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A Few Bookish Questions With Melissa Joulwan
Since 2020, Melissa Joulwan and David Humphreys have been hosting Strong Sense of Place — a podcast all about books and travel. In that time, they’ve introduced listeners to almost 50 locales and the books that go well with them. In Season 5, which starts on Monday, February 6, listeners will get the inside scoop on books set in Spain, Jamaica, New Orleans, Lebanon, and amusement parks. How fun!
On to the interview. I added a lot of books that I haven’t even heard of to my TBR, which is always a delight.
1) Your podcast (and website) — Strong Sense of Place — is all about the importance of place in books. Briefly (because I know you could write a book about this!), why is a strong sense of place so important in books? What draws you, personally, to that bookish trait?
There's something powerful about stories that are firmly grounded in their place and time. By getting very specific and intimate, they show us the universal. Like, family dynamics, for example. The distinct ways parents interact with their children in Vietnam and Russia and Mexico may differ from each other dramatically — and be very different from American families — but I think we can all relate to the desire to be loved by our families or to the pain of learning a family secret.
That applies to fun things, too. Food and music and art are specific to their cultures, but we all have favorite dishes or smells or images that remind us of home or friends. And then sometimes you learn something, like, kids in Iran ate Kentucky Fried Chicken in the '70s, and you think, “Hey! I ate KFC when I was a kid, too.”
My personal reason for loving books with a strong sense of place is simple: I'm nosy. I love the feeling of eavesdropping on conversations and peeking into lives that are very different from mine. Getting wrapped up in the atmosphere of another place — in my imagination and in real life — is one of my favorite things. When I read a book, and I'm IN it, when the place on the page feels just as real to me as the chair where I'm sitting, I am very, very happy.
2) What are some of your favorite books when it comes to place?
We only recommend books we love on the show, so this list could be about 130 books long — but I definitely have some favorites. I'm always a little intimidated when we cover destinations that don't show up on “top 10 places you should travel” lists, places like Nigeria and Iran and Afghanistan. But some of my favorite books come out of those episodes.
Butter Honey Pig Bread by Francesca Ekwuyasi was a pleasure to read and has stayed with me. It's set in Lagos, Nigeria, and food is a primary character, along with estranged twin sisters. One of them is a cook, and her food is an outward expression of her longing and loneliness for her family. The novel is an exploration of forgiveness and all types of love — romantic, sisterly, motherly, love of life.
I'm particularly drawn to books that weave stories within stories, so there’s real-life history and folklore and family mythology all knitted together — bonus points if there's also a little bit of magic dust sprinkled throughout.
Disoriental by Négar Djavadi (Tina Kover, translator) is a sort of family saga mashed up with a coming-of-age story set in 1970s and '80s Iran. The Tiger's Wife by Téa Obreht does something similar in the Balkans. It's really rewarding to read those books together and see shared DNA, even though they're from vastly different parts of the world and were written in different languages.
For a straight-up good time, I loved Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown. I read it for our episode about the sea. All of the books for that show are fantastic, but this one stands out because it tells the story of a swashbuckling lady pirate, Mad Hannah Mabbot. You can practically feel the wind and smell the salty air. The action kicks off when she bursts into a posh dinner party and kidnaps the chef. She's grown weary of her shipboard meals and promises to spare his life if he cooks for her every Sunday. Hijinks ensue, secrets are revealed, friendships are forged, and along the way to rip-roaring adventure, I got kicked right in the feelings in a very satisfying way.
I love books that give me an unexpected or unusual peek at familiar places. The novel The Godmother by Hannelore Cayre (Stephanie Smee, translator) is a darkly funny crime novel set in the parts of Paris that tourists don't visit. The heroine is 53 years old, and watching a mature woman take charge of her life is a treat.
The anthology Haunted Voices is a collection of 27 Gothic stories from Scotland. It's available in print and ebook, but audio is the best way to enjoy it. The audiobook includes archival recordings and new stories by Scottish storytellers, performed by the writers. It's like the very best open mic night you've ever attended.
3) On your website you also mention the importance of empathy in books. I agree with you 100% there. One of the most important things reading does for us is increase our empathy. How do you think a strong sense of place contributes to a greater sense of empathy?
There's so much research in the last few years that shows reading fiction makes us better at understanding and sharing the feelings of others, including people who differ from us. In real life, even the people we know most intimately retain a bit of mystery and privacy in their thoughts. But fictional characters give us opportunities to see the world through their eyes. We can experience uncomfortable or joyous or frightening situations vicariously through them — and, even more importantly, feel the associated emotions in a safe way. It's like trying on different costumes, but instead of just fabric garments, they're complete, emotional characters. And once you've felt what it's like to be someone else, it's pretty tough to objectify or judge them. Reading about new-to-us places and people makes it easier to extend that empathy and internalize that we're all more similar than different.
4) Are there any books that pop to mind that have an especially powerful element of empathy?
One of my favorite books of all time is A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. I found the hero, The Count, to be a moving example of a character who embodies empathy. He's in a lousy situation: He's been exiled to a cramped attic room at the Metropol Hotel in Moscow. But instead of whining about his situation or growing bitter, he quietly improves the lives of the people around him. He's sophisticated and charming and wise and unerringly kind.
A book I read recently that's infused with kindness and empathy — and a golden-hued setting in Florence, Italy — is Still Life by Sarah Winman. This is one of those books that I want to press into people's hands and say, 'Trust me, read this.' It burrowed its way into my heart. I had to take breaks while reading it to catch my breath and let the words settle because I was so deeply invested in the characters. It tells the story of a group of family and friends who relocate from London to Florence. But it's so much more than that. It explores joy and sorrow and jealousy, forgiveness, gratitude, and love in all of its different flavors. The hero Ulysses has a moment with his daughter late in the book that is the very definition of empathy, but compassion and understanding drive many characters in the story.
I have to mention The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso because it's almost an anti-empathy story. It's a tragi-comic novel about two 80-something women who are neighbors in South Africa. One is white, and one is black, and thanks to fate, they're forced into a quasi-friendship. At one point, the white woman watches a few Black people she knows interacting with each other. And she realizes that she's never really seen them as before as people. Until that moment, it had never occurred to her to consider their internal monologues or the lives they led when they weren't in her presence. It was a profound moment for her as a character and for me as a reader. It was the first time it became clear to me what it's like inside the head of someone without empathy. What an amazing piece of writing!
5) Okay, taking those elements out of the picture, are there broad genres or subjects you're drawn to in your reading?
Manor house stories are like potato chips for me: I cannot resist them, and there is no such thing as too many. I love what happens to a group of characters when they're isolated together in an enclosed space, so by extension, I also love novels that bring people together and trap them somewhere. Snowstorms! Apartment buildings! Islands! Any genre in that setting works for me: mystery, thriller, literary, Gothic horror or romance — I'll take them all!
I also love fantasy that's based in our world with a bit of shimmer to it, like The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern or Spoonbenders by Daryl Gregory. I am also very attracted to long books, stories that feature libraries and archives, Gothic tropes, and epistolary novels. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova and Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth are two of my favorites that weave all of those things.
6) What were some highlights of your '22 reading? Did any themes emerge? Any big reading plans for '23?
When I went back and looked at my favorite books from our last podcast season, I realized I was drawn to stories that tackled serious emotional issues but tempered sadness with love, redemption, and a sense of hope. There was also a lot of dark humor.
One of the standouts is a short story from the collection This is Paradise by Kristiana Kahakauwila. She's a hapa writer of native Hawaiian, German, and Norwegian descent, and her stories explore identity. My thoughts keep returning to “Thirty Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game.” It's worth the book's purchase price for this story alone. Told in the form of a bleakly funny, gut-wrenching list, it's a portrait of Hawaiian family and tradition set at a grandmother's funeral. It begins, “Take a drink each time the haole pastor says hell.” and then, later, “Take a drink for each male cousin you see cry for the first time.” The format is compelling, and the writing is spare but evocative and devastating but also, somehow, funny.
I also found a new-to-me affection for books with non-human narrators. Who knew?! Flames by Robbie Arnott (set in Tasmania), Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson (set in the Met in NYC), and The Pages by Hugo Hamilton (set in Germany), all feature unusual narrators. I was afraid they might be gimmicky, but wow, are they well done. The Pages is narrated by a book that survived a 1930 Nazi book burning — so imaginative and moving and beautifully written.
7) Are there books you find yourself referencing, thinking about, and/or recommending over and over again? Basically, do you have any all-time favorites that have shaped your life and your thinking?
My favorite book of all time is Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre is a character for the ages. She defiantly makes her way through the world with a vise grip on her self-worth. I read it almost every year, and something new hits me every time.
I've read and listened to the Wolf Hall trilogy by Hilary Mantel three times all the way through. These books are a reminder that history is about real people with the same grand and petty concerns we have today. Hilary Mantel had an extraordinary mind and was so eloquent while also being accessible and funny. I cried my face off when she died last September. My advice for anyone interested in the books but also a bit cowed by their length and density is to watch the BBC miniseries first. It's a fantastic way to get to know the characters. Then read the books and revel in the depth of detail and gorgeous language while picturing the amazing Mark Rylance as Thomas Cromwell and Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn.
I'm going to leave you with a final recommendation. When my husband David and I have a bad day, we pull a children's book off the shelf and read it out loud to each other. It's nearly impossible to stay in a bad mood while reading a delightful picture book; Dave's go-to is Hug Machine by Scott Campbell. If you want to revel in being grumpy instead, you can choose something like Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst or Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (bonus: you can pair that last one with this Roasted Carrot Soup, inspired by Sendak’s classic).