Ambria Waller has one of my favorite Bookstagram and BookTube accounts – she’s funny, insightful, and always gives me great reading ideas. Today, she joined me to talk about the modern classic “An American Marriage” by Tayari Jones, where she has some spicy takes on one particular character.
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Discussed in this episode:
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin
The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory
Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert
Act Your Age, Eve Brown by Talia Hibbert
His Only Wife by Peace Adzo Medie
The Street by Ann Petry
The Secret Lives of Church Ladies by Deesha Philyaw
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
A Song Below Water by Bethany C. Morrow
A Chorus Rises by Bethany C. Morrow
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Hello, Bookworms welcome to the Best Book Ever, the podcast where I get to know interesting people by asking them about their favorite books. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and today I’m talking to a woman who describes herself as our favorite professional bookish homebody who reads and shares her reviews on tiny squares. Ambria Waller caught my eye on Instagram and I was immediately hooked on her thoughtful reviews and hilarious reels. Today, Ambria joins me to talk about why An American Marriage by Tayari Jones is the Best Book Ever.
Julie Strauss: Hi, Ambria. Welcome to the Best Book Ever podcast!
Ambria Waller: Hi, thanks for having me.
JS: Thank you for joining me. I have to ask right off the bat: I see an empty bookshelf behind you. Why is it empty, and what are we going to fill it with?
AW: Because once you don’t see is on this side of the wall. It was, it was placed over here and I didn’t want it to be over here anymore. So I just moved it behind me. This is not my book-book shelf. My book-book shelf is in my room. So I’m, I’m really not sure what I’m going to put that right now. It’s a bunch of articles cause I’m in school as well. So, I just kind of hang them up over there.
JS: Ambria, I would love to know about your reading life: how you became the reader that you are and what influenced you to become such a reader.
AW: I didn’t really get into reading consistently, I would say, until after I graduated undergrad. As a kid, my mom, she would order, Disney books. Like the Disney movies? And she would order those books for me. And these big packages. So I always knew the stories. As a kid, folktales were my favorite. Three Little Pigs, the true folk tale stories. Kind of like the Ant and the Grasshopper, things like that. I remember those little folk tales. But when I finished undergrad, I really got into reading books by Black authors because one of my minors was African-American studies. And so in between high school and undergrad, I took a reading course and it was so cool because my teacher was like, I’m going to give y’all students a list of all the books that would be in my curriculum, but you get to choose what you want to read.
AW: And so at that young age, I learned that if it did not cause me emotional distress, I didn’t want to read it. There’s a book called The Rules of Survival by Nancy Werlin. And it’s about three siblings and they have an emotionally abusive mother. The oldest is writing a survival guide to the youngest sister. And that’s what the book is about. And so I’m reading this at 14 and I’m like, is it bad that I’m enjoying this? Like, I don’t wish that for anybody, but I’m actually enjoying that. And so it went from that to going into undergrad being an African-American studies minor. So, reading slave narratives, reading about Black feminist thought, attempting to read and fully understand, it’s only more it’s like understanding the Black experience. Not the most enjoyable things to read, but they caught my attention. So that’s kind of how it went.
JS: And so now where do you focus your reading time? Do you really try to stick with Black authors or are you kind of going in more directions? What’s your focus now?
AW: It is mainly Black authors or authors of color, but genre-wise, I prefer any literary fiction. Anything that deals really big with like character development and family dynamics. From last year, I’m not mad at romance. I didn’t think it would be my genre, but I’m not mad at it. I’ll pick one up.
JS: What did you pick up that you liked in romance that you didn’t think that would be your thing?
AW: Well, I picked up The Wedding Date by Jasmine Guillory. I liked it, but I was like, not really for me. And then I picked up, Talia Hibbert’s Get A Life, Chloe Brown, Take A Hint, Dani Brown and Act Your Age, Eve Brown. If all of this romance would be like this, I want to read all of them. I’m actually sad that I’ve read all of them. So I can’t be excited to read them again.
JS: Since you were speaking about your academic career, you do talk about this on your Instagram account, your struggles and successes working full-time while going to grad school full time. And I’m always really curious to know how people fit recreational, not work- or school-related a recreational reading life into their lives. But particularly for people like you, who have, I would think, a very intense schedule. So how do you make time for reading for pleasure in your life?
AW: Last quarter, I don’t think I did the best job. I am not a, a die-hard academic, so do not listen to me if that is you. I was very, like, I had to read every single article that comes my way. I had to read every single scholarly book or article or whatever. And this was in the first quarter. So I didn’t really do a lot of recreational reading in the first quarter. I’m like, okay, I don’t have to read everything, I can skim. I can make my points. Also I’m going to school online so that you have to be a pretty organized and pretty good time management person in the first place. So what I try to do now is, if I get off at around 5:30, if I’m diligent, I’ll work out for like 30, 45 minutes, I’ll wash up, I’ll do some type of scholarly reading and then I’ll probably read something recreationally, but because I’m doing all of that, it’s going to take me longer to finish a book, but that’s okay with me. I’m in no hurry.
JS: So you don’t mind that you don’t have the long, leisurely, four-hour reading time?
AW: Yeah. I don’t mind it. I think to me, the more I linger on a book, I think I can really tell if I actually liked it. Because sometimes you can read something super quick and you’ll be like, I don’t remember half the book, but if you linger on it, you can really remember some of those areas. And you can really decide, like, this is something that I really liked about the book. Whether it’d be the characters, it can be applied, it can be something. So I don’t mind it.
JS: You know, that is the great case for reading slowly. And I think so many readers, (me) are so intimidated by just how many books are out there. And I just want to read them all and I do tend to race through them when I’m reading on my own time. And I have a terrible memory anyway, and I frequently will pick up a book and go, I think I read this? Oh, no better read it again because I have no idea.
AW: I mean, Bookstagram doesn’t help because during the pandemic, when everything was closed, I used to be so pro “I’m going to the library cause I can borrow the book.” And if I really like it, I can go out and buy it. But when the pandemic hit, in that time, my library card expired and I never went to go renew it. And so now most of the books that I’ve read, I’ve bought.
JS: You do have an empty bookshelf! So what made you decide to start your Bookstagram account, which is, listeners by the way, one of my favorites on all of Instagram. it’s a great account.
AW: Thank you. Well, you know what? This is something that I’ve kind of struggled with. Identifying as being a creative. I always wanted to use social media to connect with like-minded people. I’ve always felt like, throughout my life, maybe I just either I lived in the wrong space because I always felt like everyone that I really connected with never lived where I lived. So for me, reading was an area that was super constant. I have had social medias or even YouTube where I’ve talked about being, you know, in school, talked about my hair, or just something. It was always one specific thing, but being so specific, it gets boring after a while. And I’m like, I’m not into this anymore, but reading has been something so constant because there’s so many different types of it. You can reach so many different people. And not that you can’t do that with those other areas, but reading is so diverse. There’s so many genres. There’s so many authors. You can reach a plethora of people talking about the one thing. So, I checked to see what Bookstagram is about. And I love it.
JS: I don’t know. There’s something about your real-time reaction to the books that you’re reading. Like we get the stages of your reaction that I think is so much fun. And a couple of times I have gone, oh, that one looks interesting. And then I think I’m gonna wait until she’s done and see what the final answer is.
AW: I mean, so social media is a highlight reel, right? Any opportunity where I can make it more relatable and not even take myself so seriously, I think that’s where you get the real connection. Like, hey, I could have, I could have talked about a part of this book on Monday and had one thought or reaction. But come Wednesday, I completely take back everything I said. And that’s real because this is happening in real time. It’s just nice to see something for what it is, instead of it being staged all the time. That’s just my opinion.
JS: Do you remember how you found this book that we’re talking about today? An American Marriage by Tayari Jones?
JS: I believe I found it in the library because like I said, I used to be super pro-library. I’m just going to go around, looking at books, and I think, I’m sure I was in the fiction section and I was just like scroll up and down and see what sounded interesting. And I was like, okay, this sounds interesting. I think at this point I may have either Googled it and found a review or something. But when I went into the library, I actually got to hold it in my hand and read what it was actually about.
JS: Will you describe the plot for our listeners who maybe haven’t come across it yet?
AW: Sure. An American Marriage is about, there’s two main characters, and then I’ll say there’s an additional third character. The two main characters have been married a very short amount of time. Something unfortunate happens that affects their marriage, and you see it being played out in the book. So, it’s not a romance, but it can show you what could possibly happen in an American marriage. And in today’s time.
JS: Why this book is important to you? What did you think when you read it the first time?
AW: The first time I was, I was angry. I was so angry. I was angry. Okay? So there’s a character named Roy. There’s a character named Celestial and there’s a character named Andre. Celestial and Roy are married, and Roy is the one who is wrongfully accused of a crime he didn’t commit. He gets locked away for so long, and the way that their marriage deteriorates. I’m angry because I’m like, why aren’t you all fighting for each other? I’m angry and I’m sad, but I like how it was. In my opinion, it’s a real story. Sometimes real stories don’t have those endings that you like. So I appreciate that, but I’m also like “Choose each other! Dammit, choose each other!”
JS: How many times have you re-read this?
AW: I’ve read it twice. I usually read it every October, but again, I’m in school, so I’m like, I’m not going to do that to myself. So twice as of now.
JS: Did it change for you on the reread?
AW: Yes. the first time I read it, I was angry at Celestial. I was super angry at Andre and Roy. I was like, in my opinion, he didn’t do anything wrong. The second time I read it, I was a married woman. At this point and I’m like still, still super angry at Andre. We don’t like Andre. We’re just gonna put that out there. Super angry. But Celestial, I’m not as angry. I actually gave her some grace the second time. Same for Roy. I was like, I’m going to give some grace. So not as angry as I was the first time.
JS: I scrolled back through your Instagram. Well, you put this on the internet, so I it’s fair! In your earliest mention of this book, you posted your opinions of the three main characters. You said: Celestial has an issue with the institution of marriage. She loves Roy, but is/will not probably ever be able to support him in the way that he needs her to. And that’s okay. Roy is a man who makes a lot of decisions based on pride and ego. He’s flawed (who isn’t,) but is able to voice his shortcomings. And I believe he’ll do better in the future when communicating his needs with others. Andre is a bitch. So do we still think Andre is a bitch on second reading?
AW: Yes. And here’s, if I can, my reason for that is the way that Andre talks about Celestial’s role as a wife is disrespectful. He, I can’t quote per se, but I think there’s a part in the book where he says she’s married, but she’s not a wife or something to that extent. Which I understand, because again, that’s, that’s why I say she doesn’t respect the institution of marriage and that is okay. But while she is married to this other person who is not you, Andre, you have to respect their relationship as it is, even if it doesn’t have anything to do with you. And I just don’t like that meddling. Like it’s, it’s okay! There are people who don’t agree with the institution of marriage and that’s fine. But at least respect the people that are in the marriage. That’s so the fact that he could get that through his head. That’s why I said what I said, and I still stand by it.
JS: I don’t disagree. I just, I just really want to care for Andre. I really want him to be okay because I, my God, it’s terrible. Right?
AW: It is. And as a Black woman, I can’t speak for Black men, but I would agree. Yes. There’s always going to be something like you said, kind of hovering in the background where if I take one wrong step, something can happen that yes, that can always be in the back of their heads. And I agree. He does deserve his happiness. But I guess because with me – and again, that’s why I say people are not perfect – but I wonder why, like you said, he’s loved her all this time. Why couldn’t you use your words? Right? He saw an opportunity and he ran with the opportunity. He saw her in a vulnerable state. He took that opportunity. You’ve never used your words. And I think that’s my issue. Like just say what is on your mind, say what is on your heart. And I understand that that’s difficult, but don’t take the easy way.
JS: I think one of my favorite things about this book is how many people love it and yet how polarizing all the characters are.
AW: I think that’s what makes it a great book because that’s real. People are flawed. We try our best to be the best that we can be, but we’re gonna fuck up. We’re going to make mistakes. But I think in, in not all books, obviously, but in some books, those mistakes that we make kind of get shined up and polished up and you get this nice, clear ending. Here it’s like, no, you don’t get that. And you just, you have to assume how these characters are going to play out, moving forward.
JS: What do you think of the dolls that Celestial makes? Do you think they’re meant to sound a teensy bit creepy or do you think I just read them wrong?
AW: So, I’m glad you’re bringing this up because to be honest, I’ve never disregarded the dolls, but I’ve never thought about them like that. I do think her inspiration for the dolls is strange. I’m not sure if this is another spoiler, but her inspiration for the dolls is Roy. Specifically, Roy as a child. And so she’s kind of huanting herself on purpose, because if Roy is at the time locked up, and your inspiration for making these dolls is him as a child, you’re constantly looking at a part of your life that isn’t there to sustain your livelihood. So I think it’s strange. But I don’t know. Who am I to judge?
JS: It was very sad to me. I like how you said that she was intentionally haunting herself. Wow.
AW: Yeah, because like I said, when I learned what the inspiration for the dolls were, I was just kind of confused, like why is this person who you essentially don’t want to be in your life, the inspiration for your dolls? It’s just kind of, it’s strange. Yeah. So she was able to sustain her life with it. But again, I don’t understand. Maybe it’s not for me to understand.
JS: Even more so than the main characters, I was really deeply moved by their sets of parents in this reading. And Roy’s mother in particular. I took that really hard this time around. Does your opinion of them shift as you grow older and reread?
AW: Well, I’ve big Roy and Olive, I’ve just admired them. But both of their parents just, it makes sense what type of people that they are. Because children, they model the behavior that they see. So it makes sense. For big Roy to raise little Roy the way he did, the way that he loved his mother, the way that even Roy says, we didn’t have a lot, but we had enough. I love that. And I don’t think my idea of his parents shifted. I think when I read more about Celestial’s parents – I don’t remember their names – I think hearing about how her parents met, how her mother chose to be a part of her dad’s life at one point – again, I think it’s real. I think it’s real to know like, hey, I have a connection to this married person. I think that is real. And I think Celestial seeing that and seeing how, you know, hey, it worked out for my parents. It’s not the most ideal circumstance, but it did work. I mean, you hear more modern stories like that all the time. So, I get it. I understand it. I think now that I’m thinking about it, I’m going to challenge myself the next time I read it to try to be more open-minded with Andre. I’m going to try. I do remember his relationship with his dad, the second time around reading that I was like, I get it. I get it. And it’s not fair. Cause out of all the characters Andre has really given the short end of the stick. I can admit that and I will try to see him in another light. But I don’t know. You know what I think, and this is just me trying to like take away him from his relationships of Roy and Celestial. I think as I think as a person, I think I can find grace for Andre as an individual person based on his experiences based on him. I think I can find grace there in relation to Roy and Celestial.
JS: So if Roy had never been incarcerated, do you think that marriage would have made it?
AW: I don’t think so. Because like, like I said, Roy, he did a lot of silly things to prove, to show pride, and to kind of boost his ego. Like there’s a part in the book where he says like, yeah, I got this girl’s number. I wasn’t going to do anything with it. I just want to make sure that I still had it. Well, you have me. Why do you need to figure this out with someone else? And also, I don’t know this because I’m an only child, but the relationship that mothers and sons have. Celestial kind of feeling like I will never be good enough for your mother. And I don’t know if I can live with that. I don’t know if I can do that. So you have one spouse always trying to show that they belong, being prideful, trying to boost their ego and you have another spouse who feels like I can’t be good enough for your family. I don’t think that’s going to last very long.
JS: Now, this is a book that, you can go into this book, I think, with only the vaguest understanding that we have a real mass incarceration problem in this country, but this book is not about numbers and statistics. To me, this book is about how this one injustice ripples out. And to me, that’s why I push fiction on people who say, reading non-fiction book is boring. I go, great! Pick up Tayari Jones has you see you get the actual human story behind this massive problem that we have.
AW: Yeah. And, and I think as well, a book that is a little older: I think it came out in, I want to say 1940s, somewhere between 1946 and 1948. Have you heard of Ann Petry?
AW: Okay. She has a book called The Street and it’s fiction, but it literally breaks down how systemic racism has that domino effect. And it really breaks down how one thing that happens in one part of her life trickles down into other aspects of her life to the point where she’s like, I don’t even know if I can be a good mother to my son because of this one systemic error that has happened. Again, that was 1948. I think An American Marriage, I don’t know when it came out, but none of this is new. This is just repeating itself. It’s telling a different story in a more modern way.
JS: Tell me what you’re reading right now. What are you in the middle of these days?
AW: I just finished The Secret Lives of Church Ladies.
JS: How do you like it?
AW: So it is a collection of short stories. I thought it was non-fiction because when I hear short stories, I think about non-fiction. These are nine short fiction stories about literally just the secrets of, they’re not all church ladies that have these secrets, but just church folk. The secrets that you have when you’re, I’m sure it’s specifically speaking to Christians, but as Christians in church, you have this idea that you’re supposed to be a certain way, but again, like we were already talking about when we were offline, there are things that we don’t like to discuss because of, you know, the religious groups that we’re a part of. And it just talks about things that happened in their life. There was one story in particular called “Dear Sister” that I really enjoyed because there are four sisters who have all grown up together. Same father, different mother. And there’s one sister who they’ve never met, but the story is one of the sisters writing her, just trying to fill her in as in as much information as possible. The reason that I connected with that story is because earlier I said, I’m an only child on my mother’s side. On my father’s side, I am the youngest of three. However, I don’t have the closest relationship with either of my sisters. And to me, family are the people who are the people who raised you and the people who are willingly present. But there’s something to me, even now, there’s something super sacred and important about having a relationship with the people that you actually come from.
JS: I really enjoyed that book. She is so good at those moments of people being people.
AW: That’s what I love. I love a messy story. It keeps me entertained. It allows conversations like this on this podcast that are great.
JS: Do you ever read anything that’s like, sci-fi or fantasy or any of those kinds of genres? Or do you like to stick to a family drama or a domestic dispute?
AW: I have read, what’s the, well, I don’t know if this is sci-fi per se, cause to be completely honest, I still don’t fully know the difference between the two, but I have read The Time Traveler’s Wife. That’s interesting. But also just an unfortunate story. I liked that story. I also read. A Song Below Water, and A Chorus Rises. Those were more fantasy-based, because they had all these mythical creatures that I would have wished there was more context behind. But I understand that wasn’t the point of the book and I can just Google what everything is. But really, in the first book, A Song Below Water, I really enjoy the relationship and the friendship between the two main characters. The main characters are Black, but I just really felt like their relationship was the epitome of Protect Black Women. And I’ve never read anything like that. And I loved reading that. The author’s name is Bethany C. Morrow.
JS: I am not a fantasy reader at all, but I have to tell you those two titles already sound enchanting. I kind of want to read them even though that’s not my genre at all.
AW: It’s not my genre either, but again, I enjoyed the first book more than the second one, which is A Chorus Rises. But what I liked that the author did was she tied in – cause all of the characters, they’re Black women. So it’s like, hey, I am a Black woman. I also am a Black woman that has these magical powers. I cannot dissect the two they’re intersectional, but I’m still a threat to society. And just combining that into the stories, and they’re teenagers at that, I was like, I like what you’re doing here.
JS: Is it a YA?
JS: Oh, interesting! YA authors are killing it.
AW: I usually stick to adult, but I mean, depending on what you’re reading, YA is there, there is a lot of drama in there for sure.
JS: Will you tell my listeners where they can find you?
JS: And it is, I will say again, a great follow. I highly recommend you follow Ambria and get good book recommendations, listeners. I want to thank you for joining me today, Ambria. It has been an absolute delight talking to you. I knew it would be because I could already tell from following you for so long. I hope you’ll come back anytime you have a book you want to tell me about, or get me to read or anything like that. And thank you so much for joining me today.
AW: Thank you for having me. This was so fun. I appreciate it.
Thanks for listening. Bookworms for more information on this episode and links to all the books we discussed, please go to our website. Best book ever. podcast.com or follow us over on Instagram at best book ever. Podcast. You’ll see. Great pictures of my weekly guests. Read more about the books we discussed.
Thanks for listening, Bookworms! You can follow the podcast on Instagram. I’m your host, Julie Strauss, and you can find me on Instagram where you can see some of my favorite quotes from the podcast and occasional photos of my reading cave and get bookish news from friends of the show. You might even catch a glimpse of our official mascot, Benny, the meanest bunny on the planet. I really love most social media, but I love the Instagram book community. So come on over and let’s chat books.
Thanks for joining me today. And I will see you at the library.