Transcript / Our Top 10 Books from the First Five Seasons of Strong Sense of Place

Transcript / Our Top 10 Books from the First Five Seasons of Strong Sense of Place

Friday, 17 May, 2024

This is a transcription of ‘Our Top 10 Books from the First Five Seasons of Strong Sense of Places’


[cheerful music]

David: Hello! If you are listening to this on the day we posted it, we are one week away from Season 6 of Strong Sense of Place. We’ll start in France because it’s sexy and then head to eleven more fascinating destinations.

David: But! Before we get going, we thought now might be a good time to reflect a bit. Over the past four years, we’ve accomplished a lot. We’ve produced five seasons, or 56 episodes of Strong Sense of Place. On top of that, we’ve shared our love for books through 101 episodes of the Library of Lost Time, introducing you to 500 books.

David: Thanks to you, we’ve had over one million downloads. Ron Charles of the Washington Post called us ‘charming’ and ‘delightful.’ But the biggest reward was that we met some lovely, lovely people.

David: We try not to traffic in generalizations, but readers are the best people. So far, all you guys have done is toughen up that stereotype for me.

David: And this season, we’re trying our best to get our audience to talk with each other. We’re going heavy on Substack. We’re moving our newsletters there. And we’re doing that in part to take advantage of their community features.  It’s an excellent opportunity for you to connect with fellow readers and share your thoughts!

David: We’re facilitating that with a ‘Tuesday Tea’ newsletter. Every Tuesday, we’ll ask you a question. If you’ve got the time and the inclination, drop by our Substack and chat with us about it—or just see what other people have said.

David: Right now, we’ve got a question on our Substack about what your go-to title is when someone asks for a great read. That’s jumped my TBR up quite a bit. Maybe it will for you too.

David: And to be clear: we are not charging for Substack. The newsletters that we currently offer will continue to be free. If you have a second, drop by and say hi. You can find our Substack at

David: But now! We will countdown our favorite ten books from our first five seasons. Are you ready?

Melissa: I am!

Melissa: I had a few rules to help me choose my books. They had to be titles that I read specifically for Strong Sense of Place, otherwise the list would include my all-time favorites like The Night Circus, The Book of Speculation, and The Shadow of the Wind. To make the list, it had to be a book I would happily re-read, and they’re books that gave me something beyond the thrill or pleasure or whatever of reading them. They had to leave something behind with me.

Melissa: Reviewing this list, I realized that I tend to love books that give me a feeling I associate with yearning, a kind of homesickness for places I’ve never been or the feeling of missing people.

David: While I was doing this, I realized that I’m particularly drawn to two kinds of books. The first is the book that brings me something new – a new way of looking at things, or a new border. I am drawn to novelty. And the second is a book which I read and immediately want to be friends with the author. Like: why isn’t your phone number in here? We should have drinks. Let’s go for coffee. What, do you have too many friends? I’m available.

Melissa: My original list of books I love from the first five seasons was 34 titles long. Then I got it down to 17, then I broke my own heart and narrowed it down to 11. This was painful. I’m going go share the rest of my list on Patreon. So if you’re curious, now would be a good time to join us over there.

Melissa: We’re going to name-dropping a ton of books in this show. I’ll put all of them in the show notes and the podcast description so you don’t have to worry about scribbling them down.

David: My tenth book is ‘The Tsar of Love and Techno’ by Anthony Marra from our Russia episode. This is a collection of interconnected short stories centered around a town about 30 miles east of St. Petersburg. It unfolds through over a century or so, from the 1930s to some time in the future. There are reoccurring characters and props. A mix tape plays an important role. I loved it because it presented a multifaceted view of Russia that was still … I want to say, readable. It didn’t feel like a book presented as a ‘heart-touching, multifaceted view of Russia.’ Orchestra swells. It felt like a bunch of great stories told well. There was humor and pathos and tragedy. It was like hanging out in Russia for a long, dark night with plenty of vodka and occasionally a good song.

Melissa: My tenth book is ‘The Pages’ by Hugo Hamilton. This is a book we read for a Zoom hangout with our Accomplices on Patreon. It’s set in Germany from the 1930s to the present, and it’s narrated by a book. In real-life author, an author named Joseph Roth wrote a novel called ‘Rebellion.’ In ‘The Pages,’ the novel Rebellion tells the story of its life — from surviving a book burning in Berlin in 1933 to finding its way into a woman’s tote bag in modern Berlin. I expected something whimsical when I heard ‘it’s narrated by a book’ and instead got a really moving, suspenseful story about all the people who’s lives were touched by this one book. It also opened me up to finding other great books with non-human narrators like Metropolitan Stories from our Museums episode, Flame from our Tasmania show, and When I Sing, Mountains Dance from our Spain episode.

David: My ninth book is ‘An American Childhood’ by Annie Dillard. I read this for our Pennsylvania episode. It’s an autobiography about growing up in Pittsburgh. But, boy, the writing. Dillard seems to remember every detail and nuance of being five and, ten and fifteen. And then she tells you about that in a way that, at least for me, brought me right back. All the delight and drama and mystery and hard lessons of the world. There are people on Goodreads who don’t like her writing. And I’m willing to live in a world with those people. But one of us is wrong, and it’s not me.

Melissa: My ninth book is ‘The Last Watchman of Old Cairo’ by Michael David Lukas from our Egypt episode. This is a family saga that cast a spell on me. That’s the only way I can describe it. It makes me want to say words like enchanting and sun-dappled. The story is told through three threads that represent slivers of the past: the 11th century, 1897, and now. The action kicks off when a modern character receives a package sent on behalf of his recently deceased father. In it is an ancient fragment of paper with a note that says, ‘Your father asked me to send you this. Please call if you ever find yourself in Cairo.’ So he takes himself off to Cairo to learn why this bit of paper was so important to his dad. This story has everything: dusty archives, forbidden love, enduring friendship, and family secrets.

David: My eighth book is ‘Ladies in Waiting’ by Santiago Garcia and Javier Olivares from our Spain episode. This is a graphic novel about the artist Diego Velazquez. In particular, it’s about his painting, ‘Las Manitas.’ Was I swayed because I read this book and then we went to see that painting at the Prado in Madrid? Yes, absolutely. It’s like a croissant in Paris will always be better than a croissant in Schenectady. Because there’s a certain amount of the overall experience that will fall into the work. But also, this is just a great graphic novel about art history and painters in particular. It tells the story of Velazquez and the court of Philip IV. It also offers a theory about ‘Las Manitas’ that I haven’t seen anywhere else, which feels right and adds to the weight of the work. It’s just a great graphic novel.

Melissa: My eighth pick is a story called ‘Thirty Nine Rules for Making a Hawaiian Funeral Into a Drinking Game’ from the collection ‘This is Paradise’ by Kristiana Kahakauwila. It was in our Hawaii episode. This story is a portrait of a Hawaiian family, food, and tradition set at a grandmother’s funeral. The story is told in the form of a list. Here’s how it begins: ‘Take a drink each time the pastor says ‘hell.’ Take a drink each time he asks if anybody in the room wants to go there. Take a drink each time he looks at one of your uncles when he says this.’ As the story unfolds, the items on the list get longer and sadder. Number 18 is ‘take a drink for each male cousin you see cry for the first time.’ I never thought a short story would make me want to attend a funeral, but here we are. It’s an emotional, life-affirming ride, and the final rule #39 is well worth the trip. The rest of the stories in this book are also great. The author has a gift for creating a rich picture of Hawaii as both a beautiful paradise and a place where real people live. For my money, it’s worth buying the book for this story alone.

David: My seventh book is ‘Turkey and the Wolf’ by Mason Hereford and J.J. Goode. I didn’t even read this book, but I think about it all the time. You read it for our New Orleans episode; it’s ‘Turkey and the Wolf’ by Mason Hereford and J.J. Goode. Mason Hereford is a chef whose claim to fame is taking common, maybe truck-stop southern foods and elevating them a little bit. Not to be pretentious. But to give them flavor. He’s got a restaurant in New Orleans called ‘Turkey and the Wolf.’ This book is the cookbook out of that place. It is not a fancy, sit-down place. It is a counter-service joint. One of the things you can get there is his take on a bologna sandwich. It’s made from soft toasted white bread, grilled thick-cut bologna, American cheese, butter, what he calls “a socially unacceptable amount of mayo,” homemade mustard, and then, as a topper, handfuls of salt and vinegar potato chips. Now, I know some people will hear that and wrinkle their noses. But, for me, I’ve said this before. Someone could wake me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night and say, ‘We’re going to Turkey and the Wolf,’ I’d say, ‘Let me get my shoes on.’ Would I travel five thousand miles for a good bologna sandwich? Yes. Yes, I would.

Melissa: My seventh book is ‘The Last Cruise’ by Kate Christensen from our episode about The Sea. This was my first Christensen novel, and now I want to become a completist. She’s written a handful of novels and a few culinary memoirs — food plays a major role in all of her books. The Last Cruise takes place aboard a glamorous 1950s ocean liner making her final voyage from Long Beach, California to Hawaii. It’s a retro cruise with gourmet food, swanky cocktails, string quartets, and no phone or children. The book tells an upstairs/downstairs story, contrasting the guests’ posh experience on deck with the grinding, endless work of the crew. To me, it’s like if Death on the Nile was literary and didn’t have a murder. There’s a prickly heroine and glimmers of romance, challenging conversations, and glorious food.

David: My sixth book is ‘Elephant Complex’ by John Gimlette from our Sri Lanka episode. John Gimlette is an outstanding travel writer who got interested in Sri Lanka. He seems to talk to everyone there, and he pulls lively stories out of them. He also has a very effective eye for detail. These are many good stories, told well, with solid insight into a place I wish I knew better. If Gimlette had a book for every destination we cover, I would read all of them. Gimlette is on my “authors I would like to be friends with” list.

Melissa: My sixth book is ‘Circe’ by Madeline Miller from our Greece episode. In Greek mythology, Circe is a sorceress, a side character in the sprawling story of the Odyssey. In this book, Madeline Miller puts her front and center. Circe is a FORCE. She befriends mortals, embraces her witchy powers, slays monsters, and holds her own against the gods. This book packs an emotional punch, and it’s almost non-stop action. There is all manner of monsters, epic sea adventures, pet lions and wolves, rides atop golden chariots, and magic spells. It’s wickedly, darkly funny, and at the end I had hot tears running down my face — which I did not expect at all. This is epic and fantastical in the truest sense of the words. It’s great on the page, and/but the audiobook sings, so if you like audiobooks, maybe go that way.

David: My fifth book is ‘The Stranger in the Woods’ by Michael Finkel from our Maine episode. This is a non-fiction book about a guy who walked into the woods, mostly unprepared, and spent the next 27 years there alone. Non-fiction. He did it. This guy walks the earth now. Part of what grabs me about this book is that I like my alone time. I get some part of this story. But 27 years? In Maine. During the winter. The locals couldn’t believe he survived it, and neither could I. It’s just a fantastic story.

Melissa: My fifth book is ‘2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas’ by Marie-Helene Bertino from our Pennsylvania episode. This is a fizzy, mostly lighthearted story but every once in a while, it gives you the old one-two to the solar plexus. Our heroine is Madeleine. She’s a trash-talking, cigarette-smoking torch singer trapped in the body of a 9-year-old. Her mom has died, and her dad is so devastated by his own grief, he’s got nothing left for his daughter. Madeleine’s mom was a dancer and singer, now all Madeleine wants is to make her way to the Philadelphia jazz club called The Cat’s Pajamas to make her singing debut. This is the story of her mission to make that happen. It starts on Christmas-Eve Eve, and all the action takes place over one magical day and night. Madeleine is kind of a little jerk, and I loved her so much.

David: My fourth book is ‘Why Buddhism is True’ by Robert Wright from our Thailand episode. This is a book about belief written by a science author. Wright walks through some of Buddhism’s basic tenets and how they hold up to scrutiny. For instance, Buddhism says that humans expect more happiness from attaining their goals than they will get. Science backs that up. The book builds an argument that we should have gratitude and empathy and that we’re stronger together. It’s well-written and approachable. How am I not going to love that book?

Melissa: My fourth book is ‘Metropolitan Stories’ by Christine Coulson from our Museums episode. This is the adult version of the kids’ movie ‘Night at the Museum.’ It’s a series of interconnected vignettes that literally bring the objects in New York’s Metropolitan Museum to life. I was hooked from the first chapter when a talking 18th-century arm chair made my eyes tear up. She — to me the ornate chair with the pink velvet seat is definitely a she — describes how she started out in a family home and then spent ages in a dark storage closet. I anthropomorphize EVERYTHING, so her loneliness and poignant memories punched me right in the guts. The author worked at the Met for 25 years, so she knows these objects well enough to write with exquisite precision — and the emotional palate is broad. There’s suspense, melancholy, joy… all the feelings you feel when you’re in a museum surrounded by objects with centuries of stories to tell.

David: My third book is ‘The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float’ by Farley Mowat from our episode about the Atlantic Provinces of Canada. Farley Mowat is another author I wish I was friends with. The problem here is that he’s been dead for the last decade. But, still. I sit down with his writing, and it feels like a bar and beer mystically appear, and he starts telling me stories. This book is about the time he bought a boat – a two-masted schooner – and sailed Canada’s Atlantic Coast. He brings along a friend. In seemingly every port, they run into good-natured Canadians who save them from themselves. It’s a delightful read.

Melissa: I’m cheating for my number three spot because I couldn’t choose between two book. These two titles are related in mind. They’re ‘The Last Warner Woman’ by Kei Miller, set in Jamaica, and ‘The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida’ by Shehan Karunatilaka, set in Sri Lanka. Both tell really difficult stories and deal with supernatural elements. Both are lyrically written with prose that verges on poetry. Both provide insight into bits of history I didn’t know. And both are books that I would never have picked up without the motivation of this Strong Sense of Place project. I will never forget either one; they both changed my heart and how my brain works. In the interests of giving our listeners something to hang on to: The Last Warner Woman tells the life story of Adamine, a seer in Jamaica who learns how to hold her power. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida is a mashup of historical fiction with a murder mystery. It’s narrated by a mouthy, abrasive, lovable dead man who’s investigating his own murder from the afterlife. But don’t worry too much about the plots — just read these books and fall under the magic spell woven by the authors’ words.

David: My second book is ‘Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere’ by Jan Morris from our Italy episode. Jan Morris was a lovely, fascinating person who managed to write 40 books. This was her last. She talks about seeing Trieste as a young person, and again, older. She makes it feel like you’re walking through the beautiful Italian city with her on a crisp afternoon in the fall as she holds court a bit. We are headed to Trieste in a few weeks, and this book is why. I’m very much looking forward to the trip and rereading this on the way there.

Melissa: My second book is ‘The Spoonbenders’ by Daryl Gregory from our Chicago episode. This story begins as a whimsical, almost-sci-fi romp and gradually morphs into a heart-warming family saga. It’s set in the Chicago of the 1960s and 1990s, but it has the energy of a 1930s screwball comedy. There are gangsters and psychic events and touches of romance. This is another one that’s all playful and mischievous, then blam! socks you in the kisser with some feelings. At the heart of the story is the Telemachus family. They have super powers: One of the kids is a psychic, another is a human lie detector, and the third has telekinetic powers. For one magical year, they perform around the country as The Amazing Telemachus Family. But during their TV debut, disaster strikes. That debacle eventually leads to the family splintering apart. This book is about second and third and fourth chances, and how a broken family can come back together.

David: My final book is ‘A Gentleman in Moscow’ by Amor Towles from our Russia episode. I feel like this one was obvious. Whenever someone says, ‘What should I read?’ to me, this is the first thing out of my mouth. If you don’t know, it’s the story of an aristocrat during the Russian Revolution. Things don’t go well for him, and he’s condemned to live in a luxury hotel, called the Metropol. The magic of this book is that the Count is a gentleman and wise, and his character eases the endeavor. It’s about finding family, fighting for the light in a dark situation, and never losing sight of what’s essential. It’s easily my favorite book from the last decade.

Melissa: My final book is ‘Still Life’ by Sarah Winman from our Italy episode. If you love a story of found family like I love a story of found family, this is the book for you. It’s got an ensemble cast filled with people you’ll ache to know in real life, and they all revolve around Ulysses, a young solder ins WWII who returns to London afte the war to work as his neighborhood pub. Until one day, he learns he’s the recipient of an unexpected inheritance in Florence. You know how the light in the early evening is called the golden hour because everything gets a burnished glow? This is the golden hour in book form. It’s filled with sweet surprises, kindness, sorrow, and serendipity. There’s food and art — the novel A Room with a View has a role in the story. In my original review, I said it may make you homesick for fictional people and places you’ve never been. I stand by that assessment, and it’s the highest compliment I can give.

David: There you have it. Those are our ten favorite books from the last 500. We are looking forward to season six, which starts next week. We’ll be off to France. We look forward to talking to you then.

[cheerful music]


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