It's health plan open enrollment season for many employees, including federal workers.The editors of the Consumer Checkbook's annual Guide to Health Plans for Federal Employees join us to discuss what you need to know to make smart choices for 2016.
The weather outside has turned frightful, which means it’s time to hunker down with a good book. Whether you seek a novel to get lost in, nonfiction to learn from or short stories and poetry that will get you thinking, we’ve got suggestions to get you through the cold, dark days ahead. We round up favorites from 2013 and find out what you’re reading now.
- E. Ethelbert Miller literary activist; board chair, Institute for Policy Studies; director, African American Resource Center at Howard University; author and poet
- Barbara Hoffert Editor, Prepub Alert, Library Journal
- Mary Kay Zuravleff author, "Man Alive!: A Novel"; board member, PEN/Faulkner Foundation; co-founder, D.C. Women Writers Group
Winter Reading Recommendations
Whether you’re looking for a gift or a new read to get you through the winter season, our literary critics pick the best novels, short stories and nonfiction of the year.
E. Ethelbert Miller’s Picks
Barbara Hoffert’s Picks
Mary Kay Zuravleff’s Picks
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. The weather outside is, in fact, frightful with wind chills dipping below freezing and wintery mix is falling from time to time, making it the perfect time to sit up by the fire with a cup of tea close by one hand and a book in the other. Whether you're looking for a novel to get lost in, nonfiction you can learn from or poetry that will make you think to read yourself or to give as a Holiday gift, we've got suggestions sure to fit the bill.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere with booklists to see us through to spring is Ethelbert Miller or I should say E. Ethelbert Miller. He's a literary activist, board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. His 2000 work "Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer" was recently rereleased by the Black Classic Press. E. Ethelbert Miller, good to see you again.
MR. E. ETHELBERT MILLERAlways good to see you, Kojo.
NNAMDIAlso in studio with us is Mary Kay Zuravleff. She is the author of several books, the latest of which is "Man Alive! a Novel." She also serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is co-founder of the D.C. Women Writers Group. Mary Kay, good to see you again.
MS. MARY KAY ZURAVLEFFThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd joining us from the studios of the Radio Foundation in New York City is Barbara Hoffert. She is editor of the PrePub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. Barbara, how are you?
MS. BARBARA HOFFERTFine. Warm now that I'm in the studio.
NNAMDIGood. What's the temperature like in New York today?
HOFFERTTwenty-five but it's sunny. There's no wintery mix out there for us.
NNAMDIIt's comparable to what we're having here right now so we're glad we're in studio too. If you'd like to join the conversation, you can call us at 1-800-433-8850. What are you reading right now that you can't put down or wanting to read that you're eager to pick up, 800-433-8850? Before we get to each of your picks, Barbara, I'll start with you. A study out in October found people perform better on a test measuring social perception, empathy and emotional intelligence after reading literary fiction, scoring better even than those who read other genres like popular and nonfiction instead. Were you surprised?
HOFFERTNot really. I think one of the great things about literary fiction is that it is putting you in the mind of another person and really making you understand how that person feels. I think that's just a very important part of reading generally, but particularly that particular genre literary fiction, wanting to engage you in the world. I also think that the very act of sitting down and reading allows us some reflection in a time when we're very, very busy, all of us. And so that moment of calmness lets us turn over things in our mind in a way we often can't.
HOFFERTAnd then we come out and we talk to people about the books and we go into book clubs and we go on radio shows and we talk about books. And that connection just, I think, reinforces the whole social aspect of reading, which seems like a solitary act but in fact can really engage us to the world.
NNAMDIMary Kay, your thoughts on the same study.
ZURAVLEFFI love this study. I absolutely love it. And I love that they specifically said literary fiction. And I thought about that a lot because what Barbara is saying is great. I mean, I think that one of the distinctions of literary fiction is that it's more unpredictable, it can be more insightful. And you see these courses for doctors having narrative medicine or for incorporations, people who are eager to see other point of views. And I think it's fantastic that they have some quantitative proof for us.
NNAMDIEthelbert, your thoughts.
MILLERYeah, I think I would just change the genre for a second and emphasize poetry because I feel, especially now with things speeding up, poetry's very, very important. You can't read it like you read a newspaper. It forces you to take time, breathe, read, read it aloud, reflect. And it's a genre that I feel now is probably more necessary than ever before.
NNAMDIYou've written in a variety of genres. When I first met you I knew you exclusively as working in the poetry genre. But you have expanded since then. But let's talk poetry because it's a genre that, as you pointed out, practically forces us to slow down and ponder when we read it. What titles are you excited about this year on that front?
MILLERWell, in terms of poetry, you know, I'll go back and look at what happened a few weeks ago. We lost a major American poet, Wanda Coleman, a good friend of mine. She died November 22. Her first book was "Mad Dog Black Lady," which I would encourage people to read. I was introduced to her work by my friend Amazu Bolton. He was publishing her work when he was out in California.
MILLERWhen we talk about a major American writer, sometimes what happens, geography separates them from certain parts of the country. So people like Charles Bukowski and Wanda Coleman would be more known in L.A. then say in New York. But I think that if one goes back and looks at Wanda's work, she has a different sound. I wrote a piece for The Nation and I described her voice as being much more grassroots than Carolyn Rodgers, Audre Lorde, Nikki Giovanni or Sonia Sanchez.
MILLERI wrote that Wanda didn't just live in Los Angeles, she was L.A. Where some writers are associated with creative writing programs or style, Wanda needed a city, a place to define her, a place she defined.
NNAMDIYou said without her voice we would be naked.
MILLERWe would be naked, Kojo, and you would be on radio and people would be happy that you're on radio and not television.
NNAMDIWanda Coleman. Barbara Hoffert, any poetry that you're looking at in particular?
HOFFERTYeah, absolutely. I agree, poetry is a give. It's a great gift to oneself and to any friends. And there are two books that I was really interested in this past fall. One of them, Lucie Brock-Broido's "Stay, Illusion" which is just elegant, self-contained, baroquely sensuous, beautifully glazed over with language. And it's a tough world to enter because you start with some really seemingly disassociated lines, which I'm going to quote the very first lines, which I had to read over and over again before I finally said, yes, I've got it. And I really wanted to enter the book.
HOFFERT"Silk spool of the reclose spider as she confects her eventual mythomania. If it's written down, you can't rescind it." I read those lines over and over again and suddenly I caught the spider's thread and got into this world. It's a gorgeous world, but edged with sadness, hunger, death, the fortune of a saint condemned to turn great sorrows into greater egrets icebound and irrevocable. And she does turn sorrow magically into beautiful poetry. There's no easy escaping in these poems. There's no easy way out, but it's just intensibly beautiful reading.
HOFFERTAnd the second book that I wanted to recommend was Dexter L. Booth's "Scratching the Ghost" which is a debut. It's a Cave Canem debut collection. Cave Canem is an organization founded in the 1990s to promote African American poetry and also a place for African American poets to really share and to feel they belong together. And I find that watching the Cave Canem poets is a really important things to do if you care about poetry.
HOFFERTThis particular book is -- it just looms large with the weight of the world. And there's this relentless sense of loss of family and friends. Your eyelids folding over the world, how terrible it must be. One poem starts heavy with the damp touch of night. Please take me away. But you -- the poet is somewhat abstracted in terms of some of the sorrows it's talking about. And yet it's so resonant, it's so absolutely engaging in its (word?) and its urgency. And there is real lyric beauty.
HOFFERTSo I'd really encourage people who are interested, not just in African American culture and poetry but in poetry in general, to pick up this book.
NNAMDI"Scratching the Ghost" by Dexter L. Booth. Barbara Hoffert is editor of the PrePub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry. She joins us from studios in New York. Joining us in our Washington studio for our Winter Reading broadcast is Mary Kay Zuravleff. She is the author of several books, the latest of which is called "Man Alive!" It's a novel. She also serves on the board of PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is co-founder of the D.C. Women Writers Group. You can call us at 800-433-8850. Do you think reading makes you more compassionate and in a way more social? Tell us how.
NNAMDIAlso joining us is E. Ethelbert Miller. He's a literary activist, board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies and Director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. His 2000 work "Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer" was recently released by the Black Classic Press. The number again, 800-433-8850. Mary Kay, allow me to tell you a story. A bright local author published a novel a few months back that the Washington Post has dubbed a family novel for smart people. Tell us about "Man Alive!" It's by, well, you.
ZURAVLEFFI love what the Washington Post said about it though when I went back to Oklahoma a lot of people there were saying, am I smart enough for this book, which is where I'm from so I can say that. And of course I said to them, it's a book for everyone. This is a book about a pediatric shrink who's struck by lightning. And now he and his healing has all the symptoms he's been treating. So now he has post traumatic stress and he has ADD and he's impulsive.
ZURAVLEFFAnd he also has this sort of ecstatic element for his injury that his family does not share. So they just want him to get back to normal. And he is dwelling there. He sort of turned his face from his family, which is kind of the worst thing that could possibly happen in a family. And they're all healing. So the book scatters them all and they all have to figure out how are they going to be able to come back together, or are they?
NNAMDIBarbara Hoffert, your comments on this book.
HOFFERTIt is -- actually, it was one -- a book that I featured early on in PrePub Alert and I...
ZURAVLEFFWell, thank you, Barbara.
HOFFERT...because I loved your first book and so I was very excited to be able to feature this one. And I think that it reminds us how we all can get to that ecstatic edge and how people really sometimes don't like it. But there's a sense -- an underlying sense of finding oneself and of almost -- this could be construed as a humorous situation. But it's really not, you know. So there's a wonderful edge to it and I really appreciate you're having written it.
NNAMDIBarbara, South Africa has been in the spotlight with the passing of Nelson Mandela and you recommend the title that explores a lesser known segment of that country's population. Who is "The Lion Seeker?"
HOFFERTYeah, "The Lion Seeker." A wonderful book from an author who is of Lithuanian Jewish descent and his whole family settled in South Africa. And he was inspired to write this book because he saw a picture of his uncle with Nadine Gordimer. And that made him start to reflect on his life and his past.
HOFFERTAnd the -- it starts out with a -- the mother of -- it's partly a history and a broader book covering this -- you know, this happened just before World War II. The family has fled to South Africa. It's very poor. The mother is a really, really tough woman, not a lovey-dovey type but one that says to her son all the time, are you a stupid or are you a clever? And he is supposed to be a clever and he grows up being, you know, like a bad boy and finally ending up on the sort of -- maybe on the wrong side of the law. But her whole aim is very much wanting him to help the family to bring a family out of Europe to South Africa.
HOFFERTSo this -- so you get -- at the same time you're getting this amazing mother-son relationship you are also reading about the history of the world at that time, the suffering that's about to come. And you see the hardening of apartheid in South Africa. You see how a family that's poor and grubby but white really scorns the black and mixed race people and kind of the whole cultural construct and class construct of South Africa that has -- that Mandela actually broke for us. So it's an important book to read right now I think. It gives us a background to what we're reflecting on. And at the same time an understanding of just of that human relationships and how they work.
NNAMDIEthelbert, you recommend two memoirs that sound like they couldn't be more different. One is about knitting, among other things while the other's about investigating organized crime. Tell us about each of them and what made them stand out to you.
MILLERWell, I'll begin with the organized crime. We all should begin with organized crime. "Confessions of a Guerrilla Writer" by Dan Moldea. People know Dan Moldea as one of my best friends. Years ago, he was heading up the Washington Independent Writers here, one of the best investigative reporters in the country. The author of "The Hoffa Wars," "Dark Victory, Ronald Reagan, MCA and the Mob," "Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football."
MILLERHis memoirs, one that I was always saying, Dan, you know, every time I listen to you, your life is fascinating. How did you survive, you know? So, you know, he finally sat down and wrote this memoir of how he came of age. And it's interesting to see how Kent State, you know, shaped him back in 1970.
MILLERRight. It's very interesting how Dan Moldea started writing for a black newspaper out in Ohio.
NNAMDIDidn't know that.
MILLERYou didn't know that either. But what's interesting about this book is that he goes in and explains exactly how he became interested in studying the Teamsters Union, how he wrote each of his books. So it's very, very good. And very timely because we see how the news industry is changing. You know, you wonder whether a newspaper would give enough space now for somebody doing the investigative reporting.
NNAMDIThat kind of work that Dan Moldea has done his whole professional life.
MILLERExactly. That's right. And I think also for all of us, how do you now deal with this issue in terms of issue of privacy, okay, in terms of how information flows. So I think it's a very, very good read. It's very good in terms of what it tells you about becoming a writer. Also I think this is a book that Dan Moldea had to put out himself, which shows you how the industry is changing. You know, many times individuals have difficulty getting that next book, especially if he's investigative reporting.
MILLERSo it's a good read and one that I would recommend. "Yarn: Remembering the Way Home" by Kyoko Mori is interesting. I did not know that Kyoko Mori was here in the Washington, D.C. area until I ran into her at a program I was doing at the Folgers Library. And she said, do you remember me? I said, I don't remember you, but you're a very nice person.
MILLERAnd she reminded me that we had met in Minneapolis and we had this love for cats. And that's how we started talking. And then I went back home and I said, well let me find out more about Kyoko Mori. And I came across her fascinating memoir called "Yarn." And in here she uses knitting as a metaphor for understanding one's life. She was born in Japan. She experienced her mother's suicide. And because of the culture her father sort of denied that her mother committed suicide.
MILLERSo it's a very interesting thing in terms of those type of family dynamics that one has to grow up and live with.
NNAMDIIs she still here?
MILLERShe's still here. She teaches at George Mason and her book takes her from Japan to the U.S. And imagine her as being Japanese and all of a sudden you come to the United States and you are in Green Bay, Wisconsin. And maybe you're not a Packer fan initially. But it's a fascinating book and it's also about becoming a writer. But I like how she uses knitting as a metaphor.
NNAMDI"Yarn: Remembering the Way Home" by Kyoko Mori. The other book that Ethelbert recommends is "Confessions of a Guerrilla Writer" by Dan Moldea. We've got to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. We will get to your calls. If you'd like to call, the number is 800-433-8850. Is there a particular book you return to around this time every year? Tell us about it. Shoot us an email to email@example.com or a Tweet @kojoshow. You can go to our website kojoshow.org, as a question or make a comment there. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on Winter Reading with E. Ethelbert Miller. He's a literary activist, board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. His 2000 work "Fathering Words: The Making of an African American Writer" was recently rereleased by the Black Classic Press. Barbara Hoffert is editor of the PrePub Alert for the Library Journal which keeps librarians up to date on what's new in the publishing industry.
NNAMDIAnd Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of several books, the latest of which is called "Man Alive! a Novel." She also serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is co-founder of the D.C. Women Writers Group. We take your calls at 800-433-8850. Let's talk with Zana in Baltimore, Md. Zana, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZANAI was responding to your earlier comments about reading literature...
NNAMDIDo you think reading makes you more compassionate and in a way more social?
ZANAI think so. I think it makes you -- it's a lonely class, writing. You're alone and you want to be secluded. But you're also an observer. And you bring other people joy. You bring other people information. You travel when you're reading, you know. I read a lot of travel books. And I've been to places where I've never physically been. And you just have a richer life. And I think you have more compassion because you tend to perhaps observe and then internalize other people's pain or joy or whatever. That I think reading is the best thing that can happen to a person.
NNAMDIYou'll find, as they call it in legal terms, unanimous consent here in this conversation, Zana.
NNAMDISo thank you very much for your call and your observations. Mary Kay, getting back to memoirs, a local author with a memoir on your list is Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor. What made her autobiography stand out from the crowd for you?
ZURAVLEFFWell, I loved what she said. I'd heard her talk on -- maybe on your show and around town and then I just love that she said she wanted to tell the stories about her early life, especially the ones that didn't naturally promise success. So she had juvenile diabetes, she had to give herself her own shots at eight because her mother wasn't up to it, her father was too shaky, Poverty, being raised by a single parent. Her father was an alcoholic who died when she was young.
ZURAVLEFFAnd then she also said, I want to remind myself of what I went through so that as I become more and more in the public eye I want to remember what I came through. And her attitude and her tone is so lovely in the whole story. She's candid. She acknowledges that a life like hers runs over all sorts of other people. So she's not just saying, you know, I'm special and I did it. She's saying, these were real big challenges and here's how I faced them. And she's obviously a really hard worker and smart as can be. And people recognized it throughout her life.
NNAMDIOh, you haven't heard her on this show. I did meet her and she asked -- she said she doesn't do radio that much but she asked for my card. And I said, what Supreme Court Justice asks for a card? I don't have one obviously. Ethelbert, we know Justice Sotomayor is a jazz fan and anyone shopping for a jazz fan might want to pick up "Kansas City Lightning: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker" by Stanley Crouch. Well, first my trivia question. Where did I first see Stanley Crouch in Washington?
MILLERProbably at a poetry reading.
MILLERProbably Howard University.
NNAMDIUnh-unh. Denghani's (sp?) Den.
MILLEROh, Denghani's Den.
NNAMDIWhich was where?
MILLERThat was on 18th Street...
MILLER...run by Piper.
NNAMDIExactly right. Ethelbert was a frequenter of Denghani's then as I was anyway. How does Stanley Crouch manage to give this biography in almost musical quality.
MILLERWell, Stanley Crouch is fascinating. You know, Stanley Crouch was a drummer, poet, a person who really admired a writer that we lost this year, Albert Murray. Stanley Crouch is, shall we say, a sort of advisor to Whitmore Sellas? (sp?) You know, sort of mentor. Back in 1990 his book of essays "Notes of a Hanging Judge" was a very important book of essays.
NNAMDIBut he's an iconical (unintelligible) ...
MILLERRight, right, right. You know, he's always arguing (unintelligible) but this is the book -- and this is the first of a two-part biography on Charlie Parker -- this is a book that Stanley Crouch had been working on for 30 years, okay? This book he wants to write. And this book is so rich in terms of research, it begins in terms of Charlie Parker coming to New York with (unintelligible) orchestra. And it's about 1942. So you get that sense in terms of, you know, the jazz era.
MILLERBut then he goes back to Charlie Parker's beginning. What makes it such good writing -- and this book was just reviewed this past Sunday in the New York Times -- is that it's almost like jazz riffs, you know. I mean, you can almost hear the sound coming off the page in terms -- this is Stanley Crouch's masterpiece here, you know. And it's -- the words hit you as fast as Charlie Parker's notes at times. But I would really encourage somebody to read this and look out for the second part.
NNAMDIHe's such a great writer. Do you think that's something that he was consciously doing, trying to catch...
MILLEROh, definitely, definitely. And definitely telling us more than simply the history of jazz. Anyone interested in American History would want to read his book just about the history of Kansas, you know. I mean, what happens is that, you know, when we look at the making of America, Kansas is what we used to call bleeding Kansas, you know. This is a key state in terms of north, south, you know, expansion of the west. In the 1930s this is where all the gangsters were hanging out, you know.
MILLERAnd as Charlie Parker is in the midst of all this where the music is coming, Stanley Crouch talks about how these gangsters were all -- they couldn't find them because they were hanging around the black community, which tells you something about what Hoover was up against in terms of trying to track down organized crime. But it's fascinating because every page, Stanley Crouch is giving you this history. And then every now and then he's commenting on the state of things today. So he'll be talking about thugs in the 1930s comparing it to young thugs today, but that's Stanley Crouch.
NNAMDIThat's Stanley Crouch. He'll contextualize everything. Barbara, you've selected two novels with connections to Haiti for this winter reading session. We spoke with Edwidge Danticat about "Claire of the Light Sea (sic) ." What did you like about it?
HOFFERTIt's interesting. I proposed this as -- to read at Library Journal for our best books list and it was one of our best books. And one of my colleagues came up to me and said, this book defines lyrical. And I think it does indeed have a most beautiful writing style. But what's also impressive is she's talking about a young girl named Claire who disappears on her -- just before her seventh birthday. Her mother has died in child birth. Her father has made the wrenching decision to give her away to a woman who has sort of herself lost a daughter and who was wealthier and could take better care of her.
HOFFERTClaire runs away to ponder all this. And the search for her, in fact, involves the whole town and really isn't the story of Claire. It's really the story of the town and all the events that have happened, secrets that have come out. What I found most impressive about this novel was that there's so many novels that really signal the fact that they are about suffering and grimness and hard times. And really want you to appreciate the fact that they're about that. And this is a book that quietly tells the truth.
HOFFERTAnd that understated quality is one of its greatest strengths. I think it's just a tremendous book and I wish it had gotten even more attention than it got. It was a Washington notable book and a New York Time notable book I think. But I'm glad to have this other chance to pitch it, so thank you.
NNAMDITell us about "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul" which I understand is a rather large tome.
HOFFERTIt is 700 pages. I -- as you probably noticed from my having talked about "The Lion Seeker," which I think I didn't mention the author's name, Kenneth Bonert, so I'd like to say that now. But Bob Shacochis' "The Woman Who Lost Her Soul," another big book, I like fiction that deals with big issues, with history, with politics. And this book really does deal with many decades of really American politics and policy and how it came about all wrapped up in a really very readable novel.
HOFFERTIt starts out in Haiti and there's a lawyer named Tom Harrington who's investigating the death of Jackie Scott. She's sort of a feisty photojournalist who actually caused him some trouble in Haiti. And she has turned up dead and he's concerned over what happened. But then it goes back in time to Croatia, right at the end of World War II where a young -- a boy named Stephan Covasevich (sp?) watches his father being beheaded. And he knows this signals changes to come in the Balkans.
HOFFERTAnd he ends up being really opposed to all things communist, Muslim and finally anything that's not gloriously righteously Christian West. So it's not very surprising when later -- several hundred pages later perhaps, you see him in a symbol. His name is now Steve Chambers. He's a U.S. diplomat. He is training his daughter -- teenager daughter to learn to shift personas, really training her to become -- to follow in his footsteps and his profession and to serve her country. Eventually she is the woman who loses her soul, if not her life.
HOFFERTAnd throughout the whole thing we see how history and politics shapes us and is shaped by us. And also how history is shaped by the blindingly personal beliefs of some people I think it could've been titled why we are now in the Middle East or possibly getting out of it. But Shacochis is a really skilled journalist and a skilled writer. And it's his first novel in two decades and I really recommend it.
MILLERYeah, I'm really happy because -- well, actually Shacochis is a good friend. We taught at Bennington together. And I saw him a couple weeks before, you know, this book came out. And he said, oh Ethelbert, when I come to Washington on my book tour I want you to introduce me into the book clubs. I'm glad Barbara got through it because the book came, like, two days before your (unintelligible) .
MILLERSeven-hundred pages. I love him.
HOFFERTI can't see that and being able to -- this is not -- you know, I went through some books quickly because of my job, but this was not a rip through book. You know, it's for someone who wants to really settle in.
NNAMDIWhich makes my next question -- you were about to say, Mary Kay.
ZURAVLEFFI just said, it reminds me of a keychain I saw recently which was, I like big books and I cannot lie.
NNAMDIWhich makes my next question, I guess, particularly cogent at this point. One challenge for readers beyond choosing what to read is deciding whether to finish a book that isn't quite what they expected. Do you find it difficult to put aside a book you're not enjoying midway? First you, Mary Kay.
ZURAVLEFFWell, my problem is I have a perverse switched problem with that which is, if someone gives it to me for free, I really have a hard time not finishing it, as if there's some obligation in that gift.
ZURAVLEFFWhich doesn't make sense. If you've purchased it, it seems like you would really want to finish it. But those free books, I feel that I owe it to them to finish.
NNAMDIYeah, because the person who gave it to you will say, Mary Kay, how'd you enjoy the book?
ZURAVLEFFAnd, you know, you find a lot of people -- I don't know if this happens to you, Ethelbert -- a lot of people will say, oh I'm starting your book. I'm really enjoying it. And then the next time you see them, nothing.
NNAMDIThat's because they put it down. Do you put books down halfway?
MILLERWell, you know, I get bombarded a lot with manuscripts. And a lot of manuscripts are sent to me as attachments and stuff. And so it's hard sometimes for me to get through that. So that's a challenge I'm faced with, you know, today.
NNAMDIYou don't like much e-readers?
NNAMDIYou use them.
MILLERWell, I'm an e-man, you know.
NNAMDIE. Ethelbert Miller.
MILLERRight. So, you know, but what happens is that there is a part of me that's very old fashioned and I like the smell of books, the touch of books. And I do know, even many people now there's a mixture, you know, especially if you're a book collector. And I don't want that to be lost.
NNAMDIYeah, for me it's a mixture. I enjoy reading books. I like holding the book itself...
MILLERYeah, and I don't want to know that I'm 35 percent through, you know. I want to look at where the bookmark is.
NNAMDIThe ereader always tells you exactly how far through that you've gone. A couple of recommendations. Jean in Annapolis emails, "My highly anticipated new book from the Outlander Series by Diana Gabaldon has been delayed. Any recommendations for other time historical fiction books in the meantime," Barbara Hoffert?
HOFFERTYeah, I'm just thinking about that book has been delayed twice. It's now coming out in June. You know, it was interesting. I can't think of something offhand but I'll say last night I was at an event, the Center for Fiction had its first novel awards. And the book that won, which is called "Wrinkle" and I'm not remembering the author's name -- is that right? But the woman who won made the point that all fiction is actually time travel, that you can -- that you're automatically being moved through -- you're being asked -- when you read anything to move back and forth in time. So I would recommend any book if you're waiting for the Gabaldon.
NNAMDISpeaking of moving back and forth in time and awards, Barbara, we recently spoke with James McBride, hot on the heels of his National Book Award win for "The Good Lord Bird." Barbara, you read books well in advance of their publication but I wonder how you think awards -- and I'd be interested in what our other guests think about this -- how do you think awards affect what most readers will pick up?
HOFFERTYou know, it's interesting. Years ago I interviewed Harold Augenbraum who is head of the National Book Foundation, just as he moved over to be -- to run it. And he actually used to review for me so it was kind of a fun get-together. And he made the point, he said to me, awards are the new reviews. And I think in a world where there are so incredibly many books, that actually awards can be very helpful as a filter in sorting out.
HOFFERTAnd especially because they're also more -- a National Book award, it's a really big award that will point people to books that they might've already heard about. But there are many awards that will point you to books you didn't realize you wanted to read until you found out about them. So I think awards can actually be a helpful guide in a world where we just plain need guidance.
HOFFERTAnd I think it also depends on the subject area. Many people might've already read the McBride but in poetry, for instance, it can really make or break a book by winning an award. And I'm constantly getting emails when I've put a book on my best poetry list saying, thank you, you've made the difference for this book. So I do think it brings more readers in. And I do think it brings more excitement in.
NNAMDIMary Kay, your thoughts on awards.
ZURAVLEFFWell, my thought is -- I'm on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation. And we administer two awards. The Pen/Malamud which is for short fiction which just went to George Saunders. And that book "The Tenth of December" is such a rush. I mean, it's the most compassionate collection of short stories and also the most imaginative. It's like a taser in some ways. Imagination wise it just blows you up. And then each story, no matter how crazy it is, comes to some really beautiful resolution.
ZURAVLEFFAnd we also have three independent judges who judge the PEN/Faulkner Fiction Award. And this is just like what Barbara's talking about. There are so many years -- that has five finalists and one winner -- there are so many years where those are fiction writers. And they are reading 350 books that have been published in the last year. And they're bringing books to the fore that were not on the best of a lot of lists. And so they're bringing fiction to light that hasn't been awarded. And then sometimes they pick the book that everybody loves, so we don't know what's going to happen, and it's pretty exciting when that's announced.
NNAMDIEthelbert your thoughts on awards?
MILLERYeah. I think the key thing is when you're judging an award, I find that it's very helpful to get a sense of what's happening to the American literature, the range of it. I think of one of my dear literary friends, Charles Johnson, in Seattle, who sometimes complains about the fact that when he's judging an award, he doesn't want to give any awards out because he feels that the work isn't of quality. And that -- I mean, that's Charles being very critical, but I think when you are in this position, and when you're reading, you know, a large number of books, it's very helpful in terms of being a writer, you know.
MILLERIt's almost as if, you know, you have an opportunity to really do intense study. Many times those of who are writers would get caught up in our own careers and don't read our fellow writers. And so when you have an opportunity to judge a contest, I see it as service to the field and one that no matter how old you are you can continue to grow because there's so many voices out there, and just taking time to read it and being at a ceremony where someone is receiving an award and how happy they are and what it means in terms of career.
MILLERI'm a strong advocate that every award should have a monetary attachment, you know, so it's just not a plaque or some sort of, you know, a little Oscar hanging around there while your refrigerator's empty. That's my approach on awards.
NNAMDILet me switch back to people who might be reluctant to commit to a lengthy read. Mary Kay has already mentioned "The Tenth of December" by George Saunders. Ethlebert, you're suggesting an essay collection from an author you'd like to see have a wider audience. What would we find in "Love for Sale and Other Essays"?
MILLER"Love for Sale and Other Essays" by Clifford Thompson who I think just won an award.
NNAMDISpeaking of awards.
MILLERSpeaking of awards. And you know what happens, you know, this guy -- and I've never met him. We've corresponded, you know, by email and everything, by Face book, but when I picked up his collection, I got excited-- and I mentioned this about, like, a young Leroy Jones, you know. A person who is very knowledgeable about Jazz, literature, film, and it goes back and forth. And I loved this book. I reviewed this for American Review -- Book Review. What I was concerned about in this book though is something that we see in term of a changing times.
MILLERWhat Thompson did include near the back were excerpts from his blog, and what I'm concerned about is the fact that now -- the bloggers now are giving us shorter essays, you know. So for example where the jazz musicians used to take long riffs, you know, or Bob Dylan would, you know, sing a song "Like a Rolling Stone" for more than four minutes, you know, now what happens, we're writing these shorter essays, shorter reviews, sometime because of magazines and newspaper limitations, but now when we go to put together a collection of essays, they're short, you know, and I have a concern about that.
NNAMDIThey are too short. Got to take a short break, but before we go, we got a tweet from Darryl Fears who recommends "The Yoga Murder Store" by Dan Morse. Now, what to Darryl Fears and Dan Morris have in common? They're both writers for the Washington Post, however "The Yoga Store Murder" has to be such an intriguing story, especially for people who live in this area because it has to do with the murder committed at the Lululemon store here in this area. So a lot of people have been saying, yes, you need to pick up "The Yoga Store Murder" by Washington Post writer, Dan Morse.
NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. If you have called, stay on the line. The number is 800-433-8850. You can send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Do you prefer, or do you gravitate toward a certain genre in the winter months? Tell us which. 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're making recommendations on winter reading for you with Barbara Hoffert, editor of the Prepub Alert for the Library Journal. That keeps librarians up-to-date on what's new in the publishing industry. E. Ethelbert Miller, he is a literary activist, board chair of the Institute for Policy Studies, and director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. His 2000 work "Fathering Words: The Making of an African-American Writer" was recently released by the Black Classic Press.
NNAMDIAnd Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of several books, the latest of which is "Man Alive! A Novel." She also serves on the board of Pen Faulkner Foundation, and is a co-founder of the DC women writers group. Allow me to go to Dorothy who is -- no. We'll get to Dorothy's call in a little while. Gift giving. It's on many of our minds right now, and while all of your titles would make great gifts, there are a few standouts. Mary Kay, for a recipient growing their library, what do you recommend?
ZURAVLEFFWell, there's a couple of reissues. Penguin has these cloth-bound classics that are so beautiful. So they're leather bound with stamped covers. And here's how I know that we're on the right track because we gave our daughter one last year, she's 13, and in making her list she said, could I have another one of those? So then, what a great choice, you know, is it time for "Middle March," is it time for "Great Expectations." So that's -- I would say that those are -- there's about three different versions. Modern Library has its own and they're just beautiful.
NNAMDIHow about you, Barbara?
HOFFERTBooks I would recommend for gift giving.
NNAMDIYou really appreciated an Associated Press photographic history of Vietnam. What made it special for you?
HOFFERTYes. I was just about to say that. I think Vietnam is on my mind a lot right now, partly, I think, because of our own -- America's situation in the Middle East and coming out of it. I think that I've noticed a great deal more -- not just nonfiction, but fiction about -- or by Vietnamese coming across my desk right now, and I think that partly -- we're reflecting on how Vietnam has shaped us as a country, and this particular collection is a big, thick, beautiful, and very arresting and sobering and awesome, in the original sense of the word, collection of photographs taken by AP photojournalists starting in 1945, the Indo China War, and to the fall of Saigon in 1975.
HOFFERTAnd some of the images are absolutely iconic. You will recall the Buddhist Monk who was burning himself to death, the little girl who's fleeing naked from the attack on her village, the -- and there are also -- there are images of atrocities, there are images of villagers begging for help, there are images of American soldiers. It is a history, but it's also history in the making because of the importance of photojournalism in that particular war and how much it has come out.
HOFFERTAnd it's tied together really nicely, because there's a text that includes typescripts of many of the reports that had been filed at that time by AP journalists, and so you can see the cross outs and the corrections, and you get a sense of, again, of history in the making, and of a history that really made us as a country. So I really recommend that book.
ZURAVLEFFI just want to add onto that, and I'm going to have to keep my daughter away from the radio but there's a National Geographic slip cased collection of 125 years of photography that she cannot stay from, and it even says in the Politics and Prose handout, yes, we will help carry it to your car if you buy it.
ZURAVLEFFAnd it is stunning, with essays and articles for 125 years of their history. Some of the best photography you have ever seen.
NNAMDIBack to the telephones. This time to Chris is Alexandria, Va. Chris, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
CHRISYes. I recommend the book called "Tomorrow is Another Country," which is the inside story of South Africa's Road to Change, by Allister Sparks.
NNAMDIWhen you -- okay. Go ahead.
CHRISIn that book, it talks about the fact that the last four to eight years that we thought Mandela was Robben Island, he wasn't. He was moved all over the country secretly so he could get reacclimated to Africa -- South Africa.
NNAMDIOkay. The -- what's the name of the book?
CHRIS"Tomorrow is Another Country."
NNAMDIBy Allister Sparks.
CHRISSo that when he walked off Robben Island and everybody was cheering, he had not been on that island for at least four years.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very much for your call and for sharing that with us. Ethelbert, tell us a little bit about "Wash" by Margaret Wrinkle.
MILLERWell, yeah, Margaret Wrinkle was here at Busboys and Poets, and, you know, she appeared here at a time when there were a number of discussions about slavery because "12 Years a Slave" was out, and her book really explores the interesting side of slavery where when the main character is, you know, up in the breed slaves, another -- it's a woman character that is actually, you know, raped constantly. Near the end of this book, and I said this to her, you know, directly, there is a chapter which is perhaps one of the most sensual, intimate relationships I've read between a black man and a black woman.
MILLERYou know, it is a whole thing dealing with healing and touching and everything. She did a lot of research into healing and going to Africa and even going among Native Americans and she has a chapter that is just amazing. It's a standalone chapter, you know, and I told her, I said, I've not seen this level of intimacy where you see two people who have been scarred and carrying this emotional weight, you know, where the person -- the character who was the breeder has lost all sense of touch, and then the woman who's been raped, you know, has lost all sense of touch, and how they come together.
MILLERAnd it's remarkable, and I have to mention something that she said at Busboys at Poets where she said, you know, to the audience, you know, slavery is my story too, you know. And this is a white Southern writer, you know, claiming this and giving us something that's very, very important as we continue to heal as a nation.
NNAMDIIs it -- go ahead, Barbara.
HOFFERTYeah, Kojo. I just wanted to mention, I'm glad that you brought up that book because that actually was the book that won the Center for Fiction's First Novel Award last night, and it was (unintelligible) name and author name and title when I was trying to remember it, but as a book that travels back in time and brings us right up to today. So thank you very much for bringing that up.
NNAMDIMary Kay, a lot of us will be visiting with our families over the coming weeks, and one family novel that you especially enjoyed this year was "Tinderbox." Tell us about it and what grabbed you from the start.
ZURAVLEFFWell, it's a novel by Lisa Gornick who has become a friend of mine. We met when we were talking about what's your book about? Oh, my book is about a shrink. Mine too. My book is about -- so it turns out they're completely different novels, but in her novel the main character is a psychiatrist and her son calls and says, mom, can I move back in with you with my wife and kid, and she knows professionally she should say no. But of course, the personal trumps, and she makes that decision.
ZURAVLEFFAnd then a nanny that she hires has just -- just goes, as she says, deeply mad, and the repercussions on the entire family are dire except that they all sort of rise to their best self, and that's what I love about this book. That a lot of books about shrinks, the shrink is sort of demonized or can't get her own act together, and she is -- the main character in this book is really everyone's highest goal for behavior and compassion.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Nimmy who says that the book she returns to this time almost every year is "The Art of Happiness" by the Dalai Lama. Erika tweets "I recently read the historical fiction book "In the Garden of Beasts," and loved it. Robert tweets to suggest a new local arts anthology "Bourgeon: Fifty Artists Write About Their Work." And our own Martin DeCaro tweets to let us know he's reading "Catastrophe 1914" by Max Hastings after finishing "The Sleepwalkers." Both deal with the First World War.
NNAMDIWho knew that WAMU 88.5 News' Martin DeCaro was a World War I buff, but apparently he is. On to Maureen in Takoma Park, Md. Maureen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MAUREENHi. I guess in the name of transparency I should admit that I'm a friend of Mary Kay's, but I'm calling as a reader.
MAUREENMy book group has read all three of Mary Kay's books and they are great selections for book groups. "Man Alive!"...
NNAMDIMary Kay has turned the color of a cherry in this room, but go ahead, please.
MAUREENNo. We all have loved all of her books, and they really are great for book groups. "Man Alive!" generates the kind of empathy that you -- and compassion that you were talking about at the...
NNAMDII'm holding it for my holiday read, yeah.
MAUREENYeah. And it really, you know, generated talk about how much can a family stretch, how much can a person change within a family. And "The Bowl Already Broken" is really great for DC audiences because it talks about museums and what's collecting versus what's stealing from a culture, and what makes an item valuable. So we found that they really -- all of them...
NNAMDIMary Kay, the character in "Man Alive!" develops an obsession with barbecuing?
ZURAVLEFFHe does. That makes for great book club eating, let me tell you. But, you know, this comes back to something you said, and I'm so -- I'm touched that Maureen called, and I loved her book club, as she knows. But you said earlier something about the social element of reading, and that's one of the things that's going on now. You know, after you go on book tour, then you come home and you go to these book clubs, and it is really delightful to have a group of people read your book back to you and see how they have shared it and read it, and how social reading is.
NNAMDIThank you so much for your call, Maureen. I know you -- I mean, Barbara, I know you're interested in talking about book clubs also.
HOFFERTWell, yeah. Absolutely. It's a wonderful way to bring people together, and one of the things I find that's interesting now is that people don't just read one book, they might read around a subject, or they might read several books by the same author or several books by different authors with the same subject. I actually think the stories make a great read for book clubs as a way to -- everybody can bounce around and talk about different stories and how they affected them, and, you know, "Tenth of December" is a terrific book that I really admired.
HOFFERTKevin Barry has a wonderful new book that's just come out called "Dark Lies the Island." He was the Impact Dublin Literary Award winner this year, and anybody who wants to know what Ireland is really like in all its darkness and exuberance and slyness and depth would enjoy reading that and his first novel, "City of Bohane." I think the book club is a way to make the active reading a real connector for everybody.
NNAMDIAnd in October, NPR reported that only 20 percent of the book market is e-books, that the book market is still dominated by print. Good news or bad news, Mary Kay?
ZURAVLEFFWell, it's great news for me. Were you surprised by that? I'd like to hear what the other people say about that because that really surprised me.
NNAMDII was surprised by it, yes. I was surprised by it? What do you say, Ethelbert? Does my understanding that if you see somebody reading a book on the train you might talk to them, but not if you see them staring at a mobile device of an iPad?
MILLERBut, I mean, you know, this is the thing. I tell people, you know, that in the old days if you were in the cafe or something and you look over and that would begin a conversation. Now, the only thing you have is, like, okay, is there an outlet next to you.
NNAMDIHow about -- how do you feel about this, Barbara Hoffert?
HOFFERTI'm sort of agnostic in the sense that ultimately the book is the content and I'm really glad to have people reading in any format even if it's smoke signals. You know, whatever it takes, I think is fine. I've had arguments on your show with people who didn't like graphic novels, but actually if it's a way to get people into reading...
NNAMDILove the graphic novel.
HOFFERTGreat. You know, I honestly think it's a terrific way, and people I know who, you know, librarians have told me they start their kids out reading (unintelligible) and then they read Toni Morrison. Whatever it takes to get you to read.
NNAMDIPulls you in. for those listening, wondering where to find the titles they're hearing about, they can visit local book stores like Politics and Prose, Busboys and Poets, and One More Page in Arlington. And wherever you are, you can use Indie Bound Storefinder to find a store near you, and there's a link at kojoshow.org. Barbara Hoffert, thank you for joining us.
HOFFERTOh, thank you for having me Kojo, it was great.
NNAMDIE. Ethelbert Miller, always a pleasure.
MILLERAlways a pleasure, Kojo.
NNAMDIAnd Mary Kay Zuravleff, thank you so much for joining us.
ZURAVLEFFThanks for having me.
NNAMDIAnd thank you all for listening. Go out and read. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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