Jake Sloofman is an arborist living in Brooklyn, NY, where a regular commute on the subway means daily reading time, but when Jake’s routine totally changed, he realized he needed a new way to keep the pages turning.
Today on What Should I Read Next, Jake and I discuss his big reading goal, the pressure to read “serious literature,” and how to alternate light and heavy reads for a balanced reading life. I’ve got a mix of weighty literature and frothy “palate cleanser” books to recommend to Jake today. Download today’s episode in your favorite podcast app, and scroll down for a list of every title we mention.
You can follow Jake on Instagram.
JAKE: I absolutely knew I would because she was like yeah, this made me feel terrible for a week, and I was like well obviously I have to read that. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 277.
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.
Today’s guest, Jake Sloofman, is an arborist living in Brooklyn, New York, where a regular commute on the subway means daily reading time, but when Jake’s routine totally changed, he realized he needed a new way to keep the pages turning.
Today, Jake and I discuss his big reading goal, the pressure to read “serious literature,” and how to alternate the heavy and the light for a balanced reading life. I’ve got a mix of weighty literature and frothy “palate cleanser” books to recommend for Jake today, so let’s get to it.
Jake, welcome to the show.
JAKE: Hey, so good to be here.
ANNE: Now you are not our first New York City or even Brooklyn guest by a long shot but you are our very first arborist. I’m not sure if that’s going to connect to your reading life, but I definitely am interested in hearing what an arborist does in Brooklyn these days.
JAKE: Oh, yeah. I mean, I tell people I’m an arborist in Brooklyn and I’ve had people be like wait, but there’s like … There’s not trees in Brooklyn. [BOTH LAUGH] And …
ANNE: Oh, that must hurt.
JAKE: I kinda get it. I mean, people don’t really think … When they think about an arborist, they think about like forests and stuff, but yeah, it’s like Brooklyn is an ecosystem and there are trees, there are parks and stuff.
ANNE: Okay, so I have a sad story for you.
ANNE: I have wanted all my life probably because I read about it in the book to go check out Prospect Park properly, and I’ve been there twice in the pouring rain because I was determined to try and I just … It hasn’t happened for me yet, Jake.
JAKE: Well it’s a beautiful park and yeah, it’s been great during this pandemic. Yeah, I run in it a lot.
ANNE: What do you do for the trees?
JAKE: I am a utility arborist, so basically … I swear it’s not that interesting, but I am … [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: It looks good on paper.
JAKE: Yeah, I know, and people are like wow, I’ve never met an arborist before and I basically work with construction crews when they’re working near New York City street trees that are under the jurisdiction of the New York City Parks department, and I just oversee them. I document all of their work that happens around it, and I make sure the construction crews don’t mess up the trees and you know, so we still have, you know, beautiful tree lined streets in Brooklyn and Queens.
ANNE: Okay, so actually when I get letters from my local utility that say we’re trimming trees in your neighborhood and don’t worry, we won’t ruin them because we are working with a trained arborist, that’s you.
JAKE: Yeah, that would be me.
ANNE: Okay, how did you get to that?
JAKE: I went to undergrad for biology and I spent a couple of years after I graduated working in a lab. I turned out not to be interested in that and I quit, which was kinda maybe ill informed and I moved back home and I was just figuring out what I wanted to do and I was looking for jobs related to my major and I saw a position for an arborist, and yeah, that’s how I got into it. This was not my first job as an arborist. I actually started out surveying for the Asian longhorn beetle in Brooklyn.
ANNE: Surveying for, what does that mean?
JAKE: So the Asian longhorn beetle is an invasive species that kills certain species of trees, so my job wasn’t actually to look for the beetle. It was to look for signs of damage in trees in Brooklyn where it used to be a problem and now it’s pretty much eradicated. So that was a few years ago.
ANNE: I didn’t know that was a thing.
JAKE: A lot of people didn’t know. It was a very strange job. It’s probably the strangest thing I’ll ever have to do for work because a big portion of it [BOTH LAUGH] was going door to door and asking people if we could like look at the plants in their backyard, and people would look at us like we were absolutely insane. Yeah, I’m glad I don’t have to go door to door anymore. I’m glad I just work with construction crews.
ANNE: Do we see the characteristics that drew you to your current job evident in your reading life?
JAKE: I guess so. A lot of my job as it is now is pretty solidarity and yeah, I would say there’s a parallel to that because, you know, reading is solidarity activity, you only do it when it’s quiet. And I mean, when there’s downtime at my job and I don’t have any like paperwork to do, which happens a lot when there’s not a crew actively near a tree, you know, I’ll pull out a book.
ANNE: Okay. I won’t assume that you want a bunch of biology books though.
JAKE: Maybe not necessarily that. [ANNE LAUGHS] I won’t say … I mean, I won’t say no if it sounds, you know, interesting, but yeah. Not necessarily related to biology or trees.
ANNE: Well we’ll see what comes up today. Jake, tell me a little bit about what your reading life is looking like these days.
JAKE: Recently with my boyfriend decided that at the start of the new year we were going to do a 52 book in a year challenge. We kinda did that because we both love to read and we also both found ourselves reading and being engrossed in books, but then after we finished that there would be long gaps and it would take a while to like start up a new book again and we just figured that if there’s some sort of goal, we’ll always try to finish a book in a week, we’ll always try to have a book that we’re currently reading, and it kinda eliminates the gaps. I’ve definitely read more books at the start of this year than I have in any year previously and yeah, it’s been great.
ANNE: What made you think okay in 2021, I want to read more? How big of a change is this for you?
JAKE: It’s not a huge change. I’ve always read, but I just found during a pandemic I was reading less which was actually kinda shocking to me because I assumed like oh, I’m home all day, this will be the perfect thing to do, but it was just hard to focus, and I realized like a lot of the reading I do is on the subway and I’m not … I haven’t been in the subway since March. And it felt bad to not be reading as much as I was and I just figured that having a goal would be the perfect way to change that, although I’m trying to avoid cheating. Not like cheating, gravitating towards shorter books.
ANNE: I’m so intrigued by your use of the word cheating here.
JAKE: Well yeah, obviously not cheating, cheating, but I just feel like if I’m a few weeks behind my goal, I’ll like go towards the YA book that I love, that I know I can read in like three hours, or not pick up that really long 800 page book that I’ve been wanting to read because oh, that’ll just put me back even further. So I think the goal is sorta a good suggestion. I’ll try and finish a book within a week but also obviously, I’ll just try and be kind to myself and read what I want to read and not padding myself out with easy stuff that maybe won’t necessarily like enrich my reading life.
ANNE: And I know a lot of readers really resonate with that with the inclination to go short when you want to go big in your reading numbers. I’m wondering if there’s a specific 800 page book you have in mind or is that just something that you know is a potential problem?
JAKE: I can’t think of anything right now that’s that long but there surely will be throughout the year.
ANNE: Oh, I hope so. I hope you’ll hear about some good long ones. What do they call it, is that the Hawthorne effect that says that the very act of measuring something changes whatever it is that you’re measuring? And in many ways this is a good thing, like we know that when readers begin to track their reading or when they set a challenge for themselves like this, that they tend to read more, but it’s also is so easy to have behaviors that you don’t want to be influenced in that way influenced in exactly that way. It’s not just you. Jake, you mentioned reading light, fun, fast books, and also some heavier ones. So it sounds like you read broadly. Tell me a little bit more about the variety of what you’re reading now and how that’s working for you.
JAKE: I really enjoy like sinking my teeth into, you know, something like kinda dark, maybe what’s considered, I don’t know, quote-unquote like “more literary,” but I realized when I was reading last year a particularly like gruesome book that I did really enjoy that I was like I definitely can’t repeat that again, and I do really love some sort light, frothy, fun books that just feel like a vacation for my brain.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I love that description.
JAKE: Whenever I read something pretty heavy, I try and balance it with sorta a fun book afterward, but you know, obviously I don’t always have something like that on deck, so it’s what I strive for, but it’s obviously not something I can do every single time.
ANNE: Which of the two is easier to find? The heavy or the light?
JAKE: Probably heavy. A lot of the books that people recommend or at least to me are what people would classify as I guess literary fiction. Is this like silly to say because I guess sometimes ashamed I guess of what would be considered more of a frivolous read?
JAKE: Yeah. I feel like I get a lot of recommendations for you know, heavier books.
ANNE: I mean I remember I think our third ever What Should I Read Next podcast guest Jacey saying I want to read what the smart people are reading, and I want to look like a smart person.
JAKE: Oh, absolutely.
ANNE: … When I tell you what I’m reading. But it wasn’t good for her reading life. But yeah, I hear what you’re saying.
JAKE: This is such a vain thing to say. I know people also do this, but if I’m like on the subway or reading something in public, I’m probably [LAUGHS] not going to be reading romantic comedy or something because I want people on the subway to think I’m smart. It’s so stupid, like why … These people are complete strangers. I know exactly what you mean when you’re saying that.
ANNE: Jake, maybe we need to send you an ereader.
JAKE: I do have an ereader. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: So if I see you on the subway, I’ll know that you’re reading a romcom.
ANNE: And not Jonathan Franzen.
JAKE: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Jake, give me a feel for what counts as I think you used the word gruesome for you as a reading experience. What was that heavy book that you’re glad you read but it was just … It sounded like it was emotionally difficult.
JAKE: It was Ohio by Stephen Markley. I loved it. It was just really dark though, it had like violence and sexual violence in it. It was just a really satisfying book. A lot after I needed something light.
ANNE: So it sounds like it would feel good to have those books on deck so if you do read something that’s good but just feels brutal, you know exactly what to pick up next.
JAKE: Yes, that’s great.
ANNE: ‘Cause like … Your frothy and fun palate cleanser.
JAKE: I always love palate cleanser after I read something heavy.
ANNE: Okay. Well I can’t wait to hear more about the specifics of what you’re reading. Are you ready to get into your books?
ANNE: Okay, Jake, 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 will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these?
JAKE: I tried to pick a mix of heavier books and you know, fun, frothy books, like what we’re talking about, so I want to represent my reading life properly.
ANNE: All right, what’s book one?
JAKE: Book one is Severance by Ling Ma.
ANNE: The pandemic book isn’t the fun book?
JAKE: No, no. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Alright, I’m catching on here. [JAKE LAUGHS] Okay, tell me about Severance.
JAKE: So I read this during the pandemic. It was like strongly recommended by my boyfriend. Actually, my mom had also read it before the pandemic and she told me, don’t read this. It made me feel miserable for a full week afterward. [ANNE GASPS] And she didn’t even read it during the pandemic. I did read it. I read it on the beach, actually, so like ha ha, fun beach read. And …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Maybe that’s the balance you needed.
JAKE: Yeah. I read it in a single day actually. It was - it was completely engrossing. Really scary actually because it felt exactly like the days before the pandemic began in New York City, it felt exactly like it in the book, which is terrifying, but …
ANNE: Wait, what do you mean? What was it like?
JAKE: I don’t know. Everything felt off, like riding the subway felt dangerous and the aura surrounding everything was just terrifying because like we knew it was coming, but we didn’t know how bad it was going to get,
JAKE: Yeah. I just remember, like, getting home after being out and just, like, showering and, like, disinfecting everything. It felt like that, like things were starting to close down one by one. I don’t know. It was …
ANNE: No, I’m so curious because I was there for an event at The Strand and some other publicity stuff for my last book. I think I left on March 7th, and I just remember being in the hotel room reading being like oh, this is terrifying. And then walking out int the world and it feeling mostly okay, except there were some people that were masked, and there was hand sanitizer everywhere and I remember doing my first elbow bumps at Union Square Park.
JAKE: Oh, yeah, the elbow bumps were definitely … Yeah, in the beginning of March.
ANNE: But then just a couple days later, my friend had an event at a bookstore in Brooklyn. I mean this was two days after I left, and she said it was just a ghost town and people were staying home and the warnings were spreading, and it was just … It was a whole different world.
JAKE: It happened so quickly, but everything felt off right before hand. I just remember walking around, walking with my boyfriend before, and we passed a movie theater and it was like, movie theaters are going to be shut down next week, and I was like you’re crazy. Yeah, he was exactly right. I was going to go see a Broadway show on the night I think broadway closed down.
ANNE: Oh no. Yeah.
JAKE: And … This is not related to the book at all. I’m sorry. [BOTH LAUGHS]
ANNE: But I think what we’re doing is setting the mood.
ANNE: That was prevailing when you picked up this book on the beach thank goodness and not with your street view of Brooklyn from your window.
JAKE: Yeah. This book really just, like, captured what it feels like to have a pandemic like right before it’s about to get serious. It totally captured me.
ANNE: You said you read it one day? What was it that drew you in?
JAKE: I was sorta gawking at what could have been. The coronavirus obviously wouldn’t turn people into like capitalism zombies, but [ANNE LAUGHS] I just remember really being like captured by like the voice of the protagonist. I don’t know. It felt so cathartic to have like a protagonist who was so like untethered by everything around her. I do like post-apocalyptic. I love Oryx and Crake, or Station Eleven. This really drew me in.
ANNE: Cathartic is a good word ‘cause I mean who would have thought this would be a right book at the right time?
JAKE: Yes, it was cathartic to experience someone experiencing the beginning of something that I experienced obviously, and like obviously the whole world experienced.
ANNE: I’m afraid your mom might be listening, but …
JAKE: Oh, she definitely is.
ANNE: I’m glad you picked it up.
JAKE: I absolutely knew I would because she was like yeah, this made me feel terrible for a week and I was like, well obviously I have to read that because if anything [ANNE LAUGHS] ‘Cause if anything makes you feel that strongly for a week afterward, I need to feel that.
ANNE: I also love that you’re talking books with your mom.
JAKE: She’s one of the main people I talk about books with.
ANNE: Oh, that’s wonderful.
ANNE: I’m so glad to hear it. Jake, tell me about book two.
JAKE: So this is sorta on the opposite end of the spectrum. I picked Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan. This is like if a champagne cocktail could exist in book form. [ANNE LAUGHS] This is actually a book I read after I read Ohio and it was the perfect thing for me because I’ve also read the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy, and he has just a strong voice I feel like. There obviously are stakes in it, but I feel like the worst thing that could ever happen to any of the characters is like a rich character might become slightly less rich. Everyone one is constantly being amazed by like an amazing meal that’s happening in front of them or they’re doing some sort of once in a lifetime shopping spree. The perfect thing to like really reset after something heavy I think.
ANNE: I mean they could be complaining about a social snub. That is also on the table.
JAKE: Absolutely! But that’s what I mean exactly. It’s like …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I know, I know.
JAKE: It’s like the problems that the characters’ experience are so miniscule. It’s just amazing.
ANNE: And definitely fun and frothy.
ANNE: This one is like glitzy and glamorous and it felt really completely over the top in a way that was really fun for you.
JAKE: Very, very fun and I know it’s a retelling of A Room from a View, which I embarrassingly haven’t read or seen the adaptation, but this was great.
ANNE: There’s no need for embarrassment here, but I will say that Merchant Ivory movie just keeps getting older and older, but it’s a classic for a reason. It’s in the minority of those movies that are better than the books they’re based on in the opinion of many.
JAKE: Oh, okay. I still might read the book, but I definitely want to watch the movie.
ANNE: It’s really fun, and a little strange, like I watched it for the first time when I was young and have seen it periodically over the years and readers everywhere should know Europeans have a different approach to nudity as my [JAKE LAUGHS] German teacher said many years ago than Americans do, and there is a scene where there are like naked men running around the lake and my kids just thought that was absolutely hysterical. Probably not the point of this whole conversation, but I do feel like if you’re going to pick up that movie based on our discussion here, listeners, you should probably know that’s coming. But Helena Bonham Carter is a baby in that movie! She’s so young! Oh, she’s so young, and it’s like a time capsule.
JAKE: Yeah, sounds amazing. I was a little … Not nervous to pick it up, but I was like should I? Am I doing myself a disservice by starting with the retelling or the adaptation? That’s kinda like I don’t always go to books in translation for the same reason, I’m always afraid I’m like going to be missing something, like I’m not going to get the original author’s like true intent.
ANNE: Yeah. When I picked it up, I didn’t realize it was A Room With a View retelling and I was like wait a second, her name is Lucy Church… Huh, that sounds familiar and I slowly realized oh, this is totally the same story and I thought that was really fun because I did love the movie so much and made myself read the book one time. Okay, Jake, what did you choose for book three?
JAKE: Book three was The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.
ANNE: And tell me about what made this work for you.
JAKE: I read this a couple years ago. It was going good and I remember I reached a point about halfway through and I was like wow, I’m definitely finishing this tonight, and it’s a long book. It starts in Ireland with like a woman pregnant out of wedlock. It follows the baby throughout his entire life, beautiful and like sad and kinda funny at some times. He’s gay in Ireland in the ‘50s and that’s obviously not the most accepting place to be gay at that time, and I … I don’t like seek out books with queer characters, but if I find them and it’s like a good book, it’s always a plus for me.
Like a lot of terrible things to happen to people who couldn’t live their authentic lives in Ireland, and I just thought it was so beautiful. A nd I don’t know what the literary term for this would be, but throughout his life a lot of impossible coincidences happen, like he keeps on running into certain people over and over again. And honestly this is kinda silly but a lot of times when I love or hate a book I go on Goodreads and see what other people thought of it, and kinda be like oh, no, I have the right opinion. [BOTH LAUGH] I saw people like complaining about that like oh, it’s so improbable that this would happen, and I’m like well yeah, someone wrote it to be that way. I just thought it was so beautiful the way things like turned out and just remember crying like a baby at the end of it.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad it worked for you and that it made such an impact on you. Jake, you know what comes next. Tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
JAKE: This one’s hard because I really, really wanted to like it and I heard so many good things about it, but it’s, uh … And I definitely didn’t hate it, but it’s The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin.
ANNE: Tell me more.
JAKE: Well first of all, the concept is one of the best concepts for a book I’ve ever heard where New York City is alive and like other cities are alive and each of the five boroughs has like a human avatar that is the guardian of that city. I mean, that sounds amazing to me and it just … I don’t know. I just feel like all of the characters were kinda two dimensional, kinda fell flat for me, and I realized that the concept is amazing but you’re really pigeon-holing yourself into like three or four different character traits for each borough or something. It’s kinda impossible to fit everything that like makes a borough unique into like one character, so it was just kinda disappointing to me. And also I think the pacing was a little weird. Like it had to introduce a lot of characters.
ANNE: There’s something I’m curious about as far as this book goes which I really enjoyed, which again is not the right opinion ...
JAKE: Oh, yeah.
ANNE: But there’s a book for every reader. Not every book is for every reader. But I did really enjoy this in part because it was such a surprise for me like I think N.K. Jemisin is a genius. She actually has a MacArthur Grant now, so actual genius, but …
JAKE: Yeah, who am I to criticize. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: No, no, a book could be wonderful and still not be right for you.
JAKE: I definitely see the bones of a book I would love in it. I definitely want to read more by her because I think she’s a great writer. I didn’t really connect with the story.
ANNE: This is the first in a planned trilogy, and I’m really wondering how much of the first book was set up. I don’t understand what’s meant to happen in books two and three of the trilogy, so I don’t know enough about that, but I do know that in many trilogies, I’m thinking of the new Naomi Novik series specifically ‘cause it’s the most recent one I read like this, book one is a whole lot of world building and construction for the story that’s going to come later. I’ve also heard from listeners who didn’t find this one immediately hospitable but suspects maybe it could be right for you, I’ve heard this is amazing on audio, but I haven’t listened to it myself.
JAKE: Maybe I will check it out, and I definitely want to read the sequel. I just might get it from the library this time.
ANNE: All right, Jake, that’s interesting to hear. What have you been reading lately?
JAKE: So I have been reading The Nix on audio by Nathan Hill, and this one is kinda cheating because this almost was one of the books I loved. This is actually a reread for me, listening to it on audio. I read it a few years ago and it captured me from the prologue. I just remember reading the prologue and being like yeah, this is going to be a book I love.
ANNE: Ooh, a lot to work with and I’m especially thinking about the balance of the heavier, more literary books with fun, lighter ones as you put it.
ANNE: Jake, what are you looking for in your reading life right now? What do you want to be different?
JAKE: Basically what I said before, like I always want to have a book in my hand. I always want to like know what I’m reading next, usually if I finish a book I won’t start a new book that day, but I’m sure this is a common problem for everyone. I guess it’s the premise of the show. [LAUGHS] I always want to know what I’m reading next I guess.
ANNE: All right, let’s see what we can do here.
ANNE: So the books you loved were Severance by Ling Ma, Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne. Not for you was The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, and recently you’ve been reading The Nix by Nathan Hill, and you’re looking for a mix of fun and frothy vacation for your brain books. I love that description, and the heavier. Jake, you said that finding those lighter books was perhaps ironically harder for you to find so, of the three books we’re going to talk about today, I’m thinking we’re going to go two light and one heavy, if you’re good with that.
JAKE: Yeah, definitely.
ANNE: Okay. Something else I’m keeping in mind is that you mentioned in your submission that you also really like fantasy and sci-fi which I imagined was one of the reasons you wanted to pick up that N.K. Jemisin title.
JAKE: Yes, yeah.
ANNE: Even if that one didn’t work the way for you that you were hoping it would. I’m the one who feels like I’m cheating because I know that you’ve read and enjoyed this author in the past, but there’s a book coming out that I just have to put on your radar. It’s the new one by Casey McQuiston. It’s coming out on June 1st and it’s called One Last Stop.
This book has some elements that you’ve really enjoyed in the past. You specifically used the word rom-com, like that’s a genre you pick up. That’s what this one is, and of course many people know her from her seriously best selling, sold a bazillion copies book Red, White, & Royal Blue, which was set among the political elite and this one is completely different. It’s set in like the totally normal, or at least used to be and will be again, world of the subway. Actually the Brooklyn subway, the Q Line, which just might have a fun like special connection for you being in Brooklyn.
JAKE: Yeah, I have not heard of this book but I did love Red, White, & Royal Blue.
ANNE: It’s about a 23 year old girl. I think she’s from New Orleans. She’s from the south and she moved to New York City eventually, after not quite working it out at a couple schools she tried, to go to Brooklyn college. She is young, broke, her mother is obsessed with discovering like the secret hidden history of something that happened to a family member a long time ago. She’s lonely, she doesn’t have any friends because of her weird childhood, so she lands in New York and she needs to build a life for herself. So she meets these roommates just from the Internet that seem like they might be kinda nice, and she gets this waitressing job at the pancake place which is kinda bad because she always smells like pancakes, but they’re really great people and then she has a little bit of money, so that’s good.
But her first day of school, she’s riding the Q Line when she sees this girl about her age probably, really distinctive look, red cons, black leather jacket, they have a meet cute that involves a spilled cup of coffee that doesn’t get her first day of school off to a great start and a borrowed red scarf. She thinks oh, what an amazing, dazzling encounter. I’m never going to see her again. It’s the subway. But then she does. It turns out she always sees this girl on the subway. This girl’s name is Jane, and August starts to realize hey, it’s kinda weird that you’re always on the subway, and the reason is well, Jane is stuck on the subway. She’s stuck on the Q Line, and we find out why in the book.
But Casey McQuiston said the impetus for this book was she wanted to tell a love story that was just straight up impossible, like it wouldn’t work between the two characters. She thought okay, why would a love story be impossible? And it made her think of the old Meg Ryan, Hugh Jackman romcom, Kate and Leopold, where Meg Ryan’s like a contemporary woman and Hugh Jackman is, I don’t know, an earl, a baron, or something a couple centuries ago, like that isn’t actually going to work in the real world. And that was her inspiration for One Last Stop, so poor August, 23, putting her life together, in love for the first time with a girl who basically lives on the Q train. That’s the set up. It’s really fun. I think this could be a vacation for your brain, and I think this could be just the right book to intersperse after you’re done reading the Severance equivalence that I’m sure is waiting for you in your literary future. How does that sound?
JAKE: That sounds amazing. Absolutely, I’m going to read that.
ANNE: I’m absolutely really excited to hear what you think. Okay, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure how much to lean into the length thing. Like part of me wants to give you a 600 page book and part of me wants to go short. Here’s what I’m thinking though. I feel like you’re going to get your heartfelt dose from the lighter books we’re recommending.
ANNE: So I’m really leaning into the kinda wry tone that we see in Severance and Sex and Vanity even though they’re very different books.
JAKE: Yeah, absolutely.
ANNE: I’m thinking one by Mohsin Hamid. It’s called How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia. Is this one you’ve read?
JAKE: No, I have not even heard of it.
ANNE: Okay. Oh, this is fun and it has a really fun construct. His book that came out in … Three or four years ago, 2017 maybe, called Exit West was everywhere for a time. So if you are familiar with his work and you’re not sure why, I wonder if that might be it. And he also wrote The Reluctant Fundamentalist.
JAKE: Oh, yeah.
ANNE: This is a serious literary novel, Jake, and also it’s really fun because it’s told with the structure of a self-help book which is really funny because the book’s opening line is, look, unless you’re writing one, a self-help book is an oxymoron because it’s the author doing the writing. You’re not helping yourself unless you’re reading. But it just starts with kind of a joke, which is funny because Hamid said the whole premise started as a joke, he kept telling his friends you know what I’m going to do? I’m going to write my next book as a self-help book, and then much to his surprise his brain started playing with the idea and he started experimenting and thought weird, this might actually work. So what that means practically is chapter one is move to the city and chapter two is go get an education, and [JAKE LAUGHS] chapter three is don’t fall in love. Our protagonist doesn’t necessarily adhere to every step laid out in those self-help instructions. That might be good to know.
But the story follows this guy. He’s young. He’s broke. I mean, he’s broke like dirt poor, and he leaves his village and migrates to the big city because the rural economy where he lives which is in an unnamed Asian country is collapsing and he slowly moves to the city, gets an education, all that. He slowly becomes an entrepreneur and he sells bottled water, which isn’t so different to the plot line of Ling Ma’s character selling bibles. But he sells the water and that is … In what is not the most bored way. There’s definitely some social commentary involved here. But we follow him through his whole life and as we do we’re hearing his story in the second person. You move to the city. You get a job. You realize your cunning boss maybe has something kinda, you know, sketchy up his sleeve.
It’s clever and thought provoking and I think you said you loved the voice of Severance, specifically. I think the voice of this could be really fun for you. It’s definitely different and readers should know that this is not a book with strong characterization. This isn’t like oh my gosh, that character I’m going to love them forever. Gonna stay with me. Like we don’t even know this character’s name. We never find out. So if you want to get to know your characters and their inner joys and struggles, that’s not so much what’s happening here. But for unique and thought provoking, yes, and absolutely. How does that sound?
JAKE: That sounds great. I’m definitely going to check that out.
ANNE: We’ve definitely done the darker, broodier, snarkier literary and then we’ve done something fun, and now I’m thinking of doing something that has that deep, well earned emotional resonance that a novel that spans decades like the John Boyne book can do. And the book I’m thinking of for that is one that we have talked about on the podcast before, but not for years I don’t think. It’s Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Jake, is this one that you’ve read?
JAKE: I have not.
ANNE: Okay. I’m really interested in Abraham Verghese’s career and I wish he would write another book, but he has another job as well. He’s a … I almost said surgeon. I don’t know if that’s actually true. He’s a physician, but he said that he realized because of the way he approaches medicine, he needs a break and he went to the Iowa Writers workshop many years into his medical career to focus on writing. And he’s written some memoir, and he’s written this novel, and I really do wish he’d write another one. I think this came out more than ten years ago and I feel like the world’s ready for another Verghese novel.
What I like about this story is that it has so much … This is going to sound cheesy, Jake, but I just feel like it has so much love in it. It’s just really clear how much he loves books and believes in the power of literature and he said in interviews that fiction is his first love. That’s why when he teaches med students, like, he’ll use The Death of Ivan Ilyich to teach about end of life care and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina to help students really understand what child abuse can be like and how that should inform their medical practice, and he says like reading a textbook, that doesn’t give you the real truth of the story that you can get from reading, you know, an invented reality. Dorothy Allison wrote … I mean, have you read anything by her?
JAKE: No, I haven’t.
ANNE: Oh, well one of her quotes is that fiction is the great lie that tells the truth about how the world really lives. Coming to this story knowing like this is what he’s trying to do, like, tell great sweeping, he calls it an old fashioned story, in a way that’s invented, although there’s certainly seeds of his actual lived experience in the book everywhere but knowing that that’s what he’s trying to do, I think is no surprise for those who’ve read it just because it’s a really emotional book. And something else he said that he really wanted to do with this book was to show the reader how entering medicine, something that to a lot of my contemporaries is something you do because you want people sure, but you also want a really nice car.
ANNE: And a big house, but that how for many people it’s almost a spiritual calling. It’s like this big romantic quest and a privilege, but also really hazardous undertaking. This is a story that spans like I said decades and moves between India, Ethiopia, and actually New York City, which I didn’t think about when we started talking, but it’s the story of identical twin brothers who are born of the secret relationship between an Indian nun and the British surgeon she assisted. When she becomes pregnant and has the baby, she tells no one who the father is, and everyone is very surprised ‘cause they can’t imagine that this good nun becoming pregnant, let alone giving birth to twins.
So this is the story of these identical twin brothers who inconveniently fall in love with the same woman and one of them ends up needing to flee the country because the political situation there, but it's a coming of age story, there’s a mystery to it. Definitely sweeping family story.
It’s really a genre defying book. It’s not easily categorized but legions of readers say like oh, this is the kind of book you just want to hug to your heart and weep when it’s over and, you know, remember as one of your favorite books of all time. It’s a well crafted story, but I also suspect that the places Vergeees is taking you to emotionally is a place that you will want to go, and it’s like almost 600 pages. I feel like I should work that in there, but I hope you’ll find it a 600 page read worth your while. How does that sound?
JAKE: I feel like I keep saying everything sounds amazing, but yeah. [ANNE LAUGHS] I definitely want to read that. It sounds like something I could really, you know, get lost in.
ANNE: I hope so. Okay. That was Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. Jake, of the books we talked about today, One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, which doesn’t come out until June 1st, so this is a little bit unfair question. [JAKE LAUGHS] How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid, and Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, which would you, let’s say which would you like to read next?
JAKE: I’m definitely going to pick up Cutting for Stone, and I think that’s what I would like to read next. I’m definitely going to pick up How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, that sounds really fun and really unique, and yeah, will probably preorder the Casey McQuiston book because I did love Red, White, & Royal Blue, and that sounds like something I definitely would be interested in.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think about all three of them.
JAKE: Yeah, I kinda gave the pageant answer, but I guess [BOTH LAUGH] I’ll probably pick up Cutting for Stone of all three of those.
ANNE: Jake, thanks so much for talking books with me.
JAKE: Yeah, it was a pleasure. It was really great.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jake, and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/277 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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•Jonathan Franzen (try Freedom)
•Ohio by Stephen Markley
♥ Severance by Ling Ma
•Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
•Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
♥ Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan
•A Room with a View by E. M. Forster
♥ The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne
△The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin
•A Deadly Education by Naomi Novik
•The Nix by Nathan Hill
•One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston (Out June 1, 2021)
•Red, White, & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
•How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
•Exit West by Mohsin Hamid
•The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid
•Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese