Podcast producer and PhD student Sara Aeder always finds time for reading, thanks to audiobooks and a passion for turning the pages. She has a special fondness for books that explore the “exquisite pain of a teenage crush” and let her live vicariously through fictional drama, but Sara’s taste in books goes way beyond young adult lit.
Today on What Should I Read Next, Sara shares three books she loves that cover the main themes of her reading taste, and I recommend several titles that I think she’ll love.
We mention over 40 titles in today’s episode, from all-time favorites to books that fell flat. Listen in to find out which book Sara threw across the room, and scroll down for the full list of every single book we talk about today.
SARA: You know, Glückel of Hameln is great, but not like my idea of a good time.
ANNE: I have never heard of that title before.
SARA: Don’t read it next. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 276.
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.
Before we begin today’s show, a quick reminder that the ebook my book Reading People is on sale for less than $2 through the end of the month. If you’ve considered exploring more about personality, which will totally change your life, or just want to support our work here, a great way to do that is to pick up a copy now at this fabulous price. That’s Reading People, less than 2 bucks through the end of the month.
Today’s guest is loving her reading life right now. Podcast producer and PhD student Sara Aeder always finds time for reading, thanks to audiobooks and a passion for turning the pages. She has a special fondness for books that explore the “exquisite pain of a teenage crush” and let her live vicariously through fictional drama, but Sara’s taste in books goes way beyond young adult lit.
Sara chose books on three specific themes to capture her reading life today, along with a request for books with nuanced characters who are exploring their identity, and reflect her own.
We mention over 40 titles in today’s episode, from all-time favorites to books that fell flat for Sara. Listen in to find out which book Sara threw across the room, and be sure to visit show notes for a full list of every single book we talk about today.
Let’s get to it.
Sara, welcome to the show.
SARA: Hi Anne. How’re you doing?
ANNE: I am doing well because we’re going to talk books today. Sara, I have to say you have one of the more interesting and packed CVs [SARA LAUGHS] we have seen here at What Should I Read Next HQ in a long time.
SARA: Ugh, yeah. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Okay, tone noted. Tell me a little bit about what we’ve got going on.
SARA: I am in the middle of a doctorate program. I am getting my Doctorate in Higher Education Administration at NYU, and then I have two full time jobs. One which is [LAUGHS] a little more relevant to the conversation we’ll have today which is I produce podcasts for Tablet magazine, which is an online publication specializing in Jewish culture. We have multiple podcasts as part of our Tablet Studio’s branch.
And then I also am in my last week working at NYU where I’m the Director of Development for the Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU. In a week I’m switching to be the Executive Director of American Friends of Nishmat, which is a center for Jewish women’s learning, where I spent a gap year between high school and college so I’m going to be the executive director of the American branch of that organization as well.
ANNE: Sara, I’m tempted to ask you when you manage to read but I’m sure we’ll get into that. Now tell me about your reading life right now.
SARA: My reading life is going great. Despite all of the things I just told you, I capped off 2020 having read 103 books which is far beyond anything I’d ever done before. I don’t have many hobbies. I guess I don’t watch any TV, so [LAUGHS] I fill in everything with books.
ANNE: You said despite … Is it possible or is it wishful thinking to think maybe it’s because of? Like I always say that reading is my favorite introverted recharging strategy and coping mechanism and so [LAUGHS] sometimes when I have a lot going on, I neeeed to read.
SARA: I once heard the saying if you need something done, ask an incredibly busy woman. You know there’s always time in the day for the things you want to make time in the day for is what I’ve found. I’m not a procrastinator. When things need to get done, I do them, and so there is time leftover. I do a lot of audiobooks which helps. So when I’m cleaning the house or walking the dog, I’m also reading. Probably why the number has spiked so much is my discovery of audiobooks. It’s the main thing in my life that brings me enjoyment. It’s my form of self care. I listen to books while I exercise. It all folds into each other.
ANNE: I used to love to listen to music while I exercised, but then I realized you can get more reading in ... [LAUGHS]
SARA: I know.
ANNE: If you did audiobooks instead. And there’s still a place for that. And we always have music on when we’re making dinner.
SARA: Sometimes I listen to my audiobooks and I’m making dinner and I don’t have my headphones on, and then my kids walk into the room and I’m like oh, do I need to turn this off? What am I listening to? [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: My Honda Odyssey connects automatically to my phone and for reasons I do not understand — listeners, if you know the answer, please let us know in the show notes — if I have an audiobook going, and it’s not just if the app is open, even if you close the app this happens, it’ll start playing wherever I am [SARA LAUGHS] after it connects which usually takes about eight seconds. Our car is slow to stop, like whenever I hit stop, it’ll play for eight more seconds.
SARA: Oh no.
ANNE: That gives the book the opportunity to say a lot of things I’d like to take back in that eight second window, but my kids are always like that’s kinda fast and also what are you listening to? [LAUGHS]
SARA: Well if you’re listening to it on double speed maybe they can’t like, you know, their ears can’t catch up and you’re safe.
ANNE: There are certain words and themes they’re going to hear no matter what.
SARA: [SIGHS] Yeah.
ANNE: Yeah, it’s some kind of child radar.
SARA: I don’t even want to say that I’m always listening to the steamiest books, it’s just that they’re four and six, and there’s sometimes things I don’t want to explain to them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That is understandable. So as we dig into your reading life a little more today, what are we going to hear about?
SARA: You know, it was hard to choose. I know that you always ask that question because I wanted to choose books that represent overall themes that I’ve found in my reading, so I think that I’ve done a good job in selecting some of those themes. I’m going to probably try to sneak in some others [ANNE LAUGHS] to get, you know, the fullest picture. I think I like books that bring me joy. I think that that’s something that is definitely now when life is harder because of Covid and life is busy and full, I’m looking for books that take me away in a certain way and make me smile and make me feel like hugging something.
ANNE: I know when talking to readers sometimes the topics that come up are exactly what they expect and sometimes they’re not at all, so we’ll see what happens today.
ANNE: Sara, 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 three titles you may enjoy reading next. Are you ready to dive in?
SARA: I am.
ANNE: Okay. I’m very curious to hear what you chose as representative of common themes in your reading life. What’s book number one?
SARA: My number one book which I would probably say is one of my favorite books of all time and I’ve definitely reread it, although not recently, is Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld.
ANNE: Ooh, tell me more.
SARA: I love Curtis Sittenfeld. I have read all of her novels. Prep is my favorite and I also love American Wife. I love books that delve into teenage angst. I love the exquisite pain of a teenage crush. I think part of that is because I got married at 22. I was a mom the week after I turned 25, like I didn’t have a lot of time to live in that space, [LAUGHS] and so returning to what it was like to be a teenager and to just like be so in love with someone [LAUGHS] at that stage of your life without knowing if there was going to be a happy ending, without knowing if there was going to be a success, and then really like the pain of that teenage love is something that I live vicariously through in my very happy and stable marriage. [ANNE LAUGHS] I love you, Robert. I’m not complaining, but it’s, you know, a feeling I haven’t personally experienced in ten years and I really enjoy reading it.
ANNE: You know it’s great that you can have your relationship angst on page and not in real life.
SARA: [LAUGHS] Right?
ANNE: This may be coincidence but something else I’m noticing about Prep is that Sittenfeld herself has St. Louis roots. I don’t know that we see that in the story, but you and I were just chatting about how you have connections to St. Louis. Is that just purely coincidence or is that a reason that Sittenfeld jumped out to you all those years ago as an author you were interested in getting familiar with?
SARA: That’s coincidence. I fell in love with Prep when I was in high school although I do love Sittenfeld for other reasons. She once wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about how she loves the brand Not Your Daughters Jeans and mom jeans, and I went out and bought a pair immediately [ANNE LAUGHS] because she convinced me.
One of my favorite lines bringing in the, you know, Jewish aspect is that the boy that she’s in love with is named Cross Sugarman and of course me reading that, I was like well that’s a weird name. Cross, and then like a super Jewish last name, and then in the book, when she … The book is her reflecting as an adult back on her boarding school experience. One of her adult friends when Lee, the protagonist, is telling her about this very difficult experience loving this boy, her friend cracks up. “You had a boy named Cross Sugarman? What kind of name is that?” Which I felt seen.
ANNE: What I remember about reading that book, well in reading Sittenfeld in general. Actually, Sara, I have to confess, I have an uneasy relationship with Curtis Sittenfeld as an author which has been documented here before.
SARA: You just said it on the AMA, you find her scenes cringey. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Yes! And they’re supposed to be, like you said that you love reading about the exquisite pain of a teenage crush and I feel like that she does capture that angst just so completely and perfectly.
SARA: Yeah. I see myself.
ANNE: I just wanna be like give me a novel. [LAUGHS] This is too close to reality.
SARA: Yeah. She definitely … That’s … I’m glad that I’m not living the experience. but I really remember what it was like when I read her books.
ANNE: I wonder if I am getting older and that’s helping because I did read Rodham. I still haven’t read American Wife, but I did read Rodham and she certainly has some cringey scenes and I thought oh my gosh, this is wild and also perfect, not like stop it, Curtis, stop it! [SARA LAUGHS] So maybe I’m growing out of it. Maybe it’s time to reread Prep.
SARA: Maybe it’s because like the story of the character is less personally [LAUGHS] horrifying about how it all turned out.
ANNE: After all these years you might be like, Anne, I can’t believe you’re even asking, but is it worth revisiting American Wife?
SARA: Yeah, I would say you should read it. It’s a good book on its own. Right, it’s a fictionalized account. It’s not exactly Laura Bush’s life. I gave my copy to my grandmother this week. My Bubbe was looking for things to read, so I gave her my copy of American Wife. So I don’t have it in my house, but I think it’s worth the reread.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun that you read with your Bubbe. We just had our first grandmother-granddaughter duo on the show, Rebekah and Beverly. I just left that conversation eager to hear more about grandmothers and granddaughters who read together. So that’s so sweet.
SARA: Yeah, my grandmother and I, we talk about books all the time. She was in her previous life, pre-retirement, an elementary school librarian. So she has read all the books and is constantly reading. Of course we can’t see my grandparents right now, but my mother goes to their door weekly to drop off food so that they have food for the Sabbath and every time my mother goes my grandmother hands her more books for my children [LAUGHS] that she’s trying to clean out of their house, so we’re getting a lot of her stuff. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I hope there’s some good ones in there. Is Bubbe going to listen? Should we say hi to Bubbe?
SARA: Hi, Bubbe. We love you.
ANNE: Sara, tell me about book two.
SARA: Book two is Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby. It’s a collection of essays that he wrote for the Believer literary magazine. Each entry is books he’s read that month and books he bought that month and then his sorta jumping off those titles to muse on life.
ANNE: I am sad to say that I checked this out of the library many years ago and returned it 96% unread. It was a question of the timing, not of the writing. How long ago did you read this book?
SARA: I read it for the first time the beginning of what I consider my reading life, the beginning of really becoming a reader maybe three or four years ago, and then I just reread it during Covid as a comfort read and while I was rereading, I had the opportunity to interview Nick Hornby for my podcast and I got to tell him which was delightful.
ANNE: Sara, what happened three or four years ago?
SARA: I was graduating from my Masters. I was doing a dual degree Masters. I was getting a Masters in Hebrew and Judaic studies and a Masters in Public Administration and was so excited to start being able to read books of my choosing as opposed to, you know, memoirs from the 17th century.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I can see how that would represent a switch in most people’s reading lives.
SARA: Yeah. You know, Glückel of Hameln is great, but not like my idea of a good time.
ANNE: I have never heard that title before.
SARA: [LAUGHS] Don’t read it next. [ANNE LAUGHS] I probably found this podcast ... I can’t say exactly but I would assume it’s around the same time that I found this podcast and when I picked up Ten Years in the Tub, it’s a book about books, and so I started underlining the titles that he was reading that interested me and taking those out of the library. Nick Hornby and I do not have similar tastes in reading. I enjoy reading him, even if I don’t necessarily enjoy the same books that … His favorite author is Charles Dickens. So it’s just [LAUGHS] I wouldn’t say there’s so much overlap.
ANNE: Really, Nick Hornby?
SARA: Mm, yeah, he’s very vocal about that.
ANNE: If each of your favorites is representing important themes in your reading life, what is Ten Years in the Tub here?
SARA: I would say there’s three things I love about Ten Years in the Tub. The first is it’s a book about books which it’s a book that builds my TBR. The second is I really like essay collections. I love all of Chuck Klosterman’s essay collections. I love … Every year I get the best American food writing witty essays that, you know, you could read some and move on to the next thing.
I would say my favorite thing which is the important theme for this book is I love his tone. He is so funny and light and self-deprecating and you just fall in love with him while you’re reading him, and tone I think, that’s sorta witty, banter-y, happy tone just makes so happy.
ANNE: Have you read his fiction?
SARA: I have. So it's a different tone I would say.
SARA: I like his fiction. I’ve read Juliet, Naked. I’ve read High Fidelity. I have his newest book that just came out. He’s - he’s joking along with you, he’s making fun of himself. Part of his essay, he’s not just talking about the books, he has this whole fiction that the staff at the Believer magazine are these Angelic, sex-crazed maniacs who live on a mountain somewhere and he always talks about how they’re like keeping him hostage. [ANNE LAUGHS] And it’s just … It’s absurd and it’s so funny.
ANNE: Tell us a little bit about this podcast that’s bringing books into your life. And forcing you to read Nick Hornby to prepare.
SARA: I produce Tablet magazine’s Unorthodox podcast, which is the leading Jewish podcast on iTunes. We have an incredible, incredible community of listeners. I actually started off as a major fan of the podcast for the first three years and then jumped at the opportunity to come work for them about two years ago. It’s a really funny, irreverent take on Jewish life. It’s not a podcast about religion. I think that’s something unique to Judaism where people can be eating, you know, bacon on Yom Kippur and still consider themselves deeply Jewish and that’s I think the sorta podcast that we are.
Every week we have one Jewish guest and one gentile guest and we discuss the news of the Jews, which for us can be anything from like people freaking out that someone cut a bagel lengthwise [ANNE LAUGHS] to antisemitic displays in Belgium to what Gal Gadot is doing this week. It’s a lot of fun and it’s very silly and we laugh a lot and it’s also a deep source of Jewish connection for our listeners. We know … We have really, honestly, countless stories of people who listen to us through their conversion process, who figured out how to talk about their Judaism to their family through our podcast. You know, really never felt that they had their place in a Jewish community until they found us and it’s just amazing.
We do talk about books a lot and because we have such, like, a real community around our podcast, if we talk about a book, chances are our listeners are going to go out and buy it. There’s a lot of book discussion. [LAUGHS] The truth is at a number of points we’ve said okay, for the next couple of weeks we cannot book authors. We can’t talk about books anymore. We need to show that there are like [ANNE LAUGHS] other ways to be Jewish, where are the comedians? We had an Iditarod racer, like where are the other people? [LAUGHS] Books and food is where it always ends up.
ANNE: Well, that sounds delightful.
SARA: Oh, yeah, I’m not complaining. [ANNE LAUGHS] We published last year a book. it’s called The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia which is … it’s exactly that. It’s an encyclopedia. There hasn’t been a new Jewish encyclopedia in many decades so we took it upon ourselves to write on and it’s also like … Unorthodox is our flagship podcast. It’s been running for five years, and recently we’ve had the opportunity to expand and to create new podcasts as part of what we’re calling Tablet Studios, so for the past year we’ve been running a podcast called Take One, which is our podcast about the Talmud, which is the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law.
On Take One, we follow a practice called Daf Yomi, which is the idea of reading one page of Talmud per day, and I think it’s so interesting as book people to look at this idea of we have this book that is sorta the central text of Jewish tradition. We read one page of this book every day and it takes 7 1/2 years to finish. It’s a big book. And we have on the podcast, every day when we read that day’s page, a guest comes on and talks about an issue arising from that page and we talk about everything. So I’ve been a guest on the show a number of times as well as the producer. I’ve talked about how I make friends through baking. I’ve talked about how important it is to me that people be on time. I’ve talked about circumcision, like the topics vary. It’s a really fun ten minutes a day sorta piece of this book.
ANNE: And you produce both shows?
SARA: I produce both of those shows and we’re also launching next month a podcast called Anxiously.
ANNE: That sounds timely.
SARA: Right? Our two hosts Aimee and Lisa talk about the things that make them anxious, and it can be silly things like chicken germs or like being outdoors, and serious things like the state of the world and the grief of losing a loved one. And they speak with experts like Simon Doonan or Anne Roiphe who sorta have been there and done that and talk them through their anxiety. That’s coming out in February. And we have a bunch more, you know, that we’re dreaming up.
ANNE: That sounds very exciting. And like a lot to keep you busy.
SARA: It’s fun. I always say I would do it even if I weren’t paid. I’m glad that I’m paid. Like don’t stop paying me, folks. [ANNE LAUGHS] I think that we’re doing something important.
ANNE: Tell me about book three.
SARA: My third book is The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. I also love Kate Quinn’s other book The Huntress for the same reason. I love sorta the old world glamour that’s described in them. You really get a picture of what life was like. One of them takes place in World War I, one in World War II. I love the strong female heroines. I will say that at this point last year I read so many female spies in World War books [ANNE LAUGHS] that I need - I need to take a break, like I have on my TBR Code Name Hélène and Lovely War and all of those books that I’m sure are great, but I just need a break from those right now. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So I shouldn’t make sure that you know about the new 2021 Kate Quinn release The Rose Code?
SARA: I do know that she’s coming out with a new book, and I will absolutely read it at some point. I will say that I have read other Kate Quinn and I didn’t like it as much. I read Mistress of Rome. [SIGHS] I didn’t like it for the same reason I don’t like Game of Thrones or Outlander, which is I don’t get my kicks out of, like, people dying in horrible ways.
ANNE: Well that’s good to hear and I think it can be especially useful to notice what we do and don’t like about an author’s works that are very similar in some ways and yet when one is for you and you know you like the style, you know you like the tone, you know you like what they’re generally doing, it can really help you see the difference more clearly because there are so many similarities. And that was a guest favorite on Elizabeth Cooper’s episode. It’s called “you love to read — don’t ruin it,” and she talked about all the reasons why that book was for her. Listeners if you want to hear why it might be right for you.
SARA: Yeah, and I … You know, there are really painful scenes in both The Huntress and The Alice Network. It’s not like they’re books free of blood and gore and torture, but the way that I see it is it’s there to serve a purpose to forward the plot along. It’s not the plot itself. It’s not the point. Things like Rules of Civility, or City of Girls, Evelyn Hugo, I love that sorta really rich picture of time’s past.
ANNE: What does this book represent in your reading life?
SARA: It’s the really evocative depiction of a historical time and place. They both revolve around really strong women who are doing things that maybe women weren’t known for doing in those days and they don’t apologize for it. And they were really, you know, they’re fast paced, exciting books. They’re - they’re not, you know, they’re not painting a picture just so you can see how pretty that picture is. That picture is being painted and there’s lots of action as well. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Now, Sara, tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you. Another book, how’s that, that wasn’t quite right for you.
SARA: [LAUGHS] I threw this book across the room. Actually I think I was sitting on a beach, but “I threw it across the beach” doesn’t have the same tone.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Not quite so dramatic.
SARA: The World According To Garp by John Irving.
ANNE: Okay, was this like all wrong for you, a little wrong … Wait, hang on. You threw it …
SARA: Literally threw it.
ANNE: Was there a moment that got to you or was the whole thing not right for you?
SARA: Yeah, have you read it?
ANNE: I have, and I remember … The thing that got me to read the book a million years ago was my high school teacher saying ... These weren’t his exact words, but he said you will never see an example of set up, set up and pay off in a novel like you will see in The World According to Garp. And I was like bring it. [BOTH LAUGH] I want to read it right now.
SARA: So I will say the car crash scene.
ANNE: Which is specifically what he thought was so amazing.
SARA: Well I don’t know what happens afterwards [ANNE LAUGHS] but I threw it across the beach. Oh, my God, that was honestly, that was ten years ago and I still like cringe thinking about that scene. [LAUGHS] I don’t remember the plot to be honest. I remember really hating it.
ANNE: Hating is — this is a weird question to ask — hating it how?
SARA: I will say one of my strongest aversions in reading is hearing about people’s bodily functions. I don’t want to read about the gross and disgusting, and I think that sometimes things get put in there because people think it’s titillating to tell you what happens behind closed doors. I will not get into a book, and there are books that people love that I’ve heard from numerous friends that they’re their favorites books they’ve ever read, The Nix, Fleishman is in Trouble, like these books that people cannot stop talking about.
ANNE: You want to keep your precise descriptions to the evocative world painting. Sara, what have you been reading lately?
SARA: Yesterday I finished The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, and I loved it. I wasn’t sure that I was going to love it because there are a lot of buzzy books from the past year that everyone was talking about that I thought were okay. Like I didn’t hate them, but they didn’t really get me excited.
SARA: And I was worried that this was going to fall into the same category and I really enjoyed it. I wanted to know what happened next. I cared about the characters. I listened to it on audio, which was really good as well.
I just started Goodbye For Now by Laurie Frankel on audio. I listened to her book This Is How It Always Is at the end of 2020 and it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I sorta stumbled into it. I saw it on Libby. I downloaded it figuring I would listen to it and I just was so in love with it. Now I’m going to read everything she’s written, which isn’t that much. I think there’s only one other novel, but there’s another one coming out.
ANNE: Yeah, coming this summer. One Two Three.
SARA: I love her tone. Going back to what I said about Nick Hornby. Maybe it’s not like the most realistic conversation, it’s more like Gilmore Girls banter than like maybe how people speak in real life, but so funny and irreverent and I just love it so much. I actually wrote her after I read it telling her how much I loved it.
ANNE: Sara, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
SARA: [SIGHS] Bookshelves.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Relatable.
SARA: I don’t have bookshelves actually. It’s a big problem. I don’t have that many readers in my real life. My Bubbe is a great person to speak with; unfortunately, I haven’t seen her in a year. I have one friend who’s sorta my go-to book friend, which is great although I sorta feel like I’m worried about diminishing our relationship to just books. [LAUGHS] I swear every time I text her about a book I’m like, does she feel like I can’t talk to her about anything else? [LAUGHS] I’m just channeling it all through her.
Up until recently I have not had book discussions with my husband, but on a previous What Should I Read Next episode, you gave three book recommendations for me to buy for him and I bought all three and he has been read all three and he’s now on a big reading kick, which is really, really nice as well.
ANNE: Aw, that makes me so happy. What were the books?
SARA: I bought The Long Way to the Small Angry Planet, Binti, and Murderbot. But also this past Sunday we went to our local indie because we just needed to get out of the house and he bought like three more books. So …
ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. Sara, is there anything you feel like you’re missing or want more of in your reading life?
SARA: I - I’ve noticed that when I look at my books that I’ve read in the past year, there aren’t that many that are specifically Jewish books and I was thinking about why that is, right? I work for a podcast where we are constantly interviewing Jewish authors and I have access to so many and it’s part of every part of my life and why is it not so present in my reading life? And I think that most books that I’ve read that feature Jewish characters fall into one of two categories. The first is that the characters are Jewish, but you only know it because they mention Yom Kippur once. It’s not actually a large factor in plot or in the character’s life, like that’s true and that’s how this always is. There’s some references to something Jewish, but it’s not essential to the characters. The other category is books about the Holocaust. [LAUGHS]
SARA: And they’re great books about the Holocaust, but that’s not what I want all my reading to be. There’s a limit to how many Holocaust books I’m going to read in a given year and it’s really hard for me to find books that don’t fall into either of those categories. Books that the character’s Jewish identity is central to who they are. It’s one of the reasons why I really love The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish, which I know that you have recommended in a previous episode because it’s a very Jewish book about a time period that is just not covered really all that much and talks about Spinoza and it talks about Shakespeare and there’s all these different factors that we don’t have enough of.
And I also read a book that actually is a Holocaust-era book, but a very different take on it. It’s called The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning and it’s about a Jewish refugee whose family escapes the Holocaust by going to Shanghai and about their lives there and - and what everything is like when the war comes there. So while it is a Holocaust-era book, it’s a very different kind of narrative, and I’ve really enjoyed both of those.
ANNE: That’s really interesting, especially in light of what you spend your time doing in your life.
SARA: I think that it might seem like I read tons of those books and that I would be able to give you lots of recommendations on that, and the truth is when looking back on what I’ve read, it’s not actually the case.
ANNE: Well I’m really glad you said that because I think a lot of times when we’re talking to other readers we make assumptions about what they read and what they know about the books that are available based on what they do professionally or who they are personally, and that’s just ... I mean, sometimes it’s totally the case, but many, many times it’s not. I’m really excited to dive into this. Are you ready?
SARA: I’m ready.
ANNE: The books you loved were Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld, Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby, and The Alice Network by Kate Quinn. Lately you’ve been reading The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and Goodbye For Now by Laurie Frankel. Not for you, The World According to Garp by John Irving, and I think I have a pretty good idea of what to steer clear of. [SARA LAUGHS] You love teenage angst, evocative worldbuilding, and you’re looking for books that bring you joy although you took pains to note that that doesn’t necessarily mean that the books themselves have to be like all rainbows and sunshine, but there are many ways for a book to bring you joy.
Sara, as we think about choosing books for you today, I can see us going in so many different directions, but since you said that surprisingly you don’t read a lot of books that feature Jewish characters or that explore Jewish identity, I happen to have read a couple of great books that have those things very recently. I want to see maybe if they’re ones you could connect with, so we’ll include some of those as well. The first book I’m thinking of is a fun book about teenage angst that unfolds in 24 hours. It’s by Rachel Lynn Solomon. It’s called Today, Tonight, Tomorrow. Do you know this one?
SARA: I do not.
ANNE: It’s a YA novel. It came out in June of 2020. So this is about previous enemies who maybe are in like deep love by the end of the story 24 hours later because they’re teenagers and that can totally happen. [SARA LAUGHS] Their names are Neil McNair and Rowan Roth, and the way she feels about him is he’s in her phone as McNightmare. [SARA LAUGHS] They have this bitter rivalry. They’ve had it their entire high school career ‘cause they both are determined to be like top of everything at school. There’s only room for one at the top or at least that’s the way they’ve both seen it. That’s the way that Rowan’s seen it, and on the last day of school after they find out he’s the valedictorian and she’s not, they end up teaming up in this big deal scavenger hunt that the senior class always does to close out their school year and the stakes are really high for reasons that are explained in the book.
They discover in the course of working together that they should have been friends like the whole time. So it’s set in Seattle and they’re racing through the city and for that sense of place, it’s really fun to see like all the landmarks they hit, like the Space Needle and the bookstore in Queen Anne and the Fremont Troll, but also something that they find that they have in common that they had no idea of is that they’re both Jewish. So yes, there is a scene where they, like, stop by one of their houses on Friday night for Sabbath dinner. They, like, talk about their faith and Rowan talks about like how oh my gosh, did this happen to you? [SARA LAUGHS] So awful like I was the only Jewish kid in my class at Seattle. There just aren’t that many of us. I had to stand up and tell everybody what Hanukkah was like, like everybody else couldn’t do … It was just awful.
And Rachel Lynn Solomon has said what I do when I write YA is just think about all those like horrible like childhood memories that left me with, like, deep discomfort or burning shame and I just put it right there on the page. It’s great material. Get all that exquisite pain from your childhood in front of other teen or adult readers because that is unfortunately so, so relatable and makes great material.
They have this conversation about like well what it’s like for you? What does your family do? Like how [LAUGHS] how serious are you? What temple do you go to? They talk about how they were four Jewish kids in the high school, in their high school class that they knew of, but they didn’t go to the same temples, and for various reasons like we had a bond is what Rowan said, but they weren’t my kind of people. But she didn’t know that Neil was Jewish because McNair is not a Jewish name. It’s his mom who is Jewish and so he talks about how he wants to change his name and his Jewish identity is one of the reasons. But they do have all these conversations about like how your faith is part of your identity in a way that some people don’t get, and sometimes like are actively really nasty about, like there is an antisemitic conversation that they overhear at one point in the book.
Ooh, another fun thing about this book is that [SARA LAUGHS] Rowan loves, loves romance novels and she wants to write one, so that works into the plot of the story not just because she’s having a difficult time telling her like award winning children’s author and illustrator parents that she wants to like work in this genre, which her parents think is maybe a little bit beneath serious readers. But also there’s a fun book event they want to go in the story and that fits into the plot too so I don’t know if it’s like a book that’s all about books, but a major like plot line running through it is literature. Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, how does that sound?
SARA: I love YA books maybe because they’re so good at getting the teenage angst. It sounds like they really do have a serious conversation people that age are having and I really like that it’s treated seriously. Also books set in Seattle are a thing. Where’d You Go, Bernadette and the book I’m reading now, the Laurie Frankel book is also set in Seattle and there’s something with the rain and the space needle, it always - it always hits the spot.
ANNE: I am happy to hear it. The next book I have in mind is a new historical novel that’s coming out in a few months, but it’s just so dang fun. There’s serious world building and a complex family drama. It’s set in the ‘80s. How do you feel about that?
SARA: I was briefly alive in the ‘80s. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I remember the ‘80s. I mean, a little. I remember the late ‘80s. I definitely remember the shoulder pads, which make an appearance in this book. Okay. [SARA LAUGHS] The book I’m thinking of is the new Taylor Jenkins Reid, it’s called Malibu Rising, set in 1983 … Kinda. How does that sound to you?
SARA: I like Taylor Jenkins Reid.
ANNE: There’s a lot going on in this book. Actually that’s one of the things I really liked about it. I just finished it and I didn’t expect to talk about it today at all, but it is packed with action and story and characters, and at the same time it was so easy to keep it straight and see how all the characters connected to each other and all the moving pieces. I thought it was so fun and also really hard to pull off. The structure is also really interesting and I think really worked for this story.
So we just talked about Today, Tonight, Tomorrow that unfolds in a 24 hour window, well half of this book is set up the same way. There is the day of the big party at the Riva kids house happening on party day 1983 hour by hour, you know, 7 AM, 8 AM, 9 AM. You see the Riva siblings, there are four of them going through party day, especially Nina, the oldest sister who for reasons you’ll discover is like a mother figure to her siblings. So that’s half the story, but not linearly. Cut in alternating that 1983 party one story, you get a glimpse of the Riva parents past one year at a time beginning at 1961.
So that’s how you figured out how we got to where we are right now. It’s worth saying that both timelines are really strong and sometimes when you’re reading historical novels goes back and forth in time, something that’s been increasingly popular in the last ten years or so, you’re like yeah, yeah, yeah, I want to get to the good story and it’s not like that. Also because of the structure, I think it just like launches you through the story. I read this so fast and I’m sure many, many readers are going to talk about that.
Here’s what Taylor Jenkins Reid said about the book herself. She said it was a story about fame and how it can ruin you and the objectification of women. She says it’s about sibling rivalries, about parenthood, and about marriage and the ways we repeat the mistakes of our parents. And it’s all set against the backdrop of 1980s Malibu. There’s surfers and models, actresses and screenwriters. There’s tennis pros and TV stars, studio execs and musicians, and they all come together to lose control over the course of one evening at that huge party — that’s the 24 hour timeline — where it starts at 7 in the morning when Nina’s getting ready, ends at 7 AM the next day when the party is just breaking up.
And I thought, the ‘80s? Do I care about the ‘80s? It turns out when Taylor Jenkins Reid is writing about the ‘80s, I do care about the ‘80s. It was so fun. There are a lot of characters that were very thinly veiled in the book, like Rob Lowe is a kid from Dayton, [SARA LAUGHS] who came out west and his neighbor is that guy who you think is Charlie Sheen if I have the generations right. It’s not Rob Lowe, but it’s totally Rob Lowe, and that was really fun. And there are very detailed descriptions of what the characters are wearing and what the newspaper ads are at the time. One character goes to the party in like a sky blue t-shirt with a really thick, white shiny belt, so she belted it at the waist. Somebody dresses up with two pairs of shoulder pads. No, not like ironically, like she is super chic in the book.
Very early in this story you know that Nina, the daughter who’s just broken up with her tennis pro husband, the tabloids have captured her coming out of a supermarket with like a pack of Virginia Slims and a six-pack of tab, and I was like [BOTH LAUGH] oh my gosh. I was so good. But what I love here is that in like a really fast paced, oh my gosh, what’s going to happen next, like give me the story, she really probes these like really serious issues. The treatment of women and how we repeat the mistakes of our parents and sibling unity and loyalty. What you owe the people you’re blood related to and what you really don’t. I don’t want to say too much, and I definitely don’t want to give anything away, but how does this sound to you?
SARA: You had me at Rob Lowe.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So that is Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, might it be for you?
SARA: Maybe. I think there’s a lot of things that you said there that are really intriguing to me. Number one, I trust Taylor Jenkins Reid. I haven’t read everything, but I’ve read a lot and I love Evelyn Hugo. I really liked Maybe In Another Life I think it was called.
ANNE: Yeah, yeah.
SARA: Another one I had liked Daisy Jones, so I feel like she’s just someone who’s not going to let you down. When you asked if you cared about the ‘80s, I would say if you’re going to read the ‘80s, it should be in Malibu. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like go to the excess, go to the like … I mean these are 90s but Saved by the Bell/Baywatch-era. [LAUGHS] Visuals I think that’s a lot of fun, especially as I sit here and it’s snowing, the beach and fluorescent colors could be just what we need right now.
ANNE: So for your third book I was thinking about The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer because it’s fantastic, but it’s also a Holocaust book. I was thinking about The Cooking Gene by Michael Twitty, which is …
SARA: I’ve read it. It’s amazing. We’ve had Michael Twitty on twice [LAUGHS] on the show.
ANNE: I am so happy to hear that, but you said you love YA and I think we’re going to lean into that. The book I’m thinking of and I got to say, one of the reasons I thought of it right away was there’s nice boarding school tie-in, not that the boarding school connection was the reason that you loved Prep, but I kinda like that we can draw a line between the books, and I’m thinking of Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert.
SARA: I do not know it.
ANNE: We’ve talked about Brandy Colbert on the podcast before because she had her book that came out in late summer 2020 called The Voting Booth, which is another book that unfolds in the course of one day. But this one is called Little & Lion. It came out a few years back, and this is about a young girl named Suzette. She’s a high schooler, and … Ooh, it’s also set largely in LA, so she’s in boarding school in New England, but she goes home for the summer back to Los Angeles. She’s nervous about seeing her stepbrother Lionl, which is where the title comes from because before she left for school, she had broken a promise to him. She told her parents that his bipolar disorder was getting out of control even though she had told him like don’t worry, I won’t tell Mom and Dad, but then she felt like she had to, which of course the adults reading this YA book will be very sympathetic to … Oh, I will also say that [LAUGHS] an interesting thing that I especially noticed in this book that does have a strong parental presence is that reading this as an adult, it’s totally the adults, and not the protagonist, that I like completely empathized with.
But Suzette is also working through all kinds of issues and she’s hoping to get some distance when she goes back home to LA to think about them, like at boarding school she was really surprised to fall in love with her female roommate because she didn’t think that was true about herself, but then she goes back to LA and she develops feelings for a childhood male friend, and she’s like oh my gosh, what is going on here? I didn’t know these things about me. So she’s dealing with discovering her sexuality as person who’s bisexual. She’s Black. She’s also Jewish and that’s something that’s discussed in this story which is largely about … Not just like discovering and codifying these like key factors in her identity that she is Black, that she is Jewish, that she is bisexual, but also navigating a very trying summer.
So for teen angst and also just like the teen exploration and growing up, learning to find your place in the world and not just find your place but create the place that feels right to you even though the world seems to be pressuring you in a different direction. And something that Suzette explicitly talks about in this book is she feels like the world only wants her to be one thing, but that’s just not [LAUGHS] that’s not who she is. I think that this book has the teen angst and painful teen crushes that might be fun to read about, but it also has themes that are important to readers of any age, not just readers the age of the protagonist. How does that sound to you?
SARA: What I really like about what you just said is the acknowledgment that people have so many identities. You know if you’re talking about a book with Jewish characters and that Jewish character is just a Ashkenazi Jew living in New York who like mentions Hanukkah then you’re missing so much of what there is and part of my work at NYU and with the podcast is exposing people to all the beautiful multifaceted aspects of Jewish people. So I really, really like that there’s a book that speaks to that.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. Okay, I want to throw one last title out there. I didn’t make this one of your big three because I’m not sure that it’s the kind of story you’re interested in reading right now, but I want to hear what you think. Tova Mirvis wrote a book called The Book of Separation. It’s a faith memoir, and it’s set in New York City. It’s about her divorce and related separation, not just from her husband, but from modern orthodox Judaism, and I’m not sure given what you do and who you are and what you’re interested in reading about if you want to read a faith memoir that’s about leaving the faith. But she also goes into like diverse Jewish lifestyles from Hesiditic to secular and the various choices that people make that reminds me of your podcast Unorthodox and I just wanted to plunk that on your radar.
SARA: We’ve actually had Tova Mirvis on Unorthodox. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Really? Have you read her book?
SARA: I have not read her book. We had her on to talk about The Book of Separation a couple years ago but that was before my time on the podcast. What I’ll say is that I think that there are books that are done … There’s a whole genre of leaving orthodox-y books and some of them are done really well, and then some of them are done in a way where I just feel like … The book Unorthodox, which Netflix series Unorthodox, which has nothing to do with my podcast, is based on, there’s a sense of like okay, it didn’t work for you, but did you have to write like trashing the whole way of life?
ANNE: I can understand how that would feel really hurtful and not representative.
SARA: Yeah, there’s a book by Shulem Dean, which I don’t remember the name of, which is also his leaving story, which I think does it in a really sensitive way. In a lot of ways in America, Jews have made it. We’re a model minority and though there is an increase in antisemitism in the past couple of years which is scary, there are a lot of ways in which it’s really great to be Jewish in America today, but I think that sorta society’s acceptance of Jews stops at the Jews who look different and who live differently.
Like I’m fine because I look like my neighbors, but it’s so easy for people to not trust Hasidic or Haredi Jews, like ultra Orthodox Jews and so I think that when we’re talking about the issues that people face and absolutely their own experiences are true to them and I wouldn’t - I wouldn’t deny it. When we’re talking about like mass consumption, like talking about how weird these other people lifestyle is, I feel like that’s one of the last acceptable places where people can be antisemitic so I think that it’s really important to be careful around those memoirs. Again I haven’t read hers, and I know that we interviewed her, so obviously our hosts didn’t think that it crossed that line, but yeah, it’s an interesting genre.
ANNE: Thanks for your vulnerability in talking about that. I appreciate you sharing your perspective. Sara, of the books we talked about today, Today, Tonight, Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon, Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid, and Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert, which book do you want to read next?
SARA: I think I’m sure that I’m going to read them all, but Today, Tonight, Tomorrow really sounds just like it was made for me.
ANNE: Well I hope it turns out to be a book that brings you great joy in your reading life. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
SARA: Thanks, Anne.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Sara, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/276 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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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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♥ Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
•American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
♥ Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books by Nick Hornby
•The Life of Glückel of Hameln: A Memoir translated by Beth Zion-Abrahams
•Charles Dickens (try A Tale of Two Cities)
•Chuck Klosterman (try Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction)
•The Best American Food Writing 2020 edited by Silvia Killingsworth and J. Kenji López-Alt
•Juliet, Naked by Nick Hornby
•High Fidelity by Nick Hornby
•Just Like You by Nick Hornby
•The Newish Jewish Encyclopedia: From Abraham to Zabar’s and Everything in Between by Stephanie Butnick, Liel Liebovitz, and Mark Oppenheimer
♥ The Alice Network by Kate Quinn
•The Huntress by Kate Quinn
•Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon
•Lovely War by Julie Berry
•The Rose Code by Kate Quinn
•Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn
•Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
•City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
•The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid
△ The World According to Garp by John Irving
•The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
•Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
•This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
•One Two Three by Laurie Frankel
•The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers
•All Systems Red by Martha Wells
•Binti by Nnedi Okorafor
•The Weight of Ink by Rachel Kadish
•The Song of the Jade Lily by Kirsty Manning
•Today Tonight Tomorrow by Rachel Lynn Solomon
•The Ex Talk by Rachel Lynn Solomon
•Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
•Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•Maybe In Another Life by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid
•The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer
•The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South by Michael W. Twitty
•Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
•The Voting Booth by Brandy Colbert
•The Book of Separation: A Memoir by Tova Mirvis
•Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots by Deborah Feldman
•All Who Go Do Not Return: A Memoir by Shulem Deen
•Curtis Sittenfeld on her favorite jeans
•WSIRN Ep. 273: Realism, redemption, and reading across generations with Rebekah and Beverly
•Unorthodox, a podcast from Tablet Magazine (try Ep. 246 with Mayam Bialik)
•Take One podcast
•WSIRN Ep. 244: You love to read don’t ruin it with Elizabeth Coope
•WSIRN Ep. 257: Let’s build your holiday book list with Beth from Bookmarks, NC