This is a transcript of Recommended Season Four Episode Four.
AD READ #1: Beautiful Bad by Annie Ward
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. In this episode, author Dhonielle Clayton and bookstore owner Roxanne Coady talk about the books that have stuck with them.
Dhonielle Clayton is a former teacher and middle school librarian, the co-author of the Tiny Pretty Things series and author of The Belles series, COO of We Need Diverse Books and co-founder of CAKE Literary, a creative development company whipping up decidedly diverse books for a wide array of readers. Her latest YA series, The Belles, follows a young woman named Camellia with the talent to turn people beautiful, who gets sucked into court intrigue and must decide between saving herself and her sisters, or changing the world. The second book in the series, The Everlasting Rose, will be released on March 5 of 2019.
My name is Dhonielle Clayton and Passing by Nella Larsen is my recommended.
It is about two women in the 1920s and ’30s, two black women who have passed for white and they are, one of it is they’re old childhood friends, and they get reunited. One has completely left the black community and she has a white husband, another, the other one has a black husband but she only passes when she wants to have like a nice cup of tea at a fancy restaurant or to go get a brand new dress or hat from a fancy department store where they don’t allow Black American people to shop. It’s about when they run into each other again and realize that they were once connected and it’s all about the fallout of that. What it means to leave your community and what you miss and what you leave behind, it’s fascinating.
I actually took a Black American lit course in undergrad, and I didn’t want to be a writer, I didn’t know you could be a writer. I mean, I knew but it wasn’t something for me. I thought I was just going to be a teacher when I took this class. It was the first time in the three years that I had been in college where I got to read books by Black American people and this was on the syllabus. I started reading it, and it’s a very short book, it’s short, it is just super, the language is super tight and condense and it just it tore me up. It just was like, “What, what?” The stakes were super high, two childhood friends meet again, and then they drifted apart. Under the circumstances, it’s like a lens into America, and so when we read The Great Gatsby in high school, this is the book that I would have rather read because it’s about the same time period but it’s about my community.
I would have felt super connected to it and it’s fascinating because it gives you a slice of life, a slice of what life was like at that time and for the racial dynamics and how it was legal, though, the legal racial dynamics. It was college before I got this book and it bit me, it just bit me and I was like, “This is amazing, I didn’t know you could do this with a book.” That it could be this concise and this good and this stressful.
Sadly, I didn’t get to read about myself when I entered high school or even Middle School. I’d read all of the books that featured kids that look like me and then we had to start reading these adult literary classics, and they were foisted down our throats. It just became the same thing over and over and over again and I just didn’t connect with these dead white men dealing with their stuff. I just didn’t, it didn’t connect. When I got to this book, I was like, “Oh my goodness, this is terrifying,” because you have one woman, Claire, who’s literally living on the edge. She’s this very light skin elegant woman who’s married to a racist white man who doesn’t know that she’s actually black. Then her childhood friend, Irene, is also light skinned and can pass but she remains in the black community and only does it sometimes.
You get them crashing into each other and they have this chemistry between them, they also have the drama of both of them having the same set of cards but they decide to play them differently. It’s a time period which I’m always fascinated by, the 1920s and ’30s, but I got to see myself. I got to see a slice of my community and that made me … it tethered me in a way that none of the other books have been able to do that.
It just made me realize, “Okay, if I’m ever going to be a writer, if I do, do this thing, I want to be a writer like her.”
I want to stress people out. I want to make them be like, “Oh, my gosh, just one more chapter. Oh my goodness, I have to find out what happens to these two people.” They’re not real people but I felt like they were real, and so I wanted to do something like that if I ever was going to become a writer.
I try to reread it actually every year, and I reread it especially when I’m feeling like crap about my own writing. Because I’m a notorious over writer, I get stressed out and I just feel like if I just write all the words and write too many words, then I’ll feel safe. This book is so precise and concise with a precision of language that it reminds me that you don’t need a lot, you just need the emotional stakes, the physical stakes, and how they mingle together. It doesn’t matter if it’s 200,000 words or if it’s 30,000 words, if you’ve gotten that piece and you have a voice of a character that begs to be followed. And this character Irene begs to be followed, you want to know what happens with her friend and with her and how she feels about her life. Then you’ve got a good recipe for a good story, and I always struggle with my … I just put too much stuff in my stories, they just are bloated, everything in the kitchen sink because that’s how I process.
I want to be more like Nella Larsen where I use a precision of language and I don’t rely on being wordy or verbose or flowery. She didn’t do any of that, and her book haunts the crap out of me.
Whenever I do read it, I think I just noticed or latch on to different things because I need different things, I’m going to it for a different purpose usually every time. Sometimes it’s like, “Oh, let me remember what it’s like to write something that’s great,” that I’m never going to write anything great like this, right? It’s like I’m in a pity party mood and I read it. I’m like, “Oh, look at this, it’s brilliant.” Or sometimes I read it to remind myself, “Oh, you don’t need so many words, you can be more precise.”
And then other times I read it because it’s like coming home, it’s like putting on like a cozy sweater and getting comfortable and reminding myself that stories are important and stories about brown women are super important. So each time I think it gives me a different emotional nugget based on how I’m feeling.
That’s what home is for me, it’s a place for me to feel protected and warm and comfortable but it’s also a place where I can work out my feelings and work out what I’m thinking. It’s a refuge and so I feel like books for me and books that really speak to me are a safe place for me to think about stuff that I don’t want to think about outside in the world. That I really want to wrestle with and chew on that fat but in the comfort, like in a comfortable place.
I mean this is like a go to book for me that I talk about all the time when given a microphone and given the opportunity to say, ” Okay, if you’re building your syllabus, or even just if you want to read something that will rattle you a little bit, this is a book that rattles.” That’s how I frame it and it’s so simple, it’s like only 150 or 160 pages but it just it rattles you or it rattled me. That’s how I frame it, I do recommend it a lot. But I write for kids, so I’m constantly actually recommending more kid books than anything else because they’re the best books in the entire world as far as I’m concerned. But if I have to recommend an adult novel, those adults, I will recommend James Baldwin and Nella Larsen, they are my go tos for recommendations, especially, Nella.
Ms. Nella, I just feel like I’m trying to chase her, I’m chasing her with all my words, my suitcases full of words when I really should just have a duffel bag. I’m hoping that at some point in my writing career that I write something that is worthy of her pros. That I can challenge myself to be a little bit more condensed things and really, really just do what she did.
If you haven’t read this book, you got to read it. It’s short, it’s wonderful, the prose is just great. Yeah, it’s my recommended. I love it so much.
Thanks again to Dhonielle Clayton for joining us and recommending Passing by Nella Larsen. The Belles, published by Disney-Hyperion, is available for sale wherever books are sold, and the sequel, The Everlasting Rose, will be available on March 5, 2019. You can find out more about her and her work by visiting dhonielleclayton.com .
AD READ # 2: The Huntress by Kate Quinn
Roxanne Coady is the owner of R.J. Julia, one of the leading independent bookstores in the United States, which was named best independent bookstore by Publishers Weekly magazine. She’s also the founder of Just the Right Book, the largest online personalized book-of-the-month subscription service, and Read To Grow, Inc., which promotes development of early literacy and language skills, working to give all Connecticut children tools for success in reading. Read To Grow provides books for newborns and children and encourages parents to read to their children from birth, and has distributed over 1.5 million books. In the Just the Right Book Podcast, she helps you discover new books and your next read in all genres, gives you unique insights into your favorite authors, and brings you up to date with what’s happening in the literary world.
I’m Roxanne Coady, and Don’t Let Me Down by Erin Hosier, a Memoir, is my recommendation.
So Erin grew up in rural Ohio in the seventies. Her parents were a little bit … They were kind of hippies, but what they were, what they became, were Christian evangelical fundamentalists, and her dad was prone to violence. So it’s a memoir talking about growing up in a complicated house, how you respond to those things. And then it has a number of instances where she was sexually harassed, and how you dealt with it in those days, and what were the ramifications.
So it’s about her journey in dealing with who her parents were, how she emerged from that, how she could or couldn’t forgive them. And then, parallel to that, is this really wonderful story about her mom. And her mom was the one who first brought religion into the house and was very subordinate to her dad, and over time became independent and accomplished in a way that was inspiring for Erin. And it’s sort of a separate part of the story, but what I particularly loved about the book, is I love Erin’s spirit, and she is hilarious.
Betsy Lerner, who’s a good friend and a well-known literary agent and an author herself recommended Erin’s book to me.
Well, so this is a funny story. Well, this is a story of how it happened. I was going to California on a Friday, and I knew I was going to be interviewing Erin on a Tuesday. And I had two books by an Erin in my house, and I picked up the wrong book. And I read it, and it was fun enough, but not what I would have thought was worthy of Betsy’s recommendation. So then I looked at my notes, and I realized I had the wrong book. So when I got home from California on a Tuesday late in the evening, I had to read two books at once. One was … I was interviewing Madeleine Albright on Thursday, and I was interviewing Erin on Friday.
So I got home from the airport at about midnight, sort of shuffled my suitcase on the side, and I figured, “Okay. I know Erin’s book is going to be a absorbing can’t-put-down, both enlightening and funny read. I’m going to have at it.” So it was about 12:30 or 1:00 in the morning, and I started reading it. And I have to say, as tired as I was, I was happy to be reading it.
Her father was a music aficionado and fanatic, and The Beatles is an underlying theme in the book. And in fact, each chapter is named after a Beatles song. So the chapters are called A Day In The Life, Blackbird, Cry Baby Cry, Two Of Us, Carry That Weight, Run For Your Life, She’s Leaving Home, I’m a Loser, Come Together, and the last chapter is called Let It Be, which is about coming to grips with her dad. And actually, I think what I’m going to do is read that, because I really love that.
“I had my dad for all those years, and I didn’t know that they would end just as my life was getting good, that it would force me to grieve for everything he never taught me and everything he did. Even with all that’s happened, even after so much analysis and pain, I forgive my father. I like to believe that had he lived, he would have asked me to, and I would have asked him right back. I’ll keep listening to the albums he passed on to me, and in that, we’ll continue our conversation. It’s taken me a lifetime to figure out how to receive it, but I still believe that the love that matters is the one you give.”
Don’t you love that idea that your conversation continues with someone you lost through the albums that they recommended, or for a lot of us it’s the books? Yeah. So I love that idea of continuing the conversation with someone no longer with you.
I tend to be lately a heavy non-fiction reader. And the reasons … It think it’s changing a little bit. But I really like biographies. I really like history. I really like current issues. Not the books about all the Trump presidency books or that, but I’m interested … I loved Madeleine Albright’s book on fascism. I loved the biography of Frederick Douglass. So I gravitate towards non-fiction, and part of what I have found … Or last year my mood was I picked up a lot of fiction that I didn’t finish. I thought I’m not reading a story that feels new or different. And so I think last year, I finished one out of ten fiction books and eight out of ten non-fiction books.
And so that’s the trend … For instance, I just finished a fiction book called My Sister The Serial Killer.
So I loved My Sister The Serial Killer. That felt to me like a different energy, a different story. It was very dark humor. And those are the kinds of books that, if they’re fiction, I find myself gravitating to now.
I think that this book will stick with me because of Erin’s narrative voice. There’s a kind of a wildness about her, and a kind of a humor, and a kind of resilience, that attracted me to her as a person, and therefore that voice is a little bit in my head. I’m the opposite of wild, I’m maybe funny on my best day. But I love that sensibility. I love that sensibility and I admired it, and therefore I think her voice will stay in my head.
One of the disappointments of having grown RJ Julia’s to the size that it’s at, is I don’t wait on customers as much as I like to. And so my elevator pitches tend to be in print, or as I’m walking through the floor in the bookstore and recommend it. So I haven’t developed a pitch for it, except to say the shorthand of, “I’ll promise you you’ll be happy if you read this book.” Which is sometimes all anybody needs to know.
I think this book is good for a memoir reader, a music fan, a fiction reader. Yeah. I would say it’s good for any fiction or memoir reader and is an easy read, meaning you’re not going to get bogged down in details that are not pertinent to the story. There’s a real speed and rhythm about the book. So I would say yes, it’s the kind of book that I could see a broad type of reader enjoying.
Thanks again to Roxanne Coady for joining us and recommending Don’t Let Me Down by Erin Hosier. You can find out more about Coady and Just the Right Book at justtherightbook.com .
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