Readers, our weekly show helps one guest discover what book they should read next, but sometimes a guest has a bigger project in mind when they come to me for reading suggestions. Today’s guest is inspired by a specific project and is facing a literary dilemma for her upcoming year, and I’m here to help her decide what books might offer some solutions.
Jessica Harrill is an attorney and a lifelong reader, but recently she’s been so focused on non-fiction and work-related reading, she’s lost a bit of the joy of picking up a book for pure pleasure, and she’s not quite sure what she even likes to read anymore. So, Jessica decided to celebrate her 32nd birthday by reading 32 books, and she’s hoping her selections for this project will rekindle her love of getting lost in a good book.
Jessica and I chat about three categories of reading she’d love to address while selecting her 32 books, from some supportive reads that might offer guidance for her current stage of life, to big, bold stories that will captivate her imagination. I offer Jessica suggestions that pivot off her established favorites, while adding something new to her reading diet and, I hope, reigniting her love of reading in the process.
JESSICA: It was just like one more chapter, then I’d finish it. Just one more chapter. So… [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 309.
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.
Tis the season to start feeling festive, and we’ve collected some of our top tips across the years in our Modern Mrs Darcy Christmas Collection! From ready access to our holiday gift guides (on the podcast and on the page) to our favorite recipe for spiced nuts (trust me, it’s delicious), you’ll find plenty of cheer here.
Check out the Christmas Collection at modernmrsdarcy.com/christmas-collection-page, and leave us your comments and suggestions there.
How do you deal with challenging relatives around the holidays? What stocking stuffers have stood the test of time in your house? What are your family’s holiday traditions? We’ll be adding fresh new content to our Christmas Collection as we approach the end of the year, so bookmark this page for some extra merry-making this season.
Readers, we all select our next read for different reasons—mood, library holds list serendipity, or season of year are just a few examples—and while this show is aimed at helping you discover what to read next, it’s also inspired and aided many readers as they organize specific, longer-form projects—and today we’re going to help shape just such a project.
Today’s guest, Jessica Harrill, decided to celebrate her 32nd birthday by reading 32 books—but she’s not reading just anything that crosses her path. Jessica’s an attorney, so reading is a big part of her job, but lately she’s been feeling disconnected from her childhood love of sinking deeply into a story—and she’s looking for ways to rekindle the flame. When it comes to her year of birthday books, she’s looking for selections that tell big stories with larger than life characters and that grapple with substantive themes and topics.
What’s more, she’s looking for books that speak to three different categories of reading—and I’m here to help her narrow down her selections, offering suggestions that pivot off her established favorites and help her revisit what she’s loved in the past, and also lend some freshness to her reading life. Most of all, I’d like to help Jessica reignite her love of reading in this 32nd year—and provide you with inspiring suggestions and helpful food for thought along the way for your own reading life.
Let’s get to it.
Jessica, welcome to the show.
JESSICA: Super excited.
ANNE: Okay, Jessica, you know the origin story of every What Should I Read Next episode looks a little bit different. Most of our episodes start in our submission inbox guest from forms that our readers fill out at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest and I don’t want to make anybody jealous today but, Jessica, that is not how yours began. Jessica is a member of the Modern Mrs Darcy book club and I happened to notice her post in our forums that said … I’m going to read it to you. Is this going to embarrass you?
JESSICA: No, it’s fine.
ANNE: It says, hi everyone, I need book recommendations. My birthday is in a couple of weeks and I’m going to be 32. Always wanted to do my own little challenge when I turn 30 or 21 or some milestone birthday like that, but I just don’t plan until it’s too late. Jessica, time out to say you are singing my song. I absolutely relate to that. [JESSICA LAUGHS] Maybe that’s one of the reasons this jumped out at me, but okay, carrying on in your voice. But now I thought, why do I have to wait for a milestone birthday? I can do it now. I thought I’d pre-order Anne’s book journal and it chronicles a year in books with the year starting on my birthday instead of the calendar year. Can you guys help me figure out what some must-read books are? Books someone should read in their 30s, classics it’s about time I read, maybe some self-help to get through an early mid-life crisis caused by Covid … [LAUGHS] I’m thinking 32 books for 32 years old. Jessica, do you want to tell us anything about like the frame of mind you’re in as you conceive of this … Do we call it a challenge?
JESSICA: I’ve always kinda thought about that. You always see those lists online about like here are 20 books you should read in your 20s and things like that. Lately I’ve just been reading a lot of … They’re good books and I don’t want to kinda lump everything in to like oh, I’ve just been reading chick lit or beach reads or anything like that because some do have a lot of substance that I’m looking for now, but I’ve just been lately reading a lot of books that are just good on the surface and I was an English major, an undergrad, and loved being able to dig into books and I miss doing that and I miss books that just sit with you for a while. So I was kinda thinking this would be a good time to jump back into that and get back into reading books that I love and reminding myself that I do love to read ‘cause I’ve been missing that.
ANNE: I was reading this suggestion for a challenge and your request to figure out your must read books and one, I just love the idea, I thought that was so fun. 32 books for 32 years. Thinking about your reading life and what you want from it. I don’t know about you, but I tend to get a little reflective around birthday times and since I was young I like to start my year in the way I mean to go on, or the way I wish to go on, so the idea of cultivating a little reading list, it can be really important.
I don’t want to like overblow the significance here because I’m sure that many listeners are like ooh, there’s a dark side to what you’re saying, Anne, like [JESSICA LAUGHS] talk about high pressure, but also something that I really noticed in your request was my own reaction. You were saying like what are the must reads and I wanted to be like, Jessica, it depends! [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It depends, depends, it depends, like let’s – let’s talk about it, and I started writing out a comment to you. I thought oh no, maybe – maybe we could have this as a conversation instead, and I know that readers, like not everyone is going to be on the show for their birthday, but I hope in listening to this conversation that you and I are going to have today, Jessica, I hope it can help everyone reflect on how to think purposefully about what books they want to invite into their reading life, whether they’re thinking about the year to come or you know, what they want to get from the library or the bookstore tomorrow.
JESSICA: Thank you so much. I have been listening to you since like episode 20 and I’ve always wanted to apply but there’s like no way I’m ever going to get picked.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Okay, I’m going to say what I always say. Readers, we love to see books that we haven’t discussed on the show before, or books that you know I love that you say oh that was all wrong for me, I am always here for that conversation. Or the other way around and timing is everything we welcome your first or 17th submission on the show. Jessica, tell me a little bit about what you do and where you are in the world.
JESSICA: Well I live in Illinois in a suburb of Chicago right near a university, Northern Illinois University. I went to law school there so I practice law. I’m an attorney with a private practice up there. I ended up with a lot of friends from law school and people that I’ve met through work and I consider my family, so I never want to leave this area anymore. My friends and I’ve decided both to do a golf league. We decided to take lessons because as attorneys we’re always asked to do golf outings and the partners in my office, every Friday, go golfing. So we’re like why can’t we?! [BOTH LAUGH]
So we started to take golf lessons and I love it. My boyfriend actually bought me a putting green and new golf club covers, head covers for my birthday. So apparently I’m obsessed enough with golfing that I’m getting those things as gifts, which I love and that’s what we did on my birthday was go golfing.
ANNE: Oh, that’s great.
JESSICA: One of my other friends that golfs me, we’re also in a bowling league together and she actually got me a new bowling ball for my birthday. [LAUGHS] So yeah, we’re in a bowling league that every Thursday we go and hang out with a bunch of friends and it’s noncompetitive because it’s a wine league, so every week the foursome of your team gets a couple bottles of wine included with the payment of being in the league and we just hang out and we have a great time and we’ve met a lot of great people through it too, so I really love it.
ANNE: A friend was just telling me that bowling is seeing a resurgence in popularity and she was telling me this because her son had asked for a bowling ball for his birthday actually because he was on the bowling team at school and I was like the – the what? [JESSICA LAUGHS] Apparently, it’s coming back. Tell me about being a huge country music person as you described yourself.
JESSICA: Oh, I grew up in the south. I was born in Georgia, so I mean, it’s very predominant down there, especially when I was growing up, that’s what my parents listened to. So when we moved to Illinois, I had never heard any of these pop singers before, like I didn’t know who Britney Spears was or NSYNC or the Backstreet Boys and that’s what like my friends were growing up with.
ANNE: Wow, Jessica.
JESSICA: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Country music’s still all I listen to and I’d always wanted to go to Nashville. It was always a dream of mine and the weekend after the end of my first year of law school, my mom and I went down for a weekend and I loved it. We’ve been back almost every year since. I go with her to see the Country Music Association Festival every summer. I think we’re up to before Covid, it cancelled the last couple, we’d gone to five of them. So we’re planning on going this year, this coming year, if it happens. But I’ve gone to Nashville for at least a long weekend once a year for about the last six, seven years.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so fun. Okay, fingers crossed for this next year. We have a ton of Nashville listeners to the show who I bet are just bursting with suggestions right now as they’re [BOTH LAUGH] on their commute listening to you talk about your love for Nashville. Favorite thing in Nashville you can’t wait to do once you get back there?
JESSICA: I go to Parnassus the bookstore every time I go. I dragged my boyfriend there earlier this year when he took me for Valentine’s Day. I just love being downtown, walk in to any bar and there’s music. Live music is just … That’s like … That’s what heals my soul, so the last year and a half have been a little difficult for me because I’ve not been able to go to any concerts. Any bar down on Broadway that has some live music, that’s where I want to be.
ANNE: Alright. I hope you can make up for it in spades in your 32nd year.
JESSICA: I hope so.
ANNE: Now, Jessica, tell me about your reading life.
JESSICA: My brother taught me how to read when I was like four.
JESSICA: He’s two years older than me.
ANNE: Oh, that’s precious. I’m just picturing you all on the couch with a book [BOTH LAUGH] open between you.
JESSICA: Yeah, he taught me how to read. He taught me how to do math and he taught me how to write in cursive, like before I was even in kindergarten, so I’ve always said I kinda owe a little bit of gratitude for him for shaping my life a little bit. I used to read anything I could get my hands on. I would read even adult books when I was like eight, nine years old.
When I was in fifth grade for Christmas my favorite uncle gave me a stack of Nancy Drew books and I’d never read Nancy Drew before, but I loved mysteries which is why he gave them to me. And I read them and I loved them. I now have about ten boxes in our basement here of nothing but Nancy Drew and Hardy Boy books because I have no place to put them right now. [BOTH LAUGH]
So I just started collecting them and over the summer I would sit and read like three of them a day and my dad was finally like okay, you can read those, that’s fine, but we need to challenge you a little bit. For every one of those you read, I get to pick one of the next books you read. So he would pick adult mysteries. He would pick biographies of people that I liked and things like that, and that kinda expanded me into other things.
ANNE: Do you remember some of the books he chose for you?
JESSICA: A biography on Lucille Ball because I loved Lucy when I was a kid. [LAUGHS]
JESSICA: He used to give me some books. I don’t remember the names of them anymore, but he would give me some books about baseball because I am a big baseball fan. Who is it … Rita Mae Brown? She’s got, like, I think like talking animals or something in her books.
ANNE: Uh huh.
JESSICA: So he thought that would be a nice transition for me. When we were growing up we had to save our money for video games and toys and things like that. I don’t think my parents ever said no if I asked them for a book, and I don’t think I ever had to save money to buy a book. They would just get us books if we were at a bookstore. I used to get limited on how many books I could buy, but they always knew that I was going to get a book when we went to the bookstore.
ANNE: Tell me about your reading life these days. What do you like about your reading life right now, and also what are some of its challenges?
JESSICA: Oh, what I like is I’m kinda interested in a lot of nonfiction right now so I feel like I’ve been learning a lot, but one of the challenges, a big challenge I have right now, is my work is so heavy with reading and research just because I’m doing research for clients and I am doing a lot of reading of articles and laws have changed recently because our environments have changed, so I’m doing a lot of research on how those laws are changing, especially right now because new laws go back into effect January 1st of every year, so there’s some new ones coming that we’re trying to get prepared for
so I’m doing a lot of dry reading.
So I’m kinda just gravitating towards books that are just easy to read, like just easy romances when that’s not usually my genre, but I want to read and I’ve been in the mood for something light. I went to undergrad at Iowa City, and I went back there for the book festival this last weekend actually and it helped me renew that like love for deep reading because I was listening to all these people that were talking about reading and writing and it kinda reminded me of what I have been doing for the last few years leading up until the last year or so because I used to love just reading classics on my own and reading those books that just like sit with you that you can just dig in and a week later, you’re still thinking about it. It kinda makes me want to get that pile of books.
ANNE: Iowa has a lot of literary connections.
JESSICA: Oh, it does. That’s one of the reasons I went there for undergrad.
ANNE: Oh, really?
JESSICA: The original writer of the Nancy Drew books ’cause Carolyn Keene’s a pseudonym. The original writer is Mildred Wirt Benson and she was I believe the first woman to graduate with a master’s in journalism from Iowa. I read that in a biography and I was like wait a minute. I want to go to Iowa now. And my brother was already there, so I already kinda like had an in. I knew about the place.They have one of the best writing programs in the country, like Kurt Vonnegut and Marilynne Robinson and James Smiley have all got connections to the University of Iowa. Their bookstore Prairie Lights is … It’s amazing and some of the readings that I’ve gone to there have been incredible. They have all kinds of authors and their program is amazing.
ANNE: So, Jessica. Going back to your 32nd birthday challenge, you want to know what you should be reading and it sounds like one of the reasons that can be hard to really put a finger on is because you do like so many different things, and it also sounds, I mean, would you describe yourself as a mood reader?
ANNE: But a little more structure here for the coming year could be good for you.
JESSICA: I think so. I’m looking to better myself a little bit this year, like I said in that post that you’ve read. Self-help books I feel like almost I’m going through a midlife crisis because I don’t know what I like anymore right now, so I feel a little bit jumbled and I want to get back to things I love like the books but I also really do appreciate the nonfiction. I’ve got this new love for nonfiction that I’ve gotten recently that I would like to explore a little bit more.
ANNE: So it sounds like you have grown and you have discovered some new interests as we are supposed to do as we get to do if we are lucky, and yet it seems like the old way thinking of yourself as a reader, you know, like knowing instantly what you liked beyond Nancy Drew of course, we know how you feel about Nancy Drew, that they don’t really fit anymore. Is that accurate?
ANNE: So what are we going to do about it, Jessica?
JESSICA: I almost want to get back into some of the things that I liked to see if I still like them, but I’m also open to trying new things and continuing to explore some of the things that I didn’t like when I was younger but maybe I do like now.
ANNE: I’m wondering, I mean, I really hear what you’re saying about wanting to read books that will really stay with you, that aren’t just like entertaining in the moment, but ones that your thoughts will keep getting tugged back to days, weeks, years after you read them. I’m wondering a little bit if wanting to read things like classics it’s about time you’ve read, have any element of like a retreating to the safety of the tried and true.
JESSICA: I think that’s part of what it is, yeah.
ANNE: Jessica, I’m really excited that you have lots of room to explore here, and if I remember correctly you’re not only reading 32 books this year. So you’ll have room to read whatever you want. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing, as well as these 32 books for 32 years.
JESSICA: Yeah, I definitely do read more than 32 a year but I didn’t want to restrict myself because until your fall book preview I had no idea Kimmery Martin was coming out with another book. [LAUGHS] So I’m like well I need to read that this year. I don’t know if it fits into what I’m trying to do, so I have the ability to read that now because I do have a little bit of wiggle room of reading books that aren’t on this plan.
ANNE: Okay. So what I’m hearing is you don’t actually know the answer to my next question, which is fun. Which was going to be what counts? How do you decide what counts for the challenge?
JESSICA: I want some mix in there. I want to try books that I haven’t read before. I don’t want to … I mean, it’s a goal of mine eventually to read all of John Grisham’s books, [DOG BARKS IN BACKGROUND] but I don’t want that to be my challenge, to just read all of his books ’cause [DOG BARKS IN BACKGROUND] I can fly through those relatively quickly. I want books that … I mean, have substance to them. I want some classics. I would love to have some nonfiction because that’s something new that I’ve discovered that I do enjoy reading that I didn’t really know about beforehand. I would like to try new genres. I’m just looking for good books that I might have missed.
ANNE: Well you do have three little subcategories, at least in your post that we’re working from, so those are books that someone should read in their 30s, classics it’s about time you’ve read, and self-help to get through an early midlife crisis caused by Covid. You could do a neat little 12, 10 and 10 or you could just see how the chips fall, but I’m thinking something like Kimmery’s new book Doctors and Friends. Y’all, if you need a pandemic book to read to get you through your pandemic, it’s out November 9th. [DOG BARKS IN BACKGROUND] Do you hear me trying to help offer you a structure to impose on the challenge? That could be one of your freebies.
JESSICA: Yeah. I like that idea of 12, 10, and 10.
ANNE: But if you’re going to read The Stand, which for me would be a book I’ve been meaning to read forever, that might slide into my challenge if I were doing this.
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ANNE: You know what we’re going to do next. We’re going to dig into your reading life by you sharing three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately, so we can talk about what titles to thoughtfully consider for your 32nd year challenge. How did you choose these today?
JESSICA: I chose all three of these books before I was 20.
ANNE: Oh, nice.
JESSICA: And they’re books that I still call my favorites. They’re books that I still tell everybody this is … This is a book that I love. I’ve gone back and reread all three of them a couple of times, too.
ANNE: Okay, I can’t wait to hear. What are we going to start with?
JESSICA: Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell.
ANNE: Alright. Tell me about it. How old were you when you read this book?
JESSICA: I was 18, 19.
ANNE: And how did you end up picking it up?
JESSICA: I knew about it. It’s always been in my house, a copy of the book because my mom loved the movie and used to watch it all the time and I had never seen the movie all the way through until this last year when I got to see it in the theater, which was amazing. But I was just kinda like that would be nice to read so I just bought this like those big, chunky mass market paperbacks because sometimes you just need like a big book to sink into. I started it right before winter break at school and I would stay up til 5 AM reading it. [DOG BARKING IN BACKGROUND] It was just like one more chapter, then I’d finish it. Just one more chapter. So …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So not just in the middle of the night, but literally you read until morning.
JESSICA: I would be reading when my dad would get up for work that morning, and that happened multiple nights in a row. So that was the first book that I was like I stayed up all night reading.
ANNE: So this is a big, sweeping epic that you can really sink into, a story you’re already familiar with if your mom watched the movie a lot.
ANNE: Okay, so it’s got big, larger than life characters, Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell. Tell me about another book you love.
JESSICA: A Time to Kill by John Grisham.
ANNE: Oh, the law. You fit the legal thriller. I like it. Oh, and you read this before you would’ve decided to pursue that … Or actively begun to pursue that path.
JESSICA: I read this when I was 16 or 17. I wrote a paper on him in my junior year of high school and on this book comparing it To Kill A Mockingbird. To Kill a Mockingbird’s also one of my favorite books, and there are a lot of similarities in the trials and the racial conflicts involved in both of them. So I did find it really interesting to see the influence of To Kill a Mockingbird in A Time to Kill.
ANNE: So this is a book that has been with you for a long time. I’m partial to The Pelican Brief myself, but I haven’t read nearly all of them.
JESSICA: His legal thrillers come out every October, so that’s my birthday present for my brother every year [ANNE LAUGHS] is the new John Grisham. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: No wonder you have them all.
JESSICA: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That is A Time to Kill by John Grisham. And Jessica, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?
JESSICA: I chose a Nancy Drew book, The Clue in the Diary.
ANNE: Oh. How did you decide on which one?
JESSICA: This book I just … I don’t know why. I was … When I read it, it was just one of my favorites. It’s kinda like, it’s book number 7. It’s when her boyfriend Ned Nickerson’s introduced in that book, and her friends Bess and George were introduced a few books prior, but it just feels like this is the book where the series and the characters get settled. This is the one where it was like okay, this is who these characters are going to be. And this is how their relationships are going to work. This is how we’re going to formulate the rest of the series. ‘Cause you can kinda tell in like Secret of the Old Clock and The Hidden Staircase that they’re still trying to figure out who the characters are and how to create a series out of them, but then book 7, it just … It feels comfortable and it feels familiar to me and it just feels like okay, this is where it actually begins and where they got the momentum for the rest of the series.
I wrote my personal interest statement to get into law school on Nancy Drew.
ANNE: What did you say?
JESSICA: She’s the reason I want to be a lawyer. I read them when I was little and was like this is what I want to do, I want to help people and I want to solve mysteries and then when I got older I realized you can’t really be an amateur detective and be safe. [LAUGHS] And so being a lawyer was the next best thing and then from there I started watching Law & Order and reading John Grisham, and so I wanted to be Nancy Drew when I was a kid and it kinda turned into well how can I do that in real life? And that got me to where I am.
ANNE: That’s so interesting. Also interesting is the vast number of writers, not just like John Grisham who’s writing legal thrillers, but the vast number of novelists and authors who are either current or past attorneys, the theory being [LAUGHS] you gotta write and you gotta know how to create an argument with no holes in it if you’re going to be an attorney and those are two skills that transfer really nicely to putting together books.
JESSICA: I mean, when I was talking about wanting to go to law school we went to … For undergrad and we were talking to an advisor, it’s like what degree should I get to go to law school? And they’re like, you first started talking about English, that’s what they want. People don’t realize that they want those people because they can read and comprehend and write really well. They learn the basics of that there and then you can turn that into legal writing pretty easily. So yeah, it makes a lot of sense.
ANNE: And were you an English major?
JESSICA: I was.
ANNE: Okay, so all those novels were good for your career.
JESSICA: They were. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Now we get to talk about a book that wasn’t right for you. What did you choose here?
JESSICA: I put down A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin.
ANNE: I’ve not read it. I know that it’s huge and that people are passionate.
JESSICA: I do like big books. I like … With Gone of the Wind, I just love sinking into a big book. My brother is not as big of a reader as I am, but he reads a lot of science fiction and when he gets into something and when he gets into an author, he gets into it big. I noticed that he had like multiple books from this series, so I was like I need to try this. If my brother is willing to read this, maybe I’m missing something here. And I just could not get into it. I’m just thinking this couldn’t happen in real life. This makes no sense. [LAUGHS] I had to DNF it.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So on your submission you described yourself as such a realist.
ANNE: Okay. That is good to know. That was A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, not right for you. Jessica, what have you been reading lately?
JESSICA: Right now I have … I try generally right now to have a nonfiction book and a fiction book going at the same time, and then if I have an audiobook going, if I have some drives coming up, I kinda try to do something a little different then the fiction book that I’m reading or something like that, but right now I’m reading Anna Karenina for my project.
ANNE: I was going to say. That sounds like one of your 32.
JESSICA: Yes. It’s one of my 32. That was one thing that I remembered missing in undergrad with all my English classes. I didn’t read Russian, and so it’s like you read about Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment and those kinds of books and I was like I’ve never tried it, so maybe I should try it. And I’m loving it. I will sit forever on the couch and just … I’ll read it all night. It’s really good.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] But not til 5 in the morning now that you are 32.
JESSICA: Yeah, no. [BOTH LAUGH] I have to get up now and go to work. [LAUGHS] So yeah, I’m … Yeah, I’m loving it. It’s just … I like those plots obviously, that kinda expand across multiple characters and have those multiple storylines and it’s very well written and the translation I have is that newest one like it’s the gray shades and the purple. I don’t remember who the translator is. It’s translated so well and it’s just so easy to read and I think I always thought like between how long ago it was written and between the translation something would get like lost in the translation and it would be a difficult read, but it’s not at all.
ANNE: I’m so glad it’s working for you.
ANNE: Especially early in your challenge, like I want you to have some wins early on here.
JESSICA: It’s getting me really excited for my challenge ’cause I’m like oh, this is … This is what I needed right now. It makes me excited to see what I’m going to try next.
ANNE: Oh, that’s such a great place to be.
ANNE: As a reader. Especially at the beginning of a project like this.
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ANNE: Okay, Jessica. We’re going to recap. You love Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, although the backstory on her parents not working for you so much, so you like stories that carry you along, that have movement to them. A Time to Kill by John Grisham that you read when you were 16 or 17 and wrote a paper on. And then The Clue in the Diary by Carolyn Keene, the one where the series really started to jell. Not for you A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, and lately you’ve been reading Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.
And what you’re looking for right now, tell me how this sounds. So you want books that have substance that you can incorporate as part of your 32 books for your 32nd year challenge, or I imagine that you’re excited about that would just slide in nicely with those books, that would feel good in your readerly rotation this year. You say that you’ve been gravitating lately toward beach reads and easy reads, and there is nothing wrong with easy reads or the books that are often marketed as beach reads during the summer time. But you also want books that stay with you for a long time, classics you may have missed, good literary books you’ve overlooked by going for the easy things is how you put it, and a little more nonfiction would not be terrible.
JESSICA: I think you covered it.
ANNE: Okay. So I’m thinking about the books you really like and all the directions you have to go in because we’re not just picking your next three books, I mean [LAUGHS] you didn’t make us any promises about reading these next, but we’re not just seeking to find three books for your future but also helping you think about the kinds of books you’re going to read in the upcoming year and even beyond that. And what I really want to do I think is take these books that we know you love and just pivot off of them gently and also get you thinking about the different directions you could go based on what you know you love. We’re going to end up with more than three books, is that okay?
JESSICA: Oh, yeah. Perfect. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Okay. We’re going to start with Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, a book that many have great affection for, you know, love the movie, love the characters. It’s larger than life kinda book. Also I know you described yourself as such a realist. I mean, Mitchell sells you on the story, but this book has come under more and more criticism in more recent years, although this criticism is not new, for being a well-done work of historical revisionism and not an accurate portrayal of that period of southern history.
Even back in like oh it’s like 1975, actually this might be fun to look up. Jamaica Kincaid wrote this essay in I think it’s the Village Voice called “If Mammies Ruled the World” where she has some just really funny pithy descriptions of what she thinks of all the characters, but most of her words as you can imagine are dedicated to Hattie McDaniel. She’s really talking more about the movie than the book. She calls the movie, I think she’s echoing a friend who calls it the first disaster movie. She’s like [LAUGHS] huh, let’s think about that for a minute. It’s a really interesting take, but to illustrate, like from Gone With the Wind, it’s just one step over to read Jamaica Kincaid. You could go to another sweeping epic. You could go to another book of the era. You could go to a book that deals with people in war time. There are lots of different directions to go, but I think we want to go for a big, epic book for you.
JESSICA: Sounds good.
ANNE: There are so many that come to mind that do have that same sweeping feel that a book like Gone With the Wind has. I’m thinking about The Thorn Birds or Pillars of the Earth or East of Eden, even though it’s not nearly as long as Gone With the Wind actually. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss for that novel set in wartime, but the two that I would love to come back to here are A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Is this one you’ve read?
JESSICA: No, I don’t think I’ve heard of it.
ANNE: This novel, it’s about 20, 25 years old. I think this could definitely be a modern classic for your challenge. This takes place in the 1970s. The side of India portrayed here is corrupt and just hard on the characters. This book has been called Dickensian. I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing for you, but it takes place in this unnamed city. What Mistry does is weave together the lives of four people. Two young tailors who’ve fled their village for reasons that are gone into the book, and two other people who are previously unconnected but who are brought together in this story, and it’s a time of great political unrest and social upheaval, but the way he shows you how these individual people’s lives fit into the greater historical and cultural story is really striking. It’s heartbreaking. It’s not easy to read. This is a really corrupt and brutal setting that these characters are trying to make it in.
But something that I just realized as I’m telling you about this is that I read this book after I got it at a Modern Mrs Darcy book club paperback swap and brought it home with me from Nashville. Which I feel like is just a really nice connection for you, even though the book itself has absolutely nothing to do with Nashville, [JESSICA LAUGHS] but that just might be a little wink from the universe that says yes, this might be for Jessica.
And of course all these characters who don’t seem like they belong together like that I think is one of the things that makes the story so striking, but they all have their own hopes and dreams. They’re dealing with their own issues and they are actively surviving on the page and counters that are … It seems like they are constantly on the brink of disaster in this book. But what I especially like about it is if it’s a totally different setting from the book you know you’ve loved but it still has that sweeping epic kinda feel. How does that sound?
JESSICA: It sounds good.
ANNE: So another book that I would recommend because you love Gone With the Wind is a story of a similar era but from a totally different perspective and that’s one we’ve talked about on the podcast just in the past few months. It’s called Jubilee by Margaret Walker. I was inspired to learn more about Margaret Walker and read her work when I picked up this nonfiction new work called A Place Like Mississippi, which is about the unexpectedly high number of just esteemed best of the 20th century authors have come out of a less populated state like Mississippi and have Mississippi and just went on to be incredibly influential together and separately in 20th century American literature. Margaret Walker was better known as a poet, Jubilee’s her only novel, but she became a prominent writer of the Chicago Black Renaissance after leaving Mississippi and she based this story on her own, it’s her grandmother or great-grandmother on her actual historical life.
But in this book she’s following a slave named Vyry and that is the character based on her family member, and you see her living through the Antebellum era and during the Civil War and then in Reconstruction, and it focuses on her hardships when she was enslaved and then later because it shows her just constantly yearning for freedom and thinking about what that freedom means and it also focuses a lot on the men she loved and the children she bore and the way those relationships played out because of her being enslaved and the choices she has to make, Vyry has to make, because of it. They’re just incredible. It’s incredible to read about. There are definitely some difficult scenes in this book. They’re included for a reason, but I want you to know that they’re there. That is Jubilee by Margaret Walker. I think it might fit in nicely with your selections.
JESSICA: I think so.
ANNE: So for A Time To Kill, pivoting gently off that one, we’ve got the mystery and we’ve got the connection to To Kill a Mockingbird that you wrote about even in high school. Have you read Furious Hours by Casey Cep?
JESSICA: I have it. I haven’t read it yet.
ANNE: I wonder if that wouldn’t be an interesting fit for you. So this is a book that’s just a few years old at this point. It’s nonfiction, a genre you’re wanting to read more of, but this is an interesting book. It’s almost like three books in one, or three novellas in one. It’s divided into three sections and you get three very different but related stories. One of the stories is that of a serial killer in I believe Harper Lee’s home state in Alabama who was actually a reverend and defrauded people. He collected insurance money on the deceased after he committed the murders himselves, and I won’t say anything about his fate, but it launches its own story in the book.
As a side note, there’s an interesting discussion of some of the legalities of the time and how life insurance worked back then because that’s pertinent to the story and it’s a thread that you may find interesting. And then there’s a whole discussion about the life of Harper Lee, who was a good friend of Truman Capote, who helped him organize or some say organize his notes and his outline for In Cold Blood, and who at one point thought she was going to be writing a book about the series of murders. If there’s a mystery here that this story is addressing it may be like why did she never write another book? And we are not counting Go Set a Watchman.
And then this a story about what happened to that Reverend. I think there’s a lot of both literary and legal connections here that you could find really interesting. How does that sound?
JESSICA: It sounds really good. I mean, I only knew a little bit about it and I thought it would be right up my alley, but you’ve got me excited about it now.
ANNE: Oh, good. I’m glad to hear it. That is Furious Hours. The subtitle is, I think it’s Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. That’s by Casey Cep. So we’re going to pull in from the mystery connection here but also from Gone With the Wind connection and the book we’re going to is Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz.
JESSICA: Isn’t it like a mystery within a book?
ANNE: Yes! It is. So this is one that I actually have fresh in my mind. I just read it recently. Do you ever have the experience where it feels like everyone in the world, that like the very universe is telling you you need to read a book right now?
JESSICA: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I felt – I felt like that was happening with Magpie Murders, which is funny because it’s been out five or six years at this point but the universe wanted me to read it right now. So it is a murder mystery. There is a mystery within the mystery. I did not know that going in, so you haven’t read it, but you knew more than I did. So I picked it up and I’m reading this story. I mean, you begin immediately in a small town village, someone is murder. I’m just going through. I’m reading why. The detectives called in. He’s asking all these strange questions that nobody thinks to ask. He’s looking for clues. And then at a certain point I turned the page and I find out wait, the editor, [LAUGHS] the contemporary editor has been reading this book the entire time and now she’s going to give her take and she’s really frustrated because the chapters are missing and she doesn’t know why and I was like oh. That’s brilliant. Smart like I’d wish I’d known that going in.
Listeners, I’m not spoiling anything for you. I like to default to the side of knowing less, but if you look at the first line of the jacket, I bet it says that for you so don’t sweat it. But something that gets an extended discussion here in this book is the significance of naming characters along with so many other comments and commentary about what makes a novel work, what an author’s life is like, why authors can be really difficult to work with because it’s the editor’s perspective for the second half of the book, and one of the things that the editor believes strongly is that Gone With the Wind would not have been the classic it was if Mitchell hadn’t, against her, maybe not better judgement. She didn’t want to, but she was persuaded to change her protagonist name from Pansy to Scarlett. [JESSICA LAUGHS]
So because of that and lots of other little literary nods, I think you’ll enjoy this but also this is a murder mystery that has a very different feel to A Time to Kill. It is not that kind of legal thriller but it is a procedural. There – there is a lawyer involved. At least one lawyer involved. They are neither the good guys or the bad guys in this story, which maybe will be a nice change of pace for you. It’ll slot in nicely with those John Grisham books and provide a little shaking it up but it is a well drawn murder mystery that though it’s only been out a handful of years does have the feel of a classic about it as you read it.
JESSICA: It sounds so good.
ANNE: That is Magpie Murders. If you love it, you can read Moonflower Murders, the next book in the series. The thing about being in a murder mystery series, well being a protagonist is a murder mystery series is that terrible … People are always getting murdered around you, so the editor has another murder to solve in Moonflower Murders. I have not read that yet but I am looking forward to it.
Okay, next I want to go in the self-help direction if you’re okay with that.
ANNE: Maybe I don’t mean self-help. Maybe I mean midlife crisis. Have you read anything by Parker Palmer?
ANNE: He is a Quaker writer who every 10 or 20 years puts out a book reflecting on life and the one I have in mind for you is Let Your Life Speak. I don’t know how to encapsulate his way of writing that is both laidback and also not at all boring. He manages to ask questions that can seem just really esoteric, like what is a life in a way that is really interesting. He tells lots of stories that kinda make fun of himself. There’s one story about the time that he was offered a college presidentship and was certain he was going to take it, and so called a meeting of his friend as they do in the Quaker tradition where they just ask him questions about taking the job and the direction that story goes like is making me kinda giggle thinking about it is so funny and yet so profound at the same time. I hope you’re really going to like it.
But I think it’s a good book to turn to when you’re thinking am I … Like am I doing what I want to be doing, am I doing what I’m meant to be doing? One of his big themes in this book is vocation and calling and how and why it can be so difficult to become the person that we have somehow always been, and yet still have to find our way to live into. I understand this can be really dry to talk about. It is not a dry book. How am I doing, Jessica?
JESSICA: It sounds interesting. It sounds exactly what I’m looking for.
ANNE: I’m glad to hear it. That is Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer. For a completely different take on the midlife crisis, Peter Heller has a book that is a midlife crisis book. It’s called Kook. It’s his story of learning to surf, which he says is 100% inspired by a midlife crisis. They take many forms. There are worse ones he says than like buying an old Volkswagen bus, driving down to the Mexican coast and learning to surf.
A kook is a pretty derogatory way of describing a surfer who is new to the point of not knowing what they’re doing, perhaps endangering others, just really not that smart, does not have it together, and he is undoubtedly a kook by his own description in this book, but this is his story and it’s also a little bit story of his writing career and how he came to develop it, a little bit story of how he came to meet and marry his wife. It is a surfing story. Some people read this and they’re like oh my gosh, I have to learn how to do that. That was not my experience at all, [JESSICA LAUGHS] but I really loved reading about him learning to surf and also enduring that midlife crisis. How does that sound?
JESSICA: That sounds really cool.
ANNE: So we’ve got pairs of books working here. In relation to Gone With the Wind, we talked about A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry, and we talked about Jubilee by Margaret Walker. For A Time to Kill by John Grisham, we worked our way over to Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz and also Furious Hours, a more obvious pick I think by Casey Cep, and then for that self-help figuring out my life, early midlife crisis book we talked about Parker Palmer’s Let Your Life Speak and Kook by Peter Heller. Now that’s more books to choose from than usual, but of those books, what do you think you may read … I want to say for your challenge but let’s just say next, what do you think you may read next?
JESSICA: They all sound really good. [LAUGHS] I need a new nonfiction because I’m done with … I don’t have one going on right now, so I think I’m going to look at Kook. That sounds really funny.
ANNE: Jessica, I wasn’t sure where you were going to land. That’s not where I thought it was going to be though, but I like it. Surfing it is.
JESSICA: Yeah! I need something different and I need a nonfiction because I’ve got a little bit more to go before I finish Anna Karenina so [ANNE LAUGHS] yeah. But I think I’ll have to look at Magpie Murders. You made that sound amazing too.
ANNE: Well, whatever you end up picking up, I hope you love it. I’m wishing you well as you embark on your … No, as you continue your challenge and thank you so much for talking books with me today.
JESSICA: Thank you so much.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Jessica, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should add to her list of birthday reading prospects. Find the full list of the titles we discussed today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/309.
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• The Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene (try #1, The Secret of the Old Clock)
• Rita Mae Brown (Try Mrs. Murphy #1, Wish You Were Here)
• Doctors and Friends by Kimmery Martin
• The Stand by Stephen King
Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
• Rhett Butler’s People by Donald McCaig
• Scarlett by Alexandra Ripley
A Time to Kill by John Grisham
• To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
• The Pelican Brief by John Grisham
The Clue in the Diary by Carolyn Keene (Nancy Drew Series #7)
△ A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin (#1 A Game of Thrones)
• Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
• Crime & Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky
• The Thorn Birds by Colleen McCullough
• The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
• East of Eden by John Steinbeck
• The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
• A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
• Jubilee by Margaret Walker
• A Place Like Mississippi by W. Ralph Eubanks
• Furious Hours by Casey Cep
• Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
• Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz
• Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz
• Let Your Life Speak by Parker J. Palmer
• Kook: What Surfing Taught Me about Love, Life, and Catching the Perfect Wave by Peter Heller
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