Readers, after moving from Texas to Michigan, today’s What Should I Read Next? guest craved community—and an outlet for her “pent-up book energy.”
When she reached out to fellow readers about starting a book club, she quickly discovered getting started wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be—and that talking about books paves the way for deeper conversations.
Today, Shweta Hegde walks me through the steps she took to form a community of readers in her neighborhood, along with friendly encouragement for you to get that book talk going.
Moving to Michigan is only her latest move: Shweta grew up in India in a military family—so she moved a lot as a kid. In each new town she sought out that magical place that opened up her whole world: the library.
Readers, prepare to be consumed by bookish nostalgia as Shweta recalls her first experience at the library and the magical realization that she could take a whole stack of books home with her.
Listen in to hear how the library never lost its magic—and how these days, Shweta loves to explore new worlds in the pages of her books, and meet characters she can really get attached to.
SHWETA: My world just exploded. I'm still getting goosebumps remembering that time. [ANNE LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 295.
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, as you just heard, this is episode 295 which means we are just about a month away from a big milestone–our 300th episode! For our 300th we want to celebrate all that’s happened over the past 5 and a half years—and we’re looking for your input. We’d love to know something YOU learned from the show.
To be a part of that episode, visit whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/learned300 to learn more about how to participate in this special celebration. We can’t wait to hear from you. Again, visit whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/learned300.
Readers, after moving from Texas to Michigan, today’s guest craved community—and an outlet for her “pent-up book energy.” When she reached out to fellow readers about starting a book club, she quickly discovered getting started wasn’t as hard as she thought it would be—and that talking about books paves the way for deeper conversations. Today, Shweta Hegde walks me through the steps she took to form a community of readers in her neighborhood, along with friendly encouragement for you to get that book talk going in your real life.
Moving to Michigan is only her latest move: Shweta grew up in India in a military family—so she moved a lot as a kid. In each new town she sought out that magical place that opened up her whole world: the library. Readers, prepare to be consumed by bookish nostalgia as Shweta recalls her first experience at the library and the magical realization that she could take a whole stack of books home with her.
Today you’ll hear how the library never lost its magic—and how these days, Shweta loves to explore new worlds in the pages of her books, and meet characters she can really get attached to. That’s what I hope to recommend today. Let’s get to it.
Shweta, welcome to the show.
SHWETA: It's so good to be here. Thank you so much, Anne.
ANNE: Now, Shweta, tell us a little bit about yourself.
SHWETA: I am originally from India. I moved to the United States to Texas back in 2009, then moved from there to Michigan, and for the last ten years, I've been living in Michigan in this really sweet little town called Dexter, which is close to Ann Arbor. I live with my husband and our super delightful three year old daughter. And I work in the auto industry. I'm a technical project lead, so engineering job.
ANNE: Is that what brought you to Michigan?
SHWETA: That plus love. [LAUGHS]
SHWETA: So my husband was in Michigan at the time. He moved to Texas for about five months in January, and it was too hot for him, and [BOTH LAUGH] in the winter so I decided to give it a shot and I moved here and that's when I shifted to the auto industry.
ANNE: I am looking forward to visiting Ann Arbor one day. I've never been, but I heard it's a charming community to live in and that the literary scene is wonderful.
SHWETA: I mean, I am so glad that most of my favorite bookstores have survived during this last very, very hard year. With the university and you know, the bookstores, the library, it's a beautiful literary scene. You should come. I can show you around.
ANNE: I noticed that you said favorite bookstores, plural. What is one bookstore that you love that I should make sure I visit when I'm there?
SHWETA: So I'm going to give a shout out to the bookstore that's nearest to my town. It's called Nicola’s Bookstore.
ANNE: I don't know Nicola’s.
SHWETA: It's really, really cute. We actually went there last week after a long, long time and I just did not want to leave.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] What did you miss most about actually being in the store?
SHWETA: Being surrounded by books and seeing these new titles on just the new arrivals shelf and the display shelves and just wandering around touching books. Are we supposed to do that in a pandemic right now? I don't know, but I touched a lot of books. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I can hear your love in your voice. Tell me more about your reading life.
SHWETA: So I grew up in India. Back in the 80s, we didn't have as much of access to books. I started to read early on before I even started going to school, so my dad taught me to read in Hindi, which is a local Indian language, as well as in English, and we had this drawer full of old Indian comic books that I would read and reread. I kinda practiced I guess, but I loved it. We had a monthly subscription to this one magazine called Children's Digest, but it was the Indian version of Children's Digest, so very kinda local and, you know, once a year for summer vacations, we had this three day round trip by train to my grandma's house. My sister and I, we got to pick out two books each at the railway station bookstall. It was slim pickings. We'd get like the occasional Archie, but it was usually ... It was usually all kinds of Indian children's books which I still loved, and then my dad was in the army. He's retired since then, but we moved every three years to a new city.
So I think I was around 11 or 12 years old, the city had a library on the military compound, so it was called the Armed Forces Library. My dad just took me there and he set me free and I wandered around until I found the section labelled children's books, and I cannot tell you, I had never seen so many books in one spot with names of authors that I didn't recognize, and colors had these spaces that I didn't know existed, and I remember this is before the Internet. This is before even TV, so my world was really, really small, and my world just exploded. I'm still getting goosebumps remembering that time. [ANNE LAUGHS]
And I asked them how many books can I borrow? And they told me four. Four books! In one shot?! That was like a windfall, so I just sat down cross legged, I remember, between the shelves. I didn’t have a watch, I didn't know how long I was there for, but books kinda strewn on the floor around me and I saw Nancy Drew on the cover [LAUGHS] and Enid Blayton books with like the famous five eating scones and my world just opened up so completely and I remember hugging those four books [ANNE LAUGHS] like I was back every two weeks I couldn't kinda ... We had to drive there. I couldn't convince my dad to do more than that. [LAUGHS] But it was amazing.
ANNE: So everything changed at age 12 with the Armed Forces Library.
SHWETA: It really did. And after that point, we did keep moving but I sought out these magical places called libraries. I mean, we had libraries in school, but the books were all, you know, related to our coursework, completely academic, so I didn't know you could get joy [LAUGHS] like this from libraries.
I remember the one time though nobody was keeping an eye on what books I was checking out, not even my parents. They should have. [ANNE LAUGHS] Was it a Sidney Sheldon, or something. I just took it home. I'd say it opened my world up in not a very age appropriate manner and then [ANNE LAUGHS] I was still ... I kinda stayed away from them 'cause I knew I wasn't ready, but I would sneak one or two of these inappropriate books I would say and I'm air quoting inappropriate from time to time, so kinda my world opened up like that again.
And I had a similar feeling when I moved to Texas and I went to the local library in this little town of Sugarland and I asked the librarian so how many books can I borrow? And she said as many as you'd like. And I was just like whoa! What?! Goosebumps, again, and I still remember the feeling that I got all those times.
So my taste kept evolving and evolving and it was a little bit of a break in my reading, so I was always part of book clubs, and things like that, especially after I moved to Michigan, and then, you know, we had our baby in 2018, so that was a different world that I was discovering.
ANNE: Oh, congratulations.
SHWETA: Oh, thank you. So I kinda took my reading … My reading kinda went into parenting, not for enjoyment but for not messing up my kid. [BOTH LAUGH] And then the pandemic hit. That was kinda another turn in my reading life. I was looking out for just different things, new podcasts and things like that, and just because you know you want to escape. I wanted to escape that pandemic immediate surroundings, and I came across your podcast, and I started listening and your book recommendations kinda did that same thing to me where they started slowly drawing me into … Back into books. I realized how much I had been missing reading. And then your Summer Reading Guide came out, and I had the same feeling as I did on the floor of that tiny library [LAUGHS] back when I was 12 years old.
ANNE: Oh. That makes me so happy. Thank you.
SHWETA: Again, my world opened up and I started, I dove back into books and I started reading, not just from your Summer Reading Guide, but from everywhere and thankfully our library was still doing curbside so slowly here we are. I think I read 60 books from May through December of last year. This is books plus audio combined and 30 this year.
ANNE: Shweta, you mentioned book clubs several times as we've been talking. I'd love to hear more about the place of book clubs in your reading life.
SHWETA: Absolutely. Reading books is amazing, but talking about them afterwards is equally amazing, I'd say. Cause I find when I talk to people about books, I end up somehow liking them even more, even those that I thought I didn't like, I come back with kinda a warm fuzzy towards those books, so back eight or nine years ago, Meetup.com is where I found a book club. Actually it was a newly formed book club with a bunch of people and we'd get together every month, and slowly everybody kinda got busy with their own lives, you know, started having kids, moved away and the book club slowly dissolved.
And since I read so much this last year, I had all this pent up book energy inside of me [LAUGHS] that was kinda dying to get out and I made a post on Facebook just in my neighborhood. For our subdivision, there's a separate Facebook page, and I just put a call out saying are there any book clubs that are local to this area? Even if it's remote. Even if it's virtual. Within a day, I had like 30 comments on it saying I don't have a book club but if you're starting one, I'd love to join. And I hadn't planned on starting one 'cause it's so much effort, but it isn't so much effort, and I started one.
And, you know, we started meeting back in March, so we did a virtual meet up, and then we met twice already in our community park, and we're taking the next step, the big leap of meeting at an actual restaurant, patio table, but still. It's exactly what I needed cause I get to talk books. I made friends in my subdivision who've been living here for the last decade, and I didn't know that we had common tastes.
SHWETA: And then people talk about books. I feel like the conversation gets real. We pick experiences that we identified with. We picked things that, you know, triggered us, or somehow impacted us and you find out these things about people whose lives, I shared these things about my own life that I hadn't spoken of in a long time, and it's a great group. I'm really enjoying it.
ANNE: It's funny, a moment ago when you said when I talk about books with people, it makes me like them more. For a second, I thought you meant the people, not the books, but it sounds like both is often the case.
SHWETA: [LAUGHS] You're right, that too, it does make me like the people more. You find out more than just the shell. I guess it's true of books, too. I see things that I had missed just in the outer shell that I didn't go deep enough.
ANNE: Now we talked to one of your fellow Michigan readers just recently on the podcast. Something that Allison talked about was the difficulty of finding that book club and that sense of community there. I noticed that you said it was going to be hard but then it wasn't. Would you tell me more about what you anticipated being difficult about starting a book club?
SHWETA: Delicious stakes. How do we pick a book? How often do we meet? How do you make sure everybody remembers the details of who you're supposed to meet? Where do we meet? And you know, in a pandemic, you have to ask these questions of what people are comfortable with, 'cause it's different levels of closeness that you can do in a book club. So I just did it the cowardly way I guess. I … To send out online reasons to ask people, they're anonymous. We just go by what books are voted the highest. I ask for recommendations. I put in some of my own, yeah, we vote for them. We vote the date. We vote for where we want to meet, and it's not hard work. I don't ... Thirty minutes a month maybe. So much reward from those thirty minutes.
ANNE: That doesn't seem cowardly.
ANNE: That seems extremely efficient.
SHWETA: Let's call it that. I like it. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Thank you for sharing that with us ‘cause I know that we have many listeners — we're talking to you — who would love to be in a book club and it's that fear of getting started that's really stopping people from doing that, so thanks for sharing those quick little details. That's really helpful.
SHWETA: I have just one more tip.
ANNE: Oh, yes, please.
SHWETA: So I should mention that although there were like 25 respondents to that initial Facebook post, and I did make a Facebook Messenger group with all 25 in it, the maximum attendance we've had is about seven people. You know, life gets in the way, so if you have low turnout, don't feel bad, but the more the number of people you reach out to, even if like 30% turn up, it's still a pretty good turn out. I feel like anything more than three people is perfect for a book club.
ANNE: That's funny. I mean, three sounds great for a book club, but I was just going to say, if you want ... If you have that pent up book energy that needs to be unleashed, [SHWETA LAUGHS] you just need one person to talk to.
SHWETA: Doesn't feel like a club though. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: No, it doesn't feel like a club. It doesn't feel like a club.
SHWETA: But a book buddy is awesome as well.
ANNE: Agreed. I'm so happy that Dexter, Michigan has your book club now. So I've been waiting patiently to talk about your books. Are you ready to share your favorites with us?
SHWETA: I am.
ANNE: Okay, 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. How did you pick these titles?
SHWETA: I stuck to my last one year of reading. I didn't go farther back then that.
ANNE: So let's jump in. What did you choose for book one?
SHWETA: I really love this one. It's The House in the Cerulean Sea by T.J. Klune. It starts off talking about this government caseworker. Doesn't seem to have a lot going on in his life. He is assigned to essentially dig up some dirt on this house in the cerulean sea where there are a bunch of children who are magical and who are let me just say dangerous and [ANNE LAUGHS] borderline violent. They're being taken care of by this extraordinary gentleman. It's basically like a bordering house. The powers that be want to see whether they should keep this boarding house open or shut it down, what's going on there, and these children, they just stole my heart. [LAUGHS]
So they're funny, they're surprising, and of course yeah, okay, they're violent and dangerous but they're also children with real fears and real desires and some of it is just had me laughing out loud and some of it was just heartbreaking, like I was tearing up. It also has all of these themes running through it. There's kindness. There's fear. There's prejudice. You know, there's vulnerability and eventually, there's trust, and I read this around you know, Halloween last year, so I remember just cozying up to the fire on cold nights. It's cold here in Michigan around Halloween, so I would just snuggle up next to the fire with this book, and it just warmed my heart so much and it has very nice satisfying endings, so I like that. You get to almost choose a family and build these bonds and there's also multiple coming of age themes happening there, and I really enjoyed it. It was funny. It was heartbreaking. Really fun read.
ANNE: Shweta, what did you choose for your second book?
SHWETA: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. This was actually our very first book club pick. It's a long book. I have to be honest if it was not for the book club I would have given up on this book. [LAUGHS] Maybe a hundred pages in ‘cause it felt really slow to me, and I'll tell you why it felt slow to me because it's set in Russia back in the 1920s. It spans over decades but the protagonist is a count. He's an aristocrat who’s under house arrest at the Metropol, which is this really grand hotel, like really close to the Kremlin, but that's it. That's the premise about this one gentleman.
The story just keeps evolving. The Count builds relationships against this whole backdrop of the Russian Revolution. There are these really rich and sensory descriptions of food and wine. Delightful humor. I was laughing so much in this book. What I loved the most about this book is the Count, he builds a full, rich life in this one place where he came in knowing nobody and in the end he had friends and family and a job and everything, and it's really, really kinda uplifting, and again a really nice ending and I think my favorite part about this book was there's also a little girl who comes into the picture. I'm not going to talk too much about this.
ANNE: I forgot about her.
SHWETA: How could you forget about her?!
ANNE: It's been a long time.
SHWETA: Oh my gosh.
ANNE: That's my only excuse. [LAUGHS] Tell us about the little girl.
SHWETA: [LAUGHS] I didn't mean for it to sound accusing, Anne. I'm sorry. But ...
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You can accuse. It's fine.
SHWETA: [LAUGHS] There's this little girl who comes into the hotel and remember the Count has had no experience with children in the past and she walks in, she's a little lost. She has her one possession is this little doll that has no clothes and no name. He builds a relationship with her through games, through puzzles, you know, through just heart to heart talks, and eventually he is her father and she is his daughter and everybody is evolving in the book. The relationships are so heartwarming. I love this book.
ANNE: You said like it was a confession that you would have stopped reading this book were it not for your book club, but I think that's wonderful. You kept reading because you had this obligation to your community, I mean, not that ... In my book club, we'll let you come if you haven't read the book. That's totally fine, but you know, you had this internal obligation, and you ended up really loving it. I think that's wonderful.
SHWETA: Yeah. I'm so glad I didn't stop reading it. I would have really missed out. That's one of the reasons why I want to be part of a book club because I want to go beyond what immediately what appeals to me and to pick books that I probably wouldn't if left to my own devices, like I would reread the same book over and over again if I could just told by different authors. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And what would that book be like?
SHWETA: Remarkable children who are funny, who are going through a difficult time and making the best of it. That would be a book with really interesting characters and you know, feisty, older people. Just really nice, satisfying endings. I don't like abrupt endings. I spent days with characters and I get really attached to them. Sometimes a nice little bow on the ending is nice. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: That's good to know. 'Cause readers differ widely on how they feel about endings like that. Shweta, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?
SHWETA: So my third book is Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Now this book is very different from the previous books I mentioned, but it is beautifully written, and it's really well researched. It has a lot of different topics Yaa Gyasi deals with. Starts off with, you know, life in Ghana. I've never been to Ghana. I've been to a lot of other countries, but never to Ghana. She describes an immigrant experience, which was really very, very different from my own. She talks about you know, opioids and addiction, about scientific research and to mental health. There's a lot of other themes going through it too.
It's such an intelligent book, but it also has a story. It has rich characters, diverse characters. I found myself just marking that. So I don't underline in books. I don't highlight them. I use these little sticky kinda darts that stick out of it and my book look like a rainbow. There was so much. [ANNE LAUGHS] I just highlighted so much. She is so young and she writes beautifully and she seems to .... I was just amazed that she hadn't actually worked in the medical research field. So I feel like I learned a lot from this book. Again, it had a nice ending, maybe not, no real bow there so to speak. It was complete. There was closure at the end, and it was beautiful, the way she writes, it's insightful. Makes you think.
ANNE: I really like the way you put that, the book felt complete, and you find real satisfaction in that. Was that fair?
SHWETA: Yeah, absolutely.
SHWETA: I want to know that the characters that I like end up with something good in their lives, and sometimes the characters that I don't like get what's coming to them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That can be satisfying, too.
SHWETA: That's not so important, but those that I like should be happy.
ANNE: Shweta, I'd love to hear now about a book that wasn't right for you.
SHWETA: So I don't think I've read a book that I hate, but there are books that will annoy me. I find myself not enjoying romance books, and I don't enjoy YA that deals with like teenage angst. I think what I don't like is if two people clearly like each other, then just go for it, like why are you wasting your lives? [LAUGHS] You know? So the book that kinda checked all these boxes was Dating-Ish by Penny Reid. It was actually one of your podcast recommendations. [LAUGHS] But I always want to try books that I ... You know, there might be a gem out there that I'm just not reading because I neglect a certain kind of book completely, but this book, the premise sounded really interesting.
The protagonist is frustrated with her quest for the perfect guy, so she goes about this really journalistic fashion to find creative alternatives through romantic love. Things like professional cuddlers. It sounded really interesting to me, but when I started reading the book, I felt really like I was misled. It's nothing actually happens. There's no real description of any of these actual experiences. It just turned into a typical love story romance. I just kept waiting for something exciting to happen, but it didn't.
ANNE: So in this novel, one of the protagonists, he's a scientist, and his field of study is artificial intelligence, and he's working to build an AI thing, and you wanted to hear more about that.
SHWETA: Absolutely. I even forgot. See I forgot about the AI aspect because nothing happened. Like there was no AI characters, so it just ...
ANNE: Uh huh.
SHWETA: I mean, it's really interesting. If somebody’s listening out there and if you'd like to make a book [ANNE LAUGHS] about these experiences with fiction or nonfiction, I will read it for sure. So would many others. I didn't learn anything new from this book, and it ... Yeah. It just wasn't right for me.
ANNE: Okay, so that's really interesting that like with a romance novel, you know how the story's going to end up, but you don't know how you're going to get there, and that's a formula that many, many readers thought was perfect for them in the pandemic, but that didn't change for you. You still [LAUGHS] you want to enjoy the journey to the destination, and you don't want to know what the destination is in advance. Is that a fair blanket summary to put on what you just described?
SHWETA: Absolutely. I don't even read jacket copies, like I usually try to find out as little as I can about books.
ANNE: Oh, I'll remember that when we're talking about books in a moment. [BOTH LAUGH]
SHWETA: Yeah, I don't want to know where we're going, but it's nice when things end well.
ANNE: Good to know. You also expressed frustration with not learning anything from that book. Tell me more about that and what it means for your reading life.
SHWETA: By new things, I mean for example, what will an experience be like with an AI lover? What would you feel? What would an experience feel like if somebody was cuddling you, an actual person, that you knew nothing about? Does that make you happy? Does that not? It's an experience that I will never have, likely. [LAUGHS] So I want to find out about it from books. I think it's the same thing with Transcendent Kingdom. Even just learning about how the human body gets addicted to things and what the mental connection is and what kind of research is being done to break this vicious cycle, that's interesting to me. So finding out these things, which have social significance, or even just personal significance for me 'cause I do enjoy travel writing as well. I like finding out about cultures and things like that. That's new to me information, that others might already know. If you can tie that into a story, that's perfect. I don't think I would pick up ...
ANNE: Ooh, that was my next question. [SHWETA LAUGHS] Tell me more.
SHWETA: When I talk to my husband about it, he's like why don't you just pick up a book about, you know, mental health research? I don't want like a nonfiction book that is trying to educate you. I really like that it's kinda wrapped around like a slice of life. There's a story. There are people, and I'm air quoting real, I know they're fictional, but they could be real. They might as well be real. That aspect makes it interesting to me. It's not just academic studies but what implication does that, could that have, one possibility on actual people's lives? When I find a way to learn new things via stories, or via interesting characters, I feel really satisfied at the end of the book. It's a really rewarding, rich experience.
ANNE: So you want to learn new things through actual fictional characters' lives.
SHWETA: That sums it up.
ANNE: Shweta, what have you been reading lately?
SHWETA: So I just finished reading Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and this was for our book club. There are remarkable children. There's a lot of trigger warnings in this book. It's got child abuse and you know, a general mistreatment of people and that's something that doesn't sit well with me. I kept reading this book because it's beautifully written and I wanted to find out more about what happens, whether anything turns out fine, and I did enjoy reading this book, but I had to take breaks because I was bawling. I was really crying my heart out, but it made me feel something, so I did like this book a lot.
Because that was our last book club pick and it was really heavy, we are now reading Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker, and I am loving it. It's full of humor and I'm a red wine drinker and I do enjoy my evening glass, and now I'm finding out all these things that I don't stop to notice of wine and about the whole sommelier culture. It's fascinating and it's ... There's also humor in there. There's not a plot, but there's definitely a story that's going on, and I"m learning new things on every page and it's fascinating. I'm savoring it.
ANNE: So we're going to call that nonfiction memoir the exception that proves the rule?
SHWETA: Yeah. 'Cause I guess memoirs are stories, so yeah.
ANNE: Yeah. I'm thinking really hard of a book that would count as a story for you, or not. We might talk about it.
ANNE: Okay, so Shweta, the books you loved are The House on the Cerulean Sea by T. J. Klune, A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles, and Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi. Not for you is Dating-ish by Penny Reid because of the genre, the book didn't put the focus on the thing you really wanted to read about. And then lately Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate, and Cork Dork by Biance Bosker. I have to tell you, the last time I was in New York right before the pandemic, I walked so far out of my way because I read that book not long before and I had to go to ... Is it called Terroir, the wine bar that she worked at?
SHWETA: I think so.
ANNE: I just really needed to go.
SHWETA: I can see that. [ANNE LAUGHS] It's on my list of places to visit the next time I'm on the east coast.
ANNE: Alright. And what we are looking for is a book that is a little ... I don't know, is it fair to say something that's a little off the beaten path for you that doesn't have the same elements that your go to plots do with remarkable children, likeable adults, tied with a bow ending, although we are not going to give you depressing endings. [SHWETA LAUGHS] That is duly noted.
SHWETA: Yeah, absolutely.
ANNE: Oh, you love to learn. We have to say that. Whether it's travel or culture, history, medical research. Are there any topics that you would particularly love to learn about?
SHWETA: It's a blank slate because I didn't know that I would be so fascinated by medical research. [LAUGHS] So whatever you pick.
ANNE: I do love it when an author does that, that writes a book in such a way that makes you go oh, I just had no idea that that's what I wanted to read about. There is one book that I'm thinking of, and I can't decide which side of the divide it's going to fall on for you, but we got to talk about it because if you enjoyed this book, you are really going to enjoy this book. It's one that Yaa Gyasi has cited as being essential to writing Transcendent Kingdom that she relied on for her research and her writing style. This is unquestionably nonfiction, but it's written as a story which is really interesting because it's not about a person, it's about a thing and that thing is cancer. And this book is The Emperor of All Maladies, and it's by Siddhartha Mukherjee.
It came out maybe five years ago, but not only is it a sweeping biography of cancer, he says at the beginning, this is a history of the disease. The author's note at the beginning is really interesting and frames the book in a really interesting way. He says that it's a biography in the truest sense of the word, that he's attempting to enter the mind of this illness that has existed for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and he wants to understand its personality and demystify its behavior. He's also seeking to explore the question of is it possible that this is an illness that we can end?
A bio is a story of a person, and obviously cancer is an illness, but the way he's approaching it, I think might make this seem more like oh, how fascinating, and not yes this is my textbook for my class kinda reading, but also he takes pains to point out that like the story of cancer is a story of people and researchers and there's two that he follows in great depth in this book, but he also says that this is really his own coming of age story as a scientist and a researcher. But it's very much nonfiction, so what do you think?
SHWETA: I think it's worth a shot. Of course anything to do with cancer is a very tough theme, but I really like that you said that he treats cancer as its own character. I think it sounds interesting.
ANNE: Okay. I mean, we're taking a chance with all of these, but we're really taking a chance with that, but you're loving Cork Dork, which admittedly is a much more fun topic, but I think this could be fascinating, especially since you enjoy Transcendent Kingdom so much.
SHWETA: I think so.
ANNE: Okay. That is The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee. Next we have to go in a more fun direction. [SHWETA LAUGHS] Although still a little bit somber. You've talked about artificial intelligence and how that's what you really wanted to read about and so of course my thoughts were drawn to the new Kazuo Ishiguro novel that came out in March called Klara and the Sun. Is this one you have much familiarity with?
SHWETA: Yeah, I finished it ... [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And? And? What did you think?
SHWETA: It was fascinating. I mean, now this is kinda what I was looking for in Dating-ish, actual experience, and it also has some other themes running through it, right? Some themes about the choices we make, the risks we take. You're on the right track, Anne.
ANNE: In that case, I think because I know you read with your book club and you've chosen titles that are so wonderful to discuss with other readers, my mind is drawn to multigenerational family stories. How do you feel about going that direction?
SHWETA: I love them.
ANNE: Okay, good good good. [SHWETA LAUGHS] I thought, I suspected you might based on your interests. The book I have in mind is by Hala Alyan. it's her debut that came out maybe four years ago called Salt Houses. Is this one you know?
SHWETA: No, I haven't heard of Salt Houses.
ANNE: Oh. I don't know if this is something you care about, Shweta, but this is one of those books that has a family tree right in the front of it.
SHWETA: [WHISPERS] I like this.
ANNE: Okay, good. [SHWETA LAUGHS] It spans four generations of one family over the course of five decades, and it opens in the City of Nablus on the West Bank at a family gathering. The mother is getting ready to read the coffee grounds, tell a fortune basically for her daughter who's about to get married. This grabbed my attention right from the beginning 'cause the mother is peering into her daughter's coffee cup, getting ready to see her future. This is a skill, a gift that the women in this family have. She says she knows instantly she must lie because the future she sees there is not one she wants for her daughter and not one that her daughter will be happy to hear and you don't lie. You have to read the coffee grounds correctly, and they go into great detail about the history and how this is done in the family and how ... It's a serious responsibility to say that you will read the coffee grounds of someone you know because everyone knows you must tell the truth, but this one time she can't bring herself to do it.
And so what we find out from this perspective of where we are, we're in Nablus, a city on the West Bank in 1963 is that this family has already been displaced by war. They had to relocate from I think it's Jaffa, 15 years prior. They were driven to Nablus by war and over the course of the book, we rotate through the different family members, the daughters, the son, their own children, and see how they continue to be kicked around the globe really everytime their moves being set off by some event of war. I'm not sure if every skirmish or outright war in the book is historical, but some you'll definitely recognize, like the six day war of 1967 and the Iraq-Kuwait War of 1990, like people will remember those from their own lives or from their history books. This is a really, I think, moving portrait and intimate look at how these family relationships are shaped and formed and disrupted as events beyond their control force them to move states away or sometimes oceans away and try to find a life for themselves in the midst of these very difficult circumstances.
Seeing how their relationships form and change and shift, there's a central marriage in the book, the one between the doctor of the ominous looking coffee grounds and her husband that the author tracks I think in probably the greatest detail throughout the book. So you do stay with some relationships for the long term, but sometimes you just get a glimpse of characters and how they got to where they are and the forces shaping their life and then why they're forced to move on, and I know that you like to learn about new places. You'll get to go to the West Bank in Palestine, Paris, Boston, Kuwait, Beirut. You will get to travel in this book and also see an up close portrait of a family from the 60s to about the turn of the century and how they're forced to deal with these circumstances just beyond their control and I hope beyond the bounds of your experience. How does that sound?
SHWETA: Wonderful. I feel like it's checking all of the boxes, my wanderlust. [LAUGHS] So I love books about travel as well, so this is perfect, Anne, and also I've never read a book about the West Bank conflict so I think it will be great.
ANNE: Alright. We just have one more book left, and I'm torn. We could go history. We could go nature. I'm tempted to give you something a little bit magical. What sounds good to you today?
SHWETA: Can we do nature? Would that be okay?
ANNE: Yes, of course it would. The one I have in mind is The Overstory by Richard Powers. It won the Pulitzer Prize several years ago and was shortlisted for The Man Booker and a whole slew of notable awards but the reason you and I are talking about today is because of the trees. The Overstory as a title has several meanings but it also refers to the canopy of the forest and Richard Powers goes in depth describing all these aspects of trees that are very real and I had no idea about, like in some chapters I felt like I was reading more lab girl than a novel.
In the early chapters, he's exploring the lives of nine different people and what feels like in a series of stories but you quickly learn that these stories and these characters share one common thread and that is that they all involve a dramatic experience with trees and it is a slow build but eventually the stories come together in a really interesting way. What he's doing here ultimately is exploring the connections between humans and nature, and also the responsibility of one to the other. But he talks about things like how trees communicate with each other and how they react when they are harmed or threatened and how these things can be measured, even though they can't be seen by the human eye and he follows these researchers who are trying to do that as well as a host of other characters who aren't scientists but who are definitely affected by the science. I think you will learn something in a way that will go down easy. How does that sound to you?
SHWETA: It sounds so intriguing. I have no idea about trees except that I love to sit under them. [LAUGHS] But ...
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Well that sounds like a solid beginning to me.
SHWETA: Yeah. I think it sounds really great. I'm really intrigued.
ANNE: That was The Overstory by Richard Powers. So of the books we talked about today, The Emperor of All Maladies, our nonfiction outlier, by Siddhartha Mukherjee, Salt Houses by Hala Alyan, and The Overstory by Richard Powers. Of those three books, what do you think you'll pick up next?
SHWETA: I think I will start with Salt Houses and immediately go to Overstory. [ANNE LAUGHS] And then immediately go to The Emperor of All Maladies. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I like the way you're thinking, and I hope you report back and tell us. Shweta, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
SHWETA: Thank you so much, Anne. I really enjoyed our conversation.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Shweta, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/295 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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•Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene
•Edith Blyton (try The Island of Adventure)
•Sidney Sheldon (try Tell Me Your Dreams)
♥The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune
♥A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
♥Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
△Dating-ish by Penny Reid
•Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
•Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live by Bianca Bosker
•The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer by Siddhartha Mukherjee
•Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro
Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
•The Overstory by Richard Powers
•WSIRN Episode 287: I want to be where the readers are with Allison Matz