Sarah Bramley [00:00:00] I only recently discovered celebrity memoirs on audio narrated by the celebrity, and I will never read a celebrity memoir in print again. Because why would you when you could have Molly Shannon tell you her own story?
Anne Bogel [00:00:17] Hey readers, I’m Anne Bogel and this is What Should I Read Next? 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 the 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.
[00:00:47] Readers, we love to hear back from you about the show on Instagram, when you reply to our weekly email, and most especially through your podcast reviews. This one caught our eye recently. It’s from JoieGC. She called this the perfect podcast for voracious readers and said, “This podcast is my go-to place for all things books and reading! My friends and family hear all about ‘my favorite book podcaster,’ Anne Bogel, because I’m constantly talking about books I loved after I discovered them through What Should I Read Next?. Anne is thoughtful, funny, and entertaining as she helps her wide variety of guests from all walks of life find their next read. Thanks for always keeping my TBR list full!” Thank you, JoieGC. I’m blushing.
A short casual review like that goes a long way in telling new listeners as well as major podcast platforms, the book lovers in the know should know about our show. If you could take just two minutes to leave a short and sweet review on Apple Podcasts, the kind of thing you tell your friend by text or over coffee, we’d be so grateful. It doesn’t cost a dime and it truly makes a difference. On behalf of myself and my team, thank you so much, and happy listening.
[00:01:51] Readers, today’s guest, Alberta-based Sarah Bramley, calls herself a fiction purist because this has been all she’s really read for a very long time. When it comes to fiction, she knows what she likes and can find lots of great stuff to read. But recently, she’s found herself drawn to nonfiction, specifically books written by journalists and other true tales with great narrative drive.
Sarah knows there’s a ton of good stuff out there that she’ll enjoy, but she doesn’t know how to find it, mostly because she doesn’t know who she is as a nonfiction reader. She recognizes and welcomes that her identity as a reader is evolving and she likes to be purposeful as she branches out.
As excited as she is that she’s opening up these new avenues of exploration, she’s also finding it daunting because it feels like there’s just so much she doesn’t know. Sarah told us in her submission that this podcast helps and thank you for that, but she would love some personalized advice to help her find that gripping, page-turnery nonfiction she craves.
That’s what we do around here. So today Sarah and I are setting out to unearth promising starting points for her nonfiction journey. And if we can identify some fabulous audiobooks along the way, Sarah would welcome that as well. Let’s get to it. Sarah, welcome to the show.
Sarah Bramley [00:03:02] Thank you so much for having me. I’m really excited to be here.
Anne Bogel [00:03:05] Oh, I can’t wait to dig in. Our whole team was so intrigued by the submission. Thank you for sending that in. I’m excited to talk about helping you branch out in your reading life.
Sarah Bramley [00:03:15] Sounds wonderful.
Anne Bogel [00:03:16] Sarah, tell us a little bit about yourself.
Sarah Bramley [00:03:19] I live just south of Calgary, Alberta, in a small town with my husband and our six-year-old daughter, and our dog. I’ve lived around this area my entire life, except for a couple of years I spent living in New York City. I’m now workplace advisory with a large real estate organization, which keeps me really busy. But I still do try and make time for reading, of course.
Anne Bogel [00:03:40] Sarah, you have to tell us a little bit about musical theater in New York, not just because I have a couple of obsessed children in my household, but I’m sure they’re not the only ones.
Sarah Bramley [00:03:50] Yeah. So the time I spent living in New York really kind of formed who I am and really it was the first time for me living on my own. I found theater in my teens and like a lot of, you know, awkward, shy teens, I really found a home with the theater kids. I just loved it.
At the time, I thought that that’s what I wanted to do with my life, so I auditioned and got into a school in New York studying musical theater and moved there when I was 19. And I look back on it so fondly.
So it sounds kind of silly, but it was the before times. It was before social media, before… my phone didn’t even have a camera on it. And I really just got to experience living in the city and of course, going to Broadway musicals, spending all my money going to the theater, just wandering around Manhattan. I loved everything about living there.
Anne Bogel [00:04:41] Thanks for that glimpse. Sarah, you are here today because it sounded to me like your reading identity has shifted. You’ve always thought of yourself as a fiction purist. Would you tell me a little bit about where you are and how you got there?
Sarah Bramley [00:04:55] Yes, I’ve definitely self-identified as a fiction purist and reading really diversely across genres like fantasy and historical fiction, contemporary fiction, romance. Like really anything fiction. And nonfiction was always kind of about “well, I should read that” versus “I want to read that”. It felt like medicine at times.
But I think I’ve really tried to expand my horizons a bit in the last couple of years and really prioritize looking for things I hadn’t read before. So, you know, there are a few nonfiction books that I was like, “Oh, I actually got that, you know, that just one more chapter feeling or really wanting to keep those pages turning feeling that I hadn’t encountered before with nonfiction.
But I found a few of those. But then I don’t think I’m great at picking more. Like I kind of stumble on the ones that I love. But if I go to a store and I’m like, “This looks really interesting,” and I bring it home, I kind of get bored. So I think my pick is a little not calibrated for nonfiction like it is for fiction where I feel very confident picking books that I’ll like.
Anne Bogel [00:05:56] That’s so interesting. Did you consciously develop your fiction picker?
Sarah Bramley [00:06:03] I don’t think so. And again, it’s really evolved over the years. So I used to read a lot of classics. Like I read all the Bronte’s and Austen and Thomas Hardy, and all of those things. So I thought to be a reader you must read the classics. And then, you know, it just sort of started expanding.
So I go through these different phases. So definitely a big historical fiction phase. I love that. But, you know, even listening to your podcast over the last couple of years and hearing people talk really passionately about certain books has inspired me to pick them up. And I’m like, “Oh, well, I do like this kind of book or this genre.” So, yeah, it wasn’t really a conscious decision but I just keep finding new things that interest me, which is great.
Anne Bogel [00:06:42] That is great. For fiction, what kind of attributes do you keep an eye out for?
Sarah Bramley [00:06:50] So I need something that moves. And what I mean by that is that I’m okay with long books. Like I read Dune last year, which is like a doorstop. I read lots of long books, but it needs to drive forward. I don’t like when stories kind of stay stuck in place. I think I’ve heard you refer to that as strong narrative drive. So I definitely need that.
I also need characters that I enjoy spending time with. And that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good people or heroes, but it has to be someone that I’m willing to get inside their head and have that inside my head.
Anne Bogel [00:07:24] That’s so interesting. Sarah, you can probably intuit that I’m exploring how we’re going to develop your nonfiction picker. I suspect because you shared your Goodreads for a different purpose, that you’re better at this than you think you are. I really do. But we’re going to get into it. Because it sounds like what you really lack here is confidence, and we’re going to try to build that up today.
Sarah Bramley [00:07:45] Okay.
Anne Bogel [00:07:46] Okay. Let’s do this. Can we get right into your books?
Sarah Bramley [00:07:48] Absolutely.
Anne Bogel [00:07:51] So you brought three favorites today. How did you choose this?
Sarah Bramley [00:07:55] Well, so two of the books are kind of similar, which you’ll hear. But they were two of the nonfiction books that I was drawn to for reasons I’m not quite clear on myself, but I just could not put them down. And that was a new experience for me with nonfiction. And then the third book was just to throw in a flavor of what kind of fiction I liked. So I wanted to show a little bit of balance in my picks.
Anne Bogel [00:08:18] I love that approach. Let’s get started. What’s your first favorite?
Sarah Bramley [00:08:22] So the first book I chose was Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. And for those who haven’t read that or who are unfamiliar, it’s the story of the company Theranos, which has been in the news a lot lately, and its founder Elizabeth Holmes.
And it was this huge scandal. The company was a Silicon Valley darling, you know, the first female billionaire kind of on the cover of all the magazines. But it turned out that it was all a scam and that they were fudging the science on their blood testing equipment and products. And so it’s the story of this journalist, John Carreyrou, from The Wall Street Journal who really broke the story and exposed the scandal.
Anne Bogel [00:09:03] What led you to that one?
Sarah Bramley [00:09:05] Anne, I have no earthly idea. I can’t remember why it made it onto my TBR, but it just kept coming up. And then I think it was like a Kindle daily deal one day and I’m like, Okay, I’ll try it. And I was hooked. But I do not have a background in blood testing or the life sciences, so it’s not the subject matter that would have grabbed me. But yeah, it just intrigued me.
Anne Bogel [00:09:27] Okay, so this is a business exposé about white-collar crime and people behaving terribly in interesting ways, I would say. Tell me a little bit about your emotions during your reading experience.
Sarah Bramley [00:09:39] Part of me was very frustrated with Elizabeth Holmes because it’s really tough to be a woman in the corporate world. And she was in Silicon Valley, which is even more tough. And the fact that this all happened the way it did, it’s like, Oh, now they think we’re all going to be dishonest the way she is. So it’s a little bit me getting mad at her.
But I also love the sort of dogged nature of the journalists interviewing all these people who worked for Theranos, and they were so scared to speak out. And he really started to pull the thread and unravel this whole story and that the bravery of these people to actually speak out and go on the record and face lawsuits and to be ostracized in the community to actually get the truth out there is just really inspiring.
Anne Bogel [00:10:26] That’s so interesting. We’re going to dig into that more. And what I’m specifically thinking is, okay, did this book have movement for you, and what drew out that feeling? Okay, Bad Blood. Tell me about your next favorite, Sarah.
Sarah Bramley [00:10:40] So the next book I chose was She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey. This is about really the kickoff of the MeToo movement. And specifically they’re two journalists for The New York Times who were really the first to expose the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal in Miramax and in Hollywood. And of course, there’s been lots of other people writing about this subject, but they were kind of the first to breach it and to publish it and to really expose him.
Anne Bogel [00:11:10] And what compelled you to pick this one up?
Sarah Bramley [00:11:13] It sort of links to my first pick. So what I liked about Bad Blood is that the journalist and the author who was writing it kind of became part of the story. And similarly, in She Said, Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey are interviewing all of these women. Again, they’re afraid to come forward, they’re facing NDAs and they’ve been paid off and they don’t want to face legal action.
So the Weinstein Company actually started coming after the journalists, and they really became part of the story that they were telling. And I found it really compelling because, I mean, we know how it came out, it’s been in the news, you know what happens. But I didn’t know how and I didn’t understand the behind-the-scenes and the bravery of these women who came out.
I had moments where I got really emotional thinking about these actresses and these women who worked for this company having to keep their secret and or their careers had been ruined. Like someone like Ashley Judd, who basically got blacklisted for trying to speak out years ago, and she ended up being one of the people who went on the record first. And I just found that incredible and inspiring.
Anne Bogel [00:12:18] I’m a Kentuckian, I love Ashley Judd. Sarah, that makes me think I need to finally read this book. Okay. That helps me understand what made that such a great experience for you. Tell me about your final favorite.
Sarah Bramley [00:12:29] So my fiction pick was A Thousand Ships by Natalie Haynes. And actually read this on audio, which until like a year ago I would not ever have read a book on audio. For some reason, I had written them off as not for me but that was completely wrong. This was wonderful on audio. I think it’s actually read by the author herself.
And it’s the story of the Trojan War but from the perspective of all of the women. So I’ve always loved Greek mythology. If you are familiar with Greek mythology, the women tend to play a bit of a supporting role. They are either on the sidelines or sacrificed or punished, but their voices are rarely heard. So this is literally the voices of the major wives, daughters, warriors who are women as part of the Trojan War. And I found it really well done and fascinating.
Anne Bogel [00:13:22] That does sound fascinating. I’m so glad that worked for you. Now, Sarah, tell me about a book that was not right for you that on the surface it sounds like it should have been.
Sarah Bramley [00:13:31] I had high hopes. So the book I picked up was Empire of Pain by Patrick Radden Keefe. And this is about the Sackler family, who is a very wealthy family who unfortunately was really responsible for the current opioid crisis. Their background is pharmaceuticals, and it’s a story of how they sort of rose to power and the companies created and marketed these drugs.
So because of my experience with Bad Blood and She Said, this sounded like it was right up that same alley. But I got stuck like 20%, 30% through the book. I just couldn’t pick it up anymore. Like I would read ten pages one day and then five pages the next day and then half a page the next day. And it just wasn’t enjoyable or interesting to read for me.
Anne Bogel [00:14:19] I was about to ask if it was because you didn’t care or didn’t want to go there, but I think I just heard echoes of both.
Sarah Bramley [00:14:27] Yeah. And if I’m going to spend a lot of time with the character, I need to at least find them interesting. I mean, I guess it is interesting the way the Sacklers rose to fame and sort of made their fortunes and things, but I didn’t like them. And I understand that’s the point of the book, that they’re not good people. I just didn’t want to hear any more about their many wives and mistresses and fraud. There was just no in for me.
Anne Bogel [00:14:53] All antagonists? No protagonist?
Sarah Bramley [00:14:55] Exactly.
Anne Bogel [00:14:57] Interesting. Okay. Sarah, what have you been reading lately?
Sarah Bramley [00:15:01] So I just finished a couple of books that I absolutely loved. One was a novel called The Light Pirate by Lily Brooks-Dalton.
Anne Bogel [00:15:09] Oooh! I ironically have that downloaded on audio.
Sarah Bramley [00:15:12] Oh, okay. Well, I read it in hardcopy, but it’s a climate change post-apocalyptic story set in Florida, or what was Florida before it started getting hit with massive hurricanes and flooding. And they actually like closed Florida.
But it centers around a girl named Wanda who was named after and born during the hurricane that devastated her family. It could exist in the same world as the Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler, who I really love. I just found the writing really beautiful and the story was compelling. And of course, it’s upsetting to read those types of post-apocalyptic stories, but I did enjoy it and I couldn’t put it down.
Anne Bogel [00:15:51] Because why? Can you answer that? Did you want to find out what happened to Wanda? Did you want to see what the author was going to do next?
Sarah Bramley [00:15:57] I did. I found the structure really interesting. It almost plays out in four vignettes. It’s divided into four parts, and each part tells a different piece of Wanda’s story. And of course, wanting to understand where this is going and what happens to her, and how she faces the challenges and the losses that she’s faced with.
Anne Bogel [00:16:20] That is very helpful.
Sarah Bramley [00:16:22] I also just finished Molly Shannon’s memoir. So, Molly Shannon who most of us know from Saturday Night Live and lots of different movies. And I read this on audio and it was a joy. Of course, there are sad things that happen in her life. She has a tragedy that really shaped her life that happened when she was very young. But I just devoured this and it was such a wonderful experience to have her narrate it.
I only recently discovered celebrity memoirs on audio narrated by the celebrity, and I will never read a celebrity memoir in print again. Because why would you when you can have Molly Shannon tell you her own story? So I loved it.
Anne Bogel [00:17:01] For those of you listening who know you read like Donna on our team, she raved about this book.
Sarah Bramley [00:17:07] Oh, good.
Anne Bogel [00:17:08] Sarah, in your own words, what are you on the lookout for today?
Sarah Bramley [00:17:14] Certainly looking for some gripping nonfiction. I’m very open to subject matter, but it needs to have a propulsive story that really draws me in. I do appreciate the perspective and the writing style of some journalists not confining myself to only books written by journalists. But it just so happens that the two of the books that I loved both had that piece in common where the writer almost becomes part of the story. So again, I’m very open to the subject matter format, those sorts of things, but something that really drives and pulls me in.
Anne Bogel [00:17:49] What appeals to you about the journalistic approach?
Sarah Bramley [00:17:52] That’s a good question.
Anne Bogel [00:17:54] Okay. Let me ask you other questions first. Because I think what we really want to do here is help identify what kinds of stories you enjoy and what fascinates you and what you therefore want to seek out. And you know how to do that with fiction.
And in perusing your Goodreads, I was a little surprised at the nonfiction present. It’s not that there was a ton of it, but there was more than I expected that you really enjoyed based on your expressed unfamiliarity with nonfiction. So I just want to point that out and say maybe you’re not as adrift as you feel like you are. It’s also possible, though, that that represents a tiny percentage of the books you’ve tried.
Sarah Bramley [00:18:34] That is accurate. I tend not to record books that I try and put away on my Goodreads so they wouldn’t be present there. And if I look at the number of books that I read in a year, over a few years, nonfiction is probably like 10%. Like it’s very small.
So for me, it feels like I barely read any. But I guess over the years I definitely have stumbled upon. And I use that deliberately because I don’t think I sought out many of those books. They were either book club or I just kind of randomly picked them up or things like that. So I definitely have experience with nonfiction, just I don’t feel confident. If I could walk into a bookstore today and pick one up that’s right for me. It’s probably like a 50/50 if I’m going to like it or not.
Anne Bogel [00:19:16] I wonder if you’re just not as familiar with the conventions of the genre. Like you say, it’s not your picker necessarily, but when you’re looking at a book, when you’re reading the description, you’re not quite sure what it is you’re looking for.
Sarah Bramley [00:19:30] That’s fair. That makes a lot of sense.
Anne Bogel [00:19:33] Okay. So what we want to do is we want to figure out what made these books such winners for you. And also, it sounds like there are a host of nonfiction titles that haven’t worked for you. And being able to reflect upon like why, what was missing there will be helpful as you move forward.
And honestly, as you do try to get more oriented in the nonfiction landscape, you may read a lot of books that just aren’t right for you. You may read a few chapters of a lot of books that aren’t right for you. And that’s okay because you’re going to learn through trial and error what works and what doesn’t. Does that sound comfortable to you or does that fill you with despair that it’s going to take forever to get there?
Sarah Bramley [00:20:13] No despair here. I’m very happy with that. Yeah.
Anne Bogel [00:20:17] And of course, you know you enjoy books with narrative drive, you know you enjoy books with movement, but it can be different in nonfiction. And that sometimes a book that we want to pick up is simply because we find earthworms or sidewalks or outer space or marketing. Like we just find it inherently fascinating, so we want to pick the book up. It doesn’t necessarily need to be about what the protagonist is going to do next.
The word I kept thinking of as you were describing the books that worked for you was “stakes”. So we want to find books that have stakes you care about and also an angle that you appreciate. Because readers are drawn to the same book for different reasons. Like maybe, Sarah, you’ll find that you want to know why something specific happened. Maybe you want to know how something specific happened. Maybe you really want to get to know the people involved. Maybe you want to know, Okay, but what does it mean and what should happen next?
Empire of Pain was more an analysis “how did we get here?” But She Said was the “and so what happens next? Like, what is going to change?” That’s a gross oversimplification of those two books, but the emphasis was weighted in different places in those two books, neither of which I have read. So does that make sense?
Sarah Bramley [00:21:37] It does. That makes total sense.
Anne Bogel [00:21:39] Okay. So what we want to find out is what are you interested in? So if the book didn’t interest you, the question, not to put the burden back on you, is what are you interested in? When you’re looking to a nonfiction book, do you just want to find out about something you didn’t know about before? Do you want to find out what it means and why it matters? Do you want to know the who, the how, the why? Just gut reaction, what’s coming to mind?
Sarah Bramley [00:22:01] I think I always want to know why and the motivations and why things ended up the way they did, why people do what they do. No story is completely black or white, so I like stories that show me the gray. Even if it’s more heavily weighted maybe to the black in the case of like bad people doing bad things. But I am really interested in people’s motivations and human-centered stories.
I listen to science podcasts and I love astronomy and different types of science, social science. But in reading books, I think I’m more interested in the human story and human experience than learning about a subject that you would take a class in at school. Does that make sense?
Anne Bogel [00:22:46] It does. Okay, we’re going to file it away, and I’m going to offer you a handful of primarily journalistic, not always, narrative nonfiction to see how it strikes you.
Sarah Bramley [00:22:58] Wonderful.
Anne Bogel [00:22:59] I did notice on your Goodreads, I don’t know what your percentage is like, but it seems like when books are more obviously story-driven, like with memoir, it seems like you’re finding those more easily.
Sarah Bramley [00:23:11] Yes.
Anne Bogel [00:23:12] As listeners are shouting great memoirs at their car speakers right now, I just want to say, it seems to me that you’re comfortable in that area because I noticed a lot of them on your Goodreads. But it’s this more journalistic approach where you feel less comfortable.
Sarah Bramley [00:23:27] Yeah. If a famous person writes a book, I’m probably going to read it, if it’s a person that I like.
Anne Bogel [00:23:33] Okay, recent favorite. Tell us quick.
Sarah Bramley [00:23:35] Ooh…
Anne Bogel [00:23:36] You just read Jennette McCurdy.
Sarah Bramley [00:23:39] I did, yes. I read Jennette McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died, which was heartbreaking, really, to hear about her story and her struggle. But those are the kind of stories that I love. Like you would never have thought, looking at like a Nickelodeon star, that there was all of this other stuff going on beneath the surface. So I really liked hearing her story.
Anne Bogel [00:24:00] I will just say I’m jealous you got to read the audio. I read the e-galley before it was ready and it was so brilliantly done. And also I bet it was amazing on audio.
Sarah Bramley [00:24:08] It was great on audio.
Anne Bogel [00:24:11] Narrative nonfiction, here we go. Now, I am deliberately starting with a title that doesn’t seem as likely to be in your wheelhouse, but what we’re building here is self-awareness. And I don’t want to jump to conclusions too soon.
So this book is The Big Thirst: The Secret Life and Turbulent Future of Water by Charles Fishman. Now, this is a very human story in that it’s about what people are doing and what people have done and how people think and act and can change things and can put their head in the sand. But when you said you don’t want a book that’s like a textbook, you could totally read this in school. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be for you.
So this came out a little over ten years ago and I finally read it just fairly recently after a friend mentioned that she thought about it every single day because water is everywhere. Water matters. So what Fishman does here is argue that in many parts of the world, including here in the U.S., and I think you would include Canada, that we are at the end of our 100-year golden age of water, where it was cheap, like free actually to many, easy to access, plentiful, clean. But it’s not any of those things anymore. We’re facing real water problems and we have to fix our relationship to water.
So what he’s trying to do here is convince you to build a case—does it sound good or doesn’t it, Sarah?—that there are dire consequences here, the stakes are very high and we’ve got to figure this out. So he brings plenty of stats and data to the text. But he also talks about really interesting things like, Okay, let’s evaluate the water situation in Vegas. Tons of people, middle of a desert, probably overbuilt these fountains everywhere, tons of laundry at the hotels. Like what you’re looking at is not what you think you’re looking at.
He tells so many stories about people who work in the water business. And he makes clear it is definitely a business. And he’s taking common misconceptions and saying, “No, no, no, this is how it really works. We are not the same readers. But what I found personally was when he was telling stories about people, I was just like, “Tell me what happens next. This is fascinating.” He’ll pose a question and say, “You think you know what the answer is, but you don’t.” And Sarah, when an author says that to me, I want to keep reading and find out what the truth really is.
And then there are other chapters that just weren’t as inherently interesting to me, even though they’re very important. That’s the big thirst. How does that description strike you?
Sarah Bramley [00:26:34] It sounds very intriguing. I like when authors sort of challenge our assumptions, like, “You think this book is going to be about this, but it’s not.” So I can see that really appealing to me.
Anne Bogel [00:26:45] He describes himself as an investigative and explanatory journalist. So if you pick this up and you find you really enjoy it, you know you can keep an eye out for authors who want to tell you how the world really works, who want to make clear a fuzzy situation that that is something that appeals to you. And if you find you don’t enjoy it, that would tell you something else.
Sarah Bramley [00:27:09] Yeah. Either way, I learned something.
Anne Bogel [00:27:11] That is very true. Okay. Next, I want to highlight a book that is on your own Goodreads. You said, when you were talking about She Said, that you really enjoyed books where the authors become part of the story. And that made me think of David Grann’s first book—I almost called it a novel, Sarah, which I think is telling—The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon. Do you remember how this ended up being added to your Goodreads?
Sarah Bramley [00:27:42] I do. Because my husband bought it to read himself and he couldn’t get into it. And so it’s been sitting on our bookshelf for a couple of years now. And I was like, “Oh, this looks like something I might read someday,” and then never thought about it again.
Anne Bogel [00:27:55] It’s because it’s been there for a few years.
Sarah Bramley [00:27:57] Yeah.
Anne Bogel [00:27:57] So he is an American journalist. He’s a staff writer for The New Yorker, and he has some books that you have enjoyed, like Killers of the Flower Moon that have sold a gazillion copies. I wonder if that connection to Killers of the Flower Moon influences the way you’re thinking about potentially reading this book.
Sarah Bramley [00:28:13] Maybe. I actually ended up reading Killers of the Flower Moon. I had it in my hand and I was listening to the audio at the same time because there are pictures and there are pieces of it that… I needed the audio to move forward a little bit. But once I got into it, it was great. And I think it’s a really important story to tell. I’m always looking for indigenous stories, indigenous voices. So I really like that one.
Anne Bogel [00:28:35] So this is Grann’s story of… I think it’s fair to say obsession. Not necessarily his own obsession. At least not at first. But when he was researching something else, he stumbled upon the story of this British colonel a hundred years ago who was setting out on a much-publicized search for this lost Amazonian civilization called the City of Z. It was unclear whether or not it even actually existed.
So this British colonel goes into the woods along with his grandson and he never comes back. And after that happens, many, many more, including scholars and explorers, but also just actors, regular people from trying to go into the jungle to find the lost City of Z or to find Fawcett who disappeared.
So in this story, Grann gets wind of it and he decides, “Yes, I want to do this, too. I want to go into the jungle to try to find the city, but also get the story of why these people keep being drawn to the City of Z.” So he goes into the Amazon driven by his curiosity and scholarly interest here. So this is the story of Fawcett, but it’s also very much the story of Grann himself and the story of like why we care, why it matters.
So what he does here is he weaves his own stories together with Fawcett’s history and branching out a little bit to talk about other maybe poorly conceived, yet nonetheless hugely alluring to some exploration attempts. And this is a very different setting. But the way he kind of embeds himself in the story almost reminds me of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson, which is also on your list. Kind of a similar approach, but very, very different tone and setting. This is a book with big energy, which seems like is something that could work for you.
Sarah Bramley [00:30:26] Yeah, that sounds amazing. I do love travel writing. This doesn’t sound like a lighthearted walk to the wood.
Anne Bogel [00:30:34] No.
Sarah Bramley [00:30:34] But it definitely sounds very intriguing. Sold. And it’s right upstairs to my bookshelves. So that one’s easy for me to go grab and jump right into.
Anne Bogel [00:30:44] Okay. I’m glad to hear it. And then, Sarah, I noticed that you seem to read a fair number of books about books, and I wondered if that was a direction you’d be interested in going.
Sarah Bramley [00:30:54] Absolutely. There are many books not on my list that I have started that are about books, and so I haven’t really found a ton that I loved. But that’s definitely something I love to read about.
Anne Bogel [00:31:05] Have you read the Furious Hours by Casey Cep?
Sarah Bramley [00:31:08] No, I haven’t.
Anne Bogel [00:31:09] Okay. This is, again, another nonfiction book by an American author and journalist. We’re focusing on those journalistic stories. She’s also like Grann, a staff writer at The New Yorker. But this is the Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee.
And I don’t know if it’s good or bad for your desire for movement. This book is almost told as three related but separate short books. This is a true crime thriller and a courtroom drama that has Harper Lee in the mix. And of course, when this first came out several years ago, all the blurb said, If To Kill a Mockingbird was one of your favorites, you should definitely add Furious Hours to your reading list.
So this is about an actual trial that happened in Alabama, an actual true crime court case that Harper Lee reported. She traveled from New York City to Alabama to report on this trial. And the idea was that she was going to write something like In Cold Blood in the vein of Truman Capote, who she was friends with.
[00:32:12] So she spent a year in town doing that reporting and worked on her own version of the case to tell her own story, which she never published. But this is three stories about what happened then and how it relates to that novel that we know so well, which for a long time was the only thing so many knew about Harper Lee.
So if you’re interested in digging into the untold, until recently, stories of characters from literary history you think you know about,—although I think we discovered when Go Set a Watchman came out that we knew less about Harper Lee than we collectively think we did—this could be appealing to you.
But what I’d want you to ask yourself is like, Okay, why am I interested? Why does this matter? What difference is making in my life? I think as a very human story it definitely suits your taste there, but is that enough? I don’t know. What do you think?
Sarah Bramley [00:32:59] I’ve been meaning to reread To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t think I’ve read it since high school. Would this be an interesting companion if I read them back to back?
Anne Bogel [00:33:08] Yes, absolutely.
Sarah Bramley [00:33:10] So I love that. I love the idea of taking something that, you know, as part of… I mean, even up here in Canada, To Kill a Mockingbird is very important and often well-read. And then to have this other look at this other piece of Harper Lee and kind of understand some of the background of the story, I think that sounds really wonderful.
Anne Bogel [00:33:28] I’m glad to hear it. So far today we’ve talked about literary history, we’ve talked about exploration in history that goes a bit further back, we’ve talked about pressing matters facing our world and environmental issues.
And I do want to point out that there are so many different kinds of narrative nonfiction about so many different topics: history, politics, energy, sports, music, current events. Those are all things that you can stop and ask yourself, does it sound good to me? Does it sound good to me right now?
And they will take you to slightly different sections of the bookstore if you’re in a large place. They will definitely take you to different corners of internet search. But you have a lot of options. That might not sound empowering, that might sound scary, but when you get your feet under you a little more, I think you’re going to find that really exciting.
Sarah Bramley [00:34:17] Yeah, that sounds great. And even, you know, utilizing the library, maybe more so than buying books, I can really sort of taste test and see what works for me without really committing or spending money. Although I love spending money.
Anne Bogel [00:34:33] Do you want to tell us about your book-buying problem? Those are your quotes.
Sarah Bramley [00:34:38] Well, that tracks. I say my hobby is leaving my house and spending money and usually, it’s on books. So we have a great local indie bookstore and I feel like it’s an act of community service to buy something every time I walk by.
And we have a huge used book sale once a year that usually falls around Mother’s Day. My mom and I go to the book sale, buy as much as we can carry, and then go for lunch. It’s a nice little ritual we have. And so I end up going and… The only limit is the strength of my arms and carrying the bags full of books.
Anne Bogel [00:35:13] Thank you for your public service.
Sarah Bramley [00:35:15] Of course.
Anne Bogel [00:35:17] Sarah, you said that journalistic nonfiction is an area where you feel very much adrift, but you also have enjoyed some books not by journalists but by scholars and experts and professionals. Do you think about those books differently? Are they more easily approachable to you?
Sarah Bramley [00:35:33] Sometimes. It depends if I’m somewhat familiar with the subject matter, I guess, and if it’s something to do with my job or something to do with workplace. Like I’m very comfortable picking those, but otherwise I don’t necessarily seek them out. It’s more about the subject matter than the writer, to this point at least.
Anne Bogel [00:35:52] I thought of a title I thought might be great for you, and then it was on your Goodreads list. And that is Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell.
Sarah Bramley [00:35:59] Ooh.
Anne Bogel [00:36:00] Do you remember what landed that on your list?
Sarah Bramley [00:36:03] It was on probably a list of interesting books or recommended books on Goodreads or something. I read a lot of blogs and lists and things like that. So I actually am on the waiting list for the audiobook on my Libby app right now, but I haven’t picked it up yet.
Anne Bogel [00:36:17] Oh, wonderful. Okay, well, I’ll be curious to hear how that goes for you. And I’m happy to hear that you opted for the audiobook because Montell is a podcast host. She narrated by herself. And it’s a very podcast-like experience.
Sarah Bramley [00:36:28] Okay.
Anne Bogel [00:36:29] But in this book, Montell… She’s a linguist and she’s just a passionate nerd about words and language. So what she’s doing in this book is investigating why people join and stay in cults. And she’s not talking about mind control but the power of the language that is used.
And she talks about how that cultish language has infiltrated our everyday lives. It’s not just about, you know, the scary kind of cults you read about in the news, but it appears in things like a startup culture and exercise programs and a lot of modern marketing that you may actually find interesting in a different way than I would because of your profession. But I did want to highlight that as an example of a book written by an expert but not a journalist.
[00:37:14] And then How the Word Is Passed by Clint Smith. He is a poet. He is not a journalist. But he is an expert who puts himself in the story and has this combination of memoir and travel log in history. It’s a book that blends genres and has so many of those elements that I think you would find really appealing. It’s such a human story. You go places, you stay with the people. He’s talking about his own experience, how it relates to the history.
And what he does in this book is he’s visiting… It’s like seven or eight historical sites across the U.S. and beyond. He goes to Gorée Island off the coast of Senegal as well. But he’s touring these sites that are very important to the history of slavery in the United States.
And wherever he goes, he’s meeting people. And sometimes it’s experts leading tours. Sometimes it’s people who have just showed up to see Blanton Cemetery in Virginia with the Confederate graveyard. But he’s talking to them about their experience with their stories and their experience with these stories.
And sometimes they are aligned in attitude and sometimes they’re not at all. But he’s exploring why, and why do people think this, and what really happened, and what’s the popular narrative and how is that right, but how is that sometimes really wrong, and what does it all mean for today?
And I think that kind of book could have that movement and heart and meaning that you would really appreciate the reading experience. Oh, it’s wonderful in audio. But first, for right now, I’d like you to consider, like, how do those factors sound and what do they mean for what you might pick up in the future when it comes to your nonfiction?
Sarah Bramley [00:38:50] To be honest, it doesn’t sound like something I would seek out and pick up myself. But hearing you describe it, it really intrigues me. It sounds like it would tick a lot of the boxes and things that would interest me or would grab me. But I mean I’m understanding, from this conversation, that if I try it and it isn’t for me, that’s okay. There’s lots more out there for me to find. But just hearing you describe it, it does sound like something that I would love.
Anne Bogel [00:39:12] That’s interesting. It’s interesting to hear that you wouldn’t have thought that was a book for you. And what we really want to do is help align your understanding of yourself with your perception of the books you’re considering reading. When we get those two things sync up a little more, you’re going to be really comfortable in the nonfiction area of your reading life.
Because for fiction, you don’t expect to love every book you pick up. You try things. It works out most of the time. It doesn’t sometimes. And that’s fine. You know how that works. And that’s the place we want to get you to with your nonfiction.
Sarah, I’m really excited for you and what you’re going to find next in the nonfiction realm. Are you ready to move on to audio?
Sarah Bramley [00:39:45] I am. Let’s do it.
Anne Bogel [00:39:47] We’re going to do two rapid-fire little sections here. You asked if I could peruse your Goodreads and identify books you’ve already read that you could reread on audio now that you’ve discovered, “Hey, audio actually does work for me. Who knew? So glad I tried it,” and a couple jumped out at me. Do you want to hear?
Sarah Bramley [00:40:06] Please.
Anne Bogel [00:40:07] Okay. Tell me how these sound to you. It was a good number. Let’s do five.
Sarah Bramley [00:40:12] Oh, my gosh.
Anne Bogel [00:40:13] Is that too many?
Sarah Bramley [00:40:14] No, I’m delighted.
Anne Bogel [00:40:16] Okay. Okay. You loved The Four Winds and The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah. Look, I already doubled up. Those are narrated by Julia Whelan. If those are stories you want to revisit, they are known for being wonderful in that format.
Sarah Bramley [00:40:30] Amazing.
Anne Bogel [00:40:31] Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Jaouad. She reads her own story. Incredible. Project Hail Mary. I noticed that was a four stars on your Goodreads. I think Ray Porter’s narration really brings out the humor in that book. I think that can maybe bump it to five.
Sarah Bramley [00:40:46] Okay.
Anne Bogel [00:40:47] The Song of Achilles, phenomenal on audio. It’s read by Fraser Douglas. And then if you wanted to go on a Margaret Atwood… This is like a moderate dive. The Testaments is read by a full cast.
Sarah Bramley [00:40:59] Okay.
Anne Bogel [00:41:00] The Handmaid’s Tale, which I’m not sure you’ve read, but I’m guessing you have based on your reading of The Testaments, that’s read by Claire Danes. I think those books could keep you happy for 20 hours or so. Do any of those really jump out at you or sounding especially promising?
Sarah Bramley [00:41:13] I think the Margaret Atwood, that’s interesting because, I mean, I’ve read almost everything she’s written, but like ten years ago. So to revisit Handmaid’s Tale and then The Testaments. I love an audiobook with a full cast. So that really excited me when you said that.
Anne Bogel [00:41:27] Oh, if you love a full cast, then I’ll have to tell you the Sing, Unburied, Sing is read by a trio. Jesmyn Ward’s memoir. And it’s incredible.
Sarah Bramley [00:41:37] I loved that one.
Anne Bogel [00:41:38] You could love it on audio next.
Sarah Bramley [00:41:40] Great.
Anne Bogel [00:41:42] Sarah, we talked about a lot of books today. How are you feeling about your relationship with nonfiction right now?
Sarah Bramley [00:41:48] I’m feeling optimistic. Of course, I love hearing all of your recommendations, but I think the biggest takeaway I’m going to have is just that confidence. You played a little bit of book therapist with me today and understanding that I’m not going to love everything, but I maybe know more about what I will love than I think I do. So I feel very happy and optimistic.
Anne Bogel [00:42:09] I’m happy to hear it. Yeah, trust your gut, but also ask lots of questions.
Sarah Bramley [00:42:15] Yes.
Anne Bogel [00:42:15] Of the books we talked about, Sarah, what do you think you might pick up next?
Sarah Bramley [00:42:20] Well, Lost City of Z is already in my house, so I think that’s the easiest one for me to pick out. But I’m really intrigued by the Furious Hours. And to do like a pair read of it with To Kill a Mockingbird I think sounds really interesting.
Anne Bogel [00:42:37] I’m excited to hear how that might pan out for you. Sarah, I enjoyed our conversation so much. Thank you so much for talking to books with me.
Sarah Bramley [00:42:43] Thanks for having me, Anne.
Anne Bogel [00:42:49] Hey readers, I hope you enjoyed my discussion with Sarah, and I’d love to hear what you think she should read next. Find Sarah on Instagram @s_brams and see the full list of titles we discussed. at whatshouldireadnext.com.
Make sure you’re following in Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, wherever you get your podcasts. And follow on Instagram where I’m often snapping photos of books our guests loved, books they talked me into reading and more. I’m there @annebogel. Our podcast account is @whatshouldireadnext.
Thanks to the people who make this show happen. What Should I Read Next? is created each week by Will Bogel, Holly Wielkoszewski, and Studio D Podcast Production. Our community manager is Sarah Aeder.
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.