Today I’m talking with Stephanie De Mel, an economist and literature enthusiast based in London, England. A well-traveled reader in every sense, Steph has lived on multiple continents and combines her love of travel and books in her Reading the World Challenge. I love how curiosity informs Steph’s book choices, and I can’t wait to recommend three books to suit her broad reading taste.
Steph also shares how she applies her analytical tendencies to her reading life. We talk about how she looks at bookish data while focusing on quality over quantity.
Let’s get to it.
You can follow Stephanie’s travels on and off the page on Instagram.
ANNE: How long is the list?
STEPHANIE: Well, I do have a top ten list. I really like making lists, Anne. I make lists of everything. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 267.
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, for a limited time, my book Don’t Overthink It is on sale for 1.99 (or less) across all ebook platforms.
If you’re prone to overthinking or getting stuck in indecision, my book is filled with practical advice for moving forward, staying grounded in your values, and making your daily decisions way easier. It’s been deeply satisfying to see how many of you have enjoyed this book, and said that it’s really helped you through Covid this year. I didn’t write this book with a global pandemic in mind, but its message has proven to be especially helpful during these stressful times.
Get your ebook copy of Don’t Overthink It today from Amazon, Kobo, Barnes and Noble, or any ebook retailer.
Today I’m talking with Stephanie De Mel, an economist and literature enthusiast based in London. A well-traveled reader in every sense, Steph has lived on multiple continents and combines her love of travel and books in her Reading the World Challenge. I love how curiosity informs her book choices, and I can’t wait to recommend three books to suit her broad reading taste.
Steph also shares how she applies her analytical tendencies to her reading life. We talk about how she looks at bookish data while focusing on quality over quantity.
Let’s get to it.
Steph, welcome to the show.
STEPHANIE: Thanks so much, Anne. I’m really excited to be here.
ANNE: Steph, I believe you represent a What Should I Read Next first. And that is our first economist on the show. Something that I expect to hear today based on your submission is how your day job affects your reading life. Would you tell me a little bit about what it is you do when you’re not talking about books in the middle of a work day?
STEPHANIE: [LAUGHS] So I work for an economic policy research organization in a sector that specializes in policy around education and labor market issues. A lot of my work is centered around issues of skills development and unemployment and people’s transitions from one type of job to another, and how that interacts with various other aspects of their lives. I work particularly on issues that face young people as they transition from school into the workplace for the first time, so kinda challenges around youth unemployment and about higher education decisions and stuff like that and my work is particularly focused on issues of inequality so whether that’s across dimensions of gender or socioeconomic background or any other aspects of an inequality that you might consider.
ANNE: Now you’re based in London, but does your work only focus on the city or the country?
STEPHANIE: For the longest time I focused on development economics, which meant that I was working largely on sub saharan Africa. It’s only very recently that I made the transition into working with U.K. based data in the last year or so, which has been a nice new challenge. It’s also interesting to see how a lot of the issues and challenges based by people across very different parts of the world really are similar even though the contexts are very different.
ANNE: And you personally experienced many parts of the world, have you not?
STEPHANIE: I have, yeah. So I’ve traveled quite a bit since I was 18. I grew up in Sri Lanka, which is where my family’s from, but I then moved to Melbourne in Australia to do my undergraduate degree, which was in economics and English literature. I was unable to decide between the two of them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That’s an unusual combo.
STEPHANIE: It is. I had to strong arm the faculty admissions people into letting me do it. Had to go around with, like, a list of all of the different modules and explain to them that it was perfectly possible for me to work them all into my time table and make up the requirements for book majors. [LAUGHS] One of my proudest achievements to date. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I spent four years living in Melbourne which was wonderful. It’s a great city, and I still have many friends there. After which I moved back to Sri Lanka for a brief interlude, just for a few months as I was figuring out what to do next, and I was applying to master's programs. I then moved to Oxford in the U.K. to do my Master’s in Economics, and then I went on [LAUGHS] sorta tour of Africa, really. I lived in Liberia for two years, and then in Rwanda for another year, and traveled a fair bit while I was there working for another economic policy research organization, which was allowing me to put into practice some of the stuff that I learned during my master’s course. It was very enlightening and a really nice way of experiencing some of those issues, you know, you study in the classroom in real life.
STEPHANIE: So that was great.
ANNE: You currently have a Reading the World challenge in progress.
STEPHANIE: I do, yes.
ANNE: What came first, the desire to read the literature from all corners of the world or the travel?
STEPHANIE: The Reading the World challenge is fairly recent so I sorta took it up in the last two or three years or so, but I think I’ve always been interested in reading quite widely. I mean, I grew up in Sri Lanka so naturally I read some local literature and then, you know, some Indian … Books by Indian writers as well just because we were very exposed to that in the environment I grew up in. But then of course obviously read all of the sorta classic English and American canons, but yeah, I always very much enjoyed reading books that had a strong sense of place especially if that place was somewhere different and interesting to where I’d lived.
ANNE: How would you describe your reading life right now?
STEPHANIE: Well this year it’s been great actually. I think well, I think this is probably a feature for many people as we spend a lot more time at home that we just do have more time for activities like reading. I’ve been trying to read a little bit more diversely, both in terms of this Reading the World challenge that we talked about, but also in terms of the genre composition of what I read. I read across quite a broad range of genres, classic literary fiction as well contemporary literary fiction. I also read fantasy, nonfiction, and poetry. Quite a broad range of things. I also really like a good detective novel.
I’ve recently developed quite an interest in philosophy. I also really enjoy reading about literary theory. I think that kinda comes from my undergraduate studies in English literature, but I also quite enjoy various aspects of science, so actually at the top of my list by is the Short Very Introduction to Cosmology because that’s something I recently [ANNE LAUGHS] thought would be really cool to read a bit more about. ‘Cause I don’t know much about it at all.
ANNE: Steph, how do we see these interests manifest in the books that you choose to read?
STEPHANIE: Well I think I quite enjoy books that deal in these particular subjects, so for example, I really like philosophy as I’ve said. So I quite enjoy fiction books that have a little bit of philosophy thrown in there, so I read The Brothers Karamazov earlier this year. I thought it was absolutely fantastic. Similarly I’ve really enjoyed The Name of the Rose which has little bits of everything I love really. It’s got some great gothic atmosphere. It’s got detective fiction. But it’s also got some quite heavy philosophy going on in there, so yeah, that’s a kind of union of several of my loves. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well, Steph, I’m so excited to hear more. Are you ready to get into your books?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, absolutely.
ANNE: Okay. Well I’m anxious to hear more about the specifics.
Readers, I had such a fun conversation recently with winemaker Ashley Trout. She grew up a city girl, but went to college in Walla Walla, a small rural town in Washington State, one of the premier winemaking regions in the world. And she decided that’s what she wanted to do. She launched a wine called Flying Trout at 24 years old, which is really young in wine, with wines from both Argentina and Walla Walla.
I got to talk with Ashley and do a tasting of her 2018 wine Come Hell or High Water, a delicious red wine I would honestly buy just for its name and label—I mean, what a great bottle to bring to book club! But after tasting it for myself and chatting with Ashley about making the wine, I am desperate to get to Walla Walla and see the town and her vineyard for myself. The picture she painted of the winemakers’ life and the incredible community there has me itching to go.
And speaking of book club wines: I loved our conversation and was amazed at how similar talking wine is to talking books; we talked about genre and tone and taste! And it was a delight.—and you can join me in trying it, too: both the conversation and the wine.
We have a small amount of this wine available exclusively for our listeners - normally reserved only for wine club members. To see the full tasting video I did with Ashley, or to request an allocation of up to 6 bottles only, text “TROUT” to 351-444-WINE.
Send the word “TROUT” to 351-444-9463 to see the full tasting video or to request an allocation.
ANNE: 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. With such a broad range of genres to choose from, how did you narrow it down to three?
STEPHANIE: Well, as I’m sure pretty much every guest tells you [LAUGHS] it’s very hard. I didn’t even attempt to pick my top three favorite books of all time, although I do have a list.
ANNE: How long is the list?
STEPHANIE: Well I do have a top ten list. I really like making lists, Anne. [ANNE LAUGHS] I make lists for everything. [LAUGHS] My favorite books, my favorite films, my favorite film directors, Disney movies.
ANNE: Where do you keep these lists?
STEPHANIE: I use Evernote, and so I just have like loads of notes that list my favorite things. That’s where I keep track of a lot of my reading notes as well. So I keep a reading journal for each year and I keep that on Evernote so I have a separate note for each book that I can have on hand as I read, and it’s a really handy way of being able to kinda jot down notes, sorta quotations that I just find interesting or just notes for when I’m writing up a review. So about two years ago, I started reviewing every book that I read and I post a review on Goodreads and more recently now that since I started an Instagram channel, I post it on Instagram as well.
And I did that kinda deliberately because I realized that having started using a Goodreads target, I was starting to focus a little bit too much on just trying to just get to the target, to just reading all of those books, and I would just pick up one after another without really stopping to digest what I’d read. And so writing a review is almost a way of forcing me to stop, consider, allow, you know, the book to really sorta percolate in my mind a little bit, and then I kinda will write down a few thoughts about how I felt about that book, what I liked, and what I didn’t like. A nice discipline I find.
ANNE: Okay. Steph, what did you choose for your first favorite?
STEPHANIE: My first favorite is Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones. Is this a book that you know?
ANNE: It’s a book that I know that my kids have read, that I think I’ve read aloud chapters of, but I’ve never read the whole thing from start to finish.
STEPHANIE: It’s a bit of a niche favorite I think. I have happened upon other people who like it as well, but I think it’s not particularly well known. I think the film perhaps is better known than the book, and I certainly came by the book by way of the film, which I should note is actually quite different from the book so even if you have seen the film, it’s worth reading the book. You’ll still get a lot out of it.
But I think this … I chose this book as a representation of a particular type of book that I like. Basically fantasy which is very whimsical in nature, that features kinda interesting world building, quirky characters. A little bit of you know, endearing romance and some great sidekicks. That’s exactly the type of fantasy that I enjoy reading and that’s exactly what Howl’s Moving Castle is.
ANNE: I did not know there was a movie.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, well the movie is absolutely brilliant. It’s made by Hayao Miyazaki who is this great Japanese animation director, but he’s made a number of really famous films, including Spirited Away and My Neighbor Totoro which are pretty popular since they’ve been distributed by Disney in the U.S. I think the last several years. But Howl’s Moving Castle is one of the few that’s actually based on a book rather than just an original script he came up with, but it deviates quite substantially from the novel. But I think it really captures that spirit of whimsy and fantasy and sorta a little bit of steampunk thrown in there [ANNE LAUGHS] which I really, really like as well.
ANNE: Okay, duly noted.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, and like the characters in the book are just really engaging as well. So both Howl and Sophie who are the main characters are just … Uh, they’re just really likable main characters. They’re both brave and earnest and likable. They get along terribly to begin with. Can’t really understand each other or get along with each other, but that develops into this like really endearing, witty banter that goes back and forth between them. A little bit like Darcy and Elizabeth of Pride and Prejudice, I suppose. Howl is a little bit of a Byronic hero.
ANNE: Okay, I was not expecting a Pride and Prejudice comparison to Howl’s Moving Castle. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] But I like it. Steph, what did you choose for your next favorite?
STEPHANIE: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, which is very different in tone, but again I think represents another aspect of my reading life, which is contemporary literary fiction that is very sorta thoughtful and contemplative and features an unreliable narrator. I love books that feature unreliable narrators. I think potentially because one of my areas of interest in terms of learning is psychology. I just find the psychology of the unreliable narrator really interesting.
So this is a novel in which our main character begins, you know, relating the events of his life where he was a butler in this manor house in England, and it all starts off fairly innocently, but as you go through the novel, you start very subtly to realize that everything that he says is a little bit suspicious, and as you go further and further through, you become more and more doubtful about the veracity of what he’s saying until as you get to the end you realize that nothing that you’ve been told can be taken at face value. The events that he’s been telling you about can be seen in quite a different light if you kinda step back and look at it more objectively.
One of the interesting things about Ishiguro’s use of unreliable narrators is that the narrators aren’t unreliable because they’re deliberately trying to mislead you. They just lack self awareness or they’re kinda trying to deny to themselves some essential aspect of their personality or covering up some past trauma. So they’re denying as much to themselves as they are to the reader, and I think that just makes them really interesting narrators to read.
ANNE: So it feels authentic, and not like a gimmick done to trick the reader.
STEPHANIE: Absolutely, yeah. And I think it also makes it a little bit of a puzzle box of a book, which I think taps into my love of detective fiction. So I think there is a bit of a link there. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I love the way you put that. Okay. What did you choose to round out your favorites list?
STEPHANIE: The third book I picked was The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter.
ANNE: Uh huh. Tell me more.
STEPHANIE: This one I absolutely adore. Firstly because of the writing, Angela Carter’s writing is just beautiful. It’s lush and voluptuous and really rich in imagery. It’s an absolute pleasure to read just for the sake of enjoying the language. But quite apart from that, so this is a collection of short stories that are based on or inspired by various fairy tales. All of the stories are just really interesting in their own right. They’re not just sorta beautiful aesthetic objects. They’re queering politics of sexuality, of race, issues around colonialism and various dimensions of otherness in a way that I think aligns really well with, you know, the standard magical realist agenda. But she just does it in such a sharp insightful way, even though this is an older collection, it just feels really fresh and relevant even today.
ANNE: I’ve really enjoyed reading Carter’s interviews, how she is adamant that she’s not retelling, but what she’s telling is the untold portion of the story. I find that so interesting.
STEPHANIE: That’s a really good way of putting it actually. I hadn’t heard that before but I think that is absolutely what she’s doing. It’s not a reworking, and I think a lot of it is about sorta giving voice to the disempowered characters in the story and they’re often female characters. Sorta bringing a fresh perspective to the story.
ANNE: Steph, now we’re moving on to a different reading experience, and I must confess, I am particularly excited to hear you say why the book that’s not for you is not for you. Tell us all about it.
STEPHANIE: Okay. So Still Life by Louise Penny. I know this is a book that you really like, Anne, so I feel a little bit bad saying that ... [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Don’t feel bad. Don’t feel bad. And well, I have to say right here, like something that I’ve said on the podcast over and over that bears repeating here is I think this first book is really slow. This is a whole series now. Like the Penny book that was just published in the fall of 2020, this is like #15 or 16. We are well into the teens at this point. What I would say is book one is slow. The murders in two and three are really weird, and she hits her stride in book four, and I know plenty of people disagree, but that’s my take. You didn’t need this like safe, comforting space to say I don’t like a book, when readers disagree [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] it leads to fascinating conversations but still, that bears repeating here. Tell me all about it. Not for you.
STEPHANIE: I totally agree with that. I often really enjoy discussing books with people that have contrary opinions because otherwise, you know, if you both really loved it, you just spend a lot of time being like isn’t this great? This book is so great, and then [ANNE LAUGHS] you know, even though … Sometimes it’s enjoyable to just be able to sit with someone and talk about how much you love something, and just gush unabashedly, but I find it really instructive and really enriching sometimes to talk to people who have very different opinions.
ANNE: And also really fun. I mean you know what people like to talk about? Books they didn’t like. Terrible reading experiences. So that’s a small way of redeeming it.
STEPHANIE: [LAUGHS] That’s true. Indeed. There were a few reasons I didn’t like this book, so I actually picked it up after hearing about it on your show and I noted it because as I said, I really enjoy detective fiction. Love Agatha Christie, and I particularly love a kinda cozy village setting or a kinda close circle, manor house type detective novel. Those things are just absolute catnip to me. Unfortunately it didn’t quite work for me. So to begin with, I just wasn’t drawn in by Penny’s writing style in this, and I totally buy that this is her first novel and I’m sure they get better as they go along, so maybe I just need to give one of the later books a chance, potentially revise my opinion here, but …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] At this point, that is a serious commitment though.
STEPHANIE: That’s true. That’s true. But I mean, I really did want to like her. [ANNE LAUGHS] I was genuinely quite disappointed because it’s hard to find good, new detective series. It’s always great when you do discover one.
STEPHANIE: I just couldn’t really get into the writing with this one. I just found her writing style a little bit choppy, a little bit repetitive. I felt like we were told pieces of information multiple times in a way that I just found annoying because it felt like she didn’t trust me as a reader to remember something she had said a few pages ago. I also just didn’t really enjoy the characters that much, particularly Inspector Gamache’s sidekick character, I think her name is Agent Nichols? She just wasn’t well developed.
Again I don’t know if she’s a recurring character through the rest of the series, so maybe it’s the case of in a later novel, you know, she fleshes her out a little bit more and we see a few more redeeming aspects of her personality, but for the most part, I just didn’t like her very much and just couldn’t go on with her particularly. And then I think like the third thing I didn’t really like was the ending. So near the end, there’s a … without giving anything away … there’s a kind of abduction and rescue scene. I literally laughed out loud then.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That’s not a good sign.
STEPHANIE: I know. It just felt very sensationalized, and it felt a little bit like watching sorta a low budget TV drama, and it just didn’t feel necessary. Again I just felt like Penny should have trusted her narrative to stand alone without needing to resort to gimmicks. I’m being quite harsh, so … [LAUGHS]
ANNE: My heart does really go out to these debut novelists who write a mystery novel that begins a series, and when you are a writer you master your craft in public and book one can bear not a lot of resemblance to book eight because you’re learning on the job in front of your readers and so that is a real thing.
ANNE: And yet readers are reading these books. I just think I’m glad that you wanted to own that, and that we could talk about it.
STEPHANIE: That’s definitely true. It is hard being a writer in the public eye writing a debut novel as you say. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well, I’m also thinking the things that you didn’t enjoy about the book can help you realize sometimes for the first time if you’re a reader who doesn’t often encounter a book that doesn’t work for you because of how much you read or the genres, the books that you tend to go to, it can really help you see what you do like. So I’m noticing that what you’re looking for are really great characters, and we’re getting a feel of what that means to you, and writing that you said, I mean when you were talking about The Bloody Chamber, you said the writing was lush and beautiful and a pleasure to read. Those are things that we can positively focus on.
STEPHANIE: Yeah, and I think it’s no coincidence that a detective series that I discovered recently that I really do like is Alexander McCall Smith’s the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency.
ANNE: Oh, yes.
STEPHANIE: That one fits much more squarely into my wheelhouse in terms of you know the interesting characters, so Mma Ramotswe is a fantastic main character. She’s so, so great. And the writing is just very evocative. It really sorta transports you to Gaborone. You really feel like you’re there with her. In fact, that’s a series that I kinda save up as comfort reads for periods of particular stress in my life. When things are going particularly badly at work and I’m just really anxious about something, I’ll grab one of those books and they just make me feel happy.
ANNE: Now that’s not a series that I expected you to mention next, only I think because it doesn’t have the wonder of Howl’s Moving Castle or The Bloody Chamber or the terror, the gothic feel, the unreliable narrator, but that helps me complete the picture, so thanks for sneaking that in.
STEPHANIE: Sure. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Steph, what have you been reading lately?
STEPHANIE: The book Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon, a Victorian sensation novel, so it’s written in the late 1800s. And it is again a great sorta piece of gothic fiction. Well it marries the genres of gothic fiction with detective fiction. This one is fantastic because there is just so much going on. It’s all incredibly over the top. But she gets away with it because it’s really well written.
So there is murder and mayhem and manor houses and madness and all sorts happening. It’s just really hard to keep track of what’s even going on in the narrative, or where it’s going to go next. But you just kinda are along for the ride because she’s just such a commanding writer and she just really sweeps you along. And it’s just incredibly atmospheric, so if you’ve got, you know, driving rain outside and you’re tucked in under a blanket with a cup of hot chocolate, this book is a perfect companion to that sorta situation.
ANNE: Oh, that sounds wonderful.
STEPHANIE: A couple of other books that I’ve been reading recently are a poem, an extended poem, by Derek Walcott called Omeros. This was not one that I had heard of before, but I picked it up in a charity shop as I was out wandering in London one day, and I was curious because I had heard about Derek Walcott recently, and someone had mentioned that I might enjoy his poetry, so I picked it up. It is a retelling of The Odyssey but it’s set in Saint Lucia where the warring figures of Achilles and Hector are a pair of local fishermen. Helen is the woman that they are both in love with and sorta fighting over.
I found out subsequently that Saint Lucia is also known as the Helen of the West Indies because it’s this sorta beautiful island that historically was fought over between the French and the English during the colonial period. I think it’s about 300 pages long, so it’s … It’s a very extended poem, but it really just holds your interest because the narrative is so engaging, the characters are so engaging. Again, the poetry is just lush and beautiful and it was an absolute pleasure to read.
And then I think lastly I think the other book I read was a piece of nonfiction. So this was one of the books in the very short introduction series that I was talking with you about before. It’s A Very Short Introduction to Ethics. They are a little bit hit or miss, these special introductions because some of them, I don’t know, just aren’t great as introductions. They may just skim over some of the details that I would prefer to read about, the expense of focusing on perhaps that academic’s particular area of interest. But this one just feels very well rounded, very clearly written, so for anyone who has an interest at all in learning about ethics and doesn’t have a background in it, I think this is a great resource.
ANNE: I love that we have Lady Audley’s Secret and Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, side by side. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] I feel that says a lot about you as a reader.
STEPHANIE: Absolutely. I did say that I enjoy reading quite a broad range of things.
ANNE: Steph, when you think about your reading life right now, what do you want more of, or what do you want to be different?
STEPHANIE: So I think one thing I really want to do is be better at getting through my stack of unread books. I’ve got about 50 books on my shelves that I haven’t read yet, and I feel guilty about it all of the time. [BOTH LAUGH] So …
ANNE: Why - why guilty? And I’m invested in the answer because my number of unread books on my shelves … It, uh, it surpasses that.
STEPHANIE: Ah, that makes me feel a lot better, Anne. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh. Well it surpasses it by a lot.
STEPHANIE: Well I’m trying to feel less guilty about it. In fact I was recently chanting to a friend who was describing to me an anecdote about a 19th century French writer whose name now escapes me. I don’t know which one it was, but she was saying that it was discovered after his death that he had something like 5,000 books in his apartment in Paris, many of which, I think the vast proportion of which, he clearly had not read. And she was saying that like he had described to one of his friends that having a library accessible to you, a personal library that is bigger than you could ever possibly hope to read in your lifetime is the sign of having an inquiring mind. I was like, that’s a really good justification for having far more books that I probably should on my shelves. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It is. And yet you’d like to narrow that down?
STEPHANIE: Well, so I just have a few books in this list that I’ve had on there for quite a long time. And I have quite limited shelf space because I live in a small flat in London, so I feel like I do need to get through them and then get rid of ones that I know I don’t love enough to keep.
STEPHANIE: So I think that’s really the impetus. I mean, that said, I don’t want to get my TBR stack down to zero. I don’t think that would be optimal for me. I think what I want is to have a stack that feels manageable, but still gives me the luxury of choice. So I still want to feel when I’m, you know, about to start a new book that I have a range of options to choose from. So I think I would basically want to have 30 to 35 books on my shelves that I could pick from at any given time.
ANNE: That is very precise.
STEPHANIE: I sorta arrived to this number by thinking well I would quite like to have about five options in each genre that I typically read in, and I have five main genres that I read in. And then I was thinking maybe like another five as extra, other types of books that don’t fit into that, so that’s how I came up with 35. [LAUGHS] But it is a bit arbitrary.
ANNE: That sounds like a very analytical approach to how you’re thinking about your reading life.
STEPHANIE: Yes, I think that’s pretty characteristic of how I approach many things in my life. Reading included.
ANNE: Tell me more about that.
STEPHANIE: [LAUGHS] In addition to those Evernote documents, I also keep track of the data that underlies the books that I read. So I use Goodreads to track all of my reading. That includes an option for exporting all of the data that you’ve entered into Goodreads over the last, you know, year or even earlier if you have to go further back into another piece of software. I use, you know, the software that I use in my day job as an economist [LAUGHS] to analyze the data that I get out of Goodreads about my own reading life. I quite like looking at patterns, so I like to think about, you know, the types of books that I’ve read over the last year, how you know, my ratings might change over time, or how it aligns with for existence the Goodreads rating system, composition of books that I read might change seasonally. Geographic composition of the writers that I read might change over time.
In fact this was how I discovered that I did like nonfiction because for the longest time I described myself as someone who really loved literary fiction and fantasy, but just didn’t have very much time for nonfiction. And then when I was looking through some of this data from a couple of years ago, I realized that nonfiction was actually my second most read genre in 2018. And I was really surprised by that because I did not think of myself, or did not think of myself as a nonfiction reader.
And then as I went and looked at what books made up that proportion, I realized that they were all these kind of reference nonfiction books, and I think I had in my mind this idea that nonfiction referred to biography and memoir because I think that tends to be the more popular forms of it. And I just for whatever reasons don’t enjoy those types of nonfiction, so I always just said no, I’m not a nonfiction reader. But that data at my fingertips allowed me to rephrase that more correctly to say I am a nonfiction reader, but I read nonfiction of a specific kind.
ANNE: That’s a very unique, unfair advantage that you have this economist software that you can run your Goodreads data through.
STEPHANIE: Well I mean you could really do this very easily. You don’t really need fancy software to do it. To be honest, I only use a fancy software because it generates really, really pretty graphics.
ANNE: I don’t mean unfair in a derogatory way, I just mean it’s so interesting how everyone has something in their background and their experience and where they are in the world that isn’t as obvious to everyone else, doesn’t go back as far. That’s a new one for me, Steph. I really like it. Also I want to see the charts on my reading life.
STEPHANIE: [LAUGHS] Yeah, exactly, well see this is the thing. It can be really, really fun to just like look at those patterns over time.
ANNE: I’m wondering if for a lot of readers they don’t feel like their reading life has the kinda movement to it, but it sounds like when you visualize the books you’re reading, I mean, visualize the data but that sounded a bit dry, maybe it makes some of y’all’s hearts just go pitter-patter. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] When you visualize it, you can see how as a reader you are shifting and how your habits are changing, evolving all the time, even if you may not feel like as you pick up one book at a time, day by day, through your life.
STEPHANIE: Yeah. That’s definitely the case I think. So actually even my decision to try to read a book by an author in every country around the world was also driven by looking at some of these charts over time and realizing that again in 2019 over 80% of the books that I read were by authors either from Europe or North America, and that surprised me because I do think of myself as someone who does try to read quite broadly.
I did then kinda go in and look at that a little bit more carefully by country. So I did manage to read across 15 different countries. So there’s a little bit more diversity in there than first appeared. But a lot of those countries did still tend to be European countries, and so I decided okay, I need … I definitely need to make more of an effort to read books by authors of different continents. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: What’s the timeline on that reading challenge? Because that’s almost 200 books. I hope you’re giving yourself years.
STEPHANIE: Yes. I mean, I very much see this as a long term goal. It’s not something I kinda rushing to try to do all at once, because I think that would just be putting unnecessary pressure on me to check those off the list, and you know, it’s meant to be a pleasurable activity. So I try to add one to my TBR for the month, so basically one a month, give or take.
I’m quite intentional about how I make my TBR list for the month, so again, I suppose this should be unsurprising how given our discussion about [BOTH LAUGH] how analytical I am about everything, but I usually will pick a book from each of the genres that I enjoy reading for that month, and so now I’ve just added on reading the world as a category to that, so I now pick six instead of five books to read every month.
ANNE: Steph, we have covered a lot of ground, and I feel like we could keep talking about books well into the weekend, next week, next month.
STEPHANIE: I mean that sounds great. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I wouldn’t mind a bit, and yet, we don’t want to put too many books on that TBR. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS]
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ANNE: Okay, let’s see. So the books you love Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. You said that you loved engaging characters, we’ve discussed that gothic vibe. You love a puzzle box of a book, and an unreliable narrator is something that really grabs you. Philosophy, literary theory, science, these are areas that you really enjoy exploring, and you enjoy books that dabble in them as well. Not for you Still Life by Louise Penny, you said you were afraid it wasn’t for you, and that’s just fine. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] And lately you were reading Omeros by Derek Walcott, Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn, and Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Also we can’t forget that you snuck in the Alexander McCall Smith series.
STEPHANIE: I did. [ANNE LAUGHS] I was very sneaky about it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I appreciate the little bit of extra info. All right, so bearing your interests in mind and what you’ve enjoyed reading in the past, I mean, let’s find some books for you to read next.
STEPHANIE: Sounds great.
ANNE: Okay. I have a pick that might be a little bit out of left field.
ANNE: I don’t know. I think I’m drawn to it because it has some really elegant writing about math, and you’re an economist. That is not quite the same thing, but doesn’t that really brief description appeal to you at all? And I feel like I should tell you there’s a lot of American baseball in it, which you may or may not care about. Except I would say that I don’t really care about, and I thoroughly enjoyed this book, but that doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a win for you.
STEPHANIE: I don’t care about baseball very much, but I am intrigued by a book about maths.
ANNE: Not about math. A book that has some very beautiful, almost mesmerizing passages about mathematics.
STEPHANIE: Oh, sounds great.
ANNE: This could either really work for you, or not so much, but I’m thinking of The Resistors by Gish Jen. Is this a novel you’re familiar with?
STEPHANIE: I’ve never even heard of it.
ANNE: You want to read to a book set in every country, right? So this book is set in a country that doesn’t exist because it’s a little bit … Okay, it’s a lot dystopian, and it’s a set in an indeterminate future when society has broken down into what’s essentially two casts. You have the Netted, and you have the Surplus, and the Netted are the privileged ruling class and their role in the world is to create. And the Surplus, their job is just to consume what the Netted produce, and if you’re imagining someone with like a rod and reel right now, that’s not the reference. It’s actually about the Internet ‘cause only the Netted have it.
There’s certainly a good amount of philosophy embedded in the world building here, which is so often how fantasy and speculative fiction and dystopian literature all work. But this Surplus class consists of people who occupy jobs that have once been deemed essential but that aren’t anymore. Teachers, lawyers, engineers, economists. I’m sorry. It’s a novel.
STEPHANIE: Oh my goodness. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: The world building is really interesting as Jen shows you the landscape of this new country. According to one character it’s described as a Jim Crow gone digital, like all the distinctions that are now deepening in the U.S. have been institutionalized. Things are not good in this world, and when the story begins, Grant who I believe was a math teacher before he lost his job and became part of the Surplus, his wife Eleanor was an attorney and she’s just been released from a three year stint in prison. She’s always getting in trouble because she is agitating for change, and it’s not going particularly which is one of the reasons why she ended up in prison. But they have a daughter, Gwen. She’s 17. Her parents adore her, and she loves reading, knitting, and baseball. And she is a prodigy. They call her the Girl with the Golden Arm. She is incredible. Like her arm is one in a million.
But the sport has been outlawed. So you have people who need some kind of release and some kind of hope and something that they can, you know, get excited about. So her dad forms a team and founds what soon blossoms into the underground baseball league, which is not just for the love of the game, but this is their act of resistance, the people of the Surplus. But then Netted find out that this girl is basically a female Satchel Paige and she’s being recruited to cross over because of her golden arm and join the world of the Netted, so it sets up this tension between two worlds as embodied in this girl who has this one really desirable thing that can earn her a ticket into this different life if she wanted to take it.
This is literary fiction, contemporary, just came out this year. I think there’s a lot for you to enjoy. It’s not quite fantasy, but it’s got that fantastical element that could be a lot of fun, and it has the things that I think would be especially interesting to book lovers like yourself like there’s a running bard would be the scrivener joke that just made me grin every time. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] But the writing about the game itself, even if baseball doesn’t matter to you at all, Gish Jen made me care about it because there was a character who was grappling with these big issues involving her sport, this thing she loves, but also baseball meant so much … It means so much to these people, and it meant so much more to her. The writing about the game and specifically the math of the game, I mean, really, there’s probably four passages that write about the math of the game, but they’re really good passages. How does that sound?
STEPHANIE: Yeah, that sounds really great. I always really appreciate when a book can make me invested in a subject that ordinarily I would not have any interest in. I think that’s the sign of a really good writer.
ANNE: Now I wish I could tell you that this book was not published in North America or Europe, but Gish Jen is first generation Chinese American, but she was born on Long Island.
STEPHANIE: I mean, I will continue to read many books that are set in America [ANNE LAUGHS] and Europe. I think that’s fine. I think it’s more just about making sure that I also read books from other places.
ANNE: Next I would really like to give you an unsettling, gothic, mysterious, unreliable kinda read.
STEPHANIE: Ooh, yes, please.
ANNE: I’m thinking about a book that I’m sorry to say that, United States listeners, is not out yet for you, but it’s by the British novelist Elizabeth Brooks, and Steph, it is out for you. You may know her as the author of The Orphan of Salt Winds, which was actually published as The Call of the Curlew in England.
STEPHANIE: I think I’ve seen The Call of the Curlew in a bookshop, but I’ve never read Elizabeth Brooks.
ANNE: It’s got a really pretty cover. What I like about her writing in her first book and this next one which is called The Whispering House. I’m looking at my advanced review copy, the blurb from Rene Denfeld says, “will keep you up all night. Gothic mystery like no other.” That sounds like the kind of thing that would get your attention. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] But her writing is so lush and atmospheric and I know that those are things that you really value. The house, the whispering house, which is actually called Byrne Hall, is a real presence in this story, a character in it, and what we find out later on in this book is that Byrne is a Gaelic word for raven. I mean, this is so gothic. It just makes me want to read Edgar Allan Poe. [LAUGHS] Or Rebecca. It has strong Rebecca vibes.
STEPHANIE: Ah, that is definitely a compliment.
ANNE: In this story, there’s a young woman named Freya. She’s in her 20s and she is haunted by the death of her sister. She died five years prior, she died by suicide, and she died near this house where Freya’s cousin had the nerve to host his wedding reception. So when the story opens, Freya says I never would have seen the house, she never would have revisited the place, except her cousin got married here, so she and her dad are dealing with all their ghosts. She drinks a whole lot of champagne, and kinda stumbles into the house, but it’s immediately clear that there’s something about this house that kinda grabs her and almost draws her inside, and at first I thought well how haunted is this house? It’s not like that. It’s not that kind of story, but still, there’s some strange power to the house.
Freya wanders into the house. She’s not supposed to go there. There’s signs up everywhere that say hey wedding guests, you stop here, don’t come inside. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] Because it’s a residence where people live, a mother, son, family, although Freya doesn’t know that at the time. But she has had — this is important — a whole lot of champagne. She is not narrating the story reliably. She cannot be trusted because she is inebriated, but she wanders down the hallway of the house where she thinks someone is, but she never sees anyone, and what she thinks she sees against a really impressive imposing mantelpiece is a beautiful portrait of her very distinctive looking flame haired sister. The one who died nearby five years prior.
Freya goes home with her dad, but she keeps thinking about the house and she thinks I don’t know what could have happened, but I have to go back and find out more. And so she goes back to the house and under very unusual circumstances, she meets the very handsome, brooding, almost Byronic portrait painter who is awfully attractive and maybe kinda into her and slowly she decides to see, can she stay to learn more about her sister? Can she stay to spend more time with this guy and slowly [LAUGHS] this story takes Freya into very terrifying places that she may or may not be able to extricate herself from. And while I was reading, I really wasn’t sure how it was going to go down.
But the descriptions of the house itself are wonderful and they may give you the goosebumps. It really is like a character in the story. Slowly Freya feels compelled to return. It’s clear to her that the house has secrets. Brooding house with secrets. I would say almost an anti-Byronic hero. It’s not a closed room mystery, but it’s a very eerie unsettling atmospheric mystery and contemporary British literary fiction. How does that sound?
STEPHANIE: You had my interest at brooding manor house, and I was definitely sold by the time you got to brooding anti-hero. I’m going to go out and buy it now.
ANNE: Well I hope you enjoy it, and you can do that, and U.S. readers, it’s coming in March 2021. This book gave me serious Mexican Gothic vibes. The plots of the books are not extremely similar, but you got a scary house, a woman going to investigate something not quite right, and just atmosphere for days. If you enjoyed this, Mexican Gothic could be a good next read, and if you enjoyed Mexican Gothic, you might wanna scrawl down Whispering House on your TBR right now.
STEPHANIE: I’ve got Mexican Gothic on my TBR. I’m just waiting for it to come out in paperback, but it looks fantastic as well.
ANNE: I think if you do enjoy it, you’re likely to enjoy the other, and if Mexican Gothic appealed to you, if you liked the sound of a book like that, then I think The Whispering House checks a lot of the same boxes. Okay. I’d love to give you a nonfiction book next; how does that sound?
STEPHANIE: Sounds brilliant.
ANNE: Now for something like the Very Short Introduction series, I feel like if a reader knows they wanna read about ethics, they can pick up the book on ethics. And if they know they wanna read about cosmology, they know to pick up the book on cosmology. And for that reason we’re not going that direction, but I am thinking of a book … This could be shelved in the memoir section, but I wanna make a case for it. It’s a memoir that is not … It is the author’s story, but the story is a springboard to explore a concept that has to do with nature and psychology and the mind and spirit, and philosophy and do we sound like we’re on the right track?
STEPHANIE: I mean, my interest has definitely peaked.
ANNE: Well the book I’m thinking of is by another British novelist. It’s called Wintering by Katherine May, and something I think is so interesting here, when it came out pre-pandemic in the U.K., the subtitle was “how I learned to flourish when life became frozen.” But for us, the subtitle is “the power of rest and retreat in difficult times,” and by us I mean U.S. readers because that is where I’m going to be maybe for years actually the way things are going. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] May is based in Whitstable, and while this isn’t by any means a small village Agatha Christie closed circle mystery, it’s not that kind of book, she does spend a lot of time in small towns and villages and I hope that you can enjoy that element of it even though you’re not trying to figure out who the murderer is in this story.
What she does is explore this concept of wintering, which she sees as a fallow period in life when you’re cut off from the world. She says when you’re feeling rejected, sidelined, blocked from progress or cast into the role of an outsider, and sometimes that happens because of events happening our life when we do have a sense of agency and sometimes it happens when we or a family member experience say a time of illness that causes us to retreat and hunker down, close ourselves off for the world for that kind of necessary reasons.
In this book called Wintering, she begins I think in August. preparing for winter and she takes us to a couple different countries. She goes to Finland and Norway and examines the way that they start preparing for winter in August ‘cause otherwise by the time it gets real cold, you are not ready. And what she does at the very beginning is explain how a particular winter, the one that was happening just before she started writing began, and that was with her husband’s illness, and he was real sick and it came out of the blue and it caused their family to need to hunker down, and her to become a caretaker.
She walks us through the seasons here beginning in August and then ending in late March as the thaw just begins to come where she is in Whitstable. And in between she takes us to different countries, she goes on trips. She experiments with different things. She goes in sauna, and she does say it’s in sauna, not in the sauna because sauna is a state of mind. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] She goes to Stonehenge with a group of religious observers. She goes to Iceland in one fascinating episode, she decides she’s going to become one of those polar bear swimmers who plunge into the winter seas [BOTH LAUGH] when the water is nearly unbearably cold.
It’s this really interesting blend of personal story and research and philosophy and musings on depression and happiness and hibernation and coziness and it’s a thorough and really fascinating exploration of a subject that it wouldn’t occur to many of us that we even wanted to know about. How does that sound to you?
STEPHANIE: Yeah that sounds like a really good book for this particular time of year. That sounds very cozy.
ANNE: It’s not just let’s burn candles and get through the winter happy, there’s a lot of sorrow here, like and she mentions almost in passing one of the winters she experiences, because so many winters are brought on by sadness, was when she received an asperger’s diagnosis, and it triggered a time of retreat where she had to like regroup and reassemble before she felt like she was ready to go out into the world again. And she talks about how her son was six and was bullied at school and she finally decided you know what? It was me as a kid, this is awful for him. We’re going to retreat into our homes and find another way of being in the world.
So as much as it is a story of transformation and soldiering on, it’s also about solitude and sadness and there’s a lot happening here, but it feels pleasantly both expansive and focused, and I do think that this is the kind of book that would particularly lend itself to reading maybe this year and in this season. It’s mind-blowing to me now that this book was ready to come out at this particular moment in time.
STEPHANIE: I mean that sounds like a great read. Particularly for lockdown. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: So that is Wintering by Katherine May. Okay, Steph, of the books we discussed. They were Resistors by Gish Jen, The Whispering House by Elizabeth Brooks, and Wintering by Katherine May, what do you think you may read next?
STEPHANIE: Mm, I think probably I’m going to read The Whispering House because I just got really excited by your description of that.
ANNE: I’m excited that you’re excited, and I hope you really enjoy it. [STEPHANIE LAUGHS] Steph, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
STEPHANIE: Ah, thank you, Anne, it’s been so fun. I’ve really enjoyed this.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Steph, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/267 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 me on instagram to share what YOU are reading. Find me there at annebogel and at whatshouldireadnext. Our newsletter subscribers are the first to know all our news and happenings; if you’re not on the list just go to whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for our free Tuesday delivery.
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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.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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• Cosmology: A Very Short Introduction by Peter Coles
• The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky
• The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
♥ Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne-Jones
• Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
♥ The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
♥ The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter
△ Still Life by Louise Penny
• Agatha Christie (try And Then There Were None) by
• The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith
• Lady Audley’s Secret by Mary Elizabeth Braddon
• Omeros by Derek Walcott
• Ethics: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Blackburn
• The Resisters by Gish Jen
• The Whispering House by Elizabeth Brooks
• Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno Garcia
• Wintering: The Power of Rest and Retreat in Difficult Times by Katherine May
• Howl’s Moving Castle movie trailer
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