Lecturer, author, and researcher Heather Williams has left trails of books across the globe as she travels for work, but today she’s bringing us three favorite essay collections she can’t live without.
Heather’s love of bite-sized reading experiences is contagious. If you’ve never picked up an essay collection, she just might convince you to do so today. We also discuss her preference for reliable narrators, a surprising fascination with Russian literature, and a book that made Heather laugh a little too loudly while reading on a plane.
I happen to love personal essays just as much as Heather, and I can’t wait for you to listen in on our conversation, readers.
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 Heather Williams on Twitter to learn more about her research.
HEATHER: I think that the woman behind the counter misunderstood what I said because she now thinks that I’m actually friends with Anne Lamott.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You’re going to get great service. [HEATHER LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 281.
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, it’s almost time: we’re putting the finishing touches on the 2021 Summer Reading Guide, and it’s coming your way May 24th.
Each year, I read stacks and stacks of new releases to bring you the best books summer has to offer, from page-turning mysteries to compulsively readable literary fiction, plus a few hidden gems I can’t wait to put on your radar.
This will be my 10th annual Summer Reading Guide, and we’re ready to celebrate with a bunch of bookish fun! Everyone who is signed up for our email newsletter gets the guide when it comes out in May, but before the guide is officially released we host a live “unboxing” for our What Should I Read Next patreon supporters.
In a ninety-minute live video session, I reveal every title in the guide and tell readers why I chose it. Unboxing is a DELIGHT—it’s the best kind of book party—and this year we’re doing it twice to accommodate more readers live: at noon AND 7pm Eastern time on Thursday, May 20. Members get the guide just after the Unboxing—which means they get it four days early. And they get extra pages and titles that aren’t in the public edition.
To join us on May 20th, go to patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext now to get more info and sign up. And a note about Patreon—that’s simply the name of the platform we use for our What Should I Read Next supporters, because Patreon makes it super simple to share bonus content with you—including bonus podcast episodes and live unboxing events.
Get in on the action by becoming a supporter at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext P-A-T-R-E-O-N dot com/whatshouldireadnext.
Today’s guest adores a genre we don’t often hear about on the podcast. Lecturer, author, and researcher Heather Williams has left trails of books across the globe as she travels for work, but today she’s bringing us three favorite essay collections she can’t live without.
Heather’s love of bite-sized reading experiences is contagious. If you’ve never picked up an essay collection, she just might convince you to do so today. We also discuss her preference for reliable narrators, a surprising fascination with Russian literature, and a book that made Heather laugh a little too loudly while reading on a plane.
I happen to love personal essays just as much as Heather, and I can’t wait for you to listen in on our conversation.
Let’s get to it!
Heather, welcome to the show.
HEATHER: Hi Anne. Thank you so much for the invitation. I’m really excited to talk to you.
ANNE: Tell me a little bit about yourself.
HEATHER: I am a lecturer, which is kinda the same as an assistant professor, and I normally work at a university in London, but this year I’m visiting a university in the Boston/Cambridge area. I’ll just jump right into it, what I work on. [BOTH LAUGH] So there’s no avoiding it. So my research is actually on nuclear weapons, which might be a little bit different.
ANNE: I think that’s a What Should I Read Next first.
HEATHER: Is it? Oh, I’m honored. [BOTH LAUGH] Just to be clear, I don’t make them. I don’t explode them. That is not what my research is about. [LAUGHS] I’m … Most of my research and what I write about is more how do we control these weapons, how do we make sure that they never go off, and so I hope that I’m on the better side of all the nuclear weapons issues. I lived in the U.K. in London for about ten years. Before that I had been in Washington, D.C.. I had been in Boston before and I’m originally from really far upstate New York near the Adirondack mountains, so I think I’ve been bouncing around a lot which has been a problem for carrying all my books.
ANNE: Oh, goodness. Where are your books in the world right now?
HEATHER: I refer to them as my book crumbs because I’ve left little trails everywhere that I’ve been. [ANNE LAUGHS] There are about probably 20 boxes at my parents’ house in New York. In the attic there are I think ten boxes at my in-laws in Ireland. There are some boxes in my old office in Washington. I think boxes in two places in London and then a few others that I just left with friends along the way, so at some point I really need to bring them all together. But … You know, I’ve really tried the e-reader and it’s just not for me although it would make my life so much easier.
ANNE: It does sound like you have the beginning of a novel there. Surely somebody could turn that into a story. Woman travels the world recovering the books that she littered across the globe in her past. I would read that.
HEATHER: Oh, that sounds fun. That sounds really fun. I should set that up and give up this whole nuclear weapons thing.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Now tell me how does one get into that.
HEATHER: For me it really started with Russia. I actually blame books. I specifically blame ...
ANNE: Oh, of course. Of course you do.
HEATHER: Yeah. [LAUGHS] I particularly blame Russian novels here. At a pretty young age, a family member gave me a copy of Doctor Zhivago, and I was just hooked. I was hooked on the classics. I was hooked on Russian literature. I went to college as a Russian studies major and I thought I would, you know, become a Russian translator or that I would do all this research on Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and then I literally took one class as an elective on nuclear weapons and I was like no, this is a little bit more interesting than War & Peace, and um … But it really did all start with books, yeah, Doctor Zhivago and War & Peace. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: What did they say in the nuclear weapons class that made you think oh yeah, this is it?
HEATHER: The thing that really attracted me to it was you’re trying to figure out how other people think. I think there’s this stereotype of nuclear weapons where it’s all about the science and it’s about blowing things up. Obviously that is part of it, but a lot of what I work on is more about how do you promote cooperation to reduce nuclear weapons, and I just really like that you have to put yourself in somebody else’s shoes. You have to think about why does Russia want to have this certain type of weapon? Why is China building this missile system? And it just forces you to kinda see the world from a different perspective.
I’ll be on a really specific topic [LAUGHS] around nuclear weapons, but then also the thing that really did draw me to it was the arms control aspect which is what I work on and just thinking about, I mean, we have tens of thousands of these weapons. How are we going to get rid of them? How are we going to reduce the numbers? And I just thought it’d be really exciting to be part of the research working towards that.
ANNE: Where does reading fit into that life?
HEATHER: Reading is essential for this life. [LAUGHS] Day to day a lot of my job is reading academic articles, academic books, which can sometimes be a little bit dry. They’re not always published for their prose or their style. They aren’t real page turners most of the time. And so at the end of the day reading is just the best way to relax when I can step away from the really dry stuff.
I would prefer to go for a walk outside but I’m in Boston and it’s freezing cold for six months of the year. [LAUGHS] So the best way to relax is just to curl up with a mug of tea and watch the snow and I really like to read just for the enjoyment of it. I don’t put any pressure on my reading life. If I’m not enjoying a book then I just … I say okay, I’ll just move on, which I know is a little bit blasphemous, but it just helped me to really enjoy it.
ANNE: What do you find yourself drawn to?
HEATHER: I used to always want to read, you know what were the big, what were the Booker prize winners this year. I would get really into my book clubs. I was in a couple of book clubs at one point. But honestly, Anne, I listened to episode 265 with Laura and I had this epiphany about my reading life because she asked these ten really thoughtful questions to get down to what do you like to read? Why do you read the way you do? And my epiphany was I love essays.
I looked through my bookshelf and like half of the books that came to Boston with me [LAUGHS] that … And obviously I had to be somewhat selective about what came on the plane, but over half of them were essays. I just really like essays because they’re so personal and when they’re done really well, it’s like the author reaches through the page and grabs my hand and says hey, how was your day? Do you want to go for a walk in the woods with me? Do you want to talk about what’s going on with your friends or talking about the news together? And it just feels really warm and inviting, the essays.
ANNE: Okay. So when we say essay, what kind of works are we talking about? I have a really hard time defining that ‘cause it just seems so [LAUGHS] so foundational but how do you describe it?
HEATHER: I thought about this a lot actually, and that’s the greatest thing about essays is that they are so diverse. I think the easiest way to think about them is a collection of short form nonfiction. It can be anything from personal memoir type stories or it can be a discussion about, you know, nature. Mary Oliver wrote this great essay collection and I read that recently and it really felt like she had reached out to me and had said hey, let’s go for a walk together. You know, that’s just one style, is the nature essay, but it can be about politics. It can be about health. It can be about so many different things, but for me what really defines the essay is that it is bite sized, so you can usually or I can usually read one in one sitting usually around one or two cups of tea.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I like that that’s the time measurement.
HEATHER: Oh, absolutely. [LAUGHS] But it’s also that there’s usually this personal aspect to it. I feel like the writer breaks that fourth wall so to speak and that feeling that they’ve reached across and that they’re trying to speak to you really directly, and that’s what I think sets essays apart. One thing that I think makes essays so great right now is that we’re in this pandemic. We aren’t having the same social interactions. I mean I haven’t met many new people [LAUGHS] over the past year. But with essays you do feel like you're really getting to know this person if the writer is, you know, generous and honest in their writing.
ANNE: Do you remember the essay that first hooked you on the form? I also really enjoy a good personal essay. I remember reading, it was Annie Dillard. Is that a huge cliche?
HEATHER: [SIGHS] No. I think that’s wonderful.
ANNE: Well I was in high school. I had a great teacher my senior year so that was wonderful, but it was Annie Dillard’s essay. I think it’s called The Death of The Moth, The Death of A Moth, but it’s about … She’s watching a moth fly into a candle while she’s in the woods. I think she’s in the woods to research Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. I remember reading it going this isn’t exactly a story, but it’s not … It’s not instructive, and I just … I didn’t know that you could write like that and it just opened this whole world of what I could read and what I could write. Then I went on to read The Writing Life, her longer book. From that point on, I keep an eye out on her essays whether they’re in the newspaper or a magazine or pretty soon the internet or those, you know, Best American Essays of 2021 collections.
HEATHER: So can I ask you what was it about that first essay that hooked you, like why do you remember that one and that place where you were at when you read it so much? Like what made it special?
ANNE: I think I didn’t know you could write like that. ‘Cause what she was doing was observing why these bugs, and I would tell you I don’t want to read about bugs. I don’t care about bugs. But something I love about an essay is an author can go wait, hold on, let me show you why you do … You do care. You just don’t know it.
ANNE: Because like you said essays are so diverse. You can write about anything and make it matter to someone who thought I just … That’s the last thing I want to read about and I feel like the essayist’s just like eh, well actually. So I really appreciated that aspect of it and I know in my mind I kinda collated what she later writes about the moth in The Writing Life with the first time she observes this moth flying into a candle when she’s in the Blue Ridge mountains. But the way she could write about this thing that isn’t about the thing she’s actually talking about at all and yet make it essential to the thing. I think I really admire when anyone can draw unexpected connections between two things that are seemingly dissimilar. That’s exactly what a good essayist does.
HEATHER: Yeah, I think especially if they can draw a connection that feels personal to the reader as well. You know, for them as a writer, they’re obviously speaking to their personal experiences and drawing those connections, but to be able to share that and to have the reader feel something similar, it almost feels magical in some ways because you’re creating something that really … It transcends time. It transcends space.
The essay that really hooked me that I remember exactly where I was when I read it was from A Gift From the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh. And it was her essay about the mollusk, and so there are I think six essays in that book and each one is about a different type of shell that she finds at the beach and each one is about, you know, a different stage in her life. Again it’s like you said, it’s drawing these connections that might not seem obvious. But I remember when I was reading it, I think it was a mollusk essay. [LAUGHS] And it was like that’s exactly where I’m at and I just fell … I don’t know how else to put it. I felt seen.
I have this habit. I think I started it with her. I’ll start referring to my favorite writers by their first names as if I know these people. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know as if they’re still alive in some cases. But after I read that I remember I tried to give this book to every single one of my friends and I just said, oh, Anne just has the greatest advice. You’re going to love this book. [ANNE LAUGHS] She can hang out with us. I think my friends didn’t really get it as much as I did. But that was - that was the book that really got me into essays.
ANNE: Reading that you could be like okay, really, like how is my life like a moonshell? I am not sold. And then she’ll lay it out for you.
HEATHER: She does and she creates this environment where you feel like you’re just hanging out on the beach with her. Part of the reason that book was special to me is, you know, my mother gave it to me, and she and I still talk about this book and how much it meant to both to me ... to both of us, and so I think when you’re gifting books a lot of it depends on who was giving it, what was, you know, their intention and how did that speak to you and at that time in your life.
ANNE: Now I find it interesting that you didn’t realize your preference for this genre until you were called to … I’m imagining you’re just taking a look around the room and going, what’s here?
HEATHER: It seems so obvious. [LAUGHS] It’s one of those things where as soon as I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it and thought, how did I not realize this sooner? But I think part of it is because I think the essay gets a bad rap. It is often, you know, the essay section in the bookstore is often shoved in the back corner and it’s mixed together with the philosophy and the poetry section, and a lot of the times I think essays are sometimes seen as being too high brow. I don’t want to read about politics or religion. We shouldn’t be talking about those things, that ... I’ve heard people say that, and so I think that essays just kinda get pushed aside especially for people who prefer fiction. And I get that.
And so I think that was part of the reason is that it didn’t become obvious to me. Before that I had thought oh, I really like memoir, literary nonfiction. You know essays are all of those things. You could even make the case that sometimes short stories are like essays as well because a lot of times short stories might have that autobiographical component to it and they’re also bite sized and they fit into my time metric of two cups of tea.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Did you measure like that before you moved to London?
HEATHER: Oh, goodness, no. I mean I was always a coffee drinker, but in the U.K. especially because my husband’s Irish and I think they’re even bigger tea drinkers than the Brits are, so it just became the standard beverage of choice.
ANNE: Well, Heather, I can’t wait to hear more, and I imagine we’ll get a little more into the details when we discuss your books. Are you ready to do that?
HEATHER: Yeah, great.
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ANNE: Okay, well you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Now how did you choose these?
HEATHER: I knew I wanted to pick essays because I had had this epiphany and so I did try to pick three different types of essay collections.
HEATHER: I also picked them based on what are the ones that I keep going back to and what are the books that made it with me across the Atlantic. Essays that I had to be [ANNE LAUGHS] really discerning about what it went into — I had a book suitcase that came onto the plane with me [LAUGHS] — so I had to be really careful about which ones I brought. But these are just the three that whatever mood I’m in, one of them will have the answer and they’re just really enjoyable.
ANNE: How long are you in the U.S. for?
HEATHER: I don’t know. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. What I really wanted to know is how long, what is the period of time for which you could not live without these books?
HEATHER: Oh, what a great question. One of them I probably couldn’t go a month without and it’ll become clear which one it is [LAUGHS] because I actually use it a lot in my work because so much of my job is about writing and I write in really different styles. So someday I might write, you know, 800 word blog post, but then I’m also working on an 80,000 word book, and one of these books, anytime I’m stuck in my writing process, I go to that. She gives me a good laugh and then she also … The book also tells me exactly what I need to hear and what I need to do next. So …
ANNE: To write about nuclear weapons. Okay. I’m fascinated. [HEATHER LAUGHS] I’m intrigued. Well I can’t wait to hear. Heather, what did you choose for book one?
HEATHER: My first book is Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino. This is one of those essay collections that is about so many different things, but it tells that story and draws that connection that you were talking about, Anne. The author, she’s also a writer for The New Yorker, but she and I are around the same age, which is where I often get put into the millennial basket, but I think I’m a little bit too old to be a millennial, and she talks a bit about that where a lot of her essays about the internet and if you’re of that age where you can remember what life was like before the internet, she talks about her first blog and her first username and how this was just such an exciting event at the time, but then you had to sit and wait for the internet connection to come through which I’m guessing anyone over 30 remembers that sound and the anticipation of it.
And so a lot of her essays are just about how we use technology. It’s about how technology and the internet really shaped our life and the way that we interact with each other, which is even more relevant now obviously with the pandemic, but one of her essays was just my favorite, so she was a contestant on a reality TV show when she was in high school and she was a high school cheerleader in Texas then went on this reality show which was in … It was somewhere in the Caribbean and it was a group of boys and girls that had to compete against each other. And so this is a format that probably anyone familiar with this, these team reality TV, but she provides this like insider's look, an insider experience about what is actually going on in reality TV.
I mean, this was probably 20 years ago and things will have changed, but then she does this really cool thing where she tracks all of the people who were on that show with her and she finds out who’s doing what now, and some of them she even meets up with and she’ll talk about, you know, how the show affected them and how her life has changed because of it. Some of the essays are these social commentaries about the internet. I wouldn’t call them high brow. They’re really very readable. But then other essays are just these really personal stories about these very unique experiences that she’s had and she’s just really forthcoming about what she thought about them.
One of the things that I love about these essays is she doesn’t claim to have all the answers. She isn’t saying this isn’t … You know, technology is good, or technology is bad. She just raises these questions about how are we using the internet? What does it mean for how we’re interacting? Here’s how I’m thinking about it, and a lot of the essays I found myself just kinda slowing down and thinking huh, that’s such a great question. I don’t think about this that often. I really like those types of essays that just make you take a beat, think about how you’re living and the choices that you’re making and I particularly like it when the author isn’t preaching and telling me what I should be doing.
ANNE: I haven’t read this. That sounds fascinating and timely and also I definitely remember what that internet you’re waiting to connect sounds like.
HEATHER: Right? It’s just a great set of essays, and one of my friends actually had recommended it to me and she’s quite a bit younger. She’s probably maybe 10 years younger and she recommended it as this is the millennial book. This is the book for those of us who are trying to navigate, you know, a very different world and I just loved it. I also just think that the title is really clever because in a lot of ways the book itself is holding up a mirror to the reader and saying this is how you’re living your life on the internet but then when you think oh wait, is this trick mirror? Is the internet the trick mirror? It’s just like kinda playing with you a little bit, but it’s all I think the writer Jia Tolentino, her voice kinda coming through and I just loved this book.
ANNE: Well that’s a solid start. What did you choose for your next book?
HEATHER: I got to be honest. I know that I had to pick three favorites. This is the one that’s really, really my favorite.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] We appreciate your honesty.
HEATHER: If you put me on a desert island, this would be the one that I brought with me, and so this is Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Anne Lamott in general I just really appreciate and love all of her writing. This book in particular, it’s about writing, but you don’t have to be a writer to get something out of this book or to enjoy it. I think anybody who wants to be creative would really get something out of her writing. She’s from California, so a lot of her writing is about California and nature as well, so again it’s how essays can bring together all these different aspects.
One of the things I love about it, I really do love the writing advice. This is a book that I use almost ... Probably at least once a week. I go out and look at this if I’m stuck in my own writing and I need something to kinda get me going a little bit. She just always seems to have that piece of advice. I have post-it notes all around my desk with her different pieces of advice [LAUGHS] so I don’t have to keep going back to the book because the book has gotten really beat up by now.
But the other thing that I just really like about her writing is she’s so generous with herself. She’s incredibly honest. She is upfront about her imperfections. There’s a whole chapter about being jealous of other authors [LAUGHS] which I just found really refreshing. And so in addition to this really practical advice that she’s giving, you also feel like this is a really honest person.
She’s another author who I have been known to refer to by her first name. [ANNE LAUGHS] Anne, I’m stuck on this chapter. I don’t know what I should write and she will have the answer. I was recently in my local bookshop and I was buying her new book and the woman behind the counter was saying, oh don’t you just love Anne Lamott? And I said yeah, it’s like … I said she’s like a friend. I think that the woman behind the counter misunderstood what I said because she now thinks that I’m actually friends with Anne Lamott.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You’re going to get great service.
HEATHER: Yeah! She actually said oh my gosh, well tell her that we love her books, and I didn’t know how to correct her and just say no, no, no, I don’t actually know her. I just think of her as a friend. [LAUGHS] But that ship had sailed.
ANNE: Okay. So that was your favorite-favorite-favorite. What did you choose to round out your .... [LAUGHS] I’m imagining like this staggered Olympic pedestal … This is not the Olympics. Okay. You know what. [HEATHER LAUGHS] Just … [LAUGHS] Heather, just tell me about a book you love. [LAUGHS]
HEATHER: The third book that I love is Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. This is just the most fun book. I think anything that he writes is hilarious. Laugh out loud funny, make sure that you’re not reading it on a red eye flight because you might laugh really hard and wake up everybody around you, which I have done. [ANNE LAUGHS] It’s another essay collection, but these are really different from the other two books. They’re mostly essays about his family. Some of them are just about his everyday life. But that’s his real skill. He will take the everyday seemingly mundane and turn it into something that is just rip roaringly hilarious.
One of my favorite essays in this was about his parents got a huge dog, a great dane, and it’s really hard… This is why it’s hard to sell essays because it’s like okay, that’s a great story, Heather, his parents got a dog. But it’s one of the funniest things that I’ve ever read and I’m laughing as I’m trying to describe it. [LAUGHS] That he just has this way of telling a story and bringing you into it.
I recently gave this book to my husband who doesn’t usually read essays. He is much more of a cookbook or fiction reader. I think within ten minutes of opening it, he was just, you know, peeled over. He was laughing so hard. This was one of the great things about essays is how they can I think take you out of your own environment. It’s somebody again being really personal and sharing themselves with you. Some of these stories I can’t believe his family let him tell some of them. [BOTH LAUGH] I recently watched his Masterclass actually and that was one of the things he talked about.
ANNE: Oh I didn’t know about that.
HEATHER: Oh, it’s really good. [LAUGHS] I think you have to have read some of his stuff ‘cause my husband watched it before he had read any of the books and I was just laughing, and my husband was like this isn’t funny, and I’m like you have to read the rooster story! It’s great! But again like just he opens himself up, but he’s also just this incredible quirky, eccentric character who gets really into taxidermy and he cleans up trash around a small village in the U.K., picks up these kinda strange life habits and then tells you about them and you feel … It just feels like this gift that he shares these stories and you get this look into his life. But I mean above all they’re just hilarious.
ANNE: I haven’t read Me Talk Pretty One Day in many, many years. I read it at the beach. It was a long time ago. These are the only things that I remember except laughing uproariously and also some of the humor comes from I can’t believe he just wrote that. When I became a writer and my publisher was like we need you to get permissions from all these people who you talked about in your book. Somebody told me about how David Sedaris said something funny once about, like, passing around permissions at Thanksgiving dinner. [LAUGHS] I said horrible things about you, would you sign this please?
HEATHER: [LAUGHS] Yeah.
ANNE: But one of my best listening experiences of 2021 was listening to his new collection The Best of Me. There’s a lot of fiction in there and I don’t love his fiction. How do you feel about his fiction?
HEATHER: See I’ve never read his fiction. I just keep going straight to the essays. I’ve never had a lot of luck with audio. Is he good on audiobooks?
ANNE: Oh my gosh. Yes. He is renowned for being one of the authors whom you should listen to read their own work because he’s so … Yes, he’s so good. And The Best of Me is a compilation collection of, you know, his greatest hits over the years and some of them are really, really old … The rooster story is in there where I’m like crying I’m laughing so hard thinking this is so … What would my mother think about this essay? Like that’s … That’s so funny. [HEATHER LAUGHS] But he tells this funny story about how I write about my family. They didn’t sign up for this, so that’s why I bought them a beach house.
HEATHER: [LAUGHS] The rooster story was the one I was reading on the airplane one time, and I literally woke up three rows of people [ANNE LAUGHS] because I had tears streaming down my face and the person … The stewardess was like are you okay? And I just like held up the David Sedaris book, I’m like, I’m fine, I’ll just put the book away and I’ll try to get some sleep. [ANNE LAUGHS] But it was the rooster story, it just … I can’t explain why it’s so funny. He’s just talking about his brother’s somewhat bizarre communication strategy with his father. It’s not even a strategy, it’s just the way his brother communicates with his father. [LAUGHS] I can’t talk about it or I’ll start giggling again.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] All right. That is quite a testimony to David Sedaris. This will calm you down. Well I don’t know if it’ll calm you down. Maybe it’ll make you stop laughing. Now tell me about a book that was not right for you, or as I think you put it, that was deeply disappointing.
HEATHER: Calling it deeply disappointing is my best attempt at a British yonder statement, but the book that I found deeply disappointing was, really sadly, Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I adore George Saunders. I think I’ve read everything he’s ever written in the New Yorker. I loved his short story collection The Tenth of December, but this one just … It just never came together for me. His short stories feel … It always feels like he’s pulling you along a little bit. You’re going out on a limb and you’re like I’m really not sure what this is about. I’m not sure where we are going here [LAUGHS] but I’ll stick with you. And in the short stories he always pulls it together. Often towards the end but you just, I just always have this lightbulb moment when I read his short stories or essays and it’s always been worth it for me.
When Lincoln in the Bardo came out, to me, I think I might have hyped it up in my own head [LAUGHS] a little bit too much because I was thinking oh George, I’m so happy that you’ve finally done a full length novel. This is going to be great. But he pulls you out on that limb, the style really confused me. I had a hard time keeping up with which ghost was talking at which point and what were they talking about and kept waiting for that moment where it all came together and it just didn’t happen.
I stuck with it until the end and at the end I just thought, George, I trusted you and you let me down a little bit. I know people who just love this book so much and so I think that I might need to just read it again. I hear you say so many times on the show maybe it just wasn’t the right time, you know, right book at the right time, and because I love George Saunders so much, I really do want to like it. But it just never really worked out for me.
ANNE: I’d loved to see what people can do with the written word on the page and in that sense it was absolutely fascinating, but also I read this early before there were critical reviews, I read it as an e-galley. Sometimes e-galley files, the way the text displays on the page because it hasn’t been formatted yet just looks weird, and when I sat down to read this with zero context, no critical reviews. I don’t even know what the book was about. I was like there is something wrong with this copy. [BOTH LAUGH] There is …
‘Cause I just didn’t … It’s so different and it’s written almost like a play, but I didn’t understand that. I’m like why are there all these weird words that are not words? I mean they were names but I didn’t know that. Like there’s something wrong with this book. So I persisted and I kinda figured out, like oh, this is just not at all what I expected. I think it’s brilliant for the right reader. The audiobook production itself is fabulous.
ANNE: Just because there’s a whole host of different voices and for some reason, like celebrity actors always voice George Saunders' work, I’m not sure why that is, but it is. Like I just listened to the book with all the clauses I can’t get in the right order, is it Swim in the Pond in the Rain? It was really fun to listen to like Nick Offerman read me a Russian short story and do the voices. I think it’s a great book for the right reader, you know, maybe the timing was wrong. Maybe it’s not … I think you could certainly appreciate it, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to like relish the experience.
HEATHER: Yeah, like I totally appreciated it for the same reason that I appreciated short stories that it’s just so innovative. It’s so creative, taking that specific incident in U.S. history and turning it into what he did, like it is really creative and I think it’s a cool idea. It just didn’t work out for me.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it didn’t put you off him forever. You just pick up with the next thing, and I guess maybe to make up for it, if he had wanted to win you back, he wrote about the Russians for you.
HEATHER: A Swim in the Pond in the Rain is just like everything that I could wish for in a book.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay. Tell readers about it. How is that?
HEATHER: It’s got essays. It’s got Russian literature. And it has that breaking the fourth wall personal connection. George Saunders reaches through the page and says hi to me and says let’s talk about some Russian literature together. That is a dream date if I ever could. [ANNE LAUGHS] They’re not necessarily some of the famous Russian short stories, which is an interesting choice. There’s some Russian short stories that probably wouldn’t always get taught in Russian literature classes. I had taken Russian literature and I hadn’t heard about more than half of these.
It’s just really refreshing that he’s trying to introduce these stories that otherwise might have just gotten lost, and so the structure of the book is each section is a short story and then George Saunders talking to you personally about it and he’ll say right, what did you feel when the carriage was going through this part of the town? Why do you think they spent so much time talking about this contest rather than just getting to the contest already? Again this is part of the reason why it’s really hard to sell essays to people is because I can imagine somebody saying wow, Russian short stories being analyzed by a college professor. [ANNE LAUGHS] Wow, snoozefest. But it’s not.
I’m reading this intentionally very slowly. I am trying to savor it like a treat and I’ll only read one, I’ll try to do just one a week so I haven’t even gotten to the end and I’ve had it for almost two months now. It is just so generous of him. I don’t know what other word to use for it that he’s just welcoming you into his brain and saying here’s a way to think about this. You don’t have to, but if you think about it this way this is a really powerful and interesting experience and story that we can share and talk about together.
ANNE: And I imagine for many readers it’s a really fun MFA experience because he says, hey, thousands of students apply every year to come learn to write with me and Mary Karr at Syracuse and 14 people have the spots and you’re not going to come. So let me tell you what it’s like. Those numbers aren’t exactly right, but they’re definitely enough in the range to give you the idea of how like I’m not going to do that. But then he wrote me a book. [LAUGHS]
HEATHER: Exactly. And he wrote a book about stories that otherwise probably most people wouldn’t read and so he’s introducing readers to this whole other genre in some ways. It reminded me, there was this Russian short story by Gogol that I had read in college, and I hadn’t thought about it in probably since college, and I remembered it and this was this great story about this really tragic character and I was like, God, that … There really is some great literature there. We only have so many hours in the day of things to read. It was really nice though that he did highlight this whole other section, this whole other type of literature.
ANNE: And like Bird by Bird he really picks it apart sometimes ...
ANNE: And says this is why it works, or sometimes he’ll be like this part is a little weak and here is what it’s missing. So if you appreciate thinking about why you love the books you love and what the authors are doing well or maybe don’t sometimes, it’s great to help you step back and think about the writing.
HEATHER: So as a writer yourself, do you like reading books like that? Or does it kinda get in the way of your own process?
ANNE: Oh, I love it. It’s my favorite way to procrastinate is to read about how to do the writing [HEATHER LAUGHS] instead of actually doing the writing.
HEATHER: Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing all along. [ANNE LAUGHS] I say that I love Anne Lamott but it’s like I just really don’t want to write that chapter. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You said you wrote 80,000 words! I mean you got it done. You weren’t spending all your time reading Anne Lamott.
HEATHER: Yeah. [ANNE LAUGHS] Appreciate that someone pointed that out to me. By the end of writing something, particularly something that long, it’s just exhausting. I mean you’ve written multiple books. I’ve only written one, not even published it yet, but it’s just like by the end you’re just tired. I didn’t want … I don’t want to look at it anymore.
ANNE: Heather, what else have you been reading lately?
HEATHER: One other book that I’ve read over the past month that I just loved is Nobody Will Tell You This But Me.
ANNE: Oh, I’m glad to hear it.
HEATHER: I adored everything about this book. It’s Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb. It’s really innovative in the way that it’s written so she writes it from the perspective of her grandmother Bobby who recently passed away and just tells the story about how Grandmother and Grandfather met, about having kids, but she also uses it to really reflect on her own relationship with her grandmother.
The grandmother is just this … I mean, like, ten foot tall amazing character. She’s hilarious. I really wish that I could have dinner with her because she offers advice. She’s really funny. She has these great stories. I mean, in some ways it’s just a really nice way that Bess Kalb honored her grandmother and talks about her family, but again it’s really personal and just tells these stories that a lot of people might not always want to talk about and just shows her own humanity.
Again I wondered how she got her family to agree to [LAUGHS] some of these stories, but this is just probably one of the best books that I read for all the pandemic. It makes you feel like you got to know somebody, like you got to meet them, and the character Bobby is just so lovable.
ANNE: I love that you found it at the right time.
HEATHER: Have you read this one?
ANNE: I have. I really enjoyed it. ‘Cause it’s funny and touching and goes places you don’t expect but also the ones you hope she will and it’s … Yeah. I thought it was lovely.
HEATHER: I am pushing this book on everybody I know.
ANNE: Okay, so something that we both love about essay collections is that you can go anywhere. Like you can explore any subject, have any vicarious experience, any kind of tone. But we gotta narrow it down to three, so Heather, with that in mind, tell me what you’re looking for in your reading life right now.
HEATHER: I would really like to try some more fiction, but in particular I would like fiction that has that same experience as having a reliable narrator. Somebody that you feel like you can trust where they’re going to take you. They’re going to take you to different places. I find I really don’t like fiction with an unreliable narrator who just throws me off halfway through and so, I don’t care for narrators that will constantly change the perspective or just throw you for a loop halfway through. That’s really not for me. I’m also looking for more diverse essay authors to find more of those writers that you come feel like you know them, you can trust them, and for them to kinda take me on a different adventure.
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ANNE: Alright, Heather, so the books you loved were Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. Your deeply disappointing book was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. The book that wasn’t right for you was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. As you described everything you enjoy about a reading experience, it’s really helpful to note that, slots in with the picture I’m developing you as a reader. Recently you have been reading more George Saunders, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, and also Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb.
You’re looking for more fiction, especially reliable narrators that feel like they’re letting you into a world, albeit a fiction world, and also essays that just take you places that you haven’t chosen for yourself yet. And I’ve been making notes. I’ve got a list here. And now I have to narrow it down. Ugh, and this is the hardest part. I have to tell you so many writing memoirs came to mind. I don’t know. I don’t really want to give you more to read about writing instead of writing knowing how dangerous that can be. So I think I’m going to back away from those. I would love to start with a novel that I think you could mistake for a memoir because it reads like that. It reads as the account of a woman telling you about her experience. It almost reads like a memoir or like you’re reading somebody’s journal. Does this sound like a good start to you?
HEATHER: This sounds wonderful.
ANNE: Okay. It’s about chickens. How does that sound?
HEATHER: Okay. [ANNE LAUGHS] Tell me more.
ANNE: This is a debut. It’s called Brood. It’s by Jackie Polzin. It has a really beautiful cover that you might not realize at first are chicken feathers on the cover. This book takes place over the course of a single year and you come to see that the narrator whose name you don’t know and never find out, though you do get to know the names of some of her friends and her husband, luckily. Oh! Her husband’s an academic. That could be interesting and they’re contemplating a big move depending on if he gets a job and so there’s a personal … Not that you need it, but there’s a personal connection to your own life.
She lives in Minnesota. The book takes place over the course of a year so she goes through the Minnesota winter with these chickens who she says basically are not smart and bent on self-destruction and it is my mission to keep them alive and it’s only going so well because chickens apparently don’t want to be kept alive as much as she’s trying to help them. But they go through terrible weather and forty below nights because it’s winter in Minnesota and then it gets really hot in the summer and there’s a tornado, and so she’s very focused on these chickens and the chicken parts are very meditative, but you find out that she’s also dealing with infertility, suffered a miscarriage that she’s still processing. Her husband is contemplating a move. Her mother and her best friend are constantly sweeping in offering observations and needed but really fun like funny moments.
It’s not exactly a slice of life book, but it’s a really interesting … [LAUGHS] I can’t call it a sliver instead. It’s a really interesting way … What she does … She does what the essay collections do so well. She’s talking about the chickens which are her way in to talking about life, and [LAUGHS] something she says that’s really funny is like when we talk about life whether we’re talking about, we’re talking about the ongoing effort to live and to stay alive and some people make that look effortless. Chickens, chickens don’t. Let me tell you all the ways how. But through the book, like through that lens, she’s talking about her own life and her own struggles and her own relationships. Meanwhile her friend, the realtor, and her husband who … Her husband might be my favorite character. His name might be Percy, or I might be making that up and getting it completely wrong. He’s my favorite. How does that sound to you, Heather?
HEATHER: This sounds wonderful. Chickens sound like a great distraction and break from nuclear weapons.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Now let me tell you, and speaking to the listeners out there as well, as always, many readers found this to be the fascinating chicken raising deep dive they didn’t know they wanted. And I wanted to give this book to everyone I know who raises chickens, like that became a thing here about 20 years ago where it’s something many people do in their backyards including our friends, who we’ve heard go ahh! It’s like they want the raccoons to come eat them. Like this is how they’re acting. And some readers have been like eh, nothing really happens. She’s just thinking. But I think based on what you’ve said that you’re inclined to fall in the former camp and not the latter.
HEATHER: Definitely. This sounds great.
ANNE: I am happy to hear it. Now I want to take off in that essay direction. How do you feel about something with a little more like serious intellectual tone?
ANNE: The book I’m thinking of is a Laila Lalami essay collection. It’s called Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America. Is this an author or a work you’re familiar with?
HEATHER: I know the name, but I haven’t heard of this essay collection. It sounds really interesting though.
ANNE: Will loved her, I think, like 2014, 2015 novel The Moor’s Account. I’ve been meaning to read it for about that long. I really enjoyed her more recent I think 2019 novel The Other Americans, but this is a new essay collection that just came out last fall. She’s Moroccan-born, so she has a unique experience she’s writing from and this collection of essays that’s about basically becoming and living as an American citizen, she was born in Morocco. She came to California for school. She met her husband there and that is why she [LAUGHS] needed to stay ‘cause they were going to get married and they decided, you know, whose country do we go to? And for reasons she explains in the collection the U.S. was the answer and they wanted to stay in California.
So I found that interesting right there like oh my, you’ve fallen in love and now one of you has to move halfway around the world. But being Moroccoan born she says though this country that she has truly adopted and become a citizen in, though it prides itself on freedom and liberty, often she feels like her citizenship is conditional and that depending on what’s happening on the news or what’s happening in her neighborhood, that she very quickly reverts in other people’s eyes to either not or not really a true citizen, even though she has legally obtained full citizenship, she isn’t fully accepted into American society and she is one of scads of people who are experiencing exactly this.
So she shares interesting encounters at work, in her family. I think there’s one on an airplane. I know you said you used to pay attention to the Bookers. She is an American book award winner, but she’s bringing her perspective as a Moroccan-born Muslim immigrant to your favorite genre. How does that sound?
HEATHER: This sounds absolutely perfect, especially as someone who just moved back to the U.S. and I will confess, I’m feeling quite a bit of reverse cultural shock and so I can’t say that I’ll relate to it obviously as she is a Moroccan woman, but this just sounds really wonderful and absolutely perfect.
ANNE: I am happy to hear it. That is Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami. And finally I think we want to take you someplace that’s thoughtful, but also fun ‘cause you said about, you know, your best friend Anne and David Sedaris … Actually you said about Jia Tolentino too that they’re funny, like maybe they’re not making you laugh where you wake people up sleeping on airplanes, but they are funny and I want to bring you some of that humor. Are you here for that?
HEATHER: I am very here for that.
ANNE: Okay. The book I’m hoping you haven’t read yet is by R. Eric Thomas. It’s called Here for It: Or, How to Save your Soul in America.
HEATHER: I have been wanting to read this book for ages and my library never has it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Okay, well we’re going to go with it then.
ANNE: Here’s why I think it’s right for you. So you like collections that are personal, that welcome you in to the writer’s mind. They invite you to come out on a walk or sit down for a cup of tea. Metaphorically speaking, of course. No matter what that Boston bookseller thinks of Anne Lamott. So this is a heartfelt, considerate but also he’s really funny … I mean he’s a storyteller and a humorist. He wrote a hysterical column at Elle for years called Eric Reads the News, I think, but this is definitely memoir-ish ‘cause he’s sharing stories about growing up and coming of age like from his early years to adulthood and he’s just so disarmingly hilariously honest.
And he writes about things like discovering his identity and feeling like an outsider because he grew up at home in a very religious family, conservative family that didn’t have a lot of money and he’s like that’s important, and then he went to this really rich white, I think he describes it as verdant or some similarly garden-like word, high school and how that was constantly head spinning to go back and forth between the two worlds. And he talks about finding his voice while he was feeling like an outsider and having to figure out like [LAUGHS] if my experiences are so different, who am I? But as he writes because of what he does and what he’s interested in, he injects these hilarious pop culture references throughout his writing. He’s just really funny.
This is the kind of author, like David Sedaris, who can make you laugh and cry on the same page. You may notice that I am often really drawn to the relational aspects that people are writing about in an essay collection. I mean I love to read about something like I don’t know, jellyfish or crickets as well, but also [LAUGHS] also I really enjoy hearing about the relational aspects. He is married to a Presbyterian minister. They got married back in the mid-2010s. Oh, there’s so much great material there. [LAUGHS] There’s so much drama involved in going to church as he does to support his spouse and I just … Yeah, laughing and crying. So how does that sound to you? It’s been on your library list. How does that sound?
HEATHER: This sounds so great. I can’t wait to read it. I have been trying not to buy more books, so that I don’t keep accumulating these like continents of books, but this one, I think I … I think I might just have to buy it.
ANNE: Are you an audiobook listener, Heather?
HEATHER: I’ve tried it a few times and it wasn’t really for me.
ANNE: For those who are, he narrates his audiobook. It’s … For like maximum humorous potential, that’s highly recommended.
HEATHER: I might give that a try along with the David Sedaris as an audiobook. It would definitely lighten my suitcases, but also might just be even funnier.
ANNE: Well I would be curious to hear how that goes, and also I’m curious to hear what you’re going to choose next. So of the books we talked about today they were the novel Brood by Jackie Polzin, Conditional Citizens by Laila Lalami, and Here for It: Or, How to Save Your Soul in America. by R. Eric Thomas. Heather, of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
HEATHER: I’ll probably start with Conditional Citizens. That just sounds like everything that I love in the essay with that personal experience storytelling aspect to it, but also that it does have kinda more serious social commentary going on as well. That one just sounded really fascinating to hear about an immigrant’s experience, but these all sound so wonderful. Thank you, Anne.
ANNE: It is my pleasure. I’m glad to hear it. I hope you love them, and thanks so much for talking books with me today.
HEATHER: Thank you.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Heather, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/281 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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•Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
•Leo Tolstoy (try Anna Karenina)
•Fyodor Dostoyevsky (try Crime and Punishment)
•War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy
•Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (essay: “The Death of a Moth”)
•The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
•A Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
♥ Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino
♥ Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lammott
♥ Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
•The Best of Me by David Sedaris
△ Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
•A Swim in the Pond in the Rain by George Saunders
•Nikolai Gogol (try Dead Souls)
•Nobody Will Tell You This But Me: A True (as told to me) Story by Bess Kalb
•Brood by Jackie Polzin
•Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America by Laila Lalami
•Here for It: Or How to Save Your Soul in America by R. Eric Thomas
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