We’ve talked with lots of English majors who need a break from the books before finding joy in reading again, but today’s guest is living the opposite experience: her studies have rejuvenated her reading life and are keeping her love of literature alive.
After graduating recently from college, Allison Matz is eager to take her book discussions from the classroom to the scenic shores of Lake Michigan. But as she enters a new season of life without bookish classmates nearby, she’s looking for a group of readers to keep the book talk, and book recs, going.
Allison prefers to be Twitter and Instagram-free even though she knows there are vibrant book communities online. Today she comes to me with a question: with no social media, how is an avid reader supposed to connect with her book people?
I have some advice for Allison, and I hope you’ll pick up some tips today, too—whether you’re getting ready to meet your book club in person again or are still seeking out your group of readers.
One such group is the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, where you’ll find our members who love reading as much as you do.
We read together every month, discuss books with their authors, and host live classes and events designed to help you get more out of your reading life. We record all our author events and classes so you can join the conversation at your own pace, on your own schedule. And you don’t need any social media to participate and get to know fellow readers.
Join us in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club this summer, as we talk with summer reading guide authors like Emily Henry, discuss our favorite titles in our discussion forums, and revisit old favorites with our Backlist Book Club. We’d love to see you there!
Allison isn’t on social media, so leave a comment below to recommend a book you think she should read next!
ALLISON: You know, I’m driving to work and I’m drinking my coffee and I’m listening to your podcast and then all of a sudden it’s like casually mentioned, well Sally Rooney has a new book coming out, and I am like slamming on my brakes, like what?! Sally Rooney has a new book coming out?! [ANNE LAUGHS] Like what?!
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 287.
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, as you’ll hear in today’s episode, our guest is in search of a community of readers who will dig in and discuss books together with enthusiasm and intention. If you’ve been looking for such a place yourself, we’re inviting you to the Modern Mrs. Darcy Book Club, where you’ll find our members who love reading as much as you do.
We read together every month, discuss books with their authors, and host live classes and events designed to help you get more out of your reading life. We record all our author events and classes so you can join the conversation at your own pace, on your own schedule. And you don’t need any social media accounts to participate and get to know fellow readers.
Join us in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club this summer, as we talk with summer reading guide authors like Emily Henry, discuss our favorite titles in our discussion forums, and revisit old favorites with our Backlist Book Club. Go to members.modernmrsdarcy.com to sign up now.
Thats members.Modern Mrs Darcy.com
We’ve talked with lots of English majors who need a break from the books before finding joy in reading again, but today’s guest is living the opposite experience: her studies have rejuvenated her reading life and are keeping her love of literature alive.
After graduating recently from college, Allison Matz is eager to take her book discussions from the classroom to the scenic shores of Lake Michigan. But as she enters a new season of life without bookish classmates nearby, she’s looking for a group of readers to keep the book talk, and book recs coming.
Allison prefers to be Twitter and Instagram-free even though she knows there are vibrant book communities on those platforms. Today she comes to me with a question: with no social media, how is an avid reader supposed to connect with her book people? I have some advice for Allison, and I hope you’ll pick up some tips today, too—whether you’re getting ready to meet your book club in person again or are still seeking out your group of readers.
Of course, I’m also recommending plenty of books for Allison to enjoy. Perhaps you’ll pick up the perfect page-turning and discussable novel for your next book club meeting. Let’s get to it!
Allison, welcome to the show.
ALLISON:Thank you so much for having me, Anne. I’m excited to be here.
ANNE: Where are you today in the world?
ALLISON: Just outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, so I’m on the western coast of Michigan on Lake Michigan itself.
ANNE: I really loved how in your submission we always ask our guests to tell us a little about yourself and one of the things you cited as a love was Lake Michigan.
ALLISON: I do a lot of reading there in the summertime, and even in the winter when it’s not too cold.
ANNE: My understanding is that it gets really, really cold in Michigan in the winter and you’re reading at the lake? [LAUGHS] Where I think it’s really cold?
ALLISON: It starts to get cold in like Late September, early October and so I’ll still go during that time when it’s like starting to drop in the 50s and then 40s and then I’ll like bring a book to my car and watch the frozen lake when it gets really, really cold and sit in the heat, but I still like to watch the lake all seasons ‘cause it’s just so beautiful all the time. But it is … Will is right. It’s freezing cold. We have about like eight months of ice and darkness.
ANNE: Forgive me for not properly understanding things. Three, four hundred miles further south, but the lake freezes?
ALLISON: Oh my gosh, 100%.
ANNE: Because that’s a really big lake.
ALLISON: Yeah, it is. I believe the entirety of it freezes, but I know for certain Lake Superior does and it’s properly not even unthawed by now and you can go walk out a couple miles even on the lake and like ice fish.
ANNE: Wait, I’ve read Little Women. Is that a good idea? [LAUGHS]
ALLISON: It’s not a good idea but people do it. I like to walk along like the sand, or where sand would be and just watch the crazy people that are climbing out on the ice, but it makes really, really cool like almost not sculptures. What’s the word I’m looking for? It looks like crazy rock formations but it’s just the waves that freeze, they like freeze in motion almost.
ANNE: That sounds amazing. I didn’t know that could happen in Michigan. Tell me a little bit about your life right now in Michigan.
ALLISON: I just graduated from college with my bachelor’s degree and my degree’s in English and writing, so I’ve been spending the last four years reading and writing not only for fun but for school and now that I’m graduated I’m still trying to figure out what to do, so I’m looking for a new job and I’m spending a lot of time with my family and friends that I’ve been missing over the last couple years.
ANNE: Did you emerge with that shiny new bachelor’s degree and your love of reading and writing still intact?
ALLISON: Yes! It’s funny ‘cause I’ve listened to other episodes of the show with a couple other English majors and they’re like I needed to take years away from reading to recover from my degree and I just feel like I’ve never read more, like it’s just increased my reading tenfold, but I spent the first two and a half years of my college life as a nursing major and doing that really just killed my love of academics. I transitioned because I realized I had stopped doing what I loved to do which was read, so it’s kinda been really rejuvenating for me.
ANNE: Now while I do know that it is a real thing that some people who study English in college really have the experience of having the thing they love being made work and I’m so glad that’s not how you feel right now and yet at the same time being able to spend the amount of time you devote to your work, like discussing great works of literature, sounds pretty fantastic and I’d love to hear what some memorable classroom experiences for you were, like what were some books you really dove into?
ALLISON: The last year and a half of my English classes have been entirely online. I haven’t been in school present in a year and a half, which was kinda strange at first to have those fake round table discussions but it [BOTH LAUGH] actually ended up working. I don’t know. We can still talk on Zoom and have a pretty similar experience.
My final semester I took a class on Stephen King, so I did an entire author study on his work which was really, really interesting, and we talked a lot about how horror literature is often kinda looked down upon by people who study literature with the capital L, but how it really talks about humans and our questions of morality and how important those questions are. That was a really, really interesting class to take even though I didn’t necessarily love all the books that we read.
My emphasis is in poetry and I have loved discovering contemporary poets. I think when people study poetry, especially in high school you study Shakespeare or John Donne and people who are really, really old and writing barely in understandable English right? While I think that those people are still interesting, reading contemporary poetry in language that everybody can understand and learning how to write it, that was so, so exciting for me.
ANNE: Who are some of your favorite contemporary poets to read?
ALLISON: Traci Brimhall is by far the most talented poet I’ve ever read. Her book Rookery is my favorite, but she just has a new one out called Come the Slumberless to The Land of Nod, which was great. I also really love Franny Choi and Amorak Huey. Those are some of my favorite poets at the time. They wrote things that I didn’t realize could be poems, you know. They’re writing about going to the grocery store, or like flirting on Tinder or just like [ANNE LAUGHS] the things that you don’t realize can be in poetry.
I like to read poems aloud to really get the full understanding. Like classical poetry, the music is present on the page, right? There are AB rhyme schemes and you don’t need to read it out loud to hear the music of it because everything is placed perfectly, but in contemporary poetry there’s a lot of freedom in stanzas and in the movement and what really can be a poem, you know.
I’ve read poems that’s just one word written over and over again and filled the page. And so to me the real experience is reading the poems aloud and letting the voice really bring them alive. It’s just interesting to me you know, you read it to yourself and it kinda just sounds like a sentence and then you read it aloud with the appropriate line breaks and it just all of a sudden becomes this piece of art that is so creative. I don’t think I’m doing it justice. Am I doing it justice? [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I think when we’re describing something we love we never feel like we’re doing it justice.
ALLISON: No, but it’s really cool and then there and of course we’re writing poems in class as well and it’s really rewarding to hear your fellow classmates try and replicate that process and it’s really cool when you try to replicate the process and other people recognize what you’re doing. It’s just a really rewarding cycle of reading and practicing that I haven’t found anywhere else, you know? I love to discuss novels and I love to read novels but then we don’t practice writing novels. [LAUGHS] It would take way too long.
ANNE: Allison, were you able to read books of your own choosing? I almost said for pleasure although I hope you’d enjoy much of what you read for the classroom, but were you able to read books of your own choosing as well as those assigned in your curriculum?
ALLISON: Yes. I read about maybe three to four books at a time and I found that, you know, I have one going on audio or maybe two going on audio and then two probably in print and so I would put my books for school that I had to read on audio and I would do it as I’m cleaning the house and I would listen to it as I’m driving to work and I would listen on my runs or my other workouts that I was doing and I could get it done faster that way.
And then in my actual spare time when I could sit down with a book ‘cause that’s my favorite way to read is an actual paper copy in my hands in my comfy reading chair, and so that kinda allowed it to be free time, fun reading whereas like my audiobooks were school or learning reading or assigned reading but it was kinda hard to decide what to read outside of a curriculum especially because we’re not in person in classes anymore. It’s really hard to find book recommendations for somebody who’s not online.
ANNE: Oh, interesting.
ALLISON: I hear constantly about bookstagram, booktube, and online book clubs and there’s this like an entire world of online book life. I have used social media in the past, right. Had an Instagram and a Facebook. I think I have like three twitter accounts because I never really understood how to use it [ANNE LAUGHS] and I always forgot my username [LAUGHS] and like I exist in the world right, and I would use it, sometimes a lot, and I would waste all of my time on it.
And right around 2019 I just found that it was kinda making me miserable, quite detrimental to my mental health because we’re bombarded other people’s edited images of themselves and even though I consciously am aware that what people post is not their real life, it still would make me feel like how come I’m not that successful? Why don’t I have those opportunities? Why don’t I look like that? Just every time I’d open an app it would end with me comparing myself to others and I just thought life is way too short to spend it doing that. I don’t have any desire to do that. One day in 2019 I just deleted all of it off of my phone and I have never logged on since.
ANNE: And how’s that been for you?
ALLISON: Mentally, great. At first it’s really weird because I would open my phone and then just immediately turn it off again because [LAUGHS] there’s nothing for me to look at. I started to become more aware of my free time. All of the little ten, 20 minute moments throughout the day I was now taking to read a lot of the time or clean my house or call a friend that I haven’t spoken to in a while. It gave me a lot of opportunities to do things that I wanted to do but hadn’t done because I thought I didn’t have the time when really I was just spending it on my phone.
I would say the only downside though is that now that I’m engrossed in the culture of reading and I’m somewhat aware that other people have a lot of engagement in a reading community, I’m realizing that I’m not a part of that at all. Now that I’m not in school and not taking English classes anymore, and now that the world is still kinda not the same and I’m not on the internet, where do I find a book community then? Where do I find people to talk about books with? You know that’s become quite difficult, especially when the people closest to me sometimes don’t like to read.
ANNE: When you think about a book community, I imagine you’re painting it as a good thing. What could you see something like that bringing to your life?
ALLISON: I guess I don’t really know what I’m picturing because I haven’t really seen it. A book club for sure where we actually got together in person maybe if that’s even a possibility but maybe on Zoom and actually discuss the book that we had all decided to read together. I see like a group of friends talking to one another about the books that they’re reading outside of like a book club, recommending things to one another, venting about bad books they read to one another. You know, I just don’t have that many individuals in my life that read at the rate that I do. So there are a few people to reach out to to say oh my gosh, I just read this book, can we please talk about it? Right because there are — there just aren’t that many people.
ANNE: Is discovery also a question for you because that’s something that I know a lot of people feel like they get from say bookstagram.
ALLISON: It’s both. You know, I mean, part one is who am I going to talk about books with? Because you know, my boyfriend and my mom and my dad and my friends are more than willing to let me say oh my gosh, I read this great book. Can I tell you about it? And like completely spoil it and tell them all the things that I thought were outrageous or whatever the case may be, but there’s not the back and forth engagement because they’re also not reading that book or reading other books similar to that. So that’s part one.
I want more people available to talk about books and reading with, but then also I find myself you know, I’m driving to work and I’m drinking my coffee and I’m listening to your podcast and then all of a sudden it’s like casually mentioned, well Sally Rooney has a new book coming out, and I am like slamming on my brakes. Like what?! Sally Rooney has a new book coming out?! [ANNE LAUGHS] Like what?! And the guest is like yeah! We found out last September and I am just like we found out last September that she has a new book coming out! What are you talking about! You know? I’m always like months behind all of this news. It’s funny to me because it’s very classic me to be that way, but like this is my realm. I just feel like I want to know what’s going on.
ANNE: Allison, is this an existential question that you are struggling through on your own? Or is this something that you’re looking for practical solutions to?
ALLISON: Well I mean practical solutions are definitely welcome. I guess the question is is there an alternative to the online community, right? Like do you know of any?
ANNE: Well it’s harder in a pandemic, but I certainly have recommendations I would give to you as starting places. First of all, let’s talk about the community piece. It is trickier, especially in a pandemic to connect with people all the time especially at any hour of the day when you actually have to go out into the world or log on to Zoom. Plenty of libraries and bookstores, and I know you have good ones in your area, host book clubs and something that I do think is a really lovely perk of connecting with a book club with people who are likely strangers to you right now, people come to these community centers, to the bookstores and libraries to join book clubs because they’re seeking to fulfill the same need that you are expressing. They’re going because they love books.
And something else that I really like about these kinds of book clubs that spring up in this way is that they tend to be really intergenerational in a way that instagram often doesn’t facilitate. I mean that’s something that many people don’t realize they’re missing from their lives, talking to people 20 years older than them and 20 years younger than them until they walk into a library book club and realize oh, there are people here from 22 to 87, like what a lovely thing I didn’t realize this was missing in my life. I mean my grandmother was never on instagram. I don’t know about your grandmother, but that’s not a place to necessarily connect with older readers and maybe not younger readers either because I don’t even know what the app is for 17 years old these days.
ALLISON: I think it’s TikTok.
ANNE: I will say though that every once in a while somebody will share on instagram or twitter a librarians doing TikTok video that makes me giggle. So that’s certainly something you could do. Something that I’ve heard from many of our listeners and some of our guests is a strategy that I’m sharing here because we’re talking about it, but it sounds like you’re already doing this to a large degree. These readers didn’t think they had people in their lives who read like for fun who cared about books and reading as much as they did but when they started making it able to talk about this part of their lives outside instead of just reading their books at home and leaving them at home, physically and metaphorically, they discovered that they weren’t in fact the only one. That they hadn’t connected with these friends about books and reading before because their friend was assuming the same thing, that they were the only one. So just saying like hey, have you’ve been reading anything good lately? has led to not just some good conversations and book recommendations but also connecting with people over books that they didn’t realize they had that common thread with.
Also I feel like I just have to say that the Modern Mrs Darcy book club exists largely for this reason, like we don’t use social media, well now we do in fact have an instagram account but that’s not how we discuss our books, but we created it so that you didn’t have to have a social media account and you could still connect with people who do love books and reading as much as you do. And we talk to so many readers who say like I don’t have people who care like this in my every day, ordinary life and so I wanted to go find it someplace, like I want to be where the readers are and that’s where they find it. Does it sound like those avenues might be worth exploring?
ALLISON: It does. I would loved to find somebody like a friend that would love to go with me to one of these book clubs so that I have somebody there that I already know, but that can come with me to like meet new people that would love to talk about books with me outside of just like that one friend that I know.
ANNE: So you need a partner in crime.
ALLISON: Yes. Just to approach this brand new group of people. I think that would be lovely. But in order to do that I have to just start mentioning to my friends have you been reading something lately to find that person to go with me.
ANNE: Or I don’t think your friend necessarily has to be a reader to go, though. Plenty of good friends do things for their friends because their friends need them, not because they necessarily [ALLISON LAUGHS] have dreamed of going to the doctor’s office because it would be fun, but because you’re needed by your friend and I don’t want to equate library book club with the doctor’s office, but you know, a good friend can accompany you on such an adventure even if they’re not like yes! I can’t wait to talk about the title of the month.
ALLISON: You’re right. I have a lot of people in my life that would do that I’m sure just because I said I really need you to be my moral support here.
ANNE: Let’s just say it happened to be an amazing book club and they were like oh, I was actually interesting, I didn’t know it could be like this. That would not be a terrible thing. That’s not the goal, like I want to appropriately frame expectations here, but wouldn’t that be delightful if it worked out that way?
ALLISON: That’s always the goal, isn’t it? To get the people that you love to love books. I mean, I’m notorious for giving books as presents even to people who don’t like to read. Just because I am hoping I’ll be able to get them reading.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, now the news piece is actually more straightforward. There are all kinds of industry publications that you could sign up for and be almost the first one to know when Sally Rooney [ALLISON LAUGHS] has a new book deal, and some are aimed at professionals in the industry. Some are aimed at readers, but if I had to choose one I think I’d suggest signing up for Shelf Awareness for Readers. It’s a daily digest which is what I would recommend you start with. There’s also Shelf Awareness Pro which is more to the trade. They’ll have news about openings and closing and stuff happening with publisher and media and movies. There’s always a book review in every issue, and then often a topical list like I think this morning’s top selling self published titles last month.
ALLISON: That’s cool.
ANNE: But you get to hear the big book news, I mean the really noteworthy, judged by the editors of course, the noteworthy book news and see what’s happening in the book world, whether that means somebody has a new book coming out, or there’s a big interview coming up, like the pro version has a chalkboard of the day for independent bookstores where you’ll see somebody’s clever slogan on the sidewalk outside their sign. I think this might be the kind of newsy information you’re looking for and would be a lot more dense and targeted to your specific bookish interests than just scrolling through some social media app would be.
ALLISON: That sounds 100% like the thing that I think is missing, at least in the news portion of the book world.
ANNE: Now I imagine you may not have had in mind pulling a club together yourself, but if you did borrowing the model of a literary society could be a lot of fun and feel I think less intimidating to those who are your friends and acquaintances who aren’t devoted readers like you are because in a literary society, and I’m totally taking this phrase from Tiffany Patterson who was on our podcast. It’s episode 166. The episode is called “just don’t call it a book club.” Everybody can come for a social night and drink tea or wine and have snacks and just share what you’ve been reading.
ALLISON: Didn’t they also share what they were like watching or listening to to get the people who weren’t big readers to come?
ANNE: Mmhmm. And I was going to say I’ve even seen people do this with podcast episodes like what podcasts have you been listening to lately? Or with articles like have you read a great 10,000 word Atlantic article lately that you want to tell us about? So the flexibility really gives a lot of freedom to people to participate and not stay home ‘cause they didn’t finish the book, but to talk about things, literary and otherwise, that you’re really enjoying with people who are interested in hearing about them and it’s also a really great way to get to know each other better because when you’re talking about the things you love and the things that interest you, that’s what it means to know a person is to learn those things so you get to do that also.
ALLISON: That sounds great. You’ve given me such wonderful ideas that I’m just excited to go out and do right now. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I’m so happy to hear it. Allison, we talked — we spent a lot of time talking about your reading life but not so much talking about the specific books that you love and also don’t. Are you ready to go there?
ALLISON: Yes, I’m really excited to go there.
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ANNE: Okay, well 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 will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. First of all, how did you choose these titles?
ALLISON: I found it really difficult like everybody says, but I chose titles that represented what I wanted more of in my reading life.
ANNE: Ooh, I like it.
ALLISON: I specifically thought of books that I just could not put down that I just tore through because that’s what I’m looking for. I’m looking for books that I am just going to get through in the weekend because I can’t stop reading them. So those were the three books I chose today.
ANNE: Tell me about book one.
ALLISON: Book one is In The Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. I’m going to try and describe my books without giving spoilers because I am so paranoid about that, but I think the number one thing I loved about this book was the writing style and I really think that it’s probably not as good on audio as it is in person because it’s written in a really, really creative way. So Carmen Maria Machado, she is a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, just give it a little Google. A lot of really incredible writers come out of the Iowa Writers Workshop and she really uses her writing degree in this memoir.
I’m calling it a novel, but it’s not. It’s the memoir of her abusive relationship and it is maybe the first ever written account of an abusive lesbian relationship, so it’s a really groundbreaking piece, but it’s written primarily in the second person interspersed in these little narrative pieces are footnotes and facts about queer history and queer coding embedded in our media that we’ve missed over the years, the history of abuse, especially within queer communities, and it is just written in a way that I just … I couldn’t put it down. I believe I read it in one sitting, both times I’ve read it. It is just stunning and devastating.
It’s written almost as a series of really short essays and some of them are as short as a single sentence, some are as long as maybe five pages. So the sections are quite short which I think allowed me to propel through it faster. She does really creative things with her style like she only refers to herself as “you” so it feels like you, the reader, are the person being abused the entire time you’re reading the book. She only refers to the abuser as the woman in the dream house, so she remains this ambiguous caricature, almost like she’s not real because she’s just the woman in the dream house.
And each section is the dream house as and then the filler word is a motif, so it might be the dream house as horror movie. The dream house as stranger comes to town, you know, and then she takes these literary tropes and turns her story into the trope. So that might sound really, really scary to some readers. If you’re not aware of what those tropes are in the canon, it might seem really inaccessible, and it does ask you to work a little bit to understand what she’s doing, but when you do it is sooo genius and worth it and allows her to explore the story in ways that you wouldn’t think of otherwise.
You know, there’s an entire section in the book where it’s the dream house as choose your own adventure and the book literary just contains a choose your own adventure section, like those books that you read as a kid. It’s so nuanced that I just … I couldn’t put it down ‘cause I wanted to see what she was doing literally on the page and also with the story.
ANNE: Allison, tell me about book two.
ALLISON: Book two is Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney. As hinted at previously, I am a Sally Rooney fan. I really vacillated between Conversations With Friends and Normal People because I do like them both but I think why I like Conversations With Friends more is because it really captures this genre. I feel like this is a newer genre that I’ve been seeing more and more of, but it’s the genre that I call chaotic 20 year old. [ANNE LAUGHS]
The main character is not making the best choices and is really trying to figuring it out, isn’t doing a very good job all of the time, but really, really wants to do a good job and just that struggle is where I’m at in my life right now. I don’t relate to pretty much anything that happens in Conversations With Friends. [LAUGHS] I haven’t done anything the main character Francis has done. I still relate to that stressed, I have no idea what I’m doing with my life emotion, and so again it was a really fast read and I just, I related to all of the characters even though sometimes they are horrible. I still found them lovable.
ANNE: Okay. Chaotic 20-something fiction.
ANNE: I like it. Allison, tell me about book three.
ALLISON: Book three is The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. All three books are pretty different from one another, but I think this one is different from the other two because it is historical. This book is set in the ‘50s and ‘60s in the United States in the South. It’s really quite tragic and filled with a lot of heartbreak. It also tackles social issues in the world like racism and abandonment of children, found family. I just think the themes in that book are different than the other two and I wanted to highlight another genre that I really, really love, which is this tragic story full of so much love, you know? It made me cry hysterically and then feel like I was wrapped in a blanket at the end of it.
ANNE: That’s a really evocative description.
ALLISON: It’s the story of a young girl who is kinda abandoned by both of her parents in one way or another, and finds love elsewhere. And I just think that the lessons in the story are so heartwarming in contrast to the horrible things that are happening outside that it’s just … Oh my gosh. I want everybody to read this book. Actually this is the one book I’ve succeeded in having I think my mom, dad, aunt, and grandma have all read this book in part because of my obsession with it. [BOTH LAUGH] Not forcefully but gushingly obsessed with it.
ANNE: They found your gushing persuasive.
ANNE: Now Allison, tell me about a book that was not right for you.
ALLISON: This was actually almost harder to pick because I don’t like a lot of books but I, partially because of your podcast, I DNF like constantly. I have no problem not finishing a book if I’m just not feeling it, so a lot of the books I don’t like I don’t really have a reason for beyond the first fifty pages right? So I went with the book that I actually read all the way through and it is The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett and I feel like everybody’s going to attack me for this.
ANNE: You know what I’m going to say next: it’s never just you.
ALLISON: I do. I know.
ANNE: I mean, we’d love to hear why. Tell us more.
ALLISON: So it had a ton of hype, a ton of build up before it came out and then even after it came out people were just gushing about it, and I had heard brief snippets and descriptions of the plot and I found that nothing else happened in the book that wasn’t in those brief descriptions, like for me there weren’t really any surprises. I felt like it was a little bit boring even sometimes, but generally just disappointing based on all of the hype that it had received prior to my reading it.
ANNE: And yet you’re not even on bookstagram.
ALLISON: Right! I mean, it was hyped from partially your podcast, like a lot of …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Sorry.
ALLISON: No, I know. Like you had recommended it a few times. It had been talked about on NPR. My mom had heard about it through the PBS book club or something that she follows on Facebook, you know, I was just somehow hearing about it everywhere and I’m not even on the internet! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So what I’m also hearing you say is in addition to too much hype just not being a good thing, is that you do want your books to surprise you and you care a lot not just about the writing style which is a direction I thought we’d might be heading in, but also you want a story to surprise you as it unfolds and because of everything you’d heard about the book and also just like tsk, tsk to all the reviewers that say and then at the 65% mark is what happens is … [GASPS] Why do reviews do that? Stop it! But you didn’t get the surprise that so many readers find so delightful, a part of the reading experience.
ALLISON: Yes. I think that’s pretty key to my enjoyment of a book, you know, like I won’t say never but I will say 99% of the time I don’t even read the back of a book. I’ll read what another author has said about it on the cover of the book. I’ll read the blurbs but I don’t really want to know too much before going in because the surprise is so important to the reading experience.
ANNE: Allison, what are you reading now?
ALLISON: I am dead center in the middle of two books right now. One of them is The Secret History by Donna Tartt, which I am loving.
ANNE: Speaking of chaotic, way chaotic 20-somethings.
ALLISON: I know! And they’re all so horrible. I love so many of the characters in this book. It’s just you know, they’re pretentious, horrible, hilarious, unbelievable chaos. That’s what this book is and it’s been so much to read so far.
And then I’m listening to Outlander by Diana Gabaldon. I’m loving that one too. I’m behind the ball a little bit, partially because I’ve been in school and I’ve not been ready to embark on 800 page novels. The story is gripping me. I’m listening to it and I’ve listened to like 10 hours of the 40 hour audiobook, right? So I’m a quarter of the way through.
And I have been surprised so many times by the historical component of the novel, and it’s a genre that I haven’t been reading a lot of lately. I read a lot of contemporary fiction set within the last ten to 20 years and not so much historical, fantasy adjacent adventure romance, you know, it’s just a genre that’s pretty new to me. Beyond that I’m reading the women’s prize shortlist.
ANNE: Ooh, fun.
ALLISON: I’ve read four of the six books, so highlights: Transcendent Kingdom, it almost made my list. Piranesi, I love. That’s what I’ve been reading lately.
ANNE: We have a lot to work with, Allison.
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ANNE: Okay, so the books you loved were In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado, Conversations with Friends, but it could have very well been Normal People, by Sally Rooney, and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. Not for you was The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett. You felt like you knew the story before you started reading it, and that’s not how you choose to read. I really like how you share three books that represent different kinds of things you love in your reading life. Other than that, what would you say – what are you on the hunt for?
ALLISON: I want a book that I cannot put down, so probably something full of surprises and engaging characters and I’m also interested in finding a book with a writing style that’s just different than what I’m used to. Whether that be the storytelling is different, or the formatting is different. I’m pretty much open to anything, but I just want something that I am just captivated by.
ANNE: I circled so many of the titles in my notes as yes, we need to talk about this. [ALLISON LAUGHS] Okay. First let’s start with … You know, when you slipped and called In the Dream House a novel, you talked about the beautiful writing, you name checked Iowa. That put me in mind of another book and I know I didn’t say this out loud, but something that I have definitely been weighing as we’ve been talking is your interest in poetry and I thought oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if we could find you a novel by a poet?
Authors who write poetry even when they’re not writing poetry but writing in other genres, that care with language and that ear for how the word sounds to the reader, even if they’re not reading out loud like we know you’re a fan of, really comes through in this text and that got me thinking about Ocean Vuong’s novel On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which you could easily mistake for a memoir. Is this one you’ve read or familiar with?
ALLISON: I have seen it in bookstores and the cover is stunning, but I have never read it.
ANNE: The black and white photograph?
ANNE: It is. It’s really attention getting. And it’s a slim book as well so it oddly might stand out in that way just because it looks different than the 300, 400 page hardcovers on the table. Especially based on your description of In the Dream House, there’s no choose your own adventure story in here [ALLISON LAUGHS] but it does have a really interesting, thoughtful structure, so this is a debut but it reads as a memoir because it’s a letter written by a youngish, gay, Vietnamese immigrant and he’s writing a letter to his mother and it’s not linear in time, but he’s going through, revisiting their painful family history and also sharing insights into his own life and it’s especially poignant because of the things that the reader would deduce, though I don’t think this counts as spoilers, but his mother doesn’t know how to read, and yet he’s writing this letter as a window to better understand him if she so chooses and yet he’s writing this letter knowing that the odds of her ever being able to read it are very, very small.
It’s clear that he thinks it’s important to tell his own story and the language he uses to do so, it’s almost like you can hear him on the page, like struggling to find the right word to exactly describe this thing that he’s wanting to tell his parent. But it’s clear that he wants to tell his story and that his voice has been silenced in the past. I think with that interesting narrative construct holding a really painful story where there’s much hurt and trauma, I think it’s a book that you might just want to keep on reading. How does that sound to you?
ALLISON: It sounds really beautiful, and I’m really intrigued by knowing that the intended audience can’t read how he’s still choosing his words with care in the very slim chance that she can read it. It sounds heartbreaking and wonderful.
ANNE: This is the kind of thing you want to talk about with a book club.
ANNE: Okay. Next I have in mind a historical novel for you. I just was thinking about your love of The Secret Life of Bees. I mean this is not chaotic 20-something fiction by any means although that would be a fun list to put together, but the book I’m thinking of is a historical novel that’s about ten years old, by Susan Crandall. It’s called Whistling Past The Graveyard.
ALLISON: I’ve never heard of it.
ANNE: Ooh, okay. Not sad about that. This novel is set in the early 1960s in the American South and it has a narrator who’s a little bit younger than the narrator of The Secret Life of Bees, but this is not a middle grade novel by any means even though I think she’s about 10 years old, but she is a precocious child narrator. Her name is Starla. She is in Mississippi. This is her coming of age story.
So Starla’s growing up in Mississippi. Her grandmother is really strict. She has a threat of boarding school hanging over her head if she doesn’t get in line and she decides to take matters into her own hands and she’s going to run away and she’s going to run to Nashville, where she knows her mother went to become a famous singer. In fact, that’s the reason she lives with her grandmother now, is that her mother abandoned her to go make a life for herself when Starla was teeny, teeny, tiny.
She’s walking down a lonely country road and accepts a ride from a stranger, a Black woman who’s traveling alone just with a baby in tow, and they set out on this road trip forever and it’s one that changes Starla’s life forever of course, and deals very gently with a whole host of complex social, societal, and racial issues, but I like it for you because it’s got that heart stirring element that two of your favorite books do. Although I think that they, you know, tug at your heartstrings in very different ways, but a good story set in the past further back than you typically read and I think really has elements in common with things you’ve loved before. How does that sound?
ALLISON: It sounds really, really interesting and it sounds like it would be a really good companion read to The Secret Life of Bees just because the bones of the story sound somewhat similar. I’ve been considering rereading The Secret Life of Bees and I think it would be really fun to read this one first and then compare the two, or just like have them in conversation with one another. It sounds like it would be really fun.
ANNE: I hope so. That was Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall. And finally, this title did not pop into my head while you were talking about The Secret History, but it really should have. I’m trying to think what you said specifically that made me jot this down. You’re looking for interesting characters, books that surprise you, books that you can’t put down and that have an interesting way of being told, and the one I’m thinking of is If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio.
ALLISON: I have heard of this. I feel like it was on the front table of bookshelves around Halloween time. Did it come out maybe around then, or is it older?
ANNE: It’s older, but I can absolutely see why it would end up on front tables around Halloween time. It’s not that it’s spooky exactly but it’s a book about a crime investigation and also about a troop of Shakespearean actors. So when the book opens, Oliver’s just got out of the prison. The detective who put him in there is there to greet him, and he’s like son, I want to know the whole story. Like I’m about to retire and I have to know the whole story. But we go back in time and we find out who Oliver is and what he might have done and what happened back then. What we discover is he went to this school for the performing arts where their curriculum is just Shakespeare. All Shakespeare. All the time. He and his friends were learning to be actors.
What M. L. Rio does is take us deep inside, not only the school but into this group of friends. There’s a couple who’s been together forever, but their relationship is not as perfect as it seems. [ALLISON LAUGHS] There’s pairs of friends, crushes that go dangerous places. I mean, this is a complex unit here with shifting allegiances and sometimes betrayals and friends who feel like they need to intervene into an increasingly dangerous situation, and so the tension they’re experiencing off the stage starts boiling on the stage and it leads to terrible things happening, and them getting in trouble. But what we find out is that Oliver has been sentenced to prison for a crime that he may or may not have committed and over the course of the story we find out what happened, why it happened, and why this man who was jailed for ten years felt compelled to do the thing he did.
You said you really love chaotic 20-something fiction, the characters hover around that age, but what you also see is them wrestling with situations. I mean, some impossible situations, some that really aren’t, just learning to be a person, terrible circumstances with backdrop of all the Shakespearan dialog, and as for the interesting telling, much of the book is written as stage directions and I think that’s just a fun little twist that will amp up your enjoyment just a crucial bit more for what is aside from that a really great story that I would highly recommend to fans of The Secret History. Not because it’s a readalike, but because it does have some of that tone and tension that makes people love that book so much. Although it is not Donna Tartt length. This one is well under 400 pages. How does that sound to you?
ALLISON: That sounds really, really interesting. I love when a book starts with the spoiler I guess because then I’m just wondering oh my gosh, what else happened because you just gave away your big reveal and it just sounds like there’s so much there to unpack. And I love that there are stage directions. Oh, it just sounds … That sounds really fun.
ANNE: It feels more of a puzzle to me as a reader than as a book where I truly don’t know where we’re headed does, and I like it when a book feels like a good puzzle.
ALLISON: I like that too, and The Secret History begins in the same way which is probably why it reminds you of that even though it’s really not the same thing.
ANNE: And I just want to slide in for chaotic 20-something fiction. Other books I was strongly considering were Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan, an Irish writer who’s often referred to as another Sally Rooney. Their style is very, very different but they do write about 20-somethings figuring stuff out. I was thinking about Ottessa Moshfegh and also The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer as an obvious pick, but it’s obvious for a reason and a staple of [SIGHS] the group of kids finding their way in their world, although they kinda skip over the 20-something years, but I still think that could be interesting for you to perhaps explore.
Okay, back to the books that we actually discussed at length. [ALLISON LAUGHS] Allison, we talked about Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, Susan Crandall’s Whistling Past the Graveyard, and M. L. Rio’s If We Were Villains. Of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
ALLISON: I think I’m going to pick up On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous next. I really want the poetic writing style right now.
ANNE: I love the sound of that and I hope you enjoy reading it. Allison, thank you so much for talking books with me today.
ALLISON: Thank you so much for having me on.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Allison, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. Since she doesn’t have social media, drop a comment on our show notes page for her to see. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/287 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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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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Books mentioned in this episode:
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•Stephen King (try 11/22/63 or The Stand)
•The Complete Poems of John Donne
•Rookery by Traci Brimhall
•Come Slumberless to the Land of Nod by Traci Brimhall
•Franny Choi (try Soft Science)
•Amorak Huey (try Boom Box)
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado
Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney
•Normal People by Sally Rooney
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
△The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
•The Secret History by Donna Tartt
•Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
•Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
•Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
•On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
•Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall
•If We Were Villains by M.L. Rio
•Exciting Times by Naoise Dolan
•Ottessa Moshfegh (try My Year of Rest and Relaxation)
•The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer
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