After becoming an avid WSIRN listener, Stacy Wittenberg realized she was watching less TV and reading more books. To keep her momentum going, she connected with other listeners, found her favorite reading categories, and sat down with me to chat about a classic WSIRN problem: the compulsion to finish every single book she starts.
Today, I’m talking to Stacy about that inclination and about a reading challenge she’s taken on for this year. I’m also recommending books that will take her on epic historical journeys, plus an audiobook that will have her neighbors asking “what is she laughing at?” when she listens on her daily stroll.
Stacy shares extra titles in each of her reading categories, so get your TBR lists ready!
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.
Follow Stacy Wittenberg on Instagram to see what she and her kids are reading.
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 280.
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.
If you’ve listened to the show before you know that my guest always shares three books they love, one they don’t, and what they’re reading now. Well, that’s the same format we use for our weekly newsletter. I share three bookish things I love, one I don’t, and what I’m reading now, plus the occasional peek behind-the-scenes. I’ll also be sharing my tenth annual summer reading guide with you real soon! The big reveal is just a month away, so check to make sure you’re still getting emails from me delivered to your main inbox. You won’t want to miss it.
If you are not yet subscribed this is a great time to sign up. The Summer Reading Guide is just for our subscribers—and it’s not just a book list, but a curated guide to help you choose your next great read, full of titles I’ve read, loved, and handpicked for the summer reading season.
To get book news, extra tidbits about the show, a peek at my reading life, and next month, the 10th annual Summer Reading Guide, sign up to get that weekly email at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.
After becoming an avid What Should I Read Next listener, Stacy Wittenberg realized she was watching less TV and reading more books. To keep her momentum going, she connected with other listeners, found her favorite reading categories, and sat down with me to chat about a classic What Should I Read Next problem: the compulsion to finish every single book she starts.
Today, I’m talking to Stacy about that inclination and about a reading challenge she’s taken on for this year. I’m also recommending books that will take her on epic historical journeys, plus an audiobook that will have her neighbors asking “what is she laughing at?” when she listens on her daily stroll.
Stacy shares extra titles in each of her reading categories, so get your TBR lists ready and let’s get to it!
Stacy, welcome to the show.
STACY: Thank you so much. I told Brenna when she called I like squealed when I got the email. I’m like I can’t believe I got picked.
ANNE: Oh. I’m so glad to hear it.
STACY: I think I started listening while I was on my maternity leave. I was like oh, this is like a really nice thing for me to do [ANNE LAUGHS] when I’m stuck in a chair nursing a baby, so.
ANNE: Oh, that sounds like excellent timing. I’m so glad. Okay, so you do have quite a history here with the show.
STACY: So I’ve been listening for a very long time, and ... ‘Cause my mom was like what podcast is this? And I’m like it’s the one I started listening to, I’m like it made me stop watching so much reality TV ‘cause I realized there’s so many good books out there and I’m blocking my own time from reading when I’m, you know, doing mindless things. So I feel like it really … Once I started listening, I think my reading life really started to take off ‘cause I was inspired just to read more and do less, you know, trashy TV watching. [BOTH LAUGH] It was … I’m happy I found it.
And another funny thing, we moved to Pennsylvania right after my daughter was born basically and you know, you start meeting other moms kinda, playground, kid parties, those kind of things, and one of the moms I met, we chatted a little bit and then we were Facebook friends. Just kinda how you do that. When you’re Facebook friends with someone, you automatically become Goodreads follower of that person. Every like Tuesday, Wednesday, she and I would usually add to our TBR things that you had recommended on the show. And finally one day she reached out to me, she goes, do you listen to the What Should I Read Next podcast? I’m like I do. Do you listen to it? Because you always add the same books, and she goes I do! And then we got to chatting and that’s how we started like our little book club.
ANNE: Oh, and that became a book club?
STACY: We have like a solid group of like four of us that always come, and then there’s always that kinda come and go as schedule allows. Yeah, that’s how we … I mean, we really didn’t run super similar circles, but that’s how we connected, is our Goodreads showed us that we had a common podcast we listened to.
ANNE: I’m so happy to hear that. I love how books and What Should I Read Next are connecting readers online and at the playground.
STACY: Yeah, exactly. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well tell me more about your reading life in Pennsylvania.
STACY: So since we moved out here I’ve been a stay at home mom. Three kids, and I would say my reading life really picked up when we moved out here just because it wasn’t working, so I didn’t have to worry about, like, correcting papers at night or prepping lesson plans, I was able to like lay in bed and just read. And then joined a book club. Me and my friend Kate started it when we found out we both listened to the show.
ANNE: Stacy, what role does reading play in your life right now? What is it to you?
STACY: I would say mostly I read for escapism, just like a nice way to go out into a different world and kinda get away from the pressures of life. I also read, too, to learn. I like to pick up a nonfiction now and again to learn something new. And then with my kids we read constantly. I mean there’s always a book before bed. They’re home all the day now, so we’re constantly reading just as part of our school day and they like it too, so.
ANNE: Well Stacy I can’t wait to hear more about that, also get into the specific challenge you set for yourself for 2021. So are you ready to talk about your books?
STACY: I am ready to talk about my books.
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ANNE: Okay. Well, Stacy, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, what you’re reading now, and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Now how did you go about choosing these?
STACY: So when I had to pick three books I liked, I kinda went to categories of books that for me typically are wins. I picked three books that represent those three different categories, and the first book I picked is Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. For that book, I tend to really like those long books that kinda tell an epic story that span over generations. And that one specifically it all centers around this little town’s quest to build a cathedral, and the people involved in it.
It’s very plot-based. I mean, they have successes, they have failures. There’s good guys. There’s bad guys. It’s constantly kinda a rotation of things are going well, and the cathedral’s going up, and then something bad happens and then they have to pick themselves up again and get the momentum going.
And it does tie up neatly at the end, which I would say is another thing I like in books, like I don’t really like to be hanging at the end. I like to know that the protagonist is okay and things are going well. That would be my first book.
ANNE: When did you first read this?
STACY: I was thinking about that. I feel like I was young, like maybe college, and I remember I was, you know, home for a break. My mom was like you should read this. I read it and I really liked it, and she handed it to me, and I was like ugh, Mom, like it’s 900 pages and it’s about medieval people building a church, like mm, I don’t know. Like very skeptical of it. I did not think it was going to be that great.
But then once you pick it up, I mean, I was totally sucked in. Invested in the lives of these people. Loved it. I thought it was really good and it was one of those books that when you’re done, you’re like oh, that was amazing, and then you kinda have to get like wrenched out of medieval England. [BOTH LAUGH] Back into real life, and it’s even one I’ve reread and I’m not a big rereader.
ANNE: Have you read the rest of the trilogy and the prequel that just came out last fall?
STACY: I did. I have read the rest of the trilogy. I mean, I like them. They still pull me in and the plot’s compelling. I didn’t care quite as much. Like I feel like he tried to parallel the story with just different characters and different time period, you know, he moved it up a hundred years or back a hundred years. Didn’t quite work for me on that same level, like it felt like a copycat story. It was fine, like I liked it, but Pillars of the Earth is the original. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That makes sense. I haven’t read those other ones so that’s interesting to hear. Stacy, you said that you wanted to choose books that represent different categories of books you love. What category is Pillars of the Earth here?
STACY: I would say it’s like a long epic tale and it takes characters from when they’re young to when they’re old. I like following that timeline and seeing how they change, and I was thinking of other books that do the same thing, and like Where The Crawdads Sing is an example. They take the little girl Kya from when she’s really young and they bring her to when she’s older. The Dutch House does that when they bring the kids from when they lived in the house as kids, and they take it to when they’re older, I think even the sister dies in the end. City of Girls did that. She takes her when she’s young and she moves her to New York City and her young life as a city girl and as she grows older and how she changes.
I just like authors that kinda take you along on the journey and you see their life ebb and flow. You see their high points. You see their low points. You see how they change from when they’re young to when they are older. I just find myself like when I’m in those stories really enjoying that passage of time.
ANNE: Yeah. We just did a blog post about that on Modern Mrs Darcy not too long ago. I’m certain it does not have Pillars of the Earth on it, but it’s called something like “expansive stories that follow a character across decades.” We did that because so many readers said exactly that, like I want to stick with a character for many, many years.
ANNE: Okay. I wouldn’t have guessed that was why you chose Pillars of the Earth, but that’s really interesting to hear.
STACY: And for my second one, I picked We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter.
ANNE: Who has been on the podcast to talk about We Were the Lucky Ones.
STACY: I remember that episode. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad. Did you read We Were the Lucky Ones before or after she was on? I think that was episode 157. I know it’s called “the stories behind the stories we love to read.”
STACY: I think I read the book first, and then I was really excited when I saw that she was going to be a guest. I was like ugh, I love this book, like that’s going to be so cool to hear her speaking. I picked that one. I think it represents my love of historical fiction and my love of historical fiction goes back to when I was a kid and read American Girl Doll books. [ANNE LAUGHS] That’s like the gateway to historical fiction.
ANNE: I’m sure that’s a common tale.
STACY: Mmhmm. And the girls in my book club, same thing. We’re all like give us a World War II historical fiction book and we are there for it. We said we could have done our whole book club just based on [LAUGHS] World War II books. Those stories from that time are just so incredible, and We Were the Lucky Ones stands out for me because I’m not very emotional. Like I’m not a big crier about books or movies. Like it takes a lot, and that one I believe I shed a tear. But at the end when they all, is it okay to do spoilers?
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Nope. At the end when it gave you that closure you so enjoyed.
STACY: Yes. At that closure and like you do not give many World War II books that give you that specific closure. That one really stood out to me, but that’s part of a whole category of World War II novels that I love. I loved The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Such a hard title to say, but I love that book.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I always feel like I’m going to leave out a word.
STACY: I do, too! I’m like did I get it all? Did I have it in the right order? The Huntress by Kate Quinn, that one was a really good one, the Anthony Doerr, All the Light We Cannot See. I mean so many good World War II books.
ANNE: There are a lot of readers who now see that another World War II historical fiction is coming out and they’ll be like ugh, if I have to see one more World War II historical fiction. Stacy, what’s your reaction to that?
STACY: I mean I get it. Then I would say just take a break from reading them, but you know, I think it’s all about balance, like if I was reading World War II historical fiction constantly and not putting other things in, I think I would get sick of it too, but I think they will always have a place in my reading life.
ANNE: And you can see yourself reading them for a good long time it sounds like.
ANNE: Well I’m happy to hear that.
STACY: So for book three I picked Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby. This is a category of, like, humorous essays. I just … It’s just such a fun category. I can think of so many books that I loved that are humorous essays, and I’d also say that it’s one of the ways my husband and my reading life intersect is we’ll like listen to audiobooks in the car of people reading their humorous essays. But Wow, No Thank You is probably the last one I read. I read it over the past summer and it is so funny. I laughed to the point of tears rolling down my eyes. I think ...
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I love that image.
STACY: And I was listening to it on audio, like walking through my neighborhood. [ANNE LAUGHS] The way she can take phrases and ordinary things and just spit it out in a way that’s so hilarious I think she’s a true talent, and I kinda did a deep dive on a lot of her other books too and I think she’s got a good way of putting words together. Just ordinary everyday life and making it seem funny. The middle of kinda a blah time in history, like you know, you’re stuck inside. You’re doing this quarantine. You can’t do your normal things. Being able to laugh is important and escape into like a funny book is good timing.
ANNE: Okay. I am really relating to the laughing until you’re crying walking through your neighborhood. Stacy, how did you choose the book that wasn’t right for you?
STACY: I just picked the last book that I think I did a one star rating on Goodreads. The book that I picked was Flowers in the Attic. The way I came across this book is I won it on a Goodreads giveaway I randomly entered. It was under classic.
ANNE: Interesting that they did a giveaway for a very old book recently. I didn’t realize they did that.
STACY: Yeah, they had a classic sections, and if maybe the publisher is rereleasing it in a different form or whatever, so every once in a while, you can get a classic. That category is usually very small, but I went in totally blind [LAUGHS] and I’m reading it, I’m like oh, this is a classic? And it was awful. It’s … The theme child abuse and being locked in an attic and a mother that was horrible.
It has a lot of the things that I just don’t like in books. It has uncomfortable topics. Child abuse. I don’t really want to read about that. The dialogue was painful. I didn’t think the writing was that good. I should have not finished it, but I tend to just finish all books and I thought it was so bad and I ... It’s like young adult, which I don’t love young adult books at this point in my life, but I went to Catholic school from kindergarten to high school and I’m guessing that - I’m guessing that the Catholic school librarians kept it out for a reason. [ANNE LAUGHS] No, that was not for me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Stacy, what have you been reading lately?
STACY: I just finished Midnight in Chernobyl by Adam Higginbotham and the reason I picked it up was my husband said this is such a good book and on HBO, they did a TV show, so if you read the book we can watch the show together, which is something we love to do occasionally. I read it and I was astounded by it ‘cause I had … Really did not know anything about it. I went in very clueless about the whole thing. I was six, five when that happened, so it was not on my radar.
It looks like a really intimidating book. It seems long, but there is a hundred pages of endnotes on it and the fact that the author could take a hundred pages out of endnotes, interviews and documents, piecemeal all that together into a story that makes sense that’s compelling, it’s riveting, amazing to me. I learned a ton, you know, stranger than fiction as they say. It was really good. I recommend it.
It’s out of my comfort zone, like reading heavy nonfiction like that. I like doing it. I like to learn, but it takes a lot. It takes a lot of concentration and it’s work, but it was really good. And then me and my husband just started this series the other day, so. That’s fun for us to do too. Like we’ll read the same book and then if there’s a show on it, then we’ll watch the show. I think that never gets old, like reading the book and then watching the movie, or watching the show, and kinda comparing how it’s similar or how we think it was interpreted.
ANNE: Well how are they doing so far with the small screen version?
STACY: It’s great. [LAUGHS] It’s so good. It sounds weird to say it’s great because it’s horrible, but it feels really authentic and accurate and it gives you a good sense of the horror that accident must have been.
ANNE: Stacy, what do you want to be different in your reading life right now?
STACY: I do tend to finish all the books that I start like I’m a chronic finisher. I’m like well, I made it this far, I might as well keep going. I don’t think that’s always served me well. I feel like I’ve read a lot of books that are just kinda okay, and they’re so many good books out there that I’m probably limiting myself a little bit by always finishing.
And then I pretty much like 99% am a library user, so a lot of times my reading life is dictated by what holds have come in, [LAUGHS] or what’s available currently at the library. I love our library. It’s like the greatest small town library, but sometimes you know, your mood and then what comes in isn’t a match. So then you’re reading books might not feel how you’re feeling or what you want to read so maybe just choosing books with a little more intention.
ANNE: One of our most recommended episodes is episode 153. It’s called “revolutionizing your reading life ten minutes at a time,” and in it our guest Kari Sweeney tells us how she incorporated checking her library holds basically into her routine and how she manages that holds, which you can do at many libraries, even though many readers don’t know it, in such a way that the books that come in do better match what in a mood to read right now.
But I know you’ve listened to that episode, but I’m sure somebody out there needs to hear that there is a way to mitigate that problem at least just a little bit. And I hope that episode helps. So I imagine that you’ve read a book where you’ve got to the end and thought, uhh, that time could have been better spent.
STACY: Yeah, definitely. [LAUGHS] Sometimes two like … I don’t know. I have this thing where I start a series, I feel very compelled to like see it to the end. Like I started reading in the beginning of quarantine, the Robyn Carr Virgin River, and the first couple I’m like this is nice. Like what a nice town. Like everything goes well here. Everyone always falls in love and it’s a happy ever after, and the first couple I really enjoyed. And then I’m like well I’m going to keep going with this series, and then I kinda got the middle and I’m like all right. [LAUGHS] I’m kinda sick of this town.
Like nothing’s this easy and I’m like why am I still reading it? Because I get the story. Like everyone goes to the town and it’s perfect and they have great lives, but I … At the end of the series I was, like, kinda hate reading them and I just … There’s no need. Like why am I putting myself through this? I got … I liked it at the beginning and then I kinda thought they got redundant, but I do that. When I start a series I feel like I really need to see it to the end and there’s no need for that. I know I need to do better. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well you know, I’m just now realizing one of the challenges with series — I haven’t read anything by Robyn Carr, I don’t think — but it sounds like you’re describing that all of the books in this series for you are books that fit a particular reading mood, and especially if you’re reading the books in this series close together, which can often be so nice ‘cause then you remember who everybody is and what just happened and you know, there’s real benefits to reading a series concurrently, but you may not stay in that same reading mood for as long as you have books in the series and then you end up feeling like [LAUGHS] I don’t … I’m ready to move on. I don’t want to be here anymore. It makes sense, but I’m not sure what to tell you to do about it.
STACY: It’s something I need to change. I need to say to myself okay, you got these other books on your shelf. Let’s go that way and we’ll leave this series for a little bit. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. So you’re aware of the fact that you do like to finish things, whether it’s individual books or the series that an author began that you began.
STACY: Definitely. Mmhmm.
ANNE: Okay. That’s good to know. Stacy, what do you want more of in your reading life right now?
STACY: I would say quality over quantity, and I feel like maybe I’ve heard other people have the same issue, but sometimes my focus just isn’t there, and I think it’s easy to become distracted. So I want to make sure that I am reading. I am focusing on a story and not distracted by my phone or my kids. Just finding those good times where I can read and not be distracted.
ANNE: Okay. That’s good to hear. So it sounds like what we want to do is find a variety of books for you that fulfill those different categories that you know you like, like sometimes you want to really dig in and stay with a character on their multi-decade journey. Like you want to be in it for the long haul.
ANNE: And sometimes you want really funny essays that are just going to make you laugh out loud and make all the neighbors wonder what is she doing? [LAUGHS] What is she listening to?
STACY: For sure.
ANNE: And then historical fiction because you love to learn and escape into other time periods and just enjoy a good story with hopefully a neat ending that resolves the hanging threads and makes you feel really satisfied as a reader.
ANNE: Okay, so my hope is we can find some books for you in these categories, then depending on the mood you’re in, you can pick up the one that sounds right for right then.
STACY: Perfect. That sounds good.
ANNE: Okay, and as we do it, I know you’re on the lookout for something specific in your reading life this year. Tell me about your shelf worthy challenge.
STACY: During the quarantine, there was such a big push to shop local and support your local stores and I took that very seriously. Bought a lot of pizza. Got a lot of donuts at the local bakery. You know, did like a lot of food shopping local, and then when it came to like New Years and setting intentions I’m like well, I did a nice job of shopping locally at my bakery, but I should be doing that with bookstores.
That was something too that my husband and I like to do when we go out, like we get dinner and then like shop around at a bookstore. It was fun for us, so I don’t want to, you know, end this quarantine and not have bookstores to go back to because I think they’re an important part of life. [LAUGHS] So I thought I was going to buy one book a month from a local bookstore.
ANNE: What was the first book you bought in this challenge?
STACY: 84 Charing Cross Road.
STACY: I loved it. It was so good, and that is one I’m really happy I have because it’s short, it’s sweet, it’s something I actually could reread because it takes like, you know, an hour or two to go through and we had chose that for our book club, and I was like well that’s easy. I’ll just buy that one, and it’s been on my radar for a long time, so I’m glad I finally got to read it.
ANNE: Oh, I am too. That sounds perfect for a reader like yourself who really loves something like Guernsey.
ANNE: Stacy, how are you going to decide what to buy for that challenge? Do you have a grand plan?
STACY: I don’t want to just buy like the current bestseller ‘cause I’m not likely to reread it. I want to try to think of things that are going to be on my shelf that I might refer back to, things that maybe my kids might want to read when they’re older. Kinda books that will stand the test of time. So I do have some ideas in mind of like ways that I could buy that would fit that description, you know, like Barack Obama biography is probably going to be one that I’ll buy.
I listened to Stamped on audio, the one that Jason Reynolds narrates, and I think that would be something that I would want to have something on shelf because I want my kids to read that eventually. When I’m making these purchases, I’m thinking okay, long haul, like are they books that I’m going to read once ‘cause if that’s the case I probably don’t want to spend money on it. I want books that are going to be timeless.
ANNE: Are you going to keep these books on a like special place on your shelf like these are my 2021 indie buys?
STACY: I wish I was that good of a decorator. [BOTH LAUGH] You give me a lot of credit to have a really nice shelf to display.
ANNE: Wait, no, that’s the nice thing about books is you just put them together, you have a collection. It’s fine.
STACY: Yeah, maybe. Yeah, that’s something I can think about too. [LAUGHS] Where should I put these special books? I mean, we did buy some quarantine furniture and I do have new shelves in our living room, so you’re a book recommender and a decorating helper. You’re amazing. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, goodness. Listener, be warned. [LAUGHS] That might not be the best idea.
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ANNE: Okay, Stacy, here’s what we’ve got. You love Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follettt, because it represents ... Not only is it historical fiction, but it represents that epic tale where you stay with the characters for many years. Also it’s a huge book, which apparently doesn’t scare you. Is that right?
STACY: True. I’ll stick with a longer book.
ANNE: You loved Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby, a humorous essay collection that represents your love for that genre, and We Were The Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter, which represents your love for historical fiction and you particularly liked the ending on this one, an uplifting resolution, but it sounds like from your recent enjoyment of Midnight in Chernobyl that you don’t need a book to be happy to find it worthwhile reading.
STACY: True. I would say most of my books I would like to have that like uplifting hopeful ending, but I am not afraid to read a little darker, especially in like nonfiction ‘cause like I said in my reading life, I do like books to learn things. I think that’s interesting.
ANNE: So not all the time, but every once in a while that’s a place that you’ll go. Not for you was The Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews. Okay, so what we’re looking for is good books that fit a variety of moods so that they’re there for you when you need them.
STACY: Sounds good.
ANNE: There’s so many places where we could go with this. We could go to brand new releases. We could go for books that have been around for decades. Do you have any preferences for like old versus new? I know that if it was something brand new, you’d probably get it from the library, which is fantastic, but as far as your personal reading is concerned, how do you feel about new versus old?
STACY: I’m always like excited about those shiny new ones that people are posting over on bookstagram, like ooh, that look really good and when my library gets them, I’m usually excited about reading them, but I also do like backlist, like when you read a really good new one and you’re like ooh, this author’s got things in her backlist, like I’m totally fine with checking that out and I’m fine old versus new.
ANNE: Stacy, let’s start with backlist, although not that backlist and this is a trilogy that is still unfolding. The book I'm thinking of is The Lost Queen by Signe Pike. Now I think Pillars of the Earth is set, I think the 11th or 12th century when they’re building some of the huge cathedrals in Europe, and that’s specific one they’re tracking in that small town. For this one we’re going even further in time to the 6th century, and this is historical fiction, but it’s based on the legend of Merlin.
It’s called The Lost Queen, and the Lost Queen here is Languoreth. She is a real 6th century Scottish queen whose twin brother is the one who inspired the legend of Merlin. A little bit fantastical. It’s set in ancient Scotland. The author went to Scotland to research. I’m so jealous for those trips. Not just because none of us are taking trips at the moment. She weaves in ancient magic, really complex political situations, and clashing religions and when you put those three elements together, it makes for a really intriguing story.
Something else I like about this is you follow Languoreth from girlhood and then forward as she becomes an adult with a calling, and you watch her step into that. But even though she is raised in a very important family and marries into another very important family, she has a hard time experiencing love and loss and just the crushing weight of the responsibility of being this leader to her people.
This is a planned trilogy. The second book, The Forgotten Kingdom, just came out at the end of 2020 and then the next book is expected, maybe two years. There were two years between The Lost Queen and The Forgotten Kingdom, so in two years, we get the continuing saga of Languoreth and her brother and her family. How does historical fiction inspired by real people in history set in 6th century Scotland sound to you?
STACY: Sounds really good. That hits my notes of like liking that following a character from beginning through their life. I like that aspect of it. I’ve been to Scotland. It’s been a long time, so I think that’s kinda fond to kinda read about places that you’ve been before and yeah, that sounds really good.
ANNE: You’ve mentioned several times that you listened to audiobooks so I have to tell you that I really appreciated hearing the pronunciation of the ancient Scottish names and places as read by Toni Frutin
STACY: I listened to I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell. The narrator who did that has that beautiful like British accent and the words in that book are so beautiful anyway, and then listening to that voice, it was beautiful.
ANNE: That’s interesting. I was actually wondering if Hamnet would be a good pick for you if you haven’t read it yet.
STACY: I haven’t read it and it’s on my library holds list.
ANNE: I think it sounds promising for you. I mean, Toni Frutin is a fantastic narrator but just hearing her pronunciation of the ancient Scottish names and places not only gives me confidence that I’m reading it right. I know how it’s pronounced. Also it just helps me feel more like I’m there, so that is The Lost Queen by Signe Pike. Gently backlist, just having come out in 2018.
Now let’s go new. We talked about funny essays that just have you crying walking down the sidewalk because you’re laughing so hard. I’m wondering if you would enjoy Broken (In the Best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson. This will be a new book. It’s coming out April 6th. This is a brand new book. Have you read anything by her before?
STACY: I don’t think I have, and that’s funny that you say that because I think I just added it to my Goodreads want to read section.
ANNE: I’m going to take that as a bit of serendipity. I listened to an advanced copy on audiobook, which is why I’m crying going down the sidewalk with a book that’s just barely out. She says right in the beginning of the audiobook, which she reads, and it was wonderful to hear the story in her own voice. I read Let’s Pretend This Never Happened just in hardcover and I’m so glad that I got to try this new one listening to her tell the story, and she does personalize the audiobook for audiobook listeners. She’s not straight up just reading the exact text on the page, which makes you feel special and it’s kinda fun. But she says right at the beginning of the story like umm, several of what I’m talking about here may be probably completely inappropriate but that’s my jam. You know my style. If not, you’re about to find out, so let’s do this.
So with that caveat, she plunges into the story, and in this collection what she’s writing mostly about are depression and anxiety and she is really frank and detailed. This is why her readers love her because especially whether or not you have been to those places in your own life, which if you have, you feel seen, but even if you haven’t, like, one of her big goals is to destigmatize talking about mental illness and also she has at least one autoimmune condition and she’s very much attempting to normalize that as well.
She’s writing about these heavy topics and yet she does it in a way that has you just like laughing out loud where your neighbors think, is that woman okay? Is that happy crying or sad crying? But the piece that really had me just cracking up was Six Times I’ve Lost My Shoes While Wearing Them wherein she talks about losing her shoes on elevators, which doesn’t like it should be a thing where she talks about her medications and how they affect her body and this part of life, and how she tries to make things okay by normalizing like oh, I just lost my shoe. It’s fine and that other people are always weirded out, and then … I mean, there’s a lot of funny material there.
And she writes a really heart stirring essay called I Already Forgot I Wrote This about her own struggles with just her memory for a variety of reasons, but also how that can really stir up fear in her because of her family’s history of dementia. And one of the things she says throughout the book is like you laugh or you cry, like we’re going to do both, but mostly here today we’re going to laugh. But she also writes really powerful pieces about the way of the world these days, like she writes this open letter. It’s called An Open Letter to My Insurance Company about how her insurance company, which is supposed to be on her side, like has made it so difficult to get the medication she needs to continue living a life that is healthy and whole, and it’s really poignant and powerful. I don’t think I laughed out loud during that one.
She gives a warning in one chapter. She says I’m supposed to tell you you should skip this chapter if you are less than like 18 years old. She’s writing about sensitive topics like the sort that if you went to a website it would say like to view this content, you need to be however years old, like click to confirm. I think that’s her way of doing that, and I was like I’m not 18. I can listen to this. And it turns out, Stacy, I couldn’t. I ended up skipping that essay, so sensitive readers should definitely know what you’re getting into but many people know and adore Jenny Lawson. Like so many people, the first thing I ever read by her was the blog post she wrote a long, long time ago about is it a steel chicken, Beyonce? That she pranked her husband with back home in San Antonio. Google that if you haven’t read it. She is hysterical. And this book is more of the same. Her particular gift is writing about serious issues that matter deeply with so much humor and grace. How does that sound?
STACY: That sounds awesome. Like that sounds right up my alley and my favorite kind of audio to listen to are the humorous essays. I just love it when the authors do it in their own voice because it just brings it to life so I can totally see myself getting this on audio.
ANNE: Well I’m glad to hear it, and I hope you enjoy it in that format. And finally let’s go for something new. I don’t have a crystal ball but I can certainly imagine this one being all over bookstagram in the future. Oh, this book actually shares a publication date with Jenny Lawson, also out this April. It’s called The Last Exiles by Ann Shin. One of the protagonists here really reminded me of Jean Valjean while the story arc is reminiscent of American Dirt, minus all the industry drama and you’ll hear why. You said that you loved to learn. I think a lot of readers, I hope including yourself, are going to find this book just breathtaking in the way that it reveals things from recent history that you just had no idea about. Or at least that was very much my reaction.
So this book is set in North Korea and China, but it starts in North Korea. It centers around a young couple who meet in university in Pyongyang. Their names are Jin and Suja. She comes from a journalist family, a wealthy journalist family. He is from a tiny village, something like 900, far north where his family doesn’t have enough food to eat because nobody there does, but he wins the scholarship. They meet at the university in Pyongyang, a major city in North Korea. At first she thinks he’s ridiculous and pretty soon they fall in love and you know, they want to spend their lives together. In school, they are a little bit insulated from the chaos that is the political situation that is in North Korea at the time under the reign of Kim Jong-Il.
Reading this story, Stacy, oh my gosh. I could not believe that these events were unfolding like 20 years ago. So his reign began in 1994 and it just ended in 2011, I mean, this is reads exactly like historical fiction, I mean, this reads like historical fiction but it is very recent history. I think the events in the book began in like 1996, 1997. This young couple is in love. They want to spend their lives together. The government is not in good shape and you can see that in various ways, like Suja and her mother have plenty money to spend. They find out there’s a market with new goods. They go ‘cause they’re going to get her a coat so she’s ready to, you know, begin her adult life looking prim and proper, but not too beautiful because bad things happen in North Korea under the reign of Kim Jong-Il to girls who look too pretty and the mother’s constantly aware of that and is telling her daughter like no lipstick. You can’t stand out. You don’t want to catch anybody’s eye, ‘cause there’s no protecting your daughter from something like that. But they go to buy a coat and there are no coats. There’s some men’s gloves, but all these goods that are supposed to be there that the government has announced are here for the people like, there are no goods.
Jin goes home on a school break and when he does he happens to come home in the middle of a raid, which nobody can call a raid. It’s a governmental inspection where they’re taking things out of people’s homes that they need like money and jewelry and food when the people already have no money. If they did, they wouldn’t have anything to buy, and they’re literally starving, like Jin can see how much skinnier they are than the last time he was home and he’s concerned. And through a series of events, he ends up stealing a bag of cornmeal, which is … It’s treason. It’s punishable by death in North Korea and he goes back to school. He’s not caught at first, but he gets ratted out by a neighbor, and when he does, it sets in motion this chain of events where he … Hang on, let me think. He gets caught, and you know he gets caught because at the very beginning of the story we find out that the cornmeal culprit has escaped from prison. Suja’s family is in journalism. Her father finds this out. He’s getting ready to print the news and she seems a little bit too interested in this news for her father not to be suspicious, but she knows if he escaped, he must have gone north to China, so she determines to set out after him. He’s just depending on his wits, but she hires a broker to help guide her to safety but of course everyone has their own interests at heart.
I read the news. I know a little bit about North Korea, but I just … There’s nothing to make current events or recent history come alive like a story that drops you in the situation and it’s not the same as reading the news. It’s not supposed to be. Emotionally it’s very different and this was a fascinating way to learn about what it might be like to live under a situation that I just knew very little about and to do it through the lens of these characters that they’re definitely rooting for.
I will say that this book definitely has triggers in it, violence, abuse, sexual assault, but those passages are short and skippable but I definitely want readers to know they’re present. I think given your love to learn, your love of historical, and I imagine what is many readers lack of familiarity with these plot lines. There may be a million World War II novels. This is the first I’ve read about a young couple fleeing North Korea for China 20 years ago and I think that may make it an interesting new release for you. How does that sound?
STACY: Really good. It sounds like it hits a lot of my boxes. Like you said it’s historical fiction. It’s got characters you want to root for, and it’s going to take me somewhere where I don’t know a lot about what’s going on. I’ll learn things, so I’m really interested in that one.
ANNE: I’m happy to hear that. That is The Last Exiles by Ann Shin. Well Stacy, of the books we talked about today, they were The Lost Queen by Signe Pike, Broken (in the best Possible Way) by Jenny Lawson, and The Last Exiles by Ann Shin. Of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
STACY: I definitely am going to get the Jenny Lawson on audio, and I think I’m going to check with my library to see if I can get The Lost Queen.
ANNE: That sounds great. I can’t wait to hear what you think. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
STACY: Thank you. I had a great time. It was really a pleasure to be on.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Stacy, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/280 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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♥ The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
•The Evening and the Morning (Prequel) by Ken Follett
•Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
•The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
•City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
♥ We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
•American Girl Doll books (get nostalgic with the audiobooks!)
•Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer
•The Huntress by Kate Quinn
•All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
♥ Wow, No Thank You by Samantha Irby
△ Flowers in the Attic by V.C. Andrews
•Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster by Adam Higginbotham
•Virgin River (Virgin River #1) by Robin Carr
•84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
•A Promised Land by Barack Obama
•Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds
•The Lost Queen by Signe Pike
•The Forgotten Kingdom by Signe Pike
•I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell
•Hamnet by Maggie O’ Farrell
•Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson
•Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
•American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins
•The Last Exiles by Ann Shin
•25 expansive stories that follow a character across decades
•Episode 157: The stories behind the stories we love to read with Georgia Hunter
•Chernobyl on HBO
•Episode 153: Revolutionizing your reading life, 10 minutes at a time with Kari Sweeney
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