WSIRN Ep 264: Compulsively readable literary fiction

WSIRN Ep 264: Compulsively readable literary fiction

Today I’m talking with Anna Morton, a Chicago-based mood reader with a contagious love of books. When she’s not working or volunteering for the Art Institute of Chicago, Anna is reading “compulsively readable literary fiction,” a term I fondly coined for books with the perfect combination of page-turning plot and stunning prose. 

Reading is also a family affair for Anna, who proudly plays the role of “literary commissioner” for their Literary Christmas tradition, which I’m eager to implement with my family now. She shares all the details in today’s episode, and I share recommendations for books with unique and interesting structures. 

Let’s get to it. 

What Should I Read Next #264: Compulsively readable literary fiction with Anna Morton

You can follow Anna’s adventures on Instagram.


ANNA: You know, you have to finish every book you started, and as soon as I put this book down, I was like no, we’re going to DNF books now. I can’t do that anymore. [ANNE LAUGHS]

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 264.

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, first a real quick PSA: the ebook of my book I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life, is just $1.99 right now. It’s the perfect collection for any book lover, it has over 4,000 5-star ratings on Goodreads, and it will only be at this price till year’s end. Get your copy of I’d Rather Be Reading today.

If you’re still gift shopping but missed the holiday shipping deadlines, we’ve got just the thing for the book lover in your life. Don’t worry about the extra cost of rushed shipping. Instead, opt for a digital gift to surprise and delight your favorite bookworm.

This year consider giving the readers in your life a membership to the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club. This is where we gather online for community, classes, and conversation.

And we have wonderful plans for all three coming up this winter including author talks and book discussions, classes that’ll help you create the perfect 2021 reading plan for you, and fun conversations like the best books of the year with the whole Modern Mrs Darcy and What Should I Read Next team.

Gift memberships are available for 3, 6 or 12 months and include access to all of our live events, all of our previous author talks and classes, and all the book talk you can handle. Choose to email your recipient a confirmation of the purchase or keep it a surprise and have the confirmation come to you to share in a card, on a bookmark, or with a book you’re giving as well.

Find out more and get your gift membership at modernmrsdarcy.com/shop.

Today I’m talking with Anna Morton, a Chicago-based mood reader with a contagious love of books. When she’s not working or volunteering for the Art Institute of Chicago, Anna is reading “compulsively readable literary fiction,” a term I fondly coined for books with the perfect combination of page-turning plot and stunning prose.

Reading is also a family affair for Anna, who proudly plays the role of “literary commissioner” for their Literary Christmas tradition, which I’m eager to implement with my family now. She shares all the details in today’s episode, and I share recommendations for books with unique and interesting structures.

Let’s get to it.

Anna, welcome to the show.

[00:02:31]

ANNA: Hi Anne, thanks so much for having me.

ANNE: Oh, I can not wait to talk books with you today. Anna, tell me a little about your reading life.

ANNA: So I, like many of your listeners, have been a lifelong voracious reader. Read all the Nancy Drews, any kind of like lady detective story was my jam.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Oh, that is the laugh of recognition in childhood memories.

ANNA: Oh, we all wanted to be Nancy Drew. My parents always really encouraged me in that. My dad one summer when we were in grade school probably came up with this challenge where we all had to read 10,000 pages by the end of the summer, and if we did, they would take us to a Mariners game. And so my parents loved to say that’s when my love of reading started. But I’m still a reader to this day. I love getting lost in a book, and it’s … You know, it’s my escape. It’s the thing I love to do to wind down, but also to connect with other people, and it’s manifested itself in, you know, a lot of money spent at the bookstore. [ANNE LAUGHS] A lot of reading tracking spreadsheets, so it’s definitely a big part of my life.

[00:03:38]

ANNE: Well there are a lot of good bookstores where you are.

ANNA: Ugh. So many. Chicago is full of really great indie bookstores.

ANNE: When I say favorite, what images pop in your mind?

ANNA: [LAUGHS] I claim Unabridge bookstore in Chicago as my local indie. It’s an amazing bookshop. They are so well stocked and the staff is so knowledgeable. We have Myopic books here. We have City Lit over in Logan Square, so there are tons to choose from.

ANNE: I don’t know those last two.

ANNA: Well next time you’re in Chicago, you should definitely seek them out.

ANNE: Noted. I have a long list of bookstores to visit up there. So they get a lot of your money?

ANNA: Oh, yes. My parents like to tease me a little bit but, you know, there’re a lot worse things I could spend my money on. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: What would that teasing look like, what might they say to you? Hi, Mom and Dad.

ANNA: I’m always like okay, well we could do a little sightseeing, and then we definitely have to visit this bookstore and they’re like, but we always go to bookstores when we’re with you, [LAUGHS] and I’m like yeah, but just one more. We could buy one more. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I think you could make a strong case for exploring a city by exploring its bookstores. ‘Cause the best bookstores are so local to the community.

[00:04:45]

ANNA: Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s one of the things I really love about Unabridge here is that it’s so enmeshed in the community and the history of Chicago, so every time you go in, it’s just a little peek inside the city.

ANNE: And it’s a block from Intelligentsia.

ANNA: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Your parents had you read 10,000 pages a summer and yet, are they complaining about going to the bookstores?

ANNA: Not complaining. Once we get inside …

ANNE: [LAUGHS] They’re teasing.

ANNA: They’re always happy to be there. They pretend like they don’t want to, but I know they really want to.

ANNE: Okay, I’m a little hung up on this 10,000 pages because I haven’t [ANNA LAUGHS] I haven’t heard of that before, but I really like it because so many adult readers I talk to are very concerned about the number of books they read. Not always, but this is a common, I almost called it a mistake people make in their reading life. It’s something they focus on to the detriment and not the benefit of their reading life and they end up trying to game the system at the end of the year, like oh, I wanted to read 50 books, so that means I need a whole bunch of short ones. [ANNA LAUGHS] But it sounds like from your childhood you … I mean, this is still a quantity driven metric, but it sounds like you saw this question differently because of that.

ANNA: Yeah. I would definitely say so, and I think to my parents' credit like it didn’t matter what those 10 pages were, you know, could be Sweet Valley High books, it could be whatever we wanted. It was just really important to them that we keep reading. And I think that what's really stuck with me, you know, into adulthood is like, it doesn’t matter what you read, but reading in of itself is a worthwhile goal, so if you just keep picking out books and keep turning the pages, you know, you're going to be a better person and you’re indelibly going to find something that you love and that continues that spark of reading. I definitely have sometimes to push back on that impulse myself of like ooh, I just like have to get my numbers up, but as long as, you know, my love of reading is still there, I try to take it a little easy on myself.

ANNE: I’m glad to hear that. How do you decide what to read, Anna?

[00:06:46]

ANNA: Oh, I am a 100% mood reader. I love to skip between genres as well, so often times when I finish reading a book I’ll think, okay, what’s the exact opposite genre of this book that I just read and I’ll go pick something like that. So I’m not really good with the list or a TBR, like a definite TBR. I just kinda go wherever the wind blows me.

ANNE: Anna, what do you do when you’re not reading? How does reading fit into your life as a whole?

ANNA: Yeah, so, I, as I said live in Chicago. I work in HR consulting. Really aside from my job and volunteering at the Art Institute, reading gets slotted in all of my free time. I love to read after work, on the weekends. I was a big audiobook listener on my commute before we stopped going into the office. But it’s pretty much how I like to fill my free time.

As I mentioned I volunteer at the Art Institute. In college I was a double major in business and art history, which my advisor loved to tell me I was the only person she’d ever seen with that combination. [ANNE LAUGHS] So it was a really good way to use both sides of my brain I always say. I love art, and luckily here in Chicago, we have a gorgeous, gorgeous art museum called the Art Institute of Chicago. I work in the business corporate world, but knew I didn’t want to give up that part of my life because I really love art history. And so I applied to be a volunteer at the Art Institute.

The Art Institute has a wonderful program where they are open late on Thursdays, and it’s free for Illinois residents, which I think is just wonderful because we get a lot of people, you know, who wouldn’t normally come into the Art Institute that come because they’re not working and it’s free. So I lead tours. I work at the information desk. I answer a lot of questions about where the bathroom is. [ANNE LAUGHS] It’s a lot of fun. I really, really love it, and you can’t beat the setting. Even just being surrounded by the works of art is a joy.

ANNE: So business and art history. Do those interests pop up in the books you choose?

ANNA: [LAUGHS] I would say art history definitely pops up, and I think those books about books probably fall in the same category to me like find those books by Charlie Lovett really interesting ‘cause they’re that intersection of art and literature and history and adventure, really exciting. I don’t read a ton of business books. I’m just not one of those people, but yeah, the art history definitely pops up in my reading life for sure.

[00:09:27]

ANNE: So, Anna, you told us on your submission that you had another volunteer job. The title you gave yourself in capital letters [ANNA LAUGHS] was Literary Commissioner. I would love to hear more about that please.

ANNA: Yes. Well I also said in my submission that I hold the principle imitation is the sincerest form of flattery to be very true because for the last couple of years, my family has instituted what we call capital L Literary Christmas. We’re a, you know, pretty literary bunch. Every time we get together it’s a lot of ooh, you should read this, and have you heard about this book? So we’re always talking books when we’re together.

A couple of years ago, my sister and I were talking about holidays coming up and ugh, what are we going to get everyone for Christmas presents? You know, we’re all kinda quasi-grown ups at this point, so we don’t really need anything but we were both like wait, wait, books don’t fall into that. We can always use more books. [BOTH LAUGH] So we came up with this idea of Literary Christmas where each family member gifts a book to two different people and gets a book from two different people, and because I was a longtime listener of your show, I was thinking okay, well, how do we help people pick books that other people are actually going to like? And I was like oh my gosh, we have to use Anne’s format.

So I am the self-styled Literary Commissioner which basically just means I collect from everyone three books they love, one book they don’t, and a description of their taste and then I pass that along to the people who will be giving to them in early October so that by Christmastime, they’re able to pick out the perfect book for the person that they have.

ANNE: Oh, so this is well underway right now.

ANNA: Oh, yeah. I sent out the email a couple weeks ago. I want to give everyone plenty of time to hunt. There are always grumblings like ugh, you gave me a really hard person! So [LAUGHS] I try to give everybody plenty of lead time.

ANNE: Who is really hard to buy for in your family?

ANNA: So we are a pretty wide ranging group. There are 12 of us who do Literary Christmas. And we all read really differently from one another. For example, my BIL loves science fiction and fantasy. Any kinda like speculative fiction. And my dad truly might have read every single historical nonfiction [ANNE LAUGHS] about American history ever written. He’s nearly impossible to buy for. On the other side, my aunt who I love very much loves books with quote-unquote “women with hard lives” so we’re all over the spectrum. And as a Literary Commissioner, I get a fun birdseye view into everyone’s picks, so it’s a lot of fun.

[00:12:15]

ANNE: So you have everyone self describe their own taste. That’s so interesting. So what do you put down for yours?

ANNA: I really like that intersection of a page turner, but also really well written. I think I wrote in my submission that your blog post a couple of years ago on Modern Mrs Darcy about literary novels that will have you compulsively turning the pages. Every single book on that list I was like yup, yup, yup, love it. [ANNE LAUGHS] So that’s what I put as my descriptor for my taste, and this year my three favorites and one not favorite also line up with what I’m going to talk about today.

ANNE: I can’t wait.

ANNA: My family’s probably going to be like, ugh, Anne gave better ones that I did! [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: No, see, you just said you can always use more books, so hopefully Anne gave different ones than your family members did, and then you’ll have more to choose from.

ANNA: Exactly.

ANNE: How long have y’all been doing Literary Christmas?

ANNA: So this is year number two.

ANNE: Tell me a little bit about last year’s exchange.

ANNA: So last year was the first year as I mentioned and it was really funny because our family is pretty divided on Cormac McCarthy, we have some people who really love him and some people who really don’t.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] I imagine your family’s a microcosm of readers everywhere then.

ANNA: Oh, yeah. For sure. So it was really fun. Last year I had my aunt who I mentioned loves books about women with hard lives, so I gave her A Place For Us which she really enjoyed, and she also got A Gentleman in Moscow, which she loved and has since made the rounds in our family.

[00:13:53]

ANNE: Oh.

ANNA: So a lot of times if someone really loves a book that they get, you know, the recommendations start to make its way around. But I had my younger brother last year and he was fun because he’s one of those people who really loves like a page turning novel. He isn’t super, super worried about literary style or anything like that, so I chose Recursion by Blake Crouch, which I thought would be fun because you know, there’s that time travel element and Blake Crouch’s writing always reminds me of like a Harrison Ford like there’s always some danger around the corner. The protagonist is going to fix it. [LAUGHS]

And then I also received from my uncle Ohio by Stephen Markley, which is a novel about four friends in this Ohio town over the course of one night and the way that their lives intersect and their high school paths continue to haunt them. It was really good because before I even started Literary Christmas I had that one on my list, so it’s fun to see like when someone’s pick for you aligns perfectly with your taste. That’s always really fun to see.

ANNE: Yeah. Oh, that’s great. Thank you for that peek into your family Christmas. It sounds like y’all are talking about books a lot. Are you in the same community or are you far flung?

ANNA: We are really far flung. So my parents and my grandpa and his wife and my aunt and uncle all live out in the west coast. They live in Oregon. I’m in Chicago. My sister and brother in love are in Atlanta. My older brother is in Ohio. And we often don’t always get to see everyone at the same time over Christmas, so it is really fun that this keeps us connected because Christmas day we have a group chat where everyone sends pictures of the book they got and we get to have a lot of bookish discussion. So it’s nice to have that thread even if we aren’t able to see each other every Christmas.

ANNE: Oh, yes. I love that. Do you know what you’re giving this year?

ANNA: Ooh, I have some toughies this year. So I don’t think he listens to this. I have my cousin. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: We won’t spill any secrets, but who are you buying for? What’s their taste like?

ANNA: Yeah, so I have my cousin who is a senior in high school and is incredibly well read. So he really enjoys books that have a social justice component. I think he really liked The Hate U Give and I think I’m going to give him … Not for Literary Christmas, but my copy of The Nickel Boys ‘cause he expressed an interest in that. But he also loves some of the classics that he’s read in high school, which kinda threw me for a curve because not all high schoolers do, so I still have some thinking to do on that one. I have my older brother this year who is also a fantasy reader and one of the most prolific rereaders I have ever met, so getting something new in his rotation will be a challenge for sure.

[00:16:51]

ANNE: Good luck. We wish you well. That’s really fun.

ANNA: Yeah, it is fun.

ANNE: I love how it sounds like this is something that your family members sit with and contemplate and get to think about their family member and the books for many weeks leading up to the actual exchange.

ANNA: And that’s the thing I think is really fun about Literary Christmas is that hunt aspect. You know, I’ll get calls from my parents and they’re like we’re at the bookstore, what do you think of this idea for so-and-so? And we see each other at Thanksgiving, we’ll be like, okay, I have some ideas, like I want to run them by you. So it is really kinda like a literary treasure hunt, which I think is a lot of fun leading up to the holidays.

ANNE: Okay, Anna, well after that little bread crumb you dropped us, I can’t wait to get into your books. [ANNA LAUGHS] Are you ready to do this?

ANNA: Let’s do it.

***

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***

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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’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Anna, how did you choose these?

[00:20:15]

ANNA: Yeah, so I really tried to think about those books where when I finished them, I just sat back in my chair and said, wow. Like you know those books where you just have to sit a minute? Those are the ones that really stuck in my brain over the last three years and the ones that I can’t stop thinking about. So those ones that their impact really had staying power were the ones I chose today.

ANNE: That sounds like a great way to pick. So we’re going to start with your favorites, what did you choose for your book one?

ANNA: So my first favorite is Writers & Lovers by Lily King. This is the most recent book by Lily King. She had another one come out a few years ago that I also enjoyed. Writers & Lovers had a protagonist that I can’t remember rooting for a protagonist more than I cheered for Casey in this book. She felt really authentic to me. Her experience as a young person and a writer, you know, trying to figure out who you are, what your path in life will be, and then having the courage to follow that path really resonated with me as a young person trying to just start my own path.

Lily King is a gorgeous writer, but I also find her to be a really approachable writer. None of her writing is, you know, overly flowery or in your face, but there are times where she just hits you with this sentence and whew, it’s so good. So I read this one on ebook format. I borrowed it from my library, and as soon as I finished, I ran to my bookstore, and I was like I have to have a paper copy of this book because I loved it so much.

ANNE: Time is weird in 2020, but that did just come out in March, right? That’s a pretty new release?

ANNA: Yeah, I think so.

ANNE: Is that reflective of what you pick up? Do they tend to be newer releases?

ANNA: It’s not. I actually love searching for backlist titles. I find that particularly things that I missed when, you know, I was a young kid not reading adult fiction that I have a few years to kinda either sink or swim are really fun to discover because it does feel again like a treasure hunt to find things in the backlist that not everyone are talking about. But this one was so good I couldn’t resist.

[00:22:28]

ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. An irresistible book always sounds like the kinda thing I want to be reading. Anna, tell us about book two.

ANNA: So book two is The Nix by Nathan Hill. This one came out a few years ago. Got some buzz, but I don’t hear people talking about it as much anymore which is such a shame because I loved this book. It’s the story of a young professor whose mother left him when he was a young boy, and one day he sees her on television arrested for throwing a rock at a politician. And so he begins this journey of finding out who his mother really was and confronting all of the ways that her leaving really left a mark on him into adulthood.

The book jumps back and forth in time and narrators so you hear a little bit from his mother and then also from the protagonist in the modern day, and it also jumps between settings, so you’re in Chicago, you’re in a small fishing village in Norway. So it’s a really expansive novel that covers a lot of stories and topics, but it was so well written and so much happens that I just flew through it and it was one that definitely stuck with me long after I finished reading it.

ANNE: So of the two books that we’ve talked about so far, are these the kinda titles you have in mind when you say compulsively readable literary fiction?

ANNA: Oh, yeah, for sure.

ANNE: Okay.

ANNA: They both are ones where I had to tear myself away from my seat. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like you have to go to work now. You can’t keep reading.

ANNE: Oh, that sounds painful. The tearing.

ANNA: I know. I know.

ANNE: Anna, tell us about book three.

ANNA: Okay. So book three is one of the books that had the most impact on me. I could so distinctively picture where I was when I was reading it, and the feeling that I had when I was reading it and that is BIlly Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain.

ANNE: Which is one of the best titles ever I have to say.

[00:24:22]

ANNA: Oh, it’s so good. Everything about this book is so completely different from anything I have ever read at that point. So it’s the story of a young soldier over in Afghanistan who along with his squadron is being honored at a halftime show at a Dallas Cowboys game. So it’s a really interesting form. It’s told almost stream of consciousness where you like almost lift your head up from the book and you’re like, wait, where am I? You’re just so enmeshed in Billy’s reality that you have a hard time snapping back to your own reality. And there’s a lot of words that are spelled phonetically, instances where there are only a few words on the page and they’re arranged out of the normal sequence, so it was really different than anything I had ever read before, and I think that’s part of the reason it was so impactful.

And the game … Or the story is told over the course of the football game, so you get to meet like an almost Odyssey-like cast of characters that Billy encounters throughout the four hours of this game. And this is one that again stuck with me for long after. And one that I haven’t seen on a ton of, you know, lists or anything so it’s one that I made it my mission to share with as many people as I can.

ANNE: So it’s your mission. It’s your personal mission to spread the word. I mean, you’re doing it. You’re doing it right now, Anna.

ANNA: [LAUGHS] I hope so. [ANNE LAUGHS] If people pick it up after listening to this, I would be so pleased.

ANNE: And readers, you know, we put every book in the show notes so you don’t actually need to pull over or put down your laundry or pause your workout. You can tell what I do when I’m listening to podcasts. [ANNA LAUGHS] Now Anna, I have to tell you when we saw your hated title on the submission form, I felt seen.

ANNA: Oh, I’m so glad.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, tell us. Tell us about the book that wasn’t for you.

ANNA: [LAUGHS] And I am not afraid to use the h word here. I hated this book. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. So prior to the time that I read this book I was like a finisher. I was like no, you have to finish every book you started and as soon as I put this book down, I was like no, we’re going to DNF books now. I can’t do that anymore.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] You didn’t finish that one?

[00:26:31]

ANNA: I did. But after I was like ...

ANNE: Ooh, okay.

ANNA: … We’re on a strict do not finish policy anymore. Can’t repeat that. Which is interesting because this book should tick a lot of boxes for me. It’s a campus novel. One of the main characters is a young woman studying Victorian literature. There’s even like a love triangle at the center of the story, and so it’s largely built around these three characters, these three college students who circle each other throughout the time of the book, and keep making the same mistakes over and over again.

I am not a person that needs, you know, every character to be likable, but it’s really important to me that throughout the novel and when I finish, with me as the reader and the characters, are not the same people as when the story started, and when I finished The Marriage Plot, I was like well, we are back in the exact same place that we were in the beginning, and so this one just definitely didn’t work for me.

ANNE: I really wanted to like it. I mean, I can remember clearly hearing about it on NPR and listening to him speak about the demise of the marriage plot trope and how he addressed it in his new book, and I thought, oh my gosh, that is for me. But I remember the ending being really fitting, like really satisfying, but oh, the book. I think this book might be very much of its time, like it came out in 2011/2012, and there’s a lot about literary deconstruction and what it means to be a scholarly reader and I think that was being discussed as he was writing, but even by the time the book came out, I don’t think it was being discussed as much. Like in the culture and in the university setting, and I just … Oh, it just - it just made me tired.

ANNA: And definitely don’t want to write off Jeffrey Eugenides. I know he’s a very talented writer. I think this one, we just, we’re like ships passing in the night. [ANNE LAUGHS] This one missed me for sure.

ANNE: I don’t know how you feel about this, but I think there’s also the hopefulness going into it and the expectations that it’s so hard as a reader not to have going in, and so I’m sure that was a part of it my disappointing reading experience and maybe you find that relatable.

ANNA: Yeah, and I think every reader’s experience with that marriage plot trope is going to be different. I’m sure your readers have probably read a lot of Jane Austen, so coming from that tradition and really loving those books but also growing up in you know, modern times, I was excited for that intersection. I don’t think it felt really true to expectations. Those books are really foundational for a lot of people, and then to have it miss just feels like an even bigger miss when you have really high expectations.

[00:29:08]

ANNE: Yeah, that’s a good way to put it. Anna, what have you been reading lately?

ANNA: I just finished The Parade by Dave Eggers which was … It’s a short book but it's a really impactful book, and then I am also listening to Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gasi on audiobook and loving it.

ANNE: Oh, good. I’m so glad to hear it’s good in that format. I loved it in print.

ANNA: Oh, it’s gorgeous. And Yaa Gasi is just a genius so I am loving the wry on that one.

ANNE: Anna, as we think about what you may enjoy reading next, is there anything that you’re looking for in your reading life right now? Anything you want to be different?

ANNA: Yeah, so I think as I mentioned, I’m looking for more of those books that just leave you kinda stunned by how beautiful they are, and I think for me that happens quite a bit with books that I call like an interesting structure. A couple of others that kinda fit that bill were like Daisy Jones and the Six had that really interesting structure. I read Night Theater by Vikram Paralkar that had a similar interesting structure that I had never seen done before, which I think just makes for such an exciting reading experience, and I’ve had a lot of success with those books that have something slightly different about them. Just a little twist. So I would love to have more of those in my reading life.

ANNE: Okay. Page turners that are also well written, and I imagine you meaning like the prose is really lovely, not just that the prose is in service of the story and does an excellent job, but that it’s really … I don’t know ... beautiful writing, is that taking it too far?

ANNA: I don’t think that’s taking it too far. And yeah. For sure.

ANNE: Basically I was trying to avoid saying compulsive readable literary fiction, but [ANNA LAUGHS] that would not be a miss. An interesting structure. Okay, I think we can do this.

ANNA: Okay.

***

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***

ANNE: So the books you loved were Writers & Lovers by Lily King, The Nix by Nathan Hall, and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain. Not for you, or okay, you said you hated it [ANNA LAUGHS] The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, and lately you’ve been reading The Parade by Dave Eggers which is unread on my shelf. I can see it from where I am, so you know.

[00:32:19]

ANNA: Ooh.

ANNE: Sometimes we just need to be reminded a book exists. And also Transcendent Kingdom, the new novel from Yaa Gasi. Okay. So they’re lots of different places we can go here. When you said that you really like the combination of art history, literature, and how connections can be made in the text and through the text, a book that immediately sprung to mind was a 2017 release by Christina Baker Kline the historical fiction writer called A Piece of the World. Is this one you’re familiar with?

[00:32:47]

ANNA: Not at all.

ANNE: Okay. Well, good. I’m happy to hear it. Probably best known for her big New York Times bestseller, it made the rounds of a million book clubs, Orphan Train. A Piece of the World may be up your alley because here’s a big hint. The title that Christina Baker Kline wanted for this book was Christina’s World, and if you look at the cover, you see a really moody landscape, a hilly field, you see a house that might be a little decrepit and interesting lighting and a big, big sky. There’s no woman in the illustration, but is this sounding familiar at all?

ANNA: Yeah, I think it … I might have seen it on a bookstore shelf.

ANNE: Christina’s World is this famous painting by Andrew Wyeth, and at my first thought was, [GASPS] is it at the Art … it’s not. It’s at MOMA.

ANNA: Oh. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I saw it at MOMA, not Chicago, but golly that would have been so, so perfect. You could go swing by and take a look at it and read your book. But this is a story that’s not exactly about the painting itself. Although the painting is woven through the book, but it’s about the subject of the painting, and that is the young woman named Christina Olson and the whole story takes place in Maine in the first half of the 20th century. Andrew Wyeth came into Christina Olson’s life because he was … I want to say dating but I don’t know that’s how they said it in 1930. [BOTH LAUGH] When he was … What do we say? Courting? Wooing? How about he came to marry a local girl who was friends with Christina, and that’s how the two came together. But this is a fictionalized account of her life, and it was her who posed for Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting.

If you read the tag at MOMA, or if you do a little Googling, you see that the woman who’s the subject of this iconic painting had a hard life. Her father immigrated from Sweden in the late 19th century due to there just being no opportunity there. And Christina had problems with her legs, and I’m sure that Christina Baker Kline goes into detail in this book and I don’t remember it a distance of three and a half years, she’s constantly talking about her mutinous body and how it won’t do what she wants it to do. She has these very real physical limitations that are challenging to her both internally and externally.

This is her story from her perspective, and you see how art changes her, and she says something really interesting in the story. She says something like I read that the act of observing something changes the nature of what it is observed. Which is a really interesting commentary on the painting and the story itself. I think this could be really interesting for you.

[00:35:24]

ANNA: That sounds really interesting, and what you were saying about the object being observed, changing the objects sounds straight out of one of my art history classes, so I am here for that.

ANNE: I have to say this could totally qualify as a novel about women with hard lives, although that is what your aunt’s taste, not your own. But it’ll definitely check that box.

ANNA: Ooh. Maybe I’ll save that one. Yeah, if I have her one year for Literary Christmas, I’ll have that in the back of my mind.

ANNE: Now you say that often you read a book and you finish it and then you want to look for something that’s a completely different genre, so that’s what we’re going to do right now. You said you like books with interesting structures. This might be a little too out there, but I’m wondering just for a reading experience that I imagine is something unlike most reading experiences anyone has at any time. Have you ever read Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler?

ANNA: I have not. I have read Calvino’s Invisible Cities, but that is it.

ANNE: Okay. That is the one I have been meaning to read ever since I talked to Jim Mustich on the podcast. What did you think of Invisible Cities?

ANNA: Oh, I loved it.

ANNE: Okay.

ANNA: And knowing what I know about your interest in urban planning, [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m thinking you’ll love it too. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: That is why it came up in our conversation. [ANNA LAUGHS] This is a weird book. It was first published in 1979. Even then it was highly experimental. It’s still a real brain bender for a lot of readers, and this structure has been described as impossible, as outlandish, as nonsensical, as delightful, as zany, but it is a book that’s about the enjoyment of the reading life and I don’t know [LAUGHS] I don’t know how to describe it to you except to read to you a little bit from it. So I’m going to fire it up from the beginning. This book is told in the second person and it’s describing to you your experience about reading the book If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. You get to be the protagonist in this novel, and here’s how it goes. I honestly … I am reading right now.

“You are about to begin reading Italo Calvino’s new novel If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler. Relax. Concentrate. Dispel every other thought. Let the world around you fade. Best to close the door. The TV is always on in the next room. Tell your family, I’m beginning to read Italo Calvino’s new novel. Or if you prefer, don’t say anything. Just hope they’ll leave you alone.” He goes on to describe the experience of you getting comfortable in your chair, adjusting the light, your expectations of a book, the kind of book lists you’ve been making for the kinds of books you want to read. Now Anna, he may have you wrong ‘cause you’re not making book lists, he’s suggesting you probably have these lists if only in your head perhaps of the books you’ve been planning to read for ages. The books you’ve been hunting for years without success. The books you want to own so they’ll be handy just in case, maybe you’ll actually relate to that.

So that’s how the novel starts, but then it gets weirder. As you’re reading the book you keep getting interrupted. The chapters alternate. There’s the experience of you reading the book, but then you start reading a short story, and it’s the beginning of a book and you start reading it, and the story gets really interesting, but then the story stops and you discover oh, no, that you have to go to the bookstore actually, and find the rest of the book so you continue reading it ‘cause you really liked it, but then you turn the page in the book and you’re reading another story, and it does this something like 12 times and it’s weird. And you said that you like books that do some one interesting thing with the structure, and this does a lot more than one interesting thing with the structure [ANNA LAUGHS] but if you really wanted to go all in that what is something different that a novelist do with a novel? I think if nothing else, this could be a memorable reading experience. How does that sound?

[00:39:05]

ANNA: Oh, that sounds so good. That mix of books about books and also structure with the twists, it sounds amazing.

ANNE: Okay. Let’s come back to a little more grounded, I really am tempted to like rattle off a bunch of interesting books that have strange structures.

ANNA: Oh, I’m not going to stop ya. [BOTH LAUGH]

ANNE: There’s so many interesting directions we could go with this and also I’ve noticed in books I’m reading now that are coming out in 2021 that increasing trend seems to be I’m reading lots of books that have transcripts in them, that have scenes from films. That have like the script written into the text. I just finished a novel that had a podcast transcript written into the text. That’s something that we’re seeing a lot these days, and then we think about books with interesting structures that really were groundbreaking in a lot of ways, I’m thinking of like A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, which isn’t quite a novel in short stories but it’s not a straight forward novel either, but it’s like these interconnected vignettes that are united by the characters and the themes she’s exploring.

But for another novel that’s written very similarly but has totally different theme and style there’s Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. I know that I have talked a ton about This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell because I personally love it. [ANNA LAUGHS] But even nonfiction can do something like this, like I’m thinking of The Yellow House by Sarah Broom which is a memoir, but it’s a memoir with a very deliberate, conscious structure. Actually that might be an interesting place to camp out. Anna, do you like the sound of perhaps doing a memoir or would you rather stick with novels?

[00:40:47]

ANNA: Oh, no, I’m happy to do memoir.

ANNE: Okay. So this is The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. I think it just came out in 2019. I remember buying it at the bookstore. Hi, Main Street books in Davidson, North Carolina, [ANNA LAUGHS] but I can’t quite remember what year that was when it was new. But this is the story about the house she grew up in in New Orleans, but it’s not just about the house she grew up in. And she said that when she started writing this book, she thought about the book itself like it was a house. ‘Cause she said, okay, I had to get the walls in place so the whole thing would hold, and I knew I wanted to cram a lot of stuff in there and it had to fit like, and that’s how you would think about moving into a house, but she was building the house she was moving into.

But she said that structurally the way she put this book together was she started with a family timeline because in many ways, it’s the story of her family. Like in 1914 this is what happened for my family and she built that timeline. And then on top of it she layers the city timeline, what was happening in the city of New Orleans, and then on top of that, this isn’t just a story about a family or about a city. It’s a story about America, and so she has the timeline for American history to see how all that fit together and then she had to layer on top of that New Orleans east, which she says is something like six miles from the French quarter but nobody knows anything about New Orleans east, and people know all kinds of things about the French quarter. But that definitely doesn’t represent her family history, probably doesn’t accurately represent her city history, and definitely doesn’t capture the things she’s trying to say in this story. So that’s the architecture of the book, but when you’re reading the book it …

Here I actually have it on my shelf. Let me grab it. The book’s divided into sections, but she doesn’t call them sections. She calls them movements which I think is really interesting. She’s trying to say something different. Within each segment of the movement, she consciously wants there to be differences in rhythm and pace and tone and feeling. She wanted the book itself to have this sense of displacement and scattering because that’s the story she’s telling about gentrification and people getting kicked out of neighborhoods, and them having to move because their rent is too high. So the medium is a huge part of her message here to borrow from the Canadian philosopher. I think it could be really interesting for you. How does that sound?

[00:43:09]

ANNA: Oh, that sounds so good. I love that interplay of the structure of the novel furthering the actual story that she’s telling. That would be so fun to watch. Yeah. That sounds really good. I have never been to New Orleans, but I would love to explore a new place through that book.

ANNE: Well that would be a great way to explore, especially right now. [ANNA LAUGHS] I have to tell you there is one little exchange in the book where one character, I mean, I’m going to call him a character even though they’re real people, says to another like hold on … You just gotta be patient and I feel like that’s the encouragement I needed at the beginning of The Yellow House because she’s unspooling quite a story and it’s a sprawling one, and it does take some time to get the lay of the land and get going. But I hope your patience will be rewarded, and I hope you enjoy it.

ANNA: Oh, it sounds so good.

ANNE: Okay, Anna, the books we talked about today were A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino, and The Yellow House by Sarah Broom. Of those titles, what do you think you’ll read next?

ANNA: I think I’m ready for a little bit of weird [ANNA LAUGHS] so I think I’m going to with If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino.

ANNE: I hope it’s a thought provoking and memorable reading experience.

ANNA: [LAUGHS] Oh I’m sure it will be.

ANNE: Oh, Anna, this was been fun. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.

ANNA: Oh, thank you, Anne. This has been so much fun.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

[00:44:38]

ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Anna, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/264 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.

Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode, in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!

If you’re on twitter, let me know there @AnneBogel. That is Anne with an E, B as in books -O-G-E-L. Tag us on instagram to share what YOU are reading. You can find me there at annebogel and at whatshouldireadnext. Our newsletter subscribers are the first to know all the What Should I Read Next news and happenings; if you’re not on the list you can fix that now. Visit whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for our free weekly delivery.

If you enjoy this podcast please share it with a friend and leave us a quick review on Apple Podcasts. That really does help us find new readers to listen to our show. To support this show in a tangible way join our patreon community, that’s at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext, or buy a copy of my book, I’d Rather Be Reading, for yourself or a book loving friend.

Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

Books mentioned in this episode:

Some links are affiliate links. More details here.

• The Nancy Drew series by Carolyn Keene
• The Sweet Valley High series by Francine Pascal
• Cormac McCarthy (try Blood Meridian)
A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
Recursion by Blake Crouch
Ohio by Stephen Markley
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Writers & Lovers by Lily King
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
The Parade by Dave Eggers
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
A Piece of the World by Christina Baker Kline
If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Eagan
Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
This Must Be the Place by Maggie O’Farrell
The Yellow House by Sarah Broom

Also mentioned:
Unabridged Bookstore
Myopic Books
City Lit Books
The Art Institute of Chicago
15 literary novels that will have you compulsively turning the pages
14 books with thought-provoking structures

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22 comments | Comment

22 comments

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  1. Anne and Anna, Thanks for another entertaining episode.
    Anna, I was wondering if you have read CLOUD ATLAS by David Mitchell? It has a very interesting structure with six time lines beginning with 1849. That story goes along until it ends in the middle of a sentence and then moving to the next storyline in the 1936. It goes on to the next in the 1973, then 2012, 2244, and a time in the distant future. Once the story in the distant future is finished, the previous stories are visited in backwards order ending with the 1849-50 timeline. These timelines are connected not only by themes by in various other ways, for example, each main character in the timeline has a star shaped birthmark. There are other things linking the timelines like published journals and books, pieces of music, and old letters. I love both the book and the movie. In fact, I show the movie in my dramatic structure class because of the way the filmmaker arranged the film. The message that one person can make a difference is, I think, fantastic. And one of my students pointed out that each timeline is a different genre, which makes for interesting reading and watching. I hope you consider reading it if you haven’t already.

    • Anna Morton says:

      Hi Lucinda,
      Thanks for the thoughtful recommendation! I have not read any of David Mitchell’s work yet, but I will confess I have seen the movie-version of Cloud Atlas. You just can’t keep a girl away from her Tom Hanks. Regardless, your description makes it sound like the book would be right up my alley. Thanks again!

  2. Carolyn Brenner says:

    Thanks for a great listen today Anna and Anne! Anna have you read The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith? It’s a literary novel that uses a historical painting as its focal point throughout the book, and jumps back and forth between two points in time. If you haven’t I think you’d enjoy it based on your tastes you talked about today!

    goodreads.com/book/show/25664459-the-last-painting-of-sara-de-vos

    • Anna Morton says:

      Hi Carolyn! Thanks so much for the recommendation – I have not even heard of this one, but it seems like it would check a lot of boxes for me!

  3. Sue S says:

    Hi Anna, I enjoyed this episode and your book talk with Anne
    Do you read graphic novels? With your art history background this is a great form to explore – I suggest Fun Home by Alison Bechdel, which is quite literary (references to several classics), and tells a story that words alone could not.

    • Anna Morton says:

      Hi Sue! You know, graphic novels are definitely one of those genres that I haven’t explored yet, but I would really love to! Maybe Fun Home will be my inaugural journey!

      • Tasha says:

        I would add “My Favorite Thing Is Monsters” by Emil Ferris, a Chicago-based writer/artist. The story is uh-mazing, multi-layered, full of pathos, and the art is draw-dropping. The story ends in media res, however, and Ferris is said to be working on part 2. I await it impatiently. However, I think the first installment can easily be enjoyed and appreciated all on its own.

  4. Gretchen Schrock-Jacobson says:

    Anna, I am definitely going to include a book with an interesting structure as a category on my 2021 Reading Challenge list. I will have to check out Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which you mentioned. I recently read her novel The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo and thoroughly enjoyed it. Do you recommend any other books with an interesting structure?

    • Anna Morton says:

      Hi Gretchen! What a fun question, some others with interesting structures that I have really loved were The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hugo by Stuart Turton (super similar title to the Jenkins Reid lol) and There, There by Tommy Orange

  5. Lynn says:

    I resonate a lot with your taste (I also loved Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and hated the Marriage Plot), and would second the David Mitchell recommendation above. If our tastes intersect more broadly, I would recommend the History of Love by Nicole Krauss and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Also, given your interest in art history, I’m wondering about The Art Forger by B A Shapiro, though that is more on the compulsively readable side and less on the literary side.

    • Anna Morton says:

      Hi Lynn! So fun to see your comment as my aunt (the “women-with-hard-lives lover) has been recommending History of Love to me for years. This may just be the push I need! And I have read The Art Forger! The whole time I just wanted to run all the details by my art history professors and see if what he was suggesting in the book was actually feasible!

  6. Angie says:

    I think you might like The Long Bright River. I just devoured this novel and it is definitely compulsively readable literary fiction. It was on President Obama’s list of his favorite books of the year. The book alternates between two timelines and focuses on the opioid crisis through the story of two sisters in Philadelphia.

  7. David says:

    Hi Anna,
    Finally after all these WSIRN episodes, this middle-aged man seems to have found his “book buddy”! I was so excited to hear some love for The Nix – definitely one my “three books you love” (I called it a “kitchen sink of a novel” in my Goodreads review) and loved Writers & Lovers this year. I too am a sucker for books with an interesting structure (Daisy Jones was great). I second the recommendation of Long Bright River above – a literary police procedural with the sister relationship at the center. I also recommend James McBride’s Deacon King Kong which came out this year if you like great diverse characters and snappy dialog. And of course, the ultimate in “interesting structure” is George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo which you’ve probably read. Happy reading!
    P.S. I am in the minority – The Yellow House, despite Anne’s and others’ glowing reviews, did not work for me at all (my daughter lives in New Orleans so I had been particularly looking forward to this one)

    • Anna Morton says:

      Hi David! It does sound like we are “book buddies” – what fun!! And I love your description of The Nix! I read Long Bright River and listened to Lincoln in the Bardo on audiobook, both were fantastic! Deacon King Kong is definitely one I am looking forward to reading, and you have definitely made me more intrigued about The Yellow House, can’t wait to get to both!

  8. Rachel K says:

    Thanks for a great episode! I loved hearing about your Christmas family book exchange. It sounds awesome.
    Anna, I thought of books you might enjoy that I read. Have you read Big Lies in a Small Town by Diane Chamberlain? It is duel timeline with creating and restoring a painting at the heart of the story and uncovering the history in the book. I thought it sounded like something you would enjoy.

  9. Maria says:

    You keep mentioning a visit from the goon squad – its sitting staring at me. I need to pick it up.

    Also Anna looks exactly like her voice.

  10. Tracey says:

    This may be my favourite episode yet but as usual I am late getting to it! I LOVED the whole idea of Literary Christmas. When I told my partner about it he said “the best Christmas gift for you would just be people calling you from the bookstore to see what you think about this book for this person or to get a recommendation.” Anyhow, thanks for the inspiration, I might try to find some folks to do a version of Literary Christmas with!
    I haven’t read any of your three favourites Anna but the first two have been on my list and I hadn’t heard of Billy Lynn. I’m going to check those all out.
    The book that was coming to mind for me while listening re: interesting structure is a non-fiction one I read recently called This is Chance! by Jon Mooallem about an earthquake in Anchorage in 1964. Similar to what Anne said about The Yellow House, it requires a bit of patience at first but for me it really paid off and it was memorable not only for the story but also the creative structure.

  11. Susan Bradford says:

    I loved this episode and love this reader. I love the literary Christmas gift exchange and long to implement this in my own family.
    I also love your love of art history. That was my undergrad major so long ago and now I am getting my masters in counseling. I have been to the Art Institute in Chicago and wow what a wonderful museum. I lived in Philadelphia for a number of years within walking distance to the art museum there and I miss it greatly.
    Again, thank you!

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