This is a transcript of Recommended Season 4 Episode 10.
AD READ #1: In the Key of Nira Ghani by Natasha Deen
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. In this episode, Elizabeth McCracken and Rincey Abraham talk about favorites that are hard to categorize.
Elizabeth McCracken is the author of six books, including Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, The Giant’s House, Niagara Falls All Over Again, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and Thunderstruck & Other Stories. She’s received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy in Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. Thunderstruck & Other Stories won the 2015 Story Prize. Her new novel, Bowlaway, follows three generations of an unconventional New England family who own and operate a candlepin bowling alley, and the book was selected as a Recommended Book of 2019 by Entertainment Weekly, The Huffington Post, BBC, and Book Riot, among others.
My name is Elizabeth McCracken and The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields is my recommended.
The Stone Diaries, it’s a little hard to describe. It is the story of one woman whose name is Daisy Stone Goodwill, through her birth, that’s how the book begins, and marriage and children all the way to her death.
I found the book kind of by accident. I was working as a public librarian in Somerville, Massachusetts, and I read the description of it in Publishers Weekly before it had come out. And the description was so interesting I asked them to order it for the library and put myself first on the waiting list.
There aren’t that many books I remember doing that for, so I read it with no knowledge of how it was going to be generally reviewed, which is a very exciting way to read a book.
it’s pretty much right in my wheelhouse. It’s literary fiction. I’m on Twitter a lot and one of the reasons that I like that is because I can get a recommendation for a book to read, which I don’t have that much information.
I love to read books in a relative state of innocence, which was the thing that I liked about being a public librarian, is that books came across my desk or I glanced at pre-pub reviews and I could choose to read something not because it had been vetted, but just because it sounded interesting to me. And that’s my favorite way to read.
I think I mostly read it with a reader brain though I was writing at the time. I was working as a circulation librarian.So I was working on The Giant’s House, my first novel at the time. But my memory of reading the book is that it was so unlike anything I had ever read that I just gave myself over to it completely.
The beginning of the book, which is in first person for a moment, it’s narrated by the woman, Daisy Stone Goodwill, and it’s describing her own birth. And it’s from the point of view of her mother, Mercy. And it describes, it’s the day of the narrator’s birth and it’s the day of her mother’s death. And it’s just very loving and odd and moving. And the first person narrator sort of disappears. It just goes into the characters who were there.
The plot line of it is really just time passing and it’s made up of different kinds of substances. There’s sort of an ordinary third person, there are first person sections, there are letters. And one of my favorite parts of it is that in the middle of the book there are old photographs. It’s a novel. So it gives us this sort of, I don’t know, commonplace book feel or scrapbook feel.
And one of the things that I particularly liked about it is that you could read the description of the characters and then look at the pictures and they wouldn’t match up. And that lack of matching up was part of the pleasure of the book.
It doesn’t feel like a puzzle, but it definitely feels like a collage of some kind. The fact that it’s made of different pieces that speak to each other somehow is part of the pleasure of having read it. And it makes, which I imagine was part of Shields’ aim, it makes what somebody else might call a small life or quiet life, it makes it much bigger. It feels sort of kaleidoscopic in a beautiful way.
I actually reread it pretty recently because I had a student who I knew would love that and I read it when she read it so that we could talk about it.
It was really wonderful. And I also realize the extent to which it has imprinted itself upon me, that there were things that I had forgotten about it sort of in a straightforward intellectual way that I still thought about details. And also that it’s such a weirdly shaped book and I’m a fond of a weirdly shaped book.
I think of Carol Shields as an influence in general. I love her work, but when I reread it I thought, oh yeah, my latest book Bowlaway, I don’t think I could have written it without having read this book and having read it and sort of absorbed it in a way that something that you can read decades ago drips down into you.
The interest in writing from the beginning of the 20th century towards the end of the 20th century. That felt like the biggest. And also, Carol Shields is work is always really interested in the lives of women, deeply interested in the lives of women.
I do recommend it to people and I recommend it partly for people who are interested in writing novels with plots that are cumulative, that aren’t, this thing happens that causes that to happen. And also people who are interested in playing with form but might not think of themselves as experimental writers because in some ways, it’s an old fashioned novel with the pleasures of old fashioned novels. This sort of sense of time passing and marriages and generations. And in another way, it is so strangely built that it really is unlike anything else I know.
I really don’t know how you would elevator pitch it at all. I can’t imagine. Even sort of think about … It feels like a very … This may sound like an unbelievably pretentious thing to say, a very experiential book in that all of the things that it’s built out of feel more important to me than what happens. What happens is not tremendously interesting. No, that’s not fair to say.
It is interesting, but some of it is almost purposefully a little dull because she’s trying to write about the whole sweep of a woman’s life and sometimes life is dull. You can hear me struggling with how to summarize it because summary is so often about plot and this book feels very much like it’s about form and method and time.
It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 despite the fact that she is Canadian, not American. I think maybe she was living in both countries then.
One of my other favorite writers, she’s one of the very different writers, is Jeanette Winterson. And I feel like I’m thinking particularly of The Passion, which is my favorite book of hers, which is alternating narratives. But I feel like there’s that intense interest in the lives of women and they both feel like writers who write about difficult things, but with such life. There’s something about the energy of both writers that seem related to me.
Thanks again to Elizabeth McCracken for joining us and recommending The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields. Her novel Bowlaway, published by Ecco, is now available wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at elizmccracken.
AD READ # 2: Caterpillar Summer by Gillian McDunn
Rincey Abraham is a contributing editor at Book Riot and appears weekly on the Book Riot YouTube channel. She also co-hosts the podcast Read or Dead, where she talks about the world of mysteries and thrillers, and runs her own YouTube channel, Rincey Reads, where she talks about books every week.
My name is Rincey Abraham and Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia is my recommended.
This is a fantasy book that takes place mainly in the 1980s, but it switches back and forth between 2009 and the 1980s. You are following this teenager named Mercedes or Meche for short. She is around 16 years old. She’s really unpopular in her high school. She’s obsessed with music and she has two best friends named Sebastian and Daniela. They’re all basically in the uncool crowd.
One day Meche realizes that she has magical abilities, and the way that she sort of harnesses her magic is using music. Specifically she listens to vinyl records, and the three of them together realize that when the three of them are listening to records together, they’re able to harness sort of more power and more energy together. They start using their magic to help them out basically socially, so they might want to make themselves look a little better, seem a little cooler. One of the conflicts is that like Sebastian wants one of the more popular girls to think he’s attractive, things like that, and you can see sort of how the magic is impacting their relationships.
Fast forward to 2009. Meche is working as a computer programmer in New York City, and she’s flying back home after her father has passed away to attend his funeral. As a reader, you find out that the three friends are no longer friends, and so the story is just following their friendship and relationship after they discover about this magic and sort of how it impacts them. And you’re seeing sort of the aftermath of the choices that they made and whether or not their friendship would be able to sort of move forward.
I’m pretty sure I heard about it somewhere in the Book Riot world, because I know for a fact the vast majority of the books that I get or hear about these days either come from Book Riot or they come from BookTube, and I know that I am basically the first person on BookTube to start talking about this book. So it had to have come from Book Riot, because I can’t imagine another place that it came from, but I don’t have a specific memory of an exact person talking about it or anything like that.
I remember, because I just got it from the library, and this is a book that’s printed by a smaller press, so I didn’t have a lot of expectations going into it, but I just remember being so in love with it from the very beginning. One of the things that I just really enjoy about this book specifically is just the characters and how well written they are. They are all super complicated. They are very much teenagers. They make dumb choices sometimes. They are very selfish. They don’t necessarily treat their friends well, which I feel like is very real for what teenagers are like. I just remember falling in love with these three characters despite the fact that you could say that they’re all very unlikeable characters, although I don’t necessarily like that phrase, but I feel like they’re all characters that you end up caring about.
I really like Daniela. She’s sort of like the side best friend, but just because she’s a very girly girl sort of character. She’s really into pop music. She really likes like celebrity gossip, things like that. I can relate to that pretty hard. I feel like that’s like a character where I’m like, “Oh, she’s just like so sweet and just wants the best for her and her friends.” And she sort of gets stuck in the middle of Meche and Sebastian in this story, and so I feel like my heart just sort of like went out to her the most.
I didn’t go back and find more books by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, but I basically read almost everything she’s written since then, so I love the way that she writes characters so much, because I feel like she always make these characters that are very real. Like, they all are morally gray. They don’t necessarily make the choices that you would make, but I think she also does a good job of providing their sort of motivations and what their desires are and things like that, so you kind of understand why they’re following the path that they’re following, even though you don’t necessarily like the path that they’re following.
My elevator pitch for it is basically High Fidelity plus The Magicians. Yeah. I feel like that’s a good hook for people, because also I think it covers the music aspect obviously of it, but then it also has like the magical elements to it, but also like The Magicians have those, I feel like, kind of similar characters where you kind of hate them a little bit sometimes but you still also are kind of rooting for them.
I mean, I’m a pretty wide reader. Like, I read across a lot of genres, so there’s very little that I don’t read, so I feel like this one fits pretty easily into what I enjoy, because I like young adult and I like fantasy and I love music. So I feel like this one is pretty solidly in my wheelhouse.
I feel like this book is still seriously so underrated. I don’t think enough people are reading Silvia Moreno-Garcia or realize how good her writing is. It was one of those situations where I had been talking about this book since it came out and since I read it, and I’ve legitimately just handed my copy to multiple friends over the years, just like, “Please read this book, and please tell other people to read this book, because I just love it so much.” I feel like I had to talk about it cause I want more people to pick it up.
Everyone I’ve given it to has loved it. I know a couple of people online through BookTube who have read it and didn’t love it quite as much as I did, which, you know there’s always going to be some, but any time I sort of almost hand sell it to a person, like if I’m giving it to a very specific person, they have always loved it. One of my friends gave it back to me and she’s like, “Are there more books in this … Is it a series?” And I’m like, “Unfortunately, no.” I know. I would buy all of them.
I feel like it’s hard, because part of what I really like about it are the characters, and so I feel like the books that I would comp to being similar to this are more contemporary. Like contemporary young adult, because I feel like this book balances the realism, and it just feels like there are these magical elements that just happen to be a part of it. It’s more about like the relationships and the friendships, so I feel like if you like contemporary young adult, you would actually really like this one, but I can’t think of a specific book that necessarily matches really well or scratches the same itch.
I would recommend this to someone who enjoys books with good relationships or complicated relationships and complicated characters, because I feel like this is a more character focused story then a plot focused story, although there is plenty of plot that moves the story along, and anyone who enjoys young adult, contemporary young adult, I feel like this is also a really good way if you want to get into fantasy, to sort of dip your toes into it without going like full blown fantasy.
The fact that it takes place in Mexico City is such a unique aspect of it as well. If you are the type of person who likes books set in a place and to feel that, then I feel like this would also be a really good book for that.
Thanks again to Rincey Abraham for joining us and recommending Signal to Noise by Sylvia Moreno Garcia. You can find her on YouTube at RinceyReads, or on Twitter at rinceya, that’s r i n c e y a.
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