Readers, I can’t resist beautiful editions of the classics, or my favorite orange Penguin paperbacks, when I’m browsing a library sale or bookstore. Since I started my own shelf of special editions, I’m even more curious about which books my fellow readers put on their physical bookshelves. And today’s guest has a fascinating vintage book collection.
Brenda LaBelle is a make-up artist turned librarian living in Wakefield, Quebec. She inherited a love of stories and research from her folklorist father, who collected unique fairy tales and fables over the course of his career.
Back to that book collection: believe it or not, Brenda’s bookshelf full of vintage beauty guidebooks has some surprising connections to her taste in crime fiction. Brenda enjoys books with stylish prose and memorable characters, and her list of favorites includes titles you’ve never heard on the podcast. I can’t wait to hear which recommendations hook your interest today.
Have you heard?
One Great Book is back! On this short-form podcast, I pull one standout selection from my personal bookshelves, and tell you all about it in 10 minutes or less. Tune in on Fridays to hear about the great books I’ve included in this volume.
In previous volumes I’ve shared backlist selections, but in our brand new summer episodes I’m sharing in-depth looks at newer releases from the Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide. Listen wherever you listen to WSIRN: Just search there for “One Great Book.”
If you’re new to One Great Book, our episodes are short and sweet and evergreen, so if you haven’t yet listened to our previous episodes, go ahead and download those now, while you wait for the next one to drop. Subscribe now so you don’t miss any episodes of Volume V.
You can follow Brenda on Goodreads to see what she reads next.
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 288.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, One Great Book is back! On this short-form podcast, I pull one standout selection from my personal bookshelves, and tell you all about it in 10 minutes or less. Tune in on Fridays to hear about the great books I’ve included in this volume.
In previous volumes I’ve shared backlist selections, but in our brand new summer episodes I’m sharing in-depth looks at newer releases from the Modern Mrs Darcy Summer Reading Guide. Listen wherever you listen to What Should I Read Next: Just search there for “One Great Book.”
If you’re new to One Great Book, our episodes are short and sweet and evergreen, so if you haven’t yet listened to our previous episodes, you can listen anytime, in any order. And subscribe now so you don’t miss any episodes of Volume V.
I can’t resist beautiful editions of the classics, or my favorite orange Penguin paperbacks when I’m browsing a library sale or bookstore. Since I started my own shelf of special editions, I’m even more curious about which books my fellow readers put on their physical bookshelves. And today’s guest has a fascinating vintage book collection.
Brenda LaBelle is a make-up artist turned librarian living in Wakefield, Quebec. She inherited a love of stories and research from her folklorist father, who collected unique fairy tales and fables over the course of his career.
But back to that book collection: believe it or not, Brenda’s bookshelf full of vintage beauty guidebooks has some surprising connections to her taste in crime fiction. Brenda enjoys books with stylish prose and memorable characters, and her list of favorites includes titles you’ve never heard on the podcast. I can’t wait to hear which recommendations hook your interest today.
So let’s get to it.
Brenda, welcome to the show.
BRENDA: Thank you so much, Anne.
ANNE: Brenda, where are you in the world this morning?
BRENDA: I am in Wakefield, Quebec, which is close to the Ontario border.
ANNE: Oh. Those are places I would love to visit, not only because of Louise Penny and other Québécois [BRENDA LAUGHS] writers that I enjoy, but that’s not absent from the picture either.
BRENDA: So I work at the library of Parliament. I started as a reference librarian, but now I manage a program, produce research publications on that same program that I manage. So our analysts, they work for Parliamentary committee, but they’re also experts on all kinds of interesting topics and so they produce legislative summaries. They produce short papers on a variety of topics that can interest Parliamentarians and you know, those topics can be far ranging. It’s a very interesting job, so I just kinda make sure that all the pieces work together.
ANNE: It is fascinating to me how many different kinds of librarians there are. How did you get into that? Librarianship itself and also the very specific branch that you are in.
BRENDA: I was a makeup artist prior to becoming a librarian, which I know is an unusual career path, but I felt that I wanted to do something completely different and something a bit more cerebral, but still had that client service, and that’s why I went into reference librarianship, and then it just so happened that there was a job at the Library of Parliament and I mean, that sounded interesting to me, so I went for it and I’ve been there for 13 years now.
ANNE: Okay. Now my brain is trying so hard to remember the book I recently read that had a makeup artist but not turned librarian in it. Is that something that appeals to you in fiction at all?
BRENDA: [LAUGHS] I don’t think I’ve ever read a book that had a makeup artist as the protagonist. I’ve read lots of books that had libraries and librarians in it because I guess writers spend a lot of time in libraries so they know that world, but I would be intrigued to know what this book is, yeah.
ANNE: Maybe we will get there later in our show. [BRENDA LAUGHS] So give us a feel for what your day to day is like. What are some of the things you do in your work on an ordinary Tuesday?
BRENDA: On an ordinary Tuesday I would respond to requests from authors just about where their publications are at in the process. I have two employees that I supervise and so I’m in constant contact with them. I might check in with the group that does translation and editing and all of those things. I might work on policies, you know, I might actually have a publication that’s coming out and so we need to tweet about it and we need to send out an email to Parliamentarians to let them know that we have this new publication. So yeah, every day is different but those are sorta some of the regular things that I would do.
ANNE: Did making this switch to that professional setting have an impact on your reading life?
BRENDA: I don’t think so, no, I’ve always been a big reader [ANNE LAUGHS] so like regardless of whether I was a student or … I’ve always made time for reading because that’s what I like to do.
ANNE: We respect that here. We really do. What are some of the forces you think have really influenced the reader you’ve become?
BRENDA: My dad read to me a lot when I was a kid, so I think that’s where I got my love of reading. My dad is retired now, but he was a folklorist, which I know is an unusual job, but it means he kinda went above and beyond in finding interesting things for us to read together and especially sorta like fairy tales and folktales.
I remember a particular volume of Estonian folktales and I don’t know where he found that book. Must have been in a used bookshop or something. They were weird. It might have been something to do with the translation, but you know, you would read them and just be like [ANNE LAUGHS] what was that?
So you know, I got to have a variety of some types of stories read to me as a kid and then when I started reading on my own I did the usual, you know, Nancy Drew, Agatha Christie, and then when I started reading more like adult novels I got into John Irving. I remember reading Roots one summer at the cottage and just being blown away. So, you know, I’ve always been a voracious reader.
ANNE: He’s a folklorist? I know what the words mean and I can put them together, but by trade, I just, this is new to me.
BRENDA: It is fascinating and there aren’t very many professional folklorists. He worked in, you know, an academic setting and he taught courses at the university but in his own research, his speciality was the French speaking people of the east coast of Canada, the Arcadians who were kicked out of Canada and some of them landed in Louisiana and they were the Cajuns, so a lot of what he did was interview elderly people, get their stories, get their songs. He’s done like histories of particular villages. He does a lot of digging in archives. He’s … You know, even though he’s retired he’s still doing storytelling festivals and that type of thing.
ANNE: And he brings you home Estonian fairy tales.
BRENDA: Indeed he did.
ANNE: Now, Brenda, you came to us via our guest submission form at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, but I’m not sure that you remember that we have a snapshot in time of you as a reader from a previous submission back in June of 2018. Do you remember this?
BRENDA: I remember not taking the proper amount of time to be thoughtful in filling out that first submission which is why I resubmitted.
ANNE: I wouldn’t say that. So often it’s just a question of timing because if you do put it in a submission you don’t get a copy of that form back, but it is interesting to see how you might have described yourself in a nutshell a few years ago compared to right now, but the thing that made me think of this is you describe yourself as being very knowledgeable about Canadian literature and that you had got a lot of book recommendations listening to shows like The Next Chapter and reading book reviews.
ANNE: But that recently you had been having difficulties finding good, lighter fare because award winning Canadian fiction is often sweeping and serious.
BRENDA: That is true.
ANNE: Is that still true about your reading life?
BRENDA: It is, and especially in the last year, you know, my proportion to serious reading to light reading has definitely flipped a bit to the lighter side just because I can’t take a lot of dark subject matter for obvious reasons. But at the beginning of the pandemic, I mean, speaking of CanLit, I read a post-apocalyptic novel by an Indigenous Canadian author and I was kinda into it. I mean, I wouldn’t read that all the time but at that moment I was ready to, you know, kinda delve into that apocalyptic mindset.
It’s called Moon of the Crusted Snow and it’s by Waubgeshig Rice and it takes place in a Northern Ontario Anishinaabe community that is kinda cut off from the rest of Canada. They lose satellite, and then they lose cell phone and internet and then they’re sorta isolated and they don’t know what’s going on, so this is like a really sorta creepy setting and I enjoyed that at the beginning of the pandemic.
ANNE: What led you to pick that up?
BRENDA: I had gone to … Wakefield is a small village, but you know, this is why it reminds me of Louise Penny’s Three Pines because it's a very quirky sorta village and there’s lots of cultural happenings and there’s a book festival or, you know, there is in normal times. Yeah, I went to a reading where there were three Indigenous authors and he was one of them and I thought his book sounded interesting so I bought it and I got it signed and then the time was right to read it last spring.
ANNE: Oh, that sounds really interesting. I’m glad you discovered it. Brenda, how would you describe your reading life right now?
BRENDA: As I mentioned, I’m leaning more towards the lighter fare. I’ve kinda gone back to crime fiction which, you know, in my 20s and my 30s I tended to read more sorta chick lit as light fare, romantic stories, stories with a lot of shopping, but now I’m really into crime fiction, and that’s what I used to read as a teenager, so I feel like I’ve come full circle.
ANNE: Okay. I look forward to hearing a little more about that shortly, but first I really want to hear about your special collection you have at home.
BRENDA: Well as I mentioned I used to be a makeup artist and I do have an interest in beauty and fashion and I also my undergrad before going to library school to do my master’s was in women’s studies, so I do have an interest in feminism and all things having to do with women. So whenever I see these guide books for women, they’re usually beauty guides, but they can be other kinds of guides too from decades past, I snap them up because they are fascinating, even if they’re not specifically beauty guides, if they’re career guides, or you know, etiquette guides, they still focus quite heavily on beauty, so I think that was a clear message in decades past that to get ahead for women, you had to focus a lot on your appearance. I’ve read a couple from cover to cover but I usually just sorta dip into them and just get little nuggets from them. They’re quite entertaining. It’s not a huge collection, but whenever I go to, you know, basement church sales or library sales, I’m always looking for them.
ANNE: I would love to hear about one or two of the books that you have on your shelf here.
BRENDA: One of my favorites is Sex and the Single Girl by Ellen Gurley Brown. Ellen Gurley Brown of course went on to transform Cosmo magazine into what we know of it today and this book is just full of contradiction. I mean, it was quite revolutionary in the sense that her message to young women was that you don’t have to be married to have a fulfilling life. However, I mean, again it’s quite focused on being thin, looking right and even though it’s not about finding a husband, it kinda is about finding a husband. [LAUGHS] So I find that contradiction really fascinating. [ANNE LAUGHS]
Another one of my favorites is called Elegance and this one was used by Kathleen Tessaro as the inspiration for one of her novels and it’s really a guide for which shoes to wear with which gloves. It’s alphabetical, so if you want to know about hats, you can go to the hats section and read all about which hat to wear at what time of day and what’s appropriate and all that stuff.
And of course I also have Color Me Beautiful which is a classic, and when I worked as a makeup artist, [ANNE LAUGHS] women would always tell me oh, you know, I can’t wear pink because I’m autumn, and then I’d say mm, I don’t think you are an autumn. [LAUGHS] I did read Color Me Beautiful from cover to cover so that I knew what these women were telling me. [LAUGHS] One of my friends did ask me if I had Color Me Beautiful ‘cause she’d seen something on YouTube about it and she wanted to know what season she was. I said yes, I have it. I can lend it to you, but you’re a winter. You’re welcome. [LAUGHS] And then that’s really all she wanted to know.
ANNE: And I love how this particular interest is manifesting itself in your life in a tangible, bookish way. Brenda, I am really looking forward to hearing more about the books on your shelves. Are you ready to discuss your favorites?
BRENDA: I am.
ANNE: Okay, well you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll discuss three titles you may enjoy reading next. Now how did you choose these books?
BRENDA: I thought back to books that have really stayed with me so, you know, they’re not necessarily my favorites. How can you choose a favorite? But they are books that have stayed with me to recommend to others and they also represent sorta three separate genres because I didn’t want to pick three that were similar to one another.
ANNE: Tell me about book one.
BRENDA: So book one is Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding. I think everyone knows this book from at least having seen the movie. I read it when it first came out in the late 1990s and I was going through a heartbreak at the time, and it was really just what I needed and I’ve gone back to it time and time again. I’m not a huge rereader, but this one I’ve read probably four times during difficult periods of my life and it’s just so funny, so charming. It’s based on Pride and Prejudice, so you can’t go wrong with that in terms of the romance story. Like Pride and Prejudice, it has that satire element.
It’s also quite critical of the expectations put upon women, so for Bridget Jones being more of a contemporary character, you know, she’s always obsessed about her weight, about what she’s eating, about what she’s wearing. It puts onto the page that internal nagging voice that all women have. It can be dismissed as chick lit sometimes, but I would challenge any author to write a book that is that charming and funny.
ANNE: Listening to you talk about Bridget Jones just puts a big smile on my face, especially the fact that you don’t reread and yet this is one that you’ve come back to over and over over the years.
ANNE: Brenda, you said that you chose books that represent different areas of interest for you. What does Bridget Jones represent?
BRENDA: Bridget Jones represents enjoying to read about women’s lives and also really focusing in on one character. When I was younger I kinda liked these sweeping stories, multigenerational, you know, multi-continental but now I really, really enjoy just getting to know one character, just diving deep into one character and you know, I enjoy anything that’s clever and stylish, so I think that’s what that represents. And I like a good love story.
ANNE: Clever and stylish, those are wonderful adjectives. Brenda, tell me about the second book.
BRENDA: The second book is Gallows Court by Martin Edwards. I think I heard about this on your show and it is a crime novel. It takes place in London between the wars. In terms of crime fiction, this is really unique. I can’t compare it to anything else and I’m going to use that stylish word again because it has a bit of that playfulness with style. It’s kinda playing off of a little bit of that hardboiled detective, but what I really love about it are the main characters.
So you have this young reporter, a young male reporter and he’s trying to get to the bottom of what’s been going on in London with these murders and the other main character is her name is Rachel Savernake and she’s like this woman of mystery. She’s rich, she’s beautiful, she seems to know things that other people don’t. She might be involved in murders. We’re not sure. Another thing I like about this mystery is it is mysterious, you know, sometimes with crime fiction it’s too easy to figure out the mystery or there’s not really much of a mystery. This one I was really intrigued by the plot.
ANNE: And what does this book represent in your reading life?
BRENDA: So I do read a lot of crime. This is probably, you know, the best of the genre in my opinion, but I don’t mind, you know, just a formulaic mystery novel or thriller but this is a little bit special.
ANNE: Because it’s not exactly what you expected.
BRENDA: Exactly. It’s playing with the form a little bit. I think it’s very self-conscious in a way that it plays with expectations of crime fiction. It’s very clever.
ANNE: Brenda, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?
BRENDA: To complete my favorites I chose a biography. I do like memoir and biography. I don’t read a lot of nonfiction, but when I do this is usually what I reach for. It’s called Tete-a-Tete: The Tumultuous Lies and Loves of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre and it’s by Hazel Rowley. This is also a more serious book. I studied Simone de Beauvoir at university, so I read The Second Sex and studied it, but that’s all I knew about Simone de Beauvoir except that she was in this relationship with Jean-Paul Sartre. They were both French intellectuals. They were famously existentialists and Simone de Beauvoir wrote the very important book for feminists, The Second Sex, and they met at university. They were devoted to each other throughout their lives.
Now the author does a brilliant job in putting this story together, the story of their relationship, the story of their work, of their ideas, because these two, like they wrote everything down. They wrote diaries. They wrote letters to each other. They wrote memoir. They also ... Like she wrote some novels that were sorta a roman à clef, so you know, they’re novels but she’d just change the names, like they’re really autobiographical. So I don’t know how the author managed to like sort through all of that information and put together a cohesive narrative, but she really does, and so throughout the book you really get a picture of their relationship, their relationship to other intellectuals in France and in the Soviet Union and in America.
It’s a really complex story and what I really like about it is they were … Well especially her, like I’m really more interested in Simone de Beauvoir, she was a very complex person. Her and Sartre had this relationship where they were sorta radically honest with each other. They shared everything. I mean, it’s insane how much they shared with each other. Every single moment of the day they wanted the other to share with that, with them, but they were also sorta dishonest in their dealings with other people because even though they were devoted to each other, they each took other lovers, and they weren’t always honest with those other people. They lived their lives according to their own ideology, this existentialist ideology that said that you know, you have to have truth in your life and you know, you’re responsible for living your life in a way that matters and putting out work that matters.
They really weren’t very ethical in a lot of their dealings, so I like these stories about like very complex people, you know, no one is one thing or completely one thing or another thing. Everybody is like sorta mish-mosh of all these sorta things and also just the fact that they were devoted to each other and their relationships survived so much, it survived two wars, you know, the second World War, the war in Algeria. All these other relationships that they had with other people but they always supported each other’s work. It was Sartre who encouraged Simone de Beauvoir to think about what it was to be a woman, how her experience was different from that as a man’s.
ANNE: And what does this represent in your reading life?
BRENDA: I do enjoy memoir and biography. I also do like to delve into ideas, ways of living. I also like to learn about people’s relationships. I think that represents more of that serious intellectual side of me.
ANNE: Okay. We can have fun playing with that. Brenda, how did you choose a book that wasn’t for you today?
BRENDA: Well first of all I chose a book that I finished because I often don’t finish books that I don’t enjoy. I chose it because it’s a much loved book. [LAUGHS] I heard about it on your show and so some people might be revolted by the fact that I didn’t like this, but it’s also a book that made me quite angry and it does a couple things that I don’t enjoy, so. That’s how I chose it.
ANNE: [GASPS] Okay. I want to hear about it, but first I want to say every episode we hear from someone who hates the book that somebody else loved, or who listens to you describe a book that wasn’t right for you and we’ll get emails that’ll say oh my gosh, that sounds perfect for me. It’s on my list. Also it’s never just you [BRENDA LAUGHS] for loving or not loving anything. All that being said, tell us about it.
BRENDA: The book that I chose was Love Walked In by Marisa de los Santos. I did hear about this on your show, Anne, and someone had read the followup book whose name I forget and gave it to me so I thought well I’ll start with the first one, so I got it from the library. You know, I was expecting just a fun, light love story. I didn’t have high expectations of it. I just thought it’d be a fun escapist read, but right off the back, the voice really bothered me. I don’t like that kinda frantic voice and there are a few times I’ve opened a book and just read one page and thought I can't stand this frantic voice. It’s not that pronounced in this book, but it does have that like talking in circles, over explaining kinda vice that I personally don’t like.
Some people may think it’s quirky and fun. It’s not for me, and the second thing that it does and I will avoid spoilers, but I will just say there is a character that is used by the author to bring the story to where it needs to go, then it’s like that character was not a real human being that impacted the lives of the main characters that bothers me and Jonathan Franzen did the same thing in one of his books and when authors do that, it really bugs me. I like some of the characters, but I then picked up the followup book and I didn’t finish it.
ANNE: Now I feel like I should pick this up for a close read so we can evaluate it together, but Love Walked In features a character who’s pretty much floundering at the beginning of the book. Is that something that you also don’t wish to encounter? Or do you just not want the prose so thoroughly embody that state of being?
BRENDA: It’s really the voice. If I can use another example of that voice, like I started a memoir by Jenny Lawson I think her name is, and it had that sorta frantic, over explain-y voice that I didn’t like. Also Shonda Rhimes had a similar kinda voice in her memoir and I really didn’t get far into either of those.
ANNE: Okay, frantic is a great word. Tell me what it means in prose.
BRENDA: So when someone says the same thing in five different ways, just playing with language and using all kinds of descriptions and saying no, no, no, you don’t know what I mean, it’s more like this, and you know just over explaining.
ANNE: Okay, that is really helpful. We will keep that in mind. Brenda, what are you reading now?
BRENDA: I am deep into a book for my book club, one that I didn’t choose and I feel like I’ve been reading it forever ‘cause it’s been a bit of a slog. It’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. This also has a bit of a frantic voice and over explain-y voice. I’m not sure if this is a first novel but it kinda feels that way and I know I’m not saying it’s not good. It’s just really not for me. He really wants you to know everything about the main character, the sister, the mother, the grandparents, the whole recent history of the Domician Republic. A lot of stuff about comic books and nerd culture and it’s just … It’s a lot. [LAUGHS] There’s also like sorta this macho, misogynistic vibe to the book and I think it’s quite deliberate on the author’s part because he’s positioning the main characters in opposition to that, but it’s still tough to read as a woman when it’s just like ugh, you’re just like bathing in this sorta hatred of women. It’s not fun.
ANNE: That’s quite a visual.
BRENDA: And there’s also … There’s footnotes in this book and I don’t mind footnotes. I like it. Kevin Kwan does it really well in Crazy Rich Asians, but he just, he explains too much, and he explains the wrong thing because there’s lots of Spanish in this book and I wouldn’t mind it, like I know basic Spanish, so I can sorta get the gist but I wouldn’t mind a translation here and there. He doesn’t do it. [LAUGHS]
I just finished Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry which I really enjoyed. It’s kinda the opposite of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao because it’s just very restrained. It’s these two guys in their 50s. They’re at a ferry terminal in southern Spain and they’re looking for the daughter of one of the men who’s an adult and she’s sorta like this nomad and they’re trying to find her and they heard that she might be passing through, and you get the sense right away that they’re not completely above board, like these are shady characters. These are criminals, and so they have this like witty banter.
Throughout the book you kinda dip back into their past, get little snippets of the backstory, and it’s just done very beautifully. It’s almost poetic. Like there’s no real plot, but I don’t mind it, like it was just a nice atmospheric book where you get to know these characters who are not 100% lovable, but they’re interesting and they’re clever, like I very much enjoyed it.
And then just this morning I started a crime novel called Dark August by Katie Tallo. I heard about this on Canadian book radio program called The Next Chapter. It’s on CBC radio. A couple times a year they have a crime panel where they discuss crime novels. One person mentioned this book Dark August and everybody else went oh yes, yes, that was amazing, and actually she’s from Ottawa, so she’s a local author. It starts off like really tense in the thick of things, so we’ll see how it goes. And that’s pretty typical. I’m usually reading two or three books at once.
ANNE: That sounds intriguing.
ANNE: Brenda, what do you want to be different in your reading life?
BRENDA: I enjoy my reading life. I would like to read more books where the main character is just wow, you know, I really like those characters, like I was talking about with Gallows Court, Rachel Savernake like she’s not a realistic character. She’s almost like a superhero, but I like those kinds of characters, like I like Jack Reacher. I like Lisbeth Salander. I like those kinds of characters where you just can’t put it down, can’t put the book down because you want to know what they’re doing, you know, what their next adventure is.
There’s a Canadian novelist Ian Hamilton that writes this series of books that has a Chinese Canadian forensic accountant as the main character. Her name is Ava Lee, and she’s like completely not a realistic character, but I just ... I enjoy those characters, so I wouldn’t mind having a little bit more of that because [ANNE LAUGHS] I keep going back to Lee Child, but I want something different, you know?
ANNE: The characters who really like leap onto the page and throw their weight around, make stuff happen.
BRENDA: Mmhmm, and I heard on your show that they didn’t like Jack Reacher because he didn’t grow, like there was no evolution. I thought yeah, no, [LAUGHS] if that’s what you’re looking for, stay away from Jack Reacher because he’s the same for like 20 years. [LAUGHS] But I don’t mind that.
ANNE: Alright. This is going to be fun.
ANNE: I really like how something we’ve seen today is how your like almost anthropological interest permeate so much of what you’re drawn to in various aspects of the reading life, and I’m definitely keeping that in mind. Brenda, the first book I think you may enjoy is by E. M. Delafield. It’s called The Diary of a Provincial Lady. Is this one you know?
BRENDA: Not at all.
ANNE: Wonderful. I am happy to hear this. This is thoroughly British and let me just say that the title Diary of a Provincial Lady does not sound riveting but this is written as a diary, a journal, a format that you have enjoyed in the past and it’s very Bridget Jones, although it’s set in an earlier era, on the cusp of the great depression in the 1930s when things are bad and getting worse and that has that same satiric self-effacing tone that Bridget Jones does.
This is the story of a woman, an unknown narrator. We found out as a the book goes on that she’s in her 30s. She’s married. She’s living in Devonshire. She is … It’s filled with her snarky commentary on life, like at the very beginning of the book in walks Lady Box, I can’t not picture Lady Catherine De Burgh when Lady Box comes in. She’s just as haughty and [LAUGHS] vulgar, completely inappropriate, and shockingly rude in very entertaining ways and our poor unnamed narrator is like what can I say to get her to leave, but we hear her inner commentary on how she’s living her life and how she’s trying to keep up appearance and it’s not always going so well.
So one of my favorite scenes is from March 19th, and I did have this on my bookshelf so I pulled it down. She gets asked to dine with a talented group of her friends’ friends who are connected with the feminist movement, so she wears in a new dress. Well, it’s a frock ‘cause this is Devonshire. And for once she is satisfied with her appearance and yet she’s trying not to think about all the bills and the expenses and how much her outfit cost her and if she can return it later and self-effacing commentary about how she just wowed everyone with her appearances and she’s drawn out in questions and she felt so witty and charming and clever at the time and she knows later when she’s lying in bed at night and she’s going to be thinking oh, why did I think I was brilliant? What have I done? It’s just these funny scenes from her mostly every day life and circumstances that are terribly difficult that she suspects are getting worse and you like books that are clever and stylish and I think you may enjoy this one for being both those things.
BRENDA: Yeah, that sounds really interesting. You know, I do enjoy a woman who’s like kinda naval gazing and questioning her life and yeah, that sounds really good. I like that time period too like I read Enchanted April which I really enjoyed, so yes, I think this is one that I would enjoy.
ANNE: I hope so. Oh, and it does have that … You talked about Bridget Jones and how it also has commentary on society at large, commentary and criticism. That’s in these pages, too. It’s fun to listen to her make fun of her neighbors.
BRENDA: [LAUGHS] Nice.
ANNE: Okay, that was The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield. The next one I think is very similar and also very different to the book I just described. Have you read any Kate Atkinson? I’m thinking of her novel, her standalone novel, Transcription.
BRENDA: I tried to read Life After Life and I couldn’t get into it. That’s the only one I’ve tried reading.
ANNE: That’s interesting. This is a very different book and that Life After Life is oh gosh. I think I’m about to compare Kate Atkinson to Groundhog Day. In Life After Life, the protagonist, in the World War II era is living her life over and over, and she dies and she starts again and she makes some different choices and she sees how it goes and seeing how the different versions of her life spool out is very interesting, and also I think for you it was a little tedious. I am going to recommend you try her again with Transcription. This does stick to the World War II setting of Life After Life and also her book A God In Ruins but it stands completely on its own, the books are not connected.
This is set in London in 1940. Our protagonist, she is an 18 year old girl named Juliet and she needs a job, so she signs up for the secretarial pool and very quickly is surprised to find herself plunged into the world of espionage. Which she had no intention of doing and one of the things that she’s so surprised by is that she’s doing this grand important work and she has these ideas for what it’ll be like and it’s just so boring. [LAUGHS] So much of the time.
There’s one scene where she’s meeting a conspirator at a cafe and she’s been given the code and she’s just going through her mind, I wish I could remember precisely, but it’s something like she’s supposed to ask her for a crumpet and she’s sitting there thinking but don’t people order crumpets? Who came up with this? I really love the voice. Atkinson does not belabor any points. I don’t think you’ll find this frantic in any way. I don’t know that this is an outright mystery. I don’t think I’d call it that at all, but Atkinson has said that there is always some thread of mystery in everything she writes and she is the author of a beloved British mystery series, The Jackson Brodie books.
But something that I really like about this book for you is that Juliet is a spy and this is a spy novel, but because she’s a spy and a woman who needs to put on a new identity for her own survival and for the good of her country in the setting and to succeed at her actual job, Atkinson really plays with the concept of identity in this book. Like the protagonist Juliet she gets a new name and it’s Iris Carter-Jenkins, and she has to go into society and meet horrible people as part of her undercover life. You see Juliet really reflect on like what kind of person am I now and what should she do and how should I be? And you know, oh I’m this kind of woman now.
Like there’s one scene where she gets, I think she’s trying to get something out of a woman’s bedroom drawer, trying to uncover secret notes or something, and someone comes in, so she has to escape through a window and she’s like oh, Iris is plucky, I guess now I’m plucky. Let’s do this. The way Atkinson takes this spy novel and turns it into this exploration of what does it mean to be a woman and why aren’t the men just putting on new identities and shedding them and what is she saying about society and the world that Juliet and all women are trapped in? I think that level will provide you an extra layer of enjoyment in this story.
BRENDA: I love a woman who sorta breaks these expectations and I also love any novel about a young woman just starting out on her career. So [LAUGHS] I think that sounds - that sounds quite good.
ANNE: Oh, good, good, good. I’m glad to hear it. And finally, for that memoir and biography interest, I mean plenty of these themes overlap in all the books we’ve discussed, but you would find this in the biography section of the bookstore. It’s by Mary Gabriel. This title is called Ninth Street Women. It’s about five artists, Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement that Changed Modern Art. This came out about five years ago. It is a doorstop of a … I almost said novel. It is a doorstop of a biography. Is it one you have familiarity with?
BRENDA: I have heard of it. I think I read some reviews when it came out, so I’m intrigued, definitely.
ANNE: If Mary Gabriel sounds familiar she also wrote a book about Karl Marx and his wife taking you into their marriage and family and personal life of the man who now is known pretty much for one thing, and many readers have heard of that book if they haven’t heard of Ninth Street Women. I really like this for your interests and something that is has in common with the Tete-a-Tete is that while that is a look at two individuals and their relationships, and a whole web of relationships that surrounded them, it’s also about society and their culture and a philosophy of their work. Does that sound terribly dry and boring? You’ve read the book, you know it isn’t, but it’s about two people and yet it’s about more than two people and this book, Ninth Street Women, it’s about five women artists but it’s about much more than five women artists.
So the movement that changed modern art is abstract expressionism in the ‘40s and ‘50s. So the title comes from this exhibit that happens in I think 1951 on Ninth Street and it was a really important event in this abstract expressionism movement. People who don’t know a ton about painting, including me. I had to look up names of those five artists, think like Jackson Pollock and William de Kooning who’s known much better than his wife, but it really did give credibility to the movement and brought it a lot of recognition.
And Gabriel is known for doing meticulous research and interviewing people and she uses a lot of first hand accounts and first person stories in this book about what it was like then and what happens, so you get this intimate feeling and look into five women’s lives and careers and also marriages, ‘cause two of them were married to artists who were perhaps not more skilled than themselves but they were men and they were much more prominent and more easily recognized and covered by journalists and critics at the time, but also a look into the greater art world forces and how that was impacting society itself. So it’s a story of five artists, but about so much more than that and I don’t know. What do you think? How does that sound to you?
BRENDA: I think that sounds perfect. I did study art history at university. I love learning about women artists. I will read almost anything that takes place in 1950s New York because I just … I find that some interesting, just an intriguing era. This sounds like just perfect for me. It sounds like a good summer read, just like a deep dive into a, you know, a huge brick of a book about a group of artists.
ANNE: I really love the sound of that for you. Alright, let’s slide in a couple bonuses. For a mystery series that features a just larger than life kinda protagonist, I am just going to point you toward Louisa Luna and her Alice Vega series. Alice Vega is a bounty hunter who just generally doesn’t believe the laws apply to her. That’s why she doesn’t work for “The Law,” she works for herself and people hire her when they’re having a difficult time getting what they need to get done through the typical channel, so she is seeking justice, not always legally. Realistic it may be not, but fun to read about I think may be for you. And then I want to go back to the makeup artist book.
Lucy Parker has this London Celebrities series. The book that features the makeup artist front and center is #3 in this series. You don’t have to read these in order. They all stand alone. You’ll get a little more character development if you start with book 2, but the make up artist is in book 3 and you’ll be fine to jump in here.
This is a story about a circus artist named Trix who has lost her confidence after a fall, and she falls for but kinda hates also a makeup artist who is determined over the course of the novel to win this like really challenging competition for a makeup artist. He’s trying to land his dream job, and the intricate details of what he does and the tasks of this makeup artist competition and how he’s supposed to look, and he does a lot of special effects makeup where he may go work for holiday or something so he can turn people into the characters on say Guardians of the Galaxy. It goes into aspects of the job that I just never would have thought of. I would have thought of oh, blush and lipstick and here we go, but [LAUGHS] that’s not at all what he’s doing in this competition, and maybe it would be fun to read about. What do you think?
BRENDA: It sounds like a good vacation read, you know, it sounds quite escapist and fun. In fact, the series with the bounty hunter like yes, yes, yes. Those are going to be some vacation reads for me for sure.
ANNE: I am glad to hear that. Today we talked about The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield, Transcription by Kate Atkinson and Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel. And then we threw in the Alice Vega series by Louisa Luna and Making Up in the London Celebrities series by Lucy Parker. Now of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
BRENDA: I think I’m going to try to get my hands on Diary of a Provincial Lady. It just sounds like something I’m in the mood for right now, and then I will move on to the other ones. This summer I can picture myself, you know, outside in the yard reading the book about the women artists, so yeah, I’m definitely going to check all of them out, so thank you so much for these recommendations.
ANNE: Oh, that is such a happy visual. I love the idea of you camped out with your massive Ninth Street Women biography, sounds like you’re going to be set for an amazing summer of reading. Brenda, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
BRENDA: This has been great.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Brenda, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/288 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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•Nancy Drew (try The Secret of the Old Clock by Carolyn Keene)
•Agatha Christie (try Death on the Nile)
•John Irving (try A Prayer for Owen Meany)
•Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
•Moon of the Crusted Snow by Waubgeshig Rice
•Sex and the Single Girl by Helen Gurley Brown
•A Guide to Elegance: For Every Woman Who Wants to Be Well and Properly Dressed on All Occasions by Genevieve Antoine Dariaux
•Kathleen Tessaro (try Elegance)
•Color Me Beautiful by Carole Jackson
♥Bridget Jones’s Diary by Helen Fielding
•Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
♥Gallow’s Court by Martin Edwards
♥ Tete a Tete: The Tumultuous Lives & Loves of Simone De Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sarte by Hazel Rowley
△Love Walked In by Maria de los Santos
•Jonathan Franzen (try Freedom)
•Jenny Lawson (try Furiously Happy)
•Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes
•The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
•Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan
•Night Boat to Tangier by Kevin Barry
•Dark August by Katie Tallo
•Jack Reacher (#1 Killing Floor by Lee Child)
•Lisbeth Salander (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larson)
•Ava Lee (#1 The Disciple of Las Vegas by Ian Hamilton)
•The Diary of a Provincial Lady by E.M. Delafield
•Transcription by Kate Atkinson
•Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
•Ninth Street Women:Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler: Five Painters and the Movement by Mary Gabriel
•Two Girls Down by Louisa Luna (Alice Vega #1)
•Making Up by Lucy Parker (London Celebrities #3)