Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
It’s the season for curling up under a blanket with a good book. In our annual Winter Reading show, we’ll get tips for must-read new releases and classics that deserve your attention during the busy holiday period.
- Barbara Hoffert Editor, Prepub Alert, Library Journal
- Terry Hong "Bookdragon" blogger for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program
- E. Ethelbert Miller Literary activist and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is "The 5th Inning," a second memoir and the first book published by Busboys and Poets.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The dinner is over, leftovers are in the fridge, the kids are watching a movie downstairs and you think, what now? The answer, a good book, the perfect way to unwind after your Thanksgiving meal and throughout the busy holiday season. This fall's offerings defy the idea that the book is dead. But all things worth reading only come in blurbs and bites.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIThere are thrillers, new essays from a celebrated American writer and great picture books for your children. In this hour, we'll tour the literary landscape in our annual winter reading show. And we'd like to hear your tips for great winter reading. You can call us at 800-433-8850 or send an e-mail to email@example.com or make your suggestions at our website kojoshow.org. Joining us in studio is E. Ethelbert Miller, literary activist and board chair of the Institute of Policy Studies. His latest book is, "The 5th Inning," a second memoir and the first book published by Busboys and Poets.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIE. Ethelbert Miller, the reason I'm stumbling and giggling is because that's the effect Ethelbert always has on me. And he's made the mistake of talking to me before the show actually began. How are you, sir?
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERI'm good. Great to see you and a Happy Thanksgiving.
NNAMDIHappy Thanksgiving to you also. Also joining us in studio is Terry Hong, "Bookdragon," blogger, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. She also works with Ten by Ten, a global action campaign focusing on girls in education. Terry Hong, good to see you again.
MS. TERRY HONGThank you for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us from the studios of the radio foundation in New York City is Barbara Hoffert, editor of Library Journals, Prepub Alert. That's an online feature that covers books six months in advance of publication. Barbara, I thought you said the next time we are going to -- you were going to join us in the studio in Washington again?
MS. BARBARA HOFFERTWell, I was going to until I had hip surgery in August and I'm still hobbling around. So I thought I'd only hobble a few blocks instead of several hundred miles.
NNAMDIOh, I thought you were ducking the ever present body scans these days. Again...
HOFFERTI only take the train.
NNAMDI...you can call us -- well, they're coming through the train sometime soon. 800-433-8850. The great American novel or any American novel, frankly, can now encompass so many different kinds of experiences from the Korean immigrant experience to the stories of Native Americans in Oregon. Barbara, let's start with you. Tell us about, "How to Read the Air," by Denaw Mengestu and "Mink River," by Brian Doyle.
HOFFERTI will indeed. I'm sure you know Mengestu's first novel, "The Beautiful Things That Heaven Bears." It's set in Washington. His new novel is -- that was a terrific novel, but this one is extraordinary step ahead. And it's -- the character, one of the main characters talks about the novelist's leaving experiences and there is indeed an immigrant, Ethiopian, who is passed many borders in Africa and Europe to finally get to America. And his wife, who leaves him many times, even leaves him in car wreck once, before he -- she finally leaves him all together.
HOFFERTAnd their son, Jonas, who is a diffident and somewhat passive person leaves his dreams behind and leaves his marriage and one of the main framing devices of the novel is the idea that he is retracing a journey his parents took from Peoria to Nashville. And in that process, it's really an emotional journey for him to find himself. What I loved about this novel was that in fact, we all have leaving experiences and we all can experience more broadly everything he's talking about at the same time. He's very specific about the immigrant experience. At one time, he says something to the effect that it's not so hard to learn a new language. It's just like learning to love your husband again.
HOFFERTSo I thought that was a wonderful way to put it. And, "Mink River," is set in Oregon. In Neawanaka, a small town at the very mouth of the Mink River and the two people who run the Department of Public Works don't have a lot to do so they decide to launch a oral history project and so the processes of collecting all sorts of wonderful stories of the people in the town. It actually starts out because Worried Man, one of the two men, decides he wants to tell his grandson, make a tape to tell his grandson how his mother, No Horses, got her name.
HOFFERTThat's because, as he says, "Our people were the best horse dealers ever. We were awesome." And so it's a novel very beautifully written novel. A rural setting and yet a very -- often very modern staccato language, talking about how we all have stories and all those stories are unique and yet all those stories resonate.
NNAMDI"Mink River," by Brian Doyle. Terry Hong, "I Hotel," by Karen Tei Yamashita.
HONGKaren Tei, N-B-A, Karen Tei, N-B-A.
NNAMDIShe's worse than Ethelbert.
HONGI was -- hey. I was chanting this earlier this week. Because as you know she was a finalist for the National Book Award. I think it's a phenomenal, phenomenal, achievement historically, literally -- literary-ly and literally. It's a 10 stories and 10 parts of history. And it follows the entire Asian American experience from the birth of the, quote, Asian American when people with roots in Asia, claims themselves to be Asian American. In following up with the civil rights movement and it goes all the way to current times and it's just beautifully done, very imaginative, very creative and even though it's over 600 pages, you can actually read it really quickly.
NNAMDI"I Hotel," give us the chant again, please.
HONGKaren Tei, N-B-A, Karen Tei, N-B-A. And that's not basketball, please.
NNAMDIWe have a full list of the books being recommended at kojoshow.org. You can go there and just click on winter reading. Barbara Hoffert, I interrupted you.
HOFFERTI was just going to say, Karen Tei, N-B-A and L-J because Terry reviewed that for me in L-J introducing me to the wonders of that book, yes.
NNAMDIOkay. Ethelbert, "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work," by Edwidge Danticat.
MILLERWell, you know this leads into, you know, what we're talking about, you know, Ethiopian writers. We're beginning to see, you know, a new body of literature from immigrant writers. It's almost predictable, you know, in terms of Ethiopia, Somalia. I think over the last several years, Edwidge Danticat, for many people has really become, like, the faith of Haiti, like Wyclif Jean. And she's accepted the responsibility in terms of the dangers of being a writer and also sometimes in terms of writing about a country that you've left but you still are very, very involved in politically.
MILLERAnd I think that the first essay in this book, "Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work," is one that if you're teaching a class, you go back to. If you want to ask yourself if those are your -- they were writers, what is the relationship between (word?) and your work? I think she answers that. And I would just like to just read this one little passage here. "Create Dangerously for people who read dangerously. This is what I've always thought it meant to be a writer. Writing knowing in part that no matter how trivial your words may seem, someday, somewhere, someone may risk his or her life to read them." I mean that's a...
NNAMDIOh yeah, yeah.
MILLER...you know, when you think about that, you know, you could be writing something here in D.C. and all of a sudden somebody in Jordan or somebody in South Africa or someone in Singapore, they -- your work means something to them. And maybe in ways that you'd never imagine. And when I look at writers that I admire and Edwidge Danticat was just recently here. She's at the top of the list. And what I like about her in terms of her politics is also her humility. And there's a certain grace. I keep telling her that, "You have this (word?) written all over you," you know. And she's done wonders in terms of, at a time in which Haiti is just suffering, you know, from the earthquake to, like, say, Haiti in a time of Cholera.
MILLERAnd it's just very important that these writers speak out and address those issues.
HONGCan I add a little something about (word?) , he's one of my heroes. You were so kind to plug 10 times 10, the other project I'm working on. And it's 10 writers, 10 girls, 10 country, 10 causes, 10 voices and it will tell the story of a girl in the world, what it means to be a girl in the world and how important it is to educate the girls 'cause that will solve all the problems in the world. But one of our writers is Edwidge Danticat.
NNAMDIAnd as you know, we just got back from a trip to Haiti a couple of weeks ago. And it gives her writing a lot more meaning after you have been there because, well, she's such a great writer. Before we move on, though, Terry, tell us a little bit about, "Long for This World," by Sonya Chung.
HONGOh, it's one of those sighing novels. And...
NNAMDIShe's cradling the book to her heart. This has become a radio show and tell broadcast.
HONGI brought my books, I wouldn’t forget the titles 'cause I don't remember anything anymore.
NNAMDIWell, hopefully you'll be able to -- hopefully, you'll be able to take them when you leave. I'm going to steal books.
HONGI -- actually, I also reviewed this for Barbara, didn't I?
HOFFERTYes, you did.
HONGAnd it is another immigrant story on very different levels. It tells a story of a father and a daughter, mostly. The father is a Korean immigrant. He's escaped some harsh conditions in a small boat. He's stowed away. He ends up in the states. He has a family, he has a life and his daughter, Jane, becomes a war photographer and she leaves America often to take some of the most brutal, heinous pictures out there. She has a terrible accident in -- during one of her assignments and the way she deals with some of her emotions of seeing all this death and destruction is to try and find peace within herself, with who she is, her past, her relationship with her parents and her brother.
HONGAnd she goes back to Korea at the same time her father goes as well and they're reunited with their family on a remote island and then the whole family dynamic emerges.
NNAMDIWe're also interested in your tips for great winter reading, call us at 800-433-8850. Here is Front Royal, Va. is Barbara. Barbara you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
BARBARAOh, yes, good afternoon, thanks for taking my call.
BARBARAHello? I have the most marvelous book. I have read it three times since last spring. I have given 20 copies away to friends and acquaintances. The book is written by Garth Stein and it is called, "The Art of Racing in the Rain." The narrator is his dog in his final days of life. And it's his story and his master's story. The dog's name is Enzo and Enzo believes that really, really good dogs, when they pass, are reincarnated as human beings. It's an absolutely beautiful gentle read and I would recommend it to anybody.
NNAMDIBarbara Hoffert, are you familiar with, "The Art of Racing in the Rain?"
HOFFERTI certainly am. I've met the author and introduced him at a P-L-A program. And it is indeed a heartfelt book and that dog is a very smart dog.
NNAMDIHey, Barbara, thank you very much for your call. As we said earlier, we have a full list of the recommendations at our website, kojoshow.org. If you click on winter reading but we're interested in your recommendations now, call us at 800-433-8850. Ethelbert Miller, James Baldwin is an important writer for a lot of Americans. Tell us about James Baldwin and his importance in general and his importance to you in particular?
MILLEROh, important to me, definitely. I believe the last time James Baldwin spoke in Washington, D.C., we shared the platform together. We spoke together at the Howard University Law School. And I tell you, I mean, he was just unbelievable. He wrote -- no notes, you know, this is Jimmy Baldwin, the preacher, you know. And something I had written or said in a poem, he sort of liked weaved into his, like, presentation but...
NNAMDIWell, just think of a teenage boy in Guyana, South America, picking up a book. And the first words he ever read were, "I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times and couldn't put the book "The Fire Next Time" down...
NNAMDIAnd that led me into Baldwin and the ongoing search for identity.
MILLERRight. I tell people, you know, before this book I'm going to mention, everyone should have a copy of "The Price of the Ticket," you know, his essays. It's something that you can always go back to. I tell people if you want to know about the Civil Rights movement, you don't listen to King's speeches, you know, you don't go look at "Eyes on the Prize." You read Jimmy Baldwin, you know. If you want to know what this is all about, this whole lover's struggle that we're in between blacks and whites you go to Baldwin.
MILLERAnd this is why this cross of redemption that, you know, my friend Randall Kenan has edited, the uncollected writings of Jimmy Baldwin is very important because, you know, in terms of when we're dealing with writers, you know, especially someone like Baldwin we'll think first of his novels, then we'll think of his essays, you know. Then we just think of him holding a cigarette on of some of those. You know, being the public intellectual that he was. But what can be lost are forwards to books, sometimes certain interviews, letters, things like that. So this is very important to have these things collected because now what you begin to see is how a writer may have begun an idea. Okay.
MILLERLike, in here is the fight between Patterson and Liston. I never thought of Baldwin being like a Norman Miller covering a boxing match.
MILLERBut some people say that's one of the best essays in here. And for anyone who's writing speeches or giving public presentation, you go to Baldwin for a certain eloquence, you know. I mean, I think anybody who's in the Tea Party group. Neighbor, Sarah Palin, anybody running for president or anything like -- you know, get some Baldwin, you know. Get some Baldwin and then you'll be dancing with a star.
NNAMDIOne of the greater essays and writers...
NNAMDI...of all time, in particular the 20th century, James Baldwin. The book is called "The Cross of Redemption: Uncollected Writings," it included previously unpublished work. We're going to take a short break but we're still inviting your calls for your recommendations for winter readings, 800-433-8850 or send us a tweet kojoshow or go to our website, kojoshow.org, or send an e-mail to kojowamu.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're inviting your recommendations for winter readings and seeking guidance from Barbara Hoffert, editor of Library Journal's Prepub Alert, an online feature that covers books six months in advance of publication. Terry Hong is "Bookdragon" blogger for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. She also works with Ten by Ten, a global action campaign focusing on girls and education. And E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and board chair of the institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is "The 5th Inning," a second memoir on the first book published by Busboys and Poets.
NNAMDIBarbara Hoffert, thrillers, they can sometimes be formulate, but there are two books you're recommending that qualify as thrillers, but are definitely not run of the mill. Could you start by talking about "Adam and Eve" by Sena Jeter Naslund?
HOFFERTI knew you were going to ask me about that. This novel opens with a scene of a grand piano being slowly lifted on a crane into a top room of a house in Amsterdam. And at the very last moment a cable breaks and the piano crashes to the ground and kill astrophysicists Tom Bergman right in front of his wife and she soon begins to suspect that it might have been murder. You see, he actually knows -- he has discovered evidence of extraterrestrial life.
HOFFERTHe has equipment that detects biomolecules in space and those little red dots on his film show that in fact there's life out there, which is information some people would kill for or kill to suppress. After his death, she's in the Middle East and in fact meets a colleague of his who says, now I have evidence that Genesis was actually written by a human. And that's other information people would kill for. She's asked to smuggle it out of the country, which she does, but her plane crashes. And she ends up in a sort of Eden and meets an American soldier who has been tortured, consequently is somewhat off of his mind.
HOFFERTHis name is Adam and he really thinks he is an original Adam and Lucy becomes his Eve. And they are there for a while. Do they escape? Well, you'll have to read the novel to find out. But it's adventure. It's ancient history. It's myth breaking. It's myth busting. It's myth building. It's extraterrestrials. It's romance. What's not to like? So it's a great novel for a lot of people to read. And Naslund doesn't ever write the same book twice, but she has just wonderful, very creamy writing style that I really like.
NNAMDIHow about "The Distant Hours" by Morton.
HOFFERTAnother wonderful -- one of those novels that I sat down and couldn't stop reading, which was a problem because I had a lot of other things to do. It's -- starts when Edie discovers that her London-born mother was evacuated to Milderhurst Castle during the Blitz. Edie had never known that. She didn't learn it 'til she was an adult and, as it happens, on a business trip. And her mother does not want to talk about it at all, suggesting that something unsettling had happened there.
HOFFERTAnd on a business trip, Edie actually finds she's near the castle and drops in and meets these, you know, the two elderly twin sisters and their somewhat younger sister who had lost her mind decades ago. During the war, her fiancé evidently jilted her. And it just was around the time that the mother was at the castle. So Edie is in the process of slowly unfolding what really happened. And it has something to do with a book written by their father, the twin's father, Raymond Blithe, the true history of "The Mud Man," which is reputedly a classic in British literature, sort of on the par with "Peter Pan."
HOFFERTAnd you'll see, and quite startling figures in the solution to what did happen to that fiancé. What's interesting about this novel is as you keep reading you keep formulating a different idea of what really happened and then that gets blown out of the water. And then you read again and you have another idea and that gets blown out of the water. So it's one of those sort of immaculate story telling with ever unfolding secrets and lots of suspense and tender relationships as well among the people. Really great for somebody who wants a historical, wants a mystery and who loves to read anything about England.
NNAMDI"The Distant Hours" by Kate Morton. Here's Maria in Frederick, Md. Maria you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MARIAYes. A book that impressed me a lot this year was Isabel Allende, "Island Beneath the Sea." She is my favorite author and she writes fantastic novels, historic novels with fiction characters. I think I recommend that book like one of the best that I have read this year.
NNAMDI"Island Beneath the Sea," by Isabel Allende, who has appeared on these airwaves with Diane Rehm from time to time, truly a great novelist and on our airwaves also. Thank you very much for that recommendation, Maria. There is some amazing non-fiction out this year and some of the stories actually seem stranger than fiction in many cases. Terry Hong, talk a little bit about "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall.
HONGIt's actually been on the best seller list for about two and a half years now.
HONGAnd it has changed my life, I have to say, because...
NNAMDIFor the better, we hope.
HONGWell, I don't know. We hope for the better, yes.
HONGSo it starts out Chris McDougall, the writer, is in his mid-40s and he's old and decrepit -- or feeling old and decrepit. The doctors have all told him he can't run anymore because everything hurts. Everything's breaking down. Everyone's--everything's creaky and he doesn't want to listen to the doctor. He said, there's got to be another way. And he does all this research on the biology of running and finds super athletes all over the world. And traces the Tarahumara Indians who live in Copper Canyon in Mexico where 90-year-olds can run 90 miles because no one ever told them they couldn't. And so it's a phenomenal story of his own rebirth as a runner and as an athlete and he -- and the story of the Tarahumara is phenomenal, et cetera.
HONGI read this book in the midst of a transformation of my own, shall we say. I had finished my work at the Smithsonian after eight years and I decided I was going to sit around and eat Bonbons but then I read this book and I thought, well, you know, I'm getting old. I'm getting decrepit, everything aches. If Chris McDougall can do it, and he was older than me, then maybe I could do something crazy too. And so I tracked down Eric Orton that brings Chris McDougall...
NNAMDIThis really changed your life.
HONGIt totally changed my life. Who brings him to shape. He recreates Chris McDougall to be the super athlete so he can run 100 miles in Copper Canyon, which has got to be one of the worse conditions. The two races that he talks about is -- in this book is the death valley ultra marathon where people fight for the white line in the middle of the roads because your shoes literally melt and where they have caskets of ice waiting for you at the rest stops so they can cool your body.
HONGAnd then the other big race is the Leadville 100, which happens in Colorado. It starts around 9800 feet and you have to go up hope pass -- you have to hope to go up hope pass and go down hope pass and go up hope pass. And it's 100 miles and you have to do it within 30 hours. And so I figured before I hit 50, which is coming up very soon, I should do something crazy. And I just tracked down Eric Orton and he trains like world class athletes and stuff. And that would not be me but somehow he has taken me on.
HONGAnd I'm in my fourth month with him and...
HONGOf training. And I'm on my way. He thinks I can do it in 2012, that's August of 2012. I need mules and running partners. Apparently I have to have people to keep me going at like mile 75. Anyway, so I'm going to do it...
NNAMDI"Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall and I always said I run so that I can sit around and eat Bonbons. You don't want to sit around and eat Bonbons anymore for me, that's reason enough to run. How about "Half the Sky" by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn?
HONGLike I said, this was a year of transformation. I read this at the beginning of this year and it is not a book about victims. It is not a book about victimhood. The title comes from the controversial Chinese leader Mao who said women hold up...
NNAMDICan hold up after the skies.
HONGExactly. Very good.
NNAMDIYes, that was in "The Red Book: Quotations of Mao Tse-Tung." Yes.
NNAMDIEthelbert still has.
MILLERNo, that's Bobby Seale.
NNAMDIOh, that with the black powers (unintelligible) but go ahead, please.
HONGSo I read this book and it traces the stories of women around the world who survive the most harsh conditions, who survived -- I don't know if I'm allowed to even say of this stuff on the air but let's just say their lives were not very pleasant. And they survived. They not only survived they triumph and they reclaim their lives. They reclaim the lives of their families, their village, in some cases. For example, a woman who was raped as a punishment for something her brother apparently, supposedly did has helped to change the laws of Pakistan for women.
HONGAnother woman who was left to die because she had a fistula after giving birth, she is now one of the most renown experts in fistula fixing. And she's been all over the world to teach other women to do it. And only recently at about age 78, or something like that, she learned to read for the first time because she was tired of putting an X where her signature was suppose to go. So these are truly the most remarkable women and after I read this, the ten times ten project sort of fell in my lap. And I thought, oh, my God, it's a sign.
NNAMDIWell, speaking for one of our producers who, when asked about "Half the Sky," said actually, women hold up about 80 percent of the sky.
HONGWell I'm glad you said it.
NNAMDIEthelbert talk a little bit about "Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian."
MILLERThis is a book I'm reading right now by Avi Steinberg. I like -- I'm having fun with it. You know, I go into the prisons a lot and I'm getting ready to go into (unintelligible) jail in Maryland. And what he reveals is -- well, one thing people looking for jobs and, you know, you answer an ad or something like this. And so he doesn't even know what a prison librarian is. And so, you know, he looks like he's 12 years old, he comes in this place but what's fascinating in terms of what he writes is that he really takes you into the prison system, and specifically the library. And all the things that we can do with books. I mean, we have all these books here. It's amazing what you can do. They're body armor, they're weapons.
MILLERThe prison library becomes a place for kites where people deliver messages and stuff. And so he's just really weaving this in. And then the pages where he'll just go and talk about, you know, the architecture of prisons. And the one he's in is up in Massachusetts and he tells a little history of that. So what I found very interesting in terms of the memoir is how this one really is at the prison, it's not a lot about his own life, okay, but a lot about the people that he interacts and meets. And I like this book because I feel that, you know, one thing that needs to be moved to the political agenda is prison reform.
MILLERI like the fact that in this case we're talking about what books mean to people who are incarcerated, you know, and we shouldn't forget that. And so, you know, even here, talk being these books, I mean, if these titles were available to people behind bars you don't know how they would change people's lives.
NNAMDI"Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian." We're taking your calls at 800-433-8850. Here's Lisa in Olney, Md. Lisa, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LISAYes. I wanted to recommend a book called "Cutting for Stone," by Abraham Verghese, I believe the name is.
LISAI'm actually in my car, but it's a wonderful book, long book. Starts with a young nun, but it takes you across continents an talks about expats and it has a fantastic, real-life story to it, a wonderful story.
NNAMDIYes, Abraham Verghese has also graced the airwaves of this show.
NNAMDIAnd the book you're reading is called "Cutting for Stone"?
LISA"Cutting for Stone."
NNAMDIThank you kindly, Lisa. Care to comment on that Barbara Hoffert, at all?
HOFFERTThat book has been published for about two years.
NNAMDIThat's what I thought.
HOFFERTAnd I think is another one of those books that is -- it still stays on various best seller lists and is indeed one of those absorbing long, but you can't put it down and there goes your weekend kind of books.
NNAMDIBack to non-fiction for a second, Barbara, tell us a little bit about "How I Killed Pluto and Why I Had it Coming."
HOFFERTI knew you were going to ask me about that. I love that title. The author is Mike Brown. He teaches planetary astronomy at California Institute of Technology. And he was, in fact, the person who discovered in 2005 the tenth planet that was dubbed Eris, that was 27 percent more massive than Pluto. And so instead of adding Eris to the solar system, actually there became a huge controversy and both Eris and Pluto were kicked out of the solar system and declared non-planets. This was more controversial than one might expect.
HOFFERTApparently, there is a Facebook group called, "When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was A Planet," that has almost two million members. Hate mail streams in to Neil de Grasse Tyson at the Hayden Planetarium. He's the director there who -- he was instrumental in this demotion of Pluto. And what he said about this book was, finally I have someone to whom I can forward all the hate mail I get from school children. So the book, as you can -- it's about doing science and the excitement of doing science and at the same time the kinds of extra scientific issues that can enter.
HOFFERTVery, very exciting, fun book to read. And, of course, Brown had the inside track here. He was the person who discovered this planet that then kicked itself and Pluto out of the solar system. And I'll add he was also, a couple of years ago, named one of wired.com's top ten sexiest geeks, which tells you a little bit about how he writes. So I think it's an altogether fun book that shows you that science is not just for dorks.
NNAMDIThis e-mail we got from Beth in D.C. on non-fiction, if you're not sick of the financial meltdown, a book called "Ruthless," by Phil Trupp tells the inside story of the train wreck and the auction rated securities market. More than 300 billion dollars in ARS investments were frozen by the big banks in February, 2008. Trupp led a coterie of investors who recovered more than $200 billion of debt after a long mesmerizing struggle. It really gives you an insight into how things really work in the financial industry. Trupp is a D.C. resident also. The book "Ruthless" by Phil Trupp.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back we will continue or conversations on winter reading. We're looking for your recommendations. Call us at 800-433-8850, send us a tweet at kojoshow or make a recommendation at our website, kojoshow.org. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWe're discussing winter reading with E. Ethelbert Miller. He's a writer, poet, literary activist, and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is "The 5th Inning," a second memoir, and the first book published by Busboys and Poets. Terry Hong is "Bookdragon" blogger for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. She also with Ten by Ten, which is a global action campaign focusing on girls in education.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is Barbara Hoffert, editor of Library Journal's Prepub Alert. That's an online feature that covers books six months in advance of publications. We got a caller who asked about the book in which a piano fell on somebody. That would be "Adam and Eve" by Sena Jeter Naslund. And we can remind you that you can find all of our recommendations at our website, kojoshow.org.
NNAMDIEthelbert, let's talk about poetry and its place in American literature. What qualities inspire or touch you in a poem?
MILLERWell, I look for the poem unlike, I guess some of these novels, and well, I always have got to come back to a good poem. I always come back you know. I never read it once. I feel that a poem makes you work -- should make you work. It should be places in it that are memorable. There should be times in which you want to read it aloud. There is thing in terms of one with the poetry. I think more than any other genre, you want to share with other people.
MILLERIt is a genre I think that people feel that if I'm going to begin writing, I'm going to begin writing a poem. So it's key, you know. And I think that without poetry, our lives are not one filled with love. And because this is a thing where I feel, how do you say what you want to say, yet a poem, you know. I just feel that when I read Toni Morrison (word?) all this was on the stage, you know. This place is where it's poetry, you know. And so...
NNAMDIYou won't remember, but my introduction to you was on stage in the early 1970's, you reading a poem. You have several poems...
MILLERNow you have your own show. (laugh)
NNAMDIIt just shows how you inspired me.
MILLER(laugh) Just shows you somebody out there listening right now.
NNAMDIYou have several poetry titles on your must-read list this holiday season. Share.
MILLERWell, I begin with a person who I think we all saw, that's Elizabeth Alexander. She is a person who wrote the Praise Song For The Day at Obama's inauguration. And I want to highlight this book called, "Crave Radiance," because I never want someone to reduce a poet down to one poem, you know. I feel that for many people they might have said, okay, who's Elizabeth Alexander? I know who Obama, I voted for him.
NNAMDIAnd she's got a local connection (word?) once ran for Mayor of DC.
MILLERWell, I think when -- I tell people, when I think of like the first family of Washington, I think of the Alexanders. I like that, you start with A, Alexander.
MILLERDell Alexander, you know, she's also a writer.
MILLERAnd so here we have, and I'm holding in my hand is "Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems 1990-2010." And I got this book last month when Elizabeth Alexander was honored by the First Lady's, you know, book fair here in Washington DC. And I was able to interview her at the Aspen Institute. And what was fascinating with her explaining Praise Song For The Day, sitting next to her father who also had comments about the poem.
MILLERBut getting back to this new and selected poem collection, I think what you begin to do is look at a writer whose work really captures popular culture, you know. I like how Elizabeth Alexander is one of those writers who dealt with issue of black men who die from AIDS, you know. There's so much richness in her work. And I also like the fact Elizabeth Alexander is not simply a poet, but also a literary critic, because I feel that we've gotten away from, you know, the poets (mumbles) .
MILLERBut also I think poets bring something to criticism which is very, very important. And I have to mention something which we haven't been doing. We've been talking about these authors books as if they just pop out of the oven. But this is a Graywolf Press book, and I say that because when we talk about the publishing industry, which at times seems to be struggling, there are some smaller companies that have been giving us fine literature, you know, year after year.
MILLERSo I just want to put a plug in for Graywolf Press, and very grateful that they've given us a full body of Elizabeth's Alexander's work.
MILLER"No Surrender." I brought "No Surrender" out because this year, Kojo, we lost three major poets. We lost Lucille Clifton, we lost Carolyn Rogers, and we lost the poet Ai A-I. I probably would not be sitting here if it hadn't been -- my friend, Amazu Bolton (sp?) told me, you know, back in like 1970, hey, look man. We're going up to the University of Maryland to listen to this woman, and it was Ai, and her book "Cruelty," had just come out. And I heard those poems and I was never the same.
MILLERIt's like you listening to Charlie Parker or something like that, you know. I mean, you know, and what happened, they're filled with violence and this, and these -- you know, I mean she just jumps at you, and really like she has to tell people that's not her. I mean, she's a completely different person, very beautiful, very gentle person, but a phenomenal imagination.
MILLERAnd what happens is that she's always writing these poems in the midst of, you know, writing the poems in the voice of someone that we know. I mean, there's even one by Mike Tyson that she's written. But this last collection, "No Surrender," I think these poems probably capture what she's going through. She's really getting into writing a memoir, okay, which was not completed.
MILLERI'm going -- I went back and looked at some of my e-mails, because we were exchanging a lot of emails, and one of the poems in "No Surrender" got published in Poet Lore magazine. So I got a sense of what she was going through. She was really doing a lot of family history. So here we have her looking at a number of Native American individuals that are very important. And so I just mentioned this because I never want a writer to die and be forgotten. And so this is Ai, who I think is just a very important, you know, American Poet.
NNAMDI"No Surrender," poems by Ai. Onto children's book, in particular, picture books. Terry Hong, the New York Times recently ran a story about the decline in popularity of picture books for children. Many parents are now apparently encouraging kids as young as kindergartners to move onto chapter books instead. What do you think about that?
HONGThere was a great quote from the children's manager from our rock star Bookstore, Politics and Prose about how if a kid pulls out a picture book, the parents are saying, no, not going to go to Harvard if you're spending your time writing -- or reading picture books. I think it's absurd. I think picture books are some of the best ways to fuel imagination.
HONGI've had a real heyday this past couple of weeks with textless picture books, books without any words in it, and I have one in front of me that I was showing off, and it's so lovely, your producer demanded to see it before we even sat down.
NNAMDIThis would be Tara Boyle, no doubt. (laugh)
HONGI'm not naming names.
HONGBut this is -- I'm holding it up for people to see in studio, because it's so stunning. It's Jeannie Baker's "Mirror." And it opens up sort of like a mirror, or exactly like a mirror, but on one said is a story of a young boy and his life in Sydney, Australia. The other side is a story about a little boy in Morocco. And it opens almost -- how would you call this? It opens on either side, one goes...
HONG...one goes one way, the other one...
NNAMDIIt opens to both the left and the right.
HONGYes. And the stories start with waking up...
MILLERYou're showing the pictures too quickly for Kojo. He's a slow picture reader. (laugh)
NNAMDIThank you very much. Slow down.
HONGAnd it goes through their days and it's just this gorgeous collage.
NNAMDIIt really is.
HONGAnd little bits of either culture are popping up on both the pages until the very end when their worlds literally come together.
HONGIsn't that amazing? Wait. Wait.
NNAMDIWrong page. Wrong page. Wrong page.
HONGSee? He studied this at school, they have the magic carpet so to speak.
HONGThey've got the computer connection, and I'm kind of spoiling it for people.
NNAMDINot for me. (laugh)
HONGWell, because you got to see it. You got the whole show and tell. But no words. And the kid can make up the story with you, for you, in spite of you, and it's just an amazing creative opportunity to share with your children.
NNAMDITerry's also recommending "It's A Book" by Lane Smith, "Spork" by Kyo Mclear, "The Sandwich Swap" by her majesty Queen Rania.
HONGOkay. I have to talk about….
NNAMDIWhich one you...
HONG..."It's A Book."
NNAMDI"It's A Book."
HONGThere is a viral trailer apparently for this book, but it doesn't have the final page, which apparently is causing a lot of problems with certain librarians and certain parents. I don't know why. It's got one word in there in contention which I won't share with you at the moment, because you have to go get the book. Because it is a book. But it's this really, really fun, quick read, and your children will love it.
HONGYour children, I am sure, because my children are doing the same thing, are reading things that look nothing like a book. And it -- they have things called mouses attached to them, or, as one of the characters asked, can it text? No. Tweet? No. Wi-Fi? No. Can it do this, (makes noise) ? No.
NNAMDIBut it can keep you occupied for hours and entertained for even longer than that.
HONGBecause it's a book.
MILLERAnd it has a subtle political message, because it's probably linked to the Democratic party, but we won't say anything.
NNAMDIYes. He's already said something about that. Let me go to Laurie in Bowie, Md. Laurie, you are on the air. Go ahead, please.
LAURIEHi there. I wanted to...
NNAMDIHe's such a subversive...
LAURIE...share, I know you're talking about poets. But I wanted to share a couple of books that I have loved. First one that I found in school. I went to school in England, and it was "My Family And Other Animals," but Gerald Durrell. And I re-read just last week.
NNAMDIWhat's it about?
LAURIEIt's an amazing, amazing book.
NNAMDIWhat's it about?
LAURIEIt's about Gerald Durrell and his family having to move to Greece after his father died.
LAURIEAnd it's just -- it's fantastical, it's a lot of imagination, a lot of creativity, but it's also...
LAURIE...which makes it even more interesting.
NNAMDI"My Family And Other...
NNAMDIHow about -- what else would you like to recommend?
LAURIEThe other book that I wanted to recommend is "I Am David," by Anne Holm. It's actually a children's book but it's an excellent quick read for adults. It is phenomenal. It's about a little boy who was raised in a concentration camp and actually has been made into a movie, but the reading of it is even more profound. The first time I read it I must have been in my 20's, and I read it annually. It's just a beautiful story.
LAURIEOne last thing if I can squeeze this in. A poet that I'd love to have you all discuss or if you know of him, he's from Alexandria, Va., his name is Kwame Alexander, and he's a masterful poet.
LAURIEAnd was taught by Nikki Giovanni, and they're good friends and he's just -- he's phenomenal. Look him up, kwamealexander.com. I can't think of any of any of his books, I have all of them. And he just came out with a children's book as well.
NNAMDIThank you very much for recommending that. Barbara Hoffert, she mentioned the "My Family And Other Animals." The relationship between people and animals seems to be a never-ending source of material for books. You recommend at least two books dealing with animals. One that's about a domestic story, one that's more international.
HOFFERTYes. My first one by Jim Gorant, "The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs And Their Tale Of Rescue And Redemption." We all recall the bad news kennel. What Gorant has done I think was actually extraordinary and very gutsy. Some of the best reporting I've ever seen in detailing exactly how that kennel was uncovered and how the prosecution was carried out. And that's the heartbreaking part of the book.
HOFFERTThe heartwarming part of the book is how he explains what happened to the dogs who were rescued, and almost every single one of them was rehabilitated which many people thought was not going to be possible. Many of them now serve as therapy dogs. They are family pets. One works in the Paws For Reading program for young children, and he sits there with the children and they learn to read those books that Terry's recommending, while the dog sits there.
HOFFERTAnd apparently it's extraordinarily inspiring to these children to see this dog who's been through actually a horrible thing, being their pet and their friend. So it's a riveting book. It's a hard book to read sometimes. It's finally very hopeful and I've been plugging this all along, because I think it's a very important story. The other one, John Vaillant's, "The Tiger, " is -- "The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance And Survival."
HOFFERTIt's about the tracking of a man-eating tiger in the very, very far east of Russia, and this tiger actually it seemed quite clear, had stalked the person he first killed, because there's evidence that a very, very large cat was sitting outside in the snow of the cabin for many days, and left droppings so they could -- it was clearly planning this particular attack.
HOFFERTThe gentleman in question who was killed was a poacher. So the story opens up into a real discussion of not just tigers in Russia, and not just poaching in Russia, and not just Russian history and a contemporary Russian situation. But really it's a story about what happens when human culture meets natural culture and how nature is feeling squeezed out and coming back at us. It's also an extraordinarily beautiful written book. So I really recommend it as a story that's about a tiger and about a whole lot more.
MILLERYeah. I want to go back. Your listener had mentioned Kwame Alexander. And I think since we're talking about books, we should acknowledge that fact that Kwame is also the organizer of the Capital Book Fair every year, in which he brings together authors with the readers and is very successful, especially for parents who want to go out and get children's books. And so I just wanted to mention that in terms of Kwame Alexander's a real blessing to our community.
NNAMDIIf there's a poet in the Washington area, E. Ethelbert Miller knows him or her. Terry, you've become a fan of Manga in recent years. Describe what Manga is for people who may not be familiar with it. We've only got about a minute and a half left.
HONG...is the Japanese version of graphic novels or comic strips. But they -- I've come to them late in life, and they are my guilty pleasure. I can't put them down. One of my favorite favorite series ever, 18 volumes, is Monster, about a doctor who saves the life of a young boy who turns out to be a serial killer, and how is he going to fix this problem that he's created by saving this young boy's life.
HONGAnother book that I just recently finished was, "How To Understand Israel In 60 Days Or Less," by Sarah Glidden, and it's about a young woman who goes to Israel on a birthright tour, and she thought she had all the answers. She thought she had everybody figured out, but in fact, when she gets there and sees the strife between all the various peoples who live in Israel who claim Israel, who fight over Israel, that maybe the answers aren't so clear and easy after all.
NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Terry Hong is "Bookdragon" blogger for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program. She also works with Ten By Ten, a global action campaign focusing on girls in education. E. Ethelbert Miller is a writer, poet, literary activist and board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies. His latest book is, "The 5th Inning," a second memoir, and the first book published by Bus Boys and Poets.
NNAMDIAnd Barbara Hoffert is editor of Library Journal's Prepub Alert, an online feature that covers books six months in advance of publications. Thanks to you all for joining us. A happy thanksgiving to you all and thank you for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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