WSIRN Ep 322: The art of a great reading experience

image of an open hardcover book on a table, with pink and white tulips on top of the pages

Today’s guest is an oil and watercolor painter who appreciates the power of both art and books to tell a story.

Gina Ariko Marioni grew up in a family of immigrants and artists, and as a child she embraced reading as a way of understanding more about the world around her. While she’s traditionally loved a good coming-of-age story or a tale set in the art world, recently she’s found her reading selections mostly fall into two categories: extremely serious and weighty non-fiction and breezy, escapist, easy-to-read novels. Gina’s not happy about how black and white her reading life has become, and she’s looking for some help in expanding her palette.

In our conversation today, I offer Gina some ideas for the complex, introspective stories that spark those feelings of surprise and delight she’s looking for in her reading life right now.

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


What Should I Read Next #322: The art of a great reading experience, with Gina Ariko Marioni

See what Gina is reading and painting by following  her on on Instagram and her website, ginaariko.com

GINA: She was one of the first writers to write books in the English language, like for a younger audience, and so there was like these other components obviously I wanted to bring into it and some of my classmates were like why did you pick that? That's a kid's book. I could tell they were not impressed with my topic. [ANNE LAUGHS]

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 322.

Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?

We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.

Readers, sometimes we all need a little extra inspiration, even in the parts of our lives that normally bring us uncomplicated joy—like reading! If you’re feeling like something’s not quite right in your reading life these days, I have a recommendation for some bibliotherapy.

My book I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life is the perfect collection of short essays to remind you why you love to read. I’d Rather Be Reading celebrates the simple yet profound pleasures of being a reader, like reading under the covers with a flashlight, organizing your bookshelves again, and finding your book people. If you haven’t yet read it, this might be the perfect time. I’d Rather Be Reading is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or an independent bookstore near you.

Today’s guest has a deep appreciation for art as a way of telling a story—whether it’s through the creativity of the written word, or in her own career as an oil and watercolor painter.

Growing up in an immigrant family, Gina Ariko Marioni had an early encounter with the limitations of language, and came to love reading as a way of understanding more about the world around her. You'll often find her with a coming of age or multigenerational family story in her hands, although perhaps unsurprisingly, she also loves tales set in the world of art.

But Gina’s found that in recent years she’s gotten unintentionally stuck between two reading extremes. Her reading selections bounce back and forth between extremely serious and weighty non-fiction and breezy, escapist, easy-to-read novels—and she’s not happy about how much of the bookstore she’s leaving undiscovered in the process. While she wants to keep both of these categories in her reading life, she’s also missing the complex, introspective stories she’s enjoyed in the past and wants to expand the range of her reading to be less black and white.

But Gina’s found that in recent years her reading life’s becoming increasingly black and white. Her selections bounce back and forth between serious, weighty non-fiction and fluffy, escapist, easy-to-read novels, and she’s not happy about how much of the bookstore she’s leaving unexplored in the process.

Gina’s here today for my help in finding new books to add to her palette. I’ve got ideas for stories that will invite her in and leave her with that sought-after feeling of surprise and delight.

Let’s get to it.

Gina, welcome to the show.

[00:02:43]

GINA: Hi Anne, thank you so much for having me.

ANNE: Oh, it's my pleasure. I can't wait to talk books and your reading life. Gina, what made you think coming on What Should I Read Next could be a good time right now in your reading life?

GINA: I read more books than I ever have last year. Like with a lot of people, the pandemic, I had more time at home than ever before, and it was like a way to escape. When I was looking into this year, I want to be a little more selective with the books that I'm reading. I found that I kinda went into extremes with my reading life. I would either chose like books with these really heavy nonfiction books, educational, and historical, and just these really big topics, and then I would swing to the other side, like I would read one of those. It would be like an emotional, heavy read, and then I would lean toward like usually like a romance novel or a YA, like a really easy read. A light fiction read and I'd read one or two of those, and then pick up another like big, heavy book and there's not anything wrong with either those categories. I really liked a lot of books I read last year but I feel like there's a hole in the middle and I'm having trouble figuring out where exactly to look for them because I just keep going into really far on one side of the spectrum, and really far on the other with nonfiction.

[00:04:02]

ANNE: Ooh. Okay, so [GINA LAUGHS] you're familiar with the I'm picturing your books like weighted on a fulcrum. My physics vocab isn't so great. [GINA LAUGHS] Is that accurate? Do you know? [LAUGHS] But the middle ground is not commonly traversed. Okay. I'm excited to dig in. First, tell me a little bit about what you do when you're not reading. You mentioned spending time at home, which I imagine hints at [GINA LAUGHS] employment in the before outside the house?

GINA: Yeah.

ANNE: I'm watching Station Eleven and so [BOTH LAUGH] there's a lot of talk about the before and I thought oh yes, that sounds right right now.

GINA: Oh, yeah. I'm a full time working artist, so and I work out of my home. I have like a studio that's just a spare room in my home. So yeah, I work mostly with oil painting and watercolors.

ANNE: You have to tell me more about your work. How did you get into that?

GINA: I've always loved painting and actually same with reading. My childhood definitely was a lot of coloring and books. That's like all I wanted to do. [LAUGHS] My ojiisan and my obaasan, my maternal grandparents, they're both professional artists in Japan. My mom is an immigrant from Japan, and so I was really fortunate growing up. I got to spend like every other summer at their house and in their studio, and so really I was just like around their artwork. I thought their paintings were so cool and beautiful. I was like I want to be an artist. I want to be like them. So that had a big influence on me, and then when I got to college I started a double major in English and in studio art. Definitely continued the trend of loving [LAUGHS] books and art.

There’s such a big language barrier between me and a lot of my relatives. My Japanese language skills are pretty weak. A lot of my relatives do not speak fluent English. Like my grandparents didn't really speak any English, and so I was aware from a very early age the limitations of language. As much as I was really fascinated by and reading books, I kinda saw that overlap in where one left off and the other picked up, and so one reason I also really leaned into art, other than I just ... It's pretty and it's fun and I liked making pictures as a kid. Particularly when I was with my grandparents it felt like where the language barrier meets, my being interested in art and my being able to paint alongside them and show them my artwork and look at theirs seemed like it picked up kinda where that left off and it made me feel like I'm in this family, too, and it was a way to like express between each other where the language kinda left off.

[00:06:31]

ANNE: How amazing to come from a family of working artists. Did that make it easier to envision that it could actually be done? 'Cause I know that's not the message given to many younger students interested in pursuing that professionally.

GINA: Yes, it totally did. [LAUGHS] I always had that in the back of my mind, and I went to school in the Bay Area, so a lot of like tech and business students and kinda like what am I doing here? [ANNE LAUGHS] Like in the art department, like everyone else is talking about like their internships and stuff and I was like ...

ANNE: Oh, this sweet little art student [GINA LAUGHS] who thinks she can make it in the world.

GINA: But then yeah, in the back of my mind I was like Jiji and Baba did it. Like I know it's possible. I know there are people out there who are working artists.

ANNE: What medium do you work in?

GINA: I work mostly in oil painting and just in the last year I've started getting really into watercolors also and that's been really fun.

ANNE: Listeners, we will put links to Gina's work in our show notes so you can check it out with your eyes [GINA LAUGHS] and not listen to us describe it. Gina, you mention the limitations of language and how that's really fueled your interest in creating art yourself. I'd love to hear more about the intersection of your reading life and art in your life.

GINA: I love reading books that have [LAUGHS] either literal art or artists in it, like art history books on like the nonfiction side or like biographies. I love van Gogh's letters. There's other artists, but he's probably the most famous one. People who aren't [LAUGHS] interested directly in art history, he was a very prolific writer. He wrote tons of letters to his brother and his friends, and we have those, so I love stuff like that, but even books that are not so on the nose about art.

[00:08:01]

ANNE: So when it comes up in your work, or when it comes up in your reading, that makes you happy.

GINA: Oh, yeah. And just in a bigger picture, books that maybe just like inspire creativity or I really like coming-of-age stories, and I think that's kinda for the same reason like figuring out who you are, what you want to say about yourself, I feel like that also ties in. It's to how I think about what I'm trying to do when I'm in front of the canvas or reading a book. I feel like that translates too, so I think that's why I tend to grab ... Like I said at the top, I read a lot of YA books. I think that's part of why I'm drawn in that direction also.

ANNE: So I know we're going to get into the polarity you see there but, Gina, you said on our submission form, and that's the one at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest that you see both books and art as a form of storytelling. I would love to hear more about that.

GINA: Yeah, I do see both as a form of storytelling and communication. It is funny. I have a very bizarre, distinct memory. One of the trips we went when I was probably around ten years old, I was doing some like errand-running with my mom, so we were in like the city square, basically realizing that I'm illiterate in Japan. I think we were on a city bus and I was just kinda staring out the window and usually back home, you know, I'm like reading billboards, just to pass the time and stuff. It occurred to me, not only can I not read anything, but it's like a different alphabet. Japanese alphabets based on like Chinese characters, so it's not even like letters I can see, let alone words I can read, and it was kind of a jarring experience. I kinda went through the rest of our outing looking at the grocery store, like I can't read any of the labels on the food. I can't read anything, and had a feeling of like oh, this is what it feels like if you're illiterate.

ANNE: Which is probably an experience that you [LAUGHS] may not remember having at any point in the country you grew up in. And how old were you when that happened?

GINA: I was probably around ten.

ANNE: What did you like to read when you were a kid?

[00:09:57]

GINA: I read so much when I was a kid. [BOTH LAUGHS This is probably no surprise, but I loved books with ferocious, independent girls. [ANNE LAUGHS] Mandy by Julie Andrews, Secret Garden, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women. I loved Jo March. She's probably my favorite. Elizabeth Bennett, too.

ANNE: I'm glad to hear that. And what about now? [GINA LAUGHS] What do you tend to pick up these days?

GINA: I mean, I read all kinds of stuff like I said, fiction and nonfiction and light and heavy but I'm trying to be more intentional reading contemporary, underrepresented authors as well. The last several years I'm really happy I'm back in reading shape. [BOTH LAUGH] And like really enjoying reading for its own sake. Like I've always loved art and books and everything, but the couple years, and I don't know if other people on your show have had this experience, especially as an English major, but the couple years right after school, I barely read at all. I think I got a little bit burnt out of being like assigned reading. Also for me I had kinda an experience of [LAUGHS] I think when I look back on it feeling like little bit of judgment and snobbery built into like you have to like this type of book.

Some of the seminars, especially near the end of my time at school, I felt judged if I talked about ... Like if I admitted I liked other books. Even the book I ended up writing my senior thesis largely around The Secret Garden, and that is a children's book but my [LAUGHS] my topic was on like the transcendental themes that the book used from like the generation or two before the book was written. It was written in 1910 or something. I can't remember exactly but the early 1900s, the emergence of children's literature. She was one of the first writers to write books in the English language, like for a younger audience, and so there was like these other components obviously I wanted to bring into it and some of my classmates were like why did you pick that? That's a kid's book. I could tell they were not impressed with my topic [ANNE LAUGHS] and kinda like looking down on me for it and I was like okay, well I think [LAUGHS] I think there's interesting things here to look at and just because it has a younger audience doesn't mean it's not interesting, or not worth looking at.

ANNE: She was a pioneer by golly. [GINA LAUGHS] I mean come on. How - how did it turn out? That project?

GINA: I got an A on my thesis. [ANNE LAUGHS] So it was good. But just stuff like that and honestly I had it on the art side too, but it took me a little while and really a couple years after that to kinda figure out like when every book I'm reading is not either assigned to me or something that I have to propose in front of my like classmates, what stuff do I like to read? What kind of art do I like to look at and make?

[00:12:42]

ANNE: I mean, you know this. It's definitely not just you. I think it's something that a lot of graduates from whatever – whatever it is they're graduating from – don't realize that they're walking off a cliff in a way. That all of a sudden they're about to have total control of their own reading life, without even really thinking about the fact that someone else, I mean, if you're a student, has always been telling you what to read. Maybe not exclusively been telling you what to read, but then you reach this point in your life where somebody's not telling you what to read, then maybe you're not reading and that takes a lot of people by surprise.

GINA: It took me by surprise. Like definitely the year after like I don't know if I read a single book. It was also like I was transitioning to like my first nine to five job and stuff, but I do specifically remember it sounds like something like being wow, like I used to read so much. I'm not reading anymore. I never had the experience of, feel like I had to make myself read or be like what book am I going to read now 'cause I didn't have anything lined up.

ANNE: Okay, but you did it 'cause we're talking about [GINA LAUGHS] your reading life here today. Gina, you said it's real easy for you to go two places with your books. Would you tell me more about that?

GINA: Yeah, I mean especially this last couple years. [LAUGHS] When we're in lockdown and stuff, I find that I'll gravitate toward nonfiction and I'll get hooked on a certain topic and then want to read like a whole bunch more books about that. It'll kinda take over my reading life for a couple months. Let me see. Recent ones were like I read a bunch of books on like the food industry and like chef memoirs. Once I read one that interested me, I want to know more about this and I'll find like five more books [LAUGHS] on that topic. I read early in the pandemic, I read a bunch of like founding father biographies, which I'd never particularly had an interest in or thought I did but I read one and then I was like well I need to know more now [ANNE LAUGHS] and read like four more. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: What was the one that set you down that path? Do you remember?

GINA: It was Alexander Hamilton's.

ANNE: Okay.

[00:14:35]

GINA: The one Hamilton, the musical.

ANNE: The Chernow one, yeah?

GINA: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

ANNE: Okay. Okay. So a thousand pages wasn't enough. You had to keep going.

GINA: [LAUGHS] I know. That one was so big too. Oh, the other one was I read a bunch of like I escaped a cult [LAUGHS] genre of memoir and those were just so fascinating, but again, they're heavy to read. They're heavy reads. At the time I was like okay, I'm like full of reading these. [LAUGHS] I don't have a big appetite to read something that I know is going to take a lot out of me again, and so it's just kinda easy to go back toward YA or romance novels. I read a lot of romance novels last year. [BOTH LAUGH] I didn't really start reading romance novels until the pandemic either. [LAUGHS] These are delightful. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Yeah.

GINA: So I'll kinda swing fully the other way in and I don't want to be bashing on that genre at all. I've really enjoyed reading them, but I think it's kinda left a gap in the middle and I know that there's so much more good fiction out there and when I do come across it usually cause other bookish friends of mine will be like have you read this yet? I didn't know where to find it, or I feel like there's this whole like middle ground, especially for fiction that I'm not aware of and I think I'm just not really looking for it because in my mind I'll only turn to fiction when I already feeling a little bit like full, and so I'll just swing far to the other side.

ANNE: So you've got a pendulum going. So you're going between your rotating nonfiction topics, the ones you get hooked on. Like you really enjoy the experience, but then it feels like you feel like you need a break from topics that can tend to be heavy and serious and pretty academic.

GINA: Mmhm.

ANNE: Which you really enjoy, but you can feel like you're ready to swing to the other side and take a break and have an escapist reading experience and so that's when you go to romance. Or I think YA, too, you mentioned earlier.

GINA: Yeah.

[00:16:25]

ANNE: So in fiction those are the genres you’re most acquainted with, and those are the books you know how to find for yourself but you know there's more and you'd like to explore it.

GINA: Yeah.

ANNE: Okay, it sounds like you spend a lot of energy finding great nonfiction and exploring. I imagine you enjoy that process and we just want to learn how to do that in fiction as well. But I imagine it can be really overwhelming because you know you know these genres and I imagine you have a fair amount of experience in choosing the books and you know kinda what catches your eye and you've worked out for you, like what's been a great reading experience, what hasn't. That's guiding you now but you haven't done it in other genres.

GINA: Yeah, and I think now that we're talking about it too, it's easier to do for nonfiction. I think I get stuck also because like if I read one [LAUGHS] founding fathers biography for example or something, especially like more niche areas, like authors will reference other books or other people in that subject and it's easier to find what to read next if I'm interested in that. I can very easily find other books that I know for sure will overlap with the one I just read and will continue on. When I find a really good fiction book that I like, unless the author wrote multiple books or something, there's not like a built-in way to find other books that feel like that one. Books set in the same time period, or on the same theme could be totally, totally different.

ANNE: I mean, I think that's absolutely right that it's easier to find nonfiction than fiction for that reason you said. If you love a founding father biography and you want to read more, you look for more founding father biographies.

GINA: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: But so many search algorithms work exactly the same way for fiction. If you love a book about two sisters set against a backdrop of war in the 1860s and you start looking for similar recommendations, like that's what you get, but that's not what you want, like you want a feeling or an exploration of themes.

GINA: Yeah.

ANNE: Or even more like I mean like on What Should I Read Next readers’ favorite books are often those that just surprise and delight them, and it's really hard to search by the filter of surprise.

[00:18:25]

GINA: Yeah. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: And delight. Okay. Well I'm glad you're here today. Gina, I can't wait to hear more about fiction picks that are squarely lined up with your interests in theme and setting and the kinda tone you enjoy in your reading. What that looks like for you as we like kinda step outside the genres that you enjoy but know really well and just want to explore a little bit further. I'm not saying we have to totally like step outside your comfort zone [GINA LAUGHS] and we'll probably going to focus on fiction just because you do have an easier time finding nonfiction you love.

GINA: Yeah.

ANNE: But that's - that's just my working theory. We'll see where this takes us, and you know what we're going to do to find out what you may enjoy reading next, and that is dig into your reading life.

You know how this works. You're going to tell me three books you love, one book you don't, and what you've been reading lately, and we'll talk about finding some … Middle ground sounds like a compromise. We don't mean that at all. [GINA LAUGHS] But we'll talk about the new territory you may enjoy exploring. Gina, how did you choose these books?

GINA: Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender. So that's fiction. The other two are nonfiction.

ANNE: Interesting.

GINA: Like we said earlier I can't remember how it came on my radar, but this was definitely one of those books that surprised and delighted me. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Ooh.

GINA: And it checks a lot of boxes of what we were saying earlier. It's a YA coming-of-age story. So Felix is 17 in New York City. He's Black and trans and queer. When you're introduced to the book, it's his last summer of high school. He's like preparing to apply for colleges, still trying to figure out his like gender and sexuality and just general who likes me? Who doesn't like me? Like with his classmates and stuff and then also he's applying - he wants to be an artist and so he's in this like fancy summer arts program putting together a portfolio to apply for college.

And so like surface level, like the literal artist stuff was fun. [LAUGHS] And he's in this program with other kids and so like hearing his process of figuring out the art he wants to put together for his portfolio and kinda like comparing it to some of his classmates, the art that they're making, that was like a fun plotline, but underneath that, it just really tugged at my heartstrings. It was such a sweet book. He was such a vulnerable character. It's also like him falling in love for the first time. It was so sweet and there was so much heart in the book. That's what like really drew me in. I loved that this was a contemporary author and like an underrepresented author. The writer Kacen Callender, they are nonbinary and Black.

[00:21:02]

ANNE: Alright, so this ticks a lot of your boxes, so the grappling with identity, the you know, the coming-of-age, figuring out who you are, what you want to say, and the actual art on the page was kinda a fun bonus. Okay, Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender. Gina, that was your one fiction pick. Tell us about another book you love.

GINA: So the next one I picked is by Ross King. It's called The Judgment of Paris and I'm a huge Ross King fan. I've read a lot of his books. If you're not familiar, he writes basically art history. This one in particular, Judgment of Paris, is a nonfiction book about this like social, political climate in Paris in like the early 1800s that like birthed the impressionism movement basically. So all the big names in impressionism, like Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Reinor, Dagas, those guys all knew each other in real life. It was like a relatively small arts scene at the time was like pretty controversial, very different from like the style of art that was presented beforehand. It was a whole thing, and so [LAUGHS] there's a couple reasons why I picked this book. Obviously there's like the art history component.

Ross King, like I said, I could've picked a couple other of his books too. [BOTH LAUGH] He's a really – he’s a really entertaining writer. The reason why I chose one of his books in the first place is because it's hard to find art history that doesn't feel academic, that doesn't feel like you're reading a textbook. He is a really good nonfiction writer. I don't know how he does it. He's got a great way of finding like narratives to the story he's telling and like picking out the right quotes from people and putting in like the right anecdotes to where it's entertaining – it's like entertaining to read and you happen to be like learning about like a niche subject.

He's great, and this book in particular, even if you're not an art historian [LAUGHS] or think you're that interested in art I think impressionism is so ubiquitous like everyone's kinda familiar with that style of art. It's by far probably the most popular. Still it's been like a 150 years later. But kinda take for granted like why does everyone recognize this style of painting? How did it get to be so famous? Almost kinda like The Beatles, or something. [BOTH LAUGH] So it's kinda interesting to go back and like learn about like where it came from, how it was received at the time it was introduced. So I found it to just be like a really fun book and I think even if you're not like specifically interested in art history, it's entertaining and it like happens to be about art history.

[00:23:33]

ANNE: Yeah. That's a great description. Have you read any of his novels?

GINA: No.

ANNE: Okay, you know more about Ross King than I do, but I believe that he's of late specialized more, maybe exclusively on the nonfiction, but he has some novels that may be 20 years old at this ...

GINA: That is ringing a bell but I haven't actually looked at them.

ANNE: You could read them and see what you think. You could decide if he actually – [GINA LAUGHS] he found the genre he belongs in or if you would like him to write another one for you today. I just thought that might be fun to explore.

GINA: I totally forgot about that.

ANNE: That's why we're talking. [GINA LAUGHS] Okay, so that was The Judgment of Paris by Ross King. What did you choose as your final favorite book?

GINA: Yeah, I chose Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner and I heard about this book on your show. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Oh, I'm so glad to hear it. So you know how I feel about it.

GINA: Yeah, and this one came out last year. [LAUGHS] When you recommended it on one of your earlier episodes, I don't even know if it was actually out yet.

ANNE: Oh, so you had to wait for it.

GINA: Yeah. I loved this book. My whole family now loves this book. [LAUGHS] Michelle Zauner, she's half Korean on her mom's side. Her mom is like an immigrant from South Korea and then her dad is white. She grew up in America. It's a book about grief. Her mom dying of cancer when Michelle's like in her mid-20s. That experience of like watching her mom kinda slip away and then once her mom is gone. It's called Crying in H Mart, H Mart is like an Asian grocery store, and so a lot of the book is around the author turning to Korean food and like recipes that remind her of home to kinda bring her that comfort in the smells of the food cooking in the kitchen like she was a little girl and her mom making these foods for her.

So [LAUGHS] I was going to say that she writes very plainly, and I mean that in the best way. She just kinda puts it all out there on the page. It's vulnerable, open direct way of explaining these like really complicated feelings that she's going through and it mirrors my family. Michelle's relationship with her position in her family mirrors mine, and so coincidentally, my family has a food blog that my mom started and it's kinda for the reason why Michelle, like – it's called Crying in H Mart because she's at the grocery store and she starts crying because she can't remember like what exactly what ingredient she's supposed to use. My mom had a feeling that something like that would happen to us, like years ago, and so she like transcribed some of the recipes she had from my grandma and my great-aunts.

[00:26:07]

ANNE: Yeah.

GINA: Like family recipes. For whatever reason at the time, she was like what if something happens to me? You guys aren't going to have these recipes. One, they're in Japanese. [LAUGHS] And also, like she translated them into English and then she also like put notes or put adaptations for like if you're making them in America, like and you need to get the ingredients in America. [LAUGHS] Like what you need to do. And that's been a family project for like years now.

ANNE: Aw, that's so fun.

GINA: It started off just with like the handful of recipes she had, like my great-aunt used to own a ramen shop in Japan and like my mom's childhood recipes from her mom. Now it's just like this big collection of like all of our friends and family recipes. For a lot of immigrant families or children of immigrants, like food is the most immediate way to bring that sense of comfort in home and familiarity back. That is certainly true in my case, and like my family's case, but it also stood out to me.

Know My Name, Chanel Miller's book. She's also like half Chinese and half white. I read that book last year and there was a scene when she was really upset and she just walked to the grocery store and next thing she knew in her kitchen she was making dumplings, and I totally recognized that. Like I do that too, like the presidential election week, I was like so, so stressed. Like what's going to happen? [LAUGHS] Before we knew the results and I like made like 200 gyozas. [ANNE LAUGHS] Like I just bought a bunch of ingredients for like Japanese dumplings. I know I'm starting to [LAUGHS] get a little off-topic here, but I was … Just it really struck a chord for me. I shared it with my mom and my sister. I was like you guys gotta read this book. My mom read Crying in H Mart and as soon as she finished it, she texted me, she was like I'm starting it again. And she read it twice in a row, like she finished it.

[00:27:51]

ANNE: Ohh.

GINA: And she read it back again.

ANNE: Oh, that really says a lot about what that book meant to her. Alright, that was Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Gina, tell me about a book that wasn't right for you.

GINA: I had a hard time thinking of a book that was like oh squarely was not for me, or didn't like. So the one I picked is The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang and yeah, so this is a romance novel. When I started sharing more that I was like reading romance novels, I connected with a couple other girlfriends who were like oh my gosh, me too! And it was kinda fun. I think a lot of readers in this genre, there's still kinda like a stigma on it or people are like embarrassed, but started sharing some, and this – this title in particular, like multiple people were like well, have you read The Kiss Quotient yet? Like oh, that's a great one.

And so I got like multiple recommendations for it and I don't know why, it just didn't – I didn't relate to the main character, like at all. It just didn't click for me, and I was kinda disappointed just that it didn't land, I was like oh. [LAUGHS] I also felt bad because it seems like everybody else liked it and just for whatever reason it didn't click for me. And it does check boxes and I'm not surprised my friends recommended it. It has like an Asian American lead woman. It's on the like empowering, uplifting side. I mean, romance is also like a lot of it is just kinda subjective. It just didn't do it for me. I just couldn't really relate to her. I don't think I finished this one. I read like probably like three quarters of the way through or something but then I was like I'm really like forcing myself to keep reading this and I don't need to finish it. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: You said something about not connecting with the main character. Is that something you like to do when you're reading in this genre?

GINA: Hm. Yeah, I suppose so. Well this is interesting now that we're talking about it because I think like I said the coming-of-age or like deep introspection work that happens, even in like a wider genre, like a lot of YA books are, they're a lighter reads, but like the turmoil the protagonist is going through, they're really digging into like who am I? [LAUGHS] Like how do I feel about this? And with my memory of reading Kiss Quotient was totally opposite for what I usually like when I turn to those genres I think.

[00:30:02]

ANNE: And you really enjoy like an introspective exploration.

GINA: Mmhm.

ANNE: I also wonder if this might have been more accessible for you if you hadn't been told over and over again that it was like right up your alley and exactly what you love. I wonder if expectations had been set a little bit differently if you might have felt differently about the book.

GINA: Probably. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: So that's The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang. Gina, what are you reading now?

GINA: I just finished Midnight Library, like earlier this week, by Matt Haig, I think, and that's a fiction book. I really liked that one. I also recently read The Gunkle. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Yeah.

GINA: By Steven Rowley, I think. I really loved that one also. There's like a goofiness to the plot, but they're also dealing with grief. I cried at the end which took me by surprise because like the first half of the book, there's a lot of humor. The emotional toil at the end took me by surprise, but like in the best way, like I really enjoyed reading that one. And then on the nonfiction side, let's see, I read For Small Creatures Such As We by Sasha Sagan, who's Carl Sagan's daughter. That was a beautiful book. I really enjoyed that one. And Cultish by Amanda Montell. The full title is Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism.

ANNE: Yeah.

GINA: And that was a super interesting book. She just announced like a week ago that her next book is like picked up, like under way, so I'm super excited. [LAUGHS] I'm super excited for that.

ANNE: Gina, I've got some ideas, but tell me, what are you looking for in your reading life right now? Tell me more about operating in your either/or approach to fiction. I mean, I think what we're looking for is that interesting, deeply compelling contemporary fiction that you know is out there, that you stumble upon occasionally, but not something you gravitate towards. Oh, although something I didn't say though is The Midnight LIbrary and The Gunkle were not two books I expected you to mention based on what you said you typically read.

[00:31:59]

GINA: Mm.

ANNE: Is that - does that represent an attempt to branch out?

GINA: Yeah, so like reading lately I've been actively trying to introduce some more balance. [LAUGHS] And I've been really happy so far with like I really liked both of those fiction books. I'm definitely looking for fiction, I think I just need more help in that area. I just love the feeling of being pulled into a good fiction book. You know, that's just more of a variable that's hard to pin down when you're like searching in the fiction section.

ANNE: Alright.

So, we're basing this on the books you loved, which were Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender, The Judgment of Paris by Ross King, and Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner. Not for you The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang, and we talked a little bit about why that might be.

You know, this is always tricky for me, like I feel like I'm always telling guests like don't be – don't get nervous. You'll be fine. You'll be fine, but like I have to recommend books that you might like at the end! [GINA LAUGHS] Ahh! But I feel good about this one 'cause it doesn't come out until April, so I don't think you'll have found it yet, and it's right up your alley. Oh, and listeners, just a note, it doesn't come out until April right now, but again, supply chain issues mean that pub dates are once again changing with great repeatedly, so hold that loosely, but the book I have in mind for you is Memphis by Tara Stringfellow. I do feel like I should ask, is this on your radar? Is it one you know?

GINA: No, I haven't heard of it.

ANNE: Well this is new contemporary fiction. You might – this might be slotted as literary fiction. It's definitely finely crafted. This is a new work. This book has a deeply compelling plot, interesting story, family saga. There's a strong coming-of-age thread. Young, Black girl in Memphis dreams of being an artist. So you have this family line and Stringfellow's family was her inspiration for this story. Her grandfather was a World War II veteran, came back to Memphis, Tennessee and was the first Black homicide detective in that city. Her grandmother was one of the very first Black nurses in Memphis. The editor of this book describes this as the dual inheritance of injustice and excellence that came from her family.

So this is the story of one American family, but also I read the e-galley that has the editor's letter in the front and she says that this is also the Black fairy tale that Tara grew up wanting to read. So it tracks three generations of women set in this historic city. I don't know if you've been to Memphis, but I think you'll feel like you have after reading this. [GINA LAUGHS] At least the Memphis from like 1950s to about 2002. This young woman, the third generation in this family of strong Black women has to decide if she's going to let this history of vengeance in her family and in her own life going back to when she was very young define her or if it's going to be love and her work and her hope for the future.

There are hard things in this book, so readers, do check out that content warning if you might remotely be a sensitive reader, but oh, there is so much here. From like interesting tidbits about the histories and the cars and the buildings, there's one mention that had me running to Google, two characters were born the year of the bird flu pandemic in '57 and I was like oh, oh is that – is that real? [GINA LAUGHS] And then there's some civil rights events that happen in the city that I wanted to see like how closely is that tracking, which person are they talking about. There's a wonderful neighbor character, some of the supporting characters who know and interact with this family are just phenomenal.

[00:35:28]

GINA: That sounds amazing. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I'm so glad!

GINA: I do love multigenerational, like family story, too, and that aspect really appeals to me and I think having family kinda spread out around the world I did think a lot about like legacy’s kinda a heavy word [LAUGHS] but where did I come from? Like how did my family ... I'm just very interested in that, and I love those kinds of books like Pachinko, yeah.

ANNE: I'm so glad to hear it. [GINA LAUGHS] I hope you enjoy it. Okay next we have a historical novel. I'm glad you said Pachinko cause we're going back in time [GINA LAUGHS] that makes me think you're willing to do it.

The book I have in mind is Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie. This is a debut. It came out three-ish years ago. It's set in Kyoto in 1948. It's about a young girl who is the daughter of an upper class Japanese woman and an African American GI who was there overseas for the war, so in the opening pages this young girl, her name is Nori, her mother has had enough of trying to make a life and care for her daughter. It is not working out so what she does is she drops her at her aristocratic grandparents doorstep with a small suitcase and a note, and this young girl has never met these grandparents, but it is time for this girl to be taken care of and so her mother does the only thing she knows to do and that is put her literally on their doorstep.

And they're not real keen on this idea, the grandparents, because to them this daughter is born of a shameful match. She was born out of wedlock and the way they treat her is just appalling. She's rarely allowed out of her room. That's how they care for her, but then one day her half brother comes to live on their estate and being just a kid, he shows her the famous glimmer of love and compassion and friendship and her isolated world, not the world her mother imagined that she was dropping her into, just begins to crack open a little bit and she begins to experience a more connected, fulfilling life through her brother who brings good things into her life, but like there are still like plenty of complications that make for plenty of plot developments.

So this is definitely a book that has its elements of heartbreak. It's obviously difficult to read about terrible things happening to children. There's so much life, love, earnest and also misdirected, and just so many fascinating explorations of themes, of family, of culture and what happens when these two elements come together. I think there's a lot there you'd find really interesting. Hopefully it has the appeal and the exploration of fascinating topics in it that you really love in your nonfiction, but through the lens of a story. How does that sound to you?

[00:38:12]

GINA: Oh, I love that. As you were describing it, it reminded me. My friend, she's mixed, white and Filipina, she’s told me about this book.

ANNE: Oh, really?

GINA: So I have heard of it, but I haven't read it yet, but I didn't know like the backstory of it and I'm glad it came back up because I kinda forgot about it. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Alright, well, thank you, friend, for planting the seed.

GINA: Yeah! [LAUGHS]

ANNE: I'm thinking about going YA and art and graphic memoir for your third. What do you think?

[00:38:40]

GINA: Ooh. Okay, I'm really excited. Also, I've only read a couple graphic … I just read Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?

ANNE: Oh, yeah.

GINA: But I've only read like a couple books like that and I really liked that one and it's also just an area I don't … I'm not very familiar with.

ANNE: Well let's branch out. The one I have in mind for you is Almost American Girl by Robin Ha. This is a graphic memoir and a coming of age story. I'm glad you said you liked those. That must have planted a seed in my brain. So this is a book about a young girl. She's 14. Her name is Chuna. She is raised by a single mother in South Korea, and then one day her mother says we're going on a trip! We're going outside of Korea, which is something that they do, like regularly together. They travel, I think it's once a year to a country outside of Korea to a vacation, so it's not that weird that they're going to Huntsville, Alabama. They have certainly traveled far and wide before, and her mom says you know we're going for a trip. If it goes well, we might be gone a long time, and that is how she ends up moving to Alabama when her mother gets married to a Korean man living there. She gets picked up at the airport and he's like come meet the family! [LAUGHS] And Chuna's like ...

GINA: Oh my gosh.

ANNE: What?! [GINA LAUGHS] That is the beginning of her as a 14 year old in the '90s moving all at once in one swoop without even realizing it's happening from Korea to America, and Ha says that was probably the most difficult time of her life and like everything changed completely after that year, and in this graphic memoir she's writing about how she managed to come through that experience, those formative years, with a new country. [GINA LAUGHS] A new home, a new instant family with a stepdad and step siblings about her age and a new identity of being a Korean American. She said in interviews that now she loves and embraces, but like that's a lot for a 14 year old. In this graphic memoir, something else we see is the way that art and comics really ground her. When she was living in Korea, she read Korean comics and also she loved manga, that Japanese comics.

GINA: Mmhm.

ANNE: And when she moved to the States, manga was just becoming popular and a lot of kids were coming into it and it was the only thing that she felt like she had in common that she could actually talk about with these American teenagers. And in the pages of the graphic memoir, she talks about how amazing that I came from halfway around the world and they'd been here the whole time and we'd both love this same thing. You see her like grow up and become an artist and go to art school. This book ends with her moving to the D.C. area for her next step in education. Really figuring out all of a sudden like whoa, where am I? Who am I? Who do I want to be? in a really interesting way that you see explored here. You get to see her find her way as an artist. I'm excited to hear that you haven't read much in this format 'cause we're hopefully trying new things today, and I hope you maybe like the sound [GINA LAUGHS] of trying this one. What do you think?

[00:41:34]

GINA: Yes! Oh my gosh, I love the sound of all of these. [LAUGHS] I'm so – I'm so thrilled. And that last one, too, I mean, I'm really excited by all three of them.

ANNE: Of the books we talked about today, Memphis by Tara Stringfellow, Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie, and Almost American Girl by Robin Ha, of those books, I know that one of them doesn't come out until April, but what sounds good? What do you think you'll read next?

GINA: I think I'm going to look for Almost American Girl just because I can find that one now. Oh man, I'm so excited. [LAUGHS] These are great.

ANNE: I'm so glad to hear it. Gina, I enjoyed this so much. Thank you for talking books with me today.

GINA: Thank you for having me. This was wonderful.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Gina, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. See what Gina is reading and painting by following her on on Instagram at ginaariko (that’s G-I-N-A A-R-I-K-O) and her website, ginaariko.com. Find the full list of the titles we discussed today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/322.

If our show is on your weekly must-listen list, thank you. Please share it with a friend! We recently posted a fun template to our Instagram highlights (we’re there at whatshouldireadnext). Just fill it out to share your favorite episode of our show, where you listen to the podcast, and more about your reading life. We’d love to see your replies: be sure to tag us (and your favorite reading buddies!) in your story.

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Make sure you’re following along in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast and more. Tune in next week, when I’ll be talking with a guest who’s looking to sleuth out some stellar mystery recommendations.

Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.

And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.

Books mentioned:

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh by Vincent Van Gogh
Mandy by Julie Andrews Edwards
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett 
Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott
Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender
The Judgment of Paris: The Revolutionary Decade That Gave the World Impressionism by Ross King
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
Know My Name by Chanel Miller
The Kiss Quotient by Helen Hoang
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
The Guncle by Steven Rowley
For Small Creatures Such as We: Rituals for Finding Meaning in Our Unlikely World by Sasha Sagan 
Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell 
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee
Fifty Words for Rain by Asha Lemmie 
Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?: A Memoir by Roz Chast
Almost American Girl: An Illustrated Memoir by Robin Ha

Also mentioned:

Station Eleven TV series


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12 comments

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  1. I’d love to recommend a book for Gina based on her experience of using art to bridge language barriers and connect with family: Drawn Together by Minh Le. It’s a beautiful picture book that she’ll likely love and relate to!

    • April says:

      Yes!! I thought of this as well when she was talking about communicating with her family! And lovely illustrations!!

  2. Amber says:

    Listening to Gina tell her story about her grandparents made me think of the picture book Drawn Together, illustrated by Dan Santat. It’s a beautiful book about a boy and his grandfather, and their language barrier. They discover a shared love of drawing and the majority of the book is their drawings, in contrasting styles, creating art about their language barrier. It’s one of my favorite picture books (as a teacher and mom of young kids I read a lot!)

  3. Ivy Finkenstadt says:

    I am loving Fiona and Jane, by Jean Chen Ho. It is short stories that overlap to create a novel. Fiona and Jane are both Taiwanese immigrants/children of immigrants and the stories are about their friendships and relationships from young childhood through adulthood.

  4. Wendy Curtis says:

    Listening to artist Gina reminded me of a mystery book series (novels) by Charlotte Elkins about Alix London who can detect art forgeries. The first one is A Dangerous Talent. Light, easy reading. They are available on Kindle Unlimited.

  5. Rachel says:

    Loved this episode! I majored in art history (and took some studio classes in college), so I relate to Gina’s love of stories that involve artists. A book recommendation: My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potok.

  6. Christine G. says:

    Hi Gina! I could relate to your experience of not being able to pick up a book for a while after finishing your English degree. I felt the same way! Also, I love that you chose “The Secret Garden” for your thesis (and that you got an A!). I am an English teacher now, and one of the first things I did when I was allowed to chose my own books was drop the DWGs (Dead White Guys). Don’t get me wrong, I love the DWGs, but there is so much great literature out there that my students can relate to better than they can to Nathaniel Hawthorne, Henry James, or even Shakespeare.

  7. margaret says:

    This was such a great episode (and Gina, I just visited your website and am mourning some of the sold out paintings – Matcha and Yuzu, for example, I could go on – beautiful work). I wonder if you might love the Stationery Shop by Marjan Kamali like I did. Its a beautiful love story set against the backdrop of revolutionary Iran. I.e, literary romance. Also, I recently realized that so many books that I love involve artists. So here are a few recommendations from that corner of the book world: Writers and Lovers by Lily King, the Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, Feast Your Eyes by Myla Goldberg, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Happy reading Gina!

  8. Therese says:

    Before this podcast was over, I immediately thought of a couple of historical fiction (still more fact than fiction, I think) books I love about art and art history – Oil & Marble: A Novel of Leonardo and Michelangelo and Raphael, Painter in Rome by Stephanie Storey

  9. Rachel says:

    I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson sounds perfect for you. It’s a coming of age story of boy/girl twins. The boy is an artist and visualizes his emotions as paintings and it’s the most beautiful and visual novel I’ve read. It’s has some similar themes as your first book listed that right for you.

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