Choosing what to read from a lengthy to-be-read list (or TBR, as we call it around here) can be a challenge, but what do you do if you don’t even have a list?
Today’s guest is the moodiest of mood readers, and loves nothing more than discovering just the right book to read, at precisely the right time. Danielle Callendar plans her reading life in monthly increments, so she can adapt both to what’s available at her local library, and what type of reading experience she feels like in the moment.
Danielle grew up in Philadelphia, where her love of reading was nurtured, and now makes her home in Austin, Texas. She’s looking for complex stories that will make her question her assumptions, and I’ll make some suggestions that I think will satisfy her search for diverse narrators in stories that don’t focus primarily on race or ethnicity.
Whether you keep a list or you prefer to fly by the seat of your pants in your reading selections, I hope you’ll find something that catches your interest in my conversation with Danielle today.
DANIELLE: This is where I’m like, well if I know I’m so moody, why would I buy books in the first book? [ANNE LAUGHS] So let me just go to the library, like that solves my problem.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 311.
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.
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Many of our guests identify as mood readers, selecting their next read at whim from a master list of titles that caught their attention. However, today’s guest is a mood reader AND a to be read list rebel! She doesn’t want to be locked into any kind of list. But while she enjoys the freedom of picking a book on the fly, this sometimes leaves her in a mad dash to find books that fit what she’s looking for right now.
Danielle Callendar grew up as a reader in a family that nurtured her love of reading, and as an adult, she’s become a huge advocate for her local library system. This isn’t a surprise, since she grew up in Philadelphia—home to the first public library in the U.S! She trusts her library to bring her the right book at the right time, and it rarely lets her down. But with so many books to choose from, how can she find the right book that matches her mood in the moment?
Danielle and I chat about how she’s developed her monthly approach to book selection, her appreciation for domestic fiction that questions how well we actually know those closest to us, and her desire for books featuring people of color that are just stories of people being people. I’m here to make some suggestions that I think will fit her current mood and feel like the right books for this moment in her reading life.
Let’s get to it.
Danielle, welcome to the show.
DANIELLE: Hey, Anne. Super excited to be here.
ANNE: I don’t know if you realize this, but you are continuing a recent thread of Philadelphia connected readers we’ve had on the show, and also Houston. We just spoke with Valerie from Blue Willow Bookshop for our gift giving episode for the year and you’re pulling those threads together this morning. Can you tell I just played ten days in Europe with my son this morning? Apparently I’m wanting to make connections geographically. Tell me a little bit about who you are and where you are in the world with that intro.
DANIELLE: Yeah, so like you mentioned, I’m in Texas. I’m in Houston. I’ve been to the Blue Willow Bookshop a couple times. It’s on the other side of town, such a beautiful place. Whenever I’m out there it’s nice to visit, so I’m in Houston, Texas. I live here with my husband and our son who’s 20 months. It’s that strange age where it’s like not two, but not one. For any parents who are trying to describe their children’s age [BOTH LAUGH] hopefully you can relate to me. And yeah, we live in Houston with our chocolate lab.
ANNE: We used to have a chocolate lab.
DANIELLE: They’re the sweetest dogs. Don’t mind all of the hair that will be everywhere in your house. It’s the price you pay …
ANNE: Oh, gosh.
DANIELLE: For a loving dog. Yeah.
ANNE: Every time I vacuum, which I should be doing twice a day, and don’t. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] I think oh man, Daisy, we must love you a lot. Danielle, your dog’s name is Zora. Tell me about that.
DANIELLE: My husband and I were trying to think of names that we would [LAUGHS] potentially like to name our child one day, like an actual human child, and Zora was the one that won and I realize like oh, we both really like this name. We can’t use it again. [LAUGHS] So that’s really the story. It’s … It comes from Zora Neale Hurston, so that’s
ANNE: The author. I was wondering.
DANIELLE: Yeah. When I look back and I thought well if we had a daughter and we wanted to name her Zora, we’ve used the name already. That would be strange [BOTH LAUGH] to name her Zora too.
ANNE: There are other beautiful names and other leading lights in literature to draw from. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] Now I’m picturing you in your home with your books in your atmosphere and that sounds like a really pleasant place to do your reading, which I know means a lot to you. Tell me about your reading life these days.
DANIELLE: Ah, yes. My reading life. I think … One, it definitely has hit a much more wonderful stride after both the pandemic and our son, who was born right at the beginning of the pandemic, so just trying to figure out how to – how to make time for reading, but it’s been such an important … Reading is, like for many listeners, such a central part of living and living well for me. I jokingly love to say like reading is life and truly reading is life. [ANNE LAUGHS] If anybody’s a Ted Lasso fan, you know, you know what I’m talking about.
ANNE: Finally caught up on the series, so now I get it, thank you.
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] Reading is life. It is, and it’s [ANNE LAUGHS] lovely to be exploring new books and we’ll talk about that a little more, but books that I hadn’t been even interested in reading before, but it’s always been such an important part of my life from being a child, you know, growing up in Philly, what I learned as a child is I believe this is right, that Philadelphia’s the home to the first public library in the U.S. If I’m making a mistake, it’s either Boston or Philly, but I’m 80% sure.
ANNE: Let’s just … Danielle, this is your episode. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] Claim it. We’ll fact check later.
DANIELLE: Mmhmm. Someone tell me if I’m wrong. Just libraries feature such an important part of my reading life from my, you know, the childhood, my mom getting me a library card, so that I can check books out on my own, or creating our own little library in our house. We lived in little rowhomes, so anyone from Philly, you know like backyards are just kinda a name you give to a small concrete space with gates, but she would create a little reading nook outside for me in the summer with a little chair in our backyard, so just really fostering this love that I have of just sticking my nose in a book and checking out for an hour or so. Always so important to me.
ANNE: I understand that it was really important to your own mother to nurture that love in reading for you and I imagine that impacts the way you’re thinking about raising your son now.
DANIELLE: Absolutely. Yeah. My mom is a single mom, and she grew up in Jamaica, and so she left school at a very young age and I think it’s like the equivalent of a ninth grade education, and so she had poor schooling and like poor reading education, but for us — I have four older sisters — education is incredibly important and so she actively fostered a love of learning and for all of us, but for me it was Danielle likes books. Get her a library card and like create spaces for her to read.
So it’s really wonderful to have had that nurturing from my mom and then now that my son is getting older, he’s also starting to love reading which is like, ugh, love whatever you want, but it’s like, it’s extra special that you love something that Mom likes too. [ANNE LAUGHS] And so it’s wonderful to be able to create his own little library in our house and he’ll grab a book and he’ll say book read? And try to pretend to read a book to us, so it’s … It’s like all of my heart is melting just thinking about it, but it feels full circle, and it’s so deeply rewarding.
ANNE: Ah, I’m just so happy for your son, and for you to picture this at home. What does he enjoy reading right now?
DANIELLE: Oh my gosh. For the last about five nights, it has been Oh, The Places You’ll Go! It’s a pretty long book for a very small child and he’ll try to extend bedtime …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Is that why he chooses it? [LAUGHS]
DANIELLE: Oh my God, I have no idea. That’s a great strategy, but I think he’s learned that there’s ways that you can be flexible with when you actually go to bed, so [ANNE LAUGHS] we’ve been reading parts of it over and over again or different parts and lots of other random books that I can’t … I don’t even know where we get them. Everytime we’re somewhere with books, my husband and I will buy them, so he has lots.
ANNE: I’m glad you’re creating a literacy rich environment for him. He’s going to have his own reading nooks soon, isn’t he?
DANIELLE: That is the goal is to actually create like a little hideaway for him, depending on where, you know, what books he wants to read that he can feel that he’s just escaping to. That’s the goal.
ANNE: That sounds delightful. [SIGHS] Danielle, we have an issue in your reading life to dive into today.
ANNE: Sometimes readers come and they say Anne, I have a problem, and I think I can help! I have no idea if there is a solution to your struggle with being an incredibly moody reader. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] These were your words. But I’m so curious. I mean, we’ve got the scene set. I can picture your love of reading, like I can visualize it after hearing about your mom and how this is so important to you to raise a young reader yourself and you’ve got books everywhere. You’re not even sure where they came from. I’m sure that you have your own literacy rich environment. We can say that about adult readers too, and yet tell me about what it’s like to not have to be read lists ’cause they just don’t work for you, to be needing to choose books in the moment all the time. I’m so curious to hear more.
DANIELLE: There’s pleasures and then there’s real costs, and I think it’s like if I can just minimize some of the costs, I will feel much happier with the pleasures. I love being a moody reader in that I don’t want to stick to any list or any like this is the order of books I’m going to read things, no. That completely removes the joy of reading.
Brenna had said this, she was like even just the act of writing something on a TBR list makes me not want to read it, and I was like yes! That is so right. Like I can be so excited about this book and immediately just saying oh, I’m going to read this in some formal way, other than putting it on hold, which is strange, like on hold at the library, feels like it has sucked all of the joy out of reading for me, so I think the pleasures is I have an interest in something, the right book has found me to fulfill those, or satisfy those interests, and I get to enjoy it and like ooh, yes, perfect match.
The problem is that, you know, I’ll probably put a bunch of books on hold and say about four or five books that’s off of hold in a given month, maybe I’ll read two of them. The other three, I don’t want to read like they’ve been on some list and now it’s like okay, we’re back down to zero. And every month it is searching for books that fit the mood that I’m in. So that’s the problem. So it’s creeped from like the pleasure of, you know, serendipity of the right book came to me at the right time and now it is okay, let me do a mad dash for books that I want to be reading because I have nothing to choose from.
ANNE: You said this month. Does a mood last a month? Are we truly talking about, I just finished a book, and what do I want to read like right now?
DANIELLE: That’s a good question. I’d like to say I do think about my reading life in monthly increments. Why I’m not really sure. [LAUGHS] But it’s some sort of structure to think about what I will be reading over the next couple of weeks. I don’t know if a mood lasts a month, but I like curating books just for the month, if that makes sense, so maybe yes?
ANNE: This is so interesting. And it sounds like you don’t want to be told what to read in your reading life and not even by yourself.
DANIELLE: Exactly. [LAUGHS] Exactly.
ANNE: Is this true in other areas of your life? Is this unique to your book choices?
DANIELLE: You know, I’d like to say it’s unique to my book choices, but I feel like if my sisters or my husband’s listening to this, they may [ANNE LAUGHS] disagree with me. [BOTH LAUGH] But I’d like to think I’m very, like I’m very structured and routined. That I do think is like objectively true, like I’m very routined, very structured most areas of my life, but when it comes to my books, I don’t want to be boxed in to anything.
ANNE: That’s so interesting and I can see how it could make things trying. It sounds like you see this as a fundamental part of who you are as a reader, and I’m sure it also says something about why you enjoy reading in the first place.
DANIELLE: Yeah. It does. I love … One of the things that I love most about reading is that there’s an interest, a question, or like a feeling that I have and I’m reading a book sorta for lack of a better word, it satisfies that feeling, and so if I’m in the mood for something really heartfelt and so I read a book or I hear about a book, either from your podcast … Like it is the joy of hearing about a book that like oh wait, I’m feeling that right now, let me go get it. And so if it’s available at the library like now, it feels like yes, I got it! Or if I put it on hold, then I’m like oh my gosh, I’m going to get it. But it’s very different if it’s too far away from that moment of feeling that feeling that I’m then going to tell myself to be in this mood to read this book, and so it’s the joy of, I don’t know, the outer world fitting what I’m desiring internally, rather than trying to tell myself how I’m feeling to meet what is available to me in terms of like the selection of books.
ANNE: So you’re the boss. Not that book.
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] I like that, yeah.
ANNE: This is so interesting. Okay, before we hit record, we were talking about our desks, both of which are a little more cluttered at the moment than we prefer, and you mentioned that you had a friend who was super into Marie Kondo and her methods. I didn’t expect to talk about Marie Kondo, but this is her thing. She says the moment to read a book is the time, like the exact time, the right then time when you acquire it because that’s when you wanted it. That’s when you sought it out, so if you have unread books, you should get rid of them immediately, and we’re going to the second half of that equation alone [DANIELLE LAUGHS] but it does sound that like for you, you want to read the thing at the moment you feel like you are ready for it, eager to connect with that story, consume that information, like you want the book to meet your interest when you are interested.
ANNE: I would love to hear about a time that you did read the right book at the right time that you found it or it found you, and it made all the difference in your reading ex … Actually, you know what, I was saying it made all the difference in your reading experience, but it actually meant that you had that reading experience I think would be more accurate.
DANIELLE: Oh, I actually have a really great example. So there is this really thick book. It’s nonfiction called Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
ANNE: Uh huh.
DANIELLE: And it’s a chunker. [ANNE LAUGHS] And it’s dense in the material. And I bought this book maybe last year. I remember thinking like oh, I want to read this and so I started reading it, and I was like okay, now the mood has passed, but I revisited the book just a couple of like weeks ago and I blew through it, and I remember thinking like okay, I have this book for a really long time. I did not pressure myself to read it ’cause I bought it. I tend to not buy books for this very reason because, well I mean to Marie Kondo’s point, once I’ve read and enjoyed it, I don’t want it anymore. Get off my shelves, like don’t clutter my space, but also I may not want to read it when I have it. [LAUGHS] So like why am I letting it clog up my space? Why did I waste my money on it when I could’ve just gotten it from the library and read it or not read it, no skin off my brow. That’s what libraries are for.
But so I have this book Thinking Fast and Slow and at the right time there was some weird wonderings that I was just having that this book helped me think through. I blew through it and I loved the experience. I was taking notes, flagging pages and thinking about ooh, how do I want to bring this into work, and like ooh, when I’m on my walk with my dog, like I want to think through what this means for my own life. That was a perfect reading experience because the mood hit and the book was there.
ANNE: You see the dilemma I’m in, right?
ANNE: The whole concept of this show is I recommend three books you may enjoy reading next.
ANNE: And you’re not going to want to read them. Actually, you know what, maybe the key here is that I need to recommend books that one, hopefully sound amazing to you, and also that like if you have a book sitting in your desk right now and you want me to give you a pitch for it, it seems like that could be a really effective strategy.
DANIELLE: Part of the reason why I listen to this podcast is ’cause there’s a large enough selection of books, like three books to me is large enough that you can get a sense of it’s like different flavors, and so not all three books will be in the same genre, not all three books will tackle the same themes, and essentially like each one will stoke different feelings in me, and so sometimes I’m having a mood that I hear about a book and it matches, or I hear about a book and I’m ooh, that sounds so good.
Like I think Goodnight Beautiful was a book that was recommended on the show and I heard about it and I was like ooh, that sounds good, and I blew through it. But I wasn’t in a particular mood for a thriller, so I don’t think there’s a tension between the prospect of recommending three books and the reality of me [LAUGHS] maybe being in the mood for them, or not being in the mood for them.
ANNE: Mmhm. What I’m really glad to hear in this whole dialogue is that you know this to be true about yourself and you’re not, for example, listening to conversations on the podcast with other readers who have completely different reading personalities and beating yourself up about not being able to create a priority TBR that you follow and not being able to schedule time to read because you know what makes you different for a reader, and I want to be clear. Like I am not trying to talk you out of this thing that you know about yourself. But if I didn’t hear acceptance of your reading habits, methods, that’s the conversation we would be having right now. [DANIELLE LAUGHS]
And I think something that many readers might bristle at, I doubt you’re one of them, but many readers would think like oh, I would feel so guilty if I bought a book and it was on my shelf and I didn’t read it forever, you were fine with that, and that’s why that book was still there when you were ready for it, so I don’t think that we need to have this conversation that goes like oh, Danielle, it’s okay. It’s okay. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] Let’s learn to work, but like who you are as a reader is okay, like good even. You’re okay with this, but sometimes it leaves you a little bit going, ehh. [LAUGHS] Help.
DANIELLE: Absolutely. Years ago I felt like oh gosh, I should be different. Everybody’s doing TBRs, and I think it’s only by realizing it does not work for me that I’ve had to create another strategy, and this is why I’m such a big proponent of libraries. 99% of my reading comes from library books and it’s only fiction, or nonfiction that I’m having what my professor from college would say, is conversations with the text that I need to write into the margins that I actually buy and keep. This is where I’m like, well if I know I’m so moody, why would I buy books in the first book? [ANNE LAUGHS] So let me just go to the library. Like that solves my problem, or at least a large part of my problem.
ANNE: Many readers buy books because that way the book is there when they want to read it, but it sounds like you have an amazing library that’s doing that job for you.
DANIELLE: Absolutely. [LAUGHS] If my friends are listening to this, they’ll totally be like, either roll their eyes or giggle to themselves [ANNE LAUGHS] because they know I’m always like, get your library card. Do you have your library card? [ANNE LAUGHS] Get your library card. But truly I think most people, if you live in a major city, let me not say most, but if you do live in a major city, you are most likely have access to one or maybe two really great library systems and so in Houston, we have the Houston public library but we also have the Harris County Public Library and so you can borrow books digitally, etc. But all to say, yeah, there’s great libraries. Why not use them?
ANNE: I want to take a moment to make explicit to our listeners something that Danielle, you know, and I know, and that is the fact that you are an extreme mood reader is not interfering with you reading excellent books.
ANNE: That is happening. Or else we would be having a different conversation.
ANNE: Okay. I was worried. Now I’m excited to find out, well, what books are you in the mood for today? And you know how we’re going to begin to answer that question. We get to talk about the books you love.
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ANNE: You know what we are going to do next. You’re going to share three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately. I would especially love to hear as you share those what made each book the right book for you at the time you read it. And then we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. How did you choose these, Danielle?
DANIELLE: So I tried to choose them based on which books I read that I wanted to replicate the reading experience …
DANIELLE: And so the … Essentially the feelings that I felt while reading them. All of them were books that I was like okay, I want to return to immediately as soon as I have a free moment, but they either challenged me to think about things that I thought about in a new way or like I wanted to apply what I learned immediately, or they’re books that just like touched my heart in ways that I wasn’t expecting. I don’t know if any of them will stand like the tests of time favorite books ever, maybe they will, maybe … Who knows, but definitely reading experiences that I want to replicate.
ANNE: I really like that approach. What’s book one?
DANIELLE: So the first book is called The Nix by Nathan Hill.
ANNE: Oh. Yes. Danielle, this is one I’ve checked out of the library three times and haven’t read. Tell me more. Maybe this is the moment for me.
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] Okay. When you said that I was like oh, what …
ANNE: I know. I just realized I probably worried you. No, it’s not a bad thing.
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] Still to this day when I think about the book I giggle and I have a smile on my face. One of my favorite lines in all of the books I’ve ever read has come from this book, so this is where I think like maybe this is a book that stands the test of time thus far for me.
ANNE: [WHISPERS] Are you going to tell us the line?
DANIELLE: I know I’ve written it down in several journals. Ah! Even trying to think of like the context of why it’s good falls short, so ah. No. I’m not even going to attempt it.
ANNE: I see what you’re doing. I have to read it myself.
DANIELLE: Yes. Read it. So it’s a really touching book. It’s also a bit of a satire and social commentary, which I wonder if this book were written now, one, how it would be received and also what the comments on society would be. But it’s a beautiful mother/son story. It spans generations. You’re looking at people across time, which I really love, and I feel like Nathan Hill invites you to see what persists over time in a person, like what are the things that never change about them and what are the things that do change and what does that say about our interpretation of who they are? He also invites us, I think, to ask like can you really know the people that you are close with, like a mother and a son you’d hope that you’d know each other really well. A husband and a wife of your child, one of the main characters also, you go back in time and you see her experience with her family. Do you really even know the people that you’re really closest with? That’s my plug for The Nix. I’ma push it to you, Anne. Check it out from the library again.
ANNE: I hear you loud and clear. [LAUGHS]
DANIELLE: It’s worth it. Just … I wish I could read it for the first time again with you.
ANNE: Duly noted. Danielle, tell me about the second book that you loved.
DANIELLE: So the second book is Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng. I’m sure everybody’s probably seen, at least seen this book. If you walk through an airport, you’ve probably seen it. I’ve talked to someone on a plane because she was reading it for the first time and I sorta … [LAUGHS] She was sitting next to me and I think I just overwhelmed her with my excitement. [BOTH LAUGH] She seemed far less enthusiastic and it’s a little … I was like oh. But it’s so good.
This is like domestic fiction at its best. I love … I feel like Celeste Ng, she looks at quote-unquote “normal life,” the kind of bland life of, maybe life in the suburbs and exposes all of the complexities in it because the people themselves are complex. I love to go to bed early. Like I said. I’m very routine. I go to bed early, wake up early. I was staying up late to finish this book. It’s so good. You don’t … Like none of the characters are wholly good, wholly bad, which is my favorite, complex characters, and sorta similar to The Nix is that you have families, or family members, who think they know each other but they’re all keeping really big secrets from one another and it begs the question of like how well can you know the people that you’re closest with?
ANNE: That’s very interesting. Danielle, what did you choose to complete your favorites list? I’m wondering if we’re going to continue to hear those themes that you’ve drawn out in The Nix and Little Fires.
DANIELLE: Yes. In a different way. So my final pick is The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.
ANNE: Yeah, I’ve been meaning to read this book for so long.
DANIELLE: This is the one book that like were I to die on a hill of like please read this everyone. This is the book. So it’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided on Religion and Politics. I really do invite everyone to read this book if you’re remotely interested with as open of a mind as possible. So Jonathan Haidt is a psychologist. I think now he’s at NYU. One of his sorta threads of research is on moral psychology and that’s what The Righteous Mind looks at. He proposes this idea of, I think it’s called moral foundations theory, which is trying to make sense of why certain people have affinities for particular political leanings, and why often when we think we’re having conversations with people and we’re right and they’re wrong or vice versa, we’re often talking past each other because we’re expressing different values and even different definitions of those very values, so what it means to be fair means something very different for people who might have political leanings to the left versus people who might have political leanings to the right.
I read this book early this year, so this was after the election, a deeply contentious time in our country. I found myself like being really angry a lot of the time. One, I would watch the news, listen to the news, and I couldn’t understand why I was getting so worked up on things that on its face are not really … Like if you could just take a birdseye view for a moment, you’d wonder like why are you getting so worked up over something, is not that deep, but it feels like it was encroaching into things that were very essential to the way that I viewed the world.
After I read The Righteous Mind, it started to make a bit more sense as to why I was so attached to particular world views and it felt like those world views were not shared by everyone and that made me angry. I think if you are curious and you want to be a good person in the world, I do think that this should be a part of your reading as well as whatever you know, thinkers, etc. I just think it provides a bit more context, a different way of looking at the things that we all find really important.
ANNE: That sounds completely fascinating, and I can see how even though this is nonfiction, it does continue the themes that interests you.
DANIELLE: Absolutely. I really loved to see how something is a bit more complicated than I first think. And maybe it isn’t, maybe I just like to make things more complicated than they need to be. [ANNE LAUGHS] But I think I really bristle with any idea that puts the world into simplistic or binary views that these people are good, these people are bad, and so even the fiction that I read. There’s some characters in Little Fires Everywhere and The Nix that are like on their face gross, but when you learn about one, their story, but the way they think about the world, it forces me to question okay, is my assessment of them actually accurate? What do I lose by making such a simplistic judgment about people’s goodness, badness, intentions, etc.?
ANNE: Danielle, tell me about a book that was not right for you.
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] This book … I’m laughing ‘cause it was so not right for me, I didn’t finish it. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: If you’re going to say the one I think you did, I looove this book. Tell me more.
DANIELLE: Okay, so it’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. I did not like this book because there was no plot. I was about 50% through this book. I was reading it on my kindle, on audio, and I kept thinking okay, in the next chapter, something – something’s going to happen. Okay, in the next chapter something’s going to happen. At some point I was like wait, did the major thing happen? Did I miss something?
And so I searched for reviews, like okay, spoil it for me. I don’t really care. I’m confused about what’s happening, and once I realized that this book was in my opinion, it’s plotless, but for people who loved the book, I’d love to understand like maybe I missed something. I still may not like it, but like what did you view as the plot? I realize there wasn’t anything else that was … Like there was something else that was going to happen but not really, and I said oh no, I need to stop reading this book. Like it felt like nothing happened.
ANNE: Something I really loved about this book was the way V.E. Schwab used language and she had a few recurring motifs that showed up over and over again in different ways and there were so many echoes through the slightly changing circumstances, through the centuries of just seeing new incarnations of the same images, and darnit, my – my copy that I have all marked up in is not that far out of reach but I think there were keys and there were arrows and there were constellations and she played with the language I found fascinating.
ANNE: And I imagine that’s not what you’re looking for when you read.
DANIELLE: It’s really helpful to hear why people who loved this book loved it. It makes sense once you said it, like oh, this is happening, like yes, I did notice that and that’s not — I think to your point, I would only love that if there was also a plot, or if there was more of a plot. Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It actually has some motifs that you really enjoy, but this not the package in which you want to encounter them, like secrets are such a thing in this book and how it’s easier to share them than to keep them but sometimes we really have to keep them, and I’m just thinking of what you said about you like The Nix. You loved Little Fires Everywhere and one of those questions is can we really, truly know the people we love and this book is asking the same question, but it’s doing it in a very different less plotty, less pacey way.
ANNE: Memory was a huge thing. There’s a bird sculpture that she circles back to several times. I mean, there’s a bookstore cat, but that wasn’t enough to redeem it for you. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] You may enjoy reading about those themes but that is only one component of what makes a great reading experience and that was not enough for you, and that is okay. And it really is helpful as we think about what you may enjoy reading.
ANNE: Danielle, what have you been reading lately?
DANIELLE: Ah, yes. So many good books. I feel like this year was full of really great reading, so one book that I’ve read recently that I loooved was Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau. I have no idea where I heard this book, [LAUGHS] but it’s darling. I think that is the way that I could describe this book. It’s a gorgeous coming-of-age novel. Oh my gosh, when I finished it, I walked out of our room and I was just like oh! I was saying to my husband, I just finished the greatest book. It is all of those feels. I don’t even know how to describe what happens. It has a plot, not like Addie LaRue. [ANNE LAUGHS]
There’s a young girl, think she’s 13 or 14 named Mary Jane and she is working as a summer nanny for this family that is completely different from hers and it’s one of those books that like bring you back to early childhood, makes you think of when you started to define yourself for yourself, started to question your own family’s ideas and how do you still feel a sense of belonging and acceptance with your family when you begin to not be the person that they think that you are? And it’s so touching, the end is like oh, I love that book. It’s so good. All the feels. One of my favorite reading experiences thus far this year was Mary Jane. Loved it.
ANNE: How would you describe the writing style of this one?
DANIELLE: I don’t know how I would describe it. I think there were moments that I felt like the author was using the thinking and language of a 13 year old, so it doesn’t feel YA in the sense of the dialogue and even the internal dialogue. It’s not too flowery, but it’s descriptive enough that evokes emotion, if that makes any sense.
ANNE: Uh huh.
DANIELLE: It makes you feel how Mary Jane would have felt being a young girl, noticing like the adults doing adult things. If that makes any sense.
ANNE: Interesting. What else have you been reading?
DANIELLE: So this one is nonfiction and I feel like these choices make it seem like I read a whole lot more nonfiction that I do, or maybe I read more than I think. I have no idea, but recently finished, actually still have it on my kindle ’cause I keep going back to it. Self Portrait In Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams. It’s nonfiction. It’s a collection of essays. This was one of those books that I keep having to reread it because I’m like do I agree with what you said or do I just misunderstand it? Or do I understand … Like I don’t really know how I feel about it and I love that a lot and it’s similar to the nonfiction that I’ve read in that’s forcing me to think about things that I think I know really well in different ways.
Thomas Chatteron Williams, as the subtitle says, unlearning race, he’s exploring what it means for me to no longer identify as a Black man. He makes it a case as to why we should all reject race and it’s sorta heavy and like very intellectual, but not so much so that you can sorta dismiss it as like okay, this is sorta like intellectual navel gazing. Yeah, even failed to find the right language to describe this book. It’s a book that essentially is challenging me to think about race in ways that I’ve never encountered before.
ANNE: What led you to pick this up?
DANIELLE: I have no idea. Professionally, I’m a diversity and inclusion consultant and so the company that I work for, we work with companies to help them create cultures where all employees can thrive regardless of things like race, gender, sexual identity, etc., and helping them create policies, processes, and team dynamics that help foster that, and so I’m constantly being confronted with the way that these social identities pan out in the workplace, and I’ve always had a particular way of viewing the very social identities and there’s something that …
I don’t know if just like working in it long enough and then I could in this field long enough I can start to see what are prevailing values and ways of trying to interpret the world and are those actually accurate or maybe accurate isn’t the right word, but like are they doing us more harm than good, or what are the costs? What are the benefits?
And so I think I was just reading like the New York Times and Thomas Chatteron Williams writes for the New York Times. This book came out a couple years ago, so I really don’t even know what the particular steps were in me finding it, but it came on my radar and it felt like it was an interest that I had and right book, right interest, and I enjoyed it.
ANNE: I’m glad that you did. Danielle, we know that we’re looking for the right book for right now, but is there anything specific you would like to add into the hopper that you would like in the reading life right now?
DANIELLE: The thing that I’d like to add into my reading life right now is more fiction that features people of color as main characters, but the book itself is not like this hard hitting exploration of what it means to be x-race or x- like fill in the blank in the U.S., like I don’t know if it’s this is just the way that books are marketed, like for example, I think The Other Black Girl, it’s also in the title. I’m sure it’s a great book, but I was like I’m not trying to read another book about a Black person where their race is the central part of the book. I just want to read books that feature people of color where they’re just being people.
I’m having a hard time finding that, so Jasmine Guillory books. I love Helen Hoang’s books. I love the romance, and so … Nothing wrong with romance, but I just want to read other genres where the race is not the central part of the book. We just do things. We live lives. We brush our teeth. We fall in love. We investigate murders, like [LAUGHS] can we … Like I just want to see us doing normal things. That’s what I’m yearning for the most in my reading life right now.
ANNE: I’m tempted to say but what kind of things, Danielle, but you told like falling in love, investigating murders, getting on the train to Damascus …
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] Exactly.
ANNE: Okay. Okay. But not a hard hitting exploration of what it means to be blank and …
ANNE: Which gives us lots of room to play.
DANIELLE: Oh. Good. That sounds awesome.
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ANNE: Danielle, the books you loved: The Nix by Nathan Hill, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, and The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt. Not for you The Invisible Life of Addi LaRue by V.E. Schwab. Lately you’ve really enjoyed Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau and Self Portrait in Black and White by Thomas Chatterton Williams. We know what you are on the hunt for. I’m really tempted to find you something just darling and adorable like Mary Jane sound. That sounds like so much fun, and the tone actually makes me think of several books that might be good.
I’m wondering if you may enjoy a new 2021 spring release by Sanjena Sathian called Gold Diggers. This also is not a YA novel, but it begins with two high schoolers. They’re Indian Americans. They live in … I believe, affluent community outside Atlanta and this is not a hard hitting book about … [DANIELLE LAUGHS] But it is a thoughtful exploration of identity.
Neil is an underperforming Indian American kid. His parents expect great things of him and they’re getting those great things from his sister who’s gonna go to Duke on scholarship and she’s just making him look bad all over the place, but he and the girl next door, one of his best friends and also has his heart, they are not really making their parents’ hearts sing with appreciation and pride because of their lackluster academic performance. So they find a shortcut and there’s just this little drop of magic in the book. It involves stealing gold, actual gold. The book is Gold Diggers. Strategically stealing gold that they turn it into lemonade. They drink it.
DANIELLE: [LAUGHS] Oh.
ANNE: And they come to embody the better, or appreciated by their elders, more ambitious traits from those whom the gold was taken.
ANNE: So these poor kids feel like they’re trapped, they find this way out, but this way out comes at a cost and something I like about this book for you is you see them in high school, finding this incredible shortcut secret happiness, oh this is so great! You flash forward and you see them ten years later when they are older. Their paths cross again in California. They embark on this series of Silicon Valley shenanigans, but you do get to see them at different moments in time, which I think can satisfy some of your what is circumstantial, what is internal, how much can people change, are they recognizable over time.
I think this book has a lot of the traits of things you enjoy. This poor kid Neil, he is not always sympathetic, like he’s shallow. He’s awkward. He’s selfish. And at the same time he’s a high school boy that you recognize in a world you know and he’s deeply sympathetic in that way. He feels real. He’s not idealized. The same goes towards Anita.
You said that you’re interested in seeing what persist overtime in a person, can you ever know anyone and something else in the themes of the books you enjoyed were what are we willing to do for the people we love, and I think we have all those here in a package that is a little bit clever. Definitely unexpected. A little fun and lighthearted at times and yet the dressing, themes that deeply matter to all of us. How does that sound to you?
DANIELLE: Oh, so, so good. I’m gonna hold off ’cause there’s two more coming, but I’m like mm, yes. Give it to me now. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Oh, that’s right. And let me think. I’m gonna say this was a 2021 new release that had not so much buzz that you’re like yeah, yeah, I’ve seen it everywhere, but enough that I imagine your library has it.
ANNE: That might be the sweet spot we’re going for here. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] Next, if you have not made the acquaintance of novelist Jean Kwok, I believe that you would enjoy her work. She may be best known for Girl in Translation, but the one I have on my mind, and I’ll be quite honest because I read it the most recently and the plot is fresher, is called Searching for Sylvie Lee. But this is another story that asks what can we really know about the people that we love the most, and what may surprise us, what secrets are the people we love keeping from us, even though we think we thoroughly know them.
You said that you wanted to see people of color doing things. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] This is definitely part family drama. You said solving murders. It’s part suspenseful mystery. As you read it, it may be interesting to know that it was inspired by a real life tragedy in Kwok’s own past, but this story begins when her family discovers that Sylvie, the confident, beautiful golden child of this family, she visits the Netherlands to visit her dying grandmother, but then she disappears. Her family is besides themselves. They, you know, send emissaries to search for her. There’s family in the Netherlands as well, but as they search for Sylvie, we learn about the family’s complicated past and Sylvie’s own upbringing as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. First in the Netherlands and then in the United States.
And as her sister looks for her, she keeps discovering increasingly startling secrets but not really any easy answers to any of them. You know, she’s on the search to answer a question and instead she keeps turning up more and more questions. This is plotty. This is pacey. I hope you find it page turning. I was really surprised by the ending. We didn’t discuss endings today, but I don’t think that would be a disappointment to you. But I think, especially because you enjoyed Celeste Ng’s work, I think this could be a really good pick for you. How does that sound?
DANIELLE: Okay. We’re two for two right now. [LAUGHS] So I’m excited to hear the last one.
ANNE: That was Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok. I might be breaking my own rule here ’cause I said we want to find you books that are not everywhere, but have you read Deacon King Kong by James McBride yet?
DANIELLE: I’ve heard of it, yeah.
ANNE: You said that on the show, you know, not all books are the same and every book is a different flavor. I want to put this flavor on your menu. How do we finish out that metaphor? [DANIELLE LAUGHS] McBride is brilliant. Realistic fiction that investigates relationships and families and what lies beneath the surface that we would be surprised, dismayed, shocked to be discovered, and this story sounds really heavy, and as I’m about to describe it, and some of the themes certainly are, but it is, the sense of humor is so … Oh, it’s so funny. But it does begin with a shooting and it’s 1969. We’re in south Brooklyn. It’s in the Cause Houses project. 1969.
The main character of the book is a drunk deacon, Deacon King Kong. His nickname, everyone calls him is Sportcoat, and he wanders into the courtyard and shoots the drug dealer he once treated like a son. Just right in front of everyone, point blank, this is a sho, I mean, a jolting beginning told with this laidback eyebrow raised, leisurely humorous tone but after that shocking event happens at the beginning of the book, McBride zooms way out to show how we get here, like how did that violent act come to take place.
In doing so, he explores the lives of the shooter and the victim and the victims couldn’t be more bumbling friends and the residents who witnessed it and the neighbors who heard the rumors, kinda bumbling also cop who’s supposed to be undercover and doing a terrible job [DANIELLE LAUGHS] of fooling anyone, the members of the church where he was a deacon, the neighborhood mobsters ’cause they are very present on the page, and their families. I felt like he was moving us in circles through the community, like taking a time to camp out and say what is this person’s life look like from the inside? Which is very different from the inside. What does this person’s life look like? I so enjoyed just bopping across the community.
The way things come together, when I set out on this journey with James McBride and Sportcoat, I did not know where we were going, but you see how everything funnels down and just go, wow. Right there in this community, who knew.
DANIELLE: Um, yes. That’s … Okay. We’re three for three. I don’t know how I’m going to choose. [LAUGHS] I really don’t. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: Let’s revisit the books we talked about today. Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian, Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok, and Deacon King Kong by James McBride, but Danielle, what I want to know is, what are you in the mood for right now?
DANIELLE: Honestly, I’ve already put all three books on my bookshelf through Libby, so Gold Digger, Searching for Sylvie Lee, and Deacon King Kong, so technically in the mood for all three of them. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: I mean, I guess if that’s okay by you, it’s okay by me.
DANIELLE: Thinking of like when I hop into bed to start reading, which one will I go for first? Ah.
ANNE: It might be too early to know. We’re hours from bedtime.
DANIELLE: Yeah. Do I have to choose one?
ANNE: No. I’m very interested in seeing what your bedtime self decides.
DANIELLE: Yeah. They’re already on my Kindle, so. All three. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: You are fast. [DANIELLE LAUGHS] Alright. I hope the mood holds til evening.
DANIELLE: Me too.
ANNE: Danielle, this has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for talking books with me today.
DANIELLE: Thank you so much, Anne. This was such a treat for me.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Danielle, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. To see all of the titles we discussed today, go to the show notes at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/311.
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• Oh, the Places You’ll Go! by Dr. Seuss
• Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
• Good Night Beautiful by Aimee Molloy
The Nix by Nathan Hill
Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
△ The Invisible Life of Addie Larue by V.E. Schwab
• Mary Jane by Jessica Anya Blau
• Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams
• Jasmine Guillory (Try The Wedding Party)
• Helen Huang (Try The Kiss Quotient)
• Gold Diggers by Sanjena Sathian
• Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
• Searching for Sylvie Lee by Jean Kwok
• Deacon King Kong by James McBride
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