Even for devoted readers, it can be tricky to explore a new-to-you genre. Today’s guest is clear on what he loves to read, but he’s also interested in expanding his literary diet with some new genres that will revitalize his reading life.
Michael Clark’s job in publishing means he’s never lacking for reading material, but being surrounded by books can sometimes feel overwhelming—leaving Michael in a bit of a reading drought.
Michael and I chat about his love of well-developed characters that feel like friends, his affection for unapologetic beach reads that deliver substantive stories, and why he has no problem putting down a book that’s not for him.
Plus, today’s episode features a fun bonus! Even after almost 300 episodes of recommending books, I sometimes wrap up a conversation and immediately realize I had another book to suggest. Stay tuned at the end of today’s discussion to hear my follow-up with Michael, where I get to tell him what I should have told him to read next.
Between my initial recommendations and my last minute fix, I hope our conversation helps Michael broaden his pleasure-reading frontiers—and I hope you’ll uncover something new to add to your list, as well.
Connect with Michael on Instagram to follow along with what he reads next.
MICHAEL: Have you read it?
ANNE: I have. I think it’s so good, and also it made me angry.
MICHAEL: I get it. [LAUGHS] I absolutely get that.
ANNE: I knew you would.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 299.
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, if you’re ready to streamline your TBR this season, I’d love to invite you to pre-order your copy of my new book journal My Reading Life. I’ve designed this beautiful and functional journal to help you make the most of your reading hours—and I can’t wait to see it out in the wild when it releases next week on September 21. If you’ve already pre-ordered, thank you! Make sure you’ve claimed your bonuses at modernmrsdarcy.com/journal.
If you haven’t yet ordered your copy, there’s still time to place that order and receive bonus gifts including special reading lists and a bookmark that doubles as a reading tracker. You’ll also be entered in a giveaway to win FIVE books hand-picked by me, for YOU—a prize five readers will win! Order your copy of My Reading Life wherever you buy books and then head to modernmrsdarcy.com/journal to claim your bonuses.
Readers, if you’ve ever tried to dip your toes into a new genre and realized you picked the wrong place to start, I think you’ll enjoy today’s conversation.
Michael Clark’s job in publishing means he’s never lacking for reading material, but despite (and in part because of) being surrounded by books all day, he sometimes finds himself in a reading drought. Michael has broad and varied taste in his reading life, but when he’s tried to expand into genres he’s previously overlooked in the past, he’s struggled to find a book that connects that genre to his personal tastes.
In our conversation today, Michael and I talk about his love of well-developed characters that feel like friends, his affection for unapologetic beach reads that deliver substantive stories as well, and why he has no problem putting down a book that’s not right for him.
Today’s episode also features something you don’t often hear on What Should I Read Next. Even after almost 300 episodes of recommending books, I sometimes wrap up a conversation and immediately realize I had another book to suggest. In this case today, I hopped back on the line with Michael as soon as we’d ended our conversation because I couldn’t wait to tell him what I should have told him to read next.
Between my initial recommendations and my last minute fix, I hope our conversation helps Michael broaden his pleasure-reading frontiers and integrate more of those books he’d like to try into his literary diet—and I hope you will uncover something new to add to your list, as well.
Let’s get to it.
Michael, welcome to the show.
MICHAEL: Ah, thank you so much. I’m so happy to be chatting with you. [SIGHS] I feel like I’m in a little bit of a reading drought right now, so I’m really excited to see what comes out of the conversation.
ANNE: Ooh, okay, I don’t like that’s how you’re feeling, although I hope you’re in the right place, but you hear readers talk about reading ruts all the time, but reading droughts is a much less common expression.
MICHAEL: Maybe a reading rut is a better way to put it, it’s not that …
ANNE: No, no, I’m trying to give you points for originality. [LAUGHS]
MICHAEL: Oh, okay, thank you, thank you. Yes, I guess …
ANNE: And precision of language.
MICHAEL: I’m never without a book of some sort. It’s the committing and seeing books through I fall into traps like that, and that’s what I think I’m currently in, so not the end of the world. I’ve gotten out of it before, but it’s an interesting place and headspace to be in for this conversation and this chat today.
ANNE: I’m going to ask you an either or question that perhaps shouldn’t be one, but is it you? [MICHAEL LAUGHS] Or wait, hold on, maybe I should have asked it in the opposite order. Or is it the titles you’re picking up?
MICHAEL: It’s me. It’s me, 100% and I think it’s because specifically I was recently back on the east coast for about five weeks visiting family and friends after a long time apart, and I spent a couple of those weeks at the Jersey Shore and at Vermont on vacations with family and I did a ton of reading in those spots, just really rejuvenated my reading life, and then I got back home to Colorado. I’ve been home about a week now, and just getting back into the routine of things, just picking things back up and just trying to renormalize my life. I have, reading has fallen a little bit to the wayside and I just haven’t really found the time to devote to my reading life.
ANNE: Oh, so compared to vacation rhythms those real life reading rhythms are not coming easy?
MICHAEL: Not right now.
MICHAEL: They usually pick up but there’s nothing like vacation reading. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Ah, wistful sigh for vacation reading ’cause mine is also behind me for the foreseeable future.
MICHAEL: Ah, yeah. Yeah, but how lucky that we got to have it.
ANNE: So you’re a New York native, but a Colorado transplant. Tell me a little bit about that.
MICHAEL: Sure. My husband and I live in the Denver metro area of Colorado. We moved here about five years, in fact, almost exactly five years ago. We are both native New Yorkers. We knew we wanted to live somewhere else for a while and see what it’s like to be outside of the northeast area, climate, mindset, etc. So we decamped for Colorado after visiting a number of different places to see what might be a good fit for us, and we love the outdoors. We love hiking. We love camping, but we also really like, you know, somewhat active city, urban environments. You know, we’re big restaurant goerers. My husband is really into food culture, so we wanted to be somewhere where there’s at least some activity in that scene, and the Denver-Boulder area is really offered a good amount of activity in that regard in addition to just such close proximity to nature, so we’ve really loved being out here for the last several years.
ANNE: What surprised you about moving out there? I imagine moving to the Denver-Boulder area, you had some ideas about what you would enjoy and what you would expect, that’s why you ended up there, but what surprised you about being a Colorado resident?
MICHAEL: Well, we had moved specifically from Manhattan, and Manhattan is just a city that just, it’s an atmosphere that’s always on, and that’s definitely not the case here. There … It’s a little bit quieter. I think people value work life balance a little bit more. That’s kinda my anecdotal take. We had been looking for that, but I don’t think we necessarily expected to find it as much as we did, so you know, a lot of people joke that Coloradians, you know, get up earlier for play on weekends than they do for work on the workdays [ANNE LAUGHS] because they want to get up into the mountains or they want to get the slopes or whatever it might be, and I think that we have definitely see that air out. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Now you’ve described theater going as your favorite activity besides reading, how’s that in Denver?
MICHAEL: It’s good. It’s been challenging, you know, as you and I are talking, it’s late summer 2021 and theater going across the country or theater making has been [SIGHS] just so sadly lost or altered in so many ways over the last year and a half because of the pandemic. We live very close to the major performing arts center that gets most of the broadway tours and bigger ticket items which we’ve seen plenty of, but there’s also these wonderful smaller theaters. I live in a suburb with a performing arts and humanity center, and they have such a robust line of performances, and it’s been really great following the talent and seeing some actors, performers, directors, see the work that they do and it’s been really rewarding in that regard. So if you search for it, you’ll find it, and I’ve definitely seen that here in Colorado.
ANNE: That sounds incredible. How fortunate to have that right there in your community.
MICHAEL: Yeah, it’s only a few minutes away, and I feel very lucky. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: For many of us, theater going’s something that we’re still looking forward to resuming again, but the books are with you all the time, so tell me a little bit about your reading life right now.
MICHAEL: I read pretty widely. I try to hopscotch among genres. I do read a lot of contemporary fiction. I like to read to check out new works as many debut authors as I can just out of curiosity and see if they pique my interest as to whether or not they may be a career worth following, but you know, for instance I like to go from literary fiction to more commercial fiction to maybe something nonfiction to something more esoteric or more genre based, more genrey that I don’t really seek out so it kinda goes all over the place.
ANNE: How much is your reading life influenced by your professional life in the world of books?
MICHAEL: It’s actually very influenced. So that’s one of the biggest challenges. So I work in book publishing. I’m a production editor for a book publishing house that’s based in New York, but they have a satellite office in Colorado and I was so, so, so, so fortunate a position opened right in as I was getting ready to move to Colorado, I was hired and I’ve been in that role for several years now, but I’ve been working in book publishing for ooh, thirteen or fourteen years. Books are a major passion of mine, if not the most significant passion of mine, and I feel so lucky that I get to work in the book world day in and day out, but it’s interesting working in books influences my reading life in two significant ways.
The first way is that sometimes being around books all day and thinking about books and watching books go through the production process can really wear me out. [BOTH LAUGH] And I have a lot of difficulty at the end of the day or on the weekends than picking up a book and looking at typeset pages and not in turning my brain off and look at the printed, bound finished copy of a book in the same way that I would if I were looking at earlier drafts of page proofs for my regular, for my job. So it can be very challenging to go from the book making part of my brain to the book enjoying part of my brain. That can be challenging.
So that’s one significant way my job impacts my reading life, but the other way is sometimes if I’m working on a specific type of book or a specific genre of book, I will, especially if it’s a genre that I don’t normally seek out for my pleasure reading, I’ll then try to do more reading in that genre just to see what comp titles are like, or see how other publishers handle books like that, or see what other authors are saying about similar topics. You know, for instance, in the last year, I’ve happened to work on a fair number of memoirs, celebrity memoirs specifically, so all of a sudden I found myself going to the library and picking up Mariah Carey’s memoir [LAUGHS] just because I wanted to see what type of font did they use for Mariah Carey’s book [ANNE LAUGHS] and how long was it and how many photos were in the photos insert? I don’t know, I just kinda find it satisfying to expand my purview a little bit beyond what I’m working on day in and day out.
ANNE: Thank you for those details for our listeners who are wondering what’s it like to not be able to disengage that part of your editor brain?
MICHAEL: It’s challenging.
ANNE: So many times for you reference work life balance being different in Colorado from New York, people feel like they ought to leave their work at the office, but what you do all day is in the world of books. I can see how there can be tension there.
MICHAEL: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Yeah. There is, and it’s challenging because I’ll tell you a little bit more about my roles specifically. I’m a production editor, which means I basically project manage individual book projects from their manuscript stage to their completed bound book and ebook formats. That’s the most broad way to look at what I do, but more specifically, I work with acquiring editors who, you know, acquire the books that the imprints that I work for will ultimately publish.
I always think it’s really fun to dismantle assumptions about what editors do because there’s so many different types of editors at book publishing houses and more often than not, an editor is an acquiring editor, or developmental editor they’re sometimes called, and they, you know, they buy the books, they work with agents, they work with authors to put together the content of a book, figure out what it’s structure is, to figure out how many chapters it’ll be. They will help the author figure out what the book should be by the time it’s published.
And then once they are satisfied with all of that work, that developmental work, the book materials transmit into my department and then I as a production editor start overseeing the copyediting, proofreading, and designing composition phases of a book. So that involves a lot close work with the acquiring editors, you know, they’ll say, you know as I did my developmental work, I noticed that the author is very inconsistent with how they treat certain elements or this a book has a very confusing timeline, I’d love to make sure that timeline is really checked very carefully during the copy edit, elements like that.
So we kinda figure out what the book needs in terms of its copy editing and then I over … I put together a production schedule, keeping a lot of different factors in mind, the book’s on sale date which determines when the book is due to the printer, when we want to have early sales materials, which are called bound galleys so that early reviewers can get glimpses of it for early trade reviews or blurbs for the back jacket, and then in my job specifically I work with the authors during that production process.
I love it because I get exposure to so many types of books and I work almost exclusively on adult nonfiction titles, which is fascinating because I feel like in a lot of ways I’m a student and I’m just constantly learning ’cause I’m getting to bare witness to the development of material about subjects that I just normally might not seek out. Just checks all the boxes [ANNE LAUGHS] for what I want.
ANNE: How much are the current disruptions in paper and in printing and supply chains, how are those things impacting you on a day to day basis?
MICHAEL: [SIGHS] It’s such a shame ’cause like every other industry, like every other area of commerce these days during the pandemic, the supply chain is just seeing so many disruptions. So for instance, I work on a good number of for-color titles, which means books with interior pages that are filled with full color images, most of those books are produced overseas, and they have very different manufacturing schedules than what we call one-color books, so say, a standard novel that just prints with just black type, which are usually produced domestically.
For the books that are produced overseas, you know, it takes much longer to get to our warehouse after they leave the printer because they are placed in cargo on boats [LAUGHS] and these days there aren’t as many books transporting across the Atlantic as there were a couple years ago, which is an interesting factor, so at that point, you know, we might be getting closer and closer to a book’s on sale date and you know, a book might still be stuck on a ship when it really needs to get to our warehouse for early delivery at retailers, like Barnes and Noble or Amazon and we’ll then have to push back the on sale date which is so unfortunate because then all the publicity you have lined up and the author events you have lined up are certainly impacted.
So that’s definitely happening across the industry, and it’s just such a bummer because there are things that are just completely outside of our control. We just do the best we can and address the issues as they come up. Those are really the concerns of our production manufacturing teams, but I certainly see the impact elsewhere in the company.
ANNE: Yeah. That’s something that we’re keeping an eye on as we especially move into the holiday season when so many people are looking for so many specific titles on a tight timeline, so listeners, we will keep you apprised. We’re really just trying to recommend great books all the time so that people can start getting them as soon as they hear about it instead of days before they need it. Always something I tell myself I should do, [LAUGHS] but it’s more important for us to do on a wide scale in this season. So Michael, you get to read for work which is a joy, it sounds like that takes you specifically in a nonfiction direction but you also really enjoy these other elements, the literary fiction, the commercial fiction. How do you choose books to read right now?
MICHAEL: Oh, Anne. [LAUGHS] It changes. Day to day, book to book. So for instance over the last couple of years I’ve been, my husband gets so mad at me. There’s a really, really, really wonderful used bookstore about 20 minutes from my house that I’ve been going to once every few months, and I have just been stockpiling books from there because you can get … And they constantly have these extra discounts so I just feel …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, I can see where this is going. [LAUGHS]
MICHAEL: I’m constantly just trying to build what I call my own personal library, so even if I’m just building up a library on my bookshelves filled with books that I’ve never read before but know I’ll ultimately want to, I try to just think that they’re just there so I can just go and pick one that might suit whatever reading mood I might be in, and like I said a few minutes ago, it changes day to day, book to book. Sometimes I really want to read a book that really reflects whatever I might be going through personally, whether it’s a job situation or a family situation or something that reflects the environments, politically or socially or globally, and then there are other times where I absolutely just wanna read for escape, so I reach for a light, commercial novel, and then there are times where I really just want to kinda keep up with reading trends and I will read whatever’s you know, new on the New York Times bestseller list and kinda get a peek into what mass reading habits look like.
I almost always have an idea of what I’m going to read next, but it’s very rare that I actually end up reading that book next because all of a sudden, some other flight of fancy will just come up. For instance, last year I was obsessed with the show The Crown and the last season was so focused on Diana, I then went and bought the book The Diana Chronicles, and I started reading The Diana Chronicles and I had no interest in reading The Diana Chronicles until I watched The Crown [LAUGHS] and that’s a perfect example of just kinda where my path goes, based on whatever I’m seeing, doing, thinking, feeling.
ANNE: Okay, so you’re up for following the thread of your curiosity.
MICHAEL: Yeah. And at the same time I also try to see things through if possible but I feel … I almost feel guilty saying this as someone who works in book publishing, but I have no problem putting down a book in the middle if it’s just not doing it for me and moving on to the next one, which I think up until my earlier mid-20s I always felt the need to see a book through, but one of my bosses at an earlier job said life is too short to read books you don’t want to read. [LAUGHS] And I have taken that to heart, so if I start reading something that I think I’m going to love and it turns out it’s just not for me, I put it down and just move on to the next one.
ANNE: Michael, I like that you said that unprompted by me ’cause I do feel like that’s a soapbox I pop up on [LAUGHS] fairly regularly. I have to ask, what is the bookstore that gets you into trouble at home?
MICHAEL: It’s called 2nd & Charles. There’s one that I frequent because it’s the closest to me, but there are a few of them around the metro I live in, and I do think it’s a regional chain.
ANNE: Michael, we’re about to get into your own books for a moment, but first, I heard that you had an interesting experience, kinda um, playing What Should I Read Next with a friend, and I’d love to hear.
MICHAEL: Oh my goodness.
ANNE: I’d love to hear this story.
MICHAEL: Yes, oh, I love that you brought that up. So I’ve been a listener of your podcast for a few years now and I introduced my friend Katie, I told her about it. She also works in book publishing and she’s a dear friend of mine, and she and I vacationed together with her husband a few months ago. We found this just very quaint AirBNB in a mountain town in Colorado, and we hold up there for a few days and you know, there wasn’t too much to do which was exactly what we were looking for, but we decided to play What Should I Read Next: list three books we love, and one book that wasn’t for us.
After we did that, you know, amongst ourselves, we talked about if we would ever submit an application to be a guest, and I did it the day I got home, and I decided to just list the same three books I mentioned to Katie as my three favorites or three books I loved, so I’m sure Katie will listen to this episode, so hi, Katie, thanks for the prompt, and yeah. That’s … It was just a really fun, rich conversation.
ANNE: Alright, Michael, well, I’m really excited to hear what books you chose previously that you loved enough to stick with today.
MICHAEL: Yeah, yeah, and I was really, it’s … I’ve been listening to your podcast for so long that I always think how would I pick these books? Would I go with favorites? But I can’t name my favorite books. There’s no way that I could. Maybe I could whittle it down to a top five or a top ten, so I’ve just, I chose books that I think are pretty emblematic of the types of books I like to read and what it is I look for in my reading life.
ANNE: Well, I can’t wait to hear all about them.
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ANNE: And Michael, you clearly know how this works, so you’re going to tell me [MICHAEL LAUGHS] three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately. We’ll talk about getting you out of that reading drought.
MICHAEL: Great. Looking forward to it.
ANNE: Okay. Michael, tell me about the first book you love.
MICHAEL: The first book that I do love, and would absolutely be on a list of absolute favorite books is Ian McEwan’s Atonement. Have you read it?
ANNE: I have. I think it’s so good, and also it made me angry.
MICHAEL: I get it. [LAUGHS] I absolutely get that.
ANNE: I knew you would.
MICHAEL: I think that there’s a secret language that the people who’ve read this book get to have with each other because it is a reading experience unlike any other in my opinion. It’s everything I look for in contemporary fiction, specifically contemporary literary fiction. It works on so many different levels. The prose is just so specific and so vivid, but the overall structure of the book just packs is so thoughtful and thought out and I don’t want to give anything away for readers who haven’t read the book yet, but the conclusion just has you rethinking everything that you read before and everything you think about fiction in general, but the story is just ugh. I just love these characters. [ANNE LAUGHS]
I mean, it’s a coming of age novel. It’s what I call a house novel. I love books that take place in houses, you know, or grand estates and where the setting is so specific to the storyline. It’s a war novel. It’s a mystery. It’s a book about books. It has these devastating relationships. I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day after I finished reading this book. I just had to think about it, and I just love this book so, so much.
ANNE: I’m reconsidering my take on this book. So it came out about 20 years ago. I read it when it was pretty new.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I read it maybe 16, 17, 18 years ago, so not too long after it was published.
ANNE: So I’m older and wiser than I am now [MICHAEL LAUGHS] than when I first read it, and when I first read it it did make me mad, and I can see how now as a reader I might still feel that same way but actually as I’m flipping through what happened in the story and what happens in the ending and readers, that’s … We’re going to keep it that vague, I feel a lot more tender towards it now.
MICHAEL: Yeah. Do you feel tender towards the book and the overall story? Do you feel tender toward the characters? I’m curious.
ANNE: Towards the motivation that would lead a narrator to make the choices in the ending.
MICHAEL: Yes, okay.
ANNE: I think I can see more of the motivations behind it in a way that I didn’t have a lot of sympathy for at the time, but now that is really touching and doesn’t necessarily feel as sneaky as it struck me then.
MICHAEL: [SIGHS] Again, I want to be vague [ANNE LAUGHS] but I love it because I think that the reader turns into an accomplice in, and a confidant in the terms of the storytelling of the book itself that is just so ambitious on the author’s part. I’d love to have a conversation with you for another two hours about ways that does pay off and ways that may not pay off, but for me, it absolutely does pay off and I could just talk about this book forever. [LAUGHS] I just … It’s so rich.
ANNE: And let’s just highlight regardless of how you end up feeling about it, I hope it’s evident that this would be an amazing book club novel because …
MICHAEL: Oh, 100%
ANNE: We read it so long ago it’s sticking with us clearly and there’s just so much to talk about.
MICHAEL: You know, I’m a big Jane Austen fan for instance, and you know, a fan of the Brontë sisters, and there are just echoes of all these kind of literary fingerprints all over this book in terms of narrative voice and scenic detail and even the structuring the book itself, but that’s so rooted in the past but then, he also takes it somewhere that I think is, or at least at the time was so new and so exciting, and I just love things like that are just so aware of what they’re doing and, you know, have these ambitions and whether or not they succeed, it’s so exciting to see and try, and I just think that this one just absolutely does succeed.
ANNE: And now I want to read it again. That was Atonement by Ian McEwan. I expect to be taken in a different direction next, Michael. What did you choose for the second book you love?
MICHAEL: I guess it is a very different direction. I have the three books that I selected staked in front of me, and even looking at them visually in terms of their covers and like marketing materials, it absolutely is a different direction. My next book is Jennifer Weiner’s Good in Bed. A perfect example of another type of book that I will go for, something that I know is very much billed as a commercial, more of an escapist read that’s certainly satisfied in that regard, but almost just like Atonement has surprises of its own up its sleeve.
I’m a big Jennifer Weiner fan. I think she’s so popular and so many people love her books, but I think she doesn’t get the credit that she deserves in my opinion [LAUGHS] in terms of how much care and detail and nuance she puts in her books. I think that Good in Bed is probably my favorite of hers. It’s her debut, so maybe that’s the one that sticks with me the most and on the surface, I think you could say it’s a fairly well worn territory in terms of this young woman having a bit of a early quarter life crisis kinda figuring out who she is and dealing with romantic hardships, career, you know, fluctuations but there’s so much wit in this book. I remember the first time I read it and I was just so surprised at how well developed the characters were.
I … The main character, Cannie Shapiro is, I just think of her as a good friend of mine. [ANNE LAUGHS] I think that she is so unapologetically herself and that’s definitely a trait that you see in so many of Jennifer Weiner’s books, and what I really love about this book in particular is it goes to very dark places towards the end. Those darker places and those developments are so rooted in character. I felt like her characters were doing the leading and that she wasn’t necessarily stage managing certain arcs or developments for her character. As an author, I really felt like she was letting her character grow on her own, and she was just following along, and yeah, it’s … And yet at the same time as dark and as much of a funk as the character kinda finds herself in the book’s later chapters and passages, it’s still such an enjoyable read. It’s still so vibrant and full of life. Everytime I think about it I can just think about specific scenes, specific lines, and it just, it brings me so much joy.
ANNE: And interestingly, published the same year as Atonement. It’s probably not significant, but it is – it is noteworthy.
MICHAEL: Oh my goodness. Wow! I certainly didn’t know that, but that’s so fascinating to me for some reason. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: So, I know many devoted Jen Weiner fans and quite a few of them will list Good in Bed as their favorite.
MICHAEL: Yeah, I mean, she is just as prolific as Ian McEwan probably. Maybe they’ve written the same number of books, or certainly around the same number of books, and I’ve read most of them. I almost always enjoy them. One of the books I just read on my recent vacation was her latest book, That Summer, which was very enjoyable and I really loved as well, but yeah, Good in Bed, the character development is just so spot on there and surprising, but also so right and yeah, it’s a favorite of mine.
ANNE: Listeners, if you have not listened to our What Should I Read Next episode with Jen Weiner where she talks about her writing process and her inspiration and also about what she thinks makes a great summer read with recommendations, go back and get that in our back catalog.
MICHAEL: A big reason why I champion her books so specifically is, you know, I love that she is so unapologetic about writing for the beach read season, but I really think that the term “beach read,” which even I use it, can imply weightlessness or can imply fluff or can imply lack of substance, and I think that her books really do bring a good amount of substance in a way that is so well balanced with the elements of escapist fiction that she’s just nails so, so succinctly.
ANNE: And I’ll follow that up by saying for the thousandth time or at least like twelfth on this show [MICHAEL LAUGHS] cribbing from Wallace Stegner: Good writing makes for easy reading. Those books don’t go down easy just because they were dashed off in a hurry.
ANNE: It takes a lot of hard work.
MICHAEL: And skill. yeah.
ANNE: Alright, another change of pace and I’m liking it, Michael. What did you choose to complete your favorites list?
MICHAEL: Alright. The last book that I chose is a book that I’ve read in college, but …
MICHAEL: It’s a favorite of mine. It’s In Cold Blood by Truman Capote.
ANNE: I’ve never read this.
MICHAEL: You’ve never read In Cold Blood?!
MICHAEL: Oh my goodness!
ANNE: I feel like I have ’cause I’ve heard so much about it, but we all know that hearing about a book is not the same thing as reading the thing.
MICHAEL: Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
ANNE: Alright, tell me all about it.
MICHAEL: Wow. Where do you start? [ANNE LAUGHS] So I feel like, I feel like I’m cheating a little bit because we already talked a bit about the work that I do working on nonfiction books primarily in book publishing, but I’m not the biggest, I don’t really read that much nonfiction outside of my job. I’d say if I were to, you know, tally up the percentages, it maybe, the 10% of the books I read every year are nonfiction and the rest are absolutely fiction titles.
So I feel like I’m cheating a little bit because my favorite type of nonfiction is very narrative nonfiction. You know, nonfiction that reads like a novel and you know, I think that you can start fires of conversation in literary circles as to whether or not this holds a lot of weight, but you know, I know a lot of people claim In Cold Blood by Truman Capote as one of the first, if not the most definitive example of an early narrative nonfiction title, and it’s also interesting to me because it’s essentially a true crime story which are stories that I certainly don’t seek out in books, podcasts, documentaries, movies, I’m a bit squeamish.
But what I love about this book and what I love about nonfiction titles that have the powder to do this is they complete, you know, I read it for a college course. I wasn’t necessarily looking forward to reading it, and yet it completely recast my view of the criminal justice system and the role of empathy in our world. He brings so much attention to these two killers. You know, it looks into the community that surrounds them and the people who interact with them, and you know, he offers them an opportunity to have their humanity exposed, which you know, we can certainly get into conversations about well do they absolutely, do they deserve that? You know, and what about the crimes they’ve committed?
But there are certain scenes between, scenes of dialogue that just had me what it is that … How everyone has their own unique story and everyone has traumas from their past and everyone has … Just how far we’ve come in terms of behavioral science and I just love that, you know, a narrative nonfiction title can do that for you.
ANNE: That is In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. Now Michael, tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you.
MICHAEL: Ugh, I was so torn, but I’m going to say Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I chose this book specifically because I don’t read too much genre fiction, specifically in the genres of horror, thriller, gothic, science fiction. I don’t know. I think I read it a year ago or so ago, around the time it came out, and it was the fall and I wanted to read something that was a little creepy and I wanted something that was a little bit darker and I decided to give this book a shot. Similar to Atonement, it is very much what I call a house book [LAUGHS] in that it is very much a book that takes place in a very specific milieu, and the house that it is set in is very much [LAUGHS] a character in the book.
And I’d say the first third of it I was very enveloped by, but towards the end, and I know there are so many people who love it, and I think I even heard people on your show list this as one of their favorites which I love, but for me, it just, I ultimately wasn’t that satisfied by the conclusion. I felt as if the kind of complications that went behind the more genrey elements of the book were both overcomplicated and under-simplified at the same time. I thought that some of the characters were bit one note. It just ultimately wasn’t for me.
This was a book that I really did enjoy elements of but was let down by. I wanted to talk about that because that’s more interesting to me than a book that I outright just hated, or didn’t care for. Because that is the type of book I want to read more of, and I didn’t have a very satisfying experience with it.
ANNE: Okay, I’m thinking hard and taking notes as we move into what kinda books could be right for you. Michael, what have you been reading lately?
MICHAEL: One of the books I recently read was Wild Game, which is a memoir by Adrienne Brodeur. Such a great memoir. I love memoirs that tell stories that are so specific to the writer’s life, meaning they don’t necessarily follow a narrative arc that goes, you know, I was born on this day and here I am today and here are all the things that happened in between. This book is about the author’s experience being a teenage accomplice to her mother’s affair with a family friend.
You know, I think the author was … I don’t remember the exact age but she was a teenager when her mom burst into her room one night and said, you know, I’m having an affair with this family friend, don’t tell your stepdad, and don’t tell anyone else. And she becomes this confidant to her mother as her mother has this relationship, this illicit relationship, and how that really impacted and informed the author’s life as a woman, as a daughter, as a mother, as someone in a relationship, and she writes it several decades later after, you know, consequences have unfolded for herself and for her mother. It’s just written with such a literary style and there’s such an interesting element of self examination in it, and that’s just really what I look for when I read memoirs.
ANNE: I’ve heard great things about that. I haven’t read that yet myself.
MICHAEL: Ah. It’s so worthwhile and it’s not too long, so I love a book that is the right length. [BOTH LAUGH] Which is so hard especially, yeah.
ANNE: That’s a good way to put it. Not necessarily short or long, but the right length.
MICHAEL: I closed the covers feeling very satisfied.
ANNE: Michael, what are you looking for in your reading life right now? What would you like to be different?
MICHAEL: I would like to read more genre fiction. [WHISPERS] I, to be honest with you, I’ve never read science fiction which I’m so embarrassed to say as someone who reads for a living [LAUGHS] and you know considers himself a widely read reader.
ANNE: You don’t have to be embarrassed. [MICHAEL LAUGHS] I’m going to whisper it back to you.
MICHAEL: I guess I’ve always just been scared that it’s not going to work out so I’ve always … I’d love a recommendation in genre. You know, I’d like to do more nonfiction reading outside of work that doesn’t feel work related, so those are kinda the big changes that I’m looking to make because I do read so much contemporary, commercial, and literary fiction. You know, I especially read a lot of books that I think really kinda hit the sweet spot between commercial and literary fiction.
I’m thinking specifically books by, Anne Tyler’s a favorite author of mine. I read a lot of her books. I recently in the last year started reading Sue Miller’s novels which I had never read before, and I have fallen head over heels in love with her books, just how she really investigates interior space for her female characters. So those are the books that I’m really drawn to more often than not so anything that could kinda break me out of that mold and give me some exposure to genres outside of the norm for me. I’d be very grateful to receive them.
ANNE: Let’s do this.
MICHAEL: Yes, I’m excited.
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ANNE: Alright, here’s what we got, Michael. This is what we’re working with. You love Atonement by Ian McEwan, Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner, and In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. So those books represent your various genre interests. You got literary fiction, commercial fiction, and I like the plug you put in for like c’mon on guys, these are good books. [MICHAEL LAUGHS] And narrative nonfiction. Not for you Mexican Gothic by Silva Moreno-Garcia. You wanted to like it, but she describes this as gothic horror, a mashup of two genres that you’ve struggled with those genres in the past, so maybe you’re looking for the right book that’s a real possibility and you just haven’t found it yet.
MICHAEL: Exactly. That’s exactly correct.
ANNE: But it wasn’t shocking to you that that was not a good match.
MICHAEL: No, it wasn’t shocking. I just, I wanted to like it a lot more than I did, and I believe that the right book in that genre is out there for me somewhere. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I like to think that too. Lately you’ve enjoyed Wild Game, the memoir by Adrienne Brodeur, and also A Discovery of Witches, another step outside your usual reading circles, by Deborah Harkness. You know, I really love the image of it being, you know, ten, fifteen years ago back at work where everybody’s really pumped about this book but you [MICHAEL LAUGHS] and here you are in 2021. [LAUGHS]
MICHAEL: It’s been a long enough amount of time that I feel comfortable admitting it. So you know. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: And you read narrative nonfiction for work all the time, and so you’d like to find some that you could read just for fun that aren’t work books, but also that genre fiction. I get the impression those sections of the bookstore or your home library from all your secondhand finds just don’t feel as comfortable, that you don’t know your way around those as well.
MICHAEL: Exactly. Exactly. I always feel like I need a specific author, or a specific title to be my gateway into that. For instance, when I was working at the same publishing job where we published A Discovery of Witches, the publisher also publishes Tana French who writes what I think would be classified as mysteries, and I had never read her books. I’m not a mystery reader really, but I fell in love with her books while I was working there, and I will read anything that she writes because to me they read like really juicy literary / even commercial fiction that just happen to have a mystery bent.
So for instance like that to me is a great gateway into the mystery genre that I read similar authors because I fell so hard for her books, so yeah, the gothic horror genre, the science fiction genres, I just haven’t read anything in those areas of the bookstore that have kept me going down those aisles. [LAUGHS] If we’re going to use imagery.
ANNE: That’s really good to know that this happened in the past. You weren’t acquainted with mysteries, you found the author who was your way in, and now you know. Now you’re there.
ANNE: And that’s also interesting to know just in terms of themes of, you know, tone and pacing and the way she does the exploration of her characters, her detective’s lives in addition to just having the whodunit plot.
MICHAEL: Yes, exactly.
ANNE: Now I’m a little hesitant here because I feel like I’ve talked about this author a lot on this show, especially lately, but then again I feel like she deserves it, so have you read any Octavia Butler?
MICHAEL: Oh my goodness, so I’ve read only one Octavia Butler at a previous publishing job, I worked on a graphic novel adaptation of Kindred.
MICHAEL: I have not read any of her other books.
ANNE: Well, okay, you have read science fiction then.
MICHAEL: Ah! True!
ANNE: Now I believe Butler herself says that like the time travel in that book is not the point of the story, and Butler does not get into any detail, I mean, there’s zero detail about how she goes back. She says that that’s just a device for getting the character back to the past where she needs to go, but still, I think we can count that for you.
MICHAEL: Sure. Because I worked on that … I read that for work, I’m not thinking of that necessarily as one of my pleasure read titles, but yes. I like that you gave that spin on it for sure.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Well, I would have given Kindred as your way in as a wonderful starting point.
ANNE: Because it does have that time travel element that is crucial to the story, but it’s a very gentle introduction for those who really are drawn to realistic fiction, and you know, I’m thinking about this like you like so many books that deal with human nature on especially up close, personal, individual level, like we see in your favorites that you shared, and science fiction does the same thing but they do it in a more abstract sense…
ANNE: ‘Cause when you’re talking about space cowboys and aliens, you can ask the big question that you don’t do when you’re watching an individual make decisions that will either ruin or revive their life in the pages of say a literary novel. So I was just trying to find a gentle way in, but science fiction can ask those big questions in a really meaningful way. If you enjoy Kindred and you want to pivot, or just read more Octavia Butler, I would highly recommend, and the next place I would go is Earthseed. There’s two books in this series actually. It was a planned trilogy, I’m fascinated by this, but Parable of the Sower is the first book. I believe Butler herself calls this mundane science fiction because it just is gently outside the normal world. Actually Parable of the Sower reads a lot like The Road.
MICHAEL: Oh! I’ve read The Road.
ANNE: Did you enjoy The Road?
MICHAEL: I did!
ANNE: Parable of the Sower, Michael.
ANNE: Set on the west coast, not the east. There’s a gentle sci-fi element involving the protagonist Lauren, but it doesn’t feel very out there. It feels like normal human experience with the volume just turned up just a touch past …
ANNE: What we know to be the case in our, you know, realistic, non-sci-fi lives. She’s so good at what she does, and her writing is just very visceral. The plot on this really moves at a brisk pace. I think, especially for anyone who enjoyed The Road, Parable of the Sower.
MICHAEL: That sounds great, and a good friend of mine is a huge Octavia Butler fan, and I’d love to have more to talk to her about. [LAUGHS] So that sounds great.
ANNE: I also just have to put out there, I don’t believe I’m projecting on you my own recently revived inclination to revisit this book, but for like a classic of the sci-fi genre, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would be such a wonderful introduction. I mean, Michael, this is a book that is the right length. Less than 200 pages, it goes so fast. This thing has like one and a half million ratings on Goodreads. I didn’t know that was even possible. It’s so unexpected and zany that readers end up laughing out just like, where did he come up with that? How did he think that? And you mention that something that you really appreciate about Ian McEwan is the fact that he has this deep rooting in the literary tradition and you can just see that in his writing that he’s part of the conversation.
ANNE: I imagine reading The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy you will encounter references that you’ve come across in your daily life, or in the books you’ve read, and you just had no clue what the point of reference was because you’ve never experienced the book and you don’t know anything about it, but I think that’s something you’ll discover, and I think you’re really going to enjoy that.
MICHAEL: Oh, I mean, I certainly know the title but I’ve never picked it up so I appreciate the extra love for it.
ANNE: That’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams. This is part of I believe a quintet. This feels like a safe place to begin.
ANNE: Oh, I just called Douglas Adams safe, but what I mean by that is you’ve never read in this genre, you’ve never read much in this genre. You’re curious. This is a good place to take a bit and see what you think.
MICHAEL: Okay. Thank you.
ANNE: Alright, I kinda feel like we’re going back to safety for you.
MICHAEL: I think that’s okay. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Okay. So you said you were interested in reading narrative nonfiction, and the thing is, there’s so many different directions to go in, so where do you go?
MICHAEL: I know.
ANNE: And how do you … But you’re in Colorado now.
ANNE: And I especially like this after you mentioned In Cold Blood, the book I’m thinking of is about a Denver neighborhood. It just came out last year. It’s by Julian Rubinstein. It’s called The Holly: Five bullets, One Gun, and The Struggle to Save An American Neighborhood.
MICHAEL: The Holly?
ANNE: Do you know this?
ANNE: This is by the author of a book that I talked about so much in the early episodes of What Should I Read Next that I had to put it on my Anne, you’ve got to give it a rest for a little bit list and that is [MICHAEL LAUGHS] longtime listeners, this may sound familiar, it’s Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvania Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts, which I’ve recommended a lot as one of those books that you didn’t know you wanted to read. Truth is stranger than fiction, real life, you couldn’t make this stuff up… [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It would never occur to you stories that is just a wild headshaking ride. That’s a really zany story. This one is not. Oh, longtime listeners may also remember the caveat I’ve given of this book so often, which is the cover’s really ugly, don’t let that stop you.
MICHAEL: [LAUGHS] Okay.
ANNE: But today we’re talking about his newer one that just came out this year. Uh, he is a journalist by trade, and this is another longarching story, but the tone is very different from Whiskey Robber for those who are familiar with that one. I mean, that one read almost as a screwball comedy and this one is very different, but I wouldn’t call it a true crime story, but he is investigating a crime and its origins.
Michael, I was really intrigued by the way you described In Cold Blood and how it made you think about big picture elements of our society and not just the individual crime, and that is definitely what Rubinstein is shooting for in this book. The thing that pulled him into this investigation about The Holly, a neighborhood in Denver that takes its name I believe from a shopping center with that name, has been involved in violence in the past going back to at least the ’60s and maybe even prior to that, but in 2013 a community activist who was adamantly opposed to gang violence and that was a big part of his message, that he was wanting to spread and share with the community, shot someone at his own peace rally.
MICHAEL: Oh my goodness.
ANNE: The inciting question here was what happened? How did that happen and why? And surely that story began far prior to 2013, so Rubinstein does in this book is answer the question. He has lived in New York for a long time, but he moved back to the Denver area to tell this story and really wanted to take the history of this specific shooting, but also how did everyone involved and the community itself come to that point? Going back to the Civil Rights movement, and a little bit further because it’s interesting how much of his story about what happened in this Denver neighborhood goes back to California for reasons of why were people moving to Denver, what were they seeking, what were they fleeing. Gang violence is hugely important to this story.
But he kinda peels back the curtain to show you what the issues are at play that some of which are very obvious, like obviously we’re talking about violence and gentrification and what makes community safe and what makes them welcoming and what do they mean to the people who are there. He also examines things like how well intentioned community and government efforts to curb things like violence can go horribly wrong, and something else that he also really investigates is he embeds himself to write this book, but he also kinda examines the ethics of how these stories are told, how criminals often are asked to testify against each other, how that helps them and hurts others, just what a mess the whole thing is really.
The publisher describes this as a multigenerational saga of race and politics that runs from the Civil Rights movement to Black Lives Matter, and I hope that gives you an idea of the sweep and scope of this nonfiction book.
MICHAEL: Yeah, definitely does, and it sounds awesome.
ANNE: That was The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and The Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood by Julian Rubinstein. Okay, Michael, of the books we talked about today, we talked about Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower would be an excellent place to start, we talked about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, and The Holly by Julian Rubinstein. Of those titles, what do you think you’ll read next?
MICHAEL: Well, they all sound great, and I’m super excited to dive into all three of them. I think I’m going to go with The Holly first. I think that’ll be a nice shake up to what I’ve been reading currently, and hopefully will help me feel poised to then go even further afield with the other titles.
ANNE: Alright, Michael, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
MICHAEL: Thanks for this. It was a real joy.
ANNE: Michael, it’s Anne again, and I have another book for you. Right after we hung up, I saw the words Richard Powers on my rodeo reverse book that I always use to jot notes on to record and thought, oh my goodness, I failed to recommend what I think might be the perfect book to you. Now I like the recommendations I already gave you, and the one that’s coming next, but I have to tell you about this literary novel with sci-fi elements. Here’s why I think it’s perfect.
Now it is by Richard Powers. The book is called Bewilderment. It’s not out yet, but it will be real soon on September 21st, and the early reviews are noting how unusual it is in that it’s a literary novel that does have science fiction elements, which isn’t unheard of, but it’s not the norm, which is what makes it worthy of comment here, and I’m sure you’re familiar with The Overstory, even if you haven’t read it, it’s his Pulitzer winner. Big sprawling novel follows lots of characters, 500+ pages. We’ve talked about it here on the show and in contrast, Powers calls this his pandemic book. It’s small. It’s taught. He’s turning inward.
This is the story of two people, a father and son duo, Theo and Robin, although the recently deceased wife and mother, died two years before in an accident, is very much a presence in this story even if she’s not on the page the way that this father and son are. But ugh, Robbie has problems and behavioral issues, origin unknown. The doctors can’t nail down what’s going on. They just want to prescribe meds and Theo doesn’t want to go there, but Robbie’s behavioral issues are definitely messing with his life. Well, his career let’s say as an astrobiologist, and it’s through that door to Theo’s profession that lets powers introduce these sci-fi elements into the story.
But first, in his job, Theo is seeking life in outer space basically with this massive telescope that he always needs funding for, all those things happen in this story, but in his bedtime stories that he tells his son, they visit a series of planets in ways that is so immersive and realistic that it’s like virtual reality. And the second way is through this psychological experiment that Robbie and Theo volunteer for Robbie, the son, to become a subject in, and basically what he does is he enters in … My layman’s term is going to be empathy machine where he can sync up with the recorded brain waves of his deceased mother to feel what she felt when she was alive. And ugh, this does wonders for Robbie’s behavior and really is the source of many mind games and mental anguish for Theo really.
This book is set in a near future Earth, but it’s not quite Earth either. It’s definitely ecological fiction in the same way The Overstory was and it’s political, like right now, I can see that it’s trending as a hot political novel coming out in September. It’d be easy to go heavy handed with subject matter like this. I know I’ve said on the show, I’m allergic to heavy handedness. I think Powers mostly avoids it, but definitely not all the time, and we talked a lot about the ending for Atonement and how it made me angry once, but how I have more compassion for how that decision could have been arrived at by the author, and for the narrator now.
I didn’t read the author’s note from Powers before diving in. I would have had very different expectations about the book had I because he’s tracking with his story, the rough narrative of a classic tale. That’s all I’m going to say about that. Readers, you can decide if you want to go there or not before you pick this up, but it definitely would have changed my expectations. I was not terribly happy with the way it unfolded. You can read it and we’ll talk about it, but, Michael, I popped back in with the recommendation of Bewilderment by Richard Powers. Does that change anything for you?
MICHAEL: Thank you so much, Anne, for this additional recommendation. I am just so thrilled to get it. I have never read Richard Powers. A good friend of mine read The Overstory recently and she recommended it, so that’s been on my radar for a while, and I had heard of Bewilderment, kinda in the trades, and I did make note that it was a bit leaner, and at least from a length or page comp perspective, smaller book.
It sounds right up my alley, specifically because I really like father son stories. I like the idea of exploring a world that looks really close to the one I inhabit, especially one that’s been so turned up so down like our world has been over the last couple of years, science fiction is not necessarily my fortay in terms of my reading life, but this sounds like another really welcome point of entry in addition to the other two titles you mentioned, so now I’m a little bit confused because I don’t know which one to read next. I think I might go with Richard Powers since it’s coming out so soon and I just, I’m feeling some eager anticipation now. So we’ll see. Thank you so, so, so much. This has just been such a joy, this entire process, this entire journey, and I can’t wait to hear the final episode and I can’t wait to read the books, especially.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Michael (plus the little bit extra I couldn’t help but add), and I’d love to hear what YOU think he should read next. You can connect further with Michael on Instagram @clarkbar681 to follow along with what he reads next, and see the full list of titles I recommended in our show notes. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/299—and do you know what that means? Next week is our 300th episode!
We have so many fun things in store to celebrate, including a fun episode next week looking back with a very special guest. Then in two weeks we’re having a live event for members of our patreon community with some of our most recommended authors. Be sure you’re subscribed so you can catch our special 300th, and check out our patreon community at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext to learn more about that live event and how you can join in our celebration!
Follow us on instagram @whatshouldireadnext and I’m there @annebogel. That’s Anne with an e, b as in books, O-G-E-L. Our newsletter subscribers are the first to know all the What Should I Read Next news and happenings; if you’re not on the list visit whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/newsletter to sign up for that free weekly delivery.
My book journal My Reading Life comes out on September 21 so order your copy now! You’ll be glad you did, and support the show while you’re at it. Get your copy wherever you buy your books.
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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•The Meaning of Mariah Carey by Mariah Carey
•The Diana Chronicles by Tina Brown
• Atonement by Ian McEwan
• Good in Bed by Jennifer Weiner
•That Summer by Jennifer Weiner
• In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
•△ Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
•Wild Game by Adrienne Brodeur
•Anne Tyler (try The Accidental Tourist)
•Sue Miller (try Monogamy)
•Tana French (try Dublin Murder Squad #1: In The Woods)
•Kindred by Octavia E. Butler (Graphic Novel)
•Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler (Earthseed #1)
•The Road by Cormac McCarthy
•The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams
•The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood by Julian Rubinstein
•Ballad of the Whiskey Robber: A True Story of Bank Heists, Ice Hockey, Transylvanian Pelt Smuggling, Moonlighting Detectives, and Broken Hearts by Julian Rubinstein
•Bewilderment by Richard Powers
•The Overstory by Richard Powers
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