Readers, you know how much I love recommending books each week, so this episode is extra fun, because today’s guest also recommends a few reads to me (and our entire reading community!)
Shreyasi Desai, who also goes by Cece, grew up in India where her parents nurtured a love of stories fueled by potentially not-age-appropriate mysteries and Indian mythologies. Today, Cece lives in the U.K., where she still enjoys a good mystery, but also reaches for books that grapple with serious topics and fully draw her in to the reading experience.
During our conversation today, Cece shares some Indian mythologies and adaptations that I can’t wait to explore, and I suggest some stories that fit her desire for engaging and angsty tales she won’t want to put down.
Content Warning: while it’s not the focus of our episode today, my conversation with Cece touches on themes of domestic and sexual abuse. If you know that these themes may be difficult for you, please take care of yourself by listening with caution, or simply give this episode a pass and tune in next week.
To see what Cece reads next, follow her on Goodreads, or leave your own recommendations for Cece in the comments.
SHREYASI: I started reading when I was about maybe six or seven and I started with Matilda. [ANNE LAUGHS] For a brief moment, I do genuinely think I believed you could read a lot and then developed really strong mental powers. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 317.
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.
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We all come to the reading life for different reasons, but whether you favor escapist beach reads or nonfiction deep dives, you’ve probably experienced the way the right book makes the world feel big and full of new ideas.
Today’s guest works in a field where the way language is used directly impacts perceptions and outcomes, so perhaps it’s no surprise that Cece Desai enjoys books that are written with precision and she doesn’t mind engaging with difficult stories.
Cece grew up in India reading myths and mysteries with her parents, and as an adult now living in the U.K, she’s looking for elaborate, lyrical stories that will draw her in and, ideally, teach her something along the way. I loved chatting with Cece about underrated and exciting Indian mythologies she often recommends, and I get to recommend three titles to satisfy her search for serious, angsty and brave stories.
Let’s get to it.
Shreyasi, welcome to the podcast
SHREYASI: Thank you so much, Anne. I'm so excited to be here.
ANNE: Cece, you also go by Cece.
ANNE: Where are you in the world right now?
SHREYASI: I am in the United Kingdom. I'm in Nottingham, and I am currently sitting for my Phd here at the University of Nottingham. I'm currently specializing in forensics pragmatics, and I've always wanted to be in some way related to the forensics field and I knew that from a very young age when I was maybe 15 or 16. So I was born in India and when I turned 18 I moved to Scotland for university to study forensic biology and psychology, and then as soon as that got over I moved on to a doctorate.
ANNE: Forensics pragmatics are two words I've not heard put together before. What does that mean?
SHREYASI: I don't think anyone puts them together. I just put them together now because I couldn't think of another way to describe what I do. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Well I love it. Tell me more.
SHREYASI: I basically look at figurative language in the speech of survivors and victims of sexual crime. The way people talk, specifically in legal settings, in front of law enforcement authorities or in front of a jury makes a huge difference to how they're perceived and case outcomes and even the amount of punishment that their perpetrator gets. It's one of the leading factors, and victim perception is so important anyway, and that's what I'm trying to find out is the kind of impact of figurative language because we use it so often in everyday conversations. I'm trying to figure out what that means for a victim who responds from trauma, what that means for them to speak in a specific way in court and how that means other people will perceive them.
ANNE: That sounds completely fascinating. What remains to do to receive your Phd?
SHREYASI: I've literally just finished my draft and now it's a couple corrections and formatting really, so I'm supposed to submit this month.
ANNE: So I would imagine that the repercussions of studying the way language is used and what it means and the intent behind it and the possible outcomes from the words that are chosen, I imagine you don't read like you used to before you began your studies.
SHREYASI: Yeah. I mean, it has changed, but I read better and I … Unfortunately, but when I was younger I had a lot of patience for books that weren't written beautifully or convolutedly. And I find that I have lost that patience. I can't – I don't just pick books out of a bookshelf and go, oh I might try that, and you know, I now wait for recommendations or I wait for something that looks very, really compelling that I know is going to have everything that I'm looking for 'cause I do read a lot for work and then that means I'm usually tired of reading, although I have discovered audiobooks this year and that's been a game changer for me.
ANNE: Oh, I'm so glad to hear it.
SHREYASI: I didn't know whether I would get along with that format 'cause I am a reader, specifically. Even if you show me like an image and there's a caption underneath it, I'll read the caption before I look at the image, so I'm much of a reader so I didn't know if I would get along with audio, but I really did and I can read while doing a lot of other things which really helps.
ANNE: Let's start by going back. Have you always loved reading?
SHREYASI: Yeah. Ever since I can remember I think I've always loved stories if that makes sense. I started reading when I was about maybe six or seven and I started with Matilda. [ANNE LAUGHS] I thought oh, what a brilliant life this girl has, and for a brief moment, I do genuinely think that I believed that you could read a lot and then develop really strong mental powers. [ANNE LAUGHS] So that might have contributed to reading a lot, but I mean, I started reading Matilda, but before Matilda, I remember my dad is a big mystery reader and it's really weird because he either reads philosophy or he'll read mystery. There's no in between. And he would tell me Agatha Christie plots and we would try and make me guess who the murderer was and this was when I was five or six. I'm very surprised I didn't have any nightmares because of that book, but to counter that, my mother would kinda tell me stories from Hindu or Indian mythology and yes, I've always grown up around stories and then as soon as I could kinda comfortable read because English is my second language, I could comfortably read in English, I just started.
ANNE: Something that we really were curious about on your submission here at What Should I Read Next headquarters was how you really believed that Indian mythology stories are vastly underrated, how convoluted and exciting – those are your words – a lot of Indian mythology is. I wondered if you might be able to recommend a few stories to me and to our listeners.
SHREYASI: 100%. This is [ANNE LAUGHS] this is the dream. This is why I'm here, Anne. They’re, of course, they're so underrated and I can completely understand why. I mean, in India, and I know in some other South Asian countries, they're not so underrated predominantly because these are their stories. I mean, this is where these stories come from, so for us and for some other South Asian people and countries, it's the normal thing that we've grown up with. For a lot of people Indian, Hindu, especially, so these stories bleed into religion so they're almost like, you know, your grandmother would tell you these stories and then your mum would tell you these stories and you hear them all around you.
And I know that they're underrated especially in the West because of accessibility and kinda understanding where these stories come from and the sentiment and the themes. And that's precisely why I think I've not been able to get into Greek and Roman mythologies, that I'm quite intimidated by what themes they must be. Even the names, I think. When I hadn't moved here to the U.K. I wasn't sure if I was pronouncing them right and I think the names and the places had ... And the pronunciation of them had a huge impact on your reading experience of course, so I can understand that these can be intimidating, but I have great suggestions 'cause I have thought about this for a while now. [ANNE LAUGHS] I've always thought, my dream has been I'm going to meet a friend and I'm going to start this conversation. They're going to be like really? Tell me more! And that's of course never happened.
ANNE: Until today.
SHREYASI: Until today, exactly. So here I am. And I think one of the most accessible authors is someone you've recommended books by before.
ANNE: Oh no! This means I can't recommend it to you! Okay. [CECE LAUGHS] I'm wondering if I know who you're going to say.
SHREYASI: Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and she's written Mistress of Spices and she's written Before We Visit The Goddesses, but she has also done a very intensive amount of research into the two main Hindu mythology epics, which are the Mahabharata and then the Ramayana. And she's written both of them from the viewpoint of the female protagonist, and these are all very kinda male-centric, male-heavy stories where the men are kinda the driving force and while there are all sorts of characters, there’s many female characters, there's trans characters as well, but the men are kinda the dominating force. They're the ones who go to war. They're the ones who win them, but what she's done is taken these stories and she's twisted them around and said well, while the men were doing these things, what were the women doing?
And the first one is called The Palace of Illusions, which is the Mahabharata from the perspective of Draupadi, who’s the female protagonist in that epic, and the second one she's done – and she took years to come out with this because I remember reading Palace of Illusions when it first came out, and I kept waiting for her to come up with the Ramayana version. I think it was a couple years ago, maybe 2019, 2020. So she's done quite a bit of research and a lot of hard fact goes into making these stories beautiful, so the second one is called The Forest of Enchantments, the Ramayana from the perspective of Sita, the main female protagonist there.
ANNE: I've only read The Forest of Enchantments, I haven't read The Palace of Illusions yet.
SHREYASI: Personally I thought The Palace of Illusions was much better. Just 'cause I'm personally very biased to words, the Mahabharata, that as a story, it's a lot grayer. It's a lot more convoluted. That's the beautiful thing I think about Indian mythology stories. I don't know. Maybe mythology in general, but specifically because I know Indian mythology, Hindu philosophy predominately ascribes this kinda holistic divinity to people, right. It says whatever you do in the end you are divine, and when you do that, and I think it's true for writing in general as well, when you ascribe this kinda endgame divinity to characters you can then play around with morality. You can make them do horrible things and it's still okay because in the end it's not the person, it's the actions. It just makes everything more fun. If you or readers are kinda familiar with what goes on, there is Kamala Subramaniam writes a beautiful version and she's very true to the actual epic. It would be very similar to reading, maybe the Iliad. It's a long epic and its language, but she's translated beautifully.
Another version that I recently read was from the perspective of the people who lost the war. The Mahabharata is about a war and two sets of cousins fight it, and then lots of stuff goes on and it's very complicated about who's actually good and who should actually win the war 'cause you can never tell 'cause they all seem just as bad and just as good as each other. But it's called Ajaya and it's by this writer called Anand Neelakantan and he's another Indian writer and he's kinda written a fictionalized version of the Mahabharata, but from the perspective of Duryodhana who ultimately loses the war and whose story is never been talked about before, so that's really interesting.
'Cause that's again a story that you get from the perspective of somebody who's a villain, and who you know, presumably if you know the epic, you know is the villain in the epic but then is presented as your hero and it blurs the lines between what is good, what is evil? What is moral? What is immoral? That's really interesting. If you want something that's really faithful to the original, I would recommend Kamala Subramaniam's work and if you want to read fictionalized versions, which are, you know, fun things being done with the epic if you already know the original, then yeah, Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni and Anand Neelakantan. They're really good starting points.
ANNE: Listeners, I want to remind you that today, as in every episode, we don't want you to stress about writing important things like you know book titles down as you listen. The full list of titles mentioned in this episode is listed at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/317.
Cece, thank you again. I really enjoyed hearing about those recommendations and I'm so interested in hearing more about your reading life and of course you know how we do that around here.
SHREYASI: Mm, yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You're going to tell me three books you love, one book you don't, and what you've been reading lately and then good gracious, I have no idea what you may enjoy reading next, but we're going to figure something out. [CECE LAUGHS] How did you choose your favorites for today?
SHREYASI: So I chose my favorites based on my favorites from my five star reads from last year.
SHREYASI: Or which is 2021. I’ve just realized that coincidentally the three favorites that I picked are nothing like my reading life. They're so different from what I usually read but there's some properties that they have in common or in common with my general reading life that make them so special to me, even though they're not kinda the genre that I would usually approach.
ANNE: Okay, well I can't wait to hear.
SHREYASI: Shall we get into the first one?
ANNE: Yes, please.
SHREYASI: Okay. So my first pick is The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch. This is, I think, my first fantasy book as an adult. I would never pick a fantasy just because they intimidate me. I don't like worldbuilding. [LAUGHS] That says it really bluntly [ANNE LAUGHS] to sound like a boring person, but [LAUGHS] I like a familiar world. I like to know where I am 'cause then I can imagine things and I think what attracted me most to this book is the fact that it has this plot which it really depends heavily on these really complicated cons that are carried out by this cast of conmen Robin Hoods who steal from the rich and then use it themselves or give to the poor and you know, they're kinda good guys at heart, but thieves.
It seems really interesting because what they do is it's so elaborate and it's so nice to read something that elaborate because kinda the author throws you in the middle with the structure as well because it kinda goes back and forth in time and it also goes back and forth in focus so it'll focus on what the worlds like for one chapter, and then you're like can I just get to that point where you left it last time? ‘Cause it was so interesting and you kinda snapped off the narrative there and moved on to something else and you're just you're burning to read what happened where he cut off last time and it just ... It just keeps you going. It keeps you going and, yeah, you never put it down and that's how you finish it in a couple days.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That's how you finished it in a couple days.
SHREYASI: Well, yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I've still have not read this and yet it's been a favorite on the podcast before, so listeners, if you want to hear more about it, Aaron White chose it on episode 87 called "popcorn books, page turning thrills, and reader regrets," and I think it's been on my TBR since that day, so thank you so much for bringing it back to my attention.
SHREYASI: Oh, it's brilliant.
ANNE: I'm gonna keep thinking about what these books being outliers in your reading life and yet being five star reads is going to mean for what you may enjoy reading next.
SHREYASI: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: But for now, tell me about book two.
SHREYASI: Book two is In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado and this is just ... I can't even describe how I feel about this book because I bought this book first and foremost because the cover was neon orange. That's the sole motivation.
SHREYASI: I saw it ... Yeah. I saw the cover and I thought this would look nice on my shelves and ...
ANNE: My cover was not neon orange. You know, I'm always fascinated by the difference between the British and American covers.
SHREYASI: Yeah. I think it might be the British version, but it was neon orange and I picked it and I thought I'm gonna give it a go and it arrived and I just opened to look into it and see what was in there. Usually I just open a book and read a couple pages to see if, you know, if I wanna read it now or I want to read it later, and then I didn't stop. I just finished it, four hours later, three and half hours later, I got out of that world and it was – it was a different world outside. It's so beautiful and I know that this can mean … Beautiful writing can mean boring things for some people, but it's just so beautifully done, there's no other way to put it.
So Carmen Maria Machado talks about – this has lots of trigger warnings here by the way, and lots and lots of abuse, sexual, domestic, psychological. It's a memoir first and foremost where she talks about her experiences of multiple kinds of abuse in a same-sex relationship. This is very important academically for me personally because it doesn't have language.
Same-sex relationships, we talk about them in terms of positive because we're still working towards entirely accepting them and we're working towards integrating them seamlessly into our lives, so we tend to talk about them as positives and we tend to ignore the fact that they're also human relationships, that things can go wrong, and she gives words to these situations beautifully, and she uses metaphor throughout so she talks about this relationship as a dreamhouse, and then she talks about different metaphors every single time.
So every chapter, and there's really small chapters. Really some of them are just a sentence. Some of them are like a paragraph or a page and she talks about the entire narrative of her relationship through exclusively metaphors and it's just beautiful to see how she does it because it's difficult to do. I mean, I really appreciate the craft that that took. I'll be sitting and writing a chapter of my thesis and it's just normal words and I'm thinking I don't know how she did it, and that fascinates me.
ANNE: Did you pick it up... No, you didn't pick it up for work. You picked it up because of the orange cover.
SHREYASI: Six months after I read it I've now integrated it into my thesis. Yeah, I mean, it's shocking 'cause I really didn't pick it up for that reason.
ANNE: Tell me more about this book being beautiful. Because I see what you mean, and yet I'm struggling for words because harrowing is the first word that might come to mind for me. I wonder if it's something to do with the way she uses language, which just suits the story so incredibly well, and I read it on audio where I feel like I absorbed the story like completely, but I don't notice the structure as much. I just remember the second person. It felt like she was talking to me
ANNE: And it just put you inside the story in a way that was perfect and deeply unsettling at the same time.
SHREYASI: And that's what I mean by beautiful is it's just what she's accomplished and I think a lot of people don't realize that when you write about things that people don't talk about, that haven't been talked about even academically a lot, it's very difficult to find words for it because we find words for things through experience and through other people talking about it and through cultural relationships. However, if we've never heard of something being spoken about, we don't know how to describe it, and I'll give you an example here.
I was born and brought up in India. I spent a long time in Scotland. My accent sounds like this right now in English, but there are still some words that if I haven't heard them being said by a Scottish or an English person, they come out Indian 'cause I have no frame of reference for what that word would sound like in this accent, and she's done that with a life experience, which is exponentially harder to do 'cause it's not like you can't just imitate an autobiographical emotional experience.
There's an amazing part in the book where she talks about the dreamhouse, the relationship as a choose your own adventure, and the most harrowing part of that chapter is you keep picking responses to certain situations and she says okay, go to that page. Okay, go to that page, and the more you try and bring yourself out of the situation you as the experiencer as well the reader, it's like quicksand. The more you get sucked into the situation, and that's exactly how you would feel being a victim.
What she's done is incredible because she's made people who have no experience of being a victim empathize in such a great manner that you feel it yourself. It's a lived experience for you now. That's to a much lesser degree than what she's obviously gone through or that any other survivor goes through, but now we know how it feels like something, when something feels like it's sucking you in and you can't get out and you know you should but you can't.
ANNE: We know that some readers hear beautiful language and they ... You mentioned that's code for boring, but …
SHREYASI: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It sounds like a good description for you in calling this book beautiful is that it hits in exactly the right place.
ANNE: What did you choose for your third book, Cece?
SHREYASI: I don't think it's happy. I think all the fun and happiness [ANNE LAUGHS] ended with Locke Lamora. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Hey, one for three isn't terrible.
SHREYASI: My third book is Levels of Life by Julian Barnes.
ANNE: Yeah, not a happy guy. His books, that is.
SHREYASI: This … Specifically this one I think. The other ones can be quite funny sometimes if you're British especially. Okay, I'm not going to say beautiful 'cause that just ruins everything. [ANNE LAUGHS] I'm having a hard time describing this book because I don't actually know what it is 'cause it ... So it's a book that's been written by Julian Barnes in the immediate aftermath of the death of his wife of I think 27 years, and this is kind of a roadmap to experiencing grief and that sounds like you don't want to ever do it, but it works because it's not melodramatic, and it's really, again, I think the format of this book is so special because it's just ...
You start off and it's written in three distinct parts, and the first part you start off kinda in a narrative nonfiction space and he kinda just drops you and he's talking about 19th century balloonists, and by balloonists I mean, people who fly in hot air balloons or at least attempt to, and he talks about these people and how they achieved such an unlikely pairing of balloon and flying and fire. You put together two things that haven't been put together before and the world has changed, and that is kind of a precursor or a metaphor for him, how his world changed when him and his wife came together.
Then you've got the next part, which talks about, which kinda reads like historical fiction where you kinda read about these two characters who were in love with each other but it didn't end exactly the way that you would expect it to end. Seemingly has nothing to do with anything that he wants to talk about, and then you get to the last part and this is where kinda his memoir section begins, where he talks about his wife and he really talks about personal experiences and he ties everything in together so perfectly and you think how could these things ever be unrelated? Of course ballooning and grief are related. Of course.
And he ... The way he describes grief as well is so surreal. It genuinely feels like you are grieving and I feel like that's quite an unpleasant space for a lot of people, but it can also be quite cathartic, which I'm assuming is why he wrote it in the first place. There's sections of that book that I - I listen to it on audio and he narrates it which is just the icing on the cake really because he ... You can hear him in the exact manner that he meant for these words to be said and read and heard and it's just perfect.
ANNE: I didn't know that Julian Barnes ever read his own work. Cece, it's time to go in a different direction. Tell me about a book that was not right for you.
SHREYASI: Ah, here we go. I have so much to say about this one.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I can't wait.
SHREYASI: [LAUGHS] Okay, so the book that was not for me and I don't want to say hate 'cause I didn't hate it. There was a part of it that did keep me going but it just ... I would just never read it again or anything like it again, and the book is Less by Andrew Sean Greer.
I couldn't figure out why I didn't like it for the longest time. I just thought I ... First of all I couldn't understand what the book was trying to do 'cause I felt like ... He felt a lot of emotions but none of them were deep enough 'cause I like gravity and there was none in that book, and then I remember a while after I read Less, I read In the Dream House and I remember Carmen Maria Machado, she said something to the effect of places are never just places in a piece of writing. If they are, the author has failed. Setting is not inert. It is activated by point of view.
And then it kinda came together for me and I understood that I didn't like that book because in that book I think Arthur Less kinda travels around the world to get over a failed relationship or a lost love or something like that, can't exactly remember, and everywhere that we go, places just remained places. At least for me personally. I just felt like there was no point of view, and I've written this in my review of the book – I keep a little book log – written in there that it looks like the places were described from photographs and I just didn't feel like I was there. I didn't get to experience anything with that one. It just didn't hit home for me for some reason.
ANNE: This is one I really enjoyed and I'm trying to think how it is differentiated from In the Dream House in levels of life. It's – it's a very different way of storytelling. Very different tone. Very different sort of emotional resonance I think, and we're going to keep all those things in mind.
ANNE: Did it make you realize anything about the books that you do end up loving?
SHREYASI: I think I just like really serious books. I have to go through a lot of trauma for me to call it an enjoyable experience for some reason. I don't know.
ANNE: Instead of having someone like try to make light of it.
SHREYASI: I think that's just me as a person in general because I would much rather acknowledge something weighted rather than brush it away.
ANNE: That is good to know. What have you been reading lately?
SHREYASI: Well I was put in a massive reading slump by the Count of Monte Cristo.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I read that this year too for the first time.
SHREYASI: I mean the book was so great [ANNE LAUGHS] but the aftermath was horrible, and it was because of this podcast that I picked it up 'cause I heard so many people say so many great things about it. I kinda went for the audiobook version 'cause it was 62 hours and I thought well maybe listening to it will make it less intimidating and I think that was a great decision because Bill Homewood reads it who has this perfect French accent and this perfect English accent and all the names were like cakewalk because I heard them and it was … It added to my experience and it was just, it was fantastic.
So yeah that was a reading slump bit, but this year also very recently, the end of December, I completed the final Sherlock Holmes book. I completed the entire series this year 'cause I really wanted to kinda read that 'cause I hadn't, I read it in bits and pieces, I've read some short stories but never the whole series start to finish so I did that.
ANNE: How many Sherlock Holmes books are there? I don't even know.
SHREYASI: Nine. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And what inspired that interest?
SHREYASI: I just wanted to read a lot of mystery stuff 'cause I think I read heavy books and then I want to read something lighter, but I don't like to read romance, so I read mysteries, so at least it's murder. This is – this is making me sound really horrible. I'm quite …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Please, you don't sound horrible. You sound like somebody who knows what she likes.
SHREYASI: [LAUGHS] I do. But I think you might get concerned calls about my mental health eventually, but.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] You're not the first person to say that here.
SHREYASI: But yeah, I do, I do tend to kinda be into mystery and thriller and I've been quite disappointed on the mystery front with all the new stuff, and I quite like Christie, so I thought I would go back to the old legends.
SHREYASI: And start there since I was being disappointed recently.
ANNE: And how's that working out?
SHREYASI: It was interesting because I got to examine the kind of pioneer of this genre, of this kind of story at work, but I knew that I wouldn't be kinda blown away because I had seen the progression of that genre and of course it gets better with time and of course people do more innovative things with the genre as it’s gotten bigger and more people know about it.
ANNE: Yeah. You're not seeing the innovations in real time.
SHREYASI: Yeah, so it was interesting and I do like that I read it. I don't know that I would read [LAUGHS] them again. It was fun, but yeah, I'm really happy that I did read them.
ANNE: Okay, Cece, this is the question I'm almost afraid to ask. What are you looking for in your reading life right now?
SHREYASI: I'm looking to read things that teach me something and that make me engage deeply, and very specifically I think I’m looking for stories from and by and about people of color. Preferably they wouldn't be focused on diaspora stories because I feel like I'm very much still rooted in my country and diaspora stories explore lots of nostalgia, and I don't have that feeling of nostalgia yet so I can't relate. I just want to hear people of color stories doing normal everyday things.
Recently I read Love After Love by Ingrid Persaud, which is about people in Trinidad and Tabago. I started reading it and I thought okay, this is about a different community, and then I realized it was about an Indian community! [LAUGHS] In Trinidad and it was so interesting because I said I know I just said preferably not diaspora stories but I think I mean more is not diaspora stories that are focused in the West maybe, you know, America or Britain or Canada. If they are diaspora stories I would like to include different countries like maybe Indians in Trinidads, stuff like that. Or just people in their kinda home country and their natural habitat where they don't have to worry about the immigrant experience, if that makes sense.
ANNE: Yeah, it's so interesting. I just hadn't thought of diaspora stories in that way before, how they do have that element of nostalgia so often.
SHREYASI: I think the people who the book does talk about, I think they see it more clearly as nostalgia because there’s, you know, there's smells and textures described and how smell and texture are described as an obvious are a given is very different from a smell or texture described for nostalgia. I don't know if I could pinpoint it exactly but I have noticed that you describe things differently when you mean nostalgia.
ANNE: It rings true, but I never – I never put that together. I'm really grateful that you pointed that out. Okay, so you are looking for books that teach you something that make you engage deeply and you love to read stories by people of color, not diaspora stories. A lot of different directions.
SHREYASI: Oh, I'm so excited for this part. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Since you were just talking about Ingrid Persaud's book Love After Love, you know, there are many ways in to a great book like many things that can interest us about a book and the place isn't necessarily the first one I would want to go to except that we were just talking about Less that setting really does matter to you and you found that that particular setting was unsatisfying.
There's a really great book that came out last year, uh maybe two years ago now, by Celeste Mohammed. It's set in Trinidad. It's called Pleasantview. I want to connect this in my brain also to Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni, but this might be a bridge too far. I think the book of hers I recommended most often on the show Before We Visit the Goddess is a novel in stories, and Pleasantview is a novel in stories as well. We've talked about structure a little bit, and Celeste Mohammed has published some pictures of her notebooks where she breaks down like what needs to happen in the book and the various themes she's bringing together like the white envelope and endangered species, the runaway and I think you could have a lot of fun with that.
But this is a book very authentically set in Trinidad and something that she really wanted to do in this book is to dispel myths about life there. Island life in general and the people who live there, and also to show where Caribbean and North American ideas and interests come together. So you wanted a book that could teach you something and I think you could have a lot of fun with this one. It is a novel in stories. There are almost twenty of them. So you've read a book set in Trinidad recently. I have to tell you though, there is no city named Pleasantview, at least to her knowledge.
ANNE: But it does say that there was one specific town in the northern part of the country that she had in mind when she wrote the stories, and the specific city has always been an important transportation hub. It's been a crossroads between people and cultures. She's spent some time living there and that's really important to the story as well. Mohammed has talked about how Trinidad is a melting pot of cultures and the story also feels like what makes it come together so well is the various threads that she's pulling together and I really don't want to give too much away because I know that one of your most amazing reading experiences was you grabbed the orange cover off the bookshelf and took it home with you.
ANNE: But there's a lot about moving, about finding a new home, both in an actual place and emotionally as well. I think it has a lot of what you're looking for. How does that sound to you?
SHREYASI: That sounds amazing. You had me very, very interested at emotional home.
ANNE: I'm glad to hear it. Cece, my list of jotted titles I thought you might enjoy, there's a lot of memoirs here and at first I was thinking that was unusual but actually two of your three favorite books are memoirs.
SHREYASI: Those are also the only two I've read the entire year.
ANNE: What, really?
SHREYASI: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, that's so interesting. But that is directly where my brain is going. I'm thinking of Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. Is this a book you've read or familiar with?
SHREYASI: I've never even heard of this one.
ANNE: This is a new memoir that came out last Spring in the United States. I believe she's a journalist. The first pieces I read by her were actually profiles of other, I guess you could say like celebrities or well known people and I think that's so interesting because the author is not invisible when they're writing about someone else. You know a lot of their own tone and personality comes through, but she is a Black journalist now turned memoirist who grew up in small town Indiana in a single parent household because her father was incarcerated during most her childhood. She doesn't know why, and this book is the story of her growing up, and she also grew up in a home where domestic violence was an ever present thread and something that she experienced.
As we've talked about the books you've really enjoyed, something I've noticed is that you really appreciate when authors are very precise about their experiences, when they're able to capture it in a way that feels true and also that feels accurate. That feels like something that's really important to you, and you also really love, you mentioned this with Carmen Maria Machado, when people are brave enough to write about things that aren't talked about because we know intellectually that that does everyone a disservice when we don't talk about the hard things, and yet to talk about hard things in a memoir that goes on bookstore tables like that's … Maybe it's not another kind of bravery but it's a kind of bravery that just seems so hard. [LAUGHS] It seems so hard to do and I think that's why so many people are so grateful for a book like this.
So this is Ashley C. Ford's story growing up in circumstances that she just knew she wasn't supposed to talk about. Her dad was in prison. Nobody told her why, but she knew that wasn't something that you just go like talking about at school because it was like a shameful secret, and she writes about other hard things in this book that I know you've read about that before, but listeners should know that there are definitely, there's plenty of sensitive content in this book, and yet I think you are going to be really glad you read it.
She doesn't use the figurative language so much like In The Dream House does, but she has such a gift, a well-honed talent of describing very precisely emotions in such a way where you go like oh, yes, that's exactly how it is. Something else in this book she talks about a lot is forgiveness in a way that's really powerful. Ah, it's beautiful, and I think you'll really enjoy it. I'm not sure what else to say about it, but Cece [CECE LAUGHS] how does it sound?
SHREYASI: I'm so sold. I'm so sold. I think, yeah, you're right about the precision thing because I hadn’t noticed it about myself, but I think I appreciate when a writer especially can kinda put things into words exactly because I feel like that's their whole purpose is to talk about things in a way that nobody else can talk about them.
ANNE: I like the way you put that. That was Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford. And finally, we're going to do a fantasy. How does that sound to you?
SHREYASI: Ooh. Okay.
ANNE: The book I have in mind is Girl, Serpent, Thorn. It's by Melissa Bashardoust. Is this one you know?
SHREYASI: Nope again. I haven't heard of any of these books.
ANNE: Perhaps you've heard of her debut. It's called Girls Made of Stone and Glass. But either way, this is based on a Persian epic.
ANNE: This is a fairy tale that has oh, gosh. Well first it has a really striking cover. You might reach out for it at the bookstore if the snake doesn't [CECE LAUGHS] scare you away. There's snakes and I think there's roses on the cover. It has girls who are literally poisonous. Demons that are terrifyingly dangerous and a kingdom in peril. And it's inspired by the Persian epic the Shahnameh.
So in this book there's a cursed princess who's been living safely inside her family's palace walls and not allowed to touch anyone because she is poisonous for 18 years. But her twin brother is getting married and as the day approaches the palace guards capture this demon. He taunts her and says that he may be able to tell her how to break the curse where she can actually touch people again, where she can actually be free. Where she can actually leave the palace. So of course this is extremely tempting to her. She does not get her freedom so easily because then the story would be over and what would we read about? [CECE LAUGHS] But when she does – when she does try to get her freedom through this demon, she's plunged into personal crisis and the kingdom is plunged into peril again as well and there's lots of political intrigue and she's soon forced to question everything she thought she knew about herself and knowing these choices aren't just going to affect her, but like the entire kingdom hangs in the balance.
So something that I think you'll find really interesting here because we've used words like structure and voice and point of view, it's such a perfect form for this story Melissa Bashardoust is telling here I think you'll find it really interesting. I'm so sorry to say there's a fair amount of worldbuilding here but it's done really gracefully. [CECE LAUGHS] Really gently. I don't think you'll feel lost and disorientated. I think you'll like get it and feel like you're in the world from the beginning and the prose is also really lovely and lyrical which are things we know that you appreciate.
ANNE: That is Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust. How does that sound to you?
SHREYASI: That sounds very intimidating. I'm not gonna lie. [ANNE LAUGHS] But um...
ANNE: Oh, I think it's actually a YA novel. Does that change anything for you?
SHREYASI: Oh, no, it's a worldbuilding that's intimidating and I think just fantasy in general because I feel like it's just so much fun that I might not [LAUGHS] have fun with the fun. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Um, I think this is more angsty than fun. Does that help?
SHREYASI: Oh, yeah, that helps. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Cece, of the books we talked about today, they were Pleasantview by Celeste Mohammed, Somebody's Daughter by Ashley C. Ford, and Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust. Of those three books, what do you think you'll read next?
SHREYASI: Oh, I think I'm going to go with Somebody's Daughter. My first memoir of 2022. To that ... Yeah, that's really exciting to me.
ANNE: I think it sounds like a really good fit for you and I can't wait to hear what you think. Cece, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
SHREYASI: Thank you so much for having me. This has been so exciting and a great start to my New Year.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Cece, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. Connect with Cece on Instagram at Cece, C-E-C-E, Desai, that’s D-E-S-A-I), and her goodreads account is linked in our show notes, where you can also find the full list of the titles we discussed today. That’s at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/317.
Readers, we are getting pretty close to reaching a big milestone on Instagram of 100,000 followers, so if you’re not yet following us at whatshouldireadnext, we’d love to have you join us there (or share our account with a friend!) This is a great place to keep up with what’s happening on the podcast with visuals and in our Modern Mrs Darcy community as well.
You can also find me on Instagram, at annebogel. That's Anne with an E, b as in books, O-G-E-L. This is where I share reading updates, photos of Daisy, our book-loving lab, and most recently [LAUGHS] photos of our newest family member, emotional support hamster Phoebe.
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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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• The Mistress of Spices by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
• Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
• The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
• The Forest of Enchantments by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni
• Mahabharata by Kamala Subramaniam
• The Iliad by Homer
• Ajaya: Roll of the Dice by Anand Neelakantan
❤ The Lies of Locke Lamora by Scott Lynch
❤ In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
❤ Levels of Life by Julian Barnes (audio version narrated by Julian Barnes)
△ Less by Andrew Sean Greer
• The Count of Monte Cristo (audio version narrated by Bill Homewood) by Alexandre Dumas
• The Complete Sherlock Holmes collection by Arthur Conan Doyle
• Agatha Christie (Try Murder on the Orient Express)
• Love after Love by Ingrid Persaud
• Pleasantview by Celeste Mohammed
• Somebody’s Daughter by Ashley C. Ford
• Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust
• Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust