WSIRN Ep 312: Everyone needs a book box

wooden crates filled with books, a sign that says "graphic novels", and a person's hand resting on a crate

We recently invited our WSIRN Patrons to share their favorite holiday reading traditions, and one reply was so unique and fun, I decided I had to invite this reader onto the show to share it with all of you!

Kim Kortas lives in Minnesota, and she’s had a fun literary holiday tradition over the past six years or so: she collects books throughout the year and presents each family member with a personally curated book box over the holidays! Kim and I chat about how this tradition started and the ins and outs of how she makes it happen each year.

And of course, we also talk about Kim’s reading life! She’s looking for some tips on how to choose from her lengthy to-be-read list, and wants to feel more confident about describing a book she’s loved to others she’d like to share it with.

Listen in to hear a fun detour this episode takes as I narrow down the books I ultimately recommend for Kim today.
Then, let me know what you think and what you would have recommended in the comments!

Listen to What Should I Read Next? on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or your preferred podcast app—or scroll down to press play and listen right in your web browser.


What Should I Read Next #312: Everyone needs a book box, with Kim Kortas

ANNE: Can you tell us about a title or two you’ve chosen for each this year?

KIM: Oh, gosh. They will listen to this. They’re very excited.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Girls, you might have to fast forward this part til January. [KIM LAUGHS]

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 312.

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, with just a few short days until Christmas, we have two great last-minute gift options to share. If you’re still shopping for a reader in your life, treat them to a gift membership to our Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club or our Patreon Community!

Our annual Patreon membership unlocks weekly bonus content, mini episodes, book lists, and more, while our Book Club memberships come in monthly, quarterly, or annual options, and invite the reader into an online community full of robust discussions, live events with authors, and of course, monthly book selections.

Visit modernmrsdarcy.com/gifts to learn more and give a digital gift to a beloved bookworm this season.

Readers, we recently asked our Patrons to share their favorite holiday reading traditions, and we received so many delightful replies. For today’s conversation, I invited one of our Patrons to come talk about her unique book gifting tradition—and, of course, to ask if I could be of assistance for any bookish dilemmas of her own.

Kim Kortas lives outside of the Twin Cities, where she curates annual book boxes to give to her family members during the holidays. She’s been gifting book boxes for over six years now, and it’s a tradition her family has fully embraced. During our chat today, Kim shares how she came up with this idea and what she loves most about spending the year collecting books she thinks her loved ones will enjoy.

Today, it’s not book box recommendations Kim needs. Instead, she’s looking for ideas on where to start with her own overwhelming to-be-read list. She’d also like some tips on giving great recommendations herself: while she’s worked in bookstores in the past, she continues to find it challenging to describe a book in a way that makes a friend or family member actually want to read it..

My chat with Kim goes in a fun and unexpected direction. In the midst of our conversation, I decided to do something a little wild: I asked Kim to send me live the link to her Goodreads TBR, and I matched my initial ideas for recommendations against her lengthy list just on the fly. I hope the books I picked help Kim feel especially excited about what she chooses to read next.

After you listen, you can tell me how I did or share a book you think I could’ve recommended on today’s show notes page at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/312

Let’s get to it.

Kim, welcome to the show.

[00:02:38]

KIM: Thank you for having me. Happy to be here.

ANNE: We are recording here in December and that means at my house, Will and I are starting to think about what we’re going to get our kids for our Christmas book tradition that we started not that long ago. We haven’t been doing this particular thing since they were kids. Maybe just three or four years. But we give everyone a book on Christmas Eve. It’s kinda our own Christmas Eve book flood. So I really started thinking about what to get my kids and what to get Will. Actually, I got his book at the bookstore this week. He’s going to hear that. [KIM LAUGHS] I hope you love it, William. But I’ve only just begun. We were so excited at What Should I Read Next headquarters to hear about your own bookish holiday tradition. I hadn’t heard of anything like this before, but I’ll let you tell us - tell us about what you do.

[00:03:24]

KIM: I do in simple words book boxes. I do them for my children and for my dad, and my husband, but he gets a mini box because he is more of a digital Kindle reader so little hard to put those in a box. Gosh, my girls are 11 and 12 now and I have probably been doing it for at least six, seven years maybe. I start at the beginning of the year with book sales at the library or bookstores, anywhere that you can purchase a book or even just find a book for free, and I collect them over the year, and I put them all into a large box.

It is one of my favorite gifts to give, and I have to think that it’s probably one of their favorites to get because I do ask every year, you know, do you still want your book box? And they’re like of course! Yes! [BOTH LAUGH] I’m just such a big reader and I just been wanting them to be such good readers and big readers too, which they are and I’m very happy about that, so whatever I can do to fuel that and keep that going.

ANNE: Okay, that sounds amazing. Who wouldn’t want a book box? What inspired you to start this tradition?

KIM: I have to give credit to someone else. So I used to work in a bookstore. I did community relations, which amounts to a lot of author events and things like that, working within the community as bookstores are so important to communities. A friend of my husband’s came in and she asked me for some ideas for her daughters for Christmas, and I said oh, what is it that, you know, how many books are you looking for? And she’s like well, I do these book boxes every year for them and the girls were in high school I believe at the time, maybe even college, and she had been doing them since they were young.

So honestly that is what inspired me, and to be honest about what inspired kinda the all year is it actually is easier to do all year than to try to fit it into the typical holiday shopping period. Obviously this year, especially, if I had waited for certain books, I may not have been able to find them or get them, so finding them all year, knowing that my girls and my dad and my husband or whoever I’m giving the book boxes to know that some of these books are going to be gently loved books and some of them are going to be brand new books. That allows me to kinda branch out and look for them in half price stores or used bookstores or library sales, and I don’t need to feel like I’m not giving them something of value, right, or of worth because it’s not brand new. And I mean honestly, Anne, financially, right, to give a large box of brand new books from a bookstore, as much as I’d love to support my bookstores, might not be something that I can do.

[00:06:06]

ANNE: I completely understand. A friend of mine who works in publishing is always saying that a hardcover book is still such a bargain for all the work that goes into it and everything it takes to put a book together and to get it into your hands and all, but - but still, for avid readers who are reading dozens of these things, your book box idea sounds really smart. Tell me more about seeking out books all year long.

KIM: Yeah. There are days when I seek them out, when I’m going to go specifically to a book sale or to the bookstore, but most of the time the bookstore environment and the library environment are my calming places. They’re where I go to relax, to decompress. Sometimes after dinner, or on a Saturday afternoon, I just need to go somewhere and I’ll just walk into the bookstore and that's just how it happens and I hold them all in the gift closet downstairs. Right about the November-ish time frame I start to look at what I’ve collected over the year and what new ones I want to add, so by the time November, December comes when I’m really in holiday shopping mode, I really only have like maybe one or two new books to purchase to kinda round out the box.

ANNE: Can you tell us about a title or two you’ve chosen for each this year?

KIM: Oh, gosh. They will listen to this. They’re very excited.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Girls, you might have to fast forward this part until January.

KIM: My 11 year old, she loves mysteries and eats up those Encyclopedia Browns. I mean, she’s beyond that from a reading level, but she just loves mysteries. But this year, I’m introducing her to Calvin and Hobbes.

ANNE: Ahh, I’m so excited for her and for you.

KIM: [LAUGHS] Yes. Real excited for her to open that and get started on that. And my 12 year old, you know, she’s in 7th grade and oh gosh, Anne. She’s at that point where it’s like is she young adult, is she still a young reader? What am I okay with her to read? She still likes to go back to Diary of a Wimpy Kid because those come out every year, and I put The Outsiders in. I don’t know if that’s going to be good or not for her. I should probably reread it. I feel like she’ll be okay with that.

ANNE: I want to know who puts together your box.

[00:08:12]

KIM: Oh, gosh, Anne. [BOTH LAUGH] You know, I buy books all year. I don’t need the book box [ANNE LAUGHS] as much as I would love to have one. I should probably just put things in a box and put it under the tree but I do belong to book subscription service, you know, and so I feel like I get a box every month. [LAUGHS] So that’s my treat throughout the year.

ANNE: Oh, that’s fun. That’s a great treat for a reader. I’d love to hear a little more about your dad’s box. How do you approach that differently for an adult?

KIM: Especially fathers, grandfathers, uncles just are so hard to buy for. My dad is a lifelong reader. He was a school teacher for 30+ years. He just turned 81 and he only uses his glasses to read. [LAUGHS] He was a history teacher, but he also loves fiction and so I try to meld historical fiction with his. I do try to get all hardcovers for him just for the sake of the print and print type, and it’s just easier I think for him to read hardcovers ‘cause some of those paperbacks, I certainly couldn’t give him a mass market. He wouldn’t be able to read that I don’t think.

ANNE: The ones where a 500 page novel is like just half an inch thick.

KIM: Yeah. The bricks. But his are challenging because he is older and has read so much and since he’s retired that is what he does, right, is he reads and he reads all day, every day, and he loves John Sandford and the Prey series.

ANNE: I don’t know John Sandford.

KIM: Oh, you don’t know John Sandford? He’s … He actually was a journalist or reporter for the newspaper here in St. Paul and writes under the name of John Sandford and he has these Prey series. He’s also got another series I think it’s the Virgil Flowers series that’s spun off from the Prey series. Prey is P-R-E-Y. My dad loves those. They’re kinda like the thriller/mysteries, I think they can get a little graphic if I remember correctly. Loves those types of thrillers and mysteries. Loves, you know, Sue Grafton. He still reads all of the John Grisham books. Those types of things. I’ve given him a lot of Erik Larson books over the year because of the way those are written so well and so entertaining with alternating chapters. His are much harder to buy than the girls, for sure.

ANNE: How’s it going this year?

[00:10:30]

KIM: Just ordered my last one for him. Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-to-Zion Journey Through Every National Park by Conor Knighton. I believe he’s a journalist that went through the National Parks and just kinda his story.

ANNE: Kim, after you give these book boxes to the people in your life, what happens next? What incite do you have into how they use them?

KIM: You know, of course when they open them on Christmas morning, it’s all, what did you get? And what did you get? And because they’re so close in age a lot of them are, you know, they can each read them. So they kinda pick what they wanna read first, put that by their bedside or on their desk in their room and then the rest go on their bookshelf.

And I challenged them this year, I said, you know, when you guys get your book box this year, why don’t you challenge yourself to try to get them finished by the summer? You know, by the end of the school year. And if that’s too much, then at least try to get them done by next Christmas. They kinda nodded and thought that was okay. You know, they might put them on a special shelf to be like need to read first or you know, my challenge shelf or something like that. I’m just going to work with them a little bit more on that and see what they think about that.

And my dad, he does have special shelves in his house. I didn’t know that he did this, but when I was over there recently I noticed that all of the books I have given him in his book boxes over the years are separate from the rest of his books.

ANNE: Ooh. Oh, that’s so sweet.

KIM: Yeah. Yeah. I didn’t know that, so that was really fun to see.

ANNE: Well, I hope this year’s boxes are a big hit.

KIM: Thank you.

ANNE: Now, Kim, we have to make sure that you have your own good stuff to read, although it sounds that’s not a big struggle for you.

KIM: Well, it depends on what struggle, you know. [BOTH LAUGH] Or … There are so many. My bookshelves are full and yet I still have that quote-unquote “problem” of buying more and then not reading everything that I have, so I do read a lot, but I do struggle with what to read.

[00:12:24]

ANNE: You want to talk about that? Because we have a way to do that here.

KIM: Yeah, I figured. [BOTH LAUGH] So I do have a book club, so that always helps, right? I usually have two or three books going at a time, and then of course there’s the library, that’s your friend and your enemy because everything becomes available at the same time, whether it’s audio or print, it’s just like your book is here. Your book is ready to download. You’re just like ahh! [BOTH LAUGH] Like oh my gosh, okay. Hold for seven days please. I struggle with that. How do I sort through and just really connect with a book that makes me wanna keep going with it. There’s so many.

ANNE: Alright. Let’s spill your metaphorical book box. You give people in your life that you know really well the gift books that you suspect they will be really excited to get ahold of and to read, and so let’s do that for you today.

KIM: Alright.

ANNE: Okay.

***

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***

ANNE: Kim, you know what we do here. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next, and we will I hope do it in such a way that we assuage some of your readerly struggles and not add to them.

[00:15:34]

KIM: [LAUGHS] Okay.

ANNE: We’ll - we’ll see what we can do. Tell me about a book that you loved.

KIM: Alright. So one of the books I loved is called Wild Swans Three Daughters of China by Jung Chang. Nonfiction, surprisingly. Story of three generations of Chinese women, so it starts with the author’s grandmother, then her mother, and then her. You know, starts from the early 1900s, turn of the century into … It’s an older book so I think it goes into probably maybe the ‘80s or the ‘90s. I think it was first published maybe in ‘93.

[00:16:10]

ANNE: What was it about this book that made you feel so I think you used the word connected to it, to describe books that you really enjoy.

KIM: Yeah, I picked my three favorites based on having a real reaction to, a feeling whether it’s being connected to it or whether it was an emotional feeling or something that just really resonated at the time I was reading it.

With Wild Swans, I happened to be living in Japan at the time and this book was given to me by a friend I met over there. She was from Indonesia and she’s like just read it. You know, I’m like, I don’t really read nonfiction and the book is huge, and I do believe she gave it to me in the mass market format, so it was even larger than the trade.

So I did and I couldn’t put it down. It was so engrossing. Mostly because it was the right place at the right time to be reading about everything that had happened historically in China with this family told from the, you know, three women. I mean, obviously I was in Japan and not China, but to get a sense of the historical relationship between the two countries was just really fascinating to me and I just couldn’t put it down.

ANNE: Kim, tell me about another book that you really connected with.

KIM: Going back to what made me kinda feel something. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein. The book with the dog, and I read this probably in my, oh gosh, 30s. The first book, Anne, that I can remember making me cry.

ANNE: Wow. What a milestone.

KIM: Yeah, so when I was choosing my favorites I thought that one keeps coming back to me as a book that I was so engrossed with and obviously a dog being a character in the book is always going to pull me in. Just that story, I have not seen the movie. I don’t want it to ruin anything for me. I just remember this book as the first story, the first book to make me cry, and not just cry, but like sob. [LAUGHS] Like not just the tear running down your cheek, right, I mean, it was like hand me the Kleenex box, please.

ANNE: Kim, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?

KIM: I went with a classic. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Why I chose this is that it was a recent read and it was a recent reread and I don’t recall liking it when I first read it, and I think it goes back to being in the right place in the right time when you’re reading books. I read, I think it’s called The Girl Upstairs, or The Woman Upstairs.

[00:18:42]

ANNE: Oh, yeah. The one that came out last summer.

KIM: Yes.

ANNE: The retelling.

KIM: I read that first actually. You know, of course all the buzz around it was the retelling of Jane Eyre, a modern Jane Eyre, and I was like you know, I gotta go back and read Jane Eyre and just kinda see. Oh my gosh, it was such a different experience than the first time I read it. I mean, this woman. Her independence, her frame of mind. How did I miss all this the first time, you know. I just found myself, which I don’t do very often, grabbing a notebook and copying down those phrases and different things that I wanted to remember that she said. Goodness, what a character. And I missed all that the first time, so I’m so glad I reread it because it’s now one of my favorites.

ANNE: How old were you when you read it the first time?

KIM: Oh, probably in my teens or 20s.

ANNE: Yeah.

KIM: You know, can’t remember if it would have been a required reading. I wanted those, you know, fancy hardcover books on my bookshelf when I was in my first apartment and I wanted to look impressive, right, that I have all these classics, you know, because they’re supposed to be good and I think it was just there and I think I just grabbed it and started reading it and like eh. Old time, no relevance to today. Blah blah blah. Oh, I was so wrong. I just love this book now.

ANNE: Kim, tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.

KIM: Book that wasn’t right for me was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. I have to admit, I tried this on audio and I was really excited about it because the … It’s a fullcast that does the audio. In that cast is two of my favorite people, Nick Offerman and Megan Mullally. Both of them are in there. I was just like this has gotta be a homerun, right. It’s George Saunders. It’s Lincoln. It just had a great premise, and I actually was thinking about giving it to my dad in his book box, and so I thought oh, I’ll just read it first.

I had no idea what was going on and [ANNE LAUGHS] everyone did a great … It has nothing to do with or fault of any - anybody. I was just like who is this character? And what are they doing? And is this a ghost? Or is this a real person? Or this … You know. I just couldn’t track with it. You know, I would be out listening to it walking my dog and I’m just like I have no idea what’s going on in this book and I … When I find myself having to kinda rewind too many times, this just isn’t for me. At least not right now. And maybe it’ll be different on the page. I did not give it to my dad by the way. [ANNE LAUGHS] There was a lot of swearing in it, and I still, [LAUGHS] even though he is older and I’m older, I’m certainly not a kid anymore, I was like I can’t give a book like this. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I didn’t.

[00:21:14]

ANNE: I read the egalley of that book, so when I’m doing this the formatting is often a little wonky. I just had no idea what was going on. I didn’t know anything at all about the story and I ended up really appreciating it, personally, but oh, gosh, as you’re describing listening to the audio I’m just remembering that feeling of disorientation I had at the very beginning of that book because I didn’t know what he was trying to do and it’s really ambitious and interesting. And that seems to be like a book that people either love or hate and it’s also one of the few books I’ve heard people say might be best read simultaneously with the audio in your ears and your eyes on the page ‘cause you just need a little extra help figuring out what is going on.

KIM: Yeah, that’s a great idea.

ANNE: That doesn’t mean it’s the right idea for you. Just putting that out there. Kim, what have you been reading lately?

KIM: So I just finished The Turnout by Megan Abbott. That was okay for me. I didn’t love it. I didn’t not like it. It just was okay.

ANNE: I didn’t finish that one myself. And I know people who adored it, but I think, you know, of course I was reading it during the pandemic era because now [LAUGHS] that’s not as precise as pinpoint as we thought it’d be. I mean, she doesn’t write bright and cheery books, but that one felt a little darker to me than her books that I had read before and so that could have totally been it.

KIM: Well, it’s interesting that you say that because I honestly didn’t know anything about Megan Abbott, and so I kinda went in hearing all this buzz about this and I thought oh, that sounds like a really great story, and yeah, it is dark. I was like whoa, wait, what? And then I was like uhh, okay, kinda uncomfortable for me. Yeah just … Yeah, it was just okay. I’m also about halfway through a new book called My Life in Full: Work, Family, and Our Future by Indra Nooyi.

[00:22:59]

ANNE: Oh, I don’t know that one.

KIM: She is the former CEO and chairwoman, I guess, for Pepsico and just recently retired and this is her story of not only of how she got to where she was with Pepsico, but what I’m finding really interesting about it is just her take on what is that balance between work and family, and she and her family experienced similar struggles of, you know, lack of daycare or trying to provide daycare on a last minute … You know, there was just a lot to it and it was just not your typical kinda business, CEO memoir type book. It goes a little deeper than that into how can we make things different and what she did differently in the places that she worked at and what she brought in based on her thoughts and her passion for work and family balance and things like that.

ANNE: Well that sounds really interesting. Okay. Kim, let’s recap. The books you loved are Wild Swans by Jung Chang, the Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein, and Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders was not right for you. Recently you read The Turnout by Megan Abbott and My Life in Full by Indra Nooyi. You are looking for books you really connect with, but what else? What are you looking for right now? What do you want to be different in your reading life? We might be talking about the struggles again, Kim.

KIM: [LAUGHS] Two things: I have over 1100 books on my TBR list.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Wow.

KIM: Right? If I read 100 books a year and didn’t add one more book, I mean, we’re talking 11 years, right? Goodness. That’s a lot of books, and so that is a struggle. Secondly, I have a really hard time describing books to other people, especially when I’m recommending a book. I tend to be like well, I liked it. It was fun. It was funny. I just can’t seem to get into more of why this person might like that book, you know, without their eyes starting to glaze over while I’m hemming [ANNE LAUGHS] and hawing over what to say. I mean, I have my own struggles with my actual lists and then I have struggles with recommending, describing books.

ANNE: It sounds like what you’re saying is your gut says I think it’s worth you giving this one a look, but just getting that into words is where it breaks down.

KIM: Yes.

[00:25:20]

ANNE: Even after doing this show for almost six years, I’m constantly surprised by how difficult it can be, especially to describe a book you really love ‘cause what so many people end up doing is [LAUGHS] I just really liked it. I know. I just liked it so much.

KIM: [LAUGHS] Exactly.

ANNE: And that’s not particularly helpful to the person you’re talking [KIM LAUGHS] to unless they really, really trust you.

KIM: Yeah.

ANNE: Let’s think about what we’re going to do here ‘cause you have 1100 books on that TBR and I don’t really want to give you new suggestions. Kim, how do you keep that TBR?

KIM: Goodreads.

ANNE: How about this. Tell me some books that you think you have strong reason to read but haven’t picked up yet but in your heart, you’re not really like jazzed to read it right now. I’m going to try to describe the ones that I think are right for you in a way that will get you excited about reading them right now.

KIM: Okay. I just sent you the link to my Goodreads TBR.

ANNE: Okay, and oh, now I can see it. Alright. Oh, so when you said you had 1100 books on your TBR, you meant 1,100 books exactly on your Goodreads want to read list. [KIM LAUGHS]

***

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***

ANNE: Oh, I recognize some here. So here’s Don Casmurro, I’m gonna bet anything that came from Peter Heller in our 300th episode event.

[00:27:27]

KIM: Yes it did. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: No Cure For Being Human, Kate Bowler, I think you’d like that. The Every by Dave Eggers. I have to say I read the flap copy in the bookstore, that was funny. [KIM LAUGHS] Starts by saying why do we write this flap copy? Don’t we know nobody reads it, nobody cares? [KIM LAUGHS] Like everybody reads it! This is the problem. Oh, you got this Maggie O’Farrell book. Oh, you’ve got all kinds of good stuff here. Okay, so I’ve been making notes as we went along of books that I thought you might enjoy and I’m just going to see if any of them are on your TBR already.

KIM: Oh gosh, okay.

ANNE: I’m almost afraid. Okay, no, no, no My Plain Jane. [GASPS] Oh, this makes me so happy. I didn’t really want to recommend a new book to you because you have 1100 books on your TBR, but you added this to your TBR on October 19th, 2021 and so I’d like to call it fair game. Do you agree? Am I strong-arming you too much?

KIM: No, not at all. Let’s go for it.

ANNE: Oh. And I love that you have bookshelves that are read, currently reading, want to read, but also book box ideas.

KIM: [LAUGHS] Yeah.

ANNE: Okay. And I’m going to look at your started but DNF’d shelf, just to make sure I don’t recommend you one of those. So you really love books that you feel like you have a personal connection to, that pull you in, that make you feel strong emotions. You talked about how living in Japan at the time you read Wild Swans was being in the right place at the right time with the right book where the story really meant something to you, not just in your brain but like in your actual place right then.

And even the way you described Jane Eyre, I could see you connecting to her not just as a character but as a character with deeper meaning and a story with greater implications than just those 300 pages held on their own. One that means something in the larger sense, you know, culturally. Something else, Kim, that you touched on very briefly is that you have a history of working in bookstores.

[00:29:17]

KIM: I do. I have worked in an independent bookstore in St. Paul that has since closed. That was actually my first foray into working in bookstores and fueled my passion for all things books. I mean, it was already there, but I think it tends to go away during college or high school when you’re forced to read certain things. When that bookstore closed, I moved to a different bookstore that was more of the chain variety, but still doing the same work with the community, with the schools, with author events. Just loved it.

ANNE: The first book I have in mind I think would be such a fun pick for you. The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. This is a new novel.

KIM: Oh, yes.

ANNE: It just came out last month in early November. It’s so fun and clever, which is saying a lot because it’s also a book about hard and heavy things. I’m enjoying it so much. I was actually just telling Will this morning how not every author could get away with this and do it well and do it right and do it in a way that the reader will appreciate, but Louise Erdrich writes herself into her own story as the bookstore owner, the owner of Birch Bark Books, so she appears on the page, which is just this is strange, I mean, my brain did a little hiccup, [KIM LAUGHS] like oh that’s — She’s .. The first time she referred to a Louise in the bookstore, I thought oh, that’s totally what’s happening, right? But let me back up.

So this is a new novel set in the contemporary era, like set right now. At its center is an Ojibwe woman named Tookie. Very early you’ll find out Tookie went to prison for a long time for stealing a body. That was well intentioned more or less, but her big mistake was not checking the armpits. [KIM LAUGHS] You will hear how all that connects but she went to prison for a long time. She does get out decades early, which surprises her greatly and she ends up feeling just so deeply grateful for the quote-unquote “normal life” that she thought she’d never get to live again.

I mean, the first 30 pages will really make your head spin seeing everything that happens to Tookie. There’s a crime of grand larceny and a romance and a restoration to normal life but in the interim she falls in love with reading in prison. It’s the one thing that gets her through her time there and she waxes poetic about why and what she discovered and what it meant to her but when she gets out she needs a job, and she goes to the bookstore and she meets Louise, Louise Erdrich, [KIM LAUGHS] who says you know, this a dark time for bookstores are probably not going to make it. You want the job? This sense of humor just really permeates the whole book. Tookie in her mind is thinking, like can you not see me? Like I look like a tough lady. She said who in the right mind wouldn’t talk to me and then feel like they had to buy a book, like I’ll be great at this.

Tookie loves her job and her normal life, and then there’s lots of little vignettes about people coming in the store, browsing for books, Louise is making recommendations and so is Tookie. Oh, you love that book? Let me tell you what happens next. Oh, you’re scared about facing your family ‘cause they don’t like your boyfriend? Let me tell you about this book you should read. And they are all real books and there’s actually an appendix in the back that includes something like a 150 books Louise Erdrich references in the book [KIM GASPS] and I think as a reader and a former bookseller, I don’t know if this is going to help with your struggle, but I think you will find it lots and lots of fun.

We need to skip ahead to when Tookie’s most annoying customer Flora dies while reading. She’s gone and yet five days later she seems to be back haunting the bookstore, trailing her regular path through the store, leaving books unshelved. Paper towels are being found in the bathroom at exactly the same, you know, frustratingly they fluttered everywhere kinda scenario that happened when Flora actually used the bathroom at the store before she died. So Tookie has to figure out what is going on here? That is the really fun clever set up and listening to Tookie’s inner dialogue going I know what my husband thinks about people who sees ghosts, so I can’t tell him, but I have to tell him [KIM LAUGHS] as she tries to figure out how do I have this conversation with people?

Meanwhile this novel is set in contemporary times and it is set in the Minneapolis, St. Paul area. In the time this book is set, the pandemic begins and George Floyd is murdered. That actually took place just a few miles from Birch Bark Books and those things make their way into the story as well. I could hear by the way you described Jane Eyre that you really have an eye for symbolism and deeper meanings and those are so present on every page, and I think you’ll find it really rewarding to see what Louise Erdrich … I feel like I can call her Louise now because [KIM LAUGHS] she’s Louise in the book as the character. I just want to talk about the character. I think you’ll really enjoy seeing what Louise is up to and also really feel touched by and connected to the story.

[00:33:58]

KIM: It sounds awesome. Like you just said you connected the local, I mean, I’ve been to the bookstore, feeling that connection to the Minneapolis area and the events that she pulls in from recent years spot on. Very excited.

ANNE: Kim, I have searched the other seven titles I jotted down during our conversation and they are not on your TBR. Oh wait, I forgot one. [GASPS] Oh my gosh.

KIM: They’re not.

ANNE: No, the eighth title is. You added it to your TBR on August 13th, 2018.

KIM: Oh gosh.

ANNE: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. The subtitle is A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. Now I was thinking about nonfiction books that read like novels when you talked about how much you enjoyed Wild Swans and other books that dealt with the intersection of two completely different cultures. Anne Fadiman may be best known, at least let’s say, in book lover circles by her wonderful essay collection on the reading life called Ex-Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader. Do you by any chance remember what inspired you to add this to your TBR?

KIM: I’d have to check when I read one of my other favorites, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

ANNE: Oh!

KIM: You just described how I like the connection between learning about something but then also having a nonfiction that reads more like a novel and I feel like this is one that maybe I just heard so much about and it just sounded very interesting and I could learn something about, but yet also reads more like a novel.

ANNE: Now this is a book that many end up reading as part of their medical training or like for their anthropology classes and I’m pretty sure that’s not why you added it to the list. We just discussed how you used to work in a bookstore setting, but right now you work in healthcare and I wonder if that could be an interesting setting for you.

[00:35:49]

KIM: Ohhh.

ANNE: Right now. Like a connection to your life right now because it is a book that’s also used as a teaching tool for understanding cultural differences in healthcare settings and what happens when those gaps of language and social customs and religion are not successfully bridged and how devastating it can be for everyone involved, including of course the patients, and that’s really documented in this story through the specific tale of one patient. Her name is Lia. She is young. Her family immigrated to California from Laos, I think, but she was diagnosed when she was very young with what the American doctors, but not her homeland doctors, call epilepsy. And that’s what her family called, a phrase that translates to the spirit catches you and you fall down.

So what Fadiman does in this book is she takes the reader along on the journey of her diagnosis and plans for treatment and what they tried along the way and what the doctors were trying to accomplish and the extreme differences between the western prescription for healing and the eastern. Neither understood the other and it was devastating for all. This is a really moving, poignant book and I can see you really connecting to it and finding a lot of meaning and emotional resonance while also finding it just intellectually fascinating. How does that sound?

KIM: It sounds great. Pretty sure I have this on my shelf downstairs and so it’s definitely one that I’ve been wanting to read obviously for a long time and I’m glad that you brought it to the front of the stack again.

ANNE: Now I haven’t delivered on my promise. I said you tell me books you’re on the fence about and we’ll decide if they’re for you or not, but we got one more slot. What are you thinking?

KIM: All The Light We Cannot See. I added that on … 2015. That’s six years ago. Almost seven ‘cause I added it in January of 2015. I think it’s one of those where I felt like I should read it, and I put it on my list and then I heard way too much about it. [ANNE LAUGHS] If I go back to things that I added really early on when I first started tracking things, that one always jumps out at me because you still see it everywhere. Oh gosh, maybe I should read that one.

ANNE: Maybe you should. But do you want to talk about Maggie O’Farrell instead?

[00:38:06]

KIM: Yes! Please.

ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, so it looks like you just added to this your TBR last month, After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell. This is her debut. I was a little uncertain about picking it up because the description read a little grim to me. This is not a grim book but I was thinking about it earlier because you were describing Wild Swans and the intergenerational story it tells, and while this book doesn’t take you through three generations in equal detail, it’s mostly focused on the third generation of our protagonist Alice, the family legacy and lessons that’ve been passed down from one generation to the next are incredibly important to the story. [SIGHS] Maggie O’Farrell, have you read her before?

KIM: I have read I Am, I Am, I Am. Yes.

ANNE: So you have experienced her storytelling style, which is really interesting. She’s often dropping hints that go like [SIGHS] five years from now John will find out why that devastating thing happened but today he knows nothing, but reader I just gave you a big clue. [KIM LAUGHS] You know the ax is hanging over his head. [KIM LAUGHS] I mean, terrible things happen to people in Maggie O’Farrell stories. There is so much love in this story and I think that’s really important even as there are massive content warnings here. Nothing is graphic though.

This is her debut. It’s told from multiple points of view in multiple timelines and you mention sometimes wondering the first 25, 50 pages do I want to stick around here? Like is this story going to be worth it to me? It may take you several chapters to find your footing and because of the way the story is told. So it begins in the present. Something terrible happens in an Edinburgh train station, but you don’t know what it is. You just know that Alice saw something completely shocking after she’d just gotten to town. She’d seen her sisters, she goes to the bathroom and she sees something horrible that completely throws her off her footing and she says I have to go. And She leaves to go back to London and you don’t know what that thing is until the very end of the novel, at which point I strongly suggest you’re going to want to flip back to the beginning and begin reading again, but it may take you a little bit to figure out who’s talking, who are these people, what timeline am I in? But it will become clear. You read all kinds of books that you enjoy and appreciate and understand, like it’ll become clear to you. I have confidence.

KIM: Okay.

[00:40:29]

ANNE: It is a family story and you will hear a lot about Alice’s family and her history as the story goes along, but that is all as backstory to her great love affair that you see in this book which is joyful even if it comes with its own share of hard things, and I think readers who really love Maggie O’Farrell like just not the story she tells, which I think are good ones. She does a really good job of taking you not just inside the relationships but showing you what they mean in context of the family, of the community, of the larger culture they live in which is so interesting.

This book also has a couple other just completely delightful things about it. I have a daughter who’s obsessed with axolotls. One of the characters in this book keeps an axolotls. It actually becomes a metaphor of sorts, so I’m reading passages out loud about axolotls at the dinner table as I was reading this book earlier this year. I do think you may enjoy taking a chance on this, like there’s definitely a mystery, like what did she see? And why did it matter so much? There’s a little bit of a thriller element and of course there’s a romance and that family saga, like how do the crimes and shortfalls of one generation keep rippling through the family line and cannot ever be stopped. Those are questions being asked here.

KIM: Okay. Oh, that’s awesome. No, that sounds great.

ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. So I think I know the answer to this because I think one of these books in your house, but [KIM LAUGHS] Kim, of the books we talked about today, The Sentence by Louise Erdrich, which is our only brand new read. Next we have The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, and then After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell. Of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?

KIM: They’re all fantastic and I am going to order The Sentence today, but The Spirit Catches You And You Fall Down, I will read next. That is the one in my house.

ANNE: I hope you can find it.

KIM: [LAUGHS] Yes.

ANNE: Kim, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking books with me today, and for inspiring us all with your book box tradition.

KIM: Oh, thank you so much, Anne. I really enjoyed it.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

[00:42:35]

ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Kim, and I’d love to hear about your own holiday traditions as well as what YOU think she should read next. That’s at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/312. That’s also where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.

We share snippets from the show and other bookish fun over on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext, and we’d love it if you’d follow us there. Be sure to tag us if you post about a book we’ve discussed on the show! I’m on Instagram, too, at annebogel. That is Anne with an e, B as in books, O-G-E-L.

Stay up to date with What Should I Read Next with our weekly newsletter. Sign up at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter and we’ll show up each week with a short and sweet message and an episode preview right in your inbox.

If you’ve enjoyed listening to our show this year, please leave us a review on Apple Podcasts! Your reviews make it easier for new listeners to discover our show. It would be such a gift to us this season.

Please make sure you’re subscribed in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and more. We’re off next week for the holidays, but check back at the beginning of January for more readerly recommendations and good talk about all things reading.

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.

Books mentioned:

Divergent by Veronica Roth
Encyclopedia Brown, Boy Detective by Donald J. Sobol (Encyclopedia Brown Series #1)
The Essential Calvin and Hobbes: A Calvin and Hobbes Treasury by Bill Watterson
Diary of a Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney (Diary of a Wimpy Kid Series #1)
The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton
John Sandford (Try Rules of Prey (Prey Series #1) or Dark of the Moon ( Virgil Flowers Series #1))
Sue Grafton (Try A is for Alibi (Alphabet Mysteries #1))
• John Grisham (Try A Time to Kill)
Erik Larson (Try Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania)
Leave Only Footprints by Conor Knighton
Wild Swans by Jung Chang
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders (Audio version)
The Turnout by Megan Abbott
My Life in Full by Indra Nooyi
Dom Casmurro by Machado de Assis
No Cure for Being Human by Kate Bowler
The Every by Dave Eggers
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
After You’d Gone by Maggie O’Farrell

Also mentioned:

WSIRN Ep 308: The crowd goes wild for these perennial favorites

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24 comments

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  1. Kerry says:

    I don’t have any recommendations for Kim (sounds like she has enough on that list already!), but I just wanted to say I also read Wild Swans while I was living in Japan, and I loved it too! I listened to this episode early this morning while jogging, and I almost stopped in my tracks when Kim said a friend had given it to her in Japan, thinking, “Did our paths cross in Japan?!” (I think I was still half-asleep, since although I recommended this book to a lot of people at the time, I didn’t give it to anyone!). 🙂

    Oh! And I also wanted to add that my dad was trying for years to get me to read The Outsiders and I resisted (a recommendation from my parents was the kiss of death at the time). But when I finally read it, I loved it. And I’m pretty sure I was in middle school at the time (I remember thinking, “I can’t believe my dad thought I should read THIS!”). I think your daughter will be just fine with it! (I also have a 7th grader, so I understand the YA/middle-grade book dilemma well).

    Great episode; I love the book box idea! Happy holidays and happy reading!

  2. Carol Blunier says:

    I highly recommend the book (and it’s sequels) “Eleven Birthdays” bt Wendy Mass to both of your daughters. The books center around a girl on her 11th (then 12th, etc) birthday and do such a wonderful job of capturing girls that age. The first is a time loop nivel. All have magical elements.

  3. AdamL93 says:

    My recommendation is old classic which can show us something about human soul, what happend with it and the our world when we have chosen some type attitude…
    It is ofcourse “The Great Divorce” written by C.S Lewis. Tell me somebody here have read this?

  4. Megan says:

    Oh please do read “All the Light We Cannot See!” I highly recommend the audio. It is so beautiful and has a strong sense of place and such well-developed characters.

    I had over 800 books on my TBR list on Goodreads; actually deleting a bunch because there are so many books that it becomes meaningless and overwhelming for me. I think I’m going to go through and only leave the ones I am absolutely sure I want to read on there and then try to get through those soon. I completely understand the struggle of TBR list overwhelm!

  5. Kay Sutcliffe says:

    Hi Kim,
    I’m a curious about how many books are in the book boxes for your family members. Also, you might like or have on your TBR list “The Island of the Sea Women.” It was one of my favorites last year!

  6. Sarah Tripple says:

    Kim- other recommendations for your dad that are MN based crime thrillers. The Monkeewrench series by PJ Tracey, Cork O’Conner series by William Kent Krueger and the Jonathan Stride series by Brian Freeman. These are all some of my favorites.

  7. Terri says:

    We have two family holiday bookish traditions. First, we decided a few years ago to participate in Jolabokaflod (Yule Book Flood), BUT since we were all downsizing, we didn’t want to add more new books to our collections, so we each check out and giftwrap LIBRARY BOOKS for each other to enjoy. This year our local public library took it a step further by setting up a Jolabokaflod display with gently used books giftwrapped for patrons to pick up. You can see the display on our Instagram page: https://www.instagram.com/p/CXd96xgrhLW/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

    For our second tradition, I give my sister (whose birthday is 4 days after Christmas) MY favorite book of the year as her birthday present. Every year she knows she’s getting a book for her birthday but doesn’t know which one.

  8. Cathy says:

    If you haven’t already read it, Pachinko.
    This has a sweeping time span similar to Wild Swans.
    And, it takes place between Korea and Japan.

    I also loved Wild Swans. I spent time in Japan and I absolutely loved Pachinko (except for maybe the a bit at that end/more current time period that felt rushed).

  9. Deb says:

    I love the book box but the problem is – I want the box!
    I think anything by Lisa See and Gail Tsukiyama would be right up your alley. They both weave beautiful, epic stories. I enjoyed The Sentence but be ready for a political lecture. I don’t care what side the author is on but can we please keep politics out of fiction? I want to escape from all that noise.

  10. Susan says:

    I loved the book box idea so much that I went to my local thrift store to pick out books for my mom. I’ll start earlier for next Christmas!

  11. Hello from a fellow Minnesota! I was trying to guess what book store she worked at in St. Paul that closed. My guess is the one is near the fair grounds in St. Paul – I am blanking on the name, but it was such a delightful little store and I was so sad when I heard it had closed. It started with an M? Mc-something?

    I would say “All the Light We Cannot See” is not worth the read… *covers eyes* I know many loved it, but when someone starts their description of a book by saying the writing was beautiful, that is a sign it’s probably not for me. It was just soooo long. There were aspects of the story I liked but it was a bit of a slog for me. I read it back when I rarely abandoned books – if I read it now, I think I would have abandoned it… But I think you will know pretty early on if it’s the right book for you.

    • Sue B says:

      Since she picked Jane Eyre as one of her favorites, I don’t think book length will intimidate her. It’s a great story!

    • Jennifer S says:

      Many great St. Paul indies have closed—Odegard Books-St. Paul, Hungry Mind/Ruminator Books, Micawber’s, and Bound to Be Read. 🥲

  12. Marge says:

    If I were to prepare a book box for my 18 year old son it would be filled with classics, which he enjoys. He’s read many, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Crime and Punishment. He recently asked me if there are any classics that are funny. Recommendations?

    • Kim says:

      Your son might try The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Its a written as a play pointing out the ridiculousness of high society. My son really enjoyed that book a few years ago.

  13. Lynn Yamamoto says:

    Great episode! You and Kim just lengthened my TBR list!
    I’d also like to recommend “Across Many Mountains.” Non-fiction by a woman whose grandmother was a monk. Fascinating read.

  14. Sue Baum says:

    Let me also add my vote to “All the Light we Cannot See.” It’s one of my favorites of all time…yes, it is beautifully written, with well-defined characters and a sweeping and gripping plot. It may be longer than average, but it’s also the kind of book to get lost in for a while. And since you loved Jane Eyre (me too!), these two books are similar in length and character development.

  15. Tara says:

    I was so excited to hear mention of Wild Swans! I read it in college for a Chinese Geography class and I loved it! Kept the book and still have it nearly 20 years later. Really enjoyed this episode!

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