Today’s guest is an author whose books are regularly discussed in our comments sections, so it’s an extra treat to welcome her to the podcast!
Shauna Niequist is joining me today to talk about the importance of creative inspiration as both an author and a person, and to share how she finds this inspiration in her own life. You may know Shauna from her books, including Present Over Perfect, Bread and Wine, and her brand-new release I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet.
When she’s not writing, Shauna is often found reading, and of course today we talk about her reading life, from the genres she loves to the books she recommends over and over again.
Shauna’s always looking for new titles to inspire her, so today I recommend some books that tell the type of big, bold stories she loves, and remind her why she fell in love with fiction in the first place.
SHAUNA: You download a book on your Kindle and what that means is you don’t have any idea how long it is. I read this book for hours and hours and days and days and then I was suddenly at like 34%. [ANNE LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 326.
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, summer may still be weeks away, but around here we’re already knee-deep in preparations for one of my favorite projects—our annual summer reading guide! This year, in addition to the new reads I am itching to talk about, we’re also featuring perennial favorites and titles that go beyond the bestseller list, and pointing you to wallet- and library-friendly paperbacks that are easy to take along on any of your summertime adventures. I can’t wait to share it with you.
Keep up with all the summer reading guide news by subscribing to our emails at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter, and get excited about the 2022 summer reading guide landing in your inbox next month.
Readers, today’s guest is new to the podcast, but not to our community—her books are regularly discussed in our comments sections, and I shared selections from her personal bookshelf on the blog way back in 2014 for our Other People’s Bookshelves series. So I’m especially excited to welcome Shauna Niequist onto the show to talk about why fiction is her first love, where she finds creative inspiration, and why seeking out that inspiration is non-negotiable.
Shauna’s the author of several books, including Present Over Perfect, Bread and Wine, and her brand-new release I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet. Shauna is also an avid reader. From the cookbooks that serve as her comfort reads during stressful times to the short list of books she recommends to every human, the written word plays an essential role in her life.
But just like all of us, Shauna’s excited about making her reading life even richer, and we’ll talk about what that might look like in our conversation today. And of course, I recommend titles that tell the type of big, bold stories Shauna enjoys, give her new characters to root for, and remind her why she fell in love with fiction in the first place.
Let’s get to it.
Shauna, welcome to the show.
SHAUNA: Thank you for having me. I have been so excited about this.
ANNE: Oh, well it’s my pleasure. I’m delighted to hear it, and also not surprised because if there’s one thing I know about you, it’s that it seems like no matter what you’re doing, no matter what the works calls you to do, you can’t stop yourself from talking about what you’re reading because it seems like it matters to you so much.
SHAUNA: It does. There are many, many things I can live without. Books are not one of them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Luckily books are not something that anyone is going to wrest from your hands. So you have a new book. It’s called I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet and the subtitle is Discovering New Ways of Living When the Old Ways Stop Working. We’re not going to get into like the super details of the book, listeners. Shauna is going to do that on all kinds of podcasts and you can hear all about it. But you know what we do here, and that is dive into the reading life, and yet this book was permeated with discussions of your reading life and the books that you’re finding important to your journey right now, and the books you can’t help but recommend to basically everyone who knows you. Before we do get into your reading life, just would you give our listeners a little taste of what they’re going to find in this book?
SHAUNA: It’s a collection of essays like this, you know, same format as my other books so little short chapters, kinda nonlinear glimpses of life from a million different angles and then, you know, I always write about the season I’m walking and the things I need to learn, so I never come at a book as an expert or like having gone through it already. I write through it, and that’s the only way it works for me, and so it is a very like here we are in a season of loss. Here we are in a global pandemic. Here we are trying to figure out what’s next kinda book, and so if you’ve been through like a hundred difficult life changes recently like most of us have, I think you’ll find it, I hope, sorta a loving, gracious companion for some of the chaos we all walked through the last couple years.
ANNE: I have to tell you I read this in a day on my sofa with my family over the weekend. The part that just made me put it down and say like oh my gosh, Will – to my husband – you have to listen to this, was the story you’re telling about going out for drinks or coffee or lunch or something with a group of friends, a group of women who are the age spread over a couple decades, like 20s, 30s, 40s.
ANNE: And you’re relaying this conversation that’s unfolding at the table and I could just picture myself there at this moment where you felt like you felt obligated to say to the women in their 20s look like yes, it’s true you’re still learning a lot in your 20s. My 30s were definitely better than my 20s. My 40s are kinda a train wreck so far [SHAUNA LAUGHS] and I was like oh my gosh, is this not just me? Is this everybody? I’m 43 and like I feel like that theme of the old ways stopping to work and having to figure it out all over again, some things you knew you didn’t know, but some things you thought you kinda had in hand and then all of a sudden, kaboom, you know nothing. That really resonated with me and then I texted like about 14 friends that say okay, look at this quote.
SHAUNA: That nothing could mean more to me than that moment when you put down a book to talk to someone else about it, so thank you for telling me about that. That really, really means a lot to me.
ANNE: But I also have to tell you that a big problem I have with this book is I’ve longed wanted to just move to New York so I could walk everywhere all the time through all the neighborhoods and this book did nothing to like assuage that itch.
SHAUNA: Oh, I mean, I really, like a lot of terrible things have happened in the last couple of years. I wake up every day with a really, really deep sense of gratitude for getting to live in this city, so whatever hard things we’ve faced collectively and personally, waking up in the city is God’s greatest gift in my life. I’m not kidding. I love it every day.
ANNE: How long have you been there? Like how long has it been since you’ve moved from the midwest where I think you thought you would stay forever to Manhattan.
SHAUNA: Absolutely forever. It’s been three and a half years.
ANNE: I keep saying that what I need is like a solid three months in the city. I can’t just go as a tourist for a week. I can’t just go for work. Like I need to go and live through some like really tragic weather, you know, terrible storms. I need to get totally soaked in the rain because you do walk everywhere and you don’t have any option … Like I just need like the sidewalks to smell like hot garbage for months on end, just not a few minutes.
SHAUNA: [LAUGHS] We can provide that. [ANNE LAUGHS] We have that. We have a lot of hot garbage.
ANNE: Maybe that’ll help me get it out of my system. [SHAUNA LAUGHS] But that hasn’t happened yet.
SHAUNA: Oh, I love it. Well, and we do say that. Sometimes people think our life here is like extremely exhausting and chaotic. I’m like no, no, I get it because most of us when we come to New York, we’re here for like three days and it is chaotic and exhausting and you are in a hotel room and not a house [ANNE LAUGHS] and you know what I mean?
ANNE: And you collapse on the bed after your poor suburban legs just walked 30,000 steps in nine hours.
SHAUNA: And so I remind them sometimes like, you know, we have like a kitchen here and like a sofa and we … [ANNE LAUGHS] There are days where we just do like normal lazy things, so it’s not like we’re out attacking the city with like a map in one hand and a subway card in the other hand every single day. I think you’re right if you spent three months here you’d find like the rhythm for it and that’s a really lovely thing to find.
ANNE: Shauna, I want to talk about one specific essay you have in your book. It’s almost at the halfway point. It’s called “Put Yourself In the Path,” and it really gave me some insight into your frame of mind as someone who has a creative profession, who writes for a living and who also reads so much and you talked about how like in a very true way reading is one of the creative pursuits that is your responsibility, like that is literally your job. Would you tell me a little more about that?
SHAUNA: Oh, yeah. 100%. I could talk about this all day long. You know, [ANNE LAUGHS] I don’t want to impose rules on other people. I want to live and let live. However, if you met a musician who was like you know what, I don’t actually listen to music. Wouldn’t you be like uh oh, tiny flag. I don’t understand how you could be a writer without reading, reading like how a starving person eats. Like this is your fuel. This is part of how your participate in the profession or creative work that you’ve chosen, how could you just not fill yourself to the brim with all of the stories and essays and mysteries and cookbooks, and like how do you not want to gobble up everything that’s ever been written before you go write anything? Or at least that’s how I feel, and it feels like part of your responsibility even if you want to be a part of a community of writers, you have to know what other people are doing. You have to know how to tell a story. You have to know how to understand a poem. You have to be reading things. I have a friend who’s a fellow writer and whenever I talk to her, she’s what are you reading that was written more than a hundred years ago?
ANNE: Oooh. Oh, what a good question.
SHAUNA: And I love that question. I know. But I just think there’s this myth of inspiration, right, that like writers only write, or creators only create when like there’s like a cartoon lightbulb over their head and other than that they just can’t be bothered and for me it’s not that I have a cartoon lightbulb, it’s that I have a deadline. That’s how I get stuff done, and I don’t have the luxury of waiting around til one day I’m struck by a creative lighting bolt. It’s my job to put myself in the path of inspiration, of interesting ideas and interesting people and good artwork and I live as though being inspired is my job because I really actually do believe it is part of my job.
ANNE: First of all I have to ask, what have you been reading lately that’s more than a hundred years old?
SHAUNA: Well, so right now I’m reading — and this is sorta a cheat [ANNE LAUGHS] because it’s only like half written a hundred years ago. George Saunders [ANNE GASPS] is it A Swim in the Rain In the Pond, I’m getting that wrong, but you do know what I’m talking about?
ANNE: I do! Yes, I listened to the audio. It was so much fun. I had to be talked into reading it because I was like are we - are sure that I care? [LAUGHS] I did.
SHAUNA: Oh, I loved it. I loved it so much, but that has kinda rewaken in me, you know, the old Russian classics that I read in college, and then also I don’t know I have to check the math and this is actually a hundred years old or not, but I read a recent novel based on the life of Agatha Christie and it got me back into a couple old Agatha Christie books, which my son and I love to read together.
ANNE: I have been delighted at some of the high school and college assigned reading that my kids have actually really loved. My son finished And Then There Were None and was like that might be the best book I’ve ever read.
SHAUNA: Oh, I love it.
ANNE: It was such a proud Momma moment.
SHAUNA: Oh, absolutely. That’s wonderful.
ANNE: What was the modern book that sent you on the path?
SHAUNA: I wanna say it’s called The Christie Affair.
ANNE: Oh! Yes. I have not read that but I have a copy in my line of sight right now.
SHAUNA: I really liked it. I thoroughly enjoyed it and it made me, yeah, go back and read some old Agatha Christie Novels that I hadn’t read in a long time, or maybe had never read.
ANNE: I’m so glad to hear it. I remember reading the author's backstory and what lead her … I mean, she’s a creative writing professor at a tiny college in the Carolinas, and I just love to see that kind of devotion to craft like pay off in a big way. You have this essay that begins there are a handful of reasons people call you and one of them is for book recommendations. [SHAUNA LAUGHS] One of them was for restaurants in certain cities, and I made notes on that, but one of them was book recommendations and I loved how you said that you’re going to recommend three books to almost every living human. Would you give us a taste of what they are?
SHAUNA: I have probably given away conservatively 50 copies of John O’Donohue To Bless the Space Between Us.
ANNE: I have not read that one.
SHAUNA: Oh my goodness.
ANNE: Okay, so tell me about it. Like what led you to hand that to someone?
SHAUNA: He has passed away, but he was an Irish Catholic priest and Celtic mystic poet and he writes these blessings. There … Some of them are fairly short, but some of them are a couple pages long and they’re poetic but they’re theologically really like dense but also like the language is really beautiful and especially when I encounter someone who’s in a little season or a long season where like reading the Bible, if they come from a Christian background but reading the Bible kinda feels like an uphill climb for whatever reason, all sorts of reasons, these blessings feel like a way to engage your spiritual self but in a really beautiful poetic way. It gets in through the side door a little bit.
It’s also, and this is more like a practical reason, if you ever at the last minute have to give a toast or blessing for anything, a baby shower, a wedding, a graduation, any kind of like speech-y thing and you’re like I don’t know what to say, I’ve literally had people text me from weddings and say can you screenshot that thing you read to me once because [ANNE LAUGHS] I didn’t know I had to give a toast, but I do. It’s extremely useful.
ANNE: Is it the kind of thing that would be appreciated by people from a variety of faith traditions?
SHAUNA: I believe it would. The beauty of the language is to me sorta what most people encounter first. It doesn’t feel to me extremely specific in terms of like well that’s outside of my doctrine. It’s a really beautiful way of looking at life and loss and faith and the world and you know, it’s like a blessing for a new mother. A blessing for a new table. When your dream has died. When someone has wounded you. It’s like that kinda stuff. It’s less …
ANNE: Oh, that sounds lovely.
SHAUNA: Mmhm. It’s less according to kinda narrow, doctrinal things, and more like a blessing for all the things we go through in the course of our lives. It’s really … Like I’m crazy about it.
ANNE: Okay, so Shauna, it’s your job to put yourself in the path of creative inspiration. With that hanging in our minds, tell me about the rhythm of your reading life.
SHAUNA: I read every day. I definitely read before I go to bed for sure. I’m not a TV at night person. That never makes me feel good, like we’ll watch maybe one episode of a show as a family, but then I wanna read. That’s how I wanna close out my day, but I’m also like I would say the greatest technology in terms of my life and experience, the greatest technological development of my lifetime is the Kindle app because it means I can read everywhere all the time. I read on the subway. I read waiting to pick up my kid up from school. I read when I have two minutes because the dry cleaners went back looking to find my stuff. I love that I have something on my phone where I could be reading absolutely all the time and I do.
ANNE: And what do you find yourself drawn to right now?
SHAUNA: I’m forever … Fiction is always my first love. If I’m like feeling really stressed out, I read cookbooks like novels [BOTH LAUGH] and I have a couple cookbook authors like Nigella Lawson. I very rarely make her recipes, but reading the headnotes of those recipes just is like an instant balm for me. So if it’s been a really bad day, my family knows like uh-oh. [ANNE LAUGHS] Mom’s doing some real serious repair work right now with Nigella. She’s amazing.
ANNE: I’m glad she’s there for you.
SHAUNA: Mmhm, she is.
ANNE: And how do you choose what to read?
SHAUNA: I feel like it’s been a long time since I read one of Reese Witherspoon’s recommendations and not been happy about it. I think she’s picking great books right now.
ANNE: I think The Christie Affair was one of them.
SHAUNA: I think it was. And then you do know Laura Tremaine? I feel like you do.
ANNE: I do. She’s been on this show, I think actually twice.
SHAUNA: Yes. That does not surprise me. So you know, Laura and I are summer camp friends, but we are also book twins. She’s one of those people where if she says to read it, 100% I read it. If I’m at a loss and I’m like I need someone to tell me what to read, I go straight to Laura.
ANNE: It’s good to have those book twins in your life you can really count on. Shauna, what we do here on What Should I Read Next is get to know someone by getting to know their reading life and on that note, you’re going to tell me three books you’ve loved, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately, and we’ll talk about a few titles you may enjoy reading next at this point in your reading life.
SHAUNA: I am so excited about this. I feel like I’m going to a fortune teller or something. I’m into it.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] How did you choose these favorites? Was it hard to choose?
SHAUNA: Well I wanted it to be representative of some of the things I love in books, so it wasn’t like oh, these are the first three that come to mind, but it was like what are some of the through lines of the books I love most and I wanted them to be represented.
ANNE: I can’t wait to hear.
Tell me about the first book.
SHAUNA: The first book is The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. This is another one that I have sent out very liberally to the people in my life and I’ve heard that if you’re an audiobook person, his audio reading of it is just absolutely extraordinary, so he is a poet based in the midwest and New York City, and so there’s that sense of connection there and he does a lot of like especially when he’s in Indiana, he does … There’s a lot of like gardening images, and then in New York, it’s all these like, you know, cobblestone streets and coffee shops and so because I’ve lived most of my life in the midwest, I really connected with kinda the Indiana parts, but then also I loved hearing about the New York parts.
And it’s called The Book of Delights and he calls them little essayets, like tiny little essays, and it’s basically one thing that brings him delight every single day, so reading it is just so beautiful, but I also love you know what they call I think in education kinda the hidden curriculum of that. What would it be like to live in such a way that every day you were on a hunt for something that delighted you? A moment of delight that some … One of them is like a girl’s ponytail bouncing as she crosses the street. Another one is something that he finds in the garden. Another one is an old song that he hears when he turns on his car radio. It’s just these very beautiful little glimpses of how extraordinary and beautiful our world is if you’re looking. I can’t recommend it enough. I love it so much.
ANNE: That sounds wonderful. I’ve read some of his poetry, but not his essayets. I finished an audiobook yesterday that was completely unrelentingly brutal. I was not expecting it. The Book of Delights sounds perfect for right now. That might be my next listen actually.
SHAUNA: I have a couple friends who listen to it sorta almost more like you would listen to a couple songs, a couple tracks that you love. They’ll listen to a couple essays every day because they kinda love what his voice and his perspective brings to their life.
ANNE: I love it. Okay, tell me about the next book you chose to represent your favorites.
SHAUNA: It’s A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. This sometimes happens. You download a book on your Kindle and what that means is you don’t have any idea how long it is.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Yes.
SHAUNA: So I mean like I read this book for hours and hours and days and days and then I was suddenly at like 34%. [ANNE LAUGHS] And then when I talked to other people about it later they were like oh yikes, I mean, I heard great things about it but that is like a brick. I was like oh, is it? ‘Cause I didn’t know ‘cause I’ve never read the physical copy. It is very, very long. I will say that at the beginning. I will also say it is categorically 100% worth it. For at least two reasons. Number one, one thing I love … I love a book with a strong sense of place. I love that like this book could not take place anywhere but New York City and it is so precise and so geography driven that I feel like I could have drawn a city map just based on the book.
So it’s a story of four friends that go through their whole life, post-college till you know their 70s or something in New York City. You get to know all these various apartments they live in. All the offices they work at. It’s very deeply placed based. There’s also an emotional core. I think that this book shows how a person who was deeply traumatized begins to learn how to receive love as an adult in very halting, beautiful, and difficult ways, like you’re watching a person go from very, very limited and broken and their ability to even relate on any level to start to give and receive love, it’s astounding. I mean, I just cried all the way through it. It’s so beautiful and devastating and wonderful and I’m jealous of anybody who has not read it yet.
ANNE: I haven’t read it yet. [SHAUNA GASPS] I’m so scared of this book. I’ve heard it’s just brutal, but your talk about healing does give me a little bit of hope.
SHAUNA: It is absolutely brutal, but not for the sake of brutality, for the sake of eventual healing. And to me those are really different. It also was told in such a way, it felt like when you get to know an actual human who in the course of your growing relationship with them, you start to encounter some of their edges, or their limitations and then over much more time you realize where those edges and limitations come from. She reveals things to you in the way you get to know them as humans. It’s really extraordinary.
ANNE: I’m willing to try almost anything. [SHAUNA LAUGHS] But I’ve heard so much about this book that it has me very jumpy, but oh, that does sound intriguing and I do love a novel with a strong sense of place. I hadn’t heard it described as a New York City novel with that level of specificity before.
SHAUNA: It is so deeply embedded inside of me. So I was in … I was down in Tribeca and I looked up a jewelry store that I wanted to go to with a friend, and I was like oh, it’s on Lispenard! I know Lispenard. Why? Why do I know this street? [ANNE LAUGHS] Because of this book. It is as though I have lived there through these characters.
ANNE: Shauna, what did you choose to complete your favorites list?
SHAUNA: The third one is This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel.
ANNE: And what is this to you? What does it represent?
SHAUNA: It also has a very strong sense of place. It’s a Madison, Wisconsin book and I love Madison. I love college towns. Those are particular cities. They’re towns that I always love. But it’s about raising a child who is transgender. I feel like there are so … Like I could give you a list of a thousand things that I have not experienced in my life, or in my circle of community. The right book at the right time has given me a little window into an experience I haven’t yet lived or had, and this is one of those books. Before I knew kids who were transgender or any families who are walking through this experience with the young people in their home, this book felt like an introduction to something I wanted to learn about and I very much care about, but just didn’t know a lot about and when someone can do that well in the context of story and it feels like you’re getting to know characters on very real and flawed and human and beautiful terms and you’re watching a family learn and grow, that feels very valuable to me. Like that feels like our world could use a lot of people all learning about things we haven’t yet experienced through books. I love that.
ANNE: [SIGHS] I’m not going to say anything cheesy about your book title.
SHAUNA: Aww. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That does sound like the perfect frame of mind to be in right now. I mean, in our world but also on the cusp of releasing your book. Shauna, one of the ways we gain insight into what we love is really identifying what is not right for us and sometimes that means not right now or sometimes that means just meh, probably not ever. Alright, Shauna, tell me about a reading experience that didn’t work for you.
SHAUNA: One thing I really, really dislike is when I’m starting a book and the several main characters are so similar to one another that I can’t get a feel for who’s who, and I end up spending so much mental energy like do I need to draw myself a map of like which one is Savannah and which one’s Katie? Like I like it when they have either distinctive enough voices or some sort of characteristics that you don’t spend so much energy trying to just get who’s who.
ANNE: Like when I find myself in that kind of situation I tend to think like where was the editor? Like what happened here? I’m sure it’s very clear in the author's mind, but …
SHAUNA: Right. Oh, of course.
ANNE: And I have like drawn myself maps before, even in books that are very, very good, like I read The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard late last year. The two main characters could not be more different and I could not keep them straight for the first 100 pages of the book. I finally made a chart in the front cover. It helped a lot. I think that had more to say about where my brain was at the time I was reading that then about the actual book because it might just be a masterpiece. That’s hard to spot in advance though.
SHAUNA: I know that in real life like the way real life works, you and all your friends could all just happen to have like, I don’t know, brown hair and be the same age and drive the same car. That’s just like … I don’t know, we all have mini vans. Whatever. But if you’re casting a TV show or you’re writing a story, one of the things you can do for your reader, or for whoever’s watching it is that doesn’t have to mimic real life in that way. Do you know what I mean? Like give me a redhead. So I know who’s who. So that’s just one of my little quirks.
ANNE: And don’t put four Sarahs in the English class. Like that’s just not …
SHAUNA: [LAUGHS] Right. Right. I get it that they’re probably are four Sarahs in every English class, but let’s give them each their own sorta distinct names.
ANNE: We talked a lot about the right books for right now. Are there any genres that you’re finding yourself like putting on hold until you get to different season of life?
SHAUNA: Well you know I don’t know if you felt this. Our kids are 15 and 10, tragic teenager stories aren’t my favorite right now. I remember actually though, I remember when I was pregnant, I felt like I need for there to be a label on this book if something bad happens to a child.
SHAUNA: I need to know ahead of time because I can’t handle it and I think that’s like a very pregnant, hormonal thing. I’m not quite like that right now, but yeah. I also … I don’t know if you’re talking about this or thinking about this right now but there have been a handful of books that have come out about the pandemic like fiction set in pandemic times. I had a little bit of a hard time with those, it felt a little too soon to me.
ANNE: That’s all good to know. What have you been reading lately?
SHAUNA: Okay, so I just reread Anthony Doerr who wrote All The Light We Cannot See. He wrote a book called Four Seasons in Rome.
ANNE: [GASPS] Yes.
SHAUNA: And I really loved it. Wahala by Nikki May. I love getting to know a little bit about a culture or a group of people or something that just is utterly unfamiliar to me. So Wahala is about a group of British Nigerian women living in London. I know English people and I know Nigerian people. I don’t know the Nigerian British community at all and it was really interesting to me to get kinda an inside look into their connection to their own Britishness, their connection to their own sense of being Nigerian. Their travels or not back and forth to like Nigeria, what their expectations were in terms of marrying or dating Nigerian men. It was just really interesting to me and it was also a very like juicy girlfriends behaving badly sorta situation where … There is one character that I would say is a very sneaky villain that everyone has met at some point in their life and so that was really fun to read.
ANNE: So this is on my stack. I haven’t begun it yet, but I think it’s fair to say that in this friend group you can totally tell the best friends apart and who is who.
SHAUNA: Yes! Exactly. And I really appreciated that. Definitely. Oh, I really loved Find Your Unicorn Space by Eve Rodsky. She’s the woman who wrote Fair Play, which is all about kinda equity in co-parenting and marriage and partnership. I really liked that. I really liked Hillary McBride’s book The Wisdom of Your Body.
ANNE: Oh, that’s on my – that’s on my stack right now.
SHAUNA: It’s very, very good. I have really enjoyed it, and then Devon Price wrote a book called Laziness Does Not Exist.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] I like it already.
SHAUNA: And I like felt that in my soul. Like uh oh, this feels weird. Tell me more. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Now I have more books to read than I started with, which is a hazard of hosting a show called What Should I Read Next.
SHAUNA: Oh, I’m sure!
ANNE: It’s my job to read, luckily. Shauna, what are you looking for in your reading life right now? Like what kinds of books? Are there certain genres or themes you’re especially drawn to?
SHAUNA: I mean the first thing I thought of is I love a big story. I love a strong sense of place. I love long books. I love series. I think I read so much and relatively quickly that if something’s kinda over before it starts, then like ah! Where are you? I made all these friends and now I’m lonely. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know? So I love a long book or a series. I love getting to know someone over the course of days and weeks instead of just like a really quick read, and I think some of what I love about fiction just in general is it’s the details that get me. Tell me what you eat. Tell me what the sun looks like as it sets. Tell me about what exactly is on your front porch. Those details, so we keep joking, some day I’d love to write fiction but I suspect I just want to write long descriptions of things [ANNE LAUGHS] and then nothing ever happens. Nothing. It’ll be like well okay, they had dinner, and then what? Like I don’t know, but breakfast? Or I describe their bedding. I don’t know. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay, let’s see what we can do here.
So the books you loved, The Book of Delights by Ross Gay, A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara, This is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel. Lately you’ve been reading, oh, a whole bunch of books, including Wahala by Nikki May, The Wisdom of the Body by Hillary McBride, Find Your Unicorn Space, Eve Rodsky, and I know I’m leaving a couple out. That is okay. The book bouncing around in my brain right now is The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischwili, which is just this sweeping story set in Georgia, the country …
ANNE: Adjacent toRussia, and I think with so much focus on that part of the world right now, it is not a Ukrainian story. I didn’t wish it was when I was reading, but now like I find myself like really wanting to read those, of course. But it does feel more akin spiritually and in heritage to anything I know and just oh, it’s this big, long, gorgeous story that is hugely realistic, covers so many key events in 20th and 21st century history. And also involves just like a touch of a magic chocolate recipe held closely by a family over the years.
SHAUNA: This sounds amazing. I definitely wrote that down.
ANNE: It’s a thousand pager. It’s even bigger than the Yanagihara. But I loved to give to you someone who you know is looking to feed creative mind just a few little dips in the … ooh, that’s kinda punny. I didn’t mean to. [SHAUNA LAUGHS] Into like different stories and genres. Can we do that?
SHAUNA: Yes, please!
ANNE: Okay. The first is this beautiful, beautiful book, like it literally sparkles, shimmers and sparkles. Okay, it’s not glittery, but it’s this aqua swimming pool blue. It’s by a New Yorker. Julie Otsuka. It’s called The Swimmers.
ANNE: Is this … Do you know this?
ANNE: As a writer, this has so much to recommend. It begins at the underground pool.
ANNE: A pool is located deep underground in a large cavernous chamber many feet beneath the streets of our town. Some of us come here because we are injured and need to heal. We suffer from bad backs, fallen arches, shattered dreams, broken hearts, anxiety, melancholia, and hedonia. The usual above ground afflictions. Others of us, and it goes on in the first person plural.
ANNE: So you’re taken into this world of the swimming pool that I think as a writer and as someone who loves to walk, you’ll really relate to. People who aren’t swimmers do not understand these people who come to the pool who are obsessive about what they do. They have to swim their laps. It’s where all their troubles fall away. It’s where they work out their problems and where they feel most like themselves and in the first part of the book you hear with just I mean she is such a master of the tiny details that sometimes are perfect and poignant and funny and other times they are completely heartbreaking, but they are always there, so you get to know this community that is telling their story as we, which is hardly ever … I mean, it is done. Very rarely it’s done.
ANNE: But it’s done really well here. It’s super fun. But then a crack appears in the bottom of the pool and the swimmers start kinda freaking out and some of them leave and eventually the pool closes for safety reasons and when it does, the daily rhythm of this community’s lives is just suddenly cut off.
And there’s one swimmer specifically who’s affected by this crack in her every day, and her name is Alice, and we’re told that she’s a retired lab tech who is in the early stages of dementia when she’s thrown from her routine. It throws her mentally. And so we move on the story and are taken like deep inside her mind as she moves into a memory care facility and ugh, that part is so brilliant and wise and again heartbreaking specificity of details.
There’s another first person plural voice that introduces her to this new life in this memory care facility. But it keeps going in sections. It’s only like 175 pages. It’s a small format. I think a lot of readers are going to find this to be like fascinating, just like stylishly, really touching story they didn’t know they were looking for. And I read [LAUGHS] I read an NPR review that said mhm, maybe this a novel about cracks that inevitably appear in our lives and maybe this a grand parable about the crack in the world brought by this pandemic, but even if you don’t want to get too deep, this is a good story. What do you think?
SHAUNA: I love it. I especially love that idea of … And I think this is kinda a city thing. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a being new somewhere thing. There’s people that you gather with in one context or in one place, and then if that gathering point were to go away, you would have no way of finding them in the world. Do you know what I mean?
SHAUNA: Like there’s the guy I see at our corner coffee shop every day. One of his kids went to school with my kids and so I say good morning and he has this interesting history, and we chat for a minute, but if I wanted to find him in this world, it’s the coffee shop or nothing. I have no other contact for him, and so that idea of there being like connection places that don’t go beyond that one place and how kinda bereft we would be if those went away. That makes sense to me.
ANNE: Yeah. I think you’re already primed.
SHAUNA: Mmm. Thank you. I’m so excited.
ANNE: Okay. Next we’re going to go to Ireland.
SHAUNA: Ooh, I love it.
ANNE: So we talked about John O’Donohue, so I feel like we already touched there briefly but the book I had in mind for you is a memoir. Honestly I heard this was wonderful. I started listening to it on audiobook. I didn’t realize it wasn’t a novel until I started reading it. [SHAUNA LAUGHS] Totally … Ugh, this story is so wonderfully stylish as well as deeply personal. It’s called A Ghost in the Throat. It’s by Doireann Ní Ghríofa. Is this one you know?
ANNE: You’re a writer. You’re a female writer. The story begins this is a female text.
ANNE: And it’s written by a woman, a poet, actually, like Ross Gay, writing this, her story. She calls a story of obsession. She wrote it when she had four children under six. Actually she wrote it in a parking lot most of it she said because she would drop her children at school and she just had to be alone and she didn’t have a lot of time and she would just drop off and sit in the carpark and write and she said during this time of great change and upheaval in her life, in her family, as she’s having kids and her family’s swelling and adjusting all the time, but also for other reasons. She took comfort in something that remains steady and steadfast and that was a poem by an Irish poet who’d been dead for over a hundred years and her name was Eibhlín Dubh Ní Chonaill and she said that she just clung to that poem and the more curious she became about the author and she just became completely obsessed with it and started digging into this author’s life.
And she said female lives can be neglected, our stories go untold and she went on a quest to figure out everything she could about this poet. And the more she found out, the more that influenced the poet of a hundred years ago because she in her own life and she says they began to haunt each other. So this is a story in the present day but also I wish I could remember the exact time … I think it’s about the year 1800. She’s talking about motherhood and pregnancy and miscarriage and the choices that shape a life, both the poet’s life then and her life. She’s talking about the creative life and the power of words and the upheavals we all go through, just this gorgeous language. I think there’s a lot for you to connect to here.
SHAUNA: Oh, I love that. I mean, I love memoirs and I love reading about how other people write. I also studied Irish poetry in Ireland in college.
ANNE: Really? Oh, I didn’t know that.
SHAUNA: That’s amazing.
ANNE: Okay. Finally, we’re going to do a multi-generational family story.
SHAUNA: Oh, yes.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] We are not the same person with the same reading lives, but I related so much to your story of unmaking and remaking relationships in our lives that you talked about in I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet and French Braid by Anne Tyler is a novel I read earlier this winter.
ANNE: It just came out in the middle of March. It’s a multi-generational family story that isn’t like sweeping. She doesn’t give these long detailed descriptions about what exactly happened, but she has, I wanna use some kind of explosive terminology. She tells these little vignettes years apart, rotating the perspective of which like generational voice is going to take on the story and tell it. She just gives these little snapshots of moments in a family life and then you just like watch the devastation rolling through the decades, which is definitely true, like there is trauma here and one reviewer actually said in words as trauma plots go, it’s not exactly A Little Life. [SHAUNA LAUGHS] It’s not like that, but she does like so brilliantly show these small moments that happen at a dinner table, that happen at a vacation at the lake, and the rifts they open, the cracks they open, I feel like we’re just combing all our themes here from all our books, and they have effects that will last for generations.
But it’s Anne Tyler. She’s just so funny and wise, and you said that you’re not sure to read pandemic stories. There’s just a little bit of pandemic at the end, but it’s set at just the beginning of the pandemic when the families are desperate to see each other and there’s a really meaningful connection and it’s just a few pages. She doesn’t tell you where the title comes from until like almost the very end, but I think this hints at the theme, but one character’s saying to another like what’s the name of that braid that starts high up on little girl’s heads? [LAUGHS] He’s trying to describe it to his wife and he’s like I don’t know what you’re talking about. And then his wife realizes like oh, you mean like a French braid, and he’s like yes, and then when our girls would take out their braids at night, her hair would still be in these ripples, like these little leftover squiggles for hours and hours afterward. He needed to know that name because that is what family is like. You grow up, you move on, you think you’re free of them, but the ripples are crimped in your hair forever. And that’s a theme that like ripples through this story.
SHAUNA: Oh. That’s beautiful.
ANNE: I think it might be a nice final book for your little trio we’ve got going on.
SHAUNA: Oh, I love it. I love Anne Tyler. I haven’t read this one yet, but I’m glad to hear that you loved it. We don’t have girls. We have two boys and I feel like I’m a person with almost like no life skills, but [ANNE LAUGHS] I am a very, very good French braider. I can do two braids. I can do one. I can do the inside out. I can do the Dutch crown. I can … Like it is – it is a skill that then goes totally unused because I just have boys. And so the little girls that live in our kinda building, in the seminary where we live, they know that at any time, literally any time, if they come to me with a comb and a rubber band, I will do any French braid they want. I can be in the middle of a conversation with a whole group of people and one of them will come up right next to me and just like show me the comb and I’m like yup. [ANNE LAUGHS] Sit down. We got this. It brings me a lot of joy and they get to have fancy braids anytime they want them. I love that title.
ANNE: That is precious. I’m sure you’ll be thinking of them when reading Anne Tyler. Okay, Shauna, of the books we talked about today, we covered so much ground, but at the end we have The Swimmers by Julia Otsuka, Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa, and French Braid by Anne Tyler. Of those books, what do you think you may pick up next?
SHAUNA: Well the other one that you mentioned was The Eight Life.
ANNE: [GASPS] I did! That’s right, and I already forgot about it. I already forgot about the thousand page book.
SHAUNA: I took notes! I’m - I’m …
ANNE: I spent 45 hours of my life with.
SHAUNA: [LAUGHS] And so the reason I brought that up is because that’s the one I’m going to start. I think you’re exactly right that I realize how much I don’t know about the whole part of the world that is Russia and the surrounding nations, so also the idea of a long sweeping story, I really love that right now. So that’s the first place I’m going to start.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. This has been a pleasure. Wish you the best of luck on the release of your book into the world, and thank you so much for talking about all kinds of books with me today.
SHAUNA: Oh, this has been just a delight. Thank you.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Shauna, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. Connect with Shauna at her website, shaunaniequist.com. That’s S-H-A-U-N-A N-I-E-Q-U-I-S-T shaunaniequist.com. We’ll also included links to her website, instagram, and the full list of the titles we discussed today on our show notes page at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/326.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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• I Guess I Haven’t Learned That Yet: Discovering New Ways of Living When the Old Ways Stop Working by Shauna Niequist
• A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life by George Saunders (audio edition)
• And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
• The Christie Affair by Nina De Gramont
• To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings by John O’Donohue
• Nigella Lawson (try Simply Nigella: Feel Good Food)
❤ The Book of Delights: Essays by Ross Gay (audio edition)
❤ A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
❤ This Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel
• The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
• All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
• Four Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr
• Wahala by Nikki May
• Find Your Unicorn Space: Reclaim Your Creative Life in a Too-Busy World by Eve Rodsky
• Fair Play: A Game-Changing Solution for When You Have Too Much to Do (and More Life to Live) by Eve Rodsky
• The Wisdom of Your Body: Finding Healing, Wholeness, and Connection Through Embodied Living by Hillary L. McBride
• Laziness Does Not Exist by Devon Price
• The Eighth Life by Nino Haratischvili
• The Swimmers by Julie Otsuka
• A Ghost in the Throat by Doireann Ní Ghríofa
• French Braid by Anne Tyler