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What to Read Next (No. 263): A Strong Sense of Place
"Elantris," "Blood in the Garden," and an interview with Melissa Joulwan
Happy Friday, readers!
One of the aspects of great books that I appreciate the most is how well the author conjures a strong sense of place. Did they craft a believable setting, such that I felt like I was there? Was I in the scene with the characters, tasting their food, smelling their air, seeing their surroundings?
In today’s newsletter, I’m thrilled to bring you an interview with Melissa Joulwan, co-host of the podcast Strong Sense of Place. Each episode brings listeners to a new locale and gives book recommendations centered around that place. It’s a delight, so keep reading.
I also feature two books which are about rather unique places — one is a fantasy novel about a magical metropolis that lost its magic and the other is a sports narrative about one of the most iconic stadiums and teams in the NBA.
As always, let me know what you’re reading! I’d love to hear.
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Elantris by Brandon Sanderson
In the fantasy genre, few authors are as productive or successful as Brandon Sanderson.
His well-publicized Kickstarter campaign last year broke all kinds of records. He cranks out at least a book per year, and often more. And his legions of fans follow his every jot and tittle with the anxious expectation of a teenage boy in love.
For the casual reader, the universe he’s built out (called the Cosmere) is hard to figure out. There are multiple series, standalone novels, and novellas to wade through — and opinions abound on the “correct” reading order.
I landed on the most obvious and least recommended starting point: Elantris. His first published novel — a standalone book within this Cosmere universe — is often regarded as entertaining enough, but among his weakest works.
So I was very pleasantly surprised when I found myself eagerly ripping through all 600+ pages in under a week.
The premise, in as few words as possible: The gleaming city of Elantris, home to unique beings who at one time could conjure magic, has fallen into disease and ruin. And nobody knows why. A rejected Prince has to find out what happened, a dejected Princess has to build a life in an unfamiliar place, and a fraudulent zealot must be thwarted before he can bring further ruin to the nation surrounding Elantris.
Yes, it’s an epic fantasy novel full of strange words and beings, but it’s also a political drama, a thriller, and even a romance. Though not everything about the story or character development is done perfectly, Elantris is oozing with authorial potential, which makes me really excited to read Sanderson’s other books.
I’m actually really glad I entered into the Cosmere with Elantris despite the advice of the bookish internet. If you’re into the fantasy genre at all, it’s a must-read.
A Few Bookish Questions With Melissa Joulwan
If you’re into books and travel — is there anyone who isn’t?! — look no further than the podcast Strong Sense of Place. Hosts Melissa Joulwan and David Humphreys have brought listeners to almost 50 different locations and are poised to dive into 12 more starting Monday (February 6th).
In my interview with Melissa, you’ll learn why she’s so drawn to a strong sense of place as a bookish trait, the importance of empathy in literature, her all-time favorite book, and more.
I read this one with my buddy Jonny. He’s a big NBA fan and has been trying to pull me into his fandom orbit for a few years. Blood in the Garden exceeded both of our expectations and now I’ve been catching up on basketball news and highlights each morning.
Superb NBA reporter Chris Herring is the perfect person to cover the story of the turbulent New York Knicks of the 1990s. In that decade, the team went through multiple coaches and more than their fair share of drama, but still made it to two NBA Finals — though they didn’t win the championship either time.
When legendary coach Pat Riley agreed to coach the team starting with the 1991 season, he immediately brought a bad-boy swagger that was perfect for New York City. They became a defensive powerhouse and overcame long odds to own one of the NBA’s best overall win-loss records in the first half of the decade.
But then it began to fall apart. NBA rules changed to favor offenses, star players got older, and team ownership changed. One last miracle run to the NBA Finals in ‘99 couldn’t cure the team’s ills, and they’ve had the worst record in the league for the last two decades.
You don’t need to be a basketball person in order to enjoy Blood in the Garden. Through the narrative of a single team, Herring tells the story of American sports — and even broader culture — in the 1990s. His writing is air-tight and as entertaining as any non-fiction I’ve read recently. I listened on audio and kept looking for chances to put my headphones in — always a good sign. Highly recommended for anyone interested in sports.
Thanks so much for the time and inbox space! I sure appreciate it.