This is a transcript of Recommended Season 5 Episode 6.
AD READ: The Stranger Inside by Lisa Unger
You’re listening to Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. From childhood favorites to classics, to new and forthcoming reads, you’ll hear how the people who make books happen have been influenced by the ones they’ve read.
Today is a special extended episode! Alexis Hall chose Small Gods by Terry Pratchett, and sister-writing-team Maika and Maritza Moulite joined us to recommend The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple.
An editorial note: Alexis Hall has one of the most entertaining bios I’ve had the pleasure to read out loud. Here it is, in all its glory:
Alexis Hall is a pile of threadbare hats and used teacups given a semblance of life by forbidden sorcery. He has a degree in very hard sums from a university that should, by all rights, be fictional.
If that doesn’t give you a sense for him and his writing, I personally don’t know what will. To be more specific, he writes queer romance, science fiction, and fantasy. His work has been nominated multiple times for the Lambda Literary Awards. His latest book, The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, is a charming, witty, and weird fantasy novel, in which he pays homage to Sherlock Holmes with a new twist on those renowned characters.
My name is Alexis Hall, and Small Gods by Terry Pratchett is my recommended.
So, Small Gods is… I tend to think of it as a mid Discworld book. It’s kind of post Rincewind, pre Industrial Revolution is the world.
And it tells the story of Brutha the novice, who encounters a tortoise that is actually his god, the great god Om. It’s about how in this very theocratic society where he lives, people have stopped believing in their god and started believing in the social infrastructure, that surrounds that god, and it’s Terry Pratchett doing a take on organized religion. Is what it is.
I discovered the Discworld books through, I think it was through a friend of the family when I was very young. So it kind of early secondary-school young.
It came up because it was in order. I remember quite strongly I happened to have got to Small Gods around about the time, I think we were going on a family holiday. So I had about a six hour car journey ahead of me. So I got into the car with Small Gods and we got out of the car at the other end, and I had finished Small Gods.
One of the things I’ll say is because I picked this as an icon of the whole Discworld oeuvre, I’ve not actually read it in a really long time. So to me, it’s always been about the sense of the book and the feeling of the book. I am, I have really strong flashes from Small Gods that I remember very intensely.
The scene that most stands out to me is the bit at the very, very end of the book. There’s a motif throughout the book where the god Om is talking to Brutha the novice, later Brutha the prophet, about various things and the god will say, “In a hundred year’s time, we’ll all be dead.” And the book ends with this time skip, and then it’s a hundred years later. And Brutha the novice is now the religious leader of his whole society and someone tells him it’s been a hundred years since you walked in the desert. And he laughs as he’s remembering something someone told him once and then he dies. And then he enters the desert
There’s a whole thing on Omnian religion where when you die, you have to walk across the Red Desert. He finds that Vorbis is there and Lu-Tze has been waiting for 100 years. I don’t know why I’m tearing up talking about a Terry Pratchett book, that I haven’t thought about in a decade. Because Death is in every Terry Pratchett book, which is incredibly moving when you tie it into the, to me, still really recent feeling, of the death of Terry Pratchett. Which is kind of the only celebrity death I’ve ever had this much of an emotional reaction to.
Brutha the now historical prophet says to Death, “has he been standing here this whole time?” Death says, in a way, time is different, meaning it’s more personal. Brutha says, “you mean 100 years can pass like a few seconds?” Death replies, “100 years can pass like an eternity.”
I just remember that blowing my mind at the time I read it. Something I’m very conscious about coming on this podcast and talking about a Terry Pratchett book is the way in which me recommending Terry Pratchett feels to me very strongly, like a guy who sells hamburgers in front a train station recommending Le Manoir, right? I am not Terry Pratchett, I find a conversation that has me and Terry Pratchett in it to be a weird thing. To me, what I wanted to talk about was, to me this was very much about my experience of reading this book at the time I read it. I would have been what, fourteen I think? This is one of the books I read after it came out. I think I was about fourteen when I read it, and just that emotion of a length of time that I think of as very long, being able to feel like a thing which is bigger than that, was weirdly mind blowing for me.
I don’t know what it’s like in America, but I think particularly if you’re British and a nerd, there’s just something so iconic about it, it’s almost like you can’t think about it rationally. It’s like you can’t really think about whether Elvis was a good musician, because he’s Elvis. If you’re British and a nerd, you can’t rationally think about Discworld, because it’s, particularly, the . It’s how people who are young, nerdy enough and don’t fit in identify other people who are young, nerdy enough and don’t fit in. Someone else being into Terry Pratchett and being into Discworld was almost. I don’t know an exclusionary way, but it’s kind of discovering someone else that was into Pratchett was a weird sense of belonging. That’s why I’ve been quite so embarrassingly and particularly emotional about this, because there’s something really profound for me about that series, almost beyond any of it’s content.
I love Terry Pratchett, but there comes a point where, like anything else that’s a really big, informative part of your life, your relation to it evolves in complicated ways as you grow. It’s, in some ways, I feel strange talking like this about a series of books about wizards and dragons and fantasy gods, but because it’s so much part of who I am, and so much part of how I think and even how I talk – I catch myself using phrases in my day to day life that I know come from Discworld books. I think I have used the phrase – I haven’t read a Terry Pratchett book in at least a decade, but I have used the phrase “things that try to look like things often do look more like things than things” in the last week.
Saying Terry Pratchett has shaped my writing feels presumptuous to me, because suggesting anything I have written is comparable to Terry Pratchett feels like borderline heresy where I come from. These books have shaped how I think and how I express myself on a level so fundamentally that it can’t not make its way into my writing.
The Affair of the Mysterious Letter is set in the cosmopolitan fantasy city with a double barrel name divided two halves with a gigantic waterway down the middle. Denying the Pratchett influence on that would be, I suppose as absurd as denying the London influence, which is, of course, a big part of what the whole shape and structure of Ankh-Morpork comes from in the first place. To me, the Pratchett-arian influence that I am most comfortable admitting to, that I feel least hubristic admitting to, as it were, is the way it has effected just the way I talk and communicate and express myself.
I am always very hesitant about recommending books to people. Partly just because I like to have an awareness of context and things. If you told me that you have never read a Discworld book, first of all, particularly if you’ve read my books, particularly, my fantasy books, I wouldn’t believe you. But I would absolutely recommend them. I would always bracket that by be aware they’re written in the 80’s and 90’s. There are – again, because it’s the type of fiction I write – the type of circles, when I’m writing, I am always very very conscious that some people are way more sensitive to some things than others. I always say, I think these are amazing books. I think they’ve got a wit and charm to them that is genuinely unique. I’d also say they’re of that time to some extent.
That was Alexis Hall, recommending Small Gods by Terry Pratchett. His novel The Affair of the Mysterious Letter, published by Ace, is available wherever books are sold. You can follow him on Twitter at KWEE-KUN-KWE VULT, that’s q u i c u n q u e v u l t.
AD READ: Motherhood So White by Nefertiti Austin
Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite are self-professed bookworms who have been devouring YA for years. They grew up in Miami with two younger sisters, a large extended family, and a love for reading and their own Haitian culture. The character Alaine, in their debut YA novel, DEAR HAITI, LOVE ALAINE, is the heroine they were waiting for as teens and their goal is to make Haitian culture and history more accessible through a fun, fast-paced, but also introspective story line that anyone can relate to.
Maika Moulite: . Hi, my name is Maika Moulite, and The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo is my recommended.
Maritza Moulite: Hi. I’m Maritza Moulite, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple is my recommended.
Maika Moulite: Okay. So I guess I’ll go first. The Poet X is about a 15 year old girl named Xiomara Batista who lives in Harlem in New York, of course. And she is a twin and her family is very devout with their Catholic faith. And as Xiomara is getting older, she’s becoming that age where she starts to form her own opinions about the world, and she’s really questioning things about her faith, how women are treated in general, just a lot of different things about, things that you consider once you’re getting older. And she’s starting to get the attention of boys her age and leery men who are way too old. So she’s very soft spoken and she tries to consider the things that she says whenever she speaks. But she ends up finding her voice through slam poetry. And The Poet X takes us on this journey as she tries to discover her place in the world. And it’s such a touching story and I’m obsessed with it.
Maritza Moulite: Okay, so Where’d You Go, Bernadette? is an epistolary novel about Bernadette Fox, a reclusive architect who has found herself in a career and life rut. She basically hates everything and everyone except her daughter Bee and sometimes her husband Elgin. And it takes place in Seattle, and it’s so funny.
Maritza Moulite: Yeah. And I haven’t read The Poet X, although I want to read it this month, actually. It’s on my to be read. But yeah, I’m always talking about Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to Maika, and she’s like, “Okay”.
Maika Moulite: I basically know the whole story from her.
So I came across The Poet X because, it was actually by accident. So I was looking for where Tomi Adeyemi was going to be on tour, and she was going to be in Coral Gables, which is in Miami, and at Books & Books, which is our local indie store. And when I went there, I saw that she was going to be in conversation with Elizabeth Acevedo, and I hadn’t heard of Elizabeth Acevedo at the time. But once they were there, they were talking and just having a really good time. And Elizabeth started to read one of her poems and she was like, “Pero tu no eres facil,” and I was like, “Oh my God, I’m in love.”
Maritza Moulite: So I’m actually not sure when I first heard about Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I know the book came out in 2012. And I didn’t get it when it was immediately released, but I think I was reading an online article that was talking about a trend in book covers with illustrated women on the cover with sunglasses or something like that. And I read a summary about Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and I thought, oh, this looks fun. And then I read the book from there and I absolutely fell in love with it. I think I’ve read the book probably at least three times because it’s just so funny to me.
Maritza Moulite: So when Maika and I sat down to write what ultimately became Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, I just threw it out there casually and was like, “Hey, what if we write a book like Where’d You Go, Bernadette?, an epistolary novel with lots of different formats and ways to tell the story?”. And she was reticent at first, but I guess I really sold my case and we were able to do it. But it definitely influenced what we did with Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, because what I really loved about Where’d You Go, Bernadette? was that foundation of a mother-daughter relationship, and how everything else could be going terribly in your life, in the world, but you have this really strong relationship with your mother.
Maritza Moulite: And even in the case of Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, our character doesn’t have a very solid foundation to rest on with her mother. She is trying to get there. But the fact that Where’d You Go, Bernadette? has the emails to her assistant and the letters, and there’s an FBI dossier in there and a Ted Talk transcript, those are so funny. And even the different ways that they throw in little jokes in a moment that’s supposed to be serious, we tried to do that with our book as well. I remember laughing so loudly. I don’t even remember where I was when I had first read how the FBI reached out to Bernadette’s husband, Elgin, and was like, “Yeah, she’s talking to these Russian identity thieves.” And then all the way at the end, “By the way, we love your Ted Talk. We’d love to hear updates on your projects.” That’s so insane. Yeah, so it definitely influenced what we wanted to do with our story.
Maika Moulite: The Poet X was, when I finished reading it for the first time, our family was vacationing in Haiti, and that was actually my first time going back to that part of Haiti where my family’s from since I was like six. So I finished reading it and just kind of teared up, because it very much was a book that I wished that I had when I was 15 years old. I resonated with Xiomara so much. I used to write poetry when I was younger. It was not as good as Xiomara’s, but I very much loved writing and it was just my way of escape. And the fact that I was able to find a character that I resonated with so much, it really made it more impactful to me and it made me really want to write something that somebody else would be able to relate to.
Maika Moulite: So when we started to write, when Maritza and I started to write Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, we wanted it to be a universal story that everyone could relate to. But we think that there is also a universality in the specificity. Like even though we’re talking about something that is very specific to Haitian culture, you can still amplify that out to yourself, because everybody wants that sense of belonging. You want to make sure that you have your place in this world and that you know exactly where you fit in. And for our character, Alaine, she’s very much struggling with that duality of being Haitian and American, and Xiomara is struggling with what it means to have been raised up in the faith, and also to be coming of age and having hormones and feelings and emotions and getting a voice. So it very much impacted that and just, I wanted us to be able to create something that would stay with people long after they’ve read it.
Maika Moulite: And yeah, The Poet X really, even to this day, I love this book. I’m recommending it to everyone. I’m letting people borrow my signed copy and I’m like, “If you lose this, I will break your hands.”
Maritza Moulite: So we are YA authors, so we read a lot of YA. Growing up, I think those stories that really stuck with me the longest, and even if I don’t remember them by name, I know they really shaped the way that I think about stories and how I know they can make you feel were those initial middle-grade stories that I would read as a kid. So I always remember the Anastasia Krupniks and the Alice McKinleys and the obviously Hermiones and Pippi Longstockings. And I really loved those girls growing up because I felt like I could relate to them. Even if I wasn’t necessarily as talkative as them or expressive, I still felt like I knew where they were coming from.
Maika Moulite: Yeah, so like Maritza said, growing up, we read a ton of books. So as a child, I read anything and everything I could get my hands on. As long as there was a girl on the cover, that was what I read. But there were certain things that would stick out. And I remember listening to, it was actually another podcast, and it was a woman of color speaking and she said how she would read all of these books and she loved them. And then they would say something like, “And then she blushed.” And then she’d be like, “Oh, you can’t see blushing on my skin.” So it would kind of pull you out of the story because when you’re reading, you tend to put yourself in the place of the protagonist as you’re reading, unless the person is very disagreeable and you’re like, “I’m just watching to see what happens to you.”
Maika Moulite: And it didn’t really deter what books I read. I read everything. It didn’t matter who was on the cover. There were definitely times when I found someone who resonated or who looked like I did. It would stick out a little bit. And it’s funny because there was one book that Maritza and I and all of our sisters read when we were younger. It was called Ola Shakes It Up. And if you asked us about this when we were younger, we would tell you like, “This story is about a Haitian American girl and all of these other things,” blah, blah, blah. But then we looked it up in adulthood because we were trying to see, what are some books that feature other Haitian protagonists? And the book is not about her. She’s a minor character, or she’s like an exchange student, I believe it is. And she ends up staying with the family for a little bit. And we made the entire story about her because we were so thirsty for someone who looked like us.
Maritza Moulite: And just as we got older, I realized that there wasn’t a lot of diversity in the types of stories that were available to me growing up. And there were books with like black protagonists and stuff, but a lot of times they were very heavy in subject matter and obviously those stories definitely deserve to be told and should continue to have a place in what is being published. But I wanted those types of stories as well. More of them about a black girl or Brown girl or whoever who was just kind of going through life and funny things would happen to them. And that’s, that’s something that we wanted to do with Dear Haiti, Love Alaine. There are serious topics being discussed in our story, but it’s also just kind of like a zany adventure about this girl who goes to Haiti for the first time and figures out lots of things about her family that she never knew about, which is what happens in Where’d You Go, Bernadette? Like ending up in Antarctica like that is so crazy to me.
Maritza Moulite: So I recommend, Where’d You Go, Bernadette? to everyone. But I remember this one time in grad school, I had to interview this, I went to grad school for journalism and for a story I had to interview this architect. And when I met her in person, she was giving me so many Bernadette vibes. Just looking at her, I was like, “Oh my God, this is her in real life!”
Maritza Moulite: And I don’t even know how we got to books, or maybe we weren’t talking about books. And I just awkwardly mentioned it because I really wanted to say it. And I was like, “Oh, have you read Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” And she was like, “No, I’ve never heard of it.” And I was all like, “Oh, well it’s about this architect who is kind of a misanthrope, but it’s so good. She’s so funny. And I love it. It kind of reminds me of you,” which is like a rude thing to say after I’ve just said that this character hates everyone. And then she looked at me like she hated me. She was like, “No, I haven’t heard of it.” And I was like, “Oh, yeah. Well, check it out.”
Maritza Moulite: But I love this book and I want to share it with everyone because I think it does a great job of, either you’re a fan of stories like this because you totally get where they’re coming from with the really wacky liberal school with the no grades and the Blackberry abatement specialist and all of that, or it’s completely new and you’re reading this as an anthropologist’s diary or something. And I think that it works for everyone.
Maika Moulite: Yeah, so The Poet X, I actually did a review of it on our blog and on our YouTube page. So I clearly recommend it to any and everyone who can read. And even if you can’t read, you can learn to read while reading this book.
Maika Moulite: But I would say I recommend this book for anyone who has craved something different or wanting to see themselves in a book. I recommend it to anyone who maybe is a reluctant reader because it’s written in poem, so you’re able to quickly devour the book. It’s a quick read but it still will stay with you. So if you have someone who’s like, “Oh, I don’t know if I want to read,” you should give them The Poet X and say, “Just try it.” I think that will be a really great book for even a reluctant reader, and I think that this book will be perfect for any occasion. If you’re on vacation, if you want to feel happy, if you want to cry a little bit, if you need something to read while you’re eating, which I read a lot when I’m eating. But yeah, I think The Poet X is really just an amazing, amazing book.
Maika Moulite: I most recently lent out my signed copy to one of my closest friends, and she was going on vacation to Greece actually, and I was like, “Oh girl, you totally need to read this. It’s going to be so good.” She was like, “Maika, I read it in one day. Not even a day, like in an hour.” And I was like, “Perfect, now give it back.” So yeah, I recommend The Poet X to anyone and everyone, far and wide.
That was Maika Moulite recommending The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo and Maritza Moulite recommending Where’d You Go Bernadette by Maria Semple. Their novel Dear Haiti, Love Alaine, published by Inkyard Press, is now available wherever books are sold. You can find out more about them at maikaandmaritza.com, that’s m a i k a a n d m a r i t z a dot com.
Many thanks to Alexis Hall, Maika Moulite, and Maritza Moulite for joining us and sharing some favorite reads.
Thanks also go out to our sponsors for making today’s episode possible. If you like what you’re hearing, please do drop by on Apple Podcasts to leave us a rating or a review. We’re always happy to see the feedback, and reviews help other bookish listeners find our show. You can find shownotes, including titles mentioned, at Bookriot.com/recommended, and you can email us feedback, personal favorites, and suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org.