Even though reading is a solitary activity, you’re never truly alone as a reader. You’re never the only reader who prefers dog-eared pages to bookmarks or the only reader who reads the last page first.
Today’s guest used to feel self-conscious about her affection for stories that explore difficult themes. But we know that Rachel Matthews isn’t the only reader who enjoys darker fiction. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of you have been waiting for an episode with a reader just like Rachel.
When she’s not reading at home in Nottingham, England, Rachel writes bookish blog posts and seeks out lesser-known titles and authors to add to her shelves. Today I’m recommending books to suit Rachel’s reading taste as well as encourage a little bit of experimentation as she continues to discover her identity as a reader.
ANNE: I mean, you have to replace those stapled together illustrated books that got put in the garbage bin [RACHEL LAUGHS] 25 years ago.
RACHEL: I’ll try and reinvent those. [ANNE LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 285.
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, readers, it’s here! My 10th annual Summer Reading Guide just dropped last week. If you’re an email subscriber it’s already in your inbox. If not, sign up at modernmrsdarcy.com/srg to get your copy.
Every episode on this show, you hear me recommend three titles to help our guest find a satisfying reading experience. The Summer Reading Guide is my way of helping you find your next great read this summer.
I’ve personally read every book in the guide, and loved them–but not every book is going to be right for every reader, so I give you 31 detailed (but spoiler free) descriptions so you can decide which books are right for you, and which books are worth a trip outside your reading comfort zone.
Go to modernmrsdarcy.com/srg to get your copy as well as shareable graphics, instructions on how to make a beautiful printed booklet out of it, and more.
Even though reading is a solitary activity, you’re never truly alone as a reader. You’re never the only reader who prefers dog-eared pages to bookmarks or the only reader who reads the last page first. Or the only one who hated a super seemingly popular book.
Well today’s guest used to feel self-conscious about her affection for stories that explore difficult themes. But we know that Rachel Matthews isn’t the only reader who enjoys darker fiction. In fact, I’m willing to bet that some of you listening right now have been WAITING for an episode with a reader just like Rachel.
When she’s not reading at home in Nottingham, England, Rachel writes bookish blog posts and seeks out lesser-known titles and authors to add to her shelves. Today I’m recommending books to suit Rachel’s reading taste as well as encourage a little bit of experimentation as she continues to discover her identity as a reader.
Let’s get to it!
Rachel, welcome to the show.
RACHEL: Thank you, Anne. I’m really happy to be here. Thank you for having me.
ANNE: Oh, it is my pleasure. I’m so excited to talk books with you today.
RACHEL: I can’t wait to talk books. I could talk books all day. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: One of your favorite things, I hope?
RACHEL: Absolutely my favorite thing I’d say.
ANNE: Rachel, tell me a little more about that.
RACHEL: As soon as I learned how to read I just loved getting lost in the world of books. You will find me as a child curled up in bed reading books. Sometimes I would be silent for hours. If you’re wondering where I am, I’m probably in my room reading. And that has continued all through my adult life up to now. Reading is my main hobby and my favorite way to spend my free time.
ANNE: What do you do when you’re not reading?
RACHEL: When I’m not reading before lockdown and Covid and all the restrictions I would meet up with friends for coffee and catch up, but also I was trying to get into strength training at the gym. I was typically going to the gym three times a week working on my upper body strength, working towards getting to do a full chin up, and then Covid happened and I haven’t really been to the gym since.
ANNE: Oh. I’m so sorry. How close were you to that chin up?
RACHEL: I was still a way off if I’m being honest. I was still off, but still I feel like if I had been able to continue by now I would have had that chin up down. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m so sorry. This is a very relatable quest for me. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I never have. Listeners, you can send me your tips. Well I hope that things settle down soon. Where are you in the world precisely?
RACHEL: I am in Nottingham in England.
ANNE: Rachel, how has your reading life been affected by the pandemic?
RACHEL: The pandemic if there’s one silver lining that’s come out of the pandemic is that my reading has actually increased. I’ve just had more time to read. Typically would read between 50 and 60 books a year, but during the year where we were all locked down and indoors, I read over 170 books just because I had the time to really dedicate to reading. It’s been good for my reading life. Maybe not every aspect of my life, but my reading life [ANNE LAUGHS] at least has benefited from spending more time at home.
ANNE: That is a big increase.
RACHEL: More than doubled my usual reading. For some people, the anxiety around the pandemic has meant that they can’t focus on a book. I completely understand that perspective as well. I think for me reading was just an escape, but equally some people just couldn’t find the mental capacity to do that and that’s completely fine as well.
ANNE: Of course. It’s been interesting to hear the variety of ways the past year has affected readers reading lives from not being able to enjoy this activity that they love to reading all the time.
RACHEL: Maybe it might be a bit unhealthy. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Perhaps a little bit. Pandemic aside, let’s pretend we can just dismiss the pandemic with two words, so pandemic aside, how would you describe your reading life now?
RACHEL: I have really grown in confidence as a reader in what I’m like. I know what I like. As a child I read I suppose what other people said I should read Baby-Sitter’s Club and Goosebumps and Point Horror books. When I was younger and then as I got older and into university reading classics, mainly by white men, whose writing was technically interesting to study but I lacked a connection to it. But the reading I do now is all about things that interest me and I’m quite more of a risk taker of what I choose to read and having that freedom and knowing that it’s okay to enjoy what you enjoy has made my reading life so much better. I hope to continue on that path of reading what I want to read, whether that's considered well read or literary or not.
ANNE: I like that perspective. I want to go back a moment. I grew up reading Goosebumps and Baby-Sitter's Club, but I didn’t know that you would in England. Are those books popular there as well?
RACHEL: Oh, yes. I mean maybe not now. I’m in my mid-30s, so perhaps kids these days are reading different things, but absolutely, yes. Goosebumps, Baby-Sitter's Club were hugely popular, and they were all in the school library, so that’s what I had access to.
ANNE: Oh. I feel like such an American. I don’t mean in a good way. I just pictured all English young ones growing up reading Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl exclusively and not Goosebumps.
RACHEL: Yup, I read Enid Blyton and Roald Dahl as well. Absolutely. They were also favorites of mine, but Goosebumps was right up there.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Well I’m glad they hooked you and turned you into a reader as an adult and that you have grown in confidence as a reader. How do you think that happened? What did you try along the way?
RACHEL: I think it was just trying things. When you’re younger you go by what you think you’re supposed to read, especially when I got into my teens and early 20s. At university there’s this list of books that you should read if you want to be well read and they’re typically classics and quite old books and I just read those because I thought that’s what I should be reading. And I just went into a bookshop one day, picked up a book that wasn’t on a reading list, and loved it and have just gone on to keep doing that more and more and have found what I enjoy. I found my niche of what I like to read.
ANNE: And how would you describe that?
RACHEL: I love reading literary fiction, memoirs, nonfiction, and increasing, I’m reading more poetry now as well, but they all have in common the fact that they usually address quite dark themes. Themes that are typically quite difficult to read about, but they’re the stories that I’m drawn to, so things like sexual assault, trauma, child abuse. Most people if they heard my reading tastes, they might be slightly disturbed by it. [ANNE LAUGHS] Those are the stories that I’m most drawn to for some reason. [LAUGHS]
Just to let you into just how strange my reading tastes seem to people who don’t share them, my husband who’s not a reader, will typically ask me, what are you reading at the moment? ‘Cause my head’s always in a book, and I’ll explain the synopsis and he’ll just say oh my God, that sounds terrible. [ANNE LAUGHS] And I’ll say to him I’m loving it. And now we’ve got to the point where he knows what my reading tastes are and he’ll just say what’re you reading this week? Rape, murder, death, and the answer is usually yes to at least one of those things. Usually multiple of those things, and he’s just stopped questioning it now I think.
ANNE: Has this been a long time interest in your reading that you found yourself drawn to books about hard things?
RACHEL: I would say so. Even as a child, Roald Dahl has some dark themes in his writing and Goosebumps and Point Horror stories would also address some quite difficult themes and that’s just intensified as I’ve got older. It’s just what I find compelling. I do try and read lighter reads. I’ll pick up the old romance or the old uplit I think is what it’s called, uplifting fiction. I’m not engaged. I find them dull. [LAUGHS] And I always find myself going back to those more challenging topics.
ANNE: I’m glad you brought this up because sometimes we hear from readers who say is there something wrong with me that these are the books I want to read?
RACHEL: I absolutely fall into that category. I worry sometimes when I see the reaction of people, when I tell them the kind of things I like to read, they’re usually quite shocked, or worried about me. [LAUGHS] It’s hard to explain why I’m drawn to those things. It does make me wonder, should I be reading these things? Is there something wrong with me?
ANNE: Well I’m glad you’re asking that in front of an audience of readers because we do get this question all the time because I think when you [LAUGHS] when you hear your husband say what are you reading about this time? What [RACHEL LAUGHS] what aspect of human tragedy, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one who has that reading taste and yet we hear this from readers all the time, including right here on our team from Modern Mrs Darcy and What Should I Read Next. Our community manager Ginger Horton is one of the sunniest people I know and she loves to read about death and destruction and misery [BOTH LAUGH] and she says maybe my life has been very trauma free so far, so maybe I need to read about it on the page.
I find the perspectives of storytellers really interesting here like Neil Gaiman has written about why it’s important for kids to encounter scary stuff. I knew an author who wrote a book about a horrible human tragedy in the 19th century and people would ask him why? And he’d said you know, there’s just something about tragedy that like forces our minds to snap to attention and lean forward and pay attention. There’s something fascinating about human behavior at the extremes of our experience. Have you explored what is it for you that you find compelling about these reads, that what is it you’re hoping to see in these sometimes fictional I imagine sometimes real if you really enjoy memoir and nonfiction but the stories in the pages?
RACHEL: Firstly that’s really, really reassuring there are other readers and members of your community that share my reading tastes. So that makes me feel less alone and less abnormal. To answer your question around what it is that I think makes me drawn to these stories, I really do think it is what you said about snapping you to attention. It just draws you in when you read a story about a character who’s experiencing real conflict, real difficulty in their life. You want to know how they’re going to deal with that and how it affects them and it’s compelling. It makes you want to turn the page and it makes you root for that person and want that character or that person to come out the other side okay. You also get more invested, I think, in those more difficult themes than you might do if anything’s going fairly well for the character and the stakes aren’t really that high.
ANNE: I do wonder if because it’s also human nature to not talk about difficult things and to kinda prettify our experience, I wonder if it’s a sense that within the pages of a book we might talk about things that we wouldn’t say out loud or that we wouldn’t share in another context. I wonder if there’s something that makes us think, ah, in literature, I can see the whole human experience and not just the portion of it that’s on public display.
RACHEL: I think you’re right on that. Certainly with memoir you get the sense that you’re really getting insight into someone, almost like reading their diary about how they felt in that moment. Yes, it’s literature and it’s been edited in a way but this person is or this character is laying everything out there for you as a reader to engage with. I’m a believer that reading is a conversation between you and the tech, and you’ll bring your own experiences to that reading, so if there are things within there that resonate with you especially it can help you get through a difficult time yourself. Especially in this age of social media and instagram filters, it’s so easy to forget that people are going through difficult things. Reading about those things helps you feel less alone and hopefully helps you see that it is possible to come out of the other side as well.
ANNE: Rachel, how do you like your books about hard things to end? Do you like to see a resolution that involves an element of hope? Or are you okay with death and destruction and despair from first page to last?
RACHEL: [LAUGHS] I’m okay with both. It’s important that it feels authentic is what I would say. So if there’s a resolution that’s hopeful and the character’s been on a journey that’s been leading on to that and it makes sense to them to reach that place, I’m fine with the ending having an element of hope in it. But if they are in a place of despair and all the events in the story or in the memoir have led up to despair and destruction, it would seem disingenuous if it then had a hopeful ending. It needs to feel genuine, I think, is the most important thing to feel that I really gained as insight into that character, into that character’s life, or into that author’s life, in a way that I wouldn’t have had if I had just scrolled through their instagram for example. I want to feel a connection.
ANNE: That’s very helpful to know. As we get more into your reading taste and think about what you may enjoy reading next, that’s going to be very helpful. Rachel, how do you find the books that you end up reading next?
RACHEL: I always try and find things that I wouldn’t come across otherwise, so I’m always looking for ways to find titles, hidden gems that I may not otherwise come across. One way that I did that quite recently is I signed up to a book subscription service called Books That Matter. It’s a feminist book subscription service, U.K. based. Their ethos is all around uplifting the voices of women and nonbinary people with a focus on marginalized crew, and I read that ethos and straight away I knew it was a brand that I wanted to be involved in. So I signed up a subscriptiber in 2018, 2017, right around then. I’ve been with them ever since.
ANNE: As I’ve heard, you’ve even gotten involved in a way I imagine that you didn’t expect back in 2017, 2018.
RACHEL: In June of last year I joined them as a content writer, so I write blog posts for their website and that can be anything from a top five list of books by Black writers that you need to read or I could explore specific issues so one of the blog posts I wrote for them was around intersectional feminism and how that now needs to be the form of feminism going forward that factors in the intersections of our personality. But the blog covers a wide range of issues and we have a few different contributors, but I am so glad to be part of that brand and part of writing blogs for them. I really enjoy doing it and it allows me to do more research and digging into books which I love doing as well.
ANNE: I’m so glad you have a reason to do that and an outlet as a writer as well. Is that something that’s held interest for you over the long term?
RACHEL: Yes, so I have wanted to be a writer almost as long as I’ve been a reader. As soon as I knew that it was a job that you could actually have and potentially get paid for, I wanted to be a writer. I wrote stories from when I was seven or eight years old and I’d just do my own illustrations and staple them together and make my own books - quote unquote “books” that I would force my poor parents to read.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Oh, I hope some of these are extent.
RACHEL: But they’ve long been consigned to the landfill.
ANNE: Oh. [RACHEL LAUGHS] It’s a loss.
RACHEL: I should have kept them if nothing else for prosperity sake, but yeah, so I always wanted to be a writer but actually as times gone on that ambition has waned quite a bit. I think the more I read phenomenal books by amazing writers, the more I feel intimidated. Any bits of short writing that I have done after I read any piece of fiction just seems far away from that. I almost feel embarrassed to submit to anyone or do anything with it, so the writing ambition has gone at least in terms of fiction, but writing blogs for Books That Matter does allow me as you say that outlet to write creatively in a different way.
ANNE: I completely understand being intimidated by the finished novels from amazing writers. [LAUGHS] Were this a writing podcast I think I’d be tempted to pile all kinds of writerly encouragement on your head, [RACHEL LAUGHS] but in the meantime I hope you keep reading great books and if they inspire you to tell one of your own stories, I mean, you have to replace those stapled together illustrated books that got put in the garbage bin [BOTH LAUGH] 25 years ago.
RACHEL: I’ll try and reinvent those. [ANNE LAUGHS] I need sometimes a bit of firm encouragement.
ANNE: What writers who have written 20 books are always told don’t compare the work you’re working on now with someone else’s finished, carefully, lovingly edited by scores of people work. It’s not the same thing. I mean it’s great to be inspired by all the wonderful books that exist and I would hate to see those great works be a reason not to pursue your own writing.
RACHEL: You’re right. I’ll take that on board. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And I am so glad you’re writing blog posts and we will put that link in our show notes, readers, so you can look them up.
Readers, some days feel jam-packed, which means I’ve recorded many podcast episodes while still wearing my workout clothes. It works, and they’re perfectly comfortable, but I always feel more put together and productive when I put on real pants. But I don’t have to sacrifice comfort for a cute outfit that helps me get stuff done. With Betabrand’s Dress Pant Yoga Pants I can work in style and comfort.
Betabrand combines customer experiences with their expertise to make thoughtfully designed clothing that’s as functional, comfortable, and inspiring as your favorite workout gear. Their customer-favorite Dress Pant Yoga Pants are made of wrinkle-resistant stretch knit fabric, making them perfect for anything you need to do.
I love my Dress Pant Yoga pants because they go with everything and they’re so soft and stretchy.
BetaBrand’s new Restorative collection features versatile pieces that are designed for living in—and working in—like their super popular Soho Joggers that are so easy to dress up or down. And they’re releasing new styles every week.
Right now, our listeners can get 30% off their first Betabrand order when you go to Betabrand.com/[readnext].
That’s 30% off your first order for a limited time at Betabrand.com/[readnext]. “Discover what it’s like to be comfortable and confident all the time”
Go to Betabrand.com/[readnext] for 30% off.
Readers, Rothy’s believes that style is about more than just fashion. Comfort and quality are equally important, which is why everything they make is exceptionally comfortable, totally sustainable, and fully machine washable. From slip-on sneakers and classic flats to chic handbags and spacious totes, Rothy’s makes getting dressed easy.
And they make it easy to keep your shoes looking like new. Years after buying my beloved Navy loafers from Rothy’s, I still get compliments on my “new shoes” from people who would never guess that they’re actually years old, but freshly washed.
Many people don’t regularly wash their shoes or bags. Rothy’s is here to change that with fully machine washable styles. Don’t worry about the wine spill, outdoor dust, or grass stains. Spills and stains are no problem for your Rothy’s. Just throw them in the washing machine and they’ll come out looking brand new.
Made from 100% recycled materials, Rothy’s are extremely durable and last wash after wash.
Keep it clean with washable shoes and bags from Rothy’s. Plus, they just launched men’s shoes, so make sure to check them out for you or the guy in your life.
Head to Rothys.com/READNEXT to find your new favorites today.
ANNE: Rachel, now we get to talk more about what you truly love to read and also don’t. How did you choose the books you’re going to talk about today?
RACHEL: The books I’ve chosen are all books that left me speechless after I finished them. They just moved me in a way that has stayed with me in some cases years after I first read them. They are the books that come to mind when someone asks me what is your favorite book. They are the ones that have most impacted my reading life.
ANNE: Oh, that is a wonderful way to choose. I am so excited to get into them. Are you ready?
RACHEL: I am.
ANNE: Okay. Rachel, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Tell me about book one.
RACHEL: Okay, so I’ll start with Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi. It’s a fiction book that follows a young Nigerian woman called Ada and Ada was born as what it’s called an ogbanje. She was born inhabited by spirits or by Gods, and those Gods live in her body. Depending on the time in her life different Gods will be dominant in her body. These affect the way that she behaves and reacts to things that happen to her, but it was so original, unlike anything I had ever read and the kind of book that I think you have to be in the right headspace to read because it’s not in a linear format.
Sometimes it’s narrated by the Gods that inhabit Ada and they all speak in the plural, so you’ll be reading a sentence that say “we feel like this” or “we are going here” and it’s so unusual that you might need a second to get into the flow of it, but I found that once I did I was so gripped by this story, this way of looking at identity that I’d never read or encountered before. I loved it and it left such an impact on me. Months later I still remember the details and I still remember how it made me feel and it’s a book that I think will stay with me for a long time.
ANNE: I think it says a lot about a reading experience when it does stay with you for that period of months.
ANNE: That may turn into years. I think the publisher described this one, which I have not read yet, as unsettling, heart wrenching and dark.
ANNE: I know - I know that sounds - that sounds just like you, Rachel. How did you end up picking this one up?
RACHEL: It was featured in a Books That Matter box, but it had been on my radar before that time. I had attempted to read it. It was long listed for the women’s prize, I believe, in 2019, and I attempted to read it around then and it just wasn’t quite the right time for me to get into it. So I eventually got around to it in January of this year. Straight away was drawn in, so I think it was right book, right time. Allowed me to really have the experience I had with it.
ANNE: Oh, I’m so glad you said that that this book that ended up being one of your favorites that has really stuck with you is one that didn’t - didn’t take on the first time when you weren’t quite in the right place to be reading it.
RACHEL: The first time I read it I struggled with some of the narrative voices, especially when the Gods were speaking and the we, I found it just so unusual and strange that I couldn’t quite let myself get lost in the story but for some reason when I read it the second time that wasn’t an issue.
ANNE: I’m glad you gave it another shot. Rachel, tell me about your next favorite book.
RACHEL: My next favorite is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and I chose this book because much like Freshwater, it really turned on its head what you can do with a novel. It’s almost bordering on poetry rather than prose. Some of the language, this is probably going to sound a bit pretentious [ANNE LAUGHS] but I’m going to say it anyway, really muscular language in the sense that the words were chosen, every word choice felt deliberate, every word felt like it needed to be there and carried such weight, but it’s not the kind of thing you can skim over. It’s so powerful the way that Toni Morrison writes and the fact that it’s her debut novel is again a bit intimidating.
She was able to capture so many things about race, beauty standards, what it means to have a sense of self worth and how if your sense of worth is determined by someone else, how can that affect you, how difficult it can be to overcome narratives that put you as the other. The main character that we follow although we never hear from her directly goes through so much trauma and all she wants is to be beautiful and she believes that if she can just get blue eyes that will solve all of her problems. It just speaks to the value we put on beauty sometimes as a society over the value of the individual. It was a heartbreaking read but so powerful and I think it’s the best book I’ve ever read. If I had to choose my absolute best book I’ve ever read, at this point I would say The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.
ANNE: Where were you when you read this?
RACHEL: So in terms of where I was mentally it was during the pandemic. It was not long after the murder of George Floyd, so there was a lot of things happening around race in general discourse, so I read this in June of last year. I had to confront a lot of my own feelings around race as a dark skinned Black woman growing up in England where that is not the standard of beauty. Black people, sometimes they are not given the benefit of the doubt because we come into spaces and there’s already an assumption about us, how we’ll behave or how we’ll speak, so to read a character going through exactly that was so impactful to me and I completely understood the character, all the things she felt about wanting to be beautiful, I had felt those as a child.
I grew up in a school where me and my brother were the only Black children there. Stephen Lawrence, a young Black boy was murdered in England just for the color of his skin and that happened in Eltham where I was living at the time, he was murdered a few miles from where I live. So I’ve grown up with this awareness that being Black is not desirable. Being dark skinned and Black is the least desirable at least as far as I could see in society and The Bluest Eye explores those issues so powerfully without ever preaching or looking down or feeling sorry for its characters. It just addresses those issues and it does it in the most exquisite, beautiful writing as well. So I think I was just in the right place to receive that story and again right place, right book, I think, right time that it just worked really well for me.
ANNE: I’m so sorry for the pain you suffered and so grateful for the words of Toni Morrison. Listeners, if you’ve not read Toni Morrison, I think this is a wonderful place to jump in. What do you think, Rachel?
RACHEL: Yes, I would agree. It’s where I jumped in. I hadn’t read any Toni Morrison before last year which I can’t believe I hadn’t done, but I then after read The Bluest Eye read Sula and I’ve purchased Song of Solomon and a number of other books by Toni Morrison that I can’t wait to get to, and unfortunately she’s no longer with us to write anything else, but I can’t wait to get through what she did leave. The legacy that she has left is truly valuable and I’m just so glad that she wrote in particular The Bluest Eye but I’m just so glad she wrote and left those books for us now to read.
ANNE: A legacy is a wonderful word and I am noting the visual of your burgeoning Toni Morrison collection on your bookshelves.
RACHEL: Oh, yes, it’s only going to grow bigger I think.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Rachel, what did you choose for your third favorite?
RACHEL: My third and final favorite is The Color Purple by Alice Walker and I chose this book because it does deal with some dark themes around sexual assault, child abuse, but it does also have a note of hope running through it and optimism. The title, The Color Purple, its referenced in the story from the fact that our narrator Celie points out that purple exists in nature just to bring joy and just to bring beauty and I love that idea that there’s no other reason for something to be purple other than it’s beautiful and it’s something nice to look at. That element of hope that nature whilst it can powerful and destructive can also be beautiful and gentle and that very much reflects the story of Celie in The Color Purple.
It’s an epistolary novel written in a series of letters so it goes by quite quickly cause you’re only ever in a letter parts for a few pages before she moves on to the next scene but each letter is beautifully written and the story that comes through at the end is one of hope, friendship, and love ultimately even though Celie does go through some very difficult things.
ANNE: I’m glad you chose that book and that it’s another one that has lived on in your mind. How long ago did you read this, Rachel?
RACHEL: This book I’ve read quite a long time ago, probably for the first time ten years ago, and I’ve read it two or three times since then. Before I read The Bluest Eye, this would have been the book that if you asked me what was my favorite book, this is the one that I would have chosen because it has stayed with me for so long and because even on multiple reads, it has withstood that test of time and still stands as a beautiful, wonderfully written story of pain but also hope.
ANNE: How did you choose the book that wasn’t right for you?
RACHEL: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom is the book that wasn’t for me and I think it encapsulates who I am as a reader. As much as I say I'm drawn to difficult themes, I usually find it difficult to connect to books that are more uplifting and [LAUGHS] optimistic [ANNE LAUGHS] and for one of the better words, cheesy. The book that I chose really for me I couldn’t connect with because it just didn’t feel genuine. It felt preachy. It felt cheesy I would say is probably the word I would use to describe the book that I chose, which probably will offend people if it’s their favorite book, so sorry in advance. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Well you know what we hear every week is that readers listen to a guest describe that was not right for them and they think oh, but that is right for me, and vice versa on the books that you love and it is okay. How did you end up picking this one up?
RACHEL: I picked it up based on hype I guess around the time. It’s a book that gets recommended by a lot of people if you search online of books to read. At the time that I read it, which was quite a long time ago now, everyone seemed to love it who read it and I was still with it at the stage where I hadn’t quite developed my identity as a reader, so I was picking up things that if there seemed to be a lot of chatter about it in media or I saw it in a bookshop and it was on a bookstand and it seemed that everyone was talking about it, I would just pick it up and this fell into that category of oh, this is a book that you have to read. Unfortunately [LAUGHS] I didn’t agree.
ANNE: And yet you said that you’ve really grown in confidence as a reader due to experimenting. I feel like this is a book from the before times.
RACHEL: It was a long time ago that I first read this. Now that I know myself better as a reader, if you gave me the synopsis of this book I would not pick it up. But at the time I didn’t yet have that and I just thought well everyone else says it’s great, it must be. So I’m going to go into a bookshop and buy it. I’m sure I’ll love it like everyone else, and unfortunately it didn’t quite work out that way.
ANNE: So thank you to The Five People You Meet in Heaven for - for the lessons [LAUGHS] you have bestowed upon us.
RACHEL: Yes, unfortunately, I can’t join in with the rave reviews. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’ve not read this one, but I am confident it’s not just you.
RACHEL: Okay. That’s good. If there’s anyone out there listening to this who’s not, you could just also [ANNE LAUGHS] speak your truth. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Raise your hand to make Rachel feel understood. [RACHEL LAUGHS] That’s what we’re here for. Rachel, what have you been reading lately?
RACHEL: So lately I read Inferno by Catherine Cho. It’s a memoir, and Catherine is a Korean American woman who three months after giving birth to her son suffered a psychotic break and the way she writes about that experience was so engaging. It was almost frightening. It was like someone putting you into the midst of their own nightmare. I couldn’t stop reading. It does discuss themes around motherhood and tradition, but it was also just about that feeling of completely breaking from reality and the complete fear and isolation that comes with that.
It’s a really wonderful memoir about an experience which I imagine was difficult for Catherine to write about but which I think needs to be explored more, themes around motherhood that maybe don’t paint it as a completely wonderful experience. It’s not always like that for every mother. I’m not a mother myself, but it was just interesting to read a different perspective on motherhood and mental health.
ANNE: Yes, I can see that.
RACHEL: It was a really good read. Another book I read quite recently was Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller.
ANNE: Oh, I’ve been wondering about this one. Yes, tell me.
RACHEL: This one again has been long listed and now shortlisted for the woman’s prize, so the woman’s prize is kinda a way that I find books as well. It’s about a pair of twins who are in their early 50s. They live in rural England and their mother dies suddenly. They’re thrown into complete poverty. Their mother was struggling financially and they didn’t know about it and her death brings that to light and they’re thrown into such deep poverty. I’ve never read about what would happen to someone who’s 51 suddenly hasn’t got a place to live, hasn’t got money, what would that person do?
There’s also themes around literacy ‘cause one of the characters doesn’t know how to read and how she navigates the world without that skill was really interesting to read about as well. It’s the kinda book that when you first read it it seems like a simple story. Claire Fuller’s writing style is quite sparse and quite simple but afterwards it has grown on me. I read it about three months ago and the more I think about it the more I think what an important story it is, so I really enjoyed that one.
ANNE: I have two copies on my shelf that I have not opened yet.
RACHEL: Oh, you should get to it, definitely. It is not a difficult read in terms of the writing style and I think you’ll find it resonates in a way that you might not have expected. It’s one of those slowburn kind of books.
ANNE: I appreciate the nudge. [RACHEL LAUGHS] Which I clearly need. Rachel, what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
RACHEL: I think I know what I like to read. I just want to expand the world of my reading, so I want to read about experiences that I won’t ever get the chance to experience. I want to gain insight into other worlds and other life experiences, and I mean to expand on that a little bit recently I’ve been looking into trans stories, fiction and memoir, because it’s something I really want to understand more and also read from different countries, read books in translation, read books that will enrich my own life by helping me understand experiences I may not come across.
ANNE: Okay. So we’re looking for books that reflect a variety of lived experiences, especially keeping in mind that books can take you places you will never go, but for their pages, and we can take advantage of that.
RACHEL: Absolutely. That’s one of the reasons I love to read.
Readers, we’ve all spent a lot of extra time at home over the past year. Have you rearranged the furniture, purchased a new light fixture, or (like me) totally reorganized every kitchen cabinet and drawer? A few simple upgrades can make all the difference. If you need to shift your perspective or get a new view, try a few simple upgrades with stylish bedding, loungewear, or towels from Brooklinen.
Brooklinen has something for your every comfort need. I’m talking buttery soft and breathable sheets; plush and absorbent towels; cozy robes; and comfy loungewear you’ll want to put on and never take off. We love our Brooklinen towels; they’re often grabbed from the clean laundry pile before I can even fold them because no one in my household, including me, wants to use anything else.
Brooklinen is the ideal place for a seasonal refresh because they’re launching new products, colors and patterns all the time. They’re so confident in their core products, that they come with a 365-day warranty. And fans are confident, too. They’ve received over 75,000+ 5-star reviews, and counting.
So give yourself the comfort refresh you deserve and get it for less at Brooklinen.
Go to Brooklinen.com and use promo code READNEXT to get $20 off with a minimum purchase of $100
That’s B-R-O-O-K-L-I-N-E-N, Brooklinen.com and enter promo code READNEXT for $20 off, with a minimum purchase of $100.
That’s Brooklinen.com promo code READNEXT.
ANNE: Alright, Rachel, let’s think about where we’re going to go here. The books you love are Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi, The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, and The Color Purple by Alice Walker. Not for you The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, and we are looking for books that reflect the variety of human experience, keeping in mind that you like to go dark, which mostly says that it’s mostly all on the table.
RACHEL: Absolutely. There is no topic that’s out of bounds for me.
ANNE: What are you hoping I’ll say?
RACHEL: Difficult. I’m hoping that you will suggest something that I completely haven’t heard of [ANNE LAUGHS] and wouldn’t have come across, something that’s going to make me think I need to go away and do lots of research or rush out to the bookshop and get ahold of these books. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That’s a fun description. With that in mind, the first book that I wonder if you may appreciate or even know about is a 1966 title from America writer Margaret Walker called Jubilee. Is this one you know?
RACHEL: No. Never heard of it.
ANNE: In one sense that makes me really happy [RACHEL LAUGHS] because you wanted to find a hidden gem, but in another sense I cannot believe 55 years after this book’s publication it is still hidden. I was reminded of this book recently when I picked up a book by Ralph Eubanks, a new release called A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape. I don’t know what you … What impressions you have of Mississippi being in the United Kingdom, but ...
RACHEL: None really.
ANNE: It does not surprise me. The author was exploring the incredible literary legacy of this small and often underestimated state that is nevertheless home to so many genius writers and extremely influential ones as well including Margaret Walker. Jubilee is often compared with Margaret Mitchell’s book Gone With the Wind. In fact sometimes it’s called the anti-Gone With the Wind because it depicts the same period of history, the Antebellum period before the Civil War, the Civil War era itself, and then Reconstruction, but with a very different view of slavery. Not the rosey, everything’s fine depiction seen in Gone With the Wind.
This is historical fiction set in that period of time and to write it Margaret Walker relied on the real life history of her own great-grandmother plus her family’s oral history and a ton of historical research, but at the center of her story is a mixed-race enslaved woman, Vyry, who strongly resembles one of the ladies who live in the big house for reasons I’m sure you can imagine, although the family resemblance is never outwardly acknowledged by the father and slave owner. This story is set on a Georgia plantation and then later in Alabama sharecropping a state but we follow Vyry’s life and the men she loves and her complex family situation, which is complex for reasons beyond her control.
Then and now the book has been praised for depicting daily life on the plantation and then later as a sharecropper through Vyry’s eyes largely. Walker depicts the Black experience during the Civil War for those both born into slavery and born free and throughout the book, Vyry earns her freedom and it’s a word that just means everything to her and something that she hopes to obtain knowing it’s unlikely but it gets dangled before her at various points throughout the story and you get to see her reaction.
Each of the chapters in the book starts with an excerpt from an African American spiritual, or sometimes a proverb, which is a really beautiful and poignant way of framing the story. It’s a great story. I know you’re okay to go hard places. There are I think two scenes where I chose to skip the page because I could barely get through it, but based on what you have enjoyed reading I think you’ll really like it. You want to know what happens to Vyry and her people and get to the end to see where Walker’s going to leave her.
RACHEL: That sounds fantastic. I love books that explore race and slavery is a topic I’m really interested in. What really draws me to your description of that book is the authenticity aspect, the fact that it’s based on the life of Margaret Walker’s own great-grandmother. She’s Mississippi-born and she’s talking about a Georgian plantation. It all just feels like it’s informed by real life events and that’s really important to me to feel like the story I’m reading as a genuine depiction, so that sounds really interesting.
ANNE: I hope so and I hope you enjoy it. And for listeners who love audiobooks, Robin Miles narrates this one. She is one of my favorites and it’s terrific in that format. Alright, Rachel, how do you feel about next finding an Indigenous Australian story?
RACHEL: That sounds great, yes, I definitely want to read more from there.
ANNE: The book I’m thinking of for you is The Yield. This is the latest novel from Tara June Winch. This is her latest novel and she weaves together three strands in a way that feels I think poetic and reflective in a way that I think you’ll like, Rachel. I think this will be to your taste, especially because there’s an ostensibly literary thread that I think could be a lot of fun for you.
The story focuses on a young woman named August who goes by Gus and she returns home to her small community after learning that her grandfather died. And when she comes home she has very mixed feelings about not just returning to this place where she grew up, but returning to it right now because there’s a huge mining company that wants to seize her family’s land and use it for profit, but profit that’s going to destroy both the community and the land in the process. So that’s one strand.
The next strand is this hundred year old letter and we get excerpts of it in the text from the Reverend who found it in a mansion near the community for the Wiradjuri people, and finally there are these beautiful stories from Gus’s grandfather who before he died was on a mission. This had been his life’s work. He wanted to compile a dictionary of his native language and fill it with words and stories and personal history. It would leave a legacy. It would outlast him and serve his people for generations to come. So Wench unites all these threads with beautiful prose. There are hard things that happen in this book. This is a young woman wrestling with identity and belonging and the threatened demise of her entire community and yet it’s somehow done very gracefully. How does that sound to you?
RACHEL: It sounds beautiful. I think I’ve seen this book in a bookshop, but from the cover I don’t know. I never actually picked it up or read more about it, but the description that you’ve given there about the different strands as well, I like the idea of having those different strands come together and the fact that it’s a story from an Indigenous, First Nations Australian writer is just a bonus as well, so it sounds really good.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. That was The Yield by Tara June Winch. And finally you said that you were interested in reading books about trans experience, and I’m wondering if you had read, I know this has gotten lots of praise this year, but I’m thinking of Torrey Peters’ debut Detransition, Baby. Is this one you’ve read?
RACHEL: It’s not one I’ve read, but it is one I’ve heard of and it’s one that I’m interested in reading. Perhaps need a bit of a nudge to get to.
ANNE: You already gave me a nudge on [BOTH LAUGH] on Claire Fuller. I think based on your literary taste and your interest, this could be a good one for you. First of all, the title. We have to talk about for a moment. You said that when you grew up and went to college you read a bunch of books by dead white men and so I have to tell you a funny story about a dead white man in the title. Torrey Peters said that she’s very proud of her title which is Detransition comma Baby. She said that she fought hard for that comma [LAUGHS] and the publisher wasn’t necessarily wild about it at first. She talks about how that comma is a nice edge and how everything hinges on that comma and lots of her characters feel like they’re living on a nice edge in the book, but she also said it’s the whole plot. Detransition, Baby, is the plot of her story. Hemingway would have needed five words, but I did it in two, so there.
RACHEL: She’s done better than the dead white man. [ANNE LAUGHS] She’s one upped him. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Exactly. This is about three characters who are brought together, closely brought together, when a surprise pregnancy happens. The characters in question are Reese, she is a trans woman in her mid-30s and she has always wanted a family. Specifically she’s always wanted to be a mother, but because of realities, including finances, which loom large for her, she doesn’t think she’s going to be able to adopt and she’s not sure how she’s going to make that dream happen. Her ex, Ames, detransitioned, but lived for several years as a woman and they’ve been out of touch, but then her ex gets in touch and says he has gotten his girlfriend and his boss pregnant which he is shocked. He says this should not have been possible because of the hormone replacement therapy, which is important to the plot. But typically isn’t the same as always and now his girlfriend is pregnant. So this baby which his girlfriend is kinda ambivalent about but Reese really wants and Ames like help brings this cluster of people together.
This book is written by Torrey Peters who is a white trans woman living in Brooklyn, so she is writing what she knows, but you said something earlier about Toni Morrison and The Bluest Eye about how all she ever wanted was to be beautiful, and when you said that it made me think of [LAUGHS] a sentence in Detransition, Baby, that surprised me where one character says many people think a trans woman’s deepest desire is to live in her true gender, but actually it is to always stand in good lightning, which I hope gives you a sense [RACHEL LAUGHS] for how this book covers hard topics.
These are characters that are wrestling with gender and class and identity and these huge life altering decisions and also it has a sense of humor. Because of what you’re looking for, I think this could be a really wonderful pick. I think readers should know that there are some graphic scenes in this novel, so head’s up for that. Rachel, how does that sound?
RACHEL: It sounds exactly like the kind of thing I want to read more of, something that is about an experience I haven’t gone through myself. Trans identity is something I really want to know more about. It explores it in a way that has a sense of humor, I think, as well my sense of humor is quite dry so typically funny books I don’t find funny. Even just that line you said gives me a sense of … My sense of humor is more like Ottessa Mohfegh, I don’t know if you’ve read or any of the other readers have read anything by her, but that very dry sense of humor. It sounds like Torrey Peters also has and I really enjoy that so it sounds like it would be a good one - a good pick for me.
ANNE: I hope so. Rachel, of the books we talked about today, they were Jubilee by Margaret Walker, The Yield by Tara June Winch, and Detransition, Baby, by Torrey Peters. Of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
RACHEL: I think I’m going to read Detransition comma Baby by Torrey Peters. [BOTH LAUGH] I’m going to read all of them, I think I’m going to enjoy them all, but Detransition, Baby sounds like just the right time for me to read it. I needed a bit of a nudge to read it anyway, so that will be the first one I pick up.
ANNE: I’m glad that was the nudge you need. Rachel, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
RACHEL: Thank you for having me. I’ve really enjoyed it.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Rachel, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/285 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
Subscribe now so you don’t miss next week’s episode in Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and more. We will see you next week!
To support our show and get weekly bonus episodes, a peek behind the scenes, and an opportunity to get closer to the creative process, join our Patreon community at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext. If you wish to do so, this is a great way to TANGIBLY support the show and you also get that expanded 2021 Summer Reading Guide. Sign up to become a supporter at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext
Follow us on instagram @ whatshouldireadnext. If you don’t get our weekly newsletter, go to whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for our free weekly delivery.
Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
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.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
Books mentioned in this episode:
Some links are affiliate links. More details here.
•The Baby-Sitters Club series (#1 Kristy’s Great Idea) by Ann M. Martin
•Goosebumps series (#1 Night of the Living Dummy) by R.L. Stine
•Point Horror series (try Halloween Night by R.L. Stine)
•Enid Blyton (try The Island of Adventure)
•Roald Dahl (try Matilda)
•Neil Gaiman (try Coraline)
♥Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi
♥The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
•Sula by Toni Morrison
•Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
♥The Color Purple by Alice Walker
△The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom
•Inferno: A Memoir of Motherhood and Madness by Catherine Cho
•Unsettled Ground by Claire Fuller
•Jubilee by Margaret Walker
•A Place Like Mississippi: A Journey Through a Real and Imagined Literary Landscape by W. Ralph Eubanks
•Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
•The Yield by Tara June Winch
•Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters
Thanks to this week’s sponsors:
Betabrand pants look good, feel comfortable, and they’re easy to wear with any outfit. Whatever your style, they have the pants to match. What Should I Read Next listeners can take 30% off your first order at Betabrand.com/READNEXT.
Rothy’s shoes are seamless and fully machine washable, making them ultra comfortable and ultra convenient. Every time they need a refresh, you can simply toss them in the washing machine! They’re simple, comfy, and they go with everything. Plus, they just launched men’s shoes, so make sure to check them out for you or the guy in your life. Check out all the amazing shoes and bags available right now at Rothys.com/READNEXT.
Brooklinen is the perfect place to find all the comforts for home, including ultra-soft towels — they offer varying levels of plushness, so you can choose the towel experience that feels most spa-like to you! WSIRN listeners can use promo code READNEXT for $20 off with a minimum purchase of $100 at Brooklinen.com.