This is a transcript of Recommended Season 1 Episode 9.
This episode of Recommended is sponsored by Berserker by Emmy Laybourne.
Thor meets Little House on the Prairie in this action-packed adventure set in the American wilderness.
A well-researched historical setting, heart-pounding suspense, action-packed adventure, a cowboy romance – this book has something for everyone!
More about Berserker by Emmy Laybourne later in the show.
This is Recommended, where we talk to interesting people about their favorite books. This week we’re joined by Lisa Lucas, who picked The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton:
People ask me a lot what books matter the most to you, or what book do you love the most? That’s just one that just is like it’s become a part of me. So it’s not so much that I recommend it when somebody’s looking for a very specific thing. It’s more like when I want to share some piece of myself.
And Leigh Bardugo, discussing Catwitch by Una Woodruff and Lisa Tuttle:
It’s this lush, strange, marvelous book that was … That I don’t even know if they make books like this anymore, but was a huge influence on my childhood.
Lisa Lucas is the Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. Prior to joining the Foundation, she served as the Publisher of Guernica, a non-profit online magazine. Lucas also serves on the literary council of the Brooklyn Book Festival.
My name is Lisa Lucas and Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth is my recommended.
I think it was actually for an assignment in high school where we were meant to write some kind of book report about a book that we got to choose ourselves, which was this really nice exercise because so much of what you read in high school and middle school is prescriptive. It was really exciting to be able to say, “This is the book that I want to actually focus on.” Almost like pleasure-reading, rather than school reading.
My mother had always loved Edith Wharton. She was a huge fan and she would always talk about how much she loved the Age of Innocence. I wanted to be a little different, so I picked not the one that was my mom’s favorite.
I think that as a young person, I was just fascinated by the time, the setting. How different the turn of the century of New York was than the world that I grew up in. Right? And a love story, or a failed love story, or a lot of different complicated romantic through-lines playing out in one story. I just think I was really taken in by diving into a historical world and setting.
I think as I got older, particularly in my 20s, as a single person trying to make her way in the world, and as a person who did not always do what people expected me to do, or did not think the way that I was expected to think. Certainly didn’t make the romantic choices that I was expected to make. I think I really felt Lily’s pain and I was able to sort of … and in the way that we all do, where you take somebody’s life who’s nothing like your own, and the circumstance is nothing like your own, but you retrofit it onto your own life and say, “Yeah. That’s just like me. That’s just like me.”
I mean, minus the like, suicide. It was just sort of like, “I’m a woman of a certain age, and I have not yet married, and what does that mean, and what do I have to do?” I think I looked at it that way. I think now, when I read it, I just sort of see the pain and the pressure that women feel when you’re expected to be one way, and you can’t be.
She is one of our most fascinating literary characters, at least to me.
Lily Bart lives in a world where she’s been given lots of lessons about the type of marriage that she’s supposed to make, about the type of woman that she’s supposed to be, about what is acceptable societally, and what is not. Whether or not she’s able to conform to those, she’s internalized that understanding of how her world is supposed to look and how she’s supposed to participate in it.
But she has all these compulsions, right? To be her own person. The tension between those two things, I think, are just absolutely fascinating.
I’ve read the book several times. It’s one that I revisit usually at the holidays, for whatever … it’s such a depressing book to revisit at the holidays, but it’s also such like an engrossing read that you kind of want to sit down on a snowy day and read.
It’s like one of those movies that you go back to over and over and over again. Even though you know exactly what’s going to happen, and you have favorite lines and favorite parts, it’s still super exciting to just watch it. It’s like that kind of book. So I’ve had a lot of different experiences reading the House of Mirth.
I don’t have my original copy of the House of Mirth. Who knows what happened to that copy? But I feel like I bought a copy in my middle 20s, probably over ten years ago, and that’s been my working copy.
That book, the reason why I picked the House of Mirth, is just it’s one of the books that for whatever reason, has been one of the books that I spent the most time with. I think now, even though it wasn’t my first copy, I think I have a pretty strong emotional relationship to that physical copy. You know, it was like an $11 classics edition of the House of Mirth, and yet it’s probably one of the things I would save if there were a fire.
I try to recommend it in more than one way. Sometimes I’m just trying to get somebody to have a great experience with a book. It’s sort of saying, “What do you like? What are you interested in? How can I pick a book that’s going to give you the kind of experience from a book that will make you want to keep reading? That’ll make you want to pick up another book?” I definitely think that House of Mirth gives people that experience.
Usually, it’s more of a desire to share something that I’ve just loved so much. It’s a book that I give primarily to women, because I think that it just says so much about our plate. I usually just give it to people as a gift. Not so much as a recommendation.
People have a really hard time trying to figure out what great literature is, right? What it is to one person, it may not be to another person. It’s a kind of like nebulous definer.
What I’ve tried to do is just to step back and think about how to incorporate that into my general thoughts on why I love reading, rather than to narrow down the way that I read, and the way that I recommend. I think it’s really easy to work at an esteemed institution that’s been around for so long and to feel like you can’t recommend something that’s just like a good old read. And so I’ve tried really hard to just think about what gives me pleasure? What gives me information? What I feel like reading, and to be really open in a way that a lot of other people don’t feel really open about what they want to read.
People are always apologizing, “Well, I loved this book, but I listened to it,” or “I loved this book, but it’s not really the kind of thing that you would award.” It’s just like, “No apologies.” You know? ” Regret nothing.” It’s great to read the words that somebody else has written, and to engage in the practice of reading a book. It’s great to have those stories make you bigger and richer and fuller. I don’t care what kind of story it is.
I do think that that kind of openness that I have also allows me to look at something that’s really complex and challenging, or old, or not trendy, or intimidating, and to just feel like that’s okay, too. You never know what’s going to be inside of a book. A review can’t tell you. A recommender can’t tell you. You have to have your own personal relationship with that book. There’s so much that you will not have in your life if you aren’t open to reading things that you didn’t come up for you, or didn’t strike a chord instantly, or the cover, or the blurbs, or the review didn’t say. This is how I want to spend my time.
Or, through some predefined notion of the kind of reader that you are. I think that if anything has changed about my reading in this job is that I’m way more open, because I think that it’s really important. I think the road to reading the kinds of books that we celebrate at the National Book Foundation, which are truly for everyone, means being open to experience. If I can live that, then maybe I can draw people along.
Thanks again to Lisa Lucas for joining us and recommending The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. You can learn more about Lucas’s work at the National Book Foundation by visiting nationalbook.org, and you can find her on Twitter at likaluca.
Fierce Reads is the exclusive sponsor of this season of Recommended, and they are hosting a huge giveaway for Recommended listeners, so go to FierceReadsRecommended.com to enter for a chance to win a bunch of great books.
Included in that giveaway is Berserker by Emmy Laybourne.
With a strong female role model central to the story, Berserker embraces the brutality inherent in the classically masculine settings of the Wild West and Norse mythology without resorting to overplayed tropes or toxic machismo.
Though the main character is extraordinary in many ways, her struggle to cope with her gift and keep her family safe is real and relatable.
Our thanks to Berserker and Emmy Laybourne for making Recommended possible.
Leigh Bardugo is a #1 New York Times bestselling author of fantasy novels and the creator of the Grishaverse. Her Grishaverse spans the Shadow and Bone Trilogy, the Six of Crows Duology, and the newly published short story collection The Language of Thorns. She is also the author of Wonder Woman Warbringer, a coming-of-age story about Diana, Princess of the Amazons, before she became one of the world’s greatest superheroes.
I’m Leigh Bardugo and Catwitch is my recommended.
I remember my friend Cory and I were at a bookstore. I guess one of our moms had brought us there. We both were raised by single moms and that is possibly why we became friends now that I’m thinking about it. We were in a bookstore that no longer exists. I wanna say it was a Crown Books or a Walden in this mini-mall. They had Catwitch displayed on the front table, I remember it really clearly. It wasn’t a cheap book even then because it was so beautifully illustrated. These are full color illustrations. It has multiple, multiple two page spreads. We cracked open this book … Also, at the time I think we were probably 10 or 11, a cat wearing a witch hat was really all that we needed in this world. That and maybe a unicorn and we were good to go, so this book really had it all. We were flipping through these pages and I remember Cory grabbed the book first and I begged and begged and begged my mom for a copy and eventually got one of my own. It became one of those books that I put into heavy rotation, that I read again and again.
It’s a story of a kitten who wanting a life of adventure runs away from home and basically becomes a witches familiar. This sounds so twee, but it’s really not. When the witch goes out of town, he starts experimenting with more serious magic and essentially opens a portal to Fairy.
What that doesn’t tell you is there’s a captive fairy prince, there’s an evil real estate developer who wants to develop Fairy for his own nefarious means, there’s a thing called the Great Spell that can enchant people through television screens.
I should mention it’s by … I don’t exactly know how to parse this. I looked this up when we were getting ready to do this podcast and the book says ‘Catwitch Una Woodruff Text by Lisa Tuttle’. So I guess Una Woodruff was the illustrator. The “text by” is what threw me so maybe the idea was originally Una’s as well, but Lisa Tuttle’s also a really big SF and F author still, as far as I know. I didn’t know that at the time, but yeah, they’re the creators of this marvelous, magical book.
It’s this sort of special talisman that I’ve held on to. I have the first copy I owned. It is hardcover and has a very battered jacket, but I still have it. The same way I still have my first paperback copy of Dune and my first, much dog-eared, copy of It. I keep the books that were the touchstones for me when I was growing up.
I was really into witches as a kid. I was really into magic. I think also, Jules has this kind of- I realize I’m talking about a cat here, but- Jules has a really classic heroes journey. He’s a kitten who is born in this rundown estate full of gargoyles and roofs with holes in them and broken down beams. His brothers and sisters in his litter, all they care about is a warm saucer of milk and finding a warm place to sleep, but Jules wants more. He’s a classic hero and he wants an adventure, so he sets out in the rain during this terrible storm and it brings him into contact with this witch, Eva.
Eva is not your typical witch. She is somebody who used to be a very famous starlet in Hollywood and owing to the Great Spell that was able to enchant essentially an entire population through a screen. She only wants to return to that fame and glory. Whereas Jules wonders why she would waste magic on such a thing.
I think that, that story … I grew up in Hollywood. I think that, that idea of movie magic and real magic and the power of charisma and beauty was resonating with me even as a kid who was seeing all this play out around her. Jules being in opposition to that and seeking out a different kind of magic I think resonated with me because I was somebody who wasn’t particularly drawn to the Hollywood side of things and it felt a little bit false, but also a little bit like something I wanted, you know? I had friends and people I went to school with who would go off on auditions and I was very jealous of them, but I wanted a different kind of magic and Jules wanted that too. The idea of this quaint, beautiful cottage where all of these strange dark things were happening called to me instantly.
I was a little kid living in the San Bernardino Valley, or San Fernando Valley, in this little apartment and everything around us was new and ugly and stucco. None of it is still there because none of it was built to last. It was fast food restaurants and brutalist buildings and rundown shops. It’s all gone now. That neighborhood is now a lot more booshie. But I wanted to live someplace magical, someplace that was full of Jules-colored fairy wings and towering glass spires and this book gave me that.
I think every book I’ve read informs the way that I write, but there’s no question … Catwitch is all about leaving the ordinary world and finding an extraordinary world. It’s also about the price that magic exacts. It’s about the way that we exploit magic and exploit each other. I know that sounds heavy given that I just described a story about a cat who wants to be a witch, but that’s what the best stories have in them. There’s always something deeper working beneath the surface. There’s no question in my mind that Catwitch and its approach to fantasy, its humor, but also the way it transported me … I would be really surprised if that did not have an effect on what I sought out in fiction and what I was drawn to, myself, when I wrote my own stories.
I should tell you, you can get ahold of this book. It’s just expensive. I am looking right now and I can see there are used versions of it online so you can acquire it. Some even say they have it new, used, and collectible. But you can’t have my copy.
It’s hard for me to point to books that are like Catwitch because again, I don’t think people necessarily make them. I think if you’re looking for … The most wonderful books that I guess are marketed as children’s books, but they’re so much more than that, Shaun Tan is probably one of my favorite illustrators and story tellers working.
A book I loved when I was a kid that you can absolutely get your hands on is called Many Moons by James Thurber. It is a fairytale. It’s a parable or fairytale about a little girl only the jester will listen to her when the rest of the kings and wise men of the courts will not.
I think that those are probably … They won’t give you what Catwitch gives you, but they’re full of magic in their own right.
I’ll also say there’s a book coming out by Holly Black called Cruel Prince. Now that I think about it, I think I’ve been waiting to walk through a portal into Fairy my whole life and I think that Holly gave me a decidedly more dangerous, more adult, more seductive view of Fairy, but it still is tapping into that same desire for the strange and magical places that I think for those of us who love Science Fiction and Fantasy, that’s an itch that never … That is scratched by fiction, but never really goes away.
Thanks again to Leigh Bardugo for joining us and recommending Catwitch by Una Woodruff and Lisa Tuttle. Her latest books include Wonder Woman: Warbringer and The Language of Thorns, both published by Random House Childrens Books. You can find them wherever books are sold. You can follow her on Twitter at LBardugo.
Thanks to Fierce Reads for sponsoring the show on behalf of Berserker by Emmy Laybourne. Be sure to check out the Recommended Season 1 giveaway at FierceReadsRecommended.com.
Next week on Recommended, one guest talks about how her pick changed her reading life:
The thing that I look for, after reading this book is, I look for and I expect better relationships between women in stories and I gravitate toward romances, where there is a group of supportive women friends who don’t just exist in each others eyes as sequel bait. Who regularly interact with each other, in supportive and loving ways and in silly ways and real portrayal of real female friendship and relationships.