Readers, it’s not uncommon to hear from a guest that reading a specific book has changed their life in some way—but today’s guest has a slightly different story to share. In her case, giving away almost all of her personal library spurred a transformation in her reading life, and she’s been surprised but pleased with the results.
When Nicole Fagan found out she was expecting her son, she knew she wanted to create a nursery space that was just for him. However, that meant grappling with a tough decision: what to do with the hundreds of books she no longer had room for? Faced with this conundrum, Nicole took drastic action, and decided to give away all but 10 of her most favorite titles.
Today, Nicole’s embraced her identity as a reader rather than a book collector. We chat about what she loves in a reading experience, a specific type of story she’s particularly enjoying right now, and a genre she’s hoping to break into, and I’ll suggest some reads that I expect will captivate her attention and give her something new to sample in her reading selections.
NICOLE: I’ve been really into books, what would, how would you say it? With a great sense of food?
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Not strong sense of place, but strong sense of food.
NICOLE: Yes, strong sense of food. [BOTH LAUGH]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 315.
Welcome to the show that’s dedicated to answering the question that plagues every reader: What should I read next?
We don’t get bossy on this show: What we WILL do here is give you the information you need to choose your next read. Every week we’ll talk all things books and reading, and do a little literary matchmaking with one guest.
Readers, if you’ve got overflowing stacks of books and stuffed-to-the-seams shelves in your house (like I do), today’s episode may be just the prompt you need to take a fresh look at your book collecting habit.
When Nicole Fagan was preparing her small home for the arrival of her son, she looked around the prospective nursery, which was full of hundreds of books, and did something drastic: she gave away all but 10 of her most favorite titles. You heard that right. This is a 10 book house. While it was no easy feat for Nicole to part with so many books, in the years since her big purge she’s found her reading life is better than ever.
Today, Nicole has embraced her identity as a reader—but not a collector—of books. She loves engaging stories that keep her attention, and recently has been devouring books where food plays a major role in the story. We’ll chat about titles that speak to her love of stories and that also evoke strong emotions or perhaps feature unlikely friendships.
This is a fun one. Let’s get to it.
Nicole, welcome to the show.
NICOLE: Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited.
ANNE: You sent in your submission to our form whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest and I read it and went oh I want to talk to her. I want to talk to her now.
NICOLE: Honestly, I had no intention on applying to be on the show. This show has been such an important part of kinda my pandemic story. I’ve always been a fan of your blog, but I didn’t start listening to the podcast until the pandemic started and I kinda needed stuff to block everything else that was going on. And so I started listening to it and then I don’t know, a couple months ago, I heard you guys talk about submissions and was like well, I just want to see what the form looks like. Then I started filling out the form and it’s like you’re never going to send this in, but then I finished the form and I was like this is actually [LAUGHS] not bad. Just hit submit and see what happens. And literally about six weeks later, I got what do they call it, the magic email. [ANNE LAUGHS] So I was very, very excited.
ANNE: Well I’m so glad you did because I read it and went, this sounds fun, and listeners, I want you to know, we get so many submissions and we basically want to talk to every single one. We don’t use the word apply in-house. We just say submit because depending on the day and our current lineup, it’s a little bit the luck of the draw I think, but you know where to find it. Whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest. Nicole, tell us a little bit about yourself.
NICOLE: I live in beautiful Sonoma county. I’ve lived in California my entire life. I work in San Francisco, which is kinda a loose term now, ’cause I work out of my home. [LAUGHS] I work for a hospital in San Francisco. I’m in human resources. I do a lot of benefits education. I’m a mom. My son is seven. He’s obviously a big reader.
ANNE: You said that you read about one book a week and that gives you about fifty chances a year to go anywhere in the world or time period that strikes you in the moment.
NICOLE: It really does, and I’ve been reading about that probably, you know, more like 40, but in 2021 I definitely have hit that 50 mark, which was pretty amazing to me. I didn’t know I had time to read that many books but I do.
ANNE: What was different this year? [LAUGHS] Beyond all the stunningly obvious?
NICOLE: I really think it’s the not commuting. I was commuting about 45 minutes a day and I really have started reading in the morning instead of just at night, so I read the first thing in the morning. I don’t even have coffee yet. I can read before I’m caffeinated. Doing anything before I’m caffeinated is a miracle, but I can read before I even get up to do the coffee. So I read at least 20 minutes to a half hour, and the house is quiet. My family is still asleep, which is awesome.
ANNE: Is this before your feet hit even hit the floor?
NICOLE: Yes. I’m reaching for that Kindle before my eyes are even really fully open.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] And how is it to start the day like that?
NICOLE: It’s really, really relaxing. Kinda move yourself into another world before you have step into the world you’re really in. Awesome.
ANNE: I mean, my coffee is decaf and yet still the idea of reading before coffee. I mean, I’m just sitting here with my jaw open. Nicole, have you always been a reader?
NICOLE: Yes, I have always been a reader. I was a Nancy Drew reader. My mom took me to the library often. I never read The Baby-Sitters Club and now as an adult and listening to your show, I’m like did I miss this like great childhood adventure? But I was a really big Nancy Drew girl.
ANNE: Now, Nicole, I wanted to talk to you about something noteworthy from your What Should I Read Next submission. I’m going to play devil’s advocate a little bit and I’m going to say how in the world can a devoted reader live with only ten books?
NICOLE: No, I hear you. [BOTH LAUGH] It was heartbreaking. So when I was about six and half months pregnant I lived in a tiny apartment. The guest room that we had was full of books and there was … You know, there was furniture in there, but it was really full of my books. I needed to set up a room for him and I wanted that space to be dedicated to him. At first I thought to myself well, you know, you can just clear off a few shelves. You can fill that up with diapers and things like that, but you know what the beginning, it was really like where am I going to put this child? Should I set up the thing in the crib? [ANNE LAUGHS] These books were very, very important to me.
ANNE: What do they represent to you?
NICOLE: I felt that at the time that they represented all the journeys that I had been on. You know, I had traveled a little bit, but not an incredible amount. I mean a lot of those books got me through really hard times. You have people over to your house, you want people to see the things that you love. You know, you have trinkets around from different vacations but, you know, you have this wall of books and you feel like people can know you from these books and it’s like who am I really without these books, but I really truly was ready to start my new journey, so at first I was just going to get rid of some of the books and then it ended up being I got rid of all of the books.
ANNE: Truly all? Or did you keep the ten?
NICOLE: I kept the ten.
NICOLE: But I took them all off and a lot of them … I had read all of them, so it wasn’t like I had a whole bunch of books that I hadn’t read. I bagged up all of the books.
ANNE: How many are we talking about? I’m afraid to ask.
NICOLE: I had hundreds of books. You know, I had started collecting these books probably in my 20s and I was definitely in my 30s when I did this, so I had years and years of books, and I honestly did not count them. I had no idea at this point which books I gave away but I was … Like I am only going to keep the books that I truly, truly love.
ANNE: What did you keep?
NICOLE: A copy of Jane Eyre. I kept a copy of my Catcher in the Rye book. I have a few signed copies of books. I kept my Kite Runner. There was a period of time where I would go and listen to the author speak ’cause he also lived in the Bay Area, so I kept a copy of that book. I have a Stephen King book that’s signed, so I really only kept signed books and maybe like three other books.
ANNE: Oh. I wish I could see listeners’ faces right now.
NICOLE: No, I know, and it was really at the end, you know, I really had to separate for me the two hobbies. I am still a reader even though I don’t own all of these books, you know, so I’m no longer a book collector, so I separate the two. You know, there’s the hobby of book collecting because not everybody reads all of the books that they own or have. I’ve heard that many times on this show. So I am no longer a book collector, but I still love reading and I still love books. I still go to the bookstore and touch the books. [ANNE LAUGHS] And read the back of the books. I still go to, you know, the little libraries and see what’s in there. I no longer grab them ’cause I don’t bring books into the house, except for my son. He’s got a collection. But I no longer bring books into the house. I’ve only … I’ve really brought two or three books in the house that have gone on to a shelf with the exception of cookbooks. I’ve got ten or twelve.
ANNE: Well I ask the question in a cheeky way, but I mean, yes, I’m sure there are lots and lots of readers who love to read and don’t own a single book. Least I be misunderstood, I just wanted to make that real clear. But the thing I really wanted to hear about is what happened next. So you decided you were going to get rid of them, tell us what you did.
NICOLE: So I bagged the books, and I’m talking about regular grocery shopping paper bags full of books and it was however many fit in to that bag, and I gave these bags of books away. I mean, I think one of them I dropped off at the library and I brought some to work and one of my coworkers grabbed probably had at least 40 or 50 books. She read them all. So people that I gave these books to, they read them. Years later she came back to me, she’s like, Nicole, I don’t know if you know this or not, but I read every single one of those books and I wrote my application to go to graduate school on the bag of books you gave me and how I read them all and they were not books I would have ever picked.
I mean, I know there were Nicholas Sparks books in there and then there would be, you know, books where someone’s in a brothel and you know, so it was like this [LAUGHS] very kinda eclectic bag of books and I had another person come back to me and is like you know I was kinda going through a hard time and this bag of books, you know, really – really got me through and I realized at that time that I had no idea that that’s what I was doing but I was really happy I did it, like never – never gone back. I will never get rid of books like that again because it was very heartbreaking, but it was really, really worth it, and I think it took me a long time to get to that point. People who know me know that I’m a reader, even though they come into my house and there’s no books.
ANNE: So, Nicole, you got rid of these books for a physical reason. They were taking up room that you didn’t have, and yet it seems to have made more than a physical difference in your space and in your life.
NICOLE: Yes. Books are heavy and I think that [ANNE LAUGHS] I think sometimes in a room they can give the room weight, and in another way it’s freeing … Like I wasn’t really looking at these books. I’m not a rereader. I was never going to reread probably any of these books. You know, I think it was my coworker coming back and people coming back saying oh, you know these books changed my life. It really transformed the way I thought about it. You know, and the space ended up being very, very beautiful.
ANNE: And I imagine that you are not struggling for ways to read what you want to read.
NICOLE: I have no problem, most of the time, choosing what I’m reading, and obviously I don’t have bookshelves to look at.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Makes sense.
NICOLE: And I have nothing on my nightstand. I read it pretty much exclusively on the Kindle, but you can get almost anything you want. So I read on the Kindle Fire and I know a lot of people get distracted with that. I personally don’t get distracted, but my settings are I read it on the black screen and the font is white ’cause it emits less light and I can read in the dark and I don’t disturb anybody. And I’ve mentioned this to a couple of people who are ooh I’ve never thought of that, and so I think I’ve converted at least one person [ANNE LAUGHS] to the black screen.
ANNE: Nicole, I’m really eager to hear more about what specifically you’re reading in your home on your ereader surrounded by lovely things that are not books. Are you ready to explore your reading life a little more?
NICOLE: I am.
ANNE: Okay. You know how this works. You are going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately and we will talk about what you may enjoy reading next. Nicole, tell me about your first selection.
NICOLE: I chose this one ’cause this one was my favorite book of 2021 and it’s The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin and this book is really about two women, Lenni is 17 and Margot is 83, and they’re both in the terminal ward of a hospital and they take this art class together so their ages add up to a hundred and they’re going to paint a painting for every year that they’ve lived together. It’s really, you know, a coming-of-age story and then it’s an older woman looking back on her life. I loved it. I like books with unlikely friendships and, you know, I’m a really stoic reader. Like I don’t laugh out loud and I don’t normally cry, but this book had me like crying until I was blind.
NICOLE: And it’s not just the part that I was going to be crying at. I had so much emotion while reading it and I think that’s really why it was my favorite of this year. I had to put it down. I had to like wash my face. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: But it sounds like you didn’t hate that, if it’s the best book you’ve read this year.
NICOLE: No, I love. I love having books that give me some sort of emotion, you know, even if it’s not showing outwardly. I like to feel something. That, you know, it was really exciting for me. Like oh, a book’s actually doing it. It’s making me cry. And I’m a big crier normally, I just don’t normally with books.
ANNE: That is The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin. Nicole, what did you choose for your next favorite book?
NICOLE: People are going to roll their eyes at this one. My second favorite book is The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger and I’ve listened to this show enough to know that people don’t always love this book, but this is probably my favorite book ever and I think it’s really because it was such an incredible part of my coming-of-age story, you know, like many other people this book was assigned to me. I read it when I was 15 years old.
For me, it was one of the first times reading a book you know, when I was 15 I was taking a lot of things off the shelves and you know, my mom’s Danielle Steel’s books, but this was one of the first books I read where I really connected with a character. I did feel like the world was out to get me. I did have all of this teenage angst. I did hang out with the queen of all phonies. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’m like oh my gosh, this is a book where someone actually understands and I think at that point in time I realized people from the beginning of time have felt this way ’cause you know when you’re 15 I thought this book was so ancient. I’m like I can’t believe they’re making me read this ancient book, but it really rooted me in and helped me realize that people from the beginning of time and into the future have always felt this way.
It is truly the only book I have ever really reread several times in my adult life. The last time I read it I was a mom already. I was reading the book and I realized at that point in time I was like oh, Holden. You know, something else might be going on with you that’s not really just regular teenage angst and you know maybe you should be talking to someone and I closed the book. I kinda teared up ’cause it’s like this is maybe the last time I read this book.
NICOLE: I no longer relate to him. I know the people who give me hope and give me joy. I’m not – I’m not searching for that anymore. I don’t hang out with the queen of phonies anymore and I don’t think the world is out to get me and I grew up and it was such an important part of my coming-of-age story and I closed that book and was like you grew up. You don’t need to compare yourself to him anymore. I just think it’s a beautiful, beautiful book and it tears me up now because the book was really such an important part of my coming-of-age.
ANNE: Yeah. I have a big smile on my face. I love that you chose this book. No apologies necessary and that it meant so much to you. I’m especially glad that for as much as you’ve recognized how you have moved on and Holden, because he is in a novel, has not, that it was there for you when you needed it. That he was there for you when you needed him.
NICOLE: Yes, and hopefully, secretly in some, you know, alternative universe he did grow up.
ANNE: I like to think so. I like to think he found the carousel. Oh, I don’t know if we can top that, but Nicole, what did you choose next?
NICOLE: The Immoralists by Chloe Benjamin and I chose this one because I recommend this one the most. This book is about four siblings and they visit a psychic. I think it’s in the early ‘70s, maybe late ‘60s. The psychic tells them each the day they’re going to die and I really love this book because it kinda goes through decades and you see everybody kinda live their life and I’m not going to obviously give anything away but I really love this one because I feel like it’s really easy to suspend your disbelief. I loved all of the characters and I think it just gives great questions kinda at the end, you know, when you’re looking at the difference between destiny and fate, whether how much choice you have and what’s decided for you in life.
So it really is my favorite book to recommend because it’s such a great book to talk about. I recommend this one even to people who in my life don’t read very much. I’m like I think this is a great way to kinda start ’cause it reads a little bit like a movie. I mean I still remember one scene with one of the sisters in Las Vegas and it still like sticks with me and I haven’t read this book in I don’t know, probably three years. I’m not sure when it came out.
ANNE: Now you’re a California girl, but two of your three favorites are New York City novels. Coincidence?
NICOLE: Oh, that doesn’t surprise me. [ANNE LAUGHS] I’ve got a New York City attitude. [ANNE LAUGHS] I pull no punches. I’m pretty – pretty sarcastic and pretty much tell you like it is. That doesn’t surprise me at all.
ANNE: Speaking of not pulling punches, Nicole, tell me about a book that was not right for you.
NICOLE: Outlawed by Anna North. This was the first buddy read I ever had with my sister. My sister kinda just started getting …
ANNE: Oh no.
NICOLE: So she chose this book so I take no blame for this if there’s going to be blame to go around. [ANNE LAUGHS] She – no, even after she said to me [LAUGHS] she goes is this what reading’s like? I’m like no. This is not what reading is like. We have to get you …
ANNE: So it wasn’t right for her either.
NICOLE: No, I’m like we have to get you a different book. Personally for me I just had a hard time differentiating between the characters. They all kinda seemed the same to me. I skimmed this book because I wanted to finish it. Usually if I’m skimming, I’m quitting, so and for me I really thought the character kid, who is kinda the side character should have been the main character, so I did finish it, but I skimmed it so I could get there. It just wasn’t right for me.
ANNE: I don’t know this book. I know plenty of readers have read it and loved it. It was a Reese Witherspoon pick, which means it has sold a giant ton of copies and it was not right for you. I’m gathering from the skimming that you weren’t invested in the story.
NICOLE: No, I was a little bored, but because it was my first buddy read, I’m like you gotta do this. It’s one of the few shoulds that I have like put on myself in the last couple of years when it comes to books. I’m like you should finish this ’cause you know your sister’s going to finish it, so. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: It’s a feminist spin on a western, isn’t it?
NICOLE: Yes, and then after when I was reading a little bit about it, I think it’s supposed to be like an alternative history if the Spanish flu wiped out more people than it had. I don’t know if I got that from it, but it was a western, and that was probably my favorite part of it. There was some really nice descriptions of mountains, but when you’re reading a book, you don’t want to be like ooh, let’s get back to the mountain part. Just not the right one for me.
ANNE: Nicole, what have you been reading lately?
NICOLE: Okay, so the books I’ve been reading lately, I just finished The Plot. I don’t really read a lot of thrillers or books like that. I think I got that from your summer reading guide. I got it somewhere from you I think, and I really enjoyed it. Even though I kinda guessed the whodunit part.
ANNE: I would have put a PSA out about The Plot. You were supposed to know.
NICOLE: Oh, was I supposed to know?
ANNE: It’s not a spoiler to say you are watching his comeuppance unfold. You were not seeing who brought it about.
NICOLE: Okay. ‘Cause I don’t read enough of these types of books, I was like am I supposed to know this already? Or have I guessed this? No, but the ride was fun and I loved the end of that book, but I was confused. I’m like should I know this already?
ANNE: Well in so many thrillers, you’re not supposed to.
ANNE: I mean, that’s part of the … Red herrings are part of the enjoyment, you know, you flipping the page, you know, to the 80% mark page going [GASPS] No! Not him! Not her! It can’t be. But in that one you were supposed to know. Ah, but I’m glad you enjoyed that one.
NICOLE: And the other book I just finished recently was The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris.
ANNE: Oh yeah.
NICOLE: That’s soul crushing. My soul was like crushed for five days in a row. But I really did enjoy it. And then the last one I finished just a few days ago With the Fire on High.
NICOLE: I really enjoyed that one. I’ve been really into books, what would, how would you say it? With a great sense of food?
ANNE: [LAUGHS] Not strong sense of place, but strong sense of food.
NICOLE: Yes, strong sense of food.
ANNE: [LAUGHS] That’s – that’s your new genre.
NICOLE: No, I’ve been really into the food books.
ANNE: That’s so interesting. How did that start?
NICOLE: I think this may have started with Strange Weather in Tokyo ’cause they have such beautiful food in that book, and I read Crying in H Mart. Just such a sad story but the food was so beautiful.
ANNE: Okay, well that may lead us into what are you looking for in your reading life right now?
NICOLE: You know, I think for 2022 I actually hope I read less books. Like I hope I’m more in the world doing things where it’s not appropriate to be reading. [BOTH LAUGH] And you know, my reading is pretty good. I think I read enough books, you know, I definitely know what I enjoy. There is part of me that would like to kinda expand my genre choices a little bit. You know, I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I don’t read a lot of sci-fi. I don’t want to worldbuild either. I need things that are very, you know, rooted, you know, in a modern time.
ANNE: But you did love The Sweetness of Water.
NICOLE: I did. That book was soul crushing. I loved it.
ANNE: But not set today.
NICOLE: Oh, yeah, no, I will definitely do historical fiction. I don’t want to build a new world. A world that has already happened and the world I’m in today, it doesn’t have to be modern day. I just don’t want to be in a different world. One that’s already happened and one that I’m in today are completely fine. I don’t want to worldbuild in some other place.
ANNE: Except maybe you want to try some fantasy?
NICOLE: I know, but can they be rooted in modern day? Like can they be on Earth?
ANNE: They can or they could be rooted in stories that you already very already familiar with. That is another possibility.
NICOLE: Okay. I know I have a really hard time ’cause it’s like oh do I want to be in a different world when I don’t really understand the world I’m in? [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Sometimes that is exactly the place you want to be. Because that other world can help you, can give you right now, listen to me becoming a science fiction apologist here and fantasy. We’re not going to soapbox this, but that is often the special gift that like science fiction and fantasy can offer readers and the world as they … A different approach to reality by showing you a different reality. Even if that reality is suddenly different ’cause you don’t want to go into a massive worldbuilding. Oh my gosh. Okay, I have too many notes. There are so many different directions we can go in. What are we going to choose? Let’s recap and then we’ll decide.
So you loved The One Hundred Years Of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin, best book you read in 2021. You love apologetically but no need for that, The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. A formative book for you. Also loved the contemporary novel The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin, the book that you have recommended to other readers the most. Not for you, Outlawed by Anna North. What you said in relation to that was you want books where the story keeps moving, so we’re going to keep that in mind, and then we talked about Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam in that it’s a story that really stuck with you and that you still think about all the time, even a long while after reading it.
Strong sense of food sounds good to you. I’m noticing the food books you enjoyed also, several of them portrayed the specific food of different cultures, and that was part of the atmosphere creation in those stories so I’m thinking about that. A little fantasy wouldn’t go amiss if there wasn’t a lot of worldbuilding involved, and then of course I’m paying attention to the books you love.
You and Holden Caulfield have parted ways. I understand that. But I read a book this fall that I just want to mention. It’s called Jacket Weather. It’s by Mike DeCapite. I read it this summer. It’s a short novel. It’s set in New York City, actually. It is about a more middle aged kinda life evaluation, but the voice, it reminded me of – of a grown up Holden Caulfield kinda feeling. Maybe it’s not for you. Maybe it is. I wanted you to know about it.
NICOLE: Ooh, but we’ll find out.
ANNE: Alright, let’s do this. We’re going to start with something fun and distant. You’re welcome and I’m sorry all at the same time because I think you’re really going to like this and also you can’t read it until April. Can we still talk about it?
NICOLE: Oh, of course! I’ll still be reading in April.
ANNE: Okay. [BOTH LAUGH] I was counting on it. The book is called Lessons in Chemistry. It’s by Bonnie Garmus, and readers, I have to say, I read this book before I saw the cover, and I saw the cover and went huh? That doesn’t quite communicate what I would have expected the cover to communicate, and it’s also being pitched as a delight for readers as Where’d You Go, Bernadette, and I don’t really see that either. Okay, so with those two major caveats, this is a book that is going to feel most like The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot to you, and it is a sad book. Sad things happen in this story, but it is so fun and upbeat and life affirming. It’s got the unlikely friendship. It actually has a precocious child, just really a lot of fun on the page.
Plenty of narrative drive, and it’s actually set in California in the 1960s and at the center of the story is Elizabeth Zott, and she is a scientist who only ever wanted to be a scientist, but the book portrays all the discrimination she faced at her company. The men get paid three times as much and get real jobs. She has to go begging for beakers, nobody likes her. She got kicked out of her doctoral program for reasons that are appalling, and there’s some content warnings that go along with this book, which is largely lighthearted but sensitive readers, please take a look. Read some reviews before you pick this up.
It’s got friendship. It’s a love story. Women in science. Actually rowing, as in the sport of crew, is incredibly important in this story. Not something I’d encountered. It turns out that the author is a rower, and she worked at any waves that I thought was really fun, but this brilliant scientist, she’s got a lot of junk she’s dealing with, but she found her calling, and yet she feels like society and the specific business she works for will not let her have it, and yet she quite accidentally ends up hosting a cooking show called Supper at 6. Oh, I won’t tell you how it comes about ’cause that is a really fun plot twist. She cannot talk about cooking, which she loves, without talking about chemistry. This book has a strong sense of food. She’s a character that you will really root for, enjoy reading about. That is Lessons in Chemistry. It’s not coming til April by Bonnie Garmus. How does that sound?
NICOLE: No, that one sounds awesome.
ANNE: Next we’re going to continue our strong sense of food theme. Hala Alyan is an award winning poet. She’s Palestinian American who was a poet before she was a novelist, which I love to read novels by poets because they know how to choose their words with great care. She’s a Brooklyn author if we’re going to continue that theme. I love her more recent release The Arsonists’ City but I want to go with her debut. It’s called Salt Houses.
This story opens with the mother of the family doing what she does, what the women in her family are skilled to do. She is looking into the bottom of a coffee cup to see her daughter’s future and what she sees is not good. Her daughter’s about to get married. She’s about to start a new life and she can see that terrible things are going to happen, but she decides to lie and keep it to herself.
So in this story, you go with it. You trust that the mother knows what she is seeing and what she is talking about and throughout this whole story there’s this sense of tension that the mother knows and we know how things are going to end up but the daughter does not know and it’s a little vague. We don’t know exactly what is going to go horribly wrong but we know something is and that just makes me think of The Immortalists and how knowing things about the future may change the way that you live the present and see things in that time. But this novel unfolds over years and over generations. The family, which is Palestinian, is scattered because of the Six Day War of 1967 and you see how each generation is affected by turns from what the mother saw in that cup so long ago.
Alyan is a Palestinian author. She’s portraying this family rooted in the Middle East and actually the family, it begins in, I think in Nablus, some of the family moves to Kuwait City. They end up going various members to Beirut and Paris and Boston and other places but in every place the family’s heritage as expressed through the food is so important, and when they gather for important meals, she lays out in painstaking detail exactly what they’re eating and how it tastes. There’s a really great quote at one point where Alyan says something like everything was scattered across the counter and the kitchen is a mess in the way that indicates that something remarkable has happened in this space or something like that.
NICOLE: Oh, that’s fan …
ANNE: Dishes everywhere. Leftover rice.
ANNE: How fantastic. This was a party. I think it has a lot of the themes that you’ll enjoy. It’s historical fiction that moves up to almost to the present time and importantly it also has those lavish food descriptions that make you feel like you’re there. In this book the food is not just about the atmosphere, but about the identity of the people who are making it and eating it together.
NICOLE: Oh no, this sounds right up my alley. I can … I think, I mean, honestly I might start that tonight.
ANNE: Well, it is there for the reading. It came out about five years ago and I’m sure, just to, you know, personify a book, I’m sure it’d be delighted if you picked it up. Finally can we do a twofer?
ANNE: I’m thinking about that little bit of fantasy and how you’re interested in reading stuff that’s just slightly different for you and I’m wondering if you’ve read Washington Black by Esi Edugyan?
ANNE: Okay. Washington Black is the protagonist and the title of the book. He’s an enslaved boy born to a Barbados sugar plantation before the Civil War. So this is a novel that asks really big questions about what it means to be free, and even after freedom is declared for the slaves in the United States where Washington Black escapes to, he’s persued by a bounty hunter. So even though he is free, he never feels it. Obviously in a book like this, the author, she’s Canadian, is wrestling with like big questions like life and death and freedom and what gives us meaning and what do we owe each other? And how do you live with personal freedom when there’s so much oppression around you?
But also this is like a wild ride, a thrilling, propulsive page turning adventure. I mean, when George Washington Black escapes from slavery he does it in a hot air balloon and bounces to various places in the United States and he’s like, this kid is on the go and there’s … This is a very plotty book. There is a lot happening while the author is wrestling with these big, important, deep questions. This thing is moving and I think you may like it. There’s also some sci-fi twists, especially knowing that you just read The Sweetness of Water, you’re familiar with the period, you’ve just been in that place mentally like you said a book can take you to all the different places. I feel like this could be a good time for you to pick up this book.
NICOLE: No, my jaw kinda hit the floor when you said hot air balloon. [BOTH LAUGH] I’m down for this.
ANNE: This is a big adventure story.
NICOLE: No, this might be a stretch for me. I’m okay with that. I want to try this.
ANNE: And I will say if you want a shorter option, Alix E. Harrow the author of The Ten Thousand Doors of January has a new novella that came out last fall. It’s called A Spindle Splintered. This is not the world you live in. Well actually it goes back and forth between a plain old regular town in Ohio where a girl is turning 21, oh! And this is kinda a Lenni and Margot set up. She has a terminal condition. She expects this big birthday to be the last she ever has, but something goes wrong, or I guess maybe something goes right at her 21st party and she wakes up in the realm of Sleeping Beauty.
So this is a very short, just barely over 100 pages, madcap, snarky, reimagined fairy tale. It’s a world that you know. You, I imagine, know the tale of Sleeping Beauty, but it is very different in this telling and I think it might be fun. Little taste of fantasy in a bite sized portion. If you like this, she’s got another. She calls it a fractured fable coming out in the spring. Maybe we’re taking a chance on it.
NICOLE: I mean, that’s really interesting ’cause I have been looking at those … What do they call them? Fairy tale retellings, and I’m like you could probably do that. No, I think this, a hundred pages is a great way to start that.
ANNE: Nicole, of the books we talked about today. I mean, we talked about a lot of books today, but —
NICOLE: We really did. It was so much fun.
ANNE: You may already know your answer, but I gotta ask one more time, so Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus, which you’re not reading next. It comes out in April. Salt Houses by Hala Alyan or Washington Black by Esi Edugyan or A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow. What do you think you’ll read next?
NICOLE: I think I’m going to start Salt Houses today and I’m not reading anything so I can start it today.
ANNE: I can’t wait. I’m so excited. I hope you and your Kindle have a lovely time together. This has been so much fun. Thank you for talking books with me today.
NICOLE: Oh, this has been such an honor for me, Anne. Thank you so, so much.
[CHEERFUL EXIT MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Nicole and I’d love to hear what you think she should read next. Find the full list of titles we talked about today at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/315.
We’re on Instagram at whatshouldireadnext and my personal account is there too at annebogel. That’s Anne with an E, B as in books, O-G-E-L. This is a fun place to share updates, episode excerpts and more, so if you’re not following us yet, we’d love to connect with you there.
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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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• Nancy Drew Series by Carolyn Keene (#1: The Secret of the Old Clock)
• The Baby-Sitters Club Series by Ann M. Martin (#1: Kristy’s Great Idea)
• Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
• The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot by Marianne Cronin
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin
△ Outlawed by Anna North
• The Plot by Jean Hanff Korelitz
• The Sweetness of Water by Nathan Harris
• With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo
• Strange Weather in Tokyo by Hiromi Kawakami
• Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
• Jacket Weather by Mike Decapite
• Lessons in Chemistry by Bonnie Garmus
• Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple
• The Arsonists’ City by Hala Alyan
• Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
• Washington Black by Esi Edugyan
• A Spindle Splintered by Alix E. Harrow