I usually have a few books going at the same time, but today’s guest describes herself as a serial starter who might have started up to 10 books before finishing one. She even keeps moving through several books at once by reading different genres at different times of the day.
Shanel Sparr is an artistic Jill of all Trades–acting, directing, crocheting and designing clothes. But as an avid collector of hobbies, reading still holds a distinct place in her life—and she highly values being well-rounded as a reader.
Shanel loves books that explore a character’s interior landscape, especially when that’s packaged in a surprising way, and doesn’t mind going a bit dark, or eerie. Although she has found she has a limit—and so today I’m looking for titles that walk the fine line of addressing hard things without tipping into overly tragic.
You can learn more about all of Shanel’s artistic endeavors on her website.
SHANEL: Yeah, I read a lot. I read a lot of different kinds of things. I can definitely do this. Absolutely incorrect. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: And now you know.
SHANEL: And now I know. [LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 290.
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, we are inviting you to set aside the weekend of July 23rd to treat yourself with a weekend dedicated to reading. Our first Readers’ Weekend is 48 hours of readerly delight however you choose to spend it. The weekend is free and there’s no need to sign up for anything, just use us as the excuse you need to put your reading life first.
We’ll be giving tips for the weekend and sharing ideas on how to spend your time (aside from curling up on the couch) on Instagram so be sure to follow me @ Anne Bogel
That’s July 23rd through the 25th. So go on and mark your calendar and start figuring out what you’ll read.
I usually have a few books going at the same time, but today’s guest describes herself as a serial starter who might have started up to 10 books before finishing one. She even keeps moving through several books at once by reading different genres at different times of the day.
As you’ll hear, Shanel loves books that explore a character’s interior landscape, especially when that’s packaged in a surprising way, and she doesn’t mind going a bit dark, or eerie. Although she has found she does have a limit and has to come up for air sometimes when reading too heavy—and so today I’m looking for titles that walk the fine line of addressing hard things without tipping into overly tragic.
It’s going to be a fun one. Let’s get to it.
Shanel, welcome to the show.
SHANEL: Thank you so much for having me, Anne. I’m so excited.
ANNE: I’m enjoying a little bit vicarious relaxation in our conversation because you are continuing what I don’t know of many listeners know as kinda a What Should I Read Next tradition and that is we have many, many guests say that it’s really convenient for them and would feel enjoyable for them to record on their vacation, and that’s what you’re doing today.
SHANEL: Something about the timing just worked out perfectly and I’m actually really glad. I was nervous about it at first but now that it’s happened, as soon as I got here yesterday I knew that it was the right choice. I am in such a calmer mind state to chat about the books that I love and everything, that I think I maybe wouldn’t have been back at home having just come off of work or thinking about my next shift, so I do understand why people choose to do it this way.
My hotel is up on a very high hill so I have a view of the town that we’re in and the town past that. Blue skies. There’s a pool out there with some kites around it, so we’ve got these little fish kites blowing in the breeze. It is picturequese. It is very serene.
ANNE: So that is lovely. I’ve never been to the Cape, but I’ve read about it in books.
SHANEL: Any chance anybody gets, the way people brag about it, the way you hear Massachusetts claim it [LAUGHS] like it’s some slice of heaven, it is true. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Alright. Duly noted and will factor into my travel aspirations. [SHANEL LAUGHS] Shanel, what do you do professionally?
SHANEL: I am a Jill of all trades. I design clothes. I just finished a directing piece for Pride Month from the local community college that I’m near, so that was my directorial debut. I act. I do some voiceover work. Anything truly that’s artistic that I can get my hands on, I also crochet and have my little Etsy store that I make mostly animals. I am an avid collector of hobbies.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Is it some of those hobbies that became professions or do you keep those things distinct?
SHANEL: I probably should a little bit more so it wouldn’t feel quite so devastating when they don’t take off, but for me, the artistic side, it’s always been sorta my North Star for what I want to do to not just to make money. I don’t want to sound like it’s crass, but like that is what I want to spend my time doing. That’s how I want to give back to the world and other people is through whatever means of art that I can create that makes them feel seen or happy or think. The lines have always kinda crossed. I’m mostly okay with it. I know for other people it’d be kinda funky, but I like the gray a lot.
ANNE: Shanel, what’s like a professional highlight you can point to?
SHANEL: I used to live in New York, and while like every actor [LAUGHS] we have to have a lot of jobs on the side because for every 100 auditions you go to, you maybe get a call back for three and maybe book one. This is a lot of stamina and it does require some extra jobs and I had a job ushering at the Freedman Theatre on Broadway and I got to meet Laura Linney. She did her show 2020 in February. I was on the stage. They had on stage seating, they needed ushers up there to do just to make sure that nobody was gonna like, nobody was going to bumrush Laura Linney [ANNE LAUGHS] and take illegal videos or anything, so on stage left and stage right, we had two ushers, and I got to be one of them for the entire run of her show.
She would stand behind stage and we could see her, you know, just to check in and make sure she was ready, make sure if she was okay. The further we got in the process of the show, the show ran for I want to say like two months, maybe a month and a half, anywhere from one to two shows a day. She got so comfortable with the on stage ushers that she would give us a little like wave or a little face, whether she thought she was doing okay, or how the show went, and I wrote her a note at the end of the whole experience just as a like a thank you for telling such a beautiful story. It was a pleasure to watch you work every night And I asked the stage manager to give it to her and she ended up that night, when she came on to perform the last show, she gave this little, like, hug motion and a little, like, thank you. She mouthed thank you and I was completely beside myself. So it wasn’t an acting highlight, but like being in the theater and seeing somebody who’s such a tour de force interact with me was really amazing. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That sounds amazing. Now Shanel, we’re talking because you are a reader. Tell me a little bit about your reading life. What’s that like these days?
SHANEL: I have always been an avid reader. It has taken dips the older I’ve gotten. When I was a kid, I don’t know if it’s the same everywhere, but where I grew up, we had accelerated reader programs in elementary school. You had certain books you had to read every month or every year. But you got points for reading each book until you take a test, a comprehensive exam to make sure that you had read it and you weren’t lying to get the points, and I didn’t do it for the points. I just did it because I loved to read and I liked gaining other people’s stories, which I think is what really lead me down the acting path. It’s just like my first little foray into it.
Diving into somebody else’s world and reading it from either their perspective or an outside perspective and in like third person as always really tickled my fancy. I love leaving the world behind and being able to like, yeah, see somebody else’s life. So when I was a kid, that’s all I did. I did not really hang out with people. I had joined a book club that went and competed with other schools in elementary school, like …
ANNE: Wait, what?
ANNE: There’s a book club competition?
SHANEL: It was the most amazing thing and I really wish that it hadn’t just been the elementary school. They had like a comprehension book club. I was like vice president of it, and you went to different schools or different centers that were close enough for each school to join and meet at and you’d have like a little buzzer and your team would like ring the buzzer when you knew the answer to the book, like who wrote it. That was definitely my jam, so between you know, puberty, moving a lot. I’ve moved a good 32 times in my life.
ANNE: Oh, wow.
SHANEL: I’m 28, so I’ve moved more than I’ve lived. I’ve lost a lot of books. Definitely bought a lot of books back so I’m not that upset about it. Got a whole storage unit full of books. It’s … [LAUGHS] I’d say it’s a problem but I’m not upset about it and it’s not hurting anybody, so I think it’s okay.
ANNE: It’s your buried treasure.
SHANEL: If it was at the bottom of the ocean, [LAUGHS] it would be … I would be like a little octopus holding my treasure chest. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Oh my gosh, I love that visual. [LAUGHS]
SHANEL: Now I am what I like to call serial starter. I start just about every book that I buy almost immediately, and then I try to find time because I don’t want to stop reading them, but I don’t want to not read the next book that I’ve gotten, so I end up starting about a good ten books at a time and then trying to figure out when I can read and pick back up with this story in this world. And I’m not always great at it, so that is definitely something I’m looking forward to getting your advice on today.
ANNE: Is this a habit that you like and you’d like to teach others how to do it? Or is this something else, Shanel?
SHANEL: I really like the habit. I think it just needs to be pared down. I did not do it when I was young, but I really like the idea of starting several books, you know, maybe not ten, but maybe a good like three. You know like, I have my morning book, my evening book, and then I bring one to work with me when I’m not at home, and I really like that. It’s like our own private time I get to spend with this story and it comes with me, it’s like a little [LAUGHS] I don’t know, it sounds childish, but it’s like a little friend. And it’s my time to hang out with my friend.
ANNE: Okay, I’m thinking now about how I started this recent habit. I’ve been getting recently these past … Or no, I’ve been getting up every day actually for years, but I’ve been getting up early these past few months like before everybody else in my household and I don’t usually listen to audiobooks when there’s people around, but when it’s just me, it’s funny how one of the things I look forward to in the morning now is like oh, it’s just me and my book as I, you know, make my coffee and fill my water and just do those little morning tasks and it’s so … Like I really look forward to it in a way I didn’t expect.
ANNE: I think it takes a reader to understand that.
SHANEL: It does. It feels like you’ve set up time to meet with your friend and you know, you don’t want to be late and you don’t want to push it and the more you, yeah, the more you do it, the more you’re excited to continue to hold this space for this story at this time.
ANNE: So, Shanel, when you look for the books during these little times where you’re looking forward to spending time with your friend, do you choose books differently for these different pockets of reading in your life?
SHANEL: I absolutely do. I try to make the morning time book a self-improvement. I’ve tried fiction because fiction is so easy for me to slip into. It’s like my oldest friend. Some of the new ones I’m trying to start a relationship with because I am intrigued, like some autobiographies, or just biographies in general, I’m not the most familiar. I haven’t spent a lot of time reading that style of writing, so I try in the morning to expand my reading relationship because I’m like new, I’m fresh, and it’s easier for me to do that so I try to read an autobiography.
Also if I try to do fiction in the morning, I won’t get out of bed. [ANNE LAUGHS] My day will never start. I will be several chapters in. I will get nothing done, and then same time for a night time book. Something more like history related so that I feel connected to current events, but again, not too sucked into it. Fiction is a dangerous one for me to place, which is heartbreaking ‘cause it’s also my favorite.
And then when I’m at work, I’ve actually chosen a lot of … They’re sorta like comic-esque books that’s my Alison Bechdel books or my Allie Brosh recently have been coming in because they’re short and I can break away from it easily when my attention’s needed elsewhere, and it’s still easy for me to hold that bookmark in the mental space and come right back to it without having to interrupt the flow of a very lengthy prose.
ANNE: Okay. We will keep that in mind as we start about managing the serial starter inclination. [SHANEL LAUGHS] Shanel, tell me more about beginning these new reading relationships and exploring different genres. It sounds like that’s something that’s important in your reading life.
SHANEL: I like to feel well rounded and I don’t know if that’s something that’s left over from school [LAUGHS] when, you know, middle school and high school, when you’re expected to know and read certain books. I don’t know if that’s where it comes from, but in my current reading life, I like to know that I have a certain book in each genre picked out and ready to read next.
ANNE: Maybe this has never happened, but what happens when you don’t have a book on deck in these categories and it’s time to pick up a new one, then what?
SHANEL: Then it’s actually a really delightful experience because then I get to set myself free in a bookstore and just kinda follow my delight. The last time I did that, it was poetry. I was reading Billy Collins and knew I wanted to pick up another poetry book to have on deck and it was delightful because then my inner kid gets to come out and be like ooh, what do I want to pick? I ended up picking up a pocket book of Sappho and I found that just through picking up little things and trying to figure out what was right for me in this time of my life, what spoke to me the most, and what I knew that I was going to get excited to read ‘cause it helps push me to get back to that genre, and be like oh yeah, I remember this. I’m very excited to read it. Now I’m going to make time to read it.
ANNE: Okay, Shanel, that’s not at all what I thought you were going to say. I thought you may something more along the lines of it all goes to pieces, like if I don’t have a book lined up, then it disrupts my system and I get all out of whack and bad things happen, but instead you said it’s delightful.
SHANEL: It is.
ANNE: Okay, Shanel, I have to tell you that at the end of this show, I’m supposed to recommend three titles you may enjoy reading next and I’m already thinking how on earth are we going to narrow this down? [SHANEL LAUGHS] But we’ll get to that when we get to that. Shanel, you ready to talk about your books?
SHANEL: Absolutely. I’m very excited.
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ANNE: 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. How did you pick these today?
SHANEL: These books are books that I still think about at least once every other day despite the fact that I’ve finished them so long ago. That to me is the hallmark of a insane story that just kinda ricochets off my own human being. The fact that it’s still buzzing around, like for instance, The Bell Jar.
I came to this book very late. I really just finished it in January of this year. I did not expect to like it. I do have issues sometimes with books that are too tragic, especially humans being cruel to other humans. That’s a very hard thing for me to read, so I thought I wouldn’t be able to handle this, so I put it off for a long time and my partner recommended that I read it just based on where I was in my life. She was like I think that you would find it very empowering, and it’s actually very witty and surprisingly funny despite the fact that we are handling some very dark issues, and I was like okay. Now I’m on board. That paradox, I am here for [LAUGHS] when we can tread water between the light and the dark, I like that. I like being able to come up for air but, you know, we’re not frivolous. We’re not like floating the air forever.
It was a book that really like brought me down to the bottom of the ocean a lot of the times and it was hard to breathe reading it sometimes, but it was also a book that made me laugh right afterwards, and feel seen through Sylvia Plath’s eyes. Despite the fact that, you know, she passed in the ‘60s and she only lived to be about as old as I am now, so it’s just an amazing woman. I bought Red Comet ‘cause I want to read about her, yeah. So that one really stuck with me.
ANNE: Okay, so that was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. I’m so glad that you said that it’s funny. That’s something that takes so many readers by complete surprise.
SHANEL: Yes, it’s … If anybody’s been holding back because they’re too nervous that it’s just going to be like one sledgehammer after another, I would say put that fear to rest. It’s very funny. It’s very feminist. It really talks about women in a way that was I think still revolutionary despite the fact the world is changing a lot, especially back then, writing about the things that she wrote about in the way that she did and the accessibility she did. It’s amazing.
ANNE: Shanel, what did you choose for your second favorite? Which we know is not less than.
SHANEL: Definitely not less than.
ANNE: Just next sequentially.
SHANEL: I chose Problems and Other Solutions by Allie Brosh, but I know that she has a book called Hyperbole and a Half that came before Problems and Other Solutions; however I didn’t come across that one at first and I did not really know that Problems and Other Solutions was a sequel, so I read it backwards. I’m technically now on the first ‘cause I’m reading Hyperbole and a Half right now. But I got to Problems and Other Solutions first and I picked it up because during Covid, I truly couldn’t handle if anything was slightly dingy, like content matter, like any kind of negativity, I just couldn’t handle anything that wasn’t happy. [LAUGHS] I watched The Office. I think I rewatched Friends because they were familiar, funny things I knew what was going to happen in each episode at the end and I just needed control because I could not control anything else that was going on, much like everybody else.
But I was ready for something new just not something dark and new and yet [LAUGHS] Problems and Other Solutions is another one. I picked it up and was like oh, what a cute little comic book feel. I can probably read this and be fine, and the way she draws is like her pictures make me laugh so hard. Something about the little, like, squiggly arms and the, like, slack jawed face that she can draw makes me cry laugh. However she does talk about some dark themes in the book and it was surprising but not enough to make me want to take my foot of the gas pedal. It actually helped me like face my own depression by reading it in this seemingly unimitating … It was not an imitating book. Most of the pages in it didn’t look imitating and yet, you know, you walk through the threshold of this fun character and all of a sudden there’s some dark stuff there.
It was actually a great way to be face to face with those kinds of things. Just the way that she like welcomes you into her world, and then ushers you over here and is like this is a dark thing and it wasn’t the greatest, but here it is and this is how I handled it. And it wasn’t perfect, but we’re all humans and that’s okay, and now here’s a funny thing over here. Like it’s … Um … [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: And I think Allie Brosh would be honored to hear you say that. That is Problems and Other Solutions by Allie Brosh. Now Shanel, let’s hear about your last but not least favorite.
SHANEL: So my partner’s mother introduced this book to me. Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy. I don’t think I’ve really read thrillers before and I am totally chicken when it comes to scary movies. I don’t like them, so I did not think that reading a thriller book was going to be up my alley. However, she gave it such high praise that I was like okay. I will give this a chance. I’m just not going to read it at night. So it was my go to work book for a while until it became so immersing I couldn’t bring it to work because it was very hard for me to put down. I did not want to put it down. Once I had hit the halfway mark, it was one of those books that just sucked me in and I was like I have to turn everything off for the next five hours. I have to finish this. I have to see what happens.
I thought I knew where things were going to go and I don’t want to reveal anything specific because if people want to read it, they 1000% should. You think you know where things are going to go and she leaves you these easy little, like, cookie crumbs for you to follow, and you’re like oh wow, and then this is going to happen. How original and she completely turns it on its head. Like not once, but three times. So she’s got a lot of twists and turns, and you think you know where you are, but you don’t know. [LAUGHS] Aimee’s got a lot of surprises and [ANNE LAUGHS] I don’t remember the last time that I had to sit down and set aside an afternoon to cancel my plans and finish a book immediately because I needed to know where I was going in this book.
ANNE: I would just like to add that I read this and I’m just nodding along to everything you just said. The first time the story turned, and I was listening on audio, and I was like I don’t know. This isn’t hitting me quite right. The first time the story turned, I was just like wow! [SHANEL LAUGHS] Impressive Ms. Molloy. This would be a great book for book club where everybody would have to read it so you could come and just talk about all the things you realized along the way and what you thought about the ending, and oh it would be so good for that.
SHANEL: You’re so right.
ANNE: And also just like when did you know?! [SHANEL LAUGHS] What did you suspect?
SHANEL: I fancy myself, you know, pretty smart and I had a completely different ending drawn out and I didn’t even see it coming. With the last like, you know, 20 pages I was still like where is this going to go? [LAUGHS]
ANNE: If I could give one bit of advice to thriller readers everywhere, don’t look for the twists, just like sit back and enjoy the ride, and that’s usually what I’m able to do but I still … I’m human. I still wonder. But my wonderings were completely in the wrong direction.
SHANEL: Yeah, which is really exciting.
ANNE: That was Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy. [SIGHS] Shanel, how did you choose the book that wasn’t right for you? Was this obvious?
SHANEL: Unfortunately, very obvious. I’ve been very lucky in my reading life. It’s very rare that I pick up a book and I haven’t enjoyed at least bits of it. I used to play this game with myself actually where I would go into a bookstore and I wouldn’t read the book and I wouldn’t really try to like pick a specific genre, I would just go and physically pick a book, buy it, and go read it, and even then I haven’t really come across too many that weren’t for me. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with this one.
The Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk. A very tough read, so as I’m sure you’ve already gathered by now, I like a little bit of dark. I like a little bit of eerie mixed in so long, you know, as we come back up for air. I’m here for that. I didn’t get any air with The Haunted. Sorta akin for me to watching Game of Thrones. I won’t throw any spoilers, but there comes just a point where the characters are so twisted and everything feels so hopeless. I started to get depressed reading it because there just didn’t seem to be any light at the end of the tunnel.
It was … It was affecting me in a way that I was like I don’t want to be in this dark forest carrying a lantern. I feel like even my lantern is extinguished at this point. I’m kinda just rummaging around in the dark with this book. So I actually didn’t finish it. It got to a particularly like grotesque part. It put just the nastiness taste in my mouth. It’s rare. I try to always push through out of respect for the author and out of respect of the book, even if it’s not my jam. I always try to push through, but I could not do it with this one, Chuck. I couldn’t do it.
ANNE: My brother’s actually a huge Chuck Palahniuk fan. He has recounted stories of like people throwing up at book signings ‘cause this is so gory and so grotesque, like during the read alouds. I’m a little surprised that maybe you hung on as long as you did. I mean, I understand having respect for the author, but I think one of the [LAUGHS] immutable rules of book reading is that sometimes the fit is just not there for varying degrees, but I can see how this book would be a very bad fit for lots of readers.
And the reason, which we haven’t really talked about what the book is about, but as I recall, it’s set up almost Canterbury tale style. 20 something inspiring writers who come to this scary place for a retreat and every chapter is like … I think it’s a short story, and not a first person narrative of their experience of retreat. We already said gory. We already said grotesque. Lots of bodily functions and fluids gone very, very badly.
SHANEL: He doesn’t really hold back, so it’s not like it was a shock in the middle of the book that I wasn’t prepared for. He pretty much starts the book like that. The first short story is a rather … [LAUGHS] a rather grotesque story. I think I just went very naive with it. I was like maybe, ‘cause I’ve read Choke and I really, really liked that. Definitely dark and still, you know, some grotesque parts but I was surprised that this one was so much more gory and I think I just hoped that it wasn’t going to be, so I held on for a little too long for my tastes and yeah, now I know I’ll never pick it up again.
ANNE: Shanel, this is my guess. That you were thinking I read widely. I’m a well rounded reader. Surely I can just give this a try.
SHANEL: Yeah. I read a lot. I read a lot of different kinds of things. I can definitely do this. Absolutely incorrect. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: And now you know.
SHANEL: And now I know.
ANNE: Shanel, what are you reading now? Maybe I should say what did you pack? [LAUGHS] What did you pack for vacation in the car with all that room?
SHANEL: I packed because I know myself full well and I know that I’ll be going home with more books, so I tried to restrain myself [LAUGHS] and I only brought two. I brought Hyperbole and a Half because I thought it would be fun to read by the pool, and again another one if we need to get up and go somewhere, I can digest everything I need to digest and then, you know, pick up and go on with my day. So I knew that would be a good fit for vacation, and then the other one that I brought which I am not exactly sure why I brought it because it’s the exact opposite. The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.
ANNE: Oh, that’s interesting. That’s like two totally different approaches to … I mean, those books have a lot in common.
SHANEL: Yes! The Body Keeps the Score is a clinical, which appeals very much to one side of me. I like academia a lot, coming at things from, like, a logical research brain type of way, and then the other side of me is incredibly emotional. An artist, and I feel everything. I cry a lot. Mostly just ‘cause I’m like really happy, like [LAUGHS] sometimes, you know, my partner will come in and she’ll find me crying on the bed and she’s like oh my God, are you happy or sad? I’m like no, I’m happy. [LAUGHS] It’s a good finale to a show I’m watching or I was just thinking about something happy, yeah, so [LAUGHS] Allie Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half appeals to me on my emotional side a lot, so yeah, you’re right, I guess they do kinda make sense. They’re just approaching the same thing in a very different way.
ANNE: Shanel, what do you want to be different in your reading life now?
SHANEL: So sometimes that logic brain does get a hold of my life and it does kinda take control of my reading habits. So I do try to like sanction out time to spend with all these different genres because they’re all important to me, but obviously no one person can read seven different books in one day and really, you know, if they can then that’s amazing. I’m not that person.
How do I not shun one genre for another because it’s like I know fiction is way easier for me to just continuously pile on, to where, you know, autobiographies or maybe even poetry sometimes is a little harder for me to work into my schedule but I don’t want to give up on either of them. I want to continue to cultivate a relationship with all of them. What do you think about reading multiple books at the same time? Do you think that it’s a worthy enterprise or do you think it’s splitting the mind in too many different ways and you’re not giving full attention to the book at all?
ANNE: Okay, you asked what I think, not what I think you should do, and those are different things. But I do really love reading multiple books at once, and I used to read more books at a time than I do now, but now I almost always have three going, but it’s divided by format. So I have one on my kindle, which I can also read on my phone if I end up stuck someplace where I didn’t expect to have reading time, I can usually just grab that book on my kindle real fast. It’ll sync to where I currently am, and I can be reading.
But the reason I really like to do that is because 1) like if it’s in the different format, I think it’s different enough, and I do generally just without even trying to choose stories that are different enough that I think you can keep them straight, but usually the different format has enough cues to me that I don’t have a problem keeping the stories straight. I think with an audiobook, somebody else is literally reading you the story, that’s a very distinct reading experience to my brain as opposed to me pulling the words off the page and hearing them in my own mind without the help of an external narrator.
ANNE: So that is something I really like because then when I am ready to read, there’s always a story that suits me and sometimes it’s not always convenient to carry a book around. I used to carry physical books around with me more but I stopped carrying like a bag during Covid. I just slipped my debit card and drivers license and a $20 into my phone and leave the house like that. I need to pick up the habit again ‘cause we’re getting back into the world again and I’m leaving the house more often I need things. So I’ll probably start carrying a physical book again, but having that kindle app on my phone is just really a reading savior so many times.
But something else I really like about that is that readers, including myself, will often read when they’re in the middle of a good book, but when they’re not reading something, then you’re stuck on the problem of what you should read next. And there’s a decision, and decisions aren’t always easy, standing in between you and the reading, and if I’m reading three books at once, I’m always in the middle of a book, and I don’t have to make a decision to listen to something next because usually I’m in a position where I can read either the print of the ebook, it’s my choice, and then I’m only choosing one book at a time and I really like that. That really helps me maintain momentum in my reading life. I don’t know if that’s a factor for you in your multiple reads, but it’s something that I really know helps me when I want to read. I don’t have to choose first what to read.
SHANEL: I think it’s interesting cause I think the way that you use … It sounds to me like when you use different formats to help you change gears so you’re in the right mindset for that story, I use settings.
SHANEL: I know that in morning time, I know that this is the book that I’m going to read. Since I started the habit, I do wake up and I know like that’s what I’m going to take in the first like ten to 20 minutes of my day, and then same thing with nighttime. Like I know that I’m getting into the mindset to read.
ANNE: Well what works for one reader may not work for another, but sometimes I do hear people apologizing to me, like oh, I just can’t seem to manage to do, you know, whatever I feel like people should do in their reading life, and I think it just helps to hear all the things that work for different readers. It sounds like this is working for you, but I would just offer two questions. These are questions to ask yourself.
ANNE: I have no suspicions here. I would just want to ask myself am I the boss of my system or is the system the boss of me, like are these truly the books that I want to be reading, or do I feel like my junior year teacher might be unhappy with me if I do not forever remain the well rounded student I was when I was 17. Is this the mix that I want to read right now? And I know that you want to read all these genres, but they don’t necessarily have to be in perfect balance. So I would just – I would just ask myself that.
And second, I don’t like that they’re stressing you out. Like I want you to be excited to get to them, but I don’t want you to feel like frantic ever in a way that would bring you stress or make you like not enjoy what you’re reading now ‘cause you feel pressed to get onto the next thing. I don’t want you to forget about your books and not read them, but if you didn’t have as many in sight, I wonder if that might not make you a little bit calmer. I don’t want you to be anxious about the books that I hope bring you joy, and I would just want to ask that.
SHANEL: That absolutely makes sense. I do have an intense perfectionism about myself that I like read every book ever so it is a little … My system’s totally in control for me. I am not in control of my system. I like to think I am, but I’m not at all. [LAUGHS] And I like the idea of moving the to be read books maybe back to their shelf because I already know what I’m going to read next anyway, so they don’t need to be there ‘cause it does stress me out. I personify my books, I don’t know why, but I do feel guilty. I’m like I’m so sorry I’m not reading you yet.
ANNE: Oh that’s so interesting. [SHANEL LAUGHS] You could also think about what balance looks like. Cut out a genre every once in a while, like maybe you know what, I’m on vacation darn it, and I want to read three novels [SHANEL LAUGHS] to one nonfiction book, like that is totally allowed. You are in control here, but I do love how you have this default that will always keep you reading books that you know have a history of bringing you satisfaction in the reading life. That is a wonderful thing.
SHANEL: Thanks. Yeah, that’s true. Because it is my default, I don’t think I have to stress so hard about trying to apply it. I think it’s always going to be there for me to fall back on if I need it.
ANNE: You have built a really great system to your personality, so kudos for that. You can rebuild it and re-shape it however you want to suit your needs now.
SHANEL: Thank you. That makes me feel very empowered, you know, my reading life is very important to me. Building a deeper connection with myself and what I choose to branch out into. I don’t know, that makes me feel very empowered. Thank you for those suggestions.
ANNE: I am so glad. We still gotta choose books for you to read next.
SHANEL: [GASPS] Yay!
ANNE: I mean, we could go anywhere. What are you looking for right now? What do you want more of?
SHANEL: I’d always love more of fiction, and then possibly either an autobiography or a like logic brain, like The Body Keeps the Score. I’m really, really enjoying. It’s hard ‘cause it’s dense, but it’s not as dense … I can digest The Body Keeps the Score very quickly and it keeps me on that track, and I want to keep going on something like that if it’s a logic brain book and less like I’m sorta trudging up a hill.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay. I’ll see what we can do here.
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ANNE: Now you loved Goodnight Beautiful, but said that it’s not really typical of what you read. Is that something that you’d be happy to find more of, something mysterious and thrillery, or is that something that might remain a one off in your reading life?
SHANEL: No, I would absolutely love to read more thrillers.
ANNE: I’m also thinking about books that have a connection to the world of the theater, not because you asked for that, or not because I think you really need that, but because if there’s something kinda thrillery or that might be interesting plot wise that also has that connection, I’m kinda thinking why not?
SHANEL: Yeah, absolutely. Despite the fact I’ve been in theater my whole life, I don’t think I’ve ever really read a book that takes place in a theater or really about theaters, so I would love to do that.
ANNE: Oh, really? Okay. Well let’s do that. Let’s recap. The books you loved were The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, Solutions and Other Problems by Allie Brosh, and Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee Molloy. And of course we could go all kinds of directions, with all three of those books, but the common thread I really see there, is we are leaning into fiction, and I’m imagining more contemporary fiction. I’m thinking that for most readers, it’s easy to find those classics and I know that’s something that you’ve been thinking about reading for a really long time. It seems that you really enjoy an exploration of a character’s interior landscape, packaged in a surprising way, with an unexpected presentation.
SHANEL: To a T, yes. Absolutely.
ANNE: And that a little dark and a little eerie are good for you.
SHANEL: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And you grew up in the south, right? Not in Massachusetts?
SHANEL: Truly because I moved so many places I’ve lived in like the Keys and I’ve lived like towards the panhandle. I’ve lived like all over Florida. I used to own horses and ride through orange groves and a lot of family have, exs, aunts, and all sorts of steps. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, there’s so many different directions we could go! [SHANEL LAUGHS] There’s so many books set in the world of theater. Actually by the time you are listening to this, listeners, I think we are going to have a post on Modern Mrs Darcy about books set in the world of stage and screen, that is coming right now. Okay, let’s go with this one. The first book I have in mind is by Joshilyn Jackson. It’s called Mother May I, and this just came out in April. We have talked about Joshilyn Jackson on What Should I Read Next more than once I’m pretty sure.
This one is new, and it does begin with a kidnapping of an infant, and many readers are going to be like, yeah, I’m not reading that, not now, maybe not ever, and that is okay. You are allowed to make that decision for your reading life. The mother, her name is Bree, is picking up her daughter from, it’s like middle school or high school theater practice. They’re working on a performance of Grease, the musical junior, so they’re watching her like rock out to Sandra D or something on the stage. Her baby is sleeping by in his infant carrier. Practice ends. She goes to pick up the carseat and it is gone.
What this woman slowly pieces together is her child has been taken for a reason to get back at someone close to this woman, but not this woman, and she decides very early on that the only thing she and her kidnapper have in common is they are both mothers, and she decides, if she continues trying to get her child back just as her child’s mom, she’s gonna fall apart. She’s not going to be able to do anything, but she is an actor, and she decides to treat this as playing a role.
And so as she seeks to recover her baby, she narrates how she’s playing a role and what it means and what she learned from her time on the stage, and how she’ll modulate her voice and what the differences is between what the actor would do and what the person playing the role would do. And I think – I think that could be really fun for you. How does that sound?
SHANEL: I have sat here slack jawed. That sounds amazing. I, like, got chills listening to the description. I would be reading that a 1000%.
ANNE: I have to say this would be a wonderful one to talk about with your book club because there are going to be big opinions about the ending and you are going to want to talk about this with a fellow reader. That was Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson.
Shanel, you love books that really portray the interior landscape of the characters, and Good Company by Cynthia D’aprix Sweeney is called Good Company because that is the name of the theater company one of the characters has run for many, many years. The main protagonist is a voice actor who didn’t want to be a voice actor but it just so happens that’s how she realized [LAUGHS] she could actually afford to live, you know, pay the bills and earn a decent living which isn’t as sexy as stage work, but sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do. I think it could be really fun for you. That also came out about the same time, in early April this year.
Now I want to go in a different direction that is dark and is sad. I’ll tell you about it and you can decide what you think.
ANNE: But the book is Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. It came out about ten years ago. It’s a short book. It’s only 250 pages I would say. I think you’ll find the premise appeals to you. This is about a marriage that’s falling apart. And in this novel a woman keeps a diary. Her husband is a renowned painter. She is his subject. Her name is Irene America. That is laden with symbolism as I’m sure you can imagine. The author plays with the concept of the shadow, something important that she’s been researching is the idea that when your picture is taken or when your portrait is captured, you lose, you leave a little bit of yourself behind, and in this marriage, the husband has been capturing the wife in his art. She has had about enough of that, and so the idea of the shadow is something that’s explored.
But here’s the part that I really want you to know. The wife keeps a diary and at a certain point, she discovers that her husband is reading it, and she doesn’t hide it and she doesn’t stop. She just keeps writing it, but she begins writing that diary for his eyes, and she starts a new diary that she keeps in a safe deposit box. One of these is blue. One of these is red. And in the book, the contrast between the blue diary and the red diary and the way she plays with that and the way Irene America messes with her husband, I think you could find that really interesting played out on the page. What do you think?
SHANEL: I think that sounds amazing. Again, I went slack jawed. [ANNE LAUGHS] I was like what? Yes!
ANNE: Not sad about that. And finally we want some fuel for your logical and research brain. Have you read anything by Susannah Cahalan?
SHANEL: No I haven’t.
ANNE: I am thinking of either or both her I believe her first book, Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. Is this one you know?
SHANEL: I don’t.
ANNE: Oh, okay, I’m so glad to hear it. So this is a memoir. It’s won a bazillion awards. It came out ten years ago. It’s still talked about all the time. When she was in her 20s, she woke up in a hospital room. She was strapped to the bed. She couldn’t move. She couldn’t talk ‘cause she had no idea what had happened. She’d been there for a month. She had been a journalist and what she does in this book is kinda piece together, like an investigative journalist, what happened? How did she get there? How was she diagnosed? What almost happened? What could have gone wrong? What typically happens in these situations? I believe it was an autoimmune attack that landed her in the hospital, but the way she documents what happened to her feels like a mystery novel when you’re reading it. But also it expands more broadly about the medical system and the human body. I think you could find that really interesting.
Her newer book is called The Great Pretender and this just came out, I want to say just two years ago. This book is about mental illness. How doctors have defined it over the years, I mean, really what this is a look at the history of how we deal with mental illness, how we understand it, how we’ve studied it since psychological experiments we’ve done over the years that have yielded fascinating but also really shocking and disturbing results. I think you could find this exploration fascinating, but also perfect for that area of your reading life. That’s The Great Pretender.
So those two Susannah Cahalan books are Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness and The Great Pretender, whose longer subtitle is The Undercover Mission that Changed Our Understanding of Madness, and what that refers to is in the 1970s perhaps you’ve heard of this experiment. There was a Stanford psychologist who sent a handful of people into asylums and they checked in because they said they were insane, and then they tried to say wait, hang on, I’m actually just fine. Can I leave now? And they couldn’t leave. If that kinda thing can happen, then what are we even doing? And that’s the question she asks in this book. What happened? How did we get to that point? And what are the ramifications for today? How do those sound?
SHANEL: Anyone who talks about mental illness always intrigues me so I really like The Great Pretender. Sounds very interesting. I’m really pulled to Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness. It sounds like it has a lot of echoes of The Bell Jar.
ANNE: I think it does. So of the books we talked about today, they were Mother May I by Joshilyn Jackson, Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich, and Brain on Fire/The Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan. Of those books, once you get to the library or bookstore, what do you think you may read next?
SHANEL: I think what it probably is going to get into my system first is Shadow Tag. I’m incredibly intrigued by this symbolism. It sounds like the author is right up my alley, so I really want to check that out, and then Mother May I is probably going to come right after that because the fact that I went slack jawed means something. So [LAUGHS] I want to try those two.
ANNE: I’m happy to hear it. Shanel, this has been so much fun. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
SHANEL: Thank you for having me, Anne. It’s truly been a pleasure and very exciting. Something I can mark off my like bucket list.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Shanel, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/290 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today.
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Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next is produced by Brenna Frederick, with sound design by Kellen Pechacek.
Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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Books mentioned in this episode:
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The Bell Jar by Sylvia PlathRed Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark Problems and Other Solutions Allie BroshHyperbole and a Half Allie Brosh Goodnight Beautiful by Aimee MalloyHaunted By Chuck PalahniukChoke by Chuck PalahniukThe Body Keeps the Score by Bessel Van Der KolkMother May I by Joshilyn JacksonGood Company by Cynthia D’Aprix SweeneyShadow Tag by Louise ErdrichBrain on Fire by Susannah CahalanThe Great Pretender by Susannah Cahalan
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