Over the last year, we’ve talked to readers who voraciously devour romance, mystery, and graphic novels to escape real life—and readers who struggle to pick up a single book, even if they know it’s one they’ll love. There’s no right way to respond to stress as a reader, and today’s guest is here to share encouragement and insight for readers experiencing burnout.
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen writes the weekly email newsletter Culture Study and recently published Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation—today, we discuss how all of us, millennial or otherwise, have experienced the burnout associated with a global pandemic and seen its effects in our reading lives.
In her everyday work, Anne highlights people’s stories and illuminates big picture ideas around society, culture, and modern living. In today’s episode, she shares her personal experience with reading during a pandemic, advice and hope for readers who feel stuck in burnout, and backlist favorites from her own bookshelves.
No matter how your reading life has changed, or stayed the same, over the last year, I think you’ll find comfort in today’s episode, as well as insight into your experience this past year.
ANNE BOGEL: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 284.
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.
But first I have to tell you, it’s here! My 10th annual Summer Reading Guide just dropped. If you’re an email subscriber it’s already in your inbox. If not please, please go sign up at modernmrsdarcy.com/srg to get your copy.
Every episode, you hear me recommend three titles to help our guest find a satisfying reading experience. Well, the Summer Reading Guide is my way of helping you find your next great read this summer. I’ve read every book in the guide, cover to cover, and I loved them all–but not every book is going to be right for every reader. That’s why I give you 31 detailed (but spoiler free) descriptions so you can decide which books sound right for you, and which books are worth a trip outside your reading comfort zone.
Again, go to modernmrsdarcy.com/srg to get your copy as well as shareable graphics.
Now for today’s episode. Over the last year, we’ve talked to readers who voraciously devour romance, mystery, and graphic novels to escape real life—and also with readers who struggle to pick up a single book, even if they know it’s one they’ll love. There’s no right way to respond to stress as a reader, and today’s guest is here to share encouragement and insight for readers experiencing burnout.
Journalist Anne Helen Petersen writes the weekly email newsletter Culture Study and recently published Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation. Today, we discuss how all of us, millennial or otherwise, have experienced the burnout associated with a global pandemic and seen its effects in our reading lives.
In her everyday work, Anne highlights people’s stories and illuminates big picture ideas around society, culture, and modern living. In today’s episode, she shares her personal experience with reading during a pandemic, advice and hope for readers who feel stuck in burnout, and backlist favorites from her own bookshelves.
No matter how your reading life has changed, or stayed the same, over the last year, I think you’ll find comfort in today’s episode, as well as insight into your experience over the course of a year. Let’s get to it!
Anne Helen, welcome to the show.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Oh, I am so happy to be here.
ANNE BOGEL: And you know, I have been having conversations with you in my head via mutual friends for a long time and it’s a pleasure to actually have you here in person on the podcast,. Thanks for joining us.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: You know, there’s nothing I want to talk about more than reading during the last year, it’s just like so complicated in my brain about why I’ve been able to at a different points and haven’t been able to, and I love talking to people about it, so I can’t wait.
ANNE BOGEL: Well I’m glad to hear it and I’m really excited to dig into this for our readers. We often serve as public book people as the confessional for people just needing to say this is the thing I’m experiencing, like is that okay? [LAUGHS] And this last year no matter what they’re experiencing, it’s normal. It’s happening to other people too, and today I’m really interested in just talking about that openly with you and with our listeners, but also digging into the reasons why.
But first let’s talk about how you’re the person so great to have this conversation with. Like many of our listeners, the first book I read by you after following you as a journalist for many years was Burnout, which I read last summer before it came out. It was wonderfully timed coming out in September. I really liked the way that you integrated the pandemic into the book, which I imagine you did at the very last minute.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yes!
ANNE BOGEL: And said these things have been going on for a long time, like this is why millennials specifically, I’m a touch older but related to everything in the pages more than I would have liked, and felt like you also really put words to things that knew I was experiencing but had just been fuzzy and inarticulate til then and I found that really affirming. You’ve written about burnout, [LAUGHS] Americans have experienced an increasing intensity over the years and now we’re in the middle of a pandemic, so you wrote the book. I’d love to hear how you’ve experienced that since the pandemic began.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: [SIGHS] Well it’s really interesting because I wrote about burnout for the first time in January 2019. You know, articulating what burnout is and what it is in my life is actually very therapeutic and very like really useful way of dealing with my own burnout. It didn’t cure it in any capacity, but at the same time it did give me language and insight and the ability to identify it and then that article that I wrote for Buzzfeed turned into a book and writing the book, like writing any book, became somewhat of a burnout experience. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] That just always happens, like if you’re writing a book on any sort of timeline, it’s just going to happen, but I also like saw it for what it was.
Right as the pandemic hit I was actually [LAUGHS] like submitting the very final copy edits for the book, like this big thing is going to come off of my plate. Then we go into lockdown. My editor asked can you write a new intro, kinda a prologue to the book trying to connect some of the dots with the pandemic? Because it would be weird if this book came out four or five months into the pandemic and there’s just no mention of the fact that we’re like dealing with all of this very seismic shift in society.
So you know, I hastily wrote something basically saying that everything I’m talking about in this book in terms of how burnout is connected to precarity, how the way that we parent today makes it very different to grapple with our burnout, how we are the results of our parents’ burnout in many cases, but everything that I said in the book is just more true during the pandemic. Like the only things that I actually think maybe less true is there is some parts where I talk about like oh, when you travel you feel like you have to [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] you have to like represent your travel in like a commodified way, like you have to Instagram it to make your travel seem like it was successful. Like oh, okay, so we have different difficulties with Instagram during the pandemic, but not so much like fun vacations. [LAUGHS]
But I do think that I was surprised and heartened isn’t the right word, I was — I didn’t understand just how swiftly burnout would become part of the conversation with the pandemic, like in the first couple of months. In that first month I think everyone was just really scared and also dealing with the new realities of I’m in my home all the time. I’m not seeing anyone. Like what is this going to be like? Like how long is this going to last? But then as the pandemic kinda rolled on and these new realities became every day realities, the feeling of burnout, especially with work, with parenting, the lack of any sort of differentiation, just that kinda sameness and also accumulating stress and that accompanied vigilance to do with Covid, created this everyone’s storm of burnout was different, [LAUGHS] but I think by the time the book came out in September it was something that was not at all difficult to describe. Like you know when I was doing press for the book I was always everyone knows what this is. Like everyone’s experiencing this right now, and that was not necessarily the case even a year before.
ANNE BOGEL: I do think everyone knows what it is and yet when you have to describe it to someone, like put it in a little nutshell, how do you do that?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: [SIGHS] The phrase I like to use is you like pick the wall and then you like scale the wall and then you keep going. Our bodies tell us when you hit a point of exhaustion, when you work really, really hard, that then you should recover and this is physically but also mentally like there are things that encourage us [LAUGHS] to stop working. And I even think of like at the end of a really hard day at work, you know how you’ve been staring at the computer and your stomach feels kinda weird and hollow and your eyes hurt and your back feels bad, like that is your body telling you to stop working. [LAUGHS] But we don’t listen to those signals because our list of things to do or our necessity to keep working, you know, like whether you’re working a second job or you have to go home and do all of the domestic tasks in addition to the tasks that you’re already doing, or during the pandemic you have to go to a different part of your home and fulfill those other domestic tasks.
You do not get to rest that allows you to feel any sort of catharsis, to feel rejuvenated, like you just keep going on this plane of exhaustion and I really think there’s diminishing returns. It might be slight, right but like everyday you have a little bit less ware with it all to deal with frustrations, a little less ability to confront new challenges, a little less patience, a little less joy, a little less ability to like look into the rest of your life and be like I’m looking forward to that. All of that slowly diminishes. I do think that there are crossover components with depression as well, but … And it’s hard to disarticulate those things, but I do think that the primary thing with burnout is a lot of it has to do with work.
ANNE BOGEL: Which is so interesting because while work may be the driver, the thing I really want to focus on today is how the pandemic has affected everyone’s leisure activities. Now I read for work. You read for work, and yet so often we hear from readers, we hear I no longer find joy in this thing that used to bring me joy. I don’t have the attention span to do this thing I love or I’m trying to tune out the real world by reading like crazy in ways that is interfering with my ability to do work. What’s going on there?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Well you know this is the thing where people say like oh, you’ve figured out how to identify when you’re like going into a period of burnout like burnout behaviors. When people ask me that, I always say the way I know I’m in a burnout period is that I can’t read fiction. I love to read at night, like that’s my time when I usually have allocated space to read. It’s just such a weird feeling to like not have the ability, the desire like I can’t articulate what it feels like but I’m sure people who dealt with this understand it. The book is right there. Right? [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] The book is right there. I’m really excited to read this book. I really want to read it. I cannot roll over and put my phone down and start the book. It drives me nuts! But that is what it feels like, is that you can’t do the thing that you want to do.
ANNE BOGEL: You know what I think is so interesting is two years ago I bet a lot of readers would have been like just pick up the book.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah.
ANNE BOGEL: But instead I think today a lot of people are just nodding going oh my gosh. [BOTH LAUGH] Uh-huh. Uh-huh. I see it. So what is it about reading fiction specifically? I mean clearly if you know that this is an indicator for you, it’s something that’s meant a lot to you in the past. Tell me about your reading life.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Oh, I’m just like a voracious reader and have been since I was four years old. Like that kinda classic [SIGHS] like your mom tells you to go outside and you’re like [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] okay I’ll go outside and I’ll read the book under a tree outside, books from the library, books that I would spend all of my allowance on, like pulpy books like Lois Duncan and Baby-Sitters’ Club that my mom would be like I’ll buy you one of those then also you need to read like a book that’s not like that. [LAUGHS] And I loved them all, right?
I read them all. I loved rereading. I loved reading books above my reading level and below my reading level and still do. And even in grad school when I was reading, you know, so much theory and heavy nonfiction stuff all the time, I would still find time to read books which was like something of a marvel and a weird thing. Sometimes I would read them while I exercised. Like on the elliptical machine I would read my fiction then. It was such a nice brain break from all the things that I was supposed to be thinking about, and I think you know a lot of that was made possible by the fact that I didn’t have a phone. I had a phone but I didn’t have an iPhone until after I finished my Phd so there wasn’t that ability to even be like well I’m just going to scroll my phone while I do this or I’m on the bus, I’m going to scroll my phone. Fiction provided a distraction but also wasn’t competing with something as immediate and addictive as my phone.
ANNE BOGEL: Mmhmm.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: So I think that even today you know I read a ton of nonfiction books all the time for work and also I’m reading the internet constantly. People oftentimes are like oh, you should read this nonfiction book that’s really interesting that doesn’t have anything to do with anything that you’re researching right now, and I oftentimes buy them and then I just don’t read them. [BOTH LAUGH] What I really want as escape from my work is fiction, and I found … People have all sorts of tricks that they’ve told me about to get them back into reading and my trick has been genre stuff and it’s been very successful.
ANNE BOGEL: Tell me more about that.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Pulpy mysteries, thrillers especially, I think the thing that really kicked me out of like a three month drought, three months of not reading any fiction.
ANNE BOGEL: Is that like making history in your reading life?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I think there had been periods before but approximately the same amount. I think when I was writing Burnout book, I was just so full of information all the time that there was like no more space for anything else. But this fall I read Long Bright River by Liz Moore, which is a phenomenal book and doing a lot in terms of like working with genre, but also so skillfully done, really good character development, and incredible sense of place. That was like oh, okay, this is it. I was very immersed in it. I read it for many hours at a time, several times, and I thought oh, what I need is something that is irresistible.
ANNE BOGEL: It’s funny that you should mention her. We might talk about that later. So mysteries right now. Now my anecdotal experience just in my own reading life and talking to other readers, ‘cause I really struggle too even though it’s my job to read, it took me a little while to realize it’s not that I stopped reading it’s just that I’m reading the internet instead of reading books which [LAUGHS] was necessary at the time because of some of the decisions we had to make, but was processed very differently by my brain. Something that I found easier to read than kinda like heavy, weighty literary fiction that I so often love was mysteries like I just wanted to see there’s a problem, there’s a puzzle, and oh look, we solved it in 300 pages, ta-da, satisfaction. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] Like that is what felt good to my brain.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, well I think a lot of that has to do with, you know, if you read theories of how melodrama works, mysteries are definitely a form of melodrama. You know, melodrama is like a mode of storytelling and the primary, I think, motivator with our attraction to melodrama is whether they’re action melodramas, mystery melodramas, what we think now of like drama dramas, is that there is this moral legibility. There’s this ability to see like here’s things that are wrong, and here’s things that are a little bit more right and even in something like Long Bright River, which is a pretty nuanced take on like what’s going on with policing, there’s still this feeling of like well something got solved. Boom, boom, boom, boom, the end. Especially you know, I was reading it against the backdrop of like everything that was going on leading up to the election. I was like oh, that is untenable. Like my brain just cannot grapple with all of the difficulties of that. Here is something that allows me to see things clearly a little bit.
ANNE BOGEL: And I can see how a book like that while not every plot line is resolved, which feels realistic, the tied up with a bow can feel really aggravating to some readers right now who are just like that’s not how the world works!
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yup. Yup.
ANNE BOGEL: And yet you do get the satisfaction of some resolved mystery, so fiction is something you keep coming back to that you want to be reading. What does it bring to your life that other things don’t? Do you know? Like is this something that you’re able to articulate?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, yeah, I think it allows me to not think about all of the other things, like it allows me to not think about my to do list. It allows me to really remove my brain from work. What it does is it provides the rest that I’m not getting [LAUGHS] during the rest of it, like you know, even my dream I often dream of work and that sorta thing, like my subconscious is trying to process a lot of stuff, but if you are immersed in a world while you’re reading fiction — I find this with film too — then it gives you freedom from other people’s minds which is one very good definition of solitude.
ANNE BOGEL: I like that. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] I continue to find it fascinating that reading about other people’s, well fictional people’s problems, is restful.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yes.
ANNE BOGEL: Now you’ve said that you read this irresistible book back in the fall, but right now I’m picturing the books on your nightstand. I don’t know if that’s what you really do, but I read before bed. Like that’s my core time.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: No, I have a nightstand, yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE BOGEL: And you’re not picking them up right now.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I’m a little bit better and part of is that I went on a quasi-vacation last week. I say quasi because I went on vacation with my best friend and her two small children. I don’t have kids and you know, I have heard people talk always about how like going on vacation with kids is like a work trip, like especially for a stay at home mom, you know, like oh you’re …
ANNE BOGEL: It’s travel, but maybe vacation is the wrong word, that kinda thing?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: It was wonderful and like there is no joy quite like going to a new zoo with a four and seven year old. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] While I was there, I was able to, I think, jumpstart my reading habit again and went through three books last week.
ANNE BOGEL: Oh, I’m so happy!
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yup.
ANNE BOGEL: So what was different? Clearly you were in a different place, different frame of mind.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, yeah. Different place. There were a couple of books that I had been wanting to, you know, [LAUGHS] I say it like oh of course I’d been wanting to read. I always have books that I’m wanting to read but I had a new book that’s a galley that I have been anticipating for a very long time which is God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney, which is about the daughter of an Evangelical pastor in North Texas and I grew up a Presbyterian house that had this twist of Evangelical stuff going on which was very common in the late 90s and early 2000s and I just … I’m so excited for this book. And then that just like the momentum carries you on to the next book, so.
ANNE BOGEL: What else did you read on your trip?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Mexican Gothic, which was a perfect example of like a melodrama, where you’re like oh! There’s some crazy stuff going on here, like this is totally unrelatable. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] Wow! [LAUGHS] And like so transportive in that capacity like oh my gosh I have to find out what other crazy, totally unrealistic thing is going to happen next. I really liked that.
ANNE BOGEL: For those who are like yes, I am burned out and I don’t like what it’s doing to my reading life and I don’t see a way out, now we are not looking for easy solutions. There aren’t any, like this is the way the world is right now, but what are some things that you’ve observed in your, you know, conversations with I imagine hundreds of people about what they’ve experienced both pre-pandemic and during? I’m trying really hard not to ask this in a really like Pollyanna way, [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] but what are some possible ways they could think about where they are now and how they might be able to move forward?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Well first of all being like incredibly compassionate and generous with yourself in terms of like there’s nothing wrong or bad or there’s no failure involved, right? Like we are all in this place of unprecedented weirdness and like wherever you found yourself and that means like in terms of physical health, mental health, financial health, like all of these different components, you are where you are and I think our country, even now is very, very bad at [LAUGHS] practicing that sorta generosity and that sorta understanding and compassion. Especially when it comes to individuals. There’s just a lot of judgment of like you don’t come out of the pandemic like better shape with more money, more productive habits, like somehow you aren’t the most optimized human being, but like oh my gosh, there’s so many reasons why that might not be the case.
ANNE BOGEL: [LAUGHS] There’s no like hit the power positive thinking will get you out of your reading rut. Like that’s just not going to happen.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: And also to understand that just because people are getting vaccinated that doesn’t like flip a switch that is like allows you to recover from your burnout, like that’s not how this works. I think a lot of people are dealing with low grade PTSD in some form or another that’s very hard to understand or recognize and it’s going to take a long time to emerge from that, and so patience, too. I didn’t wake up after I got the vaccine and be like oh I can read now.
ANNE BOGEL: No, because books require this active kind of attention that I mean which makes reading so wonderful and also what makes it so hard right now. I really am glad to hear you say that because it directly contradicts in a positive way this shame I hear people say like oh, I just shouldn’t be telling you this, Anne. I’m so embarrassed that I can’t read, like it affects their value as a human being and while I really want people to be able to do this that brings them joy, and sometimes [LAUGHs] they really need to do it for their work life, that doesn’t mean that they’re a terrible person. It means that it’s hard to read right now and those are different things.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah. [SIGHS] I want people to give themselves runways and a lot of room for recovery from all of this. Like this is a year of trauma. It is a year of trauma. I think we always want, you know, the same way there’s this like understanding of like oh, as soon as a woman has a baby that their bodies should bounce back, right, and if your body doesn’t bounce back, it’s somehow less than ideal. Giving ourselves and our families and our friendships and all sorts of things, like giving some space to just kinda ease into things and you know some people might be able, like next month be like I am back to every single habit from before. Everything is great. Blah blah blah. That’s not going to happen for everyone. And also there are a lot of things about before that weren’t great either. Thinking through and taking time to figure out how you want your life to look like now, it’s a process.
ANNE BOGEL: That’s a really interesting analogy about having a baby. I had not heard that before.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Well, it’s also like such a new phenomenon of this like optimization of the post-pregnancy body. Also this understanding particularly in the United States that like after moments of trauma, you are somehow recovered, like oh, when you get divorced, you should get dating right away. You know? Or someone dies? Like let’s give you one day for bereavement.
ANNE BOGEL: Mmhmm. We’re going to encourage everyone to think about their reading runways if that’s something that’s important to you and honestly if you’re listening to a show called What Should I Read Next it’s probably important to you. We’re glad you’re here. Thank you for sharing your burnout insights with us and I wish they weren’t so relevant, but I’m glad that since they are we can have the vocabulary to talk about it. Now there’s one thing I specifically want to ask you before we get into our books.
Like so many readers I love getting your email newsletter and I love the format which is unusual and I’d just love to chat about that for a second. Our show is unique in that we don’t feature like headline guest, we want to talk to readers about their reading lives. We want you to feel week after week that oh, that guest could be you or your mom or your neighbor or your teacher, you know, the guy who walks his dog by your house at six o’clock every morning or your friend from English class. That’s not common, like usually the people who make the rounds on the podcast circuit are in the guest chair are people who are authorities in some way or another, but everyone is authority about their reading life and their own experience and that’s why we do what we do.
And something I love about your newsletter Culture Study is how you feature people whose names [LAUGHS] no one’s going to recognize except the people who know them in their real lives who are authorities though because they’re living their regular experience and that is why it matters. I would just love to hear what made you think that people living their lives have stories, of course, that are useful and interesting to highlight? How did you come to do that in newsletter format?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Oh, man. I just think people are so interesting. Like everyone has such an interesting story and this is at the heart of a lot of reporting is just the idea that like oh, I could write a profile of like 75% of the people that I meet. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] Like clearly interesting, like 8,000 word profile, you know, like [LAUGHS] and sometimes I think that my belief in that comes from my local newspaper from North Idaho, the Lewiston Morning Tribune. There was a feature in this paper. Every Friday a reporter would open up the phone book randomly and pick a name and then call that person up and then just write a story about them.
ANNE BOGEL: What! That’s amazing. I’ve never heard anything like that.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Where I’m from, the town is like 30,000 people but the paper serves a very large outlying area, like it’s the big town for many miles so there’s lots of people who are living out on the prairie, living out farming and ranching in the mountains and you get people from sorts of walks of life, of all ages, and I read that religiously and so I think that taught in a lot of ways like oh, there’s something interesting about everyone’s lives.
And then, you know, I think going through academia, I found so many different thinkers, theorist writers who just aren’t recognized. They’re very specific and fascinating knowledge bases, like you get a Phd in something, you know so much about a pretty small thing, but can talk about it in a really, really interesting ways. I often am trying to find people who have these really niche knowledges and making that knowledge accessible to others and a newsletter format is really useful for that because you know, interviews like that, you can’t get those published usually on mainstream sites because like it’s hard to come up with like a headline that’s sexy and would like share well on Facebook. But I found that my readership is really interested in people who are interesting.
ANNE BOGEL: That is not the origin story I expected. I’m so glad I asked. Okay, Anne Helen, are you ready to talk about your books?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah!
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ANNE BOGEL: You know how this works. We’re going to talk about three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and I think we might try to put some irresistible reads on your nightstand so they’re there to entice you. How did you choose these books? People approach it in myriad ways, how did you think about this question?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I was trying to decide on them and I was staring at my bookshelf and I was like what are [LAUGHS] what are the books that I … That just stay with me that when people ask me for recommendations, I return to again and again?
ANNE BOGEL: I like that approach. What did you choose for book one?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Shirely Hazzard’s The Great Fire.
ANNE BOGEL: I haven’t read this one. Tell me all about it.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: You know how there are like books that the romance in it is something that like speaks to you in a way like you just want to underline every sentence and send it to the person that you are attracted to?
ANNE BOGEL: No, no, this is not something I know.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: [LAUGHS] That was something that I used to feel that way about The English Patient, which is about like a really messed up relationship in a lot of ways. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] One relationship is good and one relationship is not good in that book. The Great Fire I think supplanted The English Patient as that like book that is my heart, or that like conveys a lot in my heart, and it’s just a beautifully written [SIGHS] meditation on like what love is from a distance, like it’s ostensibly about an ex-soldier after the war, after World War II who is traveling in the east and happens upon this younger woman who he develops a very intense emotional relationship with and then the relationship continues over letters, which like is also a love language of mine because of my age, I’m an elder millennial and I used to write a lot of letters.
ANNE BOGEL: Yeah.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Shirley Hazzard used to write a book like every 10, 20 years, you know, she would spend a really long time crafting it into this very immaculate form of prose, and it just … It is so rewarding upon rereading, I think I have read it five times. If you like sweeping love stories, this is a great one.
ANNE BOGEL: I should say that we are talking at a time where we just released our summer reading guide, which means I’ve been spending months reading brand new releases. Anything 20 years old sounds real good right now.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah.
ANNE BOGEL: What did you choose for your second book?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Louise Erdrich’s The Master Butchers Singing Club.
ANNE BOGEL: I haven’t read this one either. Okay. Tell me all about it. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] I’ve read a lot of Erdrich, but not this one.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: She’s one of my favorite writers and has been for a long time. You know, a lot of her books focus on either, you know, the past, the present, or the future of Indigenous life and this one is very much … It’s in the past but it’s this intersection as her own family is of various immigrants to North Dakota and the midwest. In this case, they’re German and then the Indigenous population and all of the different intersections and ways of life and making things work in North Dakota.
You know, like a lot of her other books like Love Medicine for example, there’s different perspectives, different narrators, different things that are revealed over the course of the book. To me it’s just like it’s a big, robust, beautiful, heartbreaking book that gives an incredible sense of place of North Dakota and of just a different way of life and I love it very much.
ANNE BOGEL: That sounds wonderful. Ah, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I’m going to choose Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, which is another book that I think rewards rereading. It’s also, I think, an impossible book to adapt. Oftentimes I think that the books that would be the most difficult to adapt are the best books. [LAUGHS] Just because like they’re doing so much, like so much is happening in that book.
I first read it when I was studying abroad in France in the early 2000s. I was incredibly lonely, so I read it in English and then I bought it in French so that I could like challenge myself, and I was living with a woman in her early 70s. Kinda the past parts are set around the time when she would have been the same age as one of the characters and she just loved it and it was one of the many things that we would talk about over dinner her correcting my bad French. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] So I have very fond just like place memories of reading, which oftentimes I think are part of why we love the books that we love but then I also think that its intrisctincity and the way it reveals itself is very masterful.
ANNE BOGEL: What did you choose for a book that’s not for you? And how did you choose that? Was this easy to land on?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: It was not. I think that I don’t usually dislike, actively dislike books. I sometimes will be like huh, that was okay, or I wasn’t thrilled about how that ended or something like that, but I think I’m pretty choosy about the books that I do select in a way that makes it so that there isn’t a lot of books that I end up actively disliking.
ANNE BOGEL: Mmhmm. So how did you land on this one?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Well at first I was like I’m not going to do this. I refuse. [ANNE BOGEL LAUGHS] And then I remembered like oh, you have to, and so one that I think has given me a fair amount of frustration is Tana French’s The Witch Elm because I think to me it demonstrates some of my frustration with what’s happened to Tana French’s books over the course of her career. Like I cannot say enough good things about the early books and The Likeness in particular I think is just like a masterful mystery.
ANNE BOGEL: That’s my favorite.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, and it just feels like they become larger and less wieldy and too much going on at the end. It just doesn’t work like … You know, I go back and think about In the Woods and how ambiguous the ending was, how in some ways like the beauty of it was that it refused to offer a really concrete ending, and this to me felt almost like a slasher horror ending, or something like that. There was just like a lot going on.
I think when you feel really strongly about an author and a lot of anticipation like ah, yes, there’s a new one! I want to read it. It would have benefited so much from a little bit more shaping and as an author becomes more and more powerful sometimes I think you can - you can see the resistance to that shaping and whether it’s coming from the author themselves or from the reticence on parts of editors to push back, like I just want to slightly more refined product I guess.
ANNE BOGEL: [LAUGHS] Which is interesting because it’s now been long enough since I read The Witch Elm I can’t remember precisely how it ended, but you really enjoyed Mexican Gothic and how it’s a melodrama and The Witch Elm, I remember the first half has a lot of that hazy, what exactly is happening here? Kinda vibe that I could see being a really nice counterpart and yet not the way it ended up.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah, it’s just Mexican Gothic was so cartoon-ish that I could get on board, right? But like The Witch Elm lives in this world. Does that make sense?
ANNE BOGEL: Mmhmm. Yeah.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: It’s aspiring to like all of her books there is a form of realism and psychological realism as well that’s going on, and then you go into the way that the plot unfurls at the end in particular feels very bombastic in a way that I did not think fit with the realism of the first half of that book.
ANNE BOGEL: So not for you. And then lately we know you’ve been reading God Spare the Girls. Anything else you want to slide into there?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: [SIGHS] No, I mean, that’s the one I wanna like talk about the most. I have Sweet Little Lies as my next up mystery that’s going to distract me, but other than that I’m trying to figure out what’s next and I’m eager for some new book to come across my door and persuade me and be irresistible to me in the same way.
ANNE BOGEL: Alright, well let’s see what we can do because isn’t it wonderful to have a book waiting for us that we are really excited to read?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Yeah.
ANNE BOGEL: What are you interested in exploring? Like where might you want to go? Love story, YA, we know mysteries have worked for you.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Love story. Lots of like yearning. I like yearning in my love stories. [LAUGHS]
ANNE BOGEL: I like that you know that.
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ANNE BOGEL: So you loved The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard, The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich, and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood. Not for you The Witch Elm by Tana French. Her books have gotten less plotty in the last two in a way that you’re not really loving. Is that a fair assessment?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Mmhmm.
ANNE BOGEL: Lately God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney. We’re looking for books that can help you break out of pandemic burnout. Now I don’t want to do this just because you said Texas, but there’s a new May release. It’s a messy family story set in a tiny Texas town. Are you interested in going there again?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Oh, always.
ANNE BOGEL: [LAUGHS] Okay.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I did my Phd at the University of Texas and I’ve done a ton of reporting there so like it is a place I always want to go to.
ANNE BOGEL: Oh, okay, fantastic. Say no more. The book in question is Olympus, Texas. It came out in early May. It’s by Stacey Swann. This is about a family. A powerful family that is just a disaster. So the story opens with a prodigal son returning. He’s been away for two years and you find out very, very quickly — not a spoiler — it’s because he slept with his brother’s wife and had a long running affair. So basically everyone in the family hated him more than her but he’s back and he has an interesting rage issue. [LAUGHS] It’s a medical condition that is a little bit … I think it’s over the top enough I mean I’m sure, I’m sure this is something that happens to people but the book in general has that melodramatic element that I think you’re really going to like.
Like this is a messy family. There’s lots of messy families but I was describing this to my husband as like yeah, there’s a messy family in Texas with firearms in a tiny town and all the dynamics that that involves. But at the heart of the story is this family that was cloven in two when the husband had an affair and had several kids who grew up going to school with the children born in the marriage but the parents didn’t tell them that for a long time and just everybody feels very bristly or sometimes literally punchy toward each other. When the son March comes back to Olympus, Texas, he sets in motion this chain of events that lets the author explore like the deepest tragedy but also hopes for love where people didn’t see where that possibly could have existed.
It’s called Olympus, Texas. There’s two beloved dogs named Romulus and Remus. There’s other Greek mythological references, but the mythological references woven throughout, they’re slick. They’re not heavy handed. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] They’re smooth like … And seriously you could know nothing about Greek mythology, listeners, and still love this book. But if you do know, you’ll be like ah. Stacey Swann, I see what you did there. How does that sound?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: That sounds amazing. Can’t wait.
ANNE BOGEL: That is Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann. I don’t know about the romance and yearning, but I can give you a different type of yearning. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] Okay, have you read anything else by Liz Moore?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: No.
ANNE BOGEL: It just so happens that I just [LAUGHS] finished this one. Apparently today I’m going to recommend the books I’m going to just finish because they’re good and I think you’ll like them. Okay. She had a book come out maybe 2005, which is … We’re really messing with your pattern here. All the books you liked were about 20 years old. I wonder if that means something. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS]
Her book The Unseen World is not a crime novel. It has a different, different setting than Long Bright River for sure but a similar feel in the sense where the protagonist feels like they have got to discover something important that’s happening right in front of them that affects the people they love or they just can’t. They can’t figure out what this crucial thing to their life and the life of their loved ones is. And at the center of the story is a young girl, her name is Ada. She is raised by her single father. He’s a [LAUGHS] he just could care less about what society thinks he should be like as a parent. She is homeschooled. She basically grows up and is educated in the lab where he works and it’s set in the ‘80s in Boston. So she’s surrounded by these computer scientists who treat her like a little adult except for his chief assistant who’s like this poor girl needs some mothering. I’m here and I’m going to give it to her. So she’s painfully shy, doesn’t know how to be in the world, socially clueless. She just doesn’t know, but she has her dad and she has her love of numbers and [LAUGHS] she’s brilliant and she’s happy.
But then when she is still very young it becomes clear that there’s this one moment in conversation where David’s telling a joke and he can’t remember the punchline, and you’re like oh, something bad is happening. And the bad thing that is happening is he has early onset Alzheimer’s but he’s the only person Ada has. And so life as she knows it ends and she goes to live with someone else and she goes into a regular school which is so painful. I think Liz Moore writes about her school days in a way that is so realistic. She captures the dynamics between children at that age, which makes it very painful reading, but she does, she finds her way.
Flash forward many years to San Francisco. She's a computer programmer. She is still hoping to solve the mystery of who her father really is because all she knew was he told her before he died that she needs to do some digging and find some people because he is not David, who he obviously … I mean your dad is your dad, but he was someone else first and he’s given her just enough to go on but not enough to actually figure out the puzzle and this is an awful mystery she’s had hanging over her since she was 12 years old. Now she’s maybe 30 and she’s successful but she still has this awful pain from her past that she has to resolve and then something sets the plot in motion and she’s going to go figure it out. How does that sound?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Amazing. Give it to me. [LAUGHS]
ANNE BOGEL: The Unseen World by Liz Moore. How do you feel … What if we went like all the way back to Wendell Berry? Have you read Jayber Crow?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: No.
ANNE BOGEL: I love how you mentioned a couple authors like Louise Erdrich who are close to you geographically and in experience and that is Wendell Berry to me. He’s right up the road in Kentucky, although our experiences I imagine are very, very different.
Well first of all I have to say the plot sounds completely boring. I mean it’s about a small town barber who moves to the fictional community of Port William, which is Carrollton, Kentucky for anybody who knows. That’s the model. ‘Cause they don’t have a barber and this is how he’s going to make his life after he leaves the University of Kentucky. That’s all, but of course that’s not all because this is a book … It’s obsentibly about the small town barber learning to find his place in these you know small town dynamics where people have known everybody forever and everyone has their role and everyone has their place.
It’s 1932 so set between the wars. He’s an orphan. He’s never had people. He knows what it’s like to be lonely and he’s an outsider and an observer. If there’s an author who can do anything with that, like stranger viewing the community from a distance set up it is Wendell Berry. I have to tell you I didn’t read this book for years. I love this book, but I didn’t pick it up for years because Jayber Crow just sounded awful to me. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] But that’s the Kentucky spelling of his nickname, which is Jaybird.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Ohhh.
ANNE BOGEL: The way he got it was really sweet. I liked it better immediately when I found that out. What I love about this book for you and what I hear you really appreciate in your books is the insight Wendell Berry has into human nature and that by dropping his barber into the middle of this community and letting him look around, he can talk about the human condition in a way that doesn’t sound scholarly and detached like it just did when I described it, but makes you see how your neighbor chooses to use their tractor or treat their land or interact with their children or their spouse really says all there is to say about them [LAUGHS] but also what it means to be a person in this world and we got into this as a love story. This wistful sense of longing and this exploration of what true loves does and does not look like are prominent in this book in ways I don’t want to reveal but I assure you are there and it’s gentle and subtle but also really poignant and powerful and I think you may enjoy it. How does that sound?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: Really wonderful.
ANNE BOGEL: I didn’t think we’d end up at Wendell Berry but I’m never sad when the conversation takes us there. [ANNE HELEN PETERSON LAUGHS] That is Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry. Okay, Annie, of the books we talked about today, they were Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann, The Unseen World by Liz Moore, and Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry, what do you think you’ll read next?
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: I want Olympus, Texas first I think just because ...
ANNE BOGEL: I was hoping you’d say that!
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: [LAUGHS[ But I really like I’m going to go and look all of them up on Bookshop and get them soon.
ANNE BOGEL: That sounds great. I hope you love it. Thanks for talking books with me.
ANNE HELEN PETERSON: It is my pleasure. Thank you so much for your recommendations.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE BOGEL: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Anne today, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/284 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:
Some links are affiliate links. More details here.
•Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Petersen
•Lois Duncan (try I Know What You Did Last Summer)
•The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin
•Long Bright River by Liz Moore
•God Spare the Girls by Kelsey McKinney
•Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
♥The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
•The English Patient by Michael Ondaatje
♥The Master Butchers Singing Club by Louise Erdrich
♥The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
△The Witch Elm by Tana French
•Sweet Little Lies by Caz Frear
•Olympus, Texas by Stacey Swann
•The Unseen World by Liz Moore
•Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry
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