WSIRN Ep 84: You know you’re a Serious Reader when…

Today I’m talking to one of the very first people I met offline after I started blogging in 2011. I met Shawn Smucker and his wife Maile while they were on an epic cross-country road trip with the whole family, in a big blue bus named Willie. If that sounds like interesting reading, Shawn wrote a book about the experience, it’s called How to Use a Runaway Truck Ramp, and the title is NOT just a metaphor.  I just got to see Shawn again at Book Expo in New York because we both have books coming out this fall. Shawn has published quite a few books already, and you’ll hear more about that in today’s episode, but his newest is a bit of a departure. It’s a YA novel called The Day The Angels Fell, it’s coming out September 5, and since I’ve gotten to read it already, I can describe it for you as Neil-Gaiman-meets-Madeleine-L’Engle.


Today we dive into Shawn’s lifetime reading favorites—and even I was surprised at the special significance some of those books and authors held for Shawn, and even for his family. In response,  I try to fill up his summer To Be Read list with good stuff.What Should I Read Next #84: You know you're a Serious Reader when... with Shawn Smucker

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Books mentioned in this episode:

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The Lion the Witch & the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis
The Complete Chronicles of Narnia, by C.S. Lewis
The Lord of the Rings series, by J.R.R. Tolkien
• Author Madeleine L’Engle
The Harry Potter series, by J.K. Rowling
The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
Blindness, by Jose Saramago
The River Why, by David James Duncan
The Brothers K, by David James Duncan
A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean
Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck
East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
The Amber Spyglass, by Philip Pullman
All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr
Home, by Marilynne Robinson
A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline
Our Souls At Night, by Kent Haruf
The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
100 Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The Getaway Car: A Practical Memoir About Writing and Life, by Ann Patchett
The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy


Leave A Comment
  1. Laura says:

    When I listened this morning, there was an issue with the audio where the ad was playing over the conversation before you told him what he should read next and then there was a long pause with no audio at all.

    • Anne says:

      Yes, there was an issue when we uploaded the file! I’m sorry about that. If you downloaded early this morning (before about 8:30 am) I hate to say it but your audio will have that issue. If you delete and re-download you’ll get the new and improved version.

  2. Susan in TX says:

    The House of the Spirits has been sitting on my TBR shelf since 2009 and I never seem to be motivated to pick it up. Listening to y’all talk about it made me think, “maybe at the end of summer.” 🙂 That said, I loved 100 Years of Solitude back when I was in college, but when I tried it again about 5 years ago, it was no longer my cup of tea, so….we’ll see how the Allende goes! Great episode. I always love it when older books are brought up because it seems like it’s harder to find recommendations for backlist books, while the new titles are everywhere.
    Happy Reading!

    • Shawn says:

      Thanks, Susan! I went to a bookstore and was able to find the books Anne recommended, all except for Allende. So, I’m starting with Prince of Tides. But I agree with you – it’s really nice to get recommendations for older titles. Have a great summer!

  3. Stacy in TX says:

    I enjoyed today’s episode as there were some surprising titles. Nice to hear about someone else enjoying Blindness, though I preferred Death With Interruptions by Saramago better. Even better, I picked up some recommendations for The River Why and Journal of a Novel. East of Eden is my favorite Steinbeck book so seeing his notes on it would be quite fun. My dad is a huge fan of East of Eden as well so I’m thinking that the Journal of a Novel will be an excellent gift for his 70th birthday this year.

    Hope you enjoy Our Souls at Night which I found to be exactly as Anne described it. If you want more by him, he also wrote the Plainsong trilogy – the first two books were really good, the third just not as much.

  4. Susan says:

    I also recommend Pat Conroy’s My Reading Life and A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life — both are good and interesting and might appeal to your reading/writing interests. I also enjoyed his memoir, The Death of Santini, which tells the story of his relationship with his father, which is a theme in most of his fiction. I think I enjoy his memoirs (even his cookbook is very good, food woven with memoir) more than his fiction (which is great too), but I guess you can see if you like Prince of Tides and go from there!

    • Elisabeth says:

      Yes! I was already thinking about recommending My Reading Life by PC, so when Anne recommended Prince of Tides I was thrilled. My Reading Life is a wonderful book about the people who helped Pat fall in love with reading, so perfect for readers & writers alike.

    • Shelly W. says:

      I think it’s actually The Great Santini–also a very good movie. I’m so glad Ann mentioned Pat Conroy because he was one of the first “contemporary fiction” writers I read once I left college. I read Beach Music, which I hardly remember anymore, but I do remember that the book left me with the feeling that religion and contemporary issues can marry in fiction. It made me want to search out other good, current books that make me see God without really mentioning God. Conroy is amazing.

  5. Kari Ann says:

    All four of my children are named after my husband and my favorite literary characters. 3 girls and then to make life interesting- a boy
    Daughters: Bennet (Elizabeth Bennet), Scout (TKAM), Eleanor (after Elinor Dashwood- S&S and Eleanor Arroway- Contact)
    Son: Spenser (Robert B. Parker Spenser series. My husband’s family adores this character as do I. Case in point- my BIL/SIL also have a dog named Spenser. He came before the boy)
    Had my son been a 4th girl he would have been Jo (Jo March).

  6. Leigh Kramer says:

    You did great, Shawn! So fun listening to you two talk. I would have never thought of listening to Owen Meany on audiobook because of Owen’s voice so now I’m curious about which version you listened to. I’ll be curious to hear your thoughts once you finish The Prince Of Tides! Beach Music is my favorite Conroy but POT was great…when I could get over the ethical issues. It probably didn’t help that I read it while I was getting my MSW and ethics were heavy on my mind. 🙂

  7. Michele says:

    Enjoyed the podcast! Audible Book Suggestion for your long rides: Ken Follet’s Century Trilogy. Magnificent! I thought I knew my recent history, but I did not. A bit R-rated in parts – war & love, but worth getting through or pushing the fast forward button to get back to the story. I miss the characters; I want to go back.

  8. I loved this episode! I’ve been reading through my “summer reading” stack, which is admittedly a lot of light suspense and romance. This inspired me to sneak some weightier novels in among the new bestsellers.

    Personally, I LOVE Steinbeck and Travels with Charley is probably my favorite book of all time. I’m guessing Shawn’s read it judging by his love of Steinbeck and book in a similar theme. However, I haven’t gotten to East of Eden yet. I’m not sure why!?

    My question is: Is it better to read EoE first or Journal of a Novel?

    • Shawn says:

      Oh, that’s a great question. I don’t remember 100%, but I’m pretty sure Journal of a Novel contains NO spoilers. I think it would be kind of fun to read them side by side. I don’t know that you can really track exactly where he’s at in his novel writing, but if you worked steadily through both you’d definitely get an interesting perspective into the novel writing process. Actually, that sounds like fun.

  9. Kristin says:

    I thought this was a great episode and had so many thoughts while I was listening and driving to work. I love my Tuesday morning commute! A few thoughts – I have tried River Why twice but have not been able to get into it. I did really enjoy Brothers K and maybe need to give River Why another shot. As for Kent Haruf, he is one of my favorites. I think I loved Plainsong the most. I liked Our Souls at Night but not as much as his earlier work. As for audiobooks. my father has recently moved in with me and is pretty much homebound. I have been trying to get him into long audiobooks to help pass the time. I just bought Prince of Tides tonight on Audible. He has also really enjoyed Herman Wouk’s Winds of War and War and Remembrance and Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. If you have other suggestions, I would love to hear them. Right now he is listening to 11/22/63 and he says “it’s a little slow.” I was sure that Anne was going to recommend Shadow of the Wind to you based on what you said you liked. Another book that I couldn’t get into, but I know that others have really enjoyed it.

    • Shawn says:

      Thanks for the audio suggestions, Kristin. I’ve recently listened to A Prayer For Owen Meany, Ready Player One, Home by Marilynne Robinson, and Brothers K, and they were all fantastic on audio. A few people have mentioned the Century Trilogy now, so I’m sure I’ll need to check it out.

  10. Ani says:

    Have you read “The Shadow of the Wind” and “The Angel’s Game” by Carlos Ruiz Zafon? Love them and if you haven’t already read, would definitely recommend!

    “The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach is great both on paper and audio (it was an audio re-read for me). One of my favorites!

  11. Shawn & Anne – I loved listening to the convo this week!

    I am with you, Shawn, on Blindness; it is so very dark, but so very intriguing! It is definitely at the top of the heap of the post-apocalyptic subgenre, imo, though Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is also very good, though less fantastical and more just… dark. I recently read World War Z, which you might also enjoy, because it is very creative: more of a war history, but with a very obvious mythical piece (the zombies).

    Personally, I liked the Bros K and found The River Why the slower of the two. I think that the baseball in Bros K was described in such mind-numbing, boring detail, but I realized that Duncan was illustrating how mind-numbed and bored the dad was in life! But, in The River Why, I suppose I just wasn’t interested in the sport of fly fishing! I also found it a bit *more* heavy-handed, but your reception was obviously different; what a great discussion we could make of it. 🙂

    I would recommend The Night Circus (Morgenstern), and an obvious one: The Time Traveller’s Wife (Niffenegger). I kind of assume most readers have read it, but if not, it would fit the bill! A very regular story with a very unusual element. And in addition to Anne’s reco of Ann Patchett’s The Getaway Car, her book Truth & Beauty is (predictably) excellent, too. It is a memoir of her friendship with another writer, so there is a lot about their lives & work as writers.

    Happy reading!!

    • Shawn says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Shelley. When I talked to my wife about Anne and I’s conversation, she came out on your side. She couldn’t believe I thought River Why was more accessible than Brothers K. 🙂

      Truth and Beauty sounds great.

  12. Laura says:

    I loved The Day the Angels Fell and Building a Life out of Words so it was great to hear this episode! Really fascinating episode. I love Steinbeck but would definitely benefit from additional insight into EoE so I look forward to reading his journals.

  13. Lori Ellen says:

    Hi Anne,

    Shawn mentioned really loving an audio version of A Prayer for Owen Meany that had a female narrator. The only one I see on Audible has a male narrator. I’ve been meaning to re-read this book for a while, but haven’t because there are so may things I haven’t read before in my TBR pile. But, I’m going on a long road trip next weekend and this seems like a great way to revisit Owen Meany. But I want to listen to it with the “good” narrator (LOL). Is there any way to confirm which version he listened to so I could search for that one?

    And, PS, I LOVED hearing you guys discuss The River Why. In 1997, about 2 weeks after I met they man who has now been my husband for 18 yrs, he gave me that book to read with this inscription written in the cover:

    “My dearest sweetheart, I told you once that I wanted you to know all of me. This book was given to me by my best friend, and moved me, provoked me, and pleased me in such a way that I want to share it with you. In as much as it shaped my thoughts, I want you to share. In as much as it made me laugh, I want you to join in. In as much as it made me long for my soulmate, I want her to be you. Please accept this as but one installment of the self that I want you to fully know.” After that, I was a goner! To this day he will still occasionally refer to me as “my Eddy”. Thanks so much for allowing me to revisit that!

  14. Suzy says:

    First of all, I know Audible is a sponser, but your library should have audiobooks available as well – Overdrive is the app for audio and books.
    I loved the Isabel Allende recommendation and I think it is the first in a series of books about the same family and their descendants. I am a huge Pat Conroy fan, and love his descriptions. After listening to Prince of Tides, you may have to take a side trip to the South Carolina coast to experience the landscape. Beaufort, his home town, is not that far away. My last trip through the salt marsh gave me Prince of Tide fever.

  15. Sarah says:

    Just in case you continue to recommend her work (which you should because she is fantastic!), Allende is pronounced “Ayende.” In Spanish two l’s make a y sound.

  16. Sheryl Esau says:

    I listened to Our Souls at Night from a recommendation from a friend (one of my few recommendations that wasn’t from Anne!), so I’m thrilled to have Anne recommend it now, too. Definitely my favorite so far this year and I plan to read his earlier books. I’m intrigued by the book Blindness, which I found on audio from my library. Not sure if that’s a good choice based on the quirky writing style, but I’ll give it a try. I think I saw the movie, but don’t really remember it. I have The Brothers K on audio, too, just need a long road trip to listen to it!

    • Shawn says:

      I just finished Our Souls at Night and it’s so poignant and beautiful. Not crazy about the ending – it felt like it sort of petered out – but it didn’t take away from the beautiful nature of the book.

  17. Danica Middlebrook says:

    The Allende suggestion took me back to high school when I read House of Spirits. I may have to revisit and see how it is now when not required reading.

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