Readers, many of us turn to book clubs and reading groups to find someone to connect with over the pages of a story, but today’s guests have a built-in book connection that was just waiting to be discovered!
Father-in-law and daughter-in-law Verne and Gabby Wright have enjoyed a close relationship since Gabby’s marriage to Verne’s son, but their friendship deepened when Gabby lent Verne a book from her personal library. Since then, they’ve developed a rhythm of reading together, and they’ve discovered a mutual appreciation for books that are contemplative, philosophical, and invite them to think about big ideas.
After hearing what Gabby and Verne have loved (and hated) in their reading journey, I was delighted to recommend three matched pairs of book recommendations to inspire their next joint read.
Connect with Gabby at her website, mommylikesbooks.com
GABBY: When I was a kid I didn't read much, but I did read Nancy Drew books
GABBY: And I would read them in like a whole day, even though I was a pretty slow reader. I would like get up in the morning and I'd read all day and I'd forget to eat lunch. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 320.
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.
Readers, my new kids’ book journal, My Reading Adventures, is officially available to pre-order! This new reading journal designed for kids 8-12 comes out August 2nd and when you pre-order your copy now you’ll receive limited edition bonuses that both you and your young readers can enjoy: a set of custom stickers your child can use in their journal (or right now!), an exclusive list featuring my top picks for kids, and a free downloadable guide for parents to help you encourage your young reader.
Plus, pre-ordering My Reading Adventures now means your journal will arrive in your mailbox right in the midst of the back-to-school madness, and you can thank your past self for bringing a little more delight into a busy season!
Learn more and pre-order your copy at modernmrsdarcy.com/kidsjournal. That’s modernmrsdarcy.com/kidsjournal.
Readers, there’s a unique joy in finding a reading buddy who likes to talk about books as much as you do and shares your reading preferences. Today I’m talking to a father-in-law / daughter-in-law duo who’ve discovered their literary similarities and established their own informal book club of two.
Gabby and Verne Wright have enjoyed a close relationship as daughter-in-law and father-in-law since Gabby married into the family a decade ago, but things really started to gel the first time Gabby lent Verne a book from her personal library. That literary loan blossomed into a practice of reading together, and since then they’ve enjoyed exploring their mutual appreciation for thought-provoking books that blend beautiful prose with contemplative stories.
My conversation with Gabby and Verne today unexpectedly results in three matched pairs of book recommendations to bring them double the fun as they select their next joint read. I hope you enjoy the conversation.
Let’s get to it.
Gabby and Verne, welcome to the show.
GABBY: Thank you.
VERNE: Thank you.
ANNE: I'm so excited to talk with you all today. I think this is a What Should I Read Next first in that is our first father-in-law / daughter-in-law pair. Here at What Should I Read Next headquarters we were so excited to get your all's submissions form, so thanks for taking a chance and Verne, I believe Gabby is pulling you along for the ride here. Is that right?
VERNE: She was the one that made the proposal, but I was really glad that she felt free enough and secure enough to go ahead and make the proposal and send it in. When she told me that she had done that and she asked me about being on the show, I was all for it, and I was very enthusiastic about coming on with her.
ANNE: Gabby, tell me the history of how you all ended up here today. Together.
GABBY: Got married about eight years ago. Verne's been my father-in-law for about eight years now. For the first few years of my marriage, we lived real close to each other, just like five minutes away so I got a lot of chance to get to know him, which was really great 'cause I lost my own father about a year before I got married pretty unexpectedly. I wasn't expecting when I got married to end up being very close to my father-in-law, but that is how it turned out and it's just been great to have in my life.
And probably about five years ago he was just over to our house and asked if he could borrow a book off my shelf, The Catcher in the Rye, just wanted to catch up on some classics and said he hadn't been reading much fiction lately and don't think he knew what he was getting into. [ANNE LAUGHS] But I considered it an invitation to recommend him books until the end of time. Once he returned that book I picked out a different one for him and the rest is history.
ANNE: So Catcher was the start of a beautiful reading relationship. Verne, do you remember what you thought about that book?
VERNE: As I remember, the main character there I was kind of like, wow this guy keeps getting himself in trouble, kind of lost. I guess kind of apathetic. Sent to boarding school and he just kinda seemed to have a life that was going nowhere, or kinda going downhill, and perhaps that was just a function of the fact that nobody seemed to be reaching out to him or he didn't seem to be forming good relationships with situations he was in. But I was trying to understand the character or where he was going, what he was trying to do, how he's relating to his sister, how he's relating to his parents.
ANNE: Now that book has been on the podcast several times, including very recently when it was finally chosen as a favorite by Nicole Fagan, but before then, that book had ended up on the guest hate and that was in fact the word they chose, but I'm glad that is the book that brought you together. Now before you bonded beginning with Catcher in the Rye, what were your reading histories like? Verne, have you always been a reader?
VERNE: Yes, I've always been a reader. Before coming on the podcast I kinda looked over why I read. A lot of it was to make more sense of reality of what I was seeing in the real world and also the rights, even fiction is trying to make more sense of the world and make more order of the world. Obviously I would read for information, technical information, reading for assignments in school, right up of course grade school right into graduate school. Reading for sense of comfort or inspiration or encouragement. Reading for entertainment, of course. A lot of my reading before Catcher in the Rye or some of the classics were thrillers along the line of Tom Clancy or Clive Cussler, so they were adventure thrillers, a little bit of escape reading but also a little bit of adventure reading to kinda fulfill a sense of vicarious excitement. [ANNE LAUGHS] See the good guys win and get a little of that excitement in my life at least vicariously.
ANNE: That is good to hear and not what I had expected based on what I know that you and Gabby are reading together now. Gabby, how about you? What is your background as a reader?
GABBY: Well I think my background is a little different than a lot of people you have on your show 'cause I actually was not a reader as a child. I did not like reading.
ANNE: And I'm sure a lot of people are feeling encouraged right now because they relate to that most.
GABBY: Mmhm. Yeah, I was a really slow reader. I still am a really slow reader and so when I was a kid and I was reading, I just didn't feel like I was smart, especially like if we had to do our silent reading assignment in class and every other kid was three pages ahead of me and ...
ANNE: Is that how you found out that you were, relatively speaking, not reading at the same pace as your peers?
ANNE: Just looking around, going wait a second, how are you on page twelve?
GABBY: I was never on the same page as my classmates around me and it just didn't make me feel good about myself to read.
GABBY: I just didn't do a lot of it until I was older. I had an interest in writing, so when I got to college I started as an English major and I ended up just falling in love with literature, which is also different than a lot of people who say being an English major ruined their reading lives. [ANNE AND GABBY LAUGH] It … Actually just reading the great classics and my literature classes kinda really turned me on how great reading can be and I had some that I loved from my English classes that a lot of people just don't love like that. [ANNE LAUGHS] I read Wuthering Heights and I was like this is amazing.
Reading that book was such a great experience for me and I was slow and I was just a little bit behind on my reading for college and you know, I would speed up. I would skim a little bit so I could keep up, but that one I was like okay, I'm just going to be a little behind on the discussion in class today because I have to read this book at the right pace because I like it so much. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I wanna go back for a moment. So when you were younger, you hated reading because it made you feel like you were not smart, and yet you had this interest in writing, you became an English major because of it. That did a lot for your reading life and really encouraged your love of wonderful books. But tell me about the in-between, like what kept you in there? And I'm especially asking because well one, I'm personally curious, but also I know a lot of people have been in your shoes and they didn't make it through to the other side or they haven't yet, or they can see a younger reader in their life and they just want to know how they might be able to encourage them to not give it up.
GABBY: I think it was just the quality of the books to sit down with the right book for me made a big difference. When I was a kid, I didn't read much, but I did read Nancy Drew books
GABBY: And I would read them in like a whole day even though I was a pretty slow reader, I would like get up in the morning and I'd read all day and I'd forget to eat lunch and [ANNE LAUGHS] so I think it's just that factor of having the right book for me made all the difference. I don't ... I became a tea drinker as an adult too. [ANNE LAUGHS] I always say that you know, nobody doesn't like tea, they just haven't found the right tea yet, and I think that applies to books also. I just hadn't found the right books yet.
ANNE: Okay and I'm also noticing – maybe I should have noticed this right away – reading on your own and not in a classroom where it's easy to keep on your eyes on your own paper or I suppose your own book really helped a lot.
ANNE: Are you all in agreement about the tea as well? Do you have a different reading beverage of choice?
VERNE: Oh, for me it's definitely coffee. [ANNE AND GABBY LAUGH]
ANNE: So Verne and Gabby, developing this relationship over books, we know it's changed your relationship, I'm wondering how it has also changed, if it has changed, the way you approach your reading when you're not reading together.
GABBY: The biggest difference for me is that I'm always kinda like looking out for is something that Verne would also enjoy, kinda made me more aware of that difference in taste I guess.
VERNE: I guess for me, Gabby put in the profile that triggered me to look over the reading list that I've done, what would I recommend to Gabby of what I have read and looked at over in my life.
ANNE: Gabby, when you're scanning for books, what are the qualities in a book that make you think it might be a good fit for Verne?
GABBY: When I'm thinking about what Verne would like to read and what I would recommend to him, he likes to read a lot of nonfiction that's … Yeah, contemplative, philosophical, theological. I know that's largely what he likes to read, so I'd love to find a good fiction book that tackles those kinds of things. You know, tackles philosophy or theology and I think you'll see that in the favorites that we have. [ANNE LAUGHS]
GABBY: We talked about how a lot of the books we've read together have been like missed classics, one of the books on our list was The Age of Innocence by Edith Warton and I think that kinda fits into that like missed classic but also like philosophical contemplative kinda novel. And then I also picked books that are fun and have some adventure in them, The Scarlet Pimpernel is one of them. Wilkie Collins’ books and stuff.
ANNE: Oh, that's fun. So today we get to hear about books that you have both enjoyed together, is that right?
ANNE: How did you all choose these?
GABBY: Well I chose them [LAUGHS] I chose them when I secretly submitted the application. [ANNE LAUGHS] But I think Verne agreed with my choices.
VERNE: I did.
GABBY: These were the ones that I think were like the biggest hit with both of us, like I really enjoyed both of them, but they had a lot of those elements that I just said are what I look out for for Verne. One of them in particular I was like I need to finish this book so I can give it to Verne. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. You have to tell us which one that is when it comes up.
GABBY: I will. [LAUGHS] I will definitely do that. I picked ones that I really loved and that were just really good fits for Verne that I think they were my greatest recommendations to him, my most successful ones.
ANNE: Okay, let's get started. Tell me about the first book you both loved.
VERNE: I think at the top there, Gabby, there was Gilead. One of the things that endeared the book to me was this was an older minister who is clearly dying. He's 76. He has a young child who is about seven and he knows he won't survive into the adolescence or the adulthood of this child, so he's writing his memoir to him essentially or a letter to describe and pass on some of the things to that child that he wants.
And I guess in some sense what grabbed me about the book was the author's grasp on faith and theology, but it wasn't a grasp on faith and theology in the normal standpoint of say within the church necessarily, although maybe she is, but just a standpoint of just plain everyday life and plain everyday knowledge of things of faith and maybe of how the church runs and how everyday life runs.
I appreciated her account of just how he lives daily life, how he lives his relationship with his wife which has a deep background to it. How he came to have a wife, so late in wife, and how that relationship worked out, which had some poignancy for me, and how he was trying to relate to the other characters in the book, especially one of the other characters who is a prodigal son type of character, but also talks about his own family, strange quirkiness to him. He has to try to put it in perspective and deal with the history of the area in Iowa, the issues going back into the Civil War that aren't so far removed from them and they have to figure that out and deal with that, so I just found the book really fascinating.
I also found it fascinating to where you really relate to this congregation and just the everyday ministry he goes into and basically the poignancy of the book, those are some of the things I took from that book and just touching.
GABBY: Yeah, this is the one that I was so excited to recommend to him. [ANNE LAUGHS] I was reading it like almost 20 pages I was like this book is for Verne for sure and I need to finish it fast and get it to him. We were living far apart at the point I read it and I think usually I was passing books on to him just whenever we happened to see him but I think I mailed this one to him 'cause I had to get to him right away. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: You just couldn't wait.
VERNE: Yes, you did with a note in there about some other books too in the order that you suggested I read them in, yeah. You did.
ANNE: Have you all gone on to read more by Marilynne Robinson?
GABBY: Verne's a little ahead of me. He's ... I think he's read all the other books in the Gilead world. I have read Jack and Lila, but I have not yet read Home.
VERNE: I’ve just finished all three.
GABBY: Yeah I think I lent you Housekeeping.
VERNE: Yes, and I had started that but put it aside to read Jack so Housekeeping I've yet to get into.
ANNE: It'll be there when you are ready for it. [GABBY LAUGHS] Oh, talking about Mrailynne Robinson and this world puts a smile on my face but it's a sad smile.
ANNE: They're sad books. There's so much sorrow there …
GABBY AND VERNE: Yes.
ANNE: Even as they're so beautiful. Okay, Gabby, I can see how those words really reflect what you said works well for Verne. The contemplative philosophical, theological. That was a great place to start. Tell me about your second ... Oh, I want to say success, but I don't want to talk about losses in the reading life. [GABBY LAUGHS] Tell me about the second book you all loved.
GABBY: The second book is The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I think this one actually reminded me a lot of Gilead in a lot of ways that it had that kinda contemplative, philosophical bent to it, but it's just got this real gentle, subtle, slow moving kind of plot but there's so much going on within that. You know, really, it's just this story of this butler from old Downton Abbey kind of world, but after that has started to go away, you know, Post-World War II and he is kind of grappling with how he has spent his life and how to spend the rest of his life, you know, how to spend the remains of the day. Yeah, I just thought it was gentle, subtle, totally was heartbreaking to me, but then it was also really hopeful at the end as well.
ANNE: Verne, how did you experience this one?
VERNE: The central question I thought in that book is he is going to step out of his boundaries and take risk, or is he going to stay within his boundaries? With his employer the question I thought was am I going to be this butler that's going to make sure that my employer has the control here. I'm just going to set up the household, set up the party, or set up the conference so that whatever happens at the conference is not my concern, but rather I'm just going to set it up so the principals can do whatever they're going to do, or am I going to take a hand in this, realize what's happening in the world, realize that there are momentous events happening and maybe I should maybe step out of the dutiful servant role and I should actually influence what's happening here, and that's attention that he grapples with. Should I be the neutral servant, or should I be the influencer? He - He's nervous because when it's suggested to him maybe you should be an influencer I think this is kinda an ethical dilemma for him.
ANNE: Yeah, I mean, you have a man so wrapped up in his identity that he can't really live and how painful to realize and then as the reader you get to watch what happens.
VERNE: Right. He's being called to be more, or to maybe risk more and maybe to have more of a relationship with the woman there that has an interest in him or is asking him to be more and do more and yet is he going to risk? Is he going to step out of that role?
ANNE: And of course Ishiguro writes these tales that are so beautifully focused on the characters set in the very specific storyworld, and yet is not just about that character. When he's talking about being called to be more I love the way you put that, Verne, I can see how that also has like all the little tick marks next to Gabby's characteristics she's looking for when she's looking for books for you.
GABBY: Yeah, another thing about The Remains of the Day and Gilead that I think is great for Verne and that's just makes them great books is the view that they have of history. They're kind of interestingly situated in time and place to have this reflective view on the history that came before them. In The Remains of the Day he's post-World War II and he's kinda looking back at all this time leading up to World War II and things that he can see now that people, not everyone could see then.
ANNE: I hadn't noticed that, that similarity, but it’s like they’re set at these hinge moments in history.
ANNE: Where – where things are tipping and you can see it. Yeah.
GABBY: Yeah. Yeah and Gilead with him reflecting back on his father's life and his grandfather's life, we get to see a lot of history from an interesting perspective. You know, we're getting history but not like a direct historical fiction, you know, we're not in the middle of like the abolition movement but we're getting his reflection on his grandfather's history as part of that movement.
ANNE: What book did you choose to round out your favorites list?
GABBY: Oh, I chose Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan.
ANNE: I can see how that would be a great pick.
GABBY: Yes. [LAUGHS] Biographical fiction is not like something I would normally be interested in but you highly recommended it in a few different places on your blog and your show, so I took a chance on it when it came up on Libby, you know, it was just like this is available. Anne says it's good. I'll give it a chance, and I loved it. I was ... I listened to it on audio and I was just like riveted. I was listening all the time and really interested to see where it was going and so fascinating, like I knew C.S. Lewis had this wife later in life, but I didn't really know anything about her and you know, I had no idea she was so awesome. [ANNE LAUGHS] I guess you know reading that book I was like you know C.S. Lewis is a stick figure, you know, Joy Davidman completely stands up next to him and you know her story is just as fascinating. There's so much I didn't know. Obviously Verne loves C.S. Lewis. It's his favorite author and I read this book and I loved it and I had to recommend it to him.
ANNE: So Verne loves C.S. Lewis. Was there any part of you that was hesitant to hand this over because Alexander McCall Smith who rewrote Emma for the modern Jane Austen series said like one messes with the classics at one's peril.
ANNE: People get really upset when you change their favorite authors and beloved novels in ways that they don't approve of or see fitting, so was there any anxiety here for you?
GABBY: Yeah, I guess I had that anxiety for myself picking it up like biographical fiction, is that really something that's worth my time? Wouldn't I be better off just reading the true – the true story? You know, but I didn't have any concerns once I had read it. I think that she does excellent research and I think she really does justice to the characters and I think I gave a caveat that like yeah, this is biographical fiction, you know, this is not, you know, 100% exactly what happened, but I think it really does justice to the characters and to C.S. Lewis and I didn't have to be concerned about it. [GABBY AND ANNE LAUGH]
ANNE: And Verne, then you picked it up and then what happened next?
VERNE: It was fascinating. I found that the whole closeness of their friendship was just fascinating how they became closer and closer friends, how he was initially in their correspondence giving her some spiritual wisdom and insight and how that became a closer and closer bond between them, and as I read the book, I found my heart coming closer to the characters of the book, both C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman as I'd found they were having a relationship that could finally issue in a marriage. He realized that she needed to get regularized, I'll use that word in England for her citizenship status, but also because he found he was loving her.
There were a couple quotes I noted because they had to negotiate the relationship. He wanted to be very honorable to her. It was one of the quotes in the book, “When a man makes a moral choice, two things are involved: the act and the feelings and the impulses inside of him she found her heart bending toward him,” and that's a great quote. To read that just brings a lot of love and poignancy for the characters, especially when you know of course historically they had a very deep love relationship for the short time they were together.
ANNE: I'm so glad, Gabby, that you stumbled upon it and that you both ended up enjoying that book so much. I'd love to hear about the books that didn't work for you. How did you all choose these, and was it hard to do so? Gabby, what's your book?
GABBY: Well, it was not hard for me [ANNE LAUGHS] to choose a book I hated and I don't mind using the word hate. My hated book was The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue.
ANNE: What made it a bad fit for you?
GABBY: I honestly don't even know where to start. [ANNE LAUGHS] It was a bad pick for me in almost every way I could imagine. I read this for a book club and I was excited to read it. It's a little different than what I normally read but the reviews were SO good. It was not great for me. I really did not enjoy the prose of this book. It sounded really pretty on the surface but if you actually paid attention to what it was saying it was like what? [LAUGHS]
A bigger problem was just that I did not like the characters in this book at all. I did not feel like they learned or grew much in this book. I thought a lot of the big dramatic moments in the book weren't really earned. It'd just be going along and then it'd be like big dramatic moment, but it wouldn't have a big emotional impact for me because it wasn't built up to in a meaningful way.
ANNE: So this is historical fiction fantasy, which is someplace you're willing to go, and you just talked about how you loved Becoming Mrs. Lewis, which was biographical fiction about a historical character. You felt you were reading about characters who I think it's fair to say were made hard by their circumstances. That was not a place you wanted to hang out.
GABBY: I'm okay with characters that I don't like, but sometimes I can feel when I'm reading a book like if I’m reading an unlikeable character but the author thinks they're a likable character [GABBY AND ANNE LAUGH] I read them a little different, you know, if the author is like aware. Maybe if it had been written from a different perspective it wouldn't have bothered me so much.
ANNE: Something else I'm noticing is that I had been thinking that Verne was the one who really liked the beautiful prose and the contemplative and the philosophical but you're the one who picked up Gilead first and when it comes to enjoying that kind of writing, you are not excluded by that by any means.
GABBY: Recently I've expanded a lot more, lots of different genres but kinda my wheelhouse was like classics and literary fiction and so that beautiful prose is something I really enjoy.
ANNE: I mean, you're an English major and you loved it. We'll remember that. Verne, tell me about a book that wasn't right for you, and was this hard to choose?
VERNE: There was Huckleberry Finn as I remember back in trying to read it. It was like oh wow I'm going to go into this. This is one of the standard American canon, Mark Twain, you know, this should be an adventure in reading and as I got into it, I'm thinking, well I can't believe I don't like Mark Twain, but I think what turned me off is I kept reading was the cynicism. I gave it up and gave the book back to Gabby, so that was where I decided to set it aside at that point and not continue with it.
ANNE: I'd love to hear what you've been reading lately. Verne, what ... Is there a book you're in the middle of right now?
VERNE: Yup. It's Our Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology. Ellen Ullman. The author is a programmer. She is reflecting back on information technology, how it's developed over the years, and her personal relationship with it. Also how it's affected society and how that effects have been maybe for the good, but also how it's had some negative effects. The current chapter I'm in is basically discussing how information technology has kinda developed this idea of it's all about me. Narrow life down to what it appeals to me strictly and live that kinda constricted life, and that concerns the author a little bit. That may be a very dangerous trend to encourage online.
ANNE: What about you, Gabby? What are you reading now?
GABBY: I'm reading Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith.
GABBY: I picked that up on your ebook deals [LAUGHS] recently and I love – I love A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. I named my daughter after A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. [LAUGHS]
GABBY: So I like that book a lot, and so I was excited to pick this one up. I was little worried it would be A Tree Grows in Brooklyn redux, [LAUGHS] you know.
GABBY: That I would be reading kind of the same book, different furniture, but yeah, I was really surprised. It's so different. Annie, the main character, is really, really different personality from Francie so that was kind of a fun surprise and she - she's newly married to a law student. I was newly married to a law student once [ANNE LAUGHS] so there's actually some married to a law student specific humor in this book that I've really been enjoying. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay, that was Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith. Gabby and Verne, we've talked about what you've enjoyed and what you haven't enjoyed in your books. As we move forward, what are you looking for in your reading lives right now?
VERNE: Probably books that again I wouldn't choose for myself but were if I to find a nugget or gem or things that would say wow, that's interesting, lead to an idea that I hadn't considered before, might lead to some discovery or aha moment whether it's biographical fiction or whether it's nonfiction or whether it's done in story form and the author's maybe using the story as a vehicle to say have you ever thought of this? Or have you ever thought of that? Why don't you consider this? It's a little vague but … [ANNE AND GABBY LAUGH]
ANNE: We can work with vague. Gabby, how about you?
GABBY: Well, one thing I'm looking for in my reading life is just, you know, I love the classics but I feel like at this point like I've read them all and that all the ones that are still on my TBR are kinda stale, you know, I don't feel very inspired to be able to find a spark that makes them come to life on my TBR again and make me more interested in them. With our shared reading life here I just ... I'm always picking books and passing them on to Verne if I think he'll enjoy them, so I would love some books that we could read together, that are, you know, new to both of us.
ANNE: Let's revisit the books we talked about. You all both loved Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Becoming Mrs. Lewis by Patti Callahan. Not for you, Gabby, that was The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, and Verne, for you it was Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain.
ANNE: And we're looking for ... We wouldn't be adverse to a classic, and also just books that make you ask have you ever thought of this or that plant an idea, and that could be from any genre, and I can't not keep in mind how both of you have really enjoyed books that have been contemplative, philosophical, have had theological themes and have had really lovely prose. And I feel like I might toss out several books that make you go uh, yeah, of course, Anne. [ANNE AND GABBY LAUGH] Because that's exactly perfect for us, but if they're not on your radar or if you haven't read them I don't want to miss the opportunity to bring them up, so I just want to tell you that in advance and that being said, have either of you read Parker Palmer?
VERNE: I haven't.
GABBY: I've heard of him, but I'm really not familiar.
ANNE: Okay. I think he'd be an amazing fit for you all, and I think he's also a writer that you could really enjoy talking about together because a lot of what he writes about is about what life looks like to him right now from the perspective of his age, and you all being a generation apart would have different reactions to his work. He's quite a bit older than you I believe, Verne. His last book came out, oh maybe three or four years ago and he wrote it after turning 80, and so he's reflecting on eight decades of life and work. And he is a theological and philosophical writer, but I - I think you'll feel a real kinship with his writing, his perspective. He tells stories from his life and his experience that illustrate truths about this life we're all living in just really memorable beautiful poignant ways.
I think of his story all the time about him sitting in his Quaker listening circle making a very important career decision. He was deciding whether or not he wanted to become president of a local university. As they do, his Quaker friends were asking him questions to help him discover the truth of what he wanted to do. It's almost a punchline to that story is so memorable and perfect and I think about it all the time. This is also work that bears rereading coming back to. You can read it slowly. It's deep and insightful and not at all boring, which not everybody can pull off. I don't think that would scare you, but it might be a concern of some listeners, and yet it has the depth that you could just keep coming back to again and again and again.
And I think my favorite work of his is Let Your Life Speak, and that's the one with the story about him making the decision to become or not become the university president is in, but that one is all about vocation, and a little bit of the questions he's asking himself remind me of what we talked about for Kazuo Ishiguro, how this man has an identity and he has to make a choice at a certain point like what am I called to be? Am I called to be more? What am I risking? What am I giving up? What am I potentially gaining? Like Parker Palmer is asking those same questions but he's doing it in a very different way. He's insightful but he's also really witty and what he wants to discuss is what it truly means to live a good life and how we should be approaching our days, like what that means for us.
But On the Brink of Everything I think would also be a wonderful pick. We talked about how at least your first two books – this may be true for Becoming Mrs. Lewis as well – were interestingly situated in time and place and how they seem to be set at these hinge moments of history. On The Brink of Everything isn't set at a hinge moment of history but on the brink of everything is Palmer's phrase for being 80. He writes about how he's just surprised that he likes being old and he says welcome to the brink of everything. It takes a lifetime to get here, but it is a stunning view of past, present, and future, and I think he says [LAUGHS] like the wind in your face it's bracing makes it worth the trip.
And so he says he's writing from his old age perspective but that this book isn't only for old people of course, but for younger people as well to hear what that is like and what they might like to know now about the scope of a lifetime. Some of us are just old souls and of course this book would be wonderful for people who relate to that term as well. But it's about developing your inner life and your outer life and finding meaning in the wide variety of human experience, joy, pain, everything in-between and everything else. How does that sound to you?
GABBY: I think that sounds great.
VERNE: Fascinating is the word I'm coming up with. That sounds fascinating.
ANNE: I would not have been surprised if you had said I own every one of his books and they're lined up on my bookshelf and I've read them over and over. [GABBY LAUGHS] They're not long books. They're often in small formats, but they are so filled with goodness or at least I hope that is how you feel walking away from them. I am a little cognizant of presenting interesting tellings of ideas that you're already familiar with, and yet I'm not so scared that we can't not talk about this. Have you all read Peace Like a River by Leif Enger?
GABBY: I've almost purchased it at one point, but … [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay, okay.
GABBY: Never pulled the trigger.
ANNE: I think Peace Like a River would be a wonderful place to start. This is a 2001 book. The backstory to this book is really interesting and I was not aware of it until I was on book tour myself, but this book actually was released on September 11th, 2001. As such the new books that always are news, there was no news, and there was no book tour that began on that September Tuesday. Many, many months later Leif Enger and his wife hit the road and they visited, according to the booksellers who tell me this story, every independent bookstore they had originally been slated to visit that was canceled because of 9/11 and he just endeared himself to all those stores forever and ever.
I'm not quite sure how to describe this book because this book is a feeling and I'm sorry if that sounds esoteric, but it combines so many things to really powerful effect. It's a little bit mystical, which some readers really don't like. I don't think you are those readers and I do find this to be a book that has wide appeal to a vast number of readers who say things like you know, I didn't think I'd enjoyed that but oh my goodness, like this is a lifetime favorite for a lot of people. It's tragedy, romance. It's a coming-of-age story. It's narrated by a young boy and it's set in the deep North Dakota winter. You like stories interestingly situated in time and place. This landscape is interesting. It's a story of fathers and sons in tight knit communities and also outlaws and importantly it's about the miracles that happen in the novel because there are miracles in this novel. There are debated miracles in this novel, how about, and it's about miracles that happen or don't happen in our everyday lives and Leif Enger has some thoughts about that.
The story begins with the young boy's father being swept up in a tornado and he's put down several miles away, comes out of it – I'm doing this from memory I haven't read this book since it was a Modern Mrs Darcy book club selection quite a few years ago – but he says that he was just struck by how gently he was treated in the tornado and he lands and he completely changes his life to the great disappointment of his wife who kinda liked the successful tract they were on and now he wants to do something else. She's not real thrilled about it.
In the course of this story, they end up as a family in a desperate situation and that sets them off on a journey across the frozen badlands in the deep of winter where they encounter things that will change them forever. I don't know what else to say about this except I think this is perfect for the two of you.
I do love Virgil Wander for you. It's a little ... I wouldn't call Peace Like a River quirky. Virgil Wander is quirky, but it's set a lot closer to where you are in Wisconsin. In Minnesota I believe but the title character owns a movie theater in this tiny town on the shores of Lake Superior. I imagine it being near Duluth. I'm not sure if that's because Leif Enger actually said that in the text or I've just situated in my mind in that place knowing what I do about him, but – I'm just now realizing the similarity to Peace Like a River – he ends up being behind the wheel of a car when it's driven into the icy lake and after the experience and ensuing concussion, he is not the same.
Enger calls this his most religious but least evangelical book so you might find that to be interesting. Gabby, I think the English major in you would find the way he plays with the concept of seeing in the book really interesting. For me I really enjoyed my reading experience though as we neared the end of the story it took a direction that I didn't expect, didn't particularly liked, but that very thing could make this an excellent book to discuss with others, or in a book club, listeners, if you need a book club pick. That is Peace Like a River by Leif Enger. What do you all think about that?
GABBY: I think that sounds.
VERNE: Alright. We'll give it a try.
ANNE: I don't know where to end. Do we want a new novella that's a little bit historical? No, a lot historical? A memoir? Or interesting, turn-of-the-century North Carolina evangelical priest that asks questions about vocation?
VERNE: That sounds interesting to me.
ANNE: Okay, well the book I have in mind is one that we've talked about on the podcast before but I don't think since year one. I'm thinking of contemporary novelist – she's still writing – Gail Godwin and her books Father Melancholy's Daughter and Evensong. Are these books you all know?
GABBY: I've heard of them on ... Probably on the podcast. [ANNE AND GABBY LAUGH]
ANNE: Not for years though. Not for years. Okay. Let's start with Evensong, although these books, they're a pair, but I think it would be just fine to jump in with Evensong. I know you like books that ask big questions that ask interesting questions, Verne, and well, Gabby, I can tell by your ... The books you love that you do as well. So Margaret is an episcopal priest in a mountain town in North Carolina and something I like about this book is that when I think of like a priest and a priest work, I think of them like standing in the pulpit and wearing their collar and doing you know, the very official things, but in this book you see her doing her more regular duty ... She's doing the ironing in the church with a volunteer, or she's called upon to go visit a woman who's husband has just died in front of her in a car accident. You see her doing that kind of work that is usually invisible to others except for the people, you know, the individual people who are there in those moments and I found that to be really interesting.
The question this priest Margaret is facing at the beginning of this book is what are we to do when we get the thing we want most in this life? But then discover it might be the very thing that destroys us. So this is set in the mountains of North Carolina. It's very deliberately examining marriage and vocation and calling through Margaret's eyes and she - she's in her 30s. This has been the thing that she has always wanted to do and in fact when you go back, or if you want to begin with Father Melancholy's Daughter, you'll see that this is always been the thing she wanted and she goes off to seminary. And in that book she's navigating romantic relationships and going to seminary and pursuing and clarifying that calling.
But in Evensong, she is forced to finally make a decision. I keep thinking of the butler in The Remains of the Day, but she is forced to make a decision about where she wants to go in life when three unexpected and, like frankly to her, unwelcome guests arrive in this sleepy town and she is looked to by the town to do something about it. And Evensong was first published in 1999, so you remember Y2K and the discussions about the time, like very practical things like how many canned goods do you have? To more apocalyptic like oh, what's going to happen when it's the millenium? Those fingerprints are all over this book. I do like that for the big questions it asks, but Father Melancholy's Daughter is also lovely.
And if you enjoy these, Gail Godwin is a literary writer who is still writing. I know we've talked about her most ... Well, not her most recent, but I know the most recent published novels of hers we've talked about on the podcast is Grief Cottage. So those are Father Melancholy's Daughter and Evensong by Gail Godwin. How do those sound to you two?
VERNE: Those sound good.
GABBY: Yeah, those sound right in the vein of Gilead.
VERNE: That idea of vocation and calling and you kind of hooked me too with the idea of what do we do when we get the thing we want the most and yet it might destroy us? That … you kinda hooked me there with that.
ANNE: I like how it does asks questions that are similar to those of Gilead from a perspective of more youth that you see in that novel, the tone of the writing, they're not readalikes, and I'm really interested in how you experience that contrast.
Okay, so of the books we talked about today, we talked about ... You know, we talked about pairs of books every time. [GABBY LAUGHS] We talked about Parker Palmer Let Your Life Speak and also his newer release On the Brink of Everything. We talked about Leif Enger's work Peace Like a River and also Virgil Wander, and we ended with Gail Godwin. Her second book Evensong in this loose series and the first one Father Melancholy's Daughter. Of those books, Gabby and Verne, do you want to consult briefly or do you want to say [GABBY LAUGHS] what is top of mind for each one of you? I might like that better. Gabby, what do you think you might want to read next?
GABBY: The Parker Palmer sounds really cool to me. I'm really interested in those.
ANNE: And Verne, how about you?
VERNE: Okay, I was going to go with Evensong; however is a value in us reading together because that way we can bounce ideas off each other and discuss together. I could go with Parker Palmer. [GABBY LAUGHS] Gabby, do you want to pick up On the Brink of Everything first or Let Your Life Speak first?
GABBY: Well we can figure that out. Let Your Life Speak sounds great.
ANNE: Well I hope you all really enjoy it, and that you report back on what you think. Gabby and Verne, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
VERNE: Thank you for the opportunity.
GABBY: Thank you for having us.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Gabby and Verne, and I’d love to hear what YOU think they should read next. Connect with Gabby on her website, mommylikesbooks.com. As always, find the complete list of all the titles we discussed today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/320.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter.
Find us on Apple Podcasts, leave a review of our show, or send a link to your favorite episode to a friend you would like to read with.
We’re on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext, where we love hearing about what you’re reading lately. And be sure to connect with me on Instagram at annebogel. That’s Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L, for more behind-the-scenes updates on my own reading life.
Make sure you’re following our show in Apple Podcasts, Overcast, wherever you get your podcasts. Tune in next week, when I’ll be sharing readerly recommendations with a guest who’s looking to create more real-life connections and conversations with fellow book lovers.
Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
Sign up to receive email updates
Enter your name and email address below and I'll send you periodic updates about the podcast.
• The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
• Tom Clancy (Try The Hunt for Red October)
• Clive Cussler (Try Pacific Vortex!)
• Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
• Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene (#1: The Secret of the Old Clock)
• The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton
• The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy
• Wilkie Collins (Try The Woman in White)
❤ Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
• Jack by Marilynne Robinson
• Lila by Marilynne Robinson
• Home by Marilynne Robinson
• Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
❤ The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
❤ Becoming Mrs Lewis by Patti Callahan (audio version)
• C.S. Lewis (Try The Chronicles of Narnia series)
• Emma by Alexander McCall Smith
△The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab
△ Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
• Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology by Ellen Ullman
• Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith
• Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer
• On the Brink of Everything by Parker J. Palmer
• Peace Like a River by Leif Enger
• Virgil Wander by Leif Enger
• Evensong by Gail Godwin
• Father Melancholy’s Daughter by Gail Godwin
• Grief Cottage by Gail Godwin