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Don’t read widely (right now)

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AIMZ: It was quite difficult because it just kind of felt like it was almost like touching on something that I no longer had access to. And then just to make things more difficult, I added a puppy to the mix. [BOTH LAUGH]

[CHEERFUL INTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey, readers, I’m Anne Bogel and this is What Should I Read Next? Episode 348.

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.

[MUSIC]

ANNE: Readers, we have something fresh and fun up our sleeves over in our Patreon community. We are hosting trivia night and you’re invited to join us. We’ll share more details in the coming weeks, but right now mark your calendar for October 20th at 7 p.m. Eastern.

If you’re not yet a member, join our Patreon community to access this live event along with our other goodies like bonus episodes, book lists, and peaks behind the scenes of What Should I Read Next? Headquarters. Find out more at patreon.com/whatshouldireadnext.

Readers, today’s guest is just starting to emerge from a multi-year book slump, and they’re trying to reestablish trust in their reading choices and get back to their love of reading. Aimz Rushton is a senior lecturer in the United Kingdom, where they focus on North American fiction and literature.

This is fun for Aimz because they adore literary fiction and can’t get enough book talk, whether professionally or in their personal life. But back in 2020, when so much changed for all of us, Aimz saw their reading life clean straight off a cliff. and it hasn’t recovered yet.

Well, Aimz has applied a few tactics that have helped a lot, as you’ll hear, they’re still finding it easy to get derailed or feel listless about their reading selections. Aimz wants to recover more of the joy and satisfaction they once enjoyed.

Today, I hope to help Aimz diagnose what they need as a reader right now and give them the boost they need to feel reconnected to their reading life. Let’s get to it.

Aimz, welcome to the show.

AIMZ: Hi, thank you so much. It’s such a pleasure to be here.

ANNE: I have to say that I knew that we were going to have a good conversation when you told us in print that we pronounce your name like the character from Marilyn Robertson’s Gilead. I thought that was telling.

AIMZ: It’s true. And it’s because for years my nickname Aimz—my birth name is Amy—which I’m very attached to, but as a non-binary person, I enjoy Aimz as a name.

I could never understand why my American friends would, when they were writing to me, would type in A-M-E-S. It took me years to work out. It wasn’t until Marilyn Robinson kind of had her a bomber moment that I was like, “Oh, it’s a character from Gilead that were called Ames. I was like, “It makes so much sense now.”

ANNE: Well, working as a… I almost said professor, American in me just about said professor-

AIMZ: It is right. I am basically a professor. Senior lecturer. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: Different terminology. Oh, yes. Thank you. Thank you for working that in. I imagined that you can say like John Aimz and Gilead and have people actually know what you’re talking about the majority of the time, or am I dreaming?

AIMZ: In a utopia, yes. [BOTH LAUGHS] Sadly, no. Because the other one of my joys is introducing students to American literature. But it’s quite surprising actually how kind of little references students have sometimes. It’s some classics or some very contemporary literature that I think is quite terrifying. Anything kind of older than five years sort of gets relegated to students regarding it as classic. [BOTH LAUGHS]

[00:03:44]

ANNE: I was getting ready to get apologetic about perhaps having a lot of American authors in our conversation today. But you do specialize in fiction from North America. Tell me a little more about what you lecture on.

AIMZ: So I’m a senior lecturer, which is basically an assistant professor equivalent at a university in the West Midlands of England. I mainly teach and research contemporary North American fiction. I like say North American because I also include Canadian and also indigenous writers as well from those areas, but also specifically anti-colonial writing. So it’s kind of quite different.

I think people expect an English professors to sort of probably be all about the UK and British writing. But for me, my own interest and expertise is outside of the British isles.

ANNE: Since you told our team in your submission—And listeners, I’m referring to our potential guest intake form at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/guest—you mentioned your favorite Jane Austen there. Would you tell our listeners?

AIMZ: Oh, I’m so delighted you said this because… [BOTH LAUGHS] Yes, Persuasion is my favorite Jane Austen… I do love the classics and particularly classic novels, particularly Victorian literature. So I think I didn’t actually start reading Jane Austen till I started teaching, which sounds terrible, but I have been teaching for nearly 15 years in the UK Higher Education.

But yeah, it was a fantastic module that I got to teach early on in my career where we went from Cervantes’ Don Quixote all the way through Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, and Persuasion kind of nicely tucked in in the middle there. I love that novel so much so that I can’t quite bring myself to watch the new film even though I really like Dakota Johnson. I just was like, “No.”

[00:05:37]

ANNE: I did enjoy reading a piece by… I think it was Devoney Looser, the American academic who specializes in Jane Austen literature, who said, “Actually, this adaptation is taking a lot of flak.” But she said actually, Dakota Johnson wasn’t wrong when she talked about being exes with her captain. There are usages predating Jane Austen, and I had no idea. I still only watched 20 minutes of that adaptation. And I’m okay with that. But-

AIMZ: Well, you know, I was never into the classics as a kid and as a teenager at all. I kind of actively avoided it. And it wasn’t till I kind of had to take a pre-20th century option during my undergraduate degree that I picked Victorian literature or the Victorian novel. And it just blew me away.

And I think because actually it was much more contemporary in terms of language and been able to race through something like great… I had read Dickens actually. I’d read Great Expectations and Wuthering Heights and Tess of the D’urbervilles. That was when I kind of realized that I was [CHUCKLES] missing something really like important. Not because these books were important and they shouldn’t be read but actually, they were really entertaining for their own sake.

ANNE: You said, “Believe it or not I haven’t read Austen.” But of course, I believe it because none of us have read everything. And yet we all know the feeling of wishing we had read certain books, because we want the readerly experience. So I’m glad you’ve gotten to catch up on some of those books you’ve been wanting to read.

Now, Aimz, I loved the story that brought you to What Should I Read Next?. But I’m sorry to say that it started with an enormous book slump. And I’d love for you to tell me a little bit about that.

[00:07:21]

AIMZ: I know it’s not an unusual or unique experience, and I apologize to everybody because we’re always bringing up the pandemic. But I think listening to the podcasts has really helped me understand how much of an impact it had on so many people’s reading lives. And I wasn’t the exception.

2020 to 2021 was just giant books slump for me. And I’m a bit of a stats nerd. And it’s really interesting when I look through, particularly Goodreads, and I’m now on StoryGraph-

ANNE: We love you stats nerds because you have all the numbers that many of us just have these vague feelings about. I mean, I journal. I can see what I’m reading and when I’m not, but I don’t make pie charts.

AIMZ: I cannot make a pie chart, but a little bit of software that can do it for me. My entire life is kind of books and reading because of the job that I have, but also, you know, reading for pleasure is a huge part of my identity as well.

And no matter how kind of busy and how much, you know, I’m trying to have to read, whether it’s emails or student work or articles, or you know, the books for teaching, this kind of thing, I still managed to keep up quite a lot with my own reading. And 2020 basically hit with the pandemic and just my reading life went off a cliff.

Well, I think what was interesting is I thought it was just burnout. But it wasn’t. It was a combination of having to work from home suddenly and that being a huge adjustment, and also the stress that we all felt to different degrees.

But it wasn’t until actually very recently, I remembered very viscerally not being able to read anything that reminded me of what life was like before, because I’m quite an optimistic person but I’m also quite very much a realist. And I had no idea about how long this was all going to last and if we’d ever get anything like normal life again.

Actually, even though it gave me a good opportunity to sit at home and read, I actually just found that I couldn’t. That the idea of kind of thinking about life before the pandemic and even something like, you know, a rom-com was quite difficult because it just kind of felt like it was almost like touching on something that I no longer had access to.

And then just to make things more difficult, I added a puppy to the mix. [BOTH LAUGHS] I didn’t quite understand how kind of incompatible having a puppy would be to do any reading. So I actually did get a lot of reading done in 2021. But it was all dumb books. [LAUGHS]

[00:10:05]

ANNE: The right book is there for you when you need it. And you certainly needed those. So then tell me about 2022. I know that you’re still finding yourself challenged when it comes to readerly stamina, but it sounds like things are going much better.

AIMZ: Yeah, much better. 2022 significantly improved. But I think you’re right, it’s still that’s stamina. I think reading stamina is a really good way of putting it. And also I think I have that kind of fear that it’s gonna go away again really quickly because, you know, two years is a long time to have a significant slump.

And we all have it. I mean, that’s part of our reading lives is that, you know, sometimes you’re on a really good roll and sometimes they’ll even be years where we’re only kind of reading things that might be a three star, four star, but you know, we’re still kind of in that rhythm and enjoying the experience as well.

But yeah, I think I was just kind of getting to a point where I was starting to read kind of in like—This is January 2022—like getting up and reading a chapter or something in the morning. That was going really well. But then I’d find that the minute I finished a book, I’d really struggle to like find what I wanted to read next. You know, the clues in the podcast title. And I couldn’t figure out why.

I had all these digital Kindle books. I’m very lucky that I’ve go, great work library that, you know, get the material in for me as well and yet I was still really struggling to find anything that really kind of sparked joy, to borrow from Marie Kondo.

It wasn’t until I started listening to the podcast earlier this year and I listened to people having similar struggles that really helped me to kind of sit and go through and look at what my most memorable reading experiences have been for the last few years.

And realizing that actually a lot of the books that I’ve been reading for, I guess, since like 2016 doesn’t really kind of fall into that category that kept coming up. And it was literary fiction and having to really think about why. Why am I not reading something or genre, a very loose genre that gives me so much joy?

And that’s been quite challenging sorts of thinking about, you know, okay, what’s been going on. I’d say it’s because I read so much work that I’ve made this kind of false distinction between reading for pleasure and reading for work.

So when I read contemporary literary fiction, that can often be an impulse of being, “Oh, this would be great to teach. This would be such a great lecture,” or “I could pair it this other novel that I’ve read and I could like write a journal article on it.”

There’s nothing wrong with doing that but I think I’ve accidentally sucked some of the [CHUCKLES] joy out of a genre that I think has been really important to me. And I kind of want to have that take center stage again in my reading life, not just my professional life.

ANNE: What made you think to do that, to sit down and write down the most memorable reading experiences from the last few years?

AIMZ: I want you to try and see what kind of common themes came up. I often think of myself as quite an eclectic reader. I like to read widely. And I wonder whether I had little bit of trepidation that actually, no, I didn’t actually read specific themes and this kind of thing.

It actually was really sparked by me doing this year’s summer reading guide. I did the thing of printing it off and sitting with highlighters. [ANNE CHUCKLES] And the enthusiasm rating really helped actually for this.

And what really surprised me was that the friends and family section was like overwhelmingly, like I think I’m good four or five title in that section. And that really hit me because I was like, “Oh, actually, I haven’t read a lot of these kinds of novels or memoirs like actually for quite a long time. And that’s when I decided to kind of step down and be like, “Oh, okay, if I looked through Goodreads, what are the books from sort of 2015 onwards that really like jumped out to me?

And then also kind of realizing that I could possibly reread some of those as well, because I don’t always want to read… I’m not someone who’s necessarily interested in the shiny, new, buzzy book. I’m actually quite skeptical of that for reasons that we’ll talk about when we get to the book I didn’t like. [LAUGHS]

So often I’m not really attracted by the next new shiny thing. But there was something really interesting about all these books that kind of fit these themes that I just kind of been ignoring because I kind of didn’t want anything that seemed too challenging. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And I’ve read some fantastic, you know, romantic comedies and YA and crime and thrillers and horror, haunted locations stories, but they weren’t scratching an itch. And that really came up in this list of memorable reading experiences.

[00:14:48]

ANNE: Do you remember an example of what one of your memorable reading experience entries might have been?

AIMZ: Yeah. That one title that really stood out was Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. I had this moment of thinking, “I actually really enjoyed that book.” And it wasn’t necessarily the fact that it was something that I’ve wanted to work on or teach particularly, but it just hit on so many of the themes that through reading the summer reading guide, particularly memoirs, and novels.

It was quite a long book. There was a few really memorable characters. It was quite sad and kind of reflective. It was about a family that had a complicated family dynamics. And I also realized that actually I hadn’t read anything else by that author. I am, I guess, like a bit of a promiscuous reader in the sense that it’s very rare that I will read an entire author’s work.

And so I was thinking, “Well, which other writers have I enjoyed that I’ve read that I actually haven’t gone and followed up and read their others other work as well?” So Jami Attenberg is a good example of that as well, where I’ve actually read a couple of Attenberg’s novels. But I’ve actually got a couple of others that I already had like on my Kindle library. I think there was one last year that actually StoryGraph recommended that would suit me.

And I think it was that process of thinking that it’s okay to lean into themes and writers that I enjoy. I don’t always have to read as widely [CHUCKLES] as I wanted to. Just because like something seems quite similar in theme doesn’t necessarily mean that, you know, it’s not going to give me pleasure or it’s not going to challenge me. So it’s okay to want to go for those kinds of themes.

[00:16:29]

ANNE: And I wonder if also knowing that you can read a book that could stand up to being taught in a classroom, lots of deep themes you could dive into, lots to discuss, interesting motifs, things you could write essays about, it’s fine to sit in your armchair and read that and enjoy it and close it and not take a single note, and that would be okay, too.

AIMZ: Yeah, 100%. That is the sort of novels that I actually really enjoy recommending to people as well. That’s something that I get a lot of pleasure out of is matching the person to the book. That’s also one of the reasons why I really enjoy the podcast as well because I do read widely.

But I think quite typically I’m not always very good at my own advice. I think if I was recommending books to myself, probably I’m not taking that advice. In some ways it’s purely one that I think is quite typical of me.

ANNE: It’s not just you, though. It’s so much easier to have perspective when we’re talking about someone else’s reading life, which is why it’s so great to have a book friend who knows you, but it’s not inside your head importantly, because you just have too much information, you have too many data points, and it makes it tricky. We have so much more objectivity and usefulness when we’re talking about somebody else’s taste.

Aimz, I’m really interested in digging in and hearing more about how these big ideas play out in your reading life. I think it’s time to talk about your books. Are you ready to talk about your books?

AIMZ: I am. Always. [BOTH LAUGHS]

ANNE: I like that answer. Aimz, you know how this works. You’re going to tell me three books you love, one book you don’t and what you’ve been reading lately and then we will try to put our finger on why they really work for you, something that you’ve been struggling to do, and also what that means you may enjoy reading next.

Now, how did you choose these favorites you’re talking about with us today?

AIMZ: I decided to need to think about the… Almost like a thoughtful distinction that I think I’ve made between reading for fun and reading for work, for research, and for teaching. And actually pick texts that I could easily teach or could easily, you know, write about.

And in one case, I have done a little bit, but it’s a bit more fuzzy as I’ll explain. But actually that I haven’t but also that I have reread. Rereading is something that I loved doing as a kid. As a teenager. I would often just kind of read the same text, like I’m doing books over and over again.

And rereading is something that I have to do a lot for work, particularly if I’m writing an academic article or you know, presenting a conference paper on a chat. Like I need to know it really well. The same goes to some teaching texts as well. But I kind of really miss rereading for fun.

So I was having a look through one of the novels that in the sort of the last I guess five, six years that I’ve reread just for pleasure not because I had to. And that’s why I [inaudible 00:19:25].

ANNE: I can’t wait to hear what you chose. Tell me about the first book you love.

[00:19:28]

AIMZ: So the first book I love is a bit of a cheat to this rule [BOTH LAUGHS] I gave myself but I had to have to include it. It’s truly my favorite book. It’s one that really changed my life. And that is Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga.

ANNE: Tell me more.

AIMZ: Dangarembga birth is a Zimbabwean filmmaker and also fiction writer. And Nervous Conditions ended up being the first in a very drawn out trilogy. It’s taken Tsitsi over 30 years to write the three novels. Nervous Conditions for quite a while was sort of very well-known in the field that I teach on post-colonial and anti-colonial literature. And it’s a really extraordinary novel.

Nervous Conditions has, I think, my favorite ever opening line to any novel, which is, “I was not sorry when my brother died.” And it goes on from there. The voice who is not sorry that their brother died is Tambu, is a teenage girl who lives in British occupied Rhodesia, which was the name that British gave to Zimbabwe before it declared independence and became Zimbabwe.

So Tambu lives in Rhodesia with her family. She’s not really poor, but she’s certainly not rich either. And her family can only afford to send one of their children to school. And it is inevitably the son. And this is the brother that she refers to in the opening line.

Nervous Conditions is just this extraordinary account of a young girl growing up in a society that doesn’t value her because she is black and female, essentially, and she so desperately craves education. Various things occur to her and she ends up going to school. She ends up going to missionary school and kind of having access to kind of education that she’s craved for so long.

But the circumstances that means that she is becoming a very different person to the rest of her family. She also encounters her cousins who have partly grown up in Britain and have returned with her uncle and auntie, and it’s really about kind of the culture clash the things that Tambu wants as opposed to what her cousin, Nyasha, wants and how she perceives the world.

And what’s really fascinating about Nervous Conditions is that even though it feels as though it should be a teenage girl coming of age narrative, the narrative voice is very much for the older Tambu. So this is very kind of reflective and quite dry tone throughout.

It really is just about this young girl’s understanding about how unfair the world is. It’s not really showy. It doesn’t make a big song and dance about the politics that are going on in terms of British colonialism at the time and you know, what’s going on.

And I think so many, particular contemporary African novels that are written kind of outside the continent, can sometimes do this where it feels a bit like this spelling out, you know, the big themes or they have to kind of walk the reader through the history that is going on in the background.

Nervous Conditions like never does that. It makes no concessions to the reader. You just have to go with it. And you just kind of have to be pulled along by just this narrator who isn’t necessarily the easiest to like or to empathize with. She’s not like super charismatic. She’s not someone who’s particularly outspoken. But it’s just the way that Dangarembga brings you into this world and this psyche.

And I have taught it a little bit. It’s really fascinating because again I’ve never known students who disliked it. Like, everybody is always drawn to it. [ANNE LAUGHS] You know, it’s not easy novel to just like pin down. I think that’s what I love about it. And that’s why I wanted to include it, because it was a novel that kind of really opened my eyes to what else is out there kind of in the world.

[00:23:34]

ANNE: That’s so interesting. I’m glad you included it. Aimz, tell me about another book you love.

AIMZ: So second book that I have picked is another novel. I don’t just read novels, but they’re kind of my bread and butter, I suppose. Another novel that’s in a trilogy, I mean, this one is the second part of the trilogy, and it’s very well-known. And that is Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, which is the second in the Wolf Hall trilogy.

ANNE: Tell us more. How did you end up choosing book two of the trilogy?

AIMZ: I don’t often read a lot of dead white men, whether that’s fictional or otherwise, these days. Second novel is notably the shorter of the three in the trilogy and it only focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. So I mean, I had to study the two at least three times in school.

You know, it’s one of those things that you, in the British education system, you end up being absolutely sick of by the time you finish your formal education. So you know how many wives Henry VIII had. You kind of roughly know what happened to them. The tragedy of Anne Boleyn is very much like well-trodden ground in historical fiction.

So there’s something really extraordinary about Bring Up the Bodies. And I can’t believe that it works when I’ve read it at least… I’ve probably read it about three times I think now. I can’t believe how tense it makes me [AIMZ CHUCKLES] [ANNE LAUGHS] because I’ve known this story about Anne Boleyne since I was at least eight years old. I’m on the edge of my seat even when I’ve reread it. To do that once… we’ve all had it when we read like a really good thriller. And you’re like, “Oh, I wish you could read that again.” You know, you’re going to know what the twist is going to be or how it ends.

I always kind of feel like that about Bring Up the Bodies, but it’s never going to feel the same. But it does. There’s just something really kind of propulsive in the way that she makes something that is so well-known, again, you really care for the characters, that you really care… or you feel really invested in Cromwell having to do this terrible thing, which is to find a reason to accuse a woman and send her to her death, whilst at the same time he’s using it as an opportunity to exact revenge on four people who condemned his mentor, Cardinal Wolsey, which is detailed and involved on the first book. Yeah, and just the way he kind of brings you on this kind of extraordinary ride. It’s just such a fantastic novel.

And I think the other two are great as well. I think The Mirror & the Light probably less suc… I think for me is less successful than the previous two. But there’s something really pithy about Bring Up the Bodies.

I’ve been listening to the audiobook, and you know, it’s not just kind of like the tension and the way that the plot builds, but also the dialogue. It’s funny. There’s so many characters there and this is all ridiculous because they’re all kind of based on historical figures.

So the names aren’t changing. So there’s way too many Thomas’ and way too many Henrys. But she creates these very distinct characters that are so memorable. Like I even remember characters like Chapuys, who’s the French ambassador, which is just like a minor character, but that the voices and the ways in which you recognize them. She makes something new out of it. And it’s just like a really, really good read. [CHUCKLES]

ANNE: Now, Aimz, I always feel like I’m asking you the only book you ever loved. But tell us about your final favorite you brought today.

[00:27:02]

AIMZ: A final favorite is kind of representative of a very particular genre of book that I really love. The reason is I can quite fathom kind of true crime memoir, but from the survivor or the victims and the family’s perspective, but not kind of in a soapy way. Actually, in a very sort of beautiful and reflective style of writing.

And that book is The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson. So people may have heard more of Maggie Nelson for The Argonauts, which again, is also like an extraordinary literary memoir. But I picked The Red Parts because again it’s another text or the book that I’ve read at least three times. And it’s also one that I kind of dip in and out of as well.

And the circumstances of The Red Parts and the trial that it’s referring to is almost like kind of stranger than fiction. Like if it wasn’t true, you almost wouldn’t believe it happened.

Maggie Nelson had an aunt who was brutally murdered at university, at college in really sad circumstances and horrific circumstances a long time before Maggie Nelson was even born. Her aunt was called Jane. Maggie Nelson kind of grew up with knowing about Jane and kind of knowing what happened to her, but also kind of casting quite a long shadow in terms of her mom being quite worried about her and her sister growing up and their safety, and then this kind of thing.

And Maggie Nelson is kind of more well-known now, I think, for being a sort of memoirist and sort of an academic or critical writer. But she started her publication career as a poet. She wrote a poetry called Jane: A Murder, which was kind of her response to growing up under the shadow of having a family member who she never knew.

And as these collection of poems about her and was about to be published, she received a phone call notifying her that the case for her aunt’s suspected killer was about to be opened, and there was about a trial date set. The entire can of worms explode. The impact that it has on her mother and her sister and also herself as well are having to really…

She’s published this series of poems thinking that that’s kind of like her, kind of personal reckoning, but actually it’s only the start of it. And The Red Parts is kind of really beautifully and quite brutally detailing what that experience of the trial was like, but also kind of using it as a way of reflecting on her relationship with her parents and also kind of her relationship to kind of her ideas around safety and thinking about kind of women’s position in the world and how they move through it.

She’s really wrestling, did she have the right to write about Jane, this person who has such a massive impact on her life who she never knew. And she’s already kind of thinking about this at the time. And then the trial brings this all up as well, you know, what it does to her family, but also for the people who knew Jane and for the person who’s accused of Jane’s murder as well.

And it sounds incredibly bleak. And there are parts that are quite difficult. Some of it is not related necessarily to Jane’s murder. One of things I love about The Red Parts and memoirs and accounts of kind of how sort of crimes ricocheting, kind of resonate like throughout, you know, somebody’s life.

It never goes into detail about what happens or it’s not graphic, but it doesn’t shy away from sort of the grief and the pain. And there’s something incredibly moving. And I think quite relatable to seeing somebody grapple with quite a difficult family history that’s had a huge impact on them, yet, they don’t necessarily have a direct connection to. It’s just kind of fantastic. And I think it really shows like how I think true crime can be a bit of a more nuanced genre than I think sometimes it’s given credit for as well.

ANNE: That sounds so interesting. I haven’t read any Maggie Nelson yet, though she’s been lingering on my TBR for quite a while. Aimz, tell me about a book that was not right for you.

[00:31:23]

AIMZ: My falling out of love a bit with contemporary literary fiction kind of starts a little bit of this book, which feels a bit unfair, but it was just experience that I had. And it’s The Girls by Emma Cline. It was actually quite a big, buzzy book. And I picked it up at the airport. I was going on holiday at the time, and I’d heard a lot about it on podcasts I’d been listening to.

It massively disappointed me. And the reason why I ended up picking it was I think it has lots that I should have loved about it. But the tone is very reflective and quite dry. It was a first person narrator. It was a, you know, an adult voice looking back on their kind of experiences of being a teenage girl, and that the difficulties they had and the angst. It just didn’t work for me. I just remember being like kind of crushingly disappointed.

ANNE: I’m trying to think. I remember this coming out. I remember all the buzz. It’s not a gentle book.

AIMZ: No.

ANNE: It’s like a bloodthirsty kind of book. Well, I’m speaking as a sensitive reader who probably wouldn’t have done in if she hadn’t fully understood what was going to unfold on the pages. But I feel like dark doesn’t quite cover it, not because it’s not a strong enough adjective but because it doesn’t quite capture the nature of the tone.

AIMZ: It just felt a little bit unearned. Trauma is a really popular theme. And I know this from… I have many students who want to write on it. But it’s also one that I think it’s hard to do well and easy to do quite poorly as well, if that makes sense.

ANNE: Oh, yes. And when you do it well often it’s invisible to the reader just how much you’ve accomplished because it goes down so easy. [AIMZ CHUCKLES]

Okay. I wonder if so many of the books you love, especially these literary novels that feel like both work and like treats to you, really embody a quest to understand human nature? Why do we feel the way we feel? Why do we act the way we do, especially in relationship? What does it mean to be human? Does that resonate at all?

[00:33:30]

AIMZ: It does actually. It really makes sense. Maybe there’s something about when it becomes kind of literary fiction and it’s sort of perhaps either is interpreted as trying to kind of get at some bigger questions. The titillating aspects of true crime is just kind of there for sort of entertaining and shock purposes. And that’s okay, but not for me. [CHUCKLES]

ANNE: Yeah, I really noticed your use of the word “grappling” why do we do what we do. I think you like books that ask that “why” question. And with The Girls, the teenage protagonist is like, okay, the Manson, sounds like a fun time. I’m kinda bored. Let’s do it. Like, it’s different than wrestling with the essential questions of human nature, which I think is what you’re into. I think that’s what you love and so much of literature.

AIMZ: I think you’re absolutely right. And thinking about a writer that I really love, which might seem very sort of different to the novels that I pick, but somebody that entirely I love, like I love entirely. And I think family novels, you know, family sagas play into this because there’s a lot of grappling with why. You know, why do people end up being the way that they are? Why do people, you know, behave in certain ways around their family or the people that they’ve grown up with than they do with like, say, their friends or their colleagues? Yeah, that idea about why. Why are we the way that we are? [LAUGHS]

ANNE: And you’re talking about [inaudible 00:34:50]. I think also if we sidestep to the how, how could someone endure that? How could someone treat someone like that way? How could someone survive that kind of situation? How can you draw meaning from such an experience? How can you write 22 novels all about families in their infinite complexity?

I think you want more than the plot. The Girls is plot, plot, plot, plot, plot. But these books that you love, I think they’re more about the how and the why, the mental viewpoint. And I think you’re looking to draw implications for you and sometimes your students as well.

Even if you’re not talking to your students about these books, I think you like books where you see like, “Oh, these are worth talking about? These are things worth knowing. These are things worth examining.”

AIMZ: Absolutely. And I think that certainly makes… We were talking about having a book friend, and I guess I haven’t really thought about this before, but I think I’m probably seeing my students as my book friends.

ANNE: Oh, I love that. That’s lovely. [AIMZ LAUGHS]

AIMZ: Isn’t it? It’s like, what can I give you? Because I think that’s what it felt to me. I mean, I think it’s no coincidence that Nervous Conditions was introduced to me through a lecturer. I never really thought about that before. I kind of feel like I don’t really have a reading community in that sense, but I do. [LAUGHS]

ANNE: You’re always talking books with people.

AIMZ: That’s exactly it. [AIMZ CHUCKLES]

ANNE: All right, well sleep on that and see how that feels later. You know, you can take a look at your bookshelves and think more about what you love and what you don’t, and we can see if that theory holds water. Let’s see what else we can parse out here. Aimz, what have you been reading lately?

[00:36:25]

AIMZ: I recently got back into audiobooks. A big breakthrough being that what I like to listen to on audio isn’t necessarily what I enjoy reading on the page. One of my favorite reads this year is actually an audiobook. And I think it probably works best on audiobook. And that is The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton.

It’s about a fictional pop musicians. It takes a form of all history, and therefore it uses multiple narrators and huge casts of voice actors. I loved it so much. And I think it really hits some of the things that I love about music, which is the politics of it, the way sort of captures a moment in time.

The way Walton writes about, particularly Opal… Opal is sort of visioned as a more sort of punk rock version of Nina Simone, if you can imagine such a thing. So obviously kind of what a strong character she is, and about kind of how she collaborates with, again, a fictional white British musician called Nev. They have a very short collaboration together.

A music journalist decides to kind of find out what actually happened. So basically the audiobook takes the form of all these interviews that end up being put together as part of this oral history. I had to kind of remember that it wasn’t true. The history, their positions as fictional characters felt so strong and so convincing that I always like felt really sad at the end of thinking, “Oh, I actually wanted to listen to these albums and hear more about these people.

But the cast is just fantastic. There’s so many people. Bahni Turpin, who I think is one of your favorite writers is reading poem. I love single narrator audiobooks as well. There’s been quite a few I’ve enjoyed, particularly this year.

Well, there’s something great about like a really fantastic cast and it just works so well. I really recommend it. It’s such a fantastic audiobook.

[00:38:34]

ANNE: Okay, Aimz, what do you want to be different in your reading life?

AIMZ: Sounds really strange to someone to say this when reading and talking about books is like kind of my day job. But I just kind of want to get the confidence again, that I’m not constantly sort of struggling to find a book that I want to read, pick something and go, I’m going to feel satisfied by the end of it. And if I don’t feel satisfied that it’s okay. There’ll be something else lined up that I can go back to.

I think I’ve been too much of a mood reader, if that makes sense. Sometimes I think I might need to be a bit more strategic about the way I read my own pleasure, not just kind of because I think I should read widely.

ANNE: I’m glad you said that. [LAUGHS] It’s a good thing I promise. [AIMZ CHUCKLES] Okay, let’s recap the books you loved. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga, Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel, and The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson.

Not for you: The Girls by Emma Cline. And recently you’ve been reading The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton.

And really I think we need to go back to pandemic talk for just a moment and say that it’s important that we not forget that you had a giant book slump—those are your words—in 2020 and 2021 and you were in a very real sense, we learning how to read for pleasure again. And you’re relearning how to trust yourself in your reading life.

And you may be experts in the world of books but that doesn’t mean that you feel really confident when it comes to seeking out joyful reading experiences. And that’s really what you’re looking for right now. Does that sound accurate to you?

AIMZ: It really does.

ANNE: We talked about the literary fiction that felt too close… Well, you thought it was too close to professional reading, but that it really brings you great joy in your reading life. And you’d really like to bring more of that back into your life.

And we talked about how you love books that wrestle with big themes that you feel like have implications long after you put down the book. Like stuff that matters in your everyday life in the world to all of us. And even though those books seem teachable, you’re not going to deny yourself that reading experience just because it would work well in the classroom.

And then we talked about rereading and how you know that brings you joy, and you’d like to find more time or make more time to reread those books.

And Aimz, you mentioned being a reader who reads widely. We are really alike in that way, in that we both do read widely. I wonder, I wonder this is unusual because most of the time, we’re helping people branch out, but I wonder if we don’t want to float the possibility for you to hone in a little bit specifically on the things you love, being mindful of the fact that no stage in your reading life is forever. Like this is uniquely where you are in late 2022.

But I just want to suggest that the fact that you can read widely doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to read widely. And that will look different ways for different people. But if you’re focusing right now on just a couple of things that you know you find it really satisfying, that make you feel confident as a reader and make you remember why you love to read not just for work, which you do a ton of, but also for pleasure, I wonder choosing just a couple of categories…

And I might suggest that literary fiction that embodies the quest to understand why people do what they do and how they make the decisions that they do in their lives. And also rereading favorites from whatever genre. I wonder if that might be an interesting, small experiment you could set the time frame to narrowing down your choices to books that you know you’re likely to love.

Now, does that make you twitchy or does that feel enticing?

AIMZ: It feels like a massive sense of relief actually. [CHUCKLES]

ANNE: That’s telling. That’s telling. That’s good.

AIMZ: Yeah, it really does. I really don’t like snobbery of any kind. And I think I was a bit of a book snob, particularly when I was a teenager, probably in my early 20s. And I’ve really enjoyed and will continue in the mid to long term future enjoy reading widely again.

But yeah, I think you’ve hit on something that I think has been in the back of my mind for quite a while, which is, It’s okay to identify your lane and stick in it. Like you said, it doesn’t have to be forever. [CHUCKLES] I think you just said it as well – I need to remember why I love reading. And even though I’ve gotten a lot of pleasure out of reading widely, that’s not what I need in terms of getting a rhythm back into my life again—a reading rhythm.

[00:43:21]

ANNE: We talked a little bit ago about how you sat and wrote out your most memorable reading experiences of the last few years to see what you are missing. And I wonder how life-giving it could be and also really practical to just sit down and think expansively about what you may want to reread.

And I think it’d be really interesting to see what you come up with, and also how that feels to contemplate all the books you could reread. And I imagine based on what you’ve said, like I’m just picturing you with your pen and your paper and a big smile on your face as you’re making a list.

AIMZ: I love the idea actually. Yeah. Because I think like off the top of my head, the Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan novel, I really enjoyed that. And it was a great reading experience. But I don’t necessarily think I want to read… My gut feeling is I don’t necessarily feel like I need to reread that.

Whereas Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which was a novel that I absolutely loved, and I’ve been meaning to reread for a long time, which I’ve never gotten around to it now is a good as time as any to just make a list of, you know, what am I excited to reread as well rather than like what I should. Again, it’s that should is there in my work. Like what do I want to reread because I can reread it not because I have to reread it?

ANNE: Right. Discerning what it is that you want in your reading life I think is going to be key to building your confidence again in finding books that you will love. Because you know you can read. It’s in finding books that you find deeply satisfying when you’re reading for pleasure. But I’m not going to leave you without books to read next. [AIMZ LAUGHS]

Okay, so I really think you may enjoy the new Barbara Kingsolver that’s coming out in the US and in the UK in October. It’s called Demon Copperhead. Do you know anything about this yet?

AIMZ: I don’t know.

[00:45:11]

ANNE: Okay. Well, I’m not sure how you will feel as a British lecturer. But if you’re an American assistant professor, you would want to teach this so badly as a specialist in North American literature. This is a retelling of David Copperfield.

AIMZ: Oh.

ANNE: When I found that out, I thought, “Really Barbara? Like you haven’t written a book in years. Is this what we’re gonna do?” And yes, yes, it is and it is amazing. Readers, you absolutely do not need to read David Copperfield first. But if you do, you’ll notice a bunch of inside jokes like how when Kingsolver updates the names of characters she does it in really creative ways that make me giggle sometimes.

Like Uriah Heep becomes Uhaul Piles because the story is set in American Appalachia in Lee County, Virginia, which is in the tiny southwest corner that is thinly inhabited, desperately poor, and the home to Daymond Fields, who is known by all as Demon Copperhead for his red hair and because everybody has at least one nickname in usually three or four in Lee County, Virginia.

We meet him at age 11. “First I got myself born” is how the book begins. It’s in the first person. Like David Copperfield. The voice in this is incredible.

And the way that she is smart, and clever and just like, oh, gets at your heart because Dickinson’s David Copperfield was an impassioned work of social activism. And that is very much true for Demon Copperhead as well is he grows up living in foster care. And his mother is addicted to opioids, and then he becomes addicted to opioids at one point.

And he talks about the ravages in southwestern Virginia and how his people that he very much identifies with are oppressed by those who have power. And he becomes artist along the way. Well, not along the way. He’s always love to drop. You’ll see that blossom. It’s 540 pages, which I know… I think it’s 560, which is a big ask. I think you’ll find it worth it on every page.

And I would love to talk to you when you’re done with this, how this reads to you. Because I’m in Kentucky, I’m one state over. There’s a point in the story where the Kentucky boys and the Tennessee boys meet each other and find out they’re telling the same jokes about each other. It’s just that the Kentucky boys mock the Tennessee boys on one version, and then you flip it for the other.

But you are like literally an ocean removed from this whole story. So I’m wondering how your distance affects your reading of this park. I think it’d be fascinating to break that down between an American and a Brit.

AIMZ: That’s really astute because thinking about Nervous Conditions, the other things that I really love about Nervous Conditions is the fact that it’s very specific and it doesn’t necessarily make concessions. Like Demon Copperheads is really exciting for me because if it’s kind of that rounded in a very specific place, I love those novels that do that, where you kind of you have to work at it a bit as well. That sense of embodying a different time in a different place and a different… or experiencing the world through someone else’s perspective. So that is super exciting.

[00:48:18]

ANNE: And I think that’s why it leaves readers just feeling so winded at the end because it’s so original and so effective. Oh, I’m really curious to hear what you think, listeners. There are so many hard things in this story. They are not graphic but they are most definitely present. So please note that going in. Okay, that is Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver.

Next, have you read Elif Batuman?

AIMZ: I’ve had him on my TBR for it feels like years. They never seem to like crawl any further up, which is a shame. But yeah. [ANNE LAUGHS] Tell me. Tell me.

ANNE: All right, let’s see if we can put this on an elevator. So, of course, The Idiot, which came out in 2017 was a Pulitzer contender. So that got a lot of publicity, lots of awareness surrounding that book.

The new book called Either/Or that came out earlier this year is the one that I really want you to read. So it’s a sequel. It is a continuum of Sylvan’s story that began in The Idiot. But I’m not a purist in the sense. Listeners, you can get upset with me about this and comments, but the one that I really want you to read, whether that’s a first or to get to is Either/Or.

The Idiot is about an 18-year-old girl. She’s starting her first year at Harvard. She discovers email, it’s the fall of 1995 when the internet was not the internet that it is now. So her email account changes her life and leads to lots of questions she has about language. And I think that would be really interesting for you to wade your way through.

And you’re gonna want to get your notebook and your pad and make all these notes for your students. Don’t do that. [AIMZ LAUGHS] Just if you want to reread it and do that later, that’s fine. But this is just for you.

She has a crush on a classmate. The story is meandering. Those who don’t enjoy character-driven fiction have used words like boring and pointless but you won’t find it that way. I think you will be charmed by her voice and her musings on the world and especially her comic, self-aware turns of language. Because she is a very self-aware narrator.

And she’s not always the smartest. I mean, she’s an 18-year-old incoming college student. She knows what she doesn’t know and she makes jokes about it. And I think that fact that she realizes that she still has a lot of maturation to do. And she’s okay with that. And she’s going to tell you all about it along the way.

I think the way that she invites you into her interior philosophizing, I think you’ll find that really winning. So that is The Idiot. But we stay with Selin. And her new book, well, Batuman’s new book, Either/Or picks up, gosh, it feels like five years later, but I think it may be just one in the timeline of this world.

But she has decided that if she has all these books assigned to her in school, on her literature syllabus assigned to her by her lecture, she’s thinking that no one wants her to learn these things, unless they’re supposed to have very practical real-world applications. So by golly, she is going to do her best to put the things she’s learning in the classroom into practice in her life.

AIMZ: Oh, gosh, I can imagine. [BOTH LAUGHS]

ANNE: I’m going to stop there then. So those are The Idiots, which is the first book in this… I’m going to call it a loose series, and then Either/Or. I think you could jump in either way. Tell us in comments, listeners, what you think.

But I think she could be a good fit for you. Especially knowing the kind of books you enjoy, especially knowing that you’ve enjoyed Jennifer Egan, I think you might enjoy this association of life with a literature syllabus on top of all the other reasons I think this could be a good fit for you.

[00:51:49]

AIMZ: No, I’m really pleased about that. Because It’s The Idiots has been hovering around on my TBR for such a long time. And I don’t have the recommendation from quite the right person, which I’m always like intrigued about just jump into Either/Or. I might do that.

ANNE: And finally, I know that you love nonfiction and memoir. We talked about Maggie Nelson’s The Read Parts. But you did mention, and I think this was just to me privately, that nonfiction appears far less in your to-be-read list in end of your reading summaries and fiction, and you wouldn’t mind bumping up the volume on that a little bit.

So I’m torn between amazing nature writing because I know you enjoy that and a true memoir. I think I’m gonna go the true memoir direction. Is that okay with you?

AIMZ: That’s fine by me, yeah. [CHUCKLES]

ANNE: I’m wondering about Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation by Hannah Gadsby. Is this one that you’re familiar with?

AIMZ: It’s really funny that you say that because I literally just bought it with a credit on the two-for-one sale on Audible. [ANNE LAUGHS]

ANNE: Okay. Knowing that you have a thousand books in your Kindle library, I’m gonna go ahead and tell you about it because I know that’s no guarantee. So many people first learned of Hannah Gadsby through her Netflix special, which is called Nanette.

And if you haven’t seen it or you don’t know, this is an incredibly personal show in which she takes on homophobia, gendered violence, her own personal history, and more. What she does here is she takes us behind the scenes not just of creating the show, which she does. And as a literature lecture, I think you’ll really enjoy that.

It’s not a book she’s putting together. It’s a Netflix special. But she talks about how to calibrate her delivery to have the maximum effect on the audience, and how she knows people will react and how she tweaked her delivery based on past audience’s interactions. I think you’ll really enjoy hearing her talk about all those.

So I didn’t know anything about the special or her life when I listened to the book. And she’s such a good narrator of her own story. So I’m glad to hear that you got it on Audible.

I didn’t know how much I didn’t know especially about her home country of Australia. And she grew up in Tasmania, and she talks a lot about Tasmania and culture during her childhood. Just things I had no idea about both the way she experienced the culture.

But also she talks a lot about the laws of the land. Like in Tasmania, homosexuality was illegal until 1997. But she grew up as a queer person in that very place. And she talks about what that was like for her and why it was so hard and some of the specifics involved. And she talks about making the decision to tell the truth about her life and the world around her no matter what it costs her.

And something else. It’s so interesting is she’s not neurotypical, so she shares about being diagnosed with autism and ADHD, how those diagnoses didn’t come till she was an adult, how they affect her comedy and how her relationship to comedy has evolved over the years.

And some of her insights about family complexities and her interactions with others. Some of her observations about her experience in the world and what she sees about life wife and her family are so striking. They remind me exactly of the things I love about those complicated family stories that I know we both enjoy so much.

And so while this is a book about one person’s life and it is nonfiction, I think it will connect so seamlessly to so many of the fictional stories you love. You pick this up because it sounded good to you. How does that sound? And is it what you expected?

AIMZ: Actually, it isn’t why expected but I’m really pleased because… I’m really glad you recommended it because that’s the only thing I was thinking about is these kinds of stories that I like, will they translate to my enjoyment on audiobook?

And actually, I think this is a really great kind of push for me. I’ve got it on my to be listened to list. I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to getting around to it. I saw Nannette I think fairly early when it landed on Netflix as well. And it is just an amazing piece of art but it’s been quite a while since then. So I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to pick it up.

So I really enjoy it as a listening experience. It’s kind of exciting because it kind of means that it gives me more options of, you know, how and when to access these kind of more naughty kind of complex stories that I love. That I don’t always have to read it with my eyes. I can read them with my years as well.

ANNE: Oh, she spends a lot of time untying knots in this book and the way it’s structured. Not to sound like a total nerd but you’re a literature professor, I feel like I’m okay here.

AIMZ: Oh, yeah, I love “structured.” [LAUGHS]

ANNE: The way the book is structured and how she slowly and deliberately keeps looping back around to the same themes and the same stories I thought was so well done.

Listeners should know that there is a lot of difficult content in this book. And while it’s sensitively handled, she talks frankly about a lot of terrible things she experienced. Those are present in these pages.

And also an audio—she’s Australian—I want her to talk to me out loud with her voice.

AIMZ: Yeah. I’m really excited by that as well.

[00:56:54]

ANNE: She’s also a performer so she can deliver the material. Aimz, we covered a lot of ground today. At the end of the day, the books we discussed, Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, which you do need to wait until October for this one, I am sorry to say, the good news is you can plan accordingly, Either/Or, and we also talked about The Idiot by Elif Batuman, and then Ten Steps to Nanette: A Memoir Situation by Hannah Gadsby. Now, of those books, what do you think you may read next?

AIMZ: I’m definitely going to Ten Steps to Nanette probably within hours because I can. But the one I’m most excited about, and I love all three suggestions, but I’m really excited about Demon Copperhead’s Barbara Kingsolver, because it’s been a long time since I’ve read Barbara Kingsolver and it’s a really long time since I’ve been really excited by the idea of a new novel of hers as well. I think it sounds quite different to what she’s been writing. But it sounds like a really exciting, interesting turn.

ANNE: Well, I want to hear all about it. Aimz, thank you so much for taking time to talk with me today.

AIMZ: Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure. Thank you so much for helping to unpick some knots in my head as well around my reading life. [BOTH LAUGHS]

ANNE: Well played. The pleasure was mine.

[CHEERFUL OUTRO MUSIC]

ANNE: Hey, readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Aimz. I’d love to hear what you think that she should read next.

Our show notes include the full list of titles we talked about plus Aimz’s social media links. Those are at whatshouldireadnextpodcast.com/348.

As podcasters, reviews are totally our love language. Leave our show a review on Apple podcasts or give us a star to your favorite episode on my favorite app. That’s Overcast. Help us spread the bookish love. Even telling a friend, “Hey, do you listen to this great book podcast?” that helps so much. Thank you.

Follow along with us over on Instagram where you’ll find me @annebogel. Our shows page is @whatshouldireadnext.

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Make sure you’re following in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, wherever you get your podcasts. We are taking a break next week but we’ll be back at the beginning of October with another wonderful readerly conversation.

Thanks to the people who make this show happen! What Should I Read Next? is produced by Brenna Frederick, with production assistance by Holly Wielkoszewski, and sound design by Kellen Pechacek.

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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