Kojo talks with author Colson Whitehead about his new novel "The Underground Railroad" and its resonance at this particular moment in history.
The end of the year brings a rush of new literary releases and awards. Which to choose? Whether you enjoy historical fiction, transporting nonfiction, memoirs or graphic novels, we’ve got suggestions for your winter reading list.
- Barbara Hoffert Editor, Prepub Alert, Library Journal
- Mark Athitakis book critic; author
- Terry Hong "BookDragon" blogger for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
2012 Winter Reading List
As temperatures cool, our literary critics pick their favorite books to keep you warm during the winter season. Let us know what’s on your reading list in the comments below.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The turkey is almost picked clean, Black Friday doorbusters are over and your stockings have already been hung by the chimney with care. So now it comes down to you and a list.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt might be one that's all about you, a selection of books you want to relax with or learn something from or maybe it's about your loved ones and the search for a graphic novel your brother will love and the biography your sister won't be able to put down. Whoever your list is about, we've got a group of book lovers who stand ready to offer their picks for the best novels, nonfiction of the winter reading season, here to walk us through the latest and the greatest.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in studio is Terry Hong, who writes the "BookDragon" blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Her book reviews have appeared in the "Christian Science Monitor," "The Washington Post" and other publications. Terry Hong, thank you for joining us.
MS. TERRY HONGThank you.
NNAMDIGood to see you again. Also in studio with us is Mark Athitakis. He is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critic's Circle board of directors. He's written book reviews for "The Washington Post," "The New York Times" and other publications. Mark, thank you for joining us.
MR. MARK ATHITAKISGood afternoon, thank you for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City is Barbara Hoffert, editor of the "Prepub Alert" for the Library Journal, which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Barbara, good to hear you.
MS. BARBARA HOFFERTI'm glad to be back and hello to Terry and Mark.
NNAMDIIt's always a pleasure to have Barbara Hoffert here, but we'd like your company, too. So you can join the conversation by calling us at 800-433-8850 or by sending email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Barbara and Mark, before we get to the fun stuff, let's start with the business side of books, Random House and Penguin announced a merger last month. What is it likely to mean for us readers, Barbara?
HOFFERTWhenever I hear about a merger, I always think about the possibility of collapsing, imprints and those smaller imprints that sometimes offer the literary novels that I'd like to see. I worry about what will happen to them, I worry that there will be less diversity of voice. It's interesting for me to notice in the 25 plus years I've been assigning literary fiction, I've noticed a real change that more and more of my fiction is coming from smaller presses and not from the big houses.
HOFFERTAnd while I celebrate those smaller presses and thankful that they're out there producing really exciting stuff, I worry about the fact that we feel that literary fiction is perhaps just too special and too marginal. I don't think of Zadie Smith or Michael Sheamon (sp?) or Barbara Erdrich (sp?) as marginal writers and I don't want to see literary fiction lose its place in the market. So when I hear about these mergers I do get worried.
NNAMDIAnd of course, the small, the indie or university presses you entirely approve of but they don't have the clout, they don't have the ability to put the books and the authors out there in quite the same way as the large publisher.
HOFFERTExactly and I suspect that for very, you know, 3,000 copy first printing from a smaller press it might get a great deal more blast from a larger press. And again, I don't mean any disrespect to the wonderful presses that I work with that are smaller and often feed into the bigger presses and in a very exciting way. But I'm just worried, yes.
ATHITAKISYes, I mean, I think fewer publishers means fewer options and it makes it more difficult for many authors especially younger authors for whom the threshold of being successful, their opportunities are going to be limited. And, you know, I think what we're seeing in these mergers is an effort by these publishers to fight off Amazon, which has done a remarkable job of, you know, controlling the supply chain from, you know, from putting the books, printing ebooks to distributing the books and now in the past couple of years they've taken on the role as publisher and they haven't had a big success with that yet but I think that's only going to grow for them.
ATHITAKISAnd then, you know, I think this consolidation we're seeing among the big six, which may be the big four by the time the year is out, is reflective of, you know, a strategy of how big can we get in order to compete with Amazon's bigness.
NNAMDIWhy might it be the big four by the time the year is out?
ATHITAKISWell, because there have been a couple of mergers that have happening. There have been six major publishers and there was Penguin and Random House have merged and Simon and Schuster and maybe, correct me if I'm wrong, but Hachette have been in talks about merging as well.
HOFFERTAnd Simon and Schuster and Harper I've also heard have been in talks. So you start to see one big publisher coming up of all this.
NNAMDIOnto to the selections. If you have a book that you're reading now or looking forward to picking up this winter, you can share it with us at 800-433-8850. Mark, two of your selections including your favorite book of the year, come out of small presses. Tell us about "What Happened to Sophie Wilder" and "The Other Side of the World."
ATHITAKIS"What Happened to Sophie Wilder" is a remarkable first novel by Christopher Beha, who is an editor at "Harper's" magazine and the quick summary is that this is a story about one woman's conversion to Catholicism and her reckoning with what her faith means in terms of personal responsibility, in terms of her responsibility to God.
ATHITAKISShe winds up caring for her father-in-law, who she needn't really care for because she's leaving her husband and it wells up a lot of questions about what the consequences are of a deep faith. And I think may be the mark of a great novel is how much you want to talk about it after it's done. And I think in the four or five months since this has come out I've had more email conversations, Twitter conversations, personal conversations about this book.
ATHITAKIS"What did you make of its ending? What'd you think when Sophie did this? What'd you think about her relationship with so-and-so?" and that's been very, very energizing and, you know, in a same way "The Other Side of the World" by Jay Neugeboren, who's been a longtime author, his first novel, I believe, came out in 1966.
ATHITAKISIt's an interesting morality play that is set partly in the U.S. and partly in Borneo and it deals in large part with the heavy deforestation that's been happening there to develop palm oil and it opens questions about, you know, what are our personal responsibilities to each other? What are our personal responsibilities to the earth? It's a really remarkably smartly written novel.
NNAMDITerry Hong, current events can steer us toward books that touch on subjects in the headlines. Do you attribute that interest to the growing number of books about North Korea that we're seeing?
HONGI have been so surprised with the number of titles that have come out that are written about, in fiction and nonfiction titles. One of the books that I highlighted on my list was escape from "Camp 14: One Man's Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West." And it's written by a "Wall Street Journal" reporter and I think this is the most disturbing book I've ever read in my entire life.
HONGI read "The Orphan Master's Son" earlier this year and I thought, wow, I mean, it was an incredible novel, but I thought that the hideousness of some of the events that happened couldn't possibly be true. And then I read "Escape" and "Orphan Master" pales compared to some of the horrendous things that happened to this young man, who was literally bred to be a prison. And he somehow manages to escape and it's his odyssey of learning to be human, literally, because he's been bred for something to be not human.
NNAMDIIt's called "Escape from Camp 14," the author is Blaine Harden, now the "Wall Street Journal," former "Washington Post" bureau chief for east Asia, eastern Europe and Africa. About the only known North Korean who was born in a prison camp to have escaped and survive. Any other North Korean titles you've been looking at?
HONGI just reviewed another title called, "Escape from North Korea" for the "Christian Science Monitor" by Melanie Kirkpatrick and it deals with the Underground Railroad that has been developed in the last 10 to 15 years. It helps North Koreans escape through, usually they go first to China but then they end up in other Asian countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, the Philippines and many make it to South Korea and also to the U.S. and other western countries as well, some in Canada.
HONGIt, she does a really great job of paralleling the underground railroad of, during the Civil War, before the Civil War, sorry, and parallels that journey to freedom in a very similar way.
NNAMDIAnd "The Orphan Master's Son," you've all noted that there are a number of global hotspots and subjects getting attention. Terry, I'll start with you. What other location did you find a book about that you love?
HONG"Jerusalem" by Guy Delisle is a graphic memoir. Guy Delisle is a Canadian-French graphic artist who has down a number of memoirs in faraway places. His, through the years his partner, girlfriend, wife, mother of his children, has been sent to various trouble spots, shall we say, with Doctors Without Borders and his latest book is "Jerusalem."
HONGAnd the family is sent there to live for a few months, almost a year, in east Jerusalem. And he takes his notebook and just records what he sees. It's not a political treatise, it's not an argument for one side or the other and he just simply does a remarkable job of just recording exactly what he sees. I would recommend it highly.
NNAMDIBarbara, you've also been noticing that a number of novels have been coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan, which is I guess, a continuing trend.
HOFFERTYes, one of the things that has impressed me over the last, even, decade is how many books have emerged by and about the, by the authors coming from that area and about that area, which gives me hope that Americans really want to learn something about the complexities of the Middle East. I'm going to jump way ahead to sight two books that are coming out in the spring, because they're the most interesting to me.
HOFFERTAnd one of them is Nadeem Aslam's "The Blind Man's Garden." His "Wasted Vigil" is, I think, one of the best books I have ever read on the Middle East and the complexity therein. And I think your listeners will want to know that Khaled Hosseini who wrote "The Kite Runner" has a new book coming out, his third novel, called "And the Mountains Echoed," that has somewhat expanded multigenerational tale of brothers and sisters and their relationship and those are two books people really should be looking at.
NNAMDIWhat's "The Blind Man's Garden" about?
HOFFERTIt's brand-new so I don't know too much about it but, again, relationships in the Middle East and the complexity therein.
NNAMDIMark, you've also been noticing a lot of novels addressing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan?
ATHITAKISYes, I mean, we've had a couple of very good ones. "The Yellow Birds" by Kevin Powers, which was nominated for a National Book Award and also Ben Fountain's debut novel "Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk," which is also nominated for a National Book Award. And I think this is, it's remarkable because we're seeing an interesting shift in the past few years.
ATHITAKISYou know, American novelists in the past five or six years have allegorized the heck out of these Middle Eastern wars. We've seen stories that are about Latin American juntas. We've seen novels that, you know, kind of talk about dystopias in the United States but not a whole lot that addresses the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan head on. And I think what we're seeing in these two novels is the beginning of a more open conversation about what actually happened there and what is happening there now.
NNAMDIIt's our "Winter Reading" selections or suggestions and we'd be interested in hearing yours also. What book are you reading now or looking forward to picking up this winter. How do you make your winter reading selections? Call us at 800-433-8850. Here is Roger, in Chevy Chase, Md. Roger, you're on the air, go ahead please.
ROGERI just picked up, last week, a novel by a new writer Rick Gavin, G-A-V-I-N. And he wrote a book called "Ranchero," which I pulled it off the new fiction section at the Chevy Chase Library. It's set in the Mississippi Delta, it's just a lackey ramble filled with very vivid characters and literally laughs on every page. I think it's the funniest book I've read in the last ten years.
NNAMDIIs it contemporary?
NNAMDIOkay. That's Rick Gavin "Ranchero."
ROGERAnd -- yeah, Rich Gavin, and he has a new book which is -- I think it's out, but I haven't got it yet, called "Beluga" which continues this saga with many of the same characters.
ROGERAnd I haven't laughed so hard since "Confederacy of Dunces."
NNAMDIIt sounds like Mississippi's version of Carl Hiaasen. But Roger, thank...
ROGERKind of on that order, yes.
NNAMDIYeah, I thought as much. Thank you very much for your call. Barbara, it was a pretty busy fall for new releases and there are some new titles by big authors on your list. Tell us about the latest from Zadie Smith, Michael Chabon and Richard Russo.
HOFFERTI'm new -- I always take bets with myself about what novels you're going to ask me about first. And I thought you'd ask me first about Zadie Smith so I won my bet.
NNAMDIThere you go.
HOFFERTAnd I think this is truly an ambitious book that I'm really excited about. It's set in sort of shabby Northwest London and that's interesting enough about class and race issues. And she articulates them wonderfully. There's a beginning scene where -- or a scene actually in the middle of the novel where a character says there's a tense fight sort of on the playground with another characters who says, you can't talk to me. I'm from Hackney, another borrow. And sort of this geography as destiny that much as you try to fight out of where you are you're still very much a part of it.
HOFFERTAnd two of the main characters, one named Keisha who was born -- or one named Natalie who was born Keisha who had Afro Caribbean roots trying to pull them up and move on to being a lawyer, she seems to have done that successfully. Her friend Laia (sp?) who says she's the only white girl on the council's sort of fund redistribution team can't and doesn't really want to leave Northwest London.
HOFFERTAnd they circle each other warily trying to sort out who they are, where they're from. And what I find so fascinating about it is they're on the edge. It's this very different definition of their race and class sense we might have 25 years ago. And at the same time what I liked about this book was that Zadie Smith writes it for the 21st century, in language for the 21st century. It's full of lists, it's full of short passages, memos to oneself. Almost feels as if it's shaped by our social media environment and yet not as simple as being a bunch of emails, which you see a lot in novels.
HOFFERTSo I think she's taking a lot of risks in terms of both her language and her subject, which I really admire.
NNAMDIAs if she's showing us how to write for the 21st century.
HOFFERTYeah, I think she is. And that's one thing I really admired about her book. And Michael Chabon's book is also capturing a moment in time. It's set in 2004, an enclave that's bordered by Berkley and Oakland. And the proprietors of Brokeland Records are being threatened. The owners are R.J. Stallings. He's a black man totally down on his dad, a blacksploitation star. And then, there's Ernest Juis Nate Jaffe (sp?). Their wives are the Berkley birth partners.
HOFFERTThey have -- so the idealism of the '60s and the '70s showing up right there. they're about to be challenged because a former football quarterback named Gibson Good, one of the richest black men in America wants to open a mega store nearby. And that is going to put them out of business. It's effectively shuttering Brokeland Records. So you have issues of racism corporatism, last stand idealism and how one can hang on to one's ideals and yet move ahead. And it's all written in Chabon's absolutely wonderful baroque language with all of his wit. And I think my favorite aspect of his writing is that he has just such a big heart.
NNAMDID.C. born and raised in Columbia, Md., Michael Chabon. Mark, you chose "Elsewhere" by Richard Russo. Why?
ATHITAKISYes. And I -- there's a few things that are remarkable about this novel. This is essentially a history of his relationship with his mother which, to say the least, was very complicated. He grew up in Gloversville, N.Y. which was a boomtown for many years because it was a glove manufacturing stronghold. And then as that town started to collapse and as Richard Russo started plotting his move to get out of town and pursue a career as a writer, you know, his mother had a complicated relationship, let's say. I think early on everybody said that she had "nerves."
ATHITAKISAnd, you know, this could've been a poisoned pen memoir because in many ways she was a drag on his career. He had to rethink where he lived and how he lived because he needed to accommodate her. but I think what's really remarkable about this portrait is that Richard Russo -- and we know that he has a great sense of humor as a novelist -- you know, he has a very optimistic outlook on his relationship with his mother.
ATHITAKISBut he's also very closely attuned to the economic environment that she lived in. The environment that she lived in as a woman and having to be a female employee working for male bosses. Relationships that she needed to have with the various men in her life. He's acutely sensitive to what her (sic) mother needed at the time that she was raising him as a single mother. And, you know, he's a beautiful stylist and, you know, I think this is a remarkably well done book.
NNAMDIYou like Zadie Smith's "NW" too.
ATHITAKISI do, I do. And I think this is one of those cases where we're dealing with a writer who is actively working to smash apart the novel as we know it. That's sort of a provocative thing I think a lot of avant-garde writers like to say that. But I think she's striving for a way to talk about issues like of race and class, like Barbara said, in a way that doesn't get into kind of the standard issue realism that, you know, we've been used to. I think that her use of lists and bullet points and shifting characters is extremely effective and very well thought through.
ATHITAKISI think maybe some readers might feel a little bit daunted thinking that it's an aggressively experimental novel. But there is nothing in this novel and the way that she describes her characters that is not purposeful and that is not effecting.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. When we come back, our discussion on winter reading suggestions continue. You can find all of the suggestions made by our panelists at our website, kojoshow.org. It's a way you can join the conversation also, though we welcome your calls at 800-433-8850. Do you have more novels or more nonfiction on your list? I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIBack to our winter reading recommendations with Barbara Hoffert, who joins us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City. Barbara's the editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Joining us in studio is Terry Hong who writes the "BookDragon" blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Her book report -- reviews have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and other publications.
NNAMDIAnd Mark Athitakis. He is a writer, editor, critic and blogger who serves on the National Book Critic Circle board of directors. He's written book reviews for the Washington Post, the New York Times and other publications. Have recommendations of your own, call us 800-433-8850. Do you tend to avoid or embrace Best Sellers, 800-433-8850. Barbara, unless you exclusively check your books out of the public library you can blow your buying budget pretty quickly. But you've noticed one promising trend on that front. What is it?
HOFFERTMore books coming out in trade paperback edition, which I really applaud because the 25, 30, $35 price point is too much for me. And it's easy enough for me because I get my books straight from the publishers. But for everybody else it can be a challenge. Of course, presses like, you know, Coffee House and Copper Canyon and Graywolf have been publishing trade paperbacks forever.
HOFFERTAnd -- but what's interesting to me is to see the bigger publishers, once the six, now maybe the four, maybe the three, beginning to publish more books in the trade paperback format which I might not have expected. A couple that I've been looking at this fall that really interests me, one is by Goce Smilevski, and I hope I'm saying his name right. He's Macedonian and I'm not that familiar with that language. But he had a wonderful book out from Penguin this fall called "Freud's Sister," which was a winner of the European Union prize for literature. And I might have expected to be a really -- something that would come out in hardcover.
HOFFERTBut it's an interesting fact-based novel. Freud was granted an ex-visa from Vienna in 1938 and asked for a list of who he might take with him. And he named his entire household including the maids and the dog. But he left off his four sisters. So the novel goes back and explores the life of one of these sisters, after introducing this idea, Adefina (sp?) and what happened to her, her relationship with her famous brother, how her -- what happened to her during the war.
HOFFERTAnd even as you see Freud saying, with my discovery of the subconscious I'm on the path to change the world. But the world is also changing around him. You ask yourself how much could he have done, what could he have known. A very thoughtful novel and again something that I might have expected to be in a hardcover format. So I think that it's a really good move because it will -- moving toward the trade paperback format will just get a lot more literary novels out there and give them more life.
NNAMDITerry Hong, in a global society with technology making us increasingly impatient, one of the things we still have to wait for is translation of works written in other languages into English. Why hasn't technology sped up the process and why is it important that we be patient?
HONGA good translator is incredibly hard to find. And there are a number of -- for example Mo Yan who just won the Nobel Prize, his translator's Howard Goldblatt. And Mo Yan has two new books coming post -- for us it's pos Nobel win. And Howard Goldblatt is his translator of choice. That's who he goes to. That's how we get Mo Yan filtered into our libraries or our e-readers or whatever. But we need Howard Goldblatt because he does a remarkable job.
HONGHaruki Murakami, who was also up for the Nobel and was my personal favorite for the prize, but his two main translators go back and forth. His last book "1Q84" was actually done in parts by both his main translators Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel. His earlier works were done by Alfred Birnbaum. They have a very, very distinct style. And even though the original is obviously one piece, the translator can shift it in a way or -- the lens is very different depending on who's doing.
NNAMDIIndeed you say that as Mo Yan's translator Howard Goldblatt is probably book for the rest of his life...
HONGThat's what I think, for the rest of his life.
NNAMDI...because translators are that important.
NNAMDIEspecially for some of us who can no longer read in Japanese but can tell the difference in translators. I wonder who that would be.
HONGI don't know.
NNAMDIOn to the telephones. Here is Zantha in Northern Virginia. Zantha, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZANTHAHi. I just wanted to do a quick shout out about the book that I'm reading. It's called the "Victory Lab." It's about the 2012 campaign. Specifically I think the focus is on President Obama's campaign, which I was fortunate enough to work for. It's a piece of nonfiction and it's all about the campaign that was going on, even behind the scenes of the field organizers. The data that we collect and the data that gets generated and how that really helps with our Get Out The Vote effort.
NNAMDIWe -- indeed we interviewed the author of that book, Sasha Issenberg on September 24. You can find that in our archives if you go there. But Zantha, thank you for reminding us about that book. And thank you for your call. Terry, in -- we talked about translators. Earlier this year we spoke with author Vaddey Ratner and we were surprised to learn -- her book fortunately was in English -- that there has not been a lot of fiction written about the rule of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. But you recommend a recent memoir. Tell us about "Lulu in the Sky."
HONGThe writer's Loung Ung. It's her -- the last in her trilogy of her life. She's still very young so I can't imagine it's really her last. I think she's working on a novel now. But Loung Ung is actually -- I have to mention this other project I'm working on "10 Times 10" which is about girls and education. If you educate a girl you can basically save and fix all the problems of the world. And Loung is our writer for the Cambodia segment of this project. Ten girls, ten countries, ten writers, ten actresses, etcetera. It will make a sneak peek in -- at Sundance next year And it'll be all over.
HONGBut Loung's third book called "Lulu in the Sky" continues her story. Her first was "First I Killed My Father" which talks about -- it was a Best Seller which talks about the horrific years that she survived the killing fields. And then she followed that up with "Lucky Child," which talked about her becoming an Asian American -- a Cambodian American which she parallels with her sister who is left behind to grow up in Cambodia.
HONGAnd then "Lulu in the Sky" is -- it's sort of her coming to peace with herself. And she goes off to school to a small college in Vermont and she meets very different people. She's had a very sheltered growing up. She's lived with her brother and sister-in-law. And she meets a boy. Oh my goodness. She meets this boy and she spends -- she and he spend ten years trying to figure out the relationship as she is trying to figure out who she is. And it's a remarkable story. She goes back to Cambodia and she has to make peace with all the different various parts of her life, the people in her life and the people that she's lost and left behind.
NNAMDI"Lulu in the Sky: A Daughter of Cambodia Finds Love, Healing and Double Happiness" is what it's called. I mentioned earlier that we talked with Vaddey Ratner earlier this year. We found out about Vaddey from one Barbara Hoffert who has included Vaddey's novel...
HOFFERTI was just going to mention that, yes.
NNAMDI...yeah, "In the Shadow of the Banyan."
HOFFERTA perfect novel to read with that particular work, so I'm glad that you brought it up, Terry.
NNAMDI"In the Shadow of the Banyan. Mark, you have a number of memoirs and essay collections on your list, some by authors perhaps best known for their fiction. Which are the standouts for you?
ATHITAKISWell, I am a great admirer of Paul Auster's "Winter Journal." And I know that Paul Auster can often rub some readers the wrong way because he is very into coincidence and he's very into kind of like random pod events and that it can be grading for people kind of like something more realistic.
ATHITAKISBut this is a remarkably tenderhearted novel for somebody -- memoir rather for Auster because he's dealing with his body. And his body -- he's coming on his 63rd birthday and he's concerned about what is happening to myself. He's been in car accidents and, you know, just various illnesses. And this is kind of an extended reckoning of, you know, what happens to yourself as you just walk through your life and, you know, you get sick and you have children and you deal with the deaths of your friends and the deaths of your parents.
ATHITAKISAnd it's much more compassionate and openhearted I think. You know, it's a little bit rarer for Auster. And, you know, David Foster Wallace's "Both Flesh and Not," this is kind of a bit of an odds and sods collection for him because some of his more notable essays have already appeared in other places. But this still has some of his great work in it. His profile of Roger Federer from 2006 is a great piece of sports writing. It's a great piece of just almost a literary analysis of a tennis player. And it shows that in some ways some of his concerns still endure.
ATHITAKISHe wrote a piece in 1988 about what was happening to novelists in the wake of television and the rise of computers. And I think a lot of the issues that he brought up are still very, very relevant today.
NNAMDIWell, I liked reading Hitch when he was a live and one of the books you recommended is Christopher Hitchens' "Mortality."
ATHITAKISYeah, and it's a heartbreaking book in a lot of ways because I think when word came out that he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in 2010 he first started writing for Vanity Fair about it. And there was something very bare-chested and proud and not necessarily getting into this sort of, I'm going to beat this sort of rhetoric. But, you know, he had kept his sense of humor and he kept his attitude and he was still Hitch as we knew him.
ATHITAKISAnd this is a brief boo, about 100 pages, but you can sort of see him laid bare. And you can sort of see the decay and the frustration in his pros that as the disease is starting to get the better of him, not that he becomes, you know, angry or embittered or frustrated, but you can see just that it's wearing him down. So it's kind of an unintentional portrait of what happens, you know, once cancer starts taking over.
NNAMDI800-433-8850 is our number if you'd like to join the conversation. Have you got someone who is tough to shop for on your list this Holiday Season? Books make a great gift. Tell us what that person likes and we'll see what our guests can come up with. Here is Nicki in Cabin John, Md. Nicki, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
NICKIYes. Hi, Kojo. Thanks for taking my call.
NICKII just wanted to say that I've been in a book club, a group of ladies since 1998 and we have read some fabulous books. And it's really pushed all of us to read things that we wouldn't normally pick up on our own, I think. And we just finished "The Worst Hard Time" by Tim Egan, and it was coincidental that it came -- that we read it just when the Ken Burns PBS special about the Dust Bowl came out.
NICKIAnd I felt that the book was really incredibly interesting, and I -- there was so many things I didn't know about that time and the Dust Bowl and the Depression, and how it all came together, and, um, I -- we all just really enjoyed finding out about it, and we pretty much like his style. We've read something else by him which I can't think right now what it was, but I think our only complaint about the book was we felt he was sort of hitting you over the head with this -- his descriptions over and over the dust storms and such.
NICKIAnd then we decided maybe he did that on purpose so we could feel it the way they did back then.
NNAMDIWell, it is called "The Worst Hard Time."
NNAMDIAnd by Tim Egan, right?
NICKITim Egan, yes.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your recommendations. The recommendations of our panelists can be found at the website kojoshow.org after this broadcast. We're going to take a short break right now, but we're still welcoming your calls to our Winter Reading conversation if you have books that you would like to recommend 800-433-8850. Send us a tweet @kojoshow, or email to email@example.com. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIRecommendations and suggestions for winter reading from Mark Athitakis. He is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics' Circle Board of Directors. Mark has written book reviews for the Washington Post, the New York Times, other publications. Terry Hong write the "Book Dragon" blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Her book reviews have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and other publications.
NNAMDIAnd Barbara Hoffert is the editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. They all join us to discuss suggestions for winter reading. We take yours at 800-433-8850. Mark and Barbara, you both really like a historical fiction novel coming out in January. Tell us about "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie." First you, Mark.
ATHITAKISSure. This is a debut novel by Ayana Mathis, and it's really more a collection of linked stories. And it starts in the 1920s with Hattie who has just come to Philadelphia from the -- from Georgia, and it's a harrowing first chapter describing how her two daughters are -- two children die of pneumonia. And this -- it becomes this wide-screen story about the African-American experience through the great migration into the 1980s.
ATHITAKISEach chapter deals with one of Hattie's sons or daughters or in one case granddaughter. And this is a remarkable series of really beautifully written individualized portraits. It really did put me in the mind of Edward P. Jones' short stories in a lot of ways, in that it's talking not just about the African-American experience, but also intensely personal experiences in working through racism, religion, romantic relationships, and it's just absolutely beautifully written as well.
NNAMDIHear that Edward P? I know you're listening. When are we going to get something else from you? But here is Barbara Hoffert on "The Twelve Tribes of Hattie."
HOFFERTI'll just second what Mark has said, and add in particular that what's beautiful is how Hattie both moves ahead and yet holds onto her southern roots, and in fact goes back and after those two children die, she is able to depend on some of her legacy to keep the rest of her children alive, and that's really wonderful.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. Here now, Diane in Washington, D.C. Diane, your turn.
DIANEHello. Good afternoon, Kojo and all. Diane M. Folk, Washington, D.C. I highly recommend the book "As a Peace-Loving, Global Citizen," the autobiography of Reverend Sun Myung Moon who has been highly maligned in the press for many years, and he has many excellent projects that are described in this book, and this is his story in his words about his amazing and remarkable life.
NNAMDIThe autobiography of Sun Myung Moon, well known in Washington as the former owner of the Washington Times newspaper. Terry, looking at your list, I see a lot of books about war, but you also offer an antidote. Tell us about the graphic novel on your list.
HONG"5 Centimeters Per Second" is one of those gorgeous, gorgeous books that you just have to stare at every single page. The panes are just beautifully done. It's a sweet, sweet love story of these two little kids who meet each other in elementary school, and they're holding hands, they talk about the cherry blossoms falling and that's where you get the title "5 Centimeters per Second," and they're separated.
HONGPoor lovers, and -- because one of the children's fathers gets a job elsewhere, and then it follows the two stories, and their separate lives all the way into their 20s and it's the eve of her wedding to someone else, and they've kind of tried to keep in touch. At one point the boy goes hundreds of miles to visit her for like six hours. They hold hands and then that's it. And I can't tell you the ending because you have to read this beautiful, beautiful book.
NNAMDIGraphic novel though it is, so is the beauty a part in the...
HONGAbsolutely. The shimmering cherry blossoms dropping from the sky.
NNAMDIOh, I can see it now before me as clear as day. Jason tweets, "I think you'd dig "District Comics: An Unconventional History of Washington DC," one of the Washington Post's top 20 of 2012." And Jilly tweeted, "I love 'The Art of Hearing Heartbeats,' by Jan Phillip-Sendker, and 'The Light Between Oceans,' by M.L. Stedman." Don't know if you care to comment on any of those or anything else on your mind, Barbara Hoffert.
HOFFERTThe Stedman is a beautiful book about a couple off the coast of Australia, and that's just right after World War I, living in a lighthouse and desperately wanting a child, and one arrives by -- in a boat. And what are the moral responsibilities that they face taking care of this child, adopting it, but finding its parent -- its parents or not. What do they do and how much do they satisfy their own desires, and particularly the woman. It's, you know, on the bleakness of her life living so far away.
HOFFERTSo I -- that is a lovely book. Another book that I really love, and I wish I had thought to mention this when we were talking about the Middle East is "The Forgiven" by Lawrence Osborne, set in -- actually in Morocco. It's just, to my mind, a very unsentimental rendering of contemporary east-west conflict and also the imperfect human psyche and there's tremendous moral ambiguity, very -- there's an Englishman named David who is sort of bilious, alcoholic, chip on his shoulder.
HOFFERTHe's driving with his wife through the sort of Moroccan night to this very lavish, fabulous weekend party at a desert villa, and two young men step out on the road and they -- he hits one of them and kills him. Takes his body to the villa and he seems more annoyed than remorseful, and yet at the same -- and the host is annoyed with him, and yet reveals the prejudices of his own, and at the same time we have an unfolding of the back story of the young man who was killed who, is not -- who has had a remorseless and ugly life of his own.
HOFFERTSo it's sounds like a grim book because each of these characters has -- is less than perfect, but it's one of those books that shows you that it's not black and white, that it's not a matter of hero and villain, but enters into a deep moral complexity that I found really vilifying to read. And, in fact, in some ways, sort of loosening in a way. It made me think a lot.
NNAMDIHere is Terry.
HONG"The Art of Hearing Heartbeats" is also very similar to "5 Centimeters per Second." It's about a pair of lost lovers who meet as children and have this very innocent, wonderful love affair, and then he goes off to study in the states, and has a whole other life, but their heartbeats are always interconnected somehow. And he disappears from his New York powerful family, and the daughter has to go searching for him.
NNAMDI"The Art of Hearing Heartbeats," by Jan Phillip-Sendker. Here now is Jennifer in Rockville, Md., who I think has a challenge for us all. Jennifer, go right ahead, please.
JENNIFERHi Kojo. Thanks for taking my call. I have a stepmother who is a terrific person, and really hard to buy for around the holidays. I was hoping that your panel might help me with a gift for her.
NNAMDIWell, tell us what your -- about things that you know that your stepmother likes or does not like.
JENNIFERLet's see. Let's see. She likes Margaret Atwood. She likes the Beatles, and she spent a long time recently working for her Synagogue creating a mentoring program for -- where she was pairing Synagogue members with at-risk students in a school. So those are -- she's very sort of progressive, socially-conscious savvy connecting her community and loves the music of the '60s, so maybe that'll...
NNAMDIMargaret Atwood, the Beatles, at-risk students. Think Zadie Smith would work for her? I don't know.
ATHITAKISZadie Smith might work, but there's also one other idea that might try to square the circle here. One novel that I admired this year was called "The Innocence," by a first-time author named Francesa Segal. And what it is, it's actually a re-write of Edith Wharton's "The Age of Innocence." And it's set in the present day, and it's set in a Jewish enclave in London, and it does a remarkable job of taking some of the issues in the original Wharton novel, and kind of repressing them for the present day.
ATHITAKISSo I had that in mind when you were talking about the work that your stepmother does in the Synagogue. You might be interested in that particular take on it.
NNAMDIAny suggestions, Terry?
HONGOne of my go-to books and writers is Tan Twan Eng, whose first book, "The Gift of Rain," I think is one of my favorites in the last 10 years. His latest book which came out in September is "Garden of Evening Mists." His "Gift of Rain" was long listed for the Booker. The second book was short listed for the Booker, so who knows what the third might do.
HONGBut it's -- his books have a really incredible balance between some of the most awful things people can do to each other and the most empowering things that people can do to each other. And I don't want to spoil it, because when I read them I knew almost nothing about the books, and you just -- within the first five pages, you're drawn into a world that you can't leave and you don't want to ever shut the book.
NNAMDIAny suggestions, Barbara, for Jennifer's stepmom?
HOFFERTI'm thinking of a book by Geraldine Brooks. I think it's called "The Book of Life," about over many centuries at different times of the remaking of a particular religious text and how it was painted, that I found particularly vivid and engrossing book. It's a Jewish religious text, and I think she would like that.
NNAMDIJennifer, how does your stepmother feel about poetry?
JENNIFERI don't know.
NNAMDIWell, just stay on the line, because I'd like Barbara to recommend some of the poetry collections and a book written in verse that she's recommending. Barbara?
HOFFERTYeah. I wish I had written it, yes. The novel in verse is Ros Barber's "The Marlowe Papers." History reports that Christopher Marlowe was killed in a tavern brawl, but in fact is imagined in this particular novel that he staged his death and ran across the channel continuing to avoid a conviction of heresy, and continued writing plays and poems behind the mask of one William Shakespeare.
HOFFERTSo it gets into the Shakespeare controversy that ever rages. I don't typically like novels in verse because I find often that (unintelligible) just to move the plot forward, but this has changing timeframes, perspectives, poetic formats that I think really make it engaging. And another very, very big book that is out now, and I think is a wonderful piece of writing or collection rather of writing about poetry, is called "History in Verse" -- "London: A History in Verse."
HOFFERTThe editor is Mark Ford. It's from Harvard University Press, and it goes from 1300s John Gower to Simon Armitage, Glen Maxwell, Nick Laird, with Shakespeare and Donne and all the great writers along the way. So it's not just a wonderful collection of the very, very best writing of the last 700 years of English and British literature, but it's also a wonderful evocation of an amazing city and you can read it either way.
HOFFERTYou could read it as evoking London, or you can read it as all the best poems you've ever wanted to read from these particular authors. So that is a -- I think is a great gift book actually.
NNAMDIIs the Geraldine book you were recommending called "People of the Book"?
HOFFERTYes. That's it. Thank you.
NNAMDIAbout the restoration of -- and the history of...
HOFFERTSorry. I have no memory left.
NNAMDI...of Sarajevo Haggadah, which is a Jewish prayer book.
HOFFERTThat's it. Thank you. Thank you so much.
NNAMDIJennifer, thank you very much for your call. Again the Geraldine Brooks book is called "People of the Book." We move onto Kenneth in Alexandria, Va. Kenneth, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
KENNETHYes. I'm sorry. Kojo, I wanted to actually call and recommend a particular book that's called the "Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern. And hearing someone talk about, I think it was "5 Centimeters per Second," it is about a young boy and girl whose -- I guess their guardians or mentors pit them against each other in a competition to see which is the better philosophy, magic or illusion.
KENNETHAnd it follows them around -- the night circus is the setting for actually the story, and it travels around the world. It's set in the 1900s, late 1900s. Great story. It's actually -- I'm sorry, turn of the century. Great story. I think what it boils down to, it is a love story, but the setting of their -- of the entire story pretty much, the night circus itself is very vivid because everything is in black and white and the particular patrons of the circus, certain ones, distinguish themselves by wearing these bright red scarves.
KENNETHI work in a book store, and it a book that I continuously recommend to adults, and even young readers as sort of a transition.
KENNETHSomething quite a bit better than "Harry Potter."
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Kenneth. I used to work in a book store, and maybe see doing that again in my future. Kenneth, thank you very much for your call, and I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Barbara Hoffert, thank you for joining us.
HOFFERTThank you for having me again.
NNAMDIBarbara is the editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Terry Hong, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDITerry Hong writes the "Book Dragon" blog for the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center. Her book reviews have appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, the Washington Post and other publications. Mark Athitakis, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDIMark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who serves on the National Book Critics Circle Board of Directors. You should know that we'll be devoting a segment to children and young adult books in the coming weeks. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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