ANNE: Evocative, immersive storylines … Man, I’m pulling out all my like book review bingo words here. [KATY LAUGHS]
[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]
Hey readers. I’m Anne Bogel, and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 231.
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, this is an exciting time of year here at What Should I Read Next. We’re gearing up to release my ninth Summer Reading Guide. This is my annual nod to those lazy days on the porch swing and the long evenings where you can tell yourself “it’s not even dark yet” as you turn one more page… and then one more.
This year we almost have an embarrassment of riches with sooo many great books that are coming out. This is my guide to books I’ve read and LOVED for the current season, the ones I can’t wait to recommend.
Everyone who’s signed up for our email newsletter gets the guide when it comes out mid-May, but before the guide is officially released we’re doing a live “unboxing” for our What Should I Read Next patreon supporters. Once again, I’ll reveal all the titles in the guide one by one, and tell you exactly why I chose them. This year’s Summer Reading Guide Unboxing takes place May 12th and we have two times to make it easier for you to attend. We’ll meet at both noon and 7pm eastern. And our patrons—and also Modern Mrs Darcy Book Club members—will get the guide that day. We’ll release it to the public later in the week.
This is one of the events our community looks forward to the most each year; the bookish enthusiasm is off the charts. And one more thing: in addition to the live unboxing event, this year our patreon supporters get an EXPANDED summer reading guide with additional titles, extra book lists, and more fun bonus content. If you’ve ever wondered about joining our readerly community over on patreon this is the time. Go to patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext now to get more info and sign up.
Quick note about Patreon—that’s simply the name of the platform we use for our What Should I Read Next community, because Patreon makes it super simple to share bonus content—including bonus podcast episodes—with you. Get the lowdown at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext, that’s P-A-T-R-E-O-N, patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.
Today I’m chatting with reader Katy Yocom about a genre that’s on the rise these days. Katy is constantly on the hunt for absorbing novels with plots that not only incorporate the natural world, but ones in which the story absolutely depends upon it. I was surprised to hear the subject that first got Katy hooked on this genre, and thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of what this area of interest has meant for her reading—and her writing—life. My challenge today is to pick 3 well-written titles for Katy that paint a lush portrait of natural life without losing that “page turning” appeal.
Let’s get to it. Katy, welcome to the show.
KATY: Thank you so much. I’m really happy to be here.
ANNE: We’re not sitting in the same room, but it’s a joy to talk to a fellow Louisvillian. I’m waving hello. [KATY LAUGHS] Katy, something I found really fun is that when we got your submission to be on the show — and that’s at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest, listeners, if you want to know how all this magic happens — I was so excited to see some of the themes you’re interested in talking about because they are ones that I have strong opinions about and think about all the time, and also address questions that we get frequently these days from our listeners. So I’m really excited to go there today. Thank you for that.
KATY: Oh, fantastic. I’m – I’m excited too.
ANNE: But first I’d love to hear you describe what your reading life is like.
KATY: I am lucky enough to know a lot of writers. I write myself. I work for a creative writing graduate program, the Spalding School of Creative and Professional Writing, here in town.
ANNE: Yes, and we have several What Should I Read Next alums who have been through that program. So it was so fun to find that we have literary connections everywhere.
KATY: That’s really great. Because of my role in the program, I graduated from it back in … Gosh, 2003 and I’ve worked for the program ever since. My life is full of writers. People who are, you know, working toward their first novel or their first memoir, and people who have five, six books under their belt. So my reading life involves a lot of people I actually know. I mostly stick with fiction and nonfiction. I get a lot of joy out of both of those.
But I find themes that keep coming up over and over for me. Lately because of the writing that I’ve been doing I’ve discovered eco fiction, sorta in a way that I hadn’t been familiar with it before, and partly just because eco fiction is on the rise as everybody becomes more aware of what’s happening in our world.
ANNE: You know what I’m just now realizing, here’s my deep intellectual observation, that’s one of those words that I only ever read on the page and never say out loud, but in my head, I pronounce it eco fiction.
KATY: I don’t think there’s a right way. [BOTH LAUGH]
ANNE: Potato, potahto.
ANNE: Tell our listeners what you mean when you say ecological fiction.
KATY: Ecological fiction is fiction that is focused on the world of humans, but the world of humans with the environment and nonhuman life as a co-equal part of that world. One of the biggest books of last year was Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens.
ANNE: I haven’t read this one.
ANNE: I mean, I know it’s about a young girl imperial in the marshes and then I think, maybe there’s a trial … Katy, this is what I know about the book.
KATY: The marsh where she grows up is her world and she educates herself about it, even though she has no formal education whatsoever. She lives so intimately with this world that she comes to know it in ways that really ultimately are scientific, you know. She’s observing that closely. She teaches herself to basically become naturalists in this world that she’s just fully immersed in. Most of us aren’t fully immersed in our physical world, so I enjoy that a lot.
ANNE: Now, Katy, when you wrote your own book, did it just happen to be environmental literature? Or was that a factor for you when you were deciding what you wanted to write, and what story you wanted to tell?
KATY: You know, it grew out of my love for tigers. So it was an animal story before it was anything else. Eco fiction a lot of times is thought of environmental fiction, which it is, but another branch of it is fiction that’s focused on animals. And that was my pathway in, and it kinda sprang into life when the tigress at the Louisville Zoo gave birth to a liter of cubs.
ANNE: I remember this. When was that?
KATY: 2004. It was the Sumatran tigress, and she had a litter of three cubs and they were amazing, and I went to the zoo all the time to kinda reveal in their presence and watch them grow up. I was there, gosh, probably a couple times a week. At that point I wasn’t even thinking about writing a book. I was just wallowing in my love for them.
ANNE: Oh, that’s interesting because that’s the year after you graduated from MFA program.
KATY: That’s true, and it’s probably not a coincidence actually. I didn’t think that I was, you know, cooking up a book, but that’s what ended up happening. So it was just love. It was just love of these animals that started it all off. I didn’t think at the time, you know, I am going to write an environmental novel. I’m going to write eco fiction. I just … All I knew was that I loved those tigers and they were the jumping off point.
ANNE: Are there more tiger books available to children reading books than I might imagine? Is that what your childhood was full of?
KATY: Actually, my love of big cats, I really think I can trace it back to the movie Born Free, which wasn’t even about tigers. It’s based on a true story set … A British couple who are living in Kenya, and they raise an orphaned lion cub. It’s a really heartwarming story, and when I was a little kid, I watched that movie and I just … I wanted a lion cub. I wanted to raise a lion cub [LAUGHS] and I think my love of big cats kinda generalized out from that.
ANNE: I love it. I did not expect that. So, Katy, since your world is full of books … I mean, you’re involved in writing professionally, your own work and other people’s, and as someone who has a deep and long lasting love of reading, how do you decide what to read next these days?
KATY: It’s kinda a combination. A lot of times I will do what I think most people do which is I’ll kinda see the books that are popping up in the media that are getting a lot of attention, and I’ll hear about them on NPR and I’ll decide I need to add them to my reading list. And then other times I’ll actually, you know, at a conference, or something, I might meet an author and that person’s book goes to the top of my list. So it’s a little bit of combination, and I also read manuscripts for friends.
ANNE: I think a lot of time listeners assume that the way I choose books to read next must be highly planned and carefully calibrated and very thoughtful [KATY LAUGHS] but you’re just describing how you read what you’re excited to read and what comes across your path, and that’s … I mean, that’s absolutely how I choose as well. I really relate to that.
KATY: Do you also have a giant stack of books by your bed? Because I sure do.
ANNE: Oh. [SIGHS] Yes I do. I’m not sure if I wish you could see the table next to me right now [KATY LAUGHS] which is in my office covered in book mail, or if I’m glad you can’t ‘cause it’s – it’s a beautiful disaster.
KATY: Well my bedside pile just … It ends up being partly aspirational because there are a few books that’ll make their way into the pile that I end up never getting to and maybe that’s a function of what you just said, you know, I’m choosing the books that I’m excited about, you know, if I have a book I’m excited about but I don’t get to it for two months, the excitement might wane, or it might not. So it’s pretty random I guess.
ANNE: And yet it’s not entirely random because what you’ve done is you’ve chosen a really nice selection of books that are likely to be right for you or at least you certainly hope so, so that when you are in the mood to go looking for a new book or when you finish your book and you need something to read next, you’re surrounded by titles that past-Katy put on your radar.
KATY: Oh, that’s so true. That’s so true. I’m never wanting for a book. I can just, you know, go through that pile and pick out what is the most appealing in that moment and dive right in.
ANNE: Well I’m so excited to hear where that methodology has led you.
ANNE: Katy, you know what we do here. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t, and what you’ve been reading lately, and we’ll talk about what you may enjoy reading next. First I’d love to hear, how did you choose your favorites and the book that wasn’t for you?
KATY: Well, let’s see. One of my favorites I chose because it’s a book that I’ve read multiple times and been recommending to people for years. One of the books I chose because I read it, gosh, 20 years ago now or almost 20 years ago now and I’ve never been able to forget it. And one is actually a very recent read that just struck me. It was a book I actually didn’t expect to like very much that surprised me in some really good ways.
ANNE: Oh, that’s so interesting.
KATY: The book that I chose that is not for me is a book that I had … My expectations were too high. It was a book that was getting amazing hype in the media and it was being hailed as revolutionary and I picked it up, and it just kinda left me cold.
ANNE: I’m looking forward to hearing more about that. So, Katy, tell me about your first favorite.
KATY: Okay, so I’m going to start with A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. She is one of my favorite writers working today. I think her mind is so sharp and I feel like I can feel her on every page as a writer, and she seems like somebody I would love to sit down and have a glass of wine with and have a conversation with because she would be smart and funny and interesting and surprising.
This book is … I first read it when I was in grad school actually. It’s really an interesting book. It looks like a collection of short stories, but she has said that all along she intended it to be a novel, to be read as a novel. The chapters are told from the point of view of a lot of different characters, but all of them relate back to the first two characters you meet, Sasha, who’s the assistant to a record producer and Bennie, the record producer she works for. And the whole book kinda – kinda flows out from there. You meet each of them. You get to know them a little bit, and then in the next chapter you might meet someone who is a minor character in a previous chapter. But I don’t know. She’s so clear-eyed about people, she can see them with their flaws and yet always be aware of their humanity.
In the first chapter, just for example, we see Sasha who’s the assistant and we find out within the first several pages that she steals things. She goes into a restaurant bathroom and just opportunistically steals a woman’s wallet. As readers, we’re all set to judge her. Oh, we know who this character is, she’s a bad person. But then Egan doesn’t let us do that. She doesn’t let us write her off as someone that we can condemn for her poor choices. And that kinda happens again and again throughout the book. I mean each one of these characters has their flaws and their foibles and they do some things that I really … I mean, in some cases, are really unforgivable, but even the people who do things that are very, very hard to forgive are still given their humanity and that’s so important to me as a reader.
And I also loved, one of the things she did after introducing us to Sasha the wallet stealer, [BOTH LAUGH] in the next chapter we meet Bennie, her boss. There’s someone in that chapter who’s looking at Sasha, who’s in the room, and just kinda grossly objectifying her and we get really mad at him, that character’s not granting her her humanity. He’s passing judgment on her kinda as an object. As readers, we get really mad about that. When I thought about it, I thought okay, she’s kinda inviting us to judgment, but then asking us to pull back over and over.
ANNE: That’s very interesting. Sasha the wallet stealer. [KATY LAUGHS] Katy, what did you choose for your second favorite book?
KATY: That one is A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest J. Gaines. This is a book that I first read in 2001 when I was beginning my graduate study at Spalding in the low residency MFA program there. He visited our campus so not only did I read the book, but I also got to hear him speak, and it was very clear that we were in presence of greatness. So this is a book about Jefferson, he’s a Black man in a Cajun community in 1940s Louisiana. He’s unjustly sentenced to death for a murder he didn’t commit. Grant Wiggins, who’s a teacher who left that community behind, has now returned to it with mixed feelings. Grant ends up connecting with Jefferson at the jail.
So Jefferson has lost touch with his own humanity at this point. He has been profoundly humiliated in the trial, and he refers to himself as an old hog that they’re fattening up to kill for Christmas. The relationship between these two men, it helps reclaim his humanity. It helps reclaim his dignity. Jefferson keeps saying to Grant, I’m going to die anyhow. The implication is why bother, you know, spending time on a man who’s condemned to death? Isn’t it a waste? But that question makes the reader think about that — what’s the value of redeeming a person who’s going to die anyhow? And it makes you think about the fact that we’re all going to die anyhow and it turns out that it’s everything.
ANNE: What was the reading experience like for you when you read this book?
KATY: I read it very slowly. I guess deeply I would say. I really paid attention to every word, and it was a sad experience and it was hard because it’s about a man whose life is going to be taken away from him unjustly. But it also makes you feel the sacredness of life, and it makes you, you know, take a hard look at the tragedy of racial injustice which is, you know, such a core factor in the life of our country.
ANNE: And Katy, what did you choose to round out your favorites list?
KATY: So I surprised myself with this one. I chose Severance by Ling Ma. This is a book that I just recently picked up. It wasn’t on my radar. I thought I wouldn’t like it. I thought I wouldn’t be interested in it because to just boil it down, it’s a novel that deals with a pandemic and of course that’s unfortunately all too timely for us. I’m not drawn to novels about any sort of you know, disaster, apocalypse, zombies, none of that. None of that draws me, but the title of this book just kept crossing my path. You know, sometimes you just sorta feel like, oh, I need to read this book.
So it’s written by Ling Ma. She’s a young writer who was born in China, but grew up partly in the Midwest, which is where I grew up. I’m from Kansas, and she spent part of her childhood in Kansas. Although the pandemic provides kinda the frame and the engine for the story, what I focused on and what she spends a lot of the book focusing on is how we can devote ourselves and devote our lives to causes that might not be worthy of our devotion. In this case, Candace, the main character is kinda excessively devoted to her corporate job. She’s a millennial in a world where it’s hard to get you know, a good job, and she gets a job. She’s a production manager for themed bibles that are made in China and Candace’s family is from China, so there’s a connection there. But she devotes herself to this job and she’s kinda hollowed out by the death of her parents in the past couple of years, and she’s not really living in the world in the way that some of the other characters thinks she should be. Her boyfriend gives her a hard time to devoting so much of herself to her job.
What’s interesting to me is the way the pandemic worked with that because she calls them the Fevered, and the Fevered in the world in this novel, they don’t die. They don’t become zombies. But they just keep performing the same routines over and over again, like they keep setting the table and then unsetting the table, and then setting the table even though no meal is being eaten. So they’re doing these routines until they’re completely nonsensical, and that’s what Candace is doing essentially with her own life. The way that she’s doing it looks really kinda normal and acceptable and maybe even in a certain way, admirable.
So I found it really timely. I found it really interesting commentary on the way that we live our lives, the contrast between doing things that are really meaningful, spending your life on things that are really meaningful, and spending your life on things that are maybe we’re supposed to value, you know, we’re supposed to be good worker bees. We’re supposed to be good consumers, but ultimately, is that enough?
ANNE: Okay. You said you were surprised to enjoy it because it was a pandemic, and yet there have been wonderful widely read novels written about pandemics like Station Eleven and The Stand leap immediately to mind. But those haven’t been for you?
KATY: I have to admit I have not read either of those books. I will say that I did not at all enjoy The Road by Cormac McCarthy. That’s not a pandemic novel but it’s a post-apocalyptic novel and I thought he was basically setting out to brutalize his readers and I hated that.
ANNE: Which is interesting. I know we’ve talked about this on the podcast before, but I’ll say again that I was very surprised to hear someone who I know that has great taste in books say that he found that book one of the most hopeful novels he had ever read, and I thought did we … Are we [KATY LAUGHS] … Are we talking about the same book? And now I can see his point and I am interested in reading it again with that in my head. But not interested enough for me to have actually done it, and this happened at least three years ago.
KATY: Yeah, you know, the thing is I can’t say it was an unsuccessful book. If success means doing what you set out to do, I think he did that in spades. I mean, I … This book still makes me shudder and I read it probably five years ago, so did he affect me with this book? Yes, but am I happy I read it? No. [LAUGHS] I wish I never read it. It was not the right book for me.
ANNE: And on that note [LAUGHS] you’re getting a twofer, Katy. [KATY LAUGHS] What did you choose for the book that’s not for you?
KATY: This is the book that I was mentioning that I had … My expectations were set so high, you know, just stratospheric by the hype this book was getting. This is Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. I just couldn’t get into it. It came out … I think it came out last year. It’s nonfiction. The writer’s a journalist and she follows three women, three actual women she interviewed and repeatedly spent time with over the course of years really. Looking at their lives through the lens of desire, and I thought that sounds really interesting. I haven’t seen a lot on that topic. But when I actually picked up the book and started reading it, I thought it lacked a lot in terms of heart and I thought it completely lacked context.
ANNE: Katy, I had a similar experience. I heard about this book that came out, I think, in summer 2019 from people I knew that read a lot of new fiction and they were really excited about this book. And then I looked it up and realized it was nonfiction, and thought ooh.
You said that you just couldn’t get into it and I think there’s something to be said for persevering when a book is not immediately grabbing you. However, that doesn’t apply to every book because what a lot of readers did, myself included and I’m imagining you, too, you can tell me if that’s correct, is picked this one up and thought oh, wow, what I heard about this book is not matching up with what it actually seems to be. I felt like what we did was make a bestseller out of someone’s deeply felt trauma that did not happen that long ago, and I just felt like it invited the reader to be a really grim kinda voyeur.
ANNE: Oh, it just didn’t – didn’t feel right and talking with some other readers who are having similar experiences, I thought okay, for the sake of my humanity, I don’t need to preserve to understand this experience. This feels a little like it’s skirting or crossing some borders that exist for good reasons, and I’m just going to put it down and walk away.
KATY: Yeah. Well I will tell you this. I think the first thing that hit me about it was I didn’t feel what I would call a lack of heart. I felt that she was not really granting her … characters is not the right word because they’re … I guess her subjects, right? Women she’s writing about. I felt like she wasn’t really granting them their humanity in a way I would have liked to have seen. I read maybe the first third of the book and I kept waiting for it, for me to feel like, all right, I’m understanding these women. I’m understanding where they’re coming from. I’m understanding their plight.
When that didn’t happen for me, I decided to pick up the one I was kinda most interested in pursuing, which was Lina. She was the wife in the loveless marriage who decided to have an affair, so I continued reading only her chapters. And when I got to the end of it, I just felt like Lina came off as a little pathetic and I didn’t want to feel that way. And especially after having you know, so many pages devoted to her story. I should feel something more than that.
But the other thing I want to say about this book, Anne, is that I really think there was a huge missed opportunity here in terms of context. I mean, if you are going to examine women’s desire, you need to talk about the world that women live in. You need to talk about gender expectations. You need to talk about the way the world acts upon women. Oh, and by the way, [LAUGHS] another thing that bothered me about this book is neither all three white, heterosexual gender conforming women and the author never acknowledges that. I mean, it’s fine if you want to write a book that features three women who are in those same categories, but acknowledge it. It felt like it wasn’t self aware of its own limitations. I don’t know. I wanted to like it. I thought it was going to be really interesting to look at, you know, what it means for a woman to take control of her life in a world that might be hostile to that act. But I just felt I didn’t feel like it got there.
ANNE: Katy, what are you reading now?
KATY: I am reading a memoir that I absolutely love, and it’s by a writer who’s actually living and working in Kentucky right now which makes me even happier. Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman. It’s called Sounds like Titanic, and the kinda capsule summary of this book is that a young woman just out of college who’s kinda a very mediocre violinist gets hired to be part of the performing ensemble that’s on tour, only she finds out very quickly that it’s a fake tour. They are touring, but she’s playing her violin in front of a dead mic. The concerts are all just recorded music; it’s CDs that are being played for an audience. So the capsule I think makes it kinda seem interesting, what a weird situation, but the book is about so much more than that.
I was actually thinking about the way that the question of context again, because part of what I think makes this book really brilliant is she completely contextualizes the world that this happens in. The fact that the reason she did this is she was broke. She grew up in Appalachia. She went to an Ivy League school at a time when university tuition rates were going through the roof. She’s scrapping and scraping to try to kinda afford her college. She actually [LAUGHS] sells her eggs.
The world doesn’t go away in this book. Not just isolated story of this crazy cross country fake orchestra tour. It’s a world that is changed by the things that are happening, and it’s changed by 9/11. It’s changed by the fact that you know, it takes place during a run-up to the Iraq war, which is based on what turns out to be a fake cause, you know, the WMDs which turned out not to exist. So I was really taken with the fact that she starts out with what sounds like a completely 100% personal antidote and she turns it into kinda a piece of the times that she’s living in.
ANNE: Ah, that sounds really interesting.
KATY: It was really cool.
ANNE: Katy, what are you looking for in your reading life now?
KATY: I am looking for books that qualify as both literary by which I mean they pay attention to character development and they pay attention to the use of language, but are also really fun to read. I feel like those books are a little bit hard to come by.
ANNE: I think of that myself as compulsively readable literary fiction, and it is definitely a sweet spot category for me as well. So what are a couple great books that you’ve read that you’ve considered to do both things real well?
KATY: Well I loved Little Fires Everywhere. That’s probably one of my favorite books in the past two or three years. I thought it was a really interesting story, but again, actually, it takes a story and it takes it kinda out of isolation. It adds in the societal elements of class and race and it makes it a bigger story than just the individual human story that’s being told.
ANNE: So what makes a book fun to read for you? What does that feel like?
KATY: I really need characters to be alive. They need to have some depth to them, and I find that fun. I love discovering characters on the page that feel like real people to me because I think one of the reasons I read is to kinda understand the human condition. Another thing that makes it fun to read is a plot that’s interesting, a story arc that keeps me kinda entertained I guess that makes me follow along. In Little Fires Everywhere, it is absolutely not genre mystery, but there is sorta central question, a central mystery in this story, and you know, part of the reason that you read is you kinda want to figure out what’s going on and I get a lot of pleasure out of that. But it can’t – that can’t be the only thing. That alone is not enough to keep me reading.
ANNE: All right. Well, this sounds like fun.
ANNE: So the books you loved, Katy, A Visit from Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, A Lesson Before Dying by Earnest Gaines, and Severance by Ling Ma. Not for you, Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. And you’re looking for compulsively readable literary fiction, although that’s not quite how you put it. [KATY LAUGHS] So you’re looking for books that have character development but are also a pleasure to read. And if the characters feel alive and they give you some insight into the human condition, so much the better.
ANNE: And if we can find some books that also can count as eco fiction, I’m just going to lean into that as well. [KATY LAUGHS] Is that okay by you?
KATY: Fantastic. Yes.
ANNE: Okay. This is new, so I think my odds are pretty good. Have you read The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde?
KATY: No. I have not.
ANNE: You may know her as the author of History of Bees. Is that a title you’re familiar with?
KATY: You know, I’ve heard the title, I’m not familiar with either of those books.
ANNE: Oh, that makes me so happy. Maja Lunde is a Norwegian author, so I read this. I read this in translation into English. I actually listened to it. It was fabulous on audio if you’re an audiobook listener.
ANNE: The book before this one was called The History of Bees and it’s a literary novel. I don’t know if they’re like fun to read if you’re looking for something that feels like smiley. [KATY LAUGHS] But it’s fun to read in the sense that you go, oh, what happens next? And I have to see that some people see this in bookstores and they’re like oh, I don’t want to read a book about natural history. This is not a book about natural history. It’s a novel.
KATY: I like books about natural history. [LAUGHS]
ANNE: That’s great! And we can find some of those for you too, but The History of Bees is not that book.
ANNE: And this was an international bestseller. Has been translated into like kajillion languages. It’s a novel in which the ecological issues concerning the world, the characters, and the reader were essential. You couldn’t pull those out and still have a story. And she wrote that and she thought, you know, that meant so much to me, that was so powerful and it’s so important right now that I want to keep doing that, and she decided that she was going to write her climate quartet.
So The End of the Ocean came out in the United States just early 2020 and this is the second book in that climate quartet. They absolutely standalone while okay … Books three and four are not out yet [KATY LAUGHS] but if the pattern holds, you won’t need to read these in order and you can certainly start Maja Lunde with The End of the Ocean.
What this book does really well is combine two completely separate but really carefully drawn, evocative, immersive storylines. I mean, I’m pulling out all my book review bingo words here. [KATY LAUGHS] And have them slowly come together at the end of the story. At the beginning of the book, I suspected they were going to come together and I just could not foresee how, but they do.
The first storyline concerns an old woman, her name is … I’m going to pronounce it Signe; I don’t know how to pronounce it in Norwegian. Signe Pike, the author, spells it the same way and that’s how she pronounces her name. So that’s what we’re going to go with. But at the beginning of the book, she’s trying to cross the ocean in just a sailboat and you know that she’s reflecting back on the relationship with the love of her life and you know that he is no longer in her life and she is feeling pretty bitter about that and she wants revenge. She’s sailing with a purpose and it’s not at all clear what it is. But she’s a woman on a mission. And that’s set in the present day.
The second storyline is set in 2041, France, where there’s a young father named David who’s on the run with his daughter, Lou, and they have left southern Europe, which is out of water. It has not rained for so long there is no water for the people, and so they’re trying to find a refugee camp that they’ve heard has a little bit of water. So they’re also on their own mission. Both of these missions are critical for different reasons, and so these stories closely come together. And what she does portray this future world that has run out of natural resources.
Something else that is important in the book that I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will say in Signe’s storyline, you hear that there were people in her community who saw the writing on the wall, things were going in a bad direction, and they chose to take matters into their own hands and the consequences were devastating. And that is definitely something she is processing as she is out alone on the water.
This would be a novel you’d read in translation unless you read Norwegian. It’s very carefully crafted. It’s dealing with big issues. It’s definitely about understanding the human condition and our place in the world in more ways than one. And I hope you’ll find it a page turner as well. How does that sound to you?
KATY: That sounds amazing. You know, you just use the phrase “your place in the world,” and that resonates with me. When I was thinking about the books that I wanted to talk about today, that phrase kept coming up for me over and over because I think it really is all about context. It really is all about, you know, we’re not just humans living lives in isolation. We’re in the context of our society. We’re in the context of our … Of the natural world. It really sounds great. It really appealed to me.
ANNE: I am glad to hear it. For book two, have you read any Brit Bennett?
ANNE: Her debut came out a few years ago, it’s called The Mothers, and I think that’s an excellent pick for you. She has another great book coming out this summer called The Vanishing Half. And let me tell you about both. Her first — it’s not an easy read because she’s addressing tough issues, and also it would be very easy to devour this in an afternoon. [KATY LAUGHS] This is her debut. She’s a MFA graduate I think at the University of Michigan. She’s infuriatingly young to have written a debut that’s [KATY LAUGHS] so fantastic. But this is a coming-of-age story, and what it does is depict how grief obviously predictably just consumes a 17-year-old girl growing up in this tight-knit African community in southern California. And two of her friends get pulled into the aftermath of that tragedy, and what happens to the community as a result.
Now you were just saying that you like books that tell a bigger story, that help us understand the human condition, and that speak to larger experiences, and something that’s really interesting about this novel, especially for someone who studies writing and will maybe looking at the author’s choices with a different eye than a more casual reader might, is that she employs this device of a Greek chorus where you have the mothers of the community who speak in the first person plural. “We” saw what was happening.
ANNE: “We” knew what needed to be done.
KATY: Okay. I have chills right now. [LAUGHS] That sounds amazing.
ANNE: To be clear in case you’re thinking oh, the mothers are looking over the community, isn’t that great? No, like these mothers are nothing but trouble. They want everybody’s juicy gossip and they’re gonna like stir things up to keep things interesting. So that is The Mothers by Brit Bennett.
ANNE: And she has a new book coming out this June. It’s called The Vanishing Half. Listeners, if you’ve seen the cover of The Mothers, you’ll know it was really distinctive and colorful and [LAUGHS] I am so impressed at how her brilliant cover designer created an equally striking cover that isn’t like the one for The Mothers but is similarly beautiful and colorful and compliments it so well. I didn’t know that I was concerned about how that was gonna be done for her second novel until I saw the cover for The Vanishing Half and I thought, oh, it’s fine. [KATY LAUGHS]
So just a little about the book because I’ve had the pleasure of reading it already. I have to say that this one didn’t immediately grab me but I knew I had a history with the author, and I really enjoyed her work, and I’d been looking forward to it, and it turned out it just took a little more time than the books I had been reading recently to set out the story. Who are the characters, where were we in the world, what was happening. Part of that is because the core cast is a little bigger than just one or two people and I’m really glad I stuck it through ‘cause this turned into a page turner for me after about page 75 or 100.
This is about two twin sisters growing up in the deep south, I think it’s Louisiana but I’m not 100% sure even though I just finished this in the past month. They have always been so, so close, but as they grow older, one sees an opportunity to pass as white for her entire life and make choices that make it impossible to go back. And the other remains very rooted in her small, southern Black community and the places these women go, oh my. [KATY LAUGHS] This is a multigenerational story. It’s their daughters who become very prominent in the story, and when their lives intersect, the carefully constructed reality of the one sister obviously is threatened to come crashing down all around her. Ah, it’s so good. That’s The Vanishing Half.
KATY: It sounds amazing. Wow. I can’t wait to read that one.
ANNE: Okay, and finally, Katy, I’d love to be able to give you if it sounds good to you a novel that is definitely addressing big themes but does it in a way that’s a little more obviously fun.
KATY: [LAUGHS] My ears are perked up.
ANNE: There’s some really great novels that are really compulsively readable, beautifully written, address big issues and yet also are pretty somber. Yeah, I’d like to give you something not somber. What do you know about South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby?
KATY: I don’t know anything about it.
ANNE: Well, this is a debut novel. It’s written by an environmental journalist. And not only does this address issues that you enjoy reading about, also it’s just zany enough to be surprisingly funny in all the right places. Her protagonist is a 30 year old artist who has experienced a tragic loss and needs to do something else. She’s also been obsessed with Arctic exploration for as long as she can remember as has her father, so this is a family trait.
So what she does to try to just get herself to a new place where she can hopefully move on a little bit and think about something else other than the grief that’s been consuming her, is she lands a spot on a trip to the south pole. Funded by the National Science Foundation to spend a year among scientists and also some artists like herself working on a big project that the government is involved in. But then a researcher shows up who doesn’t believe in climate change, which throws everybody into a whole tizzy [KATY LAUGHS] providing a nice dose of comic relief in this story.
KATY: Well I love satire, so it sounds like there’s a little bit of that in there. It sounds really fun.
ANNE: So it’s got a little bit of the serious. It’s got a little bit of the ridiculous, but it’s got a lot of topics that I think you’d find fascinating and also I hope fun.
KATY: It sounds really good. So I think they’re all going on my reading list here.
ANNE: On the giant stack by your bed of maybe one day when I’m in the mood?
KATY: Yeah. [LAUGHS] Well you know I make my way through the stack mostly, so they’re not too many that end up cast aside.
ANNE: I hear you. I’m right there with you, but sometimes it sure does take a long time. For now, of the three books we talked about today, that was The End of the Ocean by Maja Lunde, The Mothers by Brit Bennett, although that to be released in the near future title that we also talked about was The Vanishing Half also by Brit Bennett, and South Pole Station by Ashley Shelby. Katy, of those three books, what do you think you’ll read next?
KATY: You know, I think I might go for the fun one. I think – I think this is the time to be reading things that are going to give us a bit of joy, so I think South Pole Station.
ANNE: Well I can’t wait to hear what you think. Katy, this has been a pleasure. Thanks so much for talking books with me today.
KATY: Thank you. This has been really fun.
[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]
ANNE: Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Katy Yocom, and I’d love to hear what YOU think she should read next. That page is at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/231 and it’s where you’ll find the full list of titles we talked about today. You can read more about Katy’s work, and her book Three Ways to Disappear, at KatyYocom.com, that’s K-A-T-Y Y-O-C-O-M, KatyYocom.com, and follow her on Instagram @katyyocom1.
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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.