Reading for pure escapism means something different for every reader. Some of us turn to puzzle-like mysteries, some of us immerse ourselves in fantastical worlds. Today’s guest stays away from doom scrolling by reading lots and lots and lots of romance.
“Recovering English major” Jenna Lowenstein still enjoys the occasional literary fiction read, but these days she’s picking up the books she wants to read instead of forcing the books she feels like she should read. From spicy romance novels to thrillers with deep themes, books help Jenna set aside her high-pressure job in politics and engage with the world …without looking at her news app.
I had so much fun talking with Jenna about her romance spice level ratings, the importance of comfort reads, and what it means to read for peace, joy, and escapism.
Let’s get to it!
JENNA: But that’s … You might be onto something with the government question. Maybe I’m, like, living out my work fantasies on the page here. I don’t know. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 258.
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.
Reading for pure escapism means something different for every reader. Some of us turn to puzzle-like mysteries, some of us immerse ourselves in fantastical worlds. Today’s guest stays away from doom scrolling by reading lots and lots and lots of romance.
“Recovering English major” Jenna Lowenstein still enjoys the occasional literary fiction read, but these days she’s picking up the books she wants to read instead of forcing the books she feels like she should read. From spicy romance novels to thrillers with deep themes, books help Jenna set aside her high-pressure job in politics and engage with the world … without looking at her news app.
I had so much fun talking with Jenna about her romance spice level ratings, the importance of comfort reads, and what it means to read for peace, joy, and escapism.
Let’s get to it.
Jenna, welcome to the show.
JENNA: So glad to be here. Thanks for having me.
ANNE: Ah, well, it’s my pleasure, and I have to tell you often, listeners, when we chat, we want it to sound fresh, even though you don’t actually listen to us talk live unless we have like a really special event for our patreon community or we do something online. We keep thinking it would be fun to record one of these live and let everybody listen in, but I mean, Jenna, the truth of the matter is you work in politics and we’re talking before election day and this is going to air just after election day, and I have no idea what the state of the world is right now if you’re listening, readers. [LAUGHS] But we’re going to dig in knowing that we’re, like, operating in this tension. But you work in politics. You can handle the tension I think.
JENNA: We love the tension, but I feel like this podcast taping is a little bit of an escapism for me the same way reading is an escapism for me. It’s like a little welcome distraction from these crazy last six days running up to election day.
ANNE: Oh, well, that puts a big smile on my face. I think some people are apologetic about saying oh, well, for me you know, reading isn’t the thing I do to work on my life long readerly Ph.D but it’s a place I escape, and I think that’s fantastic. Okay, tell me a little bit about the escape.
JENNA: Sure. As you said I work in politics and I’ve been doing that, you know, since I graduated college, so 12, 13 years, and it’s a really intense lifestyle. Campaigns are so much fun. You work with people, these hundred hour weeks, you get to know everyone so well, you’re in a foxhole together but it’s also all consuming and really high pressure. It’s kinda like a pressure cooker and from a lifestyle perspective, the thing that most people compartmentalize into twenty minutes of consuming the news each day is your whole life.
You know, you can never turn off everything that happens in the news around social media. You have to stop and ask yourself, is the thing I need to respond to? Is this a thing the candidate I’m working for needs to comment on or the organization I’m working with, you know, needs to have a policy on? And it means that you really feel like you’re sorta on a treadmill all the time, and reading has always been for me a way to take a step back and force myself to shut down that part of my brain for whatever amount of time because if I’m reading a book, I literally cannot be doom scrolling Twitter [BOTH LAUGHS] if I am, you know, walking my dog and listening to an audiobook, that stops me from reading the news at the same time and you know, wandering into the traffic, so it’s always been a peaceful [ANNE LAUGHS] and sorta important tool for me to take care of myself and to have an escape from the work that I do that’s just really high intensity.
ANNE: I have a really pragmatic, burning curiosity question for you.
ANNE: So when you’re not walking your dogs listening to an audiobook [JENNA LAUGHS] but you’re reading words on a page with your eyes, what format do you prefer to read in? And the reason I’m asking is we talk to so many readers who say I cannot read books on my phone because the news is one click away. I’m really wondering how you navigate that.
JENNA: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve definitely evolved over time. I used to be an all paper book type of person and then in the last few years, I’ve recently realized that’s actually just not how I like to read. I sorta aspire … It feels purer to me in some way, but that’s not actually how it fits in my life best, and so I am mostly a Kindle app on my phone or audiobook person on my phone. Maybe that says something about my relationship with my phone, but it definitely means that reading is more convenient for me and once I made that switch, my reading honestly just sorta shot through the roof in terms of volume.
I initially with audio struggled to pay attention. I just think that I found it easy to get distracted, but I realized that there were just some books that I love in that format. We’re going to talk about Tana French in a minute and I found her books, The Dublin Murder Squad books so amazing on audio because you know, the accents and the character performances by the narrators really transported me in a way that I never would have gotten from the page, you know? And Kindle on my phone, I’m the opposite of the people who feel like the news is one click away. It means that the book is one click away for me. I’m always on my phone and so that means I can fit in 15, 20, 30 minute sessions between other stuff that I’m doing.
ANNE: Are you in peak political mode right now or is that sloughed off some just because of the specifics of what you’re doing and the candidate you’re doing it for?
JENNA: After Cory Booker’s campaign ended for President, I basically took on consulting work in politics so definitely still a busy season for me. I work with a number of organizations that do direct electoral work and normally this time of year right before the election you actually might be calming down. Your plans are all set and you’re just executing, but actually I think this year because, you know, there’s concerns about a contested election or how long it might take to count most folks in politics are working overtime to put plans in place for what it looks like to make sure that every vote gets counted. What kind of work do we need to do to, you know, mobilize the public to support a fair count in the days and weeks after election day. We don’t expect it to be over next Tuesday unfortunately, or last Tuesday when this podcast airs. [BOTH LAUGH] So definitely thinking about that a lot, how do we mobilize folks to make sure our fair process happens.
ANNE: Oh, well, I’m so interested in hearing what you turn to when you wish to escape from the news and your work life. I imagine we’ll get into that when we start talking about your books. So for right now, I’d loved to hear what your reading life is like now and has been like in the not too distant past.
JENNA: I would definitely say in the last few years post the 2016 election have been a bit of a reading renaissance for me. The time for me between college and 2016 is about ten years, I think because my career was sorta in high gear, I struggled to fit reading in sometimes and I was a recovering English major and I think that I …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That is a well-trod path.
JENNA: Yeah, I’m sure. I sorta put on a lot of pressure on myself that I had to read like worthwhile, or really important books all the time and some of the books I really love. And some of the those books are really slow and I do not love. [LAUGHS] And so I definitely was someone who struggled with like opening a book I thought I should read, not loving it, putting it down, and then not reading again for four weeks. It’s taken me some time to just really be comfortable with that my goal with reading is to read what I love and what sounds interesting.
And I think probably the 2016 election was a pivot point for me. I was a senior staffer on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. I ran her digital. It was a really intense two years for me, 2015 and 2016, and when it ended the way it did, I definitely like many people went into a period of time whereas I was a little bit shocked and I needed to figure out ways to take care of myself and reading was a huge part of that for me. And the last two months of 2016, so November and December, I read something like 40 books and I read like five books the ten months previous, you know. [LAUGHS] I really just fell into other worlds to have a chance to get away from the one that I was in.
And so in the time since then, you know, I’ve found more sorta reading communities. I’ve found this podcast in early 2017. That was an important part of sorta my reading journey, built relationships with other readers in my life who read more and more widely than I do and could help me tap into new books that I would have never heard of otherwise. It’s just become a much more consistent part of my life over the last four years. I probably read between I don’t know, I think 40 and 60 books a year, pretty wide from a genre perspective. Yeah, it’s just like the hobby for me that brings me a lot of peace and joy and frankly escapism from the news as we talked about.
ANNE: Those are big jobs you’re doing in your late 20s and early 30s and we all laughed at What Should I Read Next HQ when your submission form came in. Listeners, that’s at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, and you said that you’re starting to think of yourself as semi-retired at the ripe old age of 33. [JENNA LAUGHS] And just figuring out next steps and how that reinvesting in your hobby is a part of that. We smiled and we nodded and we also chuckled because you know, the ripe old age of 33.
ANNE: It’s like you’re a major league pitcher or something.
JENNA: And I of course do not mean retired in the literal sense of the word. This work does not pay sufficiently to provide for a retirement at 33. [ANNE LAUGHS] But yeah, I mean, the work that I did for a decade, you move every year. You move where the campaign is. You work a hundred hour weeks. You don’t exercise. You don’t talk to your family nearly enough. [LAUGHS] Actually when I started working for Hillary Clinton at the beginning of 2015, my lovely wife, then fiancé, who had worked for Barack Obama in 2012 pulled my parents aside and said hey, I just want to, like, let you know how this is going to go. I promise she still loves you but you’re not going to hear from her all the time and just that’s not anything about her. That’s not about you. That’s just how it is.
And that life is so addictive and fun and important. The work you’re doing is really meaningful. But it’s also sorta a young person’s game and there’s a point where I just wanted to prioritized some other things in my life too, and so I’m definitely at a phase as you said at the ripe old age of 33, where I’m trying to figure out how I can continue to do work that I find really meaningful which for me means mission oriented and also carve out time and space for my growing family. We have two little dogs. We have a kiddo on the way.
ANNE: Oh, congratulations.
JENNA: Thank you. And part of that is, you know, reinvesting in my hobbies and reading and making space for things that aren’t all work all the time.
ANNE: Well, Jenna, it brings me joy that reading is something you’re turning to for these things in your life, and thank you for letting me and this community be a part of it. That’s so good to hear.
JENNA: Thank you.
ANNE: Okay, so you mentioned casual book talks with friends and finding recommendations, and so now [JENNA LAUGHS] I have to ask you to tell me more about the book club in your life.
JENNA: So a book club is probably a stretch of a description.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I think it does the same purpose. We’re going to go with it.
JENNA: Totally fair. Okay, so I sorta have a book club for romance reading. In reality it’s a group text message with, you know, I think five women who I’ve worked with in various political jobs and I think just sorta over time we all realized oh you read this too? you read this too? Started making recommendations to each other.
You know, one of the things I think about our business is it’s first off all really male dominated even now. I think women in politics tend to stick together because there aren’t that many of them and there aren’t many of them in leadership roles. And so when you add onto that like I have this hobby that’s traditionally really sorta feminized or not taking seriously which is reading romance, it can feel like something you don’t want to talk about publicly, but we found each other and maybe inspired by the model of Stacey Abrams, you know, the badass woman who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 and is also a successful romance novelist on the side.
ANNE: Wait, wait, wait, wait. What?
JENNA: You don’t know that?
ANNE: How did I not know this?
JENNA: Stacey Abrams, she’s a romance novelist under a different name.
ANNE: Is this common knowledge and I just …
ANNE: … Completely missed this important news? Wow. I’m glad we had this conversation, Jenna.
JENNA: Her pen name is Selena Montgomery, and she has like eight or ten books. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Do I just want to have heard of Selena Montgomery or have I actually … That name sounds familiar. Maybe my brain is just trying to cover its track. Okay, I’m glad we had this conversation. Carry on.
JENNA: We all felt really lucky to find each other with a shared hobby and maybe felt inspired by Stacey Abrams willingness to own her second career or first career as a romance novelist, and we started in addition to making recommendations for each other, you know, we put together … It’s so silly but like a guide for romance for the uninitiated that we passed around to other women in the business that we learned may have an interest in these books.
ANNE: Okay, you said it’s so silly.
JENNA: Well, okay, that’s my former English major speaking probably. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know I think that no, it’s not silly. I actually want to be someone who doesn’t think of things as guilty pleasures, but I definitely think of romance reading as for me at least pure escapism. That’s what I like to do when I just like need to shut out the world totally and I know how it’s going to end. It’s really comforting and you know, it’s like a warm blanket, or a puppy. [LAUGHS] You know, it’s just like pure comfort, no challenge. That’s certainly what I get out of reading romance.
ANNE: I definitely relate to that. I had a really hard summer and I read, I think I read like it wasn’t pure romance novels except for a three week period where it really might have been. I was going through like a book a day. Pure escapism, and I am so glad those books were there for me.
JENNA: At the beginning of the pandemic sometime in April maybe, my friend Amanda Litman and I decided that we were going to take on The Bridgerton books by Julia Quinn. There’s eight of them and we read them straight in about three days. We basically didn’t come up for air. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Wow. That’s a lot of pages per hour.
JENNA: It’s so many pages, but it’s so fast. You know, you just sorta run through it and we were sharing our reviews with this group in real time and my poor wife like probably didn’t see me for three days.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So the group text was hopping.
JENNA: Exactly. The group text was hot. And lots happening. And so yeah, I definitely - I definitely relate to what you said. I think it can just be a comforting escape out.
ANNE: So not only were the five of you lighting up this group text, I mean, during the Bridgerton series, but also just on an ongoing basis, you felt compelled to put together a guide ‘cause I imagine many of you were having conversations with other readers on a regular basis for this thing to come into existence. I’d love to hear the story there.
JENNA: I think as a few of the folks started sharing some of our reading publicly, you know in my case, this is the first year I’ve really been a participant in bookstagram. You know, I share a lot of my reading on Instagram stories, some of my other friends have started that as well too. We started getting folks responding when we’d post a book that falls in that romance genre. You know, Tessa Bailey series that started with Fix Her Up has been a favorite of our group of friends and I remember when I posted about one of them, like, 20 people responded who I never would have expected to say I really love these reviews. Keep them coming. And I think that just prompted us that we had kinda amassed an enormous body of knowledge of what was good or what we liked at least and I think particularly with romance sorta like what falls into what spice levels is important for new readers and so, we put together this guide to just help people navigate the world that was new to them.
ANNE: Tell me more about the spice levels
ANNE: ‘Cause on the bookstagram, you see candle emojis, you see eggplant emojis, and you use the chili peppers, which are just so adorable.
JENNA: We do. We use the chili peppers. We go from one to four. One chili pepper is more like a romantic comedy or you know, women’s fiction, something like that where it’s definitely closed door. Everything happens off the pages. You know, moving up to two chili emojis, might be a little steamy but as our guide says it’s not so explicit that you can diagram anything. [ANNE LAUGHS] And then up to four chili peppers which is you know, we say read at your own risk.
ANNE: Your description of Kate Clayborn’s titles made me laugh. Love Lettering, which was in the summer reading guide, readers, go check it out. It gets two chili peppers, but it’s very explicit about its love for New York City if you’re into that. That made me grin.
JENNA: [LAUGHS] And the chili peppers have been both handy and also occasionally awkward. I did post sorta my review of one of I think it was actually another one of the Tessa Bailey books earlier this year on Instagram and I didn’t include a chili pepper warning and so I added another slide and said like fair warning, here’s the chili peppers, and my rabbi who is a lovely woman and friend responded to my story with like a fire emoji [LAUGHS] and I was truly like I really need to think more about the audience of these stories before I post them. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Have y’all had any further conversations about that?
JENNA: We have not. It was really just the one emoji. Yeah. We left it there. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. If Jenna’s rabbi wants to come talk books on What Should I Read Next, we’d love to have a follow up conversation. [LAUGHS]
JENNA: Totally. I’ll let her know.
ANNE: Okay. What kind of feedback have you gotten from sharing this guide with the uninitiated?
JENNA: I think people have just been really delighted. The same experience that you know my core group of romance reading friends and I sorta had which was like, oh you like this too, we can talk about it. We can swap recommendations. We’ve had that same response. One of the coolest things is like half the people who’ve gotten added to the document have added stuff. You know, they drop in comments, they drop in other recommendations and just we incorporate those over time. We sorta have no pride of ownership here. It’s just sharing things that we love with each other and so if other folks have suggestions, we love that too.
ANNE: Have you found that you’re not the only who’s looking for escapist reads right now?
JENNA: Yeah. I think that this is a rough year for everybody and sorta whatever your choice of escapism is, my guess is that you’re over indexing on it. You know at least for folks who I talk romance with, we all read really broadly. Romance is, you know, one lane but a common theme in that chat right now is it’s the only thing we can read. It’s the only thing we can get through particularly late at night if we’re up and stressed about the world or things like that. It’s just it’s the easiest thing to turn to the and the thing we can get through honestly.
ANNE: Yeah. I know that everybody’s escapism can look a little bit different like I’m thinking of my episode with Hanan Al-Zubaidy, I think that was episode 233. It’s called “escaping into someone else’s story,” and she says look, like you want your like feel good reads to escape, I want to escape into somebody else’s like really terrible darkness. That’s what feels good to me. But we do hear themes from readers, a little bit of a genre recalibration for 2020 is a theme I’m hearing a lot. Thanks for doing your part to help readers find [LAUGHS] find a good story to escape into.
JENNA: Yeah. Totally. I’m curious if you see beyond romance, like do you see people really falling into like spy thrillers, like other things that also feel sorta comfortably formulaic or do you think it’s a broader realignment than that?
ANNE: Ooh, okay, here’s my off the cuff, first draft pie chart. So Hanan and her somebody else’s darkness, that’s got like a 10% sliver. That’s one piece. That’s one normal piece of blueberry pie. It’s not a sliver, but it’s not like a super size either. [LAUGHS] Okay, the romance definitely gets like three pieces of pie. I think mysteries also get three pieces of pie. People want a puzzle that they can solve. They can see a problem on the page. They can carry it through and ta-da, you’re done, but I do think like the first book of the Dublin Murder Squad, you mentioned that, that might not like be the right book for right now. They want something where it was fixed. And then 2% is I want to read all the cookbooks, food memoir, books about trees, books about biology, books about I don’t know, knitting, the books that kinda exist in another world.
JENNA: I can definitely understand that.
ANNE: All right. Somebody can diagram that and send it to us. [JENNA LAUGHS] Jenna, that is such a fun picture of your reading life and I’m so excited from there to get into talking about the books that we forced you to choose.
JENNA: It was a little bit of a challenge to choose but so ready to go there.
ANNE: How did you choose?
JENNA: So I definitely think there’s a recency bias to the books that I chose. These are books that I’m still thinking about right now. I definitely struggled, I wanted them to be representative of the things that I love. I was like how will Anne know that I love middle grade if I don’t include middle grade, or how will she know that I love travel memoirs if I don’t include Bill Bryson? But I had to get to three, and so what I did was just think about the books that I read recently that I really loved that I talk about a lot, that I share a lot and this is the list I ended up with.
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 then [LAUGHS] based on what you said travel memoirs, middle grade [JENNA LAUGHS] we’ll narrow it down a little bit, but I’ll recommend three titles you may enjoy reading next. Okay. Jenna, tell me about book one.
JENNA: So the first book that I love and I talk about more than any other book probably is American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson. I read this late last year and I still think about probably every day. This is the story of Marie Mitchell who is a brilliant young, very young intelligence officer with the FBI in the mid 1980s. I actually love it sorta took place right around where I was born, which I thought was just a cool way to get a sense of that decade. She’s also a Black woman in an all-white boys club at the FBI and she’s really sidelined throughout her career.
The story sorta takes place right as she’s recruited for an off-the-books operation aimed at undermining the real life revolutionary leader of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara. Her task is to go undercover and get close to him and help the FBI in the United States undermine him. I just loved this book. It feels like a thriller from the first page to the very satisfying/unsatisfying ending. It has that sorta velocity and high ratio of plot to pages that you would get from a thriller but it also really wrestles with issues of race and colonialism, gender and politics and there was just like a lot more going on there than you would normally get from this kind of thriller. And it was like Wilkinson sorta sat out to flip the genre on its head a little bit and it just for me was like a really wonderful read and I really think about it all the time, and I want to find ten more books just like it.
ANNE: Oh, what a good sign. Although I don’t know how you could find ten more books just like that which is the …
JENNA: You cannot, I tried. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Ooh. And if you are an English major or we’re doing book school right now for the Modern Mrs Darcy book club and we’re talking about reading with a literary lens, like if you’re reading with that eye, there is so much there.
ANNE: There’s so much there, and I actually wasn’t familiar with the rich literary tradition of Black spy novels that has been a thing for many decades and Wilkinson uses … Does she use an epigraph from W. E. B Du Bois?
JENNA: I don’t remember.
ANNE: But she’s talked about him a lot in interviews and double consciousness and how she’s consciousnessly doing that in the book and even triple consciousness and how it’s just ... There’s so much metaphor happening on the page, which you can read. You can read it just like a spy novel beach read kinda situation and I’m using that in the stereotypical sense obviously, you could read Les Mis at the beach and it would be a beach book. [JENNA LAUGHS] But I think you know what I mean. But if you really want to get nerdy and get into it, there’s so much there.
JENNA: Yeah, and there’s just so much character development through the book. Her relationships are so rich, the main character with her family and with her colleagues, of course with Thomas Sankara who’s of course fictionalized in the book, and the people around him, you know, it’s just this like really sorta intimate character driven story that’s also has these like huge action set pieces. I mean the very first pages of the book, it’s not a spoiler to say, you know, her life is threatened and it’s sorta a high drama, high action situation right from the beginning. So what you can expect from it sorta changes from page to page. I just really loved it.
ANNE: Jenna, what did you choose for book two?
JENNA: The second book I picked was The Searcher by Tana French. This is a brand new book and I was so excited that I loved it because I love all of Tana French’s books except I really didn’t like the last one. So I got to know her books through The Dublin Murder Squad series which were actually the first books I really listened to on audio and the ability to hear the accents from the narrator just really sucked me into that world and I mainlined them in like three weeks [ANNE LAUGHS] in 2018. Just all of them. So I was so excited a year or two ago when The Witch Elm came out, and then that book was just sorta not for me.
ANNE: Ooh, yeah.
JENNA: I really struggled to get into it. I definitely didn’t finish it. I read like a hundred pages, and so I had I think a lot of trepidation when The Searcher came out because I knew like The Witch Elm, it was set outside of her Dublin Murder Squad series. There’s a lot of differences between it and The Dublin Murder Squad but I was hopeful.
So just to tell the story of the book for a second, Tana French is telling this story of a retired Chicago cop Cal Hooper who leaves his career and his sorta estranged family behind and moves to Ireland. He wants like this quiet life where he can fix up a dilapidated farmhouse not really talk to anybody and everything about that was different from The Dublin Murder Squad books. You know, it’s an American protagonist. It’s a rural setting instead of a city, and you know, so I wasn’t sure if it was going to be for me.
ANNE: And really nerdy, this is the first time she’s written in the third person.
JENNA: That’s true, yes.
ANNE: Bum bum bum.
JENNA: Yeah, so like you know from page one she’s trying to do something different here like capital letters Trying to Do Something Different. Cal’s sorta quiet life is upended when this neighborhood kid comes by and asks Cal to track down a missing brother, and so all of a sudden he has to be a detective again. I mean I just loved this book too. I feel like that’s all I’m saying about these books but I loved it. [ANNE LAUGHS]
And I read a lot of interviews that Tana French did of this book and she described it as sorta an Irish western, and that was one of the things she talked about a lot is that she wanted to take the sensibilities or the shape of a western and transplant it to Ireland.
But actually what I really liked about it was that it felt like a detective novel, but she was really using it to sorta undermine what a detective novel can be, you know, I think one of the parts about this book that really resonated with me that I really was interested in was she sorta uses this story to explore the current moment that we’re all sorta in as a society struggling with structural racism, the role of police in society. Cal uproots his life because he has this sorta growing unease about his complicity as he thinks of himself as a good cop and struggles with the bad cops he works alongside.
And I think that it was actually really interesting for me for her to use the form of a detective novel to sorta question everything about what a detective novel is based on, like, are these our heroes? You know, what does justice look like when it’s not as clean or pat as you might normally get in a novel like this? And I just thought it felt really current and really brave for her to sorta bustle with these questions in this format. I loved it.
ANNE: Okay, so so far you’ve chosen two novels that subvert important governmental institutions. [JENNA LAUGHS] Is that a coincidence? Is that just a total coincidence? They don’t feel the same.
JENNA: That is a coincidence maybe. I thought you were going to say something else is, which is that two novels sorta subvert the genre form a little bit which is a thing that I thought about when I was pulling my list together. Both of these like the similarity for me is that they’re could sorta be read as like un-normal detective novel or un-normal spy thriller but they both have like a lot of depth and really interesting characters. But that’s … You might be onto something with the government question, maybe I’m like living out my work fantasies on the page here. I don’t know. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That seems like a much deeper place to live them out … I wouldn’t want to be either of these protagonists.
JENNA: Totally. I only want my coups in books, not in real life.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Words to live by.
ANNE: Okay, so tell us what subverts the genre next. No, I’m kidding, what did you choose for your third book?
JENNA: [LAUGHS] Yeah my third book was Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo. I had previously read With The Fire on High and loved it, and in particular recommended it to my niece who’s in high school who isn’t a huge reader but she got into that. And so Elizabeth Acevedo sorta has become someone I keep my eye on because I’m like what else can I pass down to this young reader.
I’m not sure what I expected when I opened Clap When You Land. I don’t think I knew it was in verse when I picked it up. It’s a novel in verse that follows two 16-year-old sisters Yahaira in New York and Camino in the Dominican Republic, and they don’t know each other’s existence until their father dies in a plane crash and their worlds are sorta thrown together. I tore through this in one night and really had to force myself to slow down to enjoy the writing because it was so beautiful, but I just loved again, just like the velocity of it. It was like this beautiful, intimate story but it moved really fast and the characters were just so beautifully drawn and I felt like I knew them at the end of the book. And it just felt really special.
ANNE: I love her, and I’m so glad you had that reading experience. And I know that you didn’t choose a middle grade novel [JENNA LAUGHS] but you snuck in that you enjoy reading those, but I see, Jenna, that you chose a YA novel. And I imagine that’s not a coincidence. You kinda spoke a little bit to a fear of missing out. You do have a lot of breadth in your reading life.
JENNA: I think I’ve read a lot of YA and loved a lot of YA, but it doesn’t always sorta rise to the top of my favorites list because I think for me it can sometimes feel almost escapist, like romance does, I think it sorta feel like to me a little contained and safe even if the stories are as fully fleshed out and dramatic as an adult story would be or a story written for adults. But this book for me just felt so specific and so intimate and I just felt when I was reading it, like I was sitting in the room with the characters and it just felt, I guess, tangible and just really special. And so that’s why it made it onto my list.
ANNE: Okay. We can work with that. Now was it difficult to choose a book you didn’t love?
JENNA: You know, I had just like an immediate gut reaction when I had to, it was much easier for me to pick than books I loved. Although it almost feels irrelevant because like I hated it and so I never read anything like it again. [BOTH LAUGH] So it’s like not …
ANNE: All right. We gotta know. Tell me about it.
JENNA: Yeah, so the book I don’t love and I think it’s fair to say hate is The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman. This is such a great example of what I think you talk about on the podcast all the time you know excellent books can just not be excellent for me. This book won so many awards and you know, this is like a much celebrated author and I just hated it. And literally when I try to remember what happened in it, I feel like I’m physically in a dense fog and I get so irrationally mad. I just found it so frustrating.
I think maybe fundamentally magical realism is not for me. There are exceptions. I really liked Robin Sloan’s Sourdough for example, which definitely has elements of magical realism in it, but something about The Ocean At the End of the Lane just like how slippery it is. As soon as I would get invested in something a character, a plot point, it just turned into something else. It just was so frustrating and not for me.
ANNE: So sometimes I want to gently push readers boundaries. [JENNA LAUGHS] I think we’re just going to leave fantasy alone today though.
JENNA: I think that’s fair.
ANNE: Okay. Tell me about what you’ve been reading lately.
JENNA: Yeah, so, I just finished Leave The World Behind by Rumaan Alam, which honestly I thought about bumping into my favorite books because I am obsessed with it. I can’t stop talking about it. I recommended it to a hundred people in the weeks since I’ve read it. [LAUGHS] It’s so good. I feel like he must have had a crystal ball to know what was coming this year to sit down to write this book.
For folks who haven’t read it yet, it’s about a Brooklyn family who go on vacation to stay in an AirBNB in Long Island and their vacation gets interrupted late one night when the owners of the house knock on the door. They’re a wealthy, elderly Black couple and they’ve rushed home from New York City where something bad has happened that’s sorta unnamed or undetermined. The two families have to hunker down together in this house. As time passes they see more and more signs of you know, something is wrong in the world but they’re cut off from communication and they don’t know what it is and it just like forces you as a reader to think about these questions that feel so timely in 2020 like, you know, when you’re confronted with the end of the world, what would you do? Could you do anything? And you watch these families just like do nothing and it drives you crazy but also makes you wonder what you’re doing as you look at the world and things that are changing that you don’t love and I just thought it was really masterful. And I underlined like half of the book [BOTH LAUGH] because like every other sentence was gorgeous or meaningful or yeah, just loved it.
ANNE: Well that sounds so good.
JENNA: And I’m reading The Violence Inside Us by Chris Murphy. It’s a nonfiction book. Full disclosure, I worked for Senator Murphy in 2018, but I’m promise that I’m reading this book by choice. Most politicians’ books I think are somewhere on the scale of unnecessary and terrible, but this one is not either of those things. [ANNE LAUGHS] It’s actually really good.
So if you’re not familiar with Chris Murphy, he represents Connecticut in the United States Senate and that includes Newtown, the sight of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school back in 2012, and he also represents Hartford and Bridgeport and these other parts of the start where there’s like daily gun violence and he’s just sorta wrestling with those experiences and the question of whether there’s something uniquely American about violence. I’m about halfway through it, it’s so fascinating, learning about the biology of violence has been really fascinating and sorta the history and I think it’s just a really great read.
ANNE: Now, Jenna, when you think about your future reading life, what are you looking for right now? What do you want to be different, what do you want more of?
JENNA: I’ve noticed a commonality in the books that I loved sorta across genre which is that they like move really fast, they’re really repulsive, and sorta regardless of genre and I struggle to identify that in advance, you know, so I don’t know until I’m reading a book whether it’s gonna feel sorta exciting and like move at velocity, but I’d loved to figure out ways to identify that better so that I can you know, do better a selection when I’m picking up books.
ANNE: Okay, I’m excited to dig into these.
ANNE: So you loved American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson, The Searcher by Tana French, and Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo. Not for you The Ocean At The End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, and I’m realizing that I forgot to ask you a very important question. You mentioned that you’ve thought about American Spy nearly every day since you read it. Those are big words. Tell me more about that.
JENNA: What just felt so special about that book to me, and is also true of the other two on my favorites list, is just how skillfully it dives into the issues that I find like really compelling and important to think about the world, you know, how race shapes our experiences or gender or you know, how our socioeconomic backgrounds shape our access to different things in the world. It’s like the opposite of preachy. It’s just also an incredibly powerful story that weaves those things in so seamlessly that you sorta don’t realize you’re getting the important message with just like the really dynamic powerful storyline. I think that pairing is really important for me and is common to really all the books that I love.
ANNE: Okay, and we’re looking for fast moving books that make you think and have a lot of depth and maybe also take you away to other places where you’d rather be in the real world right now. Can we work with that?
JENNA: That’s fair. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. [LAUGHS] Should we start with the literary or should we start with the romance?
JENNA: Let’s start with the romance. Move onto vegetables. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Let’s do it. First of all I know we’ve talked about this book on the show but if you haven’t read Beach Read by Emily Henry, I think you may find that fun oddly in the same way that you found American Spy and The Searcher fun. I noticed that it’s not on your romance novel list for the uninitiated doc, is this a book that you’ve read or are familiar with?
JENNA: I have read this book, and I think you’re totally right that one of the things I loved about it is it felt familiar like romance but there was just so much going on and I really liked how she sorta subverted the structure that you expect going in to like tell a really interesting story. You’re on the right path.
ANNE: I like it. Next I’m wondering about another romance novel not on the document. It’s a new release from Alexis Daria, it’s called You Had Me at Hola.
JENNA: I don’t know this.
ANNE: Oh, okay, that makes me happy. This is a romance that opens with a memorable meet cute although it’s more like a meet messy. It happens on a film set and the things that Daria does with structure is really fun. It’s about a soap opera star, her name is Jasmine, and she is trying to move on from a very public breakup with a musician. She has landed a leading lady role in a telenovela called Carmen in Charge and she’s going to be Carmen, and it’s a big, big, big deal for her career. She’s really excited because she wants to elevate her career instead of being stuck in doing soap operas forever. Her words. Character’s words on that.
Her co-star in this is a telenovela star named Ashton who has a big reputation. He’s also looking to move beyond where he feels like he’s been pigeonholed in the world of telenovelas like he wants a, you know, better career, more money and more stability for the family that hasn’t told anybody about because he’s got his own stuff in the past. So they meet on set when he smashes into her with a ginormous iced coffee and she ends up [JENNA LAUGHS] It’s really funny, she ends up instead of going in like her very elegant carefully chosen clothes to the table read, she’s wearing like a three sizes too small sweatshirt and some really short, shorts and she’s going to own it because she is a leading lady who’s going to be a badass queen and she has her own group text like seeking reassurance from her friends.
This is a romance novel. You know they’re destined to be together but watching the way that these two characters and their respective crews navigate like all the obstacles thrown at them filming what’s really like really spicy scenes for the show while navigating their own personal relationship I think you could find it a lot of fun. And something that’s also fun about the structure of this book is you get the story in real time interspersed with like scripts from recording the television show and that’s … I think the English major in you and the romance aficionado would find that a fun touch. How does that sound?
JENNA: That sounds so fun.
ANNE: Okay. That is You Had Me At Hola by Alexis Daria. Okay, next I want to give you something to look forward to because this doesn’t come out until 2021. Can you work with that?
JENNA: We can do it.
ANNE: Have you read anything by Kate Clayborn?
JENNA: I read Love Lettering.
ANNE: The book I have in mind for you is her February 2021 release. It’s called Love At First. And here’s what I like about it. You talked about how for a long time you kinda divided your books into worthwhile and fun and escapist.
JENNA: You can say trash. I said trash. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Although we’re exploring how that is a false dichotomy, and I really love how in her new novel she has written a book, I mean, this is what so many good books do so well. This is very true of so many romance novels. She has this book that just reads like easy breezy, it’s super fast moving like you said, you’re just propelled through the plot but she writes about real people’s real issues that are so relatable to so many in such a way that this book can really get you thinking about what really matters in life, but the package is just so fun that it sneaks past your defenses. If you might have defense propped up about I don’t know examining your past or your future or your important relationships. [JENNA LAUGHS]
So this new novel looks kinda similar to Love Lettering but it is not a … Books are not connected. They’re not part of a series. This one is set in Chicago and it’s about Nora Clarke who moved into her, it might actually be Logan Square, but while this takes place in Chicago there’s not a super, super strong sense of place. It’s a little bit there and if you enjoy reading about Chicago, if you have connections there, if you want to go there, one day when we can travel again, then that can be a fun connection. But you can’t visualize like yourself moving through the grids of familiar streets, like you can with some stories. Although I will say I noted down a view touristy locations I totally want to visit when I can do that again because of this book.
But Nora has always had close ties to Chicago and specifically her grandmother there and she’s currently grieving the loss of her grandmother. She inherited her apartment in this little building I think it’s in Logan Square. I think there was one reference to that. But a little bit north of Chicago, the community in this building is intense and really fun to read about. All the residents have been there forever. They know each other very well. They’re very invested in each other’s lives. There’s a little bit of busybodyness going on in this building but it’s good natured, and it’s a small building. There's maybe eight residents who all know each other really well.
So into this mileu comes Will Sterling because he inherits his uncle’s unit when he dies, and Will had no idea his uncle was going to leave this to him. He didn’t want it. He didn’t know about it. He wasn’t close to his uncle. He only met him once, and that was really, really sad, kinda tragic situation that you’ll read about in the book. He doesn’t need an apartment in Logan Square. He has a place to live and it’s right by his job and he’s an ER doctor and he’s too busy to do all this stuff.
But then a coworker spouse says you know what you should do? You should clean it up and rent it out on AirBNB. And when Nora and her community hear in this apartment building find out that that his plan, they freak out and seek out to [BOTH LAUGH] basically run him off but this a romance so that’s not exactly what happens. But this is really fun and as Nora and Will get to know each other and you see more of their lives and their friends and their circles, you see that they both have a lot of stuff in their past that has caused a lot of hurt and they got to work through it individually and then together. But it’s done in such a tender, sweet, and compelling way I just really think you’re going to like it. How does that sound, Jenna?
JENNA: I think that sounds so fun. I love the idea of sorta the cast of people around them in the building. I think that could be such a fun dynamic to get to like meet lots of different characters. So sounds great.
ANNE: Okay. How about a spy novel.
JENNA: Love it.
ANNE: I’m sorry to say that this one also does not come out until 2021. [JENNA LAUGHS] I don’t know why my brain can’t just generate some like 2019 spy novels for you that would be easy to grab off the shelf.
JENNA: I would gladly wake up in 2021, so I feel like I’ve got it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well when you wake up in February, this novel is What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz, and Beth Buss just talked about this on our gift episode and I read it right away and I can see why she’s recommending it to readers and I think it might be right for you. And I did call this a spy novel, but we’re not going to go into that part right now ‘cause I don’t want to give too much away. The title here speaks to so much. The question is what can be saved after their eight-year-old son disappears while they’re living in Bangkok? The father has been tapped on the shoulder to take an assignment or so everyone thinks supervising the building of a bridge in Thailand. No one’s ever there for more than a few years. They end up being there longer than they expected.
There’s some really interesting scenes that just show the cluelessness of this American family who’s come from Washington, D.C. where they have deep, deep roots just the cultural disconnect between the American families and they’re many of them, and the Thai people is kinda cringey, and it also reminds me of a book that we’ve also talked about on the podcast recently by Karin Tanabe. It’s called A Thousand Suns, which is set in a different country but also shows ex-pats whose cultural unawareness causes all kinds of problems.
But while they’re stationed there, what the family knows then and also 47 years later when the novel actually opens is that their eight year old son Phillip disappeared after a judo lesson and they never found out what happened. They eventually left the country and left him behind, assuming that he is dead and they’ll never see him again. But when the story opens, his sister gets an email that says hey, I think I have your brother, and she’s like oh … Over the years they’ve gotten all kinds of demands for ransoms and requests for money and pay me and I’ll get more information. So she’s skeptical. Not as skeptical as her older sister, but she’s very skeptical, but it’s him.
And with most stories you think, I mean, that would be the whole story. That would be the plot of this novel like this brother is found and that’s the arc, and that is not the arc here. But the way it’s carried out. This is a family saga, told in alternating timelines, takes place over 47 years, exploring family secrets, long held and devastating understandings, broken relationships, and those that are patched over the years.
There’s a lot here, so you could just breeze … I’ve heard so many people say since it’s been on my radar, I’ve started talking about it with mostly booksellers are reading it right now, like oh my gosh. This is 464 pages and I read most of it in a single day. Like this is a fast moving story. But literally there’s also so much to notice and dig into and appreciate on that level as well. How does that sound?
JENNA: That sounds amazing. I can’t wait for it to come out.
ANNE: And Jenna, since I just gave you two 2021 releases that are going to need your patience and since I think you’re going to read You Had Me At Hola in two days, [LAUGHS] and the book I have in mind for you is Deacon King Kong by James McBride.
JENNA: I haven’t read that.
ANNE: Like we were just talking about with What Could Be Saved, this is the story when it opens where you think we’ve heard this story before but we have not heard this story before and it’s tragic. But also there’s so much humor here and heart and this … You know how some novels do a really fascinating job — I’m totally speaking my biases, I think it’s fascinating — but they do a fascinating job of showing you the web of interconnectedness between the characters and the characters have no idea exist and may never find out, but you’re the reader, you can see what’s happening and you know.
JENNAL: Yeah I love that. That’s really interesting.
ANNE: This story begins with a shooting in the Cause Housing Project in south Brooklyn in 1969. This drunk church deacon who wanders into the courtyard one afternoon when everyone’s hanging out and he shoots a drug dealer, one that he had a long standing relationship with, one that he had once treated like a son, and he shoots him in front of everyone, and he becomes a dead man walking at that point of course.
After that jolt of a beginning, McBride zooms way out and starts to show the relationships one by one in the community and he shows you how he got to that moment in time looking into the life of the shooter and the backstory and of course there’s tragedy there, and the victim, the drug dealer’s friends are so bumbling and it makes for so many really funny moments. And then he explores the lives of the residents who witnessed it and the neighbors gossiping about it and the undercover cop who’s so afraid he’s going to get found out and who’s part of the investigation team and the members of the church where Sportcoat was a deacon and neighbor’s’ mobsters and their families. Actually one of their mothers turns out to be a really important character, and all these people’s lives overlap in ways that nobody understands in the beginning. I mean some people are in the know and they know like a piece, like a segment of the web that’s nothing like the whole thing.
But over the course of the story McBride gently teases out these connections, I mean some of which go to the very heart of what matters in the community and what matters in these individual’s lives. There’s tragedy here but there’s so much warmth and it’s so funny. I think it could be fun for you.
JENNA: I think that sounds amazing. I think it checks a lot of boxes for me. We talked a bit earlier, I’m really interested in like violence honestly in novels and how that can sorta send entire communities spinning and I think this sounds like great for me, like really, really interested in that.
ANNE: I’m so happy to hear it. Okay, Jenna, of the books we talked about today, You Had Me At Hola by Alexis Daria, Love At First by Kate Clayborn, What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz, and Deacon King Kong by James McBride. What are you most interested in reading next?
JENNA: I think What Could Be Saved sounds so fascinating but knowing that doesn’t come out ‘til 2021, I’m pretty sure I’ll have You Had Me At Hola on my Kindle like in the next hour and Deacon King Kong is also top of the list so yeah, I think all sound really great. I’m excited for them.
ANNE: Well I hope they deliver a nice dose of peace, joy, and escapism your way.
JENNA: Thanks so much, Anne.
ANNE: Oh, Jenna, this was a delight. Thanks for talking books with me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jenna, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/258 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can follow Jenna on Twitter and Instagram @just_jenna
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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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• In the Woods (Dublin Murder Squad #1) by Tana French
• Stacey Abram’s romance novels as pen name Selena Montgomery (try Reckless)
• The Duke and I (The Bridgerton series #1) by Julia Quinn
• Fix Her Up by Tessa Bailey
♥ American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
♥ The Searcher by Tana French
• The Witch Elm by Tana French
♥ Clap When You Land by Elizabeth Acevedo
△The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
• Sourdough: Or, Lois and Her Adventures in the Underground Market by Robin Sloan
• Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam
• The Violence Inside Us: A Brief History of an Ongoing American Tragedy by Chris Murphy
• Beach Read by Emily Henry
• You Had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
• Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
• Love at First by Kate Clayborn
• What Could Be Saved by Liese O’Halloran Schwarz
• Deacon King Kong by James McBride
• Jenna and friend’s Romance Guide for the Uninitiated