Today’s guest is another returning favorite who undertook a creative reading project over the past few years. I’ve waited eagerly to hear how it went for her, so it’s a treat to have Tara Nichols back on the show this week!
Tara first joined me in WSIRN Ep 168: A century of good books in a single year, when she shared her intent to read one book published each year between 1920 and 2019. Well, spoiler alert, she succeeded in her goal—and along the way, she discovered some new favorites, learned what makes or breaks a book for her, and explored some genres she’d always shied away from in the past.
Now that she’s back to reading without any constraints, Tara wants to apply what she’s learned to help her choose what to read next. She’s looking for well-written stories featuring strong narrative voices, and she’d love to catch up on some of the recent titles she’s missed in the past few years. Let us know what you think she should read next in the comments.
Connect with Tara on Instagram!
TARA: When I was starting on the challenge I kinda thought man, when I get to the end of this, I’m not going to want to read anything from the 20th century [ANNE LAUGHS] for a long time.
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 314.
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 talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, it is almost time for one of our favorite What Should I Read Next traditions—our team’s selections for the Best Books we read in 2021! We’ll be gathering in the Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club this Thursday, January 13th as each member of our team shares a favorite book—or three, because sometimes it’s hard to choose just one—and we’ll each talk a little bit about why it made it onto our 2021 short list.
If you’re not yet a member of our Book Club, this is a wonderful time to join. Not only will you be able to take part in the Best Books of 2021 conversation, you’ll also have access to all of our upcoming author talks, classes, and of course our entire archive of Book Club events and recordings. Sign up with a monthly, quarterly, or annual membership at members.modernmrsdarcy.com.
I have so many wonderful conversations with readers on this show, so it’s a special treat when I can reconnect with a previous guest and get an update on their reading life! Tara Nichols first joined me back in Episode 168 called “A century of good books in a single year” to share her quest to read one book published each year between 1920 and 2019.
Today, I’m excited to catch up with Tara to hear about how that challenge went.
Through her experience of reading 100 books written over the past century, Tara gained much more than just a few new favorites: completing her challenge gave her new insight into what she loves most about a reading experience, while also introducing entirely new genres into her reading life. I’ve been waiting YEARS to hear all about it, and I think you’ll find it’s been worth the wait.
In her reading life now, Tara’s eager to catch up on some of the newer titles she missed while focused on her challenge, but ultimately she’s looking for the types of stories she’s learned she loves, regardless of publication date: impeccably-written tales anchored by a strong, distinctive voice. I’m excited to hear what she thinks about my picks for her today!
Let’s get to it.
Tara, welcome to the show.
TARA: Thank you for having me.
ANNE: Oh, it is my pleasure. Thank you so much for coming back to tell us more about your reading life and to tell us more about how your reading challenge went that you did back in 2019. Oh, so we must have talked right at the very beginning of your challenge.
TARA: Yeah. It was early January that we talked.
ANNE: Apparently, we’re in a mood to revisit and also just to talk about the virtues of reading books that are not just the shiny and new, which feels like the default for a lot of readers early in the year, so you were first on the show in episode 168, “A century of good books in a single year,” which we continue to point readers and listeners back to all the time for inspiration and just as an example of a really fun episode to listen to. Tara, tell the readers what this challenge involved and what it did for your reading life.
TARA: So I decided that I wanted to read a book published for every year of the last hundred years, so in 2019 that was 1920 to 2019. Midway through 2018 I saw … I think it was just a list or an article that was called “A hundred years of books,” and I think that was just about like the 20th century, like talking about books from the 20th century, but when I was saw that title I just got this idea like hm, I wonder if I could do that. I wonder if I could pick a book from every year from the last hundred years and read them and do it in a year, so that’s when I started planning, was midway through 2018. I just started Googling. Every year I’d Google like 1920 books. 1921 books. [BOTH LAUGH] And then I just for every year I picked a book that interested me, so I was trying to do like the most popular book that year or an award winner that year. It really just was which one of these books published in that year sounds interesting to me.
So that’s kinda how it started, but at the time when I started to plan it in 2018, I didn’t intend it to be like a public thing, like I just thought it would be fun to do, just by myself. Some time in the fall of that year I was having dinner with a friend and I was telling her about the challenge and I just said, I said like you think I should like I don’t know, post about this on Instagram or something? Like share it with people, and she was like yeah, of course you should. [BOTH LAUGH] And so I was like okay, and then around that same time when I realized that other people might be interested in it, that was when I applied to be on What Should I Read Next that it became a very public thing. But that’s how it started and then I did not read in order. I did start with 1920, but then I just skipped all around and that way I could kinda read what I was in the mood for. And it was super fun to do.
ANNE: What did you learn about yourself in the process of your hundred year reading challenge?
TARA: I mean, I learned that when I start something I’m gonna finish it. [BOTH LAUGH] I mean, like I kinda already knew that, but this was probably one of the biggest challenges I had given myself and at the end of the challenge a lot of people asked like if I had a hard time sticking with it and things like it and there were times when it was harder, like I would say especially the summer, like when your reading guide came out for the summer and I couldn’t really read any of it [LAUGHS] because I was trying to read all these old books. The summer was when it was a little bit harder. I wanted to read, you know, lighter stuff, newer stuff, but I had to stick with it.
But because I had decided to do it and because I had all of these people, mostly on Instagram, really excited about the challenge and following what I was doing, I knew I was going to stick with it and just realized I could really stick with something if I decided to. I mean, before the challenge I knew that I liked old books. I would say I tend to gravitate toward books that have stood the test of time so that could be very old, you know, like the 1800s or that could be ten or twenty years ago. If people are still talking about a book I want to read that if I haven’t and I think I just reaffirmed that in me that is the type of reading that really works best for me.
ANNE: What did November 2019 Tara know about this challenge that January 2019 Tara just did not see coming?
TARA: Well, I mean I definitely discovered authors and genres that were new to me and I was hoping that would happen as a part of it, but I wasn’t sure if it would. When I was starting on the challenge, I kinda thought man, when I get to the end of this, I’m not going to want to read anything from the 20th century for a long time. [ANNE LAUGHS] But that didn’t happen because I discovered authors and genres that I hadn’t read before that I was excited about reading more of.
So I had always avoided mysteries and thrillers because I’m really sensitive to violence, so I don’t watch movies with violence and I don’t like reading books with violence because the images really stick in my brain and that’s not the kinda things I want to like linger in my brain, so I never read mysteries because I had just always assumed that they were, you know, if someone’s murdered, I assumed [LAUGHS] that that’s violent.
TARA: But when I started reading some of these old mysteries as a part of the challenge, I realized like oh, the mystery genre usually isn’t violent because they’re trying to solve the crime. Usually like a graphic description of the crime isn’t typically there, or even when it is, I don’t know, it’s not the kinda thing that you would see watching like a horror movie or anything like that, so I had wrongly assumed this about mysteries and I found that I really love reading mysteries, so that was one thing that I kinda discovered in the challenge, so when the challenge ended I wanted to continue to read mysteries that I had missed my whole life because I had made a wrong assumption about them.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] So you had some catching up since then.
TARA: I did, yes.
ANNE: So I know that you chose books that you were drawn to. You gave yourself all the leeway when it came to choosing a book that was published a certain year, but that being said, I can imagine that you might have read books because they were big books or you heard a lot about them. Did you read anything that you thought was going to be amazing that just completely underwhelmed you or vice versa?
TARA: I mean one of the books that I was most excited about was Bride’s Head Revisited and that was from 1945.
TARA: I found it underwhelming and maybe it’s because I had really built it up in my mind and so maybe my expectations for it were too high, and I know that’s a book you love and I didn’t – I didn’t hate it. I’d even be interested in no pun intended by revisiting it. [BOTH LAUGH] At some point and then I’d say one of my favorites, so I won’t tell you what it is yet, but one of my favorites was one that I had heard of but really had no expectations of, knew nothing of it, and it ended up being my favorite of the whole thing.
I mean I think the best thing about it was just read so many authors that I had never read before and some that I had never heard of. I mean like one that was the biggest surprise to me was Georgette Heyer. I had a book slotted in for I think it was, yeah it was 1936 and then it didn’t, I don’t know if I should say this because people love this book, but it was The Hobbit and I was having a hard time with it. I think that was the one and so I decided to change that year [BOTH LAUGH] because I don’t know, I just have a hard time with fantasy and I just wasn’t loving it, and so I needed another book for 1936 and I was just looking at lists and I had heard of Georgette Heyer and I knew she had wrote like a ton of books and there was one for 1936 and then I picked it. I ordered it from thrift books. It came and it was just the cheesiest cover. I was like oh no. This is going to be terrible. [LAUGHS] Like what have I done? And then I started it and it was so delightful. Have you ever read Georgette Higher?
ANNE: I’ve read maybe three of her like hundred something novels.
TARA: Okay. Right. She had so many books. I feel like she does dialogue better than almost any writer, like her dialogue is just so like snappy and witty, I loved it. So it opened me up to this whole world of this author that I had never heard of but some other big ones, you know, I read some James Baldwin, which was fantastic. I did one reread as a part of the challenge and that was The Grapes of Wrath because I had read it in high school. I remembered loving the last page, but I really didn’t remember much about the book at all, so it was a reread but it didn’t really feel like a reread ’cause I remembered nothing, and I did enjoy it.
So there were some big ones in there, yeah. I definitely wanted to put in some of these books that a lot of people had read, but I hadn’t yet. Another one that I tried that really didn’t work out was Catch-22. I think I made it like 20 pages, and then I’m like nope! [BOTH LAUGH] Let’s find something else for this year. [LAUGHS] So. Oh, and I ended up reading The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, which I also didn’t love but it was short at least. [LAUGHS] And I think I liked it better than I would have liked Catch-22.
ANNE: Tara, so you finished your challenge in November. What did you do immediately after being in a sense freed from this like major like enjoyable but also obligatory reading project you’d embarked on?
TARA: What I did was actually before two weeks before I was done, so when I was like on the last couple or few books, so when the end was in sight, I just started putting all the books from 2019 that I didn’t get to on hold at the library [ANNE LAUGHS] and I just had this like giant stack of all these books because I mean I was still listening to your podcast and some other podcasts and I’m still on bookstagram, so I’m seeing all these new releases and not really reading any of them and so the ones that I was most excited about, I put on hold. I got. I realized I cannot read this many books in December. [BOTH LAUGH]
But I did get to quite a few, so December of that year was almost exclusively new releases because there were so many things I had missed, like the one I remember in particular was The Nickel Boys. You know, I’d heard so much about that book that year and I knew it was up my alley, but I just was holding off on it, so that was one of the first ones I read in December and I did love it. That was probably my favorite book of that year that wasn’t a part of my challenge, and I did read books throughout the year that weren’t for the challenge ’cause I’m in a real life book club so I had, you know, had to read different books for that.
So there were a handful of books I read throughout the year that weren’t for the challenge, but for the most part it was mostly challenge books that year. So I was very excited in December to read new stuff. And I also in the summer, I’m a real sucker for award winners and particularly the Pulitzer, and that was the year that The Overstory won the Pulitzer and this is like a 600 page novel but I just couldn’t help myself so that summer [ANNE LAUGHS] so I was doing … My pace was good on the challenge, and so I was like I can take a break to read this 600 page book and I did and it was worth it. But that was one of the few times where I really veered off course.
ANNE: Well, Tara, you’ve teased us a little bit saying that you would tell us some of your favorites and your very favorites from your 100 books you read for this century of great books challenge. I’m ready to get to it.
You’ve been here before, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you loved, one book you didn’t, and what you’ve been reading lately, and we’ll talk about … I think what you’re looking for right now in your reading life and what you may enjoy reading next because of that.
Now tell me how you chose these books you loved and didn’t.
TARA: Well when I finished my challenge, I picked a favorite from each decade so that’s kinda how I organized the challenge in my own mind, I kinda thought of it as decades. I picked a favorite from each decade and so for this I just … You know, I went back and looked at those and picked the ones that have still stayed with me, that I still think about, that when I see someone else read I get really excited …
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Isn’t that such a great sign about what you love?
TARA: Yes, yes.
ANNE: When you just do a little cheer in your heart when you see somebody else reading it.
TARA: Yes, absolutely. Okay. You’re ready?
ANNE: Oh, I’m ready.
TARA: This one was the easiest one to pick because this was my favorite of the whole challenge, but it’s also hard because I can’t tell you that much about it so it is A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute and this was from 1950.
ANNE: Really, your favorite of the whole challenge? Ah, my mom is so happy right now. She loves this book.
TARA: Yeah, you talked … I think you told me that your mom [ANNE LAUGHS] that your mom loves this one. And I think part of the reason it was so delightful to me is because I knew nothing about it. I had seen it on some list like, you know, best books of the 20th century and stuff, but I really knew nothing about it. The title is strange. [LAUGHS] Like I didn’t … So I really didn’t know anything going in, and so it was just such – just such a surprise and such a joy [LAUGHS] to read it and the reason it’s hard for me to talk about is because I think most people who want to read this should go in knowing almost nothing because if you read the back of the book it gives away a plot point that happens about maybe about halfway in.
ANNE: Oh, I hate it when they do that.
TARA: I – Yeah. And this was a moment. So I didn’t read the back of the book. I went in not knowing anything. I read the back of the book after I finished and I was so angry [LAUGHS] with it because so there’s this moment and I’m not going to tell you what it is but there’s this moment, it was so surprising and delightful to me that I liked gasped out loud when I was reading it [LAUGHS] and they give away this moment on the back of the book, so don’t read the back of the book. Don’t … Just … So here.
Here’s what I’ll say. So it was published in 1950. When you read it today, it will feel like historical fiction because part of it takes place during World War II. Now it wasn’t historical fiction ’cause it was published in 1950, so he was writing really about very recent history and the current time for him, but the center of it is a woman. What you know at the beginning of the book she has like a long lost uncle or something who’s drawing up his will. She is his only relative so he decides he’s going to leave his money to her, but he’s not going to give it to her like unless she’s thirty or something or like because she’s a woman and he doesn’t trust women with money, and that’s what you know from the beginning and then you get to know this woman in this book and I just … It’s everything. It is … It just made me feel happy [LAUGHS] reading it, the way that this woman like subverts expectations.
So I would say if you like historical fiction, if you like a strong female protagonist, that’s all I’m going to say because I think you should go in not knowing [LAUGHS] what this book is about because the surprise I think is a huge part of the delight of this book.
ANNE: I really enjoyed this book and I totally understand how you can describe it the way you had, but I think also that readers should know that this isn’t like a lighthearted romp through the Australian outback.
TARA: That’s true. Well the middle section especially, this is the part during World War II and she’s in … I think it’s Malaya, which is something else now, going through some very difficult things, so the middle of the book is not delightful. The middle of the book is difficult as far as the subject matter, but I will say when you end the book you will feel so good. I can say that much, but you’re right. That is good to say that the whole thing is not just lighthearted.
ANNE: It’s interesting what you said about it feeling like historical fiction because it really does, but it’s a fictionalized account of very recent historical events when it was written, but a lot of this book is about healing and I just remember after said tragedy, the young woman, I think she says like ugh, I just feel a hundred years old after living through what she lived through, which somehow feels poetic for your challenge.
TARA: Right, yeah. [LAUGHS] That’s true, that’s true.
ANNE: That is A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute. Have you read anything else by Nevil Shute?
TARA: I haven’t. I have a coup – I bought a couple of his other books after I read that one but I haven’t read them yet as I’ve heard some of his other stuff is very heavy.
ANNE: Well the only other one I’ve read is On The Beach which I’ve heard discussed quite often as it’s not a pandemic novel. It’s a nuclear devastation novel.
TARA: [LAUGHS] Okay.
ANNE: But I’ve heard it discussed as reading similarly to a pandemic novel and for those who are flocking to pandemic novels right now as opposed to the other camp of readers who are like you have got to be kidding me, I need ten years before I want to read like
ANNE: A Station Eleven or The Stand or anything close like On The Beach. I was just wondering if you see that title batted about. I remember being it not as devastating to read as you might expect given the fact …
TARA: Okay, that’s good to know.
ANNE: It’s about humanity coming to a swift end after nuclear war.
TARA: Right. [LAUGHS] Yes.
ANNE: Some listeners are thinking I need to read that immediately and some listeners are thinking what is wrong with people that they want to read that? [TARA LAUGHS] But take your pick, readers. Tara, tell me what’s next.
TARA: So the second one was actually one of your recommendations when I was first on the podcast, and it was the one I didn’t think I was going to read. Native Son by Richard Wright and it’s from 1940. So I have of course have heard of this book and I totally understood why you were recommending it to me but I was weary of it because I had heard that there were some moments of graphic violence in it and like I said I tend to stay away from that.
So when we first, you know, ended the call, I didn’t think I was going to read it because you had given me another suggestion for that same year when I said I was not sure about that one. And then the more I thought about it I thought you know what this is an important book. It’s a book that really should work for me and I feel like I should give it a try, and if it’s too much for me, if the violence is too much, I can put it down and choose another book for that year.
So you know I gave myself that freedom and man, this book probably more than any other in the whole challenge has stuck with me the most. This is what I will say about the violence. So there are two moments in the book of very graphic violence, but both of those points, like it’s not a surprise. You can see leading up to it that something is about to happen, so there were two paragraphs that I skipped, and then it was okay. I know what happened [LAUGHS] in those two paragraphs.
TARA: I didn’t need to read the details.
TARA: So I was able to skip just a small portion in order to make it more manageable for me. I mean, it’s an incredible book. The main character is Bigger Thomas and he is a young Black man living in Chicago. He’s hired to work for this white family. Some bad things start to happen. The reason that this book really stuck with me is I would say in my schooling growing up, so I was in high school in the 90s. When we were taught about the Jim Crow years and about segregation, I’ve come to see that we were taught it in a very whitewashed way. I don’t think we were ever really presented with, at least living here in Arizona, I don’t think we were ever really presented with what segregation really meant for Black people in America at that time. This book does that.
I mean it feels, and this is in Chicago, so this wasn’t even in the south. You just see so deeply what segregation did to both Black and white people, what it meant, what it meant that there were whole parts of society that were unavailable to Black people and the kind of rage and sorrow that can result from that. This is just an incredibly powerful book.
There is one scene in it where Bigger is talking to someone else and really talking about this, about segregation and what it means for him, that I think will stay with me forever. So, I mean, it’s a novel, but it’s talking about real issues at the time and the fact that was published in 1940, and I later learned too that it was a Book of the Month selection so this book went out to all these people all over the country and I wonder what kind of impact it had on them then in 1940 at the very heart of this.
ANNE: In 1940.
TARA: Yeah. Mmhm. So yeah, so this was just an incredibly impactful book. It’s also written unbelievably well. I mean he’s an incredible writer.
TARA: So I’m so glad I read it. I’m so glad that I didn’t let the fear of the violence in it keep me away from it. I’m so glad you recommended it. I’m so glad I read it, and it was absolutely one of my favorites.
ANNE: I’m so glad you read it too. Tara, what did you choose to complete your favorites?
TARA: Okay, I just realized that both of these are like incredibly heavy, but that’s not rare for me in my reading. I typically like stuff that has heavy subject matter, so my third is Testament of Youth, which is by Vera Brittain and it was published in 1933. Has this been talked about on the podcast before? Do you know?
ANNE: Yes, and I hadn’t heard of it until it was … It was Emily Kinard actually in episode 86.
ANNE: She chose it as one of her favorites and I didn’t know anything.
TARA: Yeah, I think that’s where I heard about it was on the show. Have you read it now? Or no?
ANNE: No, I still haven’t read it. Talk me into it, Tara.
TARA: This is nonfiction. so this is Vera Brittain’s kinda memoir, kinda autobiography of her life before World War I, during World War I, and after. The thing about this book that really stood out to me is her voice in this book was so incredibly strong and it’s a pretty long book. I think it was like 600 pages or so. When I finished this book I felt like I was saying goodbye to a friend, like I felt like I knew her. Her voice was so distinct.
The strongest part of the book to me was this middle section during World War I. She was a nurse in World War I. She was from England and she was of an age where most of her like her brothers, her friends, basically any male in her life that was her age went off to fight the war. She was just of that age at that time and so then she also volunteered to be a nurse. But just the devastating loss that she sustained, and I know this probably isn’t selling it. [LAUGHS] But she just suffered such devastating loss as a result of World War I, but the way that she writes about it. I mean, she’s just such a skillful writer and I don’t … I hadn’t really learned anything about World War I – I knew very little.
I mean, I feel like so much nonfiction and historical fiction now is about World War II and I just hadn’t seen, at least at the time, I hadn’t seen much about World War I. And this isn’t about the war like what started the war and the battles. It’s not that at all. It’s really just about what it was like to be a young woman in England and to have so many of your friends and family members go off to war and many not come back.
But I think the thing like I said the thing I really loved about this book is her voice. I just felt like I knew her and I took my time with this one because it was heavier and it was longer. I kinda stayed with this book longer than most of the other books in the challenge and so I just, I felt like I felt like she was a friend telling me about her life. I feel like it’s just a really special book, and I don’t know if it’s for everybody because it is heavy. It is long. But if you want to understand more about what it was like to live at that time, you can’t go wrong with this book.
ANNE: I do love a novel with a really strong voice and I hear you saying that. We’re definitely going to keep that in mind as we move forward. Okay, I heard you wanted to wedge in a fourth. If you could pick one, what would it be?
TARA: [LAUGHS] It would be Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.
ANNE: Are these four novels head and shoulders above the rest, or is there like a steady progression of Tara’s favorites?
TARA: No, there’s a lot of good ones, but I mean, it’s a hundred books, right? [BOTH LAUGHS] So there’s a lot of good ones in there.
ANNE: I mean I recently put together my best books of 2021 and I … The question is how many is too many. I have asterisks that meant like a really great read to next like 40.
TARA: Yeah, although it does … So it does feel like if I can do four, I feel like those four really encapsulate what I liked to read in general and the best ones from the challenge so.
ANNE: Oh, well what does Housekeeping bring? How does that illuminate your reading tastes in a way the first three didn’t?
TARA: I mean I love Marilynne Robinson. I’ve now as of 2021 I’ve read all of her novels. I think she has some nonfiction. I haven’t read that, but I’ve now read all of her novels and I gah, I just love the way she writes. [LAUGHS] For me, what I’m looking for when I pick up a book to me the writing is the most important thing. I can absolutely do a book without a plot but I cannot do a book without good writing for the most part. Housekeeping, you’ve read this one right?
ANNE: I have. But not til recent years.
TARA: I mean her writing is incredible in it and I love this one because it’s kinda melodramatic too, like her other books and I love the Gilead books as well, but they are very quiet and Housekeeping has some melodrama to it. I mean it’s this family where the daughters, I think they’ve lost their parents at the beginning, is that right?
TARA: And then they go to live with an aunt, yes. But the aunt is kinda a transient. She doesn’t … Or maybe it’s a grandmother. Sorry. It’s been a few years since I read this book [LAUGHS] now. They’re in this house in this town that’s really a character in itself. It’s very atmospheric, but the thing I really love about it is it felt a bit melodramatic to me and I really love that in books. If the writing is good and I can have some drama, I am here for it. That’s why I like to have this one as the fourth. I mean I think all of the books I picked are written incredibly well, but Marilynne Robinson is probably at the top.
ANNE: Now tell me about a book that wasn’t right for you from your challenge. Was this hard to choose?
TARA: It was so easy to choose. [BOTH LAUGH] I would sometimes start a book for a year and realize it wasn’t really working for me, so I would stop that book and I would choose a different one for that year. So this is the only one in my challenge that I gave a one star rating to because it’s the only one I didn’t like
TARA: But I still finished. [LAUGHS]
TARA: And didn’t choose another book for and it is Wide Sargasso Sea from 1966. Nothing about it worked for me. [ANNE LAUGHS] I felt like the narration was erratic and confusing. So this book, if you’re not familiar with it, I guess I’m going to give like a really slight Jane Eyre spoiler, but it takes the mad woman in the attic from Jane Eyre and it tells her backstory with Mr. Rochester and they are in the Caribbean.
That premise to me sounds amazing, but just the way it was written, I think it’s considered a postmodern novel and I don’t even exactly know what postmodern encompasses [LAUGHS] but I will tell you that this book is confusing. The characters to me felt kinda one-dimensional. Yeah, I just, I thought it was terrible. And I know it’s considered a modern classic. [ANNE LAUGHS] And so …
ANNE: “I thought it was terrible.” That’s going to be our pull quote, Tara.
TARA: Yeah. A lot of people hate it too because when I did my review a lot of people were like yes, this book is terrible. But some people love it and it is considered a modern classic and so maybe if I had read it as a part of a literature class where I had, you know, professors to help me understand why the author was making the choices she was making, but just reading it, just me and the page, it did not work.
ANNE: I just listened to The Sentence by Louise Erdrich not that long ago, which I mean talk about a book that will load up your TBR so proceed with caution or enthusiasm or a mixture thereof. So much of it takes place in a bookstore and there’s lots of books mentioned in the text and Wide Sargasso Sea is on a bookseller’s informal list of short but perfect novels.
TARA: Wow. Yeah. I did … It is short. I agree – I agree with the short part. [LAUGHS] And that’s one of the reasons why I decided to finish it. There wasn’t anything else from 1966 that I was excited about replacing it with and it was short, so I was just like I’m just gonna … I’ll finish it. Honestly if I had kept reading Catch-22, that might have been worse. I don’t know. [BOTH LAUGH] But for the ones I finished and didn’t replace with another book, Wide Sargasso Sea was definitely on the bottom.
ANNE: Now I’m going to see what you could choose from in 1966.
TARA: You know, I looked recently as I was kinda preparing to talk with you again and I was like was there truly nothing else? And then I saw there was Jubilee. I can’t remember who the author of that is now.
ANNE: Oh! Is that 1966?
TARA: I think so.
ANNE: Margaret Walker.
TARA: Yeah, I should have read that. Clearly. [LAUGHS] ‘Cause I feel like that’s a book I would like.
ANNE: Ah, well I read Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead in school with an amazing English professor. I don’t know what I would have thought if I would have read it on my own.
TARA: I have read that and that’s one of the reasons I didn’t pick that one. There might have been some other ones but I had already read them, and for the most part I did not do reread for this other than The Grapes of Wrath.
ANNE: Tara, what have you been reading lately?
TARA: I’ve kinda been on like a literary award kick. [LAUGHS] I recently read the whole, just the shortlist for the National Book Award, so I think the last couple that I read were The Prophets and Matrix. Right now I’m reading this year’s Pultizer winner, which is The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich and I’m really liking that. Actually, I read two of her books for my challenge ’cause she is prolific. She’s been writing for a long time and so I read two of hers for the challenge and I liked both of them.
ANNE: Which ones did you read?
TARA: I read Love Medicine, which was 1984, and then I read her middle grade novel The Birchbark House, which was 1999.
TARA: Yeah, I liked both of them. I wouldn’t say that I loved either of them, but I was so glad I read them and it made me want to read more of her.
ANNE: Is reading through the National Book Award shortlist, reading the Pulitzer winner, are these regular practices for you?
TARA: No, I think this is the first time I’ve ever read the whole shortlist for the National Book Award. I do like to – I do like to read the winner and I think the last several years I’ve had, but it is sorta an informal goal to read all of the fiction Pulitzer winners at some point. That is the award that I feel like matches my reading style the closest. I just feel like most of the ones that win that I love. Like the last ones before this one were The Nickel Boys and The Overstory and those were absolutely five star reads for me. So yes, I do – I do like following the literary awards. I don’t usually try to read like the whole long list or the whole shortlist. Just this year all of the books on the shortlist really interested me, so that’s why I chose to read them.
ANNE: What do you want to be different in your reading life right now?
TARA: With my hundred years of book challenge, I reviewed every single book that I read and I reviewed all of them on Instagram. I was reading back through those reviews to prepare for today and it made me want to review more, so I’ve continued to review books but I’ve just been lazy about it. [LAUGHS] Because I didn’t have like this goal propelling me forward, but I just love having this almost like a time capsule of my reading life where I have a hundred books that I read and I can read what I thought about all of them. And so I don’t think I’ll ever review every book I read but I want to review more because I realized just how valuable that is to me and I think it’s just, I mean, with the pandemic I’ve still been reading a ton but I haven’t been reviewing much ’cause it just feels hard. I guess just when everything feels hard I just want something to feel easy. But I really miss having those reviews to look at again, so that’s one thing that I would like to do more of and I did buy your reading journal and I think that will help me to get back into reviewing more of what I read.
ANNE: I’m really glad that you mentioned the reading journal because I meant to tell you, I’ve heard from maybe, I mean, not a small amount considering maybe a half dozen readers who say that they’re using the my reading life book journal specifically for a century of good books challenge.
TARA: Oh! That’s so great.
ANNE: It holds a hundred books. There’s a hundred fill in the blank one and a half page table of contents at the beginning so you can see all the books you’ve read in advanced, but what they’re doing is they’re not listing the books in order, but they’re reading through the 21st century. 1901 is book one. 1910 is book ten. And I just thought that was so smart.
TARA: Yeah, I love that. That’s really cool. And then, I mean another thing, I guess I don’t want this to be different, but what I found in my pandemic reading is that I just need it to be good writing. You know, I think a lot of people, especially at the beginning of this two year now [LAUGHS] ordeal, I know a lot of people were having trouble with heavy subject matter in their books and I didn’t with that but I did find that I needed the writing to be beautiful. I felt like if all the things around me are broken, I at least need the writing that I read to be lovely. And doesn’t mean the subject matter has to be lovely, but I just, I wanted to be written amazingly is kinda [LAUGHS] where I’ve been at in the last, you know, year and a half, two years.
ANNE: This is a hard question, but what is beautiful writing mean to you?
TARA: I mean I can tell who I think writes beautifully. Marilynne Robinson, Elizabeth Strout, James Baldwin. I mean, I think writing that doesn’t have like cliches or things like that. Just feels original and I just love books that really explore what it means to be human. Yeah, I’m not a writer myself so I don’t even know that I could say what it is about those authors that just have them stand apart from other authors. You might be better at this than I am, but [ANNE LAUGHS] because you’re a writer and I am not, but when I read books by authors like that, like Elizabeth Strout, James Baldwin, like I feel like I’m in good hands, right? Like I feel like they might have really bad things happen to their characters but I trust them. I trust where they’re gonna go with it. Their writing is just a pleasure to read if that makes sense.
ANNE: I remember the author Hannah Patare said once sometimes the words just fall in exactly the right place, and I feel like that sometimes when I’m reading I’m like oh, that just could not have been said better.
TARA: That’s a good way to put it.
ANNE: Tara, how are you approaching your reading life right now? How are you choosing what to read, what kind of mix are you looking for between old and new? Or are you just choosing what just looks good and let it fall where it does?
TARA: I mean, probably some of both. I still definitely like to read old books. Books that have stood the test of time. Although I would say this year I’ve read more new books as far as like a proportion of the books that I’ve read than any other year before and I feel like there were just so many good books [LAUGHS] that came out this year.
ANNE: I was gonna say though! Like …
ANNE: There have been so many amazing new books.
TARA: Yeah. But I still think I’m over half I would say, three or four years old or much older, and gosh, how do I choose books? I mean, obviously this podcast [LAUGHS] puts a ton of books on my list and you know, one of the cool things about being on this podcast, you know, three years ago was I got to meet over Instagram so many other readers and I’ve found just so many readers whose taste is similar to mine, and so if I you know have a friend on Instagram who posts about a book and I know their taste is similar to mine, like it’s so easy for me then to just go and read that book because it’s like I’m getting, I mean it’s not a personalized recommendation but it feels like it is. This year I finally read Les Mis, the full version and I loved it, so that wouldn’t have been in my challenge ’cause that was the 19th century [ANNE LAUGHS] but I love old books. You know, if a new book comes out and people are talking about the writing then I’m more likely to pick that book up too.
ANNE: I read unabridged Les Mis in 8th grade, which was not the choice.
TARA: Yeah. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I would not recommend that to 13 year old past Anne.
So the books you loved were A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute, published 1950, Native Son by Richard Wright, published 1940, and Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain published in 1933. Also for you was Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson published in 1980, but not for you was Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Did you expect at the beginning of the year that your favorites would skew so old?
TARA: No, I did not. And actually my favorite decade was the ‘50s which was totally unexpected.
TARA: I had very neutral feelings about the ‘50s and I loved so many of the books I read that decade.
ANNE: What were a couple of titles that you read in the ‘50s?
TARA: Well Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin and one of the other ones that you recommended which was The Daughter of Time. That was 1951, and I loved that one.
ANNE: Oh, I thought of that when you were talking about the mysteries.
TARA: So there were just some really good ones. Those were the best I would say and of course A Town Like Alice which I already mentioned.
ANNE: And currently you’re working your way through the National Book Award shortlist and reading the Pulitzer winner, and you’re looking for beautiful writing, although a confusing needlessly complicated story like Wide Sargasso Sea, not for you. Okay. I’m not quite sure whether to go old or new with one of these authors I hope you haven’t read but we are going to start with the oldest.
ANNE: Now I actually just talked about this book as an old book that I think is worth shining a spotlight on in my episode with Jim Mustich but it’s worth repeating and I think it’s worth repeating for you. Have you read The Transit of Venus by Shirely Hazzard?
TARA: No, I’ve never even heard of that.
ANNE: Oh, this makes me so happy. [TARA LAUGHS] I know when Anne Helen Peterson was on What Should I Read Next she loved one of her I think later works, The Great Fire. Remember when you said The Testament of Youth was Vera Brittain talking about hard stuff that happened to her and you’re not really selling it?
TARA: Yes. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: I fear I might be in a similar situation with Shirley Hazzard and The Transit of Venus but let me — let me start by introducing it this way. There’s a new edition that just came out I think earlier this year. It’s been reissued. It’s a beautiful, I think Penguin edition but don’t hold me to that. You’ve been working your way through the National Book Award winners. One of those winners, Lauren Groff, writes a new introduction to this book and in the beginning she says there is no one who writes a novel like Shirley Hazzard. Look at the structure of her sentences. At this point in her career not only does she tell the story that needs to be told and tell it in a beautiful way, but just watch the way the words fall on the page and that’s beginning from the very first line which is … Here I’ll read it to you. It’s “By nightfall the headlines would be reporting devastation,” and what Lauren Groff starts by pointing out is that that is the beginning of a pattern you’ll see over and over and over like where she’s ending on the down beat almost like the important thing, like she’s just really giving her words a rhythm that makes you feel their impact, even if you don’t consciously notice it. Lauren Groff is like this is going straight to your subconscious. Your body knows. Your mind knows even if you don’t consciously recognize it.
So she talks about the elegant, economical, perfectly constructed sentences telling the story and how at the beginning when you start reading you’re reading about a storm, but you don’t understand why the storm matters, what event the storm is actually showing you, or that what you’re basically reading is this like tiny encapsulation of the whole plot of the novel in these opening pages. What you do learn very quickly is that you almost feel like you’ve been dropped into a Henry James novel because there are these two beautiful sisters. They’re orphaned. They’ve come from Australia to London to make their way and they have a … I almost called her a doting aunt. She might actually be a cousin but she’s not doting. She is more like Mrs. Bates than anything but without any of her good will, and so these women have to make their way and that means for them meeting men and falling in love with the right men or perhaps the wrong men, and one of these men is an astronomer, which is how you end up with the title from astronomy The Transit of Venus that actually makes sense in the story.
The sisters on their surface have nothing in common. One is fair and shy and just wants a normal life that she never dreamt that she could ever have when she was first orphaned back in Australia, and the other is more willful. She’s fiercely intelligent. Reserved but not cowering like she thinks her sister can be. That’s the one who brings the melodrama. Although the other one doesn’t really shy off because of who she marries.
I wanted to read this book because readers with good taste had told me like Anne, you will be glad you read this story so even though I was practically bored to tears the first 75 pages and could not keep the sisters apart, which by the end of the book was inconceivable to me, like how could I confuse these two? I kept going because I knew that I would at least be glad that I read it. I trusted that. But I do want to warn readers that maybe their experience at the beginning, and I also want to share a quote from Shirley Hazzard’s own husband that said like ugh, no one should have to read that book for the first time.
There is so … I mean, she’s such a master. I’m so impressed, but you don’t even realize what she’s doing so well as you’re reading the story for the first time ’cause you don’t know where it’s going. You don’t know what happens, and you can tell that there’s some foreshadowing ’cause she says things like this is where this character is going to end up in 20 years but he won’t know that til later, so she’s giving you clues but you don’t know what she’s referencing until later and you don’t even realize all the crumbs she’s dropping until later and it’ll just make you get to the end and want to go back to the beginning and read again. The way she tells a story I think you’re going to like it. And I know I use the word melodrama because I’m talking to you, but by readers who are scared by that term, I wouldn’t worry.
TARA: Yeah, that sounds great.
ANNE: That’s the Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard. Okay, next talk to me about your experience with James McBride.
TARA: I have read Deacon King Kong. I really liked it.
ANNE: I want to suggest you read The Good Lord Bird published in 2013. You have discussed today how you love beautiful writing and you love a strong, distinctive voice, and that is what you’re going to get here. There’s a prolog in the beginning of the book that kinda sets up because you’re reading a novel but the novel unfolds as though it’s a memoir written by the first person …
ANNE: Narrator so when you meet the narrator in chapter one the first sentence goes I was born a colored man and don’t you forget it, but I lived as a colored woman for 17 years. The colored man who lived as a colored woman for 17 years is Henry Shackleford but he goes by Little Onion. When he was a twelve year old slave in Kansas in the Civil War era, so we talked about how A Town Like Alice was lightly fictionalized. This is actually the story of John Brown from the raid at Harpers Ferry and John Brown’s body and actually there was a series that came out last … I guess two years ago now, and there were a lot of press pieces afterwards that went do you want to know how much is real? The answer is a lot more than you think in this story.
The same is true for the book, but what happens is Little Onion’s father is killed when John Brown comes in to free some slaves, which is what he was best known for, but Little Onion escapes or rather is taken in by John Brown but because he’s wearing like a zap cloth, it looks like a dress to John Brown, he thinks Little Onion is a girl, but for safety reasons, Little Onion just goes along with it because he thinks he’ll be safer if he’s believed to be that way. But he ends up following along with John Brown and his gang as they go across the country. They meet Frederick Douglas. They meet Harriet Tubman. They go all over and what’s so interesting here is you know much of this history, or at least you have … You know a little about much of this history, but to see it unfold through the eyes of a twelve year old boy who’s very innocent in some ways, but because of life experience very not in others, is really interesting narratively speaking but the voice is what I think – I think that’s why you’re really going to love it. His turn of phrase, the way he expresses himself, the way that James McBride can make the words fall in the right order.
TARA: Yeah, I do love a distinctive voice and I really enjoyed Deacon King Kong so I’ve wanted to read more of his so this sounds great.
ANNE: That is The Good Lord Bird James McBride. 2013. Have you read Mary Lawson?
TARA: I don’t think so.
ANNE: I was really thinking about Crow Lake for you but I didn’t even realize until you were talking about Nevil Shute that her most recent book, which was I believe shortlisted for the booker this year, it’s called A Town Like Solace, and I kinda like that symmetry for you.
TARA: Okay, yeah, I do. I own this one on my kindle, A Town Called Solace, but I haven’t read it yet. I haven’t read anything by her.
ANNE: Mary Lawson typically writes short stories but she packs in so much I think that she would definitely be … Actually during our conversation I wrote down you know one of the authors I want to become a completist in because that’s something I’m doing in 2022, I need to add Mary Lawson to the list. I love the way she writes but I think you will too. I think Mary Lawson’s tone and style just nestles in so well with that cluster of writers.
So this is a braid of a story. This is about three characters in a small, almost forgotten Canadian town with one diner where some of the best scenes absolutely take place just so you know, but their lives come together in unexpected, unforeseen ways, and even though each of those characters is going through just brutal things in their life, loss and divorce and unemployment, but the way these characters in a small town come together in their own little trio, but also the way they each put out fingers to find community in the places they are, especially the 30 something in this story who comes to this community. They’re really just licking his wounds and starts to make connections that save him.
There’s so much to love here, and I’m so glad that it got called out the way it did as a nominee ’cause I know you’re not the only one who’s a sucker for an award winner and I’m glad it’s going to find more readers because of that, but that is A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. How does it sound?
TARA: I’m really excited about all of these, truly.
ANNE: Well we kept it to one new book but if you want to go back in time Crow Lake was published in 2002. It’s her award winning debut, and if you like A Town Called Solace and you’ll go through it very quickly because it’s just barely over 200 pages.
ANNE: There’s more where that came from. And I’m going to be discovering the rest in 2022. [SIGHS] My list of must read books for this year is just getting longer and longer [TARA LAUGHS] and longer. I’m going to start to consider taking the must label off of some of them I think. But you know how that goes.
TARA: I do. I definitely do.
ANNE: Okay. Tara, of the books we talked about today, at least the ones you may consider reading next, they were The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard, The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, and A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson. Of those books, what do you think you’ll read next?
TARA: Well I think since I already own A Town Called Solace that one will probably be next, but I’m excited to read all of them.
ANNE: That feels right to me. This has been a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming back on What Should I Read Next to talk books.
TARA: Thank you so much. This was so fun.
[CHEERFUL EXIT MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Tara, and I’d love to hear which of our recommendations YOU want to read next. To see all of the titles we discussed today, check out the show notes at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/314.
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Readers, that’s it for this episode. Thanks so much for listening.
And as Rainer Maria Rilke said, “ah, how good it is to be among people who are reading.” Happy reading, everyone.
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• Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
• Georgette Heyer (Try Footsteps in the Dark)
• The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
• James Baldwin (Try The Fire Next Time)
• The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
• Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
• The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark
• The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
• The Overstory by Richard Powers
A Town Like Alice by Nevil Shute
• On the Beach by Nevil Shute
Native Son by Richard Wright
Testament of Youth by Vera Brittain
Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
△ Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys
• Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
• The Sentence by Louise Erdrich
• Jubilee by Margaret Walker
• Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
• The Prophets by Robert Jones Jr
• Matrix by Lauren Groff
• The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich
• Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich
• The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
• My Reading Life by Anne Bogel
• Elizabeth Strout (try Olive Kitteridge)
• Hannah Pittard (try Visible Empire)
• Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
• Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin
• The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
• The Transit of Venus by Shirley Hazzard
• The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
• Deacon King Kong by James McBride
• The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
• Crow Lake by Mary Lawson
• A Town Called Solace by Mary Lawson