Today I’m talking with an Alabama teacher whose love of reading has touched every aspect of his life—from where he met his wife to the theme of his classroom today. Derek is a MATH teacher but he puts his reading right there on the wall for his students to see and he loves talking books with fellow teachers. I loved talking books with him and hearing about his early library adventures, the books he’s passing down to his son, and the gorgeous engagement photos he and his wife took in the library where they met.
Derek has a really good handle on what kinds of books are his go-to AND the font that tells him this book is right for him. But he’s challenging himself to try and push some boundaries and not be quite so carefully curated. MY challenge is to recommend three books that are right for where he is in his reading life right now.
Let’s get to it.
Find Derek on Instagram.
Join us in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club for classes on the reading life, bookish conversation, and for live author chats like next week’s event with Ryan Stradal.
DEREK: Last year I made an intention to read more dystopian and young adult because that’s not my jam at all, and that was a new thing for me. This year I’m gonna try fantasy, which I’m a little scared about. [ANNE LAUGHS] But we’ll see how it goes.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 272.
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, I talk about Book Club here on the podcast but because it’s so much more than your average book club, you usually hear me mentioning an upcoming class or one of our events like the Summer Reading Guide Unboxing (which is just a couple of months away) or at the end of last year when our team shared their Best Books of the Year.
So I don’t talk about our books or author events as much, but let me tell you they are so much fun. Of course I can never resist asking our author guests about their books, the ones they’re writing, but we also find out more about them as people, and importantly, as readers. We get into their process, what they have in the works right now, what books are on their nightstand. All of this is greatly enhanced by the show and tell that we always invite them to bring to our online events.
Our next author chat is next week with J. Ryan Stradal and I cannot wait to talk to him. Join us in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club for those classes and the upcoming unboxing, but also for Ryan Stradal, author of Kitchens of The Great Midwest and The Lager Queen of Minnesota and all of our past author events which are available to watch any time. Go to members.modernmrsdarcy.com and sign up now.
Today I’m talking with an Alabama teacher whose love of reading has touched every aspect of his life—from where he met his wife to the theme of his classroom today. Derek is a MATH teacher, but he puts his reading right there on the wall for his students to see and he loves talking books with fellow teachers as well. I loved talking books with him and hearing about his early library adventures, the books he’s passing down to his son, and the gorgeous engagement photos he and his wife took in the library.
Derek has a really good handle on what kinds of books are his go-to AND the font that tells him this book is right for him. But he’s challenging himself to try and push some boundaries and not be quite so carefully curated. MY challenge is to recommend three books that are right for where he is in his reading life right now.
Let’s get to it.
Derek, welcome to the show.
DEREK: Thank you for having me.
ANNE: It is my pleasure, I’m so excited to talk books with you today. Now something we loved seeing in your guest submission is how books have impacted pretty much every area of your life. You’re a teacher. You’re married to someone you met in a literature class. You say how reading as a child really made you the person you are today, and I’m just really excited to get into that because I know a whole lot of listeners really relate.
DEREK: I grew up like a lifelong reader. My mom took me to the library all the time during the summer. Summer reading programs were a big deal for us. I don’t remember a time in my life where I didn’t have books, and that’s not lost on me like the gravity of that, how there are people who don’t have that privilege, but we always had books. It was always a priority for us and even now my mom and I still talk books all the time. I really love that.
ANNE: Tell me about the library you liked to go to as a kid.
DEREK: It was a really small one in a strip mall because that was before we got nicer libraries in my hometown. When I was like really little, the libraries were not that cool. They were kinda sad and run down. [BOTH LAUGH] And then they had a major glow up at some point because my wife and I actually had our engagement pictures taken at the library like downtown in a city we met. ‘Cause it was like they had restored it, and it was all fantastic and beautiful and just so pretty and it was just so funny to see like the comparison between those two.
But I always remember I got like a tote bag for doing the library reading program in the summer, and I always had like my goal and I would check it off. And we went to the library all the time. Probably every week we were there, you know, on Saturday, that was our thing to do and I would get a whole stack of books. I wouldn’t always read all of them, but I would read most of them and take them back, get some new ones, and we still do that now with our son. He loves the library. And it’s a big part of what we do, like I just finished bringing a new bookcase into our bedroom this morning and like setting it all up because we had run out of room and that’s what just happens in our house like …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Hm, maybe that’s the strategy I need to enact for the stacks of books that I have on the floor.
DEREK: My son’s bookshelf in his room is actually my old bookshelf like when I was a child and a teenager, so it’s really big and we had to do the same thing. We started off with a small one in his room, and then we had to upgrade, and we’ve just slowly like where - where are we going to put these books? We just keep getting more. A good problem to have.
He and I read every night before bed. That’s our ritual. You know, we put pajamas on. He and I ... He picks out a book, we go read it in the rocker, and then we go to bed. He says his prayers, and then Mama comes in and sings with him, and it’s just part of that ritual and something I hope that he remembers because I remember my dad reading to me as a kid too. My mom and I had more of a book connection, but my dad did take a lot of time to read to me. Oh, I cannot remember the name of the series, but it was these books that had characters like Gentle Lamb, Proud Peacock, Slow Turtle.
ANNE: Somebody knows. We want you to come tell us what that series is in the show notes, please.
DEREK: Please do because I would love to find them. And he would do voices for them all and like I still remember that 30 years later. It really formed who I am. This past year I really embraced keeping a reading journal religiously. I wrote down quotes, not just what I was reading, but what did I like about this, how did it make me feel?
ANNE: What did you notice through that experience of journaling the first time?
DEREK: There’s a lot of quotes that I wanted to remember because I’m one of those as much as I love a good story, I can get past that if the prose is really good. I personally did not love the story on Where The Crawdads Sing, and I know that I’m going to get hate mail for that, but I thought the prose was so much better. I liked it more because of the prose, and so keeping track of those, these were the things that I wanted to remember how I felt when I wrote this quote down, and like The Vanishing Half, I had an entire page of quotes because it was just sooo good. It was really good to do that, and it was also a good visual for me to see how much I read and even to keep track of the ones I didn’t finish.
ANNE: Now let’s go back to you as a kid in the Alabama library. What were you checking out back then? What got you hooked?
DEREK: Boxcar Children by far, and just recently my mom and dad came up for Christmas. She brought all my old Boxcar Children books so I could put them on my son’s bookshelf and that just made me so excited.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so jealous. ‘Cause my Baby-sitter's Club, I mean, they’re lost to time.
DEREK: I’m so sorry.
ANNE: Also the Anne of Green Gables, had to buy them again as an adult.
DEREK: But is that really such a bad thing to buy new copies of those you know?
ANNE: I mean, they make really pretty editions now.
DEREK: Yes. And I would love to see if somebody has like new updated editions of Boxcar Children, but I doubt it. But it was always Boxcar Children and then as I grew older, Hardy Boys, like I was really, really into mysteries. I was not so good then at figuring out the mystery ahead of time, but I just loved reading them and trying to figure out who did this, why did they do that?
ANNE: I love hearing from readers who really didn’t get started on reading, you know, they didn’t consider themselves to really be a reader until they were like 30 years old, I think that’s something that Jamie Ivey said on her episode of this show, but so many of us have been book lovers since we were children. We grow up. It’s so fun to revisit our childhood favorites, but we also yearn for new titles to read and I think there’s just a real appeal in tracing, you know, were the roots of the reader we are today apparent even back then?
DEREK: Maybe when I first started to write down what I read and track that more, writing it all down, it showed me there was really a theme and I still went to psychological thrillers and mysteries and all those things that I saw as a child and I was like, I’ve seen these things before. It hasn’t always been there and my go to is going to be the psychological thriller with that same font that every single psychological thriller is using right now. If there’s a woman in the title or woman reference, [ANNE LAUGHS] like they all have the same san serif font and I’m like can we do a new font please?
But that’s my go to. If I am in a rut, if I am feeling stressed or anxious, I am going to go to the library and I’m going to look at the new releases and I’m going to find one that fits that bill. And that’s usually what I’m going to go to because it reminds me of that comfort I found in books as a kid.
ANNE: It brings me joy to hear how many readers of my age loved Nancy Drew novels as a kid and then they grew up and they still love books about like plucky heroines solving mysteries, like say Alexander McCall Smith. So we mature as readers and yet you know, sometimes the same thing that we loved back then like survival stories or a certain era of history, like eccentric mysteries … they just never seem to lose their appeal.
DEREK: So Boxcar Children, or The Hardy Boys, I knew that the mystery was going to be solved. I just got caught up in the Alex Cross series after I took an extended break. I knew that Alex’s gonna survive because he always does, but there’s still that comfort in how is it going to be tied together, like I feel like James Patterson takes so many different yarns and weaves them together so well in a way that you wouldn’t think and even though I know in the end this problem is going to get solved, Alex may get shot in the leg and lose a lot of blood, but he’s still gonna survive and it’s just that comfort of trying to figure it out maybe and just being reminded of what I saw as a kid.
ANNE: I don’t know if you relate to this, but personally I found in the past year during Covid, mysteries have been so supremely satisfying in a way that I don’t know they were before. Like I know that I’m going to start the book and something terrible is going to happen and we have to figure it out and we’re going to like by golly, we’re going to resolve this story by page 320. We will solve the crime. We’ll dust off our hands. We can close that box. I mean I guess some people like to stress clean to feel better, and I just would really rather pick up a book.
DEREK: Or like me, I stress clean and listen to a book while I’m cleaning. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Yes! Because you’re a big audiobook reader.
DEREK: Yes. We go through probably as many audio … I think my raito this past year was 40% audio. My wife I would say is 80% audio.
DEREK: If we’re doing a road trip, we’re either going to get a book to read out loud together or an audiobook that we can just pop in the CD. And a lot of times we’ll both have the same book and then we’ll listen to it and then discuss it. We do the same books, I wouldn’t say frequently, but probably 10% of the books that I read this year were a buddy read.
ANNE: So I guess this is one of the perks of falling in love with a fellow book nerd.
DEREK: Yes it is.
ANNE: Okay, tell me about meeting in English class.
DEREK: The best part of the story is our first impressions of each other. So it was our freshmen year in a literature class, and I started our college a couple weeks after the semester started, so I was late to this class and she had already established her group of friends. She still is … She’s very extroverted and I am not, and so she … You know, she’s over in the corner and she’s got her people and they’re talking and she’s just really like feeding on the crowd, and I thought, this girl really does not have any goals in life. [BOTH LAUGH] And her first impression of me is that guy is the biggest snob I have ever seen in my life.
And then later on in our college career we were both tutors in our learning center, like our college had like a tutoring center, so she was an English tutor and I was a math tutor, and then that’s when we really started to grow closer together. We started hanging out more, and it took until three years after we graduated before we finally had the what is now known in our circle of friends as our DTR conversation, the define the relationship conversation [LAUGHS] where she looked at me and said I just can’t be your friend, like I can’t just be your friend anymore, and then here we are almost nine years later. No, almost ten years later in May. That class was in one of the classrooms in the library at our college.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So you met in the library.
DEREK: And I think I sent one in to Brenna.
ANNE: They’re adorable.
DEREK: It’s just like this majestic library. It’s huge, and you know, just takes us back to when we first met, too.
ANNE: I love how books have played such an important role in so many different facets of your life. That’s really special.
DEREK: And I love sharing that even though I’m a math teacher. Like I have a thing outside my door, like I have pictures of what I’m reading now, what I’m listening to now, what I’ve just read and what I want to read, so that way my kids can like … My reading kids ‘cause high schoolers, not all of them love to read. I have - I have a decent portion that do read just for pleasure like they carry books around all the time like I did, but it’s good to have a starting point for that conversation with them ‘cause then they’re not so afraid to say ooh, I want to read that. Or I see you read this one, you should probably try this one.
ANNE: Yes, I love that they have you, and I love that they have you not just in English class. And, Derek, you are at least the second math teacher we’ve had on the show who uses books as a doorway to talking about reading with their students. Rissie Lundberg was on, it’s episode 123. It’s called “Books that will totally make you cry with laughter.” She’s a math teacher and she - she talked about assigning English literature as math homework
ANNE: ‘Cause sometimes that’s what kids needs. And she shared it on her Instagram account. All the comments were Go Ms. Lundberg! That’s my math teacher! And it was just …
DEREK: That's cute.
ANNE: It was good for the soul to see. So tell me a little about your reading life today.
DEREK: In this new year I want to do more boundary pushing, things I’m not usually going to gravitate towards. I’m trying to go for more classics, more nonfiction. I’m still going to pick up my thrillers because that’s like my comfort and my bread and butter, but I really want to go for something that’s really going to make me think. I think my reading life today is more carefully curated, I guess [LAUGHS] would be the best way to say it, but that sounds really snobby. [ANNE LAUGHS]
But I think I try to pick things that I can have conversations with people about, and that’s sometimes like I want to stick to like stay in my lane. Like when I was completing my Modern Mrs Darcy challenge for the year, one of my things was I want more intention and less just going to the next greatest thing ‘cause it’s what everyone’s talking about. But I also do desire to have those conversations like the school I’m currently in, we have a faculty book club and I’m so excited that I could have those conversations, like I love The Vanishing Half but not everybody else in the group did. And I love to have those conversations with people.
So I think for me it’s really a gateway to conversations with people more than anything, and even though I’m a huge introvert, it is my way to like get in the door and be like ooh, you like this book? Let’s have a conversation about that. It’s a lot of audiobooks. It’s a lot of fiction. I would say fiction way more than anything. I love a good thriller. I love a good coming-of-age, which I really have not done a lot of lately.
ANNE: But I can see how that would be really interesting to you given how much that we’ve talked about really only your own coming-of-age as a reader today.
DEREK: Right. Like I think of some really good coming-of-age like Skippy Dies, The Art of Fielding, those are some that stick with me as these were phenomenal books that really told the story of a character developing and really coming into himself or herself. Especially if it’s an awkward person like myself, like you’re really rooting for them like yes, you’re really going to get it this time. So I love those type of stories too.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay. Also tell me about your interest in celebrity memoirs.
DEREK: I just love pop culture, and I don’t read enough celebrity memoirs I don’t think. One of my favorite ones was Leah Remini’s Troublemaker.
DEREK: It talked about how she left the Church of Scientology.
ANNE: I’ve heard about this book.
DEREK: She was Stacy Carosi … Corosi ... Carosi on Saved By the Bell, and then she was on King of Queens, and then she was really big in the Church of Scientology and then she finally realized what it was all about and she blew the whistle on it. And she has like an A&E series about it too, but I read that book in like a day. It was just fascinating to me just to hear about her - her journey. It was amazing.
ANNE: Okay. So books that let you really like get inside somebody else’s real world.
DEREK: Yes, not just like the front they put on, but like what they really are, like those are good stories for me.
ANNE: So boundary pushing to you means not the books that you feel like not the sections of the library or the bookstore that you feel like you already know really well, but the ones you’re not as well acquainted with yet.
DEREK: Last year I made an intention to read more dystopian and young adult because that’s not my jam at all.
ANNE: How’d that go?
DEREK: It was good. I read the Styclar trilogy and I really, really enjoyed it. And that was a new thing for me. This year I’m gonna try fantasy, which I’m a little scared about [ANNE LAUGHS] but we’ll see how it goes.
ANNE: Do you know what you have on deck?
DEREK: I’m gonna try to do V. E. Schwab’s London series. I’m in the first book right now, A Darker Shade of Magic.
ANNE: Okay, so you’re making it happen right now.
DEREK: Yes. I have three different challenges going this year. I have like my own personal one where I kinda develop these are some different types of books I want to read. I’ve done Modern Mrs Darcy. I’m doing the unread shelf project as well, so I’m a goal setter and I very much like to have my list and go through and check my boxes. And I feel like if it’s the ones I’m not really going to gravitate towards, those are the ones I have to do first because I have to like yes, I did this and I accomplished this goal.
ANNE: Okay. And the checklists make it fun.
DEREK: I’m all about a checklist.
ANNE: I like it. All right, Derek, I can’t wait to get into your books that you chose today.
DEREK: Me too.
ANNE: How did you choose your loves and your - your not so much?
DEREK: Okay. This was so hard to pick the ones I loved because I have so many books I love, and especially in the past year when I read so many books, when I did like my annual review of books for my blog, I had to pick thirteen because there were that many books that stood out to me. And I had a hard time narrowing all of the books that I’ve read down to just three, but what I went with were the books that have really, really stayed true to what I enjoy and the books that I can’t stop recommending to other people.
ANNE: A good sign because you find yourself with the opportunity to recommend books a lot it sounds like.
DEREK: I’m that weird person that I go and follow like everybody … All my friends on Goodreads, if I see that they didn’t like a book I loved, I’m like, well why didn’t they like it? And I know you talk about how it’s not always the right book at the right time so I have to remind myself of that constantly. And it may have not been the right book for them or that time.
ANNE: And you can have really good conversations with somebody who feel completely differently about a book than you did.
ANNE: As I’m sure you’ve had the opportunity to find out.
ANNE: Okay, well Derek, you know how this works. You are 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. What’s book one?
DEREK: The first book that I love is Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. I love the entire series, which I read in one summer the first year after I started teaching and now my classroom is Harry Potter themed as well, but that book to me was really … It has that coming-of-age element because there’s so much of what Harry is really coming to terms of, like he realizes what his duty is and what he has to do. And there’s a lot of really fun school elements in that one.
ANNE: I never thought about reading Harry Potter as a teacher. That’s fun.
DEREK: And seeing like even though it came out when I was a kid, for one, like I was kinda sheltered and so I wasn’t really [LAUGHS] allowed to read those, but two I wasn’t ever drawn to that genre. And so for me to even choose that as an adult was even more interesting.
ANNE: Derek, what is book two?
DEREK: Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult. I actually listened to the audiobook. Audra McDonald does the audio for that one, and it is phenomenal. I read it going on three years ago. We are an adopted family. Our son is biracial, and so looking at minority authors is also a big deal, but that book just … The way Jodi Picoult just wove together so many intricate human emotions was just so wonderful.
And there were so many moments in the book where I cried. Even from the beginning, there’s a scene when the main character’s son decides he’s going to like put aside his college fund to help pay for something the mom needs, and I was just sitting in the car weeping and I think especially where we are as … Not just as a country, but in the world in terms of race relations, it’s an important book that a lot of people need to read just to understand different mindsets.
We don’t own a ton of books, we go to the library way more often than not, but it is a book that I asked for Christmas because it was that impactful to me because it’s just one of those like I want to go back and revisit it. I want to sit with this, and even though it made me uncomfortable, it’s still really important to sit with this.
ANNE: I’ve heard a lot of people say about books like Jodi Picoult’s that reading a novel can really help them step into someone’s shoes that reading a nonfiction book that’s basically about the same topic just - just doesn’t do. And Derek, what did you choose for your third book?
DEREK: Okay, this is the book that when I … ‘Cause I was telling my mom the other day that I was going to be on the show, and she was asking like the format ‘cause she’s not really into podcasts so I was kinda telling her and she’s like well what are you three books? And when I told her this, my wife was in the background, she’s like of course you selected that one.
So I chose Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn because this is the book that absolutely I recommend to every single person that comes to me for a book recommendation. I read it the year it came out and the first part of the book I’m just like ugh, he is so terrible. He is so terrible. And then you get to part two, and you’re just like what in the world is going on?
And then like I remember when the movie came out, my wife had not read the book and so I was like let’s go to the movie, and she’s like okay. And she’s getting like I can feel her getting angry at him all throughout the book, and I’m like it’s gonna happen, it’s gonna happen, and then that very first scene in the movie where you see Amy driving in the car, her eyes got so big and I just like turn and I was like yup. That’s that moment.
And it’s just so … I think they are the perfect crazy couple, like Nick and Amy just [ANNE LAUGHS] they are the most bizarre people I have ever met. I know they’re not real people. I treat book characters like they’re real people. There are so many things that I would have never even thought about just tiny little details that are all throughout it and it’s just … It’s a whodunit without being a whodunit I guess. There’s so many random quotes that I’ll just throw out at people, like the very opening line. “When I think of my wife, I always think of her head.”
ANNE: So what I hear you saying is that this really symbolizes what you love about a thriller.
DEREK: Yes! Because you never know. I’m not a serial rereader, so for me to reread that book that many times is a big deal. I’ve watched the movie like a bazillion times because it’s just … It’s so good.
ANNE: Okay, now on a totally different note, tell me about a book that was not for you.
DEREK: Okay, so this is a book that I read the same summer that I read the whole Harry Potter series, and I still remember this is not the book for me that long ago. ‘Cause that was the summer of 2009. It was As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. It just didn’t do it for me. I felt like the whole thing could have been like a long form essay. I did not like his writing style and I thought the story was just disjointed, I guess. It was rough, and that’s one that I still go to like any time someone says Faulkner, I’m like no. I’m checking out there. [ANNE LAUGHS] Can’t do it. Can’t do it.
ANNE: Oh, well, I was thinking that Faulkner had strong feelings about this work that make a lot of readers just kinda roll their eyes off the bat. I think the thing that might have tipped me into finally reading it was I read this fascinating article in Garden and Gun about William Faulkner’s Hollywood odyssey. And it talks about the time he moved to Hollywood and ended up writing and fixing a lot of scripts, and I just … It was so discordant with the picture I had in my head of him in Oxford, Mississippi that I … It was fascinating. It’s still on the Interwebs.
DEREK: I need to look that up. Because that is interesting. I felt like I had to like it because he’s a Southern author and you know like [ANNE LAUGHS] you know how we are Southerners, we pride ourselves of like Southern authors and yes, he’s a Southern author let’s support him, and then I did and I was like ew.
ANNE: Well I did notice that some of the books you said you loved were set in the South, like Crawdads and The Vanishing Half and not a coincidence?
DEREK: Not at all. I love Alabama culture, specifically, and I just think Southern culture as a whole is fun. I’m not in that like I’m gonna wave out my Confederate flag in the front yard kinda way, I think Southern culture is fascinating.
ANNE: All right Derek, I had already mentally crossed off some books off my list and now I might add them back on.
ANNE: We’ll see where this goes. Okay, so As I Lay Dying, not for you. What are you reading now?
DEREK: I am currently reading A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab. I just finished Frankenstein on audio yesterday, to try to check off one of my classics for the year. And we just finished Troubles in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand. She’s also one of our favorites. We pretty much read every one of hers aloud like in the summer or in the winter when we come out, and I say we, because like my wife and I will check it out of the library and we’ll take turns reading it.
ANNE: That’s a fun tradition. And Derek, what do you want more of in your reading life?
DEREK: I think I want more intentionality. I actually just listened to this week’s episode this morning and talking about like staying in my lane. I want to be like intentional when I’m reading and not just gravitating toward the next greatest thing, so I want more nonfiction for sure. I’m okay with one or two classics, but I would say more nonfiction. If I go to the fiction, I would like some coming-of-age ‘cause that’s just something that’s always fascinating to me and maybe that’s because I’m a teacher and I see students do that, you know, every year. If you can find a coming-of-age and a thriller, wow, like you’ve got me sold. [LAUGHS]
One of the goals I’ve made for this year is to read five nonfiction award winners. When I’m reading nonfiction, I want to learn something, but I don’t want it to just be something that’s random. I would like it to be, I guess, verified as really good, which I know that awards for books are especially subjective, but I want something that’s like I can still have a good conversation with somebody about. If it’s a topic that’s going to interest me, I could even overlook the award winning side for that if it’s more relevant to me.
ANNE: Okay, we have a lot to work with here.
ANNE: So, Derek, the books you loved were Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult, and Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. Not for you As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner and this year you’re wanting to explore award winning fiction, coming-of-age stories, celebrity memoir. There’s so many different directions we could go.
ANNE: We are going to lean into coming-of-age. Let’s start with a novel. Have you read anything by William Kent Krueger?
DEREK: I have not. I have not heard of him.
ANNE: Okay, well I’m sorry to say he’s not a Southern author. He is based in and most of his stories take place in Minnesota. But he’s written a mystery series that may be a good go-to for you. It starts with the book Iron Lake. We read This Tender Land together this summer in the Modern Mrs Darcy book club, another coming-of-age story, but the one I like for you because of the strong mystery component is Ordinary Grace and it’s oh, between five and ten years old. It’s actually a mystery award winner. It won an Edgar.
And this novel is set in small town Minnesota in 1961, and it has that wistful reductive tone that I really like and y’all have heard me talk about on the podcast where there’s an older man looking back on something that’s happened in his life, evaluating what happened to him as a child through the lens of what he thought about it then, but also what he knows about it now. That’s often a very effective lens for fiction, but it’s narrated by a 13 year old boy who’s suddenly brought face to face with death in this one tragic summer. All of a sudden five people in his community die who are of varying degrees closeness to him. He tells you this in the very opening pages, like the story of my growing up is really what happens to my 13 year old year when five people died and let me tell you exactly what happened one by one.
And he talks about why it happened. That is a mystery. What it means to him now looking back so you see this young, young teenager in this small community being forced into a very adult world of love and lost and all the complications therein, but it also has this urgent, scary bent because what is happening, although it’s not clear to the reader or to the kid at the time, what is happening, and I think you may really enjoy the way this combines several different things you’re interested in. How does that sound?
DEREK: That sounds like spot on.
ANNE: Oh, also you said that you would read a boring story if the writing was really great, but of course you love like a surprising page turner too. This is a literary mystery. It’s not Gone Girl. It’s not written like that, but saying what you said about The Vanishing Half, like it does have that kind of tone.
ANNE: That was Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. I am going to try to have it both ways here and recommend celebrity memoirs that focus on their coming-of-age journeys.
ANNE: Am I allowed to do that?
DEREK: Of course.
ANNE: All right, first, if you love audiobooks maybe you have already read this. I hope so, but if not, I really need to put Born a Crime by Trevor Noah on your to-listen to list.
DEREK: I have seen it many, many times. It comes up on my Goodreads quite frequently. I have not started it yet.
ANNE: I hope this is the nudge you need because this is a collection of coming-of-age essays about his South African childhood and I didn’t know who Trevor Noah was — I knew he did something important on TV like when I picked up this book you certainly don’t have to have in-depth knowledge about his career, but if you do, I’m sure you’ll feel differently. From the beginning, I felt like I was getting to know him.
But he is so funny and such a great writer and what he does in this book is he does a wonderful job of alternating like these deathly serious incidents from his childhood with just the laugh out loud funny. And sometimes he can like have you laughing and crying at the same time and especially given your interests, I think … I don’t know if you know where the title comes from. He was born in South Africa to a Black mother and a white father. A Black woman and a white man having children together was actually illegal in his childhood in South Africa. He says that he is - he is the crime. That was not legal. That was not allowed. That was not meant to be, and he talks about how that felt to him as a child and how that feels to him now.
He was [LAUGHS] a really mischievous kid. He got into all kinds of trouble and even if he wasn’t getting into scraps, his youth was unconventional and it was just … It’s such great storytelling material. They’re not always polite. Specifically I’m thinking about how my ten year old laughs at potty jokes of any variety right now [DEREK LAUGHS] but always entertaining stories.
ANNE: He reads his audiobook and it’s so good on audio. How does that sound?
DEREK: That sounds excellent. Would really check a lot of boxes for me.
ANNE: Okay. And finally it’s really hard to find a celebrity memoir that is an award winner, unless we’re talking something like Goodreads choice, I guess that can happen. The one I’m thinking of next, oh I really hope you haven’t read this, just ‘cause I want to talk about it. I spotted it in a little free library recently and so I think it’s been top of mind. I should really go back and get it so I can read it again right now because the more I think about it, the more I think that was a great book and I want to pick it up again. I won’t bury my lede. That is Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi. Is this a book you know?
DEREK: I have listened to that on audiobook.
ANNE: Really? Okay, how was it?
DEREK: It was fascinating. Especially because he goes into his whole drug addiction. It was mind blowing. He also talked about his father’s role in his life and how that drove him to become like an obsessive perfectionist on the court. I really enjoyed that one.
ANNE: Did it have all the things you like?
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Not to load the question, but it does have becoming of age, the interesting life, the behind the scenes story you would never suspect.
DEREK: Yes because I never knew all that about him. I mean I’m not like a tennis fanatic, but I do enjoy watching it and so all of that ‘cause like I was a young child when he was at his peak, so I was like familiar with his life. It was very fascinating.
ANNE: Well something that I didn’t know at the time that I read it is that the book is amazing. It’s brilliantly written. If you’re not a tennis fan, I mean just like you said, Derek, you do not have to be a tennis fan to enjoy the book. But when I read it I didn’t realize that Agassi had a co-writer on the book who was the Pulitzer prize winning journalist J.R. Moehringer, also the author of The Tender Bar, another really beautiful, brilliantly written memoir.
Moehringer insisted that he shouldn’t be on the title page. He shouldn’t be on the cover. He says like the midwife doesn’t go home with the baby, or something like that, but they did work together in-depth to write this book like Moehringer at one point ended up moving to Las Vegas to work on it and they said like all the hours they spent together taping their sessions felt like an psycho analysis more than let me take some notes.
And something else I thought was really funny was that he did not want to help him write the book at first ‘cause he had a ton of friends who had done book projects with athletes and they all said, um [DEREK LAUGHS] I’ve been there. Don’t sign up for that. But Agassi was really committed to like telling the whole story, and that he was interested in seeing how a Putlizer prize winning journalist would write his life. Oh, it’s a fun one. I’m glad you enjoyed it.
In that case, we’re going to go in a different direction. Now we didn’t really get into this much today but Derek, in your conversation with our producer Brenna, you mentioned wondering what the kids who grew up loving The Boxcar Children or The Baby-sitter's Club or The Hardy Boys are reading now as adults. In my brain, that is connected to my conversation with The Baby-sitter's Club Club guys that we had way back in episode 51. It’s called “Gateway books to lifetime reading.” They talk about their love for The Baby-sitter's Club and also their love for an award winning work of nonfiction called Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Is this a book you’ve read?
DEREK: It is not.
ANNE: I read this book after so many readers everywhere said you don’t need to be interested in adventure stories. You don’t have to care about history, just it’s an incredible story. Check it out. It was actually a finalist for the National Book Award way back in 1960 which was surprising to me. I thought it was more recent than that, but it wasn’t published until 1959. This is a true story from history about Sir Ernest Shackleton, who I’m sure you’ve heard of and his crew who were stranded on the Antarctic ice for 20 months beginning a hundred years ago back in January 1915.
ANNE: Endurance is the name of Shackleton’s ship, which turned out to be oddly prescient. It’s compiled largely from the journals of his 27 man crew and this is terrific on audio, however, please grab the print copy from your library because in it you’ll find just jaw dropping photos by the expedition’s photographer. So this is a really wonderfully written, like a nonfiction novel that tells a fascinating story of human endurance. Maybe I should choose a different word, but it seems fitting here. So many readers just find it spellbinding. How does that sound to you?
DEREK: That sounds really, really good. It reminds me of a lot of Unbroken.
ANNE: Yes! That’s a good connection.
DEREK: It’s one of those hard books to read but it was also so wonderful. That checks a lot of my boxes as well.
ANNE: Okay, good, I’m glad to hear it. Okay so, Derek, the books we talked about today were Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, and Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing. Of those three books, what do you think you’ll pick up next?
DEREK: Born a Crime.
ANNE: I like your confidence!
DEREK: I’m excited to check it out and I have an Audible credit this month that I haven’t used yet [ANNE LAUGHS] and I was waiting - I was waiting for this.
ANNE: Well I hope you enjoy it. Derek, thanks so much for talking books with me today.
DEREK: Thank you so much for having me today, Anne. I really enjoyed it.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Derek, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/272 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
If any titles from this episode caught your ear, we’d love to hear about that, too, whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/272. You’ll also find information about the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club on that page, and more about our upcoming author chat with Ryan Stradal.
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!
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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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• Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
• The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
• The Boxcar Children series by Gertrude Chandler Warner
• The Baby-Sitters Club series by Ann M. Martin
• Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
• The Hardy Boys series by Franklin Dixon
• Nancy Drew by Carolyn Keene
• Author Alexander McCall Smith try The Department of Sensitive Crimes
• The Alex Cross series by James Patterson
• Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
• The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
• Troublemaker: Surviving Hollywood and Scientology by Leah Remini
• Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab
♥ Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince by J. K. Rowling
♥ Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult
♥ Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
△ As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
• Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
• Troubles in Paradise by Elin Hilderbrand
• Iron Lake by William Kent Krueger
• This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger
• Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
• Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
• Open by Andre Agassi
• Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing
• Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand