wish I knew all the details of this, but it was … I think it was based on a song that Daveed Diggs' group wrote. It’s a short book. And it’s about this I think I don’t know if they would be described as mermaids that are the descendants of slaves who jumped off the ships in the middle passage and it’s such a fascinating concept. And so there’s this whole under sea world. Daveed Diggs actually narrates the book which just makes it that much more delightful. It’s so fantastic. Very unique and kinda pushing the boundaries of the genres I typically read. So I really enjoyed that.
ANNE: Okay. So taking something you like and pushing it.
CLIFF: Yup. And then I’ve been on a several year quest to read more authors of color and queer authors in particular. And particularly I’d like to find authors of color and queer authors in genres that you don’t typically find them, so true crime would be a big one. That’s a difficult genre to find authors of color or queer authors, and then sci-fi as well. So I would love to find more authors in those realms.
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ANNE: All right. Let’s evaluate where we are. So you loved The Shark Club by Ann Kidd Taylor, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara, and The Xenogenesis/Lilith’s Brood series by Octavia E. Butler, and lately you’ve been reading Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton and Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey. You’re looking for characters that live beyond the book and books that push the boundaries of what you typically read. Okay, I’ve got four great books for you. Can we just do it all?
CLIFF: I’ll take four.
ANNE: I was paying attention when you said you love reading about places you’ve lived, marine biologists, pandemic reading right now has been oddly comforting. Is that an accurate recap?
CLIFF: That is definitely an accurate recap. Most people I tell that to find that odd so I think oddly comforting is probably the best way to describe it.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] We’ve been joking how there’s two kinds of readers, ones who hear eerily prescient pandemic novel and want to run away, and ones who hear that and say give it to me now.
CLIFF: Immediate reaction is as soon as you said that was ooh that sounds interesting.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, well let’s start there. This book is hard to find right now in the United States. I’m not sure why, but this is gonna help me justify recommending four books instead of three okay because it might be hard to get your hands on this one. But the first eerily prescient pandemic novel is a new release kinda by Saleema Nawaz called Songs for the End of the World. Is this a book you’re familiar with?
CLIFF: No, I’ve never heard of this.
ANNE: Okay, well I’m not completely surprised although I think that’s a real shame. Nawaz is a Canadian author and readers, go to the show notes and fill me in if you know the deal here because this was originally slated for U.S. publication on August 25th, but that has vanished from the Interwebs and I want to know what’s going on and I have no idea. But it came out in Canada on August 25th.
It was originally scheduled to be published in late August and I imagined for two reasons, one the book was done, but two in the fictional story, the Coronavirus pandemic explodes in New York City in the fictional timeline. I think it’s actually during the summer of 2020, so you know, it was time to have that ‘this is fiction but it feels really real’, and then it felt too real. But what the publisher did seeing real life events unfolding is they moved the ebook timeline up to April and released that then in Canada and they said kinda what you said, like people have always turn to stories to help them make sense of the chaos of life, so we hope this novel contains a message that people will find comforting.
But this is a novel about a Coronavirus pandemic. It was written between 2013 and 2019, what Saleema Nawaz has said about it reminds me of the same things that Lawrence Wright said about his pandemic novel although that’s one about the flu, it came out in April called The End of October. He said I did the research. Like I knew what it would look like. Like I looked at past pandemics and how, you know, viral illnesses have spread and I used that to write a fictional story so it’s not shocking that it sounds really true to life. There’s some small differences like the specific symptoms, but ugh, it’s seriously meta and I think you may enjoy that.
So there are seven interlocking perspectives here in this book and all the characters, very whom who actually know each other, but the link between them is this mystery girl whose wanted because she’s the one person who hasn’t been tracked down who is known ‘cause she was at ground zero where the virus started spreading from in New York, and that was at a really trendy fancy restaurant. It’s seriously meta in the sense that one of the characters is a novelist who wrote a novel called How to Avoid the Plague. And in this story as the real life, fictional pandemic takes hold, the circumstances are eerily similar to what he wrote in his novel. So how’s that for a head-spinner in 2020?
CLIFF: That sounds incredible.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. Nawaz has said that for her stories begin with the characters but she really liked the idea of writing about a pandemic connecting them all because she said that a crisis is a way of testing relationships and seeing people’s true characters. And so she saw it as an opportunity for showing how a crisis like this, not only affects our day to day lives, but also our relationships with each other.
A question she had was does something like this bring out the worst in people or the best in people? And what do we owe each other in times like these? So that makes it sound like sure, writing to those themes you could absolutely find comfort in a novel about a pandemic.
Songs for the End of the World is the fictional name of an album in the book put out by a couple of the characters. I listened to this on audio. It was excellent in that format. There was a full cast narration. The narrators were Alex Paxton-Beesley, Amelia Sargisson, Tyrone Savage, and several others. It was longer than what I usually listen to on audio. It ran almost fifteen hours.
But the tricky thing is again there is no U.S. publication date at this time, so if this sounds good to you, my advice would be to check out Book depository, a site that makes it easy to order international books, or to order directly from Canadian bookstores. This is how I’ve gotten some Canadian releases before they were available in the U.S. and it’s also how I’ve gotten some of my truly gorgeous editions of Anne of Green Gables that were not published here. So that is Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz. How does that sound to you?
CLIFF: That sounds awesome. I will definitely be searching how to get my hands on this as soon as possible.
ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. Also good luck. [CLIFF LAUGHS] Now you said that you were hoping to read true crime that wasn’t by well to do white people basically. Cliff, I don’t have a book like that for you, but I have an excellent crime novel that’s a kinda story that I don’t think we had before.
ANNE: It’s fiction. You still up for it?
CLIFF: Oh yeah. Definitely.
ANNE: Okay. This is a new book. Also coincidentally out August 25th. It’s called Winter Counts and it’s by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. In this novel, Weiden is explicitly probing themes of identity, place, of people on the margins, and something I love about this book especially for you is it’s setting. This book takes place among the Sicangu Lakota people in South Dakota. Weiden’s a citizen of the Lakota nation. He actually received his MFA from the Institute of American Indian Arts. I didn’t realize that until I got to the end of the book when he says you probably want to know more about my background right now.
This story takes place on a Rosebud reservation in South Dakota and at the center of the story is Virgil Wounded Horse. He is a Native American vigilante for hire. People hire him when they can’t get justice on the reservation. And there’s some factual legislation that plays into both life on the reservation right now and also his story and that is the Major Crimes Act, which goes back more than a century that says certain felonies cannot be prosecuted on the reservation by natives. They have to be prosecuted by the federal government at their discretion and something that’s said in the book is, you know, the feds don’t want to prosecute anything if it’s not murder, which means terrible crimes are taking place on the reservation and they’re done with impunity because the perpetrators know that nothing is going to happen to them, at least not federally, and that is where Virgil Wounded Horse comes in.
I gotta say like the novel right at the beginning has a very vivid scene, this is like the first four paragraphs of the book which is Virgil beating somebody up, he was assaulting a student in a bathroom. That’s background information. There’s no like detailed scene there. But her family hired Virgil to enact some measure of justice and it ended up with a guy’s teeth on the pavement in the parking lot. So it really opens with a bang.
CLIFF: Wow, sounds like it.
ANNE: So Virgil Wounded Horse is a great character because he’s clearly a broken man, but he’s also very observant, very self-aware, and he lives on the margins of society and Weiden has said that he thought even if people didn’t know anything about Virgil Wounded Horse’s life was like or what it was like on the Rosebud reservation before they picked up his book, they could relate to that feeling of not entirely belonging.
So in the book Virgil is Iyeska, that means … Well, it originally had a positive meaning that was translator, it literally means speaking white, but overtime it became a slur, calling someone this is a good way to get into a fight. It’s basically a taunt, saying you’re a half-breed, but in the book as Virgil explores his own place in his family, on the reservation, and what he … Actually going back to Songs for the End of the World, what he owes his community. He confronts a lot of what happened in his past and also is compelled to take action to solve the crisis that he may be uniquely to approach in the present which would be different than his vigilante justice that he’s done professionally for so long.
So what happens is his nephew gets roped into a heroin distribution scheme and Virgil is the only one who can get him out because of the circumstances. I read this book on my Kindle and it was just fine in that format, although I am curious to hear what it’s like on audio. But Weiden addresses right at the end of the book in the author’s notes, which readers, you gotta read these for any kind of fiction grounded in reality. This is where the author says this is what’s real, this is what’s not, these are my sources. Don’t miss it.
So he addressed some of the questions that would occur to you as a reader like do these private enforcers actually exist on reservations? And are felony criminal cases being declined by federal authorities to investigate, and he said the answer to both questions is yes. He explains that as well as sharing sources for further reading. Some of the sources have inspired him and helped him get his facts right. So Weiden has said that he loves writers who transcend genre. He really wanted to do the same in this book. How does it sound to you?
CLIFF: That sounds amazing. [LAUGHS] I can’t wait to read that. I read David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon a couple years ago.
CLIFF: It sounds kinda similar. Yeah that sounds really great. I’m excited about that one.
ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. That is Winter Counts. It’s by David Heska Wanbli Weiden. Okay, next, you fell in love with the works of Octavia Butler. You are now a completeist. You’re out of new novels. Have you read anything by Nnedi Okorafor?
CLIFF: No, I have not even heard of her.
ANNE: Okay. I’m rubbing my hands together in glee. This makes me really happy. She is a Nigerian-American award winning author who is known for her African-futurist worlds — that is her term. She has a great TED talk on the subject — that really bend genres. Something else that’s fun if you read lots of her works is that many of the worlds in her disconnected books, the worlds often interconnect which is fun, and she’s written all kinds of stuff for different age groups and genres like she’s done comics. She’s written YA. She’s written adult. She’s written short works. She’s written long works. She’s also written comics for Marvel. She’s doing Black Panther, Long Live the King, and Wakanda Forever. Also we’re just full of Octavia Butler connections today. Not entirely a coincidence but I still like it. She is also co-writing the adaptation of Butler’s Wild Seed.
CLIFF: Oh. I’m so excited about that one.
ANNE: I think a good place to start with her work — and there’s a lot of her work. She’s prolific — is her novella Binti. Binti’s the first book. It’s actually a three part series. The way Okorafor describes it herself, she calls it a space opera about an African girl in the future who sneaks away from her beloved home to attend the finest university in the galaxy. It starts with a bang. I mean almost literally. So in the beginning of the book. Binti is getting on a spaceship and she is going far, far away to the best university in the galaxy. No one is better than her at math. In fact, something that I love in the book is the way that she visualizes numbers and mathematical equations. When she’s stressing out, she’ll just repeat equations to herself in her head to send to herself. She calls it treeing. And that’s just a little fun detail that I think makes her feel fleshed out and real as a character.
But she’s on a spaceship. She’s going to school. Everything’s fine and then all hell breaks loose on the ship. The Meduse people are doing what they think is best for their civilization. All the passengers are killed except Binti who quickly realizes hey, there’s some special stuff about me and my people that I had no idea about. If you look at the cover of the book, there’s a woman whose face is rubbed with clay and this is clay that’s unique to her people, and it takes on a very important significance in the book as does her hair.
I love all the themes that Okorafor plays with here. If you’re like many readers, you’ll read Binti the novella and you’ll run out to read book two and then you’ll want to read book three and then really excellent unrelated novel that we’ve talked about on the podcast before, it’s Who Fears Death, and we talked about that a million years ago in episode 45 with Ana Salazar. So what I like about Okorafor and specifically Binti for you is she creates worlds that a reader can absolutely get lost in, and she’s prolific, so you won’t run out of works for a long time. How does that sound to you?
CLIFF: That sounds great, and I love that you recommend starting with a novella too because I like to read long books but I also like novellas. I’m very excited about that.
ANNE: I am happy to hear it. And finally you’re talking about pushing boundaries of what you typically read, and also wanting to read more queer authors. I’m thinking about a little book that I haven’t picked up yet but Brenna on our team is pushing it hard and I think I’m going to push the boundaries with what I typically read because this book is scary and I don’t typically do the scary stuff. The one I have in mind is Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant. That’s the pseudonym for the author Seanan McGuire. Have you read anything by this author?
CLIFF: No, I haven’t.
ANNE: Okay, well this is a sci-fi horror novel. It’s the follow up to her 2015 novella Rolling in the Deep, but I’ve heard that you do not need to read this in order. It focuses on a sonar specialist who becomes obsessed with mermaids after her sister disappears. And these are not mermaids like Ariel in The Little Mermaid. These are terrifying mermaids.
I’m going to share a little something for readers who also don’t read the scary stuff from our past guest Michelle Wilson who wanted me to know that first she loved this book. Said it reads compulsively like a thriller and something she also enjoyed about this is there are all kinds of characters with different abilities, sexual orientations, and that’s part of their life on the page. And Michelle told me it was scary, but like Jaws or Jurassic Park.
CLIFF: I mean, I’m already hooked. That sounds great. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, and wanted you to know that Mira Grant, also known as Seanan McGuire, identifies as bisexual. Okay, sci-fi horror. Is that pushing the boundaries? Or is that something you’re reading all the time?
CLIFF: No. I have - I read sci-fi and I read horror, but I have not read … I don’t think I’ve read anything sci-fi horror. Not that I can think of. So that sounds very exciting.
ANNE: I am glad to hear it, and if you enjoy those, you may want to go on and read … Seanan McGuire’s well known for her 2016 Every Heart a Doorway, that would be an excellent next step with her work.
ANNE: Because apparently Cliff I think if you have a zillion title long TBR, you could use like 20 more right now. [LAUGHS]
CLIFF: Oh yeah, I’m just probably going to go ahead and add the complete works of all the authors you’ve mentioned. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: All right, so of the books we talked about today, they were Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz, Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden, Binti by Nnedi Okorafor, and Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant. Of those titles, what do you think you’ll read next?
CLIFF: Ooh, that’s … I’m stuck between Winter Counts and Into the Drowning Deep. I think I’m going to go with Winter Counts first.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. Cliff, thanks so much for talking books with me today.
CLIFF: Thanks for having me. This has been a blast.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Cliff, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/256 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. Follow Cliff’s cookbook adventures on Instagram at cookingwithclifton.
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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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• Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
• What Color is Your Parachute? 2020: A Practical Manual for Job-Hunters and Career-Changers by Richard N. Bolles
• The Lord of the Rings by J. R. R. Tolkein
• Pet Sematary by Stephen King
• The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C. S. Lewis
• Vegetable Kingdom: The Abundant World of Vegan Recipes by Bryant Terry
• Sweet Potato Soul: 100 Easy Vegan Recipes for the Southern Flavors of Smoke, Sugar, Spice, and Soul by Jenne Claiborne
• Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat
♥ The Shark Club by Ann Kidd Taylor
♥ I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara
♥ Lilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler
△ The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime by Mark Haddon
• The Last Train to Key West by Chanel Cleeton
• Next Year in Havana by Chanel Cleeton
• When We Left Cuba by Chanel Cleeton
• Magic for Liars by Sarah Gailey
• Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey
• The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey
• The Deep by Rivers Solomon
• Songs for the End of the World by Saleema Nawaz
• The End of October by Lawrence Wright
• Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
• Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
• Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant
• WSIRN Ep. 162: The Best Bad Ending You’ll Ever Read w/Traci Thomas
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What’s your go-to cookbook?