Over the years Ahtoosa Dale sent in multiple submissions to be on What Should I Read Next, each one reflecting her ever-evolving reading taste. Since that first submission way back in 2016, her reading life has changed tremendously.
Now, as a lawyer and a mom with a packed schedule, she’s more willing than she once was to set certain books aside. And as an adult, she’s looking for relatable characters—especially if the book explores the immigrant experience. But Ahtoosa will never say no to a good mystery, or a book that explores the range of human emotions.
Ahtoosa specifically requested books that will give her a good cry, so on today’s episode I’m recommending a few heartfelt books to bring on the tears, plus a propulsive page-turner in one of her go-to genres.
Download today’s episode of What Should I Read Next in your favorite podcast app or scroll down to listen right here on the website.
AHTOOSA: My mood just changes, and he’s like what's wrong? And I’m like I’m just angry ‘cause of this book and he’s like oh, okay, as long as you’re okay. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 279.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, my kids are counting the days until school is over. That’s not really a comment about school as much as we all love to look forward to something and counting down the days builds that anticipation. They do it for their birthdays too. I do it for my book releases. And now we’re starting a new countdown.
Today’s episode is out April 20th, just one month before our Summer Reading Guide Unboxing event. This is a live book party where I share this year’s summer reading guide titles, one by one, with members of our patreon community—and I do it BEFORE we release the guide to the public. Four days early, to be precise. So you get to gather with fellow readers, join the What Should I Read Next team in celebrating the reading season to come, and get a behind the scenes look at how the guide comes together. If you’ve gotten the guide in the past, you know I put a lot of work into writing short and pithy descriptions to accompany each title—but at our live unboxing, I get to share a little bit more about each selection.
Mark your calendars for May 20th, start your own countdown to summer reading, and become a member at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext to join us then. That’s patreon.com/WhatShouldIReadNext.
Today’s episode is a long time coming. Over the years my guest sent in multiple submissions to be on the show, each one reflecting her ever-evolving reading taste. Since that first submission way back in early 2016, Ahtoosa Dale’s reading life has changed tremendously. Now, as a lawyer and a mom with a packed schedule, she’s more willing than she once was to set certain books aside. And as an adult, she’s looking for relatable characters—especially if the book explores the immigrant experience. But we also learn that Ahtoosa will never say no to a good mystery, or a book that explores the range of human emotions.
Ahtoosa specifically requested books that will give her a good cry, so today I’m recommending a few heartfelt books to bring on the tears, plus a propulsive page-turner in one of Ahtoosa’s go-to genres.
Let’s get to it!
Ahtoosa, welcome to the show.
AHTOOSA: Thank you for having me.
ANNE: I just want to say we really admire your perseverance. Filling out a guest submission multiple times going all the way back to 2016.
AHTOOSA: When I got the email from Brenna, I … Like I was so shocked. I was like wait, is this real? Is this [ANNE LAUGHS] the actual email …? ‘Cause you never know if people are actually reading it, so it’s good to know that they were being read.
ANNE: We read every one. But thank you for being a longtime listener and for continuing to send in those books. As readers we often know the joy of finding the right book at the right time and sometimes we’ll read a guest submission and go oh, now is the time. What’s your general impression of how your reading life has shifted between 2016 and today?
AHTOOSA: So at that time in my life, I was reading more because I was in law school and I know people are like well, shouldn’t you be reading more now? But no, as working full time and now having a child, I do read a lot less. And when I was in law school, my husband lived in Dallas. I lived in Waco. I had a lot more time to myself while I was in law school so I could read more. And I also think as I’ve gotten older, things that I relate to have changed, and so books that I used to love are not as exciting for me anymore which kinda makes me sad.
Like I used to love young adult books, and it’s not that I don’t like young adult books now, but it has to be very particular. It has to be honestly very good in my opinion. [ANNE LAUGHS] I don’t know what that means, but to me it has to be new or it has to be well written or something like ... ‘Cause a lot of young adult, nothing wrong with it, but I don’t think of it as like beautiful prose a lot of the time. It’s more plot driven. It just makes me sad because sometimes I pick up these young adult books now, and they just don’t give me the same feeling and I don’t care and I think they’re too young to understand love, and I don’t know it’s just … Whereas when I was younger, I totally related to it. I just don’t relate to it anymore, so … It’s a little sad, but …
ANNE: Oh, growing up is bittersweet. Even as a reader.
AHTOOSA: Yes, and I think books that, you know, have an older protagonist, I like that more now than I used to just because again it’s just getting older and relating to their perspective a little bit better. I think that’s how that’s changed. I also think as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been listening to some of your older podcast episodes, but there’s someone who recently said, like, as I’ve gotten older, I just don’t do things I don’t want to do and that applies to my reading life. I don’t read books that I don’t want to read just because it’s important or somebody says I need to read it. I don’t read it just because someone tells me that. So I think I’m reading more of what I want now which is, I think, good.
ANNE: That sounds like that makes a lot of sense if you’re reading less. It’s natural to be choosier with what you’re picking up.
ANNE: Okay. Let’s go back to that concept of relatability because you said relatable multiple times in talking about the kind of books that you love now. Is that a common theme we’re going to see in your reading life?
AHTOOSA: I think so, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be relatable to me. It has to be something where the writer has written in a way that I can feel empathetic to the either narrator or character, or whatever it is. The Downside Ghost series by Stacia Kane, I think it’s a great example. The main character has an addiction problem, but it was so relatable I cried when she was struggling and things that happened to her, even though she made so many bad decisions a lot of the time. I just related to her, like I could understand why she did the things she did and why she made the mistakes she made, and I could see myself if I was in her position, I would maybe fall into addiction, too. I don’t know. Like that’s what I mean by relatable, it’s just where you understand the character and where they’ve been going and what they’re doing and how they’re trying to maybe make themselves better or achieve some goal. That’s what I mean by relatable.
ANNE: So in your experience is this a question of how the author chooses to tell the story?
AHTOOSA: I think so.
ANNE: Okay, I’m looking forward to hearing more. Now you mentioned that law degree. What do you do by day when you’re not reading?
AHTOOSA: I am a business and patent litigator, so I write and read all day long. A lot of my coworkers don’t read very much just ‘cause we read so much at work. But I think I need the escape from work because I just read so much persuasive and serious writing all day long that I need something to break away from that, and that’s why I’ve been able to keep up with so well, and I also have a very good routine. I get into bed. I try to get into bed by 9:30 and I read an hour and go to bed by 10:30. That’s how I’ve been able to keep up with my reading. And I have my books on my phone and stuff like that so if I’m, like, ever waiting somewhere, I have a book with me at all times. I do like what I do, but it’s nice to have reading for pleasure as well.
ANNE: Okay, well I’m glad you find a way to build it in. Well, naturally the next thing I want to know is what kinds of books have you found to deliver that relatability you enjoy so much, but I - I think that means it’s time to get into your books. Are you ready?
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ANNE: Ahtoosa, 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 then we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these, this time?
AHTOOSA: I just picked three books that kinda came to my mind. I have, like, a favorites list on my Goodreads account, and every time I’ve made a submission, you know, I kinda look through them and I picked what I wanted to pick that time. I can’t tell you why I picked one one time and a different book another time, but I do think these three books do explain like or have relatable characters that I have a lot of feelings for, and also I think these books have stuck with me for a very long time, which I think a lot of people that come on your show say, but I totally understand that which is why I picked these three books.
ANNE: How many books are on that favorites shelf?
AHTOOSA: I think I have 51, which is …
ANNE: Oh, and we made you pick three. Thank you for doing that for us.
AHTOOSA: [LAUGHS] No, I mean, I think 51 is pretty good, and these are books that if Goodreads had, you know, a zero to 100, they’d be like in the 95 or above because it does frustrate me that Goodreads doesn’t have half stars. I wish they did because I have a lot of five stars where I’m like, well, they’re not really five. They’re more like 4.5 or something like that.
ANNE: The StoryGraph fans are yelling at their ... [LAUGHS] They’re yelling at their phones right now. [LAUGHS]
AHTOOSA: Yes! Honestly when you had … I can’t remember her name.
ANNE: It was Nadia, the founder of The StoryGraph, who came on not that long ago.
AHTOOSA: Ah. That website is so great. I need to use it more. It has actually given me some books that I have never heard of after entering my books in, so that was nice. I like the - I like the method being able to put, like, different categories of what it made you feel.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you picked. Let’s jump in. Tell me about book one.
AHTOOSA: My first book was A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza. I remember how I feel when I read this book, so I read it right before I … Either right before or right after I had my child. There’s so many reasons why I related to this. One, this family is an Indian Muslim family. Now I am … Come from an Iranian Muslim family. It’s very different in culture, I’ll say, not … Obviously the religion’s very similar. I can’t say that my culture necessarily related, but I could understand duty and the honor and the other, like, aspects that come with that culture that’s similar in mine, and so that was something that was like finally! Someone, you know, is writing about something that I felt when I grew up, even though it’s slightly different. That was just, like, refreshing for me to read something like that.
And then second, the story [SIGHS] was just so powerful because I don’t want to give away for anybody who hasn’t read it, but it has a lot to do with I think forgiveness and I think in Muslim or Middle Eastern culture, there’s a lot of sense of that older people don’t necessarily come to their children or their grandchildren or something like that to ask for forgiveness. You kinda have to go to them. And not that anything as dramatic has happened to me that happened in this book, but I’ve had that sense of like my parents, you know, they’re not necessarily going to ask for forgiveness and I have to kinda go to them. That, like, theme was kinda in this book, and oh my gosh, it was so painful, the book, but it was so good painful. I remember I was sitting in our bedroom and I was bawling, I was just crying. I think I cried the whole last part of the book.
ANNE: That’s because the last part of the book is heartbreaking.
AHTOOSA: It is so heartbreaking, and … Especially because there’s this I think outside view of maybe this culture being very strict upon its children, but they still love their children so much, like that love is still there and that’s what that whole last part of the book was about. And I just cried and cried and I was like oh my gosh, what if like my daughter you know, what if something happens between us, and she doesn’t know to come back and that I’ll always love her and like just oh, it was so … I could see that happening. I guess that’s what it is. I could see that happening to me, and I don’t want that to happen. Ugh, it was just so .. I’m getting, like, shaky thinking about it. It was just so … And it was so beautifully written. I absolutely loved this book.
ANNE: I was born in Kentucky to parents who were born in Kentucky, so different background, but I also bawled through I think the last 80 pages. It was just so sad because what happens, listeners, if you haven’t read the book, is that the father has been really rigid the entire book to his children who he expects to be amazing at everything, top notch performers, perfect grades, toe the line, and they have a rebellious child, but in the last 80 pages when you get his point of view, he walks you through the events of the book saying what he hoped for and what he saw and how he wished perhaps [LAUGHS] his wife had handled it or how his children responded differently, and oh, just seeing … I think it has this air of what might have been. Oh, that’s just so sad.
AHTOOSA: Yes. I cried the last like 80 pages, and like I said I was sitting in my room crying and my husband walked in, he was like what’s wrong? And I was just like no, it’s just this book. [ANNE LAUGHS] And he was like oh, okay.
ANNE: Were you saying this book, it’s just so good?
AHTOOSA: Yes, it was so good. My husband has encountered that many times where he’s just like what is wrong? And I’m just like this book has … And it could be not even just crying. It could be like my mood just changes, and he’s like what’s wrong? And I’m like I’m just angry ‘cause of this book, and he’s like oh, okay, as long as you’re okay. [BOTH LAUGH] Books stick with me, so ... And I love books that stick with me like that.
ANNE: And do you love books that make you cry like that?
AHTOOSA: Oh, I do, I do. I have a hard time finding those, but I know they exist. I just … They really have to get to me before I can cry, and I just love those kinds of books.
ANNE: I’d like to talk a little bit more about the first thing you said about A Place For Us, how it portrayed the family’s immigrant experience in a way that you don’t see as often as you’d like. Can you tell me a little more about that?
AHTOOSA: I feel like I think it gets a little superficial, like it doesn’t get as deep as I want it to. When I grew up here, I had this sense of wanting to hide kinda my family ‘cause people, you know, would question like why do you do things a certain way? Why does your family like that? Why won’t your family let you do this? Things like that that I was kinda not ashamed but like I just … You know, every kid wants to fit in and they want to be normal and they don’t want to be different in any kind of way.
These books like A Place For Us finally explain, you know, what I felt as a child in some understanding of how I was growing up and how it was so different than most of my peers ‘cause most of my classmates were WASPy kinda people [LAUGHS], just to be honest. Interestingly enough I went to Catholic school my whole life just because those schools are very good in the Dallas area, but that’s what I went to, so I didn’t know that many other Muslims and I didn’t know that many Iranian people. People didn’t really understand me, and there weren’t that many books out there that explained what my, like, upbringing was like and this … It just connected to me in a way that I haven’t found in very many books.
ANNE: I like the way that you put that. Ahtoosa, what did you choose for your second favorite?
AHTOOSA: Colorless Tsukuru Taaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami. I read this book probably four or five years ago and I read it as a buddy read, and this was my first Murakami read, and this is another book that I just related to the characters so much. This story is about a man who had four best friends in his childhood. The book is translated from Japanese to English, so the four friends that he had in his childhood, they all had names that had, like, a color in it, but his name had no color in it, and so he kinda always viewed himself as this colorless person that no one cares about.
AHTOOSA: And then … Yes, and then his four friends, I can’t remember if he was in like high school or college, they just stopped talking to him and he doesn’t know why. The book starts with him dating this woman, and she’s like well you need to go figure out, like, what happened, why did they stop talking to you. And one of the girls, she had death by suicide, so he kinda goes on this journey of meeting with all of them and kinda learning that he is not this colorless person.
I don’t … Like again, I don’t want to give away why they stopped talking to him, but it had to do with the fact that they thought that he was stronger than the rest of them. Something happened between them and they decided that he could handle it if he wasn’t part of their friend group anymore, and they all kinda explained what happened and he kinda learns that he was this … To me, he learned that he was kinda this stronger person than he originally thought and he’s not colorless, and this book just … I connected to it very well. I could understand … Again, I haven’t had the same issues that he had, but I can understand what he was going through, the pain he was going through in his journey and I was just, I ate it up. I loved it so much.
And what I’ll say is I know Murakami’s very famous and has so much work. I read Kafka on the Shore after this ‘cause that was his more popular one and I did … I hated it. I absolutely hated it. But I loved this book so much, and I’m scared to read another Murakami [ANNE LAUGHS] on how much I hated … I love this so much that it’s on my favorites, and I hated Kafka on the Shore. I just thought it was boring and not relatable and not in … I just don’t know why, and it’s the same translator, too, so I don’t think that was the issue. I don’t know what it was, I just hated that one and I loved this one. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: He is prolific. I’ve read very little, though he’s on my shelf and I’ve been saying I’m going to read 1Q84 for, I don’t know, ten years now.
AHTOOSA: That’s so long. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: My thoughts exactly.
AHTOOSA: If I’m going to read a long book, it better be, like, very plot driven and quick because otherwise I don’t have time for that anymore. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m willing to put in the time. I just want it to be worth the time, and also there never seems like a good time to sit down and sign yourself up for basically reading four books in a row, but it’s the same book. [LAUGHS]
AHTOOSA: Oh, right.
ANNE: ‘Cause that’s the equivalent. Okay, Ahtoosa, tell me about your third favorite. How do you round out your list here?
AHTOOSA: So my third favorite was Still Missing by Chevy Stevens.
ANNE: That’s different.
ANNE: I like it. Okay, tell me more.
AHTOOSA: Very different, and I love reading mystery and thrillers because they’re easy and fun and I enjoy it, but this one was … Many thrillers and mysteries that I read are kinda forgettable because they kinda all seem similar and enjoyable at the time and that’s it. But this has stuck with me for a very long time, gave me nightmares. It’s told in a very interesting way. It’s told in the second person. As the reader, you’re kinda in the position of her psychiatrist, and she’s telling you about these horrible events that happen to her, and the thing that’s interesting … And she’s kidnapped and all these bad things happen to her. What’s interesting is you know she’s fine because she’s telling you what happened to her.
AHTOOSA: And this whole time you’re just like how did you get out of this? How did you get out of this kidnapping, this crazy thing that happened to you? And then once you figure that out, there’s still like I think a third or a hundred pages left so you’re like well, okay, what are we … What are we doing, and the last part of the book is telling you why.
At first it just seems like a kidnapping randomly happened to her and it’s unfortunate and it’s one of those terrible stories, but it’s not. It’s something even worse than you can imagine, which is nice because it made me feel like, okay, maybe this probably won’t happen to me because of the way this happened to her. But this has stuck with me. I have recommended this book to so many people, very fast paced. Again you empathize not only with her, but as a person that’s listening to her story, how they feel and how they’re trying to help her with her problems. I just love this book.
ANNE: I think I started that book and did not finish that book because it was terrifying. [LAUGHS] It was too much for my sensitive soul.
AHTOOSA: Yes, I can understand that, but if you do finish it, you do feel a little bit like okay, this probably won’t happen to me because of the way it happened to her.
ANNE: So have you always loved mystery and thrillers? I was kinda wondering if these easy and fun books were your new YA basically.
AHTOOSA: You know, I think you’re right. I think they may be my new YA. I do read a lot of fantasy though, so that also I think might be my new YA. There’s a lot more fantasy out that’s, like, relatable to, like, a 25 year old, which is closer to my age, but yes, I think you’re right. These are easy to pick up. They’re typically not very long. I never hate a thriller/mystery. I’m never like oh, that was a waste of time. I’m always like oh, that was good. That was fun. I enjoyed that. It’s done, and I had something to enjoy. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m so glad to hear it. I’m also thinking of a couple books that I read that are coming out this summer that are thrillers and mysteries. They were so good [LAUGHS] until the end where I went really? Is that seriously how we’re going to end it? I won’t recommend those to you today. Now tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
AHTOOSA: This is not a book that I hate, and there are plenty of books that I hate, but I wanted to pick this because I wanted to show a book that totally sounded right for me, but fell short unfortunately.
ANNE: Okay, I like the way you’re thinking.
AHTOOSA: So this is The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson. I think this came out last year. The premise of this book is about a woman, I guess there are multiple earths and multiple realities, and society has figured out how to like jump to those realities. Now I don’t think every Earth has just, like, Earth #1 has … They have jobs for people who … Because you can only travel to an alternate reality where your person has died. You can’t travel unless … If you still exist on that other world, you can’t go there, so the story follows the main character who could. Her versions of herself have already died many, many times. So her job is to, like, go to the worlds and gather information and bring it back to the main world that she lives on.
This premise just sounds amazing to me. It starts off, it has a really cool twist that I love, but then it just felt like I wanted more, like there just was not enough content, and especially like in fantasy … Maybe this is good for someone who’s never done fantasy or sci-fi and they want to try it. But I just needed a lot more. I just wanted more about her … What she’s been doing in these other planets, and it was a little shallow for me. But amazing concept, something I haven’t really seen before. I love the concept. I thought it was great except that I just needed more of it, and maybe that’s what it was is that it just wasn’t enough.
ANNE: So great premise, but that’s not all it takes.
ANNE: What are you reading right now?
AHTOOSA: Just finished The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali, who is an Iranian woman. I thought it was very good. I read it because I thought this would be something I would really love to relate to about Iranian culture and things like that. I just thought there wasn’t enough again. I thought the story was great, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying it should be changed, but for what I was looking for, it was not there. It spanned a long period of time in a short amount of pages, so … But it was fun reading about like her meeting her husband and teaching him, you know, about Persian cooking, and things like that, and her husband was so great. I thought her husband was so wonderful.
ANNE: I loved Walter.
AHTOOSA: He really reminded me of my husband, who’s also American, but also has immersed himself in Iranian culture. It’s very sweet. I love … It’s very cute. He’s learned words and learned actually how to cook some of the foods, so I love that aspect of it, but you know, the story was more about this separation of a love that might have been, and so I thought it was more of like a love story rather than a cultural story. But I did appreciate the cultural sprinklings in there.
And then … Oh, I just finished The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed Masood. So this book just came out and I had very mixed feelings while I was reading the book. I loved the beginning, and the reason why I love the beginning is because I really related to Anvar. I had a similar, like, when I was … Like the way I was brought up, I questioned a lot about religion. I questioned a lot about our culture and you know, like my family was just like no, we don’t question those … Like - like that’s relatable I think to many families, not just Middle Eastern or Muslim families.
But I did love that it was taking that aspect on, and then it all was kinda meh to me because the other character it follows in the book, she’s just so angry and I don’t mind that but I just … What happened to her in her life was so awful. I don’t know how to explain this because what happened in Chevy Stevens’ Still Missing was horrible and hopefully things that most people never have to go through, but for some reason when I was reading Safwa’s point of view, of all the horrible things that happened to her, I just … It was just hard to connect to I guess, and I could understand why she was so angry but at the same time she was so angry to the point that she wanted someone to die, and I was like okay, this is awful. I don’t blame you for feeling that way but I don’t want to feel this way. [LAUGHS]
So that was hard, but the end I thought had a great closing. This isn’t one of those books that made me, like, cry and feel strong feelings, but I just … I love to read Goodreads reviews after I read a book, especially one star reviews. I just love reading them because it helps me get to a perspective of why I liked or didn’t like a book. After I finished it I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I read this one star review about how it wasn’t an accurate depiction of how Muslims growing up in America are like, and then I realized I loved the book. I was like no it was, this was somewhat relatable to me, so ... And I don’t know if the person who wrote the review is a Muslim American, but it sounded like they were not, and I was just like well I don’t think it’s fair to say this is not relatable to people because it was for me at some parts. So I did enjoy the book. It wasn’t my all time favorite, but I did enjoy it.
ANNE: So I’m noticing that the books that you’ve cited as favorites, you want to relate to the characters, you want to be drawn into their world, and really I think into their heads, and the tone in the books that you’ve loved has been very earnest, been very heartfelt. Now I haven’t read The Bad Muslim Discount yet, although I’ve heard good things and I’m intrigued, but it’s funny, isn’t it? I mean, I’m just wondering if the tone is totally different. I’m wondering if while the novel may have been well done, it wasn’t what you were looking for. It wasn’t going to make you cry. It wasn’t going to make you feel the kind of heart level connection that you were hoping for.
AHTOOSA: I will say you’re right. It was very funny. I laughed at so many parts that I had to read it to whoever was sitting next to me even though [ANNE LAUGHS] they were like I don’t know what you’re talking about.
ANNE: That’s a great sign.
AHTOOSA: I don’t have the context of what you’re reading, but oh gosh, there were a lot of funny parts. I fold, like I dog-ear the bottom of a page, I know that might make some people cringe, but I fold …
ANNE: Some people are cringing. It’s good with me. Those people should not see my books.
AHTOOSA: Yes, I dog-ear the bottom of pages where there’s quotes that I love, and I did that on so many pages in this book because there were so many beautiful lines in it.
ANNE: Do you dog-ear the top for something else?
AHTOOSA: Like when I’ve stopped reading it and I don’t have a bookmark. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, okay. Ahtoosa, we have a lot to work with here. We could give you book recs all day, but help me narrow it down. What are you really looking for in your reading life right now?
AHTOOSA: Like I said I would love to find more books that make my favorites lists, and typically those are books that make me cry. I want something that like you say, I get into the head of the characters and I am there with them and I feel what they’re feeling. I love the feeling of cry ... I know that’s weird to say. I love the feeling of crying in really good books.
ANNE: It’s not just you. It’s not that weird.
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ANNE: Okay, Ahtoosa, let’s review. The books you loved were A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, Colorless Tsukuru Taaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami, and Still Missing by Chevy Stevens. Not for you is The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson, and you’re on the hunt for relatable books, immigrants stories would not go amiss, that maybe have you crying for days. Okay. I’m pretty sure I can deliver on the first one with the tears. Are you ready?
ANNE: I hope you’re okay with memoir because I think this could be a really good pick for you.
AHTOOSA: I do love memoirs.
ANNE: Okay. Good, I’m glad to hear it ‘cause the book I have in mind is Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner and it’s new, just out in April. This is a memoir by Zauner who’s better known to many people right now not as an author but as a musician. She performs as Japanese Breakfast. But this memoir is so touching, heartfelt, and also really, really sad in a way that many readers are going to find beautiful and relatable and resonate and I can just keep going with the emotions. Many readers are going to relate to this … Well let me tell you about the story.
So Zauner is Korean American, her dad is American, her mom was Korean. Her mom died. That’s why she’s crying in the H Mart. Her parents met when her dad saw a newspaper ad in the U.S. that said hey, we got opportunities. [LAUGHS] Call us for a job, and it turns out that opportunity was selling used cars in South Korea to I think U.S. military service people. Luckily this is not the most important part of the story. The most important part of this story is that he walks into the Korean hotel and meets her mom, who he says was the first Korean woman he ever saw, and fell in love, and three months later when his shift was up, he said come back to America with me. Let’s get married. They did, and they moved to Eugene, Oregon, which is where Michelle grew up with her parents.
Right at the beginning of the book she is crying in H Mart, which is unfamiliar to me, not being well versed in the ways of Korean food, but she says that the Korean phrase for H Mart roughly translates to one armful of groceries, and she describes what it’s like there, but at the very beginning of this story, she says ever since my mom died, I cry in H Mart because food was the thing that connected her so much to her mom, and her only connection she felt like to her Korean culture was her mother and now her mother was gone. So at the beginning of the book, she is sobbing near the dry goods she says and asking herself am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?
ANNE: It’s so sad, and she said things like my grief comes in waves and is usually triggered by something arbitrary and unpredictable [LAUGHS] like she can tell you with a straight face what it was like watching her mom’s hair fall out in the bathtub when she was undergoing chemotherapy, or about the five weeks she spent sleeping in the hospitals, but she says catch me at H Mart when some kids runs up double fisting plastic sleeves of those rice cakes we used to eat after school, and I will just lose it. So this book really takes you inside not only her grief which it obviously does, but also it’s an exploration of her relationship with her mother and the times that they had together.
The tone of this is not quite like A Place For Us, it’s a little more interior. It’s first person, obviously, this is a memoir. It’s very descriptive, the way that she talks about the food and the landscape are just so vivid and wonderful. I think you’re really going to like that, but the themes are so similar to A Place For Us, especially you were pointing out how asking forgiveness of your children was not something you did. Even if it was something that you really needed to do, and there had been a huge rift between Michelle and her mother for many years and the reason why it’s like oh, my gosh, I bet there was. You all had a lot to talk about, but her mother wouldn’t talk about it. They didn’t come together again until after she finds out about the cancer diagnosis.
But I think this memoir has many things that you love, well first it’s going to make you cry for days in a way that I think you’ll really enjoy because it’s so poignant and she’s getting to the heart of the things that really matter in life and why it’s so meaningful to connect to each other and how we think about those we love and how we honor them and find them even in these small, but simultaneously huge ways like the food of the culture that we enjoy together. How does that sound to you?
AHTOOSA: Ugh, I was getting goosebumps while you were describing it. It reminded me of The Light of the World.
ANNE: Yes! I jotted that down while we were talking. I’m glad you read that, and it sounds like you enjoyed it.
AHTOOSA: I actually listened to it on audiobook, which was beautiful because I think she narrated it, but what’s funny is, I think you said this when you — because I got it from your podcast — that there’s a lot of funny parts and a lot of like awful crying parts and I would be driving to work and I would be like laughing and feeling great and like oh, what a wonderful husband she had, and then it’d be like five minutes before I get to work and it’d be something horribly sad and I would sit in the car and just cry for ten minutes before I would go inside. [LAUGHS] I think you’ve hit right on the nail.
ANNE: Okay. I’m saving a thriller for last, I’ll tell you now. So for our second book, do we want something that’s slower, more reflective, more interior, with a tone that legitimately reminds me of A Place For Us? Or do we want a quicker moving historical fiction that spans generations?
ANNE: I couldn’t decide, so I’m asking you to choose, I’m sorry. It’s a dirty trick. [LAUGHS]
AHTOOSA: Ahhh. Let’s go with the first one.
ANNE: [WHISPERS] Was that the Place for Us?
AHTOOSA: Yes, I think so. [LAUGHS] The slower, more reflective one.
ANNE: You have chosen ... Ding ding ding … Disoriental by Négar Djavadi. Is this a book you’ve read or have familiarity with?
AHTOOSA: I have never heard of this.
ANNE: Oh, well yay. Let’s talk about it. This is a French novel. It’s a debut from Djavadi, so it’s translated into English by Tina Kover. This is a novel that reads like a memoir. I didn’t really realize that we were loading you up with that kind of something that feels like that kind of perspective. But this is a very intimate feeling coming of age story, and it begins in a waiting room of a Parisian fertility clinic. Kimiâ is waiting in the fertility clinic awaiting treatment, just thinking about her life, thinking about what’s happening around her. [LAUGHS] She’s waiting to … She has all the time in the world to just think. So that’s one track that this story is running on her fertility treatment, but on the other track, you have this epic saga of generations of her family who were political dissidents in Iran. So this back and forth is really effective. She’s experiencing what she’s experiencing as a woman with problems in her physical body, at least that’s how it’s viewed at the fertility clinic, problems to overcome, but thinking about how we got to this specific place and this specific point in her relationship.
So what we find out is that Kimiâ was born in Iran but she fled to Paris with her family because her father, who was a journalist, criticized the ruling regime and became a target. They had to leave. It was the only way they could be safe. So now she’s 25 and she’s taking a swim in the pool of her memories to revisit her tomboy youth, which was not okay when she was growing up in Iran. Her country just did not understand the concept. I’m not sure how that’s striking you. She’s thinking about her close knit, yet contentious family and her relationship with all her aunts and uncles, which in the book is kinda funny the way it’s told. She calls them Uncles One through Six. So Uncle Four one day at dinner, Uncle Two replied.
And then she reflects on her current status as an uneasy immigrant. It’s called Disoriental, and something she reflects on a lot in the book is that everybody in France talks about integration and I mean, people who read the news know that in French culture, integration has been a major topic of political discussion for a long time now. But she says they talk about integration, but they don’t talk about how in order to integrate, you first have to disintegrate. You have to kinda fall apart before you get reassembled, and she doesn’t love that idea.
What I really like about this book for you is the voice, which I feel like sounds like an English word class, but the way she tells the story is really different, kinda clever but not too clever, like she’ll be lost in her memories and she’ll say just be patient a little bit longer, dear reader, I’m getting there. You’ll find out what happens, just hold on. The way that she layers her personal story that’s only happening to her upon all kinds of current and past political and cultural events is really interesting. How does that sound to you?
AHTOOSA: So amazing. I love the fact … The discussion that you were saying about integrating and how difficult that … Like that just sounds like oh, we just do it, but no, that’s not how it works because, you know, it’s a different culture trying to integrate into a different culture, so especially I have heard about how difficult it is in France, but ugh, this just … Exactly like I was looking for.
ANNE: I’m so happy to hear it. That was Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, translated by Tina Kover. And the book has won, if you care about such things, the book had won a slew of awards like well, one it had been nominated for, but I know it won a Lambda. It was nominated for a National Book Award, and it’s won something like 30 prizes. It’s impressive. Okay, now we’re going to take a huge left turn and go the thriller route, the easy and fun books that you enjoy. What did you say? You’ve never not liked a mystery you’ve read?
ANNE: And when you were describing what you liked about the way Chevy Stevens told her story in Still Missing, I was thinking of a book that also did something really interesting in its telling, and that is the fairly new release Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy. Is this one you know?
AHTOOSA: I don’t think so.
ANNE: Good. I’m glad to hear it, so this is from the author of The Perfect Mother. I think it’s her second book. I think it’s better than her first, though her first got tons of buzz. This is a really twisty, domestic thriller that made me stop in several places and go wait, [LAUGHS] what just happened? My brain is reconfiguring everything. I thought I understood who was telling me what about whom, but I was all wrong. And I love the way that without making me feel like I was being hit over the head or lied to or manipulated as a reader, she still made me question all the assumptions I had about what was happening in the story.
We meet the two main characters, Sam and Annie, when they’re newlyweds. They are moving from the city, from Manhattan, to upstate New York, and just like in that Chevy Stevens book, a therapist plays a key role here. Sam is a therapist. He practices from home. Part of the reason they moved into the place they did is that he could have his office in the same house where they were living, so he just commutes up the stairs to go to work. If you’re standing in the right spot in the house you can hear what’s happening in these therapy sessions. So Annie can hear everything that’s being said.
AHTOOSA: Some ethical issues. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, ethical issues for days. [AHTOOSA LAUGHS] One day a mysterious French girl shows up for sessions. After that, the happy couple’s blissful future that they think they’re going to have in upstate New York takes a turn. Whatever you’re expecting, it does not go the way you expect. I thought it was especially fun how there were all kinds of West Wing references because a character is watching the show in the book, and so they talk about what’s happening and how they can’t wait for certain characters to do certain things. But there’s also a really strong connection to Misery by Stephen King, which is name checked in the book multiple times for an important reason.
ANNE: It’s no spoiler to tell you that based on what the book wants you to know. But you’ve mentioned listening to audiobooks a few times, and the audiobook is especially fun and also maybe a little more revealing than the print. The narrators are great. One is George Newbern, who I really enjoy on audio, and Marin Ireland, who has become a favorite of mine as well. But I have to tell you, at first I thought one of the voice actors was cast all wrong for the character. Then I got to a certain part of the story and I went ohhh. Oh, that was brilliant.
ANNE: Okay. Okay.
AHTOOSA: Ooh, okay.
ANNE: Goodnight Beautiful, Aimee Molloy, how does it sound?
AHTOOSA: That sounds great. Do I ... So I have a question. Do I need to read Misery first because I just got that from a friend?
ANNE: Oh, that’s so interesting.
AHTOOSA: He really wants me to read it because it’s his favorite Stephen King book.
ANNE: Do you know what Misery’s about?
AHTOOSA: Yes, I do.
ANNE: I’m going to say you don’t need to read it, but I’m also not brave enough to read Misery. But I know what happens.
AHTOOSA: I’ll just say I read a book that talked about Murder on the Orient Express and said the ending, and I was a little upset. I still read Murder on the Orient Express afterwards, but like … And I didn’t know how we were going to get to that ending, but I was like oh, dangit. They [LAUGHS] they gave away what the mystery was of the Murder on the Orient Express book.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so sad.
AHTOOSA: But I mean, it was fine. I still absolutely loved Murder on the Orient Express, and I had no idea how we were going to get to that ending, but it would have been nice to not know the ending before I read it.
ANNE: Okay, I’m going to say you can read Goodnight Beautiful and Misery independent of each other, and you can still enjoy them both without going oh, man, I wish I had read them in a different order.
AHTOOSA: Okay, perfect.
ANNE: Alright, Ahtoosa, so the books we talked about today were … I mean, we talked about a lot of books today, but the ones we have here are Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, Disoriental by Négar Djavadi, and Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy. Of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
AHTOOSA: I’m definitely going to read Disoriental first, or like I want to get it right now. I do want to read the other two books as well, but I definitely will save Goodnight Beautiful, you know, one of those weeks where I’m just like I want an easy thriller. Or maybe I’ll save it for a car ride.
ANNE: Well I hope you enjoy them. Ahtoosa, thanks so much for talking books with me today.
AHTOOSA: Well thank you so much for having me. I really appreciate it.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Ahtoosa, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/279, and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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•Downside Ghosts series (#1 Unholy Ghosts) by Stacia Kane
♥A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza
♥Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami
•Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami
♥ Still Missing by Chevy Stevens
△The Space Between Worlds by Micaiah Johnson
•The Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali
•The Bad Muslim Discount by Syed M. Masood
•Crying in H Mart: A Memoir by Michelle Zauner
•The Light of the World: A Memoir by Elizabeth Alexander
•Disoriental by Négar Djavadi
•Goodnight, Beautiful by Aimee Molloy
•Misery by Stephen King
•Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
•WSIRN Episode 271: Because sometimes a 4.5 star rating feels right with Nadia Odunayo
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